by Jason McDonald and Mike Shirley
Assistant Editor: Jason McDonald
in Chief: David Ellis
Dr. Ian Hyde
Dr. Christi Wood
Dr. Michaela Bailey
Dr. Jesse Stamp
From Reed Richards' private journal, 20th century
When I look in Ben Grimm's eyes, I see disappointment.
The cosmic radiation had made us so much more than human, and there was so much potential it could have tapped. In his life, he's been a son, a brother, a nephew, a gang member, a student, a football player, a soldier, a pilot, and an astronaut. He had made so much progress in his life that he didn't even need to add "superhero" to the list -- if that's even a suitable word for what we are as the Fantastic Four.
He had been content with his career as an Air Force test pilot, and when I had recruited him for my test flight, I had asked him to put that career aside to help me achieve my own dream. Because of his friendship to me, he agreed. Even when the government had cut my project's funding and I'd wanted Ben to help me steal the spacecraft, he agreed. Because of our friendship. Even if it meant jeopardizing his military career. He had every right to refuse, and in fact he even tried to do just that. But in the end, it didn't take much convincing. The friendship meant that much, even if his attraction to Sue had also played a part.
While the rest of us had acquired superhuman attributes that allowed us to keep our human appearances -- except when I stretch, Johnny bursts into flame, and Sue disappears -- Ben was not as lucky. He emerged an armored being so bizarre-looking that Sue couldn't help but describe him as "a thing". In shame, he adopted that moniker, and I have to wonder how much of his subsequent negative outlook was influenced by that name.
In any event, he had -- and still has -- so much potential beyond simply being the Fantastic Four's heavy-lifter. He has resigned himself to this role, and I've committed myself to easing his burden, though I'm not sure he agrees that I have.
When I look in his eyes, I see disappointment. That's unfortunate, because his eyes are currently his last remaining attribute that still resembles a human's.
"Downtown" New York, Earth, The Year 2099
Benjamin Jacob Grimm stared lazily at the flickering fluorescent lights above him. All he had the muscle control to do was blink. He listened to the chattering voices of scientists and doctors spouting medical jargon as they prepared to operate.
He and his Fantastic Four teammates were the patients in this scenario, he couldn't see them, but their soft breathing indicated they were lying on the operating table next to him, confined by the same strength-sapping machine he was.
The scientists were rogue geneticists from the Stark-Fujikawa corporation's M04 division; the doctors were organleggers who'd provided the scientists with with organs illegally harvested from mutants until recently. Ben and his teammates had exposed that shady operation; now they found themselves the subjects of a new one.
Amid the jargon, Ben caught words like "clone", "radiation", "powers", and "extraction". He tried working it out in his head: he and the his teammates were the "clones" in this situation whose "powers" had been jump-started by cosmic "radiation" from the Negative Zone. And they apparently wanted to extract their powers. Wonderful.
He imagined this was what Hell felt like.
Stark-Fujikawa Headquarters, New York, Earth
Miles Takagi was in Hell. Or rather, Hikaru-sama's conference room.
"Now that you are out of harm's way," Hikaru Takeshi began, gazing up at his guests from where he sat at his customary low table, "please explain to me what happened, and why four of my best scientists have suddenly gone rogue."
Takagi stared at the CEO of Stark-Fujikawa in nervous, intimidated silence. As the head of the corporation's Research & Development division, he had to face Hikaru-sama on a regular basis, and he'd never gotten used to it.
"You will answer, Takagi-san."
More silence. Miles wished his holographic secretary, Halle, were here to do the talking; she'd been coaching him at public speaking. But because her presence would expose the fact that Miles had programmed her to make his business decisions for him, she was better off staying in standby mode in his office. That meant it was up to him not to embarrass himself; he was failing miserably.
Shaking his head in frustration, Hikaru turned to Shandra Willis, who stood nearby, picking at her fingernails and waiting for her turn at interrogation. "Willis-san. Please explain what happened while I still possess a modicum of patience."
