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Chapter 2

Oh, you're still in here? Well, it's tomorrow now, and I am simply seething with simmering spite as I eat my lunch. "Seething, I tell you!"

"Yeah, man, we get it," says Joe between bites of burrito. "Our internet's out too, you know. You aren't the only one suffering."

Hannah nods while I scowl at my own burrito. "We're all in this together, George. So instead of complaining, let's go over what we know about the Cueballs."

"They're bald and they like pool," offers Joe.

Hannah rolls her eyes. "We know they feel stabbed in the back by industry, abandoned by the government, and belittled by technophiles like George. We know they're frustrated about that and don't know how to express the frustration in constructive ways. We know they're so frustrated that they're now willing to bomb city infrastructure to make themselves heard. But what do we know about where they hang out, who they are, who they work with, and where they'll strike next?"

"Well," says Joe, "they mostly started popping up after Glimmer Industries cut a bunch of jobs at their glitter factory-"

"Good riddance," I say. "Glitter is the devil."

"...Sure, George. Point is, most of their core members are probably former employees. And between what we've seen in the news and what you've seen on the ground, it seems like they're most active toward the north-west part of Cherry District. Which is where Glimmer Industries' factory is." For comparison, I live in the south part of Cherry, and Coldriver High is along the east border. Cherry District itself makes up much of the south-west portion of Forchester. West Forchester is pretty industrial in general, particularly along the stretch of the Tonbosa river that marks off the western edge of Cherry. To the north Cherry fades into Downtown, followed by the Vista Grande neighborhood if you keep going, but I don't recommend it. Lots of snobs up there. East of Downtown is Uptown, which is a lot more chill than Vista Grande. South of Uptown is Parkville, separated from Cherry to the west by Stoneleaf Boulevard and Coldriver High.

"Okay," says Hannah. "And what about you, George? Did you learn anything new about them last night?"

I think back. "Well, they didn't get along with what's left of Hemopalooza, but that pretty much goes without saying. Oh, when they were fighting, the Cueballs were using blackjacks, a shovel, and some baseball bats."

"No pool cues?" asks Joe with a smirk.

I shake my head.

"Wait a minute," says Hannah. "What sort of shovel? Was it a spade?"

"I dunno, maybe? Why would... oh." I look at Hannah incredulously. "Spades, clubs, and blackjacks. You think they're using a card theme? That's a ridiculous way to pick weapons. And it has nothing to do with pool."

She shrugs. "Maybe they're more gamblers in general than pool sharks. Anyway, according to the research I've been doing, it's things like this that help bind groups together. It gives them an identity."

Hannah starts gearing up for a full fledged psychology lecture, but falls silent when a twitchy sophomore boy walks up to her. "Hey," he says, "y- you do roller d- derby, r- right?" I don't know the kid's name, but I recognize him as the latest chew toy of Terence, a small-time bully I've been plotting against in my free time.

"Sure," she says. "Why, are you wanting to get in on it? My team is girls-only, but we've been trying to get a boy's team going too, and-"

"N- no. It's not th- that. I've got this g- group project, but my p- partner Frank Yancy hasn't sh- shown up lately and I d- don't know his number and he's i- ignoring me online. I th- think his sister C- Carrie does roller derby with you? C- could you ask her to tell him to call me? B- because the p- project is due soon and I n- need his half of it and I c- can't get him online and... and yeah."

"Carrie Yancy? Yeah, I skate with her. She's a great blocker. But she's been sick so I haven't seen her lately either. He must have caught whatever she's got." Hannah gets her phone out of her purse and jots down a number on a scrap of paper. "Here, this is their home phone so you can call him yourself. And if he hangs up on you, get your mom to call from a different number and ask for Mrs. Yancy. I know for a fact Mrs. Yancy won't let him mess your grade up if she can help it."

"Th- thank you."

"No problem. And if you change your mind about roller derby, let me know. I'm Hannah, by the way. Tell Carrie and Frank I said to get better soon."

"M- M- Marco. I will."

M- M- Marco scurries off back to his table while I try to keep a straight face. Hannah gives me a stern look. "Hey," I say, "I'm trying, alright? Notice how I didn't point out to him that you're wearing your 'Roll Out for Roller Derby' shirt when he asked if you play?"

I can tell she's about to dive into one of her be-nice rants anyway, but good ol' Joe comes to the rescue with a subject change. "I hope we don't catch whatever's going around. At least two people in my Spanish class have been out for over a week."

