Page 35 of Pretties (Uglies 2)

"Things got messed up. I was going to come for you when I got back."

"Got back? From where?"


"I was away scouting another city, looking for more uglies to join us, when the Specials came in force. They started to make huge sweeps of the ruins, looking for us." He took her hand and pressed it to his chest. "My mom decided to get out of town for a while. We've been holed up in the wild."

"Leaving me stuck in the city," she said, and sighed. "Maddy wouldn't have much problem with that, I guess." Tally had little doubt that David's mother still blamed her for everything - the end of the Smoke, Az's death.

"She didn't have a choice," David protested. "There's never been so many Specials before. It was too dangerous to stay here."

Tally took a deep breath, remembering her little chat with Dr. Cable. "I guess Special Circumstances has been recruiting lately."

"But I hadn't forgotten about you, Tally. I'd made Croy promise to bring you the pills and your letter if anything happened to me, just to make sure you had a chance of escaping. When they started to pack up the New Smoke, he figured we might not be back for a while, so he snuck into the city."

"You told him to come?"

"Of course. He was my backup. I never would have left you alone in there, Tally."

"Oh." Dizziness swept over her again, as if the board were a feather spinning toward the ground.

She closed her eyes and held David tighter, finally grasping the solidness and reality of him, more powerful than any memory. Tally felt something inside herself depart, a disquiet that she'd hardly known was there. The torment in her dreams, the worry that David had forsaken her, had all been over a mix-up, just plans that had gone wrong, like in old stories when a letter arrived too late or was sent to the wrong person, and the trick was not killing yourself over it.

David had wanted to come for her himself, it turned out.

"Of course, you weren't alone," he said softly.

Tally's body stiffened. By now he knew about Zane, of course. How was she supposed to explain that she'd simply forgotten David? It wouldn't sound like much of an excuse to most people, but he knew all about the lesions - his parents had raised him knowing what being pretty-minded meant. He had to understand.

Of course, in reality it wasn't as simple as that. Tally hadn't forgotten Zane, after all. She could see his beautiful face right now, gaunt and vulnerable, the way his golden eyes had flashed just before he jumped from the balloon. His kiss had given her the strength to find the pills; he had shared the cure with her. So what was she supposed to say?

The easiest thing was, "How is he?"

David shrugged. "Not great. But not too bad, considering. You're lucky it wasn't you, Tally."

"The cure is dangerous, isn't it? It doesn't work for some people."

"It works perfectly. Your pals have already all had it, and they're fine."

"But Zane's headaches ..."

"More than just headaches." He sighed. "I'll let my mother explain it to you."

"But what..." Tally let her question fade into silence. She couldn't blame David for not wanting to talk about Zane. At least her unasked questions had all been answered. The other Crims had made it here and had hooked up with the Smokies; Maddy had been able to help Zane; the escape had worked perfectly. And now that Tally had made it to the ruins herself, everything was just fine and dandy. "Thank you for waiting for me," she said again, softly.

He didn't answer, and they flew the rest of the way without looking at each other once.

DAMAGE CONTROL

The path to the New Smokies' hiding place wound along streams and ancient railway beds, wherever there was enough metal to keep the hoverboard aloft. Finally, they climbed a small mountain far outside the Rusty Ruins, the boards lifters clinging to the fallen remains of an old cable car track, up to where a huge concrete dome, cracked open by the centuries, stood against the sky.

"What was this place?" Tally asked, her voice dry after three hours in silence.

"An observatory. There used to be a big telescope in that dome. But the Rusties took it out once the pollution from the city got too bad."

Tally had seen pictures of the sky filled with dirt and smoke - they showed those a lot in school - but it was hard to imagine that the Rusties had really managed to change the color of the air itself. She shook her head. Everything that she thought her teachers had exaggerated about the Rusties always turned out to be true. The temperature had dropped steadily as they'd climbed the mountain, and the afternoon sky looked crystal clear to her.

"After the scientists couldn't see the stars anymore, the dome was just for tourists," David said.

"That's what all these cable cars were for. Lots of ways down by hoverboard, if we ever need to get out of here fast, and we can see for miles in every direction."

"Fort Smokey, huh?"

"I guess. If the Specials ever find us, at least we've got a chance."

A lookout had evidently spotted them on the way up -  people were spilling from the broken observatory as the hoverboard settled to the earth. Tally spotted the New Smokies - Croy, Ryde, and Maddy, along with a few uglies she didn't recognize - and the two dozen or so Crims who'd come along on the escape.

Tally searched for Zane's face among the crowd, but he wasn't there.

She jumped from the board, running to hug Fausto. He grinned at her, and she could see from his sharpened expression that he'd taken the pills. He wasn't just bubbly anymore; he was cured.

"Tally, you smell," he said, still grinning.

"Oh, yeah. Long trip. Long story."

"I knew you'd make it. But where's Peris?"

She took a deep breath of the cold mountain air.

