"Um, my what?"
"Your hovercam, Aya-la...the one that's been conveniently following us." Tally's toothy smile appeared again. "We've been boosting your signal just a little. Not so much that your local wardens will bug us, but enough."
Aya swallowed. "Enough for what?"
Tally turned to face the front of the board. "For that."
Aya stared ahead into the distance. She couldn't see anything but the blackness of the wild, and the glow of dawn beginning to encircle the horizon.
"Let me know when you can see them," Tally said. "I want this to look realistic."
"Realistic?" Aya murmured, and a few moments later her eyes caught a glimmering cluster among the fading stars. She squinted, clearing the last bit of city interface from her eyescreen, and realized what they were.
The running lights of three hovercars.
"Are those friends of yours, Tally-wa?"
"I've never met them. But I think you have."
Aya blinked, her excitement moving in a new and stomach-churning direction. The hovercars were closing fast, the scream of their lifting fans echoing across the wild...the inhumans had found her again.
And Tally Youngblood had let it happen.
"Everyone!" Tally shouted. "Head back toward the city!"
The board whipped around beneath them, and Aya squeezed tight, remembering that her crash bracelets were useless out here in the wild.
"What about my brother?" she cried.
"I got him," Tally said, angling closer to Hiro. She shouted, "Better hang on, just to be safe!"
Tally climbed above Hire's outstretched arms, and seconds later Aya saw his fingers grasping the board's sides.
The board shot forward, back toward the city. Even with the magnetic connection, Hire's knuckles turned white as they accelerated.
Aya stared down at the black forest rushing past. This whole towing thing had sounded tricky enough with them all going slowly.
"What if Hiro falls out here?" she cried in Tally's ear. "We're all helpless! You were just using us as..." Her English faltered.
"Bait is the word," Tally yelled. "I'll explain everything later, Aya-la. This is the part where you have to trust me!"
Aya shut her eyes, reminding herself who this was. She was riding with Tally Youngblood - the most famous person in the world - not some crazy-brained Sly Girl.
However panic-making this looked, everything was going to be okay.
She dared a glance over her shoulder. The three hovercars were gaining easily on the overloaded boards. As they grew nearer, the lifter fans began to shake the air.
Tally began to rock the board, and Aya squeezed tighter. "What are you doing!"
"They're trying to push us around. We have to make it look like it's working!"
"But why?" Aya cried, trying to keep her balance without shifting her feet. One wrong step, and she'd squash Hiro's fingers!
"Have you not been listening?" Tally yelled. "We don't want to give ourselves away!"
Aya frowned. What was the point of looking helpless? Whatever trap the Cutters had planned, wasn't now the time to spring it?
The edge of the city was in sight - maybe that was where they'd make their move. Once they were over the grid, Hiro could fly again, and their crash bracelets would work.
She looked around. Frizz and Fausto were only ten meters away, Frizz's manga eyes wider than ever. Fausto was swaying their board back and forth, an expression of wild delight on his plastic ugly face. Ren and Shay were pulling ahead, riding low and straight.
A car pulled level with Aya and Tally. The side door slid open, revealing two freaks staring at her, lifter rigs strapped on.
"They're waiting until we get back over the grid," Tally yelled. "That means they don't want to kill us."
"Wonderful." Aya swallowed, thinking of all the worse things than death the freaks might have planned.
One of the hovercars swept in closer, and Aya felt a familiar shudder building in the air.
"Shock wave!" she shouted, just as the turbulence hit.
Her ears popped, the wind battering her eyes shut. Then the board hit a pocket of low pressure and dropped. Her feet lifted from the riding surface, and Aya clutched Tally's waist as hard as she could.
Then the board popped back up, Aya's ankle twisting as her feet slammed down against a bump on the riding surface.
Aya heard his cry as he fell away, the city's edge still in the distance.
"Tally!" she screamed.
"Don't worry." Tally's body twisted in Aya's grip, bringing them around in a heart-stopping turn.
For a moment there was nothing below Aya but trees and brush - she was almost upside down, the howling lifter fans pushing her down past Hiro's tumbling form.
Aya wanted to scream, but every ounce of her strength went into squeezing Tally's waist.
They fell past Hiro, his panicked cries Dopplering by, then the board twisted again, sweeping up beneath them. Tally reached out and casually grabbed his arm, swinging him onto the board.
His face was pale.
"Sorry to cut that so close, Hiro," Tally said, glancing up at the hovercars. "Didn't want to make it look too easy."
The three of them staggered on the unsteady board, arms wrapped around each other. The lifting fans screeched under Hiro's added weight.
Aya's nose caught the scent of burning metal. "Are we overheating?"
"Yeah," Tally said. "The timing's perfect."
They shot across the city's edge just as the fans seized up with metallic shriek. The board shuddered as the magnetics took over.
But they were still descending...
"We're too heavy!" Hiro yelled. "Let me go! I can fly now!"
"Not yet." Tally still had an arm wrapped around him.
Above them six inhumans had jumped out of the cars. Two pursued each of the Cutters' boards, their needle fingers glistening in the dawn light like icicles.
