Disclaimer- The Real Ghostbusters do not belong to me. They belong to DIC and Columbia Pictures. This fanfic is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for violence and language.

Contagion
by Ellen Brand

"Tell me again, Egon, why we're here," Peter Venkman whined from the back seat. It was hot in the rental car, as the four Ghostbusters drove through the California desert. Peter's humorous complaints had been entertaining the other three for the past half-hour, but now even he was starting to sound peeved.

Egon Spengler, sitting next to him, sighed. "We are here, Peter, to investigate that call we received the other night. The one that cut off in mid- sentence, remember? You were the one that took it, if I recall correctly."

Peter shivered slightly, despite the heat in the car. The tall, lanky physicist was right, as usual. Peter HAD been the one to take that call the other night, and he had spent the past two days wishing he hadn't. A Doctor Frank Weber had called them from Crissman, California, a small town in Orange County. The man had been hysterical, raving about strange lights and some sort of unstoppable menace. Peter would have been inclined to rule him a psycho, except for one thing. The call had been interrupted by a crash, a blood-curdling scream, and then the line went dead. Peter had then called the Orange County Sheriff's department, only to be told that there was no contact with the town of Crissman whatsoever.

"Why is it," the brown-haired Ghostbuster asked petulantly, "that everyone immediately heads TOWARDS a blood-curdling scream? Wouldn't your first instinct be to run away?"

Winston Zeddemore chuckled, his eyes never leaving the road. "You're the psychologist, Pete. You tell us. You're right, though, I never thought it made much sense."

"Gee," interjected Ray Stantz, the fourth occupant of the car. "How could we not? That guy sounded terrified, Peter. You said so yourself. He called us for help."

Peter sighed. "I really hope we get paid for this one. A lot. I have this feeling that we're going to be earning it."

A little further on, the car ran into a roadblock. Winston rolled down his window as one of the troopers approached the car. "What's going on here?" Zeddemore asked.

"No one allowed in the town of Crissman, sorry. You'll have to turn around and go back," the woman replied. Peter, who was also sitting on the driverís side of the car, rolled down his window as well.

"Excuse me, ma'am, but we're the Ghostbusters. We received a call the other night from a Dr. Weber, in this town. His statements seemed to indicate a problem of a supernatural nature, and he seemed to think we could help. We were cut off in mid-call, so I called the Sheriff's Department, and they said that there was no communication with the town. Has that changed?"

The trooper regarded him for a long moment, then shrugged. "No, actually it hasn't. We're not supposed to tell the public about this, but you gentlemen are professionals. After your call, Dr.- Venkman?" At Peter's nod, she continued. "After your call, we sent a couple of officers up to investigate. We lost contact with them, as well. Currently, we're blocking off the town, waiting for the top brass to decide whether or not to bring in the National Guard."

"Hmmm." Egon removed the PKE meter from his belt and pointed it up the road. "I'm detecting elevated levels of PKE coming from the town. Whatever's up there, it is most definitely supernatural." He put the meter away, turning towards the trooper. "I suggest very strongly that you let us investigate. I doubt that your department or even the National Guard is equipped to handle what might be in there."

The woman shrugged. "I'll call it in." She headed back to her car, and Peter turned towards his friends.

"Okay, Egon, Ray, what's going on here?" the psychologist asked seriously. "I already don't like this."

"It could be any number of things," Egon replied, pushing his glasses up on his nose. "There have been many reports of mysterious disappearances throughout history."

"Right," Ray added. "Like Roanoke Island, or the Bermuda Triangle or-"

"Or the _Mary Celeste,_ yeah, I know, Ray," Peter interrupted. "But all of those obviously took place in a short span of time, and there was never any evidence of violence. That phone call was DEFINITELY evidence of violence."

"But remember, Peter, most of those disappearances took place back when it would have been much harder to communicate. Perhaps whatever caused those disappearances covered its tracks," Egon reminded him.

"So we're going to charge into a situation that we have no earthly idea about?" Winston asked, resigned. "Here we go again."

"Look on the bright side," Venkman informed him, grinning wryly. "Maybe the cops will tell us to turn around and go home."

"Well, here she comes," Ray pointed out. "What did they say?"

The trooper sighed. "They don't like it, but nobody has any better ideas. If you gentlemen would check it out, the Sheriff's Department would be happy to pay your bill."

Peter sighed. "Well, at least they're going to PAY us for risking our lives this time." The roadblock was removed, and Winston drove the rental car on up the road towards Crissman.


* * *

"I REALLY don't like this," Winston said quietly. The town of Crissman seemed to be completely deserted, without a soul around. The only movement on the silent streets was a few lonely sheets of newspaper whipped around by the desert wind.

"No kidding," Peter agreed. "It's gonna be dark soon, and I forgot my nightlight." The sun was slowly sinking down behind them, making their shadows stretch before them towards the eastern horizon. The atmosphere of quiet tension reminded Peter of the time that the four of them had gone to Tombstone, Arizona to bust the ghosts of the Earp gang. The moments directly before the shooting started had been exactly like this.

"Hmmm." Egon was entranced by the readings on his PKE meter, his calm demeanor a sharp contrast to the jumpiness of his companions. Peter shot the blond physicist an irritated look.

"I hate it when you say that, Egon. It's almost as bad as 'Uh-oh,'" Venkman complained, eyes ceaselessly scanning the area.

Spengler raised an eyebrow at his friend. "These readings are most fascinating. They don't seem to conform to any type of ghostly entity that we have ever encountered. I believe we're on the trail of something completely new."

"Wow!" Ray cried. The youngest of the Ghostbusters, Ray's enthusiasm occasionally got the better of his common sense. "This is great!"

Winston and Peter shared looks of amused resignation. "Right, Ray," Winston sighed. "Real great."

The group moved off down the streets, Ray and Egon taking readings at every turn, Peter and Winston guarding their backs.

