|Chapter One||Chapter Two||Chapter Three||Chapter Four||Chapter Five||Chapter Six||Chapter Seven||Chapter Eight||Chapter Nine||Chapter Ten|
At 11:45 p.m., Ray Stantz was sitting opposite his computer at the old firehouse, scrolling through the latest E‑Mail postings from the TobiNet bulletin board. When the phone rang, he ignored it momentarily until he realized that Sheila was in Philadelphia guest‑lecturing and was therefore unable to answer the phone. With a sigh and a grumble—who, other than Sheila, could be calling this late? ‑‑Ray got out of his chair and caught the phone on the fourth ring.
Five minutes later, he was on the ground floor, extremely puzzled by the message he’d received but heeding the curt instructions he’d been given. He changed into his coveralls (noting with a tinge of pleasure that the fit was a bit baggy), loaded the proton packs into the back of ECTO‑1, threw four more pairs of uniforms into the back seat, and climbed behind the wheel of the battered but gallant vehicle.
The firehouse doors opened wide seconds after he’d touched the activator button. Seconds later, for the first time in months, ECTO roared out of the firehouse, sirens wailing and lights blazing into the sleepy streets of New York.
At 11:50 p.m., Winston Zeddemore reluctantly averted his gaze from the private lingerie modeling session taking place in front of him and answered the phone.
Three minutes later, he was making feeble excuses to the Victoria’s Secret model as he tumbled into his overcoat and hurried out the door. He reached the ground floor of his high‑rise just as ECTO came into view up the block.
At 12:01 a.m., Peter Venkman squinted at his alarm clock and, muttering a curse as he moved, grabbed the phone on the eighth ring.
Ray and Winston picked him up at Dana’s apartment twenty minutes later.
* * * * *
Passersby whirled around in surprise; policemen glanced up warily from their work, and motorists got the hell out of the way as ECTO‑1 stormed north towards Egon’s apartment.
Inside ECTO, the mood was a mixture of jubilation and nervous anticipation. Winston’s mouth was etched in a determined grin as he expertly guided his baby past the thousands of momentary obstacles that challenged every New York driver. He inwardly rejoiced in the familiar vibration of the car’s engine, the rattling and banging of all the equipment that sat atop the roof. It was like coming home again.
Ray and Peter shared Winston’s excitement, but within each of them lay a dread concern for their missing comrade. Egon’s phone call, with his odd‑sounding voice and even stranger requests, had put them all a bit on edge. Perhaps the strain of the past few months had been too much for him, and Spengler bad retreated to a more secure time in his mind. Perhaps they’d failed him when he’d needed them most. Or maybe...
Maybe something was up.
“How much longer?” Peter asked tersely from the back seat.
“Just a minute,” Winston said, pointing at a corner to his right. Janine stood there impatiently, tapping her foot and glancing down at her watch every few seconds. Then she heard ECTO and straightened, and at the sight of the battered behemoth her face broke into an excited smile. Winston stopped just long enough for her to jump into the back, then roared into the street again.
“About time you guys got here,” she said breathlessly.
“We had to stop for gas,” Ray apologized. “I didn’t think we’d be needing ECTO any time soon, so the last time I took her out I just let it slide.”
“Since when have you been taking ECTO out?” Peter demanded. “Ray, this car is for promotional purposes only! What if something happened to it? This car is priceless!”
“Geez, Pete,” Ray shrugged, “it was only for this group of homeless kids down at the Mercy Street Shelter ... I thought it might brighten their day if I took them for a quick ride…”
“A ... quick ... ride,” Peter breathed; Janine tried to hide a giggle. “Ray, we aren’t insured for that sort of thing! What if you’d gotten into an accident? What if one of those kids got hurt? We could be sued!”
“Hey, c’mon, Pete,” Winston urged; Janine was no longer smiling either. “Ray was just trying to do something nice at the spur of the moment, that’s all. Chill out.”
“Guys, we can’t afford to do that anymore,” Peter said tightly, glaring at a deflated Ray. “We’ve got a lot of money tied up in Ghostbusters, and there are a lot of opportunists out there who’d love to take it off our hands with a quick lawsuit or two. I ... we’ve worked to hard to get here to lose it on a dumb stunt.”
