How strange when an illusion dies. It's as though you've lost a child.
She had to be wrong. It was impossible.
Maddie fled the lab after her sudden discovery, taking refuge in her room only to find that the proof—that single sheet of paper with its incriminating findings—had come in her hands unnoticed. Its argument was compelling. No, more than that. It was the only thing that fit every piece of the puzzle. Phantom had a human body. One that had the capability of feeling every shock and cut that she had administered.
The very idea went against everything she knew. It was only a ghost.
…he was only a ghost.
Maddie crumpled the paper into a ball and hurled it into the wastebasket. It was useless; the words were already burned into her mind's eye. 43% keratin. 57% ectoplasm. Nearly half. Nearly half of the content was organic, non-ectoplasmic matter. What did that mean for the rest of Phantom?
That same ratio could very well apply to the other, oddly solid structures she'd found in his body. Organic substances that had been masked by their shared elements with ectoplasm, or where proteins had been replaced with surrogate, biologically specific variations of ectoplasmic density, dictated by the model of the original form. She had seen the muscles and bones with her own eyes; he might even have some rudimentary organs.
That organic substructure would allow not only for genuine sensation, it created a platform on which Phantom's imprint could expand and grow, creating layers of complex self-awareness. It made available to the ordinarily superficial ectoplasmic psyche the developmental and storage capabilities of the human brain.
Such a being could no longer be categorized as sub-sentient.
Maddie had ignored the signs, citing conditioned responses and modern ectobiological conventions, not doing her job and questioning every possibility, complacent in her arrogant assumptions. She'd watched with rapacious curiosity; with cold, blind clinical interest. She'd tested the physical limitations of an unusual paranormal manifestation; she'd inflicted pain on a self-aware being. She had removed a portion of the specimen. She'd cut off the hand of a child.
No. Maddie shook her head vehemently, rejecting the thought. No, surely whatever sick mind that had created Phantom had not gone that far. The body must have been obtained through some conventional procedure. A cadaver donated to science.
The initial experiment must have failed, or she would certainly have heard of it. It must have…yes, it must have caused a physical fusion only. Without the complex electrical patterns caused by brain waves to simulate self-awareness, Phantom would have been nothing. A failure. A mindless doll. It would require an imprint to become functional.
That was almost worse. No, it was worse. Phantom might not have been formed from a child, but his appearance, and more, his mind, was a reflection of one. Not just someone's child, but hers; her Danny. This imprint, this impression of her son's personality, was the interface that allowed Phantom to function. To understand. To feel. If, that is, all these leaps of logic were correct.
But she had to be wrong.
A movement caught the corner of her eye, and she whirled, only to be faced with the mirror on the back of the door. She traded wild-eyed stares with her reflection. Maddie walked closer, feeling as if she was looking at a stranger. Who was this unkempt, frightened-looking woman? Hesitantly, she rested her hand against the glass.
Was this what Phantom saw? Her? Maddie? Was it the scientist or the mother that he looked at? Just days ago, she'd been asking herself the same question. But now it was a very different perspective. There might be lies, there might be manipulation, but she could no longer dismiss the ghost's actions as something driven by blind obsession.
Any connection with her was a delusion; a remnant of his formation. He was no more her son now than he had ever been. Despite his experiences with her—experiences which, by all rights, should have been more formative than any impression gleaned from Danny, he'd to that conviction clung to all this time.
Phantom saw her not as an enemy, not even as a stranger. He saw her as…as mom. The person who could be trusted. Who protects and nurtures. The one who loved above all else. Not the ghost hunter, not the scientist, not the very real threat she had always been to him. Just mom.
For the first time, that concept filled her with something other than anger: Dread. A sick sort of fear, that she might be right. Aside from the threat to Danny, aside from everything she'd been assuming all this time, if she looked at Phantom's perspective as real, as coming from a receptive being…
Maddie dropped her hand, sighing in defeat. As she turned away, she noticed a green smudge on the glass. Maddie looked at her hand, and realized that somehow ectoplasm had gotten on her palm. More specifically, Phantom's ectoplasm. The telltale flecks of red told her it was his…blood?
