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Chapter 21

Thursday. What is there to say about Thursdays? Not much, normally, but there is this time, if you don't mind me foretelling the future just a little. This Thursday is kind of a big deal, actually. But I can't actually foretell the future, so let's just pretend I didn't say anything and get on with the day.

It starts off like a normal Thursday. I skate to school, grumbling about the lingering pain from last weekend's shenanigans. At least the weird bug I picked up seems to be gone now, other than occasional random flashes of nausea. Those never last long enough to be more than an annoyance though. Maybe I damaged some organs or something? Whatever it is should heal eventually.

Actually, it's been oddly useful. Take today in trig, for example. I'd stayed up kind of late doing make-up work for lit and history, but today's physics lesson was actually pretty interesting (we finally got to optics!), so I fell asleep in trig instead. But then, midway through a dream about skating in the trough of a sine wave, my guts twinge and snap me awake and upright, just in time for something to whiz through the space where my head had been. The girl in the desk to my left, Wanda, freezes and then turns slowly to glare death at me with a wet wad of paper stuck to the side of her face. I guess it's obvious I just woke up though, because her eyes shift past me to the softly snickering guy to my right. I've never bothered to learn his name; he's that dumb.

I do find it odd that Wanda's staying silent, though. Normally she'd be raising a fuss. In fact, the whole class is silent, their heads down and pencils scratching. I blink myself further awake and notice a paper on my desk that wasn't there when I fell asleep. I guess Dr. Hanson decided not to wake me up when she handed out today's quiz. How considerate. I sigh and get to work. The bell rings just as I'm double-checking my last answer. I let out a breath and grab my pack, then turn to Spitball Man. "Thanks for trying to wake me up."

He grins. "Any time, bro."

I walk past a fuming Wanda to turn in my quiz to a frowning Dr. Hanson, then head out and down the hall to feed a hungry George. It smells like spaghetti today. Or more accurately, like garlic bread. Spaghetti isn't as good as macaroni or tacos, but I'm too hungry to care. Situation normal, in other words.

The situation stops being normal while I'm waiting in line. A strong whiff of tomato sauce drifts out and makes my guts writhe again. I lean against the wall and the sensation sharpens so much that I fall to my hands and knees. And then the wall above me explodes.

No, seriously. There are bits of brick flying, people are screaming, and food is in the air. I look up to see Terence of all people glaring through the hole, eyes searching for someone. Well, he was searching. He spots me the moment my head comes up, and a huge, malicious grin stretches across his face. "You're gonna die," he says.

I'm back on my feet and backing away within a heartbeat, but then I stumble as my gut twists some more. At the same time, Terence draws back his foot and kicks at the wall below the hole he's looming through. I dive aside as the bricks fly across the room through where I'd been standing.

Now, this is the part where a normal person would be pulling their hair out wondering what the hell is going on, but not me. I'll do that in a moment, but right now I need to not die. So instead of pondering, I roll upright and start moving. I don't have wheels on my feet, but I do have wheels in my backpack, so I slip that off my shoulders and hurl it at Terence hard, charging at him behind it with the intent of knocking him over while he's distracted. He knocks the pack aside as though it's a pillow, and then my gut clenches. I abort my tackle attempt and roll past him with a groan, narrowly dodging a brick-shattering punch. A moment later I'm back on my feet behind him and swinging an elbow into the small of his back. My gut writhes and I hit, fall to the ground, and force strangled profanities out through clenched teeth as I curl around my elbow. It feels like I just elbowed a statue.

An iron grip hauls me into the air by my shirt and my gut writhes some more. I shove my confusion and pain aside to deal with later. Gotta survive. I kick with both feet into Terence's chest with everything I have. It doesn't seem to hurt him, but my shirt rips and I launch free, roll to my feet, and bolt away from his calm, angry laughter.

I stop when I'm around the corner and catch my breath. What the hell is going on? Terence was throwing around superhuman strength back there! Am I hallucinating that badly? I'd slap myself, but my elbow is throbbing enough to provide all the pain I could want. I don't even know if dream-pain is a legitimate way to end a dream. It's not like I can remember ever trying it in an actual dream.

The screams from inside the cafeteria intensify and snap me out of my thoughts. I peek through a window in time to see Terence throw some jock across the room. "Well?" Terence bellows. "Where are you, George? Don't you want to film this? Put it on YouTube? Pretend you're some kind of hero?"

