Page 15 of Extras (Uglies 4)

She slapped Aya on her sore shoulder, then new back to the matter hacker and began reopening the door.

SLIME QUEEN


Aya slept through her alarm the next morning, missing Advanced English and two kinds of math.

By the time she awoke, the sun was streaming into her window, a despair-making sight. Missed classes meant stacks of merits gone missing, enough damage to keep her at zero for a month.

But as she lay in bed, staring at the ceiling and rubbing the aches and bruises of last nights adventure, it occurred to Aya that merits wouldn't matter much longer. Once her Sly Girls story hit the feeds, she'd be too famous to bother with exams, dorm chores, and littlie-watching jobs - they'd all be as worthless as the moldy displays of Rusty money in the city museum.

A big face rank meant you didn't have to worry about impressing the Good Citizen Committee.

All you had to do was stay famous, which, as ego-kickers liked to say, was much easier than getting that way in the first place.

Aya rubbed her eyes. She'd fallen asleep reviewing shots downloaded from Moggle and her button cam: hours of mag-lev surfing, mysterious tunnels, and hard-edged Sly Girls spilling the secrets of their clique. All of it very kickable.

It was almost too much to work with, more complicated than any story Aya had ever attempted before. Hiro always said that no matter how eye-kicking the shots, people got bored after ten minutes.

How was she supposed to squeeze secret hideouts, skinny aliens, and crazy Sly Girl stunts down to that?

She could do ten minutes on mag-lev surfing alone!

Of course, most shots of any story wound up in the background layer, so other kickers could use them later, or check to see if you were truth-slanting, like Rusty feeds always had. But if Aya was going to betray the Sly Girls, she owed it to them to show how amazing they really were, not hide their best tricks where only a few feed-addicts would ever see them.

Lying there, she wondered about breaking the story up into a series. Last summer Hiro had kicked a ten-part cycle about people hurting themselves to become famous: cutters, self-starvation, the people trying to grow tobacco to smoke. But the thought of creating something that intricate - weaving characters in and out, recapping themes without being repetitious - was too overwhelming.

The inhuman-looking figures were the worst part. Aliens were totally unbelievable, especially since Aya didn't have any shots of them. She might as well put unicorns in the story.

She turned her eyescreen on, and saw that Ren was at Hire's. He'd know what to do, and maybe Hiro would even help, now that Aya could prove that the Sly Girls were real.

She was about to call Ren when her voice caught -  hundreds of messages were spilling across her vision, almost all of them from strangers. For some reason she'd been ping-bashed the night before.

Then a familiar name caught her eye - Frizz Mizuno.

Aya hesitated. What if he was writing to say something radically honest, like he'd made a terrible mistake in liking her? Or that Aya Fuse was a face-missing extra that nobody would want to hang out with, much less someone famous and beautiful?

There was only one way to find out. She opened the ping.

Swarmed by hovercams today!

And I just figured out why.

Oops...I'm so sorry.

- Frizz

Aya frowned. Why was he apologizing, when she'd been the totally brain-missing one yesterday?

And what did he mean about hovercams? Then she noticed that the ping ended with a feed kick, and a trickle of nerves started in her stomach.

She followed the kick, and one of the fashion-slammer feeds blossomed across her vision...

The shot had been taken yesterday, right after she'd rescued Moggle. There she was in her dorm uniform, covered with muck and slime and talking to Frizz beside the Akira Hall soccer fields. Even through the grainy minicam lens he was as beautiful as ever, sitting cross-legged on his hoverboard. But Aya looked like she'd just crawled out of a sewer.

The caption read: Who's the ugly making slime with frizz Mizuno?

Aya closed her eyes. Not this...not now.

The worst thing was, she should have known this would happen. Frizz had just started a new clique and was rocketing up the face ranks. Paparazzi cams probably trailed him everywhere, but she'd been so addled by his attention that being careful had never occurred to her.

Just when she was trying to stay incognito, here she was burning up the feeds.

Aya watched the shot again; at least you couldn't hear what she and Frizz were saying, and Moggle had been off chasing plastic missiles and war wheels.

And it was just a stupid slammer feed, the kind of story that Aya glanced at, laughed about, then promptly forgot every day. She should just ignore it. ...

But for some reason Aya couldn't stop herself. She glanced through the shots in the background layer, dozens of them, all just as hideous. Of course, whoever had kicked them hadn't bothered to show her after she'd taken a shower. Where was the fun in that?

And the worst part was reading the web of conversations flowing outward from the images, a thousand joking captions and slams and stupid theories: that Radical Honesty surge had given Frizz some kind of brain damage, that he had a thing for big noses, that a new species of girlfriend had crawled from the sewers.

Late last night, an anonymous resident from Akira Hall had recognized Aya and rekicked to her feed, but by then the fact that she had a name hardly mattered. Everyone was having too much fun calling her "Slime Queen."

Aya lay back on her bed, wondering how people could be so integrity-challenged, sending hovercams to sneak shots of people. Like Ren had said yesterday, slammer feeds were for unkick idiots.

Most of them were probably just jealous, annoyed that Frizz liked her, an ugly extra, instead of some other big face.

