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Darlings, let me sum things up for you. I'm Defender. I'm a superhero. And even for a Halloween night in Metro City, things are far more crazy than normal.

For much of the day, I've had to deal with odd little events -- a hostage situation where a couple of children kidnapped their parents -- and turned out to be unusually resistant to my powers, a malicious computer that tried to convince my father we were broke, and a monster that looked quite a lot like my Grandmama who attacked my mother.

And apparently, this is going on all over the city.

As soon as I realize how widespread this is, I hit the Panic Button -- that's the setting on our communicators that alerts Metro City's superheroes that we've got a major all-hands-on-deck crisis to deal with. You usually get a response rate of at least 90%, often higher. But this time, no one responds.

Well, there isn't much chance there was a convenient signal outage just now, is there? I go with my initial plan -- I'd just been talking to the Chrome Cobra, and she was making quite the racket about something, so I'd triangulate her signal, find her little headquarters, and see if she can help resolve this situation.

Tracking a phone or communicator signal isn't that hard for me now, especially with the quart of computerized bonding goo that's been poured into my brain. I'm able to see what directions the signals point, and then it's just a matter of lightning-fast computer-aided calculations, and I've got approximate coordinates for her location. Thirty seconds of extraordinarily fast flight later -- well, it actually takes more time than that. First, I actually have to do some hunting for her apartment -- excuse me, Barf Bolino's apartment, shhh, don't tell, it's a secret -- then neural-stunning the door lock, running around the apartment, finding the secret door into her HQ (trap door in the bedroom closet), and making my way inside.

Once I'm actually inside what I suspect I'll always call the Cobra Nest, even if only to myself, that's when everything really gets crazy. The Cobra (in full costume, no less -- who wears a stuffy superhero costume when you're in your secret hideout?) is sitting rigidly in a chair in front of a bank of computer monitors, keyboards, and wired-together hard drives. She's still screaming, the poor dear.

All the computer equipment is either sparking, sizzling, or entirely on fire. In fact, the whole wall behind the monitors is ablaze like it's been soaked in kerosene.

And what's particularly bizarre is the computer monitors, even the ones that are burning the hottest, are all showing scenes around Metro City wracked by impossible devastation and disaster -- fires, atomic explosions, superstorms, volcanoes, floods, meteor impacts, alien invasions, strange midair vortexes hurling skyscrapers to the ground.

But I was outside not that long ago, and things weren't nearly so awful. There was a certain degree of chaos in the air, but I certainly didn't see anything on this scale. I know I would've noticed the army of Zorgosaurus clones devouring downtown.

Of course, none of my onboard sensory equipment is detecting any fire, any electrical disruptions, any broken computer equipment. I don't think I want to hit Cobra's computers with a stun pulse -- they've been known to cause damage to computer systems, and I don't need Cobra hitting me up for any more donations to her crimefighting arsenal.

So I metaphorically roll up my sleeves and prepare for the terrible battle ahead. I look around, find another tissue, and wipe the monitors down. Just like the computer at my home, the images on the screens melt away into fine, black-colored, vibrating dust motes that disappear into the vents and floorboards. Even the illusory fires scamper away like ants.

In less than ten seconds, the entire monitor room looks completely normal again. It still takes the Cobra another few seconds to realize everything's okay and quit screaming.

"D-Defender, what are you doing here?" she finally manages to croak at me. Poor girl is definitely going to need a lozenge. "How'd you get inside? Oh god, the whole city's being destroyed..."

"Calm down, dear," I say. "The city's fine -- well, not fine, but nowhere near as bad as you thought. See, all your equipment is fine, and the city isn't being burned to the ground."

"What the hell? Is there some illusionist on the loose?"

"Perhaps, but I don't think so," I say. "I think some fear-based supervillain is attacking the city. My parents both had run-ins with illusory things that frightened them. Even the gardeners were reasonlessly afraid of Immigration coming to round them up. It might even be connected to that incident earlier with that odd hostage situation -- the parents and police were acting jumpy and nervous, and the children's ability to resist the pacification burstcasts could be related to heightened emotional states brought about by fear."

"Ugh, probably not a supervillain," Cobra says. "Dr. Phobos is still in prison, and generally focuses on Europe anyway. The Scream Queen never leaves Los Angeles. Gorehound has killed himself again. The Uncanny Valet is in prison. So is the Doppelgangster. So are the Polterguys. So is the Tatterdemalion, the Bogeyman, and the Damned Yankee. I can't think of anyone else who could pull off something affecting the whole city."

