Author's Note: I have no idea where this story came from. I've never written one so fast in my life. I woke up Tuesday morning and this story was in my head, by Tuesday evening the first draft was penned. Unfortunately, I was smack in the middle of written a different F4 fiction when this one popped up, so I'm trying to get it finished quickly to get back to the other story. I've never written a story so fast in my life, so there are going to be logic gaps, I'm afraid. I might revise it for quality at a later date, but first we'll see if it gets any response. It's liable to be shorter and more bare bones than my other fictions, but that's not necessarily a bad thing (I tend to be wordy anyway). This is movie-verse because there are several decades of F4 comic books out there that I don't have money to collect and I've only read the graphic novels "Hereafter", "Disassembled" and "Rising Storm", and the novel "War Zone", so the universe in my fictions is a hybrid of bits from those novels, from the animated series on DVD, and from the movie (might want to call it AU if that helps.). For instance, in my fics there will always be about a five or six-year age difference between Sue and Johnny, which is loosely derived from hints in the graphic novels since it obviously doesn't jibe with the movie's casting. Sequel? Depends on if there's a demand (insert evil writer grin). Obviously, then, similarities to comic book issues, or anything else on t.v., in movies, or in stories I haven't read is pure coincidence.

Disclaimer: I don't own the characters. 20th Century Fox, Marvel Comics, Stan Lee, and probably some other people do. Wish I did. Especially the guys. Typos as always are my fault.

Rating: T to be safe. This one doesn't have my usual amount of action, only some adult themes and mild language and no sex (gen or slash. As always, if you see any, you're squinting way too hard).



by llnbooks (llnbooks)

Johnny Storm was no angel. He was used to waking up in strange places (often in strange beds)…just not quite this strange.

Nor could Johnny account for how he'd ended up in his current freaking bizarre circumstances. He wracked his brain for an explanation, but his last memory was of sitting in the chair at his dentist's office (there no way he was letting Reed Richards near him with a dental drill…those things were scary enough in the hands of a trained professional) flirting with a pretty, but alas happily married, hygienist. Okay, his usual dentist, Dr. Morris, had been sick that day and had another D.D.S. filing in for him, that was a little odd. Johnny hadn't minded, since the substitute had been a friendly and attractive brunette woman with a bit of an accent that he couldn't quite place. He'd tried asking where she was from, but she'd shushed him with a shot of Novocain and left him in the chair. Johnny had meant to strike up their conversation when the doctor returned but…he'd started feeling groggy and numb all over his body and, before it had occurred to him that this was an unusual reaction to a dental visit, he'd closed his eyes.

He'd awakened in this weird place.

It was some kind of room, although 'room' might have been a generous description, for it was sterile and lacked any furnishings whatsoever, which gave it more the feeling of being a giant box. The walls were some kind of metal alloy, the floors were the same metal alloy and he couldn't discern one seam, crack, or imperfection in the walls to indicate a door, even though, logically, he had to get into the box somehow so there had to be a door someplace. There was no sign of any air ducts or vents. What kind of room didn't have vents? The walls were smooth and airtight from what he could see. The box was dark, except for a panel on one of the walls where three round lights were flashing in some kind of sequence that wasn't quite as bad as strobes but still threatened to give him a headache. Above that panel, there was a small camera with a flashing red light pointed right at the spot on the floor where Johnny had awakened. Below the camera was a monitor of some sort, but the screen showed only Johnny pacing in his cage. Closer inspection revealed a microphone built into the camera, but no plugs or out-going cables. Apparently, the camera and microphone were battery operated and completely wireless.

Okay, so Johnny already had some vital information just from his first look around the room. He obviously had not gotten into the room on his own. He supposed Ben could be pranking him, but this seemed a little too inventive for that big lug. Most likely, he could thank that damned brunette doctor for knocking him out and dragging him in here or handing him over to someone else who had put him in here. Either way, someone meant to keep him prisoner…and his captors had to be watching him with that camera, what else would it be there for? He couldn't figure out the purpose of the blinking light, unless his abductors were doing a test to see how long they could annoy a Human Torch before he showed them why it wasn't a good idea to annoy a Human Torch. They had to be off their rockers if they thought a little metal box was going to keep Johnny prisoner, door or no door.

Something was pinching his ear. When he noticed that uncomfortable sensation, he became aware of the soft noise of static. Johnny felt at his right ear and found some kind of stitches covering a lump big enough to be some kind of earpiece. They'd sewn it right under his skin. Obviously they didn't want him removing the earpiece until he'd heard whatever they had to say.

