an excerpt from


Playing it SAFE


by Keith R.A. DeCandido




[Excerpted from The Ultimate Hulk, now on sale from Byron Preiss Multimedia & Boulevard Books. The book can be ordered from the good and noble people at Amazon.com. This story and everyone in it is copyright © 1998 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved. All lefts, too.]

* * *


Inside a modest-sized house on the outskirts of White Plains, New York, a man sits before his computer in a specially reinforced chair needed to support over a thousand pounds of weight. It is an effort for him to type lightly enough that he doesn't smash the keyboard every time he touches it.

It took him a long time to adjust. But he manages. Barely.

He works as a freelance consultant, putting his scientific expertise to use for cash wired to an anonymous account set up by a friend. His wife is presently at Richards College, where she teaches Religious Studies.

The names on the lease to this house are Robert and Elizabeth Gaynor, but the names are as false as the impression that he is just a simple freelance consultant.

The man at the computer is, in fact, Robert Bruce Banner, one of the foremost experts on gamma radiation in the world--and also the incredible Hulk.

At the moment, Bruce and his wife Betty are living the lives of fugitives, taking on assumed names and trying not to draw attention to themselves. Despite some recent public incidents, they've managed to stay in White Plains for some time. Betty loves her job. Bruce is content with his consulting work.

They're happy.

Robert Bruce Banner has been happy before. He knows it can't possibly last.

* * *


Major Nefertiti Jones knew something was wrong when she saw that the door to Colonel Sean Morgan's office was closed. The head of SAFE always kept it open, on the theory that it made the tiny office a bit more roomy. SAFE, a relatively new government agency founded to deal with threats of a paranormal nature beyond the capacity of conventional organizations, was headquartered in a Helicarrier, a mobile flying unit in which space was at a premium.

"Come in," said Morgan's muffled voice.

Jones opened the door and entered.

"Major, have a seat." Morgan indicated the guest chair. He was poker-faced as always, expression placid under his close-cut sandy hair. Only his wintry gray eyes gave away any emotions: those eyes, Jones knew, said, We've got a serious problem.

Then she noticed the face on the viewscreen that filled one wall of Morgan's office. That face was pale, with red hair cut almost identically to Morgan's, and wearing smoky, green-tinted glasses. This explained why Morgan called her by the formal "Major," rather than the more familiar "Nef" he used in private.

"Major, I believe you know Henry Peter Gyrich of the NSA?"

"We've met," Jones said. Gyrich was the head of Operation: Wideawake, a National Security Agency project designed to control the so-called "mutant menace." Jones first met him when she was with S.H.I.E.L.D.

Gyrich nodded his head. "Major. As I was telling Colonel Morgan, we have a situation--though it sounds as if you already knew about part of it."

Jones looked to Morgan in confusion.

"Mr. Gyrich called in order to inform me of a possible double agent within SAFE."

Jones's first thought was, Oh, God, not another one, but said nothing aloud. SAFE had recently been infiltrated by two agents of URSA, a group dedicated to re-creating the old Soviet Union. The group, working with the gamma-irradiated creature called the Abomination, had killed several legitimate SAFE agents, framed the Hulk for the murder of a senator, and almost blown up the Russian embassy in New York.

Gyrich said, "Colonel Morgan then asked me if the mole was Agent Lucia Spilimbergo, to which I said yes."

Jones blinked in surprise. "Spilimbergo? That new lab kid?" Spilimbergo was one of a half-dozen agents recruited after the URSA disaster.

"I've actually suspected her for a couple of weeks," Morgan said. "Her actions have been a little off-kilter, and she's been making inquiries she shouldn't have. I wasn't completely sure, so I've been sending some false information her way, waiting to see how it played out. However, there seems to be more to it than meets the eye." He looked over to the viewscreen.

Gyrich said, "I flushed out Spilimbergo after checking the results of the psi-scanner."

Jones had a fairly good knowledge of the inventory of SAFE's Helicarrier, and didn't remember such an item on the list. "What psi-scanner?"

"It's a device that can detect unauthorized uses of telepathy," Gyrich explained. Jones assumed it could detect authorized uses as well. "I had them installed at the HQs of all U.S. intelligence organizations."

"Without," Morgan added, "informing said organizations." From anyone else, the phrase would have come across as sour, but Morgan spoke matter-of-factly.

"You know now," Gyrich said in a like tone. "In any case, we expected to find telepaths hiding out as spies. What we did find in your HQ were telepathic waves travelling into the Helicarrier. Specifically, to Spilimbergo. To my way of thinking, that says mind control."

Jones let out a breath. "So Spilimbergo might not be responsible for her actions?"

"That's the theory," Morgan said. "The question now becomes, who's doing the controlling?"

Gyrich looked at his watch. "I have to get to a meeting, so I'll leave that figuring to you. I trust, Colonel, that you'll keep me advised of your progress in dealing with this."

Morgan simply nodded.

"Good. Gyrich out."

As soon as his face faded out, Jones shot Morgan a look. "Since when do we report to him?"

"This sort of thing does fall under the NSA's bailiwick, though whether it's Gyrich's little corner of the NSA is up for debate. Never mind--we already know who the puppet master is: it's the Leader."

Jones blinked. Wondering why he waited until Gyrich had signed off to reveal this, she asked, "Excuse me?"

"I just got the latest computer report on Spilimbergo's actions. She's been asking the database a lot of questions about gamma-powered people in general and the Hulk in particular."

Jones blinked. "So she knows where the Hulk is?" At Morgan's nod, she added, "But she isn't cleared for--"

"No, she isn't. I was all set to move on this when Gyrich called and added his little wrinkle. That's why everything points to the Leader. Mind control of this sort is right up his alley, and he's got a history--one might say an obsession--with gamma-types, what with being one himself."

Jones rubbed her chin thoughtfully. The Leader began life as Samuel Sterns, a perfectly ordinary manual laborer. Then he was exposed to gamma radiation and--like so many before and after him--was transformed into something more than human. In Sterns's case, it raised his intellect to super-genius levels and gave him a measure of telepathic abilities--including, Jones recalled, the ability to control the mind of anyone he touched.

Aloud, she asked, "So what're you gonna tell Gyrich? I assume you didn't tell him about the Leader 'cause you didn't want him to know that we know where the Hulk is?"

Morgan nodded. "If I tell him that, he'll drag those Hulkbuster Mandroids out of mothballs and blow up White Plains. I'll deal with Gyrich later. Right now, I have two concerns. I'll deal with the internal stuff here--I want you to take five of your Special Tac Squad and go warn the Hulk."

"Only five?"

"I'd rather not make a scene unless we have to. Too big a team will draw attention."

"Then why not just call him or send one person?"

"In case there is a scene, I want you prepared for it. Load for bear, Nef--the Leader tends to employ nasty customers."

Jones nodded. "We'll be ready in twenty, Colonel."

To find out what happens next, you'll just have to order a copy of The Ultimate Hulk.

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