By Peter David
Story by James Schamus
Screenplay by John Turman, Michael France, and James Schamus
BALLANTINE BOOKS • NEW YORK
one year later . . .
hints of jealousy
said of old soldiers
in dreams, the knowledge he seeks are memories he cannot grasp
accident . . . or fate?
a daughter and son lost and found
a sacrifice too great?
mutagenic traces . . . but of what?
what am i?
meetings of great portent
dogs of war
betrayal or salvation?
unbalance of power
going home again . . . or not
playing with fire
the devil you know
what man hath wrought
his anger unbound
sins of the father
the cross of red
“Oh soul, be changed to little water drops
and fall into the ocean, never be found.”
—Marlowe, Doctor Faustus
David Banner had just made his son, Bruce, angry, and discovered that he rather liked it.
David had an attitude of quiet-yet-desperate genius about him, with eyes that glittered with intelligence and a foxlike face that suggested not only cunning but also an insatiable desire to learn the truth about things. His hair was thick and brown and he wore it combed back. He was dressed in the suit he’d worn to work that day. It wasn’t unusual, however, for him to spend time with baby Bruce from the moment he came home until his wife, Edith, told him that dinner was served.
David sat on the floor, keeping a wary eye on the kitchen. He heard Edith within, banging around pots and pans and doing whatever the hell it was she did that made most of their dinners taste so vile. But his focus at that moment wasn’t on how her beef Stroganoff was going to turn out, but instead on the activities of his infant son.
There was Bruce, six months old, crawling along nicely. He had been developing swiftly in terms of his assorted motor skills, even though the boy himself had been small at birth and probably wasn’t going to grow up to be any sort of Goliath. He was also, however, overly dependent on the pacifier, sucking on it with vacuumlike force whenever he had the opportunity. David was glad about that, because he could make use of it.
He watched warily as little Bruce crawled across the shag carpeting of the modest living room. The room had been baby-proofed, with rubber bumpers put on the sharp edges of the coffee table and little inserts slid into the electrical outlets so that tiny fingers couldn’t work objects into them and sustain a shock. At that moment, Bruce was crawling toward the overstuffed recliner, the one with a large piece of electrical tape on one arm to prevent some errant stuffing from poking any farther out. Making little ah-ah noises like a tiny train engine, Bruce crawled all the way over to the chair. He was wearing a sleeveless red-and-white-striped outfit with leggings so he didn’t get rug burns on his knees. She was thorough, Edith was. It was something that David would have loved about her very much, presuming he had, in fact, loved her, rather than hating her now with a burning passion because she had forced him to provide her with this . . . this crawling, mewling monstrosity for her amusement. . . .
Still . . .
Still, Bruce provided opportunities. Unwanted opportunities, to be sure, but opportunities presented themselves when they saw fit, and as a man of science, David Banner had to accept them and roll with them.
David Banner watched raptly as Bruce hauled himself up to stand, balancing as carefully as he could on his skinny little legs. The sucking on his pacifier continued so loudly that Banner was certain they could hear it all the way down at the military base where he worked. It was a nice theory, actually, how far the sound of Bruce’s sucking would travel, although he wasn’t going to have the opportunity to test it.
There were, however, other theories to test.
Looking once more to make sure his wife was otherwise engaged, David Banner moved quickly over to baby Bruce and yanked the pacifier out of his mouth. The shock of the pacifier’s departure totally bewildered Bruce, so much so that he lost his balance and tumbled backward, landing hard on his back and striking his head on the floor for good measure. The carpet cushioned some of the impact, but it was painful and startling nonetheless.
Bruce Banner’s face twisted in infant fury and reddened. He was getting ready to uncork a major bawl, and his father kept glancing at the kitchen, muttering to his son, “C’mon, c’mon,” wanting to have as much time as possible to observe the child’s reaction.
And then it came, the veins bugging out at his temples, his eyes closing. An ear-splitting howl blasted out of the child’s throat like a cyclone through a wind tunnel. The first cry was relatively soft, but he had two good lungsful of air for the second, and that was when he really kicked it into high gear.
Banner watched him raptly, looking for some small sign.
“What happened?” came Edith’s voice from the kitchen.
“Nothing! He fell! It’s nothing!” David called back, having no desire at all for his wife to come in, because he didn’t want her to see what he was seeing. Little Bruce’s arms were beginning to distend at the elbows, to grow and expand and twist into positions that could only be described as deformed. And it wasn’t just his arms that were deforming. It was his entire body. David could see it under the little outfit, see the bumps and ripples bubbling on Bruce’s skin. And his face, God, look at his face. With the upper brow starting to slide forward, Bruce looked like a Neanderthal. David felt as if he were watching millions of years of evolution being rolled back.
That was when he heard an alarmed shriek from Edith. He hadn’t heard her enter because he’d been so enraptured with what was occurring with Bruce. Quickly he shoved the pacifier into Bruce’s mouth even as he turned toward Edith and tried to reassure her.
