FANTASTIC FOUR #6
‘BRAINS AND BRAWN!’
By Chris McFeely
Soaring through Manhattan’s concrete canyons, leaving a fiery trail behind him, Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, was not in the best of spirits. He had been out of the proverbial loop since the new Frightful Four had attacked Four Freedoms Plaza. In that battle, he had been the first to fall, felled by the pan-dimensional bounty hunter who called herself Bounty. Even through the spastic reaction the gas she had exposed him to had caused, he could remember Alysande Stuart - Caledonia - at his side, acting out the "life-debt" sshe believe she owed him, seeking to serve him in whatever way she could. After the gas had caused him to lose consciousness, he had awakened to find the majority of Reed’s lab in ruins, Caledonia missing, and Bounty working with Reed and Ben, who claimed that some sort of marauding transforming robot had activated the Negative Zone gateway, sucking Caledonia in. It was a lot to take in, and Johnny hadn’t been best pleased when Reed instructed him to remain behind and perform monitor duty while he, Ben and Bounty went into the Negative Zone to find Caledonia. He had tried to reason with them, without revealing the feelings that, perhaps against better judgement, he was beginning to have for Alysande. He had come out for a breath of fresh air, for some time to think... but something wasn’t quite right.
He felt as though he was being followed.
Gently coming to a stop in mid-air, he turned, and scanned the skyline. No super-powered flying types were anywhere he could see. He looked downward, for any figures that would stand out, but saw none. The street was pretty much deserted, just a few cars and pedestrians. Quite a few parked vehicles, of all shapes and sizes. Shrugging, and putting it down to personal paranoia, Johnny moved off.
Down below, that small, greenish land rover that is becoming so familiar to us started its engine, and pulled away from the kerb, closely following Johnny.
"Huh?" Johnny gasped, startled, screeching to a halt in the air, and looking around for the person who had spoken.
"Huh?" the voice came again. "Now, really, is that any way to greet your best friend?" With a leap, a thwip, and a nifty triple somersault, the speaker was revealed.
"Is that you, Webs?!" Johnny said, looking his companion up and down. The amazing Spider-Man was hanging underneath the ledge of a nearby building, suspended by a single strand of his webbing. In fact, had it not been for the small display of acrobatics, and the webbing itself, Johnny would not have been able to identify the wall-crawler, for he was wearing a costume Johnny had never seen before. It was black, not unlike the version he had worn a few years back, but the eye sockets, and the spider emblem emblazoning the chest were a flaming red colour. "Nice... threads..."
"Don’t start with me, match boy," Spidey said, good-naturedly.
"You look like a liquorice whip," Johnny joked.
"I’ll whip your butt, if you don’t cut it with the jokes, flame brain!" Spidey replied, happy to be trading the usual insults with his buddy.
"I’d like to see you try," Johnny said, poking his tongue out at the webslinger.
"Just wait..." Spidey said, grinning underneath his mask. "Some day..."
"Sure," Johnny replied sarcastically. "So, how’s life, Webs?"
"Oh, you know," Spider-Man replied. "The usual... symbiotes... telekinetic mutants... your dead baby daughter coming back to life... wife becomes a mutant... greatest enemy goes and dies on you, all that kind of stuff." (Spidey does get up to a lot in his first six issues, doesn’t he? - Chris)
"Yeah, I saw the papers..." Johnny said, recalling the article which had exposed the now-deceased Green Goblin as Norman Osborn.
"Well, what’s new with you, Magoo?" Spidey inquired.
"Hmn... let’s see..." Johnny said, acting as if it was hard to remember. "Pier Four got destroyed... I got my ass whupped by the Frightful Four... and Caledonia - you remember her? - she’s gone missing in the Negative Zone." (Spidey met Cal in FF #9 - Chris)
"Ouch," Spidey responded.
"Yeah," Johnny said. There was silence for a moment, as they both though of a decent way to change the subject.
"Well, back to teasing you about the costume," Johnny said.
"Aw, give guy a break, Johnny!" Spidey said, feigning offence.
