AN: Hello! Yes, I'm sure you'll all be delighted to hear that I am indeed still alive. Had you given up all hope of ever reading this chapter? What has it been, six months?
I'm sure I could give you an excuse all about how my life is far to stressful and busy to write you regular chapters, but that would be a horrible lie. Actually, there isn't an excuse. I just didn't feel like writing, that's all. I did decide to make this one quite a bit longer to make up for my absence, though. It used to be two different chapters, but I crammed them both into one just because I could.
My plot bunny is just not one of those little viscious ones. He's one of those great, big, lazy bunnies that you have to kick to make move. And, really, your reviews are the only reason I bother with him. So please keep them coming; if I can write 22 pages of pure awesome, you can write a sentence or two about how much you appreciate the effort.
As always, a billion thanks to the people who cared enough to review. Especially Donnistar, whose awesomely intelligent reviews equal two in my book.
I'd ask you to enjoy, but that would be cliche', so instead I command you to read it and weep.
It was Saturday today, and Dib was so ready for it.
He had his stealth suit, a water-squirter, night vision goggles, rope, cameras, and, of course, a can of tuna in case he needed to get by Gir. That covered just about everything. He double checked his list, and thought for a moment if he should bring anything else. It couldn't hurt to bring an extra can of tuna just to be safe. He quickly tucked it into his satchel and ran out of the kitchen and into the living room, where Gaz was laying belly-down on the floor, playing her video game.
"Hey, Gaz," he said.
"What," she said without looking up at him.
"I'm gonna go to Zim's house and try and get some pictures," Dib said excitedly. "And get my computer back. You know he took it? I'm still mad."
"What do you want, Dib?" Gaz cut him off, annoyed.
"Well, if I'm not back by ten, could you call the SE, tell them, er, you know, the code thing? I think you know the number, but if you don't, I have the card somewhere..."
"Whatever" said Gaz. "Bye."
Dib nodded, satisfied and walked out the door, closing it behind him.
A moment later the door opened again, and Dib poked his head back in. "What are you making for dinner, anyway?"
"I just wanna know so I can come back earlier if-"
Dib nodded and left.
He walked with a spring in his step, teeth gritting like they did when he was excited. He wasn't exactly sure why he was in such a good mood. Honestly he didn't care. Maybe he just felt pretty good about his chances of at least finding another flaw in Zim's defenses. He did bring tuna this time, after all. He'd found pork didn't work as well.
When he arrived at Zim's house he approached carefully since his stealth suit, unfortunately, didn't seem to work on Gir. He had to try and attract a little attention as possible. He creaked the gate open a bit and squeezed in, closing it as quietly as he could behind him.
The gnomes paid him no attention as he walked through the yard, unable to see him thanks to the stealth suit. He normally came in through the front door, but he had recently discovered a back door (why had he not looked into that earlier?) that was much less ferociously guarded. He walked around the house into the backyard, careful not to leave any obvious footprints on the grass.
Zim's backyard was not what he had expected it to look like at first. It was pretty, well-kept, and surprisingly non-creepy looking. There was a little garden too, with lettuce and strawberries. Suddenly struck by curiosity, Dib crept across the lawn to the little garden, leaning over the plants. Why would Zim plant strawberries and lettuce if he couldn't even eat them? Was it an experiment of some kind? To learn more about Earth methods of agriculture? He shifted briefly through the leaves, not really expecting to find anything interesting.
He yelped and yanked his hand back out swiftly as suddenly a trap was sprung, and a snare closed. If his hand had still been in there, it might have broken his fingers. He took a few steps back, startled eyes still fixed on the trap. So the garden wasn't for growing plants. It was for luring animals. Dib was half-tempted to try and figure out what on earth Zim did with the animals once he got them, but he had no interest in nearly breaking his other hand. He warily turned around, heading to the backdoor.
Zim didn't spend a lot of time in the back room on the house-level (actually Dib had never seen anyone go there at all) so Dib was confident he wouldn't get caught yet as he closed the door behind him. The floor was purple and the walls green like in the living room, but there was no furniture, or little pictures hanging on the wall. It was completely empty, vacant except for the specks of dust floating in the air, visible in the sunlight streaming from the window. The lights were off, but Dib could see well enough for now. It would be harder to see once the sun started going down, but that's what he had night vision for.
Still careful to leave no evidence, Dib crossed the floor into the kitchen. It had always seemed a gross room to him. Well-kept, but old. Like it had been neglected for a long time before someone started taking care of it again. He knew it was sterile, but the ancient grease stains clinging to the edge of every appliance didn't escape his attention as he made his way to the elevator.
It was an observation he'd made after years of breaking in; there were six, maybe seven elevators hidden around the house. Each of them went to a different room or hallway down below. The system was built for efficiency, so Zim could get wherever he wanted faster. But it was built for only one Irken to use. When one elevator went down, they all went down, so that Zim could take any elevator back up he wanted. Which meant that while Zim was in the lab, Dib wouldn't be able to use any of the elevators. He was stuck up here.
Well, not necessarily. While elevators, antigravity devices, swings, and pulleys were used to get Zim around in the lab, Gir had a whole other system. Vacuum tubes. They were narrow pipes, leading in and out of every room, branching off into other rooms, so Gir could go wherever he wanted. Thing was, they only went one way. They sucked him up and spat him out, and he had to take a whole different vacuum tube to get back. Dib didn't know the vacuum tubes well enough yet to navigate them without getting lost, and, honestly, he was a little afraid to try. The vacuums must be very powerful if they could move a heavy metal robot from one place to another so fast. They might not be safe for a human.
Nope. Dib had a whole other idea.
He crossed to the trash can elevator and lifted the lid. The elevator was down in the lab, so he couldn't use it, but the chute was still open. He looked around for something to tie his rope to, and eventually decided to use the door knob. It was sturdy enough. He used a cool knot that Agent Metalman had shown him how to do a few years ago, and after a few experimental tugs, he deemed it safe to start his descent. Biting his lip nervously, he lowered himself down.