"Possibly a telepath then?" I ask.

"Maybe," she says. "There are so many of them. It's so hard to think straight."

"Just in case, you should turn on your psi-scramblers," I say. "Can't be too careful, dear."

Cobra taps the side of her helmet, then shakes her head. "No, the psi-scramblers were already on. Whatever it is got through the scramblers. But -- But you aren't affected at all, are you?"

"Well, I don't think I have been, Cobra dear," I tell her. "I'll grant you it's been a stressful day, but I've yet to suffer any attacks of the screaming mee-mees."

"You haven't been affected," she repeats. "The whole city's being destroyed, and you're the only person who's not being affected."

"Stay with me, Cobra," I tell her, putting a hand on her shoulder. "The city isn't being dest--"

"Get your hands off me!" she screams, slapping my hand away and leaping out of her chair.

I back up, hands raised, pacification burstcasts running full-blast. "Now calm down, Cobra," I say. "Think carefully about this. You know we're on the same side."

"We don't know anything about your Intergalactic Defense Patrol," she says. "How do we know you're not here to take us over? How do we know you're not here to completely destroy our ability to control anything?"

While she's saying this, the monitors start to flicker with scenes of destruction, the wall starts to catch fire again, and the hard drives start to spark. And those black dust motes are crawling over everything.

The black dust motes are crawling all over the Cobra, too.

"You're a monster," she says. "I can see it now. I've got to kill you."

Well, really, dear, there's only one way to respond to a statement like that. I turn around and run for my life.

Oh, it's not a fear response, not entirely. It's really quite rational. The Chrome Cobra once captured the entire membership of the Consortium of Crime single-handedly. Do you think I'd have any chance against her in a straight-up fight?

Sure, I can fly faster than she can, my armor can regenerate itself if damaged, and I don't have batteries that need to be recharged -- but I suspect she's stronger, and her hard-light weapons can certainly bring a lot more pain than my non-lethal ones. I would be completely shocked if her armor weren't shielded from attacks like my neural stunners.

So I run, subliminal burstcasts turned up to top volume, not that they're doing any good with her emotions cranked up so high. I shoot a few neural stunners behind me -- unaimed, so I don't even know if they hit, or if they do any good.

I almost make it all the way up the stairs into Barf's apartment before she tackles me and knocks me over. Almost immediately, I feel her trying to saw her way through my helmet with a hard-light sword. Luckily, the helmet is a great deal more durable than most of the rest of my armor would have been -- though it also helps that a sword isn't really a good sawing weapon, and that she doesn't think to heighten the sharpness of the blade to something that could slip between the molecules of the helmet.

And probably for the best that I don't give her a chance to think of that. I slam my head backwards against hers and swing my arm around to try to knock her off me. Doesn't quite work -- I end up pinned on my back with the Cobra trying to angle her light sword into my neck. Not really a big improvement, but it does give me the option of at least being able to fight back a little -- as little good as that might do against one of the most shockingly excellent martial artists I've ever met.

We go back and forth for a bit -- her trying to get her sword into my throat, me trying to keep her hands far enough away so she can't use the sword well, both of us throwing a punch now and then. Neither of us is able to get much past each other's armor -- after all, what good is powered armor if it can't block a certain low level of superstrength, am I right? Still, I'm not doing much more than bruising my perfect knuckles, and I know she has a much better chance of dishing out more than bruises.

And sure enough, she plants her other glove against my stomach and pops a goddamn spear out of her gauntlet, driving it through my armor, into my side, and clear out the back of the armor, too! Hurts like a motherfucker -- oh, pardon my language, hurts like a goddamn dogfucking motherfucker, dar-fucking-ling -- and it comes that close to knocking me right out, too.

Naturally, she lines up the sword in the other hand and gets ready to take my head off. She's a vastly better martial artist than I am -- and my only advantage when it comes to fighting is that I've got computer goo in my brain that's programmed with fighting styles they don't have here on Earth. I don't use them often, because bipeds look silly using martial arts developed by species with more than two arms and legs. But in moments of trauma like this, the armor takes over to a certain degree.

It's enough to let me get both legs up and kick her up toward the ceiling. The suit doesn't have a lot of superstrength, but it's enough to give her a second or so of airtime. And then I shoot a couple of energy nets at her. They stick to walls and ceilings, did you know that? So there, I've stuck the Chrome Cobra to the ceiling. Maybe I should use these martial arts settings more often.

