She wrapped her arms around herself, trying not to look down at the nervous-making drop. The three of them were balanced atop a tall transmission tower, high enough to see darkness on the horizon, the place where the city stopped.
Aya had never glimpsed the wild before tonight, except on nature feeds. Somehow the thought of venturing out into that lightless, barren expanse was even scarier than jumping on a speeding train.
Moggle's absence made her doubly uneasy. It was eerie knowing that none of this was being recorded. Like a dream, whatever happened would all be gone tomorrow morning. Aya felt cut off from the world, unreal.
"The next tram passes in three minutes," Jai said. "So what's the most important thing to remember once we're surfing?"
A cold trickle squirmed down Aya's spine. "The decapitation signals."
"Which work how?"
"When anyone in front of me flashes a yellow light, that means duck. Red means a tunnel's coming, so lie flat against the train."
"Just don't get too excited." Jai giggled. "Or you'll lose your head."
Aya wondered if the Sly Girls had ever considered lying flat for the whole ride, which would make decapitation much less of an issue. Or realized that not surfing mag-levs at all would keep head-losing safely in the realm of the unimaginable, where it belonged.
"Sounds like you've got it down," Jai said.
Eden snorted. "Yeah, she's practically an expert."
"Relax, face-queen," Jai said. "Not all of us are hoverball stars."
"Not all of us are fifteen, either. Or kickers."
"She doesn't even have a cam anymore."
Aya listened to them argue, wondering how high Jai's face rank was. Lots of people who avoided the feeds were famous, of course. In fact, the most famous person in the city - in the whole world - didn't have a feed of her own. But people talked about her every time they mentioned the mind-rain.
"You don't have to worry about me," Aya said. "Just because I'm an ugly doesn't mean I'm stupid."
"Of course not," Jai said. "In fact, I find your ugliness enchanting."
"I've been getting a lot of that lately," Aya said, thinking of Frizz Mizuno.
"One minute to go!" Eden called, and jumped from the tower. Her hoverball rig caught her fall, and she pirouetted in midair to face them. "Just be careful, Aya."
"She will be." Jai pushed off, stepping onto her waiting board. "They're always careful the first time!"
She laughed and spun away, the two of them sweeping down toward the tracks together.
Aya stepped gingerly onto the high-speed board they'd given her. It gave a little under her weight, like a diving board, but she could feel the power surging beneath her feet.
The approaching train was visible now, just crawling out from the yards, loaded with trade bound for other cities. She couldn't hear its rumble yet, but Aya knew that three hundred tons of speeding metal would shake the earth like a suborbital launch as it passed.
She followed Jai and Eden across the factory belt, down to the hiding place where the others waited - the rooftop of a low industrial building next to the tracks. A few driverless trucks rumbled along the streets below, tending the factories and building sites. No people anywhere.
As Aya swept in for a landing, loose gravel crunched under her hoverboard. She slid to a hiding spot behind a ventilation tower spitting exhaust from the underground depths of the factory. A smell like sulfur and hot glue tinged the air.
Crouching there, listening to the train rumbling in the distance, Aya found herself thinking of Frizz Mizuno again. He seemed to cross her mind every few minutes - how had one random conversation been so brain-rattling?
The teachers always warned about getting too involved with pretties. Since the mind-rain, they weren't as innocent as they looked. They could mess with your head so easily, just by gazing at you with those huge, gorgeous eyes.
Of course, Frizz wasn't like that. She'd checked the city interface after classes, and Ren had been right about Radical Honesty: They couldn't lie, or even imply a falsehood. The whole truth-slanting part of their brain had been switched off, just like bubbleheads were missing willpower, creativity, and despair.
But the fact that Frizz had been truthful just made him more nerve-jangling. As did the fact that his face rank was going up every hour. He'd only been pretty a few months, and he was headed for the top thousand.
"Nervous?" a voice came from the darkness.
It was one of the other Sly Girls, crouching beside the next air vent. She looked younger than Jai and Eden - with the same Plain Jane surge and hole-in-the-wall rejects they all wore.
"No, I'm okay."
"But surfing's more fun if you're scared."
Aya laughed. With her mousy brown hair, the girl looked almost like an ugly. Her eyes were so lusterless and dull that Aya wondered if she'd surged them that way.
"This should be plenty of fun, then."
"Good." The girl grinned. "It's supposed to be!"
She certainly looked like she was having fun. As the rumble of the train built, her smile gleamed like a pretty's in the darkness. Aya wondered what made her so thrilled to be risking her life like this.
How many people even knew that she was a Sly Girl?
"Hey aren't you in my dorm?" Aya asked. "What's your name?"
The girl laughed. "You going to check my face rank later?"
"Oh." Aya looked away. "Is it that obvious?"
"Fame's always obvious - that's the point of it." She glanced back toward where Jai was hiding.
"I know you kick stories once in a while. We'll have to break you of that habit."
"Sorry I asked."
"No problem. Listen, if it makes you feel better, my first name's Miki. And my face rank's about nine hundred and ninety-seven thousand."
"Pretty sly, huh?" Miki said with a grin.
Aya shook her head, trying to think through the building rumble of the train. It didn't make sense.
