FANTASTIC FOUR #5
By Chris McFeely
Reed Richards blinked.
A trooper’s helmet clattered to the ground at his feet. He found it rather disturbing that the trooper’s severed head was still inside it at the time. He turned his gaze away from it, and looked up.
Bounty was standing in the middle of the room, holding a smoking concussion rifle in her hands, with the dead bodies of Annihilus’s three shock troops lying around her, their heads blown clean off their bodies by the force blasts. The startled Annihilus himself was gaping at her, open-mouthed, wings sagging in shock. "Ya were playin’ possum?" Ben Grimm exclaimed.
"As I surmised," Reed said. Ben turned to look at him.
"Ya knew?" he asked his friend.
"You knew?" Bounty said, simultaneously.
"Of course," Reed replied.
"You are more cunning that you would have me believe, Richards," Annihilus hissed, quivering in anger. "But that shall not change the fact that you will not leave my mothership alive!"
Bounty moved to stand alongside Ben and Reed, but turned her attention to the wounded Caledonia, chained to the wall. Ben eyed her warily, as she reached into a pocket on one of the bandoleers that decorated her costume, and withdrew a small vial of blue liquid.
"Drink this, Red," Bounty said, gingerly holding the tube to Caledonia’s lips. "Orders are dead or alive... but if someone’s gonna kill ya, it’s gonna be me." Caledonia swallowed the contents of the tube, and her eyelids flickered open. Slowly, vitality returned to her battered body.
"You’re welcome to try and stop us, Annihilus," Reed said, as Bounty saw to Cal.
"With pleasure!" Annihilus screamed, as the cosmic control rod mounted on his chest glowed with amber energy. Acting quickly, Ben easily snapped the chains that bound Caledonia, and she jumped down the ground, drawing her sword, which Annihilus had foolishly not removed from her. A second later, a searing bolt of energy blew the section of wall she had been strung up on to atoms.
Without a word, Reed made a break for the door which led out of the room, smashing it open by morphing his fists into mallets. Ben ran after his friend, ducking and rolling under Annihilus’s energy blasts as the winged overlord screeched with rage. "What’s gotten in ta ya, Stretch?" he yelled as he ran. "This is the second time today that yer not puttin’ up a fight!"
"Quite simple, really, Ben!" Reed yelled back, as Bounty and Caledonia followed them out onto the walkway, the former deftly delivering a kick to Annihilus’s head as she passed. "I’d know my own technology anywhere - and I recognised it instantly when those troops accosted us earlier! I knew we had to get on board this ship, so as to have a chance of recovering some of the units!"
"Ya know," Ben commented, "just once I wish ya’d tell me about the plan!"
Moving quickly, the quartet arrived over the motor pool they had glimpsed before briefly, and Reed stretched his form out, over the edge of the walkway and down to the ground, into the midst of the startled mechanics. Taking the hint, Ben, Bounty, and Cal slid down Reed’s back, as Annihilus appeared overhead, soaring through the air, seething with fury.
"Destroy those insipid fleshbags!" he screamed, firing a volley of energy beams at them, killing one of the mechanics in the process. Reacting with terror at their master’s rage more than anything else, the mechanics grabbed any available tools to use as weapons, and advanced on the foursome.
"Bad move, greasemonkey," Bounty informed one of the creatures, as it lunged at her. Reacting with cold effectiveness, Bounty cocked her rifle and fired at point blank range into the creature’s stomach. It died instantly, as its back exploded, showering Bounty with blood. She grinned perversely.
Caledonia defended gracefully against the clumsy blows of another two of the mechanics with the flat of her sword blade, beating them both back. "Ah, now this is more like it!" she said, relishing in her freedom and agility.
As Caledonia and Bounty held off the unskilled assailants, Reed and Ben turned their attention to Annihilus. Stretching his arms upward, Reed grabbed hold of the edges of the walkway they had vacated moments earlier, and motion for Ben to grab onto his back.
