So this was their new trick, Tally thought. Specials on hoverboards, perfect for tracking the New Smokies. She wondered who they'd caught.
"Uglies or pretties?" Dr. Cable called. Tally looked up and saw that the doctor had rejoined her by the fire.
"Just a couple of the Crims. The uglies all got away," came the answer. Tally realized that beneath its razor sharpness, she recognized the sound of the Special's voice.
"Oh, no," she said softly.
"Oh, yes, Tally-wa." The figure hopped off her board and strode into the firelight. "New surge!
Do you like it?"
It was Shay. She was Special.
"Dr. C let me get more tattoos. Aren't they totally dizzying?"
Tally looked at her old friend, awestruck by the transformation. The spinning lines of flash tattoos covered her, as if Shay's skin were wrapped in a pulsing black net. Her face was lean and cruel, her upper teeth filed down to sharp, triangular points. She was taller, with hard new muscles in her bare arms. The line of the scars where she had cut herself stood out prominently, outlined with swirling tattoos.
Shay's eyes flashed in the firelight like a predator's, shifting between red and violet as the flames danced.
She was still pretty, of course, but her cruel, inhuman grace sent shivers through Tally, like watching a colorful spider traverse its web.
Behind her, the other hoverboards descended. Ho and Tachs, Shay's fellow Cutters, each held a limp form. Tally grimaced when she saw that they'd caught Fausto, who'd never been on a hoverboard in his life before a few days ago. But most of the others had escaped, at least...and David had made it to safety.
The New Smoke still lived.
"Think my new surge is pretty-making, Tally-wa?" Shay said. "Not too much for you?"
Tally shook her head tiredly. "No. It's bubbly, Shay-la."
A broad, cruel smile filled Shay's face. "About a zillion milli-Helens, huh?"
"At least." Tally turned from her old friend and stared into the fire.
Shay sat down beside her. "Being Special is more bubbly than you can imagine, Tally-wa. Every second is totally spinning. Like, I can hear your heartbeat, can feel the electric buzz of that jacket trying to keep you warm. I can smell your fear."
"I'm not afraid of you, Shay."
"You are a little bit, Tally-wa. You can't lie to me anymore." Shay put her arm around Tally.
"Hey, remember the crazy faces I used to design back when we were uglies? Dr. C will let me do them now. Cutters can surge however we want. Even the Pretty Committee can't tell us what we can and can't look like."
"That must be great for you, Shay-la."
"Me and my Cutters are the bubbly new thing in Circumstances. Like special Specials. Isn't that totally happy-making?"
Tally turned to face her, trying to see what was behind the flashing violet-red eyes. Despite the pretty-talk, she heard a cold, serene intelligence in Shays voice, a pitiless joy in having snared her old betrayer.
Shay was a new kind of cruel pretty, Tally could see. Something even worse than Dr. Cable.
"Are you really happy, Shay?"
Shay's mouth quivered, her sharp teeth running along her lower lip for a moment, and she nodded. "I am, now that I've got you back, Tally-wa. It wasn't very nice, all of you running off like that without me. Totally sad-making."
"We wanted you along, Shay, I swear. I left you all those pings."
"I was busy." Shay kicked at the dying fire with one boot. "Cutting myself. Searching for a cure."
She snorted. "Besides, I've had enough of the camping thing. And, anyway, we're together now, you and me."
"We're against each other." Tally barely whispered the words.
"No way, Tally-wa." Shay's hand squeezed her shoulder roughly. "I'm sick of all the mix-ups and bad blood between us. From now on, you and I are going to be best friends forever."
Tally closed her eyes; so this was Shay's revenge.
"I need you in the Cutters, Tally. It's so bubbly-making!"
"You can't do this to me," Tally whispered, trying to pull away.
Shay held her firmly. "That's the thing, Tally-wa. I can."
"No!" Tally cried, lashing out and trying to struggle to her feet.
Quick as lightning, Shay's hand shot forward, and Tally felt a sharp sting on her neck. Seconds later, a thick fog began to settle over her. She managed to pull away and take a few stumbling steps, but her limbs seemed to fill with liquid lead, and she fell to the ground. A shroud of gray descended across the fire in front of her, the world growing dark.
Words tumbled at her through the void, carried on a razor voice: "Face it, Tally-wa, you're..."
Over the next few weeks, Tally never quite awoke. She would stir sometimes, and realize from the feel of sheets and pillows that she was in bed, but mostly her mind floated free of her body, drifting in and out of disjointed versions of the same dream...
There was this beautiful princess locked in a high tower, one with mirrored walls that wouldn't shut up. There was no elevator or any other way down, but when the princess grew bored of staring at her own pretty face in the mirrors, she decided to jump. She invited all her friends to come along, and they all followed her down - except her best friend, whose invitation had been lost.
The tower was guarded by a gray dragon with jeweled eyes and a hungry maw. It had many legs and moved almost too fast to see, but it pretended to be asleep, and let the princess and her friends sneak past.
And you couldn't have this dream without a prince.
He was both handsome and ugly, bubbly and serious, cautious and brave. In the beginning he lived with the princess in the tower, but later in the dream he seemed to have been outside all along, waiting for her. And in a dream-logic way he was often two princes, which she had to choose between.
Sometimes the princess chose the handsome prince, and sometimes the ugly one. Either way, her heart was broken.
And whomever she picked, the dream's ending never changed. The best friend, the one whose invitation had been lost, always tried to follow the princess. But the gray dragon woke up and swallowed her, and liked her taste so much that it came after the rest of them, hungry for more. From inside its stomach, the best friend looked out through the dragons eyes, and spoke with its mouth, swearing it would find the princess and punish her for leaving a friend behind.
And over all those sleepy weeks, the dream always ended the same way, with the dragon coming for the princess, saying the same words every time...
"Face it, Tally-wa, you're Special."