Maddie had gone through so much of the stuff over the course of the past few weeks, analyzing it, testing it, trying to understand the anomalies. Water, 50%. Significantly less than a typical ghost. Iron, less than 20%. A substance foreign to a ghost's physiology, but one of the of the major components of human blood, something that had not occurred to her earlier. What else had she missed?
Ghosts were made of a single substance. Because of this, she had made the vain assumption that testing one part of Phantom's ectoplasm reflect his entire physical makeup. Of course he was different. Each part of his body played a role. Like a human, those roles were static. Like a human, his liquid ectoplasm provided energy and flowed to the separate parts.
In function, at least, this was blood.
Her interest turned to revulsion, and she swiped the hand on her pants leg. It only seemed to smear even more onto her hand. She realized the viscous green liquid had somehow soaked the fabric of her lab coat. How had she gotten so much on her sleeve?
Maddie had a sudden, vivid vision of Phantom looking up at her with defeated eyes, ectoplasm—ectoplasmic blood—smeared on his jumpsuit, caked in his hair, dripping from the gory stump of his arm. The ghost cringing away from her as she plunged a needle deep into his shoulder, her mind registering only frustration as the shivering made it difficult to get a reading.
Maddie barely made it to the bathroom in time.
She rested her forehead against the cool white porcelain, waiting for the nausea to die down. The sour stench of vomit couldn't quite hide the sharp odor of ectoplasm that clung to her. Was it on the rest of her clothes? She couldn't stand the thought. Maddie leapt to her feat, tearing off her slacks, her coat, struggling momentarily with the sling—
Phantom knelt next to her, shock and pain still evident in his shaking hands and voice as he pressed gauze against her wounds, ignoring his own ectoplasm—his own blood—as it pooled at his feet...
Maddie yanked off the sling, biting back a cry as the stitches in her shoulder pulled viciously. The thousands of neurons firing in her shoulder, reading to her as pain, how different were they from Phantom? 47%? At what percent would it matter? Even 1% was too much.
She dropped the rest of her clothes to the floor and stepped into the cramped shower stall. She turned the knob on full, gasping at the shock of cold water.
Maddie watched the water swirl down the drain. She saw it tint faintly green, then pink, the two colors swirling together. For one horrible moment she thought that Phantom's blood had divided into two. But no, that would take far more iron to even be possible. She felt her shoulder carefully, and realized that in her haste she'd reopened some of the punctures. It was her own blood, washing off her body and blending with Phantom's on the gritty white tile.
The colors were so different. Opposites. Antithetical to each other in every way. One was the life of a human being, unique and vital to her existence. The other, a toxic substance with ambiguous form and purpose, something easily replaced. Or so she'd thought.
"You can't bleed," she'd told Phantom, even as she'd bandaged him, her hands coated in the ectoplasm (in the blood) that refused to act in a way she understood.
What had driven her to say such a thing? Looking back it no longer had the factual ring that her mind had supposed. It sounded dismissive; no, defensive. Had she been trying to convince Phantom, or herself?
"This isn't you," Phantom had said. "You aren't cruel."
She turned the water to near-scalding. It was a long time before she felt clean.
It was the first time she'd ventured into the 'Cleaning Sector', as it was titled. Gleaming rows of machines lined the walls, at least two dozen each of washers and dryers, all immaculately white and most of them running with a steady hum that filled the room. Large jugs of industrial-strength bleach filled a shelf against the back, which stood next to a line of sinks. Folding tables ran down the middle of the room in a strict line.
Maddie unzipped her suitcase and loaded the contents into the nearest open washer. She pulled out her torn hazmat suit, the shoulder ripped almost to ribbons. The fabric part was ruined; washing it would be pointless. Maddie fingered the stains, red and green, looking oddly discolored against the teal. The faintest trace of a handprint marked the front.
