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Chapter 19

You know, things aren't looking as dire as I'd thought, really. We've got manpower now. Even if most of the people we're freeing are a bit off still from whatever drugs they've had, that'll wear off eventually, and according to Scrawny we're up to about eight who are more or less functional, out of a hundred and seventy-two people total. And there's a lot of lab equipment downstairs. More than enough to build a robot out of. So even if we can't squeeze Scrawny through or around the bars, I could build a bot to get us out of here. We just have to hold this hallway. If the cops manage to get a foothold up here, we'll be trapped for real.

"Uh, Mr. Wheels?"

I raise my radio. "Sup?"

"Um, you said to tell you if the cops do anything? Well, they're messing with the vents upstairs."

"They probably want to gas us. We'll just have to get out before they can. I'll start working on that. Keep me informed."

Well, I wasn't looking forward to doing this, but I return to the Sack of Booms and re-stock on grenades. I take off my backpack and use it to hold open the staircase door, then I venture out into the hall, right up to the nearest set of bars. I look back at the door, judging the distance. It's a good thing I've got wheels on my feet. I squeeze the spoon and pull the pin, then carefully position the grenade between the leftmost bar and the wall. This side is opposite the door and gives me the best angle for getting through to safety. I turn and aim at the door, take a deep breath, and then release the spoon and bolt forward, kicking the pack aside and scrambling down the stairs as far as I can. I don't need that much distance for safety, but it would be nice to keep my hearing this time.

I head back up after the boom and check my handiwork. It's tight, but I can probably crawl through. But here's the problem. Crawling is slow, and there's another set of bars. I cannot carefully set the second grenade and then make it back through the first set of bars to safety before the grenade explodes. So, I'm going to have to either roll or throw it over there and hope I get the aim right, or else rig up a way to remotely detonate it. I could probably tie it to the bars and use a rope to pull the pin and then undo a loop to release the spoon...

Oh, what the heck. I've got a pretty good supply of the things. I pull the pin, reach through the bars, and roll it toward where the far bars meet the wall. I don't wait to see how my aim was; I just get the heck out of there. It takes three more tries to blast a big enough hole around the bars, and I go ahead and set off one more on the close set as well. It's not perfect, but it'll work.

"Wheels, we've got a problem! One of the-" The radio cuts off.

I'm rattling down the stairs and cursing my sore back and side before the radio crackles again. "Never mind. Everything's fine." I don't stop; that was not Scrawny's voice. I barge into the security room with my Pepper Soaker drawn to find a guy in a lab coat rummaging through the drawers. I give him a puff of capsaicin as he looks up, then knock him out with my baton. He lands next to Scrawny. My stomach heaves and I barely avoid puking through my mask; Scrawny's head has been bashed in, apparently by a bloody wrench lying next to him. I need to secure this floor before these guys undo all our progress.

I check the monitors. It looks like everything's fine in down in the cells, but the lab rats have been up to something in that north-east lab, and two more are in the hallway near the emergency room keeping a lookout. I wipe my mouth on my sleeve and pull down my mask. At least I'm mad enough now to ignore the pain as I sprint down the hall with a snarl under my mask.

The lab guys don't have guns, but one has that improvised cattle-prod and the other's got a vial that he hurls at me. Probably acid or something; I swerve around it and plow right into McProd before he can swing the business end of his device at me. These guys aren't fighters. It takes all of two seconds before they're unconscious or worse, and I honestly can't bring myself to care with Scrawny's dented head still gaping at me in my mind. I yank the power cord out of the prod so nobody can trip and get electrocuted, then I haul-butt up the hallway. I don't know what they're building, but it's probably something they can use to incapacitate a large number of people at once. That's what I'd be building if I was them, anyway. Not sure how. I'd probably fall back on chemistry and go for a gas bomb, or maybe a flamethrower for the intimidation factor. From the monitor, though, it looked more like it might be more fancy. Maybe a microwave emitter or something.

Whatever it is, it's pointed at the door when I shove through and start unloading my Pepper Soaker on anything that moves. Oh, one of those things that moved was the device. It's sparking now. It was just humming, but now it's sparking. One of the lab guys is on the ground rolling and clutching his face, but the other two are fleeing through a door that connects to the next lab. One of them has her eyes closed and is bouncing off tables along the way. I grab her by the ponytail and slam her to the ground, then chase after her buddy.

