Sunday, May 17, 2015

Earth-349: Iron Maiden

Earth-349: Iron Maiden
by Anton Psychopoulos, Ph.D.

            Disclaimer #1:  This story is inspired by a story in Superman #349, but is not limited by that story or any other.
            Disclaimer #2: This story makes use of copyrighted characters owned by DC Comics, Inc., Marvel Comics, King Features Syndicate, and other publishers.  It is written for amusement only and is not intended to infringe or disparage those copyrights.
            Disclaimer #3: This story is not recommended for persons under 18 or the easily offended, especially those who are uncomfortable with themes such as transvestism and transgender.

            The contrast between the two men on the platform was sharp.  One was tall and powerfully built, with a body that seemed to have been carved from a single block of lustrous bronze.  Bareheaded, his brown hair fitted to his head like a skullcap.  His lightweight tan suit showed off his flawlessly developed muscles, with only a black sweater vest as a concession to the cold.
            The other man was tall, but looked puny next to his companion.  Bundled in a black greatcoat, the lower half of his face obscured by a red wool muffler, broad-brimmed hat pulled low, only his intense, deepset eyes and prominent nose were visible.
            Wordlessly, the two men faced each other.  The larger man smiled.  The other might have, but it seemed unlikely.  They placed their hands on a pair of old-fashioned knife switches and, after a brief pause, threw them both.
            The cameras captured the gray concrete wall behind them, as a section wide as a boulevard suddenly leapt into the air in a cloud.  A moment later, microphones transmitted the thunder of the explosion.
            The explosion was still echoing, the cloud still rising, when the Republikswehr pioneers advanced to clear away the rubble.  With shovels, crowbars, wheelbarrows and small bulldozers, they cleared the remains of the demolished wall within minutes.  They took care not to move further inward than they needed to to remove the rubble blocking the road.
            The cameras moved closer, showing that the road did indeed continue beyond the wall.  But with no maintenance for two decades, the road beyond the wall was little better than rubble itself.
            Now the two men stood outside the opening in the wall.  But neither of them would be the first to walk on that road.  They waited for a small young man with snow-white hair, who led a little black-haired girl by the hand.  The men, the pioneers and the large crowd watching behind the cameras were reverently silent as the pair passed through the wall and into the newly opened city.
            Only after Richard Heinrich Benz, Chancellor of Germany, had officially escorted little Anna Berlin into the city, were they joined by Kenneth Robeson, President of the United States, and Maxim Griantov, Premier of the Soviet Union.
            The announcer, "the" newsreader to American audiences, had restrained himself while the wall was being broken.  Now he began speaking softly.
            "The breaking of the Berlin Wall marks a great transition indeed.  Not only is the city at Europe's heart returning to life, but the whole world seems to be breathing easier.  With the nuclear disarmament accord, the partition of Indochina, and the withdrawal of U.S. and Soviet forces from Europe, most agree that it is safe to say the Cold War is over.  The threat which hung over the heads of us all for nearly two decades has been removed, and . . . ."
            Tony's view of the TV set blurred, and he knew he was crying.  It had been so long since he'd been able to cry.  It felt good.  It didn't hurt.  The knot in his chest was untying, it didn't --"
            "Burn."
            The Mandarin held out his right hand, palm up, middle finger extended.  Tony knew that the gesture was not obscene in Chinese culture.  But in this case, the effect certainly was.
            A beam of red heat shot from the villain's hand, not seeming to originate from the ring on his extended finger, but from some aura surrounding him.  Tony didn't really understand how the alien rings worked.  He supposed the Mandarin didn't, either.
            Although he dressed in the fashion of an old-time mandarin, even daring to affect the coral button on his cap that rightly belonged only to one confirmed in office by the Emperor, Tony knew that his old foe was really just another of the bandits who harassed the local people in the lawless region around China's southern border.  Or had been, before he stumbled across the alien power rings, and learned to use them.
            Inside the armor of Iron Maiden, Anthony Stark writhed in agony and waited for the end.  Sooner or later, the Mandarin's heat ray would destroy the pacemaker in his breastplate, and the remains of his heart would stop beating, and the pain would go away at last.  Either that, or his pain would only have begun.
            I went searching in my memory for a happy time, trying to hide from the pain.  Apparently, the happiest moment of my recent life was watching news on TV.  What does that say about my life?
            The heat ray stopped.  The Mandarin looked down at the charred armor and turned his hand over, extending the index and middle fingers together.
            "Heal."
            The ray was golden and shimmering, quite beautiful.  Tony wondered if the mandarin had chosen its appearance.  The excruciating pain of second-degree burns lessened, faded to an itch, vanished.  His brain was slapped out of an advanced state of shock, allowed no rest.  The alternate burning and healing had been going on for hours now, and Tony's mind was suffering the effects of pain greater than the human body could normally endure.  But he knew that worse was coming.
            The Mandarin stood over the blackened, pitted shell of the Iron Maiden armor.Tony wondered how much of the breastplate was left, when the Mandarin would begin to notice how the breasts were being eaten away, how much skin was showing through the holes.  Sooner or later, the Mandarin would realize that the body inside the armor wasn't really that of a tall, muscular woman with prominent breasts.  What he would do to his prisoner then would make the current abuse seem kindly.
