Chapter 3: Terminated

Winston Zeddemore hummed to himself contentedly as he drove down the South Shore of Long Island, revelling in the surprisingly thin traffic. It was the hottest and sunniest day yet of what had already been a hot and sunny June, and Winston smiled as he enjoyed the sight of the sun's rays spilling onto the surface of the Atlantic, glistening as bright as a magnesium flare. He kept one hand on the steering wheel and one hanging out of the open window, lazily dragging in the air ripple. He was going to meet Kaila at her apartment in Queens and then head on down to Rockaway Beach for the afternoon. He knew he had earned it – running around with a heavy proton pack on your back busting all manner of belligerent, annoying and even downright dangerous spooks tended to engender that sort of satisfaction on a down day.

Keeping track of the buildings to the left of him, Winston made a mental note: third turn from here. Then, a bleep from his car phone – something they had installed in all their cars in case they had a Big One and needed all four men – begged his immediate attention.

He picked up the receiver. "Winston here. What's up?"

"Good afternoon, Winston," came the smooth, measured tones of Egon Spengler.

"Hi, Egon. Is there trouble? Something big come up?"

"Not exactly, Winston..." said Egon, a certain ominous tone present in his voice.

Winston frowned. "Okay...well, Egon, you gonna enlighten me, or do we have to play 'Twenty Questions?'"

The older man heard Egon clear his throat. "We need to have a talk, Winston. A talk we've needed to have for some time now. Return to the firehouse immediately." The physicist's voice was taut and stern, like a disapproving headmaster's. Something isn't right, thought Winston.

"Look, Egon, can't this wait? Kaila's expecting me soon, and I don't want to let her down. She's been rushing to Hartford and back around the clock to see her ill grandfather recently, we don't get enough time together as it is."

"You won't need to worry about her, Winston," spoke Egon, and his tone of voice was definitely worrying him now. "Return here now and don't make this any more difficult than it has to be."

Winston sighed. "All right, but this had better be good. Life and death good." With a swing to the left and a heavy heart, he reached for the phone to break the bad news to Kaila...

Winston parked up outside Ghostbuster Central and walked in. Walking across the garage towards Janine's desk, he saw no Janine. Instead, he saw Egon sat behind the table, and seated next to him, on his left and right respectively, were Ray and Peter. The desk had been cleared of Janine's computer, file trays, phone and everything. The scene was quite, quite sinister, despite the fact that the people facing Winston were his colleagues and three closest friends.

"Ah, Winston, so good of you to join us. Please sit down." directed Egon, in the same iron tone of voice. Winston did so. "I suppose you are wondering why we have called you here."

"You can say that again, and once more for good measure," answered Winston, letting some anger flow out with his words. "You have one disappointed lady to apologise to later. That should be easy enough for you, Peter, you're had enough practice doing that." he added bitterly.

"You break my heart, Winston," said Peter Venkman. "If I were facing my bosses, I'd tone down the trash mouth myself. Or at least use classier insults."

Winston's eyes bulged. "Bosses? Who do you think – "

"That's enough, you two," chided Egon. "Winston, let's get to the point without further ado." He paused. "We are terminating your employment."

Winston felt his stomach burn. "You...you're WHAT?"

"You know, terminating, firing, releasing, sacking, letting go," said Peter glibly. "How many synonyms do ya want, genius?"

"OK, guys, very funny," said Winston, in a tone that clearly indicated he found it anything but. "Any reason you had to make me cancel my date to have your so-called 'joke'?"

"Oh, this is no joke, Winston," said Ray. "And don't tell me you didn't see it coming. Especially seeing as how finances have been bad recently."

Peter nodded. "Yep, bad. No bueno. So we're having to make some hard changes."

"And that starts with you," continued Egon. "We're cutting back on unnecessary expenses. Which means you, Winston."

"What?" Winston had no idea what to say. He couldn't believe this. This was way beyond anything he'd imagined. "What the hell are you talking about?"

Peter took the question. "We're talking about YOU. Y'know, the guy with no degree."

"And the guy who can't drive worth a damn." added Ray. "I count sixty near-misses in the last three months. Stevie Wonder couldn't have done worse. D'you think it's easy getting spare parts for Ecto these days?"

"All right, and how many actual accidents?" retorted Winston. "None. Nada. Zip. I don't know what's got into you clowns but I suggest you quit before my patience does."

Egon was unfazed. "We're not quitting, Winston, you are. As of now."

Winston felt cold. "So, that's it? Six years of friendship, over like that, and you expect me to just walk out?"

"Uh, yes, about that, Zedd..." Peter said. "You won't exactly be walking out of here. No. You see..."

Egon adjusted his glasses. "You know too much, Winston. You know how all our equipment functions...the packs, the traps, the containment system...and you have easy access to the plans."

