Fantastic Four 2099UGR # 4 - June 2005

Issue Four, Volume One

"Restless Natives"

Written by David Ellis

Edited by Jason McDonald

Assistant Editor: Jason McDonald

Editor in Chief: David Ellis


Mister Fantastic

Invisible Woman

Human Torch

The Thing

Hikaru Sama

Shandra Willis

Paranoid Keith



From Reed Richards' private journal, 20th century

    I, 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 Galactus' life.

    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.

    My 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.

    Why 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.

 I am the most dangerous man in existence, and I have no intention whatsoever of stopping. Why? I honestly don't know.


The Negative Zone, The Year 2099

"Oldskool to 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 rendezvous."

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.

The 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--"

"Trouble? There 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.

Oldskool 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' body shop."

"You 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 down?"

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 impact."

"Yeah? So how'd you get rid of it?" Ben inquired, studying the appendage he just used as a weapon.

"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 qualify...."

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 replied.

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."

"Yeah," Oldskool 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 again.

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 Downtown. 

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 everyone...."

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 course."

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 ... chair already."

"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."

"Johnny's respiratory system is incredibly advanced," Reed explained. "He surrounds himself with plasma flame and hydrogen atoms, which superheat the air and allow him to fly."

"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 opportunity arises."

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, Stretcho."

Oldskool idly 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 forever--"

"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 situation."

"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 given you?"

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."

"Cormorant to 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 unseen energy.

"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 okay!"

"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 headquarters stood.

"This is gonna get messy," Johnny observed, moving into a duck-and-cover position. "Pleaseletusbouncepleaseletusbounce..." he prayed.

Instead, their 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 *is* this?"

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."

Krieger openly 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."

"Besides," Krieger reminded Oldskool. "It's not like you can bring back all those creatures you killed."

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 object."

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 afterward."

Oldskool nodded. "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--"

"Maintenance Flight 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--"

"Musashi!" Krieger 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."

Krieger couldn't 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 this?"

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 asked.

"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  already?"

"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.

The hunter-warrior 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 bright green.

"This is 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 authorization to--"


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."

Shandra's eyes 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 them."

Shandra's face 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 electricity.

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 shock.

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.



"You monster!" 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 ... not immediately."

"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."

"Shut. Up."

"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.  "...what?"

Keith's horrific 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 you...."

"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 flame.

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 fists.

"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, here."

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 forgotten that?"

Ben finally met her gaze.

"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 that."

"Actually, you 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 accident."

"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 ... pathetic."

"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."

Keith staggered 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 grant you'."

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 be traumatized!"

"This is what happens when you overreach yourself," Reed pointed out, "before you fully grasp your capabilities."

Keith squinted, 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."

McLaughlin just stuttered.

"Ain't that just like a bully?" Ben remarked. "Only strong an' mighty until the bullied kids fight back."

"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 friend."

"Shut. Up."

"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."

It was an interesting thing for the creature to find out about itself.

The 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 itself.

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 itself.

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 articulate roar.

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 freedom.

"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."

"Actually, Ben's 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 with us?"

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.

"Everything is 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 possible?"

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 expectation."

Reed's speech 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 busy...."

"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 you too."

"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 Fantastic Four.

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."


In Fantastic Four 2099UGR #1, Volume 2:: Just who ARE those creatures attacking the HQ, anyway?

Welcome back to Fantastic Futures, ladies and gents. I hope you've enjoyed this mini-series. Judging by the fan mail I've recieved, that might indeed be the case. In fact, this month's letter comes from a fan who's been following this mini from the beginning:

I loved FF#3! When I heard the whole mini was going to take place in the Negative Zone I first wasn't so sure about that, cuz I was so looking forward to them seeing what the earth is like in 2099, but now I could more than live with the NZ story going on a lot longer. In fact, maybe even spawning its own title, NZ-2099? Could be like a prequel to FF 2099, a limited series detailing how Stark-Fujikawa conquered the Zone, possibly starring OldSkool. It would only be good if you were writing it though.

One of the things I like in a writer is one that is smarter
than I am, and you definitely are that. As well as I know the FF I could never flesh out their personalities so perfectly, nevermind write such a fun and deeply thoughtful story. With a bad writer also Reed can be the most boring of the four and he certainly is not that here. But again, he's not really Reed, though I don't expect he'll be able to ever completely divorce himself from the original. I'm sure when he gets back to earth there will be more of the real Reed's legacy to haunt him. Reed invented so much stuff, the greatest mind of the 20th Century.

