Page 32 of Pretties (Uglies 2)

She had no idea what sort of technology the barrier was using, but it might not be very healthy to keep testing it. No point in risking permanent nerve damage.

The little dolls hung there, mocking her as they danced in the breeze. She was stuck here, inside Andrew's world.

Tally remembered all the tricks she'd pulled back in ugly days, sneaking out of dorms to cross the river at night, even crashing a party in Peris's mansion after he'd turned pretty. But her ugly skills didn't necessarily apply out here. As she'd learned in her conversation with Dr. Cable, the city was an easy place to trick. Security there was designed to stimulate uglies' creativity, not to fry anyone's nervous system.

But this barrier had been created to keep dangerous pre-Rusty villagers away from the city, to protect campers and hikers and anyone else who might have wandered out into nature. These dolls weren't likely to succumb to Tally's tinkering with the point of her knife.

The thought of ugly tricks sent Tally's hand to the slingshot in her back pocket. It seemed like an unlikely way to trick the edge of the world, but maybe the direct approach was worth a try.

She found a smooth, flat stone and loaded it up, the leather creaking as she drew it back. Tally let fly, but missed the nearest doll by a meter or so. "Guess I'm a little out of practice."

"Young Blood!" Andrew said. "Is that wise?"

She smiled. "Afraid I'll break the world?"

"The stories say that the gods put these here, to mark the edge of oblivion."

"Yeah, well. They're more like 'Keep Out' signs, or 'Keep In,' I guess - as in keeping you guys in your place. The world goes on for a whole lot farther, trust me. This is just a trick to keep you from knowing it."

Andrew looked away, and Tally thought he was going to argue some more, but instead he knelt and lifted a rock the size of his fist. He pulled back his arm, took aim, and hurled it. Tally saw from the moment it left his hand that the stone was dead on-target. It struck the nearest doll and sent it spinning, the noose tightening around its neck, then the doll spun the other way, unwinding like a top.

"That was brave of you," she remarked.

He shrugged. "As I said, Young Blood, I believe what you say. Maybe this isn't really the edge of the world. If that is true, I want to see beyond."

"Good for you." Tally stepped forward and thrust out a hand. No change: Her fingertips buzzed with the latent energy in the air, the ants crawling up her arm until she pulled away. Of course. Any system designed to last for decades in the wild - surviving hailstorms, hungry animals, and lightning strikes - was probably more than a match for a few rocks.

"The little men are still doing their thing." She rubbed life back into her fingers. "I don't know how to get past this place, Andrew. But nice try."

He was staring down at his empty hand, as if a little surprised at himself for challenging the gods'

work. "It is a strange thing to want to go past the edge of the world. Isn't it?"

She laughed. "Welcome to my life. But I'm sorry to bring you all this way for nothing."

"No, Tally. It was good to see."

She tried to read his expression, a mix of puzzlement and intensity. "To see what? Me getting serious nerve damage?"

He shook his head. "No. Your slingshot."

"Excuse me?"

"When I came here as a boy, I felt the little men crawling inside me and wanted to run back home." He looked at her, still puzzled. "But you wanted to sling a rock at them. You don't know some things that every child knows, but you are so certain about the shape of this... planet. You act as if..."

He trailed off, his knowledge of the city language failing him.

"As if I see the world differently?"

"Yes," he said softly, his intense expression deepening. Most likely, Tally thought, it had never occurred to him before now that people could see reality in completely different ways. Between surviving outsider attacks and getting enough food to live, villagers probably didn't have a lot of time for philosophical disagreements.

"That's the way it feels," she said, "once you get off the reservation, I mean, once you go beyond the edge of the world. Speaking of which, do you know for sure that no matter what direction we walk in, we'll run into these little guys?"

Andrew nodded. "My father taught that the world is a circle, seven days' walk across. This is the nearest edge to our village. But my father once walked around the entire compass of the world."

"Interesting. You think he was looking for a way out?"

Andrew frowned. "He never said."

"Well, I guess he didn't find one. So how am I going to escape this world of yours and get to the Rusty Ruins?"

Andrew was silent for a while, but Tally could tell he was thinking, taking one of his interminable delays to ponder her question. Finally, he said, "You must wait for the next holy day."

"The next what?"

"The holy days mark when the gods visit. And they will come in hovercars."

"Oh, yeah?" Tally sighed. "I don't know if you've figured this out yet, Andrew, but I'm not supposed to be here. If any elder gods see me, I'm busted."

He laughed. "Do you think I'm a fool, Tally Young Blood? I listened to your story about the tower. I understand that you have been cast out."

"Cast out?"

"Yes, Young Blood. You bear this mark." His fingers brushed her left brow.

"Mark? Oh, right ..." For the first time since meeting the villagers, Tally remembered her flash tattoo. "So you think this means something?"

Andrew bit his lip, dropping his eyes from her brow. "I am not sure, of course. My father never taught me of such things. But in my village, we only mark those who have stolen."

