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QUANTUM HULK, Part Three

Jane Leavell

When he strode out of the soundstage-sized Imaging Chamber into the Project's control room, Al Calavicci was humming an off-key but enthusiastic version of "To Dream the Impossible Dream," Sam's old theme song. He'd timed it just right; Verbena was in the Waiting Room, encouraging David Banner to exercise Sam's body, and by the time Gooshie filled her ear with everything he'd told Sam, the trap should be sprung on the Ice Queen. The last thing he wanted was to get into a big argument with her about it. Once the whole thing was over and done with, and he was back linking with Sam, he'd have spiked her guns, and there wouldn't be an argument.

"Al--"

He beamed paternally at Donna Beckett. She was so cute when she screwed her face up like that. Maybe it was just that glow pregnant women get. "Don't worry. Elaina Marks is good-looking, but she doesn't hold a candle to you."

Now, instead of looking worried, she just looked mad. "Look, Admiral, what if something goes wrong? Sam needs you. If anything happens to you--"

"Nothing's gonna happen. Gooshie'll buzz me on the hand-link if you need me. Anyway, I'll be back in a couple hours." Gently, he rubbed her barely protuberant belly. "Wish me luck, Junior."

Steaming, Donna took a swing at him, but he ducked it with the grace and agility acquired from five divorces, some of them very messy.

"Bye! And--hey, listen, don't worry! I've even got armed guards staking out my place," he called over his shoulder, and ducked into the hallway.

Some of the crew looked askance at him as he fled, knowing they were in the middle of a leap and wondering why he was leaving a Condition Red, but no one had the nerve to get in his way.

This was fun. Being an admiral was a kick in the butt, yeah, and the pay was fantastic, but mostly it meant cutting back on your flying time and sleeping through endless meetings. Or worse yet, staying awake through endless meetings. Before he met Sam, he'd been stagnating, and boredom was deadly for a Calavicci. With this project, boredom was never a problem, but it did get frustrating, having to watch Sam do everything, being unable to touch anybody or truly help out. At least this time, he got to be the hero and nab the villain. Or in this case, villainess.

Time had certainly been kind to Brigid Astor. She was thinner, the edges all sharper, but when she zeroed in on a man and pretended to be deeply romantic, she was still beautiful. You had to admire her acting ability, the way she subtly flattered you and seemed to hang on your every word, when you knew all the time there was a computer behind those blue eyes, calculating every move.

What had happened to her in the years between showing up at Culver Institute, and seducing him? Because Sam was in Banner's body and still changing events, the time line was in flux, and bugging Ziggy for information was as likely to get schizophrenic responses as factual data, at least until things became more certain. Ziggy was hard enough to put up with when it wasn't schizo. Had Frigid Brigid ever gotten control of the Hulk? If not, the failure had to be eating at her.

Home at last. Switching off the engine, he paused, scrutinizing the street, but saw no sign of anyone lurking. Good thing, too, or tomorrow he'd have to kick some butts. They were supposed to be deep undercover, while he tried to get Brigid under the covers, or at least to get her on tape, trying to buy him.

Having a beautiful woman pay him for his time would sure be a change of pace.

Once inside his place, Al stopped to check things out. The pad was well-decorated, if he did say so himself; masculine but comfortable, the handiwork of Gunny Gunaldson just before she got replaced by Lt. McIlwaine. Other than adding a framed animation cel of Bugs Bunny--autographed by Chuck Jones and Mel Blanc--he hadn't disturbed her masterpiece. Gunny had been a great aide, and an even greater dancer. What she could do with those hips--! Heaving a regretful sigh at the memory of his loss, Al decided nothing gave away the existence of myriad fancy bugging devices and started into the kitchen, then paused, struck by an idea.

"Hey, guys, do I talk in my sleep?" he asked the room at large. Getting no response--and not really expecting one--he waved it off. "Aw, never mind."

The candles were on the table, waiting to be lit. He opened the Chianti to let it breathe, checked the lasagna, then watered the cactus languishing on top of his computer monitor.

(Stop fidgeting!)