"Pete, did you see those shop windows we passed?" Zeddemore asked quietly.

The psychologist nodded. "Yup. I don't think vandals broke them all, either. I REALLY don't like this, Winston. I'm seriously advocating getting our rears out of here, NOW."

The older man regarded his friend curiously. Peter Venkman liked to present the image of a self-centered jerk, and in fact put a great deal of effort into it. However, Winston had known him long enough to see beyond that, to the brave, selfless man hiding behind the faÁade. If the psychologist was seriously suggesting that they run away, something about the situation was giving him very bad vibes.

The Ghostbusters turned down another street and found themselves in a cul-de-sac that seemed to be the town square. Ray looked around and shrugged. "Looks like a dead end."

Peter winced. "Did you have to use the word 'dead,' Ray?" A sudden noise behind them made the four men whirl. Filling the street behind them was a veritable army of shambling, emaciated humanoid figures that could only be called zombies. They were a dusky gray color, with blank white eyes and long talons. All four Ghostbusters swallowed hard.

"Egon," Winston said levelly, "what are they?"

The physicist shook his head. His blue eyes were wide and frightened behind his glasses, but his voice gave no hint of the fear he felt. "I have no idea, Winston. However, I think it might be a good idea to open fire."

Ray nodded. "Yeah. I don't think they're the Welcome Wagon." In unison, the four men unshipped their throwers and moved into a back-to-back formation. The zombies advanced on them, beginning to surround them.

"Fire!" Peter cried. Four streams shot out, making contact with the advancing horde. The zombies struck with the beams fell to the ground, smoking, but another one always moved to take its place.

"There's too many of them!" Ray called.

"Keep firing!" Egon shot back. "We've got to find a break in the press!"

Suddenly the sound of a gunshot drew everyone's attention. At the entrance to the cul-de-sac, on the main road, was a cherry red convertible. A young boy, no more than thirteen, sat in the driver's seat, and in the passenger's seat stood an attractive redheaded young woman. "Come on!" she cried, unloading another round from her shotgun, knocking yet another zombie to the ground. "They won't be distracted forever!"

"Head for the car!" Peter cried, giving Ray a gentle shove. "Go!"

"We'll cover you!" Winston added, doing the same for Egon. The four quickly made their way through the crowd of zombies, breaking out through the hole that the woman in the car had so thoughtfully made for them. While Peter and Winston laid down cover fire, Ray and Egon scrambled into the back seat. Peter and Winston joined them, and the car roared off, leaving the zombies behind.

Looking at his three friends jammed into the back seat of the car with him, Peter grinned. "I love my work."

The car pulled up outside a small, one-story white building. Quickly, the six of them hurried inside, the woman bolting the door behind them. Winston quickly took stock of their surroundings. They appeared to be in a waiting room of some kind. Judging by the age of the magazines on the tables, it was probably that of the town doctor. There were no windows anywhere, and he breathed a sigh of relief. The last thing he wanted to worry about was zombies coming in through the windows.

"Are you four all right?" the woman asked, looking the Ghostbusters over with a critical eye.

"We're fine," Egon responded. "If I may ask, who are you, and what exactly is going on here?"

She sighed. Setting her shotgun down on the table, she sank onto one of the couches in the waiting room, indicating for the rest to do the same. Once everyone was seated, she began to speak. "My name is Andrea Howard. I'm one of Crissman's two doctors- general practitioners. From your outfits and weapons, I would guess that you four are the Ghostbusters, which means Frank managed to get through to you. What exactly did he tell you?"

Peter swallowed. "I'm Peter Venkman," he introduced himself. "I took Dr. Weber's call the other night. He didn't say much- he was kind of hysterical. All we got was that something supernatural was going on, and that we were needed out in Crissman. Then the phone cut off. I assume that those things we saw out there found him." He was short and to the point, none of his usual flirtation in his manner. This was definitely not the time.

Andrea nodded. "We think so. He went to go call you and he never came back, so we figure the zombies got him. Oh, by the way, this is Jake West. I wound up at his house when all hell broke loose, and we've stuck together."

The boy, a short blond with brown eyes, nodded at the Ghostbusters. Peter couldn't help but notice how tightly the boy clung to Andrea. He didn't blame the kid. The woman was a rock, seeming very calm in the midst of all the craziness that had occurred.

"So what exactly happened?" Ray pursued, once the introductions had been completed. "Where did these zombies come from?"

Andrea sighed. "That's a long story. Two nights ago, a strange light was seen out in the desert. Nobody thought much of it; there are all sorts of stories about ghosts and such. While everyone was going about their business, all the bodies in the cemetery on the edge of town started pulling themselves up out of their graves." She shivered. "They headed into town, started killing anybody they could. No weapon seemed to stop them permanently, until you showed up with those packs. Some people tried to get out of town. They didn't make it. The zombies are watching the road, and they just- swarm over the cars. Nobody gets more than a hundred yards." Peter suddenly remembered the sheer drops he had seen on either side of the road as they had come up, and shivered a little himself.

"Frank and I were working when the zombies showed up. We cleared out, in his car. That's the red one out front. We wound up at Jake's, which is on the outskirts of town, away from the roads. Jake was waiting there for his mother, but- she didn't come home."

"She's probably hiding," the boy said. "Those zombies couldn't catch her."

Andrea winced, leaving no doubt in the Ghostbusters' minds what she believed. "Anyway, we agreed it was too dangerous to try and get out of town, so Frank said he'd go call you. Jake's place doesn't have a phone, so he headed back into town." She shrugged. "He didn't come back either. We've spent the last two days hiding from the zombies and trying to find someone still alive in this town."

"How many are there?" Winston asked, knowing that he wasn't going to like the answer.

"That we know about, counting the people in this room- six," she replied. "Jake's mom- well, we're still hoping." The five adults fell silent at this point.

