Fantastic Four 2099UGR #5, Volume 2

Issue Three, Volume Two

"Old Neighborhood"

Written by David Ellis

Edited by Jason McDonald and Mike Shirley

Assistant Editor: Jason McDonald

Editor in Chief: David Ellis


Reed Richards
Mister Fantastic

Sue Storm
Invisible Woman

Johnny Storm
Human Torch

Ben Grimm
The Thing

Shandra Willis

Hikaru Takeshi

Sgt. Harkness

Rev. Carl Waylon


From Reed Richards' private journal, 20th century

I just had an interesting discussion with Sue about the nature of religion. It's not a subject I think about often. I was raised without it, mostly due to my father, who as a scientist was more interested in how things worked, rather than why. I grew up with science as my religion, and the unknowns of the universe as my faith. Or more specifically, my faith was in that the universe would hold the answers to my questions.

I actually hadn't thought about it in those terms until ten minutes ago, when my wife pointed that out to me. She and her brother were raised in a more traditional background, with baptisms and Sunday school and the like. While she isn't particularly conservative (quite the opposite, in fact), she nonetheless had faith as an influence in her life.

In point of fact, in our conversation, she discussed a desire to have Franklin learn about Christianity, which I found somewhat disconcerting. I pointed out that it would be rather confusing to teach our son a theology that our lifestyles would disprove. At that point, our conversation became an argument.

I admit, I still have a hard time seeing that point of view clearly, but I suppose that's what keeps me interested in universal exploration: there's always something new to learn. There are always new doors to unlock.

"Downtown" New York, Earth, The Year 2099

A world of pain was unlocked within Benjamin Jacob Grimm's mind. He had no idea where it came from, but the starburst of agony sent him crashing to his knees, unable to even think.

Then it was over, and Ben steadily rose to his feet. He noticed that his Fantastic Four teammates and the corporate Watchdogs in SItuation Emergency Gear were out cold; whatever had struck him must have brought them down as well. He checked on their life-signs, figuring out that they were okay. Now came the hard part: getting them to wake up.

"Suzie, Reed?" he inquired, poking and nudging them gently with a stony finger. "Johnny, how 'bout you? Or d'you just answer to 'Meathead' these days?" He was trying to stay irreverent, but he was growing increasingly concerned.

Turning to the Watchdogs, he muttered, "I'm not that interested in seein' you SIEGE guys up an' around an' barkin' orders, but as long as you're okay...." He quickly confirmed that they were still breathing, and he breathed a sigh of relief. "Good, 'cause this place's property values'd really take a hit if any more people died."

On that somber note, his gaze moved to the bodies of the slain organleggers sprawled on the floor. Sure, they were murdering bastards who sold their victims' body parts on the black market, but he didn't know how he felt about seeing them dead. "Already seen too much of that," he mused.

Which brought him to the organleggers' former allies, the quartet of rogue geneticists from the Stark-Fujikawa corporation. They'd paid for the ill-gotten organs and used them in experiments, and when Ben had exposed the illegal activity, the scientists had tried to harvest the Four's powers. They'd tried to inject those powers into themselves, but thanks to a double-cross by the organleggers and the Watchdogs regaining control of their SIEGE armor, their plan didn't exactly turn out the way they'd hoped.

But now the scientists were gone for some reason. They'd been strapped to chairs to minimize convulsions when they'd injected themselves with their so-called Fantasti-Serum, but now even the chairs were missing. What the hell was going on?

Ben shook his head, trying to piece all this together. He had a sudden urge to leave the organleggers' laboratory and clear his head. He slowly moved toward the door, draped a ratty old tarp over his inhuman body, and vacated the building, promising himself that he was just going for a walk. He wasn't trying to escape the laboratory building, and he certainly wasn't trying to put as much distance between himself and anyone who knew him as possible.

Really, he wasn't. And as he trudged his way through the grimy streets of a place he'd heard described as both "Lower New York" and "Downtown", he tried to convince himself he wasn't.