“You know, Dr. Venkman,” Janine said quietly. “I think I liked you better when we were poor.”
It was quiet in ECTO‑1 for the rest of the trip.
* * * * *
It was a shock to all of them when Egon met them at the door. Gone was the tired, haunted man they’d been so concerned about over the last few weeks; this Egon was alert, confident and utterly self‑assured. They were relieved to see he was feeling better, but an odd, wary feeling in the back of their minds would not go away.
“I’m glad to see you could make it,” be said as he let them inside. Then, suddenly noting the tense mood between his friends, he stared quietly at each of them. “Is something wrong?”
“Everything’s fine, Egon.” Janine came aver and hugged him tightly. “I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
He looked down at her, tenderness and regret shining in his eyes. “I...I’m glad too. Did you bring our uniforms, Raymond?”
“Uh, yeah. Here.” He handed Egon and Janine their old coveralls.
“Excellent. And you each brought your copies of Winston’s book. Perfect.” He nodded in grim satisfaction to himself. “Janine, why don’t you go into the bathroom and change. I’ll ... use my bedroom.”
“Wait a second!” Peter exploded. “No one goes anywhere until we get an explanation, Egon! You give us a cock‑and‑bull story about needing us dawn here, complete with gear and car, make us kill any plans we might have had for the evening, and I for one want to know why—RIGHT NOW.”
Egon gazed at his old friend for a long time; Peter found himself unable to meet Spengler’s gaze and looked away.
“All right,” Egon finally nodded. “An explanation first.” He took a deep breath and glanced at each of his friends, finishing with a long look at Janine, who smiled uncertainly at him. “All right,” he repeated. “To make it simple—none of this is real.”
No one said anything for a long while. Peter broke the silence with a disbelieving snort. “Existentialism is not you, Egon.”
“I’m not talking about philosophy, Peter. I’m speaking of fact. None of what has happened to us in the last six months is real. This has all been an elaborate trap to keep us happy and out of the way.”
“Egon?” Janine asked, paling slightly. “What do you mean?”
“I’m sorry, Janine,” he said with feeling. “I truly am. Our...relationship is one of the most insidious pieces of the trap. I...” He fell silent, glancing down at the floor momentarily, then looked back up, eyes once again blazing with determination. “We’ve been hoodwinked,” he said. “Given everything we’ve ever wanted, wished for, dreamed of, just to keep us content and unwilling to even attempt to free ourselves.”
“But how?” Ray asked from the couch. “And who? All the supernatural entities are gone, Egon! We sent them back to the spirit world and sealed the doorways ourselves! You know that—you were there!”
“No we didn’t. It was all a trick, the opening gambit in a complicated game someone has been playing, with us as the pawns.”
“Oh, come on,” Peter declared angrily. “Egon, Janine and I have a very important meeting tomorrow with some Japanese investors…”
“We do?” Janine asked, surprised.
“Uh ... yeah,” he said, momentarily puzzled, because until that very moment he’d completely forgotten about it. “Sorry, should’ve told you. Anyway, we’ve got important things to do tomorrow—Ray has his classes, Winston’s probably got book signings.... if this is your idea of a joke, I’m not very amused!”
“I’m not joking,” Egon said quietly. “I only wish I were.” The solemnity and sincerity in his voice played eerily across the room.
“I think I need to sit down,” Winston said.
“I think we need some proof,” Peter shot back. “And it had better be good.”
“Nothing simpler.” Egon helped a trembling Janine to a chair, then went to his kitchen table and picked up a book from a small stack. “Everyone please open your books and turn to page 150.”
“Oh great, school’s in session,” Peter grumbled; Janine hissed at him to shut up.
“Uh, Egon, I really don’t need to open it,” Winston tried to joke, casting a worried glance towards Ray and Peter. “I wrote it, remember?”
“Did you?” Egon moved to Peter and offered a copy; Venkman glared at him but snapped the book away. “All right. Now, I’d like for everyone to read the opening paragraph aloud.”
