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Chapter 18

Clack clack clack. That's the sound I make as I swiftly descend flight after flight of stairs toward B3. Way more flights than I expected. At least I had enough sense to leave my Sack of Booms in the corner at the top of the staircase. After about twelve flights of stairs I finally reach the end of the staircase and roll into a landing with closed doors to the left and right. I'm not bothering with stealth because there have been cameras at each landing. They know where I'm at.

Of course, there's no reason to let them see what I'm actually doing, so I smash this level's camera with my baton. I might need to start carrying one of these as part of my normal gear again. I used to have one back before I built the first Pepper Soaker, but I lost it when I broke my arm on that garbage truck last spring and I never got around to replacing it. I'd forgotten how nice it is to have something I can hit things with without worrying about breaking it.

I'm turning toward the nearest door when I hear the other one open. I spin around just in time to see a black cylindrical object sailing through as the door slams closed behind it. NOPE. I yank open the door I'm near and sprint away, stuffing my fingers into my ears just as a large bang jolts through the air. It was a stun grenade, but I've made it away with just some ringing in my ears. Whew.

This room looks like utilities. There are a bunch of foot-wide shafts running up into a high ceiling. Some are air ducts, but none are big enough to fit into. These guys might have been sloppy on some of their outer layers of security, but they know what they're doing on the internals. I carve around and duck behind a large, heavy looking machine. Backup generator, I think. Whatever it is, it looks bullet-proof. I catch my breath and fish out a stun grenade of my own, then wait. It occurs to me belatedly to check for cameras, but I don't see any. I'm sure there's at least one somewhere that was able to see where I hid, but not that I've got a flash-bang. That's the important thing.

The door slams open faintly over the ringing in my ears. I yank out the pin and chuck the flash-bang toward it, then duck and cover my ears again. As soon as I hear the bang accompanied by a bright flash that glares off the opposite wall and shines through my eyelids, I vault over one of the generator's legs and skate into the staggering guards near the door. Five of them, one of whom is trying to aim at me. The others are blinking and looking around wildly. The guy who can see a little fires, but it's nowhere close and a dose from my Pepper Soaker ensures he won't be able to take a second shot without risking hitting his team. One of them lunges at me, but I beat him away with the baton. Within a few seconds I've got them all on the ground moaning or silent. I might have to look into finding a source for more flash-bangs in the future. These things are pretty handy!

Once the guards are secure and disarmed, I make a quick pass around the utility room to see if there are any doors or anything useful. No doors, but they do have a variety of tools and probably a fuel reservoir somewhere for that generator. Of particular interest is a torch. I don't know if it could cut those bars, but I'll keep it in mind.

I approach the door to the stairs cautiously. I can't hear anything on the other side over the ringing of my ears. If there is anything still out there, I'll need to stop it very fast, so I draw one of the handguns and move to the side of the door with the hinges. A deep breath to steady myself, and then I open the door, sweeping my aim across the landing as the door swings. It's clear. I move to the other door and pull it open a crack. Nothing out there either. I pull that one further open and poke my head out.

Well, it turns out I've got enough hearing left to hear gunshots. I jerk back inside the landing unharmed just in time to see a cylinder fly past the door to bounce off the wall next to it. Not a flash-bang, but I slam the door shut. Tear-gas, I think. I fish out another stun grenade, pull the pin, open the door just enough, and hurl it down the hall at an angle to bounce off the opposite wall and hopefully reach the remaining guards. I shut my door again until it bangs, then take a deep breath and rush out, blowing a slow stream of air out of my mouth and nose as I sprint down the hall away from the billowing gas. I think I pass a door to the left, but I don't have time to look.

Now I'm in a T-intersection. I try going right, but that's a dead end with three closed doors, one at the end and one one each wall. I spin around and see the backs of guards as they scramble clumsily around a corner to the right. I ignore the pain in my leg and side and sprint after them. Don't want to give them time to recover from the flash-bang.

I round the corner in a sharp, carving turn that keeps my body low to the ground, but I'm going too fast to complete the turn. That's fine; it's what they invented walls for. I give a little hop and shift my legs over to catch the wall. Or I try to; what happens instead is that screw up the timing and slap the wall with my ankles just before crashing into it. Yay padding! Also, armor, because a bullet slams into my back. Another hits the wall nearby and sprays my face with chips of whatever this wall is made of. Hope they didn't used leaded paint. What a silly thing to worry about. I crumple to the ground on jelly legs, inadvertently dodging several more bullets, before my brain catches up again. Under fire! Gotta move move move! I roll and scramble back around the corner.

