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Chapter 3

And that's basically how the weekend goes. It's Monday now, and I'm back at school. To be more specific, I just got out of trigonometry and am headed toward a much needed lunch, but there's a slight complication. I've just run into Paula, a girl from the student newspaper. There I am walking down the halls minding my own business while trying to hash out a design in my head for a grapple gun that won't break my back if I use it while falling, when she ambushes me near the water fountains with a voice recorder and starts grilling me for my opinion on Wheels. She wants to know whether I think he should be considered a terrorist, whether I think he's really a he at all, and all kinds of silly nonsense that has nothing at all to do with designing practical grapple guns that could literally save my life at some point. She's just all yammer yammer yammer and-

"Hey! Don't you 'yammer yammer' me, George. You think I can't hear you muttering to yourself? I'm trying to ask you for a serious opinion here! As somebody who does a lot of skating, your opinion on whether Wheels is giving skaters a bad name is important to the community, and-"

On and on and on it goes. Clearly I'm not going to get anything productive done like this. I unglaze my eyes and try to pay attention in the hope that if I can answer a few questions coherently she'll leave me alone in time to be able to hear myself think when I have to decide whether to get the meatloaf or the tacos for lunch. That will be a hard one. Meatloaf is pretty good, but tacos are crunchy and-

"George! I highly doubt your opinion of vigilantes is that they are crunchy! Can't you please try to focus?"

Right, focusing. That's what I was trying to do before the wonderful aromas of lunch wafted though my nasal cavities and got my stomach rumbling. I sigh as Paula plants herself directly in front of me, cutting me short just yards away from the lunch room. As her face comes into focus again, I notice something off that grabs my attention. "Of course vigilantes are crunchy," I say. "Have you ever been one? I'll have you know I heard definite crunching both of the times I crashed into people to save the day. And speaking of crunchiness, what's going on with your face?"

"Ignore my face, George. In fact, if you could point yours at the voice recorder instead, that would be great. Better audio that way. Now, speaking of faces -- no George, aim at the recorder -- what I'd like to know is if you think the face on Wheels's mask is meant for irony, or if it shows that he genuinely enjoys being a vigilante, or if it's some kind of reference to skater culture, or-"

"Look, I'll make you a deal, Paula. You be straight with me, and I'll answer three questions. But first you need to tell me what's going on, why your face is like that. Seriously, if you need help, I know where I can find a baseball bat and I'm pretty sure your dad is at least as crunchy as I am."

"There is nothing wrong with my face, George."

"Hate to break it to you, but I know what makeup over bruises looks like. I've done that too, you know. My end of town isn't very cushy, and I don't like Mom worrying herself to death every single time I get mugged or trip over a curb or whatever. But if your mom or dad is abusing you, that's a problem that can be solved. We could talk to my uncle Jeff. He's a fireman and he knows a lot of cops. They'll believe you. And anyway, me and Joe could rig up a bug for you so you can get some actual proof instead of it just being your word against theirs."

"It's 'Joe and I,' George, and it's none of your business... But fine, since I can tell you won't drop this, it's nothing to do with my family. Let's just say that you're not the only one who encounters violent people while going about her business and asking questions people don't want asked, okay? And believe me, they are looking a lot worse for their trouble than I am. I'm not some damsel in distress that you need to rescue. Now then, first question: When are you going to admit that you're Wheels? It's pretty obvious."

I blink. "How did you- wait, obvious? I wear a costume and everything! How am I obvious?"

"So you admit it?" She eagerly holds the voice recorder closer to me.

My brain catches up with my mouth and I smile. "Sure." I clear my throat and strike a pose. "I am the skates that clatter in the night! I am the grinning pantyhose obscuring the stern face of justice! I am Inline Wheels!"

Several passersby on their way to lunch give me strange looks while Paula facepalms. "Fine, you're not Wheels. It was worth a shot. Next question: Do you think Wheels has a dark side? Is he doing more than just fighting crime like he wants us to believe?"

"Well, as Wheels I can tell you firsthand that I'm not up to anything nefarious. I just want to rescue people and reduce the power of our more violent gangs, and maybe shake down the occasional crook for spending money since getting a real job would be a drag."

