Chapter 1: Prologue
Phantom of Truth
There is one thing even more vital to science than intelligent methods; and that is, the sincere desire to find out the truth, whatever it may be.
- Charles Pierce
At 5:30 am, Maddie silenced her alarm and rolled out of bed. Ice cold concrete met her bare feet. The air smelled stale and foreign, reminding her immediately that she was not at home. She fumbled for the light switch. It flickered on, a weak illumination that did nothing to brighten the dull beige walls.
Well. She hadn’t come here for comfort; certainly not to admire the decor.
Dressing quickly out of her suitcase—in this spartan cell of a room, her hosts had neglected to provide a dresser—she quietly opened the door, making sure her ID badge was securely pinned to the front of her lab coat. She made the short walk to the facility's cafeteria. It followed the themes of her room; drab colors, minimal, slightly rusted furniture, and no windows of course. The only view outside those thick cement walls would be featureless bedrock.
Maddie picked up a bagel, filling her coffee mug in silence. The few personnel awake at this hour treated her with civil but unbroken silence. She spent a few futile moments trying to catch someone’s eye, but they continued to politely ignore her. Besides the lettered agents, she’d had no success in making anything resembling conversation. Doubtless a "good morning" would result in a grievous breach of homeland security, she thought wryly.
Maddie suppressed a sigh as she stirred a generous amount of sugar into her coffee. It was times like these that she missed her husband most. Jack's boisterous, cheerful, blundering attitude had a way of evaporating all forms of social tension. But it was that very character that made him unqualified for this job. The scientist smirked fondly as she took a bite out of her bagel and headed for the lab. Subtlety was something Jack had never quite grasped.
Three hallways, two security checks, and a short elevator ride brought her out of the staff quarters and into the lab division. It consisted of a single long hallway with endless rows of numbered doors, uniformly lit with harsh white fluorescents. It seemed ordinary, like a block of offices or perhaps a military dorm, until you noticed that there were quarantine doors recessed in the ceiling at regular intervals, and panels on the walls hinted at concealed weaponry. Every door had a palm scanner and a keypad, watched by the black plastic eye of a temperature-sensitive camera.
Maddie balanced her coffee in the crook of her arm and pulled off her glove, placing her hand on the scanner. It buzzed briefly, then blinked green, text scrolling onto the small screen above the keypad:
::::::::::::::::DOCTOR MADELINE FENTON::::::::::::::::ACCESS REQUEST TO LAB 013:::::::::::::::::
::::::::::::::::CLEARANCE LEVEL 03::::::::::::::::APPROVED::::::::::::::::::::
::::::::::::::::PLEASE ENTER ACCESS CODE::::::::::::::::::::::::::**********:::::::::::::::::::::::::::
::::::::::::::::ACCESS CODE APPROVED:::::::::::::::::::::
The door opened with a pneumatic hiss and she walked into the lab. She was greeted with the the familiar smells of recent soldering, various sharp-scented chemicals, the semi-sweet tang of ozone, new paint, and of course, a faint but distinct odor of ectoplasm.
The room itself was an unremarkable rectangle, every inch covered in windowless grey steel. Shelves and cabinets lined one wall, full of devices that to the casual observer would have been mysterious and bizarre, shining green and silver mechanisms that whirred and blinked, and came in a vast array of shapes and sizes. She, however, knew intimately the function of every device, having invented several herself. Near the front of the room stood a permanent console with an impressive array of buttons, dials and monitors, with a short amount of counter space at the end which allowed for a chair and a chunky but powerful desktop computer. All in all, it was one of the most well-stocked and secure ghost research labs currently available.
Maddie sat down at the desk, wedging her coffee between the monitor and her stacks of handwritten notes. She booted up the computer, which responded with a fuzzy electronic beep, whirring to life, the monitor flickering on. Despite its archaic appearance, the computer was connected to very advanced hardware. That included a direct line that allowed the owners of this facility, the paranormal branch of the US government commonly known as the GIW. They could view and record all the data she gathered at a separate location. Maddie disliked the idea, especially after years of doing her own research. But it was better than half a dozen high-clearance, low intelligence interns hovering at her elbows.
It was, to be honest, a better deal than she’d anticipated when they’d approached her. They would get their data, and she was free to conduct the experiments in her own way.
Numbers and graphs scrolled across the screen, feedback from various monitoring devices. Maddie picked up her clipboard and pen. Only then did she allow herself to look up at her subject. This...this was worth putting up with any number of restrictions. It was even worth giving up a summer with her family, though that had been the hardest part.
The containment unit took up the majority of the center of the room. It consisted of a large metal frame rising out of the floor to form a cube, which projected shimmering, near-transparent walls of green-blue energy. Inside, tethered by a long cable anchored to the floor, was the reason she'd agreed to be sequestered here in a remote government facility. It was an unmatched acquisition, one she'd had her eye on for a long time. It held a wealth of potential information. Quite possibly, it was the key to unlocking the secrets of the paranormal world, and in turn, the universe.
"Geez, I bet it's not even light outside. Can you even call this morning yet?" He stifled a yawn behind one white glove. Glowing green eyes met her own as they squinted into a hopeful smile. "Bring me any coffee?"
No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.
- Albert Einstein
Data scrolled across her computer screen, the little black numbers unwittingly destroying years of research line by line. Maddie hummed in dissatisfaction, clicking her fingernails against the desk.
It wasn’t that the data was necessarily strange when taken individually; it was just a little...off. She had decided to start from the ground up, with the most basic tests analyzing the chemical makeup and electric signature of the ghost’s ectoplasm. It should have taken a couple of hours at most. But here she was at the beginning of day two, rechecking the readouts yet again. Surely something had malfunctioned. It just didn’t add up.
Instead of the typical 85% water that made up a ghost, he was more like 70%. His ectoplasm gave off a much higher radiation level per milliliter. Copper, the dominant metal of a ghost’s chemical makeup, had been at normal levels, but there were traces of iron, which was visible to the naked eye as tiny flecks of red in the luminescent green. The list went on. Individually, any of these could be passed off as an unusual spike or equipment malfunction. Together they indicated a severe divergence from the norms she’d been carefully documenting for years.
Maddie looked up at the subject, who was watching her with a bemused smile on his face. To her irritation, the ghost seemed to be enjoying her confusion. It was as if he knew that his tests would come out wrong. He slouched there with his arms crossed, looking for all the world like a smug teenager. That image vanished, though, once you realized he was sitting on thin air and that a white aura surrounded him.
It felt surreal to be this close to this particular ghost, seeing him sitting perfectly still, apparently calm. In the past all she’d ever caught was a glimpse. A blur in the corner of her eye as she rushed onto a now-empty scene of destruction, a figure in the sky struggling against another ghost, the grainy film from a security camera. Even their few close encounters had been moments of chaos, interaction consisting of hurled insults and ectoblasts.
Aggressive ghosts couldn’t stand capture; they paced wildly, attacked the walls. But here he sat, motionless. He didn’t look content, but the sullen resignation in his expression seemed antithetical to the fighting nature ghost she had known. What’s more, instead of growling insults, he’d responded to her with a bizarre calm, almost conversationally. This complete shift in behavior baffled her.
She wondered what Jack would make of it. Maddie was seized by a strong desire to call him up and discuss this latest puzzle with him, but they had confiscated her phone and she hadn’t seen a single land line in the facility. Even if she could, it was ludicrous to consider discussing a top-secret experiment over the phone.
“What’s the matter? I’m still screwing up your tests?” Phantom’s voice brought her back to herself; she realized she was staring at him, hands poised over the keyboard. A smirk spread across his face. “Or were you nodding off there? Wow, I guess even scientists can get bored with statistics.”
She gave a deep sigh. It was pointless to get annoyed over a ghost. Pointless, but very easy. Especially with this ghost.
She stacked the readouts and pushed them onto a growing pile. “You‘re a conundrum.”
“A cono-what? Hey, if you‘re going to insult me, at least do it in English.”
Maddie scowled in frustration at the computer, talking more to herself than the ghost. “You shouldn’t exist. The ectosignature baseline is all wrong. There’s just not enough information there to hold anything together. By this data you should be nothing but loosely associated ectoplasmic matter with a semi-ambulatory non-sentient function.” Yet he had the densest and most complex physical manifestation she’d ever seen. She had hoped her physical examination would have cleared up the discrepancies, but now she was more lost than ever.
“In other words…ghost slug? Erg, gross.” Phantom shuddered, looking down at himself. “Glad that didn’t happen.”
He understood that but he didn’t know what a conundrum was? But more importantly, what did he mean ‘happen’? Was he referring to his creation? Maddie had never heard of a ghost that could recall its actual construction. That was why so many of them were convinced of their own existence, despite being nothing but echoes of humanity.
“What makes you so different?” She moved closer to the holding tank. “Why aren’t you like other ghosts?”
He sighed unhappily, letting his arms drop. “If I’m so different then what’s the point in studying me? It won’t help at all with hunting real ghosts. Why not just let me go?”
Maddie couldn’t help but bristle at the implications. He made her sound like ghost-hunting was the equivalent to paranormal vermin extermination, instead of the complex and highly important scientific venture that it was.
“You misunderstand me, ghost.” she responded with remarkable calmness.. “Yes, we capture ghosts and keep them from terrorizing the populace; but the Fentons are foremost scientists. We want to know everything there is to know about ghosts, and an anomaly is the perfect case to study. If it disproves all our data, then the data was wrong, and we can move on to finding the real solution that accounts for everything. You could be the key to a whole new understanding of the spectral plane.”
“Great,” he said flatly, resuming his slouch. “Just what I always wanted.”
Maddie cocked her head, curious despite herself. That had been..sarcasm. Rather unsubtle scarcasm, but still it implied a relatively complex grasp of the concept of language.
Maddie tapped the eraser of her pencil on her chin, thinking. She wished she had her daughter’s knack of picking up on an entity’s thoughts; though Jazz had recently developed an unsettling habit of talking about ghosts in human terms, she was usually very insightful when it came to understanding a ghost’s motivation in connection with their obsessive nature. This often escaped Maddie. She knew the mechanisms of paranormal psyche formation inside out, but applying it in order to determine a ghost’s obsessive drive eluded her. Most of them required less subtle handling, such as a laser staff to the face.
Maddie straightened the readouts and stacked them next to the computer. Jazz was back in Amity Park, no doubt knee deep in books for her senior thesis or harassing Danny about ‘proper socialization’. She’d have to solve Phantom’s mysteries her own way.
The rudimentary samples she’d taken wouldn’t teach her anything more. It was time to take a closer look. Maddie double checked her suit, reassuring herself that all its offensive functions were on standby. She tapped in a command at the control station. There was a click and a quiet whirr as Phantom’s tether retracted.
He yelped in surprise as it dragged him out of the air by his ankle. “What’s going on?”
She typed in another command, and as he came to rest on the floor, a second cuff snaked up out of a panel in the floor and latched onto his other ankle. Then an entire slab rose out of the floor underneath the ghost, whose eyes widened as he realized his prison had just turned into an exam table.
“This can’t be good.”
“Ghost! Lie down and put your wrists into the restraints.”
“Or?” He looked at her defiantly.
“Or you’ll regret it.”
He crossed his arms and scowled, eyes narrowing. “Nu-uh, no way am I willingly trapping myself on this thing.”
Maddie flipped another switch and watched dispassionately as several thousand volts ran through the restraints and into the ghost’s body. She switched it off and he collapsed back on the table, smoking slightly. Two more cuffs fastened themselves over his unresisting wrists.
Maddie waited until she was sure they were in place before deactivating the containment field. She had to admire the government-funded convenience as she walked inside, wheeling an instrument table in front of her. At her own lab she would have had to stun the ghost, haul it out of its tank, and manually strap it down on the table on the other side of the room. At least this way she hadn’t had to do any heavy lifting.
The scent of burnt ectoplasm, which reeked of ozone with a sour, slightly citrusy note, hung in the air. It reminded Maddie of the time Danny had managed to overload the ecto-microwave so badly it exploded. Phantom’s body twitched sporadically in reaction to the electricity. He lolled his head in her direction, eyes dazed and unfocused, but they lit up an inhuman, angry green as she approached.
“I did warn you,” Maddie said to his glare.
“Well next time”—cough—”be more specific. You know, like, ‘Phantom, I’m about to electrocute you.” He coughed again and gave her a look that would have been more pitiful if his eyes weren’t still glowing. “That hurt. Like...really hurt.”
“Obey me and you won’t have to worry about it.” Of course Maddie knew that he couldn’t actually feel pain. But if this ghost’s delusion would make her job easier, she’d play along. For now. “Relax. It’s far too early to do anything invasive...yet. I have to make you last.”
She pulled a tape measure out of her pocket and opened it with a snap, ignoring Phantom’s flinch, and proceeded to take measurements. As she did so, she noted with interest the unusual definition of form. His physique mimicked almost perfectly an adolescent human. All of the anatomy was, well, there. Most ghosts only vaguely recalled the physical makeup of their imprinter. While psychologically important things like the face, the basic silhouette and even self-image elements such as clothing would be copied, it was still only an imitation, and on close inspection became blurry and unsure, only vaguely indicating the basic forms. But here, Phantom was the exception.
Almost as odd was his choice of clothing. Boots, gloves, and a black seamless outfit that could have been coveralls, pajamas, or even a hazmat suit. The colors were plain black and white. What did that say about his imprint? How could his psyche have formed something so utterly non-descript?The only distinctive attribute was an ambiguous symbol on the chest, which looked a little like a flaming ‘D’ and a lot like a fireball from an old Nintendo game. Whatever it was, it gave Maddie no more clues to Phantom’s self-identity.
She punched a button on the side of the slab and it gave her a weight reading: 90 pounds. Interesting. It would be far too light for a human of his size, but for a ghost, he was significantly heavier than the norm in ratio to his mass. That was most likely the major source of her test anomalies—higher density. But that didn’t explain why he alone defied the accepted parameters of ectoplasmic stability.
“Why can’t I phase out of here?” Phantom’s voice interrupted her thoughts. He sounded weak and tired, but the twitching had stopped. Not that Maddie had been concerned; it would take a lot more energy than she had used to seriously destabilize a ghost’s ectosignature.
“This entire lab is under an electromagnetic dampening field,” she replied. “It’s useless to try intangibility here.” It also had an added perk of interfering with most electronic devices (excluding her shielded equipment), meaning the surveillance and subsequent interference of her “hosts” was kept to a minimum. Maddie appreciated that the GIW had allowed her this chance to test him first, but that didn’t mean she wanted to share everything with them.
He sighed, a huge gust of air that fluttered his white bangs. “Of course.”
Maddie had moved to put away her tape measure, but at Phantom’s response a sudden thought struck her. She measured his chest a second time, this time holding the tape in place. There it was. He was breathing, the chest expanding and contracting as naturally as in a living being. She stood there with her hand on his chest, and the surprise must have shown in her face because Phantom looked up at her and grinned.
”You think that’s amazing? You should see me underwater. I can hold my breath for like, forever.”
Of course you can, she thought. You don’t need oxygen. There was absolutely no reason for him to breathe or even think about breathing. Although, she reflected, looking down and seeing that silly grin still on his face, it was entirely possible he was doing it just to mess with her. She’d have to catch him off guard to see if it really was a reflex.
Maddie retracted the tape with a little more force than necessary, making it snap loudly centimeters from Phantom’s eyes; the less mature part of her felt some satisfaction when it wiped the smirk off his face. The ghost eyed her as she turned partway away from him, scribbling down proportions on a clipboard.
He sighed again, looking away. “I guess I should look on the bright side. You haven’t jumped right into dissecting me molecule by molecule.”
Maddie raised an eyebrow at the quote. It was one of Jack’s favorite threats, and he’d shouted it at the elusive Phantom on more than one occasion. Still, it was a little flattering to discover that the enemy had remembered it and apparently worried about it. Jack would be thrilled.
“Actually I’m kind of surprised you’re letting me talk like this,” Phantom continued. “It’s not like a ghost hunter to have a conversation with a ghost.” She chose not to comment. No need to give the ghost more information than it already had.
He seemed to read what she was thinking anyway, giving her a shrewd look. “But maybe for a scientist, it’s a good idea. It lets you get into my head, right? Which lets you know more about me. Funny, I thought you believed we were mindless blobs of, what was it? Post-human consciousness?”
“Ghosts do have a form of intellect, of course. Otherwise they would be incapable of interacting with anything or even moving. A ghost’s ‘mind’ is a relatively simple electrical matrix that allows for motor functions and basic strategic thinking, as well as, apparently, bad jokes and pointless arguments.”
On a whim she put her fingers to his wrist, checking for a pulse: None. Of course not. Feeling slightly foolish, she turned away and rummaged through the lab table.
“Then what makes us different from you?”
“The quality of adaptation. And the ability to experience. For example,” Maddie held up a spectral thermometer. On one end was a small box with a digital screen that gave a temperature readout. The other end, connected by a cable, was a very long, very thick, very pointed needle. It cleverly solved the problem of determining a ghost’s internal, core temperature. It also looked a little bit like a meat thermometer; probably because that’s what the prototype had been made of. This was actually an old model, but it was perfect to prove her point.
Phantom took one look at it and blanched paler than normal. Even his aura flickered a little.
“If I were to put this through the chest of a human being, he would probably die. It would puncture muscles, rupture vital organs, and destroy thousands of blood vessels, all of them vital to his survival.” It was a morbid thought. “Also he would be in pain. Billions of nerve receptors threaded through his entire body would be overloaded with stimulus telling him about the damage, reading in his mind as overwhelming agony.”
He stared at her wide-eyed.
“But you,” she took a step closer to the lab table. Phantom’s eyes were dragged inexorably from her face to the point of the gigantic needle, now just inches away from him. “You don’t have any insides; or if you do, they’re a fantasy. A fiction created by your false memories in an attempt to copy life. All ghosts have that is real is skin, ectoplasm, and an ecto-electric core. In short, there’s no way something simple like a stab wound could kill you.”
“But-but I would still feel it.”
“Would you? There are no nerve endings in a ghost’s electrical matrix. All you have is the echo of the consciousness that made you, which will draw from ‘remembered’ signs of distress to mimic pain. It’s nothing but a conditioned response.”
“Is that what you think?” He sounded subdued; his voice had gone very quiet.
“That’s what I know.”
If possible, his voice dropped lower. “So is that what you’re going to do to me?”
“Of course not.” Maddie returned the old model back to its place on the table. It had been so hard to get the darn thing to penetrate in the first place, and some of her subjects had lost so much ectoplasm that their corporeal form had dissolved, which was inconvenient, to say the least. No need for such archaic methods here; she wasn’t even sure why they’d kept it, except perhaps in the name of completeness. Ah, there it was. The newer model was significantly smaller and sharper, allowing the same penetration without the unpleasant difficulties of the other.
Phantom gave her a long-suffering look. “So this is kind of a good-news bad news thing, huh? Good news, I’m stabbing you with a smaller needle. Bad news, I’m still stabbing you.”
“The good news is that you can’t really feel it.”
“Bad news, I can’t tell the difference.”
“Luckily for the ethical integrity of the scientific world, I can.”
“Your ethical integrity sucks. Ouch!” Phantom cringed as as she inserted the needle firmly in his shoulder.
She raised an eyebrow at him. “Conditioned mimicry response.”
“I don’t care what you call it,” he groaned, squinting his eyes tightly shut. “Just hurry it up already.”
Already I'm running into the major dilemma with cross-posting; I find myself wanting to meddle. This chapter is a combination of chapters 2 and 3 from the FFn version, mostly because the latter was too short and didn't deserve to be posted on its own. I actually might prefer this blended version; it's less redundant and the scenes make more sense in this order. What do you think?
To lose one's self in reverie, one must be either very happy, or very unhappy. Reverie is the child of extremes.
- Antoine Rivarol
“What’s up with you today?”
Maddie looked up from typing commands on the computer and calmly returned Phantom’s suspicious gaze. “Whatever do you mean?”
“You haven’t done anything to me all morning. No zapping, no needles, no nothing!” He was pacing several feet above the ground as he ticked off reasons on his gloved fingers. The ghost flew to the top of his enclosure, craning his neck comically as he squinted in a vain attempt to catch sight of the computer screen. “All you’ve been doing is some weird calculations.” He gave up, sighed, and sprawled on his back still comfortably midair. He tilted his head back to look at her upside down. “Normally I’d be grateful, but considering your only job here is me, something that complicated can’t be good.”
Maddie frowned, irritated at the smugness implied by that. “Don’t get too full of yourself, ghost. You’re just another project.”
He scowled, twisting into a sitting position and crossing his arms. “I’ve told you a million times, it’s Phantom. At least I have the good manners to remember your name, Maddie.”
Maddie returned her attention to the lab computer. “Half the time you get it wrong. And I thought it was established that you would call me Dr. Fenton, if at all.” She reinforced the subtle threat in her voice by moving her hand closer to the electrical switch.
Phantom took the hint. He raised his hands in mock surrender. “Fine, fine, Dr. Fenton. But that sounds like some old guy’s name. Can’t I call you, like, Mrs. Fenton, or something?”
“Absolutely not. I only use that name for my children’s teachers and friends. Dr. Fenton has always been my working name. Get used to it.”
It wasn’t entirely by choice. Science was an old-fashioned field, for all its innovations. Any implication, however slight, of her as a traditional domestic female could cause her and her hard work to be dismissed out of hand. When Jack was with her their work as a pair was accepted, but anything gained on her own, from her high school years upward, she’d had to fight for.
No one had ever guessed she would become a ghost hunter. As a girl she’d been the petite, cute redhead that everybody liked. She was smart, pretty, sweet, spunky and athletic. But Maddie had decided early on that she wanted to be different. Even more different than her wrestling champion big sister.
So when other little girls took ballet, she signed up for karate. When other teens were listening to A-tracks and Walkmans, she was taking them apart and turning them into hypersonic recorders. When people laughed at the big, blustering college freshman with wild ideas she’d discovered a genuine, big-hearted man with an amazing creative bent. And when all the other scientists dismissed paranormal studies as superstition and paranoia, she instead took a good, hard look. What she’d found was a new frontier that was practically her own.
“I still want to know what you’re doing,” Phantom insisted sulkily, drawing her out of her thoughts.
“Atmospheric tests,” she relented, putting a last command into the computer, then turning to watch him closely. “I wanted to see how your chemical makeup would react to various environments.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad,” Phantom said, scratching his head, frowning as he processed the information. “What kind of environments?”
“High and low pressure atmospheres. High concentrations of gases, such as oxygen, then hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon monoxide...”
“Monoxide?! Isn’t that, like, poisonous?”
“Not to ghosts. As far as your chemical resistance goes, you’re on par with the average ecto-entity.” Which wasn’t too surprising for a level seven, but considering how many other routine tests he’d come up oddly on it was well worth the time to reaffirm it.
“I guess I am. We figured as much, but that’s not the kind of thing you actually...” His eyes widened as the implications hit him. “Wait—you know that? Does that mean you already—you were running those chemical tests all this time?!”
She gave him an amused look. “What do you think I’ve been doing all morning? Playing solitaire?”
“Ooh, dated computer joke.” He was mocking her, but the way his voice cracked a little in the middle gave him away. “Warn a guy next time, would you? I like to know when the air could potentially kill me.” He let out a deep breath.
“Considering you didn’t notice the change at all, I don’t think it was necessary. You were better off not knowing anyway. It could have triggered a psycho-electric sympathetic response.”
“A what now?”
“You’re an electrical-type entity formed by human brain patterns. If you think it can kill you that belief might trigger a stress-induced reaction even if the gas is not effecting you.” Although that would require a memory-specific correlation, so unless Phantom’s imprinter had experienced monoxide poisoning before his death, it was unlikely. Either way, it wouldn’t be enough to damage him, But he could lose consciousness, which would be counterproductive considering she wanted to record behavioral as well as physical changes.
“Scary. What are you doing now?”
“Are you going to tell me how cold it is in here?”
“How do you know I’m lowering the temperature?”
He gave her the look universally reserved by teens for stupid questions. “I react a lot faster to heat than to cold. I’d be seeing my breath already. Are you going to tell me or not?”
He crossed his arms, giving her a sullen look. “Fine.”
She watched the monitor count down on her computer as the environment control technology did its work. It ticked down steadily past the freezing mark with no apparent reaction from Phantom. As it dipped below zero, even the well-shielded lab began to get chilly.
Phantom’s arms dropped to his sides, and he sank to stand on the floor, a peculiar expression on his face. “Weird,” he muttered, bouncing on the balls of his feet. He swayed as if dizzy, then drifted back into the air, walking experimentally back and forth, as if he wasn’t sure how to place his feet.
Maddie had performed this test before on smaller, non-human based ecto-entities, so knew more or less what to expect. Copper, the primary element in ectoplasm, had a much higher conductivity at extremely low temperatures. An ecto-entity functioned on pure electrical impulses. The drop significantly accelerated their metabolism, creating a temporary boost in energy output.
His aura grew steadily brighter until it outshone the fluorescent lights and cast weird shadows along the walls. She watched as his pacing became jogging, which morphed into flight, a series of lightning quick spins and rolls that barely kept within the space of the containment field. He startled her by laughing out loud.
“Dude! This feels awesome! I’m totally juiced! It’s like that time I had, like, six espresso shots in my super mocha malt madness milkshake from the Nasty Burger and was wired for four days and couldn’t sleep or sit still for more than, like, two minutes! I should get deep frozen more often! I should get experimented on more often! Wait. That’s going too far. But the North Pole’s cold, like all the time, right? Maybe I should visit. See the polar ice caps. See polar bears. Go swimming! Swimming with polar bears! Did I mention I could hold my breath for, like, forever?” He didn’t even pause for a response before chattering on.
Maddie stared at him, tapping her fingernails on the desk absently. That was...an unexpected side effect. She’d anticipated increased activity, but Phantom was behaving downright hyper. And what was he talking about? Nasty Burger? North Pole? It bothered her that she had no other human-based data to compare; was this a typical reaction that she’d missed because her subjects had been non-speaking animal-types? Or was this yet another oddity to add to her list of Phantom’s unique properties? Maddie wouldn’t know for sure until she had a chance to repeat the experiment.
The environmental controls bottomed out at -200 F. It was much colder than Maddie’s previous tests, since her basement containment unit could hardly withstand that kind of extreme temperature. Phantom was little more than a black-and-white blur, now literally bouncing off the walls of the containment field with no regard for the noisy clashes of energy. He was still talking, but all Maddie could hear was a buzz of noise.
She reversed the controls, reverting the temperature back to ordinary levels.
“Wow,” He said breathlessly. “That was trippy.” He looked at her quizzically. “Shouldn’t I be crashing right about now? Like, I dunno, after a caffeine high or something?”
“Of course not. It’s not like you have a human metabolism. You’re just electricity that was turned on high.” She flipped the switch, setting the temperature to rise.
“Now you’re going to turn me on low? Well, this is going to suck.”
He stood in midair, arms crossed, looking resigned. A minute ticked by, then several more. At first there was no change; that was to be expected. Ectoplasm, intended to encourage the conductivity of copper, had only a fraction of the heat capacity of pure water. Because of this quality and its tendency toward stability, it made an incredibly efficient energy source. But all elements had their limit.
Moisture trickled down his face and vanished into the black of his jumpsuit. A plume of steam puffed out of the ghost’s nose and mouth, dissipating instantly in the hot environment of the containment area.
“It’s kind of weird to be sweating and seeing your breath at the same time,” he said conversationally.
“Your little breathing habit is working against you. You’re carrying the hot air into your core and raising your temperature faster.” She subtly adjusted the controls, slowing down the heating process. She would have to be very careful; ectoplasm, when pushed to its limits, went from stable to highly volatile. If she let Phantom ‘boil over’, it might very well take out the entire base.
“Well excuse me,” he muttered irritably. “That’s not exactly something I can quit doing whenever I feel like it.” He pushed his bangs, now sticky and clumped with sweat, out of his eyes to glare at her. “You obviously know what’s going to happen. Why are you doing it anyway?”
“You’re unique, physiologically speaking. I need to know where that changes things.”
He snorted derisively. “You mean you’re curious so you just thought you’d try it. Even though you know that I’ll turn into a pile of goop or, worse, frickin’ explode.”
“Is that the voice of experience?”
“Let’s just say there was this incident with a haunted bakery.”
“That’s unusual.” To say the least. Dry, hot environments discouraged paranormal manifestations. The baker must have had a very strong psychic signature to actually create a paranormal phenomenon there.
“Yeah, seriously! Bakers are supposed to be, you know, jolly and stuff.”
“Jolly.” Maddie deadpanned.
“Exactly!” Phantom gestured wildly, too caught up in his own rant to pick up on the sarcasm. “Jolly fat guys with mustaches and chocolate cupcakes. Not evil undead with ovens of doom! Why does it always have to be ‘doom’ anyway? Doom this, doom that. Can’t they have an evil oven of, I dunno, sinister crispiness?”
“I wouldn’t imagine that evil begets creativity in naming things,” she responded dryly.
He gave her a look. “You would know, huh.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Sure, every device they’d ever invented had the word Fenton in front of it, but that was just good marketing sense.
“Hey, this isn’t funny on any level to me.” He stood up, drifting closer to the front of the containment field. It did little to close the distance, but they were now eye level. “It doesn’t matter whether or not this will kill me. Getting boiled alive hurts. Don’t you feel just a little bit guilty?”
This conversation was getting old. “Ghosts can’t feel. Pain simply isn’t in their physiological makeup. You can disrupt a ghost’s field, you can drain its energy, or you can apply stressors that aggravate the imprint, but ectoplasm doesn’t register real sensation.”
“That’s not how it is on this side.”
“Then why aren’t you frightened right now?” she challenged. “To a human, to a real thinking being, this would be a terrible trauma.”
“I told you, bakery of doom. Not the first time I’ve been near-barbecued.” He licked dry lips, then added. “Besides, who says I’m not scared? It’s just that I’ve kind of gotten used to it.”
“You’re used to it.” Of course. He spent the majority of his time causing destruction and mayhem after all.
He nodded, his expression unusually somber. “My...a friend of mine called it a coping mechanism. Kind of like the banter and jokes and stuff. It’s, um, disassociating, I think? Soldiers get it. Cops and doctors, too. You have to be able to deal with things, things like—like when you don’t get there in time and there’s some poor guy who couldn’t get out of the way lying with his head split open on the sidewalk. You can’t let that get to you. Because there’s twenty other people right there who might end up like that guy if you fall to pieces.”
Maddie felt a chill despite the increasing warmth; that sounded far too real to be a random example. Had the ghost attacks really escalated that far? She couldn’t recall any accounts of people dying, but it was possible.
“For another thing, I’d go crazy. Nuts. Cuckoo. Off my rocker. Turn into the fruitloop.” He shuddered. “Nobody can deal with all the weird crap I get into and stay normal.”
She could feel the rest of the room heat up as the containment unit’s temperature soared. It was much higher than any human could tolerate now.
“I mean...if I really stopped and thought about it, I’m trapped who knows where by the organization that has tried to kill me for the past year, there’s some weird new device that negates half my powers, plus I’ve never been stuck in...in one place this long before so I have no idea what that’ll do to me physically.”
He sank to the ground, sitting with his arms clasped around his knees. She noticed he’d stopped sweating, though his skin still had a sheen to it, like plastic that had just started to melt.
“None of my friends know where I am or even what happened to me, so no chance of rescue. Plus I’m now a lab rat to a scientist who doesn’t believe I can feel a thing and wants to find out everything about me through lots of painful experiments. On top of that she’s my...she’s...” He trailed off, looking at her with an expression she couldn’t interpret.
He blinked, as if coming out of a daze. “...hot,” he mumbled, covering his face with one hand. “You’re a sadist, that’s what.”
Like she cared about a ghost’s opinion of her. However, she was intrigued by the unexpected vulnerability. His mood had dropped in sync with the temperature rising, the direct opposite effect that cold had stimulated.
“I’m definitely getting hurt,” he continued. “I might die. You might get something wrong. It’ll be the one thing where I don’t measure up to ghosts. You might even do it on purpose; one less menace to society, right? Or...or worse, I could be stuck here.” His eyes widened at the prospect, fingers tightening around his knees. “Forever.”
His phrasing was all wrong. Phantom made it sound as if ghosts were a totally different category. Also, he’d said ‘die’, which would imply he considered himself alive? While not unheard of in a ghost, those delusions in such a strange and powerful entity such as Phantom were disturbing, to say the least.
“What do you mean, measure up?” she asked. “Aren’t you a ghost?”
