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Scientific genius Dr. Reed Richards's lifelong dream is close to being realized—a trip to space and to the center of a cosmic storm to unlock the secrets of the human genetic code. Financed by rival-turned-billionaire-industrialist Victor Von Doom, Reed's crew for the mission includes his best friend, astronaut Ben Grimm; Susan Storm, Von Doom's director of genetic research and Reed's ex-girlfriend; and Sue's hot-headed younger brother, pilot Johnny Storm. With benefactor Von Doom in tow, the four set off for the...
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Scientific genius Dr. Reed Richards's lifelong dream is close to being realized—a trip to space and to the center of a cosmic storm to unlock the secrets of the human genetic code. Financed by rival-turned-billionaire-industrialist Victor Von Doom, Reed's crew for the mission includes his best friend, astronaut Ben Grimm; Susan Storm, Von Doom's director of genetic research and Reed's ex-girlfriend; and Sue's hot-headed younger brother, pilot Johnny Storm. With benefactor Von Doom in tow, the four set off for the exploration of a lifetime. But something goes terribly wrong, as cosmic radiation irrevocably alters their DNA...and their future.
Back on Earth, the effects of the exposure are quickly revealed: Reed gains the ability to stretch and contort his body into any shape he can imagine...Sue is able to render herself invisible and to create and project powerful force fields...Johnny can now engulf his body in flames and take flight at will... and Ben, whose freakish transmutation is the most shocking, becomes an orange-colored, rock-like, superhumanly strong creature. Together, they turn tragedy into triumph and catastrophe into coalition, and must use their unique and formidable powers against Victor Von Doom—who has also not escaped the effects of the cosmic storm unscathed....
Adventurers. Super Heroes. Celebrities. To the world, they are the Fantastic Four. To each other, they are a family.
Ben Grimm looked with obvious concern at his best friend, who was leaning back in the taxicab seat and apparently doing everything he could not to fall asleep. "You okay, Reed?" he asked. "If you ask me, you been stretchin' yourself kinda thin lately."
Reed forced a wan smile. "I'm fine, Ben. I'm fine."
"That's not enough?" Reed said. Instead of looking over at Ben, he closed his eyes and rubbed his temples to ease the pounding within his head. "All right, Ben, you win. I'm more than fine. I'm superb. I'm fantastic. Will that do?"
"I guess it'll have to," Ben said sourly.
Ben's face was set in something of a permanent scowl. His face was round, his head shaved, his voice gruff and annoyed. He had an air of strength about him that derived from his steely gaze and impressive musculature. He was the sort of man who, when he strode down the street, women would give him appraising glances while men sensed that this was not someone with whom they'd want to pick a fight.
He could not have been more of a contrast to Reed Richards. Reed was thin, with the perpetually distracted attitude typical of the academic. His hair was black and straight, and he rarely looked anyone in the eye. It wasn't that he was being impolite so much as his mind tended to wander into realms that no one else could follow. A single word, a passing phrase, even an idly hummed tune could trigger his astounding imagination, and the next thing anyone knew, Reed was no longer looking outward, but inward, developing some new and elaborate scientific construct that might end up feeding millions of starving people...or have no practical application whatsoever.It was all much the same to Reed. The result was of little consequence; it was the conception and subsequent experimentation that held the true thrill.
There was nothing thrilling in his current situation, however. Crammed into the back of a slow-moving taxicab, balancing books, charts, and assorted presentation materials on his lap, Reed was trying to think what his next move would be should things not pan out at this next meeting. Nothing was readily coming to mind, and that alone was enough to concern him. Reed Richards was not the type to run out of ideas under any circumstance.
"It's just that I think you've been working yerself too hard," Ben said abruptly, clearly not taking Reed's dismissal of the notion at all seriously.
"I've been working myself exactly as hard as I need to. No more, no less." Reed pulled out a paper at random and started reading it. There was no reason for him to do so other than to try and shut down the conversation.
Unfortunately, Ben knew him all too well. "Reed, ya know everything that's on that sheet of paper. Every word."
"What makes you say that?"
"Because you wrote it, and you remember everything you've ever written. Seriously. You could quote word problems off your second grade math papers."
"You're exaggerating, Ben."
"Yeah?" He snatched the paper out of Reed's hand. "Fifth line, third word."
"'The,'" said Reed in exasperation. "Happy now?"
