FANTASTIC FOUR #4
‘NEGATIVE ENERGIES’ or ‘SUB-PLOTS, SUB-PLOTS, EVERYWHERE!’
By Chris McFeely
Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, stood in the middle of the remains of Reed Richards’s laboratory, on the top floor of their skyscraper headquarters of Four Freedoms Plaza, wearing nothing but his underwear, and feeling considerably uncomfortable about it.
"Any chance you can speed this up, Reed?" he asked, drawing his brother-in-law’s attention.
"Only a few more minutes, Johnny," Reed answered, not looking up from the control panel for a large spherical device. It had been fortunate that it, along with about a dozen of Reed’s other machines, had survived the Frightful Four’s assault on the building. "This molecular separation unit is very sensitive. It needs time."
"Well, if you don’t mind," Johnny said, "I’m going to... Flame On!" With that, his body erupted into fire, as he flipped the mental switch that transformed him into the Human Torch, contented with the fact that his flame did something to obscure his state of undress.
"Honestly, Johnny, can’t wait another 9.000104 seconds?" Reed said, with a hint of exasperation at the youth’s impatience. "Perhaps if you had waited to assess the situation with Bounty, you wouldn’t be in this situation."
Then, there was a loud DING sound, and Johnny’s Fantastic Four uniform rolled out of the molecular separator on a conveyor belt. "Ding?" Johnny said, surprised. "What’d you do, build this thing out of old microwave parts?"
"Something like that," Reed said, with a ghost of a smile. He stretched an arm over to the conveyor and picked up Johnny’s costume. "Here," he said, handing it to him. "I’ve successfully purged the gas particles from its structure." Gratefully, Johnny flamed off, took the outfit, and pulled it on. "You see," Reed continued, "the particles from Bounty’s gas actually formed an electron bond with the unstable molecules in your uniform, and, as unstable molecules are unaffected by your flame, the gas molecules, and their affects on you, were constant, no matter how much you tried to burn them up."
"Yep," came Bounty’s voice, as she strode into the lab, her high-heeled boots clicking on the marble floor and her brown duster jacket fluttering around her. "Got that especially for you, Torchie," she said, coming to a stop beside Reed and Johnny. "It did its job well." Johnny grimaced. "Now," Bounty went on, "where’s that big, burly Benjy got himself off to?"
"I’m sure I don’t know," Reed commented, turning back to the molecular separator, and flicking a few switches to deactivate it.
"Ben usually goes to the bagel shop at this time of the morning," Johnny added, not looking at Bounty, but instead igniting his arm to make sure the integrity of his suit’s molecules remained.
"Really?" Bounty said, bringing a hand to her chin. "Well... I’ll see you later, boys." The bounty hunter turned on her heel, and strode out of the lab. Once the elevator doors had closed behind her, a set of baby blue eyes peeped out from behind the mangled remains of a console.
"You can come out now, Ben," Reed said, chuckling.
"Thanks, guys," Benjamin J. Grimm said, standing up and dusting himself off. "That doll wont leave me alone! She’s been followin’ me everywhere!" Ben stretched his arms and yawned, cracking his knuckles and neck.
"Rather you than me, buddy," Johnny said.
"I can’t believe yer lettin’ her go to the Negative Zone with us!" Ben exclaimed. "I’m never gonna be able to ditch her!"
"With Caledonia gone, Sue needs to remain behind to look after Franklin," Reed explained, "and Johnny needs to monitor our status. I don’t like it either, Ben, but we need all the help available. It’s was indeed a most inopportune occurrence that Alyssa had to return to Stockholm, but she was called back on a matter of some urgency, as I understand it." (Psst... Reed’s talking about Alyssa Moy, his old friend, who’s being living with the FF since Reed and Ben met up with her in Stockholm during their battle with Crucible in the *real* FF #5. Prior to #1 of this series, she has, as Reed said, returned home - Chris)
"She never tell you what it was about?" Ben inquired.
"Suffice it to say, Ben, it was something she seemed to want to keep to herself."
"This stinks, Reed," Johnny said, changing the subject back to the current dilemma.. "Cal’s my responsibility! I brought her here, I took care of her, and I... we... I was hoping that... Aw, look, it just stinks, okay?"