“Ghost?” He repeated, frowning at her as if she’d asked a difficult question. “No... not me. There were ghosts, other ones.” His voice was hoarse and unsteady. He wasn’t looking at her, glazed eyes fixed on the floor, as if seeing something in his mind’s eye. “In the bakery.”
Maddie opened her mouth to repeat the question, but he went on as if he hadn’t heard her in the first place.
“They were smaller. Little rat ghosts, and...and a couple of kids. ” He gave a half grin. “Kind of brats, actually. Obsessed with... sweets. Who dies thinking about candy? Seriously.”
She’d lost him, Maddie realized. The heat had finally begun to degrade the efficiency of the electrical currents that served as a ghost’s mind. He wasn’t listening to her anymore. He barely even remembered she was there.
“I was being stupid. Got caught. We all ended up in this huge oven...you know, of doom? The baker ghost sealed it. Couldn’t get out. Thought friends were coming. It would be okay. But the rats went crazy. Scratching at the door and screeching. It was just too hot, and it kept getting hotter. Then they just...popped. Like water balloons on pavement. Ectoplasm went everywhere. It reeked, like burnt lemons.”
Maddie could see where this was going. She was sure she wouldn’t like the ending. “Why are you telling me this?”
Phantom blinked, then raised his head slowly, frowning at her. “You wanted to know... how I knew, right?”He seemed to have some trouble focusing on her face, and his eyes dropped to the floor again. “Those kids knew it would happen to us. Scared. Me too. But no way out. Couldn’t save them. Me, the big hero, had to hope somebody would open the door.” The ghost’s voice was thick with self-deprecation.
“The little guy went first. One minute there’s tiny green arms round my neck, the next I’m drenched in plasma. His big sister looks at me like I’m some horrible person. She’s got the saddest eyes.” His own eyes, sunken from dehydration and glazed from the heat, looked haunted. “That got to me, you kow? They were maybe three or four when they died. Kids with good lives don’t die like they did. Because of me, my mistake, they lost their chance at even an afterlife.” He shivered, and his outline blurred in wavy lines, like heat over a desert. He raised his hand as if to rake the hair from his eyes again, but it wavered, then dropped as if it had taken too much effort.
“I was almost done for. I felt,” he touched his chest. “Your skin’s brittle, but your insides melt. Lava eating you alive. Lucky for me...” he choked, took a slow breath, then went on. “Lucky, she went micronova. Blew a hole right through the oven wall, and sent me with it.”
“Phantom...” Maddie began, but stopped herself. She’d been about to point out that those ghost children weren’t capable of real distress...but why? To comfort Phantom, also a ghost? She was contradicting herself. But those emotions that played across his face...pain, regret, sadness, fear, guilt? Could those really be an imitation a shallow imprint could produce?
“Shut...up, jus’ shut up,” he slurred, slumping to one side. His form seemed to slide and ooze under his skin, conforming to the floor. Maddie realized with a start that she’d let the heat rise far beyond safe levels. She quickly shut it off.
“I think that’s enough for today,” she said quietly.
Moving right along...
I had a terrible time deciding which chapter to put first, this or the last one. The experiment here is based off a real scientific phenomenon; copper becomes a superconductor in extremely cold temperatures.
An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.
- Charles Dickens
The lab was inexplicably cold when she entered; for once Maddie was glad for the extra warmth of wearing a full bodysuit.
“Ok-kay, w-w-where are th-they?” Phantom demanded through chattering teeth. His breath hung in front of him in blue plumes.
Maddie was relieved that he seemed completely recovered from the day before; she wasn’t sure what she would have done with a depressed ghost on her hands. False as the emotions might be, they had filled the lab with an oppressive feel and left a bad taste in her mouth. Fortunately it had been purely chemical; nothing a night in a tank full of diffused ectoplasm particles couldn’t cure.
“Where are who?” she asked, though she suspected she knew the answer. Maddie put down the steel and glass cube she’d brought with her, setting her coffee on top.
“The other ghosts!” Phantom gestured animatedly. “There’s no sirens, no chaos, and incidentally, as unlikely as it would have been, no rescue. That must mean you have some locked up in here.”
Maddie picked up her clipboard and pen, pleased; she hadn’t even brought them out and already she was getting results. “Very good Phantom, but how could you tell?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” he said irritably, waving a hand to disperse the clouds of vapor in front of his face, only to shiver again and breathe out a new puff of icy air. “My ghost sense just started going crazy.”
“Ghost sense.” Maddie repeated blankly.
“Yeah. Anytime a ghost gets near me I get cold—well, in this case, colder, and I can see my breath. You must have a lot, because it usually stops after a minute.”
Maddie had never heard of such a thing. It had to be some kind of resonant response to the similar frequencies of other ectoplasmic auras. “That’s...incredibly convenient.”
He scowled, sinking to sit cross-legged a couple of inches above the floor. “Not really. How would you like to feel as if you’d swallowed a hunk of dry ice every time a ghost happened by? And I have no way of telling whether this is a harmless undead butterfly or frickin’ Pariah Dark. It never works in the Ghost Zone. Or on really cold days. Besides it seriously interrupts my life.”
“Odd choice of words.”
He looked surprised, then laughed guiltily. “Did I say life? Not meaning that I’m actually alive or anything, no...afterlife, that is. What, did you think ghosts do nothing but scare people all the time and try to take over the world?”
Maddie thought about it. “Actually...yes.” It was common knowledge that the dead envied the living. It followed that all ghosts would want to remove the differences by destroying life.
“Oh, of course,” he rolled his eyes. “Because obviously everyone who ever died has been obsessed with power. You do realize that most of my big fights are against, like, only five ghosts, right?"
"The animals are stupid and aggressive, but that makes them weak, too. With the rest, once you figure out what they’re after, they’ll pretty much behave themselves. Like the Lunch Lady Ghost at the school? As long as you eat your veggies and leave the cafeteria menu alone, she’s actually pretty nice. Not that I recommend visiting her lair. She’s got moon pies of doom,” he shuddered. “With stale filling. Yuck.”
“Do all ghosts have lairs?”
“Oh yeah. That’s where most ghosts end up, especially after their real-world obsession has been fulfilled in some way. It’s a little pocket of the ghost zone that builds itself around their desires. They usually stay there and live out their afterlives. At least, until someone opened up a ghost portal that broadcasts easy access to the real world. Now even pretty peaceful ghosts come over just to have some fun and cause havoc.”
“Hmm. So you’re saying the ghost attacks are our fault?”
“Well, no...maybe? I mean, there are other ways to get out of the Ghost Zone, especially now. Now that you have a door on it it’s used a lot less, but that’s definitely where everything started.” He cocked his head, looking at her quizzically. “Did you really think it was coincidence that you were doing all these paranormal experiments and then Amity Park becomes the most haunted town in America?”
“That would...be logical, I suppose,” she was forced to admit. She and Jack had theorized that the ectoplasmic aura of the portal might attract some paranormal events, but to say that all of Amity’s bizarre spectral events were linked was a bit much. But they were getting off topic.
“What about your lair, Phantom? What does it look like?”
“Me? I don’t have one, exactly. But then I’m not really normal.” Maddie quietly added a mark to a long line of tallies in the margin of her notes. She’d started keeping track of the times Phantom had distinguished himself from the other ghosts. “I hang out mostly in Amity Park.”
“Is that why you’re constantly fighting other ghosts? Or is it because your ghost sense is so annoying?”
“What? No, neither.” Phantom waved his hands in protest. “ I really want to help people. Otherwise I wouldn’t bother running off to try and stop the ghost-of-the-day every time my ghost sense goes off. I mean, half the time it’s me who ends up getting thrown through a building, which is no fun, let me tell you. Maybe I’m not the best hero ever. But there’s no way I’m going to turn my back on humans that can’t defend themselves against ghosts.”
“You seem to be forgetting that Amity is also home to the world’s foremost ghost hunters.”
“You guys? Pssh. Hahaha! Sorry, but seriously? Just no. You’re pretty awesome scientists, and you could probably kick my butt into next week, but when it comes to actually catching ghosts...no. If anyone’s the best it’s Va—uh, the Red Hunter. Besides me of course.”
“I’m going to ignore the fact that you just insulted the ghost hunter who is at liberty to electrocute you at any moment, because you’re a ghost and therefore have no idea what you’re talking about. But I do want to know one thing.”
“Why would you, a ghost, put yourself in the same category as a ghost hunter?”
“Because that’s what I do, duh. I chase down the bad ghosts and chuck them back into the Ghost Zone. Rinse, repeat. That’s pretty much my life these days.”
“Why do you do it, Phantom? Why do you hunt your own kind?”
“It sounds bad when you put it that way.” He sighed, lacing his fingers together, looking thoughtful. “Its because, I guess...I can actually see past my own obsessions. I notice consequences when I do something. Okay, not always right away, but I do notice. I guess it comes down to the fact that it’s something I can do, that most ghosts can’t. That most humans can’t, either. I don’t want to let anyone get hurt.”
Another tally mark. “That’s pretty altruistic of you.”
“I don’t have any screaming townspeople for you today, Phantom. But you can still put that altruism into practice. Let’s see how you do.”
She picked up the crate and attached it to the side of Phantom’s prison. With a hiss, it released one of its compartments and green smoke billowed into the tank, solidifying into a ghost. The new ghost wasn’t significantly taller than Phantom, but bulkier. It floated above the ground, all burly shoulders and muscled arms bulging out of a military-style vest, tapering from the waist into a tail of formless ectoplasm. It glared at Phantom from underneath the visor of a close-fitting black helmet, gripping a police baton menacingly.
“Phantom!” it snarled.
Phantom scrutinized the ghost closely, then pointed at it. “I know you. You’re one of Walker’s goons, aren’t you? What the heck are you doing here? I thought your boss saw the real world as contagious.”
“Punishment,” the ghost growled, “for breaking the rules.”
“Breaking a rule as punishment for breaking the rules? That’s so meta.” Phantom’s tone was still light, but he’d floated up into the air, subtly putting distance between them, eyes never leaving the other ghost. “Harsh, man. He doesn’t even give his own guys a break?”
The police ghost sneered. “I’m sure once he hears I’ve broken the halfa in two, he’ll reconsider.”
Hafuh? Maddie jotted down the unfamiliar term. It sounded vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t say where she’d heard it.
Phantom gave an exaggerated sigh, dropping his shoulders. “I don’t suppose the fact that we’re both prisoners here makes any difference to you?”
In response the ghost barreled forward, brandishing its weapon. Phantom dodged nimbly out of the way, shaking his head. “Didn’t think so. Once a goon, always a goon, huh?”
The ghost skidded to a halt just short of the containment field; it snarled and twisted around, bringing his baton in a one-handed arc toward Phantom’s head. Phantom dodged backward. He held his hand out like a weapon, aiming straight at the police ghost’s head. A sphere of green energy popped into existence in front of his palm, but the instant it left his hand it fizzled and disappeared.
He spared a glare in her direction. “No ecto-blasts, huh. Just great.”
The other ghost took advantage of his distraction and rammed into him shoulder-first. Phantom was thrown back into the containment wall, which hissed and crackled at the contact. Phantom yelped and squirmed, trying to get away, but the police ghost held him pinned with one burly arm, raising the baton above its head to strike. Phantom lashed out with his feet. He caught the ghost square in the midsection. It loosened its grip, grunting. Phantom grabbed the arm across his throat and swung hard, reversing their positions. Now it was the police ghost’s turn to struggle painfully against the containment field.
Phantom threw the ghost to the floor and sank a punch into the other ghost’s side. The ghost folded over Phantom’s fist. At first Maddie thought that it was over. But the police ghost’s hand snapped up and grabbed Phantom’s still extended arm. It grinned and shoved the baton in his other hand into Phantom’s chest. It crackled to life with green lightning. Phantom cried out, transfixed by the electric current. His head rolled back, arms and legs spasming. His eyelids drooped. The ghost’s soft white aura dimmed, then sparked and intensified with a strange glow.
Abruptly his eyes snapped open. His aura flared green and the police ghost was thrown back, the baton cracked and smoking uselessly. Phantom collapsed to the floor on his hands and knees. He glared up at the ghost through his bangs. His hands glowed with a thick, vivid neon green that mirrored the fierce light in his eyes.
“I am so sick,” he ground out between gritted teeth, “of being electrocuted!”
Phantom launched himself at the other ghost so fast he left skid marks on the floor. The police ghost, taken aback by Phantom’s sudden recovery, barely had time to bring up the baton before the first blow. With a loud crack the baton broke in half. The glowing fist connected with the visor and it shattered.
Maddie glimpsed for a moment three red eyes, all wide with surprise, before Phantom’s fist smashed into the ghost’s face, hard enough to throw it clear across the fifteen-foot enclosure and into the opposite wall. The ghost screamed as it came in contact with the containment field, then slumped to the floor, oozing into a formless heap.
This was the Phantom that Maddie had expected: Fierce, aggressive, fast. That throw had shown a brutal power several times the strength of a human. His eyes glowed dangerously, and every line of his body was taut with the threat of further violence.
But the moment passed. Phantom took a deep breath, and the fight drained out of him. His shoulders drooped, and he leaned on his knees, panting heavily. Finally he staggered across the room, picked up the ghost by the back of its armored vest, and dragged it back to the opening of the cube, which immediately sucked up the unresisting ghost.
He whirled and glared at Maddie, crossing his arms over his chest. “Well?”
“Interesting.” Which was of course an understatement. While the dampening effects of the electromagnetic field had kept him from using projectile energy, Phantom had somehow figured out how to manifest it in his aura, amplifying his destructive capabilities significantly. What intrigued her almost as much, though, was the fact that he knew exactly how her cube worked when she’d only perfected the designs six months ago.
“Interesting? Is that all you have to say? What were you going to do after that thing creamed me?”
“None of the ghosts in that device are above a level three ecto-entity,” she responded, raising an eyebrow. “You’re registered on the scale as a level seven. That ghost should have been hardly any trouble for you.”
“Yeah? Well you try fighting with your weapons disabled. It’s no fun, let me tell you.”
“You seem to have managed quite well.” That’s part of what was so intriguing. He had actually changed in order to meet the needs of the situation. Not in a human sense, which involved actual physical changes, but in a mechanized sense, where existing faculties were applied in a different way. It was unheard of for a ghost to do such a thing so easily.
“Ready to try again?” Without waiting for a response she pushed a button on the console.
Much later, Maddie studied her subject with a critical eye. He was sitting on the floor in the middle of the tank, panting, looking significantly more battered and worn than he had this morning. One cheek was puffy and green from a bruise, there were rips in his uniform, and if she looked closely she could still see sucker marks just above his collar from when the ectopus had tried to strangle him.
He had pulled several more interesting tricks, using his aura to blind and attack his opponents, even turning part of his body into mist at one time, which seemed to surprise him as much as her. But most of the fights had been simple hand to hand, using, as Jack liked to call it, the ‘whack it till it stops twitching’ strategy.
The martial artist in her cringed at his movements; he’d been inefficient and sloppy, putting in twice as much energy than a better trained fighter would have. But on the other hand she had to admit that he showed experience; he seemed to anticipate most attacks and used his agility in the air to his advantage, displaying a three-dimensional awareness that was very well-developed. He was incredibly quick, especially when she remembered his high density. It was no surprise that they’d never been able to catch him.
There was only one ghost left in the cube, and she was debating whether or not to release it on Phantom. Despite the difference in strength, it was a bit much to expect one ghost to take on more than a dozen in one day. But still, it seemed that the more exhausted Phantom got, the more solutions he came up with. And if that was the key to drawing out his developmental potential...
Phantom let out an audible groan as he heard the click and hiss of the cube activating once again. He pulled himself to his feet, staring warily at the green cloud as it took shape. His eyes widened as it formed into a huge, slavering creature with angry red eyes.
Maddie cringed, almost regretting her decision. This particular ghost was a nasty piece of work, even as a level three. Viscous green drool hung in strings from its massive fangs, and muscles like steel cables bunched under loose skin covered in spiky fur. It shook itself, looking around, and let out a snarl that was more like a roar. It took one look at Phantom and charged.
The other ghost barreled toward him, but Phantom made no move to get out of the way. Maddie tensed. Had she underestimated him? Was he too tired to fight? Just as she was about to abort the test, he held up both hands and shouted.
To Maddie’s complete shock, the monster dog skidded to a halt on its haunches, stopping right in front of Phantom. It panted, looking down at the much smaller ghost, who beamed up at the mouthful of drool and fangs.
“Hey Cujo! Long time no see.” There was a loud pop and the dog vanished, leaving a tiny green puppy in its place. It jumped into Phantom’s arms, who laughed as the formerly terrifying canine slobbered all over his face.
“Is that your...puppy?” Maddie asked, trying to keep the disbelief out of her voice. The ghost dog was really a puppy? It had taken her five weeks and two new inventions to hunt down...a puppy?
“Sort of,” Phantom sat on the floor cross-legged, absently scratching behind the puppy’s ears. It immediately proceeded to gnaw on his boot in a way Maddie couldn’t help but find adorable. “I started training Cujo to try to keep him from trashing the town every time he found his way into the real world, and he kind of got attached to me.”
“Hmph.” Still slightly miffed that her hard work had been put to waste, Maddie crossed her arms. “I don’t suppose you intend to fight him then.”
“Cujo? No way.” He put his arm protectively around the now minuscule ghost. “Why would I beat up an innocent little ghost doggie who didn’t do anything? I didn’t even want to fight those other ghosts.” She’d noticed his reluctance; it had blown her fighting obsession theory right out of the water. Luckily for her the other ghosts hadn’t been so non-aggressive.
“That ‘little puppy’ was terrorizing Amity Park’s dogcatchers,” Maddie retorted. “Both of them are still in therapy.”
“Uh...they probably deserved it?”
“I thought you were supposed to be the ‘good guy’.”
“Good guy, huh.” Maddie had meant it as a barb, but the ghost looked serious, tapping his fingers thoughtfully against one knee. “Am I really that good of a guy? Don’t answer that,” he added, sending her a wry glance.
She raised an eyebrow. Of course she wouldn’t call him a ‘good guy’. That was his constant protest whenever they’d taken shots at him during his numerous fights with other ghosts. As far as Maddie could see, he’d always caused just as much destruction as his spectral opponents, if not more—even if said damage was inflicted by say, tossing the other ghost through a window. And neither he nor the other ghosts had enough sentience to do something as emotionally complicated as choosing a side.
“To... exist,” Phantom said slowly, drawing her out of her thoughts, “ghosts have to have a purpose. Obsession, theme, whatever you want to call it. They don’t need to figure out what it is. It’s kind of built in.”
“Of course,” Maddie said. This was paranormal basics. “A ghost is the imprint of a psyche undergoing extreme stimulation at the time of death, and under those circumstances, the brain tends to focus on a single thing, creating an obsessive nature.” That was the reason why ghosts were classified as sub-sentient; their psyches were completely one-dimensional.
“What you said. But I wasn’t so lucky. Which incidentally is really bad, for reality and the ghost. My ectoplasm was really unstable at first. It was pretty awful, actually. I kept sinking through floors and accidentally zapping things. I didn’t realize it until a lot later, but I’m pretty sure it was because I needed a purpose to survive.”
“So you chose to hunt ghosts.”
“Sure, why not?” She just looked at him. He squirmed under her skeptical gaze. “Okay, so at first I was just trying not to die from the psychos that like to attack me. Also...I may have sort of accidentally unintentionally shown the other ghosts where your portal was. It was kind of my fault, so it made sense for me to help fix it.”
“You’ll accept that I’ll help Amity Park out of guilt, but not that I’d want to do it just to protect people?”
“Not even humans are that altruistic.”
He shook his head, scowling. “Don’t sound so self-satisfied. People obsess just as much as ghosts; ghosts are just a lot more straightforward about it.” He gave her a level look. “I’m not the one who had a ghost hunting obsession before they were proven to exist.”
“If you’re referring to my husband and I, that’s quite different.”
“Sure,” the ghost rolled his eyes. “Everything’s better when you’re human. I’ll have you know my ghost catching record is a heckuva lot better than yours. Not that you aren’t better than me in other ways.” He leaned back on one hand, diligently scratching his undead companion’s belly with the other. “I may have laughed at your ghost hunting, but no matter what, you’re always looking for ways to protect people. Defenses, not offense. That’s your strong point against ghosts.” He paused and looked at her sidelong. “You may not realize it, but your containment and deflective equipment is the best. Those ghost shields of yours are amazing. They aren’t as cool as taking ghosts down directly, but you’ve saved a lot of lives that way. I haven’t met a ghost who can get through one.”
“Except for you.”
“Eheh, so you knew that? Well, I am different.” He walked over to the cube and held up the puppy, which wagged its tail as it dissolved into smoke and returned to the cube. “Plus it only works sometimes.”
She was running out of space for tallies. “It?”
He cocked an eyebrow at her and his eyes crinkled in an almost smile. “No way I’m telling you all my secrets.”
He’d given her more than he knew. If he was implying what she thought he was, Phantom claimed to be an ecto-entity formed without a strong psychological impulse. That was supposedly impossible. But if what he was suggesting had actually occurred, could that account for the anomalies? Why would it happen? How could it happen? The longer she studied this ghost, the less he made sense.
Art by Gammija on Tumblr.
Hmm, what to say about this chapter? It was fun to kind of set Danny's ghost philosophies up against Maddie's and let him do some of the talking for a change. And Cujo. Because he's awesome. Thanks for reading! :)
There are intangible realities which float near us, formless and without words; realities which no on75re has thought out, and which are excluded for lack of interpreters.
- Natalie Barney
On Complex Emotion in Advanced Paranormal Entities
Maddie paused, fingers resting on the keyboard, searching for where to begin. She looked up at the subject, who lounged in midair in his electric cage. He was nursing the latest hypodermic mark on his arm with a sullen expression. The chemical analysis machine hummed behind her. With a three-hour wait on her hands, it was the perfect opportunity to condense some of her notes. Maddie figured it was also time to give the government agents monitoring her work something besides raw data to mull over. She had to earn her keep after all.
As has long been established in the paranormal community, ghosts are defined as a self-contained entity formed from the imprint of post-sentient consciousness by the psychic qualities of the cross-dimensional matter known as ectoplasm. This phenomenon occurs, as far as it is known to science, exclusively postmortem.
The most conservative of paranormalists would at least agree that the electrical patterns typical of brain activity do indeed permeate the dimensional divide at the point of death, thus creating a parallel between a deceased being in the real world and the new ecto-entity. Some sources claim that at death the ‘soul’ leaves the body and in passing to an extradimensional ‘afterlife’, travels through the dimension of the ghost zone, allowing the imprint to take place. Others believe that the soul itself becomes trapped in the ectosphere, but this is—
She thought for a moment, then deleted the phrase “spiritualistic drivel”, replacing it with:
—pure speculation. Despite the many hypotheses surrounding their origins, most scholars agree that the imprint phenomenon that creates an ectoplasmic entity a) does not occur with all deaths, and b) is sub-sentient in its complexity. While this phenomenon has been observed in all sentient life (defined as members of the kingdom Anamalia capable of electro-stimulated sensory function), there is no correlation between the estimated average of life forms on our planet and the corresponding known mass of ectoplasmic entities (colloquially known as ghosts). Also there is only a loose association between the concentration of ghosts in and the corresponding population density of any given location in the real world (‘Inter-dimensional Geographic Assonance’, p. 37).
Therefore it has been established that only under certain conditions will the death of a life form in this dimension trigger the imprint phenomenon. This trigger is caused by the common denominator of all sentient life forms—the senses. A powerful stimulation of the nervous system at the time of death, either of extreme violence or emotional duress, triggers the psychic quality of the ectosphere and creates a ghost.
Flexing her fingers, she sighed and leaned back as she reached for her coffee. She took a sniff of the hot liquid, a habit she’d developed after that one fiasco with the mug full of ecto-discharge. Reassured by the familiar acrid odor of cheap coffee, the scientist took a sip, watching Phantom as she did so. He had apparently gotten bored with watching her type, and now lay on his back in the air, arms behind his head, drifting slightly, like a swimmer in a pool. His eyes were half lidded and he stared off into space, a tiny furrow between his brow the only sign of tension in his face. Every few minutes he’d bump into a wall, and he’d set himself off again with the barest flick of one foot.
He’d spent most of the morning chattering away, trying to egg her into a conversation. But as she became absorbed in sorting her notes, her responses had turned increasingly monosyllabic. Eventually he gave up in a huff, retreating into his own silence.
Because of this method of creation, ghosts tend to have a psyche that is hyper-simplified. They are focused on their motivations to the point of single-mindedness (‘Ghost Obsessions: The Singular Objective, p. 149). In short, their psyche is incomplete, a limited reflection of the source material. A person that dies feeling fear may have been capable of other emotions such as love or anger, but only the impulse of that moment of death is inherited by the imprint, and the ghost will not possess those capabilities. Ghosts are considered only semi-sentient, for while they retain some remnant of human characteristics, any rationality is relentlessly overpowered by the primary emotion, which unlike in living subjects, is not triggered by sensory input, but by a stress-stimulated psychic rebound from the original imprinting. Because of the self-perpetuating quality of an ectoplasmic energy field, they are almost entirely self-contained. Perhaps this contributes to the fact that they do not have the adaptive quality that we consider essential to all life. They completely lack in emotional and rational responsiveness to the point of retardation.
She took another sip. Phantom’s eyes had closed, and he was drifting ever so slowly toward the floor. His mouth hung open slightly. Maddie noticed dark green shadows under his eyes that seemed more prominent with his eyes closed. He bumped into the floor and sat up in surprise, looking comically rumpled and disoriented. Just like her son on a Saturday morning after a late night of gaming. He seemed confused, but then she could see realization dawn as he looked around, and his shoulders slumped. Phantom flopped back on the cell floor and threw an arm over his eyes. She could see him bite his lip, and then sigh deeply enough to move the white hair that hung over his arm.
Maddie felt like sighing herself. It had been so long since she had seen her son; made him laugh over something silly, watched him chatting with his friends as they headed out for the latest horror flick. She could only trust that he was enjoying his summer at home, without her.
Maddie tapped a fingernail against the mug, then set it down and resumed typing.
However, there are known exceptions to this convention (‘Psychic Anomalies Within Paranormal Studies, p. 3). These ghosts (typically post-human) display an unusual breadth of rational thought, emotional range and stability. They in fact seem to be fully sentient, or as an imprint hyper-developed.
There are two prevailing theories proposed to explain the anomolous cases. The first, theorizing that imprinted ectoplasm, while typically stable, still has the ability to evolve, postulates that under the correct conditions and with a significant length of time, the simple psyche of a ghost can build on the original emotion to form a more stable psychological base and thus a broader spectrum of emotions and higher intelligence, tempering but not eliminating the original obsessive nature. Even though research has yet to conclusively prove this theory, this scientist would corroborate it with anecdotal evidence. In her experience, ghosts with a more ancient appearance tend to be calmer and more intelligent than their contemporary counterparts, though not less dangerous.
The second and less popular theory, while not as scientifically sound, raises intriguing questions about the actual process of ecto-imprinting. Dr. Sato, the lead supporter of this theory, hypothesized that imprinting begins with the understanding of imminent death. With this assumption, it would not be impossible for those aware of their impending death, such as the victim of a terminal disease, to, provided their temperament was strong enough, both experience a much wider range of emotions and imprint over a longer period of time. It would allow for a much richer emotional range and further intellectual development than in a typical imprint. This theory has its flaws—it depends significantly on the idea of human belief as a contributing factor to imprinting, which can hardly be corroborated by science. But as stated above, the concept is intriguing. It might perhaps account for the anomaly known as Phantom (also known as Invis-O-Bill, Ghost Boy, the Peter Pan phenomenon). This ecto-entity, while displaying the complexity appropriate to such a case, lacks the antiquity required by the former theory.
Regardless of their origins, the question I would like to propose in this thesis is whether these hyper-developed imprints are, in fact, sentient, and if so what distinguishes them from a sub-sentient, and also the implications of this new classification on ethical and scientific procedures in the future.
Maddie stretched again, beginning to remember why she hated writing academic papers so much. She reached for her mug, eyes wandering up for a fourth time to her charge. She toyed with the idea of striking up a conversation with him for a change.
This is easily the geekiest chapter of this whole fic. If you got all the way through that without skimming, I applaud you.
A short little interlude, but one that I felt was important. Buckle up folks, this is where it starts to get interesting!
How often it is that the angry man rages in denial of what his inner self is telling him.
- Frank Herbert
“Is this entirely necessary?”
The agent ignored her, carefully inspecting what felt like every centimeter of her new machine. A high level of security was understandable, considering this was a top-secret government facility that housed some of the most dangerous and sophisticated paranormal research on the planet. But this was ridiculous. What could she be smuggling in? She hadn’t so much as left the building in two weeks. The machine itself had been built in this same facility, one floor above, where she had been required to get extra clearance just to borrow it. Then she’d needed two escorts to get it into the elevator and down to this floor, where of course, they required another examination.
She valiantly resisted tapping her foot, knowing any further signs of impatience would be useless. Finally the man straightened, scanned a barcode-like sticker on the machine’s side, and keyed in a command, opening the door that led to the labs.
“Care to inspect my coffee, too?” Maddie offered wryly.
“No ma’am, this is sufficient. Carry on.” Not even a hint of a smile. Good grief.
On the other hand, she reflected as she balanced her coffee on the machine, it was nice to be paid so much respect for a change, even if it did come in the form of red tape. It had taken decades for the government to stop and take notice of the very real threat that ghosts posed.
Paranormal science had always had a tentative claim on credibility. To begin with ghosts and the ghostly were rare and appeared in no particular consistency all over the world. Ectoplasmic samples had been unbelievably scarce and even harder to keep, since very few people in those days knew how to make phase-proof containment units.
The very definition of paranormal was originally ‘outside of normal experience or scientific explanation’. So technically speaking, ‘paranormal science’ was a contradiction in terms.
Even more, empirical logic could not accept the so-called spiritual quality of ectoplasm. Dead men appearing to return from the dead to continue their goals in life was the stuff of fiction, not science. But time changes all perspectives; even electricity, the power behind lightning, was once considered mystical.
Yet names have a way of sticking far beyond their original descriptive purposes. Maddie had always liked the idea of the paranormal as an academic field, of analyzing things that common sense denied as beyond human ken. That had been the draw for her; that alluring edge of scientific knowledge, where the possible pushed against the edge of reality.
The real breakthrough for paranormal science had come when one innovative scientist had made the leap between brainwaves and the peculiar electrical memory of ectoplasm. ‘Psychic’ became a term not for some arcane force of will, but a distinct and objective electrical pattern produced by the human brain that could be recorded, measured, even copied. The unknowable became known. Suddenly the world of spirits was a place the scientific mind could tread. All things, given time, would become knowable. All paranormal behaviour could be objectively explained.
In theory, that is.
Maddie stopped in the doorway in surprise, watching Phantom, who seemed completely unaware of her appearance. He was hovering cross-legged a couple of inches from the floor, staring cross-eyed in extreme concentration at his nose. It wavered, turned green, and then evaporated into a small green cloud that hovered in front of his face. He jumped up with a shout of triumph, but it instantly snapped back into corporeal form. The ghost flopped on his stomach with a sigh of disappointment.
Maddie shook her head, wheeling in the new machine. Some things might be beyond all rationalization.
“What is that?” Phantom eyed the device warily.
“Something new,” she said, stationing it in front of the command console.
“Oh boy, my favorite words. Umm...is there a reason it looks like a futuristic boom box?”
“Essentially, that’s what it is.” She flicked a switch and it powered up with a hum. “Electricity can be affected by sound. That, theoretically, includes the electricity in ectoplasm.” She tapped in a command, and the device went to work. “This machine is like a radio scanner, except that it emits waves as well as analyzing them. It will move through every aural frequency, allowing me to determine which ones have an effect on ghosts.”
“So...we just sit here and see if something happens?”
“That’s the general idea.”
He groaned, flinging himself back on the air as if it were a sofa. “This is going to be another boring day, isn’t it? Can’t you bring out that cube again?”
“I thought you didn’t like fighting?”
“Says who? I just like taking out my misplaced aggression on people who more-or-less deserve it. Not random prisoners who aren’t out to get anyone. Well, anyone except me.” He fingered his jaw gingerly. Although most of his small injuries had long vanished, she could still see the faint outline of a bruise there. Ghosts healed almost immediately from blunt force trauma thanks to their simplified infrastructure; it would doubtless be gone before the day had passed.
“They didn’t have any problem attacking you,” she pointed out. “What does it matter to you what happens to them?”
“Hey, I’d be pretty mad, too, if I was stuck in there. Remember Cujo? That ghost you have trapped in a tiny box with twenty other ghosts? How does he deserve that? He’s harmless.”