He had to practically slap himself to keep from wandering to the sofa to admire the futuristic `weapon' invented by the lab techs, who'd had a lot of fun shooting each other up with the fake laser beam. Two of its more clever additions were a surface designed to preserve fingerprints, and a tracking device hidden in the barrel, just in case. When he demonstrated it for Brigid, squeezing the trigger would send out a high-frequency hum and set off an explosive device hidden inside that chintzy bronze model of a howling coyote over in the corner. Instead of playing with it, he glanced at his watch, switched on the CD player to fill the room with almost subliminally romantic music, and began to pace.

His pulse really began to race when the doorbell finally chimed. "It's show-time, folks."

Slicking back a stray curl, Al opened the door and beamed at the Ice Queen. Today she wore her pale blonde tresses in a loose cascade down her shoulders, with diamond earrings twinkling behind the streams of hair. More ice glittered from the pendant bouncing off he lake-blue angora sweater that clung to her breasts as tightly as Al was hoping to do later. Those breasts were already heaving. Unfortunately, her excitement didn't seem to be caused by the sight of him. She pushed Al back a step, and two of the goons she seemed prone to hiring shoved their way into the apartment behind her.

"I don't remember inviting spectators," he protested.

Brigid waved a pristine white scepter in a sweeping imperial gesture, and the white was replaced with fluorescent violet. He jumped nervously as the apartment reverberated with the snap, crackle, and pop of exploding electronic devices. The air reeked of smoke and scorched metal.

"You seem to have arranged an audience of your own," she purred.

(Oh, boy.)

Before he could finish lunging toward the phone, the goons each snared an arm, hauling him back. Brigid's free hand flashed out, and he automatically ducked, but instead of slapping his face, she clapped some sort of patch on his throat.

"Hey!" That didn't seem very pithy, but nothing else occurred to him on such short notice. The two goons released him, but he swayed, suddenly dizzy. This wasn't a good sign. Al tried to peel the patch off, but one of the goons batted his hand away, so he dived for the sofa instead, grabbing at the toy gun. Weirdly enough, the sucker kept dancing in and out of reach. "This is a Ranger 250 from 2010; stay back, or I'll blow you away!"

Brigid Astor laughed.

Now the room was beginning to look like the inside of a kaleidoscope, all shifting shapes and colors. Al had just enough time for one last, heartfelt, "Ohhhh, boyyyy. . . ."

^*^*^*^*^

Ben Siebert swallowed, tasting his breakfast a second time and not finding it to his liking. His stomach hurt.

Leaving the director's office, he felt like a mouse frantically scurrying through a laboratory maze, with stinging electrical shocks waiting no matter which way he turned. If he refused to cooperate with Brigid Astor, she would destroy his career, distort what was a mere prank into unethical behavior and smear his reputation. But if he cooperated with her schemes, he'd be committing an overtly criminal act, wouldn't he? Unless--

"Why, Ben! Just the man I was hoping to see."

He flinched. David Banner was standing there beaming at him, a visual reminder of how he got into this mess in the first place. If it wasn't for the Golden Boy, there'd be no Hulk, and that rich bitch wouldn't be manipulating him. When you came right down to it, it was all Banner's fault.

Elaina Marks slid her arm under his and began steering him down the corridor. "We wanted to talk to you before everyone in the building grabbed you. You do realize you've become the man of the hour?"

His head was pounding. "Me? Why?"

"We're all dying to know what happened last night."

"I'm very busy," he said, with as much dignity as he could muster. He wiped sweat off his upper lip with one hand and tensed as he realized they were approaching a crossroads.

"Then we'll talk on the way to your office." Banner closed in on his other side, before he could make a break for the NE corridor. "You know, Ben, I feel terrible. If I hadn't left you alone here last night, this monster might not have attacked you. Where did it come from, anyway?"

"I don't know! How would I know? It just crashed out of the lab as I was walking by. You can ask Charlie, he saw it--it nearly killed me."

"You didn't go into Radiology?"

Despite the air-conditioning, his upper lip was wet again. "Why would I do that?"