She's trying to break out of the nets, or at least to get some of those hard-light weapons through them, but the energy nets are significantly beyond her technology and designed specifically to disrupt that kind of destructive force, so she's going to be stuck there for at least several minutes.

"Let me go!" she shouts at me. "Let me go, you alien cyborg freak! I won't let you destroy my city! Let me go!"

I get up slowly. My suit is already working hard regenerating itself and stitching me back up. I don't think her hard-light spear went through anything that was really vital, but merciful sakes fuckity, does it ever hurt. Getting healed up doesn't really help things out either -- high-speed regeneration stings like the dickens.

So I get up, my side still leaking blood, this crazy screamy martial-arts bitch screaming in my face. I really do try to think of something witty, but it's all out of me right now. I hit her with enough neural stunners to knock her out -- it takes four -- apply another three energy nets to her, and head straight up the stairs. She might be awake in 15 minutes and out of the nets in another half-hour. After that, she may be after me all over again, or she might be paralyzed with terror again. I've got no way to tell, and that's a bit depressing. Just means I've got to do everything I can to start clearing this problem up.

Once I get outside the building, I start making calls to the other heroes in town. They're not answering the Panic Button, but maybe I'll have better luck with personal calls. I still get quite a few calls that go unanswered, but a few of them do pick up, for all the good that does me.

The Star thinks his apartment is haunted, Hybrid is upset about an infestation of rats, Express is on the run from the Blob, Atlas can't keep the centipedes out of his house, Wheelman can't seem to find a car anywhere, and Daphne Diller claims her office has filled up with water, and she just knows she's going to drown.

The two I had picked to be the least likely to be affected have it just as bad as everyone else. Gearbox, with his logical machine brain, should have been completely immune, but when I call him, he insists he's being stalked by horrific computer viruses. And Jonni Rotten is probably the least fearful person I know, but I find her lying next to the graves of her family, apparently reliving the night when she was sacrificed to the Church of Sorrow's monster-gods. I can now tell you there is nothing quite so unnerving or sad as hearing a zombie weep.

No one else answers my calls. I hope they're okay.

I don't even know whether to go help anyone else out. I haven't seen that anyone else affected by these strange fears is actually in physical danger, and I am a bit concerned that anyone I try to help will end up turning on me and being immune to my neural stunners.

I've also got to wonder what's causing this lunacy and why I appear to be the only person unaffected. It's clearly not a matter of telepathic interference -- Chrome Cobra's psi-scramblers would've prevented that. I suppose the illusion-making dust motes must be the obvious culprits -- but I'm quite sure none of the better-known fear-creating supervillains use anything remotely like them. If they had, the Cobra would've recognized them.

I'm rejecting completely any idea that I'm utterly without fear. Yes, the IDP screens membership candidates for personal courage, as well as intelligence and compassion, but I know I'm hardly fearless. The entire concept of fearlessness is quite laughable. Wouldn't that just make you a sociopath? At any rate, no, I definitely have my own fears.

In fact, when I first saw the Fake Monster Grandmama threatening my mother back home, its appearance flickered and changed when it looked at me. First, it looked like a giant cockroach, then like my childhood piano tutor, then like something that I interpreted as social isolation. And frankly, I've never liked cockroaches, Madame Chaplaine was an utter terror when I was a girl, and I can think of few things more odious to me than not getting to go to nice parties. So it could read my fears, but it wasn't able to take advantage of them. Very strange.

So why isn't it working on me? This stuff affects normal humans, it affects mutants, it affects zombies, it affects robots. It even affects Wheelman, and he's a demigod, for goodness sake. It can't be that I've got special IDP training, because that hasn't stopped me from being mentally dominated in the past. It can't be that I wear a suit of fancy powered armor, because the Cobra's armor did nothing to protect her. I can't even credit the quart of computerized bonding goo that's been poured into my brain, because Gearbox has a completely artificial brain, and he was just as bad off as everyone else.

Could it be the combination of part-computerized, part-natural brain? I don't often think of myself as a cyborg, but I certainly do qualify as one -- and I'm the only superhero cyborg in the city. The bonding goo does help my brain and the suit work together -- it's not sapient like Gearbox, but it can take partial control in crisis situations, such as when it fought Cobra off earlier. If whatever is attacking Metro City works by amplifying fears, perhaps the computerized portions of my brain are blocking those fear magnification effects to protect my ability to function?