She remembered Phantom, haloed by his aura in the semi-dark of the ruined lab. Cold fingers that the protective fabric couldn't entirely shield her from, the fear, the helplessness as she waited for that discomfort to transform into pain. The sudden, odd relief that eased taut lines from Phantom's face as he felt her breathe. Her angry response that made that momentary smile vanish.
She tossed it in anyway.
In went her tank top, the slacks, the hodgepodge of clothes she'd worn ever since her injury. All of them had that peculiar stench, of dried ectoplasm with the faintest hint of rot, that she'd begun to realize was because of Phantom's unique physiology. She emptied her suitcase piece by piece, until only the lab coat was left.
Maddie didn't want to look at it properly; she could feel the nausea tightening her gut, bile burning in her throat. But the vivid green (blood, flecked with red) was impossible to ignore.
It wasn't just the sleeve. Dark streaks on the hem, splatters on the lapel. Even the back had a faded green handprint, this one her own from when she'd carelessly reached for her coat, forgetting that she had yet to shed her gloves from—
It was the most fascinating thing she'd ever seen. The hand writhed, defying its total lack of reactive control in an attempt to evade her scalpel. The muscles, now exposed, were behaving as if actually functional—flexing and bunching, forcing the movement of the underlying skeletal structure. Would it still move, she wondered, if she took those muscles away?
Maddie wadded up the coat and flung it away. It hit the back wall, leaving a greenish streak on the whitewashed cement as it dropped to the floor.
She looked around guiltily, but the laundry room was still deserted, leaving no witnesses to her loss of self-control. Maddie shut the washer firmly and turned it on. Spotting a stack of small plastic tubs on the bottom shelf next to the bleach, she pulled one out and went to retrieve her coat. Maddie picked up the offending piece of clothing with a thumb and forefinger, dropping it into the bin. She settled the entire thing in the bottom of the sink and turned on the tap, watching as the water ran green.
"I was stupid, thinking you couldn't be like that." She could recall Phantom's words even though that moment was hazy with her own pain and confusion. He'd huddled next to her as if the whole world had ended, there among the darkness and debris. "Why did it have to be you? It had to be Maddie Fenton. It had to be... mom... "
Maddie realized the tub was overflowing and turned off the tap. She poured out half the water and added a generous amount of bleach, trying not to breathe in the heady fumes of the cleaning chemical. If it didn't get rid of the stains, it might just dissolve her coat instead.
Maddie started, nearly dropping the heavy bleach.
"Agent L," she said, clutching the jug as she struggled to calm her racing heart. The tall, immaculately dressed man stood in the middle of the Cleaning Facility, watching her. He must have walked in while she was preoccupied with the water.
Maddie resisted the urge to fidget uncomfortably. She must look terrible; her hair still damp and bedraggled from the shower, half-dressed in a hazmat suit tied around her waist, a t-shirt she had packed for sleepwear tucked into it sloppily.
Agent L merely looked at her without comment. He produced a laundry basket from under one of the tables and set it in front of a dryer that had nearly finished its load. He then folded his arms, watching the clothes, apparently prepared to stand there until it finished.
Maddie fumbled with the awkward silence, trying to get her bearings. "Useless?"
"Ectoplasm. The stains never come out of white clothing." He brushed a stray tuft of lint off his white suit coat. "I should know."
Maddie blinked, processing this. "Then why do you keep so much of it?"
A frown of irritation crossed his face, and the agent turned away, glaring down at the dryer. "Wholesale bleach is non-refundable."
Quiet settled back into the room, time marked only by the thrum of the machines and the little splashes as Maddie stirred the coat in the basin, hoping Agent L was wrong. Though really, she thought, glancing at the monochromatic whirl of clothes in the agent's dryer, he would know.
It was almost too faint to hear at first; Maddie was first aware of it from the hair standing up on her neck. It rose until it rang clear even through the concrete walls and the noise of the washing equipment.
Somewhere, not too far away, someone was screaming.
