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Chapter 20

"Wow, George, what happened to you? Were you in that riot last night?"

I finish chewing my noodles while Tiff sits down at our table. "Yeah, I guess you could say that." I'm not bothering to hide my injuries today. There were enough skaters and angry parents engaged in various sorts of violence last night that nobody's going to link my bruises to Wheels.

"Are you okay?"

"Obviously. I'm here, aren't I?"

Joe snorts. "That is not a valid assumption with you. You'd drag yourself into school with a cracked skull if the doctors didn't strap you down. Poke him in his left side, Tiff, and you'll see just how obviously okay he is."

"Please don't."

Tiff raises an eyebrow. "Are we talking about the same George who walked out last month because he had a sore leg?"

I frown. "That was different."

"How so?"

Joe grins. "Yeah, George. What was really going on that day?"

Uhg. I look around the cafeteria, then turn to Joe. "Do we have to do that here and now? After school would be safer." Plus I've been feeling queasy all day and eating is only making it worse. I'm not really in the mood for answering a bunch of questions right now. But saying that would contradict my claim to being fine, and then people would start fussing.

He opens his mouth, but Hannah drops her tray onto the table next to him and slumps into her seat before he can speak. "Riots suck." She's got a black eye and discolored knuckles.

Tiffany winces. "Is that why you weren't in psych this morning? You were in that riot too?"

"I started it," she mutters around a leg of chicken.

"What?"

Hannah and Joe both look at me, and Tiff follows their gaze. I groan. "Fine, I guess we're doing it now. Tiff, you know how sometimes we make sarcastic comments about me being a superhero? Not sarcasm. I'm Actual Superhero Wheels, right here and hungry. There. It's done." I stab some macaroni and stuff it in my mouth to have an excuse to not talk anymore. Also, I need those calories and proteins.

"No way!" says Tiff.

Joe smirks. "Yeah way. I mean, who the heck else do you think would do the crap Wheels does? It's all this guy, right here."

"These two help," I say between bites. "Probably be dead by now otherwise."

"That is so cool!" Tiff says with wide eyes. Then she lowers her voice. "So all that stuff the news was saying about you?"

"Lies and slander. I don't know how much of what happened last night you've heard-"

"They're saying they found all the people you kidnapped and they all have major Stockholm syndrome for you."

I massage my temples. "Of course they'd say that. I should have thought of that."

"I mean, I don't believe them or anything. That's just what they said."

"Thanks. Yeah, so I didn't kidnap anybody. As far as I can tell, that was Pharmedica, but maybe that's just what they want me to think. They were also working with some corrupt cops and doctors. Anyway, that whole Tolman's Flu thing was just cover for what they were doing, and they were taking other people too, abducting prostitutes and bums off the street, diverting convicts from prisons, that kind of thing. We were just starting to investigate it, with Paula's help-"

"Our Paula? Newspaper girl? Who they said you kidnapped too?"

"Yeah. Her. We were looking into it, but then the cops snuck up on us. I panicked and fled. Stupid. So since they couldn't take me, they took her and tried to blame me for it, and for everything else too. There was this whole mess with a trap when I tried to find her, but eventually we tracked down where they were keeping and experimenting on everybody, and I busted them out."

"Okay, but why did Hannah start a riot?"

Joe grins. "She wanted attention."

Hannah rolls her eyes and puts her chicken down. "The cops were harassing every skater they could get their hands on yesterday, so a riot was inevitable. I brought them to the Pharmedica building so the attention they'd draw would help us instead of hurt us. We needed to make the whole mess too public for the bad cops to try disappearing the people George was busting out. So, I rallied up a bunch of angry skaters and told them where they could find some cops persecuting more people, then I tipped off the news companies and a few parents who I knew were upset about their kids being quarantined so long. It spiraled from there."

"Uncle Jeff also helped a lot. He brought his firetruck and a bunch of firefighters who weren't involved in the conspiracy. Between them and the media vans who showed up to see what was going on, the cops couldn't get away with much."

Joe nods. "Thanks to all of that, this has gotten too big for them to keep it covered up. They'd have to play the quarantine card hard to shut down everybody who knows or suspects, and that would attract even more outside attention. They're still trying to paint Wheels as the bad guy, but they're going to have to give up on that soon too. Enough people remember him helping, and they aren't keeping quiet about it."

