Chapter 1: The Room
Everything was white. 'Everything' meaning the walls and ceiling; there was nothing else in the room but a large, open window.
He paced back and forth, his boots clicking on the smooth metal floor. The breeze blowing through the window was cold and biting and had the smell of changing seasons on it. It would be winter soon, snowy, shivery Earth winter. It never failed to amaze him how one planet could be both baking hot and freezing cold by turns.
He veered from his path, ending up by the window, looking out. He was on the top floor of the building and he could see the whole city from up here.
Looking through the window felt different from looking through the spherical windshield of the Voot cruiser. There was so much Earth out there. He shuddered and pulled away, pacing back and forth some more with his eyes on his legs.
Instead of his nice, formal uniform he was wearing a slightly oversized pair of overalls that were badly stained with laboratory spills. He would change as soon as he got home and in the future he would be more careful about wearing clothes he wouldn't mind being trapped in in the case of an unexpected contingency such as this one.
He realized he was holding his hands up in front of his chest. Silly of him. He was a trained Invader and surely by now he was beyond making a fuss over sore hands.
He shoved them into his pockets and kept pacing. Soon enough he found himself at the window again. There was nothing else in here to look at except for the open doorway, which led to white, empty hallway.
He put his hands on the windowsill and leaned forward, looking down at the city, then up at the cloudy sky. The window was completely open without even a screen and he realized he was leaning out rather far and could, in fact, fall fifty stories if he wasn't careful. He pulled away.
One of the deeper cuts on his knuckle was irksomely sore. He put it in his mouth and started to suck on it while studying his other hand.
His gloves had been totally shredded, so he'd taken them off. His hands looked so pale without them. The cuts and scratches stood out jarringly, even now.
The few Band-Aids that he'd bothered to haphazardly apply- and that hadn't already fallen off- were peeling and limp. Gross. He picked them off and let them fall to the floor.
He had been wearing safety goggles when he'd been taken here three days ago and had not taken them off since, not wanting to show any possible sign that he had been inconvenienced by these people. Now they were making his face awfully sore. He re-adjusted them for the hundredth time, reflecting that he would have livid marks on his face when he took them off. Hopefully they would have faded by the time he had to go to skool on Monday.
There was a noise from the doorway and the scent of human. He turned.
"Lovely view, isn't it?" the human said, and Zim realized he was still standing by the window.
"Enh," he said, glancing out at the world below. "It's Earth. And it's really time I should be leaving."
The human nodded. "Oh, of course."
Oh good. Oh good. That was a good reaction. Previously the humans had given no sign that they expected him to return to his base at all.
"There's a car outside waiting for you now," the human said.
Now? Zim started in shock, then hurried into the hallway before remembering that he didn't want to look too eager. He stopped, making an effort to look blasé about the whole thing. But not too blasé. Heaven forbid he give the impression he wanted to stay here.
"You'll need to take these home with you," the human said, handing Zim a sheaf of flyers. He took them, flipped through them rapidly to let off a bit of nervous energy and not because he cared what was in them, and stuffed them into his pocket. Then he hissed. The edge of one of the pieces of paper had caught on his skin and given him a nasty paper cut.
He stared at the fresh wound. It looked like an innocent, colorless flap of skin. It stung like a Tallest-flookar.
The human cleared his throat. "Paper cut?"
He shook himself. "It's nothing. You said there was a car?"
"Oh, yes. This way."
He led Zim down the hall to what appeared on first glance to be a blank wall. The human touched the wall and it opened to reveal an elevator.
They stepped inside. The elevator began to descend. Zim looked down, tapping his foot. He was wearing big clunky boots to protect against acid spills. He wanted his other boots back. From now on, he'd carry a change of clothes in his Pak at all times.
The elevator ride was a bit on the long side. The human, apparently becoming bored, eventually cleared his throat and said: "Forgive me if I'm rude. What happened to your hands?"
"Your hands. They're all scratched up."
Zim flipped one of the hands in question in a dismissive gesture. "It's not important."
The human shifted his weight back and forth. "Ah."
Zim stuffed his hands into his pockets to prevent further questioning. He sort of squashed the flyers in the process but whatever.
The elevator ride continued.
"Have you been an Invader long?"
One of Zim's antennae twitched. "Quite long," he said.
"Ah. What did you do before?"
Zim turned to him. "Heh. I'm sorry. I don't discuss my life with members of the species I'm assigned to utterly crush."
The human pulled away. "Sorry. I understand. I'd be the same way."
Zim stared at the elevator doors.
A lifetime later they finally opened. Zim was led down another hallway. This one had additional halls branching off of it.
While passing one of them, Zim stopped and looked down it.
"What is it?" the human asked.
The hall turned halfway in so Zim couldn't see what was at the end. The floor was tile and very clean. It had a very surgical look to it.
For some reason Zim had the distinct idea that he never wanted to go in there. He couldn't explain it, really. Though, there was just a hint of a funny smell in the air… even though the humans had apparently tried extremely hard to extinguish whatever it was with air freshener.
Zim shook his head. "Never mind. Bring me to this car."
The parking lot was not as bare as the inside of the building, but close. Zim counted three cars in the entire lot besides the one that was by the doorway, waiting for him.
The human went to the passenger door and opened it helpfully. Zim did not go towards the car but lingered in the open a minute, looking around at the parking lot, the city lights in the distance, the tall, gleaming building behind him, the sidewalk, the stars (fuzzy through a thin haze of clouds) and the gleaming full moon. He had never thought he would be glad to see Earth scenery, but after three days of nothing but white metal-
The human cleared his throat. Zim got in the car. It was a smallish car, and he knew of course that he wouldn't be able to get out once it started moving, but that shouldn't be a problem... it wouldn't be a problem, would it?
"Now remember to give out those flyers wherever you can," the human said. Zim muttered incoherently in a tone of grudging assent, and shut the door.
The driver was too polite, too disinterested or too brain-dead to offer any conversation. Zim spent the ride home silently staring glassy-eyed out the window at the passing scenery.
He wasn't used to riding in land vehicles and he was feeling rather carsick by the time they pulled up in front of the base. He scrambled out of the car without a word to the driver and stood for a moment doubled over with his hands on his knees, breathing slowly. The car sped off behind him.
Zim headed into his base, shutting the door behind him and leaning on it. He let out a long, hissing breath and pulled the stupid goggles off his head, letting them drop to the floor beside him. He rubbed his eyes, then kicked off the clunky boots and undid the snaps of the overalls, wriggling out of them. This left him with just an undershirt and pants.
The base seemed unusually quiet.
"Computer. Where is GIR?"
"Eh?" the computer said. "Oh. You're back. I don't know where GIR is."
Zim nodded and folded his arms over his chest. "Of course you don't. He's probably out spending my collected Earth money."
He tapped his foot on the floor. "I'll need to call the Tallest and give them a full report." He yawned. "But not now. Take me to the research room."
The floor lowered beneath him, dropping him into a room that contained nothing but a comfortable purple chair and a computer station.
Zim turned on the screen and checked for messages left by the Tallest while he was away. Finding none, he leaned back in the chair, closing his eyes. It felt good to finally be away from humans.
Greaves entered the control room with some hesitation. His boss was sitting at the monitoring station, as usual.
Greaves went close enough to be noticed and hung there for a moment, waiting to be spoken to. A few moments of silence drug on before:
"Did you get rid of the Irken?"
Greaves nodded. "Just in time, too."
Peter exhaled a cloud of cigarette smoke. "Meaning?"
"It asked about going home when I went up to get it. It was getting anxious. They can be trouble when they're anxious."
Peter nodded. "What did you think of it, observing it in person?"
Greaves considered this. "What did you think of it?"
Peter raised an eyebrow at the main monitoring screen. "Typical snotty Irken."
Greaves was silent for a moment, considering, and then he said: "I'm not so sure."
"Really. Why not?"
"It seems a bit…" Greaves hesitated. "Different. Not right in the head. For one thing, I think it suspected something. It paused when it passed the hall to the Chamber. And for another…" He bit his lip lightly while Peter waited for him to continue. "I think it's distrustful of us in general. It's not enthusiastic about the flyers. Have you bugged its base?"
Peter gave him a cold stare. "Do I look stupid to you? I had its base bugged the day we took it here. Bugged the robots, too."
"There were two."
Greaves's eyes went wide. "Two SIR units?"
"No, a SIR and some kind of toy."
Greaves smoothed his hair back. "A toy. What's it doing with a toy?"
Peter looked back at his screens. "They're spoiled, violent children. I'll check their networks for any information about an Invader Zim if it makes you feel better."
"I think you should. I really think you should. It was completely alert at all times and its responses to my questions were snide and showed strong signs of individuality. I really think it could be a problem."
Peter nodded. "I'll run a full check on it and review our footage for warning signs. Now get back to work."
Greaves nodded and turned away. He hesitated, and looked back over his shoulder. "Sir- what's the most trouble an Irken could cause us?"
"Call the Armada down on our heads and annihilate our species. As long as we handle things correctly that won't happen. Now get back to work."
Not much comforted, Greaves left the room.
Chapter 2: The Hands of Fate
"They told you they work for us?"
Red glanced over at Purple and saw his double in baffled expression as well as, well, everything else. "Why would a bunch of humans even know about us?"
"That's what I wanted to know, my Tallest. They said you'd authorized them not to tell me." Zim held his head up high in righteous indignation. "Please! Like you'd tell anyone to keep anything from an Invader on a mission."
Red scanned through his mental list of races and individuals who were angry with the Irken Empire and threw out everyone whom he knew to have absolutely no possible way to have contacted Earthens. Then he rejected- for now- everyone to whom he knew stealth to be a foreign concept. That still left a depressingly large group that could be conspiring with humans to do... something.
And if the problem wasn't bad enough, there was Zim, who was a miniature solar system of problems orbiting an engorged ego. This could all be an attempt to target Zim in particular and turn him into some kind of twisted weapon, or- and this was a somewhat likely or- this whole thing could be nonsense invented in the little brat's damaged brain. It could all be absolutely nothing.
Red rubbed his temples in an attempt to fend off the headache that was brewing. Purple was asking: "They just want you to hand out fliers?"
Zim was frowning. No, it wasn't just a frown, it was a stormy pout that Red had unwillingly become quite familiar with. It was a look that foretold trouble ahead. "They wouldn't tell me why." He bent down out of the camera frame and came back with an armful of fliers. He flipped through them. "This one says free candy, this one says free puppies-" What on Irk was a puppy? "-this one says free coupons… it's just made up stuff to lure humans."
Red could feel his teeth grinding together, even though he knew by now to expect this kind of thing. "You're really saying you were there three days and all you know is that they say they know us and they want you to hand those out."
Zim took in a sharp breath and wouldn't make eye contact. "Yes. Well. I. I-" He squared his shoulders. "I don't remember… much." His voice was vehement with frustration.
Red felt his lips press together into a thin line.
"But don't worry, my Tallest," Zim babbled, "I'll find out everything about them." He snapped a salute. "I was just about to go back and demand information!"
"You do that, Zim," Red told him, "and tell us whatever you find out."
"Yes, sirs!" Zim said. He saluted again and ended the call.
Purple turned to stare at his co-ruler. "You told him to call back?"
Red's eyes narrowed. "Yes. I told him to call back. I want to know who's using one of our defectives to screw with us. Does that bother you?"
Purple blinked. "No! I just thought- well, how much harm can a bunch of humans do?"
Red shook his head. "What if it's not just humans? What if there aren't any humans? Just disguises? Zim wouldn't know the difference. The stupid Resisty could be behind this. Or someone like them but…good."
Purple frowned. "That would be bad…"
"Worse than an extra call from Zim, who, let's face it, would have called again anyway. And soon."
Purple shrugged and looked at the blank screen. Red pulled a groping hand over his face, wondering whether he had to bother calling all the Invaders- or anyone more competent than Zim- and telling them about this. No, no, not yet. He sighed and stood up. "I need a snack."
Zim fully intended to go back and wring every drop of information that he could out of those meddlesome humans.
First, however, he had some unpleasant business to take care of.
He had paid a good deal of moneys for the byrum and it was just as vicious as he'd been promised it was. It was safely in its cage now, staring at him with beady little eyes.
Zim tilted his head and studied the creature in turn. It was… beautiful. Its shape was smooth and streamlined and it was a lovely red-gold color. It was also beautiful in its lethality. And its ability to wound. His hands were still sore.
The creature had to be injected regularly. Three days had already been too long to let it wait; he risked losing all of his work on the byrum and having to start anew.
He had prepared with thick gloves and goggles (since he wasn't in the mood to have an eye chewed out). As an extra precaution he had changed into his battle suit so there would be armor protecting his organs and his windpipe. Just in case.
He reached into the cage- it was composed of a force field, DNA-programmed to let Zim's arms pass through it but not any part of the byrum. He pinned down the byrum, injecting it with the other hand. It had been stunned into unconsciousness beforehand.
Just as he was withdrawing the needle, congratulating himself on a job well done and thinking he hadn't needed to be quite so cautious, the creature came to without warning and tore into his hand, shredding the glove and the flesh underneath with rapacious ease. There was much screaming.
So that was the first thing that made for a crappy day. The second thing was that GIR and Minimoose were missing. Zim hadn't seen them since he'd returned to the base last night. The third thing was that it was uncomfortably cold, there was a wet mist in the air that made Zim's skin sore and he didn't have time to bathe in paste before going out (after all, the Tallest were waiting for his report!), and it took him more than an hour to find the place again.
The fourth thing was that when he saw the building, a tall, gleaming white pillar of a thing that seemed to stretch endlessly into space, he did not want to go into it.
His memories of his time inside were strange and fractured. He remembered it being white and bare and chilly, and some snotty human talking to him, ordering him around. He also remembered…
He rubbed his temples, squeezing his eyes shut. Something… cold… something gleaming… cold objects on his skin… something beeping, and… it was all very broken up and unreal. He couldn't even be sure the memories weren't somehow fabricated by a dose of tranquillizer or his own jangling nerves.
He swallowed. All the more reason to go inside and straighten things out, then.
He took a deep breath and burst through the door. There was a woman behind a desk. A white and blank desk. The woman was blond and pale. She gave Zim a big smile.
"Hello! Did you receive one of our fliers?"
"No. I'm here to see…" He didn't know the humans' names. "One of the… the men. He had dark hair. Uh, brown. Yes. It was brown." He found that his back was against the double doors he'd just come through, and his pulse was a bit too fast. What was this nonsense? He was an Invader, there was no reason whatsoever to be so wary of some humans and their ugly building. He straightened his spine and walked over to the desk.
The woman behind it was at a bit of a loss. "A man with… brown hair?"
"Yes. We spoke yesterday. Tell him Invader Zim is calling for him." His name rang out loud and comforting in the unnatural space. "He'll remember me."
The woman's eyes went wide and her mouth fell open. "Oh my- it's you! The Ir- I mean- you look so diff-" She covered her mouth, then said: "Of course, I'll ring him up right now, just hold on."
Zim frowned. "Different? I look different?" His pulse was hammering in his ears again. Something was wrong here. He knew it. "Different from what? I've never laid eyes on you before. How would you know how I'm supposed to look?"
"They showed me a- some security camera footage," the lady fumbled. "So I-"
Zim gasped. "They filmed me?" He pulled himself up onto her desk so he was hanging off the edge of it at her eye level. "I never agreed to be filmed!"
The lady stammered incoherently. Zim drummed his fingers on the desk, waiting for her to pull herself together. If it didn't happen fast enough, he reflected, maybe a sharp slap to her face would help her out. It would make him feel better.
He turned to see a human he recognized. But only fuzzily.
"Zim!" the human said, coming closer. "What are you doing back so soon? Out of fliers already?" and "I'll handle this," he said to the lady behind the desk, who slid behind it out of sight.
Zim dropped down to the floor. "You. No, I'm not out of fliers." He'd been intending to confront the humans directly and tell them a) the Tallest had nothing to do with them, b) they could take their fliers and stick them, c) they should never have messed with a trained Invader, and d) he'd crush whatever their little operation was really up to. Somehow, this didn't seem like a good idea anymore. He fought with himself for a moment and finally decided on being direct, but not totally nasty. "I called the Tallest. They've never heard of you."
The human's mouth fell open. He stammered. Then he said: "Really? T-Tallest… Miyuki didn't say…"
"She said we were doing important work here. I can't imagine why…" He cleared his throat. "We should talk about this in private."
He took a step forward. Zim took a step back. The human turned to the woman behind the desk. "Carol, could you leave us alone for a minute?"
The woman gladly hurried away down some hallway."Now, don't take this the wrong way," the human was saying, "but is it at all possible that you don't have the proper security clear-"
The human blinked. "What was that?"
Zim took a deep breath. "Miyuki. Is. Not. Tallest. Red and Purple are. The Tallest. And they have never heard of you." He drew himself up to his full three feet and two inches and said: "And! If yourorganization- is so important- why didn't you contact the Empire frequently enough to know that Miyuki was no longer the Almighty Tallest?"
The human put his hands to the sides of his head. "Well, we- it's very expensive to call so far, and we- well, can't you contact her and ask?"
Zim's fists were quivering at his sides. "Miyuki's dead, you stinking human fool! Tallests don't retire!"
The human's eyes went wide. "Oh. Oh my. Oh dear, I'll have to call the new Tallest immediately."
"Yes. You will." Zim took a step forward. "But first I need to know exactly why you're luring humans here and why you want me to help. And how you came in contact with my incredible race to begin with."
After hearing this little bombshell about Miyuki, he'd forgotten all about the security camera footage.
The human looked flustered. "O-of course. This way."
He beckoned Zim down a hallway. Zim hesitated, then followed. The human took him inside a room filled with stacks of files and shelves containing vials of various colored liquids. "Wait here," he told Zim, and darted off into the shelves. There were rummaging noises. Zim waited for about ten seconds, tapping his foot, and then charged in after the human.
The clutter was immense. Zim wandered around lost for a bit and somehow ended up back at the doorway, where the human was waiting for him.
"I really understand your concern," the human said. His hands were behind his back. "I'd like to tell you, really, but I have bosses too, you know, and I really do not want to make them mad. Plus, really, I'm terrible at explaining things. I'll have to ask my boss."
"Okay, you go do that. I'll wait," said Zim. He folded his arms over his chest, tapped his foot on the floor, looked up at the ceiling and said "HNNNN."
"No no no, see," the human said, "he's in the next city over, and he won't be back until tonight and he doesn't have a cell phone."
"Hm." Zim gave the human a frigid look. "Well, that's stupid of him."
"Yeah, I know. But, uh-" The human cleared his throat. "If you want to hang around all day until he gets back-"
Zim stiffened. Here? All day? "That won't be necessary. I'll go back to my base for now and return in the evening, when your superior has returned." His eyes narrowed. "And then, you'll tell me everything. Because I'll come back with tools to persuade you with if you don't happen to feel like sharing."
The human nodded with wide-eyed sincerity. "Oh, we'll tell you, don't worry."
"Good." Zim brushed past the human and headed for the doors out. The human followed closely on his heels.
"Great," the human said. "Well, we'll see you later then. It was nice talking to you."
"Uh huh," Zim muttered, reaching for the door.
Suddenly the human reached out and grabbed his freshly-injured hand. Zim let out a wounded cry that was a bit squeakier than was dignified.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," the human blathered. "I was just reaching for a handshake, I didn't realize-"
Zim hissed. "Maybe I'll persuade you even if you decide to talk on your own!" He lunged for the door, then whirled around and said: "And I don't shake hands!"
He headed out of the building and stormed down the sidewalk in the direction of the base, muttering to himself. Stupid humans. Stupid human in particular. His hand was bleeding through the bandage. Stupid byrum. Stupid-
He suddenly turned around, staring behind him at the building he'd just left. Miyuki had died thirty years ago. How could that human have made a business agreement with her? He was clearly not over 45 years in age now, so he would have been a mere child when Miyuki died…
The agreement could have been made by an older superior and not by that particular human, Zim supposed. Still. Kinda fishy. He'd call the Tallest again when he got home.
He headed off towards home, cradling his smarting hand to his chest.
It was the left hand. Most humans shook with the right. Zim rather suspected intentional spite on the part of the human.
By the time he got home, his hand was really hurting and had swollen up to at least twice its size. He staggered inside and collapsed onto the couch, sweating in spite of the cold.
"C-computer," he stammered, "get me a- get me- g-get-"
Zim went limp, shutting his eyes.
When he opened them it was hours later.
He sat up fast and his head spun. He lay back down for a minute, then cautiously sat up again. He did not immediately remember what had happened. The base was dim and things were casting long shadows. It was late. His head felt fuzzy and his eyes were sore from sleeping in his contact lenses. (The wig had fallen off onto the floor where it looked like some kind of small, deceased animal.)
Then it came back to him- staggering inside and passing out.
He looked at his hand. It had deflated to its normal size. In fact, all the bites and scratches on it were healed. Only on his left hand. The other one was still pretty dinged up. The dangerous infection had prodded his Pak into shutting down most of his physical processes for a few hours so it could concentrate every iota of power into speed-healing his hand before the bacteria could get into his bloodstream.
He went to the kitchen, pulled out last night's cold, picked-over bowl of nachos and devoured it. It made him feel only marginally better. The cheese had congealed and gotten all gross and greasy.
He looked around the kitchen. Everything was so quiet. It contributed to his feeling of groggy unreality.
"Computer! GIR and Minimoose still aren't back?"
"Ugh!" Zim shook his head and went back to the couch, sitting down and resting his head on the arm of it. He might not be in actual danger anymore but that didn't mean he felt good. He wouldn't be himself again for another couple of hours at least, he realized. And it was getting late, by the time he got back out to the white building the relevant humans would most likely be gone. How very convenient for them.
The bandages were still on his left hand. And they were really gross now. He pulled them off and dropped them on the floor with a small yelp of disgust.
Underneath, his Pak hadn't been able to prevent the bite wound leaving a bit of a scar. Zim studied it. He clearly remembered spending a good fifteen minutes making sure the wound was completely clean after the byrum had bitten him. He'd been bitten many different times by many different test subjects and never gotten a hint of infection. He scowled. "And GIR and Minimoose still aren't back."
"Nnngh. GIR's been gone this long before but never Minimoose." He scowled and got to his feet. "I'm going out, Computer, make sure no one enters the base."
Dib opened the door when he knocked on it. He stared. "Whoa! What happened to you?"
Zim frantically looked himself over. Had the white-building humans done something to him without his realizing it? "What? What?"
"You look sick."
"Oh." He waved dismissively. Dib took an undue interest in the scratches on his hand and Zim tucked it into his pocket out of sight. "I was ill a few hours ago. I'm not now."
Dib frowned. "Oh. Okay?"
Zim took a step forward, glaring. "Where are my robots?"
Dib blinked. "What?"
"My robots! Where are they?"
There was blank incomprehension on Dib's face for a moment. Then he grinned. "You'll never get them back, Zim!"
Zim hissed. "You don't even know, do you?"
Dib shrugged, chuckling. "Nope. Good luck with that, though. They probably ran away because you're a jerk."
Zim shook his head and turned away. Dib shut the door behind him.
"What did he want?" Gaz asked from the couch, opening one eye and looking at Dib.
Dib blinked. Since when did Gaz care? Maybe she was finally taking an interest in the fate of mankind? "He wanted to know if I had his robots."
"And what did you tell him?"
"I said I don't have them and he left."
Gaz looked at him for a moment, then nodded and went back to her gaming.
Dib wondered a moment longer, then shrugged and went up to his bedroom. He did not notice anything unusual about Gaz's Gameslave.
The creature had just gotten back inside its base. He watched as it shed its disguise. Its voice was tinny over the speakers. "Dib doesn't have them, Computer. I suspect the weird flier humans. I'm going back to their base to get some answers."
It went into the kitchen to its lab entrances.
Peter took a deep breath and leaned back. "Well, you made it good and mad with your little assassination attempt."
"It's not coming here to chat. You know that, right?"
"One more mistake like that and you're our next new subject."
All color drained from Greaves's face.
"Now get out of my office," said Peter.
The bit with the hand infection wound up more confusing than I intended and it's not important enough to leave you wondering about it. Greaves intentionally infected Zim with something in a clumsy attempt to kill him and get him out of the way- or at least render him incapable of further meddling. It didn't work.
Chapter 3: Alone in the Dark
For this, he changed into a slim-fitting stealth suit that was dark green in color. He added a utility belt and safety goggles and looked down at himself. He looked thinner than he had the last time he'd worn this thing. He took note of this without any emotion. Irkens only care about their weight if it begins to make it hard for them to move around.
The streets outside were pitch dark most places and incongruously harshly bright under the streetlights. He avoided the bright puddles of light, being out of disguise and all.
It was, of course, cold. Zim wished he had been able to afford to wear a warm, bulky coat, but such a thing would restrict his movement too much. (He could of course have worn one until he reached his destination and then taken it off, but this never occurred to him.)
By now having the route more or less memorized, he reached the white building much more quickly than he had yesterday. There, he was momentarily stymied by the fact that the doors seemed to have disappeared.
Zm prowled around, studying the building. It was made of thick, smooth metal that looked like it would be very hard to break or melt through. He stood still for a moment, thinking, and then he looked up and saw that the windows on the upper stories were still there.
He nodded, cracked his knuckles, and took some suction cups out of his Pak, fitting them onto the ends of his spider legs.
Irkens are good climbers and he was at the window in no time at all, not even breathing hard. He lasered out a small section of glass and squeezed through onto the floor inside.
He liked being thinner, he decided. Maneuvers like that had always painfully squeezed his hips in the past.
He was in a completely empty room with no trace of surveillance equipment in it. He headed out into the hallway.
Greaves's voice was dull and groggy on the other end of the phone. He'd been sleeping, Peter observed.
"What is it? Did something happen?"
"This is Peter. Your Irken is here."
"What? Peter? Irken? He came to your house?"
Peter shut his eyes for a moment. "No. I'm at the building." He rarely left the building nowadays. "He's broken in."
"Oh. OH. Oh no. Well, call security!"
"I might," Peter said, looking up at the observation screens, which displayed a small figure prowling about on the tenth floor. "But I want to see what he does when left to himself. Get over here."
He hung up the phone. Right now, there was nothing in the building above the first floor. Operations had only started recently.
And this Irken couldn't possibly get to the first floor. Peter imagined that it would wander around the upper floors until it decided there was nothing to see and went home in defeat. It would be interesting to see how it reacted after that.
The floor was empty. Every room was utterly bare. These humans! What was the point of an empty floor?
Zim shook his head. Well, he knew there were things that might be useful on the first floor. The question was how to get there.
He knew there was an elevator that was hidden but could be activated with a touch sensor. The problem was that it might only respond to the DNA of the human that had activated it. Or, well, any human. Zim wasn't human at all. It was worth a shot, though.
Greaves appeared in the observation room and came over to stand next to Peter's chair, rubbing his eyes.
"What's the situation?"
"Did you open the elevator in front of it?" Peter asked.
"I- yes, why?"
"It's looking for the elevator," Peter said, looking at the tenth-floor screen, where the Irken was now feeling over all the empty walls with its scrabbly little hands. Fortunately the creature had a maximum reach of about four feet off the floor.
Greaves was silent for a moment, then said: "I warned you it might be difficult."
Outwardly Peter showed no response.
Greaves peered at the screen. "What did your network scan on it show?"
"Nothing yet. It takes time to get into Irken systems."
The Irken was now studying a specific section of the wall.
There was something different about this part of the wall. It did not react when Zim touched it, likely because it was in fact DNA-keyed like he'd suspected. Or… maybe he couldn't quite reach the sensor, as he had a maximum reach of about four feet off the floor. Maybe four and a half. But anyway…
"There are ways around that," he mumbled aloud in the oppressive silence, and retracted a shock tool from his Pak.
A good shorting-out of the wall caused the shields around the elevator doors to turn off. As Zim had suspected, the humans were using a combination of hologram and force field. Quite ingeniously constructed. It really had looked and felt like a seamless metal wall.
He stepped into the elevator and punched the button for the ground floor.
"It found the elevator," Peter said without emotion.
"Now are you going to call security?"
A lone Irken, an Invader. It wouldn't have the weapons or the permission to wreak serious havoc. It would simply inspect everything and then report to the Tallest. Irkens did not do more than that when they were alone.
Peter considered the current stage of the project. It was going very well and perhaps it was time for the Tallest to know about it. If one of their own Invaders alerted them, it would also give them a nice sense of complacency about the state of security in the building. False complacency.
"No. I'm curious what it will think about our operation."
Greaves looked at him as if he was insane.
Peter rose an eyebrow, the first sign of expression he'd shown. The Irken was looking straight into the elevator camera.
Greaves gasped. "He knows the camera's there."
The Irken looked uneasy. As Peter watched, it turned its head a bit, narrowing its eyes and frowning. It glanced about in the other corners of the elevator, then bit its lip and looked back at the camera.
"He knows we're watching him," Greaves reiterated. "I think you should call security."
"It doesn't know the camera is there. It just knows the camera should be there. Invaders are paranoid. They're trained to be."
The Irken looked down at the ground, shaking itself and tensing its shoulders.
Peter nodded. "See. If it knew for certain there was a camera there, it would have disabled the camera."
Greaves said nothing.
Zim was not claustrophobic. He was not in the least bit claustrophobic and being stuck in the elevator was not a problem at all, no sir.
He glanced up at the top corners of the elevator. Nope, nothing there. Nothing to worry about at all. The humans had terrible security here, they sure did.
"Too easy," he told himself, and then said nothing, and the world became very quiet when he was saying nothing.
Not entirely quiet. He realized the elevator was playing soft music. It was low and haunting, not your typical peppy elevator music of the annoying kind that played in his own elevator at home.
He thought he recognized the tune. He stepped out of the elevator humming it, and wiping his hands on his pants. His hands were sweaty. He was wearing gloves, though, so the wiping didn't really help.
He looked around. He was in a hallway that looked just like the ones on the tenth floor. Oh! And Zim wasn't claustrophobic, by the way. Not in the slightest.
He went around peering into the different rooms. Empty. Empty. He was humming quite loudly now.
He headed down the hall and came to the receptionist's desk. He studied it for any papers or files that had been left out. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Bare desk. Oh, and the double doors leading to the outside? They were invisible from inside the building as well as outside. He knew the trick now, of course, the doors were still there, but shielded. But the shields sure did a good job.
There were beads of sweat forming on his forehead. He brushed them off.
"Well, it's hot in here," he said, but it was actually sort of cold. It was wrong in here, that was the problem.
Like the smell. There should be human-smell everywhere. There wasn't. The place smelled like nothing.
He turned and saw the branching-off hallway that he knew led to that room full of papers, and he headed in that direction. On the way he realized his humming had broken into words without him really realizing it, his subconscious mind having remembered the lyrics while he was otherwise occupied.
"Sing us the song of the century… louder than bombs and eternity…"
He had heard children at skool playing it. For some reason the elevator had been playing it slower than its actual tempo and in a different key. It made his skin crawl. Not that the song wasn't sorta creepy to start with. Humans were weird.
"Tell us a story that's by candlelight," he muttered, mostly without tune, as he ventured into the room that yesterday had been full of stacks of papers. "Waging a war and…"
It was empty now. "Oh, come on!" he snapped, stomping one foot. He walked though the room, thinking the goods were holographically hidden, but no. No, this time they really were gone.
He looked at the floor. He got down on his knees and looked around for some kind of switch. Nothing.
Maybe it was the wrong room. He walked back into the hall and searched around for another room.
He found himself facing another hall, one that turned at the end so he couldn't see to the end.
He hesitated a moment. There was just a hint of funny smell coming from down there, and he didn't like it. He didn't like this place. The Tallest wouldn't know if he just left right now.
He bared his teeth and hissed at the strange hallway, just because it made him feel better. Then he headed into the hall at a clipped, steady march.
"You don't scare me," he muttered aloud.
Peter's eyes were alight. "It found the Chamber."
Zim turned at the end of the mysterious hallway and saw… a huge pair of double doors.
"Didn't bother to hide these, eh?" he muttered. He went over and tried to open them. Locked, of course.
He forced them open with Pak tools and found another elevator inside. He stepped into it.
It lurched, without his doing anything, and began to descend. He cried out in shock, then chuckled to himself. Of course. Motion sensor. Nothing eerie about that at all.
"I'm surprised the humans even managed to invent the technology," he said.
The elevator ride was another long one. The elevator was kind of small, too, even by Zim's standards. It was becoming stuffy. There was no visible door now.
"Hmm hmm hmm, song of the century," he mumbled, rocking back and forth (though this elevator wasn't playing the music). "Panic and promise and…" He'd forgotten the last word.
He was trembling. He closed his eyes for a moment and made himself go still. "Tell me a story into that good night… sing us a song for me…"
The elevator stopped and opened. Zim hurried out of it. He was drenched with sweat now. It felt rather unpleasant.
This hallway was dark and narrow and full of angles. At the end of it, he found another set of double doors. Zim forced them open and found himself in a room full of boxes and things.
His first reaction was to stare, and then to laugh aloud. (With just a hint of hysteria, nothing major.) "So you do have stuff!" he said. "You can't hide everything."
And it looked so normal in here, too. Just cardboard boxes, some lockers on the wall, a bench, a drain in the middle of the floor, some space suits on the wall, some respirators and gloves and… and, uh, hm.
He tapped his chin. Space suits. Then they were doing something that involved space travel, that was what made sense. So-
Then he saw the doors. There were two. He went to one of the doors and peeked inside. It was a shower of some kind.
And then he noticed the decals. They were everywhere. 'Biohazard,' they said.
Zim gasped and backed away until he was up against the door he'd come through. The humans were working with dangerous biological material? Research, no doubt. Then they wanted test subjects. That was the whole flyer thing.
His eyes narrowed. But what did that have to do with him?
Obviously, he needed to go in there to find out.
He looked at the other door, that presumably led to the testing chamber. He looked at the space suits. They clearly would not fit him. Not even close.
His Pak had a breathing shield in it. He looked at his right hand, which had a nice, big collection of open wounds on it under the glove. But he did have a glove and he'd wrapped two layers of bandage around the hand for extra protection.
He looked at the door. He looked down at his feet. He felt sort of sick. The Tallest wouldn't know if he just went home now.