Three blocks later, he belatedly realized he should have probably left his friends a note explaining his absence. But what would he have written? 'Reed -- Gone to look for AWOL science guys. Be back later.' Yeah, right. 'Reed -- Having a mid-life crisis ahead of schedule. Don't wait up' was more honest. Which reminded him of an old joke: 'I've gone to find myself. If I should return before I get back, keep me here.'

If he were in a better mood, he'd have found that amusing.

New York had obviously changed a lot from what the original Ben Grimm remembered, and what he, the original's clone, knew now. Or something like that. Sure, a lot of the buildings and landmarks were familiar, though crumbled with age and neglect. Some of the structures the twentieth-century Ben had grown up around now looked as if bombs had gone off inside them. For all he knew, that could've been what had happened.

Another major difference was the framework that surrounded the area. The massive support pillars and cantilever frame made up the 'superstructure' upon which the skyscrapers of this era rose like monoliths. The support structure looked like someone had cannibalized the Queensborough, Brooklyn, and George Washington bridges and made the framework out of the parts.

Ben had seen pictures of the current New York skyline before, and when he and his teammates had been Uptown visiting Stark-Fujikawa, they'd taken a moment to look out a window and see the real thing. The sight had been mind-blowing, but now Ben was seeing it from a different perspective. Uptown now seemed downright depressing; the sun had set, but Ben had the feeling Downtown didn't see much sunlight even in the daytime.

But by far the biggest difference between this neighborhood and the ideal he carried around in his head was the people. Everyone he passed looked homeless, even though they clearly had homes in the squalid buildings. Their clothes and skin carried the same thick layer of grime that penetrated every square inch of this place.

All in all, Downtown reminded Ben of a third-world country.

Bystanders kept their distance from him, and he couldn't blame them. Even wrapped in a threadbare tarp, he was sure he still looked huge and inhuman. They stared at him from afar, with expressions he couldn't read.

Up ahead, he heard arguing. A multitude of angry young male voices versus one calm old voice tinged with wisdom. They were standing in front of a Christian church not far from Ben's twencen childhood home. As he'd guessed, there were eight teenage street toughs hassling a gray-templed black man who dressed like a preacher. As he moved closer, he could hear their conversation:

"--many time do we have to tell you," the teens' apparent leader demanded, gripping the old man's collar, "this is Fenris territory! You wanna set up shop here, you gotta pray to Thor!"

"As I've said before," the old man replied, his voice calm and measured, "I have no quarrel with Thorism or any other religion. I'm a Christian by practice, but I see no reason why that should determine where I'm allowed to live."

"You wanna reason, we'll give you one." He nodded to his boys. "Let's break in that fancy church of his -- redecorate the place." His buddies stalked forward, clubs in hands, ready to do damage.

"Is this what passes f'r housewarmin' parties these days?" Ben asked as he yanked off the tarp and approached the group. "An' are you idiots supposed t'be the Yancy Street Gang?"

They all stopped in their tracks and stared. It was almost a full minute before one of the teens whispered, "it's him. It's Grimm."

"'Bout time my reputation preceded me," Ben commented, trying not to sound as tired as he felt. "If you people know who I am, then ya gotta know I don't put up with bullies. You jerks got a problem with the old man, take it up with me." He cracked his knuckles.

The teens took several steps back.

"Wait a sec," the gang leader spoke up. "Don't you see what this is? He's another fake? Another fake Harbinger of Thor made by the corporates upstairs!"

"Naw, man, it's gotta be him," another gang member spoke up. "He's got the rocks an' everything."

"He's a fake, I'm tellin' you. Just like the Aesir last year." The leader walked right up to Ben, getting in his face. "What d'you want, man? You tryin' to get us to worship you? Tryin' to start a ... a Thingite cult?"

"'Thingite cult'?" Ben asked in unison with the others.

"Yeah, or ... or Grimmite or somethin'. Y'know, like S-Man had the Spiderites."