The most part of the rope was coiled around his arm, to release as he went and catch him if his hands slipped. It was a little trick he'd picked up from some of the other agents when they were investigating mountain trolls. Granted, it had broken several arms and given a lot of people nasty rope burns, but none of them were experienced mountain climbers, and it's not like they had thought to bring harnesses and stuff. It was all Dib could think of.
He released a tiny bit of the rope, putting his feet against the wall. He'd done some pretty impressive climbing before (if he did say so himself) but never on such a smooth surface with so little room to work with. He found his hands sweating, alarmingly slippery against the rope. But he released just a little more and moved down just a little further. Maybe he could make it if he just took it slow.
And then suddenly the rope holding him up went limp. Dib cried out, hands squeezing it like it was his lifeline; because, after all, it was his lifeline. And he could feel himself falling, the pit of fear in his stomach making him feel alarmingly heavy. He clung to the rope with all his strength, even though it wasn't holding him up.
Then, suddenly, he was jerked to a stop, and the rope went tight again.
There was a moment of silence, punctuated only by the lingering echo of Dib's terrified shout. His eyes were wide, staring at the wall just beyond his trembling hands. What just happened? It took a moment for Dib to recover himself before glancing up. He cursed his own stupidity. Why the heck had he tied the rope to a door knob? The door had opened, that's all it was. The rope felt a little less sturdy now, but it was just the door swinging. Dib sighed in relief and looking pointedly at his hands. Not up, not down, at his hands. The only things he could control at the moment.
He slid down a little further, gaining confidence with every bit of progress he made. It got easier as he went on, since he didn't have to worry about falling as far. Dib eventually decided to stop and take a few pictures of the inside of the elevator chute. Maybe it would be handy to know how the elevators worked next time he broke in. He held on tightly to the rope with one hand, and reached down with his other to find his camera. Grinning, he photographed the pulleys and wires that made the elevator work. He didn't know a lot about hardware (he was more of a software guy) but maybe if he sent the photos to an agent who did, he would get some useful information back.
Dib was so startled by the sudden voice, that his camera slipped out of his hand, falling into the seemingly endless chute below. It was such a long fall, he couldn't even hear the sound of it hitting the bottom. Not that he cared. Clinging to the rope with both hands again, he glanced up at the source of the voice. The robot's glowing blue eyes almost blinded him in the dim of the elevator chute.
"Uh, hi, Gir," He said, pasting on a smile. "I, um, I was just-"
"You tryin' to pull yer arm off?" The robot asked, perplexed but curious.
Dib was startled. "What?"
"Master says that's what humans do with their teeth." Gir replied matter-of-factly. Count on Gir to believe every word Zim said. "An' they tie 'em to a string, an' tie the string to a door, an' then they close the door so their teeth come out."
Dib, suddenly a little panicked, shook his head vigorously. "No, no, no, that's not what I'm doing! I'm, uh-"
"Why do they do that?"
"Pull their teeth out."
Dib shifted his hands along the rope. They were beginning to sting. "Well, when kids grow up, their teeth- I mean- I'm not- oh just forget it!"
If Dib were not holding to a rope for dear life, he might have face-palmed. "Look, I'm not trying to yank my arm off, okay?"
"Why not?" asked Gir in that infuriatingly innocent way of his.
"Why n- why aren't you?!"
Gir actually seemed to consider that. "I don't know," he finally said.
Dib shifted his hands again. They were really starting to hurt. He wanted to hurry up and get back to climbing so he could just get it over with. "Well, when you figure it out, come back and tell me. But right now I really need to-"
"You want me to rip your arm off?" asked Gir, still not understanding.
"What?!" Dib shouted, wide eyes returning to the robot.
"Well, I was like 'Why aren't you gonna rip yer arm off?' an' you was like, 'Why aren't you rippin' meh arm off?' an' I was like, 'I dunno,' an' you were like-"
"I KNOW WHAT I SAID!" Dib shouted, losing his patience. And perhaps a small portion of his sanity. Gir could do that to you. "No, I do NOT want you to rip my arm off! I LIKE having limbs!"
"Whyyyy?" asked the annoying robot.
"Why are we even having this conversation?" Dib snapped. His hands were seriously hurting, and he was becoming quickly confused.
"CUZ JOE-BOB FLOBBIN-HA SAYS IT'S GOOD TO HAVE CLOSURE!" Gir wailed, falling to his knees.
"Who's Joe-Bob Flobbin-Ha?"
"I DUNNO!" Gir shouted. "He was on a late night talk show I was watchin'!"
"Ooh, which one?"
"Well don't go yelling at me because you can't be bothered to remember the names of the talk shows you watch!"
"I WAS LISTENING TO A 'JUSTA BEAVER' SONG WHILE I WAS WATCHIN', SO I DIDN'T PAY ATTENTION!"
"Well whose fault is tha- Wait, why are we talking about this?"
"Closure," Gir reminded him.
"Why do we nee- Hey! We don't need closure!"
"No! I'm dangling from a rope hundreds of feet above the ground, and you're up there talkin' to me about violent amputation, Justa Beaver, late night talk shows, and some guy named Joe-Bob Flobbin-Ha, who thinks we need closure. You haven't even asked me why I'm here!"
"Oh..." said Gir. "Why are you here?"
"I.. aw man I forgot my excuse. Just take this tuna and go away."
Gir complied happily and left.
The elevator chute was suddenly dark and quiet again. Dib gave a echoing sigh and started climbing down, wincing at the stinging in his hands.
And it took a long time. A really long time. The further he got, the darker and hotter it became. Beads of sweat began forming on his forehead, which he didn't stop to brush away. He began to wonder if it was a dumb idea to climb down in the first place. He didn't even know if his rope would be long enough.
