Apologies from the Botosphere for the lateness of this chapter! A lot can happen in nine months-including the addition of a new member of our group. SpiritofEowyn has a new (little) man in her life and we take turns babysitting him at writing sessions. Eowyn77 took in a foreign exchange student with less than a week's notice in September and had to let her return home a little over a week ago. DarthIshtar published one novel, contributed to three anthologies and wrote a fairy tale political thriller. Kateydidnt totally admits she hasn't had anything similar occupying her time-just work and life-but also tends to (voluntarily and enthusiastically) start editing anything Ish writes as soon as she finishes it. We vow not to stall this long again and we're working on a Sharsky vignette to show our appreciation for you guys still hanging around and asking us for more chapters.

Chapter 37 - Doghouse

The more I watched Gopher or William or whatever you call him struggle through his code, the more I was baffled. He looked exactly like Cam, right down to the goofy smile when his homegrown calculator actually added up two plus two. Same height, same build, same Norse-god blond hair. About the only thing that wasn't the same was the voice. Gopher could talk. Cam couldn't.

It was such an ingrained thing that I did a double-take everytime Gopher said something instead of quoted it, and it was really starting to creep me out.

Sharsky was no help, either. My cell phone buzzed with a text, and when Gopher had things under control for the moment, I checked it. /OMG! I ate a jelly-filled donut this morning!/

/So?/ I sent back. /I had the maple bar./

/Remember Glen and his whole thing about the donut test? I re-read the thread. There are biomarkers in the jelly donuts!/

I sighed heavily. /This too shall pass./

/NOT. FUNNY. Nanobots could attach to the colon and pass onto my bloodstream. For all we know, the FBCIA is using their freaky nanotech to read the minds of everybody in a twenty-foot radius./

That gave me an uncomfortable image even if it was unlikely. Why use donuts when they could have tagged us when they had us? Like two lone wolves. I was clearly the alpha wolf.

" Man?" Gopher said, interrupting me, and I had to help him through including decimal functionality before I could get back to my roomie's panic attack. Sharsky had texted me another five times before I was able to check my phone again.

/There might be little microscopic metal bugs reproducing in my internal organs RIGHT NOW./

/Maybe all my blood will be turned into a weird polymer like on that NextGen episode!/

/Or super-coagulate it like the Andromeda Strain./

Andromeda Strain? Really?

/Do you think if I used a metal detector I could figure out where they are in my bloodstream?/

/Fassbinder, are you even there, dude?/

I rolled my eyes and blitzed a response /I'm working. You know, making money? As for the bugs, that would be the healthy, functioning gut bacteria you need to survive. The Andromeda Strain stuff got debunked before Star Wars. And you're not allowed to ask Lisbeth if she has a metal detector so you can scan your blood./

She probably didn't have one anyway.

/I feel like you aren't taking this seriously enough./ And included in the text was a link to that Glen guy's site that talked about when he was kidnapped by the NSA. I clicked on the link, and as I read, I couldn't figure out if they were being sympathetic or trolling him. Maybe it was a combination of both.

DoomsdayDunkin: Okay, let me get this straight. You skipped the biotracker raspberry filling..and then ASKED THEM FOR SOMETHING ELSE?! What makes you think there wasn't LSD in the milk?

IncidentalSidekick: The government wouldn't use LSD. Pot, maybe, to teach you a lesson, but they stopped the mind-control crap when the USSR fell.

OneManAlone: That's what they want you to believe. Do you really think they just dumped all that stuff? They've gotta have something in storage for people who won't talk.

Gottacatchemall77: I don't know what they could slip into your 2%. I'll Google it. Meanwhile, do some basic checks.

DoomsdayDunkin: Does your pee smell funky?

Sharkatron3000: OMG, I'm not smelling my pee!

OneManAlone: Why not? It's perfectly natural.

Gopher interrupted me again, tugging on my shirt hem like an obnoxious kindergartener. "Are you okay? You kind of choked."

"Yeah, might have been something I ate for breakfast," I said, trying to cover my laughter by clearing my throat. "Do you need anything else?"

"Not tonight." He said.

"Okay. Well, live long and prosper."

He gave me a baffled look and started packing up his stuff. In the meantime, Sharsky sent me another text. /Bacteria?! NO ONE TOLD ME I HAD BACTERIA! When did I get that?/

I snorted. /Google it, doofus. Unless you're Bubble Boy, you've got bacteria. How did you pass high school health class?/

/Acidopholus? The government has us on acid!/

/That's not the only one. Try again./

I shut my phone down just after he discovered the next false alarm: /Probiotics! I knew it! It even has probe in the name!/

I could use a break from the insanity for five minutes.

On the way home, I couldn't resist. At the convenience store in the student center, I picked up a cup of blueberry yogurt for Sharsky.

I almost felt bad about it when I got back to the dorm and saw that he'd saved me three slices of his Zookeeper's Special pizza. Almost. Instead, I dropped the yogurt bomb on his desk. He shoved his rolling chair away like I'd put a tarantula on it. "Dude!"

