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Chapter 13

So, the bad news is that Paula completely refused to join the mask club, but the good news is that she agreed to work together on this Tolman's Flu business. And the best news? When I ran into her on my way to the cafeteria today, she smiled and then kept on walking. Oh glory glory hallelujah!

"Will you cut it out with the humming?" Joe asks as we turn the corner onto his street. "It got old three blocks ago."

I stop humming and start rummaging in a pocket while he sighs in relief. Then I bring out the kazoo. I only manage a few buzzes before Joe snatches it away from me, but that's okay. This is a problem that can be solved with words! "Oh, mine eyes have seen the sating of the hunger of my gourd. I am filling up my stomach where the fuel for skating's stored. Paula moved aside from all the food that I walked toward. My hunger is all gone!"

We come up to Joe's house to see a guy with short black hair in the most boring cut imaginable kneeled down tending to one of the small, extremely organized gardens decorating the yard. This is Carl O'Malley, or as I like to call him, "Yo, Joe-Dad! What's shakin' your bacon, my homeskillet?" Carl is pretty cool, but he's so square he's cubic, so I can't help but go linguistically non-Euclidean around him.

He looks up and smiles at us. "You know, George, there's something I've been meaning to tell you. You're old enough, now. See, the thing is, you're actually just as white and nerdy as the rest of us."

I put my hands to my face in shock, then examine them. "Gosh, this is so surprising given my total non-exposure to mirrors! Oh no! You really must be correct! I am suddenly talking like you talk!"

"I don't talk like that."

"'Course not, dawg. I juss be messin' wit you all up in dis hizzle."

He sighs. "Anyway, would you care to explain why a box showed up at my door today addressed to Fayken McNamister?"

"Oh, that's juss mah anti-balizzle vizzle in case some dawg wanna pop a cap all up in my chest cavizzity."

"I don't know what any of that meant, but I don't think it was an explanation for why it was shipped here to a pseudonym instead of to your real name at your apartment."

"You seen where I live, dawg? Mah neigh-neighs would totes jack that box."

Carl gets that annoying self-conscious expression he gets when he remembers that my mom isn't a well-paid engineer or architect like him and his wife, and what that implies for our living conditions. "Alright, well, it's inside, next to the..." He winces. "Next to the 3D printer."

Yup, he's got one of those, and not a cheap one either. It's a custom multi-extruder model he built himself. He may not be quite as cool as Uncle Jeff, but if we limit the comparison to only cubes and other rectangular sorts, Joe-Dad is right there at the top of the pyramid.

We exchange a couple more pleasantries, then Joe and I head inside where we're greeted by a slightly heavyset woman with green, glaring eyes. "Joe!" she scolds, "you didn't warn me you were bringing George's Stomach over today!" Her angry tone sounds pretty authentic, but the smile trying to quiver its way out of her fake scowl tells another story.

"Don't worry, Mom," Joe says. "He was literally singing about how he wasn't hungry just two minutes ago."

"Well, yeah," I say, "but that was a whole two minutes ago. A lot can happen in two minutes! And that was before I smelled whatever wonderdish is cooking in yon temple of tasty treats." I turn and look at Joe gravely. "You're going to have to make a hard choice, Joe. Do you give up your share so that I can eat tonight, or do you return my kazoo so I can earn myself a meal on the street?"

Wanda O'Malley laughs and pats my shoulder. "Don't you worry, I saw that package you had delivered here and figured you'd be over to pick it up, so I made extra stew just in case. Who are Kinetistop, anyway?"

"A physics company. I won some branded clothes from them for a project I did."

"Well, that's neat! What kind of project was it?"

Joe glances at me nervously, but I came prepared for these questions. "It was a study on the effectiveness of dispersing impulse forces over time and space using a high tensile strength synthetic weave over a protein substrate. There's room for improvement, but the method works."

"Yeah," says Joe. "It was pretty interesting. But, uh, George has to leave early tonight, and he's here to help with my chemistry homework, so we should probably go get started on that."

Wanda waves us off, so we pick up the box with my new ballistic vest in it and head to Joe's room to talk about colloidal suspensions. Isn't chemistry great? I know Joe prefers electronics, but come on. Chemistry has fun words like peptization and emulsification, not to mention beakers of glowing liquids.

And speaking of chemistry, thew stew his mom serves later is soooooooo delicious. The texture, and the smell, and the taste... if food was music, this would be ska. Spicy, chunky, savory, juicy... Forgive me friend, for I must foodgasm.

I still feel like I'm glowing later in the night as I skate around a corner and headbutt a would-be carjacker into submission outside Neon Noise. He'd been struggling to pull a man from his truck when he saw me rolling up and decided to run for it. Not sure how he thought he was escaping my wheels with those shoes.