"Ecstatic," said Ben, flipping the paper back to Reed and chuckling. Then his face grew somber. "Reed, it's gonna be fine. It's all gonna be fine. I'm bettin' that this...whattaya call it? VDI?" Reed nodded and Ben continued, "That this VDI outfit is gonna come through. I got a feeling about it. A hunch. And you know about my hunches. They're always right."
"I certainly hope this is another one of those times."
Ben frowned, scratching under his chin. "Why's that sound familiar? 'VDI'? What is that, a phone company or something?"
"No, not exactly..."
"Yes, very much into research and development," Reed assured him.
"Well, what's it stand for?"
Ben's eyes narrowed, an abrupt surge of suspicion rattling around in his brain. "Reed...ya think I don't know when yer hidin' something? You think you can pull somethin' over on me? Is that what'cha think? What are you hiding?"
"What in the world makes you think I'm hiding something."
"Your eyes spin counterclockwise."
"Ben, honestly, there's..." Then he stopped and let out a slow breath. "Look, at least let's get there before — "
Ben Grimm might not have been — definitely wasn't, in fact, no "might not have been" about it — on Reed's level when it came to reasoning and intelligence. He did, however, have enough canniness and smarts to make intuitive jumps at the most inopportune moments, at least insofar as Reed was concerned. This was one of those moments, as Ben growled, "The 'V' in VDI wouldn't stand for 'Von' by any chance, would it?"
"See, I knew you wouldn't have the desired reaction to — "
Ben leaned forward and thumped on the plastic. "Lemme out here."
"I can't," replied the cabbie.
"Yeah, y' can. Never mind, I'll get out myself..."
"Ben, you're overreacting," Reed said.
Ben Grimm wasn't hearing any of it. Instead he was pulling in frustration at the door handle. "Damned door's locked."
"Of course it is," the cabbie said. "I keep it locked from up here. What, you think I want fares jumping out before they can pay?"
"Look," and Ben leaned forward to see the cabbie's name on his hack license. "Look, Lockley...I'm the customer. I'm the one who's always right."
"And I'm the cab driver," replied Lockley, "and I'm the one who gets a huge fine and loses his license if I let somebody out in the middle of traffic. Besides, we're a block-and-a-half away. Let me get you where you're going, bring you to curbside, and then you can get out and stomp around and show your friend here, who you could probably break in half, what a tough guy you are."
Ben took this in, and then said, "You got no idea how much I wish I could rip this door off at the hinges right now."
"I'm getting the idea, yeah," said Lockley. "You know the old Chinese curse: Be careful what you wish for. You may get it."
"Not really seein' a downside."
"Ben," Reed started.
But Ben just shook his head in obvious disappointment and annoyance. "Yer hittin' up Von Doom for the money? Von Doom?"
"It's not as bad as all that..."
"His name's Von Doom! That alone — "
"Now you're just being ridiculous."
"His name was Van Daam, y' know. He changed it to Von Doom just t' scare the crap outta people."
"You're not amusing, Ben. Not remotely."
"I think it's kind of funny," Lockley volunteered.
Reed scowled. "Did anyone even ask you?"
"No. Just figured I'd throw it in for free."
"He's bad news, Reed," Ben continued. "You know it and I know it, and the history we all got together..."
"Is just that, Ben. History. I'm trying to build a future for humanity, and I can't let myself be dragged down by the past in pursuing that endeavor."
"Wow," said Lockley, sounding impressed. "Your friend can be rather pompous when the mood calls for it, can't he."
"You must really not wanna get a tip," Ben said.
The cabbie snorted. "I wasn't holding my breath on that score for a while now." He turned the steering wheel and guided it toward curbside. "We're here."
Ben looked out the window on his side and grunted, "Really? Y' think?"
Craning his neck to see what Ben was staring at, Reed immediately saw the reason for Ben's sarcasm. It was impossible to make a mistake as to what building they were pulling up in front of.
A twenty-foot statue was in the process of being constructed in the courtyard directly outside the towering building. Passersby were stopping to stare at it as Reed and Ben eased out of the cab and Reed dug through his wallet to find the fare. The air was filled with the sound of a welder's torch, hard at work on the statue's gleaming metal exterior. Sparks ricocheted, the welder protecting his face via a clear plastic shield, and the smell of burning metal wafted toward them. Ben's nose wrinkled in disgust, but that wasn't the only thing to be disgusted about by what he was witnessing. "And that cabbie thought Reed was pompous?" Ben muttered as he rocked back on his heels to see the statue more clearly.