I snagged a slice of pizza and kicked back on my bunk. "What else did you find out about federally-funded pastries?"

He glowered at me with a pout that was ruined by the beard. "Not like you care anyway."

I shrugged and took another bite of pizza.

Sharsky got out an oven mitt and gingerly picked up the yogurt to throw it away. Then he gave a suspicious eye to the fridge. The dorm fridge technically belonged to Leo but he let everyone use it and only occasionally levied a tax on use-namely stealing a soda. When I had complained about missing Red Bulls the second week of school, my chocolate milk had promptly gone missing, only to be found spoiling under my bed a week later. I learned not to begrudge Leo his due.

But that did not mean that I would appreciate Sharsky messing with my stuff.

He opened the fridge and stood before it, arms akimbo (slightly spoiled by one oven-mitted hand), eyeing the contents as though they were about to explode. After a moment, he gingerly picked up a Twix with two fingers and carefully flipped it over to, apparently, to read the ingredients.

He scowled, "What is Soy Lecithin?"

"My mom likes soy," I considered. I wasn't going to go to Wikipedia for that. "I think you're safe with Twix."

He considered that for a moment and judged it a sound ingredient. He continued reading, "What's Thiamine Mononitrate?"

I shrugged at that one, which prompted him to toss the Twix in the trash.

"Was that even yours?" I complained. I contemplated fishing the Twix from the trash; it was safe in its wrapping and too good to waste to my roommate's most recent delusions.

He gave me a slightly exasperated look, "We're hunting for bugged food-it could be anybody's, I am taking no chances."

"Do you really think that they'd bug Alienboy's food?"

"YES."

I watched him successively throw out a quart of milk, a can of cheez-whiz, a whole personal pan pizza, some ancient Chinese take-out, a half a bag of shriveled baby carrots and leftover onion dip from our last movie night.

I drew the line when he started scanning the Bull stores. I didn't put him in a headlock or anything, but I took advantage of his heavy-mitted clumsiness to grab the nearest six pack.

"Hands off!" Sharsky barked, holding up a Gogurt like a lightsaber. "We don't know what's safe in there."

"We know Bull is untouched," I said with a good deal of righteous indignation. "Red Bull is pure and holy."

"I don't care if it's the frigging fountain of youth. If it has anything ending in -ose, it GOES." To emphasize his point he tossed the Gogurt in the trash.

"This doesn't have anything…" I broke off. Right after caffeine and taurine were sucrose and glucose. "This has taurine and B-group vitamins. You're not touching it."

He waved a mitted hand like an emperor disappointed by a no-win gladiatorial call and went for a protein shake that Leo had left in there sometime around Thanksgiving.

"I think that thing's bacteria has great-grand-bacteria," I said. "Bugs or not, chuck the damn thing."

It followed the impromptu lightsaber with a satisfying thunk.

"Sharsky."

There was no response. With the fridge pretty much empty, he'd turned to our "dry goods" section and was staring at a box of Triscuits. I didn't think that any amount of staring would make sense of disodium guanylate.

"Sharsky."

"If you're not helping, you gotta shaddup your stupid face," he said dispassionately. "Google maltodextrin."

Irritated, I tucked the Red Bull under my arm and grabbed my Fritos before he could chuck them. "I'm going to bed," I announced. "Turn the lights off and sleep sometime before Monday, will you?"

The next I heard from him, he was swearing in Klingon and kicking clothes-piles. It was at least morning now, so I didn't mind either of those things. I did, however, wonder if he'd bothered going to sleep before kicking the backtag out of his dirty laundry.

"What now?"

"BIjatlh 'e' yImev!"

Touchy subject, apparently. "Dude, eat something," I muttered. It was a default kind of order, since he was a bit of a jerkwad when underfed.

"That's the problem!" he shouted. "The Hu'tegh government got EVERYTHING!"

Not everything. I had been sleeping on some very uncomfortable cans of taurine ambrosia up until the point when he started thinking of me as having a smooth forehead. But he didn't need to know about that.

"Then go shopping, you Ha'DIbaH," I muttered, resisting the urge to cover my head with my pillow. "That Sprouted store for the tree-hugger types probably opens after the owner's tai chi session in the park."

"And when's that?"

"I don't know." I'd just seen it happen one very early morning when I'd run out of caffeine and had to trek two miles to a 7- Eleven. "After the frigging dawn chorus. Go stalk him for all I care."

Sharsky either called me a spineless human child or a lowly slave and slouched off. I didn't stand a chance of sleeping again, so I unearthed one of my pillow cans and caffed up before crawling towards the cleanest pair of pants in my dresser. After getting dressed, I was hungry and so I ate what was now a bag of Frito crumbs.

On the way to work I stopped at the snack zone and grabbed some jerky and soda for extra fortification. I snuck into the lab through the employee entrance at 10:01 to find the phone ringing. I answered it slightly breathlessly with "CompSci tutoring lab."

"Congratulations, Fassbinder, you still have a job," Cami said dryly and then promptly hung up.