"Dr. Howard," Egon finally began, "do you know what might have triggered all this? I mean, obviously the light triggered the zombies, but why did all this happen now? Has anything strange happened recently?"

"Any new artifacts in the museum?" Ray added.

Andrea shook her head. "No, nothing like that. I don't know what might have triggered it."

Egon and Ray looked at each other, ready to start tossing out theories. Before they could do so, however, Peter interrupted them. "Dr. Howard, just how smart are these zombies?" he asked, swallowing.

"I don't know what you mean, Dr. Venkman."

"Well, for instance, can they open doors?"

Everyone followed his gaze in time to see the door to the rest of the office swing open. There in the doorway stood a swaying zombie, which seemed to sweep the room with its dead white eyes. Tall and gaunt, the creature still had a thick shock of black hair, implying that it was relatively fresh.

Andrea gasped. "Oh, dear God. Frank!"

The zombie, which had been Dr. Weber, hissed, lunging at Andrea. Instinctively, Peter threw himself at her, knocking her out of the creature's path. Its sharp talons scraped across his back, and he bit back a cry of pain.

"Car!" Winston cried, unshipping his thrower. "Now!" More zombies had followed the first, and the oldest of the Ghostbusters laid down a barrage of cover fire, following his friends out to the car. "Punch it, Ray!" he cried, leaping into the back seat. Stantz nodded, flooring the accelerator. The car roared away from the clinic, leaving the zombies behind.

"Well," Peter said brightly. "That was- ungh!" He suddenly doubled over as a wave of pain shot through him. Andrea, next to him, turned quickly.

"Dr. Venkman? Are you- oh, shit." She cut off seeing the scratches on his back. "Dr. Stantz! We have to get him somewhere safe!"

"Any suggestions?" Ray hollered back, never taking his eyes off the road.

"As few windows and doors as possible," Winston replied.

Andrea nodded. "My personal office, rather than the one I shared with Frank. It's at my house, across town. Jake, can you give Dr. Stantz directions?"

The boy, sitting in the front seat between Egon and Ray, nodded. "You bet, Doc."

That settled, Andrea turned back to Peter. He was pale, and sweat was beginning to appear on his brow. "Hurry up, Ray," he said weakly. "I don't feel so good."

Once at Andrea's house, Egon and Winston picked up Peter, who by this time was unconscious. Quickly, the two men carried him inside. Andrea locked the door and led the way into the living room. "Put him down on the couch, face down. I have to clean those scratches on his back, for all the good it'll do." They did as she ordered. Andrea collected her medical kit from the office, remarking as she did so, "Could somebody check the house? I'd rather not have any unexpected surprises jumping out at me."

Winston took a look at Egon, who was obviously unwilling to leave Peter's side, and nodded. "Yeah. Ray and I'll check it out."

"Can I go too?" Jake asked hopefully.

"Better not," Andrea replied. "Go into the kitchen and start making me up some cold compresses, okay? Dr. Venkman's going to be running a fever soon, and we'll need to keep his temperature down."

Egon raised an eyebrow. "You've seen this kind of thing before?"

"Not everybody who got attacked by a zombie died right away," she replied, unzipping Peter's jumpsuit and peeling it away from the top half of his body. Then she gently pushed his T-shirt up away from his wound. "Jake and I ran across a number of people who had merely been wounded. Some of them, a fairly small percentage, turned into zombies, the way Frank did." She swallowed, then quickly went on. "Most of the others went into some sort of toxic shock. That's what Dr. Venkman here is experiencing. His body is having a toxic reaction to something that was introduced into his system when the zombie scratched him."

"Will it kill him? And why the difference?"

She shook her head. "I don't know on both counts. I've never had a patient live long enough to be tested, but not necessarily because of the toxic shock. Their wounds were pretty bad, too, much worse than Dr. Venkman's. We've got to keep his body temperature down. If it gets too high, he could have brain damage." Andrea finished cleaning the scratches on Peter's back, and taped a dressing over them. "Help me turn him over, please," she requested. Egon did as she asked, just as Jake came out of the kitchen with a bucket full of water and wet towels.

"Here's the cold compresses," Jake told her. "Should I go make more?"

She nodded. "Yeah, and put them in the fridge. We may need them." He nodded and left again.

When she turned back to the couch, she found that Egon had already begun bathing Peter's forehead with one of the compresses that Jake had left. She raised an eyebrow. "You've obviously done this before."

Egon chuckled. "This isn't the first time I've had to nurse him through a fever," the physicist replied, looking down at his friend in fond exasperation. "For a man who makes such a production out of minor injuries and illnesses, Peter is extremely stubborn about the major ones. He'll run himself into the ground rather than take it easy."

"You've known each other a long time?" Andrea asked, coming to sit next to him.

"Seems like forever," Spengler nodded. "We met in college, my senior year, his junior. We were assigned to a project together in one of our classes." He chuckled dryly. "Needless to say, it was not love at first sight. He thought I was a nerd, and I was sure I would wind up doing everything on the project, and he would get half the credit."

"What happened?"

"He surprised me. That was only the first surprise in our relationship, of course. I don't think he's quit yet. The subject was one that interested him- astral travel, I believe. I don't really even remember what it was. He insisted on doing his half of the research, and his part of the project was of high quality. Over the course of working together, we became friends, and we just never drifted apart."

"What's he like?" she asked curiously.

"Peter? He can be childish, vain, exasperating, and occasionally infuriating. He continually forgets to do his chores, always has an angle on something, and has a rather- basic sense of humor." Egon chuckled, remembering some of the practical jokes Peter had pulled on him over the years. "He is also the bravest, kindest, most understanding man I know. He's a psychologist, you know, and a very good one. If any of us have a problem, he's the first one we go to. He works very hard to maintain his image as a jerk, but he's actually a very warm, caring individual, with the habit of putting everyone else first. I've trusted him at my back on a hundred busts, and I've never had to worry that he wouldn't be there to cover it. If any one of us gets hurt on a bust, it always seems to be him."

