There was no sign of the freaks down here at ground level. The deconstruction crews were all up in the spires, cutting more metal for the pile.
"See the tallest one?" Tally pointed. "Stay under cover till we get there."
"You mean crawl through this?" Aya glanced at Frizz. "But I heard that some ruins have Rusty skeletons in them."
Tally laughed. "That's up north. Down here in the tropics, the jungle eats everything." She pushed off into the pile, threading her way through the rubble and steel.
"Oh, lovely," Aya said, then followed.
Sneaking through the chopped-up buildings was a little like moving through jungle. The rain had left the girders wet and slippery, and lichen grew on their rusty sides.
Hard steel was less forgiving than ferns and bark, though. As they floated after Tally, scraping past girders and jagged chunks of concrete, Aya and Frizz collected scratches like they were crawling through a thornbush.
"Remind me to drink some tetanus meds when we get home," Frizz said, inspecting a bloody scrape across his palm.
"What's tetanus?" Aya asked.
"It's a disease you get from rust."
"Rust gives you diseases?" Aya cried, pulling her hands away from the ancient steel beam before her. "No wonder the Rusties died out."
"Shh!" Tally hissed. "Something's coming."
Shadows flickered around them: a large object passing overhead.
Through the tangle of metal Aya glimpsed its clawed shape - a heavy construction lifter carrying a giant severed piece of skyscraper, like the steel rib cage of some long-dead giant in a predator's jaws.
The freshly cut edges sparkled in the sunlight.
"I wonder where they plan to put that down," Frizz said softly.
The lifter came to a halt directly overhead, and Aya felt a shudder pass through the pile. Girders shimmered around her, the magnetic fields straining under tons of ancient metal.
Suddenly the trembling stopped...
"Uh-oh," Frizz said.
The chunk of skyscraper dropped from the lifter's claws.
Aya grabbed the nearest beam and pulled hard, scrambling away.
The falling iron skeleton struck home above her, metal pounding and shrieking, the whole heap ringing with the collision. A shower of rust and pulverized concrete rained down on Aya, clouds of eye-stinging dust billowing from above. She saw steel beams bending around her, twisting under the weight of the new addition.
"Aya!" she heard Frizz call.
She turned - his formal jacket was caught in a cluster of ancient cables, their twisted points like fishhooks through the silk. As he struggled to pull his arms out, the sleeves flipped inside out, trapping his hands inside.
Aya spun around and pushed back toward him, reaching out to grasp his shoulders. She pulled as hard as she could - and with a shredding sound, Frizz ripped free, the jacket tearing into ribbons.
Above, the steel skeleton was still settling, raining debris down on their heads. The iron lattice sagged around them, flakes of ancient rust erupting from ancient beams as they bent into new shapes.
They shot ahead, flying half-blind through the pulverized concrete and rust, the beams squeezing tighter around them. Through the clouds Aya saw Tally waiting, her back braced against a steel bar as long as she was tall - it was set between two girders, like a toothpick holding open a giant's jaw...
And bending slowly under the pressure.
"Come on!" Tally cried.
Aya kicked hard at the nearest beam, and she and Frizz flew past Tally.
Tally jumped after them, abandoning the steel bar, which skidded to one side, squealing like fingernails scraping metal. It bent and twisted, then slipped free, bouncing back into the center of the pile.
The whole vast structure crumpled, a host of jagged metal teeth gnashing down on the place Frizz and Aya had just vacated. The new addition slowly rocked itself to a halt on the pile, grinding more concrete dust into the air.
The three of them floated into the ordered lattice of the tallest tower.
"Whoa," Aya murmured. "That was close."
"You're welcome," Tally said, rubbing her shoulders.
Aya remembered the awe she'd felt first laying eyes on Tally. It wasn't just her strength - somehow she'd sensed the dynamics of the pile and braced a piece of iron in just the right place, giving Frizz the long seconds he needed to escape.
Tally really was special, even if Moggle hadn't been here to get the shot.
Aya gave a low bow. "Thank you, Tally-sama."
Frizz just stared into the crumpled pile, stunned into silence. His face was ghost white with dust, like an actor wearing rice powder.
"No problem." Tally nodded approvingly. "You two managed to keep your heads."
"Barely." Aya glanced up at the departing construction lifter. "Were they trying to kill us?"
"They didn't even see us," Tally said.
"You saved me, Aya," Frizz said softly.
"It wasn't just me...," she started, but Frizz took her shoulders and pulled her into a kiss. His lips tasted of concrete dust and sweat.
When they pulled apart, Aya glanced at Tally, who rolled her eyes.
"Good to see that you two are okay."
"We're fine." Aya smiled at Frizz, then glanced at a scrape on her elbow. "Except I'm going to get that Rusty disease."
"Relax. Shay's got meds for anything." Tally glanced upward. "And here she comes."
Aya looked up into the reaches of the skeletal tower. The ruin stretched as high as she could see, shafts of sunlight cutting straight through its crumbling walls. She heard the faraway echoes of metal being cut, and heard debris filtering down through the empty, broken floors.
