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Darlings, I do enjoy a good
Halloween -- a nice night on the town, an amusing costume, a bottle or two of
champagne. But this is not a good Halloween at all.
Everyone in the city is suffering from a state of extreme terror -- some sort
of evil dust motes are threatening everyone with lifelike mannequins of their
worst fears, and the only people who seem to be immune are myself and the
reluctant supervillain Synthia -- because we're both cyborgs with
computer-enhanced brains -- and my fellow superhero Squid Kid -- who is not so
much immune as she is simply very enthusiastic about scary horror.
Now it turns out that this fear plague is a result of a local supervillain
named Beelzebambi who has opened a portal to Hell -- or at least to an
interdimensional realm of primal fear, which seems to be pretty much the same
So that's why the three of us are here across the street from Metro City's
Montclair Park looking at what is certainly the worst example of municipal
grounds maintenance ever.
"Why would you even build a
temple of skulls next to a Bugs Bunny-themed playground?" I ask.
"That sort of juxtaposition really detracts from any terror the temple
might have caused."
"This isn't really the time for light-hearted superhero banter,
Defender," says Synthia. "Someone's opened up a drive-thru branch of
Hell in the middle of a park in Metro City. I think we're fairly lucky that all
the awful stuff is mostly sticking to the park itself, and that there aren't
monsters attacking us already."
Well, I will certainly grant you that things seem quite daunting right now. In
addition to the temple of skulls, the park's trees have turned into grasping,
skeletal figures, the ground is broken by jagged rocks, metal pipes, and
ancient bones, and there's a distinct impression of clouds of swirling
And to top it all off, sputtering and howling and screaming in the center of
the park is a glowing portal hanging in mid-air, filling the area with harsh
"H-Holy crap," Squid Kid says hoarsely. "It's like every haunted
house ride in my life, dialed up to a billion.
Christmas has come early. I mean, Halloween has come on time. You know what I
"How are we supposed to
do anything about this?" Synthia asks. "This is way out of my field
"I'm afraid I've no
idea," I say. "I might have some sort of clue if this were a technological
matter, but magic is simply not my thing. What about you, Lenore dear? You're
the only one of us who got powers from magic -- think you can cast a few spells
at that thing?"
"Not me," she says.
"My powers didn't come with any ability to do sorcery. What kinda monsters
do you think are gonna come out of that portal?"
"Maybe if we fed her
some more of those dust motes," says Synthia. "She came up with some
nice insights then -- maybe she could do it again."
"I don't think I want to
expose her to any more of those things than we have to," I say. "I don't
think it's healthy for her."
At that moment, a
particularly shabby panhandler bumbles into us.
"Th-Thought I wouldn't
find you," he gasps. "Thought y-you were already dead."
Synthia surprises me by
grabbing his lapels a bit forcefully. "Cosmo, you freak," she snarls.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
I take a closer look. His
jacket and pants are torn and grimy, his boutonniere is falling to pieces, his
cummerbund is split, his bow tie has gone missing, and his top hat looks like
it's been stepped on -- but it's definitely Cosmo the Astounding, supervillain
"Synthia, dear, let's
not dismember the ridiculous old prestidigitator yet," I say. "We're
looking for someone with some expertise in magic, after all."
"Let's find someone else," Synthia snarls. "Even among the
villains, there's no one lower, sneakier, more deceitful, or more likely to
pinch a girl's ass when she's passcoded than Cosmo."
"No, no, I -- I can't handle this terror anymore," Cosmo stammers.
"I'd f-foreseen that you'd be all that could save us -- pl-please, you've
got to do something about this!"
"Really?" I say. "Well, let's hear some details, Cosmo. I think
we need to know how to shut that portal down."
"We can't trust this guy, Defender," says Synthia. "He's a weasel. You heroes should know that
better than anyone."
"Do you know anyone else with any knowledge of magic, dear?" I say.
"We're a bit low on choices right now."
"I just wanna know how Beelzebambi did this," says Lenore. "I
thought she just did fire stuff -- if I'd known she could do all this powerful
demonic stuff, I would've been a lot more terrified of her."
"Sh-She was only able to
do it with my h-help," says Cosmo.
It's my turn to grab him by
his jacket and slam him against a wall. "Explain yourself quickly, you old
fraud. If you caused all this chaos and horror, and just showed up now so you
can gloat about it, I'm going to do something truly awful to you."
"N-No, it wasn't me," Cosmo stammers. "I just got her the book.
She wanted a spell book, s-said she wanted to m-move up the supervillain ranks
and make herself a spellcasting demon -- and she was willing to pay a lot of
money for it. Wh-What do I care? So the psycho demon bitch gets eaten by
interplanar monsters when she tries to cast her first spell? Fine, no one would
"Someone would miss her, dear," I say. "I've met the girl's
parents, and they'd very much like to have their daughter back, if someone
could figure out how to reverse her transformation."
But Cosmo clearly wasn't really listening to me. "But Bambi figures out
that she can combine some of the spells in the book to open up a portal to
Hell. And I try to tell her no, and I try to get the other villains to pay
attention, but they just ignore me, as usual. And now she's gone and done it,
and you're the only one who can fix things."
"Okay, magician, that's all great," says Synthia. "Now we need
you to get off your ass and cast a spell that'll close that portal and get
everything back to normal."
"I can't do it," he says. "Bambi opened the portal and was taken
by the primal fear demons within. They hold her captive, and the portal cannot
be closed until she's freed. She formed the portal -- it will stay open as long
as she's trapped inside."
"Well, fine," says Squiddie. "But we're bringin' you with us.
None of us can do any magic."
"No, no, you don't understand!" Cosmo cries. "You can't all go.
When I say 'only you can do this,' I mean only one person, specifically Defender.
Anyone else will be useless!"
