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Chapter 1

I'm George, and you're inside my head. Why? Who knows. Life's weird, and you can either roll with it or get rolled over. Speaking of rolling, that's what I'm doing this fine Tuesday night, on like two or three different levels. At the lowest level are my skates rolling over the pavement toward a dead end. At closer to waist level, I'm rolling a bunch of ball bearings out of a sack into the dimly lit alley behind me. And if you zoom out to the metaphorical level, I'm actually in the process of getting rolled by a gang. Or so I'm letting these newbies think. What they don't realize is that everything is going according to plan. You could even say I'm on a roll.

But why stop there? Let's step back even further, right through time, and find out how this whole mess got rolling in the first place. That's right, we're gonna roll a flashback. So, close your eyes for a second, wiggly-wiggly-woo, and...

"It's a boy," said Dr. Malcolm.

Okay, okay, maybe not that far back; you don't have all day. Let's start with a year and a half ago, toward the end of my freshman year of high school. It wasn't dark, stormy, or night when this story got started. In fact, it was downright sunny. That was how I knew there was a problem. See, it wasn't supposed to be sunny when I woke up. The building across the street casts a shadow over our apartment until almost nine in the morning, so the sun glaring onto my face meant I'd overslept by two hours. And sure enough, my alarm clock's display was blinking. That's what happens when you borrow your clock's backup battery to power your science fair project and then forget to put it back in. You'd think doing science fair projects would indicate I'm smart, but well, there you have it.

Anyway, I spared a moment to groan before rolling out of bed and rushing to get presentable for school. Now don't get me wrong, I hate school at least as much as the next guy, but you don't live in my 'hood. Neither do my sister or my dad, not since I was eight. Nowadays you can find them at Darkhill Cemetery. This place tends to have that effect on people. Point is, I had no intention of staying in the city of Forchester my whole life, let alone the Cherry District. Figured I'd get an education, sign up with NASA, and head up and out at eight kilometers a second.

But NASA wasn't going to let me fly their rockets if I couldn't even get to important algebra tests on time. So it was with copious cussing and substantial speed that I threw on the first clothes my fingers touched, laced up my skates, snagged my backpack and media player, and then tore down the road with punk music pulsing through my legs to propel me along the pavement at a perilous pace.

That punk music is as much to blame for what happened next as my missing battery. That is to say: not at all, because it was my own stupid fault. But still, if I hadn't had it blaring into my ears, maybe I'd have heard something as I threw open the doors to Coldriver High, carved around a corner, and sprinted toward my second period algebra class. Though to be honest, I was hoping not to hear anything at all as I clattered across campus, especially not hall monitors shouting indignantly about skating indoors. I wouldn't normally pull something like that, but well, I was kind of panicking and didn't want to take the time to swap them out for my shoes until I was actually in the classroom, and maybe not until the test was over. According to my wristwatch, I was only five minutes late for algebra. They might not even have started yet.

The welcome emptiness of the halls was interrupted by a mushy collision as I took a corner at a reckless speed. There was no time to react, just a flash of beauty in my immediate path, and then I was airborne, and a moment later I was kissing floor tiles and skidding through a forest of legs before coming to a halt in a convenient clearing. Talk about embarrassing, but that wasn't the worst of it. See, those feet back in the leg forest weren't stationary. They were backing away from me. I knew sometimes people would see my skates and worn clothes and get the wrong idea, especially if they knew I was from the bad part of town, but this was just silly. As I scrambled to my feet, however, I realized their terrified faces were looking past me at something else.

I pivoted on my skates to see the shaky barrel of a gun aimed in my general direction, part of the time anyway; Gus wasn't exactly holding it steady. I'd make a snarky comment about him being a coward or something, but I sorta lost control of my bladder at that point, so who am I to talk? Besides, the guy had just backed against a wall and was closing his eyes as his hand tensed; the time for talking was long past. I did the only thing I could think to do: I skated. I skated right into his dumb face, knocking his arm upwards as I headbutted his nose for all I was worth.

