The spires of the ruins rose up before Tally, the tallest about an hour away on foot. She was, of course, arriving almost two weeks after the others. But hopefully they hadn't given up on her, or maybe they'd left a message of some kind.
Surely Zane would have stayed, waiting in the tallest building, unwilling to leave while there was still a chance she would show up.
Unless, of course, their escape had come too late for him.
Tally shouldered her backpack and started to walk.
The ruined streets were full of ghosts.
Tally had hardly ever walked in the city before. She had always cruised around on a hoverboard - ten meters up, at least - avoiding the burned-out cars down at ground level. In the last days of Rusty civilization, an artificial plague had spread across the world. It didn't infect human beings or animals, just petroleum, reproducing itself in the gas tanks of groundcars and jet aircraft, slowly making the infected oil unstable. Plague-transformed petroleum burst into flame when it came into contact with oxygen, and the oily smoke from the sudden fires spread the bacterial spores on the wind, into more gas tanks, more oil fields, until it had reached every Rusty machine across the globe.
The Rusties really hadn't liked walking, it turned out. Even after they'd figured out what the plague was doing, panicked citizens still jumped into their funny, rubber-wheeled groundcars, thinking to escape into the wild. If Tally looked hard enough, she could see crumbling skeletons through the smeared windows of the cars jammed onto the ruins' streets. Only a few of the people back then had been smart enough to walk out, and strong enough to survive the death of their world. Whoever had engineered the plague had definitely understood the Rusties' weakness.
"Boy, you guys were stupid," Tally muttered at the car windows, but calling them names didn't make the dead Rusties any less ominous. The few intact skulls just stared back at her with empty expressions.
Farther into the dead city, the buildings grew taller and taller, their steel frameworks rising up like the skeletons of giant and extinct creatures. Tally took a winding path through the narrow streets, looking for the tallest building in the ruins. The huge spire was easy to spot from a hover-board, but from the ground the city was a tangled maze.
Then she turned a corner and saw it, chunks of old concrete clinging to the towering matrix of steel beams, the empty windows gazing down at her, jagged shapes of bright sky showing through. This was definitely the place - Tally remembered when Shay had taken her up to its top the first time she'd come out to the Rusty Ruins. There was only one problem.
How was she going to get up?
The innards of the building had long since rotted away. There were no stairs, and hardly any floors to speak of. The steel frame made it perfect for a hoverboards magnetic lifters, but there was no way for a person to climb it without serious mountaineering gear. If Zane or the New Smokies had left a message for Tally, it would be up there, but she had no way of reaching it.
Tally sat down, suddenly exhausted. It was like the tower in her dream, without stairs or elevator, and she'd lost the key, which in this case was her hoverboard. All she could think of was to hike back to the stolen car and fly it up there. Maybe she could bring it close enough beside the building...but who would hold it in a steady hover while she climbed out onto the ancient steel frame?
For the thousandth time, Tally wished that her board hadn't been wrecked.
She stared up at the tower. What if no one was up there? What if, after traveling all this way, Tally Youngblood was still alone?
She got to her feet and yelled as loud as she could, "Heeeey!"
The sound echoed through the ruins, sending a flock of birds into flight from a distant rooftop.
"Hey! It's me!"
Once the echoes faded, there was no sound in answer. Tally's throat felt sore from yelling. She knelt to dig a safety flare out of her backpack. A fire would be pretty obvious down here in the shadows of the cavernous buildings.
She cracked the flare open, holding its hissing flame away from her face, then cried out again.
"It's meeeee...Tally Youngblood!"
Something shifted in the sky above.
Tally blinked away the spots that the flare had left in her eyes and stared into the bright blue sky.
A shape drifted away from the towering building, a tiny oval that began to grow slowly...
The underside of a hoverboard. Someone was coming down!
Tally tossed the flare onto a pile of rocks, her heart pounding, suddenly realizing she had no idea who was descending to meet her. How had she been so dimwitted? It could be anyone up there on the board. If the Specials had caught the other Crims and made them talk, they would know this was the planned meeting place, and Tally's latest escape was about to come to a sudden end.
She told herself to calm down. It was a hoverboard, after all, and only one. Surely if Specials had been lying in wait, they would have rushed out from every direction in a bunch of hovercars.
In any case, there was no point in panicking. She wasn't likely to escape on foot now. The only thing to do was wait. The safety flare sizzled out to a sputtering death while the hoverboard descended slowly, hugging the metal frame of the building. Once or twice, Tally thought she saw a face peering over the edge, but against the bright sky it could have been anyone.
When it was only ten meters overhead, Tally found the nerve to cry out again. "Hello?" Her voice sounded shaky in her ears.
"Tally...," someone called back, the voice familiar.
The hoverboard settled beside her, and Tally found herself staring into a thoroughly ugly face: the forehead too high, the smile crooked, a small scar cutting a white line through one eyebrow. She stared at him, blinking in the gloom of the broken city.
"David?" she said softly.
He stared at her, of course.
Even if she hadn't shouted out her name, David knew her voice. And he had been waiting for Tally, after all, so he must have known from the first cry who was down here. But the way he stared at her, it was as if he were seeing someone else.