But soon he could see a firey red glow beneath him, the glow of Zim's lab. It couldn't be too far now. With an eager grin, he sped up. Soon he could see the floor just about six feet below him and let go of the rope, landing loudly on the ground. He winced at the sound, and quickly gathered himself into the shadows. It probably wouldn't help much since he knew Zim had night vision, but it was a very handy habit he'd picked up chasing werewolves.
Zim's lab was nothing like the other labs Dib had been in. The place was huge. And it wasn't built for simplicity or navigation. It was built specifically for an Irken to navigate, which meant that without a Pak, Dib wasn't going to get very far. There were giant pits he'd need antigravity to get across, giant leaps between ledges he'd need Pak legs to get through. He really wasn't equipped to be in here. But of course he was going to try anyway.
It had always been confusing to him why Zim would want his lab to be so needlessly hard to navigate. But when he stepped back, and looked at Irkens more as a species than a culture, it kinda made sense. Maybe they had some natural need to move around, exercise their entire bodies regularly and burn off energy? It would explain a lot about the way Zim acted. Maybe this is the way it was on Irk; maybe Irkens were built to live underground in dark, warm, dingy labyrinths. He really had no way to investigate further into it yet, but he thought it was a pretty sound hypothesis.
He edged slowly out of the shadows and started looking for his camera. He found it lying a few feet away, but the lens was cracked. He sighed and picked it up. Maybe he'd still be able to get the photos out of it. Tucking it away, he began to look around.
The chamber he was in was mostly empty, but it still seemed claustrophobic, because the walls were made completely of metallic wires, stretching in spidery, ragged patterns. They glowed in the dim red light which seemed to come from nowhere. The air was hot and stuffy, and had a choking smell like smoke and melting metal. Even the floor under his feet was hot to the touch; like it was the only thing between him and a roaring furnace below. It was unnerving... but also really cool.
After glancing around the room, he lifted up his hands for inspection. Yep. Rope burns. But was he surprised? He sighed. He was sustaining more and more injuries every time he tried to mess with Zim. But it wasn't like he could just take a vacation. This was the fate of the world he was talking about!
Well, maybe he should have a few other Swollen Eyeball agents help him on missions. He did have the power to do that now, he realized. Dang, why hadn't he thought of that?
But Dib's attention span really wasn't long enough to care about that for very long. He was fascinated by the chamber he had found himself in, and, after making sure his stealth suit was still working, he walked along the edge of the room towards what looked like a doorway. It was actually kind of hard to tell what was what when it came to Irken architecture (it seemed designed to confuse.) But he relied on his instincts, his wit, and his eenie-meanie-minie-moe.
The doorway, or, more accurately, the hole in the wall, led to a narrow tunnel. Really narrow. Dib grimaced as he poked his head into it. It was barely big enough for him to crawl through, and it was pitch dark in there. How did Zim live like this?
"Darn space-ant" He grumbled as he squeezed into it and started moving.
The tunnel was thankfully short though, so he hadn't been crawling too long when he came to the opening. It was really hard to see into the room, though; the only source of light was an eerie red glow from somewhere on the wall just outside the tunnel, out of view. Dib hunkered in the end of the tunnel for a while, waiting for his eyes to adjust.
When they finally had, he scanned the room again. It was really big, which wasn't really surprising since most of Zim's major chambers were a lot bigger than they needed to be, with ceilings high enough to land a small plane in. He couldn't see much of the floor, but knowing Zim, it was probably just a circle of steel in the middle of the room being suspended by a web or metal-plated wires. Dib always hated sneaking around on those floors; they wobbled just slightly, giving them that rope-bridge effect that always made Dib feel like he was going to fall over. He pulled what Gaz had always called his "grinch face" and reached his hand out of the tunnel, towards the floor. Yep. He could feel the ridges of metal on the wires. Normally with these floors you'd have a solid pathway from the entrance to the main platform, but Dib guessed the tunnel wasn't the intended entrance. He'd have to cross the expanse of wires holding the floor up.
With a whisper of, "Aw man," Dib lowered himself from the tunnel to the wires. They were actually very sturdy, with so many of them, and all being thickly plated with metal. He'd seen Zim cross the wires like this dozens of times without twitching an antenna. Still, he couldn't stop imagining the image of himself somehow slipping between them, falling into whatever room was below. Not trusting them enough to stand up and simply walk across like Zim always did, he inched slowly on his hands and knees towards the platform, clutching one wire tightly in each hand. The gave way a little too much for comfort as he move across, but he took a shaky breath and kept going.
It was like walking across a net suspended above the ground, except Dib couldn't see what was below him. As he put his weight on his hands to keep moving, the wires parted just slightly, and he got a glimpse of the blackness below him. If he somehow slipped, he had no idea how far he would fall or what would await him at the bottom. Of course, he knew he wouldn't slip; he was much to light to strain the wires apart that much. That didn't stop his imagination from trying to scare him, though.
When he reached the platform, Dib pulled himself up and got to his feet, giving himself a minute to relax again. Sure, the floor still wasn't as sturdy as he was used to, but at least there was no way he would fall through it. He straightened his glasses, glancing around the room again now that he had a better view. He really ought to put on his night-vision goggles now, but he didn't like to use them unless he absolutely had to; he always had to fit them on over his glasses, which was terribly uncomfortable. Instead he saw by the red light on the wall by the tunnel entrance.
There was one of those weird Irken chairs, shaped like a crescent moon in the center of the platform, surrounded by two small monitors and a single keypad. They were all turned off, though, so Dib dismissed them. If he was going to investigate every little piece of technology he saw down here he'd be here all year.
There was a door on the opposite side of the room from the tunnel, which was probably the actual way in and out. There was a steel pathway leading up to it, just as Dib had expected. He wondered briefly is he should move on through the door or go back through the tunnel and snoop around somewhere else. To go back would mean crossing over the wires again, though, and his eenie-meanie-minie-moe was telling him that the door was a much better option. Shrugging, he started heading in that direction.
Then the doors opened.