Ben shook his head. "Junior, that is the stupidest thing I ever heard. But you're right: I'm not Ben Grimm. I'm his clone. I didn't choose t'be." That sounded inane to his own ears, but he felt the need to say it. "I'm down here 'cause I'm havin' a really bad day--"

"So you're slumming," the gang leader ventured.

"--an' you jackasses ain't helpin'. You wanna leave the old man alone, or d'you wanna find yourselves across th' street?"

The leader didn't back down. "I ain't afraid of you."

"Then you don't know me." Ben grabbed the kid by his collar and tossed him upward to the side. Sure enough, the gang leader landed across the street ... on the rooftop of an apartment building.

Ben turned to the other teens. "Any questions?"

They took off.

"Hunh, kids these days," Ben commented before turning his attention to the preacher. "You okay, mister...?"

"Reverend Carl Waylon," the old man replied, holding out a hand. "And I'm just fine."

Ben looked at the man's hand, tiny and brown, then lanced at his own, huge and orange. A handshake didn't strike him as a very good idea.

The reverend smiled broadly and clapped Ben on the shoulder. "Don't worry about it. I'm glad you came along. I don't think my church can take many more visits from those misguided youths." He studied Ben's craggy face. "So, Benjamin Grimm of the Fantastic Four, huh? I have to say you're more impressive in person than in story.

"Right now I don't feel impressive," he admitted, slouching as even the effort of tossing the teenager had taken a lot out of his already-low energy supply.

He was about to ask how the reverend knew so much about him when he remembered that the Four were a legend to people on modern-day Yancy Street. Then he remembered who he'd heard that from in the first place. "Wait, your last name's Waylon? You wouldn't happen to have a relative named Martin, would ya?"

The old man's expression changed from warm hospitality to genuine surprise. "Martin? I once did. He was my son. He died a few weeks ago."

Ben lowered his head. "I know. I ... I killed him."

"Ben could be dead right now, for all we know," Sue asserted. She and her remaining two teammates were currently surrounded by Stark-Fujikawa's Watchdog police -- some in SItuation Emergency GEar, some not. They swarmed the building, collecting and cataloguing evidence of the organleggers' activities, as well as rounding up the bodies of the slain 'leggers themselves.

Medics were present as well, attending to Sue, Reed, and Johnny. The one treating Sue had a difficult time calming Sue down; she was on a rant. "We've got to find him. We don't know if he's been kidnapped, or if he just went off on his own for some reason--"

"Sue, you have to calm down," Reed told her as a medic checked his vital signs. A tense edge creeped into his voice, as it was becoming clear that he was losing patience with her. "Harkness and his men are organizing a search for him right now." He jerked a thumb at Sergeant Harkness, who was leading a trio of fellow SIEGE officers away from the building, activating their armors' rocket thrusters and rising into the air.

Pushing her medic away to face Reed, Sue scowled and stood up. "Don't you even care about what's happening to Ben? I thought he was your friend."

"Of course I care," he replied, tension continuing to flow into his voice. "But at the moment, we're not in the best of shape to handle the situation. Ian Hyde and the Section M04 scientists managed to extract quite a bit of cosmic energy from each of us, so we're only operating at a fraction of our strength--"

"I know that, but that doesn't mean--"

"It means we're exhausted, which means now is not the best time to run around unfamiliar territory."

"If we're not at full strength, how about Ben? Strength is all he has, which means once his powers give out on him--"

"He'll die? The thought has crossed my mind, Susan." The two of them were standing face-to-face by this point, and nearby medics and Watchdogs converged on them to try to pull them apart before frayed tempers led to flying punches.

"So do something about it!" Exhaustion laced Sue's words as well.

"I am. I'm trying to come up with a way for us to replenish our energies. I can barely stretch. I doubt you can maintain your forcefields or invisibility for very long. And Johnny?" Reed gestured over to Sue's brother, who was quietly ignoring an attending medic while he pressed his fingers to an ancient scrap of newspaper. "He's trying desperately to light something on fire with his power as we speak."

Concerned, Sue abandoned her argument with Reed for the moment. She walked over to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. His body felt ... colder than usual. "Johnny? Are you all right?"

