by Jason McDonald
Editor: Dave Munch
From Reed Richards' private journal, 20th century
Despite our faults, the four of us are becoming an effective team. My beloved Sue, her brother Johnny, and my longtime friend Ben have accompanied me on mission after mission, world after world. We are the Fantastic Four, and we are hailed by the public as the greatest of 'super heroes', even after the Avengers were formed.
While I could simply attribute our success to my plan to ensure that the four of us attain a positive public image early on, I still cannot help but feel we were meant to be a team from the beginning. After all, why else would I have gone out of my way to enlist my college roommate Benjamin Grimm as a pilot, and my fiancee and her brother as a crew?
Addendum: Actually, upon reading this journal entry a second time, a more honest answer to my rhetorical question occurs to me:
When I had begun my lifelong dream of designing and building my original prototype spacecraft, I had been orphaned for years. My mother had died when I was a child, and I had lost my father a number of years after that. I had sought some kind of approval with my rocket project, which I certainly hadn't gotten from the government officials who had cut my funding. Therefore, in the absence of my parents, I had sought approval from Sue, Ben, and Johnny -- the people in my life whose opinion mattered to me. I made them my crew, and I downplayed their fears regarding the unknowns of space.
Is this how I reward their faith in me?
The Negative Zone, The Year 2099
"Reed, I trust you have a plan for this," Sue Storm shouted above the racket of metal as the Heracles Mark IV transport vessel threatened to shake itself apart. They'd stolen the transport from a maintenance station's docking bay mere minutes ago, attempting to escape the custody of a very large Earth-based corporation.
"I'm working on it, Susan," Reed replied rather shortly as he studied the vessel's console. Sparks were shooting from it due to the impact the ship had just sustained -- a flight-armored SIEGE Watchdog had just hit it with a missile. "Keep it steady, Ben! We have to outpace out pursuer!"
The ship's pilot, a mountain of rock-like determination named Ben Grimm, scowled at both Reed and their current situation. "Yeah, thanks for *that* piece of advice, Stretcho," he retorted while keeping the ship as level as superhumanly possible. "Never woulda figured it out on my own. Y'wanna help th' situation? Tell th' dingbat that's tailgatin' us ta knock it off alread--" Another missile rattled the hull. "Aw, f'r the luvva ... I didn't mean it like that!"
Johnny Storm fidgeted against his seat harness, both holding onto the straps for dear life and wishing he could be free of them. "Y'know, I suggested we take the Stark-Fuji flagship, which is faster an' a heckuva lot more maneuverable... but does anyone ever listen to me?"
Sue took a deep breath through gritted teeth as she fought a blistering headache. "Johnny, d'you think any one of us has the kind of know-how to operate a state-of-the-art corporate flagship on such short notice?" And it was true. While Ben was a pilot and Reed was an intuitive technology genius -- and each was the best at what he did -- they'd had only a minute at most to escape in a spacecraft, and the Heracles was built with blue-collar interface in mind. The flagship, on the other hand, would have probably required years of cadet school to comprehend.
Their pursuers' voice broke in over the comm frequency. "Stark-Fujikawa SIEGE officer Bill Reyes to Heracles Mark IV transport ship: this is your final warning. Surrender, or you will be destroyed."
Reed, the designated co-pilot, pressed the comm button to respond. "Mr. Reyes, please hold while we take your request under lengthy consideration." He then fiddled with the controls to fill the frequency with an ear-splitting feedback screech.
Johnny couldn't help laughing. "Hey, that was pretty funny, man! Betcha *that* pissed 'im off."
But Reed was deadly serious. "I'm tired of Stark-Fujikawa holding the cards, Johnny. I'm tired of sitting on my hands while they strip-mine the Negative Zone to the proverbial bare walls. We're not just fighting for our lives, here -- we're fighting for this entire dimension. If they want to destroy us, we will not make it easy for them."
"Hey, y're preachin' to the choir on that one," Ben commented. "Suzie, think y'r forcefields can give us a hand?"
Sue peered out of an aft window to keep tabs on Reyes. "We're clones, remember? I don't have the original Sue's experience or stamina. There's no way I could wrap a field around tthisship thick enough to stop his missiles." She'd already over-exerted her power twice that day -- once to ferry herself and Reed outside in the Negative Zone without protective gear, and a second time to defend herself and her teammates against Reyes' SIEGE squad.
