by Jason McDonald
Editor: Dave Munch
From Reed Richards' private journal, 20th century
I have ruined their lives.
Weeks have passed since our fateful space flight in my prototype rocket, and I am haunted by the betrayal on
their faces after we crashed back to Earth.
Sue, Johnny, Ben ... each was irreversibly altered in his or her own way. Sue has become frequently
invisible, feeding into my private fear that there will be a day when I will never see her again.
Johnny's fire-based power (pyrokinesis? Still inconclusive) fits in alarmingly well with his
impulsive personality -- a potentially dangerous combination. And Ben, my old friend, glares at me with
disgusted eyes now housed in a body vastly distorted from anything human.
I deserve his disgust. I deserve a fate worse than death for being so arrogant as to ignore their
objections (Ben's in particular) for the sake of my own dream's fulfillment. But as long as I'm alive,
their chances of survival improve, as does their potential to be cured.
Still, until that cure can be found, my friends and I must put ourselves to use in the service of humanity.
Perhaps in that way, I can be forgiven of my sin of hubris, and they can hold onto what remains of their
The Negative Zone, The Year 2099
The planetoid's surface looked as lifeless as he felt.
Benjamin Jacob Grimm's large blocky fingers scraped across the cratered ground, craggy orange against craggy gray. He felt a certain ... kinship with the terrain, which unnerved him. He knew that his skin wasn't technically made of rock; it was instead composed of a hardened epidermal substance thick enough to serve as armor. As he saw it, he was encased
in a giant callus thick enough to stop a missile.
"Maybe I shoulda let Kong cut me open," he muttered, recalling the recent incident in which a man named Dennis Kong, operations chief for this Stark-Fujikawa maintenance facility in the Negative Zone, had threatened to bore into him with a laser drill.
Suddenly, that didn't seem like such a terrible fate.
He exhaled once again, adjusting the breathing mask that covered his face from heavy brow to heavy chin. Without it, the Negative Zone's inherent atmosphere would burn his lungs and poison his blood. In his current mood, the temptation to yank off the mask and take a deep breath was staggering.
Almost a full Earth day before, Reed Richards, his best friend and teammate, had revealed that he and the rest of the recently-awakened Fantastic Four were actually clones of the twentieth-century heroes. And this a matter of hours after they'd found themselves on this planetoid with no idea how they'd arrived. The memories they carried in their heads were
artificially-implanted, and their first true experience was being bathed in cosmic radiation from a bolt of Zone lightning that'd filtered into their housing pod.
"Cosmic radiation," he whispered as he studied his hands, "that turned me into
this." He clenched his fists, gritting his teeth. "Here I am, Aunt Petunia's favorite nephew, gettin' a chance t'start a new life in a new century as a clone. So what happens? Do I get
t'get used ta that, an' see what that's like as a human? Naw, I get zapped again, an' I turn into a big ugly rock, again!" He took a deep breath, feeling himself getting worked up.
"Guess that's all I'll ever be," he spoke aloud. "I'll always be a Thing."
"What was that thing you used to say back in the twencen?" Shandra Willis asked Johnny Storm as they worked on the damaged Negative Zone jumpgate. "'I'm a flamer'?"
Johnny, who had been merrily spot-welding a metal panel with his finger up until that point, turned and gaped at her. In the short time he'd known her, he'd discovered that Shandra's affection for twentieth-century pop culture often led to some very awkward moments. As nice as it was to meet someone in the year 2099 who remembered that Johnny and the rest of the Fantastic Four had existed in the 1990s, this was one such awkward moment.
"Uh, no," he replied finally. "It's 'Flame On'. Y'know, when I'm turning on my flame power? 'I'm a flamer' means ... Something totally different."
"Uh, speaking of flames..." Shandra mentioned, her worried eyes locked on Johnny's blazing fingertip.
He glanced back at his hand and handiwork, realizing he'd heated up the metal just a bit too much: the durable metal alloy was now molten in that spot. "D'oh!" he exclaimed with a wince before quickly drawing the heat back out of the spot-weld. He was too late; the surface was already blackened and warped.
"'D'oh'. Another fun twencen term," Shandra commented, a smile quirking her lips. "Homer Simpson, right?"
