The smell of antiseptic was beginning to make Bruce feel suffocated.
It was more an abstract sense than anything concrete. An association formed in his mind between medicinal sterility and the feeling of boredom, along the lines Pavlov's dogs formed between the experimenter's bell and food.
He touched the raw skin of his right cheek, stripped of part of the epidermis, and came away with puss on his hand.
Banner was on edge, sitting beside a now vacant bed, looking over the results of the fourth CHECK patient to die, while a fifth body was taken away. He felt stressed, on edge, angry - was this because of his inability to break through, or an effect of the subatomic energy?
Excess testosterone and muscle growth had been a symptom in others - maybe the same was occurring in him. Perhaps the deaths of his fellow patients were natural; perhaps the spike in hormones that caused a brain aneurysm in each of the five dead so far actually was occurring naturally.
But he couldn't shake off the feeling that someone was causing the aneurysms. Whether it was a soldier paranoid about base security or some twisted angel of mercy, he couldn't say, but his instincts told him that the evidence, inconclusive as it was, led to something.
Bruce sat, awkwardly, as the body of Akosua Jawara was wheeled away on a stretcher. She was a good woman, with a sharp mind. There'd been a handful of black and female scientists who he'd had to fight to get onto his team - General Ross' superiors seemed to be stuck in a pre-Civil Rights mentality. Even in 1984, when Britain had a female Prime Minister and Chicago had a black mayor, there were some old men who refused to change.
If I hadn't fought so hard, Bruce thought, she'd still be alive.
The soldiers moved away her body, talking solemnly between them as they did.
Soldiers - particularly young soldiers - can make a joke out of almost anything, be light-hearted about imminent death, he'd learned that much over recent months. But here they were professional, formal - clearly they were worried.
Bruce stood, his thighs in agony as he did. It felt like his legs couldn't take his weight, and the burns seemed stuck to the hospital gown he was wearing under his trousers.
He'd been allowed to wear his own clothes over the gown that left him feeling incredibly exposed, and allowed to move around, provided he didn't interfere in anyone's treatment. It was best that he hide his pain, he realised, or they may force him to strip down to just the gown, with his rear exposed any time he wanted to leave his bed.
Dragging his morphine drip along with him, Bruce moved over to Jawara's bed, still unkempt and messy. He liked her - she was sharp, energetic, with none of the bitterness he'd expected from someone who'd been discriminated against on two fronts. There wasn't a hint of self-pity or anger to her, though he had felt it on her behalf. He thought about her sweet, smile, her eager to please energy. He was going to miss her.
A male nurse caught his attention as he stood over the vacated bed of his friend.
"I've got the autopsy report on Castro. Doctor Sterns told me to send a copy up to you as soon as it's complete."
Bruce smiled, a warm, affectionate smile - the nurse was eager to please. Generally it was a smile that put people at ease, but it didn't seem to work this time. Perhaps the nurse was also on edge, or perhaps the burns and scars on Banner's face made him less reassuring.
He sunk into the chair besides Klein's now vacated bed, and held out a hand for the nurse to hand over the report.
"Do you know where Doctor Sterns is?"
"I think he's off duty sir. Been ordered to get some rest."
Bruce nodded. There were three medical doctors to treat over forty people with radiation burns, and General Ross had wanted them to check that the radiation hadn't affected the others in more subtle ways.
Under the circumstances Bruce found it remarkable that the soldiers and medical staff had been as calm and rational as they were.
"Do you need anything else sir?" the nurse asked.
"That's all thanks. Make sure you don't push yourself too hard."
The nurse smiled.
"I wish that were an option sir."
As the nurse left, Banner opened the medical file, looking at the observations within. The pattern was the same - deep and wide-spread radiation burns, greater muscle mass, discoloration of the skin. (Klein had been the most dramatic of the four autopsied in that respect, his skin turning an impossible to ignore shade of green.)
