She moved slowly forward, the lifters straining and trembling, their invisible magnetic fingers pushing down the chain. Once or twice, the board actually scraped the links, sending a shudder through Tally. She saw the balloon dip a little as her weight disrupted the delicate balance between hot air and gravity.
Tally descended until she reached the halfway point, then began to climb toward the balloon. Her board trembled harder as it left the party spire behind, until she was certain the lifters were about to fail, dumping her into a fifty-meter fall. From this height, crash bracelets were much worse than a bungee jacket - being jerked to a halt by her wrists would probably dislocate a shoulder.
Of course, that was nothing compared to what the crusher might have done.
But the lifters didn't fail; the board continued to rise, climbing up toward the gondola of the balloon. She heard a few shouts from the party spire's balcony behind her, and knew she and Zane had been spotted. What sort of bubbly new game was this?
A face appeared over the edge of the gondola, looking down with a surprised expression.
"Hey, look! Someone's coming!"
The other three pretties in the balloon crowded onto the near side to peer down at her, their shifting weight making the tether wobble. Tally swore as her board swayed perilously under her feet.
"Stay still up there!" she shouted. "And don't pull the burn chain!" Her barked commands were met by surprised silence, but at least they stopped moving around.
A minute later, Tally's shuddering board had pulled almost to within reach of the gondola. She bent her knees and jumped, in free fall for a sickening moment before her hands grasped the wicker rail.
Hands reached down to help pull her up, and soon Tally was inside, facing four wide-eyed Hot-airs.
Relieved of her weight, her board followed her up, and she pulled it in.
"Whoa! How'd you do that?"
"I didn't know hoverboards could come this high!"
"Hey, you're Tally Youngblood!"
"Who else?" She grinned and leaned over the side. The ground was coming closer, her weight and the board's tugging the balloon earthward. "Now, I hope you don't mind landing this thing. Me and my friends need to go for a little ride."
By the time the balloon was settling on the lawn in front of Garbo Mansion, a pack of Crims on hoverboards had arrived, Fausto at their head. Tally saw the pink-eared shape of Zane's balloon coming to rest nearby, bouncing slowly to a halt.
"Don't get out yet!" she told the hijacked Hot-airs. "We don't want this thing to shoot up into the air empty." They waited while Peris and Fausto cruised over and climbed into the gondola.
"How many will it hold, Tally?" Fausto said.
The gondola was made of wicker. She ran her hand across the woven cane, which was still the perfect substance if you wanted something strong, light, and flexible. "Let's take four in each."
"So what are you guys doing?" one of the Hot-airs got up enough nerve to ask.
"Wait and see," Tally said. "And when they interview you for the feeds, feel free to tell them all about it."
The four of them stared at her with widened eyes, realizing that they were going to be famous.
"But keep quiet for the next hour or so. Otherwise, our little trick won't work, and it won't be as bubbly a story."
They nodded obediently.
"How do you release the tether?" Tally asked, realizing that for all her plans to do so, she'd never been up in a balloon.
"Pull this cord to cut loose," one of the Hot-airs answered. "And push this button when you want a hover-car to come get you."
Tally smiled. That was one feature they wouldn't be needing.
Seeing her expression, one of the Hot-airs said, "Hey, you guys are going somewhere really far, aren't you?"
Tally paused for a moment, knowing that what she said would wind up on the feeds, and then be repeated down through generations of uglies and new pretties. It was worth the risk to tell the truth, she decided. These four wouldn't want to short-circuit their brush with criminal fame, so they wouldn't be talking to the authorities until it was way too late.
"We're going to the New Smoke," she said in a slow, clear voice. They stared at her with disbelief.
Chew on that, Dr. Cable! she thought happily.
The gondola shook, and Tally turned to find that Zane had jumped in. "Mind if I join you?
There's four in my balloon," he said. "And we've got another bunch taking over one more."
"The rest are set to go out on our signal," Fausto said.
Tally nodded. As long as she and Zane escaped by balloon, it didn't matter how the others went.
She looked up at the burner hanging over their heads, purring like an idling jet engine, waiting to heat the air in the envelope again. Tally just hoped it was powerful enough to expand the cuffs wider than their wrists, or at least destroy the transmitters in them.
She pulled the fire-resistant gloves from her pocket and handed a pair to Zane.
"Much better plan, Tally," he said, looking at the idling burner. "A furnace that can fly. We'll be at the edge of the city by the time we're free."
She smiled at him, then said to the Hot-airs, "Okay, guys. You can get out now. Thanks for all your help, and remember not to mention this to anyone for at least an hour."
They nodded and jumped out of the gondola one by one, retreating a few meters to give it room as it gained buoyancy, bobbing impatiently in the breeze.
"Ready?" she called to the pig-faced balloon. The Crims inside gave the thumbs-up. A third balloon was coming down not far away; they would be headed up soon. The more rogue balloons, the better. If they all left their interface rings in the gondolas when they jumped, the wardens would have a busy night.
"We're all set," Zane said softly. "Let's go."
Tally's eyes swept the horizon - taking in Garbo Mansion, the party spires, the lights of New Pretty Town - the world she had looked forward to her whole ugly life. She wondered if she would ever see the city again.
