World Without X-Men
By Michael Weyer
The Clone Truth part 2
"That's it!" The Thing yelled as he moved to the hole in the wall. "Nobody trashes our house and gets away with it!" He paused and frowned. "Well, okay, we get guys doing that once a week but still…"
The Green Goblin hurled another pumpkin bomb outward and instinctively, the Thing punched at it. It blew open, spraying the same adhesive binding the Torch onto his fist. "Aw, now ya did it, crumb!" the Thing growled as he marched forward. "I was gonna have video games with my nephew tonight and ya just spoiled it!" His other hand flew out to smash at the Goblin, who was taken aback by his move. He managed to dodge out of the way, sending the glider backing up into the open air outside the hole.
Ben was already moving, firing a web to attack to the glider and letting himself be pulled outside. "I feel it only fair to warn you," he called out. "Everyone who wears that costume ends up dead."
"You'd know, having caused it!" the Goblin hissed as he pitched the glider at a hard angle, trying to sweep Spider-Man off. He held tightly to the line, twisting his body to avoid smacking into a building. "Listen, pal," Ben said. "I've been having a really bad year so I'm not in the mood to spend the next few months playing the 'who is the new Green Goblin' game. So, tell me, who are you? Distant Osborn cousin? Norman's secret offspring?"
"You know who I am, Ben," the Goblin said as he twisted the glider in the air, trying to throw Spider-Man off. "You and Peter know me and know how I'm going to destroy you!"
"Well, you definitely have the calm Osborn mindset down," Ben intoned as he twisted about, gripping the line to propel himself upward. His feet smashed into the Goblin's face, knocking him back. His boots were locked into the glider so the craft flew upward, throwing Ben back. He managed to twist around, firing a line to latch onto a building and swing back toward Four Freedoms Plaza. His Spider-Sense blared in time for him to turn around and avoid the pumpkin bomb thrown at him which exploded against another building. "Seriously, do you guys just leave little 'how-to' manuals on being a total psycho with this gear?"
Back at the Baxter Building, Reed had arrived on the scene, his long arms extending toward his lab even as he looked over Johnny. "Sue, get the Parkers to safety!" he called out. With a nod, Susan began pushing them toward a nearby doorway as she activated a panel on the wall to access one of the many special hiding places the FF had in case of times like this. Peter was shaking his head. "No, I'm staying here."
"Peter," Reed started. "Your powers are stabilizing but-"
"Peter, listen to the smartest man on the planet," MJ pressed. Susan was brooking no argument, creating a force field to push Peter into the room, pressing the panel to shut the door before he could argue.
Reed's arm returned from the lab holding a container that resembled a fire extinguisher. "This should do it," he said, spraying it onto the substance covering Johnny. Instantly, it began to crack before melting away, Johnny sitting up to brush it off. He looked at Reed in curiosity. "You just happened to have a solution to an instant fire-resistant adhesive lying around?"
Reed blinked, as if the answer was obvious. "Yes." He moved to spray it onto Ben. Johnny was already on his feet and moving to the open wall. "Flame on!" he yelled as he leapt out, turning into fire and flying out.
It didn't take long to find the battle as Spider-Man was avoiding a blast of electricity from the goblin's gloves. "Okay, buddy, now I'm mad!" Johnny yelled as he fired a blast of flame that scorched one of the wings of the Goblin's glider. The man gasped as the glider rocked to the side, barely managing to hold on. Ben had landed on the side of a building, his feet stuck to the wall as he threw out his hands and sent webbing to catch the glider. Grabbing it, he yanked and sent the glider spinning about, the Goblin falling out of it.
"I got him!" the Human Torch yelled as he flew downward. He reached forward, the flame extinguishing from his hands as he closed in on the Goblin. The masked man threw out his hand, firing another blast from his gauntlet. Johnny instinctively leapt back as the Goblin continued to fall.
There was a blur of red and blue as Spider-Man streaked past him, his arms extended. He fired off lines of webbing to catch the Goblin, one at his waist, the other at his legs. With ease that came from years of practice, Spider-Man cut off one line and reached behind him to fire webbing toward the nearest building as his other hand grabbed both lines. "Okay, let's just get you down, get that mask off and…"
Snarling, the Goblin reached to his belt, unhooking a pumpkin bomb and throwing it up. With Spider-Sense buzzing, Ben reacted on instinct, twisting about, the hand holding the lines to the Goblin coming loose. The bomb exploded just as it passed him, the shockwave knocking him back, causing him to lose his grip on the other line. He spun around, his head reeling from the explosion as he fell.
