A/N: One day late because I forgot all about cross-posting but there's no wrong time for Halloween! Anyhow, here's my contribution to transform-or-treat for eternalevecho on Tumblr! Their prompt was for the team to be preparing a party and I kinda ran with it. This was a fun prompt but the fic fought me tooth and nail the whole way, so I sure hope folks enjoy it!
Kade eyed the black and orange bunting that Heatwave had just tacked up with pursed lips and one critical eye at a time, holding up his thumb and sweeping it across his line of vision even as he tipped his head with each squint. He hummed with each sweep, the pitch climbing along with Heatwave's temper until it was almost a whistle.
"Whenever you decide what to do with it, you can fix it yourself," Heatwave finally snapped, turning pointedly away and waving a hand at the box of decorations still waiting. "And the rest of this junk too–"
"Jeeze," said Kade, "calm down, it looks fine." He gave it another measuring look. "But it'd look better just a smidge to the right."
Heatwave grumbled but adjusted the bunting anyway. "I still don't get why we're having a Halloween party," he said, stepping back and shaking his hand to free it of a small riot of confetti despite having been nowhere near the confetti. "We just did Earliween a few months ago."
"Earliween is for the trick-or-treaters, Heatwave," Dani reminded as she stepped up to look at his work. She smiled, looking much more appreciative of his efforts than Kade. "And a few parties while the weather is nice. But people still do haunted houses and parties for Halloween since they're held indoors."
Heatwave folded his arms, sighing into one hunched shoulder. He said, "Whatever. This all just sounds like an excuse for more parties."
"And that sounds like my kind of excuse," Blades said brightly as he strode over from the corner he'd been huddled in since that morning. He was decorated in slap-dashes of paint and carried a stack of posters under his arm. He stuck out his chest and immediately began showing off his artwork. "Voila! The Lad Pioneer Haunted House Party posters are complete!"
Kade and Dani both stepped closer for a better look, they and Heatwave all cocking their heads in puzzlement as Blades presented one poster after another. Each one depicted Blades himself being menaced by someone or something, all presumably to be represented by the haunted house.
"They look great, Blades," Dani said, eyes knit over her smile, "but I thought you were supposed to be making advertisements for the event."
"I did!" Blade said. "See, they're all demonstrating the different ways the haunted house is supposed to scare you." He shuffled them, pointing out his attackers as though they'd been missed. "This way, everyone knows what to expect."
"What?" Kade complained. "That makes it less scary!"
"Exactly," said Blades. He stood back with a proud smile, clearing expecting to be praised.
There was a beat as the others all looked around at each other, though Heatwave had to do so through his fingers since he'd pressed a hand over his face.
"Right…" Dani finally said, giving Kade a look to keep him quiet. She took the posters from Blades and went through them again. Puzzled, she added, "But I still don't see how they're advertisements. There's nothing about the time or place on any of these."
"That's because I don't know the time or place yet," Blades said, peevish, taking his posters back and tucking them under his arm like a hen with her chicks. "It was going to be held tonight at the rec center but that's still being rebuilt after the fire a couple days ago. Cody and I are meeting Jerry and the troop in the park soon, so I can add the details then."
"Why the park?" Graham asked, dusting off his hands as he approached. He gave an embarrassed smile when Kade reached over and pulling a bit of fake webbing from his hair.
Blades shrugged and said, "To start hanging the posters, I guess. Then we'll probably head over to where the party is going to be so we can help set up."
"Oh, right," said Dani, "you guys get a Teen Pioneer badge for helping your old troop."
"Yep! " Blades chirped. He glanced around, grin falling under the sudden weight of his impatience. "Where is Cody? We should head out soon!"
"He just ran up to the kitchen to double-check our supplies," Graham said. "He'll be back any minute."
"If you guys are helping the Lad Pioneers with their party, I don't see why we need to have one here," said Heatwave. Out of patience with the confetti, he engaged his knuckle spouts to blast each hand clean in turn. "Having to entertain people in goofy outfits when we could be training isn't exactly my idea of a good time."
"Well, I'm excited," Boulder said, joining the group with his arms full of paper ghosts. He used a telescoping rod to tack them along the ceiling from different lengths of string as he went, increasingly delighted as each one swayed in the breeze he created in passing. "We had an emergency on Earliween but now we get to celebrate Halloween properly, as part of the town." He practically vibrated with glee. "Our own local holiday party, with guests– I invited the Rubios! And my book club!"
"There, see, grumpy-bot," Kade said, jerking a thumb at the new arrival. "We're doing it for Boulder. And because I'm not about to spend my Halloween at some kiddy haunted house. But we can say it's mostly for Boulder if that makes you feel better."
Boulder grinned fit to warp his faceplates. Heatwave just crossed his arms and grumbled into one of his own hunched shoulders.
"You act like we're not going to end up having to work tonight too," he said. "You know how destructive this town is on a good day."
"It's worth hoping for a quiet night," Boulder insisted.
The argument was tabled when the elevator spat out Cody, who made a beeline for Blades while tugging on his coat.
"Looks like we've got plenty of everything," he said. "You ready to go, Blades?"
"I've been ready," Blades answered with his nose in the air.
"Yeah," said Dani, "for about two whole minutes." She tugged the sleeves of her jumpsuit from around her waist and shoved her arms through, then went to collect her own coat from the table it had been thrown over. "I'll fly into town with you guys. I can help out for a while, too, and then we can pick up the treats we ordered from Mr. Fiffer."
Kade snapped his fingers, startling the others and said, "That reminds me, I need to go pick up my costume from the cleaners!"
"It's not even Halloween and you already got it dirty?" Dani asked.
"C'mon, Heatwave," said Kade, ignoring her, "you can take a break from complaining."
Heatwave shook his head, smothering a smirk. He said, "All these years we've worked together and you say a thing like that? It's as if you don't know me at all."
Kade nudged Heatwave's leg with his elbow, trying to cover his own smirk with a scowl, as the others snickered. The two of them and Dani, Blades and Cody all went to get into position on the platform up to the garage.
"Boulder and I can finish decorating here," Graham assured, waving as they began their ascent.
"Doc might be over already, too, by the time you get back," Boulder called just before they reached ground level. "He said he had some things we could use for the party!"
Heatwave groaned as he transformed, his dashboard avatar giving Kade a flat look as the latter hopped into the cab. "Some things from Doc for the party, he says. And he has the nerve to say we might have a quiet night?"
The crisp afternoon air rippled with the sounds of a few late puffins and Mr. Harrison screaming as his malfunctioning heli-pack sent him careening through the town square. A black and orange banner trailed behind him like the tail of a particularly anxious kite, whipping the air and startled pedestrians alike as he sailed along perilously near to the ground. Then his heli-pack coughed, complained and fired him straight up two stories before quitting entirely and leaving gravity to do with him what it would.
His screams hit a high note as he tumbled towards the ground, calling attention from the sparse crowd and prompting a collective gasp. They screamed along with him, shielding their eyes or their children's or both, helpless. With such focus on the developing tragedy, it was a shock when a great metal hand, glinting red in the sunlight, caught his uncooperative rotor stalk a moment before it would have been too late.
"You ever consider investing in a scooter?" Heatwave asked.
A brief cheer went up as Mr. Harrison was set on his feet, legs wobbling as he wiped at his brow. Heatwave folded down into his firetruck mode so that Kade could step out and wave at the crowd, grinning and soaking up the adulation second-hand. Heatwave turned back to root mode before Kade had fully disembarked, leaving him stumbling, and affected an unconvincing innocent look when Kade glared up at him. Blades landed gently beside them, opening his cockpit to let Cody and Dani down before joining Heatwave in root mode. Blades immediately grinned and waved at the crowd as well before shrinking under a flat stare from Heatwave.
"What?" Blades asked. "They're obviously happy to see us!"
Heatwave just narrowed his eyes further.
The group all turned to watch as Jerry sprinted through the dispersing crowd, what appeared to be a large butterfly wobbling over his shoulder. Mr. Alper was close behind him, occasionally ducking as the net swung wild. The Pioneer Lad troop followed at a greater distance. The two adults had presumably left the children while they attempted to assist Mr. Harrison.
"I'm okay," Mr. Harrison assured the new arrivals, though he wobbled on his feet.
Jerry stumbled to a stop before them and bent nearly in half to brace his hands on his knees, his net falling to the ground with a clatter. Mr. Alper rested a hand on Jerry's back as he came up beside him, comforting even as he tried to catch his breath.
"Mr. Harrison," said Dani, stepping up with a concerned expression to investigate the now-soaked banner tangled in the heli-pack's rotors, "just what were you trying to do?"
"He was doing us a favor," said Jerry, panting, as he struggled upright. "I brought the wrong size ladder with me, so we couldn't get the sign where we wanted it. Mr. Harrison was on his way by and, well–" he waved a hand at Mr. Harrison and his soiled heli-pack.
Mr. Harrison managed to yank free the last of the remains of the banner, letting the whole mess flop to the ground at his feet. Cody scooped it up and puzzled through the scraps.
"Haunted Trail," he read, eyebrows furrowed. He looked quizzically at Jerry. "You're doing the haunted house in the park?"
"I thought the whole point was that it was inside," Heatwave said, gaze narrow.
"Well, it woulda been," Jerry said, shoulders squared defensively. "When I agreed to take over organizing, it was gonna be held at the rec center. Now that's out of service and my house is out of the question– too small. I mighta been able to do the party but…"
"I petitioned the mayor for the use of city hall," said Mr. Alper, laying a placating hand on Jerry's shoulder, "but he didn't want it to seem like it was competing with his Haunted Mansion and Halloween Ball."
"But holding it outside means the boys will all be stuck in the cold the whole time," Dani said, wincing and pulling her coat tighter at the neck.
"Yeah," said Jerry with a helpless shrug, "but it's that or cancel the whole thing outright."
"Guys," said Cody in a low voice to Kade and Dani, "can't we do something?"
"Oh, yeah, Code, sure," said Kade, rolling his eyes, "we'll just let the Lad Pioneers haunt the firehouse."
Jerry gasped, "Wait, you mean a party at the firehouse?"
Without thinking about what was being said, Kade said, "Yeah, we're having a party at the firehouse."
He startled back a step when Jerry lunged forward but Jerry still caught him by the hand, giving it a hearty shake.
"That would be just amazing, Kade," he said, eyes shining with gratitude.
"Right, uh," Kade said, blinking around for someone to tell him what was going on and what to do about it. "I mena, it definitely will be, but–"
"Tell you the truth, I bit off way more than I could chew with this party planning and that's before we get to the haunted house bit," Jerry babbled right over him.
Kade tossed his head, shrugging with false modesty. "What can I say?" he said. "Some people are just natural party planners."
"Oh, I know everything and everyone will be in good hands with you," Jerry declared, hardly giving Kade a chance to preen under the praise before swinging his smile around at the rest of the team and finishing, "since you've got such good folks working with you."
"Hang on a second," Heatwave said, only to be steamrolled by Jerry's enthusiasm.
"We just need to clean up here," said Jerry, "then the boys can head over and get the place ready. Don't think I'm a freeloader either– we got all the catering sorted already. I just have to tell Mr. Feiffer to bring the goods to the firehouse."
A gasp sounded from approximately his hip level and they all glanced down to see that Corey had made it to them, the rest of the troop on his heels. Even through their heavy clothes and scarves, their excitement was palpable.
"We're doing our party at the firehouse?" Corey asked, almost breathless. He looked up at Heatwave with shining eyes. "Will you be there, too, Heatwave?"
"How about Boulder?" asked someone else in the crowd of boys, to a small chorus of agreements.
"Can we still do our bonfire? In the backyard?"
"Oh, oh, will there be helicopter rides?" Timmy wanted to know, radiating hope up at Blades, who smiled back at him before he added, "Spooky helicopter rides?"
"Is just scary okay?" Blades asked, folding in on himself and bringing his hands in front of him like a shield. "I can do that, it's what I always do."
"Blades," Dani admonished.
One of the older Lad Pioneers was looking at the rescue team unimpressed. He crossed his arms and asked, "Are you even good at parties?"
Blades gasped in affront, pressing one hand over his chest. Kade puffed himself up, hands on his hips, and said, "I'll have you know we're going to have an awesome Halloween party tonight– better than any you've ever been to."
"I'll believe that when I see it," said their young critic.
"Be there," Kade said, leaning down so he could stare at the boy on level, "or be square."
"I dunno how to thank you guys!" gushed Jerry. He scooped up his net, nearly braining half the crowd as he swept it over his shoulder. "C'mon, boys, Alps– let's get everything cleaned up so we can go get set."
A small cheer went up among the troop, shot through with praise and thanks alike. Jerry set off with a spring in his step, the troop following him in a chattering gaggle. Mr. Alper paused long enough to wave at the team, his own smile almost as bright as Jerry's, before taking up the rear.
Kade stared after them and then around at the others, flinching when he saw the unimpressed looks he was getting from most of them.
"What just happened?" he asked.
