Fantastic Four 2099UGR #7, Volume 2



Issue Seven, Volume Two

"Four More, Part One: Empowered"

Written by David Ellis

Edited by Jason McDonald and Mike Shirley

Assistant Editor: Jason McDonald

Editor in Chief: David Ellis

 


Ian Hyde
Fantastic

Jesse Stamp
Invisible

Christi Wood
Torch

Michaela Bailey
Thing

Reed Richards
Mister Fantastic

Sue Storm
Invisible Woman

Johnny Storm
Human Torch

Ben Grimm
The Thing


 


_From Dr. Ian Hyde’s private journal, The Year 2097_


The patient is now a near-mindless, inhuman creature. Needless to say, the project is a success.

My colleagues and I had been contracted by Stark-Fujikawa to engineer a breed of mutates capable of surviving and thriving in the hostile dimension known as the Negative Zone. In the process, we’ve paid tribute to the Fantastic Four – the twentieth-century heroes who discovered the Zone in the first place – by naming these mutates “The Mole Men” due to their ability to burrow through the solid rock that composes the Zone’s many asteroids.

I believe the Four would be proud of us, as we’ve let no barriers stand in the way of the project’s goal. Just as the Four were created when they stole a spacecraft of Reed Richards’ own creation, we obtained harvested mutant organs from the black market in order to speed up our progress. The Four never let anything limiting like ethics stand in their way; now neither do we.

And one day soon, we’ll experience the Negative Zone for ourselves.



Maximum Security Prison 'Octagon', The Negative Zone, Late December, The Year 2099

Cosmic radiation from the Negative Zone burned through Ian Hyde’s veins. The pain was excruciating; he felt as if he were going to die.

"F … fantastic…" he breathed through gritted teeth.

His colleague, Christi Wood, also let out exhausted breaths to his left. "Yeah, I ... think I need ... a cigarette."

Ian, Christi, and their two fellow colleagues Michaela Bailey and Jesse Stamp, were strapped to a chair and injected with a formula made from the Fantastic Four's genetic material, along with trace amounts of cosmic energy. Granted, the Four in question were actually clones of the twentieth-century team of super-powered explorers, but they were close enough for the scientists' purpose.

That purpose would make gods out of Ian and his friends.

They were aided in this endeavor by a group of organleggers, black-market street surgeons. Their leader, Bradstreet, stepped toward them and asked, "enjoy your little cocktail?"

"This is pretty good stuff," Ian answered, his words slightly slurred, "especially where the release of endorphins is concerned. We've only just begun to feel the effects of the serum. Once our new powers kick in--"

"If that actually happens," the surgeon interrupted, looking rather pleased with himself, "I'll be very impressed."

This question puzzled him, and Michaela voiced his thoughts. "What are you talking about? Our calculations are precise down to the hundredth decimal place."

Some of the organleggers were full-flesh human, while others had been cybernetically enhanced. "It was until I removed the decimal one place to the left," one of the cyborgs announced. "Now your guess is as good as ours what's about to happen."

Jesse Stamp was the meekest of the M04 scientists. True to form, he started stuttering and panicking. "B-but ... why're y-you ... you doing this? W-we--"

"You not only brought the Fantastic Four -- clones or not -- onto our doorstep," Bradstreet pointed out, "but SIEGE-wearing Watchdogs as well!" He gestured toward the Stark-Fujikawa Watchdog officers off to the side, clad in SItuation Emergency GEar. "We organleggers prefer not to have that kind of heat on our necks, thank you very much."

"They're under our control, bit-head!" Christi shouted. Indeed, her skills as a hacker had allowed them to take control of the SIEGE armor.

Except.... "Not anymore," Sergeant Harkness of the SIEGE team corrected. He and his men had been standing off to the side, locked in their own armors, but now they strode confidently forward, back in control. "Looks like your little program's just been hacked."

"Shandra..." Ian heard Christi whisper, and it made his teeth grit. Of course it had to be Shandra Willis. She'd been their friend right up until she discovered their connection to the organleggers, and when they dated she'd taught Christi all she knew about data pirating.

The organleggers who hadn't been enhanced with cyborg parts fled for the door, but not fast enough as the Watchdogs opened fire on them. Ian was finding it increasingly difficult to pay attention to the ensuing battle; the feverish warmth of the serum was causing him to fade in and out of consciousness.

Ian had no idea how long he was out, but when he awoke, he heard a deep, gravelly voice comment, "hate it when people try to play doctor." He recognized the voice as belonging to Benjamin Grimm, one of the Fantastic Four clones.

