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Part I

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You all say you need us.

Well, maybe you do, but not to help you.

You have enough help,

with the millions of bubbly new minds about to be unleashed,

with all the cities coming awake at last.

Together, you're more than enough to change the world without us.

So from now on, David and I are here to stand in your way.

You see, freedom has a way of destroying things.

- Tally Youngblood

DOWN AND OUT

"Moggie," Aya whispered. "You awake?"

Something moved in the darkness. A pile of dorm uniforms rustled, as if a small animal stirred underneath. Then a shape slipped from among the folds of spider silk and cotton. It rose into the air and floated toward Aya's bed. Tiny lenses gazed at her face, curious and alert, reflecting starlight from the open window.

Aya grinned. "Ready to go to work?"

In answer, Moggie flashed its night-lights.

"Ouch!" Aya squeezed her eyes shut. "Don't do that! It's vision-wrecking!"

She lay in bed another moment, waiting for the spots to fade. The hovercam nuzzled against her shoulder apologetically.

"It's okay, Moggle-chan," she whispered. "I just wish I had infrared too."

Lots of people her age had infrared vision, but Aya's parents had this thing about surge. They liked to pretend the world was still stuck in the Prettytime, when everyone had to wait until they turned sixteen to change themselves. Crumblies could be so fashion-missing.

So Aya was stuck with her big nose - definitely ugly -  and her normal vision. When she'd moved out of her home and into a dorm, her parents had given her permission to get an eyescreen and skintenna, but that was only so they could ping whenever they wanted. Still, it was better than nothing.

She flexed her finger and the city interface flickered to life, layering across her vision.

"Uh-oh," she said to Moggie. "Almost midnight."

She didn't remember dozing off, but the tech-head bash must have already started. It was probably crowded by now, packed enough with surge-monkeys and manga-heads that nobody would notice one ugly extra snooping around.

Besides, Aya Fuse was an expert at being invisible. Her face rank was proof of that. It sat unmoving in the corner of her vision: 451,396.

She let out a slow sigh. In a city of a million, that was total extra-land. She'd had her own feed for almost two years now, had kicked a great story just a week ago, and was still anonymous.

Well, tonight was finally going to change that.

"Let's go, Moggie," she whispered, and slipped out of bed.

A gray robe lay in a shapeless puddle at her feet. Aya pulled it over her dorm uniform and tied it at the waist, then perched on the windowsill. She turned to face the night sky slowly, easing one leg, then the other, out into the cool air.

She slipped on her crash bracelets, glancing at the ground fifty meters below.

"Okay, that's dizzy-making."

At least no monitors were skulking around down there. That was the kick thing about a thirteenth-story room - no one expected you to sneak out your window.

Thick clouds hung low in the sky, reflecting worklights from the construction site across town.

The cold tasted of pine needles and rain, and Aya wondered if she was going to freeze in her disguise.

But she couldn't exactly throw a dorm jacket over the robe and expect people not to notice.

"Hope you're all charged up, Moggie. It's drop-time."

The hovercam drifted past her shoulder and out the window, settling close against her chest. It was the size of half a soccer ball, sheathed in hard plastic and warm to the touch. As Aya wrapped her arms around Moggie, she felt her bracelets trembling, caught in the magnetic currents of the hovercam's lifters.

She squeezed her eyes shut. "Ready?"

Moggie shivered in her arms.

Clinging to the hovercam with all her strength, Aya pushed herself into the void.

Getting out was much simpler these days.

For Aya's fifteenth birthday, Ren Machino - her big brother's best friend - had modified Moggie.

She'd only asked him to make it quick enough to keep up with her hoverboard. But like most tech-heads, Ren took pride in his mods. The new Moggie was waterproof, shockproof, and powerful enough to carry an Aya-size passenger through the air.

Close enough, anyway. With her arms wrapped around the hovercam, she fell no faster than a cherry blossom twirling toward the ground. It was much easier than stealing a bungee jacket. And except for the nervous-making moment of jumping, it was kind of fun.

She watched the windows flicker past - dreary rooms full of standard-requisition squalor. No one famous lived in Akira Hall, just loads of face-missing extras wearing generic designs. A few ego-kickers sat talking into their cams, watched by no one. The average face rank here was six hundred thousand, despair-making and pathetic.

Obscurity in all its horror.

Back in the Prettytime, Aya vaguely remembered, you just asked for awesome clothes or a new hoverboard and they popped out of the hole in the wall like magic. But these days, the hole wouldn't give you anything decent unless you were famous or had merits to spend. And getting merits meant taking classes or doing chores - whatever the Good Citizen Committee commanded, basically.

Moggie's lifters connected with the metal grid beneath the ground, and Aya bent her knees, rolling as she hit. The wet grass squished beneath her like a sodden sponge, soft but shivery cold.

She let go of Moggie and lay for a moment on the rain-soaked earth, letting her heartbeat slow down. "You okay?"

Moggie flashed its night-lights again.

"Okay...that's still blind-making."

Ren had also modified the hovercam's brain. True AI might still be illegal, but the new Moggie was more than just a wedge of circuitry and lifters. Since Ren's tinkering, it had learned Aya's favorite angles, when to pan and zoom, and even how to track her eyes for cues.

But for some reason, it didn't get the whole night-vision thing.

