Long Dark Night of the Soul
July 4, 1963
Banner woke with a start. The lingering roar of a sonic boom echoed across the desert floor as he stumbled from his makeshift bed and staggered into the harsh morning light. "What's going on?" He tightened his bathrobe despite the heat.
Large trucks were moving back and forth as hangers were being put up. Major Talbot rounded a corner. "Ah, Dr. Banner. I see you found our new landlords."
Talbot sighed. "Just word from the top, the very top. This base and all of its faculties are now being co-run by the Air Force. And since a Air Force general outranks a Army major, well, I'm being knocked down to the trenches."
"Wait, you're not the commander anymore? Then who's in charge?"
Talbot wiped his brow. "Morris, General Clinton Morris. He's not a bad guy, from what I've heard, but it looks like our little addition is causing some folks at the top some worry."
"Why, what has Betty done?"
"Ms. Ross? Nothing, nothing at all; it's the Hulk that has everyone worried."
Banner shook the sleep from his eyes. "So what's going on?"
Talbot grimaced. "I have no idea. I've been tossed out; at this rate I'm lucky I'm not working guard detail somewhere in the Antarctic." Readjusting his hat, he turned around. "I'm overseeing the general's tour right now, but be ready. The man hates sloppy work."
Banner nodded and hurried back inside. "Great, what else can go wrong?" The heat rising from the sand caused the buildings off in the distance to waver back and forth, like they were melting. "I hope that isn't an answer."
Betty had been quietly eating her breakfast when General Morris entered the room. There had been the basic pleasantries and names exchanged, but for the past several minutes she had been stared at like a prize specimen. Morris had questioned her directly, but he had already turned his back on her and busied himself grilling her 'keepers'.
Her room, her entire existence now, consisted of four gray walls. For comfort she had a chair, a table, a bed, and a television set. The furniture was all prefab Army standard, but the set was a fancy color model. Each wall was at least eight feet thick and consisted of a specially made concrete/steel blend. She could have broken out of there in less than a minute.
She was given full access to mail, newspapers, and any book she wanted. Her meals were all cooked to her order and she did have a private bath located next door. She also knew the guards were issued tranquilizer guns with enough dope to knock out a rhino. She walked over to the set and flipped the power switch. As the picture flickered on, she settled back as best she could when the general knocked on her window. "Ms. Ross?"
Leaving the set running, she stood up at the sound of her name. "Yes sir?"
"I've been talking with the guards here, and they say you've been a model guest."
"Prisoner more like it." She grumbled mentally but didn't allow herself the luxury of getting angry. Trying to change the subject, she looked at the general. "Just doing what I'm told sir."
"Yes, well, there might be a mission where your skills would be an asset. You've been pardoned, but tell me, are you going to work with us?"
"Where's my father?" Betty knew what was coming. They wanted her to run missions for them. She wasn't opposed to the idea, of course, but she wanted to work on her terms. "I'd rather speak to him."
General Morris blanched. "General Ross is…incommunicado at the moment. We are trying to reach him, but it might take a few more days."
She narrowed her eyes at the man. Every request to speak with her father had ended the same. Something had happened, but they wouldn't tell her. Was it because they didn't trust her, or that they didn't want her to be angry?"
Crossing her arms, she turned her head up. "When I see my father, you'll have your answer."
"Of course." Morris excused himself and stepped away from the window. Once he was out of range, he turned to his aide. "Get me Talbot, now!"
Major Talbot sat down before the general. Morris had already changed out of his dress uniform. "Talbot, I'm going to get to the point. You were close to General Ross. Any ideas on where he would be?"
Talbot grew alarmed. "You mean no one has seen General Ross?"
"No, he disappeared shortly after leaving his command. We assumed he was helping his daughter, or perhaps just staying underground, but we've been unable to locate him. Even SHIELD doesn't have a clue."
"Does Ms. Ross know?"
"No, and I'd like to keep it that way for as long as possible."
"Sir, I protest-"
"Protest all you want, but right now we have the advantage. The Russians have nothing like the Hulk, and I'd like to keep it that way. We can string Ms. Ross along for a while, but we are going to find her father, major. That is your assignment."
"But sir, no one's seen him in months."
"Then start looking."
