The dense plant life had only one redeeming feature: It made the downpour bearable. Though the rain found its way steadily to the jungle floor, streaming down tree trunks and dripping from saturated leaves, at least it wasn't battering her on the head.
It was amazing that any of the Rusty ruins had survived in this climate, but Aya glimpsed the metal skeletons of ancient buildings among the trees. They were wrapped in vines and ferns, the jungle at work tearing apart their straight lines and right angles.
"Where are we headed, anyway?" Frizz asked. "How do we find the others without pings?"
"Shay said the usual place," Tally said.
"Usual?" Aya waved a mosquito away from her nose. "I thought you'd never been here before."
"She meant the tallest tower in the ruins." A smile played on Tally's lips. "That's where we always met people back in ugly days."
Frizz frowned, and Aya felt a radically honest moment coming on.
"You and Shay are logic-missing," he said. "Sometimes you're like best friends, other times you seem to hate each other."
"Maybe that's because sometimes we're best friends," Tally said. "And other times we hate each other."
"I don't understand," Frizz said.
Tally sighed. "Back in the Prettytime, we kept winding up on opposite sides. It wasn't because we wanted to fight, but people kept rewiring us, manipulating us to betray each other." Her voice grew softer. "I guess we kind of got stuck that way."
"But when the mass driver story kicked, you called her to help," Frizz said. "So she's your friend, right?"
"Of course she is - she saved me from life as a bubblehead, along with everyone else in the world. But along the way, we had a lot of fights." Tally's eyes narrowed at Frizz. "That's why your brain surge freaks me out. Bad things can happen when other people rewire you. Stuff you can't fix later."
"Maybe you could fix things," Frizz said, "if you talked with people instead of running off into the wild."
Tally's eyebrows rose, and Aya said hastily, "Maybe we should figure out where we're going, and leave this for later."
"Let me get this straight," Tally said to Frizz. "You had to get brain surge just so you could talk about things!"
"I used to lie all the time," he said. "I couldn't trust myself, so I had to change."
"That's so courage-missing!" Tally said. "Couldn't you just learn to tell the truth?"
"Truth-telling is what I'm learning, Tally."
"But you aren't making a choice!" Tally pointed at her temple. "I've still got Special wiring in my head, but I fight it every day."
"And sometimes you lose, I've noticed," Frizz said.
Tally's lips curled. "You haven't seen me really lose it, bubblehead. You better hope you never do."
"Technically, I'm not a - "
Aya stepped between them. "Maybe instead of comparing brain surge, we should figure out which way to go? The rain's clearing a little."
Tally glared at Frizz for a long moment, then looked up. The steady drumbeat of rain on the leaves above had lessened.
"Fine with me," she spat.
She spun away and bounded toward the nearest tree, launching herself at its trunk and scrambling up toward the treetops. Frizz and Aya watched in silence - it was mesmerizing when Tally moved quickly, slipping through the ferns with deadly grace, scuttling along branches that seemed hardly strong enough to hold her weight.
"I keep upsetting her," Frizz said.
Aya sighed. "I guess Tally and Radical Honesty don't mix. She and Shay have been through a lot.
They fought a war when they were our age, after all."
He dropped his eyes from the treetops. "What if she's right? Maybe I'm just too lazy to tell the truth without surge."
"You're not lazy, Frizz. Not everyone starts their own clique."
"Maybe," he said, slapping a mosquito on his arm. "But if it wasn't for my Radical Honesty, we wouldn't be stuck out here in this jungle."
"No, we'd still be captives." Aya turned to him, looking into his manga eyes. "And if it wasn't for your Radical Honesty, you probably wouldn't have stopped me that night to compliment my nose."
"Don't say that," Frizz said, pulling her closer. "Sometimes it scares me, that we met by accident.
If you'd left that party a minute earlier, we wouldn't even know each other."
She pulled a wet fern leaf from his hair. "Then you wouldn't be stuck out in this mud-plastering jungle."
"I'd rather be here with you than anywhere else," he said.
Aya wrapped her arms around his shoulders. His jacket was soaked, ripped down the back from their wild landing, and her sore ribs still throbbed, but she squeezed him hard. "I don't care what Tally-wa thinks. When you say stuff like that, I'm glad you can't lie."
He gently pulled her closer, and their lips met in a kiss. For a moment the buzzing gnats and dripping rain faded around Aya, leaving only Frizz's shivering warmth in her arms.
There was a sudden thrashing in the trees above. They glanced up.
It was Tally...dropping through the air, hands darting out to catch branches and vines, swinging and tumbling from perch to perch, handhold to handhold.
She alighted a few meters away, landing softly among the ferns. For a moment she stared at them, her Cutter features intense and unguarded.
"What's wrong?" Aya asked, pulling away from Frizz.
"I spotted some inhumans near here."
"Did they see you?"
"Of course not." Tally turned away, her face clouded.
"But you're upset," Frizz said.
Aya decided not to ask, but Frizz, of course, had other ideas.
"Our kissing upset you, didn't it?"
Tally turned to him, shifting from wide-eyed surprise to anger, and then to something else...
