From the author: Dirk Rider and the Coast Gang are the biggest jerks on the beach, and Dusty Yokoyama is determined to beat them in the Malihini Junior Surf-Off contest. Luckily, maverick surfboard-maker and local legend Zhaoping Ho wants none other than Dusty, “the Mayor of Loserville,” to use one of his mysterious prototypes in the competition. What makes the prototype so special? Will Dusty catch a totally tubular wave and the attention of all—or even any—okay, just one—hot girl?
South of the Big Island, on the famous nano'd beach of Malihini—because really, what else is south of the Big Island?—Dusty Yokoyama strolled across the Smart sand, pushing out his chest and hoping the girls wanted to bang him.
Hoping? No. Knowing. Yeah, they were looking at him, at his Mojo wet suit and brand-new board (bought on sale at GoodBuy—but shh, don't tell anyone). Dusty ran a hand through his newly waterproofed hair, so they could see how the 4-micron-thick polymer layer made it shimmer in the tropical sun. Inland to his right, a pair of girls in white virtual bikinis whispered to each other across their beach towels, their breasts and privates masked by nothing but the shimmering white illusion of the jamming signal their cyberneurons transmitted to the minds of the world. As Dusty strutted by, they erupted into titters. Yeah, ladies... swoon.
"Yo, Dusty!" called Roderick from down the beach, waving a deep brown arm. "Trusty Dusty! Dust or Bust! The Dustman! Le Dust Devil!"
Dusty's strut deflated just a shade. To his left, a trio of girls in blue virtual bikinis leaned into each other and giggled.
Roderick ran to his side, grinning, his flip-flops flapping like loyal dogs' tongues. "Dusty the Dustbuster! You Must the Dust! The—"
"The girls are checking me out, man," Dusty whispered. "Can it."
Roderick nodded approvingly at a nearby girl lying face-down on a towel. She appeared to be naked, but between her soft, downy buttocks lay the rear strip of a C-string, cupping her private area in the tiniest possible arrangement of fabric. Her freckled shoulders hunched forward slightly as she watched a talk show segment in the polarized Smart sand. "Hey, honey," said Roderick.
The girl yawned. The image changed to a music video.
"Well," said Dusty, loudly. "I just came down to give my new board a run, before the big Surf-Off this weekend. Yeah. Pretty nice, isn't it?"
A couple girls glanced up. Roderick whistled. "This board here?" he said, smacking it. "This is a nice pounding board. Damn! Volts, man, where'd you get it?"
"The Edge," lied Dusty, trying to sound bored. More girls glanced up. "You know, Zhaoping Ho's shop."
"Zhaoping Ho?" said Roderick, clapping his hands to the sides of his head. "You know Zhaoping Ho? The Zhaoping Ho?"
"We go way back," said Dusty, with a cool shrug. All the girls were staring now. "Come on. Grab your board."
Roderick raced away, his steps kicking up the disrupted, glittering matrix. Dusty glanced casually at the sand by his feet and transmitted a few commands to it with the thoughts of his cyberneurons. In a fraction of a second, the polarization changed, the network oscillations of the sand's binding nanoparticles moved away from random, and the sand aligned into a bright screen displaying ocean data at his feet. The girls would see all that junk, about salinity and temperature currents, and know he was a serious surfer for sure.
Roderick ran back. What fool runs top speed with a board? Well, Roderick, that's who, but Dusty only acknowledged his return with an upward nod. Roderick was a good guy, really. He was just a clueless spaz. It's a good thing he's got me, Dusty thought, to show him how things're done.
"In the water, Doofus," said Dusty.
They trotted toward the surf. The sand grew darker and more compact near the tide line. Dusty knew from science class that it was this changing tide line that somehow gave the augmented sand the juice it needed to do its thing. Something to do with ions getting transferred everywhere? It was pretty neat, really. But Dusty wasn't a nerd, or anything. His business was passing through the foaming white that now roared against his thighs, then riding atop the chaos of the waves. Taming them, you could say.
"Crap!" said Dusty as a swell tore the board from his hands.
He took a foundering step toward shore, but a wave sucked back around him. Dusty went down, and a second wave spit him forward with a projectile-vomiting WHOOSH. End over end, Dusty spun in a froth of scouring foam and sand, somehow ending up with his rear planted in muck. Spitting and coughing, he turned and crawled the final few feet to the dry.
"Lost your board, loser?"
"Oh, he's lost way more than his board." The sound of whoops and high-fives pattered through the air.
Dusty rubbed the salt from his lashes and looked up. Dirk "The Jerk" Rider and the Coastal Gang stood nearby, laughing. Big Kohaku himself stood atop Dusty's board, pinning it to the beach beneath his obese and towering frame. The Smart sand around the board's edges glittered with static from the pressure. "Where'd you get this, anyway?" said Dirk. "Your mom's bathtub?"
Dusty gritted his teeth. Dirk thought he was all that just because he was a senior, and in a band. But what really galled Dusty was the girls. Why did the Coastal Gang always have so many freaking girls hanging off them? Dirk was flanked by girls right now, one on each arm, one with a winking jewel dangling from a short navel chain. She turned to nibble Dirk's ear and the navel chain wagged, like a wagging finger from some old lady going, ah-ah-ah, oh no you don't, young man. "No," said Dusty, struggling for a comeback. "I got my board from... from your mom's bathtub."