"How come you didn’t go back to using the old black one?" Johnny asked.
"Ick," Spidey replied. "Bad associations... does ‘I want to eat you BRAINS!’ ring any bells?"
Johnny chuckled. "Listen, Spidey, are you up for, just, y’know, hanging with me tonight?"
"Absotively posilutely," Spidey replied, back flipping up onto the ledge he had been hanging under. "Matter of fact, do you think we could swing by Four Freedoms Plaza later? I wanna ask Mr. Fantastic a few questions."
"Well, Reed’s in the Negative Zone right now," Johnny said, "but, sure, we may as well. He could be back in an hour, for all I know."
"Cool," Spidey said.
Johnny sighed. He felt a little better. But still... he couldn’t shake the feeling someone was watching him. Watching him, that is, in a different sense to the dozens of people who stopped and stared any time he flitted past on a normal day. He looked back down to the ground. Nothing...
Wait, hadn’t he seen that land rover before? No... no, it must be his imagination. There must be hundreds of vehicles like that in Manhattan
"Spidey..." he started. "You ever get the feeling you’re being watched?"
"All the time..." Spidey replied. "Like... there are hundreds of eyes... reading every word I say, like they were all written out on a page, or a computer screen..."
Johnny laughed. "Good one!" he said.
"I’m serious!" Spidey pleaded, as he and Johnny moved off, higher, up into the sky, the laughter of the Human Torch echoing off the skyscrapers.
"I’m losing him!" a voice said.
There was a crackle of static, and another voice came over the radio. "Don’t!" it said. "We don’t know what connections he, or any of that group, have to Frenzy! If they’re Decepticon agents, you can’t let him out of your sight!"
"He’s with some other superhuman... are you getting the visual feed?"
"Yes... Gears reported an encounter with that being earlier... keep your optics on them!"
"You know, this would be a lot easier if we could fly..." the first voice commented.
"You know the drill," the second voice said. "Decepticons fly, Autobots don’t. It’s not like I can help that."
"Ah, crud, he’s getting away!"
"Don’t let him!"
"How’m I supposed to stop him?"
"Transform, if you have to! Get his attention that way!"
Two teenagers walking along the street came to an abrupt stop at a news vendor’s stand, as one of them gestured at a newspaper on one of the racks. The boy, who looked to be about seventeen or eighteen, with an unruly mop of bleached white hair on his head, smacked the back of his hand against the paper in disgust. The news vendor shot him an unpleasant look. Not perturbed, the boy indicated the front page article - yet another on the mysterious robot sightings across the country. His companion, a boy of about the same age, with brown hair, and wearing rose-tinted glasses, studied the paper. His palsied right arm hung at his side.
"What about them, Johnny?" he asked.
"Walk with me, Eddie," the one called Johnny replied, taking a few steps forward, so the news vendor wouldn’t hear what he was about to say.
"What?" the one called Eddie asked again, in a nasally voice.
"Howcum we never got to fight robots?" Johnny asked. "The Avengers, they got robots. The Fantastic Four, they got robots. Hell, even those mopes, the Thunderbolts, and them Heroes for Hire, even they got robots!"
"What’s your point, Johnny?" Eddie asked, looking at him over the rim of his spectacles.
"I’m just sayin’," Johnny said, "What’d we get? We got lame-o gangsters, and a big rat. And there was the Orphan Maker nut, too, but you weren’t there for that one. Howcum we never got no robots? Robots are cool."
"Uh... you’re forgetting the time we fought the devil himself, Johnny," Eddie said, with a half-smile.
"I... uh... well, yeah..." Johnny muttered. "Look, that ain’t the point! I’m talking about robots! Why’d you go an do that, change the subject? Don’t do that to me, Eddie. I don’t like when people do that. Don’t change the subject."
"Whatever, Johnny," Eddie said, grinning at his friend, who relented, and grinned back.
"Heh... get a load o’ this guy..." Johnny said, turning his head as a loud noise caught his attention, and jerking his thumb at a small land rover that was roaring up the street at over ninety miles per hour. "Whassamattahim? Public street, buddy, show a little consideration!"