"Unca Johnny’s got a girlfriend, Unca Johnny’s got a girlfriend!" Franklin Richards chanted, as his mother Susan Storm Richards, the Invisible Woman, carried him into the lab, in her arms. Puppy padded along behind her, duly barking his approval of Franklin’s teasing.
"Watch it, Sparky," Johnny said, smiling at him.
"Hi daddy!" Franklin said, waving at his father.
"Good morning, son," Reed said, taking Franklin from Sue. "And how did you sleep last night? Any more of those ‘robot’ dreams?"
"Yeah!" Franklin squealed, excited. "There was this buncha good robots, an’ they were trapped by this big bad, purple robot, an’ he only had one eye, an’ they were in this big, big city, an’ it was snowing, an’ there was this other robot in the snow..."
Reed chuckled and tousled Franklin’s hair. "You’ve got quite the imagination, son," he said.
Franklin stopped smiling. "But then, daddy, it got real bad. All the robots were real sick, they were runnin’ out of some kinda vitamin or somethin. I don’t ‘member all of it... I c’n ‘member lots of people crying... an’ you an’ mommy and Unca Ben and Johnny were there... somethin’ ‘bout someone bein’ lost... an’ then, I.. I ‘member that mommy got lost too..." Franklin’s voice trailed off as his lower lip begin to quiver.
Sue took Franklin in her arms again. "Oh, don’t cry, munchkin," she said, comfortingly. "It was only a dream, and dreams aren’t real. Mommy will always be here."
Franklin started smiling again. "Yeah," he said. Puppy barked, and ran around Sue’s feet.
"My instruments are almost calibrated," Reed said, scanning several readouts on the console in front of him. "We can begin the trans-temporal displacement within the hour."
"Guess someone better go find Bounty," Johnny said, looking at Ben and winking. The rock-skinned superhero cringed.
On the street outside Four Freedoms Plaza, a small, brownish-green land rover pulled up, and sat idle at the side of the road, being careful to avoid the ‘No Parking’ area, knowing what had happened to a certain yellow Volkswagen Beetle that had not been that sensible. No-one was on the sidewalk at the moment this land rover pulled up, which was, in no uncertain terms, a good thing. Because, had anyone been walking past, and had they happened to have glanced at the land rover, they would surely have found it odd that this particular land rover... did not have a driver.
"...’bout five foot ten, black hair, duster jacket," Ben described Bounty to Stan, the hot dog vendor, whose cart sat on the same street as Karl’s Bagel Store, one of Ben’s favourite eateries. "Wearin’... uh... purple spandex... lookin’ fer me."
"Yeah, I seen her," Stan replied, adding mustard to a hot dog and handing it to a woman standing beside Ben. The woman hastily paid Stan and walked quickly away from his cart, more than a little perturbed by Ben’s appearance, even though she knew who he was quite well.
"Well, where’d she go?" Ben inquired, folding his arms.
Stan pointed down the street. "Saw her headin’ off that way. Got a li’l somethin’ goin’ on, eh, Benjy?" The moustachioed man winked at Ben and clicked his jaw. Ben clenched.
"Uh... thanks, Stan," he said, dodging the question in a particularly obvious way.
"No problemo, Benjy," Stan said, wiping down the surface of his cart. "Now gowan. Geddoudahere. Yer scarin’ away all my business." Stan smiled a good-natured smile, and winked again.
"Later," Ben remarked, as he set off down the street in search of the bounty hunter.
Just inside the entrance to a darkened alleyway, a little further up the street, Bounty stood, having heard every word of Ben’s exchange with Stan. As the FF member walked past, muttering something about women being nothing but trouble, Bounty’s eyes narrowed, and she smirked to herself. Moving quickly, she shimmied up a fire escape, and flipped on to the top of the building it was attached to. Darting across the roof, she kept her eye on Ben, shadowing him. When he stopped to look around, evidently seeing if he could spot her, she vaulted over the side of the roof, and dropped the several floors down to the ground, land perfectly on Ben’s shoulders, wrapping her slender legs around his neck. Ben squeaked in surprise, and staggered back. Overbalanced by Bounty’s weight, he fell flat on his back, as Bounty backflipped off of him. He hit the ground with a thud that shook the entire sidewalk. Blinking is surprise, he looked up too see Bounty standing over him, grinning unbearably.
