Here it is! The first chapter of what will (hopefully) be a very successful Zimfic. I've been working hard on it and I think it's going to be a good 'un. After you read, I invite you to check my livejournal page for all the extras on the chapter. The content varies, but by the time this story is done there should be a whole series of author's notes, fun facts, and deleted scenes for you guys.
I'd like to extend a big, HUGE thank you to my two awesome volunteer beta readers: DelphinBella and thejennamonster. If you're still looking for your daily Zimmage hit, I'd check their stories out, particularly "My Sanity for a House" and "Fake Plastic Life," respectively. Good stuff.
I'd love to hear what you guys think of this, positive, negative, or otherwise. Reviews, livejournal, email, IM, carrier pigeon, whatever. I'm flexible.
Before you start, just a NOTICE: Feels like an AU, smells like an AU, tastes like an AU, but it's not an Alternate Universe fic, I promise. (Don't worry, you'll believe me later.)
-------------------- Restitution --------------------
By: Lael Adair
Later, Dib would look back and wish he'd never gone to that party.
A lone guitar chord faded away into the night, giving way to the melodic yet droning voice of the graveyard-shift DJ. Sensing a commercial break, Dib's right hand instinctively drifted to the tuner dial. His eyes flitted briefly between the road and the radio as his efforts to find another station were met with nothing but soft static. Eventually he ended up back where he started, too soon to have avoided the advertisements. His hand fell back in its resting position upon the smooth knob of the gear shift. Finding this station had been a small miracle in and of itself. Usually he couldn't get any signals from the city way out here.
A road sign drifted into sight in the beam of the car's headlights. Guiding his silver Saturn ION almost mechanically, Dib turned left at the junction and crawled back up to a comfortable speed. He didn't bother using his turn signal. This gravel road was in the middle of nowhere, literally, and he'd driven it enough that he knew of every curve it made—not that there were many. Due to the farmland in the surrounding area the state-sanctioned road did its best to follow along property lines, meaning it remained straight for long stretches of time.
On either side of the road hundreds of acres of the corn stalks so common to Iowa swayed softly in a gentle night breeze. They weren't very tall yet. The plants were little more than a blur of green as they whisked by in the range of the headlights, but Dib could see the tops only came high enough to reach the bottom of his window on the side door. The sound of gravel crunching beneath the tires was audible for a moment as a gap in the radio broadcast signal bathed the car in silence. Then the music began again, encouraging him to settle back into his seat.
Normally Dib wasn't much of a partier. Maintaining a 3.8 GPA with a degree in nuclear physics wasn't getting easier as the semesters went on, and with only one year separating him from graduating at Iowa State University, he wanted to keep his record. His roommate, however, was another story.
His eyes drifted hopelessly for a moment to the passenger seat where a pale red-headed boy was dribbling a generous amount of drool onto the gray upholstery. Somehow Keef always knew just what to say to get him to give in. This was the third time this month Dib had found himself promising to be the designated driver.
The party had been at a farmhouse a few hours from campus. Having been roommates since their sophomore year and friends for much longer, this wasn't the first time Dib or Keef had gone to this place. It was owned by the parents of one of Keef's friends who used it as a way to escape from life in the city. It was vacant most of the year, meaning it was a popular place for underage drinking. Dib hardly ever participated, but he knew Keef's friends and didn't mind being the DD every once and a while. The drive gave him a few good hours to think and escape from his studies.
The party ran later than Dib had been told, not that he wasn't expecting it. He knew Keef tended to tell people what they wanted to hear to get his way and then sort out the details later. At 3:47 the alcohol had run out. By four in the morning every vehicle in the driveway was gone. It had taken Dib nearly a half hour to physically coax Keef into the car. Most of that time had been spent getting him to stop shouting random exclamations back at the house—things such as "Woo! Party!" and "Stop following me!" After a bit of effort, however, Dib managed to get him inside and strapped in, at which point he had promptly fallen asleep. He hadn't moved since.
The clouds hovering far above parted, allowing the full moon that had been hidden in mist to shine at full strength. Dib's eyes drew upwards to take in the beauty of the virgin sky. In the city the light pollution was so severe it often made the night sky look like nothing more than a dull blanket of black tinged with brown. But out here the view was marred only by the light of the moon which was, in and of itself, part of the Tapestry. Dib had often thought that, were it not for his desire to be a scientist like his father, he would have liked to go into astronomy.
A sudden ring cut through the quiet car, making Dib jump and scramble for his cell phone on the top of the dashboard. He checked the screen for a brief moment to see who the call was from.