The land rover then screeched to a halt.
"Uh... you... don’t think he... uhm.. heard me..." Johnny said, nervously. "...a-heh... do ya, Eddie?"
"Uh... uhm...," Eddie garbled.
Suddenly, the land rover began to shudder. It appeared to be popping a wheelie, though the two teenagers knew that something wasn’t right when legs sprouted out of the vehicle’s chassis, followed by arms, and a large, dome-shaped head. The fifteen-foot tall robot that had transformed in front of them then promptly ran off down the street, its footfalls shaking the macadam, setting off numerous car alarms.
"Eddie..." Johnny started.
"Tell me I didn’t see that."
"Only if you tell me the same thing."
"Me and my big mouth."
"HOO-HA!" Spider-Man exclaimed, fifty stories up.
"What is it, Webs?" Johnny asked, gliding to a halt.
"My Spidey-Sense is doing the Macarena," the webslinger responded, shooting off a webline and swinging around in a circle to try and spot the cause of his alert. "Ooh, get a load of that!" Pointing with a webbed finger, Spidey indicated the road below. It was not hard for Johnny to spot the oversized mechanical creature thundering along the street, in their direction. In fact, it was staring up at them.
"Not more robots..." Johnny moaned softly.
"Know the feeling," Spidey said. "Bumped into something that looked at lot like that a night or two ago. What say we see if Mr. Metal Man knows how to Mambo?"
"Dance fever!" Johnny commented, arcing around in the air and zooming down towards the mechanical monster.
"Hey, wait, leave some for me!" Spidey said, popping off a webline and streaking down after the Torch. Performing a daring somersault, Spidey landed just a few feet away from the robot, which looked down at him, only to be struck about the head by a fire ball from Johnny.
"Ah!" it yelped, and it’s hands went to its head, clutching the wounded exoskeleton. Reacting with incredible speed, Spidey shot off two long strands of webbing, and gummed the robot's hand up around it’s face.
"Teamwork, Matchstick," Spidey said.
"Nothin’ like it," Johnny replied. "You think that’s going to hold him for long?"
"I’d say he’ll be stuck up like that for a while," Spidey said, looking up at the robot. With an electronic grunt, it tore it’s hands free, shredding the webbing with ease. "Or not. Whichever is good for you. YIPE!" His spider-sense flaring, Spidey leapt out of the way of the robot’s giant foot, even as it hurtled down towards him and struck the road where he had been standing, shattering it. He landed on the wall of the building across the street, sticking to its surface. "Oh, great, and New York needs more potholes, anyway!"
"You remind me of a fellow Autobot, you little bug," the robot said, glaring at Spidey. "You and Bluestreak just love to hear the sound of your own voices!"
"Hey, it speaks," Johnny said. "Wanna fill us in on what the hell you’re doing, before we fry your microchips?"
"I always favour might over microchips, flesh creature," the robot said, reaching for Johnny, who soared up out of the way of his fist. "And I’m not going to let Decepticon agents like you roam free!"
"Decepticon?" Spidey queried. "Autobot?"
"You’re as obnoxious as Gears said," the robot commented to Spidey. "Not that he has room to talk...!"
"Gears?" Spidey asked. "Oh, so you DO know that arrogant little jeep! Well, you tell him from me, any time he feels like a rematch, your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man is more than ready to oblige. I’m ready, willing and able to tear his weird shaped little head o..."
"Primus, SHUT UP!" the robot snapped. "You’re giving me a cranial unit ache!"
"Seems that all these other robots you’re talking about have names," Johnny said. "What should we call you while we’re taking you apart?"
"I’d like to see that, firefly," the robot said, "but you can call me Brawn!" It made another grab at Johnny, and narrowly missed him.
"Missed him, missed him, now you gotta kiss him!" Spidey teased from his position on the building wall. Enraged, Brawn lashed out at Spidey, who easily darted out of the way of his punch. The brick wall that it instead connected with crumbled like paper, and was soon followed by the rest of the building. Spidey leapt up higher, ricocheting off buildings, until he was level with the Torch. "Remind me not to get this boy angry again," he said, studying the devastation.