I hate getting shot. Have I mentioned that? I hate it. It freaking hurts. No more Mister Nice Wheels. I pull out a fragmentation grenade. A flash-bang bounces out of the hallway, but it's too late. I yank the pin and throw my little green ball of death into the hall as hard as I can, ignoring the gunshots, then curl up around the corner as the flash-bang goes off and turns my world upside down.

Maybe I don't like flash-bangs so much after all. They suck.

Several horrible seconds and a voided stomach later, I can sort of think again and I can see well enough to pull myself through the nearest door. The word see might be somewhat strong; mostly everything is dark blurs covered in bright spots. Better than my balance and hearing though. I slump against the door and blink, trying to make sense of what I'm seeing as the floor wobbles around beneath me. Obviously the floor can't actually be moving around, so I do my best to ignore it and pretend I'm on a carnival ride.

Eventually I realize this room is dark because it's actually dark, not because of the my eyes being messed up. I lurch to my feet, leaning heavily against the door, and fumble on the wall for a switch. Ah, there. Lights. This is a supply room. Lots of bio-med and chemistry gear. Neat. I wobble over toward a particular shelf and grab a roll of paper towel to clean up my face. Tossing your bagels while your face is against the floor is messy business. At least I was able to pull up my mask before I hurled or it would have been exponentially worse.

I don't see any blood on the towels though, so at least the shrapnel from the wall didn't break the skin. I pull my mask back down and take a few breaths. Shrapnel. Shrapnel. Why is that word making me feel- oh. OH. I swallow nervously and exit back into the hallway, then peek around the corner.

Let's just say it's a good thing I already got my puking over with and leave it at that. But I make myself stare at it for a while. Unlike the ones upstairs, I'm pretty sure these guys knew what kind of people they were protecting. Objectively speaking, what I just did was acceptable. If these men didn't want to risk death, they should not have been involved with helping to abduct, imprison, and experiment on dozens of children. But still. I think I just doubled my kill count in one move. I'm not actually sure, because I can't tell how many there were. I don't think I'm proud of this. No.

I swallow again and back away from that hallway, then turn to examine my surroundings. The end of this hall is a set of double doors with a red cross on them. Three normal doors along the right wall, the first of which is the supply room. The left wall only has one door, across from the supply room, and it looks very sturdy. There's a thick window just to the left of that, looking down the hall where I threw my grenade. That must be the security room for B3. I wave one of the ID cards I took of the guards I fought in the utility room at the sensor pad and the door unlocks.

Inside I find a large assortment of restraints, non-lethal weapons, an ammo cache, some computers, a map of the building, and a wall of monitors. And another guard. This one's got his hands up. He's staring at me with wide eyes, mouth moving but making no sounds.

Oh, wait. Flash-bang. Right. I probably just can't hear him over the incessant ringing. I hold my Pepper Soaker at my side with one arm, ready to raise it if needed, and point at my ear with the other. "Can't hear you, but I accept your surrender. Turn around, face against the wall, hands behind your head."

The guy nods frantically and complies. I get his hands cuffed behind him and disarm him, then march him out a second door that the map says goes directly into the hall that services the elevator. Yeah, it was the door I ran past. Excellent. I take a deep breath then push him through the lingering tear gas, through the stairway, and into the utility room where I attach him to some heavy equipment like the others. Then I return to the security room and start examining the map and monitors.

This floor has a pretty simple design. The north half is basically a central square made up of the staircase, security room, utility room, bathrooms, and a small lab. A hallway wraps around it going south from the stairs to that first T-intersection, then east to the medical room, then north until it ends at a big lab. The outer rooms are basically all labs of various types. And in the northwest is some kind of large room labeled "Proving Grounds" connected to the big lab. That sounds ominous.

