"Follow her, Moggle," Aya whispered. "But stay out of sight."
She pushed the hovercam forward, and it zipped across the clearing and disappeared into the ruin.
Tally had already reached the top, but the inhumans were too intent on their work to notice her approach. They were guiding the construction lifter's claws, setting its cutting blades to tear away a large section of girders.
Moggle rose swiftly through the ruin, lenses glinting in stray beams of sunlight. Aya was aching to watch Tally from the hovercam's point of view, but using her skintenna would give them away.
The construction lifter's blades came to life, wild shrieks erupting as whirring teeth bit metal.
Stirred by the sudden commotion, clouds of tiny brown birds - bats, Aya realized a moment later - swept out from the darkness inside the spires. Waterfalls of sparks showered out in glittering arcs.
As the sound spilled across the jungle, Tally flew from the cover of the vine-choked ruin, ramming straight into one of the inhumans. The figure crumpled, then spun away from the tower, floating limply through the air.
The other two turned to look, but Tally had already disappeared again, bouncing from the collision to slip back into the ruin. The two inhumans made confused gestures at each other, stirring the air frantically, trying to figure out what had happened.
Tally shot from hiding again, barreling into them. Her blows landed swiftly, sending both spinning through the air.
"Uh-oh," Frizz said.
He was pointing at Tally's first victim, who was floating away from the ruins. Drifting farther and farther from the towers' magnetic field, the figure began to descend...
"You think that's going to be a soft landing?" Aya asked.
"I doubt it," Frizz said, stepping out of the shadows and calling upward, "Tally, look!"
But the construction lifter's blades were still grinding away the shrieks echoing through the jungle, sparks cascading around Tally as she subdued the other two inhumans.
"She can't hear you!" Aya cried. "What do we do?"
"Can Moggle get him?" Frizz asked. "Like back in the city, when you and I fell off your board?"
"But Moggle can't hear us either."
The inhuman was over the jungle now, descending faster, still spinning and unconscious, headed down toward the trees.
"Then use a ping!" Frizz cried.
"But Tally said we shouldn't - "
"You have to!"
Aya swallowed, then flexed her ring finger. "Moggle, go catch the freak who's falling! Quick!"
She cut the connection, hoping the ping hadn't been long enough to track.
Overhead, Moggle's tiny outline shot away from the ruin, rushing out toward the tumbling figure.
The two shapes met just at the treetops, disappearing into the dense canopy.
"I hope that wasn't too late," Frizz murmured.
The sound of the metal-eating blades finally cut off, the last echoes fading into the screams of unsettled birds. The construction lifter pulled a few meters away from the ruins, then began to descend, like a huge pair of claws reaching down toward them.
Tally was at the controls, with two unconscious inhumans aboard.
"Brought you some hoverball rigs!" she shouted down. "They must have a magnetic line around here to carry this scrap metal away. No more walking!"
"Um, that's great," Aya called back up. "But did you see what happened with the third one?"
Tally scanned the horizon. "That's funny. Where'd she go?"
Aya waited another few seconds as the lifter descended, unsure how to explain what she'd done.
Frizz's Radical Honesty spared her the trouble.
"She went spinning off," he said. "Past the ruins magnetic field."
"Did she fall?" Tally asked.
Frizz shook his head. "No. We sent Moggle to catch her."
"Good thinking." Tally smiled. "I guess sometimes you city kids aren't completely useless."
"There's one problem," Frizz said. "Moggle was up there in the ruins with you, too far away to hear us. We had to send a ping."
"You sent a ping?"
He nodded. "It was that or let her fall."
Aya swallowed, bracing herself for an explosion of Cutter fury.
But Tally's was voice calm and cold. "You had to send your toy after me, didn't you? Did it occur to you that a hovercam might have given me away? Or that I might not want everything I do put in some brain-missing feed story?"
"Sorry," Aya squeaked, still expecting a burst of red-hot anger.
Tally only sighed. "Okay, then we better get moving. They'll be on their way here soon."
She knelt and began to strip the hoverball rigs from the two inhumans, tossing a pair of shin pads down to Aya.
"Uh, Tally?" Aya said nervously. "We don't know how to use these."
"Just set them to zero-g," Tally snapped. "I'll tow you."
As they strapped the pads on, Aya glanced at where Moggle and the inhuman had fallen.
Nothing moved among the treetops except a few birds settling back after the disruption. Aya wished she could check through Moggle's viewpoint, just to see if the inhuman and her hovercam had survived.
But Tally probably wouldn't find that idea very happy-making.
Once Aya was suited up, Frizz booted the hoverball rig for her. An eerie weightlessness overtook her body, as if invisible spirits had grasped her arms and legs. She took a step and found herself wafting upward, the breeze gently pushing her along.
"Quit playing around!" Tally ordered. "Grab my hand."
"But Moggle's not back yet!"
"Do you think I care? We have to go!"
"But can I ping Moggle to follow us? Otherwise it'll just wait here!"
"Don't worry, Aya-la," Tally said, firmly grasping her wrist. "You'll still be real, even with no hovercam watching."
