The Smokies all had lunch together, just like at an ugly dorm.
The long tables had clearly been cut from the hearts of trees. They showed knots and whorls, and wavy tracks of grain ran down their entire length. They were rough and beautiful, but Tally couldn't get over the thought that the trees had been taken alive.
She was glad when Shay and David took her outside to the cooking fire, where a group of younger uglies hung out. It was a relief to get away from the felled trees, and from the disturbing older uglies. Out here, at least, any of the Smokies could pass as a senior. Tally didn't have much experience in judging an ugly's age, but she turned out to be more or less right. Two had just arrived from another city, and weren't even sixteen yet. The other three - Croy, Ryde, and Astrix - were friends of Shay's, from the group that had run away together back before Tally and Shay had first met.
Here in the Smoke only five months, Shay's friends already had a hint of David's self-assurance.
Somehow, they carried the authority of middle pretties without the firm jaw, the subtly lined eyes, or the elegant clothing. They spent lunch talking about projects they were up to. A canal to bring a branch of the creek closer to the Smoke; new patterns for the sheep wool their sweaters were made from; a new latrine. (Tally wondered what a "latrine" was.) They seemed so serious, as if their lives were a really complicated trick that had to be planned and replanned every day.
The food was serious too, and was piled on their plates in serious quantities. It was heavier than Tally was used to, the tastes too rich, like whenever her food history class tried to cook their own meals. But the strawberries were sweet without sugar, and although it seemed weird to eat it plain, the Smokies'
bread had its own flavor without anything added. Of course, Tally would have happily devoured anything that wasn't SpagBol.
She didn't ask what was in the stew, though. The thought of dead trees was enough to deal with in one day.
As they emptied their plates, Shay's friends started pumping Tally for news from the city. Dorm sports results, soap opera story lines, city politics. Had she heard of anyone else running away? Tally answered their questions as best she could. No one tried to hide their homesickness. Their faces looked years younger as they remembered old friends and old tricks.
Then Astrix asked about her journey here to the Smoke.
"It was pretty easy, really. Once I got the hang of Shay's directions."
"Not that easy. Took you what, ten days?" David asked.
"You left the night before our birthday, right?" Shay said.
"Stroke of midnight," Tally said. "Nine days...and a half."
Croy frowned. "It took a while for the rangers to find you, didn't it?"
"I guess so. And they almost roasted me when they did. They were doing a huge burn that got out of control."
"Really? Whoa." Shay's friends looked impressed.
"My board almost burned. I had to save it and jump in the river."
"Is that what happened to your face?" Ryde asked.
Tally touched the peeling skin on her nose. "Well, that's kind of..."Sunburn, she almost said. But the others' faces were rapt. She'd been alone so long, Tally found herself enjoying being the center of attention.
"The flames were all around me," she said. "My shoes melted crossing this big patch of burning flowers."
Shay whistled. "Incredible."
"That's weird. The rangers usually keep an eye out for us," David said.
"Well, I guess they missed me." Tally decided not to go into the fact that she'd intentionally hidden her hoverboard. "Anyway, I was in the river, and I'd never even seen a helicopter - except for the day before - and this thing came thundering out of the smoke, driving the fire toward me. And of course I had no idea the rangers were the good guys. I thought they were Rusty pyromaniacs risen from the grave!"
Everyone laughed, and Tally felt herself enjoying the warmth of the group's attention. It was like telling everyone at dorm about a really successful trick, but much better, because she really had survived a life-or-death situation. David and Shay were hanging on to every word. Tally was glad she hadn't activated the pendant yet. She could hardly sit here enjoying the Smokies' admiration if she'd just betrayed them all. She decided to wait until tonight, when she was alone, to do what she had to.
"That must have been creepy," David said, his voice pulling her away from uncomfortable thoughts,
"being alone in the orchids for all those days, just waiting."
She shrugged. "I thought they were kind of pretty. I didn't know about the whole superweed thing."
David frowned at Shay. "Didn't you tell heranything in your note?"
Shay flushed. "You told me not to write anything that would give the Smoke away, so I put it in code, sort of."
"It sounds like your code almost got her killed," David said, and Shay's face fell. He turned to Tally.
"Hardly anyone ever makes the trip alone. Not their first time out of the city."
"I'd been out of the city before." Tally put her arm around Shay's shoulder comfortingly. "I was fine. It was just a bunch of pretty flowers to me, and I started with two weeks of food."
"Why did you steal all SpagBol?" Croy asked. "You must love the stuff." The others joined in his laughter.
