by Michael C. Shirley
Editor: Dave Munch
From Reed Richards' private journal, 20th
For all the technological marvels I've seen and studied, one relatively simple device stands out in my
mind: a bicycle. I was seven when my father gave it to me for my birthday. Anyone else at that age would have
been eager to ride it on the first day, and I admit, part of me was. But Nathaniel Richards -- who was
always on the lookout for a new science lesson -- wanted me to study the machine first, so I could
understand the framework, the gears, the chains, the brakes, and how it all worked together. He was fond of
saying, "the question is not 'if' everything in our universe is connected -- the question is 'how'." I
took that to heart, and I spent eight days, every spare moment I had, examining every last part and
detail of that bicycle. Only then did I ride it.
I believe I amused my parents, because my father later told me he'd only expected me to spend one day at the
most on the inspection project. He told me he was happy nonetheless, because it meant I was eager to
take to heart what he was teaching me about science.
Ever since then, I have been exploring the universe (universes, plural, if I may be honest) with the same
perfectionist eye with which I studied my first bicycle. This hasn't always produced the most
favorable results, but one way or another, the wheels and gears have never stopped turning.
The Negative Zone, The Year
"Don't like the look of that Zonescape," Keith McLaughlin uttered, trying and failing to keep the
nervous squeak out of his voice as he stared up across the expansive black sky. Black as space. Black as
That sky -- called the Zonescape -- never looked quite the same way two Earth-days in a row. The expanse was
capable of displaying itself in all sorts of demented colors and patterns, each one more chaotic than the
last. Keith was never the most descriptive of people, but it looked to him as if the sky were the canvas on
which a troubled Impressionist painter tried desperately to communicate his nervous breakdown.
Today, it looked to be cut and bleeding with jagged red streaks of energy. Planets and planetoids were
scattered far and wide across the expanse, each one in an erratic orbit as if they were ready to flee at the
first sign of danger.
"Oh, here we go," one of Keith's co-workers muttered over their helmets' communications link. The
voice belonged to Dennis Kong, which made Keith grit his teeth in anger. "Paranoid Keith doesn't like it.
So we'll all pack up and go home...."
"We don't wanna hear it, Keith," Shandra Willis spoke over the same link. At least he could halfway tolerate
her. Mostly because she didn't call him 'Paranoid' -- a nickname he hated.
Keith shook his head, wishing he weren't in the bulky yellow labor mechsuit so he could wipe the sweat off
his brow. He loathed the suit because it robbed him of any and all agility; in this environment, there was
always something to run from. "I'm serious, you guys -- I smell Voltstorm." The sky had all the charged
indications of an electrical storm ... and a bad one. "I tell you--"
But he didn't know why he bothered to tell them anything. Predictably, his teammates filled the
commlink with their wisecracks: "You're in a suit, Keith," Kong explained. "You don't smell anything
Before Kong had even finished his sentence, another teammate, Wade Tyson, fired off, "that's that prawn
curry working that you're smelling, man...."
Keith gritted his teeth, hating "Landshark Wade" almost as much as Kong. Porn-vidding son of a....
"Bite rats, you guys," Keith finally retorted, unable to come up with anything more creative.
All he heard on the line is their victorious laughter; if there was anything they were actually good at (and
Thor forbid it should be the work they were paid to do), it was picking on him, the new guy to the
Above them, above the mining planetoid on which they stood, the sky coalesced into a hurricane pattern,
swirling energy in orange and light-blue hues. Whenever that happened, Keith and the others knew that
the local climate has gone from Chaotic to Completely Shocking Insane.
Shandra was the first to find her voice amid the forming lightshow. "Uhm, people ... Keith might've had
a point this time." Keith didn't know whether to be ecstatic that she'd backed him up, or insulted that
she'd phrased it that way, but now wasn't the time to debate it.
"Stormsign," Kong confirmed breathlessly.
"We got Stormsign," Wade shouted, and Keith was inwardly amused that the man was trying to keep the
nervous squeak out of his voice for a change. "Notify Homegate that we'll be heading back."
"I told you guys," Keith reminded them with a small amount of triumph, as he hustled to the base as fast
as his heavy hydraulic suit could manage. "I warned y--"
But the crimson flash of Zone lightning lanced through his suit and interrupted his train of thought. He
couldn't even feel himself slump to the cold craggy terrain, but he was aware of it. All he had the brain
capacity to do was wonder why he wasn't dead.
Dying didn't seem like a fun activity, so the rest of
the workers kicked in their suits' rear thrusters to close the distance between themselves and the mining
station. The main bay doors opened to admit them, then closed far too slowly for anyone's tastes.
"Gatefinders Activated," an automated female voice informed them with the kind of forced-sunny
disposition one usually heard from a long-distance vidcom telemarketer. The kind of voice they all hated.
