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Fantastic Four: What Lies Between
By Peter David
Pocket StarCopyright © 2007 Peter David
All right reserved.
The fire's gone out of the Human Torch.
This was the thought that crossed Susan Richards's mind as she watched her brother, Johnny Storm, sprawled on a couch in the recreation room. With the remote clutched in one hand, he listlessly channel surfed through the images that flashed on the plasma TV screen. His head was propped up on his fist, and every so often he would let loose with a loud, extended sigh. She would have considered it overly theatrical if she hadn't been sure that he didn't know he had an audience.
She watched the pathetic display for long minutes, and then said, "Johnny...you know, it's a gorgeous day out. Much too gorgeous to be hanging around here. You should be out and about -- "
He glanced her way with a look of mild amusement. "Gee. What a good idea. I should go out and play with the other kids. Maybe I can go rustle up Spidey and Cap and we can shoot some hoops down by the playground."
"Don't 'Oh, Johnny' me, sis, and don't handle me. I'm not a kid anymore...."
"Well, you sure don't act like it," she said with clear impatience, running her fingers through her hair, the same blond color as her brother's. "The girl dumped you, Johnny. Get over it."
"I am getting over it. This is how I'm getting over it." He started jumping through the channels once more. Sue watched him shoot pastwomen's beach volleyball and knew at that moment that Johnny was seriously depressed. Whenever he was channel surfing, if women's beach volleyball happened to be on -- bikini-clad hard-bodied women throwing themselves on sand for Johnny's viewing pleasure -- the search for entertainment ended. If Misty May and Kerri Walsh couldn't catch Johnny's interest, he was really residing in an unhappy place.
She started to address him again, but then shook her head and walked away. He was right about the fact that he was a grown man. She had been watching out for him since he was a teenager, and it was a hard habit to break. He was too old to be mothered...but not so old that he could, or should, be ignored. Unfortunately, she had no idea what to do to help him.
Sue was surprised that he was taking matters this hard. The girl he'd been dating, Ronni...she hadn't seemed anything special to Sue. In fact, she'd derived some mild amusement from referring to "Johnny and Ronni" because, for whatever reason, it annoyed the hell out of Johnny. She knew it was a ridiculous attitude to have, a leftover from when they were kids. Nevertheless, she found it funny that, no matter how old they were, there were still traces of youthful sibling rivalries.
None of which did a thing insofar as solving Johnny's problem. Granted, he'd been going with the girl for six months, which, by Johnny Storm standards, was a lifetime. Obviously he had some emotional investment in her. Sue just hadn't suspected it was to such a degree.
Perhaps what it really stemmed from was that Ronni had been the one to end the relationship. Johnny was accustomed to being the one who called the shots: the dumper, not the dumpee. He was never malicious about it. It was simply that, true to his nature, he would lose interest once the initial heat of a new relationship began to cool. He even warned women about it when they first became involved. Sue reasoned that it could well be this candor that had cost Johnny in this instance: Ronni had apparently bailed before Johnny could tire of her. The irony of that was that it was entirely possible that this was the girl Johnny was not going to tire of. Perhaps, in the long run, they could have made it work. But by preparing the girl for the short run, Johnny had effectively shot himself in the foot, guaranteeing that no "long run" would be forthcoming. At least that was Sue's theory, and Johnny was clearly not in the mood to discuss it.
It was a frustrating feeling for her, but she supposed she simply had to resign herself to the fact that Johnny was going to feel this way until he didn't feel this way anymore, and there wasn't a thing she could do about it. But Susan Richards had never been one for admitting defeat or acknowledging that she was unable to do something about a situation.
She wandered thoughtfully through the halls of their headquarters at Four Freedoms Plaza, hoping that maybe she could sic one of the men on Johnny to help get him out of his mood. Ben Grimm was nowhere to be seen. Her son, Franklin, was quietly playing in his room, but somehow she didn't think that a five-year-old was really going to be the answer to the situation. Maybe her husband...
She winced inwardly. Reed Richards had many admirable qualities, and those qualities had helped sustain their love through many a trying time. Deep wellsprings of emotional understanding, however, were not among those qualities. She hated to admit it, but Johnny would probably have just as much luck discussing the trials and tribulations of romance with a potted plant as he would with Reed. Still, there was no harm in asking Reed if he had any thoughts as to how to address Johnny's current funk, even though the most likely response she would get would be a blank "why in God's name are you asking me?" stare.
Sue headed to Reed's lab without giving a second thought as to whether he'd be there. Of course he'd be there. He was always there.
She looked into his lab.
He wasn't there.
