From Reed Richards' private journal, 20th century
Dr. Reed Richards, am the most dangerous man in existence.
Others have described me that way for years, but it has only now begun to
fully sink in that they're right. Less than an hour ago, I stood trial
before a galactic tribunal for a seemingly inexcusable crime: saving
The Devourer of Worlds had once been near death, but I'd refused to let
him die. The outraged tribunal -- composed of virtually all known
sentient races, especially the Shi'Ar, Skrull, and Kree empires -- deemed
my decision to be unforgivable, and only through calm logic and the
testimonies of Uatu the Watcher, the Norse God Odin, and Galactus himself
was I exonerated of guilt. Not for committing the act itself, but because
we managed to prove that I had performed a service to the universe itself
by maintaining the cosmic balance.
memory of the trial is fading quickly, as is the case for all the trial's
participants. Soon, all we will have left of the incident will the the
instinctive knowledge that the trial took place and that the final verdict
was in my favor. Thus, I am logging as much into my journal as I can
remember. I may delete this later, but for now I simply wish to record
what I and the rest of the Fantastic Four had experienced, so I can make
some objective sense of it.
did I save Galactus' life? Cosmic-balance rationale aside, I can't help
but think that once again my scientific curiosity had won out. Here was a
lifeform older than our current universe, and who had participated in the
Big Bang. His presence, in fact, proved that heavily-debated scientific
hypothesis to be correct. The idea of allowing such an entity to die is
quite simply repulsive to me.
It seems that once again I have hung the fate of the cosmos on my
scientific curiosity. I've certainly endangered Earth and my family in
this fashion on numerous occasions. At one point I even exiled Galactus to
the Negative Zone, of all places. I still have no guarantee that
Galactus' death would have turned out to be harmful to the universal
balance. Only time will tell.
am the most dangerous man in existence, and I have no intention whatsoever
of stopping. Why? I honestly don't know.
Negative Zone, The Year 2099
Cormorant: come in," the *Heracles Mark IV transport's latest 'guest'
announced over his communications link. "The clones've been captured --
repeat: the Fantastic Four clones are now in custody. Requesting
Reed Richards groggily
watched as the tall black man -- apparently a Stark-Fujikawa bounty hunter
-- waited for a response from his ship. While he and his teammates had
just been incapacitated by stun blasts (with the exception of Ben Grimm,
whose armored body required a more lethal approach), Reed's eyes and mind
were lucid enough to study the newcomer. He noticed that the man's arms
weren't simply encased in a metallic alloy; rather, they were cybernetic
prostheses. One arm had opened to reveal an energy cannon, while the other
was equipped with stun ordnance, his communication device, and other
technology Reed was too addled to identify.
Fantastic Four's leader also gazed at Ben's motionless body at Oldskool's
feet. Multiple energy blasts from the soldier's cannon arm had cratered
it, and Reed could vaguely see hints of charred tissue beneath.
Then his eyes locked
with Ben's alert, blue ones. Not only was his friend alive, but upset.
Reed watched his determined friend haul his massive bulk up to a crouching
position to face Oldskool, whose back was still turned to them.
"Come in, Cormorant,"
Oldskool instructed, out of patience. "You copy? There'd better be some
Zone interference causin' all this, or there's gonna be some--"
already is," Ben interrupted as he threw a haymaker at Oldskool.
The hunter turned just in time to catch the Thing's huge four-digited fist
against his jaw. He reeled from the blow, but he didn't seem as affected
by it as logic would dictate.
counterattacked with his own enhanced-strength punches, but Ben pressed
his assault, hammering the hunter with his fists. Ben ducked Oldskool's
left hook and grabbed the man's sides under his ribcage, hefting him
quickly upward. Oldskool's head and shoulders slammed against the cabin's
ceiling with the force of a freight train, leaving him open to a
body-check from Ben that sent him off his feet and through the open
doorway into the corridor.
"Okay, I know I ain't
gettin' old that fast," Ben commented to Reed, pausing to chat
before he stalked into the corridor to resume his fight. "I'm hittin' 'im
as hard as I can, Stretcho, so how come he ain't feelin' it?"
"It ... it might have
something to do with his ... his cybernetic augmentation," Reed struggled
to reply, his head swimming under the influence of the stun energy. "No
telling how deeply his enhancements ...."
"But by then, Ben had
walked out of the cabin and closed the door behind him. "I'll tell you
later, then," Reed decided, before turning his attention to Sue.
As soon as Ben
entered the corridor, he had to duck to avoid more of Oldskool's cannon
blasts. Unfortunately, his thick frame barely fit in the entryway as it
was, so Ben was an easy target anyway. Three lethal-setting blasts burned
into his arms, but he kept trudging forward, refusing to let the shots
break his stride. "Keep it up, hotshot," he told the hunter. "I've taken
harder hits'n that from th' kids on Yancy Street!"
Oldskool found himself
backed against the closed door to the storage area. He pointed his cannon
arm at Ben's face. "Yancy? I was born an' raised there," he declared. "You
want me t'take you there -- so I can bury you?"
Ben's hand shot out
and squeezed the cannon arm, pointing it at the ceiling. "Tough talk." He
continued putting pressure on the arm in order to crush it like a beer
can, but the robotic arm wouldn't dent. "Y'know, you got a good deal at th'
have no idea," Oldskool answered, detaching his arm at the shoulder and
dropping low to the floor.
An instant later, the
storage-area door slid open, releasing a jet of flame at Ben's eye-level.
"What the--?" Ben barked in surprise, dropping the detached limb to cover
his face with both hands while looking away. While his armored skin could
for the most part withstand the intense heat (with the exception of the
parts that were marred by energy blasts), his eyes were a different story.
"Sorry," he heard
Johnny Storm apologize as the flame jet subsided. He looked back at the
young man standing in the storage-area doorway in time to see Oldskool
fire a stun blast at Johnny with his still-attached arm. His teammate
sidestepped the energy shot as much as he could in the cramped space, but
he was still tagged in the shoulder.
Oldskool rose quickly
to his feet, returning his attention to Ben, who struck the hunter across
the jaw with the detached cyborg arm. He staggered a couple of steps back,
but he was otherwise unharmed.
"Okay, now that's just
gettin' on my nerves," Ben lamented, swinging the arm at Oldskool a few
more times like a baseball bat. "What's it gonna take f'r you to fall
Oldskool blocked the
next swing with his still-attached arm, but one after that connected with
his jaw, and he went down like a sack of potatoes.
"A removal of his
personal forcefield, it turns out," Reed answered from the doorway to the
cabin. Sue was at his side, looking queasy -- they were both clutching the
edges of the doorway to remain upright. "Seems our friend here ...
projects an energy forcefield around himself that ... absorbs kinetic
"Yeah? So how'd you
get rid of it?" Ben inquired, studying the appendage he just used as a
"It was me, actually,"
Sue revealed. "I followed Reed's advice. He pointed out that I could
manipulate invisible energy ... and the field around our guest seemed to
Ben was perplexed.
"Yeah, but I thought you couldn't mess with energy you didn't create."
Reed pinched the
bridge of his nose and shook his head. "Have I taught you nothing...?"
"Oh, yeah ... 'energy
can't be created or destroyed. Just manipulated."
Johnny stepped into
the corridor, nursing a numb right arm. "That's the biggest word I've
heard you use, man. You get a gold star."
