They shot into the air, spinning wildly around each other, like a pair of hoverballs tied together.
The snow swirled around them in a glowing blizzard.
"Let go ... now!" Frizz shouted.
His hand slipped from her grasp, and they shot away in opposite directions - the two drones flew between them, both missing by centimeters.
Tumbling head over heels, Aya saw an expanse of wall coming toward her. She bent her knees, kicking with both feet as hard as she could. The metal boomed and shivered with the impact as she bounced away.
"Moggle, here!" Aya screamed again.
The hovercam twisted through the air below her, its black camo paint speckled with white dots.
It wheeled and turned uncertainly, as if the glowing flakes had affected its vision.
"This way!" she shouted. "Follow my voice!"
A lifting drone was headed toward her, its fingers opening, reaching for her...
Moggle barreled into Aya like a punch in the stomach, shoving her out of its grasp.
She doubled over with a grunt, arms wrapping around the hovercam, fingers scrambling for purchase on its smooth sides. The giant hand veered to follow, but its bulk was slow-turning, designed for carrying heavy weights, not chasing people.
"Climb! Quick!" Aya cried.
The hovercam obeyed, jerking her up toward the ceiling. The pursuing drones fingers crushed the air beneath her dangling feet.
Hiro passed her on the way down, diving with both hands pressed together. His sneak suit was coated with white now, a Hiro-shaped constellation of sparkles. Another of the drones followed close behind him, leaving whirlwinds of glowing snow in its wake.
"Frizz?" she called, looking around. He was somersaulting through the air, a giant hand only meters behind him.
"That way, Moggle!" she cried. The hovercam shuddered in her arms, twisting in random directions, almost pulling itself from her grasp, then headed straight for the ceiling. "No, not up!"
She heard Frizz cry out below, and looked down. He'd bounced off a wall, straight into the outstretched fingers of the drone. As he struggled, the hand closed around him.
"Hiro!" she yelled. "You have to help Frizz!"
"I can't!" he called back, his arms and legs twitching wildly. "Something's wrong with my rig!"
"Down, Moggle!" Aya screamed with frustration. "Now!"
Finally the hovercam obeyed, pulling her into a sudden dive. Aya's feet flailed behind her, one ankle clanging against the pursuing drone's metal palm, and spots of red pain washed over her vision.
When she could see again, Moggle was still diving, headed right for the floor.
"Not so fast!"
But the hovercam was suddenly a hunk of lifeless metal in her hands. It had lost power completely, pulling her down like an anchor toward the hard dirt floor.
"Moggle!" she shouted. "Wake up!"
There was no response, and Aya let go. She tried to spin around and get her feet under her, readying to kick herself into the air once more. But somehow she wasn't weightless anymore, the pads of her hoverball rig as dead as Moggle.
Momentum carried her down, faster and faster. The ground rose up like a huge fist, and a thud went through her body.
And for a long moment Aya was swimming in a sea of blackness...
AN OLD FRIEND
Something hard and huge pressed against her, squashing her lungs - the ground, she realized. She was lying on hard-packed dirt, no longer weightless, every breath hurting like a knife between her ribs.
She opened her eyes, turned painfully over. A featureless face looked down at her, nothing but gray contours where a mouth and eyes should be, flecked with glowing white dots ... a sneak-suit mask.
"Frizz?" she said, then let out a gasp. Talking hurt too, it turned out. "What happened?"
"Looks like they caught us."
"Oh, right." The last few minutes came back to Aya as she took a shuddering breath, cataloging all the places she hurt: ribs, shoulders, left ankle. She felt her sneak suit flickering with random textures, damaged from the fall. But its armor had probably saved her from much worse injuries. "Are you two okay?"
"We're fine," Hiro said. "You fell pretty hard, though."
"No kidding," she grunted. "I think something went wrong with Moggle."
Frizz nodded. "Hire's suit went out too."
"Your hovercam is undamaged," a strange voice said in English.
Aya pulled herself up, looking around for whoever had spoken.
But there was no one in sight but Frizz and Hiro.
From down here on the floor of the huge orange-lit building, the unfinished missile towered overhead like a skyscraper. The three lifting drones lay on the dirt floor around them, their giant fingers in the air like the legs of dead spiders.
The glowing snow had stopped falling, but the ground shimmered softly, as did Frizz's and Hiro's sneak suits and her own arms and hands. They'd gone from invisible to sparkling like fireflies.
"The freaks jammed the magnetics in here," Hiro whispered. "We're not weightless anymore."
"So I noticed," she said. After all day floating in the hoverball rig, Aya felt like she weighed a thousand kilograms.
"Our apologies for any injuries," came the strange voice again. "But we know how dangerous you can be."
Aya blinked, finally discovering the source of the words - it was lying right there on the ground, less than a meter away.
"Moggle?" she said softly.
"Forgive us for making modifications to your hovercam," Moggle said in its weird and unexpected new voice. "We found it damaged in the jungle. While making repairs, we installed this voice chip."
Aya groaned, remembering her reunion with Moggle out by the ruins. For once it hadn't flashed its blinding night-lights, which wasn't like Moggle at all.