There was a brief rippling of page‑turning, then four voices began to read:
“The ghost was a class five repeater, which Peter always hated because of its sliming abilities…”
“Peter’s latest invention was supposed to be a ghost attractor…”
“Janine chose as our fee a supposedly‑magic genie lamp…”
“Ray had always collected ‘Captain Steel’ comic books, even as an adult…”
The room fell deathly quiet as four pale faces looked up from their readings towards Egon, who stood there looking sadly triumphant. “Four books, same cover, same author, different texts,” he said quietly. “Each of you reading what you wanted to see there. If you don’t believe me, turn to page 15 and try it again.”
The page‑turning was much quieter this time, as were the voices.
“Peter had the idea of taking ghost‑tracking equipment into a business...”
“Janine later commented that she’d never seen a less‑promising job in her life, that first day…”
“Ray’s pride and joy was the Ectomobile, even though it needed a complete overhaul…”
Only Winston did not choose to read a passage. He closed the book and shut his eyes tightly, his hands resting gently on the cover.
“I’m sorry,” Egon said gently.
“S’okay, man,” Winston mumbled, turning his face away. “S’okay.”
“Egon ... what’s going on?” Ray asked softly.
“As I said ... someone has created a world for us in which all our desires, both public and private, have been given to us. We’re birds in gilded cages, content to live our lives in this ‘perfect world’ while our captor is free to do whatsoever it pleases.”
“But that’s impossible!” Peter yelled. “How? I mean ... Dana! Sheila! Sharyn! Oscar, for crying out loud! They’re real! We’ve known them for ages!”
“Yes, we have” Spengler nodded solemnly. “That’s one of the more insidious features of the trap. Just enough reality to make it feel right. Familiar faces from our real universe cast in positions of trust and responsibility, to make sure we didn’t stumble onto the truth.”
Winston looked up, his face bleak. “Chloe?”
Egon sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know, Winston. She might well exist in our true universe. She might not. But I would hazard a guess that even if she did, she wouldn’t be the same person as the one you know.” He shrugged helplessly. “The people we work with ... “ He thought back on Annie and the others, and violently squelched the memory. “The people we interact with daily in this imaginary universe may or may not have any basis in reality.”
“But how?” Peter cried. “Why?”
“Revenge,” Egon said, sitting down and staring at the floor. “And because we might have been the only ones to stop him. And as for how ... well, isn’t if obvious?”
“Stop it, Egon,” Janine pleaded. “This is like a bad dream...”
“No.” Egon shook his head. “A good dream. A perfect dream.”
Ray’s eyes widened. “The Sandman?”
Egon nodded. “Think about it. Peter sets up a multi‑million dollar corporation based on licensing and merchandising. Suddenly, everyone is begging to use our likenesses and logos, even versions of our equipment. Why didn’t that happen a few years ago, when we first became known to the public?”
“I was too busy busting ghosts!” Peter cried. “There wasn’t time!”
“There wasn’t interest,” Ray corrected. “We were considered to be con artists, and no reputable technology firm would touch us.”
“But I got past that!” Peter said desperately. “I made us reputable! I got us accepted ... by everyone ... everyone…” His face ashen, Peter fell silent.
Egon waited a moment before continuing. “Ray, Columbia University suddenly fires Yaeger and literally gets on hands and knees to get you back—on whatever terms you want. Winston, how long did it take you to write that book? How much revision was needed? How quickly did it go to press? And it became a bestseller—just what you’ve always wanted, isn’t it?”
Zeddemore nodded faintly.
“And Janine, going from receptionist to vice‑president—and doing the job as though she were born to do it. Not to denigrate her abilities, mind you, but when you stop to think of it, isn’t it a bit odd?”
“And what about you, Egon?” Peter asked, a bit more quietly this time. “What did you get?” Instinctively, everyone glanced at an all‑too‑still Janine, but nothing was said.
“Somehow the Sandman was able to create a dream universe for us,” Egon continued a moment later. “Our dreams are interconnected, so that we all share a common central universe. And I’ve noticed that whenever any sort of suspicion starts to form in our heads, a distraction is immediately forthcoming.”
“Like Peter suddenly remembering he had a meeting tomorrow?” Ray asked.