"Right," she mutters. "I don't appreciate the sarcasm, but I do appreciate receiving your honest opinion. Final question: As I asked earlier, do you think Wheels is doing the skating community a favor or an injustice?"

"Well, I think my Wheels routine is pretty cool, but obviously I'm biased. And we skaters aren't like cheerleaders or whatever; we're like, individuals, you know? Like, we have our own like, opinions and stuff? Like, we think for ourselves, instead of like, being one big, like, ditzy collective? So, like, maybe you should, like, ask more of us and not, like, act like just because I like, skated in the hallways that one time that I'm like, an authority on what all those other, like, people think, and like, stuff? Like?"

"So you personally approve, but you don't necessarily speak for the community as a whole. Fine. Cheerleaders don't actually talk like that, by the way. You should go interview a few so you can grow out of your stereotypes."

"Like, whatevs. Can I go eat now? Being Wheels the vigilante non-terrorist skater role model fashion icon takes a lot of calories and syllables, and I kinda need to also design a grapple gun so that if I ever get defenestrated I maybe won't die so hard."

She doesn't bother to answer; she's already too busy asking some sophomore girl who's been known to skate once in a while when she's going to admit that she's Wheels, and why she's so intent on people thinking she's a man while in costume.

I shake my head and stride into the lunch room, attempting to get my train of thought back in motion. After all, I have a grapple gun to design and meatloaf to munch (as the taco line is too long). So let's just fast-forward through lunch up to-

"Hi George!" says Hannah as she and Joe sit down across from me.

"You," I say with my most grumbly voice, "just interrupted my fast-forward."

"You shouldn't eat so fast anyway. It isn't healthy."

"Pause," I say as I reach into my backpack to grab a notebook. Joe and Hannah roll their eyes and start eating while I jot down a bunch of notes so my train of thought doesn't end up in the lost and found. "Okay, play."

"Can't, George," says Joe. "Hannah says playing with your food is bad manners." He ducks under the pea Hannah flicks at him.

"Joe says you've got a lead on the Cueballs?" Hannah asks.

I nod. "We think we identified a couple of them. I stuck a tracking beacon to one guy's motorcycle, and I got one into both of their jackets."

"How'd you manage that?"

"Well," I say with a grin, "Joe isn't the only one who's been teaching me some tricks."

She groans. "Do I even want to know?"

"Remember Larry?"

"That stoner who got expelled last year?"

"Yeah. Wouldn't hurt a fly, but he's a great pickpocket." My milk carton slips out of my fingers from a couple inches up and some milk splashes out, so I lean over and rise out of my seat a little to avoid it, bumping into Joe in the process. Then I toss Hannah a wallet. "It's all about redirecting people's attention."

"Hey!" says Joe as he pats himself down.

She gives Joe his wallet back and we continue discussing my stakeout plans for tonight. Then the bell tolls and we head our separate ways. "See you at the assembly!" Joe says. Yes, there's an assembly this afternoon, one I'm actually looking forward to. So let's just skip over my lit class and cut to the good stuff.

"When I was a little girl," says Tamara Winston from the podium, "I wanted to be a ballerina. I wanted to spin and soar and dance like nobody had danced before. My parents were very supportive; I loved them both so much. But all good things must come to an end, and when I was four, my father was maintenance worker at the Ambrose Ammunition Factory. It was take your daughter to work day, the day of that explosion twenty five years ago." She rubs her left arm absentmindedly. "His shift was finished and we were on our way back to the car. I was dancing my way down the hall the way only a four year old can when we both heard a loud boom. The walls shook, and then there was an even louder boom. And then there was a sound like a horrible giant's popcorn popping, and everything was basically just the worst ever. I remember loud noises, bright lights, fire. I remember rubble, and being under the rubble. I was pinned, I couldn't move, couldn't do anything but cry, and oh Lordy did I hurt. I felt something warm and wet soaking into my hair. I thought it was my blood, but then I heard a moan to my side. It was my dad's blood, burbling out of a deep gash in his right arm. He'd crawled over and was using his legs to heave the rubble off of me. I pulled myself out, but most of my left leg didn't come with me. The world was getting dark and woozy as I stared uncomprehendingly at where my leg should have been, but I remember this next part. I remember my dad tying a tourniquet around my left thigh even as his own blood gushed out of his arm. And then I passed out."