Betty sat up. She had dozed off several hours ago, but she felt oddly alert. "Three in the morning?" She picked up her alarm clock. "Wait, how can I see this?" Dropping it, she turned her head towards the room's source of illumination.
The television set was on. The white blare of the set washed over everything. "Betty Ross?"
The voice was deep, feminine, yet there was something old in the tone. Rising from the bed, she looked around the room. "Yes?"
"Step towards the light child. We have much to discuss."
Not seeing any guards, and doubting the reality of the situation, Betty stepped towards the set. The light increased, so much so she had to shield her eyes. When the light faded, Betty was standing in front a fireplace. "Where am I?"
"The where is not important." A tall blond woman stepped out of the shadows. She was taller than Betty, with long flowing locks that seemed to writhe in the flickering light. Her check bones were sharp and her eyes narrow. "The now is; how would you like some questions answered?"
"What kind of questions?" Betty began to look for an exit. All she saw was darkness. "Who are you?"
"A…friend of your mother. We worked together once."
"I don't remember my mother."
"Shocking but not surprising." The woman stepped closer. "My name is Claire, and I have a task for you. Grant me this, and I'll give you a favor."
Betty was intrigued, but nervous. "What kind of task?"
"Something of a minor inconvenience I'll let you know later."
Betty blinked. She found herself sitting on her cot back in her cell. She lay back down and tried to sleep. The night seemed to be alive around her. Was it a dream? Was she dreaming now? The darkness gave her neither answer nor comfort.
The next day
Betty slowly ate her breakfast. She still remembered her dream from the previous night, but she hadn't felt the urge to tell anyone. Outside of her guards, she hadn't seen anyone. She suddenly bumped the table, knocking her milk over. "Drat!" She stared as the glass broke against the concrete floor. In the rapidly spreading puddle she saw an image forming. "Words?"
In the milk, the words 'tonight' and 'midnight' appeared. Blinking, Betty found herself staring at a puddle.
"Everything ok?" One of the guards was at the window.
"Just fine Frank. No sense in crying, right?" She wiped up the spill and put her tray through the slot. "I'm just not hungry, that's all."
She sat back down. "Claire? And she worked with my mother?" She suddenly cursed that her mother had no journal or records. "I wish I had some way to look this stuff up."
"What can I do?"
Talbot slammed the photos on his desk. "After all this time, and nobody's seen the general?" The pictures all told the same story. No one had seen him leave the house in months. When they finally entered, all they found was a smoldering cigar in an ashtray and a cold mug of coffee. There were no other signs of a struggle.
"So what the blazes happened?"
He knew that he should have called. Heck, someone should have at least; yet no one did. Why? "Because I didn't have to." The reason felt silly, yet every time he felt the urge to contact the general, something, some irresistible force told him not to do it. "How could that happen?" What could have caused him to ignore the father of the Hulk?
Walking to his window, he peered through the blinds. He stared at the squat low building that housed the most powerful weapon in the country. "And what is she going to do when she finds out?"
The day passed quickly. Betty had spent the entire day without any visitors. "Something must be up." As the clock's hands inched towards twelve, Betty felt a chill. The sound of her facet suddenly stopped mid-drip. The guard's footsteps ceased. The entire room was filled with a white noise, some unbearable silence that seemed to be alive.
"Have you thought about my offer?" Claire's voice came from everywhere.
"What do you want me to do?" Betty tried to put her back to something, but the shadows covered every surface. She was struck with the most intense vertigo she had ever felt as she tried to pinpoint Claire's position.
"An…old friend of mine has come into town. I want you to stop by and convince him to go back home."
"If this is so simple, why don't you do it?" Betty tried to angle for some information on her guest.
"I never said it was simple." Claire sounded annoyed. "Things have changed since I last walked. My name might cause…problems. You have no such drawbacks."
"Alright, but how would I get out of here?" For her answer, the cell door simply vanished.
"Walk outside. The signs will tell you where to go."
Betty stepped out of the cell. The hallway was darkened and there was no sign of the guards. Picking up the pace, she found herself slowly changing the faster she walked. When she finally emerged from the building, it was the Hulk who breathed in the night air. A stray flick of light off in the distance beckoned to her. "I guess that's a sign?"