"Hey dad" he answered cheerily, both flipping the phone open and raising it to his ear in one smooth motion. Membrane barely waited for him to get the words out.
"SON! We've made an amazing breakthrough!"
Dib's heart sped up in his chest. He could almost taste the excitement in his father's voice. He gripped the phone a little tighter and raised himself up in his seat. "What?"
"The Super Cereal molecules! THEY'VE BONDED!"
"No way! That's GREAT!"
"With those Super Butter and Super Juice notes you've been putting together, the project is complete! We did it, son! We've revolutionized the entire breakfast experience!"
Dib was speechless. He'd been working closely with his father on this project for almost a year now. It was the first in which he was actually a paid member of the laboratory staff and not just an assistant.
"Dib" Membrane said carefully.
"I've given this a lot of thought…and I'd like to put your name on it, son."
Dib gasped and almost lost control of the car. "What! No, Dad! You can't! This is your life dream!"
"No son. You are my lifelong dream. My boy: the scientist."
"I don't know what to say…."
"You don't need to say anything. I am so very proud of you. I knew you had the potential if someone just set you in the right direction!"
Dib didn't know what that meant. He'd always wanted to be a scientist, like his father. "Dad, I….Thanks."
"No need. You can't start your own laboratory one day without having something magnificent to your name! This will be good practice for the day when you become famous!"
Famous...The idea made Dib dizzy with pride. He had always cherished praise from his father, but having his name and his name alone on a project? One Membrane had sacrificed a good portion of his life to achieve? It was staggering.
"Did you hear me Dib?"
"What? Huh? Sorry, I'm driving."
"—You need to practice more at that, son. Driving and talking on the phone hones your reflexes—"
"Yeah, okay." Dib quickly moved to change the subject before the conversation turned into a lecture. "How's the cleanup at the lab coming?"
A brief silence passed over the phone. The Membrane Laboratory Main Compound had a break in several weeks ago. The police had suspected it was a rival company seeking to steal information, though they'd been unable to find any physical evidence of how the intruders got in, how many there were, or how they managed to slip past the heightened security. No one had even noticed a crime had been committed until late the next morning when an intern had gone into the information storage room in the basement and discovered it in shambles. It took the cleanup crew almost an entire week before they were able to figure out what had been taken.
"It's moving along" Membrane said somewhat gloomily. Seeing damaged experiments always put a damper on his mood. However, like most of his dampers, it only lasted for a fraction of a second.
"Have they pinpointed the files that were taken?"
The reply was dismissive. "One or two physical files and a copy of the mainframe's data—hardly worth the disks it took to download them onto. We've got bigger issues at hand! You'll need to come down for a weekend for the unveiling of the project, and I also need your research so it can be pooled with the rest of the data. I'd talk more with you on it now but I have pressing matters vying for my attention!"
"All right. I'll call you sometime tomorrow. I love you."
There was an almost reverent pause. "I love you too, son."
The phone clicked off, leaving a slight ringing in Dib's ear. He smiled to himself and glanced down at the screen, just to make sure he hadn't imagined the whole conversation. His father's number shone back at him clear as day. He chuckled to himself as he glanced at the total call time. 10:24—a family record.
The thought stifled the smile on his lips, turning it into a thoughtful slant instead. A heavy air settled over the car as he stared vacantly at the screen.
He knew he should call her. They hadn't talked in so long...but this was a big event. She deserved to know.
He dialed the number fast before he lost his nerve. Within seconds the line was ringing. Dib put the phone up to his ear and swallowed, waiting for her to pick up.
Her voice was the same. It was older and a little deeper, but even with the phone distortion it was unmistakable. He was shocked at how hearing it still had the power to make him cringe.
"Gaz…it's me. Dib."
"Look I...Normally I wouldn't call. I mean I know that we haven't...I just wanted to call and tell you...we did it. The project's a success. I just got off the phone with Dad and he said the molecules bonded. He even said he was going to put my name to the results!"
"I don't care. How many times do I have to tell you, Dib, I don't care what you're doing...Especially with dad."
He sighed. "Yeah, well. I just thought—"
"No you don't. You never think. You're stupid—and that's your problem."
The phone went dead. Dib couldn't pretend it didn't hurt as the dial tone punctuated the end of Gaz's sentence. He pulled the phone away from his ear and snapped the top shut, tossing it onto the dashboard. The cell phone hit the side and bounced off, landing somewhere over near Keef's feet. Dib didn't bother trying to retrieve it. His hands were already back on the wheel as he focused his eyes on the road—his eyes, but not his thoughts.