She hated to feel useless when her friends needed her. And she was troubled to realized the original Susan Storm had been largely useless to the Fantastic Four in her early years when she'd been the Invisible Girl. Was she, as a clone, fated to follow the same pattern?
Not if she could help it.
Reyes' next missile slammed into the transport even harder than the previous ones, and Sue was almost jarred out of her seat harness. Scowling, she concentrated on the SIEGE officer and realized there *was* a way she could stop his next missile.
"This vessel isn't going to withstand another impact," Reed shouted, stretching an arm across the cabin to hold in place a coolant tube that had been dislodged. "We need an offensive attack."
"I'm on it," Sue declared, narrowing her eyes. She visualized a sphere of solidified invisible energy, no bigger than a marble, conjuring it inside Reyes' armor. Specifically, inside his forearm missile housing. She expanded it to the size of a golf ball, then a baseball, effectively jamming the missile before it could be deployed.
Sure enough, Sue watched as Reyes' body language betrayed confusion at the weapon's malfunction. "There," she told the others, "I've bought us some time." *And managed not to blow the guy up in the process*, she left unsaid. Then she realized Reed was saying something about electromagnetic interference, but she didn't catch what it was.
Suddenly, Reyes' armored form convulsed, overtaken by a surge of cosmic lightning. A flash of white-hot agony lanced through Sue's brain as the energy was carried across her mental link the spherical forcefield in Reyes' armor. She heard herself scream before she lost consciousness.
They were lost in an electrical storm less than an hour ago," Stark-Fujikawa CEO Hikaru revealed, "but they are still most certainly out there. I have notified every facility in the Negative Zone of this situation, and a security alert has been issued. There are now SIEGE officers stationed at every base." He locked eyes with the cyborg in his office. "However, security is not enough. In order to find the clones of the Fantastic Four, we require *your* talents."
"Wait, hold up," the hunter-warrior called Oldskool spoke up. "You're sayin' all this fuss is about a buncha clones?" He was a rather large, muscular black man dressed in a tan leather jacket that covered his cybernetic arms. His tank top, cargo pants, steel-toed boots, gold-chain necklaces and earrings all reflected what Hikaru guessed was twentieth-century pop culture fashion.
"Not just any clones," the CEO revealed. The holographic projector on his desk displayed a mock-up of the Negative Zone expanse; he queued it to an 'image capture' of the fugitives. "These clones in particular are derived from the twentieth-century superhumans known as the Fantastic Four, and they have been endowed with the necessary powers and memory implants. They are quite dangerous, as they have already defeated five SIEGE-equipped Watchdogs, with the status of the sixth still in question. Find them, but do *not* underestimate them."
Oldskool studied the images for a very long moment, deep in thought. "You want 'em dead or alive?" he asked in his customary gruff voice. "And why d'you need *me* for the job? All due respect: you *know* I put in my time in the Zone. I'm done with that place. Sir."
Hikaru nodded slightly. "I am well aware of that, Mr. Waylon." He then queued the desk holo to the next image, that of Oldskool's military service picture and dossier. "I am also aware that during your time as a Negative Zone soldier -- before you started calling yourself 'Oldskool' instead of Martin Waylon -- you were the best of the best. You turned the tide in our war against the Zone's hostile races." He locked eyes with the bounty hunter. "I am *also* aware that you have lost none of your edge. You are needed again."
Oldskool's troubled eyes darted away from his employer and onto the image of the man he once was.
"Sue?" Reed's voice filtered in, and Sue opened her eyes.
"What ... ow," she whimpered, holding her head and sitting up. Looking around, she saw Reed, Johnny, and Ben in the Heracles' cabin ... or at least shapes of them.
"Are you okay?" her brother asked eagerly.
She tried squinting her eyes to focus on them, but to no avail. "Sort of. Except there's something wrong with my eyes ... everything looks like, well ... what I see when I turn things invis -- oh." Her eyes widened as she realized what had happened.
"Yeah, y'r power went all wonky when y'blacked out on us," Ben revealed, reaching out with a massive hand for a delicate touch. "Turned us an' this whole ship invisible."
She took another look at the bulkheads, windows, and floors of the ship, realizing that they had indeed taken on the same transparent, colorless appearance as her teammates. She knew she possessed the ability to perceive objects made invisible by her gift, but that still raised some questions: "How long was I out?"
