FANTASTIC FOUR #1
"STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT"
By Chris McFeely
Adjusting his spectacles, the man reached forward and tapped several more keys on the computer keyboard in front of him. The emblem of S.H.I.E.L.D., the Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate, flashed up on the screen in front of him, the likeness of an eagle surrounding a spherical representation of the American flag, along with the message "Access Denied". The man sighed, removed his spectacles, and rubbed his tired eyes. He yawned. One more try, then he was going home.
After replacing his spectacles, the man paused to think for a moment. He pursed his lips and extended a hand over the keyboard, striking his chosen keys quickly and accurately. His little finger extended and hit the 'Enter' key. Again, the image of the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo appeared on his screen, and he sighed, and reached for the mouse to shut down the unrelenting machine. Then, suddenly, a second or so later, the emblem vanished, and he was greeted with the sight of a message box reading "Access Granted: Press Enter to Continue". The bespectacled man gave a sigh of relief and leaned back in his chair. Reaching forward, he casually struck the 'Enter' key again. After a brief pause, the screen flashed once, and reams of information exposed themselves to eyes that already knew every single bit of the data there, and more. The man smiled, and began to proceed with his task.
"Ah, cripes!" Benjamin J. Grimm exclaimed. Ben, the rock-skinned member of the Fantastic Four known as the Thing, was presently standing in front of the oven, in the kitchen area of the Fab Four's secondary residence, Pier Four, wearing a chef's hat and the apron that Sue always made him wear when he cooked.
"What's wrong, Unca Ben?" inquired Franklin Richards, son of Sue and Reed, as he walked over to Ben, his godfather, clutching his favourite toy, his blue ball. He barely even reached the height of Ben's knee.
"Breakfast just went down the drain, short-stuff," Ben replied, poking the burnt yellowish mass that lay in the frying pan on top of the cooker in front of him with a spatula he held in his right hand. "Mama Grimm's blue-eyed baby boy's extra-special Clobberin' Time cheese omelette - patent pendin', kiddo - is now tomorrow'ss garbage." He picked up the frying and stomped on the pedal of the trash can beside him. The lid promptly snapped up, broke off its hinge and sailed through the air, shattering a window and landing with a splash in the Hudson River. Franklin watched with great amusement.
"Not again, Ben...," came the voice of Susan Storm Richards, the Invisible Woman, as she walked into the room, alerted by the sound of breaking glass. She was wearing a purple suit jacket.
"Sorry, Suzie," Ben said, with an apologetic grin on his face, as he scraped the over-cooked jaundice-coloured blob into the trash can. "Just don't know my own stren'th."
Carefully, Sue put her head through the large hole in the broken window. She sighed, a mixture of exasperation at the broken window, and at the numerous wolf-whistles directed at her from the dock workers below. Drawing her head back inside, she turned back to Ben.
"Sure hope Reed gets done with his experiments soon," Ben said, tossing the frying pan and spatula into the sink and removing his hat. "I'm gonna go stir-crazy in this tiny li'l place! You got any idea what he's workin' on, Suzie?"
"I honestly don't know, Ben," Sue replied. "But is must be something big if we all had to leave Four Freedoms Plaza." "Think it's got anything to do wit' that Deathlok character we had that run-in with?" Ben asked, struggling to untie the cord of the apron bound around his waist. He muttered curses and something about having only three fingers.
"Could be," Sue answered, moving behind Ben and untying the cord for him. "He seemed greatly taken with his technology."
"Just like Big-Brain," said Ben, slipping the apron off and hanging it up on a peg on the wall.
"I'm starving," said Johnny Storm, as he sauntered into the room, wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, with a grey sweater tied around his waist. "What's for breakfast?"
"Depends, Matchstick," Ben replied, walking out from behind the kitchen counter. "What are ya makin'?" Ben threw himself down on the couch, which complained nosily under his weight, grabbed the TV remote control, and flipped on the morning news. Johnny's stomach rumbled abjectly. "Ya mind keepin' it down?" Ben asked, with a wry grin on his rocky face. "I'm tryin' to watch the tube over here."
Gesturing with the index finer of his left hand, Johnny ignited the throw pillow Ben was sitting on with a small jet of flame. Ben leaped up with a cry, his blue 'diaper' aflame, and proceeded to slam his rocky hands against his equally rocky behind, in an effort to extinguish the flames. Johnny chuckled, as Franklin fell over, giggling uncontrollably. Sue rolled her eyes and tossed the flaming cushion out the already-broken window with an invisible projection.
