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Chapter 22

It wasn't just a dream, and as we feared, Terence was only the beginning. It's Friday evening now, and social media is buzzing with hasty cell-phone videos of a pre-teen boy flying over Parkville, a terrified young woman shooting an energy beam out of her hand inside Chester Mart, and Terence himself shoving a police car aside as he escapes custody, a hole visible in the police station behind him. Yeah, he's loose again. The mayor, police, and news are insisting it's all a bunch of trickery, while the talk-shows are milking the "might it be paranormal?" angle as hard as they can. The internet response mostly consists of claims that it's all a publicity stunt for some upcoming movie. That, and a bunch of inappropriate comments about the girl who destroyed Chester Mart.

Fortunately, at least some of the police are taking this situation seriously. I couldn't find Patches, but I did track down Officer Susan to tell her what I knew about the Terence situation. It's only a matter of time until he comes after me again, after all, and since he's targeting George rather than Wheels, I have to jump through the right hoops to stay out of legal trouble. Officer Susan wouldn't admit that she believed me, but she didn't chew me out for wasting her time either, and Officer Susan loves complaining about people wasting her time. So, she does believe me. Which is more than I can say about Mom. I tried warning her about Terence last night before she left for work, and she took my concern seriously, but not the extent of the threat. In fact, she implied that I imagined it and should stay home to rest some more after whatever was wrong with me on Tuesday. I can't even get mad at her about that, because it's exactly what I would assume in her shoes. Bah.

I know I wasn't hallucinating, though. Not unless I still am, because I ran into Fat Jimmy again last night and he definitely had a superpower. He was wearing a t-shirt at midnight in November with a pair of oven mitts tucked into his belt. When I skated over to see how he was doing, I noticed the air around him was shimmering like a blacktop in July and heat was radiating off like waves. He didn't have much to say; he'd felt nauseous for a couple days, and he's had a bad fever since Wednesday. Except it stopped being unpleasant by Wednesday night. He said he feels fine now, other than it feeling like summer to him. He also claimed that when he tried taking a cold shower to cool down, the water boiled. He let me pour some water on his hand, and sure enough it bubbled away with a violent hissing. At that point I became rather concerned, but he explained that his insides weren't so hot as his outsides -- water doesn't boil away in his mouth. That's a relief. Not everybody has been so lucky.

For example, Joe and I were at the Radio Shack in the Forchester Mall a bit before noon today when we heard screaming from out in the hall. I leaned out the door to see a boy holding the stump of his right arm as smoking yellow stuff squirted out of what was left. He was shaking on his knees next to the rest of the arm, all of his skin looking loose and discolored. Then he slumped forward onto his face with a splatting sound and his head burst open like a water balloon filled with mustard. Mustard that sizzled and smoked as it etched into the tile floor of the hallway. Within fifteen seconds there was nothing left of the boy but a smoking hole in the floor.

I haven't eaten anything since. My stomach has been growling in frustration, but I keep remembering the smell. I'm going to have to man up and force something down soon, but meanwhile I'm trying to distract myself by tinkering with the trigger mechanism I'm adding to my brand new Pepper Fist.

You see, I'd thought the Pepper Soaker was a good idea, originally. And it worked well enough, giving me better range and much better capacity than normal pepper spray canisters. The problem with it is that it takes up my hands, and sometimes I just really need to hit something or block an incoming strike, which results in a broken Pepper Soaker. So, I've decided to change how I do things. I've replaced the Pepper Soaker with a smaller forearm-mounted unit with a thin hose that runs up to the back of my right glove. I can fire it by pressing a button on my lower palm. That's what I'm adjusting right now. I need to find the best place to put it so that I can press it easily when needed, but avoid it being pressed by accident. And I want to still be able to press it while I'm holding a baton.

Once I get it working, I'm going to duplicate it for my left arm as well. That'll help make up for the lowered capacity while giving me some redundancy along with the ability to spray in two directions at once. And instead of one big reservoir like the Pepper Soaker, this system uses removable cartridges, so I can carry several different mixtures with me and swap between them as needed. To start with I'm going to just make a bunch of spare pepper spray cartridges and then a couple paint ones. Maybe later I'll add other things like oil, sulfuric acid, or garlic juice. I might even build a version that holds two canisters at once with a switch to select the active payload.