"Accident-prone?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Not hardly. Peter always finds some sort of way to put himself between us and whatever threatens."

Andrea smiled. "You're a lucky man, Dr. Spengler." Her gaze fell on Peter. "And so is he, I think."

"How is he?" was the first thing Ray asked as he and Winston returned from securing the house. Andrea shrugged.

"No worse, no better. He's obviously fighting whatever it is." She cocked an eyebrow at Egon. "You didn't mention he was stubborn."

The physicist shrugged. "It's been a part of him so long, I've ceased to notice."

"Any idea exactly what's wrong with him?" Winston asked.

Andrea sighed. "Your guess is as good as mine, I'm afraid. I can't believe that those scratches could have become infected this seriously in this length of time, but that's all that makes sense with these symptoms."

"Hmm." On a hunch, Egon took out his PKE meter and took a reading. "Aha!"

"What is it, Egon?" Ray asked.

"Peter's PKE levels are elevated far beyond what they should be. Whatever this illness is, it seems to be supernatural in nature."

Winston raised an eyebrow. "Egon, are you saying that we are dealing with a ghost VIRUS?"

"Unlikely, Winston," Spengler returned. "Viruses lack the motivation to become ghosts. No, I doubt that this is a disease as we know them."

"Hey!" Ray cried. "I think I've got it! Maybe it's not a disease, but a poison. Some kind of psycho-spiritual taint or contamination! It's introduced into the psycho-spiritual level by the wound. The toxic shock is most likely the actions of a- a psychic immune system. If your system is weak, you become a zombie. Stronger people experience an immune response, and go into toxic shock."

Egon's brows came together. "It's possible, Raymond. There are many instances of the mind and spirit affecting physical health. Even the more conservative medical sciences admit the existence of psychosomatic illness, and thautaumurgy, healing via mental or spiritual power, has been known since ancient times."

"This is completely nuts," Andrea told them, "but so are zombies. Besides, it does make a certain amount of sense. A fever, like the one Dr. Venkman is experiencing, is the immune system's natural response to an invader. The body turns up the temperature to try and denature the enzymes and proteins of the invading microorganisms. If there is a psychosomatic component to this, it would certainly explain why a spiritual ailment is causing a physical reaction." She shook her head, smiling. "Anybody hears me talking like this, and I'll lose my license."

"We won't tell a soul," Winston grinned.

"So now that we know what it is," Jake West piped up, startling them all, "what do we do about it?" The boy had finished making up more compresses, and had finally returned to the living room.

"Well, to stop this, we have to figure out what started it. And the best way to do that is do research," Winston decided. "I say we head to the library and check it out." Egon and Ray nodded. Winston Zeddemore was the team's resident mystery buff, and definitely knew the most about solving a puzzle.

"Right. Dr. Howard, will you be all right here?" Ray asked.

The redheaded doctor nodded. "You go on. Jake and I will keep an eye on Dr. Venkman."

"Here we are," Winston announced, stopping the car. "The Crissman Public Library." The three Ghostbusters looked up at the large building in dismay.

"Itís pretty dark," Ray sighed.

Egon nodded. "Bring the flashlights," the physicist instructed. "Weíll likely need them."

Gingerly, the three of them made their way inside, expecting at any moment to be leaped upon from the shadows. "Itís only been a couple days since all this happened," Winston mused. "The electricityís probably still hooked up."

Ray reached out and flipped the switches on the plate nearest him. Throughout the library, lights flickered on. "Yeah, Iíd say thatís a safe assumption."

"I think we should split up. We can cover more ground that way. Iíll check through the microfilm readers, see if I canít find an answer to all of this in back issues of the local paper," Egon suggested.

"Iíll look in the card catalogue for something on the history of the area," Ray volunteered. "There has to be something in here. Californiaís got quite a history."

Winston nodded. "And Iíll take the hardcopy issues of the paper. Sometimes they donít put everything in the microfilm." The three men split up, each heading for their personal destination.

Winston set a load of papers down on the table with relief. He hadnít remembered just how heavy newspapers could be, and this was the third load heíd transferred in and out of the back room. Taking a breather for a second, he looked up to see Ray leafing through the card catalogue in frustration.

"You all right?" the older man asked quietly.

The occultist looked up, startled. "Oh, yeah, Winston," he replied, not at all convincingly. "I just canít find anything on local history, and thatís ridiculous! Places like this always have one or two sources on the areaís history."

"Well, maybe itís in a special collection," Zeddemore replied.

Ray thought about that, then nodded. "Could be. Maybe thereís a card catalogue behind the librarianís desk." He moved to head over there, but Winston restrained him, placing a hand on his shoulder.

"Ray, Iíll ask again. Are you all right?" Of all the Ghostbusters, Ray Stantz was the most sensitive and sympathetic. It was one of the qualities that made him such a good friend, but it also meant that he tended to get very down when something bad happened. It was fairly obvious that Ray was hurting over what had happened to Peter. Winston had known the other three for a number of years now, and they were the greatest friendships he had ever had. No matter what, though, he knew that the friendship the other three had was stronger and deeper even than that. This did not unduly bother him, though. Considering the strength of the feelings involved, determining "closer" was like trying to measure the spaces between electrons- done on purely theoretical terms.

"Well-" Ray could see that the other was not about to be satisfied with a single offhand answer. "Iím scared, Winston. Peterís always been there for us, and weíve always been there for him. What would we do if we lost him?"

Winston had been wondering that himself. Peter had once described Ray as the heart of the Ghostbusters, and Winston had to admit that it was more than applicable. Ray was the heart, Egon was the brain, and Winston had always seen himself at the common sense. Going by that analogy, Peter was the backbone of the team. Despite his frequently expressed reservations about risking their safety, the psychologist was usually the one who provided the team with their courage, kidding around to break the tension and bolstering them all with unflagging support. Plus, also like the backbone, he helped maintain the teamís structure. No matter what, if things were going badly, Peter knew exactly how to pull them all together. His sense of humor combined with his excellent understanding of human nature was often the only thing that could keep them all on an even keel. What would they do if they lost Peter Venkman?