More lightning struck around the station, and one stream of red energy attacked the installation's
tower. Sparks flew from every piece of electronic equipment in the station, which was by no means a good
sign. Especially when one of those pieces of equipment happened to be a dimensional jumpgate back to Earth.
Kong swore under his breath, then spoke into the comm system, hoping it would work. "Stark/Fujikawa
Homegate, this is Maintenance Flight Nine coming in...." The microphone just sparked a few times in
response, then died. "Terrific."
"The link's down?" Shandra asked, already knowing the answer.
Kong turned to face her. "The whole shockin' works is fried! The comms, the Gate, you name it!"
"So we're stuck here," Wade muttered in near-defeat.
"No kidding. Wade, check the life support and see what condition it's in. If we
are stuck here, that thing
needs to be in working order. Willis, help him make any necessary repairs to it. Let's get moving people;
it's the only way we're gonna stay al-- Willis, are you listening to me?"
Shandra's gaze was fixed on the monitors. "Huh? Oh, uh, sir? Looks like the surveillance is still up.
Might wanna look at this. I can't tell if the storm's blitzing the readings, or...."
Kong shoved her aside to see the monitors' activity for himself. "What're you...?"
"There's one life sign just outside, looks critical," Shandra explained. "That should be Keith."
"Couldn't've happened to a more annoying little--"
"But look at what it's showing out three hundred kiloms out, in the Quadrant A-9 crater."
Wade's eyes peered at a strange metallic object at the appointed location. Inside of it, energy signatures
were visible on a few wavelengths. "Lifesigns," he identified. By now, all three of them were huddled
around the same monitor bank, shouldering for room.
"Yeah, four of 'em. Zone lightning's seeping through the metal hull like tissue paper."
Kong couldn't believe what he's seeing. "Where the hell'd they come from?"
She shrugged. "Dunno. Should we get 'em? The storm's gettin' pretty bad out there."
Kong didn't even have to think about it. "What do we look like? Search and rescue? If they're still alive
after being pummeled by Zone lightning, let's wait out the storm and pick 'em up by transport."
"So we leave them out there in the worst barrage we've seen to date."
"I'm not gonna get into this with you, Willis!" Kong declared with a deadly-serious stare. "Just worry
about your job; we'll deal with the glow-worms later."
"Okay, what about Keith?"
The heavy-set, thirty something Asian man shot her a tired glare. "Same deal applies. He still has a pulse
when we get to him, he gets a ride back. He doesn't? Who the shock cares." He turned his back to end the
Shaking her head, Shandra assisted Wade on the repair detail, thankful the storm's calamitous racket drowned
out what she was muttering under her breath.
The storm faded out with a whisper five minutes before
any of the workers realized it was gone. By then, they were neck-deep in power tools and diagnostics. The
rattling of the base's outer shielding against the barrage had become rhythmic, to the point that Kong
and the others had grown accustomed to it in the long, tedious hours. The first to notice the change in
weather was Wade, who had stood up to raid the snack rations before realizing it had become quiet.
This meant they were all going to live another day, and that they had pickup duty. Even when a check of
the scanners revealed that Paranoid Keith and the mysterious four people were still
alive, if barely. Shandra was the only one with any kind of motivation for a rescue mission.
Now, after firing up the heavy transport -- a belching metal monstrosity that looked like it had been
rejected from the Star Wars franchise for obvious reasons of homeliness -- the crew members set their
sights on one of the larger craters on a planetoid pockmarked with them. The vehicle's proper name was
the Heracles Mark IV, but they just called it "The Transport" because it was the only one available to
them. The rest of the crew's transportation involved either the rocket thrusters attached to the backs of
their labor suits, or archaic flybikes that had long before become obsolete on Earth.
The four strange humanoids were nestled in a rather large oval container that was big enough to make the
transport's use a necessity. The Negative Zone's haphazard laws of physics made the transport's
magnetic grapplers practically useless, but Stark/Fujikawa scientists had put their heads together
and engineered a tractor-beam system that worked well in this dimension. The good news was, Kong and his
crew had little trouble locking onto the containment pod with the tractor beam and raising it from the
depths of the crater. The bad news was that steering the transport back to base with the pod's added weight
proved be a harder chore than they'd anticipated.
With a fair amount of patience, swearing, and bad jokes, they were on their way back to the mining
installation (Kong even stopped to pick up Keith's near-lifeless body without being told). One of the
various jokes and exchanges involved Shandra idly asking what a bizarrely-shaped pod full of humans was
doing out this far into the boonies. "What, has Metex decided to ship packages out here to the Zone, now?"
Kong shrugged slightly in the pilot's seat while keeping his eyes on the terrain ahead. "Depends...
know anybody shopping for live humans over the 'Net?"
