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.

Earth-349: Catwoman

Earth-349: Catwoman by Anton Psychopoulos, Ph.D. Disclaimer #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: 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 troubled by themes such as age regression and spanking. She entered the Starr Electronics office through the front door, dressed as a cleaning woman, but as soon as she was inside, she pulled the cowl over her head. These things had to be done properly. The safe door was made of a modern composite material: impervious to acids and the heat of anything not nuclear-powered. The lock was electronic, just as up-to-date, very impressive-looking -- and about as hard to crack as a gym locker. She had it open it two minutes. She would leave the way she had entered, without a trace, but these things had to be done properly, or one might as well just write bad checks, so she cut a neat circle from the window with her glass cutter and laid it on the floor. She chuckled as she imagined them trying to figure out how she had scaled the outside of a glass-faced skyscraper, then snarled as she noticed that the window didn't open at all. She thought about cutting a bigger hole, one plausibly big enough for a very athletic person to climb through, then shrugged and left things as they were. Call it a symbol. Symbols were important. She was so upset by her gaffe with the window that she almost left the office with the cat-mask still in place. She was just reaching up to pull it off when a low voice behind her murmured, "Here, Kitty, Kitty." She spun, her movements not hampered by the baggy garments of a cleaning woman. Her leg lashed out precisely at the source of the voice, but Batwoman had already moved half a step back. Catwoman's heel met a gloved hand rather than a jaw. The Dark Dame yanked the burglar off her feet, with an extra tug as her head approached the floor to spoil her fall. Catwoman's head cracked loudly against the floor, and Batwoman pressed the advantage, flipping the stunned criminal onto her belly and yanking her arms painfully behind her back. Knees dug cruelly into the small of Catwoman's back, and she did not recover in time to escape the manacles Batwoman snapped onto her wrists. Catwoman almost got away as Gotham's Guardian moved to bind her ankles, but in seconds the second pair of shackles were in place, and then a chain was looped between the two, pulling Catwoman's body into a painful bow. "More chains than the cops use, Batty-girl. You must like them." "Sorry to disappoint you, Lois," Batwoman said evenly. "This is strictly business. I knew a pair of handcuffs weren't nearly enough to hold you." "So, it's Lois now, is it? Am I supposed to be impressed?" Batwoman peeled the cowl from Lois Lane's face, made ugly by unconcealed loathing. "I wouldn't mind if you were. The police hadn't figured it out yet." Catwoman gave a snarling laugh. "The cops in this town haven't got any more brains than they do balls." Batwoman's face betrayed a hint of emotion. "Not funny, Lois. Drake Lance is a good man. He doesn't deserve the suffering he's going through because of you." Inspector Drake Lance had publicly promised to "put a collar" on Catwoman. She'd assaulted him in his apartment and castrated him, then delivered his testicles to his fiancee with a note reading, "Your Drake is now a capon". The Catwoman shrieked with rage. "He deserves it! They all do!" Batwoman shoved a bat-shaped chunk of black foam rubber between Lois' bared teeth and secured the straps,. gagging her. She hoisted the struggling criminal onto her back and carried her to the elevator. "It's obvious, Lois, what your problem is. You feel that there's no man on Earth who comes up to your standards, and you've decided to take out your frustration by hurting the best men you can find, men like Lance, or like Cal Starr, who would have been bankrupted by your little industrial espionage tonight." The elevator opened. Catwoman continued to struggle, but her arms were growing tired in their unnatural position behind her back. "I tend to agree with you, Lois. You are a superior woman, and you deserve a superior man. But did it ever occur to you that you put too many barriers between yourself and men? Challenging their right to court you is one thing; acting like you despise them is another. It would take a man who was really superhuman to put up with that kind of treatment for long." The elevator opened onto a basement garage. Batwoman carried her prisoner to the black panel van she privately thought of as "Batmobile #4". With Catwoman secured in back, Batwoman changed from her bizarre black and gray costume into a less conspicuous disguise: a dirty-blonde wig, jeans, a cordurouy jacket, a large mole on her nose. She wondered for a moment why she had worn the Batwoman costume to confront Catwoman, then reminded herself that one really had to do things the right way, if one was going to do them at all. Catwoman lay silently in the back of the van as Batwoman drove the van out onto the street and parked, pulling the handset of a concealed car-telephone from under the dashboard. She dialed a number, spoke a few words, hung up and drove on. Catwoman remained still and silent, no doubt methodically exploring her bonds. A sudden storm of muffled cries and snarls made it obvious when she figured out that the cuffs had no key mechanism at all, and would have to be cut off. Batwoman drove towards the upper West End of Gotham, onto the campus of New Devonshire State University, and parked the van at the back of Crane Hall. Professor Carter Nicholls was waiting at the door as she carried the bound Catwoman inside. "You can take the manacles off her now," Nicholls said as Batwoman laid Lois Lane on a padded table. "What kind of restraints do you have?" Batwoman asked, looking over the table. "We won't need any. She's already under." Batwoman looked and saw that Catwoman's eyes were glazed, her breathing shallow. Professor Nicholls had induced a deep hypnotic state in the few seconds it had taken her to carry Catwoman into the lab. She removed the restraints and straightened Catwoman's body on the table, disturbed by how compliant but unresponsive she was, like a jointed mannequin, neither asleep nor awake. "Now, if you'll give me about an hour, er, Miss Wayne, I'll have her ready for you to take home." "Are you sure you'll be safe with her, Professor?" "Oh, quite safe. But I would like some privacy while I work." Batwoman nodded and headed for the door. Professor Nicholls possessed some sort of reality-altering technique which he'd never revealed to anyone. Batwoman didn't even know if it involved psychic powers, technology or