"Weíre not going to lose him," Winston replied, in answer to both Ray and himself. "You know Pete. Heís a fighter. Heís faced down worse fevers than this without batting an eye. We WILL find out what started all this, and how to stop it. Heís never let us down, and we wonít let him down, either."

"What if we canít find it, Winston?" Ray sounded so young and despairing. "What if thereís nothing to find?"

Winston sighed. He didnít really know how to answer.



* * *

"Hey, I think I found something!" Rayís exclamation drew both Winston and Egon over to the table where the occultist sat, eagerly devouring a book he had found in the second floor private collection. "This is a journal of all the ghost stories written about the Crissman area. This one talks about a tale that some of the Indians in the surrounding area told the settlers who came in. Apparently, long ago, a tribe of Indians lived in this very spot. But then some sort of darkness came upon them, a contagion that racked the body and stole the soul."

"Sounds familiar," Winston interjected.

"The elders of the tribe sealed the contagion away, but it had already decimated their people and their land. They left, to find another home, and no more tale is told of them," the engineer finished.

Egon adjusted his glasses. "Most interesting, Ray. It fits nicely with something Iíve discovered in the issue of the paper from five days ago. Buried on the fifth page of the Arts and Entertainment section was an article about a local archaeological dig. Apparently, theyíve been digging up Indian artifacts for some time. The newest dig was scheduled to begin on the day that the strange light was seen in the desert, the day that all the trouble started."

"Of course!" Ray cried. "The Indians sealed off the source of the contagion, and went away, but the newest dig must have uncovered it again. That means that we can pinpoint the source of the taint with the PKE meters, now that we have the search area narrowed down."

Winston nodded. "Weíd better get back to Dr. Howardís and let them know what weíve found."

The three of them rose, when a shuffling sound met their ears. Ray gulped. "That may be a little harder than we thought." The three of them moved back-to-back-to-back as the shadows began to move.



* * *

Peter groaned, slowly swimming to consciousness. He had an awful headache, and his limbs felt as if they were made out of water. Slowly, he sat up, realizing that moving too fast would only backfire on him. Looking around, he took stock of his surroundings. It looked as if he was in somebodyís living room, with polished hardwood floors, walls the color of burnt toast, and knickknacks covering virtually every available surface. He could vaguely recall Andrea telling Ray to take them to her house, before he had passed out. He still felt sick and achy, but at least he was back in his right mind.

"I see youíre up," Andrea commented, coming back into the room. Peter turned towards her a little too quickly, and had to fight back a wave of nausea as the room spun around him. "Feeling better?"

"Not really," he muttered, raising his hands to his head. "I feel like I spent WAY too much time on the roller coaster."

She raised an eyebrow. "And youíre lucid, too. Thatís a change."

"Lucid? Was I hallucinating?"

Jake, still by Andreaís side, nodded enthusiastically. "Majorly! You were yelling something about a Class V, and I think you thought you were chasing a ghost at one point. Another time, you were saying something about ĎSlimer.í Whoís Slimer?"

Peter groaned. "Heís our pet ghost, so to speak. He has an appetite like a garbage disposal, and he REALLY likes sliming me."

Andrea chuckled. "Iíll go get you something to drink," she told him. "You need to keep taking in fluids, with that fever and all. Jake, keep Dr. Venkman company until I get back, okay?" The boy nodded, and she headed into the kitchen.

"Whatís it like being a Ghostbuster?" Jake asked curiously, sitting in a chair near the couch. Peter grinned. Despite how sick he felt, this was the part of the job that always gave him a charge. Kids regarded what they did as the coolest thing on the planet, and he was always glad to tell them about the job.

"Messy," Peter chuckled. "Ninety percent of the ghosts we go after seem to leave behind slime of one type or another, and its almost always getting on us. Me more than the other guys for some reason. Itís dangerous, sometimes, when we go up against a major bad guy, and it can get scary."

"You get scared?" interrupted Jake, his eyes wide.

"All the time," Peter replied solemnly. "There have been busts where Iíve been so sure that one of us was going to buy it-" he shook his head, pushing those memories away. "One good thing about it, though, is that I know the other guys are always gonna be there to back me up. Theyíre almost like my family." Peter examined the boy keenly, slipping into psychologist mode. "You know, Jake, itís perfectly all right to be scared. Everybody gets scared now and then, especially in dangerous situations. Thereís nothing wrong with being scared, if you donít let that paralyze you, and thereís nothing wrong with admitting youíre scared. Sometimes it helps the fear go away, at least a little."

The boy thought about that for a long moment. "Iím scared," he finally admitted. "Iím afraid my mom isnít going to come home. Weíve been looking for her for two days." Jakeís head came up, and his brown eyes locked with the psychologistís green ones. Softly, he asked, "Weíre not going to find her, are we?"

Peter swallowed. "I donít know, Jake," he responded honestly. "People can survive against incredible odds. My friends and I have proved that a number of times. But-"

"Itís not likely," the boy finished. He smiled slightly. "Itís okay, Dr. Venkman. You donít have to sugar-coat it. I lost my dad a couple years ago. Plane crash. For a long time, we didnít know if he was one of the survivors or not. I should know better than to get my hopes up by now."

Peter closed his eyes, against the wave of weakness that swept through him, and against the memories of his own youth, when heíd spoken those words far too many times. A cool sensation on his forehead made his eyes fly open again. Jake was gone, but Andrea was patting his forehead down with a cold, wet cloth. He forced a half-grin. "Here I am, alone with a beautiful woman taking care of me, and Iím too sick to do anything about it."