"Ah, not the slingshot again..." Ben grumbled, but did as he was told, clambering onto Reed’s back and holding his friend by the shoulders. With a warning nod, Reed contracted the muscles in his arms, pulling his body up from the ground, rather than releasing the walkway, shooting Ben into the air like a human catapult. Annihilus roared with a mixture of surprise and anger and Ben shot directly towards him, and landed a haymaker directly on the despot’s chin, sending him crashing to the ground. Ben somersaulted in mid-air, and began hurtling back down to the ground, landing squarely on Annihilus’s chest, shattering his armour.
"You will... pay for that, meat!" Annihilus screeched, seizing Ben’s ankle and throwing him across the motor pool. Ben collided with three mechanics on the trip, who sufficiently cushioned the impact when he eventually hit the wall on the other side. Annihilus unsteadily got to his feet, and lunged for Reed, who delivered a devastating backhand, morphing his fist to ten times its normal size and sending Annihilus crashing to the ground with a single blow. A loud beeping sound caught Reed’s attention, and he looked down to his wrist, promptly morphing his fist back, and tapping a sequence of buttons on the built-in computer keypad mounted in his glove.
"Location derived!" he exclaimed, and yelled to Ben. "We need a doorway!" He pointed to a section of wall a few yards away from Ben.
"Didn’t I just ask ya ta tell me about the plan before ya go ahead and put it inta action?" Ben sad, arching a rocky eyebrow.
"Just do it!" Reed barked.
"Yeesh, no need to get all stroppy..." Ben muttered, punching the wall panel out. The instant his fist connected, klaxons began blaring, filling the motor pool with red strobe light.
"What now?" Bounty asked, vaulting backwards and kicking a mechanic in the head.
"No time for explanations!" Reed shouted. "Move!"
Bounty and Caledonia edged towards the hole, as Reed warded off the mechanics and the dazed Annihilus. Once the two women were on the other side, he stretched his arms clear across the motor pool, and grabbed a hold of one of the ships that resembled the Pogo-Plane. He neatly hopped through the opening in the wall, and hauled the faux Pogo-Plane towards him, jamming it into the opening, blocking the entrance effectively. Elongating his legs, he raced off after the three others. They were heading deeper into the bowels of Annihilus’s ship. It was dangerous - Reed had no prior knowledge of the ship’ss interior, other than what his costume-computer could tell him. But it was necessary, if they were to accomplish what they had come to do.
"I need some air," Johnny Storm informed his sister. "I’m going out for a while. Can you handle the scanners and Frankie?"
"Of course," Sue replied, watching Franklin from the corner of her eye. He was playing with LEGOs, building something that looked like a truck, or a robot, or something, as Puppy watched curiously. "You know, Johnny... if there’s anything you want to talk about..."
"Like what?" Johnny asked.
"Like Alysande, maybe?" Sue suggested.
"Uh... no... no, I’m good. I don’t need to talk," Johnny stuttered, mildly. Sue tilted her head. "Really!" Johnny insisted.
"If you say so, little brother."
"I do. Now, if you’ll excuse me...?" Johnny flipped his mental switch, and burst into flame, notably without his trademark "Flame On" catchphrase. Sue could tell that something was certainly on his mind. Without a word, he flitted up, into the air, and out of the room.
"Is Unca Johnny okay?" Franklin asked, snapping a set of wheels to the truck-robot thing he was making. "I don’t know, munchkin," Sue replied, absently. She turned, and stared out the window, as Johnny soared through the sky, having left Four Freedom’s Plaza through Reed’s laboratory skylight. "I just don’t know..."
Johnny Storm loved the freedom that his powers gave him. The ability to soar through the air was an incredible sensation, which filled him with excitement every time he did it. But today, his mind was occupied. Occupied with thoughts of Alysande Stuart. He had been the one who had rescued her from a life of slavery, when he and the rest of the FF had travelled to the Core Continuum, and Reed had conferenced with Roma. He had hidden her out in the warehouse at Pier Four for a while, and then moved her to the ruins of Four Freedoms Plaza, but after a brief debacle with Spider-Man and Kraven the Hunter, her existence could no longer be concealed from the other team members.