"Unfortunately I can't glance at a chronometer," Reed replied, "but I would estimate over an hour."
"That long? And you've been invisible that whole time?" How can you see?"
Johnny shrugged from where he sat on the floor, leaning against the hull. "We don't, unless you count the sky outside. We didn't know what happened at first, and with that Zonestorm going on ... man it was wild. The storm sent us off-course to wherever we are now, but at least it's stopped. So we've basically been improvising, and biding our time until you woke up."
Ben harrumphed. "Feelin' around ain't easy when y'can't feel much t'begin with." He was still in the pilot's seat, only he'd swiveled it around to face the others, for all the good that did.
"We can't see the ship or each other," Johnny went on, "but otherwise the view's awesome." He indicated the expanse around them. The Zonescape was bathed in red and gold, with rivers of white racing along the sky like children at play.
Sue touched the cold cabin wall, which might as well have been a pane of glass. "It's beautiful," she whispered, in awe of the view.
But then, patches of the hull dissolved into view like ugly blemishes, and parts of Sue became opaque as well. Realizing what was ahappening she concentrated to maintain her influence on the visible spectrum, then turned to her companions. "Oh, sorry ... do you want the invisibility on or off?"
"At the moment, 'on' is preferable," Reed responded, and Sue noticed he was tinkering by touch with some tiny object, "considering we require as low a profile from Stark-Fujikawa as possible. On the other hand, being rendered functionally blind has its drawbacks."
"Like not seeing the instrument panels oor whateverit is you're working on," Sue guessed.
He nodded, then held up the device in his hands. "This is one of the items I've confiscated from the watchdogs. My understanding is that it's what rendered your invisible form visible to the unaided eye during our fight with them. It bends the visual spectrum in much the same way you do so that you can be seen. I hoped to successfully mount it on flashlights so we could see our surroundings if you were going to be unconscious for much longer."
Or if I became a vegetable?"
"There was very little chance of that, given the way your brain is structured to manipulate energy," he explained. "Incidentally, the jolt you received from the Zone lightning allowed you to expand the limits of your power."
Sue leaned her head against the back of her seat. "I figured it was something like that." Her comment was only slightly ironic. "So how powerful do you think I am at this point? Still Invisible-Girl-level, or have I graduated into Invisible Woman territory?
"The latter, certainly, though it wouldn't be wise to overtax yourself." The Fantastic Four's leader glanced around at his teammates,and Sue altered her invisibility accordingly.
"There, she announced. "I made it so that *we* can see each other and the inside of this ship, but nobody outside will be able to see *us*. I hope."
Johnny, frowned a bit, as he'd been enjoying the unrestricted view of the Negative Zone. He stood up and walked to a window. "Y'know, it really sucks that these Stark guys'd really wanna mess up the Zone this bad. I mean, what're they getting out of it? Raw material? Bragging rights?"
"It can't be bragging rights," Sue replied. "I was doing bookkeeping for them when we were still at the base station, and from what I could tell, there are no other Earth corporations out here. Stark-Fujikawa's kept the Zone's existence under wraps so they wouldn't have any competition."
Reed turned to her. "What else did you find out?"
"Well," Sue began, "I had to dig deeper and cross-reference files for this, but ... there's a place called the Octagon. It's a prison, reserved for the worst criminals Earth has to offer. But from what I read, nobody seems to know why it's there in the first place. On Earth, the most popular means of disposing of undesirables besides execution is artificial aging. Imprisonment isn't done much anymore, so Dennis Kong and the other operations chiefs aren't sure what goes on in the Octagon. They don't have the security clearance to find out; they just routine maintenance from time to time." She saw Reed becoming increasingly troubled by this, so she touched his shoulder. "Reed? Are you all right?"
Reed looked away, focusing his attention on the device in his hands. "This ... certainly has disturbing -- and familiar -- undertones."
"Familiar? I don't...."
Ben spoke up. "I think I know what's botherin' 'im, Suzie. If I remember right, back in the old days the Four used t'use the Zone t'get rid of a lotta problems the same way."