Gaz had grown worse over the years. All siblings fought, that was a law of nature, but their battles had become increasingly less innocent as time had stretched on. In the beginning Dib was able to match her almost blow for blow by the sheer amount of mischief he was given genetically. They were small things that every little boy did to his kid sister growing up. Most of the time Gaz would return with her own brand of childish deviltry. But before long things began to change.
When Dib turned eleven, Professor Membrane began to encourage him to spend more time in the laboratory in their house's basement. It was then that Gaz's removed teasing took a decidedly sinister turn. Pranks became name-calling. Name-calling became humiliation. Humiliation turned into hitting. Hitting became fights. And fights evolved into hate.
When Dib was seventeen Gaz had struck him with a hot welding electrode he'd been working with in the garage, giving him a permanent scar on the right side of his neck just underneath the ear. Now, at sixteen and twenty, they could barely be in the same room without erupting into a fight. It wasn't until Dib had gotten away from her, the house, that life, that he'd figured out the reason behind it all.
Gaz was jealous. She resented the close relationship he had with their father and, for some reason, had come to express it physically. Once Dib moved away to college he'd severed almost all contact with the house. He hadn't exchanged more than a dozen words with his sister in three years, and even those had held a frightening amount of spite underneath. It is said that no one can hate like family. Dib could have told the person who wrote that stunning gem all about it by the time he was twelve.
A sudden flash of light pulled him away from his thoughts. Stealing a glance in his rearview mirror, he was shocked to see a car traveling about a quarter-mile behind him.
It was strange that he hadn't noticed it. This part of the state was incredibly flat. Even though it was dark, Dib still had a good view of everything on the road for a long distance, especially lights.
He blinked and checked his rearview mirror again. He could have sworn there wasn't anyone behind him only moments ago, but the bright headlights shining into his car said differently. "I must have spaced out" he muttered. He turned his eyes forward to make a conscious effort to pay attention. If he crashed out here nobody would find them for years.
He was just reaching his hand to the radio again to avoid listening to another commercial when he heard the sound of an engine gearing up behind him. When he looked he noticed that the car following on the road had sped up, placing it within a few hundred feet of his rear bumper. Dib squinted his eyes as the white light grew stronger in intensity, bathing his dashboard and mirrors in a painful glare.
"You've got your brights on, moron" he groused under his breath at the car. He could see now from the size of the lamps that the vehicle was a larger one, probably a truck or van. At the back of his mind it registered as a little odd that a truck would be going so fast on this road. The only people that lived out here were farmers, and Dib had never pictured them as the type to be wild drivers. If he wanted to battle with some lunatic on the road he would have stayed in the city...
The car continued to gain, accelerating at a steady pace. Dib kept his speed level. He had no idea where someone would be going in such a hurry at 4am, but he wished they would do it without shining their brights into his face. Even with his eyes on the road the reflection from the mirrors was making it hard to see. He assumed once the truck got close enough it would move into the side lane to pass him. The seconds ticked by but the light never left. The vehicle was slowing to match his speed. It stopped at what could only have been a couple feet from the back of his bumper and chose to stay there, hovering.
Minute after minute, the truck did not comply. Grumbling to himself, Dib sped up slightly, pushing his car into the upper 60 mile-per-hour range in hopes of putting some distance between the two of them. When he glanced up again he felt a discerning shiver travel down his spine.
The truck was following him.
Easily matching his speed, the other driver had sped up as well and was now inching even closer to his rear. Blinking at the dark spots that were forming over his eyes from staring into the headlights, Dib angled his rearview mirror up and snapped on his own brights. Once a source of comfort, the radio in the background became an annoying distraction. Dib turned the knob down so the music was nothing more than white noise.
"Why am I so jumpy?" he asked aloud.
His hands tightened with a dry creek around the gray leather steering wheel.
"This road only goes one way, Dib. It's not like the guy has a choice whether he wants to follow you or not…."
He glanced at the speedometer—seventy-five...and the truck was still tailgating. It was something about the headlights, he realized, that made him uneasy. They weren't the normal shape or color that was on most vehicles. Instead of spaced on the opposite sides of the hood with a few feet between them, the two perfectly circular bulbs were centered almost directly in the middle. The light they gave off was neon white with a feint tinge of purple to it, and was unnaturally steady for a car traveling over a rough gravel road. Dib began to get the sensation that he had seen them before...somewhere...
"This is stupid. He can't jump out and get me at seventy-five miles an hour. As long as I don't stop, I'll be good."
The words brought some comfort to Dib, but the driver following him seemed to have something else in mind. The truck jumped into the left lane. Literally.