"That's a large amount of bull,
Cosmo," I tell him. "We'll have a better chance of getting in,
getting Beelzebambi, and getting out if there are more of us there to assist.
And all three of us have been more than capable of resisting the fear
"You're wrong," Cosmo says. "It's a primal fear dimension. As bad as it is out here, it's vastly worse
on the other side of that portal. I would be catatonic in seconds. Squid Kid
may enjoy fear and horror, but she's already undergone extreme mental,
emotional, and physical stress from constantly being frightened. She's already
exhausted and wouldn't last much longer than I would. Synthia's cybernetic
brain implants don't shield her brain enough -- she might last five minutes,
and then you'd have to get her and
"And you think I'm somehow completely immune to fear?" I say. "I
get frightened of many things, Cosmo. Everyone does."
"Yes, but the computerized shields in your head are more sophisticated,
more able to expel the full effects of truly primal terror," Cosmo says.
"Not that it will be easy for you. You'll be subjected to horrors
undreamed of, all designed specifically to strike at your emotional core. If
you can't resist or survive those terrors, they'll be able to get past your
shields. And that'll be the end for you."
"I don't think I'm entirely buying this," says Synthia. "Since
when did Cosmo know a damn thing about cyborg brain implants?"
"I'm a sorcerer, young lady," says Cosmo, sounding almost proud for
the first time since we've talked to him tonight. "You have no idea what
magic can reveal to me."
"Alright, I don't like where this is going," says Lenore. "We're
not going to send Defender in there all by herself. That's one person
against... I don't even know what or how many or what kind of odds. That's too
scary for me to contemplate or accept."
"If she doesn't do it,
everyone in the city spends the next month being fed on by fear demons,"
says Cosmo. "Then they'll start spreading out, looking for more people to
terrify. There's just no other way."
"There's got to be
another way," says Lenore.
"There may be,
dear," I say. "But I think we're going to do things the way Cosmo
Defender," she says, sounding for once more angry than scared. "It's
a suicide mission. They should get the Council of Thaumaturges for this kinda
"I wish," said
Cosmo. "If they even tried to 'port in, these guys would be all over 'em
like a Vegas buffet."
"I'm afraid he's right,
Lenore," I say. "It's me or no one. Time for the old stiff-upper-lip,
'tis-a-far-far-better-thing, et cetera, et cetera."
groans. "Superheroes and their fucking nobility."
magician," I reply. "Just tell me what I need to do to get in there,
save Beelzebambi, and get out alive."
"Well, you go in, find
Bambi, and lead her out."
"Don't get smart with
"No, seriously, they
won't hide her from you," he says. "You won't have to go far. They'll
probably lead you right to her. When you find her, you lead her out."
"Is this one of those
things where I can't look back at her?" I ask.
"No, you're thinking of
the Persephone story," Cosmo says. "You can look at her all you want.
You can carry her, if you want. But leading her out is where things are going
to get more difficult. You have to get through your fears and hers before
they'll let either of you leave."
"So what kind of fears
are we talking about then?"
"I don't know," he
says. "I have no idea what Bambi is afraid of. You should know what your
own fears are, though. You'll have to get through them somehow -- fight them,
avoid them, ignore them, whatever it takes to resist them. Just don't expect
those neural stunners and pacification burstcasts to do anything to what you'll
meet inside. And if you can't get past them, you and Bambi won't make it back
here at all."
"No pressure, as the
hoary old cliché goes, hmm?"
"To hell with it,
Defender," says Squid Kid. "I forbid you to do it. Forbid, forbid,
forbid. Let's focus on evacuating people and let some serious experts take care
of this mystical crap."
"I'm with the goth
girl," says Synthia. "I may not have superhero tendencies, but I sure
wouldn't commit suicide for the sake of Beelzebambi."
"Nothing to be done for
it, darlings," I say as breezily as I can. "My sense of noblesse oblige drives me forward."
And I start walking toward
the portal before they can do anything else to talk me out of it. And they know
I'm doing the right thing, because they don't do anything else to stop me.
Montclair Park gets deathly
quiet the minute I step foot on its lawn. Like it was waiting for me. No more
howls, no more screams, no more rumblings. No sound but the portal, emitting a
constant dull roar. It lights up the park like harsh white neon, pouring out of
a hovering circle 20 feet in diameter.
A rough-hewn stone staircase
rises out of the earth as I approach the portal. I walk up it and walk through
the glowing, roaring circle as quickly as I can, before my nerve fails me.
Stepping through the portal
isn't what I expected. There's no change in the sound or light being emitted by
the portal. The air feels a bit heavier. And there are no monsters waiting for
me. No monsters, no ghosts, no people, no nothing. I'm looking down a dark stone
And I won't say I'm
frightened. But I am very, very nervous. Much more nervous than I've been all
night. Much more nervous than I've been in a while. I can feel the computerized
bonding goo in my brain humming, trying to regulate my emotional responses --
and for once, not doing a particularly good job.
I walk down the hallway,
because where else can I go?
There aren't many light
sources -- just enough torches to create lots of flickering shadows, which is
surely by design. The entire corridor is lined with cells with heavy iron doors
designed to keep prisoners in captivity a long time -- and they're all flung
wide open and empty. The message seems quite clear: the monsters here aren't
being held prisoner, they won't fling themselves against their cell doors to
make you shrink back from their fury -- the terrors here roam free.
It's not a very long hallway
-- it opens into a gigantic, red-lit room dominated by a vast, deep pit leading
down into blackness. Like Cosmo said, they don't try to hide Beelzebambi at
all. The black-haired, red-skinned, horned, winged demon cheerleader is
crouched at the edge of the pit, staring down into it and weeping. Quite a
change from the maniacal, giggling Beelzebambi I'm used to dealing with.