"Your big mouth just put us all on the hook for the Lad Pioneer Halloween party, is what happened," Dani said. "And their haunted house too. Now they're expecting us to get that set up and we haven't even asked Dad if it's okay."
"How are we supposed to turn the firehouse into a haunted house anyway?" Heatwave asked.
"Well, we did reinforce the tunnels," said Cody, hand on his chin as he thought. "It wouldn't take much to make them spooky." He perked up, warming to the idea. "Jerry did say they had everything ready to put into place. And I'm sure Dad wouldn't mind sharing our party!"
Dani just sighed and said, "Let's hope not."
Chief Burns reclined, half dozing, in Chase's driver's seat, trusting his partner to lead them true. He cracked his eyes open every so often to enjoy the Halloween decorations and the bustle of the townsfolk, before resettling himself. The mainland seminar hadn't lasted as long as he'd expected but he still felt wiped. He would normally stay alert even with Chase driving, just for the sake of appearance, but he wanted to be rested enough to enjoy the Halloween party in a few hours.
"Mega-mega discounts on all Halloween goods," Chase recited from the garishly decorated storefronts as he drove down the street. "Quite a few stores seem to be boasting these same deals. Will you partake, sir?"
"No need, Chase," Chief Burns said, reclining back in his seat with his eyes closed, glad for the chance to relax as Chase took them home. "We've got plenty at home already and a catering order in with Mr. Fiffer besides. Remember, we aren't expecting much of a crowd. It's just the Greenes, Kade and Dani's plus-ones, Graham's friend Amy, the Rubios– the book club for an hour or two, maybe, Boulder said. I invited Barney and Carin but I'm not sure either of them will make it–"
"Either way," Chief Burns finished, missing the muttered interruption under the familiar sounds of Chase's engine, "no need to overload on supplies for a handful of people."
"In whose hands would so many people fit?" Chase wondered.
Chief Burns made a sound that might've been a snort or a snore. Chase chose to exercise caution and took care to drive even more smoothly, for the benefit of the Chief's rest. It wasn't long before they arrived back at the firehouse, though Chase was surprised to see Blades and Cody standing in front with Dani, Kade and Heatwave.
"That is curious," he said, rousing the Chief despite his quiet tone. "I thought Blades and Cody would still be assisting the Lad Pioneers."
"Same here, partner," said Chief Burns, brow knit. "I hope nothing went gone wrong while we were away."
Chase pulled up smoothly and let the Chief climb out before swiftly transforming so the two of them could approach the others together.
"Everything alright?" the Chief asked. He looked pointedly to Cody and Blades. "I didn't expect the two of you back here yet."
Something had happened– it was written all over the faces of Burns and bot alike. Chief Burns arched one eyebrow, waiting, suspicion making the hair on his arms stand up. A look was shared among the rest of the team, taking on variations as it was passed around. Heatwave alone looked unimpressed; the others were a spectrum of sheepishness. Chief Burns was about to ask them all outright what was going on when he was interrupted.
"Ah, Chief!" Doc called as he jogged up to meet them, a bad slung over his shoulder. "You're back early– understandable. I've just heard that your team will be hosting the Lad Pioneers' Halloween party and haunted house event!"
Chief Burns blinked at him, then cast a look from the corner of his eye at his suddenly sheepish team. "That makes two of us."
"Three, sir," Chase put in.
"Do any of you want to explain this to me?" Chief Burns prompted.
"Should be easy enough to explain," said Dani, crossing her arms, "since someone can't keep his big mouth shut."
"Heh, yeah," said Kade, "Blurr seriously needs a muzzle." He blinked when he noticed the others staring at him. "Wait." He scratched the back of his neck, eyebrows furrowed, before looking up at her again with a scowl. "Are you talking about me?"
"You sound awfully surprised for a guy who thinks everyone is talking about him all the time," noted Heatwave, sharing a look with Dani as she ducked over a giggle.
"I'm waiting," Chief Burns reminded them.
Cody stepped forward, eyes imploring. He said, "Dad, the Lad Pioneers had nowhere to host their event because of the rec center burning down."
"They were going to hold the whole thing in the park," Dani added with an exaggerated shudder.
"So, we thought they could share our party," said Blades brightly. "And use the tunnels for their haunted house!" His mouth twisted. "Of course, we only thought that after Kade kind of promised that they could…"
"It wasn't my fault!" Kade protested. "Dad, listen, it just happened so fast. And then Jerry was all excited and then the boys were all excited… Did Dani mention they were going to have the whole thing in the park? At night, in the cold?"
Chief sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. He said, "It's not that I mind sharing the space but you shouldn't have decided this without me, especially at the last minute. And it's one thing to host the party– we're hosting the haunted house too?"
"We're hosting a haunted house?" said Boulder as he appeared in the doorway of the garage. He hurried over to them, Graham close behind him with a puzzled frown. "Really?"
"That's what Kade promised the Pioneer Lads anyway," grumbled Heatwave.
"Kade might have to explain that he spoke out of turn," said Chief Burns. He softened when Boulder deflated, smile tipping down at the corners. With a sigh, he went on, "The haunted house is an attraction. How are we supposed to accommodate everyone who turns up as well as the troop on top of our own guests?"
"Jerry has all that sorted out already," Cody assured him. "And the haunted house and the party are technically separate things, remember when I did it? The troop members lead the guests through, then the guests leave with a goodie bag."
"Please, Chief?" Blade begged, hands clasped. "Cody and I are expected to set a good example as Teen Pioneers for the new troop and breaking a promise and making them all stay out in the cold doesn't seem like a good example to me."
"Be a pretty good example of why you should think before you speak," said Heatwave, smirking when Kade glared at him.
"That it would," Chief Burns said. Then he sighed, one hand on his forehead. "But I agree with Blades. We can't leave those boys out in the cold– it wouldn't be neighborly. Besides, as the rescue team, we are partly responsible for the current state of the rec center." He straightened up, shoulders squaring. "You said Jerry's bringing the troop over? When?"
"Should be in a few minutes," said Dani. "They needed to clear the park first."
"Then I want us all to do a sweep of the tunnels," said the Chief with easy authority. "Check the reinforcements and mark a safety perimeter. I don't want anyone wandering too far in or into unstable areas."
"You got it, Chief!" Boulder chirped, the others a chorus of agreement. "This is going to be so much fun. We'll get to be even more involved in the festivities!
"Goody," said Heatwave, in a low enough tone that Boulder didn't notice.
"Before that, though," said the Chief, "Doc? You're too early for the festivities, so I take it you've found some things we can use."
"That, I have!" Doc declared. A harsh breeze blew and the humans all clutched at their coats. He added, "Perhaps inside would be a better place to demonstrate?"
A minute later saw them in the bunker, Doc smiling around at the decorations.
"Well, Doc, what've you got for us?" Cody asked.
"My latest invention," Doc said, pulling a cylinder from his bag that was about the size of a can of pop. He held it up with a flair, then twisted the lid and turned the cylinder on its side against his palm. It looked at first as though a swarm of metal shavings emerged, blinking rhythmically in orange and purple; then the humans leaned closer, squinting, and the bots' optics zoomed in. The little blinking things were tiny robots, central spheres with eight spider-like legs. They marched in a loose formation by twos, one purple and one orange.
"They're so cute," Dani said, not without bewilderment, as she smiled at their little parade.
"But what are they?" Graham asked, curious but decidedly less at ease as he observed.
"Not that I'm not impressed by the craftsmanship, Doc," said Chief Burns, "but what exactly are we looking at?"
"Just a moment more, my friend," Doc promised, "and all shall be revealed!" So saying, he pulled a remote from the bag and pressed a button. He then poked one finger close to a pair of the tiny robots. They blinked in tandem, then climbed onto the end of Doc's finger. He looked around for a moment and his grin widened as he spotted Boulder's paper ghosts. He said, "Perfect! Would someone mind…?"
The bots all shrugged at each other, then Boulder offered his hand for Doc to step onto. Once Doc was secure, he held him up level with one of the ghosts. Doc pointed the finger towards it that held the tiny robots. They blinked again, at a counterpoint this time, and orange light washed over the ghost in a scan. The robot with the purple light blinked again and then a specter appeared– it was an exact replica of Boulder's paper ghost, twisting and turning in the air to its own silent wails. It dove sharply and dispersed as it hit Heatwave's face.
"Great," said Heatwave. "Because I haven't run into enough of these things myself already."
"That was noble!" Cody said as Boulder lowered Doc back to the ground.
"I shrunk down my old handheld hologram projector," Doc explained, "and added a twist. These little robots come in pairs– one to do the projecting, while the other scans the subject to be projected. Since they're much less obvious than the regular sized projector, they're easier to place without ruining the overall effect." The robots all blinked again, bright and cheery, and Doc chuckled. "Aside from that, of course– but that just makes them easier to clean up. Just be sure not to get them wet! I haven't had a chance yet to perfect their waterproofing."
"At that size," said Graham, poking a couple of them from Doc's palm for a closer look, "they don't seem like they'd have enough memory to keep a hologram going for very long."
"They don't," said Doc easily, "but that's the beauty of the pair system. The projectors have a chance to rest and clear their systems, then the scanners can send them new images."
"I like the effect," said Boulder, lighting up as the projector sent its hologram ghost winding through the air again. "Seeing the ghosts flicker in and out of existence is much more effective than if they stayed steady."
"No kidding," said Blades, shrinking back behind Chase, away from the hologram.
"Definitely a welcome addition," the Chief agreed. "And it'll be something we can contribute to the Lads' haunted house."
"Might we find a different term?" Chase asked. "I fear we may be liable for false advertising, as the tunnels do not qualify as a house."
"It's just what the attraction is called, Chase," said Chief Burns with a chuckle, "but we can call it a haunted cavern if that helps."
"That would be acceptable," said Chase, looking marginally more relaxed. "Thank you, sir."
"Did you bring us anything else, Doc?" Cody asked, intent upon the bag Doc carried; it still looked pretty heavy.
"A few things, yes," Doc said. He urged the tiny robots back into their cylinder and sealed it, setting it back into the bag and rustling around. "First and foremost, a few simple space heaters for the out edges of the tunnels, where it may grow chilly. Next, some state of the art speakers to add to the ambiance of the haunted ho– er, cavern."
Chase nodded, appreciative.
"These," said Doc as he dug them out, "were inspired by you bots. Observe!"
He walked over to the coffee table and set the speaker down among the plastic pumpkins which had been strewn across the surface. The speaker vibrated, chimed and then shifted before their eyes into an approximation of the pumpkins' shape; a moment later, the very same orange color fell over it. Though it wasn't a perfect disguise, it didn't stand out if one didn't know it was there.
"Pcsh," Heatwave scoffed aside to the other bots. "Amature hour."
"They'll fit themselves right in with the rocks in the tunnels!" said Doc. "Far better than among these pumpkins, as rocks tend to be far more irregular in shape. The sound, meanwhile, is controlled by this." He pulled out a device that looked like a very small control panel.
"Did you bring a very small robot designed to operate it?" Chase wondered.
Chuckling, Doc said, "Oh, no, not quite. But the last item I did bring may be familiar."
He set the control panel on the ground and stepped back, reaching once more into his bag and pulling out a very familiar device item indeed.
"The Minimizer?" Kade balked as Doc used it to bring the control panel back to its full size.
"Hasn't that thing caused enough trouble?" Heatwave asked.
"Well," said Doc, "this time, it'll be kept out of little hands. Aside from making this control panel and my heaters easier to pack, I thought it might also help the Lad Pioneers' supplies go a little further, to make better use of the space in the tunnels."
"Not a bad idea, Doc," Chief Burns admitted. "That's if we can keep track of it."
"Unless someone here is going to try to take a bite of it," said Doc, "I imagine that we can."
"It's not like we don't use a version of it at the Training Center all the time," said Cody, eyeing the device and some of the decorations with a considering eye.
"Yeah, if Blurr can stay out of trouble with one permanently installed, we can handle it for one night," said Blade, drawing a reluctant laugh from Heatwave but no concession.
"Hello?" came a voice from above, through the still open ceiling. They all looked up in time to see Jerry peer over the edge. "Oh, hey there! We're here and ready to get to work!"
The faces of the Lad Pioneer troop joined his, all alight with wonder to see both the bunker and its decorations. The team and Doc all waved and Chief called instructions for them to wait while the platform was raised.
"Let's get that perimeter set up," Chief Burns said to the others, "while the Lad Pioneers get their bearings. Doc, show them what you've brought so they can figure out how to use it for their displays. Graham, pull up a map of the tunnels. Kade–"
Cody's emergency comm went off, bringing grim expressions to everyone's faces as he answered it. Those looks turned wan as the problem became clear.
"Kade, Heatwave," said Chief Burns with a sigh, "take care of that."
They both groaned as Cody said, "Yes, Mrs. Neederlander, someone is on the way right now."
Mrs. Neederlander stood tapping her foot as Kade balanced on Heatwave's ladder, trying to coax Mister Pettypaws from a high branch.