We eat in silence for a minute before Tiff frowns. "What were they actually trying to do with those people? The news said there were almost two-hundred."

"There were a hundred and seventy-two, but one of them was murdered during the escape. And I don't know what they were doing besides keeping most of them drugged. Testing some new medicine, probably, or physical enhancement supplements. There was marketing stuff on a whiteboard that looked like it was for something like steroids."

After that the conversation swings around to my origin story and then my exploits last year. I excuse myself early and head to a restroom as my nausea peaks. It seems like the harder I try to forget the uglier parts of yesterday, the more I remember them. And the gash on my side still itches.

The rest of the school day drags on mostly normally, albeit with a lot of whispering between and during class as rumors about last night fly free and wild. Tiff insists on walking with me and Joe after school as we go to the Wheelhouse to clean and repair my gear. I should be happy for the extra set of hands, but her excited chatter is aggravating my growing headache. At least Hannah's off practicing with her derby team this afternoon, so that's one less mouth yacking in my ear than there could have been. Then again, she'd been pretty quiet today too.

I go home when we finish. I'm in no condition to patrol tonight, between the pain and nausea. Instead, I walk into my living room and stumble right into Uncle Jeff's ambush. He makes me talk about the things that happened yesterday for a while before he finally decides I'm not going to have a mental breakdown or anything. As soon as he's gone I flop down into bed and pass out. Actually, I pass out about a dozen times through the night. Yay nightmares.

Morning is almost worse, but that's Tuesdays for you. I feel better after breakfast, but I almost lose that breakfast halfway to school when my guts seem to gurgle. I sit on a bench for a while to rest, then skate more slowly the rest of the way.

I hate going slow.

Joe frowns when he sits down next to me in physics. "You coming down with something?"

I shake my head. "Just didn't sleep well. I keep seeing... well, you know."

He nods. "Talk to your uncle some more tonight."

I grunt noncommittally. Having to remember all that stuff probably brought the nightmares on in the first place.

"Did you get the homework done?"

I stare at him blankly, then frown. "Forgot."

He shrugs. "Well, I guess that's what extra credit's for."

"Yeah."

I slog through physics and Spanish, but my stomach feels like it's twisting as I walk into law class. I barely sit down before I'm standing up and dashing for the bathroom. The hallway seems to be growing and shrinking and I stumble a few times, but I make it to a toilet in time to heave out a bunch of bile and water. At least breakfast wasn't still in my stomach, so I don't lose that.

When I'm finished, I straighten up, wipe my face on a paper towel, and then smash my face into a wall by accident. Odd. I thought there was a door there. I try again and make it into the hall, which is oscillating more slowly than before.

This isn't right. I make my way carefully back to the classroom and snag my backpack. Mr. Nolan says something or other. He sounds concerned, but the words are gibberish. I tell him I need to visit the nurse, then I bounce off another wall and try again two feet to the right. Yeah, there's the hallway. It's a very long hallway, and the lockers are making my eyes hurt. I sit down with my back to the lockers and close my eyes. It feels like the world is rolling upside down.

Sometime later, I open my eyes to find myself staring at the ceiling of the nurse's office. I groan and roll onto my side. Nurse Parson turns around and frowns at me. "I called your mother, Mr. Thompson. She should only be a few more minutes."

"What happened?"

"You fainted. You have a fever and you're a little dehydrated, but your temperature has been going down since I got you in here. Whatever it was, I think the worst is through. I'm sending you home just in case, though, and I want you to drink plenty of fluids."

I try to sit up, but my abs are made of pain. I take a breath and then use my arms to push myself up instead. That works. "If I'm doing better, I might as well stay."

"You're doing better because you were resting. You're going home."

"Can't. I think I've got a quiz in lit-"

She hands me a note excusing me for the rest of the day. "And if they don't let you make it up, you let me know and I'll sic Principal McGreevey on them."

"But making things up cuts into..." I trail off at the glare she gives me and sigh. "Fine." It's not like I really have an option at this point. Even if I could convince her I'm fine, she's already called my mom, and no amount of protesting will convince Mom to let me stay. I spend the next several minutes grumbling to myself until she shows up and drags me back home in a taxi. A taxi! That's a totally unnecessary waste of money. I probably could have walked, and if not, I could have just put on my skates and let her drag me until we reached a bus stop. But when does Mom ever listen to reason?