The Saturday shift was normally quiet, unless there was a test coming up. Since this was the first major test of the term, opening the front door made me sympathize with the guys who had to open Wal-Mart on Black Friday. Even worse, it meant I didn't have the time to use school resources to try to hack the Buzz.

By the time my shift ended around three o'clock, my genius plan for checking the comments was to sit on Sam (possibly with Sharsky's help) and steal his phone. Chloroform might be necessary, I mused as I entered the dorm, but I had made some very useful contacts in the chemistry department during orientation and they owed me a favor.

When my room key didn't turn the knob, I tried what I thought was my mail key. It was a no-go. I went back to the original key. Then I jiggled it. Then I tried it upside-down. Then I threw my shoulder against the damn thing and twisted for dear life.

It was at that point that I noticed that, while my key was gently scuffed and scratched, the lock itself was shiny enough to be a Firefly reference. Either this wasn't my room or…

The sons-of-Sith had changed the locks! Alienboy and his cult following had mother-fracking changed the gorram locks. If they were going to go that low I had thought it would be when they stole all our tech. At this point it was an unjustified act of domestic terrorism!

I pressed my ear to the door, listening to see if Sam or Leo was in the room, but instead I heard the unmistakable voices of the second-best alien-sleuthing team known to man: Mulder and Scully. I recognized the dialogue, and the episode, "The Goldberg Variations," was an oldy but a goody. It dawned on me that the Federal Bureau of Centrally Intelligent Aliens had finally returned our tech to us - and Sam and Leo had locked us out.

I tried knocking-it had worked in the past-but no one answered. I tried banging in various patterns. Four knocks, shave and a haircut, Jehovah'switnessesonarampage…

That finally did it, and the door opened. I pushed my way forward only to smack my nose on the wood when it wouldn't give. There was a chain on it now.

Sam looked at me through the crack. "Can I help you?"

"There's a chain on the door," I said, unable to wrap my brain around it.

"Yes," he answered and started to push it shut on me.

I was pretty sure altering our door would make us start donating plasma just to put down a new deposit. "No! I mean, dude, when did we get a chain on the door?"

His eyes were almost cold. "Recently." The door slammed shut again, and I could hear the faint scratching of the chain as it swayed against the wood.

There were several problems here. I counted three fireable offenses-denying refuge to a truth-seeker, denying X-files to a member of staff, and making alterations to the crib without a majority vote. And Leo was behind it, which meant that it was a sanctioned offense. Hell, this was a coup d'etat! Except that Leo was practically Chief of State, so it was his etat to coup in the first place. It was more like when Palpatine dissolved the Imperial Senate.

Anyway, all of that added up to the fact that I was so in the doghouse that I expected Snoopy to show up any minute.

I decided to go at the door like a horseman of the apocalypse.

"You shall not pass," Sam announced once he'd cracked the door.

"Give it up, n00b," I barked, throwing my shoulder against the vulnerable door. "You're not icing us out."

"We're not," Sam said calmly. "You're allowed to stay indoors, for all the good it'll do you."

Before he could slam the door again, I shoved a boot into the crack. If I couldn't strong-arm my way in, I could at least stall.

"What the hell happened to due process?" I roared.

"Traitors don't deserve it," Sam asserted. "Tech terrorists don't get due process."

He kicked out, his shoe connecting with mine. I wasn't expecting it and my sole was caked in melting-snow, so I lost traction and had to step back to catch my balance.

"Whoawhoahoawhoa…" Since the boot hadn't worked, I jabbed a finger through the crack and gave him a righteously-indignant poke in the chest. "This isn't terrorism. This is conscientiously broadening the human experience. An experience all mankind has the right to…"

He slammed the door and I had the good luck to have withdrawn my finger before it happened. Undeterred, I pounded on the door with both fists. Until he opened the door again.

"Look, jerkface," I started maturely. "I've got a right to be here and…"

"You're one bad hack job away from waterboarding and you know it," Alienboy announced.

"Like hell we are," I shouted. "We've cracked the code and if you're not giving us the right to a lawyer, you're giving us a face-to-face."

To my surprise, Sam's response wasn't another threat. It was a laugh like he'd just watched a cheerleader pyramid face-plant off a Rose Bowl parade float. It meant he knew that it'd never happen or it would be a bad idea. Neither option made me less determined to know the truth.

"Clear off before I call in the cavalry," he warned.

The door slammed again and I screamed one final piece of wisdom at the barrier: "THE ALIENS DON'T RIDE HORSES!"

A passing girl stopped in her tracks at that, but after a moment, she decided not to ask and headed in the direction of the showers. In that moment, I got one very important fact through my hot head: This had to be handled quietly or Sam would call in GI Jamal to shut us up again.

I'd need reinforcements to pull that off. It was about 3:30 pm and Sharsky's laptop was still confiscated, which meant he was probably fuming in a computer lab somewhere. Clinging to the one precious piece of tech still in my possession, I texted him, asking him where he was.