Trying to focus on his surroundings, Ian saw blood on the floor. All of the cyborg organleggers and a few of the Watchdogs had been slain. Harkness and the remaining Watchdogs stood over them, gloating, "this has been a service of Watchdog, Inc."

Ian focused his gaze on Harkness, who was greeting the Fantastic Four. "Nice to see you up an' around," he told them, and Ian blinked as he remembered they'd been confined to an operating table. "Reinforcements should arrive shortly. You can thank your little hacker friend for severing their control of the SIEGE armor."

Ian Hyde decided in that moment that he hated Shandra Willis more than anyone else in history, the pseudo-Fantastic Four included. She'd managed to destroy everything they'd accomplished--

His breath caught in his chest as he glanced over to his fellow scientists. They were still strapped in the chairs to minimize serum-induced convulsions they'd long since stopped having ... and they were now bleeding from various bullet wounds, apparently from stray gunfire. A quick glance confirmed that he, Christi, and Jesse had only been tagged by the bullets, but Michaela....

Michaela's upper body was riddled with serious bullet wounds. He couldn't tell if she was alive or dead.

"She's dying," Sue Storm announced. They're all injured; we need to take them to a hospital."

Harkness remained unmoved in the face of Sue's plea. "Point one: 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."

Ian tried to find the voice to scream outrage at the top of his lungs. Nothing came out other than a shuddering breath.

"And I just received a message from Stark-Fuji," Harkness went on, every word an ice pick to Ian, "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."

Ian tugged at the arm restraints on his chair, desperate to shatter every bone in the sergeant's face. But he wasn't strong enough.

Instead, he was surprised when Harkness encountered opposition from another source: Johnny Storm, whose flame aura matched his rage. "Are you crazy? Aren't you guys supposed to be cops? Protect and serve?" Abruptly, the flame that surrounded him flickered and dissipated like a candle in a strong wind.

Ian couldn't help feeling a tinge of glee, to see the Four so weakened. Another dizzy spell hit him, and he found his consciousness fading out once again. He was only able to catch snippets of conversation going on around him:

"Ben?" Sue's voice. "...all right?"

"Reed ... with our powers?" Johnny's voice. "...so weak? ...cosmic stuff...."

"...no idea ... replenish...." Reed's voice. "...return to Stark-Fujikawa."

The next voice he recognized was Christi Wood's, and he had no trouble comprehending her one-word statement: "Burn."

Searing pain blazed Ian's mind so intensely, he completely forgot about what was happening to his body.




The next coherent thought to cross Ian's mind occurred an unknown amount of time later. It was, quite simply, what in the hell just happened?

The second thought was, wasn't I sitting in a chair? He glanced around, realizing he was sitting on the cold cement floor, surrounded by splintered pieces of wood he recognized as the chair in question. Around his wrists were the warped metal restraints that had bound his arms to the chair; it looked as though he'd wrenched them from the armrests.

I did this, he realized. I broke the chair. But how? There's no way I'd have the strength to--

His eyes widened, comprehension dawning. The serum worked. One last, strong convulsion was all it took.

He looked around at the room, seeing all of the Fantastic Four clones, SIEGE Watchdogs, and organleggers either unconscious or dead (he couldn't immediately tell, except for the telltale rising and falling of a few chests). Good. Ian liked them better that way.

Glancing over to his colleagues, he found that they had remained in their seats, apparently un-endowed with the same strength attribute.

But at least they were breathing. That was a decent start. "Michaela? Christi? Jesse?" he asked, trying to get their attention.

"Hurts..." Michaela groaned. Her upper body was now covered in blood.

Ian stood up and walked to her chair, wrenching the arm restraints from the chair and from her wrists. "Hang on, we'll get you to a hospital," he promised her, then removed his shirt and draped it over her bloodstained body like an impromptu towel. "Those moronic Watchdogs might be willing to let us die, but I'm not."

"Wanna help us too?" Christi asked, tugging impatiently at her own restraints. "I'm tired of being in this chair."

Ian repeated the trick on both Christi's and Jesse's chairs, freeing them. He was about to ask them if they'd felt the same brain-blast he had, but a voice behind him made him freeze.

"Okay, what the hell was that?" It was Sue Storm. She and the rest of the Fantastic Four were waking up.

Her brother Johnny was the next to speak. "That's what we'd like to know. 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, contracting hi shapeless body until it looked human again. "If so, where could it have come from?"