(That’d be in ‘Fantastic Four’ #’s 8 and 9 - Chris)
Reed, Ben, Sue and even Franklin had made jibes about their relationship - Alysande felt she owed him a life-long debt of servitude, while Johnny was more interested in just being friends. But that wasn’t so true anymore.
Down below, a small green-brown land rover, that had lain parked in front of Four Freedoms Plaza for several hours now (Last issue, as if you didn’t know - Chris), apparently abandoned, suddenly jerked to life, and rolled off down the street, carefully following Johnny’s every move.
Shards of metal and pieces of circuitry flew everywhere, as Annihilus reduced the Pogo-Plane replica to a million pieces, ripping it to shreds with his talons and eradicating what remained with blasts from his cosmic control rod.
"Those insolent meatsacks will pay for this!" he roared, ripping his way through the impromptu barricade, and thundering down the passageway after the four heroes, screaming with rage.
Several hundred yards down the tunnel, the overlord’s screeches reached the ears of Reed and the others. Reed began running faster, and tapped keys frantically on his wrist-pad.
"Come on, come on...." he whispered. "It must be here somewhere..." A three-dimensional grid-pattern map of the ship’s passageways manifested itself in the air in front of him, with a scrolling stream of binary code running underneath it. Two green spots could be seen moving through the corridors, representing Ben and Reed - Bounty and Caledonia did not wear the Fantastic Four uniforms which emitted the tracing signal Reed’s computer could lock on to, and as such, did not appear on the map. Abruptly, the code stopped moving, and a red light began blinking vibrantly on the map, near to the moving green dots. "Take the next right!" Reed ordered.
"Why?" Bounty asked, thoroughly disliking being given orders.
"I’m picking up the homing signal emitted by one of my stolen units," Reed explained, as they rounded the corner. "We have to recover it, and any more that there may be!"
"Don’t expect any help," Bounty snapped. "I came along on this jaunt for one reason, and one reason only." She jerked her thumb at Caledonia. "I don’t have time to play treasure hunt with you, rubber man!"
"Yer welcome ta leave," Ben quipped, panting as they ran down the corridor, which shook under the heavy footfalls of Ben himself.
"You’re forgetting, handsome," Bounty said, "you need me to teleport you out of here."
Ben snorted, and cast a glance at Reed, who was studying the map.
"Another entrance, if you would, old friend?" Reed said, coming to a halt and pointing at the wall.
"My pleasure," Ben replied, smashing the wall to bits.
"Arrogant pustules!" Annihilus shrieked, flying into view further down the corridor. "You will die!" Bolts of cosmic energy crackled around the quartet, as they ducked through the wall Ben had smashed open. Reed was first through, and looked around the room. It was some kind of storage depot, full of containers and devices of all shapes and sizes. It had to be at least a kilometre long.
Ben clambered through, ducking under a blast from Annihilus. He whistled, as he looked at the expanse of the room. "Geez. This must be, like, the junk capital o’ the universe!"
"It’s hardly junk, Ben," Reed said, as he began to rummage through the piles of machinery, following his uniform computer’s directions.
"Keep your filthy mammalian hands of those!" Annihilus bellowed, soaring into the room, forcing Bounty and Caledonia to dive to the ground as he shot by, overhead.
"Oh dear..." Reed said. "Ben, try to keep him occupied. I must find this unit!"
"I’ll do my best!" Ben said. Darting forward, he grabbed Annihilus by the leg, and power-slammed him into the ground. He cried in rage, flipped himself up, and lunged at Ben. Bounty unholstered her rifle, and took aim.
"Be careful!" Caledonia warned. "Y’might hit Ben!"
"Cram it, Red," Bounty said. "Or I’ll turn this on you." With that, she pulled the trigger, sending a blast of crimson energy shooting through the room, striking Annihilus square in the back, cracking his armour.