She grabbed Frizz's offered hand and pulled them both away into the air.
They shot through the air above the treetops, scanning the skies for any sign of pursuit.
Tally had been right: A skein of thick cables stretched across the jungle canopy, magnetic purchase to carry iron salvaged from the ruins - more than enough metal to carry them. Compared to tons of scrap, three people in hoverball rigs were nothing.
But it was nervous-making, flying without a hoverboard. Eden Maru had made it look easy, but Aya felt wobbly in the lifter rig, like balancing on invisible stilts strapped to her limbs.
More disorienting was Moggle's absence. Aya's second set of eyes was lost and alone, probably damaged, falling behind them every second.
And she didn't even have a button cam.
"See those ruins?" Tally said. "That's where Shay and Fausto should meet us."
Ahead and to their right, where a glimpse of ocean glimmered with sunlight, a huge tower rose above the jungle, its summit still lost in the slowly breaking clouds. More skeletal spires clustered around it, all of them in various stages of being dismantled. Even at this distance, Aya could see cascades of sparks spraying out from metal-chewing blades.
Here above the jungle, Aya could see how far the rums stretched. She remembered that Rusty cities had held populations of ten and twenty million, much bigger than anything in the modern world. And the inhumans were taking it all apart.
"What do they need all this metal for?" Aya said.
Frizz turned to her. "Maybe this is where they make those projectiles you found. They could ship them by mag-lev to their hollowed-out mountains."
"Nice theory, Frizz-la, but I doubt it's that simple," Tally said. "David and I have been all over the planet. Everywhere we go, someone's been secretly tearing into the ruins, salvaging them faster than the cities can."
"And it's always the freaks?" Aya asked.
"As far as we can tell. A friend of ours saw them stripping the big ruins back near my home city He's the one who told us about them." Tally looked back at Aya. "Then he disappeared, like you would've if we hadn't come along."
"That explains why everyone's scrambling for metal," Frizz said. "Our city was even talking about ripping the earth open to find whatever the Rusties left in their mines."
Tally gave him a cold look. "If they try that, they'll be getting a visit from the new Special Circumstances."
She paused for a moment, then suddenly pulled them to a halt, dragging them lower into the trees. They sank through dense layers of branches, through tangled vines and sticky expanses of spiderweb.
"What's wrong?" Aya whispered.
"Someone heard your ping."
Aya stared up into the fragmented sky, but saw nothing.
The surface of Tally's sneak suit began to stir, its mottled patches of green camouflage shifting and slithering, as if breaking into separate pieces. Slowly the scales began to spread, crawling across Aya's coverall. She looked at Frizz, and saw that he too was being enveloped, the sneak suit spreading out like a pair of scaly wings.
"This will hide your infrared," Tally whispered. "Just don't move."
A shadow moved in the jungle, blocking out the scattered shafts of sunlight filtering through the leaves. Before the sneak suit covered her face, Aya glimpsed its source - a pair of hovercars passing slowly overhead.
A creaking sound filled the jungle, cables sagging as the cars' weight pressed against them. Birds scattered, the air full of fluttering green wings for a moment. Aya could feel her hoverball rig trembling as the magnetic currents built, her hair crackling.
The cars seemed to pause overhead, and Aya heard voices - probably freaks in hoverball rigs gliding alongside, looking down into the jungle. She focused on the ground below, trying not to breathe.
But finally the shadows floated past, the creaking of the jungle slipping into the distance.
Long seconds after the sound had faded, Tally released Aya and Frizz. Her suit folded around her body again, slivers of Tally's skin showing as it restructured itself. Aya glimpsed rows of thin scars lining her arms.
"That's why we can't use pings," Tally said.
"You know, they also might have noticed you beating up their workers," Aya said, taking a painful breath. Tally's grasp had left her feeling like a crumpled piece of paper.
"Good point." Tally smiled. "But they know we're somewhere on this line. We have to stay down here until those cars are out of sight."
They floated there, listening to the constant insect buzz of the jungle. Aya was growing more comfortable in the hoverball rig. She practiced stirring the air like the inhumans did, drifting in the cool treetop breezes.
Up here in the highest layer of the trees, the jungle was much less dismal. The vines sprouted flowers, and shafts of sunlight caught the iridescence of insect wings. A flock of pink-crested birds fluttered just overhead. They squawked and fought over the best branches, baring white bellies inside green wings. One stared suspiciously down at Aya, a bright yellow beak between its beady eyes.
Maybe the jungle wasn't so bad after all - once you could float above the mud and slime. Of course, its magnificence just made Aya feel even more cam-missing.
"Tally-wa," Frizz said softly. "May I ask you a question?"
"Can I stop you?"
"Probably not," he said. "Those cylinders Aya found, what if they weren't really weapons?"
"What else could they be?" Aya asked.
Frizz paused for a moment, staring at the cables strung around them. "What if they were just metal? That's what this is all about, right?"
"But Frizz,'' Aya said. "They had smart matter in them, remember? That proved they were weapons!"
He shook his head. "That proved they had a guidance system. But what if they were programmed to fly to this island?"'