Tally nodded - the cuff had to have felt the scorching burst of flame. Like the locket Dr. Cable had given Tally before her trip to the Smoke, it probably was designed to send some kind of signal if damaged. She took a deep breath of the cold night air, placing her hand over the burner again and ducking her head. "Okay, Fausto. Burn it until I say stop!"
Another wash of blistering heat poured over Tally. Peris stared up at her, his terrified expression turned demonic by the intense fire, and she had to look away from him. Above them, the envelope began to swell, and the balloon was tugged upward by its load of superheated air. The gondola swayed, testing Tally's grip on the burner frame.
Her left shoulder, covered only by her T-shirt, was taking the worst of the inferno. Past the glove's protection, her skin itched like a bad sunburn. Sweat trickled down her back in the relentless heat.
Weirdly, the parts of Tally that felt the furnace the least were her gloved hands, even her left, sitting in the inferno's very center. She imagined the cuff hidden within that blaze, turning red, then white...gradually expanding.
After what seemed like a solid minute, she yelled, "Okay, hold it!"
The burner stopped, and the air was instantly cool around her, the night suddenly black. Tally stood up from her crouch, feet still on the gondola's railing, and blinked, amazed at how still and silent it was with the raging flame extinguished.
She pulled her hand from the burner, expecting it to be a blackened stump, no matter what her nerve endings told her. But all five fingers wiggled in front of her. The cuff glowed blazing white, mesmerizing blue flickers traveling around its edge. The smell of molten metal struck her nose.
"Quick, Tally!" Zane yelled, jumping down into the gondola. He started tugging at his cuff.
"Before they cool off."
She leaped down from the rail and started pulling - glad that she had brought two gloves for each of them. The cuff slid down her arm, but came to a halt as it always did, catching at the usual spot.
She squinted at the glowing band, trying to see if it had grown. It seemed bigger, but maybe the heat-resistant glove was thicker than she'd thought, making up the difference.
Tally squeezed the fingers of her left hand together and tugged again; the cuff crept another centimeter along. Heat still radiated from the ring of metal, but it was gradually turning a dull red, its light fading. ... As it cooled, would it shrink around her hand now, crushing her wrist?
She gritted her teeth and pulled once more, as hard as she could...and the cuff slipped off, dropping onto the floor of the gondola like a glowing coal.
"Yes!" Finally, she was free.
Tally looked up at the others. Zane was still struggling; Fausto and Peris were scrambling to avoid her glowing cuff as it rolled, steaming and hissing, across the gondola floor. "I did it," she said softly. "It's off."
"Well, mine's not," Zane grunted. His cuff was wedged around the thick of his wrist, its glow faded to a dull red. He swore and stepped back up onto the gondolas railing. "Hit it again."
Fausto nodded, and gave another long blast on the burner.
Tally turned away from the heat, looking down at the city, trying to clear the spots from her eyes.
They were past the greenbelt now, over the burbs. She could see the factory belt coming up, dotted with industrial orange work lights, and past that the absolute blackness that marked the edge of the city.
They had to jump soon. In a few more minutes they would pass beyond the metal grid that underlay the city. Without the grid, their hoverboards wouldn't fly or even stop a fall, and they'd be forced to crash-land the balloon instead of bailing out.
She looked up at the swollen envelope, wondering how long it would take the still rising balloon to settle back to earth. Maybe if they could rip the envelope open somehow to get themselves down faster...but how hard would a torn balloon crash-land? And without working hover-boards, the four of them would have to hike until they reached a river, giving the wardens plenty of time to find the crumpled balloon and track them down. "Come on, Zane!" Tally said. "We've got to hurry!"
"I'm hurrying! Okay?"
"What's that smell?" Fausto said. "What?" Tally pulled back into the gondola, sniffing at the still, hot air.
Something was burning.
THE CITY'S EDGE
"It's us!" Fausto shouted. He jumped back, releasing the burner chain, staring down at the gondola floor.
Tally smelled it then: burning cane, like the smell of brush thrown onto a camp fire. Somewhere under their feet, her red-hot cuff had ignited the wicker gondola.
She glanced up at Zane still perched on the railing - he ignored the others' panicked cries, tugging fiercely at his glowing cuff. Peris and Fausto were hopping around, trying to find the source of the smell.
"Relax!" she said. "We can always jump!"
"I can't! Not yet," Zane shouted, still struggling with the cuff. Peris looked as if he was about to leap out of the balloon without bothering to take his hoverboard.
Her vision was finally clearing from burner's glare, and Tally looked down at her feet. A bottle lay there, left behind by the Hot-airs. She reached for it with her gloved hands; it was full.
"Hold on, you guys," she said, and with a practiced motion twisted off the foil and placed both thumbs beneath the cork. She popped it, watching the cork soar into the dark void. "Everything's under control."
Froth bubbled out, and Tally put one thumb over the bottle's mouth. Shaking the bottle, she sprayed champagne across the floor of the gondola. An angry sizzle came from the smoldering flames.