Though to be fair, I don't really remember anything after getting into the taxi, so maybe it was a good idea after all.

So it's Wednesday now, and I'm skating to school. Mom left a note telling me to stay home today too, but I feel fine now. I'm a lot more groggy than normal, but I'm not nauseous at all. It's a nice change of... of...

I skid to a stop and hold a lamppost to stay upright as my guts seem to worm around inside me. It only lasts a second, and then there's the sound of blaring horns and screeching brakes. I look up and see that a car just blew through a red light. The red light for the intersection I was going to cross. That could have been bad. I wait a little more to make sure my stomach is settled, then continue to school.

The first four periods are fine, and even the grogginess fades. Things stop being so good on the way to lunch, however. The trip starts off okay, but then I start feeling queasy again. I'm hungry though, so I try to power through, but a pair of arms suddenly wrap me up into a painful hold while I'm distracted. I tense up and am about to tip us over so that I can use the fall to jamb an elbow into my attacker's gut with my weight behind it, but then I hear some other kids whistling at us and realize that I'm not being attacked. Well, not conventionally. It's just Paula trying to break my ribs with a fierce hug, heedless of the fact that this is making my numerous injuries quite unhappy. "I'm, uh, glad to see you too?" I wheeze out.

She releases her hold, puts her hands on my shoulders, and looks at me with a strange expression. "I have to get to class, but thank you." Then she smiles. "Go eat!" And then she's gone.

Bewildered, I rub at the barely healed bullet graze on my side and start toward the lunch room, confusion rapidly being washed away by the savory smell of meatloaf. I only manage a few steps though before something hot stings my shoulder. I swat at it and then curse; it feels like I just slapped a flame or something. I twist and look at my shoulder, then stop moving in shock. There's a scorched spot on my shirt. I look around. Nobody is smoking or carrying candles or doing anything fire-related. And there aren't sparks falling from the ceiling. How the heck...

My stomach growls, so I shrug and continue to the cafeteria. Maybe I'm still hallucinating a little. Meatloaf is what I need. Unfortunately, when I arrive I see that not only is there a line, but the cafeteria seems more full than normal -- or at least, than what has been normal lately. It's crowded and buzzing with people, and my frown softens. I guess Paula isn't the only one who's back on her feet. Good. This is good. I can handle waiting in line. Joe flashes me a thumbs-up from our table and I smile back. This is what it's all for. Letting people get on with their lives instead of being held captive or turned into paint or whatever the villain of the month is up to. Some bruises, scars, nausea, and minor hearing loss are a small price to pay for that.

Everybody else is already seated when I finally make it to the table. Hannah eyes the burn mark on my shoulder, but Joe is the one to speak. "Have you seen the news lately?"

I shake my head. "Mostly I've been unconscious since this time yesterday."

"The state investigators have issued a statement condemning Pharmedica. They've posted wanted notices for their CEO and upper management, who've all gone into hiding. In other news, Chief Carlson died in the hospital. It looks like foul play."

"Good riddance."

Hannah shakes her head. "Not good. I don't think whoever killed him did it for justice or even vengeance. I think he was silenced, either by Pharmedica or by other cops."

I wince as my brain catches up. "So the top bad guys have gotten away and possibly murdered one of the most damaging witnesses." So much for my good mood.

"Well," says Tiffany, "at least they won't be able to continue, right? Not with everybody keeping an eye out now."

"Yeah, but if they're smart they'll just rebrand and move on to another city in another state. One without me to stop them. Not exactly a good thing." I chew another bite and frown as I reconsider the situation without the time-pressure of wanting to rescue Paula making me irrational. "I shouldn't have acted. Not yet. I should have waited until I knew more so I could cut off their head instead of just breaking their hand. Now not only will they just start over elsewhere, they'll be more cautious as well. I made things worse, not better." My fork clacks loudly against my lunch tray as I stab it into my meatloaf.

"No," says Joe. "No you didn't, George. Sure, maybe they'll rebuild, but you hurt them, and you hurt them badly. Think how much money they must have spent on that facility and the equipment inside. Gone. And how much have they paid in bribes to keep everything secret this whole time? They had to have invested a lot of resources into operating in Forchester. Now that's all going up in flames. And you obviously interrupted whatever research they were doing, so that will set them back a ways too."

