Page 38 of Uglies (Uglies 1)

Ruin

They didn't leave the cave until the next morning.

Tally squinted in the dawn light, eyes scanning the sky for a fleet of hovercars suddenly rising above the trees. But they hadn't heard any sound of a search all night. Maybe now that the Smoke was destroyed, catching the last few runaways wasn't worth the trouble.

David's hoverboard had spent the night hidden in the cave, and hadn't had any sunlight for a whole day now, but it had just enough charge to get them back up the mountain. They rode to the river. Tally's stomach rumbled after a whole day without food, but the first thing she needed was water. Her mouth was so dry, she could hardly talk.

David knelt at the bank and dipped his head under the icy water. Tally shivered at the sight. Without a blanket or shoes, she'd frozen in the cave all night long, even huddled in David's arms. She needed warm food in her before she could face anything colder than the morning breeze.

"What if the Smoke's still occupied?" she asked. "Where will we get food?"

"You said they put prisoners in the rabbit pen? Where'd the rabbits go?"

"All over."

"Exactly. They should be everywhere by now. And they aren't hard to catch."

She grimaced. "Well, okay. As long as we cook them."

David laughed. "Of course."

"I've never actually started a fire," she admitted.

"Don't worry. You're a natural." He stepped onto his board and held out his hand.

Riding double was something Tally had never done before, and she found herself glad she was with David and not just anyone. She stood in front of him, bodies touching, her arms out, his hands around her waist. They negotiated the turns without words, Tally shifting her weight gradually, waiting for David to follow her lead. As they slowly got the hang of it, their bodies began to move together, threading the board down the familiar path as one.

It worked, as long as they went slowly, but Tally kept her ears open for sounds of pursuit. If a hovercar appeared, a full-speed escape was going to be tricky.

They smelled the Smoke long before they saw it.

From high up the mountain, the buildings had the look of a burned-out campfire, smoking, crumbling, blackened through and through. Nothing moved in the compound, except a few pieces of paper stirred by the wind.

"Looks like it burned all night," Tally said.

David nodded, speechless. Tally grasped his hand, wondering what it was like to see your childhood home reduced to a smoking ruin.

"I'm so sorry, David," she said.

"We have to go down. I need to see if my parents..." He swallowed the words.

Tally searched for signs of anyone remaining in the Smoke. It seemed entirely deserted, but there might be a few Specials in hiding, waiting for stragglers to reappear. "We should wait."

"I can't. My parents' house is on the other side of the ridge. Maybe the Specials didn't see it."

"If they missed it, Maddy and Az will still be there."

"But what if they ran?"

"Then we'll find them. In the meantime, let's not get caught ourselves."

David sighed. "All right."

Tally held his hand tight. They unfolded the hoverboard and waited as the sun climbed, watching for any sign of a human being below. Occasionally, the embers of the fires flared to life in the breeze, the last standing columns of wood collapsing one by one, crumbling into ash.

A few animals rummaged for food, and Tally watched in silent horror as a stray rabbit was taken by a wolf, the short struggle leaving only a patch of blood and fur. This was what was left of nature, raw and wild, only hours after the Smoke had fallen.

"Ready to go down?" David asked after an hour.

"No," Tally said. "But I never will be."

They approached slowly, ready to turn and fly if any Specials appeared. But when they reached the edge of town, Tally felt her anxiety turn to something worse: a horrible certainty that no one remained there.

Her home was gone, replaced by nothing but charred wreckage.

At the rabbit pen, footprints showed where groups of Smokies had been moved in and out through the gates, a whole community turned into cattle. A few rabbits still hopped around on the dirt.

"Well, at least we won't starve," David said.

"I guess not," Tally said, although the sight of the Smoke had stilled her hunger. She wondered how David always managed to think practical thoughts, no matter what horrors were in front of him. "Hey, what's that?"

At one corner of the pen, just outside the fence, clusters of little shapes lay on the ground.

They edged the board closer, David squinting through a drifting wall of smoke. "It looks like...shoes."

Tally blinked. He was right. She lowered the board and jumped off, running to the spot.

Tally looked around in amazement. Around her were scattered twenty or so pairs of shoes, in all sizes.

She fell to her knees to look closer. The laces were still tied, as if the shoes had been kicked off by people whose hands were bound behind them....

"Croy recognized me," she murmured.

"What?"

Tally turned to David. "When I escaped, I flew right over the pen. Croy must have seen it was me. He knew I didn't have shoes. We joked about it."

She imagined the Smokies, helplessly awaiting their fate, making one last gesture of defiance. Croy would have kicked his own shoes off, then whispered to whomever he could: "Tally's free, and barefoot." They'd left her with a score of pairs to pick from, the only way they could help the one Smokey they'd seen escape.

"They knew I'd come back here." Her voice faltered. What they didn't know was who had betrayed them.

She picked a pair that looked about the right size, with grippy soles for hoverboarding, and pulled them on. They fit, even better than the ones the rangers had given her.

Jumping back on the board, Tally had to hide the pained expression on her face. This is what it would be like from now on. Every gesture of kindness from her victims would only make her feel worse. "Okay, let's go."

The hoverpath wound through the smoking camp, over what streets remained between the charred ruins.

Beside a long building, now little more than a ridge of blackened rubble, David pulled the board to a halt.

"I was afraid of this."

Tally tried to picture what had stood there. Her knowledge of the Smoke had evaporated, the familiar streets reduced to an unrecognizable sprawl of ash and embers.

Then she saw a few blackened pages fluttering in the wind. The library.

"They didn't take the books out before they...," she cried. "But why?"

"They don't want people to know what it was like before the operation. They want to keep you hating yourselves. Otherwise, it's too easy to get used to ugly faces,normal faces."

Tally turned around to look into David's eyes. "Some of them, anyway."

He smiled sadly.

Then a thought crossed her mind. "The Boss was running away with some old magazines. Maybe he escaped."

"On foot?" David sounded dubious.

"I hope so." She leaned, and the board slid toward the edge of town.

A blotch of pepper still marked the ground where she had fought the Special. Tally jumped off, trying to remember exactly where the Boss had escaped into the forest.

"If he got away, he must be long gone," David said.

Tally pushed her way into the brush, looking for signs of a struggle. The morning sun was streaming through the leaves, and a trail of broken bushes cut into the forest. The Boss had been none too graceful, leaving a path like a charging elephant.

She found the duffel bag half-hidden, shoved under a moss-covered fallen tree. Zipping it open, Tally saw that the magazines were still there, each one lovingly wrapped in its own plastic cover. She slung the bag over her shoulder, glad to have salvaged something from the library, a small victory over Dr. Cable.

A moment later, she found the Boss.

He lay on his back, his head turned at an angle that Tally instantly knew was utterly wrong. His fingers were clenched, the nails bloody from clawing at someone. He must have fought to distract them, maybe to keep them from finding the duffel bag. Or maybe for Tally's sake, having seen that she'd reached the forest too.

She remembered what the Specials had said to her more than once:We don't want to hurt you, but we will if we have to.

They'd been serious. They always were.

She stumbled back out of the forest, stunned, the bag still hanging from her shoulder.

"You found something?" David asked.

She didn't answer.

He saw the expression on her face and jumped down from the board. "What happened?"

"They caught him. They killed him."

David looked at her, his mouth open. He took a slow breath. "Come on, Tally. We have to go."

She blinked. The sunlight seemed wrong, twisted out of shape, like the Boss's neck. As if the world had become horribly distorted while she was among the trees. "Where?" she murmured.

"We have to go to my parents' house."

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