Christi was puzzled. "Okay, are they ignoring us? Why the shock are they ignoring us? Don't they know how rude that is?"

"Last thing I saw before we were hit," Sue commented, "Christi Wood said something about...." She trailed off as she looked right at Ian and his colleagues. "Reed? Everyone? Where are the scientists?" She gestured to them.

"Hello! We're standing right here," Christi shouted, waving her hand. She let out a shrill whistle.

"What'd they do, get incinerated or something?" Johnny asked Reed and Sue, oblivious. "Never mind, I don't see any ashes."

"They're not invisible, either," Sue reported. "Maybe teleportation?"

"It's possible," Reed was saying, "their sabotaged formula could have endowed them with any number of superhuman abilities instead of -- or in addition to -- our own."



Docs-in-a-Box Clinic #5, 'Downtown' New York, Hours Later


"Either those people were rendered, blind, deaf, and stupid," Christi commented later, "or--"

"Th-they couldn't see us," Jesse informed her. "Or h-hear us. I-I think w-we've been --- uh, com-completely edited out of their perceptions."

Christi quirked an eyebrow. "And how would you know that?"

"Uh, juh-judging b-by the buzzing ... y'know, the buzzing in my h-head..."

"Oh, for once in your life, spit it out!" Christi shouted.

"I-I think I'm the one d-doing the editing. D-don't know how I'm doing it, but...."

"Will you two keep it down over there?" Ian ordered them from where he sat in the corner of the waiting room. "We're in a hospital." Monitors and shoddy equipment beeped around them in the Docs-in-a-Box clinic. They'd found the place shortly after escaping the organlegger hideout right under the Fantastic Four's noses. They'd wasted no time in forcing the staff to treat their injuries. Michaela had of course been the worst off, so her colleagues waited impatiently while she underwent surgery.

"I have news," the lead doctor, a wiry man named Sheffield, announced as he entered the waiting room far ahead of schedule. "Miss Bailey is headed toward a full recovery."

Ian stood up from his chair and crossed the small room to Sheffield so fast none of them saw him move. "Isn't it a little early for that verdict, Doctor?" He grasped the doctor by the throat and squeezed. "Shouldn't you be in surgery right now, keeping her alive?"

"That's just it!" Sheffield choked out. "By the time we were prepped for surgery, her wounds had already closed up!" He took a deep breath and rubbed his neck when Ian let go. "That woman possesses a regenerative healing ability that's like nothing I've seen! It's far beyond anything--"

"Human?" Ian ventured, slamming Sheffield up against the wall. "Is that what you're going to say? That we're something other than human?"

The doctor grunted with the impact, and whimpered as Ian Hyde loomed over him. "Don't ... d-don't kill me!"

"Kill you?" Ian raised an eyebrow, glancing at his colleagues then back at Sheffield. "Why would I want to do that?" Abruptly, he engulfed the doctor in a tight, affectionate bear hug. "We've always wanted to be superhuman! That's the whole point of our experiment!"

He let go of Sheffield -- who slumped to the floor, ribs damaged from the hug -- then turned back to his fellow scientists. "This is the most fantastic day of our--" He realized only Christi was visibly standing there. "Where's Jesse? Is he still here?"

They heard a gunshot elsewhere in the building. Racing toward the source of the sound, they found a janitor's closet with the door slightly ajar. Emerging from the doorway -- seeming to materialize out of thin air -- Jesse paid them little heed as he studied a pistol in his hand.

"Jesse, what happened?" Ian demanded. "And where'd you get that gun?"

"This is Downtown," Jesse replied. "Every doctor has at least one, or else they'd get all their goods stolen by junkies."

"We know," Ian retorted, impatient. "We grabbed all the doctors' weapons when we invaded this place, remember?"

Jesse grinned. "Except one." He opened the door fully and gestured inside, revealing a dead body slumped inside the janitor's closet. The body was of a doctor, shot in the head. His body faded into view in much the same way Jesse's had a moment ago, and it disappeared again just as suddenly. "I spotted him sneaking off to call the Watchdogs. He went for his gun when he noticed me, so I shot him."

Ian furrowed a brow, puzzled. "I thought you could edit yourself out of people's perceptions so you wouldn't be noticed?"

"I can. And my power seems to have an area-of-effect that extends to other people."

"Then how did he know you were there, and how is it we could hear the gunshot?"

Jesse shrugged. "It's not an exact science yet -- pardon the pun. I just discovered it, so working the bugs out of it will take time."