The sounds of screeching tires, opening car doors, and shouting answer that question. He was running to his buddies and their own wheels. I bolt forward and then pull a sharp turn, drop a Glownade, duck under a swinging fist, and slam the stock of my Pepper Soaker into somebody's chin. Then I'm out, building distance, and looping back with the Pepper Soaker raised. It takes about twenty seconds to finish them off. Zip-tying them takes longer than the fight did.

That done, I turn to their car. It's sitting there partway up on the curb, engine still running. I'm tempted to hop in and move it somewhere more interesting, but it's probably better for the police if I just leave it here. I reach in to shut it off and turn on the emergency flashers, then head up the road.

I only make it a few blocks before some lights catch my eye. Hoban's Hobbies and Crafts hasn't closed up for the night! Awesome! I skid to a stop, heft their door open, and skate in. The cashier stares at me open mouthed as I give her a wave and roll into the aisles. Let's see... I'm gonna need some more Velcro, some elastic thread, hot glue sticks, and oh, what is this? They've restocked on florescent thread? Awww yeah!

I head back to the front and present my selection, then start rooting through the various wallets I took off the carjackers. The first one's empty, but the second has some green in it. "Keep the change!"

Shopping done, I stuff my purchases into my pack and snag the tailgate of passing truck that takes me across Downtown and all the way into the heart of Vista Grande. The drivers of Forchester have been a bit friendlier to me since the Tamara incident. It's pretty nice. I give the truck's driver a wave as I split off and cruise down a side road and then take a sidewalk across a dark park.

On the other side is a subdivision, Putter's Contentment. Or at least, the tall brick wall enclosing Putter's Contentment intended to keep riff-raff like me out. They don't know me very well, do they? So let's see what I've got to work with here. There's the wall, the sidewalk, a slide, and some trees above. Trees with branches that are out of reach. This is gonna be fun.

I back up, then sprint at the business end of the slide. I make it about halfway up before I leap off to the side toward a tree and grab a branch that's parallel to the wall. I swing forward, back, forward, back, forward, back, and then I give up on the idea of jumping and breaking my legs, because I don't have enough momentum to make it all the way to the wall from here, let alone over it.

Instead, I pull myself up onto the branch, then climb up to one that's heading toward the wall instead of parallel. I shimmy along this branch... and sigh as the branch bends and brings me right back down near the ground when I'm still five feet short of the wall.

Eh, forget it. I hop back down to the ground, back up, sprint at the wall, jump, scrabble, and haul myself over like a boring person. It's not like I've got an audience, after all. Other than you, that is. Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about you. But well, it's not quite the same, is it?

"Not the same as what, Mr. Wheels?" asks a high pitched voice from the sky as I drop to the ground in a large backyard. No, not a voice from inside my head like you and the Skullbuzzers make. This came from somewhere above. I look up and squint. There's a rustle in a tree to the left. "Over here, stupid. Are you blind and crazy? Maybe you shouldn't wear a mask that covers your eyes. That's pretty stupid."

Ah, the voice is coming from a girl in dark clothes nestled in a tree. "The parts in front of my eyes are extra thin, so I can see fine. And I'm not crazy. I'm special."

"Well, Mother will be happy to hear that she's right. She always says 'That boy must have been dropped on his head,' but I didn't believe her until I heard you talking to your imaginary friend just now. Don't you know imaginary people aren't real? Don't you believe in therapists? Father says poor people like you don't believe in therapy and that's why you're poor, but Mother says Father is full of poop. I don't think he's right either, and neither do Tabby or Jessica or Cassie, but Cassie mostly just agrees with everything we say, or else she says really weird things, so-"

"Do you have an off switch?"

"Nope," she says, kicking her legs as she talks. "Mother says I shouldn't talk as much, but Father says it's important for a young person to strongly express herself and not be silenced by society. I'm not really that young anymore though; I mean, I turned thirteen last week! But I do agree that it's important to-"

"Yes, yes, very important to go up a tree and socialize with the vampire chipmunks at night. As long as you're being so chatty, you wouldn't happen to know where Dr. Stephenson lives, would you?" Yeah, I'm here for the doctor who diagnosed Hannah's friend Carrie. "I know he's around here somewhere, and my imaginary friends and I -- that's friends plural, mind you, because I have many, many friends safely tucked in here with me under my helmet -- we need to go have a chat of our own with him."

