Page 19 of Pretties (Uglies 2)

The movement was so slight that Tally hardly saw it from their hiding place, but she knew what had happened from the reactions of the others. Their bodies shuddered, eyes widening with horrified fascination - like Tally, they couldn't look away.

Then she saw the blood begin to trickle from the wound. It ran thinly in the rain, spreading down Shay's upraised arm and onto her shoulder, reaching her shirt, spreading a color that was more pink than red.


She turned around once to give them all a good look, her slow, deliberate movements as disturbing as the blood running down her arm. The others were shivering visibly now, shooting furtive glances at one another.

Shay finally lowered her arm, swaying a little on her feet, and held out the knife. Ho stepped forward to take it from her, and she took his place in the circle.

"What is this?" Zane whispered.

Tally shook her head and closed her eyes. The rain became suddenly deafening around her, but she heard her own words through the torrent. "This is Shay's new cure."

The others followed one by one.

Tally kept on expecting them to run, thinking that if only one of them would make a break for it, the rest would scatter into the forest like scared rabbits. But something -  the bleak setting, the spirit-sapping rain, or maybe the crazed expression on Shay's face - bound them to their spots. They all watched, and then, one by one, they cut themselves. And as each did so, their faces transformed to become more like Shay's: ecstatic and insane.

With every cut, Tally felt something hollowing out inside her. She couldn't forget that there was more to this ritual than madness. She remembered the night of the costume party. Her fear and panic had made her bubbly enough to pursue Croy but had left her still pretty-minded. It wasn't until after Peris's knee had struck her as he hoverbounced - opening up her eyebrow - that Tally's head had really become clear.

Shay had admired that scar; she'd been the one to suggest getting a tattoo to commemorate it.

Apparently she'd also understood how that injury had changed Tally, leading her to Zane, to the top of the transmission tower, and finally to the cure.

And now Shay was sharing her knowledge.

"This is our fault," Tally whispered.

"What?"

Tally opened her gloved hands toward the tableaux before them. She and Zane had given Shay what she needed to spread this cure: citywide fame, hundreds of pretties all dying to become Crims - bleeding to become Crims.

Or whatever they were becoming. "Cutters," Shay had said.

"She's not one of us anymore."

"Why are we just sitting here?" Zane hissed. His fists were clenched, his face reddening in the shadow of his hood.

"Zane, calm down." Tally took his hand.

"We should make her ..." His voice trailed off with a choked-sounding cough, his eyes wide.

"Zane?" she whispered.

He was struggling for breath, hands clutching at empty air.

"Zane!" Tally cried aloud. She grabbed his other hand, staring into his bulging eyes. He wasn't breathing.

Tally glanced into the clearing, desperate for help from someone, anyone - even the Cutters. A few of the distant figures had heard her cry, but they only stared wide-eyed at her, blood flowing and flash tattoos spinning, too zoned out to be of any help.

She reached for her cuff, tearing off the black scarf to send a distress ping. But Zane's hand reached out to grab her. He shook his head painfully. "No."

"Zane, you need help!"

"I'm okay. ..." The words tore from his throat.

She paused a moment, imagining him dying here in her arms. But if she called the wardens, they might both wind up under the surgeon's knife, pretty-minded for good -  leaving Shay's cure as the only one in town. "All right," she said. "But I'm taking you to the hospital."

"No!"

"Not inside. Just as close as we can get. We'll wait there and see what happens."

Tally rolled Zane onto her hoverboard and snapped her fingers, watching as it rose into the air.

She lay on top of him, feeling the board settle uneasily under their combined weight. The lifters held, and she pushed forward carefully.

As the board began to move, she glanced back at the clearing. All ten of them were staring at Tally and Zane now. Shay was walking toward them, her glare as cold as the rain.

Suddenly, Tally was overwhelmed with fear, the same terror she felt at the sight of Specials. She pushed off hard with her feet, leaning forward and climbing into the trees, leaving the place behind.

The ride down to the river was terrifying. Zane's limbs sprawled out in all directions, his shifting weight threatening to tip the board over with every turn. Tally wrapped her arms around him, fingernails scraping across the board's knobbly underside. She steered with her flailing legs, her turns as wide as a stumbling drunk's. The cold rain spat into her face, and Tally remembered the goggles in her coat pocket, but there was no way of getting at them without stopping.

And there wasn't time to stop.

They hurtled among the trees, the board picking up speed as they descended toward the river.

Pine branches, heavy and glistening with captured raindrops, reared up out of the rain to slash her face.

When they finally burst out of Cleopatra Park, Tally cut across a belt of muddy sports fields at top speed, angling toward the far end of the central island.

At this distance, the hospital was invisible in the driving rain, but Tally spotted the running lights of a hovercar headed in that direction. It was moving fast and high, probably an ambulance taking someone in. Squinting against the barrage of freezing rain, she managed to keep her eyes on it, following its course.

As the hovercar pulled out of sight, they reached the river, and the overweighted board began to lose lift over the open water.

Tally realized too late what was happening: The buried metal grid that magnetic lifters used to push against was lower here - in the ground under ten meters of water. As they neared the middle of the river, the board descended closer and closer to the cold and choppy surface.