Dr. Marks suggested, "Maybe to soup up the control system?"

"I already did that the day before yesterday. I just haven't gotten around to replacing the dials with the new calibrations. Um, wait, that was my office--"

"Why don't we take a break? We can sit in the cafeteria and have some coffee."

"I don't want any coffee."

"It will perk you up. You must be exhausted, after last night. There are circles under your eyes."

They kept on briskly walking, practically carrying him by his elbows. He was still stuck in the maze. No matter what he said, he was just going to entangle himself still more.

"Coffee's on me. It's the least I can do, after you were so helpful last night. Elaina, did I tell you he insisted on packing up my work for me?"

"No, David, you didn't. How unusually thoughtful of you, Ben."

"I have to say he seemed very interested in our research."

"Oh, really?" She turned to him, wide-eyed. "Was Ms. Astor interested in our work, Ben? What did you talk about with her, all this time in the Director's office?"

Fine. That was it. Benjamin Siebert had had enough. "The Hulk! All right? We talked about the Hulk! I work my ass off around here--and I do damn fine work, I'm a professional, nobody can make a computer dance the way I do--but all anybody wants to talk about is the Hulk!" With an effort, he wrenched himself free of them both. "And now--now I'm going to be sick!"

Marks automatically stepped back. Choking, he ran down the hallway.

Sam watched Siebert stumble away, frowning. After a long moment, he asked, "Did he look green to you?"

"You mean, like the creature?" Elaina's hand moved to her mouth. "You don't think he--?"

"No. No, he can't be the Hulk, because the security guards saw them both at the same place and same time." He held the swinging doors to the cafeteria open for her to enter. "But I don't think there's any doubt he knows more about it than he's admitting."

She got a plastic tray, put a mug on it, and slid it down the metal rack toward the coffee machine. Over her shoulder, she asked, "What papers do you think he went through? Ben never struck me as a great researcher; if we haven't come up with anything more than unsual DNA readings in our subjects, what could he have come up with that would turn a man or a lab chimp into a monster? And how is it connected with Radiology?"

"Sunspots."

"What?"

Banner must not have shown her that computer print-out, he realized. Paying for the coffee with some of Banner's change, he took the tray from Elaina and carried it to the nearest table. "There's a correlation between the cases we've been studying and high gamma radiation levels from sunspot flare-ups."

Her eyes lit up. "That's fantastic! That explains why even with the excess adenine and thyosine in your chromosomes, you didn't develop incredible strength when you needed it--the gamma levels must have been low! Were they?"

One dip in the gamma radiation levels had been circled, as he recalled, with no name written there. "Yes."

She leaned over the table, so intense that she almost knocked the coffee mugs over with her elbows. "Where's the data? When did you find this out? Why didn't you tell me sooner?"

Sam shrugged helplessly. "It's been a busy morning."

"We'll need to test this hypothesis right away."

"I think someone already did."

Her face tightened as she considered this. "You're right. You know, you've been so obsessive about this, I'm surprised you didn't try something as crazy as testing it on yourself."

"I almost did," he realized. "When I set the controls, I didn't realize Ben had changed everything, I guess, so whoever did get exposed to the radiation would've received a much greater dose than I ever intended."

"Do you think that might explain why, instead of just getting somewhat stronger, the subject physically changed appearance?"

"It could be. Or maybe the subject had a different DNA pattern. Without knowing more--"

She snatched up her coffee mug and started for the door. "Come on, David, what are you waiting for? We're got work to do!"

^*^*^*^*^

"If I had any brains at all, I wouldn't be sitting here," Jack McGee told his tape-recorder. "But then, if I had any brains, I'd've listened to my father instead of becoming an investigative reporter."

Sitting in the dark car in an empty parking lot in the cool moonlight was too much like sitting in the confessional. Every stake-out he'd ever endured seemed to end this way: hours of boredom giving way to brooding on past mistakes. He never seemed to run out of mistakes to regret. At least it gave him something to do.