            Tony Stark had always taken comfort in escaping from his life as an industrialist and social aristocrat into the guise of an elegantly dressed lady.  When shrapnel had lacerated his heart and made him dependent on a metal breastplate for survival, he had not been able to resist the temptation of giving it breasts, of building a suit of powered armor that was an extension of his secret store of gowns and makeup, a red and gold outfit that was, he thought, his finest design ever.  Now, his imposture was about to be revealed to his deadliest enemy, and the pain of the burning rays was almost welcome, since it blotted out the shame he felt as he cowered in the remnants of his disguise.
            He only had one chance of escaping the full wrath of the Mandarin: goad him into using too much heat, trick him into killing him quickly.
            Tony raised a blackened arm.  The strength-boosting motors were dead, making it an effort to lift the arm.  He extended a finger, seeing charred metal flaking off of perfect pink skin.  He pointed to the studded circle on the breast of the Mandarin's robe.
             "If you're a Nationalist, why aren't you on Taiwan with your precious Generalissimo?"
            Tony knew what the symbol really meant, but he hoped to goad the Mandarin into attacking.
            The gaunt Chinese villain did not fire again, but merely curled his lip in disdain.
            "This sacred sign does not belong to those Kuomintang cowards.  It is the symbol of a far older and worthier movement, in support of the true leaders of China, a cause the so-called Nationalists once supported but have now forsaken."
            He thumped his chest, striking the center of the stylized chrysanthemum.
            "I serve the cause of every true Chinese patriot: the restoration of the divinely-appointed dynasty of the Ming!"
            Tony forced a laugh.  He noticed that the electronic voice filter was still working, giving Iron Maiden a feminine contralto voice.
            "You're a little late, aren't you?  That was a couple of dynasties ago.  There aren't any Ming left."
            The villain smiled.
            "Oh, wench, but you are wrong.  There is a prince of the house of Ming still living."
            He gestured towards the ceiling.
            "He is out there, among the stars, ruler of a mighty realm.  But one day he will return to us, and when he does, he will be generous with his loyal subjects.  And to traitors and foreign pigs, he will be . . . merciless!"
            Tony wanted to laugh at this belief, but his heart wasn't in it.  After all, the Mandarin's own rings had come from space.  Some people said Superwoman herself was an alien.  But he would try to put some feeling intoi his mockery.  Pathetic as he was, held down by his ruined armor, he had to find some way to make the Mandarin lose his temper.  Some way to bring on a quick death rather than the torments and mutilations the outlaw would inflict upon him once he knew he'd been cheated of the opportunity to make Iron Maiden his concubine.
            He opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by a thunderclap from outside, followed moments later by an immense crash that spoke of splintered timber and pulverized concrete.  A wall fell open like a drawn curtain, and sunlight entered the room.  The Mandarin fled for the door, firing rays of a dozen colors at the huge body that stood framed in the sunlight, and the flying figure that joined it, adding its own light to the room.
            Thunderstrike lumbered after the Mandarin, but the Human Torch snuffed her flame and bent over Tony.  In a moment the Atom was appearing from tiny obscurity, using her more-than-normal-sized strength to pry away the ruins of Iron Maiden's armor.
            Foolishly, Tony tried to cross his arms over his chest, to protect his secret for a moment longer, but that only sped up the crumbling of the charred shell.  As the Torch helped him to a sitting position, the last of the breastplate fell away, and Tony realized that it had to have been wrecked long since.  How many minutes, perhaps hours, had his heart been beating on its own?  The Mandarin's healing rays must have worked even better than either man had known.
            As the Torch brushed away crumbs of char and examined Tony's body, he wondered at his comrade's calm in the face of his unmasking.  His fellow Avengers were showing no sign of the shock they must feel at finding a man, a notorious womanizer, under their teammate's armor.
            The Torch and the Atom wrapped Tony in a throw taken from a couch.  They were carrying him towards the hole in the wall when Thunderstrike returned, jamming her hammer into her belt.
            "The base villain did flee, abandoning his stronghold," she boomed.
            "And I would suggest we make a more seemly retreat, for the forces of the Chinese Communists do approach in haste.  Though it was we ourselves who did rout the rogue, and apprise his enemies of this fortress's whereabouts, I fear we will not be much welcome amongst them."
            As Thunderstrike easily scooped Tony's body into her arms, he exchanged glances with the other Avengers.  Their concern mirrored his own.  At first, Donna had only used that pseudo-Elizabethan dialect when there were reporters around, but lately she'd been acting more and more like she really believed the mysterious object she carried was Thor's own Mjolnir, as though she thought she was some figure from bastardized myth.  Every time Donna St. James transformed herself, Thunderstrike seemed to be less like Donna.  Tony feared they were heading to a confrontation over this obsession of hers.
            Thunderstrike carried Tony to the waiting chariot, her Clydesdale-sized goats already prancing impatiently.  The Torch, as usual, was humming "I Got Plenty of Nothin'".  Jostling in Thunderstrike's arms, Tony marveled at how good he really did feel, now that the accumulated shocks of burning and healing were fading.  He moved his fingers, flexed his legs.  But something wasn't quite right.  It felt as though a flap of torn muscle were lying on his chest.  He reached up, fingers probing delicately.
            His hand froze as it closed on something that could not,  could not, be finally there, after all those years of wishing.
            Unless, perhaps, the Mandarin's healing rays really did heal better than anyone had ever suspected.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Lies We Tell Ourselves

