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Chapter 15

So, first priority is to reconfigure my thinking to account for the fact that I am now being actively hunted by the freaking police. This means I need to make several changes. For one, I'll need to get in the habit of leaving my phone in airplane mode more often. We're also going to need to get that encryption module for the Wheeldio finished, although that's lower priority, and we're going to need to move the transmitter to another building to buy time if the police decide to start tracking down unknown transmissions. And I need to let the others know what's going on. I do that first, via encrypted onion-routed emails to their anonymous accounts.

Next, I grab some cable and start laying the wiring to have the Wheeldio's transmitter in a building across the street. This involves spending some time down a storm drain, which freshens up the authenticity of my hobo coat. Not exactly a silver lining, but I'll take it.

Joe shows up as I'm moving the transmitter and begins programming the firmware update for the Wheeldio, and Hannah arrives a bit later with food and updates. "They've shut down Flywell, George. Anybody who tries to go there gets pulled off for questioning."

"I will destroy them."

"Sure. Also, if you put your phone into airplane mode any time you go out as Wheels, they might notice the pattern. Instead, leave it on, but leave it here at the Wheelhouse."

"Good catch," says Joe. "And then if one of us is here, we can relay any text messages you get over the radio. In fact..." He trails off, grabs a whiteboard, and starts jotting down notes and pulling up reference material.

I grin, anticipating where his train of thought has chugged off to. "Adding a data channel for automatic forwarding?"

"Yep!"

I turn back to Hannah. "You're lucky I'm straight."

She raises an eyebrow. "You know I love you, George, but don't be silly." She gestures at herself. "You could never compete with this."

"She is completely right," calls Joe from somewhere in the depths of the Android SMS API documentation.

"I dunno. Paula seems to think I'm hiding quite the figure..." I trail off as I remember that she's now presumably among those who've been kidnapped and disappeared, and that it's my fault. "We need to find her."

Hannah grins. "You mean you haven't realized it yet? George, Paula was bait."

"You think that was a trap?"

"For them, not for you. Didn't you say there's a beacon in her Summoning Wheel?"

I slap my forehead. "It'll lead us right to them!" I rush over to where the prototype directional tracker is still hooked up to Joe's coordinate-finding test gear.

"Hey!" he shouts. "Careful with that!"

"Sorry, but we might not have much time. If they realize what it is, or if they send her too far away or underground..." I fire everything up and then step back and watch it work for a few aggravating minutes. Like, actual sixty second minutes. Nearly three of them. It's normally faster, but Paula's Summoning Wheel is just in passive beacon mode right now. It's only sending a pulse every half minute to stretch out battery life, and it takes five pulses before the tracker is able to zero in on her. I grab one of the Wheelbooks when it finally does.

"I'm using that!"

"You don't need both of them, Joe, and I'll just be a second." I pull up the city map and punch in the coordinates the test gear is showing on its simple character display. Joe wants to give it an integrated map with fancy icons and overlays eventually, but he's been busy just plain getting it to work at all. But that's fine, I can just punch in the coords, and... "There! It's coming from where Greater Hydrangea meets Broken Thorn Boulevard." That's south by south-west of here.

"Give or take a few blocks," adds Joe.

"Yeah, yeah, I know." We eventually want to have multiple sensors so we can triangulate positions, but at the moment we're just finding an angle and then estimating the distance based on signal strength. It's not very accurate, but it tells me where I need to be to start the real search, and the time I'll save knowing where to start is worth it. I toss the Wheelbook back to him and start quickly disconnecting the tracker, nearly dropping it as I fumble to put in batteries for use on the go.

"George!" Hannah says. "You need to slow down. You're being-"

"I almost got her killed, Hannah, and I abandoned her last night. I should have stayed there and gotten her out-"

"Against half a dozen cops?"

"I could have done it! This is my fault. I need to-"

"You need to calm down," Hannah says, holding me by the shoulders. "It's like speeding, George. You're only going to save a few seconds."

"She's right," says Joe. "Math it up. Odds of rushing carelessly getting you hurt, versus the odds that those specific seconds you'll save will matter."

I glare at them, then force myself to take a couple deep breaths. "You're right, you're right. Sorry." I grab my pack and my hobo disguise. "I'll be careful." Pausing at the ladder to the room's exit, I turn back to them. "I really couldn't do this without you guys."

"Hey, no problem," says Joe.