She chuckled. "Look on the bright side, Dr. Venkman. Youíre also too sick for me to slap you." Peter winced in mock fear.

"How long have I been out?" he asked. She shrugged.

"I havenít exactly been keeping track. I think about an hour or so. Your friends went off to the library to try and find more information about whatís going on here."

"I hope theyíll be all right," he muttered. Then he fixed her with an amused look. "Did you hear me talking to Jake?"

She nodded. "Yes, I did. Dr. Spengler was right, you are a good psychologist."

"Egon said that? Out loud?" he asked, astounded. Then he shook his head, bringing himself back to the conversation at hand. "You know, itís all right for you to be scared too. Youíve obviously been the stable one in this group since all hell broke loose, but you need to have your reactions to this. Donít suppress them, or theyíll just end up causing problems later."

"Iíll be scared when thereís time for it, after this is all over. Besides, I had my reaction two nights ago, when everything happened." Quickly, she changed the subject. "Youíre pretty good with kids, I see. Do you have any of your own?"

He shook his head, amusement creeping into his green eyes. "Not yet. Although I wouldnít mind some- with the right lady. I just havenít found her yet."

"Not for lack of trying, I would imagine," Andrea retorted. "Your track record with women has even reached California."

"Yeah, well-" Peter shrugged uncomfortably. The speed at which he changed dates was a bit of a sore spot for him. Either they wanted to get too serious too fast, or they were just looking for the quick status boost that dating a Ghostbuster would provide. "So, are you single?"

She raised an eyebrow at him. "I think, Dr. Venkman," she replied firmly, "itís time to take your temperature." Sticking a thermometer into his mouth, she effectively cut off the conversation.

Peter endured his four-minute silence good-naturedly, watching Andrea instead. Removing the thermometer from his mouth, she frowned at it. "Still high," she sighed. "Hundred and five."

"Not quite life-threatening yet, but not good," he agreed. She looked at him in curiosity, and he gave her a lopsided smile. "Iíve had fevers before," he explained.

"So Iíve been told," she responded dryly. "Here, drink this." She passed him a glass of ginger ale. "Itíll help you replenish your bodily fluids. With that fever, trust me, you need it."

Sipping at his ginger ale, Peter regarded her with interest. "So why did you get into medicine anyway?"

"What, you think itís an unusual field for a girl?" she asked. Despite the teasing note in her voice, Peter thought he detected a bit of a challenge there as well.

"Not really. Itís just that almost everybody has a story, a reason why they do what they do. I was wondering about yours."

Andrea sighed. "Well, my dad was a doctor, actually. Small town GP, here in Crissman, as a matter of fact. He was Frankís partner. I idolized the man."

"And you wanted him to be proud of you?" Peter probed gently. Andrea laughed.

"My dad would have been proud of me if I had been an accountant. He was always proud of me. No, I didnít go to med school to make him proud of me, exactly. It was just- we were so much alike, and I always wanted to be like him. He was always so happy as a doctor that I knew I would be, too."

Her blue eyes got a little distant then. "He got sick while I was in school. Cancer, myodysplasia. Itís sort of a pre-leukemia. Attacks the bone marrow, that sort of thing. I remember watching him get sicker and sicker, but he never let it get him down. My dad was a fighter. The day I graduated from medical school, he was so proud, I thought heíd burst. He made a couple of jokes about us going to practice together- Howard and Howard, said we ought to find a Fein to work with us." She shot Peter an amused look. "My dad was a complete and unapologetic Stooges fan," she explained. "Anyway, after that, he got sicker, and a couple months later, he was gone. But I was always so glad that he was able to see me graduate, and know that I was a doctor." She turned to him, cocking her head. "What about your family?"

"Mine? Well, it was usually me and my mom. My dad was on the road most of the time. Ostensibly he was a traveling salesman. Actually, he was a traveling con artist. He still is, really. Anyway, he was gone a lot. My mom pretty much raised me. I loved her, and she loved me, but the fact was that we hardly had any money, or any things. ĎTil I went to college, she and my dad were the only family I had, and I kind of grew up holding everything inside.

"Then I met Egon. At first, I thought we were gonna hate each other, but somehow we wound up friends. And not just friends like Iíd had before, who would listen to you, talk with you, have a good time with you. With Egon, it was almost as if we were brothers. He was always there for me, from Physics tutoring to nursing me through whatever illness Iíd managed to contract. For a long time, I was scared to death that it was all going to turn out to be some really sick cosmic joke, and Iíd have everything snatched away from me. It took me a long time to relax.

"A few years later, Ray came along, and then after we started the business, I met Winston. Three guys who would and have put their lives on the line for me without a second thought. Itís a little scary, sometimes, how strong it is. But I donít think Iíd trade it for the world."

Andrea looked wistful. "I wish I had friends like that."

"Theyíre not just friends," Peter replied. "Theyíre family. Ray- Rayís like your little brother- your genius little brother. He can fix just about any piece of machinery he gets his hands on, and more than once, heís come up with the solution to something that looks impossible. He also is the only adult man I know to sit down daily and watch every episode of Murray the Mantis.

"Egonís a genius, too, more of the logical, Mr. Spock type. He can be so serious that you forget that thereís a really evil sense of humor buried under there. I should know- weíve been sniping at each other and playing practical jokes ever since Columbia. Sometimes you canít understand a word he says, but he always knows what heís doing.

"And Winston, heís the anchor. The three of us, weíre all scientists, even me. Sometimes we get a little too wrapped up in the scientific aspect of things, and heís always the one to haul us back and tell us weíre crazy. Heís definitely the common sense of the team." He stopped and blinked. "I donít usually run on at the mouth like this. Sorry."

"Iím the one who should be apologizing," she responded. "I should know better than to ask personal questions of a guy with a fever."

"So, as I was asking before, do you have kids of your own?"