"Yeah, getting sick is definitely at the top of my list of things I'm afraid of. Mediocre vandals escalating to bombings? Pfft. Staying at home for a week getting some quality soup, that's the real danger." Hmm... actually, that gives me an idea.

Hannah rolls her eyes then sighs as we return to the business of determining how best to map out and dismantle the Cueballs. I'm particularly interested in some of the tracking beacons Joe has been working on; we've already cooked up some decent bugs, but finding the correct places to bug can be a hassle. Once we can identify some of the individual Cueballs, however, I could plant his trackers on them and get a better idea about where they spend their time without having to follow them around on foot so much. Then we can plant the bugs and start the real planning for how to break them.

The death knell of lunch period soon clangs through the school, so we bus our trays and part ways. The rest of the school day is ho-hum. I refine my Glownade design in my head, learn about Lord Byron in my lit class, pants a certain bully in the hallway, hang out with the assistant principal for a while in the office... you know, the usual.

As I'm skating home after school, though, things get interesting. See, the problem with the stereotypical bully is they need to feel powerful. The best way to hurt them is to attack that power, make them feel pathetic. For example, by coming up behind them while they're harassing a guy like Marco in front of an audience, yanking their pants down, and then sidestepping when they try to hit you. Bonus points if they trip and fall on their face in front of everyone. That's a great way to hurt the bully without having to be violent... however, it's not a great way to make the bully stop being a bully. Not at all. Because the reason that kind of bully needs to feel powerful is because they're insecure. Make them feel more insecure, and their need for power just becomes greater, and their bullying gets worse.

That's a reaction I'm banking on. Although I didn't expect it to kick in this rapidly; I'd meant to shift Terence's focus over to me before things escalated much so I wouldn't make things worse for his current victims. Alas, I hear the sounds of poor Marco getting beaten up as I skate past an alley not far from the school. Oh well, no time like the present. I pull out my cellphone, hit record, and skate quietly into the alley. After pausing while my phone's camera adjusts for the lighting, I say loudly, "Smile! You're on George's camera!"

Terence stops hitting Marco and turns to glare at me. "You!"

I give them a cheery wave. "Me!"

He drops Marco and starts stalking toward me. "You're going to give me that phone right now, or I'll break you!"

"Ooooh... now we've got proof of assault, as well as the battery we just witnessed. Keep digging that hole, big guy!"

"What are you talking about? I haven't touched you. Yet. Hand it over!"

"No, but look how my knees are shaking! You threatened me and I now have a reasonable apprehension of harm, so that makes it assault. Touch me and it becomes assault and battery. They just covered this class, man, didn't you pay attention?" Terence and I have the same Intro to Law class. Why I'm taking that elective is pretty obvious. I'm not sure why he's in it though; I think he's got aspirations of being a bully with a badge someday.

Meanwhile, Marco finally gets his head screwed on right and flees the alley. Excellent. Now it's just me and Terence. Much safer this way. Wouldn't want him trying to use Marco as a hostage. I continue filming until Terence is close enough to lunge at me, then I duck under the clumsy blow, kick him in the knee, and skate backwards out of the alley using the force of my own kick to... wait for it... kickstart my escape.

Anyway, I proceed to skate lazily down the road toward the police station a few blocks away, just slow enough for a limping Terence to keep up. Unfortunately, he realizes what's happening in time to turn tail and run before I can trick him into following me right up to the fuzz. Oh well, I've still got my footage. I sit down on the steps outside the building to change out of my skates, then plod in and file a report with my video as evidence. I might be police-averse as Wheels, but as George Thompson I've no such qualms. Besides Patches, aka Officer Daniel McMillan, I'm actually on a first-name basis with a few other officers like Wally, Fred, and Susan, thanks to previous incidents as well as Uncle Jeff's connections. He's a fire fighter and completely awesome.

About an hour later I'm back in my skates and rolling down the road. I make it halfway home when Terence jumps out from behind a garbage can and tackles me. Okay, now I'm actually starting to get angry about how he keeps escalating faster than I expect. Fool me twice, shame on me.

