Chapter 5

Four, Three, Two, One…

"Please, guys! Don't do this," whimpered Johnny Storm as he backed up against a corner, hiding behind some of Reed's expensive-looking machines. "It's me! Johnny! Don't tell me they made you forget!"

"Of course we didn't forget you, dear brother!" Sue's toothy, mocking smile was barely visible as she floated above him. "Why do you run from your family, Johnny? We just want you to join us. The Fantastic Four isn't complete if we're not all together, right?" Johnny may not have been able to see his sister, but even her symbiote couldn't remain invisible as it extended out towards him. Johnny grabbed the tentacle by one hand, igniting it in a palm-sized inferno. Sue recoiled, screaming in pain.

Reed Richard's head twisted its way around Johnny's cover, the symbiote still adjusting to the sudden extension. It would soon be able to keep up with its elastic host. "Johnny! Why do you resist us? It's pointless, you know," Reed smiled.

"Come on! Even a big brain like you should see the truth, Reed," Johnny quivered, backing up further against the wall. He was beginning to run out of breathing space, but he refused to hurt his family. "You can't control the symbiotes, Reed! They're dangerous! Don't you remember how many times you told Spidey that when we held Venom captive?"

"I was foolish back then," Reed stalled, keeping Johnny's focus as he stretched a clawed hand toward his blind side. "As big of a braniac as people had claimed me to be, I was too blind to not notice the power a symbiote offered! It helps to have a second opinion at my side now; everything is so much clearer! Join us, and you too will see the light!" Reed wrapped his hand around Johnny's torso, his symbiote beginning to cover the Human Torch. Thy symbiote completely covered him head to toe, but Johnny continued to struggle until…

"FLAME ON!" The symbiote combusted and fell to the ground in ash, and Reed screeched and howled as his grip around Johnny slacked. Reed tumbled back, both he and the symbiote flailing in a tangled mess from the searing burn. "Sorry! Sorry!"

"That does it, kid," growled Benjamin Grimm, tearing Johnny's cover from the ground and tossing it to the side. "Play time's over! It's clobberin' time!" Ben's symbiote shot out from the cracks of his rocky skin in thin, waving tendrils. The tendrils compacted onto one of his hands, forming a large spike which Ben brought down on Johnny without hesitation. Johnny spewed a cone of fire from his hands, scorching the symbiote spike. Yet, this did not stop the Thing's stone-hard fist from meeting Johnny's face, so he rolled to the side. The blow put a large hole in the metallic floor of Reed's dimensional teleportation room. The Fantastic Four had only just come back from an expedition in a newly discovered parallel universe when they were met by Spider-Man and a small battalion of his minions. The four put up a valiant, destructive fight, but each fell until only Johnny remained, fighting not only Spider-Man and his minions, but his own family.

"Ben, don't kill him!" yelled Sue, fully recovered from her burn.

"I ain't gonna. I'm just gonna make the little twerp hurt!"

"Guys, I'm warning you," pleaded Johnny. "I don't want to hurt any of you, but I'll defend myself if I have to! Please, let me help you! Those symbiotes are making you crazy; they're controlling you!"

"Oh Johnny," laughed Spider-Man, crawling down the wall behind him. "Your words fall on deaf ears. Once I turned them, they're mine to control! No one can resist me, not even Reed." Johnny could see he was smiling under the mask, mimicking the same toothy grin of the symbiote. "We've been friends for how long now? Take my word for it: it's not so bad being bonded to a symbiote. You'll discover power you've never dreamed of! I'm doing it, your family is doing it…heck everyone will be doing it soon. Whadda'ya say, pal? Join the club?"

Johnny looked to his sister, to Reed, to Ben, and to all the other symbiotes. He clenched his teeth and a tear began to fall down his cheek. "You…you're all insane if you think I'm letting one of those alien worms on me," he whispered, squeezing his eyes shut. Then his eyes shot open with a blinding, burning fury. "FLAME ON!" Once more, Johnny burst to flames, the air around him rippling from the intense heat. The entire room crackled with head, and all symbiotes cried out in agony. All the infected heroes and minions slithered into the far corners of the room, attempting to escape from one of their greatest weaknesses. Johnny then took flight and burst through the ceiling, leaving a red-hot molten metal hole from which the smoke-covered night sky could be seen.