"Dangit, woman!" Ben exclaimed, hefting his rocky form up. "Didja hafta go and do that?"
"Of course," Bounty replied.
"Yeah, I’ll bet you say that to all the guys..." Ben mumbled, brushing himself off. "Look, I got sent to find ya. We’re almost ready to go on our little pleasure trip." The sarcasm was evident in his voice.
"Pleasure..." Bounty said, chewing on the word. "Well, let’s hope so." She leant in close to Ben, which unnerved him greatly, forcing him to back up about five steps.
"Ah, c’mon," he said, turning away from her, and heading back in the direction of Four Freedoms Plaza.
Bounty paused for a moment before following. "I love it when they play hard to get," she said to herself, and then proceeded to move off after Ben.
Reed stood in front of the large circular portal through which Caledonia had vanished the previous evening. The doorway was unstable at best, as he had not had time to finalise the conduit before he had had his attention drawn away from the project by the arrival and subsequent investigation into the origins of the new Deathlok, so he hoped that the woman had not suffered any ill effects from the transportation. He had spent the whole night, and most of the morning, calibrating the portal’s major systems, to minimise the risk of molecular alteration or distortion, which was greater when a group travelled through the portal at once. Behind him, he heard the heavy tread of Ben, and turned to see his old friend enter the lab, in his FF uniform, such as it was, followed by Bounty.
"Everythin’ ready, Stretch?" Ben asked.
"As ready as it will ever be," Reed replied, twiddling an unnecessary knob on the console, nerves getting the better of him for once.
"Then let’s do it," Bounty said. "The sooner this is over, the better."
"Agreed," Reed said. "Johnny?"
Johnny looked up from his position by the technical readout screens. "Let’s light this candle," he quipped, and pressed a sequence of buttons, and flipped a switch. The circular portal hissed open, but this time, there was no rush of air or roaring vacuum as there had been when Caledonia was sucked in, as Reed had stabilised the interface.
"After you," Reed said, gesturing for Bounty to move into the portal.
"I don’t think so," Bounty said, with a slanted smile.
"Outta the way," Ben said, shoving the bounty hunter aside, and striding boldly into the energy vortex. Reed was next, reaching one elongated arm into the midst of the portal, and allowing his body to flow through the distortion area. Bounty was last, and somersaulted dramatically through the gateway. Once the trio had vanished from Johnny’s sight, he shut the portal door. With a sigh, he turned his attention to the various screens bearing technical symbols and information which he could only just manage to decipher. Again, his thoughts drifted to Caledonia. She was his responsibility. He should have gone in after her. And Reed and Ben’s story about a robot of some kind... it was incredible! He had been unconscious at the time, and hadn’t seen anything, but recently the newspapers had been full of stories about giant robot attacks across the country, and some scattered news reports indicated that even the X-Men had encountered some of these mechanoid creatures. (See "X-Men" #’s 4 and 5 for details - Chris). And Franklin’s dreams... this was an all-too familiar scenario.
Johnny sighed again.
Somewhere... in a darkened room, a single being, hidden completely in shadow, watched and listened as a pot-bellied man in a tweed business suit leaned against a metal table, upon which lay a well-built male body, clothed in a bizarre psychedelic costume of orange spandex. There were three other tables in the room, all lined up alongside each other. On them there laid a slender young woman, in a blue outfit, another young male in a dark uniform, and a massive, muscular figure, with a metal sheen to his skin.
"Were there not five?" the shadowed being asked, in a raspy female voice.
"Reports seemed to indicate that there were five hospitalised, yes," the man explained, "but the fifth escaped."
"Escaped?" the female echoed. "They are in comas, dear man."
"These four, yes," the man went on, producing a handkerchief and mopping his brow. The room was warm, and not air-conditioned. "But the fifth’s previous experiences with psychic and mental control seemed to allow him to resist the disruption that rendered them comatose. I do believe he is in custody now, after a battle with the esteemed Iron Man."