He would know.
He wouldn't touch anything. He'd hold his breath and he'd get out of there fast. He put the breathing shield on and went inside before he could change his mind.
Inside, there was lots of machinery everywhere and he saw tall, glass domes glittering above the tangled masses of wires. The domes were full of liquid in which things he couldn't see clearly were floating. Test subjects, he judged. Perhaps clones. He went closer and peered in at one.
It met his gaze. He looked into its big, mournful eyes for a moment before it sunk in what he was looking at.
He took a step backwards, looking the test subject up and down, taking in every aspect of its body, or what was left of it. He looked back into its eyes, then down at… the rest.
The Irken was stock still, looking at subject 36C. Peter fancied that it was impressed. Irkens did a lot of experimentation. Surely it could recognize superior methods when it saw them.
The little alien just stood there a moment longer, and then it took off its breathing shield and turned away, retching loudly.
Zim had done some nasty human experimentation, of course, the happiness probe and a few organ removals or transfers, among other things. He had done experiments on animals, too; there was the steroid-injected byrum and there was the cow he'd modified into hunting rabbits, and more than a few hideous half-animal half-machine chimeras, but he could never even have conceived of what had been done to this test subject- surely not. He still couldn't quite comprehend it. He didn't understand had exactly had been done here to make the creature look this way, he didn't understand what possible purpose could be achieved by it, he didn't understand why the subject had obviously been infected with something, he found he didn't even want to think about it.
And the stench. He'd never experienced anything like it.
He wiped his mouth with his arm, snuffling, and went over to one of the machines, staring at it. There. Machines were a lot easier to understand than people. This was better. He just wouldn't look at the test subject anymore.
(He'd forgotten all about the breathing shield.)
This apparatus was life support for the subject, he realized. He traced his small hands over the controls, quickly understanding through long familiarity with similar devices (and a bit of natural mechanical talent) more or less how everything functioned.
He studied the machine, looked up at the test subject, and looked back at the machine.
He turned off the life support. The humans had probably been going to do it anyway. Anything that looked like that had to be a failed experiment.
He looked up at the thing's eyes. The eyes quickly glazed over, and the liquid the thing was floating in went cloudy.
Zim had been the last thing that creature had ever seen, he reflected. If it could still see. It probably had had no idea what he was. Well, of course it hadn't. How was it supposed to even think in that state?
Peter stood up. "It terminated 36C," he said.
Greaves coughed. It sounded like an "I warned you" cough. He'd fit nicely in 36C's dome.
Peter hit a big red button on his keyboard.
Dimly remembering that he had to make some kind of report on this, Zim made a quick and sloppy count of the domes, arriving at a no-doubt inaccurate figure that he immediately forgot. Then he went to the next dome, looked at the thing inside, and shut off its life support.
He moved on to the next subject and did the same thing. He knew he should get out of here- he'd seen enough to report on, and the humans' security might be bad, but surely messing with the life support systems had set off some kind of alarm- he certainly wanted to leave, but he couldn't tear himself away from the domes. They were horribly arresting of the attention.
Then the door opened.
Zim turned. He couldn't see whoever had come inside through all the clutter. But someone had definitely come inside- he could hear footsteps.
He backed away from the source of the noise, realizing there was only one door and therefore only one way out.
He'd brought a handheld laser in his Pak. As an afterthought. He took out the laser now.
Footsteps were coming towards him from three different directions.
With his Paklegs, he could climb much better than they could. He could climb over the tangle of machines blocking him in. He could probably climb right over the heads of the humans.
He extended the legs and shot off over the tangle. A human cried for him to stop. Zim thought that was rather stupid of the human. Why would Zim want to stop? Did they think he was a total idiot?
He could see the door now. More humans were coming through it. They were shooting at him. He dived behind some machines. A gunshot hit the machines. They fizzed and sparked.
"What are you doing?" he heard a voice cry. "Don't shoot! You'll hit the subjects!"
How convenient. Zim certainly didn't care about hitting the subjects. He ducked out from behind the machines and shot at the humans. One of them fell and Zim darted though the opening its fall created.
There were more humans out in the hall but not as many. He weaved through them.
One of them picked him up in its arms. He thrashed and bucked and kicked it hard in the chin. It dropped him. He ran for the elevator.
He got inside it and the doors closed behind him. This time the elevator did not start automatically. There were no controls inside it. The doors had seemingly disappeared.
He started feeling over the walls with his hands. There had to be a control here somewhere.
He brushed something, and the doors began to open. He was looking down a gun barrel. He screamed and ducked sideways. A bullet slammed into the back of the elevator. Somehow this caused it to start rising.
Zim flattened himself to the wall. He'd stopped sweating, he realized. He felt quite cool and calm, he thought. He got the laser pistol ready, realizing that there would probably be more humans waiting when the elevator stopped.
But there weren't, at least, not yet. Irk, what a sloppy operation.
Zim headed for where he knew the doors to be. He knelt by the wall, getting his Pak tools out. He could hear sounds of pursuit from inside the building. Ah, of course, they were coming for him when he'd all but gotten away.
He shorted out the shields and dashed outside.
When he crossed over the threshold of the sidewalk in front of the building he hit a hard, sizzling barrier that threw him backwards. He got to his feet and tried to reach the parking lot a little further down. He encountered the same obstacle. He ran around behind the building, since humans were on his tail and there seemed to be nowhere else to go.
Except up. He put the suction cups back onto the ends of his Pak legs and started to climb.
On the way up, some humans tried to shoot at him from the ground, but by that time he was apparently too high up to hit with accuracy, since he didn't die. He managed to make it to the roof, where the humans could not hit him from the ground or windows.
However, they probably had helicopters. He went to the exact middle of the roof, aware he was a sitting target- there was nothing else on the roof but him, and his dark stealth suit stood out like a beacon against the white metal.
He sat down, took out his radio and spoke into it. "GIR, where are you?" He had thought he was calm but his voice was quite rough. "GIR, I need you. Come here now."
Of course, GIR was probably somewhere inside the white building. Lying in pieces. But it was worth a try. Zim put the radio back and stared straight ahead. He could see only sky. He was cold, and the wind whipped at his body, and he had a strange feeling that he was actually up in the sky supported by nothing. Then he felt a rushing sink in his belly like he was falling, and he flopped over onto his back. The sky had turned a pale, dead white, he realized. It was morning. He must have been wandering around in that building looking at nothing for longer than he realized, or maybe he'd grayed out for a little bit just now without- no, of course not, he was a professional, he wouldn't have done anything as silly as faint- wait a minute.
There was something in the sky coming closer. A helicopter?
No, because helicopters didn't leave long, twisty white smoke trails, they weren't tiny and they didn't sing.
GIR landed on the roof a few feet away, saluting and singing a fanfare. He'd gotten here very quickly, or maybe, well, maybe Zim really had grayed out for a moment. It didn't matter, GIR was here now, and Zim grabbed him, clutching the little robot tightly to his chest. "Back to the base," he said. "Now. And be careful, they're shooting. Now, GIR! Go!"
GIR dragged him to the edge of the roof and leaped off. Zim screamed.
GIR climbed into the air and started making a lot of sharp zig-zags. They were very high up. How big were GIR's fuel tanks? Had he emptied out any of his fuel lately? GIR was whooping with joy. He loved flying.
He did not love watching where he was going. "GIR! STAY AWAY FROM THE-" Zim yelled, but too late, GIR whipped around the corner of an approaching skyscraper, and he barely avoiding crashing into it, and Zim's head did not quite avoid crashing into it, and everything was very painful and then very dark and quiet.
Chapter 4: The Creeping Terror
The first sensation that came back was pain. It was burning in his shoulders and lower back, throbbing in his head and screaming in the base of one antenna.
He lay still for several minutes, just breathing. Conscious thought had fled for the moment, leaving a disorganized feeling of general… wrongness.
Everything was wrong.
The smells were wrong.
His tactile sensations were all wrong. He seemed to be lying on wooden boards, which he didn't have in the base. He was wearing much lighter clothing than usual. And of course, he shouldn't be in pain. And he shouldn't be smelling human.
He definitely shouldn't be smelling Dib's sister.
He picked up his head, opening his eyes. There she was. Sitting on the floor. Just a few feet away, hunched over her game.
Well, the game was right. She was always pounding on that thing. But what was she doing in the base? No, this was all wrong. And the game was wrong too. It was… it was…
"I told you he wasn't dead," Gaz droned into the thing she was holding that was not her game.
"Minimoose?" Zim said. His voice sounded weak and squeaky.
Minimoose grinned back at him. "Nyeh!"
For a lingering second there was no sound in the room but Zim's own frightened breathing. Gaz should not be holding Minimoose. She should not be mashing buttons on his antlers and absorbing herself in the usually-hidden screen on his back. And she should not be in the base!
But she wasn't in the base. Zim wasn't in the base. He was in a strange bedroom, one absolutely reeking of Gaz. Her bedroom, no doubt. Well, he shouldn't be in her room, either!
He struggled to his feet. He felt dazed and disoriented. His shoulders and back were just mildly sprained- he could still use them. His head was bruised but not cracked or leaking brains. But the antenna-
He reached up to feel out the extent of the damage. His left antenna was just gone. Severed two inches from his scalp, with a sticky lump of clotted blood at the broken-off end.
A memory came flickering into his mind; a gun barrel pointed at his face, and moving his head to avoid it. Apparently he had not moved fast enough after all.
With that memory came the entirety of his adventure in the white building. Everything made sense now.
Well, not everything. "Minimoose! What are you doing here?" Zim demanded. He looked over to see GIR sitting on Gaz's bed, playing with his feet. "What's going on?"
"Nyeh!" Minimoose explained.
Zim sat down heavily on the floor. "Bugs? They bugged you? And my base? When did this happen?"
"Nyeh," Minimoose said.
Zim reached up to gingerly poke at his damaged antenna. He shivered. "Of course. When I was gone. But-"
He cut himself off, glaring at Gaz. She obviously had no need to be privy to this conversation.
He stood up and walked over to her, leaning over her with his hands on his hips, drawing himself up to his full height (not that that would impress her, she was an inch or so taller than him now). "I'll be taking that back now," he said.
Gaz looked up at him, saying nothing.
"Minimoose," Zim continued. "Hand him over and there won't be any trouble."
"The moose said I could have three days with him if I took off the bugs. I still have a day left."
"I see! I don't care. Give him to me."
Gaz shrugged. "Okay."
Zim held his hand out. Gaz turned and yelled over her shoulder: "DIB! YOUR STUPID LITTLE FRIEND IS HERE!"
Zim took a step backward. "WHAT!"
"HE'S TRYING TO IMPREGNATE ME WITH HORRIBLE HYBRID CHILDREN!"
"No no no no no!" Zim babbled. "What are you DOING?"
Dib's muffled voice came through the door. "Gaz, what's going on?"
Gaz looked over at Zim.
"Fine! Keep the moose! One more day!" he spat, and sat on the floor with his back against her bed, hugging his knees to his chest and scowling.
"Never mind," Gaz called in the direction of the bedroom door. "I can't believe you keep falling for that."
Dib huffed. Zim could hear him walking away. He closed his eyes.
"Still scared of my brother?" Gaz asked.
She returned to her gaming. Zim studied the floor, noting and mentally criticizing every little smudge on it.
He rubbed his eyes. What to do about the bugs in the base? Obviously, if he removed them the people watching him would know he knew about the bugs. And they'd know his location.
He shuddered involuntarily and got to his feet, pacing back and forth.
"Stop that," Gaz said, "it's distracting."
Zim sat down. Then he got back up. "You can't tell me what to d-"
She turned towards the door. "DIB!"
"Yeah?" Dib called from somewhere outside of the room.
Zim sat down, seething.
"Never mind," Gaz called.
"Will you stop interrupting my research?" Dib complained through the wall. Gaz didn't answer.
Zim drummed his fingers on the floor. Gaz stared at him. He stopped drumming.
Silence fell, apart from the beeping of the game and GIR muttering soft nonsense. Zim drew his knees in to his chest, folding his arms on top of them. The white building. The white building. What to do about the white building. He needed to tell the Tallest what he'd found, of course, but he couldn't go to the base right now, and his Pak radio couldn't reach the Massive.
His first instinct was to just blow the white building and its psychotic inhabitants to kingdom come. But there was no way that wouldn't be noticed. And after what he'd witnessed there, he couldn't shake the feeling that they might have some method of retaliation.
Gaz was glaring at him. He was rocking back and forth, making the floor creak. He went still and Gaz went back to her game.
The stealth suit was thin and now he was feeling sort of cold. Of course, Zim had learned from his experiences a few days prior, and packed his normal uniform in his Pak for such a contingency as this. He pulled it out now and laid it on the floor in front of him. He started to wriggle out of the stealth suit.
Gaz was staring at him.
"What?" he demanded.
"Why are you taking off your clothes?"
"That's none of your business." Why did she even care? Oh- oh right, humans had that nudity taboo. Species that reproduce sexually were funny. And disgusting. "Just don't watch me, then!" he snapped, and pulled the offending thin, clingy fabric over his head. It caught on his severed antenna. Ow.
Gaz was staring at him with a look of mild horror. Whatever. He pulled on his uniform-leggings, undershirt, overshirt, gloves, boots. Warm, comfy layers. He already felt better.
Gaz went back to her game. Zim felt the stump of his left antenna, frowning. It would grow back, of course. Eventually.
He sighed, rubbing his temples. Well, he was stuck here for a while. If he went home, the white-building humans would get him. If he even left this room he'd probably run into Dib. He was so not ready for that. He was un-ready for that.
GIR got down from the bed and sat down next to Zim, making a weird beeping noise. Zim reached over and started scratching the smooth metal top of the robot's head without changing his train of thought.
He needed to know everything he could about the white building. It would help if he could remember what had happened in the three days he was there in their possession. Maybe he could recover that information if he went through every memory he did have, starting from when he was taken.
Taken? No, no, he'd gone willingly, he thought. Right? He squeezed his eyes shut.
He'd just finished dealing with the byrum, and he'd been tending to the wounds it had inflicted on his hands when the doorbell rang. And then, he must have gone and answered it without putting on a disguise. That wasn't like him. Was he getting sloppy?
No. No of course he was not getting sloppy, Zim never got sloppy. No, he hadn't gone to answer the door in his work clothes, he'd just gone up to the living room, where his disguise was waiting in the drawer of the end table. But there had already been humans in the living room.
Which wasn't unheard of, either. GIR often let people in. So why had he waited to put on the disguise until he got to the living room?
Because… because GIR hadn't let those people in. He was down in the lab with Zim being a nuisance, he wasn't in the living room. The humans shouldn't have been in the house.
They were big humans, sharply dressed. They smiled and said polite things but they were big and well-muscled and Zim had been very wary of them. They had told them they knew the Tallest and then… had he just believed them? He shouldn't have. He remembered one of them taking his hand, into a fist as big as Zim's head, and taking him out into the yard. He remembered sputtering protests but following along anyway, fearful of making a scene in full view of the neighbors, and also a little worried about losing an arm. And then he'd gotten into a car, and the next memory he had, he was in that white room, looking out the window at the city below.
What could they have done to him?
He looked down at his body. It looked and felt normal (apart from injuries that were all accounted for). But they could have done plenty of things he couldn't detect. They could have infected him with something that took a while to manifest itself. They could have implanted some kind of time bomb, or tracking device. They could have reached into his brain and taken out vital information about Operation Impending Doom II!
He got up, unceremoniously dumping GIR, who had wormed his way onto Zim's lap, in a heap on the floor. He started pacing again.
"Stop that," Gaz said. Zim went to the door and put his hand on the knob, debating whether or not to risk leaving the room. Maybe Dib was safely sequestered in his own bedr-
The voice had come from the other side of the door. Zim snatched his hand away, crying out in dismay.
"Gaz!" Dib repeated, sharply. "What was that?"
Gaz shot a glare at Zim, rolled her eyes, and did an unflattering imitation of the Irken's frightened squawk. Zim scowled at her.
The doorknob was turning. Zim gasped and flattened himself to the wall next to the door.
The door creaked open. The door was between Zim and Dib. Zim was fairly certain Dib could not see him. But he couldn't see Dib either.
He could smell him though. Phew.
Gaz was looking over her shoulder at the door. Zim heard Dib sigh. "Will you stop doing that?" he said. "One of these days he'll really be here and I won't know to rescue you! Did you ever think of that?"
Gaz raised an eyebrow.
"Anyway, I was just going to say I'm off to that UFO convention," Dib continued. "Don't wait up for me. If it gets to be dinnertime just order a pizza."
"All right," Gaz said, going back to her game. "Bye, Dib."
"And don't open the door for anyone, that chupacabra is still mad at me."
Dib shut the door. Zim remained plastered to the wall for a moment, then he slowly began to inch forward.
The door snapped open. Back to the wall. "Hey, if you get pizza, don't order any mushrooms on my half."
The door shut. Zim dove across the floor, scrambling under the bed. GIR was already there.
"I'm hiding from Dib!" the robot giggled.
"Silence, GIR!" Zim flattened his body to the floor. His pulse was pounding in his ears.
The door didn't open, and it didn't open, and it still didn't open. It wasn't going to open. Zim crawled out from under the bed. To his dismay, he was trembling.
Gaz was sitting there on the floor… still… silent… unfathomable. He studied her for a moment.
"So," he said. "Dib isn't here to protect you now."
In response, she delivered a swift karate-chop to his shoulder. He screeched.
"Nope," she said.
Zim lay on the floor for a minute, seething. Then he stood up. "Filthy human!"
Gaz said nothing.
"I'm going to go-" What was the rudest thing he could possibly do in this house? "-raid your filthy kitchen!"
"Don't touch the leftover pizza."
Zim sputtered. "I want none of your- stupid pizza!"
"Good. We understand each other. Have fun."
Zim stormed out into the hallway. On the way to the stairs, he passed Dib's room.
He paused. Now was an excellent opportunity for some sabotage.
He went into the room and glanced around. Ew, what a mess. Clothes on the floor and paranormal crap tacked to the walls and on the desk and it smelled and just… ugh.
He kicked at the piles of clothes and spat on the floor. He didn't feel up to anything more complicated. He didn't feel up to too many things, really. His head was pounding and he couldn't shake a feeling of slight... he didn't know. Funny-ness. He felt funny.
He smoothed back his remaining intact antenna and sighed. Then he went downstairs.
An inspection of the kitchen revealed not much that was edible. He managed to ferret out some bread-type stuff that didn't smell poisonous. He started nibbling on it. He didn't really have much of an appetite, though.
It was very quiet here. There was no ever-present hum of lab equipment. And GIR had stayed upstairs, for some reason. No noise from him either.
Zim found himself standing very still in the middle of the room, staring into space, good antenna angled to catch any new smells, shifts in the air or hints of movement, listening intently to the sound of the wind outside. He was shivering and didn't know why.
Enough of this silly paranoia. He went into the living room and turned on the TV. There, some noise. None of this weird, freakish human silence and-
Oh dear Irk what if they'd followed GIR's flight to this house? They could be waiting outside right now.
Zim went to the front door and eased it open a crack, peering out at the front yard. Nothing there but slowly accumulating snowflakes. One of them blew in and landed on his cheek. It melted into his skin. It burned. His paste coating had worn off.
Zim shut the door. He was still holding that bread thing. He tossed it to the floor.
"Nothing there," he said to himself. Idleness, that was the problem. He was trained for action. He should be acting right now.
Perhaps it wasn't yet time to do anything about the white building, but there was a more immediate problem he could work on. He headed back up to Dib's bedroom.
Dib was disappointed.
He'd been to a lot of UFO convention and every time he'd found pretty much the same thing: too many sweaty nerds in too small of a space. But, hey, a break could come from anywhere, so he kept making his rounds, showing off his pictures to everyone who didn't look too crazy.
He didn't get anywhere this time, just like he never had before. The only thing different was that this time, a woman with a suspiciously large smile handed him a flier on his way out.
It was advertising free trips into space.
Dib studied the flier on the bus ride home. It was a strange flier- there wasn't a whole lot of information on it. It just told him to go to a certain address if he wanted a free ride to space, and that was the whole thing.
Kinda suspicious. He'd have to follow up on this.
Not tonight, though, it was getting dark, and the snow was starting to come down pretty thick.
He headed inside. The house smelled like pizza. There was an open box of it on the table, with about half of it missing. What was left was lukewarm. And covered in mushrooms.
Dib scarfed down a few pieces, picking off all the mushrooms first, and then he went upstairs.
He opened the door to his bedroom. The room was dark, with blue light coming from the powered-on computer monitor. The light framed a familiar silhouette.
Zim spun around in the chair. His hands were folded in front of his chest with the index fingers rapidly tapping together. His chin was lowered and his antennae were slicked back (one of them, anyway, something appeared to have befallen the one on the right). The light from the computer monitor glinted eerily off his disgusting, bulbous alien eyes.
"Dib," he snarled.
"What are you doing here?" Dib snapped.
Zim answered with another question. "What is that?" One of his little stick-arms snapped out to his side. He was pointing at the computer monitor, which was displaying a certain photograph.
Dib studied it, one eyebrow raised. "Well, I'd say that's a picture, Zim. A picture of you."
"I know it's me," Zim spat.
Dib folded his arms over his chest. "Well, then, I don't see what the problem is."
Zim got out of the chair and stalked over to Dib, baring his teeth. "What are all these pictures of me doing on your computer?"
"I took them. With a camera." Dib smirked. "I guess you just didn't notice."
"Oh, and by the way, I have multiple copies of all of them, ones you'll never find, so," Dib shrugged. "Go ahead and delete those, if it makes you feel better. Even if you did manage to get rid of them, I'd just take m-"
"What is that?" Zim's tone had changed.
Dib blinked. "'That' what?"
Zim yanked the flier away. Dib had forgotten he was still holding it.
The alien scanned the piece of paper. His jaw dropped and he pulled his hands away from the flier as if it were red-hot, letting it fall to the floor.
"A woman was passing them out," Dib said. "You know something about this?"
Zim backed away. "What? Me? Know? No. No, no, of course not, why- you didn't go there, did you?"
"No, not yet." Dib folded his hands behind his back. "I was about to. Why? Do you want to come too?"
Zim shook his head. "No. No no no. No no! You fool! You don't know what you're getting into!"
Dib reached over and turned on the light. Zim flinched away, blinking in the sudden light. "Well, then, maybe you should tell m-" He stopped. Zim looked awful- pale and distraught, with dark circles under his eyes. "Whoa. Zim. What's going on here? You didn't break in just to look at my computer, did you?" He groaned. "What manner of alien wrath have you invoked now?"
"I didn't do anything! And I didn't break into your house!"
"What are you here for, then?"
Zim looked down at the floor. "None of your business."
Dib frowned, then shrugged. "Okay." He bent down to pick up the flier. Zim watched with bulging eyes. "I guess I'll just go check this out then. See what's up."
Tiny, hot little clawed hands fastened themselves to his arm. "No!"
Zim bit his lip.
"You know," Dib said, "any enemy of yours is a friend of mine. Well. Probably. Tak wasn't. But-"
"Those humans are evil," Zim said.
Dib glanced up at the ceiling. "Hmm. I think you're evil, and you think I'm evil, so that doesn't really tell me anyth-"
"You won't like it either. They're using other humans as test subjects."
Dib nodded. "The same way you do."
Zim shook his head. He wouldn't make eye contact. "Oh, no. No, this is different." He turned away, folding his arms over his chest.
Interesting. This could be a trap, but it was usually pretty obvious when Zim was lying, and he didn't seem to be lying now. "What kind of testing?"
Zim rocked back and forth. "I don't see why that's relevant."
"Sure, okay. Then I don't see why I should believe you."
Zim looked up at the ceiling. "One of the subjects had been infected with some form of hemorrhagic fever."
Dib blinked. "What? Like Ebola virus? That's kind of nasty."
Zim said nothing.
"Come on," Dib prodded.
"No, it's not important." His tone had a note of finality in it. "I'm staying here tonight."
Dib stared at him. "What? No you're not."
"I'm staying here whether you like it or not!"
Dib opened his mouth to argue, and then realized what he was doing- he was about to make himself miss out on a chance at round-the-clock observation of the alien. "Sure. Fine. But why?"
Zim started to pace back and forth. "They're on to me. They've probably planned an ambush at the base. Don't get any bright ideas about going there to snoop around in my absence, I'm sure they wouldn't mind killing you either."
"And who are 'they'?"
"Have you been listening, Dib? The humans in the white building! The evil ones! Gah!" He clutched his head with both hands. "Why am I telling you this? You'll just make everything worse!"
Dib frowned and put his hands on his hips. "You're not making any sense! How about you start from the top and tell me everything?"
Zim took a step backwards, shaking his head. "No no no no. I've said too much already!"
"You've barely said anything at all!" Dib advanced on him. "What white building? Who are these people? Do they have names? What do they look like? How many test subjects are there? Why are they handing out fliers? How do you know all this? Why should I believe a word you say? Huh? Huh? Huh?"
Zim was flattened to the wall, his eyes nearly staring out of his head. "Aah!"
"Do you get how annoying this is?" Dib demanded. "Do you hear yourself right now? You're not making any sense at all right now, Zim, you're just spewing disconnected sentences and acting like they're supposed to impress…" He trailed off. "Zim, are you listening to me?"
Zim blinked a couple times, then nodded. His eyes were glazed over.
"You understand that if you want me to do anything you have to, you know, make sense first," Dib said.
Zim nodded and looked down at the ground, putting one hand to his forehead. "Yeah. Yeah. Sorry, I just… hooh. Eh, I've had a crazy few days, you know, and…" He chuckled indulgently. "Look at me. Apologizing to a human! That's stupid." He sighed and looked back at Dib. He had to look up. It had been over a year since Zim first showed up in skool, and Dib had grown, whereas Zim had not. "What was I…"
"There's some kind of white building that's experimenting on people," Dib said. "And they're watching your base."
"Oh. Yes. Yes, that's about it. Yep."
Dib gave him a cold stare.
"What?" Zim demanded.
"There's gotta be more than that. Come on."
Zim shook his head, scowling. "I noticed some suspicious activity and investigated it. I found the test subjects and was discovered before I could investigate further. The humans in the white building are well-armed and have excellent surveillance equipment along with surprisingly advanced technology. Maybe they're in league with the Vortians…"
"Okay. Now, was that really so hard?" Dib said. "Now, I guess you want my help with all this. Doing what? Stopping them from experimenting on people?"
"Oh, there's more to it than that, Dib."
Zim took a deep breath. "I think they're trying to make soliders. Botching it horribly, of course. But-"
"Yes. Trying to make disease resistance and… cyborg limbs and… and other things. DNA modifications and… and stuff. Stuff like that. It's beyond your comprehension." He was starting to look upset again. Maybe the 'white building humans' really were up to something horrible. Or not. Zim got that look on his face when confronted with the animatronics at Bloaty's.
Dib leaned back, folding his arms over his chest. "Obviously, the first thing to do is get some real information. You'll have to take me there to-"
Zim was avoiding eye contact again. "There's really no need to go back there, I saw everything."
"I want to see it for myself."
"Fine. You can go alone." His voice became suddenly hoarse. "And die!"
Dib blinked. Zim was suddenly staring at him very intently.
Dib rolled his eyes. "Whatever. I have some sources of my own I can check first-"
"Good. You do that. I'll, uh-"
"I can, uh, watch your TV."
Dib nodded. "Sure. Sure. You do that. You can stay out of my bedroom and out of my dad's lab." Not that there was any danger of him going to the lab; it was DNA-encoded, fingerprint-keyed and retina-imprinted.
Zim nodded and headed down the stairs. Dib sat down on his computer.
The first thing to do was to readjust the chair, which a certain short-legged alien idiot had jacked up insanely high. The second thing was to close out the image-viewing program Zim had opened. Then Dib restored the pictures Zim had deleted out of the Recycle Bin. Then he pulled up the security cams. Dib's dad had security cameras all over the house. Dib could now use them to make sure Zim behaved himself. At the moment, he was sitting on the couch next to Gaz, fidgeting.
All right. Now Dib opened his browser and went to the Swollen Eyeball network forums in one tab and Google in another.
The next few hours were spent searching and posting. Every paranormal website that existed was in Dib's bookmarks, even the really, really stupid ones.
And not a single one of them mentioned anything like Zim's white building. Either this building was too new to be reported, it had some great cloaking, or Zim was full of crap.
Still, Dib posted topics about the building everywhere he could, asking everyone he knew to keep an eye out for something like this. He looked into and made notes of unexplained disappearances and unusual electrical activity, too.
When he was done, he checked the security camera footage. Gaz had apparently gone to bed and Zim was curled up alone on the couch looking morose.
Well, it was pretty late, and nothing seemed to be happening. Dib supposed he could snatch some sleep himself.
He crawled into bed.
Chapter 5: Dreamcatcher
Zim was called back to reality by a clattering noise from the next room.
He hadn't been asleep but he hadn't been exactly awake, either- some mindless state in between. He sat up, rubbing his eyes. He was not sure for the first few moments exactly where he was. When he remembered, he huffed and shook his head. Filthy Dib. Filthy Dib's house.
And that clattering noise was probably filthy Dib up to no good. Better check it out.
He stood up, straightened up his uniform, and marched into the kitchen.
The noise wasn't Dib, it was Gaz. Hm. Not much better. She seemed to be collecting a bunch of items on the table. Was it for some kind of ritual?
Oh, no, Zim was pretty sure that was a frying pan. She was just making breakfast. Or at least… that was what it looked like.
"What are you doing?" he asked, narrowing his eyes. Gaz was a sneaky one.
"I'm making breakfast," she said. She set a plastic bowl on the table and took a large wooden spoon out of a drawer.
Zim simply observed for a few minutes while she measured some substances into the bowl. One of the bags she opened released a powerfully sweet scent.
Zim went closer. "What's in that one?"
"Not for you," she said, closing the bag and putting it aside. She took some eggs out of a carton and cracked them into the bowl.
Nasty, nasty eggs.
Suddenly, her head jerked up. She looked angry. Zim drew back.
"The paper boy," she said, and she jumped down to the floor and ran out of the room. Zim turned and watched her rush out the front door. He heard her yelling: "HEY, YOU! STOP THROWING THAT THING IN OUR YARD! IT STAYS ON THE SIDEWALK!"
Well, she'd left the bag of sweet stuff unattended. Zim crawled up onto the chair to get a better look at it.
Aha. It was pure sugar! Pure sugar was rare on Irk. Earthens had the stuff oozing out of their pores and didn't even know to be properly grateful.
Usually, when Zim came across a bag of sugar, or managed to scrape together the money to buy one, he promptly and loyally sent it to the Tallest. Without even sampling it. Honest. But right now he couldn't get into his base to send it, and, well, he was doing important work, and he'd had a bad couple of days and could use a pick-me-up, and… well…
Dib woke up to a pained squawk coming from his computer. He shuffled over there to find it had come from the security footage. Specifically, the kitchen.
Zim was standing on the table, looking shocked and rubbing the back of one hand. Gaz was standing on the chair, brandishing a wooden spoon. There was a spilled bag of sugar on the floor.
"What? What?" Zim was saying.
Gaz bared her teeth. "Every Sunday morning I make pancakes." Ooh, Dib had forgotten it was pancake day. Cool. "And no one gets in my way. And no weird aliens show up and get into the sugar, and they're not going to start!"
"I wasn't in the way," Zim said.
Gaz swung the spoon. It was a long one, whittled to a sharp point at the handle end. "Hyuh!"
Zim squawked and scrambled off the table. In the process, he knocked over the bowl Gaz had been making the pancake batter in.
Dib rubbed his hands together in anticipation. Both Zim and Gaz looked down at the mess on the floor. Gaz looked up at Zim.
Zim snatched a spatula off the table and used it to deflect a blow that was probably meant to put out one of his eyes.
Gaz aimed another stab at Zim's guts. He knocked it aside.
Gaz drew back for a moment. Then she carelessly swatted Zim's spatula out of his hands. "Hey!" he yelled, and put up his fists.
Gaz chuckled appreciatively and tossed the spoon aside, putting up her own fists.
"Aw, crap," Dib said, running out of his room. Gaz was surely overestimating herself now. She was a strong girl, and a quick girl, and Zim was physically pathetic, but he could pull some weird, vicious stuff and there was no way- well, Dib just better get down there.
He slid down the banister, landing on his feet and running into the kitchen, where…
…where he found Zim lying on his back, panting. Gaz was standing over him, one foot resting on Zim's chest, and her hands on her hips.
Dib supposed he wasn't really that surprised.
Zim was staring up at Gaz with a look of shocked awe that quickly turned to anger. "On any normal day I would have destroyed you, human!" he squeaked.
"Uh huh," Gaz said.
"Don't get too cocky!"
Dib chuckled. Gaz took her foot off of Zim. He flipped over, scrambling awkwardly to his feet.
"Get out of my kitchen," Gaz said. Zim scowled at her and stalked out of the kitchen. On the way he 'accidentally' brushed up against Dib and delivered a sharp, passive-aggressive, 'accidental' elbow to Dib's ribs.
Dib barely felt it. He was too busy gloating. "Good work, Gaz," he said. Gaz said nothing. She was getting out the broom and dustpan.
Dib went into the living room, where Zim was sitting on the couch, seething and straightening out his disheveled uniform. He was lightly coated with baking ingredients.
Dib stood over him. "So how's it feel to get your butt kicked by a little girl?"
Zim sniffed and threw his head back. "I don't know you tell me."
Dib snorted. "Hehe, I'm not the one who-"
"She didn't kick me, in the butt or elsewhere." Zim rubbed the corner of one eye in an obvious display of nonchalance. "However, you seem to anger her quite frequently-"
"WHAT?" he barked, glaring up at Dib.
Dib suppressed another laugh with some difficulty. "You got a little something here." He pointed to Zim's face. "And here." He pointed to Zim's arm. "And there. And-" He snorted.
Zim looked down the white powder dusting on his body. "Oh. Ha. You're right." He reached out, grabbed Dib's shirt, and started wiping his face on it.
Dib stared. "Hey!"
Zim let go of the shirt, coughing and shaking his head. "Ugh! Your shirt smells like s-"
Dib yanked it away. "Don't touch it then! Man!"
