Tally took one step back from the hole - all she had room for. The lumbering threshing machine was so close that she could feel the heat of its disintegration.
She took a breath and dived into the breach...
Tally tumbled into darkness.
The night silence enveloped her, and for a moment she simply let herself fall. Maybe she'd brushed against the deadly silver goo on her way through the hole, or was about to be blown from the sky, or was falling to her death, but at least it was cool and quiet out here.
Then a tug came on her wrist, and the familiar shape of her hoverboard hurtled out of the darkness. Tally spun herself in midair, landing in a perfect riding stance.
Shay was already speeding toward the closest edge of the city. Angling her board to follow, Tally engaged its lifting fans, the thrum beneath her feet building swiftly to a howl.
The sky around them was filled with glowing shapes, all headed away from Tally. Every single hovercraft was trying to put distance between itself and its fellow machines; none of them knew which had been spattered with the silver goo and which were clean. The most obviously contaminated were grounding themselves in the no-fly area, stilling their spinning fans before they infected the rest.
She and Shay would have a few minutes' head start while the armada got itself organized.
Imagining pinpricks of heat on her arms and hands, Tally glanced down to check herself for growing silver dots. She wondered if the sprayers inside were getting the hungry nanos under control, or whether the whole building was going to sink into the earth.
If the silver goo was the sort of stuff the Armory kept in its museum, what were the "serious"
weapons stored deep underground like? Of course, destroying one building wasn't much by Rusty standards. They'd killed whole cities with a single bomb, sickened generations with radioactivity and poisons. Next to that, the silver stuff really was a museum piece.
Behind her, firefighting hovercars from the city were arriving, spraying out vast clouds of the black foam across the whole Armory.
Tally turned away from the chaos and shot after Shay in the dark sky, relieved to see that no glowing droplets clung to her night black sneak suit. "You're clean," she called out.
Shay took a quick spin around Tally. "You too. Told you that Specials are born lucky!"
Tally swallowed, glancing over her shoulder. A few surviving hovercraft were zooming out from the pandemonium of the Armory grounds, chasing them. She and Shay might be invisible in their suits, but their hoverboards would still show up as bright slivers of heat. "I wouldn't call this good luck yet," she yelled across the void.
"Don't worry, Tally-wa. If they want to play, I've got more grenades." As the two of them hit the edge of Crumblyville, Shay dropped to roof level to take better advantage of the grid.
Tally followed her down, taking a slow breath. That Shay in possession of hand grenades was a comforting thought showed what kind of a night this had turned into.
She could hear the roar of hovercraft building now. Apparently, the goo hadn't gotten them all.
"They're getting closer. "
"They're faster than we are, but they won't mess with us over the city. They don't want to kill any innocent bystanders."
Which doesn't include us, Tally thought. "So how do we get away?"
"If we can find a river outside of town, we can jump."
"They can't see us, Tally - just our boards. Falling through the air in sneak suits, we'll be completely invisible." She was fiddling with one of the grenades. "Just find me a river."
Tally flipped a map overlay across her vision.
"All that firepower will chop our boards to pieces," Shay said. "They won't have enough left to
..." Shay's voice faded. All at once, the hovercraft had winked out of existence, leaving the night sky empty.
Tally flipped through various infrared overlays, but could see nothing. "Shay?"
"They must have turned their lifting fans off. They're running on magnetics, totally stealthy."
"But why? We know that they're following us."
"Maybe they don't want to freak out the crumblies," Shay said. "They're pacing us, surrounding us, waiting for us to leave the city. Then they'll start shooting."
Tally swallowed. In the momentary silence, her adrenaline was fading, and the magnitude of what they'd done finally struck home. Because of them, the military was in an uproar, probably thinking the city was under attack. For a moment, the icy glamour of being special slipped away. "Shay, if this goes wrong, thanks for trying to help Zane."
"Hush, Tally-wa." Shay hissed. "Just find me that river."
Tally counted down the seconds. The city limit was less than a minute away.
She remembered the other night, the thrill of chasing the Smokies to the edge of the wild. But now she was the one being hunted, outnumbered, and outgunned...
"Here we go," Shay warned.
As they shot out over the dark edge of the city, glowing forms winked into existence all around them. First Tally heard the roar of lifting fans spinning to life, and then bright lances of heat began to streak across the sky.
"Don't make it easy for them!" Shay cried.
Tally began to weave, slipping around the arcs of blazing projectiles that filled the air. A stream of cannon fire shot past her, hot as a desert wind on her cheek, splintering the trees below like matchsticks.
She veered and climbed, barely avoiding another barrage from the opposite direction.
Shay threw a grenade straight up into the air. A few seconds later, it burst behind them, and a concussion wave hit Tally like a fist, setting her board wobbling. She heard the plaintive shrieking of lifting fans knocked awry - Shay had hit one of the hovercraft without even aiming!
Which only proved, of course, how many of them there were...
Two arcing trails of cannon fire streaked across Tally's path, searing the air, and she twisted hard to avoid them, barely staying on her board.