All of this was interesting, but not particularly fun. Johnny wasn't in the mood for games. He faced the camera. "Pebbles, if you and Ashton Kutcher are on the other end of that camera, you're both getting a fireball up the wazoo when I get out of here."

There was no response, just the irritating crackle of static in his earpiece.

"All right, whoever you are, wherever you are, you've got my attention. Just hang on a second, I'll be right out to talk to you," he warned.

They didn't provide a door, but Johnny could make one on his own. The Human Torch summoned up a surge of adrenaline and felt the familiar rise of his body's core temperature. He focused the heat only on his hands, which obediently burst into flame. Johnny laid his hands against the wall and dialed up the heat to a level that should sufficiently melt a hole in the metal. He extinguished the fire and surveyed the results of his efforts.

The metal hadn't so much as bubbled. It glowed red beneath the heat of his hands, but the second he pulled back, the glow subsided and the metal rapidly cooled. Johnny frowned. That can't be. "Okay, I'll just have to go hotter…"

His earpiece crackled, and a voice warned: "I wouldn't do that if I was you."

Johnny knew that voice. "It can't be…" He faced the monitor, as if expecting to see the owner of the voice displayed there, but the screen was still blank. It didn't matter, he didn't need to see the man to identify him.

"You didn't really think a little fire and water would be enough to get rid of me, did you…Human Torch?" There was genuine amusement in that quiet voice. Johnny must not be doing well at hiding his shock.

"Victor?" Johnny finally asked.

The man formerly known as Victor Von Doom (now dubbed 'Doctor Doom') chuckled. "Hello, Johnny. What's it been? Six months? How have you been?" he said by way of greeting.

Johnny summoned up his bravado to hide his slowly growing feeling of uneasiness. His problems just got a lot bigger than dental hygienists…he apparently had a real psycho to deal with. He crossed his arms, affecting a casual pose, and answered cordially as if he'd run into an old friend on the street and not the archenemy of his team and family. Staring into the camera meant staring at those annoying lights, but Johnny didn't so much as squint to betray his discomfort. "Other than being locked in some freak boy's idea of a joke? Can't complain. So, I'm safe in assuming that the walls and the cameras and this little do-hickey you've sewn into my ear are all fireproof?"

"You always were a quick study," Victor confirmed, sounding pleased. "The metal in those walls was made from an alloy I fabricated based on my own DNA. I think you're well aware that it won't melt, even under your 'supernova' blast. You also know it will withstand Ben's brute strength and Susan's forcefield…but I'm sure they'll have to see that for themselves when they arrive to rescue you."

Yeah, Johnny was sure they would, too. "My money's on Susie and the Big Guy."

"You'd lose that bet, Johnny," Victor disagreed. "Only gamble on sure things."

"Why all this trouble, Vic? If you wanted to catch up on old times, you could have dropped by the Baxter Building and said hello."

Doom declined, "Some other time, perhaps."

"No? Fine, tell me where you are and the four of us can pay you a little visit," Johnny offered with an evil grin.

"Again, some other time."

Johnny sighed. It was no fun teasing a psycho, their senses of humor were way warped. "Well, since I can't have a seat since you didn't leave me a chair, how about we cut to the chase and you tell me what this scheme of yours is all about so I can get on with outsmarting you and kicking your ass and all that stuff super heroes do to arch villains?"

"Direct and to the point." Johnny heard a noise over the earpiece that sounded like the drumming of fingers, then Victor's voice returned: "I've always respected that about you, Johnny. You could do with learning some patience, but we can work on that later. I wanted to wait until your…family…arrives, but since we're pressed for time, I supposed there's no harm in getting started now."

'The rest of the team'? Oh great, Johnny was trap bait. He hated playing trap bait. "Pressed for time? Fine, I'll start by getting out of here. I'm not interested in playing hero in distress for your little games, Vic."

He was about to raised his hands and summoned up his flames once more, but Victor hastily warned again: "I said don't do that---for your own good." Johnny paused, doused the fire and waited. Finally, Doom explained, "Has it escaped your attention that you've been sealed inside a box with no source of oxygen? Your accommodations were designed to keep you alive for one hour before the depletion of oxygen and the build-up of carbon dioxide becomes enough to kill you. You'll start to feel the effects soon enough---dizziness, disorientation, shortness of breath, fatigue…"

That wasn't good news. And I thought being abducted by the dentist was going to be the worst thing that happened today, Johnny mused.