Station 4's operations chief let out a slow breath. "Okay, I'm still not completely sure how it all happened, but it was me, the FF, and the scientists. We were running DNA tests an' getting all cozy like you wanted us to, an' all of a sudden, Ben Grimm just flips out an' starts trashing the place. He starts talkin' about harvested organs, an' it turns out he's right -- they got 'em black market from some organleggers, which last I heard was still illegal. Anyway, scientists flip out, take control of the SIEGE guys -- or their armor, anyway. I dunno what happened to that, 'cause I was getting ushered to safety. But I heard they clowned the FF an' ran." Shandra finally took a breath, looking exhausted.
Hikaru remained calm and contemplative. "You and the Section M04 geneticists were friends."
She nodded. "Yeah, they were pretty much the first friends I made when I started working here."
"They are also Fantastic Four enthusiasts."
She nodded again, more slowly, her eyes downcast. "Which is why I can't believe everything went downhill so fast. I finally put 'em in the same room with my new buddies, the FF ... then they're getting along one minute an' at each other's throats the next."
"I see. Now, regarding the bootlegged mutant organs...."
Her eyes widened. "Ya gotta believe me! I didn't know about any of that -- it was a complete shock t'me, honest!" She was acting like a child in the Principal's office; Takagi reflected that Hikaru tended to have that effect on his employees.
"Perhaps you did not," Hikaru replied. "But surely you have insight into their method of commandeering the guards' SItuation Emergency GEar."
Shandra looked ready to bolt for the door. "I, uh, didn't know they were gonna do that, either."
"Your culpability in that is not currently in question. I am simply inquiring if your background would afford you an idea of how they took control of my men."
There seemed to be an unspoken tension between Shandra and Hikaru, but Takagi had no clue what it was. He wanted to escape the conference room and leave them to their conflict, but he was pretty sure that was a bad idea.
"You have skills in computer programming, do you not?" Hikaru asked Shandra. "Your extraordinary talents in that field will prove to be vital in resolving this situation."
Organleggers' Laboratory, "Downtown" New York
"This is vital information," Dr. Ian Hyde declared as his colleagues studied DNA readouts on a monitor, "so pay attention. The original Fantastic Four, the twentieth-century versions, received their superhuman physiologies when they exposed themselves to cosmic radiation which jump-started their latent X-genes." He gestured at the Fantastic Four confined t the operating table. "Their clones -- these impostors you see before you -- experienced a similar jump-start when their bio-stasis chamber absorbed cosmic energy from one of the Negative Zone's native storms. They--"
"What th' shock is a 'Negative Zone'?" an organlegger asked. His surgical mask slightly muffled his question; the mask and the rest of his soiled green doctor's scrubs looked out of place on a burly frame covered in tattoos and integrated with black-market cybernetics.
"Think that's a bar in Halo City," another 'legger guessed. "I heard they got some wild drinks that--"
Hyde cleared his throat. "Plebians. Really, the 'Negative Zone' part is less important than the fact that cosmic radiation is hard to come by. Earth's Van Allen radiation belt screens it out from the sun's rays, so we'd have to be out in space to acquire the amount we need."
Dr. Christi Wood gestured at their grungy surroundings. "And since we're in a body-part bootlegging operation in Downtown, that's not feasible."
The organleggers shifted restlessly in their seats.
"The upside to this," Dr. Michaela Bailey informed them in a soft voice devoid of inflection," is that the extensive research and testing we have doe on these clones reveals that minute traces of the cosmic radiation exist in their body cells. It is unlikely to be enough to jump-start latent X-genes in anyone else, unless we siphon it from them and inject it directly into our bloodstreams."
They now had the organleggers' undivided attention.
"So is everyone on the same page now?" Hyde inquired. "Good. Let's get to work."
Shandra worked as quickly and furiously as she possibly could. All the fun of hacking into a secured corporate operations network had been leeched from the experience now that Hikaru-sama had specifically instructed her to do so. Now her only risk of getting caught was if Christi, Ian, Michaela, and Jesse noticed she was disrupting their control over the SIEGE armors.