The metal display was Victor Von Doom, all right. His chiseled features — angular, perfect (almost too perfect) — his determined and no-nonsense stare, the extraordinary arrogance that self-sufficiency oftentimes breeds...it was all there. The statue's hands, already completed, extended some feet away from the twenty-foot-high "masterpiece." Situated between his hands were two intertwined columns of DNA. As far as Ben was concerned, a representation of Von Doom holding the keys of life in his hands certainly played to the godlike attitude he had toward himself.
"I wonder how long it takes to create something like that," Reed said as he watched the sculptor meticulously pursuing his craft.
"Don't see why it should need any more than a day," replied Ben. "After all, Von Doom made the whole world in six days, right? So one statue shouldn't take more than twenty-four hours."
Reed stared at him blankly for a moment, and then forced a smile. "Oh. Yes, all right. A reference to the Book of Genesis. Following through on the concept that Victor Von Doom has aspirations to...godhood, for lack of a better term."
"That ain't a lack. That's the term exactly."
"Very droll, Ben. If making jokes is how you keep your confidence up, then go right ahead."
"I keep my confidence up 'cause I'm confident. Ain't any more complicated than that." He shook his head, troubled over the direction that their endeavors were taking them, but unable to think of anything to say to Reed to discourage him. So instead he simply gestured for Reed to proceed him.
The two of them approached the soaring glass box atrium of VDI headquarters. Sun glinted off the glass, occasionally obscured by passing clouds that likewise reflected off the tower. It made it seem to Ben as if this was more than just the literal definition of a skyscraper. It was as if Von Doom had created a tower that purported to be the home of gods...with its creator, naturally, as the main deity in residence.
"Awe inspiring, isn't it," murmured Reed.
"Awwwww," Ben replied.
Naturally the joke, such as it was, went right past Reed. He was too busy analyzing the building that soared skyward before him. That was Reed's way. He analyzed everything he encountered, oftentimes practically to death. It was one of the things that Ben used to find unspeakably annoying, but he had long since become accustomed to it.
"High open space, exposed structural elements," Reed said appraisingly. "Obviously aimed at first-time visitors to create feelings of..." He cleared his throat and continued uncomfortably, "...smallness...inadequacy."
Ben looked him up and down, saw the small bead of sweat forming on Reed's upper lip. "Good thing it ain't workin'," he said dryly. When he saw that, yet again, his attempts at humor had done a complete flyby, he sighed inwardly and took one more stab at talking his friend out of what he was positive was a destructive course. "Reed, what are we doing here? This guy's fast-food. Strip-mall science..."
"This wasn't our first step, in case you forgot NASA."
Naturally, Ben hadn't. It had been one of the most humiliating meetings of his life. Sitting there with men, researchers, pilots whom Ben had known all his life, had come up through the ranks with. He felt as if they'd been looking at him in judgment, condemning him with their eyes. When they'd slunk out, one of them had come over to him and spoken in a soft, amused voice. The words still rang in Ben's memory: Coming up short again, Grimm. Hanging out with losers. It's become your regular thing, hasn't it.
Your regular thing.
Ben didn't know what a "regular thing" was, but he despised the notion of having it or being it.
Seeing his friend's discomfort, Reed was clearly sorry he had brought the ill-fated NASA meeting up at all. He rested a hand on Ben's shoulder and said hopefully, "And Victor's not that bad. He's just a little..." Reed glanced up at the statue and finished, "...larger than life."
Ben afforded a slight chuckle. It wasn't exactly brilliant comedy stylings, but that was about as close to humor as Reed was ever going to get. Ben felt he should, at the very least, support the attempt. He nodded briefly and they walked past the statue, heading into the sprawling atrium.
"He's financed some of the biggest breakthroughs of this century," Reed continued.
"You'd never know it," Ben said sarcastically, and he pointed. Hanging in the middle of the atrium was a high-tech, projecting orb, displaying footage of Von Doom's many "accomplishments." Anyone who'd read a newspaper in the past several years recognized them almost instantly as one image dissolved into another: the safe, clean nuclear facility that had replaced the antiquated, dangerous one at Indian Point; the prototype car powered by a fusion engine; the world's first privately owned space station, hanging high above the Earth against a starry background.