Johnny Storm realized he had a choice: Catch the Goblin or Spider-Man. He also realized it wasn't much of a choice at all as he flew down, dulling the flame in his hands in order to catch Ben. The man moaned, trying to get his thoughts back in order as they flew. "Where…where is…"
Johnny looked down and winced. "You don't want to know."
"Gotta see him," Ben said as he recovered. "I have to see who it was…"
Johnny was unsure but the desperation in Ben's voice won him over. He flew down to where the Goblin's body lay in the middle of the street. A crowd had gathered but backed up as the two heroes landed, Ben unsteadily getting onto his feet. They looked at the body, which had landed flat on its back, the limbs twisted at dark angles, his head bent to the side and a pool of blood forming beneath him.
Johnny looked down as he let himself flame out. "Damn, that had to hurt." He frowned as Ben knelt next to the body. "What are you doing?"
"I have to know," Spider-Man answered as he reached up and pulled up the garish mask. He and Johnny both stared in disbelief at what lay underneath. The face was marked with scarring, veins and sinews tangled together, one eye milky white. Yet the hair was the same as was most of the features, unmistakably those of Norman Osborn.
"This…is getting freaky," Ben noted. He looked up at Johnny. "Reed?"
"Come on, you haven't even…"
"I came all this way…."
"Damn, you are one stubborn son of…"
The two men walking through the streets of Harlem were an interesting pair. One fit the neighborhood well, a black man standing six feet tall with a well-chiseled body, clad in jeans, a tank top and a cap on his bald head. His colleague was shorter but also in good shape, white skinned and blond-haired wearing stylish slacks, jacket and vest. Despite their odd pairing, the two seemed to gel well together and got looks of respect from the residents they passed.
"Luke, it will work," the blond-haired man insisted. "You know things are going to escalate with the X-Men gone, new threats and all that. We can step up and help out."
"Plenty of teams who can do that, man," the black man stated in a bored tone. "Why'd they need us?"
"We've got skills others don't."
"True. But come on, it ended so badly before…"
"We both got wrapped up in our own problems then. Today, it's different."
"Danny Rand, I love you as my brother from another mother. But a new Heroes for Hire?" Luke Cage shook his head. "I just don't know 'bout it."
"You can't tell me you wouldn't like the extra cash."
"Says the millionaire." Luke shook his head. "Danny, it was good for its time but guess what? So was my afro. Things change, move on."
"Luke, we've both been through tough times lately," Danny went on. "This…this is a way for both of us to get back to what we do best and give back to the world a little more. It won't be just us, we can expand it. Misty and Colleen will jump for this and I know a lot of others we can recruit. It'll be a business but we won't be mercenaries, we can choose who to help and how to do it, our own terms. We can really do some good, Luke. The world needs as many heroes as it can get. You want to deny it that?"
Luke peered at him. "You've been practicing this in the mirror, haven't you?"
"Preparation is the key to victory."
"Throw all the fortune cookie sayings you want, pal, it ain't-" Luke's words were cut off by a huge rumble that both men recognized as an explosion. They whipped their heads around to see a pillar of smoke rising from a nearby office building. Luke was already running to it, brushing past the people running from the source of the chaos. Luke pulled ahead to run toward the office building, a more upscale addition to the neighborhood with a bank on the lower level and a large shopping center next door. People were running fast from it as Luke charged in, throwing his cap aside.
One wall of the bank had been caved inward as if smashed by a truck. The interior was a mess, furniture tossed every which way and shattered apart. Luke could see the large vault door in the back, a hulking metal disc at least three feet thick. It lay on its broken hinges like it was simple wood, torn right off. Luke had a sinking feeling about this and it was confirmed as four figures exited the vault, each carrying sacks of money. They were all huge men, muscular and clad in a variety of form-fitting costumes with masks, one carrying a huge ball on a chain while their leader held a crowbar in his hand.
"Well, lookie here, boys!" the leader called out. "Seems someone wants ta see about messing with the Wrecking Crew!"
