Some people wanted to go back to Rusty "money," complete with rents and taxes and starving if you couldn't pay for food. But the City Council didn't go that crazy; they voted for the reputation economy instead. From now on, merits and face ranks would decide who got the best mansions, the most carbon emissions, the biggest wall allowances. Merits were for doctors, teachers, wardens, all they way down to littlies doing schoolwork and their chores - everyone who kept the city going, as determined by the Good Citizen Committee. Face ranks were for the rest of culture, from artists to sports stars to scientists. You could use all the resources you wanted, as long as you captured the city's collective imagination.
And to keep the face ranks fair, every citizen over the age of littlie was given their own feed - a million scattered threads of story to help make sense of the mind-rain.
The word "kicker" hadn't even been invented yet, but somehow Hiro had understood it all instinctively: how to make a clique huge overnight, how to convince everyone to requisition some new gadget, and most of all how to make himself legendary in the process.
As Aya landed outside the mansion's elevator door, she sighed quietly. Hiro had been so smart since they'd fixed his brain...
If only all that fame hadn't turned him into such a self-centered snob.
"What do you want, Aya-chan?"
"I need to talk to you."
"Way too early."
Aya groaned. Without Moggle to float her back up to her window, she'd had to wait till dawn to get back into her dorm. And Hiro thought he was tired?
He couldn't have had a worse night than she'd had. She kept imagining Moggle at the bottom of the underground lake, lying cold and lifeless.
"Please, Hiro? I just spent a bunch of merits to switch my morning classes, so I could come see you."
A grumbling noise. "Come back in an hour."
Aya glared at the elevator door. She couldn't even go up and pound on his window; the mansions in the famous part of town didn't let you fly close to them.
"Well, can you at least tell me where Ren is? His locator's off."
"Ren?" A chuckle came from the door. "He's on my couch."
Aya breathed a sigh of relief. Hiro was a million times easier to deal with when his best friend was around. "Can I talk to him, then...please?"
The door went silent for so long that Aya wondered if Hiro had gone back to sleep. But finally Ren's voice came on.
"Hey, Aya-chan. Come on in!"
The door opened, and Aya stepped inside.
Hiro's rooms were garlanded with a million cranes.
It was an old custom from pre-Rusty days, one of the few that had survived the Prettytime: When a girl turned thirteen, she made a string of a thousand origami birds with her own two hands. It took weeks of folding little squares of paper into wings and beaks and tails, then stringing them together with an old-fashioned needle and thread.
After the mind-rain, a few girls had started a new trend: sending their finished strings to reputation-crushes, new-pretty boys with big face ranks. Boys like Hiro, in other words.
Just seeing them made Aya's fingers ache from the memory of her own thousand cranes. The chains of paper birds were draped everywhere in the apartment, except for Hiro's sacred feed-watching chair.
He was slumped there, wearing a hoverball sweatshirt and rubbing his eyes. Green tea was swirling from the spigots of the hole in the wall, filling the air with the scents of cut grass and caffeine.
"Could you get those?" he asked.
"Good morning to you, too." She gave him a sarcastic bow and went to fetch the tea. Two cups, of course - for him and Ren, not her. Aya couldn't stand green tea, but still.
"Morning, Aya-chan," Ren called groggily from the couch. He sat up, a flock of squashed cranes unpeeling from his back. Empty bottles were strewn everywhere, and a cleaning drone was vacuuming up the remains of food and spilled bubbly.
She handed Ren his tea. "Were you guys celebrating something, or just reliving bubblehead days?"
"You don't know?" Ren laughed. "Well, you better congratulate Hiro-sensei."
"That's right." Ren nodded. "Your brother finally cracked the top thousand."
"The top thousand?" Aya blinked. "Are you kidding?"
"Eight hundred and ninety-six, at the moment," Hiro said, staring at the wallscreen. Aya saw the number on it now: 896 in meter-high numerals. "Of course, my own sister ignores me. Where's my tea?"
"But I didn't ..." Aya's exhaustion turned dizzy-making for a moment. This morning was the first in ages that she hadn't checked Hiro's face rank. And he'd hit the top thousand! If he could stay there, he'd be invited to Nana Love's Thousand Faces Party next month.
Hiro, like most boys, had a major crush on Nana Love.
"I'm sorry...last night was really busy. But that's fantastic!"
He lazily stretched out a finger, pointing at the teacup in her hand.
She brought it to him, offering a real bow. "Congratulations, Hiro."
""Hiro-sensei," he reminded her.
Aya just rolled her eyes. "You don't have to call your own brother 'sensei,' Hiro, no matter how big a face he is. So what was the story?"
"You wouldn't be interested. Apparently."
"Come on, Hiro! I watch all your stories...except for last night."
"It was about this bunch of crumblies." Ren lay back across the couch. "They're like surge-monkeys, except they don't care about beauty or weird body mods. Just life extension: liver refits every six months, new cloned hearts once a year."
"Life extension?" Aya said. "But stories about crumblies never go big."
"This one has a conspiracy angle," Ren said. "These crumblies have a theory that the doctors secretly know how to keep people living forever. They say the only reason anyone dies of old age is to keep the population steady. It's just like the bubblehead operation back in the Prettytime: The doctors are hiding the truth!"