The next lab looks empty. Just equipment. But of course it can't actually be empty, so I spin around and catch him in the face with my baton as he leaps out from just beside the door with a scalpel. That doesn't stop him from colliding with me, though, and sending us both sprawling into some kind of large, hollow, cylindrical machine that's open on one side. The guy's mostly stunned, but he's hanging onto my waist and flailing around with his legs, making it hard for me to maneuver. I start whaling on him with the baton until he lets go.

That's when I notice the round thing is humming and my skin feels prickly. Nope nope nope! I leap out of that thing. After a moment's hesitation, I grab the dude's leg and drag him clear as well. His face and neck both look burnt. I feel fine though, so maybe I got out in time. Whatever it was.

That should be all of these wonks, so I zip-tie this guy and start heading back to the first lab. Then I stop. Whatever that weapon they built was supposed to be, it's now on fire. Some kind of fire suppressant is spraying down from the ceiling on that section of the lab, but it's not helping much. The guy who'd been rolling around near it is scrambling toward me as fast as he can though, looking terrified. I make a snap decision, grab his ponytailed colleague under the shoulders, and haul her into the second lab. Just in time, too. The first lab explodes behind me.

I look around to make sure nothing's on fire in this lab, then I zip-tie Ponytail and get the both of them secured to the handle of a heavy, locked cabinet. By the time I've got any keys, tools, or ID they had off them and anything useful in the lab moved outside their reach, the fires in the first lab have been mostly suppressed. That crawling dude did not survive, so I go back into the hall and secure the other two. And that should take care of everybody, unless any were hiding in closets or something. I skate back to the security room to check the monitors, careful to keep my eyes well away from Scrawny's body.

The building is empty. Just us and whatever gas they're probably pumping down right now. We need to get out of here. Hopefully whatever they're filling the place with is non-lethal so we won't just be leaving all those guards and lab workers to die, but that's their problem, not mine. My problem is getting one hundred and seventy-two- no. One hundred and seventy-one victims out of here. Sorry, Scrawny. I tried.

I grab an armful of radios and head into the main hallway, nearly running over Angry Chick. "You guys almost done?" I ask.

"Yeah, they're all out of their rooms, but now they're just clogging up the hall! How are we supposed to get all these people out of here?"

"How many of you are actually useful?"

She waves at the hallway. "We're all here. Other than that scrawny kid you put on the PA."

"They killed Scrawny," I say coldly. I want to be upset, angry, enraged, but that is not the emotion I need right now. Need to save the ones who are still alive first. I raise my voice and try to keep it steady. "Aright, people, listen up! We're all heading upstairs! I need everybody who can move over here right now!"

As they filter in I start handing out radios. I've only got five radios besides mine and there are ten people moving, but it'll be enough. "Okay, there's sort of an airlock type deal upstairs made of bars that'll be a pain to deal with, but otherwise we've got a clear path up into the main building's basement. They've probably got the building surrounded, but don't worry about that; I'll figure something out. The important thing right now is we need to send somebody skinny ahead to slip through the holes I made in the airlock so they can work the controls. I want most of the rest of you to spread out along the path from here to there, including one person on the other side of the airlock to lead each batch upstairs and get them settled into the basement. Two of you stay behind to start moving people forward to the others. We'll treat it like an assembly line, and as the tail passes you, you should move to the front to help there. Everybody got it?"

"What about you?" says a big, round guy. "What'll you be doing during all this?"

"I'm going to be up top, figuring out how to get us all out of this place once everyone's up and making sure nobody comes in to stop us in the meanwhile. You guys just worry about getting everybody up into the basement, okay?" And once I'm above ground, I should be able to start coordinating with Joe again. The more brains the better.

The man nods. "You've got Fat Jimmy's word, lil' buddy. I'll stay in the back and do the pushin'."

"As will I," says another voice. A deep, familiar voice. I turn and see Jacob staring at me. Jacob from the Cueballs, who I hadn't recognized at first glance due to the short, fuzzy hair he's grown in captivity. I resist the urge to groan. If he's here, the others probably are too. And the only way they could be here is if the police gave them to these guys... which would explain why they were so cagey about the Cueballs after I stopped them. Yeah. Yeah, this all fits. There are a lot of people down here, more than have been quarantined, but even the disappearances off the street wouldn't account for all of them. The police must have been diverting criminals from prison as well. Probably saves the city money; heck, maybe these guys are paying the city. So I'm probably freeing a bunch of criminals along with the innocents. I take a deep breath and sigh. Fine. So be it.