"We're all in this together," says Hannah.

I nod. "Alright. Time to go bust up a conspiracy."

I'll spare you my grumbling as I grudgingly plod across Cherry on foot to avoid the notice of a city that is busy harassing anybody it sees on skates today. At least I'm not on yet another bus. I'd put up with one if it would save time, but there aren't any direct routes; I'd have to take three different buses and then I'd still have to walk a quarter of it. Just hoofing it the whole way is faster, and it's less frustrating since I'm physically doing something. I try to ignore the mocking tailgates of passing vehicles.

I check my tracker as I start getting near the search area. These thirty second pings are a pain, but the two directional antennae on the tracker make it tolerable; I can point it where I think the beacon is, and when a ping comes in, it'll give me an idea of whether it's more to the left or right. The numbers aren't quite in degrees, or even linear, but it's a heck of a lot better than nothing. After spending a minute sitting against a building refining my aim under my coat, as though I'm hunched over hiding from the chilly November morning, I stand up and start slumping along toward what looks like an old car dealership.

Rather than going directly in, I veer around it and make another check in case I was guessing the distance wrong. Nope, comparing the angles shows that it's definitely coming from the dealership. I activate my mic. "Hey, I've got a location. Daring Denny's Dodge Dealership. Looks a little run-down, but there are still a lot of cars in the lot, so I'm not sure if this is a front company or what."

"Alright," says Joe. "Hang on a second." I peek around the corner at the place while I wait. There are two main buildings, one of which looks like a shop, and one small building off to the side that's probably for groundskeeping or something. A guy with a broom is sweeping the lot, but not much else is happening. No customers or patrolling guards or anything. I do spot some security cameras through the spyglass in my sleeve.

"Well," Joe says after a while, "there are reviews for them posted here and there on the net going back months, with the most recent from yesterday. They've got a terrible rating though."

"Hmm..." I peek around the other corner. "Pull up an aerial map and give me a hand. I'm trying to figure out the best way to make my approach, but it's a pretty open area. Maybe you'll see something I don't." I start circling around, hoping the back will have more cover, but there's no such luck.

"Yeah, this place looks pretty much terrible for sneaking, Wheels. And if this really is some big medical conspiracy, they'll have plenty of security cameras."

"Yeah, I've already spotted a few of those. What about storm drains? Do they have any in a shady corner?"

"Um... I don't know how shady it is, but your best bet looks like the one behind the two big buildings. They make sort of a little alley near it."

"I do like me some alleys. Thanks, Spook."

I take another look at the layout of the place. The main buildings are on the east, facing to the west across the parking lot. The entrance to the parking lot is on the north part of the west side, but the land slopes gradually to the south-west, so south-west of the parking lot is where I'll be most likely to find a storm drain that connects to the dealership. I head in that direction and find a good spot in an alley to pop up a manhole cover, and then down I go. I put my mask and helmet on once I'm out of sight, then I pop back out just long enough to shove my pack under a dumpster before heave the cover back into place. I'm keeping my hobo coat on because it's nasty in these places. It's actually slightly warmer than above ground though, which is nice.

In case you've never been in a storm drain, well, there's not much to say. You climb down a short tube from the manhole cover, and when you get to the not-very-deep bottom, it opens up into a small tube running along the road. It's wet, smelly, and full of random litter, bugs, and other nasties. And dark. I flip on my mask's UV light so my grinning mask can intimidate any random bums or fugitives I might rustle up down here, and I clip a small flashlight to the side of my helmet so I can actually see. Then, resisting the urge to take a deep, nauseating breath, I get down on my hands and knees to crawl west along the tube. I go past several more openings to the surface before I reach an intersection, but it's a branch that heads left and I'm looking for one that goes right, so I keep going.

I can't help it; I start humming "Heigh-Ho" as I traverse the tunnel. I keep it soft though, because there's a lot of reverb down here. And possibly murderers. Firing my Pepper Soaker in a space this confined would be bad...

Ah, there it is: an opening to the right, sloping gently upward. Nice thing about that? It's not as wet on the slope. That last chunk was almost level, so little puddles of old water were pooled along the center of the pipe. I'm going to shower for so long when this is over. But in this part, all the water ran downhill and left the tube only mildly damp.