Landshark Wade didn't miss a beat. "Hey, what Paranoid Keith does in his free time is his own business." The
two men laughed heartily at that, but Shandra couldn't bring herself to manage more than a strangled chuckle.
"How's McLaughlin?" Kong asked as Shandra reentered
the vehicle hangar from her trip to the infirmary.
"Stable," she replied carefully. "Which just means he's near death and likely to stay that way for quite
"Why don't we just pull the plug on him?" Wade inquired while working on the locking mechanism on the
four mystery figures' housing chamber. "The guy was a waste of resources when he was upright, and he's a
waste of life support now that he's a vegetable."
"He's not on life support," Shandra pointed out, glaring at the back of Wade's head, "and he's not a
vegetable. He's hovering on the brink of a coma, and he still has brain activity. If anything, he's just
asleep, and the equipment is monitoring him, not sustaining him."
Wade turned to look her in the eye. "Why do you even care so much whether he lives or dies. What, were you
two havin' a little--"
"That's enough, you two," Kong ordered, as he walked toward the container. "Let's just get this ... thing
"Fine, Kong," Wade acquiesced with a shrug, turning to his friend and foreman. "Got a crowbar? A spare laser
cutter? The lock's keypad-coded; I'm surprised the voltstorm didn't fry it."
Shandra had to chuckle. "Seems to me we have nothing but time to work out the combination. They're not
going anywhere; neither are we."
The next voice they heard was neither theirs, nor even human. "Favorable exterior
temperature/climate established," a computerized voice declared, one so badly distorted that the workers couldn't even tell
whether it was supposed to be a male or female voice. This directed their attention to the mystery chamber,
from which the voice originated. "Opening stasis unit."
Dry ice vapor hissed from the seams in the unit, and the workers stepped back a bit as the top opened like
a coffin lid. It looked like nothing so much as an open-casket birth to a quartet of adult humans, each
of them different from the rest. There were three males and one female; one was a brown-haired man with
a medium build and slightly graying temples. Another male had a more athletic build and blond hair. The
third man was as heavily-built as Kong, with red hair and a hairline that was just starting to recede. The
woman was slim and blonde, with hair longer than shoulder-length.
All four were still asleep, and all four were clothed in dark-blue bodysuits bearing a black numeral "4" on
a circle of white.
This was curious, because the costuming seemed very familiar to the workers. Almost like...
"The Fantastic Four?" Shandra guessed, stepping cautiously closer to the strangers. "Am I seeing this
right?" She looked up at her co-workers, but they only gave her blank looks. "Twencen heroes...?" she tried
again, fishing for some kind of reaction. "Led by Reed Richards...?"
Kong looked surprised. "Wait ... the guy who discovered this place?" He gestured to his
surroundings, meaning the Negative Zone at large, rather than their base station.
"Richards was some kinda hero?" Wade asked. "Like a ... what's the word, 'superhero'? Don't remember that
being mentioned in job orientation. And why would some people launch themselves into the Negative Zone just
to dress up like dead twencen celebrities? Is that a new fad or somethin'?"
Shandra rolled her eyes and glanced between Kong and Wade. "You two are hopeless. What if it
is them? I
mean, is that possible?"
Wade studied the '4' insignias, then looked upas if something had clicked in his memory. "'Fantastic' ...oh yeah, is that the team with the rock guy and the
fire guy? Think I saw a vid on that once. Looked really low-budget." Glancing again at their guests'
faces, he frowned. "But there are no rock or fire guys here, so this can't be them."
Looking back at the newcomers, Shandra realized they were waking up. "Well, why don't we ask
them who they are?"
The containment unit didn't provide much room for its
four inhabitants to sit up, but they managed anyway, rubbing their eyes and blinking against the harsh
artificial light. They gazed at a large Asian man, who was asking them a question: "Who are you people?" He
had the voice and apparent mood of a rottweiler.
They blinked at him in confusion, partly because they didn't quite know the answer to his question, and
partly because they had somehow expected a more pleasant greeting. Perhaps it was both.
The man with the brown hair and graying temples stepped out of the unit and spoke first, though doing
so required him to sift through the strange mathematical formulae swimming through his thoughts.
"I am ...." He paused, gazed at his companions - and their familiar uniforms -- for a moment, then held out
his hand to the man who greeted them.
"We're the Fantastic Four," he declared, as if it were the most obvious answer in the world. "I'm Reed
Richards, this is Sue Storm, her brother Johnny, and Benjamin Grimm...."
By now, the man was laughing uproariously.
"Is there a problem?"
"You guys can't be the Fantastic Four," a Caucasian pointed out. "You have any idea what year it is?"
Reed dropped his hand to his side, realizing it wasn't going to be shaken anytime soon. Something about the
second man's question perplexed him, but he wasn't sure why.
"The year? I believe the year is Nineteen ...." He trailed off, realizing that didn't sound right.
