As the days passed, Tally fell into the routines of the Smoke.
There was something comforting about the exhaustion of hard work. All her life, Tally had been troubled by insomnia, lying awake most nights thinking about arguments she'd had, or wanted to have, or things she should have done differently. But here in the Smoke her mind shut off the moment her head hit the pillow, which wasn't even a pillow, just her new sweater stuffed into a cotton bag.
Tally still didn't know how long she was going to stay there. She hadn't come to a decision about whether to activate the pendant, but she knew that thinking about it all the time would drive her crazy. So she decided to put it out of her mind. One day she might wake up and realize that she couldn't stand to live her entire life as an ugly, no matter who it hurt or what it cost...but for the moment, Dr. Cable could wait.
Forgetting her troubles was easy in the Smoke. Life was much more intense than in the city. She bathed in a river so cold that she had to jump in screaming, and she ate food pulled from the fire hot enough to burn her tongue, which city food never did. Of course, she missed shampoo that didn't sting her eyes, and flush toilets (she'd learned to her horror what "latrines" were), and mostly medspray. But however blistered her hands became, Tally felt stronger than ever before. She could work all day at the railroad site, then race David and Shay home on hoverboards, her backpack full of more scrap metal than she could have lifted a month before. She learned from David how to repair her clothes with a needle and thread, how to tell raptors from their prey, and even how to clean fish, which turned out to be not nearly as bad as cutting them up in bio class.
The physical beauty of the Smoke also cleared her mind of worries. Every day seemed to change the mountain, the sky, and the surrounding valleys, making them spectacular in a completely new way.
Nature, at least, didn't need an operation to be beautiful. It just was.
One morning on the way to the railroad track, David pulled his board up alongside Tally's. He rode silently for a while, taking the familiar turns with his usual grace. Over the last two weeks, she'd learned that his jacket was actually made of leather, real dead animals, but she'd gradually gotten used to the idea. The Smokies hunted, but they were like the rangers, killing only species that didn't belong in this part of the world or that had gotten out of control thanks to the Rusties' meddling. With its random patches, the jacket would probably look silly on anyone else. But it suited David, somehow, as if growing up here in the wild allowed him to fuse with the animals that had donated their skins to his clothes. And it probably didn't hurt that he had actually made the jacket himself.
He spoke up suddenly. "I've got a present for you."
"A present? Really?"
By now, Tally understood that nothing in the Smoke ever lost its value. Nothing was discarded or given away just because it was old or broken. Everything was repaired, refitted, and recycled, and if one Smokey couldn't put it to use, it was traded to another. Few things were given away lightly.
"Yeah, really." David angled closer and handed her a small bundle.
She unwrapped it, following the familiar route down the stream almost without looking. It was a pair of gloves, handmade in light brown leather.
She shoved the bright, city-made wrapping paper into her pocket, then pulled the gloves onto her blistered hands. "Thanks! They fit perfectly."
He nodded. "I made them when I was about your age. They're a little small for me these days."
Tally smiled, wishing she could hug him. When they spread their arms to take a hard turn, she held his hand for a second.
Flexing her fingers, Tally found that the gloves were soft and pliant, the palms worn pale from years of use. White lines across the finger joints revealed how they had fitted David's hands. "They're wonderful."
"Come on," David said. "It's not like they're magic or anything."
"No, but they've got...something." History, Tally realized. In the city, she'd owned lots of things - practically anything she wanted came out of the wall. But city things were disposable and replaceable, as interchangeable as the T-shirt, jacket, and skirt combinations of dorm uniforms. Here, in the Smoke, objects grew old, carrying their histories with them in dings and scratches and tatters.
David chuckled at her and sped up, joining Shay at the front of the pack.
When they got to the railroad site, David announced that they had to clear more track, using vibrasaws to cut through the vegetation that had grown up around the metal rails.
"What about the trees?" Croy asked.
"What about them?"
"Do we have to chop them down?" Tally asked.
David shrugged. "Scrub trees like this aren't good for much. But we won't waste them. We'll take them back to the Smoke for burning."
"Burning?" Tally said. The Smokies usually only cut down trees from the valley, not the rest of the mountain. These trees had been growing there for decades, and David wanted to use them just to cook a meal? She looked at Shay for support, but her friend's expression was carefully neutral. She probably agreed, but didn't want to argue with David in front of everyone about how to run his project.
"Yes, burning," he said. "And after we've salvaged the track, we'll replant. Put a row of useful trees where the railroad used to be."
The five others looked at him silently. He spun a saw in his hand, anxious to get started, but aware he didn't have their full support yet.
"You know, David," Croy said. "These trees aren't useless. They protect the underbrush from sunlight, which keeps the soil from eroding."