They enjoyed a nice, mutual glare for a minute or so, and then Dib said: "Well, I have some important stuff to do, and it looks like Gaz can handle you just fine. So I'll just go do that."
He headed for the stairs. Halfway up, he paused and turned to see Zim on the step below him.
"What?" Dib said.
Zim tilted his head sideways, affecting a sardonic parody of innocence. "Is there a problem? Is this important 'stuff' to do something you don't want me seeing, Dib?"
Dib ground his teeth together. As a matter of fact, he'd been going to check his Internet groups to see if any new info had turned up, and he didn't want Zim getting a look at his sources.
"No. I was just going to eat something with lots of greasy meat and cheese on it. You can watch that."
"Pff." Zim tossed his head. "The kitchen's downstairs, Dib."
Dib sighed and rolled his eyes. "Fine. Do whatever you want. If I don't like it I'll just drag you off to the white building."
Zim froze, and Dib realized his flippant threat had had a bigger effect than he'd anticipated. He grinned. "Or maybe I'll just call them to come pick you up."
Zim backed down a step, baring his teeth. He shook his head. "You wouldn't-"
"Of course I would."
Zim hissed and turned away. "I didn't care what you were going to do anyway."
Dib smirked. "Of course you didn't."
Zim went back down to the living room and Dib went up to his bedroom.
None of Dib's sources had heard anything about the white building. Curiouser and curiouser.
He took a shower, went downstairs and had a peaceful, utterly silent pancake breakfast with Gaz. Then he went into the living room, where Zim was looking at his own faint reflection in the blank TV screen.
Dib watched as the alien studied his own face from every angle, then pulled up his shirt to reveal a stretch of navel-less green skin. Zim examined himself for a moment, then pulled his shirt back down and placed his fingers on the side of his neck, apparently trying to check his own pulse.
"Zim, what are you doing?" Dib asked.
"None of your business." Zim's voice was distracted. He did not turn to look at Dib. "Do I seem at all… different to you?"
Dib raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"
"Do I seem like anything may have been…" Zim flipped one hand about in a vague, indecipherable gesture. "Injected, inserted or implanted into me?"
Dib shook his head, wondering what this new weirdness was. "I have no idea. I didn't do anything to you recently, if that's what you're wondering."
Zim made a soft, distracted 'huph' noise, as if to disparage the idea that Dib could possibly have done anything to him ever. "What about my, uh, behavior?"
Dib's eyebrows shot up. "Your what?"
"My behavior. My manner of behaving." He seemed irritated. "Do I act different, Dib?"
Dib rolled his eyes. "You act like a crazy green alien jerk! Who's gotten really jumpy all of a sudden."
Zim turned to stare at him. "Jumpy? Jumpy? Jumpy how?"
Dib folded his arms over his chest. "I don't know, maybe jumpy like suddenly asking me if you've… changed or whatever. What kind of change do you expect me to notice? Did you think I was gonna say you have, I dunno, a tail now?"
Before his disbelieving eyes Zim actually looked behind himself to verify his lack of tail. "No, no, that would be silly," he then said. "You're right, Dib, a human like you wouldn't have the first idea of what would be… wrong."
"Uh huh," Dib said. "Well, if you're done with that, we'd better check out this 'white building' of yours."
Zim chuckled. "Ha ha ha, funny…"
Dib took a step closer. "I want you to take me there and show me exactly what the heck it is you're talking about."
Zim took a step back. "Eh?"
"Show me whatever it is that's got you all freaked out. I mean, what, did I mumble?"
"I'm not going back there," Zim blurted out. He cleared his throat and looked away. He was turning pale. "There's nothing you need to see. I don't see how it would be at all helpful-"
Dib cut him off. "You're too scared to go back."
Zim clenched his hands into fists. "AN INVADER DOES NOT KNOW THE MEANING OF FEAR!"
Dib gave him an appraising look. "Really."
Zim turned away, folding his arms over his chest. His remaining antenna flicked as if to shake off a fly. "Fool! If you're so sure you have to see the white building, then fine. I'd take you- but I don't have my disguise." He shrugged. "I was in a bit of a hurry when I came here. So, if you-"
Dib grinned. "No disguise, huh?"
Zim flinched. "Uh-"
"No base to hide in either, hmm-"
Zim started looking around. His eyes went to the door and then the window.
"You don't have anywhere to go, Zim," Dib reminded him.
Zim ran the tip of his tongue over his lips. He was starting to sweat. He began to pace. Dib watched.
"Are you threatening me?" Zim asked.
"Nope! Just pointing out that the balance of power seems to have shifted my way," Dib said with a grin.
"I can't take you to the white building," Zim reiterated.
"About this 'white building'. I don't seem to have any proof it exists except for a flier and the word of a pathological alien liar." His eyes narrowed. "What's your angle?"
"What?" Zim pulled away. He was hunched and tense and looked like an animal preparing for flight. "What angle? I don't have an angle!"
Dib leaned back, putting his hands on his hips. "You're scared, you don't have your disguise, you want my help with some mysterious threat you won't accurately describe, and I'm a little suspicious."
Zim walked up to him, baring his teeth. "Fine. Give me a new disguise and I'll take you to the white building."
Tch. Please. Like Dib was going to fall for that. "Oh, now you want a new disguise. Why would I give you a new disguise? I kind of don't want you to have a disguise."
Zim turned away. "Fine. It doesn't matter. Go ahead. Go alone. See if I care." He was trembling.
"Fine. Maybe I will."
Dib headed for the door. He stopped and looked around. Zim was pointedly not looking at him.
Dib threw his head back and marched out the door and down the front door.
Then he turned around and came back into the house. He took his coat off the rack and put that and his boots on, avoiding eye contact with Zim. It was pretty… pretty cold out.
"Change your mind?" Zim asked. His voice was strange and tight.
"Nope," Dib said. "I guess us humans are just made of stronger stuff than you." He once again went out the door, shutting it loudly behind him.
Halfway down the walk, he heard a muffled cry from inside the house. "Fine! Go off and get yourself horribly killed! It'll just make my life easier!"
The words were petulant and carried an odd lack of force. Dib wasn't entirely sure he'd been meant to hear them.
He shrugged and continued on his way.
Except that he'd forgotten his flier with the address on it.
He went back inside. Zim stared at him, beseechingly. "Now you're giving up?" he asked.
"No," Dib said. His tone was short. "Nope. Not giving up, Zim. I just need to, uh- I'm just getting something."
He went upstairs and got the flier. He came back down and Zim was standing there in the middle of the room, looking wilted and lost.
Dib stood over him, causing the alien to tilt his head back and scowl up at him. "All right, I'm going for real now. Stay out of my room and don't touch anything in the house. Most of my stuff is booby-trapped, anyway, you know." This last was a lie.
Zim snorted disparagingly. "So you're still going. Fine, I definitely won't miss you when you're gone."
Dib rolled his eyes and headed outside for the third time. When he got to the edge of the yard he looked back to see Zim watching him out the window. He looked miserable.
Dib flipped him a wave. Zim's eyes narrowed.
Dib turned and headed down the street.
Zim watched Dib until the putrid little boy's shape had faded from view.
He remained at the window, having nowhere better to be. His hands were pressed to the cold glass and his breath was making a hazy white mark that faded and reappeared.
He didn't know what happened to humans who just walked right into the white building, but he was sure he'd never see Dib again- not in one piece, anyway. After all, Dib was just so obnoxious, who wouldn't want to do horrible experiments on him? And the big head was an anomaly they wouldn't be able to resist investigating.
Zim tried to picture what Dib would look like after a round of experiments, and quickly stopped, as he was beginning to feel not right in the head just thinking about it.
He stared dully at the window. The snow that had started last night had accumulated, blanketing the world outside in cold, wet, burning whiteness. Stupid snow. Stupid Earth.
Minus Dib, the house was quiet- very, very quiet. Zim found himself straining to catch the smallest noise. But his own breathing was so loud and harsh that it had to be blocking out some of the lesser noises-
Oh, Irk. Dib was right. He was jumpy. He put his hands over his face and took deep breaths. His pulse was thundering in his ears.
There was no reason for this, he was an Invader, he could handle anything that came his way. The white building hadn't been able to capture and hold him, after all, no matter how much fancy tech they had. He could take this. It was hardly a problem at a-
There was a thump from upstairs. Zim plastered himself to the wall, yelping aloud. "WHO GOES THERE?" he screamed.
"Be quiet!" someone yelled back. Oh. Right. Gaz. Gaz was still here.
Zim shook his head. Duh. And so were GIR and Minimoose. That thump had probably been GIR.
He glanced out the window one last time. There was no point in waiting here any longer. Dib would probably not be returning under his own power.
There was also no point in allowing Gaz to keep his robots in her possession for a minute longer. Zim turned on his heel and headed for the stairs in a clipped, military strut.
There was a sign on Gaz's door that hadn't been there yesterday. It said:
NO STUPID ALIENS ALLOWED.
Zim studied the sign, concluded that, as he was not stupid, it did not refer to him, and reached for the doorknob. Just before his fingers made contact with it-
"There better not be a dumb alien out there trying to get into my room," Gaz called from outside.
Zim froze, his intact antenna reflexively sweeping the air. Then he once again decided that she could not possibly mean him because Zim was not dumb. He reached for the doorknob. It wouldn't turn. One of the humans' primitive locking devices.
Zim was certain he could break the door down, but he had to admit that that would be an incredibly bad idea when dealing with Gaz. He knocked, instead.
"Go away, Zim!" she called. He wondered how she'd known it was him and not Dib, and then chided himself- obviously, everything he did was so clearly superior to how Dib did it that the difference was obvious. Even when it came to knocking on doors.
He clasped his hands behind his back, popping up on the balls of his feet and then settling back down onto his heels. "Go away? I don't think so, little Gaz." He liked calling her 'little'. He didn't get to call very many people 'little'. Actually, he technically couldn't call Gaz that anymore either, but why split hairs? "Maybe you've forgotten that you have something that belongs to me."
Gaz made a huffing noise. The door opened and Zim staggered backwards as he was suddenly hit with two projectiles. He wound up knocked off balance and landing rather heavily and painfully on his rear end on the floor. Gaz's door slammed shut.
The projectiles were GIR and Minimoose. Both of them were still and silent- they had been powered off. Zim bared his teeth and got to his feet, propping GIR up on his hip and tucking Minimoose under his arm- both things he had done often enough that he longer needed to consciously think about doing them.
At the moment, he had neither the time nor the inclination to confront Gaz over this gross display of disrespect, but she would pay later. Very definitely. She would pay with doom.
"I'll deal with you later, human," he said, to make sure she didn't think he was just going to let this go. "You'll regret that you weren't more-"
"Be quiet!" Gaz didn't sound impressed.
Zim seethed for a moment, then turned away, heading for the stairs.
He stopped about halfway there. It occurred to him that… maybe he should tell Gaz her brother wasn't coming back. It would keep her from thinking it was Zim's fault when Dib disappeared forever. The last thing he needed was for that little… witch child to get some notion about vengeance into her head.
He went back to the door, automatically adjusting GIR's slipping position on his hip, and knocked the toe of his right boot against the door to get her attention. "Hey! Gaz!"
Gaz wrenched her door open, glaring at Zim with both eyes wide open. "What- do you want- now?" she spat.
Zim pulled away, scowling. Now, what had he done to deserve this treatment from her? Nothing. That was what. Stupid humans. "I just thought you should know that Dib ignored my excellent advice and went off somewhere where he's very likely to end up horribly murdered!"
Gaz huffed. "You bothered me over that?"
"I don't want you bugging me later when he never comes back. I had nothing to do with it." He shrugged. "This time." Not that Dib could be killed (or made to disappear) twice in his lifetime. Er. Hopefully not, anyway.
"Whatever. Go away!"
Gaz slammed the door shut. Well, she'd been warned. Not that she deserved the warning.
Zim turned and went back down to the living room. He dumped GIR and Minimoose on the couch, then took a moment to arch his back, roll his shoulders around and mutter to himself. GIR had felt unusually heavy. The stupid robot had, no doubt, packed something very nasty and weighty into his head compartment. Zim didn't want to know what it was.
He flopped down on the couch, groaning aloud. He wanted to go home. Dib's house smelled bad and had ugly furniture. Plus, he needed to report to the Tallest. They had to be worried sick by now.
Then the first order of business was to get those bugs out of his base, and then find and remove any humans from the white building who may have been set in place to watch for his return. But how? He couldn't do it himself, the bugs were certainly set to instantly recognize his presence. Was he going to need to bargain with Gaz again? Surely he wouldn't be reduced to seeking the help of a human smeet.
He rolled onto his back, propping his head on the armrest, closing his eyes and throwing his arm over his face. He was stretched out at an angle, allowing one foot to hang over the edge of the couch. The other leg was bent towards his body, knee sticking up in the air.
Zim suddenly realized that this was a rather unprofessional position. He would have gotten a good swatting if he'd lazed about like this on Devastis. He sat up, leaning back into the couch and folding his hands over his belly. He felt too warm, and also, somehow, both restless and devoid of energy at the same time. Also, his head still hurt.
How to get back into the base? Minimoose would probably have some ideas.
Or not. It was the moose's stupid idea to come to Dib's house. But it was worth a shot. Zim picked up the little robot and turned him back on.
Minimoose's eyes lit up with bright spots of red and he squeaked.
"Yeah, yeah, hi," Zim said. "I need to get back into the base. What do you know about the bugs?"
Zim blinked. "You can? Well- then- do it! Destroy them!"
Minimoose rose into the air. Zim leaned forward. "Wait. They probably have agents watching the base in person."
Minimoose nodded and squeaked again.
Zim's eyes went wide. "You can? Well- then do it! Go, Minimoose!" Zim shook his fist in the air. "DEFEND OUR FORTRESS!"
Minimoose squeaked and flitted for the door. Zim settled into the couch cushions, smiling slightly. Well, there was one complication gone, that was good. It would probably take the little robot at least an hour to get everything cleared out, though, and in the meantime Zim was stuck here.
There was no point in sabotaging Dib. Dib wasn't going to be a problem anymore. He didn't want to go near Gaz. He glanced over at GIR.
GIR was loud, annoying, and unlikely to be helpful. Zim turned on the TV instead. He could squeeze in a little Earth research. He turned the channel to the news.
Oh right- Earth news was incredibly boring, stupid, and obnoxious. Zim yawned and turned it off.
The couch felt nice and warm from his body heat. He shut his eyes just for a moment. The house was very quiet. Zim wasn't used to this level of silence. GIR was usually running around somewhere nearby being loud. Maybe Zim should consider shutting the little SIR off himself once in a while.
He sat there motionless a little while more, then got up and went straight for the door that led to Dib's father's laboratory.
The door opened easily at his touch, revealing a dark, narrow staircase. Zim headed down it.
The staircase led to an empty hallway- or at least, it looked empty; only the middle of it was lit (with bright, hanging florescent lights), and the sides were hidden in shadow.
Zim kept strictly to the lighted area, moving with clipped military purpose. He glanced into the shadows a couple times but could see nothing of interest. The floor was concrete, and the hall had a damp, chill feeling. Zim had the vague impression that there was something hidden in the shadowed areas that he wouldn't like to see, but it wasn't something important and he didn't have to subject himself to it.
The hall ended at a bare metal door. He opened it and walked through. He shook his head. He was in that stupid state fair his class at skool had gone to last year, only now it was inside, for some reason, and looked smaller and even dirtier. The floor was still concrete, and the ceiling was metal ductwork with hanging light bulbs. The rides had been huge spinny things and roller coasters before but now there were nothing but scattered bounce-houses. All of them full of children, of course.
Zim lowered his head and headed straight through the fair. He passed several of the children from his class. They glanced at him as he walked by but said nothing- they were too preoccupied in their stupid amusements. They were all eating things- hot dogs, cotton candy, pizza. It all smelled disgusting.
There was another door on the other end of the fair. Zim headed through it and found another hallway- this one was big and dark. There was a door at the far end of it. A human who worked at the fair walked through the door. It opened to reveal red light behind it, and then swung shut very, very slowly. The fair-worker human brushed by Zim without paying any attention to him.
Zim sighed to himself. He didn't want to see whatever was behind that door, but he knew he would have to report on it to the Tallest. He went through the door.
He was now in a small room that was bathed in red light and had narrow catwalks all along the walls. There was a big, black creature in the middle of the room. It was chained to the wall with a thick, iron chain. It was curled up, sleeping.
Then it saw Zim, and it got to its feet. It was a hairy creature, a quadruped, very black, with dull pink eyes and a huge mouth filled with gigantic, sharp teeth.
It came towards Zim. It moved very, very slowly, but Zim knew he couldn't get away, even though the door was right behind him, because he couldn't move at all. He tried to lift his feet, but nothing happened.
The monster pressed Zim to the floor with one massive paw and held him there. The pressure was suffocating him. He gasped for breath.
The monster started to bat him around, like a cat playing with a toy. Then it pounced on him with both paws and pushed him right through the floor.
He fell a few feet, then landed heavily on something extremely foul-smelling. He looked around and saw he was sitting on a heap of garbage. He looked past the garbage and saw part of the deck of a ship- and past that, rolling ocean waves. He was on a garbage barge.
Zim looked behind him and saw that first test subject from the white building sitting near him in the garbage- this must be what the people from the white building did with their subjects were no longer useful, ship them out with the garbage. How efficient.
The test subject looked at Zim with suffering, pleading eyes and said "Nooooooohhhh," in a low, lilting voice.
Zim looked over to his side and saw two other test subjects, little more than heaps of rotting, bleeding flesh- but he recognized them as having once been Dib and Gaz.
"Noooohhh," the original test subject said, and Zim knew that it was saying that Zim had been tainted by the humans in the white building and soon he would be a test subject, too. He nodded in acknowledgement.
Something reached up through the garbage. It grabbed Zim's ankle and pulled him down through the trash. He landed in a small, wooden room. Probably inside the ship.
There was a dog standing over Zim. It had its paws on Zim's shoulders, and was shaking him. "Hey!" it said in Dib's voice. "Hey! Quit messing around! I don't know what game you're playing, but stop it!"
The words were accusatory, but the tone was frightened. "I mean it! Zim! Wake up! I'm not kidding! Okay, I'm going to count to three and if you don't wake up, I'm calling the CIA! I mean it!"
This was all very silly, a dog could not call the CIA. Maybe if Zim ignored it and its obnoxious habit of using Dib's nasal, grating voice, it would go away.
The dog slapped him sharply across the face. For a moment, it seemed that the dog was Dib, only he was very far away. Very, very far away. Then the impression was gone, but it seemed entirely logical that the dog could communicate with Dib. Pass a message on to him. After all, it had taken Dib's voice.
"Not my fault," Zim told it. It seemed suddenly very difficult to talk, as if his mouth was full of mud, or something. "I told you…" What had he told Dib? "I told you not to go."
For a moment he could actually see Dib, but he was like… floating in this weird black haze. That was so typical. Dib had to make everything difficult.
"I told you," Zim said again. He tried to turn over- he was so uncomfortable, everything felt so sore. But he couldn't move. "Dib, you never…"
It seemed pointless, suddenly, all this talking, it was difficult and tiring and Dib was already as good as dead, so why bother?
"Zim?" Now the dog was whacking on Zim's chest for some reason. It was painful and awkward. "Do you even have a pulse when you're alive? I don't know- are you breathing? Are- you better be. Zim, you had better be breathing or I'll throw you in Gaz's room. I mean it."
The dog was shaking him. Its voice was hysterical and nasty and frightened at the same time. Zim was sick of this whole thing. He wished the dog would stop bothering him and go away.
"And then I'll get the hose and spray you! ZIM!"
"But this is my house! Come on!"
Zim decided that he no longer cared. Minimoose would be back any minute, and he'd take care of everything. He let everything fade away.
Chapter 6: Laserblast
Peter studied the monitors in silence. He had finally gotten into the Irken Empire's systems.
He ran his fingers through his thinning hair. His gigantic mistake stared him in the face from every screen. This was not an Invader- the Irken designated 'Zim' was a delusional exile, the bane of the Empire's existence, and everything in its files indicated that its behavior was completely unpredictable.
Well, in a way, this just made things easier. Peter reached for his control panel and turned on the radio. "4-8-9-2," he called, "have you found the Irken yet?"
"No," the reply crackled over the speaker. "However, one of its robots came back to the base. We have it in custody."
That was good, they could scan the robot's brain chip for information. "I have a change in your orders. You are hereby authorized to kill the Irken if it makes too much trouble- however, I still want it alive if feasible."
Peter ended the call and settled back in his chair. There was now no need to play nice. The Tallest wouldn't take kindly to the murder of one of their elite agents, but it sounded like they would be only too happy to get rid of Zim.
A light lit up on the control panel. Someone calling him; probably the collection agent with a question. He pressed a button.
"Sir?" It was that dizzy woman at the front desk. "There was a teenage boy here, asking about the space flier. I sent him home."
"You did what?"
The woman stammered. "He- he was too young for our project."
"You're not authorized to make that classification," Peter told her. "You are to send everyone who comes through the door into an examination room. What was his name, where did he get the flier, did he tell anyone about it?"
"I- don't… know."
"You didn't even get the name?"
Peter terminated the call and pulled up the security footage. He'd have to find the information himself with facial-recognition and the Internet. He was also going to need to seriously reconsider his choice of receptionist.
Zim shuddered and opened his eyes. He felt hot and sticky. He sat up, shaking his head. He felt really funny- all slow and groggy. He wasn't in the living room anymore- he was in Dib's room.
He rubbed the back of his neck, groaning. Dib was sitting at his computer, typing furiously. He whipped around when Zim made noise, his eyes wide.
"You're awake?" he said.
Zim squinted at him. "Why wouldn't I be awake?" he mumbled. "What are you typing?" He noticed his clothes were disheveled, and he felt sore through the neck and shoulders. "What did you do?" There was a huge bruise on his forehead. He felt of it, and eyed Dib suspiciously.
"You fell off my couch," Dib said. "I didn't do that."
Zim huffed. "Why would I fall off your couch?"
"I don't know," Dib said. He moved his body so as to get between Zim and his computer screen. Hmm. Zim craned his neck to see the screen. Dib appeared to be writing an email. Zim squinted.
Agent Darkbooty, I have the Spider in my possession, unconscious. If it's convenient I'll just go ahead and bring him into the Swo
Zim had apparently woken up before Dib could continue past that point.
Zim bared his teeth and let out a long, loud hiss. Dib folded his arms over his chest. "What would you expect, Zim? I mean, really."
"Why am I on your bed?" Zim demanded. He'd been in the living room just a moment ago. Dib must have knocked him out. Typical. Typical stupid, smelly Dib. "And why aren't you dead?"
Dib blinked, then scowled. "There's nothing in the building."
Zim wriggled around. Dib had dumped him on the bed in a rather tangled, careless position and now he felt stiff in various places. "What are you talking about?"
"Your 'white building'. I went there. Nothing happened. The receptionist asked me a few questions, told me I was too young to go into space, gave me a piece of candy and sent me home. That was it."
Zim's jaw dropped. He sputtered for words, then cursed out loud in Vortian. "You- human!" he squeaked, his hands balling into fists. "They don't have their specimens sitting right inside the front door! I thought you knew how to spy on people!"
"Well, I did look ar-" Dib started to say. Zim cut him off.
"'The desk lady gave me candy'!" he mocked, waving his hands around. "What is wrong with you? IRK! I should have just sent GIR!"
"I hope that's death candy! That makes you dead!"
Zim pounded one fist into the top of Dib's bed. "SILENCE! I want you to sit there until you understand the extent of your incompetence! You failed, Dib! You utterly failed! I trusted you and you failed!"
"You trusted me?"
"OF COURSE I DIDN'T!" Zim screamed hoarsely. "I NEVER TRUST YOU BECAUSE YOU'RE STUPID AND ALWAYS FAIL!" He yanked on both antennae (the one that had been shot off had already grown back around three-quarters of the way). "HOW CAN YOU BE SO STUPID? HOW CAN YOU BE SO STUPID AND NOT BE DEAD?"
"Will you calm d-"
"'DURR! I'M DIB!'" Zim waved his hands frantically around in the air. "'I WALK IN FRONT OF BUSES BECAUSE I'M DIIIB! I'M STUUUPID! DURR!"
Dib blinked at him. "That doesn't sound anything like me."
Zim took a deep breath. "I CAN'T BELIEVE HOW SURROUNDED- BY-" Something caught in Zim's chest, and then in his throat, and he started to cough.
Dib blinked. Zim continued to cough until his eyes were watering and he was gasping for breath. He flopped over the edge of the bed, wheezing and squeezing his eyes shut.
"Are you going to let me talk now?" Dib said.
Zim stuck his lower lip out. "No."
Zim curled up, flattening his antennae to his head with his hands. "I'M NOT LISTENING! I'M NOT LISTENING TO DIB!" he rasped. "BECAUSE HE'S STUPID AND STINKY!"
Dib turned back to his computer. "All right, I'll talk to you when you're done being five."
"I'M NOT LISTENING TO THE FLAPPY DIB NOISES!"
"Good for you."
"I WILL NEVER LISTEN TO DIB! HE'S AWFUL!"
"Okay, that's fine."
Dib started typing. Zim fell silent. There was a dangerous tickle in his throat, like he was going to cough again if he kept yelling.
Dib clicked around with his mouse. Zim gagged and clapped a hand over his mouth. He felt dizzy.
Dib spun around in his chair. "Oh geez not on my bed don't you dare-"
"It's- it's just the stink in here. Maybe if you bathed more often." Zim put his head down on the comforter and shut his eyes, making an attempt to look bored and nonchalant instead of light-headed and queasy.
"Well, if you throw up in my room, I'm going to kill you, ya know," Dib was saying.
"You better be."
"Did you have something to say to me, or were you just interrupting me for fun?" Zim asked, priding himself on how deftly and subtly he'd changed the subject.
Dib rolled his eyes. He leaned back into his chair. "I couldn't get any farther into the building than the front desk," he said, "because there were no doors anywhere, and also, I didn't know what I was looking for because some stupid alien came into my house, flailed around, and gave me no real information whatsoever. Also, you know what?"
"What?" Zim snapped.
Dib folded his arms over his chest. "You were delirious when I came back."
Zim frowned. "What?"
"Delirious. Crazy. Feverish, unresponsive, babbling nonsense. I mean, making even less sense than you usually do. You thought I was a dog."
"You kept saying 'go away doggie'. Over and over. It was- you know, it's not important. You know what? I think you hallucinated the whole thing with the building."
Zim stared at him. At first, what Dib was saying seemed like complete nonsense, but then something clicked. Zim smacked himself in the forehead. "You interrupted my repair cycle!"
Dib frowned. "Your what?"
"My Pak- oh, come on! I'm not going to tell you! But it's perfectly normal and the only reason I acted funny is because you, Dib-" Zim accentuated this with an accusing point- "-tried to wake me up before I was ready. It was your own fault. There is nothing wrong with me."
Dib was quiet for a moment, looking thoughtful. Then he said: "Okay. Say the alphabet backwards."
"What?" The alphabet? What on Irk? What did that have to do with anything? "If either of us is delirious it's you."
"It's something humans do. You wouldn't know how."
Zim wasn't going to stand for that, of course. "Z, Y, X," he said. "W…" He frowned. "W… uh… 3, 4- Y, V-" He chewed on his lower lip. "Uhhhh… U, T, I, A, M, Z, I-"
"Okay, okay, stop," Dib said. "Do you know how to say it forwards?"
"Of course I do!" Zim scoffed. These humans and their rituals. "A, B, C… D… 3, F, G, H… 9, 8, K… L, Z, Y, X, W, V, U, T-"
Dib was trying not to laugh. "What?" Zim demanded. "What's your problem?"
"Never mind. That was- that was the most superior recitation of the alphabet I've ever heard. You've- you've put my whole race to shame," Dib sputtered, and put his hands over his mouth.
Zim's eyes narrowed.
"Now, uh, get up and walk a straight line," Dib said. "Just to keep proving your, uh- alien ego stuff. Go on."
Zim looked down at the floor. It looked kinda far away-
"Of course," he said, and slipped off the edge of the bed, standing upright. The room spun. He shut his eyes for a moment. Everything went fuzzy and gray for a moment, then cleared. He carefully walked a few feet in a straight line, then turned around, walked back to the bed- also in a straight line- and sat back down on the bed. "Satisfied?"
"Uh- not quite, how about counting to ten?"
"One, two, ten. There!"
Dib raised an eyebrow. "Okay." He turned back to his computer. "Well, you know what? None of my sources have heard anything about anyone doing experiments on people, or anything about this building. You're my only source, and you're kind of a crazy idiot, and right now you're in even less of your right mind than usual. So, basically, I don't believe you."
Zim rubbed his temples. Infuriating human…
"I don't care, Dib. I don't need you. Just don't get in my way." He shut his eyes. His head was pounding and he was freezing. Maybe he was a little under the weather… what horrible timing. It was probably something exhaled by those stupid schoolchildren he had to see every week. Human children were walking petri dishes, full of 'colds' and 'floozys' and-
"You have no supporting evidence, you're a slimy liar, and you want me dead, so I don't believe you at all."
-and pinkeye. Heh, good old pinkeye, that one had saved his skin more than once… did pinkeye make your head hurt? Because his contracting pinkeye would be pretty ironic.
"Also, guess what, huh? I think you're crazy. How's it feel, Zim?"
Getting a skin condition would be ironic too, but there didn't seem to be anything wrong with his skin. Anyway, why had Dib made him recite the alphabet? Just for the heck of it?
"How does it feel to not be believed and have people think you're crazy?"
Why had Minimoose thought coming here was a good idea? Dib was so stupid and annoying and his sister was creepy and annoying. Plus, it smelled bad in here."HOW DOES IT FEEL? ARE YOU EVEN LISTENING? WHY ARE YOU SUCH A JERK ALL THE TIME, ZIM?"
Where was Minimoose, anyway? Zim had sent him out forever agOH DEAR IRK, HE'D BEEN IN THE BIOHAZARD ROOM WITHOUT HIS BREATHING SHIELD ON! HE'D TAKEN IT OFF AND FORGOTTEN TO PUT IT BACK ON!
Zim jumped off the bed and ran out of Dib's room. The bathroom was a little way down the hall. Zim darted into it and climbed onto the sink, ripping open the medicine cabinet and rummaging inside it. He was dimly aware of Dib standing in the door and staring at him, slack-jawed.
Here was the thermometer. Zim grabbed it and stuck it in his mouth, then starting looking through the little bottles of medicine. Cough syrup, no, acetaminophen, no, ibuprofen, aspirin, no no no no-
"If I ask you what you're doing," Dib was saying, "will you just-"
"Streptomycin," Zim said. It wound up kind of muffled around the thermometer- "ftreptomythin".
"Penithillin- ftreptomythin-" He took the thermometer out. "Antibiotics! Do you have them?" He replaced the thermometer.
"I… my dad might have some in his lab," Dib said. "But wait! First off, why should I help you? Second off, how do you know it's not a virus?"
Virus. Like Ebola virus. Zim quickly ran through the symptoms he'd seen in the test subjects. Bleeding- weird lumps- deformities, decaying- ugh, all of those things could be caused by chemicals or poisons as well, or something bioengineered, or- all sorts of things. Antibiotics couldn't hurt, though, right? He wasn't sure. Disease had been mostly eradicated in the Irken Empire. He'd never actually contracted something airborne before- he'd had a few cases of food poisoning and a million and one allergies but that was it.
He took the thermometer out and looked at it. The reading was disheartening.
"You probably just have the flu," Dib was saying. "Or something like that. I can do a blood test on you, if you want."
Blood test. Oh sure, he'd just hand his worst enemy a vial of his blood to be examined and experimented with and shown to the FBI and the CIA and the-
Something lurched inside of him and he doubled over, retching into the sink.
Dib pinched the bridge of his nose. "Yuck…" he said, in a long-suffering tone.
Zim slipped off the sink onto the floor, panting.
"You know what?" Dib said. "Maybe you should go back to your base and be sick there."
"I can't go home, you stupid thing," Zim said. "They'll kill me." He wiped his mouth with his sleeve. "They'll kidnap me again and put me in a tube like the others-"
"Wha- again? You were kidnapped now?"
Zim coughed a few times. "It's the plague," he said with absolute certainty. "Pneumonic plague. Dib, I want you to know I hate you."
Dib sighed and ran the water in the sink to clean it out.
"The base is set to self-destruct in the event of my death, by the way." He coughed again. "Oh, and pneumonic plague is highly contagious."
Zim shut his eyes and leaned against the wall. He was trembling. They'd gotten him after all, then, he'd escaped their guns and their scalpels and their cold table and their goggles and masks just to be felled by their filthy microbes. Oh cruel fate. And the Tallest would never even know what had happened to him.
He sniffled. His eyes flew open- Dib was poking him in the arm. Zim recoiled. "Stop that! Leave me alone! I have to…"
Had to what? He couldn't go home, and he couldn't leave the planet because his ship was at the base.
For a long moment, Dib just stood there, looming over Zim like some grotesque angel of death.
"Why aren't you going away?" Zim asked.
"Well, this is my house, Zim. Anyway, if you really do have the plague, I might be able to get you those antibiotics," Dib said. "But I'll need to do a test on you to make sure you have it first."
Zim scoffed. "As if I'd let you do tests and stuff on me."
Dib shrugged. "Okay, I'll wait for you to be done dying and take my samples then, if you want."
Zim's antennae stood straight up. Dib grinned nastily and nodded.
Zim swallowed. There seemed to be only one course of action. "All right. Fine. Do your tests." He made a fist. "But if you try anything on me, I'm still fully capable of making you suffer!"
"Sure. Right. Of course you are. Come on."
So, now he had Zim sitting on the counter in his dad's lab, next to the medical analysis machine. Dib had many not-so-fond memories of being on that counter while his dad diagnosed him with colds… food poisoning from McDonald's… chicken pox… Dib had never seen an actual pediatrician in his life.
Now, he turned on the machine, took Zim by the wrist, pulled off his glove and stuck his pale green hand into a slot on the side of the machine. He noticed Zim had a few scars on the back of his hand and in the heel of his thumb. Maybe he'd slipped and cut himself while working with sharp lab tools. Zim was incompetent like that.