Major Talbot stood on the far side of the room, locked in tense discussion with Doctor James. Though Bruce found the major uptight and humourless, he didn't envy his responsibility for base security in a time like this. It seemed a tense discussion between equals - there was little sign that the military man was pushing James into any form of compromise. That was positive - right now, the medics were the most important people on the base, their expertise should be respected.
Banner returned to the autopsy report.
Looking with eyes slightly refreshed, one word jumped out at him, one he instinctively believed he'd misread - trianoline.
Banner flexed his eyelids, then read again - he'd been right. A delivery agent, it was used to smooth the injection of various medicines into the body… amongst them hormones.
Banner scanned his eyes over through the report - the investigating medic had noted, in passing, the presence of puncture wounds in the back of the neck.
This was it! Proof that someone with access had injected various hormones into the brainstem of Klein (and probably the others as well) causing a brain aneurysm which killed them.
It wasn't entirely incontrovertible proof, but it was by far the most sensible reason for the presence of trianoline in the body. The substance didn't occur naturally, and wouldn't be needed in any treatment Klein had been through.
Excited and energised, Banner leapt to his feet, no longer aware of the boils and burns which distorted his body.
At least, he was for a moment – the pain in his thighs was first to reassert itself – he had to brace against the pain. He was too enthusiastic to let that drag him down. The morphine drip moved off its wheels, rocking back and forth until Bruce steadied it.
"Major Talbot! Doctor James!"
The pair turned to look at Banner, who then waved them toward himself, in a gesture of childlike enthusiasm. His smile was broad enough to lift his cheeks, and return the expression of wonder all who knew him were familiar with.
Talbot and James seemed reluctant, not moving for a moment or two, before both trudging reluctantly towards him. Both thought him a crackpot (their body language had made that clear), and were focused on what they considered to be more immediate concerns.
But Banner's breakthrough would finally give them the opportunity to turn the corner, to stop the deaths and cut away the red herrings that were interfering with a solid medical diagnosis.
"Yes, Doctor Banner?"
Talbot made no effort to hide his disinterest. There was a trace of contempt for Banner - he was the kind of straightforward, disciplined man who had no time for theories at the best of times, preferring solid, proven methods.
Of course, this had its positives - he was one of the few men on base not to be frazzled by the current crisis. When many on the base were working with two or three days' stubble, his pencil moustache was as neatly trimmed as ever.
"I've found out why people are dying. I knew it wasn't directly linked to the radiation, I've found proof they've been injected with enough hormones to kill them."
Speaking quickly and energetically, even Banner was aware that his enthusiasm seemed out of place when the subject matter was death. But a breakthrough was a breakthrough - the subject of new knowledge always energised him in this way.
Neither James or Talbot had much faith in him - they remained as stony-faced as ever.
"There's proof in the autopsy," Banner continued, his energy overflowing to the point where he almost dropped the file. He held it out to James. "They've noticed the presence of trianoline. There's no way that should naturally..."
Bruce trailed off, his enthusiasm dropping, quickly reaching below zero.
Not only was James keeping his hands by his side, refusing to take the file, his face was tensing up, into embarrassment. The way he avoided eye contact with Banner, it could even be shame.
"You knew. You knew about this."
Banner was shocked even as he spoke, it seemed so unlikely. But James' refusal to even look at the file told him that he knew what was in it. Banner turned toward Talbot.
"Did you know about this?"
The anger rose up in the scientist, a sense of moral outrage that overwhelmed all else. His face burned with rage.
"Doctor, maybe you should calm down. Maybe an increase in morphine would be in order?"
James, looking toward the floor in embarrassment, nodded slightly.
"Are you in on this Talbot? Or are you just refusing to contemplate the possibility?"
Talbot did nothing, save for raising an eyebrow. The difference was small, certainly compared to the scale of the problem.
