Chapter 8

Maybe it's me who done goofed. I'm ducking and weaving and bouncing off the walls in top form, but I'm also leaking blood from a steadily increasing number of injuries. So are the Cueballs, but honestly, things aren't looking too good right now. Seven is a lot of people to fight at once, but I thought I could manage it since nearly all of them are starting out pre-wounded. Swanson was shot just two weeks ago, Jones, Tom, Rob, and Jacob all got hit or stabbed pretty bad two days ago, and Harris got half a face worth of pepper spray earlier this evening. So it's really only Perry -- a short guy who I think was their driver earlier -- who's going into this fight pristine.

But this? This is not an easy fight. Jones, Rob, and Jacob in particular seem to be tough cookies, and I'm running out of milk. I got Jacob with a good dose of pepper spray before Rob wrecked my Pepper Soaker again, but Jacob just closed his eyes and kept on going. He's got some nasty bruising on his face from when Mom hit him with that shovel, but so far I haven't been able to take advantage of that. Between his height, his reach, and his friends, I just can't get close enough.

Not that I'm gonna let a little fear stop me. Not when Joe's got music this good buzzing through my skull. It's a song about caffeine. In fact, it's the song about caffeine. The best one.

Tom's the first Cueball I manage to take down. I've been using my disabled Pepper Soaker as a club since Rob's shovel broke off the bayonet and got the valve stuck in the closed position. Given a little time I could work around that, but time doesn't exist while outnumbered seven to one. Instead, I swing it by the barrel and smash the stock into Tom's 'stache as I skate past. Down he goes, but then down I go as well because I'm distracted dodging a patch of my own ball bearings and don't quite duck low enough to evade the bat Jacob is swinging. I see stars, but I have enough momentum that I skid for a bit, and then reflexes kick in and I'm back on my skates, sprinting my way out of the fray so I can breathe.

It seems that I've lost the Pepper Soaker though, as my hands are currently empty. That's not good, but it probably wouldn't have held together for more than a couple more swings anyway. I lead them away from Tom for a bit, then carve around and sprint for him. Or more specifically, for his shovel, because when in Rome...

Now armed and diggerous, I charge the Cueballs with my weapon raised. "Spades is trump!" I shout as I feint left toward Jacob and then bring the shovel down onto Perry's shoulder. I was aiming for his head, but he moved it. Between the impact and Swanson hitting me just to the side of my elbow pad with a blackjack, I nearly drop the thing, but my other hand is functioning fine and I hang on tight enough to whirl it around at Jones. She parries and Rob hits the back of my knee, nearly spilling me onto the pavement, but I catch myself with my other skate and now I'm out and looping back around for another pass, more ball bearings spilling out behind me from a torn pocket.

As I move in, I see that Perry is rolling on the ground but not unconscious like Tom seems to be. Darn. This time I take a swing at Swanson, but Rob's shovel catches me in the shoulder. That doesn't feel good at all, and this time my shovel slips from my grip as I topple into a roll. I come out of it with a kick aimed at Jacob's knee, but he grabs my foot instead and hoists me into the air as the last of my ball bearings pour out of my pocket. I kick at his elbow with my foot before the others can navigate past the bearings to pummel me. Unfortunately, he drops his bat and grabs that foot too, and now I see Jones lining up a strike with her shovel that will land in a very unfortunate place if I don't act.

I didn't want it to come to this. I really didn't. But they have forced the issue. For the sake of untold generations of future-Thompsons, I draw the gun I stole from Harris and fire a frantic round right into Jones's gut. The shovel she was swinging slips from her grip and flies right between my legs to bounce off Jacob's chest. He drops me and staggers a little while Jones falls to the ground screaming obscenities that I can just barely hear over the ringing in my ears. Rather than trying to get to my feet, I take aim and fire a second round at Rob from the ground. It misses, but the third hits. As he stumbles, I roll out of the way of Perry's bat. Unfortunately, he recovers from his miss faster than I expect and smashes my hands just as I'm firing at him. The shot goes wild and the gun goes flying along with some curses.

Joe is saying something over the Wheeldio, but my hearing's too messed up right now to understand. I ignore him and surge to my feet and try to get some distance, but then there's a meaty arm around my neck holding me in place. So Jacob's back in the fight; this just keeps getting better and better. I should have shot him instead of Rob, but I was panicking. Speaking of Rob, he's still on his feet too, if a bit winded, and I don't see any blood leaking from his chest. Must have a vest of his own. Wonderful.