“Yeah, to me. Because I took the time to figure out why he was angry. There’s no way I could have survived this long if I hadn’t been able to get along with some of them, and that involved not blasting every one that approached out of existence.”
“They deserve whatever they get,” she responded dismissively.
His eyes narrowed. “Because they’re ghosts.”
Maddie returned his gaze levelly. She did not like the way his tone had lowered; it was almost a threat. “That’s right.”
“So automatically, they’re evil.”
“I’ve never seen evidence to prove otherwise.”
“Geez, whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty?” He broke eye contact, his tone lightening, though she could still see the anger in the tense lines of his neck.
“That only applies to living people. Ghosts aren’t capable of—”
“But how do you know that?” He burst out, leaping to his feet. “You don’t ever treat them like people. The only lens you’ll look at us through is a microscope. We’re nothing but radioactive goo to you.”
“It seems like you’re beginning to understand.”
“Gah! Why do you have to be such a narrow-minded...adult!” He yanked at his hair in frustration, turning away. A few strands stuck up sideways. She suppressed a grin; it looked even more ridiculous than his usual hairstyle. Perhaps it was time to change the subject.
“Are these...’good ghosts’,” she put the two words together distastefully—it was such an alien concept, “the ‘friends’ you keep referring to?”
“Some of them, yeah,” he admitted grudgingly. “It’s not just me protecting Amity Park, you know.” He sighed, looking down at his hands. “I just hope they’re okay without me.”
Maddie tried to puzzle out this cryptic statement. “Undead generally stay undead; there’s not much else that could happen to them.”
“I just can’t win with you, can I?” He shot a glare in her direction, but it was short-lived. He sighed, obviously reigning in his temper, and crossed his arms, frowning in thought. “Okay, look. I think I know how you feel.”
Maddie flipped to a new page in her notebook. This should be good.
“When I started the whole hero thing, I thought it was simple—find the ghost making trouble, beat it around until it holds still long enough to suck up in the thermos, dump it in the ghost zone. Ghosts were the bad guys. All I had to do was catch them.”
Wait. “You stole our thermos?” There was as much disbelief as accusation in her voice. How did he get his hands on Fenton technology?
“Stole? Come on, Jack practically handed it to me.” He smiled as if at some private joke. For some reason that irritated her. “Who cares, as long as the ghosts aren’t causing havoc? It worked, anyway, for a while. But then it got complicated. What do I do when ghosts are just minding their own business? When humans attack ghosts who weren‘t doing anything? When humans fight each other? When it all gets mixed up and nobody’s really innocent anymore? I’d pick the side I thought was right, but usually got it wrong.”
He fell silent for a moment, looking troubled. As if remembering one of those times. He looked up at her and scowled. “And before you start on the whole ‘of course you can never trust a ghost’ thing, you should know it goes both ways. Humans don’t wait for a ghost to attack them. It’s bad enough when it’s some other ghost getting picked on, but what if it’s me? I usually run away, but what if I can’t? Is it okay for me to fight back? If they hurt me, are they wrong?”
Maddie suddenly, irrationally felt uncomfortable under that searching gaze. Phantom dropped his eyes to the floor with a shrug.
“Even if you haven’t seen the evidence, I have. Nothing’s simple. If some dumb ghost kid can figure that out, surely you and your PhD can.”
She studied him. He was wrong—obviously wrong. He was missing the fact that ghosts aren’t capable of moral reasoning in the first place. That they have no real feelings or loyalties. It was exactly that simple. But obviously he’d thought deeply about it. Even that was incredible.
“You are such an enigma. How can you be so complex, yet so simple at the same time?”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
Maddie sighed and started scribbling down notes, trying to sort this all out in her head. “To put it in vernacular you would understand, you’re boring.”
“Boring? What’s boring about me?”
That seriously ruffled his feathers. Teenage ego, she thought in amusement. Of course. She jotted that down in the margins. Yet another baffling aspect of the persona that was Phantom.
“Physically? Everything. There’s nothing distinctive about you, no theme for your obsessive personality to build on. Even your name is the epitome of nondescript. Phantom is just another word for ghost.”
“It’s not just Phantom, you know. It’s Danny. Danny Phantom. See? DP?” He jabbed a finger at the logo on his chest.
That’s right. She’d all but forgotten, mainly because she refused to use the name she’d given her son in association with a ghost.
“Alright. Danny Phantom then. But that doesn’t change my case. It reflects no distinctive personality, no theme or creed or objective.” There was almost always something. Pirate ghost. Rocker. Scotsman. Even the oddly-themed Box Ghost looked the part. But where was Phantom’s theme?
He tapped his chin, thinking, then his eyes widened. “You know what...I think I do, actually.” His look turned mischievous. “My theme is that I am a ghost.”
Maddie frowned at him skeptically. “So you’re a ghost...whose distinctive characteristic is looking like a ghost?”
“A Danny-ghost.” His smirk turned into a bright grin that bordered on manic. “Why not? It’s weird, but it follows, since—woah.”
Phantom had turned bright purple.
“Now that’s bizarre,” he commented, looking down at himself. His aura lit up like a neon sign. “I guess this is some subsonic frequency thing? I totally forgot that thing was on.”
Maddie blinked. For a moment, so had she.
“It must be entering a spectrum range relevant to your ectosignature,” she said, making a note of the frequency number on her clipboard.
Phantom raised an eyebrow as he shifted to blue, then red, then green. “Okay, if turning me into a living disco ball is the worst it can do, I guess it’s not too bad. I was expecting it to hurt or some—ow!” He winced, rubbing his ear. “There it is. Couldn’t I have been wrong for a change?”
“What is it?” she asked. There was no outward indication of what was happening.
“Can’t you hear it? It’s like the world’s most annoying whistle going on forever.” The machine changed frequencies, and he clapped his hands over his ears. “Make that police sirens! How are you not hearing this?” There was a faint ringing in her ears, but it was so high she barely noticed it, like the tone of a muted TV. Whatever he was hearing, it was only audible to the spectral ear. A few seconds passed, and the machine moved to the next frequency. Phantom tentatively removed his hands. Nothing happened.
“Huh,” he said. “That was... kinda short.”
“It’s totally gone?” Maddie asked. Usually a frequency and its near neighbors would have similar qualities.
Phantom gave her an injured look, but answered reluctantly. “My ears are still ringing, but I can’t tell whether that’s a real noise or just leftover from being, you know, nearly deafened.” His eyes were on the machine, and as it shifted again he raised his hands, ready to clap them over his ears again. Nothing. He dropped his hands with a sigh of relief, itching his shoulder absently.
“Maybe that was it.” He sounded hopeful.
Maddie wasn’t as enthused by the idea, but she was inclined to agree with him. It was a little disappointing, but paranormal harmonics had never been viewed as promising. It was unlikely that any other frequencies would get a reaction. She made a note of it on her clipboard, and was about to shut off the machine, when she happened to glance up at Phantom.
He wasn’t moving. In fact, he had frozen mid-scratch, hand hovering over his arm, eyes staring vacantly ahead. Even his breathing had stopped completely. The sight was so unnerving, she found herself transfixed momentarily. He looked...dead. Ironically, he was usually so animated, so restless and reactive that she constantly had to adjust her view of him. To see him utterly devoid of movement was eerie. The faint whirr of the machine as it changed frequencies brought her back to herself. She glanced down, making a mental note of the frequency. Total paralysis would be an extremely useful ghost hunting tool.
She looked back up in time to see Phantom drop awkwardly out of the air, still frozen in position. He landed half on his side, propped up by the stiffly positioned arm that was still poised to scratch. There was something odd about his face, though, and for some reason Maddie felt deeply uneasy. She moved closer to the containment field to get a better look. To her surprise, there was bright green ectoplasm trickling from Phantom’s nose. Her first thought was that he’d hit it on the way down. It was only when she realized it was coming from his ears and eyes too that she understood. That, in a human or a ghost, was a very bad sign. Half a dozen alarms started up from the console, confirming her fears.
Maddie dashed back to the console and slammed the emergency shutoff on the aural device. It powered down with a reluctant whine. She looked back at Phantom; he’d immediately been unfrozen, collapsing bonelessly to the floor. For a heart-stopping moment, his aura completely vanished.
The alarms quieted, leaving the lab in total silence, save for the ever present buzz of the containment field. Phantom’s aura slowly faded back, the barest sheen across his skin. She could see his shoulder rise and fall gently as his breathing resumed.
Maddie took a deep breath of her own. While she wasn’t absolutely sure what happened, she’d probably stumbled on a frequency that had been able to counter Phantom’s core frequency, and very nearly destroyed him as a result. The device was set to run for fifteen second intervals on each frequency. If that had gone on for more than ten, it could have permanently destabilized his core.
Maddie came up just short of the containment field and knelt in front of it, not trusting the computer readouts. He simply lay there, dead still, eyes shut. His hair was sticking up again, but this time she couldn’t see the humor in it. He looked like a wounded bird.
She was only inches away from him now. The ectoplasm had stopped flowing from his nose, but it left a small puddle in front of his closed eyes, which rippled faintly with every slow breath. She watched him for a moment, taking in the young, boyish face, lit gently by its own aura. Again, unexpectedly, she was reminded strongly of her son. How he slept with his chin tucked in, just like this, mouth every so slightly open. Phantom seemed thinner than she remembered, and there were faint green bags under his eyes. A furrow creased his forehead between his eyebrows, making him look in pain, even unconscious. All of this made her voice a little softer despite herself as she tried to rouse him.
“Phantom, wake up. Phantom?” Nothing. “Stupid ghost,” she muttered in frustration. She cast about for something to say, and remembered their earlier conversation. “Come on, weren’t you telling me why you were a Danny-ghost?”
At that he stirred. Encouraged, she went on coaxing. “Come on, rise and shine.”
One eye cracked open, then the other. He dragged himself into a sitting position, rubbing hand across his face. He looked at it, vaguely bemused, when it came away sticky and green. He raised his head to look at her, then winced and hissed through his teeth, squinting his eyes shut against the pain.
“What...what hit me?” He mumbled, looking disoriented.
Maddie smiled in relief. He was okay. She stood up, making notes on her clipboard. He was awake, moving, and seemed inclined to stay intact. He would be fine. The crisis was over.
“Owww,” he moaned, gripping his head between his hands. “Damn, that hurts.”
“Language, Danny,” she corrected without thinking.
Maddie’s eyes jerked up from the clipboard to meet Phantom’s startled ones. They stared at each other in shock. For an instant she thought she’d imagined it, somehow flashing back to an exchange between her son and herself that had happened any number of times. But the guilty, trapped look on the ghost’s face banished that thought.
The clipboard clattered to the floor.
Her confusion dissolved into pure, seething anger. How dare he?
“You...you ghost,” she hissed, unable to find a more derogatory word.
Phantom’s mouth dropped open in shock. “What? No, please, I—” He reached out as if to placate her, but then flinched back as the containment field crackled in warning. “I’m sorry.”
“I’ll bet you are,” Maddie snarled, unable to contain her anger. “You just gave yourself away.”
“It’s not like that!” He snapped back, jumping to his feet. His earlier humble attitude vanished in a flare of angry green eyes. How had she missed it? This capriciousness that hid his false emotions? “If you’d just let me explain—”
Maddie slammed her hand on the electrical switch, sending thousands of volts through Phantom’s tether. He dropped to his knees, crying out as white lightning arced across his form. Seconds stretched into minutes. Within the sparks she saw his aura flare into a weird white halo that encircled the ghost’s body. His eyes flew open in shock, something akin to panic in his eyes.
“No,” he gritted out, “Not here!” His face set in a defiant grimace, and his aura shifted from white to vivid green, shrinking back to its normal proportions. Even so, it warped and twisted with each wave of electricity, writhing like fire around the ghost’s rigid limbs.
Maddie had no idea what he was doing, but it did nothing to shield him from the shocks. Ectoplasm ran freely from his nose again, and the rational part of her—which at the moment only had a small voice—reminded her that the GIW would be none too pleased if she destroyed their pet project, no matter how much satisfaction it would give her. Reluctantly she shut it off.
Phantom collapsed to the floor, twitching fitfully.
Maddie snatched up her clipboard. She set it neatly on the desk and straightened her notes. Turned off the computer. Walked out the door. Rode the elevator. It wasn’t until she shut the door of her own room that she allowed herself to sink to the floor, curling up and wrapping her arms around her legs. It did nothing to stop them from shaking.
What was that?
What the hell was that? She couldn’t get her mind around it.
He had called her ‘Mom’ like it was the most natural thing in the world. That monster. A ghost. A post-human ectoplasmic entity with no soul and only evil emotion.
What was worse, she’d called him Danny first. As if it was normal. As if he was her Danny. As if he was her son.
She pictured her Danny, smiling, dark-haired, blue eyes just like his father’s. She let all the love that she held for him warm her. Then she pictured the ghost, floating eerily above her head, smirking down at her with those poisonous green eyes. All the warmth left her. She felt sick.
Phantom was more insidious than she would have dreamed. He’d tricked her. And she’d fallen right into his trap.
Somehow without realizing it, a little of the mother had leaked into her scientist persona. It must have been inevitable after all those years of working from home. She no longer knew how to function without her family surrounding her. Without Jazz, arguing with her about paranormal psychology. Danny, rolling his eyes at her latest theory, or asking her to explain some crucial technology in a rare fit of interest. Jack, steering her sharp mind with unexpected turns and new heights of inspiration. She’d grown accustomed to it. Here, isolated and cut off for the first time in years, she’d unthinkingly turned to the only source of conversation and feedback available.
Maddie rested her forehead on her knees, taking a deep breath.
It was clear to her now. She’d been interacting with Phantom not to get data from him as she’d been telling herself. Instead she’d craved that point of contact with another mind. Arguing, asking questions, giving commands. That was something you did to an enemy, a prisoner. Not a test subject. Not a monster. Not a ghost. Even though she’d told herself he was not a living thing, she’d treated him like one.
And now this. He’d taken full advantage of her small insecurity, insinuating himself into her mind little by little. He’d picked up on her weakness and manipulated it, pretending to be conflicted, encouraging her subconscious hope that he was different on more than just the chemical level. Stupid woman, she berated herself. Don’t rely on others. Be reliable to yourself. She could miss her family, of course. But to lose her professionalism and expose herself to the dangers of a ghost was unacceptable.
Ghosts are not alive, and ghosts are evil. Ghosts do not feel, but they can and will manipulate the emotions of humans. They would do anything to have their way, and she could not forget it. Especially not for such a trivial thing like loneliness.
Maddie squeezed her hands together until they quit trembling. Then she forced herself to her feet, pulling her hood over her hair and setting her jaw. Phantom was an it, not a he. It would destroy her if it could. It had taken advantage of the openings she’d allowed. She would not make that mistake again.
Artwork in this chapter by Sarapsys.
Chapter 7: Heart of Stone
Warning: Gore begins in this chapter. Faint of heart, turn back. Also be warned that some of the images in later chapters will be graphic in nature.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
A scientific man ought to have no wishes, no affections, - a mere heart of stone.
- Charles Darwin
Maddie pulled on her glove as the palm scanner beeped green. Now only two inches of steel and a matter of seconds stood between her and Phantom.
Her hands felt strangely empty with the absence of her usual cup of coffee. She'd spend the better part of the morning in a corner of the cafeteria, her notes spread out on the table. With a red pen she'd carefully marked the parts where Phantom's behavior had modified her thinking.
The results were depressing. Humiliating for someone who had believed herself to be a hardened ghost hunter. She could only guess what the GIW operatives who'd been receiving her typed notes (thankfully void of most of her personal thoughts) had thought. But excruciating as the experience was, it had also been enlightening.
It was all there, in her notes. Phantom had picked up on her tendency to think out loud and neatly inserted himself into her monologue, creating a conversation. Any time she noted a factual, physical anomaly, he'd reinforce it with ambiguous but positive behavior. He'd taken advantage of her initial confusion over his unusual physiology to imply the case was the same on a mental level. It was subtle, it was clever, it was deadly dangerous.
What’s more, he’d infected her thinking at a deeply personal level. She’d begun to associate Phantom with humans, with teenage boys...with Danny. The utter wrongness of that chilled her to her bones. Had she slipped that much? That even the barest hint of her family would disarm her? The love that she was so proud of had betrayed her. It was the perfect crack in the armor for Phantom’s lies to slither through. Sooner or later, she would have dropped her guard.
And if that one verbal slip had caught her so utterly unprepared, what else could have happened? What if she had deactivated the containment field, as she'd been halfway tempted to do when Phantom collapsed? Even chained and under the EMF, he'd amply demonstrated that he was still very capable of powerful attacks. No matter how incapacitated he seemed to be at the time, forgetting that could have been deadly.
Maddie closed her eyes, shuddering at the possibility. Not that her real reaction had been much better. To get so angry and act so irrationally was almost as dangerous. No, she needed to regain her objectivity, to distinguish the facts from Phantom's fictions.
The door slid open. Maddie realized she was clasping her hands, and forced them to her sides. She walked into the lab.
The air was cold and still rank with the heavy, sharp odor of burned ectoplasm. Maddie felt a hot flash of anger as she saw Phantom, but quashed it down, forcing herself to study the ghost. He hadn't seemed to notice her entrance, but that was no guarantee that he'd act as if unobserved. Phantom had curled up into the fetal position, hovering bare centimeters from the floor. As she watched, his limbs jerked, as if spasming, then he shivered and pulled into an even tighter ball. Possibly a lingering side effect from yesterday. Possibly an act designed to elicit pity from her.
Maddie sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose to ward off a headache. She was already regretting not going back for a second cup of coffee. She couldn't spend the entire day second-guessing Phantom's every twitch. But she couldn't let this day go to waste. Her exclusive contract with the GIW was drawing to a close, and she had already wasted far too many of her research days. One look at her notes, with nearly half circled in red, was proof enough of that.
How to study the ghost in a way that would not be tainted by Phantoms' behavior? The solution was obvious, of course. Focus on the physical.
One thing she had not been wrong about. Phantom was different. There were too many biochemical discrepancies, too much subtlety in his physical makeup, too much...sophistication in his manipulations of her perspective. But she could not let that blind her to the fact that Phantom was a ghost. Not an individual. Not a living thing. A chance amalgam of energy, plasma and the scrambled brain waves of some unfortunate, long dead human. She had to start thinking in terms of it, not he.
Maddie opened a previously untouched cabinet. She'd been putting this off, though even yesterday she would never have admitted to herself the reason why. Gleaming rows of instruments lay on three large trays. Maddie cleared her tool trolley of all the monitoring equipment. The core thermometer, the measuring tape, a stethoscope she'd managed to swipe from the medical wing upstairs. Everything she put together into a drawer, out of sight. On the trolley instead went scalpels, surgical scissors, needle-laden extractor devices, and finally, the big saw. It was one of Jack's inventions and easily the flashiest instrument out of the set, with wicked-looking serrated blades and a heavy chainsaw motor. It settled among the rest with a decisive clunk. Maddie pulled off her heavy-duty Hazmat gloves and replaced them with thin white surgical ones.
She allowed herself a glance at Phantom. He hadn't moved, still curled up, head tucked in, obscuring his face. She reached across the console and flicked the switch for the lab table. The ghost jolted as the tether jerked him to the floor.
"Wha..." he croaked, then groaned aloud as the cuffs snaked out and latched onto his folded limbs. They retracted, stretching him out with a series of loud pops.
The containment field shut off, and Maddie pushed the loaded cart up to the table. She had to be very careful now. She was most vulnerable here, standing so close to him. No, it. The ghost would seize any opportunity she gave it to poison her thoughts.
He...it turned to look at her as she came close. "There you are. Did you finally decide to sleep in for once? Not that I'm complaining."
Insulting, but not aggressively so. Implying familiarity with her routine, and therefore intimate knowledge and power over her.
Ignore it, she told herself firmly. Just as she couldn't waste time second-guessing every move, it would be pointless to perpetuate a conversation where she was forced to constantly examine every word. Phantom was a specimen, to be studied, not spoken to.
Even though she was more than familiar with it now, she couldn't get over how overtly tangible Phantom was. Ectoplasm wasn't real flesh, so its attempts at echoing the human form were usually only cursory. But she could see the ecto-proofed metal of the cuffs dig into the flesh of the arms, taut cords of muscles in the neck straining to follow her movements. In the middle of the chest a slight indentation indicated a sternum, sloping upward into the pectorals. The distinct end of the ribcage was underscored by the movement of the diaphragm, which continued its baffling imitation of the very human act of breathing.
"Hello? Did you hear me?"
She leaned over the specimen, as if a closer look would solve the problem. On the other hand, Phantom was a perfect example of an ectoplasmic entity. He...it had the same faint translucency. The same luminescent aura.
The same echoing, not-quite-there quality in its voice. She prodded the chest with a gloved finger. Same icy cold skin.
"Ow! I said hey! Why are you ignoring me?"
Maddie frowned in thought, tapping her fingernails on the table's stainless steel surface. Phantom had obtained a level of corporeality that was eerie in its complexity. No wonder she had slipped into thinking of it in human terms. Even the clothes looked real, as if they weren't an extension of the body. There was a faint seam from a zipper down the front, and the gloves had a believable thickness to them.
"I guess it could be worse. No electrocution yet today. But I don't know how much more of this staring I can take. If you're going to look, look at me, don't stare at my body like that. It's kind of cree-uh, what are you doing? Hey! I'm not sure that even comes o-huh, I guess it does."
She examined the glove, which had its own aura, but was already turning green and losing its shape in her hands. She set it in a metal tray on the tool table, where it dissolved completely into green goo.
"That's just great. Where am I supposed to find another one of those? I'm definitely going to be the victim of at least one 'the gloves are off' joke in the near future. But not from you, huh?"
Maddie looked at the ghost's hand. She'd thought it might be green or even skeletal where it had been covered by the glove, but instead it was the same color as the skin on the ghost's face, almost flesh-toned. She picked it up to examine it more closely. The ectoplasm pulsing just below the surface gave it a faint but distinct greenish tinge. Its form felt perfectly solid. The skin had actual ridges and textures, with thicker areas on the knuckles that grew thin on the palm, as if it were actually- Her thoughts abruptly cut off as the ghost's fingers curled around her probing ones. She jerked away as if she'd been zapped.
"Don't you dare touch me," Maddie hissed. "I have no compunction against vaporizing your electrode matrix, scum."
Maddie regretted the words as soon as she said them. Calm down, she told herself. Anger is useless, meaningless against a thing that has no true emotions.
"Sorry...sorry. I just wanted your attention."
False humility, to lull the hearer into a sense of security. She refused to meet the ghost's eyes, though she could feel its gaze boring into the side of her head.
"Is that what this is? You're mad at me? Because of yesterday? I'm the one that should be upset. This time you really almost killed me. Twice."
Redirection of blame, putting the listener on the defensive. The innocence ploy to induce sympathy, prey on a human's compassionate nature. Protesting innocence to instill insecurity and guilt. Making itself as human as possible by the intentional use of the word 'kill'.
"I know it freaked you out, but I was totally out of it. I didn't even know what I was saying."
Minimizing the deed in order to escape retribution. Rationalization. Including just enough truth to create doubt.
"Stop being so stubborn and listen to me!"
Displays of anger to intimidate or disorient. Digging for a response. She could see all these tricks for what they were now. They didn't imply some unique sophistication of intellect as she'd once thought; the ghost had merely switched from overt to covert aggression. It was the same shallow cruelty of every single ghost, cleverly packaged to suit her vulnerabilities.
As tempting as it was to somehow retaliate, she was not going to give the ghost the satisfaction. It would mean handing Phantom the only weapon it was currently capable of using.
Now, the glove...it was significant, she was sure of it. That it had separated so easily from Phantom was fascinating. It would seem that the subject's ectosignature had 'recognized' that the glove wasn't a part of the body, but at the same time it had been the primary factor informing its shape. When she'd removed it from the electrical field that maintained the ghost's body, the ectosignature had stopped effecting it and it had reverted back to its natural form. She picked up a pair of scissors.
"Wait, scissors? Now you're freaking me out. Can't we go back to the staring part? Or stealing my clothing? I mean hey, what's one glove?"
Dark sarcasm, she noted absently. Designed to direct shame toward the target and evoke a sense of wrongdoing. Its body language confirmed the ghost's hypocrisy; despite its fidgeting, it seemed almost at ease. Unafraid. Subtly implying that it was in control, not her. For such a weak bluff, it was unnerving how well it had been working.
"Heck, take my boots too. Just keep that thing away from-ack, not the face!"
She reached down and clipped off a lock of the snow-white hair so that it fell into her cupped hand. As she held it close to the subject it sat in her palm, looking precisely like a clump of human hair except for its luminescence. Maddie took a step back, bringing her hand away from the exam table. It quickly lost its aura, but unlike the glove it maintained its form. The hairs turned grey and brittle, green ectoplasm pooling underneath as if it had been suddenly repelled. She watched as the hair itself crumbled into dust.
"You cut my hair! You've freakin' shorn me! The glove I can forgive, but my hair? Come on!"
Maddie's mind raced, no longer paying attention to the ghost's sputtering. Theoretically, a ghost was made out of a single substance: ectoplasm. It might have varying densities or natural affinities, but in general ectoplasm was ectoplasm and it tended to react similarly in any given situation. If that were true, then there should be no difference between a ghost's projected clothing and a ghost's projected physical appearance. Both were illusions created by the psychoelectric signature that held an ectoplasmic entity together. So why had the hair not melted away like the glove?
She absently scraped the dust and goop off her hand into an empty beaker for later examination. If its clothes and hair reacted differently to being removed from the ectosignature, how would the actual body? She had to know.
"Fine. Ignore me. Stare. You can take my stuff and leave me looking like a supernatural hobo. But don't mess with the look. It might never grow back the same way. I don't even know if ghost hair even does groooh, man. That's a big knife."
Maddie hefted Jack's saw in her hand, switching it on with a practiced flick. The razor sharp blades whirred to life, a deadly metallic purr. Light flickered off each serrated tooth as they blurred into a cutting edge as precise as a razor. The pervasive hum settled into every corner of the lab.
She looked down at Phantom. The body, which had been straining against the cuffs, went limp; moisture stood out in beads on the exposed skin. That young face slack, pupils dilating. She didn't need to check her monitors to know the breathing pattern had accelerated. Maddie mentally ticked off the symptoms like a list from her psychology book. Phantom was afraid.
But he wasn't trying to escape. Hadn't said a word to weasel his way out of what was coming. She knew he knew perfectly well what she was about to do. It was as if he couldn't believe it. As if he didn't want to believe that she would seriously hurt him. Doubt and an undefined fear made her pause, saw still in her hands, staring down blankly at him. Despite all rational thought that told her this was a soulless electrical construct, despite the lies, despite everything, he looked so much like a child at the moment. Would she really harm him?
Stop it, Maddie. This thing is not human. It's not a child. It's not even alive. It's nothing but a sack of energy mimicking human cognitive functions. The same one that would kill you in an instant if it had the chance. It, not he.
Maddie lined her saw up with his—it's—bare wrist.
The ghost abruptly found its voice. "You're not serious. You can't do that, that's—you're y'you, M-m-m-mo-mu-Maddie, uh, Dr. Fenton, hang on a moment. I know you're mad at me, I screwed up, yeah, but isn't that a little overkill? Please. Please, don't do this. You'll regret it. I know you will. Please. Don't!"
It took less than five seconds to cleanly slice through the false flesh. Maddie discovered that the illusion went below skin deep; she caught a glimpse of woven muscle fibers and bold thin lines made by tendons, and even some denser, lighter green that resembled bone. Then fluid ectoplasm burst out in a spray of electric green, obscuring everything. It pooled on the table, splattered on her hazmat suit. A couple of flecks made it up to land on the specimen's face, which was staring down blankly at its own now handless limb.
For once he didn't react, and Maddie found herself relieved. Of course he—it wouldn't. Phantom was a ghost, and no matter what traumatic experience had formed its psyche, it probably had no memories compared to amputation. It wouldn't know how to respond. It had reached the limit of its shallow, artificial emotional range.
She slid the severed hand from the cuff that still held it and set it on a second tray, feeling a thrill of excitement as she turned her attention away from Phantom and back to the task at hand. If something new happened this time, then it would prove the other reactions weren't a fluke. It would prove that this ghost was fundamentally different, that she had discovered a key variation in the nature of ectoplasm.
The hand had tightly clenched on itself, imitating the traumatic nerve reaction of a real hand. Ectoplasm still oozed out of the severed end, but it had slowed to a trickle and she could once again see the incredible detail of the interior structure. It wasn't quite to the level of a human's—in fact, even as she watched it seemed to deflate slightly in the absence of the supporting fluids-but it was close. She watched in anticipation as the aura slowly faded.
Then Phantom screamed.
Wow, I'm getting that heart-racing feeling of suspense again. It's still very scary to publish this chapter, even now when I'm a little more confident in the story. This is the point of no return. Poor Danny...
Quick announcement: I'm holding an illustration contest! The prizes include a printed and bound copy of Phantom of Truth, which will contain the winning images. Details are on my DA account at haikujitsu.deviantart.com
The real enemy can always be met and conquered, or won over. Real antagonism is based on love, a love which has not recognized itself.
- Henry Miller
It began startlingly human, cracking like a boy’s voice before finding new levels of pitch and volume. But the scream quickly exceeded any sound a living thing could make. It was endless. Wordless, mindless, oppressive agony that pounded against Maddie like a physical force. It embodied terror and pain; it forced them on her by its sheer power, wave after wave with no requirement for breath or even air.
The ghost's body bucked against the restraints, energy crackling along his spine, mouth stretched open in a terrifying grimace. The table was trying to stun him into submission, but it only seemed to escalate the outburst.
Equipment flew off the lab table. Test tubes and beakers shattered. The lights blew out. Phantom's powerful aura stained the room a lurid green, slashed by inky shadows that spasmed across the walls. Maddie saw faint green shockwaves radiating toward the ceiling. With every impact, the reinforced cement and steel trembled and cracked, sending tiny pieces clattering to the floor. She staggered, clutching her head, vainly trying to shield her ears.
Wrong. It felt wrong. It was as if the entire world was imploding. The universe had fractured. She was falling through the cracks. Her hand—her hand, it burned. It was melting. Dissolving into molten lead that bound her arms and trapped her against the floor. There was no way out. No escape. She couldn't move, couldn't speak, could only scream until every bit of air was stripped from her lungs.
And then it was over.
Silence. It was so deep after that avalanche of sound that her own unsteady breathing roared in her ears. Phantom's aura had plunged into non-existence, leaving the room in a heavy darkness.
Slowly the rest of her senses returned. The pungent, raw scent of ectoplasm and melted wires. A taste of blood in her mouth—had she bitten her tongue? The hard, cold floor pressing into her back. Oddly enough, she could not remember falling.
A few of the emergency lights grudgingly flickered on. In their dim glow she could see across the room her control console, leaking thick black smoke. The electronics were completely fried, including the security system. She was alone, and unprotected.
Maddie moved to scramble to her feet...and found herself still on the floor. It was as if some invisible weight had been dropped on her chest. Panic sliced into her mind. She tried again. One finger on her right hand twitched weakly, eliciting a jab of pain. A worrying numbness began to tingle its way up her palm and into her arm. She managed to turn her head a little, trying to see her hand, but forgot about it as her eyes focused on something much closer—scalpels and needles, bristling up inches from her face. Maddie tried to puzzle out why they were sticking up like—oh. Her shoulder.
Maddie shut her eyes, blocking out the sight of her injury. There was no pain yet. But it was only a matter of time. She was alone, unprotected and helpless, with a very powerful, very angry ghost.
Her mind whirled as she tried to grasp the situation. Stop panicking, she told herself. Use your head. Phantom might not even pose a threat after such a huge release of energy. She just had to wait and see...that was all she could do for the moment. Maddie listened, eyes on the edge of the table, where she could just make out Phantom's now motionless form. Ectoplasm dripped off the edge. More debris dropped from the ceiling, crashing loudly in the ringing quiet. The echoes died away.
Finally Phantom stirred. The remains of the restraining cuffs rolled onto the floor.
Even in the dim light he was clearly visible as his own aura slowly brightened. He sat up; raised a shaking hand to his face, then clutched his wrist, which slowly oozed bright green ectoplasm. The ghost looked around the darkened lab fearfully. Maddie’s heart hammered as adrenaline surged through her, but she still could not bring herself to move.
“Do...” his voice came out in a raspy croak that even in her situation made Maddie cringe in sympathy. He coughed and tried again, louder. “Doctor Fenton?” Maddie kept silent. She wasn’t sure she could answer him even if she’d wanted to. The longer the ghost didn’t see her, the better.
