Chapter 12: The Space of Seven Breaths
"When your mind is going hither and thither, discrimination will never be brought to a conclusion. With an intense, fresh and underlying spirit, one will make his judgments within the space of seven breaths. It is a matter of being determined and having the spirit to break right through to the other side." -- Hagakure, 'The Book of the Samurai.'
The Ghostbusters were silent as they entered the city hall. They didn't speak as they rode the elevators up to the floors the Mayor had his offices on. They didn't even say anything as they sat down in the office to wait for Lenny to arrive.
Janine studied them intently as the minutes ticked by at an excruciatingly slow speed. Egon sat alone in a chair, his back ramrod straight, arms folded easily across his chest. His long, thin fingers, tapping against his biceps, unconsciously maintained a rhythm with Winston's muffled footsteps as the tall mechanic paced the room with restless strides. Ray had found a magazine on local economics and was idly flicking through the glossy pages without pausing to read the articles properly, whereas Peter had moved across to the window and was absently poking at the blinds that obscured the glass. The secretary couldn't remember a time when she'd seen the four of them quite so tense over a meeting.
They could hear the Mayor approaching long before they saw him. He was shouting at someone, his voice muffled and indistinct. The group paused and studied each other.
"Some things never change," Winston sighed.
A moment later, the door slammed inwards and the small, stocky Mayor burst into the room. His face was flushed and his eyes dark, pools of rage as he was followed inside by two harried-looking men.
On seeing the Ghostbusters in his office, he came to a dead stop. In silence, his gaze raked over each of them before finally resting on Peter. "And I thought my day couldn't get any worse. You've got 5 minutes, Ghostbusters," he stalked over to his desk then his head snapped up to glare at Peter. "And don't you dare tell me the world is in danger, or New York City is about to be destroyed, because I've had it up to here with doomsaying cults and Biblical melodrama!" He gesticulated wildly then sagged into his seat.
Winston and Ray exchanged an uneasy glance as Egon rose to join Peter, who had turned away from the window and shoved his hands deep into his pockets. A predatory smile stole slowly over the psychologist's face and he stalked across to the desk as if the Mayor was prey at his mercy. Egon grabbed his arm and shook his head warningly then turned to the irate city official himself. "That is exactly why we are here," he confirmed bluntly.
Lenny shot him a dark look but there was no surprise in his features. He had too much history with the paranormal experts to be anything other than frustrated and nervous whenever they arrived on his doorstep. "Start talking," he snapped.
Ray came forward cautiously. "Well, sir, what we have is a focused metaspectral manifestation ..."
"Ancient Babylonian god," Winston clarified quickly.
"... with probable apotheosising free-roaming properties ..."
"It'll go where it damn well wants to."
"The emergent influences displayed indicate an obligatory vegetative consociation ..."
"He's a regular plant boy."
"... as indicated by his current frondescent configuration ..."
"Looks like a tree."
"His materialisation is the cumulation of thousands of years of cosmically significant artificial entropic manipulation ..."
"He's in Brooklyn because of an ancient curse."
"... engineered for the sole purpose of eradicating its single nemesis."
"He plans on wiping out the entire human race."
Ray sucked in a deep breath, his first since opening his mouth, and fell silent, looking anxiously at the Mayor. Lenny's eyes, which had darted between the excitable scientist and his more grounded interpreter, finally settled on Winston. "Thank you," he muttered, his tone ascerbic.
"No problem," the mechanic replied, with a disbelieving glare at Ray that was utterly lost on the engineer.
Lenny studied them all suspiciously. "So what do you plan on doing about it?"
There was an uneasy silence as four pairs of eyes turned, almost simultaneously, towards Egon. Lenny raised both eyebrows slowly and also looked in his direction. "Well?" He demanded impatiently.
"Our equipment doesn't pack the juice we need ..." It was Peter who suddenly spoke up, cutting off Egon as the physicist opened his mouth.
Lenny stared at him. "You're saying you can't stop it? What's going to happen to my city if you can't stop it?"
"It'll be destroyed. As will every other city on Earth." Peter's tone was surprisingly off-hand.
Rising slowly from his seat, Lenny leaned heavily on his desk. "That's not good enough!" he snapped. "You're the Ghostbusters. If you don't stop this thing, nobody will. No one else does what ... whatever it is you people do!"
