Page 25 of Extras (Uglies 4)

Over her shoulder, the light from the other storm drain was growing. Aya could make out Hiro and Ren outlined against its glow.

"Can you really jam a hovercam, Ren?" she asked.


"I can try." His face appeared in midair, lit by the glow of his trick-box.

"Aya," Frizz whispered, "if you need to get out of here fast, just leave me behind. I can't ride, and no one's chasing me."

"Don't be brain-missing, Frizz," she hissed. "Those freaks know you've seen them. I'm not leaving you down here!"

She booted her eyescreen. In Moggle's point of view, the tunnel stretched out ahead, empty and lightless.

"This drain's clear," she said.

"Let's get moving, then," Hiro whispered. "That light's getting closer."

Aya stretched out flat on the hoverboard, pressed close to Frizz. They slipped into the tunnel, climbing swiftly upward.

Moggle was close to the surface; orange worklights glowed from the storm drain's other end.

The feeds were flickering back on in her eyescreen, the city clock showing two hours before dawn.

"Careful, Moggle," she whispered. "Don't let anyone see you!"

The hovercam slowed, peeking up out of the entrance of the drain. Aya watched as it scanned the construction site - nothing but motionless machines and the empty iron frame of an unfinished building.

"Okay, Moggle. Wait for us."

Aya and Frizz climbed toward the surface, until she felt a cold breeze on her face. Moggles outline appeared, silhouetted by worklights. The feeds came back on line in force, filling her vision with a hundred clamoring arguments: alarm over her disappearance, theories about who'd built the city killer, questions of whether it was all a hoax. Most people thought she'd been kidnapped by the mysterious hovercar. The Nameless One had decreed that the mass driver was the city's secret weapon, and was calling for Aya's arrest as a traitor.

She blinked the commotion away, focusing on the world in front of her. The Slime Queen story had taught her how meaningless the feeds could be.

Sometimes the wisdom of the crowd was just so much noise.

At the storm drain entrance, Aya scanned the construction site with her own eyes. "Okay, it still looks clear. Everyone ready?"

"Just one question," Frizz said. "Where are we going?"

"Oh, right." Aya frowned. If the crowd had managed to find the underground reservoir, where else could she hide? Every interesting place Aya had ever explored had been kicked in some story. Her dorm, all her friend's names, even her favorite color was listed on her feed.

Aya hadn't kept any secrets for herself.

""What about your place, Hiro?"

"My place? Could we be more obvious?"

"At least it's got good privacy. It's a big-face mansion, so hovercams can't get close. And the famous part of town isn't too far from here."

"Forget it. You're not bringing this down on..." His voice trailed off. "But you're right about privacy. Why don't we head toward Shuffle Mansion. Remember that apartment I showed you?"

"Sure," Aya said. "But it's not mine."

"But it's open," he said. "Just walk in and declare it. You've got a face rank of... whoa! You're down to twelve now!"

"Nothing beats getting abducted by aliens," Ren said.

"What do you think, Frizz?" Aya asked.

He hesitated, then let out a sigh. "Anything sounds better than a hole in the ground."

They rose from the storm drain slowly, shivering in the freezing wind.

Aya looked down at her party dress. It was covered with wet leaves and tunnel trickle: The Return of Slime Queen. But the scent of pine trees and fresh air was a welcome relief after hours of rotting leaves and runoff.

The city looked more awake than usual for the dead of night, the windows flickering, everyone watching the feeds. Anxiety rose in Aya at the sight - the mirror image of obscurity panic.

Suddenly there were too many people who knew her name.

They flew back toward the city, straight into Hiro's part of town. The trappings of fame appeared around them -  swimming pools drifted overhead, steaming in the cold, and torches lit the paths along the ground.

But no one was out, the windows all glittering with wallscreen light even here. No matter how famous, everyone seemed to be watching the drama unfold.

"Uh-oh," Ren called, glancing up from his trick-box. "We have company."

Aya followed his gaze - a single hovercam was climbing toward them, its lenses catching the torchlight.

"Can you jam it?" she called.

He shook his head. "It's a full-time paparazzi cam, designed to track big faces."

"We're close to Shuffle Mansion. Let's go!" Hiro cried, shooting ahead.

"Hold on tight, Frizz," Aya shouted. She dove toward the ground, picking up speed as they dropped.

Frizz held her close, their bodies twisting and turning as one. He felt more confident than on their first ride, and Aya decided to take a few risks.

She turned hard around a tall, spindly mansion, cutting between two apartments held apart by hoverstruts. The board's lifters shivered, sending them into a series of fishtails, and Frizz's arms squeezed tighter. A few meters from her shoulder, Moggle shuddered in the strong magnetic currents.

But when she glanced back, the paparazzi cam was still there. Ren was right - this hovercam was designed to chase big faces. A few simple tricks wouldn't get rid of it.

She dropped lower and zoomed down a pleasure garden path, the warmth of burning torches whipping past on either side, the smell of smoke in her nostrils. The cam was tight on their tail now, close enough to recognize their faces.

The last thing she wanted was to show up at Shuffle Mansion with a hundred hovercams in tow.

"At the end of this garden go straight into a climb!" Frizz shouted.

"What are you planning?"