I waited a full five minutes before he wrote back, /Busy./

What?! /We're locked out of the crib by Locutus and you're BUSY?/

/Yeah. They're off the deep end. Not the pressing issue. BUSY./

Either he was actually being interrogated-unlikely given his access to his phone-or he was on the verge of a major breakthrough. He had five minutes to wrap it up and then I was going to take matters into my own hands, busy or not.

/WHERE are you busy?/

/Common room./

That was about the last place I'd expected him to orchestrate a hostile takeover of the WiFi or whatever. Trying to wrap my head around how he could possibly gain a tactical advantage from the common room, I headed down the dorm stairs to the basement.

I found Sharsky eating organic goat's milk yogurt with honey and watching in rapt...something as a girl I vaguely recognized talked in a language I didn't recognize. Was she casting a spell or was she an alien?

"Which is why a lot of philosophy courses don't even bother with English. It's such an imprecise language. When you consider the options of pluperfect, imperfect and perfect tenses, not to mention the possibilities of the gerund and gerundive… It's not even as cool as some of the Greek rules where you can get into the aorist tenses. I can't even explain all the stuff in my head with the laziness of English. But in the pure language, I can use subjunctives that no one has thought in for centuries…"

It clicked - she was one of the Latin chanters from last semester. She was using feminine wiles to make nerd sound sexy. And because Sharsky spoke a different dialect of nerd, but still respected it, it was working. I snapped my fingers in front of Sharsky's face twice before he stopped listening avidly to her next paragraph about declensions.

He glowered at me. "Dude, I told you. Busy."

"Excuse us," I told the hottie of a polyglot, who had her eyebrows raised skeptically at me, "I just need to borrow him for a minute."

"No worries," she said, rising to her feet. "I have a test to study for." To Sharsky, she added, "But if you want to exchange Vegan recipes sometime, I'm on the third floor."

"Okay," I said once she'd packed up her flashcards and fluttered her wannabe-Roman eyelashes at Sharsky. "We need a new plan of attack."

"We had a plan of attack other than the storming the gates?"

"I've tried that already," I informed him. "While you've been going back to your Latin roots, I've been negotiating with Alienboy."

"I'm guessing it didn't go well?"

"I ended up screaming to the entire floor that aliens don't ride horses, how do you think it went?"

"How did that come up as part of..."

"Not important!" I interrupted, already regretting telling him that particular part. "The important thing is, we need a new plan."

He scratched his head and yawned, "So you tried knocking on the door, yes?"

"Didn't I say that?" I said, annoyed.

"No, you didn't, actually." He pointed out, suddenly the level-headed one in the relationship.

I paused for a second to review the last few minutes and had to concede I had not said, in so many words, that I knocked on the door.

Taking my sour expression as victory, he continued. "Did you try calling Sam?"

"I doubt he'd be taking my calls."

"Did you try calling Leo?"

After a moment of embarrassed silence, I took out my phone. While I scrolled to Leo's number, I said, "How come you're suddenly Mister Reasonable? Yesterday you were freaking out about perfectly normal food additives."

He sniffed but didn't answer, which I claimed as my victory. I tapped Leo's contact information and waited for pickup, or at least voicemail as the rings sounded on the line.

Instead, I got a chirpy voice saying, "Campus help line, how can I help you?"

"Uh..." I said dumbfounded, as I looked at the phone to confirm that, yes, I had Leo's number dialed.

"Hello? Do you need assistance?"

"S...sorry, wrong number." I hung up hurriedly as Sharsky looked at me in confusion.

"I somehow got directed to the campus help line." I explained, regarding my phone suspiciously.

Sharsky pulled his phone out and tried to call Leo. He quickly found himself in the same boat as me, apologizing for dialing a wrong number.

"Where did you get routed to?"

"A Taco Bell, in Omaha, Nebraska."

I huffed in frustration. It was obvious the phone wouldn't work. "Well, what's our next move?"

"Let me try Alienboy-maybe Leo's done something funky to his phone or forgot to pay his bill or whatever."

I gave him a "be my guest" gesture like I was calling the shots and he squinted at his contacts list.

He dropped the phone like a hot potato a minute later, hanging up without even a polite "sorry, wrong number."

"What'd you get this time?" I prompted, half amused, half exasperated.

"Monsanto!"

I had to snicker at that one.

Sharsky glared at his phone and then at me.

"Hey," I said, "this is not my fault. We need another plan of attack."

"Can't stay here," Sharsky grunted, finally in full agreement with me. "We're on hostile turf and they've got the high ground."

"Not the moral one, but they've got the home-court advantage," I agreed.

"Yeah, our court."

"Which means we have every right to go all medieval on their afts," I said. "But not in a way that would make April cry."

Crying was one step below all-out valkyrie hell-hath-no-fury RA psychosis. I hadn't seen her go full-out nutjob on us yet, but her aggressive friendliness was scary as hell and I didn't want to risk mortal kombat when Cami might expect me to pull an extra shift.

"Food court?"

"No flow," I muttered. "And it closes."

"Yeah, but they'll let us in by then," Sharsky decided. "I'm pretty sure it's in the kitten calendars contract that they can't ice us out."