I halt my humming and freeze when I hear scuffling up ahead, but the sound scampers off further up the tube. Probably a rat. I shudder and force myself to continue, but I'm not humming anymore. There are reasons I normally creep around in a hobo or stoner disguise when I want to be inconspicuous, rather than taking the storm drains like this.

Eventually I make it to another intersection, this one with a tube branching off to the right and another leading up to the surface and letting in some light from the curbside opening. I think I know where I am, but it's easy to get disoriented crawling around on my hands and knees underground instead of skating, so I climb the ladder and peek out the opening. I'm definitely at the parking lot, but I'm very low to the ground and a bunch of cars are blocking my view. Seems like the south-west corner though, which is what I expected. I know the buildings are along the east side of the lot, so I climb back down and take the fork.

I reach another intersection, but I can't be there yet. I climb up and peek out. Ah, I see. That's the tube that drains the center of the lot. Not what I'm looking for. I head back down and continue eastward until I hit a left turn. So far, so good. I crawl past a few more openings and then take another peek. I'm definitely behind the buildings now, but I think I might have gone too far. Yeah, the other building is back the way I came. I backtrack a bit and find the correct manhole cover, then use the tracker to figure out which of the two buildings the signal's coming from. Looks like the one to the right, which I think is the main one.

I move my backpack back to my back and pause at the bottom of the shaft, one hand on the ladder. "Hey, Spook, can you hear me from down here?"

"Yup. Get lost?"

"Nope, I'm there now. There's not a good view from here, though. The angle's too much. What's the alley look like from above? Any dumpsters for cover?"

"Um, it's mostly just an empty gap between the two buildings, man."

"Any side-access doors? Or maybe pipes or anything that might make it easier to climb to a roof? I like roofs almost as much as alleys."

"Maybe? I can't zoom in that far, and it's a top-down view, so... Are there any utility accesses down there by you?"

"Spook, this is Forchester, not New York. Our storm drains are little McDonalds play-place tubes, not Ninja Turtle sewers."

"Well that's boring."

"I know, right? Okay, I think I'm just going to sprint from here to there, and then improvise."

"Good luck."

I put my skates on, then carefully climb up -- mostly using my arms -- and look out the storm drain. Everything is still and quiet. It's not going to get any better than this until night time, which I'm not waiting for, so I shut off my flashlight and push the manhole cover aside as quietly as I can. Which isn't very, honestly. The dang things are heavy, and skates on a ladder don't exactly give the best leverage. But after some creative foot placement, I get out of the smelly storm drain and take a quick look around. There's nobody in sight, so I slide the manhole cover back into place and then skate as quickly and quietly as I can into the very empty alley.

Well, at least it does have some pipes that look easier to climb than the brickwork. I scurry up those onto the roof of the main building, then dart behind an air exchanger while my arms burn from the exertion. At least I'm not in view of any cameras on this building, not from back here. I don't see any on the other one either. Well, there's one that's looking more or less at the manhole I came out of, but that's angled down so it can't see me up here. If nobody was looking at its feed when I did that, they might not know I'm here yet. I have to move fast though, in case they do.

A quick peek around the air exchanger shows that there aren't any cameras on the roof with me either. I pull out my tracker and move to the middle of the south side of the building, facing north. A ping comes in; she's in the west half of the building. I move to the middle of the east side, which is less likely to get me seen than the west, and wait for another ping. That narrows it down to the north-west quadrant, which is probably as much precision as I can make use of given that I don't know the floor plan. I can narrow it down more when I'm actually inside.

The access door is locked, so I get to spend a frustrating ten minutes prodding at pins I can't see before I manage to pick it. With a sigh of relief, I draw my Pepper Soaker and let myself into the stairwell. There's no sound of anybody in here, so I carefully climb down the stairs, not wanting to slip with my skates or let them clatter. I pause at the second of the building's three floors and hold the tracker rotated sideways so I can get a vertical reading. It says she's to the right, and right is down, so she's probably on the ground floor. Or basement, if they have one. Basement seems most likely, actually; harder to escape from, so it's a better place to keep prisoners. I continue down the stairs, and there is a basement. The tracker says she's on this level. I listen at the door between updates, but there's no sound. I crack it open. Darkness. That's good, actually. Nobody down here. I close the door to the stairs quietly behind me, turn on my flashlight, and glide down the hall to my right, which is north.

The hall eventually has a fork to the left, so I pause to check my tracker to see if I'm far enough north to start heading west. Before it can ping, however, the basement's lights flash on with a click and buzz, accompanied by the sounds of doors opening, boots stomping, and me groaning.

