She Hulk of Earth 2, Chapter 5
By Eegore, email@example.com
Sheila, her power gone, falls into the hands of her deadliest foe
Sirens drew closer. Wide-eyed people circled the large delivery truck as Ed Chapman fought the swirling haze in his head. A clot of arms and hands pulled open the driver-side door and reached for Ed, urging him gently to crawl out of the truck, which was lying on its side. He slowly worked his way up and out, like a man emerging from a submarine hatch. He winced at a stinging jab in his chest, perhaps a broken rib.
The arms and hands helped him to the ground, and he stood, rubber-legged, unable to focus on the maze of eyes trained on him. Somebody was talking, but he couldn't make out the words. Ed lurched toward the truck, steadying himself with a hand against the frame. Step by step, he worked his way to the truck's front end, trying to assess the damage -- and trying to remember what happened. Chunks of asphalt marked where the truck had slid across the intersection, coming to rest against a curb, its grill pressed against a mailbox.
The truck looked - wrong, somehow. It didn't have -
He looked up. He squinted. Across the intersection, fully 50 feet away, was the other half of his truck, resting against a half-crushed tree planter. But how did -? Why's that over there, while I'm over-? He turned back to the half from which he had emerged. The truck looked appeared to be half-buried in the asphalt. But that was an illusion. One half of the vehicle had been sliced away.
Part of the half-truck was wedged up on the curb, allowing Ed to reach under and run his hand along the edge where it had been split in two. The incision was straight and smooth, as if performed by a surgeon's knife. It wasn't hot, or even warm. A shiver ran through Ed; he hugged his arms across his chest. And that's when the fingers of his left hand felt the gash in the right-hand sleeve of his leather jacket. The din of disbelief that had been careening though his head jumped a notch as his fingers traced the length of the opening; it stretched from shoulder to elbow.
Breathing heavily, he closed his eyes. Rising panic was somehow lifting the fog in his head, and he saw it all again: The street rushing by as his brakes failed. The child frozen with fear in the intersection. The green blur coming from his right and enveloping the child. And the hot flash of green light that shot past him, just to his right, grazing - his - sleeve.
Ed opened his eyes, which were stung immediately by sweat pouring from his forehead. He clutched his chest, unable to steady his heaving, raspy breaths. He stared at his truck. People stared at him. The intersection was spinning, becoming foggy around the edges. There was a sickening crack as Ed's head struck the sidewalk.
l l l
He held the 6-iron high and steady with both hands, squinting as he tracked the ball's soft fade and touchdown in the right fairway of the par-4 16th at Adobe Springs Country Club.
"Nice drive, old man," his partner said with a reverent smirk.
"It'll do, soldier, it'll do," Vince Huckaby replied, allowing a corner of his mouth to twitch with satisfaction.
"Of course," Huckaby's younger partner continued, "you have lots of time these days to work on your game, don't you, colonel?"
"More than I'd ever need, captain. And by the way, if you'd ever learn how to straighten that hook, we'd cut an hour off our round."
Ret. Col. Vincent Huckaby gave his partner ' an Army officer no more than 10 years his junior ' a steely gaze, the same look that had withered other officers for nearly 30 years. Sixty-four years on this Earth and one artificial hip had not cooled the old man's competitive spirit. The colonel didn't like to lose. And he wouldn't today.
He and the captain left the tee box, striding down the left side of the fairway. Suddenly, the colonel stopped and flung a hand to his head. He inhaled sharply and stutteringly, as if this the air of this balmy morning had plummeted 50 degrees. He shivered, and shook his head.
"Colonel? You OK?"
"Hmmm?" Huckaby turned to his partner. The older man's skin was ashen, his eyes vacant. "Did - did you say something, Jim?"
"Yes, sir, I'm asking if you're feeling all right."
The colonel lowered his head again and rubbed his eyes. "Yes, I'm - I'm fine. It's just that - I felt a chill just then. God, the last time that happened to me, Sheila was -"
The color that had been returning to Huckaby's face disappeared.
"Oh, no. I've got to get to the clubhouse."
"I - I need to make a phone call."
l l l
Gen. Eldrick Zaponian sat fidgeting behind his oak desk. It had been nearly four hours since he had approved the deployment of a team that would track the movements of Sheila Huckaby. The soldiers had sat, stone-faced, all full of gung-ho, as he stood before them in the ready room and laid down the ground rules. He was certain his words led them to think ol' "Zapper" had blown a gasket. Initiate surveillance on a subject who should be considered acutely dangerous. Exercise extreme stealth. The subject is female, 7-foot to 7-foot-2, with green skin and waist-length, dark-purple hair. The subject can disgorge powerful force beams from her body. She possesses undetermined levels of superhuman strength, and is likely impervious to all hand-held weapons. Report all subject movements to McNail AFB command. Do not, repeat, do NOT, under any circumstances, engage the subject directly.