The little alien sat hunched over and shivering. He was clearly frightened but trying not to look frightened. "This thing better not do anything funny," he said.
"It won't as long as you sit still and don't freak out," Dib said. He pulled up the main screen on the machine and clicked the 'test' icon. The machine started to hum. Zim yelped and started trying to pull his hand out. The device caused an unpleasant tingling sensation. Dib had forgotten to warn Zim about that. Oopsy.
"Hey, don't do that, you might lose your hand," Dib said. This was a lie. All Zim would accomplish by yanking his hand out would be to mess up the test and need to start over.
Zim was sweating bullets. "What!"
"You stinking human!"
"Oh, just sit still, you'll be fine." Dib watched the screen.
The machine chimed merrily as the scan completed. Dib scanned the readout. He rolled his eyes. "It's just the flu, Zim. You're not going to-"
"INFLUENZA?" Zim screamed.
"Yes! Man! That was right in my ear!"
Zim was panting and pale. "INFLUENZA VIRUS? BUT-" He did that frightened-gasp thing he did- it caught in his throat and made him cough. Dib recoiled. He had no interest in catching the flu.
"Calm down!" he snapped. "You're not gonna die, okay? Flu doesn't kill people."
"What are you talking about? Of course it kills people!" Zim spat. He squirmed. "It kills people all the time! Don't you remember that time in class? Or are you too stupid and filthy to remember your own human education?"
Dib's eyebrows furrowed. "What time in- oh, right!" That lecture Miss Bitters had given about the 1918 flu virus. It had been pretty graphic, he was surprised he didn't remember it better- although, when he thought about it, all of Miss Bitters' lectures had been graphic. "Huh." He was surprised Zim remembered. He was never sure how much attention the alien paid in class. "Well, you don't seem all that sick to me," Dib said. He was relieved- not because he'd been worried about Zim, of course, but because he'd been worried about Zim being infected with some kind of alien disease that could spread into Earth's population and cause an epidemic. He looked back at the reading. It didn't indicate anything seriously wrong- infection with influenza virus, of course, along with minor dehydration. Of course, the machine wasn't that in-depth and it was probably a bit thrown off by Zim's inhuman anatomy, but he was lucid and not having trouble breathing, so he was probably fine. "Is there any particular reason why you think you're dying?"
"You haven't been paying attention, have you, Dib? The-"
"Oh, right, the building and the experiments and the…" Dib shook his head. "I don't think you have anything to worry about. It's flu season, you know." Zim folded his arms over his chest and looked mulish. "Seriously. You probably got it from skool."
Zim surveyed Dib for a moment through narrow eyes. Then he sighed. "You really don't believe me about the building?"
"Nope," Dib said, with more emphasis than he really felt. In truth, there had been something a little suspicious about the white place, but the irony here was just too sweet to pass up. "In fact, I think you're crazy!"
"Fine!" Zim slipped off the counter to stand- somewhat unsteadily- on his own feet. "I don't need you. I'll just…" He trailed off. "I'll just, just force you to help me anyway!"
Dib raised an eyebrow. "Okay. How?"
"By, uh… by holding Gaz hostage!"
Dib burst out laughing. Zim hissed.
Dib laughed until tears came to his eyes. He took his glasses off and wiped his eyes with his sleeve. "I needed that, Zim."
"Or maybe I'll just leave!" Zim snapped.
"Right. Right. Go home to your base."
"I'll do that," said Zim, and started looking around.
"The stairs are that way," Dib told him.
"I know where the stairs are!" Zim spat.
Dib followed him up the stairs. The effort of climbing them made Zim cough a lot and look pale, sweaty and dismal. He didn't complain, however. He probably was hoping Dib hadn't noticed.
They got to the ground level of the house and Zim went into the living room. He stood there a minute, looking lost, and then he sat down on the couch.
Dib watched him. Zim glared at him. "What?"
"I thought you were going to leave."
"In a minute," Zim muttered, shifting his position on the couch.
Hmm, interesting. Zim was clearly genuinely afraid to return to his base. "So these 'white building' people. You haven't explained why you're so scared of them. You think they're going to dissect you?" Because if so, well, come on, Dib was planning to do that, and had been for some time, and Zim didn't freak out like this on Dib's account. What, was Dib not a 'threat' anymore?
"I'm not afraid of them. And they've shown no interest in dissecting me." Zim looked longingly towards the window. "And I'm not telling you anything. You don't believe me, remember?"
Maybe Dib had shot himself in the foot, so to speak.
"You're not man enough to try to convince me?"
"I see no reason to waste my breath on you," Zim said, making a show of picking one of those gross crusty things out of the corner of his eye and flicking it onto Dib's carpet. Yecch.
Dib leaned against the wall. "Okay. Are you going to give me a reason why you're just sitting on my couch doing nothing?"
Zim glanced at the window again. "No."
Dib raised an eyebrow. "I see." Curious.
He heard rattling noises from the kitchen. Gaz was making lunch. She would not wait for Dib to show up before she ate everything or put the leftovers in the fridge. He inched over to the doorway and glanced in. She was making macaroni and cheese.
Dib was hungry. Zim hadn't been any trouble so far, and seemed too lethargic to start now. Dib slipped into the kitchen and sat down at the table, orienting himself so that he could see through the doorway into the living room. He could just barely see the tips of Zim's antennae sticking up over the arm of the-
His antennae. How had he lost part of one antenna? Dib smacked himself in the forehead. Why hadn't he thought to ask that?
Well, because Zim was always accidentally mutilating himself doing some experiment or other. He was pathetic that way. It wasn't the first time he'd lost part of an antenna. Still Dib was an investigator. Investigators left no stone unturned. How could he have been so careless?
He watched Zim get up and go to the window, looking out. Hmm…
Gaz was taking the pot of macaroni off the stove and dumping it in the strainer. He waited while she dumped it back into the pot, added the cheese and took some out into a bowl for herself, then he got up and got his own serving. He sat down across the table from Gaz.
"So I see you didn't disappear," Gaz said.
"What?" Dib blinked. "Of course not. Why would I disappear?"
Gaz raised an eyebrow. "Zim said you were going off to die. I guess he was wrong."
Dib snorted. "Yeah, he was wrong. He's always wrong."
"Hm." Gaz resumed eating. So did Dib.
Dib could see Zim pacing back and forth in the living room. He heard the alien muttering and coughing (unpleasant, wet, barking coughs). He saw Zim extend a microphone from his Pak and say something into it too low for Dib to hear. Zim shook his head, apparently not receiving a response, and went back to the window.
"That's the radio he calls his robots with," Dib muttered. "Why's he calling them? What's he want with them?"
Ignoring him, Gaz stood up, tossed her empty bowl into the sink, and left the room. Dib slowly finished watching his macaroni and cheese, keeping an eye on Zim the whole time.
The Irken suddenly pulled away from the window, yelping. He turned and scurried into the kitchen. He grabbed Dib's shirt. Dib pulled away. "Hey! Let go!"
Zim was panting, his eyes wild. "You told them! You told them I'm here! You betrayed me, you stupid, filthy-"
Someone was knocking on the door. Zim turned his head in that direction and froze. He looked deathly pale.
Before Dib had a chance to inquire further, Zim shoved him aside and dashed a few feet farther into the kitchen. He froze, looking all around him, and then he pulled open the oven and climbed into it, shutting the door behind him.
"Hey!" Dib tugged on the over door. Zim was holding it shut. "You can't go in there! For crying out loud, we make our food in there! You'll slime it up with your alien-"
Whoever was at the door was knocking again. Dib sighed. That could be the chupacabra, in which case, if Dib didn't fend it off, it might break the door down and make a mess in the living room.
Dib looked from the oven, to the door, then the oven, then he sighed again, headed for the door and opened it. There were two human men standing there, a little scrawny guy with brown hair and a big, beefy dude with a blond crew cut.
"Hello," the guy with brown hair said. "Dib Membrane, right?"
Dib was naturally wary of anyone who knew his name without his telling it to them. "Why?"
The guy bobbed a short bow. "Ah, sorry for not introducing myself. Robert Greaves, from the General Laboratory Corporation." At first this name held no meaning whatsoever for Dib, but then he remembered. Duh, the place had a real name, it wasn't just 'the white building'. "Ah," Dib said. Well, that would be why Zim had freaked out. He must have seen their car pull up.
He glanced over at the other guy. The other guy sure looked beefy. "Is there a… reason for this visit?"
"That's George," said Greaves. "He wouldn't hurt a fly. We're here because…" He looked over his shoulder, then leaned in close. "We need your help, Dib."
Dib's eyebrows shot up. "Really." He tried to remember if anyone asking for his help had ever turned out not to have an ulterior motive.
"Yeah. This is somewhat sensitive. May we come inside?"
Dib was getting kind of cold standing here with the door open. Snow was blowing inside. He backed up, letting them in. Really, there wasn't any true danger here. Gaz could easily kick both of these guys' butts if he hollered that they'd taken her old Gameslave 1.
"Thank you," Greaves said. He looked around the room. He noticed the kitchen table through the doorway. "How about we sit around the table and discuss it?"
Dib shrugged. "Sure." He led the two guys into the kitchen.
There was a scuffling noise from inside the oven.
"What was that?" Greaves asked.
Dib shrugged half-heartedly. There was something about Greaves that he didn't like. He wasn't going to betray his longtime nemesis to this guy. Not yet, anyway. "There's a squirrel stuck in our air vents."
"Ah," Greaves said. He and the beefy guy sat down at the table. "Dib, have you seen this boy?"
He slid a picture across the table. It was Zim's yearbook picture.
"We're in the same class in hi-skool," Dib said. "Why?"
There were more scuffling sounds from the oven. Greaves turned his head, then seemingly dismissed the noise, turning back to Dib. "Well," he said, "we have some… suspicions about him. Have you ever seen him acting strangely?"
Greaves glanced over each shoulder, swallowed, and said: "We're not entirely sure he's… human."
"Really." Dib reminded himself what had happened the last time someone had believed him about Zim. He wasn't about to get excited. "I'm not sure either."
"This is a very serious matter, Dib. Our whole planet could be at stake."
Dib chuckled. "Oh, you have no idea."
"Which is why we need your help." Greaves leaned in close. "We've lost the alien's location. Where is he? Do you know?"
Dib opened his mouth. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the sight of huge, alien eyes staring at him through the door in the oven. "He's not in his base?" he said.
"Where is his base?" Dib gave the address. Greaves wrote it down. "Does he have any other hiding places that you know of?"
"He has a station in orbit around the Earth."
Greaves nodded. "Hmm. I see. We have other questions for you, Dib, but to be honest, I'm not sure about how secure this house is. Maybe we should continue this at company headquarters."
Aha, they were trying to get him into their building. Dib considered this. Maybe if he went along with it, he could learn something. "Sure, okay."
Greaves nodded, smirking slightly. He got to his feet. So did Dib and the beefy guy. "Good idea. All right, then, let's-"
The oven door slammed open. Zim was now standing on the open oven door and pointing a little laser gun at the bodyguard guy. His teeth were bared. "Stop where you are!"
Greaves froze. "What are you doing?" Dib cried. "Put that aw-"
There was a gunshot- the beefy guy had fired. Zim fell backwards into the oven. Greaves grabbed Dib tightly by the shoulders.
Zim popped back up and shot at the beefy guy. The beefy guy crumpled in a heap. Zim pointed the gun at Greaves. He was panting and his eyes were wild. He clapped a hand over his mouth, suppressing a cough.
Greaves let go of Dib and backed away.
"Stay where you are," Zim panted. "Stay where- no!"
Greaves had bolted into the living room. He threw open the front door and ran out of the house.
Dib stared at the beefy guy, who was lying in a limp heap on the floor. Zim sighed, shook his head, lowered the gun, hopped down onto the floor and walked over to him. He prodded the guy with the toe of one boot, then leaned down and brushed him with his antennae. He stood up. "Ahhh, he's not dead." He rubbed his temples with one hand, still clutching the gun with the other. "Great job, Dib. You almost- oh, I don't care. Why are you just standing there? He's not going to stay stunned forever! Get something to tie him up! Do I have to do everything?"
"I saw that guy shoot you in the head," Dib said.
Zim frowned. "What? Oh." He reached up and touched something on his Pak. Something circular shimmered over his face and disappeared. "Shield," he said. "Now go get a rope!"
Dib nodded and headed out of the room. Immediately after he'd entered the living room, he realized that he was doing what Zim told him to do, and doing what Zim told him to do was a stupid idea.
But tying that guy up sounded like a good idea. Ah well.
Dib went up to his room and got his new super-restraint system. He went back to the kitchen to find Zim sitting in a chair with his arms folded over his chest, facing the unconscious bodyguard man.
Dib knelt down and bundled the guy up in metal bands. He stood up and backed away. Now what?
He glanced over at Zim.
"That took you long enough," Zim spat. His skin had turned alarmingly gray. "We don't have much time, you know. They'll be back to rescue him and kill us any minute. If he doesn't wake up fast enough we'll have to leave him…"
"I see," Dib said. "What were you thinking?"
"Eh?" Zim dug his knuckles into the corner of his eye. "Who, Zim?"
"Yes, you! I had everything under control. Then you popped out with your gun and scared off that other guy, to go get the other guys. He probably knew a lot more than this guy, too."
Zim scoffed. Dib waited for a rant. None came.
"Well?" Dib prompted.
"You were about to let them destroy you and then move on to me."
"That's what you said last time. I don't feel destroyed."
"Hm," Zim said, surveying him with a dull gaze. He coughed into his fist. His coughing was so unpleasant, racking and moist and retched up from somewhere deep in his chest. Listening to it made Dib want to clear his throat. "Whatever."
Dib rolled his eyes. Stupid alien.
The guy on the floor was coming to. Dib backed away.
The guy picked up his head. His eyes rolled around in his sockets. He looked around the kitchen, at first seeming not to register what he was seeing. Then he saw Zim. His eyes went wide. "It's really a friggin alien," he said. "I can't believe this. I'm looking at friggin ET." Zim didn't look anything like ET, but okay.
Zim said nothing. He was still holding the gun, and now he calmly and deliberately pointed it at the man's forehead. He snapped a switch on the handle of the gun with one thumb. Dib guessed it was the stun/kill switch.
"Why don't you let me handle this?" Dib asked. Zim said nothing. "Okay, you let me handle this or I grab you and hold you under the faucet."
Zim grunted. Dib turned to the thug and said: "Why are you here, huh? What do you want?"
The thug pressed his lips together and said nothing.
"Come on," Dib said, cautiously going up to him. "What do you guys want from me? Huh? Huh? You wanted to use me to get to him, right?"
"Your interrogation skills impress me, Dib," Zim said. "Obviously, you're even better at this than a trained Irken soldier. Why, I should have let you handle this from the beginning, obviously you're much more competent than I am."
"Shut up, you stupid alien!"
This made the thug's eyes get big. "What's wrong with it?" he said.
"Oh, it's just-" Dib started to say. Then a thought occurred to him and he looked behind him at Zim, who stared dully back. Dib gave him a meaningful look, then turned back to the thug and said: "It's plague. It's super contagious."
The thug paled and said a few four-letter words. So he believed that plague was a possibility here. That probably meant that Zim had been telling the truth about the experiments, ergo, Zim had probably been telling the truth the whole time, and Dib had wasted valuable investigation time not believing him.
Dib didn't care. It had been worth it to make Zim squirm. Besides, could anyone really have expected him to believe the little psychopath with no proof?
Dib folded his arms over his chest. "If you talk, maybe we'll give you the antidote."
The thug ground his teeth. "I can't talk."
"Sure you can. Start with why you guys wanted me to come to your building with you."
Zim huffed. "We're going to have to torture him." His tone made it sound like he thought this was a colossal nuisance.
"No way, Zim, you're not torturing anybody!"
"Then what do you want me to do, Dib?" Zim snapped. "He's not talking, and we don't have time! That other human went for reinforcements! They'll be here any minute!"
That was actually probably true. Dib scowled. "I don't know what we should do, but you're not torturing him! What are you doing? Hey!"
Zim had opened one of the kitchen drawers and was going through it. Dib went over and grabbed his shoulders, restraining him.
Zim glared up at him. He felt alarmingly hot and sticky to the touch. "Unhand me, you stinking pig!"
"I'm not letting you torture that man, Zim! Even if he is… big and… kind of gross and… probably evil, and probably withholding valuable information. What were you going to do to him?"
"Nothing that will leave a mark," Zim muttered. Dib let him go and he rifled through the drawer, removing a butter knife. A butter knife.
Dib laughed shortly. "Do you even know how to torture people?"
Zim glanced at him silently, and went over to the man. He bent down, picking up the guy's hand with a metal claw out of his Pak. He studied the struggling thug, his alien eyes narrowed to slits. "Now, will you tell Zim everything you know or will I have to destroy your free will with horrible pain?"
The thug pressed his lips together and turned his face away. Dib waited for Zim to do something stupid.
Zim rammed the end of the butter knife under the guy's thumbnail. The guy made a stifled grunting noise, pressing his lips tightly together. Dib blinked.
"There," Zim said. He sounded out of breath. "How about now?"
"Whoa, hey," Dib said. Zim rounded on him, pointing the gun at Dib's head. His eyes were wide and desperate.
"Shut up, Dib!"
Dib shut up.
Zim turned back to the thug. His antennae were slicked back, pressed to his scalp. "Tell me what your company is trying to accomplish with the experimentation."
The guy said nothing. Zim did the thing with the butter knife again. The guy grunted but said nothing.
"Tell me!" Zim demanded. His voice was shrill and thin. "Tell me how you people knew about me! How do they know about the Tallest?"
Nothing. Zim bit his lip and rammed the butter knife under the guy's fingernails harder, making him cry out. But he still didn't talk. "Come on!" Zim cried. "I know you know stuff! Tell me!"
The man's eyes narrowed. He said nothing.
Zim stabbed even harder with the knife. The guy cried out again, louder.
Zim dropped the butter knife. It landed on the floor with a metallic clatter. Zim gagged and slapped a hand over his mouth. He was shaking.
Dib took this opportunity to take the gun away and push Zim back. Dib turned to the thug. "Okay, then," he said. "Talk to us, or, uh, I'll shoot you. Or I'll let him shoot you. He's crazy."
"Nothing you can do will make me talk," the thug said. "You pathetic little kids."
"All right then," Dib said. He pointed the gun at the guy… oh, come on, he couldn't really shoot this man! This was insane! Stupid Zim! This was all his fault!
Zim was clinging to Dib's arm with hot, pointy, clutchy little rodent hands. "Dib, we have to get out of here," he was saying. "They'll be here any minute."
"But we didn't even get him to talk yet!" Dib complained.
Zim was whimpering and dripping with sweat. Ew. "Dib, we have to get out of here!" He gave Dib a feeble shake. "He's obviously not going to talk! They probably installed a chip into his brain that will kill him if he starts to reveal anything. We have to go!"
Dib looked up at the thug. "But…"
The thug smirked ever-so-slightly. Dib's eyebrows rose. "He smirked."
"He's thinking of what his superiors are going to do with us! DIB! NOW!" Zim seemed about ready to have a panic attack.
Something had certainly seemed very creepy about that smirk, and Dib didn't like the way these people knew where he lived and knew his name without being told. Dib found himself nodding. "Okay, okay. Calm down. We'll take Tak's ship. Hold on, I need to pack some stuff first."
He vaulted up the stairs to his room, taking the steps two at a time. He quickly grabbed his laptop case and stuffed some clothes into an overnight bag. He headed into the hallway. He paused for a minute. He felt like he was forgetting something.
Ah, it probably wasn't important. He went downstairs. Zim was standing there in the living room, glassy-eyed.
"Garage," Dib told him. "This way."
He headed for the garage, Zim following. Suddenly Zim stumbled and grabbed Dib's arm. Dib glanced at him.
"I'm fine," Zim said. He let go of Dib.
They entered the garage and got into the ship. It was a tight fit with both of them. Dib wedged his bags between them to make a kind of wall to protect him from Zim's sharp elbows, then opened the garage door and started the engine.
"Wait a minute," Dib said. He smacked himself in the forehead. "We can't just fly around in a spaceship! Someone will see-"
Zim reached over and pushed a few buttons on the control panel. The ship made a humming noise.
"What did you do?"
"Oh." Dib swallowed and pulled the ship out of the garage, pulling up into the air. He looked down to see the ground falling away below them- and a white van with 'General Laboratory Corporation' written on the side pulling up to his house.
Oh right, this was the 'incredibly convenient timing' chapter
Chapter 7: Dib Without a Clue
Dib looked down below him at the distant sprawl of buildings. He officially had no idea where they were.
He would have to eventually pick somewhere and land, it had been two hours. It was kind of stuffy in the cockpit, too- the sun was beaming in through the clear glass dome, and their combined body heat was trapped in the small space. It was making Dib feel somewhat lethargic. Zim was sprawled out with his eyes closed. Dib couldn't tell if he was sleeping, unconscious, or just logy. He coughed every so often, so he wasn't dead.
Oh, and every time he coughed he was expelling more flu virus, Dib reminded himself. He could count on contracting the disease himself pretty soon here with all this virus-spraying. Wonderful.
Dib leaned back in his seat, sighing. "Zim?" he said, and repeated it, louder, when he got no response.
Zim moaned and his eyes fluttered open. "What do you want, Dib?"
"Where exactly were you planning to go?"
"I don't know, it's your planet, you find somewhere." His tone was petulant.
Of course, Dib would be stuck working with Zim when the alien was sick and grumpy and even harder to deal with than usual. That was just Dib's luck.
Dib shook his head, looking out at the city below. "Fine, I'll land at a hotel or something."
Zim mumbled assent. Dib set the ship to go into a dive. He'd descend to a height where he could see the buildings clearly and find a hotel.
Dib landed the ship in the parking lot of a Best Western. He didn't get out right away. "You know, we have a problem," he said.
"What?" Zim mumbled. He was sitting with the back of his arm thrown over his face.
"You don't have a disguise." Dib ran his fingers through his hair, causing it to stick up even more than it already did. "Normally, this would be a good thing for me." This situation just kept getting more and more frustrating.
Zim sat bolt upright, eyes wide. "Oh! Disguise! Yes, disguise! Erm… disguise…" He rubbed his temples, frowning and continuing to mutter 'disguise' over and over.
Dib looked out the window, shaking his head. Did he have anything Zim could use for a disguise? It made his blood boil to even consider helping out his enemy in this way. He knew it was necessary, but-
Suddenly he noticed the overnight bag he'd packed out of the corner of his eye. It was fairly large. Zim was fairly small.
Dib grinned. Zim flattened himself to the side of the ship, as far away from Dib as he could get. "What? What?"
So here was Dib, standing in the hotel lobby, carrying his laptop case and a suspiciously jittery overnight bag.
The woman behind the front desk looked at him with wide, vacant eyes.
"Hey," Dib said, pushing his glasses up on his nose and trying to look 18. "I'd like a single room for the night."
The woman stared at him for a good ten or fifteen seconds before saying: "Oh… sure… that should be fine, let me see… yes, we have a room, that'll be… how many people?"
"Okay. Yes, that will be a hundred dollars for the night."
Dib fished out his wallet and handed over the money in cash.
The woman stared at the cash for a while. Dib's shoulder was aching from holding the overnight bag. Its weight was shifting back and forth, and it was emitting scrabbling noises.
The woman began to slowly count the cash. Then she dug around in a drawer, saying: "Room 315." She handed over a card key.
Dib nodded and took the key. His overnight bag coughed. Dib quickly faked a cough.
"Lord have mercy on us," the woman said tonelessly, crossing herself.
"Uh, thanks," Dib said, heading for the elevator.
"Wait," the woman said. Dib looked over his shoulder.
"That's the wrong key," the woman said. She held her hand out.
Dib went over and gave her the key back. She dropped it back in the drawer and rummaged around.
"I can't breathe," Dib's overnight bag said. He shook it to shut it up.
The woman didn't seem to have noticed. She withdrew another key, squinting at it to verify its authenticity.
Finally, she gave it to Dib. He turned and headed for the elevator.
"Wait a minute," the woman said. Dib stopped.
The woman scrunched up her face as if she was trying to remember something.
"Have a nice day," she said finally.
"Thanks," said Dib, and he hustled for the elevator.
It was a pretty typical hotel room, two beds, couch, TV, little desk.
He dumped the overnight bag on one of the beds and opened it. Zim popped out and flopped over on his side, gasping like a fish out of water.
Dib went to the other bed and sat down, taking his laptop out. He booted it up.
Zim lay on his side with his eyes closed, breathing heavily. He looked weak and pale.
Dib studied him for a moment. Zim sat up, rubbing his eyes. "What?" he said.
"Nothing," Dib said, turning his attention to his laptop screen. "We're going to have a lot of work ahead of us. Get some rest while you can."
"Maybe I don't want to, Dib," Zim said, narrowing his eyes.
"Then do some jumping jacks, cough up a lung and pass out. I really don't care."
"Heh." Zim shook his head. There was a little condescending smirk on his face. "I don't have lungs, Dib."
Dib closed his eyes. "I don't care, Zim."
Zim went quiet. Dib logged onto the hotel's wi-fi network and pulled up all his trusty paranormal sites. Time to post an update, one as long and detailed as he could manage.
He set to typing. The only sounds in the hotel room were the hum of the radiator, the clacking of the keyboard, and Zim's wheezy breath interspersed with coughing.
Unsurprisingly, no one had replied to Dib's previous posts- except for a couple of crazy people who posted to everything saying they'd seen it too (and had no concept of grammar). Dib cracked his knuckles and started on his update anyway.
It was getting dark when he finished. He sighed and pushed the laptop away. "I need to get dinner."
"I'm awake," Zim said.
"You don't want anything, right? What with the burning and flailing whenever you come in contact with food."
Zim shook his head.
Dib had a lot of pocket money, but not unlimited pocket money. He'd probably be better off getting McDonald's than room service. Plus, he just felt like a Big Mac.
He'd have to ask that slow lady for directions though. Hrmmnh.
"I can leave you here and you won't explode or run away, right?" he said. Zim made a dismissive gesture. He didn't seem capable of much at the moment.
Dib turned this over in his mind some more. He checked his wallet. He might have to buy another hotel room tomorrow.
He had two hundred dollars left. Hmm.
And if he left the hotel he could get a break from Zim. He turned his laptop off and stuffed it under the bed. Then he left the room.
Uuugh, the human was finally gone. Zim rubbed his eyes and sat up, hanging his head. He took his radio out of his Pak. "GIR," he called. "Come in, GIR."
Nothing. Wherever GIR was, he was still turned off. Zim sighed. He'd realized a few minutes after they'd left Dib's house that he'd forgotten GIR, and then, of course, it was too late.
He tried calling Minimoose. Also no answer. Zim might never see either of them again.
He got up and went over to the window, looking out at the parking lot below. The sun was setting.
This hotel room smelled even worse than Dib's house, and there were constant talking and moving-around noises from the hallway and the rooms on either side. It was tiresome. Especially knowing that he was basically stranded here, in the middle of all these humans, without a disguise. But there was nothing to be done about that.
Zim pulled Dib's laptop out from under the bed. It felt surprisingly heavy. He dumped it onto the bed and sat down in front of it, turning it on. It displayed a login screen.
"Hrm," Zim said. For a login name, he typed 'smelly stink beast', and for password he typed 'stupid.'
Those were wrong. Okay, Zim had known those couldn't really be Dib's username and password. He stared at the screen for a while, then typed in his own login name and password. Those didn't work either. Ah well, it was worth a shot.
He brushed back his antennae, sighing and looking down at the keyboard. Stupid Dib, and his stupid…
…stupid Dib had left a post-it note with his username and password on the keyboard. Zim scoffed. What an idiot.
The login name was 'agentmothman' and the password was 'muffindookie411cheese'. Zim typed those in and was left staring at a desktop wallpaper picture of some stupid vampire thing.
Well, now he was into the computer. He considered wiping the hard drive out of spite. Nah, in the current situation that might prove to be counterproductive. Also, too much effort. Maybe later.
Instead, he pulled up the browser Dib had been using and searched through his bookmarks. The human had been doing something all afternoon. Zim wanted to know what. He'd gotten a glimpse of Dib using this browser program, but not what he was browsing.
It looked like he'd just been browsing paranormal sites. Zim yelped in indignation. Paranormal sites! They were in a life-or-death situation and Dib had just been sitting there playing all day!
Maybe Zim really would wipe his hard drive. It would serve the little puke right.
He studied the laptop, wondering if he could boost its Internet signal enough to reach the Tallest. Eh, probably not. He could write down a report to email to himself to make later, though.
Except Dib's laptop didn't have the Irknet email client Zim used on it. Oh, this wasn't worth it.
He flopped down with his cheek on Dib's keyboard, closing his eyes. The computer beeped. He glanced at the screen, and his antennae stood up in confusion. "Eh?"
The screen was now blue, and had letters and numbers on it. Zim squinted at them.
Hm, funny. Zim tried hitting a few different keys and nothing happened. He quickly gave up. Earth computers were weird.
Dib re-entered the hotel room, sipping on a Suck Munky he'd picked up on the way back, to find Zim curled up in front of the laptop.
"Hey!" Dib snapped.
Zim sat up. "What? What do you want?"
"Stay away from my computer! What did you do to it?"
"I didn't do anything to your precious filthy computer."
"Get away from it!" Dib yelped.
Zim huffed and shuffled over to the bed. Dib sat down behind the laptop. He screeched.
"Whaaat?" Zim demanded.
Dib grabbed a handful of his own hair. Why hadn't he just taken the laptop with him? Why hadn't he realized Zim was going to do something like this? "You broke it! You broke my laptop!"
"I hardly touched it!"
"It has a blue screen of death!"
"Hmm! Death?" Zim sounded intrigued.
"Yes, death!" Dib snapped, turning off the laptop. "Not that you'd know anything about human computers. You can't even get your alien computers to work right!"
Zim scoffed. Dib restarted the laptop, biting his lip. The laptop appeared to start normally. It ran normally… for about a minute… then the screen went blue again. "ARGH! ZIM! TELL ME WHAT YOU DID!"
"All I did was turn it on," Zim said. "Your computer's just stupid." He took a can of some kind of purple drink out of his Pak, popped the tab and sipped from it.
"You did more than that! Come on!"
"I touched it. Maybe being in close contact with a member of the superior Irken race broke it."
Dib slapped both hands over his face. "Gahh."
Zim took a long swig of his purple stuff. "Pretty pathetic, Dib."
"Be quiet." Dib settled in for some intensive tech-support work.
Suddenly he remembered. "Gaz! Oh, man! I forgot all about Gaz!" He'd left her alone with those evil people! She could be in trouble!
Greaves watched the house from across the street. There was a flash of motion behind one of the windows. He raised his binoculars to his face. The girl was watching him watching her. Her brown eyes were narrowed to sharp, dangerous slits.
Greaves shuddered. Would she come out of the house to attack them?
He motioned to his backup. He'd taken three of the largest, strongest men in the company with him. All three were now bleeding and bruised. One man had a broken nose.
A voice hissed in Greaves's ear over an earpiece. "What are you doing?"
"There's a girl here," Greaves said. "She's like nothing I ever seen before."
"That's Gazlene. She's Professor Membrane's daughter. Do not upset her."
Greaves swallowed. It was a bit late for that. "We're authorized to take the boy but not the girl?"
"The father plays favorites. Do not harm Gazlene. Take Robert and go."
Greaves swallowed again. "The girl won't let us into the house, sir."
"Then leave him."
"What if she calls the police?"
"What if she does? They can't learn anything from Robert. Get back here!"
Greaves reluctantly gave the order to return to base. The men needed medical attention anyway.
Yes, Gaz was certainly in trouble, but Dib couldn't go back to help her, because he was hopelessly lost. The woman at the desk had said he was in 'Keystone City', wherever that was. Dib would have to find some kind of a map, or maybe latitude and longitude or… something.
For now, he called his dad, explaining the situation and asking him to check up on Gaz ('Certainly, I will next time I'm home, son. Maybe next week. Enjoy your visit with your foreign friend!'), and then got busy trying to fix his computer, reasoning that he could use it to take down these people and help Gaz that way. And… well… find the way home with it. That would help too.
But the computer stubbornly would not be fixed. It stopped blue-screening quite as frequently, allowing Dib to try working on it, but in exchange it began to randomly display porn sites- somehow even when Dib turned the Internet connection off.
Dib groaned and ran his fingers through his hair as his computer beeped and he got to see more tentacles than he'd ever wanted to see. The web design of these sites was awful too, he reflected. Blinking neon gifs everywhere. Not that that was really important...
"I hate you, Zim," he muttered, though he really hated himself more (if possible) at the moment for leaving his computer unattended. "How did you even do this? I was only gone twenty minutes! And how did you guess my password?"
Zim said nothing. Dib shook his head and typed some more.
He heard something metallic lightly fall onto the floor. He looked over to see Zim's empty purple-drink-of-some-kind can rolling across the floor. He looked up at Zim. Zim was sprawled out on his back with his arms out at his sides. His eyes were closed and his mouth was slightly open. His breathing was wheezy and labored.
"Are you dead?"
Zim snorted and threw his arm over his face. Well, of course he wasn't dead, Dib could hear him breathing.
Dib looked at the clock on the little night-table. It was 4 AM. Huh. Wow. That was... that was pretty late. Dib had been doing this way longer than he'd realized... stupid Zim and his stupid breaking things.
"Are you asleep?" he asked. Zim said nothing. Dib watched him for a minute and he started to snore. Well. That answered that.
Maybe Dib should go to sleep too. He took one last doleful glance at his computer, then put it away and got up, intending to get his toothbrush out of his overnight bag and brush his teeth with it.
Only his toothbrush wasn't in his overnight bag. He'd forgotten to bring it. He'd also forgotten to bring any underwear.
Crap. Well, he'd worry about this in the morning.
Dib wriggled under the blankets. He wondered how Zim was snoring without a nose. He'd make a note to investigate that when he finally got to dissect the little green toad.
Dib was suddenly brought out of sleep some time later. He blinked about in the darkness. He had the impression he was not in his own bed. It took a moment for him to remember why he wasn't.
He heard sharp coughing from the other bed. That was probably what had woken him up.
