Following the attacks on Vintage City by the Deathtrap Debutantes, life quiets down, and the superheroes are temporarily without work. Unfortunately, unemployed superheroes mean bored superheroes, and with Peter's birthday just around the corner, Eric asks for help in coming up with the most creative gift he can give a boy who's got everything. Tapping into everyone's fondness for computer games, Eric enlists the heroes' help in experimenting with a video game in a desperate bid to amaze Peter with something unique.
What they don't expect is a game that's been sabotaged by an old nemesis. Eric and the heroes suddenly find themselves trapped in a horror game, forced to advance against the clock or be stuck in it forever. With three of their friends vanishing from the group, Eric and Ridley are forced to use their wits and their limited abilities to fight their way through monsters that are meant to keep them from finding the others. Outside, Althea as Spirit Wire, along with unexpected allies, scrambles to keep a delicate connection with her friends as she tries to save them all.
“Hey, Althea?” Peter called out again. We’d all finally picked ourselves off the ground this time and were all looking around, totally confused. “Is everything okay? Why are we all in superhero form?”
“I don’t know,” Althea said, her voice alternately fading and vanishing under static and growing louder and crystal clear. “I never said this was going to be a smooth process.”
“Well, since we don’t look like our avatars and we’ve all been de-weaponized because of that, I guess we can use our superpowers in the game,” Wade said. She paused, thinking. “Wait a sec. There’s something not quite right here.” Then she turned, raised a hand with the palm out, and aimed it at the nearest boulder. Her hand slowly glowed as she powered up, and I recognized her arsenal. She was about to shoot a series of fire balls. The glow brightened. Then it died.
We all stood there, watching and waiting. Nothing happened. Wade tried again, and this time, her hand didn’t even glow.
“Well, that answers my question,” Wade said, turning to us and grimacing while shaking her hands as though she’d just strained her wrists. “We’re in superhero form, but we don’t have our powers.”
“Maybe we need to advance in order to get your powers back,” I said, scratching my head. “In my case, I need to find weapons to use as I sure as hell am not going to survive against demon princesses like this.”
“I don’t sense anything strange or off-balance or whatever,” Althea said. Her voice continued to struggle against static, it seemed. “It’s best to move forward and see what happens unless you guys want out now.”
“I must admit it’s pretty unnerving, but I guess we can move forward cautiously and be ready to get the hell out if something really dangerous comes up,” Peter said, and everyone nodded.
“Okay, I guess just look around you and see if you can find something -- like clues or whatever. Anything that’ll give you an idea of what you need to do first,” Althea said. “We all know how the game’s supposed to be played, but you can’t earn points and advance without missions.”
We moved around, taking care to stay within hearing distance of each other. We all ended up in what looked like a woodsy area -- more like a forest clearing or something. There were trees that looked generic, and the ground was all covered in rich, thick grass. The land itself was this gentle, rolling kind, and past a small grove of those generic trees, I spotted a tiny cottage with a run-down wooden fence surrounding it several feet away, standing in what looked like a small meadow.
Our surroundings were definitely fake. I mean, everything around us looked like images in a movie screen, and we were all wearing 3-D glasses, so that there was something like depth and stuff. But every blade of grass or leaf on a tree totally looked phony in that CGI kind of way. The textures and colors were exaggerated. When I touched them, though, they felt real and very cold to the touch -- like abnormally cold, considering how moderate the temperature was where we were. It was quiet around us, too, but I could hear fake birds chirping from all over, which gave the place a fake-authentic feel. It was really, really weird but cool.
“Hey, guys, over here,” I called out, waving at them. “There’s a cottage past those trees. Maybe we can talk to someone -- or a character.”
Everyone walked over to me, but they moved slowly and carefully, as though they were all listening for something. Even Freddie-sparkly-dragon did it, frowning and moving his head side to side. Ridley stopped a couple of times, bowing his head and frowning as well, obviously straining to hear something. Along the way, the heroes exchanged confused looks that unnerved me. I felt my skin crawl. I knew that superheroes had heightened senses, and they looked to be untouched by their weird transformation in this game. I could hear nothing but the birds, and seeing my friends all tense and cautious from out of the blue creeped me out.
“Um -- is something wrong, guys?” I asked as they neared me.
“Not sure,” Peter said, frowning. He and the others stopped a few feet away from me, looking around. “I feel weird. Like there’s something here, but I can’t sense anything else. I mean -- there’s something, and yet there isn’t. It’s hard to describe.”
“Maybe it’s because of the game,” I said, shrugging. “It’s pretty bizarre being here to begin with. I feel a little off right now, but not enough to be worried about stuff.”
“We just need to be extra careful,” Wade said. “Let’s go check out that cottage.”
We turned and started walking through the trees, falling quiet as we did. The heroes’ reactions to our environment continued to work themselves under my skin, and it didn’t take long for me to get all fidgety and nervous, glancing back and scanning the trees for signs of danger. I saw nothing, though.
The little meadow where the cottage stood looked like something you’d find in a fantasy art book or calendar. Kind of kitschy but visually awesome; then again, I was seeing everything close up because I was actually inside the game, not just a player. This thought sank in, pushing aside my earlier nervousness, and I followed the others as they made their way to the cottage.
“It looks so damn tiny,” Freddie said as he stood outside, looking the cottage over. Any little kid would expect him to burn the cottage down with sparkly fire, but he didn’t do that, which was too bad. I’d gotten used to his bizarre mask and would’ve given my kidneys to watch him do exactly that.
“Okay, I’ll go in and check it out,” Ridley said, trotting over to the door, which was open. Without waiting for anyone else, he entered, and close at his heels was Wade.
Peter, Freddie, and I waited outside, alternately chatting and scanning the general area. From inside the cottage, we could hear voices, with Wade and Ridley talking loudly and excitedly as they explored. It looked like they’d also gotten over their initial weirdness and were getting into the game.
“Guys, there’s no one in here,” Wade called out after a few moments.
“Keep checking for clues!” Peter yelled back. I decided to walk a short distance from him and Freddie because I wanted to check out the area closed in by the run-down fence. Nothing looked strange. The same thick, fluffy grass covered the ground. I found a few scattered farming tools like a hoe and a rake. A quick glance at the trees marking the edge of the forest showed nothing, and the birds continued to chirp.
“Hey, I found a chest,” Ridley answered, his voice a little more muffled than Wade’s. “I’m opening it. I’m sure it has something inside.”
About a couple of seconds after he said that, I felt the ground under me shift, and along with it came a sound that was like a hiss and a groan. Something wrapped itself around both my knees, and I looked down to find a rotting corpse -- a zombie -- pushing its way out of the ground, its tattered hands gripping my knees. I yelled and tried to pull myself back somehow, but it kept its hold, and I realized that it wasn’t trying to get out of the ground. It was trying to drag me under with it.
The grass under me melted, and so did the soil and whatever else around it. I felt myself sink, dragged down by a corpse.
“Peter! Peter!” I cried, throwing my arms out and scrabbling at the grass. Around me, I heard the others yell, their voices mingling with more hisses and groans. More zombies were pushing their way up through the ground and ambushing the group.