"I ... I can't make a flame," Johnny whispered, staring at his fingers. "Thank god."

A Christian theme permeated the Waylon family's home -- which was fitting, in that they lived in the back of their church building. Ben sat at the dinner table on the sturdiest chair they could find, and he listened to tales about Martin Waylon. There was a plate full of food in front of him, and he was hungry, but he didn't touch any of it.

"Martin was our youngest son," Carl's wife Rose explained. "He was ... also the most troubled. He grew up in a church household with the rest of the family, but the faith didn't ... take with him. We're still not sure why. He and our other two sons grew up and led their own lives, but unlike Carl Jr. and Raymond, Martin rarely devoted any time to helping us with our mission down here."

Ben raised a craggy eyebrow. "Mission?"

"We originally hail from Uptown," Carl explained. "But I and most of my family have been doing volunteer work in Downtown for years. We recently moved down here full time to give the locals more intensive attention and supplies. But ... sadly, Martin had distanced himself from us as soon as he could. We heard that he'd joined the corporate military at one point; he started sending us money for the mission. And then...." Carl trailed off, emotion causing his voice to break up.

Rose picked up the story as she massaged her husband's shoulders. "And then, he returned to us after two years. He'd changed in so many ways. He'd been on some top-secret mission he never talked about -- he couldn't legally talk about it, really. He had prosthetic arms to replace his real ones. Whatever war he was in had damaged them. He came back to us for some peace of mind, to get his head together."

"But he couldn't bring himself to open up to us," Carl agreed. "He had such a weight on his shoulders -- something he'd had to do that haunted him -- and he could bring himself to let us lighten it. He was in a deep depression, and we understood that -- wars change people. But...." He paused, and took a breath. "I guess he didn't ... understand that we understood. We didn't judge him; it's not our place. But pretty soon, he left. Said he didn't have a place with us."

Rose walked to the kitchen sink, restlessness in her body language as if she needed to keep her hands busy as she talked about her son. "A little bit later we found out he was going by the name 'Oldschool" or something like that."

"'Oldskool' with a 'k'," Carl clarified.

"Yes, that. Anyway, he'd become a bounty hunter. We tried getting in contact with him, but we never had any luck. He'd completely cut himself off from us. The next time we heard about him was when Stark-Fujikawa shipped us his remains and personal effects."

Ben looked at the floor.

"You know, you haven't touched your food," Rose pointed out. "You should eat something; you looked kind of sickly when you showed up. Looks like you don't have a lot of strength left."

"Probably a good thing," he muttered darkly.

"What does that mean?" Carl asked. "You've got to take care of your health, son."

Abruptly, Ben looked up at the reverend. "'Son'? Your son is dead, and I killed him! I crushed his skull with my fists? Don't you get that? You invited me into your home, an' you're tellin' me all about your son, but don't you get it? I don't deserve any of it! You should be glad I'm wastin' away!"

Carl held his gaze. "You told us you'd been manipulated. That someone toyed with your mind. If you weren't in control of your actions--"

"I was! Nobody told me to try to beat th' hell outta Keith, but I did it anyway!"

"Again, you were manipulated, so you didn't know it was Martin. It was an accident on your part, and a ruse on Keith's. And you know that. It sounds as if you haven't forgiven yourself for something you couldn't control in the first place."

"I can't control my own strength!" As he shouted, Ben stood up, knocking over the table and everything on it. He then wobbled unsteadily on his feet, having risen too quickly in his weakened state. "I can't ... I can't control this body. Too strong ... not used to it."

Rose calmly picked up the broken dishes. "You're more used to a ... human body? You had a human body as Ben Grimm, right?"

"I had one f'r five minutes. I'm his clone. But I got bathed in cosmic radiation right from th' start, so ... I didn't get a chance t'get used t'bein' human."

"But you're not used to this body either."

He shook his head. "D'you have any idea what it's like t'wake up fully grown, t'kill somebody when you're a couple of days old?" He turned away from them, staring at his hands. "This body's too dangerous. I'm too dangerous...."

