Tally checked the flash tattoo on Peris's forehead - a third eye that blinked with his heartbeat - and looked into his gorgeous eyes, brown and soft and depthless. Peris seemed bubblier than he had a month ago - all the Crims did - but Tally no longer saw improvement in him from day to day. It was so much harder for the rest of them who hadn't had the pills, who weren't half-cured like Tally and Zane. They could get excited in the short term, but it was hard to keep them focused.
Well, the breakthrough would give them a jolt.
"It's okay, Nose. Let's skate." Tally pushed off against the flat of one blade, building up speed as she swept around the rink's outer edge. She looked down through the mottled window of ice underfoot.
The hoverlifters that held the floating rink up in the air were easy to see, spaced in a grid a few meters apart and sending out a sunburst of refrigeration tendrils. Much farther below, the broad oval of the sports stadium was visible, softly out of focus like the world through a pretty-minded haze. The stadium lights were coming on, warming up for the soccer game scheduled in forty-five minutes. As always, there would be fireworks before it started, once the crowd was in their seats. Very pretty-making.
The sky above was an uninterrupted expanse of blue, except for a few hot-air balloons tethered to the tallest party spires. When it was airborne, the skating rink was the highest thing in New Pretty Town. Tally could glimpse the entire city spread out below.
She skated after Zane, catching him as he rounded a turn. "Everybody seem bubbly to you?"
"Mostly nervous." He gracefully reversed, skating backward as easily as breathing. His operation-augmented muscles had been freed from pretty timidity and sloth. He could hold a handstand without trembling, climb up to his window in Pulcher Mansion in seconds, and outrun the monorail that brought crumblies from the burbs into the central hospital. He never broke a sweat and could hold his breath for two solid minutes.
Watching him perform these feats, Tally remembered the Rangers who'd rescued her from a brushfire on her journey to the Smoke. Zane was as physically confident as they had been - fast and strong, but without the twitching inhumanity of Special Circumstances agents. Tally was no slouch herself, but somehow the cure had taken Zane's strength and coordination to a new level. She loved gliding across the ice with him, skating circles around the others, being the graceful center of the Crims' motley vortex of flashing blades.
"Anything from the New Smoke?" he asked, barely audible over the swoosh of skates.
"Peris says nothing."
Zane swore and took a tight turn, spraying ice on a non-Crim struggling slowly along the side of the rink.
Tally caught up to him. "We have to be patient, Zane. We'll get these things off."
"I'm tired of being patient, Tally." He looked down through the ice. The stadium below was teeming, the growing audience awaiting the first game of the intercity playoffs. "How long?"
"Any minute now," she said.
As the words left her mouth the first fireworks exploded below, instantly transforming the rink into a mottled palette of reds and blues. A second later, a tardy boom shuddered up through the ice, followed by a long ahhh of appreciation from the crowd.
"Here we go," Zane said with a grin, his irritation erased.
Tally squeezed his hand and then let him skate away, gliding to a halt in the center of the rink, the farthest point from the supporting hoverstructure around the ice. She raised one hand and waited as the other Crims gathered in a tight pack around her.
"Flasks," she said softly, and heard the whisper spread through the pack.
Flashes of metal caught the sun, and Tally heard the rasp of tops being unscrewed. Her heart was beating fast, her senses sharpened by anticipation. Everyone's tattoos were totally spinning. She saw Zane gathering speed along the outside of the rink.
"Pour," she said softly.
A liquid sound spread through the pack of Crims, double vodka and straight ethyl alcohol gurgling out. Tally thought she heard a creak, the slightest of complaints from the ice as its freezing point was lowered by the spirits.
Even in the old days, Zane had always dreamed of pulling something like this, sometimes pouring champagne on the ice while the Crims skated. But the cure had made him serious; he'd even run a test in the small fridge in his room. He'd filled a tray of ice cubes, each one with a slightly different mix of vodka and water, and stuck it in the freezer. The all-water cube had frozen normally, but those with more alcohol in them got slushier and slushier, leaving the final all-vodka cube completely liquid.
Tally looked down at the layer of spirits slowly spreading across the ice through their skates, melting away the marks of blades and falls. The stadium came into heart-pounding focus, until Tally could see every detail of a rising plume of green and yellow fireworks. When the thunderous boom reached her ears, another ominous creak sounded. The fireworks display was building in intensity, ramping up for the finale.
Tally raised her hand for Zane.
He rounded the next turn, then headed toward them, skating hard. She felt a shimmer of panic in the pack around her, like a herd of gazelles spotting some big cat in the distance. A few Crims took last slugs from their flasks, then squirted boxes of orange juice into them to erase the evidence of what they'd done.
Tally grinned, imagining the pretty befuddlement she would put on for the wardens: We were all just standing there talking and minding our own business, not even skating, and suddenly...
"Watch out!" Zane cried, and the pack split in half, opening to create a path for him.
He skated into its center and jumped into the air inhumanly high, eyes and blades flashing, then brought his skates down hard onto the ice, all his weight behind them.