Ben exhaled with relief as the fire was dissipated under the continuous blows of his rocky palm. A wisp of smoke curled from his singed garment, and he glared at Johnny. "You wanna throw down, Hotshot?" he asked, good-naturedly, advancing towards his young team-mate. Johnny backed away, holding his hands up, grinning, as Ben continued to move forward, until he was abruptly stopped by a wall of invisible energy.
"Oh, no you don't, Benjamin J. Grimm," Sue scolded, wagging her finger at Ben. "You're not starting that in here. You break one more window, and I swear, I'll kick you out of here myself!"
"Too bad, Benjy," Johnny said, smiling, satisfied that he was going to avoid a thrashing. His expression change abruptly as an invisible projectile whacked him none too gently over the head. "Ow!" he exclaimed, rubbing his wounded scalp.
"You're each of you as bad as the other," Sue remarked.
"Aw, lighten up, Suzie-Q," Ben implored. "We're just havin' a li'l fun! Ain't nothin' else to do around here these days." Ben picked up a newspaper from the coffee table, and slapped the front page with the back of his rocky hand. "Lookit this, there's so little happenin' in the world, the papers're makin' up the front page stories!"
Sue took the paper and read the headline: "RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE". She skimmed the article, which claimed that numerous sightings of giant mechanoid lifeforms across the country had occurred, prompting government action. "Stranger things have happened, Ben," she said, handing the paper back to him.
"Ah, c'mon, Suzie!" Ben exclaimed. "You really think that if a buncha giant robo-whatsits wuz tearin' up the country, we wouldn't know about it?" He threw the paper back down on the coffee table and resumed his position on the couch, sans pillow. He turned his attention to the news.
"Reports indicate that the mutant outlaws known as the X-Men were responsible for the break-in," the announcer droned, leafing through a collection of sheets in front of her. "Preliminary reports indicate that some form of documents were stolen, but further comments were not forthcoming."
Ben muttered angrily and flipped the channel to a cartoon show. "Heads up, Frankie," he said, gently tossing Franklin the remote underarm, and getting up from his sitting position. Franklin caught the remote in both hands, still managing to keep a hold of his ball. He scrambled up into the indentation left by Ben's behind in the couch and focused intently on the cartoon.
Ben walked over to the front door, the room shaking under his heavy footsteps. "I need some chow," he said, grabbing his overcoat off of the coat rack. "I'll be back in an hour or two. Maybe I'll drop in on Reed, see what the guy's up to."
"Bye Unca Ben," said Franklin, not taking his eyes off the TV screen.
"Try not to disturb Reed, Ben," Sue warned. "Just let him get done with his experiments, so we can move back in."
"Scout's honour, Suzie," Ben said, grinning. He tugged on his coat, and donned his wide-brimmed hat. He didn't really need to wear the outfit any more, as everyone in New York City knew who he was, so it's purpose as a disguise was moot, but he had grown attached to it, after all the years spent wearing it in the early part of the Fantastic Four's life. "Later," he said, and shut the door behind him.
"Anyone seen Sandy this morning?" Johnny asked, rummaging around in the fridge for something remotely edible. "What the hell is this...?" he muttered to himself, prodding a gelatinous glob of something grey that was sitting in a bowl on the middle shelf.
"Sandy was up real early this morning, Unca Johnny," Franklin said, still fixated on the cartoon. "She went up to the roof."
"The roof?" Johnny asked, looking up from the contents of the fridge.
"Yup," Franklin replied.
"You'd better go up and see if there's anything wrong with her, Johnny," Sue commented.
"Yeah," Johnny replied, absently, shutting the fridge door and forgetting his hunger for the moment.
The woman known as Alysande Stuart stood rigidly on the edge of the roof of the Pier Four building, her hands resting on the hilt of her sword, which remained in its scabbard. She was dressed in blue armour, decorated with a giant white cross, which extended from her shoulders to her waist. A cape of the same colour fluttered around her, gently moving in the wind coming from across the Hudson, the same wind blowing her short-cropped auburn hair about her face. She raised a white-gloved hand and brushed a strand out of her field of vision.
"Sandy?" she heard the voice of Johnny Storm from behind her. She did not turn around. Johnny flitted up through the hatchway to the roof, his body aflame, in the form of the Human Torch, and floated over alongside her. "You okay?"
"Aye," she replied, her Scottish accent evident in her words. "Nowt ye need concern yuirself wi'."
