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QUANTUM HULK, Part Two

Jane Leavell

It had no name, no past, but it didn't care. It had rage to propel it into the night, and that was enough. Just picturing the face of the sniveling man in the white coat made hate and self-righteous anger throb through every vein, even though it had no idea why. The anger was enough; it needed no reasons.

What it remembered clearly was pain. First broken glass slashing open even its super-tough skin; then the harsh bark of guns, and sudden burning pain in its arm; then more glass attacking it.

Now cold rain pelted its body, and it punched uselessly at the air, unable to fell this minute foe.

(Not fair! Not right!)

A booming sound overhead made it spin around, looking for the guns, but there was no one there. Even the buildings had vanished behind the curtain of rain. It shook its head wildly, trying to clear the water from its eyes, then ducked as a golden bolt of lightning crackled through the black sky. It howled threats into the night, and the lightning vanished.

Its arm ached ceaselessly. It ran into the trees, but the pain couldn't be out-run.

Frustrated, more angry than ever, it smashed through the trees, pounding them aside. When they wouldn't yield, they hurt it, and that only worsened its mood. Snarling, it wrenched a slender elm up by its roots, then used it to batter the other trees, swinging until it had cleared a jagged path through the woods and the elm was reduced to splinters.

Each blow jarred its aching arm, increasing its wrath. When the elm tree was gone, it shook back damp hair and glared. The storm had finally passed, and the sun was rising, so the sweat and rain began to evaporate from it as it trotted onward. It didn't know where it was going, but movement helped to channel its anger, and that was good.

Maybe the arm didn't feel so bad after all.

Birds were chirping sleepily. Through the trees, it saw a lake, sparkling silver and blue in the morning light. There was nothing here to irritate it. It slowed, then stopped, its head cocked, gazing at the water. The ripples on the surface were strangely soothing. Taking a deep breath, it began to sag, tense muscles finally relaxing.

A horrible ear-splitting sound, like a dinosaur's bleat, made it whirl around, bringing its fists up defensively. To its right was a truck on the dirt road with a man behind the wheel, gaping, his eyes very round.

Scowling, it roared at the man and his stupid truck. Still staring, the man hit the wheel again, weakly, and the awful sound was repeated. This made its skin prickle with irritation. It kicked out with the flat of one foot, and the fender crumpled into a deep V-shape.

A smart man would've backed off, but either this man was not smart, or in his panic his foot slipped, for the truck rammed into the Hulk's knees.

Now the rage returned full-blown. Bending, it grabbed the truck by the front end, and heaved. The truck reared up on its hind wheels. Crying out, the man and a little blonde girl leaped from opposite doors. Ignoring them, it tossed the truck back, and it flipped end over end, scattering fishing tackle, food, and papers across the road.

The girl's shrill screams hurt its ears. Grumbling, it stalked back into the woods, away from the lake.

Once the noise had faded behind it, walking under the trees wasn't bad. The rustle of the leaves overhead was restful, and the lacy pattern of shadows cast on the ground was hypnotic. Its anger began to ease. Why was it here?

(Why?)

It was so very tired....

Jack McGee found himself kneeling, swaying a little bit as he stared at his own reflection in a narrow, muddy stream. For a moment, his vision was blurred, and he seemed to be gazing into milk-white eyes; then he blinked, and saw his own faintly cynical blue orbs looking back at him.

(Where the hell am I? What happened?)

Something fairly catastrophic, at a guess. His shoes, trenchcoat, and suit coat were gone, and his shirt was nothing more than shredded bits of cloth clinging to his upper body. He shivered, only partly from the cool morning air.

No matter how he wracked his brains, nothing came to mind. The last thing he remembered clearly was the rather self-centered Dr. Siebert pushing him into the radiation lab and locking the door.

Every muscle in his body twinged and bitched, like his editor when the copy was late and deadline was fast approaching. He was so thirsty that even the algae-filled water looked delicious. Worst of all was the continual throb in his left upper arm, stabbing him with every heartbeat. When he touched it, his hand came away flecked with blood. He twisted around, trying to get a good look.