Anyone who pulled tricks like this should have cracked a hundred thousand, whether they'd been kicked or not. The city interface picked up any mention of your name, especially gossip, tall tales, and rumors.
And 997,000 was almost a million! That was the land of extreme extras, like newborn littlies and crumblies who'd never taken the mind-rain pills. Non-people, practically.
Miki just laughed at her dumbfounded expression. "Of course, Jai's even slyer. That's why she's the boss."
"You mean slyer ... as in less famous?"
Miki winked. "As in kissing a million."
"Get ready!" Eden Maru called, barely audible above the growing roar of the train.
"Surf's up!" Miki yelled, kneeling.
Aya grabbed her hoverboard's forward edge, trying to focus. This story was suddenly much stranger than just surfing a mag-lev. For some reason, the Sly Girls had turned the reputation economy upside down.
They wanted to disappear. But why?
Her crash bracelets snapped against the board, locking her down tight. The factory roof itself was shuddering now, the gravel strewn across it dancing like hailstones hitting grass.
She could finally kick a story like one of Hire's: long, dizzy-making interviews, a dozen background layers tracing the Girls' histories, wild footage of tram rides and underground meetings. If she could just shoot it without them finding out...and with her hovercam at the bottom of a lake.
Aya glanced over her shoulder at Jai, feeling a cold smile creep onto her face. Finally she knew how to take the perfect revenge for Moggle's watery burial. She was going to kick this story big, and make the Sly Girls famous beyond their wildest nightmares.
She'd make sure everyone knew their names.
"Hey, you look a little funny," Miki called above the roar. "Not finally getting scared, are you?"
Aya laughed. "No. Just getting ready!"
The thunder built louder and louder, finally exploding as the train arrived, a solid blur of lights and noise shooting past. A dozen whirlwinds of dust swirled to life across the rooftop.
Then the train leaned into the curve, and Aya heard a chorus of humming slowly build, like an orchestra of wineglasses tuning up. Three hundred tons of levitating metal and smart matter were bending into a new shape, slowing down just a little bit.
"Now!" Eden screamed.
And they rose into the air.
The board shot forward, dragging Aya along by her wrists.
It wrenched and twisted like a bad spinout, when crash bracelets could almost jerk a rider's arms from their sockets. But spinouts never lasted this long. Aya's hoverboard was still accelerating, faster and faster along the slow curve of the mag-lev line.
She squeezed as flat as she could against the board, her feet dangling off the back end, her dorm jacket snapping like a flag in a gale.
Squinting against the wind, Aya could hardly see anything. Only a few meters ahead, Miki was nothing but a teary blur. Luckily, the board was programmed to fly itself until it matched the speed of the train.
Sneaking out the night before to look for Eden and her friends, Aya had never expected to wind up riding the train herself. She'd imagined zooming along at a safe distance, with Moggle closer in, capturing images for her feed.
Yet here she was, taking the most brain-kicking ride of her life, and it wasn't even being recorded!
The ground flashed by below, but the train beside her seemed to be gradually slowing down. The hoverboard was really catching up.
Soon she'd have to climb aboard.
For a second, she thought about veering off, shooting away into the night. She could still kick a secret clique bent on wild tricks and avoiding fame.
Of course, she'd have nothing to prove her story but two crash bracelets, a high-speed board, and a waterlogged hovercam. Except for Eden Mara, she didn't even know any full names. No one would believe her - especially not Hiro.
To get the footage she needed, she had to make the Sly Girls think that Aya Fuse was one of them. And to do that, she had to surf this train.
In the howling wind, she could feel the awesome physical forces all around her, waiting for any mistake. The mag-lev seemed to drift into place beside Aya as her board matched its speed.
The hoverboard's autopilot flashed once - it had done its job.
Now Aya was in control.
Jai had warned her about this part. Any sudden shift of weight could send the board crashing against the tram, or spinning away into a passing building.
Ahead of her, Miki was swaying back and forth, testing her control.
Aya held her breath...and lifted the fingers of her right hand. The wind bent them back painfully, and her board shuddered, veering away from the train.
She dragged her fingers back into a fist, and the stabilizers kicked in, steadying the hoverboard.
Her whole hand throbbed.
This was fast. ... If only Moggle were watching.
Ahead, Miki was only a meter from the train - another girl farther on was already reaching out a hand toward the roof. Aya had to get onboard before the mag-lev line straightened out.
"Here goes," she said through gritted teeth.
She crooked her left thumb, barely lifting it from the hoverboard's front edge. The board responded more evenly this time, angling toward the steady expanse of the mag-lev's roof. She drifted closer in cautious stages, like handling a kite with minute tugs on its strings.
A few meters from the train, her board began to jump and shudder again. Jai had warned her about this, too: the shock wave, an invisible boundary of turbulence stirred up by the train's passage.
Aya fought the tumult with twitches and gestures, every muscle straining. Her ears popped with pressure changes, and her eyes streamed tears into the wind.
Suddenly she pulled free of the turbulence, sweeping across the remaining space to bump softly against the metal flank of the train. Aya felt the mag-lev's vibrations buzzing in the board beneath her as its magnets firmed up the connection.