I was pretty sure there was something about communal access to company resources, but I didn't think it applied to mattresses.

"We can at least buy some non-GMO granola or trail mix," he continued.

"We have to ration in case this is a long siege," I countered. "Go through what we have already before we start wasting our cash."

I was pretty sure this wouldn't last longer than a day, but this was pure and simple warfare and we could be reduced to hitting on the weird girls who worked at the Subway on campus for free bell pepper slices.

Sharsky nodded decisively. "Let's split a loaf of all-natural, whole-grain bread from that bakery in the Student Center food court, and then we'll hole up in the library to plan our next attack."

"They've obviously got our phones bugged, so we need more tech anyway. I guess the library will do."

We wasted as much time as we could in the warmth of the Student Center eating the bread and then fortifying with one Red Bull each. Then we bravely nodded to each other and pushed out the exit towards the library across the quad.

The library was a veritable sauna compared to fresh Pennsylvania night air in February. We didn't exactly run to the nearest heating vent and sit on it, but we went to the third-floor carrels where it was rumored to be stifling.

Sharsky disappeared for a few minutes, returning with books that made the Oxford English Dictionary look like a pamphlet and thunked them down.

"If we're here without books, people will think we're homeless," he announced, ignoring the fact that we sorta were at the moment. "And once they mind their own fracking business, these make great pillows."

I opened up a law dictionary at random and stared blankly at an entry about res judicata. He started browsing through a medical textbook that was probably even more boring.

After a few pages of gathering that I'd have to know as much Latin as the chick in the common room to understand this crap, I looked up to find Sharsky engrossed in his own future pillow.

"Dude, the pancreas is awesome."

He was clearly out of his mind; paranoia and food-deprivation didn't make things copacetic. I picked up the books he'd handed over and stood.

"I can't sprawl with you taking up the leg room," I commented.

It took me a while to find a decent carrel that didn't have a wobbly chair or weird-smelling gunk on the wall. I kept my parka on as a blanket, but my damp scarf and hat went over the wall closest to the heating vent and my gloves went into my pocket. The legal dictionary was the one I'd probably have to sell my own pancreas to replace if I slobbered on it, so I decided on a Norton Anthology, muttered an apology to the lit gods in case they were watching and pretended to read Donne very avidly.

I picked up some of it-the crap about Eve's dream was pretty fun-but I eventually lost all interest in Paradise Lost and let my cheek hit the page.

The next thing I noticed was someone bonking me pointedly on the head with a walkie-talkie.

"Studying," I mumbled.

"Right, kid," he snorted.

"Biiiiig test tomorrow." I checked my watch. "Today. Have to finish this reading."

"Kid, you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here." He leaned in and rapped me on the shoulder this time. "Take a shower. You'll feel better."

"Can't." I rubbed my eyes, still at the stage where my brain was firing just fine, but my mouth couldn't remember what order syllables were supposed to be in. "Pulling an all-nighter at the library. Biiiiiig test today."

He sighed and stepped back. "Look, kid. You piss me off, I make you leave your crap behind. In five minutes, you're going to piss me off so much that I'll throw you to the mercy of the city PD. And they won't let you out in time for class."

And that would also mean they'd report us to someone like Nightingale or one of her cronies. Or it would go into the stuff that came up during background checks and I'd be lucky if someone as rule-loving as Cami was willing to give me a job.

"I'll go, I'll go," I groaned. "Mind if I pack up?"

"You've got four minutes," he said. "Anything left behind after that is going in my next yard sale."

He moved on to impart similar threats to Sharsky and I scrambled back into my now-toasty hat and scarf, closing the books and sort of chucking them towards the sorting shelves. And then I ran for it, only looking back to make sure Sharsky was keeping up.

It was lightly snowing when we went back out into the night, and I looked around grimly. "Where to now?"

"I used to hide under a great big spruce in the yard," Sharsky said, shivering beside me. "It made a great fort. There's one over by the law library that always reminded me of it. It was always dry there, too. Let's go there and regroup."

"Works for me."

"DO YOU MIND?"

After striking out at the spruce Sharsky'd been all nostalgiac about-some grounds crew genius had trimmed back the branches, leaving no shelter-we'd started checking out other flora. We'd run into a few occupied bushes, but this was the first one where someone actually challenged us on it. The guy had puke stains and actual puke all over his Kappa Iota Delta shirt, but he was semi-coherent and totally belligerent. This was definitely a Saturday night problem. If we'd been shut out on a Tuesday, we'd have had our pick of any of the shrubberies on campus.

"Our mistake," I blurted out. "Do you know if that tree is taken?"

"Be my guest," he snapped, rolling over.

I figured that if he was breathing and being a brat, he wasn't in any danger of alcohol poisoning or anything. I made my way to the Christmas tree knock-off and found that it was, in fact, vacant. The problem was, it was only big enough for one of us.

I considered being selfish, but the chances were that me and Sharsky were in this for the long haul. If we were going to still be homeless two days from now, I wasn't going to piss him off in the first couple of hours.