"Yeah, it was even put in the dictionary." He eyed her for a moment with interest. "I hear this era has some pretty strange slang goin' on. Like I hear 'shock' a lot. The way it's used, I'm guessing it's a substitute for the F-Word?"
She nodded. "Sort of. It's more like a replacement."
"Why's that? Did somebody decide the F-Bomb shouldn't be used anymore, and people got creative?"
"That might be it; I dunno. It's been around a long time."
"Well, shock." He repeated the word a few more times to get used to it in that context. "Y'know, that's just not as much fun to say. Is 'cool' still around?"
Shandra thought about this. "Uhm, not really. I mean, I still hear it from time to time, but it's mostly said by twencen junkies like me."
Johnny chuckled. "It's gonna be a sad day when that word is laid to rest. I think it's been around as slang since the Sixties or Seventies. Uh, the Nineteen-Sixties and Seventies, I mean." He scratched the back of his head, frowning. "But then, I'm just
runnin' on fake memories, so what do I know?"
Setting down her ratchet apparatus, Shandra placed a hand on his shoulder. "So you're upset about what Reed found out about the four of you?"
"First Sue, *then* Reed," Johnny clarified. "And why wouldn't I be? I just found out we're just ... copies of them with memory implants. That's hard to take, y'know? But Reed an' my sister are both positive on this, and one can be wrong about somethin', or the other can, but not both at the same time."
"Ben's takin' it kinda hard, too," she commented, drawing her knees up under her chin where she sat.
"Yeah, hardest of all of us, not that I blame 'im. I haven't seen him since we found out -- and a little bit before that he punched a wall so hard he left a dent in it." He conveniently left out that he'd goaded Ben into throwing the punch, in order to release Ben's pent-up frustrations. It hadn't worked out very well.
Shandra wiped a sheen of sweat off her forehead with the back of her arm. "I heard he's been takin' long walks outside the station. Just ... walkin' around the station, tryin' to get his head together." She looked toward the exit door. "Good thing he thought to bring
a breathing mask."
Johnny shrugged. "Yeah, but he can survive without, as long as he holds his breath. He's got strong-enough lungs for that, and he's pretty well-armored for harsh environments. I have memories of him doing deep-space and deep-sea stuff for Reed back in the day." He
walked over to a window and peered out into the Negative Zone's nightmarish expanse. "And if I remember right, once upon a time, this place had a breathable atmosphere. Not sure why." He turned back to face her. "The Zone always looked weird, but now it looks diseased, y'know?"
Shandra picked up her ratchet tool and fidgeted with it. "Well, I dunno what it looked like before, so I'll take your word for it..."
They were silent for a minute or two, which Johnny couldn't stand, so he started on a new subject. "So, how 'bout dinner?"
Shandra's eyebrows reached for the ceiling as she eyed him. "'Scuse me?"
He shrugged. "Just for somethin' to do on our next time off. I figure goin' out and finding a good restaurant is out of question, and there's no telling what kinda movies they get in the Negative Zone--"
"Are you asking me out?"
"Well, uh, I admit, we wouldn't have much to work with, but..."
"Uh, sorry, not interested." She said that as gently as she could, trying not to upset him.
"Okay, fair enough, I guess." He wanted to ask why, but something about Shandra's expression made him change his mind.
"Hey, Storm," Wade Tyson called out from the doorway to a corridor. "Got a project for you."
Johnny moved away from the window, and looked at the other man. "Can it wait...? I've got this welding thing with Shandra...."
"No, it *can't* wait," Wade barked, getting in Johnny's face. They were both blond men in reasonably good shape, but 'Landshark Wade' was taller, more heavily built, and more imposing, with arms covered with tattoos. "Now get your butt in gear."
Shandra stepped toward the two men, hands on her hips. brow furrowed. "Hold on, Landshark. I thought you weren't workin' this shift."
"I'm workin' overtime, all right? We're short on help, in case you haven't noticed, so if a certain little slacker would pitch in an' *help*...!" He grabbed Johnny's arm and dragged him into the corridor.
"Hey!" Johnny protested. "I've *been* helping out! C'mon, what's goin' *on* here? Where're we going?"
"Outside," Wade answered. "We gotta fix somethin', so you an' me have to suit up." They entered the hangar, there the yellow labor suits were stored, and Wade directed Johnny to the one he'd be using.