Incredulously, he realized, (I've been shot.)

None of it made any sense.

Washing the wound in this slimy, semi-solid water would probably do more harm than good. Jack struggled to his feet, every joint creaking, and started trudging toward the Culver Institute, which glimmered in the distance like a silver Emerald City, all glass and metal.

When he'd awakened by the stream, his bare feet were muddy but unmarked, yet by the time he found his car still discreetly parked in the furthermost part of the institute's immense parking lots, they were bruised and scratched. It only justified his preference for pounding the mean streets of the big cities instead of romping with dear Mother Nature. Green acres were not the place for Jack McGee.

Pulling the first aid kit and a duffel bag from the trunk, he slid into the front seat, reflecting sourly that his father might've been right to force him into the Boy Scouts. At least he had absorbed their main tenet: be prepared. Poking his nose into scandals, crimes, and assorted sins had gotten him beaten and shot at before, so this little baby was always packed with items the usual first aid kits didn't need. If he can't wear shining armor, a good investigative reporter should always carry plenty of bandages.

Before opening it, he dug into the duffel bag for his silver whiskey flask. He'd started carrying it around two months ago, to remind him how he came to lose his column and his self-respect. Jack grinned ruefully and tucked it under his left elbow, unscrewing the cap. "Purely for medicinal purposes," he croaked, and took a hearty swig.

It might not be a proper cure for dehydration, but the warmth coursing down his throat into his belly was more than welcome. His tongue still felt like a bundle of old newspapers: dry, brittle, and curling at the edges.

Adjusting the rear-view mirror, he examined the puckered bullet hole in his left arm, then--wincing in anticipation--he rinsed it liberally with whiskey. Even though he'd braced himself for it, Jack rocketed into the steering wheel, adding more bruises to his collection. Muttering curses, he finished off the whiskey. After all, a man with a bullet hole through his arm deserves a painkiller.

A few cars were trickling into the front parking lots as eager beavers came to work early, but no one seemed curious about his battered blue Ford. Keeping an eye out for nosy security guards, he set his micro-cassette recorder on the dashboard and spoke to it as he bandaged his arm.

"None of this makes any sense. One minute I'm in the lab, the next I'm in the woods at dawn, badly dehydrated, gun-shot, and--ow!--and amnesiac. What happened? Granted, I've made a few enemies, but nost of them are happy I've ended up writing UFO drek for the supermarket masses. I haven't had a lead on a decent story in months. In fact, the only story I'm working on is this Culver Institute thing." He sucked in his breath, then continued through gritted teeth. "This bullet hole is weird, not like before. There's very little blood...I can already feel scar tissue...it seems to be half-healed already, yet I only got it last night."

Finished doctoring, he leaned back in the seat for a few minutes, gathering strength. Across his closed eyelids, bits of a movie played in jerky, poorly-connected, silent sequences.

"I remember some sort of...great, hulking thing. It was green. I remember being terrified of it. There was a sense of uncontrollable rage about it. I remember white eyes. Why can't I remember what happened?"

Something shrilled at him from near his kneecaps, making him lurch against the steering wheel again. Wearily, he fumbled for the car phone.

"Jack?" a voice demanded tinnily. "Jack, where are you?"

"Culver Institute."

"My God, you weren't kidding about having a nose for news, were you?" For a moment he basked in the praise; it's always a pleasure to awe one's editor, however rarely it happens or undeserved it may be. "Be sure to get some good quotes."

"About what?"

"The Jolly Green Giant trashing the place, of course. You should hear all the cracks on the police band about `peas officers' and `kicking some asparagus,' ever since the security guards there called for help. Isn't that why you're there?"

"Sure, Mark. Right. I just wondered what the word on the street was." Jack hesitated. "I...saw it myself."

"Saw what?"

"The creature. Your `Jolly Green Giant.' It was real, Mark."

"Real or not, it'll sell like hotcakes. I'll get you a photographer, Jack; you get me a story."

"Yeah, right. It's a deal."