Luke shook his head. "Damn, do they even bother locking you guys up anymore?"
"Funny guy," Thunderball said as he spun his ball around his head. "Let's see you laugh this off!" He threw it out, sending the ball with enough force to smash a human being to pulp. Instead, Luke caught it in his hands and yanked, pulling a startled Thunderball off balance. Luke then threw the ball over his shoulder, letting it smash into a nearby wall. Thunderball was frozen in surprise, allowing Luke to race forward and punch him across the jaw, knocking him to the floor.
"Aw, crap!" Bulldozer groaned. "Don't you guys recognize him? It's Power Man!"
"Ain't gone by that in a while," Luke growled as he cracked his knuckles with the sound of thunder. "But that ain't gonna stop me from taking on anyone messing with my neighborhood."
Piledriver grunted as he lunged forward. "Still four ta one, Cage!"
"Wow, you guys finally picked up some education in the joint? Good to see the prison system's improved since I was inside." Cage easily sidestepped the blonde-haired powerhouse and slammed his elbow into the back of his head, stunning him. He saw Bulldozer charging forward, head bent down to show his helmeted head bearing down. Most people would have ducked but Luke instead slammed down his feet, creating holds for himself as he put his hands forward. He grunted as Bulldozer slammed into him with massive force, pushing Luke back, the floor cracking as he was shoved back but able to hold his own. He twisted the helmet to toss Bulldozer off-balance and punch him down.
He turned just in time for the Wrecker to smash his crowbar into his head. A normal human's skull would have been caved in but Luke still felt his head ringing from the mystical object. Knocked off-balance, he was unable to properly dodge as Thunderball used his recovered chain to send his ball smashing into his back. Luke grunted as he was knocked to his knees, the entire Wrecking Crew ready to pound him down.
A blur of motion filled the air and each member of the Crew felt themselves knocked back by a succession of blows and kicks. Standing before them was a figure in a form-fitting green martial arts gi with yellow slippers and a yellow sash around his waist. His head was covered by a yellow hooded mask and the top part of his uniform was open to show a snake-like emblem on his chest.
"Iron Fist?" the Wrecker gasped. "I thought you two lovebirds broke up!"
"Consider this the reunion special," Iron Fist said as he launched another attack, his feet smashing into Piledriver's head, striking perfectly at nerves. He dodged a blow to strike a kick at the Wrecker's jaw, knocking him back. Thunderball moved in only to feel his chain yanked back, turning in time for Luke to smash him with a punch that sent him reeling. At a rushing sound, Luke turned to see Bulldozer once more charging at him. Without hesitation, he moved to the side and Bulldozer raced right by him, his helmet smashing into Thunderball's stomach. The man let out a huge gasp as he was sent flying back into Piledriver, all three landing in a heap.
Luke shook his head. "I can't believe you fools still fall for that."
The Wrecker growled as he lunged at Iron Fist, who ducked his swings. "I'm gonna pulp ya to mush for that!"
Ducking a swing, the martial arts master drew his right hand back as he concentrated, centering his body, mind and spirit. He felt his inner chi flowing, coming together quickly as he clenched his fingers together. His right hand glowed and crackled with energy as Danny Rand put all his focus into it, turning his hand into a thing unto iron. With a loud cry, he threw the fist out, smashing it directly into the Wrecker's jaw. He was rocked shock-still, frozen in place, his bar still held with both hands over his head. Then, slowly, he fell backward, landing in an unconscious heap on the floor.
The two finally noticed the sound of sirens just as a pack of police officers in SWAT gear and large rifles burst in. "Stand down, Code: Blue!" their leader, Lieutenant Marcus Stone, called out as he took in the scene. "Get those special restraints up here!" As the officers were quick to obey, Stone nodded to Luke and Danny. "Guess you two had it all in hand."
"Actually more like the fists," Luke smirked as he slapped Iron Fist lightly on the back. "Gotta admit, that felt good."
His friend smiled at him. "How good?"
Luke looked at him, pursing his lips. "Heroes for Hire, huh?" He paused for a moment in thought, then shrugged. "What the hell? Someone's gotta keep your fool ass from getting killed."
"You won't regret this, Luke," Iron Fist said as they stepped out of the bank where a crowd and various reporters were already gathering.