In 2008, I had to make a decision. Whichever choice I made, I thought it would kill me to forgo the other. I felt as though I were being torn in two, and I wasn't very well put together even before all that came up.

I tried for the longest time to avoid making that choice. To dream up some way to have things both ways. If I had been a more whole person back then, maybe I could even have found a better way, I don't know. Certainly I could have come to a firm conclusion faster, which would have been easier for all parties concerned.

I thought I had made my decision, but then all at once I was uncertain again. I am not sure how close this situation came to killing me, but I know that I spent a lot of time thinking about ways in which I might suffer a fatal accident, and thus be spared having to make that goddamned decision.

The situation as it stands is far from perfect. None of us has everything we wanted. But I can live with it. Or anyway, I've stopped wishing I were dead.

But how I wish I had not caused so much needless pain to those others. There is no upside to that, and no way to reduce the shame I feel at how I treated the ones who were dearest to me.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

arcadiaberger.blogspot.com

Come check out Arcadia Berger's new site, http://arcadiaberger.blogspot.com, where she shamelessly plugs her ebooks.

But then, Arcadia Berger does most things shamelessly.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Like Ashleigh's


Going to post this here in addition to posting it to Tumblr [http://dr-psychos-transformations.tumblr.com/image/81158609214] because I created it in honor of a post by Berzerkasaurus Rex [http://degradeddamsels.blogspot.com/2014/03/mmmmmmilf.html#comment-form] and Rex has trouble looking at posts on Tumblr.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Earth-349: Hawkman