Reed glanced over at Ben and slowly nodded. "Yes. Unfortunately, there was a time when I -- the first Reed Richards saw the largely-uninhabited Negative Zone as a place to exile the enemies we encountered. The Mad Thinker's android ... the Super-Adaptoid ... even Galactus at one point. At the time, it seemed like a workable solution, but the Fantastic Four's working knowledge of the Negative Zone expanded over time, and such deportation no longer became an option, due to the consequences it reaped upon the Zone's environment and species."
"So, what're you saying?" Johnny asked. "Kong was right? That the first Earthling to screw up this place was Reed?"
Reed nodded slowly. "That was before Richards had realized that lifeforms are connected in the same ways here as they our in our dimension. Living beings existed, and not just individuals or species ... but ecosystems. If one species is affected, other interdependent species are affected as well. Play havoc on an environment, and the indigenous lifeforms suffer. My understanding is that the Fantastic Four were working toward repairing the damage they'd done to the Negative Zone when Earth corporations began to exploit it toward the end of the twentieth century." He looked up at the others. "Now, almost a full century later, this realm is worse off than it's ever been, to the point that all it took for Earth to become the dominant presence was one war. And I have to wonder if Richards himself wasn't the one person most responsible for all that's happened."
All four pondered this in silence for a few moments. Sue finally broke it: "You're not the original Reed Richards."
Scowling, Reed looked away. "Why is everyone so bound and determined to point that out?"
Her face softening, Sue reached out to him. "I didn't mean it that way. I'm saying that you're a clone. You have the original's memories -- or something like them -- but you're *not him*. Reed ... look at me. You are not responsible for every weight he had on his shoulders. You have your own life."
She addressed the rest of them as well, herself included. "We all do. The lives and memories of the original Fantastic Four define us and limit us only as much as we let them. We can use what we know about them as a guide, and we can learn from their victories and mistakes, but it's still *our* decision what we do with our lives. No one else's." She looked at them seriously. "Right?"
Reed, Ben, and Johnny nodded their agreement. Even so, Reed privately wondered if he'd be able to make peace with his predecessor's history.
He looked peaceful as he slept, Shandra Willis observed as she kept vigil over the near-comatose body of her friend Keith McLaughlin. The two of them -- along with Wade Tyson, another patient in the infirmary -- were Stark-Fujikawa employees, stationed at the Maintenance Flight Nine base in the Negative Zone. Keith had been reduced to his current state by by Zone lightning shortly before the other workers had discovered the Fantastic Four clones. Yet he didn't show any sign of injury or illness; he appeared to be sleeping. Dreaming, even. Content for the first time since she'd met him.
"What a revoltin' development this is," Wade groused, his voice digitally distorted by the respirator that covered his nose and mouth.
Shandra turned to him, lowering the volume on her earbuds so she could hear him clearly; her ttwentiethcentury techno music played on. "Hmm? Oh, that. Y'know, you brought it on yourself."
"Brought *what* on myself?"
"The lung damage. You tried to kill Johnny," she pointed out," but you ended up getting poisonedby the Zone's atmosphere instead of him. Sounds like poetic justice to me."
"Only 'cause Grimm showed up." Wade's face was partially covered, but Shandra guessed he was pouting like a child.
"What d'you expect, Landshark?" she asked. "They're family -- they take care of their own."
"An' I was takin' care of *my* own! Those ... those freaks're dangerous. We never shoulda brought 'em outta stasis!"
"We didn't; they brought themselves out."
"They're still dangerous. Just ask Kong." Wade blinked, thinking for a moment. "Where *is* Kong, anyway?"
"He's negotiating with Stark-Fuji reps," Shandra replied. "He called the big-wigs, and they sent armed Watchdogs. Then there was a lot of arguing, then a big fight 'tween the two groups, then the FF faded. They ghosted the transport, too."
"Told you they were dangerous. Kong agrees with me."
"He didn't exactly approve of you trying to kill them."
"What d'you think he was gonna do with the laser drill that first day?"
Shandra was silent. He had a point.
Wade coughed; the argument had gotten him worked up. "An' anyway, that wasn't the 'revoltin' development' I was talkin' about. I meant, I'm stuck in here watchin' you babysit Paranoid Keith. Not my idea of fun."
She shrugged. "He's my ffriend I'm takin' care of *my* own."
Wade chuckled. "You got a weird definition of 'friends', y'know that?"