"Just don't ask me to
warp strange energy signatures again," Sue warned Reed with a raised
eyebrow. "I'll stick to what I'm comfortable with, boosted power level or
not." She smiled. "I feel like I'm going to lose what little I've eaten
since we were thawed out."
"Okay, so I got
a question," Johnny piped up. "Well, two I guess: what did he hit us with,
and why are we still alive?"
"Stun bolts ... for
everybody but Grimm, there," Oldskool muttered. He was still lying on the
floor, barely conscious. "Lowest setting, just t'give you a fighting
chance." He gazed up at the four of them, resignation on his face. "So
c'mon ... finish me off. 'S no less than I deserve."
The Fantastic Four
stared at him, dumbfounded. "That's actually not how we operate," Reed
Sue focused on a
different aspect of Oldskool's statement. "What do you mean that's no less
than you deserve?"
The hunter was silent
for several long moments. "Used t'be a soldier ... f'r Stark-Fujikawa.
Helped 'em clear out the Zone so they could set up shop. Killed ... a
lotta lifeforms. I deserve t'die."
"Well don't expect us
t'do the job," Ben told him.
"Speaking of 'jobs',"
Reed spoke, his voice and mannerisms suddenly laced with inspiration,
"Stark-Fujikawa sent you after us, correct."
replied, sitting up. "I was s'posed to take you four in, dead or alive.
Obviously, I didn't accomplish it."
Reed nodded scratching
his chin in thought. "Actually, I think I'd very much appreciate it if you
did accomplish your mission."
"Ben, Sue, Johnny, and
Oldskool all stared at him. "What?" they asked in unison.
Past and present
flowed in unison in the human mindscape, allowing the interested observer
quite a bit of access.
Keith McLaughlin was
having fun with his boss, Dennis Kong. The operations chief for Stark
Fujikawa Maintenance Flight Nine had a multitude of interesting memories.
Most of them went a long way toward explaining why this man was such a
petty human being, and why he delighted in bullying and antagonizing
Keith. Kong had given Keith the nickname "Paranoid Keith", but from
Keith's point of view it was Kong who had more to be paranoid about.
Kong's life had been
happy at first. He'd been born into a wealthy family in New York, and in a
true rarity his parents had never divorced. He had a brother named Andy,
who was younger by a year and was very close to Dennis. Tragedy struck
the family when Dennis was twelve, however -- he lost his brother to a
mag-lev car accident. The Kongs were heartbroken, but they kept the loss
of Andy a secret, which Dennis didn't understand until months later when
he met his brother all over again.
It turned out Dennis'
distraught parents sought the help of a geneticist to revive their lost
son, and they shelled out a hefty sum to clone and artificially age him.
The gaps in his memory were explained as amnesia from the accident, and
Kong's parents were overjoyed to have this genetic copy of their son
But not Dennis. He
knew better. He knew Andy's clone could never be his real brother, and the
sight of the duplicate sickened him. So he did something about it -- he
pushed the clone off a superstructure walkway into the depths of
Outraged by the murder
and overcome with shame, Dennis' parents disowned him and forced him to
fend for himself. Ironically making a new life for himself in Downtown,
Dennis Kong soon joined Stark-Fujikawa as a vehicle mechanic before being
promoted to maintenance supervisor. He soon filled the position of
operations chief for one of the company's Negative Zone outposts. He even
befriended "Landshark" Wade Tyson, another Negative Zone worker trying to
put his past crimes behind him.
But the recent
appearance of the Fantastic Four threw such efforts into doubt. They
turned out to be clones, and they brought Dennis Kong's past fears back to
the surface, to the extent that he now saw clones everywhere.
Of course, that
couldn't be entirely blamed on the Fantastic Four. Ever since being hit by
Zone lightning and awaking from a near-coma, Paranoid Keith had evidenced
the ability to delve into the minds of others and magnify their hidden
fears and anxieties a hundredfold. This gift had just killed Landshark
Wade -- and justifiably so, in Keith's opinion -- and driven Kong mad.
Keith watched the
babbling operations chief carve up the base station's thick metallic walls
with a laser drill in order to defend himself against the multitudes of
imagined clones. As entertaining as it was, he had other things to do,
other places to go, other people to torment. "Let's go," he told his
captive co-worker Shandra Willis, leading her into the docking bay and
into a docked Stark-Fujikawa flagship. He didn't have to worry about
corporate officials protesting his use of the flagship; every S-F Watchdog
and pilot was a bit too preoccupied screaming through detailed
hallucinations to even worry about what he was doing.
Shandra, for her part,
was simply shocked by the drastic change she saw in Keith -- and it was by
no means limited to his appearance; he was surrounded by an aura that made
him look like a negative image of himself. "Keith, what the shock has
happened to you? You've never acted like this before! You're driving
Keith stared at her
with cold eyes. "Is 'crazy' ... the word you're looking for? I hope you're
not ... suggesting I'm crazy."
"You made Wade kill
himself," she pointed out, still unsettled by the sight of Wade Tyson
trembling in a fetal position and repeatedly slamming his head against the
hard floor until it'd cracked like an eggshell and ended his nightmare.
"What would you call that?"
"Justice ... of
Shandra found herself
becoming increasingly disturbed by the cold tone of his voice and the odd
pauses that had never been part of his speech pattern before. "Keith,
listen to me: whatever that Zone lightning did to your mind--"
"It set me ... free,
Shandra. It allowed me to finally ... see that my life working at this
station ... wasn't the Hell I thought it was. Hell is a state of ...
mind, after all." His dry lips parted in a smile. "So no, I'm not as
crazy as you're ... implying."
"Why is it *I'm* not
back there having nightmares an' wetting myself like everybody else?"
"You can fly a
flagship; I ... can't. And speaking of that, just get in the pilot's ...
"Is that all it is?
I'm useful to you? Are you sure it isn't because I'm the only one that's
been nice to you all this time?"
Keith gave this
serious thought. "Believe that if ... you want. But the fact is, I'm just
not ... done with you yet. Your mind and memories ... are open to me.
Your time ... will come."
"We're not going to
have much time," Oldskool explained to the Fantastic Four. "Once the HQ
planetoid is in sight, we'll have to immediately drop away from this
armada and make a break for it." The Heracles was being towed by
tractor beam by the Cormorant, and both ships were surrounded by a
swarm of Stark-Fujikawa warships that had been part of an official
blockade less than a minute ago. They were being escorted to the Octagon,
the mile-long maximum-security prison where the Fantastic Four were
expected to become prisoners and test subjects.
Oldskool smiled as he
manned the bridge of the Heracles, standing among his 'captives'.
He'd just ended a transmission with Evan Krieger, Stark-Fujikawa's
Negative Zone division head, and he was confident that Reed Richards'
clever ruse was going to work.
The Fantastic Four
weren't smiling. "This is gonna blow up in our faces, isn't it?" Johnny
whispered as he fidgeted. Their wrists were bound by energy cuffs, and
Johnny in particular was finding it difficult to stand still.
"It's not if you keep
y'r mouth shut," Ben warned in a similar whisper. "Big Brain's plan got us
this far past th' blockade. We choke now, we're as good as toe-tagged."
Sue studied Johnny
with undisguised concern. "Speaking of choking," she whispered to her
brother. "How're you feeling? You inhaled some of the Zone's poisoned
atmosphere hours ago, but I haven't heard you cough in a while."