But no matter how much Aya dismissed them in her mind, it didn't help that they all were brain-missing and petty. For some reason, what they said still hurt.

A soft chime sounded in her ear, and she groaned -  probably more ping-bashing from one of Slime Queen's new fans. But when the sender's name appeared, she sat bolt upright.

"Frizz?"

"Hey, Aya-chan. Um, have you seen the feeds this morning?"

She lay back down and sighed. "Yes. Slime Queen at your service."

"I'm so sorry, Aya. I haven't gotten used to this whole paparazzi thing yet. It didn't occur to me that - "

"It's not your fault, Frizz. I should have known better." She sighed. "Hiro's been famous since his first story. I knew the rules. I just forgot them when I saw you waiting for me."

There was a moment of silence, then he said, "That's happy-making, I suppose."

For the first time since waking up, Aya felt something besides the awfulness of being ambushed.

At least Frizz wasn't calling to say how lame she was. "Yeah, I guess so."

"Why don't you come over? We can go on a picnic or something."

"I thought you were cam-swarmed."

"Totally, but so what?" Frizz said. "It's a chance for people to see you without the, you know, slime factor." He giggled.

"But I can't. Remember that story I'm working on? It's still a secret."

"So we won't talk about it. It's not like I know anything."

"But the clique I'm kicking, they have this crazy brain condition about fame - they hate any whiff of it. If they see me out cam-grubbing with you, they're going to get suspicious."

"Suspicious of what? That you like picnics?"

"Frizz," Aya groaned. "I'm incognito, remember? The clique doesn't know I'm doing a story on them."

There was a long pause. "Wait a second ... I thought it was just secret from other kickers, but it's secret from the clique, too?"

"Yeah. They don't know I'm a kicker."

"You mean you're doing the same thing to them that just happened to us? Taking shots without telling them?"

Aya's mouth opened, then shut again, her words tangling in her head. Finally all she managed was, "It's completely different!"

"How is it different?"

"I'm not slamming them, Frizz - I'm showing how kick they are! This story's going to make them famous!"

"But I thought you said they hated fame."

"They do but...," Aya started, but her words got snarled again. Frizz's Radical Honesty was crazy-making! Sometimes it was like he was from some face-missing city.

"I need to think about this, Aya," he said softly.

"You need to ... what?"

"Sorry, but it's strange for me, all this incognito stuff. But it sounds like you have to stay clear of me anyway. So maybe we should back off a while."

For a moment Aya wanted to argue, or even to rush out and see him, hovercams or not. But she couldn't just blow her cover. Things were already bad enough with her name all over the feeds.

Maybe he was right about holding off for a few days, even if it was very unhappy-making to admit it.

"Are you sure, Frizz?"

"Yes. I need to think about this. It's hard to know what kind of person you are sometimes."

Aya clenched her fists, grasping for something to say. Now Frizz thought she was some brain-missing slammer! If only she could explain to him that this story was more important than the Sly Girls' privacy; whatever was hidden in that mountain could be dangerous.

But thanks to his Radical Honesty and his fame, anything she told him would be on the feeds the next day. She didn't dare.

Finally they said good-bye, and the connection went dead.

Aya lay there, deleting mocking pings, growing more miserable every second. Maybe avoiding Frizz was already pointless. What if one of the Sly Girls stumbled on the Slime Queen story? Would they blame Aya for her sudden spurt of fame? It wasn't her fault that Frizz was famous and beautiful and a total hovercam-magnet...

Exactly the sort of boyfriend she would've killed to have a week ago.

Aya frowned, realizing that this was the first morning since littlie days that she hadn't checked her face rank -  and for once it might have risen. She blanked the fashion-slammer feed, clearing away the meme-lines and gossip threads that cluttered her eyescreen, until she could see her little corner of shame.

She sat there for a moment, staring at it, not sure what to think.

Her face rank hovered at 26,213 - much higher than she'd ever been before. At long last, Aya Fuse was famous.

For being slimy.

MASS DRIVER

There were hovercams lurking in front of Akira Hall.

The Slime Queen story was already fading - there were much bigger faces to slam in the city, after all - but Aya decided to be careful. A few more days of obscurity and she'd be happy with all the cam-swarming she got.

Arms wrapped around Moggle, she jumped out a fifth-story back window, landing hard in the dorm's new chrysanthemum garden. A monitor drone chirped at Aya angrily - she'd crushed a flower flat into the mud.

This wasn't going to be a good day for merits, it seemed.

"Get my board, Moggle," she said. "But don't let any of those cams see you."

Moggle spun away toward the hoverboard racks, pausing to peer around the corner. After last night's adventure, it was finally getting the hang of sneaking.

Aya scanned the forest as she waited, wondering if any paparazzi cams were hidden among the trees. Her skin prickled as she imagined being watched. Was this what it felt like being Kai? Skulking around all the time, nervous of any whiff of a reputation? It seemed like a paranoia-making way to live.

Moggle reappeared with her board in tow, and Aya jumped on.

"See you at Hire's," she ordered.

Moggle flashed, then shot ahead into the forest, toward the famous part of town.

"Hey, Slime Queen!"

Aya groaned. "Let me in, Hiro. Someone might recognize me."

"But how could they? You're not wearing your raiment of slime."

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