These accomplishments — so indisputable that even Ben Grimm had to grudgingly acknowledge them — were interspersed with photos depicting Victor Von Doom front and center with all sorts of movers and shakers. There he was, glad-handing the President on the occasion of VDI developing artificial stem cells for research purposes; now he had his arm draped around the Queen, after the miniature tracing devices that Von Doom had placed within the crown jewels had retrieved them within half an hour of a daring and politically calamitous robbery. There he was, side-by-side with other assorted international leaders, any number of whom Ben was sure would just as gladly destroy America as visit it. As if that association wasn't disturbing enough for Ben, the image of Victor Von Doom triumphantly hoisting the America's Cup above his head was enough to cause Ben to shake his head and mutter, "Jesus. That, too?"
At the far end of the atrium was a large, rounded marble structure that served as the reception area...or guard stand, depending upon how you chose to look at it. Three receptionists, two male and one female, were waiting there. Again, "receptionist" might have been too delicate a term since they were uniformed and had — if not guns — at least Tasers hanging on their belts. Even the female looked like she could probably take Ben apart, and as for Reed, forget about it. She'd probably kill him by spitting on him.
Trying to look undaunted and failing miserably at it, Reed, his voice cracking, said "Reed Rich — " He stopped, took a breath, and started over. "Reed Richards and Ben Grimm to see — "
It seemed the receptionist was not interested in learning whether Reed could get through the entire sentence successfully. She interrupted him, holding up a pass for each of them. "Executive elevator, top floor." Von Doom had obviously told her they were coming. Ben wished he could have felt good about that. But he didn't. Instead he was reminded that the spider was always warned when prey was being drawn into its web through the shaking of a few strands. Ben didn't know whether they were welcome guests, or had simply shaken the web so that they'd been noticed.
"What's the price for a smile round here?" Ben asked, trying to look ingratiating. It didn't work. She just stared at him. At least she was merely staring; the guards on either side of her positively glowered. Reed had already taken his pass and, black box filled with presentation materials tucked securely under his arm, was heading for the elevator bank. Ben gulped, forced a token smile, and took the other pass as he hurried past the guard station.
The elevator doors were cold and shiny, similar to the statue. Ben was fanciful enough to imagine them as Von Doom's jaws slamming shut upon them.
No words passed between the two old friends. Ben couldn't even begin to imagine what must have been going through Reed's mind. Actually, that wasn't true. Now that he'd had a little time to "digest" the notion that they were going on hands and knees to Victor Von Doom for aid, he realized how paltry his own sense of frustration had to be compared to Reed's. Reed was ten times — hell, a hundred times — the scientist that Victor Von Doom would ever be. But Von Doom was the shrewder businessman by far, and that was what had made all the difference. That was why Victor was surrounded by endless luxury and testimony after testimony to his greatness, while Reed was swallowing what little pride he must have had left and seeking Von Doom's assistance.
Ben remembered how he'd once made a passing reference to Thomas Edison being a scientific genius on a par with Reed, and Reed had just shaken his head and smiled sadly. "Edison's strength wasn't only science, Ben. It was identifying brilliant scientists with tremendous potential. The Wizard of Menlo Park is a figure for the ages, while the great minds who helped develop the ideas are forgotten and gone to dust."
That had been several years ago, before they'd reach this point of frustration. He wondered if Reed remembered it. Then he wondered why he wondered, because Reed Richards was the type of guy who remembered the marks he got in fifth grade social studies. Not that that would have presented any sort of challenge; the odds were huge that all his grades had been "A+" throughout school.
He became aware that Reed was looking at him, and met his gaze questioningly. With a slightly arched eyebrow, Reed said, "Thinking about Edison, right?"
"Awright," Ben growled, "now yer just freakin' me out."
The freaking out of Ben Grimm was not about to stop anytime soon, for the elevator doors slid open and all that met them was blackness.
"So this is what dyin' and going to hell is like," said Ben.
Suddenly some sort of lights began to gather in the middle of the darkness. Reed stepped out, rapt attention upon the glowing, amorphous mass that was coalescing in the middle of a room so dark that it was impossible to get any sense of just how big it was. Filled with curiosity, Ben followed him. He was dimly aware of the elevator door sliding shut behind him, and tried not to dwell on bizarre possibilities such as the floor suddenly dropping open beneath them, all to satisfy whatever perverse notions passed as Von Doom's sense of humor these days.
Suddenly the coruscating light pulsed, drew together as if imploding, and then blew forth in all directions at once. Ben flinched, half-expecting some sort of ear-shattering explosion. Instead it all transpired in eerie silence, which Ben supposed made sense. After all, if this was happening in the depths of space, as the imagery suggested, there wouldn't be any air to carry the noise.