Tamara pauses to use a tissue, and then continues speaking to the utterly silent auditorium. "Neither my leg nor my dad survived that day. I was devastated! How could I be a ballerina without my leg? And why even bother, without my dad there to see it?" She uses another tissue and then pushes up her left sleeve and holds her hair aside, revealing patchy scar-covered skin on her arm, neck, and cheek. "Speaking of seeing, I had heavy burns all along my left side, or what was left of it. Who would even want to see me dance like this?" She shakes her head. "My dreams were dashed, or so I thought. But my mom, my wonderful beautiful mom, she looked me in the eye and she said- she said, 'Tamara, baby, just who the hell do you think you are? Do you think you're someone who can just curl up in a ball and cry her life away? No! So what if you lost a leg? So what if you lost your dad? Do you think he saved you so you could cry? You've got your other leg and you've got me, and that's more'n you need. Because all you really need is you, baby. You are a Winston. Your fourth great gramma and grampa were born slaves, and they got free all on their own. They did it for the sake of your great great great grampa Winston, so he could be born free. And so one day your dad could be free. So you could be free. And now your dad gave his life to save yours. So now you owe it to them and yourself to live, girl!' And so that's what I did. I stopped crying, I got a prosthetic leg, and I started dancing again.

"Or at least, I tried. But that fake leg held me back. It's not like we had money for a good one, especially not for a growing girl who needed adjustments or replacements every so often to keep it matched with the live one. The thing was nothing more than a glorified peg. Sometimes I'd just take it off and dance with the one good leg I had, hopping around as best I could, but I wasn't happy with that. And I wasn't happy with the 'prosthetic.' So after a few years I decided to take things into my own hands, and with the stubbornness my mom gave me and the tools my dad had left behind, I built this!" She pulls a vaguely leg-shaped contraption from a trunk and holds it up for us to see. It's made of two-by-fours, a hinge, bungee cords, and some rope. She also holds up a belt with a pulley. "The rope came through the pulley here, and I pulled it with my left hand to bend the knee. This wasn't a good leg for walking on, or standing, or much of anything really. In fact, this design never worked at all, for a lot of pretty obvious reasons, and I got a lot of bruises figuring that out. But I never gave up." She pulls out several more legs, each more sophisticated than the last. "I got scraped and bruised and even broke my arm once, but I never gave up, and eventually I found myself dancing properly. With two legs. Kicks, spins, jumps, I could do it all. But I didn't stop there. I still wasn't happy with that leg either, so I kept redesigning it. And redesigning it. And redesigning it."

Tamara steps out from behind the podium. She's wearing the kind of pants that have zippers around the legs so they can be converted into shorts, and now she removes her left pant leg, exposing a shiny robotic limb. "I've been at this for a while, as you can see." She balances on her right leg and raises the left to do the crane pose. Then she kicks it out and wiggles her ankle around, then curls the uni-toe. "With this model I have full control and nearly full articulation, thanks to electrodes that sense the signals my nerves still try sending to my missing muscles. I have very little in the way of sensory input, of course-" she raps her knuckles on her shin, making a metallic pinging sound "-but I do have some, and I'll have a lot more in a couple years when we get our synthetic skin design working. In the meanwhile, I have a few pressure sensors on my foot, particularly on the sole but also around the sides, as well as a few on my leg itself. They trigger small actuators in the socket that I can feel on my stump. Besides noticing obstacles, this helps me feel where my weight is; very important for dancing!" She hops up and switches feet, landing only on the prosthetic. Then she goes onto her tiptoe and balances for a bit before doing a quick, spinning dance around the stage, ending with her standing behind the podium again.

Completely unwinded, Tamara sweeps her gaze across the audience. "I graduated from Coldriver High eleven years ago, from Tonbosa University a few years later, and until three years ago I was a researcher at Pharmedica. I left to start my own company, and today I am the CEO of Winston Biotech. We design and produce prosthetics, implants, and other medical equipment. And in my free time, I still do ballet." She steps back and does another twirl, smiles for a second, then looks at us sternly. "Now, if I, a poor little scarred up black girl with a single mom and a single leg, was able to do all of this... what can you do? What problems can you solve, and what's stopping you from solving them? Why are you letting it stop you? Just who the hell do you think you are?"

