A small blob broke off and floated past. Aya grimaced, smelling rice and salmon. Eating strange substances might be a great way to bump your face rank, but she preferred her sushi heavier than air.
She liked being around tech-heads, though, even if she had to hide. Most of the city was still stuck in the past, trying to rediscover haiku, religion, the tea ceremony - all the things that had been lost in the Prettytime, when everyone had been brain-damaged. But tech-heads were building the future, making up for three centuries of missing progress.
This was the place to find stories.
Something in her eyescreen sent a flicker of recognition through her.
"Hold it, Moggie!" she hissed. "Pan left."
There behind the NeoFoodies, watching with amusement as they chased down stray bloblets, was a familiar face.
"That's one of them! Zoom in."
The girl was about eighteen, classic new-pretty surge with slightly manga eyes. She was wearing a hoverball rig, floating gracefully ten centimeters above the floor. And she had to be famous: A reputation bubble surrounded her, a cohort of friends and groupies to keep extras away.
"Get close enough to hear them," Aya whispered. Moggie eased to the edge of the bubble, and soon its microphones caught the girl's name. Data spilled across Aya's eye-screen...
Eden Maru was a hoverball player - left wing for the Swallows, who'd been city champions last year. She was also legendary for her lifter mods.
According to all the feeds, Eden had just dumped her boyfriend because of "a difference in ambition." Of course, that was just code for "she got too famous for him." Eden's face rank had hit ten thousand after the championship, and what's-his-name's was stuck at a quarter million. Everyone knew she needed to hook up with someone more face-equal.
But none of the rumors mentioned Eden's new mag-lev riding clique. She must be keeping that a secret, waiting for the right moment to reveal the trick.
Kicking it first would make Aya famous overnight.
"Track her," she told Moggie, then went back to chanting.
Half an hour later, Eden Maru headed out.
Slipping away from the Bombers was bliss-making - Aya had chanted the name "Yoshio Nara"
about a million times. She hoped Yoshio enjoyed his pointless face rank bump, because she never wanted to hear his name again.
From Moggies midair view, Eden Maru was slipping through the door - alone, no entourage.
She had to be headed off to meet her secret clique.
"Stay close to her, Moggie," Aya croaked. All that chanting had left her throat dry. She spotted a drinks tray hovering past. "I'll catch up in a minute."
Grabbing a glass at random, Aya guzzled it down. The alcohol sent a shudder through her - not exactly what she needed. She snatched another drink with lots of ice and pushed her way toward the door.
A gaggle of pixel-skins stood in her way, their bodies rippling through colors like drunken chameleons. She slipped among them, recognizing a couple of their faces from the surge-monkey feeds.
A little reputation shiver went through her.
Out on the mansion steps Aya spilled the drink out through her fingers, saving the ice cubes. She tipped the glass back into her mouth and started crunching. After the sweltering party a mouthful of ice was heavenly.
"Interesting surge," someone said.
Aya froze...her hood had fallen back, revealing her ugly face.
"Um, thanks." The words came out muffled, and Aya gulped down cold shards of ice. The breeze hit her sweaty face, and she realized how fashion-missing she must look.
The boy smiled. "Where did you get the idea for that nose?"
Aya managed to shrug, suddenly word-missing. In her eyescreen she could see Eden Maru already flying across town, but tearing her gaze from the boy was impossible. He was a manga-head: eyes huge and glistening, his delicate face inhumanly beautiful. Long, tapered fingers stroked his perfect cheek as he stared at her.
That was the weird thing: He was staring at her.
But he was gorgeous, and she was ugly.
"Let me guess," he said. "From some pre-Rusty painting?"
"Uh, not really" She touched her nose, swallowing the last few shards of ice. "It's more, um...randomly generated?"
"Of course. It's so unique." He bowed. "Frizz Mizuno."
As Aya returned the bow, her eyescreen displayed his face rank: 4,612. A reputation shiver went through her, the realization that she was talking to someone important, connected, meaningful.
He was waiting for Aya to give her own name. And once she did that, he'd know her face rank, and then his wonderful gaze would turn somewhere more interesting. Even if in some logic-missing, mind-rain way he liked her ugly face, being an extra was simply pathetic.
Besides, her nose was way too big.
She twisted a crash bracelet to call her hoverboard. "My name's Aya. But I kind of ... have to go now."
He bowed. "Of course. People to see, reputations to bomb."
Aya laughed, looking down at the robe. "Oh, this. I'm not really...I'm sort of incognito."
"Incognito?" His smile was eye-kicking. "You're very mysterious."
Her board slipped up next to the stairs. Aya stared down at it, hesitating. Moggie was already half a kilometer away, trailing Eden Maru through the darkness at high speed, but part of her was screaming to stay.
Because Frizz was still gazing at her.
"I'm not trying to be mysterious," she said. "It's just working out that way."
He laughed. "I want to know your last name, Aya. But I think you're purposely not telling me."
"Sorry," she squeaked, and stepped onto the board. "But I have to go after someone. She's sort of... getting away."
He bowed, his smile broadening. "Enjoy the chase."
She leaned forward and shot into the darkness, his laughter in her ears.
Eden Maru knew how to fly.
