Page 22 of Pretties (Uglies 2)

Tally heard it then in Faustos voice - he was justifying it to himself aloud, slowly but surely, and would eventually agree to shoot the crusher. It even made perfect sense, in a horrible way. There was a cure for Zane's condition somewhere out in the wild, and if they didn't get him to it, he was as good as dead, anyway.

What was risking a hand?

Tally turned and said, "I'll do it. I'll pull the triggers."

They looked at her in shocked silence for a moment, then Zane smiled. "Good. I'd rather it was you."

She swallowed. "Why?"

"Because I trust you. Don't want to be shaking."


Tally took a deep breath, fighting to keep tears from her eyes. "Thanks, I guess."

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence.

"Are you sure, Tally?" Fausto finally said. "I could do it."

"No. It should be me."

'Well, no sense waiting around." Zane dropped his winter coat to the floor. He unwrapped his scarf from his wrist and pulled off the glove that had covered his cuff. His bare left hand looked small and fragile next to the crusher's dark mass. Zane made a fist and thrust it into the ice bucket, wincing as the freezing water began to leech his body heat away. "Get ready, Tally."

She glanced at their backpacks on the floor, felt to make sure she was wearing her belly sensor, checked the hoverboards at the edge of the shed one more time; the wires under the boards were yanked apart, disconnected from the city grid. They were ready to go.

Tally looked at her cuff. Once Zane's was shattered, the tracking signal would be interrupted.

They'd have to do hers right away and get moving. They would have a long run just to reach the edge of the city.

Two dozen Crims waited all over the island, ready to scatter into the wild and draw pursuit in every direction. Each carried a Roman candle with a special mix of colors -  purple and green - to spread the signal once Zane and Tally were free.

Free.

Tally looked down at the crusher's controls and swallowed. The two handles were cast in cheery bright yellow plastic and shaped like thumbgame joysticks, each with a fat trigger. When she took hold of them, the power of the idling machine shuddered in her hands, like the rumble of a suborbital plane passing overhead.

She tried to imagine herself pulling the triggers, and couldn't. Tally was out of arguments, though, and the time for discussion was past.

After thirty long seconds in the ice water, Zane pulled his hand out.

"Close your eyes in case the metal shatters. The cold will make it brittle," Zane said in a normal voice. It didn't matter what the cuff heard now, Tally realized. By the time anyone figured out what they were talking about, they'd be flying at top speed toward the Rusty Ruins.

Zane placed his wrist on the edge of the table, closing his eyes tightly. "Okay. Do it."

Tally took a deep breath, her hands trembling on the controls. She closed her eyes and thought, Okay, do it now...

But her fingers didn't obey.

Her mind started to spin, thinking of everything that could go wrong. She imagined flying Zane to the hospital again, his left arm a mass of jelly. She imagined Specials bursting in at that moment and stopping them, having figured out what they were up to. She wondered if Zane had made all the right measurements, and if he'd remembered that the cuff would have shrunk a bit from the ice water.

Tally paused at that thought, thinking maybe she should ask him. She opened her eyes. The wet cuff glimmered like a piece of gold in the crusher's yellow work lights.

"Tally ... do it!"

Cold would make the metal contract, but heat...Tally glanced at the glassblower on the other side of the shed, blissfully unaware of the violent, horrible thing that was about to happen.

"Tally!" Fausto said softly.

Heat would make the cuff expand...

The woman held the red-hot glass in her hands, turning it over to inspect it from every side. How was she holding molten glass?

"Tally," Fausto said. "If you want, I'll do - "

"Hang on," she said, taking her hands from the crusher's controls.

"What?" Zane cried.

"Stay here." She pulled the memory card from the crusher's slot, ignoring the sounds of protest behind her, and ran past hulking lathes and furnaces to the other side of the shed. At her approach, the woman looked up placidly, smiling with middle-pretty calm.

"Hello, dear."

"Hi. That's beautiful," Tally said.

The pleasant smile grew warmer. "Thank you."

Tally could see the woman's hands now, how they shimmered silver in the glowing red light.

"You're wearing gloves, aren't you."

The woman laughed. "Of course! It's rather hot in that furnace, you know."

"But you can't feel it?"

"Not through these gloves. I think the material was invented for shuttles coming back through the atmosphere. It can reflect a couple of thousand degrees."

Tally nodded. "And they're really thin, aren't they? From across the room, I couldn't even tell you had them on."

"That's right." The woman nodded happily. "You can feel the texture of the glass right through them."

"Wow." Tally smiled prettily. The gloves would fit on under the cuffs, she could see now.

"Where can I get a pair?"

The woman nodded at a cupboard. Tally opened it and found dozens of gloves crammed inside, their reflective material glittering like fresh snow. She pulled two out. "They're all the same size?"

"Yeah. They stretch to fit, all the way up past the elbows," the woman said. "Just make sure you throw them away after one use. They don't work very well the second time."