He hung up, eyeing his tape recorder sardonically. "Some people, when they get shot, turn to a beautiful woman to bandage them up and hold their hand. It's a sad state of affairs when a man trusts his tape recorder more than his friends," he told it. The tape went on silently turning, absorbing this. "So there was a creature. Suppose our Dr. Siebert created it, and set it on me. That might explain how my clothes got torn up. But then how do you account for the bullet hole?" The tape recorder offered no explanation. Jack sighed and switched it off. "I guess I'll have to ask the good doctor."

There's one advantage to living more-or-less out of the trunk of your car; there's always a change of clothing handy when you need it....

^*^*^*^*^

The thunderstorms had given way to a dewy-fresh morning, washing away the clouds so a butterscotch morning sun could sweeten everything. Granted, it had taken Sam a long time to find David Banner's home, but once there, he'd had a restful night's sleep. Now, driving back to the Culver Institute while listening to a Mozart tape, not even the problem of averting an inexplicable explosion tomorrow could dampen his mood. Dr. Sam Beckett was a man at peace with his world.

In a burst of white light and the grinding noise of an electronic door reluctantly sliding up, Al Calavicci materialized on the hood, standing and waving. "Hi, Sam."

Banner's brown BMW veered into the left lane and back again. "Al!"

He shrugged, flickered out of existence, and reappeared in the front passenger's seat with every hair in place. "Gooshie's aim is off. So sue me."

Today, Al seemed to be trying to outshine the sun, since he was wearing a palomino yellow peasant top over sharply creased trousers studded with holographic buttons; a close look, and the buttons flashed either a lightning bolt or a butterfly. It was enough to blind a driver even when Al wasn't perched on the car's hood.

"Where did you get that outfit?"

"A ritzy place in Santa Fe. I could get you one, if you're interested."

"No, no, don't bother."

"Suit yourself." Al scrutinized the readings on his red-and-blue lit hand-link. "Sam, I've got good news, and I've got bad news. First of all, you've changed the time-line."

"That's good."

"Not exactly. Last time, Culver Institute wasn't damaged. But last night, a big green monster attacked one of the scientist and jumped out of a second-story window."

"Well, that's good news, isn't it? Doesn't that mean that Dr. Marks and Dr. Banner won't be killed at the southwest lab now?"

"According to Ziggy, it's still gonna happen. I guess you haven't changed things enough yet."

"Maybe I should find Dr. Marks and convince her not to be anywhere near the southwest labs tomorrow."

Al yawned. "Maybe that'll work. Or if she's good-looking, you can take her on a date somewhere for the day, to be sure."

Sam glanced sideways and smiled. "You look sleepy, Al. Were you out late last night?"

"We got to talking and sorta lost track of time."

"I see. When's your next session?"

Al squirmed in his seat. "Oh, soon."

"Where will your next session be?"

"Verb--Dr. Beeks will pick a place. She mentioned this art gallery she knows of that has comfortable chairs and good coffee. Anyway, Sam, we gotta figure out what happened last night."

"I thought that's what we were doing."

Al rolled his eyes. "Sa-am!"

"Okay, okay. Al, when I leaped, Dr. Banner was sitting in front of a radiation control panel, and seemed to be setting up a program of some sort. I left without touching anything. You don't think that could have anything to do with this creature, do you?"

"Well, Banner's working on this super-strength angle, and everybody agrees this Hulk is super-strong, so it looks like a possibility to me. Who else was around, besides you?"

Sam switched off the Mozart tape. "The place was pretty quiet, and most of the lights were dimmed. The only people I saw were some other scientist, a cleaning lady, and a security guard at the front door. I didn't get any names, but the scientist obviously knew Banner; he was mid-thirties, a little chunky, black hair."

"I'll ask Ziggy if personnel records can match up with that, but it isn't much, Sam. Meet ya at Culver."

The rectangular `doorway' to the Imaging Chamber opened, and Al entered by simply edging backward, passing through the seat like a ghost.

