The Smoke really was smoky.
Open fires dotted the valley, surrounded by small groups of people. The scents of wood smoke and cooking drifted up to Tally, smells that made her think of camping and outdoor parties. In addition to the smoke there was a morning mist in the air, a white finger creeping down into the valley from a bank of clouds nestled against the mountain higher up. A few solar panels glimmered feebly, gathering what sun was reflected from the mist. Garden plots were planted in random spots between the buildings, twenty or so one-story structures made from long planks of wood. There was wood everywhere: in fences; as cooking spits; laid down in walkways over muddy patches; and in big stacks by the fires. Tally wondered where they had found so much wood.
Then she saw the stumps at the edges of the settlement, and gasped. "Trees...," she whispered in horror. "You cut down trees."
Shay squeezed her hand. "Only in this valley. It seems weird at first, but it's the way the pre-Rusties lived too, you know? And we're planting more on the other side of the mountain, pushing into the orchids."
"Okay," Tally said doubtfully. She saw a team of uglies moving a felled tree, pushing it along on a pair of hoverboards. "There's a grid?"
Shay nodded happily. "Just in places. We pulled up a bunch of metal from a railroad, like the track you came up the coast on. We've laid out a few hoverpaths through the Smoke, and eventually we'll do the whole valley. I've been working on that project. We bury a piece of junk every few paces. Like everything here, it's tougher than you'd think. You wouldn'tbelieve how much a knapsack full of steel weighs."
David and the others were already headed down, gliding single file between two rows of rocks painted a glowing orange. "That's the hoverpath?" Tally asked.
"Yeah. Come on, I'll take you down to the library. You've got to meet the Boss."
The Boss wasn't really in charge here, Shay explained. He just acted like it, especially to newbies. But he was in command of the library, the largest of the buildings in the settlement's central square.
The familiar smell of dusty books overwhelmed Tally at the library door, and as she looked around, she realized that books were pretty much all the library had. No big air-screen, not even private workscreens. Just mismatched desks and chairs and rows and rows of bookshelves.
Shay led her to the center of it all, where a round kiosk was inhabited by a small figure talking on an old-fashioned handphone. As they drew closer, Tally felt her heart starting to pound. She'd been dreading what she was about to see.
The Boss was anold ugly. Tally had spotted a few from a distance on the way in, but had managed to turn her eyes away. But here was the wrinkled, veined, discolored, shuffling, horrific truth, right before her eyes. His milky eyes glared at them as he berated whoever was on the phone, in a rattling voice and waving one claw at them to go away.
Shay giggled and pulled her toward the shelves. "He'll get to us eventually. There's something I want to show you first."
"That poor man..."
"The Boss? Pretty wild, huh? He's, like,forty ! Wait until you talk to him."
Tally swallowed, trying to erase the image of his sagging features from her mind. These people were insane to tolerate that, towant it. "But his face...," Tally said.
"That's nothing. Check these out." Shay sat her down at a table, turned to a shelf, and pulled out a handful of volumes in protective covers. She plonked them in front of Tally.
"Books on paper? What about them?"
"Not books. They're called 'magazines,'" Shay said. She opened one and pointed. Its strangely glossy pages were covered with pictures. Of people.
Tally's eyes widened as Shay turned the pages, pointing and giggling. She'd never seen so many wildly different faces before. Mouths and eyes and noses of every imaginable shape, all combined insanely on people of every age. And thebodies . Some were grotesquely fat, or weirdly over-muscled, or uncomfortably thin, and almost all of them had wrong, ugly proportions. But instead of being ashamed of their deformities, the people were laughing and kissing and posing, as if all the pictures had been taken at some huge party. "Who are these freaks?"
"They aren't freaks," Shay said. "The weird thing is, these are famous people."
"Famous for what? Being hideous?"
"No. They're sports stars, actors, artists. The men with stringy hair are musicians, I think. The really ugly ones are politicians, and someone told me the fatties are mostly comedians."
"That's funny, as in strange," Tally said. "So this is what people looked like before the first pretty? How could anyone stand to open their eyes?"