I walk up to her as quickly as I can, avoiding looking into the pit -- I know
better than to gaze into any abyss. I take her by the arm and say, "Come
on, Beelzebambi, we need to leave now."
She looks up at me like a scared kitten. "I can't leave," she
whispers. "No one gets away."
"You can leave," I say. "I'm getting you out of here right
I pull her to her feet, and we turn to go back down the corridor.
I can't see the corridor anymore. There's a 50-foot dust-mote demon standing in
Bambi screams and clings to me like she's a three-year-old on her first
Halloween -- and frankly, who can blame her? As for me, I just barely keep
myself from taking an instinctive step backwards and right into the pit.
"You want to take her away with you, don't you?" comes a colossal
buzzing voice from deep inside the thing. "We will work to stop you."
"Now see here, darling," I say, my voice pitched up at least an extra
octave and completely undoing all of my false bravado. "You've no right to
keep either of us here, and we expect you to let us both leave unharmed."
"You will have to run the gamut of your fears," it buzzes at us.
"If you fail, you will stay here until you die, and that will not be long.
You will have to run the gamut of your fears."
"Well, fine, dear, we'll run it and get through them, and you'd better let
us go. No going back on your word."
"We do not lie," it says. "We are the oldest, strongest, most
honest emotion. We never lie. We do not need to."
And with that, it dissolves
into a horde of scurrying, foot-long cockroaches and disappears into the walls.
"Let's go, Bambi," I say, pulling the still flinching demon
cheerleader behind me. "Only one way to the exit."
We cross the threshold into the corridor, and everything changes around us.
We find ourselves inside a church, an old one, fairly large. Looks very much
like a cross between St. Mary's Cathedral downtown and a country Baptist
church. There's a great big cross at the front, some confessionals in the back,
and some weird red-tinted stained glass windows all along the sides. The air
smells like burning incense, and I can hear Gregorian chants in the background.
There are three clergymen walking down the aisle toward us -- one is a stereotyped
blow-dried televangelist, one is a rabbi, and the third is a Hare Krishna. It's
like some kind of old joke -- but Beelzebambi immediately clings to me even
tighter and starts screaming again.
They start flicking holy water at us. I'm badly tempted to laugh if it weren't
that Bambi's skin sizzles wherever water touches it... and dang it, mine is,
too! How am I able to feel this through my armor?!
Oh, obviously, this is one of Bambi's fears, right? Don't know why she has a
phobia about preachers, but I suppose if anyone would, it's be a demon. And it looks
like any nightmare she has is going to affect me the same way.
At least I'm not as scared as she is. But I am fairly frightened, dears, which
is a bit of a shock, because I've got no significant quarrels with any
religions -- but I suppose I'm quite lucky that my cybernetic brain is still
blocking at least some of the effects of Bambi's terror.
There's a door behind us, but
I don't much want to reverse course -- I want to get us out of here as quickly
as we can. I'd also rather avoid confronting these guys when they're able to
burn both of us with holy water, so I grab Beelzebambi and lift us both into
the air. We can fly over their heads and look for another exit.
But no, that doesn't work
either. There is no good reason for clergymen to be able to hover.
I hit them with a flurry of
neural stunners. As expected, there's no effect.
They're closing in, holy
water spraying like lawn sprinklers. They're going to burn us to a crisp if we
can't figure out --
Wait a minute --
"burn" -- this isn't my nightmare, it's Bambi's. She's the only one
who can act against them.
"Turn up the fire,
Bambi!" I shout at her. "Torch them, or we'll never get away!"
"I can't!" she
wails. "There's religion all over the place! They're hitting me with
holiness and everything! Holiness hurts!"
They're almost on us. There's
holy water dripping from their pores, which shouldn't be nearly as horrifying
as it seems to me now
"Torch them now, Bambi!
Do it or they'll -- they'll convert
Well, that does it. Her eyes
get big as saucers, and she pops off with an arc of flame that pushes all three
of the "preachers" back.
"That's it!" I
shout. "Keep going! Don't let up on them, Beelzebambi! Don't let them
strike back at you!"
She ups the intensity of the
flames until there's a solid wall of fire, then pushes it straight at the three
preachers, engulfing them in fire.
"Eat that!" she
screams at them. "I'm not afraid of you! I was never afraid of you!
Satanism always reigns over all other religions! Hail Satan! Hail Satan! Hail
The two of us spend a happy
minute or two chanting "Hail Satan" while the clergymen burn down to
ash. Well, I mainly do it to make sure she doesn't decide to burn me with the
I do hope I haven't given her
any ideas. The last thing I need is for Bambi to go on a minister-burning spree
once we get back to Metro City.
"That was so
awesome!" Beelzebambi giggles once the flames have died down. "Should
we set the whole church on fire?"
"I think not," I
say. "What if they start sending... bigger preachers after you? Besides,
it's more important that we push forward and try to find the exit."
"Oh, okay," she
says, a bit disappointed. "Probably for the best -- this place is still
giving me the major creeps."
We head for a side door near the
front of the sanctuary, throw it open, run down a hallway... and all of a
sudden, we're somewhere else entirely.
It takes me a moment to
recognize where I am. It looks like the old sitting room in my home, with the
odd cream-colored drapes, the old grand piano, the crenellation along the
floorboards, and the silver service Mother prefers to display but never use --
but everything seems weirdly stretched upwards. And I realize everything looks
like the same height as everything looked to me when I was a little girl.
And that's when a piercing, cruel whisper comes from behind us: "Young
madame, I hope you have practiced your scales this week."
Oh god, Madame Chaplaine, scourge of my childhood, knuckle-rapping hellbeast,
and the reason I hate classical music to this day.
Beelzebambi and I both spin around, and there she is, dressed in her severe
spinster-black dress, a look of barely suppressed contempt on her face, her
hair pulled back into the most perfectly, terribly round bun of all time, and
seemingly 20 feet tall.