"Just do it!"

The last pair of torches was flying toward them, the secluded garden path spilling open onto a field of pre-Rusty shrines and temples. As they shot out, Aya tipped her weight back, pulling into a hard climb. Moggle followed, happily spinning barrel rolls.

"Come back and pick me up!" Frizz shouted...and leaped from the board.

"Frizz!" Aya screamed, spinning around to see him soaring into the air.

Of course - he was still wearing the hoverball rig, still weightless. His momentum carried him up straight in front of the paparazzi cam, and he rolled into a ball. The cam struck him right on his hoverball shin pads, the snap of high-impact plastic ringing like a hand clap.

Frizz spun away from the collision. Aya turned hard, bringing her board across his line of flight.

He hit her with a grunt, knocking Aya from the board. They tumbled through the air together until the rig's lifters compensated for her weight.

"Moggle!" she grunted, Frizz's arms so tight around her that she could hardly breathe. "Bring our board over!"

The abandoned board had come to a confused halt, probably wondering why its riders kept jumping off. Moggle eased up beside it, corralling it toward where they floated, arms wrapped around each other.

"Did I kill it?" Frizz asked.

Aya looked down and saw the paparazzi cam below, bouncing in pieces through the ancient shrines and temples. "Yeah. But that trick was panic-making!"

Moggle eased the hoverboard under their feet, and Frizz let her slide from his grip onto the riding surface.

"Not to mention damaging," Frizz said, reaching down to rub his shins. The pads were cracked from the collision.

"Serves you right," Aya said, turning the board toward Shuffle Mansion.

She kept low, sneaking under the neighborhood's hovering meditation pool, the starlight filtering down through lily pads and darting koi.

"Aya?" Ren's voice pinged in her ear. "We're here at the mansion. Where are you?"

"Closing in. We lost that cam."

"I think you picked up another one, then. Look at the windows."

Aya frowned. "What windows?"

"Any windows," Ren said. "They're all the same!"

"What are you ... ?" she began, but as they slipped out from beneath the meditation pool, a broad, old-style mansion sprawled out in front of them, its windows glowing with wallscreen light.

All of them were flickering together - hundreds of windows darting from light to shadow in unison, all tuned to the same feed.

"Uh-oh," Frizz said. "Do you see that?"

"Yeah." She swallowed. "Everyone's watching one feed, which almost never happens, unless ..."

"Either Nana Love just got engaged," Frizz said, "or exactly one hovercam is shooting us."

Aya turned her head, scanning the air around them. Finally she saw it: another paparazzi cam a few meters away, its tiny lens focused directly on her face.

"Crap," she said.

Then she saw the swarm, dozens more hovercams sweeping in from every direction, in every shape and size. Clouds of them maneuvered together, whipping through turns like schooling fish.

"Just go, Aya!" Frizz shouted.

"Blind them, Moggle!" She leaned forward, shooting straight toward Shuffle Mansion.

Moggle zoomed along behind, its night-lights pointed backward on full, the pursuers' lenses glittering like firework weeping willows across the sky.

By the time they reached Shuffle Mansion, the swarm was catching up, wrapping around them, shooting from every angle as she dropped toward the mansion steps.

"Good job losing them," Hiro said dryly, turning to the door. "Let us in, quick."

"I apologize," the door said. "But Shuffle Mansion is a secure building."

"No kidding," Aya said. "That's why I'm here. I'm declaring...um ..."

"Legal residence," Hiro prompted. "Apartment thirty-nine."

"I'm declaring apartment thirty-nine as my legal residence. And requesting full privacy!" she said.

"Oh, and by the way, I'm Aya Fuse. Um, hi."

The door paused a second, ruby jitters of laser flickering across her face and hands. Over her shoulder, a wall of hovercams was gathering, all screeching to a halt at the privacy limit. A few skidded too close and instantly dropped from the sky. Serious privacy was Shuffle Mansion's trademark.

The door opened with a soft shushing sound.

"Declaration accepted," it said. "Welcome to your new home, Aya Fuse."

SHUFFLE MANSION

The windows framed the city's skyline like a painting, gathering vistas of the sea, the mountains, even a glimpse down into the big soccer field. The views were perfect...

Except for all the cams.

There weren't as many now that the chase had ended, but a few dozen still lingered at the fifty-meter limit. Aya could see the curve of the privacy barrier in the way they wrapped across the sky - a literal reputation bubble around the mansion. Even Moggle had to wait outside, because the halls were privacy-monitored as well.

Aya waved, hoping Moggle could see her.

"Close windows," Hiro ordered from where he squatted on the floor.

For a second, Aya wondered why the room didn't obey him - then grinned.

"This is my room, Hiro! You can't tell it what to do."

"Rooms," Ren corrected. "Plural."

Aya laughed, turning her platforms frictionless to skate across the apartment. The arm-spreading luxury of space followed her everywhere, especially the walk-in closets waiting to be filled. Aya had already stuffed her slime-spattered party dress into the hole in the wall, and she wore new shoes and a Ranger coverall with internal heating, built-in water filters, and countless pockets.

It was also slime-resistant.

"So you don't mind those freaks looking in at us?" Hiro asked. "They can watch the feeds too, remember?"

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