"Remind me why you're not doing this," Kade hissed at Heatwave when Mister Pettypaws hissed at him, swiping at his face.
"Last time I had to get him down," Heatwave said, "he kept climbing higher. This way, you're the one embarrassed."
"You both ought to feel embarrassed for this sham of a rescue," Mrs Neederlander snapped. Glaring at Heatwave, she added, "If this was the best effort you were going to put in, you might as well have kept pretending to be a dumb machine."
Kade opened his mouth to snap something back but that was exactly when Mister Pettypaws decided that he wanted down after all and chose to express it by jumping on Kade's face. Kade yelled, his grip faltering, and Heatwave retracted his ladder in a hurry. Mister Pettypaws hissed again and leaped from Kade into Mrs. Neederlander's arms.
"Poor Mister Pettypaws," she crooned, glaring as Kade found solid ground and Heatwave transformed.
"You're welcome," Kade said, brushing cat hair from his head and shoulders.
"I didn't thank you," Mrs. Neederlander snapped. She cradled Mister Petty paws in the crook of one elbow and planted her other hand on her hip. "Now, what do you intend to do about the miscreant who scared Mister Pettypaws up that tree?"
"What miscreant is that?" asked Heatwave, more than ready to go home.
Mrs. Neederlander scoffed and said, "Who else?" She pointed down the road, where Huxley Presscot was giving a live report in front of the mayor's mansion.
"Huxley scared Mister Pettypaws into a tree?" Kade asked, incredulous. He thought on the question and said, "Actually, I can kinda see it."
"Not Presscot," Mrs. Neederlander said, marching up to wag her finger under Kade's nose. "That good for nothing mayor! He's causing a nuisance with those party preparations of his and I want a stop put to it!"
Kade sighed, backing up with hands akimbo. He said, "Jeeze, okay, we'll go talk to him."
"I want results!" Mrs. Neederlander called after them as they made their way down the street.
"Yeah, yeah," Kade muttered under his breath. They came to the mayor's ornate fence and he looked with deep appreciation through it to the property, which was decked out to the nines for the mayor's Halloween Ball. It was certainly an eerie sight but he couldn't imagine what would've upset Mister Pettypaws. "When is she going to admit that cat just wants to get away from–"
There came a spine-tingling yowl, a shadow darting across the lawn up to the fence. Kade made a high-pitched sound he would never admit to and jumped as if he'd been catapulted. Looking wildly down, he saw a black cat with its back arched into a jagged upside down U and its dripping fangs on full display. The cat– clearly an animatronic now that he was focused on it– held the pose and glared, its yellow eyes intense.
"Heh, wow," said Heatwave, snickering when Kade glared at him, "if you'd jumped much higher, I would've had to pull you out of a tree."
"Dunno what you're talking about," Kade muttered, turning up his collar.
"Oh, no?" Heatwave asked. "Maybe Huxley got it on camera then."
"He did not," Kade said immediately. He sputtered and added, "Not that there was anything to get!"
"You saw it here first, folks," Huxley bleated into his microphone. He swept a hand gradly at Kade, a cheesy grin smeared across his face. "An early demonstration of the thrills and chills to be expected at Mayor Luskey's Haunted Mansion and Halloween Ball. The festivities will kick off in three hours but you can come and be scared out of your skin starting right now, just like out local hero, Kade Burns!"
Heatwave's snickering grew in intensity as Kade turned red, stalking forward with an accusing finger leading his way.
"I wasn't scared out of my skin, alright," Kade argued. "I was just surprised. A little! Anyway, what kind of thrills and chills can you expect from a guy who was afraid to compete with a bunch of kids?"
"Oh?" asked Huxley, scenting blood in the water. "Is this anything to do with the Lad Pioneers Halloween Haunted House Party?"
"Well, that's not what we're calling it anymore," said Kade, "but basically, yeah. Luskey nixed the use of city hall to keep the attention on his party– the troop was going to have to do their whole event in the park, in the cold!"
Huxley pressed a hand over his heart, affecting an exaggerated gasp. "Unconscionable! But you said was, as in past tense?" He leaned in, eyes gleaming, shoving the microphone in Kade's face. "Then where will the party be held now?"
"At our very own firehouse," Kade bragged. "And their haunted house is gonna be held in the newly reinforced tunnels. Great food, great set-up, amazing company… It's gonna be the best party and haunted house– well, haunted cavern– attraction of the year and we don't need a whole mansion to pull it off."
"You heard it here, folks!" Huxley declared into the camera, gesturing grandly at Kade. "On this Halloween night, the place to be is the Burns's Fright Fest and Haunted Cavern. Don't miss it!"
The camera cut and Huxley slapped an overfamiliar hand on Kade's shoulder before turning and strutting to his van. He was gone within moments, already chasing the next piece of gossip.
"Are you sure you should've done that?" Heatwave asked as they watched him go. "I can already hear Luskey complaining."
Kade shrugged and batted a hand at the air like he could shoo away the decorated mansion behind him. He said, "Ah, I'm sure it'll be fine. The troop didn't exactly have a lot of time to advertise their new venue and now we've given a little more attention to it, right?"
"Right," said Heatwave, dubious. "I just hope it's not more attention than we can handle."
It hadn't taken long to get everything set up with everyone working together. The rescue team had gone ahead into the tunnels while Jerry and the troop followed at an easy pace, quietly discussing how they could use the available space. The outer perimeter was determined and marked in short order and a winding trail was laid out, marked by arrow signs at regular intervals, leading from the starting point in the backyard where a ramshackle shed prop had been set up and ending at the firehouse bunker, where guests could take the elevator up and be on their way to the rest of their night. The guests would experience a long, looping path and the hosts would all be able to see everyone as they came and went, just in case someone did wander off.
The troop had been in high spirits setting up their scares; they had no short supply of hiding places for their animatronic puppets and face characters thanks to a liberal use of the Minimizer. And Doc's little projector bots were a huge hit with the troop, casting apparitions of not only more paper ghosts but also of the boys in full makeup, making their scariest faces to be scanned and projected as spectors as guests were escorted along the trail. Needing to make new images to be scanned every few minutes would even give the boys something to do between guests.
"People should start arriving soon," said Jerry, pacing. His cup of punch shook in his hand, the quickness and easiness of the setup leaving him ample time to stew. "Hope so, anyway. We put up those posters, spread the word by mouth and Alps said he'd put out a bulletin for us on the town events page."
"Alps?" Cody asked. Then he remembered earlier that day in the park. "Oh, you mean Mr. Alper."
"Yeah," Jerry said, lips quirking up for a split second. "He gave up his lunch break and a little more to help us out this afternoon and he said he'd be by after his shift, too, to help supervise– and for the party, of course."
"I didn't know you and Mr. Alper were such good friends," Cody commented in an attempt to get Jerry's mind off the obvious stress.
Luck did not favor him. Jerry sputtered, his pacing grinding to a halt, and nearly dumped his punch down his back. He caught and corrected himself just in time, rubbing at the back of his reddening neck with his free hand. At least he was smiling now, even if it was nervous.
"Well, uh," he said, "I guess we're kinda getting to be–"
"And it's official," Dani declared as she and Doc approached. "We are done!"
"The control panel was set up outside the perimeter," Doc said, this having been the last step to take, "where we'll be able to access it easily but no guests will see it."
Originally, the control panel was to remain in the bunker with them. As they were setting out the speakers, however, they found that the new tech was limited in its reception within the tunnels. Doc had shrugged it off, reminded everyone that these were barely more than prototypes and shrunk down the control panel to find it a better placement.
"Now to get this put away safely," said Doc, hefting the Minimizer, "and to go get changed." He looked around for where he'd set his bag down, leaving Cody and Dani to reassure Jerry.
He passed close by Kade and Heatwave, the former laser focused on his communicator.
"You're staring at that thing like you can make someone call you," Heatwave commented. "I thought Hayley already agreed to come."
"I know Hayley's coming," Kad said, shoving the communicator in his pocket. "It's Quickshadow I haven't heard from."
"Quickshadow?" Looking at him with his eye ridges quirked and his mouth slanted, Heatwave asked, "Just how many dates do you need?"
"Haha," Kade mocked. "I asked her to come be the cherry on top of my and Hayley's couple costumes." He struck a dramatic pose that was a facsimile of a fighting stance. "I'm going to be– Danger, Maven Danger. And Hayley's coming as the latest, greatest Danger girl, Iris Leggy."
"You're sure you want your girlfriend coming as someone who's going to be replaced in the next movie?"
"Hey, Iris's been in two movies!" Kade said. "She's even driven the car, which is why it'd be even more perfect to have the car."
"You're already here," Heatwave pointed out, irritation settling like sugar in his tank. "What do you need–"
"Oh, hey, Doc," Kade called, jogging off and leaving Heatwave glaring. "Can I use that?"
"The Minimizer?" Doc asked. He'd been about to put it away in his bag but paused as Kade approached. "Whatever for?"
"Just a little last minute touchup for the decorations," said Kade as he swept his hand around the bunker. "People are gonna be seeing the place when they pass through and I wanna make sure it's extra impressive."
"Well…" said Doc. "Alright." He handed Kade both the Minimizer and the bag. "Just be sure to put it up the moment you finish."
"Yeah, I know," said Kade, already eyeing everything to find the best place to start. "Trust me, Doc."
Doc looked for a moment like he might change his mind but then his expression cleared and he nodded. With a goodbye that Kade barely heard, he made his way to the elevator to head home to change into his costume and come back with his family.
Kade made quick work of his task, blowing up a few plastic pumpkins, his own jack-o-lanterns among the lineup of them and some of Boulder's paper ghosts for good measure. As promised, he tucked the Minimizer into its bag as soon as he was satisfied. He then gave it a careless toss up on top of the bots' row of lockers. Not a glance was spared as the flap of the bag, unsecured, flopped open to let the muzzle peek out and he certainly didn't notice that the awkward angle it had landed on put enough weight on the lever to activate it. The beam went over everyone's heads, literally as well as metaphorically, striking a high, dark corner where spiders liked to lurk.
By the time it occurred to Kade a moment later to double-check the Minimizer, its own weight had knocked it off the lever, leaving it dormant. By the time anyone happened to glance in the direction of the spiders, they were already gone.
It didn't take long for people to arrive, as Jerry guessed, and the Lads on the first duty shift all scrambled to their positions, dressed as ghost or zombie versions of themselves to suit the haunted cavern. Mr. Fiffer came first, dropping off the heavy load of the Burns's and troop's combined catering orders. Since he was already there, he was given the honor of being the first person to be led through the haunted cavern. Family and friends of the troop came soon after, making themselves comfortable at the bunker party before braving the tunnels for themselves. Since they would be spending the evening there, they had plenty of time.
The next earliest arrival, taking everyone by surprise, was Mrs. Neederlander. She was decked out in witch's garb– one who listened closely might have heard an aside comment about not bothering with a costume– and carried Mister Pettypaws in a shoulder bag shaped like a cauldron. She glared into the tunnel opening, then at Timmy, who would be escorting her through the first portion of the tunnel. He offered a weak smile but her glare didn't break until they heard the echo of Mr. Fiffer's yelp from deeper inside.
"Alright, young man," she said, nose in the air, "impress me."
With that, she marched into the tunnel herself, leaving Timmy to run to catch up with her.
"Jeeze," said Dani, dressed as a unicorn, having walked with Jerry outside to check on the entrance.
"Better him than me," Kade said, earning dark looks from Dani and Jerry both. "Well, it is."
"Kade," was called in a far friendlier tone than either Dani or Jerry were inclined to use in that moment as Hayley walked up. She was wrapped in a long, thin coat, obscuring most of her costume, but her hair and makeup and the fancy boots she wore did plenty to invoke the dangerous dame she was imitating.
"Hayley!" Kade said, running over to meet her. He offered a suave smile and his elbow, preening as she hooked her hand around his arm with a giggle. "You wanna go through the haunted cavern?"
"Not yet," she said, pulling her coat close as a stiff wind hit them. "Brr! I want to take a few minutes to warm up first."
"She seems like such a nice woman," Dani mused as she watched Kade escort his date around to the garage entrance. "And yet."
Jerry laughed. "Hayley's plenty nice," he said. "That's why Kade falls all to pieces when–"
"Oh, Jerry, here you are," said Mr. Alper, appearing around the corner. His smile was bright but shy as he approached, his wizard's cloak flowing in the wind. "I was looking for you inside."
"Alps," Jerry didn't quite yelp. He bit the edges of his grin to keep it from going too wide and ducked his head. "You got here early."
"Everything was set up and ready for the mayor's event," Mr. Alper said, a mild confusion layering over his smile, "and there wasn't much of an early turnout this year, so I actually got to leave on time."
"It was good of you to come," Jerry said, his hands twisting in his pockets and nevermind the layer of zombie makeup being scraped off inside them.
Mr. Alper ducked his head, too, and said, "It's good to be here."
They stood looking at each other from under their eyelashes, smiling, until Dani coughed pointedly into the fist that was hiding her own smile. They both startled as the spell was broken and eased out of their awkward positions, though they didn't stop smiling.