"Yes, that must have caused a laugh riot down at the staging area," Zaponian mumbled ruefully. Since then, of course, the team had moved out and reported back from the field. They caught up with her at the Indian adobes. Watching and recording from high-altitude aircraft, one wag opened his mike and shared a first impression: "Hey, you didn't say she was naked and stacked, too. Woo-hooo!"
All jocularity was cut off when they watched this impossibly sculpted giantess blast huge gouges into ancient dwellings and solid rock. They observed in silence as she leaped away, covering a half-mile with each bound.
"Jeee-zus," one soldier breathed into his headset.
One hour had passed since that moment with no reports from the surveillance team, a silence that did not improve Zaponian's already sour mood. Had they lost her? What if they're unable to capture her? What if she can't control her powers? What if she hurts someone, or herself? "God, little Sheila," he whispered. "Oh, honey, I'm sorry. Vince, I hope you can forgive me."
His office intercom buzzed. "Yes?" "General," his secretary replied, "Col. Huckaby on line 1."
Zaponian blanched. He had hoped he wouldn't have to face this for another day or two, after they had taken their best shot at getting the situation under control. The phone's flashing light glared at him. His finger moved toward the button. Then a sharp, two-tone bleat erupted from a base unit next to the phone.
"Sir?" said a voice from the unit's speaker. The general shifted his attention to the base unit, fully aware of its purpose as the "hot line" to the surveillance team. He moved his finger away from the phone and pressed a lever on the base unit.
"Yes?" he said, a bit unsteadily.
"Sir, Capt. Byrne reporting. The target has been captured."
Zaponian lurched toward the base unit. "Wha-aaat?" He took a second to steady his voice. "How did it happen? Is the subject alive?"
"Very much so, sir. The subject is tranquilized, secured and aboard a ground transport, en route to the base. ETA is 22 minutes. The capture was without incident, sir."
"Indeed?" Zaponian said with a raised eyebrow. "Tell me more, captain."
"Sir, one hour ago the aerial team tracked the subject to a waste disposal site two miles outside White Rock. The subject appeared to be in distress. The aerial team continued to observe, and reported that the subject was - shrinking."
Zaponian fell back in his chair, his finger still on the lever. "Shrinking -"
"Yes, sir. The subject was contracting. Numerous discharges of green light were observed as emerging from the subject's body. The discharges seemed to coincide with a loss of mass on the part of the subject. When the discharges ceased, the subject appeared to be - normal. She was estimated at five and a half feet in height, about 160 pounds and, well, she wasn't green anymore and all of those big muscles were gone."
That's Sheila ' the real Sheila. My god, could the nightmare be over this quickly? Zaponian thought. "Go on, captain."
"The aerial team reported to my team on the ground that the subject seemed dazed and weak. We took the cue and moved in. Maintaining extreme caution, we made visual contact within five minutes. The subject was indeed in a weakened state. Our specialist shot a tranquilizer into her from 20 yards."
Like a wild animal - "Excellent work, captain," Zaponian said, massaging his temple. "I look forward to seeing the subject at the base."
The general turned to his phone and pressed a button. "Julie? Please tell the colonel that I'm in meetings today and tomorrow and that I will get in touch with him next week."
Zaponian stared straight ahead, looking at a future that had just brightened in the short term. She's out of the civilian eye, at least. Thank god for that. But, little one, what are we going to do with you now?
l l l
"Ah, so glad to zeeeeeee -"
-headznotworking - "Yeah?"
"-back among the living. Can you - your eyes?"
Sheila responded, pulling her eyelids apart. Weights seemed to be lashed to her lashes. Lights stabbed at her and she blinked hard. She tried to focus, but all she could make out were indistinct shapes waving and dancing in front of her.
"How do you feel?" said a low, even voice from the shape in front of her.
"Aw-awful," she managed to say, hearing the rasp in her voice and feeling sandpaper in her throat. "W-where is this -?"
"You're at the base, Ms. Huckaby. And you're safe. Everything's all right." She could see the shape lean closer to her, and the pounding in her skull increased. She winced at the pain and squinted at the blob, which began to come into sharper focus. She could make out the dark frames of glasses and the outline of a long face and bulging eyes. No - not bulging - just magnified behind thick lenses. Long nose. Black hair. Big, shiny forehead.
"My name is Dr. Blonsky, Ms. Huckaby. And I'm very glad to see you regain consciousness. Anything I can get for you?"