"Okay, you win. Instead of planting some other kind of tree, we'll let the forest take back the land. All the crappy scrub and underbrush you want."
"But do we have to clear-cut them?" Astrix asked.
David took a slow breath. "Clear-cutting" was the word for what the Rusties had done to the old forests: felling every tree, killing every living thing, turning entire countries into grazing land. Whole rain forests had been consumed, reduced from millions of interlocking species to a bunch of cows eating grass, a vast web of life traded for cheap hamburgers.
"Look, we're not clear-cutting. All we're doing is pulling out the garbage that the Rusties left behind,"
David said. "It just takes a little surgery to do it."
"We could chop around the trees," Tally said. "Only cut into them where we need to. Like you said: surgery."
"Okay, fine." He chuckled. "Let's see what you think of these trees after you've had to hack a few out of the ground."
He was right.
The vibrasaw purred through heavy vines, parted tangled underbrush like a comb through wet hair, and sliced cleanly through metal when the odd misstroke brought the cutting edge down onto the track. But when its teeth met the gnarled roots and twisted branches of the scrub trees, it was a different story.
Tally grimaced as her saw bounced across the hard wood again, spitting bits of bark at her face, its low hum transformed into a protesting howl. She struggled to force the edge down into the tough old branch.
One more cut and this section of track would be clear.
"Going good. You almost got it, Tally."
She noticed that Croy stood well back, poised to jump if the saw somehow slipped from her hands. She could see now why David had wanted to chop the scrub trees into pieces. It would have been a lot easier than reaching through the tangle of roots and branches, trying to bring the vibrasaw to bear against a precise spot.
"Stupid trees," Tally muttered, gritting her teeth as she plunged the blade down again.
Finally, the saw found purchase in the wood, letting out a high-pitched scream as it bit into the branch.
Then it slipped through, free for a second before it thrust, spitting and screeching, into the dirt below.
"Yeah!" Tally stepped back, lifting her goggles, the saw powering down in her hands.
Croy stepped forward and kicked the section of branch away from the track. "Perfect surgical slice, Doctor," he said.
"I think I'm getting the hang of this," Tally said, wiping her brow.
It was almost noon, and the sun was beating down into the clearing mercilessly. She pulled off her sweater, realizing that the morning chill was long gone. "You were right about the trees giving shade."
"You said it," Croy said. "Nice sweater, by the way."
She smiled. Along with her new gloves, it was her prized possession. "Thanks."
"What did it cost you?"
"A little pricey. Pretty, though." Croy caught her eye. "Tally, remember that first day you got here?
When I kind of grabbed your knapsack? I really wouldn't have taken your stuff. Not without giving you something for it. You just surprised me when you said I could have everything."
"Sure, no problem," she said. Now that she'd worked with Croy, he seemed like a nice enough guy.
She'd rather have been teamed up with David or Shay, but those two were cutting together today. And it was probably time she got to know some of the other Smokies better.
"And you got a new sleeping bag, too, I hope."
"Yeah. Twelve SpagBols."
"Must be almost out of trade."
She nodded. "Only eight left."
"Not bad. Still, I bet you didn't realize on your way here that you were eating your future wealth."
Tally laughed. They crouched under the partly cut tree, pulling handfuls of cut vines from around the track.
"If I'd known how valuable food packets were, I probably wouldn't have eaten so many, starving or not. I don't even like it anymore. The worst was SpagBol for breakfast."
"Sounds good to me." Croy chuckled. "This section look clear to you?"
"Sure. Let's start on the next one." She handed him the saw.
Croy did the easy part first, attacking the underbrush with the humming saw. "So, Tally, there's one thing that's kind of confusing."
The saw glanced off metal, sending up a smattering of sparks.
"The first day you were here, you said you left the city with two weeks of food."
"If it took you nine days to get here, you should only have had five days of food left. Maybe fifteen packets altogether. But I remember on that first day, when I looked into your bag, I was, like, 'She's got tons!'"
Tally swallowed, trying not to show any expression.
"And it turns out I was right. Twelve plus six plus eight is...twenty-six?"
"Yeah, I guess."
He nodded, working the saw carefully beneath a low branch. "I thought so. But you left the citybefore your birthday, right?"
Tally thought fast. "Sure. But I guess I didn't really eat three meals every day, Croy. Like I said, I was pretty sick of SpagBol after a while."
"Seems like you didn't eat much at all, for such a long trip."
Tally struggled to do the math in her head, to figure out what sort of numbers would add up. She remembered what Shay had said that first night: Some Smokies were suspicious of her, worried that she might be a spy. Tally had thought they all accepted her by now. Apparently not.
She took a deep breath, trying to keep the fear out of her voice. "Look, Croy, let me tell you something.
"I probably left the city with more than just two weeks' worth of food. I never really counted."