"Huh," she said, impressed to find that, even after all this time, Reed could still surprise her. "Reed," she called out. She tapped an intercom on the wall, instantly causing her voice to sound in all of Reed's usual haunts. "Reed, where are you?"
His voice crackled crisply back: "In my office, dear. On the phone."
"Oh. Can I come up? I don't want to disturb you."
"You won't be. Technically, I'm not speaking to anyone at the moment. They've placed my connection into a sort of indeterminate limbo status."
She paused, translating Reed's words into English. "You're on hold, is what you're saying?"
There was a brief silence. "I didn't say that?"
"You did. You just..." Realizing that there was no point in continuing the current conversation, she continued, "I'm coming up."
"As you wish. Although, Sue, I've noticed that when we speak, you leave a considerable percentage of your sentences unfinished. Why is that?"
"I hadn't..." She smiled. Chalk up another one. "I'll try to watch that."
"And yet you did it just now."
"And yet I did. See you in a minute."
She walked quickly to the nearest elevator, entered it, and shot up three floors to the seventy-fifth. She went straight to Reed's study. As she approached, she heard him speaking from within. Apparently whoever had dared to put Reed Richards on hold had finally deigned to return to the conversation.
"I cannot advise against this more strongly than I am right now," Reed was saying. Seated behind his desk, he gestured for Sue to enter. She did so and dropped into the chair opposite him. The cushion immediately conformed to her body with a soft hiss that Ben tended to refer to as the "whoopee cushion noise." With all the time they'd been married, she was still surprised by all the little things that Reed's relentless inventive genius introduced into their lives. "You are tampering with forces that you can barely begin to comprehend, and you're doing it for the worst of reasons: commercial gain."
He was talking over a speakerphone, and a polished, educated voice came back at him. Indeed, it had so many of the intonations of Reed's own speech that Sue was ready to believe he was speaking to a clone. "Commercial gain, Doctor Richards, is how we manage to pay our bills. You have trademarked and patented not just a few of your discoveries; are you going to claim that you developed them merely to profiteer? The interest in exploration, discovery...these are the things that motivate us. Everything that stems from it is what enables us to stay in business. A business in which, we are hoping, you will join us."
"The Fantastic Four does not become involved in endorsement deals," Reed said firmly.
"Doctor Richards, I understand your policy. You, however, have not taken the time to understand us. That is all I'm asking that you do at this time. Come and visit with us. See our facility. Experience the quality and caliber of our work. If, after you've given us a fair chance, you elect to avoid any association with us, then so be it. No harm, no foul. Oh, and we will pay you for your time, of course."
"My time is not for sale, sir, and it's disrespectful to imply otherwise."
"Frankly, Doctor Richards, I would have considered it disrespectful to ask a man of your standing and stature to provide his time free of charge. If you wish, there are certainly more than a few charities that could benefit from the consulting fee we would gladly pay you for visiting our facility and providing us your expert insights."
Reed hesitated and then glanced Sue's way. She shrugged, but the shrug spoke volumes. She was able to convey to him, Why not? Whatever it is, your insights can only improve it, and certainly there are charities we're involved with that would appreciate the support, all with a simple movement of her shoulders and tilt of her head.
"All right," he said after due consideration. "You have yourself a deal."
"Can you be here this afternoon? Unless, of course, you're planning to be off saving the world."
"No immediate plans to do so, no," Reed replied, "although it's been my experience that those endeavoring to destroy the world rarely inform us of their schedule. One never knows."
"Yes, well, I'll take your word for that. Can you be here around, say, four pm?"
"That won't present a problem."
"We can send a car for you...."
"No need," Reed replied. "We have our own means of conveyance."
"Excellent. We shall see you then."
"Yes, you will."
Reed clicked off the phone and looked up at Sue. "This is a mistake," he said briskly.
"I don't even know what 'this' is," Sue said, "but whatever it is, I want you to bring Johnny along."
Reed's mouth was open, clearly because he had been about to say something else entirely. He closed it and paused, considering what she'd just told him. "Is there any particular reason? Are you concerned that whatever 'it' may be, I'm incapable of handling it myself?"
"Of course not."
"Then why do you think I need Johnny as backup?"
"I never said 'backup.' That's your word."
"Then why -- ?" Then understanding dawned. "Ah. You're concerned because he's been moping around over the young woman he's no longer dating."
"Reed!" Sue was pleasantly surprised. "You noticed."
"Of course I noticed," he said archly. "I am Mister Fantastic. I'm not completely oblivious of the world around me. You want Johnny to accompany me so that he'll become involved in something aside from his own ennui."
"He won't want to come."
"I have every confidence in you, Reed. You can convince him that this situation needs him."
