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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.

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