Hearing no response, the Hulk broke into a run. Her legs no, her whole body, moved in perfect synchronized rhythm. "I actually forgot how much fun this was!" Never breaking her stride, she leapt the rest of the way, covering dozens of miles in one leap.
Landing with a deafening thud, she stepped out of the newly made crater. Before her was a small campfire. On the other side was a skull. It was small and bleached perfectly white by the sun. "Trying to tell me something?"
The fire suddenly flared to life. Within the flames, the Hulk saw Claire's face staring back at her. "I am pleased you came so quickly."
"Just get to the point."
"Very well." Claire stepped out of the flame. She was dressed in a black body stocking with the faint image of a spider on the front. A small cape was draped over her shoulders. "Some time ago several foes of mine escaped from the Underworld. I've recaptured most of them, save for one."
"And you want me to nab this guy?"
"Something like that, yes. You see he escaped to a parallel dimension."
"He's out of your jurisdiction?" The Hulk cocked an eyebrow.
"Something to that effect. I can't leave this plane of existence, but you are under no such limitations."
"Ok, say I go and perform this." The Hulk crossed her arms. "What's in it for me?"
Claire's smile turned sinister. "For you, nothing. For your father, everything."
"My father?" The Hulk stepped forward, her hands tightening into fists. "What have you done?"
"I did nothing. My foe was the one that kidnapped him in an effort to lure you to him."
The Hulk glowered at her. "You'd better be telling the truth."
"There would be nothing you could do to me if I wasn't." Claire waved her hands as the sand and rock beneath their feet shifted and parted. "Follow this path and stay on it. My foe will be waiting at the end, with your father in tow. Defeat him and gain your father's freedom. Lose and you are both damned."
"And what can you do to help me?"
"Nothing at all I fear." Claire didn't seem too heartbroken about that detail. "Just accomplish your task before sunrise, or you'll be trapped forever."
The Hulk grumbled as she descended into the dark. "When this is over we are going to have some words."
"I look forward to it." Claire stepped into the fire again and vanished.
The Hulk went down the steps. Everything seemed normal at first, but the further she went the more bizarre things became. The steps grew distorted and uneven. She saw a light at the end of the path, but she couldn't see anything around her. Waving her hand around, she felt nothing. Calling out, she heard no echo. "What is this place?" Heading towards the light, she stepped through the archway and gasped.
Around her was a world undreamt. Misshapen islands hung suspended in the sky. Multicolored rivers ran backwards above the ground as unearthly shrieks carried across the vast land. Stepping forward onto a nearby island, she was hit with a feeling of vertigo so powerful she dropped to her knees. Looking up, she saw the path she was on, only it was now upside down. Or was she the one who had moved? Rising, she found her feet were still on the ground, but she could feel the blood rushing to her head. "This is insane!"
Walking back towards the path, she felt her balance being returned. "Stay on the path, right." She moved further into the interior of the strange world. Winged blobs of flesh and teeth soared through the air as light bounced off of strange flat oceans. "How am I supposed to know what this guy looks like?"
In response the path under her feet cracked. She fell sideways as she blindly reached out for a solid surface. The very air around her blasted at her hide as she gripped a blue crescent sticking out of a mound of dirt. Feeling her feet on solid ground, she spied a masked figure stuck in what appeared to be a blue Venus flytrap mixed with an octopus. "Hello?"
"Who speaks?" a voice rang out from the void.
"I'm looking for someone." The Hulk steeled herself for an attack.
"You found someone, but am I the one you seek?" A man appeared before her. He was short, squat, and clad in a black tunic and robe. "Speak quick woman, my patience is thin."
"I'm looking for a man, old, from Earth."
"That is not the most descriptive thing I have ever heard." The man snorted and twirled his cape around. "Tell me, has the Earth been reduced to spitting out fools with more regularity?"
There was something about the little man that irked the Hulk. A sense that he knew something; forgoing any sense of subterfuge, the Hulk reached out and grasped him by the front of his tunic. "Do you know of a woman named Claire?"
The man's face contorted with rage. "That spider? Aye, it was she that led me to damnation! Are you working for her?" Before she could answer, a violet light enveloped his fists. He punched her in the jaw, sending her flying across the nameless void.