"So let's recap. Mark, if you're listening to this--Dr. Benjamin Siebert called me. He gave me a print-out about gamma radiation and sun spots. We went into the Radiology Lab. The next thing I remember, I woke up by a stream, with my clothes torn or missing. I had partial amnesia and a nearly-healed bullet wound. Brigid Astor showed up that day with two of her pet gangsters. Now the good Dr. Siebert calls my motel room and invites me to the southwest lab--which incidently is the most isolated part of Culver Institute--long after hours, for a private press conference. And the whole mess is tied in with a giant green hulk that trashed the Radiology Lab before running off. If anything happens tonight, start with Siebert--he's definitely the weak link."

Switching off the recorder, he stared at the mostly-dark lab, not really paying attention to it. Instead of shadowed windows and closed doors, he was seeing a loaded pick-up flipping end-to-end like a Matchbox toy flung aside in a child's temper tantrum, while a hugely-muscled, green-skinned, Neanderthal-faced brute howled at it. Then he blinked, and the memory was gone.

Jack rubbed his arm slowly, trying to decide what to do. Siebert he could probably handle, but Brigid Astor. . .Frigid Brigid was another matter entirely.

Brigid Astor was the last person he needed to cross. She was no fool; she'd climbed to riches by seducing an aging oil baron not because she lacked the brains to do it on her own, but because it was quicker. When her infatuated lover gave her a corporation of her own to play with, she'd brilliantly and ruthlessly expanded it, swallowing other companies whole and reducing confident male CEOs into quivering, teary-eyed wrecks. Ballsy, unemotional, fond of blackmail, a good actress who could so thoroughly entrance you that you never noticed the knife in her hand until your balls tumbled down your pants' leg--he couldn't help but respect her. Brigid would've made a great investigative reporter. Unlike him, she would never have let a moral qualm stand in the way of her ambition. He'd first started researching her during the McTigue story, when he realized how many important people seemed to be connected to her by invisible threads of power. The stories he'd heard couldn't be proven, but he knew they were true...and they scared him spitless.

So now he was going to fly right into her web, as if he hadn't even seen the other blood-drained corpses littering it. Right. When God passed out commonsense, he must've been reading a newspaper somewhere in the back of the line.

But he'd gotten an extra helping of curiosity to make up for it.

Siebert wasn't expecting him for another hour, so now was a good time to show up. Not being completely foolhardy, he'd managed to come up with a quite convincing uniform proclaiming him to be with CARL'S COMPUTERS. With any luck, he'd be able to slip in and check for traps before finding out what Siebert wanted from him.

First, he tucked the tape-recorder into the grass near the sidewalk. If things did go wrong, someone would undoubtedly clean out his car, but they might miss the tape-recorder here...and it was engraved with the promise of a hefty cash reward to anyone turning it over to the National Register. Jack was a great believer in human nature.

When he walked into the quiet building, he startled the somewhat sleepy security man by dropping his duffel bag--stuffed with tools--on the front counter. The overweight, grey-haired guard almost fell off his swivel chair, but caught himself in time. Jack grunted, "Carl Kolchak. Here to fix a computer."

"Kinda late, aren't you?"

McGee rolled his eyes. "Look, I've been running my ass off all day. My partner's out with the flu, the last stop figured out the PC was just unplugged but forgot to cancel me, and at this point not even my overtime fee is enough to put up with more headaches. You don't want the problem taken care of before your hotshot scientists come in tomorrow, fine by me. Either way, I get a flat $150 just for showing up."

"Well. . . ."

"And another $150 when I have to come back tomorrow, if I can squeeze you in. Plus travel mileage. Plus labor. And parts."

"You have to sign in."

"Yeah, sure." Carelessly, he scrawled his fellow reporter's name on the clipboard. Kolchak wouldn't mind, even if he did think computers were the Devil's tools. Where it asked for `authority,' he put "Dr. E. Marks," then he dropped the pen and picked up his duffel bag. "The quicker I get this done, the quicker I can go home to my wife."

When he was just an obnoxious cub reporter, Kolchak--who was even more obnoxious--taught him that the secret to getting into places you shouldn't be in is to act as if you know what you're doing, so he strode off with great confidence, as if he knew exactly where the imaginary damaged computer was. He just hoped he hadn't chosen a dead end; if the security guard woke up a little more, he was likely to think of some questions that McGee couldn't answer.