The gun going off right above my ear got through my music just fine, I'll tell you that. The ringing went really well with all the stars as our heads cracked together; I guess I missed his nose, and what a day to skip wearing my helmet! His head bounced off mine and hit the brick wall behind him, then we both fell to the ground. One of us puked, and that was pretty disgusting because it got all over me what with how I was busy rolling around in pain as I explored my vocabulary. On the plus side, it helped to disguise the dampness in my pants and avoid an awkward stain to the tough guy reputation I liked to think I had when my friends weren't there to burst my bubble.

And oh did I have a reputation after that incident. They called me a hero, can you believe it? Showed up late for school, sprinted through the halls on my skates like an idiot, crashed into some random people, nearly got myself and others shot, messed my pants, gave myself a concussion, and then they called that heroics. What if Gus had pulled the trigger a little sooner? Or if the gun had been angled differently? The heroic thing to do would have been to get in front of the gun so that only I would have been at risk and then carefully disarm him without letting the barrel sweep the crowd, not to charge into him recklessly so that he might shoot somebody else as I hit him.

But in the end, Gus didn't hit anybody, just a poor security blister on the ceiling, and those pervy pieces of junk deserve it. What good are they if some idiot like me has to save the day instead of the school's resource officer? Bah.

Anyway, that was the day they branded me a hero, although I wouldn't call it the day I really became one. But they planted the idea, you see. They just kept calling me a hero despite my protests, and after a while maybe I started to believe it, just a little. With that in mind, let's jump forward to summer break. Jump carefully now; make sure you've got a clear landing zone first. No broken glass, rusty metal, hungry dogs... got one? Okay, zippity-bop-sha-doo!

Summer. Hot, sweaty, horrible freedom. Almost made me miss the nice air-conditioned classrooms where the state tortured me for most of the year, except I couldn't forget the torture part. Painful pencils, pernicious paper-cuts, pompous principals, P.E.... no, summer wasn't quite as bad as school. Plus, summer meant bare midriffs at Flywell Skatepark.

"Eyes up here, George."

"Right, sorry Hannah. Joe's a lucky guy." She started to smile that caramel smile of hers, so I continued with, "Not every dude gets to be my best friend, you know."

"You dip," she said with a laugh. "Why don't you go talk to Brianna? I heard she broke up with Terence."

"Eh, she's a cheerleader."

"So? You're a hero. Pretty sure that puts you on even ground now."

"Imagine the conversation. 'Sup, Bree. It's me George, that guy who wrote an entire essay about how the school should cut cheerleading and put that money into the science program? Yeah, so like, I sorta crashed into you in the hall a few months ago and almost got you shot. Wanna catch a movie?' You're right, Hannah, I'll be wearing her pom poms in no time!"

"You're just being- Hey, look out!"

Hannah and I swerved to the side and narrowly avoided colliding with a gruff group of guys who'd just charged past on foot. She turned to yell at them, but I grabbed her arm and started pulling her away. "Let it go," I hissed sharply. "Didn't you see their socks?"

"What do I care about their socks?"

"Red socks mean Hemopalooza. We need to get out of here. No, not that way! Look, there're more guarding the exit. We'll have to go over the-"

I was interrupted by an unfamiliar voice shouting. "Nobody move! Anybody who moves dies! Flywell Skatepark is now Hemopalooza territory, and we're going to paint it red with the initiation of our newest members! Those of you who are pure and follow orders get to be the painters! The rest will become paint!"

I pushed Hannah down behind a trash can as the man continued shouting orders and threats. It wasn't much cover, but it was the best she was going to get. "Stay here," I hissed. "When I distract them, climb the fence and get out." She tried to grab me, probably to say some nonsense about not taking risks, but I was already gone. It's not like the trash can was big enough to hide both of us; it barely hid her. No, it was time for me to put truth to everybody's claim that I was a hero.

Not that I was going to be able to really save the day or anything; this was Hemopalooza, after all. Every possible outcome with them involves blood, and a lot of it. It's right there in their name. But if I could distract them for a few seconds, maybe more people could escape and survive than if I just went along with their demands and helped them paint Flywell with the blood of everybody who wasn't white enough for their idiotic ideal. My plan would probably actually cause bloodshed to happen sooner, but hopefully there would be less of it overall. Most importantly though, it would give Hannah time to get away.