Getting all this set up is a pain, and it's going to weigh down my arms a little, but the flexibility will be worth it. And, when it's all done, I'll be able to use my Pepper Fists and a baton at the same time. Or other things. Besides, even the two smaller units combined won't really be much heavier than the Pepper Soaker was, and unlike that, it's all firmly attached to my body instead of hanging from a shoulder strap or held in a hand. That'll improve my balance. Plus, I'll look less intimidating. Intimidating bad guys is good, but my standing with the general public is a bit precarious after the cops' smear campaign last weekend and my own copious use of lethal force in rescuing people from Pharmedica. Better to not be seen carrying around weapons that look like guns for a while. If that means having to beat up a few extra muggers each month who fail to be intimidated into submission, so be it.

As for the gun and various grenades I took with me when I left Pharmedica, I'm leaving them stashed here in the Wheelhouse for now. I'm tempted to get a concealed holster so I can keep the gun with me while I'm out in costume without flaunting its presence, just in case, but... no. They say that when you've got a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. Did I really need to throw a fragmentation grenade down that first hallway on Sunday? Why didn't I use the tear gas or the Peppernade? That was exactly the sort of situation I built the Peppernade for. I could have used it, but I had a frag grenade too, and I was mad at them for shooting me, so I threw the frag grenade. They deserved it, of course, but incapacitating them would have been better -- less risk of causing a cave in, more people to be interrogated, better PR, and I'd have avoided lowering my guard while being grossed out by the carnage. And maybe the irrational part of my conscience would shut up.

Anyway, I figure if I carry a gun "just in case," I'll probably start having moments that seem to warrant drawing it every other night, and that would be bad for PR. Besides, if Forchester ever does get to the point where I need to become a gunslinger to do my job, that would probably be a good indication that it's time to give up and go join NASA like I'd planned.

And it's not like every one of these supers is as tough as Terence. Fat Jimmy let me arm-wrestle him last night. I nearly burned my hand even through my glove and the oven mitt he put on, but other than that it wasn't anything special. He won, sure, but I made him struggle for it, so there's definitely some variation between the supers. Most should be susceptible to my normal bag of tricks, and when it comes to bricks like Terence, odds are that using enough raw force to stop them would cause a lot of collateral damage anyway. Better to find and attack their weaknesses instead. Thus my paint cartridges.

I'm just wrapping up the finishing touches on my glove when the security panel plays its creaking sound. I slip the Pepper Fist on and plug in a cartridge as the panel creaks a few more times and then makes the skittering sound. I softly vault over the couch where Tiff's sitting and take aim at the trapdoor as light footsteps move around upstairs. The knock matches. "It's me," says Hannah. I wink at Tiff and then press the trigger as Hannah drops down, sending a spray of harmless water at the wall a foot to the right of her head.

"Dang, need to work on my aim with this thing."

"Very funny, George."

"No, seriously. It's like ten degrees off from what I expected. Hmm..."

She rolls her eyes and plops down onto the couch while I head to the workbench. I think I see what I did wrong. I've got the nozzle aligned to fire straight when my hand is in a centered position, but when I went to fire I angled my fist slightly, as though I was punching or pointing. That's an easy fix.

"How was your game?" asks Tiff while I start removing the nozzle to realign it. "Wasn't it supposed to be over a while ago?"

"A thing happened." She grabs a Wheelbook and connects it to an old projector that Tiff donated to our cause yesterday. "Check this out. Keep an eye on Carrie. Number D4."