Johnny scowled and strode over the bulky hydraulic frame. A stenciled name on its chassis designated it as belonging to Keith McLaughlin, a worker who was nearly brain-fried by Zone lightning mere days before. "...Yes sir," Johnny mumbled.
"Well, yeah, this *is* a mining operation," Dennis Kong confirmed as he sat at his desk and met Reed Richards' stare. "What'd you think it was?"
Reed was never a violent man, but he was known for being habitually calm, he nonetheless carried an intellectual intensity that refused to be ignored. "You'd stated previously that this was a maintenance operation. 'Maintenance Flight Nine' is this group's official designation."
Kong rubbed his brow, looking very tired. "We perform maintenance on other platforms' mining machinery when they need it," he explained slowly and clearly, as if speaking to a four-year-old.
"So Stark/Fujikawa and other Earth corporations are strip-mining the Negative Zone, depleting its resources."
"What's wrong with that?"
"In the previous century," Reed explained, "the Zone was steadily, inexorably heading toward a total collapse. The rapid depletion of this dimension has only hastened its decay."
"How the hell does someone deplete an entire dimension? It's an *alternate universe*, Richards! It's infinite; it'll go on forever, and there's more than enough of it to keep us in business for--"
Reed slammed both palms on Kong's cold hard desk and leaned forward, glaring. "This dimension is *not* infinite, Mr. Kong! It had reached the limit of its outward expansion *long* before I found it in the twentieth century. Now it is receding back into its
central point, taking all of its contents with it. It will soon reach critical mass, Mr. Kong, and I promise you, it will be within *your* lifetime." At that point, he realized how hard Kong was staring at him.
"Off. The. Desk," Kong ordered, and Reed complied, embarrassed that he was overstepping his bounds. "Thank you. I'm only gonna say this once: respect me and the job that goes on here, or leave. My people and I went through the trouble of rescuing the four of you from the Voltstorm, but we haven't heard a single 'thank you' yet!"
"Mmm-hmmm," Reed muttered, pondering this with a finger pressed to his pursed lips. "Interesting. The way I'd heard it from Ms. Willis, you and Mr. Tyson had to be talked into making the 'rescue' effort, even though your own injured teammate was out there as well. And you waited until the storm was over." He locked eyes once again with the operations chief. "Perhaps I'd heard it incorrectly."
"Maybe you did," Kong replied evenly. "Are you bound and determined to take me to task on everything you think is wrong, Mr. Richards?"
Reed opened his mouth to respond, then closed it, frowning. "That was not my intent when I came in here," he answered finally. "I ... I am merely concerned--"
"Well, don't be. Focus on your own business, which includes helping us fix things around here when we need it, and keeping your people under control."
"By 'my people', you mean the Fantastic Four."
"If you can even be *called* 'people'. You said you and the other three turned out to be *clones*, right?"
Reed's right eyebrow twitched at Kong's use of the word 'clone'. The implication that he was neither the real Reed Richards nor even 'human' was starting to gnaw at him.
Susan Storm didn't have to look up from her electronic bookkeeping assignment to know Reed had entered the break room. "You're upset."
Reed stopped in his tracks and looked at her. "It's that obvious?"
Sue, parked at a table, happily making use of the computer, nodded and smiled. "Pretty much. Not only could I hear parts of your conversation with Kong, well ... it's written all over your face."
He blinked, confused. "But you just now started *looking* at my face."
She shrugged. "It's a gift."
"Or memory programming."
Sue's eyebrow raised. "How do you know it's not genetic? Behavior is just as much nature as nurture, and I'm positive the original Sue was good at reading people before she ever took classes for it." She saw Reed approaching her table to pull up a chair, and her eyes widened. "Reed -- wait!"
Too late. He banged his knee on something he couldn't see, stumbled, and fell across the chair he was trying to reach in the first place. "Ow!" He looked around to see what he'd tripped over, and he witnessed another chair materializing into view. He blinked and looked up at Sue. "An invisible chair?"
Sue's expression struck a delicate balance between apologetic and amused. "Sorry. I was practicing my multitasking. Seeing how many ways I could divide my attention and keep everything together. So I'm doing spreadsheets for Kong while making different things
Reed didn't so much stand up as seemingly lose cellular cohesion and reform himself into a standing position. "I suppose experimentation with your powers should be encouraged," he told her, "but a chair? That's a disaster waiting to happen."