She raised an eyebrow at him. "Thatís not exactly what you were asking, but no. I guess I just havenít found the right person yet either."

"Well, looks to me as if youíve already adopted one."

"Jake?" She considered that. "Maybe. Iíve been taking care of him since he was born. In a way, I guess Iím all he has left. I just hope that he doesnít lose me, too."

"Do you want me to tell you that everythingís going to be all right?"

"I would rather you tell me the truth."

Peter chuckled. "Well, Egon, Winston, and Ray are out there working on the problem. There are not two guys in the entire world that I trust the brains of more than Egon and Ray, and if pure stubbornness counts for anything, with the three of them, this should be over in another hour. They have always- ALWAYS- come through for me before."

Sighing, she sank down on the couch next to him. "Thanks. I needed to hear that."

Slowly, he slid his arm around her shoulders, and she did not push him away. "Donít mention it."


* * *

Back at the library, things were not nearly so peaceful. Zombies were beginning to close in on the three Ghostbusters. "Spread out!" Winston yelled, as the shambling creatures began to advance on them. He rolled to one side as one of the zombies leaped towards him. As he rolled, Winston pulled the thrower from its resting place in one swift motion, swinging it into the place and thumbing the trigger. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Egon and Ray doing the same, throwing themselves in various directions. Then all his attention was drawn to the creatures surrounding him. It seemed as if no matter how many he blasted, another was there to take its place. He needed an out, and he needed one fast.

Ray had his back to the Young Adult section, frantically blasting away at the zombies attacking him, when a crashing noise caught his attention. He looked up just in time to see Winston follow the chair he had just heaved out of one of the large front windows. "Egon!" the engineer called. "Weíve got to get out of here! Theyíll just keep coming until they overwhelm us!"

"Iím open to suggestions, Raymond," the physicist replied, never taking his attention from his own attackers.

Ray scanned the library frantically, his mind working. "Iíve got it! When the lights go out, head for the window! Iíll be right behind you!" So saying, the auburn-haired man suddenly cut and ran, reaching the librarianís desk and vaulting over it easily. "Okay, guys, lights out!" Stantz yelled, slamming all of the switches down at once. The library was suddenly plunged into darkness, throwing the zombies into confusion. Egon quickly took the opportunity to throw himself out of the window that Winston had broken, landing on the lawn below. For a second, he wondered why none of the zombies had followed him, and then the sound of a proton pack firing from inside answered that question. Ray was making a target of himself, acting as bait to keep the zombies off Egonís trail.

"RAY!" Egon yelled, his bass voice barely audible over the sounds of mayhem inside the library.

"Egon!" Winstonís voice called. Egon turned to see the older man sitting in the driverís seat of the car. The physicist ran over there, his long legs eating up the ground beneath him.

"Winston! Rayís still in there!" he cried. Just then, the front doors of the library burst open, and Ray came running out, a flood of zombies on his heels.

"Get in the car!" the occultist yelled, waving at them. Egon did as instructed, hopping into the shotgun seat while Winston revved the engine. With an incredible flying leap, Ray landed in the back seat of the convertible, and Winston hit the gas, leaving the zombies behind.

"Ray, are you all right?" Egon asked in concern. "You werenít injured, were you?"

Stantz shook his head. "No, Egon, Iím okay. Wow, that was kind of fun. Of course, I wouldnít want to do it again, but it was cool anyway."

Winston shook his head. "Ray, you are a strange man."


* * *

"More compresses, Jake. His temperatureís going up again," Andrea ordered. Sitting on the couch, Peter watched her with a slightly confused expression. Not long after their earlier conversation, Peterís fever had taken a turn for the worse, and he was losing his lucidity. He wasnít hallucinating yet, but he was beginning to go hazy on them.

"Whereís Egon?" he muttered. "I would have thought heíd be playing mother hen, like he always does."

Andrea sighed. "Dr. Venkman, please try to focus. Dr. Spengler and your other friends went to the library, remember?"

"Call me Peter," the psychologist mumbled. "Evírybody does. Well, everybody except Janine."

Jake came back in with another load of towels. "Thanks, Jake," Andrea said absently, taking one from the bucket and applying it once again to Peterís forehead.

Suddenly he reached up and stopped her wrist. "Did anyone ever tell you youíre beautiful?" he asked dreamily.

She raised an eyebrow. "Not recently, Dr. Venkman. Now let go of my wrist. We have to keep your temperature down."

Peter subsided, looking up at Andrea with half-closed eyes. Suddenly a splintering crash caught all of their attentions. Peter sat up, trying desperately to focus, as the door shattered inward, and a zombie made its way into the living room. "Holy shit!" he managed, rolling off the couch. He landed beside his proton pack, and grabbed at the rifle. Fever or not, Peter had been using his pack day in and day out for a number of years. There was no way he was going to miss. He snapped off a quick shot, and the zombie fell smoking to the ground.

Andrea and Jake quickly hurried to Peterís side, helping him to get to his feet. "Weíve got to get out of here," Venkman mumbled. "I donít want more of them showing up." He squinted, trying to focus. "Dr. Howard, youíd better wear my proton pack. I donít think Iím strong enough, and I know weíre going to need it."

She nodded, and Jake quickly helped her into it. Once it was situated, she and Jake draped Peterís arms around their necks and hurriedly helped him out of the house.

They were about halfway down the road when Winston pulled up in the car. "Hey, heís awake!" Zeddemore cried, seeing Peter.

"Sort of," Andrea replied, loading the psychologist into the back seat. "We had some uninvited guests back at my place. Find anything at the library?"

"Yeah, we think so," Ray answered, supporting Peter against his side as the car took off again. "Turns out that this is coming from something that the archeological dig outside of town uncovered. Weíre headed there now. Hopefully, we can stop this there."

"Weíd better. I donít think Dr. Venkman has much time."

