Loosening my choke hold, I dropped to the ground, putting Lucas body in the center of the wards Samita had set up on the floor. The Thing That Eats’ head had disappeared, revealing Lucas’ face.
As he lay on the concrete between black lines and symbols that I didn’t recognize, I reminded myself that he had to be alive. I’d choked him correctly, and I’d timed it. The Thing That Eats had a talent for playing on people’s fears. My longstanding one was that I’d kill somebody who didn’t deserve it, and he’d done his best to play on it.
Using the Rocket suit’s HUD, I checked him out with the suit’s imaging systems. Thermal showed his temperature at normal—98.6 degrees. Sonic imaging showed that his heart still beat.
Now we only had to set up the wards. I’d sent Kayla the instructions on how to activate them, and if I had to, I’d do it myself. I just had to read them. Life had been busy enough that I hadn’t had the time.
Meanwhile Travis jumped down from the storage shelves, landing next to Sean and Jody. Both of them were unconscious and appeared to have burns on their faces. I couldn’t see other exposed skin.
Maybe we could call Paladin or Preserver in when this was over, but Samita had bandages that stopped damage from getting worse. Hopefully she had enough when Chancy brought her through.
Travis picked up Sean and Jody, moving them outside the wards. “Good job choking him. That was my backup plan if Julie’s voice didn’t work. I thought I might be able to make it to his back. Glad you did it instead.”
Travis didn’t have a ward to protect him. That would have been dicey.
I adjusted my legs, trying to find a comfortable position as I kept my left arm around Lucas’ neck in a kind of “pre-choke hold” position in case he woke up. “How were you planning to activate the wards?”
Travis put down Sean and Jody, stepping back into the warded area. “Kayla. She said she’d read the instructions.”
Vaughn and Camille flew in from the main room. Vaughn landed a distance away from us—which was considerate. The winds that kept him in the air could knock people over. Camille landed near me. “Nice job.” She peered down at him. “Is he still alive?”
Travis gave a small shrug. “His heart’s still beating.”
Vaughn stared at Lucas. “That’s good. You saved his life a couple years ago. It’d be a waste if you killed him this year.”
The jet’s hatch opened behind me. My HUD’s peripheral vision caught Kayla descending from the jet, wearing a gray Heroes’ League costume. She was supposed to do that if there was a risk that she’d be identified, but it still struck me as strangely professional of her. The fact that she’d pulled Yellow Burrito’s Burrito Gun and strapped it to her back added to that impression—kind of.
It was still a gun that fired off burritos at the enemy. On the other hand, it was better than the Gender-bender Gun.
“Give me a second and I’ll activate the wards.” Kayla tapped on her wrist comm.
“Rocket!” Travis’ voice grabbed my attention even as Lucas’ head ballooned into The Thing’s and yanked me forward. I couldn’t see anything ahead of me because of the size of the head, but I heard Travis shout in what might be pain.
Meanwhile, I started choking the Thing again except this time he didn’t get far. It felt like a massive weight dropped on me, and not just me. The Thing dropped to the ground with a thud, its head contracting to become Lucas again.
Kayla shouted out a series of words that made no sense at all to me. Then blood-red, but still transparent, walls went up around me, joining to become a dome above my head.
I let go of Lucas (who took a deep breath) and I stood up. I turned toward Travis who looked better than I’d expected given his shout. He stared down at his right hand, or given that it was transformed, his right claw. Gray with long, white nails, it didn’t appear to be damaged.
He turned to face me. “It bit me. I started hearing it in my head, but then the walls came up.” He turned toward Kayla. “Is it gone, or am I stuck here?”
Kayla stepped away from the jet’s stairway as Courtney came down. “I… think you’re stuck, but the Rocket can walk through.”
I reached out to touch the wall with my gauntlet, but it passed straight through.
Lucas sat up and then stood, facing Travis. “I’m so sorry. I never wanted this thing in my head. I did everything I could not to change, and not to infect anyone.”
He shook his head. “It wasn’t enough. It controlled my body, and I was barely an inconvenience.”
Travis walked over. “Don’t worry about it. We’ve got sorcerers on our side. Someone will know how to get it out of us. It’s just a matter of time.”
Lucas pulled out a phone from a pocket on his red costume. “It’s still my shift in the ER. Who knows what they’re thinking now?” He stopped. “They’re probably thinking I’m a rich kid who thinks he can get away with anything because his father practically owns the hospital.”
Vaughn’s voice came through the ward. “I hope that’s true.”
The mask hid the top of his face, but Lucas grinned. “Me too, or I could get kicked out of my residency.”
I cleared my throat. “How did it happen?”
Lucas sighed. “It must have known me from everything that happened with the Cabal. Andronicus found me in the ER. Your call came later.”
I could have asked more questions, but in that moment the sound of white noise came from the main room. Louder than that noise came the sound of Amy’s voice saying, “Where?”