"I let you drop it in a lake - you all saw that. Had some pretty awesome lifters on it, too."
"No cams tonight?" Kai said.
Aya shook her head. She was wearing the dorm uniform from the underwater rescue, which looked as scruffy as the Girls' reject clothing. She hoped its shabbiness made the spy-cam in its top button less obvious.
Moggle was more likely to give her away. She wasn't certain the hovercam's tiny brain understood the whole staying-hidden concept. Moggle could only track Aya's skintenna signal up to a kilometer, and it had never operated independently for hours at a time before, especially while chasing speeding mag-levs.
The distant rumble was audible now, the train a few minutes away.
"Aya-chan was pretty brave when we saw the freaks," Miki said. "And you all saw her surf. I trust her."
When Miki smiled, Aya felt her first unpleasant ping of deceitfulness. When she kicked this story, Frizz would know she'd lied to them all. She wondered if he'd understand.
"How about we hear from you, Aya-chan?" Kai asked. "Tell us why you want to be a Sly Girl."
Aya cleared her throat, nervous under Kai's plain-Jane stare, as brain-freezing as the train's rumble growing under her feet. What did they want her to say, anyway?
Suddenly, the words she'd said to Frizz that morning came back to her.
"Like you said, I was a kicker. Since I was a littlie, I wanted to be famous. I didn't want to watch other people on the feeds - I wanted them watching me. Because if they didn't, I was invisible."
A murmur went through the group, and Aya saw cold expressions everywhere. She kept talking, trying to ignore the tremors underfoot and the trickle of sweat rolling down her back.
"Don't get me wrong. I wasn't some ego-kicker, sitting in my room with a cam pointed at myself, talking about what my cat ate for breakfast." Someone laughed at that, and Aya managed a smile. "I was trying to find stories that mattered. People who were using the mind-rain to do something really kick ... I mean, really interesting. That's how I found you."
Aya was looking back at them now, meeting their stares one by one.
"And here's what I realized: You Sly Girls don't cry when you watch the big-face parties on the feeds, just because you weren't invited. You don't stay friends with people you hate, just to bump your face rank. And even though nobody knows what you're doing out here, you don't feel invisible at all. Do you?"
No one answered, but they were listening.
"Fame is radically stupid, that's all. So I want to try something else."
There was a silent, nervous-making moment... and then the tension broke. A few girls clapped, only half-sarcastically and Miki was grinning, nodding slowly. Aya had somehow found the right words.
The strange thing was, it hadn't even felt like lying.
They didn't bother with a vote, and no one congratulated her. Kai just slapped Aya on the back and jumped onto her hoverboard, shouting, "Surf's up! Let's go find out what those freaks are hiding!"
Then the thirteen of them were spinning into the air, rushing to reach their hiding places before the train thundered into view.
Just like that, Aya Fuse was a Sly Girl.
She wondered if Moggle had gotten the shot.
Catching the mag-lev was easier the second time.
She slipped through its shock wave like a needle, as if her body had learned to roll with the bumps and shudders of the air. Once inside the calm slipstream, she was on the roof and standing before the mag-lev line began to straighten.
The city fell behind, and as the darkness of the wild wrapped itself around the train, Aya began to realize how many sights she'd missed on her first panicked ride. Huge old trees shot past, as gnarled as some immortal crumbly Silhouetted flocks of birds rose up against the sky, scattered by the train's thundering passage. Once Aya recognized a snow monkey's scream in the roar of the wind - hardly dangerous and person-eating, but the thought of untamed animals out here sent a nervous shudder through her. Or maybe that was just the cold. Even wrapped inside two dorm jackets, a three-hundred-klick wind was shiver-making.
The ride was all contrasts: the dead-straight mag-lev line bisecting the knotted shapes of the forest; her fierce speed under the stillness of the sky; the mountains rising at a stately pace, punctuated by the nervous-making glimmer of decapitation warnings. But Aya felt the strange contentment again, as if her own troubles were an afterthought in the vastness of the wild.
The only worrying thing was Moggle. Even tracking her skintenna signal, the hovercam had to be falling farther behind with every minute. Ren's lifters couldn't fly more than a hundred klicks an hour - a third of the train's speed. Moggle would catch up once they jumped off, but Aya wasn't sure how long its little brain could function without her instructions. If it got confused enough, the hovercam might forget all about staying out of sight, and that would end Aya Fuse's career as a Sly Girl.
Of course, there was nothing she could do about that now - she was stuck with deception. She wondered if that was why Frizz had come up with Radical Honesty. If you never lied, you'd never feel this trickle of dread in your stomach, the worry of being unmasked.
The mountains grew closer, until Aya could see that their black peaks were marbled with snow, like slivers of pearl glistening in the moonlight. A red flicker came from the front of the train, then a string of decapitation warnings. Aya pulled out her own flashlight and twisted it red, waving to the Girls behind her.
She knelt to strap a crash bracelet around her ankle, then lay flat, waiting for the sudden darkness of the tunnel to swallow her.
This time there were no unscheduled stops.
The train shot straight through the mountain, in and out in a roaring fury that made Aya's ears pop like a quick hovercar descent. The hidden doorway must have flashed past in a fraction of a second, utterly invisible.