I smile as the audience bursts into applause. This is the third time I've seen Tamara give this speech since I was in elementary, and every time it gets better. It seems she's watched the anime I sent her, because that talk her mom supposedly gave her sure was punchier than last time.

Not that she has any idea I exist or anything, and I totally don't send her anonymous gifts every February. Even though she's literally the most awesome woman in the world, she's like fourteen years older than me. That would be super weird. Plus she's technically my mom's CEO. So I definitely don't do that, nope! Not at all...

Subject change! It's several hours later and I'm skating through the cool night on Aster Street, mostly geared up but with my mask and several other items in my pack. I'm watching through the fake dreadlocks of a wig as the strength readout on my new tracking device climbs higher every three and seven seconds until it stops and starts going down. I turn around and backtrack a bit, then head west on Ivystone Way. The number climbs higher still as I zero in on the signals coming from two of the three beacons I placed on Saturday. I already followed them around yesterday, but they didn't do anything interesting. Tonight, however, they seem to be leading me into one of Forchester's many run-down industrial areas. The readout climbs particularly high after I pass a small factory with shattered windows and a partially collapsed chimney. The signals fall off again as I pass.

"Found them," I say softly into a microphone clipped to my lapel. "The factory on Ivystone Way between Gerbera and Dahlia."

"Alright. Be careful, Wheels," says Joe's voice through the new bone-conduction transducers I'm wearing behind my ears. It's slightly distorted due to imperfectly reconstructing the scrambled radio signal. We don't have enough scrambling to keep the spooks from listening in, but it should be enough to keep random people out of our conversations. Obviously we'll need proper encryption soon, but this will be fine for now. Anyway, Joe built it to be modular, and we already have plans on how to make it more secure when we get the time.

I pull off onto Dahlia Street and then duck in between some buildings. After listening quietly for a bit, I decide it's safe and shrug out of my backpack. Off go the helmet and wig, quickly replaced by my mask. I slide my helmet into a black elastic helmet cover that reduces glint and disguises what the actual helmet looks like before putting it back on my head. From the pack I also retrieve my Pepper Soaker, Glownade, ParaMic, bugs, rope, and a stethoscope. I stuff my jacket and tracker into the nearly emptied pack alongside the wig. Between my ballistic vest, hockey shin pads, elbow pads, hand guards, and the padded shorts under my cargo pants, I'll be plenty warm enough. Unfortunately, skates might be too noisy for this plan, so I swap them for running shoes, putting the skates in the outermost pouch on my pack (it's designed for that). And since I'm going for stealth tonight, I leave the UV light on my helmet turned off so my mask doesn't glow.

Now prepared, I place my pack in a shadowy nook and then sneak out across the street. I'm not going to loop back the way I came; instead I travel like a crow. If crows were mostly confined to the ground and close proximity thereof due to a sad lack of wings. I jog lightly down an alley, dodging and jumping debris, then come to a stop as the alley opens into an empty parking lot. Spy time. I pull out and expand my ParaMic, place an earbud into my left ear, turn it on, and take aim. The ParaMic is a collapsible parabolic microphone I built a year and a half ago as part of a science fair project. Yeah, that science fair project. Although the dish wasn't collapsible back then. I came up with that after I broke it during my first week behind a mask.

Anyway, through my powerful listening device, I hear... nothing. They're definitely here, though. This part of the parking lot is empty, but I can see that it wraps around behind the building and there's at least one slightly rusty blue car parked back there. Probably more, but I can't tell from this angle. I'm not getting any sound from here though; probably too many walls. So I guess I was mistaken in my temporal assessment. It's not spy time, it's spider time.

I pocket the ParaMic and sneak up to the building. Just to be sure, I try my stethoscope on the wall, but I still get nothing. So, I climb the four story building using the gaps between bricks for handholds, as well as some metal piping that I probably also should have tried listening to before I started climbing. Anyway, I make it to the roof without issue, then promptly put my stethoscope to the pipe. Faint voices; not helpful, but at least it confirms that speaking is happening. Now I just need to get close enough for listening to also happen.

