Aya coughed again, cursing herself for being brain-missing. "The missiles! I'm right over them.
But they're not really missiles!"
"Are you sanity-challenged?" Tally shouted. "Get out of there!"
"I think she's this way," Hiro said, yanking Aya into a shoulder-wrenching turn. They wheeled just above the nose cones of the ships, level and steady, Hiro's hover-bouncing finally under control.
Another deafening boom erupted, closer this time, knocking Aya's breath out of her. She lost her grip on Hiro's hand, and shot away from him into an aimless, weaving course in zero-g, buffeted by the windstorms of the raging inferno and the ships' magnetic fields.
"You have to stop, Tally!" Aya yelled, angling her hands like a mag-lev-surfing Sly Girl, guiding herself back toward Hiro. "Wait until we reach you, and I'll explain."
"Some of these missiles are already fueled!" Tally said. "They could start launching the moment we let up!"
"But they're not missiles! They're ships! Stop blowing things up and let me explain!"
"Forget it!" Tally shouted. "If even one of those missiles launches, a whole city dies. Get out of there now!"
Hiro came sweeping toward Aya, reaching for her, but she twisted away and he shot past empty-handed.
"If you don't promise to stop, I'm staying right here," she said flatly. "And you can blow us up too!"
"I can't sacrifice whole cities for you," Tally said. "And I know you, Aya-la - you'll save your own skin. You have ten seconds."
"I'm not budging!" she yelled.
"I doubt that."
Hiro had turned around and was cutting back toward her, reaching out his hand again. Aya sobbed with frustration - who would believe that a truth-slanting ugly like her would sacrifice herself?
"I'm here too," came another voice. "And I'm not leaving."
"Frizz?" Tally said. "Have you all gone brain-missing?"
"The Extras aren't trying to kill anyone," he said firmly.
"But what if you're wrong?" Tally yelled.
"I'm certain," Frizz said. "And you know I can't lie, Tally."
Hiro grabbed Aya's hand, pulling her up and away from the flames. She twisted in his grasp, searching for Frizz. There he was - clutching Moggle near the center of the field, his glowing sneak suit barely visible against the inferno.
"Tally, please," she sobbed. "He means it!"
Tally let out a long sigh, then said, "Start moving, Aya-la. You have two minutes to convince me."
A single flare rose on the horizon, and Hiro headed toward it.
Two sneak-suited forms were waiting at the jungle's edge, perched on the high wall that surrounded the Extras' fleet.
Tally pulled off her hood as they landed, her black eyes glistening in the light of the inferno.
"Fausto and Shay are waiting for a signal from us. Ninety seconds from now they'll launch more bombs, unless I tell them otherwise. So start explaining."
Aya swallowed. "The Extras ... I mean the freaks, aren't what we thought."
"Then what are all those missiles for?" David said, pulling off his own hood.
"They aren't missiles," Aya said. "They're ships."
Tally frowned. "Ships?"
"It all fits, Tally-wa. You just have to listen! Them taking the metal from the whole world! And they float in the air! Their extra hands...because they don't need feet up there!"
Hiro grabbed her hand and muttered, "Aya, slow down."
"Or at least make sense," Tally said. "You've only got seventy seconds left."
Aya closed her eyes, trying to put the story together in her head. More pieces were coming together now, all the threads she'd been following since her first steps into the hollow mountain back at home.
"When I tested that cylinder for my story, the smart matter was programmed to guide it up ... but not back down. And remember what Fausto said? How mass drivers would be perfect to shoot the cylinders into orbit permanently? That's exactly what the freaks are doing. Except they don't want to get rid of the world's resources - they want to use them up there."
"Use them for what?" Tally asked.
"To live. Your friend Andrew explained it to us! They're going to build orbital habitats out of all that metal and smart matter. The whole point of the mass drivers is to launch their raw materials."
"All the mountains we found were empty," David said slowly. "Because the metal's already gone up?"
Aya nodded, pointing out across the burning field. "And these are all ships, rockets to take people up. Mass drivers would kill you if you tried to ride one at full speed - the Sly Girls said so. That's why this base is here at the equator, the easiest place to get into orbit."
"And the hoverball rigs they wear," Hiro said in maddeningly slow English. "They are practicing for zero-g."
"In orbit, where an extra pair of hands are more useful than feet," David said. He turned to Tally.
"Twenty-five seconds left."
Aya watched suspicion settle on Tally's cruel pretty features. According to Frizz, Tally had never fixed the wiring in her head. She'd been designed to have contempt for anyone who wasn't Special, to think that humanity was always trying to destroy the world. What if her brain surge wouldn't allow her to see what the Extras were really planning?
Like Udzir had said, rockets were death and hope in one machine - it was all how you saw them. Aya wasn't even Special, and she'd been confused before Andrew had explained, convinced by her upbringing and her own story-slanting that the Extras threatened the world.
Once you'd told yourself a story enough times, it was so easy to keep on believing it.
Tally shook her head, her eyes shut tight. "If we let up, even for a few minutes, they could launch enough of these things to wreck the planet."