"Yeah. It's scary at first. But the weird thing is, if you keep looking at them, you kind of get used to it."
Shay turned to a full-page picture of a woman wearing only some kind of formfitting underwear, like a lacy swimsuit.
"What the...," Tally said.
The woman looked like she was starving, her ribs thrusting out from her sides, her legs so thin that Tally wondered how they didn't snap under her weight. Her elbows and pelvic bones looked sharp as needles.
But there she was, smiling and proudly baring her body, as if she'd just had the operation and didn't realize they'd sucked out way too much fat. The funny thing was, her face was closer to being pretty than any of the rest. She had the big eyes, smooth skin, and small nose, but her cheekbones were too tight, the skull practically visible beneath her flesh. "What on earth is she?"
"Which is what?"
"Kind of like a professional pretty. I guess when everyone else is ugly, being pretty is sort of, like, your job."
"And she's in her underwear because...?" Tally began, and then a memory flashed into her mind. "She's got that disease! The one the teachers always told us about."
"Probably. I always thought they made that up to scare us."
Back in the days before the operation, Tally remembered, a lot of people, especially young girls, became so ashamed at being fat that they stopped eating. They'd lose weight too quickly, and some would get stuck and would keep losing weight until they wound up like this "model." Some even died, they said at school. That was one of the reasons they'd come up with the operation. No one got the disease anymore, since everyone knew at sixteen they'd turn beautiful. In fact, most people pigged out just before they turned, knowing it would all be sucked away.
Tally stared at the picture and shivered. Why go back tothis ?
"Spooky, huh?" Shay turned away. "I'll see if the Boss is ready yet."
Before she disappeared around a corner, Tally noticed how skinny Shay was. Not diseased skinny, just ugly skinny - she'd never eaten much. Tally wondered if, here in the Smoke, Shay's undereating would get worse and worse, until she wound up starving herself.
Tally fingered the pendant. This was her chance. Might as well get it over with now.
These people had forgotten what the old world was really like. Sure, they were having a great time camping out and playing hide-and-seek, and living out here was a great trick on the cities. But somehow they'd forgotten that the Rusties had been insane, almost destroying the world in a million different ways.
This starving almost-pretty was only one of them. Why go back to that?
They were already cutting downtrees here.
Tally popped open the heart pendant, looking down into the little glowing aperture where the laser waited to read her eye-print. She brought it closer, her hand shaking. It was foolish to wait. This would only get harder.
And what choice did she have?
"Tally? He's almost - "
Tally snapped closed the pendant and shoved it into her shirt.
Shay smiled slyly. "I noticed that before. What gives?"
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, come on. You never wore anything like that before. I leave you alone for two weeks and you get all romantic?"
Tally swallowed, looking down at the silver heart.
"I mean, it's a really nice necklace. Beautiful. But who gave it to you, Tally?"
Tally found she couldn't bring herself to lie. "Someone. Just someone."
Shay rolled her eyes. "Last-minute fling, huh? I always thought you were saving yourself for Peris."
"It's not like that. It's..."
Why not tell her? Tally asked herself. She'd figure it out when the Specials came roaring in, anyway. If she knew, Shay could at least prepare herself before this fantasy world came tumbling down. "I have to tell you something."
"My coming here is kind of...the thing is, when I went to get my - "
"What are youdoing ?"
Tally jumped at the craggy voice. It was like an old, broken version of Dr. Cable's, a rusty razor blade drawn across her nerves.
"Those magazines are over three centuries old, and you're not wearing gloves!" The Boss shuffled over to where Tally was sitting, producing white cotton gloves and pulling them on. He reached around her to close the one she was reading.
"Your fingers are covered with very nasty acids, young lady. You'll rot away these magazines if you're not careful. Before you go nosing around in the collection, you come to me!"
"Sorry, Boss," Shay said. "My fault."
"I don't doubt it," he snapped, reshelving the magazines with elegant, careful movements at odds with his harsh words. "Now, young lady, I suppose you're here for a work assignment."
"Work?" Tally said.
They both looked down at her puzzled expression, and Shay burst into laughter.