[Still finding Earth-349 stories that I haven't posted to the blog] by Anton Psychopoulos, Ph.D. Disclaimer #1: This story is inspired by a story in Superman #349, but is not limited by that story or any other. Disclaimer #2: This story makes use of copyrighted characters owned by DC Comics, Inc., and other publishers. It is written for amusement only and is not intended to infringe or disparage those copyrights. Disclaimer #3: This story is not recommended for persons under 18 or the easily offended, especially those who are disturbed by themes such as transgender and the end of the world. Prologue One: Earth-1 Katar Hol, son of Paran Katar, member of the Hawk Police of Thanagar, lifted the absorbascon from his head and looked around him, allowing his mind to return to being merely the consciousness of a single man, rather than a vast, almost impersonal awareness possessing all the knowledge of all people on Earth. Quickly sorting through what he had moments ago grasped in its entirety, plucking from the fading vision of Earth entire the things he actually needed to retain, he allowed himself to reflect for a moment on the shock he had felt the first time he had absorbed Terran knowledge, and begun the long transition from a visiting police officer hunting an escaped criminal, to an interested observer and ally of Terran humanity, and finally to something that was almost as much Terran as Thanagarian. The absorbascon had allowed him and his partner (and wife) to learn the languages and customs of their hosts, enough to allow them to pose in their off-duty hours as ordinary Terrans, but a true understanding had taken much longer. Now, though, after nearly a decade on Earth, he was more likely to think of himself as Carter Hall than as Katar Hol, as “the” Hawkman of the Justice League than as a Hawkman of the Thanagarian police. Yet this planet, not his birthplace, now seemed as though it had always been destined to be his home. Prologue Two: Earth-2 Carter Hall, son of Perry Hall, secretly the world-famous mystery man known as Hawkman, tied the leather thong that wrapped the handle of the mace and cut it short with a razor blade. He turned it, inspecting his work approvingly. The weapon, which had served a soldier in the armies of Philip of Macedon, would serve Hawkman for another day. Hall reflected on the confused time when he had first learned of his past life in ancient Egypt, the days when he had recreated his ancient feat of adding a “ninth metal” to Egyptian alchemy’s eight. Hall had become Hawkman, and made his girlfriend into Hawkgirl. Strange to think it had been nearly thirty years. It didn’t seem so long. Now they were an old married couple, with a fine son, Hector, who might just become a mystery man himself one day, taking his father’s place in the Justice Society. Hall twirled the mace in the air, tossing and catching the deadly implement with practiced ease. Reincarnation, antigravity, masked heroics. What a life. Yet it all felt exactly right. As though it had been meant to be from before Egypt had existed. Prologue Three: Earth-3 Hol Hektah, son of Peren Hektah, had risen through the ranks of the police agency which kept the rulers of imperial Thanagar in power, promoted from Wingman to Falcon and eventually to Eagle. He had done it by hard work, by careful politicking, and by knowing when to take chances. When the job of hunting down the anti-imperialist activist Bythor had come up, Hol had used every trick and favor he had to get the assignment. Hol had known that rooting Bythor out of the unknown planet “Earth” would be no simple find-him-and-kill-him mission, and that carrying it out successfully would be his route to the highest honors, his best chance of one day holding the title of Hawkman, supreme commander of the force that kept the flying cities of the Hawkworld in the air. His lover, Sondar, had stowed away. That made her a deserter from her demolitions unit, but she had figured that he would need the bombing skills that had earned her the nickname “Egglayer” to kill Bythor, and that returning as the partner of a hero would win her forgiveness. And if they failed, they would probably be dead anyway. They had arrived at Earth so full of confidence. How could they have guessed just how mad a planet Earth really was? The Crime Syndicate, the rulers of the planet, had already killed Bythor. They’d had no more use for his talk of human rights and justice than Hawkworld had. Hol and Sondar had been permitted to live, provided they helped the Crime Syndicate protect Earth from other invaders, but they would never be allowed to return to Thanagar and warn their superiors about the dangerous superhumans of Earth. Now the madman Johnny Quick had raped Sondar, and she was pregnant. Hol could not allow his beloved’s child to grow up on this mad planet; they would have to make a break for it. To live any longer on Earth? It was never meant to be. Prologue Four: Earth-24 Jerzy Holiuski threw himself against the hangar door. The corrugated sheet metal groaned loudly, but refused to yield. Chuck Rensie, the Texan Holiuski had met earlier that day, approached with a long metal rod which he levered into the door, trying to