Zane instantly disappeared from view with a noise like breaking glass, and Tally heard the crack spreading with a sound that built like the shriek of a falling tree out in the Smoke. For a strange split second she was pushed up into the air as a large plate of ice teeter-tottered on the fulcrum of a lifter, but then it snapped in half and Tally was falling, her stomach lurching up into her throat. Gloved hands grabbed her coat from every direction in a moment of group panic, then a whoop rose up as the middle of the rink gave way altogether, icy shards and Crims and Zambonies all tumbling down toward the green grass of the soccer field, ten thousand faces staring up at them in shock.
Now this was bubbly.
For a moment it was quiet.
All around her, shattered ice fell without a sound, catching the stadium lights as it spun. Wind tore the war cries from the Crims' mouths. The crowd below looked up in stunned silence. Tally spread her arms to slow her fall, clutching the precious seconds with cupped fingers. This part of a bungee jump was always like flying.
Then a burst of light and sound sent Tally spinning, ears pummeled and eyes forced shut by blinding streaks of brilliance. After a few stunned seconds, she shook her head and opened her eyes: Rainbow shards of fire traveled away in every direction, as if Tally were at the center of an exploding galaxy. More booms thundered above her, unleashing a steady rain of incandescence. She realized what had happened...
The grand finale of the fireworks show had detonated just as the pack of falling Crims had broken through the ice. The timing of the breakthrough had been a little too perfect.
One sizzling flare clung to her bungee jacket, burning with the cool insistence of safety fireworks, tickling her face with cast-off sparks. Tally flailed her arms to right herself, but the ground was already rushing up, only seconds away She was still out of control when the straps of the bungee jacket bit into her, bringing her headfirst plummet to a halt a few meters from the ground.
As the jacket yanked Tally upright and back into the air, she rolled into a ball in case anything big was still falling. The possibility of one of them catching a chunk of ice or a tumbling Zamboni had always been the nervous-making part of this plan. But Tally made the bounce unscathed, and as she reached its apex she heard the ahhh of the crowd's vast confusion. They knew something had gone wrong.
She and Zane had thought about hacking the Scoreboard to show a message at this moment, to penetrate the crowd's pretty haze while their heads were spinning. But then the wardens would know the breakthrough had been planned, which would lead to all sorts of bogus complications.
The New Smokies would hear about this trick one way or another, and they, at least, would know what it meant...
The cure had worked. The New Smoke had allies inside the city. The sky was falling.
Tally's hoverbouncing came to a stop about midfield, on grass littered with broken ice, shuddering Zambonies, giggling Crims, and the few innocent skaters who'd fallen through, no doubt suddenly glad that bungee jackets were required in the rink. She looked around for Zane, and saw that his momentum had carried him down the field and into one of the goals. She ran toward that end, checking on Crims along the way. Everyone's tattoos were pulsing madly; spinning with the anti-pretty magic of the breakthrough. But nobody was hurt beyond a few bruises or a little singed hair.
"It worked, Tally!" Fausto said softly as she passed, staring with amazement at a chunk of ice in his hand. She kept running.
Zane was laughing hysterically, tangled up in the net. When he saw Tally, he cried out a long,
She thudded to a halt, relieved, and let herself enjoy the bubbliness of everything, the world transformed around her. It was as if she could take in the whole audience at a glance, every expression crystal clear in the unreal sharpness of the stadium lights. Ten thousand faces stared back at her, awestruck and amazed.
Tally imagined herself making a speech right now, telling them all about the operation, the lesions, the terrible price of being pretty - that lovely meant brainless, and that their easy lives were empty. The bedazzled crowd looked as if they would listen.
She and Zane had wanted to signal the New Smokies, but that hadn't been the only goal of the breakthrough. A trick on this scale would jazz up the Crims for a few days, they knew, but would a truly bubbly experience permanently change pretties who hadn't taken the pills? From the look in Fausto's eyes, Tally thought it might. And now, seeing the faces of the crowd - new and middle pretties and even crumblies all head-spinning together - she wondered if the falling sky had awakened something larger.
The city had definitely noticed. Wardens were streaming onto the field, first-aid kits in hand. Tally had never seen such panicked expressions on middle pretties. Like the crowd, they all looked stunned that anything could have gone so totally wrong here in the city. The hover-cameras that had been ready to record the play-off game were panning across the field, taking in the wreckage. By the end of the day, Tally realized, this trick would be broadcast in every city on the globe.
She took a deep breath. It felt like setting off her first firework as a littlie, amazed that one little press of a button could make so much noise, wondering if she was going to get in trouble. As her euphoria wore off, Tally couldn't shake the feeling that, no matter how carefully they had covered up the trick, someone was going to know the breakthrough had been planned.
Suddenly, Tally needed Zane's touch, his silent reassurance, and she ran the rest of the distance to the goal. He was being untangled from the torn net, a pair of wardens treating his face with medspray.
Tally pushed them aside and took Zane into her arms.
There were wardens everywhere, so she spoke in pretty. "Bubbly-making, huh!"
"Utterly," he said. Zane didn't have any flash tattoos, but Tally could feel his heart pounding through the heavy winter coat.
"Are you broken anywhere?"
"No. Just ouching." He touched one side of his face gingerly; it bore red lines in the pattern of the net. "Looks like we scored."
She giggled and kissed his wounded cheek as softly as she could, then brought her lips to his ear.
"It worked. It really worked. It's like we can do anything."