I think I read a story once that had Franklin coming back in time from Days of Future revealing that it was a microchip Reed created that made the Sentinels of the future so powerful and in a way that whole era was Reed's fault. So that is part of the 2099 timeline? Does he have memories of Franklin telling the original Reed that I wonder? Probably not, but he could find out some other way I guess, maybe Doom tells him?

Are there plans for a regular Doom 2099 series, or a mini? If not maybe there could be a story with him in 2099 Unlimited. Will the clones down the road make an effort to try to learn what became of the real FF? Other things FF related here, interesting to see how the Inhumans and Atlanteans are doing in 2099. In the age of the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Inhumans were in something like a cross between an Indian reserve and a concentration camp I think, which I can imagine being the case in 2099 with these evil corporations running the earth. I could see the FF checking in on them, although like the NZ inhabitants they could have been wiped out a long time ago too. But I bet the Deviants and Eternals are still around. The Mole Man could be alive too, if he found Tyranus's fountain of youth, that is. I can see Stark-Fujikawa or another corporation wanting to exploit/tap into the riches of subterranean earth just as they have the NZ, so the Mole Man could show up at some point.

If not I would enjoy at least learning the fate of a few of the FF's past antagonists and friendly associates. I forget, its been awhile since I read when Sue was looking at the historical records, was a lot of information lost? Could Ben like find Alicia's obituary? I've been so busy with school in the last while that I haven't been able to go through that 2099 site you gave me, or your fan fic site. Oh wait, no, I did read the Cap/Sept 11 story. 9/11 for some reason, I don't think it could have happened in the Marvel Universe.

Speaking of Cap though (sorry, ugh, excuse my rambling, talk of Marvel makes me do that!) is a Captain America 2099 possible? Him being frozen again would of course be lame, but another person taking up the mantle and confronting capitalism gone amok wouldn't be. It could work if it captured the spirit of the original, like you have more than accomplished with the FF. Cap is my fave Marvel hero, if the FF were one single person they would be then. Are there any other new titles in the works? If you guys need ideas I've got tons.

Lastly, when will FF 2099 #4 be out? It says on the front page Next Month, April 24. Must mean June 24? I do hope its sooner than that, I don't want to wait that long!

--Rena, via e-mail

Whew! Man, that's a lot. I'm impressed. As you can see, we managed to release this issue much sooner than the 24th. Hopefully you've enjoyed the results.

As for the rest of the questions: Expect to see the Fantastic Four journey to Earth 2099 in the ongoing series for a few issues. Also, the rest of the UGR titles deal with different places of the world of 2099. So if you're curious as to what this planet is like in that era, the other titles will further help you out.

I don't foresee the Negative Zone of 2099 getting its own title, as most of the stories in the FF2099 ongoing will be set there, but if you're interested in seeing more of (the now late and lamented) Oldskool, and you're curious about his days as an NZ sldier, don't be surprised if an issue of FF2099 or Unlimited focuses on that.

Thanks for your kinds words regarding my portrayal of Reed. I've barely scratched the surface of the possibilities and repercussions regarding his status as a clone and what that means for the rest of Marvel 2099. The Sentinel microchip angle is definitely something that would haunt the poor man, if and when he finds out that the DotFP era is part of history. Stay tuned for developments on that. As the series progresses, the FF will learn more and more about the history leading up to 2099, as the archives the Four read weren't by any means complete.

We're still formulating plans for Doom. However he returns -- whether in his own ongoing, miniseries, one-shot, or Unlimited story, or as part of a larger storyline -- it has to be an event. Doom deserves nothing less. No current plans for Captain America 2099, though the closest thing to a Cap 2099 we've seen so far was an imposter Steve Rogers who served as President of America after unseating Doom (who later exacted rather brutal revenge). President Rogers issued the kill order against the heroes in 2099 Apocalypse, an event now known as the "Night of the Long Knives", in which Hulk 2099, Punisher 2099, Galahad, and Metalscream were executed by SHIELD forces. The Metalscream story in 2099UGR Unlimited #2 goes into more detail about that particular event.

Mole Man? No plans to bring back the original, but I hope you enjoyed the glimpse at the Mole Men 2099 in this issue and last. We haven't seen the last of them.

As for new titles, we have more than a few in the works. Keep your eye on this website in the coming months for more details. That goes for all of you people. :)

-- David Ellis,