Johnny chuckled, a
cocky smile lighting up his face. "You just now noticed that? And people
say I don't pay attention."
system is incredibly advanced," Reed explained. "He surrounds himself with
plasma flame and hydrogen atoms, which superheat the air and allow him to
"Ever tried breathing
superheated air, and at a thousand feet?" Johnny asked. "I haven't had a
chance to flame on that much since we were 'born', but I inherited the
original Johnny's lung mojo."
Ben eyed Johnny
skeptically. "So, wait? You're tellin' me that Negative Zone air didn't do
nothin' at all? I know I heard ya cough at least once."
"I just inhaled one or
two lungfuls of the stuff, man. No biggie."
Reed pursed his lips
in thought, pondering this. "Come to think of it, Johnny, your lungs'
method of filtering the atmosphere into a breathable substance might be
crucial in restoring the Negative Zone to its former state, once the
Ben examined the
scorched craters that had been burned into his chest. "Just be sure ya
pencil in some time in that busy schedule of yours t'patch me up,
reattached his prosthetic arm with a sharp click, then winced and wriggled
his fingers experimentally. While his limb was artificial and easily
detachable, the way it simulated a real arm's sensations made him feel as
if he were regaining feeling in his real arm after a brief period of
numbness. He even endured the same barrage of icy tingles commonly
associated with that experience. "Is the science lecture over?" he asked
the Four. "Because it's almost showtime, and if you want them to think
you're my captives, you gotta start acting that way."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah,"
Ben mumbled. "We know how ta play along. Just don't expect an Oscar
performance from us."
The hunter shot him a
quizzical glance. "Who's Oscar?"
"Aw, never mind." He
fidgeted with the large circular plates that had been temporarily moored
to his massive arms. The energy-cuff plates connected to each other by an
energy beam similar to a tractor beam, preventing captives from using
their powers or moving their arms too much. His cuffs were larger than the
others', with greater energy output to compensate for his bulk and
strength limit. "You c'n turn these things off when the time comes, right?
'Cause if this is a double-cross an' we're trapped in these things
"Then I'd hate to be
you," Oldskool replied, not intimidated by Ben in the slightest. "I'll
hold up my end of the deal. I'm only goin' against my own employers 'cause
what they're doing to this Zone ain't right. I was a party to that once
upon a time ... and the stuff I did, the nightmares I had as a result ...
it ain't worth it."
Undisguised concern on
her face, Sue studied his face. "You believe we can rectify this
"You're the Fantastic
Four," he answered matter-of-factly.
"We're clones," Reed
reminded him, a faintly sullen tone to his voice.
The bounty hunter
turned to face the troubled leader. "Yeah, you're clones, but you're
provin' you're close enough to the real thing for me. If anybody can
get their attention about what they've done to this place, it's you."
Reed cocked his head
to the side as he regarded their new ally. "No offense, but what would you
know about us in the first place, aside from the intel your employers have
Oldskool smiled and
glanced at Ben. "Like I said, I'm Yancy Street born' an raised, just like
him. I've heard stories about you guys all my life. I couldn't let
Stark-Fuji know that, but still. You're legends. Don't forget that."
Stark-Fujikawa Squadron A," they heard the smaller ship's pilot broadcast
to the warships. "I've been monitoring activity inside the Heracles,
and it sounds like Oldskool is going to mutiny with the Fantastic Four."
All five inhabitants
of the heavy transport looked at each other with eyes as wide as saucers.
"Shock!" Johnny and Oldskool exclaimed in unison.
"They're about to make
a break for the HQ," the pilot's nasal voice went on, "so get ready to
take them down."
By the time the pilot
had finished his second sentence, Oldskool had disengaged the Four's
energy cuffs, and the transport's cabin was ablaze with frantic activity.
Ben climbed into the pilot's seat, almost breaking it in the process, the
others strapped themselves into available seats, manned the appropriate
stations, and generally hung on for dear life.
Sue conjured a cocoon
of invisible force around the Heracles, cutting it off from the
Cormorant's tractor beam generator. Ben dipped the transport a hard
left, dropping it out of formation like the galaxy's clunkiest fighter
jet. Johnny created a wall of flame around the ship that spread out and
enveloped the opposing warships. Reed stretched and expanded his malleable
body to cover most of the cabin to act as extra insulation against
ship-rattling attacks. And Oldskool not only cursed the Cormorant's
pilot for selling them out, but he also cursed the pilot's children,
parents, grandparents, and in laws for good measure.
The transport swooped
in the direction of the Stark-Fujikawa headquarters with a grace that was
almost impossible for its bulk. The squadron of warships followed, pelting
Sue's forcefield with a seemingly-endless supply of missiles.
"Okay, I'm pretty sure
this headache's never going to go away at this rate," Sue commented
through gritted teeth as she felt every single explosion through her
empathic link to her forcefield.
"Just keep your
forcefield strong," Reed urged as his body protected the inside of the
cabin. "You can do it -- I have faith in you."
"That's sweet ...
really ... but the field's about to give out. Then it'll be ... aargh!"
Sue winced and held her head in her hands as a sharp blade of pain lanced
through her senses, causing her forcefield to dissipate in a flash of
"Susan!" Reed shouted,
while his teammates and ally voiced their concern as well. Every impulse
in his body urged him to wrap himself around her and protect her from any
further harm, but he had no choice but to remain in position. He willed
his body to strengthen its cushioning ability as missiles began to strike
the transport's hide unabated.
"It's up t'you now,
Stretcho," Ben shouted as he steered the transport in a descent toward the
heavily-guarded planetoid headquarters. "Johnny, Oldie: see if Suzie's
"I'm alive," Sue
mumbled, and Reed could see her nose bleeding. Whatever she said next was
drowned out by further quakes from the missiles against the outside.
Reed's body absorbed a lot of the impact -- enough to keep the cabin from
caving in like an empty can -- but it was still a wonder that they'd
survived this long.
As soon as that
thought raced through his mind, a particularly nasty explosion caused the
entire transport to split apart, and in short order Reed was the only
thing that surrounded his friends to protect him from the Negative Zone.
He contracted around them and made his body even more solid and airtight
than before. As sheer momentum carried him and his cargo toward the
headquarters, Reed was continually hammered by missiles ... but he no
longer felt them.
While he was a clone
of the original Reed Richards, he lacked the original's memories. As such,
he had no way of knowing how much of his implanted knowledge he shared
with the original, but he was certainly forming a hypothesis about his
power that *hadn't* been implanted. The concept of 'unstable molecules'
worked on the principle of molecular bonding; the unique way the molecules
were bonded together allowed the matter in question to be highly durable
and adaptable. Unstable molecular fabric could stretch, contract, and
resist damage to a degree most normal materials could not; Reed suspected
the same was true of his own body. Reed had no way of knowing if his
predecessor had figured this out, but he had to wonder if the true nature
of his superhuman power was to influence his body's molecular bonding
method from stable to unstable. Maybe he had, and he'd decided 'Mr.
Fantastic' was a more acceptable codename than 'Mr. Unstable'.
Such a bizarre
revelation had come to him while he was in a state of
near-unconsciousness, but frantic shouting from inside his sphere woke him
up. His passengers were becoming nervous about the fact that none of them
could see where they were going.
"I supposed I could
take a peek outside," Reed volunteered, inhaling a quick lungful of air
for the task.