pry it open where Holiuski had failed. "What are you expecting to find in here, anyway, Polack?" Holiuski shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe parts for your plane, maybe petrol. Maybe a new plane for me. But if you are serious about this idea of becoming some kind of air pirates to fight the Nazis, we will need things we will only find at an air base like this one, no?" "Yeah," Rensie grunted, leaning on the bar. "And your Polacks bugged outta here so fast, they musta left plenty behind." Holiuski walked around behind Rensie, placing the bar between them. The American turned around to face him. "One more thing: don't call me 'Polack' again, Yankee." Rensie's fair, freckled face turned livid at the word "Yankee", and he lunged for the Pole. This had the desired effect, the bar levering the door open with a scream of rent metal before dumping Rensie on the ground. Rensie jumped up, already beginning to laugh, when he saw Holiuski's expression. He followed the Pole's eyes, looking into the hangar. At first he thought they were parachutes hung on a rack. But then he saw that the leather harnesses were connected to seven sets of black-feathered wings. Prologue Five: There Is No More Earth-168 Hank and Don Hall still felt as though they were standing on some kind of solid surface, even though they could see nothing more beneath them than they could in any other direction: only something like swirling, pearlescent fog. "God damn it," Hank snarled, the long red "feathers" of his cape rustling like palm fronds, "this didn't have to goddamn happen!" "It was bound to happen, thanks to barbarians like you," snapped Don, wagging a white-gloved finger under his brother's nose. "What, now you're gonna blame me for this? This is the goddamn end of the world, little brother!" "And in the face of your world's end, still you learn nothing," said the Voice which had given them the powers of the Hawk and the Dove. "Can you imagine how disappointed I am in you?" "I did what I could," Don raged, "but how much could I do, when you gave just as much power to the wrong side?" He stabbed a finger at Hank. "Still you think of sides. Still you think either you or your brother should have dominated the other. You have learned nothing, and your world is forfeit because of it." "I told you," Hank snarled. "I told you appeasement would only --" "Enough. Your world is destroyed because it failed to learn the lesson I created you to teach it. And you failed because you never learned it yourselves. But that world is done, and a new role awaits you, on a new world." "Then it's true," Don said softly, "there are other worlds, other Earths?" "There are. And on a thousand Earths I have placed my champions, my Hawks. Each has a different role to play, according to the nature of the Earth. On the world for which you are bound, after a transformation, you shall have a new destiny, as parents of a new generation of Hawks." "Parents?" Hank said, horrified. "No, you can't do that! Even if the little drip isn't much of a man, he's still my brother, and I'm not gonna marry him even if you do change him!" The Voice paused, and somehow the silence took the place of a chuckle. "Fear not, Henry Hall. Incest is not what I mean to be your fate.” Epilogue: Earth-349 The alarm clock woke Perry Carter at 6:00 AM exactly, just as it had the day before, back at MIT. He took pride in keeping to routine. Shutting off the clock, he looked around his bedroom, the same one he had lived in as a child. It was the largest private room in Carter Hall, as befitted the son of the head of the Carter family, but it was smaller than the bathroom of his apartment at school. The Carters were the wealthiest of the four Founding Families of Laputa, but space upon the flying island was scarce, and there were limits to how much space money could buy. Then again, Carter reflected as he pulled on his green hose and tied his sandals, nobody else at MIT had his own set of wings, or the antigravity belt that allowed them to carry him on the winds. These items, his most precious possessions, he removed carefully from their cabinet on the wall. His mother, Saundra Carter, had worn them during the Second World War as Lady Hawk, one of the world’s first superheroes. Now he wore them as Hawkman. Carter checked the wing-harness and flew neatly from his bedroom window, soaring into the dawn sky towards the edge of the sky-island. Below and to his right, he saw fat old Asa Whitney on his flying carpet, cruising slowly just above the ground. To his left, his uncle Einar soared on his green batwings. All the fliers, of course, were using small bits of Ixium, the same mysterious substance that kept the sky island in the air. Directly ahead, the lip of the island was ploughing through a cloud, spilling streamers of fog over the green lawns. There seemed to be someone standing there, dangerously close to the edge, especially in the fog. Carter flew down towards the edge, beginning to make out a pair of bodies, two women dressed in odd birdlike costumes that might have been meant to be tributes to his own. He flew down towards them.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Still My Favorite Valentine