Now both the Caucasian man and the Asian man were laughing, but the young woman to their right just
studied Reed and his companions intently. "Are you from the twencen?"
By this time, Reed's other teammates had stepped out of the pod as well. Johnny Storm scratched his head.
"'Twencen'? Where's that? Never heard of it." He glared at the laughing men, who looked as if they were
about to rupture important blood vessels from their hysterics.
The woman smiled and blushed. She had hazel eyes and dark brown hair pulled into a sloppy ponytail. She,
like the other people who occupied the room, wore a dull gray jumpsuit with the letters 'SF' on one
sleeve. "I meant, are you from the twentieth century? This is the twenty-first. It's 2099."
Reed gaped and once again looked at his teammates, finding them as shocked as he was, then glanced at the
woman, a Ms. Shandra Willis, judging by the name on her jumpsuit.
"Twenty Ninety-Nine? We're that far in the future?" He turned and peered at the mysterious containment pod,
examining the machinery contained within. "We might have been time traveling, but my memory is somewhat
...." He trailed off, only to pick up a different train of thought. "Curious: the equipment in this pod
has been damaged. It's been fried so extensively -- likely by a massive energy discharge of some sort --
that I can't seem to recognize its original function."
The Asian man -- Dennis Kong -- had an explanation for that. "Yeah, that's probably because the four of you
were in it while it was sittin' in the middle of a Voltstorm. I mean, I find it hard to believe you
idiots just popped up in the Negative Zone with no idea how you got there."
Reed's eyes widened; entire complicated trains of thought clicked into place. "The Negative Zone?"
The man identified by his suit's nametag as Wade Tyson stepped forward, voice laced with sarcasm. "Yeah,
y'know, big freaky alternate dimension ... charged with negative energy ... variable laws of physics
...discovered in the twentieth century by some big-brain named Reed Richards ... you heard of it?
No?" He folded his arms. "That's because you're not him."
"Actually, yes, I've heard of it," Reed replied, trying not to sound indigant. "My memory is a bit
clouded, but I *am* who I say I--"
Standing behind Reed, Ben Grimm tapped him on the shoulder. "Reed...."
The Fantastic Four's leader shrugged it off, idly giving a 'one moment, please' hand gesture. "I and my
friends are the Fantastic Four. Our memory loss can be easily explained by the effects of the
'voltstorm' in which you claim we were caught--"
Ben poked Reed's shoulder again, harder. His voice was more insistent. "Hey, buddy, you need to--"
"In a moment, old friend. If it's a question of why one of us does not display his well-known rocklike
organic--" Both Ben and Johnny started tapping on his shoulder, so the scientist finally whipped around,
short on temper. "Oh, for goodness sake, what is -- oh."
Susan Storm, Reed's longtime lover, had sunk to her knees, trembling, appearing visibly ill. Or at least,
the parts of her that *were* visible. Her invisibility was turning itself on and off in erratic
patches. "Reed ...help me...!"
"Sue ... Sue, stay calm," he advised, crouching to hold her hand in both of his and look her in the eye.
"Focus your thoughts, Sue -- you can control your power, but it requires concentration. That's it ...
Sue's body soon returned to full visibility, while Reed noticed his own hands were becoming shaky, losing
muscle control. So he repeated his own words to himself, the advice becoming a silent mantra.
Ben looked at his own hands. "Reed ... I ain't feelin' so good, either. Feelin' heavy ... I think we all know
what that means."
His hands balled into a fist almost against his will, and he lowered himself to his knees, breathing
heavily. His face and hands took on a soiled orange appearance as his body distorted and widened in shape.
While unstable molecular fabric of his uniform stretched to accommodate his increase in size, it
swiftly became uncomfortable for him to wear gloves over his hands, so he yanked them off. Ben Grimm's
skin transformed into a hardened, clumpy mass of orange clay before deciding on a more rocklike, craggy
composition. In short, he had become The Thing.
Repulsed by this horrifying sight, the workers inched backward. The only one of them who had previously
known about their origin story was Shandra, who was aware of it general terms. She was just as surprised
as her co-workers to witness the gory specifics.
Reed's arms lost all cohesion, which added to the spectacle. The rest of his body, however, remained in
its normal shape, as Reed had prepared himself for this.
His calm demeanor as he contracted his arms to their normal shape served as a sharp contrast to that of the
workers, especially Dennis Kong. The man grabbed what appeared to be a beam rifle from a nearby workbench
and aimed it at Reed and his companions.
"All right, don't move! This is getting out of control! I'm not gonna have this base ripped apart by
superpowers, so just calm the shock down!"
"Hey, easy!" Shandra shouted, her hands held up like a hostage negotiator as she approached Kong. "Take it
easy, Chief! There's no need to--"
"I'm betting this laser drill can tunnel through even that thick hide," Kong announced, clearly not
listening. His eyes were locked on Ben Grimm's mountainous form.