For a wild moment Maddie thought it might be Phantom, but then she realized that this voice was distinctly female. It was a terrible, lonely, high pitched wail, like a small child's, bewildered and dismayed at its own misery and laced with pain. Maddie stood transfixed. It hadn't been the first time she'd heard other "projects" in the facility. Ghosts tended to be loud, to make a scene, as if volume could replace their lack of true feeling. She'd heard, but hadn't listened.
A terrible thought rose in her mind. What if Phantom wasn't the only one?
It had taken her weeks to realize the implications of Phantom's anomalous chemistry, and she was considered one of the foremost scientific minds in the paranormal community. The GIW, by their own admission, were not even properly scientists. How long would a sentient artifact go undetected? Months? Years? Or would they waste away, like Phantom, with the GIW none the wiser?
The sound ended abruptly, as if it had been cut off. Maddie looked up in alarm, eyes going to Agent L, who had surely heard it as well as she. He was calmly opening the dryer, not disturbed in the least. He gave no sign of even registering that there had been a sound in the first place. This sight, the mundane ritual that went on uninterrupted, somehow disturbed her more.
"Does it ever bother you?" she blurted, much to her own surprise.
The agent responded with an understandably incredulous arched eyebrow.
Maddie bit her lip, refusing to take it back. She couldn't blame his skeptical response. She must be really desperate, to find herself confiding in this man of all people.
It was too late to stop now. Maddie swished the fabric around in the tub, searching for words. "I've studied ghosts for years. It's been a long-standing theory that they only simulate human expression. That any perceived emotional response to stimulation is artificial. But…what if there was an exception? A ghost who could, in human terms, feel?"
She paused, staring down at the green stains, her eyes watering from the bleach fumes. He'd been right; they showed no signs of fading, even though the water was now tinged green. "Could we be wrong?"
Agent L stared at her, expression unreadable. Then he turned back to his laundry. For a long, awkward moment she thought he was going to ignore her altogether.
"Do you know why our top agents wear white, Dr. Fenton?" he said at last.
Maddie blinked. "I... no, I don't." Was he changing the subject?
The tall man bent down to retrieve a pair of white slacks from the dryer. He inspected them critically, front and back. Apparently satisfied, he folded them meticulously and set them in the basket. Then he looked at Maddie.
"It's a reminder," he said. "Ectoplasm," he drew out the word as if mentioning something particularly unpleasant, "is a taint. An invasion of our home dimension. Something that, unchecked, will destroy the human race."
He examined a vest, this one with the faintest hint of green on the shoulder. The agent walked over to a chute on the wall, dropping it in. The label over the chute read 'Incinerator'.
"Feeling or not feeling is irrelevant. Ghosts are the enemy. They may take our appearance and speak our language, but they do not belong here. They never will." He looked down at Maddie through his shades. "You should remember that, Dr. Fenton."
The agent picked up his basket and left, leaving Maddie standing at the sink, bleach stinging her eyes.
The initial security check-in was interminable. Maddie breathed a sigh of relief as the guard handed back her luggage. Excluding, she noticed, her cell phone. She looked askance at Agent L, who scowled down at her from behind his ever-present dark shades.
"Security precaution. Outside communication is discouraged for temporary staff," he said, flicking a miniscule speck of dust off his white lapel.
"Meaning not allowed," she translated wryly. Good thing she'd warned Jack that she would probably be out of touch. The scientist pulled her wheeled suitcase behind her as Agent L led the way down the corridor.
She had expected tight security at this experimental government facility, but paranoid didn't even begin to describe it. She'd given a blood sample, her fingerprints, a photo ID, and a retinal scan, all in trade for the small plastic security badge now secured to the front of her lab coat. She suspected it would not give her nearly enough access to begin satisfying her curiosity.
"Not that I don't appreciate the opportunity," Maddie said. "But why bring a civilian into this?"
"Our agents are trained to capture and destroy paranormal threats," Agent L responded. "But as for interrogation and examination, we tend to lack... subtlety."