Egon started to speak but was again cut off by Peter. "Sure, our equipment is cutting edge, state of the art. Ray and Egon are the greatest brainiacs you'll ever meet, and Winston here ..." he flung an arm charitably around the thoroughly bemused mechanic, ignoring the looks his colleagues were all giving him. "Is a tactical genius, courtesy of a good ol' US of A army education. But!" He paused dramatically, releasing Winston at the same time. "We don't have anything that can stop him right now. If you want us to beat this man-eating, soul-sucking, world-destroying demon we're gonna to have to get serious."
"How serious?" The suspicion was almost dripping off Lenny's every word.
Peter threw him a brilliant smile and gestured to Egon. "Mic's yours, Spengs. Take it away." He backed off, letting the irritable Mayor's attention focus on the physicist. He still didn't know what Egon had in mind but he was certain he was going to hate it. He was certain because Egon himself had expressed doubts as to whether they could convince Lenny to go along with the plan. And Ray hadn't even speculated once on what Egon's theory might have been. Normally a man who thoroughly enjoyed trying to pre-empt and outthink Egon, Ray's silence was so unusual that Peter knew with complete confidence that the engineer had guessed what Egon's plan would be and was as concerned about it as Egon himself was. And if those two were both worried and both still going through with trying to get it approved it was entirely possible that they would need every bit of verbal repartee an ex-psychology professor and son of a con man could provide them with. At the very least, he could impress on Lenny just how dire their situation was.
Egon glanced once at Janine who threw him an encouraging smile. He cleared his throat and adjusted his glasses nervously then fixed Lenny with a cool, blue stare. "Paranormal activity has increased dramatically within the past two days," he began. "The awakening of entities that are Class Seven and greater creates a specific psychokinetic flux cycle that affects the activity of local ecto-sensitive entities ..."
"What the hell is he saying?" Lenny interrupted, turning immediately to Winston.
"Demons as powerful as Gozer or Proteus," the mechanic explained. "Ghosts get more active before demons like that arrive. It's like a dog barking before an earthquake."
Lenny blinked. "Does that really happen?"
"Yes." Egon sounded a little reproachful at the interruption as he continued. "However, we have not experienced the cycle this time," he paused significantly and raised an eyebrow.
There was silence for a moment as everyone tried to figure out what Egon found so significant about that revelation. Lenny glanced at Winston again for help, but this time the mechanic shrugged helplessly. Then Ray snapped his fingers, dawning realisation on his face. "Until two days ago!" He exclaimed. "While you were in hospital, Peter, our phone was ringing off the hook. We haven't been able to take the calls yet because we needed to regroup. Most of our clients have been really understanding about that." He made a face. "Probably because what happened to you and Janine was plastered all over the news," he took a deep breath. "Anyway. We explained to them that we'd take down their information and get to them as soon as possible but the chances are the phenomenon is linked to Humbaba and like the other times, can be resolved if we take out the big guy."
"Whoa ... Humbaba?" Lenny interrupted again.
"That's the demon's name," Peter told him. "Mean guy. Likes plants, hates us for cutting down trees. Think Poison Ivy - but without the sex appeal."
Lenny stared at him for a moment as if he was trying to decide whether to strangle him into silence or let him keep talking, then turned back to Ray. "So? What happened two days ago?"
"The wind shield!" Winston finally understood what the two scientists were driving at. "We shut down the wind shield!" He caught the irritation flaring in Lenny's eyes and quickly elaborated. "The demon's protecting himself with some kind of manifested storm that's stopping anyone getting close."
"I see," the Mayor managed.
"Wait a sec, you mean that thing isn't just protecting Humbaba from us but is protecting the city from Humbaba?" Peter demanded, catching on at last.
"It's not like Humbaba really needs it." Winston muttered. "The combined force of four proton packs didn't affect it."
"Actually, the proton packs did affect it." Egon corrected. "I've checked the calculations Ray's been making over the past two days and in a way we've made things worse. The principles of protonic energy transfer that we rely on to contain ghosts have become our Achilles heel. Humbaba utilised an endothermic conversion process to create a Class A exothermic reaction."