"Wanna roll for it?"

He pulled out his empty pockets. "They exiled me on laundry day. Everything's on my desk."

And I had been trying to look more professional by not carrying my usual range of dice. This was a dark day for the both of us. Maybe if we raided the Borg Cube, we could find one that we left behind.

"Flip a coin?"

He tugged firmly on the pockets and glowered at me. "I don't even have enough for a Snickers, bro."

I glared, "I'm not going to keep it. I've got my student ID with a few bucks on it, but I can't flip that." He frowned grumpily and reluctantly handed me a penny.

I flipped it up in the air but missed the catch and we spent the next few minutes trying to find the penny again in the detritus under the tree. We found two cigarette butts and a half-empty pack of gum before we found the coin. We kicked the butts away, but I stashed the unopened gum in my pocket for breakfast.

When I finally flipped the penny again, it came up in Sharsky's favor. He didn't even bother with his usual best-out-of-three suggestion, just collapsed into a sitting position and started clearing a spot for himself. That left me with two options: 1) Sit alone outside the cover of the tree or 2) find my own tree and hope that KID guy didn't decide to come looking for me.

I opted for the latter. No way was I parking my butt in the dirt if I couldn't even get some shielding from the February elements.

Twenty minutes of futile searching later, I was shivering so hard my teeth were rattling. I marched back over to Sharsky's tree and kicked his foot where his boot protruded from under the sweeping branches of the spruce.

"What?" he grumbled.

"We don't have to live like this," I announced.

"We're not gonna live like this," he stuttered through the cold.

"Damn straight we aren't. We're going to freeze our butts off. I say we pop the lock on the freaking yellow Camaro."

Sharsky sat bolt upright, making the branches shake. "No."

"It'll be warm," I persisted in a sing-song way.

That brought him all the way out from under his tree. "It's taking a hostage. An ET hostage. What did that car ever do to us?"

"We don't know it's an ET," I said as reasonably as I could. "It was just a theory at the time." A very stupid theory, come to think of it now that I wasn't trapped in the trunk with visions of being squished into human jelly running through my head. "And it's not like we're gonna occupy the driver's seat. We won't do anything messy. Sam doesn't even need to know if we time it right."

He shook his head and began pacing, rubbing his arms trying to warm them up. "Dude, is your brain already frozen? Are you an ice zombie? CAM will know!"

"We don't know that," I pointed out. "Are you really going to freeze to death without at least testing the theory first?"

He stopped in his tracks, and the wild light in his eyes told me he was as desperate for warmth at this point as I was. Still he hesitated. "Even if the car is just a car, Sam probably has a dashcam and a burglar alarm on it."

I shrugged. "We can cut those wires once we're in."

He raised an eyebrow. "And that won't raise any red flags."

He probably had something hard-wired as a backup, but we could go scoping once we had decreased our chances of hypothermia.

"We've got plenty of time to replace it." Anything to get me out of this cold!

"Okay. But first sign of cops, human or other, and I'm disavowing this whole plan."

I snorted, and it turned into a sneeze. "Big words for a guy in a tree. Let's go."

Abandoning our base-camp, we headed down toward the dorm parking lots. With it being this late and cold, it was pretty full, and I looked at Sharsky. "Let's split up, cover more territory."

He nodded warily and turned while I kept going.

If I'd had access to the room, I could have been geared up. I didn't have night-vision goggles, but I had tricked out my spy gear after a Mission: Impossible marathon corresponded with a paycheck, and I was going to miss my infrared sensor on an op like this.

Given who we were dealing with, he'd probably be aware of people pulling evasive maneuvers. I couldn't crawl on my belly-the gravel would be really chilly anyway-so I went for the casual amble, I resisted the urge to even stuff my hands in my pockets and whistle tunelessly. I didn't want to be too obvious.

I could see Sharsky's ballcap behind a shrub when a car alarm went off. I nearly hit the dirt in panic, but that would have made it more clear that I was up to no good and knew it. I stumped past the Camaro and didn't stop walking until I hit the sidewalk at the end. After a minute, the alarm fell silent.

I thought it was a coincidence until it happened again. Whatever security these guys had, a proximity sensor was part of it. I was going to have to rethink my approach before campus cops showed up.

A moment later, a dog trotted by. No alarm. So the Camaro didn't object to non-humans-hell, he was one. Or maybe he didn't register anything taller than Tyrion Lannister as a threat.

On a hunch, I got on all fours and approached at roughly the height of a golden retriever. No alarm. When I glanced towards Sharsky, I saw him fist-pumping in victory. I paused in mid-spider-walk and waved for him to join me.

The doofus ran towards the car at full height. "DOWN," I hissed.

He dropped like a football player running drills and didn't move for a solid minute. When he did, he didn't rise from a crawling position.

There was absolute silence this time as we inched our way forward...until we got to the row where the freaking yellow Camaro was parked.

Then my fracking phone started playing The X-files theme song. I frantically searched through my pockets and dropped my wallet and keys in the slush in the process. I had just laid hands on my phone to shut it up, prepping a world-class glare at my companion, when I heard a blast of Star Trek music from his phone.