I wasn't expecting to get such a shock, and I can barely keep myself from
crying. I thought I was free of her years ago. Beelzebambi immediately screams,
just once, then stifles herself, whimpering in fear. This is my personal
terror, but she's feeling it, too -- possibly worse than I am. Maybe she had a
hateful piano teacher, too.
"Please take your seat
on the bench, young madame," she says to me. Then she fixes her glare on
Beelzebambi. "Young madames. Perhaps we shall enjoy a duet today."
I'm on the piano bench almost
before I know it, with Bambi right beside me. God, do I even remember how to
play anything anymore? I'm not sure I could even handle Chopsticks right now.
"Let us begin with
something simple," Madame Chaplaine says icily. "Do you suppose you
can handle 'Mary Had a Little Lamb?' "
Well, I suppose I could
handle that -- if I hadn't just realized this piano was completely lacking in
black keys. And it doesn't help that Beelzebambi, in a full weeping panic, just
starts pounding on the keys at random. I try to pick out the notes to the tune
as best as I can, but it still comes out sounding like an utter cacophony.
Madame Chaplaine raps both of
us across our knuckles with that terrible metal baton she always carried. It stings,
but it also scares the dickens out of me, too. My word, I'd forgotten what a
horrible, horrible woman she was.
"That was even worse
than I expected it to be, young madames," she says. "Time to move on
to something a bit simpler. Let's try Stravinsky's Rite of Spring."
"B-But wait," I
stammer. "I've never played the Rite
of Spring. I've never practiced it. It was never assigned to me, even when
I was little."
"Never mind that, young madame," she says. "I expect you to play
the Rite of Spring, and I expect it
to be done correctly. Or there will be severe consequences."
"No," I say. "It's ridiculous to expect me to play it. I've
never even seen the music, and even if I had, it's something professional
musicians have to really work at to make it sound good -- it would be almost impossible
for an amateur to do, especially one who hasn't played the piano in years. I
won't play it, and you can't make me."
"Don't talk back to me," Madame Chaplaine hisses. "I'll speak to
"Oh, you'll speak to my mother? I'll speak to her, too. I assure you she
will listen to me more than she'll listen to you, dear. You work for my family. Don't forget that,
and don't presume the privilege to abuse me when you're standing in my home."
Madame Chaplaine opens her mouth to reply, but then seemingly turns to stone
and evaporates into the usual black dust motes.
"I wasn't scared at all," Beelzebambi says, wiping tears out of her
eyes as she jumps off the piano bench. "But that was totally way
"Well, I'm relieved we have your unflinching bravery to lead us
forward," I tell her as I get off the bench. I wish I could say I planned
that, but Madame Chaplaine always infuriated me just as much as she terrified
me. I'm glad anger is a good counter to fear, but I doubt I'll be able to rely
on my rage to get us through this.
"Where to next?" Bambi asks.
"The double doors out of the room," I say. "I believe they'll
point us in the right direction."
We push the doors up, step into the hallway... and everything changes around
We're back on the streets of
Metro City. For a moment, I think we've passed all the tests and escaped safe
and sound, but it's broad daylight here, and it feels like summer, not late
October. Besides, that was all much, much too easy.
"Stop right there,
evildoers!" shouts a voice behind us.
The street behind us is
filled with superheroes. But with a few minor differences.
Miss Mega is about 20 feet tall and far more musclebound and brutish than she'd
ever be happy about. Gearbox looks like a giant sawmill with a few extra knives
attached. El Phantasmo is accompanied by a small army of those long-haired
ghost girls that are in all the new Japanese movies. Hypothermia is more jagged
and far colder, and he has a fang-filled mouth. Jonni Rotten is eating a baby.
Hybrid is the most realistic movie werewolf I've ever seen. The Chrome Cobra
has at least eight arms, all holding bloody fireaxes.
Beelzebambi doesn't even scream. She just makes a high-pitched squeak.
"My god, Bambi," I say. "We're nowhere near that bad."
"Come quietly or be dessstroyed," says the Cobra with an ominous hiss.
"Or just be dessstroyed. Jussst like we dessstroy everyone."
Again, this is obviously Bambi's fear, but it's infecting me pretty bad, too.
Even beyond the fact that these are monster versions of people I know and
trust, I can't help getting very worried that they're going to attack me, kill
me, and bury me in a shallow grave.
Bambi turns and runs -- and because she's a crazy cheerleader demon, that means
she spreads her giant batwings and flies away as fast as she can. And I fly
after her, partly because I can't afford for her to get stuck in this fear
dimension forever, and partly because I really want to get away from the
"heroes" before they put me in jail, the hospital, or the morgue.
I catch up with Bambi almost
immediately -- she flies pretty fast for someone who has to use wings, but IDP
armor is faster than anything on Earth other than speedsters. I grab her arm
and pull her up short. I'm not much good at being the drill sergeant, but maybe
it'll help her calm down. Maybe it'll help calm me down, too.
"I need you to shape up
fast, Bambi," I tell her. "You won't do yourself any good if you just
run off in a panic. You'll never make the A-list of the supervillain world if
everyone thinks you're a coward."
"Don't listen to her,
darling humanoid," says a vaguely familiar voice nearby. "Everyone
already knows you're a coward."
And floating up next to us is
me. Or rather, the nightmare monster version of me, with an elongated, curved
helmet, claws and spikes in the armor, and an utterly incongruous organic
mouth, complete with drool and snaggle-toothed fangs.
dear?" my doppelganger sneers. "You brought another human with you?
I'm going to lay eggs in her brain."
say. "We have got to talk about correcting some of your opinions about
I hit the evil me with an
energy net, then drag Beelzebambi behind me as we fly off. We don't get far,
unfortunately. We get knocked out of the air when a bunch of el Phantasmo's
ghost girls swarm over us and drag us down to earth.
