Maybe the barriers around Tally's pretty world weren't as obvious as the little men hanging in the trees, but they were just as hard to escape. She remembered how Peris had chickened out as he'd looked down on the wild from the balloon, suddenly unwilling to jump and leave behind everything he'd known. Everyone in the world was programmed by the place they were born, hemmed in by their beliefs, but you had to at least try to grow your own brain. Otherwise, you might as well be living on a reservation, worshipping a bunch of bogus gods.
They arrived at dawn, right on schedule.
From overhead came the roar of two cars - the kind that Specials used, each with four lifting fans to carry it through the air. It was a noisy way to travel, the wind roiling the trees like a storm. From the mouth of her cave, Tally saw a huge cloud of dust rising up from the landing area, and then the whine of their rotors cycled down into a riot of frightened birdcalls. After almost two weeks of natural sounds, the powerful machines sounded strange to Tally's ears, like engines from another world.
She crept toward the clearing in the dawn light, moving in total silence. Rehearsing her approach every morning, Tally had become familiar with every tree along the way. For once, the elder gods were going to face someone who knew all their tricks, and a few of her own.
She watched from under cover at the clearing's edge. Four middle pretties were unpacking the cars' cargo holds, pulling out digging tools, hovercameras, and specimen cages, loading everything onto carts. The scientists looked like campers dressed in bulky winter gear, field glasses hanging around their necks, water bottles dangling from their belts. Andrew said they never stayed more than a day, but they looked ready for weeks in the wild. Tally wondered which one was the Doctor.
Andrew worked among the four pretties, lending a hand as they arranged their equipment, being a helpful holy man. When the carts were all packed with gear, he and the scientists pushed them into the forest, leaving Tally alone with the hovercars.
She hoisted her backpack and approached the clearing warily.
This was the trickiest part of the plan. Tally could only guess what sort of security the hovercars had on board. Hopefully the scientists hadn't thought to use more than childproof minders, the simple codes that kept littlies from flying off with a car. Surely the scientists wouldn't suspect the villagers of knowing the same tricks as a city kid like Tally.
Unless they'd been warned that there were runaways in the area...
That was nonsense, of course. No one knew Tally was stranded out here without a board, and she hadn't seen a hovercar since the night she'd left the city. If the Specials were looking for her, they weren't looking around here.
She reached one of the cars and peeked into its open cargo door, finding nothing but pieces of packing foam shifting in the soft breeze. A few more steps brought her to the window of the passenger cabin, also empty. She reached for the door handle.
A man's voice called from behind her.
Tally froze. After two weeks of sleeping rough, her clothes torn and dirty, she might pass for a villager from a distance. But once she turned around, her pretty face would give her away.
The voice called out again in the villagers' language, but it was inflected with a late pretty's gravelly air of authority. Footsteps were coming closer. Should she dive into the hovercar and try to make it away?
The words faded as the man grew closer. He had noticed her city clothes under all the dirt.
Tally turned around.
He was equipped like the others, with field glasses and a water bottle, his crumbly face a picture of surprise. He must have been sitting inside the other hovercar, moving a little slower than the rest of them - that's why he'd caught her.
"Good heavens!" he exclaimed, switching languages. "What are you doing out here?"
She blinked, pausing for a moment, a vacant look on her pretty face. "We were in a balloon."
"There was some kind of accident. But I don't remember exactly. ..."
He took a step forward, then his nose wrinkled. Tally might look like a pretty, but she smelled like a savage. "I think I saw something on the feeds about balloons going wrong, but that was a couple of weeks ago! You couldn't have been here that..." He looked at her torn clothes, his nose wrinkling again.
"But I suppose you have."
Tally shook her head. "I don't know how long it's been."
"You poor dear." Recovering from his surprise, he was now all late-pretty concern. "You're okay now. I'm Dr. Valen."
She smiled like a good pretty, realizing that this must be the Doctor. A bird-watcher probably wouldn't know the villagers' language, after all. This was the man in charge.
"It feels like I've been hiding out forever," she said. "There are all these crazy people out here."
"Yes, they can be quite dangerous." He shook his head, as if still not believing that a young city pretty had survived out here for so long. "You're lucky to have stayed clear of them."
"Who are they?"
"They're...part of a very important study."
"A study? Of what?"
He chuckled. "Now, that's all very complicated. Perhaps I should tell someone we've found you.
I'm sure everyone's very anxious to know if you're okay. What's your name?"
"What are you studying out here?"
He blinked, perplexed that a new pretty was asking questions instead of whining about getting home. "Well, we're looking at certain fundamentals of... human nature."
"Of course. Like violence? Revenge."
He frowned. "Yes, in a manner of speaking. But how ... ?"
"I thought so." All at once, it was becoming clear. "You're studying violence, so you'd need a violent, brutal group of people, wouldn't you? You're an anthropologist?"
Confusion still played across his face. "Yes, but I'm also a doctor. A medical doctor. Are you sure you're all right?"