I look up from the workbench. She's got a video of her game playing, showing a bunch of girls in skates rolling around a track. A pair in the lavender gear of Hannah's team are trying to block a girl in bright green with the jammer stars on her helmet cover from passing, but she slips around them and powers forward. Then Carrie gets in her way and they collide hard. I don't see exactly what happens, but one of the refs gives a long penalty whistle as Carrie tumbles to the side. And keeps tumbling. No, floating! She's floating across the infield and frantically flailing her arms. Hannah splits off from the pack, dodges a gawking ref, jumps, and grabs Carrie by an ankle. They drift back toward the ground near the other side of the track while the other players all roll to a stop, staring at them. Once she's got her own skates back on the floor, Hannah starts hauling Carry the rest of the way down. Suddenly Carrie drops out of the air and they both fall to the ground. The rest of the lavender team and two members of the green team try to cluster around, but two of the refs block them and gesture back to the track. Hannah rewinds it to Carrie flying and hits pause.

"Well," I mutter, "she did pick Dracarriela as her derby name. I recommend stocking up on garlic."

"She's okay, right?" asks Tiff.

Hannah nods. "Yeah, but they didn't let her finish the bout. They almost didn't even let her stay to watch, and one of the refs wanted to just call it then and send everyone home. About a quarter of the audience fled outright when she started moving toward the stands."

I massage my temples. "There's not much I can do to deal with fliers. I was hoping that kid from yesterday was the only one. What was it like, Hannah?"

"What do you mean?"

"The way she flew. Did it seem like she was bending gravity around her, or like some force was lifting her externally, or was the lifting internal, or... I don't know. What did it seem like?"

She shrugs. "I did feel lighter when I got close, so maybe it was gravity. It seemed like it was centered on her torso, based on how she moved when I grabbed her."

I nod and resume working on my Pepper Fist, grumbling to myself about fliers and not having a GeckoHook. A comm system that can't be tracked back to the Wheelhouse is more important, but having the GeckoHook would be really handy. As it is right now, if I run into some flying bad guy, they could haul me up into the air and then drop me and there'd be nothing I could do about it. Of course, even a perfectly designed grappling system can't help if I'm falling where there aren't any buildings or cliff faces for it to snag. At terminal velocity, the minimum safe stopping distance is something like twenty meters, and that's assuming your equipment can withstand decelerating you at nine gees for the better part of a second. Downtown Forchester has plenty of buildings that size, but if I'm over a subdivision or something? Splat. Still, it would be really handy downtown, and even elsewhere in Forchester when dropped from lower heights.

Well, no use dwelling on what I can't help. Besides, the best thing to do is just not be carried into the air in the first place, or at least get them to drop me right away, before they can gain any real altitude. Meanwhile, I've finished my Pepper Fist and it's time to go out and patrol. Besides the normal stuff and potential supervillains, I also need to start trying to track down Terence in particular. He's angry with George, not Wheels, and I don't want him attacking my school, home, or friends to get to me.

The people of Forchester are nervous tonight, but I don't actually encounter any trouble until nearly two hours into my patrol when my lucky indigestion saves me from skating right into a machete. The sharp blade biting into the crown of my helmet as I bend over to clutch my gut almost knocks me over before the machete comes free. I straighten up and pivot to see a pale guy in red socks drawing back for another swing.

"Don't you guys know you're dead yet?" I mutter as I deflect the blow with my baton.

"The taint in your blood clouds your vision! Hemopalooza pulses with life!"

I allow the momentum from the blow to send me rolling backwards on my skates. He tries charging at me, but I shift a finger over to give him a dose of pepper spray while I veer out of the way. The Hemothug clutches his eyes with one hand and coughs, but the arm holding the machete just flails more frantically as he stumbles toward me. I sigh and go to work with my baton.

As I straighten up from securing the Hemothug a little while later, I hear the sound of something heavy striking a palm. I look over my shoulder. Two bald guys approaching, one with a bat and one with a blackjack. "Oh come on! What is this, the night of the zombie gangs?"

The Cueballs give no reaction as they walk toward me, continuing to brandish their weapons. I don't recognize either of them; they must be some of the minions who weren't involved in the Tamara plot. A sack of ball bearings, a couple squirts of pepper spray, and some baton application later, I've got them zip-tied to a pipe well away from where I secured the Hemothug. I'm just beginning to move toward the end of the alley when five Asian guys block one end and two black men approach from behind, all with guns drawn but not raised. They're shooting some pretty hard glares at each other though.