"So? If they did it once, they can do it again. And they can do it better this time."

Hannah sighs. "Not everybody is you, George. Some people do this thing where, when the going gets tough, they give up and go home."

"I don't think these are those kind of people."

Joe shrugs. "Still, you hurt them. Even if they rebuild elsewhere, it will take them time after all they've lost. Meanwhile, that's fewer people being hurt by them. So maybe hitting them when you did wasn't optimal, but it was still better than doing nothing."

"But if it makes it harder to stop them again-"

"I don't think it will. Maybe they'll be more careful, but you've also made things a lot harder for them. If Pharmedica wasn't just a puppet organization, their leadership is now known, so they'll have to live like fugitives. And even if those people weren't the ones responsible, you're discounting how many clues the state investigators are going to get by searching that facility. That could lead to identifying their real leaders, and even if it doesn't, it should identify what they're doing and which supplies they need, making it easier to notice future purchases. And they might be able to identify any other accounts or front companies used to buy that gear, further cutting their available resources. So I'd say it all comes out to be net positive, George."

"Maybe you're right." I look around the cafeteria again and grin a little as my self-doubt fades. Marco is back at his table looking pale but animated as he talks to Hank and Lucy, and I recognize a few other faces around the cafeteria from Sunday night. I'll have to track down Larry tomorrow afternoon and see how he's doing. I turn back to Hannah to ask about how Carrie's doing, but she interrupts me.

"What happened to your shoulder?"

I twist and look at it. It's still looking singed, and the skin below the quarter-sized hole is red and a little sore. "I have no idea. My guess is somebody was playing with a lighter in the hallway and then pocketed it before I could see. I just know it started to sting, so I slapped it and then it looked like this."

"Maybe it was light," says Joe. "Maybe you stood in a spot where a lot of reflected light was being focused."

"I was moving, so probably not. I'm sticking with the lighter hypothesis for now."

I make it through the rest of lunch without spontaneously-combusting again and head to class. Turns out I hadn't missed a quiz in lit after all; it was canceled on account of all the chaos as people's families reassemble. Mrs. Donner is nice like that. Unlike Dr. Hanson, who gave us a test this morning in trig that didn't even have any extra credit questions. Or at least, mine didn't. I'm starting to suspect that she gives me and a few others harder tests than the rest of her students.

I survive drama and history as well and then head home, Tiff walking alongside as I skate slowly down the sidewalk. It's a pain to hold myself back enough for her to keep up on foot, but it's better than plodding. When we get to the smaller, lower-traffic streets, I'll be able to slalom and loop back to keep up speed without losing her, but for now we're on the busier roads near the school, so sidewalks it is.

"You aren't nervous about tonight, are you?" she asks.

"No? I mean, I don't think that restaurant your dad's dragging us all to serves tacos, and I'm not really sure how to feel about that, but I wouldn't call the emotion nervousness." Yeah, they're doing one of those dates tonight. It's not enough that they have to be all lovey-dovey; they have to bring us along and feed us overpriced, overhyped "food" while they do it. It's enough to make me feel queasy all over again.

"Well, it's just that you're looking a little green there, so I thought maybe-"

A shadow moves in the corner of my eye and then somebody seizes me from behind. I bend my knees and twist my feet, skidding against the sidewalk to halt my movement as my weight pulls whoever grabbed me down and onto my back. My side burns, but I'm able to break their grip as they begin to trip over me, then I shove my legs down and twist, throwing them into the grass beside the sidewalk. I wasn't going to add the twist, but a little voice in the back of my head has noted how light they are. This might just be some dumb kid thinking they're being funny, so I don't want to risk cracking their stupid skull open by slamming them into the pavement.

Oh. It's not a kid. It's a Paula, winded and staring at me with wide eyes. I suppress a laugh, mostly because my side and back are throbbing pretty bad now and laughing would just make it worse. "Sorry, Paula, but please stop doing that. I thought you were a mugger."

Tiff and I reach out to help her up, and Tiff picks some bits of grass out of Paula's hair while she catches her breath. "You," she finally says to me with a big smile. "I knew it was you. I knew it."