I growl to myself. I just finished saving these people last Sunday, and now he's endangering them all over again. And he has inhuman amounts of strength and durability. Somehow. Even though that makes no sense at all. I'll have to make sense of it later; right now it's time to pretend I'm some kind of hero.

I take a few deep breaths as I near the hole, then charge into pandemonium. Maybe Terence is strong enough to punch through brick and shrug off anything I can physically hit him with right now, but that's not enough to stop me. Comic books have prepared me for this possibility. I head directly to the refrigerator with all the milk cartons and arm myself with one in each hand, then I sprint at Terence, slipping and sliding on spilled food. He sees me coming and tosses aside the cheerleader he'd been groping. His mouth opens to say something inane just as I hurl one of the milk cartons at his face. He doesn't get anything out; in fact, the opposite happens. The carton bursts harmlessly on his face just as he inhales, and then he starts coughing and wiping at his eyes.

"He still needs to breathe!" I yell to anybody who's listening. I don't know if anybody's actually paying attention, but it doesn't matter. They're just optional distraction points. My second milk carton bursts at Terence's feet, leaving him in a slippery puddle, and then I'm behind him, rummaging through an abandoned purse with shaky hands. Aha! A perfume bottle. I grab another milk carton in my other hand and take aim just as Terence is straightening up and turning. The perfume bottle shatters against his face and the milk carton splashes open at his feet. Terence screams, clutching at his eyes, then slips and falls. So, chemicals still irritate him. Too bad we're not allowed to bring pepper spray to school, or I'd have just the weapon to use.

I leap over a lunch table and shove through some cowering teens to the nearest fire extinguisher. That'll help with the blinding and breath impairment. Hopefully the rest of the people in the cafeteria will wise up soon and either start helping or at least get out of the way. If school was empty, I'd lead him to the chemistry lab and shut him down for real, but if I did that now he'd just go after other people. Probably. Maybe I've made him angry enough to pursue instead. Not willing to risk it. Instead, I start spraying the fire extinguisher in his face and shouting at people to run. He coughs and scrambles to get up, then charges blindly at me.

Well, I don't need my gut thrashing around to tell me I need to get out of the way, so I sidestep as he trips through a lunch table. Through, not over; it crumples and snaps around him as though he were a bulldozer. I guess he's heavier too, not just strong and durable. That would be useful to know if we were closer to the river and I had a way to throw him into it. Maybe with an eighteen wheeler.

More milk cartons explode on Terence's face. I glance toward their source to see Joe, Hannah, and Tiff at the refrigerator. Another comes from the other side of the lunch room when he turns. Brianna and some of her cheerleader minions have flanked him, pushing the second milk fridge ahead of them.

This is only a short-term delaying action, though. He can just blink milk out of his eyes and cough it out of his mouth. The slipperyness helps though; strength isn't very useful without leverage, and I'm more used to making sliding movements than him. I skid past and snag a couple more abandoned purses to search for-

Wait. This is a cafeteria. That means there's a kitchen. I head back that way, sliding under a clumsily swung fist while spraying my fire extinguisher at him for concealment, and then I roll to my feet and toss the extinguisher and purses toward Hannah's group before darting into the kitchens. "Improvise!"

Kitchens have cooking supplies, some of which can be pretty unpleasant in your eyes. I don't have time to run onions through a blender, though. Instead, I go for the cleaning supplies and grab some bleach. I snag a pepper shaker as an after-thought on my way out.

I skid back into the rapidly emptying cafeteria to see one of the resource officers rush into the room. It's Mr. Wells, and he's ignoring Joe's shouted warnings as he charges at Terence with his baton out. I curse and sprint after; there's nothing I can do to stop him, so I might as well take advantage of the opening he'll create. Terence doesn't even try to dodge the resource officer's tackle; he just peels the collapsing body off himself and throws it aside. And then he screams as bleach splashes into his eyes. I uncap the pepper shaker and hurl the contents at him as he gasps for more air to scream with; now he's coughing and rolling on the ground.