She grinned impishly. "Or a prank. You should've seen the look on Wade's face when it happened to him a half-hour ago." Then her face scrunched into a distasteful scowl. "Of course, he was hitting on me, so he had it coming."
Reed took a slow breath. "That ... reminds me. In keeping with the evidence supporting our status as clones of the original Fantastic Four ... would that mean...?" His confidence was failing. "Would that mean the two of us are not actually married?"
Not sure how to answer that, Sue looked off to the side with a frown, pondering the question. "I ...don't know, Reed."
Before she could say more, a voice spoke over the intercoms, "Testing, one, two, three. Testing, one, two -- gah, can't figure out this stupid thing works."
"It's Johnny," Reed recognized, moving closer to a speaker.
Another voice reprimanded Johnny over the frequency -- this one sounded like Landshark Wade. "Hey, will you stop playin' with the coms, you moron? We got a job to do."
Dennis Kong heard the exchange as well, on the intercom in his office. He couldn't help doing a double-take. "What the--? Are they in the labor suits? That makes no sense ... I thought Wade was off
"Okay, okay," Johnny relented in response to Wade's reprimand, and he tried to turn off the communication system's broadcast function. Not having much luck at that, he looked around at his surroundings. He and Wade had ventured out of the base's hangar and onto
the planetoid's pockmarked surface. The Zonescape was a net of purple energy at the moment, making Johnny feel incredibly tiny by comparison.
He looked up and found Wade hovering several yards ahead, waiting for him to catch up. "So, what're we supposed to do?" Johnny asked.
"First," Wade replied, "we get you acquainted with your labor suit's systems. Can't afford to make mistakes out here."
But Johnny was still amused by the name of his yellow hydraulic outfit. "'Labor suit'? Sounds like I'm supposed to give birth in this thing!" He took a moment to examine the frame. "Y'know, it's bulky enough, I probably *could*."
"Never thought I'd be the one to say this," Wade said, "but will you be serious for one minute? You've got some heavy equipment in that frame -- propulsion thrusters, grappling arms, power tools -- but if you don't know how to *use* them--"
"Oh, c'mon, propulsion thrusters?" Johnny interrupted, hitting a button. I know how to use those -- *WHOOOAH!*" He took off like a rocket, skimming past Wade and away from the base station at top speed.
"Storm!" Wade shouted. "Storm, what the shock're you doing? Go any faster an' you'll fly right *off* this 'toid!"
Johnny was whooping and cheering too loudly to hear him. "Woo-hoo! This is awesome! Bet I could break a land speed record with this baby!" He made a mental note to find out later what the current speed record was. Breaking it one way or another was officially on his to-do list.
A loud pinging signal interrupted his revelry, and was followed by a sputtering noise. He was out of fuel already; it figured. However, he had already gained enough momentum that a little thing like a lack of fuel didn't slow him down much. So he tried the braking mechanism. That didn't help much, either.
The good news was that the planetoid's terrain was reasonably flat for quite a long stretch ahead of him; the bad news was that there was a steep dropoff at the end of it. He was about to race off the edge of the planetoid. Luckily, the labor suit was equipped with
the ability to steer; Johnny took advantage of that and hung a sharp right. He debated pulling a U-turn to head back to Wade and the base, but this was too much fun.
Half a minute of experimentation with the suit's capabilities later, Johnny was having the time of his life. Then he finally ran out of momentum and slowed to a stop. Still, he was grinning like a six-year-old when Wade caught up to him. "So, what d'you think, man?" a cheerful Johnny asked. "Think I have the hang of this?"
"You know much it costs to keep these things fueled?" Wade demanded. Then he sighed and shook his head. "Never mind. You remind me way too much of myself. I did the same thing when I first climbed into one of these things."
Wade chuckled. "Yeah, only I hit one of the station walls instead. That's why they call me 'Landshark Wade'. Kong was pissed at me for a while, but he got over it. Now he's my best friend."
"But you almost killed him the first day you were here, an' that's *not* 'cool'." Wade Tyson's tone had turned mean.
"You almost killed him," the worker repeated. "You an' the others. 'The Fantastic Shockin' Four'. Sproutin' those powers an' attackin' us, when all we did was save your little--"
"We didn't attack you, moron!" Johnny felt his body temperature soaring. "Our powers just ... happened! We were tryin' to control 'em, then you guys just freaked out! Kong was the one with the laser gun, not me!" He took a breath. "That, and he wasn't burned!"