That made me pause. It was Sharsky's phone - and that was the ringtone he'd set for me. I knew because I had to call his phone in the dorm at least a couple of times a week when his backpack or the pile of clothes at the foot of his bed ate his cell.

Had I pocket-dialed him? I stared at the screen. I hadn't sent any texts since I'd tried unsuccessfully calling Leo. I had gotten a text and I couldn't figure out what the bleep Sharsky had risked the op to tell me, especially since he was flipping two inches from me, but the number wasn't one I recognized. When I opened the text, a file auto-downloaded and at full volume, my phone speakers played Elmer Fudd saying, "Hey! Theh's something awfully scwewy going on around here" followed by the Twilight Zone theme.

Ha! Cam was trying to punk us, but now he'd handed me his cell phone number. I dialed it, but the voice on the other end cheerfully said "Aloha!" and identified himself as part of the Best Buy Geek Squad. I hung up in disgust before he could offer to help me. Maybe I had fat-fingered it? I tried again, but this time, I knew the voice on the other end. "Nadipati!" my mom exclaimed instead of saying 'Hello.' "What's wrong?"

She must have seen my number on the caller ID. "Um...nothing," I stupidly said, glaring at the yellow Camaro smugly gleaming in the lightly-falling snow.

"You don't sound like there's nothing wrong," Mom suspiciously said, and I desperately tried to focus. If I was going to effectively lie my way out of this, I had to have all hands on deck.

"No, I...um...just had some down time and thought I'd give you a call."

"Since you went back to school after Christmas break, you called me a total of once, and that was when there was an active shooter on your campus," she pointed out.

I'd have to fib better than that - time to bring in a smidgen of truth. "Well, we're having...connectivity issues in the dorm. Our computers, TV, and everything is useless, so I don't have anything better to do right now."

"Oh, is that all," she said, audibly calming down.

"Yeah," I answered, "no need to panic. Just a bad tech night."

Sharsky frowned in confusion hearing my side of the conversation all of three feet from the yellow Camaro. "Dude! What about the mission?" he hissed.

I made a cut-throat gesture that went completely over his head.

"Don't tell me you're going soft!"

"I'm on the phone with my mother," I stiffly said.

"Well hang up!"

"Sorry, Mom," I said, turning my back on my fuming roommie. "Sharsky's just excited about a World of Warcraft raid."

"I thought you said your computers were down."

Crap! "He's going up to campus and wants me to come with him," I improvised.

"Well, I can let you go, I guess. Don't wait for the another life-and-death situation to call me again," she gently scolded. "Love you."

"Love you, too, Mom."

Another text from an unfamiliar number came through as I ended the call. I opened it with some trepidation, but all it said was "D'awwww!"

Grimacing, I looked up to glare at the maybe-alien, but the Camaro was gone. The space was empty, and the snow was just starting to dust the garvel where it had been. "Where'd he go?"

Sharsky whirled and stared slack-jawed for a moment, then we both started scanning the lot, looking for yellow. I finally spotted him clear over by Henderson Hall. Sharsky nudged me. "What do you think - stealth or direct approach?"

The car to the left of the empty space played another Elmer Fudd quote, "Be vewy, vewy quiet." The SUV on the right played, "I'm hunting wabbits."

Stealth had made him run away. Maybe if we didn't act like we were out to steal him (or at least his warm, weather-proof cab), he'd be less intimidated by us. "Direct approach."

Sharsky nodded decisively and we began making our slow but steady way across the parking lot. As we got closer, a car flashed its lights at us repeatedly. I squinted to see if someone was in the car, but before my eyes had fully adjusted, the car next to it flashed its lights for twice as many times. The truck beside it flashed its lights, too, and it was starting to creep me out.

"Wait!" Sharsky said. "There might be a pattern. If it flashes sixteen times, we'll know it's deliberate."

"Huh?"

But the lights belonging to the car on the other side of the truck flashed sixteen times.

Sharsky pumped the air. "Lost, dude!"

"I don't follow."

He gave me a disbelieving look. "Is your brain already frozen? Four, eight, fifteen, sixteen…"

I finally realized where he was going with this. "Twenty-three, forty-two."

And sure enough, the next car over started flashing its lights. We counted all the way up to twenty-three, and then the last vehicle, a green motorcycle (whose owner was surely going to regret not investing in a waterproof cover), flashed its lights forty-two times.

Sharsky was all but dancing. "This is the real effing deal! Independent communication with an alien!"

The Hummer right behind us let loose with the five-note pattern from Close Encounters of Third Kind. The rumbling bass was so loud it set off alarms on another three cars.

When we could finally hear ourselves think again, I said, "So what do you think he's trying to say? That we're lost? A lost cause? Get lost?"

Sharsky paused, considering. "We need to find a different solution. He's just established sentience - or something pretty effing close to it anyway - and invading his personal space by breaking into the cab isn't a good way to develop a relationship of mutual respect."