"Oh, is he going to fix you so you're not crazy anymore? Father says crazy people are a danger to themselves and society. I think he's being a little mean about them, but maybe they are a little dangerous. You don't seem too dangerous so far, but I saw a homeless guy last month and he was scary. He thought it was my fault he failed to be of use to society, and he started yelling at me, and then mother yelled at me for talking to him in the first place. I think she'd be even more mad if she knew I was talking to you. She doesn't like you much at all. She says, 'He's a delusional poop-head with a death-wish who thinks he's above the law.' Except she calls you something worse than a poop-head. And Father agrees with her, and he says you're no different from the sort of people who become tyrants in poor countries, and that I should remember that and not vote for commies like you when I'm older. Are you really a commie, though? I've never met one and I'm not really sure what they look like. I've asked Father what a commie is, but he never really explains it well, just that they hate freedom, and Mother's no better. Jessica says they're people who want to make theft legal, but Tabby says they're like hippies and want to get rid of science. You don't seem like a hippie. Hippies don't beat up bad guys. I don't know what hippies do about bad guys. Cassie says they give bad guys brownies and they turn nice, but well, she's Cassie, so whatever. What do you think?"

"Well, I don't think people who call them commies are a good source of unbiased or even vaguely accurate information about communism, for one thing. But I'm not a communist. Not a hippie either. You should give Cassie more credit though, because it sounds like she knows a thing or two about hippies. Probably not things your poop-head parents would like you knowing though."

"By poop-head, do you mean, um..."

"Yup!"

"That's not very nice!"

"Truth hurts, Tree-Girl. But speaking of truth that hurts, I do need to talk to Dr. Stephenson. If you're not going to tell me which house is his, that's fine, I can probably figure it out by looking at mailboxes or doors or something. And I know he's got a yellow car."

"Yeah, it's really ugly. He should have gotten a blue one like Mrs. Stephenson's."

"What? Yellow is the best color!"

"Nuh uh."

"Yeah huh. Yellow is the color of taco shells, sunshine, bananas, and also taco shells."

"You said taco shells twice."

"Yeah, because tacos are the best food. They're twice as good as all the other ones."

"No they aren't. Mother says tacos make you fat, and Alice eats tacos and she's not exactly skinny anymore, is she?"

"I have no idea, but if she's fat, it's probably because she doesn't exercise enough to match what she eats. Tacos are not for lazy wimps like Alice. They are the food of heroes! If you work hard saving the day like I do, you can eat as many tacos as you want! Also, research shows that helping heroes is strongly correlated with fitness, so you should answer my question about where Dr. Stephenson lives."

"Um, I don't think..."

"How often do you see a superhero with fat friends? Helping heroes keeps you trim!"

"That's because those are movies! They pick pretty people on purpose!"

"Yep, so the question you have to ask yourself is: are you the one who gets picked, or are you the one who gets passed over?"

"You're just trying to manipulate me."

"Am I? All I'm doing is asking you where Dr. Stephenson lives. That's not manipulative. You're the one trying to weasel out of being an upstanding, helpful citizen of this fine country. Why do you hate America, Tree-Girl? Why do you hate Freedom?"

I get the impression she's frowning at me, but I can't make out her face well enough to tell. "What are you going to do to Dr. Stephenson? He's not a bad guy, you know."

"I'm going to seek his advice on a rare medical condition. My friends are sick and they need his help."

"Oh. Well, okay. If you go that way, then go left, then go right when you get to the little tree that's after the big tree, then his house is the one with the ugly yellow car and the blue flowers."

"Awesome! And if anybody asks, I was never here."

"You were definitely here. You're the crazy one, not me."

"Maybe, but I definitely wasn't asking about Dr. Stephenson, because if people knew he helped me, he might get fired or something. And then I'd have to tell the Tooth Fairy not to give you any more money. I'm good friends with him, you know. So behave, or all you'll get for Christmas is cavities."

"Um, that's not how Christmas works, and the Tooth Fairy isn't real, and she's a girl anyway."

"Yeah, I hear there's a lot of that going around lately. But seriously, don't get the man fired. If you have to tell people I was here, tell them I was rescuing an alpaca that got stuck in a tree or something. Speaking of being stuck in trees, do you need a rope or anything?"

"Nope!"

"Righteo." I turn away from the tree and make some revving-up sounds, then sprint past the house onto the road and hang a left. I end up following the road to the end and then backtracking before I realize which intersection she meant, but from there it's pretty easy. The street lights aren't bright enough to tell for sure if the flowers are blue, exactly, but only one house on that next stretch has a yellow car. There's no sign of the blue car Tree-Girl said his wife has, but it might be in the garage.

Now for the tricky part. I don't actually plan to talk to Stephenson. I'm just going to bug his house. I'd prefer to do this during the daytime when he's not home, but I don't want to skip school and I also don't want to wait until Saturday. But that's okay, now will work too as long as I'm careful.