"This is when you get them, right?" Aya asked. She hoped Moggle was close enough to capture the Cutters bursting out of their disguises and surprising the inhumans.
"Not yet," Tally said.
In the distance Aya saw Frizz and Fausto spinning out, their board losing control as two inhumans closed in on them.
Aya looked down. The ground was still rushing up too fast for her liking. Tally guided them toward a narrow alley between two factories, where one of the inhumans waited, all four arms extended.
"Let me go!" Hiro shouted.
Tally nodded. "Okay, in three seconds...two ..."
On one she pushed him from the board. Hiro leaped forward, arms outstretched - but something was wrong.
He was spinning wildly out of control, his limbs whirling like a top. An inhuman swept up beside his flailing form and stabbed him with a needle.
"Hiro!" Aya screamed. "Tally! Do something!"
"Don't worry, Aya-la. It's all going according to plan."
Tally twisted the board away from the inhuman. But another waited at the alley's other end. They were headed straight toward him.
"Quit waving your arms, Aya-la, or this could get messy."
"It's already messy!"
They shot straight into the outspread arms of the inhuman, and Aya felt a needle jab in her side.
Slivers of cold began to spread through her, like tendrils wrapping around her lungs and heart.
"Do something," she whispered, still expecting Tally's smart-plastic disguise to burst away and reveal her fearsome Cutter face.
Then she saw it clutched in Tally's hand - one of Hiro's shoulder pads, its straps undone. Tally had pulled it off on purpose. She dropped it as the hoverboard spun toward the ground.
"Just hang on for a few more seconds, Aya-la. Don't want to bump your head." Tally slumped down toward the riding surface, her eyes fluttering closed. But she sounded totally alert as she hissed,
"And wherever you wake up, don't call me Tally. We're just your ugly friends, got that?"
"Trust me, Aya-la. Sometimes it's a messy business, saving the world."
Aya's brain was spinning from the needle jab, losing its grip on consciousness, but slowly she grasped what the plan had been all along: a way for the disguised Cutters to be captured.
Aya and the others had been nothing but bait...
And Tally Youngblood - architect of the mind-rain, the most famous person in the world - was nothing but a truth-slanting Slime Queen.
Reputation is an idle and most false imposition;
oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.
- Othello (Iago, Act II, scene iii)
The whole world was dizzy-making.
Everything spun and whirled, dreamlike and unsteady beneath her. A confusion of anger, exhilaration, and terror tumbled through her thoughts, cut with the cold taste of betrayal. All five senses blurred into a constant roar, as if every certainty had tangled.
Then a sudden focus: a mote of pain amid the jumble of sensations. Something fierce stabbing her shoulder, rushing red-hot through her veins...
Aya Fuse came suddenly awake.
"No!" She sat bolt upright, the sudden fury roiling through her, but strong hands pushed her back down.
"Don't yell," someone said. "We're supposed to be asleep."
Asleep? But Aya's heart was pounding, her blood sizzling with energy. Her body convulsed, hands flexing and clawing at the hard metal floor beneath her.
A shuddering moment later, her vision finally cleared.
An ugly face looked down at Aya. Two fingers reached out and carefully pulled her eyes wider - checking one, then the other.
"Try to relax. I think I gave you too much."
"Too much what?" Aya asked breathlessly.
"Wake-up juice," the ugly girl said. "You'll be okay in a minute, though."
Aya lay there, her heart pounding, the burning sensation fading in her shoulder. She took steadying breaths, waiting until reality stopped spinning.
But steady was a relative concept. As her body soaked up the mad energy that had possessed her, Aya gradually realized where she was: the cargo hold of a large hovercar that was passing through a violent storm. The frame shuddered, the metal floor bucking beneath her, and rain battered the windows.
Lifting fans shrieked as they fought to keep the craft level, adding their cacophony to the howling wind.
In the dim and shifting light, it took Aya a moment to remember that the ugly girl who'd awakened her was in disguise.
"Tally Youngblood," she breathed. "You're a truth-slanting, trust-wrecking waste of gravity!"
Tally chuckled. "I'm glad that was in Japanese, Aya-la. Because it didn't sound very respectful."
Aya squeezed her eyes shut, forcing the sticky gears of her mind to switch to English. "You...lied to us."
"I never lied," Tally said calmly. "I just didn't explain the details of our plan."
"You call this a detail!" Aya looked around the dark, storm-tossed hold. A windowless metal door separated them from the drivers' cabin. The walls were lined with cargo webbing, which twisted and swung with the rocking of the car. The air was hot and muggy, and Aya felt trickles of sweat inside her heavy coverall. "We trusted you, and you got us captured by those freaks! On purpose!"
"Sorry, Aya-la. But explaining our plans to some feed-happy random didn't seem like a very icy idea. This was our one chance to find out where these kidnappers come from. We couldn't risk you turning it into your next big story."
"I never would have done that!"
"That's what you told the Sly Girls."
Aya's mouth opened, but no words came out. Her fury began to rise again, the last dregs of wake-up juice boiling in her blood. Why was Tally twisting everything?