I try to get out a knife as Swanson and Harris carefully approach through the ball bearings, but I drop it. My hands aren't working very well right now; I hope they're not broken. I'm running out of options here, so I grasp at straws. Of course, by straws I mean Glownades.

I drop the first one, same as the knife. But with the second Glownade I'm able to get my finger around the ring of the pin. These ones are the updated models, so I just pop the pin out and hold the cap against Jacob's thigh. This isn't as easy as it sounds, because he's battering me with his free arm and now I'm trying to fend off Swanson and Harris with my feet. Good thing I wear some pretty good shin guards as part of my costume, because my lower legs are taking a beating. Before they can move to target my more vulnerable areas, the Glownade's cap explodes and Jacob releases me as it sprays a bunch of only slightly toxic glowing liquid into the wound it just created.

The Glownade is still gushing yellow goop out its gullet, so I throw it at Perry as a distraction while I flee toward him away from Harris and Swanson. He reacts as though it's a baseball and bats it away. This keeps him from hitting me as his bat is already committed to the swing, but he still manages to sidestep out of the way before I can hit him. I nearly hit the wall behind him instead, but I start a turn and then jump, wall-skating past him and leaping onto a nearby playground. This is not a good place to be on skates, but I don't plan to stay; I crouch and skate down the slide, swerve around Rob -- who's rubbing his head and glaring at the Glownade as it wobbles at his feet -- and snag Jones's shovel from where she's busy bleeding out on the pavement. My hands are still pretty sore, but they're working better now.

At this point I also realize Joe's still yammering at me through my Skullbuzzers. I can't understand the words yet but he sounds upset. "Spook, calm down and turn my music back on!"

Rob seems steadier but still a bit shocked as he stares at Jones, so I dart around Harris and try to hit Rob with my shovel before he pulls himself together. That doesn't work out at all; instead, he hooks the edge of my shovel's blade with his and yanks it out of my hands. I leap over Perry's swinging bat and then I'm about to crash into Swanson, so I decide to just knee the crap out of him. As I kick myself away and use my forearm guard to deflect Harris's blackjack from my ribs, I see that Jacob has recovered his bat and is limping closer. No thanks. I try to grab Perry's arm to swing around him, but he moves too fast so I turn it into a roll instead, narrowly slipping under his bat.

The reach these guys have with their bats and shovels is really annoying. I'm used to dealing with people armed with knives, guns, blackjacks, and brass knuckles. I'm going to need to come up with a more durable way to deal with people using longer melee weapons in the future, because the Pepper Soaker hasn't been cutting it. And I should probably start carrying some normal pepper spray in my pockets as backup in case I lose the more intimidating Pepper Soaker; right now all that stuff is in my pack, which I ditched early into the fight for the sake of mobility.

But I need to get out of this alive before I can worry much about the future. I've still got four Cueballs to deal with if I don't want to abandon Tamara; five if Swanson manages to get back up before I finish the others. Actually, let's not leave that to chance. I skate away for a bit and run my eyes over the blacktop while they give chase, then I loop around them and head for one of the shovels I dropped earlier, hopping a patch of bearings along the way. With that in my hands, I veer toward Swanson and give him a good whack in the head. That should keep him out of my hair. The tables are beginning to turn.

"Three out of seven Cueballs agree: Wheels is the shark at this table!" They don't believe me though, and Perry is the first to catch up. I try parrying his bat with my shovel, but I'm not fast enough. At least he hits me in the side, because my front and back are really tender by now. He gets a second hit in as well, but this time instead of trying to parry I just block, using the shovel's handle laid parallel along my forearm guard for extra armor value. Of course, that leaves my shoulder and elbow pretty sore. Thankfully, the fact that I'm on skates lessens the impact somewhat as long as I don't brace; a good portion of the energy from that strike goes into shoving me away from him.

While that was happening, Harris and Rob had split up and tried flanking me while Jacob limped toward us. So now I'm heading away from Perry and Harris right toward Rob. He's clearly too good at this for me to hit him properly; he's parried or dodged nearly everything I've thrown at him so far. Of course, so far I've been only figuratively throwing things at him. This time I haul back with the shovel, then plant one foot to send me into a spin to add some extra oomph as I hurl the shovel at him. That catches him by surprise. He does manage to block it with his own shovel, taking only a bruise from the handle whipping around and catching him in the shoulder... but my thrown shovel was only a distraction. He shifts his focus back to me just in time to watch my fist break his nose. Times like this, I really appreciate my hand guards.

