“I’ve never really done anything like this before. Have you?” Bruce Banner realized he was rambling nervously, but he had just signed his life away for scientific studies, and he was very nervous. And the pretty brunette sitting across from him looked friendly. “I’m, uh, Bruce, by the way.”
The brunette smiled back. “I’m Elizabeth. But my mother called me Betty. And, no, I’ve never done this before, either. But the cash is good. Books for the Science department aren’t cheap.”
Bruce chuckled. “No, they are not. What’s your major, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Cellular Biology. I’m not sure where my research will take me, but I can always teach as a fall-back. You gotta have a ‘Plan B’, you know. How about you?”
Bruce pushed his glasses up on his nose. “Oh, I’m a real brain trust. Nuclear Physics and Biochemistry.”
Betty scrunched up her nose. “And you want to mess with psychedelic hallucinogens?”
Bruce laughed. “This blind drug study is actually part of my class requirements. The ‘unknown’ drugs aren’t really supposed to be harmful in the long term, and we can all use the experience of having our minds opened, right?”
Betty frowned. “You aren’t a control plant, are you?”
“No, not at all. If I was on the other end of this experiment, I’d be wearing the badly-fitting lab coat and carrying a clipboard. That end of the experiment doesn’t pay as well, and my scholarships don’t bring much throw-around money.”
Betty brightened. “Well, if we don’t rip our own eyes out, what say we have dinner together once this trip is over?”
Bruce smiled brightly. For the first time, letting himself be talked into joining this drug test didn’t seem like a bad idea.
“Are you sure this is safe, Bruce? I mean I would like to have children someday—kids without two heads!”
Bruce watched amused as Betty twisted her hands together while she read the whiteboard in front of her.
“Betty, Gamma Radiation is nowhere near as dangerous as Alpha Radiation or X-rays. As long as I stay shielded, I’ll be fine. And my chromosomes won’t mutate. So your future children will only have one head each—and very large brains!”
Betty turned to look at Bruce. “Sure, laugh it up!” She gestured at the whiteboard. “This work is amazing, though! I’m so proud of you!”
Bruce accepted her full-body hug gracefully. His life had certainly brightened when he met her at the Harvard Research Laboratory. The hallucinogenic tests were, as predicted, harmless, and the two had spent several days giggling at each other under the watchful eyes of the Chemistry Department. When the whole ordeal was over, Bruce had treated Betty to some decent pizza and even better conversation. By the end of the month, they were dating rather seriously, and he had gleefully followed her to Culver University to finish his work with Gamma Radiation.
Bruce had brought Betty to his lab, not only to show off his work, but to announce that he was being tapped for testing with the United States Army—his work with Gamma Radiation was being used in experiments to find radiation resistance, which would eventually help soldiers in battle. Bruce was never going to be a fighter himself, but he did want to do his part to protect the soldiers who were defending his country.
“General Ross seems really psyched about this, you know. Maybe now would be a good time to tell him that we’re dating?”
Betty pulled back and looked Bruce in the eye. “You know I’m not ashamed of you, right? I haven’t told my father about us because of my own work, not because of yours. He’d want me to settle down and start a family right away, and I’m not ready for that.”
“I know that, Betty. And I don’t want to push. But I’ll soon be working closely with the General, and eventually the two of you are going to run into each other. I think it would be best to give him the heads-up first before that accidental meeting, don’t you?”
Betty nodded and reached up to kiss Bruce lightly on the mouth. “You’re right. I’ll take him out to dinner and explain it this week, before he shows up here for your first tests. That way he can get used to the idea before he’s faced with the reality.”
“Okay, Betty. If you think that’s best.”
Bruce was only half-watching where he was going as he walked down the hallway toward the main Radiation Lab. He was mainly engrossed in the notes for the next day’s tests, so he was almost through the lab door when he heard the voices: Betty and someone Bruce cold assume was her father, General Ross, and they were clearly in a heated discussion. Bruce was about to back away into the hallway when he heard his name mentioned.
“Banner is the best option for this experiment, Betty, you know that! He’s already invested in you.”