"Hmn," the female character grunted. "Well, this should be an effective number, nonetheless. Let’s get them out of here."
Ben Grimm hit the ground, landing on his shoulder. He struggled to get upright, and wound up vomiting. "Gaahh..." he groaned, looking around for his companions with bleary eyes.
"I’m sorry about that, Ben," Reed said, with a similar groan, appearing next to Ben, and unceremoniously wiping his own chin clean of vomit with his glove. "The portal still isn’t quite as stable as I’d have liked. A little disorientation was likely."
"A little...?" Ben drawled, and vomited again.
"What a RIDE!" Bounty exclaimed, standing upright, apparently no worse for the wear, surveying the terrain. Reed regarded her curiously, intrigued by her lack of nausea. Pushing the thought from his mind for now, he activated his uniform computer, and awaited confirmation of their location.
"Success," Reed said, as Ben got up, suitably recovered. "We have indeed been brought to the location of the component’s tracking signal that I locked on to before. Argor."
"Now," Ben said, "the question is, where do we start lookin’? For Cal or for your gizmos?"
"I’d say THAT would be a good bet," Bounty chimed in. Reed and Ben followed her pointing finger, and saw a large settlement, several miles away, Reed estimated. But, hanging in the air over the settlement, was a massive craft, over a hundred kilometres long, bristling with weaponry.
"Indeed," Reed said. "But how will we get there expediently?"
"Simple when you know how," Bounty commented, reaching for a pocket on her belt. There was a flash of light, and when the spots that swam in front of Reed and Ben’s eyes disappeared, they were standing in the midst of the city, at the base of a massive spire which rose straight into the air, upon which the behemoth ship rested.
"Zardian Mark IV instantaneous matter transmitter," she said, before either could ask the question. "Great," Ben said. "Now that we’re here, what do we DO?"
"We must not make our presence known," Reed rationed. He looked upwards, at the mammoth spacecraft. "This is indeed the flagship of Annihilus, and he will assuredly not waste any time in seeking conflict with us, should he become aware of our being here."
"Uh... Reed?" Ben said, tapping his friend on the shoulder, as he examined the huge spire they stood beside. "Too late."
Turning, Reed’s jaw dropped as Annihilus’s shock troops poured out of every alleyway and building in sight, their weapons trained on the small entourage. Bounty and Ben immediately assumed battle stances, but Reed eyed the troopers carefully, examining their armour and weaponry. He held up a hand to Ben. "Stand down, Ben," he ordered.
"What?!" exclaimed Ben, flabbergasted. "We’re givin’ up - without a fight?"
"You’re putting me on," Bounty said, calmly.
"I only wish I were," Reed replied. Then, slowly, solemnly, he raised both his hands into the air in surrender. Ben grudgingly did the same.
"Well, I’m not part of your rinky-dinky little FF team," Bounty snapped. "I go down fighting!" However, before she could draw her eyes off of Reed as she delivered the insult, six troopers piled on top of her and beat her senseless. Their pummelling fists soon rendered her unconscious.
One trooper marched up behind Reed and jabbed his rifle into his back. "Move," he commanded. Three more troopers did the same to Ben, and another two picked Bounty up over their shoulders and carried her in the same direction that Ben and Reed were being led. The trooper watching Reed tapped his breastplate. "We’ve got them," he spoke into a hidden communicator. "Bring us aboard."
Suddenly, silently, a shimmering beam of blue light arced downward from the gargantuan vessel above the small assemblage. As it flowed over them, they felt themselves being tugged upwards, and, slowly at first, but then picking up more speed, they were levitated clear of the ground and drawn into the ship. In moments, they were pulled inside a large hatchway, with shut behind them with a resounding clang. Reed and Ben looked around them, at the interior of the small section of the ship, only to find their attention draw to two green glowing orbs nestled in the shadows in a corner.
"Is has been a long time, flesh bags," a voice half-hissed, half-squawked. The seven-foot tall frame of Annihilus, the living death who walks, stepped from the shadows, his eyes seething with emerald energy at the sight of his hated foes. His massive wings spread themselves out behind him at his mental command, as he presumably attempted to make himself appear more menacing. To a lesser man, he would have looked unto the Devil himself, but Reed Richards and Ben Grimm were most assuredly not lesser men. Reed stared the bat-like overlord in the eyes. Annihilus spoke again. "I have long been hoping you would return to my domain, Richards."