"No need," Sue
whispered as she caused Reed's entire body to flicker in and out of
visibility. She couldn't keep it up for more than a few seconds, but it
was enough for them to see that they were moments away from splatting
against the craggy surface of the planetoid on which the corporate
"This is gonna get
messy," Johnny observed, moving into a duck-and-cover position.
"Pleaseletusbouncepleaseletusbounce..." he prayed.
trajectory toward the planetoid slowed to a halt. Reed's body was fairly
well numb at this point, but he could tell his inertia was being dampened
by a tractor beam device of some sort. "The good news is that we're still
alive," Reed weakly informed his passengers. The bad news is that we've
just delivered ourselves into Stark-Fujikawa custody."
"So we don't get to
bounce?" Johnny asked, disappointed. "What kind of an amusement park ride
If the Negative Zone
could be considered an amusement park, Negative Zone Division Head Evan
Krieger was very much a candidate for The World's Fattest Man. The
brown-haired, moustachioed man weighed well over three hundred pounds, and
his designer three-piece suit did little to flatter his girth.
Yet his luxurious,
marble-tiled office made him look small by comparison. The over-decorated
space -- which looked as if it had been made possible by a few too many
payroll cutbacks -- was more than enough to fit the Fantastic Four,
Oldskool, and a dozen Stark-Fujikawa Watchdogs. If this was how the Earth
Corporation was doing business in the Negative Zone, the dimension was in
even more trouble than the Four had guessed.
"Okay," Krieger spoke
calmly once everyone had properly settled in. "I can see these Fantastic
Four clones being crazy enough to kamikaze this HQ." His gaze settled on
Oldskool. "But you? What made you decide to turn traitor?"
"I should point out,"
Reed interjected, "that a 'kamikaze' attempt on your headquarters was
actually not our inten--"
"Am I talking to you?"
Krieger asked Richards without looking away from Oldskool.
Oldskool scowled at
Krieger, the Watchdogs wearing Situation Emergency GEar, and especially
the desk-mounted holo-image of Stark-Fujikawa CEO Hikaru. "What made me
decide to throw in with them? They wanna fix this place. You wanna
end it. Sir."
chuckled. "'End it'? All we're doing is mining this dimension, just like
we mine Earth resources."
It was Oldskool's turn
to chuckle. "That's my point. You and the megacorps've sucked all the
Earth resources dry." He turned to Hikaru. "Scary part is, if any of you'd
actually stop to realize how many creatures you've killed just to get to
the resources, you prob'ly wouldn't even care."
"Business is business,
Mr. Waylon," Hikaru replied, school his face into nonchalance to keep from
scowling with anger. "You are just as guilty of the killing as any of us."
"Never said I wasn't,"
the bounty hunter shot back. "But I've regretted it every single day since
then. Now I wanna put it right, an' you're tellin' me I'm wrong?"
"You are allying
yourself with four fugitives, Mr. Waylon," Hikaru barked, his facade of
calm fading. "Fujitives who are trying to undo all the progress we've made
here. That is unacceptable."
reminded Oldskool. "It's not like you can bring back all those creatures
Oldskool dropped his
hands to his sides, lowering his head as shame washed over him like an
ocean wave over jagged rocks. "You're right. I can't bring 'em back. D'you
know I kept count of the deaths I caused in this Zone? There's no
way t'keep track of 'em all, but the ones I caused directly as a soldier?
Six hundred twenty-five lifeforms. Men, women, an' children, or at least
what passes for 'em here." He looked up accusingly at the corporate
officials. "That was before I was tasked with unleashin' the
Turning to the
Fantastic Four, he explained, "It was a small piece of plastic, 'bout the
size of a ball berring. It was made of positive matter from Earth, and
contained in a force field. I delivered the object behind enemy lines, got
outta there, and let Stark-Fuji turn off the field."
Reed's jaw slacked as
the implication set in. "The result was a matter/anti-matter reaction," he
hypothesized. "An instant meltdown that I imagine was carefully
controlled, so that there would still be a Negative Zone
"Stabilized a lotta the Zone's crazy physics as well, so they could mine
it better." Much quieter, he added sadly, "if there're any survivin'
natives anymore, I'd be real surprised."
"It's not your fault,
man," Ben assured him. "You were just followin' orders. Our gripe is with
the pieces o' crap that gave the orders." With that, he and the
rest of his team glowered at Hikaru and Krieger.
"How sad for you,"
Hikaru replied, "as we have no further use for you, save for genetic
material." He nodded at the Watchdogs, who powered up their SIEGE armor.
"It appears we are right back to where we were at--"
Nine base calling HQ," a panicked voice broke into the comm device on
Krieger's desk. The sheer amount of static in the transmission made the
speaker's identity impossible to determine until he shouted, "come in!
This is Dennis Kong from Flight Nine. Come in, dammit! We're under
attack by clones!"
The Fantastic Four
looked at each other questioningly as Kong succumbed to what sounded like
a coughing fit. "Clones're ... cough ... everywhere! Invading the
base... the outer walls've been breached...." Another coughing fit ensued.
"Chokin' here ... send help ... Keith ...." Whatever else he said was
garbled beyond recognition before the transmission broke up completely.
Krieger kept trying to
revive the signal and keep in contact. "Kong ... Kong? Can you here me?
It's Evan Krieger. Hello?" No response, not even static. "Shock!"
"Notify the warship
fleet of this development," Hikaru ordered Krieger.
"On it," Krieger
answered as he tried to raise the fleet admiral on the system. As soon as
his finger pressed the button, however, a transmission from Admiral
Musashi broke in, just as garbled as Kong's and twice as panicked:
"Admiral Musashi to
Head-- sqrrk --ers. One lone ship headed-- kzzt --us. Looked
like a Stark-- kzzt --kawa flagship. sqrrk Two occupants. We
hailed them, but-- kzzzzt Now my men are freaking out and seeing
ghosts every-- skzzzz I'm even seeing my own son, and he's been
dead for ... oh my god! This isn't--"
shouted. "What's going on?"
"My first officer
activ--kzzt Self Destruct on these ships. He's gone crazy, and now
he's going to kill sqrrk all."
believe this was happening. "What are you waiting for? Override!"
"Trying that now, but
it doesn't seem to-- skzzzzz Oh no ... oh shock ... it's Danny. My
son is coming this way, and he says I betrayed him and--" Distortion
erupted along the commlink, terminating that communication as well.
Krieger had punched up
the warships' location within the Negative Zone onto a viewscreen ... and
from the looks of things, chaos reigned. Most of the ships were firing on
each other with massive energy beams, laying each other open like a
feeding frenzy in a shark tank. In moments, half of the warships were
destroyed, and the others were badly damaged.
Reed noticed one lone
vessel traveling away from the fray in the direction of the Octagon.
Calling the others' attention to it, he asked, "I assume the ship headed
in the direction of the maximum-security prison is the flagship in
question; am I correct?"
Krieger isolated the
ship's image, then enlarged it to fit the screen. "Yeah, you're right --
it's the flagship from the Nine base. But it doesn't look like there're
any Watchdogs aboard, just two humans. At least I think one's a human;
he's sporting an insane energy output."
Hikaru, on the other
hand, focused on a different aspect of Reed's observation. "Just how did
you know that installation is a prison?"