"Cut the milk, you'll undo it!" I yell. "Everybody grab the wounded and get out of here!" If Terence can be super strong, durable, and heavy, there's no reason he couldn't also have super healing and get back up in moments. I get as close as I dare and dump the rest of the bleach over his face for good measure, then leap aside as he thrashes blindly. Mr. Wells is moaning, so I drag him off the table and start hauling him toward my backpack near the hole in the wall. I'm not leaving my skates behind, and I never did get lunch. I need the granola bars I've got stashed inside.

"That's it?" says Tiff as I hook my arm through the strap and pull Mr. Wells toward the hole in the wall. "We're just going to leave him?"

I glance over to see her dragging an unconscious student. It's Marco, with a trickle of blood running down his forehead and more from a broken looking nose. Joe's got the jock I'd seen thrown in a fireman carry, and Hannah's helping some girl I don't recognize to walk. I nod grimly at Tiff. "Unless you have an idea about how we can restrain somebody who can punch through a brick wall, yes." I haul Mr. Wells through the hole and scan over the campus ahead of us before heading toward the library. "Right now our priority is to get everybody out of the way in case he gets his vision back. Maybe a SWAT team will show up before then; tear gas should work, and maybe high powered rifles. Otherwise I'll have to get mean."

Mr. Wells groans and tries to get his feet under him, so I pause to help him up. He staggers forward and points at the gym. "Shelter there; safer than library. No shelves to fall." He fumbles with his radio, then swears quietly when the knob falls off and it makes a sound like a dying cyber-duck until he kills the power.

"Alright, the gym it is." I twist around and see that Brianna's group is following behind us with two unconscious students and a limping lunch lady. "Was that everybody?" I call.

"As far as we could see!"

I nod and start helping Mr. Wells stay on his feet as we make our way across the quad. I keep an eye on the cafeteria, but my mind's planning out ways to incapacitate Terence, taunts to keep him focused on me, and the routes I could use to lead him from the cafeteria or gym to the chem lab.

"What happened!" yells an official sounding voice. I turn to see a tall, slightly chubby man in a suit and two aging resource officers approaching from the lit building. Major Kingston from the JROTC program is also jogging up toward them.

I take a breath, hardly able to believe what I'm about to say. "It was a superhuman attack, Principal McGreevey." If I hadn't seen and elbowed it firsthand...

"This is no time for your jokes, Thompson! Mr. Wells, what's-"

Mr. Wells straightens up as best he can. "It was Terence Raymonds, sir. He must have used a bomb or something to blast a hole in the cafeteria's south wall. I didn't see it happen. By the time I arrived, he was already inside and attacking other students."

"Was he armed?" asks Major Kingston. "Is he still active?"

"No arms that I could see, but he has armor plates under his clothes, and I'm pretty sure he's on some kind of drugs, because he wasn't feeling anything. I don't know his current status. Thompson here and I were subduing him when I took a blow to the head. By the time I came to, Thompson was pulling me out of the building. I didn't get a good view inside through the hole, but it looked empty."

McGreevey scowls at us. "Thompson, quit dawdling and get your little fan-club into the gym, pronto!"

"Will do, McGravey, but don't say I didn't warn you when Super-Terence gets back on his feet. Just remember: tear gas is kryptonite. Tell the cops to-"

"Get!"

Wells starts herding us toward the gym, and I decide not to waste any more breath. I can't really blame McGreevey for doubting me. Frankly, odds are higher that I'm just losing it. Wells doesn't seem to need support anymore, so I help Joe with the jock as we continue toward the gym. "You guys saw what I saw, right? I wasn't hallucinating?"

Joe nods. "This guy here? He broke a lunch tray over Terence's head. No effect. And the way Terence held him up before throwing was not physically possible for a human. Even with infinite strength, holding him like that should have moved his center of gravity forward too far and tipped him over, but it didn't."

"Yeah, he seemed a lot heavier than he should be. Now that I think about it, he didn't just feel solid when I hit him. He barely even shifted. Even when Mr. Wells here tackled him. He wasn't braced or anything, but he didn't budge. He must be really dense."

Mr. Wells frowns at us while he holds the gym doors. "It had to be armor. This isn't some comic book. The adrenalin is just messing with your perceptions."

"I hope so, Mr. Wells. The alternative is terrifying."

He nods and ushers us inside, then takes up station outside the door with Coach Smith.