"Uungh!" he grunted. "Filthy fleshling! You will be the next to die!" Whipping around, he launched a bolt from his control rod, which caused Bounty’s rifle to explode in her hands, throwing her to the ground. Annihilus reached over his shoulder, grabbing the approaching Ben about the throat, and throwing him into the wall. He slumped down next to Bounty. The glowing emerald jewels of Annihilus’s eyes swept the room, and noted Reed, searching through the piles of technology. He can wait, Annihilus thought, striding across to Bounty and Ben, swatting Caledonia out of the way. He grabbed the pair around the neck with each hand, and slammed they up against the wall, dented from Ben’s impact. "You have learned a lesson today, meatbags," he said, looking directly into their eyes, one at a time. "To cross the Living Death Who Walks... is to court... ACK!" Annihilus stopped mid-sentence, and released his hold on Bounty and Ben, who dropped to the ground. Annihilus stared down at this chest, to see a small metal spike poking out from the cracks Ben had made in the front of his armour earlier. Stunned, he turned his head, to see Caledonia standing behind him, her arm outstretched, her sword gripped tightly in her hand. The metal shaft was jammed through the cracks Bounty’s rifle had made in the back of his armour, and protruding through the front. She had, quite simply, impaled him. "You... you..." he struggled to say.
"Y’might consider it a wee bit o’ payback," Caledonia said, slowly pulling the sword out of Annihilus’s flesh. He shuddered, and collapsed to the floor, a green puddle forming from his blood.
"This... cannot... be!" he groaned. "I will... not be... denied... my... re... ven..." His voice trailed off to nothingness, and his form lay prone on the floor. Caledonia looked away, and wiped the green streaks off her sword with her tattered cape.
Ben stared down at Annihilus, then at Caledonia. All he could say was "Geez." Bounty was equally shocked. The silence was broken by Reed.
"A-ha!" he cried. "I’ve got... oh my." He turned, and gawked at the body of Annihilus lying on the ground. He looked at Ben, who shook his head, and indicated Caledonia, silently, who still stood with her back to the rest of the group. "Uh... yes... well... anyway..." Reed went on. "I found the unit." He produced a set of what appeared to be goggles, which caused his wrist-pad bleeped incessantly when he held them close to it. "There are more of my designs here," Reed said, gesturing to the pile behind him, where he had found the unit. There were a stack of crates, each emblazoned with the ‘4’ logo that adorned their costumes. "But not all of them. I was able to trace these full-spectrum analytical goggles because their container was damaged, allowing the signal to escape. Evidently, Annihilus has my designs spread out across his empire."
"That ain’t good news," Ben said.
"Indeed," Reed said. "Well, there’s nothing we can do about it now. Ben, if you could give me a hand...?" He gestured to the crates, and Ben moved forward, picking up a few. Reed enlarged his hands, and scooped up a couple. Bounty gave them a hand, and in minutes, they were organised. "Bounty, I do believe it would be advisable to get us out of here?"
"Sure," Bounty said, reaching for the teleporter. In a flash, they were back in the wasteland outside the city. They could see, from their vantage point, that there was chaos in the city. News obviously travelled fast, as troops raced back to the mothership.
Reed set down his pile of crates. "Now, I just need to initiate communication with home..." Reed began tapping his wrist-pad, but froze instantly as he felt cold metal jab into his temple.
"Not so fast," Bounty said, undoing the safety catch on a simple pistol she had pulled out of nowhere. She was out of energy weapons, it seemed. Conventional firearms would have to do the job. "I told you, I came on this trip for one reason, and I intend to get what I want." She indicated Caledonia.
"I don’t think so," Ben said, reaching for her.
"You shouldn’t have done that," Bounty said. Reed turned his head to look at her, perhaps not believing she would do it, only to have her jam the barrel in his mouth and pull the trigger. Reed’s head caved in... but promptly stretched back into shape. He spat the bullet out.
"Really now," he said. "That wasn’t very nice." Bounty lifted the gun again, and fired off five rounds rapid. The bullets imbedded themselves in Reed’s flesh, which stretched under the force, and snapped back to shape, projecting the bullets back the way they came. One knocked the gun out of Bounty’s hand, two others seared her right shoulder, the fourth winged her thigh, and the fifth missed her. She fell over, in acute pain.