She remembered from her first ride that the next bend came up quickly. Ahead of her, Miki was already crawling toward the side of the train, readying to dismount. Aya headed toward where her hoverboard was stuck.
Getting off the train was trickier than getting on. In the city the grid was everywhere, but out here you had to stay close to the tracks. Too far out and magnetic lifters lost their grip on the metal, making boards and crash bracelets useless.
At two hundred klicks an hour, that would be deadly.
The train was slowing, a hum filling the air as it angled into the turn. Aya pulled her right wrist free, reaching out to slap it against her hoverboard.
The night before, she'd dismounted too cautiously, winding up much farther down the track than the rest of the Girls. This time she'd decided to be the first one to a dead stop.
Aya tugged at her board, and it released itself from the train, slowly turning from sideways to level. It fought the wind, steadying as the mag-lev slowed into the bend, and she slid Tier weight across onto the riding surface.
As the humming reached its crescendo, Aya angled gently away from the train, staying within arm's reach, inside the bubble of relative calm that flowed around it. Two meters out was the deadly shock wave zone.
The rushing wind thrashed at her hair, whipping the jackets into a frenzy, but Aya didn't lie flat - she let her body slow her down. The Sly Girl who'd been surfing just behind her shot past on her board, then another went by, then a third.
She was braking faster than all of them!
To her left the train's flank was thundering past now, its magnetic field sending shudders through the hoverboard. Aya fought to keep steady keeping close to the flashing metal wall of the train.
But maybe she was braking too quickly...
The rear of the train shot past, its wake yanking Aya into the suddenly empty space over the tracks now. Her board spun, earth and sky whirling around her.
She tried to pull herself flat, but the board bucked and twisted in her grip, like a kite in a gale.
"Let go!" someone shouted.
Aya obeyed - the board tumbled away from her. She fell toward the blur of metal tracks...
The magnets in her crash bracelets kicked in, yanking her up by both wrists. She flipped once head over heels, like a gymnast swinging from two rings, her feet barely missing the ground. She hover-bounced down the mag-lev tracks that way until her momentum was expended.
The bracelets set her down gently, facing the receding lights of the train. She rubbed her wrists, dizzy from spinning.
Aya looked up to find Eden Maru floating beside her, an amused expression on her face.
"I think so," Aya said.
"You shouldn't brake that fast."
"I noticed." Aya sighed. The night before, she'd watched Eden dismount from the tram. In her full hoverball rig she made it look easy, like rolling off a building in a bungee jacket. "Thanks for telling me to let go, I guess."
"You're welcome, I guess." Eden glanced down the tracks toward the receding train. "Your board will be back soon, along with the others. Slowing down takes longer if you don't wipe out."
Aya glared back at Eden's smile. She was so beautiful, and the only one of the Sly Girls with a big face rank. What did someone so famous get out of skulking around with a secret clique?
Maybe now was the time to find out. Aya straightened her uniform, angling the spy-cam toward Eden. "Can I ask you a question?"
"If it's not too nosey."
"You're not like the rest of them ... I mean, the rest of us. You're a big face in the city."
Eden did a slow midair spin. "That's not a question."
"I guess not." Aya remembered the rumors about Eden's ex-boyfriend. "But don't you and the Sly Girls have sort of a ... difference in ambition? You're a hoverball star, and they work so hard to be extras."
Eden snorted. "You would ask something lame like that. I bet you don't even know where that word comes from."
"Extras?" Aya shrugged. "It just means extra people, like superfluous."
"That's what they teach at littlie school. But it had a different meaning back in Rusty times."
"Well, sure," Aya said. "They had billions of extras back then."
Eden shook her head. "It had nothing to do with overpopulation, Aya-chan. You've seen old wallscreen movies, right?"
"Of course. That was how Rusties got famous."
"Yeah, but here's a weird thing: Rusty software wasn't smart enough to make backgrounds, so they had to build everything in the movie. They had whole fake cities for the actors to walk around in."
"Fake cities?"Aya said. "Wow, talk about waste."
"And to fill these fake cities, they hired hundreds of real people to walk around. But they weren't in the story at all. Just in the background. And they were called extras."
Aya raised an eyebrow, not sure if she believed any of this. It all sounded so crazy and out of proportion...which was, of course, very Rusty.
"Isn't that how you feel sometimes, Aya-chan?" Eden said. "Like there's a big story going on, and you're stuck in the background?"
"Everyone feels that way sometimes, I guess."
"And you'd do anything to make yourself feel bigger, wouldn't you? Even betray your friends?"
Aya set her jaw. "I'm a Sly Girl now, Eden. Didn't you hear?"
"Yeah, I head your little speech." Eden floated higher, looming over her like a giant. "I just hope you were telling the truth, because real life's not like some Rusty movie, Aya-chan. There's not just one big story that makes the rest of us disappear."
Aya narrowed her eyes. "But you're not in the background. You're famous!"
"You can disappear in front of a crowd, too, you know. Once they start telling you what to do, who to be friends with." Eden spun head over heels, a graceful version of Aya in her crash bracelets.