"To dangerous to live?" Carl inquired. "Is that what you're implying?"

Ben glanced sidelong at him, saying nothing.

"That's it, isn't it? You've completely given up on yourself before you've even had a chance to live."

"Well, what'm I supposed t'do? Huh? You think I can live like this? You think ... you think I wanna live? Every hit I've taken so far ... every injury ... I've walked away from!" He gestured at the ugly pockmarked craters on the surface of his rocklike armoring, where he'd been shot, stabbed, and clawed at. "None of it's gotten through, an' I want it to! What's it gonna take f'r all this to end?"

Sadness formed on the reverend's features as he listened to this. "You don't sound to me like you're as ready to die as you seem to think. I think what it might take ... is a different perspective. A different way of thinking."

Ben turned slightly to face him more directly. "What're you ... oh. Religion. This is th' part where you try to turn me toward Christianity. Not gonna work."

Carl seemed slightly amused. "Why not, if I may ask?"

"'Cause I'm Jewish. Or really, the first Ben Grimm was. An' he was lapsed."

"And what about you?"

Ben thought about it. "No clue. Never seen the inside of a synagogue or read the Torah." He tapped his temple. "I think I got a little bit o'that knowledge floatin' around in my head, but nothin' definite. Still, if you're lookin' t'turn me over t'your religion, keep dreamin'."

Carl stepped into the hallway, moving into the den where he started rooting through his desk. "Have you thought about getting in touch with your own religion?" he called over his shoulder. "Judaism, I mean? Perhaps if you explore your roots, it could click with you in a way that it hadn't with the first Ben. After all, you're not necessarily the same person, are you?"

"I ... guess not," Ben replied slowly, uncertainly. "Why? Know any rabbis around here I could get in touch with?"

Carl walked back into the kitchen, carrying a stack of minidisks in transparent plastic cases. "They've all been chased off by the local gangs, such as the young gentlemen you met earlier. But as it happens, I make it a point to study all sorts of religions. See, while my chosen faith is Christianity, it's always seemed to me that religion is more about what people need. Different approaches work for different people. So I like to keep an open mind, and suggest different things to troubles souls like yourself."

Ben gathered the stack in his arms and looked through them. Each disk was labeled with a different religion: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Shinto, Buddhism, Hindu, Scientology, and one marked "Misc.". "Looks like a lotta homework."

"That's an incomplete list, of course, but it should point you in some kind of direction. Feel free to have those; I have plenty more copies." Abruptly, he added, "oh, and one more thing...." Rushing back to his workspace in the den, he searched through a drawer and returned a moment later with yet another encased minidisk. "I almost forgot: you can have this as well."

The label read, "Martin". Astonished, Ben locked eyes with the reverend.

"Pictures and info of my son's life. You could say archiving information in digital format is a hobby of mine. It helps me think things through, and in the case of my son's death, it gave me a way to work through it."

Genuinely touched by this, Ben stared at Carl, eyes watering. "I ... I don't know what to say."

"Grimm, you're coming with us," a voice shouted behind him. Ben turned to find Sergeant Harkness and his SIEGE-armored squadmates standing in the doorway. "You did not have permission to run off like that. Next time you do that, you're gonna find yourself in deep trouble."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Ben muttered, and turned to Carl and Rose. "Guess my ride's here. Thanks. F'r puttin' up with me. F'r everything."

"It was our pleasure, young man," Rose replied, stepping forward and giving him a hug.

"You take care of yourself," Carl told him with a warm smile and a pat on the shoulder. "Come back and visit sometime if you can, and let me know what you thought of all this reading material."

"While it's ultimately up to my superiors at Stark-Fujikawa," Harkness informed them, "I can pretty much guarantee he's not gonna set foot down here again."

Ben raised a heavy brow. "You really know how t'ruin a moment, y'know that?"

"Let's get going." Harkness and his men ushered by out of the Waylons' home, and out of the church itself.

