Page 20 of Extras (Uglies 4)

Aya scanned the crowd for Frizz, but extraordinary sights kept arresting her gaze.

"Look at those pixel-skins!" she cried. Across the room a couple stood half naked, blurry images moving across their backs. Somehow they were changing their skin cells' colors fast enough to show a feed channel, like chameleon lizards clinging to a wall screen.


"It's rude to point," Ren said. "And that's old news. Check out those four in the corner."

Aya followed his gaze. "What do you mean? I don't see anyone."

"Exactly. That's the latest generation of pixilated skin -  almost perfect camouflage."

"Very funny, Ren. You're totally full of..." Her voice trailed off. The corner had just moved, a barely perceptible shift, like a wrinkle passing through the wallpaper. The motion left a shape in her vision - a human body. She whispered, "Moggle, are you getting that?"

"Big deal," Hiro said. "Octopuses can do the same thing."

"That's where the idea came from," Ren said. "Octopus skin cells have these little bags of pigment inside, which they control with - "

"Hang on," Aya interrupted. "Why can't we see their clothes?"

Hiro chuckled, and Ren said, "What clothes?"

Aya's eyes widened. "Oh. That's...interesting."

"One problem, though," Hiro said thoughtfully. "Isn't invisibility the opposite of fame?"

"Hiro!" Ren hissed. "Nameless One Alert!"

Aya looked up to see Toshi Banana making his way across the room, his famous shark-shaped hovercam slicing through the air overhead. An entourage of wannabe kickers and fame groupies trailed in his wake.

"What's he doing here?" Hiro said. "He's way too famous for this party, and he hates tech-heads!"

"And, um, is he coming toward us?" Aya asked softly.

"No way," Hiro said.

But Toshi's wide-shouldered frame was headed straight at them, shoving his way between a leopard-pelted surge-monkey and a bunch of manga-heads.

The entourage swept to a halt around the three of them, a small armada of hovercams sliding into place overhead. Aya suddenly remembered all the slam interviews Toshi had pulled over the years - he was an expert at making his opponents look like idiots.

"Hiro Fuse? Is that you?" Toshi's voice sounded just liked it did on his feed: low and gravelly, threatening to shift into outrage at any moment. Aya noticed that he didn't bother to bow.

"Um...," Hiro began.

"Not sure? Well i think it's you, and I'm seldom wrong." Toshi chuckled, and his groupies broke into laughter. "Loved your immortality story."

"Oh, thank you, Toshi-sensei." Hiro cleared his throat. "I appreciate that."

Aya rolled her eyes. One compliment from the Nameless One, and Hiro was already face-grubbing.

"Cloned hearts! Disgusting!" Toshi glanced back at the leopard girl and rolled his eyes. "Some people love to pervert the natural order, eh?"

"You mean those crumblies?" Hiro shrugged. "I think they were just afraid to die."

"Fear, exactly! That's what the mind-rain has given us."

"You keep slamming the mind-rain," Ren said. "So why not go back to being a bubblehead?"

Toshi turned his huge frame and sized Ren up. "Do I know you?"

Ren bowed a fraction of a degree. "I doubt it."

"Well, contrary to popular belief, not everyone was a bubblehead back in the Prettytime. Some people had to run the city." Toshi turned back to Hiro. "Your face rank seems to have slipped since that story, Hiro-chan. Maybe it's the company you're keeping."

"Hey!" Aya cried, doing a little frictionless spin. "His company is standing right here!"

Toshi looked down at her. "An extra? Dating downward, Hiro-chan?"

"Dating? That's my ... ," Hiro started, but under the stares of Toshi's entourage, his voice faded.

The Nameless One exhaled a slow breath, his gaze drifting over Hiro's shoulder, as if looking for someone more important. "Well if your effort tonight is interesting, perhaps you can guest on my feed. It might help you break into the big leagues."

"Forget it!" Aya said. "After tonight, we'll both be a zillion times famouser than you!"

The entourage's hovercams swiveled, all suddenly focusing on Aya. Toshi stared down at her like he'd found a cockroach between his chopsticks.

"Is this ugly in your story, Hiro-chan? If so, I don't get it."

As Aya started to reply, a troubling realization crossed her mind. To mind-rain slammers like the Nameless One, the city killer would be more evidence that humanity threatened the planet, just more proof that everyone had to be controlled again.

With his dozen hovercams, Toshi was already gathering material to spin her story his way. He'd already used Hiro's immortality kick to stir up fear of overpopulation. How much more could he do with a city killer!

"Don't worry, Toshi- chan," Ren said. "You'll get it soon enough. Everyone will." He turned to Aya. "Let's kick it early. Let's kick it now."

"Really?"

"Good idea, Ren," Hiro said. "A little surprise for everyone."

Aya looked up at the Nameless One. Anything that threw him off balance was fine with her. She bowed. "Excuse us. We have something important to do."

He started to sputter a reply, but the three of them were already walking away. Unlock codes tumbled across Aya's eyescreen, and Hire's fingers were already twitching. She shot a quick ping to Frizz, just to make sure he caught the story the first time around.

Hiro's hands settled, and he turned to her. "Ready, little sister?"

She nodded slowly, and felt her flash tattoos spinning. "Ready."

