Helloween: It's My Party and I'll Cry If I Want To

From the Story Arc: Grim's Gamble

Previous Story in the Arc: Flashback: The Agony of Defeat by Aedan Murdock (Sunday, November 05, 2006)

Next Story in the Arc: Helloween: Take What's In The Box by Astra Kyne Murdock (Monday, November 06, 2006)

(posted Monday, November 06, 2006)

Halloween had been so much fun until that moment. Astra had dressed up as her father, before he had joined CCCP, and had been looking forward to the costume party for weeks. Aedan had been, too, he had a Russian Battler costume that was amazing.

But then he hadn’t wanted to go, and after she had gone for a bit, she went back home. He’d been upset all day, closing her out, talking only to K’takei, and finally she went to his room to find out just what was going on.

She found him staring blankly at a box that had just been delivered, white as paper, and when she saw what was in there—

She’d thought it was a fake. But it wasn’t. And as she clutched the edge of his desk, she learned that this was not the first such “present” he had gotten.

She had heard him out, saying nothing, trying to take it in and feeling as if she had been struck by a car and hadn’t realized it yet.

The bounty placed on herself and Aedan had been claimed by some creature named Grim Gambol, who had sent Aedan a letter threatening to kill children in the Isles with the last name of “Murdock” until they surrendered to him. This wasn’t the first such “proof of seriousness” that Aedan had gotten,

It was the third. After the second, Aedan and Victoria Victrix had gone to Bloody Bay to take Gambol into custody.

They had failed even to seriously inconvenience him. And their mother had gone, trying to reason with him, only to be laughed at and rebuffed, and told that there were only two ways to stop the killing. For the twins to surrender, or for the Murdocks to discover what it was that Garvey had offered and match it.

She staggered back to the party in a state of shock. Her mind wasn’t quite working, neither Sera nor John were anywhere around, Aedan was talking to the police, and—she was looking for some answers and afraid she had only one….

Almost the first person she saw was Starbuster, and she seized on him gratefully. Tim was smart—maybe he could think of something—something other than the answer that was beginning to look, more and more, like the only possible answer. “Tim.....something horrible is happening,” she said, glad that her dark glasses hid her eyes, and her scarf hid her mouth.

A “Zorro” appeared out of the crowd as if conjured. “I will not allow a beautiful desert flower to wilt so. Who has slighted you, m'lady? I will engage him in a duel and claim your honor!”

She knew him by the mental “signature.” It was Doctor Horatio Foxglove…from the Rogue Isles. She was afraid of him and yet…and yet she rather liked him. She wasn’t sure why, but….

Tim laughed. He was dressed as Robin, the red and black costume, and he looked really good. “I know, they didn't have an R that worked for my costume. It was depressing.” When she didn’t laugh back, he shrugged ruefully. “That was supposed to be a joke. Probably not a very good one.”

Foxglove was from the Isles…”Can I ask you something awful, Dr Foxglove?” she said, looking up at him.

He sighed theatrically. “Here I was having fun pretending to be a hero. What is it?”

She started to cry. She couldn’t help it. That hand… “Do you know anything about someone named Grim Gambol?”

She sensed concern from Red Star, but she couldn’t answer it. Right now she could only handle one thought-track at a time. The rest of her mind was full of that…hand.

Foxglove shrugged. “Sure, he's that ghost thing that floats around our base. I had to clean up the remnants of one of its experiments the other day. I've only caught fleeting glimpses of him, though.”

Tim was reacting to her distress in a predictable way. “Wha...hey, don't...don't do that. It's a party, right?”

“He----he---“ she gulped and tried to get control of herself. “He's killing little kids. He's sent hands to Aedan—“

Foxglove nodded. “Yeah, that's what I had to throw out. He sealed one up in a steel drum. : I'll spare you the rest of the details, on account of being Zorro.”

Ghost thing. So it was true. No wonder Vickie and Aedan hadn’t been able to capture him. There was only one way to stop him, and she was going to have to be the one brave enough to take it. “I...I....I can't stand this,” she wept. “He told Aedan if we don't go to him and let him take us to Garvey he's going to keep killing kids. Aedan and Aunt Vickie tried to catch him and they couldn’t even touch him.”

Krasnaya Zarya had the wretched timing to show up at just that moment. “It's the Botanist! Hello there. Are you tormenting our overly sensitive young generation, Horatio?”