"Oh, I'm friends with Keith and the FF, and that's a *bad* thing?" Shandra pressed her point, cutting off Wade's aattempt ata reply. "Why is it okay for *you* t'make whatever friends you want, but it's not okay for *me* t'make friends?"
Wade's scowl didn't have to be seen to be recognized. "The friends *you* make are either wastes of skin or trouble magnets."
"Didn't know you cared. I guess you have a better friend after all," Shandra commented, referring to Kong. "He lets you get away with attempted murder."
The steady beeping of a heartrate and brain-activity monitor suddenly increased its tempo. Shandra realized the monitor in question was Keith's, so she spun around to see the younger man open his eyes.
Those green eyes glowed with a rare hatred; when Shandra gazed into them, she didn't like what she saw.
Acting on Hikaru's executive order, Zone division head Evan Kreiger had seen to it that all the Stark-Fujikawa outposts in the Negative Zone were under a tight security lockdown within an hour of the Fantastic Four's escape. This was a war, after all, and the Zone was under martial law.
Now, almost a full Earth-day after the Four's escape, no fewer than fifty company warships comprised a blockade around the central operations area, preventing any travel in or out of the bborder zones The warships had been created to fight in the war against the Zone's indigenous species; afterward, they were kept in service in case of an attack by the locals or another Earth corp. So far, nothing ruled out the possibility of the Four being products of a rival megacorp, but even if they weren't, they were still dangerous.
Besides the mining operations excavating rare xynium ore from the Zone's planetoids, another major installation that was a major focus of the clampdown was the Octagon, a maximum-security prison with a twofold purpose. The first was the most obvious: the worst undesirables Earth had to offer were stored in a location far away from Earth. The mile-long octagonal prism's second purpose was known only to the top brass in Stark-Fujikawa and those who inhabited the prison: it was a research facility in which the inmates' physical and psychological reactions to Negative Zone confinement were studied. The ratio of inmates who survived their imprisonment to those who died was also a secret guarded by Stark-Fujikawa.
"That coulda been me," Oldskool muttered as he gazed out of a window of *The Cormorant*, a light transport craft passing through the sector. His eyes were fixed on the Octagon's simple shape and complete ramifications. The Zone war hadn't been that long ago, and for a man facing Death Row for his crimes, the choice between the Octagon and military service hadn't been a tough one at all. His dedication as a soldier made him a war hero, and at the time it'd seemed like he'd made the right decision.
But later, months after the war had ended and he'd become a bounty hunter on Earth, he'd finally realized the true tradeoff of his actions: a vast majority of the Zone's known indigenous species had been wiped out in the conflict. He'd condemned billions to die so that he could continue to live.
Not that death was the worst possible fate awaiting an Octagon inmate. A selected few were genetically re-engineered as laborers capable of mining without equipment in the harshest conditions imaginable. These laborers were augmented with diamond-hard claws and the immense strength to dig through rock and ore. Their lungs and other organs were altered to allow them to breath Zone atmosphere and consume waste products. In the process, their intellect was lowered until they were barely sentient and functioned as work animals. Nicknamed "Mole Men", they were the absolute last thing any Octagon inmate wanted to become.
Oldskool slipped his earbuds back on and leaned back in his seat as the pilot steered the craft within visual distance of the Zone's famed Debris Field. The dimension was steadily contracting on itself, its central gravitational pull drawing all planets toward it. Some planets had collided, and the Debris Field was the result. The bounty hunter had been here before; it was the site of quite a few battles during the Zone War. Scattered among the planetoid chunks were pieces of starships, weaponry, and even humanoid bodies.
Closing his eyes, he turned up the volume on the music player integrated with his cyborg hardware. Mournful twentieth-century rap lyrics, deep and introspective, filled his consciousness. *"Only God can judge me, only God,"* Tupac Shakur's lyrics chorused, *"Only God can judge me now...."*
The pilot's squeaky voice brought him out of his meditation. "Sir? I'm detecting a stealth-cloaked vessel entering the Debris Field."
Oldskool's eyes shot open, and he sat forward in his seat and studied the monitor readouts. "Is it the *Heracles*?"
"Yes sir. Looks that way. It's been rendered invisible on a few wavelengths, but not all of 'em."
"Richards is smart," Oldskool observed. "He's got the ship coastin' without engine power, so they're less likely t'be picked up on infrared. An' hidin' in the debris disguises the ship from motion and mass scans -- there's too much to filter out. Question is," he wondered aloud, "how long do the Four plan to stay in the field? They just biding their time an' laying low, or do they have a reason for being there?"