I don't know why he thinks rolling around with me in the middle of the road is a good idea though, but I don't intend to play along. An elbow to his nose buys me enough space to roll away and hop to my feet. A bus swerving around us nearly hits an oncoming car, but the car reacts in time and gets halfway up on the sidewalk to make space. Meanwhile I get out of the road with Terence at my heels, but now I'm moving again and he doesn't have wheels. There's not much room to maneuver on the sidewalk, but I'm able to sprint ahead and make it into an alley. That would be a bad idea for most people, but I'm not most people and alleys are my native environment. Besides, I'm pretty sure he doesn't know where I live yet, and I'd like to keep it that way. Better to deal with him here and now, rather than risk leading him to my apartment and endangering Mom.

Inside the alley I spin around and skate backwards with my hands up, watching the alley's entrance. "Whoa there," I say as Terence charges in. "It's too late, man. I already filed the report and gave them a copy of the video. Nothing you do to me will stop that. You really should stop digging yourself deeper."

He snarls. "Then you're going to go back there and drop the charges."

"Nah, I've got homework to do, and today is Mom's day off so we're having a proper family dinner for a change. You've wasted enough of my time already, and now I'm in a bad mood. You'll just have to get yourself a good lawyer." I'm not kidding either; Mom works the night shift as a custodian at Winston Biotech and sometimes fills in at a diner during the day, so we take family time seriously.

"I'm not going to juvie. You're going back and dropping the-"

"Well, you probably aren't going to juvie regardless, but I really wish you were, so I'm sure not going to help you out any." I take a deep breath as Terence grinds his teeth. He tries to tackle me again, but I sidestep and trip him, then slide away backwards. "Look, Terence, I've got places to be. You need to stop now. Final warning."

He comes at me once more, this time from an angle so that the wall of the alley blocks me in a bit. I duck under his arm and knee him in the gut, then push myself away. Fighting in skates like this is tricky, but I've gotten a lot of practice over the years, especially this last one. Of course, that doesn't mean I don't still make mistakes. Rolling backwards, I fail to see a crack in the concrete that catches my right skate. Terence sees the opening and tackles me again before I can recover. Fortunately the impact pulls my skate loose so he doesn't rip up my knee or anything.

We hit the ground hard and I resist the temptation to pull a screwdriver out of my sleeve and get stabby. This fight is happening out of costume, so I'm going to be held accountable for my actions, and that means not escalating unless I want to be the one getting arrested. So instead, I slam a palm into his nose, and a few bruises on my part later I manage to get on top and perform a pinning move Joe taught me. Having a friend on the wrestling team has paid off many times, let me tell you.

I inform Terence that I'm performing a citizen's arrest, then I dial 911 one-handed. Fortunately, the 911 lady tells me the bus driver already called the police. That's good for two reasons. One, they'll get here faster. Two, it means I've got at least one witness who saw that Terence attacked me, not the other way around. Possibly a whole bus load of witnesses. I switch it to speaker so I can set the phone aside, freeing up both hands to keep Terence from going anywhere while I tell her what's happened since we entered the alley so the police know what to expect.

A few minutes later the cops show up. Unfortunately, they aren't any of the ones I'm on good terms with, just Officer Susan and her partner Officer Bumface. At least they're some of the more reasonable, non-corrupt ones. Officer Susan leads me aside and makes me repeat everything a few more times while Bumface deals with Terence, who has definitely seen better days.

When all is said and done, not only do I get home late for dinner, but Mom's pissed off when I finally walk into our apartment. This was her day off; I've been wasting prime family time. So I'm not surprised when she greets me with an angry "Where have you been?" Her scowl slides off when she sees how scuffed up and bloody I am, though, and she segues smoothly into all the typical motherly worry stereotypes. I manage to fend off her attempts to hug me to death until I get my sticky jacket removed. Don't want her to get Terence's blood all over her blouse, after all. Once that's done I let her go wild, fuss fuss fuss. I'm feeling very smothered and extremely hungry by the time she finally lets up, but also calmer. Mom is a heck of a lot more sympathetic than the cops were, I'll tell you that. They almost made me feel like I was the bad guy.

I don't actually bother to do my homework; I'd intended to, but with how much time I've wasted tonight and given that it's family night, I'll just do it tomorrow. It's not like I'll have much else to do, what with no internet and being suspended for a couple days. Oh, right, I didn't mention that part, did I? Yeah, Assistant Principal Guzman is an alright guy, but the people he works for? Not so much. Coldriver is one of those schools where doing anything but quietly letting yourself get beaten up is liable to get you thrown out. So pulling down the pants of a bully as he's verbally traumatizing somebody in the halls? Definitely not something Mr. Guzman could let me get away with. Of course, I knew that going in; getting myself suspended was sort of the point. After all, how am I supposed to destroy the Cueballs if I'm wasting the better part of my day at school? Now I've got an excuse to take a four-day weekend that won't have the school nagging Mom about me playing hookie, and I've gotten Terence off M- M- Marco's back at the same time.