"What's that you're carrying?" one of the officers asked as they walked down Yancy Street toward the organleggers' base of operations.

Ben glanced at the stack of minidisks in his arms. "Aw, not much. Just some stuff on religion."

"Sounds like a waste of time to me," Harkness commented.

Eyeing the sergeant with a bit of annoyance, Ben harrumphed. "Didn't really expect you t'get it."

"Iíve got it."

Reed's announcement was laced with a tinge of excitement that erased the fatigue he and the others were experiencing. "I've figured out a way for us to restore our strength levels."

"Y'mean besides snacking?" Johnny asked, scarfing down a food ration one of the medics had offered him. He was halfway though the third packet allotted to him. "And are you gonna finish your rations?"

Reed picked up his own three rations -- untouched until his point, and opened the first one, very pointedly biting into it.

"Johnny, don't talk with your mouth full," Sue scolded.

"Nag, nag, nag," Johnny complained. "First it was about being glad my powers're gone, now this...."

"Yes, besides snacking," Reed answered after he swallowed his first bite. "Food is a short term solution; replenishing our cosmic energy reserves requires returning to the Negative Zone, where the ambient supply of it will sustain us."

Sue mulled this over. "So you're saying that we have to go back to the Negative Zone to regain our strength and keep it up?"

Reed nodded as he continued eating. "The original Fantastic Four had received their powers when they'd journeyed out to Earth's Van Allen radiation belt. But they'd aged normally until then, and had been fully-grown at the time of absorption. We, on the other hand, had been rapidly aged from single cells to our present adult forms in a short amount of time in the containment unit, and we'd absorbed cosmic energy from Negative Zone lightning in the meantime. As a result, our development was different than the people from whom we'd been cloned; I'd theorize that the way our bodies react to cosmic radiation is different as well." He handed a notepad full of scientific formulae to Sue. "I believe we're intrinsically tied to the Negative Zone in a way our progenitors weren't."

She skimmed it. "Is this supposed to prove your theory? Because I can't make heads or tails of this." She glanced up at Reed, frowning. "And anyway, this cure for all that ails us is all well and good, but it's not going to help Ben if we can't bring him back with us." She shoved the notepad back into his hands. "We need to find him, Reed. And I'm getting tired of sitting around and letting the Watchdogs do it for us."

"We've found Grimm," one of the remaining Watchdogs informed them, stepping forward. "Word just came in over comm: The SIEGE boys have located him in a church, and they're going to pick him up now. So it shouldn't be too long."

She nodded at him, letting out a frustrated breath. Her nerves were shot. "Thank you," she muttered.

"Told you so," Reed muttered serenely as he finished his food ration; Sue scowled at him.

"Uh, guys?" Johnny piped up as he looked up at the shadowed ceiling. "Anybody else feel like we're being watched?" He pointed up at the rafters. "I could've sworn I saw something move."

"Three possible matches found," a slightly garbled, computerized voice spoke, issuing from the darkness. "Merge and adapt. Merge and adapt."

Ben had to hand it to the SIEGE boys; they knew how to adapt and take care of business. Shortly after they'd left the Waylon's church, they encountered the six Fenris gang members Ben had chased off earlier. Those street toughs had brought all fifty of their friends. Unfazed, Harkness and his men fired pellets of stun gas into the crowd, sending the angry youths packing.

Ben himself didn't have to lift a finger. He wasn't used to people fighting his battles for him, but he supposed that may not have been the worst idea. It wasn't that he didn't trust his own strength; he just wasn't sure he had much strength left at this point. "Not bad."

"We're wasting time on foot," Harkness announced. "Let's fly back to the others." He pointed to two of his men. "Simmons, O'Malley: carry Grimm in the middle of our formation."

In less than a minute, the five of them were airborne, propelled by the rocket thrusters in their SIEGE armor. Ben was being carried by two of them, and he felt faintly ridiculous. At least they only had about a block to go.