I sprinted out and yelled a few expletives at the gang to attract their attention, then I dropped into an empty skate pool before they could fire at me and maybe hit a bystander. In the pool any stray shots would hit concrete instead. That was my biggest worry; you have no idea how much sleep I've lost thinking about how close I came to getting people hurt back in that hallway. Being in the pool also gave me a home field advantage: I already knew its every curve, and a moving target is hard to shoot. That's probably the only reason I'm alive now for you to perv on like this. Try not to get nauseous in there, by the way; it's not like they sell in-brain barf bags at the convenience store next to all the little George bobble-heads.

So anyway, there I was tearing up the park and literally skating for my life, and you know what? It was fun. It didn't take long for them to see through my plan, though, because people started running as soon as they realized I was hogging the Hemothugs' attention. And that's when everything went sideways and Hemopalooza started firing into the fleeing crowd like I'd expected. I was sideways too, having just caught a bunch of air so I could see over the edge of the pool to check on things. And do you know what I saw? Do I even need to say? Yup, there was Hannah, totally not fleeing like she was supposed to be. Nope, she was charging at one of the gang members and swinging a fire extinguisher by its hose while a second thug took aim at her. And here I thought I was the one being a stupid hero.

Unfortunately, this was happening the summer before last, not now. If it happened now, I'd grab the pool's lip on the way down and throw myself out to intercede. The problem is that I only learned that move later, specifically because of what happened next. And what happened next? Well, past-me dropped back into the pool, looped around, came out at an angle, grabbed a rail to slingshot around, and arrived just in time to see Hannah falling over the body of the first guy with a big red hole in her gut.

I don't remember much of what happened next. I just remember being mad as hell. I've seen the security footage though! I pretty much leaped over Hannah and Hemothug #1, tripped on the landing, flipped, and crashed into Hemothug #2, the one who shot Hannah, and went to town on him. He didn't last long after that, but then Hemothug #3 showed up outta nowhere and fired a bullet right through my chest just before this college guy I vaguely knew called Patches came outta nowhere, kicked #3's knees out, and started whaling on him with his skateboard. That's pretty much how the rest went down until the police and ambulances finally showed up, by which point I was very much unconscious from blood loss.

Hannah and I both survived, but let me tell you something: coughing up blood is no fun at all. Neither is surgery. I mean, I don't remember the surgery, but I sure felt it afterwards. Patches' skateboard wasn't so lucky. Mr. Flywell himself mounted its remains over the entrance to the park. Patches is a cop nowadays, one of the good ones.

As for me? I made a decision that summer, a decision to not just leave Forchester at the earliest opportunity. Not without fighting for it first. Because there are people I care about here. People like Hannah, Joe, my mom, Uncle Jeff, Patches, Mr. Flywell, Ms. Winston, Mr. Hoban... I could write off Forchester as a lost cause, but not the people in it. No, I would fight.

Not that I told anybody this besides Joe and Hannah. I was pretty tired of media attention and more than a little concerned about blowback from Forchester's underground, so I made myself a mask and started calling myself Wheels. It's a pretty cool mask, if I do say so myself. It's basically a stretchy black thing, kinda like thick pantyhose (okay, it is pantyhose), with a bright fluorescent yellow smiling mouth and eyes on it. The eyes aren't quite where my real ones are, so people trying to jab them will miss. I also mounted a small UV LED under the edge of my skate helmet to shine on the mask at night. Seeing that grin glowing at them in the dark creeps some people right the heck out. Not all people, though.

Which -- zoppity-poppity-pow! -- brings us back to now as I "flee" from a gang of teens with delusions of being menacing. I ran into them a minute ago as they were tagging The Shifty Taco. I didn't recognize their symbol, which looked to me like either a fist or a maggot, so I skated up and asked them about it. They weren't very helpful, but they did tell me to get my mask out of their faces or I'd "feel the wrath of Dillan's Fist of Doom." I laughed and told them I'd enjoy a massage, and then the chase was on!