Then there's the hallway I grenaded. It starts halfway down the south hallway and runs south to a set of now blown-up double doors, then continues south for something like a hundred fifty feet to end in a janitor's closet. Innocuous enough. But it branches to the east and west five times along the way, with each of those branch hallways being lined with what seem to be cells. Maybe two hundred of them total. Each cell in the map has a little light in it. A few are turned off, but most are glowing green. Each of the branches has its own set of doors with their own light, and all of those are green as well. Except the entrance I destroyed, which is red.

The monitors seem to show all the hallways and labs, plus a few monitors that cycle through the upstairs cameras. Then there are four cameras that each show a split-screen of four different cells, which also cycle every several seconds.

The cells, of course, contain people, one each. Mostly teenagers, but there are a good number of adults as well. Some of them look relatively normal, if despondent. Others seem sick or worse; many look like strung out junkies. More than a few show heavy bruising. One or two even have charred skin, and at least one of them has stitches across his face. They're all wearing cheap medical smocks. Well, most. A few are sitting there naked with their smock crumpled up or torn to shreds in a corner. Those ones seem pretty thin, like they're refusing to eat, and most of them are pretty bruised looking. The cells themselves look more like what I'd expect in an insane asylum than a prison, all padded walls and rounded corners on the sparse, bolted-down furniture. As the monitors continue to cycle, I notice that a couple people even have straight jackets on.

I rub my temples. I figured I'd be rescuing maybe fifty people, tops. Judging by the number of green lights on the map, it's going to be more than a hundred fifty. Maybe a hundred eighty. Where'd all these extras come from?

And the facility isn't totally clear yet, either. The monitors show several men and women in lab coats scurrying about, typing quickly on their computers and shooting worried glances at the doors to their labs. Several have barricaded their doors with carts and furniture. Well, I don't want to interact with them, either, so whatever. I can probably ignore most of them, other than maybe the guy in the lab just below the big north-east one. He looks like he's trying to build some kind of improvised weapon out of his lab gear. That's no good.

It looks like there's a PA system in here. I snap my finger next to my ear. Barely hear it. I shrug and clear my throat, then pick up the microphone and press the talk button. "Attention, evildoers! I am the skates that track blood down your hallways. I am the glowing grin shining fiercely in your nightmares. That's right, folks, all your base are belong to Wheels. Now, I don't know about you, but I think I've killed enough of your dudes for tonight. Please remain in your labs and wait patiently while I free your prisoners. You can feel free to escape justice after I'm finished. I will not be hanging around to apprehend you. Bigger fish to fry. Also, I'm hungry again. For fish. So just hang tight and stay out of my way, and maybe you'll get to live long enough to rethink your choices in life. And don't think I don't see you in there, Mr. Lab Eight building your wannabe cattle-prod! If you come out here and wave that thing at me, I will break it upside your head! That is all. Wheels out."

Not being able to hear myself, I'm not sure I managed to sound confident with that announcement. I certainly don't feel confident. The clock is ticking and I'm going to have to wade through those dead guards to free these people. But hopefully I faked it well enough to keep the eggheads off my back and save me from having to waste time making omelettes out of them.

Anyway, intimidation time is over. Rescue time is now. I look over the room's controls, but there isn't anything that looks like an "Open all cells!" button. There is a big red lockdown button, but that is the opposite of what I need. Looks like I'll have to go door to door. Uhg.

Movement catches my eye as I approach the carnage the grenade caused. I turn just in time to duck. My grenade didn't just break the doors and guards. It also blew a small hole into the lab on the other side of the wall, and a wild-eyed woman in a blood-smeared lab coat is firing a gun at me through it.

I think God hates my ears.

At least she doesn't hit me. I try bringing up my Pepper Soaker, but my back spasms and then I slip on a puddle of blood. She shoots wildly as I skid toward her, but it's clear she's not used to wielding anything more dangerous than a laser pointer as lead thuds into the ground well off to the side.

I finally manage to get a foot under me and push myself into the air as I reach the hole, lunging into the lab to tackle her. The gun goes off one last time before I knock it out of her hands and get her pinned down. Something cold and wet hits my back as I stand. I shift to the side and spin. It's some kind of pink liquid spouting out of a hole in a barrel, and it reeks. Stings, too, when it gets into some of my open wounds. Great. I carefully avoid the stream of who-knows-what and grab the woman's legs to drag her over to the table I want to tie her to. She's shouting something, but I've basically given up on being able to hear tonight. I get her secured, chuck the gun out the hole, and then climb back into the bloody hallway, scratching at my side. The stinging has been joined by itching. Bah.