Doom continued: "Unfortunately, you were unconscious for a bit longer than I anticipated after you were sealed in there. A slight drug overdose when you were taken from Dr. Morris' office. I promise that our mutual friend, Dr. Reinhardt, will be appropriately disciplined for that error. Then, of course, you had to fire up---or what is it you say? 'Flame on'?---twice, even after I warned you not to. You're down to forty minutes of oxygen according to the sensors. I'd estimate you're losing five minutes of air each time you attempt to use your powers, and you obviously know your powers will do you no good. But, don't take my word for it, by all means---try to melt the walls again if you insist."

Johnny decided to play it safe. He could wait a few minutes for the rest of the team to help spring him from this box. Meanwhile, he could keep Victor preoccupied.

"So, you are watching me?"

"The entire world is watching you right now, Johnny…courtesy of my old satellite network. I managed to reprogram them after my old corporation was sold. They do come in handy. You're live to the world…after all it's only fitting for a glory hound like you to have his last minutes broadcast live worldwide, don't you think?"

Okay, there were at least two things about what Victor just said that Johnny didn't like the sound of, but he was damned if Victor was going to rattle him in front of live audience----

Something beeped. The sound was so unexpected that Johnny almost jumped at the sudden noise, until he recognized the tone. It was his communicator. He'd had it with him at the dentist's office---after all, a super hero should never leave home without one. Besides that, Reed was pretty much insistent that the team carry their communicators every where they went due the tendency of villains to pop up or lay traps pretty much at any given moment. Victor really wasn't worried about the others springing Johnny if he had let the Human Torch keep his line of communication with the team.

His sister's concerned voice crackled over the speaker. "Johnny! Can you hear me?"

Hurriedly, Johnny switched on the communicator and answered: "Sue?"

She must have heard him. On the device's tiny screen, Sue's eyes were wide and frightened, and if she was scared, the situation had to be as bad as Victor made it sound. That wasn't reassuring. He saw Reed and Ben in the background. They were still in the Baxter Building. They don't' know where I am, Johnny knew. They'd be beating down the door, literally in Ben's case, if they did.

"Any idea where you are, Johnny?" Their leader asked, confirming Johnny's suspicion.

"Not a clue."

Mr. Fantastic nodded, having expected that much. "Keep the communicator on. We'll trace your signal back to you."

"We'll be there as fast as we can," Sue promised.

"Am I really on t.v.?"

Reed answered, "I'm afraid so. Every channel."

"Well, that's cool," Johnny grinned, trying to sound casual to put his worried sister and team mates at ease.

Ben made a noise of disgust. "Cool for you, but I was tryin' to watch Oprah 'til your ugly mug interrupted." His glibness was not reflected in his rocky features. On the contrary, Ben looked ready to flatten something---preferably that box where Doom had locked Johnny.

"Are you all right, Johnny?" Sue asked.

"Not so much, no. Victor's off on one of his rants and he's giving me a massive headache."

Reed froze in place at that. "Victor? Victor Von Doom?"

"You know any other crackpot screwy enough to think of something this twisted?" Johnny answered.

Ben harrumphed. "Least we know whose getting his face rearranged after we spring the kid."

Johnny didn't understand why the others looked so surprised at that bit of news. They'd said he was on t.v., how come they hadn't heard Victor's rambling? "You guys didn't hear him?"

"No," Sue said.

Doom's voice came over Johnny's earpiece…and over the communicators. Johnny winced and had to resist the urge to shut off the communicator when the feedback caused a squeal of feedback over the earpiece. The rest of the team jumped in surprise when Victor interrupted: "Can you hear me now?"

Ben shook his head, "Yep, that's metal britches."

"Our conversations are private, Johnny. That's why I went to the trouble of designing your earpiece instead of talking over the communicators. The rest of you will only hear what you need to hear," Victor explained.

Reed frowned. "An earpiece?"

Holding the communicator so they could see the side of his face, Johnny grimaced and pointed to his right ear. Reed couldn't see a device there, but there was a tiny scar and several small stitches beside Johnny's ear. Apparently, Victor didn't want him removing the device. "Fireproof?" he asked, since Johnny hadn't removed the earpiece himself yet.

"Of course. Might come out if I flamed on all the way, but---that's probably gonna burn up all my air in about a minute, so, I'm guessing it's not a good idea."

