Sue Richards carried a steaming pot of coffee into the science lab, shaking her head as she studied her husband. Reed was bent over an electron microscope, scribbling notes at a furious rate.

"You know, you should read a good story sometime," she said, "It would relax your mind. Television would be even better. You don't have to use one iota of brain power to watch TV. Take Gilligan's Island for instance..."

"Hmm? What was that darling," Reed Richards replied, raising up from the microscope and blinking at her in confusion, "Gilligan's Island? I've never heard of it. Is that off the coast of Ecuador?"

Sue opened her mouth to correct him, but poured a cup of coffee instead, handing it to him as she gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Yes, honey, it's off the coast of Ecuador. Now have some coffee."

Reed gratefully accepted the mug, sipping it generously as Sue studied the loose pages of notes scattered about the lab. She marveled at the formulae splashed across the papers, like modern hieroglyphics, calculations and messages only a genius could create.

She picked up one of the pages, examining it. "You know, sometimes I think you just make up some of these notations," she said with a wink, "Anything to postpone cleaning up this lab."

"There are other ways to procrastinate, you know," Reed said as he set down his coffee mug, motioning her to him with a mischievous smile.

Sue tossed the paper aside and walked to him with a series of seductive strides. When he was within arm's length, she spread out her arms, and closed her eyes, prepared to throw herself into his arms, and enjoy an afternoon of passion that they hadn't shared in far too long.

"Take this, for instance," Reed said as he suddenly moved aside, revealing his laptop computer, the screen pulsating with a rainbow of colors, "Isn't it amazing?"

Sue sighed, her fantasy of a passionate afternoon shattered. She studied the laptop with a mixture of irritation and disappointment.

"It's pretty," she muttered flatly, "What is it?"

"During our last expedition into the Negative Zone," Reed began, leaning back and folding his arms, as if delivering a lecture to a class, "I noticed there were subtle differences in the fabric of space there. I was curious about the speed of light, in particular."

"You? Curious? I don't believe it," Sue said with a wry smile.

Reed paused for a moment, blinking at her with mild confusion, then continued. "In this dimension, matter can only travel at the speed of light under special circumstances. I wanted to see if the same held true for the Negative Zone. Putting it simply, I injected a stream of photons into the Zone, energizing them so they would accelerate to the speed of light. After ten seconds, the photons returned in a fused state, as one positively charged molecule. And the molecule was surrounded by some type of energy field, like nothing I've ever seen before. I have the molecule isolated for further study."

"Well, thanks for putting it in simple terms," Sue said, shaking her head as she looked back at the laptop screen warily. "So that's the energy being output from the molecule?"

"Exactly Sue! Unfortunately, the energy output varies, one moment going completely dark, the next flaring to peak levels. I've been trying to determine some type of pattern to the fluctuations, but just as I get close to a firm calculation, it changes again. It's very frustrating."

He walked back to the electron microscope, studying the molecule intently.

"If I could figure out how to puncture that energy field," he said, "It would help immensely."

He continued gazing into the microscope as Sue studied him. For a moment, she thought back to their first dates, how they drank champagne and slow danced under the stars. Afterwards, they would throw down a blanket and gaze up at the sky. Reed would talk about space, the ground, whatever occupied his mind at the time, and she was content to listen to him for hours, holding him tightly until the Sun began to rise once again.

She walked over to him, giving him a kiss on the cheek, then walking away with a contented smile.

"You know, you're not the only genius in the world," she said softly, sweeping back a few strands of his hair, "Why don't you call someone who can help you with this?"

Reed looked up at her with surprise. "You know, I never thought of that," he said.

Suddenly, the lab doors opened, and Johnny Storm rushed in as a giant metal chair slammed into the wall nearby, barely missing him.

"Sis," he gasped, "You've got to help me! Ben's gone nutso!"

"What did you do," Sue said sternly.

"Nothing. I was just sitting there watching 'Mama's Family', and he went berserk."

Ben Grimm stomped in, chomping on a cigar as his thunderous footsteps caused the floor to tremble. On his rocky chest, spray painted in blue, were the words BUTT UGLY BEN.

Sue covered her mouth, holding back a laugh as she stepped in between Ben and Johnny.

"Now hold on Ben...", she began.

"Look what he done to me, Suzie," Ben grumbled, "And while I was sleepin', no less. What kind of bozo messes with a guy when he's sleepin'? He's just beggin' to be clobbered! Now get out of the way!"

"There's no need for violence, Ben," Sue said, glaring sternly at Johnny, "Johnny's going to apologize, aren't you?"

"Hey, I didn't do it," Johnny said with a shrug, "It was Doctor Doom. He tiptoed in here with a can of spray paint. I was paralyzed with fear, and couldn't stop him."

"That does it," Sue sighed, pinching Johnny's right ear with her two fingers, "If you want to act like a child, I'll treat you like one."

Johnny yelped in pain as Sue pinched his ear tightly, pulling him forward. The harder he tried to wriggle free, the harder she pinched, as she led him out of the lab.

Ben watched them go, shivering a little. "He's really in for it now," he chuckled, "That's a real shame."

He walked over to Reed, who was in the midst of a phone conversation.

"Hey stretcho, you got somethin' that'll get this paint off quick," Ben asked as he wiped at his chest.

"Come by whenever you can, Professor Palmer," Reed said.

Reed looked over at Ben, holding up a finger, an indicator that he'd be off the phone shortly.

Ben looked around the lab, taking in all the scientific equipment.

"Oh, you're coming over now," Reed continued, "I appreciate you giving your afternoon to assist me, Professor. Sure, I'll keep the phone line open."

Reed laid the receiver down, on the table as he turned to Ben.

"Spray paint, hmm," he said thoughtfully, "I think I have something around here that'll take that off."

Ben noticed the receiver laying on the desk.

"Shouldn't ya hang up the phone first," he asked curiously.

"No, Professor Palmer's coming here momentarily."

Ben scratched his head at that. "Through the phone?"

"Of course," Reed chuckled, "You didn't think he'd use a car, did you?"

Ben chuckled with him, but it was a totally perplexed chuckle, as if he were humoring a madman. "Yeah, guess I wasn't thinkin' huh?"

Reed opened a cabinet nearby, filled with vials and bottles, searching for something to help Ben.