I try to kick my way free of them, almost as frantic and terrified as Bambi (I
saw that damn movie, too, and it gave me nightmares for a couple of days), but
they back off on their own after a few seconds when Miss Mega crashes down in
front of us.
"MISS MEGA SMAAAASH!" she
bellows and slams both fists into the ground. We bounce about 25 feet in the
air -- and a good thing, too, because the ground completely disintegrates below
us. Thank god she hit the ground and not us -- I think there's a good reason
everyone gets so nervous once Mega starts unleashing her full strength on
Before we can drop into the crater below, I grab Bambi again and fly us away,
staying low to the ground -- I want to put distance between us fast and not
give them any visual clues about where we are. But I suspect they can find us
anyway. You can't outrun nightmares, right?
And we can't outrun Express
either. He catches up to us easy, spins us around a few hundred times, and
throws us against a wall. I can't even see him -- he's moving fast enough to be
completely invisible. Bambi is on another terrified crying jag, and I'd
probably be even more worried if I could even get my bearings.
And these nightmares aren't
even beating us up the way they could be. They're really treating us with kid
gloves, roughing us up just a little, enough to get Bambi's anxieties cranked
up as high as possible. And we can't outrun them, we can't out-fight them.
whispers the Cobra's voice from all around us. "Sssurrender and perhapsss
we'll let you live."
Oh, well, of course.
"I surrender," I
say. "Bambi, dear, we only ever beat you up when you resist or when you're
in the middle of committing a crime. Give up, and we stop hitting you,
"B-But I don't wanna go
to jail," she blubbers.
"I really don't care, my
dear," I tell her. "Give up, and you don't have anything to fear from
these people. That's the way we operate, and you know it."
She stammers, she whines, she
doesn't want to do it. But when monster werewolf Hybrid and blood-soaked zombie
Jonni Rotten show up, she gets the right words out. The moment she says
"Take me to jail," all the fake heroes and the city around us dissolve
It goes on like that for what seems like a nerve-wrackingly long time. We find
ourselves in a high-society party where no one pays any attention to me -- an
experience I'm ashamed to admit causes me significant distress. We get out of that
one when I go into the kitchen and start helping with food prep -- apparently,
the fear of losing my social contacts is overcome by helping other people.
After that, we have to deal with Bambi's fear of a particular bully from
elementary school (resisted by actually standing up and fighting the bully), my
perfectly understandable fear of bear traps (I have to get through that by
purposely stepping on a bear trap, which is quite the maddest thing I've ever
done in my life), a phobia about hot stoves (a fear that both of us actually
share and which Beelzebambi, of all people, should have really gotten over long
before now), and Bambi's mortal terror of haunted houses. Turns out the only
way to conquer that particular fear is to run screaming all over the place as
monstrous spirits of the unquiet dead chase you until you finally find a door
that isn't locked. It takes much too long and frazzles us quite to the breaking
And after that, there's a
quiet room filled with flowers and tissue boxes and one big oblong box. A big oblong box with me inside it.
I try to back out the door,
and of course, it's closed and locked.
"Bambi, I need you to
burn this door down," I say, probably a bit louder and higher pitched than
I intend. "Please, burn it down as fast as you can."
But I get no response. I look
around, and she's fainted on the floor. She's been getting hit by the frights
far worse than me the entire time, and I guess the strain finally got to be too
Or maybe she was more scared
this time because I'm more scared.
Maybe the computerized bonding goo in my brain that's been shielding me from
all the fear effects finally overheated and quit working. Maybe I'm worn out
and emotional, and it's all affecting her worse. Maybe this is the worst fear imaginable
for anyone. Surely I can't be the only person afraid of this, right?
It's an open casket. It can't
possibly be an open casket. No funeral home would leave that casket open.
I don't want to look, but
it's positioned just perfectly to draw your eyes to it.
It's barely recognizable. So
many parts of the body have been removed. It's so mangled. There's just enough
there to let me identify it. The right shade of blonde hair. An old scar across
the knuckles from that trip in the rain forest. That mole above the eyebrow.
But there's so little left once the Intergalactic Defense Patrol takes back its
And that's what I have to
look forward to. Whether I live to be 100 or I get killed next week by some
supervillain, that's the sorry mess of a corpse I'll leave behind. That's what
I'll leave for my family and friends after the IDP pulls its property out of my
body. And it's horrified me from the moment I learned about it.
I'm really not sure why it bothers me so. I'm not afraid of dead bodies. I'm
not particularly worried about the idea of dying -- you can't do dangerous
superheroics if you are. Mutilation isn't something I relish being exposed to,
but it doesn't really give me the heebie-jeebies. But combining death,
mutilation, and me just hits my
phobia buttons hard.
Yes, I make a good show of being comfortable with the idea. I do that by
avoiding really thinking about it. Because when I think about it seriously, I
just want to go curl up and cry somewhere.
I try the door again. It
rattles -- and then it opens. I start to rush through, but there's another
50-foot-tall dust-mote demon standing in front of me. I don't know how it fit
itself into a funeral home, but there it is all the same.
"Do you give up?"
it asks with a touch of glee in its voice. "We will keep you here. We will
feed on your terrors. Do you surrender to the monster in the box?"
"No," I gasp out.
"I don't surrender. I'm fine."
"If you surrender
quickly, we will not keep you too long," it says. "We are able to
And as it scuttles back into
the woodwork, I realize I almost told it, without thinking, that it could have
me, just so long as I didn't have to go back in the room.
But it's already gone, and
the door slams in my face. I turn around, and the room has shrunk to half the
size it was before. I'm standing right next to the coffin.
