So I took my laptop to some computer guys with a little shop just off downtown. They came highly recommended and I was really impressed when almost the first thing they said was "Data recovery is our specialty, so worst case we can recover all of your stored data if we decide you should ship it back to Dell and have them fix it under the warranty."
That was a huge relief, and why mrangelmeg suggested I take it someplace locally before shipping it back to Dell straight-away; Dell would most likely just scrub the system and reload all new software as the quickest way to 'fix' the problem whatever it is.
These guys are really impressive. They seem to really love what they do, and take great pride in personal service. They even gave me some suggestions about my wireless network in my house and told me to bring in the computer that mrangelmeg spilled tea on and they would see if they could get it up and running again so the girls could use it for school.
I may have a working laptop by the end of the week, or I may have to send it in to Dell to get warranty serviced, but either way I should be able to save all of my data. That in itself is something to be happy about.