"You still don't know what the situation entails."
"Are you going to visit Victor Von Doom?"
Reed blinked in confusion. "I...don't believe so."
"Then I'm not concerned. I'm certain that whatever you and Johnny encounter, you'll be able to handle it." She paused and then added, "Just out of curiosity...what does the situation entail?"
"Believe it or not, a group of private individuals is hoping to pierce dimensional walls and turn doing so into a commercial enterprise. Risking people's lives for fun and profit." He was surprised when Sue shrugged, not looking particularly upset or even startled. "Don't you find that upsetting?"
"I find that typical," she informed him with seeming indifference. "People pay huge amounts of money to go on all sorts of risk-taking adventures. Climbing Mount Everest and such. Plus, Reed," she reminded him with a smile, "need I remind you about a quartet of individuals who unilaterally decided that NASA wasn't getting the job done in terms of space exploration and took matters into their own hands?"
"Who in the world would do something that..." Then he realized what she was referring to. He allowed a small laugh, then turned serious. "That's a valid point, Sue, but look at the results." He stretched his hand five feet in the air, just for emphasis. "We were fortunate to have survived the experience. Others might not be so fortunate."
"You know what, Reed? We can save the world as many times as we want. Ultimately, though, we can't protect people from themselves. Nor should we. We don't want to be standing between individuals and their drive to discover, for whatever reason. The New World wasn't uncovered in a burst of scientific curiosity or in the spirit of adventure. They were looking for trade routes, for commercial benefit. Commerce and exploration have always gone hand in hand."
"True enough," he allowed. "However, a quest for a trade route that goes terribly wrong would have resulted in a sunken ship. Mucking around with dimensional planes can cause a collapse of reality."
"So are you saying that such a catastrophe would be more acceptable if it were done merely in the name of science rather than in the name of turning a profit?"
"Of course not!"
"Then what are you saying?"
He paused, trying to collect his thoughts, and then frowned. "If I say I'll bring Johnny, will it get me out of this conversation?"
Johnny Storm looked up at his brother-in-law, who was standing in the doorway of the rec room with a resigned expression. "We're going where?"
"To a lab that's exploring interdimensional travel."
"Don't we have enough of that here? The frickin' portal to the Negative Zone alone takes up, like, ten stories of the place."
"Two, but that's not the point."
"Then what is?" Before Reed could answer, Johnny supplied his own response: "I sense the invisible hand of my sister in this."
"You sense correctly."
"Tell her you asked and I wasn't interested."
"I'm afraid," Reed said with a sigh, "that failure is not an option. You need to come with me in order to make Sue happy."
"And if I'm not interested in making Sue happy?"
"Well, I would say that's a sad state of mind for a brother to have. I would further say that whether you desire to make her happy or not is irrelevant; I want to make her happy, because if I don't..." He looked rather distressed at the notion and didn't finish the sentence.
"Sorry, Reed," Johnny told him. "I fail to see how any of this is my problem."
"Technically, I suppose it isn't. I suppose I'm asking you, as a favor to me, to come with me on this little excursion."
Johnny sighed heavily. "She was the one, Reed."
"Pardon? Oh...the girl."
"Yeah. Her. I just know it. She was the one, and she's not..." He looked bewildered. "She said she 'just wasn't that into' me. What does that even mean?"
"It's an interesting statement if one looks at it from a molecular level...."
"Reed! You just don't get it! This girl was...I can't even describe it! She crushed me, Reed. She crushed me, and if I can't bounce back from that fast enough to keep Sue happy, then that's just going to be her prob..."
Johnny's voice trailed off. When Reed had entered, he had stopped channel hopping in order to talk to him. Now the program that was on had caught his eye. It was a rerun of an old TV series called Dark Angel. He was watching the lead actress run across the screen in what appeared to be a leather jumpsuit. "Now she's hot."
"I know her."
That caught Johnny's interest. He sat up. "You do?"
"Definitely. Met her during an excursion to Hollywood. She approached me, as a matter of fact." His lips twitched at the recollection. "I reminded her I was married; she said she didn't care. Gave me her phone number. Numbers, I should say."
"Which...you still have since you never throw anything away," Johnny said slowly.
Reed looked at him blandly. "I'd have to look around for it. Not quite sure where I left it. Of course...if I had some incentive to do so..."
With a moan, knowing when he was outmaneuvered, Johnny swung his feet down and off the couch. "Fine, fine. You win."
"I don't want you to feel pressured -- "
Copyright © 2007 by Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.
Excerpted from Fantastic Four: What Lies Between by Peter David Copyright © 2007 by Peter David. Excerpted by permission.
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