Dib pulled the pillow over his head. "Dang it, Zim," he muttered.
"My apologies, I don't know what came over me," Zim replied in a distractedly cheerful tone.
Dib blinked. "Oh. Well, it's nice to see you showing a little empathy for once-"
"It's just the way it looked at me."
"What?" Dib sat up. It was dark, and he was not wearing his glasses, so all he saw when he looked over at the other bed was a heap of blankets. "What looked at you?"
"It looked at me, so I…" Zim said. "No, I don't think that's necessary. Really." A note of alarm had come into his voice. "No no, I don't want to, I-" He burst out coughing again.
"I don't think he's talking to me," Dib said to himself. He put his glasses on and fumbled his way over to the light switch.
He turned on the light and stood there blinking for a moment while his vision adjusted. Then he made his way back over to the beds.
Zim was tangled up in blankets, one forearm sticking out at an awkward angle and the other tucked somewhere out of sight. His face was flushed and puffy and there were dark rings under his eyes (which were closed). He had stopped coughing. His breathing was fast and shallow.
Dib reached out, cautiously, to poke him, and withdrew his hand when Zim said: "Oh, look, there's Dib. Don't tell him I killed those test subjects." It was said in the tone someone might use to say 'Don't forget to wear your mittens'. "He'd be all weird about it, you know. I don't want…" He trailed off. He pulled the blankets over his head. "Oh, I don't feel good," he sighed. "GIR, take me back to the base… no, GIR, the base… oh, what am I going to do with you… you horrible…"
Dib had an idea. "What test subjects, Masterrr?" he said in his best GIR voice.
"I don't want to talk about it," Zim said. He sounded tired. "Leave me alone."
"Why'd you kill 'em?"
"Go away, GIR."
Dib shook him lightly. "Uh- no, I want… pigs, and muffins, and I won't go away until you tell me what evil thing you did!"
Zim moaned. "GIR, you're hurting your master. Stop."
"Not unless you tell me why you killed those test subjects." Granted, it was possible Zim was just having a weird dream and hadn't really killed anyone, but it seemed unlikely. And he'd been acting so squirrelly. He was definitely hiding something.
"I don't know!" Zim sounded very upset. Dib took a step back. "I had to, GIR, go away!"
"Why did you have to?"
"Because I- I just did! Go play!"
Zim made a sharp, high-pitched noise that sounded almost like a sob. "I gave you an order! Leave me alone!"
Dib sat down next to him. "Okay, I'm not really GIR. I'm Dib. I want you to tell me what you did right now."
"Hm, I shoulda known," Zim said, and he wriggled down deeper under the covers. "I'm not telling you anything."
Dib pulled the blankets away, grabbed Zim by the shoulders and started shaking, to no visible effect. He was unresponsive again.
Dib considered trying to wake him up with some water from the bathroom faucet, but it was 5:30 AM and Dib had gotten only a few minutes of sleep. Maybe this should wait.
Dib glared at Zim and waited for him to say more. He didn't.
Dib shook him again, and got his face coughed in for his trouble.
Dib went back to bed.
Chapter 8: Motel Hell
Zim woke up breathing hard, in a cold sweat, with his claws detracted and dug into the sheets- they'd gone all the way through his gloves. He felt like something very bad had just happened, but he didn't know what it could possibly have been. A quick sweep of the room revealed nothing untoward, besides Dib, but Dib was clearly sleeping and not dangerous.
It must have just been… one of those things, a dream. Bah. He fell back onto the sheets. They were soaked with sweat and tangled around his body in a way that made him feel like he was tied up. The first order of business was to get out of the blankets, then. When he'd accomplished that, he was exhausted.
He held his aching head in his hands and tried to ignore Dib's obnoxious snoring from the other bed. Pale, gray morning light was filtering in through the curtains. The alarm clock said it was seven in the morning. His chest felt tight and his whole body was sore. His throat was raw and painful.
How dare Dib sleep like this? (Zim chose to outright ignore the fact that he'd just been asleep himself a moment ago.) They had important work to do. Those people were still out there doing who-knows-what.
Ah, well. Every minute Dib was asleep was a minute Zim didn't have to put up with his big-headed stupidness. He reached up to rub at his eyes, then let his arm fall at his side, whimpering softly. He lay back into the heap of blankets, warm from his body heat. He was chilled and shaking. He felt disconnected from the room around him, as if it wasn't really real, and at the same time he was hyper-aware of the sounds of human footsteps in the hall, the couple arguing on the other side of the wall behind him, the scents of cleanser and the humans that had occupied this room in the past, and every little snort and whistle made by Dib. He bit down on his lower lip.
In that moment it seemed easy to believe the white building wasn't really real, that it was all a fevered hallucination. The place hadn't truly seemed real to begin with. But if it wasn't real, what on Irk was he doing here with Dib?
Zim usually found it very easy to come up with a plan of action. He could look at a situation and instantly size it up and decide what to do, which was (he thought) one of the things that made him such an excellent Invader. (What others might think about the solutions he so quickly chose for his problems, and their usual horrendous consequences, was of no account to him.)
Right now he was having trouble thinking. His mind was sluggish. When he looked at the situation, instead of seeing possible solutions, potential courses of action, or anything like that, he just saw horrors, and the fact that he'd been there for three days and did not remember what they'd done to him.
He rolled onto his side, curling up tightly and wrapping his arms around his body. His belly ached from spending so much time doubled over coughing.
Deep down, he really wanted someone else to take care of the problem. But no, no one else was anywhere near as competent as Zim (he told himself) and besides- his planet, his problem.
Ugh, he hated Earth.
He pulled the pillow over his head. He heard Dib moving around on the other bed.
Dib got up and plodded around. He stopped moving. Zim felt watched. He had an idea Dib was standing there staring at him. He ground his teeth together.
Dib yawned and shuffled off somewhere. Zim heard the bathroom door shut.
He heard the toilet flush, then the water in the sink running, then the water in the shower. Listening to that made Zim's skin itch.
Dib came out of the bathroom. He was whistling. Ugh! What right had he to be so happy?
Dib rustled around for a while. "Aw, man, I forgot I didn't bring any underwear," he muttered to himself.
Zim had been on the planet a while now but it had slipped his mind what 'underwear' was. He probably didn't want to know.
Dib made obnoxious thoughtful noises, then there were some slippery fabric noises. Zim flipped onto his other side, biting his lip. He was so achy.
Dib walked around, coming very close to Zim. There was a sound of an edge of paper scraping against something."Hmm," Dib said. "Continental breakfast starts in a few minutes. Maybe I'll go down and get some waffles." He was quiet for a minute. "And I guess Zim's just gonna sleep all day. Stupid alien."
Zim opened one eye. "I'm not asleep."
Dib raised his eyebrows. "Oh. I see."
Dib was standing next to the bed, looming over Zim. Zim scowled up at him. "What do you want?" he rasped.
Zim's eyes narrowed.
Dib sat down on the edge of the other bed, facing Zim. "You talk in your sleep."
Lies. "I don't sleep."
"Oh, really? Then you must have been totally lucid when you said that thing about killing off test subjects," Dib said.
Zim's claws dug into the blankets. His guts tried to crowd up into his throat. "I didn't say anything about that! YOU LIAR!" His mind was racing. How could Dib possibly know about that? Was there a spy camera attached to Zim's body right now? He started feeling around under his jaw and by the bases of his antennae while making an attempt to look casual about it.
"You haven't told me the whole story about General Labs, you know," Dib said. "In fact, you've been infuriatingly incoherent. I blamed delirium and/or stupidity for a little while there but now it's starting to seem like you're hiding something."
Zim recoiled, flinching. "No. No, I'm not. Leave me alone, I'm ill and I might not have my usual patience for your antics!"
Dib leaned back on his hands. "Yeah, how you're acting right now isn't suspicious at all. Let's start with how you found these people."
"I didn't," Zim said. "They found me. They came to the base and took me to their building." He didn't even remember if that was what he had told Dib originally or not.
Dib nodded. "Really. And what did they do there?"
"They told me they worked for the Tallest but they didn't. Remember? They told me they were… officers or something. They gave me fliers to hand out. I already told you this!"
"I went home and reported about it and the Tallest said they didn't work for them. Now do you remember? I told you everything already! There's no more!" He shook his head. "Nope! Nothing! Nope!"
"Hmm," Dib said. "Wouldn't they have known you'd report in? Why would they tell you something you could find out was a lie right away?"
"I... I don't know." Zim shut his eyes. He wasn't about to tell Dib about Miyuki. "I went back and confronted them. They wouldn't talk, so I left… and broke into their building when everyone had gone home for the night."
"Wait, you went home? You told me you couldn't go to your base."
"I can't now," Zim snapped. "Pay attention, Dib!"
"Okay. So you broke in and saw the testing they were doing… and then, what, you left?"
"You didn't do anything else. You just left."
"Mmhmm." Zim reached up to tug at the collar of his uniform. It felt suddenly tight. "Well, they caught me. They know I know their horrible secret." He made a fist. "They want it to die with me."
Dib's eyebrows rose.
Zim coughed weakly. "Ugh, are you done yet, stink pig?" It hurt to talk. His throat was raw.
Dib ignored this. "Caught you doing what?"
"I broke into their building. Humans don't seem to take kindly to that."
"Hm." Dib studied him. His eyes narrowed. "Because I'd hate to be helping out a murderer."
Zim nodded and looked away. He wrapped his arms around his chest.
Dib got to his feet. "I'm going to get breakfast."
"I'm also going to find out if there's a computer in the lobby I can use, since you did me the favor of breaking mine."
Dib left the room.
Zim wriggled under the blankets.
The free breakfast was lackluster, but it was free. Dib had a stale doughnut and some cold waffles. Then he went to the front desk.
The same woman from yesterday was on duty. Dib cleared his throat. "Excuse me. Is there a computer here that I can use? I need to check my email. I brought a laptop, but an idiot nemesis of mine screwed it up. Long story."
The woman stared at him, her eyes seemingly looking straight through his head, her jaw slack.
Dib shifted his weight back and forth. The woman pointed at somewhere behind him, her eyes completely unfocused.
Dib turned to see a computer sitting a few feet away on a plain wooden desk. He headed over.
It was a Windows 95. There was a little slot in the computer tower, and a sign stuck under it saying: DEPOSIT FIFTY CENTS FOR THIRTY MINUTES OF USE.
Huh. Well. Dib saw something new every day, it seemed.
He fished two quarters out of his pocket and pushed them through the slot with his thumb. The computer roared to life with a deafening startup noise. Dib flinched. There was a man sitting on a nearby couch reading a newspaper, and now he was staring at Dib.
Dib shrugged apologetically and slipped into the computer chair. He muted the speakers and started up Internet Explorer.
The computer was slow. Very, very slow. The connection was dialup. Dialup. Who had dialup anymore?
But it was Internet and it wasn't showing him porn (yet). He browsed through his sites, almost hoping that there wouldn't be anything new, because he didn't want to stay on this stupid machine a minute longer than necessary.
However, there was an email in his inbox from Agent Darkbootie. Of course Dib couldn't have gotten that back when his laptop worked. Nah.
The message read: There is another agent who claims to have information about your problem. However, she wants to meet with you to discuss it in person, as she believes this matter is too delicate to discuss in email. I have proposed meeting this afternoon at headquarters. Is this amenable to you, Mothman?
Hmm, headquarters was about fifteen minutes from Dib's hometown by ship. He knew he was two hours from home now. That was anywhere between two hours, fifteen minutes and one hour, forty-five minutes travel time, plus time to find his way and ditch Zim somewhere so he couldn't spy on the Eyeballs' inner workings… the most all that could take would be three hours. It was pretty early right now. Sure, afternoon would work fine.
Dib began to craft a well-thought-out and clear reply. The computer kept freezing up for a few seconds at a time, making him wait for a while before he could continue writing.
He was just about to hit 'send' when a message flashed on the screen:
Then the computer abruptly shut off, losing Dib's unsaved email.
Dib grabbed two handfuls of his hair and twisted for a couple minutes. Then he stuck two more quarters into the machine and prepared to type faster this time.
An hour later, having finally managed to send his email, Dib headed into the elevator, grinding his teeth together. He tapped his foot on the floor the whole ride up to his floor, imagining Zim's scrawny green neck under his fingers. He would squeeze and squeeze until the stupid little alien's eyes popped out of his head.
He opened the door to the hotel room on the third try, so angry that he kept fumbling and dropping the key.
Zim was sprawled out face-down on the bed, spread-eagled. He looked like a diseased starfish.
Dib reached down and gave the base of his right antenna a good tweak. Zim sat up, grunting and looking about with blank, staring eyes.
Dib leaned over him. "You broke my computer."
Zim nodded. He looked upset. Maybe Dib was finally getting through to him.
"Do you understand what this means, Zim? That computer was our only tool, and you broke it just because you can't keep your grubby little hands off my stuff. Okay?"
Zim hung his head. Dib grabbed his shoulders. "You just like making things hard for me, don't you?"
Zim doubled over and threw up purple alien drink all over Dib's shoes. Dib backed up, hissing through his teeth.
Zim held his head in his hands. "Ugh. Did you say something?" He coughed.
Dib closed his eyes and slowly counted to ten. "No," he said. "I didn't say anything at all."
He headed into the bathroom, took off his shoes and started running water over them. He heard more retching from the other room. He shook his head.
He had decided not to tell Zim about the Swollen Eyeball meeting. Instead, he called: "You know, we shouldn't stay in one place too long. They'll find us."
There was a pause. Maybe Zim wasn't done puking?
"I already thought of that," the alien said finally. His voice was weak and gravelly. "I was just waiting for your lazy human self to get back here so we could go."
"Ah." Whatever this purple stuff was, at least it rinsed off easily. Of course, now Dib's shoes were soaking wet. "So I guess you're ready to go."
"Of course I am."
There was a hair dryer in the closet. Dib went and got it and started trying to dry off his shoes.
"You can walk, right?" Dib called. "I've only seen you lazing around and breaking my computer since we got here."
"I can walk!"
Not that it really mattered since Dib was going to have to carry him out in the overnight bag anyway.
He shook his head to himself, then looked down to see his shoes were melting under the hair dryer. "AAAH!"
Miraculously, smuggling Zim out of the room went without incident. Dib checked out of the hotel and took off in the ship.
(They left the purple-alien-soda puke for housekeeping to find- hopefully after Dib was safely away.)
Dib landed at a gas station, picked up a map of the state, and got back in the ship. He opened the map and studied it.
"Do you have somewhere to go this time?" Zim asked.
Dib glanced over at his alien companion. Zim looked sweaty, limp, and gray. He had thus far said nothing.
"Yes," Dib said. "I do."
"Well, where is it?"
"That's for me to know and you to find out."
Dib rolled his eyes. "It's somewhere they'll never find us. Okay? Is that okay with you?"
Zim studied him. "I don't trust you," he said.
"Really?" Dib rolled his eyes. "I had no idea. Look, if I wanted to do anything to you I already would have."
Zim held up an index finger. "Unless you were waiting for the right moment."
"Well, yeah, but the right moment would have been after you broke my computer and ruined my shoes." Inspiration. "In fact, that's where we're going. A shoe store. Next to a Best Buy."
"Oh, okay." Zim closed his eyes and turned away with an exhausted sigh.
The town wasn't hard to find. Dib got there with plenty of time to book a hotel. He landed in the parking lot and turned to look at Zim.
The alien had said nothing since the gas station. He was curled up on his side, turned away from Dib. Every so often he would cough painfully.
"Are you awake?" Dib asked.
Zim nodded. His eyes were closed.
"I'm gonna go check in and then I'll come get you, all right?"
Zim shook his head.
Dib ran his fingers through his hair. "What? What's wrong with that?"
"Don't leave me."
"The ship. Exposed."
Bah. Paranoid nut. "Okay. Fine. I'll take you in with me and you can suffocate in my duffel bag a little longer than necessary. Just don't whine about it."
Zim nodded. Dib stuffed him into the bag.
Checking in was also uneventful. All these things going well were making Dib suspicious. A real doozy must be waiting for him later. Maybe the Swollen Eyeball contact would turn out to be the chupacabra in disguise.
Dib went to his hotel room, opened his bag and dumped Zim on the bed. The Irken curled up in a ball, wrapping his arms around his body, clutching his sides. He whimpered.
Dib cleared his throat. "So, uh… I'm gonna go buy shoes."
Zim nodded, pressing his lips tightly together. He was clearly in pain. There wasn't really anything Dib could do about that… and if he could, he didn't know whether or not he'd do it. This was his worst enemy, after all.
Dib had brought his laptop up to the room out of force of habit. He thought about taking it to the meeting with him, but it was kind of heavy, and presently useless. Zim couldn't possibly screw it up any more than he already had, right? And Dib expected him to sleep the whole time he was gone anyway.
Dib left the room.
The headquarters were in an unassuming concrete warehouse. Dib entered and slipped behind some cardboard boxes, climbing down some steps to a hidden lower level of the building.
It was pretty dark down there. Dib followed a narrow, dusty-smelling hallway to a round room, lit only by an intensely green computer screen on the back wall. Silhouetted against this screen was the familiar shape of Agent Darkbootie and a person Dib didn't immediately recognize.
He drew closer. The two others turned to face him, Darkbooty with a calm nod, the other with wide, hunted eyes.
It was a girl- a teenage girl in a dark coat, large, clunky boots and a long denim skirt. She was wearing black lipstick. There were dark circles under her eyes. She looked at Dib and scowled. "Agent Mothman?"
The voice was familiar. Dib wrinkled up his nose. "Agent Fishsticks?"
"I see the two of you are acquainted," Darkbootie said.
Dib ground his teeth together. "Uh, kind of." There. He'd known it. He'd known that when a day started off this uneventful it meant something awful would happen.
"We worked the Moskeria case together," Fishsticks said. Her eyes narrowed fractionally. She turned to Darkbootie. "Sir, why did you assign Agent Mothman to this case?"
"I didn't choose him," Darkbootie replied. "He's had some experiences with General Labs."
Fishsticks turned to Dib, frowning. "How did you discover their operations?"
"An anonymous source contacted me."
Her eyes widened for an instant almost too brief to see. "I need to talk to your source."
Dib raised an eyebrow. "Why?"
"It could be a trap. Bring your source to me and I'll tell you what I know. Not before then."
Dib ground his teeth together. There was no way the Eyeballs could ever know he was working with the alien he was supposed to be exposing- he'd be laughed out of the organization. And then brain-wiped. "I… don't know if he'll agree to that."
"If he doesn't, too bad."
Dib gave Agent Darkbootie an imploring look. The great man said: "If this situation is as treacherous as Fishsticks believes it to be, it would be an excellent idea to speak with your source. I suggested this to you already in an email, but apparently you didn't read it."
Dib closed his eyes. Of course. "I've been having… technical difficulties. All right. He's nearby. Could you just… wait here while I go talk to him?"
Fishsticks pressed her lips tightly together and closed her eyes, a silent commentary on Dib's professionalism, or perceived lack thereof. "Fine. You have half an hour."
Dib turned and climbed up the ladder.
He made a quick stop at Wal*Mart before he headed back to the hotel, where he threw the door to his room open and marched over to the beds.
Zim was laying face down and trembling with his face buried in the pillow. Dib grabbed his shoulder and flipped him over. Zim gasped, started to cough, and pulled away from Dib, his eyes wide with panic.
"We're taking a little trip," Dib said, tossing the shopping bag from Wal*Mart down next to Zim.
"What?" Zim panted. "Where? What are you talking about? What do you want to do to me? GET AWAY!" He hissed like a cat and flattened himself against the headboard.
Dib pulled one of the items out of the bag. "I have a contact who will give me valuable information about General Labs, but only if she talks to the guy who told me about it. That's you." He ground his teeth. "I got you a disguise. Put it on."
Zim's eyes narrowed. "I'm not falling for that. You want to drag me in to the FBI!" His voice was weak and hoarse.
"No," said Dib. "I'm telling the truth. And you know what? It doesn't matter whether you believe me or not, because I can just pick you up and carry you wherever I want you to go."
Zim laughed, no doubt meaning to sound scornful. He sounded semi-hysterical. "How amusing, Dib. I think you rea-" He caught his breath sharply. "-really believe that."
Dib grabbed him by the shoulders. Zim struggled weakly and then stared up at Dib, going white.
Dib let go. "I'm going to be nice and let you choose to come under your own power. What do you say?"
Zim gulped for breath a second, then said: "I don't want to!"
"Too bad." Dib pulled a roll of bandages out of the shopping bag.
Zim frowned. "What are those for?"
"This is part of your disguise. You were in a car accident. Your face was badly burned and now it's all bandaged up. Also, your lungs were seared by smoke and now you have a bad cough and can't speak over a whisper."
Zim looked confused. "That didn't happen."
Dib bit the inside of his cheek. "It's a lie, Zim. I know you know what a lie is."
"Oh," Zim said. He looked faintly upset.
Dib gave him the roll of bandages. "Now put these on."
Zim picked up the roll and fiddled around with it. His hands were shaking and he seemed un-coordinated. He bit his lip and glanced at Dib.
Dib muttered an expletive under his breath. He took the roll away. "All right, I'll do it."
"No!" Zim looked away, his lower lip jutting out.
"Time is short, Zim. Now hold still."
Zim's head was slick with sweat and devoid of any ears or nose to hang onto. Antennae made good handles, but grabbing them made Zim squall in pain and scratch at Dib's hands. Dib tried to pin Zim down by planting his knee in his chest but that made the alien struggle for breath and attempt to bite.
Dib finally ended up holding Zim by the neck with one hand and winding the bandage around his head with the other. This was still difficult because of course, Zim kept squirming, but Dib finally managed to get it done.
He backed up, surveying his handiwork. Zim looked back at him with big, dark, morose eyes.
Dib laughed. "You look like a mutated mummy."
"And whose idea was this, anyway?" Zim snapped.
Ignoring this, Dib pulled a hat out of the shopping bag. "Okay, this goes over your antennae."
Zim grumbled something unintelligible and possibly not in English, taking the hat and putting it on.
"And here are some sunglasses," Dib said. "Uh… hm." Zim didn't have any ears or nose for the glasses to rest on. Maybe this part of the plan hadn't been thought out very well.
Zim took the sunglasses and got them to stay on by wedging the earpieces in between the bandaging. Ah.
"Finally, I got you a coat to cover up that stupid alien uniform," Dib said.
Zim hissed irritably, but he put on the coat. It was ridiculously large on him.
Dib stood up, sighing. "All right, let's get out of here. Come on."
Zim got to his feet with what looked like some effort. Dib looked at him. Zim waved a hand at him. "I'm fine! Where is this stupid place?"
Dib descended the ladder a second time, this time with an unwanted alien clinging to his shoulders.
He touched down on the ground and Zim slipped off of him, standing up straight and heading down the hall in a reasonable semblance of his usual military strut.
"You wanted to see me?" he demanded when they reached the meeting room.
"This is my source," Dib explained to the agents, who looked disbelieving. "He was recently in a car accident. Damaged face and lungs."
"What do you know about General Labs?" Fishsticks demanded.
"Why do you want to know what I know?" Zim replied, with an air that suggested he thought this a quite clever question.
Fishsticks was as stoic as always. "Agent Mothman said you contacted him about their operations. Why?"
Zim leaned back, tiling his head to the side. "Agent Mothman?" He turned to face Dib with his head at a quizzical angle.
Dib ground his teeth together, willing Zim not to do anything stupid like drop Dib's real name.
Zim shrugged slightly and turned back to Fishsticks, miraculously saying nothing. "I contacted…" He shrugged. "Moth-maaannn… because I had no choice."
"But why him?"
Zim was quiet a moment too long. "I- live on his street."
"He said you were anonymous," Fishsticks said. "Do you know each other?"
Zim swallowed and reached up to touch his throat. "Eh-"
Dib hunched his shoulders. "When I said anonymous, I meant he didn't want you to know who he is. I know who he is."
Fishstick's eyes narrowed. "Hm."
Zim folded his arms over his chest, leaning back on one foot. He cleared his throat, sputtered into his fist, and said: "How did you hear about the white building?"
"I check out all new construction in my town. There was something fishy about this place."
"I see. Do you have a chair?"
Zim huffed and sat down on the concrete, folding his little stick-legs under his body. "They contacted me personally. They wanted me to pass out fliers."
"Why?" Fishsticks demanded.
Zim scoffed and tossed his head. "Why? It's so incredibly obvious! They have to go through-" His small hands fluttered through the hair, his eyes wild. "Two- three- f-four test subjects a day, with the things they do!"
Fishsticks stiffened. "Human test subjects?"
"What?" Zim tensed. "Yes. You didn't know?"
The color drained from Fishsticks's face. "You're lying."
Zim got to his feet, hissing softly. "You don't really know anything I don't know, do you?"
He pointed dramatically. "You lied to Zim! You wanted to squeeze information outta me while giving me nothing!" The force of this statement made him hack for a few minutes, harshly and loudly, his whole body spasming.
Dib grabbed his shoulder. "Bad Zim!" he snapped, giving the little snake a good shaking. "Bad, bad, bad, bad Zim! Siddown and behave yourself!" He lowered his head, hissing into the side of Zim's head. "Don't make me burn you!"
"Stop," Fishsticks said, holding her hands up. "I know who's behind this. It's my uncle."
Zim backed up until his cold, hard Pak stuck into Dib's belly. Dib pushed him away. Zim edged away, hugging the wall. He was hunched over and trembling. "The human in charge is your blood relative?"
"He's done things," Fishsticks said, ignoring this. "To animals."
"To aneemuls," Zim mocked. Dib gave him a quick kick in the calf and he cried out.
Fishsticks stared at them emotionlessly for a moment. "You know each other."
"Yes, we've established that," Dib said. "What did he do to animals?"
"Sick things," Fishsticks said. "He doesn't know I know."
"Blah, blah, blah," Zim said. "I don't care! I only care about how to destroy these operations!"
"You and your destroying!" Dib snapped.
Darkbootie crept closer. Dib started in shock, having forgotten about his presence. "This is all very entertaining, but I recommend you get to your respective points very shortly, as I have actual business to conduct elsewhere, and Mothman's source is very loud and unpleasant."
Fishsticks nodded. "Five years ago I was able to spy on my uncle doing experiments on a rabbit. He gave it a long course of injections before ripping away its pelt while it was still alive. The animal did not die after the removal of its skin. Its limbs were removed next. My uncle infected the animal with myxomatosis. It did not die. He did several more things to it, I don't think I need to go into detail…" Her voice was shaking ever-so-slightly. "The animal did not die, even after the removal of its internal organs. It did not die until it was taken off my uncle's machine."
Zim leaned against the wall, exhaling slowly. He started breathing heavily, like he was trying not to throw up. Dib edged away a bit.
"So he's trying to invent some kind of immortality machine," he guessed.
Fishsticks shrugged and looked away.
"He's got a building now," Dib said. "A few staff members, I dunno how many. Zim! How many did you see? Don't make anything up."
"I don't know, more than two." Zim's voice was husky.
"How many is more than two?"
"I don't know." He fiddled with the bandages over his face.
Dib shook his head.
"I don't know my uncle well," Fishsticks said. "He's dangerous."
"Zim says he saw human test subjects," Dib said. "He didn't say much else. He's not that great a source. But they are passing out fliers with weird stuff on them, trying to get people in."
Darkbootie nodded. "Agents, I recommend you work together on this case."
Fishsticks shook her head. "Not possible. My parents are taking me to California in an hour."
"Well, then email me," Dib said.
"Not secure enough."
"There are secure methods of-"
"The humans in the white building are technological masters," Zim interrupted. "They can thoroughly defeat any pathetic little attempts at security you children can muster. Dib, you haven't been posting things about this on the Internet-"
Zim raised a shaking hand to his head. "Well… ehh…" He was quiet for a moment. "Darn."
Dib shrugged again.
Fishsticks checked her watch. "I need to be going."
Dib nodded. "Okay. Well, thank you for the information, I guess." It hadn't really been all that helpful. Creepy, but not helpful.
Fishsticks nodded, turned on her heel, and left through a nearby, unobtrusive door.
Darkbootie stroked his chin. "Mothman, are you equipped to handle this on your own?"
Dib nodded. "Yes, sir."
"All right. You and your source are dismissed."
Darkbootie went through that same door, muttering something that sounded like 'coffee'.
That left Dib and Zim alone together in a cold, round, concrete room.
Dib thought about what had been done to the rabbit. Was all that true? Was that what Zim had seen done to people? But after all that, just a hunk of meat would be left. Maybe they were really just using dogs or something and Zim had freaked. Although… really, that would still be pretty nasty.
"How did you know they were testing on humans?" he asked aloud.
"Smell. I knew by the scent," Zim said.
"Huh. Okay." Zim didn't even have a nose, so Dib wasn't sure he could trust that.
"Also, their…" He caught his breath. "Their organs. Heart. Lungs. Spleen."
"Ah." Zim was also dumb as a brick, so there was really no way of knowing whether that meant anything. "Well, I think we should get out of here," Dib said.
They headed down the hallway. Zim was shuffling with his head down. He stopped halfway down the hallway and sat down on the floor.
"What are you doing?" Dib demanded.
"I feel ill. Carry me."
"Carry your future slave master."
"I'm not getting up." Zim turned his face away.
Dib ran a hand through his hair. "You big baby. Maybe I will leave you here. You can deal with the next agents who come down here all on your own. This is an active Swollen Eyeballs meeting place, you know."
"Yeah, yeah, agents. Whatever. The little girl we were just talking to was quite the threat to a trained Irken soldier."
"That 'little girl' was twice your size."
"Eh." Zim rested his forehead against the wall, breathing deeply. He had apparently meant what he said about not getting up.
Dib shook his head, looked up at the ceiling, sighed, and picked Zim up, tucking him under one arm. "If you tell anyone about this I'll squish your head," he muttered. "And if you annoy me I'll drop you in the snow."
Zim nodded. He went limp. Dib started to cart him off down the hallway.
He stopped. "Wait a minute. Did you tell them my name?"
"Oh, okay, I thought you-"
Dib shrugged and headed for the ladder.
Chapter 9: Invader
Zim also refused to get out of the ship under his own power. Dib picked him up and propped him on one hip, it was easier that way.
He headed into the lobby. The woman at the desk gave him a weird look. At first Dib assumed she was looking at his head, but then Zim shuddered and wiggled around a little. Dib realized he was carting around a fairly good imitation of the Invisible Man.
"My little brother," he explained hastily, and hurried into the elevator.
Zim rested his head on Dib's shoulder.
"No," Dib said. "You're gross. Stop that."
He felt eyes on him and turned to see a woman standing next to him in the elevator. She looked disapproving.
"Oh, uh- this is my little brother," Dib said. "He's, um, tired from his treatments. Zim, you centipede, get your head off me. Oh, uh- I mean-"
The woman was really glaring now.
"They're beauty treatments," Dib babbled. "He's not really- I mean- geez. Zim!"
Zim whimpered drowsily.
"Screw it," Dib said.
The elevator stopped. It wasn't Dib's floor. More people got on. They stared at Dib. He avoided eye contact.
Zim was hot and full of jabby angles. His breath smelled like puke. An eon later the elevator stopped on Dib's floor. He got off.
Once he was in the room he dumped Zim on the bed and went into the bathroom. He washed his hands thoroughly three times. He went back into the room to find Zim whimpering and pawing at the bandages over his face.
Dib sat down and turned on the TV, checking the news for anything horrible like 'preteen girl with purple hair murdered in suburb and used as test subject'. There was nothing.
Zim continued to whimper. He batted at the sunglasses.
Dib flipped through the channels. Spongebob was on. Dib watched a few minutes of it, his eyes glazing over.
"Oh, all right," Dib muttered. He turned off the TV, went over, and removed Zim's hat and sunglasses. He started peeling off the bandages. They were slippery and gross with sweat and came off easily. Dib dumped them in the trash and then went for five more rounds of hand washing.
Zim seemed satisfied with this. He was lying very still. His breathing sounded difficult and congested.
Dib flopped down on the other bed. He was hungry. It was after lunchtime. He didn't feel like going to get food, though. Maybe he could order something. He didn't have much cash left. He had his credit card, of course, but he didn't really want to leave records of where he'd been.
Aw, forget it. He'd just get a little bit of room service. What could possibly happen? He picked up the phone.
Static buzzed on Peter's earphone. He hit a button.
"Sir, we've picked up activity on Dib Membrane's card. He's not far."
"Put a watch on him," Peter said.
The room service sandwich was downright awful (especially for something that had cost ten dollars). Dib choked down as much of it as he could and threw the rest away. He pulled out his laptop and started trying to work on it some more.
Zim was plainly struggling to breathe. Dib studied him a moment. "Hey," he called.
Zim said nothing. Dib went over to him and watched him gasp for a moment. He felt Zim's cheeks and forehead. They were very hot, which was not surprising.
He squeezed Zim's shoulder. The alien shuddered and looked at him dully.
Dib made a thumb's-up. Zim muttered some single-syllable word, probably a four-letter one, and closed his eyes.
There was nothing Dib could do. Even if he'd known how to help a human who was having trouble breathing- and he didn't- he had no idea what to do with an Irken. He shrugged and went back to his laptop.
The afternoon dragged by. Dib's laptop became more and more erratic. Zim slept fitfully for snatches at a time, tossing and turning and murmuring nonsense. Dib kept an ear tuned, in case he said something suspicious again, but the most coherent thing he heard was: "Your progress is stupid… your intelligence is stupid… for the good of the mission." Which really didn't make any sense at all.
When evening rolled around, Dib ordered and choked down another sandwich. Zim continued to wheeze.
Dib hadn't slept well last night. He decided to turn in early. After supper, he turned off the light and crawled into bed.
He lay there silently, listening to Zim coughing, gasping for breath, and whimpering. He stared dully at the clock as the numbers slowly progressed from 7 PM to 11 PM.
He must have managed to sleep eventually because suddenly it was 3 AM and he was blinking groggily, thinking he had just heard Zim cry out in pain.
If he had, he cried out only once. Dib slipped back into a doze.
The next sound that woke him up was gagging. Dib squinted across the room to see Zim hanging over the edge of the bed, spitting something out.
He turned on the lights. It was phlegm. Lots of phlegm. Dib turned the lights back off and pulled the pillow over his head.