"'Kay, so run this by me again, Stretcho?" Ben inquired of Reed over commlink. "Outta all th' places t'hide in this obstacle course, why'd we pick this one?" He scowled behind his breathing mask as tiny planetary chunks bounced off both the transport's hull and his own craggy hide. He stood atop the ship with a welding tool in his hand. His task was to repair the damage to the ship now that they'd had a relatively safe place to stash themselves. But as usual, he never passed up a chance to complain.
"Of course," Reed replied. "The composition of the planetary matter interferes with most conventional scans, so as long as we hide in the densely-populated areas...."
"Yeah, yeah, I gotcha," Ben muttered, fusing together thick alloy panels that had been blasted open and warped by SIEGE missiles. "Just keep in mind the 'conventional' part o' that sentence. R'member this is th' future. We've seen what their mining equipment c'n do, but military sensors're a whole other ballgame." He had plenty of military experience to back up his claim: the original Ben Grimm had been an Air Force pilot.
"I'm well aware of that, Ben, which is why I have Johnny planting disruptor beacons on the debris surrounding the ship. Besides, after I modified the *Heracles'* sensor array, I began picking up some kind of matter-phase distortion phenomenon in this area. I can't help being intrigued."
"'Course ya can't. Our lives'd be easy, otherwise." Ben looked up at Johnny, who was floating several yards from the ship while wearing one of the variable-pressure suits they'd found in the storage bay. He was placing another fist-sized beacon device on a planetoid the size of a city bus, but he didn't seem to be enjoying it. Probably because he couldn't flame on and buzz around the debris like a fighter jet without burning up the suit. Still, he gave Ben a thumbs-up to signal that he'd placed and activated the last of Reed's cobbled-together beacons.
"All the Christmas lights've been strung up, Santa," Johnny announced over the commlink. "I'm on my way back to the sleigh, like a good little nine-to-five working elf."
Ben watched as Johnny kicked off the bus-sized planetoid and swam back to the ship. Tapping a private line to Johnny's comm, he asked, "still haven't got the voice system figured out? I think you were trying t'send that just t'Reed, but I heard it too."
"D'oh! Yeah, you're right.I have it on broadband. Hold on...." A few clicking sounds later, Johnny's voice was once again audible, this time on the right frequency. "Okay, testing, testing ... how's that?"
Ben gave him a thumbs-up. "Better. But y'gotta get the hang o'this, Junior, 'cause there's no tellin' who might be listenin' in."
"Yeah, thanks for the advice, Mom," Johnny retorted. "By the way, you remember back at the base when Reed was telling us that we're all just clones artificially aged to twenty-five?"
"So quit calling me 'Junior.' We're all the same age now. Twencen Johnny was the kid of the group, but I'm not. So treat me that way, okay?"
*Why you little,* Ben thought, biting back an angry retort. But he had to admit Johnny had a point. He'd acted toward his teammates the same way the previous Ben was prone to act, even when the reason for it no longer existed. "Tell ya what: act like you ain't a kid, an' I'll treat ya that way."
"Whatever." The rolling of Johnny's eyes was obvious even with the helmet on. "Wait ... if my memories are about the real Johnny's life ... and I was just born a couple of days ago...."
"Does that mean I'm...? Aw, shock. I'm a virgin all over again."
Ben laughed uproariously at that.
"Hey! Quit laughing! That means you are too!"
"Twencen Ben *did* manage to get some back in the day, right?"
"Shaddap!" Ben chased a gleeful Johnny back into the airlock. Stopping at the entrance, he then moved back to his repair detail. "What I wouldn't give for a decent collision repair shop in this neck o' the..." He trailed off as he spotted something outside of the Debris Field: a small spacecraft in an apparent holding pattern. "Crap. Major Tom t' Ground Control," he announced on his link, quoting a now-ancient song lyric, "we got a bogey at nine o'clock. "Don't know if we been spotted, but set another place at th' table just in case."