"Does it matter?" Sue
interjected? "Correct me if I'm wrong, but those two people aboard just
took out your blockade fleet--"
"Which had been
weakened by your suicide mission," Hikaru pointed out. "If you hadn't
broken formation and flown here, most of the ships wouldn't have had to
chase you down and leave the blockade under-protected."
"Are we done
bitching at each other?" Johnny asked. "'Cause that ship's getting closer
to that prison, and, well ... that can't be good. So can we take care of
Hikaru's answer was
predictable. "Stark-Fujikawa will handle this."
"Just got a positive
I.D. on the people in the flagship," Krieger announced. "Shandra Willis is
in the pilot seat, and Keith McLaughlin is the one generating the energy.
They're from the Flight Nine crew."
Dread fell upon the
Fantastic Four as they looked at each other. "Paranoid Keith's awake?" Sue
"Remember, he was
caught in the same Voltstorm that energized our powers in stasis," Reed
pointed out, fitting the pieces together. "I hypothesize that he was
endowed with cosmic power perhaps similar to ours. Note the reactions of
Kong and the blockade fleet: they were seeing improbable phenomena, likely
mass hallucinations." To Krieger, he continued, "if you scan Keith's
particular energy output, I would wager it's psionic in nature."
Johnny put his own
spin on it. "That's his power? Paranoid Keith can make other people
paranoid? That's classic."
"Why is Shandra with
him?" Sue wondered.
Ben cleared his
throat. "If we're done with the yackin', can we go kick his butt
"I'm raising the
Octagon's security," Krieger declared as he opened the commlink. "I'm
notifying them of all this so they can be--"
"Of no help
whatsoever," Oldskool interrupted. "I've seen the Octagon's security. This
Keith guy'll cut through 'em like a knife through water, 'cause they don't
have a ready psi-defense."
"And you do?" Krieger
shot back, indignant.
tapped the back of his head. "Had it implanted. Comes in handy in my line
of work." An LED light on his robotic left arm flashed green, accompanied
by a loud ping.
"What was that?"
Krieger and Reed asked in unison.
"My teleporter. It's
done rechargin'. I used it to fold into the Heracles, an' now I can
use it again. I can get on that flagship an' deal with Mr. Paranoid, but
I'll need a posse for backup."
"Then take a SIEGE
team," Hikaru ordered.
"Actually, I had a
different team in mind," Oldskool replied with a grin as he activated the
teleportation device in his arm. "Lockin' onto Reed Richards, Susan Storm,
John Storm, an' Benjamin Grimm." He and the indicated team began to glow
unacceptable!" Hikaru shouted as the SIEGE Watchdogs closed in on Oldskool
and the Fantastic Four. "Stop them before they get away! They do not have
Hikaru clenched his
teeth, cursing in Japanese.
"Do you really have to
use that ... kind of language, Shandra?" Paranoid Keith asked, clearly out
of patience. The Octagon prison was in sight, and the Stark-Fujikawa
flagship was making decent time getting there. The problem was that the
the ship's impromptu pilot, for some reason, insisted on arguing with him
every step of the way.
"I'm serious, Keith,"
Shandra went on. "It's bad enough you attacked everyone on the base, and
then everyone in the blockade fleet. Now you wanna go lookin' for trouble
in a shockin' *prison*? They haven't done anything to you, Keith.
Kong an' Landshark, maybe. But--"
"It isn't about what
... they've done to me," Keith replied, flashing a cruel smile made all
the more horrific by the taint of the negative aura surrounding him. "It's
about what they've done to ... themselves."
narrowed as she studied him. "You feed off of them, don't you? Their
emotions, or fears, or whatever."
Keith canted his head
to the side, pondering this. An electromagnetic warping noise sounded
behind them, but he paid little heed to it. "I suppose you ... may be onto
something. I can feel myself getting ... stronger with each mind I come in
... contact with. Yes. I feed on them. The more ... fascinating the mind,
the ... more I take from it. So yes ... I think I do feed ... on
steadily paled as she listened to this. "You're sick. I mean, you're--"
"Shandra, what have I
told ... you about calling me crazy, hmm? Obviously you haven't figured it
out by ... now. I ... am a god."
"You're God?" a voice
behind them inquired, obviously amused by the idea. "Funny, but I thought
you'd be taller, and with more facial hair."
Keith and Shandra
turned around as soon as they heard the voice, and they found themselves
confronted by five semi-humans. Keith already knew who four of them were,
thanks to the memories of Shandra and everyone else at the Flight Nine
base. They were the Fantastic Four, and the blond-haired young man who'd
just spoken was Johnny Storm.
The fifth one, the
mean-looking cyborg, was unfamiliar to him, and his mind was maddenly
unaccessible. Keith would not tolerate that.
Luckily the minds of
the so-called Fantastic Four were open books.
Ben Grimm cracked his
knuckles. "All right," he growled to Shandra, "are you two in cahoots?
'Cause if so...."
"I'm not!" Shandra
insisted. "He brought me along so I could pilot this ship! He's holdin' me
hostage -- you gotta stop 'im! Don't let 'im get in your h--" Her words
were cut off by Paranoid Keith, who slapped her across the cheek so hard
the cabin rang with the impact.
"Oh, that freakin'
tears it," Ben exclaimed, wrenching a nearby seat from its moorings
and hurling it at Keith. The smaller man quickly sidestepped the thrown
object, but the mountainous member of the Fantastic Four picked him up and
threw him into a power coupling, exposing Keith to an intense surge of
And Ben was just
getting started. "What d'ya think of that, y'little runt? Huh?" he
continued as he picked up Keith and started punching him in the face.
"Looks like you picked ... the wrong ... damn ... time t'cause trouble!"
With each punch, Keith's face was further misshapen, with the skull
underneath caving in under the impact. Blood splattered everywhere.
And Ben kept punching.
At least twenty blows later, he finally noticed the glistening blood
covering his fist and pretty much everything else. He had blood on his
hands. Turning to Shandra and his teammates, he saw only revulsion and
The horrified look in
Sue's blue eyes hammered him the hardest of all. You're a monster,
the gaze seemed to convey.
Ben glanced down and
realized the body he had brutally pulverized wasn't Keith's ... but
Oldskool's. "What in the name of...."
Paranoid Keith, it
turned out, was still right where he was when the Four and Oldskool had
first arrived. "Thank you. I wish it ... hadn't come to that, though. His
mind was closed to ... me, but I'm sure it held all ... kinds of
fascinating mysteries." He smiled, making a disturbed rasping sound that
could have been a chuckle. "But now it's just ... us."
Ben sank to his knees,
staring at the blood. Sue's horrified gaze replayed in his mind, becoming
more haunting every time. "I'm ... Suzie, I'm sorry..." he whispered.
Sue shouted, propelling Keith backward into a control panel and squashing
him against it with her forcefield. Off to the side, she noticed Ben
flinching like a child being whipped, and she instantly regretted her
choice of words -- Ben seemed to think she was talking to him.
"Sue, calm down," Reed
ordered her, placing a hand on her shoulder. "You too, Johnny. Our
emotions fuel him, so we're playing right into his hands."
Johnny's flame aura
ignited brighter as Johnny voiced his own anger. "Don't you care that this
piece of crap just tricked Ben into killing a guy? How the hell do you
expect us to be as emotionless as you?" The heat emanating from her
brother caused them all to shrink back.
