"I missed you too, Tally-wa," Shay answered.
"I'm confused," Frizz said.
Aya nodded in agreement, wondering if the Cutters were speaking some dialect her Advanced English class hadn't covered. Hiro and Ren looked like they were having trouble following at all. Foreign languages hadn't been as popular back before the mind-rain, when they'd gone to school.
But Frizz came to her rescue. "We just want to show the proper respect."
"Well, respect this." Tally turned to Aya. "We need to get you out of here, and soon. You've stumbled on something that's bigger than you think."
"Bigger?" Aya said. "Than the end of the world?"
"Bigger than this one mass driver. We've been finding them all over the planet."
Aya swallowed, wondering if Ren had been right. Maybe there really were a huge number of the freaks, a whole city somewhere. "Why haven't you told the global feeds?"
"The other mountains were all empty," Tally said. "You're the first person to find the projectiles.
And we didn't want anyone looking for the people who built them. They're dangerous."
Aya nodded. "I know, Tally-sama. I've seen them face-to-face."
"We figured that, once they came after you." Tally's eyes narrowed. "People who see them tend to disappear, including a friend of ours. That's why we're here."
"We need to get going, Tally-wa," the boy Cutter said. "The sun's coming up soon."
"Okay, Fausto, but first, two questions." Tally fixed Aya with her dark stare. "You didn't tell anyone we were coming, did you?"
Aya shook her head proudly, suppressing an urge to smirk at Hiro.
Tally smiled. "Good girl. Second question: I know you're great at mag-lev surfing, but have you ever ridden two to a hoverboard?"
"Recently, in fact," Frizz added.
"You can ride with me then." Tally turned to the boy Cutter. "Okay, Fausto. How do we knock those hovercams out?"
He shrugged. "Nanos. Maybe flash-bombs?"
"Definitely flash-bombs," Tally said with a shiver. "Shay and I had a bad experience with nanos once."
"Bombs away, then, Tally-wa," Fausto said. He swung a pack from his shoulder and began to rummage through it.
"Pardon me, Tally...-wa?" Aya said, hoping she had the correct title. "My friends have also seen the...strange people."
"You've seen them?" Tally turned to the others. "All three of you?"
Hiro, Ren, and Frizz all bowed apologetically, and Tally let out a groan.
"We might be less obvious if there's four of them, Tally-wa," Shay said. "And they'll be safer with us than if they stay here and get kidnapped."
"But we've only got three boards!" Tally said. "That's no good for seven riders."
"This hole in the wall can make big things," Hiro said, his English coming out a little shaky.
"Boards with lifting fans?" Fausto asked. "That work outside the city, off the grid?"
Hiro frowned. "Maybe not."
"Great," Tally said. "We'll have to call David into town, which screws up the whole plan. And you know how much he hates cities."
"Pardon me, Tally-sama," Ren spoke up in halting English. "Hiro has skill with a hoverball rig. If he stays close we can tow him."
Tally hesitated for a moment, glanced at Shay, then nodded. "Okay. That should work."
Hiro began to unstrap Frizz from the hoverball rig and put it on himself, complaining about the cracked shin guards. Ren told the hole in the wall to fabricate some crash bracelets, and reminded everyone to turn their locators off. The Cutters began to slap smart plastic on their faces and hands, hiding the lace of flash tattoos and their cruel pretty features.
Aya wondered why they needed ugly disguises out in the wild.
"Excuse me, Tally-wa, but where are we going?"
The Cutters traded glances, and the question hung in the air for a moment.
"We don't know yet," Tally finally said. "But we'll find out soon."
Their hoverboards were waiting on the roof.
The three Cutters went ahead, their sneak-suited forms sliding across the darkened expanse like graceful ripples in the air. Aya barely saw the attack unfold - their arms spun almost invisibly, the throwing motions like a sudden breeze stirring dust and leaves across the roof.
It was all so silent and insubstantial...until the explosions began.
A spray of bright white flashes filled the night sky, sending jittering shadows across the roof. A cascade of detonations pounded her ears.
"Come on!" Frizz said, grabbing her hand to pull her forward.
A dozen steps away, half-blinded by the flashes, she felt a riding surface under her feet. Someone tall and muscular pressed against her, one arm around her waist.
"Hold on!" Tally shouted, and the board rose hard and fast, the scream of lifting fans filling the air.
Tally's body was wiry and hard, like a gymnast full of steel cables. "Didn't we tell you to keep your eyes closed?"
"Sorry." Aya squeezed Tally's waist tightly, blinking away spots. It reminded her of all the times Moggle had blinded her...
Moggle! Her hovercam was out there somewhere, probably battered and confused by the flash-bombs.
"Excuse me, Tally-wa. But can Moggle come too?"
"Your...wait. You own a hovercam?"
Aya blinked again, her vision slowly returning. "Almost everyone here does. How else would we put stuff on our feeds?"
"You mean you all have your own feed channels, too?" Tally laughed. "This city's insane!"