Sheila swallowed, then groaned. It felt like a scouring pad was lodged in her throat. "Some water, please."
"Of course," Blonsky said, motioning with his eyes to a nearby nurse, who returned seconds later with a capped plastic cup and a long straw. Sheila began to reach for the cup, then looked around. She was in a hospital bed in a white, unadorned room. In addition to Dr. Blonsky and the nurse, a uniformed officer sat in a chair next to a closed door. A tube was attached to her left arm. She turned her head, her neck protesting the effort. Numerous blinking machines were next to her bed.
She turned back to the cup, tried to lift her arm, move her fingers. They barely responded. She groaned as her arm rose three inches from the bedsheet. Panic washed over her as she realized she could raise it no higher. She dropped the arm back to the bed, her breaths coming a bit faster.
"That's all right. Don't overexert yourself," Blonsky interjected. "You're weak. That's to be expected." The nurse picked up the cup and brought the straw to Sheila's lips. The liquid pouring down her throat felt very, very good. She closed her eyes as the water cooled the ache in her head. I'm at the base, she thought. I was injured, somehow, and I'm at the infirmary. So, the accident in the room - it hurt me and everything else was - was -
Oh, god, it really was a dream. All of it. A big, wonderful, goddamn dream. She furrowed her brow. All that happened was I got hurt, and they found me and brought me here. And now I'm in real trouble because I probably broke something-
She opened her eyes and looked at Blonsky. She was near tears. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
"Excuse me, Ms. Huckaby?"
"I said - I'm sorry. I didn't mean to push that button. I was just wiping down the console and something happened. And now I'm probably going to lose my job," she said, her voice cracking and her eyes wet, "because I damaged that machine."
"Ms. Huckaby, the MT37 Gamma Cannon was not damaged."
"The Gamma Can - it wasn't?" she said, sniffing.
"No. And, um, you most certainly weren't injured. Quite the contrary. And that's why you're here."
Sheila frowned, a gesture that made her facial muscles ache. "I don't understand."
"Not surprising, really," Blonsky said, his sharp features twisting into smirk as he tried to maintain a kindly visage. "Simply put, Sheila - may I call you Sheila? - in that room, you single-handedly stretched the horizon of biogenetics by a previously unimaginable distance. You grabbed several years of research and shoved it into a direction neither my colleagues nor I could have dreamed of. What happened to you in that room, Sheila, made you the most important thing in the lives of several, frankly, very excited scientists." Behind the thick lenses, Blonsky's eyes gleamed. "Congratulations."
Sheila stared at Blonsky, struggling to wrap herself around the meaning of his words. "S-so," she stammered. "I-it was - real?"
"If by "it' you mean your transformation into a large, extremely powerful, green-skinned creature - yes, it was all too real."
For several seconds, Sheila didn't move, barely breathed. All she could do was stare at Blonsky's smiling, dispassionate face. She felt, for a fleeting moment, a wash of joy from the knowledge that the gift was truly real. But that happiness swiftly gave way to an ache, an emptiness, building in her stomach. She finally blinked, pressing against a rising flow of tears. She closed her eyes and felt herself collapse against an unbearable sense of - loss.
"I know this is difficult, Sheila. But I need to talk to you," Blonsky continued. "There is so much we still don't understand, and there was only so much data we could gather through physical investigation. It has reached a point at which you must help us understand how the transformation occurred."
"'Reached a point'? How-how long have I been here?"
"About three months, Sheila. Eighty-seven days, to be exact. We have kept you under sedation while we performed our investigations. Believe me, we took this approach strictly for your welfare."
Sheila's throat constricted; she couldn't speak. Three months?!
"All the work we have been doing would have been too stressful for you, Sheila. You didn't need to, um, be around for it. But now it's clear we can go further unless we have an understanding of things only you can provide. We need to know your activities in the days and weeks leading to the transformation. We know more about your arthritis and about the prescription drugs you were taking; we need to know if you strayed from your drug regimen in any away. And, of course, we'll need a full psychological profile. But first ' nurse, if you please?"
Sheila still couldn't bring herself to speak, caught in a vise of despair and near-panic. Under her bedsheet, she moved her left hand and pressed it against her leg. She felt rough, sharp bumps on her thigh. Stitches - Skin grafts - Oh, god, they were taking her apart - And she was imprisoned in an arthritic body further stiffened by three motionless months. There was nothing she could do -
The nurse rolled a cart next to Blonsky. On it was a small television. "I think," Blonsky said solemnly, "that you need to see this. It might help - jog your memory."