"I'm not emotionless,
Johnny!" Reed shot back. "I'm just trying to stay in control, because he's
turning us against each other! It's simple logic; try using it sometime."
If Johnny's aura was
hot before, his temperature easily doubled in the next instant. "Why you
son of a--"
"He's ... he's right,"
Sue gasped, trying to focus in the face of her brother's unbearable heat
output. "We have to be stronger than this!"
"It's ... all about
strength for ... you, isn't it?" Keith asked. "You won't admit it, but
you're always trying ... to be the strong one. The previous Sue was ...
orphaned, wasn't she? She had to raise an irresponsible ... brother all by
herself. She wanted to ... be more mature than she was ... so the much
older Reed Richards would notice ... her. And in the Fantastic Four, she
eventually ... became its most powerful ... member. Eventually, but ...
"Shut up," Sue ordered
him, pressing the forcefield against him. Johnny and Reed were still
arguing in the background, but she scarcely noticed.
"She started out as
the ... weakest member, and you know this. She was ... useless, just
someone who ... needed to be rescued. You don't want to ... be her, do
you? You want all of her ... strengths, but none of her ... weaknesses,
which is why you were so ready to ... accept that you're a clone."
"No, I believe I'm ...
onto something. You're a clone ... and you see that as a way to start
over, don't ... you? Out of the four ... of you, you're the most relieved
that you're ... not the real--"
"Shut up!" she
shouted, willing her forcefield into a shockwave capable of squashing him
like a bug. Or at least that was the plan; nothing actually happened.
chuckle turned into an uproarious laugh as her forcefield melted off of
him. "You ... *have* no strength! It's all an ... illusion!"
With shaky hands, Sue
began forming spheres of invisible energy in her hands, but she was unable
to sustain anything larger than a baseball.
Reed and Johnny had
stopped arguing, realizing that Sue was drawing into herself. "Sue, you
have to pull yourself together," Reed advised, reaching out to her.
"Get away from me!"
Sue screamed, hammering them with a solid wave of force. Johnny and Reed
slammed against the bulkheads; the former's flame aura sputtered out, and
latter lost cohesion and splattered against it.
"I stand ...
corrected," Paranoid Keith remarked. "You do ... have strength left ...
in you. By the way ... have you told Reed -- this clone of Reed who loves
... you so much -- that you have no ... intention of being with him?"
Reed couldn't believe
what he was hearing. Gaping at both Sue and Paranoid Keith, he asked, "Sue
... he can't be serious...."
A remorseful Sue
didn't meet his gaze. "No, he's...."
"You mean he's
right? He's right that you don't...?"
"I wanted to tell
"But she ... didn't,"
Keith explained, "because she is weak and ... afraid. She doesn't want
you ... because the original Sue ... did. She believes a ... relationship
with you would ... be a step backward ... not forward."
Reed slowly rose,
trying to muster the strength to haul himself to his feet and hurt Keith.
Hurt him badly for what he was revealing. But the unsettling part was that
the psion was being *honest*.
He glanced over to
Johnny, who was curled up in a corner in a fetal position, mumbling, "...
burned you all...." Reed didn't have to be well-versed in psychology to
realize that Keith had exposed Johnny's fear of hurting others with his
Paranoid Keith had
efficiently taken the fight right out of them; they were at his mercy.
The column of flame was merciless, washing over everything and everyone
around him. Johnny was helpless to stop it, helpless to shove the genie
back in the bottle now that it had been unleashed.
Was this the cost of
his power? The ability to survive something primal and destructive while
the people he cared about could be burnt to a crisp. Was his nature as a
thrill-seeker too dangerous? He routinely walked the razor's edge between
excitement and death, all for the sake of adrenaline. All for the sake of
having a "cool" power, and for the sake of his own needs.
After al, fire only
cared about consumption and destruction. It only cared about spreading
itself around until it burned itself out. Fire was selfish. Johnny Storm
was no different, he realized. Suddenly being a clone wasn't even the most
important identity crisis he was undergoing. He was sure he didn't even
have an identity outside of fire.
He watched the flames
turn his friends, loved ones, and total strangers to ash, knowing that he
alone was immune to its immediate effects. But soon there would be no
further oxygen in the room, and he would be killed.
He welcomed it.
"Leave them alone,
Keith," Shandra shouted at him through gritted teeth, still rubbing her
face where he'd struck her. "You can do anything you want to me, but
leave them alone."
"Especially ... Sue,
right?" Keith replied, flashing her the kind of smile she was sure to see
in her nightmares. "You would never forgive yourself if ... anything
happened to ... her, right? And you would do anything ... for her."
Shandra balled up her
"She and the rest ...
of the Four are why you left ... Transverse City, after all. You were
Smiley, a poor 'downramper', a ... founding member of the Hotwire Martyrs
... gang, but you knew you would never ... stay there. You hacked into a
Stark-Fuji ... database, and you stole information about the Negative ...
Zone. You knew it involved Reed Richards and the ... Fantastic Four
somehow, so how could you resist? You left ... Transverse, reasoning that
your departure would spare the ... other Martyrs from Stark-Fujikawa's
retribution. But you went ... straight to New York, hid your Transverse
dialect, joined the company, and ... even conned your way into a position
in ... the Zone. You set up ... a co-worker you hated to ... take the
fall for your earlier data piracy to keep ... your record clean."
Her fists unclenched
helplessly as the truth was exposed.
"All for a chance to
... meet the Fantastic Four," Keith went on. "All for ... the lovely Sue,
Shandra couldn't meet
their thunderstruck gazes. Especially not Sue's.
"Is he saying," Sue
asked, "That you...?"
"You should see the
... dreams she has about you, Sue," Keith commented. "The ... fantasies."
Sue looked away,
trying to process this. "I somehow knew that, I think. On some level ... I
mean, I suppose it's not as big a deal in 2099 as it used to be...." She
faces Shandra again, trying to meet her gaze.
Shandra tightly closed
her eyes. "You hate me, don't you...? You hate me...."
"No, I don't," Sue
declared, conviction evident in her voice and posture. "It seems kind of
silly to hate you for that. And that would be what Keith wants, anyway.
Reed is right. We're stronger than this."
"I very much beg to
... differ," Keith remarked, stepping toward her.
"You're boring me,"
Sue commented, turning her attention to Ben, who was still mumbling on the
floor, in as close to the fetal position as his bulky frame could achieve.
"Ben, listen to me ... you're not a monster. Keith is playing you -- he's
turning your anxieties against you."
"Get away," he softly
insisted. "'M a thing...."
"You're a man,"
Sue corrected. "Look at me ... clone or not, you're Benjamin Jacob Grimm.
You're still a friend, a pilot, and a team player. For God's sake, you
even saved my brother's life while you were upset with him, or have you
Ben finally met her
"You may think you
can't escape that rocky shell, but that's all it is -- a shell. Your eyes
are human, and so is your heart, Ben. I am not looking into a monster's
eyes, and I never will be."
Ben stared at Sue in
silence for a moment, then nodded and slowly stood up. A new resolve
burned in his blue eyes.
Keith shook his head.
"And now you ... all think you're overpowering my ... control over you."
His color-inverted aura intensified. "I'll have to disabuse... you of
don't control us," Reed announced, walking steadily toward him.
"Oh, yes," Keith
chuckled. "Mister ... Richards. Or was ... it 'Doctor'? Neither, since
you're ... a--?"