"Doctor, it's my responsibility to ensure base security. If you continue to be a disruptive influence -"
"Disruptive influence? Is that why you ordered those patients be killed?"
Though Talbot was taller by at least half a foot, Banner moved towards him, unwilling to allow him to remain comfortable with his decision to dismiss his input.
"Seriously, are you in on this, or just unwilling to think outside your tidy little mind? Perhaps you think if you lock me up, you can move in on Betty?"
"Bruce, you should calm down."
He looked at the doctor, who now had a syringe in hand. Banner yanked the morphine tube out of his arm, leaving it to spew the transparent liquid across the floor. Remaining right in Talbot's face, he turned towards James.
"Where is Doctor Sterns? Did you remove him from duty because he discovered something?"
"He wasn't removed from duty. He's been unwell -"
Bruce didn't want to give the pair a chance to dilute his anger. There were half a dozen patients listening, and as many nurses and soldiers - both those already in the ward, and those peering in through the open doorway.
"Why should I believe you? If you're so willing to break your Hippocratic oath, what else have you done?"
Bruce felt anger on a scale he wasn't sure he ever had before. He felt as if his voice was echoing, deeper than normal. It sounded louder to him, his voice felt physically much more powerful.
He turned back towards Talbot, whose face betrayed a sense of shock, breaking through his military discipline.
"Your eyes... they're green."
Even as he spoke calmly, Banner felt that his voice was echoing.
"They've changed, and your skin... your skin..."
Bruce raised an arm - it wasn't just discoloured in the same way some of the other patients had been. In them, shades of green, grey and red were dramatically increased. In himself, it appeared his arm was completely changing colour, and was doing so before his eyes. It was increasing from the type of discoloration that was little different scientifically to a tan, to a full-blown change of natural skin colour.
Bruce looked up to see that Talbot had signalled for two soldiers to approach. To his left, Doctor James was moving in with a needle.
With an open-palmed shove, he threw the doctor to the floor, sending him skidding across the clean surface.
He turned back towards Talbot, who seemed to have shrunk. The height difference between the two men had disappeared - he was now roughly the same size as the major, who, despite clearly being terrified, was standing his ground.
"Did you know about this?" His voice was absolutely booming. "Did you know what James was doing?"
Bruce was so enraged, he was struggling to think straight, to remember precisely the question he wanted answering.
"Before I told you. Did you know before I told you?"
Out of the corner of his eye he could see soldiers and nurses moving patients out of the ward, clearly afraid of damage that might soon be done. He was too focused on his goal to be offended.
His clothes felt tight, he felt the button on the top of his trousers pop off, held together by the zip.
"Doctor Banner, maybe you should calm down, we can - "
"Did you know?"
Talbot winced as Bruce yelled; out of the corner of his eye he could see a soldier place a hand to his ears.
Two soldiers had pistols drawn, both wearing no special armour, nothing besides their normal base uniform. They seemed smaller, Bruce realised he must be increasing in size. That should have been obvious given that the changes were within him - why did he think Talbot was shrinking?
The soldiers were now no farther away than James had been – Talbot stood his ground.
Bruce paused, until, acting at once, he tore the pistol out of the hand of the farther soldier, and threw a fist towards the face of the nearer. His grab took more hand than pistol, sending the soldier, to the floor, letting out a scream of agony as he held his wrist. The other soldier seemed to have been knocked unconscious by the single blow. With his trousers torn, clinging tightly to his bulky thighs, Banner grabbed hold of Talbot's uniform. The major was at least a foot smaller than him now, and Banner, feeling the newly grown muscles in his upper arms, had no problem lifting him from the floor, his toes dangling just above the tiles of the hospital ward.
Consumed by anger, he struggled to find anything in his mind which had not been set ablaze by it. He had to work hard to formulate his question.
"Did you know... about… about the murder?" Talbot didn't respond, trying to hide his fear behind a military mask of stoicism, his effort a noble but clear failure. "TELL ME!"