Rather than hang around to admire my handiwork, I swerve around Rob to keep him between me and Perry as I sprint toward Jacob. Well, it's less of a sprint and more of a jelly legged scrambling because I'm nearly outta juice. Anyway, instead of charging him head-on, I curve around to approach from his right. His injured leg makes him slower to turn, so I'm able to slip in past his bat to shove a knee into the back of his thigh. That's normally enough to make somebody's knee buckle, but I don't think it would have worked on Jacob if that leg wasn't already injured. It does work, though, and as he comes down to his knees I'm able to snap a good kick into his head.

Jacob does not go unconscious, but he does lie there groaning. I want to give him another kick, but Harris's blackjack lands square on the sorest part of my back, so I just sort of trip over Jacob instead. He shoves me off and I skate blindly for a moment to buy some time and get some space. Then my right leg gives out when I try hopping some ball bearings and I roll and curse for a bit before finding myself lying at Perry's feet. Doubleplusungood. But well, as long as I'm down here... I ignore his incoming bat and aim a kick up into his nethers. He twists and I only hit his thigh, but his twisting throws off his swing and he only clips my helmet.

Not one to miss an opportunity like this, I grab his bat and kick his knee, and suddenly I am the one swinging a bat at somebody on the ground.

But if there's one thing I can say about this Perry guy, it's that he's fast. He scrambles away from me and I miss... but that was dumb, because he can't get the bat away from me from over there, and now I've got the advantage in mobility and reach. I skate forward and manage to land a couple whacks to his arms before Harris arrives with his blackjack. Then the blackjack departs, because as Perry did to me earlier, I introduce my bat to Harris's hands. They don't seem to get along.

"Clubs are trump now, buddy. You sure you don't wanna fill out that survey?"

The next thing I know I'm rolling forward though a bunch of stars with a soreness in the back of my head. I get my feet under me and spin around clumsily to see Rob helping Perry back to his feet while Jacob limps toward them.

I'm just about running on fumes at this point, so I scoop up a nearby shovel and use it as a makeshift cane while I catch my breath. Fighting time is paused; stalling time is now! I turn to the Cueballs, square up my shoulders, and clear my throat. "As I said before, y'all done goofed. Now I'm gonna give you Blueballs this one last chance to release Ms. Winston and explain yourselves before I break the rest o' you." I am, of course, bluffing. If I can't buy myself some time here to recharge, I'll have to bail and hope they don't move Tamara so far from the city that I can't home in on Harris's bike.

Rob wipes some of the blood off his face and sneers at me. "This is a matter of family. It does not concern you. You're the one who should leave while you still can."

"Wrong. Your group took out my internet for a solid week. If you look around you at all the scratched Cueballs, I think you'll see just how much this does, in fact, concern me."

"You call yourself a hero, but where are you when people are disappearing all over the city? No, you're just another arm of the Man, no hero."

"Who's disappearing? If you're talking about Ferguson, the police have him."

"They don't. And they don't have my nephew, or my niece, or Jones's fiance. The 'doctors' have them. Claim they're sick, but it's bull! And they aren't the only ones. Fat Jimmy, Nan McAllister, Hijack, Marvin the Moron, and most of Pimpin' Dan's girls have gone missing without any trace whatsoever. The only reason Bling Blang haven't gone on a riot is pressure from the Butterflies. And who's responsible for this?" He jabs a thumb over his shoulder at Deepwell. "Her kind. Biotech researchers. The people you defend. You're probably in their pocket too."

"Nah, I'm totes indie. And you do know there is such a thing as contagious disease, right? In case you haven't heard, we're kind of having a rash of those lately. If it wasn't for the hospitals quarantining people, we'd all probably be coughing up our lungs."

"There is no disease. Fat Jimmy went in for a broken arm. Jones's man had a metal filing in his eye. My nephew was getting a flu shot at a small clinic, and my niece was healthier than I am and only went in for a physical. And most of the rest aren't in any quarantine. The hospital claims they were released weeks ago, if they acknowledge them at all, but nobody's seen them since they went in. Marvin was snatched right off the street and never heard from again. I saw it with my own eyes, but nobody accepts responsibility."

I shake my head and wince as the motion makes me feel mildly nauseous. "Even if you're not imagining things, blowing stuff up and kidnapping people isn't going to change anything."

"It got your attention, and it will get more useful people's. Squeaky wheels, boy."

"Yeah, well, I happen to know a thing or two about wheels, and there are better ways to squeak than this."