"Dammit, he's getting away," growled Ben, punching a path through the wall to chase Johnny.

"Don't worry about it," Spidey ordered, falling from the ceiling and putting a hand on Ben's shoulder. The Terrible Trio and their king watched as Johnny streaked through the air towards Manhattan off in the distance. "We'll get him later, I promise you that. For now, I have what I want." Spidey turned to Reed, whose symbiote finally became accustomed to his rubbery body. "Richard, you and I have our work ahead of us. You're going to help me win this war I wage."

Reed grinned gruesomely. "What do you have in mind, my lord?"

Eddie led Pat through the back of the hospital wing to a door. The sign on the door read "Employees Only", and two civilians armed with pistols and batons stood guard in front of it. Eddie nodded to them, and they returned the notion, stepping aside to let the two heroes pass. One of the guards knocked twice on the door. A second later, a series of clicking and sliding sounds emanated from the other side, ending with a squeaking swing of the door into the room. Pat followed Eddie into the dark room, which was dimly lit by a red light in one corner and a few monitors displaying parts of the underground subway network and some of the desolate streets above. Pat squinted, adjusting his eyes to the dark.

As his eyes focused, he finally took notice of what made the red light in the corner: a titan of gun metal and jet, boasting wrist-mounted rifles and a Gatling gun and rocket launcher on each shoulder. The War Machine armor stood firm and lifeless, its eyes and chest medallion slowly pulsing red. It appeared to be wired to a tap in the subway power lines. Surrounding the armor were piles of various types of ammunition and weapons, ranging from Colt .45's to flamethrowers, and even five bazookas. Pat had never seen so many different weapons in one place and knew that a small portion of them were probably salvaged from local police stations.

The room was lightly populated by a mix of police, Marines, Army soldiers, and civilians. Civilians and police monitored the security cameras while the Marines and Army manned the radios, mapped the city and world maps, and planned battle and rescue tactics. A tall black man wearing a decorated Marines uniform broke away from one group, addressing the newcomers. "Brock, you're back. I was worried that you had been captured by the enemy. Do you mind explaining to me your sudden leave back there?" The man's eyes snapped to Pat and scanned him up and down. "Who's this?"

"He's one of the reasons for my leave, sir," answered Eddie. "Lieutenant Rhodes, Patrick Mulligan. Pat, this is former U.S.M.C. Lieutenant James Rhodes, also known as War Machine. Lieutenant Rhodes, the other reason for my absence is in Georgia Hughes' care at the moment." Eddie walked over to Rhodey and whispered in his ear, "Mary Jane Watson – Peter Parker's wife – is in our custody. I do not know if Parker knows of this, but as far as I know the Black Cat believes her to be dead." Eddie stepped back and spoke normally again. "I rescued Ms. Anne Weying and Mulligan from Spider-Man's minions. We are very fortunate to have Patrick on our side."

"Why? What's so special about him?" Rhodey scanned him a second time, looking for something extraordinary, but only found a well-toned man with some stubble around his chin.

"Patrick is an ex-cop. He now goes by the moniker 'Toxin,'" said Brock, carefully choosing his words. "He is bonded with the son of the symbiote Carnage, grandson of Venom." The entire room went quiet. All eyes turned to Patrick. Pat did not like the popularity he had suddenly gained.

"Brock, you better not be fucking with me," Rhodey said sternly. "Don't you tell me that you brought one of them into our secret base? I made an exception for you because of your unique power, but I did not give you permission to an open invitation for any symbiote that claims to be on our side."

"Toxin is different," said Brock, standing his ground. "Toxin was around long before the invasion began, and unlike the symbiotes we fight now, Toxin is not a copy of Carnage. Toxin was a natural-born symbiote, the thousandth descendant of Venom's line. That means that Toxin is unlike its predecessors. Toxin – and Patrick – are good guys."

