It felt like an eyeblink to him, though it had probably been a week in real-time, plenty of time for Dr. Beeks and Al to argue about not growing up and lusting after Tinkerbell. Now, that was a confrontation he'd have liked to watch.
This time, there didn't appear to be any stampeding ostriches on the way; he had a vague memory, despite the way Leaping Swiss-cheesed his mind, of riding upside down on a fleeing ostrich surrounded by whooping cowboys, but this place was very different. In fact, it was hushed and peaceful here. He appeared to be in the control booth of some sort of laboratory, and he felt almost at home as he studied the dials and gauges in the panel before him. It had something to do with radiology, apparently. What was alarming was the bright red button labeled "DANGER," and the fact that most of the functions had already been programmed.
Excruciatingly careful not to touch anything, Sam slid out of the booth, then through swinging doors to a hallway. Until Al and Ziggy could track him down and figure out what he needed to do, he didn't want to take any chances. One of his recurring nightmares was that he would leap into a nuclear missile silo and accidentally set off World War III; this was close enough to make him break into a cold sweat.
No one else was in sight, and the hallway was very quiet. This was an unnatural silence, not even broken by the hum of machinery. Maybe the place was closed?
One thing hadn't been lost in the leap, and that was the memory of Al swathed in bandages. Lately, instead of Sam himself having to deal with murderers and rapists, Al had been taking the brunt of the danger. If this leap centered on science, instead of the occult, Al should be safe enough, and with Sam's own grasp of science, he might actually be able to use this technology to find a way home. What year was this? Was it close to his own time? Perhaps he could even contact his earlier self, as a fellow scientist, and work with himself--with the pre-Leap Sam Beckett--to fix the problems with the retrieval system. But of course that would mean that on the very first leap, Al would have successfully retrieved Sam without them having to save Tom Stratton's life, which would mean--
Sam winced and rubbed his temple. Where was Al? How long was it going to take Ziggy to lock onto his time coordinates this time?
(I guess I'll just have to start this one off by myself.)
Hesitantly, Sam tiptoed down the hall, peeking into doorways. The first one on the left revealed an open briefcase on a table piled with papers. Looking quickly over each shoulder, Sam slipped inside. The topmost paper was a graph measuring gamma ray radiation from sunspots over the past few months. Next to the peak days, someone had handwritten names: Mayer, Epstein, Bram. None of them meant anything to him. In the briefcase--
Sam jumped convulsively, dropping the briefcase lid on his fingers.
"Working late again, eh?"
"Uh, yeah. You must be, too." Wriggling his fingers, Sam smiled at the white-coated, black-haired man standing in the doorway. "I was just...packing up."
"Let me do that. You've had a long day. Go on home."
That would be a real trick, since he hadn't the faintest idea where it was. "Oh, that's okay."
The other man's jowly face was wreathed in smiles. "No, really. You look dead on your feet." Deftly, he whipped the computer print-out from the table-top and began gathering up other folders. "I'll see you tomorrow at the staff meeting."
"The staff meeting. Right."
Since he didn't seem to have any choice in the matter, Sam backed into the hallway again. For a moment, he'd mistaken "Dr. Banner" for "Dr. Beckett" and hoped he'd finally leaped home, but no such luck. He was still leaping through time as some sort of Cosmic Mistake Eraser.
He kept walking away from the Radiology Lab, only pausing when he came to a rain-streaked window. Between flashes of lightning, he caught glimpses of his reflection: a brown-haired man in his thirties, rather good-looking, wearing a brown-striped beige shirt with both sleeves rolled up.
Al's face leered over his shoulder into the window reflection. "Hi, Sam."
"Al! Don't do that to me!"
"Do what?" Al canted his head to one side, squinting, gesturing behind him. "Didn't you hear the door open?"
"Not with all that thunder out there." Sam studied him quickly. This time Al was wearing a purple suede fringed shirt with matching purple slacks, and he looked tanned and rested. "How are--"
"Before you ask, the wounds are all healed--physical and emotional. But I owe ya big time for getting me another session with Beeks. She wants to talk about maturity, and the only maturity I'm interested in involves stocks. Or maybe good wine." Grimacing, Al consulted the hand-link. "Listen, Sam, we've got a problem. Ziggy says that you're Dr. David Bruce Banner, and there's an 83% chance you're here to save Dr. Banner and a Dr. Elaina Marks from being killed in a lab explosion."
Sam's cheeks puffed. "Ohh, boy. . . ."
"Tell me about it. I was hoping maybe this time the Big Guy would decide to give you a break."