It just wasn't the same as going against the Stark-Fujikawa corporation itself. Especially since she was selling out her friends in the process. She had to keep telling herself that the friends in question had skeltered and turned on her newer friends. She had to keep telling herself that she was saving at least some of her friends.
But it was still an uncomfortable situation to be in.
Realizing she was worrying to much, she forced herself to calm down and just live in the moment, or risk making costly mistakes. After all, she was running out of time.
Organleggers' Laboratory, "Downtown" New York
Ian Hyde gave the order, and the organleggers injected him and the other M04 scientists with a formula they'd dubbed "The Fantasti-Serum".
If Ben had been capable of rolling his eyes at the name, he would have. But the concept of a serum laced with not only the faint traces of exotic radiation that had been harvested from their bodies, but also genetic instructions for the scientists' DNA to react to the cocktail, was a frightening one. Hyde and his cronies were hellbent on giving themselves the Fantastic Four's powers.
Ben realized there wasn't a blasted thing he could do about it. His body was paralyzed, he could've sworn he'd felt weaker when the radiation had been extracted from his body. He hadn't noticed what the cosmic energy had felt like until it was gone. It was a violation, which made him angry beyond reason, but he was helpless. And that angered him more.
"You're all gonna roast for this," Sergeant Harkness shouted. Beads of sweat rolled down his brow, betraying that he wasn't as confident about that as he would have liked.
"Looks like their paralysis has worn off," Christi Wood observed as she sauntered toward the SIEGE Watchdogs and input commands into her palmtop computer. Harkness' arm raised via remote hacking, bent at the elbow, and pointed a forearm cannon at his face. "Shush, you," she ordered the sergeant.
"You're not gonna get away with this," Harkness insisted.
"Take it from a twencen junkie: that line was crusty a century ago. Now be quiet and let us grownups work."
Harkness zipped his lip, deciding to bide his time. She didn't follow through with her threat to shoot him with his own weapon, which he considered a tactical mistake on her part. But his arm was still in a position to deliver a head-shot, so she could change her mind at any time.
The deranged doctors prepped for the inoculation procedure, filling syringes with a radiation-laced serum. The organleggers injected the formula into the M04 scientists as they sat strapped to chairs to minimize convulsions. And convulse they did, thrashing about like fish on hooks as their muscles spasmed, their bloodstreams on fire. Their teeth clenched, almost biting through the mouth guards they wore.
Harkness found himself wondering if the Fantastic Four themselves had felt something similar when they'd been exposed to superpower-triggering radiation. Or maybe the geneticists strapped into the chairs were just a bunch of masochists.
Finally they stopped convulsing, taking deep breaths around their mouth guards as they slumped in their seats, sweat pouring off them. "F ... fantastic..." Hyde commented.
"Yeah, I ... think I need ... a cigarette," Wood agreed.
In Harkness' eyes, that clenched it: they were definitely a bunch of masochists.
"Enjoy your little cocktail?" one of the organleggers -- named Bradstreet, if Harkness had overheard their conversations correctly -- asked, his voice laced with amusement as he strode toward the scientists.
"This is pretty good stuff, especially where the release of endorphins is concerned," Hyde answered, "we've only just begun to feel the effects of the serum. Once our new powers kick in--"
"If that actually happens," the surgeon remarked with a sly smile noticeable even through his mask, "I'll be very impressed."
"What are you talking about?" Bailey inquired. "Our calculations are precise down to the hundredth decimal place."
"It was until I removed the decimal one place to the left," one of the cyborg 'leggers announced. "Now your guess is as good as ours what's about to happen."
Harkness noticed something interesting about his armor.
"B-but ... why're y-you ... you doing this?" Dr. Jesse Stamp stuttered. "W-we--"
"You not only brought the Fantastic Four -- clones or not -- onto our doorstep," Bradstreet answered, but SIEGE-wearing Watchdogs as well! We organleggers prefer not to have that kind of heat on our necks, thank you very much."