Alright. Let's try this again. Hallway, rubble, gore, etc. I navigate past and keep my nausea under control, and then I'm in a long hallway with double-doors on either side. I don't know which room or even which wing Paula's in, but I need to release everybody anyway, so whatever. I'll just right-hand-rule it. I wave the security card I used earlier and push through into a door-lined hallway about a hundred feet long. I turn to the very first one on my right, which is actually labeled Cell #001, and wave my card at the sensor. The light on the pad turns green and I actually hear a faint buzzing over the ringing. I open the door cautiously.

A battered woman in her early twenties sitting on the bed jutting out of the opposite wall flinches and averts her eyes. She's trembling. I try not to growl, but I honestly can't tell if I succeed. "Hey, it's okay, ma'am. I'm here to get you guys out of this place. Come on. Come out into the hallway." She shakes her head. "It's okay, ma'am. I'm not going to hurt you." She doesn't respond. "Do you want to get out of here or not? We don't have much time, and I'm not leaving you here. Get up!" She pulls her knees up to her chin instead. I sigh and move into the room slowly. "It's going to be okay. I'm just going to move you into the hallway." She shakes harder, but doesn't stop me from scooping her up and carrying her out into the hall. She's depressingly light, which is probably for the best given the state my back's in by now. I start to set her down next to to her room, but then I see that the outer doors have closed. I don't like that at all, so instead I skate over to those and awkwardly unlock them again, careful not to drop the shivering woman. They're the sort that swing both ways, so I push them open and then set Trembly down against one of the doors. "Don't go anywhere, okay? Just keep that door open for me and everything will be fine." She shakes her head and rocks back and forth, so I shrug and head over to Cell #002.

This one has a boy my age. He's naked and emaciated, but he grins savagely when I open the door and says something I can't parse. "Sorry, I got flash-banged a little while ago. You'll have to talk louder."

"I said, it's about time!"

"Yeah, you're welcome." I fish his smock out of the corner and toss it to him. "I get that you've been doing the whole non-cooperative thing with them, but put that on for the other victims' sakes, okay? They're freaked out enough as-is." He mutters something but complies, then he follows me unsteadily out into the hall. I give him one of the ID cards I've been using. "I need you to help get these guys out of their cells. You finish this side and I'll get started on the other. Kay?"

He nods and heads to #003 while I start on #011. This one holds a dude maybe two years older than me who seems like he's suffering some bad withdrawal. He refuses to cooperate, so I end up dragging him out by the ankles and leaving him just outside his door.

The girl in #012 looks sick, with puffy eyes, pale skin, and matted brown hair. But unlike the others, she's not scrawny or worse. She actually looks like she might be tougher than I am. And there's something familiar about her face. Then it hits me: this is Carrie. "Ma'am? You ready to get outta this dump?" She stares at me, so I repeat my question. She nods slowly and tries to stand, but falls forward. I brace my skates and help her back to her feet with a pained grunt, and she leans on me as I lead her back into the hall. "Keep an eye on these guys for me, hey? I don't want anybody freaking out and attacking each other." Carrie nods and carefully sits against the other of the double doors, the one Trembly isn't holding open.

And so it goes. By the time we finish releasing this wing, we've only found one more person who's actually functional, a very pale thirty-ish woman who looks like she's permanently angry. I give her two more of the security cards and send her ahead to the next hallway while I show the scrawny guy the security room and put him in charge of watching the monitors to warn us over the PA system if anything happens. He's still unsteady on his feet and a bit distractible, but very determined. I'm reluctant to give up the extra set of arms, but to be honest, Scrawny's arms weren't a whole lot of help considering how many of these people were too weak or traumatized to leave their cells on their own. Scrawny will be more useful as a lookout.

We're halfway through with the third hallway, moving a bit faster now that we've found a few more people who are functional, when I hear the PA kick in. My hearing is still bad enough that I can't quite make out the words, so I turn to Angry Chick who's working the other side of the hall. "What'd he say?"

Her face is just one big snarl, now. "Cops upstairs. He made it sound like that's a good thing, but-"

Crap. "Alright, you guys keep doing what you're doing and I'll go deal with them. We are going to get out of here, corrupt cops or not. You just get everybody free."