"You wanna head in via the haunted cavern?" Jerry asked, nodding to the entrance. "We all worked hard to get it set up."
"Sure," said Mr. Alper peering into the gloom. "Are we the first ones in?"
"Just about," Jerry said. "May as well have our fun before the crowd turns up and we get stuck in line. Timmy should be back any– oh, here he is."
Timmy did indeed appear from the gloom, wiping his forehead and looking as though he were reconsidering volunteering to assist the troop with the event even if it would earn him a Teen Pioneer badge. Looking up seriously at the adults, he said, "I made sure she was on the right trail to find Liam and Jack, when I caught her. She sure was in a hurry for someone with one foot in the–"
"None of that now," said Jerry, reaching out to gently cuff his son and then scrub his hand playfull through Timmy's short hair. "Mr. Alper wants to go through– and I'm pretty curious to see the place when I'm not helping put it together."
"We're not waiting for a bigger group?" Timmy asked. "Dani, are you coming too?"
"Nah, we'll go through by ourselves," Jerry said, sharing another shy smile with Mr. Alper. "Oh, uh– unless you do want to come, Dani."
Holding up her hands, Dani said, "I'll wait and go through with Taylor when he gets here and that won't be for a little while. You guys have fun– tell me how it is when I see you inside!"
Timmy looked somewhat wary as his gaze darted between Jerry and Mr. Alper but he smiled readily enough and gestured them through the entrance. Dani watched them go, then clapped her arms around herself as another wind whistled through. She had just turned to go inside when she saw a large group, heavy coats and hats and scarves on over their costumes, approaching.
"Is this where the haunted cavern starts?" Mr. Harrison asked from the front of the pack.
"Sure is!" Dani said. "Your first escort should be back in just a minute." The wind blew again, more like a scream than a whistle, and she winced as everyone shivered. "But I think it'll be fine for you to wait inside."
The group murmured appreciatively as they packed into the entrance of the cave.
"Oh, Dani," said Mrs. Rubio as she and her husband shuffled their children aside from the crowd. They were all bundled up but it was easy to guess they were dressed as some kind of fairies or forest spirits, based on their braided twig headdresses and the bouquet of marigolds Mrs. Rubio carried. "Do you think Boulder will mind if we do the haunted cavern before going inside? The kids are just so excited."
"I don't think he'll mind at all," Dani assured them. "He invited you here to enjoy yourselves, after all."
They smiled and moved on with the others, the children cheering. Assured that they were all in good hands, Dani pulled the neck of her costume over her chin and headed inside, passing Cody on the way.
Cody darted out to the sidewalk, the cape of his custom superhero costume wrapped around him like a blanket and his teeth clenched against the cold. He looked around for Frankie, having just gotten word that she was arriving, but still had to look twice before he realized who it was walking up to him with her family.
"Frankie!" he greeted, jogging to meet them. He grinned as he got a better look at her costume thanks to her open long coat; she had on a black and red harlequin jumpsuit, complete with a jingly hood and full makeup. Her dogs walked dutifully ahead of her on their leashes and he realized they were dressed up, too, fur colored and spots stenciled on. "Looking old-school!"
"We thought the original costume was a bit more age-appropriate," Professor Baranova said. Her costume was unfamiliar to Cody but seemed to match Doc's also unfamiliar costume. CeCe was tucked away into her stroller, fussing audibly, so whatever she wore was obscured.
"It's definitely warmer," Frankie said with a grin. "Sorry I missed setup, by the way. Edison and Aristotle took longer than I expected."
"Looks like it was worth it," Cody said. He reached out to pet the dogs without thinking about it, wincing and pulling his hand back, then smiling with relief when he realized whatever they'd been painted with hadn't been smeared.
"Definitely," said Frankie, puffed up with pride. "So, are we doing this haunted cavern thing?"
"Yeah!" said Cody "C'mon, it's this way. Doc, Professor, are you coming?"
"In a little while, perhaps," Doc said, "after CeCe has had a chance to wander a bit. You kids have fun."
Happy to oblige, Cody and Frankie waved them off and hurried on their way. Their excitement dampened, though, as they realized how many people were already waiting. Sharing a glance, they approached cautiously, edging into the entrance and just able to catch a glimpse of Timmy trying to direct the flow of the traffic. Cody was just about to suggest that they wait inside for the line to die down when he heard a familiar scoff behind him, shot through with the sound of chattering teeth.
Priscilla Pynch stood dressed like a princess, no cold weather gear to hide it. It was no wonder that she was shaking like the leaves on the trees as the wind whipped them.
"This is the big event that's so much better than the mayor's?" she asked, someone looking down her nose at the entire firehouse.
"Who said it w– why am I asking?" Cody muttered, smacking his palm to his forehead. "Priscilla, do you really think you should be dressed like that out here?"
Nose wrinkling, she said, "Well, if I'd known this was going to be so poorly organized, I'd have come prepared. I expected to be in and out of these silly tunnels and through to the party."
Cody and Frankie shrugged at each other, biting their tongues. It wasn't outside the realm of possibility that one of the Lads had invited Priscilla and they weren't about to insult someone else's guest.
"The line just started," Cody decided to explain instead. "So they're–"
"Whatever," Priscilla said, trying and failing to hide another shiver behind her crossed arms. "Are you going to stand there yapping or show me through this trail?"
Cody blinked. "Priscilla, I'm not one of the guides."
"You are one of the Pioneer people, aren't you?" she asked. "And your family is hosting, aren't they? Don't tell me you don't know the way through."
"I do," Cody insisted, "it's just–"
Another blast of wind hit them, seeming to shove the crowd further into the tunnel and nearly knocking Cody, Frankie and Priscilla off their feet. They all huddled together, Priscilla not even saying anything as she pressed closer to their heat. Watching her eyes water from the wind, Cody found that he felt sorry for her in spite of himself. And he couldn't deny that he was more than ready to get out of the cold too. They could just go inside to wait but…
"Cody?" Frankie prompted. Not without reluctance, she slipped off her long coat to wrap around Priscilla's shoulders to cover her bare arms.
Decided, Cody grinned and said, "Follow me."
Dani sighed as she stepped out of the elevator and into the warmth and chatter of the bunker. She looked around, taking it all in. For all the gloom their decorations and lighting leant the place, the atmosphere was cheerful and relaxed. Their own guests had begun to arrive, mingling with those of the Pioneer Lads, and people shrieked then laughed as projections of the paper ghosts danced through the crowd. Boulder was gushing at Ms. Lima, his arms waving grandly as he spoke, and the rest of his book club was nearby admiring the jack-o-lanterns. Amy, barely recognizable under the heavy makeup of her rock star costume, was chatting with Hayley. Kade was close at hand, as was to be expected, and looked like he hadn't taken his eyes off Hayley for a while. Barney and Carin were in what looked to be a heated conversation, at least on Barney's side. There was no sign of the Rubios and Doc hadn't come back yet but they weren't far from having all hands on deck. But it was the off-shift Lad Pioneers Dani was looking for and she spotted them at the refreshments table.
"Quite a crowd you've got out there," she told them, smiling at the celebratory whooping they erupted into. "And you should have your first guests through soon, so they can tell us how much they enjoyed the trail we set up." She paused, thinking of Mrs. Neederlander. "Well, one of them can tell us…"
If the boys were concerned about what she meant, they didn't show it. They talked rapidly amongst themselves, hyping each other up and making plans for whether and when they would give the haunted cavern a try for themselves. Dani glanced over to see Mr. Fiffer being led into the bunker by Kyle, Graham stepping out of the crowd to meet them; no sooner had she pointed him out to the boys than they all rushed over to bombard him with questions. Curious herself, she trailed along after them.
Mr. Fiffer laughed, motioning the boys to settle down, but it was nonetheless a moment before he could get a word in edgewise.
"You all did a fantastic job," he declared. "Best haunted house or thereabouts that I've experienced in years! Come on, now, if you'll excuse me–"
He waded through the boys, leaving them in a self-congratulatory tangle, tripping lightly over one of them at the last step. Graham caught him by the arm and helped steady him, Mr. Fiffer laughing all over again.
"Heh, they sure are excited," he said, "and no wonder! That's a heck of a job for an afternoon's work."
"Thanks, Mr. Fiffer," said Graham with pride.
"We put a lot of effort into making sure it was what it should've been," added Dani.
"I can tell!" said Mr. Fiffer. "The boys were all so professional and polite, the path was clearly marked– and those scares!" His laugh turned a little sheepish as he thought of how many times he'd jumped. "I especially like that big spider on the last leg– heh– of the path, the way it just lurks and stares at you? Creepy!"
"Spider?" Graham murmured, lost under Mr. Fiffer's boisterous farewell. He scratched his head, wracking his brain, but couldn't think of what spider Mr. Fiffer could mean. He looked at Dani to find her just as confused.
He was about to grab one of the others to ask if they remembered setting up a spider when Mrs. Neederlander stomped out, scattering the boys as the tunnel entrance. Kyle trailed after her with a sour look and immediately turned back, shaking his head, when he was satisfied that she had gone.
"Oh, Mrs. Neederlander," said Graham, keeping a fair distance, "how did you like–"
"Hmph!" she interrupted. "You call that haunted? The craftsmanship on that big spider in there was laughable, even if it did frighten poor Mister Pettypaws." She ran a smoothing hand between her pet's ears as he meowed piteously.
She put her nose in the air and marched off, Graham and Dani too distracted to notice that she was helping herself to the refreshments instead of heading for the elevator.
"What do you think that's all about?" Dani asked, uneasiness threading her words.
Biting his lip, Graham picked his way across the room to where Boulder was still deep in conversation with Ms. Lima. Dani went with him, feeling increasingly ill at ease.
"Hey, Boulder," he said, "sorry to interrupt but, um. What was that I heard you say a few minutes ago about a spider?"
"Oh, right, the spider that usually hangs out in Leafy Jr's pot," said Boulder. "I haven't seen him since we decorated earlier. I thought maybe he was in the usual corner but there's no sign." He shrugged, waving a hand at the corner in question. A look of concern fell over him. "I hope he wasn't offended by the fake webbing I put in the pot…"
"I'm… sure that isn't the case," Graham reassured him, ignoring Ms. Lima's arched eyebrows. He saw Doc exit the elevator with Professor Baranova and CeCe and said, "Hey, I need to go talk to Doc. I'll probably be back."
"See you then," said Boulder before diving right back into his previous conversation.
"Doc," Graham said as he and Dani quick-stepped up to him, "did you–"
"Ah, Graham," Doc said over him, "do you know what Kade did with the Minimizer? I'd prefer to check on it before enjoying the party."
"What Kade did with the Minimizer?" Dani asked.
"Yes, he was the last one to use it," Doc explained. "He assured me that he would put it away and out of the way before– ah ha!" He pointed a triumphant finger towards the bots' lockers, more specifically at the bag resting on top. The muzzle of the Minimizer was in plain view, pointed directly at the corner that Boulder had pointed out a moment before. "He did put it up! Now, how to get it down…"
Graham and Dani would normally have offered a solution but they were caught too deep in the mounting horror of realization. Graham looked around frantically for Kade. Dani, remembering where she'd seen him last, nudged Graham and pointed and the two of them approached him at a quick trot. Dani grabbed him by the elbow and Graham offered Hayley and Amy a wobbly smile and said, "Excuse us for just a second, ladies," as she pulled Kade away with a hard grip.
"Oh," said Hayley, "we were just going to go out to start the cavern trail…"
"You go ahead," said Kade, "I'll catch up!" He turned a scowl on his siblings as he was dragged. "What's the deal?"
"Kade, we might have a problem," Graham said.
"What's going on?" Heatwave asked, summoned by the concern radiating off of Graham and Dani. "Don't tell me something's gone wrong already."
"Something might've gone wrong awhile ago," Graham said, expression grim as he looked between them. "Kade, when you put the Minimizer up on the lockers, did you do it carefully?"
"Cheh, of course I did!" Kade said, shoulders hunched defensively. He stared pointedly at the far wall before turning back, discernibly less cool than he was trying to play it. "But say for a second that I didn't. Then what?"
Graham groaned, scrubbing his hands over his face. Heatwave pinched the bridge of his nasal ridge, a habit he'd picked up since arriving on Earth.
The next group of haunted cavern guests emerged into the bunker, making mock-frightening gestures at each other as they talked about their favorite parts of the trail. One of the Lad Pioneers wandered over to Graham and the others, eyes alight.
"I dunno who did the spider at the end," he chirped, "but everyone loves it!"
He darted back to his group, all of them still chattering with the guests, while Graham and Dani fixed Kade with a pair of firm looks.
"That's what," Dani said.
"No one put a spider in the tunnels," Graham elaborated, "it put itself there– after being maximized by the Minimizer."
"Oh," said Kade, deflating under the weight of his embarrassment. "Whoops?"