The doctor pressed a button on the TV, and a picture jerked to life on the screen. Sheila recognized immediately what she was watching: the security tape from that night. Numbers on the bottom left corner marked the date and time as a janitor in a blue denim shirt and gray jeans mopped the floor in Sector G of the McNair Air Force Base weapons lab. The janitor put down the mop and picked up a rag.
Sheila stared at the screen. A machine in the room betrayed her rising heart rate. Blonsky stared at Sheila, his face fixed in a studious frown.
The Sheila in the TV was wiping down the console. >From the camera's high angle, the exposed button on the panel was not visible. Sheila watched herself reach across the panel, saw herself hesitate just before the spinning yellow light came on atop the console.
In the bed, Sheila clenched and unclenched her hands. She was beginning to shake with anticipation, each shiver accompanied by a sharp ache from her atrophied limbs. Any second now -
On the screen, out of camera range, the Gamma Cannon fired. Sheila watched the green beam slam into herself, watched her body buckle and fall to the floor, heard her screams over the cannon's whine. I couldn't hear myself then. It was all so much -
The video Sheila was shaking violently, bucking and rolling in a thick, translucent sphere of gamma energy. A couple beats later, the shaking slowed a bit and Sheila was pulling herself up to her knees. She stretched a hand toward the power beam. Her hips were rocking rhythmically. The camera was too far away to make out facial expressions, but the woman watching the tape didn't need that information. She knew what was happening, and somehow allowed a smile to play across her lips.
Aroused. I was - god, it felt good. She began to squirm slightly in the bed, watching the seconds tick by on the screen, watching herself as the janitor raised another arm and tilted her head back. In the bed, Sheila shivered with surprise as she heard her own voice, caught by the security camera: "PUH-POWW-EERRRRR!"
And then it began. Sheila watched, transfixed, as her other self let out a loud, throaty moan. The camera provided a side view of Sheila's body, which shuddered and magnified, stretching slowly from her legs and arms and torso. She could see the folds in her jeans and shirt disappear as they were squeezed against her body. Jade lightning shot out of her eyes and struck her thighs, which swelled and burst through her pants. Two more bolts bored into her upper arms, which shredded her sleeves and grew while carving sharp peaks and valleys and undulations.
Watching in her antiseptic room, Sheila was oblivious to Blonsky or the nurse or the guard or anything else. The change was happening much faster than she remembered, but it was happening, and she remembered the sounds and sensations of bulging, growing muscle, the glorious ache of stretching bones, the non-stop waves of building power and sensual pleasure. Under the sheets, she grabbed her hospital gown and pulled, stretching its material across erect nipples on small breasts. A young woman who all her adult life had denied, or avoided, all overtures toward love or lust had received her first taste of it in full measure that night. Even now, imprisoned in a pale, overweight body, she could remember and, in some diminished fashion, could feel what it was like.
The screen flickered as the beam from the cannon suddenly increased in intensity. The video Sheila, already grown by several inches and carved with thick, feminine muscle under glistening, forest-green skin, threw out her sculpted arms and bowed her neck. A whirling, knotty dervish of jade energy rose from between her legs and careened into her nipples. She surged violently in size, growing wider and longer. Her thick, now-dark-purple hair lengthened and danced as if alive. Her breasts spread in diameter, covering the expanse of her muscled chest. Then they rose up and out, swelling into two sweat-stained spheres soaked in green lightning.
The cannon shut down. Watching the video in a daze, Sheila tried to lean toward the screen to fill the sudden silence. She saw herself, the amazon she used to be, stand up, raise two muscle-laced arms and blast a hole through the ceiling. She watched herself crouch slightly, then vanish in an emerald blur. The screen went blank. Blonsky removed his finger from the "stop" button.
"Quite a performance, wouldn't you say, Sheila?"
She didn't answer. Her eyes were glazed, her mind soaring in a glorious, beautiful body, rising to the stars -
She shook, shuddered, blinked, looked at the screen, at the doctor, at the screen, her chest heaving, her eyes wide. Her sharp breaths were the only sound in the room.
"Incredible, isn't it, that a human body could undergo such a drastic change, and that the end result could contain and channel such immeasurable power?" Blonsky said in a clinical tone. "I've watched that video, um, hundreds of times, and so many things still puzzle me. For instance, how did your body absorb the gamma energy? Was there some kind of symbiotic reaction? If the primary response was an increase in body structure and musculature and a decrease in fatty tissue, how does one explain the large breasts? Or, for that matter, the hair growth?
"So tell me, Sheila, please. What were you thinking just before the cannon fired? What medications were you using, and in what amounts? What thoughts or sensations can you recall during the transformation? And, for that matter, what can you remember from the reversion process?"