"Y'think I'm stupid, boy?" says Chief Carlson, standing down the center hall casually tossing the Summoning Wheel from hand to hand with a huge smirk on his face. He's flanked by two cops on each side, and half a dozen more are leaning out of the four doors midway between us, all training guns on me. There are more police in the halls to my right and left. Way more guns than I like to have pointed at me, vest or no, and I'm not ashamed to say that I think my bladder just leaked a little bit. And these guys almost certainly know about my ballistic vest; there's no way I could have survived this long without one. Since they'd know that, and since this was obviously a trap designed to catch me, they'll either have armor piercing bullets, which this vest is not rated for, or a number of them will aim for my head and limbs instead of center of mass. Actually, they've got enough people that they'll probably be doing that anyway, on the off chance I've got plate inserts-

"I done asked you a question, boy!" Chief Cholicson shouts.

I blink. Right, now is the time for stalling and finding solutions, not the time for ruminating on just how roughly I'm going to get reamed. I take a deep breath and unleash my tongue so it can do it's job while I think. "Your accent does have that effect on people, Chief, but no, I'll admit it, this was actually pretty clever of you. Good one, Chief Chuckles. Buuuut you're not quite as smart as you think you are. Nope. Not even close."

"Yeah? An' why's that?"

"Well, people who are actually smart don't normally juggle with a bomb. You're actually kinda making me nervous there. Please stop? I'm kinda within shrapnel range over here..." Escape Plan Part One is: ignore everybody but Carlson. If I act like the other cops aren't even here, maybe they'll also forget they're here and get wrapped up in just watching this farce play out, and thus react more slowly when I finally act.

Carlson snorts. "You 'spect me to think this is a bomb? You wouldn't have given your little helper Peterson a bomb. That'd be crazy."

"Um, hello? It's called paranoia, even when they aren't out to get you, and clearly they are, which means it's not paranoia at all, just preparation. After all, what am I supposed to do if she turns on me? Well, I detonate that and eliminate the threat, that's what. Poof go bye bye." Second part of the plan: keep them focused on something else, something that is far away from me and not one of the threats I might actually bring to the table. Doesn't matter if they believe me; I just need to keep them distracted.

"That'd be mighty cold of you, boy, if'n it were true. We already done gave this little frisbee to the lab boys, and they know 'zactly what all's in here. Ain't no bomb, just a poorly designed homing beacon."

"Wow, those guys must be pretty stupid then. Didn't they wonder why somebody as magnificently masterful as myself would manufacture a mediocre machine? It never happens, not ever. Everything I do is awesome. Maybe they haven't heard of Bose-Maxwell piezo-expansion? It is by far my favorite way to blow things up without using actual explosive. You just route a low amplitude waveform down a curved transmission line made from a copper-germanium alloy, then place a quartz crystal below it such that the flux passing through fluctuates according to the Higgs-Hilbert distribution-"

"Can yer techno-babble, little Training Wheels, because I ain't buyin' it, and I'm done playin' games with you. Now put yer little squirt gun down and let the good officers here cuff you nice and proper, or we're gonna aerate yer organs."

"Okay Curly, you win. I'm just gonna point this down..." I lower my Pepper Soaker and move my hand away from the trigger. "And safety it up..." I twist a stiff valve. "And slide it over to you." I set it down and lightly kick it away from me toward Chief Carlson, who is now approaching down the hall like an idiot. You see, part three of the plan is to do the thing they don't expect. So, that valve I twisted? That wasn't the safety. It was the pressure regulator. The air canister I use to spray the payload is under a lot more pressure than the rest of the device can handle, and all that pressure is now being released into the pepper-spray reservoir. I'm just straightening up from the kick as the reservoir ruptures and vaporized pepper-spray spews out into the hall as though the gun is a tear gas canister.