"More than whoops," Graham snapped. "We have no idea how it'll behave towards humans at this size– whatever this size is! It sounds like it's just stared at people so far but if it starts to recognize them as prey or competition–"
"I get it, I get it," Kade said, hand up to stop the flood. "Let's alert the team and–"
"Wait," said Heatwave.
The siblings stared at him, taken aback, and Kade said, "Uh, that's not your line."
"Look," said Heatwave, "it's one spider, even if it is a big one. You really want to have to evacuate the place to go in and shrink it? We don't need the whole team for that!"
His teammates shared a bewildered look, then turned it back on him.
"I guess not," Graham allowed, "but I don't see why not to call them to stand by."
"Because," Heatwave started, only to snap his mouth shut abruptly. He rubbed the back of his neck, then folded his arms, then unfolded his arms with a huff. "It's just… important to Boulder…"
They all looked over at Boulder, who had moved on from his conversation with Ms. Lima and was regaling some of the Lad Pioneer parents, Leafy Jr's decorated pot cradled in his hands.
Kade winced, his guilt compounding as he looked at Boulder's carefree smile. Graham bit down on his knuckle and Dani tips her fingertips to her mouth, neither of them feeling any better about the idea of interrupting.
"Well," said Dani, "the four of us know. We are half the team."
"Everyone says that it's near the exit," Graham said. "I… guess we can handle it ourselves without alerting the others."
"Yeah," said Kade, warming to the idea. "It is just one little not-so-little spider. In fact–" He rubbed at his jaw, expression uncommonly serious. Eyes set with determination, he said, "Get me the Minimizer. Blowing that thing up wasn't a group project and shrinking it doesn't have to be either."
Getting the crowd settled into an orderly fashion wasn't easy but Timmy held his ground and managed to unknot the unruly bunch in due time. It helped that he had the easiest part of the trail, with only one jumpscare to slow people down. Other than that, they just had to go where he pointed them. He was technically supposed to be walking with them, sure, but they hadn't expected these kinds of numbers so soon and he wasn't about to make everyone wait for him to run back and forth in these conditions. It would be fine, he knew. After all, they were just as capable of following the arrows as he was.
Further into the tunnels, his fellow trail watchmen were almost as overwhelmed but still in high spirits. Why be upset when the rush just meant that their event was already a success, after all? It was thirsty work, nonetheless, and Corey took a big swig from his water bottle after pointing the latest group onto the next part of the trail.
His mouthful came back up when a ghostly visage rushed at him from thin air, already choking when he recognized it as a holographic projection of himself. He laughed along with Jacob, stationed down the way and across from him, as he was teased for being frightened by his own twisted face, even after seeing it several times as guests passed through.
Too busy laughing and joking and preparing for the next set of guests, he didn't notice the little platoon of projector bots on the wall sparking as they reacted to the water he'd spat on them. He certainly didn't see them flail their little legs and then march off on their own.
"Here we go!" Cody said, pointing at a perimeter marker that showed they were reentering the trail proper. "Told you it wouldn't take long."
"We won't miss too many of the scares going this way, right?" Frankie asked, tugging at her dogs' leashes when they tried to stop again to sniff the walls.
"Just a couple of them," Cody said, rolling his eyes at Priscilla's answering scoff but otherwise not acknowledging it. "And we can always come through again. The trail was developed with repeat value in mind."
"I have yet to see anything of any value," Priscilla said, nose in the air. "In fact–"
They all jumped and gasped when the tunnel was suddenly flooded with ghosts, flailing defensively despite remaining untouched and unharmed. Edison and Aristotle barked, lunging at the ghosts as they writhed. The ghosts disappeared as quickly as they appeared, seeming to vanish into the walls. The dogs continued to bark at the walls and Priscilla stood wide-eyed and gap-jawed while Cody and Frankie laughed off the shock.
"Daddy's hologram projectors?" Frankie asked even though she already knew, kneeling to calm her pets.
"Yep," Cody said, rolling his shoulders to dislodge the goosebumps. "Speaking of your dad's stuff, I'm surprised we haven't heard–" He was interrupted by the sound of a low wail, just one pitch wrong to be the wind; it vibrated through them and made the dogs hunch their shoulders. "Spoke too soon." It was hard to resist teasing Priscilla as she struggled to get ahold of herself while looking like she'd never lost hold in the first place but he managed it, just waving a hand at both girls and saying, "Come on, it gets even better."
"I would hope so," Priscilla muttered under her breath but she was staring at her feet as she did. She looked up just in time for another hologram to appear in front of her, a ghostly visage pulling a hideous face. "Eek!"
"Another one already?" Frankie asked. "Huh, I think that's Corey." She tipped her head as the projection flickered and repeated, rapidly and within a few seconds. "Why is it doing that?"
Cody looked back, examining the projection himself, and shrugged. He said, "I guess there must be some kind of effect they're going for but I don't know what."
Priscilla stared the projection down, lips twisted. Edison and Aristotle growled at it, holding their ground at first when Frankie tugged their leashes though they finally relented.
"This way, guys," Cody said, pointing out an arrow marker.
He was already jogging ahead and the girls were still puzzling over the hologram when a little orange light blinked on the wall. The hologram Corey flickered one last time and disappeared. Putting the question of the odd special effect aside for the moment, Frankie and Priscilla looked to where they had last seen Cody, missing the purple blink from the other wall. If Cody's vanishing back didn't look quite real, wasn't that just the shadows?
There was another orange blink behind them as they passed through and huffed at how far Cody had gone on without them. Sharing a glance, finding themselves uncommonly in agreement, Frankie and Priscilla hurried along to catch up.
Cody, meanwhile, stood waiting and was about to turn around when he saw the others walking towards him, but not the purple blink which preceded their arrival. Confident that they were following, he turned to lead the way and never noticed them flicker out of existence.
There was something eerie about the haunted cavern, even aside from the obvious. The Rubios had stopped only a moment so that Mrs. Rubio could coax a rock out of Elsie's mouth. When they looked up, there was no sign of their guide or the rest of the group. None of them were sure the tunnel was quite the same as before they'd looked away but none of them were confident enough to say so. Spotting the next arrow had been simple, at least, but they'd been walking almost five minutes without seeing any other arrows, any other people or any other scares. Even the creepy sounds that played periodically seemed to be getting further away.
"I told you we should have fought our way into an earlier group," Mr. Rubio said to his wife, tone light. "Someone's gone and done something to the trail and–"
A shadow dropped from the ceiling almost on top of them. They all stumbled back, the adults' hands firm on their children's shoulders. The shadow wriggled and configured itself into the shape of a spider standing at approximately the height of a golden retriever. It hissed, lifting two of its back legs up in an intimidation display and making jerky, false lunges.
Mr. and Mrs. Rubio huddled together, encircling their children in their arms, Mrs. Rubio thrusting her marigold bouquet in front of her instinctively. The spider seemed to dance in place, the sound of its feet scraping the ground like an echo of its hiss, before recoiling and scuttling away into the dark. The family stared after it a moment before straightening up, the parents sharing a laugh and their children following their lead more slowly.
"Life-like, wasn't it?" Mr. Rubio said. He shuddered, slapping at his arms. "Gave me goosebumps!"
"I wonder what it was that made it decide to leave," Mrs. Rubio mused as she straightened her bouquet and ruffled her children's hair to soothe them.
"Probably realized we were scared enough and moved on to the next victim," Mr. Rubio said.
"Hm," said Mrs. Rubio. "Then it's probably programmed to find other victims to scare." She smiled around at her family, relief making her feel light. "If we follow it, it might lead us back to the group."
"And people say I married you for your looks," Mr. Rubio teased. He and his wife kissed, delighted in their children's disgust at the display. Then he said, "Come on, gang, let's follow that bug."
When Hayley had started down the trail of the haunted cavern, she was propelled by spite. It hadn't lasted into the second portion of the trail but pride kept her going. Even that was failing her by the halfway point and so she walked with her lower lip between her teeth, hyper aware of the empty space where Kade wasn't walking beside her.
"You can always go through a second time with him," Amy assured her.
"Uh huh!" said the Pioneer Lad, Liam, leading them onto the next portion of the trail. "We–"
Flames erupted directly in front of them, putting off no heat. A troupe of little demons that would've been cute if they were any less grotesque danced in a frenzied circle. Hayley recognized the scene from a display in the bunker that had reminded her of a yule log video before she noticed the demons.
The demons disappeared, taking their flames with them, and Liam grinned up at Hayley and Amy. Even in her current state of mind, Hayley automatically affected a look of exaggerated awe and was pleased when it made Liam bounce on the balls of his feet.
"See, stuff like that happens at random," he informed them proudly. "So you can walk through over and over again and still get scared!"
Hayley smiled, unable to hold on to her sour mood in the face of such happiness. And it wasn't a bad idea, really. She didn't know what had kept Kade from coming out to meet them but she didn't feel so bad about not waiting when she knew she could have a unique experience with him the second time through. Not that she had felt that bad anyway for not standing out in that cold.
She was about to tell Liam that he'd be seeing her again soon when an eight-legged shape shot out from the tunnel they were about to pass. It stopped just short of hitting the wall and waved its legs as it turned, giving a jolt and then a hiss when it noticed them.
"That, uh," said Amy. "That one really got me. Does it…?"
Hayley placed a hand on Liam's shoulder, not able to look away from the spider despite the way looking at it made her skin crawl. It hissed at them. Not a projection, then– an animatronic, like the vampire they'd passed a few minutes ago?
"I don't understand," said Liam, planting his hands on his hips. "That shouldn't be here."
"Well, what do you know– it did lead us to civilization!" Mr. Rubio said as he led his family out of the same tunnel the spider had come from. "I was starting to think we lived here now."
Hayley felt some of the tension go out of her, enough that her hand eased off Liam's shoulder. Liam huffed and marched towards the spider, intent on shooing it out of his area and on to wherever it belonged.
The spider lunged, impossibly fast. The group screamed and scrambled, most of the Rubios all letting out nervous laughs once they caught themselves, though Elsie began to whimper. Mrs. Rubio set immediately to the task of comforting her daughter as the spider closed in on Amy and Liam, who had tripped over each other.
"Wh-why doesn't it stop?" Mrs. Rubio asked, staring with wide eyes as Amy tucked Liam behind her and shrunk away from the spider, which seemed almost to be scolding them by the way it bobbed and hissed. She hugged Elsie to her chest and tried to smile, like this was still a game. "It only cornered us for a moment before it left."
Hayley started to ask a question, then did a double-take at the bouquet Mrs. Rubio was still clutching. Without wasting the time to ask, she grabbed it from Mrs. Rubio's hands and rushed towards Amy and Liam, skidding to a stop between them and the spider. She threw one arm out to the side, signaling them to stay behind her, while she brandished the bouquet with her other hand. The spider's glassy eyes seemed to narrow in on the marigolds and it recoiled, mandibles trembling. Hayley and Amy began to slowly urge Liam along the wall toward the Rubios, gazes locked steady on their attacker.
They were all startled by a sudden burst of light. It enveloped the spider, which flailed as it shrunk down, down and out of sight. Kade came into view from around the corner wielding the Minimizer and approaching the place where the spider had stood. He squinted for a moment before, with a triumphant cry, he swooped down and scraped a jar pulled from his pocket along the rocky ground. He stood, the jar held proudly over his head, and the others gathered around to see the much smaller spider scuttling around the floor of the jar.
"Everyone enjoying the haunted cavern?" Kade asked. His usual grin was weak but not from lack of effort. He looked them all frantically from head to toe– Hayley three times in between the others. "Got a little interactive there."
Most of the group relaxed, reassured, though Liam was still obviously affronted to have encountered something he didn't recognize. Hayley ran her tongue along the backs of her teeth and swallowed but the bitter taste of suspicion wouldn't leave.
"It was good of you to finally show up, Kade," she said, staring hard in an attempt to read the truth off his face.
He winced and said, "It was good to show up in time to see that sweet rescue that you pulled. Really getting into character! How'd you know to do that?"
"All scented Tagetes repel spiders," said Hayley, eyes narrowing at Kade as she crossed her arms. "I never would've expected it to work on an animatronic, though."
Kade chuckled, a reedy sound, his grin weakening further beneath her glare. "That's, uh. That's just how attentive we are to detail…" He withstood another full second before he couldn't take any more. He deflated, massaging his palm against his forehead and said, "Okay, look. That wasn't an animatronic– it was a real spider that had a little run-in with the Minimizer."
The Rubio's gasped, clutching their children. Liam gasped, too, but then exclaimed, "That is so cool!" Amy planted on hand hard on the wall and clutched her head, woozy at the implications.
"You let people into these tunnels with a giant spider running around?" Hayley demanded.
"Whoa, hey, we just found out about it ourselves!" Kade said, holding up in his hands in surrender. "And that was after about a dozen people walked past it with no trouble. If we'd known anyone was in danger…" His voice tightened and he looked into Hayley's eyes. "If I'd known you were in danger…"
Hayley softened, reaching for Kade's hands.
"This is all very sweet," Amy said, regaining her bearings and shattering the moment, "but I still don't understand why you didn't clear the tunnels as a precaution."