"Sandy, you're in your Caledonia form," Johnny persisted, rapping his knuckles on her armoured shoulder. "Something must be wrong."
"I... I cannae explain it," Alysande stammered. "I just... have a feelin'. Something is nae right wi' the world."
"And I suppose that justifies you standing up here, at 9 am, freezing your hiney off?" Johnny asked, arching his brow. "C'mon, lets go inside."
"Aye... I suppose yuir right," Alysande relented. Johnny extended a hand, and she accepted. She hopped own from the ledge, and in a flash of light, her armour disappeared, to be replaced with loose fitting pants and a blouse, both items green in colour. Johnny 'flamed off', and the two walked back across the roof towards the stairway hatch.
"That's more like it...," Ben Grimm said to himself, as he finished off a danish, and patted his stomach. Still holding a plastic cup of coffee, and a small paper bag, he entered the ground floor of Four Freedoms Plaza.
"Good morning, Mr. Grimm," Roberta, the receptionist, called to him from behind her desk.
"Hey Roberta!" Ben replied. "When'd Reed get you up an' runnin' again?"
"Just yesterday, Mr. Grimm," the robotic receptionist responded. "Your new human receptionist was only too happy to leave, after that nasty business with that Deathlok person." Roberta swivelled on the metallic pole that connected her to the desk at her waist, her legless body sharply turning to the intercom that sat on her desk. "I assume you'd like to see Dr. Richards."
"Yeah, if he ain't too busy," Ben confirmed. He took a sip of his coffee as he waited for Roberta to check. The female robot pressed a button on the intercom.
"Dr. Richards?" she spoke into the device. "Mr. Grimm is here to see you."
"Excellent!" came Reed Richards's voice, through the speakers on the machine. "Send him up!"
"You're in luck, Mr. Grimm," Roberta replied, looking up.
"Thanks, doll," Ben replied. "See you around."
"You too, Mr .Grimm," Roberta smiled at him, and turned back to her paperwork, as he pressed the button for the elevator.
"Your timing couldn't have been better, old friend," Reed Richards said, welcoming Ben into his laboratory. His chin was coated with stubble, and Ben felt the need not to comment on the mild odour Reed seemed to be emitting. He must have been working straight for the past two days.
"Hey Stretch," Ben said, handing Reed the paper bag he was carrying. "Kinda had the feelin' you wouldn'ta has breakfast yet. Coffee anna couple'a pastries."
"Thank you, Ben," Reed said, taking the bag. Stretching his arm across to the table on the other side of the room, he set the bag aside, and turned to the row of computer terminals that lined the wall. "Look at this," he said, stabbing an elongated finger at the first screen. Displayed there was the emblem of S.H.I.E.L.D., along with a message box reading "Access Denied".
"What'm I lookin' at, Reed?" Ben inquired.
"Well, it has to do with the new Deathlok," Reed explained. "At first, his technology seemed completely unknown to me, but then as I reflected on the information, I realised that some of the principles on which his cybernetic aspects functioned were indeed familiar, but I could not, for the life of me, recall where I had seen them before."
"So...," Ben made hand motions to speed up his friend's story.
"I know that we have an extensive storage of technological devices at Pier Four, but I found it more expedient to use our computer files on the technology stored there. After poring through our personal computer archives, with no luck, I attempted to log onto the S.H.I.E.L.D., Pentagon, and Avengers computer databases to locate the information. This is what I got."
Reed stretched out his arm and gestured at all the other screens, displaying similar "Access Denied" messages. "What about Stark-Fujikawa?" Ben asked.
"The same," Reed replied.
"Starcore? NASA? Project Wideawake?"
Reed shook his head. "Nothing."
"What the heck's goin' on, Reed?" Ben wondered, massaging his brow.
"I wish I knew, old friend," Reed sighed. "I can't get in contact with any of the Avengers themselves. There's some form of massive security block on all our computer files."
"Well...," Ben reasoned, "we wuz 'dead' for a year. Maybe they just didn't think we wuz comin' back."
"Possibly...," Reed mused, "but I'm going to run a few more checks, just to be sure. You can all move back in tomorrow."
"Sure thing, Reed," Ben said, turning to go. "Good luck."
"I'll need it, Ben," Reed muttered, absently scratching at the stubble on his chin.
"So, what's the sitch, Ben?" Johnny asked, as the rock-skinned superhuman came in through the front door of Pier Four at midday.
"It ain't good, Matchstick," Ben replied, taking off his coat and hat. "All access to our computer databases has been cut off. We can't get at any of our technical information."