It's a decent theory, but I've no way to test it. Even if I did, I'm not sure it would help me out any. I can't put computerized bonding goo inside everyone's head. But like I said, I'm the only cyborg superhero in the city, so...

Wait a minute, I'd heard Star saying earlier this week that he'd had a run-in with a few members of local supervillain population. Warzone and the Grouch were on a late-night break-in at an electronics store by the mall. They managed to knock him around and get away, unfortunately -- but he noticed Black Hat and Synthia tagging along for the heist.

Black Hat, obviously, is a known quantity around here -- he has something they call "cyber-telepathy" that lets him control technology and machinery, so of course, because supervillains are apparently required to make not an ounce of sense, he goes for an "evil cowboy" motif for his villain persona.

Synthia, however, is not a local. She's really the sad sack of the supervillain community -- a former newspaper reporter kidnapped by Dr. Omicron years ago and stuffed full of cybernetic parts so he could test some of his scientific theories. She's never been a willing supervillain and has tried to reform several times, but the computers in her head have been designed to let anyone with the right passwords force her to assist them.

If she's still in town, she might have the same immunity I do, and I'd at least have an ally to help me out. And I'd also be able to get her away from Black Hat and any other villains trying to control her.

And of course, the problem there is that I've absolutely no clue how to locate Synthia. I don't know where Black Hat's hideout is, I've no particular ability to track specific people, and the only person I know who's obsessed enough with super-people to have even a chance of knowing where to find a supervillain is the girl who I just neural-stunned into unconsciousness a few minutes ago. I don't think I'd relish the idea of going back hat-in-hand to ask for help.

Well, I'm certainly not going to accomplish anything hovering over the city, and I am at least feeling healed up enough to stop worrying about holding my guts in. I don't think there's much chance I'll just happen to stumble over Synthia's secret hideout, but the odds will improve slightly if I actually start looking for her.

I've only been flying around the city for about ten minutes when something large and clingy lands on me and knocks me onto the roof of a building near the market district.

When I finally quit rolling and can sit up, I find myself staring at Squid Kid. She has all her tentacles waving in the air, her clothes are torn, her hair is a fright, and she has a crazed, delighted smile plastered all over her face.

"Now Lenore, dear, let's not fight," I say as calmly and reassuringly as I can. "There's some sort of outside force that's making you and everyone else in the city frightened. I'm not the person doing it, and you don't need to be frightened of me."

"Holy crap, Defender," she says. "You're the only person I've seen out and about and, ya know, ambulatory in, like, hours. Let's go do something. Let's go fight something."

"There's no reason for us to fight -- Wait, you're not wanting to fight me? You're not afraid of me and spoiling for a battle?"

"Of course I'm scared of you!" she says. "You're an alien supercop, and I can't see through your helmet with my X-ray vision, and you're probably gross and deformed under there! This is the best goddamn day of my life!"

"Lenore, dear, you're -- okay, I have no idea what to say right now, I really don't."

"No, see, I'm scared of you," she says, seemingly deliriously happy, or maybe just delirious. "I'm scared of heights, I'm scared of supervillains, I'm scared of really big spiders, I'm scared of Cthulhu, I'm scared of, of, seriously, right now, I'm scared of everything. I have no idea why. But I love being scared so damn much. This is the most awesome Halloween ever!"

"You mean to tell me that everyone else in the city is either paralyzed or driven to violent rage with terror, and you're somehow able to just power through it? Lenore, you're a wildly unique individual, but that pushes it a bit far, doesn't it?"

"I'm not pushing through it, sista," she says. "Why would I want to be paralyzed when everything is so awesome and scary? Why would I be angry about getting so awesomely scared?"

"So what are we talking here, Lenore?" I say. "Are you just crazy or something?"

"Crazy like a really scared fox!" she chirps. "Oh my god, foxes are scary!"

"Okay, well, do you have any idea what's causing all this?" I ask. "There are some things that look like dust motes that seem to be the fear catalyst, but I can't figure out what they are or where they come from."

"Not a clue, sorry," says Lenore. "I've kinda been running on adrenaline for the last few hours."

"So I gathered," I say. "Well, care to accompany me? I think I might be immune to these effects because I have a cyborg brain, so I'm trying to find another cyborg called Synthia to see if she's similarly unaffected. I have no idea whether she can really help us much, but with nearly everyone in the city in a state of terror, I fear we need every ally we can get."