Dib was so startled that he barely had time to check his stealth suit on and dive out of the way before Zim strode into the room, his long strides making him look bigger than he actually was. He walked right past Dib towards the chair, causing him to slump with relief. He'd never had a chance to use the stealth suit on Zim before, but apparently it worked. Thank goodness.
The Irken threw himself side-ways across the chair, which looked really uncomfortable to Dib, but Zim seemed fine with it. He batted at an antenna with his hand for a second, as if there was dust or something on it that was bugging him. Then he sat up, grabbed the edge of the key panel, and pulled his chair closer so he could press the buttons easily.
Dib glanced towards the door. Darn. It was already shut. He'd have to wait until Zim was done and follow him out or his cover would be blown.
Whatever Zim was doing, he seemed very casual about it, so it couldn't be too terribly important. Still, Dib got a little closer out of curiosity. If he was going to be here for a while, he might as well make the most of it. But even if Zim couldn't see him, Dib was careful to keep his distance. He knew how sensitive an Irken's antennae were.
Zim reached forward and pressed a large, square button, holding it down. "Gir," he said aloud, probably into a microphone or something. Dib noted that his voice sounded kind of hoarse, as if he hadn't spoken for a while. That was a rarity. "Are you back yet?"
"Uh huh," said the robot's little voice from a speaker. Suddenly Dib's stomach dropped. He hoped the little guy wouldn't tell Zim about their encounter. "We was lookin' for slugs, but the cheese stayed on the the grass cuz the sled squished it flat so we just had to walk."
If Zim was as confused as Dib was, he hid it well. "Who's 'we,' Gir?" he asked, holding the button down again.
"Me and Pinkie," said Gir's voice. "She's nice."
As interesting as the conversation was, Dib found himself focused on Zim's hand, resting on the key panel. His gloves were off, which wasn't too unusual. He'd seen Zim's hands without the gloves before. But he'd never seen that scar before. It looked very recent too, curving from the middle of the back of his hand down to the outside of his wrist. Had Zim scratched himself on accident or something? The mark was the almost the same as the marks Zim left with his claws, but... bigger. Was he attacked by one of his test subjects?
"Oh whatever," said Zim. He shifted in his chair so his feet could rest on top of one of the little monitors. "Just go check my snares. Bring me back whatever you find, and reset the ones that have gone off."
"Even the ones in the woods?" asked Gir
"M'kay." said Gir. And then, "How do you reset them again?"
Zim rolled his glowing red eyes. "Don't worry about it," he said. "I guess I'll do it later."
He must have been done talking to Gir because he leaned back in his chair and began brushing his antenna again. Dib shifted nervously behind him, glancing at the door. He hoped Zim would be finished soon.
Zim sat up again and began fiddling with one of the monitors, turning it on. He opened some alien website and logged on. Curious, Dib looked over his shoulder. . Hmm. It looked like a social website. He mentally cursed his luck. Zim could be on for hours.
The Irken joined some chatroom and began to type. With nothing better to do, Dib read over his shoulder.
Zim: who's on?
Almost instantly came the replies.
Skoodge: Me! Hey, Zim!
Raz: Who's Zim?
Lax: Heyz wuts up
Dib raised his eyebrows. Next to the names of the other people on the chatroom were profile pictures of Irkens. Zim was communicating with other invaders! His interest perked, Dib began to pay more attention. It was probably just a social conversation, but the idea that Zim could talk to other Irkens of his same rank hadn't occurred to him. It might mean trouble for Earth.
Zim: i am zim!can you notread my name?
Skoodge: Relax, dude.
Raz: The same Zim who got the secret mission at the Great Assigning?
Zim: how did you know abut my secrit mision?
Raz: Well they do broadcast the Great Assigning all over the galaxy sooo... yeah.
Dib took note of that.
Zim: UR LYING!
Skoodge: You haven't come on in a while, Zim. How you been? I haven't seen you since Hobo 13.
Dib wished he could take out his notebook and start taking notes. Instead he repeated important things he read in his mind so he could put them with the rest of his information later. Maybe watching Zim chat over his shoulder wasn't such a waste of time after all.
Dib almost snorted at himself. He was in a stealth suit, invisible, watching Zim as he chatted online. This would be a story to Email Agent Nessie about when he got home.
Zim: zim hasbeen amazig! One sucess after anohtr of corse. im a jenious!
Lax: You'd think a genius would be able to spell it. :P
Raz: LOL Yeah. I can barely read what you're typing. XD
Skoodge: ...What did he say?
Lax: He said he's been good.
Raz: You know, I read online that drinking milk can make you taller.
Zim: WOAH hwere did THAT come from?
Skoodge: Doesn't milk come from mammals?
Raz: Yeah. Only females though, I think.
Lax: whuts milk?
Zim: u dont nkow what milk is?
Dib was biting his lip, trying not to laugh. He already knew Irkens weren't mammals, but it was funny to see them confirm it like that.
Skoodge: It's that white stuff mammals feed their babies.
Lax: Like, juice?
Lax: Is it poisonous?
Zim: the kind they give u at urth skool sure is XD
Skoodge: Dude, Earth is spelled with an E.
Raz: I don't think it's poisonous. I been drinking it so I can get taller.
Zim: I hope is dizolvs ur insides. XP
Skoodge: How do mammals make milk come out of them, anyway? Do they, like, puke it up?
Raz: … I'm gonna be drinking a lot less milk now.
Be right back? Where was Zim going?
Suddenly Zim spun around and socked Dib in the jaw.
It wasn't a hard punch, but it hit solidly and it caught Dib off guard, causing him to stumble back a few steps. Zim didn't look startled to see him at all. Actually, he looked as if he had been expecting it.
"Geez, Zim!" said Dib, rubbing his face where Zim had hit him. The blow itself hadn't actually hurt him that much, but he was just checking to see if Zim's claws had cut him. They hadn't. "How'd you know I was there?"
"You could say a little birdie told me you'd be coming," said Zim, gaze hardening, antennae coming forward over his eyes aggressively. "Also, I could hear you breathing. Do you think I'm deaf or something?" He flexed his claws.