Sheila caught her breath suddenly and stared at Blonsky. "The revers-what?"
"The reversion, Sheila. The process by which you lost everything the transformation gave you. Somehow, you reverted exactly to your original state. We have found no lingering effects or traces of the gamma radiation, or unusual traits in your physiognomy. It's as if it never happened."
Sheila's face fell as Blonsky's words plunged her back to earth. She tried to bring her hand to her face, where the tears were being to flow again. But she still could raise her arm no higher than a few inches from the mattress. A quiet moan rolled out of her as her lip quivered and she struggled to speak.
"I-it's all g-gone, isn't it? I'm n-never going to - to be like that again, a-am I?"
"I can't say for sure, Sheila. Nobody can, at this point. And, again, that is why we have returned you to consciousness. We need more knowledge, Sheila, and it must come from you.
"Do you realize what you may have unleashed? The potential power and strength this could give to the U.S. military? Imagine a strike team of soldiers imbued with the abilities you possessed. Why, the weapon we were designing, the Gamma Cannon, would be a pop gun compared to what such men could do!
"You see, Sheila, in the field of military research, sometimes you don't know when you're thinking small. My team had focused all its brainpower on turning gamma radiation into a lethal weapon. We nearly had the cannon perfected for field use. We were conducting early tests on hand-held gamma weapons and on jet-mounted missiles. We were confident that gamma-based weaponry would give the United States an edge in field combat that it would hold for decades.
"And then you came along." Blonsky said with a wide that made Sheila grow cold.
"Once we had you back at base, following your brief escapade, the order came from on high: Duplicate the process. Mass-produce the transformation. Make it happen. And make it happen yesterday."
Blonsky was not smiling; his mouth had tightened into a thin line. "So we dived in. We studied you, probed you, conducted every test possible short of dissection." Sheila blanched and bit her lower lip. "General's orders: You had to remain alive. And so, a week ago, we reached a point where we determined your body alone would not give us what we need. We had to ask you some questions." Blonsky looked at the nurse, who promptly popped the security tape out of the TV and inserted another.
"As I said, it rather came to a head a week ago. When we did this." He pressed a button on the TV. The screen flickered on. The camera was pointed straight at a man sitting on a metal chair. He had short-cropped black hair, brown, narrowed eyes and a grim expression. At first, Sheila thought the man was naked, but she squinted and could make out a dark pair of boxer shorts on his stocky, athletic frame. She also saw that black straps held the man's wrists and ankles to the chair.
"This is Staff Sgt. Al Buscema, a 7-year veteran of the U.S. Army. Two weeks before this video was made, we began preparing the sergeant. He received several skin grafts from you. Two days before this shoot, we administered a full blood transfusion, with you as the donor."
Sheila was reeling in fear and confusion. She heard only half of what Blonsky was saying. A roar building in her ears drowned the rest.
"And then," Blonsky said, a bit theatrically, "we tried this."
A green glow washed over the sergeant, thickening here and there into tendrils that seemed to shoot straight through his body. Buscema's body kicked outward, held back only by the straps. His head whipped side to side and he bellowed in shock and pain. His limbs began to shake. A few seconds later, patches of his flesh began to rise and fall, as if something were boiling from within.
Sheila watched, transfixed, mortified. Blonsky's face was impassive. "And then," he said, "the moment of truth."
Emerald fire burst from Buscema's eyes. Green-tinged veins rose across his forehead and shoulders and biceps and thighs. His flesh shook, then swelled. His already toned chest grew thicker, sheets of green light pulsing under his sweaty flesh. Sharp, vast valleys formed along his thighs and up and down his stomach. His face, pulled taut with ecstasy or concentration or pain, it was impossible to tell which, was rising up and out of camera range as his body lengthened and widened. And so Sheila couldn't see the sergeant's face when the shrill scream shot from the TV's speakers. She wanted to look away, but couldn't. Buscema's hands were clenched so tightly that his knuckles were bony white. A thick, long, glowing vein across his bulging chest burst open, spraying red and green liquid across his arms and legs. A vein on an engorged thigh, then one on a growing bicep, followed suit. Buscema was braying like a wounded animal, and Sheila couldn't pull her eyes from the screen as the sergeant's flesh inflated like a grotesque balloon then exploded, sending bits and chunks of a dutiful soldier across the room. One piece struck the camera lens, plunging the screen into merciful blackness.
Blonsky pressed a button to stop the video, then glared into Sheila's horrified eyes.
"I will unlock your secrets, Ms. Huckaby. I will possess the key to that power, even if we have to take you apart, piece by piece."