"But you kept saying - "
"Yeah, I might have exaggerated a little, just to make the trip sound more interesting, you know? Like I could have run out of food when the rangers didn't turn up. But you're right, I always had plenty."
"Sure." He looked up at her, smiling gently. "I thought maybe so. Your trip did sound a little bit too...interesting to be true."
"But most of what I said was - "
"Of course." The saw whined to a stop in his hand. "I'm sure most of it was. Question is, how much?"
Tally met his piercing eyes, struggling to think of what to say. It was nothing but a few extra food packets, hardly proof that she was a spy. She should just laugh it off. But the fact that he was dead right silenced her.
"You want the saw for a while?" he said mildly. "Clearing this up is hard work."
Since they were clearing brush, there was no load of metal to take back at midday, so the railroad crew had brought their lunch out with them: potato soup, and bread with salty olives dotted through it. Tally was glad when Shay took her lunch away from the rest of the group, to the edge of the dense forest. She followed, settling next to her friend in the dappled light. "I need to talk to you, Shay."
Shay, not looking at her, sighed softly as she tore her bread into pieces. "Yeah, I guess you do."
"Oh. Did he talk to you, too?"
Shay shook her head. "He didn't have to say anything."
Tally frowned. "What do you mean?"
"I mean it's obvious. Ever since you got here. I should have seen it right away."
"I never - " Tally started, but her voice betrayed her. "What are you saying? You think Croy's right?"
Shay sighed. "I'm just saying that - " She stopped and turned to face Tally. "Croy? What about Croy?"
"He was talking to me before lunch, and he noticed my sweater and asked if I got a sleeping bag. And he figured that after nine days getting here I had too much SpagBol left."
"You had too muchwhat ?" Shay's expression was one of total confusion. "What on earth are you talking about?"
"Remember when I got here? I told everyone that..." Tally trailed off, for the first time noticing Shay's eyes. They were lined with red, as if she hadn't slept. "Wait a second, what did you think I was talking about?"
Shay held out a hand, fingers splayed. "This."
"Hold out yours."
Tally opened one hand, making a mirror image of Shay's.
"Same size," Shay said. She turned both her palms up. "Same blisters, too."
Tally looked down and blinked. If anything, Shay's hands were in worse shape, red and dry and cracked with the ragged edges of burst blisters. Shay always worked so hard, diving in first, always taking the hardest jobs.
Tally's fingers went to the gloves tucked into her belt. "Shay, I'm sure David didn't mean to - "
"I'm sure he did. People always think long and hard about gifts in the Smoke."
Tally bit her lip. It was true. She pulled the gloves from her belt. "You should take them."
"I. Don't. Want. Them."
Tally sat back, stunned. First Croy, now this.
"No, I guess you don't." She dropped the gloves. "But Shay, shouldn't you talk to David before you go nuts about this?"
Shay chewed at a fingernail, shaking her head. "He doesn't talk to me that much anymore. Not since you showed up. Not about anything important. He's got stuff on his mind, he says."
"Oh." Tally gritted her teeth. "I never...I mean, I like David, but..."
"It's not your fault, okay? I know that." Shay reached out and gave Tally's heart-shaped pendant a little flick. "And besides, maybe your mysterious someone will show up, and it won't matter anyway."
Tally nodded. True enough, once the Specials got here, Shay's romantic life would be the least of anyone's worries.
"Have you even mentioned that to David? It seems like it might be an issue."
"No. I haven't."
"It just never came up."
Shay's mouth tightened. "That's convenient."
Tally let out a groan. "But Shay, you said it yourself: I wasn't supposed to be giving out directions to the Smoke. I feel really bad about the whole thing. I'm not going to go advertising it."
"Except by wearing that thing around your neck. Which didn't do much good, though, since apparently David didn't notice it."
Tally sighed. "Or maybe he doesn't care, because this is all just in your..." She couldn't finish. It wasn't just in Shay's head; she could see it now, and feel it too. When David showed her the railway cave, and told her his secret about his parents, he had trusted her, even when he shouldn't have. And now this present. Could it really be just Shay overreacting?
In a quiet part of her mind, Tally realized that she hoped it wasn't.
She took a deep breath, expelling the thought. "Shay, what do you want me to do?"
"Just tell him."
"Tell him what?"
"About why you wear that heart. About your mysterious someone."
Too late, Tally felt the expression on her face.
Shay nodded. "You don't want to, do you? That's pretty clear."
"No, I will. Really."
"Sure you will." Shay turned away, pulling a hunk of bread from her soup and taking a vicious bite.
"Iwill ." Tally touched her friend's shoulder, and instead of pulling away, Shay turned back to her, her expression almost hopeful.
Tally swallowed. "I'll tell him everything, I promise."