A couple more girls drifted up behind Greasy Mike to watch. Dusty's frustration peaked. "And what do you think you're doing with my board, you big walrus?"
Big Kohaku grinned. "I'm thinking I'm gonna jump on it."
The Smart sand beneath the board crackled as Big Kohaku jumped. Firecrackers of light flashed from beneath the resin, and a jangle of audio and visual fragments zagged away from it in veins.
"Hey!" shouted Dusty. "Stop it! I need that for the Surf-Off!" He lunged at Big Kohaku, but he might as well have tried to move the Big Island. Big Kohaku just watched Dusty bounce off with a laugh.
Enraged, Dusty mentally commanded the sand into a ten by ten screen, and flashed Dirk and his whole rotten gang an image of the finger.
The girl with the navel chain grinned and fingered her jewel. A wave of images rolled across the sand, each a live feed of Dusty, panting and crusty with salt. His waterproofed hair stuck out in swirling tufts. Beneath scrolled the words, "News Flash: Loser-ville Elects New Mayor."
"You can't do that!" shouted Dusty, pointing to the bauble at the end of her chain. "Cyberneuron signal boosters are illegal!"
A ripple of laugher grew on the beach as everyone looked down at the new screens beneath them. Dusty and his 2,000 images turned red in the face.
"Hey!" shouted a voice from the surf. Roderick flailed through the foam and up the beach, his own board held securely under one arm. "Why are you letting Big Kohaku jump on your board? He's gonna break it!"
"Too late," said Big Kohaku, with a grin. He flipped Dusty's board over with a massive foot and one of the fins broke clean off. It lay in the sand like a discarded crab shell. "Whoops. Well, that's what happens when you ride the waves as hard as you do."
Dusty gaped in despair.
"We gotta ride," said Dirk. "But we'll see you at the Surf-Off this weekend—watching from the beach, that is!"
High-fives pattered through the air. The Coastal Gang ran off down the beach, distributing more hand-slaps along the way. A trail of hot girls, like the nimbus of a comet, drifted in their wake.
Dusty wanted to cry. Or maybe tear Big Kohaku and Dirk the Jerk open with that broken fin. Those voltheads! So what if the board had only come from GoodBuy?
It was all Dusty could afford.
"Oh man," said Roderick. "Your board's totally pounded. No joke." He glanced around the beach. "I hope no girls saw that happen. The one in the C-string was totally hot for me."
Dusty put a hand over his eyes.
"Hey, Trusty Dustman," said Roderick. "How come there's video of you everywhere?"
Dusty needed another board, and soon. He wasn't sure how that would happen, but he dragged Roderick off the sand anyway, and they shoved their way along Surf Street, Nana'ite Beach's main drag. It was packed with tourists, fat and pale-skinned and stopping everywhere to stare so their cyberneurons could take pictures. One geezer, a wheezing bald guy in a flower-patterned shirt (a cloth shirt, even, without any video playing on it! geez) kept blocking the entire sidewalk in front of them. At least it gave Dusty time to watch the access points to Nana'ite Beach, where the exiting girls spread-eagled themselves against the walls of the suck-showers before going beneath the water ones. One Korean cutie in a fabric bikini even leaned forward and rubbed her breasts against a suck-shower wall, saying to her friend, "Oh my God, I hate it when I get matrix stuck in my top. At least regular sand doesn't get so static-y and just stick there."
"Yo, Just-Dust," said Roderick, turning to face him. A tourist next to Roderick yelped and jumped away, narrowly avoiding getting smacked in the butt with Roderick's board.
"Watch it, kid!"
"What is it?" said Dusty.
"So, like, if we don't have any money? How are we gonna get you a new board?"
"Roddy, Roddy, Roddy." Dusty clamped a hand on Roderick's shoulder. "Don't worry about it. I'm on top of things."
Roderick snapped his fingers. "Oh, I know! We're going to Zhaoping Ho's shop so he can cop us a new board. Because you know him."
"Well, uh... actually..."
Roderick took off down the block to Zhaoping Ho's shop, and Dusty had to follow. The Edge was on the south side of the road near the beach, wedged uncomfortably in a deep but narrow lot between Adolphs's Dolphin Falafel Hut ("The Pros of Bottlenose!") and Righteous Tattoo. Righteous was packed—they'd just started offering Whose-Mood Tattoos, and dudes were lined up and down the block so their ink would change color with the mood of the crowd they were hanging with—but Zhaoping Ho's was even packed-er. It had to be, anyway, because why else would the scowling old beach bull watching the entrance not let them in?
"Oh no you don't," said the guy. He pointed at Roderick's board. "Not with that thing."
"What thing?" said Roderick.
"That nasty old thing. The Tidewinder. Leave it outside before you come in here. It's, like, offensive."
"What? This thing? No! No, dude, this is my board. This is Shelia." Roderick kissed it. "Hey, Shelia baby."