“Doctor Fenton...Maddie? Are you there?”
Phantom slid off the table onto the floor. He immediately doubled over, his aura sparking like a stuttering film, flashing and dying in quick succession. The ghost gripped the table’s edge and pushed himself upright. Luminous green eyes swept the room, undeterred by the shadows. Too quickly, he found her. His eyes widened as he took in her prone form amid the shattered contents of her lab table.
Her mind screamed at her to run, draw a weapon, something, anything. Her body refused to respond, numbed by an increasing haze of pain. The adrenaline kept her from passing out, but she could only tense as the ghost loomed over her, staring eyes glowing brightly in the semidark. She was defenseless. This was it. He...no, it. It was going to kill her.
Maddie found herself wishing desperately that she’d been able to talk to Jack, to hug her children. What had possessed her to give up thirty precious days with her family? It was too late for regrets, though. It was too late to do anything but stare defiantly into the eyes of the ghost that would take her down.
But Phantom seemed hesitant; perhaps suspicious that she was truly helpless. He looked her up and down, taking in the woman sprawled on her back, twitching weakly, blood flowing freely from her head and shoulder. Then unexpectedly, he dropped to his knees by her side.
“No...nononono, Mom,” he breathed out in one long gasp.
Maddie felt another flash of helpless anger. Why did it persist with that game? It was too cruel, that this thing...this monster would taunt her, now that she couldn’t retaliate.
Its hand hovered over her, not quite touching, moving uncertainly back and forth. She flinched, but Phantom made no move to conjure ectoplasm and blast her out of existence. Instead, it... What? What was he doing?
Phantom sat back on his heels and dropped his arms to his sides. Was he just going to sit there, watching her suffer? Or was it thinking up some more creative way to kill her? The green light disappeared as he closed his eyes and took a deep, shaky breath.
“Okay. Okay. Pull yourself together, hero. What do you do? Check for breathing, check her heartbeat, see if she’s awake. Okay.” The eyes opened again, and after a moment she felt a cold palm resting on her chest.
She felt irritated at the contact, which was chillingly cold and felt somehow invasive. It was confusing; unnerving. What was he doing to her? Maddie fought her heavy tongue and managed to speak, but it came out as an unintelligible moan.
“Maddie? Are you awake?”
She tried again with more success.”...off...ghost...” It was pitiful how little bravado made it into the words.
Phantom’s face fell, but the he removed his hand obediently. “I get it, you hate me. But I have to make sure you’re alright. Don’t move.” He staggered to his feet, then made his way unsteadily across the room to the first aid cabinet, which the GIW had been considerate enough to mark with a bright red cross. She watched him go, following with her eyes the trail of phosphorescent green he left across the lab. Ectoplasm. It had never stopped dripping from his wrist...it should have closed by now. That small, irrelevant detail needled her. The ghost’s ‘skin’ ought to seal over the wound, preserving the internal ectoplasm until regeneration could occur. Why wasn’t it closing?
Phantom shuffled back with his arms full of gauze. He dropped back down next to her, but hesitated, looking down at his oozing wrist uncertainly. “I don’t want to get this on you, but—” He went very still. The ghost’s eyes went blank. He frowned, as if confronted with an impossible puzzle. Phantom’s face twisted with slow-growing horror. The bandages fell unnoticed from his arms, scattering. “You. You cut off my hand.”
Green fluid spattered on her face as Phantom shook violently. “That, that can’t be—you can’t just do that...not just like that. You—you, you just cut it off!” He rocked back on his heels, clutching his wounded arm. “It ca-can’t...” He seemed to forget her completely for the moment, locked into a world only he could see. Ragged, sobbing breaths tore from his mouth.
Maddie felt restless at the sound. This... wasn’t right. This shouldn’t be. Again, like during the scream, a deep sense of wrongness possessed her. But why? Ten seconds ago she’d been waiting for him to kill her. Just minutes ago she had been dissecting him...dissecting it. It, and whatever it did, should be meaningless.
If only she could sit up, maybe the world would right itself. Maddie shifted her weight, trying to force her arms to lift her up. But all she managed was a twitch, and that only served to send pain shooting down her right side. Maddie whimpered involuntarily, forced to give up.
The noise seemed to wake Phantom. His eyes fixed on her; gradually his breathing slowed. “You’re.... hurt, too.” He closed his eyes, brows knitting as if with pain. “I hurt you.” He moved, still shaking, but purposefully gathering up the scattered gauze. “You need help.”
He fumbled to open a package, which only ended with it slick and green with ectoplasm. He fixated on it, eyes wide, frozen. Then he took a deep breath, crushing the unopened bandage in his fist. “Don’t think about it.” He yanked off his remaining glove with his teeth. “Don’t think about it.” Clenching his jaw, he pulled it over the stump of his left arm. “Don’t think about it.” He wiped his hand on his leg, then ripped open the package at last.
He hesitated, then lifted her shoulder. Now that, she felt. What had been an undefined, buzzing ache at the back of her skull suddenly turned into pain, pain, flaring white pain. She cried out, weakly trying to wrench away from the ghost’s grip, but he relentlessly kept at it, pressing the gauze firmly against the wounds; awkwardly, compensating for his lost hand by tucking the roll under his arm or even in his teeth. A wave of horror washed over Maddie as she realized he was bandaging her around the instruments instead of removing them.
“I’m sorry,” Phantom was saying, and she realized that he’d been talking for some time, a long nervous ramble that cracked and wavered with the hoarseness of his voice. “I know it hurts, and it must be scary, but if I take them out you really might bleed to death. I’m sorry. I can’t move you either. I don’t think you fell hard enough to break anything, but I don’t know, so I’m not going to risk it. Your legs look okay, most of your torso’s okay, looks like this one nicked your ribs, but no puncture wound, so that’s good. Just your shoulder’s torn up, and you banged your head, so far, so good. I think...I don’t know, but I think you’re in shock, so I put your feet up, but I don’t have any way to get you warm, I’m sorry. They’ll be here soon, I hear them at the door. The locks must be broken, but they’re breaking it down.”
Sure enough, she could hear muffled shouts and the whine of steel cutters near the entrance.
“Yeah, that’s right. They’re almost here. Hang in there, Maddie.”
“No...you’re...here...still, why?” There were a lot of whys behind that question that her fuddled brain strained to communicate. Why was he doing this? Why was he helping her?
He gave her a blank stare, then barked out a humorless laugh. “You think I haven’t tried? I went intangible before I was even thinking straight. That stupid electromagnetic field was the only thing that didn’t break.”
So that was it. Better a live hostage than a dead one.
“But it’s better like this. If it hadn’t been messing with my ectosignature, I would’ve changed back. That—that would have been bad.” That made absolutely no sense to Maddie. But she couldn’t tell if what the ghost was saying had actually been strange, or if it was just her; the dark lab, the ghost, the pain in her shoulder, the noises outside...all of them swirled together, as if reality really had broken and was trying to reassemble itself, leaving her struggling to understand.
Phantom curled up next to her, cradling his injured arm to his chest. “I was stupid, thinking you couldn’t be like that,” he said softly. Maddie wasn’t sure if he was talking to himself, or for her benefit. “I knew I was screwed when the GIW got me, but I couldn’t let them know about...well, it was worth the risk. I thought so, anyway. I didn’t think you...that could happen to me. Stupid.” Phantom hunched further, drawing his knees up to his chin. “I’m a freak. Some monster out of a b-rated scifi movie. It’s about time somebody actually treated me like one. You’re a scientist. Not my...not anything else. You really...see me like that.” Phantom’s voice cracked again.
“Why did it have to be you? Not some GIW crony, not a ghost, not some random sicko. It had to be Maddie Fenton. It had to be...mom...” He buried his face in his arms. She could no longer see his face, but the shudders that ran over those narrow shoulders had a strange, familiar pattern. The ghost, it was...no, Phantom, he was...
Maddie closed her eyes, shutting out the sight, and listened in the dark to Phantom’s heavy breathing, because those were definitely, positively not sobs. Ghosts didn’t cry. They wove lies and illusions. Maddie wished she could close her ears as well. This illusion ran too deep.
They both started and Phantom’s head whipped around as sparks began to fly from the door, the noises from outside getting significantly louder. Cold fingers clasped her good hand, squeezing it tight.
“Please don’t die.”
Then he pulled himself to his feet and stumbled away. Wait. ...what? Wasn’t she his hostage? He went back to the lab table, crawling onto it and lying face-up.
“What...what are... you doing?” She was pleased to hear her own voice get a little stronger.
There was a snort from the table. “Playing dead.”
“What?” She could only repeat herself incoherently; though she was making more sense than the ghost at the moment. With a rending screech the door gave way, and bright light poured in along with dozens of agents.
It was nice to let Danny have a bit of an active role for a change, if only briefly. Poor kid...
Art by Thickerthanectoplasm from Tumblr.
The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.
John F. Kennedy
Alarms shrilled through the haze in Maddie's brain as she shot upright. She registered a sharp pain in her shoulder, a pounding headache, the ecto-gun clutched in her hand powering up with a shrill whine as she rolled into a crouch and scanned the dark room, searching for the threat that had triggered the painful, piercing…
Maddie blinked at the glowing red numerals of the alarm clock, which read 5:31 am. She reached over and turned it off, then flicked on the light, squinting at the sudden glare. She was kneeling on her bed, in the tiny GIW dormitory room, alone.
Feeling more than a little sheepish, she powered down the ecto-gun and returned it to under her pillow. The 'lab accident' had been two days ago. Despite a forced day of bedrest and powerful medication, she was still on edge.
Moving to a cross-legged position, Maddie stretched her still-aching joints, then winced as she felt the pull of stitches in her shoulder. Jack would be beside himself when he saw her new scars. She would never be allowed to leave his sight again. Maddie sighed and massaged her forehead. Maybe that wasn't such a bad idea—she had regretted not insisting he'd been included in this deal almost from the beginning. He wasn't the most discreet person in the world, especially when it came to scientific accomplishments, but surely together they would have found a way to handle that mess. As it was she'd been caught totally off guard. She'd been lulled by the safeguards, unaware that Phantom was even capable of that kind of attack.
Maddie dropped her feet to the floor, letting the cold cement shock her into full alertness. Her head kept a steady throbbing as if nails were being slowly hammered into her temples. She had somehow escaped getting a concussion, but that was small comfort considering the egg-sized lump on the back of her skull. Her hearing, which yesterday had been practically gone, had become hypersensitive, making even her alarm clock sound like a blaring siren. It could have been worse; much worse. As frustrating as this was, she'd only been incapacitated for a day.
Over and over the medics had told her how lucky she had been. They'd pulled three scalpels, a pair of surgical scissors, and half a dozen long, sharp metal probes out of her shoulder and upper arm. Three inches to the left, and they would have missed her entirely. Three inches to the right, and they would have punctured her throat and lungs. She'd been very lucky. Lucky the bone saw had somehow fallen a different direction. Lucky she'd been pierced by sterile, unused surgical instruments, not something tainted with ectoplasm. Lucky she hadn't succumbed to the shock from the psycho-electric energy in that attack in the twenty minutes it had taken them to get the door open. Lucky that she'd had the presence of mind to do some first aid.
She had let that last comment pass in silence, too hazy from the painkillers and and confused by her own memories to protest. Looking back now, it seemed so absurd. Had they somehow missed the broken restraints, the trail of ectoplasm leading to the first aid cabinet, the green stains on her hazmat suit, the simple physical impracticality that bandaging her own shoulder would have posed? But maybe that leap of logic—so totally antithetical to ghost behavior— was too much for them to accept. A ghost, helping a ghost hunter? Maddie could hardly wrap her mind around it herself.
She rummaged through her suitcase. It would be impossible to get her spare jumpsuit over the sling or her injured shoulder, and she'd brought precious little civilian wear. Finally she settled on a stretchy black tank top that she could slip over her head with no trouble, followed by grey slacks and her customary lab coat. Maddie pulled this last on over the injured arm, letting the sleeve hang empty. She slipped her feet into the simple black flats she'd worn coming in. Not the most professional ensemble, but it would do.
A full-length mirror hung on the back of the door, and she paused to examine herself. It was, bizarrely, the only luxury in the room; perhaps it had something to do with the GIW's fixation on cleanliness. Tired violet eyes stared back at her from a pale face. She looked battered and unkempt, usually neat ginger hair framing her face in limp clumps. Ugly black and yellow spots mottled her collarbone just above her shirt, and a cut she didn't remember getting glared in angry red above one eyebrow. Those brows knitted together in a frown.
This wasn't the strong, confident, intelligent woman that Maddie had made herself. Not the unparalleled ghost hunter or the brilliant scientist. This was a tired, injured, isolated woman who missed her family and her husband's comforting embrace. This was the pitiful individual that had been blown away by the voice of a single, wounded ghost.
Was this what Phantom had seen, when she was lying there completely helpless? What would drive a ghost, a being formed by echoes of negative feeling, that even in human terms had every reason to hate her, to try to save her? That immediate, almost frantic reaction to her injury should not have happened. None of this should have happened. She'd completely miscalculated.
Phantom should not have responded to the amputation to that extent. But that spectral scream could have been a purely physical response to the sudden invasion of his stable inner ectoplasm. An electrical overload in response to the 'short circuit', like a power surge right before a blown fuse, pure and simple. Maddie could rationalize it in retrospect; if she'd taken more time to consider, she might have even predicted it. But afterward... that's where all her rational conclusions broke down.
Phantom had been free, mobile, and aware. Any normal ghost would have immediately either gone on a rampage or tried to escape. He did neither. He didn't even seem to take those options into account. He could have been too weak, drained by the energy of that spectral scream.
Yet the alternative, what he'd actually done, was help her. Why?
Surely that had not been manipulation; or if it was, it was poorly planned since he'd completely lost his brief advantage. But then what was it? A genuine, provoked response? Maddie had thought she could tell the difference. Now she found herself doubting again.
Phantom's actions were... illogical. He'd seemed anxious; concerned for her welfare even while he was badly damaged. But that kind of disregard for self was totally impossible in a ghost. Ghosts could not feel empathy. It just wasn't possible.
Psychic echoes strong enough to create a ghost came from minds that had vehemently denied death. Thus a ghost's entire existence was a denial of death—or, conversely, a refusal to acknowledge life went on without it. Some tried to lay claim to the living world by possession—figurative or literal. They seemed to believe that by controlling those that still lived, they could enforce their own twisted, diluted concept of reality. As if that would somehow fill the void of a being that remembered life but had never possessed it.
The less sophisticated merely destroyed what they could not have. They could not tolerate a life not their own. Even the simplest ecto-entity had this perverse drive, this instinctive enmity toward all life, and would attack living things on sight. This trait was the reason that ghosts were considered evil, why humans and ghosts could never peacefully coexist.
The only thing that had a more powerful hold on a ghost's behavior was the specific obsessive focus of the individual imprint. The obsession of a ghost was at the psychological core of its existence, driven by greed, rage, fear; the strongest of emotions. It was the fundamental concept that coalesced the source, the brainwaves produced in a surge of emotion before death, into a cohesive entity. It both defined and limited a ghost. They could be powerful, with reasoning faculties and willpower that refined the raw power of ectoplasm into a dangerous force. But their energies were compelled to submit to their own obsessive drive. It was inescapable. In human terms, an addiction.
The obsession could contradict the destructive nature to varying degrees. A musically obsessed ghost, for example, might burn down an entire auditorium and its audience without batting an eye, but painstakingly preserve the musicians and their instruments.
That had to be it—the obsession. Something about Phantom's obsessive drive superseded the standard reactions that he should have had as a ghost. Phantom had claimed to have none, but it was obvious that was one more lie. He was no different from other ghosts.
The reason he didn't attack her was because her injury and temporary vulnerability had somehow threatened Phantom's obsession. He'd responded to that distress by attempting to 'fix' her, and ease her—no, his discomfort. If that really had somehow interfered with the delusion that Phantom had created for himself, then he would of course be frantic to repair it, to return to a state of reality that suited his obsession. Looked at from that perspective, Phantom's actions fit perfectly into normal ghost behavior.
What exactly was his fixation? Maddie specifically? That seemed unlikely. They'd barely had anything to do with each other until well after his first appearance. No, there was some sort of concept, some ideal unrelated to her that influenced him. Could it be his "hero" delusion was actually stronger than she'd supposed? Had her becoming a victim, someone who was wounded and helpless, trigger some sort of protective drive? To retain his ego, his sense of self as a hero, he would be forced to help her.
Not that it would make him less dangerous; even the most harmless desires—the wish for friendship or to be loved for example, would in a ghost become twisted; as different from the original emotions as the ghost's ectoplasmic body was from living beings. The object of a ghost's desire was even more at risk than the rest of the world.
Even if that theory was correct, it still didn't explain one small but significant thing. He'd called her 'mom' twice—no, three times now. Why? Was that simply a continuation of the earlier charade, hoping to win her over by repetition?
Maddie could come to no real conclusion. That simply would not do. She would find out why, even if that meant allowing conversation with the ghost once again. She would be more careful this time. As long as she remembered to keep her objectivity, that every word had to be filtered through a scientific, critical thought process, she would be alright.
"Yes Maddie, because that worked out so well for you the last time," she told her reflection wryly. She shook her head at the doubting eyes in the mirror, opened her door and set out for the cafeteria. Today would require at least twice the amount of caffeine.
The hallway, the elevator ride, the security checks, the high-tech lab door; it was as if her routine had never been interrupted, except that this door had a different number. Setting down her coffee on the desk, Maddie looked around her new lab. The agents had done a good job of arranging it to be almost the same as the old one next door. The major difference was that the containment unit was slightly smaller, and its sides were made of heavy, ecto-proofed glass instead of the more advanced force fields. It did have an advantage that the newer models lacked: The glass was completely soundproof. Not even Phantom's powerful voice would penetrate.
Phantom stood at the glass, once again tethered by one foot, but he wasn't looking at her. His eyes were fixed on something on the lab table, a distinctly unsettled look on his face.
She followed Phantom's gaze, and her own eyes widened in surprise. There on the lab table, bottled neatly in a glass of liquid ectoplasm as if that was exactly how it was supposed to work, was Phantom's hand, fully intact.
It even twitched a little as she stared at it.
Art by Gammija on Tumblr!
It's my birthday today! So here's a little gift for you AO3 people. I'll try to post a couple of chapters, if I can. Enjoy!
Chapter 10: I Would Have You Be
Because you're not what I would have you be, I blind myself to who, in truth, you are.
"Fascinating," she murmured.
Maddie held the ghost hand, still dripping with ectoplasm. She carefully placed it in on the lab table where it sat, perfectly solid and corporeal. By all rights it should have dissolved long before she'd ever gotten back to the lab. But not only had it retained its structure with remarkable integrity, it was, according to her instruments, live—running on a faint but steady electrical current.
Maddie examined it closely, admiring the hard, blunt nails, the perfectly articulated fingers, the sharp contours of the wrist denoting muscle, tendons, bones, each in their proper place. Ordinarily, it was the skin that kept a ghost together. Insides tended to be a plasma-like, gelatinous substance, more liquid than solid, held in place by the cohesive tension of the outer layer, like water inside a balloon. Its electrosensitive properties allowed it to take on a specific structure, but that appearance was literally only skin deep.
With Phantom, this didn't seem to be the case. From what she could see, there were actual structured masses of solidified ectoplasm that informed the external skin. She'd already known that Phantom's anatomical detail was amazing, though not to this extent. In fact, the dermal layer seemed barely necessary at all. She picked up a scalpel, cutting a nick in the skin to see how easily it would separate from the 'flesh'.
Maddie looked up from her work in surprise, meeting Phantom's startled gaze. The ghost looked down at his arm, confusion with the beginnings of dismay on his face. Slowly she reached down and cut the hand again, still watching the ghost. He flinched and hissed, drawing the stump into his chest and clutching it tightly.
Did that mean his electrical matrix still recognized the hand? But a ghost's electromagnetic field was self-contained; how would it communicate with something so far removed from its aura? Unless... there was some type of empathetic resonance between the identical ectosignatures, allowing them to remain in sync?
"Will you stop saying that already!" Phantom snapped. He kicked the containment unit's wall, the dull thud of his boot against the thick glass amplified through the intercom system. Mindful of her earlier resolve to figure out Phantom's psyche, she'd left the intercom switched on, but until now he'd done nothing but stew in silence.
She ignored him. As much as she wanted answers, she wasn't about to respond to random violence. When Maddie didn't so much as glance his way, he whirled and started pacing. She could hear the soft scuff of his boots on the floor. Something seemed odd to her about that, but she filed it away for later thought.
What puzzled her was how long the hand had maintained its form. According to everything she knew about ectoplasm, it just shouldn't be possible. The hand had no core to support an electrical matrix. It was an appendage—no, an accessory of the ghost, not a ghost in itself. Even with this kind of density, it should not be able to maintain any kind of structure without its source of power and information. Was his ectosignature so strong that it had overridden the ectoplasm's natural tendency to revert into a liquid state? Did it include some kind of programming that gave his individual parts a specified quality even after they'd been removed from his body? Or was she missing something important?
Maddie prodded at the severed end of the bone-like structure. It was like raw celery, she decided, stiff but light and relatively brittle. So while it resembled a human bone, it obviously did not have the same strength or function. Its purpose seemed to be as a guideline to shape the fluid ectoplasm that typically filled the appendage. In comparison to the soft, amoeba-like inner structures of a normal ghost, it would create a much denser mass, allowing for a stronger ectosignature and higher durability altogether. He was probably two or three times as resilient compared to the average ecto-entity. She scraped at the 'bone' with a probe, testing its hardness.
A short, sharp scream came from Phantom, startling her. She half-turned to be met with a vicious glare. The ghost was swaying on his feet, but he looked positively venomous.
"That frickin' hurts. Stop touching it."
The hand twitched on the dissection tray, fingers curling into a half-formed fist. Pale green energy flickered across the skin. It was an interesting reaction... but pointless. There wasn't enough energy to even give her a shock.
"You know I can feel that. Do you want to hurt me? How can you do that?"
Maddie had no need to justify herself. She watched as the hand relaxed again; Phantom didn't have any real conscious control of it. It seemed to be picking up on the general 'mood' frequencies of the ghost's aura and responding accordingly.
"Ignoring me? Still? What, is a ghost not good enough to talk to anymore? Just because you're more human than me—"
Maddie put her tools down with a bang. She'd had more than enough of this particular delusion. "It's not a matter of degrees, ghost. It's a fact. You are not, were not, and never will be human. Nothing I do to you, and nothing you say to me will ever change that."
"You're so sure you're right. But what do you know about me? Huh? You have no idea, right? All your tests, all these studies, all the data, even that," he jabbed a finger in the direction of the hand, "hasn't done you any good. Because you won't consider even for a second that I'm not what you think I am. You're the brilliant scientist. You're never wrong. Well, guess what? You're wrong!"
Maddie swiveled her chair around to face the ghost completely, crossing her arms. "Then enlighten me. Why won't the data line up? If you're not a ghost, as I understand the term, then what are you?"
"I'm—" he stopped short, arms dropping to his sides. The angry glow faded from his eyes. "I'm nothing."
"Then I have no choice but to continue until I have my answer."
"Isn't this enough? You've figured out like, six ways to kill me by now."
"It was never about destroying you."
"Then what is it about?"
"Ascertaining the truth." Solving the puzzles of reality; making the mysterious known. That was the duty and privilege of a scientist. To a paranormal scientist, where normal laws no longer applied, it was even more important.
Phantom laughed humorlessly. "That's rich. You wouldn't believe the truth even if I did tell you. And you won't figure it out." He looked down at his wrist, eyes narrowed, lips tightening into a thin line. "You can't figure it out."
That was as much as admitting that he was lying to her. Maddie felt a wave of frustration; maybe speaking with the ghost was unproductive after all. She'd lost confidence in her ability to distinguish Phantom's truths from his lies. His own powerful self-delusions certainly weren't helping matters.
Phantom sat down, raising his injured arm to his teeth. Maddie found herself craning her neck curiously, trying to follow his movements.
"What are you doing?"
He gave her a sullen glare, then held out the arm. "Whatever you're doing over there just made it worse."
The stump had turned an ugly dark, clotted green, but bright green fluid oozed through the scabs, dripping on the floor. Phantom had tied his remaining glove around the arm like a tourniquet, and he'd been trying to tighten it with his teeth and his good hand. Even as she watched it slipped looser, the slick fabric unable to get a purchase on the ectoplasm-drenched sleeve.
Now that Maddie thought to look, there were an alarming amount of green stains scattered on the floor inside the glass enclosure. This was unacceptable. She set aside her tools and walked over to the console, activating the lab table.
"Ow—no, let me go!"
She ignored him, opening the drawer that held this room's first aid supplies. After a moment of hesitation, she picked up a roll of gauze and some medical tape. For a typical ghost, any kind of pressure would probably just flatten the arm, but with Phantom's higher density it should work.
Maddie heard the restraints click into place and the glass wall lower into the floor behind her. She found herself stalling, pretending to fumble with the straps of her sling as she took it off. Was she ready to get up close and personal with Phantom again? Their last encounter had been painful and confusing. It had ended with her barely conscious, and Phantom... incapacitated.
Being totally helpless as a ghost sat right beside her had been nerve-wracking, to say the least. Phantom's bizarre behavior had only made it more unnerving, with only the vague concept that she was a hostage allowing her the illusion that she had some grasp of the situation. But then he'd inexplicably walked away and left her. She was free and alive, from some strange quirk of his obsessive drive. What's more, he'd let the GIW recapture him without a hint of resistance.
It was foolish to allow herself these doubts. Phantom was, quite simply, the ghost she was conducting experiments on in order to analyze; she was the scientist assigned to this particular subject to study it. That was all. Maddie pulled on a clean pair of gloves and turned around.
Phantom lay still on the table, avoiding her gaze. He looked haggard, exhausted; much like Maddie had felt this morning. Dark bags hung under his eyes and his voice hadn't lost its hoarseness. That was to be expected; even ghosts couldn't expend that much energy without consequences. He would 'bounce back' to normal levels in a matter of days.
Maddie picked up his arm. His eyes widened and he jerked back; she instinctively tightened her grip. He cringed and turned away, screwing his eyes shut. She ignored his reaction and examined the amputation.
The arm looked even worse up close. Instead of closing over seamlessly, as ghost injuries should, it was still raw and open, with a patchwork of crusty dark green scabs of nearly-dry ectoplasm. Normally ectoplasm wouldn't thicken while within the electrical influence of a ghost's aura, but it seemed that Phantom's body was rejecting the internal ectoplasm as it leaked out, 'deactivating' it and letting it congeal; this imitated the clotting properties of blood, thus the 'scabs'. Strange; though it was more complex, even sophisticated in comparison to the usual method, it was much less efficient. Even now, three days later, he was still losing fluids.
She started binding the wound. It was a little awkward, since her injured shoulder had limited range, but she managed. Phantom turned and stared, raw disbelief on his face.
"You're... helping me? Why?"
Maddie hesitated. The last thing she wanted to do was to encourage his delusions of any kind of relationship with her. But this could be her best chance to get some insight on Phantom's motivations. "I could ask you the same question," she said at last, careful to keep her tone neutral. "There was no reason to help me back then."
He scowled and looked away. "Maybe I'm just stupid. I'm a ghost, remember?"
"It's not a matter of intelligence. Ghosts don't bandage injuries."
"Neither do scientists after they dissect someone."
For some reason she felt defensive at that. "It is feasible that your core could dissolve if your fluid levels drop too low. I can't lose my research subject for such a useless reason." As long as she established her reasons clearly, he would have no room to twist her response.
"Sorry for uselessly bleeding."
"You can't bleed. Only living things have blood."
"Then what do you call it? It's coming out of my arm. It hurts. I lose too much, it might kill me. That sounds like blood to me."
"You're already dead, Phantom." In reality, he was never alive.
Phantom looked like he wanted to argue, but he lapsed into a brooding silence. The ectoplasm was already showing through the gauze as a bright green stain. She kept wrapping. It seemed to have a soothing effect on Phantom, and she found herself quieting as well. She reached for the tape. Her elbow bumped directly against the wound.
Phantom flinched. "Ow," he said in small voice, squeezing his eyes shut again.
Maddie paused, bandage in hand, and looked at him thoughtfully. Ghosts wanted to be alive, to pass off their simulated sentience as real. Phantom had elevated that to an art form. As she'd seen the other day, he could recreate human experiences to an... uncomfortable degree of accuracy. "Stop trying to be so human."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You're simulating a response," Maddie said, resuming her work. "Anything you 'feel' you're doing to yourself."
He opened one eye to send a glare her way. "You're saying this is my fault?"
"I... " Be neutral, she reminded herself. Get some answers. "You must realize on some level that you're conditioned to have these responses, that whatever you got from your imprint drives your sensations. It's not real. If you could recognize that, you could distance yourself from it and your responses wouldn't be so strong."
"You're telling me that if I think about it hard enough, I could stop feeling so bad?"
"Yes." More or less.
"I think that's called going crazy."
"It's called recognizing reality."
"Which is... that you're actually the crazy one." He sighed. "Look, Dr. Fenton. I can't imagine my hand back on; I can't make myself feel better just by thinking it's fake. Whether or not you believe me, this is my reality. And... and I can live with this much. "
"Suit yourself." Maddie wasn't exactly sure why she'd suggested it in the first place; but Phantom's response seemed to ease some itch in the back of her mind. She secured the end of the bandage and set his unresisting arm down on the table. Then she turned away, raising the glass wall and deactivating the table's restraints.
Phantom sat up, cradling his bandaged arm. "That... feels better," he said quietly. "Thank you."
She felt reassured; perhaps by the fact that it had been so easy to slip back into conversation with Phantom. The ghost seemed eager to talk to her, even after his earlier displays of aggression. But she had to be careful to remain objective.
Deciding it would be safest not to respond, Maddie instead gently rotated her shoulder, flinching at the strained stitching. She gingerly returned her arm to its sling, fumbling for real this time as she tried to reattach the straps without aggravating the wounds further. The ghost's eyes followed her movements, clouded with some unrecognizable distress.
"Is your shoulder okay?"
"Nothing that will prevent me from continuing my work," she responded neutrally. She couldn't hide her injury, but it would be pointless to make herself seem vulnerable.
He pulled his legs in close, tucking his injured arm behind them, and putting his chin on his knees. "I could have killed you, you know."
Maddie stopped short. That statement bewildered her. What was he doing? Threatening her? Trying to make her feel indebted to him? Frost crept into her voice. "You lost your chance."
"You think I want to kill you?"
"You don't?" Maddie challenged. "You just said so yourself."
"Stop twisting my words!" he snapped, jumping up, eyes flaring with green fire. "That's not what I meant and you know it! You know that's not true."
He huffed in defeat. "It's like you're trying to make me hate you."
"It's completely irrelevant whether a ghost hates me or not."
"But it matters to me."
"Why is that?"
His eyes met hers for a moment, then flicked away. "No reason."
She stared at him for a long moment. "Is it because I'm 'mom'?" He tensed, which was confirmation enough.
"Phanom, on more than one occasion, you've tried to kill me."
"What? No—that was—those were... there were... circumstances. I never fought you because I wanted to. I never wanted you dead."
Maddie didn't believe those weak excuses for a second, but she played along. "Do I remind you of your mother?" His obsession could be some kind of Oedipus complex, which he'd then projected onto her. It would explain a lot, but not everything.
He laughed a little, hunching further. "You could say that."
Her eyes narrowed as another thought occurred to her."If you think that responding to me as a parental figure will make me treat you like a child, you're gravely mistaken."
"No! I'm not trying to manipulate you or whatever. It's not you... it's me. To me, you're... " He gestured weakly, then seemed to give up with a sigh, wrapping both arms around his knees. "I never meant for you to know. You're the one who called me Danny. It just... surprised me. So I slipped up. That's all."
What was he trying to say? A deep sense of unease settled into her stomach. "So you... started to call me mom, because I called you Danny?" No, it was more than that. The other day, he'd called himself a Danny-ghost. He'd called it his theme, which in a ghost was always very close to the obsession. Could it be... Danny? She had to be wrong.
"That's right," Phantom responded, sounding relieved.
Danny? Her Danny? How was that possible? But wait...
"Phantom," she said slowly as her mind raced. "From the moment we met I've been trying to destroy you."