First I hope over the fence into his back yard, because there are still a lot of houses with lights on, including his neighbors, and the fence will give me some cover. Stephenson's house is dark though, other than a few small LEDs visible through windows. It's a clean two story building just like every other nearly identical building in this soulless scab of a subdivision. The yard has an impressive little playground next to a well used sandbox. So, they've got kids in there too. That's good and bad. It's bad because there are more people to try not to wake up, but it's good because people in a full house are more likely to sleep through random noises.

I creep up closer to the building and peer through the windows, careful not to bump them in case he's got a security system. Bottom-right is kitchen. Center is living-room. Left is a bathroom, and then maybe a guest bedroom? I can't tell what the second floor is without climbing and risking setting off alarms, but I can guess that the window above the bathroom is a second bathroom, and the one next to that is probably the master bedroom unless this is a three-bathroom house. I'm only going to plant two bugs, so the possibly-master-bedroom and the living room windows are probably my best bets for collecting useful intel or blackmail material.

Oh, you thought I was looking for info on Tolman's Flu? How am I going to get that here? It's not like he's going to sit his toddler down on his lap and explain about the best techniques for tricking people into thinking they're sick. No, the goal here is to learn more about this Stephenson guy so that I can squeeze him for information or blackmail him into helping. Maybe none of that will be necessary at all, but it'll be a lot easier to prepare for the possibility that he'll be uncooperative now than to do it after he's alert to my interest.

This is also going to be the first field test for our new Window-Bug system. The first element of the system is the mics, which are disguised to look like houseflies and have a very thin wire extending from them to connect them to the Hive module where the actual guts of the system are housed. I stick one to the upper-left corner of the living-room window and then route the cable along the bottom of a flap in the siding to a spot below what I think is the master bedroom. I hold it in place with little pieces of sticky putty.

The master bedroom is tricker; I have to take off my skates and pack, then carefully climb onto the guest bedroom's windowsill and then pull myself up to the next sill, careful not to kick the window below me or bang against the side of the building as I get myself up high enough to reach the upper window pane. The bottom pane would be easier to deal with, but there's a screen that I don't want to cut or remove, and the bug isn't going to pick as much up from inside if it isn't stuck directly on the glass. This is a bit precarious, but I manage. I run the cable along the edge of the window frame so that I don't have to reach so high, then I run it sideways to the nearest gutter. Once it's stuck, I climb down and finish bringing the cable down the back of the gutter. I have to attach a second cable to get it down and over to the vicinity of the first one, but that's fine.

Cables laid, I connect them to the Hive module and stick that up in a nook of the siding. I also connect an extra battery pack to the auxiliary power port and mount it next to the Hive. That port could be used to attach something like a solar panel or DC adaptor or whatever, but there aren't really any good spots to hide a solar panel over here. The extra battery should keep it happy for a few days, at least.

But here's what's really cool about the Hive module. It has Bluetooth support, so I can slurp the data from a distance! That makes it more expensive, but it'll be worth it when bugging dangerous or difficult locations. Especially when it can be combined with a maintenance-free power-source.

Once all that's done, I put my skates back on and go hide inside the playground to bide time until more people in this neighborhood are asleep. I want to place a tracker on the car, but I want to take the time to do it right and have it tap the car's battery. That'll let it send a stronger signal and keep running indefinitely. Those factors are important for another project Joe wants to do, which is to set up a big rotating directional antenna at the Wheelhouse to see if he can estimate the locations of all our active trackers and put them on a map. We could just add a GPS chip and encode the coordinates in the pulse, but that makes trackers more expensive, and they really do need to be pretty disposable. Plus it would hurt battery life even more when external power isn't an option. We're going to build a few of those anyway for special cases, but for general use, just being able to get an idea from a big, sensitive antenna at the Wheelhouse about which pie slice of the city I need to head to with the hand-held unit to pick up a signal would save a lot of time. Coupled with making the hand-held unit directional as well, tracking will become easy.

Almost none of that's built yet though, so we're just going to use an amped up version of the standard beacons connected to a car battery, and hopefully that will give the signal enough range to pick it up on the portable directional tracker Joe's got nearly ready, even from down in Cherry. Then he can use that to test some of the code he's going to write to manage the bigger antenna he wants to build later, and if it doesn't look like it'll pan out, he can skip wasting our money building something that won't work anyway.

But I'm not going to try monkeying with Dr. Stephenson's car out in the open until more people are asleep, so in the meanwhile I pull out my phone and use it to study for tomorrow's Spanish vocabulary test, and then I work on composing a monologue I'm supposed to give in drama on Wednesday. And let me tell you, if you ever want to be a superhero, drama is the class to take.

I'm pretty sleepy by the time I make it home, but that's okay. I'll catch up on sleep in physics tomorrow.

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