The cruel pretties seemed even more unearthly to exhausted eyes. Tally felt like a mouse in a cage full of hawks, just waiting for one to swoop down and take her. The trip in the hovercar had been even more sickening this time.
She focused on the nausea eating away at her stomach, trying to forget why she was here. As Tally and her escort made their way down the hall, she tried to pull herself together, tucking in her shirt and tugging at her hair.
Dr. Cable certainly didn't look like she'd just gotten up. Tally tried without success to imagine what a tousled Dr. Cable would look like. Her darting, metal-gray eyes hardly seemed as if they would ever close long enough to sleep.
"So, Tally. You've reconsidered."
"And you'll answer all our questions now? Honestly and of your own free will?"
Tally snorted. "You're not giving me a choice."
Dr. Cable smiled. "We always have choices, Tally. You've made yours."
"Great. Thanks. Look, just ask your questions."
"Certainly. First of all, what on earth happened to your face?"
Tally sighed, one hand touching the scratches. "Trees."
"Trees?" Dr. Cable raised an eyebrow. "Very well. On a more important subject, what did you and Shay talk about the last time you saw her?"
Tally closed her eyes. This was it, the moment when she would break her vow to Shay. But a small voice in her exhausted brain reminded her that she was also keeping a promise. Now she could finally join Peris.
"She talked about going away. Running away with someone called David."
"Ah, yes, the mysterious David." Dr. Cable leaned back. "And did she say where she and David were going?"
"A place called the Smoke. Like a city, only smaller. And no one was in charge there, and no one was pretty."
"And did she say where it was?"
"No, she didn't, not really." Tally sighed and pulled Shay's crumpled note from her pocket. "But she left me these directions."
Dr. Cable didn't even look at the note. Instead, she pushed a piece of paper from her side of the desk over to Tally's. Through bleary eyes, Tally saw that it was a 3-D copy of the note, perfect down to the slight incisions of Shay's labored penmanship on the paper.
"We took the liberty of making a copy of that the first time you were here."
Tally glared at Dr. Cable, realizing she'd been duped. "Then why do you need me? I don't know anything more than what I just said. I didn't ask her to tell me any more. And I didn't go with her, because I just...wanted...to bepretty !" A lump rose in her throat, but Tally decided that under no circumstances - special or not - was she going to cry in front of Dr. Cable.
"I'm afraid that we find the instructions on the note rather cryptic, Tally."
"You and me both."
Dr. Cable's hawk-eyes narrowed. "They seem to be designed to be read by someone who knows Shay quite well. By you, perhaps."
"Yeah, well, I get some of it. But after the first couple of lines, I'm lost."
"I'm sure it's very difficult. Especially after a long night of...trees. I still think you can help us, however."
Dr. Cable opened a small briefcase on the desk between them. Tally's tired brain struggled to make sense of the objects in the case. A firestarter, a crumpled sleeping bag...
"Hey, that's like the survival stuff that Shay had."
"That's right, Tally. These ranger kits go missing every so often. Usually just about the same time that one of our uglies disappears."
"Well, mystery solved. Shay was all ready to travel to the Smoke with a bunch of that stuff."
"What else did she have?"
Tally shrugged. "A hoverboard. A special one, with solar."
"Of course a hoverboard. What is it about those things and miscreants? And what did Shay plan to eat, do you suppose?"
"She had food in packets. Dehydrated."
"Like this?" Dr. Cable produced a silvery food pack.
"Yeah. She had enough for four weeks." Tally took a deep breath. "Two weeks, if I'd gone along.
More than enough, she said."
"Two weeks? Not so very far." Dr. Cable pulled a black knapsack from beside her desk and started to pack the various objects into it. "You might just make it."
"Make it? Makewhat ?"
"The trip. To the Smoke."
"Tally, only you can understand these directions."
"I told you: I don't know what they mean!"
"But you will, once you're on the journey. And if you're...properly motivated."
"But I already told you everything you wanted to know. I gave you the note. You promised!"
Dr. Cable shook her head. "My promise, Tally, was that you wouldn't be pretty until you helped us to the very best of your ability. I have every confidence that this is within your ability."
"But why me?"
"Listen carefully, Tally. Do you really think that this is the first time we've been told about David? Or the Smoke? Or found some scrawled directions about how to get there?"
Tally flinched at the razor-blade voice, turning away from the anger on the woman's cruel face. "I don't know."
"We've seen all this before. But whenever we go ourselves, we find nothing. Smoke, indeed."
The lump had return to Tally's throat. "So how am I supposed to find anything?"
Dr. Cable pulled the copy of Shay's note toward herself. "This last line, where it says to 'wait on the bald head,' clearly refers to a rendezvous point. You go there, you wait. Sooner or later, they'll pick you up. If I send a hovercar full of Specials, your friends will probably be a bit suspicious."
"You mean, you want me to goalone ?"
Dr. Cable took a deep breath, a disgusted look on her face. "This isn't very complicated, Tally. You have had a change of heart. You have decided to run away, following your friend Shay. Just another ugly escaping the tyranny of beauty."
Tally looked up at the cruel face through a prism of gathering tears. "And then what?"
Dr. Cable pulled another object from the briefcase, a necklace with a little heart pendant. She pressed on its sides, and the heart clicked open. "Look inside."
Tally held the tiny heart up to her eye. "I can't see anything...ow!"
The pendant had flashed, blinding her for a moment. The heart made a little beep.
"The finder will only respond to your eye-print, Tally. Once it's activated, we'll be there within a few hours. We can travel very quickly." Cable dropped the necklace onto the desk. "But don't activate it until you're in the Smoke. This has taken us some time to set up. I want the real thing, Tally."
Tally blinked away the afterimage of the flash, trying to force her exhausted brain to think. She realized now that this had never been simply a matter of answering questions. They had always wanted her as a spy, an infiltrator. She wondered just how long this had been planned. How many times had Special Circumstances tried to get an ugly to work for them before? "I can't do this."
"You can, Tally. You must. Think of it as an adventure."
"Please. I've never even spent the whole night outside the city. Not alone."
Dr. Cable ignored the sob that had cut through Tally's words. "If you don't agree right now, I'll find someone else. And you'll be ugly forever."
Tally looked up, trying to see through the tears that were flowing freely now, to peer past Dr. Cable's cruel mask and find the truth. It was there in her dull, metal-gray eyes, a cold, terrible surety unlike anything a normal pretty could ever convey. Tally realized that the woman meant what she said.
Either Tally infiltrated the Smoke and betrayed Shay, or she'd be an ugly for life.
"I have to think."
"Your story will be that you ran away the night before your birthday," Dr. Cable said. "That means you've already got to make up for four lost days. Any more delays, and they won't believe you. They'll guess what happened. So decide now."
"I can't. I'm too tired."
Dr. Cable pointed at the wallscreen, and an image appeared. Like a mirror, but in close-up, it showed Tally as she looked right now: puffy-eyed and disheveled, exhaustion and red scratches marking her face, her hair sticking out in all directions, and her expression turning horrified as she beheld her own appearance.
"That's you, Tally. Forever."
"Turn it off..."
"Okay, I'll do it. Turn it off."
The wallscreen went dark.