"A clone?" Reed
shrugged. "You're right, I am a clone, a fact that has caused me
quite a bit of discomfort. I'm sure you're aware of that. But it's my
choice whether or not to be bothered by it."
Keith advanced toward
the Fantastic Four's leader. "You can't stand ... it," he asserted,
"because it makes you what you ... hoped the Four would ... never be."
Standing barely an inch from Reed, he spoke two simple words: "lab rats."
Reed scowled, then
nodded. "Yes, I believe that's it exactly. It's something my predecessor
always feared would happen: that Sue, Johnny, and Ben would spend the rest
of their lives under a microscope as scientific curiosities. It's why I
... why Richards made them superheroes and celebrities after the
"An accident," Keith
reminded him, "that ... Richards caused. And they still spent
their lives ... under microscopes. They were studied constantly by ... the
media, and by you."
"Again, you're right
about that. Richards knew that just as well as I do. But it was
unavoidable, because ultimately someone would study them. At least
Richards had their best interests at heart."
Once again, Keith
McLaughlin cackled, entertained by the attempt at a justification. "He
sent them into ... the most dangerous corners of ... the multiverse. He
endangered ... them and the Earth constantly."
"Whether or not
Richards was right in what he did, he was right there with them.
The Fantastic Four risked their lives together."
"You justify ... his
actions because you ... want to be him."
Reed shrugged. "I
don't agree with everything he did, but the man had his reasons. I can't
help wanting to be him because I was cloned from him and I possess
data about his life. There are gaps in my knowledge, but it's human
nature to want to fill in those gaps."
"How absolutely ...
"Perhaps it is," Reed
acknowledged. "In fact, it occurs to me that Richards partly kept the
Fantastic Four so close to him because he was tormented by the mistake he
made, and Sue, Ben, and Johnny were living reminders of that mistake. He
wanted to torture himself."
"The same ... way you
want to ... torture yourself."
Once again, Reed
shrugged, acting nonchalant. "Right. But the main reason he kept the
Fantastic Four close to him ... the reason he fought with him ... the
reason he made so many ethical errors for the sake of protecting them ...
in fact, the reason he brought them along on the ill-fated space flight
... was simple: they're his family. Susan Storm was his lover.
Johnny Storm was his younger brother, or as close as made no difference.
And Benjamin Grimm was his dearest friend. Everyone who had ever served on
the team, and anyone who had befriended them ... were all his family, and
Reed looked out for them."
Still a matter of
inches from Keith's face, Reed smiled. "By the way, are you aware of the
old saying that the magic is lost once you know how something works?
That's why I'm not affected too much by your power. I know that you have
to be aware a person exists in order to establish psionic contact with him
or her. I know you have to entrance your victims in order to manipulate
their minds, which why we were able to let you talk for so long. And it's
also clear that more a victim has experienced and stored in his or her
memory, the more ammunition you have. Which means you really don't have
much to work with where we're concerned, McLaughlin; we're only
three days old, after all."
backward, Reed's words hitting him as hard as any fist. "No! That
shouldn't ... matter! You still have experiences ... and secrets. I can
still ... control you!"
"You can," Reed
admitted, "but not as much as normal humans. If you continue to torture
our minds, you'll end up starving yourself."
"I can already ...
feel the prison inmates in my mind," Keith pointed out. "In a few ...
moments, I'll have connected ... to them all, and I ... will have all the
fuel ... I need!"
"Which is why this is
the part where we stop you cold," Reed announced, stretching a right hook
at Keith's jaw at high speed. Sue, Ben, and Johnny also advanced, severely
upset. "As the old saying goes, 'you have no power over us that we don't
Keith reeled from the
blow, struggling to keep his balance. Surprised to see all of the
Fantastic Four free of his control at the same time, Keith staggered
backward even further, beginning to panic. "No ... all of you ... should
"This is what happens
when you overreach yourself," Reed pointed out, "before you fully grasp
straining as hard as he could to reassert control over them. But Johnny,
who was having none of that, grabbed him by the collar, threatening him
with a flaming fist. "Go ahead," he challenged. "Get inside my head
again. You made me see an inferno; I'll make sure you see it too."
"Ain't that just like
a bully?" Ben remarked. "Only strong an' mighty until the bullied kids
"He was the
bullied kid," Shandra revealed. "Not just at the Nine base, but everywhere
his entire life."
Keith gritted his
teeth and glared at Shandra. "Shut ... up."
"No, I figure it's
your turn in the shrink's seat, Keith. You were always the youngest, the
smallest, and the weakest of any group you were in. You never learned to
deal with it, so you just let it eat away at you. To the point that -- an'
I realize this now -- I tried to make friends with you, but all you could
see was pity. I wasn't tryin' to patronize you, Keith. But then as soon as
you get some superpower, you end up takin' it out on everybody, even your
"You're just a
miserable piece of crap, aren't you?" Shandra asked. "You can dish it out
but you can't take it."
Reed studied Keith as
the latter started convulsing violently. "In this case I would say he
quite literally can't," he observed. "He has no problem manipulating and
absorbing other peoples' negative emotions, but I don't think his body and
mind were ever prepared to allow for what would happen when the most
negative emotion in the room is his own."
"He's feeding on
himself," Sue realized, watching as Keith's body was wracked with sobs,
introverting just as much as the Fantastic Four had a minute ago.
"Exactly. That creates
a feedback loop he can't get of, so he's unable to--"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah,"
Ben interrupted. "Skip th' lecture. He already did his damage." He stood
mournfully over Oldskool's body, his shadow darkening the broken and
bloodied corpse. "He did his damage."
was an interesting thing for the creature to find out about itself.
genetically-engineered beast of burden known as a Mole Man had been
clawing away at the planetoid ore along with its brethren as their human
handlers looked on. It was a particularly unglamorous job on a
particularly ugly planetoid within view of the Octagon Prison, but the
Mole Men hadn't minded. Work, eat, sleep -- that was all they did.
Then an intense wave
of pure thought had cascaded over them like a tidal wave. The Mole
Men howled in agony as they felt their minds being attacked, while the
humans seemingly lost all touch with reality. And one Mole Man --
designated #7-A -- was the first to piece together what was happening to
Its memories were
being unlocked. This was no small thing, as the Mole Men were unable to
recall any life other than their current status as work animals. And yet
#7-A began to see glimpses of a different existence. One it recognized as
It recalled seeing
itself in a reflective surface many times, and seeing a human form with
pale skin and dark eyes each time. It recalled the taste of cereal at
breakfast and the perfume of a woman's skin. It remembered the weight of a
metal bludgeon in its hand-not-paw, and the rhythm of using the object to
crush flesh and bone. It remembered harsh words from people other than its
handlers, and it recalled the smell of air that was different from what it
could breathe now.
And #7-A knew ...
absolutely knew it had a name. Conway. It tried to sound out the
name, but its vocal chords distorted it to a roar. But it was an
The other huge, hairy
claw-bearing brutes started roaring as well. Perhaps they'd remembered
their former names and were trying to pronounce them as well. It didn't
matter. Voice upon primal voice joined into the chorus -- first from the
six on that immediate sector of the planetoid, and soon from the fifty
others in the remaining sectors. And, because the Negative Zone had an
atmosphere, those voices carried. Other Mole Men on other planetoids
joined in the glorious wail, sounding like a cross between the blaring of
an alarm siren and the grating of a rusty gate.