Ben walked over to the receiver and studied it, stroking his chin and puffing on his cigar. He bent down to examine it closer.

That's when Ray Palmer shot out of it, instantly growing from 1" to 5'8" and wearing his trademark Atom costume.

"What the...", Ben exclaimed, staggering back with surprise and tripping on a chair. He fell to the floor, causing the whole lab to shake as if hit by an earthquake. Ray and Reed grabbed onto tables to steady themselves.

None of them noticed the quick flash of light under Reed's microscope, and the tiny cracking sound it made.

When the tremor subsided, Reed and Ray quickly walked over to Ben.

"Are you alright, Ben," Reed asked with concern.

Ben spit out the remnants of his cigar. "I swallowed some of my cigar. I hate when that happens," he replied as he stood and looked at the Atom, "You oughtta warn a person before ya come jumpin' out of a phone like that. I ain't as young as I used to be, ya know."

Reed chuckled at that. "None of us are, my friend," he said, turning to the Atom, "Ben, this is Professor Ray Palmer, also known as the Atom. Professor Palmer, this is Ben Grimm."

Ray held out a hand to Ben. "Good to meet you, Ben. I've heard a lot about your flying skills. That you were a pretty keen pilot in your time."

Ben gently shook Ray's hand. "Yeah, those were the days. Can't do too much flying now because of these mitts I got. They don't work too well with flight controls. So what did stretcho call ya here for? You two gonna create some new gizmo to cure hangnails or somethin'?"

"Just wanted a second opinion about some tests I'm running," Reed replied, "After injecting photons into the Negative Zone at light speed, a molecule came back that had some interesting properties. I've got it contained under the electron microscope now."

Ben glanced over at the microscope and scratched his head. "That don't look like no molecule to me," he said with puzzlement.

Reed and Ray turned to see a sphere floating next to the microscope. The sphere was the size of a marble and pulsated with a blue light.

Reed rushed over to it. "Good Lord," he exclaimed, "It's increased in size by at least a thousand percent! None of my calculations predicted this would happen."

"Uh oh," Ben said with a wry smile, "He's geekin' out again. Always happens when something slips by that big brain of his."

"Well my curiosity's definitely peaked," Ray said as he leaped forward, shrinking down to 6 inches in height and landing on Reed's shoulder, "I'll shrink down and take a closer look at that thing, Reed."

"No, Ray, I need to take some readings first, measure the radiation levels, the field intensities."

But Ray was already gone, shrunk down to microscopic size and hurtling towards the molecule.

"He's as impulsive as Johnny," Reed sighed.

"Well good luck with yer molecule," Ben said, waving his arm dismissively as he left the lab, "I'm outta here. There's a Rita Hayworth film on the Late Late show and I ain't missin' it fer nobody."

*********



The Atom found a hole in the electrical field surrounding the molecule and floated through it into a great white expanse. Dark spots dotted the white expanse, tiny flecks of matter held in place by the gravitational pull at the center of the molecule.

He didn't resist as he was pulled toward the molecule's center. Within moments, he saw a massive object ahead. It was spherical and massive, the size of a planetoid. A veil of mist surrounded it, serving as an atmosphere.

He began to accelerate toward it, the gravity exerting a greater pull on his tiny form. He quickly grew until his size and mass allowed him to settle into the orbit of the planetoid, where he could observe it closer without falling into the atmosphere and burning up.

The planetoid's surface was a mixture of lush green and blue, much like the Earth. Atom studied it with an insatiable curiosity, wishing there were some way he could break through the atmosphere and get a closer look at the life forms that occupy the surface.

Suddenly, several crimson bolts of energy whizzed by him. He whirled about to see several creatures hurtling toward him.

Atom pulled free of the planetoid's orbit and moved back into white space, where he could move more freely. Energy beams came at him from all directions as he dodged and somersaulted furiously, narrowly avoiding them.

The attackers were like nothing he had ever seen. Creatures with six arms, two gnarled legs and massive translucent wings. Their heads were oval shaped, with large red eyes on the front, back and sides of their heads.

"Can you understand me," he spoke to them, "I don't mean you any harm. Do you understand?"

The creatures converged on him, rage in their eyes.

"I guess not. I hate to do this, but..."

Atom lunged forward, slamming into the closest one with both legs, knocking it back as he snatched the rifle from its hands. He spun around and fired, hitting two of the beasts, causing their skin to crackle as they fell backwards. Two more of the creatures fired, one of the beams nicking the Atom's arm.

Atom whirled about, kicking one of the creatures in the head as the other grabbed him and began squeezing him with its six arms. It grunted loudly in his ears, and dripped green fluid from its rancid fangs.

Atom struggled, desperately trying to pull free of the hold, but could find no pressure point on the creature.

"Okay, this has gone on long enough," he said forcefully, and began to grow, slipping free of the creature's grip.

The remaining attackers pulled back, Atom suddenly towering above them like a giant. They fired on him again, but now the shots felt like needle pricks, and he shrugged them off easily.

Atom reached down and picked up one of the creatures, holding it in the palm of his hand.

"If I meant you harm, you'd be dead," he said calmly, "Understand that I don't want to hurt you."

The creature squealed in fear, then suddenly spoke, it's voice a low growl of desperation, of surrender. "Does not matter. Lord Annihilus will destroy our women. Our children. And we cannot stop him. Kill us, if that is your wish."

Atom let the creature go. A million questions flashed through his mind, but he was unable to ask any of them as a beam of force suddenly shot from the planetoid. The beam engulfed the flying creatures, disintegrating them instantly in a ball of white fire.

"NO," Atom yelled. He rushed forward, hoping to find some of the creatures still alive.

Another beam shot from the planetoid, striking him hard in the chest. His costume shredded as he was hurled backward, tumbling through the white expanse, gasping for breath, every nerve boiling with agony.

*******



"So that's why I do it, I guess," Johnny said as Reed studied the energy monitors on his laptop, "Guess tormenting the big lug is a hobby."

"Have you ever tried stamp collecting," Reed said, "It would be less destructive than whipping Ben into a frenzy."

"Nah, I'm more into girl collecting. Holding a woman's a lot more enjoyable than holding a stamp, you know? There's nothing like a nice warm body next to you."

Suddenly, Atom flew from the molecule, expanding to normal adult size as he slammed into a table hard. He hit the floor unconscious, his costume tattered and smoking, his exposed skin red with burns.