And that's my cue. I rush out of the intersection into the center hallway, veering to the left. This almost immediately brings me out of the line of sight of two thirds of the cops, and the remaining third is busy dealing with the cloud of capsaicin I just gave them. I'm going to have to deal with that too, but at least I've got a mask and I'm not being caught in it by surprise. I wall-skate along the left wall to get my head up above the bulk of the cloud, an elbow wrapped around my eyes for good measure, and exhale through my nose and mouth as I go. And then I'm landing, out of air, and trying not to inhale as I drop to the ground and sprint, angling sharply across the hall to make it hard for anybody to shoot me. One shot does fire during this first zig, making me lose my concentration and gasp for air, but I'm well out of the cloud and I don't think the bullet came anywhere near me. Not like I stop to check, though. I'm too busy bouncing off the wall to zag back. But it's a short zag; I lean sharply and skid to cut it short in case they thought they could predict my moves. Then I see an intersection, so I pull a sharp left and I'm in the clear.

But remember what I said about basements being hard to get out of? This whole thing was a trap. They probably knew I was here the whole time, and just sat there snickering to themselves as fumbled with that lock on the roof, intentionally waiting to spring the trap until I was stuck down here. And sure enough, there's a whole flock of cops guarding the staircase when I zip past a connecting hallway. No way I'm getting up there; even if I took those ones out, there's probably more cops in the actual staircase itself. The elevator next to it is probably no good either. They might even have shut it down, just for me.

No, I've got two options here. Find a garbage chute, or hope they've got large enough air ducts. No idea where to look for a garbage chute at, but I do know I'm heading south and the air exchanger I initially hid behind was on the south side of the roof. So, I'm not surprised when I burst through a door at the end of the hall to find a bunch of ductwork. And, as luck would have it, the vertical ducts look just big enough. The horizontals are smaller, but the verticals should be fine.

But that's not going to be any help if the cops nab me while I'm unbolting the intake grate and stopping the whirring fan of death, and once they know I'm in here, they could guard the rest of the HVAC system.

Well, for starters I lock the door. That won't last long, but it buys more time than it takes to execute, so it's a no-brainer. Then, rather than mess with unbolting anything or figuring out how to shut down or kill the fan, I rifle through a convenient toolbox for a good old fashioned claw hammer. I also grab a screwdriver and use the hammer to wedge it firmly into the gap below the door, but that's just a bonus. What I really want the hammer for is to smash the Gordian knot -- air ducts tend to be made of thin, flimsy metal, you see. I move the toolbox and a chair over, climb on top of them, and start whaling on the ductwork on the other side of the fan. Banging on the door commences shortly after, but by then I've got the thin aluminum sheeting peeled back enough to squeeze through and start climbing. This is another one of those things that skates make difficult, but my legs are pretty strong so I make it work.

The first floor would be too obvious, but I'm in a hurry so I stop at where a duct branches off into the ceiling of the second floor. It's definitely too thin to fit into, even if there was enough space to maneuver. There's barely enough space to make a hole with my hammer. By the time I break out into the drop ceiling, I'm sweaty, filthy, and my hobo coat has several new tears from the sharp metal. But the good news is that I drop through the flimsy tile into an empty room with a closed door. A closed door that is looking pretty battered, because a bunch of noisy cops on the other side are kicking it. I guess whoever owns this office locked it when they left, unlike whoever was in charge of the boiler room. That door's only going to last a couple more seconds, though, so I waste no time in applying my hammer to the window. The door flies open as I'm climbing out, and I drop just in time. I think one bullet actually clipped my helmet. That or shrapnel from the window frame.

I don't have time to ponder that, though, because the ground is rushing up at me. I hit it and roll over the glass shards in what would probably be a painful landing if I wasn't hopped up on adrenaline right now from the bullets slamming into the asphalt around me. One rude piece of lead grazes my left side instead, and another interrupts my attempt to get up when it crashes into my right shoulder blade. I don't think that second bullet made it through my armor, but it still hurts enough to make my eyes water. Unfortunately this is moving time, not screaming time. All screams have been reallocated to duty as improvised leg fuel while I scramble up and tear across the parking lot, getting cars between me and the cops pouring out of the ground floor while frantically zig-zagging to throw off the aim of the cops shooting at me through the window I just left.

From the corner of my eye I see the garage doors on the shop rolling up to reveal police cruisers. Screw those; I'm going off-road in the opposite direction of the parking lot's exit. Gravity is my friend on this sucky Sunday of screw-ups, and I'm skating down a slope. Grass is usually a lot slower to move over than asphalt, but gravity wins out as I sprint and stumble downhill. And now I'm back on the road and melting into the grid work of South Cherry, trailing blood as I snag my pack and search for a spot to stop, clot, and bandage.

And Paula's still out there.

My stomach growls in frustration.

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