“I said he’s fine!”
“Fine!” Edith Banner practically howled. She was a pretty enough woman, with curly brown hair and, normally, a quiet authority about her. Not at this moment, though. At this moment there was nothing at all quiet about her. “His arm’s broken! His head’s swelling! He has lumps the size of golf balls!”
“Edith, darling, you’re exaggerating. Kids fall down . . .”
“David, did you look at him?”
He cast a quick, nervous glance at his son, who was still lying on his back, and then he visibly relaxed and grinned. “Why, yes, I have. Have you?”
She pushed past David, and stopped and stared. There, lying on the floor, was Bruce, contentedly sucking on the pacifier, which his father believed gave the baby’s life all its meaning. His arms were normal, his head was fine. There were no signs of lumps on him, golf ball–sized or otherwise.
Edith was completely perplexed. “But I . . . I could have sworn . . .”
David spread wide his hands and shrugged. “What can I tell you, except that, you know, I told you.”
She knelt down, inspected Bruce’s arms. David watched her passively, as did their son. Then she shook her head and said firmly, “I’m taking him to Dr. Ungaro.”
“He doesn’t need to go to his pediatrician!” David told her in annoyance.
“I think he does. I know what
I saw, David. I’ve got to make sure he’s okay. What kind of mother would I be otherwise?”
David Banner repressed a snarl, and instead substituted a very forced grin. “I suppose you’re right, dear,” he said with strained courtesy, but the thought of the boy’s doctor being brought in at this developmentally vital point in Bruce’s life was upsetting.
As it turned out, he needn’t have worried. It was all Banner could do to suppress a chuckle as the pediatrician studied the boy from top to bottom, turned to his parents with the air of the accomplished pedant, and announced, “It’s hard to say. Somehow, when he feels too much frustration, his cell tissues . . . well, there’s some kind of hardening. I don’t think it’s much to worry about. A kind of tendinitis, I think.”
All the way on the drive back home, his mother held Bruce tightly and made clucking noises about tendinitis and what it meant for the child’s long-term health. She was skeptical of the diagnosis, but didn’t know what else to think. As for David Banner, he kept speaking to her reassuringly about how he’d read a paper once about “infant tendinitis” as a syndrome that usually passed after the first year. All the time he did so, he kept trying not to laugh at both the doctor’s idiocy and his wife’s gullibility.
That night, after Edith had gone to bed and drifted into an uneasy, worried sleep, David Banner went down to his private study. It wasn’t very large, but that didn’t bother him. David didn’t concern himself with such useless trappings as possessions or the size of one’s home. All he cared about was the research. And he wanted to update his journals and log entries while the results of his experiment on Bruce were still fresh in his mind.
He pulled his journals out from a locked drawer and began flipping through them, looking for the appropriate one in which to make an entry. As he did so, he stumbled across notations that he had made several years ago, back when . . . it . . . had all started. He paused and started reading the entries, reliving the sense of frustration he’d felt when his theories and plans were given short shrift.
When he’d first arrived at Desert Base in Nevada, he’d had high hopes for himself, for his research, for everything. He’d been ambitious, so ambitious, convinced that soldiers would sing his praises for the advances he was going to bring to them and to the world.
And then he’d hit a brick wall: a high and mighty colonel named Thaddeus Ross, who’d acquired the nickname “Thunderbolt” for his tendency to launch his anger, straight and true, at whoever had offended him and effectively incinerate the poor fool on the spot. Word was that he was in the fast lane to make general. And Banner couldn’t help but think, then and now, that if the future included General Thunderbolt Ross, then the military establishment was pretty much going to be spiraling straight down the tubes.
He found one notation written in a quavering script. He remembered making the entry; he’d been so furious that his hand had been shaking. He was still able to make it out, though:
Meeting went as poorly as it possibly could have. Tried to convince Ross there is simply no way practically to shield against every weaponized agent. Instead I can make superimmune systems by strengthening the human cellular response. Ross didn't get it. Didn't even try. Said that manipulating the immune system is dangerous and stupid. Said that both he and the president's science adviser have made it clear I can't use human subjects. How am I supposed to proceed? How can I prove to them that I'm right, prove the effectiveness of my work, if they won't give me the tools to do it?
He stared at the entry for a long time. He tried to cast his memory back to what his state of mind had been when he’d written it. Had he known, even then, what he was going to do? Or had he been trying to build up the nerve to face the inevitable?
The phone rang, the noise cutting through the still air so loudly that it caused him to jump. He grabbed up the phone and said, “Banner.”
“Banner,” came the sharp, challenging voice of Ross. “Sorry to call you at home. Is this a bad time?”
Any time I talk to you is a bad time. He felt a distant pounding behind his eyes, and rubbed them.
“No, Colonel, not at all. What can I do for you?”
“I’ve got a report here regarding your data from the animal studies. There appear to be discrepancies in your results.”