“Overly sensitive.” Most days she could just ignore the subtle put-downs of the intellectual pair of Zakat and Zarya, but just now—

“He wasn't tormenting anyone...” Tim said, still clearly trying to grasp what Astra had just told him.

“Never!” Foxglove proclaimed. “I am Zorro, here to rescue the peasants from the brutish Spaniards!”

“I can’t stand this,” she sobbed. “I can’t let him keep killing kids—“

Foxglove shrugged and returned to his usual self. “Anyway, I saw that bounty up on our bulletin boards, but I had better things to do that hunt kids.”

She lurched to her feet. As Krasnaya Zarya shook her head. “Astra...”

She felt feverish now, consumed with the need to stop this in the only way her numbed mind could think of. “I.....I....tell him I'll go to him—“ she said to Foxglove, and ran for the Rogue Isles side of Pocket D, with Tim sprinting after.

“Ahem! May I be the voice of reason in these insane parts?” Zarya called after her.

Tim sped ahead of her and stood in front of her as she tried to figure out what door to use. “Stop. I'm faster, you won’t get ahead of me.”

She stopped dead in her tracks and stared at him, unseeing. “I.....I can't let this go on, Tim. What kind of a hero would I be if I did?”

“So, do something else,” he said, impatiently. “Find another way around it.”

But there was no other way….”What other way is there?” she cried.

He hugged her…the first time ever, and…

“I'm sure there's something...” he said, even though his voice trailed off uncertainly.

“What? We cant beat him. He's a ghost.” What could you do to a ghost? Nothing…

“I mean, why does he even care? What's Garvey got to do with some stupid ghost thing anyway?” Tim demanded, although she had no more answers than he did.

She could only shake her head numbly.

“So find out! Don't you have spy-like people or something, start making records on people. We have like fifty billion villain record file things in our base.”

Records! Aunt Vickie was the queen of records and she had come up empty-handed

“So...maybe your dad can do it. Maybe the guy will not come after you two if he goes. And I'm sure he can fight his way back or something. Adults are suppose to do things like that for their children.”

Heroes are supposed to do that for everyone—

“If I ever had kids, I wouldn't go letting them do something stupid.”

“He wants us, he said so! Grim Gambol told Mommy.”

“Well if they talked, why didn't she beat on him or something?” Tim demanded.

“Because she knows she can't beat him!”

And in another case of wretched timing, who should appear but another person she did not want to see. Krasniy Zakat eyed the group warily. “Wait, wait, what's going on here? Astra? I saw the good doctor here chasing you... And as much as I respect him, I don't trust him. No offense.”

Dr. Foxglove shrugged. “Actually, I was making my way to the elevator when I heard them chatting. More specifically, I heard my name. Besides, Zorro would never lay a finger on a young damsel!”

Tim grabbed her shoulders and looked into her eyes. “Astra, people die all the time, and maybe you can stop things sooner this way, but who is to say it stops? What if it doesn't stop until he has both of you? Then doing this is pointless. And even if it does stop, I mean, like the people you save later, you won't be there then, so they might not get saved and stuff.”

Foxglove coughed modestly. “Actually, Starbuster, I might have something to say about that….”

She shook her head violently as Comrade Sun Kai, also called Crimson Tao, joined the growing group. She began to feel closed in, trapped, by all these people who thought they had her best interest at heart—

--But they couldn’t see what she had seen, that hand, that child’s hand, that dead child’s hand lying curled like a dead flower in that box. “I can't let him keep killing little kids when I can stop it just by going to him!”

Crimson Tao cleared his throat. “We have the interests of the people and the sufferings of the great majority at heart, and when we die for the people it is a worthy death. Nevertheless, we should do our best to avoid unnecessary sacrifices.”

He was quoting Mao. She recognized it.

Starbuster was looking desperate. “I don't even know, it's just stupid. How do you even know he'll stop?”

Well she couldn’t quote Mao, but she could quote Spock. “The good of the many is more important than the good of the few, or the one,” she replied, looking desperately about her for a way to get away from all these people, these people who were pressing in on her and all trying to make her do what they wanted, the pressure of their thoughts like a smothering blanket—

“Wait a minute... This is about that ghost thing, the Grim Gambler or whatever, isn't it?” Zakat asked.

“I have met this ghost man,” Sun Kai said thoughtfully.