She nods and I rush back toward the security room. Scrawny starts trying to talk, but I ignore him and find the guards' stash of radios. I toss one to Scrawny. "Set it to channel nine." The guards were using channel seven, and I don't want the cops overhearing us on the radios left upstairs. I'm out the door and heading up the stairs before he can answer. I hear his voice crackling over my radio halfway up the stairs. "What's wrong?" I hear him ask once I get the volume cranked up a bit. "Isn't this a good thing?"

"Nope, these guys are the ones who called the cops in the first place. They're corrupt. Don't worry, I'll figure this out. Where are they at?"

He swears and then pauses. "Um, they're definitely in B1 at least. These monitors keep moving and I don't know how to make them stay put."

"That's fine, thanks." I make it to the top and crack open the door. Nobody over here. I open it wider and look down the hall. My heart sinks. There's Chief Carlson at the other end of the hall, smirking at me through both sets of bars. My rope is nowhere to be seen.

"Now, wouldja look at that?" he yells. "Y'all just done caught yourself for me, Training Wheels! Maybe y'are a hero after all! Haw!"

No. No no no. NO. I am so done with this bull crap. I reach behind my back and search the faces of the other cops. Patches and Officer Susan are not among them. I knew they wouldn't be, but I still feel some minor relief. "I hope you don't have a family to leave behind, Carlson." I don't see Officers Wally or Fred either. Bad news for Carlson and the rest of these corrupt pieces of trash.

"That s'posed to be a threat? Boy, you already went and put yourself right where we want you. I'm well beyond the range of your sissy little pepper-spray toy, and this here facility's built to hold in things that would give you nightmares. You ain't got no way to threaten anyone, now."

"That so, Chief Clown? And yet you're still over there juggling with a bomb."

"I ain't jugglin' nothing, boy!"

"Oh yeah?" I point at the elevator. "What do you think I left that elevator locked open for?" As soon as his attention flickers, I whip out the fragmentation grenade, rip out the pin, and lob it through the bars. I don't hang around to see if it makes it through the second set; I dive into the staircase and wait.

BOOM.

Yeah, I know, I just got done being all horrified by how I blew up those guards earlier, but something about these corrupt cops who helped kidnap my friend along with a couple hundred others just makes me not care. Also? This hallway is the only way out. I have to keep it under our control or we'll never escape. The best way to do that is to make sure they're either all dead or too scared to come back in here where the crazy guy in the mask might blow them up.

I peek back out with a gun in my hand. The hall is full of dust and smoke, and I hear screaming beyond my tinnitus. So I definitely didn't get them all. Well then. I've got a stupid amount of bullets stockpiled out here, so I go ahead and start firing blindly through the bars. The screaming intensifies and nobody returns fire. That's a good sign. I slide in a fresh magazine and keep firing, using the door for cover. I could throw more grenades, but I'm worried that too many explosions at that end of the hall might cave in the staircase or something. I'm not going to risk it unless they make me. I eject the spent magazine and load a third, noting that my hearing is ruined again. Oh well. I hold my fire and wait for the dust to settle or be sucked out by the ventilation system.

Bodies. There are definitely bodies scattered around the far side of the hallway. Not the way they were downstairs, though. The grenade didn't make it through the second set of bars, and those probably obstructed some of the shrapnel too. I can't tell if any of the corpses is Carlson, but the good news is that the grenade definitely left a small crater in the floor. That means we can probably use grenades to blast our way around the bars, if it comes down to that. We'd just need enough space to get Scrawny through, then he could pull the lever and get us out.

Scrawny. I should check in with him. I pull out my radio. "Yo, Wheels here. My ears are out again, but I've cleared out the police from B2. I'm going to stay up here for now and keep an eye on things while my hearing comes back. Tell the guys downstairs that everything's under control up here, and try to let me know if you see whatever's left of the police doing anything interesting. And keep an eye on those lab coats so they don't sneak up on you!"

What I leave unsaid is that I need some time to rest. Especially after hauling myself up twelve flights of stairs in a hurry. I slump down against the door, pull out my water bottle and some granola, and try to ignore the stinging, itching feeling in my side and my throbbing back. This is going to be a long night.

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