"Yeah," said Ray. "There are people who'd love to get their hands on the plans for our equipment. What's to stop you from selling them to some bigshot CEO?"

Peter nodded. "Or someone wanting to start a rival business. That would make you a shitload of money. A heap more than you'd earn working as a teamster for your dad for the rest of your life." he added with a nasty leer.

"And that's why we must do this," announced Egon with finality. "We can't let you go, Winston. You're a liability. While you live, our business is in danger." The three Ghostbusters suddenly raised a thrower each.

Winston's jaw dropped. "What the hell - you can't - no!"

A click and a hum went up as the three switched on. "Goodbye, Winston. No hard feelings, huh?" shot Peter with a wink. "Full streams, make it clean. Ready - aim - fire!"

Before Winston could do anything, furious golden-white energy burst from the three menacing tips and struck him full force in the chest. Winston Zeddemore gave out a final scream of agony and betrayal before his individual atoms split and went on their separate ways...leaving no evidence there had ever been a fourth Ghostbuster.

Egon shivered and ground his hands together. The last time he had felt like this was after he had taken a fall from the top of the World Trade Center, triggering the Bogeyman's re-entry into the mortal world. There was no risk of that happening this time, but Egon took no consolation. He picked up his cocoa off the kitchen side and gulped down a hot swig of the sweet liquid. The taste had no edge to it, and the glow it usually produced in his stomach was missing. What is wrong? Egon thought to himself. Even the cocoa isn't doing anything for me.

He couldn't believe Peter would betray him like that. Even so, he felt...angry. The dream had simply been all too real. The anticipation, searing blaze of betrayal and fury in his stomach and brain, the forced excursion through the window...the snap of his spine...

Clenching the cocoa mug in his hands, he tried to steel himself against the rush of thoughts that swarmed the emotional circuits of his brain, those circuits he thought he had such good control over...Peter, Janine, Peter, Janine...Trouble was, it made too much sense. After all, he thought to himself balefully, Peter was better looking, had more experience at the romance game, was more skilled socially….and they had that semi-flirty relationship going, the type that Egon had seen in a few movies. How could he, nerdy old Egon, compete with that?

It was then that Egon became aware of the sound of footsteps. Turning towards the door, he saw the shape of Winston emerge from the darkness into the light. The African-American took in the sight of Egon and stopped.

"What are you doing up?" he asked tersely.

Egon's brain spun, thinking of an explanation. He couldn't say he was up because of a nightmare...that wasn't him. That wasn't Egon. He was logical, and that wasn't logical. "Just been working on the trap, Winston," he said, more tightly than he would have liked. "Just...having some cocoa before I go to bed."

"Oh." Winston was staring glassy-eyed at the physicist, his features set in a very alert pose, and it only served to unnerve Egon further.

"So...why are you up?" queried Egon in the lightest tone he could fashion; in other words, not light at all.

"'Nam flashback." Winston intoned robotically, staring at Egon with that same intense glare of wariness. Then he added, without thinking, "Friendly fire incident."

Egon sipped his cocoa. "I am sorry."

"I'm sure you are." replied Winston, without the slightest hint of conviction.

The two men stared at each other.

"Well, erm, I'm going back to - I mean, to bed." announced Egon. "Good night." he said stiffly, before walking past Winston and out into the hallway. Winston didn't answer, instead simply turning to watch him disappear up the spiral stairs.

It was only then that Winston realised he was cold...colder, perhaps, than he'd felt in his entire life...

In the firehouse's basement, Ray Stantz was busy attending to the Ecto-Containment Unit. It was time for the monthly check-up and the young physicist had decided to get down to it first thing in the morning after breakfast. He whistled to the tune of an old Russian folk song he'd listened to a lot growing up at his Aunt Lois' house as he did a visual sweep over the many dials, read-outs and LEDs, occasionally twiddling a knob here and flicking a switch there. Seems fine, so far, he thought. He briefly stepped over to the porthole to take a brief look in. A purple three-headed ghost with yellow spots swam over and blew him a raspberry before floating off on his merry way. He then went over to the main body of the unit and looked at the switches there. All in place. Then, a beeping noise went off on the control panel.

Ray turned and stared for a brief moment. Now what could that be? he thought to himself. He wandered over and straight away identified the problem: low pressure in plasma pump three. He switched in the back-up pump and wrote the problem down in the logbook. Must get that changed. Ray resumed his check of the main unit, but three seconds later another alarm started chirping. He walked back over to the control panel, and noticed that his body felt oddly heavy. Pushing that thought to the back of his mind, he saw that the back-up pump had failed. He reached over to switch the alarm off...but his hand failed to reach the button. Ray strained to reach it, but he couldn't do it. He looked down and saw the problem with a twinge of horror: his stomach was pressed up against the panel and was preventing him from stretching his arm out far enough. Ray stared in blank incomprehension. In the space of a few seconds, he had gained what must be nearly a hundred pounds...how had THAT happened?