"'Set another place' ... that's a good one," Oldskool muttered as he finished suiting up. He was now wearing combat fatigues protected by a tight impact forcefield. He'd been listening in on all communications coming from the *Heracles* -- protected or not -- with much amusement. Taking on the Four was going to be fun, even though he'd just lost most of the element of surprise. Most, but not all. His cybernetic systems informed him that a positive lock on the Heracles' cabin had been achieved, with two lifesigns positioned therein; the third was in the corridor between the cabin and the storage area, and the fourth was outside, standing atop the transport.
"Initiating 'port to *Heracles*," he reported to the pilot as he pressed a button on his robotic arm and proceeded to glow a bright green. Teleporting the eight-kilometer distance between the *Cormorant* and the *Heracles* wasn't something he could do in his home dimension, but the Negative Zone's physics made such a feat a snap. Or rather, a different sound altogether.
He reappeared in the archaic transport's storage area, a large, cold section stacked with crates and repair equipment. One object that certainly didn't look like it belonged there, Oldskool observed, was a containment pod large enough to store four people. According to the intel he'd received, the Four had been discovered it, and Richards had since mined it for answers to their origins.
One corner of the storage bay held a locker for uniforms and safety suits, and it wasn't hard for him to find it -- someone, probably Johnny Storm, had entered and was removing his space suit while muttering to himself.
"...can't believe I'm a virgin again for the first time! *Is* it the first time...? Well, yeah, I'm like a couple of days old, but ... man, it's embarrassing. Johnny used to get all kinds of women back in the twencen ... 'course he didn't spend his entire life in the Negative Zone." Having finally struggled out of his pressure suit, Johnny stood there in his Fantastic Four uniform, scratching his head in thought. "*Is* it possible to get women out here?"
"Not really," Oldskool told him as he fired a stun bolt at the surprised young man, "and believe me, I've tried."
He watched Storm drop to the grungy metal floor, then he opened the door to exit into the corridor. He listened and peeked to check if the coast was clear, then he made his way through the corridor to the cabin.
In the cabin up ahead, he heard voices -- one male, one female. Obviously Reed Richards and Susan Storm, by process of elimination.
"... honestly don't know if they can see us, Reed," Susan said. "The way I've bent the light so that the ship's visible on the inside but not the outside ... it's tiring."
"That, and as Ben pointed out," Reed replied. "we have no way of knowing how effective Stark-Fujikawa's sensors are. So if you can hold out just a little longer..." From the doorway Oldskool could see that Richards was delicately massaging the back of his frustrated teammates' neck in an attempt to soothe her nerves. He wondered if that was an intimate gesture the original Richards was known for.
In any event, Susan Storm's body language indicated that she was responding to the touch, but she was still upset. "Why don't they just shine a spotlight on the area and get it over with? They have lighting technology that can make me visible, so why don't they just use it and stop the waiting game?"
"We could've," Oldskool clarified as he stepped into their line of sight and fired a stun bolt at each of them. "But where's the fun in that?"
Reed and Sue slumped to the floor as the energy bolts' numbing effect kicked in. The Fantastic Four's leader stretched an arm to the control panel and pressed the alert button on the comm system. Oldskool made no move to stop him, because he needed the fourth member to show up as well.
Sure enough, moments after the button was pressed, the airlock in the corridor hissed open to admit Grimm's dense frame. "What in th' name o' Aunt Petunia's hhouse petsis goin' *on* here?" he demanded as he entered the cabin, stopping abruptly upon seeing the new guest and his friends' limp bodies. "All right, pal, if they're dead, I'll--"
"They're just stunned," Oldskool replied as Grimm surged forward, fists swinging. The hunter-warrior raised a robotic forearm to block an incoming punch; as the clatter echoed across the cabin, Oldskool's other forearm opened up into several sections to reveal a larger arm cannon. "But you got a thicker hide, so I'm upgradin' to lethal force." As he said this, he fired a point-blank energy blast at Grimm's armored chest, knocking the Thing back a few feet.
Grimm grunted, glancing at the singed circular dent punched into his chest, shallow but ugly. "Felt *that* one, pretty good, Junior, but there'd better be more'n that came from, if y're gonna take me outta the game."
At that, Oldskool raised his cannon arm and sent rapid-fire blasts at his opponent, each shot as damaging as the last. "Don't worry," he replied simply.
Ben Grimm finally hit the floor, his rock-like chest resembling a cratered lunar surface. "'Don't worry,' he says..." He coughed up blood.
Oldskool stood over him, his cannon arm still pointed at his target. "Sorry, man..."