The guy stepped in front of the doorway and folded his arms.
"Dude, it's okay, it's cool," said Roderick, grinning and bobbing his head at Dusty. "Turns out my man here personally knows—"
"Sorry, thanks, we're going," said Dusty, grabbing Roderick and dragging him away.
Dusty pulled him into the tight alley between Zhaoping Ho's and the Dolphin Hut. "Cut it out, man!" he hissed. "I don't actually know Zhaoping Ho. I was just saying that because there were girls."
Roderick's eyes went big. "Dude, Zhaoping Ho's gonna be mad when he hears you were denying him."
"Gosh darn it, Roddy—oh, forget it. Let's just go."
Roderick started to turn, but his board slapped against the cinderblock walls. "Oh, dude—I'm stuck."
"Put your board down."
"No, see, that won't help." Roderick put the board down on its side and tried to turn it where it lay. Its ends smacked the concrete again. "See?"
Dusty sighed. "No, I mean put it down so you can flip it up."
Roderick laughed. "You don't carry a board pointing up! Dude, I'm sorry, but you're being stupid."
Dusty grabbed the Tidewinder. "Just give me the pounding board and let me do it!"
"Hey," growled a voice.
Dusty and Roderick turned. The voice came from the far end of the alley. Backlit by the sunny beach, a figure squatted on a narrow concrete patio, barely the width of a Tidewinder board itself.
"Hey, kid," the guy growled. "C'mere."
"Yeah," said Roderick. "That's a better idea. We'll just walk out that side of the alley." He picked up his board and raised his voice. "Thanks, man!"
As they approached the patio, Roderick suddenly stopped and turned. Dusty stopped too, right in time to get smacked with Roderick's board. "Holy orbitals! This dude looks just like Zhaoping Ho! Dust-Ruster, look at this guy!"
"I can't see a darn thing with your stupid board in my—"
The shout died in Dusty's throat. The guy squatting on the ledge was short and thick, and wearing nothing but a pair of horseshoe-patterned boxer shorts, a moon of dark sweat curving under his belly. A sweetweed cigarette dangled from one calloused hand. The dude's breath whistled through his nose as he breathed, but he crouched as still as a leopard made of stone and watched them with the same ineffable intensity. His broad chest sported a thatch of untamed hair.
And when Dusty realized that every last one of those hairs was shimmering with waterproof polymer, he sucked in air like a drowning newbie. "Oh, my God. It is Zhaoping Ho."
"Oh," said Roderick. "Sweet. You can introduce me, then."
"Your friend's mistaken," said the man, in a voice as rough as Pebble Beach. "We haven't met." His smile was forced. "We have now, though. I'm Zhaoping. Who're you screwheads?"
"Oh, me, I'm Roderick Calcutta," said Roderick. "And this is my best bud Dusty Yokoyama. The Dusty Yokoyama."
"Uh-huh," said Zhaoping. He took a drag on his cigarette, moving only his arm and lips, remaining perfectly balanced on the balls of his feet. Zhaoping turned to Dusty and exhaled, and a sweet cloud of smooth vanilla smoke blew through the stale air of the alley. "I see your genius friend has a board. Where's yours?"
Dusty slumped. "I... Dirk broke it. I mean, Big Kohaku broke it."
Dusty looked down at the sandy asphalt by his feet. "He's in Dirk's band. Dirk Rider and the Coastal Gang. They don't even write real music—they're just a mood band, transmitting what they think their songs would make you feel, if they were even able to write any. And they're the biggest jerks on the beach."
A corner of Zhaoping's mouth twitched in a smile. "Yeah?"
"I just bought this new board, right, and Big Kohaku took it, and put it down on the sand, and jumped on it. And a fin totally broke right off. So that's where my board is—sitting ruined on the beach."
"A human concussive force shouldn't've broken it," said Zhaoping. "Where'd you buy that pile?"
"Never mind," said Dusty, stiffly. "I was getting a new board anyway."
"Damn right you are." Zhaoping nodded at a side door in the wall to his back. "I got something I'm working on. Hey—are you recording right now?"
"Your cyberneurons. You recording this?"
Dusty blushed. He would've thought of that from the start, if Roderick's board hadn't smacked the sense out of him. How often do you get to meet Zhaoping Ho? Everybody in Malihini, the whole world even, would kill to meet Zhaoping Ho, and only a sand-eared fool wouldn't record it with his cyberneurons so he could have a perfect, lossless memory of it forever. Dusty started recording and said, "Of course I'm recording this. You're the greatest man alive that ever was."
"Turn it off."
"I said, turn it off." Zhaoping jerked his head to indicate the alley. "This is a no-digital zone. These walls look capable of interfacing to you? Go ahead. Send out a ping. All my turf is silent like that. Policy. I got trade secrets in my shop. You know what I'm saying?"
Dusty nodded, both abashed and thrilled. "Sure. Sure I do." He halted the cybermemory input. "You too, Roderick. Turn it off."
"Huh? Turn what off?"
"Okay," said Dusty, "Roderick's fine."