I nod to everybody and then pick out the skinniest looking one. "You. You're in charge of the airlock." I toss him the last radio. "Follow me."

I hand him one of my guns when we reach the top of the stairs, and we stop at the boom sack to grab some extra mags. I let him take a couple stun grenades but make him leave the rest behind. "If they overrun you, we want these on this side so we can fight our way back out."

"Right, right..."

He doesn't look entirely convinced, but I push him ahead into the hall. "See where I widened it? After you, bud."

"Alright. Call me Hijack, by the way."

"Sure." We crawl through the holes and I show him the lever. "Alright, you gonna be alright here, Hijack?"

"Yeah, man. Not a problem."

He starts barricading the entrance to the security room as I pick my way through the bodies of corrupt cops toward the stairway. Carlson isn't among them. I curse under my breath as I climb the bloody stairs. Hopefully it's his blood, at least.

I lean against the wall for a moment when I reach B1, then I open the door and rush out, making a quick pass through the hallways to make sure nobody's snuck in since I left the security room. I don't find anybody, so I head up to the first and second floor to repeat the process, careful to stay away from windows. Not only is there nobody there, but they removed all the guards and workers who'd been here. That's good. Fewer people to escape and cause problems.

I creep up to a window on the second floor and peek out, then slump to a sitting position below it. "Hey Spook, you there?"

"Wheels! You're okay!"

"Mostly. Good news and bad news. Good news is we've got a hundred seventy-one people free, slowly making their way up from deep underground. Bad news is only ten are moving around of their own will, and most of them are pretty off. The other hundred sixty-one are pretty out of it. And the building's surrounded by cops, who I think are trying to pump something in through the ventilation system."

"Yeah, we know. Tooth Fairy found a van and drove over thinking he'd park nearby, but the place was crawling so he kept going. He said there were cops up on the roof, even."

"At this point, I'm thinking we need to just shine a big light, you know? Bring attention to this place so the cops can't get away with covering it up."

"That's what Tooth Fairy was saying. He's on his way to the station right now to get his firetruck, and Halon's rallying a posse."

"A posse."

"Of skaters. Boards, inline, derby, whatever. She's bringing them all. They're on the brink of starting a riot anyway; might as well riot over there where it might do some good."

"No, Spook. Bad idea. Bad idea!"

"Why?"

"Why do you think, why?" I yell. "Riots are-! They- My family-"

"Nobody's going to die this time, Ge- Wheels."

"Oh?! They aren't?! That's funny, because I count at least fourteen so far!"

"Fourteen? Wow. Seriously?"

"At least! I'm not... I'm not sure exactly. The grenade didn't leave much behind!"

"Grenade? Wheels, what the heck are you talking about?"

"You don't wanna know, man! These guys, they... this place is so screwed up. And about half the people I... they were cops, Spook. I killed cops. At least six."

"Corrupt cops."

"But cops! Keep Halon away from this! She doesn't need to be here, and certainly not in a riot of all things! She's going to get herself-"

"I hear you, Wheels, but you're going to have to accept that she's in this with you. We all are. End of freaking story."

"How can-"

"End of story. Now, did you find Paula?"

I stare at the ceiling. "I don't even know, man. There wasn't time. A hundred and seventy-two of them, and guards, and the cops, then the lab rats killed Scrawny so I had to deal with that, and... and I never had a chance to take stock of who all was down there. Carrie, at least. And I saw Jacob."

"Who?"

"Jacob, the big Cueball guy who just wouldn't go down? He's one of the ten who's not drugged out of his mind or traumatized to the point of uselessness." I start giggling. "Spook, I got fourteen people killed tonight, at least, all to save the Cueballs!"

"Hey, keep it together, Wheels. It's going to be alright. Calm down."

"It's not just the hospitals. Prisons. They're sending people here instead of prison." I keep laughing. "We're rescuing the bad guys, Spook."

"Wheels-"

"The guy I put in charge of seeing people through the airlock? Hijack! I never met him, but I know of him. He's a hacker! And a car thief! And I gave him a gun!"

"Wheels, it's going to be-"

"Fourteen people, Spook. Twelve I killed directly. Plus Scrawny and a researcher. Scrawny'd be safe in his padded cell if not for me. Now his head's busted open. Dead." My mask is damp. I pull it up and wipe at my eyes. "Fourteen people. And maybe more. Never even got his name." I sniff. "Cell Two. Hadn't been eating. Maybe that's why he wasn't drugged. Maybe it was in the food. He'd been holding out this whole time, surviving, and then helping us, and now he's dead."