“All right,” Winston finally said. “So how did you figure out all this without getting ‘distracted’?”
“I didn’t,” Egon replied, rising to his feet. “I had it explained to me. Come with me.” He headed to the bedroom door and opened it. “This way.” Mystified, the Ghostbusters followed him. Winston couldn’t quite help but grin upon noticing how precise every piece of furniture was laid out, how every shelf and dresser top was neatly arranged. Some people could just not abide the presence of chaos in any part of their lives. But the amusement faded when he saw what lay on the floor beside the open closet door.
It was waxy white, shriveled and trembling feebly as it hunched into a fetal position. Its clothing was ratty and threadbare, swallowing up the wearer with room to spare. Once‑glossy, ebony hair sat splattered on the sweat‑drenched forehead. And between horrible moans and sobs, one could just barely make out the words “help ... me…”
“Good lord,” breathed Winston.
“That’s…the Boogeyman?” Ray asked, eyes wide with disbelief.
“Not very much longer, from the look of it,” Janine said quietly.
The Boogeyman had been one of the more memorable foes the Ghostbusters had fought and vanquished, not the least of which was due to his appearance. Oversized head with tattered bat ears, wild shock of electric blue hair, yellow eyes that sneered and gloated, grotesquely shaped mouth, long, bony fingers ending in razor‑sharp talons, bizarre blue waistcoat and bowtie, ending with goat‑like hooves...no one who’d ever seen the Boogeyman, even once, could ever forget it.
But the pitiful creature writing in agony on the floor bore only a passing resemblance to the deadly foe of the past.
“Still never got around to visiting his dentist,” commented Peter.
Ray turned to look at Egon. “Then…your dream...”
“Wasn’t a dream at all,” he said, shaking his head. “The Sandman’s influence made it seem so. And every effort the Boogeyman made to contact me weakened him further.”
“Weakened?” Peter echoed. “Why?”
“Because we’re not the only ones who are having good dreams,” Egon replied. “The Sandman has put every single person in the world into a dream state, similar to ours.”
“And since the Boogeyman feeds on fear,” Winston snapped his fingers, “there isn’t anything to feed on, if the other dreams are like ours.”
“Exactly. He’s starving to death, in a way.”
Janine huddled closer to Egon. “But I thought everything was sent back to the spirit world. How can he be here?”
“The Boogeyman explained it to me. Apparently, he discovered the Sandman was preparing for an assault on the containment. In order to succeed, he had to increase his PKE energy, and did so by absorbing the energies of lesser creatures into himself. When the Boogeyman discovered this, he began to do the same out of self‑preservation.”
“And we would never have known,” Ray said. “Because the overall energy levels would have remained the same.”
Egon nodded glumly. “It gets worse. The Boogeyman and Sandman weren’t the only entities to escape the containment.”
“Uh‑oh,” Janine said softly.
“Who else?” asked Winston his voice tinged with dread.
“I don’t wanna know,” said Peter. “I don’t wanna know.”
“I can think of one possibility,” Ray said, looking at Egon for confirmation. “Samhain.”
“Exactly,” Egon replied. “Eventually those three entities remained in the containment. All equal in PKE, each unable to conquer the other two.” He tried not to think about what that implied about Samhain’s sheer power or the hatred that creature he’d for the Ghostbusters—he forced himself to focus an the problem at hand. “So they agreed to join forces to cause the overload. The effort sapped most of the stolen energy from each of them, but they were able to get free before we could stop them.”
“But I don’t remember any of this!” Janine protested. “And I was there!”
“Yes, you were. But what actually happened was this: the three entities freed themselves just as we reached the containment, and before we could react the Sandman doused us all with his sleep sand ... as I suspect was his plan all along. He, Samhain and the Boogeyman went their separate ways; it was only later, when he needed to feed, that the Boogeyman discovered there was no fear to be found.”
“And so he came to you, the one person who’s given him the most trouble, for help,” Ray concluded.
“Yes, but I was unable to ascertain the truth due to the Sandman’s manipulations until tonight...” Egon sighed and stared at the shaking supernatural entity on the floor. “And it may be too late to do anything about it.”
“What?” Janine squeaked.