"We don't have time!" Ian snapped, getting in Jesse's face the same way he'd gotten in Dr. Sheffield's. "The Watchdogs are probably already on their way!"

"I said Dr. Muniz tried to call them. I didn't let him."

"The gunshot wasn't exactly muffled."

Jesse sighed and gestured toward a nearby window. Visible from outside, the Fantastic Four clones were engaging in a rather uproarious battle that was spreading from one street to the next like a gasoline fire. The team was locked in combat with some creature that seemed to adopt all four of their power attributes like a modern-day Super Skrull, and they were assisted by someone in a silvery-white costume and hooded cloak.

"Trust me, no one's paying attention to gunshots at a time like this," Jesse pointed out. "As long as they don't take the fight over here, we're free to hide in plain sight."

Christi barely paid attention to the conversation itself. She was too busy being creeped out by the fact that Jesse hadn't stuttered once in that entire conversation.



Docs-in-a-Box Clinic #5, Two Days Later

"So creepy..."

Michaela raised an eyebrow at Christi's whispered comment. "I heard that."

Realizing she'd said it out loud, Christi held out her hands in a placating manner. "Sorry ... but you've got to admit, when the doctor said you were going to make a full recovery, we assumed that would mean...."

"That I would look like my old self again, correct?" Michaela sat on the hospital bed, studying her facial features in a hand-held mirror ... though it seemed strange to think of these features as hers. Following her massive injuries during the battle between the organleggers and the SIEGE Watchdogs, her body had healed itself up in a very short period of time to top physical condition. But in the process her skin had turned as jet-black as her hair, her eyes had become so bright red they almost glowed, and her fingernails had lengthened and sharpened like claws. A makeover like that usually required hours in a makeup chair or extensive genetic engineering, but these changes came for free.

"Well, uh, look on the bright side," Christi chirped. "A lot of guys go for that exotic look ... not to mention some women. And you've got to admit, you look really exotic like that."

Michaela continued studying her reflection, examining her face from different angles and running her tongue along her lengthened canines. She concentrated, and her eyes slowly restructured themselves to resemble a cat's, with yellow irises and narrow pupils. "I do, don't I?"

Conspiratorially, Christi moved in closer and whispered in her colleague's ear. "If this doesn't catch Ian's eye, nothing will."

Eyes widening, Michaela almost dropped the mirror. "I-Ian ... ? What makes you--?"

"I'm not blind, Bailey. I've seen the way you act when he's in the room, and how you tend to go even quieter than usual and just ... look at him out the corner of your eye. Even when I said his name just now."

"Nonsense. There is nothing--"

"Oh, c'mon, I think it's great." Christi sat back down on Michaela's med-cot. "You're acting the same way toward him that I acted when we first met Shandra Willis. And look how that turned out."

"A very strained breakup."

"Before that. We hooked up. We dated. We were in love. And I bet you an' Ian would last longer than I lasted with Shandra. You two were made for each other. I mean, shock, the two of you already--"

"Ssssh!" Michaela hissed, dropping her voice to a raspy whisper. "He's coming; I can hear him." And smell him, she mentally added.

Sure enough, a moment later, Ian entered the room and leaned against the doorway. "Evening, ladies. I just wanted to inform you that now that we all have a clean bill of health, we're moving out of this Docs-in-a-Box and finding shelter elsewhere. We can't stay in one place too long, after all; two days here is more than enough."

"Where else would we go?" Christi asked.

"I've staked out a few places," he replied. "All in Downtown, obviously, because Uptown has more surveillance."

"Down here has more Watchdogs, and it's Stark-Fujikawa we're hiding from."

"Noted. Guess that means we'll have to be extra careful, and develop our powers more." Ian moved off the door frame and turned to exit the room. As he did so, he glanced over his shoulder at Michaela.

Christi squealed with delight. "See? Told you! You're made for each other!"

Annoyed at her friend's matchmaking, Michaela rubbed her ears. "Please do not make that noise again."



'Downtown New York' Streets, Five Minutes Later

Too much thought-noise clouded Ian Hyde's head. He needed to clear it through physical activity, as he considered himself something of an athlete. His two favorite ways to accomplish that were through jogging or through sex. Despite the risks involved with briefly leaving the others when they were supposed to be keeping a low profile, he chose the former option.

The latter option was ... complicated. Ian had known Michaela Bailey for years, and she'd shared his bed often. No strings had been attached to that arrangement, because the two of them saw intercourse the same way: it helped clear their heads and keep their bodies in shape. Once they scratched that particular itch, they could get on with their research. Friends with benefits, to use an archaic term.