Inside are most of the other worried-looking students of Coldriver. The missing ones are probably holed up in classrooms or fled off campus. Nurse Parson scurries over and starts fussing over the wounded while Coach Glenn directs those of us who are standing to the bleachers. Except for the lunch lady; she's still pretty out of it, so we leave her with Nurse Parson.

Brianna and her remaining cheerminions sit down on the row ahead of us and turn to face me as I unwrap a granola bar. "Spill," she says.

"Spill what?"

"My ex-boyfriend just smashed through a brick wall, threatened to kill you, threw the quarterback ten feet through the air, beat up Wells, and then curled up in a screaming ball as you poured bleach in his face. Everybody else was freaking out, but you... George, you're acting like it was just Tuesday. Explain."

"Well, no, it's Thursday, actually." This only gets me a bunch of very non-cheerful glares, so I sigh. "Look, we all know this wasn't my first brush with danger, right? You get used to it after a while. You don't stop being terrified, but you stop letting yourself freeze up and you start acting instead. There's no time to freeze when you lose your grip while skitching and find yourself facing oncoming traffic. You either move or you die, and I'm not interested in dying. So I moved."

"Okay, but how did he do all that? What the heck? You don't really think it was superpowers, do you?"

I rub my elbow. "I don't know. Armor plates under his clothes and some drugs could explain the pain resistance and my bruised elbow. That hole was not made by a bomb, though, I can tell you that." Not that I can explain my recent first-hand experience with what the results of a grenade look like, but I know this wasn't one. I can still hear, for one thing.

Brianna raises an eyebrow. "And all that stuff you and Joe were saying outside about his weight? I saw the way he crashed through that table. I've been to enough renaissance fairs to know that even full plate armor isn't that heavy, and if it was he wouldn't have been able to stand. And I saw him kick some of the rubble like it was Styrofoam."

I nod. "If I hadn't been there, I'd say it was a hoax. Sabotage that table ahead of time, weaken the wall, replace some bricks with painted foam, maybe set up some hooks in the floor to latch to his shoes to hold him in place... but I can't convince myself that's what was going on. It's the rational explanation, but... My gut says superpowers. Or too many concussions."

She turns to Joe. "What about you? You're even more nerdy than George is. You must have some ideas."

Joe shakes his head. "Not good ones. Several groups are trying to design robotic exoskeletons, but the tech isn't small enough to have fit beneath his clothes without us noticing. And it wouldn't have been heavy enough. Maybe a remotely controlled android... that weighs a couple tons and has silent actuators. Ludicrous. But then, so are superpowers."

"How would he even get superpowers?"

He shrugs. "Bit by a radioactive rhino? Infused by nanites? Got so mad he gained telekinetic abilities? None of that makes any sense, but neither do superpowers. I'm at a loss."

"I think-" starts Tiffany, but then she stops as everybody turns to her. "Never mind. It's stupid."

Joe rolls his eyes. "And everything I just said wasn't?"

Tiff glances back toward the group by Nurse Parson and frowns. "I was just going to suggest aliens."

Now, I'm no Hannah, but I'm about eighty percent sure that's not what Tiff was going to say before. It occurs to me that Marco is looking oddly unscathed now. Maybe whatever she was going to suggest would have implicated him too? Well, far be it from me to step on a friend's hastily improvised diversion. I nod at Tiff. "Aliens. That's probably the most reasonable hypothesis at this point."

Brianna frowns. "But why would-"

"Attention students!" blares Assistant Principal Guzman over the gym's PA system. "The police have secured the attacker. School is canceled for the rest of the day. Please proceed in an orderly manner to the bus loading zone or otherwise return to your homes. Do not return to your classrooms or lockers. Campus will remain off-limits until at least Monday morning as the police conduct their investigation. Any possessions you may have left behind in your classrooms will still be here Monday and may be retrieved from your teachers or the lost and found box in the office at that time, unless they are deemed evidence. Now, please proceed to the bus loading zone..."

"Huh," I say as we stand. "I was expecting a bunch of 'nobody leaves until the cops interview you,' like back when I stopped Gus."

Hannah raises an eyebrow. "You really think the cops would be willing to risk dealing with us right now? After last weekend? People would freak out, thinking they're more of the corrupt ones come to take them away again."

I wince. "Good point."

Brianna and her posse wander off to check on their friends while Joe, Hannah, Tiff, and I begin heading toward The Shifty Taco since we missed out on lunch. Paula, of course, intercepts us just as we're leaving campus. I hang back to answer her questions, which tells her almost nothing she didn't already know.