"Oh man," Johnny said as Reed rushed over to Atom. He knelt down and put a finger to his throat, checking his pulse.

"He's alive, but barely," he said, "His pulse is erratic. We've got to get him stabilized. Help me get him to a bed, Johnny."

Reed and Johnny picked up the Atom, carrying his limp body into the diagnostic matrix chamber. The chamber was a giant spherical structure, with hundreds of scanners dotting the walls. At the center of the chamber was a large bed, on which they gently laid the Atom.

Sue walked in, gasping as she saw Atom's condition.

"What happened...," she began.

"Sue, merge medical programs Alpha-5 and Theta-20," Reed snapped.

He and Johnny quickly left the chamber, as the door closed behind them, hissing and emitting a jet of mist as it shut with an airtight seal.

Sue's fingers danced across the diagnostic chamber's control panel, as she merged the medical programs and activated them.

The scanners inside the chamber activated, dozens of light rays sweeping across the Atom's body. The lights were a rainbow of colors, each beam scanning a different area of his injured body.

The hologram generator on the control panel flared to life, projecting a three-foot tall, three-dimensional image of the Atom's body. The image rotated, in some areas stripping away muscle and bone to show the internal organs. The hologram highlighted injured areas with a green, yellow or red light. Green meant the injury was minor, yellow meant the injury was major but not critical, red meant the injury was a critical one. Fortunately, no red or yellow was showing on the hologram. Several areas were flashing green, indicating Atom had a sprain in his left wrist and several burns.

Reed breathed a sigh of relief as he looked over at Sue.

"Looks like he'll be okay," Sue said, echoing her husband's relief, "What happened in there, Reed? I thought you two were just studying a harmless molecule."

"Its properties have changed in the last few hours," Reed said with concern, "Perhaps it's not as harmless as I initially thought."

"Why not just send it back into the Negative Zone," Johnny said, "Destroy it, let Blastaar eat it for lunch, whatever, as long as we get rid of it."

"It's not that simple, Johnny," Reed said, "I have to understand its properties first. If I send it back to the Negative Zone, and it continues expanding, there's no telling what could happen, and what kind of a backlash we would get from it."

"So we're just going to baby sit the thing until Professor Palmer comes around," Sue said flatly.

"Yes, we'll have to keep it contained until he can tell us what he saw in there. Can you help me with that?"

Sue rolled her eyes, leaning forward and laying her head down on the counter. "Sure honey," she said with a wry smile, "I'd much rather watch a molecule than go to the beach."

"Well, I'd really love to help," Johnny said with anything but sincerity, "But I've got a date with Karina Thomas, the hottest redhead in New York, in two hours. You two think about me tonight when 'My Little Molecule' in there starts acting up again, okay?"

Johnny left the room whistling, twirling a loop of flame on his finger.

Reed studied Sue for a moment, noticing the regret in her face. He gently laid a hand on her arm. "I'll make it up to you, Sue" he said, his voice tinged with guilt, "I promise."

Sue looked up at Reed, and wondered if he even meant that. She was starting to doubt whether he cared anything about her at all, or if he even had any feelings.

********



"It's Annihilus," Reed said ominously, "I should have realized it sooner."

It was a little over an hour later, and Atom sat up in bed, his sprain and burns healed thanks to Reed's medical equipment. He still felt a little woozy, laying his head back as he related the details of his trip into the molecule to Reed, Sue and Ben.

"You know this Annihilus guy," Atom asked with surprise.

"Heck, we've scrapped with him a dozen times," Ben said, curling his hand into a fist, "And we always sent him packin'. The guy's a blowhard. And an ugly one at that."

"He's actually quite powerful," Reed said, "He has a 'cosmic rod' that allows him to project force blasts of incalculable power. That's what you were hit with, Ray, I'm sure of it. The fact that you had grown in size before the blast hit you was the only thing that saved you."

"You say he's got some type of winged creatures protecting him," Sue asked with fascination.

"Yes, but not because they want to," Atom replied, "I believe Annihilus has enslaved them, harmed their women and children, so they would obey him. They're very good fighters. Even with the martial arts training I've received from Batman over the years, they still nearly took me out."

Reed stood, walking over to a nearby window to look into the lab. The molecule had grown even bigger now, and was about a foot in height. It hovered in mid-air, swirling and sending off flashes of bright light. He studied the molecule, his brow furrowed in grim thought. I can't send it back into the Negative Zone, there could be tremendous repercussions. But I can't let it continue to grow here either. What have I done?

"Well, that fancy shmancy karate stuff is fine for some guys," Ben said, "But I take the direct approach. I just flat out clobber'em."

"You know, Batman wouldn't like that if he were here," Atom said with a mischievous smile, "He wouldn't say anything, he'd just glare at you. He loves to glare."

"Ah, ferget his stupid glares. He ain't intimidatin' me none."

"I don't know about that. I've seen the most vicious criminals break down in tears and confess from one of his glares. Just the other day, we fought the Injustice League, and Batman nearly made Weather Wizard wet himself, had him scared witless."

Ben laughed at that, a deep rumbling guffaw.

"Batman's just plain creepy to me," Sue said with a shiver, "No one knows anything about him, and he's always skulking around the rooftops at night. He's worse than Spider-man."

Atom laughed at that. "He's definitely creepy," he said with a nod, "But he's also brilliant. We're lucky to have him on our side."

"Well he oughtta stop hanging out on the rooftops with those psycho chicks like Catwoman and come down to the streets," Ben said, "Fight crime in the daylight hours like us normal people. And you can tell him ole' blue-eyed Benji said so."

Atom chuckled at that, giving Ben a "thumbs up", as Reed turned and looked at them.

"Everyone get ready," he said intensely, "We're going into the molecule in an hour. Ray, if you're up to it, I'd like you to come with us."

Ben and Sue looked at each other with concern as Atom nodded firmly. "Sure, I wouldn't miss it," he replied.

"Sue, contact Johnny and get him back here as soon as possible," Reed said, slipping on a pair of gloves, "I'm going to test the minimization ray, make sure it's working correctly. We'll use it to shrink down to the necessary size."

"Hey stretcho, you think it's such a good idea going into that thing," Ben said, walking over to Reed, "You know, shrinking down and all? That shrinking stuff don't sit too well with my stomach."