In some ways, this felt like a repeat of his last appointment with Dr. Siebert. Once again, the building was deserted. Only the meditative hum of computers, photocopiers, and more mysterious machinery feeding off electrical impulses broke the evening hush. Even his own footsteps were swallowed up by the plush orange carpet. Several times, he was startled by his own ghostly reflection as he passed panes of glass.

Coming in early was a good idea. After descending a flight of wooden stairs, he spotted George and Carlos, Astor's trained apes, standing at the front door talking to the security guard. Apparently this `press conference' wasn't going to be as private as he'd been told. Jack nervously touched the butt of the pistol hidden under his coveralls, and dodged down another corridor in the basement area before he could be seen. Luckily, neither of the goons glanced down.

Now what? If he didn't find Siebert in the next ten minutes, he'd better get while the getting was good. Maybe he should wait for the good doctor at his home, surprise him on his own territory, away from Astor.

(My, my. What have we here?)

Dr. Benjamin Siebert, pasty-faced, was leaving the men's room with furtive sideways glances, like a rat expecting to be pounced on by a cat.

(Let's not disappoint the man.)

"Good evening, Doctor," he purred, and grinned like the Cheshire Cat as the scientist twitched.

"McGee!" he squeaked, backing away. He cleared his throat and lowered his voice. "You're, uh, early."

"Let's talk. I've found a nice quiet room we can use."

"But I was expecting--"

"--Ms. Astor. I know. But I prefer to keep this just between you and me." Putting one hand under Siebert's right elbow, Jack steered the other man toward the big main chamber he'd passed through earlier.

"You--You're looking better."

"Really? How did I look the last time you saw me?"

"Green."

"Gunshots have always had a tendency to do that to me. Especially when I get hit." He gazed critically around the room, then upstairs, making sure no one was looking down at them. The room itself was as big as a high school gymnasium, centered around a rectangular chamber studded with windows and metal hatches. The rest of the room resembled a NASA control center, full of monitors, dials, flashing lights, and switches. "What do you use this place for?"

"It's a hyperbaric chamber, used for work involving oxygen under high pressure, such as--"

"Perfect." A little high pressure in the right places was just what was called for. McGee pushed Siebert toward the chamber. "Now, tell me how I came to be shot at."

"The security guards--"

"What did you do to me, Doctor?"

Siebert plastered himself against the glass, which meant his face was as far from McGee's as possible, but his belly was sticking out. McGee prodded the belly with his forefinger, and the scientist squealed as if he'd been stabbed.

"It's not my fault! It was an accident! I didn't mean to do it!"

"What was an accident?"

"The Hulk! I had no idea--the sequence was pre-set--you can't blame me! It was Banner's fault!"

None of this was clearing up the mystery. Vividly, he remembered being in the lab. A raised seat began to move. He'd tried to get out, but the door was locked. Then--then nothing, until he was kneeling by that muddy stream. Lowering his voice, he yanked on a handful of white lab coat, drawing Siebert close.

"What happened in the Radiology Lab?"

"You received a massive overdose of gamma radiation," Brigid Astor's demure voice said from behind him. "According to all the textbooks, you should be dead."

Shit, shit, SHIT! He'd been so desperate to get the facts from Siebert, he'd forgotten to watch his back. Jack swiveled on one heel, grimacing when he saw George and Carlos had entered the room behind Ms. Astor. "Sorry to disappoint you," he said, with as much irony as he could manage.

"You know, I don't appreciate people making deals behind my back. When I set up a meeting, I expect us to meet together."

"I wasn't--he made me--we were only talking--"

Brigid merely stared, until Siebert's babbling slowed, then stopped. When his face matched his lab coat, she looked back at McGee. "I prefer peaceful negotiations."

"What do we have to negotiate?"