At the dig site, everyone piled out of the car, Peter supported between Andrea and Ray. Egon pulled out a PKE meter and began scanning the area. Getting a signal, he pointed to a cave in one of the rock walls of the area. "In there," the physicist informed them. "Whatever it is, itís big."

The six cautiously made their way up to the cave. Once inside, they quickly saw the source of their troubles. A huge fountain of black energy was pouring out of a hole in the earth, spreading through the sky. The energy even looked menacing, roiling and churning threateningly. Looking at it, Peter groaned.

"Aw, man, I think Iím gonna be sick. Wait, check that. Sicker."

"Ray, are you sure this is a good idea?" Winston asked. "Isnít this thing dangerous?"

The engineer shook his head. "No, not really. Itís only dangerous to living beings if itís absorbed through actual contact, like an injury from one of those zombies. Otherwise, youíre perfectly safe."

Peter grimaced. "Define Ďperfectly safe.í"

As usual, Ray and Egon ignored him. "The readings would seem to indicate that this flow is pure negative energy," Egon mused. "A suitable application of positively charged energy will most likely disrupt it and cause it to dissipate harmlessly into the psychosphere."

"Rats, and me without my mood slime," muttered Peter. Egon shot him a look, which the brown-haired Ghostbuster returned in all innocence.

"Peter, our throwers should be able to provide the necessary amount of energy," Ray told him. "But weíre going to need all four of them, at full dispersal, fired at just the right places."

Andrea looked at Peter, who by this time was sitting on the ground. His green eyes were glazed, and he was obviously slipping in and out of true consciousness. She looked at Ray and squared her shoulders. "How do I use this thing?"

As Ray was giving her a crash course in using a proton pack, Jake walked back to the entrance of the cave. Looking out and down, Jake could see a mass of zombies shuffling towards them across the valley below. "Theyíre here!" the boy called, running back towards the others. "Youíd better hurry this up."

"Careful, Dr. Howard," Winston cautioned. "These things have a bit of a kick to them."

Andrea nodded, unshipping her thrower and aiming it at the flow. "Ready."

"Ready," Egon echoed.

Winston nodded. "Ready here, too."

"All right," Ray replied. "Ready- aim- fire!" The four of them pressed the triggers on their proton rifles, the four streams striking the black energy with pinpoint accuracy. Around them, the entire cave began to shake as the energy flow twisted and thrashed. Andrea ducked as a shot of black energy came her way, but managed to keep her proton stream on target.

"Keep going!" Egon cried. "Itís working!"

"It better be!" Winston shot back. "This place is gonna come down on our heads!"

The rumbling continued, growing stronger with each passing moment. Just when it seemed as if the entire cavern would collapse, the flow suddenly broke up into black mist, wafting away on the breeze. The rumbling did not stop, however. In fact, it continued to grow, and pieces of ceiling began to rain down on them.

"Everybody out of the pool!" Ray called, heading for the entrance. Andrea was right behind him, pushing Jake before her. Egon and Winston brought up the rear, supporting an unconscious Peter between them. The six of them made it out of the cave just as the entire thing collapsed. Egon and Winston laid Peter down on the ground. Andrea was instantly by his side.

"His fever has broken!" she cried, feeling his forehead. "I think heís going to be all right. Come on, Peter, stay with us."

Slowly, as if with immense effort, one of Venkmanís eyes rolled open a crack. "You- called me Peter," he smiled slightly.

She shrugged. "Got your attention, didnít it? Donít pass out on me again. Youíre still unstable."

"Iíd have to be," he grumped. "I let Egon and Ray talk me into this job."

Winston laughed. "Yeah, I think heís gonna be okay," he told her.

Ray looked around him in confusion. "What I want to know is- what happened to all the zombies?"

"Well, I would theorize that when we destroyed the energy flow, they were rendered discorporate by the sudden lack of energy to power them," Egon replied. Jake looked over at Ray in confusion.

"What did he say?"

Ray grinned. "He said they dried up and blew away," he translated. "I guess itís finally over."



* * *

Peter looked at his three friends and grinned. "Can we go home now?" he asked. The sounds and bustle of LAX flowed around them as they sat in one of the waiting areas. Egon chuckled.

"As soon as our plane arrives, Peter. I must admit, Iíll be rather glad to see the last of California for a while."

"Aw, it wasnít so bad," Ray replied, looking up from his magazine. "We stopped the contagion from spreading, saved two people, and got paid pretty well for it. All in all, I think it was a pretty good trip."

Peter grimaced. "Yeah, well you werenít the one who had to spend the past three days living on hospital food. Never again, I mean it."

"Does this mean that youíre no longer a card-carrying knight in shining armor?" a voice said behind him. He turned to see Andrea Howard grinning at him.

"Slightly tarnished," he replied easily. "At the risk of sounding clichť, whatís up, Doc?"

"PETER!" Egon, Winston, and Ray groaned in unison.

Andrea just laughed. "Hospital food or not, your sense of humor seems to have survived intact. Actually, Dr. Venkman, I just dropped by to see you off. Jake would have come, but heís clearing up a few loose ends with Child Services."

"Whatís going to happen to him, anyway?" Ray asked. "Did they find his mother?"

Andrea nodded sadly. "Iím afraid so. She never made it out of her office. Jake doesnít have any other relatives, and as the town doctor, I practically raised him. So, Iíve applied to adopt him, and the board doesnít see any obvious barriers to it. As soon as the adoption is final, weíre moving out of Crissman, and probably away from California."

"Good," Peter nodded. "He doesnít need the memories that place will bring up, and neither do you."

"Where are you gonna go?" Winston asked.

She shrugged. "Iím not really sure yet, actually. It depends on what job offers I get and where. So far Iíve had two or three from across the country."

Peter grinned. "Well, Dr. Howard, if youíre ever in New York, be sure to look us up."

She smiled back. "Dr. Venkman,- youíve got a deal."

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