"Ben, Annilihus is somehow controlling the properties of that molecule," Reed replied, his voice growing more agitated by the second, "If we don't stop him, it will continue to grow. It's expanding at an exponential rate. By my calculations, in 24 hours it will have grown to twenty feet in size! In 48 hours, 200 feet! We have to stop him now, do you understand? Right now!"

"Sheesh, a simple yes or no woulda sufficed. Don't have to chew a guy's head off."

Atom slowly rose from his bed, rubbing his wrist, which was still sore. He clenched and unclenched his fist, working out the soreness as he walked over to the lab window, studying the molecule.

"You know," he spoke ominously, "even if we take down Annihilus, there's no guarantee we'll be able to get that thing stabilized. Things could get very messy in about 24 hours."

Reed studied him for a moment with concern, taking in his words. "We have no choice, Ray, we've got to stabilize it somehow, or everything's lost."

"I think I'll contact the Justice League, give them a heads up just in case."

"Do what you must," Reed said sharply. He turned and quickly left the room.

"Reed, wait...," Sue started, but he was gone before she could finish her sentence.

Atom leaned back against the medical bed and activated his JLA signal device. After a couple moments, he received a response.

"Ollie? You and Dinah are stuck with monitor duty tonight, huh," he said with a chuckle, "Listen, something major's come up..."

"What's wrong with stretcho, Susie," Ben said to Sue, "He don't usually yell like that. Somethin's eatin' him big time."

"He's feeling responsible for all this, Ben," she replied thoughtfully, "And he's feeling like he's lost control of things. For someone with his intellect, losing control of an experiment is devastating, but when lives are at stake, it's infinitely worse."

"Eggheads," Ben grumbled, "They always gotta spoil a perfectly good evenin'. I'm going to make myself a nice big sandwich. When stretcho's got his stuff together, you let me know."

Sue watched Ben leave, wondering if she could find the words to comfort Reed.

********



Reed and Ray stood over the controls of the minimization ray. The device was roughly fifteen feet tall, and occupied a small chamber adjacent to the main lab. The tip of the projector extended through a glass and into the main lab. It pulsated with a faint yellow light.

"This is a fascinating machine, Reed," Ray said as he punched calculations into the console, "It mimics my own shrinking powers, but uses a much more efficient form of energy."

"Mhmm," Reed muttered as he ran diagnostic tests in the corner of the chamber.

"I talked with the Justice League," Atom continued, "Green Arrow, Black Canary, Zatanna, Green Lantern, Aquaman and Firestorm are on standby, in case anything happens."

"I agree," Reed said.

Atom looked at him. It was obvious Reed's mind was elsewhere, and he wasn't hearing anything Atom was saying.

"You know, I found out the other day She-Hulk and Wonder Woman are having a relationship," Atom said, raising his voice slightly, "Even now, they're probably running naked, hand in hand, on the beaches of Paradise Island."

"Try reversing the energy flow," Reed said, unfazed by Atom's statement.

Atom was amazed by Reed's inattention. "If that didn't get your attention, I give up."

The doors to the chamber swished open as Sue entered. "It got my attention," she said with a smile, "I always wondered about those two. That whole Amazon thing. Next time, don't leave the speakers on. I could hear every word you were saying."

"I'm glad someone heard," Atom said, tapping Reed on the shoulder.

Reed raised up from the console, blinking at Atom.

"I've finished the tests, Reed. The energy curve is erratic, but within acceptable limits. As long as you don't run the minimization ray for too long a duration, you and the others should be fine."

"Maybe you should run the tests one more time," Reed said with concern.

Atom sighed at that. "Sue wants to talk to you Reed. Forget the tests for now and concentrate on her. I'll be in the lab when you're ready to go."

He laid down his tools and left the chamber, laying a reassuring hand on Sue's shoulder as he walked out.

Reed and Sue studied each other for a moment in silence, both unsure what to say.

"Johnny's on his way," Sue uttered suddenly, "He's pretty angry, having to walk out on his date like that."

Reed turned away from her, closing his eyes, deep lines of weariness and regret etched in his features. "I know," he said softly, "I'll make it up to him somehow."

Sue laid a hand on Reed's shoulder. "It's not your fault," she said, "If Annilihus wanted to get here bad enough, he would have found a way eventually."

"I was tampering again," Reed spoke harshly, "Meddling in areas I have no hope of understanding. When will I learn Sue? How many lives will be lost before I exercise some control? Years ago, when I was curious about cosmic radiation, wanted to test a hypothesis, I risked all our lives. Ben was turned into a monster because of it. Did I learn the error of my ways then? No, I continued experimenting without caution, and here we are again, with lives at stake."

"We'll stop Annilihus, Reed, you've got to believe that."

"The world thinks I'm brilliant, but I'm nothing but a fool, playing with the unknown like an addict. Hooked on the thrill of discovery, unfazed by the suffering I'm causing."

Sue was taken aback by his words, the pain in his voice. She wanted to wrap her arms around him tightly, hold him, tell him a hundred times that she loved him, that his brilliance and courage has helped the world a thousand times over.

"Damn it, Reed, shut up," she snapped loudly, yanking his shoulder and turning him around to face her, "Ben forgave you a long time ago for what happened. He's accepted who he is and he's glad he's able to help the world with his power. He looks up to you, Reed. Most of the world does."

She touched Reed's face, gently stroking his cheek with her fingers. "You've beaten Doctor Doom, Galactus, and a hundred others. But you haven't conquered that guilt, the guilt you've been carrying since that night. The night we were all changed by the cosmic rays. You've got to know we love you, Reed, I love you. But you're tearing me apart."

Tears streamed down her cheeks as Reed studied her with concern. "Sue?"

"For the last month, you've been shut up in that lab. I never see you any more, except when you want to talk about some new project or when we come under attack by some damned villain. You can't deal with your guilt, so you bury all your feelings. When Ben and Johnny are out on dates, do you know how lonely I feel, sitting in the middle of this massive tower while you're locked in the lab? Do you know how much I want to scream at you? I wonder if you even love me at all any more, or if I'm just convenient to have around, someone you can talk to between experiments."

Reed, shocked by her words, wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close to him. "I love you deeply, Sue, I have since the first time I saw you," he said, his voice trembling slightly with hurt, "Without you, my life would mean nothing."