"Only 'cause the F-E drones got to him in time."
Johnny frowned, knowing Wade was right. When Kong was set ablaze by Johnny's accidental flame blast, the operations chief had tried smothering the flames by rolling on them. However, if the Fire-Extinguisher robots hadn't been there, there's no telling what
might've happened to Kong. "Okay, fine. So what're you gonna do with me?" He was finding it hard to breathe.
Landshark Wade chuckled. "*I'm* not gonna do anything. I'm just gonna let that leak I put in your suit take care of everything for me."
"What?" Johnny started coughing, realizing his lungs were beginning to burn.
"The Zone's got a poison atmosphere, Storm," Wade went on. "It doesn't take a big hole to let it in -- just a tiny, slow leak. Then, when you drop, I can just report that it was an equipment botch."
Another voice cut in over the com system -- a rough, gravelly voice. "Yeah? Well I hope they still make body casts in this day an' age, Junior," Ben Grimm declared, "'cause it's *Clobberin' Time*, an' you're gonna *need* one!"
Wade caught the sight of a large rocky form reflected in the faceplate of the suit Johnny was wearing. His own suit was too slow in turning around, and huge craggy hands grabbed the hydraulic frame and pulled.
Ben ripped apart the labor suit the same way an overzealous football fan might rip open a bag of corn chips on Super Bowl night. Wade sucked in air out of sheer surprise, and it felt like a pair of white-hot stars had made themselves at home in his lungs.
"Hold on, kid," Ben told Johnny before holding his breath and removing his facemask.
The breathing apparatus -- created by Reed Richards on the spur of the moment -- came with its own comm unit so Ben could speak to the coworkers when he labored outside. Johnny remembered that he hadn't turned his suit's intercom off; Ben must've heard the entire
conversation. He held his breath and let Ben open his labor suit (the careful way), readily accepting
size-adjustable facemask so he could breathe clean air. "Thanks."
Ben, holding his own breath, didn't reply, but his expressive eyes indicated, *don't mention it*. He helped Johnny close the suit's hatch, then he turned to the side as if noticing an incoming arrival.
In fact, there were *four* arrivals. Two people in labor suits who Johnny assumed to be Shandra and Kong raced toward them, keeping pace with Reed and Sue, who were seemingly surfing on a platform of thin air. Sue's invisible
force field, Johnny guessed. He also guessed the shock was about to hit the fan.
"What the million-volt shock is going on, here?" Kong demanded, once everyone was back at base. "Why's everybody trying to kill each other the minute my back's turned?"
Wade was being carted off to the infirmary, and Johnny was still taking occasional breaths from the facemask. He succesfully stifled the urge to claim, 'Landshark started it.' Instead, he answered, "why don't you ask your psycho buddy?" Which was only marginally more mature.
"Yeah, I heard the conversation," Kong pointed out. "I just can't believe Wade would pull something like this."
Sue eyed the operations chief skeptically. "I somehow find that hard to believe."
"Well, okay, he had this whole list of emotional problems when he first started, and I think there was something about some run-ins with the law," Kong admitted, "but all that was black-carded. And I figured with all the time he's been here, he'd be past all that."
"And here I thought *I* was born yesterday," Johnny muttered.
Kong stepped closer to Johnny, looming over him. "I don't think you're completely innocent in this."
Ben, in turn, loomed over Kong. "What're you tryin' ta say?"
"I'm saying that the four of you have been nothing but trouble in the short time you've been here. You've been handy with repairs, yeah, but every time you lose your temper, something gets smashed or somebody gets sent to the infirmary. That costs us time and
manpower we can't spare, and it needs to stop."
"What *is* this?" Ben protested. "One o' *your* people tries t'commit murder, an' we're *still* the ones who get yelled at?"
"To be fair," Reed observed, "we *are* putting quite the strain on their already-limited resources."