"Please, Lieutenant Rhodes," Patrick stepped in front of Eddie, feeling as if he had to defend himself. "What Brock is saying is true. I was a cop for the Seventeenth Precinct before Toxin came along, third generation in my family. I have a wife and a son, both of whom I had to separate myself from to protect them for this new life, both of whom I miss so much. And I believe myself to be the best thing that has ever happened to Toxin. I helped mold him into a…mostly-decent symbiote, which is a miracle considering his family history. We've been a hero for New York for several years now, and we were allies of Spider-Man before the world fell apart. Please, trust us. We will not fail nor betray the Resistance."

Rhodey stood silently for a few moments. Then, finally: "Let me see it." Toxin formed around Pat, his toothy mouth hidden. They did not want to give Rhodes the wrong impression. "Very well, welcome to the Resistance. I'll take your word that you'll behave. I hope you don't betray my trust, or else War Machine will personally roast you and your symbiote."

"Thank you, Lieutenant," replied both Eddie and Pat. Toxin retracted once more. "So what's the plan? How are we going to stop the invasion?" asked Pat.

"The invasion's already over," Rhodey frowned. "The symbiotes have already taken the rest of the world. There are a few groups of survivors here and there, so our primary goal right now is to locate these groups and unite them under the Resistance. Together we can stage a final stand against the symbiotes, but eventually we will be overrun. The majority of Earth's super human and mutant population has been taken by either Spider-Man's or Carnage's forces."

"Wait, Carnage? I thought Sentry had killed him during the Raft riot," asked Pat.

"Early on in the invasion it was reported that Carnage's former accomplice, Shriek, had gained a means to extract Carnage's remains from Earth's orbit and revived him. Now he's building his own army of symbiotes, and even though it might not be as big as Spider-Man's, it's a deadly force comprised of super humans, mutants, and hardened criminals," Rhodey explained.

"That would explain Spider-Man's experiments," Pat thought aloud.

"Experiments?" both Rhodey and Brock asked.

"Yeah, when I was in his captivity he had the Tinkerer repeatedly bond me with mutated symbiote spawns after they separated me from Toxin," Pat explained. "But each time I was bonded to a spawn my body would reject it, as if it had grown immunity to any other symbiote other than Toxin. I was able to succumb to a spawn long enough to use it to escape from Spider-Man. After that I met up with Mary—I mean, Anne. Then Brock rescued us, and here we are. You don't suppose Spider-Man…."

"…is trying to turn people who had previously come in contact with other symbiotes, namely the Carnagelings?" Eddie finished for him. "I wouldn't doubt it. Spider-Man is aiming for world domination, and Carnage and his army poses a serious threat to that goal. But Spider-Man and the Tinkerer could never come up with a solution on their own; they would need proper scientists to create the perfect symbiote dominator clone."

"Lieutenant Rhodes, you need to see this," one of the civilians at a monitor called out. "Something's happening at the 28th Street area!" The three heroes rushed over to the monitor. In it was an image of the litter-choked 28th Street subway entrance and the adjacent street. A horde of symbiotes circled a flaming body, which projected fireballs here and there, trying to ward off the attackers. The camera zoomed into the firestorm, and Johnny Storm's face could be vaguely distinguished along with the 4 insignia on his chest.

"Looks like the Human Torch is in need of help," said Rhodey. He turned towards the War Machine armor. "Brock, you're with me. We'll take the 14th Street exit and flank them. Mulligan, you stay here. Unlike Brock's, your symbiote still possesses the standard weaknesses. We can't have you getting in the crossfire." Pat understood and returned to the monitor. Eddie's symbiote formed around him as the War Machine suit opened to receive its wearer. "Let's suit up and welcome our guest."

Johnny cast fireball after fireball, attempting to ward off the countless symbiotes. Ever since he got to Manhattan he's been fighting them, and they kept on coming wave after wave. It got worse the further inland he went, but he was determined to find help. There had to be a hero out there that could help him. Johnny kept up his attacks, but he was running out of energy. His flames weren't burning as hot as they could be, so the symbiotes were able to move in closer. Soon he would be a goner.