She might have drifted forever if she hadn't crashed headlong into another floating island. Righting herself, she braced for another assault. The little man howled with laughter at her stance. "You think I'm just another two bit hoodlum?" In a blink the man appeared behind her. "Father Ogor is more than that!" With a snap of his fingers her legs were swallowed up to the knees by the dirt.
"And the Hulk is more than that too!" Straining, she slammed her fist into the hardened soil. The impact split the island in two. Ogor flopped over the side as she scrambled to her feet. "Cut the party tricks and tell me what I want to know!"
"Never!" Ogor appeared before her. He clapped his hands, creating a sound wave that buffeted her lump of dirt and almost knocked her free.
Her rage increasing, the Hulk slammed her hands together, blasting the man away into the white nothingness. "Nothing can beat the Hulk!" She tore her floating buoy apart and hurled the soft spongy lump of mass towards the rapidly shrinking figure. "Nothing!"
Leaping towards the platform she first spied, she found herself again looking at her target, but falling away from it. She hit solid ground, which was close enough for her taste. Rolling on her front, she clawed and grasped her way towards the figure. "Father?"
The figure was silent. Head to toe he (if it was her father) was covered in a solid casing made from a blue grayish metal. She easily made her way to the shell. Gripping the head, she pushed her thumbs into the metal and pulled. The metal tore away without much resistance.
General Ross pitched forward. "Jennifer?" His eyes were sunken in and his flesh pale. For the first time, Betty looked down and saw just how old her father appeared. His hair seemed brittle and devoid of color. His skin hung off of his frame, slate-like and pale.
Before she could correct him, Ogor reappeared above them. "Fool! You've disrupted my chaos engine!" As he spoke, red lighting flashed across the sky. "Without a power source we're doomed!"
Spinning around, the Hulk saw the path she entered on reforming. "Maybe you, but not the Hulk!" She shouted as a gale force wind blew from everywhere at once. Cradling her father, she dashed across the island as the rocks and soil under her feet broke apart. Ogor screamed as he found himself buffeted by the winds.
"Help me!" His voice barely carried over the screaming din. He tried to fly himself down, but his cape became entangled on a geometrically impossible protrusion. He snapped back, chocking, as the Hulk leapt towards safety. The entire area around suddenly crumpled, burying him alive. His screams were lost as the now falling mass of soil and rock dropped into the infinite abyss.
The Hulk never looked back. Running as fast as she could, she flew up the stairs. The darkness around her seemed alive as she cleared the steps three at a time. She could swear that the very steps under her feet were trying to trip her as she spied the light at the end of the tunnel.
She became an engine. Lowering her head, she ran faster and faster as the tunnel behind her shook and twisted. Covering the last few steps in one mighty leap, she flew into the air as the tunnel collapsed. She landed with a resounding thud and fell on her back.
Rolling to her side, she laid her father out on the soft sand. "Dad?"
Ross blinked at her. "Where am I?" His voice quivered. "I thought I saw Jennifer." He mumbled to himself.
The Hulk spun towards the sound of Claire's voice. Claire herself was perched on a rock. "What happened to him?"
"He was happy. Ogor snatched him and placed in that trap, the upside of which was that he was finally reunited with his wife."
"You mean," The Hulk began to shrink. Her muscles lost their definition and her flesh regained its pink hue. "My mother is still alive?"
"Yes." Claire idly picked at her fingernails. "Removing him from there caused her no end of anguish, and him?" She looked at the general. "I imagine his soul must be breaking."
"You never told me!" Betty changed back in an instant. The change was so fast, not even Claire could have anticipated her movement. In one gray flash, Claire had been knocked from her earthy seat and sent crashing to the ground. "You never told me that would happen!"
"You never asked." Claire rose to her feet. "And I didn't feel like telling you." She spread her arms, but to the Hulk's confusion, the blond caught an updraft and sailed away on the wind. "You've served your usefulness, but be warned mortal, my patience has its limits."
"Come back here!" The Hulk took to the air after her. Crashing into her, the impact forced the unearthly woman back to the ground. Struggling to free herself, Claire clasped both hands over the Hulk's eyes.
"Mortal swine, feel the Widow's touch!"
The Hulk roared in agony as the woman's touch sent millions of hot searing needles of pain through her mind. Her blood boiled as she pried herself free and staggered back. She swayed on her feet, the skin around her eyes sporting a spider like mark.