There was a possibility—no, if Phantom had been right about the portal's role in the paranormal activity in Amity Park, it was a probability that Phantom had come from their Ghost Portal. If he had actually been formed without an obsession as he'd claimed, Phantom would have been unstable the moment he left the ghost zone—struggling to stay cohesive, he would have fixated on the first thing he came across in the real world. And if Phantom had crossed over in their basement, and Danny had just happened to be in the lab... suddenly it all made sense.
"Yeah." He chuckled, lips twisting into an ironic smile. "How messed up is that?"
It all fit. The way he'd been so chatty with her, how he'd tried so hard to sell himself as "different", more human. He hunted ghosts. There was even a physical resemblance. It had never been about her. The hero delusion theory hadn't even been close. He wanted to be, was obsessed with becoming... a Fenton. More specifically, Danny Fenton, her son.
A chill ran down her spine. Ghosts always, inevitably, destroyed the object of their obsession.
"Dr. Fenton?" Phantom said uncertainly, and she realized she'd been staring at him. He was waiting for a response. It was waiting. How did she keep getting caught up with Phantom's false humanity? It was a thing. She should know that very well by now. And this thing wanted Danny.
"You're right," she responded coldly. "It is messed up." She switched off the intercom.
It was only when she tried to take off the gloves that she realized her hands were shaking. She was frightened—and angry. Even angrier than before. This ghost was dangerous, on a very personal level. It could not be allowed to leave this facility—ever. She knew what drove it now; it obsessed over nothing less than the life of her son.
Maddie turned away and picked up her scalpel. She had been foolish to think talking to the ghost was going to resolve anything. This was where the real science was, the only place it mattered: at the lab table, taking Phantom apart. Molecule by molecule, if necessary.
Half a truth is often a great lie.
- Benjamin Franklin
Even in this state, totally separated from the main mass, the hand could accomplish a remarkable amount of regeneration. No, cohesion would be a better term. No matter how many times she severed the ligaments, sometimes completely removing a muscle, all she had to do was put it back in place, and the flesh would cling to the bone. Ghostly energy served as connective tissue, maintaining the spongy network of denser ectoplasm as both distinct, separate shapes and an interconnected whole.
Maddie tapped her fingernails on the tabletop, watching as the hand, twitching, reassembled itself again. This was the third time she'd tried it, and it took a little bit longer—proof that this wasn't an infinite process. But it was still amazing. Even the skin was pulling against the dissection pins, as if it wanted to close over the exposed musculature. But oddly enough, the severed end, where it had been attached to Phantom, showed no signs of closing over. Why?
Was Phantom's ectosignature so area-specific that his ectoplasm even ignored the basic self-containment rules of ectoplasmic mass? But according to her equipment, Phantom's signature was erratic at best, even incomplete. It shouldn't be able to hold a ghost together at all, let alone specify such unique properties.
She risked a glance toward the subject. Phantom huddled unmoving on the floor in the back corner of the containment unit, a hazy silhouette behind the smudged glass. She didn't know if the ghost had tried screaming again. With the impenetrable glass and the intercom off, it hardly mattered anyway.
Maddie sighed, removing the pins and letting the incisions close over. She returned the hand to the jar of ectoplasm; it replenished the fluids constantly draining from the wrist, and was apparently the only necessary maintenance to keep the hand 'alive'. The grunts working for GIW weren't as incompetent as they seemed, to have the presence of mind to preserve it.
The scientist stood up and stretched. Maybe over lunch she could come up with some answers.
Maddie almost dropped her coffee. "Terminated?"
She hadn't seen Agent L since he'd escorted her into the facility. Now he'd appeared in the cafeteria as she was on her way back to the lab, unceremoniously dumping this bad news on her.
The tall agent's expression soured even further. "You will be appropriately compensated."
Compensation? The implications were more than insulting. "This isn't about money, Agent L," she said slowly and clearly. "The agreement stated that you'd let me have Phantom for six weeks. I'm the reason you were able to capture Phantom—or any ghost for that matter—in the first place. You can't violate your terms on some bureaucratic whim."
The GIW wasn't known for its diplomacy, but L had even more than the usual brusqueness. He didn't even have the consideration to look apologetic. "You're not seeing the big picture, Dr. Fenton."
"How can I? You have me cloistered here in the name of secrecy like some kind of hermit. The cook has more clearance than I do! If you refuse to share information I can hardly be expected to perform according to those expectations."
"Your clearance level is none of my concern. In light of certain... circumstances," L pulled at the collar of his spotless white suit, as if tact was a new tie and he didn't like the fit. "The head of the department has decided it is best for all parties to truncate our agreement. It's regrettable, but necessary."
This had to be about the lab accident. Did they see her as incompetent now? "I am perfectly capable of completing my term here."
"No one here doubts your capabilities, Dr. Fenton." Maddie might have been flattered if it hadn't sounded so patronizing. "You have three days. I'm sure a scientist of your caliber can come to some form of conclusion by then." Agent L turned on his immaculately polished heel and left, effectively cutting off any more argument.
Back at the lab, Maddie slammed her coffee down next to the console, slumping into the chair with a huff. It was more than unfair; it was incredibly unprofessional. She didn't even know where to begin wrapping up. Those mysteries that had been so tantalizing before were now just obstacles to her goal. Maddie sipped her coffee—then grimaced. She'd been so put off by the news that she'd forgotten her cream and sugar.
Phantom was as irritatingly enigmatic as ever. Why hadn't he regenerated the hand? With such a strong ideation of self, he should be more than capable of restoring his self-image. Unless, perhaps, his ideation was too strong, and he couldn't separate himself conceptually from the existing hand? But how was that possible for an entity that claimed to have no obsession? Who in fact, obsessed over her son in some perverse fulfillment of its malformed existence?
"What are you?" Maddie asked in frustration, but of course, Phantom didn't answer. She hadn't bothered with the intercom since that last disastrous conversation.
He wanted her Danny. That's all she needed to know. She didn't want to hear any more of Phantom's lies. She didn't want to see how much this thing had aped from her child's personality. She had no desire to discover how much even that poor reflection made her weak toward it.
She glared at the ghost balefully. Nothing had turned out as she'd predicted. Experiment after experiment failed to follow her expectations. All that Maddie had gleaned from those failures was the conclusion that Phantom was most definitely not a ghost—except that he was. That stubborn paradox was driving her out of her mind. Phantom's sick obsession was completely irrelevant, it had to be. The truth lay in matters of chemistry and science. Even ectoplasm obeyed the laws of physics to some degree. If only she could put the pieces together, she could solve even this riddle.
At least Phantom had stopped trying to get her attention. He didn't even move much anymore, curled up on the floor in the far corner of the cell. For some reason this bothered Maddie.
It wasn't that she cared; far from it. If it weren't for the fact that the GIW had her under contractual obligation to hand Phantom over to them at the end of her studies, Maddie would have destroyed the ghost already. Something so powerful and that dangerously connected to a human—especially her Danny—should not be allowed to exist.
No, it was something purely technical. As if there was a formula in front of her, where she knew there was a number out of place but she had yet to puzzle out where. The image simply didn't fit. He wasn't doing anything; he hadn't so much as moved one inch away from the floor...
Maddie leaned back in her chair, realizing what had been nagging at her—or rather, the absence of it. Phantom wasn't levitating. Ghosts made occasional nods to physics by touching down on solid objects, but as a whole it was one quality of the living that they rarely strove to emulate. Phantom had been almost playful in his complete disregard of gravity, and she'd never seen his feet in contact with the ground for more than a few minutes. But now he was very solidly settled on the floor. Looking back, she realized he hadn't been doing it for days. Why?
As if on cue, an alarm on the far side of the console started beeping. Something in Phantom's automatically recorded statistics had veered out of the parameters she'd set for him. Maddie leaned sideways, straining to see the screen without getting out of her chair. She nearly fell out of it in surprise.
Phantom had dropped to a level four?
Maddie caught herself on the edge of the console and stood up to look at the numbers properly. The overall power level wasn't the only stat suffering; his other readings had dropped right along with it. That made absolutely no sense. Ghosts didn't simply change energy levels without some kind of external stimulus. She had tried a number of different techniques on Phantom that may have temporarily affected his stability, but ectoplasm had an amazing ability to retain energy, and even 'recharge' itself given time. It would take a major, prolonged output of energy, like constant ectoblasts or a powerful...
Maddie could have kicked herself for missing the obvious. The spectral scream. That had to be it. Of course. Phantom had released enough power to obliterate her original lab. Naturally that would have sapped even a high-level ectoplasmic being's power. But as she scrolled back, looking at the history, she realized that while that incident had caused a drastic drop, Phantom's stats had begun to fall much earlier. In fact, if this data was correct, he'd already been hovering at a low level six when she'd done the dissection.
How on earth had she missed such a distinct change in the data? The last time she'd checked he was still a seven, and that was…that was just before the aural frequencies test. More than a week ago. How had she neglected such a basic task for so long? It wasn't like her. Not that she'd been particularly like herself lately.
Maddie closed her eyes, massaging her temples. This entire venture was turning out to be one massive headache. What a rollercoaster ride she'd allowed herself to be pulled into. She couldn't keep losing her cool. She couldn't let her personal feelings interfere with ascertaining the truth, especially now, when her time was so limited. This wasn't a game, and it certainly wasn't for free. She had an obligation, not only to the GIW, but to herself to do her job properly. Right now that meant figuring out this new development, no matter what it took. Maddie downed the rest of her coffee, bitter as it was, and reached for the table controls.
As the glass dropped and she was assaulted with a vile smell. She was used to the sometimes unpleasant odor of ectoplasm, but this had an undercurrent of musty rot, like lemons that had putrefied.
"What on earth?" she murmured, covering her nose with one hand.
The glass sank into the floor, giving her a clear view of the inside of the containment unit for the first time in days. Ectoplasm stained most of the interior surfaces. Her temporary fix with the gauze had been useless, after all. She stepped in, and grimaced at the way her shoes stuck a little to the floor. That would at least explain the recent acceleration of Phantom's decline. He must be...
Maddie stopped short, finding herself for the second time that day struck speechless. Phantom's usually immaculate jumpsuit had mysteriously become ripped and ragged. He was barefoot; the boots were nowhere to be seen. Besides that he looked... odd.
She came closer to the table and realized the ghost's eyes were closed. Judging from Phantom's slack expression and the shallow, steady rise and fall of his chest, he was either unconscious, or perhaps asleep? She had always been suspicious of that term when used on ghosts. There was no biological need for a paranormal entity to sleep, and all psychological remnants from the imprint were contrived—in other words, done consciously, which for true sleep was impossible.
Either way, he was unresponsive. Feeling more relieved than she'd like to admit, Maddie retrieved the lab instruments and started her exam. With any luck, she could finish all the close work without being forced to interact with Phantom at all.
She knew it was unprofessional and a little selfish to so actively avoid it, but the fact that this ghost was obsessed with her son, of all people, was so disturbing. She couldn't bring herself to even look at the ghost without anger getting the best of her. The stolen attributes were so clear; the way he talked, the mimicked mannerisms, even his feigned sleep.
Danny had hated falling asleep as a child. He'd go into full-time denial mode right around eight o'clock, running around the house in his pajamas, shrieking laughter and talking a mile a minute. She'd find him sprawled out in the strangest places, halfway down the stairs or in one of the kitchen cabinets with her mixing bowls hugged like a teddy bear.
It was an attempt to calm down these wild evenings that started their ritual of stargazing; Maddie would bring him up to the observation deck, and they'd take turns picking constellations out of the night sky. She could still bring up that picture at a moment's notice, of her boy's childish face lit by moonlight as he drifted to sleep.
Maddie looked down at Phantom, studying that face critically. Yes, even his features were made to resemble Danny, though they were distorted almost beyond recognition by that harsh, otherworldly aura. It brought back those memories of her Danny. The fact that a ghost had done that to her made the memory itself feel tainted.
But there was an oddness to Phantom that she didn't remember. He looked sharper, older somehow, and she couldn't put her finger on why.
Of course Danny had outgrown nights on the roof cuddling up to his Mommy. He'd shot up too, seemingly overnight. In the past year he'd finally surpassed her in height. Maddie couldn't help the wry smile that crept onto her face; it was something Danny gleefully reminded her of at every opportunity. She supposed it wasn't very dignified for teenage boys to be shorter than their mother.
It was hard to tell at this angle, but it seemed that Phantom had kept up to date with Danny's progress—a fact that was more than a little disturbing. Did the ghost actually haunt her son? Had he been in danger all this time? Phantom had the same stretched-out lankiness of her boy, the same oversized hands that predicted further growth. Hand, in Phantom's case. The stump of an arm remained continually, frustratingly the same. Ectoplasm seeped through the earlier bandaging, the bright green color evidence that it had never stopped.
There was something else, though. Something so distinctly un-Danny about him. That should have reassured her, but it seemed out of place for Phantom, too. What was it?
Some changes for Danny hadn't been as pleasant. School had become a daily struggle. He'd been stumbling along with C's and D's, even though she knew he was bright. There had to be a reason, but he certainly would never talk to her about it. This new, teenaged Danny seemed more withdrawn and secretive with every year that passed. It was natural, she supposed; but she missed her little stargazing companion.
Adolescence required endless amounts of energy from her son. He came home every day famished and wolfed down whatever leftovers were in the refrigerator, sometimes not even bothering to warm them up. She was honestly surprised that he'd never swallowed his fork. No matter what time he went to bed, Danny dragged himself downstairs every morning looking exhausted, only pausing to eat if breakfast smelled particularly delicious. Maddie had made sure this happened at least three times a week. She couldn't have her baby boy starving, and no matter how much she managed to set in front of him, he stayed entirely too skinny…
Maddie blinked, looking down at Phantom, and suddenly realized exactly what she was looking at. This was the oddness that had been bothering her. His cheeks had become sharper, the dark circles under his eyes sunken in, bruised a dark green. It wasn't just a cosmetic change. His knees and elbows jutted sharply from his limbs, and even the form-fitting jumpsuit seemed loose. Phantom had changed from a skinny teenager to near-emaciated without her noticing.
She activated the scale, and had to check it twice; if it was correct, Phantom had lost twenty pounds since her first examination. Even accounting for the lost hand, that was drastic for a human; for a ghost, which ostensibly maintained a very stable mass, it was shocking.
Something more fundamental to Phantom's physical makeup than any of her experiments should have triggered was changing. Putting this new development with the steady decline of his stats, Phantom was weakening. It was as if the internal energy that maintained his mass no longer had the electrical 'pull' to continue holding it.
"What's happened to you?" she asked without thinking.
"Do you want a list, or the abridged version?"
Maddie nearly jumped out of her skin at the unexpected voice. She jerked to face the ghost, meeting a pair of alert, very aware green eyes. His tone had been light, but his expression was guarded as he watched her closely.
"But you know the details better than I do, Dr. Fenton."
Maddie was barely listening to the words because suddenly, she could hear it. Her Danny. Like all ghosts, Phantom's voice was distorted and tinny, like a radio station not quite coming in. It had an echo to it, a phenomenon that had nothing to do with physics; as if a part of them were always in that world beyond. Now that she was listening for it, Danny's voice was really there behind the noise.
Maddie frowned. It was copy of Danny's voice, that was all. Standing around like an idiot as this ghost tried to engage with her was foolishness. She had to finish this exam. She didn't have the time or the need for another useless conversation.
"This wasn't my doing," she said shortly. At least as far as she could tell, it wasn't. Not that he'd believe her. She could feel Phantom's eyes on her back as she rummaged through the drawers. The GIW had supposedly transferred all the undamaged equipment to her new lab. Where was her measuring tape?
"You're right, sorry."
Maddie paused with the drawer half-open. That seemed like some kind of confession. Forgetting her search for the moment, she turned back to the ghost. "I'm right? Why would you say that?"
"Maybe I'm crazy. I feel a little crazy right now. Disjointed, if you know what I mean."
Was he trying to make a joke? Even if she knew Phantom was a ghost devoid of emotions, this was somehow chilling, now that she heard her Danny in every syllable.
The ghost's eyelids slid closed. "Disjointed, heh, get it?"
There, again. She knew that tone, too. Danny only used that quiet, tight way of speaking when he was seriously hurt, but trying his hardest not to show it. She remembered vividly the first time she'd heard it, back when her Danny was six. They had gone out hiking in the woods, and Jack had promised fudgecicles to the kids if they behaved themselves the whole time. Danny had taken a tumble, but when he gave her a subdued 'I'm okay', she'd chalked it up to tiredness and bundled him into the car without a second thought. It wasn't until three hours later on the way home that she noticed anything was wrong. Danny sat in the back, eating his fudgecicle as tears poured down his sticky little face.
After the ER and the X-rays and words like 'hairline fracture' and 'six weeks recovery', Maddie herself was in tears. What kind of mother could not notice her son had a broken arm? But Danny had pointed his by then well-chewed popsicle stick at her disapprovingly, telling her 'no dessert for you!', and somehow she'd been able to laugh.
Maddie whipped around, clutching her clipboard. What was with all these thoughts of Danny? This ghost was not her son. Even if all her instincts told her that there was a hurt she needed to address, her mind knew that it wasn't real. It was only a poor imitation. That's all.
She clicked her pen and held it poised above the page, but her mind was blank. She had nothing to write. In reality, she had no idea what was happening. She could run more tests, but that would take time. Time she had suddenly discovered she would not have.
Knowing she would regret it later, Maddie turned to the ghost.
"Phantom," she said, striving to keep her aversion to him out of her voice. Neutral. She could be neutral. Not angry, not antagonistic. Just plain questions with simple answers. If only it would be that easy.
"Yeah?" He answered in his not-quite-Danny's voice.
"Your physiology is changing in a way I can't account for."
"Something the great Dr. Fenton can't explain away? Do tell." He didn't bother opening his eyes, his tone too apathetic to have any real bite.
"You've weakened considerably."
"No duh. Not my best week, if you haven't noticed."
"But it wasn't just this week. Your ectoplasmic core is," she hesitated, trying to find the right way to describe it. "It's fading out."
"It's not retaining ectoplasmic energy like it should, it's not regenerating. It's not even maintaining itself."
"Uhuh," Phantom busied himself studying an obscure part of the lab's ceiling.
Maddie shoved down her rising aggravation. Surely, even if Phantom had no respect for her, simple self-preservation would be enough to rouse some interest. "It shows no sign of slowing down. It might be irreversible." When that failed to get more than a noncommittal noise, Maddie practically growled in frustration. "Phantom, did you hear me? You're going to—"
"What? Die?" Phantom cut her off. "No, wait. Ghosts don't get to call it dying, right?"
Stay neutral, she told herself. "You'll cease to exist."
"Nice euphemism there. Really takes the sting out of it."
Maddie's eyes narrowed. "You're toying with me, Phantom. That I won't tolerate." She moved closer to the console, making sure Phantom saw how close her hand was to the switch that controlled electrocution. "I'm trying to find a way to prolong your existence. I can just as easily shorten it."
He sighed, finally meeting her eyes for the first time in their conversation. "What exactly did I do to you?"
The question caught her off guard. "I don't know what you mean."
"Yeah you do," he said gently. "This isn't you, Dr. Fenton. You aren't cruel."
Once she'd gone into the backyard to find a young Danny drowning ants in a bucket, his bare feet red and bumpy with bites. Maddie had poured out the ants, sat him down on the back step with a bottle of calamine lotion, and proceeded to lecture him. Then she'd taken him by the hand and, skirting carefully the line of ants, showed him their mound—the home they were working to build and protect. Just because something hurts you doesn't mean you can be cruel in return, she'd told him. Just because you don't know why something happens, doesn't mean you should lash out.
"I know you're angry. I must have messed up somewhere. Did you just get fed up? Did I scare you?"
Scared? Of course she was scared, what mother wouldn't be? This was her Danny, her dear, gentle son who ran away the instant he saw a ghost. To have one specifically target him was her worst nightmare. But she'd always dealt with fear proactively. Maddie never cowered from her problems. She faced them, and if necessary, eliminated them.
"Please tell me. Tell me so I can apologize and this can be over with."
"Over with?" Maddie echoed. Did he think all he had to do was 'make up' with her, and she'd let him go? How absurd. She set down her clipboard, crossing her arms. "There is no 'over with', for you, Phantom. You have no relationship with me. My feelings are irrelevant. You're a commodity, Phantom. Nothing more. You'll be used and reused until you're used up."
Phantom stared at her for a long moment, as if he couldn't quite believe what she was saying. Then he scowled. "You know what? Forget it. You're not listening, anyway."
Belatedly, Maddie tried to soften it a little; she still needed his cooperation. "It doesn't have to be this hard on you. You can help yourself. Just tell me what I want to know."
"Why should I tell you anything? You don't care what happens to me."
"Of course I do." He was very important, vital even, to her research. He had to last for at least three more days. Once the GIW had him, well, it was out of her hands.
The ghost read through her almost-lie.
"Screw your experiments," he snarled, his eyes suddenly kindling with a hot green fire. "Do you think I want to help you hurt me more? Haven't you had enough of torturing me? Or am I not 'interesting' to you unless I'm in pain?"
"That's enough," she snapped. Maddie did not like the direction this conversation was going; she needed it back under control and on topic. "Like it or not, Phantom, I'm the scientist in authority here. The only one who can change or not change your situation is me. If you know what's wrong, then tell me."
Phantom hesitated, but the glow had faded from his eyes, taking the fight with it. He gave a deep sigh, looking at her tiredly. "I can't survive here. Even without your... without you doing things to me. That ghostly wail took out any reserves I had, and that wasn't much. I'm running out of time."
Maddie stared at him. "What do you mean? You're a ghost." Ghosts had practically no temporal context. They didn't age or burn calories or even sleep; their electrical matrix was self-contained and self-perpetuating to a practically infinite degree. Phantom was, as usual, making no sense at all.
He shrugged, closing his eyes. "Whatever. Why believe me? You're the scientist here, you figure it out."
Poor kid... at least Maddie's starting to notice some important clues, though.
Hullo folks! Every once in a while I remember AO3 and wander back in for an update. ^^' I was playing with the idea of combining this chapter with the next, but I think for pacing reasons they need to stay separate. I hope you enjoy! -Hj
Artwork by TheGhostofSherlockHolmes.
Art has a double face, of expression and illusion, just like science has a double face: the reality of error and the phantom of truth.
- Publilius Syrus
Maddie set down her pen and leaned back from the table with a sigh. She'd found herself yet again poring over her own notes, seeking a solution. There was some factor here that she didn't understand. Something that had been there from the beginning, something that set Phantom apart from anything she'd ever studied. What was it? What was she missing? It had been hours now since she'd begun looking, but all she had was a stack of papers twice as marked up with red and blue ink.
Her physical exam had shown nothing. No physiological changes except for the ones she'd already found; his chemical makeup was comparable to the original data, just on a smaller scale. There had, however, been a disturbing psychological shift.
Maddie glanced over her shoulder uncertainly, but Phantom was still unconscious. He'd started shaking the moment she'd pulled out the ecto-thermometer.
It had been so very long since she'd seen her Danny so frightened. She'd been mugged at gunpoint right in front of Danny when he was eight. All her martial arts training had been useless—not with Danny right there in harm's way, not with the trigger-happy thug shoving the muzzle against her throat. Her son had gone dead white, but he didn't panic or run away. He didn't even cry, not until after the police had come, when Jack had shown up and gathered them both in an enormous hug.
Her son's expression of absolute, helpless dread, that had been worse than any hysterics. That same day she'd signed up for a concealed weapons class, desperate never to see that face again. To find it mirrored back now on Phantom's similar features…it was hard.
That tense, prolonged silence had made her once again wish that Jack was by her side. He would have found some way to break the grim silence, to make the fear that was palpable in the room seem the triviality it should have been.
She'd been on her guard, ready to step back and activate the sound-proof containment unit at any sign of a scream, but he'd set his jaw and not a sound escaped him, not as she read his temperature or even when she cut off another piece of his hair. The effort seemed to exhaust him, however, and before she was done he'd lost consciousness again.
Maddie had put the dust and ectoplasm mixture from the hair sample in the chemical analysis machine. It was a much faster model than the one she and Jack had cobbled together at home, but it still took a couple of hours. More than enough time for her to study her notes—but not, apparently, to find a solution. Maddie checked her watch; the results would be up any minute now.
Right on cue, the machine beeped. She drained the dregs of her coffee and stood up. Phantom's physicality was the key to his uniqueness, she was sure of it. She was gambling on a hunch, but if she could pin down what, exactly, the foreign element that made up the dust was, then maybe she'd have her solution.
Keratin? Maddie stared down at the printout. The substance analyzer's results were was so strange she couldn't wrap her mind around it.
Keratin was an organic material, a specific type of fibrous protein that made up the harder external substances in animals, such as fur, nails, shells, and scales. It was a perfectly reasonable thing to find when analyzing a hair sample. There was only one problem: This sample was from a ghost. Ghosts were pure, monosubstantiated beings made entirely out of ectoplasm, which contained no proteins or organic matter at all.
What did it mean? She suddenly remembered the iron she'd found in his ectoplasm; she hadn't made the connection at the time, but it was the primary metal found in human blood. It wasn't just the hair; there were traces of real-world substances interspersed with most of Phantom's ectoplasm... and in a way that seemed to parallel human physical traits.
Had Phantom somehow adapted those minerals out of his environment? It was true that he spent an inordinate amount of time in the real world... but for his obsession with humanity to go so far that he could change himself on the molecular level?
She dismissed the thought out of hand. That was absurd; an evolutionist's pipe dream. Ghosts were so far removed from the animal kingdom they weren't even considered a species. It violated the basic definition of a ghost, a being made up of the self-contained, self-perpetuating, and certainly exclusive substance of ectoplasm.
Maddie tapped a pen against her lips, thinking hard, the report still in her hand.
By that very definition Phantom wasn't a ghost. Still, the second substance in the sample had plainly been ectoplasm—the report confirmed it. He was, technically, an ectoplasmic being. He looked like a ghost and used their powers. If she could only find where those properties diverged...
It was conceivable that he was some unknown form of ectoplasmic entity that had developed totally independent of the imprinting process. But that wasn't right either. Phantom was too entrenched in the human world. His language, mannerisms, even his thought processes imitated a modern human. His body, with all that intricate detail, was human…a specific human, her Danny. His imprint might be unique in that it mimicked a living being, but it definitely existed.
And yet... even in his imprint, he didn't conform to the usual pattern—or any pattern she recognized. Imprints formed from self-perception. While most people know they have muscles and bones and so forth, very few people think about it. Theoretically knowledge about the body would be overwhelmed by the powerful emotional response to death, which penetrated the dimensional divide and created the imprint. This process was inexact at best, which resulted in warped and hyper-simplified caricatures of the original brain patterns.
Phantom didn't have that extreme distortion. His anatomy was accurate in such unstudied detail that it was almost human. Even if he had been telling the truth and only gained a form post-creation, even if Phantom had adapted himself to her Danny, a living example, it was just too technical. The imprint would have formed based on Danny's psyche and outward appearance. Something so precise as the musculature she'd seen within the hand should be impossible to reconstruct through an ectosignature alone.
Unless... he didn't have to.
She straightened at the unexpected thought, pausing with the pen in midair. Didn't have to? Where did that come from? That was impossible, right?
Ectoplasm was a singularly complex substance. Slightly radioactive, conductive of electricity, with qualities utterly unique to its native dimension, some of which had yet to be understood. It could 'phase' through non-ectoplasmic matter with relative ease; other times it retained complete solidity. It floated, it glowed, it had seemingly endless potential for energy. It interacted with the patterns of the brain in an almost mystical phenomenon.
It did have a few rules, though, ones that most scientists agreed on. Ectoplasm was generally stable and self-contained. It did not mix easily or well with things from outside its dimension. Ectoplasm always returned to a liquid state when not maintained by an ectosignature.
It was possible to take an object from this dimension and infuse it with ectoplasm to the point of giving that object ectoplasmic qualities. This resulted in a paradoxical creation that had both an ecto-energy reading and a physical, real-world form. Ectoplasm would only merge when significantly destabilized. It was a dangerous and volatile process, but very useful; most of their ghost-hunting technology used this principle to better adapt ectoplasmic energy. It was also the source of many talismans and 'magical' artifacts from ancient cultures that had learned to tap into the ghostly dimension's energy through natural portals.
She had believed that technique only applied to inanimate objects. No living thing could survive that kind of irradiation and energy. Right?
For years, there had been theories in the paranormal science community. Fringe opinions; schools of thought that she'd dismissed for their excessive reliance on the occult. It wasn't just the necrophiliacs who raise the issue; there were several highly respected intellectuals who questioned the assumption of a fundamental disparity between living creatures and ghosts.
Before she and Jack invented the ghost portal, there had been no reliable resource for raw ectoplasmic material, and theories had remained speculation with no experimentation to back them up. Afterward, when ectoplasm became much more common, some of these more radical ideas could have been tested, even realized.
Nothing living could survive ectoplasmic fusion. But if someone died in the process? Or if something once living was infused…what would happen?
Inanimate items took on ghostly properties, but they never quite lost their original form; traces of the source material would remain embedded in the ectoplasmic matter. The object's stable real-world mass was disguised but not destroyed. In Phantom's case the glove had been a decoration, nothing but psychological window dressing. The actual body was different. It had those trace real-world elements; it didn't obey ectoplasmic laws as it should. Phantom's body held its shape despite its incomplete ectosignature, or in the hand's case, in the complete absence of it.
Was it possible? Could Phantom not be a ghost, but instead a ghostly 'artifact', an ectoplasmic entity molded around a human body?
She tried to imagine it. It would be incomplete, of course, since it neither achieved pure ectoplasmic existence nor was destroyed, something with ghostly qualities but lacking an imprint to stabilize it; a job half done. That phrase struck a chord in Maddie's memory, and she shuffled through the notes laid out on the table, searching for the page—there. She snatched it up, turning it sideways to read the note, scribbled in the margin as an afterthought:
Ghost term— Haffuh?
Haffuh. Halfa. Half of.
"Was I wrong?" Maddie asked the empty lab. How had she ever come to the idea that she could do this on her own? She needed Jack's insight now more than ever. Maddie closed her eyes and pictured her husband's huge, comforting bulk beside her.
"Nonsense Maddie," he'd say. "Ghosts are nothing like humans! The biological differences would make fusing impossible."
But it was possible, Maddie realized. Humans, while organic, use electricity to move, to feel, to think—the same thing that created an imprint in the first place. A ghost overshadowed a human by overlaying its own electrical signals on those of the possessed. If there was no opposing electrical current already present in the body, it could even take over the brain altogether. Given enough ectoplasm with enough energy present to create a physical fusion...
Maddie opened her eyes.
Implications whirled through her head as she stared at the word. Halfa. It would explain so much. The high density—of course, since he had a physical body in addition to his ectoplasmic one. The incomplete ectosignature—it had no need to indicate form. The deep attachments to the real world. The physical changes—regardless of how ghostlike his physiology was, the 'artifact' put him in a temporal context. The trace elements would obviously be real-world remnants of the body that hadn't perfectly fused. The reactions to her experiments...
She tensed as that particular element came back to her attention; her hands crushed the paper, fisting so tightly her knuckles cracked.
It was logical to assume that the electrical matrix of Phantom's ghost self had adapted to the path of least resistance when conforming with a physical body. It would follow that his 'imprint', his consciousness, most likely occupied the neural pathways of the brain and its related systems. In other words, his psyche would be directly connected to the original nervous system. If she was right, if there was a real, human body under all the glowing green and paranormal abilities, that nervous system included pain receptors. Ones a ghost would never, ever have.
"Oh, Jack," she whispered. "What have I been doing?"
Artwork by Darkeneddawning on Tumblr.
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.
Artwork by Sarapsys.
Only enemies speak the truth; friends and lovers lie endlessly, caught in the web of duty.
Maddie was beginning to regret that cup of coffee. She hadn't been able to bring herself to eat anything, but the promise of caffeine after a sleepless night had been too tempting to pass up. Now the acidic liquid churned in her empty stomach, and she felt jittery but no less exhausted. She realized her fingernails were tapping out a manic beat on the desk and forced them to be still.
It was as if she'd been given new eyes. The ectoplasm stains in the hallway seemed ominous, not amusing. The endless rows of doors spoke less of scientific breakthroughs and secrets awaiting discovery, and more of a guarded cell block, the screams of its inmates as mundane to the staff as barking dogs. The GIW's endless secrecy now felt sinister rather than simply frustrating.
In the lab, it was worse. The containment unit, stained more than the halls, more than her coat, had green streaks, no, had blood on every surface. Its occupant huddled on the floor with no chair or bed to sit on, and to Maddie it seemed—it was—inescapably a prison cell.
She had decided not to hide from this. Sitting here doing nothing was hardly better.