When Dib next woke up, it was in the gray light of morning. He blinked around. The room was quiet, no sounds of struggling breath.
He got up and went to the next bed. Zim was very still and gray. Upon closer inspection, however, he was breathing, shallowly.
Zim's skin was cool and dry and his breathing seemed to have eased a great deal. Dib shook him gently by the shoulder.
Zim moaned. His claws dug into the sheets, then relaxed.
"Hey," Dib said tonelessly. "Breathing better, huh?"
"I feel ill," Zim complained.
Zim pulled the sheets over his head.
"I'm going down to breakfast," Dib told him. Zim didn't respond.
Dib headed down to the continental breakfast. He realized that he'd really thought Zim would be dead in the morning. He wasn't sure how he felt about Zim not being dead. It bothered him that he wasn't purely disappointed.
The place was deserted, breakfast had just opened. Dib snagged a muffin and sat down to eat it.
He took his time with it, partly because it was dry and kind of gross and he could only stomach small bites of it at a time. He finished, dusted his hands off on his coat, and headed upstairs.
The hotel room was empty.
Dib looked under the beds, under the blankets, in the bathroom and the closet, and in the drawers of the desk. Zim was gone.
Dib thought, at first, that the alien had gotten disoriented and tried to go home. Then he thought that Zim had decided to abandon him and steal Tak's ship.
Then he found half of an unfamiliar boot print on the carpet… way too big to be Zim's. Or Dib's either.
Zim was lying against a cold, hard surface. There was something cold and heavy around his neck.
He shut his eyes, reaching up to bat weakly at the thing around his neck. It was some kind of metal collar.
He realized there was a human in the room with him. He looked up to see a male human on some kind of scooter.
The human was very overweight. It had brown eyes that seemed to have no emotion in them at all. Zim averted his eyes and made himself small against the floor. It was a floor he was lying on- a white metal floor. At first he'd had the vague notion it was a table.
"You're awake," the human said. "How do you feel right now?"
"Sick," Zim said. He shook his head. That wasn't the kind of thing he usually told humans. He didn't mind, though. He didn't mind anything.
"What do you mean by 'sick'?"
"My head aches… I feel weak. I can't breathe." The words just poured out of him. He knew it was a bad idea to be so honest with the human, but at the same time, it was like he didn't know it. Sorta. Everything was strange and hazy.
He took a guess that he'd been given some kind of sedative, possibly combined with a truth serum. The collar around his neck might even be delivering it- or it might be a simple restraint. His limbs were not bound, but he didn't have the will to move them.
"Are you carrying a communicable disease?"
"Yes. Influenza kills people, you know."
This was apparently satisfactory to the human, as he changed the subject. "What do you mean by 'home'?"
"Why do you want to go to your base there?"
"Safe there." He hesitated. "Also, it smells nice, and it's alone." He was babbling. They'd given him some kind of drug. He was probably still feverish, too.
"What do you mean by 'alone'?"
"No one is there but me and my robots."
"You desire solitude."
"Yes, I like to be alone! I hate people. They're loud, and they smell horrible. I spend a lot of time in the lab where GIR can't follow me. It's quiet."
"Irkens desire groups."
"I don't desire groups."
"Irkens are sociable. They naturally form large crowds. They seek a collective mind and detest individuality."
"What are you talking about? I hate crowds. Are you saying I'm not Irken?" Zim demanded.
"Why do you desire security?"
"Why wouldn't I?"
"Why do you view security as a specific problem?"
Zim shuddered. "I don't trust anybody. They all want a piece of me. They want a piece of Zim. They're jealous, and they… and the humans. They'll destroy me, you know."
"I don't know. Why will we destroy you?"
Zim snorted. "That's what humans do!"
"That's what Irkens do."
"Uh-huh." Zim didn't see how the two were mutually exclusive. "I'm here, aren't I?"
The human raised its eyebrows slightly but there remained no expression in its voice. "I suppose you are. You have to be somewhere."
"You're one of them. You're doing things that… I really never thought anyone would actually do, I mean, it's so…" He was shaking. "I thought of it, you know."
"Once. A really long time ago." The words came out slowly. This time, he knew full well he didn't want to say them, but he couldn't stop. "Your experiment. Some of it. Not the diseases, and the… but I didn't go through with it. Well, not with all of it, anyway. It was much too messy." He was… crying? He reached up to dry his eyes. He'd never cried before that he could remember, at least, not like this.
"You're becoming emotional," the human noted.
Zim nodded, shuddering. It was so unlike him to cry that he felt nothing about it, no shame, no awkwardness, no anger, nothing. It obviously wasn't really him. "I know. You must have done something wrong with my sedatives, I don't cry. Ever." It felt very unpleasant- the tears were hot and wet and relentless. He fiddled with the collar. If this thing was at all responsible for the changes in his behavior, he wanted it off immediately.
"You won't be able to remove that. What do you think my experiment is for?"
Simple. "You're making soldiers that cannot die in battle and have nothing to live for but the fight. You must want to attack Irk with them, too."
"Why do you believe that?"
Please, a smeet would have known. This kind of thing was covered in basic training. "Because you're asking me. About Irk. You've obviously done a lot of research, if you even knew what to drug me with. I'm not like you, you know. Your kind of truth serum would have killed me."
"You're intelligent." It was not a compliment or statement of flattery, it was a toneless fact.
"Yes, very," Zim agreed.
"Irkens don't come up with their own ideas."
"I do it all the time. Most Invaders do. I'm an Invader. Incidentally, I'd be very interested in hearing where you've gotten all this information. You can't have gotten it yourself, you're a human. You're working with someone, aren't you?" He bared his teeth. "Is it Tak? A Vortian rebel?"
The human's eyes and face had not changed throughout the conversation. They did not change now. "Are you typical of your species?"
Zim shook his head emphatically. "Heh. No." That should have been obvious too. "Invaders are the elite. And, of course, I'm extra elite."
"Do you know any other Irkens who are like yourself? Who are the most intelligent Irkens you know?"
Zim's squeedly-spooch was tying itself into knots now. Baring his soul to a human he didn't know and was most likely planning to use the information to destroy him, that was one thing. Treason was another. He ground his teeth together and flexed his claws against the floor. "T- t- Tak," he blurted. He couldn't stop. "Tak is smart! Sh-she almost beat me! But she's horrible!"
"Where is Tak now?"
"In space- somewhere! She might have gone into hyper sleep!" He gagged on his own words. "The Tallest are probably ss-smart. They're s-sooo tall. But that's it, that's all I know-" He bit hard on his own tongue. Ow. "Hnngh!"
"Who would come to your aid if you asked them?"
"N-nobody at all. My robots are out of commission. Dib hates me. No one else has any obligation to help me."
"Why did you investigate our operations?"
"I was suspicious."
"Why were you suspicious?"
"You kidnapped me and lied to me. You said you were working for the Tallest but they said you weren't. It was a stupid story. I found out it was a lie with one video call." He raised an eyebrow. "Was there a point to that?"
"How did you find the room we use for experiments?"
"I was searching the building."
"You acted as if you were apprehensive of that room in particular. Had someone mentioned something to you?"
"No, I just didn't like that room. For good reason. You're sick. You're a sick, stinky, filthy human," Zim said, "and I hate you, you know." He lay down on the floor, resting his chin on his hands. "You don't even care, huh?" He felt sleepy.
The human still wasn't reacting. Irk, this human was boring. It almost made him lonely for one more like Dib or Gaz. "You are implying that you intuited what went on in that room, which is impossible."
"I imply no such thing. Intuition is a human invention and lies." Zim was tired of this conversation. He'd already said he wanted to be alone. Humans couldn't take hints either. "Are we done now?"
"You had a reason to be apprehensive, then. What was it?"
Zim considered it. "There was a faint odor."
"You've implied that you find my experiment morally objectionable."
Zim hesitated, unsure what this was supposed to mean. "No, I just hate it."
Zim shook his head. "I just hate it. I hate lots of things, you know."
"You don't think of yourself as a moral being, then."
"Morals have nothing to do with this."
"What kind of weaponry does the Armada have?"
"They have-" Zim shot up into a crouching position, his claws digging into the floor and his antennae standing straight up. "What? I'm not telling you that!"
The human still had no expression. It wasn't natural. "You will. What kind of weaponry?"
Zim shook his head. "I'm not authorized to know that. And even if I was I wouldn't-"
"You're not authorized. Do you know it anyway?"
Zim's breath caught in his throat. He squeezed his eyes shut. "Of course I do," he sighed. "I know everything. I make it my business to know."
"What kind of weapons?"
Zim bit hard on his lower lip. "Nn-nn." No. No way. There was no way he was going to spy for this- this-
The human fiddled with something on the dashboard of his scooter and Zim's collar buzzed.
"F-18 war-grade missiles, enough to atomize a small planet," he gasped. He retched dryly.
"Seventeen on the Massive and three on every other ship! There are also lasers, a configuration of forty arranged in a semicircle on the Massive and twelve on the other ships-" He wrapped his arms around his body. He'd broken out in a cold sweat. "There are four plasma shooters on every ship, including the Massive. The pilots are the best alive. They're drilled every day. Sometimes twice a day. I tried out once but they didn't take me." He arched his back as if trying to get his Pak off and then fell in a limp heap. "I-I guess they needed me elsewhere."
"How fast could the Armada get here from their current position?"
"They're six weeks away right now, and their current course is taking them farther, not nearer."
The human nodded and pressed another button.
Zim felt cold and heavy. After a few tries, he managed to struggle to a sitting position. He remained still for a moment, hanging his head and taking deep breaths. Then he looked up to see a large window a few feet away, set into a bare white wall.
The ceiling and floor were white. The room was completely empty. There was no door.
His eyelids felt heavy. He reached up to scratch an itch on his neck and found the metal collar was still in place.
He moaned low in his throat and started feeling over the surface of the collar.
You won't be able to get that off, the human had said.
I am Zim and I can undo anything you've done, he thought. You mock me, human. But the collar was completely smooth, with no buttons or latches.
He curled up on the floor, huddled in his own body heat. He was so exhausted that it was hard to do anything.
He lay still for a while, just breathing. Then he heard footsteps.
There was a human in the room with him; he could smell its thick meaty reek. It was a vaguely familiar reek, too. He sat up.
Yes, the human in the room was one he knew… it was the same one, seemingly, that was always hanging around here, that had shown up at Dib's house with a bodyguard in tow. Zim searched his sluggish thoughts and couldn't think of anything to say to it.
The human spoke first. "Well, hello, Zim! Nice to see you back."
Zim blinked slowly. Had he missed something? The human was smiling sociably as if nothing was wrong at all.
For a moment he had a strange feeling of… uncertainty… he was in the same room he'd been in three days ago, with the same human… he'd been ill, maybe… maybe the past few days hadn't even… no, no, that was impossible. His clothes were different and everything.
"I was sorry to hear you've had the flu recently," the human was saying. "Are you feeling all right? Need anything?"
Zim shook his head.
"You look tired."
"I assure you, I'm fine," Zim slurred. "Although some peace and quiet would be nice. Peace and quiet with no humans in it."
"Of course, I understand," the human said with a bob of his head. "I'll leave you alone."
"Yes, you will," Zim said. He put his head down and closed his eyes. He heard the human leave.
Obviously, these humans wanted more from him. They would not let him leave again.
What did they want? Were they going to pump him for more information? Probably. They'd probably interrogate him for everything he knew and then move on to less pleasant forms of extracting information- information about the physical structure of Irkens. Information gained through dissection, eventually.
He could feel the cold air from the window on his face. He shuddered. Inconsiderate pig beasts, leaving the window open to the frigid outside-
He picked up his head, blinking. The window was open? To the outside air?
He staggered over, putting his hands on the windowsill and closing his eyes. Yes, the air was blowing on his face. He looked out to see the lights of the city several stories below.
He stuck his arm out and it went all the way out into the open air. There was nothing keeping him in.
What… what were these humans, stupid? They'd put him in a room with an open window, without even a screen? What was this?
Yeah, sure, there was a twenty-story drop, but…
He climbed up onto the windowsill, moving slowly and carefully, babying his still-achy limbs, and sat there, with his feet dangling out. Uhhggh, cold. So cold.
He looked down. Earth was far away. He liked it when Earth was far away. He didn't like being able to see so much of it. What an enormous planet…
He smoothed back the bases of his antennae. Well, of course if he fell all the way down there he'd die, but he had no intention of falling all the way down. He could catch another windowsill, and then another, and another, all the way down, and thus escape.
Truly another brilliant idea from the mind of Zim!
Okay, now how to finagle this?
He swung his legs in the open air. This almost seemed, eh, too easy. Of course human stupidity knew no bounds but… these particular humans had been displaying far more intelligence than this.
Could this be… a test?
There was noise behind him. Someone must be coming. He dropped out the window before he could think about it anymore.
Zim had taken a lot of falls in his lifetime but he'd never really gotten used to how it felt to first drop, how his organs crammed up into his throat and his adrenaline started going insane. By the time he had recovered his senses and stopped screaming he was four flights down.
He twisted and snagged a windowsill. For a moment he thought his shoulders had ripped out of his body. He hung there a moment, panting. It was hard to get his breath back. He tensed all over. His breathing was weakened. This filthy planet had done it to him.
His claws dug into the windowsill. He pulled himself up into a room.
The room was occupied. Zim froze, staring into the eyes of a scrawny male human in a sort of protective coverall, holding a clipboard.
Peter leaned forward, eyes locked on the screen.
Greaves cleared his throat. "It's found 199."
"199 is a very typical specimen and can be replaced. We can learn more from letting them interact than we can from 199 on its own."
Greaves looked away, shaking his head. "I can't believe it actually went out the window. It's insane."
Peter felt a twitch of smile at the corner of his mouth, something he hadn't felt in his recent memory.
Zim screamed. The human screamed, dropped its clipboard and turned to run.
Zim could have gone back out the window, but that had been unpleasant the first time. His shoulders burned and he was still having trouble breathing. And it was because of the humans in this building, and the screaming man was one of those humans, and Zim tackled him.
The human was at least twice his size, but he was off balance and Zim was moving fast. The human fell onto his face, crying out and rolling over to face his attacker. Zim grabbed his collar.
The human was making a lot of noise and would attract attention. Zim felt cold sweat running down his neck.
"What do you do here?" he demanded.
"AAH! WHAT ARE YOU? AAA-"
Zim clapped his hand over the human's noise hole, baring his teeth. "YOU WILL MAKE SILENCE, YOU REVOLTING WORM!" he snapped in a voice unwittingly far louder than the human's. He kicked the human in the sides. "Tell me what you do here and what you want with me and tell me NOW!"
The human's eyes were bulging out of its head and it was shaking. It made muffled noises around Zim's hand. Oh, right, the stupid thing couldn't talk with its mouth covered. Zim withdrew his hand.
The human took a deep breath. "AAA-"
"SILENCE!" Zim slapped it soundly. There was no one coming yet. Zim remembered that he had turned off quite a few of their test subjects before they found him. He guessed that the building was mostly empty and had a lot of space to navigate and the people in it were scattered. Bad, bad security.
The human cringed, whimpering. Its eyes darted up and down Zim's body.
"I thought I told you-" Zim took a breath. "-to tell me-"
A wicked red light turned on in the human's eyes. It kicked Zim hard in the belly, propelling his light body a foot or two into the air and knocking all the wind out of him.
Zim landed on the ground and before he could pick himself up the human had planted a foot on his back. Zim cried out.
The human leaned down next to him, grinning evilly. "Hah! That's what you get for messing with-"
Zim punched it on the nose and it yelped, withdrawing its foot. Zim stood up on his Paklegs. He was now eye to eye with the human, who was sweating and reeked of fear. Its eyes went up and down the Paklegs.
"Cool," it said lamely. "Did you make those?"
Zim leaned back and fired one of the legs into the human's arm, pinning it to the wall behind it. The human drew in air in a shuddering gasp, its eyes getting round and glassy.
Zim felt light-headed. He could smell the human's blood. He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. "What do you do here?"
There was a funny, distracted calm in the human's eyes. "I do maintenance."
"What? No, I mean your experiments!"
"Experiments?" The human wrinkled up its nose. "What experiments? I just got here."
"You don't know?"
"No, I just fix the air conditioner. I think there's some weird tech in this building, if that's what you mean, but they won't let me at it."
"That's it?" Zim snapped. He put a trembling hand to his head. He'd gone to all the trouble of chasing down this filthy creature just to have it be the- the-
Wait a minute. This wasn't a very old human. In fact…
Zim's eyes narrowed. "How old are you?"
The human's eyes were wandering towards its bleeding arm.
"That's not important, I am," Zim reminded it.
"Sixteen," it said.
Sixteen, and scrawny, and really, not very much of a threat at all. In fact Zim probably hadn't even really needed to stab it... better safe than sorry. "But… how did you come here?"
"I saw a flyer for free money. I- I needed money."
The human was young. Healthy- or had been before Zim stabbed it- average build, average features. In fact, if Zim had been hunting for test subjects, he might very well have grabbed this specimen for himself.
"But why are they letting you roam the… of course, duh, they're observing your behavior. Or maybe you're a control specimen…" He was thinking aloud. He didn't really have any idea what was going on here.
"How did they give you this job?"
The human's eyes were losing focus, it was about to pass out. Zim leaned in close, cupping the human's jaw in his hand. Irk, it stank. "You will tell Zim how you came to be here!"
Its eyelids fluttered. "No, I think I'll take a little-"
Zim pricked its soft under-jaw skin with his claws. It yelped. "How?"
"I came in. They had a doctor look at me and they asked what I was good at and they said they wanted me to do a few jobs so I said 'Hey, babe, that's false advertising', but…" The human was looking at its arm again.
Zim withdrew the leg and the human slumped into a pile on the floor. Zim was still a moment. He thought he could hear motion down the hall…
He turned to leave, then paused and looked back at the human, who was breathing raggedly, his arm making a dark puddle on the floor.
What did it matter to Zim whether that human wound up as a ragged chunk of flesh in a capsule? The stupid thing hadn't been any help anyway.
He definitely heard footsteps. He ran back into what he had thought was the room with the window, but now there was no window.
No window, and only one door.
Zim turned. There was a human blocking the door.
Zim backed up, hissing.
The human backed up as well. It was a female, and it didn't seem any older than the one Zim had just stabbed. It was deathly pale and staring. "Whoa. What are you?"
"What I am is none of your business! Leave me alone and I won't hurt you!" he spat.
"Hurt me?" She scoffed. "You're tiny!"
Zim opened his mouth to scream his credentials at her, but then something else occurred to him. "Look down the hall."
The human did so, and it started screaming like a banshee. It ran out of the doorway.
Zim pressed his body against the wall. He heard the two humans screeching at each other. Irk, it was just an arm wound. Relatively small and clean. It had been bleeding, but a simple tourniquet would…
He sank to a sitting position. His head felt light and gray. Some of that human's blood had gotten on his shoe. It smelled awful.
He took a deep, shuddering breath, putting his head in his hands. His breathing was fast and harsh and he couldn't get it to slow. Everything was spinning. He felt nauseated and cold, and… and…
His cheek hit the floor. He could still hear the humans freaking out outside, but eventually their noise just… faded away.
Chapter 10: Breakin'
Dib slouched low in his seat, making slow passes back and forth in Tak's ship. He had watched what Zim was doing and learned how to work the cloaking devices. Anyone watching would see a dingy beige van.
He was watching General Labs's front door and wondering what to do next. Going straight in the front door was probably not the best idea. However, the building didn't seem to have any windows…
Dib drummed his fingers on the control panel. He sat straight up. Someone was exiting the building, a teenage kid, all hunched over a bandaged arm in a sling. He looked a little older than Dib.
Dib parked the ship and got out, going over to the boy, who was fumbling with the door on his own car, a sleek little black number. He was making the sniffly, hitching, gasping, shuddering noises that follow a good cry. He caught Dib's approach out of the corner of his eye and whipped around, gasping. He looked all blotchy.
"Wh-what do you want?" he cried.
Dib went with his instincts. He grinned. "I'm one of the staff drivers, they sent me to make sure you get home safely."
The boy recoiled, looking a bit like an animal in a trap. "Bull, you're younger than I am!"
"Well, they- they thought you'd be more comfortable with someone around your age."
The boy slumped against the car, eyes downcast. Every line of his body was suddenly submissive. "Oh, fine, just get me outta here. I feel sick and my arm hurts."
He tossed the keys at Dib, who caught them. Dib unlocked the doors. The kid got in the passenger's seat and Dib got in the driver's side.
He started the engine. It made a nice, smooth noise. "So, where do you live?"
"Pretty far away. I'm staying in a hotel. Uhh… Ramada." The kid looked out the window.
"Wait, you're not here on vacation, are you?" No one came to this stinking town for a vacation. No one. No one sane, at least.
"My dad has a business trip." The boy yawned convulsively. "I didn'twanna come, but my mom said we needed 'time as a family'." His tone was nasty. Dib didn't really care about this kid's family issues. He would change the subject.
"Um… it's on Main Street." The boy closed his eyes and leaned against the window. "Is it okay if I sleep?"
"Oh." He slumped in disappointment.
"I have, uh… survey questions," Dib explained.
"Bah, get it over with." The tone was not very respectful. Dib already knew he didn't like this kid.
Everything around the car was cold and gray and dead. Snowflakes flitted down from a sky the color of a fish's belly. Everything looked dirty. This was not a vacation town. He cast about for survey-ish questions. "How did you enjoy your experience?"
The kid tensed up. "It was terrible! It was the worst thing that ever happened to me! I hated it!"
Huh. Okay. "I'm sorry to hear that. What happened?"
The kid scowled and pointed to his arm. "What do you think happened, dork?"
Dib barely heard the insult, focusing on the data relevant to the investigation. "How did that happen?"
The kid blinked. "I… think I slipped," he said uncertainly.
"What- you don't know?"
The kid turned to look out the window. He looked a little green. "No, I don't," he whispered.
The kid was wearing an earring. A big, ugly square black one with a flashing red light on it, not very fashionable. Hmm.
"Oh my gosh!" Dib pointed theatrically. "There's a huge, ugly bee on your ear!"
"What?" The kid started to flail. "GET IT OFF! GET IT OFF!"
"Hold on, I'll get it!" He leaned in, ripping off the earring and tossing it out the window. "Got it!"
"Wow, thanks," the kid panted. "I didn't know they had bees in the winter in North America. I-" He froze suddenly, a look on his face Dib couldn't quite read, and then he ripped the door open and leaned out, retching.
They were going at like, 60 miles an hour. Dib quickly pulled over.
The kid finished puking and burst into tears. Dib had grown up with a father who knew only science and a sister who knew only rage, and he had no idea what to do with a crier. He looked out the window. "There, there," he said lamely. Privately, he thought the other boy seemed like a whiner.
"There was a monster," the kid sobbed, voice husky. "He s-stabbed me."
"Really? What kind of monster?" Dib raised an eyebrow. "Was it tiny and green?"
The kid nodded, putting his free hand over his face. "He asked all these questions and he-" He drew in a hitching breath and then turned on Dib, baring his teeth. Fear stretched to the point of aggressive self-defense. It was a look Dib had seen on Zim's face several times, and it usually preceded violence.
"What do you want from me? You're one of them, aren't you?" His eyes narrowed. "You're trying to kidnap me!"
"No, no. I'm trying to take down General Labs. They're evil, you know. They tried to wipe your memory," Dib said, though he wasn't so sure someone in this condition could be reasoned with.
The boy tensed, moving into a half-crouch, as if he was preparing to lunge at Dib. Dib was used to fighting, but he was used to fighting Zim, who was small and light. However, Zim did have military training, he had no sense of fair fighting or value for the lives of human beings, and he was preternaturally strong for his size. Dib hadn't fought another human in a while and he wasn't sure how the two would compare. In a physical altercation with Zim, Dib usually won.
"I can't believe you! I can't believe anyone anymore! You all just believe I believe any crap you want me to believe! Nuh-uh! No more! I can't take it!" The other boy was on the verge of hysteria… okay, maybe a little over the verge.
"I'm the good guy here, you know," Dib insisted.
The boy tried to spit derisively but it got stuck on his lower lip. Ew.
Dib continued to speak. "I'm not going to hurt you. I'm just going to take you home to your hotel. But it would help me out a lot if you could tell me what you know about General Labs-"
"Shut up! Shut up, shut up, shuddup!" The boy crunched himself into a ball, hiding his face behind his arm. "SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP-" Okay, he was straight-up hysterical. Dib slapped him. He squeaked. "DON'T HURT ME!"
Dib pinched the bridge of his nose. "You're making me miss talking to Zim! Do you know how terrible that makes you?"
The kid scrunched up his nose, staring at Dib like Dib had two heads. "What the heck is a Zim?"
Dib could get no more information out of the other kid. He dropped him off at his hotel, called a taxi from a pay phone, and asked the driver to take him home.
He now knew Zim was inside General Labs. He did not know where he was inside the building- General Labs was huge, and when Dib had been briefly inside he hadn't exactly seen any helpful maps of the place.
And even if he didn't believe Zim, Agent Fishsticks, and the hysterical kid that the people in the building were bad, bad news (and by now there was no real reason not to), the chances of those people being okay with Dib just hanging out looking for the alien specimen they had stolen were low. Busting in unprepared would not help Zim and would probably land Dib in as least as much trouble as the Irken was in.
Dib slipped into a secret entrance behind his house. He knew there was a good chance his home was still being watched.
He went down into the basement and got his stealth suit. He went up to the living room. Since he was here, he had to see if Gaz was okay.
She was sitting on the couch watching TV. GIR was next to her.
"Gaz! What's he doing here?" Dib asked.
"He has a game system in his head," Gaz said. "But he's so annoying."
GIR was limp, his eyes dark. He'd been turned off. Dib assumed he'd showed up looking for Zim, since Zim hadn't been home in days.
GIR had a habit of showing up out of nowhere whenever Zim called, even if there seemed to be no way for the robot to find his master. A radio link?
"May I… borrow him?" Dib asked. "Wait, what about the men who were here?"
"They left." There seemed to be a dark world of meaning lurking behind those words, a world Dib did not want to enter.
"Oh," he said. "Uh, okay."
"You can have him," Gaz said, tossing GIR at Dib. "Have fun."
Dib caught GIR and staggered out of the house, where the taxi was waiting. He plopped GIR next to him in the seat and told the taxi driver to take him to General Labs.
Dib got out and paid the taxi driver. He looked at GIR's dead, deactivated form. He didn't actually know how to turn it back on.
He turned GIR back and forth in his hands for a moment, then flicked the antenna on his head. Nothing. He tried twisting the antennae. Nothing. He slammed GIR's head against the ground. GIR's eyes blinked on, solid red.
"Hey," Dib said. "I need you to find Zim."
"You are a human!" GIR growled. A big cannon emerged from his head. Oh no.
"Wait! This is important! Zim's in trouble. Big trouble. He might be dead by now." And if he was, goldarn it that corpse belonged at Swollen Eyeball headquarters with Dib's name on it, not here in this weird space-agey skyscraper.
GIR's eyes turned blue. "Oh, yay!"
"So I need you to take me to him right now," Dib said. He turned the stealth suit on.
GIR squealed. "Where did you go? Where are you?"
"I'm right here! I'm cloaked, so they can't see me." Dib grabbed GIR's cold metal shoulder. GIR started licking the back of one hand like a cat. "We have to find Zim because… he has that… thing you love."
GIR's eyes widened. "Piggy?"
"Uh… yeah. He's got Piggy and they're both… on fire."
GIR jet into the air without a warning, leaving Dib to hold on for dear life as they went upwards, straight up, fast up, windows of the building blurring by. They dove into one window and Dib was smashed against the ground. GIR sat down on the floor, looking suddenly bored.
Dib got to his feet, shaking the ringing sound out of his ears. He was in a small, plain, metal room. There was a cot near the wall. Zim was curled up on it, clearly sleeping or unconscious.
Dib went over to Zim and shook him gently. Zim whimpered softly but did not stir.
Dib picked him up. The little alien felt very small and light, like a toy. He moved about as much as one, too.
All right, how to get out? Guards would probably come running any second, there was no visible door, and even if there had been he wouldn't have been able to get out of the building quickly.
He went over to GIR. "Okay, I need you to fly us out," he said. "Right now?"
"Duuude," GIR said. "Duuuuude. Doooooooooooooooo…"
"Please. Come on." Zim stirred. Dib squatted down on the ground, holding Zim by the shoulders. "Zim, wake up. I need you to make your stupid robot do stuff, okay? Zim!"
He shook Zim a little. No response. Maybe he was in another one of those 'repair cycles' he'd mentioned.
Wait a minute, what was Dib doing? He'd just hit on how to make GIR function two minutes ago, had he already forgotten? He tucked Zim under one arm and grabbed GIR's shoulder. "Hey, GIR. Piggy is now down in the parking lot… and a mean man is trying to make him into sausage!"
"NO!" GIR screamed. He tore away and dove out the window- alone. "PIGGYYY!"
That left Dib with a half-dead alien and no escape route. Oh, boy.
Before his eyes, the window disappeared into the wall with a soft humming noise. Dib was now in a metal box… no windows, no doors, not even any visible air vents. There were no visible lights, either, but everything was brightly lit anyway. It didn't make sense.
Zim was stirring ever-so-slightly, his eyelids flickering to reveal a dark sliver of maroon. "Dib?" His voice was thick and cloggy.
"You have any ideas how to get out of here?" Dib sighed.
"I…" He sounded as if he was still mostly unconscious. There was a thick metal band around his neck, with a flashing light on it. It couldn't possibly be a good thing that that was there. "I can… stab you right here," Zim mumbled, raising one small hand (he was so small and rather frail-looking, it was funny to think about how dangerous he could really be- and his size certainly didn't help Dib convince people he was a threat) and sort of flapping it in Dib's general direction before letting it fall back. "Then you will… remove my Pak, while you bleed to death…"
Dib let the words sink in, mulled over their meaning a bit, sorted them in his mind, made certain that he had the meaning correct- Zim's communication abilities were shaky at best and he often said things that sounded, at first hearing, as if they meant something very different from what he intended.
However, in the end, Dib decided that his first impression was correct and Zim had just suggested a murder/suicide pact.
"Yeah, that's real tempting but no," he said. There was a prickly feeling on the back of his neck, as if he was being watched. Hidden surveillance? Oh yeah. Definitely. "Any other ideas?"
Zim's eyes were closed. "You don't know… what I seen… saw… in here… what they…"
"All right, no good ideas. Don't talk any more. I have to think." Dib looked around the inside of the room. Bare. Empty. Now, not even Professor Membrane could shift matter around so easily, so there must merely be holograms blocking the doors and windows.
Zim coughed weakly. "They will destroy us… my enemy…"
"Zim, shut up."
"My best enemy…" The tone was maudlin.
Dib turned to see two bulky men standing in the room that hadn't been there before. He stood up, holding his specimen protectively to his chest. (The specimen struggled weakly.) "Yeah?"
"Put the Irken on the cot," one of the bulky men said.
"We both know you're just going to cut him up," said Dib.
The man's voice was smooth and even. "Isn't that what you want, Dib?"
"No," Dib said. "I don't want you to cut him up. I want to be the one to cut him up."
"We could work together. We believe you, Dib. We know the Irken is a threat to our existence. You know this." One of the men took a step forward. "Put it down. Stop protecting it."
"He's a male, by the way," Dib said. "Straight antennae, slightly different skeletal structure- but mostly it's in the antennae, since Irkens don't reproduce sexually. However, they still think of themselves as gendered-" He cut himself off. This wasn't important right now. But gosh, the nerve of these people, thinking they were better equipped to handle Dib's alien when they didn't even know he was gendered. "Oh, and his name's Zim. You'd know that if you talked to him." He rolled his eyes. "At all."
The men were quiet for a minute. "Hand us the specimen."
"Nuh-uh." Dib backed up some more. "He's mine." And he was also a decent hostage. These guys couldn't attack Dib without wounding Zim. "Besides, how do I know you want him for the right reasons? I've heard some pretty shifty things about your operations."
The men were still a moment, the one on his right with his head tilted slightly. Dib saw they were wearing earpieces.
The guy on the right whipped out a gun and pointed it at Dib's legs. He pulled the trigger before Dib could dodge. Dib expected to hear a gunshot, followed by excruciating pain, but instead he collapsed to the floor as all sensation went out of his legs.
He looked down at the lower half of his body, half expecting it not to be there anymore. No, he still had legs, but they were completely numb.
Another shot disabled his arms. Dib was left helpless on the ground, like a turtle on its back. Great. Just fantastic.
Zim wriggled out of Dib's limp noodle arms. He curled up on Dib's chest like a cat. His Pak was jammed up against Dib's chin.
"Hey, move it," he said. "Get your alien butt off me."
Zim said nothing. Dib could hear him breathing heavily. He had a gross, musty sick smell.
Dib wriggled his spine, trying to throw Zim off, but the Irken just dug his claws in. Ouch.
The men were standing over Dib, looking down at the two of them with unconcealed disgust. Zim tensed up. He hissed, loudly.
"You're crazy," Dib said.
One of the men reached down towards Zim, who made a weak attempt to slap his hands away. The man grabbed Zim by the collar. The other one put something over Dib's face…
Dib opened his eyes to what looked like the same plain metal ceiling he'd passed out under. He sat up. He was in a different room. This one was bigger, and had a chair in it, and a toilet and sink.
He felt completely alert, as if he'd never been unconscious. He checked himself for unauthorized devices and found nothing.
One of the walls was transparent. Dib could look directly into the next room, which had the same furnishings as his own, plus a bed, plus Zim, who was kneeling in the corner with his face to the wall and his head hanging, as if someone had put him in time-out. He was trembling.
Dib knocked on the wall. Zim sat up straight as an arrow and turned around, panting, eyes wide.
"Just me, come on," Dib called. There was a slot in the wall, not large enough to put anything through, but presumably large enough to hear Dib through, because Zim was coming closer. He looked a little unsteady, but not as much as Dib would have thought. He looked quite a bit more alert than he had that morning. How long had Dib been out?
Zim sat down on his side of the see-through wall. His face was blotchy and swollen. Some new symptom? Just great. The way he looked reminded Dib of something, but he wasn't sure what.