Halfway across, the board struck water with a slap, Zane's hands bouncing off the river as if it was solid. But the hoverboard rebounded into the air, and as the far shore grew closer, the lifters gained purchase and carried them higher.

"Tally...," a croaking voice came from beneath her.

"It'll be okay, Zane. I've got you."

"Yeah. Feels very under control."

Tally dared a glance down at him. His eyes were open, his face no longer red. She realized that his chest rose and fell beneath her, his breathing normal. "Just relax, Zane. I'll stop when we're close to the hospital."

"Don't take me there."

"I'm just taking you closer. In case."

"In case what?" he said raggedly.

"In case you stop breathing again! Now shut up! "

He fell obediently silent, his eyes closing.

As the river's rain-spattered surface shot by underneath them, the lights of the hospital rose up, its dark bulk reassuringly close. Tally spotted the flashing yellow lights of the emergency bay, but pulled off the river before they reached it, climbing the bank slowly. She brought the board to rest in the shelter of a rack of empty ambulances, the hovercars stacked three high in their giant metal frame, apparently awaiting some major disaster.

When the board settled, Zane rolled off onto the wet ground with a groan.

She kneeled next to him. "Talk to me."

"I'm fine," he said. "Except my back."

"Your back? What ..."

"I think it has to do with riding a hoverboard on it." He snorted. "And under you."

She took his face in her hands, staring into his pupils. He looked exhausted and bedraggled, but he smiled and winked at her tiredly.

"Zane ..." She felt herself starting to cry again, tears running hot among the cold raindrops.

"What's happening to you?"

"Like I said: I think we need some breakfast."

Sobs wracked her body. "But..."

"I know." He put his hands on her shoulders. "We have to get out of here."

"But what about the New Smo - "

His hand shot up to cover her mouth, muffling her next words. She pulled away in surprise. Zane pushed himself up on one elbow, staring at her cuff, which was uncovered in the rain. She'd taken her glove off to make a call when his attack had started.

"Oh ... I'm sorry."

He shook his head, pulling her closer and whispering, "It's okay."

Tally closed her eyes, trying to remember what they had said on the mad trip here. "We argued about taking you to the hospital," she whispered.

He nodded and stood shakily, saying aloud, "Well, since we're here." He turned and punched his fist against the metal of the ambulance rack. It rebounded with a dull ring.

"Zane!"

He doubled over with pain, then shook his head, waving his wounded hand in the air for a moment. He regarded the blood on the knuckles. "As I said, since we came all this way, I might as well get this looked at. But next time ask me, okay?"

She stared at him, finally understanding. For a moment, she'd thought Shay's insanity was contagious. But a wounded hand was a plausible reason for their wild ride here, and would square with most of what the cuff had heard. Tally could also tell the wardens that they hadn't eaten in a couple of days. Maybe a vitamin- and blood-sugar drip in Zane's arm would help his headache.

He still looked like crap, muddy and soaking wet, but he walked without any stagger. In fact, Zane seemed pretty bubbly after cracking his hand. Maybe Shay wasn't as insane as she looked - at least she knew what worked.

"Come on," he said.

"Want a ride?" Tally asked, pointing. The second hover-board was coasting toward them across the grass, having followed the signal in Zane's crash bracelets.

"I think I'll walk," he said, trudging toward the flashing lights of the emergency bay. Tally saw then that his hands shook, and how pale he was. And she resolved that the next time he had an attack, she was calling the wardens.

Even the cure wasn't worth dying for.

HOSPITAL

It turned out that Zane's punch had broken three bones in his hand, which were going to take half an hour to fix.

Tally shared the waiting room with two brand-new pretties waiting for a friend with a broken leg - something about running down wet stairs outside Lillian Russell Mansion. She ignored the details of the story, scarfing down cookies and coffee with lots of milk and sugar, luxuriating in the hospital's warmth and total absence of pounding rain. The rare sensation of calories entering her body softened the world a little, but Tally was glad for a few moments of pretty haze. Her memories of what Shay and company were up to in Cleopatra Park were all too clear.

"So what happened to you?" one of the pretties finally asked, the emphasis on the last word indicating her soaked and muddy clothes, exhausted expression, and generally shaming appearance.

Tally shoved a chocolate-chip cookie into her mouth and shrugged. "Hoverboarding."

The other pretty elbowed her friend, widening her eyes and angling one nervous thumb at Tally.

"What?" he said.

"Shhh!"

"What?"

The second pretty sighed. "Sorry," she said to Tally. "My friend is brand new. And totally brain-missing." She explained to him in a whisper, "That's Tally Youngblood. "

The first one opened his mouth wide, then shut it.

Tally just smiled and stuffed another cookie into her face. Of course you'd run into Tally Youngblood in the emergency bay, they were thinking. Where else? They were probably wondering what piece of major architecture had crumbled under her this time.

Though her celebrity kept the two mercifully quiet, their furtive glances were unsettling. These two pretties weren't the type to become Cutters, Tally was fairly certain. But she couldn't escape the realization that her criminal notoriety was feeding Shay's little project, creating pretties hungry to explore a certain kind of bubbliness. Even full of coffee, milk, and cookies, Tally's stomach began to feel sour as she wondered if trips to the emergency bay were going to be the rage this winter.

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