"Ray!" Winston's voice issued from the top of the steps. "Switch that damn alarm off, will ya? I'm trying to read up here. Do you have any idea how loud that thing actually is?"

Ray felt a surge of panic. "Winston, I'm trying!" he asserted. "But - I -can't reach - the - buttons!" He reached again but he couldn't. Dear God, his body was getting bigger!

"Well, we told you to go on that diet," Winston said pointedly. "But you didn't."

Peter walked through the door and stood beside Winston. "Yeah, we've had complaints about your over-eating...from Slimer, " he said. "That's how bad it is."

A sickening crumpling sound issued from Ray as he started to expand faster and faster, getting bigger with every second. He tottered back from the control panel for fear of crushing it, nearly stumbling over. "Guys, help!" he shouted. "I think some ghost has possessed me - done something to me - help!"

Winston folded his arms. "Yeah, right. Blame it on the spooks. That won't fly with me, Stantz."

"Unless some ghost forcibly shoved five hundred burgers down his throat," cracked Peter, and he and Winston shared a chuckle.

"Gruummmpph!" Ray grunted in pain and anguish. He way now way beyond any conceivable human proportions, his head was ten feet off the ground and his body had bloated into a huge round ball. It was an utterly fearsome sight. "Get - Egon - in - here!"

"Coming, Raymond," announced Egon as he sped down the stairs. He whipped out a magnifying glass and held it up to Ray's still-expanding stomach. Egon backed away quickly before declaring to the others, "I surmise that this unforeseen event has been triggered by the consumption and metabolisation of a surfeit of comestibles of an overly lipid nature."

"And in Inglese, Herr Professor?" replied Venkman.

"It means that Ray's been stuffing himself silly on junk food." translated Winston.

Egon nodded. "A coarse but accurate summation, Winston."

"GUYS!" shouted Ray. "I need some help here! Fast!"

Peter had to shout back his answer. "That's what the guy working the fryer at McDonald's said when he was trying to fulfill your order, fatass!" Peter and Winston burst into giggles but Egon was more contrite.

"Gentlemen, I suggest we vacate the basement. Ray has reached critical mass. If we stay here we'll be crushed!" Egon, Peter and Winston dashed up the stairs as Ray bloated faster and faster. With a crunch, the steel stairs crumpled under Ray's left hip.

"Oh, no - the - eurgh - containment unit!" gasped Ray as the unit buckled under his weight. A gush of steam and a flash of flame went up heralding a huge explosion that made Ray scream out in pain. A second later the ceiling ruptured as the top of Ray's head connected hard before crumbling into dust. Ray only had a glimpse of Janine's vacant desk before the whole firehouse came crashing down around his ears. He scrunched his eyes shut and tried to ignore the pain as tonnes upon tonnes of masonry, mortar and steel thumped remorselessly down on top of him with a horrendous din. When he found the courage to open his eyes again, Ghostbusters Central was no more, a thick but steadily dissipating fog of dust the only remnant.

Ray then heard the sound of helicopter blades. A few moments later, Ecto-2 whirled into view through the fog curtain and flew right in close, Egon, Ray and Winston. Next to the giant balloon-hulk of Ray, it looked like a toy.

"Guys," spluttered Ray, who was nearly in tears. "You've gotta do something! I-I don't know what's happened but it's not my fault, I swear!"

"I'm sorry, Ray." said Egon, more curtly than the words demanded. "But it seems your lifestyle has jeopardised the business, perhaps permanently."

Winston nodded. "Sorry, Ray, but you had your chance."

Peter added, "Several chances. We're not called Fatbusters, y'know."

Egon reached down into the cockpit and drew out a large harpoon gun. "So we have just one choice left." He aimed the spear gun straight at what now passed for Ray's chest.

"That's insane!" squealed Ray, whose eyes were now welling up. "Please, Egon, please, you've gotta invent something - "

"It's for the good of the city, homeboy," said Winston. "Hey, maybe you'll come back as a ghost...you can be Slimer's friend!"

"Nuh-uh. I'm not having THEM fighting over food. It'd be World War Three." Peter objected.

"Three - " called Egon.

"NO!" pleaded Ray.

" - two - one - AWAY!" Egon fired and the gleaming point shot away and impacted with Ray's gargantuan mass. BOOM.

The whole world exploded with Technicolor shockwaves. Ray and everyone else dissolved and suddenly everything was spinning, spinning...vivid colours swirling and melting in and out of each other...and, without warning, a snarling face hove into view - yellow-green skin, sharp white teeth, and eyes that flashed with a psychotic malevolence. Ray heard a manic laughter ring in his eyes as the face got closer and closer, until he could almost see the fire in his eyes - then everything faded out and only formless blackness held sway.