"That's called a ... padlock, I think." She felt the smooth steel object between her fingers, trying to remember how they worked. "They had them in the Smoke, to secure stuff that people might steal."
"Great. All this and we still need our rings."
Tally shook her head. "Smokies don't use interface rings, Zane. To open a padlock, you need a
..." She searched her memory for another old word, then found it. "There must be a key somewhere."
"A key? Like a password?"
"No. This kind of key is a little metal thing. You stick it in and turn, which makes the lock pop open."
"What does it look like?"
"A flat piece of steel, about as long as your thumb, with teeth."
Zane giggled at this image, but started looking around.
Tally stared at the door. The shack was obviously much older than the chain that held it shut. She wondered what it had been used for. Leaning close to the narrow gap Zane had opened, Tally sheltered her gaze with both hands and peered into the blackness. Her eyes adjusted slowly, until she could make out dark shapes within.
There seemed to be a huge pulley and a crude mechanical engine, like the kind they used out in the Smoke. The elevator had once moved up and down on a chain. This shack was old; it must have been abandoned after lifters had been invented, which was ages ago. Modem elevators ran on the same principle as hoverboards and bungee jackets. (Which was a lot safer than dangling from a chain...Tally shivered at the thought.) When lifters had been added, the old mechanism must have been left up here on the roof to rust.
She yanked at the padlock again, but it held firm. Heavy and crude, the lock looked out of place here in the city. When wardens wanted to secure something, they stuck up a sensor that would tell you to keep out. Only New Smokies would have used a padlock made of metal.
Croy had told her to come here, so there had to be a key around somewhere.
"Another stupid test," she muttered.
"A what?" Zane asked. Looking for the key, he had climbed on top of the shack.
"Like Croy dressing up as a Special," she explained. "And making us find Valentino 317. The key has to be tricky to get hold of, because it's all a test. Their point is to make it hard to find this thing that Croy left for me. They don't want us to find it unless we're bubbly."
"Or maybe," Zane said, perching on one edge of the shack, "they want the search to make us bubbly, so we're thinking clearly when we find it."
"Whatever it is," Tally said, and sighed. She felt annoyance rising in her, along with the feeling that this test would never end, that every solution would just lead to another level of problems, like some stupid thumbgame. Maybe the smartest move would be to blow it all off and just have breakfast. Why was she trying to prove herself to the New Smokies, anyway? They didn't matter. She was beautiful and they were ugly.
But Zane's brain was still spinning. "So they'd hide the key somewhere that would be extra tricky to get to. But what would be trickier than climbing up here?"
Tally's eyes swept the roof, until they found the spindly transmission tower. At its top, twenty stories above them, the Valentino flag whipped in the wind. At the sight of it, the world grew crisp again, and she smiled.
"Climbing up there."
THE HIGH TOWER
The transmission tower was the newest piece of Valentino Mansion, made of steel painted over with white polymers to keep rust at bay. It was part of the system that tracked people's interface rings, supposedly to help find anyone who got lost or injured outside a smart building.
White struts loomed over Tally and Zane, crisscrossing like a cat's cradle, shining in the sun like porcelain. The tower didn't look hard to climb, except for the fact that it was five times as tall as Valentino Mansion, even taller than a party spire. As she stared up into its heights, a low rumble sounded in Tally's stomach. She was pretty sure it wasn't hunger. "At least there's no dragon guarding it," she said.
Zane lowered his anxious gaze from the tower. "Huh?"
Tally shook her head. "Just something from a dream I had."
"You really think the key's up there?"
"I'm afraid so."
"The New Smokies climbed all that way?"
Old memories came back. "No. They could've hover-boarded up the side. Boards can go that high if they stay close enough to a big piece of metal."
"You know, we could requisition a hoverboard...," Zane said quietly.
She looked at him with surprise.
He muttered, "Of course, that wouldn't be very bubbly, would it?"
"It wouldn't. And anything that flies has a minder. Do you know how to trick a hoverboard's safety governor?"
"Used to, but I can't remember."
"Me either. Okay, then. We climb."
"Okay," he said. "But first..." He reached for Tally's hand, drew her to him, and they kissed again.
She blinked once, then felt a grin spreading on her face. "Just to keep us bubbly."
The first half was easy.
Tally and Zane stayed together, climbing opposite sides of the tower, finding ready handholds in the weave of struts and cables. The wind kicked up now and then, playfully tugging at Tally in a way that was nervous-making, but all it took was a quick glance downward to focus her mind.
Halfway up, she could already see the whole of Valentino Mansion, the pleasure gardens spread out in every direction, even the hovercar pads atop the central hospital where they did the operation. The river glittered as the sun climbed toward noon, and across the water, in Uglyville, Tally saw her old dorm hulking among the trees. On the soccer field, a few uglies were watching them and pointing, probably wondering who was climbing the tower.
Tally wondered how long it would be before someone on this side of the river noticed their ascent and pinged the wardens.
With her new muscles, the climb wasn't physically demanding. But as the two of them neared the top, the tower grew narrower, the handholds less sure. The polymer coating was slick, still wet in a few corners where the morning sun hadn't yet dried the dew. Microwave dishes and thick skeins of braided cables crowded the struts, and doubts began to creep through Tally's mind. Was the key really up here?