Their altitude over some of the shorter buildings allowed them to see from a distance the organlegger's building where Ben's teammates were camped out. A sudden burst of flame seen through one of the windows caught Ben's attention, and his first assumption was that Johnny was flaming on. Yet as they neared the building, the burning figure inside caused a roaring inferno that caused the building's occupants to quickly evacuate. And Johnny was one of them; he wasn't in Human Torch mode.

"Battle configurations, people," Harkness declared, watching the burning figure exit the building. Within the bright aura of flame, a vaguely feminine figure was visible ... a figure that suddenly stretched itself. "We've got a situation."

"You can say that again, pal," Ben replied, wrenching himself free of Simmons and O'Malley's grasps, falling the rest of the way toward the ground. He landed on the burning figure, bouncing off of its pliable body before hitting the ground and rolling across the concrete a few times. "Miss me?" he asked his teammates.

"Ben!" Sue shouted, sprinting to him and hugging him quickly, even though his rocky hide was still hot. "We were worried about you--"

"Worry about this joker when we're done with 'im," he replied, jerking a thumb at the burning, stretching figure. "What is that thing, anyway?"

"We're still compiling data on that," Reed answered, "though it appears to possess our powers. Perhaps this is Ian Hyde or one of his scientists."

Ben shrugged and cracked his knuckles. He still didn't quite feel up to fighting shape, but at this point he didn't care. "So what're we waitin' for? Let's ask it."

The burning creature flared even brighter in response.

The burning building could be seen for blocks. Similar fires were a common occurrence in Downtown, though it was rare when anyone actually put one out. There was no standing fire department, and the Watchdogs only deigned to assist when the property owners had their accounts paid up. Some Watchdogs were even known to cause the fires.

The silver-clad vigilante known as Moon Knight was relatively new to Downtown, and he'd only been its unofficial protector for a matter of weeks, but in his limited experience he was already finding all this to be true. He'd intervened in four building fires, put out two of them (once he figured out how the archaic fire hydrants worked), rescued ten people and three pets, and bludgeoned eight pyromaniac Watchdogs. It kept him busy.

His first assumption was that -- given the large amount of Stark-Fujikawa vehicles and personnel positioned outside the building -- this was another Watchdog fire. But the presence of a being composed of fire punched a hole in that theory fairly quickly. Then the arrival of a large rocklike being and a quartet of armored Watchdogs made the situation even more insane.

He sighed. This was going to be a long night....

"We had such a long night," Johnny reported to their friend Shandra Willis as soon as he, his teammates, and Harkness' SIEGE officers vacated Hikaru's conference room. They'd returned after several hours in Downtown, and they'd spent another hour in debriefing. As soon as he saw her, Johnny had launched into his own account: "first we were lab rats, then we weren't lab rats, then Ben went missing, then this crazy thing calling itself Flipside showed up, then Ben came back, and this weirdo named Moon Guy--"

"I'm not in the mood, Johnny," Shandra shot back as she moved off the hallway wall. She'd leaned against it waiting for them, and as the group progressed toward the elevator to take them to the Homegate room, she fell in step with them. "Let's just get out of here. We've got stuff to do at Station 4." Her posture was rod-straight, and her boot heels clattered loudly on the floor, echoing through the hall in time with her frustration.

"Damn, what's eating her," she heard Johnny mutter.

"I don't think this is the time to ask," Sue whispered back.

Shandra refused to pay them much attention; it was all she could do to keep her composure after all she'd discovered about her longtime friends in a short period of time. People she trusted. People she loved.

The M04 scientists, her close friends at Stark-Fuji, had gone crazy. She'd befriended and loved them, and even courted one of them ... but now that their illicit and sadistic activities were exposed, and she doubted she'd ever really known them. Even the times they'd hung out together, laughing and talking about nothing and everything under the sun, had taken on an ugly new dimension. As had her former relationship with Christi Wood....

The Hotwire Martyrs, her former gang and former family, were dead. Zero, Phrack, 2800, Warewolf ... all murdered months ago by a rival gang over stolen corporate data. They'd raised her, taught her how to survive on the streets of Transverse City, and even taught her how to hack into the most secured databases in the world.