"Got it!" Zane cried at that moment. His cuff fell off and rolled under her feet, and Tally calmly emptied the rest of the bottle onto it. The smell of molten metal rose up around her, tinged with an oddly sweet smell: boiled champagne.
Zane was staring with amazement at his freed left hand. He pulled off the heat-resistant gloves and tossed them overboard. "It worked!" he said, and swept Tally into a hug.
She laughed, letting the bottle drop to the floor and pulling off her own gloves. "Time for that later. Let's get out of here."
"Okay." He balanced his board on the gondola's railing, looking down. "Damn, that's a long fall."
Fausto tugged at a dangling cord. "I'll vent some hot air - maybe we can get a little lower."
"No time," Tally cried. "We're almost at the end of town. If we get separated, meet at the tallest building in the ruins. And remember: Don't let go of your board on the way down!"
They all scrambled to put on their backpacks, bumping into one another in the small space, Zane and Tally struggling back into their winter coats and crash bracelets. Fausto pulled off his interface ring and threw it to the gondola floor, grabbed his board, and jumped out with a whoop. The balloon pitched upward as his weight left it behind.
When Zane was ready, he turned and kissed her. "We did it, Tally. We're free!"
She looked into his eyes, dizzy with the thought that they were finally here, at the edge of the city, at the beginning of freedom. "Yeah. We made it."
"See you down there." He looked over his shoulder at the distant earth, then turned back to her.
"I love you."
"I'll see you down...," she began, but the words sputtered out. It took a moment to replay in her mind what Zane had said. Finally she managed, "Oh. Me too."
He laughed, then let out a wordless cry as he tumbled over the rail, the gondola bucking again under its two remaining passengers.
Tally blinked, dazzled for a moment by Zane's unexpected words. But she shook her head to clear it. This was no time to get pretty-headed; she had to jump now.
She pulled the straps of her backpack tight, wrestling her hoverboard up onto the rail. "Hurry up!" she shouted at Peris.
He was just standing there, staring over the side.
"What are you waiting for?" she cried.
He shook his head. "I can't."
"You can do it. Your board will stop your fall - all you have to do is hang on!" she shouted. "Just jump! Gravity does the rest!"
"It's not the fall, Tally," Peris said. He turned to face her. "I don't want to leave."
"I don't want to leave the city."
"But this is what we've been waiting for!"
"Not me." He shrugged. "I liked being a Crim, and being bubbly. But I never thought we'd get this far. I mean, like, leaving home forever?"
"I know you've been out there before, you and Shay. And Zane and Fausto always talked about escaping. But I'm not like you guys."
"But you and me, we're..." Tally's voice caught. She was about to say "best friends forever," but the old words wouldn't come anymore. Peris had never been to the Smoke, had never tangled with Special Circumstances, had never even been in trouble. Everything had always gone smoothly for him.
Their lives had been so different for so long.
"You're sure you want to stay?"
He nodded slowly. "I'm sure. But I can still help. I'll keep them busy for you. I'll stay airborne as long as I can, then push the pickup button. They'll have to come out and get me."
Tally started to argue, but she couldn't help remembering sneaking across the river right after Peris's operation, visiting him in Garbo Mansion. He had adjusted so quickly, loving New Pretty Town right from the beginning. Maybe the whole Crim thing had just been a joke to him...
But she couldn't leave him here in the city alone. "Peris, think. Without us around, you won't be bubbly anymore. You'll go back to being a pretty-head."
He smiled sadly. "I don't mind, Tally. I don't need to be bubbly."
"You don't? But don't you feel how much... better it is?"
He shrugged. "It's exciting. But you can't keep fighting the way things are forever. At some point, you have to ..."
Peris nodded, the smile still on his face, as if giving up wasn't really that bad, as if fighting was only worthwhile as long as it was amusing.
"Okay. Stay, then." She turned away, not trusting herself to say anything more. But when Tally looked down, all she saw was darkness. "Oh, crap," she said softly.
The city had run out. It was too late to jump.
Side by side, they stared into the darkness, the wind carrying them farther and farther away.
Peris finally broke the silence. "We'll come down eventually, right?"
"Not soon enough." She sighed. "The wardens probably already know that our cuffs are fried.
They'll come looking for us soon. We're sitting ducks up here."
"Oh. I really didn't mean to screw things up for you."
"It's not your fault. I waited too long." Tally swallowed, wondering if Zane would ever find out what happened. Would he think she'd fallen to her death? Or would he guess that she'd chickened out, like Peris?
Whatever he thought, Tally saw their future fading out, disappearing like the distant lights of the city behind them. Who knew what Special Circumstances would do to her brain when they caught her again?
She looked at Peris. "I really thought you wanted to come."
"Listen, Tally. I just got caught up in everything. Being a Crim was exciting and you were my friends, my clique. What was I supposed to do? Argue against running away? Arguing's bogus."
She shook her head. "I thought you were bubbly, Peris."
"I am, Tally. But tonight is about as bubbly as I want to get. I like breaking the rules, but living out there!" He waved his hand at the wild below them, a cold, unfriendly sea of darkness.
"Why didn't you tell me before now?"