Had Gir told Zim? Was that thing about slugs and cheese supposed to be code or something? Oh whatever. Dib's eyes flickered towards the tunnel. That would be the best escape route. He tucked that piece of information into the back of his mind and looked back at Zim. The Irken had beaten him in a fight two times in a row; that wouldn't be happening again.
"What do you want?" growled Zim.
"Well, I want to save the Earth,"responded Dib. "That would be nice. Also I'd like my computer back please."
Yeah, he probably would any other day. But today Dib had come prepared, and he was in the mood to do something reckless. "As soon as you hand over my computer," he said with a cheesy grin, putting his hand on his water pistol.
Of course that wasn't going to happen. Instead, Zim jumped forward and slashed downwards at Dib with his claws. Dib dodged with a quick step back. He could still feel the wind as the claws zipped through thin air. "Aha!" shouted Dib.
With a grunt of anger, Zim took another step forward, hooking with his right claw at Dib chest. Dib tried to dodge again, quickly shifting his weight to his left, but Zim's claws caught on the edge of his shirt, allowing the Irken to easily pull him forward. Dib shouted again as Zim dragged him closer with his right claw and threw a punch at him with his left. His glasses skidded across the room.
Dib yanked his water pistol out of his pocket and surprised Zim by squirting him in the eye. Zim yelped and let go, stumbling a few steps back to rub his eye with his knuckles. Dib took the opportunity to tackle him, holding him down by the shoulders.
"So where are you keeping it?" He grunted. Zim struggled underneath him, trying to turn on his side, but Dib shoved him down again with his knees. As long as Zim was pressed against the ground like this, he wouldn't be able to activate his Pak legs. "My computer, where is it?"
"What's so important about it anyway?" Zim growled. He kicked Dib in the stomach, forcing him away, and rolled to his feet.
Dib rose up too, coughing slightly from the blow. "Ah, nothing," he lied easily. Actually he had a whole lot of secret information about the Swollen Eyeball on that computer. Apparently Zim didn't know that, though, so Dib would play along. "I don't see why you went to the trouble to steal it in the first place."
"... You left it on the porch. I just picked it up. There was no trouble involved."
"Yeah," Dib admitted. "But... gimme it back anyway."
"Eh...No." said Zim.
So Dib tried to tackle him again.
This time Zim dodged to the side, sending Dib pinwheeling his arms to keep from falling. Zim pushed him from behind, and he collided painfully with the ground, head smacking loudly against the steel.
"You have a very thick skull," Zim noted, putting a foot on Dib's back.
Well, that went well. Dib walked back home, sighing. He always got caught in the end, but at least he got further each time. At least he got some new information for next time. At least he didn't live too far away.
He closed he door absentmindedly behind him and went straight for the kitchen sink. Gaz was hanging out at the arcade, and his dad was on his day off, probably out playing bowling with other scientists. Dib had the house all to himself for now so he didn't have to worry about any questions.
He washed his face and his hands, enjoying the cool water for a while before he shut it off and dried off with a towel. He grabbed a suck monkey from the fridge and flopped onto the couch, turning on the TV. There was nothing very interesting on, but at least he could pull up one of those half-tolerable super hero cartoons.
… Okay, maybe a little more than half-tolerable.
He'd tuned in toward the end of the episode, but most of them had the same pattern, so he wasn't too far out of the loop. Batman was falling off a skyscraper, looking for his grappling bat thingy. Dib sucked on his suck monkey, watching with half-lidded eyes. As stupid and predictable as this show could be, it was kind of addicting.
When the episode was over, and the Penguin had made his escape, Dib switched off the TV and tromped upstairs, flopping onto his bed. What time was it? He craned his neck and looked at his digital clock. Only one in the afternoon, but it felt so much later. He was just about ready to fall asleep.
"Agent Mothman?" a familiar voice said from the monitor on his desk. "Hellooooo? Mothman?"
Dib jumped in surprise and whirled around toward his desktop computer, eyes wide. The monitor had pulled up videochat without his consent, and displayed there was Agent Nessie's face, hidden in shadow so Dib could only see his silhouette. "Hey," he said when he had Dib's attention. "How's it going?"
"Agent Nessie?" Dib asked, quickly composing himself. "I didn't start a videochat. How did-"
"Oh, I hacked your computer," said Nessie simply. "I'm pretty good at that. Now listen up, cause this is important. Something big happened."
"What?" replied Dib, catching onto the seriousness. "What is it?"
"A mass murder at the insane asylum," He 's eyes widened, and he leaped off the bed, closer to the monitor. "Everybody's dead. The patients, the guards, the doctors, everyone. There are no witnesses left alive. Police investigators can't find anything."
Dib gasped. "Do they know how they died?"
"No," said Nessie. "They shouldn't even be dead. They're perfectly healthy. Er, physically anyway. That's why Shadowbutt over here-"
There was a indignant grunt in the background.
"-thinks something spooky is afoot. He wants us to check it out. You in?"
Dib nodded. "Where am I meeting you?"
"Usual place as soon as you can get there. I'll be waiting for you."
"Alright. See you in ten minutes."
Quin burst excitedly into Fuz's base, shutting the door a little too loudly behind her. "Fuz?" she called, looking around with perked antennae. The older Irken was nowhere to be seen. "Computer? Where is Fuz?"
"The mistress is still in the labs, Quin," responded the automated female voice. "She has completed updates on the Standard Information Retrieval Unit."
"Oh," said Quin. "So... can I go down there now?"
"M'kay," said Quin. She shifted awkwardly. "Can you, um, take me down there?"
There was no verbal response, but Quin wobbled slightly as the floor began to lower out beneath her feet, pinwheeling her arms to keep from losing her balance. It took her to a dark room in the labyrinth of the labs, full of jagged wires, casting eerie shadows across the walls and floors. The smell of chemicals and smoke ran invisibly through the air, causing Quin to lower her antennae in an attempt to block them out.