Definitely, and by a long chalk: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harlequin_Valentine

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Earth-349: The Fantastic Four


Earth-349: The Fantastic Four by Anton Psychopoulos, Ph.D. Fantastic FourDisclaimer #1: This story is set on a hypothetical parallel world within the pre-Crisis DC Universe, based on a story in Superman #349, but is not limited by that story or any other. Disclaimer #2: Some characters appearing in this story are based on copyrighted characters owned by DC Comics, Inc., Marvel Comics and others. Their use here is not intended to infringe or disparage those copyrights. Disclaimer #3: This story is not recommended for persons under 18 or the easily offended. Dr. Natalie Richards, known to the general public as Doctor Fantastic, did not look up from her microscope as she reached for the bottle of solvent on the workbench behind her. The seeming clutter of her laboratory was perfectly clear to her at all times, so there was no doubt in her mind that the bottle her fingers first touched was the one she wanted, even though it was a good twelve feet behind her. The rest of her body remained in its normal form, that of a broad-shouldered woman, her brown hair touched with gray at the temples but otherwise showing few signs of age. Somehow the normalcy of her appearance made the elastic extension of her arm seem all the more grotesque. All the while, she continued to speak, monotonously but with perfect diction, into a microphone propped next to the microscope. "Each clan of the Durlan race has its traditional form, distinct from all others: the Daggle, Skrull and Krrlgr clans wear a humanoid shape; the Shoggoth, Llorn and Fortikay are amoeboid; the Gollo are long-necked quadrupeds." Doctor Fantastic's arm retracted silently, assuming an almost normal shape as she brought the bottle in front of her, twisted off its cap, set it down and picked up a pipette, all the while her eyes remained fixed on the arcane image under her view. The pipette, loaded with solvent, hovered over the slide in the microscope, when Richards heard a small sound behind her. Still not looking up, she paused before letting fall the precise drop she needed. "Is that you, Griffy?" Richards, the microscope, the tape recorder, the bottle of solvent and everything else on the workbench were suddenly slammed against the wall. Only Richards survived, thanks to the super-elastic powers that made her Doctor Fantastic, and the shock of being mashed against the bench and the wall was acutely painful even to her. The pressure against her back suddenly vanished, and Richards turned, readying herself to face a dangerous foe or to deal with malfunctioning equipment. She was not prepared for what she did see: a small, skinny young man in studden leather shorts, boots, bracers and cowl, snarling at her with unalloyed hostility. "All right, fellow," Richards began, trying to assess the danger the unfamiliar enemy posed, "let's --" Richards found herself enclosed in an invisible sphere of force, one that quickly shrank until she was crushed into a sphere less than two feet in diameter, then smaller still, until the air was forced from her lungs and she began to black out. Unable to speak, she tried to form words with her lips, but any plea or shocked exclamation was rendered unintelligible by the distortion of her flattened face, half-buried against her blue-sheathed shoulder. Frances Grimm looked at the rough orange surface of her left forearm and sighed disgustedly. Tossing aside the sheet of 400-grain sandpaper with which she had been trying to improve its texture, she looked into her newly-installed full-length mirror, the third she'd bought that week. Surveying her hairless, lumpish shape, almost genderless except for the prominent orange breasts distending her white cotton nightgown, she raised a massive fist, then slowly lowered it. "Getting better, Grimm. But you'll know you're really getting used to how you look when a mirror lasts you two whole days." She picked up her newest exercise device, a lump of gray puttylike material Natalie had created in the lab, malleable but so stiff it challenged even the immense strength of the She-Creature. Suddenly the lump's texture changed, became hard to hold onto. Grimm bore down with her mighty hands and squeezed. Nothing happened. She clamped the blob under one arm and crushed it against her chest. It shifted, and Grimm gave a satisfied grunt and lifted the lump to look at it. It had been shaped into a hasty but recognizable bust of herself, as she had been before the Fantastic Four's ill-fated flight into space. As she stared, gaping, the bust's mouth opened and a long gray tongue protruded. Grimm dropped the lump and looked around the room. When she saw the intruder in studden leather, she leapt forward, snarling "Okay, dickhead, it's cl--" She slammed into an invisible barrier that stopped her cold. Even foot-thick concrete had more give in it than the wall she ran into. Rebounding from the barrier, the She-Creature's craggy orange bottom never hit the ground. Instead, she fell into a sphere of force