It hasn't been a long chase though; these guys aren't exactly fit. So, while they clumsily trip on the ball bearings, I skid to a stop full of energy, draw my Pepper Soaker, and turn to face them. "Oh dear, I appear to be cornered! What ever will I do?" Then I laugh and take aim. "Look, guys, you're in over your heads. Go home."

The most leaderly seeming of the group -- Dillan himself? -- gets to his feet, pants for a bit, then lunges at me with a knife. I squeeze my trigger and between the ball bearings beneath his feet and the pepper spray in his eyes he ends up back on the ground. "Hey, I thought you said you were going to punch me? That was the knifiest looking fist I've ever seen. Maybe y'all should be called Dillan's Knife of Butter inst-"

"What- what did you d- do to him!" yells a chick with a bunch of studs in her face and ears. I opt to show, not tell, and then I shudder a little as I realize the spray is probably going to get in her many piercings. Ouch. I almost start to apologize, but movement catches my eye. I shift my aim and fire a stream at the next two who've gotten up. The first guy grabs at his eyes before slipping on the bearings like the other two, but the girl behind him was using him as a shield and is shuffling to avoid stepping on anything. She still gets her share of pepper spray as he falls, but she blocks some with her arm and now she's out of the ball bearings. No matter. I slide to the side, hook a leg, give her a little shove, and down she goes. I spray a bit more pepper into her face just to be sure as I move to give myself a little more distance.

That leaves one more who's just now climbing carefully to his feet. This guy's pretty big, and recognition flashes across his face as he sniffs the air and looks at his fallen friends. I get the impression he's encountered pepper spray before, though probably from a smaller, more legal delivery system than my homemade pressure gun. I brace myself for a potential return to high mobility; previous exposure means he won't be affected as strongly as the newbies and might be able to keep fighting if I spray him. He still wouldn't be able to see if I get it in his eyes, but it's not a wide alley and he looks like somebody with more experience fighting than I have, so that's not something I want to put to the test if I don't have to. I might have to actually hurt him. Good thing my mask blocks my worried expression.

My worry is unneeded; he looks me in the mask and smiles before speaking. "You win, Wheels. We'll leave." He shuffles forward through the ball bearings and crouches over the guy who'd had the knife, who's currently busy coughing and cussing. "Shut up, Dillan," he mutters as he pockets the knife and drags Dillan to his feet. "Told you you weren't ready for this. Let's get outta here before that freak changes his mind or calls the cops."

I give the pair a parting wave and then get to work on zip-tying the other three before relieving them of valuables and weapons. They manage to give me a couple bruises, but my eclectic combination of skate and hockey armor dampens most of their blind flailing. Finished, I toss one of their chintzy little dollar-store knives back to them as I skate away. I only needed to keep them restrained while I looted them; it's not like I want to leave them helpless to whatever perverts or psychos pass through during the night. If they'd had serious drugs on them or seemed like the sort to have outstanding warrants, I'd have tied them more securely and notified the police, but these guys? No proof of any real wrongdoing, so I'd just be wasting the cops' time.

Anyway, I skate away from there with a good sixty dollars, several cheap knives, and a five dollar gift card for the Neon Noise music store. I was hoping for a better take, but at least this more than pays for the ball bearings and pepper spray I used. Hopefully they'll think twice next time they decide they want to vandalize one of my favorite fast food joints.

This is, of course, the part where I make the mistake of feeling like tonight is a success. I'm skating up the road continuing my patrol, feeling all warm and fuzzy about having hopefully scared some teens straight and thinking about which songs I'm going to treat myself to, when BANG! BANG! There's gunfire and shouting to my right, maybe half a block away. At the same time as that, I also hear something much scarier: the brick immediately to my left shattering as bullets hit it. Much too close for comfort! One of the first pieces of equipment I invested in when I began running around in a mask was a ballistic vest, but I can tell you from experience that soft armor like this doesn't let you just ignore bullets. Besides, it's not like the vest offers total coverage. So, not being interested in getting cracked ribs and severe bruising tonight, I crouch down and skid to a stop with a parked car between me and the gun, which fires several more times, continuing to hit the poor building behind me.