"Oh, really? You think?! What the hell do you think we've been doing all this time? You think we just said, 'Oh hey, there's a problem, let's burn down the city around us?!' We tried doing this legitimately. Reporters, detectives, journalists, doctors... everybody either brushes us off, ignores us, lies about helping, or makes more of us disappear! Attacking the news and the internet? Not random, boy. They're in on it. Everybody's in on it. So we're just going to keep getting louder and louder until something happens. We don't want to, but if we have to burn this whole country down and build a new one, we will."

I glance around the blacktop again, then lock eyes with Rob. "Doubt that's on the table if you can't even stop lil' old me. And your story? I'd chalk that up to paranoid schizophrenia. They can treat that, you know-"


"You sure? You sound pretty off-center to me. Maybe you need better English."

Rob grits his teeth and twitches. "Boy, if you make another pool pun I will-"

"Sorry for speaking off cue, but I just felt that-"

Rob charges at me with a tormented roar, Perry and Harris trailing a few steps behind. Excellent; this gets them away from Jacob, who is standing and more than capable of hitting hard, but not in any shape to keep up with his friends as they run across the blacktop. Divide and conquer!

I slide out of Rob's way and go for Perry instead. He's recovered his bat by now, but this time I'm able to parry his bat with my shovel and then slide in with another knife. Now his neck is bleeding worse than all my wounds combined, so I get out of there and take a swing at Harris. He ducks right into my rising knee, then I kick us apart and bash him in the head with the shovel. He goes down hard. These guys really shouldn't have let me catch my breath.

I turn to see Rob's bloody face rushing toward me. It looks like making him mad was a good idea, because his movements are much less controlled now. I grin inside my mask. "Rob ball, corner pocket." Then I slide under his shovel, clonk him in the face with the flat of mine, and down he goes.

That leaves Jacob, who has been limping closer. Little too close for comfort, actually, so I back away a bit and maneuver so that there are ball bearings between us. "Just you and me now, big guy. You sure you don't wanna surrender? You're incredibly tough, but it's pretty clear who's gonna win this fight. There's no need to get yourself hurt any more on Rob's behalf." I'm not even bluffing or stalling this time, because I happen to know something that he doesn't.

Jacob frowns. "Rob's an angry man, but everything he said is true. We fight."

I shrug, and Jacob falls over into a thrashing heap as Tamara shoots him in the back with a taser. Her clothes are torn and blood is dripping from a rag wrapped around her left forearm, but she's even prettier than normal somehow, despite the exposed scars on her left arm, which is missing the sleeve entirely. Actually, I think that's what the rag was. I snap out of it as she tosses a bloody rope to me. "Mind tying him?" she asks. "My left hand doesn't have much grip right now. Nothing important's damaged, but..."

I nod and get to work as soon as he stops thrashing. I think he finally passed out, actually. My hands are pretty sore and jittery, but I manage. "How'd you get free?" Not that I was very surprised to see her standing behind Jacob with her taser as I tried to talk him down. I mean, I was a little surprised, but as I've said, she's pretty awesome, and they did make the mistake of leaving her unmonitored for a while when they came out to dance with me.

Tamara smiles and the ground seems to tip a little. "You know I've got a fake leg?" She raps her knuckles on it for emphasis. "It didn't take long before I realized I could add storage compartments to it. Compartments that could hold concealed weapons in case I got attacked or kidnapped. But then I realized anybody who kidnapped me would probably take off my leg anyway to keep me from running, and that only gets more true the more high-tech it looks. So I needed something harder to disarm. Disleg? Anyway, my solution was to put a razor in a silicone sheath and implant it into my left arm. It made my skin bulge a little, but my left arm is an ugly mess of scars anyway, so who cares? Worth it for times like this."

I stand up and try not to sway too much as I wipe my hands on my pants. "So after I distracted these guys, you... scrunched it up to force the blade through the sheath and your skin so you could cut your way out of the ropes, and then you got the taser out of your leg?" Oh my God, Tamara is so cool!

"Wait, what?" says Joe. "Are you talking to Tamara? She did what to her skin?"

"Pretty much," says Tamara. "I mean, if you're not willing to take a few simple precautions and endure a little pain, why bother living at all, right?"

"Uh, yeah. Wow." So cool!

"But look at you! You're dripping blood all over the place and swaying in the breeze. You should probably sit down and put pressure on some of those wounds. I'll call an ambulance and then help you with first aid."

"Uh... no. No ambulance. I have to keep my identity safe." Oh my God, Tamara is so helpful and considerate and beautiful and cool! Even if her help is a little misplaced. But now that she mentions it, I'm really not feeling too good at all. The adrenalin is fading. "Um... yeah. Thanks though. I'm, um, gonna go. Oh my God, she is so cool!"