"That's brain-kicking," Aya murmured, a shiver traveling down her spine. It was so easy to believe in conspiracies, after the government had made everyone brain-missing for centuries.
And living forever? Even littlies would pay attention to that.
"You forgot the best part, Ren," Hiro said. "These crumblies are planning to sue the city ... for immortality. Like it's a human right or something. People want an investigation! Check it out."
Hiro waved his hand. On the wallscreen his face rank disappeared, replaced by a web of meme-lines, a huge diagram showing how the story had kicked through the city interface all night. Vast spirals of debate, disagreement, and outright slamming had splintered from Hire's feed, over a quarter-million people joining the conversation.
Was immortality a bogus idea? Could your brain stay bubbly forever? And if nobody died, where on earth would you put everyone? Would the expansion wind up eating the whole planet?
That last question made Aya dizzy again. She remembered that day at school when they'd showed satellite pictures from the Rusty era, back before population control. The sprawling cities had been huge enough to see from space: billions of extras crowding the planet, most of them living in total obscurity.
"Look at that!" Hiro cried. "Everyone's already going off the story My rank just dropped to nine hundred. People can be so shallow!"
"Maybe immortality's getting old," Ren said, grinning at Aya.
"Ha, ha," Hiro said. "I wonder who's stealing my eyeballs."
He flicked his hand again, and the wallscreen broke into a dozen panels. The familiar faces of the city's top twelve tech-kickers appeared. Aya noticed that Hiro had jumped to number four.
He was leaning forward in his chair, devouring the feeds to find out where his ratings had gone.
Aya sighed. Typical Hiro - he'd already forgotten that she'd come up here to talk to him. But she stayed quiet, curling next to Ren on the couch, trying not to crumple too many sad little paper birds. It probably wouldn't hurt, letting Hiro get his feed fix before admitting she'd left her hovercam at the bottom of a lake.
And Aya didn't mind a little feed-time. The familiar voices soothed her nerves, washing over her like a conversation with old friends.
People's faces were so different since the mind-rain, the new fads and cliques and inventions so unpredictable. It made the city sense-missing sometimes. Famous people were the cure for that randomness, like pre-Rusties gathering around their campfires every night, listening to the elders. Humans needed big faces around for comfort and familiarity, even an ego-kicker like Nana Love just talking about what she'd had for breakfast.
In the upper right corner, Gamma Matsui was kicking a new tech religion. Some history clique had applied averaging software to the world's great spiritual books, then programmed it to spit out godlike decrees.
For some reason, the software had told them not to eat pigs.
"Who would do that in the first place?" Aya asked.
"Aren't pigs extinct?" Ren giggled. "They seriously need to update that code."
"Gods are so last year," Hiro said, and Aya smiled.
Resurrecting old religions had been kick right after the mind-rain, when everyone was still trying to figure out what all the new freedoms meant. But these days so many other things had been rediscovered - family reunions and crime and manga and the cherry blossom festival. Except for a few Youngblood cults, most people were too busy for divine superheroes.
"What's the Nameless One up to?" Hiro said, switching the sound to another feed.
The Nameless One was what the two of them called Toshi Banana - the most brain-missing big face in the city. He was more of a slammer than a real tech-kicker, always attacking some new clique or fashion, stirring up hatred for anything unfamiliar. He thought the mind-rain had been a disaster, just because everyone's new hobbies and obsessions could be unsettling and downright weird.
Ren and Hiro never said his name, and changed his nickname every few weeks, before the city interface could figure out who they meant - even mocking people helped their face stats. In the reputation economy, the only real way to hurt anyone was to ignore them completely. And it was pretty hard to ignore someone who made your blood boil. The Nameless One was hated or loved by almost everybody in the city, which kept his face rank floating around a hundred.
This morning he was slamming the new trend of pet owners and their ghastly breeding experiments. The feed showed a dog, dyed pink and sprouting heart-shaped tufts of fur. Aya thought it was kind of cute.
"It's just a poodle, you truth-slanting bubblehead!" Ren shouted, tossing a cushion at the wallscreen.
Aya giggled. Giving dogs funny hairdos wasn't exactly Rusty, like making fur coats or eating pigs.
"He's a waste of gravity," Ren said. "Blank him!"
"Replace with next highest," Hiro told the room, and the Nameless One's angry face disappeared.
Aya's eyes drifted across the screens. Nothing looked remotely as kick as surfing a mag-lev train. The Sly Girls had to be more famous-making than poodles, pig eating, and rumors of immortality.
Aya just had to make sure that she was the first kicker to put them on her feed.
Then she saw who had supplanted the Nameless One in the top left of the wallscreen, and her eyes widened.
"Hey," she murmured. "Who's that guy?"
But she already knew the gorgeous, manga-eyed boy's name...
It was Frizz Mizuno.
"That bubblehead's the thirteenth-most-popular tech-kicker now?" Hiro groaned. "That was fast."
"Turn his sound on," Aya said.
"No way!" Hiro said. "He's so gag-making."
He waved his hand, and Frizz's face was replaced by yet another feed.