The holographic bits of what would be planets flew past Ben and Reed, and began to settle into orbit. Millions of years passed in seconds, and Ben could pick out the familiar worlds of the solar system as they cooled and revolved around the sun. He put his hand through Jupiter as it whirled past, no bigger than the tip of his finger.
"So tell me, Vic," Ben called out into the darkness, "did it take ya six days to create the universe, like the Bible says, or did ya work on the Sabbath, too?"
"Ben," Reed snapped at him in annoyance.
That was when a familiar voice boomed from the darkness. He did not sound particularly perturbed. He spoke with the easy confidence of someone who did not have to care about anything that anyone said, much less an out-of-work test pilot. "Actually, Ben," came Von Doom's voice with an easy familiarity, "I like to watch the work of a true master every now and then. Helps keep me humble."
"Kinda late for that, don't'cha think."
Reed closed his eyes in pain, not even bothering to remonstrate Ben, since he likely (and wisely) figured it wouldn't do much good.
"Your associate," Von Doom said silkily once more from the darkness, "seems to be doing the talking for you, Reed. Does he do the thinking as well?"
"Reed does more thinking, Vic, than you and me and all the — "
"Ben," Reed put up a hand and said, not ungently, "perhaps I could take it from here...?"
"Oh! Right, sure," Ben bobbed his head and stepped back, reflexively ducking as Neptune cruised past.
"All right. Well..." Reed took several steps forward, squinting slightly in the vain hope of picking Von Doom out from wherever he was in the gloom. "First of all, Victor, I want to thank you for giving me this time..."
"If you really want to thank me for my time, Reed," Von Doom interjected, "you won't take up needless amounts of it. I read the basic prospectus. I know the fundamentals of what you're interested in. Now...impress me. I'd think that shouldn't present a problem. After all, you always presented yourself as my equal back in the day."
"I don't remember presenting myself one way or the other, Victor," said Reed. As he spoke, he removed a smaller black box from the case he was carrying and set it down. He produced a remote control from his pocket. "I did, however, recall your flair for the dramatic. 'Back in the day' was when you first cooked up this little holo-demonstration, and I know you're not one to waste anything. So I thought you might still be using it...and therefore felt it wouldn't be out of line to utilize it for my own purposes."
The black box flared to life and immediately Reed's own holograms superimposed themselves upon Von Doom's, matching up with them perfectly. Standing off to the side, leaning against a corner, it was all Ben could do not to laugh. That was Reed all over: three steps ahead of whatever somebody else was coming up with, and trumping them at their own game.
There, moving across the revised hologram, was the slow, drifting cloud of a cosmic storm. It surged with unaccountable, formidable energy, undulating its way across the solar system, the edges crackling.
The additional illumination from the hologram was helping Ben's eyes adjust to the darkness. He was finally able to make out a large desk at one end of the table, with a man's silhouette positioned behind it. The elbows rested casually on the desk, fingers steepled. Ben felt his hackles begin to rise in a sort of warning, but he kept a remarkable poker face, as if Von Doom's presence was neither here nor there.
"My research suggests," Reed was saying, "that exposure to a high-energy cosmic storm borne on solar winds might have triggered the evolution of early planetary life."
The storm had continued on its way and now intercepted Earth's orbit with an almost sentient precision. "In six weeks," Reed continued, "another cloud with the same elemental profile will pass Earth's orbit." His voice grew more forceful, more excited, as he contemplated the possibilities of the things he was suggesting. "A study in space could advance our knowledge about the structure of the human genome, and help cure countless diseases, extend human life..."
Von Doom cleared his throat loudly. The implication was unspoken but clear: Reed was taking way too long with his presentation. Ben's face flushed with unspoken embarrassment for his friend, but Reed obediently sped up. In doing so, his voice rose, became more emotional due to his pure passion for the topic at hand. "Give kids the chance to be stronger, healthier, less prone to — "
"Turn it off, please," said Von Doom. As opposed to the casual flippancy of earlier, his tone sounded firm, commanding, even slightly annoyed.
"But I haven't fully explained my..."
"Yes, you have. Imagination. Creativity. Passion. Those were always your trademarks."
The lights abruptly came up, and Ben squinted against the sudden illumination. There was Von Doom, looking just like his pictures. Thirty-five, handsome, commanding, his hair black and curly, his stern jaw set in a slight grimace that bore a faint resemblance to a smile. His face looked more crafted by design than anything that had developed organically, as if it had been airbrushed onto the front of his head.