"I can imagine why," Reed spat back.
"Of course, though I am loathe to admit it, you have a brilliant mind," Annihilus commented. "One which can easily grasp the concept of irony."
"What’s he talkin’ about, Reed?" Ben asked, and was granted a sharp jab in the back from the barrel of a trooper’s rifle.
"Simple, really, Ben," Reed replied, still focusing his eyes on Annihilus. "Those troopers. Their weapons. Their armour. Even that teleporter beam. I recognise them all. I built them."
"Wha-at?" Ben yelped.
"The components shunted into the Negative Zone..." Reed said.
"...were retrieved by myself," Annihilus finished. "I know not who was generous enough to supply me with such a wide variety of instruments and arsenal, but the advanced level of technology was unmistakable. The work of the great Reed Richards, no doubt. Granted, I had a little more trouble gaining control of the weaponry than I would have liked..." (See Bug #1 - Chris)
"Ah, fer the luvva my sweet Aunt Petunia..." Ben sighed.
"It was not a difficult task for my own scientists to break down the principles on which your array of devices functioned," Annihilus went on. "I must extend my thanks. You weaponry has made my growing conquest of the entire Negative Zone proceed much faster. And, of course, as I said, the ultimate irony will be to end your own miserable lives, and the life of your companion there -" Annihilus jerked his head in Bounty’s direction "- with your own creations."
"Enough with the exposition, awready," Ben grunted. "If yer gonna do the deed, just get it over with." "Oh, not yet," Annihilus said. "I want to savour this. There is more to show you."
Annihilus gestured with a single talon, and the troopers forced Reed and Ben to follow him as he walked from the room. Bounty was dragged along the ground by a single trooper. Annihilus led the small group along metal walkway, overlooking some sort of motor pool, where troopers and mechanics tinkered and prepped machines with resembled the Pogo-Plane and the Fantasti-Car. "The schematics for your vehicles were amongst the data in the computer files recovered," Annihilus informed Reed. "Most useful."
Annihilus reached the end of the walkway, and tapped a keypad built into the wall. A door hissed back into the wall, and Annihilus continued through. "However, it was not until very recently that I acquired something that I believe is of great value to you," he said, coming to a halt in the midst of a darkened room. "Would you like to know what that would be?"
Reed remained silent, and Annihilus grimaced, angered at not provoking a response from the human. He snapped his clawed fingers, and lights flooded the room, illuminating every inch of it. Exquisitely decorated, a throne sat at the font, bearing Annihilus’s likeness carved into the structure at the top of the backrest. Flags depicting Annihilus in numerous poses were hung around the room. But by far the most disturbing sight to Reed and Ben’s eyes, was what they saw hanging on the wall to their right.
The battered form of Caledonia was strung up, bound by chains around her waist, wrists and ankles, suspending her from the ground. Her face was bruised and bloodied, and her costume was ripped in numerous places. Her cape was nothing more than tatters.
"Cal!" Ben exclaimed, darting towards her. Instantly, the troopers all unholstered their weapons and pointed them at Ben, but Annihilus held up a hand.
"Wait!" he commanded. Then, turning to Reed, he said: "Go to her, Richards. There is nothing you may do now. All your deaths are inevitable."
Reed padded over to Cal, and cupped her chin gently, lifting her head to look at her. Her eyes flickered open. "Doc... Doctor Richards?" she asked, weakly. "Is... that you?"
"Yes, Alysande," Reed replied, examining her wounds.
"Ach... ye... ye shouldn’t have come..." she struggled to speak.
"Don’t talk crazy, Cal," Ben said. "We had to. Yer like one of the family."
"How touching," Annihilus said, disgusted. "I do think its about time we finished this, men." The troopers cocked their rifles and aimed for the trio. "Kill them."
The searing hiss of multiple laser blasts filled the room, hitting their targets perfectly. Three dead bodies collapsed to the ground.
TO BE CONTINUED!