that pressed in on her mercilessly, squeezing with a force she'd never felt before. She fought back, battering against the force, making the masked man sweat as she hammered ceaselessly against his power, but in the end hypoxia won out, and she subsided into unconsciousness. Her maliciously grinning captor did not allow oxygen to penetrate Grimm's prison until her orange lips began to take on a slight bluish tinge. Susan Storm slipped the autographed photo of Paul McCartney into the fireproof transparent cover vacated by Fabian's and hung it back on the wall. She stepped back, climbing onto her bed's ruffled pink spread to admire the effect. "Oh, Paul," she murmured. Natty had promised that the next time business took them to Europe, the pogo plane would make a stop in England so Sue could meet him. She'd promised. "Paul's an asswipe," came a harsh, unfamiliar voice from the doorway. Sue turned, her seventeen-year-old eyes widening at the sight of a boy in the dumbest, raunchiest outfit she'd ever seen. Her eyes flashed with rage as his words sank in. "Flame on," she snapped, not caring that her spread hadn't been fireproofed (the treatment made stuff so stiff). A sheet of flame covered her body, and the spread beneath her burst into flame as well. But only in a circle around her. Sue only just had time to notice that before she lost consciousness. Flaming used up oxygen so very rapidly. Frances' bellowing curses woke Natalie. She looked around and saw that she was suspended in midair in the communications room, three of its highly-advanced 21-inch color screens flickering with light. Frances and Sue were floating nearby, naked as she was. Their captor stood by the communications controls, apparently making connections. "Everybody awake?" the young man in leather sneered. "Good. Welcome to your new lives, courtesy of Animus." "Well, good morning to you, too, Animal Boy," Frances grated. Animus glared at her and her limbs were suddenly crushed to her sides. Evidently he had reduced the space allowed to her. "For the benefit of the less literate among present company," Animus said sweetly, "the word 'animus' has two definitions: The masculine spirit within each person at war with the feminine anima, and the desire to harm someone. I am animus at large in the world, by both definitions!" Natalie and Sue had both been staring hard at the masked man. Simultaneously, they both said uncertainly, "Griffy?" Animus started, not expecting to be identified so quickly. "A-animus," he insisted, "call me Animus." "Griffin Jay Storm, do you think this is funny?" the Human Torch screamed. Natalie cried, "Sue, no!" but Animus had already sealed her force-field cage against sound and air. Susan Storm's fists pounded against her older brother's power until she collapsed, gasping for breath. "Give her some air, Animus," Natalie Richards said calmly. "You don't want to hurt her." "Yes I do," he laughed, but allowed Susan some air. "Don't want to kill her, but oh, do I ever want to hurt her. I'm going to hurt you all, a whole lot." Frances spoke up next. Her voice had never been called ladylike, but after her transformation it had become a gravelly bass croak. She tried to make it as pleasant as she could. "Look, uh, Animus, I can see you wantin' to try a new name, a new look. I was thinkin' the other day that we oughta at least start callin' you the Invisible Man. But --" Animus cut her off, sounding almost sad. "You never did have a clue what I wanted, did you, Fran? Even before, I could never get close to you. Always trying to be as tough as the guys, but secretly ashamed you couldn't be more girly, never opening up enough to let me get a look at the real you. And after it happened, you played it bitter or you played it like a clown, but you never gave me a chance to tell you that you were still a woman to me, and I was still ready to love you if you'd give me a chance." He stabbed a finger in Natalie's face. "You were no better, Tal. Using your research as an excuse to keep everybody at arm's length, even while you strung me along, never letting me quite know where I stood with you. And when we became the Fantastic Four, it was worse. I was living with you, for crying out loud, and still you'd be making a fuss over your responsibilities as team leader, finding endless excuses for ignoring me and then expecting me to be there when you wanted because we were a team after all. "And you, Sue," he continued, pacing down the line of prisoners, "even you couldn't treat me like the big brother, could you? God, have you any idea what it's like to have your kid sister patronize you?" He raised both fists in the air and raved at his naked captives. "God, yes, I'm gonna hurt you! You're going to pay and pay and pay for what you did to me!" He turned and pointed. Switches flipped on the communications console. A mask of gray steel, framed by a green hood, appeared on the leftmost screen. "You are ready to deliver me my cargo," asked a voice halfway between Max von Sydow and Bela Lugosi. "She's all yours, Your Majesty," Animus chuckled, using his force field to turn the videophone camera on Natalie. Doctor Doom laughed