In the distance ahead, a band of reflected moonlight glimmered.
"I see it," Shay called. "Set your board to fly straight and level once you jump."
Tally banked again, another spray of projectiles narrowly missing her. She stabbed at her crash bracelets' controls, setting the board to fly ahead without her.
"Try not to make a splash!" Shay cried. "Three...two..."
The dark river shone below her as she fell, a winding black mirror reflecting the chaos in the sky.
She sucked in deep breaths, storing up oxygen, pressing her hands together to split the water cleanly.
The river's surface slapped her hard, then its watery roar erased the screams of gunfire and lifting fans. Tally plunged deep into the darkness, its cold and silence enveloping her.
She waved her arms in circles to keep herself from floating too quickly to the top, staying down as long as her lungs could stand it. When she finally surfaced, her eyes scanned the sky, but found only flickers on the dark horizon, kilometers away. The river's current was brisk and smooth.
They had escaped.
"Tally?" a shout bounced across the water.
"Over here," she answered softly, paddling to face the sound.
Shay reached her with a few powerful strokes. "You okay, Tally-wa?
"Yeah." Tally did a quick internal diagnostic on her bones and muscles. "Nothing broken."
"Me neither." Shay was smiling tiredly. "Let's head for shore. We've got a long walk ahead of us."
As they swam slowly shoreward, Tally watched the sky anxiously - she'd had enough of fighting off the city's armed forces for one night.
"That was truly icy, Tally-wa," Shay said as they dragged themselves onto the muddy riverbank.
She pulled out the tool she'd found in the museum. "By this time tomorrow night, Zane will be on his way into the wild. And we'll be right behind him."
Tally looked at the alloy-cutter, hardly believing they'd almost gotten killed for something smaller than a finger. "But after everything we did back there, will anyone really believe it was a bunch of Crims?"
"Maybe not." Shay shrugged, then giggled. "But by the time they get around to stopping that silver goo, they won't have much evidence left. And whether they think it was Crims or Smokies or a bunch of commando Specials from another city, they'll know Zane-la has some bad-ass friends."
Tally frowned. They'd only meant to make Zane seem bubbly, not involve him in a major attack.
Of course, with the city threatened this way, Dr. Cable would probably be thinking about recruiting a few more Specials as soon as possible. And Zane would make a logical candidate.
Tally smiled. "He does have some bad-ass friends, Shay-la. He has you and me."
Shay laughed as they started into the woods, sneak suits shifting to match the dappled shafts of moonlight. "Tell me about it, Tally-wa. That boy doesn't know how lucky he is."
When the people of the world all know beauty as beauty,
There arises the recognition of ugliness.
When they all know the good as good,
There arises the recognition of evil.
- Lao Tzu, The Tao Te Ching
The next night, they found Zane and a small group of Crims waiting for them, clustered in the shadow of the dam that calmed the river before it encircled New Pretty Town. The sound of falling water and the nervous smells of the Crims set Tally's senses abuzz, her flash tattoos spinning like pinwheels on her arms.
After last night's adventures, her old random body would've been dead tired. She and Shay had walked all the way into the city center before calling Tachs to bring new boards, a hike that would have laid up any normal human for days. But a few hours' sleep had mostly restored Tally's body, and their exploits at the Armory now seemed like a practical joke - one that had gotten a little out of hand, maybe...
Her skintenna was crackling with the city's high alert: wardens and regular Specials out in force, the newsfeeds openly wondering if the city was at war. Half of Crumblyville had seen the inferno on the horizon, and the giant pile of black foam where the Armory had once stood was hard to explain away.
There were military hovercraft visible over the center of town, stationed to protect the city government from any further attacks. The nightly fireworks displays had been canceled until further notice, leaving the skyline strangely dark.
Even the Cutters had been called in and told to search for any connection between the Smokies and the Armory's destruction, which Tally and Shay thought was pretty funny.
The buzz of the emergency energized Tally; she found the whole thing icy, like back when school was canceled because of a blizzard or a fire. Even with her sore muscles, she felt ready to follow Zane into the wild for weeks or months, whatever it took.
But as her board touched down, Tally made sure not to catch his watery-eyed gaze. She didn't want this icy feeling sucked out of her, randomized by his infirmity. So she turned her eyes to the rest of the Crims.
There were eight in all. Peris was among them, his big eyes widening as he took in Tally's new face. He was holding a cluster of toy balloons, like an entertainer at some littlie's birthday party.
"Don't tell me you're going," she snorted.
He returned her gaze without blinking. "I know I wimped out on you, Tally. But I'm bubblier now."
Tally looked at Peris's full lips, the softness of his trying-to-be-defiant expression, and wondered if his new attitude had come from one of Maddy's pills. "So what are those balloons for? In case you fall off your hoverboard?"
"You'll see," he answered, mustering a smile.
"You bubbleheads better be ready for a long trip," Shay said. "The Smokies may wait a while before they pick you up. I hope that's survival gear in those packs and not champagne."