Foxglove leaned over and murmured just loud enough for her to hear. “You're a cute kid, Astra. Truth be told, I enjoy worrying you here and have no interest in seeing you get killed by that ghost. If you set on doing this, I'll do what I can to see that you don't die.”

She glanced at him in startlement, as images, tangled emotions, suddenly flashed across her barriers. There was a girl—a girl—

There was love and hate and bitter anguish and regret—

And yet…yes…in that, she could trust him. He wouldn’t let Grim kill her, nor Garvey either. After that—

The suspended moment ended, and she was back in the tangle, the pressure, and knowing that if she, Aedan, or both did not do something, the next deaths would be directly on their heads. “I don't care what happens to me as long as this stops!”

“If you die, he will not stop,” Sun Kai said.

You’re wrong.

“I know this. He has made a deal with a demon, for a hundred years of evil. One life will not end his purpose to fulfill his bargain.”

But things like this are bound by rules. He’s given his word. The rules are going to hold him. “He told Mommy that if she gave us to him he'd go back to ‘regular old evil’ and stop killing kids!”

Starbuster snorted. “If he goes making deals with demons I'm sure he understands careful wording.”

Crimson Tao nodded. “I doubt he will retire to petty theft and vandalism.”
“I have to do something!” she cried despairingly. “I can't beat him! Nobody can beat him! He's a ghost!”

Krasniy Zakat crossed his arms over his chest. “Did you try asking Vickie, this is her realm more than ours...”

Crimson Tao’s brows furrowed. “Actually, comrade Flame would be of great assistance—“

Didn’t anyone bother to listen when she talked? She cried harder in sheer frustration.
“Vickie tried, Mommy tried, they can’t beat him!”

“So if he can't get arrested or something, just try to outsmart him!” Tim persisted. “Maybe you can trick him into breaking his deal, and then the demon gets mad at him or something. Then he'll get fired or whatever they do.”

“How can I trick him when you can’t find him?” she demanded. “He’s a ghost!”

“Someone has to know where he is! Zorro over there was just saying he's seen him around!” Tim retorted. “Zorro, who does he hang out with?”

Zakat shrugged. “Haven't you been to Croatoa? I've fought ghosts before.”

And so has Vickie, but not like this one— they just weren’t listening. Whatever she said, it might as well have been gibberish.

“That odd man, Circus Master,” Foxglove said thoughtfully. “I think they share a certain kinship.”

“See?” Tim seized on that. “The clown guy, he can find him.”

Circus Master frightened her almost more than the ghost did….”Circus Master is as horrible as he is—“

“I find young Yogi rather entertaining,” Foxglove said.

“I think Circus Master is more mad than evil,” added Sun Kai. “Mad as in, not entirely sane. Actually, that may be a great boon to us. To deal with the madman before the spirit…”

Starbuster nodded. “So the guy is a loon, he'll bite at all kinds of stuff. There are other mystics too aside from Vicky, even stronger ones I'm sure. Maybe they can help.”

They had never felt the edges of his thoughts. She had…. “Circus Master will probably just laugh and help him k-k-k-k-kill more k-k-k-k-k-kk-id—“

Krasniy Zakat shook his head. “Not really. I had a long discussion with both Circus Master and "Grimmy" just a week or so ago about this very issue. The clown doesn't find it entertaining at all, since it's all just working for Garvey in the end.”

“Doesn't find what entertaining?” Starbuster demanded. “The stuff that the ghost does?”

“Killing children for Garvey,” Zakat replied, then shrugged. “Really, that's the way you end this. Hunt down the doctor and put an end to his bounty.”

She pressed her fists to her temples. Zakat talked so flippantly about ‘hunting down the doctor,’ as if he was merely hunting down a journal article….

Foxglove sounded just as doubtful as she felt. “That Garvey guy will probably be harder to find than the ghost. I've never actually seen him in our base. He's got his operations set up elsewhere.”

But of course, as usual Zakat knew better than the person who lived there. “Finding somebody in Rogue Isles is easy,” he said dismissively. “Just talk to the right people, hand over some cash, and you know everything.”

Really, why did she even bother opening her mouth? No one ever listened to her or believed her…

She should just get away and do what she had to do—

Sun Kai whispered in her ear, pressing something into her hand. “Astra, please take this.” She looked down at it. It was a Taoist pendant on a necklace. She took it and clutched it so hard it cut into her glove. “I have had this for many years to guard against evil spirits, Please keep it with you, Astra.”