"Al, listen, maybe I've already done it! When I leaped, I was in a lab, apparently about to do something, but I left without doing it. If that was what caused the explosion the first time--"
Al was shaking his head. "Can't be. Ziggy says the explosion wasn't here, it was in the southwest lab of the Culver Institute--which is this place--and it happened two days from now."
"Oh. Oh, well. What does Dr. Banner do for a living?"
Al squinted in disbelief at the print-out on his hand-link to the computer. "You're an experiment. No, that can't be right." Exasperated, he whacked the side of the computer link with one palm, and it wheezed mournfully. "Experimental researcher in the field of super-strength. You and Dr. Marks keep testing people who did impossible things under stress, like hold up the wall of a collapsing house long enough for the kids to get out. Oh, that's too bad."
"He got into this field because his wife Laura died in a car wreck, when he couldn't roll the car over or get the door open."
"And now he's trying to find an excuse, a reason why he couldn't do it, but other people could." Sam spared a moment's pity for David Banner. "Wait--how could that set off this explosion?"
Al shrugged. "Nobody knows. This rag, the National Register, had a reporter on the scene, and he said the place blew up because Banner and Marks created a big green monster he called the Hulk, and it went out of control."
"So I have to find Elaina Marks and get her to agree not to make this hulk thing?"
Al glanced at his Rolex. "Well, yeah, but not tonight. She's probably busy, and it's getting late. Why don't you just go home, get a good night's sleep, and in the morning you can check out Banner's work?"
"Let me guess. You've got a hot date with Tina tonight."
"Sam! How can you suggest that I'd shirk my duty for a personal liaison?" Al tugged on the purple fringe dangling from his chest. "The truth of the matter is, I told Verbena that if she was going to put me through more counseling sessions, it had to be somewhere pleasant, so we're going to talk over margaritas at this nice little restaurant I know."
"Well, now, I certainly don't want to stand in the way of therapy."
Al shot him a suspicious glance, but didn't challenge the statement. "Fine. So I'll see you bright and early tomorrow morning."
"If your...therapy...runs late, don't worry about me. I'll get started without you."
Al studied his carefully bland expression, then grimaced again and punched a blue button. Behind him, light flared out as the electronic door to the Imaging Chamber slid up. "Good night, Sam."
Sam said softly, "I hope it is, Al," and smiled. The smile congealed. "Wait! I don't know where I live--!"
Too late. The blue-white light winked out.
Oh, well. Maybe there'd be some current I.D. in Dr. Banner's wallet....
Letting the smile fade from his face, Dr. Benjamin Siebert resentfully slammed Dr. David-Golden-Boy-Banner's folders into his briefcase. He'd been with Culver a year longer than Banner, and he'd proven his worth a hundred different ways, and look where it got him. Taken for granted. Taken advantage of. Good old Ben. Ask good old Ben to run that boring simulation on the computer, so you don't have to do it. Get good old Ben to print and collate that massive report, while you indulge in the nitty gritty lab work that gets the headlines.
(I'm the one who souped up every God-damned machine at Culver. He couldn't tell a motherboard from a floppy disk, even if he had a handbook right in front of him. But I never get the credit for it, do I?) His fingers squeezed the print-out until his knuckles turned white. (Hell, no. That blonde broad gets more respect than I do!)
The print-out had crumpled in his grasp. Great. Now he'd get his ass chewed for that, even though he was the one to dig the sunspot stats out of the computer for Banner in the first place. Ben spread it out on the table and tried futilely to smooth out the wrinkles and tears. Maybe he could have the computer spit out a fresh copy, and print in the names by hand. Printing was easier to forge than cursive writing, and Banner would have no reason to look closely...the way Ben was now.
(Gamma radiation. That must be the key. Look at how he's written names all over it. All those tests--EKGs, blood pressure, bloodwork, DNA studies--and all the time it was caused by sunspots. Like some stupid tabloid headline: SCIENTISTS FIND SECRET OF LIFE IN STALE CHICKEN BLOOD.)
The spikes of the graph blurred as a new idea struck him. There was a way that he could profit from this, without anyone being the wiser, and it wouldn't really break any ethical rules. Bend them severely, yes, but not actually, technically, break them.
That self-styled "investigative reporter" who had been nosing around the institute all week had become a big joke in the lunch-room, once Jerry brought in a copy of the National Register, with its pictures of bathing beauties and articles geared toward sex and scandal. But no matter how cheap the tabloid was, the money he was offering was real, and would be much appreciated. He'd write some idiotic slush about sunspots causing super-strength, and attribute it to Dr. David Banner. Ben would pocket some unexpected but long-deserved extra cash, and enjoy the lunch-room ridicule of Banner to boot. It was priceless!
