Andrew smiled. "That is where the floating ones are clever. What if we build a new city...here."
His finger wavered in the air, a few centimeters from Moggle's skin.
Frizz was silent for a few moments, then said, "In space?"
Andrew nodded slowly, spreading out his hands as if warming them over Moggle's surface.
"There is a steady place over our heads, called orbit. A ring that fits around the world."
"I don't believe it," Hiro said softly.
Andrew chuckled. "It is hard at first, I know. But I learned from Young Blood that the world has no edge, no end. You must learn to see beyond the little men."
"The little men?" asked Hiro.
Frizz looked up at the towering metal shape above them. "Turns out you were right, Aya, back when we saw them making this thing. You said it looked like a ship!"
Aya looked up at the missile, or ship, or whatever it was. She shook her head. "But it looks exactly like one of those Rusty weapons!"
"The Rusties had more than one dream," the inhuman voice said.
Aya realized the sound hadn't come from Moggle, and she turned around. Udzir and two other inhumans floated above her.
"After the first crude city killers were invented," he continued, "they were redesigned to send people into space. Death and hope in one machine."
"That's what this is all about?" she asked softly. "Space?"
"That's why you're all so lame in hoverball rigs!" Hiro cried. "You're not using them to get around quicker - you're using them to practice for zero-g!"
"So you do believe in orbit!" Andrew said happily. "It is a place where everyone floats!"
Aya closed her eyes, remembering her own trip through the jungle. "And that's why you're all surged up like freaks. In zero-g there's no point in having feet. So you've all got extra hands."
Udzir frowned, swimming in the air. "We aren't 'freaks,' Aya Fuse. Every change we've made adapts us better to our future home. We're the first extraterrestrial people." He bowed. "We call ourselves Extras."
Aya barely managed to stifle her laughter.
"I assure you," Udzir said firmly "we are completely serious about our new home."
"Sorry it's just that in my city 'extra' means...well, never mind."
"So you are on the same side as Tally," Frizz said. "All that metal's leaving Earth for good."
Udzir nodded. "Two birds with one stone. We can slow the expansion here on Earth and redirect it into space. It's time for humanity to leave our home, before we destroy it."
"You're going to stay in orbit?" Frizz asked. "Not go to some other planet?"
"Permanent orbital habitats," Udzir said. "Close enough to Earth to lift more supplies with mass drivers, near enough the sun for plenty of solar power. And miniature ecosystems to recycle our water and oxygen."
"The Rusties never managed to save themselves this way," another of the Extras said. "They were overwhelmed by their own numbers and their wars. But humanity is smaller and more united now - we have another chance."
"Unless Tally Youngblood and the Cutters stop us," Udzir added, turning to Aya. "A possibility we have you to thank for."
"Me?" Aya said. "Why didn't you just tell everyone what you were doing? If you hadn't been hiding here and kidnapping people, I bet Tally-wa would totally be on your side!"
"We have great respect for Tally Youngblood," Udzir said. "But we couldn't reveal our plans. Do you think the cities would let us strip the old ruins of metal? Or build a fleet of ships that could be easily turned into city killers?"
"You better ping Tally now and explain," Frizz said. "She's probably already here. And if she sees those ships, she'll think the same thing we did!"
"She has not listened to us so far," Udzir said. "We hope that you will try, Aya Fuse."
Aya nodded slowly, her last doubts falling away. The Extras weren't trying to destroy the world; they were trying to save it. The zero-g rigs, their monkey toes, the spaceship towering over her - finally the whole story fit together.
The biggest story since the mind-rain...
"I'll try," she said. "But one condition. Give me back my hovercam."
"I should have known," Udzir sighed.
He waved his hand, and Aya felt her limbs lighten, her hoverball rig coming back to life. Hiro floated up into the air, and Moggle rose uncertainly from the floor.
"Is that really you?" she asked.
Moggle's night-lights flashed.
She smiled, blinking away spots and booting her eye-screen. "Tally-wa? Are you around? I've got some news for you."
There was no response.
Aya shook her head. "She must be farther than a klick away. Can you boost my signal?"
"We can try," Udzir said. "But if your ping goes out through our network, Tally may not believe that it's really ..." His voice faded.
Outside, a low rumbling sound was spilling through the night, like distant thunder. Aya felt it through the soles of her feet, and the walls of the building shivered around them. She heard the squeal of a faraway alarm.
"That sounds like Young Blood," Andrew said softly, and Aya nodded.
Tally was finally blowing something up.
"Come on, Aya!" Hiro said, reaching down for her. "I'm the fastest person here."
She nodded, grabbing his gloved hand and shouting, "Moggle, bring Frizz!"
The huge doors were already swinging wider, and Hiro pulled her off her feet, shooting toward the opening. Aya's injured ribs burned with pain, her feet flailing behind her.
"Slow down!" she gasped.
"Sorry, little sister," he said. "But we don't have time."
He shot out into the night and through a sweeping turn, leaving Aya gasping as her ribs creaked inside her.