Zhaoping took another drag. He held the smoke in his lungs a moment, eyes narrowing into dark slits, before letting out a whistling exhale. Dusty felt him ping his mind—and hold it there—to make sure Dusty didn't record. Zhaoping Ho is watching my mind! Oh, holy orbitals! "Good. Like I was saying. I'm working on something, a device for a project. It needs a test, but this is top secret, and I can't test it myself without attracting attention.
"It's housed in a new kind of board."
A shot of adrenaline hit Dusty's heart. "You—you want to give me a board?"
"Toldja," said Roderick.
"Not give," said Zhaoping. "Loan. Look—do you know how the beach works?"
Dusty cocked his head. "How it works?"
"The Smart sand, fool."
Dusty drew himself up. "I don't have to know, exactly. Me and the sand, and the waves, we have an understanding. A spiritual understanding. A guy like you knows exactly what I'm talking about, I'm sure."
Zhaoping stared. "Uh-huh." He glanced at the tip of his cigarette, frowning at the rolling paper. "Listen, Dougal—"
"Yeah. The Smart sand's a matrix for information, carried by the nanites between the actual sand grains. The beach is held more or less in place by the forces of the converging ocean currents in this part of the Pacific, though the matrix is limited such that even if pieces of it did wind up somewhere else, it wouldn't function as a gestalt until a critical mass of it were reached. This is why when some mud-wit forgets to hop in a suck-shower before leaving the beach, he can't will the Smart sand stuck in his asscrack to transmit a radio station. You got me so far?"
"I guess." Dusty shrugged. "I don't know what this has to do with a board. Besides, I'm not a nerd, or anything."
"Clearly." Zhaoping tapped his cigarette to knock off some ash. "I'm working on a way of hacking the critical mass problem of the matrix—that is, of finding a way to make that sand in the asscrack transmit. I need to work up to it, though. First, I need to run some tests in a part of the matrix that has dramatically reduced density. Which, at Nana'ite Beach, means the surf."
"Huh?" said Dusty.
"The sand in the surf, genius. The Smart sand matrix is diluted in the water, as particles floating in the waves."
Dusty frowned at Roderick. Roderick shrugged.
Zhaoping sighed. "Let me spell it out real clear. I'm a surfer. And I make surfboards. I'm also a hacker. I am dying to hack this pounding beach. If I can eventually hack this pounding beach so that I (or anyone) can command something with their cyberneurons that's smaller than the Nana'ite matrix by a factor of at least a billion, and from very far away, then the field of infomatrices will be blown wide open. We'll be able to find practical applications for it, and not just create a hedonic diversion on a manufactured island."
"So?" said Dusty.
"So I made a surfboard that should interface with the beach, you screwhead," said Zhaoping. "If it works, the surfer will be able to interface with the Smart sand on the ocean bottom and in the waves."
"But why would anyone care about interfacing with the beach from a surfboard?"
"Hey," said Roderick. "If, like, your mind can control the sand in the water? And the sand in the water can connect with the sand on the bottom? Which controls the beach? And since the information can, like, go both ways, your mind would be, like, interfaced with the waves? And you'd be, like, One with the ocean? And be the best surfer ever?"
Zhaoping grinned wolfishly. He closed one eye and pointed his smoldering cigarette at Roderick. "Bingo, kid. I've got the Surfboard of Zen. And your friend is going to test it for me."
"And," said Zhaoping, "because I need to run the tests in a period of heavy matrix use, he's gonna do it in the Malihini Junior Surf-Off competition this weekend. Aren't you, Duncan?"
"Dusty." He gulped.
Overwhelmed, Dusty looked at Roderick. Roderick looked back, but only offered his big goofy grin. "It's not... illegal, is it?" Dusty asked Zhaoping.
Dusty gulped again. His mom would holler at him for sure if she knew he was doing anything that could get him in real trouble. But... this was Zhaoping Ho. Asking him for help. Him.
And what about all the girls who would be watching?
Dusty finally drew himself upright. "I'm your man, Mr. Ho. I just have one question."
"So, this is top secret, and we can't tell anyone, right?"
Dusty glanced around, checking for spies in the five-foot gap between Zhaoping's shop and the Dolphin Hut. "So... why are you trusting me?"
"If you do tell anyone, I know they won't believe you."
"Why is that?"
Zhaoping blew a cloud of fragrant smoke into Dusty's face. "I understand you were recently elected the new Mayor of Loser-ville."
The day of the Surf-Off dawned clear and hot, with high winds and righteous waves. By nine A.M., Nana'ite Beach was packed. You could hardly see the ads popping up below, for all the tanned feet and flip-flops, and the acres of skin shimmering with sunblock and oil. When dudes strutted by, the Smart sand flashed with lightning and flames; when the girls strolled, it was sizzles and showers of color. The surf roared a backdrop to the squeals and chatter, the buzz of scrambled audio feeds from beneath, and the silent but dizzying transmissions of millions of cyberneurons swapping and forwarding jokes, stories, pictures, and opinions.
"Oh man," said Roderick. "My Incoming memory is full again." He tilted his head and smacked an ear, as if he could physically dislodge the unwanted data from his brain. "I've remembered this same clip, like, three times already."