Aya looked over her shoulder. The cams, blinded by the barrage of flash-bombs, were milling around in confusion. The ultrafast Cutter boards had slipped past them in seconds.
"Please? Moggle doesn't like being left alone."
"No way," Tally shouted against the wind. "Have you not noticed we're trying to hide here?"
"Of course...but this would be for later. For history."
"Forget it. History's not my favorite subject either. Especially when it's about me."
Aya looked up at Tally's disguised face, and for a dizzy-making moment she was reminded of Lai. But the comparison was brain-missing. Tally was the most famous person in the world, and Lai was a deliberate extra - or at least she had been, before Aya had kicked her into unwanted fame.
"Tally-wa? Why are you all disguised as uglies?"
"In case one of those hovercams gets a shot. Can't let anyone know we're in town. Speaking of which ..." Tally gestured, and her sneak suit began to change, taking on the texture and pattern of a dorm uniform.
Aya nodded with comprehension, but this was still frustrating. Here she was, riding a hoverboard with Tally Youngblood, and no one could see it. She wasn't even wearing a spy-cam!
She realized how few real pictures of Tally she'd seen. Even in history books all the images were paintings or manga, as if Tally was some pre-Rusty from before the days of cams.
But extras wanted connections with their heroes. That was why Nana Love was always Nana-chan, never Nana-sensei, no matter how famous she became. Famous people owed the world images of themselves.
A few shots for history's sake wouldn't hurt anything.
As they zoomed through the new construction site, lifting fans screaming and Rusty iron shooting past, Aya booted her eyescreen. She opened up a tracking signal, whispering a short ping to Moggle in Japanese...
"Follow us as jar as you can."
Whatever happened next was going to be very kickable.
They made their way toward the city's edge, screaming past all pursuit.
The predawn air was bitingly cold, but Tally hardly seemed to notice. Aya turned up the heating in her Ranger coverall, thankful that she'd ditched the slime-spattered party dress.
The Cutter boards were amazingly powerful, even carrying two riders each. Of course they'd slow down once they left the grid and had to tow Hiro.
And once out of the city, Moggle wouldn't be able to follow at all.
"Tally-wa?" she ventured. "We could take the mag-lev line out of town. Plenty of metal."
Tally shook her head. "Too much traffic out there. Tons of wardens are headed out to the mountain, not to mention the Global Concord Committee on its way."
"But they'd be happy to let you through, right? You're Tally Youngblood! You must have stacks of merits."
"Oh. In my city, merits are ..." Aya's mind spun for the right English. "Respect from authority Like fame, but for doing community things. Because you saved everyone from the Prettytime, my city would give you any assistance you needed."
"I'm not interested in their help."
Aya paused, wondering if the Nameless One's groupie had been right after all. "Are you worried that my city built this weapon?"
Tally shrugged. "I wouldn't say worried. In fact, that would make things simpler. Governments have been taken down before, after all." She turned around and gave Aya a sharp-toothed smile. "By me."
Dawn began to break, and the wild stretched out before them, black and endless. The factory lights below grew sparser, and Aya's eyescreen began to lose the feeds.
Not that they'd been kicking anything new: Where was Aya Fuse headed off to now? Were all these dramatic disappearances nothing but publicity stunts? Was the mass driver the beginning of a new dark age of warfare?
Nobody had realized yet that Tally Youngblood was in town. Maybe Aya's first night of fame hadn't exactly worked out as she'd planned, but at least she had a big follow-up for the City Killer story.
She smiled. Rescued from aliens by Tally Youngblood!
As they neared the edge of the grid, the formation drew closer, their magnetics interweaving. Aya felt the shudder of Hiro's rig connecting with the boards.
"Bye, Moggle," Aya whispered in Japanese. "Get home safe."
"You ready?" Tally asked. "Things might get a little nervous-making now."
"Don't worry about me. This can't be any worse than mag-lev surfing."
"It might be." Tally looked over her shoulder, eyes narrowing. "When Shay and I watched your feed story and saw all those tricks you pulled - going undercover, mag-lev surfing, flying up the mass driver - we decided you were a pretty tough girl."
Aya bowed a little, feeling herself blushing. "Really?"
"Really. We figured you wouldn't mind having one more adventure, Aya-la, seeing as how saving the world is so high on your list of priorities."
Aya looked into Tally's eyes, trying to read her expression. She was pretty sure that -la was a good title. Tally had called her friend Shay-la at least once.
"That's why we're here, to take you on an adventure."
Aya nodded, but she was still unsure. "But you came to protect me from the ..." She didn't know the English word for freaks. "The strange people. Right?"
"Well, partly." Tally shrugged. "We also want to get to the bottom of all this, and find our friend who disappeared. So we figured a tough girl like you would want to help with that, Aya-la. As a sort of honorary Cutter."
Aya felt a smile spreading across her face, and she had to remind herself not to bow. "Of course.
I would be honored."
"Thought you'd say that. I'm just sorry your friends have to come along."
"They must be honored too, Tally-wa."
"Don't be so sure. You know that tracking signal you've been sending to your hovercam?"