And who is it who's so sloppily shooting in my general direction? Why, judging by the pale skin, red socks, and paintbrushes sticking out of their pockets, I'd say it's the remnants of Hemopalooza. It doesn't look like they were specifically gunning for me, though. As I peer through the car's windows in a way that is not at all timid while my knees definitely don't shake, I see the Hemothugs throwing down with a bunch of bald guys in a variety of skin tones. Those are probably the Cueballs, a slightly technophobic gang of weed-dealers that has been filling some of the void left by the crusade against Hemopalooza I went on when I first became Wheels. They've also been defacing places like Winston Biotech and Dave's Computer Repair, and they're pushing some conspiracy theory about tech companies being out to get us. Neither gang seems to realize I'm here, so I smile as my lack of fear becomes even less fear-like.

Now, I'm not about to stop bad guys from fighting other bad guys when it looks like I'm the only bystander around risking injury, but on the other hand, I do have an experimental device I call the Glownade that's burning a hole in my pocket. Now seems as good a time as any to field test it. I plan out a few escape routes first just in case, then I remove the priming magnet to release a valve so the chemicals within can mix, give the cannister a little shake just to be sure, scrape its cap against the pavement to ignite the fuse, and hurl the thing hard over the car toward the fight. It bounces and rolls up to the edge of the shouting and bleeding pair of gangs, then the end explodes and the highly pressurized chemiluminescent dye within spews out the angled nozzle in a brilliant stream. The thrust from the escaping liquid causes the canister to spin, spraying the stuff everywhere and lighting up the gang members and the street around them with what is essentially glow stick juice in a color that matches my fluorescent yellow smile.

Both the Hemothugs and the Cueballs pause in bewilderment as they're splattered by the only slightly toxic glowing liquid. The Cueballs recover first, rush the Hemopalooza members, and start whaling on them with their various improvised weapons. I don't think the Cueballs' tech aversion extends to guns, but maybe they're just that broke? Or maybe it's a statement. I don't know. I find it hard to get inside the heads of people who would rather blame computers and robots for their problems than learning how to be actually useful so they can get jobs that aren't being made obsolete by increasing automation.

Anyway, they both seem to be ignoring me for the time being, focusing on trying to kill each other instead. And the Glownade worked about as well as I'd hoped, though the procedure for using it is a bit cumbersome. As I absentmindedly watch my enemies fight each other for me, I try to think of ways to simplify the Glownade that wouldn't make the construction process ridiculous. Unfortunately, my musings are interrupted by an approaching siren, so I decide to get out while the getting's good. Although the police haven't decided to prioritize hunting me down yet, they definitely are not my fans. There are certainly a few right-thinking individuals on the force who have been amused by my antics, but they're in the minority for some reason. So, I quickly depart the scene to avoid distracting them into chasing me instead of investigating the fighting gangs that I've helpfully marked out with glowing dye for them.

That's the point of the Glownade, in case you were wondering. It leaves glowing spots on people so they're easier to see and chase, or so they waste time and energy stripping out of their dyed clothes and then running around in an attention-grabbing state of undress while possibly leaving useful clues behind in their haste. It's also fluorescent, so the police can use UV light to easily identify people and things that were tagged even after the chemiluminescence has died out. The police don't know any of this yet, of course, but they'll figure it out.

So now I'm feeling even more full of myself as I skate off and resume my patrol a few blocks away. But my earlier comment wouldn't be good foreshadowing if that was the end of it. No, my weird mental companion, my night is about to take a turn for the worse, and it's probably going to drag the next several months with it. Why is this? What horror am I about to encounter?

Well you see, the main high-speed internet provider in Forchester is Talaria. Their only competition comes from Konkasp, who are pretty much a bunch of crooks with service that's almost as terrible as their ethics. So really it's just Talaria. And what do I see before me right now as I crest the hill? The Talaria hubsite responsible for serving my end of the city, with a door hanging ajar, an alarm ringing, and the ball-and-chalk symbol of the Cueballs spray-painted on its wall. Further up the road is another cop car heading right for the building -- and me.

Oh, but that's not the worst part. The worst part is that just as I'm turning to bail down a side street, the building explodes behind me.

You understand what this means, right?

It means the Cueballs just took out my internet for the next week.

I will destroy them.

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