He kissed her forehead as she pressed her head against his chest. "I never realized what I was doing, I was so lost in my research. I guarantee you it won't happen again. All the scientific discoveries in the world mean nothing if I lose you, Sue."

"Just promise you won't feel guilty any more," Sue said softly, "There's a lot of danger out there, Reed. We have to stay strong."

Reed hugged her tightly, kissing her hand. "And we have to stay together."

Sue smiled, wiping the tears from her cheek as she looked up at him. "First, we're going to take care of Annilihus," she said with a lascivious smile, "Then we're going to our room and spend the entire evening together."

"And all day tomorrow too," Reed said, winking at her.

Sue raised an eyebrow in surprise.

"Well we don't want to rush anything," he said with a chuckle, "I always like to take my time. It gets the best results."

"Nnnmmm," Sue muttered sensuously, pressing her lips to his.

They stood there for several moments, holding each other, kissing, losing themselves to one another, and for the first time in a long while, Reed's mind was completely blank. No equations, no formulas, just Sue's beauty, and the sweetness of this moment.

**********

Forty minutes later, Johnny and Ben were sitting in the back seat of the Fantasti-car. Reed and Sue were sitting in the front seat. Atom stood nearby.

Before them was the minimization ray, as well as the unstable molecule, which was now three feet in height, and glowing with an intense rainbow of lights.

Reed entered some final commands into the Fantasti-car's flight controls with one hand, stretching his other hand over to Sue, gently holding her hand as he flashed her a smile.

Johnny moped slightly and looked straight ahead, saying nothing. Ben looked over at him with a knowing grin.

"Hey, it's okay, kid," he said sympathetically, "I know yer upset."

"Upset is way too tame a word to describe how I feel," Johnny said bitterly, "A date with Karina Thomas, and it's interrupted by this junk! She's a model, for crying out loud! And I don't even have her phone number. I'm sure she'll be calling me again, though, after I rudely left her in the middle of our romantic dinner. You know how hard it was for me to get a reservation to that frigging restaurant?"

Reed and Sue began to perspire, feeling the heat wafting from Johnny. Whenever he was angered, his body would literally steam, making it uncomfortable for anyone sitting nearby.

"You're steaming, Johnny," Sue said softly.

"I don't care," Johnny snapped.

Ben chuckled at that. "Geez, kid, ya think yer the only one who's ever had to miss a date," he said, "I've had to bail out on Alicia dozens of times because we had to tangle with Doc Doom or some other bozo. Get over it already."

"That's different. You don't feel as strongly for Alicia as I do for Karina."

"What's that supposed ta mean?"

"Come on, Ben, you know Alicia's the only woman that'll give you the time of day. That's the only reason you're dating her. You know no other woman'll look at you, so she's all you got."

"Why you little..."

Ben grabbed the neck of Johnny's shirt, raising him in the air.

"I'll smash yer face in, ya little putz," Ben growled, "You don't know nothin' about how I feel. Yer just a punk kid."

"Hit me," Johnny chided, "I'll still have a better looking mug than that ugly one of yours."

"Ben, put Johnny down right now," Reed said calmly, but emphatically.

"You two stop it right now," Sue yelled simultaneously, "Stop acting like children, for God's sake!"

Atom watched the four for a moment with a raised eyebrow. He walked over to them with concern.

"Is everything alright," he asked warily.

Ben turned to Atom with a smile. "Uh, we was just foolin' around," he said, gently setting Johnny back in his seat, "We do that a lot. Helps break the monotoon... the motonot..."

"The monotony?"

"Yeah, that's it."

"Yeah, everything's perfect," Johnny said harshly, looking straight ahead again, "Absolutely beautiful, man."

Sue rolled her eyes and turned back in her seat as Atom continued studying them with puzzlement.

Reed shook his head at Johnny and Ben, then turned back to the Fantasti-car controls.

"Okay, the calculations all check out," he said, "The minimization ray's calibrated and ready to go. I'll activate the ray in one minute. Ray, you stay close to the Fantasti-car, we'll enter the molecule's energy field together, then head down to the planetoid you described."

Atom nodded at that. "Understood," he said, shooting a glance at Ben and Johnny, "Never a dull moment with you four, is it?"

Sue and Reed flushed with embarrassment at that, as Johnny and Ben muttered a few choice words under their breath.

Atom stepped back a few paces from the Fantasti-car as Reed took a deep breath.

"Okay, here we go," he proclaimed, "Beginning the countdown now. Five...four...three...two...one..."

The minimization ray activated, enveloping the Fantasti-car in a translucent globe of energy. The globe shimmered for a moment, then began to shrink, everyone inside shrinking along with it.

Atom began to shrink also, lowering his mass and hovering in the air beside them.

Ben closed his eyes as waves of nausea flooded over him. He hated shrinking. Really hated it. Initially, there was a sensation of falling, as if you were plummeting even though you were sitting on a solid seat. As you continued decreasing in size, your arms would become light and your legs would get heavy, as if attached to powerful weights. The arms and legs tingled sharply, as if the circulation had been cut off for hours. Ben shook his arms and legs, trying to relieve the intense prickly sensations covering his arms and legs like thousands of needles.

As they shrunk down to an inch in size, the globe about them started to buffet about sharply, affected by the simple drafts coming from the ventilation system. The air slammed into them, jolting them roughly in their seats, threatening to toss them from the Fantasti-car.

Atom shot over to them with concern. "Reed, you have to increase your density or the air pressure will blow you apart!"

Sue's hair whipped about her face wildly as she flashed Reed a look of concern. Reed returned her glance, then rapidly began entering commands into the Fantasti-car's console.

"Hold on everyone," he yelled, "The next few seconds are going to be rough!"

The energy globe about them began to change, pulsating with a bright orange light as air continued to sweep over them from all sides. It was as if they were riding inside a tornado, slammed and whirled in a hundred directions at breakneck speed.

Ben had no trouble staying put, holding himself steady with one hand while he held Sue in place with his other.

Johnny gripped his seat for dear life, gasping and fighting for breath as the wind was knocked out of him. The flashing orange lights of the globe blinded him, and he was gripping his seat so hard his fingers were numb. It was a terrifying and desperate situation. And he relished every moment of it. "MAN, WHAT A RUSH," he yelled with delight.