So. Verbena Beeks would be giving Tina a run for her money when it came to catching Al. This should prove very interesting, especially since Al didn't seem to realize what was going on. Not yet. Sam grinned, shaking his head. Until now, Al had been studiously pursuing only bimbos, women he knew he would lose sooner or later, but women whose loss wouldn't bother him. That casual attitude would change, he suspected, if Al ever lowered his defenses enough to let an intelligent, worthwhile woman touch his heart...and Verbena Beeks was lovely and loving enough to do it, given half a chance. He only wished he could be back at the Project to watch it happen.

The parking lots at Culver Institute were already two-thirds full when he got there, but most of the drivers seemed to be standing around the front of the building, pretending to talk to each other while avidly eyeing the police squad car sitting in the crosswalk, its blue light still revolving. Some were very casually strolling to the side of the main building, to gape at the broken glass wall. Sam decided to join the front-step crowd.

"David! Can you believe this?"

He smiled politely at a blonde-haired, attractive young woman with a kind face, who seemed to know him. "Believe what?"

"Jerry says some sort of giant green monster tore up Radiology, tried to kill Ben, then jumped out of the window and ran away."

"You're kidding."

She shrugged helplessly. "Oh, I know it sounds incredible, but the security guards swear it's true. If it was just Martinez, I might think he dreamed the whole thing, but not Charlie--old Mr. Reliable himself." She hesitated. "David--I have to ask, because people are already asking me. Does this have anything to do with our research? I mean, I don't see how it could--all we've learned so far is that our subjects had abnormally high adenine and thyosine readings--but--"

Bingo! He'd found Dr. Marks already.

"Elaina, we have to talk--"

"Elaina? That's Elaina?" Al stepped through the doorway opening halfway up the steps, and leered cheerfully over her shoulder, standing one step higher to do it. "Sure wish some of my profs at MIT had been this foxy. Boy, do you have all the luck."

"Excuse me. Dr. Banner? I'm Jack McGee, of the National Register. Do you have a moment?"

Somewhat flustered by all these unexpected arrivals, Sam frowned as he turned around to confront the latest. McGee apparently felt compelled to live down to the image of his disreputable tabloid: from sunglasses, to a blue suit-coat that didn't go with his black slacks, to slacks that had apparently been donned from the washer without meeting an iron, to a pair of Nikes instead of dress shoes, he was a walking Seedy Reporter. Even his complexion was pasty, as if he'd been up all night drinking. Sam said distantly, "I'm sorry. Dr. Marks and I are busy. Maybe you should call and set up an appointment."

"The dragon lady you call a receptionist doesn't seem to approve of me."

Al cleared his throat. "Sam, I know this guy works for a sleazy newspaper, but Ziggy says--"

"Dr. Banner, tell me. Does this big green creature have anything to do with your research into increasing human strength?"

Dr. Marks took Sam's arm. "I'm sure the institute will put out a press release later, but right now we have work to do."

"The guy's actually not a bad investigative reporter. He had a column that was just getting picked up for national syndication when he got drunk and missed a deadline. Ziggy says his publisher hated his guts, and somehow the column that did go out was a private joke McGee had written, smearing a politician. The guy deserved it--he got booted outta office on criminal charges a year later--but meanwhile, he brought lawsuits against the paper and McGee, and they didn't have any proof for the stuff McGee had written, so he lost his job, even though he'd never meant for the piece to be printed. Bad break."

"Tell me, is Dr. Siebert working with you on developing super-strength?"

Sam and Elaina exchanged glances. She said carefully, "Ben's not into experimental research. He's a hardware expert who specializes in upgrading equipment."

Sam added, "This isn't really a story for something like the National Register. Maybe you should do a little research before you try interviewing us."

"Uh-oh," Al murmured.

McGee canted his head to one side. Behind the dark sunglasses, his eyes were unreadable, but his voice was coldly amused. "As a matter of fact, Dr. Banner, I have done my research, which is why I'm surprised to find a man with your qualifications working here."

"The Culver Institute is a reputable organization...unlike the Register."

"The Culver Institute is primarily financed by, and completely controlled by, Brigid Astor, the CEO of Astornautics."