Whatever meaning their
communal roar had started out with, by this time it had taken on a life of
its own and adopted a new significance. It was the unmistakable sound of
"I can't believe what
I'm hearing," Reed stated as Evan Krieger's words sank in. "You're giving
us the Flight Nine base?"
"Yes, this does not
seem to be a wise decision," Hikaru chimed in, disapproval drenching his
words. His holographic image glared at Krieger.
"It's only fair,"
Krieger replied in his defense, gesturing to the Fantastic Four. "These
people just saved our assets. Paranoid Keith was already tearing us a new
out-port, and he was just about to start on the Octagon, which would've
cost us billions more. These people are heroes, and I'd like to work
something out with them."
"Our Negative Zone
operation has hemorrhaged a billion credits a day since the clones arrived
here," Hikaru pointed out, "and the restoration of the Flight Nine base
for their use will cost us so much more."
Ben let out a loud
whistle. "Hey! Bureaucrats! Wanna talk about us like we're in the room?"
Hikaru shifted his
glare to Ben. "You overstep your bounds, clone."
right," Reed spoke up. "We may be clones, but we still risked our lives
and our very sanity to save that of everyone else in this dimension. We
put aside our disagreement with your corporation's practices to do it. Can
you put aside your tendency to view us as property in order to work
Hikaru narrowed his
eyes. "Why would you be interested in working with us?"
"There are bigger
things at stake than money, and there are bigger things at stake than
ideological disputes, Hikaru," Reed replied, holding his gaze not on the
Hikaru holo's face, but on the camera mounted on the holo-emitter that
allowed the Japanese businessman to monitor them from Earth. "Simply put,
the Negative Zone is dying. If we don't work together to save it, cutting
your company's losses in this dimension won't do you any good."
"Why not?" Hikaru and
Krieger asked in unison.
connected, gentlemen. Everything. The structural collapse of this
dimension will cause a cascade effect across others, including our realm.
Especially our realm, in fact, given the ready access point to
Earth that has been established. When the Negative Zone implodes -- and it
will -- our dimension will be the first to join it."
"You're expecting us
to try to stop the Zone's collapse?" Krieger asked. "Is that even
Reed shook his head.
"No, it's not possible, and it wasn't what I am proposing. Rather, if we work together, we can slow its implosion to postpone collapse to well beyond our lifetimes. I have no doubt that we can do it." Reed's gaze addressed both Hikaru and Krieger. "It's up to you, gentlemen."
"You know, I still can't believe they didn't turn us down," Sue confided to Shandra a full
week later as their ship approached the renovated facility once known as
the Maintenance Flight Nine base. The interior and exterior had been
completely redesigned according to Reed Richards' specifications, and
while there was still so much to be done, definite progress had been made.
The Fantastic Four had played an integral part in the revamp, working
closely with the Stark-Fujikawa workers, especially Shandra Willis.
Now, the two women
returned from a supply run with fresh materials, just in time to watch a
facemasked Ben Grimm heft a giant metal insignia onto the roof of the
complex. The circular insignia was of course in the shape of the '4'
design on the Fantastic Four's uniforms. It seemed appropriate; the base
had been renamed 'Station Four', after all.
An hour later, the
Fantastic Four and the rest of the personnel gathered in the break room to
celebrate the completion of the first phase of the rebuild. "I would like
to thank all of you," Reed announced, "for your hard work and dedication
in this endeavor. We are well ahead of schedule, surpassing every possible
continued another minute before his teammates and co-workers interrupted
him in unison: "Okay, we get the picture! Now shave!" It had become
a running joke among the crew, so Reed merely felt the bristly stubble on
his face and smiled.
Sue and Shandra
chatted by the punch bowl, enjoying the impromptu party atmosphere that
was a welcome contrast to the hectic work pace this station had seen for
the past week. "How do you like your new position as Operations Chief?"
Sue asked, and Shandra couldn't help but blush.
"I still can't believe
I have Kong's job, but I'm settling into it. I'd like to think I'm doing a
better job at this than Kong did, at least."
"No argument there,"
Sue replied with no small amusement.
Sue put the ball back
in Sue's court. "And how are you adjusting? I'm sure you're glad that
there're more people to talk to now."
"Sure, if all I want
to do is talk about work," Sue retorted with a smirk. "When I want to
unwind and shoot the breeze, I consult the same four people. Ben, Reed,
Johnny, and you."
Shandra glanced over
to another corner of the room, where Johnny held court with not one but
two female co-workers. "I see your brother has no trouble shooting the
breeze. It's nice that he has someone else to hit on now."
"As long as he
remembers not to get too far ahead of himself," Sue commented, "he'll be
okay. He is only ten days old, after all."
"What're the odds of
Johnny pacing himself?"
Sue rolled her eyes.
"Good point." She watched as, unsurprisingly, Johnny and his two new
friends left the break room to explore other parts of the complex. "If
their little tour of the facility doesn't end at the living quarters, I'll
be very surprised."
"Why can't I have that
much luck with women?" Shandra wondered, then. "That reminds me, Sue: I
hear things are still strained between you and Reed."
"We still haven't had
the chance to discuss the matter," Sue admitted. "Everything's been so
"Because you two keep
finding excuses to bury yourselves in work and avoid each other, right?"
Sue watched Reed stand
toward the center of the room, chatting with an engineer on something or
other. He looked so alone that Sue's heart couldn't help but ache. "Yeah
... you're right. But how do we even talk about this? I don't think I was
even conscious that I wanted some distance from Reed until Paranoid Keith
brought it out." She looked back at Shandra. "I think he's been avoiding
"Because he thinks I
stole you away from him, or something silly like that," Shandra chuckled.
"Men can be so dense."
"Especially since I'm
not sure I even want to be in a relationship with someone. I mean it's
tempting, but I don't think I'm ready."
"I'll keep that in
mind," Shandra commented with as straight a face as she could manage,
which wasn't much.
Sue raised an amused
eyebrow at her friend, then glanced over to Ben, who was also sitting
alone, nursing a steel container of punch as if it were the last stiff
drink of the night. "And then there's Ben...."
Before she could
finish her train of thought, an alarm sounded. Reed, Sue, and Ben rushed
over to the main communication center, with Johnny and the rest of the
crew trying to catch up.
"Stark-Fujikawa HQ to
Station Four," Krieger's voice bellowed. "Repeat, Stark HQ to Station
Four. We have a situation. A horde of ... creatures just invaded this
place, and they're out for blood! Watchdogs are holding them off, but I'd
really appreciate it if you Four showed up here before they reach my
office! I just had it painted!"
"We're on our way,"
Reed answered. "Station Four over and out." Turning to his teammates, he
commented, "I guess it was naive to hope we'd have a respite from
crises until I could get the monitoring system online."
"Told ya," Ben
remarked. "Now let's hit the bricks, already!"
Unexpectedly, the crew
chimed in, "do it! Do it! Do it..."
"Do what?" Reed asked,
a bit perplexed.
"You know," Shandra
told him. "The hand thing."
"Might as well," Ben
relented, holding out a large craggy hand. The others each piled a hand
atop it: first Reed, then Johnny, then Sue. That drew a round of applause
from the rest of the crew, all of whom were now diehard fans of the
With that out of the
way, Reed and his friends moved to the docking bay. "Let's go. We have our
work cut out for us."