The problem was that now, if he'd overheard Michaela's conversation with Christi correctly, emotions had entered the mix. At least on her part. She had feelings for him beyond their usual relationship. On a good day, maybe he could even deal with that.

But the way she looked now....

'Something other than human.' Those were Ian's words, less than two days ago. At the time, the idea that he and his colleagues were becoming superhuman like the Fantastic Four was the best thing he'd ever heard. He was excited. Thrilled.

As long as they all still looked human, he realized. And Michaela didn't. Ian had been watching her progress as she healed from her injuries, and he guessed that her regenerative properties stemmed from a shape shifting ability. He'd noticed that her eyes briefly looked catlike, as if she had the characteristics of the entire animal kingdom at her disposal.

He thought it was a fascinating concept ... as long as he didn't have to sleep with the end result. It bothered him, and it bothered him that it bothered him. It seemed a petty, outmoded concern, but there it was anyway.

So he ran through the cracked streets of Downtown as fast as he could. The Fantastic Four had been rounded up and taken back to Stark-Fujikawa headquarters over a day ago, so he could do this. All he had to do was watch out for the Watchdogs.

Assuming they could catch him.

Abruptly, Ian realized how fast he was running. His surroundings were a blur, and not just because he was preoccupied. It was because he'd just raced through three city blocks in the time it might take a car to travel through one.

Intrigued, he picked up speed.

The next thing he knew, he was in a junkyard on the outskirts of New York, Uptown and Downtown included. Stopping to catch his breath and to keep from running over any debris that might injure him, he admired his progress. And took off his shoes to cool down his feet.

That was his power: superspeed, like Meanstreak from the modern-day X-Men ... or like twencen heroes such as Quicksilver and Whizzer.

Though perhaps Whizzer was better left forgotten.

A huge smile split Ian's face, and he laughed out loud as he realized the implications. "Fantastic...."

And then he had an idea.



Abandoned Warehouse, 'Downtown' New York, Christmas Eve

"This is your idea?" Jesse Stamp asked as he and his colleagues held four blue-and-white uniforms in their hands. "Not that I don't appreciate the Christmas present, but this has been the master plan you've been hinting at all these weeks? We're supposed to dress up like the Fantastic Four?" He pointed to the large white numeral '4' on each uniform.

"I'm saying we're going to be the Fantastic Four. The clones in the Negative Zone are imposters. They're imperfect copies who don't have what it takes to be the Four. They don't have the drive, the ruthlessness, to be explorers." He raised an eyebrow. "And be careful with the uniforms, would you? It took all this time for me to get my hands on some unstable molecular fabric."

Christi snorted. "I thought the whole point of UMF was that it was sturdier than normal fabric."

"Well, yes, but these are the only four UMF uniforms available to us for the foreseeable future. We've slowly been amassing the necessary resources, but under the radar, through our black-market contacts. We've been experimenting with our powers, figuring out what our experiment endowed us with, and determining what we can and can't do." As he wasn't above showing off, he sprinted around the room and skidded to a stop right where he started within a single second.

"So all that's been building up to this?" Jesse argued. "I hate to point this out, but I can cloak myself from biological and electronic perceptions, not truly turn myself invisible. Michaela's a changeling. Christi can attack people's minds. And you have an increased physicality that includes super-speed--"

"And superhuman strength; don't forget that."

"And strength, yes, you've been bragging about that since you discovered that last week." Jesse shook his head. "My point is, these aren't the Fantastic Four's powers -- our experiment failed in that regard. So what's the point in calling ourselves the Fantastic Four?"

Ian chuckled. "Do the modern-day X-Men need the powers of their twencen predecessors in order to call themselves X-Men? What should matter is our attempt to follow in the original FF's footsteps."

He gazed at his colleagues' expressions and sighed. "Okay, granted, we didn't end up with the powers we wanted, but we can still give those clones a run for their money. They don't deserve to be the Fantastic Four, and we do. Now are you in, or out?" He held out his hand, palm down.

"I am in," Michaela agreed, far too predictably. She placed her hand atop Ian's.

Christi shrugged and followed suit. "Yeah, sure, count me in too. Can't start a fire without me."

Jesse stood there, arms folded.

Michaela raised a scaly eyebrow. "Jesse?"

After a moment, Jesse sighed and placed his hand atop Christi's. "Guess this means we'll have to come up with embarrassing nicknames."

"As a matter of fact," Ian replied with a sly smile, "I already have some in mind."