"You really wanna try, pal?" Ben held his gaze, while everyone else in the room shouted things to the effect
of, "put the gun down!"
Nobody requested that more emphatically than Johnny, who looked rather nervous and appeared to have an
orange glow. "Can we put away the boomsticks, please?" he shouted, voice laced with panic. "I'm
gettin' excited and hot under the collar, here -- and I mean literally!"
Kong whipped his attention accordingly from Ben to Johnny, training the laser drill on him as Johnny's
body began to ignite. Johnny held out his hands instinctively to protect his face, and two columns of
flame erupted from them and superheated Kong's weapon.
It also ignited on Kong's clothing, which just wasn't flameproof enough. Kong dropped the molten drill and
patted out his jumpsuit in a panic, then dropped to the floor and tried to smother the rest of the flames
by rolling. The pained noises he made in the process did little to soothe anyone's nerves.
Alarms blared, and a heavy alloy panel in a nearby wall slid open to release a trio of F-E drones. The
fire extinguishing robots swarmed the area and sprayed both Johnny and Kong with foam, along with everything
else near them. The flames on Kong's body were easy to put out, but the ones covering Johnny's body like a
protective aura were a different story. The drones concentrated their spray foam on him, and by the time
they finally covered him with enough of it to douse the flames, they'd just about exhausted their
collective supply. Satisfied, the drones retreated into the wall compartment and refueled.
A silence fell heavy over the room, and Johnny wiped the dissolving flame-retardant substance from his
face, clearly unhappy. "I don't even wanna think about what that crap just did to my hair." He swept his gaze
around the soiled hangar to survey his teammates and the workers. "So. Satisfied we're the real FF? Or do
we have to get Galactus over here to vouch for us?"
"That's enough, Johnny," Reed ordered, walking over to his younger teammate while wiping stray foam residue
off his sleeve. He turned to address the recovering workers, Dennis Kong in particular.
"So," he found himself asking, "are you satisfied we are indeed the Fantastic Four?"
"Who is he?" the female member of the Fantastic Four asked as she entered the infirmary. "Or rather, who 'was' he?"
Shandra looked up from her chair, seeing the newly-identified Susan Storm (or was it Richards?) enter the infirmary, confirm on her face. Hours had passed since their arrival.
Funny, but Shandra had always pictured the First Lady of the Fantastic Four -- the First Lady of the twencen heroes, really -- as being older. Or at least older than the woman who stood before her looked now. Maybe it was the lighting. "How're you holdin' up? Gettin'
Sue shrugged. "We're trying our level best. It's becoming obvious this place is barely big enough for four workers. Four additional guests is pushing it when one is a literal
brick-house and another sets things on fire. Mr. Kong's already put Reed to work helping them repair the portal machinery, though he's trying to talk Ben into doing some heavy lifting and Johnny into spot-welding. Which leaves me..."
"Looking for something to do. I'm a people-person, so here I am, seeking out actual people." Sue waited, then repeated her first question. "So ... who is he?"
"He's Keith McLaughlin," she answered, gesturing to the unconscious body in the cot. She'd made it a point to keep vigil on him in her off hours. "Newest resident workin' grunt. And 'is' would be the correct tense, here, or at least I hope."
Sue pulled up a rolling chair next to her, eyeing its design and bouncing slightly to test how sturdy it was. Once satisfied that the brittle-looking piece of furniture could hold even her weight, she studied Keith, then Shandra. "He was caught in the same storm we were, right? I heard the other two mentioning it...."
Shandra nodded. "Yeah. Hit by Zone lightning. I had to carve his labor suit off him myself. Surprised he wasn't burned by the energy ... but who the hell knows what it did to his mind..." She trailed off, her voice shaking. She wiped at her eyes.
Sue was silent, thoughtful. "Were ... you and he ... ? I mean?"
"We're not doin' it," Shandra clarified, less than amused. "If that's what you're thinkin'."
Sue's eyes widened. "No, no.... I wasn't. I just ...it seems like you're the only one of the workers here who cares that he's been injured."
"I am. The others call him 'Paranoid Keith' because he's always whining, like he's got a bad feeling about everything goin' on here. He's right more times than he's not, but they give 'im crap anyway. He kinda gets on my nerves sometimes, too, but he's like a little
Sue nodded. "I know what it's like to have one of those," she commented with a smile.
Shandra swiveled her chair to face the other woman. "You guys really are the Fantastic Four, aren't you? I ... I can't get used to that. I've seen holos of you with other heroes."
Sue's eyes brightened. "Oh, you mean in history class, or a documentary?"
"Actually ... bootleg holos. Schools've barely said a word."