"Maybe you should go ahead," she grunted. "You'll get there faster without me."
"Your English is better than mine. And Tally will listen to you!"
"But she hates me! Or thinks I'm an idiot, anyway."
He laughed. "I doubt that, Aya. And she'll have to believe you on this one - you wouldn't change your mind about the freaks unless you were positive."
"Because it means my story was totally truth-missing?" she cried.
"Exactly," he said, then pointed with his free hand. "Uh-oh."
The horizon before them flickered with a series of flashes, the ramble of detonations arriving several tardy seconds later. Distant clouds of smoke rose into the air, flickering red from fires on the ground below. It looked almost like a party mansion, but the rumbling thunder was much deeper than the crackle of safety fireworks.
"I guess that's where the Extras' ships are," Hiro said.
Aya could only grunt. Hiro was weaving through the floating forms of Extras who'd spilled out into the night, pulling her one way and then the other. Her wrist twisted in his hand, and her ribs screamed with every turn.
Hovercars rose into the air around them. A few flew past overhead, lifting fans stirring the air, screaming toward the flashes on the horizon.
"This could get messy," Hiro said. "It'll turn into a battle if we can't stop her soon."
Aya nodded, flexing her ring finger. "Tally-wa! It's me!"
"We're still too far away," he cried, dropping closer to the girders thrusting up from the ground.
Aya could feel them whipping past, the magnets in Hiro's rig pushing off from their metal, each burst of speed threatening to wrench her shoulder from its socket.
The buildings and factory tents fell behind them - Hiro was dragging her across a broad, clear-cut plain, empty except for the girders.
"Look!" Hiro's free hand pointed downward. Huge burn marks darkened the earth, and a charred smell filled Aya's nose.
"They must have tested the rockets here," she yelled.
"I hope that means we're getting close!"
The air itself trembled around them now - Aya felt the explosions rumbling through her body.
The flashes threw long shadows from the girders, and half the night sky was shrouded in smoke.
"Aya?" Frizz's voice sounded in her ear. "Moggle and I are right behind you." He paused. "Well, maybe not right behind you - Hiro's flying like crazy. But we're coming as fast as we can."
"Okay, Frizz. Just make sure that Moggle gets some good - crap!"
Hiro was pulling her into a sudden climb, wrenching apart her wounded ribs. A black expanse of wall stretched out before them, as wide as Aya could see. They skimmed over its top, then suddenly were flying across what looked like a burning expanse of jungle canopy, treetops waving wildly in the spreading flames...
But this wasn't jungle at all, Aya realized. An endless camouflage net stretched out beneath them, textured with vines and flowering ferns, as detailed as a vast sneak suit. The flames were real, though - sheets of them roared across the dark expanse, an eye-watering windstorm of heat and smoke spilling up into the air.
Where the camouflage had already burned away, Aya saw the tops of the Extras' ships thrusting through the camouflage, as black as ashes, the needle sharpness of their nose cones melted.
She and Hiro soared higher above the nearest flames, carried for long seconds by the momentum of their climb - but soon began to fall.
"Sneak suit!" she cried, scrambling with her free hand to pull on her hood. She saw Hiro reaching up to do the same.
They descended into the fire, skimming among the metal ships in a shallow dive, clouds of smoke churning in their wake. The boiling air burned Aya's lungs, and she smelled her own stray hairs bursting into flame. Even through the sneak suit's armor, her skin blistered from the heat.
But Hiro was already pulling her out again, hover-bouncing up from the forest of steel and flame.
She looked around - there were hundreds of them, a vast fleet of ships stretching in all directions.
A dozen of the Extras' cars hovered over the conflagration, spraying fire-fighting foam in all directions. But new fires were bursting into life much faster than they could put them out.
A boom thundered across the field, shuddering through Aya's body. She saw the shock wave spreading, a growing circle of roiling smoke and flame. At its center was the wreckage of one ship, a tower of steel ripped and twisted from within, slowly tipping over...
It crashed to the ground with a metal shriek, spilling a fresh sheet of flame across the ground. The burning rocket fuel wrapped around the base of the next ship, traveling up its side like a lit and crawling fuse.
Aya tore her eyes away and flexed her finger, shouting, "Tally!"
The name rasped from her smoke-filled lungs, barely audible. But a moment later a faint answer came through the roaring tumult..."Aya?"
"Tally-wa!" she croaked. "It's me!"
"Why aren't you back at the ruin? It's dangerous here!"
Aya coughed. "I noticed!"
Hiro and she were descending again, like a rock skipping across water, plunging back down into the sea of smoke and flame.
"You have to stop!" she said quickly. "I was wrong about - "
The fire enveloped Aya again, setting her coughing. She could see nothing but smoke and the dark shapes of the Extras' ships surrounding them. Her sneak suit was stiffening around her skin, its armored surface breaking down in the heat.
"Where are you, Aya?" Tally's voice said, the signal stronger now.
Aya felt Hiro's grip tighten, and he pulled her up out of the smoke once more.
"Flying over the ships!"