I frown and rub my side absently. "Okay? I mean, I guess I'm not very good at recognizing people from behind either, so, um, congratulations?"

"No, I mean I knew you were..." She glances at Tiff, seeming to notice her for the first time, and then frowns slightly. "Um, that you were you. Yeah. You know what I mean."

I take a good look at her eyes. They seem fine. Not glazed or bloodshot or anything, and she's focusing just fine, tracking my head as I move. I feel her forehead anyway. "Are you alright, Paula?"

"I'm fine, I'm fine." She doesn't move to shove my hand off like I'd expected. "And you're right. I shouldn't have surprised you like that. I really should have known better, knowing who you are." And then she gives me the corniest wink I've ever seen.

Weird. She doesn't feel like she has a fever though. I take my hand back and scratch my head with it. "Can you do the ABCs? Backwards?"

She rapidly recites the ZYXs without error. "I didn't hit my head, George. I tucked my chin. That wasn't the first time I've been thrown."

I look at Tiff, who shrugs. I turn back. "It's not that. I'm worried that whatever they were giving you hasn't worked its way out of your system yet. You're being weird."

She rolls her eyes. "I'm not being weird, I'm being circumspect." She glances at Tiff again.

I open my mouth to reply and then hesitate. "Have you been smoking?"

She looks at me like I'm an idiot and shakes her head, then wrinkles her nose. "I do smell smoke though."

Tiffany gasps and points past Paula. I shift aside so I can see what she's pointing at. Oh. There's a small fire in the grass. Paula spins around and sees it too, then stomps it out. "That was weird." She turns and looks at Tiff. "Look, can George and I talk in private for a minute?"

Tiff smiles. "Sure. I'll just go on ahead, George."

Once she's out of earshot, Paula grins. "So, when are you going to admit you're Wheels?"

"We've been over this-"

"I know it's you, George. I didn't want to believe it before, especially if it meant Tamara Winston was a liar. I really wanted Wheels to be a girl. In comics and movies, even when there are girl superheroes, they're never the first hero. It's always some guy, and then they throw in the heroines later. They're never the original of the setting."

"Well, actually-"

"But I thought maybe Forchester would be different. Especially after Ms. Winston implied you were a girl. I hoped I could convince you to stop pretending to be a guy after a while and get you to become a strong female role model for the girls of Forchester."

I shrug. "If you want Forchester to have a heroine, maybe you should take matters into your own hands instead of hoping somebody else will do it for you."

"Well, if I do that now I'll just be falling in with that pattern, won't I?"

I shrug. "If you think Forchester having a heroine is less important than whether she was first, well..." She rolls her eyes at me. "But hey, you're wrong anyway. Forchester did have a heroine first."

"How so? Are... are you transgender or something?"

"What? No, Paula. I'm talking about Tamara Winston. She's been helping people for years, and she's exactly that role model you're always going on about."

"Oh. Well, yeah, but that's not really the same thing."

"Paula, she has a bionic limb with a weapon in a secret compartment, and she hides extra blades under her skin in case that isn't enough! I didn't really rescue her last month. She rescued herself while I accidentally distracted the Cueballs. She'd probably have gotten out on her own as soon as they let their guard down."

"If they let their guard down."

"They always let their guard down. Nobody's perfect."

Paula frowns. "Mine didn't."

I wince. "Sorry. I didn't mean to imply that-"

"No, it's okay. I know."

"Those guys were in an entirely different league from the Cueballs."

"I know, George." As she gazes up at me, her expression warms. "I'm glad you got me out of there."

"Um. Yeah. You're welcome." Then something clicks in my head. "Oh! So that's why you tried to squeeze all my injuries to death on my way to lunch! I was really confused."

Paula looks aghast. "I'm so sorry! I didn't realize- I didn't know you were-"

"It's okay. For future reference though, you should probably just assume I'm always injured. I'm pretty much always sore somewhere."

"For future reference?" She raises an eyebrow. "So you assume I'm going to be hugging you again?"

"I- Um. That's not what I-"

"I'll see you tomorrow, George." She flashes a smile and then walks away.

Great. I have no idea what any of that meant, and I'm not asking Hannah. I shake my head and do a quick stretch, then skate out into the street so I can go faster and catch up to Tiffany.

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