Fuz was standing with her back to Quin, fiddling with something or other that Quin could care less about. Her antennae lifted a little as she heard the younger Irken's approach, and she turned her head, one cool, sharp eye looking at her. "Hello there, Quin," she said once Quin stepped off the platform, and it went back up. "Finally get bored of your little toys?"
"Nuh, huh!" said Quin, shaking her head excitedly. "I went outside and played with Gir."
"Zim's SIR unit."
Fuz's eyes widened a fraction, her antennae perking with interest. "What were you doing playing with the rogue's SIR unit?"
Quin waved her hands. "No, no, no, I didn't invite him or anything; I was just playing by myself, and he popped out, and we went slug-hunting, and, um, that's not the point. Look!" She pulled Mushroom out from behind her back, holding him in front of her to show Fuz. The older invader didn't look all that surprised to see him; she must have smelled him when Quin came in.
"Is that a slug?" she asked, looking at it with mild disgust.
"Uh, no," said Quin, examining Mushroom more closely. Was he a slug? She had no idea what he was, to be honest. "At least I don't think so. Gir said slugs are slimy, but Mushroom isn't really slimy at all..."
"Mushroom?" Fuz turned all the way toward her now, leaving whatever thing she was fiddling with on the desk. Her antennae raised slightly to show her superiority, and Quin's lowered in response. "Is that a name? You don't want to keep it, do you?"
Quin nodded, bringing Mushroom to her chest.
"Oh Quin, I don't think that's a good idea..."
"Why not!" Quin hugged Mushroom tightly, eyes wide. "I love him, Fuz! And I can take care of him, and keep him in my room- you won't even know he's here!"
Fuz sighed, sharp midnight eyes looking at Mushroom. Apparently feeling her gaze, Mushroom pulled his shy little green head into his shell. "I better not," she said sternly. "Because one toe out of line, and that little monster is going right back where you found him."
Quin's face immediately brightened. "Thanks, Fuz!" she said. She shifted Mushroom to one hand and ran up to give Fuz a one-armed hug, which was met with a pat on the head and a order to get off.
The sun was drooping in the sky, about half way to the horizon. Ahead of him, Dib could see a familiar black sedan parked by the side of the road, under the usual street lamp. He ran up to it, popping his tall collar to hide his face a bit more. It would be better if no one knew who he was; he didn't need the passersby to tell Professor Membrane that they had seen his son climbing into a strange car.
"Gone fishin' lately?" He asked the driver of the vehicle as he approached. He could already see it was Nessie, but he was supposed to make sure.
"Yep," Nessie replied, taking off his sunglasses to show gray-green eyes. "Moths make pretty good bait." Without another word, the older agent unlocked the door, and Dib crawled in, buckling up. Under normal circumstances they would talk and laugh, but today they just stared forward at the window as Nessie started the car and began down the road.
"The cops found something interesting while you were getting here," said Nessie, turning the radio down, but loud enough so they could still hear it. "A note written real little on the bottom of one of the cell walls."
Dib raised his eyebrows. "What's it say?"
"I dunno. They say it was in another language they can't identify. It could have been written by the crazy guy in the cell, but we'll have to check it out to be sure. I don't think they were allowed to have pens..."
A green light up ahead turned red, but Nessie ignored it, driving through the intersection without heed. Dib's eyes widened, and he grabbed the edge of his seat. "Dude! You just ran a red light!"
"So?" Nessie rolled his eyes. "I run red lights all the time."
Dib threw his hands into the air with exasperation and shook his head with disbelief. "And I ask you to drive me places."
"Aw, it's just cause you like me," said Nessie, rolling his eyes again. "Everybody likes me. I'm a likable guy."
"Don't push it."
The sedan moved quickly among the other cars like a blur of black and silver. Twice they nearly got pulled over for speeding, but Nessie was well practiced at avoiding those problems. Soon the agents arrived at the asylum, and the sedan came to an abrupt stop, pulling swiftly to the side.
Dib and Agent Nessie emerged from the car, slamming their doors shut and walking forward with determination in their faces. The building was swarming with police officers and yellow tape, red and blue sirens flashing everywhere. Dib took it all in with a deep breath and followed Nessie with long, purposeful strides. This was the first time he had ever investigated anything officially. He wanted it to be memorable.
"Woah!" A pot-bellied police man shouted with a southern drawl, running toward them and waving his arm vaguely. "Hey, you aren't allowed here! It's, uh, it's a crime scene! Like, something bad happened here. We have to, like, stand here and stuff."
"We're with the Swollen Eyeball agency," said Nessie. He and Dib reached into their pockets, pulling out their badges. "I'm Agent Nessie, and this is Agent Mothman. We're here to investigate for paranormal activity."
The police man's eyes widened. He lifted a walkie talkie to his mouth from his belt. "Hey, chief! There are a couple of really creepy dudes here!"
The chief answered, "What do they want?"
"They say they're part of the Swollen Eyeball agency. They got badges and everything!"
There was a pause as if the chief were thinking something over, and then he asked, "What do the badges look like?"
"They're all shiny like!" The poor officer seemed a little intimidated. Dib found himself grinning with amusement.
"Hmm... Well, in that case, let 'em through."
The police man hooked the device back on his belt loop, and forced a smile at the agents. "Well, the chief says you can go through, so you go ahead," he drawled. "Try not to touch nuthin'. It's all evidence, it is."
"Absolutely," said Nessie, adopting a more friendly tone. "Thank you, sir. Have a good night."
They waved half-hearted good byes, and made there way towards the building. Dib straightened himself out, mentally preparing himself for whatever he might see. He'd never been to a murder scene before. What if it looked like one of Gaz's creepy video games? He was expecting blood crusted on the walls, bodies laying left and right...
The doors were opened, and Dib flinched, ducking his head. No bodies could be seen yet. No blood, no anything. But apparently that was because no one had been in this part of the building at the time of the murder. He followed Nessie, keeping close.