My body looks even worse than
I expected up close. Half the skull is collapsed. The flesh looks like it's
been blasted open pore by pore. My eyes are completely missing.
In fact, I have biological
eyes, but they've been enhanced by enough IDP cyber-tech that removing the
augmentations would probably destroy the remaining structure. Probably what
happened to my skin, my skull, and pretty much everything else that was left
I don't want this to be the
way I end up. It's not a vanity thing -- I like to look good, but I assure you
I'm not obsessed with my appearance like some people I know at the clubs. I
just don't want to look like that.
I hate the idea that the IDP
will bring that back to my family someday. "Here's this sack of skin, we
decided to dump it on your doorstep instead of flushing it out of an
airlock." My mother and father may often seem heartless, but I have no
doubts that they love me and would be horrified to see me like this, dumped out
like a bundle of garbage.
I think that's what scares me the most -- the idea that the only
thing the IDP really values about me is the technology they've stuffed inside
me. They'll harvest the tech one day, and whatever is left will be dumped. Bad
enough to be disrespected by the IDP when I'm putting my life on the line, but
to be discarded like that sends a message to my family and friends and anyone
else who knows about me -- that I was worthless and insignificant and
I know this, but it doesn't
stop the fear. I don't want to be nothing. I don't want to be a pile of meat to
be dropped on my parents' doorstep.
I have to find a way to get
past this. I have to do it for my sake, and for Bambi's, and for the rest of
the world out there.
I could attack the casket,
shoot it with stunners, knock it over. You have to be brave to attack something
I could shout at it, denounce
it, get angry at it. Anger helps you get past fear, right?
I could ignore it, go sit on
the couch, pretend it's not there, try to make origami animals out of the
tissues. Ignoring your fears proves they don't affect you, right?
I could laugh at it, use some
of my patented dry wit, make a wide variety of jokes, both sophisticated and
crude. You have to laugh at your fears, right?
I could find another way to
escape, something other than the door out, since the dust motes are outside.
Sometimes the only way to get over fear is to run away from it, right?
But I can't imagine that any
of that will work. I suspect that's the true trap of this place -- some fears
you simply never can escape.
"I'll never get away
from you, will I?" I say. To myself, to my corpse. One last speech before
I walk out the door and let the dust motes have me. "You'll be with me
forever, one way or another. I'll always know you're what I've got to look
forward to, ultimately. And as scary and horrible as it may be, I suppose it
could be worse, right? If I had to choose between a clean, perfect funeral and
the opportunity to help a few hundred or a few thousand people, I suppose it
would be better to have the mincemeat corpse, don't you think, dear? I'll never
stop being afraid, I really don't think I will. I'll never love you or look
forward to you. I'll dread you constantly. But you're the best option I have,
you're an honorable endpoint, and I think I can accept that."
I steel myself to go take my
medicine with the dust motes, hoping I can persuade them to let Beelzebambi go,
or at least that the Council of Thaumaturges will figure out a way to rescue me
in time... and then the funeral home evaporates away. The portal back to Metro
City is right in front of me.
"We do not lie,"
says the voice of the dust motes. "You have faced the challenges, and you
and your associate may depart. We will run wild in your dimension someday, but
it will be another night."
"What, are you
serious?" I ask. "For that speech? You fear demons are soft-hearted
little dears, aren't you?"
"Would you like to
continue to enjoy our hospitality?" asks the voice.
"No, thank you, we'll be
I grab Beelzebambi and fly us
both back out the portal.
We land in the middle of
Montclair Park, which still looks like the grounds of some particularly ornate
haunted house attraction -- or it does for about five seconds. After that, the
portal hiccups, the light coming out of it changes from harsh white to
shimmering blue, the howls coming out of it pitch up another few octaves, and a
tremendous wind blows backwards into it. Then the portal vanishes, and every
last speck of Halloween monster décor goes along with it.
Five seconds later, I get
knocked flat by a flying tackle.
"Holy crap, you did
it!" Squid Kid shouts. "I'm not afraid of everything anymore! I can't
believe I was actually enjoying that!"
"Giddoff me," I
gasp. "At least spare my near-regal dignity, Lenore."
Squiddie pulls me to my feet
as Synthia strolls up, dragging Cosmo by his collar. Beelzebambi is still quite
unconscious at my feet, but with the fear plague over, I suspect it won't be
long before she wakes up again.
"Five minutes has got to
be some kind of record for dealing with a cross-dimensional invasion,"
says Synthia. "I was about to go raid a coffee house but you were out so
"What, five minutes?"
I scoff. "That was at least
three hours. Probably a great deal more. The accommodations were horrible, too.
I would not recommend that as a vacation spot anytime soon."
"Well, Miss Defender, I
must offer my congratulations," says Cosmo, rapidly regaining his usual
irritating showman persona. "You've certainly saved the city and quite
possibly the whole world, though of course, you couldn't have accomplished that
feat without the aid of Cosmo himself!"
"Do clam up, you
dried-up has-been," I tell him. I have no patience for his act right now.
"Well, my good deed for
the day is done, I suppose," he says. "Time for me to depart."
I almost get him with a
stunner blast. Damn, this is ultimately all his fault, with his stupid
willingness to cater to Beelzebambi's mad obsessions. Just to make sure I don't
lose both of them, I drop an energy net on Bambi before she wakes up.
"Oh also," says
Synthia. "These guys said they know you."
"Officer Van Ness, I
believe you know Officer Uddyghvim and Supervisor Bonecrack. I'm Investigator 8-Nexim-23."
Well, well, it's been a while
since I saw any members of the Intergalactic Defense Patrol here on Earth. I
was trained with Uddyghvim, who hails from the opposite end of the galaxy --
she looks like a green-furred, eyeless combination of a fox and a cow.