As they passed through the molecule's energy field, the globe about them shimmered for a moment, then faded. The Fantasti-car steadied once again, and Reed breathed a sigh of relief, wiping his brow.

They were now floating in white space, several dark masses floating around them in the void. The planetoid loomed ahead of them, still shimmering with a cloud of dense atmosphere.

Atom glided over to them, studying them with concern. "Is everyone okay?"

Sue and Reed gave him a "thumbs up" and Johnny merely shrugged.

"I knew I shouldnt'a had that Sloppy Joe," Ben groaned, holding his stomach, "How short are we now anyway? An inch? Two inches?"

"Much less than that," Atom said, "We're about one-thousandth of an inch now. About the size of a fly's eye."

At that moment, dozens of energy beams zipped by them as several winged attackers appeared from the planetoid's atmosphere. Several of the beams hit the Fantasti-car, sending up a flash of sparks.

"Finally, some action," Johnny said, standing in his seat, "Flame on!"

He turned to flame and rocketed away from the Fantasti-car, Atom close behind him.

"Wait," Reed yelled, "Don't worry about them! We have to get down to the planetoid's surface!" But they were already too far away.

The Torch streaked by several of the creatures, erupting their rifles into white flame. The brightness of his fire caused the creatures to squeal in horror, turning and furiously flapping away. One of the creatures bravely stayed in place, gazing defiantly at Johnny.

"Kill me," it hissed, "Better to die now than die a thousand deaths at the hand of Lord Annilihus." It grabbed Johnny's hand, clenching and holding on even as Johnny's flame burned him.

"Hey man, let go," Johnny yelled in horror, decreasing his flame, "I don't want to kill you!"

He drifted away from the creature as the creature hovered in place, holding its hand in pain as it dropped its head, dejected, as if his last chance at peace had escaped him.

Atom tumbled through another burst of energy bursts, slamming into four of the creatures. He kicked one of the creatures in the head, simultaneously throwing a punch to another attacker's midsection.

"Why did you come back," one of the creatures grunted, "Lord Annilihus will kill us all now."

The creature swung the butt of its energy rifle at Atom's head. He blocked the swing, yanking the rifle from the creature's hand.

"I've come back to help you," he said with grim determination, "But I can't if you insist on firing these damned weapons at me."

"Help us?"

Johnny flew over to the Atom. "What's wrong with these guys," he asked, glaring at the creatures with puzzlement.

"They've lost hope," Atom said as the Fantasti-car pulled up behind him. He handed the energy rifle back to the creature. "What is your name?"

"Baraka," the creature hissed, jerking the rifle from the Atom's hands and pointing it at him.

"Baraka, I want to help you," Atom said solemnly, "My friends and I are here to free you and return you home. Now you've seen what my friends and I can do, and you know we have a good chance of freeing your people. Now do you want to waste your rifle's energy by shooting me, or would you rather use it on Annilihus?"

He spread his arms wide, making himself an easy target for the creature's rifle.

"Are you crazy, man," Johnny yelled, grabbing Atom's arm.

Reed stretched his arm out, wrapping it around Johnny's leg and pulling him away.

The creatures glared at Atom, tiny green lights spiraling on the side of their rifles, indicating the weapons were charged to maximum power. One shot would easily vaporize the Atom. Atom continued holding his arms outward, unfazed by the weapons trained on him.

"Lord Annihilus killed my wife and younglings," Baraka spoke grimly, "But there are many that can still be saved. The women and younglings are being held in the center of the capital city. They are being guarded by Lord Annilihus's own drones. They are armored and nearly as powerful as he. Will you free them? I must be assured of this."

Atom turned to look at Reed and the others. "Reed, can you, Johnny and Ben deal with Annilihus while Sue and I rescue the prisoners?"

Ben cracked his massive knuckles. "Just point me at the bozo, I'll flatten the putz with one haymaker."

Reed considered it for a moment. "Ben, Annihilus is a lot tougher than that. We can handle him, but having some extra firepower would be very helpful. Especially since he probably has his own armored drones protecting him."

"My fellow soldiers and I will help you," Baraka said with conviction, "There are only a small number of us, but we will fight to the last."

*******

A half-hour later, Baraka and a hundred of his best soldiers flew towards Annilihus's base. Their leathery wings flapped in unison, creating a thunderous roar.

Close behind them were Reed, Johnny and Ben in the front section of the Fantasti-car. Atom and Sue had taken the back section and headed for the "detention facility" in the heart of the city.

Annihilus's guards were totally taken by surprise, as emerald force beams rained down on them, ripping through their armor and causing them to scatter in tatters. Twenty soldiers flew after them, as Johnny hurled two massive balls of fire at the walls of Annihilus's base. The fireballs smashed through the wall with a shattering explosion, hurling shards of debris a mile into the air.

It was at that moment, as the smoke began to clear, that a beam of raw cosmic power burst from the base, toward the Fantasti-car. Reed barely saw it in time, and lurched the car around with all the strength he could muster. The Fantasti-car's engines groaned, as it sluggishly tried to turn with the Thing's massive weight aboard.

The cosmic beam slammed into the side of the Fantasti-car, causing the console to blow apart in a shower of sparks. The car whirled about and plummeted toward the ground, the engines completely dead now.

"Ben, we've got to jump," Reed yelled as he grabbed Ben's arm.

Ben looked down to see the ground coming up fast. "Oh fer the luvva Pete," he snapped, and toppled out of the Fantasti-car.

Reed jumped out behind him.

Ben clutched his stomach as he plummeted, desperately trying to control the waves of nausea flowing through him. "Oooooh," he groaned, "I'm going to lose my lunch big time. I oughtta be sittin' in front of the tube right now, watchin' Bewitched."

Reed straightened his body to increase the speed of his fall. After seconds that seemed like an eternity, he was close enough to Ben to grab him.

Reed stretched his legs around Ben's arms, inflating the rest of his body into a makeshift parachute, slowing their fall.

Johnny streaked over to them, as seventy soldiers whirred by him, rocketing toward Annihilus with guns blazing. The sky flared and roared with the fire of energy weapons.

"All hell's breaking loose, Reed," Johnny said, "Are you two okay?"

The Thing gave him a thumbs up. "Nothin' a bowl'a Aunt Petunia's soup can't fix," he grumbled.

