Ren leaned closer to her on the couch. "He's the founder of this new clique - Radical Honesty.
Hiro's just mad because Frizz decided to kick the clique himself, instead of letting one of us help out."
She frowned. "Radical what?"
"Honesty." Ren pointed at his temple, his eyescreens - like a true tech-head, he had one in each eye - spinning. "Frizz designed this new brain surge. Like back in the Prettytime, except instead of making you a bubblehead, they change your mind so you can't lie."
"Yeah, it's supposed to be the brave new horizon of human interaction," Hiro muttered from his chair. "But they just babble about their feelings all day."
"Friend of mine tried it for a week," Ren said. "He said it's very boredom-killing. Turns out if you never lie, there's always someone mad at you."
Hiro and Ren laughed, and the two of them went back to analyzing the other feeds, watching the kickers' ranks rise and fall. The software religion was a flop - Gamma-sensei had lost face all morning.
But the poodle was working, as funny-looking animals usually did, sending the Nameless One all the way up to sixty-three, one notch above the mayor.
Aya kept silent, staring at the corner of the screen Frizz had briefly occupied. She was trying to remember every word he'd said to her - that he'd liked her randomly generated nose, thought she was mysterious, and wanted to know her full name.
And he hadn't been lying about any of it.
Of course, when he found out that she didn't have such great taste in randomly generated noses - that she'd just been born with it, because she was an ugly and a party-crashing extra - what would he say then? He wouldn't even be polite about it. The honesty surge would make him show his disappointment about their difference in ambition...
Unless she wasn't an extra by then.
"Hey, Ren," she asked quietly. "Have you ever snuck footage of anyone?"
"You mean like fashion-slammers? No way. That's totally unkick."
"No, I don't mean shots of famous people. More like going undercover for a story."
"I'm not sure," Ren said, looking uncomfortable. He was a tech-kicker; his feed was filled with more hardware designs and interface mods than people stories. "The City Council keeps changing their minds about it. They don't want to get all Rusty, with people owning information and stuff. But nobody likes all those feeds that just show people cheating on their partners. Or fashion-slammers making fun of clothes and surge."
"Yeah, everyone hates those feeds. Except the zillions of people who watch them."
"Hmm. You should probably ask Hiro. He keeps up with that stuff."
Aya glanced at her brother, who was deep in a feed-trance, absorbing all twelve screens at once, no doubt plotting his big follow-up to immortality. Not the right moment to mention her new story, especially since that would mean bringing up a certain missing hovercam.
"Maybe not right now," she said. "So what are you working on?"
"Nothing huge," he said. "This middle-pretty science clique asked me for a kick. They've got some merits but no face. They're trying to recreate all those species the Rusties erased, you know? From old scraps of DNA and junk genes."
"Really?" Aya said. "That sounds totally kickable!"
"Yeah, till it turned out they're starting with worms and slugs and insects. I was like, 'Worms? Let me know when you get to tigers!'" He laughed. "I saw your underground graffiti story, by the way. Good work."
"Really?" Aya felt herself blush. "You thought those guys were interesting?"
"They will be," Hiro murmured from his chair, "in about a thousand years, when their work gets unburied."
Ren smiled, whispering, "See? Hiro watches your feed too."
"Not that she returns the favor," Hiro said, his eyes never leaving the wallscreen.
"So what are you kicking next, Aya-chan?" Ren asked.
"Well, it's kind of a secret right now."
"A secret?" Hiro said. "Ooh, mysterious."
Aya sighed. She'd come here to ask for Hiro's help, but he obviously wasn't in a help-giving mood. He was going to be insufferable now that he'd reached the top thousand.
Maybe it was pointless anyway. She wasn't even sure that the Sly Girls would keep their promise and contact her, or how to find them again if they didn't.
"Don't worry, Aya-chan," Ren said. "We won't tell anybody."
"Well...okay. Have you guys ever heard of the Sly Girls?"
Ren glanced at Hiro, who turned slowly in his chair to face her. A strange expression had appeared on both their faces.
"I've heard of them," Hiro said. "But they're not real."
Aya laughed. "Not real? Like, they're robots or something?"
"More like a rumor," he said. "The Sly Girls don't exist."
"What do you know about them?" she asked.
"Nothing. There's nothing to know about them, because they aren't real!"
"Come on, Hiro," she said. "Unicorns aren't real, and I know stuff about them. Like...they have horns on their foreheads. And they can fly!"
Hiro groaned. "No, that's Pegasus that flies. Unicorns just have a horn, which makes them a lot more real than the Sly Girls, who I can't tell you anything about. It's just a random phrase kickers use.
Like last year when someone was jumping off bridges wearing homemade parachutes, and no one ever figured out who. Everyone just said, The Sly Girls did it.' Because sly in English means clever or sneaky."
Aya rolled her eyes. "My English is a lot better than yours, Hiro-sensei. But what if they really exist?"