"They're under our control, bit-head!" Wood shouted.
"Not anymore," Harkness chimed in as he and his men stepped forward, powering up their armor. "Looks like your little program's just been hacked."
Christi Wood's eyes widened. "Shandra..." she whispered.
As the non-cyborg organleggers fled for the door, the Watchdogs riddled them with bullets. Harkness let a few of his bullets stray over to a nearby table, where they tore into Wood's palmtop computernegating the possibility that the scientists or anyone else in the organ chop-shop could remotely override the SIEGE armor again. That just left the three cyber-enhanced organleggers, who charged the Watchdogs with their own machine guns.
"Aim for their fleshy parts!" Harkness ordered his men, having realized that only parts of the cyborgs were armored. Sure enough, one of them went down under a barrage of bullets that ripped apart his chest and head.
The other two cyborgs were protected a little better, and while their machine gun fire bounced harmlessly off the SIEGE forcefields, they managed to get in close enough to the Watchdogs to make gunfighting pointless. And the cyborgs had arm-mounted buzzsaws.
The stray gunfire damaged the nearby equipment, causing a series of explosions in a confined space that further hampered the Watchdogs' ability to deal with the cyborgs. One electrical cable had been severed, and as the end of it sparked and sizzled on the floor, a preoccupied Watchdog stepped near it, and the jolt of electricity surged his armor's forcefield, shorting it out.
Harkness witnessed one of the cyborgs behead his teammate with a buzzsaw. Bellowing with rage, he unloaded his weapon on the organlegger. One cyborg left.
But as the second cyborg fell to the floor, the third grabbed the slain Watchdog and used the body as a human shield against the rest of Harkness' bullets. The cyborg inserted an uplink cable from his mechanical arm into a port in the SIEGE armor. "Selecting weapons," Harkness heard the cyborg mutter. "Ah, here we go: EMP."
An ElectroMagnetic Pulse. That wasn't good. His armor would be rendered useless once again.
Harkness let out a shout of rage, the clatter of machine-gun fire ringing in his ears as he tried desperately to stop the organlegger from accessing his fallen comrade's weapon systems. But it was all in vain; his enemy was too well shielded to be taken down in time. He swallowed hard, realizing that the entire all-star SIEGE unit might just be taken down by a single organ thief with robotic parts. A police unit taken out by a wind-up toy. Harkness and his remaining SIEGE comrades let out a final barrage, hitting the cyborg from all directions as the cyborg highlighted the activation trigger of the EMP wave....
Out of seemingly nowhere, a huge, craggy orange fist slammed into the side of the cyborg's face, crumpling it like an empty beer can. The cyborg slumped to the floor, bringing the slain Watchdog down on top of him.
"Hate it when people try to play doctor," Ben Grimm mumbled as he leaned against a damaged instrument panel. His three teammates rose from the operating table behind him; all four of them looked like several miles of bad road.
"This has been a service of Watchdog, Inc.," Harkness declared to the fallen 'leggers. Then, to the Four, "nice to see you up an' around. Reinforcements should arrive shortly. You can thank your little hacker friend for severing their control of the SIEGE armor."
The Fantastic Four exchanged worried glances.
Shandra stared at the bodies of the organleggers the SIEGE Watchdogs had just taken care of. She supposed she shouldn't have been surprised at the outcome once she'd set them free, and truthfully she wasn't surprised. Still, the detached, efficient way in which they'd killed the 'leggers reminded her of the Securicops back in Transverse City, with their daily kill quotas to thin out those living in poverty level. It had been been one of the reasons she'd been in such a hurry to escape the superhighway-turned-city. But she'd known all along that venturing from Transverse to New York was stepping from the porta-cooker to the quick-cinerator.
"Mission accomplished, Hikaru-sama," she informed her employer, careful to keep her voice neutral.