After a brief phone conversation with the somewhat sleepy reporter in his local motel room, Ben had just enough time to copy the gamma radiation print-out, once for Banner and once for the tabloid. It was also enough time to start getting worried. What he was doing wasn't harmful--this wasn't a cure for cancer, after all, it was a non-steroid way to turn out Arnold Schwarzenegger clones--and it was nothing more than a prank. Anyone with any sense of humor could see that, right?
(Maybe I should go through the rest of Banner's papers, check this out more carefully--)
"Dr. Siebert? I'm Jack McGee. I, er, told the security guard I was here to see Dr. Banner, and he didn't question it."
"I called down and told Ryan you were expected. Banner's here late, most nights." Ben smiled amiably, but didn't offer his hand. Instead, he rose, gathering up the papers.
McGee still lounged in the doorway with a somewhat uneasy air, studying him. He didn't have the seedy, somewhat desperate air Ben had expected in a man sunk so low as the tabloid beat. With his hands thrust into trenchcoat pockets, he had the right uniform--the way Ben, in his pristine lab coat, fit the role of scientist--but otherwise he could've been a lawyer or a businessman: neat brown hair that was just a shade long in the back; a thin triangular face with a long thin nose and a downturned mouth with a slight overbite; a quiet grey tweed suit.
Something in that sharp, blue-eyed scrutiny made him feel like an amoeba under an electron microscope.
His cheeks were warm, as if he were starting to flush. Ben quickly thrust the print-out at the reporter, who arched quizzical eyebrows as he accepted it.
"This is basically all you need. The peaks are the days when gamma radiation was emitted by sunspots in high concentrations. The names next to them are people who were covered by the media because they exhibited incredible strength in stressful situations--you could look them up in past issues or something."
"Teach your grandma to suck eggs."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I'll take care of it," the reporter said dryly. He sounded almost condescending. "Is this all the proof? Aren't you going to run any experiments?"
"Well...we do have a radiology lab."
"Where you could expose subjects to gamma radiation, then test their strength?" He sounded as if he were already writing the article in his mind as he rolled up the print-out and thrust it under the trenchcoat.
Ben shrugged. "Dr. Banner's probably planning something like that. He was in Radiology quite a bit tonight."
"Perfect. I brought a camera; I can snap a few background shots for the article."
"I don't know about that...."
"What can it hurt? Look, I promise not to touch anything. Science wasn't my strong point in college anyway."
(Journalism must not've been either, or you wouldn't be working for that rag,) Ben reflected sourly. (Oh, hell, what could it hurt? Nobody's here by now except the janitors and security guards.)
What he really wanted to do was ask for his money, but he didn't want to be the one to bring it up first. It would be unbearable to have this low-class scribbler smile scornfully as he drew out the money, as if Ben was doing something wrong in expecting recompense for all his hard work here.
As they reached Radiology, something caught the corner of his eye, and Ben looked up to see an elongated shadow at the end of the hall. Hissing, "Someone's coming!" he shoved the reporter into the lab and fumbled for his keys.
"Oh, hello, Dr. Siebert. Working late tonight?"
He glanced up, affecting a surprised expression. "Charlie! I didn't hear you coming. I was just locking up here--Dr. Banner left it open when he finally went home."
The security guard grinned. "Well, don't let me stop you. You don't know how often I find things left unlocked, and the paperwork that causes gives me writer's cramp. Have a nice night."
Despite his impatience, he waited, watching the guard stroll down the hallway, testing doorways as he passed them. When Charlie finally vanished around the corner, Ben slipped into the control booth.
Through the glass, he could see McGee, unconcerned, snapping pictures of the lab from different angles. "Have you got enough yet?"
Swiveling on one heel, the reporter shrugged. "Frankly, it's not very dramatic. Shots of a dark, empty lab won't sell newspapers."
"I'm sure you can punch it up."
"With what? One lousy graph? This is nothing. No one's even run any experiments with lab rats, let alone people!"
"You have the word of an experienced scientist--"
"You told me that anything you said was not for attribution. Quotes from an anonymous scientist aren't very convincing."
This was infuriating. Ben snapped, "You said you wanted a story. Now, I've given you a copy of Banner's break-through research, let you examine the lab--what more do you want? I'm telling you, he's found a way to soup up human beings the same way I soup up machines, quadrupling the power. If that's not a great story, what is?" For emphasis, to release some of his intense irritation, he slapped both hands down on the console. "I suppose you want me to open up all his files and let you browse?"
"That'll do, for starters," McGee drawled.
Ben scarcely heard him. He was too busy staring at the blinking lights on the control panel. It wasn't possible--it couldn't be--
"Dr. Siebert?" McGee walked to the glass wall and cupped his hands around his eyes, trying to peer into the booth. "Dr. Siebert, what's wrong?"