"We'll be fine, Johnny," Reed said with a confident smile, "Make sure Annilihus isn't. Hit him hard."

"You don't have to tell me twice."

With that, Johnny's fire exploded about him, and he hurtled downward, joining the remaining soldiers in the assault on Annilihus.

He threw fireball after fireball at Annihilus, the bursts detonating against the being's armor and knocking him back. Dozens of energy beams struck him simultaneously, causing his green chitinous armor to crackle and sizzle under the assault.

As they pressed the attack, Annihilus let out a high-pitched squeal of words. Seconds later, dozens of drones swarmed from the base, racing to the sky. Each of the drones looked like Annihilus, with heavy armor and powerful wings. They dove into the thick of Johnny and the soldiers, firing in all directions, throwing the soldiers into chaos.

Reed and Ben touched down on the ground, and quickly entered the base amidst smoke and flying debris. As the Thing smashed through several drones guarding the passageway, Reed raced forward. There was little time left before this world expanded once again. If it did, half of New York would be destroyed instantly.

*********

Atom, in microscopic form, reached the massive containment area containing the enslaved people of this world. For a moment, he studied them, women and children. They were insectoid in appearance, much like Baraka, but they had the same emptiness in their eyes he had seen so many times before. The emptiness of starving, of hopelessness.

He was enraged. Anger welled up in him, impossible to suppress. In his lifetime, he had seen so many beings hurt, tortured, imprisoned. When would it end?



He remembered words Batman had said to him once, during a training session.

Never make a direct attack on an enemy, Ray. Subtlety is more effective. And never fight when your emotions are chaotic. To be successful in a fight, you have to be calm and focused.

Atom turned to the four powerful armored drones guarding the containment area. I never was a good student, he thought as he hurled inside the first drone.

He whirled through the drone's circuitry, ripping and tearing as he went. Sparks rained from the drone's mouth and ears, and it convulsed violently, making a wet buzzing sound before hitting the floor with a heavy thud.

The remaining drones looked about frantically, energy rifles raised, trying to find the unseen enemy that had attacked. One by one, Atom tore them apart, sending one armored body after another slamming to the cold metal floor.

Grabbing one of the drone's energy rifles, he spun about and fired on the containment field controls, destroying them. The yellow pulsating energy field fizzled then disappeared, as the beings inside began buzzing excitedly. The women hugged their children and each other, then started to leave.

"No, go this way," Atom said with a smile, as he cranked the energy rifle to maximum power, firing at the wall and blowing several large gaping holes in the side of the base.

Alarms sounded all about the base as the women and children flew out the holes, heading for the sky, and for freedom.

One of the women remained, looking at Atom with bulbous green eyes, and holding out two upraised hands. "Simtrara," she spoke softly, then turned and took to the sky.

Atom ran to one of the holes, looking to the sky as they faded in the distance. "Simtrara," he said with a smile. He shrunk back to microscopic size and headed down the corridors.

********



Ten minutes earlier, Sue made her way silently to the control center of the base unseen. The hallway seemed to go on for eternity as she stepped past drone after drone, holding her breath and taking the softest steps.

She entered the control room, studying the rows of consoles. Baraka had been here twice before, and had been smart enough to ask the drones about the consoles. The drones, thinking him weak and barely worth noticing, humored him by explaining them fully.

It was a major mistake.

Baraka had told Sue everything he learned, and as she studied the consoles, she looked for two areas in particular.

From the corner of her eye, she saw one of the drones suddenly move, walking toward her. Her first instinct was to lash out with a force sphere. She fought back the impulse, taking a few steps backward. The drone continued walking forward, walking by her and to a nearby energy port, where it began "recharging" itself.

Sue quickly returned to the consoles, and within two minutes found the two areas she was looking for. Looking around, she saw there were five drones in the room, one of them recharging. Pretty good odds, she thought, as she began tapping commands into the console, overriding the door controls throughout the base. She gleefully typed in the last command, causing the door to the room to slam shut, as well as every other door throughout the base, effectively trapping 90 percent of the drones in their chambers.

The drones in the room spat out streams of high-pitched words as they raced to the consoles.

Sue molded a ball of force, hurling it at the recharging drone. The ball slammed into it, severing its link to the energy port prematurely. Raw energy spilled from the guts of the drone, and it spun around exploding into a thousand pieces.

It was at that moment the alarm sounded throughout the base. Sue grabbed her ears, startled by the noise.

I thought we were going to do this quietly, Atom, she thought with a wry smile.

The remaining drones looked about frantically, thrown into disarray by their exploding friend and the alarms wailing about them. They formed a small circle, staying close as they raised their energy rifles.

Perfect, Sue said as she created four force bubbles, one enveloping each drone's head. Sweat formed on her brow as she fought to stay focused amidst the commotion. She constricted the force bubbles, making them smaller in her mind. They grew tighter and tighter about the drone's heads, until the pressure was so great it literally tore the heads from their bodies. The bodies flailed and sizzled for a moment, dancing around and banging into the walls, until they finally lost power and rolled to the floor dead.

Sue turned visible, leaning against the console, feeling spent. She made a mental note to increase her training sessions when she got home, she had gotten a little rusty.

She reached for the power controls, the controls that controlled the flow of energy throughout the base, and typed in a flurry of commands, setting them to maximum. The console beeped a warning, and the floor rumbled as the power indicator climbed.

She opened the door to the room and raced down the hall.

Five minutes later, Atom and Sue took to the sky in the Fantasti-car, as the base exploded in a massive ball of fire. They raced away from the blast, as Sue projected a force field bubble around them, deflecting debris.

As they reached the sky, Sue sighed with relief as she powered down the engine. She brushed the hair from her eyes as she looked back at the gaping crater where the base once stood.

Atom studied her for a moment. "Are you okay," he asked with concern.

"Yes," she said with a hint of melancholy, "But sometimes I wonder what a normal life would be like. Going to a 9 to 5 job, falling asleep in front of the television, nursing a cup of hot cocoa."

"You'd be bored to tears," Atom said with a smile, "Everyone should be able to save the world at least once in their life."

Sue flashed him a smile as they zoomed across the sky.

*******



Reed reprogrammed Annihilus's control matrix in a flurry of typing, lines and lines of equations and formulae dancing across the control screen.