Maddie clenched her fists and slowly relaxed them; breathed in, breathed out. Then she slowly, methodically, began to strip herself of hardware. She took off her utility belt with its assorted weapons and laid it flat across the desk in front of the keyboard. Reached down to her right boot and pulled out the hidden laser staff. Slipped the miniaturized blaster from the hidden pocket in her sleeve.
Feeling more than a little exposed, Maddie looked down at the array of weaponry now covering the desk. She knew this wasn't necessary. It was even foolish, dangerous. But it felt right. She couldn't approach Phantom as a ghost hunter. Not today.
It took a little doing to override the failsafes in order to get the controls to do what she wanted, but finally she managed. Phantom didn't even bother getting up as the cable retracted, letting it drag him onto the slab like so much dead weight. He put his arms to his sides, obediently; he'd learned the hard way that resisting meant getting a nasty shock.
It was a feature she'd never hesitated to use. Because she wanted him to obey. To punish him. To silence him. Just because he annoyed her. She'd found plenty of reasons.
Maddie typed in one last command, sending the ecto-proof glass sliding into the recesses of the floor. She left the lab cart and its instruments behind, instead dragging her desk chair behind her. She settled it three feet away from the table. That space was a precaution, a compromise with her ghost hunting self in return for wearing no weapons; it left her just out of arm's reach should he decide to try anything, and positioned to be three steps from the lockdown button on the end of the console.
It wasn't the personal danger that made Maddie's pulse jump as she looked at the ghost, that gave her that sick feeling all over again.
Phantom looked up at her in surprise, then down to his unbound hands, then up again, bewilderment obvious in his face.
Maddie bit her lip, fighting the sudden, irrational urge to reach out to him. He was just so... Danny. She'd known about it before, but it was still a shock to experience the resemblance up close. To see her Danny so thin, so frail and battered, was almost more than she could bear.
She'd come in one afternoon to find Danny collapsed on the couch, bruised, bloody and half-conscious. He'd been in a hit and run with a car on his moped—overlooked by passersby who had been too preoccupied by the ghosts battling it out overhead. Her baby had lain on the street in the middle of all that chaos unnoticed, until he picked himself up and somehow made it home. He was fine, just banged up and shaken, but all the reassurances from the doctors couldn't console her. She hadn't been there when he needed it most. No one had.
"Are you okay?"
Maddie started and realized he was staring at her.
"Can you sit up?" she asked tentatively.
He eyed her, sitting in her chair, weaponless, nothing but a single sheet of paper in her hands.
"Yes," he said.
With some struggling, he managed it. Phantom scooted a little further towards his bound feet to raise his legs, then rested his head on his knees with a tired sigh. He closed his eyes, and for a moment she thought he had fallen asleep.
"What's going on?" he asked finally.
"We're going to have a talk."
Green eyes opened a crack. One dark eyebrow arched quizzically. "A talk?"
"A talk," Maddie repeated firmly, a little more confident now that she'd begun. "Today there will be no tests. No experiments. No... nothing else. I'll ask you questions. You can answer, but only if you want to. I won't force you. You only have to talk if you feel like it."
The eyebrow rose again. "I thought you didn't believe ghosts could feel."
"That's right. But you're different, Phantom."
He squeezed his knees a little tighter. "Not different enough, apparently."
The bitter words made her heart sink. Hadn't he said he as much from the very beginning? She ran her thumb over the line of tallies that filled the margins of the journal page. Still, Maddie had to know for sure. She owed it to him to get the truth, nothing less.
"Do you remember becoming a ghost?"
"Yeah. Painful," he responded shortly.
"Describe it to me," Maddie requested.
"What, just tearing me up isn't good enough anymore? You want me to live through old traumas, too?" He closed his eyes with a scowl. "You really are cruel."
"You... you may be right." She admitted quietly, twisting her hands in her lap.
That got his attention. The ghost actually sat up, looking more alert than she'd seen him in days.
"Oh yeah?" he said cautiously.
"I may not deserve to hear it, but this is important. Please. Tell me."
Phantom scrutinized her face for a long moment. Maddie fidgeted self-consciously, but did not look away. Apparently he found what he was looking for, because he nodded slowly.
"I got zapped. Electrocuted, I guess." His eyes unfocused and he grimaced, as if feeling some of that remembered pain. "Worse than anything I've ever felt. Even... " his hand drifted subconsciously to his bandaged arm. "Nothing really compares to it. It was like getting burned and frozen and crushed and ripped apart all at the same time. I think I kind of blanked out at some point. I just remember being glad my friends weren't in there with me." He looked at her and smiled thinly. "Dying sucks. I don't recommend it. But it happened, and here I am."
"Here you are. But Phantom," she took a deep breath, steadying herself. "Ghosts don't feel their deaths."
"How do you know?" He retorted, visibly bristling at the perceived slight. "How many ghosts have you talked to?"
Maddie winced. They'd had this argument dozens of times over the past few weeks. This time she recognized the frustration and the hurt behind it. Did he not know how fundamentally new, how strange and terrible his physiology was? Did he realize he was so unique? Or did he think every ghost was like he was? If he did, she must seem like a monster.
"It's pure science. When a human dies, the electrical signal generated by the brain resonates in the ectoplasmic matrix of the ghost zone and creates a new independent entity. That pattern is psychic, not physical. All that can be transferred is emotion and basic thought. That's why ghosts don't really understand pain. It's why you can never truly harm a ghost."
"Yeah, post-human consciousness, ectoplasm doesn't have nerve endings, I know already. Doesn't make it any better for me."
Maddie shook her head. "But that doesn't apply to you, Phantom. You just told me yourself. You didn't describe to me why you died, what you were doing, but how. That's a physical context. Ghosts may know that they died horribly, but their account will invariably focus on the emotional significance."
"So... so what?"
Maddie smoothed the paper in her lap; it had been creased and uncreased so many times now, it was soft, like felt. "What is a halfa?"
Phantom tensed. "Where did you hear that?"
"Your fight with the first ghost from the containment cube."
"Oh... Right. I thought you missed that."
To be honest she hadn't thought much of it at the time, scrawling it in the margins of her notes as she focused on the much bigger puzzle of Phantom's obsessive nature—or lack of such. Looking back, there had been such an ugly intent behind its use. She should have realized that it was more than a throwaway term.
"So you do know what it is."
"It's an insult," he said reluctantly.
"But it applies to you specifically," Maddie pressed him.
"That's me," he groused, giving her a surly look. "Practically unique. I have my own special slur."
Halfa. It was what he was, not who he was. It should have struck her like it did now, what a dehumanizing difference that made. Phantom, for all the trouble he'd had with the name Maddie, had never once called her "human" with that dismissive tone. Not the way she'd called him "ghost." Not how she continued to call him Phantom, which was hardly better.
"Halfa. Half of. Half-formed. You're not a completely ectoplasmic being, are you?"
The ghost's fingers beat out a silent rhythm on his kneecap. That was a Danny trait; he always did that when he was nervous and thinking hard. "You said... I wouldn't have to answer if I didn't want to."
"I did. But I think I already know."
She had discovered the truth at last, and it was worse than any evil nature she could have uncovered. This wasn't just a ghost, not only a phantom. Danny Phantom was... Danny. Just Danny. She should have seen it so much sooner.
"You have a body. A real, human one." He looked up sharply at that. She met his gaze sadly, feeling the condemnation for herself even as she voiced the words. "You're not a ghost at all, are you? Danny."
He blanched visibly at the name. "So... so you know?"
Danny. Not Phantom, not ghost kid, not some cold abstract like 'abnormal ectoplasmic manifestation'. Maddie sighed deeply, staring at the floor to keep from seeing the fear in her Danny's eyes. "I know."
"Okay, I... wow." Phantom raked a hand through his matted hair, taking a shaky breath. "Okay."
"You didn't want me to know?"
"No! That's not, I—well, yeah, I did. Eventually." He looked at her, then gestured to the chains still on his ankles, the lab, taking in the whole GIW facility with one sweep of his arm. "But not here. Not with them." He paused as he caught sight of his hand, still gloveless. He stared at it, and Maddie couldn't help but do the same; it was bony and raw, blotched with varying shades of green. "Not like this."
"I'm sorry," she said tentatively. It was easier than she'd thought it would be, but the words sounded weak even in her own ears. She cleared her throat, which was so tight it was painful. "I'm so sorry, Danny."
"I should have told you a lot sooner."
She shook her head. "I should have seen it."
Phantom snorted, offering her a wry half smile. "That I'm half-ghost? How crazy is that, right? Nobody could just guess something like that, not even you."
"It was the portal, wasn't it?"
"Yeah. I somehow made it work. From the inside."
"You mean you actually activated—" Phantom nodded stiffly.
Of course. It must have taken some kind of conduit, some breach of the divide between the two dimensions in order to initiate the formation of a stable portal. How had they overlooked such an important factor? Danny had been showing his friends around the lab that day, she remembered with a sudden chill. Of coruse. She'd thought the lab was harmless, since their most vital project had failed. How very wrong she had been.
Maddie crushed the paper between her hands. "This is all my fault."
"It was a total accident."
She shook her head vehemently. "What were we thinking, building something so dangerous into our home?"
"That it was worth it to be near your family?"
"Was it worth this?"
"I—I don't know."
Silence fell between them, heavy and bleak.
"I... " Phantom paused, bit his lip, then tried again. "I may not have been the best kind of hero. I messed up a lot. I did some stupid, immature stuff, too. But... I did help. I saved people who needed it. People who wouldn't have had anybody otherwise. Me, some random loser, I made a difference. That sounds kinda stupid now that I say it, but... I don't regret it." His jaw tightened stubbornly. "I'm not sorry."
"You shouldn't be sorry. It... it wasn't your fault." She laughed, though even to her own ears it sounded forced. "You couldn't have found a better model for your psyche. My Danny's the sweetest, most responsible kid I know."
Phantom gave her an odd look. "What?"
"There... there have never been good methods for dealing with ectoplasmic waste. Experiments that have failed are usually reintroduced to the sub-dimension where they are expected to dissolve. Artificial specimens don't usually have the stability to exist independent of the lab that created them. You had a physiological structure that prevented that degradation. Long enough for you to resonate with the portal and return to the real world. Long enough for you to imprint from my son, and—"
"Yes," she said impatiently. "A cadaver would lack the psychic element, that specific electric pattern that allows for sentience in an ectoplasmic entity. It wouldn't matter how much electricity was introduced, it could only have created a blank, an inanimate doll. Your form was incomplete without an ectosignature. The raw ectoplasm in your system was drawn to the first psychic signature it encountered, to the person who was in the lab when the portal activated. To... to my son. Your imprint. Danny Fenton."
For a moment he stared at her, his face completely blank with surprise. "A cadaver? You mean, like, a dead body?"
Maddie nodded, confused. Did he not know after all? Surely he didn't think that he was alive, did he?
"Oh." He let out a breath, covering his face with one hand. "Oh, okay. I get it. That's fine." The ghost laughed, sounding slightly hysterical. "Guess I shouldn't have underestimated a Fenton."
"Danny," she said softly. "You are not my son. You know that, right?"
Phantom's eyes met hers, searching her face for a moment that felt like years.
Once her Danny had come home late, nearly an hour after curfew. She'd been prepared to lecture him the instant he set foot over the threshold, but he'd looked so dejected, so worn down and utterly spent, she'd simply hugged him. The next day he was back to his cheerful, wisecracking self, but that moment had stayed with her. He'd looked so very haunted that night.
"Mom, I... "
Maddie flinched at the name, momentary dislike crossing her features despite herself. Phantom might be innocent of the manipulation she'd accused him of, but it still rankled to have a ghost—even this one—speak that way to her.
That seemed to break whatever spell had bound the ghost. He looked away, studying the far wall. "I—Yeah. Yeah, Dr. Fenton. Of course I knew that."
She might have believed him if he hadn't spoken in Danny's voice.
Phantom might have known, but some part of him had hung onto that delusion. Maybe that's why in the beginning he'd been so carefree despite his capture. It had given him the chance to speak with her, to interact. To indulge in that delusion of a familial relationship.
Maddie stared at the back of his head, at those slumped shoulders that spoke volumes even when she couldn't see his face. She should be frightened for her Danny, disturbed by the implications; those dangers were no less real. Instead, she could only feel a deep sense of pity. What a terrible thing, to know your only identity is a false one.
He scrubbed his face with his hand, as if that might wipe away some of the fatigue. Then he looked back at her, eyes dimmer than before. "So you got me. I'm not a real ghost. I'm not really anything at all. Was there a point to all this?"
"I... " this was the hardest part of all. "You... evidence would indicate that the electrical current generated by your core would follow the established cerebral pathways of its vessel," Maddie knew she was rambling into jargon but couldn't stop herself. "That is, the neural pathways established in the cranial tissues and the... the nervous system, allowing your consciousness to tap into the original functions of the organic matter to form new experiences, including," she forced herself to continue. "Including sensation, comparable to the level of a human's."
Phantom, who'd been listening with a puzzled expression, glowered in comprehension. "So you realized that I could feel. Thanks for catching on."
Maddie faltered, taken aback by the sudden venom in the words. "I never intended to—"
"To what? Pick me apart? Find different ways to destroy me? Yeah, right." He raised his injured arm, showing her the stump. It had finally stopped oozing—no, bleeding; the bandages were barely visible under the green-black stains.
"I can't feel my hand anymore." His voice dropped to little more than a whisper. "All that time, all those things—" he cut himself off with a shudder. "Now it's just numb." Phantom dropped the arm, and his eyes took on a dead look. "I thought since I could still feel it that maybe there was a chance it could heal, but it looks like it's too late."
"I... " Maddie crushed the paper in her hands for the thousandth time. "I didn't know," she whispered, hating herself for making excuses but lost for what to say.
"Yeah," Phantom closed his eyes, letting his head fall to his knees. "I know."
Hullo, thanks for your reviews and kudos!
Poor kid, stuck between a rock and a hard place... at least Maddie's on his side, now.
Artwork by darkeneddawning.
We cannot despair of humanity, since we ourselves are human beings.
- Albert Einstein
Maddie looked at Phantom in dismay; this wasn't how she'd planned this conversation at all. The ghost... the halfa looked more despondent than ever, staring at the far wall.
What could she say? That she hadn't meant to do it? The words died before they even reached her lips; she couldn't even tell that cheap lie to herself. No matter how ignorant she had been, Maddie had made the choice intentionally. She was, as always, methodical, complete, and relentless. To do anything else went against the nature of a scientist. The only flaw had been her faith in her existing knowledge—in the established theorems that limited her view of ectoplasmic entities to simple ghosts. It wasn't that she had been ignorant; rather she had known the subject too well.
"I'm not usually this... wrong," she began haltingly.
Phantom turned and stared at her. "Was that supposed to be an apology? If it was, it sucked."
Maddie shook her head. "All I'm trying to say is that I realized I've made a mistake, and—"
"Mistake?" He burst out, cutting her off. "You melt me, you electrocute me, you make me fight ghosts, you cut off my freakin' hand, and you want to pass it off as a mistake?"
But it was a mistake. A terrible, near-irreversible one, but from her point of view, it had been so easy to fall into that mode of thinking. Ghosts were never supposed to be this complex, this real. It had never occurred to her to look for such a thing. The scientific method had worked in the end, giving her the answer she was looking for. Just not before Phantom, this not-quite-child, had suffered for it.
"Stop that!" He snapped, face twisting with an ugly sort of pain. "Don't call me that when you—" he stopped short. "No... no. I know you don't get it, but I don't want to hear it like that. To you, I'm just... Phantom. Please, just Phantom."
Phantom tucked his arms into his lap, as if protecting them from her sight. Even though she knew he was taller than she was, he looked small, almost transparent. The harsh lighting of the lab washed out his black jumpsuit to a dull gray, driving the shadows out from every bony angle of his thin frame.
"I'm sorry," she offered tentatively.
"Yeah, well. That doesn't make much of a difference now, does it?"
Maddie winced at the bitterness in Phantom's tone. She had to take a deep breath to keep her voice even as she responded. "No, I suppose it doesn't."
She got up and walked away, crossing her arms tightly. Her eyes fell on the lab table, where the jar with Phantom's hand still sat. Maddie unscrewed the lid and pulled it out, looking at it critically. Her dissection had left incisions that were deep but neat, and now that the pins no longer held them open, they were nothing but narrow green fissures in the flesh. The initial cut severing the hand was clean, giving credit to her sharp instruments. Even more, there was a weird tension in the muscles, and every now and then an involuntary twitch, that made her suspect it wasn't nearly the lost cause Phantom believed.
She turned to Phantom. He was watching her with raw fear in his eyes. Maddie pulled her chair right up next to him, stunned at her own daring. She set the hand in her lap and held out her own. "Give me your arm."
His gaze fixed on the hand that lay limp and dead white on her lap, still damp from the suspension fluid. "Or what?"
Maddie closed her fingers protectively around it. Had her threats been so commonplace that he'd come to expect them? "You may not believe me, Phantom, but I'm trying to help you. I could make you do what I want, but I won't. Not this time. Would you trust me, please?"
Phantom studied her; a calculating look, weighing her words. "What are you going to do?"
"Do? Nothing." She reached out slowly and carefully took his injured arm, resolutely ignoring the way Phantom stiffened at her touch, how the other hand gripped the edge of the table so hard the knuckles turned white. Still, he didn't pull away. "You're going to take it back."
Maddie unfastened the tape and began to unwind the bandages.
"What fascinated me about your hand was its corporeality," she explained, speaking in a calm tone to soothe her own nerves as much as Phantom's. "It's so heavily infused with ectoplasm that the physical aspects are disguised, but the structure is all there. While that quality allows it to exist independently from you, it has no core to make it 'run'; any sensation you were getting from it was just residual energy."
She paused as he flinched and hissed; here the gauze was heavily caked in dried ectoplasm, gluing it to the wound. Maddie patiently worked it loose.
"Your ectosignature, which was exactly in sync with that energy, allowed you to stay in communication. But it gradually fell out of sync with your natural rhythm."
The last piece of gauze fell away; Maddie examined this side, too. It hadn't fared as well as the part she'd dissected, ironically. It was darkly bruised, raw and ugly. Most of the scabs had peeled off with the bandages, leaving the torn flesh a dull, gelatinous green. The bone gleamed green-white within the mass of exposed muscles. Maddie swallowed hard; it wouldn't be easy, even if she was right. It might be too little, too late. But she had to try.
Keeping a light but firm grasp on his wrist, she picked up the hand and held it a few inches away from the severing point. Phantom gasped as his aura sent wispy white tendrils toward the hand. A green spark leapt from his wrist to the severed appendage, crackling across the skin.
Maddie breathed a sigh of relief; she'd been right after all. "See? It's part of your 'artifact'. It wants to be reconnected." She pressed the hand against the wrist, closing the gap. "All you have to do is reclaim it."
Phantom looked up at her with wide eyes. "How?"
"Flare your aura so that it surrounds the hand. It should... it will reactivate the dormant energy in its ectoplasmic structure and allow your core to reconnect with it."
Phantom's brows furrowed in concentration. His aura was barely more than a weak glow in comparison to his usual healthy brilliance, but as she watched it slowly brightened. It flared briefly, bathing his wrist and arm in white light, but the hand stayed dull, unlit and unmoving.
He shook his head, breathless even from that small effort. "I don't know if I can."
"Remember when you were fighting those ghosts? You focused your aura to strengthen your punches. It's the same principle." She touched his shoulder. "You can do it. Try one more time."
Phantom gritted his teeth and closed his eyes. His aura sparked and flickered like a failing bulb. Then it flared brightly, rushing to cover his palm and fingertips. Light shone out of all the cuts and wounds, and the fingers flicked madly for a moment, then went still.
Phantom let up, panting, sweat pouring down his face. A thin white glow surrounded the hand. Maddie let go. It stayed.
"It... worked?" Phantom stared at the hand, raising it in front of his face. He flexed his fingers gently, then winced as they spasmed. "Kind of."
"It will take time to resynchronize with your ectosignature again. The severed part should... heal. In time." He may not have the living cells to recreate tissue, but the natural resilience of ectoplasm and its function as connective tissue should compensate.
"I... " He closed his eyes, cradling the hand against his chest. "Thank you."
Maddie felt her throat tightening again. "This may not repay you, but at least some of the damage is undone."
"It's a start," he agreed, giving her, for once, a genuine smile. With a pang she realized that it was probably the last time she would ever get to see it.
Maddie's gaze dropped to the floor. She didn't want to see the expression on Danny's face when he realized what she meant. "It was all I could do."
"All you could do?" he echoed, uncertainty and a hint of fear in his voice. This was the part she'd been dreading. Phantom was beginning to understand.
"I still haven't discovered what's putting a drain on your ectoplasmic energy," she said briskly, standing up and moving to the desk. Maddie dropped the dirty bandages into the trash, then picked up one of her notebooks and started paging through it.
"You're leaving, aren't you?"
"It's possible that your material traits need some kind of supplement to maintain their mass— although the ectoplasm itself should act as a preserving agent. It's prevented any decomposition so far, and that should be an ongoing process."
"Are you going back home? To Amity Park?"
Jack, Jazz and Danny were waiting for her. She couldn't wait to see them again. Maddie had become more than homesick in the past few weeks; she had come to realize just how completely she relied on Jack... no, on her entire family to sustain her. Creatively, intellectually, and emotionally, she was incomplete without them. It was time to go home.
"It's possible extreme expenditure of energy on your part or severe loss of ectoplasm could destabilize that aspect; you don't have any way to create new cells like a real body, and ectoplasm can only restore the ghost side of your physiology."
"What's gonna happen to me?"
She wouldn't be sorry to see the last of this cold, controlling government hideaway. She should never have agreed to come to this place. Her only regret in leaving was Phantom. He never should have been here, either. He'd never asked for any of this. He might not be her Danny, but his consciousness didn't make that distinction. To think of Danny trapped in this place... it was unbearable. Maddie couldn't think about it.
"It's feasible that haunting Amity Park allowed you to absorb enough free-floating matter to compensate for injury. In the controlled environment of the lab, you wouldn't have that option, thus the physical degeneration."
She needed to sit down and have a long talk with Danny. He'd hidden this from all of them. He'd borne the burden of what amounted—intended or not—to a ghost attack alone. They had made no secret of their uncompromising stance on ghosts. Had they gone too far, and estranged one of their own children? Had he been so ashamed that one was carrying his identity? She didn't know what had happened to her own son, and that distressed her deeply.
"Dr. Fenton... "
"A possible cure might involve infusing your environment with the appropriate substances, or... " Maddie paused, looking at Phantom as a strange thought occurred to her. "Do you ever... eat? Are you hungry?"
Phantom dropped his shoulders and sighed, fiddling with his fingers. "No, I'm not hungry. I'm just... worn out. Tired. Really, freakin', unbelievably tired." He smiled a little. "Now coffee, that I could go for."
"Coffee has no nutritional value."
"It was a joke, geez. Anyway, that's not what I need. I feel like I could sleep forever, and everything hurts, and I probably couldn't lift a pencil right now if I tried, but I just need to go home." An edge of pleading crept into the words. "Please Dr. Fenton, tell me you're taking me home."
Maddie sighed, closing her notebook. "You are, technically speaking, property of the state."
"Property?" he echoed, disbelief in his voice.
"I don't have any legal claim in what to do with you. My position here was always only temporary."
"Does that mean I'm stuck here forever? I get passed off to another scientist so they can cut a few more pieces off of me? How can you let that happen?"
"I don't have a choice!" Maddie snapped, and suddenly realized she was shouting. She turned back to the lab table and set down her notes, speaking quietly. "There's no way the GIW will give you up."
"You're... yeah, you're right. That's probably true." He swallowed hard and looked up at her. "When?"
"Will I see you again?"
Maddie pulled away the desk chair and raised the glass between them. "I'll... come and say goodbye."
I wrote an alternate version of this chapter from Danny's point of view. I'll probably post it as a oneshot soon!
Artwork by Kurapilka on Tumblr.
Chapter 16: The Right Regrets
Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.
- Arthur Miller
Agent L was waiting for her at the elevator. Maddie slowed, adjusting the bulky device in her arms while trying not to spill coffee on the agent's polished black shoes.
"You seem to forget that you are not unobserved, Doctor Fenton," the tall man said, frowning down at her. "You reattached the entity's hand. Why?"
Maddie took a slow, deliberate sip of her coffee. This was thin ice she was treading, and she knew it. The GIW had made it quite clear that they would have zero tolerance for sympathy toward ghosts. When she first arrived, she'd found that reassuring. Now... not so much.
"I had no further need to study that particular part of... the entity's anatomy."
Agent L crossed his arms. "You could have simply disposed of it."
This might have been more disconcerting if she hadn't just had the exact same conversation with the faculty head. Maddie sighed and pulled out her best 'authoratative expert' voice. "As I'm sure you have observed, Agent L, Phantom has seriously destabilized. Something had to be done."
"And you believe that this," it was almost a sneer, "gesture would reverse the effects?"
Maddie's grip on her mug tightened. "There is evidence to support loss of mass as a contributing factor, yes. I'm taking steps to ensure that you have a subject to study once I've left."
"So you say. But then you filed a request with our head scientists to put the entity in stasis; this will delay our access to him considerably."
Agent L was well-informed, whatever else he may be; she'd cleared the procedural paperwork less than an hour ago. It had taken her the entire morning to convince the faculty that it was in their own interests to preserve Phantom, despite the obvious disadvantages of the current situation. The supervisor seemed to take it as a personal affront; hatred for the halfa ran deep among the GIW.
"Phantom has degraded from a level seven to a level four. This condition is serious." The agent glared through his shades, but Maddie stared him down. "If you don't prevent further damage, you will lose him. That's not what you want, is it, Agent L? You've invested so much time and money into capturing this single ghost. It would be an embarrassment to all parties if such an asset was destroyed through sheer carelessness, don't you think?"
The agent bristled. "Your contract does not allow you to—"
"My contract," she interrupted firmly, "states that Phantom is to be handed over at the end of my term, not a moment before. I will do my job, Agent L. You can be sure of that." Maddie brushed past the agent and stepped into the elevator. She kept a polite smile stretched across her face until the doors closed.
As the lift glided downward, Maddie held the mug to her temple, letting the warmth in the smooth ceramic ease the tension headache she could feel coming on.
What was she doing? She ought to tell them everything; if they knew about his artifact, if they understood that he was more than a ghost... except that she had a terrible suspicion it would only make things worse for Phantom. He was a powerful paranormal entity, but still just a ghost to them. If they realized just how unique he actually was, then his chances of ever being released would drop to zero. Worse still, what if they attempted to repeat the experiment? Maddie shuddered. No, this secret had to remain with her, for now.
She fingered the cool steel corners of the device in her arms. This was at least something she could do for Phantom. It gave him his best chance at surviving the next few weeks. Maddie didn't know how, but this imprisonment was slowly destroying him. Either she had to figure out a solution to his deteriorating condition and somehow coerce the GIW into implementing it, or arrange for his release. Or rather, as it was highly unlikely they'd ever let go of him willingly, his escape.
Maddie laughed silently at the thought.
Just days ago, she wouldn't have even been able to imagine a scenario where she, a ghost hunter, plotted to release a ghost. Yet that's exactly what she found herself doing as the floors ticked by. Surely there had to be some way, some escape route even from this technological fortress. A physical break-in from the outside would be impossible; the facility was seated deep within bedrock, thousands of feet below sea level. This elevator, as far as she could tell, was the only access to the lowest floors.
Maddie eyed the security camera sidelong. It was temperature-sensitive and alerted the guards to all paranormal fluctuations in temperature. There were dozens more just like it in the hall and the lab itself, along with state-of-the-art motion-tracking lasers and impenetrable sheets of ecto-proofed steel. It must have cost the government a small fortune, but the ghost labs were utterly impenetrable.
The elevator pinged and the doors slid open. Maddie handed her badge to the guard and watched him carefully study first her, then the photo ID before scanning the barcode and handing it back. She had found this amusing the first dozen times, then frustrating. Now it only served to underscore the complete impossibility of Phantom making an escape.
Even aside from the guards, the electro-magnetic field did its work all too well. The device was devastatingly effective; it essentially crippled a ghost, keeping them tangible and incapable of projecting energy. Phantom would be faced with the best of the GIW with no shields, no ectoblasts, vulnerable to even ordinary weaponry. Maddie's eyes were drawn to the faint green stains on the concrete floor as she walked down the hall. No. He couldn't get out. Not that way.
She would have to come back. They had cut her time short by more than three weeks. If she could find a loophole in their dismissal clause, there might be a way to guarantee her return and further access to Phantom. With that time, with a chance to plan in advance from the outside, she might be able to pull it off. Just not yet.
Maddie pulled off her glove and pressed a palm onto the scanner. For now, this was all she could do.
The moment the door opened, Maddie was assaulted by a cacophony of alarms from the console. She dropped the cube and her coffee onto the desk, reaching to shut off the ear-splitting sirens, her eyes already scanning each screen in quick succession. Every one of Phantoms' readable stats had gone haywire; his aura was failing, his ectosignature unstable and erratic, the energy readouts of his core had plummeted.
What could have happened? Maddie looked up and realized that the supposedly ecto-proof glass somehow, unbelievably, was damaged. A spiderweb of cracks radiated from a spot right at shoulder height. Maddie stared in disbelief; it must have taken a massive amount of concentrated power to overcome the ecto-proofing qualities of the glass. That kind of crazy stunt would exhaust even an ordinary, healthy ghost. Phantom, who despite all her efforts kept fading...
Maddie sped through the controls to lower the glass, not even bothering to activate the table. Phantom was in no shape to fight her; not anymore.
She stepped into the enclosure and knelt beside him. Phantom looked, if at all possible, worse than she'd imagined. The ghost lay sprawled on his back, one leg tucked under awkwardly as if it had given out on him mid-step, eyes screwed tightly shut. He was breathing in sharp little gasps, as if his lungs were too weak to draw in air. Maddie couldn't understand. He didn't need it—it couldn't help, but still the motion went on and on, struggling vainly to replace what had been lost.
His aura was gone. Maddie couldn't detect even the slightest sheen of light. Without that bright unearthly glow, he looked completely and utterly human. Ghosts began to lose shape and structure as they weakened; Phantom, though little more than skin and bones, was still so solid, so real. He looked like a discarded doll, or a broken child.
She turned over his undamaged hand and found it bruised and bloody. Most of the skin had been torn off the knuckles. The fingers moved slightly, brushing her hand.
"Hi," he said between breaths.
"What have you done?"
There was the barest flicker in those green eyes. "I'm... getting out... "
"Phantom, no. Look at you." He'd destroyed himself. As she watched his skin blurred in and out of focus, tiny wisps of green vanishing into the air. The only reason he hadn't disintegrated already was because of his uniquely physical properties.
"Give it... minute... "
It took more than a minute, but slowly his breathing eased and the aura faded back in ever so slightly. Maddie knew it wouldn't last. Something had to be done, and quickly.
"Listen to me," Maddie said urgently. She held up the device in her hands. "You have to go in here."
He blinked at it, slow to comprehend. "A cube... Cujo?"
"No. This one's empty, just for you. I've convinced the faculty head that you be should put away for the time being to allow you to stabilize. They'll give you at least a little time. I filled the rest of the space with pure ectoplasm. If you absorb it for long enough, it should strengthen you. Help you get back to normal."
"Normal? Me?" Phantom was too weak to laugh, but his shoulders shook with silent humor.
It was a small hope, and not a sure one at that. He hadn't responded to any ectoplasmic treatments thus far. There was a slight chance that total immersion would at least slow the deterioration; added to the physical containment, where no ectoplasm was allowed to escape, it might even halt altogether. It wasn't a cure, but it would give him a chance at surviving for a few more weeks. A reprieve was all she could give him for now.
She set down the cube next to him and reached for the activation button.
"I can't. You're already destabilized."
He shook his head, turning ever so slightly to level a glare at the device. "Hate those things. It's like…nothing. Your mind works, but you can't hear or feel or touch, or... anything. It's a void. It sucks."
"You've been caught before?"
His eyes crinkled into a smile. "Some people…can't aim."
Maddie felt a surge of anxiety. Why was he laughing? Didn't he realize what was happening to him? What it would be like once she left him and the others began their work? "Destabilization is serious, Phantom. You aren't recovering, you're getting worse. If something doesn't change, that's it. You'll die."
The smile vanished. "Don't you mean cease to exist?"
Maddie winced, cursing her slip. "I mean I don't want you to suffer."
"Too late to worry about that, isn't it?"
Of course he was angry with her; it would have been stranger if he wasn't. She couldn't fight with him now, not when time was so precious. "Phantom, please. This is all I can do for you."