There was murder in Zim's eyes. He pressed the palms of his hands up against his side of the wall. Dib noted absent-mindedly that Zim had slightly less pigment on the palms of his hands than the backs, just like a human.
"Get me out of here," Zim said.
"I don't think there is a way out of here."
Zim shuddered, baring his teeth. "Fine. I'll just rescue myself. Again!" He stood up, looked around, and sank back into a sitting position. He was breathing heavily. He reached up with one hand and started fiddling with the tip of one antenna the way an anxious human might tug at an earlobe or twirl a lock of hair.
"How long was I out?" Dib asked.
"I don't know. Too long! Hours!" He wrung his hands. His face was damp and his eyes looked puffy and irritated. Wait a minute, Dib knew where he had seen that look before, he'd just seen it on that weird crying kid Zim had stabbed in the arm. But that would mean- no, there was no way. Right?
"Zim, you weren't crying," Dib said, sounding scandalized to himself.
Zim recoiled, flinching. He looked caught. Guilty. Even shamed, which was not an expression Dib associated with Zim. And then he looked angry. "No, I was not crying!" he spat, slamming both fists into the divider. "What do you think I am, Dib? A human worm? A smeet?"
"Because I'm not! I'm an Invader, an Irken Invader! I will not be defeated!" He brought his fists back down on the wall. He was shaking. "I will never be defeated and I will certainly not be defeated by the fools in this building! DO YOU HEAR ME?"
Dib said nothing. His heart was sinking in his chest and his skin felt cold and clammy. He sat down, slowly, folding his legs under his body, watching Zim swallow hard and blot his eyes with his sleeve.
"This is your fault! Did you hear me, you filthy worm? I said this is all because of you!" That last word was a hysterical shriek.
"I should have listened to you," Dib said. "But wait. It's not my fault I didn't listen. It's not like you're trustworthy. You lie to me all the time. How could I have known this was different? And I'm not the one who walked right into this in the first place."
"You." Zim got up and tottered away a few feet, looking away from Dib. His voice was husky. "I don't know… what they have in store for me… might put me out of my misery, but you… I know what they're going to do to you…"
"All right. All right, stop it," Dib said. His heart was beating fast. "This can't possibly be as bad as you think it is. Calm down."
But he still felt awfully clammy. GIR did not follow normal logic, Gaz did not do nice things, Professor Membrane did not recognize anything paranormal as legitimate science and Zim did not cry. Not in the normal world Dib lived in.
Zim slammed up against the divider. He would be in here attacking Dib if he had his way, Dib suspected. "How can you be so- Dib! How can you sit there while I-"
"While you fall apart?" He shrugged. "I guess I'm just made of stronger stuff than you are."
Zim's eyes narrowed.
He had recently been very sick, almost dead, Dib reflected. He had to still be weak, exhausted, strung out, on edge, not in his right mind, anxious, neurotic, unstable, much more prone to emotional outbursts than usual. This wasn't anywhere near as big a deal as Zim thought it was. Couldn't be. The guy was scared of the animatronics from Bloaty's!
Then again, the animatronics from Bloaty's were pretty creepy.
Zim was walking away, huddling in his little corner of shame again, not looking at Dib. Dib cleared his throat.
"By the way, what is it that you 'know' is gonna happen to me?"
Zim looked over his shoulder, fixing one dull reddish-pink eye on Dib. Then he looked away. "I don't want to talk about it," he sighed.
"Fine. I'm done talking to you."
Agent Fishsticks had pretty much been over it all already. Dib shuddered.
He examined every inch of his cell. Everything was one with the walls and the floor and completely smooth and without breaks, or at least, not breaks that were detectable by human senses.
But there was a funny spot in one wall where his fingers tingled ever-so-slightly when he touched it.
"It opens my cell."
"Huh?" Dib turned to see Zim lying on his side on his cot with his back turned to Dib.
"If you poke that spot it opens my cell."
"What? Why would it do that?"
Zim sighed. "Because there's a place on my wall that opens yours."
"Found it. Opened door. Shut door." His voice was a dull, churlish mumble, a pouting, overtired child.
"Buh- wha- then why didn't you let me out?" Dib asked. "Come on, I know you don't like me, and I don't like you, but-"
"Because there is no way out of here!" Zim sat up, still with his face turned away. "What do you think is on the other side of that door, you squealing fool? Nothing! They put these switches here to see what we'd do. They know we can get out and they have guards directly outside, waiting to grab us and do something horrible."
"Hmph," said Dib. That pretty much made sense, actually. He wouldn't admit aloud that it made sense. "If we sit in here they're just going to come for us eventually. At least if we go out, we have a chance! Come on, just open my door. You don't care what happens to me anyway."
Zim lay back down on his side, grunting. Clearly, he was going to keep Dib trapped here out of spite.
Dib jabbed the spot on his one wall and sure enough, a wall of Zim's cell disappeared.
Zim yelped, sitting bolt upright. He stared at the empty hallway beyond the missing wall.
"There aren't any guards," Dib said.
"There's something. I'm not goin' out there." Zim lay back down, folding up into a tense ball.
Dib snorted. "You're scared."
There was a long pause.
"You feel no fear, Dib, because you are a stubborn fool."
Dib's eyebrows shot up. "You're scared!"
"I didn't say that," Zim said rather quickly. "I just said you should be scared. You're human, you know."
"You're scared! Oh, man!" Dib pressed his nose up against the glass divider. "You won't even leave your little room because you're scared to death of an empty hallway!" Although in truth Dib knew the alien was right and the hallway probably wasn't really empty.
Zim said nothing. His right antenna twitched, the bladed tip switching through the air in an arc.
"Man, if you let me out of here, I'd be gone." Dib shook his head. "I could take whatever they might throw at me."
"Well, of course you could, Dib, that's why you're in here. With me. In a box!" Zim's body shuddered with the force of that last sentence.
Dib had no counter for that, so he tried another tack. "And your door's open and you're just lying there in a heap."
"I'm letting them come to me. Then I'll destroy them." Zim sounded as if he didn't really expect Dib to believe that. He put the back of his arm over his eyes. "Why tire myself seeking them out?"
"Yeah, right. Fraidy cat."
"I'm not a cat." His tone was matter-of-fact.
"I'm not a chicken."
Zim looked over his shoulder. His eyebrows were furrowed. "I'm not a flower..."
Dib rolled his eyes. "I know what you are."
"Then why-" He shook his head. "Schoolyard taunts, Dib? I'm disappointed in you. Even Torque Smackey doesn't stoop that low."
"You're still scared." Zim turned back to the wall, burrowing his head into the pillow. Dib scowled. "Crybaby."
Zim's shoulders tensed.
"You're just a little green crybaby," Dib said. "You were bawling the whole time I was out, weren't you? When you're in real trouble, you cry and give up."
Zim sat up, reached out and pressed the heel of his hand against a spot on the wall. Dib's cell opened.
Dib dashed out into the hall before the capricious little jerk could change his mind. He turned and looked into Zim's cell. The Irken was ignoring him again.
"You're really just gonna sit there? Huh?"
"Sheesh. Some Invader."
Zim was trembling. "Go."
"I can't believe this, you really-"
"I'll kill you."
His tone made it clear that he would at least try.
Dib didn't need that at the moment. "Fine," he said. "Bye."
He turned and walked down the hallway.
Chapter 11: Zim Scared Stupid
Gaz looked out the window at a thick layer of undisturbed snow.
That snow should have been trampled down by now, pounded into the ground by her brother and his stupid little playmate. Gaz exhaled onto the window and watched the fog made by her breath disappear back into the air. The house was silent. It should not have been silent.
She began to grind her teeth together. This was too long for Dib to be gone. The holiday season was approaching and their father could come home for a visit any day between now and New Year's Eve. He didn't like it when he came home and Dib wasn't there.
She turned away from the window, padding noiselessly up the stairs towards her bedroom. It was time to end this nonsense. Especially if whatever Dib was doing now was going to cause more of those thugs to show up. Getting rid of them was a waste of time Gaz could spend playing video games.
Zim stared at the doorway leading out of his room into the empty hall.
He did not know or care how long ago he had seen Dib vanish down that hall. He was sure Dib wasn't coming back this time. It wasn't possible for the human to survivethat long… even though Dib was infuriatingly good at surviving…
There was no point in trying to find him and there was no point in trying to leave and there was just no point to doing anything because nothing was going to work and everything was ruined.
Zim let his body go limp. His arm slipped off the edge of the cot and his eyes closed.
There was a dull ache in his chest when he breathed deep. The feeling nagged at him in a weird way that made him want to keep breathing deep… it was like the toothache that makes you want to keep exploring it with your tongue.
There was a light raspy sound to his breathing. He wondered how long it would take for his Pak to fix the residual damage. He might be dead before it could happen… cut into little pieces.
This seemed like such a cruel fate… and so completely unfair. He heaved a deep sigh-
-and then suddenly he was sitting up and one side of his face stung.
He was blinking into the face of an impassive Gaz. "Wuh…"
He reached up to rub crusts out of the corners of his eyes. There was dried spit in the corner of his mouth… had he actually managed to fall asleep again? "Gaz?"
"Where is Dib?"
"Who?" He tried to lie back down. She slapped him soundly. Now both sides of his face stung equally. Zim realized this was likely the second time she had slapped him. He sat bolt upright. "You can't do that!"
"Where is Dib?" she repeated, loudly, slowly and clearly.
"I don't know." Zim's head felt much clearer, suddenly, than it had in a while, and his chest didn't hurt anymore. "You can't hit me like that."
She brought her hand back again and he caught her wrist mid-swing. Her eyes opened wide, her pupils fixed straight into the centers of Zim's own solid eyes- once he had figured out what human pupils were for (it had taken him a while), it had struck him how weirdly pinpointed that gaze of theirs was and sometimes it just made him feel like something under a microscope (and it didn't help that the insectoid species here were all tiny and microscope-able, like the miniscule monkey creatures on Irk) when they looked at him like that, mostly when Dib looked at him like that, but when Gaz cared to do it, she was just as bad, especially when- like now- she radiated anger and hate, so strong that she seemed to smell of it. Zim was far from in tune with other people's emotions but Gaz was far from hard to read.
He stared at her right back, narrowing his eyes… he had to look just as unsettling to her as she did to him, he thought, and it didn't occur to him that this was the first time he'd consciously thought anything of the kind.
It seemed like both a long and short time that they just kind of sat there frozen, him with a death grip on her wrist, both of them glaring at each other.
"Let go of me," she said.
He opened his mouth to tell her not to raise her hand to him again, but between the words forming in his brain and reaching his tongue, a million different feelings and impressions from the past few days of torture flashed by in an instant and what he said was: "I'll help you find your brother if you do one thing for me."
"Help me find the leader of this place and help me kill him."
Behind the safe walls of his sanctuary, watching this exchange on his monitoring screens, Peter snorted derisively. Typical Irken.
He checked to make sure all the shields were up around his command center. They were.
"I'm not going to make some kind of stupid deal with you," Gaz said.
"Think of it like a video game."
"This is nothing like a video game."
He was still holding her wrist. "Yes, it is, it's like when you have those stupid villagers that want you to get them something and you have to do it because they have something you need for an objective and the game isn't programmed to let you kill them."
"I don't play those kinds of games." She sounded mildly petulant. "They're for girls."
He gave her a slow smile. "I just change the programming so I can kill them."
Her eyes had drifted shut but now they were open and staring at him again. "You go into the code so you can get out of a two-minute side quest?"
His arm was getting tired. He let go of her wrist. "Yes." Of course it was more about the senseless killing than getting out of side quests. "Of course, it only takes me a minute, you wouldn't know-"
"So, using your analogy, I should just kill you and go find Dib on my own," she said.
Could Gaz really do that? No, she couldn't possibly. Maybe she could. "No, um, that's not at all what- I- no. Oh, forget it." He looked away. "I'll just have to do it myself. As usual! As for Dib, I don't know where he is anyway. He's probably dead."
Gaz's eyebrows rose. "Wow. You're really bad at this."
For some reason, Gaz was just standing there and watching him and not leaving. He assumed she was watching him, anyway, her darn eyes were closed. How could she even see? "Why do you even want to find this guy?" She sounded bored. "And if it takes five minutes and a lot of screaming to explain why, forget it."
Zim made a scoffing noise, flopping back down on the cot. "Because if he's alive we can't escape."
"You mean you can't escape."
"We can't escape."
He closed his eyes. "I don't know how you got in here, but just try leaving. I dare you."
She walked away. Zim listened to his own breathing. He was as sure as he could be that he wasn't going to fall asleep anymore, but he didn't particularly have any other ideas of what to do with himself.
Except wait for Gaz to come back.
And were those her footsteps? Why, they were.
"The door is gone," she said.
"Not my fault."
"How did you-" She paused. "How long have you been in here?"
"And if the door is gone, how did you expect to go find this guy?"
"It's not gone, Gaz. It's hiding."
"Sure, that makes sense."
Zim sat up, heaving a sigh. "The doors are behind some kind of combined hologram and force field. It's not hard to take down with the proper tools."
"And you have those tools?"
"I will if you can remove this." He gestured at his neck. The collar they'd put on him felt heavy and cold. "It's messing with my Pak."
She made a sniffing noise and came closer, taking hold of the collar. He closed his eyes, hissing slightly. He could feel her fingers brushing his throat. He did not particularly like having a human fiddling about near his neck.
"Yeah, looks like you can't do this with three fingers," she said.
"It's true. If you want me to take this off, don't yell in my face. Your breath smells like alien." He heard a few light clicking noises, and the collar was gone. He let out a deep breath.
"I just said don't breathe on me," Gaz said.
Zim popped up on his Pak extensions. It felt good.
"Are you going to do that laugh thing?" Gaz asked.
Zim was not going to do the 'laugh thing'. He didn't feel quite that good. He shook his head.
"Oh," said Gaz. "Whatever. Now if you can't really work the doors I will hurt you."
He grunted and headed out of the room into- oh, what a surprise, a plain white hallway. He started feeling along the walls, vaguely conscious of Gaz scowling at the back of his head the whole time.
Here, this part of the wall seemed a bit funny. He shorted it out and a doorway appeared.
"It's just an empty room," Gaz said.
"Most of them are," Zim mumbled, walking away from her.
"This place is stupid."
Zim didn't say anything. He'd successfully enlisted Gaz. So what? There was still just as much of no way out of here as before.
He went into the room and started casting about for another hidden door or window. He found a window and un-shielded it.
They were about four stories up and it was pitch black outside. It had been morning when he'd been taken, so he'd been here at least a day. Maybe more.
There didn't seem to be anything else of interest in the room. He wandered back out into the hall.
"Do you even know where to find this guy?" Gaz asked.
"This leader guy."
"Oh. I dunno." He looked at the floor.
Gaz waved her hand in front of his eyes. He turned and hissed at her. She pulled away, grunting. "Stop moping around. Whiner. You're making me sick."
He scoffed and looked away. "Do you have any bright ideas? Human?"
She cupped her hands around her mouth and started calling. "DIB! GET YOUR FAT HEAD OUT HERE!"
"Please! That won't work, there's no way he can hear y-"
Dib appeared around the corner, wild-eyed. Zim skittered backwards several feet. "Gaz? Gaz, what are you doing here?" the boy yapped. "Zim! Did you bring her here?"
"Are you insane?" Zim's voice came out rough and louder than he expected. "I can't get out! I CAN'T GET OUT, HOW COULD I BRING ANYONE HERE?"
"WELL, SORRY!" Dib snapped. "I'm not okay with seeing my little sister show up in this DEATH TRAP!"
Zim stamped his foot so hard it kind of hurt. "I TOLD YOU! I TOLD YOU WHAT WOULD HAPPEN AND YOU DIDN'T LISTEN! NOW REAP WHAT YOU SOW! REAP IT AND WEEP! BUT DON'T COME CRYING TO ME!"
"I'M SICK OF YOUR-"
This was Gaz. Zim stood there silently for a moment, and then sank to his knees. Dib went over to Gaz and put his hand on her head. "I'm sorry, Gaz. You shouldn't have come after me." He looked funny, kind of dark around the eyes. Zim wondered how long he'd been wandering around here in circles.
Gaz opened an eye at him, then shrugged. She tossed his hand off of her head and took a few steps away, studying one of the walls. She turned to Zim and Dib. "Whatever. Let's get out of here."
"Let's get out of here," Zim repeated in a mocking tone. "How?"
"Well, I had an idea," Dib said. Zim turned to stare at him. "I couldn't implement it, though, with everyone here too big of a wimp to help me!"
"It was before you showed up," Dib muttered. "You won't quite fit, anyway."
"What are you talking about?" Zim cocked his head to the side, lifting an antenna. "You need help? You need Zim!"
"I-" Dib winced. "Well… yeah. See, this place has to still have air ducts, but, well, I'm not freakishly small enough to fit in them."
Zim folded his hands together in front of his chest. "You need Zim! Aww. Well maybe you should have thought of that before you-" He stamped his foot. "-LEFT ME ALONE TO DIE!"
"Why are you so loud?" Gaz snapped.
"Look, do you want to get out of here or not? Do you really care how?" Dib said, putting his hands on his hips.
Zim closed one eye, staring at Dib with the other. "Hmmmn. Your big, fat, stinky-stink head is too big to fit in the air vents. Poor filthy Dib. I think maybe you shouldapologize to Zim!"
Dib's lips folded together into a thin, white, barely-visible line. "Excuse me? Apologize? For trying to stop you from exterminating my species?"
Zim leaned forward, his antennae pressing to his scalp. "No! Say I'm not crazy and I was right all along!"
Dib stared at him for a moment and then let out a cold, nasty laugh. "You want me to say you're not crazy? And you were right all along?"
Zim sniffed and tossed his head back. "Yes. I do." He shrugged. "Not like you. You really are crazy."
Dib took a deep breath. "I am going to squiiiisssh yooooouuur-"
That was Gaz. Both of them turned to look at her. Her eyes were open.
"If either of you idiots can get us out of here," she said, "do it. Now!"
Zim looked over his shoulder at his bare, unpleasant surroundings. He turned to Dib. "All right, clearly you're not going to do the right thing and apologize to me, I'll just have to be the better man, show me to this air duct."
Peter smashed the remains of his fifth cigarette into the ashtray. Air vents. That was stupid. And cliché. More importantly, there were no cameras or security systems in the air vents. And they weren't even shielded, either, just hidden with a hologram.
Most humans couldn't fit in the air ducts! Not if they were over, say, twelve. Gaz was 14 and just barely too big to fit. Speaking of Gaz, how had she even gotten inhere?
Peter turned on the intercom. "Anyone listening, go to the fourth floor and take everyone you find into custody."
There was no answer.
"Here it is," Dib said.
"I don't see anything," Zim spat.
"It's still there." Dib held up a hand towards the ceiling. "I can feel a draft. Here, I'll give you a boost."
"Not necessary!" Zim stood up on his Pak legs and studied the ceiling. There was an air duct here, under a hologram. He hoisted himself up into it.
"There," Dib said somewhere below him. "See, Gaz? We're gonna be just fine."
"Yeah," Gaz replied, "except you just sent Zim off alone to get help."
Dib said nothing.
It was dark in this air vent. It was enclosed. Zim dropped back down onto the floor.
Dib looked down at him. "Okay. What?"
Zim blinked a few times, licking salty sweat off of his upper lip. "Hm?"
"You're supposed to be in there." Dib pointed towards the air duct. "Get back in there."
"Of course," Zim said. He popped up back into the air vent.
"This is already working really well," Gaz said.
"I don't see you coming up with any better ideas," Dib snapped.
It was still dark and cramped in the air vent. Zim was breathing hard. He dropped back out onto the floor.
Dib looked down at him.
Zim tugged on the collar of his uniform. "Uhh." He was sticky with sweat.
"Why are we still looking at your stupid face?" Gaz asked.
"I'm going." Zim got back into the air vent. He scrambled straight up until he reached a horizontal area, and then he just kind of crouched there with his chest pressed to the bottom of the vent. His antennae rubbed against the top of the vent if he didn't keep them slicked down against his skull.
It was dark in here. It was cramped. He couldn't get out. His own harsh breathing and rapid pulse were magnified in the small space, echoing off the walls. He was completely alone.
His claws dug into the bottom of the vent.
Peter stubbed out another cigarette. Well, so much for hoping the Irken would chicken out. He was in there now. It. It was in there now, scurrying around somewhere, completely out of view. Why wasn't security responding?
He turned on the intercom again. "Security, I said-"
Peter's eyes went wide. "No?"
"That girl is up there. We're not going."
Peter coughed into his fist. "Not- not going?" he rasped. "She's a little girl."
"Well, something's wrong with her, and we're not going. Not after what happened at her house."
Peter slammed his fist against the control panel. It hurt, and it turned a few of the camera views into black and white. Rather counter-productive. "Get in there or I'll use each and every one of you for testing."
"Good luck with that."
Zim's hands were aching from their tight grip on the bottom of the air vent, and his upper arms were sore from being pressed so tightly to his sides. He listened to his own ragged breathing, eyes tightly shut.
He opened his eyes and started crawling forward through the grate. He had to stop after a few feet to catch his breath, he was breathing so fast and shallow. He was drenched with sweat.
He slammed on the side of the air vent. It made a loud, echoing noise, but it didn't give way. He was trapped-
No. No, not trapped, he just had to keep going. He scrambled onwards.
"What?" Peter snapped at the intercom.
He didn't recognize the voice of the man talking to him, he didn't bother to learn who most of his employees were. "I think we can take the girl if we stun her."
Peter laughed, a laugh that turned into a smoker's hack. When he recovered, he said: "Sure. If you need to stun that child to take her in, do it. I just want them gone. And somebody start looking through the air ducts. Kill whatever you find in there."
Zim had come to a long vertical shaft. He looked it up and down. His hands, knees and elbows were sore from all this crawling around.
What was he even looking for in here? A way out?
Dib hadn't said what he was supposed to be doing, not that Zim would do what Dib wanted if he didn't feel like it. Dib most likely wanted a way out.
A way out. That sounded good.
But it wouldn't work and he knew it wouldn't work, they'd just find him and drag him back. He had to attack this problem at the source.
He wiped his forehead with a shaking hand. That human who had interrogated him needed to die. Where to find that human? Well, obviously, someone in charge would be at the very top of the building, the very tallest place. Zim started climbing up the shaft.
Peter watched the view of the fourth floor from his underground control room. All right. Gaz really was putting up a fight.
She had been hit with the stunner twice, and was moving much slower now, but she'd already managed to create a heap of ten unconscious guards. The last one was facing off with her now.
He took a swing at her and she dropped to the floor, dodging the blow and trying to sweep him off his feet with a swing of her legs. This had worked on three other men, but now she was weakened, and the move had no effect.
She got up and went for his arms, obviously attempting the same insane judo toss that had finished off six others. This last man managed to dodge her. She threw a punch into his stomach. This one landed. The man grunted, partially doubling over, but he managed to bring the baseball bat he'd taken off of her down hard on the back of her head. She went down in a crumpled black-and-purple heap. In a way, it was a depressing sight, like that of a fallen lioness.
Dib had gone down with one hit of the stunner. The last guard standing tucked Dib under one arm and Gaz under the other. His voice crackled over the intercom.
"Where should I take them?"
"Take them down here," Peter said. "I want to talk to them."
Chapter 12: Battlefield Earth
Gaz came awake first despite the beating she'd taken. She looked straight at Peter with heavy-lidded yellow eyes.
"You will let me go," she said. Peter had taken the precaution of having both children tied to chairs. It was cliché, but so was that Irken scrabbling around in the air vents.
"In time," he told her.
"You will let me go now."
"How did you get in here?"
Her eyes closed. "I promised someone I'd kill you, you know."
"The thing you promised was half mechanical construct, half alien life form, and hardly a 'someone'."
Gaz's face was impassive now. "Do I look like I care?"
"Do you keep your promises?"
"Do you have any video games?"
"Answer my question."
"Untie the rope."
"How did you get in here?"
"How did you fit through the door?"
She was matching sentence with sentence and question with question. "Are you toying with me, Gaz?"
"Are you ever going to shut up?"
Dib was stirring. Maybe he'd be more co-operative than his sister. Peter rolled his scooter over to him.
Dib looked around, moaning. "Where am I?" His eyes got really wide. "Whoa!" He stared at the screens. "Is this… is this the command center? Are you in charge?"
"Why are you here?"
Dib had initially been gazing about in wonder. Now he pulled his head back, squinting and pursing his lips. "I've heard some iffy things about your operation, you know."
"Why are you here?" Peter repeated.
"What do you mean, 'why am I here?'" Dib demanded. "You stole my alien! And you're supposedly turning people into gross meat soup. Now, why are you doing this, huh, huh?" He leaned forward, tipping the chair onto its front legs. It fell back onto all four legs with a thump. "How's this building work? Did you do anything to me while I was unconscious?"
Peter backed up his scooter a little and looked over at the two guards standing in the doorway.
Zim clung to a branching-off air vent, panting. He'd lost count of how many stories up he'd gone. His shoulders ached and he was dripping with sweat.
He reached up for the next ledge and his hand slipped. He slid a few feet down the shaft before grabbing a hold on another ledge.
He hung there a moment, taking a deep breath of relief. Then he slipped again.
This time, scrabbling at the sides of the vent slowed his fall but did not stop it. He slid down and down until he landed hard on the metal floor at the very bottom of the building.
The shock of the impact left him stunned and immobile for a few moments. Then, moving in a shuddering, jerky fashion, he examined himself for injuries.
Well, his butt was bruised and there was something wrong with one ankle. He tested it out. It didn't seem to be broken. Just sprained.
Well, for ten stories or so that was pretty lucky… or… maybe it was only four… or less… maybe he hadn't made it up very far at all… he was breathing hard… it was dark…
"Why is your head so big?" Peter demanded. "Is it a modification made by your father?"
The look Dib gave him rivaled three of his sister's and Peter backed up a few feet rather quickly.
"My head's not-" Dib huffed. "Forget it. I'm not gonna tell you anything."
The children did not have pre-existing electronic components implanted in to their brains from birth, like the Irken. If Peter tried to control their minds, it would leave scars that would be immediately obvious to their immensely powerful father.
"Are you in league with the Irken?" Peter asked. "Have you turned against your species?" Maybe this would goad Dib into saying something useful.
"No," Dib snapped. "And why won't you just say his name? He's not Voldemort. Or are you really that scared of Zim?"
"I am not afraid of it. I find it childish to anthropomorphize an Irken. They are not even individuals," Peter said. "This one happens to be broken-"
"Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh," Dib broke in. "You think you can take over my alien and you don't even know the first thing about him? Man! Your science is just weak! You do experiments for no real reason I can see other than just, I don't know, proving you can do them? And you don't even try to understand Zim! No wonder he got away and now he wants you dead! Geez! You're just so bad at this!"
Peter's lips pressed together. He turned away.
"And now I've made you mad, huh? Well, you should be mad! You're bad at everything!"
Zim pressed his body against the metal wall of the air vent, panting. His throat felt rough.
Gaz and her vermin brother weren't here. No one would know if he didn't keep going. His ankle was throbbing. See? He was injured, there was nothing wrong with… with… with taking a break…
He shut his eyes. The small space amplified his pounding pulse.
And then he sat up with a start, suddenly breaking into a sweat. The Tallest!
Who'd call them? Who'd let them know where he was or what had happened to him? No one, that was who! If Zim didn't call the Tallest they'd wonder what had happened to him forever!
He started scratching at the wall, then pounding on it with his fists. How could he have been so selfish? He'd convinced the Tallest to give him this last, wonderful chance and now he was going to give up and die here, without even giving them notice? He'd forgotten about them entirely! How could he have been so disloyal?
He threw his whole strength against the wall and a seam where two sections of the vent had been joined together popped open. Zim squeezed through it and fell a few feet onto concrete, landing on his head.
He got to his feet. He was bleeding where he'd hit his head and from cuts on his hands and sides where he'd scraped against the sharp edges of the broken vent. Good. He should be in pain. He deserved it for forgetting the Tallest.
He was in a dark concrete room full of empty cages, lit with dim red light bulbs. It reeked of blood and fear- or maybe that was just Zim.
Wait a minute… not all the cages were empty. He could hear movement.
Something screamed. Zim could see a door past a few rows of cages and he ran for it, totally ignoring the pain in his swelling ankle.
He lost his balance and fell on his face about halfway there. He picked himself up, leaning on a cage for support.
Something moved inside it. It was a weasel with part of its skull replaced with glass. Zim had done that exact experiment. Well. Huh.
The weasel sniffed curiously at the bars of its cage. Zim drew away, popping up on his Pak's legs, since his biological legs were apparently useless.
He burst through the door and into a typical clinical white hallway. The door behind him had disappeared.
Well. What was he going to do now? Just run around an empty hallway until-
Wait, wait a minute. He leaned forward. That over there, that… that was the receptionist's desk.
He was on the ground floor?
The doors out were right there.
He could leave?
Zim ran to the doors, clutching the handle with both hands. He opened the door and felt a blast of cold air on his face.
This couldn't be real, the door was right here. He hadn't even done anything special to find it, just kind of blundered into it.
He stared across the parking lot for a minute more, then shut the doors.
"And another thing," Dib said, "your thugs aren't that great either. Zim and I can take them out no problem if they don't have stun guns. I mean, I'm not saying the thugs aren't a pain, because they are, but for an operation like this you can do a LOT better."
Peter crushed the butt of his cigarette into the ashtray. He wasn't even looking at the repulsive little brat anymore, he was watching the video screens for signs of the Irken. And there it was, limping around on the ground floor. Why hadn't it left when it saw the chance? At this point, Peter might have even let it through the boundary field.
Peter sucked in air through his teeth. It was heading straight for the chamber, muttering deranged nonsense under its breath.
"What's that noise?" Dib yammered. "Is that Zim? Where is he?"
Peter said nothing. His knuckles were white on the edge of his desk.
"You can hear me, can't you?" Peter recoiled. That was the Irken, its voice as loud and abrupt as a gunshot, and raw with emotion. "One of us will be dead before I leave here! I SWEAR IT!"
"That is Zim!" Dib commented unnecessarily.
"He's talking to you," Gaz said to Peter, and he could hear the smirk in her voice. Witch child.
Peter turned his scooter around to face the guards. There were two of them left. "Stop it from entering the Chamber."
The guards looked at each other, then back at Peter.
"That's that alien freak," one of them said.
"Yes. It's an Irken and don't you dare say you're afraid of it, it's three feet tall, sickly, and has no more brains than a goose. Go kill it."
"It shot Mick," the guard replied.
"Stabbed that kid."
"You know what?" the other guard said. "You're not paying us enough."
The pair of them turned and left. Dib snickered. "Wow. Even Zim can keep his minions. Somehow."
Peter turned and pulled out a drawer underneath his command center, fumbling a pistol out of it. If only he could just… lose enough weight to walk, he could end this all now. If it wasn't for Membrane, he'd shoot Dib first.
An alarm sounded. The Irken had entered the Chamber. It wasn't going to find Peter in there, whatever else it thought it was doing.
"Hey, there he is," Dib said, craning his neck to see the screen. "Is he bleeding? Hey, his head is bleeding! How the heck did he manage to hurt himself in an air vent?What is his problem?"
"What's that in those tubes?" Gaz said. She sounded unsettled. It was the first time Peter had heard her sound that way. He rather liked it.
"I don't kn-" Dib went quiet for once.
And yes, of course. That hideous little space creature was terminating each and every one of Peter's experiments. One. By. One.
Peter was trembling. "Stop that!" he snapped, slamming his fist on the desk.
The children had finally shut their traps. Dib was pale.
The Irken finished with the last test subject and turned away, leaning against the wall with one hand to its forehead. Peter spat curses at it.
The Irken hurried out of the chamber. It was limping. Why wouldn't it just die? Surely it was falling to pieces, head injured some way or another, breathing chambers ravaged by virus. Peter hoped it was suffering.
It was muttering to itself, nasty things about Dib, apparently. It stopped in the middle of the hallway, looking lost. It swallowed and said aloud: "I'm not leaving, you know!" Its voice was trembling. "I have some humans to collect…"
"Please," Gaz muttered, wriggling around under her ropes. "He can't do anything."
"…and a mastermind to kill!"
"Please," Peter echoed. "It can't even find us here."
Dib swallowed. "You know what? I think… no. No, you're right. Don't bother, you know, putting up any really tough security measures or anything, there's no way he can do it."
Peter turned to him. "You think… that insect… can win? Against me?"
"Well." Dib was subdued now, not meeting Peter's eyes. "I hope he can, because I'd take him over you any day."
Peter wondered if that was supposed to be a cutting remark. Did Dib really think someone cared about his opinion?
He turned back to the screens. The Irken was wandering around aimlessly on the ground floor. Eventually, it would either grow fatigued and collapse or it would give up and go home. It had no way of actually finding Peter.
It sat down on the floor and removed a radio extension from its Pak, likely calling one of its robots to bring it home.
"Um," Dib said. "So what are your test subjects for, then? What's the point of all this?"
Peter ignored him.
"Can you hear me?"
"I can hear you," Peter said. "I don't want to waste my time talking to you."
"Oh." Dib seemed to accept this. He probably heard it a lot.
The Irken wasn't making a call, it was sitting there fiddling with the mic. Likely up to no good. It held the mic up to its mouth.
Peter started in surprise- that 'Hello?' had come over the communications link as well as the video feed.
"Is he talking to you?" Dib asked.
The Irken sat up straight, its antennae perking up in surprise. "Dib?"
"Zim! You can hear me?"
Peter ground his teeth together.
The Irken fiddled with the base of one antenna. "Dib, where are you?"
"How should I know? I'm in this computer room with lots and screens and- and this morbidly obese guy is here! I think he's the one in charge! I'm tied up, I'm trying to loosen the ropes so I can get at him."
"He's there?" The Irken stood up and looked around, wide-eyed, as if expecting Peter to materialize. "With you?"
"Can he hear me?"
"Yeah, but he's not saying anything."
"Zim," Gaz butted in, "this is all your fault, and if you don't get us out of here, I am going to make the rest of your life into exquisite, personalized torture without end."
"Yeah, yeah, sure," the Irken said. "Hmm."