"What?!" Sue exclaimed. "How?"
"Reed's workin' on it, Suzie," Ben explained, hanging up his coat. "He figgers he oughta have it straightened out by tomorrow. He said we could move back to the plaza then."
"Looks like your hunch was right, Sandy," Johnny commented, turning to Alysande, who was sitting with Franklin on the couch. "Something sure as heck isn't right here." Alysande met Johnny's gaze, but said nothing.
"There ain't nothin' we can do about if fer now," Ben said. "Reed'll deal with it."
"Yeah," Franklin piped up. "Daddy c'n fix it."
Sue picked Franklin up in her arms. "Let's hope so, munchkin," she said. He giggled when she called him that. He liked it.
Ben walked towards the communications room. "I'm gonna try to get in touch with the Avengers. Maybe they can help straighten this out," he said. Sue followed, still carrying Franklin, as did Johnny and Alysande. "Computer," Ben ordered, using the machine's voice activation control. "Give me a connection with Avengers Mansion."
"Complying," the computer replied in a modulated electronic voice. In seconds, the image of the android Avenger known as the Vision appeared on the screen.
"Greetings, Thing," the Vision said, in his moderated voice. "How may I help you?"
"We seem ta be havin' some trouble with our computer systems," Ben explained. "I wuz wonderin' if maybe you knew anythin' about it."
"One moment, please," the Vision replied. He powered off his optical circuits, and stared into space for a few moments. Then his optics glowed with life again. "I'm sorry, Thing," he said, "but there is a security block of considerable proportions on your files in the Avengers database. Strict protocols forbid my conversing with you on this matter. This discussion must be terminated."
And with that, the Vision disappeared from the screen.
"Well, how d'ya like that?" Ben said, in exasperation. "Lousy, no-good, crummy, stinkin'..."
"Pouting wont help, Ben," Sue said.
"I ain't poutin'," Ben responded, even though he quite clearly was.
That evening, as Franklin was asleep in his nursery, with Puppy, the strange unnamed dog found Caledonia had found in the Four Freedoms Plaza ruins, curled up beside his bed, Ben, Sue, Johnny, and Alysande, sat around watching TV.
"What a day," Ben commented, flipping rapidly through the channels. "Aside from computer troubles, ain't not a single thing happened! No super-villains, no common criminals, and now, not even a blamed decent thing on the flamin' tube!"
"You should be grateful, Ben," Sue said. "It's not often the Fantastic Four get a day off."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever...," Ben muttered.
Alysande shifted uneasily in her seat, and looked around. "C'mon Sandy," Johnny said. "You've been like this all day. Nothing's gonna happen."
"I wish I could believe ye, Johnny," Alysande said morbidly. "I just feel as if... as if..."
Before Alysande could finish her sentence, a massive explosion shook the room, throwing everyone to the ground. Debris flew in all direction, even as Ben manoeuvred his rocky body to protect the others from the hail of rubble. "What in the sam hill was that?!" he bellowed.
"Let's find out," Sue said. Her suit jacket's unstable molecules reformed themselves into her familiar Fantastic Four uniform, as Alysande shifted into her armoured form of Caledonia.
"Flame on!" Johnny cried, and his body ignited in a flare of light. Seconds later, it was the only light in the room, as all electronic appliances winked off.
"What the...?!" Ben stumbled backwards in the darkness. "Who turned out the blamed lights?" Even as the words escaped Ben lips, a section of wall collapsed in front of them, as thunderous blows were rained down upon it from outside. A tall, powerfully built figure crashed through he hole created, followed by about five more similar beings. Ben couldn't see clearly in the dark, but charged forward anyway. "Lousy bums!" he exclaimed, pulling back his fist, preparing to deliver a punch. "Man's home is his castle!" Before Ben could swing his fist, the lead figure, the one who had smashed the wall down, turned and slammed his fist into Ben's jaw. Knocked clean off his feet, Ben went sailing through the air, and crashed into a bookcase. He massaged his jaw, and blinked a few times. "Awright!" he yelled, getting up. "Now you done went an' made me mad!"
"Fan out," the lead figure said to the others behind him, in an electronic voice, paying no heed to Ben in the least. "Position the space-time disruptors as directed." The five others darted off in different directions.
Johnny moved to intercept one, but was backhanded into a wall. As he righted himself, the figure darted past, clutching some form of machinery. He was moving faster than Johnny would have though possible.