Ray nodded in agreement. "Our proton packs acted like an oxidator, combining with radicals provided by Humbaba to begin an ectoplasmic pyrolytic cycle."
"Precisely," Egon agreed. "Which explains why his spectrographic signature changed so radically after he restored the manifested atmospheric phenomenon."
"But not how he erected the wind shield in the first place. I should have listened to you from the start, Egon. You were right all along."
"Yes." Egon said dryly.
Ray smiled at Egon's affronted expression. "We're not all geniuses, Egon. You've got to give us time to catch up. And you didn't actually have any evidence until now. You are the one who's always telling me not to accept a theory before evidence has been collected."
Egon relaxed at that. "I'm sorry, Ray. You are, of course, correct."
The engineer smiled but was prevented from answering that as the Mayor finally exploded. "Why the hell can't you people ever give it to me straight? Am I going to have to ban you from this office or make it law that you only speak English when you step through that damn door? What the hell is wrong with you people!"
Peter smiled brightly at him. "I keep telling them the exact same thing, Lenny."
The Mayor glared at him. He hated hearing his name coming from the psychologist's lips. Peter knew that. It was one of the reasons why he used it so much.
Ray sighed. "Okay, in simplest terms, when you take something like wood and heat it, the chemical bonds that make it wood begin to break. If these broken bonds find an agent that can bind with them to make oxygen, we get sustainable combustion. In other words a fire. These agents, oxidisers, can also increase the positive charge of an element by removing electrons. Basically, Humbaba fed on the positive charge of our proton packs to fuel his own abilities."
"So every time we zap him he gets stronger?" Winston demanded.
Egon sighed. "Unfortunately, yes."
"So we can just reverse polarity?" Peter asked hopefully.
"Well, yes. We could." Ray looked unhappy. "The trouble is that Humbaba is basically like most other ectoplasmic entities we face. He's composed of negatively charged ectoplasm except when he has physical form, in which case, we'd need the atomic destabiliser. It's just that ... well, he's not in physical form but he's hiding in a physical object. His power is protecting his ... his ..."
"Husk?" Egon suggested.
"Husk. Yeah, thanks Egon," Ray turned back to Peter. "So, basically, we have to get him out of his husk, then we can trap him as normal but because he converts our streams into his own firepower, we're actually being less effective than normal and he's being more resistant than normal."
"So ... we're talking about a creature we are hurting but who gains his power through the pain we cause?" Winston asked.
"Sort of, yes." Ray sighed.
"You'd think a masochistic god actually wouldn't be too upset we've made firewood out of his forest," Peter mused distantly.
"Well, he is. And what's worse is that he's ... well, he's a god, Peter. Look what it took to destroy Gozer. Look what we went through to fight Tiamat - we had Marduk's help against Tiamat. Another god. And he died in the process!"
There was absolute silence in the room. "So ... how are you going to defeat him?" Lenny asked eventually.
Ray and Egon exchanged an uneasy look. "Well, if we can get him out of the husk, we're going to have to give it everything we've got and try and overload him so he can't use our weapons against us. That means boosting the equipment, using the cannons on Ecto-1 and Ecto-2 and crossing streams." Ray said slowly.
They all waited, expecting him to continue but he didn't. He looked exhausted. "That's it, guys. That's the plan."
"That's the plan?" Winston shot Egon an incredulous look. The physicist sighed unhappily. "Oh man, we are so dead."
Lenny expression immediately became suspicious. "We are? Why?"
"It's bad," Winston told him with heart-felt emphasis.
"How do we get him out of the husk? Atomic destabiliser?" Peter asked.
"A single atomic destabliser alone won't have the power we need." Ray was chewing his lip in thought.
"What about the wind shield?" Winston asked.
Ray looked at Egon, who sighed. "I don't know," the physicist confessed.
"You don't know?" Peter asked. "Why not?"
Egon looked reproachful. "As I said when we first learned the identity of our opponent, it doesn't make sense for him to have the ability to control both fire and air. The connection between our attempts to stop him and his increase in power is now established but there is no apparent link between him and the wind shield."
"Can't we overload it like we did before?"
"The power we would require might destroy what we are trying to save, Peter." Egon considered for a moment. "We do have the option of setting our proton packs to overload but in that event, I would recommend against doing it in Brooklyn. If it's a decision we take, we can choose where the confrontation takes place and I would suggest making it somewhere people don't usually live."