"So it seems," Hikaru agreed as he stood behind Shandra's chair, peering over her shoulder. "My confidence in your skills is well-placed."
"Uh, thank you, sir." Years as a data pirate on the streets had instilled in her an instinct for when current events were about to defcon. That instinct was blaring away at the inside of her head, ordering her to get out of there, and fast. "So, uh, if that's all, then--"
"Actually," Hikaru spoke, his voice feeling like ice down her spine, "there is one further order of business, Miss Willis."
"Let us not pretend. I am well aware of your infiltration of the Negative Zone headquarters' surveillance system. A security breach of that magnitude cannot be tolerated."
"Even if it's just to use the cameras for a little while?" She decided there was no use in denying the accusation.
"For any reason."
"Figures." She gestured at the screen. "I did rescue the Watchdogs and the FF by using my ghosting for good instead of mischief," she pointed out. "Does that make things even?"
Hikaru's stare said it all: not even close.
She sighed. "Figures."
"From this moment forward," he whispered, "you will be in my debt. I will be in personal contact with you, and I will give you a single order. You will carry it out without hesitation, without question, and only then will we be 'even'."
She ventured a guess. "You want me to spy on the FF."
"Perhaps. Perhaps not. You will not know until the moment arrives and the order is given."
"All because I hacked some security cameras? Come on!"
"No. All this is because you stole into a secure Stark-Fujikawa database and obtained classified information about the Negative Zone in the first place, and you connived your way into my employ."
Whether you realize it or not, you have cost my company billions through the consequences of your actions." He paused for a long, tense moment. "As a result, this arrangement is more than fitting. You have given up much to become an employee of Stark-Fujikawa. Consider this the ultimate extension thereof."
Shandra clenched her teeth. "And if I tell you to go to hell?"
Hikaru's voice remained serene. "Then your life will be hell. You will be a criminal, a prisoner, then forgotten. Your life will be short ... just like the lives of your comrades in Transverse City. I believe they were called ... 'The Hotwire Martyrs'. How fitting.
She stared at him in slack-jawed shock. Out of the frying pan, into the fire.
Organleggers' Laboratory, "Downtown" New YorkTO BE CONTINUED
Stray gunfire -- either from the SIEGE agents or from the cyborg organleggers -- had ripped into the M04 scientists as they sat confined to their chairs. Ian, Christi, and Jesse had only received minor injuries at best ... but Michaela had taken quite a few direct hits to her face, neck, and upper body.
"She's dying," Sue informed the Watchdogs, the conviction in her voice overriding the fatigue in her body. "They're all injured; we need to take them to a hospital."
"Point one," an unsympathetic Harkness countered, "these people are criminals, allied with a black-market organ fencing operation. Which leads me to point two, Miss Storm: any medical and police protection they might get has to be subscribed to. And I just received a message from Stark-Fuji: these scientists are no longer on the payroll, so their subscription's been terminated as well. So no dice. They can sit there and bleed to death for all I care."
Johnny's anger caused him to burst into flame, but in his present condition even his fiery aura looked sickly. "Are you crazy? Aren't you guys supposed to be cops? Protect and serve?" His flame sputtered and died; he could only keep it up for a few seconds.
"It's no use reasoning with them, Johnny," Reed replied, standing on wobbly legs. "Law enforcement is entirely different in this day and age." His voice was bitter as well.
Sue checked on Ben, who was staring at the cyborg he'd punched, who was now lying dead underneath the body of a mutilated Watchdog. "Ben...?" she whispered. "Are you all right?"
He didn't answer.
Johnny tried to summon the tiniest flame in the palm of his hand, but to no avail. "Reed, what's with our powers? Why're we so weak? It's because they leeched the cosmic stuff from our bodies, isn't it?"
The Fantastic Four's leader nodded. "I have no idea how long it will take for our power levels to replenish, if they do. Which is why it's imperative that we return to Stark-Fujikawa.
