Page 26 of Pretties (Uglies 2)

Or was she finally getting the same reaction from the cure as Zane? Was the pill beginning to damage her brain, now that she was beyond any hope of medical care?

Tally's head pounded, fevered thoughts swirling through her. She had no hoverboard, no way of getting to the Rusty Ruins except on foot. No one knew where she was. The world had been emptied of everything but the wild, the freezing cold, and Tally Youngblood. Even the absence of the cuff on her wrist felt strange, like the gap left behind by a missing tooth.


Worst was the absence of Zane's body next to her. She'd stayed with him every night for the last month, and they'd spent most of every day together. Even in their enforced silence, she had grown used to his constant presence, his familiar touch, their wordless conversations. Suddenly he was gone, and Tally felt as if she'd lost some part of herself in the fall.

She had imagined this moment a thousand times, finally reaching the wild, free from the city at last. But never once had she imagined being here without Zane.

And yet here she was, utterly alone.

Tally lay awake a long time, replaying in her mind those last frantic minutes in the balloon. If she'd only jumped sooner, or had thought to look down before the city grid ran out. After what Zane had said, she shouldn't have hesitated, knowing that this escape was their only chance for freedom together.

Once again, things were screwed up, and it was all her fault.

Finally Tally's exhaustion overpowered her worries, and she drifted into troubled sleep.

ALONE

So, there was this beautiful princess.

She was locked in a high tower, one whose smart walls had clever holes in them that could give her anything: food, a clique of fantastic friends, wonderful clothes. And, best of all, there was this mirror on the wall, so that the princess could look at her beautiful self all day long.

The only problem with the tower was that there was no way out. The builders had forgotten to put in an elevator, or even a set of stairs. She was stuck up there.

One day, the princess realized that she was bored. The view from the tower - gentle hills, fields of white flowers, and a deep, dark forest - fascinated her. She started spending more time looking out the window than at her own reflection, as is often the case with troublesome girls.

And it was pretty clear that no prince was showing up, or at least that he was really late.

So the only thing was to jump.

The hole in the wall gave her a lovely parasol to catch her when she fell, and a wonderful new dress to wear in the fields and forest, and a brass key to make sure she could get back into the tower if she needed to. But the princess, laughing pridefully tossed the key into the fireplace, convinced she would never need to return to the tower. Without another glance in the mirror, she strolled out onto the balcony and stepped off into midair.

The thing was, it was a long way down, a lot farther than the princess had expected, and the parasol turned out to be total crap. As she fell, the princess realized she should have asked for a bungee jacket or a parachute or something better than a parasol, you know?

She struck the ground hard, and lay there in a crumpled heap, smarting and confused, wondering how things had worked out this way. There was no prince around to pick her up, her new dress was ruined, and thanks to her pride, she had no way back into the tower.

And the worst thing was, there were no mirrors out there in the wild, so the princess was left wondering whether she in fact was still beautiful ... or if the fall had changed the story completely.

When Tally awoke from this bogus dream, the sun was halfway across the sky.

She struggled to her feet, having to pry herself from the sucking embrace of the mud. At some point during the night, her winter coat had run out of charge. Without batteries, it was a cold thing clinging to her skin, still damp from her soaking in the river, and it smelled funny. Tally unstuck the coat from herself and laid it across the broad surface of a rock, hoping that the sun would dry it out.

For the first time in days the sky was cloudless. But in clearing, the air had turned crisp and cold - the warmer weather that had arrived with the rain had departed with it as well. The trees glittered with frost, and the mud under her feet sparkled, its thin layer of rime crackling underfoot.

Her fever had passed, but Tally felt dizzy standing, so she knelt beside her backpack to look through its contents - the sum of everything she possessed. Fausto had managed to gather up some of the usual Smokey survival gear: a knife, water filter, position-finder, firestarter, and some safety sparklers, along with a few dozen packets of soap. Remembering how valuable dehydrated food had been in the Smoke, Tally had packed three months' worth, which was all wrapped up in waterproof plastic, fortunately. When Tally saw the two rolls of toilet paper she'd brought, however, she let out a groan. They were soaked through, reduced to bloated, squishy blobs of white. She placed them on the rocks next to her jacket, but doubted that it was even worth drying them out.

She sighed. Even back in her Smokey days, she'd never gotten used to the leaf thing.

Tally found her pitiful pile of twigs, and remembered trying to light a fire the night before, too delirious to realize how stupid that would have been. The Special Circumstances hovercars that had come after the balloon would have easily spotted a fire in the darkness.

There was no evidence of pursuit in the sky this morning, but Tally decided to put some distance between herself and the river. Without a working heater in her jacket, she would need to build a fire that night.

But first things first, which meant food.

She trudged down to the river to fill the purifier, dried mud crumbling from her skin and clothing with every step. Tally had never been so dirty in her life, but she wasn't up to bathing in the freezing water, not without a fire to warm her up afterward. Last nights fever might have passed, thanks to her new-pretty immune system kicking in, but she didn't want to take any risks with her health out here.