"Uh, you said that last bit out loud, kid. I don't think it's safe for you to be going anywhere."

"No, it's alright." I start skating toward the road. "I just, I just don't want them to know I'm George, you know? No, you don't. You don't know that. Forget I said that. Yeah." I'm not quite skating where I aim, but that's fine, I can compensate. Just aim at the right copy of the road instead of the left one. "I'm just gonna call my friends. They'll help. I'll be fine."

"You really won't be... Come on now, stay conscious Wheels."

Oh my God, she said my name. One of my names. And for some reason I'm slumped against the building now instead of skating home, but I don't really seem to care. "So cool..."

I wake up sometime later with some woman I don't know stabbing my right shoulder under a starry sky. I try to kick her in the face, but somebody else grabs my legs. "Calm down," says a familiar voice from near my feet. I ignore it and take a swing with my left fist, but some guy rushes over and grabs it before it gets very far. I growl in frustration and feel my breath partially trapped by my mask.

My mask. It's still on, even though my helmet is missing. I blink. Those are paramedics holding me down. Paramedics and Tamara, who speaks again. "It's alright, Wheels. They're just helping you. I used your radio to talk to your friend Operator after you passed out, and he said he'd already called them in. He says they're trustworthy. You're going to be okay, and they're not going to take off your mask. Even if they tried, I wouldn't let them. I promise. You helped me, so I'm helping you. Okay?"

I nod because I don't trust my voice to work right now. I'm pumped full of adrenalin again. And for all I know, somebody might have recording equipment set up. Heck, for all I know they took off my mask, took pictures, and put it back on. I should leave. I should leave NOW.

"Wheels," says the voice. Tamara's voice. I try to focus on it. "You need to calm down or they'll sedate you."

Right. Right. I stop struggling again. Besides, it wouldn't make sense for them to put my mask back on if they're going to blow my cover. Serves no purpose. Especially if they've got sedatives. They could just drug me, patch me up, and hand me over to the cops to figure out what to do with. Yeah, that makes sense. I think my mind is clearing. I take a deep breath, hold it, and let it out. I clear my throat and then make sure my Wheels Voice is engaged before speaking. "Alright, I am calm now. Sorry about that, good citizens. You all have my thanks." Okay, maybe I'm not fully awake yet, but I guess that's close enough.

"Um, okay. Now listen, we don't have much time. Operator said he called the Tooth Fairy to get these paramedics here after he heard those gunshots. The police are going to show up soon too, so they're only doing the bare minimum to get you back on your feet and out of here. But you've got a concussion and maybe other problems, so instead of going home, you're going to meet the Tooth Fairy at the corner of Aster and Warm Freesia. He'll get you to somebody trustworthy who can finish patching you up."

"I don't feel that bad, actually."

"Painkillers, Wheels. Another reason you need to have the Tooth Fairy give you a lift instead of moving too far on your own."

The woman who was sewing up my shoulder withdraws. "Alright, dear. Now try to take it easy on your way to the... Tooth Fairy." The other paramedic snorts. "I don't want you collapsing halfway there or getting yourself hit by a car. Be careful."

"Yes ma'am, thank you," I say to the medic as Tamara hands me my helmet with my Skullbuzzers and the contents of my pockets in it, along with a bundle of armor and my skates.

Wait, what?

I look down. I'm sitting on a blanket spread over the ground in my underwear. Well that's just great.

"We cut your clothes off to get to your wounds," says the second paramedic. "You can keep the blanket though."

I stand and wrap myself up, then take my gear and start limping across the blacktop while grumbling under my breath. I veer wide around the set of blankets with stripped and zip-tied Cueballs being treated by more paramedics. I guess they borrowed more than my Wheeldio.

Tamara jogs up alongside me. "No, Wheels. You're going the wrong way." She points to the left. "The corner of Aster and Warm Freesia is over that way."

"I know, I'm just grabbing my pack. I've got more clothes in there. And granola. Need me some granola after all that."

"That is an excellent idea!" shouts one of the medics. "And get more fluids as soon as you can! And electrolytes!"

Tamara rolls her eyes. "Okay, but just grab it and get out of here. You can dress and eat somewhere down the road. The cops will be here any minute. Operator vouched for these guys. He didn't vouch for the cops."

I grunt agreement, snag my dead Pepper Soaker along the way, sling my backpack over my "good" shoulder, and stagger off into the chilly night with my new best friend Mr. Blanket pulled snug, heading up an alley leading away from the approaching sirens. I hum to myself as I walk.

I've had worse nights than this.

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