"Just block it all for now." Dusty stood nearby, but in a world apart. They'd painted a big number on his wetsuit in polymer ("A zero," a bleary-eyed assistant had said, while painting it on shortly after dawn, "since you're the first one here"), and Zhaoping Ho had made good on his promise.
The Board stood erect next to Dusty, a sleek thing with a faint silvery sheen. Like some kind of rocket, Dusty thought, gripping the edge of it with a sweaty palm. But unlike a rocket, it weighed practically nothing, and the kids on the beach had gone nuts when Zhaoping had strolled onto the sand with it. And even more nuts when Zhaoping located Dusty's shimmering "0" in the crowd and strolled toward him. "Hey, kid," he'd growled. "Here's the board you ordered. Don't pound it up. And I'll see it if you do. I'm on the panel."
Dusty had straightened and accepted the board, while the hot girls tittered and swooned. Dusty turned to address them, but they chose to play it safe and gawk after Zhaoping. Well, that was okay. You couldn't blame girls for being shy.
"I don't wanna block my Incoming memory, man," said Roderick, horrified. "What if I miss something?"
"Dudes and Dudettes!" boomed a voice from the wireless amps in the sand. "Are you ready to surf?"
Across the beach, nubile bodies turned to the judge's table. Cheers went up.
"I said, are you ready to surf?"
The cheers ratcheted into screams. Ladies jumped up and down, and the jamming signals propagating through the cyberneurons of thousands of spectators got crossed and confused. Hundreds of virtual bikinis were unable to keep up, and you could see flashes of everything.
"I said, are you ready to SURF?"
The screams erupted into an orgy of high-fives. Girls poured oil over each others' heads. Dudes charged each other and leapt into the air, bumping chests with hardcore roars, waterproofed armpit hairs glimmering.
"Then welcome to the eleventh annual Malihini Junior Surf-Off Competition! Where over 150 untested studs and babes are ready to tame the waves! And boy, is that surf up. I'm Jace Hancock, your MC, and your awesome judges today will be Dae Woon, from Malihini Weekly; Paulina Namimoto, Lieutenant Governor of Hawai'i—that's a totally tubular bikini, Governor, how about a round of applause for her?—and Zhaoping Ho—"
The rest of the MC's intro was drowned out in a fever pitch of noise. Babes in fabric bikinis flashed the judges' table. A thousand manly hands clenched into fists, thumbs and pinkies extended, and shook at Zhaoping in a fierce exhortation to hang loose.
Zhaoping ignored them. Instead, he stared down the beach, right at Dusty. His dark eyes flicked between the shimmering board and Dusty's big fat zero. Dusty felt a thrill all the way down to his toes. He subconsciously commanded the sand below him to flutter a nervous orange.
And when he did, the zags of orange rippled all the way down the beach, like ripples on a pond.
Dusty started and looked down. Was that Zhaoping's board, transmitting it that far?
Next to him, Roderick shifted the weight of Shelia onto his hip and kept smacking his head. "Because it'd be terrible to miss something."
Dusty kept staring at his feet. Cautiously, he flipped his cyberneurons' reception settings from passive to active, and for the first time in, like, ages, really listened to what the beach was saying. Mostly, listening to Smart sand got old after the first week or two. Listening to different classes of data was just like listening to all the files that were swapped around by everyone in homeroom—you got pieces of what other people wanted to tell everyone they were feeling or thinking about or accessing in the digital part of their memory—except with the Smart sand, you also had the sensory data from the beach itself. Like you felt the internal temperature of the sand and the sensation of people walking all over you, or the feeling of being accessed and manipulated in a hundred places.
But before, Dusty had never been able to feel past the dry. And never in a radius so freaking huge.
He stared at Zhaoping's board, a sudden prickle of cool running between his spine and wetsuit. What was in this thing?
"Yo, Dust!" Roderick shoved him between the shoulder blades. "Come on, go!"
Dusty started again. Everyone else in the first bracket was whooping and charging into the surf. He flipped the board horizontally to carry it and said to Roderick, "Relax, Roddy. You've got to play it cool. You never see Zhaoping run anywhere, do you?"
Roderick scratched his head.
Dusty strolled to the surf last, like he meant to all along. Roderick trotted with him, trusty Shelia in tow. "Why don't you see Zhaoping Ho run anywhere?"
"Hey," said the MC. "Who's that with Number Zero? Somebody get that unregistered kid out of the water."
"It's because he's cool, Roddy. Like me. Like this." Dusty steered his board into the waves. Even though he was wearing a leash this time, the swells were almost hard enough to rip the thing from him anyway. Despite what he'd said to Roddy, this was gonna be tough, no joke.
Or was it? His cyberneurons were still listening, and he could still feel the matrix. He'd never felt it with the waves on top—or as something that could move with the water, as a part of it. Dusty was tumbling end over end, and yet standing perfectly still; bobbing in place and yet rushing to the shore, even as his human feet were fluttering over the ocean bottom and pushing him out into the Pacific. And if he looked at the data a different way, he could feel slow waves of cool and hot. And funny feelings of... pressure?
There. Where a wave was cresting.