"No problem." Tally turned away with the gloves in a tight grip, relief flooding through her as she realized she wouldn't have to pull the triggers, wouldn't have to watch the crusher snap down on Zane's hand. A new and better plan unfolded in her mind like clockwork - she knew exactly where to find a powerful furnace, one they could take right to the edge of the city.

"Wait a second, Tally," the woman said, a troubled note entering her voice.

Tally froze, realizing that the woman had recognized her. Of course, everyone who watched the feeds knew Tally Youngblood's face now. She wracked her brain for an innocent reason for needing the gloves, but everything she thought of sounded totally bogus. "Um, yeah?"

"You've got two left gloves there." The woman laughed. "Not very useful, whatever trick you're planning."

Tally smiled, letting a slow chuckle escape her lips. That's what you think. But she turned back to the cupboard and fished out two right gloves. It wouldn't hurt to protect both hands. "Thanks for all your help," she said.

"No problem." The woman smiled beautifully, turning away, staring again into the curves of her piece of glass. "Just be careful."

"Don't worry," Tally said. "I always am."

HIJACKING

"Are you kidding? How do we requisition one in the middle of the night?" Fausto asked.

"We can't. We'll have to hijack it." Tally put a backpack over her shoulder, and snapped for her board to follow. "In fact, we should get a few. The more of us who go out that way, the better."

"Hijack?" Zane said, checking the rewrapped scarf around his forearm. "You mean steal them?"

"No, we'll ask nicely." She grinned. "Don't forget, Zane, we're the Crims. We're famous. Follow me."

Outside the shop shed, she jumped on board and headed up toward the center of the island, where the tops of the party spires were always surrounded by parasails, hot-air balloons, and fireworks.

The other two scrambled to follow. "You pass the word to the rest of the Crims," she shouted to Fausto.

"Tell them about the change in plans."

He glanced at Zane for approval, then nodded, relieved that the crusher concept had been replaced by something less violent. "How many of us do you want to go up with?"

"Nine or ten," she said. "Anyone who's not afraid of heights - the rest can go by hoverboard, as planned. We'll be ready in twenty minutes. Meet us in the center of town."

"I'll be there," Fausto said, and angled away into the night sky.

Tally turned to Zane. "You okay?"

He nodded, slowly flexing the fingers of his gloved hand. "I'll be fine. It's just taking me a second to switch gears."

She brought her board closer to Zane's, taking his bare hand. "It was brave, what you wanted to do."

He shook his head. "I guess it was stupid."

"Yeah, maybe. But if we hadn't gone to the shop, I wouldn't have thought of this."

He smiled. "I'm pretty glad you did, to tell you the truth." His hand flexed nervously again. Then he pointed ahead of them. "There's a couple."

She followed his gaze to the center of the island, where a pair of hot-air balloons floated like big bald heads above a party spire, the tethers that kept them in place catching the trembling light of safety fireworks.

"Perfect," she said.

"One problem," Zane said. "How do we get that high on hoverboards?"

She thought for a moment. "Very carefully."

They climbed higher than she ever had, rising slowly alongside the party spire, close enough to reach out and touch its concrete wall. The metal inside the building provided barely enough push for the boards' lifters, and Tally felt a nervous-making tremble under her feet, like standing at the end of the highest diving board as a littlie. After a slow minute, they reached the spot where one of the balloons was tethered to the tower. Tally touched the tether with her bare hand, feeling its rain-slick links. "No problem. It's metal."

"Yeah, but is it enough metal?" Zane asked.

Tally shrugged.

He rolled his eyes. "And you thought my plan was risky. Okay, I'll take the stupid-looking one."

He slid around the tower's girth to where the other balloon bobbed in the breeze. Tally grinned, seeing that it was shaped like a giant pig's head, with protruding ears and two big eyes painted on the pink nylon of its envelope.

At least her own balloon was a normal color: silvery and reflective, with a blue stripe around its equator. From up in the gondola she heard the unmistakable sound of a champagne cork popping, then laughter. It wasn't far away, but getting up was going to be tricky.

Her eyes followed the length of the tether, which drooped down before curving up to where it was attached to the gondola's bottom. The sinuous line reminded her of the roller coaster out in the Rusty Ruins. Of course, the roller coaster had a lot more metal in it, almost as if it had been designed for hoverboarding. This slender length of chain would provide slim pickings for her boards magnetic lifters.

And, unlike the roller coaster, the tether was in constant motion; the balloon was drifting slowly downward as the air in its envelope cooled, but Tally knew it would suddenly jump up and pull the tether taut if the burner was ignited. Worse, the Hot-airs might get bored of hovering around and decide to go for a night ride, releasing the tether and leaving nothing between Tally and the ground.

Zane was right: This wasn't the easiest way to get hold of a balloon, but there was no time to requisition one properly, or wait for the Hot-airs in the gondola to get bored and decide to land. If they were going to make it to the Rusty Ruins before dawn, the escape had to start soon. Maybe someone would find Shay while this new plan was unfolding.

Tally crept farther up the spire wall, rising until the tether ring was just under the center of her board. She nudged herself away from the party spire, drifting out over open space, balancing her hoverboard across the tether like a tightrope walker on a plank of wood.

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