Al dropped the computer hand-link, which promptly vanished. "You're kidding!"

Distracted, Sam asked him, "Do you know her?"

McGee replied, "No, but I know quite a bit about her. Enough to know that she uses Culver for her own purposes, whether it's laundering money, buying politicians, or searching for effective methods of mind control. She's greedy, ambitious, and completely ruthless...yet you're working for her."

"No, I'm not." Sam's eyes sought out Al's. "Am I?"

Bent over to retrieve the hand-link, Al glanced up soberly. "If Astornautics is behind this place, you're in trouble, Sam. She's one bad egg, believe me." Straightening up, he began punching data into the hand-link while calling over his shoulder, "Gooshie, tell Ziggy to look for links between Brigid Astor and Culver. Oops. Never mind."

With a sinking feeling in his chest, Sam turned, following Al's startled gaze. Sure enough, still more people were joining the crowd on the front steps. Two burly but elegantly dressed men moved in the front, like pilot fish before a shark, and schools of rubberneckers simultaneously swam through the glass doors and into the nearest elevators as they approached, hastily deciding to get out of the way.

"Let me guess. Brigid Astor?"

"Frigid Brigid, in the flesh," Al affirmed. "Gorgeous, isn't she?"

That wasn't the way Sam would've described her. Like Elaina Marks, she was a blonde, but where Elaina was all warmth and high school glee club, she was frost and class valedictorian. Her champagne blonde hair was pulled back and tightly braided, giving her classical features a severe framework, and the pale make-up did nothing to soften the effect. There might have been a lush figure hidden beneath that tailored white suit, but she walked as if an ice pick had been driven up her spine. When she stopped less than a foot away from the reporter, and eyes as blue as a chilly Alaskan lake washed over him, he involuntarily took a step back. Sam didn't blame him. Though she only came up to the man's neck, she carried herself as though she were seven feet tall and one of the old Norse Frost Giants.

"Mr. McGee." Ms. Astor had a surprisingly gentle voice, quite melodic, at odds with her stern demeanor. "Have you heard from Senator McTigue lately?"

McGee's mouth twisted. "Ms. Astor. Still getting your thrills from watching tapes on animal experimentation, or have you moved on to bigger game?"

Now they all heard the roar of cracking ice in her sweet voice. "Carlos. George. Mr. McGee was just leaving. See that he doesn't lose his way."

He raised both hands. "Okay, okay, I'm going. Ow!" Even though the men weren't at all rough, he winced as one of the bodyguards latched onto his left arm. "I don't think your goons want a lawsuit on their hands. Dr. Banner's a witness that I'm leaving on my own."

She arched one pale eyebrow. The bodyguards stepped back, flanking him, elaborately polite as they walked him away. Satisfied, she turned back to Sam and Elaina, with a smile that exposed snow-white teeth. "You must be. . .Dr. Marks? Yes. Would you please find Dr. Siebert for me? I'll be waiting for him in the Director's office."

No matter how it was worded, it was an order, not a request. Elaina met Sam's eyes, made a plaintive moue, and let herself be swept into the building, since there seemed to be no alternative. Al watched them go, an admiring sparkle in his eyes. When Brigid Astor's ice-cream suit vanished behind the tinted glass walls, he licked his lips, shook his head, and turned back to Sam.

"You know, this is getting really complicated."

"Tell me about it," Sam said glumly.

Taking it as an invitation instead of a complaint, he bounced on his heels, like a little boy bursting to tell a big secret. "Would you believe I melted the Ice Queen, single-handedly? Well, actually, I used both hands, one to stroke her--"

"Al!"

"No, really." He crossed his heart. "Honest Injun. Like McGee said, she buys politicians the way my second wife bought designer dresses, so when she got to one on the Senate sub-committee, I hadda give her the PR tour. You know, the one where I show them every out-of-the-way office, twice, but none of the real Project, and I spout five-dollar technical terms, and they leave knowing even less about the project than they knew when they came in?"

"I don't remember that, but it sounds like you." Sam began walking up the concrete steps. "What happened?"