Um, don't tell Hannah I called him that. I don't know if you're poking around in her head too, but you know, just in case.

Anyway, Mom and I spend the rest of the night watching the dumb reality shows she likes and making fun of the participants. I'll spare you the details of that, prepping for bed, my trippy dreams of glitter powered hippo attacks, and the following early morning homework. Instead, we'll skip straight to the grand excitement that is skating around the city in my civilian guise looking for likely Cueballs to tail.

Insert hours of tedium here.

Okay! Now that that's done, I head to the Wheelhouse, my secret base. It's a few rooms in an abandoned tenement house near the center of Cherry District that Joe and I barricaded and set up equipment inside. I don't go in directly since that could give it and me away. Instead, I go to a different abandoned building, change into my hobo disguise, and exit on the other side. Then I sneak into the building next to mine, slip through a hole in the wall connecting them, head up a couple flights of stairs, and drop through a concealed trapdoor in a closet to a dark set of rooms below. That last bit is necessary not only because the door to this section is nailed, glued, and barred on the inside, but also because the hallway outside is full of rubble because the other side of the building collapsed a bit. Yeah, this place probably isn't too safe, but on the other hand, it's been like this for a good while and hasn't caved in any worse than that, so it can't be too bad. Besides, hanging out in condemned buildings is probably one of the safer things I do with my free time.

Before getting to work, I turn on a flashlight and look over the security log's LCD display. It's not much, but we've got a few solar powered wireless sensors throughout the building. Mainly they're to warn us if any bums wander in while we're inside so that we know to shut up so they don't hear us and investigate to see if we've got things to steal. The other main purpose is to give us a way to know if people have been snooping around the building in general while we're away. Nothing shows up in the last day or so though, other than me entering the other night to stash my gear.

Confident we haven't been found out yet, I flip on the room's LED lights then hop on the modified exercise bike we use as a generator and spend some time pedalling. The building has no electricity, what with being abandoned and all, so we have to make our own. Little calculator-style solar panels are good enough for the intrusion sensors, but we don't want visible solar arrays on the roof to keep the main battery charged. Fortunately, we don't use much power most of the time -- the lights only sip, and both of the computers in here are efficient little netbooks -- so it doesn't take long to have everything topped off.

Chores done, I hop off the bike and transfer the voice notes I recorded on my phone over to one of the netbooks and then type up a summary of what I learned: descriptions of six suspected Cueballs, three home addresses, one bar, and two license plates. Most of these are probably false positives, but they're a start.

Next, I head to one of the workbenches and assemble a new Glownade to replace the old one. It's using the same cumbersome design because I haven't finished improving on it yet, but I do shorten the fuse slightly. I also mix up more pepper spray for my Pepper Soaker. It's already full; I always top it off when stowing it so that it will be immediately available if the base gets raided. The refill tank, on the other hand, is getting low, so I make a fresh batch. That's a job that requires a lot of ventilation, so I turn on the fans. The fans are something I installed myself, but they utilize the building's existing ventilation ducts. Airflow is very important when doing chemistry. For anything really serious, we go up to the roof of the neighboring building, which has a nook that gives a little more privacy than this building manages.

As I'm completing my calamitous capsaicin concoction, the security panel makes a creaking sound to alert me that one of the sensors detected something. Joe is supposed to be showing up around now, but I wipe my hands off, put on my mask, and pick up my Pepper Soaker just in case. The panel creaks a couple more times, then it makes a skittering sound to indicate that somebody pressed the hidden "I'm a friendly" button at the base of the stairwell. I relax a little more but cautiously take cover anyway. One of these days we need to set up some cameras, but we only have so much time to spend building stuff.

Now I can hear somebody moving around upstairs, and it definitely sounds like Joe. Then he does the secret knock, opens the trapdoor, and calls down softly, "It's me. Don't spray me, man. I still have nightmares about the last time."

"Better give the password, then."

"We don't have a password."

"That is the correct password. You may enter."