"Yeah, we should've," Kade said. "I get that now. But we wanted to handle it without causing a panic– or interrupting the Lad Pioneers' event," said Kade defensively, looking briefly to Liam for validation, which he won in the form of a flattered smile. "And we didn't want to ruin the party for Boulder!"
The group blinked at him, taken aback by the passion of the last statement.
"What do you mean?" Amy asked. She already sounded less harsh.
"Boulder was more excited for this party than anyone, even Blades," Kade told them, gratified by the way their eyebrows all jumped. "I know! He's been really into community stuff ever since the bots revealed their secret to the town– heck, you know that if you talk to him for five minutes– and he really wanted this one night and this one event to be perfect and fun for everyone. We didn't want him to have to leave the party to help with the spider situation when one person could handle it alone."
"Well," said Mrs. Rubio, slow like she was carrying the weight of everyone's thoughts in her words, "if it was for Boulder…"
There came the sounds of footsteps and talk– the next group was coming up on their position.
"Alright," Hayley said on the group's behalf, stepping forward. She rested a hand on Kade's arm and leaned up to give him a swift peck on the cheek. "For Boulder."
The rest of the group nodded, the children even giving out a brief cheer.
"Wow," Kade said under his breath, one hand pressed to Hayley's kiss. His grin was back at full strength. "That really works."
A zombie Pioneer Lad peered around a corner, eyebrows meeting in the middle when he spotted them. He trotted over, the next group trailing behind him.
"There you are, Liam," said Jamal as he approached. He looked at Hayley and Amy, did a double-take at the Rubios and Kade and asked, "Where are the others?"
"What others?" Liam asked.
"I sent two other groups after these ladies," said Jamal, waving at Hayley and Amy, "and I thought the Rubios went ahead a long time ago."
"Our group got away from us," Mr. Rubio explained, "and we must have misunderstood one of those arrows."
"These two were the first I've seen since Mr. Harrison's group," Liam said. "It was getting boring!"
"We were with Mr. Harrison before we got lost," Mrs. Rubio piped up. "And now you're saying two whole other groups are lost too?"
"Not just them."
They all whirled around as Cody jogged up to them from the same direction Jamal had come.
"Cody, what are you doing in here alone?" Kade asked.
"I wasn't alone," Cody explained, "I was with Frankie and Priscilla Pynch. Then… I wasn't."
"Something isn't right here," Kade said, all business again. He looked back the way he came, deep in thought. "I didn't have any trouble finding my way through and I passed Mr. Harrison. You said you four got lost before you got to Liam?"
"That's right," Mr. Rubio agreed.
"I wasn't even close to here yet when I lost the girls," Cody put in.
"Our problem is that way, then," Kade said, nodding the direction Cody and Jamal and his group had come from. "I'll put out a call to halt the tours for now and head back to figure out where people got their wires crossed. I need you two," he knelt to address the Lad Pioneers more directly, "to lead these people straight out to the bunker, okay?"
Jamal and Liam nodded, jaws set. Kade clapped them both on the shoulder and stood.
"We'll call for backup if we need it," he said with a significant look at the group he'd rescued a few minutes before, "but let us handle it for now." With that, he handed off the spider jar to Amy and strode down into the tunnels with Cody close at his heels.
Chief Burns looked around the bunker with astonishment, not least at the fact that Chase had yet to quote a single safety code at him over the number of people in the room. He was sure he heard Prescott's distinctive broadcast cadence from somewhere but couldn't put eyes on him. He said, "Maybe I should've taken advantage of those mega-mega discounts."
"All due respect, sir," said Chase, "I did offer to stop."
In the past ten minutes, three people had approached the Chief to inform him that they were running low on pizza. Four more wanted to know when the punch bowl would be refilled. He didn't know that they could refill the punch bowl enough to satisfy everyone in the room.
He groaned as he watched yet more people pile out of the tunnel, swiping his hand down his face. When he looked again, his eyes narrowed. Plenty of people looked spooked when they came out of the haunted cavern, that was a given. This bunch looked shaken. And there were a lot more of them than he'd come to expect at a time, two of them Lad Pioneers who he was sure should still be on duty along the trail. Gathering himself, Chief Burns braved the press of bodies in the room to meet the newcomers.
The off-duty Lad Pioneers beat him to it, by virtue of never having strayed far from the mouth of the tunnel. He still came in on the end of one of them asking if they were supposed to report to their stations now.
"Kade called a pause," Liam said. He wrung his hands and looked around before lowering his voice. "He said he'd call for backup if he had to."
"What's this about Kade?" Heatwave asked before the Chief could. He'd been twitchy for awhile now, keeping his eye on the tunnel. "What would he need backup for?"
"Some people didn't stay on the trail," Jamal said, more annoyed than worried now that he was in the relatively brighter environment of the bunker. "Kade went to get them and he told us to get out so he'd know where we are."
"Have you heard from him?" Chief Burns asked Heatwave.
"Nothing," Heatwave said. He looked around not unlike Liam had and was speaking more quietly when he added, "I'm sure he'll call me if he runs into real trouble or can't find them."
"I don't doubt it," said Chief Burns, leveling Heatwave with a look, "but it would've been nice to hear this straight from him. I don't like hearing about problems secondhand."
Kade's group of rescuees all winced as their eyes met and they slunk away quietly, leaving the team leaders to hash out the details of the situation. Amy perked up and pointed out Boulder, edging her way through the crowd with Hayley and the Rubios trailing after.
"This is a much bigger turnout than I was expecting when Boulder invited us," Mr. Rubio noted, holding firm to his children's hands.
"Boulder!" Mrs. Rubio called, catching his attention from his conversation with Graham and Dani.
"You guys made it," he said in delight, holding out his hands for the Rubio children to climb up for a hug.
"Wouldn't miss it," Mrs. Rubio assured him. "We just got a little caught up by the haunted cavern."
"It is pretty impressive, huh?" asked Boulder brightly. He gently handed the children back to their parents. "We all worked really hard for tonight."
"Oh, we know that, Boulder," Mrs. Rubio said, just a little too intense. "And you deserve to enjoy it."
Graham did a double-take at her and then looked around at the rest of the group. His eyes lit up in realization when he saw the jar in Amy's hands and he nudged Dani to draw her attention to it as well.
"So far, so good," Boulder said, oblivious.
"Will this make it even better?" Amy asked, stepping forward and presenting the jar where the spider still scuttled, trying and failing to escape.
Boulder gasped, carefully accepting the jar. "Where did you find her?"
"Oh, um," said Amy. "She was just… mingling?"
"I guess she wanted to meet some people besides Leafy Jr," Graham joked.
"Huh?" Boulder looked at Graham in confusion but it cleared a moment later. "Haha, oh, no, I forgot to tell you, I found Leafy Jr's spider hiding in the faking cobwebs. This little lady is one of the corner spiders."
"One of?" Amy asked, hitting a high pitch.
"Yeah," said Boulder as he gently released the spider next to a crack in the wall, which it was quick to disappear into, "there are a few of them that I've had my eye on. They're not in their corner now, though. I thought the crowd might've spooked them into hiding but I guess this one got curious."
Dani caught Graham's eye; it was obvious that they'd come to the same conclusion. They looked around at the rest of the group, watching the realization come over them too.
"Is something wrong?" Boulder asked, finally noticing their odd expressions. "The spiders here are nothing to be afraid of– I looked them up and they aren't dangerous or even aggressive to humans. This little one wouldn't hurt a fly!" He paused, making a face. "Okay, she would hurt a fly but–"
"How many spiders are missing, Boulder?" Dani asked. "Just, you know, out of curiosity. Do all of them always hang out in the same corner?"
"There are four of them that live in the corner together, including this one," said Boulder. "She's the first of them I've seen since this afternoon." His eye ridges lowered as he took in Dani and Graham's expressions, then those of the rest of the group. In a tone that left no room for nonsense, he asked, "Why do you want to know?"
"I don't know why we had to stop," Timmy tried explaining for the tenth time. "Kade just told me that he has to do a safety sweep, so no new people can go in yet."
The crowd, which seemed just as big as it had started, with everyone packed in, sang a chorus of complaints. Timmy tried to stay respectful as he raised his voice to be heard but it was getting harder and harder.
"Look," he said, "if you're all that cold, just go wait inside until we get the all-clear."
"You mean we don't have to go through the tunnels to get into the party?" someone demanded, setting off another wave of protests. "We could've just gone there first?"
Timmy opened his mouth but quickly snapped it shut, unsure what to say. Get into the party? Go there first? The party was for the rescue team and the Lad Pioneers, the haunted cavern for the public. What did they mean?
"One side!" someone cried from the back. The crowd roiled as that same someone pushed and shoved his way to the front. Mayor Luskey appeared red-faced and panting before Timmy, clutching his toupee to his head. He glared at Timmy and then past him, digging his fists into his hips. "So, you think this little haunted trail is better than my Haunted Mansion and Halloween Ball, do you?"
"Um," said Timmy, bewildered. "I guess it might be?"
"The audacity!" Luskey exploded. "The gall of our youth today. If your event is so much better than mine, I demand you prove it!"
"But no one can go in right–"
"I didn't come here for excuses," Luskey said in a bluster. "I came here to prove a point!"
He marched past Timmy, refusing to hear his protests. His defiance set off the rest of the crowd. Cramped, cranky and cold, they all shoved their way through, making Timmy drop the comm unit he'd been leant and trampling it as they went. They left him in a dizzy daze, unable to do anything but watch them go.
A clown on a spring leaped out from what had seemed to be an ordinary rock, its cackles echoing through the tunnel. It came close enough to brush the high collar of Mr. Alper's cloak and he yelped, flinching away and grabbing blindly at Jerry's hand. The two of them stumbled a few feet forward and almost walked directly into another clown popping up from the other side. Jerry choked on a gasp and leaned hard against Mr. Alper, squeezing his hand in turn.
That was what brought their linked hands to their attention. They both blinked down, taken aback, before sharing a soft smile. Jerry squeezed again, not from fear, and they didn't look away from each other as they shuffled along.
By all rights, they should've long been out of the tunnels. But Mr. Alper had been fascinated by everything and disappointed that he hadn't been there to help set it up. Jerry wasn't of a mind to deny him the chance to take a closer look around, at least for the scares where they wouldn't be distracting the boys. They'd made a game of it, ducking behind props and into tunnels not being used for the official trail when other people passed.
Jerry wouldn't trust himself to make sense of the tunnels in a few days but he'd crawled all over them that very afternoon. He was confident enough that he could give them some time alone without leading them into any trouble.
He was confident right up until something with too many legs for its size landed in front of them.
"Priscilla, I don't think this is part of the haunted cavern," said Frankie, looking around with concern at the unfamiliar tunnel. "We should really turn around."
"I know how to follow an arrow," Priscilla said as she scowled around at their surroundings. She pulled Frankie's coat tight around her shoulders. She hardly cared about the haunted cavern anymore, instead thinking of the food that would be waiting for her if anyone knew what was good for them. "Even though someone has no idea how to set up a haunted house. I haven't seen anything scary for the last– ew!"
Frankie whirled just in time for Priscilla to back up into her, almost knocking them both back as she recoiled from the giant spider picking its way towards them. Edison and Aristotle, their leashes dropped, positioned themselves in front of both girls and growled, backs up and teeth bared.
"Ugh, well, it's about time," said Priscilla, straightening up but not moving away. She stared down the end of her nose at the spider, hands on her hips. "Is it going to do anything?"
"I don't think I want it to," Frankie said. A small part of her that she tried to ignore was saying very nasty things about her decision to not turn back without Priscilla when she first became sure they were going the wrong way. She thought back but couldn't remember her father saying anything about a giant spider in the setup.
"You know what your problem is?" Priscilla asked. "You're willing to settle. Well, a giant spider that just stands there and stares at you is not enough to impress me."
As if it had heard her, the spider lunged.
"This isn't so bad," Mayor Luskey snapped at no one in particular as he stalked along the trail of the haunted cavern. He'd had a few startles at first but after the last arrow instructing him to turn down a forked path, there had been nothing but darkness and the distant sounds of some creepy backing track. It was a little lonesome, a little claustrophobic, but nothing compared to the non-stop thrills and chills of his Haunted Mansion.
A rasping sound echoed in the dark, seeming to come from the shadows themselves. Or so it seemed until the shadows started to move. Luskey squeaked, rammed into a wall and then stumbled through the tunnel he'd been aiming for. Strange, how it had seemed closer a moment before. But it was no matter, certainly nothing to slow him down.
"I'm not scared at all!" he informed the tunnels themselves, pleased by the macho tones he heard echoing back at him.
That rasping sound came back on the tails of his echo, underscored by a sinister hiss. Luskey yelped and ran, not caring where to.
"Alright, alright, you got me, I'm scared!" he bleated. "Let me out of here!"