Claire raised her arms and floated to her feet. "Now, do you yield?"
The Hulk lowered her hands. The flesh was still burned, but the healing had already started. The rage she felt was greater than anything she had ever felt before. Blinding, all consuming hate that bubbled up and over in her mind. She spoke only two words, but she said them loud enough to be heard almost a mile away.
She swung with a right that connected with Claire's jaw. The sickening sound of breaking bone and tearing flesh echoed across the desert floor. Claire flew back and crashed into the base of the mountain, creating a spider web of cracks that formed in the rock.
To her credit, Claire rose to her feet, albeit via her own strength and not magic. "Perhaps I underestimated you." Claire stepped into the shadows. "Any more fighting would be pointless. You granted me a boon, and I am in your debt. Do not seek to anger me any further mortal. My wraith is far greater than your rage." She faded away, leaving the Hulk alone.
"No, that's not fair!" The Hulk shouted to the sky. Falling to her knees, she began to hammer at the dirt and rock. "Come back and fight me!" She slammed her fists into the mountain's base, ignoring the boulders that broke free and tumbled around her. "Come back!" She half cried and half roared. Her voice broke down into a mindless rage as the mountain threatened to fall down around her head.
The voice was frail, but it was strong enough to give her pause. Fists came crashing down as she breathed heavily. A shaking hand on her back made her turn around.
"I think that's enough for right now." Ross looked down at his daughter. His face was lined and tired, but she could see the fire returning in his eyes.
The person who stood up and enveloped him in a hug wasn't the Hulk, but Betty Ross. Betty clutched her father tightly as tears ran down both their faces. "Dad, I'm sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry about." Ross broke the embrace and looked at her. "Let's get you back the base. I imagine there's been some changes since I left."
Betty stepped back. With closed eyes, she changed back into the Hulk. "Hop on."
Ross gave a wry smile. "A bit silly, but this old war horse won't turn down a free ride." She slid onto her back as she jumped. She bounded cross the sand, clearing miles with each leap. In a manner of minutes the base was already visible.
"Slow down and change back. We don't want the radar boys thinking we're hostile." Ross had to shout over the rushing air.
Talbot was already racing towards General Morris's office. The entire base was in a panic. "How could she have escaped?" There had no signs of violence and none of the base personal saw anything. Kicking the door open, he rushed inside. Morris silenced him with a glare.
"Talbot, you've done nothing but foul things up!" He slammed down the phone receiver back into its cradle. "First General Ross vanishes, now the Hulk AWOL? What next?"
He bristled under the comments. "That's what I was saying sir. Our scouts picked up the Hulk and the general half a mile from the base. They seem to be coming back."
"What?" Morris spilled his papers as he rushed past Talbot. "Why didn't you say so?"
The base was already on high alert. Men scrambled into positions. Dr. Banner was overseeing several new weapons, large dishes mounted on trucks that were being driven up to the base's entrance. General Morris rushed over to a jeep and picked up a walkie-talkie. "Get the helicopters on standby. No, keep off on the panic button. Let's contain it first before we alert Washington."
Talbot checked his pistol. Troops rushed out and took positions. Wryly he noted the futility of using bullets against something that could withstand an atomic bomb. "Orders General?"
Morris had found a pair of binoculars. "I see them!"
"Steady…" He focused the lenses. "I see the Hulk, no, Ms. Ross…and General Ross? Hold your fire!"
Rifles went up as a truck was sent out to meet them. "Shall we stand down sir?"
"Not yet Major." Handing the binoculars to an aide, Morris squinted in the morning light. "I want answers by George, and I want them within the hour. Put Ms. Ross back in her cell and send the general to me. I want to know where they've been."
Betty tapped her fingers against the chair. She had been separated from her father the moment the trucks pulled up. After a brief explanation, they had been ushered into separate parts of the base. She counted the seconds down in her head. It had been two hours.
"Betty?" Talbot appeared at her cell door.
"Betty, you have to understand, you disappeared. Your father disappeared. What are we supposed to think?"
"I don't know right now." She stood up and paced around the room. "I've done everything you asked of me Glenn. I've stayed in my little box in the middle of nowhere, I've put up with the questions, but now? Now there are going to be some changes."