"Overload the proton packs?" Peter sighed. "That's your plan, Egon? I know we call you and Ray the mad scientists but guys, you're really scaring me here."
"Didn't you say the force of the explosion would destroy a quarter-mile radius?" Winston asked.
The Mayor's jaw dropped. "You are not blowing up my city!"
"We could set up in Central Park," Ray suggested. "That's got the space we need to limit the damage to the rest of the city, if we can get it evacuated," he looked hopefully at Lenny, who stared back at him in stunned disbelief.
"Hey, hold up a minute, Ray!" Winston protested. "What's the plan here? Move Humbaba to Central Park and rig the place to blow in a nuclear explosion that you hope will destroy him?"
"That's Plan B," Egon said. "Plan A is to use the proton packs and cannons to cross streams."
"And that's supposed to make me feel better?" Peter asked, for once united with the Mayor in his disbelief.
"How are you going to get Humbaba there?" Winston asked. "The wind shield doesn't make it easy to dig him up."
"We need to find a way to entice him there." Egon replied.
There was a sudden silence. "Go there himself?" Peter sounded incredulous. "As in wake him up?!"
"Yes, Peter." Egon's voice was even and precise.
"Egon, you're trying to pull some kind of practical joke here, right? Isn't waking up a god we can't kill when asleep a bad, bad plan?"
"The force we need to generate to cause significant impact to the wind shield would damage a densely populated portion of the city. Then we would be required to repeat that same force when confronting Humbaba directly. We have a choice, Peter, one explosion or two," he turned suddenly and looked directly at the Mayor. "Which option would you prefer?"
"That ... that's the choice you're giving me to get rid of this demon from my city?" Lenny's face turned beet red. "Blow the place up once, possibly twice, with a nuclear bomb in Central Park? Are you crazy or do you think I'm just stupid? Get the hell out of my office!"
"Is there an echo in here or is that just the axe in my head?" Peter muttered under his breath. It was frustrating to fight the Mayor's ingrained mistrust of them every time they needed his help but this time he really couldn't blame the man for his reaction. The psychologist wasn't sure whether his headache now was from the strain of the past few days, the fact he was dealing with the Mayor or that he felt he had the responsibility to try and argue their point convincingly when even he wasn't sure of its merit.
Egon had been right. Not only did the Mayor hate this plan but Peter hated it too. Unfortunately, he really couldn't think of any other options left to them. Swallowing back his unease, his doubts, his fears and mentally telling his headache to put up or shut up, he spread his hands and smiled easily. "You have to admit, Lenny. Egon's got a point. You really want to explain to your voters why you allowed the destruction of residential areas when we had an option that could allow homes and livelihoods to be saved?"
"Saved?" the Mayor looked incredulous. "You come in here telling me the only way to stop this ... this ..."
"... Deranged, homicidal deity ..." Ray offered sympathetically.
"Demon ..." the Mayor glared at Ray, who winced. "Is to set off nuclear explosions in the middle of the city and then talk about saving New York?! In case you didn't hear me the first time, I'll say it again - are you insane or am I just stupid?!"
Out of the corner of his eye, Peter saw Egon push his glasses up his nose. The emphatic punch to that gesture galvanised the psychologist into action before the physicist could respond honestly to the rhetorical question.
Slipping an arm around the Mayor's shoulders, he turned him away from Egon slightly. No matter how bad the plan, now that Egon had put it forth, the physicist would defend it to the death. It wasn't scientific but Egon's pride sometimes demanded nothing less.
"Lenny, you know as well as we do what's at stake here and we know that most people in this rat-hole of a city don't give a damn about anything but what hits them in the pocket ..."
"Look, Venkman, I've been dealing with you for ..."
"The question ..." Peter continued smoothly as if the Mayor hadn't interrupted. "... you need to ask yourself is: what damage will they think hits their wallet the hardest? Repairing Brooklyn where they have their homes, schools, neighbours, friends, family ... or repairing a single, impersonal park they might only visit once a week or once a month?"