Dusty paddled out beyond the swells and sat on his board, staring back at Nana'ite Beach's frothing surf. The MC, Woon, and Namimoto were shouting into their microphones as surfers chose their swells and rode in. You got three swells, and if you scored high enough, you went on to the finals. Right? Dusty wasn't sure. He couldn't remember or even think straight. Every swell was a tsunami of new data and gnarly feelings.
"Look who it is! It's the Mayor!"
Whoops and the slaps of high-fives floated over the swells. The ocean below Dusty dropped into a trough, and Dirk, Big Kohaku, and Greasy Mike, sitting astride their boards and laughing, appeared at the top of a swell. "Mr. Mayor, can we have your autograph?"
"Hey, nice board," said Greasy Mike. "Did you rip up a rocket?"
Dusty pushed out his chest as far as it would go. "No," he said loudly. "I got it from Zhaoping. When he gave it to me. In person."
They laughed. The waves rearranged themselves, dropping The Coastal Gang out of sight. Good riddance! thought Dusty.
And, I'll show them.
When that funny feeling of pressure began to build, Dusty threw himself onto his magic board and paddled with all his might. He could feel the ocean bunching up under him. Getting ready. And—
Dusty stood up. He almost fell from the board, he was listening so hard, but that's the only thing that saved him, too. The cyberneuron processes that reached into his vestibular system zinged with frantic activity as his wetware and hardware tried to integrate everything that was happening in his body and not-body, the signals somehow magnified and refined by the board beneath him. Unless the board was, like, some kind of external, supplemental brain?
But no. It had to be even more than that. Because what else could explain what was rolling in along with him?
Dusty gasped. Fanning from the sides of his board was a chaotic froth of lighting and fire, like the big flutter of orange he'd made by accident on the dry. Except extreme. No—except epic.
"And here comes Number Zero," said Namimoto. "With an awful lot of... um... seaweed."
The bad-ass wave frothed down into nothing around Dusty's feet, any visual effects of the thinned-out, suspended matrix breaking up in all the movement and noise. Dusty eased toward shore, body poised and heart ramming into his ribs.
"Funny," said Woon. "Isn't really the season for that."
"Right," agreed Zhaoping, forcefully. He gave Dusty a withering stare. "But there it was. Seaweed."
Dusty stared back, bewildered. Was he not rocking the board hard enough?
"Whoa!" said Roderick, running into the surf. "Did you see that? What you did just now? That was wicked, man, totally wicked!"
"How'd that unregistered kid get back in there?" the MC demanded. "Somebody get that joker out of here!"
"Thanks," said Dusty. "But Zhaoping's seriously harshing on my mellow. Look at him. Is he mad at me?"
"Hey, Mr. Mayor," called Dirk. He cruised through the surf at Dusty's right, hips swinging easy and comfortable. "Are these waves a joke or what? Even a baby like you can handle them, huh?"
Dusty's confusion soured further. "Yeah—with fire under me!"
Dirk's smug grin turned blank.
"You didn't notice?" said Dusty.
"Meanwhile, that's a very nice showing by Number Seventeen," said Woon, her tone chirping with interest. "Did you see that bottom turn?"
Dusty fumed. Greasy Mike and Big Kohaku sailed in, grinning, while two other guys flailed and wiped out in the monster waves behind them. So Dusty and his epic flames weren't worth noticing, huh? He'd show them something to notice!
"Gotta go, hoaloha," Dusty said to Roderick. "Things just got real."
Dusty charged back into the Pacific, determined. All over Dusty's not-body, that funny building pressure rippled and pushed, and all Dusty had to do was paddle his board to a spot that was getting ready. And if taming those waves with lightning and fire wasn't enough, then by golly—
"Wait up, Loser-ville," called Dirk. He and his stupid friends were right on Dusty's tail. "We wanna record a video of you wiping out."
Dusty glared, his anger rising as high as the killer swells. "Oh yeah? Go ahead. Ride my wave. I wanna record a video of me surfing over your face."
The swell came. Dusty paddled like a madman, hating the Coastal Gang behind him a little more with each stroke. When his not-body hummed with the right pitch of pressure, he practically leapt up on the board and listened so hard, he could barely remember to breathe. The world tipped into a vertical wall of roaring, opalescent blue, and his not-body fluttered and curled into a tube, even as he cruised effortlessly down its heart.
Record this, you voltheads!
It was better than lightning, better than flames. Dusty commanded the matrix suspended in the water around him to display, 'EAT MY FOAM, DIRK RIDER!' in towering black letters ten feet high and two feet thick. But the water was moving, and so was Dusty, and the matrix in the waves was thin.
"And here comes Number Zero," said Woon, "this time with some... with some, uh... what are those things, Pauly?"
The monster wave gradually petered out. Dusty sailed to the beach amidst the leftover foam, images of himself flickering across the dry. "Look!" squealed a girl, pointing at a video. "Look, look, you can see them!"
The beach erupted in thrilled screams: "Sharks! Sharks! Sharks!" Girls squealed and clung to each others' toned bodies. Dudes whooped and ran to the waterline to get a closer look. Someone call the Shark Squad! flashed through countless Incoming memories, along with I knew a guy who was bit in half one time! and close-up clips of the ominous, indistinct blobs.