"Really? Wh-why's that," Sue asked, more than a little deflated. "I mean, not to sound conceited, but we were very well known back in the last century."
"Yeah, there's a lot of information about twencen heroes if you look in the right place. Just not in schools, 'cause it seems like the society's wanted to move on an' forget all about 'em; don't ask me why."
She tilted her head in thought, looking off to the left. "What does the information say about how we ended up?" she asked finally, locking eyes with Shandra.
"That ... the four of you kinda, uh, disappeared in the early part of this century, along with some of the other heroes. I think it had something to do with some wars, or something like that."
Shandra shrugged. "From what I understand, a bunch of records from that time were lost. So it's just a buncha guesswork at this point."
Sue leaned back in her chair, rubbing her eyes. "And we wind up here of all places. Are there any heroes left? The 'super' kind, I mean." That sounded lame to her ears, but she hoped Shandra understood her meaning.
"They were pretty much wiped out by the '50s, or at least the ones you prob'ly remember. But this past year, there have been some popping back up. Spider-Man, Hulk ... Ghost Rider ... a few others. Dunno if they're the same ones you know. Prob'ly not."
"So if the names are still around, then at least some people remembered."
"Well, nobody really forgot your husband, 'cause of the stuff he invented an' discovered." Shandra's smile snuck out, somewhere between embarrassed and mischievous. "That, and ... I got into twencen culture 'cause I kind of had a crush on one of the FF in my younger days."
Sue grinned as well. "Johnny, right?"
Shandra looked away shyly. "Uhh, not quite?"
Sue was about to ask if she meant Reed, but she decided to drop it. "'Speaking of history,' she said, steering the subject back, 'would you happen to have any news archives lying around that we could look at? Just something newsy to help us get a clue what the
world as like in this day and age.'"
Shandra's body language became animated. "Oh, you know what? Yeah, we got those. We're all currentev junkies from spending so long in the Zone, so we get regular feeds."
Sue blinked. "'Currentev'?"
"Sorry. Slang. 'Current events'. We have this big block of data in our computers that we're about to delete anyway to free up space. Some older historical stuff too. I can clear it with Kong, and see if you guys can take a look at it before we hit the button."
"Okay, that'd be great. Thanks," Sue replied with a nod. "Is there anything to eat around here? I'm starving."
"Oh, that. No, not really. We have food and snack rations, and we have to conserve both between shipments. And Stark/Fuji can't be bothered to send us shipments more than once a month, so we're gettin' pretty low again."
"Ah." Sue had seen the company name on a few walls, and she filed that knowledge away for future reference. She didn't doubt that Stark/Fujikawa was the latest iteration of her old friend Tony Stark's ever-present company.
The silence stretched across a minute, and Shandra caved. "You're dying to know who my crush was on, aren't you?"
Sue shrugged, grinning. "It's possible."
It turned out that ignorance was bliss.
Once the Fantastic Four had obtained permission to view the base's news archives, they discovered just how badly (and how often) a world could go wrong in nine decades. The United States stopped democratically electing presidents in the 2000s, immense corporations called "megacorps" rose to prominence in the following decades, a thermonuclear war ravaged the country, mutants were rounded up and placed in prison camps,
and the megacorps soon annexed entire countries.
But the most distressing events were more recent: the reemergence of the Four's old nemesis, Victor Von Doom, and his eventual takeover of the United States itself. "Says here," Ben reported gravely, "that Plateface was kicked outta office pretty hard by the
new president, Steve Rogers. Yeah, that Rogers."
Johnny's eyes widened, and he peeked over Ben's shoulder at the screen. "You mean Captain America? That's good, right?" He then skimmed the article in question. "Oh ... uh, guess not."
"Yeah, guess not," Ben confirmed. "He's more like 'Captain UnAmerican'. Before Doom got revenge, it says President Rogers here had a buncha heroes killed off f'r goin' against his regime." He blinked, turning to the others. "So what does this mean? The U.S. of A.
was better off with Doom at the wheel?"
Reed who had been quiet for much of the fact-finding, spoke up. "I find that distinctly unlikely." His words were uncharacteristically bitter. He turned on his heel and exited into the hallway, leaving his teammates to look at each other in surprise.
"I'll go talk to him," Sue declared, standing up and striding out after him.
Then it was down to Ben and Johnny, and a tense silence fell over the room. Ben continued to read the articles; Johnny leaned against a wall and watched.
By the time Sue found him, he was in the hangar bay, scowling like a four-year-old in time out. He crouched beside the open containment pod and studied it closely; Sue watched him for a few minutes. "Are you okay?" she asked him finally? "Reed?"
"It seems this era needs us," he declared simply.
"Yeah, it's in pretty bad shape, looks like." She slowly stepped forward. "The Doom thing was a shock, wasn't it?" When he didn't reply, she went on. "The article said nobody's been able to prove whether or not that's the Victor Von Doom we know."