The office was ornately decorated, filled with trophies and memorabilia from Von Doom's globe-trotting successful career. The piece that leaped out most conspicuously to Ben was a full-size display of ancient armor that stood with a faint air of menace against the wall, like some sort of mute guard. Ben gazed into its empty eye sockets and could almost imagine someone — or something — glaring back at him. There was also a huge sculpture of the letter "V" on the far wall, presumably standing for "Victor," although Ben didn't rule out that it might be for "villain." Or just "vile."
Victor was holding a copy of Wired magazine, and he tossed it casually onto the desk. Ben knew what it was before he even looked at it: the copy that had Reed's picture on it and the words RICHARDS BANKRUPT? ANNOUNCES GRANT CUTBACKS plastered on it in forty-eight-point type. Ben couldn't help but recall that, when Wired had first covered Reed several years earlier for his brilliance and innovations, the typeface had been a lot smaller. Nothing made good headlines quite like failure.
"But dreams don't pay the bills, do they?" Von Doom added unnecessarily. He gave a damnably condescending smirk that Ben wanted to walk over and wipe off his face. Why not? What'd they have to lose? Victor Von Doom wasn't going to help them any more than anyone else was. He was just going to go out of his way to make them feel even more humiliated, that was all. "Same old Reed," Von Doom went on. "The hopeless optimist. Still reaching for the stars, with the world on your back."
"You remember in school we talked about working together," Reed said. "That's what I was about to explain." He pressed another button on his remote control, and a new hologram was added to the others. It was a space shuttle, gliding from Earth toward its obvious destination: an orbiting space satellite. Both the shuttle and the space station bore the logo of Von Doom Industries.
In spite of himself, Von Doom — who had risen from behind his desk as an obvious way of signaling that the meeting was over — slowly sat back down. Clearly he was intrigued by the notion. The sight made Ben smile. Whereas others to whom Reed had gone had been nothing but representatives of soulless corporations, Von Doom had an ego the size of space itself. Appeal to that, and perhaps there was a shot to be had after all.
Then Victor's eyes narrowed, as if he realized that he was being played. "So it's not my money you want," he said understandingly. "It's my toys." He rapped his knuckles thoughtfully on his desk. "Tell me: If NASA doesn't trust you, why should I?"
Reed was clearly taken aback, and Ben couldn't blame him. Here Ben had been mentally patting Reed on the back for out-clevering Von Doom with the hologram, and meanwhile Von Doom held the trump card. How the hell had he found out about Reed's being casually dismissed by the NASA reps? Obviously Von Doom had some sort of mole in NASA. For all Ben knew, Victor had eyes and ears in every major corporation and government agency in the country.
"That's my job," Von Doom said in response to Ben's unspoken thoughts. "To stay a step ahead. To know what other men don't."
Ben had heard more than enough. He stepped in close to his friend and said in a low, angry voice, "I can't take this."
He didn't mean it on behalf of himself. He meant he couldn't take seeing poor Reed just standing there, being handed this sort of abuse from such a smug so-and-so as Victor Von Doom.
But for all the physical strength that Ben Grimm possessed, Reed had as much and perhaps even more in strength of character. "Ben," he cautioned in a low voice. "This is business. Just work."
Von Doom looked Reed up and down, as if trying to take the measure of him, and then grinned broadly. It all seemed a game to him somehow. It was becoming clear to Ben, however, that Reed was more than capable of playing that same game if need be.
It was at that moment, with tension hanging thick in the air, that an unexpected female voice cut through it with a cavalier, "He's right, Ben. It's just business."
Ben had not heard the voice in years, and yet he knew it instantly, before turning to see the speaker. Even as he turned around to see her, he was hoping that she had lost her looks or put on a hundred pounds or something, but no, she was as beautiful as Ben had remembered her. Statuesque, blonde, with the sort of blue eyes that a man could lose himself in. She radiated confidence and coolness and...and...
...and once upon a time, a sweetness that Ben had quietly found irresistible...except he had resisted it, because his best friend had longed for her with a sort of quiet desperation, and there was simply no way Ben was getting in the middle of it. The best friend who, as it so happened, was standing right next to Ben, gaping in bewilderment.
The planet Venus swung between them and then departed, there and gone again. Doesn't get more symbolic than that, Ben mused.
Von Doom gestured toward the woman with the air of a magician waving grandly at the rabbit he'd just produced from his hat. "I think you both know my director of genetic research, Susan Storm."
"Heya, Susie," Ben said, tossing off a mock salute, even as he said in a low voice to Reed, "One more thing he's got."