"Shhh, it's alright, man. Stuff happens. It'll be alright."

I sit there and mope for a while until my radio crackles to life. "Wheels." Sounds like Angry Chick. "I need help down here on B1. We're getting bunched up."

I clear my throat and put my mask back on, forcing my emotions away in the process. There's still work to do. "Alright, I'm on my way down. How are we doing otherwise?"

"Pretty good, lil' buddy!" says Fat Jimmy. "We've got everybody out of the side halls now, and we're more than halfway done with the main hall."

"Good, good. Just keep everything moving." He made no mention of any weird smells. Maybe the police aren't actually pumping anything in yet. I can't think of any other reason they'd have sealed the vents up here, but I suppose they probably have to actually send somebody to fetch canisters of whatever they're intending to use. "Everything- Everything's going to be alright."

"Rockabye..."

"What?"

Jimmy chuckles. "Oh, nothing, nothing."

I shake my head and clip the radio back to my belt, then speak into the Wheeldio. "I'm going back down to B1, Spook. Might lose you for a bit. It's spotty down there."

"Okay."

I turn the corner onto B1's landing to find Angry Chick standing there completely failing at consoling a twelve year old girl who's clinging to her leg instead of moving along. Meanwhile a dazed man leans against the open door, blocked by a lethargic crowd of people. A line of similarly glassy-eyed people trails back down the stairs behind him. Angry Chick looks up as I approach. "These morons are just bunching up out there, and I can't manage them while I'm herding them through the staircase."

"Gotcha. I'll take care of it." I push the guy through the door, squeeze past some despondent people, and step carefully over a passed out junkie-type. Yeah, this is a mess. I continue squeezing and shoving down the hallway toward the front of the crowd so I can get them moving. It takes a bit of work, but eventually I get them drifting toward the door to the parking garage. Not through it; best to keep that closed, but if they're already over in that direction it'll be easier to get them out.

Once that first batch is settled, I move back and get another going. More of them move this time; maybe some of the drugs are burning out of them? Things do seem to be a lot faster going now than when we were first getting them out of their rooms. It only takes a few trips before I've got the area outside the stairs cleared. I squeeze back in and return to F1 to resume contact with Joe.

"-there?"

"Yeah, Spook, I just got back. What's up?"

"Okay, so I'm on the phone with Tooth Fairy right now. Got him patched into the comms. What's your status?"

"Um, maybe forty people on B1 crowded near the door that goes to the parking garage, and the rest are in motion on their way up. I think we're moving faster than whatever the cops are up to. I haven't mentioned it to anybody because I don't want anyone panicking, but nobody's said anything about fumes or whatever."

"Okay," says Uncle Jeff's voice. "Well, I'm about halfway there in my truck. I'm about to start my siren, claim we got a fire alarm, and basically muscle in on this property, making lots of noise. Halon should be showing up right after that, and Operator has been notifying the media about an impromptu protest on this street. So, just hang tight in there and pretty soon there won't be anybody to stop these people just walking right out."

"Just don't lead with crooks," adds Joe, "and make sure you stay out of sight."

"Sure."

"Hey, Wheels," says Uncle Jeff. "Operator told me what happened down there. If you need someone to talk to when this is over..."

"Yeah, I'll think about it. Thanks."

"And don't think that was just an offer. We are going to talk about it. I'm the Tooth Fairy; I can pull teeth when I have to."

"Ha ha." I shake my head, then take out my radio and drum up my bravado before speaking. "Alright, guys, we've got an exit plan. Just keep the people coming and don't mind the siren. We're going to scare off what's left of the corrupt cops with bright lights, loud noises, and media attention. Just what they hate."

I head back to that break room on the second floor and make myself another snack while I wait. I needed that pretty bad, especially considering I didn't really get to finish digesting the first one. I'm just finishing up when I hear the distant wail of a fire engine over the residual ringing in my ears. I hope that's not permanent now. As the firetruck gets closer I hear shouting from outside... and from above. Crap, I didn't realize they're still up on the roof. I head into the stairwell just in time to spray a bunch of pepper spray on the cops tromping from above. I don't stay to fight, though. I dart back out into the hall and cross my fingers....