"Yeah, sure. But you thought I was... marked somehow?" He looked up sheepishly, and Tally rolled her eyes. No wonder the villagers had been so confused by her; they'd thought the flash tattoo was some kind of badge of shame. "Listen, it's just a fashion statement. Or, um, let me put that another way.

It's just something me and my friends did to amuse ourselves. You notice how it moves sometimes?"

"Yes. When you are angry, or smiling, or thinking hard."

"Right. Well, that's called being 'bubbly' Anyway, I ran away I didn't get cast out."

"And they'll want to take you home, I understand. You see, when the gods come, they leave their hovercars behind when they walk in the forest. ..."

Tally blinked, and then a smile spread across her face. "And you'd help me steal from the elder gods?"

He only shrugged.

"Won't they get cranky with you?"

Andrew sighed, stroking his non-beard as he considered this. "We must be careful. But I have noticed that the gods are not...perfect. You escaped their tower, after all."

"Well, well, imperfect gods." Tally allowed herself a chuckle. "What would your father say, Andrew?"

He shook his head. "I am not sure. But he isn't here. I am the holy man now."

That night, they camped near the barrier. Andrew said that no one - outsiders or otherwise - would be likely to venture this close to the dolls at night. It was a place of superstitious dread, on top of which, no one wanted to get their brains fried when they woke up and stumbled off into the darkness to pee.

The next morning they began a roundabout journey back to Andrew's village, taking their time, avoiding the outsiders' hunting grounds. It took three days, during which Andrew displayed his knowledge of the forest, mixing villager lore with scientific knowledge he'd picked up from the gods. He understood the water cycle, and a little about the food chain, but after a day of arguing about gravity, Tally gave up.

When they neared the village, it was still almost a week before the next holy day. Tally told Andrew to find her a cave to hide in, one near the clearing where the gods parked their hovercars. She had decided to stay out of sight. If none of the villagers knew she had returned, they couldn't give Tally away to the elder gods. And she didn't want anyone getting blamed for harboring a runaway.

Andrew headed back home, where he planned to tell how the Young Blood had passed through the edge of the world and to the beyond. Apparently, the villagers knew how to lie after all - at least the holy men did.

And his story would be true, once Tally got her hands on a hovercar. She was no expert at driving, but she'd taken the same safety course that every ugly took at fifteen: learning how to fly straight and level and how to land in an emergency. She knew that some uglies went trick-riding all the time, and said it was easy. Of course, they'd only stolen idiotproof cars that flew on the city grid.

Still, how much harder could it be than hoverboarding?

As Tally waited out the days in the cave, she couldn't stop wondering how the other Crims were.

While her own survival had been an issue, it had been easy to forget them. But now that she had nothing to do all day but sit and watch the sky, Tally found herself slowly going crazy from worry. Had the Crims escaped the Specials' pursuit? Had they found the New Smokies yet? And, most important, how was Zane? She could only hope that Maddy had been able to fix whatever was wrong with him.

She remembered their last minutes before he'd jumped from the balloon - the last words he'd said. In all of Tally's tattered memories, she'd never experienced anything like that moment. It had felt beyond bubbly, beyond any trick, like the world would change forever.

And now she didn't even know whether he was still alive.

It didn't help Tally's state of mind that Zane and the other Crims had to be just as worried about her, wondering if she'd been recaptured or had fallen to her death. They would have expected to see her at the Rusty Ruins at least a week ago, and had to be thinking the worst by now.

How long would it be before even Zane gave up, deciding she was dead? What if she never made it out of the reservation? No one's faith could last forever.

When she wasn't driving herself crazy Tally also spent the time wondering about Andrew's confined world. How had it come to exist? Why were the villagers allowed to live out here, when the Smoke had been ruthlessly destroyed? Maybe it was the fact that the villagers were trapped, believing old legends and stuck in ancient blood feuds, while the Smokies had known the truth about the cities and the operation. But why keep a brutal culture alive, when the whole point of civilization was to curb the violent, destructive tendencies of human beings?

Andrew visited her every day, bringing her nuts and a few root vegetables to go with her dehydrated god-food. He wouldn't give up on bringing strips of dried meat until she tried it. It tasted like it looked - as salty as seaweed and harder than an old shoe - but she gratefully accepted his other offerings.

In return, Tally told him stories about home, especially those that showed how the city of the gods wasn't all divine perfection. She explained about uglies and the operation, how the beauty of gods was just a technological trick. The difference between magic and technology was lost on Andrew, but he listened intently. He'd inherited a healthy skepticism from his father, whose experiences with the gods, it turned out, hadn't always left the old holy man full of respect.

Andrew could be frustrating company, though. He made some brilliant leaps of insight, but other times he was just as thick as could be expected from someone who thought the world was flat - especially when it came to the boys-in-charge thing, which she found particularly annoying. Tally knew she should be more understanding, but was only willing to cut Andrew so much slack; being born into a culture that assumed women were servants didn't make it okay to go along with the plan. After all, Tally had turned her back on everything she'd been raised to expect: an effortless life, perfect beauty, pretty-mindedness. It seemed like Andrew could learn to cook his own chickens.