I blinked at him stupidly for a minute. "You're the guy who prided himself on getting slapped three times at one party."

"They weren't alien chicks, though."

I rolled my eyes.

Sharsky called across the parking lot, "We get it, bro, you need some space. Maybe another time."

Rubbing my hands together for warmth, I said, "I'm not going back to fighting over spruces by the dorms."

"We could hang out in the dorm lobby," Sharsky pointed out.

"Where the entire Freshman 55 will see what losers we are? No way!" Brilliance (or maybe just desperation) struck then. "There's a grate in the sidewalk over by the Healing Arts building that vents hot air. We can camp out there until morning."

"Oh!" Sharsky exclaimed, "or we could sneak back in when Sam gets up in the night."

I strongly suspected his inability to sleep eight consecutive hours without a bathroom break was a habit Alienboy picked up from his bedwetting days. "That might work," I allowed.

Still aglow from his first real conversation with an alien, Sharsky happily followed me back up to campus. It only took ten minutes to make our way up there, and surprisingly, we didn't have to fight off any more William the Gopher wannabes to bask in its relative warmth.

"So now what?" Sharsky asked.

"We're going to stay here for now and then issue an ultimatum. Worst comes to worse, we sic April on them.. And if that doesn't work, we can go to Nightingale."

"You're going to the Man against them?" He shuddered. "I take it you're not pursuing a diplomatic solution?"

"Dude, if I had the equipment, I would have gone all aggressive negotiations on that door chain. I'm appealing to a higher power and since I'm a polytheist, it might as well be the one who has the power of suspension."

Sharsky had no answer to that, so he petulantly rolled over on the grate. Now that I was just cold but not quite in danger of actually dying of hypothermia, I was able to drift off, too

When something kicked me in the butt, I thought I'd been found by an enterprising fox. When it happened again a few seconds later, I decided to shoo it away or maybe kick back.

I rolled over to find not a fox but a brown boot. Attached to the boot was a very human leg and once I'd followed the line of sight up long enough, I realized I was dealing with a kick-butt female.

"Do I even want to know?" Katie asked.

"Go away. This is our vent."

"Yeah." Katie drew her foot back and I cringed away, convinced she was going to aim for the face this time. "Settle down, wino. I was seeing if you were dead."

"I'm impressed you could recognize me by butt alone," I answered, feeling a little more coherent now.

"I recognized Sharsky by the hair." Sharsky's only comment on that was to snore.

"Fine." I pulled my jacket closer to my chin and rolled over. "You've had your fun, now go away."

"No, seriously." She sighed, sounding a lot like my mother when she found me on a caffeine high. She was past wondering if she'd regret this and realized that she'd never be able to unsee me hogging a heat-vent on the sidewalk. "What the hell?"

"Long story," I grumbled. "Domestic troubles."

"You've got to be kidding," she snorted. "I didn't think you guys fought over anything less than…" Katie broke off suddenly, looking vaguely horrified. "What do you mean domestic?'"

"I mean go away and mind your own girlie business."

Even for me, I was being a douche, but I was deprived of food, shelter and a stable WiFi connection. She was lucky I wasn't feeling more aggressive.

"Is this because of your special relationship with the other guy on your vent?" she asked, sounding suddenly almost sympathetic.

Special relationship? Well, yeah, technically, it was because Alienboy and IncidentalSidekick took action against the greatest hacking team on campus.

"Yeah," I admitted. "A lot of stuff came out…"

"About time," she muttered.

"We had no warning," I elaborated. "We showed our stuff and next thing we knew, we were shut out. Locks changed, calls screened. It's like they couldn't deal with the real us."

"Why did you think they would want to see your stuff?" She waved her hands about and then brought them to her head. "Even if they weren't closed minded you don't just spring," she paused as if she was trying to figure out how to be polite about a sensitive matter. "No one except you two wants to see your things." Why did she make air marks around "things"? Granted, our post hadn't been requested but if Alienboy and his sidekick were allowed to post when they weren't even tech savvy...

I didn't know why I was giving this crap my consideration, much less my time. I was sorely tempted to see how crazy I could act before she went away, but that kind of thing might get back to Langstraad or, worse, Lisbeth. Then she'd never make us muffins again.

"Look," I said as politely as possible. "It's been a long day and I don't want to talk about it."

"And you really expect to sleep eight hours out here and not be picked up by campus security?"

"Of course not. I'm going to wait for Sam's overactive bladder to get him up at 3 a.m. and sneak in while he's out."

"More than I ever needed to know." She checked her watch. "You're really going to stay out here until three?"

"That's the plan unless we kiss and make up before then," I grunted. "Please, go away."

"That would only make it worse." She said but for once, she listened to me. I heard the crunch of ice under her retreating boots and shifted my arm so I could use it as a pillow.

I wasn't sure what time it was-my watch alarm hadn't gone off-but I was awakened from a nice dream involving BikerChick and pillows to find that I had company again. It wasn't the annoying German Shepherd that had come to call about twenty minutes after Katie left me alone.

It was Lisbeth.