Sue seemed to glide across the office as she walked. She never took her eyes off Reed except when she warmly hugged Ben by way of greeting. That made perfect sense to Ben. Unlike most every other man she'd ever met, Ben had never done anything to pursue her. For that reason, she had always regarded him as a friend, knowing where he stood and taking comfort that he would never try to turn that friendship into something else. "Ben, it's been too long."
Then she turned and gave Reed a polite handshake. Reed's gaze was fixed upon her, as if concerned that — should he look away — she would vanish into thin air. He shook her hand without realizing he was holding it, then he looked down at it in surprise. He looked back up at her and stammered out, "You're...you've...I mean..." He took a breath and, trying to come across as casual but only succeeding in sounding forced, he asked, "How have you been?"
Von Doom appeared to be sizing up the two of them. Then he stepped forward and put a hand on Sue's shoulder. She promptly released Reed's hand. "This isn't going to be a problem, is it?" he asked, obviously referring to their possible working relationship.
"Not at all," Reed said.
Sue's response overlapped his. "Ancient history," she assured him.
"Good," Von Doom said, sounding satisfied. "Then you're just in time to hear the great Reed Richards ask me for help."
Once again Ben was seized with that same impulse to put his fist in Von Doom's face, but he controlled himself, taking his cue from Reed's impassive stare. If he was letting any of this bother him, Ben couldn't tell.
"You know," went on Von Doom, "you made a lot of folks at MIT feel like they were at a junior high science fair. So you'll excuse me if I savor the moment."
Ben wasn't inclined to excuse him. Ben's impulse was to wipe that smug look off his face. But Reed merely shrugged indifferently, as if to say that this issue was wholly Von Doom's and of no consequence to Reed at all. "You back up this mission," Reed assured him, "and I'll sign over a fair percentage of any applications or — "
"The number's seventy-five," said Von Doom. "And it's applications and patents."
"What about his firstborn!" demanded Ben, unable to contain himself. He took a step toward Von Doom, but Reed put out a hand without even looking at Ben and placed it on his chest, keeping him where he was.
"Ben," he said softly, "the money's not important. We could save lives."
Ben was about to say, The heck with other people's lives! What'd they ever do for us? But then he saw that Sue, just for the briefest flash of a moment, was looking at Reed in that way. That old way, from the old days, in a manner that spoke volumes of possibilities. She covered it deftly enough, but Ben knew that he hadn't been imagining it.
Von Doom didn't seem to notice it. He was still busy negotiating...if one could call mauling an opponent who wouldn't fight back "negotiating." "Twenty-five percent of a billion is enough to keep the lights on for a while, isn't it? Maybe even pay off your fourth mortgage on the Baxter Building..."
Unbelievable. Von Doom being up on the NASA meeting was bad enough, but when had Reed's personal finances become fodder for him? Before Ben could recover from the realization that there was seemingly nothing Von Doom didn't know about Reed, Victor held out a hand and said, with just a touch of challenge, "Deal?"
Reed looked at Ben, who softly shook his head no. This was the first person who had been willing to come through for Reed, but Ben was certain that Reed should simply walk away from it. Every fiber of his being was telling him that — best-case scenario — Reed would live to regret it. He didn't even want to consider the worst-case scenario.
But Reed nodded to Victor, which somehow was exactly what Ben had known he was going to do. He reached out and gripped his hand firmly as Von Doom said, "Well then! To our future, together!" Reed winced slightly in pain at the strength of Von Doom's grip, but that didn't seem to hurt him nearly as much as when Victor once again put his hand warmly on Sue's shoulder. "Funny how things turn out, isn't it?"
"Hilarious," said Reed with a deadpan.
As much as Reed's thoughts were roiling in conflict where Victor Von Doom was concerned, even he had to admit that Von Doom had a way of cutting right through the red tape when he was so inclined. They'd gone from an oral agreement in principle to a letter of agreement drawn up by Von Doom's director of communications, Leonard Kirk, within half an hour. It wasn't a full contract, but it set out the basic terms plainly and completely. Small wonder. Von Doom probably wanted to lock things up before Reed "came to his senses."
Reed felt bad about ignoring Ben's well-meaning advice. He knew, from a business point of view, that Ben was right to want to walk away from the lopsided deal. But Reed tended to never take the business point of view when there were lives to be saved and the betterment of humanity to be pursued. Which, Reed grimly allowed, was probably why his business had gone belly-up.
As they stepped into the elevator to head back downstairs, Ben was saying, "He knew about NASA! What if he made the call to shut us down — !"