Maddie eyed a particularly large green stain that covered the floor and part of the wall. Unsubtle, indeed, she thought with amusement. "I see."
She heard Phantom before she saw him. Maddie couldn't make out words, but the irritated tone of the agent was clear, as was the ghost's fearless, mocking response. He stopped mid-retort, however, as she entered the room behind Agent L.
"Mo—Maddie?" The ghost's jaw dropped. Obviously she'd been the last person he'd expected to see. The bravado left his tone in sheer surprise. "What are you doing here?"
Maddie scowled; not only was this ghost so flippantly familiar with her, he didn't even bother to remember her name properly. Every single time he very nearly called her Maude, the name of her younger cousin. She'd always hated being mixed up with that brat.
"That's Dr. Fenton to you, ghost," she returned crisply.
Agent L studied her, frowning in what she was beginning to think of as his signature expression. "We were unaware that you were on speaking terms with the entity."
"Hardly," she laughed, moving to inspect the surgical instruments laid out on the lab table. They were gleaming stainless steel, brand new. She picked up a scalpel and relished the fear in Phantom's eyes as he realized exactly why she was here. "But I intend to get much better acquainted."
Maddie opened her eyes, staring up into the dark. She glanced over at the cheap digital alarm clock, its red numerals glowing unmoved.
The memory had mingled into her dreams, and she found herself disturbed—even disgusted. Professionalism and objectifying Phantom was one thing. But had she really wanted to intimidate him? Had she actually enjoyed putting that terrified look in his eyes? It would mean that even then, she'd acknowledged him as an individual on some level. There was no point in taunting an object. But she couldn't have known.
Couldn't? Her mind mocked the weak excuse even as she grasped for it. Hadn't she been marveling at the adaptive abilities of his fighting style? The unexpected complexity of emotions? Phantom's arguments with her had been incredibly self-aware and reactive. Would it be that much of a leap to have concluded that his physicality, his ability to comprehend pain, would be different too?
Yet she'd gone on with the procedures like he was just another ghost. No. If it was just another ghost, she would have been more moderate. More rational.
Maddie twisted her hands in the sheets, wishing she could forget for just a few more hours, but the thought gnawed at her.
Rationality hadn't been the driving force behind her actions. "Dr. Fenton" wasn't the cool, calculating intellect she'd so vainly thought herself to be. She had been angry that he'd tricked her; her own Freudian slip had frightened her. He'd called her mom, yes, but she called him Danny first.
She hadn't cared either way. She'd even wanted to hurt him.
Maddie pushed the thought away angrily, rolling over to glare at the offending clock.
Still 3:16. Time had slowed to a crawl.
Then there was Danny. Her Danny. Just the thought made her chest tighten with unspeakable fears. There was no question in her mind now that she had been right about Phantom's obsession. Whatever else he might be, he had imprinted her son. No wonder Danny avoided ghosts at all costs. It must have been so traumatic for him. What kind of mother—what kind of ghost hunter—was she when she couldn't protect her own son?
It was a cruel twist of fate that it would be here and now she would discover it, when any discussion with her Danny was impossible. Two more days. Two days and she'd go home and not let Danny out of her sight until she had some answers.
Until then, there was Phantom.
Phantom, who mirrored her son, quite literally. Who saw her in an impossible light because of it. The ghost, who she now knew was not quite a ghost. The artifact, that was every bit as different as he'd claimed to be. Who felt every shock and every cut.
To Phantom, Danny wasn't merely an obsession. It was the interface that allowed his unique physiology to host a complex psyche; it was the only identity he knew. That identity had classified her as a mother figure. Her, the ghost hunter who, whether he knew it or not, had been instrumental in his capture. Her, the scientist who had subjected him to test after test. Who had... had mutilated him, never suspecting it would be so permanent. Who had never understood, even when she could have known. Who should have known.
Maddie kicked off the covers and groped for the light. Coffee. She needed coffee. And then, no more hiding. She would deal with Phantom face to face.