Hannah shakes her head when I catch up to them on my skates. "This city just keeps getting weirder, George. We've got our own costumed hero, we had a fake epidemic to cover illegal human testing in an honest-to-goodness underground villain lair, and now we've got straight-up paranormal stuff happening with Terence. Are we sure there's nothing weird in our water?"

"You know what's worrying me?" I ask. "Terence isn't special." Tiff shoots me a worried glance that I pretend not to notice. "If he could gain super strength or be replaced by a robot or whatever, why not others? People with more skill and ambition?" Tiff relaxes as it becomes clear I'm not talking about Marco.

Hannah frowns at me. "You mean actual supervillains. And you're going to put on your mask and go out there and fight them."

"Mmhmm."

Tiff looks at me sideways. "You aren't freaking out?"

"I'm screaming on the inside. If I screamed on the outside, it might attract attention." Not even kidding.

Joe scratches his chin. "You're going to need upgrades. Starting with a space blanket."

"Good call." I notice that Tiff looks confused. "In case I run into somebody who can shoot lasers, Tiff. Space blankets are cheap, light, and shiny. Also useful for hiding heat signatures if they've got thermal vision."

"Terence didn't do any of that."

"Nope," says Joe, "but who knows what else is possible? Plus it's getting toward winter, and warmth is important during stakeouts. Hey George, do you think it's worth going non-ferrous?"

I wince. "Probably not. A ferrokinetic could just carry a pouch of sewing needles, so I'd probably be screwed no matter what unless I started wearing full plate, and that would hurt my mobility too much."

"Your pepper spray might not work on everyone," says Hannah. "We should get you a way to blind somebody who's actually invulnerable. Spray-paint?"

"Totally. And I'm going to need more flash-bangs or something similar if I'm going to be dealing with this level of threat. I've got a few left from Sunday, but they're not exactly reusable."

"Yeah," says Joe, "I'm sure we can figure something out."

"Well," says Tiff, "you guys just let me know what I can do to help."

"Do you know how to solder?" Joe asks. She shakes her head and he grins. "I'll teach you. We've got a bunch of wireless relays to build. I've got the plans done and we're going to order the parts soon. You can be in charge of assembling them. It'll be fun, I promise. Like LEGO, but with a risk of burn wounds!"

We continue discussing plans over lunch and then split up to buy or... procure the gear we can. In my case, that means finally tracking down Larry. I check a few of his haunts before finding him on the roof of Neon Noise with a jumbo bag of chips and a knapsack of illicit substances.

"Larry!"

"George!"

We do a complicated fist-bump handshake half-hug break-dance routine that Larry has insisted on since he was nine. We finish with me holding out my hand and raising my eyebrow.

"What?" he asks innocently.

"My wallet, Larry."

"Fine, fine." He returns my wallet. "So how've been, out here? They didn't nab you too?"

"They tried a few times, but I'm too slippery. I've got you to thank for that, man." I return his wallet.

"Hey, no problem." He returns my wallet again.

"What about you, though?" He's looking pretty thin, but not as thin as the people who refused to eat during their captivity. "They weren't feeding you enough?"

Larry turns and spits, looking a little green. "They kept trying to give me meat, dude. Meat."

"Well, it doesn't look like you starved. Did you give in?"

He shakes his head. "Things got kind of bad for a while, and then one day I woke up strapped to a table with an IV in my arm. After that they gave up and started giving me some real food."

"Meat is real food too, Larry."

"Nope. Friends are not food, and animals are friends."

We joke around a bit and reminisce before I get down to business. "Larry, I need somewhere I can have a bunch of stuff delivered without people getting suspicious. Someplace I can use anonymously, but with a street address. Just until I can pick the stuff up and move it somewhere else."

He nods. "I've got some friends in Bling Blang who can do that. You want me to set you up?"

We hash out the details, I make him return my wallet again, and then I head to the Wheelhouse to gear up and set out on patrol. This time with extra paranoia. The police have dropped their Wheelhunt, but now there are potential fledgeling supervillains out there I need to watch out for. On the one hand, that's pretty scary. On the other hand, best to find and stop them while they're newbies.

I really hope this all turns out to be a dream in the morning.

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