Bonecrack was our training supervisor -- think of him as a ten-foot-tall
lizard-wasp. I'm not acquainted with 8-Nexim-23, but it's probably a Dazikite
-- I've never seen one face-to-face, but they're supposed to be big on
numerical names. Of course, they're all
wearing IDP battlesuits like mine, so none of their features are visible.
I'm a bit nervous about
8-Nexim-23 being here, actually -- the IDP doesn't send Investigators out
unless something serious is happening.
"Welcome to Earth,
fellow officers -- I've taken care of an eight-four-niner," I reply. That's
IDP code for an interdimensional invasion. If it were just me and the IDP
officers, I'd be less formal, but in front of civilians, we always go into a
bit of police talk.
says Nexim. "What's the bogey model and incursion?"
"Incursion seems to be
roped off, but confirmation is pending. Model is mystical, possible Class Zero,
"Is the civilian
component designated for ops-class debriefing?" asks Bonecrack.
Translation: Who are these non-IDP schmucks, and do we need to be including
them in the conversation?
"My associates are Squid
Kid, one of the local crimefighters, and Synthia, a visitor to the city," I
say. "And Beelzebambi, a wanted fugitive here on Earth. Squid Kid and
Synthia assisted in the investigation. Beelzebambi was a hostage of the Class
Zeros. I think they're debriefing-worthy, sir."
"Earth citizens, we are
honored to visit your homeworld," says Nexim. "We're here as part of
an official investigation. Officer, would you please set your internal security
recorder to scan mode so we can review it?"
Translation: They want to
scan my internal logs to determine exactly what happened here. And a request
from an Investigator is actually the exact opposite of a request, so I flip the
switches to "Public" and let them scan away -- which, luckily, takes
just a few seconds, thanks to the computerized bonding goo in our brains.
Once they've got the last
who-knows-how-many-hours scanned, I say, "I do hope I'm not in serious
trouble. I don't remember the last time I saw an Investigator in the field,
much less one backed up by an officer and
"You're not in any
trouble at all," says Nexim. "Your suit signals and life signs
vanished from the IDP's sensors. Normally, that means the officer has been
killed in action, but your battle gear and cybernetics didn't teleport into HQ
the way they're programmed to do. There were concerns that someone had figured
out a way to lock down your cybernetics, likely for some sort of illicit use.
Additionally, we wanted to find whoever or whatever had killed one of our most
successful officers and bring him, her, or it to justice."
"I see," I say.
"Well, obviously, my suit signals disappeared because I was off in some
other universe. But while we're on the subject -- what do you mean, 'most
successful officer'? I thought I was considered something of a basket
ridiculous," says Bonecrack. "Most worlds have a contingent of at
least six IDP officers. You've been flying solo longer than anyone. Sure,
you've got a bunch of civilian superheroes as backup, but you're still handling
situations like this by yourself. Just don't go getting a swelled ego, kid --
you were already too full of yourself during training. Don't make me bust you
back to desk duty."
"Before we continue
further," says Nexim, "Everything else we have to discuss is
IDP-officers-only material. I must request that all non-IDP personnel vacate
the area so we can discuss matters confidentially."
"He means you Earthers
need to clear off for a bit," says Uddyghvim. "Sorry, but I think
you'd call it 'cop business.' "
they're right," I say. "Could you take Beelzebambi off to the other
side of the park. That energy net should hold her for at least another 15-20
Once they've reluctantly
trucked off for the north side of Montclair Park -- Lenore was probably hoping
my fellow officers would take off their helmets and reveal monstrous gothy
alien faces -- the rest of us get down to brass tacks.
"Officer Van Ness, I
think we'll have to take the one with the horns and the wings -- Beelzebambi, was
it? -- into custody," says Nexim. "Anyone capable of opening a
dimensional incursion on that scale could potentially be a threat to the
"I disagree, sir,"
I reply. "Beelzebambi is a relatively low-level threat. The only reason
she was able to open that portal was because she'd been provided a spellbook by
Cosmo the Astounding. She's part-demon, but she's a low-imagination brawler,
ultimately -- throws around fire and attitude and not much else. The IDP
maintains a policy in nearly all cases of leaving criminals to be punished in
their own jurisdiction, and I think Beelzebambi should be punished here for her
crimes committed on Earth."
"Someone's been studying
her regulation books," says Uddyghvim.
"I hardly need to study
something that's encoded into my bonding goo, dear," I say.
"In that case, can we get
hold of this spellbook?" asks Nexim. "It would at least let us lock
the threat down in a more permanent fashion?"
"I don't know whether
that will be possible," I say. "I didn't see it with Cosmo at any
point, and Beelzebambi didn't have it either. It may be that the fear demons
themselves have it."
"You should've taken
more care to take possession of it," says Bonecrack. "It should've
been one of the items you were looking for when you went to retrieve the demon
"Perhaps so, Supervisor,
but I was more focused on trying to rescue her as quickly as possible so the
portal would shut down."
"Hmm, I think I
agree," says Nexim. "Try to keep an eye out for it -- if this Cosmo
character has it, try to get it away from him. If I know interdimensional incursionists,
they always leave their worst tools where the worst people can find them, and
we don't want to give anyone else a chance to use it again. Your sensors
recorded the quantum signature of this 'primal fear dimension' -- we'll program
the universal sensors to monitor for that signature if it pops up again."
"Your friend Synthia is
a wanted criminal, too," says Uddyghvim. "You're not going to let her
go, are you?"
"She told us she was
planning on turning herself in," I say. "That's generally what she
does -- when she can get away from the actual
criminals who use her password to make her work for them, she turns herself in
at the nearest police station. Frankly, if she decides she'd rather just hitch
a ride out of town to avoid her latest controller, that's fine with me. The
poor girl never seems to catch a break."