Alchemax Research & Development Lab, 'Uptown' New York, Early January, The Year 2100

Hurry up, Fantastic!" Christi scolded Ian as the latter carried a car-sized machine toward an even bigger hole in an R&D lab wall. Five minutes ago they'd arrived to steal a Zero-Point energy converter from an Alchemax lab. Despite dealing with building security, they hadn't planned on staying this long. "I thought you were supposed to be the fastest one on the team!"

Ian grunted with effort and annoyance. "Only when I'm not carrying a two-ton machine! That kind of hampers my super-speed, you know!"

"Take all the time you want," Jesse's disembodied voice commented, seeming to issue from no particular point in the damaged room. "Thing and I are having fun with these guys." Michaela could be seen tearing into the pack of Public Eye guards , her feet and legs morphed to resemble a velociraptor's.

Gritting his teeth, Ian shouted over his shoulder, "Invisible, how many times have we told you to at least let us know where you are? You have enough control to do that without giving yourself away to the enemy!"

A trio of energy bolts lanced from seemingly nowhere and perforated two guards who moved too closely to the slow-moving Ian. "Look, 'Fantastic'," Jesse's voice countered, pronouncing Ian's chosen codename like an insult, "do I tell you how to use your powers?"

Ian judged the distance between himself and the hovercar waiting on the other side of the damaged wall. "You would if you were team leader," he replied, then hurled the heavy device through the hole in the wall. "But you're NOT!" Taking a deep breath, he raced at top speed through the hole as well, and leaped onto the car just in time to catch the machine. The car dipped sharply in reaction to the sudden increase in payload, but it remained aloft. Ian set the energy converter on top of the car and strapped it into the harness. Turning to the others, he shouted, "we have what we came for; now finish them off so we can get the hell out of Dodge!"

"Fine with me," Christi replied, concentrating on the small group of guards who were still standing. In unison, they dropped to the floor, screaming and bleeding from the eyes and ears.

Offended, Michaela turned and glared at her with red eyes, and Jesse faded into view to do the same. "We were not done with them," Michaela snapped.

Christi shrugged. "You were too slow." She glanced over at Ian, who was still standing on the hovercar outside the building. "What about you, Speedy? Got that overgrown vending machine strapped down yet?"

"Yes! Remember the super-speed?" I'm waiting on the three of you to hurry up--" Before Ian could finish his sentence, one end of a thin strand of purplish thread covered his mouth with a wet splat sound. An instant later, he was yanked from atop the hovercar and pulled upward to the roof of the building.

Christi and her teammates raced to the hole in the wall to investigate. They heard three very loud thumps.

Then a very fast figure dressed in midnight blue rappelled down the side of the building and swung through the hole, plowing into them with his feet.

The impact knocked Christi, Michaela, and Jesse halfway across the room. When they stopped rolling and looked up, they recognized the interloper.

"Spider-Man," Michaela hissed, taking in the sight of the lithe figure clad in a dark blue bodysuit decorated with a short web-like cape and a bright red design that was somewhere between spidery and tribal.

"What are you supposed to be," the angry-sounding vigilante asked, eying their uniforms, "the Fantastic Four?"

"Our predecessors and yours were allies back in the twencen," Jesse pointed out. "I don't suppose we could continue the tradition. After all, you've also attacked Alchemax in the past."

"Unless you're a sellout," Christi added, an accusing tone in her voice.

Spider-Man's fist connected with Christi's jaw, sending her sprawling. "Alchemax couldn't afford me."

Michaela leaped at Spider-Man, morphing the upper half of her body into that of a lioness, while keeping her lower half in the form of a velociraptor.

The wall-crawler had to dodge to the side to avoid the claws and fangs. Once he did, he had an opening to slice at her side with his own finger talons. As he raked his claws across her ribs, her agonized screams didn't sound even remotely human.

Six white-hot energy blasts singed Spider-Man's back, leaving him open to retaliation by Michaela, who shoved him against a wall. Her head morphed into that of a spider -- flat-round with bristly hair and four pairs of shiny black eyes. And of course, long mandibles that dripped venom.

"Copycat," Spider-Man commented, then head-butted her.

She reeled back in pain, and he used that to roll up his full-face mask to expose his mouth. Then he plunged his own venom-laden fangs into her neck.

Her scream was even less human that time.

A sudden surge of pain assaulted his mind, nastier and more primal than anything else they'd inflicted on him so far. The raging inferno in his brain sent him staggering, and suddenly he could feel the six energy burns on his back that the adrenaline of the fight had masked.