"Get down here and fight like ‘bots!" Brawn yelled, shaking his fist at the two humans.
"I don’t thiiiiink so," Spidey said, looking at Johnny. "What now?"
Through the night sky, the illuminated form of Four Freedoms Plaza was clearly visible, and as Spidey noted it, recognition dawned on his masked features.
"Kill two birds with one stone," the wall-crawler said.
"Yep," Johnny said. "Now, how do we get him to follow us?"
"I don’t think that’ll be a problem," Spidey said, firing off a webline and swinging off down the block, in the direction of the plaza.
"Hey, wait for me!" Johnny said, his flames flaring as he swooped off after the webslinger.
"Tryin’ to run, huh?" Brawn growled. "You wont get far!" With those words, a grinding noise filled the air, and he transformed back to his land rover shape. Revving his engine, he rocketed off down the street after the two of them.
"He’s gaaaaaining!" Spider-Man warned, thwipping faster and faster. Four Freedoms Plaza was a few streets away, but Brawn was hot on their trail.
"No he’s not...!" Johnny persisted, increasing his speed.
"Tell him that!" Spidey said, pointing back at the speeding vehicle.
"You tell him!" Johnny barked.
"Nuh-uh!" Spidey insisted. "I said it first!"
"BanZAIIIIII!" Johnny screamed, smashing through the plate glass of the doors into the lobby of Four Freedoms Plaza. Behind him, he heard the grinding sound again, and robot mode Brawn crashed into the lobby, ripping the doors and windows to bits as he thundered in. Alarm klaxons began blaring.
Roberta, the plaza’s robot receptionist, watched the scene in front of her, but was distracted as the intercom on her desk buzzed.
"Roberta?" came the voice of Reed Richards. "What’s going on?"
Roberta tapped the button. "I do believe it would be best if you came and saw it for yourself, Doctor Richards," she said, but the electrics shorted out as a flame bolt bounced off Brawn’s armour and fried the cables, before she even finished speaking.
"Think you can take me on your home turf?" Brawn said, grabbing at Johnny.
"Something like that," Johnny said, as he heard the elevator ping behind him. Reed, Ben, Sue, Franklin, and Caledonia emerged. Johnny’s heart leaped, as he saw the red-headed warrior woman. She was alive! She was okay! Franklin said something at that point, but Johnny was so distracted, he couldn’t make it out. Then he felt Brawn’s oversized metal fist backhand him into a wall.
"Ooh, now that’s gonna hurt in the morning!" Spider-Man said, as he bounced into the lobby, deftly avoiding the shattered glass. "Foul play, ump!"
"Oh, I’m going to enjoy smooshing you, bug-boy," Brawn said, turning his attention to Spidey.
"Actually," Spidey said, backflipping out of the robot’s reach, "I’m an arachnid. But don’t worry, it’s a common mistake."
"Not another blamed robot...!" Ben moaned. Sighing, he charged forward, and gripped Brawn by the leg.
"Oh, the little fleshling think he can topple ol’ Brawn, does he?" Brawn said, looking down, and chuckling. Of course, the next thing he saw was the ceiling, as he fell back on his waste disposal unit. Ben dusted his hands off. "Okay... that was my mistake..." Brawn said, "but yours was thinking that was enough to finish me!" Quickly, he grabbed Ben, and hurled him at Reed and Sue. Instinctively, Sue threw up an invisible force field around herself, Reed, Caledonia and Franklin. Ben hit it - hard - and fell to the ground.
"Ow," he said, rubbing his shoulder.
"Sorry, Ben," Sue said, dropping the field. "Instinct."
Spider-Man jumped down to land beside the group, as Johnny groggily staggered towards them. "What do we do?" the wall-crawler asked.
"I wish I knew," Reed said.
"You don’t know?!" Spidey screamed. "Oh, well, that’s just great! We’re all goners!"
Brawn loomed over the group menacingly, reaching for them with his powerful hands.
