“Before you know it,” turned out to be a bit of an exaggeration.
He arrived on Saturday afternoon, complete with chaperon, meeting me in front of the parking garage behind the hospital.
The area around the hospital was one of those spots in Grand Lake that felt like a big city. The highway that ran through downtown wasn’t far off, and we could hear it. The hospital, a big, block-shaped, brick building, sprawled across the street. The new medical research institute, a long metal and glass building that could have been stolen from the cover of a science fiction novel, stretched as long as the combined hospital and garage.
Alex wore his costume — a white long coat covering gray armor.
Next to him stood a short, completely hairless man with dead white skin. He wore black armor. It shimmered. I didn’t recognize the material.
With the Rocket suit still in need of repair, and the stealth suit’s jacket ruined, I wore the 80’s era Rocket suit. It had been a bit of a departure from most of Grandpa’s designs, but everything worked. The next version of the suit, the one he’d designed for me, had been a return to basics.
I landed on the sidewalk with a thump. The 80’s suit was heavier than the current version.
Alex looked me over. “That’s a blast from the past.”
“I know. I’m repairing the regular Rocket suit.”
“How many do you have?”
“That’s hard to say. Some of them share parts. I’ve got four or five that I could use without installing anything, but some were made for very specialized situations, and a couple of them are really old.”
“Older than that one? Not that I’m complaining. It’s the badass Rocket suit, right?”
I hadn’t thought of it in exactly that way.
“Hey,” he continued, “let’s go in and get this done.”
As we crossed the street, I turned toward the hairless guy, and said, “Hi.”
He nodded, but didn’t say anything.
“Straka doesn’t talk much,” Alex said. “Don’t worry about it.”
Last time I’d been near the hospital in costume, it had been at night, and I’d been on the roof. This time I went through a public entrance with Alex during the day.
People asked for autographs, and not just from me. They also recognized Alex. Apparently, the South California Defenders had been getting a lot of air time lately. Alex handled the requests smoothly, asking people’s names while signing, personalizing the autograph, and moving on to the next.
I struggled not to crush the pens. No Rocket suit had been designed for writing — this one less than most.
It took us twenty minutes to get to the elevator.
When we finally got up to the fourth floor, it didn’t take long to find the room.
I bumped my helmet on the door frame, a hazard of being a foot taller than normal.
We’d come during visiting hours, and Lucas had visitors. I recognized his father immediately. Russell Hardwick, a big voice in the Hardwick’s family businesses, and a leader of the remnants of Red Lightning’s army, stood next to a thin, almost frail, woman. I guessed she must be Lucas’ mother.
Vaughn’s mother stood next to them. She frowned a little as she saw me. Vaughn’s mother had guessed my secret identity the time Daniel, Cassie and I had fought the Grey Giant.
I didn’t recognize anyone else. There were a few college-aged girls that I guessed might be Lucas’ sisters, or possibly cousins. They stared at us.
Lucas lay on the bed. A bag of some fluid hung on a pole, its tube ending in his arm. Wires led to other machines with blinking lights. Sometimes they beeped.
Lucas slept, not reacting to us at all.
Russell Hardwick looked at Alex and I. A muscle in his face twitched, but when he talked, it came out calm, even welcoming.
“I’ve seen both of you in the news, but I’m surprised to see you here.” He eyed Alex. “Aren’t you out of Los Angeles?”
“I happened to be in the area,” Alex said, “and I heard he might not walk again. If you want me to, I can make sure that he will.”
Lucas’ mother started crying.
His father’s face went stiff for a second, and his mouth opened in something that wasn’t really a smile. Then he said, “You can do that?”
Alex put his hand on Lucus’ mother’s shoulder and said, “I’ve handled worse.”
Then he went to where Lucas lay on the bed, put his hands on Lucas’ stomach, and closed his eyes.
We all waited.
Then Alex turned around and said, “That’s it. The spinal cord’s been repaired, and everything around it.”
Lucas didn’t look any different, except possibly a little less pale.
“Have the doctors check him out when he wakes up,” Alex said. After talking a little longer, he shook Lucas’ parents’ hands, and we left, meeting up with Straka. He’d been waiting in the hall.
As we walked, I asked, “So that’s it? He’s better.”
Alex nodded. “Yeah. He’ll walk. It’ll be like he never got shot.”
“They didn’t seem as happy as I would have thought.”
“It’s typical. They’ve been worrying for days, and they couldn’t even tell if I’d cured him. No big deal. Actually, there’s something that worries me more… Do you have someplace private?”
We left the hospital and met up at the Heroes League offices. They weren’t far from downtown. Straka parked their car inside (some kind of floating car with the SoCal Defenders logo), and occupied himself with the TV in the lobby.
Alex and I went into the meeting room. He smiled, looking over its late 70’s office decor, and photos of the old League’s victories.
“It matches the suit,” Alex said.
“People have talked about redoing the place. I kind of like it the way it is. Uh… What were you going to tell me?”
“The guy’s father? There’s something wrong with him.”
“No. I can sense sickness just like I can sense health. He’s not either one. I’m sensing big cell die offs, and massive growth all at once. It’s a lot like running into someone who’s taken power juice, but worse.”
“You can sense that?”
Thinking, I paused. Then I said. “I think I know what’s going on.”
I explained about Justice Fist, their parents, the Executioner, the remains of the Cabal’s army and the theft of the Impregnator plans from Red Lightning’s lair.
At the end, Alex said, “Don’t take this wrong, but it sounds like you’re screwed. If you need help, call me and I’ll figure out a way to be here for more than an hour. Just… Make sure you don’t go through official channels. It gives me more options.”
He left after that, and I ran down the tunnel to HQ, thinking about everything that had happened. For example, if they’d gotten the Impregnator working, who else had they tried it on?