"And your demands aren't helping anything, either," Kong reminded Reed. He walked to a wall map of the Negative Zone, or at least what was controlled by his company. "Stark Fujikawa's been screwing us royally for the past few months. They've heaped so many
cutbacks an' jurisdiction changes that it's a wonder he haven't been shut down yet. When Flight Nine was set up, we were supposed to operate in conjunction with the biggest sector Stark/Fuji controlled. Then, not a *month* into the operation, S/F and the other
corporates rearranged their boundary contracts, so the choice sector was someplace else. They all rerouted their resources, so that Flights Two and Three run maintenance on the biggest operations, and we're stuck on the fringe. We're the Flight everybody forgets
about ... including the supply shipments."
Johnny, Reed, and the rest of the Fantastic Four exchanged glances. It certainly filled in a few gaps in their understanding of the base's operations.
"So what're you going to do with us?" Sue asked Kong.
Kong shrugged. "I'm leaving that to Stark/Fujikawa. I contacted them just after you guys decided you were clones. Representatives should be here any time now, so don't get too comfortable."
It turned out the
'representatives' were six Stark/Fujikawa security officers called Watchdogs. They wore brown shirts and metal armor, and Reed had to wonder if they were aware of how much they resembled a bizarre amalgam of Nazi SS officers, 20th century highway patrolmen, and ... something from the comic books he'd read in his youth.
But the Watchdogs weren't the ones to whom he had to speak; the squad leader -- Sergeant Reyes -- pressed a button on his armor and displayed a hologram of a bald, powerful-looking Japanese man. This man introduced himself as Hikaru, CEO of the corporation,
and after a minute of formalities, he requested that the Four submit themselves to Watchdog custody to undergo a DNA scan.
"That actually won't be necessary," Reed informed the businessman, who was still on Earth, "you see, we have discovered on our own that we are not in fact the original Fantastic Four." For some reason, the words held the taste of bitter disappointment for him.
Hikaru regarded this thoughtfully. "'Not necessary'," he repeated, as if trying out Reed's words and deciding he didn't like how they sounded. "How have you come to this conclusion?"
The group stood in the docking bay, as it was the only room large enough to house four workers, six Watchdogs, and four
super humans (even if the docked transport vessels took up most of the available space), so Reed simply gestured at the containment pod. "We had been found in this unit, and although a voltaic energy phenomenon had almost destroyed the
systems inside, I was able to discern what those systems had originally been."
He paused, then, seeing that he had Hikaru's continued interest, he continued: "First, there were cloning tanks, able to grow an organism from samples of baseline DNA into a full-grown adult. In this case, *four* adults, and each to age twenty-five."
"Why age twenty-five?" Hikaru asked.
"I honestly don't know," Reed replied. "It was either intentional, or the storm might have marred the cloning devices before the age process could have progressed further."
Getting back on track, he continued: "Second, I noticed the vestiges of equipment designed to subliminally implant virtual memories." He gestured at Sue. "Yet, as Susan had pointed out, those memories were imperfect because they were concrete facts rather than tangible experiences. Whether the imperfections were due to shoddy programming, obsolete technology, or interference from the Voltstorm, I hate yet to determine. Perhaps it's all three."
Despite his air of professionalism and courtesy, the Japanese CEO was becoming visibly restless. "Is there anything else ... 'Doctor Richards'?" Hikaru asked. He seemed unsure that a clone should be given the original's honorific.
"Well, yes, I was getting to that," Reed replied humbly. "Third: there is the matter of the Voltstorm phenomenon itself. The pod's hull was designed to act as a conductor for the Zone lightning,
channeling the energy into the pods and into our bodies. The cosmic
energy is curiously similar to that experienced by the original Fantastic Four before they first transformed." He took a breath before continuing. "My theory is that while the pod's cloning tanks cultivated the baseline DNA and allowed us to age, the lightning was needed to trigger our superhuman powers."
"Hope there's not gonna be a test on all this," Johnny muttered; Sue elbowed him.
"I see," Hikaru said neutrally. "However, I am afraid a more thorough scan will be needed to confirm your claims..."
"Understandable," Reed answered with a respectable bow.
"...and to determine which corporation, if any, the four of you belong to, for ownership issues."
Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny were taken aback by this. "What?" they asked in near-unison.
"If the four of you have been artificially created," Hikaru explained slowly, as if addressing a class of five-year-olds, "that means you are artificial lifeforms, subject to ownership by your creator."
*"Ownership?"* Ben Grimm bellowed, fighting-mad. "What kinda crap is *that?* Even clones got rights, too!"