He swallowed hard, but the lump was still in his throat, like a rock, cutting into his esophagus. He couldn't tear his eyes from the lights flickering madly across the board, or the numbers rapidly spinning upward. 50,000. . .75,000. . . .
As the equipment in the lab began to come to life, McGee pounded on the glass with one fist. "Hey!"
100,000. . .125,000. . . .
Thoroughly alarmed, the reporter spun around and ran for the door. It wouldn't open, of course; it was still locked. He thumped uselessly on the door, rammed it with his shoulder, kicked it.
"What's going on here? Turn this off, dammit!"
"I can't. I didn't start this! It's--it's a pre-set sequence--there's nothing I can do until it's run its course."
The chair in the center of the room slowly elevated and tilted, adjusting so its nonexistent occupant would receive a full dosage of gamma radiation into the brain. McGee ineffectually sought shelter behind some of the computer banks, throwing one arm over his face as a beam of neon white light hit the empty chair.
Ben's eyes drifted back to the read-out. Although it had obviously been set for 300,000, he knew it would now be filling the lab with over 2,000,000 units of gamma radiation, because he had improved the power boost just this afternoon, but he hadn't had time to mark the new levels.
It was too bad, really.
The reporter threw back his head, screaming, and Ben's gaze went back to him. He blinked. It seemed as if McGee's face melted away, became a black-and-white x-ray of his skull. Was that possible? Surely not.
Indecisive, he reached for his keys, then fluttered his fingers over the controls. "I--there's nothing I can do! Nothing!"
McGee hurled his body at the door, once, twice. Nothing happened.
"It won't hurt you! It's perfectly safe!"
From the door, McGee turned his head to glare insanely at him, and Ben faltered. Those sharp blue eyes had transformed, becoming opaque white orbs, like Little Orphan Annie's eyes without the pupils.
Weakly, he offered, "At least this will give you the proof you wanted."
That was clearly the wrong thing to say. Enraged, the reporter whirled around, baring his teeth simian-fashion and roaring in a weirdly bass rumble much too deep to be coming from his average build. As he flung both arms up, his trenchcoat ripped in half and fell away from his shoulders. His face became suffused with color; not choleric red, but a bright peacock green that matched the color suddenly darkening the once-white eyes.
Distantly, Ben heard his own voice, hoarse and strained and utterly unfamiliar. "Fascinating."
Now McGee bent, grasping the radioisotope generator in both hands. As he strained upward, grunting, his entire body seemed to swell, like a balloon inflating. With abrupt gunshot noises, buttons exploded across the lab, and his grey suit shredded into limp rags dangling from massive green muscles. Screaming, he wrenched the machinery out of the floor and straightened, gaining nearly a foot in height. Although the generator had to weigh at least 500 pounds, he held it aloft and hurled it, like a child's toy, directly at the control booth.
Somehow Ben managed to shake himself from his trance and scramble into the hallway before he could be smashed, though he felt shards of broken glass sting the back of his neck. Frantically, he picked himself up from the floor and began to run, hearing the monster lunge through the glass wall after him. Both swinging metal doors bounced off the far wall, torn down and tossed aside by the brute.
"Help! For God's sake, HELP ME!"
His feet slid on the well-polished tiles. The hulking creature bounded after him, covering the length of the hall in a single prodigious leap. Ben collapsed on the floor and cowered, covering his head with both arms.
"It was an accident!" he shrieked. "I'M SORRY!"
A familiar voice barked, "Stay down, Dr. Siebert!"
Blubbering with relief, he wriggled toward the security guards on his belly. Charlie and Martinez were both there, guns drawn, gaping.
Behind him, the virescent beast crouched as if about to leap again, bellowing defiance and raising clenched fists that were as big as hams. Cursing, both men fired.
One bullet hit the monster in its upper left arm, near the shoulder, and it flinched, then touched the wound. Its sausage-sized fingers came away dabbled with green-tinged blood. That provoked another shout of wordless rage. Ben scrabbled for shelter, clutching at Charlie's legs, but the brute no longer seemed interested in attacking him. Instead, it turned and loped away, crashing through the glass wall overlooking the parking lot. Wind swirled a mix of shattered glass and raindrops down the hallway.
"Jesus! Did you see that? Jumped from the second floor, and it ain't even limping!"
With one arm raised to keep the wind-driven rain from his eyes, Martinez tried to shoot at the fleeing creature again, but his hand was shaking too badly. "Christ! What kinda hulk was that?"
Looking from Ben to the window and back again, Charlie just swallowed. "Incredible. . . ."
Step into the Accelerator and return to Jane's Fan Fiction.
Ziggy, help me contact the author; show me her guestbook and links, too.