I begin edging toward the nearest wall and moving a hand toward a cargo pocket. "Really, guys? You could have picked any alley to fight each other in, and you picked the one with the hero in it?"

"Wen wan sutonu killsu two birudso, Buttahfulai sumailusu."

I roll my eyes. "Nice fake accent, Kevin. Been practicing it? By the way, throwing stones at dinosaurs is a bad idea. Just ask Chief Carlson's ghost."

Kevin's face twists into a scowl, but one of the Dream Enforcers clears his throat and speaks before the Butterfly can respond. "We are not here for you, Wheels." He glares at the Butterflies. "It has come to our attention that the Flies were working with Pharmedica, for which some of us have... personal grievances." He tilts his head toward his companion and it occurs to me that the guy looks vaguely familiar. I'm pretty sure I saw him beneath Pharmedica. The speaker's eyes flick to the downed Cueballs and his expression shifts into a disappointed sneer. "You have caused enough disruption to this operation already, Wheels. For your actions last weekend, we will reluctantly allow you this opportunity to leave in one piece. I suggest you take it."

I turn back to the Butterflies. Now that I think about it, there were very few Asians locked up in Pharmedica's facility. The list of people known to be quarantined over Tolman's Flu more or less matches Forchester's demographics, but Tolman's Flu only accounts for about a third of Pharmedica's prisoners. The rest were either taken off the street or diverted from prisons and juvie. And I haven't forgotten Mr. Seeley's accusations regarding the missing prostitutes. I've been prioritizing interfering with the Dream Enforcers lately since they generally cause more actual harm to people, but if the Butterflies have been secretly engaging in human trafficking I'll need to reevaluate those priorities.

Anyway, far be it from me to stop my enemies from fighting each other for me. If they're going to let me just roll on out of here-

"Sutay uwhere you aru!" shouts Kevin when I push away from the wall. "You notto esucaypo liku the chicken! Buttahfulai killsu all birudso!" He and his cohorts raise their weapons as my stomach flips and I hit the deck. Even as I'm diving into an alcove, I whip my hand out of my pocket and fling the tear gas canister I've been fingering this whole time toward the Butterflies.

At the same time, I hear a loud snapping noise and the alley is illuminated by cold, flickering white light as arcs of electricity fly out from the Dream Enforcer who didn't talk, the familiar looking one. They fork and splinter down the alley into the billowing tear gas, which they light up creepily from within, and then suddenly everything is dark with negative image arcs haunting my retinas as I wait for my vision to clear.

I hear the Dream Enforcers scuffling down the alley, but there is no sound from the Butterflies. No feet slapping the pavement, no swearing, no whimpering, nothing. The Enforcers are past me and halfway to the other end by the time I peek out and see the one who shot the lightning disappear into the cloud of tear gas. The other one stands outside it, his face in his elbow, and waits. Mr. McBugZapper steps out of the cloud about a minute later looking unaffected and grimly satisfied, and the two walk back down the alley and leave, not even glancing at me.

I let them leave. Sure, I'm willing to throw down with people who have superpowers, if I have to to protect other people, but it would be pointless right now. I don't remember ever seeing McBugZapper before Pharmedica, so he's not one of the more violent, troublesome members of the Dream Enforcers. For all I know, he's going to go home and live a peaceful productive life after tonight. Having superpowers isn't a crime, and being in a gang isn't technically a crime, usually. If I see or hear of him doing anything but taking out my enemies for me, things will change, but until then... I'd rather not risk it.

If I were to fight him, though, I think I'd do it by staying as close as possible to his buddy, in hopes that he wouldn't risk friendly fire. That's assuming I couldn't catch him by surprise, of course. And if I had a chance to plan ahead, I'd add rubber to my armor. Though as far as that goes, my skates should keep me pretty well insulated on their own. Much better so than sneakers. Of course, that's assuming normal physics apply, which they clearly do not when somebody can hurl directed lightning down an alley. It should have arced to the ground or walls, not traveled all the way to the Butterflies. So maybe being insulated from the ground wouldn't matter at all...