Caledonia leapt in front of another, and brandished her sword in its direction. "Let's see if ye like the taste o' Scottish steel!" she cried, and dived towards the being, which was a head and shoulders taller than her. Moving gracefully, the creature side-stepped, and Caledonia missed it completely with her swipe. He seized her wrist, forcing her to drop her sword, and tossed her over its shoulder, sending her hurtling into Johnny.
Ben again charged towards the lead figure, yelling his battle cry. "It's Clobberin' Time!" he proclaimed, smashing the figure in the chest with his massive fist. It staggered under the attack, but was not badly hurt. Ben was dumbstruck. "That punch woulda floored the Hulk!" he cried in disbelief. His surprise was soon forgotten as he crashed into the kitchen counter, having been punched again by the creature.
Sue, meanwhile, was struggling with another of the beings. She had knocked the device it was carrying from it's hand, but her invisible projections were not phasing the creature. It simply shrugged off everything she hit it with. It raised its fist high above its head, and prepared to deliver the final blow.
"SUE!" she heard someone cry. Then, suddenly, the elasticated body of Reed Richards tore into the room, and slammed into the back of the creature looming over Sue, sending it to the ground. Morphing his malleable fists into mallets, he pounded on the creature's skull, until it reached up, grabbing his left hand, and hoisted him into the air. Whirling him like a lasso, he threw him into Sue, and the couple collapsed to the floor, entangled.
"Are you all right, darling?" Reed asked, his voice full of concern, as untangled his extended appendages from around Sue.
"Yes, Reed, I'm fine," she said, getting up, "but who or what are those creatures? What do they want?"
"I don't know, Sue," Reed replied. "The computers at Four Freedoms Plaza registered an explosion at the warehouse. I came immediately."
"Disruptors in place," reported the being who had backhanded Johnny, as it ran back into the room, along with the other four.
"Excellent," the leader said, still grappling with Ben. "as entertaining as this is, Mr. Grimm, I'm afraid we have to leave now. Thank you for a wonderful evening." With that, the leader kicked Ben in the gut, hurtling him across the room. When Ben looked up, all he could see were six pinpricks of light in the night sky, flying away from Pier Four at incredible speed.
"Why'd those crumbs leave like that, Reed?" Been asked, looking up. "They planted bombs or somethin'?
"No, old friend," Reed responded. "Something worse." He stretched his body across the room, to examine one of the devices the creatures had positioned in the building. "This is a space-time disruptor, set to detonate in under two minutes. As you know, this warehouse is a tesseract - it exists in time as well as space. The space inside the warehouse is unlimited. There's always room for storage."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, you got it from that Doctor guy you were friends wit', I know," Ben said. "Do we really got time to hear this?"
"When this disruptor, and the others around the building detonate, it will generate a massive disruption in the lines of matter binding the tesseract. The warehouse is going to implode!" Reed yelled.
"Can't you defuse it?" Johnny said. "There's no time!" Reed exclaimed. "This technology... it's incredibly advanced, there's no way I can defuse it in this time left! Everybody out, now! Sue - get Franklin!"
Racing faster than she ever had before, Sue burst into the nursery and jostled Franklin awake. "Wake up, little man," she said, urgency in her voice. Puppy was already awake, barking ferociously, aggravated by the loud noises of the battle.
"Aw, mommy...," Franklin yawned, "do I gotta? I was havin' the coolest dream... there were these giant robots, an'..."
"Not now, munchkin," Sue said, lifting Franklin from his bed and surrounding him, Puppy, and herself with an invisible forcefield. With a crash, she hurled both of them out through the nursery window, just as the disruptors went off. Reed, Ben, Johnny, and Alysande rushed to her side, as the warehouse glowed with an inhumanly bright light, and then collapsed in on top of itself. With a small flare of energy, the entire building was gone, the only thing indicating that it had ever stood there being the pieces of broken glass, and a few chunks of rubble from the battle.
"Dear God...," Reed breathed. "All those machines... so much of my work..."
"Reed, are you thinkin' what I'm thinkin'?" Ben asked. "We just lost access to our computer files on all the technology we've ever encountered, an' now, the warehouse storin' most of the physical examples o' that technology gets attacked an' wiped offa the face'a the Earth too."
"Indeed Ben," Reed said, helping Sue and Franklin up. "Someone... or something... is trying very hard to keep a secret from us."
"The question is," Ben pondered, stroking his chin, "who?"
"Perhaps more importantly, old friend," Reed added, "what secret?"
Next Issue....The New Frightful Four!