“This just seems so wrong, somehow. He has no idea….”
“And he won’t ever have to find out. The formula is almost complete, and once the radiation is added, everything will be settled.”
“But what if the formula fails? What then, Daddy? What will happen to Bruce?”
“If the formula isn’t right, then nothing will happen to Banner. We can keep him on as the resident expert while we tweak the formula, and he’ll never have to know.”
Bruce backed quietly away from the closing door and all but ran down the hallway. What the hell? Bruce needed to find the complete notes on the formula that they were testing the next day, before he or anyone else was subjected to the full spectrum test. When Bruce volunteered to be the first test subject, he had thought he was proving that soldiers would be protected from outside radiation during ‘hot’ battles. But now he wondered what the actual experiment was. It was clear that General Ross had some hidden agenda, and Betty was obviously in on it—but Bruce had no idea how deeply Betty’s involvement went.
Bruce entered Betty’s private lab, using her passwords that she never figured he knew, and he logged into the Bio-Tech Force Enhancement Project—a long name for an Infantry project that began after the 9/11 attacks in New York. Bruce found notes on the project—notes that he never had access to before. They were in an encoded file, but Bruce knew Betty well enough to guess passwords, and he was almost sorry that he did.
Bruce Banner, expert in all things Gamma, was brought in to the Project with the understanding that United States soldiers were going to go into hostile environments to fight terrorists that had no compunction whatsoever in using radio-active weapons, so they were creating what they hoped would be a sort of immunity to radiation. What he found instead was a detailed study on the re-emergence of Project Rebirth from the 1940s. Bruce vaguely remembered that Rebirth was based in the idea of creating Super Soldiers, which would have made sense for the project Bruce was supposed to be working on. Instead, this new Rebirth was geared toward forcing Sentinels online—something Abraham Erskine thought he could do, until he was proven otherwise.
General Thaddeus Ross had gathered scientists from almost every field, and the consensus was that using Gamma Rays instead of the original Vita Rays would push Non-Latents online fully, without gentle Emergence or Feral Emergence. One of the psychologists was of the opinion that using online Guides as a sort of base—bait, if you will—then the Emergence would be compelled. Guides would be seeded into relationships with Project volunteers, setting the stage for a protective relationship, and when the Sentinel came online, the Project would have control, using the Guide to prompt the Sentinel to do what Ross and Rebirth wanted.
And Betty Ross was a Guide, online since she was eighteen.
Bruce staggered under the weight of what he had just read. How much of his relationship was planned, just so he would work on this project?
Until he fulfilled the test requirements, he might never know.
Bruce closed the files and erased any trace that he had accessed the files, and he left the lab locked behind him. He needed a friend—someone he could trust.
While he was sure that his calculations were correct, and he had no personal issue with completing the test, he could no longer trust Betty. That alone might put a kink in Ross’ plans.
A Sentinel, whether forced or natural, needed to have perfect trust in the Guide.
Eric Selvig looked at his young colleague and worried for the man. Bruce Banner had been dealt a harsh blow, and he looked like the world had dropped out from under him.
“Are you sure you want to continue with the test tomorrow?”
Bruce lifted weary eyes to Eric and nodded. “I’m sure. Just like I’m sure that I’ll never Emerge as a Sentinel, no matter what formula Ross put together without my knowledge. I may get stronger, faster, more physically able to fight, but I’ll not Emerge—not like he wanted. I’ve already Emerged, back in 1998, as a Guide. I thought that was what attracted Betty to me initially—shared Empathy and all that. I guess I was wrong about that. But I need to prove that my idea is sound; that I can physically shield a soldier from radiation poisoning without a bulky radiation suit—that I can outwardly shield from the inside. I need to prove that I’m right. And then I can walk away, dignity intact, and try to forget that Betty used me and set me up.”
Eric handed Bruce a fresh cup of coffee and took a seat in an armchair near Bruce and his notes. “You know, she may only have acted recently on her father’s orders. I look at her and I can tell that she really cares for you.”