Reed looked up at her. "It doesn't make him any less of a threat. A Doctor Doom who operates under the same modus operandi doesn't need to be the original in order to be dangerous."
"Just like we don't need to be the originals in order to be the Fantastic Four."
Reed paused. "What are you saying?"
"I've been remembering more and more about who we were in the twentieth century, Reed. We all have. But...." She brushed her bangs away from her eyes in frustration.
"But what, Sue?"
"But there's something wrong with the memories. Or with mine, at any rate. It's like ... it's like I'm not the one who experienced them."
Reed stood up, now completely interested. "Go on..."
"It's like those TV shows where they show a flashback or dream sequence, but of course it's in third person, which a flashback shouldn't be. I'm not saying I'm dreaming in third person, but ... as I said, it feels as if the events happened to someone else. I can't
remember ever experiencing what my memories suggest, almost as if I have no frame of reference for what it should feel like."
"Give me an example."
Sue thought for a moment. "Well, you realize that we had a son named Franklin, right?"
"Yes, I recall that piece of information."
Sue pointed at him, vindicated. "Exactly! It's a piece of information. I know the general details -- the what, where, and when. But ... but I don't know what it's like to hold him in my arms. Or to sing him asleep. Or to even give
birth to him!"
"You don't know, or you don't remember?"
"I don't *know*!" She was on the verge of tears by this point. "I don't *know* what it's like; I've never experienced it. It's part of my memories, but I don't have anything tangible to attach it to."
"Well, memories do fade over time."
"Reed. You're not getting it. Even with faded memories, I can recall sensory experiences if I try hard enough. In most cases, the sensory experiences are what
trigger the memory in the first place. Like smelling candles, and being reminded of a birthday party. Or feeling warm water, and remembering a time relaxing in a hot tub. Or ... or petting a kitten, then remembering one time you tried to pet a stray who scratched you with its claws! I know, logically, that my brain is supposed to be making those kinds of connections, because that's some knowledge in my head from acting classes and psychology books."
"But you can't find the mental triggers."
"Can you?!" Sue was shouting by this point, desperate to get her point across. "Can you? Have you even thought to *look*?"
Reed looked away. "No ... I haven't. It hadn't occurred to me. I've been so busy--"
"With the grunt work the workers here are putting you up to," she finished for him. "I know." She stepped forward, more confident. "You've never really known much about what to do with body experiences, even before you could stretch. I know that much. And no, that's not an insult. I asked Johnny and Ben about it earlier, and they had to admit they were noticing the same thing."
Reed scratched the back of his head. "But ... let me see if I have this straight: you're saying we cannot be the real Fantastic Four because our memories of prior experiences are incomplete? As I told the workers, it could the a result of any number of--"
Sue placed her fingers to his lips to quiet him. "I know. And it's possible. So let me ask you this: do you remember what it's like to be in love with me?"
Reed's eyes widened. He gave up all resistance and pondered this as Sue withdrew her fingers. "All right. I'll look into it." He glanced down at the pod. "I'll start with this, in fact. It
is, after all, where we were first found." He crouched once again, tracing his fingertips along the pod's hull. When he spoke again, it was more to himself than to her. "The equipment was partially melted by the Zone lightning, but I'm certain I can discern what they once were, and their original functions."
He glanced back at Sue, meeting her gaze. "It's becoming clear that this pod holds very large pieces of the puzzle."
He was about to say more when a loud slamming noise echoed through the base station. It sounded metallic, as if one of the thick walls had just caved in under a tremendous impact. Alarmed, Sue and Reed glanced at each other and raced out of the hangar and toward the source of the sound: the break room.
"Okay, you wanna level with me?" Johnny had asked a few minutes earlier, when he absolutely couldn't stand being ignored anymore. "How d'you feel about Sue was saying earlier."
Ben had refused to answer.
Still no answer, and Johnny'd tried again. "Listen, I don't want to believe she's right, either, but if she is, and she can convince Reed--"
"Just. Shut. Up." Ben had swiveled the chair around to glare at the blonde-haired man.
"Oh yeah, just bully me, why don't you. Here I am, trying to hold a conversation with you when you've been ignoring just about everyone, throwing yourself into work, and just acting like a total--"
"Button it, Matchstick, 'fore I *really* lose my temper."
Johnny had refused to flinch. "Oh, yeah. You'll break me in half. Funny how somebody who can't even *stand* what he's become is so ready to throw his new weight aroun--"
"THAT'S ENOUGH!" Ben had bellowed, swinging a stony fist in Johnny's direction with
pile-driver force. If Johnny hadn't anticipated this and sidestepped in time, the fist would have caved in his skull as easily as it dented the steel alloy wall.