He tripped over the uneven ground and then over his own feet when he tried to correct himself, falling and smacking his shoulder on something smooth, that sounded off a metallic twang. Dazed, he scrabbled at the top edge, vaguely aware of hitting a series of buttons. He managed to get enough of a grip to pull himself halfway to standing. When he felt himself lose balance again, he made another grab. His grip closed on the handle of a lever but he didn't think about that, just yanked.
"You heard what?" Chief Burns demanded. In his fury, he seemed to tower over not only Dani and Graham but Heatwave too. "And you didn't inform the rest of us?"
"For me?" Boulder asked, torn between feeling touched and horrified from guilt.
"We thought it was going to be an easy fix," Heatwave said but he wasn't defending himself. "We were wrong– I was wrong. I take full responsibility."
"Oh, you're responsible alright," Chief Burns said, "but you're sure not the only one. Even if it had been a simple in and out job, the rest of us needed to know about it. You think Boulder having to stand by as backup while we cleared the tunnels for a safety sweep would've been worse than finding out this way, when we have two emergencies to deal with?"
"Chief!" Timmy called, struggling through the crowd. He was sweating bullets when he reached them, all out of breath. "Chief, I told everyone that they had to wait to go into the tunnels, like Kade said, but the mayor came and went in anyway and then everyone else followed him and they're all in there!"
"Make that three emergencies," the Chief corrected, cold with disappointment.
"Technically, sir," said Chase, first finger raised, "I believe this qualifies as an addendum to the second emergency." When Chief Burns fixed him with a look not much different than the one he'd pointed at the others, he lowered his finger. As an aside to Heatwave, Graham and Dani, he said, "I did try."
"Chase," said Chief Burns, "make the announcement."
"Yes, sir," Chase said. Activating his public address system, he intoned, "Attention, all expected and unexpected party guests, this is a special announcement. Please gather on the loading platform in an orderly fashion. You may congregate in the garage above but this level must be cleared for an emergency safety sweep."
The crowd grumbled dissent and muttered concern but everyone on the island knew the drill even if they never seemed to learn from it. They did just as Chase had said and it wasn't long before the first load was being lifted up to ground level and the platform was lowering to collect the next.
"Boulder," said Graham, "as soon as the bunker is cleared, see if you can get us a visual on everyone– and everything– in the tunnels right now."
"Sure thing, partner," Boulder said, taking the sting out of the scolding of moments ago. He folded himself into alt mode in anticipation.
"Just a second!" Hayley called.
"Hayley," said Graham, "I'm sure you're worried but you need to–" Turning, he startled to find Hayley holding out the marigold bouquet for him to take.
"Oh," he said, holding up a hand as if to ward off the flowers, "uh. Hayley, I– I don't know what Kade would say, I mean–"
Hayley's eyebrows furrowed for a moment before they shot up towards her hairline, her lips rounding. She snorted, giggled and gave Graham a sly look.
"Make sure he says thank you for bringing him these spider-repellent flowers," she said, giving the bouquet a shake.
"Oh!" he said again, even squeakier. His hands were clammy when he accepted the bouquet. "Oh, right– heh… Thanks…"
With a final giggle, Hayley hurried over to join the rest of the stragglers on the platform. Graham tried to hide his embarrassment as he faced the rest of his family and they did their best to hide their amusement. Even Chief Burns's eyes were twinkling over the harsh line of his mouth.
The last of the civilians were soon cleared out and Boulder pounded the floor with his blade.
"Got 'em!" he said, the sonar image appearing on his dashboard screen. "No way to differentiate between the humans and spiders, though."
"Pass it on anyway," Chief Burns said, practically diving into Chase's driver's side when the latter joined Boulder in alt. "We'll know them when we see them. Dani, you go meet Blades and–"
As if summoned, Blades pinged them all on comm. He said, "Um. I'm up in the air with a couple of the Lad Pioneers and maybe it's just the whole haunted thing but we just saw some people run screaming out into the backyard. Not as many as we saw go in, though…"
Dani ran for the elevator, instructing Blades to put the boys somewhere safe and promising to update him on the situation once they were clear.
"Rescue Bots," Heatwave said, voice rough with a confidence he didn't really feel, "let's roll to the rescue!"
"You have got to be kidding me," Kade said through gritted teeth, not that he could really hear himself. The relentless wailing noise seemed like it was coming from everywhere and his hands pressed over his ears were good for almost nothing.
Impossibly, one shrill scream rose above the rest, winding its way through the hands he'd clapped over his ears and burrowing into his brain. Wincing, he raised his voice as loud as he could to ask Cody, "Was that the mayor?"
"Not only that," Cody shouted back, pointing down a nearby tunnel, "but I think it came from that way!"
"If you insist," Kade said, not sure Cody heard it. He raised his voice again to ask, "So what?"
"So," Cody said, visibly straining himself, "that's where Doc set up the control panel for the speakers!"
"That explains this, alright," Kade grunted. "Where are these speakers?"
"Doc's speakers placed themselves, remember?" said Cody. "And they're camouflaged!"
"Then our best bet is to shut them down at the source," said Kade. He grit his teeth at the idea of bringing Cody deeper into the tunnels with all that was going on but he didn't like the idea of what effect all this noise could eventually have on the tunnels. "C'mon, let's–"
Something shot out of a nearby tunnel like a bullet, rolling into a hard turn and finally standing to stare down at them with an arch look.
"Well, hey," said Kade, almost pleased enough by the new arrival to forget the bone-shaking racket. "What took you so long to get here?"
If there was only one good thing to be said for the screaming, it was that it had scared the giant spider away. As that was indeed the only good thing to be said for the screaming, Jerry said it quick to get it out of the way and then went on to say everything else about it he could think of. It wasn't like anyone could hear him anyway.
"Jerry!" Mr. Alper shouted as he fell, pulling Jerry with him by their still-joined hands. Jerry pulled him up just as quickly by that same method. "Which way now?"
Feeling rather less confident than he had only a few minutes earlier, Jerry looked around wildly for something that might give him an answer. All he saw were more questions. They had both panicked when they'd been attacked and he wasn't sure he'd even been in this part of the caves. His frustration choked him and he turned to his partner ready to cough it up as something he didn't expect to have time to regret.
The sound of sirens joined the chorus and they both flattened themselves as well they could to the wall as Chase screeched through, lights flashing. His back door swung open when he drew level with them and Chief Burns was somehow perfectly audible when he barked, "Get in!"
Neither of them needed to be told twice.
"Priscilla!" Frankie called, pounding on the chunk of rock that separated them. If there had been any doubt left in her mind that they were in entirely the wrong part of the tunnels, it would have withered and died when the ceiling collapsed. Her poor dogs were whimpering messes at her sides, pawing at their abused ears, but at least she had eyes on them. "Can you hear me?"
"Did you hear me tell you to get me out of here!?" Priscilla shrieked, dampening Frankie's concern considerably. "What if that spider comes back?"
"Comes back?" Frankie asked, incredulous. "If that thing comes back, it can get squished with the rest of us!"
She regretted it a moment later. Not because it audibly frightened Priscilla, though she might consider feeling bad about that later. But because it seemed very suddenly like it might actually come true. Another chunk of the ceiling fell, and another beside it, and another. Frankie threw herself down over Edison and Aristotle, not knowing what else she could do but knowing she wouldn't regret it if this was the last thing she ever did.
Which was not to say that she didn't vastly prefer to have someone much bigger and made of metal dive to throw himself over her at the last minute.
"Heatwave!" she gasped, feeling like her smile might split her face but too grateful to still have a face to be concerned. It fell when she remembered, "Priscilla's trapped!"
Cradling Frankie and her dogs in one hand, Heatwave called, "Priscilla, duck to the right!" and sent his fist effortlessly through the rock. He scooped her out and set her in front of him along with Frankie and the dogs, transforming swiftly and with his door already open.
Priscilla scrambled up and Frankie followed, shoving Edison and Aristotle ahead of her. Heatwave was driving almost before the door was shut. His engine revved like the screams had issued a challenge he couldn't refuse and Frankie couldn't help but laugh.
"So," she said to Priscilla, never mind that she was still shaking herself, "what do you think of the scares now?"
Dani held in a growl of frustration as Blades waved past the last of the people who'd come running when the screaming started. All the Pioneer Lads were accounted for– she wasn't sure she'd breathed until she'd counted the last of them– but there had been two dozen more people within her area of accountability, according to Boulder's sonar. Half of them, she hadn't laid eyes on or heard a word from– not that the latter point was all that surprising.
She knew they were in there, but where? What was stopping them from finding their way back? What had led them astray?
"What was that?" Blade said, pointing down the tunnel.
Dani squinted and was about to ask for clarification when she saw it. A flicker, like a hologram. Once she'd realized that, they seemed to be everywhere she looked. She had a strong feeling that they were in a lot of places she hadn't looked yet. Peering hard into the gloom, she noticed a sporadic blinking of orange and purple lights.
"That's it," she gasped. She opened a comm line immediately. "Doc!"
"Is that you, Dani?" came the response. "I can barely hear you! That screaming, is it–"
"Probably, Doc, but that's not what I'm calling about," Dani said rapidly. "It's your mini-projectors, something's gone wrong. They're projecting fake walls and directions, leading people the wrong way."
"Oh, dear," Doc breathed.
"Can you stop them?"
"If they're malfunctioning so badly, they may fail to respond to commands," Doc said, "but it's certainly worth a try!"
One, two, three seconds and nothing happened. Dani's heart sank but only made it as far as her kidneys before holograms flickered all along the walls and some of those walls disappeared. She breathed a sigh of relief, though she wasn't sure how much it would help them by that point.
"Hey!" someone shouted just as she had the thought, though she had to strain her ears to their limits to hear it. "This door wasn't here!"
"Blades," Dani said but he was already sprinting towards the voice. They reached the mouth of the tunnel it had come from and nearly ran into a group rushing out. The group was a full dozen strong.
"Dani?" Doc asked, anxiety all but oozing through the commline. "Did that do any good?
"Plenty, Doc," she assured him as Blades ushered the frightened citizens out. "Plenty."
The control panel was far enough from the official trail that the volume of the screaming was considerably lower. Mayor Luskey would have been more relieved by this if it didn't seem to mean that the spider menacing him was less frightened by than it was angry about the noise. It closed in on him as though it knew he was responsible. If Luskey had realized what he had done, perhaps he could have tried to reverse it. Only perhaps, as he was huddled in the shadow of the control panel, frozen with fear as the spider approached.
He screamed again as the spider lunged for him, tucking in on himself though he had no real hope it would protect him. He was considerably surprised when nothing happened. No weight pressing him down, no fangs in his flesh. He dared to peek over his knees and found himself alone. This brought no relief, as his gaze jumped from wall to wall to ceiling and all around again, searching for his attacker. He yelped when the area flooded with lights and a new shape sped in through another tunnel, cowering once more. Again nothing happened, and so again he looked up and then looked up a little more. In his shock, it was a moment before he recognized the sleek figure and flat, unimpressed expression. The two humans at either side of her were more familiar and he found himself relaxing at last as they rushed towards him.
Cody went to work immediately on the control panel while Kade pulled the mayor to his feet, none too gently. He stood with his hand on his hips, waiting until Cody had made the screaming stop to start scolding.
"What," he demanded, "did you think you were doing? We put a halt to the tours for a reason!"
The mayor winced, started to speak; closed his mouth and winced again. His expression was sheepish as he laid one hand over the other and wiggled his fingers.
"Yeah," Kade snapped, "that reason!" He caught the puzzled look Cody shot him and amended, "Okay, not actually for that reason. But we should've. We would've if we'd known and we would've known if I could've gotten my safety sweep completed!"
"Speaking of safety sweeps," said Quickshadow, "ought we not deal with our eight-legged friend here?"
Kade opened his mouth to continue his scolding but what came out instead was, "Huh?" He whipped around, fumbling with the Minimizer when he spotted the spider. The mayor yelped and dove to the ground behind Kade, covering his head with his hands and startling anew when he realized he'd lost his toupee.
The spider turned and ran, dodging the beam that Kade shot at it. He rushed after it but it had disappeared into the gloom by the time he reached the mouth of the tunnel.
"Can I go home now?" Mayor Luskey asked, sniveling, struggling to stand himself up. "I don't even care if no one else comes."
"Yeah, let's get you out of here," Kade muttered. "Quickshadow, you mind?"
She looked as though she minded very much but made no comment as she threw herself back into her alt mode and popped open a back door for Luskey to climb in.
A horn blared, making them all cast a collective glance at the control panel, but the familiar rumbling of an engine soon followed. Heatwave drove in and his lights flashed in surprise when he caught sight of Quickshadow.
"Whaddaya know," he said as he opened his door to let his passengers down. "You actually took his call."
"Frankie!" Cody called, rushing to meet her in a hug. "And Priscilla– you're okay too!"
"Barely," Priscilla said.
"Quickshadow, can you get Luskey and the kids to the backyard ?" Heatwave asked. "And anyone else you run into on the way out. Dani and Blades are out there working on a headcount."
"Can do indeed," she said, letting them all climb in though she almost shut her door against the dogs. "Will you be joining us, Kade?"