Bruce shook his head. “It doesn’t matter, Eric. She didn’t recognize me as a fellow Guide, so she’s either extremely low-level on intuition and empathy, or she never really knew me at all. She thought I would be an easy mark for this program. She would be forced to leave me anyway, after I prove not to be a Sentinel. It wouldn’t fit their plan for her to stay with me after that.”
“Okay. Do you want me to be there for the test tomorrow?”
“I think so, yes. I’d like to have someone totally on my side to be there.”
“Okay, Bruce, the formula has been successfully injected. We’re ready for the radiation application.” Betty tried to sound bright and chipper, but she could see that something was bothering Bruce.
“For once, she got one right,” he thought as he strapped himself into the radiation chamber. Bruce had done all of the final calculations himself, not trusting anyone other than Eric Selvig to have his best interests in mind. The formula that he was given for the injection was different than the formula that he had been working on for the last three months. It was a slight difference in appearance, one that any other person would have missed. But Bruce was looking for a difference after what he overheard. The original formula—which he now suspected was only a placebo—was aqua-colored and watery. This formula, the one Bruce had no notes for, was slightly more viscous and had a greenish hue. Once this test was complete, Bruce vowed to get his hands on the notes for this serum. Little details like this made any experiment dangerous; Bruce had variables calculated for something that wasn’t even being used. Any deviation could bring disaster, and all General Ross cared about was results—a forced Sentinel Emergence.
Bruce settled into the radiation containment chamber and ran his fingers along the control panel. That was the one thing he never compromised on—Bruce would have complete control of the level of radiation that he would be exposed to. He controlled the power and the length of the exposure. This was his life and he would trust that to no-one else.
Finally meeting Betty’s eyes, Bruce nodded once and locked the chamber from within. Betty left the main lab to join her father and Eric in the observation room, where they would be completely shielded from any radiation leaks. Once the lab was cleared, Bruce began the exposure sequence, mentally counting down as the chamber gained power. The lights in the lab flickered briefly and then lowered to dim as Gamma Radiation streamed into the chamber. Bruce could feel the warmth build inside the chamber and he began to count the seconds, using the timer on the inner consol in the chamber. When one full minute had passed, Bruce began to power down the chamber and the lights in the lab grew brighter.
Once the radiation had cleared the chamber, Bruce began to flex his arms and legs, checking for numbness and fatigue and finding none. Neither did he find extra strength, which had been one of his goals. In fact, Bruce felt much the same as he did when he first entered the chamber. Since his true goal was to shield from Alpha Radiation poisoning, Bruce was not disappointed yet. The final part of his test would be to enter another radiation chamber and record the level of exposure that would eventually affect him. It was, in his opinion, the most dangerous part of the test because any radiation poisoning could possibly be fatal.
Bruce unbuckled the straps holding him in place inside the chamber and released the locks. As the chamber opened, Betty and General Ross entered the lab to check on any progress made. Bruce stepped from the chamber and stumbled, weakened by the serum he had injected into himself at the start of the test. He felt nauseous and achy, and his vision blurred for a moment, and he fell to his knees. He thought, for a moment, that the serum may have damaged him far more than the radiation could, and he grew angry with Betty for lying about the true motivation for the tests. Betty gave an alarmed shout when Bruce fell, and she ran to his side to help him stand. The touch of her hand turned his displeasure at her duplicity into blind rage and Bruce could feel his body temperature rise.
The warmer he got, the angrier he got, and he noticed that his skin was taking on a greenish hue, much like the serum that had been switched on him. Bruce looked up and saw Betty’s eyes. They were filled with fear and disappointment. He wasn’t a Sentinel, and she could tell. The fact that she was aware of this—that she could tell he failed her test, but she never could tell that he was a Guide—sent his rage over-board and his mind snapped shut to any Empathic touch Betty was trying to give him.
Bruce grew in size until he dwarfed the lab that contained him. His brown eyes turned a vivid emerald, and his skin bulked with muscles and turned bright green. This was wrong. So very wrong.
And Bruce roared in his rage at what was done to him.