"Frizz," Aya said softly. "I don't think that Tally-wa cares if we - "
"The last time I kissed someone, I wound up watching him die," Tally said simply. "And I was just thinking: Dying's one of those things that can't be fixed. Not by talking about it, not with all the brain surge in the world."
Aya swallowed, holding Frizz tighter, her heart pounding.
"I'm sorry, Tally-wa," he said. "That's sad."
"Tell me about it." She looked away. "I can't believe I just said that. Is your brain-missing surge contagious or something?"
Aya nodded slowly.
"But you shouldn't give up kissing," Frizz said. "Just because of that."
Tally held his gaze for a moment, then laughed bitterly. "You want to stand here and discuss ancient history?"
"No," Aya said quickly. "I think we've had enough Radical Honesty for the moment."
"Then follow me," Tally said.
She spun around and bounded away into the mass of ferns, trees, and mud. Aya stared after her - and sighed.
Wherever they were going, this was going to be a long walk.
Keeping up with Tally wasn't much fun.
Thanks to her Special muscles and reflexes, nothing stopped her - not the giant tangles of brush, the dead trees crumbled into a dozen pieces, or the roaring tumults of rain. She scrambled up trunks to check their route, and leaped across the interlocking web of branches overhead, splayed like a monkey against the sky. As she waited with a bored expression for Aya and Frizz to catch up, the rain and mud slid from her sneak suit, which was camo-mottled into a hundred greens.
Moggle bounced from ruin to ruin, using magnetic fields like stepping-stones. In the few places where the hovercam couldn't find a way, Aya and Frizz had to carry it through the steaming heat. Tally refused, saying she didn't like cams. The amazing thing to Aya was how much a soccer-ball-size hunk of lifters, optics, and electronic brains could weigh.
But the worst part was crawling under tangles of hanging tree roots, slithering through mud, and hacking away spider-webs and vines. Sheets of rotten leaves disintegrated under her hands, and a nest of centipedes scattered from beneath one misplaced foot. The gray light of the cloudy sky barely filtered through the trees, shrouding the jungle floor in constant gloom.
To distract herself, Aya wondered who Tally had been talking about. Lots of people had died in the Diego War, of course, but no Cutters that she could remember. Who else would Tally have been kissing? Everyone else back then was either ugly or a bubblehead. It didn't make sense.
Tally was so different from normal famous people. If some boyfriend of Nana Love's had died, everyone in the city would know his name. But Tally was so closed off - even her outbursts of radical honesty were mysterious.
Aya felt a mosquito biting her arm and smashed it flat - too late. Blood was spattered all over its tiny mangled body. She sighed and flicked it away.
"How can Tally-sama stand to live out here?" she muttered to Frizz. "It's so comfort-missing."
"I don't think she cares about comfort," he grunted. He was carrying Moggle, trying to struggle over a rotting tree trunk without dropping it.
Aya took the hovercam from him. "And apparently she doesn't like her friends much either. So what does she care about?"
"Well, the planet for one thing." He dropped back to the muddy earth, and took Moggle back from her. "That's why we're out here, remember?"
"Oh, yeah...that." Aya sighed, trudging forward. ''I never expected saving the world to be so hot and slime-covering. Are we even going in the right direction? I haven't seen Tally in ages. She must be off scouting again."
"Wherever we're headed, at least there's some metal around." Moggle was rising out of his arms, moving ahead eagerly as its lifters found purchase.
They followed the hovercam until the jungle parted before them. At the center of a recently cut cleaning, a pair of ancient Rusty spires stood, their steel girders wrapped in vines.
Aya blinked in the sudden brightness; the downpour must have stopped some time before. It was like two different worlds: Back in the jungle the rain still fell, the trees dripping like wet clothes, but out here in the open, rays of sunshine played across the ferns.
With a soft thud, Tally landed beside them.
"Stay quiet," she said softly, looking up at the towers. "The freaks I saw before are still up there."
Aya took a step back into the shadows, whispering, "You mean you took us right to them?"
"We need to borrow some transportation. Did you think I was going to watch you two walk across this jungle?"
"Do you want us to get captured again?" Frizz asked.
Tally sighed. "Not with your bubblehead surge. You'd just give everything away."
"Technically, I'm not a - "
"Just wait here," Tally said, darting across the clearing and into the undergrowth around the base of the ruins.
Aya peered up at the two towers.
One was much taller than the other, but still not as big as some of the spires she'd glimpsed from the hovercar. But like all Rusty buildings, it was big and simple - childlike square angles, no gaps or moving sections, just a huge column thrusting into the air. Vines climbed its girders, wrapped around them tightly as if the jungle itself were trying to drag down the vast metal skeleton.
At its summit, she saw three inhumans tending a construction lifter. In their hoverball rigs they looked like swimmers, pushing against the muggy air, their long-toed feet waving like extra pairs of hands.
Frizz pointed. "There she goes."
Tally was climbing through the center of the taller tower, through gaps in the ancient rotten floors and invading vegetation. She leaped from level to level, boosting herself with her borrowed hoverball rig, as graceful and silent as a cat slinking toward its prey.