"We hoped you would rejoin your hovercam," the voice continued. "And we would have a chance to talk with you directly."
"You've been watching us this whole time!" Aya cried.
"Our apologies for our deception, and for your injuries. It was necessary to disable you temporarily and bring you into a controlled environment."
"Controlled environment?" Aya snorted. "You mean a prison?"
"Of course not!" Moggle's new voice said. "We are honored to have you here. Our colleague offers her profound thanks, by the way. Your hovercam saved her life when she fell from the ruins."
"Yeah, this is some thanks." Aya sat up straighter, pain shooting through her.
"If you allow us to explain, we think you'll discover that our aims and yours are complementary."
Aya laughed. "Sorry, but our aims don't include blowing up the world!"
The voice paused, then answered, "It is unfortunate, but certain foolish children have misled you.
Perhaps you'll listen to an old friend."
Aya frowned. An old friend? Who did they think she was? And why were they talking to her in English, anyway?
A rumble passed through the building, the huge doors parting a bare sliver. Through the opening, Aya saw several inhumans hovering nervously, needle fingers at the ready.
In front of them was a strange-looking man, with wild hair and bizarre ragged clothes. He slipped through the doors, which hurriedly closed behind him.
Aya blinked - she'd never seen anyone so ugly. His skin was sunburned and his features crooked. The beaming smile he gave her was unbelievably snaggle-toothed.
He laughed and said in English, "I knew you would come for me, Young Blood!"
"Um, I don't think we've met," Aya said. "And what did you just call me?"
"Your voice is ..." He stepped closer, sharp eyes flicking among the three of them. "If you would show your face, Young Blood."
A short, painful laugh escaped Aya. "You think I'm...?"
"She's not Tally Youngblood!" Frizz exploded. He turned to Aya. "The freaks think we're Cutters."
Frizz reached up to pull his hood off. Aya did the same, and after a moment's hesitation, Hiro sighed and followed suit.
The man stared at the three of them, dumbfounded.
"See?" Aya said. "I really don't think we've met." She gave as deep a bow as her injured ribs allowed. "My name is Aya Fuse."
"But you...," the man sputtered, fingering his own dirty, ragged garment. "You wear the Sayshal clothing, and the floating ones said you had come to rescue me. But your faces are not Sayshal!"
"Indeed," Moggle's new voice agreed. "We seem to have made an error."
Aya nodded slowly. "We aren't Cutters, but we're friends of Tally."
"Young Blood is an old friend of mine as well!" The strange man smiled and clapped her on the shoulder. "My name is Andrew Simpson Smith."
TWO BIRDS WITH ONE STONE
Things were starting to make sense. Sort of.
Soon after their hovercar had limped home on autopilot, the freaks must have realized that Tally Youngblood had arrived. Who else but Specials would have jumped out over the jungle? And Frizz, after all, had announced Tally's name to Udzir. That explained why the inhumans had let Aya, Frizz, and Hiro roam their camp, too afraid to confront them, waiting until they were trapped before attacking. In the sneak suits they'd looked exactly like Cutters.
But there was one thing Aya couldn't figure out...
"How do you know Tally? And what are you doing here?"
Andrew Simpson Smith smiled proudly. "Young Blood fell from the sky near my village, three and a half years ago."
"She fell from the sky," Aya repeated. "Near your village?"
Andrew nodded. "It is very far from here. Among the little men."
"The little men?" Aya asked, looking closer at him. Had his teeth been surged to be that crooked? His clothing had scruffy bits of fur clinging to it, like something made of dead animals. "Are you in some kind of clique that does pre-Rusty re-creations?"
Confusion clouded his face. "I don't understand. Perhaps you do not speak the gods' language as well as I?" He leaned closer. "Many of the floating ones also speak it poorly."
Aya sighed, deciding to stick to simple English. "Are you from Tally's city?"
"My people live in the wild," Andrew said firmly. "But now we know the ways of magnets and other magic. We help Young Blood watch the cities, to make sure they don't injure the Earth. That is how I met the floating ones."
Aya nodded slowly. "She said she had a friend who got kidnapped by the freaks. That's you, right?"
"Yes." He added softly, "The floating ones don't like to be spied on."
Moggle spoke up again. "Andrew, perhaps you can explain what you've learned about us."
Aya rolled her eyes at the hovercam. Did the inhumans think that this pre-Rusty-looking oddball could convince her of anything?
But the man was nodding sagely. "Do you know about the shape of the world, Aya?"
"Um, pardon me?"
"It is not flat, as it appears. But round, like a ball."
Hiro barked out an astonished laugh, but Frizz bowed and said, "Yes, we've heard this before."
"You are wise, then." Andrew squatted next to where Moggle lay on the ground, placing one dirty finger against its curved, camo-black skin. "All of us live on the surface of this ball. More all the time - more people, more cities, less wild."
"We know." Frizz squatted next to him. "We call that the expansion."
"Expansion." Andrew nodded. "The gods' word for making bigger. But the ball of the world does not get bigger."
"Yeah," Frizz said. "We're kind of stuck with what we've got."