Then, distinctly, he felt every other injury he'd ever experienced in his life, from minor paper cuts to massive beatings at the hands of super-powered beings. All at once.

"Burn." Christi giggled with delight, fully in touch with everything she was doing to his mind. She'd known she could induce a blaze of agony in a victim's mind, but this was a new angle entirely. The power was intoxicating. She wasn't able to actually read his mind other than brief glimpses of sensation, but perhaps with time and practice....

So lost in thought, she belatedly realized Ian -- Fantastic -- had returned. His arrival hadn't been hard to miss, though, as his super-speed made him a motion blur that pummeled Spider-Man from all directions.

Christi tried experiencing Ian's onslaught through her link with Spider-Man, but the flurry of super-strong fists nearly gave her sensory overload. She had to cancel the link with his mind to keep from getting dizzy.

Ian stopped punching an instant later and let Spider-Man slump to the floor. "How's that for a team-up." Turning to the others, he asked, "everyone all right?"

"Other than Michaela's current paralysis thanks to that wall-crawler's poison," Jesse answered as he resolved into view, tucking his blaster pistol into his uniform, "we're fine."

Ian walked over to Michaela's convulsing body. "She'll live, right?"

"That remains to be seen."

"Let's get her -- and our new toy -- back to base, then." He slowly and carefully picked up Michaela and slung him over his shoulder -- though 'slowly and carefully' for Ian was probably faster than her body should have been moved.

"And Spider-Man?"

"Another disappointment. He might even be the original's clone. Either way, kill--"

"Too late," Jesse interrupted, gesturing toward the spot vacated on the floor where Spider-Man had just been.

Sirens and floodlights illuminated the building from outside. "Forget about him," Christi told them. "Public Eye reinforcements are here. If we don't leave now...."

Ian leaped through the hole in the wall and onto the hovercar, still carrying Michaela. "What have I told you people -- I give the orders on this team. We seriously have to work on our teamwork. Now let's go."



Stark-Fujikawa Headquarters, 'Uptown' New York, Late January

"I have to say, our teamwork has improved," Ian remarked as he surveyed his team's handiwork. They'd infiltrated the Baxter Building via Invisible's cloaking ability, used Torch's mind-blasts to incapacitate the soldiers, then caused massive amounts of mayhem with Thing's shapeshifting and Fantastic's combination of strength and speed. The zero-point energy generator had done its job in amping their power levels nicely.

In less than five minutes, building's the interior looked like a hurricane had rampaged through it, and littered around Ian and his colleagues were the bodies of Stark-Fujikawa employees, either dead or dying.

Only two employees in the Research & Development division qualified as neither, because they were hostages. And because they had a history with the scientists. "Miles," Ian spoke to his former supervisor. "Been a while, hasn't it? Did we catch you at a bad time?"

Wide-eyed, Takagi trembled as Michaela's very large claws pressed against his neck. He glanced over to the other hostage, his holo-secretary Halle, hoping she might somehow have an idea.

"Your little girlfriend can't help you now," Ian informed him, idly passing a wand back and forth through Halle's holographic body. The wand in question was a standard-issue Stark-Fujikawa shock-baton grabbed from the corpse of a fallen security guard, and the electricity from its tip disrupted Halle's matrix and made her scream. "She's too busy finding out one of the drawbacks of being designed to mimic humans."

"Wh-what do you want from me?" Takagi choked out.

"The security door to the Negative Zone Gate room requires your presence, retscan, and access code in order to enter. We need all three. After that, all we require from you is a slow, painful death. Preferably an entertaining one."

"B-because I ... fired you?"

Ian glanced at his teammates, who all chuckled. "Well, yeah. You make that sound like a ridiculous reason. We happened to like our jobs."

"I'm not going to cooperate," Takagi sneered, oddly spiteful. "I can't let you near the Negative Zone. It's too--"

Ian idly slid his thumb across a lever on the shock-baton, ramping it up to its highest setting, then plunged it into one of the hallway's many holo-projectors. Halle screamed even louder, her voice dissolving into electronic static as her body did the same. In the distance, an electrical explosion was heard coming from Takagi's office; the energy feedback had overloaded Halle's base computer.

Takagi winced, yelping as if he'd been electrocuted himself. "All right ... all right." Then in a quieter voice: "How could you be so ... heartless?"