"Doesn't seem like a
hardened criminal, at any rate," says Bonecrack. "If the problem is
the password, she's a victim of criminal coercion."
"That's been the legal
system's general opinion," I tell them. "Charges are usually dropped,
her password gets changed, and she tries to get a normal job. And then some
other supervillain hacks the new password and takes her on a bank robbing
"This is normally out of
our jurisdiction," says Nexim. "But it seems like a good cause. Tell
her I've changed her password for her."
"What, really?" I
say, surprised. "If that's something the armor can do, I've never been
told about it."
"Investigators have a
few extra capabilities," says Nexim. "I added some characters and
symbols that aren't present in any Earth alphabets, so her codes should be a
lot more difficult to crack now. Not impossible, unfortunately -- her cyberware
has built-in security flaws that make it unusually easy to break the codes. She
has had it rough -- I'm not sure
there's much we can do to improve her situation."
"I'll say this," rumbles Bonecrack. "Whoever put her together
did a rotten job of it. Maybe the worst programming I've seen. There's gotta be
technologists here on Earth who could upgrade her out of those crappy
cyberparts and repair those programming errors. Maybe not any of your so-called
superhero types -- all the battlesuit drones know how to do is build weapons --
but see if you can get some real engineers working on her."
"I'll see what I can do," I say. "Maybe Hypothermia or Iota
could help out. Any other questions about tonight's fuss?"
"I don't think so," says Nexim. "The Investigators' Tribunal
will probably get a kick out of your log recording. We'll contact you if we've
got any more questions. Very good to see that you're okay, Officer Van
"Thank you, sirs," I say. "Thanks for coming."
"And for the record, Officer," Nexim adds, "That last fear you
had, in the funeral home?"
"Think nothing of it, sir. It still scares me, but I think I accept it
now. No one else gets a pretty-corpse guarantee, and it's silly for me to
"Be quiet, Officer," says Nexim. "You're completely wrong. Yes,
we take possession of your cyberwear after you die, but we never return a
mutilated body. There's extensive reconstruction."
"Right," says Bonecrack. "We don't disrespect our officers that
"What?" I ask. "But I'd always understood -- Officer Zyllinar
told me --"
"Zyllinar tells you a lot of pog-guano, Van Ness," says Uddyghvim.
"What do you expect? How many times have you kicked him in his testicular
After that, my fellow IDP
officers take off, we stick Beelzebambi back in jail (she takes demented
delight in telling everyone "I surrender -- now you can't hurt me!"),
and everything slowly wraps itself up.
Synthia is overjoyed to hear
that her password has been changed. She insists on going back to Ming's Bar,
beats Black Hat to a pulp, and drags him off to the nearest police station. Squid
Kid decides, for once in her life, that she's had enough Halloween 'til next
year and goes home to sleep off her fear hangover.
I get a call from the Chrome
Cobra. I admit I expect her to yell at me for zapping her with neural stunners
and sticking her to her ceiling with energy nets, but instead, she asks me, a
bit nervously, if she'd really stabbed me with a hard-light spear or if she'd
hallucinated the whole thing. I tell her yes, she speared me like a cheese cube
on a party tray. She mumbles a bit, says she's sorry, and hangs up. I suspect I
can torture the poor girl for weeks by demanding more abject apologies.
So the night's over, and
everything seems to be under control. I had expected a bit more chaos on the
streets after all that fear plague nonsense, but things are actually pretty
quiet. As long as everyone else is taking a rest, I don't see any reason why I
shouldn't join them, so I head for home.
I find Father in the office, merrily typing along on the computer and checking
the family's financials. I almost tell him this experience should make him
question his obsessions with money, but I suppose as long as he's happy, I
should let him enjoy himself.
Mother is in the kitchen making herself a cocktail. After a night like tonight,
who can blame her?
"Hello, Heather," she says as I come in. "Did you have fun at
the Halloween parties tonight?"
"Missed them again, Mother. It seems the whole city was briefly taken over
by fear demons."
"Fear demons? Really?" she says. "I did have some -- I think
they were nightmares, Heather, and I suppose it's the type of thing I'd like to
blame on fear demons. I assume the problem was taken care of by the police or
"Yes, I heard it was all taken care of by a police officer," I tell
her. "I hope your nightmares weren't too unpleasant."
She takes a quick swig of her cocktail. "I hope I don't have any more of
them, dear. I know you don't have very much fondness for my mother,
"No, I don't," I say. "I am sorry, but Grandmama is really a
"I won't argue with you, Heather. Your uncle and I didn't have happy
childhoods, and it was all the fault of that woman. I wish we didn't have to
keep getting her approval for what we spend money on..."
"You don't have to, Mother. You
and Father don't rely on her for money. You're some of the richest people in
the city, and that money is all yours. She can deny you an inheritance someday,
but she can't take away what is already yours."
"Public opinion is nothing to be sniffed at, young lady," she says.
"My mother knows a lot of influential people. She talks to a lot of influential people. She can harness quite a lot
of creative bile, when she wants to."
"She knows influential people in Boston,
Mother," I reply. "We shouldn't care what anyone in Boston says about
us. And I question Grandmama's ability to persuade anyone of anything. 'My
daughter won't do what I want her to." Boo hoo, the poor lamb."
She laughs despite herself. "Someday you'll be saying the same thing about
me, I expect."
"You are not Grandmama," I
say. "And besides, a good way to keep
me from thinking of you that way is not to be a stingy hatemongering monster
like Grandmama, right? Would you care to reconsider your donation to the soup
"Touché, my dear," she says with a grin.
And that's the story of how I
spent all day Halloween successfully wrangling the Van Ness family's record-breaking
contribution to the St. Nicholas Soup Kitchen and Ministry in downtown Metro
Didn't I tell you, my dears,
that I was entirely beyond awesome?
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