"Whatever, dude." He climbs down as I rack my gear again and resume putting away the chemistry equipment. "So how'd it go today?"

I shrug and point at the netbook I was using. "The data's in there, but I think it's mostly noise."

Joe sits down and pulls out his phone to turn on the mobile hotspot. Yeah, that's right. He's got a mobile data plan, and yet he had the gall to be trying to sympathize with me earlier about not having internet. Hah. I might have a smartphone, but I've got maybe a hundred minutes a month on a prepaid plan, and using any data at all eats the minutes almost immediately. What, you thought I live in the bad part of town because I'm rich? I do steal a decent amount from criminals, but most of that goes toward supplies rather than creature comforts.

Anyway, Joe gets to work researching to find out more about the possible suspects I found, and I join him at the other netbook once I'm done cleaning up. It doesn't take long though; most of them have almost no online presence. That's sort of good and bad. Bad because it gives us little to work with, but good because it implies four of them are probably genuine technophobic Cueballs. The other two show up on social media, which pretty much rules them out. They're just innocent bald guys.

That done, I hop back on the exercise bike to recharge our battery while Joe moves to the electronics workbench and wraps up the first batch of tracking beacons. Yay! Of course, his soldering means more pedalling for me, but it's totally worth it. While I'm pedalling we play some punk and hip-hop music through a pair of small speakers hooked up to one of the netbooks. Normally we try not to make much noise, but the exercise bike makes a suspicious droning, so playing music to mask it actually makes us seem less odd. We're not the only teenage delinquents who hang out on Blossom Cobble Avenue, after all.

Yeah, that's this street's name. Blossom Cobble. I don't know why; there is nothing that blossoms anywhere along this road. Maybe there used to be before the fires twenty-five years ago. Or maybe the rioters of eight years past got offended and uprooted all the living things. All I know is that it's a disproportionately cheery name for such a run-down street. But then, that's Cherry District for you. Air fresheners at a dump.

I shake those thoughts out of my head. That was old-George thinking. Pre-Wheels. I'm supposed to be optimistic now. "The Cherry will rise again!" Yeah, that's the stuff.

"What?" asks Joe.

"Oh, nothing. I was just talking to myself." I turn and wink at the wall.

Joe mutters something about "too many concussions" as he puts away his tools and beckons me over. "Alright, here they are. Slide this switch over to turn it on. This other switch is the speed. Leave it off and it'll run for several days, pulsing about once every ten seconds. Turn on rapid mode, and it will pulse every two seconds for easier tracking, but the battery will die in a little over a day."

"Cool, what about the tracker?"

He points at a device that almost looks like a ray gun from a low budget movie. "It's not finished yet. I've got to get home and do my homework, but I'll have this baby wrapped up tomorrow evening. Then I'm going to get to work on that scrambled radio we've been talking about."

"Awesome. I'm looking forward to that. I've got all these snarky comments while I'm out there, and nobody to tell them to but the voices in my head."

"And suddenly I have second thoughts."

I slap him on the back. "Go get your homework done, man. I'm gonna gear up and head out on patrol."

Fast forward through my magical skater boy transformation sequence, and...

Boom! The dumpster's lid echoes as I bounce off it and vault over the gate dividing the alley in half. I don't know if the mugger I'm chasing thought wearing skates meant I wouldn't be able to get past a chain link fence, but this fence definitely slowed him down more than it did me. He actually climbed the thing, despite there being plenty of nice obstacles to use as stepping stones and a wall he could have used to increase his jump height. Maybe he's too poor to afford internet and watch parkour videos on YouTube. When the internet is actually up, I mean. Maybe that's why he's a mugger instead of a ninja. Not that it gives me any sympathy for him. I sprint at him and jamb my elbow pad into his back, and down he goes. I have to do some fancy footwork to avoid tripping over him, but fancy footwork is at least thirty percent of what makes skating fun.

The guy doesn't bother trying to struggle at this point, so I just grab both of the wallets he's got, then head back to see if I can find the guy he mugged. Yup, there he is walking angrily up the street. He sees me and looks like he's about to run, but I wave the two wallets and he hesitates. Since he's the skittish sort, I pull up about a car's length away and toss him the wallets from a safe distance. "I wasn't sure which one was yours, so whatever. Merry Christmas!"

"It's October."

"Sure, but the magic of time zones means it's Christmas-o'clock somewhere!"

"That's not how time zones work!" he yells as I skate off into the night.

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