"Kick in three...two...one ..."

They mouthed their final codes together, then stared at each other.

The City Killer story was on the feeds.

Ren pushed straight through the crowd, stepping into the middle of the room beside a manga-head with meter-tall sparkling hair. He clapped his hands together twice.

"Ladies and gentlemen, a brief announcement!" He paused for a moment while the chatter settled down. Even the Reputation Bombers were silenced by his audaciousness, but Ren looked unashamed, fixing everyone with his gaze.

He gave the room a low bow.

"Forgive me for interrupting, but Hiro and Aya Fuse's new story is up and running. And it concerns something you may be interested in ... the end of the world!"

TRUTH-SLANTING

Fifteen minutes later, it was starting to build.

Of course, most of the partygoers had gone back to their conversations after Ren's announcement. A few handhelds flickered, but the mansions big public wallscreen stayed dark. Why interrupt a bash to watch one feed out of a million? Especially once it turned out to be Hiro Fuse's little sister kicking tonight, and not Mr. Big Face himself.

In one corner, Toshi Banana was making a show of ignoring the rest of the party, telling jokes to his entourage and basking in their laughter. But Aya noticed one of his groupies lost in her eyescreen. As the story reached the truth about the city killer, she rose on her tiptoes to whisper in the Nameless One's ear, and a thoughtful look crossed his face.

Out in the city it was building faster - friends pinging friends, feeds rekicking it, the story spreading like a brushfire in the dry season. Aya watched her feed ratings slowly climb, her face rank crawling upward, already back under a hundred thousand.

"Just caught a ping-blast on the wardens' feed," Ren said. Both his eyescreens were on, his expression lost in scribbles of light. "They're scrambling hovercars."

Aya smiled. Like a good little citizen, she'd put a security flag on the story to make sure the city government watched it right away They'd have wardens out there tonight, securing the site from thrill-seekers and paparazzi, making sure nobody got smashed into mag-lev paste. Of course, this wasn't just about personal safety -  by tomorrow, the Global Concord Committee's suborbitals would no doubt be headed here from every continent.

Staring into his eyescreens, Ren burst out laughing. "This is hilarious! Gamma Matsui is slamming you: She thinks you faked the sled footage! She says you couldn't have stayed up in the air that long - so the whole story's a hoax."

Aya's jaw dropped open. "That's so mean! What does she know, anyway?"

"It doesn't matter what she knows, Aya," Ren said. "What matters is that she's the most famous kicker to notice you so far."

Aya growled in frustration, but it was true: Her feed ratings had just bumped again. She brought up Gamma on her eyescreen, struggling to hear over the music and babble of the party.

"I'd kill for your wallscreen right now, Hiro," she said, her eyes suddenly itching for twenty feeds to follow the story's spread. "Why did I let you guys talk me into coming here?"

Ren placed a hand on Aya's shoulder, giving her a glass. "Hush, and drink some champagne. See that extra-looking woman playing with the puzzle cube? She can calculate the sled's terminal velocity off the top of her head, just by watching. When it comes to physics, she'll eat Gamma for breakfast. That's why we're here."

"But she's not even watching my feed!" Aya cried. "Should I go explain to her?"

"Don't you dare," Hiro said. "No one else is talking about hoaxes yet. Don't poke a dead fire."

Aya groaned, putting the champagne aside. Sometimes, the hardest thing was doing nothing.

"Well, there's some good news," Hiro said. "The Nameless One's leaving."

Aya looked up in time to catch Toshi Banana and his entourage heading out the door. They looked like they were in a hurry.

Ren chuckled. "Probably wants to get back to his wall-screens and start slamming you before this gets too big."

"Shouldn't we be slamming him first?" Aya asked.

Ren blinked away his eyescreen squiggles and turned to face her. "We don't need to. This is a city killer, remember? It's way too big for that bubblehead to make his own."

Five minutes later the story went massive, ballooning out across the feeds, reaching past the city interface into the global network. It seemed to happen all at once, in one of those explosions of kick that was inexplicable - or at least way too fast for Aya's little eyescreen to make sense of.

Here at the party people were starting to glance in her direction, aware that something big was roiling the city interface. They pulled out handhelds, gathering in corners to watch together.

"So far so good," Hiro announced. "Your face rank just hit the top ten thousand. You're beating tonight's Reputation Bomber!"

"Glad to hear that." She flinched - her alert tone had just gone crazy, like a tiny jackhammer ringing a bell in her ear. "Something's wrong with my eyescreen!"

"Nothing's wrong, Aya," Ren said. "Those are pings rolling in. Better turn off your sound."

She squeezed her fists shut, silencing the noise, then rubbed her ear. "Ouch. Being famous is so brain-shattering!"

"Aya Fuse, complaining about fame?" someone said. "Talk about brain-shattering."

Aya turned to find Frizz standing there, huge-eyed, beautiful, and grinning.

"Frizz!" she cried, gathering him into a hug. "Did you see my story?"

"Of course." He squeezed her hard, then took a step backward and bowed to Hiro and Ren.

"Frizz Mizuno."

Hiro smirked as he returned the introduction. "So you're the famous Slime King?"

"And you're Aya's famous older brother," Frizz said, then frowned. "But probably not so famous anymore, compared to her."

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