A realization hit Tally. "You're a brain doctor."
"We're called neurologists, actually." Dr. Valen warily turned to reach for the hovercar door. "But perhaps I should make that call. I didn't get your name."
"I didn't give it."
Her tone stopped him cold.
"Don't touch that door," she said.
He turned to face her again, his late-pretty composure crumbling. "But you're ..."
"Pretty? Think again." She smiled. "I'm Tally Youngblood. My mind is very ugly. And I'm taking your car."
The Doctor was quite afraid of savages, it seemed - even beautiful ones.
He meekly allowed himself be locked into the cargo container of one of the hovercars, and handed over the take-off codes to the other. The security was nothing Tally couldn't have tricked herself, but it saved time. And the expression on Dr. Valen's face as he gave her the codes was pretty indeed. He was used to dealing with villagers in awe of his godhood. But one look at Tally's knife and he'd realized who was giving the orders.
The man answered a few more of Tally's questions, until no doubt remained in her mind what this reservation was all about. This had been the place where the operation had been developed, from which the first test subjects had been drawn. The purpose of the brain lesions was to deter violence and conflict, so who better to experiment on than people caught up in an endless blood feud? Like rabid enemies in a locked room, the tribes trapped within the ring of little men would reveal anything you wanted to know about the very human origins of bloodshed.
She shook her head. Poor Andrew. His whole world was an experiment, and his father had died in a conflict that meant precisely nothing.
Tally paused a moment in the hovercar before taking off, familiarizing herself with the controls.
They seemed about the same as a city car, but she had to remember that this one wasn't idiotproof - it would fly into a mountain if you told it to. She would have to be careful in the high spires of the ruins.
The first thing she did was put her boot through the communication system; she didn't want the car telling the city authorities where it was.
She started at the shout, peering out through the front windows. But it was only Andrew, and he was alone. She slid out of the drivers door, waving for him to be silent and pointing at the other car. "I've got the Doctor locked up," she hissed. "Don't let him hear your voice. What are you doing back here?"
He looked at the other hovercar, eyes widening at the thought of a god imprisoned within, and whispered, "I was sent back to see where he was. He said he would be just behind us."
"Well, he's not coming. And I'm about to leave." He nodded. "Of course. Good-bye, Young Blood."
"Good-bye." She smiled. "I won't forget all your help." Andrew was staring into her eyes, the familiar pretty-awed expression coming over his face. "I'll not forget you, either."
"Don't look at me that way."
"What way, Tally?"
"Like a ... god. We're just humans, Andrew." He looked at the ground, nodding slowly. "I know."
"Not very perfect humans, some of us worse than you could imagine. We've done awful things to your people for a long time now. We've used you." He shrugged. "What can we do? You are so powerful."
"Yeah, we are." She took his hand. "But keep trying to get past the little men. The real world is huge. Maybe you can get far enough away that the Specials will stop looking for you. And I'll try to..."
She didn't finish the promise. Try to do what?
A smile broke across Andrew's face, and he reached out to touch her flash tattoo. "You are bubbly now."
She nodded, swallowing.
"We will wait for you, Young Blood."
Tally blinked, then hugged him wordlessly. She slid back into the hovercar and started the rotors.
As the whine of its engines built, she watched the birds scatter from the clearing, terrified by the roar of the gods' machine. Andrew backed away.
The car rose at her first touch on the controls, its power shuddering through her bones. The rotors whipped the treetops around her into a frenzy, but the car rose steadily, under control.
Tally looked down as the car cleared the trees, and saw Andrew waving up at her, his crooked, gap-toothed smile still hopeful. Tally knew that she would have to return, just like he'd said; she no longer had a choice. Someone had to help the people here escape the reservation, and they had no one else but Tally.
She sighed. At least one thing was consistent about her life: It just kept on getting more complicated.
Tally reached the sea while the sun was still rising, painting the water pink through the low clouds out on the horizon.
She angled the machine northward in a slow, even turn. As she'd expected, this out-of-city car had a scary tendency to do whatever Tally asked of it. Her first turn had been sharp enough to bang her head against the drivers side window. This time, she was taking it easy.
As the car gradually climbed, she soon spotted the outskirts of the Rusty Ruins. A distance that would have taken a week on foot had shot by in a blur below Tally in less than an hour. When the sinuous shape of the ancient roller coaster came into view, she began to bank the craft inland.
Landing was the easy part. Tally pulled the emergency bar, the one they taught littlies to use if their driver had a heart attack or passed out. The car brought itself to a halt and began to descend. Tally had picked a flat spot, one of the many giant concrete fields that the Rusties built to park their groundcars in.
The vehicle settled onto the weed-choked ground, and Tally opened her door the moment the car bumped to a stop. If the other scientists had found the Doctor and made some sort of emergency call, the Specials would already be looking for her. The more distance she put between herself and the stolen hovercar, the better.