"Then they wouldn't be secret, would they? I mean, some cliques start off underground, and a lot of people pull tricks on the sly, but nobody stays anonymous forever." He swept his gaze around the apartment - the huge wallscreen, the garlands of paper cranes, the floor-to-ceiling window with its slowly shifting view. "Thanks to the reputation economy, they'd rather be famous. Did you know that every real criminal since the mind-ram has wound up confessing?"
Aya nodded. Everyone knew that, and how they'd all hit the top one thousand for at least a few days. "But what if - ?"
"It's not real, Aya. Whatever it is."
"So if I bring you some shots of the Sly Girls?" she said. "What are you going to say then?"
Hiro turned back toward the wallscreen. "The same thing I'd say if you stuck a plastic horn on a horse and started kicking unicorns: Quit wasting my time."
Aya clenched her fists, her eyes stinging. The doubts she'd had about sneaking footage of the Girls were gone now. She was going to make Hiro eat his words.
She turned to Ren. "What's a good cam to requisition? One that's small enough to hide." She fingered a button on her dorm uniform. "This big."
"That's easy," Ren said, then frowned. "Where's your hovercam, anyway? You never used to go anywhere without Moggle."
"Oh...well, that's sort of why I was looking for you, Ren."
He grinned. "What, did you break another lens? You've got to stop jumping out your window"
"Um, it's kind of worse than that," Aya said softly, but she could see that Hiro was listening. Why was she always invisible to him, until she made a mistake? "You see, I kind of... lost Moggle."
Ren's eyes widened. "But how...?"
"You lost it?" Hiro turned to them, a glare set on his pretty face. "How do you lose a hovercam?
They just fly home when you leave them behind!"
"It's not like I left it somewhere," she said. "I mean, I would never - "
"Do you know how long Ren spent on those mods?"
"Look, Hiro, I know where Moggle is, sort of," Aya said, a lump rising in her throat. "I just need a little help finding it and...getting it back to the surface."
"The surface of what?" Hiro cried.
"There's this sort of underground lake, and ..." Her throat closed up around the words, and Aya shut her eyes. If Hiro kept yelling at her, she'd burst into tears.
She felt Ren's hand on her shoulder. "It's okay, Aya-chan."
"I'm sorry," she managed.
"Well, it sounds like a pretty famous-making story." He exhaled slowly. "I think I've got some time tomorrow. Maybe I can help you dredge up Moggle from this...underground lake?"
She nodded, eyes still closed. "Thanks, Ren-chan."
"She'll just lose it again," Hiro said.
"No I won't!" she shouted. "And I'm going to prove that you're wrong about the Sly Girls, too!"
But Hiro didn't answer...he just shook his head.
Aya made her way home, still trying not to cry.
She was exhausted, Ren hated her, and her stupid brother was getting more famous and horrible every second. If Ren couldn't find Moggle, there was no way she could scrape together enough merits for a new hovercam.
All Aya wanted to do was sleep until tomorrow morning, when Ren had promised to meet her at the new construction site. But this afternoon was already stuffed with classes - the ones she'd rescheduled from this morning on top of the dreaded Advanced English. She couldn't skip: Schoolwork was the quickest way to build up merits when you were an ugly - all the good jobs went to pretties and crumblies.
When she reached Akira Hall, she went down to the basement and found an empty wallscreen.
"Aya Fuse," she told it.
It popped to life, listing her pings and assignments, and displaying her miserable face rank of 451,441.
She was dying to look up Frizz Mizuno and Radical Honesty, but not until schoolwork was out of the way. As she scanned the list for any new assignments, her eyes froze on one...
It was anonymous and spitting animations, like the fluttering hearts that littlies decorated their pings with. But these weren't hearts, or exclamation points, or smilies.
They were eyes - dull, unsurged, Plain Jane eyes - and they kept winking at her.
Aya opened the ping...
Saw your story about the graffiti. Not bad, for a kicker. Meet us at midnight, where the mag-lev line leaves Uglyville.
But don't bring a cam, or we won't let you play
- your new friends
"Can't I use my own hoverboard?"
Jai snorted. "That toy? Too slow. The train will be doing a hundred and fifty by the time you jump on."
"Oh." Aya stared down at the long, shimmering curve of the mag-lev line. It cut through the low industrial buildings, an arc of white through dull orange worklights. The Sly Girls had brought her to the city's edge, where the greenbelt faded into factories and new expansions. "I just assumed you guys got on the train while it was standing still."
"The wardens would be expecting that, wouldn't they?" Jai swung her feet casually, as if there weren't a hundred-meter drop below them. "They have monitors all over the train yards."
"But isn't a hundred and fifty kind of fast?" Most boards were safety-capped at sixty kilometers an hour.
"That's nothing for a mag-lev," Eden Maru said. "We're catching it when it slows down on the bend." She pointed toward the wild. "The trains do three hundred once they hit the straightaway outside town."
"Three hundred klicks? And we'll still be riding it?"
"Let's hope so." Jai smiled. "Considering the alternative."
Aya glanced down at the magnetic bracelets strapped to her wrists. They were like the crash bracelets everyone wore for hoverboard falls, just much bigger. But were they really powerful enough to fight a three-hundred-kilometer headwind?