Dusty's excitement withered. "They're not sharks!"
"Attention, everyone," said the MC. "Attention, everyone. Get out of the water. This is not a drill. I repeat: get out of the water. The Shark Squad is being called, and will arrive with the repellent shortly."
At the judging table up the beach, Zhaoping hung his head and spread a hand across his eyes.
"I said they're not sharks!" Nobody was listening. Or noticing the memory files Dusty tried to send out. "It says—it says—"
Behind Dusty, Dirk and his awful friends passed him and cruised to the sand. "Dude! Check it out. The Mayor is watching videos of himself!"
Dusty whirled. The momentum threw him off his board and he plopped into the shallows like a drunken frog. When he pushed his head back above the frothing water, sputtering, whoops and high-fives were sailing through the air.
"Attention, everyone," said the MC. "Attention, everyone. Get out of the water. This means you, Number Zero."
Dusty splashed to his feet, infuriated, hauling the dripping board from the foam. He turned and ran smack into Roderick.
"Man oh man!" Roderick said, unfazed by the impact. "That was the best thing I've ever seen in my life! Dude! When you rode that wave? And I was standing on the beach, going like, Whoa? And then Dirk was right behind you? And I thought you were gonna die? But you just kept going. Like you were magic!"
Dirk and his friends were still laughing. "I was magic," Dusty snapped. "And it still wasn't enough!"
Roderick stepped close to Dusty, unperturbed by the matrix and foam churning around their calves. "I thought it was," said Roderick. "But if you don't think so—"
"Then let her go, man," said Roderick, serenely. "Let her go. Cuz if this isn't your best, then dude—I gotta see what your best is."
Dusty's frustration suddenly left him. He bowed his head.
Roderick gestured at his own ever-present board, tucked stalwartly under one arm. "How about you use Shelia for your last round? She can take you real far. I mean, look at me. I get real far all the time, in, like, everything."
"Oh, Roddy." Dusty sighed. "Maybe you're right." He glanced up the beach, at Zhaoping's predatory glare. "Maybe I never should've gotten myself mixed up into this at all. Okay. Give me Shelia."
"And why doesn't anybody stop that pounding kid?" shouted the MC. "Near Number Zero? Security!"
"Sure thing, bro," said Roderick. "Soon as they say you can go back in."
"I'm going back in now."
"But there are, like... sharks."
Dusty rolled his eyes. "There aren't any sharks. Look—I might not be able to rock Zhaoping Ho's board and show him something good enough to impress him, but I can still rock the waves. And that's what really matters. So just give me Shelia, okay?"
Roderick shaded his eyes with his free hand and squinted doubtfully into the Pacific.
Roderick shrugged. "Okay."
Up the beach, Zhaoping leapt to his feet, eyes flaming. "What's Number Zero doing? Is he passing off his board?"
Dusty braced himself and turned away from him, to face the rest of the beach. Addressing them all, he held out a fist with thumb and pinky extended, and shook his wrist.
"Hang loose, everyone," he said solemnly.
The crowd parted. A pair of men in security vests marched up to Roderick. "Oh, hey. What's up, dudes?"
"Leave that kid alone!" Zhaoping shouted. "That board is an experimental prototype from the Edge, and if you damage it, I swear to God—"
"Calm down, Mr. Ho. Your property isn't—Wait. Is Number Zero going back in?"
Dusty turned and ran into the surf with righteous determination. He was away from the miraculous board, and his connection with the beach had disappeared. When he paddled out on Shelia and listened, he heard nothing. The signals from the matrix were once again limited to the dry, back there, in whatever small patch would be around his feet. Which was too bad.
But he could do this.
A dark blob drifted past Dusty, barely fifteen feet away. He grumbled and sat up on his board. "Stop thinking about sharks," he texted Roderick. The beach was too far away for his cyberneurons to link to Roderick's directly, so he had to do it the tedious, old-school way, thinking up an email and bouncing it off a satellite. "You're making them appear in the water on accident."
Roderick's reply text was a single word. "What?"
Dusty groaned in frustration. "Nobody's gonna notice my awesome surfing as long as they're there!"
"Dude. You're like, confusing."
"Oh, for Pete's sake—just quit interfacing with Zhaoping's board! Drop it onto the beach right now!"
A black shape glided not five feet away, tail undulating. Except it wasn't quite black. More like dark bluish-gray. And its eyes were kind of yellow.
Sharkskin brushed Dusty's calf.
Dusty dropped down on the board, kicked up his legs, and paddled madly for the next swell, thinking a flurry of texts. "Pick up the board! I changed my mind! Pick it up, pick it up, pick it up!"
"Okay, okay, I'm picking it up. See?"
"No I can't see!" The swell moved past him, unridden. The water thickened with curious, cruising shadows. "Just pick it up and—and—command light. Command light! And noise! Blinding light and noise! Can't you feel the whole beach through that thing?"
"Whoa," texted Roderick. A piece of his dramatically expanded perception of the beach was attached to his text. "This is majorly gnarly."