She'd taken that knowledge and stolen data about the Negative Zone from Stark-Fujikawa before leaving Transverse. Now she was working for the corporation, and she'd just discovered that Hikaru knew about her transgression.

Which led to her making a very disturbing deal with Hikaru....

"Shandra?" Sue's voice interrupted her thoughts. "Are you ready?"

Shandra shook her head, looking around. She realized she'd been so preoccupied that she'd practically sleepwalked through the rest of the trip to the Homegate portal, including the elevator ride. Now the portal was stretched out before her, a thin energy membrane of swirling particles and colors in seemingly random patterns. She normally enjoyed trips through the portal into the Negative Zone, but at this moment she couldn't bring herself to care. She just wanted to go home, go to sleep, and hope the events of the past 24 hours would turn out to be a simple nightmare.

She crossed the threshold, hoping all the horror and misery would stay on the other side of the gleaming vortex. She had no intention of ever coming back.


Well. That was an unusual issue, wasn't it?

For those of you wondering, the villain briefly glimpsed in this issue is in fact Flipside, a shapeshifting simulacrum first created in the 20th century to mimic superheroes. The full story of the Fantastic Four's encounter with Flipside (and their teamup with Moon Knight 2099) is a tale for another time, I promise.

Meantime, onto the lettercol! Take it away, Rena:

Okay, first it was a long wait, and the stuff I've been looking forward to, Yancy Street, an encounter with Old Skool's grieving relatives and the continuation of the big New Years Eve shocker with Ben and Sue are still to wait for. Even so it was a good issue. Almost a little bit more of a 2099 story than an FF story I think, but I enjoyed it.

Thanks! I hope I've managed to wrap up the Downtown storyline nicely (well, except for the stuff with Flipside and Moon Knight, of course), and set Ben on the direction that leads to the story in the 2099: New Year's Eve Special, in which he studies Judaism and develops a romance with Sue.

The 2099 world is like a cool What If? universe that one would want to explore thoroughly in multiple ongoing series. And to explore it with familiar characters like the FF is definitely one good route to go. Even though they're clones, of all the FF series out there again I will say I think you represent them better than anybody else has.

Yeah, these past few issues have been a look into 2099 as much as they've been a look at the characters, in that 2099 is the environment to which characters react and develop. The character growth for the FF clones is primarily a study on nature vs. nurture, so consider 2099 a very harsh 'nurture' environment for them.

Johnny at the end there however, I don't know, he might have been just a little too flippant? Or maybe not, with how he is and everything being so whacked. It's just how it kinda struck me. I think like all of them, his personality can be easily exaggerated beyond what it is if one is not careful. Not saying you did that.

It's a fair statement to make. But the stuff I've been doing with Johnny is building toward an evolution of his character that's different from the twencen Johnny's, kind of like I've been doing most noticeably with Ben. Stay tuned.

Sergeant Harkness, I highly doubt it, but could he be any relation to Agatha? Just because of the name, and in an FF title, she just naturally comes to mind to me.

There's no known relation between Agatha and the Sergeant. I was just amused by the idea of the FF 2099 being "babysat" by SIEGE Watchdogs, so it seemed natural to give him the last name of one of Franklin's twencen babysitters.

And while the FF is on earth will they run into anybody like Miguel or Moon Knight or the X-Men? Either in their own title or guest-starring in one of their series? Could the new Frightful scientists show up in other titles too as villains later on? Maybe Hikaru sends the Hand after them in UGR Unlimited?

Funny you should mention Moon Knight. :)

There's a lot of interesting stuff you set up in the Negative Zone to be gotten back to, and stuff at the same time that could happen on earth that I really wish you were able to write faster than you do and put this FF title out monthly. I like Blade a lot, but if it meant getting out the FF much more I could live with less of him.

--Rena, via e-mail

So far bimonthly has worked out the best for this title, Rena. Hope you don't mind too much!

--David Ellis, 05.21.06

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