The hologram of Hikaru and the Watchdogs shook their heads.
This just fed Ben's outrage. *"Nobody* owns Benjamin J. Grimm!"
"Ben..." Sue whispered, placing a hand on his massive arm to calm him.
"Yes, Ben," Reed agreed, "there's already been too much--"
"Too much what? Seems t'me like we ain't done nothin' other'n follow *their* rules an' act like *their* houseguests! An' they treat us like property for our trouble! What the hell ever happened t'human rights?"
Reed had to admit Ben was voicing his thoughts.
The Watchdogs surrounding the Four tightened their circle, ready to put Ben in his place if need be. Each pressed a button on his uniform, expanding the armor until the Watchdogs looked more like cyborgs than people. "We're equipped with SIEGE armor: *SItuation Emergency GEar," one of them barked to Richards. "So you'd better keep your pet rock on a leash. One more outburst like that, and we'll have to put him down. ."
Ben scowled at the comment. "Yeah, I'll show ya 'pet rock', ya miserable--"
"My question," Reed stated, addressing Hikaru before tensions could escalate further, "is what will be done with us once you have confirmed who created us. For instance, what if we turn out to be ... products of Stark-Fujikawa?"
"There is no record of our company ever attempting to clone Fantastic Four," Hikaru replied, "but in such an event, you would be studied--"
"Studied like lab animals," Reed interrupted angrily. "I'm sorry, but I cannot allow that."
The businessman was indignant. "You cannot--?"
"Just as I can no longer tolerate the willful exploitation and pollution of the Negative Zone." He gestured simply around him to indicate the entire realm, his voice rising with anger and conviction. He glanced at his teammates, and he found the same conviction in their eyes.
"Mr. Richards, you must calm yourself," Hikaru commanded.
Reed's gaze shot over to the hologram. "No, I've stayed silent long enough. I'm tired of playing the diplomat. I'm just as fed up with all the injustices of this era as Ben is. This has to *stop!*"
"You've stayed 'silent'?" Kong asked angrily. "After the lecture you tried to give me in my office?" He shook his head. "You're full of crap, you know that? You won't tolerate being turned into lab rats? That's all you *are*. You don't wanna put up with what we're
doing with the Zone? You don't have the authority to stop it. You're not the Fantastic Four, so stop acting like you discovered this place!"
Dennis Kong stepped as close to Reed as possible without getting into the Watchdogs' personal space. "In fact, you want to know the funny part? When Dr. Richards discovered this Zone in the Twentieth century, he made all this possible. He did the most damage of all."
Reed Richards, usually the most calm and collected of the Fantastic Four, hauled off and punched Kong in the jaw. No one was more surprised than Reed himself. "I ... I don't know what came over me," he stammered as Kong sank to the floor like a sack of potatoes.
Then five of the Watchdogs went on the offensive, while the sixth ushered the workers out of the room, and the time for words had passed.
Reed temporarily lost his shape as he was struck by a series of taser bolts fired by the Watchdogs. As he went down, Sue turned invisible and two of the officers were flattened by an unseen force. Johnny flamed on and flew above the fray, circling near the ceiling to draw SIEGE fire away from his teammates. And Ben tossed one Watchdog across the room before the remaining two hammered him with energy blasts.
As a dazed Reed watched the fight and slowly pulled himself together, the Watchdog whom Ben had just tossed surveyed the melee from his vantage point on the floor. He pressed a button on his suit, and armor-mounted spotlights turned on, bathing the epicenter of the hangar in a peculiar hue of light. Sue's silhouette could be seen helping Ben with the
two still-standing Watchdogs, so he shouted, "Behind you!" to one of them.
The corresponding guard then whipped around and fired a taser blast at Sue, who screamed when the electricity struck her forcefield. Angered at this, Reed enlarged his fists and snaked his arms over to the two Watchdogs, decking them with solid punches.
Johnny was twisting and spiraling around in a flight pattern that didn't make much sense to Reed, as the Human Torch was not evading enemy fire. Then compartments in the walls slid open, and
Johnny's plan made sense. Four F-E robots emerged from the compartments, spraying flame-extinguishing foam in all directions in an attempt to smother the flames they sensed. The armored Watchdogs were covered in the foam, which obscured their vision and made their footsteps slippery.
