When the day came, Tally waited for the car alone.
Tomorrow, when the operation was all over, her parents would be waiting outside the hospital, along with Peris and her other older friends. That was the tradition. But it seemed strange that there was no one to see her off on this end. No one said good-bye except a few uglies passing by. They looked so young to her now, especially the just-arrived new class, who gawked at her like she was an old pile of dinosaur bones.
She'd always loved being independent, but now Tally felt like the last littlie to be picked up from school, abandoned and alone. September was a crappy month to be born.
"You're Tally, right?"
She looked up. It was a new ugly, awkwardly exploding into unfamiliar height, tugging at his dorm uniform like it was already too tight.
"Aren't you the one who's going to turn today?"
"That's me, Shorty."
"So how come you look so sad?"
Tally shrugged. What could this half-littlie, half-ugly understand, anyway? She thought about what Shay had said about the operation.
Yesterday they'd taken Tally's final measurements, rolling her all the way through an imaging tube.
Should she tell this new ugly that sometime this afternoon, her body was going to be opened up, the bones ground down to the right shape, some of them stretched or padded, her nose cartilage and cheekbones stripped out and replaced with programmable plastic, skin sanded off and reseeded like a soccer field in spring? That her eyes would be laser-cut for a lifetime of perfect vision, reflective implants inserted under the iris to add sparkling gold flecks to their indifferent brown? Her muscles all trimmed up with a night of electrocize and all her baby fat sucked out for good? Teeth replaced with ceramics as strong as a suborbital aircraft wing, and as white as the dorm's good china?
They said it didn't hurt, except the new skin, which felt like a killer sunburn for a couple of weeks.
As the details of the operation buzzed around in her head, she could imagine why Shay had run away. It did seem like a lot to go through just to look a certain way. If only people were smarter, evolved enough to treat everyone the same even if they looked different. Looked ugly.
If only Tally had come up with the right argument to make her stay.
The imaginary conversations were back, but much worse than they had been after Peris had left. A thousand times she'd fought with Shay in her head - long, rambling discussions about beauty, biology, growing up. All those times out in the ruins, Shay had made her points about uglies and pretties, the city and the outside, what was fake and what was real. But Tally had never once realized her friend might actually run away, giving up a life of beauty, glamour, elegance. If only she'd said the right thing.Any thing.
Sitting here, she felt as if she'd hardly tried.
Tally looked the new ugly in the eye. "Because it all comes down to this: Two weeks of killer sunburn is worth a lifetime of being gorgeous."
The kid scratched his head. "Huh?"
"Something I should have said, and didn't. That's all."
The hospital hovercar finally came, settling onto the school grounds so lightly that it hardly disturbed the fresh-mown grass.
The driver was a middle pretty, radiating confidence and authority. He looked so much like Sol that Tally almost called her father's name.
"Tally Youngblood?" he said.
Tally had already seen the flash of light that had read her eye-print, but she said, "Yes, that's me,"
anyway. Something about the middle pretty made it hard to be flippant. He was wisdom personified, his manner so serious and formal that Tally found herself wishing she had dressed up.
"Are you ready? Not taking much."
Her duffel bag was only half-full. Everyone knew that new pretties wound up recycling most of the stuff they brought over the river, anyway. She'd have all new clothes, of course, and all the new pretty toys she wanted. All she'd really kept was Shay's handwritten note, hidden among a bunch of random crap.
"Good for you, Tally. That's very mature."
"That's me, sir."
The door closed, and the car took off.
The big hospital was on the bottom end of New Pretty Town. It was where everyone went for serious operations: littlies, uglies, even late pretties from way out in Crumblyville coming in for life-extension treatments.
The river was sparkling under a cloudless sky, and Tally allowed herself to be swept away by the beauty of New Pretty Town. Even without the nighttime lights and fireworks, the city's surfaces shone with glass and metal, the unlikely spindles of party towers casting thin shadows across the island. It was so much more vibrant than the Rusty Ruins, Tally suddenly saw. Not as dark and mysterious, perhaps, but more alive.
It was time to stop sulking about Shay. Life was going to be one big party from now on, full of beautiful people. Like Tally Youngblood.
The hovercar descended onto one of the redX s on the hospital roof, and Tally's driver escorted her inside, taking her to a waiting room. An orderly looked up Tally's name, flashed her eye again, and told her to wait.
"You'll be okay?" the driver asked.
She looked up into his clear, soft eyes, wanting him to stay. But asking him to wait with her didn't seem very mature. "No, I'm fine. Thanks." He smiled and went away.
No one else was in the waiting room. Tally settled back and counted the tiles on the ceiling. As she waited, the conversations with Shay in her head came back again, but they weren't so troubling here. It was too late for second thoughts now.
Tally wished there was a window to look out onto New Pretty Town. She was so close now. She imagined tomorrow night, her first night pretty, dressed in new and wonderful clothes (her dorm uniforms all shoved down the recycler), looking out from the top of the highest party tower she could find. She would watch as lights-out fell across the river, bedtime for Uglyville, and know that she still had all night with Peris and her new friends, all the beautiful people she would meet.
Sixteen years. Finally.
Nothing happened for a long hour. Tally drummed her fingers, wondering if they always kept uglies waiting this long.
Then the man came.
He looked strange, unlike any pretty Tally had ever seen. He was definitely of middle age, but whoever had done his operation had botched it. He was beautiful, without a doubt, but it was a terrible beauty.
Instead of wise and confident, the man looked cold, commanding, intimidating, like some regal animal of prey. When he walked up, Tally started to ask what was going on, but a glance from him silenced her.
She had never met an adult who affected her this way. She always felt respect when face-to-face with a middle or late pretty. But in the presence of this cruelly beautiful man, respect was saturated with fear.
The man said, "There's a problem with your operation. Come with me."