Tally tried to smile. "I didn't even notice when I pinched it. Three SpagBols a day for nine days. I could hardly stomach the stuff after day two, but you get so hungry."
They nodded. They all knew about hard traveling, and hard work, too, apparently. Tally had already noticed how much everyone had consumed for lunch. Maybe Shay wasn't so likely to get the not-eating disease. She had cleaned her heaping plate.
"Well, I'm glad you made it," David said. He reached across and touched the scratches on Tally's face softly. "Looks like you had more adventures than you're telling us."
Tally swallowed and shrugged, hoping she looked modest.
Shay smiled and hugged David. "I knew you'd think Tally was awesome."
A bell rang across the grounds, and they hurried to finish their food.
"What's that?" she asked.
David grinned. "That's back to work."
"You're coming with us," Shay said. "Don't worry, it won't kill you."
On the way to work, Shay explained more about the long, flat roller coasters called railroads. Some stretched across the entire continent, one small part of the Rusty legacy still scarring the land. But unlike most ruins, the railroads were actually useful, and not just for hoverboarding. They were the main source of metal for the Smokies.
David had discovered a new railroad track a year or so earlier. It didn't run anywhere useful, so he had drawn up a plan to plunder it for metal and build more hoverpaths in and around the valley. Shay had been working on the project since she'd come to the Smoke ten days before.
Six of them took their boards up and out the other side of the valley, down a stream churning with white water, and along a razor-sharp ridge filled with iron ore. From there, Tally finally understood how far up the mountain she'd come since leaving the coast. The whole continent seemed to be spread out before them. A thin bank of clouds below the ridge mirrored the heavier layer overhead, but forests, grasslands, and the shimmering arcs of rivers were visible through the misty veil. The sea of white orchids could still be glimpsed from this side of the mountain, glowing like an encroaching desert in the sun.
"Everything's so big," Tally murmured.
"That's what you can never tell from inside," Shay said. "How small the city is. How small they have to make everyone to keep them trapped there."
Tally nodded, but she imagined all those people let loose in the countryside below, cutting down trees and killing things for food, crashing across the landscape like some risen Rusty machine.
Still, she wouldn't have traded anything for this moment, standing there and looking down at the plains spread out below. Tally had spent the last four years staring at the skyline of New Pretty Town, thinking it was the most beautiful sight in the world, but she didn't think so anymore.
Lower down and halfway around the mountain, another river crossed David's railroad track. The route there from the Smoke twisted in all directions, taking advantage of veins of iron, rivers, and dry creek beds, but they'd never had to leave their boards. Walking wouldn't be an option, Shay explained, when they came back loaded with heavy metal.
The track was overgrown with vines and stunted trees, every wooden cross-tie in the grip of a dozen tentacles of vegetation. The forest had been hacked away in patches surrounding a few missing segments of rail, but it held the rest firmly in its grasp.
"How are we going to get any of this out?" Tally asked. She kicked at a gnarled root, feeling puny against the strength of the wild.
"Watch this," Shay said. She pulled a tool from her backpack, an arm-length pole that telescoped out almost to Tally's height. Shay twisted one end, and four short struts unfolded from the other like the ribs of an umbrella. "It's called a powerjack, and it can move just about anything."
Shay twisted the handle again, and the ribs retracted. Then she thrust one end of the jack under a cross-tie. With another twist of her wrist, the pole began to shudder, and a groaning sound came from the wood. Shay's feet slipped backward, but she leaned her weight into the pole, keeping it wedged under the cross-tie. Slowly, the ancient wood began to rise, tearing free from plants and earth, bending the rail that lay across it. Tally saw the struts of the powerjack unfolding underneath the tie, gradually forcing it up, the rail above beginning to pull free of its moorings.
Shay grinned up at her. "I told you."
"Let me try," Tally said, holding out her hand, eyes wide.
Shay laughed and pulled another powerjack from her backpack. "Take that tie there, while I keep this one up."
The powerjack was heavier than it looked, but its controls were simple. Tally pulled it open and jammed it under the tie that Shay had indicated. She turned the handle slowly, until the jack started to shudder in her hands.
The wood began to shift, the stresses of metal and earth twisting in her hands. Vines tore from the ground, and Tally could feel their complaints through the soles of her shoes, like a distant earthquake rumbling. A metal shriek filled the air as the rail began to bend, pulling free of vegetation and the rusty spikes that had held it down for centuries. Finally, the jack had opened to its full extent, the rail still only half-free from its ancient bonds. She and Shay struggled to pull their jacks out.
"Having fun?" Shay asked, wiping sweat from her brow.
Tally nodded, grinning. "Don't just stand there, let's finish the job."