"Nervous?" Asked the older agent, smirking down.
"I've never been at a crime scene before," said Dib, face twisting apprehensively. "Will there be blood?"
"No," replied Nessie. "But there will be bodies. There's just no blood because they didn't die violently. Or maybe they did, I don't know. There are signs of struggling."
"Sure," mumbled Dib. "That's reassuring. Let's just get it over with."
They advanced side by side, and pushed the double doors open with as much mature authority as a thirteen-year-old and a guy just out of college could manage. The inside of the building was even more busy than the front. Crime Scene Investigators were taking photos, writing notes, sketching, and walking around, looking at everything, and touching nothing. Dib watched them owlishly with fascination. They made every observation, noted every detail, looked from every angle. He may know nothing about crime scenes, but even he could see that these CSIs knew what they were doing.
"Excuse me, miss," Nessie said politely as he tapped on of the investigators on the shoulder. She was a pretty young woman with short, curly blond hair, bent over to take a close-up picture of a clipboard one of the doctors had dropped on the floor. "If you have a minute, do you think you could brief us on the situation?"
She stood up from her crouched position, and brushed a stray lock of hair from her face. "Oh, hi," she said with a faint British accent, fluttering her eyelashes appealingly at Nessie. Dib frowned when he saw Nessie respond with a boyish smirk. "Sorry. My name is Solina. And you are...?"
"Agent Nessie," he said, shaking her hand. "And this is Agent Mothman. We're from the SE."
"Ooh," Solina fluttered her eyes again. She didn't seem to find it weird that someone Dib's age could be a secret agent. "Sounds important."
"Yeah," said Dib, interrupting the conversation with his harsh, flat tone. "And urgent."
"Oh, sorry," said Solina, though she didn't sound it. She took another step toward Nessie, flipping her hair flirtatiously. "So...What did you say you needed?"
"A briefing on the situation," replied Nessie with a smirk. "And maybe a dinner date. That'd be- OW!"
Nessie was promptly cut off when Dib stomped on his foot, and hissed, "Nessie!" harshly under his breath.
Solina giggled. "Oh, you are cute," she said. "Anyway, it's a pretty tough case. Everyone dead, and its hard to tell if it's a murder or not. The best thing we've got is some weird note they drew on the wall. We just can't read it. Would you like me to show it to you?"
"Yes please," said Nessie, grinning at her. Dib rolled his eyes.
They left the room silently, and walked through a long white hall, lined with doors. Dib's eyes widened. There were bodies here, lying stiffly on the floor, their faces fixed into expressions of sheer terror. One other Crime Scene Investigator was looking them over, taking pictures and notes. He only acknowledged them with a nod, and wrote something down.
"What happened to them?" Dib asked quietly, as he looked down at a dead woman, leaning heavily against the wall. Nessie shrugged, looking down at her too.
"I don't know," he said solemnly.
"Well there are some clues we found," Solina sighed. "For one, we can infer that it was not a sneak attack. You can see from the victims' faces that they saw what it was before it killed them, and several of the bodies are close together, as if they were being restrained all at once by the same person. There are signs that they tried to flee, but the culprit caught them. Oh, here's something interesting. Look."
Solina pointed at the floor, and Dib leaned in, squinting his eyes. It was very small, and he would have missed it if it hadn't been pointed out, but at the same time, it was unmistakable. Scratch marks.
"Look up," said Solina. "You can see some on the ceiling too."
"The ceiling?" Dib repeated disbelievingly, looking up. But there they were. More scratch marks.
"Do you have any idea where those came from?" asked Nessie, taking off his shades to see the scratches better.
"No," said Solina. "I've never seen anything like it. Neither has anybody else apparently. We've come up with boatloads of theories, but none of them really fit. My best theory is that the murderer had throwing knives." She shrugged. "But that's dumb. There are no wounds, no blood, no dropped knives, and, really, who throws a knife at the ceiling? But they just look so much like knife marks!" She smiled at Nessie, ignoring Dib as if he weren't even there. "But maybe a smart SE agent like you has a better theory?"
Nessie blushed, "Heh, heh..."
Dib cleared his throat. The whole situation made him nervous, and he wanted to get out of here as soon as he could. "I'm sure he doesn't, and neither do I. So, the note?"
"Oh, right," Solina looked a little embarrassed, taking a step away. "Um, down this way. C'mon."
Dib and Nessie exchanged glances, and followed.
They followed her down the hall, glancing apprehensively at all the corpses laying around. No one moved them from where they were; even the position they lay in was evidence. CSIs ignored them as they walked by, taking pictures and writing observations.
"Hey," Nessie finally said. "Don't they have any security footage of what happened?"
"I wish it were that simple," sighed Solina. "but whoever the murderer is, they knew what they were doing. After they took out everyone in the building, the broke into the security room and hacked into the system. They erased all the footage from the entire day. I guess they didn't mind making it obvious there was a murder."
"They broke into the room, and used the equipment?" asked Dib. "Well, didn't you look for finger prints on the buttons and stuff?"
"Well, of course!" Solina rolled her eyes. "But they didn't leave any. I don't think they used their fingers at all. They are tiny scratches on the keys; smaller than the ones in the hallways. I think the culprit used a needle or something to press the buttons."
"Oh," Nessie scratched his head. "Well how come no one tried to call the police?"
"I guess they blocked the telephone signal before they broke in. It's back up now."
"Dangit, they're smart," said Nessie. "I hate it when the bad guys are smart."
"You still haven't seen the note," said Solina, speeding up. Agents Nessie and Mothman followed her hastily. They traveled down the straight hallway, past the doors to cells. Dib, who had admittedly been to the asylum a few times, actually knew this hallway pretty well. It was a lot different to be walking down with a badge then being dragged along in a straight jacket.
"Here. This is it." Solina pushed open the door to one of the cells and stepped inside, followed by the boys. It was a small room, with only a bed and a toilet to make it seem even smaller. Another CSI was bent to the floor, shining a flashlight under the bed.