"Wow..." Johnny had breathed, catching his breath and kneeling, listening to the audible pounding of his own heart. He'd instinctively flamed on, surrounding his body in a blaze that'd threatened to carry him upward off the floor. "Now
Ben was incredulous. "You cocky, empty-headed little-- I coulda killed you!"
Johnny's grin had beamed brighter than his flame. "Had to break the tension somehow, didn't I?" More seriously, he'd dissipated the fire around his right hand and touched Ben's shoulder. "And you have to *do* something with your anger other than keep it bottled
up, right? Or somethin' even worse could happen."
Ben had batted away his hand. "Y'don't get it, do ya? You just made it even
clearer how dangerous I am! How dangerous this body is!" He'd turned to exit the room. "Do me a favor: next time you wanna give somebody a pep talk? Forget it."
Presently, as Ben departed, Johnny canceled his fiery aura and slumped in his chair. He closed his eyes, listening to his own breathing and heartbeat and the entrance of Sue and Reed. Both sounded incredibly concerned.
The last of his adrenaline evaporated with his flame, leaving only frustration.
NEXT: "Only Human"
Hi, and welcome to Fantastic Futures, the FF
2099UGR feedback page. Think of this as the letters page you see
sporadically in comic books. The nifty speed of the Internet will allow
for this space to be filled with feedback next issue (instead of having
to wait three issues of publishing lead time for the mail to catch up).
So there's gotta be a way to fill the letters space for the first issue.
I suppose I'll start by introducing myself. I'm
David Ellis, aged 25 at the time of this writing. I've been a voracious
reader since age four, a diehard comic book fan since age twelve, an
internet junkie since age 18, and a fanfiction writer since age 20. I've
been a huge Fantastic Four fan for most of my time as a comics fanatic,
so much so that when I first e-mailed Mike Shirely, current EiC of 2099
Underground, to lobby for a position on the writing staff, the first
idea I pitched was for a Fantastic 2099 title. Since Karl Kesel's
FF 2099 title was basically retconned from Mike's UGR continuity,
with only the brief prelude scene in Warren Ellis' 2099 Genesis
one-shot left standing, that meant I had basically carte-blanche to
rebuild the idea of the Four's emergence in the future era from the
Notice I said I had 'BASICALLY carte-blanche'.
There were a few hard-and-fast rules, because Mike had something basic
in mind for the FF and for his 2099 continuity: first, the title
characters had to be Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Ben Grimm, and Johnny
Storm -- they couldn't be a roster of entirely different characters with
the same team name, as was the case with X-Men 2099. Second, Uatu
the Watcher was not going to show up in any UGR title, which meant that
he couldn't play a part in FF 2099 (Len Kaminski's 2099: Manifest
Destiny one-shot postulated that the FF of 2099 had been copies
created by Uatu). Third, the series' adventures couldn't go in a
direction that would interfere with the other UGR authors' long-term
plans ... so they couldn't do something drastic like decide to take over
the government. The third one made sense, in that I'm still new to 2099
UGR; I have to establish myself first, before I start upsetting my
The parameters seemed to narrow down my choices
quite a bit, but I interpreted that as a challenge. After all, a wide
range of possibilities still existed. The most possibilities of all
existed in the Negative Zone, a location that I casually mentioned in a
chat conversation with Mike. I thought that maybe the Four could help
out with Stark-Fujikawa's efforts to chart the Zone ... but the question
soon begged to be asked: why would the FF want to help S-F's efforts in
the Zone (since they'd be most likely strip-mining the joint), and why
would Stark-Fujikawa accept their help? Okay, that's technically two
questions, but therein lay my story.
Fantastic Four 2099,
to me, is about a group of familiar people given a fresh start. Some
readers are already fans who are even more familiar with the FF than I
am; others will be reading about them for the first time. In either
case, the challenge is for me to treat the world of 2099 as a way to
reintroduce these characters in a new way, and to give them a fresh
perspective. The challenge is to present them as fish out of water in an
environment in which the rules have changed, while still bearing in mind
that these intrepid people are explorers, and braving new environments
is part of the job. The challenge is to have these people grow into
their new surroundings and be affected by them, all the while affecting
their surroundings, for better or worse.
This is my love letter to the Fantastic Four.
This is my effort to show that characters that have been around for over
40 years now (real-time) are still relevant and fascinating, even when
they find themselves a century out of time. It's also my chance to
examine the team from angles I've never before considered, to see what
else I can uncover about their psyches. Case in point: Reed's 20th
century journal will kick off every issue of this mini-series and
subsequent FF series (another 5-issue mini-series and an eventual
ongoing are planned), revealing new insight into the team's formation
and history. It's going to be a neat ride, and I hope all you readers
will be along for the ride.
Let me know how I'm doing, okay?
-David Ellis, email@example.com
January 11th, 2005