"I guess so." She sighed, waving the windows opaque. "Maximize privacy and security."
"Yes, Aya-sensei," the room said.
"Did you hear that?" she said, spinning in place. "The room keeps calling me sensei!"
"You are top one thousand," Ren said. He was stretched out on the floor, staring up at the chandeliers, both eye-screens glittering.
"Top twenty," Aya said. In fact, all four of them were sensei now - the others had been swept up in her reputation spiral.
"Let's all agree that Aya's quite famous, shall we?" Hiro said. "Now can we get back to business?"
She skated to a halt and shrugged. "What business, Hiro? Tally should be landing soon, then we do what she says."
"You mean you don't want to kick any of this?"
Aya rolled her eyes. The mind-rain had happened after Hiro had left school, so he'd missed all the lessons about Tally Youngblood. He didn't seem to realize that once she got here, everything would be okay.
"We wait for Tally before we decide anything," she said. "We're safe here, right?"
"Looks like it." Ren rapped the opaque window. "Hey, room. What's this made out of?"
"A layer of artificial diamond blended with smart matter and electronics," the room said.
"Designed to protect residents from fame-stalkers and nano-snoops. Impossible to penetrate."
"We should have come here first," Hiro said. "But you guys had to go sense-missing over doing exactly what Tally-sama told you."
Aya snorted. "You wanted to go back to the bash, Hiro! Do you really think a bunch of pixel-heads would have saved me?"
"I would have thought of this place sooner or later," he grumbled.
"Sooner or later usually means too late," Frizz said.
Hiro turned to glare at him, but Frizz had already jumped from the spot. He drifted up to inspect the pair of chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling, each made from a million shards of glass suffused with soft blue laser light.
Now that Frizz had recovered, he was experimenting with the hoverball rig, swimming across the huge and furniture-missing apartment with broad sweeps of his arms. Aya found the sight unsettling, too much like the freaks in their lifter rigs.
"Hey, Hiro," Frizz called down. "Why does everyone always say these things are so tricky?"
"Because real flying is tricky," Hiro said. "All you're doing is bouncing around in zero-g mode."
"How do I try some real flying?"
"You don't, bubblehead. You'd yank your own arms out!"
"I may have had brain surge," Frizz said. "But I'm not a bubblehead."
"Not technically," Hiro muttered.
Aya snorted. "Who's the bubblehead, Hiro? If it wasn't for Frizz, those paparazzi cams would have caught us back in the reservoir."
"Yeah, I guess so." Hiro sighed and sat up straighter, giving Frizz a tiny bow. "Sorry I called you a bubblehead. You're pretty smart, actually."
Frizz returned the bow from midair. "And you're not as big a snob as Aya said you were."
Hiro's jaw dropped. "You said what, Aya?"
Ren suddenly sat upright on the bare floor. "I found something in your background feed, Aya.
About when you spotted the freaks."
"Great!" Aya eagerly turned away from her brother's glare. "Can you show it to us?"
"Sure, once I find the wallscreen in here."
"Yeah, where's the...?" Aya began, but the floor-to-ceiling window was already shimmering.
"Whoa," Ren said softly. "Diamond into wallscreen. This place is so kick."
An image appeared, shaky and distorted. Aya recognized the view from her button cam. One week ago: Miki studying the mag-lev tunnel wall, looking for the hidden door.
Seeing the Plain Jane face again brought back all the guilt that had been smothered by her sudden fame. Aya wondered what Miki thought of her, now that the whole world could watch the Sly Girls'
secret rituals, their private tricks.
Eden Maru's voice came from offscreen, echoing through the tunnel. "This is it. Stand back - there could be anything behind there."
Miki took a slow breath, murmuring, "Or anyone."
Aya's own voice answered, "Those body-crazy freaks were just storing something down here.
Nobody lives in this place."
The shot froze, and Hiro grunted. "'Body-crazy freaks'? So that's how they knew you'd seen them. You told them in your own background layer!"
Aya shook her head. "But it still doesn't make sense. How did they look through all those shots so fast? There were hours and hours of button cam, and they came after us the moment we left the party."
"What if it was the wisdom of the crowd?" Ren said softly.
Aya frowned. "What do you mean?"
"We don't know how many of those inhumans there are," he said. "There could be hundreds.
Maybe there's a mountain full of them somewhere."
"Or a whole city," Frizz said. "That mass driver took some serious building."
A cold finger slid down Aya's spine. She'd thought of the freaks as a small clique. The notion of an entire city of inhumans sent her mind spinning.
"That's brain-missing," Hiro said. "Why would a whole city want to - "
"Quiet, Hiro!" Ren closed his eyes. "Does anyone else hear that?"
Aya listened, and her ears caught a faint hum echoing through the room.
Frizz pushed off from the ceiling and floated down. "I think it's coming from the wallscreen."
Then Aya tasted it in her mouth: rain and thunderstorms.
"Smart matter," she said. "The window's made of smart matter. ..."