Kade glanced between Quickshadow and Heatwave but his tone didn't show the same reluctance when he said, "Nah. Thanks for the assist but my ride's here."
Boulder rolled along slowly, on high alert. His original sonar image was no longer accurate but he didn't dare try to take another so soon after the screaming incident. Just because the main tunnels had been reinforced didn't mean they couldn't be pushed past their limits.
"No sign of any spiders yet," Graham said, just for the sake of saying something. He played with the bouquet in his hands, plucking a few petals. "And it's sounding like the others might have all the civilians accounted for."
"Well, that's something to be glad for," Boulder said. "As long as all the humans are safe, we can take our time finding my spiders."
Graham bit his lip and laid a tentative hand on Boulder's dash. He said, "Hey, you know none of this is your fault, right? It was our bad call, not yours."
Boulder took a moment to think before answering, his headlights flickering. His dashboard avatar gave Graham a weighted look. "It might not have been my call but I still feel bad that you guys felt like you couldn't ask me for help."
"Aw, Boulder," said Graham, "that's not it. It's like Mrs. Rubio said, we just thought you deserved to enjoy the party like you wanted."
"I think we all deserved it," Boulder said, not unkindly. "I don't think I deserved it any more than the rest of you did, even if I was more excited. And, really, if you guys couldn't enjoy it with me, never mind because of me…"
Graham patted Boulder's dashboard, his smile wan. He was still trying to think of something to say when a dark shape darted in front of them and into another tunnel. Boulder's headlights swept across it, showing a ceiling too deeply collapsed for him to traverse even in alt mode, not that he was keen to try. He hadn't realized how bad an area they'd entered.
"Well," said Boulder, "we found it."
"Our lucky day," Graham agreed. Squaring his shoulders, he hopped out of Boulder's cab and edged towards the low tunnel. "I'll take a look."
"Careful, Graham," Boulder warned. He transformed to root mode, putting them both more at ease– not so at ease they didn't both jump when they heard something rumbling towards them.
They'd both settled down by the time Heatwave's headlights flooded the area, the bot himself rolling in a moment later. Kade hopped down to join Graham and Heatwave followed Boulder's lead in transforming.
"It's–" Graham started to say, interrupted when the spider darted out again and waved its legs at them. "Well."
"Yeah, I see it," Kade said.
The spider lunged and Kade took a shot at it with the Minimizer. Its bobbing body and flailing legs made for a poor target and the beam hit the ground, shrinking a few rocks out of sight.
"Are you sure you see it?" Heatwave asked.
"What I don't see is you helping," Kade said, taking another shot and missing. "Dang it, hold still–"
Heatwave scoffed and rolled his hands into fists, aiming jets of water at the spider in hopes of subduing it. It danced right over the assault and darted back into the low-ceiling tunnel. Kade paused long enough to give Heatwave a smug look before he ducked close to the tunnel entrance to catch a glimpse of their target. That look melted off his face when the spider darted back out again, starting the same routine all over.
Looking to repair his damaged pride, Heatwave blasted off another jet of water at the spider. Between his haste and Kade's startlement, he missed the spider entirely and instead knocked the Minimizer out of Kade's hands.
"Seriously?" Kade exclaimed, scrambling for it.
Heatwave growled and fired several shots in rapid succession. The spider danced around every one, somehow always just out of reach despite seeming to repeat the same motions over and over. One shot struck the Minimizer as Kade scrabbled at it, sending it skittering into the low-ceiling tunnel.
"Okay," said Kade, pounding the ground with a fist, "actually seriously?"
Boulder, meanwhile, scooped up Graham, who had fallen over in his surprise when the spider darted out. Graham shook his head to clear it and blinked at the spider as it refused to be shot. He blinked again when a splash of color under its feet caught his attention.
Mrs. Rubio's bouquet, the flowers scattered. He must have dropped it. But why wasn't…
Then Graham's attention was caught by something else, right at the edge of the low-ceiling tunnel as Kade ducked into it – the blink of a tiny purple light.
The complaints about the cold would have been a lot more bearable if so many of them weren't coming from people who'd left the warmth of the garage, presumably just for the sake of being able to complain. The complaints about the lack of refills would have been grating no matter what.
Chase and Chief Burns attempted to quell the crowd while Quickshadow looked on with cool judgement and Dani struggled through the complaints to get an accurate headcount. A few ghosts and ghouls floated through the air from time to time, people finding mini-projectors that had hitched rides out on their clothes and hair.
"Any idea how much longer we're expecting this to take?" Blades asked Dani, who only shot him a sour look and went on with her count. "There are some people who are very upset that I'm not taking them up." He crossed his arms and stuck out his chin. "And you know something? I don't think I want to take them up."
Cody laughed since Dani was too busy, patting Blade's leg consolingly. "We're just waiting to hear from the sweep team, Blades. You'd have to ask them."
"I heard you can't expect to hear much of anything from most of them," Blades said with a sniff, forgetting or ignoring that Dani was among the people he was complaining about.
"Oh, come on, that isn't fair," Cody said. "I know they went about it the wrong way but they just wanted to help Boulder."
"I like to help Boulder," Blades said, pouting with none of the shame one might expect from a giant alien robot. "And I didn't even get the chance to do it the wrong way. No one told me anything about anything!"
"Think I miscounted," Dani said, effectively putting an end to that conversation and tapping her stylus against her temple.
"What makes you say that?" Cody asked, craning his neck to look at her notes.
"Because we have three spiders unaccounted for," Dani said, "but when I subtract that from the human headcount–"
Someone near the mouth of the entrance tunnel screamed. Frankie yelled, "Daddy, look!" The whole crowd recoiled. Blades scooped Dani and Cody up against his chest and so they had a clear vantage point to watch dozens of giant spiders come pouring out from the tunnel, seeming to materialize from the shadows.
"Uh," said Blades, "how many spiders unaccounted for?"
"Everyone, remain calm!" Chief Burns's voice carried across and over the crowd. "Bots, form a perimeter!"
"What, all three of us?" Blades asked even as he waded through the crowd to do as he was told, tucking Dani and Cody into his cockpit as he went.
"This can't be right," Dani said, hands pressed to the glass as she watched the spiders surround the increasingly panicked crowd. They waved their legs and made false lunges, the same patterns repeated.
"I don't think anyone here would argue with you," said Blades.
"Wait," said Cody, "did you see that?" He, too, was pressed up against the glass. "When we were moving through the crowd!"
Several things happened at once.
Doc appeared beside Blades from the roiling mass of the crowd, his face awash with excitement, and called, "Dani, do you remember what I said earlier about–?"
Graham sounded off over comms, sounding just as excited as he said, "Guys, we've figured it out! There aren't–"
The spiders all lunged at once, running directly into the screaming crowd. Their visages dispersed into the air as they hit the solid bodies.
"– damaged control responses?"
"– anymore giant spiders!"
It took some time for the crowd to stop screaming and flinching, people looking around for the spiders and expecting to be attacked at any moment. The Lad Pioneers and their Teen Pioneer helpers were all huddled around Jerry and they looked up at him with wide eyes and crumpled expressions. Jerry looked back at them, defeated, clutching Timmy close to his side.
Mr. Alper reached out a hand to put on Jerry's shoulder but then curled it into a fist in determination. Clearing his throat, he raised both arms in the air and cried, "What a finale!" Everyone turned to stare at him and though he felt hot under the weight of their attention, he didn't let it dampen his bravado. "Can you believe they only had this afternoon to get ready?"
"Let's hear it for our Lad Pioneers!" Doc joined in as he caught on, clapping rhythmically. "And our rescue team, of course."
People just looked around at each other at first, unsure what to think. A few took up the applause, though it was scattered. The Lad Pioneers, reacting mostly to the praise, whooped and bowed and clapped their hands. Their friends and family joined in more enthusiastically and soon levity swept through the crowd so that everyone was part of the applause in some way whether they understood it or not. The rest of the rescue team emerged from the tunnel entrance and starred, confused, when another cheer went up. Kade shrugged at the others and took a bow.
"That, uh," Jerry said, clearing his throat to raise his voice above the crowd. "That concludes our program for the evening."
A few cries of dismay rang out among calls of, "encore!"
"Of course," said Mr. Alper, reaching out and scooping a wide-eyed Mayor Luskey out of the crowd, "if anyone hasn't reached their Halloween limit yet, there's still the mayor's Haunted Mansion and Halloween Ball!"
Another cheer went up and the crowd began to thin, everyone laughing and talking among themselves as they made plans to meet at the mayor's mansion. The man himself stumbled along with them, picking up pace to get home ahead of the pack even as he despaired over how he might top the Lad Pioneers' event. If anyone was less than sure of what exactly had happened, they brushed it aside.
It was Griffin Rock, after all.
"Well," Chief Burns said, massaging his temples as the rescue team and the Greenes rode the loading platform down to the bunker, "that happened."
"Many things do," Chase noted.
"Hopefully," Doc piped up, hefting the Minimizer and going immediately for the bag he'd brought it in, "nothing more involving this."
"I don't get it, though," said Dani. "All those spiders were defective holograms, sure, but what happened to the other, real missing spiders?"
"They weren't missing," Boulder said, pointing over at the corner. The spiders there were specks at that distance but they were four distinct specks. "We just didn't see them."
"Boulder was right the first time," Graham said. "They hid because of all the noise and new people– all but one, anyway. Once I realized we were dealing with a hologram in that tunnel, I pulled up the feed from the bunker on a hunch. Confirming it was a longshot, even if I was right, but–"
"Since all the people cleared out," Boulder finished, "they didn't have to hide anymore."
He smiled but it had a melancholy edge to it as he looked around at the bunker and the scattered chaos that showed where so many people had enjoyed themselves. It seemed too big now with just them after having been so full of energy. Sure, it had been overfull, but it had felt perfect in the moment.
The others watched him with long faces, disappointed more on his behalf than their own. Chief Burns was struggling to think of something to say when the sound of the elevator startled him. They all turned, blinking as their guests– their anticipated guests– spilled out.
"Party's not already over, is it?" Jerry asked from the front of the pack, a spring in his step. "I understand if you folks prefer to unload us on the mayor, but…"
"We wouldn't dream of it," Chief Burns said, spreading his arms in welcome. Amidst cheers, he said, "What say we have the Halloween party we planned for?"
Boulder gasped in delight as the Rubio children ran to him to be picked up, their parents following at a more sedate pace but looking just as happy to be there. Blades was quickly set upon by the Lads who still wanted helicopter rides and Heatwave pretended not to preen as a few more came begging for his attention instead. He would be in firetruck mode within ten minutes and everyone knew it. Hayley greeted Kade with a hug and the two of them together approached Quickshadow, Kade holding up a camera and smiling his most dashing smile. Whether she was going to be in car mode any time soon was up in the air.
"Priscilla?" said Cody as she separated herself from the others, arms crossed and shoulders up around her ears. "You're not going to the mayor's party?"
"What," she snapped, "am I not welcome?"
"I invited her," Frankie said quickly. Smile sardonic, she added quietly, "Not that I expected her to agree…"
Over by the refreshment table, Graham took stock of what little remained and shrugged at the handful of people who'd gathered with him. "I guess we can order more pizza?"
"There are always the goodie bags too," Jamal said, a little put-out. "We spent all that time putting them together and nobody took a single one."
"More for us!" Liam crowed, pumping his fists to much aplomb.
"Be that as it may," said Professor Baranova, switching a fussing CeCe to her other hip, "more pizza wouldn't be awry."
A triumphant cry from Doc was the only warning before a flock of ghosts flew through the air above their heads, prompting a brief cheer. Someone called out, "Bring back the spiders!" and was shouted down amidst laughter.
"I really appreciate you staying," Jerry said to Mr. Alper, the two of them tucked cozily away from the rest. He was starting to forget what it felt like to not have a hand wrapped in his own and he found he didn't miss it. His thumb traced Mr. Alper's knuckles. "You're sure you won't get in any trouble with the mayor?"
"He won't even notice I'm not there," Mr. Alper reassured him with a roll of his eyes. "Even if he did, I'd rather be here."
The sound of a pointedly cleared throat surprised them and they looked to find Timmy staring narrowly up at them. He took a deep breath, worked his jaw and silently held out a goodie bag to Mr. Alper.
Heatwave heaved a sigh and transformed well short of the ten-minute mark, almost as much to hide his smile as because Boulder had playfully joined in the wheedling.
Dani, busy giggling at Kade's attempts to charm Quickshadow into transforming, jolted when she felt a hand on her shoulder; she spun around and her face lit up. "Taylor!" she said, leaning in for a hug. "You finally made it!"
"I saw that crowd on my way," Taylor said, his smile questioning. "Looks like I missed one heck of an event!"
"You have no idea," Dani said as she hooked an arm around his. She smiled at the scene the bunker was becoming, not nearly as packed as it had been but lacking nothing for it. Boulder stood out like a jewel in the center of it all, everyone naturally arranging themselves around him. "You're in time for the best part, though."