behind his mask. "Soon, Richards, you will know the vengeance of Doom. I arrive within the hour." The middle screen was almost completely filled by a distorted, inhuman gray face. "Hi, uh, fella," the Hulk rumbled. "You got the girl?" Animus moved Frances' force-bubble into camera range. "She's all yours, if you've got the cash." The Hulk lifted a suitcase that had once been quite elegant-looking and popped it open, bursting the steel band which had served in place of its long-demolished clasps. It was full of currency. "I got it. I want that nose-breakin' bitch. Been a long time since I had a girl I could use more'n once. Besides, she broke my nose." "So I've heard. Well, she's all yours. I'll meet you in the fourth sub-basement, as we agreed." "Right, like we agreed." The third monitor flicked alight, but no image appeared on it. "What about me, Griff?" Animus turned towards his sister. She sat, composed, within her force bubble, not trying to cover her nakedness. "Who are you selling me to? The Skrulls? The Molecule Master? The Doom Patrol?" "Shut up," Animus said softly, looking away. "Is this really what you want? Do you want to start your new life this way? Is this the kind of person you want to become?" "Sue --" Animus' reply was cut off by the third monitor's suddenly coming to life. A leering, freckled face appeared, seeming almost to lean out of the screen as it faced the camera. "Well, Mister Animus, I see you've got my little package all un-wrapped for me!" Alec Pierson, the Puppeteer, brushed at his red pompadour and straightened the collar of his western shirt as though preparing for a date. "I'll be right over, as soon as your other two customers have come and gone. Wouldn't want to get in their way, would I?" "Pierson," Animus whispered. "You were there. You . . . ." The Puppeteer frowned. "I'll be coming over soon. As soon as you've concluded your other business. As soon as you've had your revenge on those other two bitches. Those cold, castrating bitches," he snarled, leaning even further into the camera. His image was distorted now, sweat beading on his forehead as though the simple act of speaking to Animus were a great strain. Animus looked down at himself. "You did it. You gave me . . . ." "You're going to sell those bitches and be done with them," Pierson repeated. A blurry figure appeared in front of Pierson's face. He held it up to the camera, and it automatically adjusted to focus on a small but exquisitely detailed statue of Griffin Storm as Animus. A statue carved from clay, and cleverly jointed to be posable. "A puppet," Griffin snarled, pointing at the screen and then closing his eyes. "You're going to do it," Pierson hissed. "I'm warning you." The head popped off Pierson's puppet. Pierson stared at the ruined puppet, horrified. He looked back up at the camera and ran from the room, leaving the video monitor to show an empty room. Griffin Storm peeled the leather mask from his face as his three former comrades sank gently to the floor. "You'd better get ready for company. Doom will be landing on the roof in half an hour, and the Hulk will be in Sub 2 half an hour after that." "Right," snapped Natalie crisply, "we'll meet Doom on the roof. He'll probably depart without landing when he sees the four of us together and in uniform. The Hulk will be a little more trouble, but with your powers at their new level, Griffy - uh - Griffin, we should be able --" "No. You'll have to handle them without me." Griffin approached a window. It swung open at his approach. "Wait, Griff," Sue implored, "don't go! We need you. And we know this wasn't your fault, it was the Puppeteer manipulating you, we see that." "No, Sue. It came out because of him, but it wouldn't have come out if it hadn't been in there already." He stepped out the window, turning to look at his friends as he hovered there. "I'm not going to become Animus. But I'm not going back to being your Invisible Boy, either. I don't know what I'll do, who I'll be, but when I find out, I'll be in touch." He feel away from sight. Sue, Nat and Fran rushed to the window and saw him gliding into the distance, riding the air on an invisible winged shape. "I taught him the aerodynamics to do that," Fran said softly. "Well," Natalie said, trying to recover her crisp voice of command, "we still have a couple of guests to make unwelcome. We can sort things out after that." "Yeah," Fran agreed with forced cheerfulness. "Call up the Inhumans and Doc Xavier, find us a new fourth. Maybe another chick, we can be a girl gang this time." Sue glared at her. "Your skull's as thick as your hide, you big hippo. We can't replace Griff." "Well, not replace, but --" "But nothing," Nat said flatly. "Without Griff, we've got no reason to continue as we have. Once Doom and the Hulk are dealt with, I'll be packing for Arizona, the way I should have done when Ross Oil offered me the job in the first place. More research, less horseplay." "If I respond before the end of the month," Sue observed, "that scholarship from MIT will still be good." "But if you guys leave now," Frances croaked, "this is . . . the end of the Fantastic Four!" And it was.