They all spun to face the wallscreen. Its surface was rippling, the frozen image of Miki's face warping like bad reception. The humming grew dissonant, a chord of incompatible tones fighting one another, causing the air itself to tremble. The taste of rain turned bitter in Aya's mouth.
"Someone's hacking your window!" Ren cried, springing to his feet.
Shapes began to emerge, three human figures bulging out from the flat expanse. An arm poked through, wrapped in the frozen image of Miki, like a mummy covered in wallscreen.
Frizz grabbed Aya, began to pull her backward toward the door.
"Wait a second!" she cried. "Look at their bodies..."
The figures pulling themselves from the wall weren't misshapen like the freaks; they were tall and strong-looking. They stepped out into the room, strangely faceless and still swathed with the colors of the screen, as if the smart matter had stretched around them.
"Are they pixel-heads?" Aya said softly.
They moved with a predatory grace, colors dulling with every step until they had turned a flat gray.
"No," Ren breathed. "They're wearing sneak suits."
The tallest of the three reached up and pulled the layer of gray from its head, revealing a face of cold, intimidating beauty. Her eyes were coal black and wolflike, her skin swathed in flash tattoos, every feature sharp and cruel.
She was the most famous person in the world.
"My name's Tally Youngblood," she said. "Sorry to disturb you, but this is a special circumstance."
Of course, Aya had learned all about Specials in school.
A long time ago, Tally Youngblood's city had created a special kind of pretty - cruel, ruthless, and deadly, instead of bubbleheaded. Specials were originally supposed to protect the city, rounding up runaways and keeping order. But gradually they'd become their own secret clique, each generation modifying the next, like weeds growing out of control. They had contempt for everyone who wasn't Special, and wanted to keep the whole world under control. Ultimately, they'd taken over their own city government and started the Diego War.
Tally and her friends had been Specials too, but a special kind called "Cutters." The Cutters were young and independent, and somehow they'd figured out how to rewire their own brains. They'd rebelled against the evil leader of the Specials, freed their own city, and saved Diego. Then they'd spread the mind-rain across the globe, ending the Prettytime forever.
As Aya stood before Tally, a mammoth reputation shiver went through her. This was the person who had made her world. Feeds, tech-heads, fame - everything important to her had come out of the mind-rain.
It was head-spinning, looking at a face so familiar, yet so strange.
For one thing, in Aya's school lessons Tally-sama had never looked scary. But in person her fingernails were long and sharp, her eyes deep black and penetrating. She was three years older now than during the mind-rain, of course, almost twenty, and she lived in the wild now, guarding it from the expanding cities.
Tally even looked wild: her hair long and untamed, her flash tattoos dulled by the sun, her skin darkened.
Aya pulled free of Frizz's grasp and gave a nervous bow, hoping her English wouldn't fail her.
"I'm honored to meet you, Tally-sama."
"Um, it's actually Tally Youngblood."
Aya bowed again. "I am sorry. Sama is a title of respect."
"Great, another cult of me." Tally rolled her eyes. "Just what the world needs."
Aya heard a giggle. The other two Cutters - one boy, one girl - had pulled off their sneak-suit hoods to reveal faces like Tally's: pretty and cruel, laced with flash tattoos. Their eyes darted around the room with nervous energy, but at the same time smiles played on their faces, as if they were enjoying the excitement.
"My name is Aya Fuse."
Tally didn't bow back, just laughed. "No kidding. Every feed in this city seems to know you. And stop bowing!"
"I'm...sorry." Aya found herself nodding. She wished somebody else would say something, but Hiro, Ren, and Frizz looked as fame-struck as she was.
The three Cutters were moving through the apartment, checking the other rooms.
"Has anyone else tried to get in here?" Tally called.
"No," Aya said. "This is a very secure building."
"Yeah, we noticed that in the ten seconds it took us to break in," the other Cutter girl said. "Is this what you call hiding, by the way? There's about fifty hovercams out there!"
"We tried to hide, but my face rank is recently very high."
The girl looked at her with a blank expression, as if the words had made no sense. "Face rank?
Does that mean you're some kind of government official? Aren't you a little young?"
"No. Face is a measure of ... reputation."
The girl's eyes swept around the vast apartment. "You actually live here? No wonder the cities are expanding. Still an ugly, and she's got five rooms!"
"I live here, but not every ugly gets to ..." Aya trailed off in frustration with her English. Hiro had been right - no one from outside the city would understand the reputation economy. And this didn't seem like the best time to explain.
"You're Shay-sama!" Frizz said, snapping out of an eyescreen spin. He whispered in Japanese,
"Two hundred and fourteen, mostly from mentions in history classes."
Aya nodded, feeling stupid that she hadn't recognized Shay. All the Cutters were famous. Some even had their own cults, but Aya could never keep track of them.
"My apologies, Shay-sama," she said. "Recent history is not my best subject."
Tally and the boy giggled, and one of Shay's eyebrows arched. Aya felt herself turning red, like some littlie asking for an autograph.
"Don't worry about it," Shay said. "And don't do that 'sama' thing with me either."
Tally snorted. "Yeah, she prefers to be called Boss."