But before doing anything else, I tie my rope securely around a solid looking fixture and leave the coil near the roof's edge. The plan is to untie that and climb down the way I climbed up, but if I need to bail in a hurry, I can now just toss the rope over and slide down.

Escape route set, I quietly explore the roof and identify a ladder on the right side that goes most of the way down. Awesome, now I've got more options. My rope is better though, partly because they'll be less likely to expect it, but also because that ladder is on the back of the building where they're parked. Beside the blue car is a rustier silver one, a familiar motorcycle, a black truck, and a scooter. The back of the building probably has a door. The side I climbed has no doors, just windows. Safer.

Next I try listening at the exhaust vents. I can almost make out words from one with my stethoscope, but there's too much echo. And no way am I going to try climbing down it; moving through air ducts is much too noisy, especially with armor and equipment. Instead, I make my way to the access door. No noise coming through it. I try the knob, but it's locked. I could pick it, but I don't have all night. Look, I'm only sixteen, okay? I've only had time to get good at so many things. Frankly, I'm already good at too many things, especially considering my middle name. I mean, that's just too close for comfort. What? No, I'm not telling you my middle name. Ain't happening, bub. Anyway, the locked door doesn't matter. I mentioned the windows are shattered? I passed one of those shattered windows on the way up, and that's my new entrance vector. It's either that or get my Santa on and try going down the collapsed chimney, but that thing makes the Wheelhouse look safe.

Instead of climbing down the wall the hard way, I go ahead and toss the rope down; they're clearly not on this side of the building, so I'm not too worried about them seeing it, and it will make getting through the window a lot easier. So now the new plan for a quick egress is to jump out that window and grab the rope. Unfortunately, though the window has no glass, it does still have a bunch of the wooden muntins dividing it into panes and blocking me from getting through, which is why I passed it up in the first place. Gotta make a hole. I wrap the rope around my leg to free up my hands, then carefully and quietly use the knife on my multitool to whittle my way through. Using the saw blade would be faster, but it would make a lot more noise.

That done, I squint at my surroundings, but it's too dark to make anything out. I don't hear anyone though, so I get out my flashlight. It's got a white bulb, a red bulb, and a dimmer. I use the red to minimize loss of night vision, and I only turn it up enough to see my surroundings. Seems to be an office; there's a desk with drawers ajar, file cabinets, a broken chair, cigarette butts, and miscellaneous trash. I'm careful to avoid stepping on anything noisy as I pick my way over to the closed door. There's no light through the cracks, but when I listen to it with my stethoscope, I can hear faint voices again. I try the floor and they're quieter. I quietly open the door, careful to keep my flashlight pointed off to the side so no light will be visible.

Now I can hear the voices without the stethoscope, but I can't quite make them out. The door opened to a hallway, and I can see lights at the end of it, which opens into a cat-walk over the factory floor. I quickly play my flashlight over the floor of the hallway to check for obstacles, then shut it off and pocket it. There are two doors on each side along the hallway, two of them ajar, one missing, and one closed. I ignore them and get out my ParaMic again.

"Still there, Spook?" I whisper into my radio's mic.

"Yeah," says Joe, his voice resonating through my skull. "Why am I Spook?"

"OPSEC, and have you tried these bone conduction transducers yourself? Spooky how the sound comes from inside my head."

"Makes sense. But I don't like spooky stuff. It's a bunch of superstitious bull."

"I know you don't. Now listen, I'm going to plug my ParaMic into the Wheeldio so you can record, and-"

"No. We're not calling the radio a Wheeldio. It already has a name, and that name is radio. Because it's a radio."

"But it's the-"

"No."

"How about-"

"Radio."

I sigh. It's hard to be forceful when I can only whisper. "Whatever, Spook. Just-"

"Operator."

"Look, Spookerator, they're talking down there right now. Let's just get this stuff recorded, alright? We can argue later."

"Alright. I'm all set here."