Why would the New Smokies make her risk her life just to pass a test? As the climb grew trickier and the drop more panic-making, Tally found herself wondering how she'd wound up here on this tall and windy spike.
The night before, her only goal had been to become a Crim, pretty and popular, surrounded by a clique of new friends. And she'd managed to get everything she'd wanted - on top of which, Zane had kissed her, a bubbly development she hadn't even imagined before this morning.
Of course, getting what you wanted never turned out the way you'd thought it would. Being a Crim wasn't about being satisfied, and hanging out with Zane apparently involved risking your life and not eating breakfast. Tally had only been voted in last night, and here she was having to prove herself again.
And for what? Did she really want to unlock the rusty shack below? Whatever was in there could only make her head more spinning, and was certain to remind her of David and the Smoke and everything she'd left behind. It felt as if every time she took a step forward into her new life, something sucked her back toward ugly days.
With her mind tangled by these questions, Tally put her foot wrong.
The sole of one shoe slipped from a thick cable coated in slick plastic, sending her flailing legs away from the tower, yanking her hands from their grip on a strut that was still wet with dew. Tally tumbled downward, the feeling of free fall surging through her body, familiar from all the times she had wiped out on a hoverboard or thrown herself from the top of a building.
Her instincts told her to relax, until she realized the big difference between this fall and all those others: Tally wasn't wearing crash bracelets or a bungee jacket. This time she was really falling; nothing was going to catch her.
Her brand-new pretty reflexes kicked into gear, and her hands flew out to grab a passing braid of cable. Tally's palms slid down the plastic insulation, the friction burning her skin as if the cable had burst into flame. Her legs swung in toward the tower - knees bent, body turning - and Tally absorbed the impact against the metal with her hip, a blow that shook her whole frame but didn't loosen the grip of her burning fingers.
Tally's feet scrabbled to gain purchase, their soles finding a wide strut and mercifully taking most of the weight from her hands. She wrapped her arms around the cable, every muscle tense, barely hearing Zane's shouts above her, and gazed out over the river, amazed at her own vision.
Everything shone, as if diamonds had been scattered across Uglyville. Her mind felt clean, like the air after a morning rain, and Tally understood at last why she had climbed up here. Not to impress Zane or the Smokies, or to pass any test, but because some part of her had wanted this moment, this clarity she hadn't felt since the operation. This was way beyond bubbly.
"Are you okay?" came a distant cry.
She looked back up at Zane. Seeing how far she'd fallen, Tally swallowed, but still managed a smile. "I'm bubbly. Totally. Wait up."
She climbed fast now, ignoring her bruised hip. Her scorched palms complained every time they closed around a handhold, but within a minute she was alongside Zane again. His golden eyes were wider than ever, as if her fall had scared him worse than it had Tally.
She smiled again, realizing that it probably had. "Come on." She left him behind, pulling herself up the last few meters.
Reaching the top, Tally found a black magnet stuck to the bottom of the flagpole, a shiny new key clinging to it. She carefully pulled the key off and slipped it into her pocket while the Valentino flag snapped overhead, the sound as crisp as clothes fresh out of the wall.
"Got it," she yelled, and started down, passing Zane before he'd even moved, the shocked expression still frozen on his face.
It wasn't until she stood on the roof again that Tally realized how sore her muscles were. Her heart was still pounding, and the world remained crystalline. She pulled the key from her pocket, tracing its teeth with one trembling fingertip, her senses registering every detail of the metal's jagged edge.
"Hurry up!" she cried to Zane, who was still only halfway down. He started to climb faster, but Tally snorted and spun on one heel, striding toward the shack.
The padlock popped open when she turned the key, the rusty door groaning with age as its bottom edge skidded across the stone. Tally stepped inside, blind for a moment in the darkness, seeing red traces that pulsed with her heartbeat, full of excitement. If the Smokies had arranged all this to make her bubbly, they'd gotten what they wanted.
The little room smelled very old, the air inside warm and still. As Tally's eyes adjusted, she could see the flaking graffiti that filled every centimeter of wall space, layer upon layer of slogans, scrawled tags, and the names of couples proclaiming their love. Some of the dates included years that made no sense, until Tally realized that they were written in Rusty style, counting all the old centuries before the collapse. The crumbling elevator machinery was decorated with still more graffiti, and the floor littered with ancient contraband: old cans of spray-paint, crushed and empty tubes of notoriously sticky nano-glue, burned-out fireworks smelling like old campfires. Tally saw a yellowed rectangle of paper, squashed and blackened at one end, like a picture of a cigarette from a Rusty history book. She picked it up and sniffed, dropping it when her stomach heaved at the stench.
A cigarette? This place was older than lifters, she reminded herself, maybe even older than the city itself, a strange, forgotten piece of history. She wondered how many generations of uglies and tricky new pretties like the Crims had made it theirs.
The pouch Croy had shown her rested on one of the old rusted gears of the elevator mechanism, waiting.