"Because you have to face facts here, Lenny. We're dealing with the kind of tree-hugger that gives environmental activists a bad name. If he gets loose, he won't be spray-painting "Treez Rule Da Urth!" across inner-city walls - he'll be ripping out the city hall to plant the next Mrs Treebeard and using the Empire State Building as a kiddies climbing frame for the next generation of Ents-from-Hell."
"Good God, man! What on Earth are you babbling on about!" The Mayor finally yelled in exasperation. "This is my damn office, at least give me the courtesy of being allowed to speak in it!"
"Oh, sorry, Mr. Mayor. Please ... you were saying?" Peter politely stepped back and shoved his hands into his pockets to keep them from balling into fists. He was feeling sluggish today and his headache was actually getting worse. Through force of will, he refrained from sighing loudly. Maybe he should have paid attention to the doctor after all and refrained from touching the caffeine for a while.
The Mayor glowered at him, as if trying to work out whether Peter was insulting him or mocking him. It had to be one of them because both men shared a mutual hatred of each other so respect was out of the question.
"I was saying ..." he glared at Peter, then turned his attention on all the Ghostbusters. "... that you need to come up with a better plan. I'm not going to allow you to blow up New York!"
"There is no other plan." Egon was starting to sound impatient. "We've already told you that."
"I don't give a damn, Spengler. You find another way because hell'll freeze over before I agree to this insanity!"
"Fine." Egon turned on heel and started for the door.
"Uh.. Egon?" Winston asked quietly.
"And just where do you think you're going?" Lenny demanded.
"I've got an experiment measuring the visual turbidity of Rhizopus nigricans sporangial hyphae that could benefit from my presence," the frost in Egon's voice almost froze the room. "Once Humbaba has finished destroying New York, I'll reconsider picking up my proton pack. I won't need to worry about blowing up the city at that point. There won't be one left."
"Egon, wait!" Ray exclaimed, leaping forward but the physicist had already stalked out of the room, the door slamming back into place missing Ray's face by inches.
For a moment, everyone stared at the door. "Okay, what was that?" Winston asked mildly.
"Maybe one of us should go after him," Ray suggested uneasily. "Janine?"
The secretary was already on her feet and moving towards the door before Ray addressed her but she stopped when Peter firmly laid a hand on the handle and shook his head at her.
"Leave him to cool down." Peter said shortly, turning back to the Mayor, who was staring at the door with a slack jaw. "Lenny," he said pleasantly. "Egon may not have worded it exactly how I would have but he's right. There aren't any options here. We have to throw more power at Humbaba than Humbaba can deal with. The less people that get hurt, the better and the safest place to do that is in Central Park."
"Do you have any idea how hard it will be to evacuate Central Park?" Lenny demanded.
"Look man, I don't know what to tell you," Winston broke in quickly. "We're giving you the easy option - control over the location we confront this demon-god in. If you leave it too long, we won't even have that much going for us!"
"How long?" the Mayor asked.
"Three days? Give or take." Ray said quietly.
Lenny stared at him. "So, in three days, this ... thing in Brooklyn will wake up and destroy the city?"
"Every city on Earth. He wants his forest back." Ray clarified.
The Mayor's eyes narrowed. "And to destroy it, you want to wake it up now, lure it to Central Park and blow it up?"
"But you can't guarantee this plan will work?"
"No, we can't. We can only promise to do everything in our power to try."
"And for the sake of clarification, tell me again what happens if you fail."
"Humbaba wipes out humanity and starts again with birds and bees," Peter said bluntly.
The Mayor's shoulders slumped. "Alright. We'll try and get Central Park cleaned out. Make sure you get that thing into the park. I want my city in one piece for as long as possible."
"Try to hurry, Mr. Mayor. Humbaba won't wait for us. We will have to act when he's awake regardless of what's going on in the park then," Ray told him.
The Mayor sighed wearily. "In that case, get out of here. Do your job and I'll do mine," he turned away from them and moved back to his desk. Ray was the only one to glance back as they left and the sight gave him pause. The Mayor sagged into his seat looking older and more tired than the Ghostbuster could ever remember seeing him and for the first time, the engineer found himself sympathising with the man. As hard as it was to be a Ghostbuster, he was very glad not to be Lenny right now. With a last sad shake of his head, he closed the door behind him and left the Mayor alone to his troubles.