"Light!" Dusty paddled like a drowning fool. The next swell came, its tip just starting to fold. What he wouldn't give to be able to feel that funny, building pressure now. Dusty pumped for his life, riding to the top, leaping onto the board as the wave began its roar. "Light, Roddy, light!"
The wave was born. For one long, singing moment, Dusty was safe, astonished, and on top of the world. The beach spread out ahead, packed with people, the orange-vested members of the Shark Squad throwing freeze-dried sticks of concentrated repellent into the shallows. Video jangled around them as the thousands of data streams in the dry of the Smart sand rose and disintegrated, like the pulsing waves in the Pacific at Dusty's back.
Beneath his board, the blue of the ocean flared up into an intense, painful white.
Dusty couldn't look at it. He closed his eyes, just as a voice, familiar but as loud as the bellow of a god, vibrated across the length of the beach in a deafening rumble.
"Dude... is this thing on?"
The vibration was extreme. Dusty's entire world was quivering. Actually, his entire world was downright shaking. Actually, his entire world was starting to tip over.
The wipeout was totally lame.
The journey to shore felt long. Shelia's leash held, so at least Dusty didn't lose Roderick's board, but the light and sound had done their job all right, and the sharks weren't the only things that had been stunned and confused. Dusty must've gotten turned around in the surf somehow, because at one point some dude on shore definitely yelled at him, "The beach is this way, you moron."
When Dusty got to the wet, Roderick was waiting between the pair of security guards, both scowling and gripping one of Roderick's elbows. Zhaoping was standing nearby, scowling harder, clutching his beautiful board. "You idiot," he snarled.
Dusty coughed and ran his tongue over his lips. He spat out salt and sand. "...What?"
Zhaoping's fists clenched as hard as his teeth. "I didn't want you to ride in on seaweed. I didn't want you to hand over my board to someone else for certain reasons we had discussed. And I sure as shock didn't want to sit on my thumbs up there while the entire pounding Smart sand matrix, which some people were interested in experimenting on, got blown out!" Zhaoping stamped a foot on the beach. Sick, irregular zags of color popped out, along with a ghastly warble like a dying crane. "It'll take weeks for the tide cycles to fully recharge it!"
Dusty shrank where he stood. "Oh," he mumbled.
"Whatever they teach you in school these days," Zhaoping said, "the definition of 'top secret' isn't it." He retreated up the beach with his prototype. "Screwheaded, volt-filled, orbital-hoping pile of wire...!"
Dusty shrank even further.
"Okay, kid," said one of the security guards. "Time to go."
"Sweet," said Roderick. "Where are we going?"
The guards didn't answer. Grimly, they towed him up the beach, and Dusty slunk along after.
They passed the Coastal Gang on their way. The three of them stood within a cluster of girls who were cooing and handing them water bottles. Between sly smiles and earlobe-nibbles, everyone in the group looked down and laughed. The weakened matrix at their feet played fuzzy, flickering video of Dusty's totally lame wipeout, and the accompanying garbled audio from the MC: "Oh! An unfortunate upset for Number Zero, who fought seaweed and sharks to come this far. But that's a wipeout, and a disqualification."
Not even one single girl looked up to admire Dusty as he walked by.
The security guards deposited Roderick at the edge of the beach, by one of the many suck-shower stations. "Use it," ordered a guard, and he stayed to make sure Roderick and Dusty did.
After they next rinsed off beneath a regular shower, Roderick tucked Shelia beneath his arm and they stepped onto the sidewalk, dripping. "So now what?"
Dusty looked over his shoulder at Nana'ite Beach, at the tittering girls and oiled-up dudes. He firmly turned his back. "We're going to surf some more with Shelia," he declared. "I'm not done for the day."
"We are?" Roderick turned in a confused circle, cutting a wide swath on the sidewalk with his board. Dusty automatically stepped back while nearby tourists cursed. "And you're not?"
"We're going to 'ípuka Beach." Dusty jerked his head down the street. "You know. On the west side of the island?"
"'ípuka Beach?" Roderick frowned. "How come?"
"Well," said Dusty coolly, drawing himself up. He let his glossy zero catch the light and scatter it like diamonds, so anyone else with a pure, authentic surfer's soul could see how real he was. "It's like you said. Who cares about rocking the Smart sand? Rocking the waves is what matters. The sand at 'ípuka's mute, but the swells are still pretty killer."
"Huh," said Roderick. "Okay." He set off down the sidewalk with Dusty. "Are there girls there?"
Dusty shook his head. "No, my man. Where the sand's mute, there are women."
This story originally appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction.
KJ Kabza is back with a second round of fiction that’s “Incredible” (Tangent), “Fascinating” (SFRevu), and “Worthy of Edgar Allan Poe” (SFcrowsnest). Featuring his freshest work from top SF/fantasy venues of today, including F&SF, Nature, Daily Science Fiction, and more, UNDER STARS showcases wonders from worlds both here and beyond. Included is all of KJ Kabza's work published from mid-2011 through 2013, plus 5 new pieces, exclusive story notes, and 69 dirty limericks with a speculative twist.
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