"I've heard of her," Squiddie says. "Star was talking about her this week, wasn't he? Oh my gosh, can you imagine how awful it'd be to get chunks of you replaced with machine parts?! I mean, no offense, but wow, parts of you gone forever."

"Yes, dear, it's just gruesomely terrifying, I promise," I say with a shrug. "Alien surgeons dumped about 40% of my original body into deep space and poured computerized bonding goo into my brain."

"Wow, awesome," she says. "We should look for Synthia at Ming's Bar."

"Ming's Bar?" I say. "I've never even heard of that before."

"Oh, well, it's kinda supposed to be a secret," Squiddie says. "It's Metro City's underground supervillain bar. It's their grungy hang-out-and-scheme-to-rob-banks dive bar. Don't tell anyone I mentioned it."

"How did you ever find out something like that?" I say. "It's a supervillain bar, so there's no good reason for a superhero to socialize there, dear."

"Jonni knew where it was," she says. "She found it once while tracking some Church of Sorrow cultists, and she told 'em she wouldn't rat 'em out as long as they barred the Church of Sorrow guys from the place and let her drink there any time she wanted. She spilled it to me a while back, but I had to promise I'd keep it quiet."

"I don't know why she wouldn't tell us about this place," I say. "It's exactly the type of place we'd want to stomp out, don't you think? And when did Jonni start drinking anyway?"

"Jonni doesn't really drink," Lenore says. "It's not like she can get drunk anyway, even if her stomach didn't leak. She says she does it just to stink the place up and make it unpleasant for them. And why would we want to break up their bar? They'd just open another one, and we wouldn't know where it was located. We know where's Ming's Bar is, so if we ever need to lean on the local supervillains, we can go straight to where they go to get drunk."

"So you know where this place is?" I asked. "It's my only lead to locate Synthia."

"Sure, but I'm worried it might be dangerous for us to just show up there unannounced," Squid Kid said. "Oh god, this is going to be soooo good."

Lenore soon leads me to an alley downtown, just off Krigstein Avenue. We knock at an unremarkable door between a couple of dim yellow light bulbs. There's no answer -- and I'm not sure what we would've done if someone asked us for some sort of password -- so I blow the lock apart with my stunners, and we head inside.

It's a pretty typical dive bar. A casual glance wouldn't give you any hint that it was a supervillain bar -- just the usual grungy floors, plastic beer signs, pool tables, and country music jukeboxes. Of course, the typical dive bar doesn't include people like Shrieker and the Grouch crouched underneath the tables.

I should know better to antagonize these people, but I'm afraid I simply cannot resist the temptation to banter with foes.

"Shrieker, dear, whatever is the matter?"

Kindly picture the scene -- Shrieker, sonic supervillain, in her razor-lined, silver and purple costume, rat's-nest hairdo, and mutant vocal cords -- cowering under a table, with mascara running down her cheeks. I should feel sorry for her, but she likes to burst civilians' eardrums for fun. So to hell with her and her emotional pain.

"D-Defender," she cries. "Something bad happened. My powers are g-gone! I can talk, but I can't make any of my usual sonic powers work! What's going to happen to me, Defender? What's going to happen to me?"

Meanwhile, Lenore is crouched down talking to the Grouch, who's hiding under one of the booths. She looks excited to be that close to someone so dangerous, but she is staying far enough back so he won't be able to grab her.

"Hey, Grouch, what's going on?" I hear her ask the green-skinned, purple-haired behemoth. "Everyone else has been really scared of stuff, but you seem okay."

"I've seen plenty of you humans terrified this night," he growls at her. "Fleeing and cowering from beasts and serpents and monsters and mustelids. Know this, human law enforcement hobbyist -- my moods and emotions differ from yours in significant degrees. I only know anger and rage and wrath."

Lenore smiles very unexpectedly and stands up. "Okay, man, you're not afraid of anything. You come on out any time you want."

"Maybe I will," Grouch says. But he doesn't.

"What's up with that?" I ask Lenore as quietly as I can once she comes over to me.

"Oh, he's scared out of his pants about something," she says.

"Yes, that seems quite obvious, dear," I say. "But what is he frightened of? These things seem to manifest physically, you know -- I don't want to have to fight off some alien monster."

