At first there was a sound like a roaring wind in her dreams.
Then a tearing noise filled the air, the crackle of dry brush inflamed, and the smell of smoke swept over Tally, bringing her suddenly and completely awake.
Billowing clouds of smoke surrounded her, blotting out the sky. A ragged wall of flame moved through the flowers, giving off a wave of blistering heat. She grabbed her knapsack and stumbled down the hill away from the fire.
Tally had no idea in which direction the river lay. Nothing was visible through the dense clouds. Her lungs fought for air in the foul brown smoke.
Then she spotted a few rays from the setting sun breaching the billows, and she oriented herself. The river was back toward the flame, on the other side of the hill.
Tally retraced her path to the top of the hill and peered down through the smoke. The fire was growing stronger. Fingers of it shot up the hill, leaping from one beautiful flower to another, leaving them scorched and black. Tally caught the glimmer of the river through the smoke, but the heat pushed her back.
She stumbled down the other side again, coughing and spitting, one thought in her mind: Was her hoverboard already engulfed in flames?
Tally had to get to the river. The water was the only place safe from the rampaging fire. If she couldn't go over the hill, maybe she could go around.
She descended the slope at full tilt. There were a few spots burning on this side, but nothing like the galloping flame behind her. She reached level ground and made her way around the base of the hill, crouching low to the ground to duck under the smoke.
Halfway around, she reached a blackened patch where the fire had already passed. The brittle stems of flowers crunched under her shoes, and the heat coming off the scorched earth stung her eyes.
Her footsteps ignited with flame as she ran through the blackened flowers, like stabbing a poker into a slumbering fire. She felt her eyes drying, her face blistering.
Moments later, Tally spotted the river. The fire stretched in an unbroken wall across the opposite shore, a roaring wind pressing at its back and sending embers flying across to alight on the near side. A rolling billow of smoke surged toward her, choking and blinding her until it passed.
When her eyes could open again, Tally spotted the shiny solar surface of her hoverboard. She ran toward it, ignoring the burning flowers in her path.
The board seemed untouched by the flame, protected by good luck and the layer of dew it collected every nightfall.
She quickly folded the board and stepped onto it, not waiting for the yellow light to turn green. The heat had mostly dried it already, and it rose into the air at her command. Tally took the board over the river, just above the water, and skimmed her way upstream, looking for a break in the wall of fire to her left.
Her grippy shoes were ruined, their soles cracked like sunbaked mud, so she flew slowly, scooping up handfuls of water to soothe her burning face and arms.
A noise thundered to life on Tally's left, unmistakable even above the roar of the fire. She and the board were caught in a sudden wind, shoved back toward the other shore. Tally leaned hard against it and stuck a foot into the water to slow the board. She clung tightly with both hands, desperately fighting being thrown into the river.
The smoke suddenly cleared, and a familiar shape loomed out of the darkness. It was the flying machine, its thundering beat now obvious above the raging fire. Sparks jumped across the river as the machine's windstorm stirred the fire to a new intensity.
What were theydoing ? she wondered. Didn't they realize they were spreading the fire?
Her question was answered a moment later when a gout of flame shot from the machine, squirting across the river to ignite another patch of flowers.
They had set the fire, and were driving it on in every way they could.
The flying machine thundered closer, and she glimpsed an inhuman face staring at her from the pilot seat.
She turned her board to fly away, but the machine lifted up into the air, passing right over her, and suddenly the wind was too great.
Tally pitched off and into the water. Her crash bracelets caught for a moment, holding her up above the waves, but then the wind caught the hoverboard, much lighter without her on it, and spun it away like a leaf.
She sank into the deep water in the middle of the river, knapsack and all.
It was cool and quiet under the waves.
For a few endless moments, Tally felt only relief to have escaped the searing wind, the thundering machine, the blistering heat of the firestorm. But the weight of the crash bracelets and knapsack pulled her down fast, and panic welled up in her pounding chest.
She thrashed in the water, climbing up toward the flickering lights of the surface. Her wet clothes and gear dragged at her, but just as her lungs were about to burst, she broke the surface into the maelstrom.
Tally gulped a few breaths of smoky air, then was slapped in the face by a wave. She coughed and sputtered, struggling to stay afloat.
A shadow passed over her, blacking out the sky. Then her hand struck something - a familiar grippy surface....
Her hoverboard had come back to her! Just the way it always did when she spilled. The crash bracelets lifted her up until she could grab on to it, her fingers clinging to its knobbly surface as she gasped for air.
A high-pitched whine came from the nearby shore. Tally blinked away water from her eyes and saw that the Rusty machine had landed. Figures were jumping from the machine, spraying white foam at the ground as they crashed through the burning flowers and into the river. They were headed for her.
She struggled to climb onto the board.
"Wait!" the nearest figured called.
Tally rose shakily to her feet, trying to keep steady on the wet surface of the board. Her hard-baked shoes were slippery, and her sodden knapsack seemed to weigh a ton. As she leaned forward, a gloved hand reached up to grab the front of the board. A face came up from the water, wearing some sort of mask. Huge eyes stared up at her.
She stomped at the hand, crunching the fingers. They slipped off, but her weight was thrown too far forward, and the board tipped its nose into the water.
Tally tumbled into the river again.
Hands grabbed at her, pulling her away from the hoverboard. She was hoisted out of the water and onto a broad shoulder. She caught glimpses of masked faces: huge, inhuman eyes staring at her unblinkingly.