David put a hand on her shoulder. "But why would they? Even the Rusties managed not to do that. Maybe they built the missiles and aimed them ..."
Tally opened her eyes. "But they never pushed the button. Shay! Fausto!"
"Yeah, we heard," Shay's voice pinged. "No more bombs today."
Aya let out a long, shuddering breath.
Tally turned to look out across the Extras' fleet, her features softening. The camouflage netting was still burning, and every ship looked charred and blackened. But only a handful had been completely destroyed, toppled on their sides, burning rocket fuel spilling from them like rivers of fire in the darkness.
There were still hundreds of the ships standing, maybe thousands. Enough to lift a whole city into the sky.
"Okay, Cutters," Tally said, exhaustion in her voice. "Maybe we should give them a hand with these fires."
"Why not?" Shay said. "Fighting fires is almost as fun as starting them!"
Tally pulled her hood back over her face, then stepped onto her waiting board. Her sneak suit switched to bright orange, like a firefighter's coverall, and she shot out across the burning field.
Aya saw two more hoverboards rising from the forest of metal shapes. They joined the Extras'
hovercars, attacking the burning leftovers of camouflage netting with bursts of foam, spraying any ships that were dangerously close to the blazing spills of rocket fuel.
"They cleared the jungle here," David said. "Once that camo netting's gone, the fire won't have much fuel." He pulled his hood from his face. "Still, you two stay here. You look fried enough for one night."
Aya nodded wordlessly. Her sneak suit crackled when she moved, the scales fused solid, and its coloring was stuck for good on the red-tinged gray of smoke and flame.
"Tell Tally this wasn't her fault," Aya said to David. "We thought the same thing."
He turned toward her, and shrugged. "It's no wonder. We were all brought up in the world the Rustles almost destroyed. It's hard to remember that they did more than fight each other. But thanks."
"For what? For slanting the truth, so you all came here expecting world-killing monsters?"
"No. For helping Tally rewire herself a little more." David lifted into the air, his hoverboard shooting out across the firestorm.
"You did pretty good, Aya-chan," Hiro said.
She looked up at her brother. "Are you kidding?"
He shook his head. "I'm serious. You finally learned how to kick a story without going over time."
Aya let out a short laugh, which sent a fresh wave of pain rippling across her ribs. She groaned, rubbing her sides. Her right shoulder was sprained and twisted from being towed here at hoverball speeds, and her wrist felt like someone had squashed it in a sushi maker.
"Look," Hiro said.
Moggle was making its way across the smoldering ruin of the camo netting with Frizz in tow, the smoke swirling around them.
"Are you okay?" she pinged.
"A little singed," Frizz said. "But we got some awesome shots."
Aya shook her head, for once not caring if any of this was recorded. At last all the threads of the last two weeks made sense, the truth assembling itself like an Extras' ship out of scattered bits of scrap. It was a relief, no longer having to struggle with unwieldy facts and her own total lack of Radical Honesty.
As Frizz landed and took her gently into his arms, a brain-calming hum traveled through Aya's battered body, like a perfect edit falling into place.
She'd finally gotten this story right.
"Remind me again why I'm doing this."
"To show your support." Aya adjusted the sparkles on Tally's gown, then took a step back to admire them. "You're the most famous person in the world, Tally-wa. If you tell everyone you're behind the Extras, they'll get a lot more recruits."
"And less hassle for all that metal they grabbed," Fausto added. He adjusted his necktie. "And for kidnapping everyone who saw them."
"Plus, Tally-wa," Shay said, straightening her hair. "We haven't been to a party in ages!"
Tally just grunted, looking at herself doubtfully in Aya's huge wallscreen. Her ball gown was rippling smart matter and velvet, as black as night and shimmering like starlight. Perfect for the Thousand Faces Party.
"Don't look so glum," Shay said. "You used to wear stuff like that all the time."
"Yeah, back when I was a bubblehead."
Aya tried to picture Tally perpetually happy and clueless, and shook her head. Even in the ball gown, Tally was still a total Cutter, her face and bare arms laced with flash tattoos and scars.
"You know," Aya said softly, "there's still time to fix those if you want."
"No chance." Tally ran one finger down her arm. "They remind me of things I don't want to forget."
"You look beautiful," David said. He was wearing one of Hiro's antique silk jackets, having proclaimed that anything from a hole in the wall made him nervous. He'd been jumpy since he and Tally had arrived from Singapore that afternoon, as if the city was too cramped for him.
Aya's apartment was a little crowded tonight. All nine of them were here - Aya, Frizz, Hiro, and Ren; Andrew, David, and the three Cutters - everyone who'd featured in the Leaving Home story. It had kicked two days ago, and all of them were in the top one thousand. Nowhere but Shuffle Mansion had enough security to keep the paparazzi cams at bay.
At least there was room for everyone here. Upon her return home, Aya had found her apartment twice as big as when she'd left, expanding in proportion to her fame. Maybe face rank wasn't everything, but there were some advantages to being the third-most-famous person in the city.