"I dunno," she says. "If it was a monster, it'd already be attacking us, right? I bet it's that smell. You smell that, right? The floral perfume?"

I had smelled some perfume earlier. I'd assumed it was Shrieker's, but it doesn't seem to be anything she's wearing. It's really a strange thing to smell in a bar like this.

"Why would an awful brute like the Grouch be afraid of floral perfume?" I ask.

Squid Kid turns back toward the Grouch. "Hey, Grouchy," she says. "Is there any legit reason you're afraid of floral perfume, or do you just have a messed-up alien brain?"

"Shhhhut up," he says.

"Okay, fine," I say. "Can either of you tell me where to find Synthia? If I don't find out where her local hideout is, I'm going to do something terribly scary."

"The back room," Shrieker says. "She and Black Hat are hiding back there. Please don't do anything scary, Defender -- without powers, I'm completely helpless."

I don't try to dissuade her. I'm sure she still has her powers, but I think she could do with a few hours of feeling the way she makes other people feel. Frankly, I'm badly tempted to throw energy nets on her and the Grouch and haul them out later for the police, but if Lenore and Jonni want to leave the place intact, I suppose I'll have to leave them be.

The back room is unlocked and predictably cluttered -- a small desk covered with paper, stacked boxes of cheap beer and hard liquor, three different trash cans that are overflowing with fast food cartons. The place is also covered over with wires and power cables, which seems odd but makes a lot more sense once we realize that the wires are all wrapped around a couple of struggling figures on the floor.

Squid Kid starts unspooling the wires with her tentacles, but the wires start wrapping around her, too, so I aim a couple of stunner blasts at the bulk of the wires -- sure enough, they melt away into the scurrying dust motes, leaving Black Hat and Synthia lying on the floor.

Synthia immediately bounces to her feet, fists clenched. "Get away from me! I will pound you like chicken Kiev!"

"Whoa, whoa, settle down, dear," I say. "We're not here to hurt you. You're among friends -- I'm Defender, this is Squid Kid. We're some of the local superheroes."

"Okay, yeah, I've heard of you," she says, looking around nervously. "If you could please shoot Black Hat before he takes control of me again..."

"Already got him," says Squid Kid, pointing out the black-garbed cowboy lying on the floor. "Defender's neural stunners knocked him out. They didn't do much to you -- do we need to be scared of you?"

"No way," Synthia says. "I've got a shielded nervous system that lets me shrug off that kind of attack. But no, I'm no threat to you guys. As long as no one passcodes their way into my brain implants, all I wanna do is go turn myself in at the nearest cop shop so the feds can get me back into Witness Protection."

I've never met Synthia before -- she looks exactly like you'd expect a cyborg to look. Lots of shiny metal mixed in around normal flesh. Half her skull replaced with steel. A blinking red light in place of her right eye. She wears normal clothes -- torn blue jeans, blue T-shirt, black leather jacket, and a hairdo that's unexpectedly flattering for someone with only half a head of hair. I know that she has powers that involve superstrength, energy blasts, and what I can only assume are called "Extend-o-Arms" -- I assume she has other powers and skills that aren't well publicized.

"You might want to be careful getting out of here," Synthia says. "Someone must've pumped some bad drugs into the beer supply. Everyone in here was really going crazy."

"It's apparently a city-wide problem," I say. "Something is making everyone afraid and causing some fears to manifest. I don't think it's caused by a drug, though."

"Which of you had the wire phobia?" Lenore asks.

"Definitely him," says Synthia. "He started screaming top-volume as soon as they started coming out of the walls. How come you two aren't affected by this fear stuff?"

"I suspect it's because I have a partially cybernetic brain," I say. "And Squid Kid appears to be a bit of a horror fetishist."

"Well, I've got a bit of a phobia about doctors and dentists," Synthia says. "What do I do if a bunch of 'em start coming after me?"

"They may not at all," I tell her. "The cybernetic parts of my brain have been filtering out my fear responses. It appears I'm completely immune. Does the same hold true for you, dear?"

"I don't think so," she says. "At least not entirely. I've been nervous and antsy all day, and I was good and scared when everyone here was going nuts."

"Have you seen any doctors or dentists coming out of the walls?" asks Lenore. "That really would be scary as hell, wouldn't it?"

"I don't know," she says. "I thought I saw some people in white coats earlier, but they turned into wires once Black Hat started screaming about them."