"David," she said again. "It's me."
He nodded, still speechless. But it wasn't pretty-awe that had caught his tongue - that much Tally realized. His gaze seemed to be searching for something, trying to recognize what the operation had left of her old face, but his expression remained unsure...and a bit sad.
David was uglier than she remembered. In Tally's ugly-prince dreams, his imbalanced features had never been so disjointed, his unsurged teeth never so crooked or discolored. His blemishes weren't as bad as Andrew's, of course. He looked no worse than Sussy or Dex, city kids who'd grown up with toothpaste pills and sunblock patches.
But this was David, after all.
Even after her time with the villagers, many of them toothless and scarred, his face sent a shock through her. Not because he was hideous - he wasn't - but because he was simply...unimpressive.
Not an ugly prince. Just ugly.
And the weird thing was, even as she had these thoughts, her long-suppressed memories were finally flooding back. This was David, who had taught her how to make a fire, how to clean and cook fish, how to navigate by the stars. They had worked side by side, traveled together for weeks on end, and Tally had given up her city life to stay with him in the Smoke - she'd wanted to live with him forever.
All those memories had survived the operation, hidden somewhere inside her brain. But her life among the pretties must have changed something even more profound: the way she saw him, as if this wasn't the same David in front of her anymore.
Neither of them said anything for a while.
Finally, he cleared his throat. "We should probably get moving. They sometimes send patrols out around this time of day."
She looked at the ground. "Okay."
"I've got to do this first." He pulled a wandlike device from one pocket and swept it over her. It stayed silent.
"No bugs on me?" she said.
He shrugged. "Can't be too careful. You don't have a board?"
Tally shook her head. "It got damaged in the escape."
"Wow. Takes a lot to break a hoverboard."
"It was a long fall."
He smiled. "Same old Tally. I knew you'd show up, though. Mom said you'd probably..." He didn't finish.
"I'm fine." She looked up at him, unsure of how much to say. "Thanks for waiting."
They rode his board. Tally was taller than David now, so she stood behind him, hands around his waist. She'd abandoned her heavy crash bracelets before her long trek with Andrew Simpson Smith, but her sensor was still clipped to her belly ring, so the board could feel her center of gravity and compensate for the extra weight. Still, they went slowly at first.
The feel of David's body, the way he leaned into the turns, was so familiar - even the smell of him set her memories spinning. (Tally didn't want to think about how she smelled, but he didn't seem to have noticed.) She was amazed at how much was coming back; her memories of him seemed to have been ready and waiting, and were all flooding in now that he stood next to her. Here on the board, with David turned away from her, Tally's body cried out to hold him tight. She wanted to take back all the stupid, pretty-minded thoughts she'd had at her first glimpse of his face.
But was it just that he was ugly? Everything else had changed as well.
Tally knew she should be asking about the others, especially Zane. But she couldn't bring the name to her lips, couldn't speak at all. Just standing on the board with David was almost too much.
She kept wondering why it had been Croy who'd brought her the cure. In Tally's letter to herself, she had been so certain that David would be the one to rescue her. He was the prince of her dreams, after all.
Was he still angry that she had betrayed the Smoke? Did he blame her for his father's death? The same night she'd confessed everything to David, Tally had gone back to the city to give herself up, to become pretty so she could test the cure. She'd never had a chance to explain how sorry she was. They hadn't even said good-bye to each other.
But if David hated her, why had he been the one waiting in the ruins? Not Croy, not Zane - David. Her head was spinning, almost like being pretty-minded again, but without the happy part.
"It's not far," David said. "Maybe three hours, traveling tandem like this."
She didn't answer.
"I didn't think to bring another board. Should have known you wouldn't have one, since it took you so long to get here."
"No big deal. We just have to fly a little slower."
"No. I'm sorry. For what I did." She fell silent. The words had exhausted her.
He let the board coast to a stop between two towering husks of metal and concrete, and they stood there for a long moment, David still facing away. She rested one cheek on his shoulder, her eyes beginning to burn.
Finally, he said, "I thought I would know what to say. Once I saw you."
"Forgot about the new face, didn't you?"
"I didn't forget, exactly. But I didn't think it would be so ... not you."
"Me either," Tally said, then realized her words wouldn't make sense to him. David's face hadn't changed, after all.
He turned around carefully on the board and touched her brow. Tally tried to look at him, but couldn't. She felt her flash tattoo pulsing under his fingers.
Tally smiled. "Oh, is that freaking you out? It's just a Crim thing, to see who's bubbly."
"Yeah, a tattoo keyed to your heartbeat. They told me. But I hadn't imagined one on you. It's so
"It's still me inside, though."
"It feels that way, flying together." He turned away, tilting the hoverboard forward and into motion.
Tally held him tighter now, not wanting him to turn around again. This was hard enough without the confused feelings that rose up every time she looked at him. He probably didn't want to look at her city-made face either, with its huge eyes and animated tattoo. One thing at a time. "Just tell me, David, why did Croy bring me the cure instead of you?"