Full-body lifter rigs were standard gear for hoverball players, but most people never dared to wear them. Each piece had its own lifter: the shin and elbow pads, even the boots in some rigs. One wrong twitch of your fingers could send all those magnets in different directions, which was an excellent way to dislocate a shoulder, or send you spinning headfirst into a wall. Unlike falling off a hoverboard, crash bracelets wouldn't save you from your own clumsiness.
But none of this seemed to worry Eden Maru. In Aya's eyescreen, she was zigzagging through the new construction site, using the half-finished buildings and open storm drains as her private obstacle course.
Even Moggie, who was stuffed with lifters and only twenty centimeters across, was finding it tricky keeping up.
Aya tried to focus on her own hoverboarding, but she was still half-hypnotized by Frizz Mizuno, dazzled by his attention. Since the mind-rain had broken down the boundaries between ages, Aya had talked to plenty of pretties. It wasn't like the old days, when your friends never talked to you after they got the operation. But no pretty had ever looked at her that way.
Or was she kidding herself? Maybe Frizz's intense gaze made everyone feel this way. His eyes were so huge, just like the old Rusty drawings that manga-heads based themselves on.
She was dying to ask the city interface about him. She'd never seen him on the feeds, but with a face rank below five thousand, Frizz had to be known for something besides eye-kicking beauty.
But for now Aya had a story to chase, a reputation to build. If Frizz was ever going to look at her that way again, she couldn't be so face-missing.
Her eyescreen began to flicker. Moggie's signal was fading, falling out of range of the city network as it followed Eden underground.
The signal shimmered with static, then went dark...
Aya banked to a halt, a shudder passing through her. Losing Moggie was always unnerving, like looking down on a sunny day to find her shadow gone.
She stared at the last image the hovercam had sent: the inside of a storm dram, grainy and distorted by infrared. Eden Maru was curled up tight, a human cannonball zooming through the confines of the tunnel, headed so deep that Moggie's transmitter couldn't reach the surface anymore.
The only way to find Eden again was to follow her down.
Aya leaned forward, urging her hoverboard back into motion. The new construction site rose up around her, dozens of iron skeletons and gaping holes.
After the mind-ram, nobody wanted to live in fashion-missing Prettytime buildings. Nobody famous, anyway. So the city was expanding wildly, plundering nearby Rusty ruins for metal. There were even rumors that the city planned to tear open the ground to look for fresh iron, like the earth-damaging Rusties had three centuries ago.
The unfinished towers flashed past, their steel frames making her board shudder. Hoverboards needed metal below them to fly, but too many magnetic fields made them shivery. Aya eased back her speed, checking for Moggie again.
Nothing. The hovercam was still underground.
A huge excavation came into sight, the foundation of some future skyscraper. Along its raw dirt floor, puddles of afternoon rain reflected the starlit sky, like jagged slivers of mirror.
In a corner of the excavation she spotted a tunnel mouth, an entry to the network of storm drams beneath the city.
A month ago, Aya had kicked a story about a new graffiti clique, uglies who left artwork for future generations. They painted the insides of unfinished tunnels and conduits, letting their work be sealed up like time capsules. No one would see the paintings until long after the city collapsed, when its ruins were rediscovered by some future civilization. It was all very mind-rain, a rumination about how the eternal Prettytime had been more fragile than it seemed.
The story hadn't bumped Aya's face rank - stories about uglies never did - but she and Moggie had spent a week playing hide-and-seek through the construction site. She wasn't afraid of the underground.
Letting her board drop, Aya ducked past idle lifter drones and hoverstruts, diving toward the tunnel mouth. She bent her knees, pulled in her arms, and plunged into absolute blackness...
Her eyescreen flickered once - the hovercam had to be nearby.
The smell of old rainwater and dirt was strong, trickling drainage the only sound. As the worklights behind her faded to a faint orange glow, Aya slowed her board to a crawl, guiding herself with one hand sliding along the tunnel wall.
Moggies signal flickered back on ... and held.
Eden Maru was standing upright, flexing her arms. She was someplace spacious and dead-black in infrared, extending as far as Moggie's cams could see.
What was down there?
More human forms shimmered in the grainy darkness. They floated above the black plain, the lozenge shapes of hoverboards glowing beneath their feet.
Aya smiled. She'd found them, those crazy girls who rode mag-lev trains.
"Move in and listen," she whispered.
As Moggie drifted closer, Aya remembered a place the graffiti uglies had bragged about finding - a huge reservoir where the city stored runoff from the rainy season, an underground lake in absolute darkness.
Through Moggie's microphones, a few echoing words reached her.
"Thanks for getting here so fast."
"I always said your big face would get you into trouble, Eden."
"Well, this shouldn't take long. She's just behind me."
Aya froze. Who was just behind Eden? She glanced over her shoulder...
Nothing but the glimmer of water trickling down the tunnel.
Then her eyescreen faded again. Aya swore, flexing her ring finger: off/on...but her vision stayed black.
"Moggie?" she hissed.
No flicker in the eyescreen, no response. She tried to access the hovercam's diagnostics, its audio feed, the remote flying controls. Nothing worked.
But Moggie was so close - at most twenty meters away. Why couldn't she connect?
Aya urged her board forward slowly, listening hard, trying to peer through the darkness. The wall slipped away from her hand, the echoes of a huge space opening around her. Trickles of rainwater chorused from a dozen drains, and the damp presence of the reservoir sent chills across her skin.