She kept her eyes closed, listening hard as she watched the spots across her vision fade. No footsteps, no whir of monitor drones. Nothing but the muffled thump of music from the dorm.

Aya rose to her feet and brushed herself off. Not that anyone would notice the wet grass clinging to her; Reputation Bombers dressed to disappear. The robe was hooded and shapeless, the perfect disguise for party-crashing.

With a twist of a crash bracelet, a hoverboard rose from its hiding place in the bushes. Stepping on, Aya faced the glittering lights of Prettyville.

Funny how everyone still called it that, even if most of the residents weren't pretty anymore - not in the old sense, anyway. Prettyville was full of pixel-skins and surge-monkeys, and plenty of other strange new fads and fashions. You could choose among a million kinds of beauty or weirdness, or even keep your natural-born face your whole life. These days "pretty" meant whatever got you noticed.

But one thing about Prettyville was still the same: If you hadn't turned sixteen, you weren't supposed to go there. Not at night, when all the good stuff happened.

Especially if you were an extra, a loser, an unknown.

Gazing at the city, she felt engulfed by her own invisibility Each of its sparkling lights stood for one of the million people who had never heard of Aya Fuse. Who probably never would.

She sighed, urging her hoverboard forward.

The government feeds always said that the Prettytime was gone forever, freeing humanity from centuries of bubbleheadedness. They claimed that the divisions among uglies, pretties, and crumb lies had all been washed away. That the last three years had unleashed a host of new technologies, setting the future in motion again.

But as far as Aya could see, the mind-rain hadn't changed everything...

It still pretty much sucked, being fifteen.

TECH-HEADS

"Are you getting this?" she whispered.

Moggie was already shooting, the shimmer of safety fireworks reflecting from its lenses. Hot-air balloons swayed over the mansion, and revelers screamed down from the rooftops in bungee jackets. It looked like a party back in the old days: self-indulgent and eye-kickingly radiant.

At least, that was how Aya's older brother always described the Prettytime. Back then everyone had gotten one big operation on their sixteenth birthday. It made you beautiful, but secretly changed your personality, leaving you brain-missing and easily controlled.

Hiro hadn't been a bubblehead very long; he'd turned sixteen only a few months before the mind-rain had arrived and cured the pretties. He liked to claim that those months had been awful - as if being shallow and vain was such a stretch for him. But he never denied that the parties had been awesome.

Not that Hiro would be here tonight; he was way too famous. Aya checked her eyescreen: the average face rank inside was about twenty thousand. Compared with her older brother, the people at this bash were total extras.

Compared to an ugly ranked at half a million, though, they were legends.

"Be careful, Moggie," she whispered. "We're not wanted here."

Aya flipped up the hood of her robe, and stepped out of the shadows.

Inside, the air was full of hovercams. From Moggle-size all the way down to paparazzi swarms, each cam no bigger than a champagne cork.

There was always plenty to see at tech-head parties, crazy people and kick new gadgets. Maybe people weren't as beautiful as back during the Pretty time, but parties were a lot more interesting: serious surge-monkeys with snake fingers and medusa hair; smart-matter clothes that rippled like flags in a breeze; safety fireworks skittering along the floor, dodging feet and sizzling incense as they passed.

Tech-heads lived for new technologies - they loved showing off their latest tricks, and kickers loved putting them on their feeds. The endless cycle of invention and publicity bumped everyone's face rank, so everyone was happy.

Everyone who got invited, anyway.

A hovercam buzzed close, almost low enough to peek in at Aya's face. She lowered her head, making her way toward a cluster of Reputation Bombers. Here in public they all kept their hoods up, like a bunch of pre-Rusty Buddhist monks. They were already bombing: chanting the name of some random member of the clique, trying to convince the city interface to bump his face rank.

Aya bowed to the group and joined the blur of name-dropping, keeping her ugly face covered.

The whole point of bombing was to dissect the city's reputation algorithms: How many mentions of your name did it take to crack the top thousand? How quickly did you drop if everyone stopped talking about you? The clique was one big controlled experiment, which was why they all wore the same anonymous outfits.

But Aya figured most Bombers didn't care about the math. They were just cheaters, pathetic extras trying to talk themselves famous. It was like how they'd manufactured celebrities back in Rusty days, a handful of feeds hyping a few bubbleheads and ignoring everybody else.

What was the point of the reputation economy, if someone was telling you who to talk about?

But Aya chanted away like a good little Bomber, keeping her attention on her eyescreen, watching the view from Moggies lenses. The hovercam drifted over the crowd, picking out faces one by one.

The secret clique Aya had discovered had to be here somewhere. Only tech-heads could pull off a trick like that...

She'd spotted them three nights before, riding on top of one of the new mag-lev trains, traveling at insane speeds through the factory district - so fast that all the shots Moggie had taken were too grainy and blurry to use.

Aya had to find them again. Whoever kicked a crazy trick like mag-lev riding would be instantly famous.

But Moggie was already distracted, watching a gaggle of NeoFoodies underneath a pink blob floating in the air. They were drinking from it with meter-long straws, like astronauts recapturing a spilled cup of tea.

NeoFoodies were old news - Hiro had kicked a story about them last month. They ate extinct mushrooms grown from ancient spores, made ice cream with liquid nitrogen, and injected flavors into weird forms of matter. The floating pink stuff looked like an aerogel, dinner with the density of a soap bubble.

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