"One thing," Cage stated. "I ain't wearing that damn metal tiara again, so just count that out."
"But it always brought out your eyes…"
"Ya know, stretcho," the Thing was saying. "I find it just a bit disconcerting that ya got a fully functional medical examining station in here."
The Fantastic Four, Ben, Peter and Bruce Banner were all gathered in the lab as scanners ran over the Goblin's body, which lay in the center of a large apparatus. The police had naturally wanted the body but Reed had convinced them to let him take the first examination. Bruce was checking a nearby console as the scans continued.
"What, the door to another dimension is perfectly fine but this freaks you out?" Ben asked. "Geez, Grimm, your standards are still amazing."
"Just don't like having corpses in the same spot where I crash," the Thing grumbled. "And don't even think of planting a fake body in my bed, matchstick."
"Saving it for April," the Human Torch smirked.
Peter was serious as he stepped toward the console. "It can't be him. I mean, not the real him. I saw him die."
"We both did," Ben agreed. "He got impaled on his own glider, you don't just walk away from that."
"I see no signs of any wound," Reed noted as he looked over the nearly naked body. "In fact, no signs of scarring at all and that includes the usual wear and tear a human body gets over age."
"There is something in his bloodwork," Bruce noted as he looked over some readings. "I'm looking at serious anomalies here, not unlike Peter and Ben's blood."
"That'll be the formula he used to give himself the strength," Peter noted.
"No…it's something else." Bruce adjusted the scanner and peered closer. "Wait…the traces here are just like in Ben's blood…"
"A clone?" Ben said, startled. "He's a clone?" He let out a sigh of relief. "Thank God, was terrified he somehow came back to life again."
"A clone of Norman Osborn, sent against us as the Goblin…" Peter straightened up. "That's it. I've had it. For a year now, somebody has been jerking us along and I've had enough."
"You and me both, bro," Ben agreed. "It's time we finally found who's doing this and shut him down once and for all."
"There might be something here," Bruce said, pointing to a flashing point on the scanner's outline of Osborn's body. "In the cortex of the brain is what appears to be a viewing device. It's been recording data and also seems to be receiving a signal, directing actions while sending back what the clone saw and heard."
"Can you backtrack the signal?" Peter eagerly asked. "Find the source?"
"Already done," Bruce said. He brought up another screen, showing a map of upper New York State with a flashing point near the Adirondacks. "It's a small town upstate, called Havenworth."
"Well, that name's a tip-off," Ben said. "The more charming name, the nastier it really is."
"Hmmm…." Johnny looked over Bruce's shoulder at the readout. "Yeah, I see it now. It's right next to the little sign saying 'this is a trap!'"
"It doesn't matter if it is," Peter said. "We're going."
"Peter?" Mary Jane gaped at him. "You can't! Your powers…."
"Actually, our scans indicate your husband's powers are back and at full potential," Bruce intoned.
Reed nodded. "Whatever happened that caused your powers to fade, it's apparently faded. I'd surmise the basic radiation in your blood was too complex to be completely obliterated, merely muted and the cells have regrown since. It faded back and forth but it looks like your powers are now fully stable."
He and Bruce became aware of the glares they were getting from Mary Jane and Sue. Ben rolled his eyes upward. "Two geniuses and yer dumber than me when it comes to women."
Peter turned to Mary Jane, sighing. "MJ…I have to do this. Whoever is behind this, they're not going to stop, they're not going to leave us alone. I have to find out the truth, hon. For us." He rubbed her belly. "For her."
"Her?" Mary Jane smiled. "Think it's a girl?"
"Holding out hope," Peter smiled.
Mary Jane shook her head. "I can never talk you out of these things." She kissed him lightly.
"You'll need an outfit," Ben pointed out. "You can't just go in as yourself."
Johnny grinned. "Hey, I've got an idea…"
"Oh, no!" Peter pointed at him. "The last time I let you whip up something for me, I ended up in one of your old costumes with a paper bag over my head and a "kick me" sign on my back!"
Ben smiled. "Wow, would have liked to have seen that."
"Don't worry, I got pictures," Johnny told him.
"You need our help?" Reed asked. "We can have our vehicle there in-"
"No, thanks," Peter said. "Really appreciate it but we have to do this on our own. It's personal. As for a costume…" He took a deep breath, trying not to meet Mary Jane's gaze. "I have something."