"Maybe you have some partial protection," I say. "No offense, but the computers in my head are probably quite a bit more advanced than yours. Yours may simply not interface as well with your brain."

"I'm not surprised," she says. "I get the impression that Doc Omicron isn't nearly as good with the mad science as he likes to let on. It's probably a wonder I'm not falling to pieces. Hey, listen, I'd ask y'all to give me a lift to the police station, but if this fear stuff is really all over town, I might be better off running with you 'til the cops recover enough to lock me up. You mind if I follow along with you?"

"The more, the merrier," I say. "I'd suggest we move this discussion outdoors. I'd rather Black Hat not wake up and find us here."

Once we're outside Ming's Bar, we move a few blocks down Krigstein, just to make sure we don't run into any other supervillains leaving or anywhere close to the bar. Squid Kid suggests we make our way toward the old Harvey Arms, which is generally deserted and should give us ample space to talk without too much interference.

"Okay, so what's our next move?" Synthia asks. "I don't often get a chance to do anything on the hero side of the fence."

"I must admit I'm a bit lost as to how we can go about dealing with the problem," I say. "I was probably too focused on tracking you down -- I suppose I was hoping that figuring out why you and I were immune to the fear plague would help us figure out how to make everyone in the city immune, too. "

"Well, now that we've found her," Squid Kid says. "Have you heard about any schemes the bad guys were working on that'd lead to something like this?"

"Kid, they don't really confide very much in me," says Synthia. "I'm generally considered disposable muscle, especially since they know I'll go call the cops if they lose their password entry into my brain."

"Okay, so you've been in town for at least a week, right?" says Squiddie.

"Just short of three weeks, believe it or not," Synthia says. "They've had me sleeping here in the bar. Not my worst sleeping arrangements ever, but pretty close..."

"Yeah, so three weeks is a while," Squid Kid replies. "And they might not have been telling you any specific crimes they had planned. But I bet you got to overhear plenty of stuff, when they either thought you weren't listening, or got so used to having you around that they just started letting stuff slip..."

She stops and thinks for a minute. "Punch's Boys are thinking of trying to rob a sports arena. Black Sunshine thinks they should hold an entire stadium for ransom, but Mr. Punch thinks they'll have an easier time just robbing the Mustangs' business office after a game. Vertigo Man is thinking of quitting jewelry store heists and trying to get into the protection racket."

"How?" asks Lenore. "Is he going to demand money not to make people dizzy?"

"It would be a significant threat, dear," I say. "Think of the damage he could cause by making all the workers at a construction site get dizzy. Quite outside of property damage, someone could fall off a skyscraper. But go on, Synthia -- anything else you can think of?"

"The Candyman is planning on leaving town soon to track down the actor who played him in that Lifetime movie last year. Silver Tempest is getting married sometime next month. Beelzebambi wants to open a portal to Hell, and Cosmo the Astounding is completely freaking out about it. The Architects of Ruin are talking about splitting up. The Grouch gets incredibly drunk on 30-weight motor oil. I dunno, that seems like the only interesting stuff I've heard while I was here, sorry."

"Holy crap," gasps Lenore. "Silver Tempest once stabbed me in the shoulder with one of her giant arm blades! Also, holy crap, weddings are scary! I had a cousin who had a nervous breakdown before hers!"

"As creepy as the idea of Silver Tempest in a wedding gown may be," I say, "I rather doubt that's causing the current crisis. Any other ideas?"

"I hope you're not planning on dealing with this by focusing on the crap I overheard from a bar," says Synthia. "That's just too random."

"I'm feeling a bit short of options, dear," I say. "Something must be done."

"You could investigate a little," she replies. "Try doing some research into whatever might be causing this."

"None of us are detectives or scientists," I say. "And the detectives and scientists we know are currently suffering the effects of the fear plague."

"Well, I used to be an investigative reporter," Synthia says. "And that helmet of yours is probably stuffed full of hypertech sensory gear. And Squid Kid..." She trails off, and we're all silent for a bit.

"Awkward silences," said Lenore. "Scary as hell!"

"Okay, so what do you know about this so-called fear plague?" asks Synthia.

"Well, almost everyone seems to be suffering from it," I say. "It makes everyone frightened and brings their fears to life to attack them. It's also able to increase someone's emotional reactions to a degree that lets them shrug off my pacification burstcasts and neural stunner blasts."

"Are there other elements common to this phenomenon?" Synthia asks. "Anything else out of the ordinary?"