Of course, Tally had to return, if Shay still hadn't gotten the word. Her cutting was really just a struggle to be cured. There was no way Tally could leave her behind for good, whether Shay hated her or not.
"Okay, let's go," she said, then whispered, "Sorry, Shay. I'll come back for you."
She reached up and pulled the ascent chain. The burner burst into a full-throated roar, blistering heat washing over them, the envelope beginning to swell overhead. The balloon began to rise.
"Whoa!" Peris cried. "We are out of here!"
Fausto let out a whoop and pulled the release cord, the gondola bucking as the tether's weight fell away.
Tally locked eyes with Zane. They were rising fast now, passing the top of the party spire, a dozen pretties on its balcony drunkenly hailing them.
"I'm really leaving," Zane said softly. "Finally."
She grinned. There would be no backing out for Zane this time. She wouldn't let him.
The balloon quickly left the party spire below, rising higher than any building in New Pretty Town. Tally could see the silver band of river all around them, the darkness of Uglyville, and the dull lights of the burbs in every direction. Soon they would be high enough to glimpse the sea.
She released the ascent chain, silencing the burner. They didn't want to get too high. The balloons weren't fast enough to escape the wardens' hovercars; they would need their boards for that. Soon, they would have to jump, free-falling until their hoverboards could pick up the city's magnetic grid and catch them.
Not as simple as falling with a bungee jacket, but not too dangerous, she hoped. Looking down, Tally shook her head and sighed. Sometimes it felt like her life was a series of falls from ever-greater heights.
Tally could see that the wind was carrying them quickly now, pushing the balloon away from the sea, though, strangely, the air felt motionless around them. Of course, Tally realized, the balloon was moving along with the air currents, as if she were perfectly still, and the world sliding along beneath her.
The Rusty Ruins were slipping away behind them, but there were lots of rivers around the city, their beds filled with mineral deposits that could support a hoverboard. The Crims had planned on heading out in lots of directions - everyone knew how to get back to the ruins no matter where the wind took them.
Tally dropped her winter coat, crash bracelets, and gloves to the gondola's floor. Warmth still radiated from the glowing burner, so she didn't feel too cold. She pulled on her heat-resistant gloves, sliding the left one underneath the interface cuff, pulling it up past her elbow and almost to her armpit.
Across from her, Zane was also getting ready.
Now to bring their cuffs within reach of the flame.
She looked up. The burner was held to the gondola by a frame with eight arms, stretching over them like a giant metal spider. She put one foot on the railing and held tightly to the burner frame, pulling herself up. From this precarious perch, Tally glanced down at the city passing below, hoping the balloon wasn't going to start rocking in some sudden wind.
She took a deep breath. "Fausto, the signal."
He nodded and lit his Roman candle, which began to hiss and to spit out green and purple flares.
Tally watched the signal repeated by nearby Crims, and then spread across the island in a series of colored plumes. They were committed now.
"Okay, Zane," she said. "Let's get these things off."
The four nozzles of the burner were barely a meter from her face, still glowing, radiating heat into the cold night air. Tally reached out and tapped one gingerly. The woman in the shop had been telling the truth. Tally could feel the burner's ridges through the heat-resistant fabric, her fingertips sensing a few stray bumps where it had been welded together. But she had no sense of temperature at all; the burner wasn't hot, or cold...nothing. The feeling was uncanny, as if her hand were immersed in body-temperature water.
She looked across at Zane, who had pulled himself up on the other side of the burner. "These things really work, Zane. I can't feel a thing."
He looked at his own gloved left hand, unconvinced. "Two thousand degrees, you said?"
"That's right." As long as you believed every statistic tossed off by a middle-pretty artist blowing glass in the middle of the night. "I'll go first," she offered.
"No way. We'll do it together."
"Don't be dramatic." Tally looked down at Fausto, whose face was as pale as when Zane's hand had been in the crusher. "Give the burner cord a little tug, as short as you can, on my signal."
"Hang on!" Peris said. "What are you guys doing?"
Tally realized that no one had brought Peris up to speed on the plan. He stared at her with a look of total confusion. Well, there wasn't time for explanations now. "Don't worry, we have gloves on," she said, and placed her left hand on the burner.
"Gloves?" Peris said.
"Yeah...special gloves. Hit it, Fausto!" Tally cried.
A wave of heat struck, the pure blue flame of the burner blindingly bright. Tally slammed her eyes shut, the inferno like a desert wind on the skin of her face. She ducked her head below the burner frame, and heard the cry of horrified surprise that escaped from Peris's lips.
A half-second later, the burner stopped.
Tally opened her eyes, yellow afterimages of the flame crowding her vision. But she saw her fingers flexing in front of her, still whole.
"My hand didn't feel a thing!" she shouted. She blinked away the dancing yellow spots, and saw that the metal of her cuff was glowing a bit. It didn't look any bigger, though.
"What are you doing?" Peris shouted. Fausto shushed him.
"All right," Zane said, thrusting his hand out over the burner. "Let's do it fast. They must know we're up to something by now."