Sue's mouth curled downward into a frown at the very idea of someone cutting into his brother's skin like that, much less implanting a device meant to add to his current misery. Having been on the receiving end of such looks from his fiancé in the past, Reed wouldn't envy Victor when Susan got her hands on him.

Ben faced the camera. "Whatever he's tellin' ya, kid, don't listen."

Sue was looking more agitated the more she heard. "What do you want this time, Victor?"

"Hello, Susan. The game is very simple. Your baby brother is in a box constructed of an alloy based on my new DNA---but I'm sure Reed has already figured that out," Victor answered.

Reed had already deduced where Victor was headed: "Which means Johnny can't melt it, Susan can't move it with her force field, and Ben can't break it," he said.

"Very good, Reed," Victor complimented. "You also won't find any spaces for Mr. Fantastic to squeeze through. The camera transmitting is wireless, so no holes for the cables, and it's welded from two solid pieces, so no cracks or seams. Unfortunately, that also means no vents."

Reed offered the camera, and the villain he was certain could see him, a dirty look. "Which means no air."

Ben and Sue's expression matched Richards' own grim features as the situation sank in.

Satisfied he had their attention now, Victor continued: "In fifteen minutes or so, the depletion of oxygen and the build up of carbon dioxide in that box is going to make life very uncomfortable for our young friend in there. In about thirty minutes…well, you can always rename yourselves the Tragic Trio. It's very catchy."

Reed was the first to break the silence that briefly fell over the four. Keeping his face in a neutral expression, he asked: "You didn't answer our question, Victor. What do you want?"

Victor's tone was all business now. "Simple, Reed. The last time we met, the four of you defeated me---" His bitter snort was audible over the speaker and Johnny's earpiece. "'Defeated'…you humiliated me. Turned me into a living lawn jockey. Do you have any idea how long it took to regenerate myself enough to move? To blink? I want a rematch, what do you think I want? For today, however, I want you to try to save your friend. I want the four of you to see that all your power, all your strength, all your intelligence, all your cockiness, everything that makes you 'fantastic'---" Johnny could hear the distaste in Doom's voice when he said the word. "---can't save his life. Not this time. And one you accept that, I want to hear you say two words to me. I want you to say them into the cameras for the whole world to hear."

"What words?" Sue was the one to ask.

"Simple. I want you to say: 'You win'."

Reed waited, expecting something more. "That's it?"

"That's quite a bit, Reed. If I hear a concession of defeat---from all four of you---I'll return your Human Torch to you unharmed. I can do it with the press of a button," Victor promised.

In the cage, Johnny offered a glare into the camera for Victor's benefit. "Yeah, don't hold your breath." He cringed. "Okay, bad choice of words…"

Doom ignored him. "Until I have your concessions, the three of you won't be hearing any more from me." There was a click like a phone line being disconnected over the speaker in conference room. Victor's voice, however, remained in Johnny's ear. "You and I, however, will talk again very soon."

Johnny rolled his eyes. Terrific. How'd I get picked to be his chat buddy?

Reed looked to Susan. Her fear reflected in her eyes, but her face showed only determination. "What do you think?" he asked quietly, temporarily muting the communicators so Doom and the rest of the world wouldn't overhear.

On the communicator, Johnny saw The Thing balling his massive hands into fists. "I think Vic can stick his 'concessions' where the sun don't shine." Ben didn't even try to lower his voice. He wanted to be sure the creep heard his answer.

"Yeah, well, I'll second that," Johnny agreed.

Susan considered the situation. "I think Victor will keep his word," she answered Reed's question. "I just don't understand what he thinks he's going to gain from this. It's a lot of effort just to humiliate us if that's all he wants."

That was true enough, Reed silently agreed. Victor hadn't shown up six months after their first battle just to publicly embarrass him. There had to be more to it. Reed would rather know what Doom was hiding up his sleeve before his team went charging blindly in---

The communicator beeped and Johnny's image temporarily disappeared as the screen displayed a map. It had traced his signal. Reed frowned. "It's coming from Victor's old corporate offices."

"Then let's go get him," Ben was already lumbering towards the door.

"Ben, wait a minute----"

The Thing's annoyance was clear. "What wait, Reed? The Matchstick's running out of air. We ain't gotta choice."

Reed didn't like the situation one bit, but Ben was right. They didn't have the luxury of time to sit and second-guess Doom's plans. He would, however, at least like to know if Victor was going to be waiting for them with God-knew-what kinds of traps when the Fantastic Four arrived. Maybe there was a way to find out. Reed turned his communicator on again. "Johnny, can you keep Victor talking?"