Yes! They followed! Excellent. I lead them around a corner and then wait, crouched down low. Wait for it... Wait for it... There! I rush out and bowl over the first cop, spray pepper spray in the face of the second, and smash my baton into the already-been-sprayed face of the third with an awkward left-handed strike. As he falls, I spin and spray the first cop as he struggles to get up, then fail to duck all the way under a punch from the second. He catches me on the helmet and nearly knocks me off my feet. He also hurts his hand. I release my Pepper Soaker and get the baton in my right hand, then go to town on him. The first cop doesn't last much longer.

Whew. I head back up the staircase with no shortage of mutters and groans, then I peek out onto the roof. Looks clear, though there are definitely some modifications to the air exchangers up there. Nothing actually hooked up to them yet, though. Whatever they were up to, their plan's over. Uncle Jeff's big red firetruck is pulling up outside right now. He barely stops in time to avoid smashing through the police cruisers blocking the street, then starts arguing angrily with a cop while other firefighters drop off the truck and start backing him up. From the other direction, a media van is pulling up, and there's a cluster of cops cuffing a pair of skaters in front of a growing crowd, not noticing as a group of skaters edges around them toward their cruisers. I grit my teeth at the bad memories and head back inside to avoid being seen.

It takes another fifteen minutes to get the rest of the people into the basement, though it goes a lot faster than the earlier stages since the useful-to-useless ratio gets higher each time the end of the line catches up with somebody and allows them to move further ahead. More of them are coming out of their funk as well. I pat Carrie on the shoulder as I squeeze through the crowd; she's holding her brother upright as they shuffle away from the staircase.

"Alright, now what?" asks Fat Jimmy as I reach the B1 security room where most of the functional group are clustered. Several are wearing dark security-guard coats over their smocks, and Angry Chick has found a collapsed baton and gun of her own.

"Well, there's a pretty good circus going on out there, so now I think we herd everybody out into the parking garage, and when they're ready, we pop open the door and push them outside. The cops shouldn't be able to do much at that point. There's too many of you, and the media van is closer to this exit than the front. You need to get to them and the firefighters. That's the most important thing. Do not let the cops keep you away. The media and fire department knowing who is involved is going to be the biggest insurance you have against them just rounding everybody back up and putting you elsewhere. At least, for those of you who have been, um, law abiding. Those of you who who have not, you'll have to try to slink away in the confusion, I guess, unless you want to try suing the city for violation of your Eighth Amendment rights or something."

Jacob and Hijack shrug, and Angry Chick spits, but nobody objects. I lead everybody over to the door to the parking garage and throw it open, right into the face of a whole mess of shocked cops who I did not at all expect to see in there. Well, we've got numbers on our side, so I charge at them yelling "Stampede!" and they actually dodge out of the way. As soon as I'm past, I carve deep and come back around with my Pepper Soaker while Jacob just wades in and starts taking them apart with his bare hands. I come out of it with several more bruises and my side is stinging again, but we survive despite the fact that nobody actually stampeded with us; it was just me, Jacob, and Angry Chick. What good is a herd of sheeple if you can't even work them up into a good stampede? At least Angry Chick didn't shoot anybody.

A few minutes later we've got the crowd moving toward the closed outer door, which opens when we hit the manual button, spilling befuddled people out into the fresh night air. We did it. I hang back a bit and watch the crowd as it passes, searching their faces. I recognize a few -- Larry, both Marcos, Jones, Harris -- but where is... There! There's Paula! She's looking pretty bruised up and dazed, but otherwise normal. And she's moving better than most of the zombies. Good sign.

Now that I've confirmed the original goal of all of this has actually been achieved, it's time for me to get gone. People seeing Wheels amid all of this would just cause confusion and distract them from what needs to be done. I slip behind some vehicles and quickly switch to hobo mode, hunch down into the middle of the crowd, and leave with them. I can't stay in the crowd for long since my hobo-coat will stick out compared to their blue smocks, but it gets me outside. I break off and slip into the shadows before the crowd can sweep me up to where a reporter is molesting people with a microphone while shocked firefighters try to impose order and help the most battered looking people.

The remaining police seem to be trying to leave, but they're having trouble. One of their cruisers is upside down and smoking in the middle of a street teeming with angry skaters and a pair of very excited reporters. And now that people are coming outside, Hannah's slipped away from her posse and is trying to get hold of people's families to get them over here as further insurance against cover-ups.

I consider shadowing her just in case, but no. I've still got one more job to do tonight. Stephenson. Now that I know he didn't try to trick me, I need to go let him out. If he isn't already. Then I need to get back to the Wheelhouse and clean up. I've still got school tomorrow.

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