Glenn sweated. "Changes? What kind of changes?"
Betty marched over to the door and stared him in the face. "I've been pardoned, by the President, and since then have I broken any laws?"
"Well -" She cut him off. Leaving the base was violating orders, but since she wasn't even in the Armed Forces…
"Have I broken any laws?"
"Then I should be allowed to leave." She leaned against the cell door. "Look Glenn, I've not threatening anyone, am I? All I'm asking for is a chance to move around. I'll defend my country, if you want, heck, I'd even enlist, but I have to get something out of this."
"Like the ability to move around."
"A bit more than that, but yes."
"Betty, it's complicated. If you were anyone else, sure, no problem, but you are the Hulk. And the Hulk makes people nervous. We have to convince the brass that you aren't a threat to national security."
"And how can we do that if I'm locked up like a bicycle?" Betty's eyes flashed green for a second.
Glenn stepped back from the cell. "You do have a point." Gesturing towards the guard, he stood up. "Forgot protocol this time; this time we are going to the top."
"Sir, I can't -" Glenn's expression was enough to silence the man.
"You can and will solider, I'm pulling rank." Mentally, he was adding, "While I still have it."
The heavy cell door was opened and Betty stepped out. Flanked by the nervous guards, they strolled outside. Betty wistfully stared at the open desert around them before getting into the jeep. Glen returned the guards salute and started the short drive over to the general's office.
"Glenn, how's my father doing?"
He felt his mouth go dry. "Things;" second passed as he tried to think of a way to crouch his words, "Could be better Betty. General Morris is a good man, but he's stubborn. The debriefing was still going on when I left." Parking the jeep, they got out and went in past the sentries. Standing in the office, Glen was quickly ushered in while she was left outside.
Hearing men's voices angrily being raised, Betty took the time to stroll around the room, admiring the new general's new decorations. "Air Force man, eh?" Picking up a model aircraft, she put it back as Morris's voice carried all the way through the heavy oak door.
"Outside? Are you insane man?"
"Stand down Morris, I won't have you insulting my daughter!" Her father's voice rang out just as clearly.
"And I'm telling you, the situation has changed!" Glenn tried to interject, but both generals shouted him out.
As the shouting grew worse, Betty stepped back from the door and made her way down the hall. The floor was shiny from a new coat of wax and the lingering scent of it hung in the air. She strolled past pictures depicting various vehicles and glories of past battles. "Which one will I be? A solider or a jeep?"
How much longer could this go on? Morris was never going to let her go, and she doubted her father could argue enough to convince him otherwise. Glenn was a good man, but his first loyalty would always be to the uniform. "I've sat on the sidelines too long." She unbuttoned her dress. It fluttered to the floor as she stopped by a mirror. "That Richards can do some amazing work." The unstable molecules that composed her costume bore no damage of her previous fights.
Opening the door, she stepped out into a world that was old but new. "They can argue from now until doomsday, but I can't stand by and do nothing." She was Betty Ross when she walked on the step, but she was the Hulk when she stepped off. "And there is nothing they can do about it."
Lightly jogging, she jumped and the base vanished behind her. "Look out world, here comes the Hulk!" She didn't know if she could overcome what had happened before, but she was going to do her best. She wasn't her mother, and she wasn't going to be pushed around or manipulated anymore.
And we're back! Crazy times and crazy rhymes, but where would we be without them? To start, this tale was original. When I said blast from the past, bet I wouldn't use Ms. Voyant, eh?
And now to the fan mail:
They Call Me BruceThis tale was, dare I say it? Astonishing
Man, this is a great series so far, but I can't wait to see what you have planned if you're going to do an Avengers team with your alternative characters. Please, keep up the good work on such great alternative tales of famous Marvel lore.
And finally, from our own dear mistress herself, Tiffani
Great story Cambot. Excellent descriptions and dialogue. Thanks for sharing.
To all who wrote in, thank you.
(And as for Earth's Mightiest Heroes showing up…. maybe)
Next issue, come back when some certain famous Marvel mutants show up for a "Rumble in the Desert!"
Tales to Astonish#11-The Terrible Traps of Egghead!
Journey Into Mystery#13-The Demon Duplicators