I connect the ParaMic to the Wheeldio's line-in port, toggle the echo switch so the input from that port is played through my bone conduction transducer- no. My Skullbuzzers. Yes. The echo switch copies the input to my Skullbuzzers so I can hear it too even as it's transmitted back to the Wheelhouse for Spook. With that feature enabled, I aim the ParaMic down the hall toward the voices.

And what do I hear, my lovely mind-buddy? I bet you're just itching to know what these bald baddies are up to, aren't you? Well, Georgie's here with the auditory aloe. So without further ado, let us observe the Cueball in its natural habitat:

"-just like, your opinion, man," says Scratchy Voice.

"I swear to God," says Growly Voice, "if you quote a movie at me one more time-"

"You'll what?" asks Deep Voice. There's a pause. "That's what I thought."

There is a sigh, and then Irritated Voice speaks. "As I was saying, Tom and his boys will sabotage the dishes, using whatever method he deems best. Jacob, you'll be giving him backup. And I mean backup, not assistance. You can't watch his back if you're busy figuring out which wire to cut."

"Understood," says Deep Voice.

"Harris, while they're on the dishes, you're on the inside with Jones and me."

"I thought that was Swanson's job," grumbles Growly Voice.

"It would be, if he hadn't been shot last week. And whose fault was that? So now you're with me and Jones." There is a rustling of papers before Irritated Voice continues. "And speaking of last week, this time we are not going to walk through enemy territory to our vehicles. This time we are going to assume we're in enemy territory, regardless of who Harris thinks owns Lilac."

"It was an honest mistake, Rob. You know I-"

"Apologies don't cure wounds, Harris. Perry, you're on getaway with Ferguson for backup, and make sure the van is disposable because I want it curbside. In fact, get two so we can treat this as a chance to practice the-"

"Wazzat!" yells George Voice along with some banging and crashing from my position. Oops. But something sharp seriously just touched my ankle and I'm sorta freaking out just a little because I can't see anything and I don't think it's friendly because it's squeaking at me and it's probably time for me to leave anyway so I run for the window. From behind me I hear shouts and the clang of boots on a metal staircase or ladder. I fumble to collapse my ParaMic before giving up and just shoving the handle through my belt to free my hands while I slide down the rope. I do at least have enough presence of mind to avoid rope burn, though most of that's probably thanks to my leather gloves. I hit the ground running even as I hear a motorcycle roar to life. And here I am without my skates on. Crap crap crap-

"Wheels! What's going on!"

Oh, right. Joe's been shouting at me for the last several seconds. "S'alright, just a rat, but I'm kinda busy running so Imma save my breath now."

"A what?"

I skid into the alley where I stashed my pack, but it's not there, and, and... oh, wrong nook, there it is. I shove one arm through it and bolt as the motorcycle gets louder. The ParaMic falls out of my belt, but I catch it with the arm that doesn't have a pack over it. End of the alley; I dart right on Dahlia Street. Crap, should have gone left, this way is taking me back to Ivystone, and it sounds like the motorcycle is coming from that direction.

Well, I'm not going to outrun a bike on foot, so to hell with it. Spider time and spy time are over. Spicy time is now. I drop my ParaMic, pull my Pepper Soaker from behind my back, and crouch against the building at the corner. The bike rolls past and turns, and the guy on it looks right at me. I fire, but that's useless because he has the visor of his helmet down. And that's the problem with using PR-friendly weapons. Unfortunately, trading my pepperarm for a firearm would get the police on my case real fast.

Bikerman wipes at his visor with one arm while braking with the other, so I take the opportunity to snag my ParaMic and keep running the way I was going so he'll have to either dismount or turn around. Across Ivystone is an abandoned shop with no glass in its windows. Its nice big luxuriously spacious muntin-free windows. I vault through one, sprint down a hall, throw open a door to an office, and scoot under the desk. He probably saw which building I'm in, but not where I'm at inside, so I've got a little time now. First I get the ParaMic collapsed and shoved into a pocket where it won't be flopping all over the place, then I put on my skates and breath a sigh of relief. Running uses different muscles and motions than the ones I'm actually good at, especially when adrenalin has me jazzed. I thread both arms through my backpack, flip on my UV, and get back on my wheels. Much better. "Alright, Spook," I mutter into my mic. "Pipe some good music through the Wheeldio, because it's time to rock and roll."

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