"Well, she started coming on to me. After the tour, she even invited me to dinner at that fancy French restaurant where you and Donna--where we liked to eat." They entered the building, Sam by opening the door and Al by walking through the glass, and started down the hallway. "She'd done all kinds of research on my past--even dropped hints she could find my first wife for me, if I was interested. When I didn't jump for that carrot, she started grabbing me under the table."

"Oh, come on, now!" Sam exploded.

A passing secretary stopped short, clutching her steno pad to her chest, staring wide-eyed at him. Blushing, Sam ducked his head. "Sorry about that. I'm, um, on my way to a funding review and I'm rehearsing what to say. You know how that is."

She smiled uncertainly, but stood there, watching him, until the elevator swallowed him up. At least the elevator was empty.

"It's the truth, Sam."

"You're not that handsome."

"Oh, she doesn't have the hots for my body, she's lusting after my brains," Al said smugly.

"Your what?" Sam blinked. "Are you getting shorter?"

"Huh?" Al glanced down, to find that he was now `standing' on his upper thighs, and sinking fast. Irritated, he slapped the hand-link and poked two buttons. Hooting and flashing a variety of colors, it readjusted his holographic image so that he seemed to be standing beside Sam instead of up to his neck in the floor. By then, they'd reached the second floor, where people were waiting to go down, so Sam stepped out, trying to remember how to reach Banner's office. Al hastened to catch up, ignoring the way the oncoming crowd walked right through him. "Don't you get it? She's after Project Quantum Leap, and she thinks I'll give it to her."

Keeping his voice low, Sam muttered, "You're kidding."

"Nope. So I acted like I was a lot drunker than I was, and let her have her way with me." He smiled reminiscently. "It was a sacrifice, sure, but you know how dedicated I am, I'll do anything for the project."

"Yeah, right. It was a dirty job. . . ."

". . .but someone had to do it. Anyway, afterward, I let slip that the project is all about time-travel."

Sam stumbled, dropping Banner's briefcase, which vomited papers all over the hall. "You WHAT?"

"I think this one's your office, Sam."

Al melted through the door. Somewhat dazed, Sam scooped up everything, found his keys, and tried to figure out which one was his office key. Two wrong guesses later, he got inside. Al was tapping one foot impatiently, checking his gold Rolex.

Dumping everything on the desk, Sam yelled, "Al, I thought the project was top-secret. You're an admiral, for gosh sake, you can be court-martialed!"

"Oh, I don't think so. Not this time. See, I told her we're jumping into the future to get high-tech Star Wars type weapons--George Lucas Star Wars, not Ronald Reagan Star Wars--for the Pentagon, and that's as far from the truth as I could get. She's got her claws into guys on the sub-committee, so whatever story I come up with has to sound close to what we're really doing."

"But what's the point? Why tell her anything at all?"

Al stared at him as if he were being particularly slow. "So if she's the scum I know she is, I can nab her on espionage charges when she tries to get weapons outta me. Treason charges, if I can swing it." He grinned devilishly. "Right now, thanks to Security, my apartment has more bugs and cameras in it than Rob Lowe's bedroom."

"Right now?"

"Sure. She was really impatient, and I couldn't stall her any longer, so we're meeting at my place for lunch."

"In the middle of a leap?"

"It's just a hot date. What could happen?"

"AIDS, for starters!"

Al rolled his eyes. "With all the videocameras around, believe me, I won't feel like auditioning for Deep Throat VI. Sam, did you know they can put a whole video-camera inside a ballpoint pen? Or a tie clasp? It's mind-boggling what they can do."

"But--"

The door to the office opened, and Elaina stepped in. "Ben almost wet his pants when he had to go in that office! Can you believe we're financed by that woman?"

"Brigid: looks to die for, brains, and all that money, too." Al shook his head. "Everything a man could want, except a heart. Where's the Wizard of Oz when you really need him?" Sighing, he squared his shoulders. "She and I have a lunch date with Destiny. I'll come back this afternoon and let you know how it goes. Don't forget--you and Elaina have to be out of town all day tomorrow."