Anyway, I have more important things to worry about: all this excitement has set my stomach to growling again. Also? Hanging around an alley where five potentially dead Butterflies are lying in a cloud of tear gas is probably a bad idea. Onwards to The Shifty Taco!

I'm cruising up Red Heather Street toward satisfaction when the hungry rumblings in my stomach turn sour. I skid to a stop just in time to avoid being tackled by Paula as she lunges out of an alley with a stupid grin on her face. Okay, I was joking earlier about lucky indigestion, but now I'm really starting to wonder. Paula straightens up and tries to act like nothing happened. "Fight any supervillains tonight?"

I shake my head. "I might have seen one, but he wasn't really doing anything wrong. I mean, sure, he may have self-defensed some Butterflies to death with lightning, but they were bad guys and maybe working with Pharmedica? And there weren't any civilians to endanger or anything, so I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt for now."

"That's off the record, I assume?"

"Very much so. Could we, um, do this later? I was kind of on my way to-"

"I have a better idea." She points down the alley she just burst out of. "That alley's empty and there's a good, dark shadow past the dumpster. Go change out of your costume and we can talk over tacos inside the restaurant. Like civilized people."

"Civilized people don't tell other people how to dress."

"Tell that to the school board."

"Those aren't people."

"Touché."

Several minutes later we're sitting at the cleanest of The Shifty Taco's mostly not so clean booths munching on the best tacos in the world. Or at least the county. I haven't exactly traveled outside of Forchester very much, but I can definitely tell you that nothing nearby compares. Taco Tom's makes a valiant effort, but it just isn't the same. "I think it's like with New York and pizza."

"What?"

"People always say that New York pizzas taste better because of how the yeast reacts to the unique balance of minerals in their water. Well, I bet The Shifty Taco makes the best tacos because of the unique bacteria content in their 'unsanitary' kitchen. It's the secret ingredient."

"That's disgusting, George. Can we get back to the interview?" She lowers her voice so that Zack -- the cashier and only other person outside of the kitchen -- won't be able to hear us over Mexican rap music he's got playing. "Before you zoned out, I was asking you why you picked yellow as your color?"

"Oh, right." I point to a taco shell. "Yellow is the best color, that's why. Tacos, bananas, cheese, sunshine, tacos-"

The door slams open and a pair of familiar looking boys around my age stride in. The bigger, thuggish looking one rolls his eyes and leans on the wall while the other one struts up to Zack and shakes his fist. "I demand my tribute in one dozen hardshell beef tacos!" Zack yawns and rings up the order, but when he mumbles something about payment, the punk punches him in the face. "The Fist of Doom pays for nothing! Nothing, worm! You will feed us and consider yourself lucky to have tasted only a mild dose of my wrath!"

Ah, now it clicks. That's Dillan and his exasperated brother, who is currently rubbing his temples. I grab a hot sauce packet and amble over. "You think you're too good to pay the Taco, bub?" Dillan turns to swing at me, but I squirt hot sauce in his face, duck under his arm, and use his own motion to spin him around toward the door. A kick in the rear sends him into his brother's arms. "Get out. Both of you."

Dillan's not having it. He shoves himself away from his brother and spins to face me with a knife. "Little worm wants to dance? I'll- Argh!"

I grab his wrist and twist it around behind his back sharply, but he drops the knife before I can make him stab himself with it. Probably for the best. I do manage to shift him over and use him to block a punch from his brother, who pulls it at the last minute to avoid breaking Dillan's nose. Then Paula's beside me aiming a canister of Mace at Bro McThug. His eyes flick between that and my snarl, then he sighs and backs away, keeping his hands visible and away from his pockets. I look McThug in the eye. "You had your chance to get him out of here. Now this is going to become the police's prob-" Suddenly, Dillan is glowing. "Why are you glowing?" I ask him. All of his skin is shining with a pale blue light, but nothing else seems to be happening.