Dib wouldn't have believed it if he hadn't seen it with his own eyes. He was shocked at how precisely the vehicle was able to move sideways at over seventy-five miles an hour. One minute it was on the right, and then suddenly it moved in a perfect line and stopped on the left without so much as a sway.
His heart beat faster as he heard it accelerate with a roar. Now that the driver was finally passing, Dib wasn't so sure he was thrilled with the idea.
He caught a quick flash of some reddish/magenta paint job out of the corner of his eye as the nose of the car edged alongside him. He turned his head to shoot a brief glare at the other driver but only saw his own reflection. The truck's windows had been covered with some sort of pink iridescent film that made it impossible to see into the cab. There was something strange about the way it sloped in a dome over the front of the car, but Dib didn't have time to think about it. Mere seconds after he glanced over there was a soft exploding noise and then the truck shot forward as if propelled by a rocket.
The rest of his sentence was mutated into a gasp of surprise as the headlights that had been following him for so long turned in an impossibly tight circle and then barreled straight for his car. Dib cried out and yanked the wheel hard to the left. A thundering whoosh of air shot past the passenger side as he just barely avoided a head-on collision.
He stole a glance into the passenger seat to make sure Keef was okay and then slammed on the clutch and downshifted, revving his poor engine as high as it could go. A thick cloud closed in over the moon, plunging the scene into darkness save for the headlights on the cars. Already Dib could hear the truck's bizarre thrumming engine growing louder and louder from behind him. He continued to push his car towards its maximum speed but quickly realized it was not going to help him escape. His pursuer would just be able to match him mile for mile. Not to mention the truck was bigger and heavier than Dib's Saturn. If he was rammed at these speeds...
Dib glanced nervously in the rearview mirror again and weighed his options. There were no turnoffs on this road. They were in the middle of the country and the only inhabitants were separated from each other by miles and miles of land. He didn't want to think about it, but he was beginning to wonder if he could really stop what his pursuer was intending to do.
His eyes shifted to the road. The gravel he was driving on left few tracks. If he was kidnapped or worse and anyone even found his car at all, they'd have no clue what happened to him. Better to leave a clear sign for the authorities to follow.
His decision made, Dib turned the wheel to the right, hard, and sped directly into the corn field. An abandoned car on a deserted country road wouldn't draw much attention, but Dib was willing to bet a ton of tire tracks in some poor farmer's crops would catch an eye or two.
The plants were young, meaning Dib was able to drive through them relatively easily. He heard the truck gun its engine to catch up to him and then felt something pushing against his back bumper. The tires began to pull hard on the steering wheel beneath his hands. The truck driver was turning his own wheel in an attempt to force Dib into a fishtail.
Dib countered by adjusting the wheel to maintain control and then swerving violently to the right. A shower of dirt and grass cascaded out from his car's tires in a giant arc. Working the clutch and gear shift furiously, Dib maneuvered his car in a precise circle and then took off in the first direction that came to him.
The driver of the truck took much longer to catch up to him this time. Dib fought to keep his head as level as his hand working the gear shift. The corn stalks parting before his car like the Red Sea gave him no visibility. His eyes constantly darted back and forth in the beam of the headlights to check for obstacles. The last thing he needed was to hit a tractor or a plow...although he wouldn't mind hitting a house...
The truck came at him from the right side this time. Dib's hands tightened in a death grip around the wheel as the Saturn jolted roughly with the impact on the passenger door. The sick sound of contacting metal reverberated through the car's frame. He had no choice but to turn the wheel into the truck to keep from flipping over as he was pushed effortlessly on a tangent. At first Dib thought the other driver was trying to slow him down, but then the two of them burst through a particularly high wall of corn stalks and he found himself back on the road.
The truck was gone.
Dib's breath came in frantic gasps as he scanned for any sign of the crazed driver, but there was nothing around him but night. He turned the radio all the way off to listen for another engine over his own. Silence.
Was he dreaming? Had he fallen asleep at the wheel?
No. It was real. He could feel the car running roughly on the right side from where he had been rammed. Gripping the wheel with white knuckles, Dib risked a quick glance over his shoulder through the back window. Darkness swallowed everything the second it passed from his headlights' humble beam of light. Taking a deep breath, he turned back around, readjusting himself in his seat, and then gasped when he saw the truck directly in front of him.
There was nothing Dib could have done to save himself. He tried. He hit the brakes and turned right, causing the Saturn to skid sideways, but all it did was give him a perfect view of the metal magenta wall that was about to splatter his guts like a bug. Dib screamed, saw a bright flash of bluish light, and then fell into darkness.