Ben and Baraka guarded the entrance, battling drone after drone that rushed into the room.

Ben enjoyed battling the drones. Their energy rifles easily bounced off his tough hide as he slammed into them like a tank, tearing their heads off, then using their bodies to take out other drones. After a few minutes, he was hip deep in them.

"Sheesh, I thought these things were supposed t'be tough," he griped, as he slammed his massive fist through the chest of another, causing it to explode, "The jokers on Yancy Street could handle these panty waists."

"You're fighting's inspiring, Ben," Baraka said as he fired at the drones, "You're a warrior of warriors."

"Ah heck, yer making me blush over here," Ben said.

"I just need a couple more minutes, Ben," Reed said, "I'm entering the final sequence now."

"Take your time stretcho," Ben said, "I could do this all day."

It was at that moment that the entrance to the room exploded in a shower of debris and fire, and Annilihus strode in, Johnny's lifeless body slumped over his shoulder.

"Johnny," Ben yelled, "What did ya to him, ya bum?"

Annihilus let out a stream of alien syllables, then tossed Johnny's body across the room. He slid and hit the wall, moaning in pain.

Reed glanced over at Johnny with concern, then quickly went back to entering calculations. Just another few seconds.

Annihilus raised his cosmic control rod, preparing to fire a blast that would surely vaporize them all.

"Uh, Reed, we got trouble," Ben said.

The control rod flared to life, pulsating with a brilliant white light.

Baraka glared at Annihilus with hatred. This was the man that had taken his wife and children from him, had taken his freedom. So many years ago, this had been a peaceful paradise of a world, and Baraka and his family lived on a meadow. He would work in the fields in the day, then spend the night playing with his children. His wife would sing as she prepared the evening meal. Her voice was like liquid honey, and even on chilly nights it had warmed his heart. Without her, without his children, he was empty inside. He would not let it happen to another.

His wings flared to life, as he streaked forward, hurtling at Annihilus.

"Baraka, what are ya doing," Ben yelled, but it was too late.

Baraka slammed into Annihilus full force. Normally, it would have been a glancing blow, one Annihilus could have thrown off easily. But it took him by surprise, and as his control rod fired, Baraka turned his arm inward. The cosmic beam slammed back onto Annihilus, and globe of brilliant white light surrounded he and Baraka.

There was no explosion, no massive burst of debris. Silently, Annihilus and Baraka were consumed by the power, and both disintegrated instantly, disappearing as if they never existed. All that remained were there shadows, burned into the floor, showing two beings forever entwined in struggle.

Ben stood transfixed, staring at the shadow with disbelief. He closed his eyes and dropped his head, muttering a prayer for an alien he had barely known, but respected deeply.

Reed punched in the final calculations, then activated them. The floor rumbled as his directions were carried out by the computer.

"It's done," he said, turning with a smile, "And just in the nick of time. I set the computers to return to the Negative Zone, and return this world to its proper place. We have to get it out of here quickly."

He walked over to Johnny, examining him. "Johnny, how badly are you injured," he asked with deep concern.

"My pride's hurt worst," Johnny replied, managing a weak smile, "I'll be okay. Nothing a few band-aids and a splint can't fix."

Reed helped Johnny to his feet, supporting him as they walked over to Ben.

"He was brave, Reed," Ben muttered sadly, "He shouldn't have had to die like that. It ain't right. You're the smartest guy I've ever known. Can you explain to me why he had to die?"

Johnny studied Ben with concern as Reed laid a hand on Ben's shoulder. "Come on, Ben," he said softly, "We've got to go."

The three left the command center, Ben glancing one last time at the shadow on the floor. An image that would haunt him for years to come.

*******



An hour later, the minimization ray activated, and the remnants of the Fantasti-car expanded from sub-atomic size, back to regular proportions. Aboard were Reed, Sue and Ben.

A moment later, Atom and Johnny appeared, both expanding back to their regular height.

Reed and the others wearily exited the Fantasti-car, and Reed happily deactivated the ray. He walked over to a nearby console, where notes and equations still showed on the monitor. Notes and equations relating to the experiment that had almost ended tragically. He studied the work he had done, the experiments he had performed on particles in the negative zone.

"Never again," he said, pressing the delete button, wiping several weeks of work away in an instant. Nothing had ever felt better.

Sue slipped her arms around his waist, and both of them watched as the data was deleted.

"So what are you going to pursue next," she asked.

"Dinner, and some dancing," he replied, kissing her on the forehead, "If you feel up to it."

"Always."

Atom walked over to them, studying them with a smile. If only Jean and I could be half that happy, he thought. Maybe I'll take Jean out to her favorite restaurant tonight. We haven't been out in ages.

"If you need help again, Reed, or just want to play a game of chess, give me a call," he said, holding out his hand.

Reed shook his hand appreciatively. "And if you or the Justice League need help, we'll be glad to give you a hand."

Atom walked over to the telephone, dialing his home number. As soon as it connected, he waved a farewell and shrunk to atomic size, heading for home across a network of phone lines.

Ben left the room somberly, Johnny following him. "Ben, wait up," he called.

Ben ignored him, heading for the elevator.

Johnny stopped him, laying a hand on his shoulder. "Talk to me, man," he said, "I saw what happened to Baraka. Let's talk about it."

"The only thing that's gonna help me now is being with Alicia," Ben said, "I just gotta spend some time with her. Tell her how much I...."

He paused, then lightly pushed Johnny away from him.

"Ah, you don't understand, you're too young," he grumbled, "Just leave me alone, okay? Tell Stretcho I'll be back later."

He stepped into the elevator and the doors slowly closed behind him.

Johnny stood there for a moment with an understanding smile. Even the strongest people need comfort sometimes, he thought.

He walked to the window, where the sun was setting, casting a brilliant orange glow on the city. He suddenly felt a thrill, a rush. They had been so close to death today, all he wanted now was to embrace life.

Despite the bruises and soreness of his battered body, he flamed on, and shot out the window.

He streaked across the sky, lighting up the night with flame, waving to people in their buildings, helping people on the street.

He was getting more control of his power each day, more control of himself each day. He, Reed, Sue and Ben would continue onward.

He waved to a group of children, causing them to squeal with delight, then took to the sky, losing himself in the wonder of a Summer night.





THE END