"Probably. Megalomaniacs are pretty cooperative that way. Question is why would I want to do that?"

Reed didn't want to say, not with Doom somehow tapped into their communications. "Just trust me for now."

Johnny didn't sound happy about it, but he said only: "Will do."

The other two members of the team looked at their leader for an explanation. Reed muted the communicators' signals just long enough to tell Ben and Sue: "Victor's sending a signal to that earpiece somehow. I might be able to use our communicators to trace it. It would be good to know if he's waiting outside that cell."

"True," Ben agreed.

"We're on our way, Johnny," Sue promised.

Inside the box, Johnny took a deep breath and braced himself. This wasn't going to be pleasant. He faced the camera in his cell and forced a cheerful smirk. "Okay, Vic, the jury's still out on that 'last minutes' thing, but let's say I buy that there's no way out of this box. The million dollar question is: What's up? I'm the bait, what's the ransom, really? 'Cause I'm not buying the whole 'concession' thing."

Victor actually laughed at that. "Let's start by saying, I'm repaying a debt."

Johnny was confused. "A debt? To who? Some clown we busted put a contract on us or what?"

"A debt to you, Johnny."

The Torch frowned. Huh? "I'd probably have to be in your brain to understand how that makes any sense, and it's dark and scary in there, so why don't you walk me through it instead, Vic." He sat down against the wall, making himself comfortable. He knew from experience that bad guy rants could go on and on and on once the floodgates were opened.

"Do you remember our last encounter?" Doom asked.

Like Johnny would forget. He'd used his supernova powers to superheat Victor, then Reed used water from a fire hydrant to supercool the bad guy until Victor's metal seized up, making him immobile as a living statue. "I don't remember doing you any favors, Tin Man," Johnny answered.

"But that's just it, Johnny, you did me a very great favor. I was angry at the time, of course, but I've had quite a long time to think about it---as you can imagine---and I've come to realize that I owe you a debt for what you did that night. You gave me a baptism of fire, Johnny. That fire burned away the impurities of my being, the residue of fragile skin and blood. You can't be subject to the weakness of the flesh when you have no flesh. That fire purified me, re-forged me as a stronger being than I ever was before. It was the completion of my transformation from the weak, emotional man that was Victor Von Doom into what I've become now."

"A hood ornament?" Johnny rubbed his eyes, waiting out Doom's rant. Oh boy, this was going to be a long day.

Victor didn't sound amused at that barb. "An immortal. A god…a god indebted to a mere mortal. And I hate being indebted."

The Torch whistled. Oh good, he thinks he's God again. "At what point did you go Old Testament, Vic? And when did you decide you were God?" Johnny waved off his own question. "You know what, never mind, I don't care. I'm glad you're happy. How about popping open this box and we'll call it even on the favors and debt thing?"

"That's not what I had in mind," Victor refused.

"Yeah, I didn't think so. So, what then?"

"I'm going to return the favor, Johnny. I'm going to share the gift you gave me."

Johnny mumbled under his breath, "Psy-cho…"

"I'm going to show you your own impurities, Johnny---"

Now, Johnny laughed out loud, "Now, that's going to take more than forty minutes…"

"---the weaknesses that are preventing you from becoming what you were destined to be…from truly understanding how these powers elevated us above the toils and concerns of mortal men and made us immortals."

"Okay, so you're going to prove I'm immortal by killing me with a big steel box?" Johnny clarified.

Victor was no longer paying attention to his barbs. "My weaknesses could be burned out of me. Obviously, that won't work with the Human Torch. So, since your impurities can't be burned out, they'll have to be suffocated. Think of this room as your chrysalis, Johnny. It's here that your transformation will truly begin."

Johnny waited, but apparently Victor was finished with his rant. Johnny climbed back to his feet and nodded, "Wow…that's warped. I think I'll take my chances with the fla---"

The monitor in his prison, dark until that point, interrupted by suddenly flickering to life. "Ah, look, your family's finally here," Victor said. "Go ahead, say hello. We'll talk more soon."

"Yeah, can't wait." Between Victor's ranting, the blinking light, and the pops and static over Vic's crappy earpiece (he guessed the static was due to the earpiece trying to transmit and receive a signal through a steel wall), Johnny was working on getting a migraine.