The pounding increased. It looked to be the start of a long, long night.
It was difficult to differentiate Christmas from any other time of the year out in the desert, but the Banners did their level best, as did everyone else in the neighborhood. That wasn’t particularly surprising since there was a great deal of common ground for all the residents. Everyone either worked at Desert Base or else was a family member of someone who worked there. The town didn’t even have a specific name as such. It had just sprung up in proximity to the base out of necessity.
The small, artificial Christmas tree, the same one the Banners pulled out every year, glittered in the corner. Bruce, now three years old, was gallivanting around the room astride a hobbyhorse while Edith took films of his pure childish joy with a Super 8 camera.
David, for his part, was feeling more relaxed than he had in a long time. It had been ages since Ross had expressed any suspicions about, or even overt interest in, his work. His newly relaxed attitude had spread to how he treated his wife and son, and they had been grateful for the change. He watched Bruce jump around a bit more, and then reached into his briefcase and extracted two small, floppy cloth dolls. It was hard to tell what the bizarre-looking animals were supposed to be, specifically. They had long ears and whiskers, but the feet were closer to cat paws than they were to rabbit feet. They were somewhat mutated-looking, really, which was probably what drew Banner to them when he’d spotted them in the Base Exchange, looking rather shabby and forgotten on an upper shelf and marked down to fifty cents each.
“Bruce,” he called, and the boy turned and looked. His face immediately lit up with an ear-to-ear smile, and he dropped the hobbyhorse as if it had leprosy and bolted toward the two dolls. He jumped up and down, David holding them just out of the boy’s reach in amusement. He finally relented and gave them to him when Edith good-naturedly chided him about “tormenting the boy.”
And then he and his son played with the stuffed toys.
Just . . . played.
He didn’t conduct any experiments on him. He didn’t seek out any mutagenic properties. He didn’t try to find ways to excuse himself so he could make notations in his journals. He. Just. Played.
For one evening, David Banner had a taste of the nice, ordinary life he could have had and which, he knew on a fundamental level, would never be his. And because of that, as the boy laughed with that pure, unbridled, unrestrained laughter that only children can command, David Banner discovered there were tears running down his cheeks. Tears in mourning for that which he would never have, and that which he could never be.
“It’s my fault . . . it’s all my fault,” he whispered.
It was a horrifying discovery for David Banner to make, that he loved his son. That was a development that simply didn’t fit into the overall plan. And he resolved that that night, that very night, he had to reestablish the status quo.
Edith had been invited over to a friend’s house to make a fuss over their new baby. In point of fact, both Edith and David had been invited, but he had begged off, citing a sudden headache, and insisted that Edith go on without him. As soon as she was gone, with Bruce settled down for the night, David went into his study and pulled out a syringe and a test tube.
“Need blood samples,” he muttered. “It’s the only thing that will do. Have to study the mutagenic properties. Absolutely the only thing that will do.”
He padded upstairs and opened the door to Bruce’s bedroom. There was the boy, in his pajamas, smiling and bouncing the two floppy dolls around without a care in the world.
David smiled and said, “Bruce, I need you to do something. Give me your arm.”
The boy obediently extende
d his right arm. He had no reason to doubt, no reason to have any suspicions. He blinked in surprise when his father gripped his wrist firmly . . . and gasped when a hypodermic was driven into his arm, whereupon he let out a shriek like the damned consigned to the abyss.
“David! What the hell are you doing?”
He yanked the syringe clear, spattering drops of blood, and Bruce was howling in hurt and fury as Edith stood in the doorway. Perhaps she’d forgotten something, perhaps she’d gotten bored quickly, perhaps she’d been seized with some massive fatigue. It was impossible to say, and in the final analysis, it didn’t matter. Like a thief in the night he froze there, and between Edith’s yelling and the boy’s howling, he had no idea where to look first.
And then Edith went dead white and pointed, her finger trembling. David turned to see what she was looking at.
It had been several years since the famed “tendinitis” incident, and Edith had more or less managed to file away the distant and unwanted memory; perhaps, she had even chalked it up to an hallucination. But what she was seeing now was far, far worse than the previous episode.
As Bruce shrieked in protest, his feet began to swell, his arms distorted, and the entire right side of his head bulged out. Then they receded but other things bubbled and rippled, his skin undulating as if a swarm of bugs were making their way beneath the surface and spreading throughout his body. Bruce seemed oblivious to it, so caught up was he in the hysterics of his tantrum.
Edith Banner let out one loud, horrified yell, and fainted dead away.
The heavy thud of her body hitting the ground caught young Bruce completely by surprise, enough to cause him to stop crying. The bubbling of his body promptly stopped and his crying was replaced by wide-eyed whimpering as he saw his mother lying insensate upon the floor.
David looked from his son to his wife and back again, and saw a perfect opportunity. He pointed a quavering finger at his son and snarled, “You did this, Bruce! You hurt your mommy!”