He was going to the receptionist's desk. Nothing of interest was left in the desk when the receptionist was off duty.
The Irken rifled through the drawers, huffing slightly. He slammed his fist on the desk in a fit of pique, then muttered and put his bloodied hands in his mouth- his hands were cut. Now, how had that happened? Peter had to admit that Dib had a point, how was it possible to get that beaten up in an air vent?
"Are you looking for a computer?" Gaz asked.
"Of course I am." The Irken sat down in the receptionist's chair, pulling off one boot and examining a puffy ankle.
"Isn't there one in your backpack?"
"It's not a mere 'backpack', little Gaz, and, um, well, no."
"You can get a netbook at Best Buy for three hundred dollars," Dib said.
The Irken looked over his shoulder, frowning, and then apparently decided to say nothing.
Peter cleared his throat. "Zim."
The Irken started in surprise. "Who are you?"
"I'm the 'mastermind' you were talking about. There's no way down to where I am. You're free to explore the empty hallways as long as you wish. You're also free to leave."
The Irken leaned back in the receptionist's chair, putting his hand to his chin. "Hmm. 'Down?'"
"I have to go down?"
"It's a figure of speech," Peter said.
"Wait a minute, of course, you'd want to be near your… project," Zim said, and he got up and went into the hall.
Peter made sure his gun was loaded and ready. There were three bullets in it. Coincidentally, that would be just enough for Dib, Gaz, and himself, if he was dramatically inclined. Of course, Peter had no intention of dying. Ever.
Zim was back in the elevator leading to the underground rooms. He was whistling to himself, hands in his pockets. His eyes were glazed over.
He got out and started nosing around in the hallway leading to the Chamber for any hidden doors. Peter turned towards where he knew the door was and aimed his gun at it. The way things were going, he might as well assume Zim would indeed find a way in.
"Zim, you're close!" Dib yapped. "He's got a gun! Be careful!"
"What?" Zim said over the radio. The hairs on the back of Peter's neck stood up. He could hear muffled scratching on the door. "What did you say?"
"That's it, that's the door!" Dib screamed. "But he's got a g-"
Peter had trained the gun on Dib's head. "Shut up," he said.
Gaz's eyes were wide.
Zim was tapping on the door. "Here?"
Dib swallowed. He was sweating.
"In here!" Gaz yelled.
Peter pointed the gun at her. Zim was pounding on the door. Peter turned the gun in that direction.
The door fell inwards. Zim was standing on it with those mechanical legs. He was breathing heavily. "Okay. You can surrender now, or you can be painfully destroyed," he said.
Peter shot at him- and missed, by quite a wide margin. Zim staggered backwards, yelping, frightened but none the worse for wear.
"What's happening?" Dib cried. He couldn't see the door from where he was. "Who got shot?"
Gaz was frantically trying to see as well. "Zim got shot!" she concluded, despite not getting a good look. Dib screamed.
Zim narrowed his eyes and drew back, preparing to spring. Peter shot again and Zim crumpled to the floor, crying out again, the mechanical legs retracting in shock. This time the cry was full of pain, a bullet had landed.
Zim got to his feet, clutching a bloody shoulder. He pulled a sopping wet hand away, staring at it.
"Holy…" He seemed lost for a second word. "You shot me!"
Dib screamed again.
"You miserable…" Zim wiped his own blood off of his hand onto his uniform. He was shaking. "Oh my dirt you really shot me!"
"STOP SCREAMING!" Gaz screamed.
"You shot me! You just shot me!"
Peter brought the gun up again. Zim dodged this time, but Peter's shot would have been off anyway. It blew right by Dib's head (which was at least five feet away), leaving a wide streak of red along Dib's cheek, and knocking off his glasses.
Dib froze completely.
Zim stood up again, leaning on the wall for balance. Peter was out of ammunition. He ground his teeth together.
Zim pulled the mechanical legs back out. He came right up to Peter- which seemed rather suicidal to Peter, Zim didn't know the bullets were gone- took the gun away, and held it to Peter's head. He pulled the trigger. There was an empty click.
Zim spun the gun around in a fast, easy motion that seemed trained, and brought the butt of it down on Peter's head. Peter saw stars.
Dib's heart was beating fast in his ears. He could feel warm blood coursing down his cheek, and could see crap all. He was pretty sure that was Zim over there, but he was a magenta, green and black blur.
"Did you kill him?" Gaz asked.
"What? No. No, he's just unconscious. No, I need to question him." Zim sounded a bit faint himself.
"Zim, untie us," Gaz said. "Right now."
"S-sure. Of course."
Dib felt clammy hands fumbling with his ropes. Zim muttered something, and then a cold metal leg slid between Dib's arm and the ropes, slicing through the ropes. They fell away.
Dib bent down and fumbled on the floor until he found his glasses. He put them on. They wouldn't sit straight and the right lens was broken, but it was way better than nothing.
He was looking across the room at Peter's limp, unconscious form. He looked to his left to see Zim cutting Gaz free of her chair. She stood up. She was a little shaky. Dib had never seen her shaky.
"There," she said. "Now we're going home."
Dib heard himself speaking. "Gaz, I need to go through his computer systems."
"No, it might self-destruct, I can't come back later."
She glared at him.
"Gaz, I'm not going without answers," he said.
She stalked across the room and shoved the stranger's massive bulk out of his chair. He settled to the ground with a soft cracking sound. Dib flinched.
Gaz got in the now-vacant computer chair and started messing with the computer. "I'm sending you the database. You can look at it at home."
"Oh," Dib said. "Well, okay. That works."
Zim was sitting down in Gaz's vacated chair. Dib's attention was arrested by the bloody mess of the alien's shoulder. "Ow," he said. "Does that hurt?"
Zim gave him a plaintive look. "Yes."
"Ah," Dib said.
"Okay, sent," Gaz said.
"Wait! My base is still under surveillance," Zim said.
Gaz glared at him, then turned back to the computer. "Not anymore," she said after a minute. "Okay. Let's go. Now."
"Sure," Dib said.
Zim looked like he was on the verge of unconsciousness… it seemed unwise to expect him to be able to walk out of the building under his own power. Dib scooped him up in his arms. Zim went limp with a little sigh. He felt like a warm sack of bones, and looked like he was feeling very sorry for himself. He was very damp. Dib would assume all that wetness was blood, and not consider other possibilities. It was probably all blood anyway… his shoulder didn't seem to be bleeding now, though. Must be some Irken biology thing.
Gaz left the room and Dib followed. They made their way out into the parking lot without incident. Tak's ship was still sitting where Dib had left it. Had it really been only yesterday he'd left it there? It felt like an eternity.
They piled into the ship and Gaz automatically took the controls. Dib didn't complain- she was a frighteningly good pilot, and Dib had a lapful of curmudgeonly alien.
They took off above the city. Dib stared out the cockpit at the glittering city lights below, shining out of the darkness. Everything felt unreal. Everything had happened so fast.
The sun was just beginning to rise. Dib must have dozed a bit, because now the sun was up all the way, and-
"I'm hungry," Gaz said.
Dib rubbed his eyes. Zim stirred slightly. He was warm and had managed to arrange himself in a way that didn't end up with any poky knees or elbows in bad places. If he didn't still smell like vomit this wouldn't really be so bad. "Huh?" Dib said.
"I want to go to Perkin's." Gaz was without expression.
There was really no chance she was joking. "Gaz, that's a really bad-"
She was taking the ship down.
"Gaz, no," Dib said.
"I'm hungry," she said, in a tone that brooked no argument.
They landed in the parking lot of a Perkin's. Gaz got out and went inside. Dib scrambled after her. "Gaz! Gaz!"
Gaz went inside and marched up to the woman waiting to seat people. "Hey, I need a table for three," she said. The woman- a short, bucktoothed, unattractive girl with a scowl and wild black hair- pulled out three menus.
"Gaz," Dib hissed.
"This way," said the woman, walking into the dining room. Gaz followed. Dib trailed after her. Now that he thought of it, he was pretty hungry too.
"Here, sit here," the woman said, pointing to a booth. Dib slid into one side and Gaz sat down in the other. "Hey. Hey, kid."
"What?" Dib asked.
"Y'can't bring your cat in here," the woman said with a point. "I don't know why you would want to."
"Ummm," Dib said, realizing he still had an armful of alien. "Well-" Wait a minute, Zim looked nothing like a cat.
"Also," said the woman, looking suddenly confused. "What happened to your face?"
"They were just in a play. That's not a cat," Gaz said, opening her menu.
"Oh," the woman said. "What is it?"
"None of your business," Gaz said.
The woman folded her arms over her chest, narrowing her eyes.
Zim opened one eye a sliver. "Is there a problem?"
The woman looked down at him. "Why are all of you covered in paint and crap?" Dib assumed she meant Zim's oddly-colored blood. It had gotten all over. It smelled kind of sugary, which was just weird. Dib wondered if it would taste sweet, too. He wasn't curious enough to try it and see.
"It was a weird play," Gaz said.
The woman looked from Zim to Gaz and back again. "All right, you know what, I don't really care. Do you want drinks?"
"Diet Poop," Gaz said.
"Salty lemonade," Dib said.
"None for me," Zim said, closing his eyes again.
The woman walked away without another word. Hooray for not caring, Dib supposed.
He could have tried to point out that Zim was an alien, and he could still do that when she came back, he supposed, but somehow it just didn't seem like the right time or place. She wouldn't believe him anyway.
Speaking of Zim. "I thought you were unconscious," Dib said.
"Nmh." Zim was curled up with his chin on Dib's knee. He seemed pretty comfy. Dib pushed him off and onto the booth beside him. Zim sat up, looking disgruntled and grabbing his shoulder.
Dib flipped through the menu. "I guess you want waffles or something, right?"
"What? Ick! No!" Zim shuddered. "Never again," he muttered.
The woman was returning with their drinks.
"I want the breakfast platter," Gaz said.
"Scrambled eggs and bacon," Dib said.
The waitress looked pointedly at Zim.
"Nothing," Zim said.
The waitress shrugged and left at a brisk walk.
Dib looked across the table at his sister. "I'm not missing anything, right? We just escaped from a cold, white, metallic hell controlled by an obese smoker, right?"
"Right," Gaz said. "And now, we're having breakfast."
Dib ran his fingers through his hair. "Sure, sure."
He stared up at the ceiling through the spiderweb crack in his glasses. He'd have to get that lens replaced. Gosh, he was so tired. Oh, geez, he'd missed skool, hadn't he? He'd missed skool. Well, whatever, life and death situations took precedence over skool.
The waitress came back with their plates, setting one in front of Dib and one in front of Gaz. She'd given each of them the thing the other one had ordered. Dib quietly traded plates with his sister.
The waitress was walking off again. "Wait, wait, hey," Dib called. She stopped and looked over her shoulder. "Do you have any of those little packets of sugar, like you put in tea?"
"Do I have-" She started to rifle through her pockets, then stopped. "They're right on the table. Right over there. By your face."
"Oh. Thanks," Dib said.
"But… you're not drinking tea?"
"I know," he said.
The woman shrugged and walked off, muttering something about hating her job and freaks putting sugar on eggs. Well, screw her too.
Dib spread out a napkin on the table in front of Zim, who was just sitting there totally still with his eyes closed. Dib picked up a few of the sugar packets, emptied them out onto the napkin and put a spoon next to it. Then he started eating his eggs.
He and Gaz finished their food in silence, then waited in silence as the waitress came, took the plates and left the bill. Gaz set down some cash. Dib picked Zim up and they left the building. Zim hadn't touched the food Dib had put down for him. Ungrateful little jerk.
They got in the ship and took off, with no more conversation until Gaz touched down in Zim's yard. Zim crawled out of the ship and went into his house without a word of goodbye.
Gaz took the ship back to Dib's home. She parked it in the garage and they went inside and to their respective beds, still without another word.
"And, well, that's what happened," Zim said tonelessly, looking down. "I'll have to… go back again to question the human more thoroughly, but it's obvious that he was trying to make soldiers. Should I send him to you, my Tallest?"
Purple was finding it hard to think of words. He had never seen Zim look like that before. He looked scared and sad and… dear Irk, what had happened to his shoulder? It was bound up in bloody bandages and kind of… sagging.
Luckily, there was Red to do the hard things. "Yes," he said. "Kill him if you can't take him alive. Send just the head if you have to. We can scan his brain meats for memories. We need to know what's going on here. We need copies of all the computer files. Zim, look at me."
Zim raised his eyes.
"Can you do this?" Red's voice was sharp and growly. "Tell me the truth."
"Tell me the truth, Zim."
"I wouldn't lie to you, sir," Zim said in a small, broken voice.
"Except you do lie to us, Zim. Are you lying now?"
He shook his head. "I already have the files, sir. The human is disabled."
"Good. Because we'll send someone else if you can't do this."
Zim nodded. Whatever he'd gone through, it must have done something crazy to his head, because he didn't look angry or pout, he looked hurt. He didn't protest, either.
"But you can do this?"
Zim nodded. "Yes, sir."
"I destroyed their project, you know."
"So you did." Red saluted. Purple's mouth fell open. "Good work, soldier."
Zim blinked a few times and then- oh, Irk, Purple was never going to forget that smile if he tried. It was ghastly.
Time to end this trainwreck. "Well, good," Purple said, clasping his hands together. "I think that's all we needed."
Red nodded. "Yes, so, get us that human and those files right away."
"Good-bye." Red ended the call.
"Holy snacks, I thought he was going to start bawling when you saluted," Purple said. "How did you do that with a straight face?"
"Lots of practice." Red held out the cheese balls bag and Purple took a handful. "You should work on it. What if I get assassinated?"
"As if," Purple mumbled from around his mouthful of cheese. "Let's try never to compliment Zim again."
"He doesn't usually react like that."
"Well, no, he acts like we should do it all the time. You know, I hate him."
Red looked a little strained. "I want to know what did that to him. Zim is practically indestructible."
"You got that right."
"He really did look like he was going to cry. It was pretty disgusting."
"He probably started bawling as soon as we hung up."
Zim pressed his sleeve against his eyes, sniffling. He was definitely not crying. At all. Not even a little bit.
He swallowed the lump in his throat. Of course, it wasn't every day that the Tallest recognized his hard work like that. They were often too busy. And he should definitely appreciate compliments from the Tallest.
Still, he sure wasn't crying.
He looked over his (throbbing) shoulder at the couch. The couch was soft and warm. The couch beckoned. However, there was something he had to do before he could lie down.
"Computer, take me to the testing room," he said.
The floor descended. Zim became very interested in his claws and the cuts on his hands and the lines in the palms of his hands, and then very interested in his shoes, and then he sighed and admitted that there was nothing of interest about his shoes, and he walked into the testing room, examining the creatures in each tube.
There was nothing further to be done to most of these poor creatures… these poor, filthy, horrible creatures, that was… and Zim took them out and put them in the transporter in the corner. They would be set free in his back yard.
Nick was particularly happy to go. Zim supposed he could have removed the brain probe before setting Nick free, but that seemed like a lot of effort. Besides, Nick liked the probe. Probably.
There were other Earth animals pent up here that Zim hadn't messed with yet. He set those free, too. (The problems involved with setting the tiger, the human, and the field mice free all in the same place at the same time- without removing the bionic enhancements made to the tiger- did not occur to him.)
The only thing here not from Earth was the byrum. It hadn't been fed in over a day and was madly attacking the insides of its cage. Zim stood over it for a minute, watching.
"Feed it," he finally told the computer, and he went upstairs to take a nap.
That scene in the Perkins had mixed reviews, some people liked it, some people thought it came out of nowhere and bogged things down. Reading it again, I think it comes out of nowhere and bogs things down, but I really don't want to re-open this story for intensive editing... there are too many fresh projects to be distracted by old ones.
Chapter 13: My Pet Monster
Dib spent most of the rest of that day asleep. He got up in the late afternoon to eat cold pizza, notify Agent Darkbootie of his whereabouts and mission progress, work on the files from the white building- er- General Labs for a few hours, and then go back to sleep.
He woke up the next morning, early, to find a lot of messages on the answering machine. He played the first one.
"Wow," Dib said to himself upon hearing the voice in the message. "Zim sounds like a girl over the phone."
"I'm going back to the white building," Zim was saying in a terse voice. "Right now. Don't follow me, if I have to save your horrible head from certain doom twice in one week I might be ill again."
That had been around one in the morning. Dib played the next message, from an hour later.
"The leader of this place is dead." Zim's voice was clipped. "His neck is broken. Your sister did it pushing him out of the chair."
Dib blinked. That was the end of the message.
Well… gee… the guy had been obviously really unhealthy and there had been that crack noise when he fell over but… but… gee. Wow.
The next message was from five minutes later.
"I'm blowing this place up," Zim said. "You can't stop me! I'm blowing it up! I'm going to destroy one of your precious Earth buildings!" Dib had no love for General Labs and Zim could do whatever he wanted with it but whatever. Wait. Were there innocent people in there? More test subjects? Argh! It had to be gone by now regardless, the message was from four hours ago. Stupid Zim! "And there's nothing you can do about it! Here we go… ah! Ah! Aha! I- wait. Dear Irk, I'm still on the roof!"
That was the end of the message. Dib played the next one.
"Well. I'm okay. Not that you care. Hideous worm." Zim sounded husky. "Whole place is gone. Not me after all. Self-destruct sequence. Took a while to execute, giving people time to get out, I suppose." There was a pause. "I really… I really wanted to destroy it. Not that you care. Ungrateful little human spawn."
That was the end of the message. Dib played the next one.
Zim sounded drowsy. "Well, I'm home in one piece. Not that you care! Horrible. Anyway, I'm going to take a bath and then go to bed… and maybe eat something… and make GIR put out that bonfire in the living room…" He sounded like he was talking to himself at this point. "And then update the Tall- no, I already updated the Tallest… already sent them the head… nasty business… nasty business…" What? "Oh, right. Dib! I need that computer data. Now! Just send it to me. Anyway." He yawned. "My point is that if you come sniffing around here to disturb me today I can't be held responsible for what I'll do to you! Not- not that I would mind, being held responsible, I mean, because I like horrible things happening to you and… and I… I forgot what I…" He broke off into muttering that Dib couldn't understand. The message ended.
There was one last message. Dib played it.
"Hey-oh!" a perky, unfamiliar voice said. "How would you like to save money on car insur-"
Dib deleted that message.
He had a bowl of cereal and then put his coat on and headed outside into a silent, frozen, white void. It was cold enough to make his nose hairs freeze and the walk to Zim's house seemed to take forever.
When he got there, he hesitated on the edge of the yarn, eyeing the lawn gnomes. They were still and silent at the moment.
Dib tapped on the front walk with one toe of his boot and the gnomes whirred to life, fixing their sights on Dib. He withdrew his foot.
The front door opened a crack and Zim peered out. He wasn't disguised, Dib was looking at opaque, glittering alien eyes. "Dib?"
"I have the data from General Labs," Dib said. "That place was your problem, so you'd better help me look through it all. There's tons of it." Not that it was really Zim's fault all of this had happened; he hadn't asked to stumble into a den of murder and torture. Dib wouldn't say that, though. Ever. Plus, it was Zim's fault Dib was involved.
"Certainly, I wouldn't trust you to understand any of their files," Zim said. He sighed in a fashion more dramatic than honestly put out. "Oh, I suppose you have to come in."
"Uh huh," Dib said.
Zim motioned for him to come closer. Dib took a tentative step onto the walk and then jumped back. Laser beams from the gnomes shot through the space his head had been occupying a second before.
Zim cackled. He sounded honestly surprised (and delighted), as if he'd somehow forgotten all about his own security system. What an idiot.
"Jerk!" Dib said.
"Silly human," Zim said, and disappeared from view inside the house. "Computer! Deactivate the gnome field," Dib heard him say.
There was a slowing whirr from the gnomes. Dib headed up the walk and into Zim's house.
Zim was wearing a plushy orange bathrobe and apparently no pants. He was damp and smelled faintly of dish soap. Well, it was better than smelling of vomit and sugary alien blood. His arm was in a sling and his foot was in one of those big plastic boots. He looked tired but his eyes were bright and his antennae were standing up at a perky angle. Dib did not like the looks of that.
Zim grabbed Dib's arm and pulled him into the house, as if he actually wanted to see Dib. "Oh no," Dib said. "It's a trap, isn't it?"
"What? Eh! I have no patience for your babbling," Zim said. He was limping badly. Dib wondered how he'd done all that scurrying around General Labs earlier… or maybe that was why he was limping now. Eh, it didn't matter.
Zim shoved Dib into the middle of the room, then spun him around a bit so he was facing a certain way.
Dib slapped his hand away. "Cut that out!" He moved over right next to where Zim was standing, since clearly Zim wanted him in that exact spot, meaning a weight was probably about to fall on his head or something.
Zim scowled at him as if Dib was the one being unreasonable. "Computer, take us to the main database," he said.
The floor descended and they landed in a huge room full of banks of computers. Dib's jaw dropped. His hand slipped into his pocket and he fingered his camera. Hopefully Zim would slip out at some point… Dib would only need a minute…
Zim sat down in the only computer chair in the room and spun around. He was wearing boxer shorts under that robe. Uh. Well, good. "Okay, where's the data?"
"Uh, right here," Dib said, pulling the flash drive out and tossing it at Zim. He fumbled and dropped it and it went skittering across the floor and under a computer. Zim scowled.
"Why did you do that?"
"Um, I don't know," Dib said. "Why didn't you catch it?"
"Well, go get it," Zim said.
"You go get it."
Zim snorted, folded his one available arm over his chest and lightly tapped the heel of that plastic boot thing he was wearing against the floor. Dib had to acknowledge that crawling under a computer would be rather difficult with only two available limbs, and they didn't have all day, so he got down on his hands and knees and got the drive himself. He handed it to Zim. Zim plugged it into the computer. His bright mood had vanished, leaving him looking rather colorless for someone with green skin wearing an obnoxious orange bathrobe. "How far did you get?"
"I got the employee roster. Um, is there a chair for me?"
Zim waved one hand. "Computer, chair."
A chair landed an inch next to Dib. The wind from its passing ruffled his hair. "You almost squished me!"
"Mmhmm," Zim said. "Employee roster."
"Well." Dib hesitated. "There were a lot more people involved than we saw. There were a lot of scientists. Annnd…" He sat down in the chair. "Zim?"
"There were more test subjects than were in those tubes. Way more. In earlier stages of the experiment."
Zim swallowed and nodded, eyes fixed on the screen. Dib wondered why on Earth he was doing making this weird attempt to spare the alien monster's feelings. There was no making this information sound any better anyway.
"And I have no idea where they all went, so far, if they weren't in the building when it… what happened to it exactly?"
"Oh," Dib said. "And I don't know if they're going to carry on their experiment without their leader and I don't know how they knew all the things about us they did-" He was sounding freaked out. He stopped.
Zim bent his head over the keyboard, typing. "Pull up the roster on that one."
Dib did so. He'd messed with Zim's computers enough to know how to use them.
Zim leaned over and glanced over the screen. "Not helpful!" he barked. "Go look for something else."
Dib scowled. He went back to searching through files. "How do you know my phone number?"
"All those messages you left on my answering machine. How'd you know the number?"
"I looked in the phone book." He scoffed. "What else would I do?"
"Oh. Well, I guess that is an option, I just, you know. I thought you were, well, too dumb to know what a phone book was."
"Also, what was that about a head?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"You said something about getting a head and nasty busine-"
Zim shuddered and his eyes got wild. "I don't know what you're talking about!"
"Fine." Dib would let it go for now. There was a lot of work to do here anyway.
The problem was that all these files had names in some kind of code and were arranged in seemingly random order. Security measures or something that had been messed up when Gaz hacked the files, he didn't know, but it was a pain.
He clicked open a folder at random and glanced to the side to see Zim had just opened the same folder, also presumably at random.
"How about I take the folders that start with 'D' and you take the ones that start with 'C'?" Dib suggested. "Then we're not looking at the same ones."
Zim grunted. "What if I want the ones starting with 'D'? What then?"
Dib closed his eyes. "I don't care. Pick a letter."
"I want the letter Z," Zim said. "You can't have it. It is mine."
"I don't care."
"You should care."
This was going to be a long day. "I don't care! I liked you better when you had the flu!"
Dib started opening folders starting with D. Lots of them were building specs, no longer important because there was no longer a building. There was one troubling thing about them, though…
He frowned. "Zim..."
"What." Zim looked a bit on edge. He was cradling his injured shoulder.
"A lot of this technology is stolen from stuff in development in my dad's lab. Why would that be, huh? Huh? Is my dad's lab involved in this somehow? Do they have their claws into my family's business?"
"Nnnmph." Zim shifted position. "Do I look like I care?"
"Well you should care, because- never mind." Dib would look into that on his own. He went back to opening files. He noticed Zim had not pointed out a single discovery. Probably just not being helpful. Whatever. Dib was just here to use the cool alien computer. "You go ahead," he said. "Keep being useless."
Dib opened another file. It was a detailed explanation of one of the experimental procedures that had been done.
"Zim?" His voice cracked.
Dib pointed at the screen. Zim glanced it over. He was quiet for a minute, and then he pulled away. "Yes," he said hoarsely. He pulled a bottle of pills out of his pocket and took two of them. Dib had never seen him take medication before. He tried to get a good look at the label but Zim stowed it out of the way too fast.
Dib glanced back at the file, winced, and closed it out. "Wait, did you think that would happen to us?" he said.
"I warned you."
So… so he had.
Dib swallowed and went back to the files. The next one was about Zim.
There was some very interesting biometric information in here, information Dib promptly committed to memory. It was information that could only be gotten through rather invasive means, as well. Interesting… when had this happened?
Dib didn't bring this file to Zim's attention. He'd try to get a handle on timeframe later.
There was a psychological profile at the end of this file and it was wrong, wrong, wrong. Dib shook his head. These guys didn't understand Zim one little bit and then they implied that Dib was wrong for 'anthropomorphizing' the alien. As if. There wasn't even the tiniest speck of humanity in Zim and Dib knew it.
Dib clicked through more files. The next few were all boring.
Ah, a video. Dib ran it. His eyes went wide and his blood ran cold. He stood up so fast that his chair fell over with a bang. Zim sat bolt upright.
The video was grainy in a familiar way, it had been taken with a home camera. With Dib's camera. The video was focused on a confused Irken female Dib had never seen, and she was answering questions asked in a voice Dib knew.
"What is it?" Zim looked disoriented. "Who? What? Who?"
Dib slung his arm at the screen, index finger extended. "Mr. Dwicky!" he said.
"What? Who? Huh?" Zim drew his knees up towards his chest and pulled his bathrobe down over his legs.
"Mr. Dwicky! He must have took home videos in space! And then he beamed them to Earth! And these guys got them!" Dib was shaking. "It's all Dwicky's fault!"
"What's a Dwicky?"
"I have no idea!" the Irken on the tape was saying.
"Hey, that's Tenn," Zim said. He paled visibly. "They got her too?"
"We're going to have the whole universe under control eventually, though," she said.
"Oh no you won't!" Dib cried.
"Isn't there one of your kind on Earth?" Dwicky said. "There was this kid who tried to tell me about him! I could just kiss that kid for giving me this new life in the stars!"
"You," Dib said, "Make. Me. Sick."
"I haven't done anything yet," Zim said.
"Not you! Shut up!"
"What's Earth?" 'Tenn' said.
"Well," Dwicky bubbled, totally ignoring her question, "I sure do hope this video reaches the proper authorities to save my home planet. Bye!"
"Wait, wha-" Tenn said, as the video ended.
Dib tried to collapse dramatically into his chair but his chair was not where he thought it was so he landed on the metal floor really hard on his butt and that kind of hurt. "Fine," he said. "Sure. Whatever."
Zim looked completely bewildered. Dib stood up, put his chair back into place, and sat down. "Obviously," said Dib, "Mr. Dwicky obviously didn't give them all their information, but I'm guessing intercepting that little transmission from him clued them in to start looking. It's from a year ago."
Dib looked back at the computer. He grabbed double handfuls of his own hair and twisted. "Stupid Dwicky!"
"Stupid humans," Zim said with a nod.
"That's not what I- argh! Just- just keep looking at files!"
Dib started rapidly clicking through files, grinding his teeth together. He pulled one up and saw walls of text.
These were email conversations. Email conversations with Professor Membrane.
Dib's eyes got really big. "Zim!"
Dib looked over. Zim was sitting there all slumped over with his face on the keyboard. He was pouting.
"What's your problem?"
Zim raised his eyebrows. "My shoulder hurts, Dib. Do you know why my shoulder hurts, Dib?"
"I GOT SHOT SAVING YOUR UNGRATEFUL HEAD!" He was trembling now.
"Well, it's not like I got off without a scratch," Dib said, pointing to his bandaged cheek. "I got shot too, you know! And I'm going to need a new pair of backup glasses!"
"You got-" Zim started laughing hysterically. Then he cut himself off, sitting bolt upright. "Look at me!"
Dib looked. He looked at the sling and the boot and the bandages on Zim's hands and forehead and the bags under his eyes so dark they looked like he'd done like a football player and smeared on burnt cork.
"All right, fine," Dib said. "You win this round. Are you happy?"
"Sorry." Dib turned back to the screen.
Zim sputtered. "Sorry?"
"I was being sarcastic."
"Oh, okay." Zim sounded sort of lost.
Dib scanned over the conversations. There were lots of them. Lots and lots.
He started at the beginning. After he'd been reading for a minute Zim sighed and laid his head back down on the keyboard.
Okay. Apparently, the guy in charge here had been named Peter, and he had used to work for Professor Membrane. But then he'd started, well, suggesting dodgy experiments. And Membrane had said…
Dib swallowed. His dad had allowed a few of them? But… but…
Dad used human test subjects sometimes?
Willing subjects, right?
Dib ran his fingers through his hair. "Zim?"
Zim didn't answer. Zim was breathing that way people did when they were asleep. Zim was useless.
Dib kept reading. Okay. Dad had started saying no to dodgier experiments. Okay.
Peter had pushed for a yes. Dad had held firm. Peter had pushed harder and Dad had let him go… but apparently not before Peter had stolen some company secrets.
Dib leaned back in his chair, letting out a long breath.
Zim was definitely asleep. There was a small puddle of drool forming on his keyboard. His eyes were twitching under his eyelids.
"So your eyes move, huh?" Dib said. "I wasn't sure because you don't have… pupils."
Zim obviously did not answer.
Dib took the advantage of Zim being insensate to take pictures of the computer room. Then he looked through a few more unimportant files. He seemed to be at the end of 'D' files. He started on files beginning with the letter 'C'.
Here was a file on Dib.
Dib's blood ran cold. His entire history was here, from birth, to second grade-
"Shh," Dib said. Here was third grade, yes, detention the second week of October for screaming about vampires in class, this was detailed-
Zim was moaning and fidgeting.
And here was fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade and present day. And the beginning of a psychological profile-
Zim cried out, apparently in the middle of a nightmare. It was a plaintive noise, quite loud, quite piercing. Dib rested his hand on the back of Zim's head. "Zim, shhh… shhh… please… that noise…"
"Mph." Zim quieted down. His eyes were still twitching.
"Good. Good." Dib's ears were ringing. He gave Zim a small pat on the head. "Shooshhhhh. Shooooshhhhhhhhh." He looked back at the file.
Dib wasn't sure he'd ever made skin-to-skin contact with the alien before, as Zim was usually covered in fabric from the neck downward. He had skin that felt the same as human skin, and the same skull structure, apparently, because not looking at the alien, eyes on the computer screen, it felt like Dib's hand was on a human head. The hairs on the back of Dib's neck stood up.
Here was a line in his psychological profile, 'argues with the Irken as if speaking to a peer. Treats the Irken as if it has the same powers of reason and emotion as any human…'
Dib pulled his hand away from Zim.
Dib closed out the latest file… more building blueprints. He hadn't found anything groundbreaking since that file on himself. Disappointing, but maybe that was okay… he had a lot to chew on already.
He stood up, stretching. It was one in the afternoon. Dib wasn't really hungry but he usually ate lunch around this time and he needed a break.
Zim was still asleep. It had been hours now. To be fair, he looked like he needed it.
Dib took the alien's shoulder and shook it, gently. Zim shook his head and looked at Dib, bleary-eyed. "Unh… I was…" He looked about himself. "I was back there, but… I'm not now? I'm home?"
This was just completely pathetic. (Also, was it a bad sign that Zim was calling somewhere on Earth his 'home'? Yes, it was an alien base but it was still on Earth! Earth was Dib's planet!) "You were dreaming," Dib said. "I'm going to MacMeaties to get some lunch. I'll be back in about an hour." He was speaking gently. Darn it all to heck, he was acting like Zim had feelings. Darn it.
Well, so freaking what? Zim did have feelings. Dib had always known Zim had feelings. It showed in his face and in his voice and in the things he did. He got mad, he got scared, he got mad, he got cocky, he got mad again, he got madder. Acting as if Zim didn't feel emotions was stupid and would lead to an erroneous interpretation of Zim's behavior that would just make him harder to deal with. That was what was so dangerous about Zim, he was as tricky and unpredictable as any human, trickier than most, but with the strange logic, advanced technology and amorality of…
Of an alien. But then, Peter had been human, and Peter had not been a paragon of virtue…
For crying out loud. Zim was trying to take over the world and that was bad. There was really no use in pondering whether or not he had any shred of something like humanity himself, other than as an interesting philosophical question, which this was not the right time or place for. And that was that.
"I'm going out," Dib repeated.
"Okay." Zim rubbed his eyes. "I wasn't asleep, you know."
"Whatever you say."
They stood there looking at each other for a minute.
Dib cleared his throat. "How do I, uh. How do I get out?"
"Huh? Oh, I can- I mean- well! I have you in my clutches," Zim said. Had… had he really said that? Really? "Who said I'm going to let you out?"
Dib raised his eyebrows.
"All right, I do have better things to torture you," Zim said, as if countering an insult. "You're not that important, you know. Computer, take the Dib to the house level."
The floor rose under Dib. He came up into the house level and walked out the front door.
The gnomes started shooting at him. Apparently they had automatically turned back on. Dib ran out of the front lawn and down the sidewalk.
For a moment it felt like a typical day.