Dillan laughs. "I am an invincible force of destruction! Now release me or you will feel the wrath of Dillan's Fist of-" I wrench his arm up a bit further and he grunts in pain. The glow intensifies slightly, but nothing else happens. I try bending his arm a little further, but he just rises up on his tiptoes and whimpers a little; the glow stays the same.

Dillan's brother runs his hand through his hair. "Hey man, uh, look, I dunno if you've been keeping up with things, but could we do this without the cops? Last time they give Dillan to a bunch of sick freaks who tried to science the stupid out of him. It was like some messed up Nazi stuff, you know? He's an idiot, but he don't deserve that."

I glance at Paula then back at BroDillan. "He was in that Pharmedica mess?"

"Yeah, those guys. I know Sheriff Drake's been rounding up a bunch of dirty cops, but still, they might notta gotten all of 'em, and I ain't heard nothing about them taking care of the bad judges, you know? Or the mayor? An' that was before Dilly here could glow. Them science freaks get hold of him now, I might neve get him back. So could you maybe, like, not give my bro right back to 'em?"

I sigh. The Eighth Amendment strikes again. "Fine, but if you don't want him getting arrested, maybe you should do a better job of keeping him from doing stupid things like this."

Dillan swats at me with his free arm. "I'm right here, guys!"

"Yeah, not for long." I haul him out the door and shove him off into the night. His brother follows, and I head back inside. "You okay, Zack?"

He groans through another yawn. "Yeah, I'll live. I think I'm starting to hallucinate though. Could have sworn that kid was glowing. And for a second I thought I saw..." He looks at Paula for a moment then shakes his head and yawns again. "Need to get more sleep, that's all. Lousy night shifts."

Paula and I return to our tacos and conversation. After a few more questions about my costume, she presses me for everything I can recall about the Pharmedica facility. That takes a while and we both get bogged down for a bit by bad emotions. My tacos and milkshake are long gone by the time we finish. "Alright, George, next question. Now, obviously I know who you are now, and I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that so do Joe and Hannah. What about Tiffany? And your mom? Your uncle? Your friends' parents? I'm just wondering who I need to watch my tongue around."

I frown at my taco wrappers and pop some spilled cheese in my mouth to nibble on while I think. "No. It's known that you've interviewed me. To people who don't know my identity yet, you're the most likely person who might know it, or at least have useful clues. If they decide to beat answers out of you, they're going to find out who I am along with your suspicions, but at least you won't be able to tell them definitively who else is involved. That might be the edge they need to escape."

Paula sighs. "Alright. At least you're not doing the whole 'keep people I care about distant to protect them' routine."

"Yeah, I've always hated stupid angsty plots like that."

"So..." she says as we dump our trash and head outside. "Speaking of people you care about..."

"...Yeah?"

"Well, back at Brianna's party you said something about being married to your job-"

"You've been talking to Hannah. Look, I don't need anyone setting me up with people! If I want a girlfriend, I'll go out and find a freaking girlfriend!"

"I haven't talked to Hannah at all, George. Not about you, anyway. I interviewed her about the 'protest' she organized Sunday night. That's all."

"Well, you can keep your meddling to yourself, either way! I refuse to push people away to keep them safe, but I'm not about to go pulling new people into it either. It would be unfair to them, and not just because of the danger. It's not like I have time for a relationship even if I-"

Paula grabs my head and shoves our faces together. Part of my attention splits off to keep myself from reflexively punching her in the gut, and part notes absently that she's a terrible kisser. The rest of me goggles. When she finally pulls back for air with a silly grin on her face, all I can do is blink in bewildered bewilderment. Because that is what I am right now. Bewildered, and maybe a bit giddy. Sorry if I'm not exactly eloquent; my brain is too busy rebooting.

"You're an idiot, George," Paula says with a wink before walking away into the night.

Eventually I pull myself together. "So, Job," I mumble as I head for the nearest alley to gear up again. "We've had a good marriage, and I'd like it to continue, but I think we're gonna need to have a serious talk about polyamory..."

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