"Ouch. Quit saying that name," Aya said, then sighed. "I guess I didn't know that. My brother studies his meme-lines for hours, but my stories never get enough feedback to bother with."
"He's famous, isn't he?"
Aya nodded. "Very. That's probably why he's such a snob. He thinks my stories are stupid."
"They're not. That underground graffiti you kicked was beautiful."
"Oh, um, thanks." Aya felt a blush spill across her cheeks, astonished that Frizz had actually looked at her feed. "But that's just kid stuff. I'm working on something much bigger. Totally famous-making! It's about this secret clique, and they - "
Frizz held up his hand. "If it's a secret, you'd better not tell me. I'm not very good at keeping secrets."
"Right, because of your..." She resisted the urge to point at his head. It was strange - bubbleheads were the only brain surgers Aya had ever known, and Frizz didn't seem like a bubblehead at all. "But what does honesty have to do with keeping secrets?"
"Radical Honesty gets rid of all deception," Frizz recited, like he'd explained this a million times before. "I can't lie, truth-slant, or pretend not to know something. You can't even invite me to surprise parties, or I'll give it all away."
A laugh bubbled up in Aya. "But doesn't that make everything less...surprising?"
"You'd be surprised how often it makes things more surprising."
"Huh." She stared at the battle, wondering how many things she kept secret every day. "You can't hide yourself at all. That must be scary-making."
He turned to her. "Scary-making for me? Or everyone else?"
His gaze sent Aya's shivers scattering across her skin, and she felt a flush returning to her cheeks and a tingle in her spine. His honesty was scary-making! Her head spun with all the questions she was dying to ask, but wasn't sure she could stand the answers to. About why he was here, and what he thought of their difference in ambition.
"You like me, don't you?" she said.
He laughed. "Was I being too subtle?"
"No, I guess not. But it doesn't make sense...because you're so famous and I'm an extra! Plus I'm an ugly and you keep seeing me wearing stupid robes or covered in slime and when we met I lied about my nose!"
Aya sputtered to a halt, wondering where all those words had come from. They'd just gushed out of her, like bubbly from a shaken bottle, fizzing and undrinkable.
"Wow," she said. "Is Radical Honesty contagious or something?"
"Sometimes." Frizz was grinning. "It's an unexpected benefit."
Aya felt herself blushing and tore her eyes from him, staring out at the soccer fields. Only a handful of warbodies remained standing, battering each other with plastic swords and battle-axes. "But why do you like me?"
He reached out and took her hand, and the reputation shivers became a tightness in Aya's chest, as if she were underwater again, holding her breath.
"When I first saw you outside that party, you were on a mission - very intense. And then your hood fell back, and I thought, 'Wow, she's pretty brave to wear that awesome nose.'"
Aya groaned. "But I'm not brave - I was just born with it. So it was a kind of truth-slanting for me to say it was randomly generated."
"True. But by the time I realized that, I knew other things about you."
"Like I'm an extra and live in an ugly dorm?" she said. "And mislead people about my huge nose?"
"That you sneak into tech-head parties and go on underwater rescue missions. And that you kick great stories, even though they don't bump your face rank."
She sighed. "Yeah, my stories are really good at doing that."
"Of course they are." He shrugged. "They're too interesting."
"That doesn't even make sense." She looked at him. "If they're so interesting, why isn't anyone interested?"
His eyescreen flickered. "Have you seen Nana Love's feed lately? She's been picking her outfit for the Thousand Faces Party. Today it's: 'This hat? Or this hat?' Seventy thousand votes so far, and there's a hundred other feeds running commentary."
Aya rolled her eyes. Nana was a natural-born pretty, one of the vanishingly rare people who wouldn't have needed surgery even back in the Pretty time. Which was why she was the second-most-famous person in the whole city. "That doesn't count. Nana-chan can be interesting without trying."
He smiled. "And you can't?"
She stared into his huge eyes, and for once they didn't tangle up her brain, as if some barrier between them had disappeared.
Suddenly Aya knew what she really wanted to ask him.
"What's it like, being famous?"
Frizz shrugged. "Pretty much the same, except a lot more people joining my clique - and then leaving after a week."
"But before Radical Honesty got so big, didn't you ever feel like something was missing? Like looking at the city and feeling invisible? Or watching the feeds and almost crying, because you know all their names and they don't know yours? Feeling like you might disappear, because no one's heard of you?"
"Um, not really. Do you feel that way?"
"Of course! It's like that koan they tell in littlie school. If a tree falls and nobody's watching, then it doesn't make a sound, like one hand clapping. You have to be seen before you really exist!"
"Um, I think that's two koans, actually. And I'm not sure that's the point of either."
"But come on, Frizz! You haven't been famous that long, you must remember how horrible it was to ..." Aya stammered to a halt, trying to read the look on his face. His radiant smile was gone.
"This is an odd conversation," he said.
Aya blinked. Ten minutes of Radical Honesty and already she'd been too honest.
"I'm being a total extra, aren't I?" She sighed. "Just sign me up for Radical Stupidity."