Before Johnny had given up the gun, Gatling gun fire buzzed and cleared space between Johnny and the surrounding symbiotes. Johnny looked up and to his right to find what appeared to be a gray-scaled Iron Man with heavy artillery hovering mid-air. The gunfire in question came from over one shoulder in a fiery rage, while over the other shoulder missiles left streaking smoke trails as they spiraled through the air and into the screeching, writhing mass of symbiotes. "Iron Man?" Johnny panted.

"Close, kid," Rhodey chuckled over his external speakers. Up high and behind War Machine a white blur descended rapidly to the ground. About a hundred feet from the ground a string of webbing shot from its palm, catching the face of a building. As the white figure swung down at the crowd of symbiotes, its body exploded into many long, spiked tentacles that pierced through the bodies of unsuspecting villains, burning away the symbiotes from their hosts. The air ripped with the howls and screams of pain. The white figure released its line at the top of the swing, flipping through the air and landing in front of Johnny. Johnny, with what little strength he had left, ignited the white, grinning symbiote into a blazing inferno. The white symbiote merely shook off the embers without as much as a whimper.

"That won't work on me, Johnny," the symbiote smiled. "Besides, I'm not here to hurt you. War Machine and I are on your side. We're here to take you to a safe place. You got enough steam to run?"

"Who…who are you?" Johnny whispered.

"An old…friend, you might say," said the white symbiote, whose back slithered into multiple tentacles that sliced and stabbed at the enemy symbiotes behind it. "The name's Anti-Venom. Can you walk?"

"Can't…used up most of my energy keeping those monsters off my back," Johnny struggled one last time to stand, but fell to the ground, knees buckling. Anti-Venom bent down and helped him to his feet. The white symbiote wrapped itself around Johnny's waist, but he was too exhausted to jump. "Hey! What are you-?"

"Don't worry, just a precaution," Anti-Venom reassured him. "We're going for a little swing." Anti-Venom leaped straight up into the air, casting a web onto a nearby building. The symbiotes below swarmed to the place they had just stood, now crying up to their prey in anger. Anti-Venom and Johnny swung to War Machine, who continued dishing out lead agony to the symbiotes below. "You got our backs?" Anti-Venom yelled to him over the din of gunfire.

"Go on ahead, I got one last surprise for these guys," Rhodey replied. Anti-Venom complied, weaving and dodging between buildings. War Machine hovered backwards, guns blazing at the symbiotes, which were now climbing and jumping on the face of the surrounding buildings. When he was satisfied with his position in mid air: "Alright, slimers! Good luck feeding on these!" Arms stretched out to his sides, War Machine shot out two high-powered explosive grenades, demolishing the bases of two buildings. The buildings toppled in towards each other, the falling debris blocking the symbiotes' paths. In the smoke and fire, War Machine made his escape, catching up to Anti-Venom and Johnny.

The trio made it back to the underground base without any followers. Anti-Venom laid Johnny onto a stretcher at the hospital wing, and the nurses rolled him to a private room to tend to the various cuts and scrapes across his body. Johnny did not sleep peacefully that night as nightmares of his family flashed before his vision. Eddie and Rhodey retreated to the war room.

"Lieutenant Rhodes," called a soldier from the communications desk. "We've established communication with a surviving S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier – the Credence – just outside of Pennsylvanian airspace. They're requesting our coordinates and wish to join with us in the fight. What are your orders, sir?"

Eddie looked to Rhodey, his cowl retracted. "It could be a trap, sir. We don't know if they've been compromised by the enemy."

"I understand your hesitation, Brock, and I'm taking it into account." Rhodey turned to the communication officer. "Tell the Credence that for cautionary measures, they can park their helicarrier about hundred and fifty miles above the Manhattan skyline. Tell them that War Machine will meet with them first before we give them our base coordinates." Rhodes turned back the Eddie. "Hopefully your wrong, Brock. The resistance can use S.H.I.E.L.D.'s help."