She arched one fair eyebrow. The bigger of the two bodyguards held out his hand. Jack looked from this nattily-dressed hood to his clone, decided that even if he'd passed up working on the school newspaper for a spot on the wrestling team he wouldn't have stood a chance with either one, and sighed, digging out his gun.

"A .357 Magnum. Interesting. My staff psychologist predicted a derringer."

"I beg your pardon?"

"It's always been my policy to know my opponents and what they're likely to do before embarking on any new...business. When you began investigating me last year, Mr. McGee, I began accumulating various work-ups on you. The reports take up two folders. But if what Dr. Siebert tells me is true, you actually have surprised me. That's quite unusual."

Bathed in the soft light from the panels along the wall, she looked like a Barbie doll: perfectly formed, beautifully coiffed, stunningly dressed in expensive designer clothes, and made of cold, hard plastic. He had a bad feeling about this. A very bad feeling.

His mouth twitched. "You haven't answered my question. What do we have to negotiate?"

"The Hulk," she said, as if it were obvious.

Baffled, he threw up his hands. "What about it?"

"According to Dr. Siebert, you are the Hulk."

"Oh, for--that's crazy!"

"I hope not. That would ruin a marvelous business opportunity for you. You see, I'm prepared to pay you a great deal of money to demonstrate your newly-acquired talent...so that I can acquire a lucrative DOD contract."

All he could do was gape at her in disbelief. The whole thing was absurd. He was a reporter, not a freak, not a big green rampaging monster.

Yet this time he had a flashback that was not just images, but searing emotions. He was hurling himself against the door, his body aching more with each try, but he couldn't escape, and he was swamped with uncontrollable frustration. The room seemed to be shrinking, trying to crush him, while that self-serving idiot babbled excuses but wouldn't help him. Enraged, he swung around, wanting to pound--to smash--to KILL!

(Jesus!)

Jack swallowed, then heard himself say dryly, "This may come as a surprise to you, but I'm not a lab animal."

She lowered golden lashes over lake-blue eyes, a soft smile on those pink lips. If any other woman had done it, it would have been seductive, but he wasn't turned on by a machine mimicking human emotion, no matter how well it performed. "Believe me, I fully realize that. I think we could have an excellent business relationship as partners, Mr. McGee. We have so much in common."

(God, I hope not.)

"We're both well-educated, intelligent people. We're both cynics. We both respect the value of the dollar."

(A hit. A very palpable hit.)

In honeyed tones, Brigid went on trying to woo him, offering him percentage points, stock options, and other impressive deals, but her words blurred together. Jack was gazing past her padded shoulders, watching her henchmen casually but efficiently split up to block the exits. One was examining his confiscated gun, smiling faintly. Obviously, if he refused Ms. Astor's offer, Jack McGee wouldn't be walking out to sign his own contract with the Department of Defense.

Okay. So maybe he did like money. Was that a surprise, after spending his childhood being humiliated, watching his optimistic, good-hearted, principled father piss away every hard-earned penny in bad loans and small businesses that inevitably went belly up? When he lost his column, he didn't let a little self-respect keep him from accepting the National Register's money to write tripe for the supermarket masses.

But selling his body was just a shade too sleazy for Jack McGee.

". . .sensible decision?" Brigid finished with a smile, spreading her hands wide.

Cocking his head, he murmured, "And then I suppose I could sell my life story to the Register for a bundle, right? `I Was a Jolly Green Giant for the Pentagon.'"

Her eyes narrowed, but otherwise she didn't acknowledge the sarcasm. "Eventually. If the Pentagon doesn't label it top-secret."

The smart thing to do was to pretend to be bought, agree with everything, and watch for a chance to bolt. But to his distinct embarrassment, he found he couldn't do it. Once again his smart mouth was going to get him in trouble.

"Why do I have this feeling I'm going to end up in St. Jude's Sanitorium in a padded cell, like your ex-partner? They tell me he screams if he even sees your picture. . .and you make a point of visiting the poor bastard every month."

Her eyes locked with his, and Jack cursed his damnable pride. He'd seen glaciers with more warmth. Oh, well. Maybe he'd grow to like it at St. Jude's. . . .


I love to Leap to conclusions.

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