"Excuse me," Solina said, tapping him on the shoulder. "A couple Swollen Eyeball agents need to take a quick peek at the message. Do you mind?"
Wordlessly he handed her his flashlight and got out of their way.
Solina pointed the flashlight under the bed and stood to the side. "We're not supposed to move the bed because it's evidence, so you'll have to peek under there," she explained. "It's on the wall on the other side, but you look real closely, you'll see that it's in another language. It was written very recently too. The ink was still wet when we found it.
Nessie crouched down and turned his head to the side, trying to see the message. "I see it," he said. "But I can't make it out. Mothman, I think you're small enough to squeeze in there. Borrow my camera and take a picture."
Without question, Dib took the camera from Nessie and wiggled his way under the bed. Once he got his head in there, it was pretty easy. He moved on his belly, keeping his head low.
It was dark under the bed. Too dark to see the message. "Hand me the flashlight," he said and reached his hand back. He waited until he felt the cold metal of the device in his hand before he brought it forward, pointing it at where the message would be.
His eyes widened as he saw the message scrawled into the wall. It looked as if someone had slashed it into the wall with a knife and, somehow, the wall was bleeding black ink. That's not what caught Dib's attention, though.
His eyes narrowed. "Zim..." He growled. It did make a scary kind of sense. The scratches on the buttons in the security room had to be from his claws, and the ones in the hallway from his Pak legs. The alien did have a weird way of taking up as much space as he could whenever he was using those, even if it meant using the ceiling.
"What's wrong?" asked Nessie. "What is it?"
"Hang on..." Dib took a moment to snap a picture, and then crawled out from under the bed. He looked up at the three adults that we watching him nervously. "I know what language it's in."
"Really?" said Solina hopefully.
Dib nodded. "It's in Irken."
"Irken..." Nessie scratched the back of his neck thoughtfully. "You mean like the alien?"
"That's exactly what I mean."
"Well," Nessie clapped his hands in a 'matter is closed' sort of way. "Now we have a heading. What did the note say?"
"Er," Dib looked at him sideways. "I can recognize it. I can't read it. But I have some equipment at home I can use to translate it. I just need the photo."
"Here," said Nessie, giving him his camera. "You had better not break this- it's a really expensive camera."
"Wait a second," said Solina. "What's Irken? Is it, like, a country somewhere?"
"No," said Dib. He would have rolled his eyes, but he wanted her to catch onto the seriousness. "Irken is the language of an alien planet."
Solina blinked at him wordlessly. "Oh," she said after a moment's pause. "... you guys are funny! Aliens... I almost forgot the SE focused on paranormal stuff."
Nessie looked suddenly very nervous.
Solina noticed, and quickly tried to backtrack. "Er, not that there's anything wrong with that! It's just you know, I forgot."
Nessie chuckled nervously. "Heh, yeah. So... what I said about a dinner date...?"
"I'm open Tuesday," said Solina almost eagerly.
"Krazy Taco, seven o'clock, Tuesday night?"
"Sounds good to me."
Dib rolled his eyes. "Okay. Well, mister lady-killer, I think we should go report back to Agent Darkbootie. You coming?"
"What?" Nessie turned to Dib, looking a bit confused "Oh! Er, yeah. Let's go."
As they were walking away, Nessie turned around a waved. "See you, Solina."
"B'bye," she replied, waving flirtatiously.
Dib liked it in the familiar darkness in his room, where he could be alone (besides Larry the goldfish, which went without saying). He lay on his bed, chewing on the side of his glasses as he waited for his computer to finish translating the photo. It wasn't quite dark yet; six something in the afternoon? He didn't really care about the time enough to bother looking at his clock. He could just close the blinds, turn the light off, and pretend it was nighttime.
Frustrated and impatient, Dib finally stopped chewing on his glasses and put them back on, sitting up so he could see the computer screen. He may not have his laptop anymore -curse Zim- but his desktop computer was still in his room. A big green bar showed on the screen, demonstrating how much longer he would have to wait. Eighty seven percent finished, it said. Joy.
Darkbootie had been almost ecstatic when Dib had reported that the note was in Irken. It was a well-known fact among mystery-solvers that discovering that one mystery connected to another was huge. It was like discovering how two huge chunks of the same puzzle fit together.
Dib was pretty excited himself. He had three big mysteries on his plate- Zim, Agent Pine's haunted house, and this whole ordeal with the asylum. It was more than he was used to, as the Swollen Eyeball usually just let him run around, hunting Zim down however he pleased.
It was even more confusing now that the asylum mystery and Zim were somehow connected. Was Zim finally getting serious about conquering Earth? Why the heck would he start with the crazy house? Did it have something to do with his "secret mission?" It seemed this puzzle had more pieces than he had expected. And what about the haunted house? Did that have anything to do with anything, or was that a different puzzle altogether?
Dib got up immediately and scrambled to the computer, eyes wide with anticipation, hands shaking with excitement. What on earth would Zim have written on the wall after he murdered everyone in the building? He bit his lip, jumping up and down in his seat, hardly able to contain himself. Whatever his computer was about to show him would be a major piece of the puzzle. Oh why did it have to take so long?
The words finally appeared on the screen, and Dib's face fell.
No... that can't be right. That doesn't even make sense...
"Computer," Dib said, eyes not leaving the words on the screen. "Run a diagnostic of the translator."
The was a long pause before at last the computer said, "Diagnostic complete. Translator is fully functional."
"But..." Dib scratched his head, still staring at the screen. He wasn't sure exactly why Zim would want to write something in a foreign language in miniscule print on the bottom of a wall behind bed, but he was hoping for a hint or a clue, something to help move the mystery along. What he was seeing in front of him wasn't helpful at all. If anything, it was even more confusing.
"Welcome to the Prison of Souls."
AN: Well, wasn't that fun? I hoped you liked it. Now review. Seriously.