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: 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?"
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.