Sam nodded. Tossing him a snappy salute, Al marched into the Imaging Chamber, and the door slid down, cutting off the familiar white glow. At least now he could concentrate on Dr. Marks.

"It took me by surprise," he admitted. "Did you know Astornautics was behind the foundation?"

"I never had a clue. But. . .well. . .I've been thinking about what that reporter said about mind control. Do you remember Jan Demarinis?"

"Not really."

"He was that scrawny little chemist with the thick eyeglasses who showed up early last year. Remember how secretive he was? And how everyone bitched that he was showered with money, while we had to scrounge for nickels and dimes? He disappeared practically overnight, and the Director acted like he'd never heard of him. At the time, we all though it was some hush-hush research for the CIA or DEA or something. But what if he was working on chemical mind control for Astornautics?"

(And what if she uses something like that on Al?)

"Oh, boy."

"I know. The whole thing is just unbelievable. Maybe it's one of those idiotic stories the tabloids make up, like aliens fathering babies. Still...do you think we should ask Jerry to see what he can find in computer databases on Astornautics?"

"It sounds like a very good idea to me."

"Consider it done. I do know that I've seen Brigid Astor on the news, and read about her in the magazines. Half the world thinks she's a gutsy feminist, and the other half thinks she's a combination of Lizzie Borden and Leona Helmsley." Elaina hesitated. "David...about the project."

For a moment he goggled, thinking she mean Quantum Leap. "What?"

"Lately, I think you've become...obsessed...with proving it wasn't your fault Laura died. David, no one ever blamed you--not the police, not Laura's family--but you won't accept that there was nothing you could do. I know I agreed to work with you on this research, and I think we're nearing a breakthrough, but I also think that maybe you need to stop. Take a vacation. Convince yourself that you can forgive yourself." Her eyes welled with unshed tears. "It hurts to see you in this much pain."

Gently, he took her hand, giving her a moment to get her feelings under control. It was obvious that her concern was more than just that of a colleague, or a close friend, and he very much doubted that David Banner realized it, any more than Al realized he and Verbena Beeks were meant to be a couple. Why were so many men oblivious to what they really needed, even when it was right in front of them? Maybe it took leaping into women's bodies and living their lives, however briefly, to open his own eyes.

"I think you're right, Elaina, but guilt is a hard thing to give up. I'll need to be reminded again, when I forget. I'm glad I can count on a friend like you to do that."

She forced a tremulous smile, rubbing quickly at the corner of each eye with her forefinger. "Nagging is my specialty, you know."

"Necessary nagging. And it's appreciated, believe me. As a first step, why don't we agree to spend tomorrow on vacation? Neither one of us will set foot on Culver Institute's property. We can have a picnic in a park somewhere, and not mention Astornautics, or super-strength, or science, under penalty of a faceful of egg salad."

"It sounds wonderful...but it doesn't sound like David Banner. Are you sure you can tear yourself away? The man who's been putting in 60 hour work weeks?"

"This one time, I'm sure. Draw me a map, and I'll be on your door step at eight a.m."

"It's a deal." She stuffed her hands into her lab coat pockets. "But while I'm nagging you, there's just one last thing I need to clear up. Is there some connection between our work, and that Hulk thing?"

Sam admitted, "I'm not really sure, but I'm worried about it, too. Last night, I was still here at nine o'clock or so, and when I finally left, I was so tired that--well--I think I left a pre-set timer sequence on in Radiology."

Her face paled. "The room the monster trashed."

"And Dr. Siebert was still here, too. He was awfully eager to see me out."

"And now Ms. Astor shows up, demanding to see him."

"Of course, as scientists, we need empirical proof. Before we get down to work today, what do you say we take a walk by the Director's office, sort of stretch our legs?"

This time when her eyes brightened, it was with an impish gleam instead of tears. "And if we just happen to run into Benjamin Siebert, so much the better. . . ."


I want to Leap to the next part.

Step into the Accelerator and return to Jane's Fan Fiction.

Ziggy, help me contact the author.