TO BE CONCLUDED
NEXT: "Danger Zone"
Whew! That was intense, wasn't it? I'll let you folks catch your breath before we launch into another
edition of the Fantastic Four 2099UGR letters column. Okay, all set? Here we go:
* * *
I don't know much about 2099 but I'm a big FF fan and
I've really enjoyed a lot what you've done in the
first two installments! Can't wait to see where this
goes from here, how they continue to deal with the
idea that they are copies (or whether this turns out
to be the real FF) and what they'll find in this awful
time period. I guess the Baxter Building will be gone.
I've heard there's a Doom 2099, so hmm...wonder if
they'll sometime meet up with him. Does this all take
place after the Martian invasion and Killraven or is
it another future timeline?
Rena, via email
Thanks for writing in, Rena! I'm glad you're enjoying what I've been doing so far.
As for your speculations: I'm definitely intending for the Fantastic Four in this era to be clones rather than the real FF. But to me, that's the beauty of it, because the question isn't so much "are they or aren't they?" but "what are they going to do with that knowledge?" Since the original FF are long absent from this era, I guess it could be said that these clones are the real FF now.
The Baxter Building is actually still around, but it serves at Stark-Fujikawa's New York headquarters, so count on the FF dealing with that fact sometime later on. Also count on them encountering Doom 2099 ... though when that'll happen, I'm not sayin' yet.
As for Martians and Killravens, that future era is a different timeline altogether from the Marvel 2099 universe. If memory serves, that particular alternate future was based on H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, and by the time that timeline reaches 2099, I doubt it would be anything like Marvel 2099.
However, a few Marvel future eras that are canon history in 2099 are Iron Man 2020 and the Sentinel-controlled "Days of Future Past" seen in
Uncanny X-Men. The jury's still out on where
Bishop's XSE fits in, but as far as anyone knows, the Killraven stories aren't part of 2099 history. Sorry 'bout that.
Excerpted from Jason McDonald's
of the first two issues of each of the UGR
Fantastic Four 2099UGR #1 - #2 : by David Ellis
Beautiful, just beautiful. This take on the FF is
fantastic! (Pardon the pun.) I love the interplay
between Johnny and Ben, of course. And Sue's news, of
course, was heartbreaking. I love how the clone issue
was handled and figured out. But now, since we've got
the question OUT of the way, we can get to the heart
of the matter: What to do next?
I love the new look at the NZ. I mean, WOW. The whole
time! And S-F is accelerating the whole mess. Wow.
Well, it definitely explains why Spidey's able to
enter the NZ sans protective gear in Spider-man
#90, yet in Genesis, they're using
space-suits, essentially. I love the whole atmosphere
with the NZ and how this new understanding deepens the
NZ itself, making it almost a character in its own
right, flailing in agony.
Beautiful stuff. And THE JOURNAL ENTRIES!! I LOVE this
feature. We're getting this great look into the mind
of a character we think we've known for so long. Puts
a whole new spin on all the old events we've been
following in the FF mag. The whole book, it feels like
a great big overdose of the new and a dash of the old,
not only putting a new spin on the FF mythos, and
similarly the FF 2099 mythos, but adding mew depths to
everything about them. Nice work Dave! Can't wait to
see what's next, although I do have one request:
Jason McDonald, via message board
Thanks, Jason! I knew I'd get your unfettered opinion.
The Negative Zone is host to more possibilities than I could have ever imagined, and I promise some HUGE developments in this mini-series and the ongoing after that. Believe me that while the mini-series will reveal a lot of the changes that have been made to the NZ, the true extent has yet to be seen. You ain't seen nothin' yet, to borrow a phrase.
I'm glad the journal entries are so popular. Reed Richards is actually one of the less understood characters in the Marvel Universe. I want to show that he's more than a techno-babbling Basil Exposition, and that there are layers and layers to this man's psyche. The Fantastic Four's adventures in the twentieth century were a direct result of the ideas that went through Reed's mind at top speed, and it'll be no different in 2099. But of course, this isn't always a good thing....
Next Issue: The double-sized conclusion to the
four-issue mini-series! Yeah, that's a lot of reading, but c'mon! It has the Fantastic Four vs. Oldskool! The return of "Paranoid" Keith McLaughlin! And more than a
few twists, turns, and character revelations! And exclamation points!