"Chickened out, huh?" Fausto said before she could answer. When she nodded, he added,

"Always thought he would."

"Take me to Zane."

Fausto turned, gesturing toward the observatory. The others were hovering close, but looked a little put off by her bedraggled appearance and ripe smell. The Crims called out hellos, and she could see the uglies reacting to a new pretty face, their eyes widening even though she was a mess. Worked every time, even when they didn't think you were a god.

Tally paused to nod at Croy. "I haven't had a chance to thank you yet."

He raised an eyebrow. "Don't thank me. You did it yourself."

She frowned, noticing that Maddy was staring strangely at her. Tally ignored the look, not interested in what David's mother thought, and followed Fausto into the broken dome.

It was dark inside - a few lanterns were strung up around the edge of the huge, open hemisphere, and a narrow shaft of blinding sunlight streamed through the dome's great fissure. An open fire cast jittering shadows through the space, its smoke climbing lazily up through the crack overhead.

Zane lay on a pile of blankets by the fire, his eyes closed. He looked even thinner than when they'd been trying to starve the cuffs off, his eyes sunken into his head. The covers rose and fell softly with his breathing.

Tally swallowed. "But David said he was okay. ..."

"He's stable," Fausto said, "which is good, considering."

"Considering what?"

Fausto spread his hands helplessly. "His brain."

A chill moved through Tally, the shadows in the corners of her eyes rippling for a moment. "What about it?" she said softly.

"You had to experiment, didn't you, Tally?" came a voice from the darkness. Maddy stepped into the light, David at her side.

Tally held her steely glare. "What are you talking about?"

"The pills I gave you were meant to be taken together."

"I know. But there were two of us..." Tally trailed off at David's expression. And I was too scared to do it alone, she added to herself, remembering the panic of those moments in Valentino 317.

"I suppose I should have known," Maddy said, shaking her head. "This was always a risk, letting a pretty-head treat herself."

"What was?"

"I never explained how the cure worked, did I?" Maddy said. "How the nanos remove the lesions from your brain? They break them down, like the pills that cure cancer."

"So what went wrong?"

"The nanos didn't stop. They went on reproducing, breaking down Zane's brain."

Tally turned to look at the form on the bed. His breathing seemed so shallow, the movement of his chest at the edge of perception.

She faced David. "But you said the cure worked perfectly."

He nodded. "It does. Your other friends are fine. But the two pills were different. The second pill, the one you took, is the cure for the cure. It makes the nanos self-destruct after they finish with the lesions. Without it, Zane's nanos kept reproducing, kept eating away at him. Mom said they stopped at some point, but not before they did a ... certain amount of damage."

The sickening feeling in Tally's stomach redoubled as the realization sunk home: This was her fault. She had swallowed the pill that would have kept Zane from this, the cure for the cure. "How much damage?"

"We don't know yet," Maddy said. "I had enough stem tissue to regenerate the destroyed areas of his brain, but the connections that Zane had built up among those cells are gone. Those connections are where memories and motor skills are stored, and where cognition happens. Some parts of his mind are almost a blank slate."

"A blank slate? You mean...he's gone?"

"No, just a few places are damaged," Fausto spoke up. "And his brain can rewire itself, Tally.

His neurons are making new connections. That's what he's doing right now. Zane had been doing it all along; he hoverboarded all the way here on his own before he collapsed."

"Rather amazing that he lasted so long," Maddy said, shaking her head slowly. "I think not eating is what saved him. By starving himself, he eventually starved the nanos. They appear to be gone."

"He can still talk and everything," Fausto said. He looked down at Zane. "He's just a little...tired right now."

"It could have been you in that bed, Tally." Maddy shook her head. "A fifty-fifty chance. You just got lucky."

"That's me. Little Miss Lucky," Tally said softly.

Of course, she had to admit to herself that it was true. They'd split the two pills randomly, assuming they were the same. The nanos could have been eating away at Tally's brain all this time instead of Zane's. Lucky her.

She let her eyes close, realizing at last how hard Zane must have worked to hide what was happening to him. All those long silences when they'd been wearing the cuffs, he'd been fighting, struggling to keep his mind together, unsure of exactly what was happening, but risking everything to escape becoming pretty-minded again.

Tally gazed down at him, wishing for a moment it had been the other way around. Anything was better than seeing him like this. If only she'd taken the nano pill, and he had taken the one that...had done what? "Wait a second. If Zane got the nanos, how did my pill cure me?"

"It didn't," Maddy said. "Without the other pill, the anti-nanos you took would have no effect whatsoever."

"But ..."

"It was you, Tally," came a soft voice from the bed. Zane's eyes had opened a slit, catching the sunlight like the edges of gold coins. He gave her a weary smile. "You got bubbly on your own."

"But I felt so different after we ..." She fell silent, remembering that day - their kiss, sneaking into Valentino Mansion, climbing the tower. But, of course, all those things had happened before they'd taken the pills. Being with Zane had changed her from the beginning, from that first kiss.

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