Some of the turmoil must have shown in her face, because his stormy look softened. "Alright. Just... just not yet, okay? Give me a couple of minutes."
Maddie sighed but relented, pushing the device aside.
They sat in silence. Small sounds filled the space; the distant rumble of air circulating through the ventilation ducts overhead, the faint but persistent whine of the hard drive, the tap of her fingers against the hard floor. Maddie had forgotten to put her glove back on after the hand scan, and the exposed nails made the beats sharp and loud. She moved her hands to her lap, and ended up clasping them tightly. She stared down at the intertwining fingers. Flesh and rubber. White and black. Human and... maybe a little less than that.
"I wonder if the sky's clear?" Phantom said at last, gaze fixed on the ceiling. "I bet the constellations would be incredible up there."
Maddie looked at him, surprised. Though maybe she shouldn't be; her Danny loved the stars with a passion. At ten years old he'd spent an hour earnestly listing all the reasons that they should be inventing a personal spaceship instead of a ghost portal. When he turned twelve they'd sent him to his first space camp, and he'd been back every summer. From when he was small they'd curl up on the roof at nights and stargaze together.
The last time hadn't been all that long ago. Danny was usually out with his friends, but it was mother's day, and there was a new moon, and for a change he gave in to her pestering and agreed. He'd laughed at her for setting up two hours before dark, but then took the coffee she'd poured for him and stretched out his long legs into a comfortable sprawl across the deck. They'd spent hours just talking. Once the twilight deepened, they'd taken turns spotting constellations. Even after all that time, he hadn't forgotten any of them.
"You know I've been to space?" Phantom said softly, conversationally. As if these weren't the last words between them. As if they were just waiting on the roof for the sun to set.
"Really?" Her Danny would burn his last comic book for that kind of chance.
"Yeah. I didn't get much time to enjoy it since, you know, saving the world came first, but man, the view. It's incredible to have that much just... space around you. I'll never be an astronaut, but that's got to be the next best thing."
It would be a long time until Phantom even caught a glimpse of the sky again, if ever. "I'm sorry."
He shrugged and closed his eyes. "It's daytime anyway."
Phantom was almost as bad at lying as Danny. Maddie knew that undertone of longing, one that was filled more and more with resignation as her Danny watched his grades slip further and further. Unless he pulled off a spectacular senior year, he was out of the running for NASA. Her Danny who forgot all about acting cool when you mentioned aerodynamics. Who loved the open sky more than anything; who hated cramped spaces and being closed in.
Maddie looked at the cube; it was clunky and oversized compared to the thermos, but still barely over a foot square. "Why do you have to be so... "
Phantom's lip curled up in a sardonic half-smile. "Sentimental? Weird?"
"So Danny." Maddie reached out and stroked his hair with her bare hand. It was cold, of course, but surprisingly soft. It would have been softer if it wasn't matted and snarled with ectoplasmic blood.
Phantom looked up at her. "What would you tell him, if he was here?"
She gave up on running her fingers through the tangled strands and smoothed them down instead. "I'd tell him it was going to be okay."
He closed his eyes, leaning into her touch. "Liar."
Maddie would have given her right arm to prove him wrong. She had to fight to keep her voice steady. "Humans do that, Phantom. When the truth doesn't bear thinking about."
"Not so different from ghosts after all."
He was wrong; it was worse. Ghosts knew only their obsessions; while they might be trapped by that drive, it was all they needed. Humans could believe a delusion, but their reality would never change. Sooner or later truth would invade their attempts to deny it. Lies only delayed. Life went on uncaring, no matter what you believed.
Maddie glanced up at the clock; Agent L would be waiting to escort her to the car. She'd held off for as long as she could, but they were out of time. "Are you ready?"
Phantom took a deep breath, closing his eyes momentarily. He opened them, and the earlier softness vanished, leaving only steely determination. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm ready."
She reached for the button once more.
Before she could touch it, Phantom's hand whipped up and grabbed her wrist. With a strength he shouldn't have had, he jerked her close so that they were face to face. Maddie heard a crack and a clang as the tether fell from his ankle. She gasped, her heart rate skyrocketing, hunting instincts screaming at her. Stupid, stupid, never trust a ghost!
But a quiet, insistent voice overrode it. He deserves this. Let it happen. It's the least you can do.
Her hands, halfway to the weapons on her belt, froze. Green eyes looked into hers from millimeters away; she could see herself reflected in his irises.
"Sorry mom," he said, and then the face burst into green smoke, rushing into her nose and mouth in an icy flood. Her mind was filled with a cold green light, then nothing.
She blinked. Nothing?
Maddie looked around the empty lab, utter confusion replacing her fear. She was in the same place she'd been seconds ago, in her right mind, unharmed as far as she could tell. Maddie looked at the clock; only a matter of seconds had passed. The only difference was an icy sensation that had settled deep into her chest. She put her hand to her breast, a little shocked when it moved so readily at her own volition.
Phantom was inside her, but he had not possessed her. He had bypassed the electro-magnetic field's restrictions by dissolving his body instead of attempting to go intangible. She could feel it—him—in her lungs, like a breath of cold, foggy air.
A dozen conflicting thoughts and feelings passed through her mind with that realization. It was invasive, foreign, cold; her skin crawled with the idea. At the same time an irresistible thought, growing more defined with every moment, formed in her mind. This could work.
Her suit had thermo-regulating qualities. It could mask Phantom's presence; allow him to pass the thermal cameras undetected. With possession it would have been impossible; a ghost taking over the nervous system of a human made subtle but distinct physiological changes that would never pass the GIW's rigorous screening methods. But this was different. He wasn't actively emitting spectral energy. He hadn't overlaid her physical form at all. It was the difference between contracting a virus and simply being a carrier. Maddie knelt, staring into space, and it was hope and excitement that made her breath catch in her throat this time.
This... this could work.
She picked up the containment cube. Phantom could have just as easily gone in there; none of the scanners in the room, she was sure, had been able to tell the difference. Otherwise dozens of alarms would already be going off. The raw ectoplasmic mass in the containment cube would be indistinguishable from a ghost. The GIW would have no way of knowing Phantom hadn't been placed in it, and under her recommendation they wouldn't try to extract him for some time.
They wouldn't find out. Not for days, even weeks. More than enough time for Phantom to get away. To survive. To be free. Her hands tightened around the hard steel edges of the containment device. This could work... if she dared to try it.
Maddie knew there were consequences. They would find out eventually, and then it would be almost impossible to hide her part in it. She might never work for the government again. That wasn't the only way they could attack her, either. The Fentons could be blacklisted. Defamed. Any number of ugly tactics. It would affect not just her but Jack, and through them, Danny and Jazz. Was it worth taking all that risk for a ghost?
Except that he wasn't a ghost; he was a halfa. In a way, he was Danny. Wasn't that enough?
Maddie set aside the cube and reached for the shackle. She traced with her finger the groove in the hard, supposedly ecto-proof metal where it had broken. It was worn down with scratches from something hard and jagged—maybe a piece of debris? It would have been easy for Phantom to get one during the lab accident. The uneven scrape marks told of hour upon hour of working at the metal.
Suddenly her own hesitation seemed absurd. She'd spent the last few hours racking her brain for a way to get him out, and now Phantom had given her that chance. Of course this would work. It had to.
Chapter 17: False Face
False face must hide what false heart doth know.
- William Shakespeare
Maddie found it hard to focus as she walked gingerly out of the lab. Breathe. Shallowly, quietly. Look natural. She shuffled the armful of notes and the cube onto one arm and unclipped her badge, handing it to the guard at the elevator. He glanced up at her to do his habitual examination of her face; Maddie decided that smiling would be pushing it and settled on trying to look bored.
It was a... weird sensation. That was the only way to describe it. In her early college years, Maddie had been a smoker. Only her sensei's silent, oppressive, relentless disapproval had moved her enough to quit. Of course, since she never did anything by halves, Maddie had given it up cold and plunged headlong into a long, miserable month of withdrawal. She'd decided even while her body still craved it that she'd never smoke again. Maddie prided herself on being strong and independent; nothing should ever have that kind of hold over her, especially not some chemical substance.
She remembered well that heavy, filled feeling of smoke settling deep into her lungs. This was almost exactly the same. There was a cold bite to it, like menthol, and a weird electrical buzz as if she was touching a powerful battery. Maddie resisted the urge to laugh; Jack would never believe this.
"You can move on, Dr. Fenton." Maddie blinked and looked down at the badge the guard was holding out for her.
"Thank you." She meticulously re-pinned it to her lab coat, stepped inside and let the elevator doors close. One down, but that had been the easy part.
"You should be pleased with your work here Dr. Fenton," the head of the Paranormal Hazardous Materials Division said as he typed information into a console. "The range of data that you've managed to acquire in such a short time is remarkable."
"It has been an enlightening experience," Maddie said carefully. She wasn't sure exactly how much of her interactions with Phantom had been recorded; they didn't seem suspicious of her, but she couldn't take chances.
She was very much aware of the three foot thick quarantine doors behind her that could be dropped at any moment, not to mention two automatic motion-sensitive laser mounts in each corner of the room. Maddie was entirely at the mercy of this balding, stubbled man and his two assistants.
"Our readings say there was some damage to the containment cell. Did you have any trouble transferring the entity?"
Maddie set the cube down and pushed it across the man's desk, the light indicating occupancy clearly visible. "Nothing I couldn't handle."
"Spoken like a true ghost hunter," the man nodded in satisfaction.
Maddie watched as one of the assistants unlocked a massive, vault-like door in the back of the room and swung the thick steel door wide. The room behind it depressurized with pneumatic hiss, sending out a wave of frosty air. Each compartment was marked only by a number; between that and the cold, it seemed inescapably like a morgue. Maddie shivered and her breath clouded in front of her; was it a reaction to the cold, or had Phantom somehow detected other ghosts hidden behind the endless rows of steel doors?
Maddie gave the man sitting at the desk a nervous glance. He was watching the assistant work and hadn't seemed to notice. The man heaved himself out of his chair and lumbered across the room to the vault. He ran a stubby finger down the rows of drawers, mumbling to himself as he searched. The finger landed on 0013. He nodded, taking a key from the crowded ring on his belt.
The second assistant pulled on a pair of thick black hazmat gloves and picked up the cube from the desk. As the division head slid the drawer open, the younger man carried the cube carefully across the room and deposited it inside.
Maddie saw frost creep over the device even as they shut the drawer. Ghosts might be more efficient in extreme cold, but it had its drawbacks. If Phantom really had been in there and somehow made it out of the cube, the hyperactivity of his ectoplasm in the subzero atmosphere would have made it impossible to reform into a solid mass. It was a simple but effective way to failsafe the containment method. There would have been no way out.
"Specimen is secure," the division head said. Then he breathed a sigh of relief, settling back into his well-worn chair. "I'm glad that's done. I'd hate to be responsible if that thing got loose."
"Phantom?" Maddie asked, thrown by the reaction. Was he referring to the same ghost? By the end, Phantom had barely been able to lift his head. "I don't think he'd be much of a threat now."
One of the assistants gave her an incredulous look. "Not a threat? It was practically to the point of disintegration and still made a crack in triple-reinforced glass. That's two containment units it's cost us."
"I knew we should have gagged it," his companion muttered.
"Not all of us are qualified ghost hunters." The division head flashed her a grin yellowed by decades of unwashed coffee stains. "I'll do my research on the safe side of an ecto-proof steel door, thank you."
The first assistant leaned back in his chair. "Dr. Fenton, do you think you could whip us up a good muzzle before we have to take this thing off ice?"
"That's not a bad idea, Frankie." The older man chuckled, reaching for his coffee mug. "You can always count on Fenton tech to restrain, contain and maim."
"Hey, that's pretty catchy. You should make that your jingle, Dr Fenton."
Maddie felt flushed despite the chill that clung to her as she walked away. She wanted to break something. Violently. Preferably one of those men's heads.
Restrain, contain, and maim? Fenton Works was a resource for highly advanced, cutting-edge scientific tools for paranormal research and practical applications of ecto-energy. To reduce it to such crude terms... and then to say it like a compliment! Maddie had invented ghost hunting equipment out of necessity. At first so that she could acquire the specimens needed for her research, and then for defense as ghosts became a very real threat to Amity Park, her family, and herself. The Fentons provided protection and furthered scientific knowledge. They weren't some one-stop shop for ghost-hating maniacs.
And the way they spoke so clinically about Phantom... It was hard to believe those people had been studying the same information as her. True, she had left out some key information, but Phantom's unique complexity had been evident from the start. How, after all this, could they still speak of him as if he were an ordinary ghost, driven simply by aggression? As if he were some... some thing?
Maddie slowed. Her angry footsteps echoed into nothing in the empty hall.
It, not he. An idea she'd drilled into her own thinking until it felt self-evident. Something she'd clung to even when all the facts spoke otherwise. Maddie had been so comfortably, arrogantly, obstinately right that she'd lost her fundamental ability as a scientist to adapt to new information. She'd used her knowledge as an excuse to pursue her own paradigms instead of seeking the truth. Maddie glanced back, anger fading even as her anxiety heightened. Those scientists weren't speaking out of cruelty; it was ignorance. And that? That was more frightening than anything the GIW could throw at her.
The chill curling in her lungs forced her to move forward. Maybe things needed to change, maybe even paranormal science itself. For now she had to keep moving. Phantom was depending on her.
There wasn't much to pack; her clothes had never left the suitcase. Maddie swept a few toiletries into their case and settled it in among the clothes. She retrieved the ecto-gun from under the pillow, locked the safety, and tossed it in as well. Stacking up her notebooks, Maddie looked around, checking the cramped, sparse room for any stray belongings. Her eyes fell on the mirror on the back of the door.
Curious, she set the stack of notes on the bed and walked up to it. She had been doing an exceptional amount of self-examination lately, Maddie thought wryly. But this time it wasn't her own reflection she was looking for. Violet eyes studied her critically, searching for the slightest hint of Phantom. Nothing. Not even a trace of green in the back of her eyes, though her unnaturally cold breath fogged up the glass.
"Fascinating," she murmured, reaching up to wipe away the condensation. Phantom had managed to find the perfect disguise. It was nothing short of incredible.
All ectoplasmic beings shared the physiological capability of transforming from semi-solid to a near-gas. Most Fenton containment devices relied on this principle: the thermos, the fenton weasel, even the cube. Its technology enforced a change from solid to gas by ionizing and deconstructing all complex molecular elements while the ghost's ecto-electric core stayed intact, held within this highly conductive, condensed cloud of ectoplasmic matter. When no longer compressed, the molecules would realign as dictated by the ectosignature's powerful self-image, returning it to its original form.
Few ghosts had this ability by nature; there was a particularly elusive one in Amity Park, a female with long dark hair, that employed it frequently. It was a rare specialization, and not an easy one at that. Ghosts took shape through their own ideation of self; to turn to smoke, they had to temporarily abandon that strong self-perception. Thanks to his dense, corporeal human physiology, Phantom would have found it even more difficult.
It would take an incredible amount of focus to maintain that for a prolonged amount of time; Phantom must have spent hours practicing in order to pull it off. Maddie had even caught him trying once, now that she thought about it. The image of Phantom's nose snapping back to solid when he lost concentration jumped to her mind.
Focus had never been one of Danny's strong points.
Maddie pushed her notes inside her suitcase and hurried to the door. The sooner they were out of this, the better.
She found the doorway blocked by a tall suit coat, arms crossed over the immaculate white vest. "Agent L," she greeted evenly. "I was under the impression you would meet me on the first floor."
The tall agent frowned down at her. "You're pushing your deadline, Dr. Fenton. I'm here to ensure that everything goes smoothly."
Meaning he was suspicious of her. Well, he wouldn't be wrong.
"Then let's not waste any time." Maddie brushed past him and walked briskly down the hall, forcing him to fall into step behind her. Ghost or not, if this man thought he was going to intimidate her, he had another thing coming.
One advantage to the agent's presence was that it seemed to reassure the checkpoint guards. Her final security check was the easiest yet. Maddie breathed a sigh of relief as the elevator finally moved upwards, or tried to. Maybe it was her imagination, but it seemed harder to breathe. Maddie suppressed a cough; it wasn't just her lungs, either. Pressure was beginning to build in her sinuses. Earlier it had been like smoking; now she felt like she had the flu.
"Something wrong?" Agent L asked.
"I may have caught something." She sniffed, pinching the bridge of her nose to relieve some of the pressure. They needed to get out, and soon. "Not even your security measures can keep out germs."
"Not yet, Dr. Fenton." Agent L leaned forward and pressed the button for Level B13. Maddie felt the first stabs of unease; that was most definitely not the exit floor.
"What is this?" She tried not to sound as alarmed as she felt.
He raised an eyebrow at her as if it should be obvious. "The Decontamination Sector. All exiting personnel are required to undergo decontamination and screening to remove excess ectoplasmic residue and prevent any contamination of the outside world."
That could be disastrous. Maddie pulled her suitcase a little closer to her, fingers twisting on the handle. By now she was fairly confident that her hazmat suit shielded Phantom from the average detecting devices controlled by building security, but that was no guarantee he would escape notice on close inspection. "I was not informed of this."
"Is there a problem?"
Not for the first time Maddie wished she could tear off those inscrutable sunglasses. What did he know? Or was this just another routine level of paranoia for the infamously meticulous GIW? She would be forced to carry through her bluff and hope for the best.
"Of course not, Agent L. Please proceed."
At least she wouldn't have to face any of her own inventions, Maddie thought. The Fentons had never sold their ghost detecting equipment thanks to one irritatingly persistent bug they'd never been able to pin down. The devices would randomly fixate on human brain patterns instead of ectosignatures at unpredictable moments.
The scanners had been attracted to Danny in particular, locking onto him whenever he was nearby. Why would something that was designed to track ectoplasmic energy fixate on a human's significantly weaker electrical impulses? There was barely a resemblance between the two energies, it...
Maddie's mouth nearly fell open. Danny. Phantom. Of course.
The handle slipped out of her fingers and her suitcase toppled. Maddie grabbed for it, hoping Agent L wouldn't translate that as suspicious behavior. He stood stiffly as ever, gaze fixed on the door, ignoring her rather undignified scramble to catch hold of the bag as it rolled away from her. Ordinarily she would have found this irritating; common courtesy was apparently another quality frowned upon by the GIW. The sarcastic side of her mind was too busy laughing at herself, at the obvious "problem" with their scanners. She could have smacked her forehead out of the sheer, obvious stupidity of it.
Thanks to his unique creation and physiology, Phantom's ectosignature would be very close to the human brain pattern it was modeled after—Danny's. She and Jack had, in fact, used long-range scans of Phantom's ectosignature to calibrate a good part of their equipment, as they were so keen on catching Amity Park's most famous ghost. No wonder it had never worked properly. The presence of a human with a signal so similar to their primary target's ectoplasmic profile would have compromised the ability of the equipment to distinguish between human and ghost. If they'd known about the Danny/Phantom connection, they could have solved the problem years ago.
Maddie sighed as the door slid open. She used to consider herself intelligent; if the people in the screening sector were half as blind, smuggling Phantom out would be a cakewalk.
There was nothing dingy or rusted about this particular sector. Maddie was actually squinting from the glare of the impeccably waxed floor as she stepped out of the elevator and into the Decontamination sector. The whitewashed walls gleamed as if they had been painted this morning.
Maddie could see walkthrough scanners, technicians with handheld devices, armed agents, and an ominous-looking steel-reinforced glass room of unknown purpose. Aside from that and the gratuitous amount of white, it wasn't all that different from a high-security airport screening. Not that the comparison was reassuring; the Fentons had been permanently banned from Amity Park's airport years ago.
The clerk at the desk waved them in, scanning first Agent L's badge, then Maddie's. Maddie looked askance at the agent when he then stepped aside, standing behind a thick black line on the floor with his arms crossed. He simply raised an eyebrow and gestured for her to continue. Apparently lettered agents were above suspicion.
Next to the glass room stood a technician at a small control panel. He motioned her forward as the door slid open. A faint but distinct odor assaulted Maddie's nose.
Maddie gagged. "What is that smell?" It was sickly-sweet, like mold and antiseptic, and left a chalky feeling in her mouth.
"Just vaporized ectoplasmic retardant, ma'am. Don't worry; it's only toxic to ghosts."
That utterly failed to reassure her. Maddie stepped inside. Hair stood up on the back of her neck as the door sealed with a hiss. White smoke billowed in around her ankles, rising up to fill the room.
Maddie sucked in a quick breath and held it, hoping the cycle would be short. At least the smell gave her an excuse to cover her nose and mouth with one hand. She couldn't hold her breath forever, but for a long while. It was something different to do so when unprepared and without appearing to hold it.
Seven... eight... nine... ten...
The smoke dissipated and a green light came on. Maddie stepped and inhaled the stale but beautifully ordinary air, eyes watering and with that nasty chemical smell hanging around her.
Black spots danced in front of her eyes. Maddie fought to catch her breath without coughing and gasping. Martial artists trained to be able to keep their breathing steady even during heavy exercise; her lungs wanted more air, but it was her muscles that controlled them. Her head swam, but she dug her fingernails into her palm and kept walking forward. Breathe, slowly! Focus.
The next obstacle loomed in her hazy vision: A metal detector and an accompanying x-ray scanner for her luggage.
Maddie knelt down on the pretense of looking through her suitcase. It gave her the brief moment she needed to recenter herself, taking several deep breaths. It used an electromagnetic pulse to determine the presence of metals hidden on a person. That same pulse would be distorted by the electro-sensitive qualities of active ectoplasm and create a reaction, setting off the machine. It was a clever repurposing of existing technology. Now was hardly the time to admire the GIW's ingenuity, however.
Maddie's blind search landed on the ecto-gun and she pulled it out; they would probably have to inspect it anyway. She still felt light-headed, but she was able to stand and even smile politely at the technician as she handed over her suitcase.
The technician dropped the suitcase on the conveyor belt leading into the x-ray machine, then held out a plastic bin. "We'll need anything metal or ecto-powered on your person, ma'am."
Maddie thought fast as she methodically stripped herself of weaponry. She had nothing to hide in her luggage, but smuggling herself through was another story. With Phantom's presence in her body as an ectoplasmic mass there was no way she could avoid setting the metal detector off. Since there were no outer indicators she might be able to pass it off as a piece of metal from an old medical procedure. She certainly had the scars to correspond with it... as long as no one questioned why it didn't come up on the metal detector when she'd been screened on her entrance. Maddie bit her lip, reaching down for the ecto-staff in her boot. Knowing Agent L, it would be questioned. That would be the end of the line for Phantom.
Maddie heard her suitcase drop with a thump into the bin on the far side of the x-ray machine and winced, hoping she'd closed her shampoo tightly enough. The GIW should know better than to handle a scientist's belongings so carelessly. This was a lab; what if she'd had delicate equipment in there? It could have broken, or... exploded...
Maddie glanced down at the growing pile of small but powerful ecto-weaponry in the plastic bin. Even better. Maddie let her thumb brush against the ecto-gun as she placed the last of her equipment inside, just enough to nudge the safety off. Then she stepped back, offering the technician a bland smile.
"Are you sure that's all of it?" the technician grunted, staggering a little under the weight as he heaved the box full of ghost hunting equipment onto the conveyor belt.
"That's everything, yes." Maddie answered distractedly, already counting the seconds. She would have to time this just right. Five, four, three... trying to look unhurried, she walked toward the metal detector. Two... one. Maddie stepped through.
A bang and a flash drew every eye to the luggage bin. In a split second it erupted in a flurry of ecto-rays, the first gun setting off a chain reaction as weapon after weapon exploded. A blast pinged off the floor next to Maddie and she ducked and rolled behind a pile of unused bins. Only when she peered out at her distraction-turned-bomb did she realize that most of the shots were being fired by the armed agents, reducing it—and, Maddie realized belatedly, her suitcase—into a pile of flaming wreckage. Black smoke and the distinct odor of melted plastic hung in the air. Finally the shots died out, leaving a tense silence.
"Nobody approach until I get a reading on that thing!" Agent L barked out.
"I think it's dead, Agent L." Maddie stood up and brushed herself off. She could see a few scraps of paper curling up into ash, all that was left of her research notes. Phantom had better appreciate this.
"Dead isn't good enough," Agent L responded darkly. "You with the hand scanner, check it out."
A man with a high-tech rod edged closer to the bin and waved the device over the smoking remains. "Nothing but plasma and fragments, sir. Probably just a weapon misfire." The man looked at Maddie. "Ma'am, if you're going to carry such volatile personal equipment, I recommend being more careful with it."
Maddie tried to look repentant and not annoyed by the reprimand; of course she knew how to handle her own weapons. She'd built most of them from scratch herself. "I'll try to remember that."
Thankfully she'd left the more important things like her keys and wallet up at the front desk with her cell phone. Her notes she would just have to reconstruct from memory; it wasn't the first time her research had met with a fiery doom. With Jack in the lab, it was almost a regular occurrence. Most importantly, she was on the far side of the metal detectors and no one seemed to have noticed whether the device had gone off as she walked through. She was free from suspicion... with one exception, of course.
Agent L strode through the technicians as they shuffled back to their various posts. He loomed over her with all of his six-foot frame. Maddie had married a man just as tall and twice as broad; she was not impressed. "You were permitted to keep your personal weaponry on the understanding that it would comply with GIW standards."
"Oh no, I'm not hurt at all," she responded wryly. "I'm sure everything can be replaced,"
If the agent had ever known about sarcasm it had long been ironed out of him. "This will not happen again."
"I hardly see how it can; there's not much left." Maddie looked pointedly at the blackened remains of her belongings.
"You're on thin ice, Dr. Fenton."
Maddie stared at him incredulously. She had been prepared to defend herself and make excuses, but this man was jumping right into threats. He hadn't even asked her a single question. "What exactly are you accusing me of?"
"Ecto-weapons have safety measures. They don't go off at a touch."
"Are you saying I would intentionally destroy my own belongings? My clothes? My research?"
"I think you're quite capable of such a... misjudgment." He took a step forward and Maddie resisted the urge to step back. "I've read your notes. I understood them better than those useless scientists." His lip curled up in disgust. "You've been tainted by the ecto-entity. Your thinking has been compromised."
He was sharper than she'd given him credit for. "That's absurd."
Agent L leaned in until his face was just inches from hers. "Is it?"
What felt like iron bands tightened around her chest; Phantom had slipped again. Her head pounded with the added pressure. She could hardly breathe, let alone think. But Agent L and everyone else in the room was waiting for her response. She had to say something.
Maddie opened her mouth, then froze in shock as Agent L's shades clouded over. He frowned, irritated, and reached up. Maddie watched with a surreal sense of panic. If the agent touched it, he would feel that it was cold, not warm. She'd be exposed.
Maddie did the only thing she could think of: She reached out and snatched the glasses from Agent L's face.
For a moment they stared at each other. She registered in that split second that his eyes were muddy brown, small, and angry... and confused. It was the confusion that brought Maddie to her senses. He had nothing. Tainted? Compromised thinking? Every accusation the agent had brought against her had been vague and carried by a thinly veiled threat. He was blowing hot air and hoping she'd topple.
Maddie smiled. "Yes, it is absurd."
She stepped back, holding the sunglasses between her hands. Taking the deepest breath she dared, Maddie spoke distinctly and loudly, so everyone in the room would hear. "This is the most secure facility against ghosts in the United States. These are the most qualified personnel in their fields. Phantom is in cold storage ten floors away. What could he do to me? What possible motivation would I have to try something? What would I be trying in the first place?"
Maddie used the sleeve of her lab coat to casually wipe away the incriminating fog from the lenses. "Playing watchdog must get very dull for you."
She could practically see his hackles rising. "What are you implying?"
"Why are you here, Agent L? You're not a scientist like me. You're certainly not suited for a desk job." Maddie paused, taking in the angry agent from head to toe in one sweeping glance. "You're a ghost hunter."
"I'm an agent of the US government," he retorted stiffly. "I will ensure the safety of this dimension, here or anywhere else."
"You're out of your element. This is a lab, not the front 's no conspiracy, no crisis for you to take charge of... so you're trying to invent one." Maddie let her tone drop, but the room was so quiet now she was sure it carried to every corner. "The only threat here is to your ego."
"That kind of delusion is what makes you a liability to this organization."
"I'm delusional? You and your men just destroyed several thousand dollars of state of the art, specialized ghost hunting equipment—and my personal belongings—over a stray shot. If you can't tell the difference between a random ectoblast and a ghost attack, then perhaps you're the liability."
"You're in no position to make threats, Dr. Fenton."
"I have no intention of threatening anyone." She held the glasses out to the agent like a peace offering. "I only want your permission to leave this facility as quickly as possible."
The agent snatched them back and settled them on his face. "That I can give you with the utmost pleasure."
Maddie stalked past him. Agent L did not protest. The techs and agents stood aside. She felt as if she was walking on air, though it was hard to tell whether it was from her victory or oxygen deprivation. But as she passed the man with the hand scanner, a loud, incriminating, unmistakable beep blared out.
Maddie stopped short. The heavy silence crumbled into murmurs, rustling cloth and sharp clicks as every eye and every ecto-gun trained on her. She forced herself to stand calmly as the technician ran the scanner down her back, earning a series of loud, harsh beeps.
This was it. She couldn't fight her way out if she wanted to, not surrounded by twenty men and with every weapon she owned turned to slag. Maddie couldn't tear her eyes from the charred wreckage of her suitcase. The elevator waited just a few steps ahead, but closer and much more real was the sting of smoke in her eyes and the sharp scent of melted plastic.
If they decided she was possessed they would open fire. There was no way she would have a chance to explain that Phantom hadn't, in fact, possessed her; that she wouldn't have the protective ectoplasmic energy that made a possessed host able to withstand an ectoblast. They would kill her in their ignorance, and Phantom would be destroyed along with her.
"Things come apart so easily when they have been held together with lies."
― Dorothy Allison
Weeks ago she'd thrown the question at Phantom, so secure in her arrogance that he was, in fact, incapable of feeling. "Then why aren't you frightened now?"
"You can't let it get to you. Because more people might end up dead if you fall to pieces."
Disassociation. Maddie wondered if that was the source of the odd sense of calm that had fallen over her. She was precisely aware of just how much damage the ecto-guns now pointed in her direction could inflict in a matter of seconds. Her head pounded with the rising pressure of the ecto-entity inside her, and she could barely draw in breath.
Uneasy murmurs ebbed and flowed around her. They were all on edge after the false alarm with the suitcase; on edge and irritable. No one liked to be fooled twice. It would take very little provocation for that tension to break. Maddie stood very still.
"What's the readout?" Agent L's voice came from behind her, clipped but calm.
"13.8%, sir. It's a trace amount, but definitely active." As she feared, her body's mass didn't entirely shield Phantom from detection. Maddie could see the technician out of the corner of her eye; he was shifting uneasily, edging away from her.
"This level should never have made it so far through screening."
"Yes sir, sorry sir."
Maddie schooled herself into a neutral expression and slowly, carefully turned around. Under less dire circumstances it might have been funny to see every person in the room shift to follow her movements as if she was the conductor of some futuristic, deadly orchestra.
Agent L's expression was safely hidden behind his shades once more, but she could practically feel the smug satisfaction oozing off of him. He gazed down at her as if she were some insectile specimen. "I warned you, Dr. Fenton; it never washes out."
Maddie wondered if this man could ever understand. Would he accept her word that Phantom was no ordinary ghost? Even if she could prove it, would it matter to him? No matter how corporeal, how complex, how very nearly human the halfa was, Phantom remained a ghost. An extradimensional entity. A threat.
"You can't keep everything in the world untouched, Agent L," she said quietly. "You shouldn't try."
The man only scowled at her. "Hand it over."
She bristled. "If you think I'm going to give 'it' up willingly... " The whine of a dozen ecto-guns hitting full power cut her off.
Agent L hadn't so much as flinched. "We're asking nicely, Dr. Fenton. We only do that once." He drew an ecto-gun of his own and expertly slid off the safety, pointing it at her forehead. "Give up the coat. Now."
For a moment Maddie thought that Phantom had begun to impair her ears; she must have heard wrong.
"... coat?" she managed.
The agent nodded.
"You mean... " Maddie looked down at herself, scrambling to get on whatever train of thought Agent L was following. "My lab coat?"
Maddie unclipped her badge and slipped out of the plain white garment, holding it up for the technician's inspection. It was the same coat she'd worn nearly every day of her stay here, the one that despite her scrubbing was stained faintly (and in places not so faintly) with Phantom's ectoplasmic blood. She realized as she looked at it that it had somehow acquired more ectoplasm on the hem and at the knees since the washing.
