Page 37 of Extras (Uglies 4)

Finally the jungle grew closer. Vines had crept into the snarl of metal around her, and the buzz of insects drowned out the distant cutting saws. Aya could barely see, but the shrill cries of birds guided her to the edge of the pile.

"Whoa," Frizz's voice came from absolute blackness. "It's totally different at night."


It was true - the jungle was transformed. The oppressive heat had lifted, and the darkness echoed with a hundred unidentifiable noises. The air was laden with the rich smell of night-flowering plants, and half-glimpsed shadows darted across the stars.

"Pull off your hoods," Hiro said. "Moggle's expecting three of us in infrared."

Aya pulled her hood off, and a buzzing swarm immediately gathered. The cloud was so dense that her first startled breath drew bugs into her mouth. She spat them out. "These mosquitoes are crazy-making!"

A slapping sound came from Frizz's direction. "We'll have to take malaria meds when we get home," he said.

"What's malaria?" Aya asked.

"A disease you get from mosquito bites."

"Gah! Is there anything in this jungle that doesn't give you diseases?"

"Hey, Frizz," Hire's voice called from the darkness. "How do you know all this stuff, anyway?"

"When I was studying brain surge, I took a few medical classes. Maybe I'll be a doctor once Radical Honesty gets old."

"It's already old," Hiro said.

"A doctor?" Aya swatted at a buzzing near her ear. "I didn't know that."

Frizz chuckled. "Even with Radical Honesty, there's a lot you don't know about me."

"Wait a second!" Hiro hissed. "Do you hear that?"

They fell silent, and a sound came through the buzzing jungle. Something tentative and wary was slithering among the vines, setting the branches above them creaking.

It slowly grew closer.

"Um...hello?" Aya called softly.

Reflected starlight glinted through the tangled vines -  Aya recognized the familiar pattern of lenses bobbing happily in the air.

"Hey, for once you didn't blind me!" Aya said, and felt a smile growing on her face.

She finally had a hovercam again.

They flew so fast that even the mosquitoes couldn't catch them.

Aya had one arm wrapped around Moggle and the other around Frizz, their bodies pressed tight together. The hovercam towed them across the treetops, following the cable network toward the inhumans' base. Hiro flew alongside, visible only in the fleeting moments when his sneak suit blotted out stars from the sky.

Suspended above the black sea of the jungle, the fierce wind streaming down her body, the journey was almost like mag-lev surfing. But this was better than any train -  the magnetic currents were invisible and silent, so Aya could hear the calls of birds and bats and unknown creatures whipping past on either side.

She wondered where the Sly Girls were now. Probably still in hiding, waiting for their unwanted fame to fade. She missed them, and in a funny way, Tally Youngblood had reminded her of Lai - or whatever her name was now. Lai was at war with face ranks and merits; Tally struggled with the Special wiring in her head. Both wanted to disappear, yet they kept doing things that were bound to make them famous.

And both of them were borderline sanity-challenged. Aya remembered the death glare she'd received for calling David an ugly. What else was she supposed to call him? Beautiful?

Did Tally like him? But she said she hadn't kissed anyone since...

"Aya?" Hiro's voice came from beside her. "We're getting close."

Aya scanned the dark horizon, and saw hovercars and heavy lifters in all directions, their lights converging on the inhumans' base.

Hiro flickered momentarily into view, his sky-black hand waving for them to drop down into the canopy.

They descended, Moggle slowing, the darkness of the jungle wrapping around them. Aya tightened her hood as they slid to a halt, not wanting any bugs creeping in.

"See that lifter?" Hiro said.

Behind them, a heavy lifter was approaching, a load of scrap in its jaws. The jungle creaked and moaned, complaining as tons of metal pressed down on the cables strewn across the canopy. Uneasy cries and fluttering wings stirred the humid, scented air.

"It's pretty hard to miss," Aya said. Clouds of insects danced in its skirt of floodlights, and she wondered if Moggle's camo paint was as invisible-making as the sneak suits. "Maybe we should go farther down."

"No," Hiro said. "We should follow it in."

"Follow it?"

"Whatever they're up to, it's about the metal, right? Let's see where they're taking that scrap."

Aya watched the machine's steady approach. Massive girders dangled from its jaws, along with wires and pipes -  all the metal guts of Rusty buildings. It looked like some huge beast finishing up a messy meal.

"Okay," Frizz said. "But even in sneak suits, we'll have to be careful."

"No problem," Hiro said. "See how the floodlights are all around the edge, pointing outward? If we float along underneath, we'll be right in the middle of them."

Aya nodded. "And they'll blind anyone who looks up at us."

As the jungle gradually filled with slanting shadows, Aya pulled herself closer to the nearest tree trunk. She felt her sneak suit mimicking the rough bark. The cables sagged around her, branches bending and creaking, Aya's lifter rig trembling in the magnetic currents.

As its jaws passed over their heads, her throat tightened. Concrete dust filtered down, and Aya had to remind herself that the inhumans wouldn't randomly drop scrap into the jungle.

At least, she hoped they wouldn't.

Finally the bank of floodlights was directly above them.

"Now!" Hiro said, shooting upward.

Aya grabbed Moggle. "Come on, Frizz!"