Of course, Tally realized, it wasn't her own health she should be worrying about. Zane was somewhere out here too, maybe just as alone as she was. He and Fausto had jumped almost at the same moment, but they might have landed kilometers apart. If Zane had one of his attacks on the way to the ruins, with no one to help him...

Tally shook the thought from her head. All she could do right now for Zane or anyone else was get to the ruins herself. And that meant making food, not worrying about things she couldn't control.

The purifier took two fillings before it had strained enough, pure water from the silty inlet to make a meal. She chose a packet of PadThai and set the purifier to boil; the smell of reconstituting noodles and spices soon rose from the gurgling water.

By the time the meal pinged that it was ready, Tally was ravenous.

As she reached the end of the PadThai, she realized there was no longer any point in going hungry, and immediately boiled up a packet of CurryNoods. Starvation might have been useful for getting off the cuffs and staying bubbly, but her cuff was gone, and Tally now had the whole of the wild, dangerous and cold, to keep her bubbly. Not much chance of sinking into a pretty haze out here.

After breakfast, the position-finder offered up its bad news. Tally had to check her calculations twice before she believed the distance she'd traveled the night before. The winds from off the ocean had pushed the balloon a long way east, in the opposite direction from the Rusty Ruins, and then the rivers current had carried her another long distance southward. She was more than a week's journey by foot to the ruins, if she went in a straight line. And straight lines wouldn't come into it: She had to go the long way around the city, staying in the forest to hide herself from searchers in the air.

Tally wondered how long the Specials would bother to keep looking for her. Luckily, they didn't know that her hoverboard had disappeared into the river, so they would assume she was flying, not trudging along on foot. As far as they knew, Tally would have to stay near the river or some other natural vein of mineral deposits.

The sooner she got away from the riverbank, the better.

Tally packed up her pitiful camp unhappily. Her backpack held more than enough food for the journey, and the hills would be full of ready water after the long rains, but she felt defeated already. From what Sussy and Dex had said, the New Smokies hadn't set up a permanent camp in the ruins. They might leave any day now, and she was a week away.

Her only hope was that Zane and Fausto would stay behind, waiting for her to show up. Unless they thought that she had been captured, or killed by the fall, or had simply chickened out.

No, she told herself, Zane wouldn't think that last one of her. He might be worried, but Tally knew that he would wait for her, however long it took.

She sighed as she tied the still-damp coat around her waist and hoisted her backpack onto her shoulders. There was no point wondering about where the others were; her only choice was to hike toward the ruins and trust that someone would be waiting when she arrived.

Tally had nowhere else to go.

The way through the forest was rugged, every step a battle. Back in the Smoke, Tally had mostly traveled by hoverboard. When she had been forced to hike cross-country, it had been on paths hacked through the trees. But this was nature in the raw, hostile and unrelenting. The dense undergrowth tugged at her feet, trying to trip her, throwing up thick bushes and ankle-twisting roots and impenetrable walls of thorn.

Among the trees, the downpour still echoed. Pine needles sparkled with frost, which the day's heat was slowly changing to water, generating a constant rain of chill, sparkling mist. It was like a magnificent ice palace, with spears of sunlight shooting between the trees, visible in the mist like lasers through smoke. But every time Tally dared disturb a branch, it unloaded its freight of freezing water onto her head.

She remembered traveling to the Smoke through the ancient forest that had been devastated by the Rusties' biologically engineered weeds. At least walking through that flattened landscape had been easier than this dense growth. Sometimes, you could almost see why the Rusties had tried so hard to destroy nature.

Nature could be a pain.

As she walked, the struggle between the forest and Tally began to feel more and more personal.

The grasping brambles seemed almost conscious of her, corralling Tally the way they wanted her to go, no matter what her direction-finder said. The dense undergrowth would split open welcomingly offering easy paths that wound pointlessly off her course. Hiking in a straight line was impossible. This was nature, not some Rusty superhighway cutting through mountains and across deserts without any regard for the terrain.

But as the afternoon progressed, Tally slowly became convinced that she was following an actual path, like the nature trails that the pre-Rusties had used a millennium before.

She remembered what David had told her out in the Smoke, that most of the pre-Rusty trails had originally been made by animals. Even deer, wolves, and wild dogs didn't want to fight their way through virgin growth. Just like people, animals stuck to the same paths for generation after generation, forging tracks through the forest.

Of course, Tally had always imagined that animal trails were something that only David could see.

Having grown up in the wild, he was practically a pre-Rusty himself. But as the shadows lengthened around her, Tally found her path becoming easier and straighter, as if she had stumbled onto some uncanny fissure in the wild.

A gnawing feeling started in her stomach. The random sounds of dripping trees began to play with her mind, and Tally's nerves began to twitch, as if she was being watched.

It was probably just her perfect new-pretty eyesight helping her spot the subtle marks of animal passage. She must have picked up more skills than she knew out in the Smoke. This was an animal path.

Certainly, no people could live out here. Not this close to the city, where they would have been detected by the Specials decades ago. Even out in the Smoke, no one knew of any other communities living outside the cities. Humanity had decided two centuries ago to leave nature alone.

Alone, Tally kept reminding herself. No one else was out here. Though, oddly, she couldn't decide whether being the only person in the forest made it feel less creepy, or more.

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