“Thank you,” she whispered back. “I will.”

Zakat grimaced. “Last I checked, your parents didn't want us to kill Garvey, for some reason. That was my suggestion months ago, when this was all just trouble on the horizon.”

“You've got like four super groups of people that could help you, and you go running off without even talking to them!” Tim persisted.

She wanted to scream. There were children out there dying, and all they wanted to do was talk! “And w-w-w-while you're all spinning your w-w-w-wheels, the ghost is killing people!”

“Yeah? Well if he wants you and Aedan he isn't going to just stop when he gets one of you. He's a ghost that made a deal with a demon, how can you even know he will keep his word if he said he would stop?”

As if this mob wasn’t enough--

Zarya appeared. “Goodness! What is all this drama?”

Zakat sighed. “Garvey, in the end. We should just kill the man and get it over with.”

She wanted to strangle something.

“Oh, not again,” Zarya said. “This is Astra trying single-handedly to save the world, only in order to tangle her family into more trouble.”

The sheer injustice of that statement made her tears stop. When had she ever done anything like that? She went to school, ran her patrols, read her books—none of the troubles she had been embroiled in had been caused by anything she had done!

You….

And now Petrograd came charging into the room! The pressure of thoughts made her feel as if her head was going to explode and she was vibrating between despair and anger so fast now it felt like she was gripping live wires.

Starbuster turned on Zarya in a fury. “Shut up! Why don't you help instead of insulting people?”

Zarya snapped back at him. “Because, mister, common sense tends to work wonders for unraveling a situation. In addition, I would thank you to keep a civil mouth in front of me.”

Tim snapped right back, uncowed. “up, you aren't my parents, I don't have to listen to you.”

They were all talking at once. Zakat, Petro, Foxglove—

Anger won. Her eyes flashed and she turned on Zarya. “I don't notice YOU doing anything other than talking big about how easy it is for you to find and kill Garvey! That's all you do is talk! And complain about how awful heroes are! And how stupid! : And how you wish you weren’t heroes so you could go bury yourself in some academic never-never land!”

Because the woman did, day after day, claiming heroes were part of the problem, not the solution, bemoaning that she “had” to be here when she could be off doing her linguistic research in a better University, complaining about life in the CCCP and what she had to put up with—and Astra had been quiet and polite and never said a word…until now.

Zakat frowned at her. “We did not because your parents ordered us not to. Last I checked, they have rank over us in the CCCP.”

Zarya double-teamed with him. “We have explicit instructions from your parents, young lady. As courtesy to them we stay back.”

As if that was the point! The point was them standing there boasting about how easy it was to go and do something in the Isles. As if it was as easy as buying a quart of milk!

“Rank is nothing,” Zarya said dismissively. “Interfering in their affairs is a different matter. In addition, 'easy' is a relative term.”

Of course. Now that someone called her on it, she backpedaled.

“At least I try to get something done!” she snapped. “You talk down to us like we were stupid! Just because you have all your degrees! In what? Words!”

“It's the lab coats, yeah, I could get a lab coat from the tailor too,” Tim muttered.

Petrograd sniggered.

“Allowing yourself to die in this situation is not getting something done,” Sun Kai said quietly. “It is surrender.”

She felt as if she was going to have to tear fistfuls of her own hair out in a moment. Didn’t anybody pay attention? The bounty was on live Murdock twins, not dead ones!

“By choosing the worst option of them all, and bursting forth with no plans, no method and no connections?” Zarya demanded. “That is a very good way to achieve something, indeed. Unfortunately, the only thing you will achieve is getting yourself killed, and causing your parents grief.”

“Yeah, so it isn't a good idea, and she shouldn't do it, but you talking down to her doesn't make her not want to,” Tim growled.

Zarya ignored him, “Now, with all due respect to you and yours, I should think you would have more regard to them than that. They did after all get you thus far.”

Words, words, words about how foolish she was, and not one concrete suggestion about what would be better. These children were being murdered now! Not in some vague future!

“Well I'm willing to die if it stops more killing! What you YOU willing to die for?” she asked tightly.
Petrograd sounded puzzled. “So, what is idea? Is sound in ideology? And can to be planned around to be achieved without casualties among friends?”

“That isn't the issue, is it?” Zarya asked. “The issue is: if you die, what good would it do?”