"There are some kind of black dust motes," Lenore says. "Spooky, moving, barely-visible, illusion-creating dust motes."

"Can we get some samples?" asks Synthia.

"We could probably find some right here," I say. "Find someone who looks intensely frightened, and I'll show you."

Sure enough, just around the corner in an alley, there's a homeless man being menaced by a number of uncommonly large wasps.

"Weird that they're not actually attacking him, isn't it?" asks Synthia. "They're just hovering there. They could sting him easy."

"Whatever they are, they seem to have some kind of rule against causing injuries," I say. "The people I've seen getting attacked by their fears haven't actually suffered any harm. They only seem to cause injuries when they agitate someone into attacking someone else."

"That doesn't make sense," says Synthia. "Why just threaten people? If someone's afraid of giant wasps, shouldn't they be more afraid of being stung by them? Why hold off on attacking?"

"Maybe they're absorbing fear-driven adrenaline," I reply. "There are a number of entities that feed off fear or other emotions."

"Could you guys do something about those wasps already?" says Lenore nervously. "They're really way beyond creepy."

"Sure, hang on," Synthia says as her arms reconfigure themselves into laser cannons. A few zaps later, and the wasps have vanished in the usual burst of dust motes.

As they start to scurry for the shadowy corners of the alley, Synthia and I leap forward, trying to grab some of them before they get away. It isn't very easy at all -- they're so fast and small and slippery. It looks like we've lost them all when Squid Kid pushes past us, wraps her tentacles together into crude scoops, and sweeps up a few dustpans full of the dust motes.

For whatever reason, no matter how they try, they're unable to escape Lenore's tentacles, and Synthia and I start debating what they could be.

"Some kind of parasite, maybe?"

"I think it could be an impossibly large germ."

"More like an amoeba."

"Psychedelic drugs, I'll bet."

"Nanites. I read an article recently about nanite technology."

Lenore listens to us for a moment, then dips one hand into one of the scoops, lifts up a small handful of squirming dust motes... and eats them.

"Oh sweet merciful what-the-hell, Lenore!" I scream at her.

"Holy god, I am going to be sick," gasps Synthia. "What the hell is the matter with you?"

"It wasn't so bad, guys," Lenore says. "It was scary to actually eat them, but I thought maybe I'd see if I had magical senses that could tell anything about them."

"Well, did you?" I say. "If you took that kind of disgusting risk and didn't learn anything about them, I may neural-stun you on general principles."

"No, I hate to say it, but I don't think I found out anything," she says. "They didn't even have a real taste to them, and there was -- oh, wait, hold on."

Suddenly, Lenore transforms into her inky-skinned, no-eyed, giant-mouthed monster form. Her neck extends six extra inches into the air, her mouth opens impossibly wide, and she harshly coughs the dust motes into the air.

"What the hell?!" Synthia and I yell together. Behind us, the homeless man faints dead away.

"They are demons," Lenore says in that horrible tri-tone voice she gets whenever she transforms like this. "Demons from a primal realm of terror. Near mindless individually, but more intelligent and powerful when combined."

She changes back into her human form, hiccups, and says, "What happened? Did I black out?"

"You had a blackout all over your face!" Synthia shouts. "Except for your damned mouth! What the goddamn hell, girl?!"

"No, it's okay, she looks like that sometimes," I say. "Though the talk about demons is pretty new."

"Who was talking about demons?" Lenore asks. "I did black out, didn't I?"

"You said they were some kind of terror demons," I tell her. "You don't remember that?"

"No, not at all," she says. "That's really weird."

"Well, I guess this narrows things down a bit, right?" says Synthia. "Scary-Face Gothy Girl said this was about demons, and Beelzebambi wanted to open a portal to Hell. That makes her the prime and possibly only suspect."

"So now we have to figure out some way to find Beelzebambi's hideout?" says Squid Kid. "This investigation is taking too long. We're chasing after stray clues when we should be kicking someone's butt."

"Hold on, dears," I say. "I've got this figured out. Wait for me here -- I'll be back in a couple of minutes."

So I take off flying straight up as fast as I can, higher and higher, 'til I'm about 4,000 feet up. Then I switch on all my sensory gear and start scanning for major anomalies. And Montclair Park, right in the center of the city, is lit up like a beacon.

There's a portal to Hell in the middle of the city, and I'm going to have to go shut it down.

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