If there was one thing life had taught Mortimer Tonybee, it was that it was cruel.
It had been that way since he was a child, when his mutation clearly showed and his warped body made him the butt of cruelty. It had been that way when he was abused as Magneto's flunky and through more defeats than anyone should have suffered. Now, sitting in the back of a federal prison van with manacles clamping him down to the walls and a collar about his thin neck, the mutant known as the Toad was forced to reflect once more on how the world was out to get him.
Oddly, he felt rather insulted by the fact that there was only one guard in the back of the prison van and he didn't even seem to be paying attention to him. True, he wasn't in the class as Mystique or Sabretooth but surely the leader of the last incarnation of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants deserved more concern. Instead, the man simply sat reading a newspaper, his gun at his side.
"I suppose asking for a coffee is out of the question?" the Toad piped up, more to break the monotony than expecting an actual answer.
"Only another hour to the Vault, Leapfrog," the guard answered in a bored tone.
"Toad!" he screeched, a glob of thick saliva dripping from his mouth. "I'm the Toad!"
The guard smirked. "And that's supposed to be an improvement?"
Toad was opening his mouth to speak when the van shook. The guard dropped his paper and reached for his gun but before he could draw it from the holster, the van jostled up and down, as if some force was shaking it like a child's toy. The guard was slammed against the wall as the van lifted upward and turned upside down before being shaken again. Ironically, Toad's shackling kept him from being shaken the same way. The van bounced again and Toad was given the rather delightful sight of the guard smashed up and down several times, each with a satisfying cracking sound from his body.
The van turned itself upright and settled back on the ground, the guard moaning in a heap on the floor. There was a loud creaking sound as the metal door seemed to pull inward before being ripped off its hinges in a way Toad knew quite well. Still, his eyes widened in shock as an all too familiar figure in a cape, armor and domed helmet stepped into the van. "Hello, Mortimer."
"Ma…" Toad caught himself before he could say "master." "Magneto?" He let out a short laugh. "I knew it. Somehow, I knew you were still alive."
"It's best the rest of the world does not for the time being," Magneto replied as he looked at his former companion. "Let us make this clear now, Mortimer. I don't really like you very much, that was never a secret. The last thing I want is the sniveling, pathetic sycophant you were." He shrugged. "But your recent actions, while not effective, have shown far more backbone and initiative than I gave you credit for. Thus, I believe a second chance may be warranted." His eyes narrowed. "But I would advise not to waste it."
Toad swallowed. "Whatever you want, I'm there."
"Good." Magneto held out his hand and in seconds, the shackles were lying on the ground, letting Toad rise. "Come. We still have more to recruit before we can make our new Brotherhood known to the world."
As he once more followed the Master of Magnetism out the van, Toad had to reflect on how sometimes life could throw a favor your way after all.
The two figures were silent as they made their way over the streets of the small town, firing off webs to swing between lampposts and doing their best to keep out of sight in the night. Neither had said much as they landed on a rooftop to scout the territory. The silence was finally broken by Ben's voice. "Well…it's very slimming."
"Shut up," Peter snapped, instantly sorry about his sharp attitude but his outfit added to his mood. He was clad in a costume almost totally black with a white spider insignia on the chest and back, white eyeholes and white marks over his fists. "I promised MJ I'd never wear this again."
"They why'd you keep a copy around?"
"Well…never know when it might come in handy," Peter shrugged.
"I can't say I blame her," Ben stated. "After fighting that Venom freak, I wouldn't want a reminder of him around either."
"Sometimes, you have to just roll with what you got," Peter sighed, flexing his muscles to adjust the webshooters under his wrists. He also checked the band around his wrist, a screen with a light flashing toward the warehouse at the far end of the street. Night had fallen, almost no one around, even for a small town, this was pretty quiet. "Reed's scanner indicates the signal's coming from there," Peter said as he nodded toward the warehouse.
"Maybe we should have accepted some help after all," Ben told him. "Going in blind may not be the smart move."
"And since when have we let that stop us?"
"Great point." Ben sighed as the two began swinging toward the building. "How are you feeling?"
"Back to shape," Peter said. "Nice to have them back under control."