Reed had to admit to himself that it wasn't outside the realm of possibility. NASA had, at first, been supportive of Reed's endeavors. But suddenly promised monies got sandbagged in committee, and Reed and Ben had been dragged back in front of a whole new array of people who had treated the two of them as if they were redheaded stepchildren. So maybe it wasn't just that Von Doom had good intelligence sources. Perhaps he had indeed orchestrated the entire thing. Nevertheless, Reed couldn't dwell on it. He prayed it wasn't true, and if it was, it wasn't as if he could do a whole lot about it now. "Ben," he pleaded, "think about all the people we can help if this works..."
"Maybe you should think about helping yourself for once!" retorted Ben. "You always let this guy push you around — "
Reed didn't really believe that to be true, but he wasn't about to get into a shouting match with his best friend about it. "We got what we wanted. That's enough."
He had spoken with an air of finality that he hoped would terminate the discussion, and it seemed to be effective as Ben said, "I know, I know." He paused, and then added, "I'm just worried about what he wants. Speaking of which — "
Not knowing what it was that Ben was referring to, Reed's gaze followed his friend's and then he comprehended as Sue Storm walked toward them, catching them just before the elevator doors closed. She stepped sideways and slid right though the closing doors, which slid shut behind her. "Reed," she said, "you should know, those solar winds are picking up speed in the — "
He knew instantly what she was talking about. That the incoming storm, thanks to recent sunspot activity that had generated more solar winds than usual, was heading toward Earth faster than originally thought. "I factored them into my coordinates," he said, trying to sound confident. Truth was, he was confident. He just had trouble being that way for Sue.
"Of course you did," said Sue, which sounded to Reed as if she trusted him implicitly. "In theory," she added, which instantly came across as patronizing. Reed forced himself to find some degree of mental equilibrium. Otherwise his mind was going to become a pingpong ball if this kept up. "But it's a little different up there. And it's been a while since we...worked together."
There was an unspoken challenge in that comment. Reed knew this mostly from the way Ben reacted to it. But Reed chose to ignore it, determined to focus on making his and Sue's relationship a straightforward, smoothly functioning, working one. That was going to be best for all concerned, and certainly what Sue wanted from their mutual assignment. "So you'll handle biogenetics," he said, "and I'll handle molecular physics. Or maybe I'll take biotech, and you'll work astrophysics, since you have experience with the electroscopes."
She stared at him for a long moment, and then said curtly, "Right. Whatever you say."
Instantly Reed knew he'd said something wrong. He didn't know it thanks to any great insight on his part, because when it came to women in general and Sue Storm in particular, he had none to offer. Instead he knew it from the way that Ben looked at him, slowly shaking his head in pity. "Way to not overthink, slick." Ben then turned to Sue, as if to try and prevent any further conversation between her and Reed, presumably for Reed's own good. "So when do we leave?"
"I'll schedule the launch," said Sue. "Call me in the morning to talk about resources and crew."
She produced a business card and offered it to Reed. He made no move to take it, instead saying, "I, uh, think I remember the number."
"It's been changed," she said.
Ben looked abashed at that, and even Reed knew why. Sue had gone to great effort to get the specially requested phone number years ago: (212) 555-REED.
Obviously that was no longer the case.
Reed took the card, his eyes downcast. "As far as crew," he said, without meeting her gaze, "I was hoping Ben could pilot the mission..."
"Well, he's welcome to ride shotgun," Sue said, "but we already have a pilot on our payroll. You remember my brother Johnny..."
Reed certainly did...and Ben smiling with the sincerity of curdled milk confirmed for Reed that, yes, Ben certainly did as well.
Bad enough this deal had cost him money, pride, and dignity. He wondered whether his friendship with Ben was next on the list.
In Leonard Kirk's office, Von Doom looked over the letter of agreement with satisfaction. Kirk entered, flipping through some file folders as he did so. Without even glancing up at him, Von Doom said, "If Reed's right, then this little trip will double our stock offering."
"And if he's not?" Kirk asked cautiously.
Von Doom smiled that million-dollar smile. "Reed's always right. Good thing he doesn't always know what he's got."
Copyright © 2005 by KUMAR
Posted December 26, 2011
I loved this book! I love junior novels with the pictures from the movie! I especially liked this book because Victor Von Doom, I know he's a villain but in the movie Julian Mcmahon plays Victor so well! And he is so hot! I hope they make a third movie! Overall I loved this book because it was the same as the movie mostly.
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