The foam had the potential to do the same to the Fantastic Four, but they knew enough to keep out of range of the spraying. "Heh, good thinkin', Matchstick," Ben complimented Johnny, before picking up one Watchdog and tossing him bodily against the others so that they were knocked off their feet and sent sliding against the wall. Sue finished the job by sandwiching them against the aforementioned wall with a forcefield.
The F-E drones retreated back into their compartments.
"Is everyone all right?" Reed asked as he walked to the defeated SIEGE Watchdogs and took a closer look at their armor.
"We're fine, for the most part," Sue reported behind him. "Although I'm getting a headache the size of this planetoid ... what are you doing?"
Reed glanced up from the Watchdogs. "Oh ... I'm taking a closer look at their technology. Their weaponry is almost too highly-advanced for me to comprehend, but I believe some of these components may be useful."
Johnny lowered himself to the floor, dissipating his flame aura. "So, wait ... now you're snatching their gear? We can do that? 'Cause if one of 'em has, like a music player or something, let me know..."
"It's obvious he has a plan, bic-head," Ben pointed out impatiently. "We just took out their goon squad, so any minute they're gonna break down the door an' take it outta our hides." He turned to Reed, addressing him seriously. "We need to move, pal."
"Agreed," Reed replied, looking up at the Heracles transport vessel. "Do you think you can load our containment pod into the transport, and fly it out of here?"
Ben's smile lit up his craggy features. "Watch me."
Hi, and welcome to another installment of "Fantastic
Futures". I'm David Ellis, and I'll be your waiter this -- wait, I'm thinking of something else.
Actually, I'll be answering feedback in this section, which now (to my amazement) actually had feedback!
With that in mind, onto said feedback:
* * *
Hi! I just finished reading your first issue of the
Fantastic Four 2099. I have to say I loved it. The
character development was very well paced and
believable. Johnny, Sue, Reed and Ben were all in
character and their personalities I thought were very
well written. It's obvious that you took your time
with them, and that you love the material you're
The supporting cast was great as well. There was
enough shown of them, that I'm interested in seeing
more. Shandra and Keith in particular, I'm very
curious about. In my opinion a mark of a good writer
is taking the time to make your supporting cast as
engaging and well written as your main characters. I
think you succeeded admirably.
The plot and storyline is definitely original, and it
built slowly so that I wasn't overwhelmed by too much
at once. You let the readers keep with you and follow
you, rather than leaving them racing to catch up. And
you left off just at the right time. I'm very
interested in seeing the next issue, and figuring out
what exactly is going on.
I was really impressed. Please keep up the good work!
Leah Rose, via e-mail
Thanks, Leah! My biggest goal with this series (and
with pretty much any story I write) is to get the
readers to care about the characters the way I do. And
yeah, I really want the Flight Nine workers to come
across as interesting characters in their own right.
So thanks for reading, and by all means, let me know
what you think of this issue!
* * *
Excerpted from a fanfiction review by Brent Lambert:
THE GOOD: David has got down the explorer feel of FF
and he's doing it splendidly. I definitely felt like
this was a real outpost in the Negative Zone. The
supporting cast is well rounded and funny. It's
a definite mixture of personalities that gives the
title some flavor. Also Reed's journal entry at the
beginning of the issue really set the tone for me. So
good show on that.
THE BAD: I don't feel like this issue was doing enough
to keep the reader wanting to come back for the next
issue. As Moon Knight over did it this title isn't
doing it enough. The story was great, but I don't feel
like I'd be missing anything if I didn't come back
OVERALL: The future feel is being nailed by 2099UGR
and this title is just one of them doing it well.
I have to agree on all points, Brent, both good and
bad. The ending wasn't exactly the cliffhanger a lot
of people expect, but I hope subsequent issues (like
this one) make up for that. I definitely have some
surprises in store for this series. Oh, and keep your
eye on Reed's journal entries. They'll contain some of
the biggest revelations of all.
-David Ellis, firstname.lastname@example.org
February 19th, 2005
NEXT ISSUE: The Fantastic Four are on the run from
Stark-Fujikawa forces, who place the Negative Zone in a state of martial law and deploy a cyborg
bounty-hunter to track them down. Also: more on the Maintenance Flight Nine crew, and a revelation about
the Fantastic Four's origin, courtesy of Reed Richard's journal.