"Hey, Mister Robot!" Franklin squeaked. "Why are you bein’ so mean to my family?"
"Keep a lid on it, pipsqueak," Brawn warned.
"They’re not bad!" Franklin insisted. "It’s those other robots that are the bad one... the Decep’acons!"
Brawn pulled back. This child knew of the Decepticons?
"You... you should be helpin’ your leader!" Franklin went on, his voice quivering just a little. "He’s in trouble!"
The child was aware of Optimus Prime? And his predicament? And showed compassion for him? Perhaps Brawn had been wrong in his assessment of these humans.
"Y...you’re just a big ol’ bully!" Franklin continued. "You oughta be ‘shamed of yourself!"
Brawn took a step back. This was, for lack of a better term, weirding him out.
"Look atta mess you made!" Franklin said, pointing at the shattered doors and windows.
"Uh... I..." Brawn stuttered. "I... don’t have to stand here and take this, you know!"
"Franklin, shush...!" Sue said, as he sat in her arms.
"No, mommy!" Franklin insisted. "He’s a’pposed to a good robot! But he’s bein’ bad!"
Brawn snorted. "Depends on your definition of the word."
"Bad is bad," Franklin said. His childish perspective was having some sort of affect on Brawn. In silence, he took a few more steps back. "Go ‘way, ‘fore you make any more trouble!" Franklin said.
"Uh... I... um... uh..." Brawn fumbled for words. "Sorry..." His voice trailed off, and, in silence, he transformed to his land rover mode, and started up his engine. He trundled away down the street. Reed ran to the doorway, and watched him go.
"Despite your timely intervention, son," he said, "I would dearly have liked a chance to study that creature."
"Sorry daddy," Franklin said.
"S’okay, Frankie!" Ben said, gently tousling his hair. "Ya did good!"
"You know," Spider-Man piped up, "when two strapping young guys like me and Johnny can’t take down a fifteen foot robot, and a four year old can, just by talking to it, there’s reeee-heee-ally something wrong with the world."
Johnny, still groggy from Brawn’s punch, rubbed his head, and looked around. His eyes settled on Caledonia. "Cal, you’re... alive!" he said.
"Aye," she replied. "We Stuarts are fighters..."
Johnny flamed off, and walked to her side. "I... I was worried..."
The two stared into each other’s eyes for what seemed to both of them as unto an eternity. Then, Johnny lifted a hand, and gently tilted Caledonia’s head back. She did the same, running her fingers through his short-cropped blind hair - and they kissed.
There was complete silence in the room. Ben grinned. Personally, he’d seen this coming a mile off. Spidey gave Ben a thumb’s up gesture. Franklin looked on, a tad puzzled, to say the least.
After a little longer, Caledonia broke off the kiss.
"Sandy... I..." Johnny started.
"No...!" Caledonia breathed. "...not again...!"
"What?" Johnny asked, but before he could even finish, Caledonia turned, and ran. She ran out the smashed doorway, off down the street, in the opposite direction in which Brawn had gone.
"ALYSANDE!" Johnny yelled after her. "FLAME ON!" His body ignited, and he raced out after her, on to the street. With his power to detect thermal radiance, he figured he could have found her in a few seconds. But, instead, she was absolutely nowhere to be seen. He shot up, a hundred yards into the air, and looked all around him, frantically searching for any sign of her. There was nothing. She had vanished into the night. Floating downward, in solemn, morbid silence, Johnny’s flame flickered out, and he collapsed to his knees onto the sidewalk. "Why...?" he asked, quietly. Tears flowed.
Spider-Man appeared at his elbow. "Are you... okay?" he asked. "Wait... dumb question..."
Without a word, Johnny got to his feet, and walked back into the Plaza. Glass crunched under his soles. He didn’t care. Spidey would have followed him, but it was clear that company was not wanted. He stepped into the elevator, and the doors closed behind him.
NEXT: First, go read SPIDER-MAN #7 to find out what happens next! Then be back here next time for - THE U-FOES! Plus, what’s Alyssa Moy up to?