something totally unimagined. But on several occasions, he had sent her, alone or accompanied by Robin or Batgirl, into the past and future, and had once transformed her into a young girl, walking through modern Gotham with no memory of her adult life. Batwoman sat in the van for an hour, going over Korean vocabulary cards and doing a few Yoga exercises, until Nicholls came out and ushered her up to his lab. she went, carrying a large shopping bag. Lois Lane's body was almost lost in the dumpy cleaning woman's dress. Even the purple bodysuit underneath was now baggy, no longer skintight. The body on the table was that of a girl no older than ten. The soft oval face, seeming now comfortably asleep, showed no trace of the cruelty of Catwoman, or the brittle sophistication of Lois Lane. "Now, remember, Miss Wayne, her transformation seems complete, and it should be complete, but it could easily break down in the early stages. It would be easy, if she fell into her old habits, for her to regain her memories of adult life, maybe even to spontaneously regain her adult body. You must keep her living as a young girl, an innocent young girl . . . ." Batwoman looked up from the table. Nicholls had pulled a pair of pink cotton briefs from the bag and was clutching them nervously, sweat beading on his forehead as he stared down at the girl on the table, biting his lip. "That's all right, Professor. I'll take it from here." Nicholls swallowed and nodded gratefully, though it took him a moment before he put the panties down. Batwoman carried the girl to the van. She was now dressed in a navy blue pleated skirt, pale blue blouse, white sweater vest, blue socks and mary janes. The Professor saw them out, and Batwoman drove them away into the night. It was late now, so she went to the Corolla Building penthouse rather than drive all the way out to the mansion in Fingerwood. She laid Lois on the living room couch, changed out of her disguise, and checked the time. She'd timed it perfectly; the program she wanted was about to start. She bent over the sleeping girl. "Antwerp," she whispered. Lois blinked and looked around. "Um, hello?" "Hello, Lois. My name is Roberta. You're going to be living with me now." The girl made a sour face. "Another foster home? Swell." "Well, Lois, this time things are kind of different. This is going to be hard for you to believe at first, but it'll be easier if you watch something first." She picked up the remote control and turned on the television. The girl's eyes widened. "You have a televisor?" That was good. She was relating to the TV set as the rich person's novelty item it had been twenty years before. The screen showed a handsome blonde man with his arm around a slender woman with chocolate-colored skin, waving to reporters. "--ormer astronaut Steve Trevor today announced his candidacy for the Sen--" CLICK A handsome man in a tux sang into a microphone as he gazed into the eyes of a beaky woman in an outrageous hat. "--enaded his wife of eighteen years with the comic-romantic song 'That's Amore'. Lewis responded in her typical madcap fash--" CLICK Earth, as seen from space, filled the screen. The image pulled back to reveal a second Earth, then a dozen, then hundreds of tiny, identical Earths. White letters appeared over the multiplying worlds: "New Devonshire Educational Television Presents More Worlds Than One." Lois sat rapt through the program as it moved quickly through famous disappearances (Marshal Ney, Oliver Cromwell), mysterious people who seemed to come from nowhere (Kaspar Hauser, Mary Psalmanasar), inexplicable artifacts (the Kensington Stone, Lomellini's Column) and other historical anomalies, to modern physics and finally to the documented crossings between worlds of recent years (the Flash photographed the streets of a "Crossroads City" that existed in place of Hub City; a real-life Captain America held a captive Adolf Hitler aloft by his collar). From time to time she looked around the room, noticing objects even stranger than the huge color screen of her host's "televisor". When it was over, Lois looked down and saw she was holding Roberta's hand. "So, I'm in a different world now? I'm from that, um, Earth-348?" "No, hon, another one. One that . . . doesn't exist any more." It was true enough. The Earth-349 of the 1940s was long gone. "And now I'm gonna live here with you?" "That's right. I have your room ready for you at the big house outside of town; for tonight, you can sleep in the spare room here." Lois pulled her hand from Roberta's. "Suppose I don't want to?" She jumped up from the couch with what looked disturbingly like decades of athletic experience working her ten-year-old body. "I wake up in this weird place, and you tell me a crazy story about how it's 1966 and a whole new world, and you've got a nice room for me and --" Roberta rose slowly from the couch. "Lois, honey--" Lois snatched up a glass bowl from the coffee table and held it over her head. "Tell me what's really going on, you bitch!" Unexpectedly, instead of trying to hit Roberta with the bowl, Lois swung it sideways and smashed in the TV screen. A hand clamped on Lois' wrist. She was hauled off her feet and over the coffee table without touching it. She landed on the couch, across Roberta's lap. "That, young lady, is enough!" Roberta was surprised by the voice she heard coming from her own lips. It wasn't the stern voice of Roberta Wayne in the boardroom, nor the inhuman menace of Batwoman. With a start, she recognized it as the voice of an angered mother. Lois kicked and thrashed as Roberta flipped up her skirt and yanked down her panties, but she did not display the preternatural grace she had a moment ago. She merely struggled as any child might. And when Roberta's hand came down again and again on her small pink buttocks, Lois responded in a perfectly natural fashion for a ten-year-old: she kicked and screamed and was shortly in tears. Roberta sat her young charge upright and glared into her eyes. "Now, there will be no more outbursts like that, will there?" "No, ma'am." The tiny, contrite voice was immensely gratifying to hear. But then, Roberta reflected, four days as a captive of the Penguin had shown her that mysterious time-bending abilities were not really needed to turn a grown woman into a snivelling, obediant child. "All right, then. How about if you wash your face and get ready for bed?" "Yes, ma'am." By the time Lois had had a bath and brushed her teeth, she was calling her guardian "Roberta", which made Roberta feel better about the whole project. She was confident that she and Alfred, and little Delia, would be able to provide Lois with a proper second chance at life. She even got a good night kiss.