He turned his attention to the images on the monitors. The screen displayed what looked like the remains of the conference room at Victor's former corporate offices (no one had wanted to rent out his old suites, finding the notion of occupying the villain's old space creepy beyond all reason). The camera feeding images of the office to Johnny's monitor showed part of the wrecked conference table and a large steel box. My cage, no doubt. The rest of the Fantastic Four had just entered the room. Susan Storm bee-lined for the steel box while Reed Richards and Ben Grimm took a long look around the room.

"Johnny, we're here," she said.

"I see you guys. Turn around."

Sue glanced back and spotted another camera and monitor mounted on the wall. The images of the Human Torch being broadcast to the rest of the word were also displayed on the small monitor. Johnny offered his sister a wave, "Nice of you guys to drop by."

Reed was prowling around the steel box, searching for the smallest hole, crack, or opening that would allow him to get into the prison. From the way he was frowning, Johnny figured he wasn't having much luck finding one.

"How 'bout it Reed? You have any brilliant ideas? Or maybe a giant can opener?"

Their leader gave the faintest nod of his head into the camera. Victor hadn't been lying; there wasn't a single crack in the box that Mr. Fantastic could have squeezed through. There were faint lines that Reed figured were seams from the door, but they'd been welded airtight. "I'm working on it. We're still working on tracking Victor's signal to his location, so keep your communicator open. It's picking up Victor's transmissions, but the signal is scrambled. We can't hear what he's saying. Your earpiece must have the translator chip."

"I got an idea," Ben piped in, "How about we don't take Victor's word for how impenetrable this box is? Stand away from the walls, Matchstick."

Johnny moved to the center of his cramped cell while the monitor showed Ben stomping over to the container. The Thing drew back his massive arms and slammed both fists into the wall, putting all his considerable strength into the blows. Johnny waited, but the box didn't so much as shake.

He raised an eyebrow, "Was that your A-game, big guy?"

Undaunted, Ben kept up his efforts, using every heavy piece of furniture and broken pipes from the demolished walls to try to batter the prison. The box wasn't even scratched. On the monitor, Johnny was shaking his head, already knowing it was a lost cause. When it became obvious that his efforts weren't doing any good, he called to the Invisible Woman: "Susie, gimme a hand!"

When The Thing launched another assault on the unyielding walls, Susie's force field shimmered to life inside the box, covering her brother even as it expanded and tried to bend the walls outward. This time the metal walls did react: There was a deafening groan of metal grinding against metal---and then the ceiling dropped down lower so unexpectedly that Johnny instinctively dove to his knees. It wasn't breaking open, it was being crushed—fully intact---like a soda can. Sue's shield had kept the heavy ceiling from striking him on the head as it collapsed.

On the earpiece, Victor was chuckling again. "Surprise. The box was designed to react to Sue's psychic energy by decreasing in mass," Victor was explaining. "You really should tell her to stop, Johnny."

Like I didn't know that already. As if on cue, the walls gave another groan of warning. Johnny yelled into the microphone, waving into the camera to get her attention or Reed's or Ben's. "Susie! You gotta stop! Vic's got the walls booby trapped!"

Sue had to face away from the camera and monitor to focus on her assault on the cage. Reed, however, was watching the monitor and saw the danger even as Johnny was shouting his warning. Reed grabbed Sue by the shoulder, trying to break her concentration. "Susan, stop! Ben, don't!"

The duo had seen the box begin to cave in, how could they not have noticed? Ben backed away at once. Sue's instinct, however, was to keep her shield in place, afraid to let go now for fear the box would continue collapsing down onto her brother. She knew she couldn't hold it forever, but she'd try for Johnny's sake. "It's reacting to your force field somehow," Reed had guessed without being privy to Victor's words to Johnny. "Let go!"

Reluctantly, Sue complied. The shimmer of her shield slowly winked out. Johnny stared warily at the ceiling until he was sure that the box wasn't going to close in any farther. Then, since he couldn't stand with the low overhead clearance any more, he made himself comfortable as he could by sitting on the floor. He leaned his back against the wall and closed his eyes for a minute against the irritating blinking lights, which, thanks to his seated position, were now at his eye-level. "Appreciate the thought, anyway," he said.

Outside, the trio waited until they were sure the box had stabilized. Reed breathed a sigh of relief. Susan was still a bit shaken by the close call, but clenched her fist to hide the tremble of her hands.

"That cost you about five minutes of air," Victor informed Johnny.

He conveyed the news to the others. "We lost five minutes, guys."