Sue looked up as Christi Wood started fidgeting in her chair, trying to free her arms from their restraints. "Burn," Christi hissed through gritted teeth at the Fantastic Four and the Watchdogs.
Sue's surroundings dissolved in a burst of light and pain.
It was some time before Sue was coherent enough to examine the sensation, but it felt to her as if some kind of explosion had started in the center of her brain and forced its way out of her body. Glancing around slowly, she discovered that her teammates and the Watchdogs were recovering from a similar affliction. "Okay, what the hell was that?"
"That's what we'd like to know," Johnny replied, standing up on unsteady legs. "Feels like I just skipped the 'getting drunk' part and went straight to the hangover."
"Could it be a psionic attack of some kind?" Reed wondered, collecting his body into a normal human shape; he'd apparently lost control of what little power he had left. "If so, where could it have come from?"
Sue fought a massive headache in order to think clearly. "Last thing I saw before we were hit, Christi Wood said something about...." She trailed off. "Reed? Everyone? Where are the scientists?" She gestured to the empty spot on the floor where the geneticists had been. The chairs they'd been strapped to were missing as well, which was weird.
"What'd they do, get incinerated or something?" Johnny asked. "Never mind, I don't see any ashes."
"They're not invisible, either," Sue reported, checking different wavelengths of the light spectrum, though it caused her pain to do so. "Maybe teleportation?"
"It's possible," Reed stated. "Their sabotaged formula could have endowed them with any number of superhuman abilities instead of -- or in addition to -- our own."
Sue continued to look around, to be sure her eyes weren't deceiving her. "Okay, next question: where's Ben?"
The others gaped, realizing they were indeed short one ever-lovin' blue-eyed Thing.
"What a revoltin' development," Johnny commented, then turned to the others and shrugged. "What? Somebody had to say it!"
NEXT ISSUE: "Old Neighborhood"
And welcome back to the Fantastic Futures lettercol! As usual, we have feedback from Rena, who has thoughts on not only FF 2099UGR #3v2, but on the FF story in 2099: New Year'S Eve Special....
I started reading it and thought, oh no wait, did I skip over the last issue? But I looked and saw nope so I continued reading and I don't think it ruined anything for me at all.
Yeah, that was my bad. I'd forgotten to include continuity notes for the New Year's Eve Special. I went back and included them afterward. I'm glad it didn't throw you off too much.
I know a few things that are going to happen in the next issue, but only just the bare bones of it. Can't wait to read the whole thing with Yancy Street 2099 and etc. I'm guessing we've already seen the debut of the Frightful Four of 2099. If so I really like this origin for them. Will Hikaru be wanting to hunt them down too?
Yancy Street 2099 will be revealed next issue. I'd promised it this issue, but the way the writing panned out, it made more sense to focus on the M04 scientists' experimentation on the FF in this issue, and deal with Yancy Street next issue.
Speaking of the M04 scientists, you are correct that this quartet is destined to be the Frightful Four of 2099. This issue shoved them fairly hard in that direction, but be on the lookout for further twists in coming issues. The biggest surprises will come from the way these four relate to the Fantastic Four.
But a bigger development here is Sue and Ben. Wow. I remember that Ben had a thing for Sue way back in the old days. I read those issues in the Marvel Masterworks and they once got together in a What If? issue. Still I didn't see this coming at all
lol. How long until we see more of this? Is there only one issue more of the FF on earth before we're caught up to the events of New Years?
#5v2 will conclude not only their adventure on Earth, but the series' time spent in 2099. #6v2 will take place in January of 2100.
--Rena, via e-mail
Sue and Ben's romance isn't something they would have foreseen, either, but I hope it makes sense given what I've been doing and will continue to do with their characters. Stay tuned for more developments on the Sue/Ben front in upcoming issues.
--David Ellis, email@example.com
March 19th, 2006
NEXT ISSUE: While they're in Downtown, the FF make an unscheduled stop on Yancy Street. One member of the team finds something he doesn't expect: faith.