“Watch.” Before their eyes, the Boogeyman seemed to draw up into himself, growing smaller and smaller, clothing and all. As he shrank, the rate of the process increased, until the creature vanished, leaving only the whisper of a wail to mark its passing.
And as if on cue, the closet door swung shut.
“He’s gone,” Egon said quietly.
“So what do we do now?” asked Winston.
“We ... go back.”
“Why?” Peter abruptly declared, ignoring the incredulous looks around him.
“Because we’re needed in the real world,” Egon replied evenly. “Because we’re the only ones who can stop the Sandman.”
“Why?” Peter repeated. “Egon, the odds are that by now he’s zapped everyone in the world! There’ll be no war, no starvation, no hatred…”
“No freedom, no struggle to make dreams come true,” Winston reminded him.
“Because our dreams did come true! Is this so bad, guys? Here we’re famous, admired, wealthy ... anything we want to do, we can. Do you really want to go back to struggling from day to day, hoping our clients will pay us? And let’s not forget that even if we beat the Sandman, Samhain’s out there somewhere, biding his time and just waiting to nail us when our guard’s down! And besides him ... every day we go out there, we’re putting our lives on the line! Don’t any of you wonder about when one of us is going to have an accident, or worse yet, won’t come back? Janine, don’t you worry about that every day?” He turned towards her, eyes pleading for understanding and agreement.
She nodded softly. “But Egon’s right. A gilded cage is still a cage. I want to make my dream come true myself...and make them real.”
“Pete,” Ray said, clasping a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I know that everything you’ve done in the last six months is important to you. And God knows we’ve all appreciated it. But has it really made you happy?”
“Of course it has,” Peter snapped back a bit too quickly.
“It’s made you edgy, afraid that you’ll lose it all somehow. It’s made you more ostentatious, flaunting your money and popularity, getting as much as you can while you can. But someday, that’s not going to be enough ... and then what will you have?”
There was a long pause while Peter considered.
Winston put his hand on Peter’s other shoulder and smiled. “Us, homeboy. You’re stuck with us.”
“That’s not helping your case for leaving,” Peter said, but he smiled slightly. Then he turned to Egon. “All right, mad genius. If I understand this—and I don’t—this is all something we’ve literally dreamed up, correct? Then how do we get out of this?”
“I’ve got a theory,” Egon began.
“Uh‑oh,” Winston chuckled shaking his head. “Egon’s theories are invariably dangerous.”
“There is some measure of risk involved,” Egon agreed. “But it’s the only way. What we have to do is focus our every thought on rejecting this dream world—force ourselves to return to reality. It’s part of the reason I asked Ray to bring our old uniforms, ECTO and the proton packs; these are all things that we know are based in reality, things we find familiar in that universe.”
“Part of the reason?” Peter asked with a grin.
“Well...” Egon shrugged. “I kind of missed all this, too.”
There was a soft chuckle of understanding and agreement from everyone.
“Everyone join hands,” Egon instructed. As they did so, he continued: “Focus your every thought on rejecting this dream. Keep telling yourself it’s only a dream, that it’s time to wake up. Don’t let up for an instant. It’s going to take a concerted effort to escape this dream world; the slightest hesitation could ruin everything and give the Sandman time to distract us from escaping ever again.”
“I can think of several interesting distractions along those lines.”
“Concentrate!” Egon barked. The Ghostbusters fell silent, their eyes closing and facial muscles tightening in intense concentration. Lips moved silently in a rhythmic chant, the same phrase repeated over and over until it became a mantra of sorts. Hands tightened their grip on other hands.
Reality wavered slightly, like an out‑of‑focus photograph.
The Ghostbusters redoubled their efforts, united in one thought, one purpose. They did not let themselves think of the treasures of the world they were leaving, only of the world they sought to return to.
The room around them blurred, colors running into one another and melding into a gray void that engulfed them.
The Ghostbusters once again redoubled their efforts.
Grey became a black void.
And then ... they woke up.
|Chapter One||Chapter Two||Chapter Three||Chapter Four||Chapter Five||Chapter Six||Chapter Seven||Chapter Eight||Chapter Nine||Chapter Ten|