He laughed. "You're not stupid, Aya. And you're not invisible to me."
She tried to smile. "Just mysterious?"
"Well, not so much anymore. Verging on obvious."
"You know, about fame, and the way it makes you feel."
Aya swallowed. Obvious. That's what she was, in his radically honest opinion. Way too late, she remembered another thing they taught in littlie school: Complaining about your face rank to other extras was okay, but you didn't talk this way in front of anyone famous.
She turned away, staring out at the soccer fields, knowing that if she looked into Frizz's eyes again she'd say something else stupid. Or he'd blurt out more about what he was thinking, which would probably be worse. Maybe the feeds were right about differences in ambition, that big faces and extras should never get too close. There was too much opportunity for embarrassment.
The mech battle was over, and lifter drones were carting off the last few warbodies. Littlies were lining up in front of Akira Hall for their next activity.
"Oh, crap," she said. "What time is it?"
"I have to go!" She jumped up. "Littlie-watching duty. I'd skip it, but..." i need the merits, she thought.
Frizz still sat cross-legged on the hoverboard, his face clouded. "It's okay. You shouldn't break promises."
Aya bowed good-bye, wondering if this time he was glad to see her running away. She tried to think of something to say, but it all sounded too embarrassing in her head.
So she called for Moggle and dashed toward the dorm, hoping she wasn't late.
Something was pinging...
Aya emerged from a deep and sticky sleep, fighting dizzy-making waves of exhaustion. A noise was poking at her ears again and again, demanding her attention.
Even with her eyes closed, she could see a wake-up signal flashing in her eyescreen. It was blinking and making an earsplitting sound, warning her that it was almost midnight.
Aya squeezed a fist to silence the alarm, groaning. She'd meant to nap this afternoon, but thanks to her brain-damaging conversation with Frizz, the littlie-watching shift, and an hour spent spraying Moggle with black camo paint, she hadn't crawled into bed till ten.
Less than two hours' sleep.
But she forced herself to sit up, remembering how famous tonight could make her. For a reminder, she glanced at her pathetic face rank of 451,611 in the corner of her vision.
Moggle rose from the floor, and the hovercam's point of view delicately overlaid her vision, a ghostly second sight perfectly balanced with her own.
Aya smiled. She wouldn't miss any eye-kicking shots tonight.
"Ready to go?" she whispered.
Moggle flashed its lights, and Aya winced. Thirty-six hours underwater hadn't cured the hovercam's bad habits.
She felt her way to the window, blinking away spots, and climbed onto the sill. Her eyes adjusted slowly, until the city lights made her throat tighten - the usual obscurity-panic, much worse now that she'd embarrassed herself in front of Frizz. All she'd meant to say was he didn't have to worry, because she was going to be famous too. But she'd wound up sounding as face-missing as a new ugly with her first feed. Obvious, he'd said.
It was pointless getting depressed about it, though. Fame wasn't like beauty, where you had to wait till you were sixteen, or get lucky like Nana Love and be born with it. Fame you could make yourself.
Once this story kicked, face rank wouldn't be an issue between her and Frizz anymore. She was certain of it.
Moggle drifted out the window, brushing against her shoulder, and Aya smiled as she wrapped her arms around the hovercam. She was glad to be headed somewhere away from the city lights.
Someplace mysterious enough that Frizz would go back to being amazed at her, once he found out all the things she'd done.
She pushed out herself out into the cold night air.
"Before we get started," Jai said, "we have some business. First item is my name; someone's been talking about me where the city interface can hear."
A few of the Sly Girls looked down sheepishly.
Jai clicked at them with her tongue. "That's right. I woke up this morning and my face rank was almost out of the bottom thousand. That means the city's starting to track my nickname again. Time to change it."
Aya raised an eyebrow. So that was how they kept their face ranks down, by changing nicknames - the same way Ren and Hiro concealed their obsessive hatred of the Nameless One.
"From now on, my name is Kai. Everybody got that? Good. And now for item number two."
Kai turned toward Aya, who felt a tingle roll down her spine.
"Our new friend is with us again," Kai said. "Anybody got a problem with that?"
A nervous-making silence fell, and Aya heard the distant rumble of a train on its way. On either side of her, the rails glowed a soft warning, looking hot to the touch, like the elements inside the hole in the wall after it fabricated something big. But none of the Sly Girls seemed to notice, as if the middle of the mag-lev tracks was where they always held their business meetings.
Aya couldn't even use Moggle to keep watch for the train. The hovercam was somewhere out among the industrial buildings, stalking her, but she had its point of view turned off to keep telltale flickers from her eye.
"Isn't she a kicker?" someone muttered.
Kai looked at Aya, waiting for an answer.
She cleared her throat. "I used to be. But I was never a big face. I didn't feel like kicking what Nana Love was wearing." A few of them laughed.
"But you still go around with a hovercam?" someone else said. Her name was Pana, Aya remembered. With their generic faces, she had trouble telling the Sly Girls apart - but Pana was taller than the rest of them, nearly Eden's height.