The Side You Despise
Thunder came from the sky, like a giant drum beating fiercely and fast, forcing its way into her head and chest. It seemed to rattle the whole horizon, making the surface of the river shimmer with every thud.
Tally crouched low in the water, sinking to her neck just before the machine appeared.
It came from the direction of the mountains, flying low and kicking up dust in a dozen separate windstorms in its wake. It was much bigger than a hovercar, and a hundred times louder. Apparently without magnets, it beat the air into submission with a half-invisible disk shimmering in the sun.
When the machine reached the river, it banked into a turn. Its passage churned the water, sending out circular waves as if some huge stone were skimming across the surface. Tally saw people inside, looking down at her camp. The unfolded hoverboard pitched in the windstorm, its magnets fighting to keep it on the ground. Her knapsack disappeared in the dust, and she saw clothing, the sleeping bag, and packets of SpagBol scattering in the machine's wake.
Tally sank lower into the frantic water, struck by the thought that she would be left here, naked and alone, with nothing. She was already half frozen.
But the machine dipped forward, just like a hoverboard, and moved on. It headed toward the sea, vanishing as quickly as it had appeared, leaving her ears pounding and the river's surface boiling.
Tally crept out shivering. Her body felt ice cold, her fingers barely able to clench into a fist. She made her way back to her camp, grasping clothes to her body, putting them on before the setting sun could dry her. She sat and wrapped her arms around herself until the shaking stopped, glancing fearfully at the red horizon every few seconds.
The damage was less than she'd feared. The hoverboard's operation light was green, and her knapsack, dusty but unharmed. After a search for SpagBol and a count of the remaining packets, Tally found that she had lost only two. But the sleeping bag was shredded. Something had chopped it to pieces.
Tally swallowed. There was nothing left of the bag bigger than a handkerchief. What if she had been in it when the machine had come?
She folded the hoverboard quickly and packed everything away. The board was ready to go almost instantly. At least the strange machine's windstorm had dried it off.
"Thanks a lot," Tally said as she stepped on, leaning forward as the sun began to set. She was anxious to leave the campsite behind her as quickly as possible, in case they came back.
But who were they? The flying machine had been just like what Tally imagined when her teachers had described Rusty contraptions: a portable tornado crashing along, destroying everything in its path. Tally had read about aircraft that shattered windows as they flew past, armored war vehicles that could drive straight through a house.
But the Rusties had been gone a long time. Who would be stupid enough to rebuild their insane machines?
Tally rode into the growing darkness, her eyes peeled for any signs of the next clue - "Four days later take the side you despise" - and for whatever other surprises the night would bring.
One thing was certain now: She wasn't alone out here.
Later that night, the river branched in two.
Tally cruised to a halt, surveying the junction. One of the branches was clearly larger, the other more like a broad stream. A "tributary," she remembered, was the name for a small river that fed into a larger one.
Probably she should just stay on the main river. But she'd been traveling for just three days, and her hoverboard was a lot faster than most. Maybe it was time for the next clue.
"Four days later take the side you despise," Tally muttered.
She peered at the two rivers in the light from the moon, which was almost full now. Which river did she despise? Or which one would Shaythink she despised? They both looked pretty ordinary to her. She squinted into the distance. Maybe one led toward something despicable that would be visible in daylight.
But waiting would mean losing a night's travel, and sleeping in the cold and dark without a sleeping bag.
Tally reminded herself that the clue might not be about this junction. Maybe she should just stay on the big river until something more obvious came up. Why would Shay call the two rivers "sides," anyway? If she'd meant this junction, wouldn't it be "take the direction you despise"?
"The side you despise," Tally mumbled, remembering something.
Her fingers went to her face. When she had showed Shay her pretty morphos, Tally had mentioned how she always started by doubling her left side - that she had always hated the right side of her face. Which was exactly the sort of thing that Shay would remember.
Was this Shay's way of telling her to take a right?
Branching to the right was the smaller river, the tributary. The mountains were closer in that direction.
Maybe she was drawing near the Smoke.
She stared at the two rivers in the darkness, one big and one small, and remembered Shay saying that pretty symmetry was silly, because she'd rather have a face with two different sides.
Tally hadn't realized it at the time, but that had been an important conversation for Shay, the first time she had talked about wanting to stay ugly. If only Tally had noticed at the time, maybe she could have talked Shay out of running away. And they'd both be in a party tower right now, together and pretty.
"Right it is." Tally sighed, and eased her board onto the smaller river.
By the time the sun rose, Tally knew she had made the right choice.
As the tributary climbed its way into the mountains, the fields around her filled with flowers. Soon the brilliant white bonnets were as thick as grass, driving every other color from the landscape. In the dawn light, it was as if the earth were glowing from within.
"'And look in the flowers for fire-bug eyes,'" Tally said to herself, wondering if she should get off the board. Maybe there was some kind of bug with fiery eyes she should be looking for.
She drifted to shore and stepped off.
The flowers came right up to the edge of the water. Tally knelt to inspect one closely. The five long white petals curved delicately up from the stem and around its mouth, which contained just a hint of yellow deep inside. One of the petals below the mouth was longer, arching down almost to the ground. Motion caught her eye, and she spotted a small bird hovering among the flowers, flitting from one to the next to alight on the longest petal, thrusting its beak into one after another.
"They're so beautiful," she said. And there were so many of them. She wanted to lie down in the flowers and sleep.
But she couldn't see anything that might be "fire-bug eyes." Tally stood, scanning the horizon. Nothing met her gaze but hills, blinding white with flowers, and the glimmering river climbing up into the mountains.
It all looked so peaceful, a different world from the one that the flying machine had shattered last night.
She stepped back on the board and continued, slower now as she looked carefully for whatever might fit Shay's clue, remembering to stick on a sunblock patch as the sun rose higher.
The river climbed higher into the hills. From up there, Tally saw bare stretches among the flowers, expanses of dry, sandy earth. The patchy landscape was a strange sight, like a beautiful painting that someone had taken sandpaper to.
She got off her board several times to inspect the flowers, looking for insects or anything else that might match the words "fire-bug eyes." But as the day wore on, nothing made sense.
By the time noon approached the tributary was gradually growing smaller. Sooner or later, she would reach its source, a mountain spring or melting snowdrift, and then she'd have to walk. Tired after the long night, she decided to make camp.
Her eyes scanned the sky, wondering if any more of the Rusty flying machines were around. The idea of another one crashing into her in her sleep terrified her. Who knew what the people inside the thing wanted? If she hadn't been hidden in the water the night before, what would they have done with her?
One thing was certain: The shiny solar cells of the hoverboard would be obvious from the air. Tally checked the charge; more than half remained thanks to her slow speed and the bright sun now overhead.
She unfolded the hoverboard, but only halfway, and hid it among the tallest flowers she could find. Then she hiked to the top of a nearby hill. From up there Tally could keep her eye on the hoverboard, and hear and see anything approaching from the air. She decided to repack her knapsack before she went to sleep, so she could bolt at a moment's notice.
It was the best she could do.
After a mildly revolting packet of SpagBol, Tally curled up in a spot where the white flowers were tall enough to hide her. The breeze stirred their long stalks, and shadows danced on her closed eyelids.
Tally felt strangely exposed without her sleeping bag, lying there in her clothes, but the warm sun and the long night's travel put her quickly to sleep.
When she awoke, the world was on fire.