Why doesn’t anyone every listen to me? Maybe if she put it in words of one syllable. “If I go, he stops. It’s a very simple equation. Even someone as stupid as I am con understand it.”

Zakat turned to Petrograd. “Here's the story, Petro: Garvey, the guy who's been messing with John Murdock forever and a day, wants Aedan and Astra. Even put a bounty on them. Some ghost has taken to killing innocent children in order to flush out the Murdock children. It's working.” He smirked. “And they say terrorism doesn't work.”

Zarya snorted. “If you go, first of all there are... two more children in your family alone. So, let me see here. You go, and die. That is one casualty. Your brother goes and dies. Two. Your older brother. three. Your parents in an attempt to avenge you. Five. Then Garvey is still out there, cloning. How many -clones- are going to die, hmm? You ever think if you go, you are putting into Garvey's hands an infinite chain of innocents?”

And how does that differ if I don’t?

She heard Petro’s voice coming over the private comlink. “Comrade, if you go to this Garvey, is probably wanting for death, or scientific project to bring death, or leverage on your parents and CCCP. If ghost murdering children, have you asked comrade Victrix about binding? Or, in worst case, have you to asked anyone to sneak into Isles and stop him?”

“He makes clones? That's what this is all about?” Foxglove asked.

Zakat answered him. “Not just, Doctor Foxglove.”

Because Zarya was continuing her speech. “So, let me see this straight. I am, in my academic never never land, incapable of taking an action and am somehow demeaned by my education, but I can come to the conclusion that hasty action is not worth the lives of all these future children. How odd.”

And finally, something snapped. This was bullying. Zarya was trying to push every emotional button Astra had in order to get her to agree just to make it stop. Her eyes burned with anger and tears, and she lost ever last bit of respect she had ever had for those two—because bullying with words was still bullying,

And she wasn’t going to take any more of it. “You're so good with words!” she said through clenched teeth.

“And?” Zakat proded.

“That's all you're good with,” she said flatly.

Starbuster’s pager beeped and he looked down at it frantically. “Damnit....I...I have to go....Astra, will you let me take you home, please?”

Zarya responded exactly as Astra expected. “Yet another pejorative that I fail to comprehend. I can analyze the situation logically. That is, apparently, a terrible failing of mine.”

“Until we have a plan of action, words are all we can barter with,” Sun Kai put in. “Words with the enemy are different from words among the strategists.”

Why did she even try? “Words didn't work with him! Mommy tried talking to him!”

“I thought that was the point of post-modernism and liberalism,” Zakat said, “To always try words first.”

Zarya continued to push. “Astra, surely someone your age should have learned to think logically.” She sighed. “I adore your mother... but she doesn't quite know the right levers to press in a man who doesn't appreciate spirituality and compassion.”

“But we are certainly up to snuff, when push comes to shove...” Zakat said, and smirked. “Have the badges from the city to prove it. We've fought at the sides of both your parents.” His tone turned grumbling “Even fought in the Rikti War. You weren't there for that, don't lecture us.”

She couldn’t stand it anymore. “THEN DON"T TALK DOWN TO ME!” she screamed.

“Then don't be a child. Grow up.” Zakat snapped.

Zarya followed through with her own brand. “Shocking though it may seem, since we have not presented direct evidence in front of your disbelieving eyes, sometimes the older folks do know better.”

“How is THAT not talking down to me?” she demanded, pain lancing behind her eyes from the pressure of all those thoughts, all those words, everything—and the pressure to do something, knowing, knowing, knowing that the next child that died, the blood would be on her hands…

Tim looked at her in despair. “Well I have to go, because if I don't, people might die. Maybe you should think about that, you might save some now, but what about others? I can't be two people, I can't cover for you once your gone. Call me if you want to talk...I'll keep my comm open.”

Zarya wrinkled her nose. “And please don't yell.”

At least you listen to me when I yell!

“Because an adult knows to moderate their responses adequately?” Zarya said. “How is bluntness and good advice demeaning to you?”

Zarya was very lucky that Astra had far more restraint than she was given credit for, or she would have been healing herself from Kheldian energy burns right then and there. “ Maybe if someone sent you a baby's hand in a box you might understand! Until then, DON'T PRETEND YOU DO!”

And then—out in the larger room of Pocket D—came a voice that chilled her to the bone.

Circus Master had just made his grand entrance.

“Come one, come all, center stage. For the great Yogi Bratslav is about to give the show of a lifetime!”