Reed tapped his wrist-pad, which beeped. "Reed?" Sue’s voice came over the comm-link.
"Yes, darling," Reed replied. "The mission was a success. We’ve recovered Caledonia, and the majority of my designs."
"That’s wonderful, Reed!" Sue said, elated. "I’ll open the portal now."
"You do that, Sue," Reed said. "...only, set it... for three."
"Three?" Sue asked.
"Yes," Reed answered, looking at Bounty. "Ben, Caledonia and I are the only ones who need to come back."
"Damn you, Richards," Bounty spat. Then, the air was filled with a roaring sound, as the shimmering portal back to the positive-matter universe appeared in front of them. Reed picked up his crates, and motioned for Ben and Caledonia to go through the portal. Ben went first, and as Caledonia moved to enter, Bounty yelled at her. "Yeah, go on and run, Red!" she shouted. "But you can’t hide forever!" Caledonia looked back at her, and then jumped through the portal without a word.
Reed took a step towards the portal. "And as for you, Richards," Bounty said, "now, it’s personal. I’ve been to the Negative Zone before, I can get out of here - it’s just a matter of time. I swear to you, I’m going to be back. And when I am, you’ll be sorry."
Reed looked at her. "Well, we’ll just see about that," he commented, stretching out his fingertips, and quickly unfastening the bandoleers on Bounty’s costume. He snatched them and all the weapons and devices they might have contained away, and stepped into the portal.
"NO!" Bounty cried, and reached for Reed, but fell forward, as pain rushed through her arm and leg. As Reed vanished from sight, she yelled after him. "You’re going to pay for this, Richards! You haven’t heard the last of me!"
As Reed stepped out of the portal, into the lab, Sue tapped the keys that shut the generator down. The circular hatchway hissed shut behind him, as he set the crates he was carrying down beside those that Ben had been holding.
"What happened to Bounty?" Sue asked, getting up from the console.
"You needn’t concern yourself with her, Sue," Reed said. "I’m sure we’ll be seeing her again in the future..."
"Where’s Johnny?" Caledonia inquired, with a possible hint of anxiety in her voice.
"Yes, I assigned him to monitor duty," Reed said. "Where’s he gone off to?"
"He went out, a few hours ago," Sue replied. "Alysande, I really think that you need to talk to him..."
"Aye..." she agreed. "’tis true. I’ve noticed certain... changes in the lad of late."
"Maybe Johnny finally hit puberty," Ben suggested, with a grin on his face. Sue whacked him on the head gently with an invisible force bubble. "Only kiddin’," Ben said, rubbing his head with mock severity. "So, where’s Frankie?"
"He’s taking a nap," Sue replied.
"Oh yeah?" Ben said, pointing at Franklin, as he wandered into the lab.
"Hi daddy!" he said, running and jumping up into his father’s arms. "I gotta tell ya ‘bout the kewl dream I just had!"
"More of those robots, eh, son?" Reed asked.
"Yeah!" Franklin squeaked. "This one robot, and Unca Johnny were..."
Franklin would have undoubtedly talked his father’s ear off, only he was cut off by the sound of a dozen alarm systems, screaming like banshees. Sue took Franklin, and Reed tapped the comm-link on the wall.
"Roberta?" he called into the speaker, to their robot receptionist. "What’s going on?"
"I do believe it would be best if you came and saw if for yourself, Doctor Rich--" Roberta’s voice dissolved into static. Reed made a break for the elevator, followed by Sue, Ben and Caledonia. Seconds passed as they were taken to the ground floor, and emerged into the lobby. It looked as if a bomb had exploded. Roberta sat at her desk, doing her best to work, being an artificial construct, and not given to panicking. In the middle of the room, amidst the rubble, the Human Torch was circling, shooting blasts of flame at a fifteen-foot tall, brownish-green robot, which was trying to snag him out of the air.
"Kewl!" Franklin exclaimed, from his vantage point in his mother’s arms. "Just like my dream!"
NEXT ISSUE: BRAINS AND BRAWN! - Guest-starring the amazing Spider-Man!