"Not what I meant," Ben said. "I know how it is to spend time thinking you're not a real person. Don't get me wrong, Pete, I'm happy for you, I am. I made peace with being a clone a long time ago but I know how jarring it can be."
Peter sighed. "I won't lie, it was hard. But I've got MJ and a baby on the way…it was almost a relief to give it all up, try a normal life."
Ben snorted. "Come on, Pete. Normal? That passed us by a long time ago. It's our lot in life, better accept it."
"Guess it could be worse," Peter stated.
"Yeah, whoever cloned me could have decided to have fun and make me a girl."
"Spider-Girl. Thanks so much for that image." The two landed before the large warehouse doors, both alert. Peter slowly reached for the handle only to have the doors open with a loud rumble. "Yeaaaah, getting the trap vibe big-time here."
"Let's not disappoint," Ben said as they both marched in. The warehouse was almost pitch-black so they made their way carefully, Peter's costume letting him blend in better than Ben. "All right, we're twenty steps inside," Ben said, his voice echoing in the chamber. "Isn't this about the time laser cannons and electrified cables come at us?"
"Spider-sense is quiet," Peter remarked as they stepped forward.
"Dare I say too, too quiet?"
"Dare you may."
At that instant, lights ignited around the warehouse. The two were on guard immediately only to see it was no real threat. Instead, the lights illuminated the walls, showing huge tubes the size of people, some empty but others filled with forms encased in green liquid. Computer terminals rested along each tube, which seemed connected to each other and massive batteries behind them. A platform rested at the far end which housed a huge screen and computer of its own.
"Oh, crap, this looks familiar," Ben groaned as he looked around. "Welcome to Clone Mart, open 24 hours, 7 days a week, including holidays."
Peter's scientific side was intrigued as he walked about, looking at the tubes. Most of the forms appeared inhuman, twisted around, one looked like a blob of protoplasm but another seemed familiar. He leaned in and his jaw dropped behind his mask. "Holy shit."
Ben followed his gaze, staring at the figure in the tube, the rotund body with a bowl haircut, the glasses gone but face unmistakable. "Doc Ock?"
Staring at the figure of Otto Octavius behind the tube, Peter shook his head. "What the hell? Someone's making a clone of him?"
"Actually," a voice spoke from behind. "The clone is the one who's buried in a miserable plot right now. That there is the original Doctor Octopus."
Peter and Ben whirled, both thrown by how their Spider-Sense didn't alert them to the man behind them. He stepped into the light, a man in his 50's with a graying beard, clad in a dark jumpsuit. "Hello, Ben. Peter. It's good to finally see you both again."
"Seward?" Ben stared. "Seward, what are you doing here?"
Seward Trainor adjusted his suit as he looked at the two men. While Ben was thrown, Peter was alert enough to see differences in the man he'd met before. He wasn't as severe, almost serene even but underneath was an air of menace and a darkness that Peter recognized as belonging to someone with a huge secret. "I had planned to keep myself quiet for some time still. That Norman clone was meant to be my way out, a new figure to blame this all on. But recent developments have forced me to show my hand. Ah, well, perhaps it's better this way."
"Seward, what are you talking about?" Ben demanded. "What is this place? How are you involved in this?"
The man smiled but it was without warmth, although there was a dark mirth there. "Seward Trainor, Benjamin, has been dead for a long time. His is only one of the many faces I've worn in this little drama. But now, it appears the time has come to put all facades aside."
As he spoke, he began to change. He grew taller in height, the suit morphing into a black steel uniform with a cape that seemed to segment into spiked edges. His head was surrounded by a bold blood-red collar and a red star appeared on his chest. His face changed, the beard receding and the color of his skin going completely white. His head appeared almost angular with a sharp chin, black hair brought to a widow's peak cut and his eyes were red and without pupils. At the center of his forehead rested a bright red diamond.
His dark lips curled into a smile as he took in the two startled Spider-Men. "Allow me to finally introduce myself, gentlemen. Nathaniel Essex. Or as I am more properly known…Mister Sinister."
For a century and a half, he has walked the Earth, seeking the secrets to creating life.
For a decade, he has secretly been manipulating the world of mutants.
How has this warped geneticist entered the lives of Peter Parker and Ben Reilly?
And how will his final secrets shake their world?
"The Clone Truth Conclusion," coming soon.