The hovercam pulled them straight up, and for a moment Aya found herself blinded. But seconds later she and Frizz had reached the darkness of the lifter's underside. The floodlights pointed outward in all directions, buzzing with energy and rippling the cool night air with heat.

"Great view, huh?" Hiro said.

Aya looked down into the glowing jungle below them.

Flocks of birds scattered from the lifters approach; clouds of insects thronged in its path, their wings iridescent blues and oranges; and the gleaming eyes of awestruck nocturnal creatures gazed up at the strange machine flying overhead.

"I hope you're shooting, Moggle," she breathed.

"There it is," Frizz said.

Ahead of them, a bright line on the horizon, the inhumans' base was only a few kilometers away.

MASS PRODUCTION

The jungle fell away, ending in a clear-cut line, the magnetic network coming to an abrupt end.

There was no more need for cables - the hard-packed dirt was spiked with huge pieces of steel.

Every few meters, girders had been driven halfway into the ground, like crooked candles in an endless birthday cake.

"Look at that hover grid," Frizz said. "Talk about having metal to waste!"

"It's so crude," Hiro said. "Those girders are still rusty, like they were pulled straight from the ruins."

Aya frowned. So far they'd seen no paths or hovertrails, just drainage ditches half full of runoff from that morning's storm. "This whole place looks like they got here a few days ago."

"Or like they're about to leave," Hiro said.

"Shh!" Frizz pointed down.

An inhuman moved below, pushing herself from one girder to the next, like a bird gliding between branches.

"She must be new," Hiro whispered. "See how she has to push herself around? That's not good hoverball technique. She's in zero-g mode, like you two."

"I don't know," Aya said. The woman's flight looked graceful to her, like some long-practiced piece of choreography. "I saw a bunch of freaks from up in the hovercar, and they were all getting around that way."

Hiro snorted. "Why wear hoverball rigs if you're not going to use them properly?"

"Good question," Frizz said softly.

The heavy lifter turned away, following a row of low buildings, all identical except for the camo patterns mottling their rooftops.

Aya felt warmth rising from them. Their tops were rippling, she realized, billowing like sails.

"They're just big tents," Frizz whispered.

"So this place really is temporary," Hiro said. "It's not a city at all."

The heavy lifter slid to a halt, its jaws directly over a huge pile of scrap. Smaller lifting drones were darting in and out, carrying single girders and tangles of cable away.

At some unheard signal, the little drones all scattered at once.

"Look out below," Frizz said.

The lifter's jaws opened, and the mass of scrap tumbled down onto the pile. Metal crashed against metal in an angry chorus, glinting in the floodlights as it bent and settled. The lifter began to rotate over their heads, facing back toward the jungle.

"This is where we get off," Aya said. "See anyone around?"

"Anything this dangerous is probably automated," Hiro said. "Besides, we're wearing sneak suits.

Just set your rigs a little above zero weight, so you stay close to the ground."

He dropped, his outline obvious in the floodlights.

"Hiro, be careful!" Frizz hissed.

Aya adjusted her rig. "Come on, Moggle."

She pushed off from the lifter's underside, floating down to land softly beside the pile. The three of them crouched there, sneak suits blending into the tangle of scrap as the heavy lifter glided back toward the jungle. The edge of its floodlights drifted away, leaving them in darkness.

"See?" Hiro said. "There's no worklights here. It's all automatic."

He started to glide toward the factory buildings.

"Hiro!" Aya called. "Those little ones are coming back!"

The smaller lifting drones they'd seen from above were approaching from all directions, headed toward the pile of scrap. They looked like giant floating hands, each metal finger as long as Aya.

One was coming right for Hiro, the fingers opening...

He shot higher into the air, and it floated right under him, still reaching toward the pile.

"Hey, look," Hiro said. "They can't see me!"

He did a few midair jumping jacks, his sneak suit a hovering whirlwind as another drone passed underneath.

Frizz laughed. "They must only see in infrared. We're totally invisible!"

Aya frowned. Invisible or not, Hiro was enjoying his sneak suit way too much. The large tents weren't far away, and they'd already seen one inhuman out here in the dark.

Another of the lifting drones glided up beside Aya, ignoring her and reaching into the pile. Moggle jumped away from its grasp, but the drone was too single-minded to notice, picking through the tangle until its huge fingers found a girder. They closed on it and pulled, dragging along a snarl of cables that almost swept Aya from her feet.

"Hey, watch it!" she said. The drone ignored her, hauling the girder away toward the low tents.

"Come on," Frizz said, pulling her away in a bounding, near-zero-g step. "Those things could fly right into you and not even know it."

Aya nodded. "I guess being invisible is sort of dangerous."

Another long leap took them to the edge of the nearest tent, where Hiro and Moggle waited, peering through the gap between canvas and dirt.

The tent covered a pit, about ten meters deep and brightly lit. Rusted girders were everywhere, glinting in the worklights. An inhuman wearing a breathing mask floated overhead, spraying some sort of goo onto a pile of scrap - like the foam from a fire extinguisher, but silvery and seething.

The goo began to bubble, the metal writhing and twisting. Rust and chunks of concrete spat out, clouds of dust hissing into the air.

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