"Scan it," Agent L ordered.
The device beeped as it came in contact with the garment. "11.3 % ectoplasmic matter."
"As I thought," Agent L said grimly. "It's contaminated. Get rid of it." A man with heavy hazmat gloves took the article of clothing from Maddie's hands and carried it gingerly away. Maddie watched him go with a surreal feeling.
"Any complaints, Dr. Fenton?" Agent L's eyes bored into her.
"What? No, no. I agree." She turned away, doing her best to keep the relief out of her face. "It was irredeemable."
The technician moved to scan her again. Maddie stopped him in his tracks with a withering glare. "Again? What do I have left?" She spread her hands to demonstrate the glaring lack of luggage. "My boots? The clothes off my back?"
"B-but there's still a 2.5% contamination rate unaccounted for," he stuttered, looking intimidated but stubborn.
Maddie genuinely laughed at that. 2.5%? This man had obviously never been to Amity Park. Or perhaps obsessive compulsiveness was a prerequisite for joining the GIW.
"This jumpsuit has seen more ghosts than the GIW encounters in a year. I can assure you that any trace amounts will stay that way."
"This will be sufficient," Agent L said smoothly, straightening his tie and moving past Maddie to enter a code in the elevator's keypad. Apparently the destruction of her final piece of non-latex clothing had been enough to sate his paranoia.
The silver doors slid open. Maddie stepped inside and left the decontamination sector behind.
If not for the agent standing next to her, she would have slumped to her knees in sheer exhaustion. Her head felt ready to split in two. Black spots dotted her vision. Iron band crushed down on her chest. She didn't dare to draw in more than quiet, shallow breaths even though she was dizzy from lack of oxygen.
This was an express elevator that led directly to the surface complex. That part of the facility, an unrelated government data processing center that served as a front for the more covert GIW presence, had relatively light security and no ghost-related equipment whatsoever. Leaving would involve nothing but a short walk to the parking lot. In short, she had done it. It was only a matter of time.
That might not be soon enough.
It was a physical impossibility for two different masses to occupy the same volume. Intangibility allowed ghosts to circumvent this law, slipping into the space between atoms, but they had yet to leave the protective bubble of the electro-magnetic field. Intangibility was completely impossible. Phantom had used the flexible nature of ectoplasm to convert his mass into a gas; he rested inside her lungs and sinuses like a layer of smog. If that gas abruptly became solid, it would forcefully expel the matter surrounding it to make way for the realignment of particles.
Phantom was losing his grip on the transformation. She could feel it. If he lost it completely while he was still inside her...
Breathe. Slowly. There was nothing to do but wait and hope that didn't happen. The EMF only protected the GIW portion of the facility in the underground levels. Once they were above ground, he could go intangible and this would all be over. Maddie kept her eyes glued to the red numerals above the door as the floors ticked by.
B4, B3, B2, B1... this was it.
Maddie bit back a gasp at the sudden, wrenching pain in her midsection. The elevator stopped with a jolt, and Maddie was glad for the excuse to hold the elevator railing for support. She could breathe again, but it wasn't over. It was if someone had grabbed a handful of her insides and was holding on for dear life.
Panic seized her as she realized that was probably not a metaphor. Maybe it was just a reflex after focusing so hard on staying in one form, or maybe Phantom couldn't turn invisible—though if that was so he must be hanging onto intangibility by a thread—and he knew or guessed about the agent watching her—dozens of possibilities flew through her mind, none of them good.
"Something wrong, Dr. Fenton?" Agent L was watching her through those dark, glossy shades.
Maddie tried for a smile but it became more of a grimace. "Not at all, I—"
Green flashed across her vision and fire seared up her arm into her spine, crawling with terror. Her hand, it hurt and they were going to take her, she was going to—the door slid open. Her feet moved of their own accord. She had to get out—she—A hot flash of pain shoulder made her stop short. Fingers pressed into the half-healed puncture wounds with an iron grip, sending sharp jabs of agony down her arm. But this pain was hers, and it was real. It brought Maddie back to herself.
The throbbing subsided from her fingers, leaving only a ghostly echo of the agony a second before. There was no reason to be afraid. Getting off the elevator was normal. She looked askance at the agent, who had yet to remove his hand.
Agent L frowned. "This isn't our floor."
Maddie looked at the half-dozen men in drab gray suits waiting to board, then up to the level indicator: B. Of course. The surface facility had its own basement above the sublevels.
"My mistake," she muttered, and moved to the side to allow the men to board. The shuffle of bodies momentarily cut her off from Agent L, for which Maddie was grateful. It gave her a chance to sort out her shaken mind.
What—what exactly was that? Had Phantom tried to possess her? If so it was a miserably failed attempt. Whatever he had done—was doing—had triggered some kind of empathetic response. It might not be intentional; his ectosignature was hovering too close to her neural pathways. They were resonating, her own nerves echoing the ghost's like a taut cord picking up a vibration. Maddie's knuckles tightened around the elevator rail.
This was bad. She couldn't predict or control it. If she lost control of her actions again, Agent L would be onto her for—
Trapped. The walls squeezed in on her, tighter and tighter, like the strict confines of a thermos. She needed out—she needed space. She needed to fly. She couldn't breathe—the elevator dinged, and before Maddie was aware of it she'd shoved her way through the office workers and was pressed against the doors, all but prying them open.
Maddie burst out into the sweet relief of the open hallway, panting harder than if she'd run a marathon. It wasn't happening, she told herself fiercely, but that couldn't keep her heart from racing. They felt so real... no, they were real. Just not hers. She couldn't let that fear, real or not, rule her. It would help neither of them.
Agent L pushed past the startled men, reaching under his jacket for the ecto-gun he'd pointed at her earlier. "Dr. Fenton, you're going to have to come with me."
She had to come up with something. She had to talk him down, make excuses, anything.
"I—I—" she was choking on her own words.
Then Maddie did the least rational thing she had ever done in her life: She bolted.
Maddie only ran faster. An ectoblast—he was actually firing at her?—sang past her ear as she turned the corner. She skidded around a second turn, then crashed headlong into the far wall as dizziness slammed into her like a tidal wave.
Phantom had lied to her. He wasn't hungry— he was famished. Maddie felt like her stomach had caved in—but it was a strange hunger, tied up in the awful feeling of being in the wrong place, of not belonging, of wanting—needing—home. Amity Park flashed through her mind, the faces of her family. Jazz. Jack. She had to get home. He had to—
Maddie clenched her hands into fists so hard she could feel her nails through the gloves and pushed herself off the wall. She had to stay in reality. They were still in the government building. Agent L was right behind her. She had to keep moving.
Maddie chose a door at random and stumbled through it. It led into a corridor that branched out into endless rooms partitioned into tiny squares by gray cubicle walls. It was oppressively hot and stank of sweat, dust and overtaxed, half melted computer parts.
A desk had been crammed into the hallway and labeled SECURITY. The man sitting behind it looked up from his paperwork in surprise. "Hey, you can't—"
Maddie ignored him and rushed on. Her eyes darted back and forth, finding nothing but offices, hallways, avoiding the curious gazes of paunchy office workers— There. One small door squeezed in between blocks of cubicles: A bathroom. Maddie darted inside, closing the heavy door and sliding the lock home.
They were safe for the moment. Could Phantom tell? Another sickening rush of sensations hit her. She sank to her knees, the sour odor of the grimy tile only adding to her nausea. "Phantom, please... "
Maddie didn't know if he heard her or if he'd just run out of strength, but the sharp, twisting pain in her stomach relaxed, and softly and easily as shedding a coat, the ghost slid out of her. He hovered in the air, a nebulous silhouette of green smoke. For a moment she was afraid that Phantom had pushed the transformation too far, that his core had lost its ability to return to the memory of its own shape. Then he sprang into focus, complete and corporeal.
He looked around wildly. "It—it worked?" He said breathlessly. "It actually—I mean, I figured it had to because the cube worked, so—but—" his eyes fell on her and they widened. "Are you okay? You're okay, right? It was a stupid—I could have—oh geez, are you okay?"
Maddie looked up at him from where she sat leaned against the door. Her legs weren't quite up to standing yet, so she just smiled reassuringly. "Fine. But listen—"
"Oh, good." Phantom's eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed.
"Phantom!" Maddie moved forward, but not fast enough. He crashed onto the hard tile. She yanked off her glove and felt his forehead. This was bad; he was almost warm. Maddie struggled to turn him over in the cramped space, pulling at the tangle of arms and limbs. Phantom let out a yelp that was half scream and jerked away.
Maddie pulled back, startled, and realized her fingers were streaked with fresh ectoplasm. Phantom rolled onto his back, cradling his injured hand to his chest. Maddie cringed. How could she have forgotten?
The incisions from her dissections had pulled open slightly, and gleamed with exposed ectoplasmic tissue. Black and blue bruises made an ugly pattern from fingertips to elbow. It... it was a good sign, Maddie told herself. Phantom's body had accepted the severed limb, ectoplasm was flowing into it, it would heal. But it remained a harsh reminder of the scars Phantom had suffered in this place. Scars she had given him.
Maddie gently, carefully picked up Phantom's hand. She reached for her discarded glove and slipped it over the ghost's bruised fingers. It was a poor excuse for a bandage, but better than nothing.
"Ow," Phantom groaned, scrunching his eyes shut and pulling away. At least he was awake again. She had minutes, maybe seconds before Agent L caught up with them. Maddie snatched up his other hand, earning a half-hearted squeeze in response.
"Phantom, you can't stop here." No response. "If you don't get away now, the agents will find you. They'll take you back." Maddie thought of the cold storage with its wall of numbered drawers. "There won't be a thing I can do."
She couldn't talk energy out of thin air. The fingers wrapped around hers went limp. Phantom's breathing relaxed into nothing. His gaze went glassy and unfocused. Maddie's heart jumped in her throat. This was bad. His aura was completely—Maddie blinked as a burst of white light shot out from the ghost. It formed a bright halo around Phantom's ribs, then sparked and fizzled out, leaving a dark after-image burned into Maddie's vision.
Maddie stared, trying to wrap her mind around what she'd just seen. It shouldn't have happened. It was completely impossible for Phantom to produce that kind of aura in his condition. There just wasn't enough energy there. He had barely enough to keep his minimal functions active, let alone—there, again.
The strange white glow flared up and vanished just as quickly as before. Suddenly Maddie recognized it. She'd seen it before twice, no, three times. The fight with the other ghost. When she'd electrocuted him beyond his limits. And once more, just after she had taken his hand. He'd fought it each time, and she remembered his fear. Now he didn't even stir.
Maddie squeezed the ghost's hand in what must have been a painful grip, willing those hazy green eyes to focus on her. "What's happening to you?"
Phantom squinted, lolling his head away to avoid the glare of his own aura. "Losing it," he mumbled. "Heh, finally."
That cryptic statement only served to alarm her more. "Losing? Losing what?"
"This form... ghost half... "
Nearly to the end of the story! Hang on to yer hats, ladies and gents.
Artwork in this chapter by emotigonecreative from Tumblr.
"I thought I understood what was best. I knew too little and believed too soon."
― Gloria Whelan
Maddie reached out and put her fingers through the white ring, mesmerized by its supernatural glow. It buzzed with energy, like thousands of tiny pinpricks on her skin. It was warm. Strange. Ectoplasm almost always burned cold.
She could feel the fingers still clasped in her hand warm with it, the cold leeching away. It was as if this strange manifestation of his aura was pulling every last drop of ectoplasmic power into a single spot. It hovered there, poised. Just waiting for the ghost's eyes to slide shut... to be dispersed? To die out? To flare up in one last burst of energy? And then what?
Someone rapped on the door, jolting her back to reality.
Maddie stood and snatched a handful of paper towels from the dispenser, dropping them in the sink and turning the tap on cold. Her mind raced. She had to figure this out. She had to get him moving—she had to do something—and fast.
What did Phantom mean? Ghost half? How could he lose it?
Ghosts weren't living things dependent on a functioning physiological system to survive. Their ectosignature was a self-contained code, like the DNA of a virus. It held every aspect of the ghost—personality, appearance, even memory. As long as there was some faint modicum of electrical conductivity, that ectosignature could survive and the ghost would eventually reform.
But he wasn't a ghost, was he? He was only half of one.
Maddie switched off the tap, and without the noise of the water she could hear heavy footsteps running in the hall. Agent L had already caught up to them. From the sound of it he'd brought company.
What had once so confused her about Phantom's ectosignature was its fragmented nature. It was incomplete. It didn't have the necessary information to make an ordinary ghost, let alone one so complex as Phantom. Back then she'd been looking at only half of the picture.
She dropped to her knees and pulled Phantom's head onto her lap, pressing the soggy paper towels against his forehead. Maddie wished desperately for ice. This would do nothing to stop his core from overheating; all she could hope for was to give him some relief. That wasn't enough. He had to somehow get out of here, to hide... or even possess her again, though she shuddered at the thought.
Phantom's unique dual physiology made that a dangerous prospect, at least when he was so weak. Half ghost, half reanimated human tissue. The physical half, his human body, filled in the gaps of the ectosignature and made for an incredibly complex, unified whole. Phantom's corporeal, human body contributed as much to his structure as his ectoplasmic core.
Someone knocked again, harder this time, and she heard a muffled voice calling out her name. The handle jiggled. The lock held. She could only hope it took them time to track down the keys.
She bit her lip, then shook him. "Phantom. Get up." She tried and failed to sound more authoritative than frightened.
He moaned and weakly batted her away. "Gonna sleep," he muttered, rolling onto his side.
"Phantom, you can't—Phantom!" Maddie flinched at the volume of her own voice and glanced at the door. This was an old building and the door had been constructed of solid, heavy wood, but it was by no means soundproof.
Two halves, one being. Two aspects with a symbiotic relationship. The body gave him structure and housed the more complex ecto-electric network of his hyper-developed imprint. The ghost half, the ectoplasmic matter was the source of energy that allowed him to function. It defined that imprint, gave his consciousness its defining characteristics.
Now Phantom was losing it. That meant... what, exactly?
White light threw shadows onto Phantom's face, turning those gaunt cheeks and sunken eyes into a ghastly mask. He had never looked so much like death, like the cadaver he had been created from. If he lost that other, ghostly half, was that all that would be left? A corpse?
Maddie jumped at the distinctive sound of an ectoweapon being fired. Smoke and the odor of molten steel crept under the door and she smiled grimly. Someone had tried to shoot the handle off, and succeeded in melting it instead. That gave her maybe a minute more.
It was possible that without enough ectoplasmic energy functioning as a bonding agent, the fusion might deteriorate. She remembered the way his hair had reacted when she'd removed a sample from Phantom's body; it had divided, the ectoplasm rejecting the physical matter. Without its preservative power, the hair crumbled to dust. The hand had lasted longer, but even that begun to deteriorate as the ectosignature's influence faded.
Phantom had reached new heights of paleness; his skin looked stark and white against her black glove as she pushed the bangs from his face. "You've been so brave. You just need to keep it up a little longer."
He sighed, and there was a whole month of tiredness in it. "Can't we just go home?"
If his body lost its ectoplasmic qualities even temporarily, decay would set in. Neurological pathways would degrade, cellular structures collapse. Psychoelectric information would no longer be able to mesh with physical matter. The ectosignature that remained simply wouldn't be enough to piece together a true ghost. His form, along with the ecto-electric core that defined his consciousness, would fracture and disintegrate.
In a very real sense, he would die.
Maddie stared down at the boy sprawled over the bathroom floor as her furious thoughts ground to a halt. Phantom would die.
"Phantom!" No response. The ring of light was getting stronger, brighter; she could practically see it draining away the last remnants of Phantom's energy. It was like the last flare of a match before it fizzled out. "Please, Phantom... Danny... "
"Mmm... Mom?" The familiar name seemed to have a pull on Phantom deeper than his wavering consciousness. His instinctive, imprinted personality didn't know itself as Phantom. At his core, the halfa was simply Danny. A Danny that had found himself with supernatural abilities he didn't understand, who was and was not who he thought himself to be, but still just... Danny.
A shot slammed into the door; she could feel the heat even through the wood. Smoke was stinging her eyes now, making them water and blur, turning Phantom into a shadow of grey and white in her eyes.
Maddie gritted her teeth. She might not be his mother, but he would listen to her like one.
She yanked Phantom up by the shoulders, pulling out the best mom voice she could muster in a fierce whisper. "Daniel James Fenton, you listen to me!" Phantom's eyes popped open wide and fixed on her face. "You're not out of this yet! Ghost or not, that mind in there's a Fenton, and Fentons aren't quitters."
"But—but I can't—"
"Like hell you can't!" Maddie retorted.
His mouth dropped open. "Language."
"Don't even start with me, young man. I want you to march right through that wall and don't stop until you're out of here, and safe, understand? You will not lose your ghost half, you will keep yourself together, and—and I don't want to see one hair of you visible, or so help me I'll ground you for the rest of your afterlife!" Maddie paused to let this sink in. "Now what are you going to do?"
Phantom looked terrified, but more importantly, wide awake. "Keep walking. Stay invisible."
"Good boy." On impulse she pulled him into a tight hug. He was such skin and bones. "I know you can make it, Phantom. You're stronger than you think."
He squeezed her back, with a grip that was both frighteningly weak and reassuring with its tenacity.
"Mom," he choked out, voice thick with exhaustion and fear and something else, something that was half laughter and all frustration. "It's Danny. I'm—"
They both jumped as something smashed outside the door. A few cracks appeared near the hinges.
Maddie pulled Phantom to his feet. "You have to leave. Now."
Phantom hesitated, looking torn, but as a second blow to the door sent splinters flying he pressed his lips together and nodded. The spark was back in his eyes, if only faintly. "I'll meet you back home."
"Go!" Maddie pushed him toward the opposite wall. He teetered sideways, caught himself and kept going, fading out of sight just before he passed through the wall.
"Be safe," she called after him softly. Maddie turned on the water and hastily rinsed the traces of ectoplasm off her hands. Then she patted down her hair, glanced in the mirror over the sink to ensure she looked sufficiently nauseous, and unlocked the door.
The bolt had been the only thing holding it up; it fell outwards with a shuddering groan, splintering into smoking wreckage as it hit the floor. She arched an eyebrow at the crowd of heavily armed agents outside the bathroom as if mildly surprised.
"Motion sickness is hardly a reason to break down the door, Agent L. Though I do appreciate the concern."
A long silence followed this announcement. The agents shuffled their feet, glancing at each other uncertainly. Agent L's expression was mostly hidden under his ever-present shades, but he was turning a remarkable shade of purple.
"Motion... sickness?" Agent L repeated in a strangled voice.
It was a thin excuse at best, but looking around at the exclusively male force of agents, maybe she could use their sexism to work to her advantage. "That express elevator was a bit too much for me. You should really consider repairing it... and hiring a better cook."
"Scan her," the agent snapped. "Scan everything. If there's so much a blip I want to hear about it."
Maddie watched without comment as technicians swarmed into the tiny space, waving their white plastic wands over everything, including every inch of her suit. For a few tense seconds the clicking spectrometers buzzed like angry locusts, all in vain. There was nothing to be found.
"Get out of my sight," Agent L growled. The technicians skittered away, followed more reluctantly by the agents and their weaponry.
Maddie let herself finally take a real breath as she heard the ecto-guns powering down. "Satisfied, Agent L?"
The agent gave her a withering glare. "I will be satisfied," he ground out the word , "when you, Dr. Fenton, have been removed from my facility—permanently."
Maddie smiled. "Agent L, that's the nicest thing you've ever said to me."
Maddie checked through her paperwork one last time. After all the hoops she had to jump through to get out of here, she didn't want any delays over some minor mistake. She handed the papers over to the bored-looking man behind the desk; he gave it only a desultory glance before stamping it and tossing it into a file.
"Thank you for your hard work, uh... " he glanced at the form again, "Dr. Fenton. You're officially no longer contracted to the US Government. We appreciate your service." He retrieved a paper envelope from a box under his desk and handed it to her. "Here are your personal items."
Her keys and her wallet; thank goodness they hadn't been in that ill-fated suitcase. Maddie reached into the bottom of the envelope and fished out her cell phone. Dead.
"Next time turn that thing off before you hand it in," the man added sourly. "It was ringing off the hook for days."
Maddie hid a smile, tucking it into her belt. Jack must have gotten lonely; he wasn't the only one. This whole incident had served to underscore just how much she needed to be with her family. It was a little disappointing that she couldn't call Jack up right away, but it would be even better to see all of them in person.
The driver led the way, and they stepped out of the building into the blazing heat of a desert summer. Maddie sent an anxious glance at the rocky hills beyond the chain link fence surrounding the complex. Harsh gray rock formations jutted up in uneven masses, broken here and there by patches of hot, cloudless sky and ravines bristling with tough, dry vegetation. Heat moved in shimmering waves across the parking lot, strong enough to soften the tarmac and fill the air with the stench of tar.
On such a dry summer day with little water, it was the worst possible environment for a ghost. Would Phantom survive out there alone?
Maddie sighed and stepped into the car, closing out the heat. It was out of her hands. All that was left now was to go home.
Maddie stood on the doorstep, watching the taillights of the GIW sedan vanish around the corner. She felt disappointed and a little lonely at the sight of the dark, silent house. Of course no one would know to wait up for her; she wasn't supposed to be back for another two weeks.
Maddie tucked the box of fudge she'd snagged at one of the rest stops under her arm and let herself in. She had no need to turn on the lights, navigating the familiar room with only the dim street light filtering through the windows to guide her. To her pleasant surprise she found the living room almost tidy. Maddie smiled to herself, locking the door and dropping her keys on the coffee table. Wonders never ceased; Jack had certainly earned his fudge this time.
She headed for the stairs. Danny. She wanted to see her Danny first of all, even if it was just a glimpse of his sleeping face. The impulse might be a little silly, but after all that time with Phantom—who looked and spoke like, and in a way, almost was Danny, she needed to reassure herself that her son was okay. Tomorrow they would sit down and talk about the accident, about Phantom, about everything. Tonight she just wanted to see him safe and whole and home.
Her foot was already on the first step when she noticed a sliver of light coming from beneath the kitchen door. Someone was awake after all?
Maddie paused; she heard a voice speaking and moved closer. To her surprise she realized it was her own.
"... not available at the moment, but I'll get back to you shortly!" Her recorded voicemail prattled on, oblivious to the fact that her phone was quite dead.
Maddie stepped into the kitchen and nearly jumped out of her skin as the receiver flew past her ear and smashed on the doorframe. Jack, frozen mid-throw, stared at her wide-eyed.
"Jack!" The reproach died on her lips. Something was wrong. She could see it in every line in of her husband's face.
"Maddie, you're back," he rasped in a voice that sounded strained, as if he had shouted himself hoarse. Maddie tried to respond, but the words stuck in her throat. Why was the kitchen so bare, when it was usually the center of activity? What had put such dark shadows under Jack's eyes? He'd aged a decade in a matter of weeks.
"I... I brought you some fudge," Maddie faltered. Something had gone horribly, utterly wrong in her absence.
"Fudge. Yes." That seemed to galvanize Jack, who strode up and pulled the box out of her hands, ripping open the package. He broke off a good-sized chunk of the sweet chocolate and tossed the rest aside. Then he pushed it into her hands. Maddie stared down at the fudge in bewilderment. What...
Jack scooped her up with one big arm and deposited her in the kitchen chair. He put his thick, strong hands on her shoulders and crouched down to look her in the eyes. "Mads, honey. Did they tell you anything? What do you know?"
"Know?" Maddie echoed. Her heart hammered in her throat, making it hard to form words. "Know what, Jack? What's happened? Where are our children?"
"Jazz is fine, she's upstairs." Jack paused. The awful omission from that statement turned her blood to ice.
Maddie clung to the moment; to the familiar tick of the clock and the humming refrigerator, to Jack's warm fingers that enveloped her shoulders, to the sticky fudge melting in her hands. Because she knew when Jack finished any shred of normalcy would disappear.
"It's Danny. He's gone."
Last chapter, guys! Whew. All that's left is a little epilogue... It's been fun posting this here and revisiting the story. Thanks for reading! :)
Chapter 20: Epilogue
Artwork in this chapter by DigestedHuman on Deviantart. Please read the notes at the end for important info! -Hj
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end.
- C. S. Lewis
He hadn't wanted to go.
Maddie sat at the table in her own lab, absently fiddling with some random device. She couldn't even remember if she was assembling or disassembling it.
Danny had scraped by in every class this year except PE. The teacher, Ms. Teslaff, had offered him an extra credit chance to save his failing grade by attending the annual boot camp held for the football team. It would take a month out of his summer, but Danny would be able to graduate and move on, instead of being held back a year. He'd hated the idea from the start, but for her and Jack, the choice was obvious. They'd seen him off just a couple of days before she got the call from the GIW.
Maddie remembered her amusement at Danny's disgruntled slouch, which he'd stubbornly maintained for the entire ride to school even with Jack's physics-defying driving habits. She'd hoped the fudge she'd slipped into his jacket pocket would cheer him up later.
According to the camp staff he'd been there less than a day. There had been some last-minute option to take the return bus, and he'd been on the list. Except no one remembered seeing him on that bus. No one remembered whether he got off in Amity Park. No one had bothered to make sure he got home.
A delicate circuit board snapped under her fingers. Disassembling, then.
Jack, when he'd discovered the error, had been beside himself. The school board was in an uproar. The camp staff had fallen under scrutiny for criminal neglect. Teslaff had resigned. The other boys were being questioned.
As for the GIW, according to their apologetic public relations manager none of them could be bothered to keep up with Amity Park's non-paranormal news. The number they'd given her to leave with Jack as an emergency contact had proved next to useless. The ghost research facility was officially nonexistent. All the stupid, useless bureaucratic secrecy that surrounded the GIW agency had made tracking her down impossible. They'd just run him in circles, transferring his call from branch to branch. It was only when Danny's plight had made national television, five days into the search, that anyone with authority took notice. Even after that it had taken days to extract her from the red tape.
Maddie didn't care who was to blame. Today, nine agonizing days since she'd returned, made it six weeks that her Danny had been lost.
The device in her hands was now nothing but mangled metal and plastic. Maddie sighed and tossed it in the scrap bin. Her gaze fell on the battered remains of the BOOmerang jutting out of the broken odds and ends. She'd had half a thought—more of a wish, really—to go looking for Phantom. That had been their only long-distance tracking device keyed into the ghost's ectosignature.
The battery light blinked weakly in the broken device. Jack must have worn it out long before Phantom's escape. With the electromagnetic field in place, the GIW facility would have disrupted its homing properties, rendering it useless. Even if she did manage to fix it... .
Maddie snatched up another invention and a screwdriver, prying at the outer paneling with a vengeance. She had to face reality. The GIW facility was a long day's drive from Amity Park. That was all. A ghost at its weakest should have been able to make that journey in a week. It had been nine days. There was no sign of the halfa, not even a rumor. She'd failed to save him after all. No, it was worse; he would have lived longer if she'd just left him. He would have been in the hands of the GIW, yes. But he could have survived, instead of...
The screwdriver slipped and gouged a deep scratch into the stainless steel tabletop. She pushed away the device and rested her forehead on the cold metal surface, tugging her hands through her hair.
Phantom, white hair dulled with dust, bright eyes hollowed out and dark, flesh and bones flaking away into dust. Her Danny, bloody, broken and still in the depths of some nameless ravine.
She squeezed her eyes shut, but the images wouldn't leave her.
What kind of sick irony was this, that she had to lose them both? Was it punishment for her earlier blindness, some way to hammer home just how much she had failed to see? With Phantom there was at least some sense in it, in her twisted, old way of thinking where he was "just a ghost." Her Danny? For that she could blame nothing but miserable, cruel luck.
She heard the front door shut, then cabinets banging in the kitchen upstairs. Jazz must be home.
Maddie sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose to ward off an oncoming headache. She wasn't ready to face her daughter again just yet. Jazz had taken all of this so hard. Not that it was easy for any of them, but her daughter's mood swung from weepy clinginess to snippy condemnation to black despair without warning.
Jack had always been better at getting through to Jazz, despite—or maybe because of— the traits she shared with Maddie. He'd coaxed her into helping with the search. Abstracting it into a logic puzzle, figuring out search patterns and movement hypotheses seemed to calm Jazz, settling her grief into a focused kind of sadness. Maddie could tell that she didn't believe they would find Danny. After a month and a half in the wilderness, maybe Jazz was the one being realistic.
Maddie wasn't ready to accept that option. Not yet. He was lost. He'd be found.
Maddie balled her hands into fists until she could feel the nails through her thick hazmat gloves. She had contributed—no, that was too kind. It was her direct actions that had orchestrated the death of Phantom.
She should never have pushed him so far; Maddie knew he was too weak to survive the harsh weather. She should have noticed his unique physiology sooner. She should have given the evidence to the GIW and convinced them to work with her to solve his deterioration. She should never have hurt him. She should never have left Jack behind. She should have been here for her family. She should never have left him. She should have coaxed one last goodbye out of Danny, even though he was sulking. He hadn't wanted to go.
Maddie didn't realize the phone had been ringing until it stopped abruptly. She snatched up the cell from the cluttered workspace, answering it before it could go to voicemail. It was Jack.
"Any news?" The words slipped out in one breath, a queasy combination of hope and terror.
"Nothing, Mads." Her usually energetic husband sounded tired. "We're gonna get on the helicopter, they're making another sweep of the woods."
Crushing disappointment swirled with sweet relief. She leaned back in the chair and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. They hadn't found him. No body. No Danny. Good news and bad news.
Jack was saying something about search routes and tree cover. Maddie grasped for something to say. "Tell them to check the river again. Danny's a smart boy. He'd look for water."
Maddie had never been so glad for their longtime friendship with Vlad as she was now, despite its rocky points; their old college friend had set up an open fund for the search, giving them access to the best search and rescue Amity Park had available.
"Nothing we haven't tried before, but... " Jack cleared his throat and spoke closer to his usual blustery tone. "We'll give it another shot."
"Okay." Maddie cradled the phone next to her ear, wishing she could put her arms around her husband. She should be the one comforting him; he'd been doing this for so long alone.
"Jazz says there's a chance we might have overlooked some of the smaller runoffs, so we're going to try a wider sweep this time."
"Jazz is with you? That's funny... " If both of her family members were at the ranger station, then who was upstairs? It could be one of Danny's friends, who let themselves in on a regular basis. Sam had been practically haunting the place until her mother had threatened to put her on a plane to Milwaukee unless she ate and got some sleep.
It could be an intruder. Or a ghost.
At the thought, she stiffened. Maddie gazed at the stairs leading up to the kitchen. That nauseous anticipation was back full force. Maybe even...
"Let me call you back."
She put down the phone and crept cautiously up the stairs, grabbing the Fenton Anti-Creep Stick on her way up, just in case. She peered around the corner of the stairwell.
The kitchen table was littered with slices of bread, an opened carton of orange juice, honey, and jam. It looked like someone had begun making a sandwich and given up halfway. There, sitting at the table, eating peanut butter by the spoonful straight out of the jar, was Danny.
She could see every bone in the hand that held the spoon. He was filthy, covered in grime, black hair hanging raggedly over his eyes. His other hand rested awkwardly on the table, wrapped in what looked like torn-up rags, spotted with dirt and blood. Dark, deep bags like bruises lined his eyes, and an angry, feverish blush stood out sharply on his pale cheeks.
Danny started and looked up as the anti-creep stick clanged down the stairs, fallen forgotten from her fingers. When he saw her face, he beamed.
"Hi Mom," he said. "I made it." Then he reached for a mug, looking hopeful. "Got any coffee?"
Phantom of Truth, End.
Aaaand that’s a wrap! *bows*
Thank you so much for reading this little fic o’ mine. To those of you who reviewed, thank you. I’m deeply grateful for your encouragement and feedback. :)
Many thanks to the myriad editors and helpers I had working on this fic! Most especially my beta reader from Fanfiction.net, Daniella Violet Moon. Thank you to Lunar Mothim for proof-reading, and Sapphireswimming and Sarapsys for talking plot, among others. Couldn’t have done it without ya. :D
Also a major thank you to the artists who made fanart for Phantom of Truth! If you look back, you’ll find several of the chapters now have their own artwork. Credits are in the author’s notes.
This is the end of the story, but the journey is far from over. I’m currently in the midst of a sequel titled Shadow of a Doubt. I have no plans of posting SoaD (which is shaping up to be a monster of a fic) to AO3, though that may change in the future. You can always read it here: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/9683169/1/Shadow-of-a-Doubt
Thanks again, and happy New Year!