As she stared, shapes began to shimmer against the darkness, like ripples in the air. They took on human form as they descended, surrounding Aya, Tally, and Frizz. They were standing on hoverboards, the riding surfaces wrapped entirely in camouflage.
One shimmering arm pulled a sneak suit hood away, revealing Shay's face.
"Wow. You three look like crap!"
"How'd you get here?" Hiro said, pulling off his own hood. "In a rock grinder?"
"Just about." Aya pointed back at the still groaning pile. "We almost got crushed under that. ..."
She paused. There were five of the sneak-suited figures: Hiro, Ren, Fausto and Shay...and someone else.
A boy pulled his hood off, revealing a scarred and ugly face.
"You found us," Tally said softly.
He shrugged. "It was a little tricky, after you escaped earlier than planned. But I figured you'd come to the usual place."
Tally turned to Aya and Frizz, a smile breaking across her face.
"This is David. He's here to rescue us."
THE USUAL PLACE
It was David who'd brought the hoverboards. He'd also brought real city-made food, and the air was already full of slurping sounds and the scent of self-heating meals.
Aya and the others were halfway up the Rusty skyscraper, on a mostly intact floor. The nearest deconstruction crew was a hundred meters above, their metal-chewing blades whining in the background. But there was no chance of being discovered: David's rescue equipment included lots of sneak suits. Aya's felt as smooth as silk pajamas against her skin, though the outer scales were steel-hard to the touch. Everyone was almost invisible from the neck down, bodies blending into the half-missing walls, heads floating eerily as they ate.
"David followed us here," Tally explained between bites of CurryNoods. "In case we couldn't break out on our own."
Aya looked at David. She remembered him from mind-rain class, of course. His name was mentioned in Tally's famous manifesto, when she'd declared her plan to save the world. During the Prettytime he'd been one of the Smokies, a group who'd lived in the wild, fighting the evil Specials and helping runaways from the cities. So it was natural that Tally would want him around, now that she lived in the wild too. But Aya couldn't figure out why he was wearing an ugly mask.
"Like anyone could keep you three locked up," David said. "My real job was to bring extra equipment and a hovercar."
"Any trouble tracking us?" Tally asked.
David shook his head. "Never more than fifty klicks behind you. The plan would've worked perfectly if you hadn't decided to jump out." He glanced at Frizz.
"It's okay," Hiro said, slurping his own noodles. "I already explained Radical Honesty to them."
"What is it with you city kids and surgery?" David muttered.
"But how did you find each other?" Aya asked. "I thought we couldn't use pings."
"When I got into town, these ruins looked like they had burning flares on top." David laughed, looking out through the crumbling wall at sparks falling past. "I thought it was you signaling me!"
"That's how we got in touch with David in the old days," Shay explained.
"After I figured out what the sparks were, I waited here anyway," David said. "Just in case you decided to come to the usual place."
"You always know where to find me," Tally said with a soft smile.
Aya frowned. "One thing I don't get, David. Why are you in disguise?"
"Why are you still wearing...?" Aya began. "Oh, that's not smart plastic? You're really an ugly?"
David rolled his eyes, and Shay said quietly, "David's never had any surge at all. But I wouldn't use the word ugly - Tally might eat you."
"I just figured he was a Cutter, but with...," she began, but found herself silenced by Tally's death-threatening stare.
Aya went back to slurping her PadThai, wishing she'd paid more attention in mind-rain history.
David pointed at a shiny satellite dish on the floor. "We're set up to call in help if you want, Tally.
That antenna is focused on a comm satellite, and it transmits as straight as a laser - no one else will hear a thing."
Everyone looked at Tally, who paused, chopsticks halfway to her mouth.
"I don't want any help yet," she said. "We still don't know what the inhumans are up to. And I'm starting to think Aya-la's City Killer story might be a false alarm."
Their stares turned to Aya, who was chewing a mouthful of noodles. She swallowed them slowly, hoping Tally would keep going. It seemed a million times more shaming to explain the mistake herself.
"Yeah," Aya finally said. "The mass drivers might not be weapons."
"What else would they be?" Hiro asked.
"A way to slow down the cities," Tally said. "To strip the world of metal and send it here. No more cheap metal, no more expansion."
"You've got to be kidding!" Shay cried. "You mean these weirdos are on our side?"
"It makes sense," Fausto said. "They could even get rid of the metal permanently - just shoot it into orbit. Those cylinders don't have to come down."
Hiro let out a disgusted sigh. "You mean you got this story wrong, Aya?"
"I got it wrong?" Aya cried. "You and Ren were the ones who came up with the city killer angle!"
"But it was your story, Aya!" Hiro said. "We just gave you an idea!"
"But before you guys started talking about reentry speeds and TNT, I just wanted to kick the Sly Girls mag-lev surfing!"
Frizz frowned. "I thought you said you weren't going to kick that?"
"Would you randoms be quiet?" Tally said, her voice suddenly full of razors. "You want those freaks up there to hear us?"
Aya fell silent, glaring at Hiro. It was bad enough that every feed in the city would blame this bogus story on her; she didn't need her own brother piling on. She glanced at Frizz, hoping he understood what she'd meant.