"Heartless? Hardly. We're the Fantastic Four." Ian tapped at the large '4' insignia on his uniform. "We're explorers, which means we have to be willing to take risks and do what's necessary to get things done. You have to believe me, we take no pleasure in...." He glanced around at his teammates and at their war-zone-like surroundings. "Okay, so we take a little pleasure in what we do." He gestured for Michaela to drag him to the Zone Gate room's security door.

There, Takagi was pressed up against the door's scanners so he could perform a retinal scan and input his security code. The heavy vault door slid open to reveal the Negative Zone portal in all its hi-tech glory.

And standing in front of that were the clones of the Fantastic Four, fresh from the Zone itself. They were waiting.

"That's far enough," Reed Richards announced, striding forward with his team. "Let the hostage go, and surrender. While we're flattered by your attempt at imitation, consider this a 'cease and desist' order."

Christi grinned. "Surrender? What's the fun in that?"



TO BE CONTINUED

Next Issue: "Four More, Part Two: Embattled"



Well, that was an interesting experiment.

Not only did I substitute the usual Reed Richards journal entry with one from Ian Hyde, I focused the entire issue on the M04 scientists who are trying to become the Fantastic Four, instead of with the FF clones themselves. Don't worry; the narrative will be back to normal next issue...

...just in time for a knock-down, drag-out BRAWL! WOOHOO!

Stay tuned for that. And now, heeeeere's Rena!

Anyway, I just read FF 2099 #6v2. The scenes with Ben's scars and Johnny with the shrink were really good. There's so much going on with all the characters (Sue, Shandra, Daye) that's both out in the open and very subtle. I'm really enjoying the sophistication to this series. Some of it might be going over my head and it only dawns on me later, but I like that too.

Thanks, Rena! I'm certainly trying to make this series as complex and sophisticated as possible, so I'm glad to see it's working.

Reed in comparison to the others was almost kind of neglected this time out. More surface than what's beneath. Still he gets his journal entry every issue. Please don't do away with that. Or always reminding everyone that these are not the true Fantastic Four, the aspect of the series that makes this series so interesting. Clones might be cliché but how skilled you're using the concept and everything else thrown into the mix more than redeems it.

Yeah, Reed didn't have as much to do in #6v2; he was more there to play off of Ben and Johnny in their respective scenes, but I tried not to neglect him too much. And I try to find ways to remind readers in every issue that the FF of 2099 are clones, for two reasons: it's the central premise/conflict of the series, and each issue is someone's first, so I'd hate to have a new reader completely miss that part.

Every time I read an issue I know why this is my single favorite ongoing fanfic series. And that's saying a lot considering all the other stuff from the masters of fanfic that I read. Of course I'm a big FF freak too and adore these characters. Its funny, I'm not a big fan of Ultimate titles cuz usually, even though it's a fresh take on characters, the new ideas and changes to me aren't really as good or equal to the originals, and it can be a pale imitation. FF 2099, I get something new and different while still maintaining the connection and magic of the 616 characters and universe. The best of both worlds. I just thought of that now if it makes sense.

It's an interesting (and flattering) perspective to say the least. One of the bigger balancing acts in this series is to explore new things about the FF and put them in unique situations while staying true to the 616 concept and characters. After all, if I'm not staying true to that, then what would be the point in calling this a Fantastic Four series?

The distress call from Hikaru surprised me. I thought we were going to see Johnny's confrontation with Keith, probably leading to the rest of the FF quickly then showing up, and everything with them all boiling to the surface. But with the Frightfuls charging in (will anyone start calling them the Frightful Four?) it still does appear the stuff is going to hit the fan lol.

Heh, the curveball I threw with the distress call was deliberate: the dynamic with Johnny Storm, Keith McLaughlin, and Cameron Daye could have easily hit the fan in #6v2, and indeed, that confrontation is still on the horizon. But the development with the empowered M04 scientists (called the Frightful Four in this issue, though they prefer to be called the Fantastic Four) has complicated things immensely, so that when the stuff hits the fan with Johnny's subplot, it's going to mean huge consequences.

Still wanting to see that Moon Knight/FF team up. I was actually reminded of Moon Knight, cuz I recalled all those high tech merc guards he had to fight at the end of the mini to escape, who Hyde and the others just plowed right through. Looking forward to seeing the former hero worshippers wanting to claim the Fantastic Four name for themselves. Maybe they'll discover that it was the original Frightful Four who really fits their vision for what they thought the FF was all about. So looking forward to the next issue, which comes out this month! Yay!

--Rena, via e-mail

*bashful look* It was a bit late, but I hope you enjoy this issue anyway!

--David Ellis, 10.30.06_