"We're ready" Zane answered. "Water purifiers and sixty days of self-heating meals each. Lots of SpagBol."
Tally winced. Ever since her first trip into the wild, the merest thought of Spagbol made her stomach flip. Luckily, Specials gathered their own food in the wild; their rebuilt stomachs could extract the nutrition out of practically anything that grew. A few Cutters had actually taken up hunting, though Tally stuck to wild plants - she'd eaten her share of dead animals back in Smokey days.
The Crims started hoisting their backpacks, keeping their faces solemn, trying to look serious.
She just hoped they didn't chicken out in the middle of the wild and leave Zane alone. He already looked a little shaky, even with his board still on the ground.
A few of the other Crims were staring at her and Shay. They wouldn't have seen a Special before, much less a scarred and wildly tattooed Cutter. But they didn't seem scared - like normal bubbleheads would be - just curious.
Of course, Maddy's nanos had been making the rounds for a while now. And the Crims would be the first to try anything to make themselves bubbly.
How would you run a city where everyone was Crim? Instead of most people going along with the rules, they'd always be stealing and doing tricks. Wouldn't you eventually wind up with real crimes - random violence and even murders - like back in Rusty days?
"All right," Shay said. "Get ready to move." She pulled out the alloy-cutter.
The Crims slipped their interface rings from their fingers, and as Peris handed each a balloon, they tied their rings to the dangling strings.
"Clever," Tally said, and Peris beamed a satisfied smile at her. When the balloons were let go with the rings attached, it would look to the city interface as though the Crims were taking a slow hoverboard trip together, letting the wind push them along in typical bubblehead fashion.
Shay took a step toward Zane, but he held up his hand. "No, I want Tally to set me free."
Shay let out a short, barked laugh and tossed Tally the tool. "Your boy wants you."
Tally took a slow breath as she crossed to where Zane stood, vowing to herself that she wouldn't let him randomize her brain. But when she reached out to grasp the metal chain, her fingers brushed his bare throat, and a shudder passed through her. Her eyes stayed on the necklace, but standing this close, fingertips centimeters from his flesh, brought up old and dizzy-making memories.
But then she saw the trembling in Zane's hands, and the repulsion rose in her once more. The war in her brain wouldn't end until he was a Special - his body as perfect as her own.
"Hold steady," she said. "This is hot."
Tally dimmed her vision as the tool sparked to life, a sputtering blue-and-white rainbow in the darkness. The heat hit her face like opening an oven, and a smell like burnt plastic filled the air.
Her own hands were shaking.
"Don't worry, Tally. I trust you."
She swallowed, still not looking up into his eyes. She didn't want to see their watery color, or Zane's thoughts so obvious on his face. She just wanted him to get moving, out into the wild where he could be found by the Smokies, recaptured, and then finally remade.
As the bright arc touched metal, Tally heard an alert ping go through her. Standard city procedure: The necklace was wired to send a signal if damaged. Any warden in the vicinity would have heard the ping too.
"Better let those balloons go," Shay said. "They'll come looking soon."
The arc sliced through the last few millimeters of the chain, and Tally lifted it from around his neck with both hands, careful to keep the glowing tips from his bare flesh.
Her arms were halfway around him when Zane took her wrists. "Try to change your mind, Tally."
She pulled away, his grip no stronger than the strands of a spider web. "My mind is fine the way it is."
His fingertips slid down her arm, along the ridges of cutting scars. "Then why do you do this?"
She looked at his hands, still afraid to meet his eyes. "It makes us icy. It's like being bubbly, but much better."
"What is it that you're not feeling, that you have to do that?"
She frowned, unable to answer the question. He just didn't understand cutting because he'd never done it. On top of which, her skintenna was carrying every word to Shay...
"You can rewire yourself again, Tally," he said. "The fact that they made you into a Special means you can change."
She stared at the still-glowing cutting tool, remembering what they'd gone through to get it. "I've already done more than you think."
"Good. Then you can choose what side you're on, Tally."
She looked up into his eyes at last. "This isn't about what side I'm on, Zane. I'm not doing this for anyone but us."
He smiled. "Neither am I. Remember that, Tally."
"What do you ... ?" Tally dropped her gaze, shaking her head. "You have to get moving, Zane.
You won't look very bubbly if the wardens catch you here before you've even taken a step."
"And speaking of being caught," Shay whispered, handing the tracker to Zane. "Give that a twirl when you find the Smoke, and we'll come running. It also works if you throw it into a fire, doesn't it, Tally-wa?"
He looked at the tracker, then slipped it into his pocket. All three of them knew that he wouldn't use it.
Tally dared another glance into Zane's eyes. He might not be special, but his fierce expression didn't look like a bubblehead's either.
"Try to keep changing, Tally," he said softly.
"Just go!" She turned and took a few steps away, snatching the last few balloons away from Peris, twisting their strings around the still-glowing necklace. When she let them go, the balloons struggled against the necklace's weight at first, until a gust of wind buoyed their strength.
By the time she looked back at Zane, his board was rising, his arms outstretched unsteadily, like a littlie walking a balance beam. One Crim flew on either side of him, ready to help.
Shay let out a sigh. "This is going to be way too easy."
Tally didn't answer, keeping her eyes on Zane until he disappeared into the darkness.
"We better get moving," Shay said. Tally nodded. When the wardens came sniffing, they might think it was somewhat random to find a couple of Specials hanging around Zane's last known location.
The scales of her sneak suit shuddered through their little boot-up dance, and Tally pulled on her gloves, drawing the hood down over her face.
Within seconds, Tally and Shay were as perfectly black as the midnight sky above.
"Come on, Boss," she said. "Let's go find the Smoke."
Zane's escape went much easier than Tally had expected.
The rest of the Crims and their pretty allies must have been in on the trick - hundreds of them released their interface rings on toy balloons at the same time, filling the air with false signals. Another hundred or so uglies did the same. The wardens' channel was full of irritated chatter as they went around collecting rings and putting a halt to dozens of pranks. The authorities weren't in the mood for practical jokes after last night's attack.
Shay and Tally finally switched off the wardens' babble.
"Pretty icy so far," Shay said. "Your boyfriend should make a good Cutter."
Tally smiled, feeling relieved to have Zane's shakiness out of her sight. The excitement of the chase was beginning.
They followed the little group of Crims from a kilometer back, the eight figures so clear in infrared that Tally could tell Zane's glowing silhouette apart from the others'. She noticed that at least one of them always flew close to him, ready to lend a hand.
The runaways didn't speed up the river toward the Rusty Ruins, but made their unhurried way to the southern edge of the city. When they ran out of grid, they descended into the forest and hiked, carrying their hoverboards toward the same river that Tally and Shay had jumped into the night before.
"That's bubbly of them," Shay said. "Not taking the usual way out."
"Must be tough on Zane, though," Tally said. Hoverboards were heavy carrying without a grid beneath them.
"If you're going to worry about him this whole trip, Tally-wa, it's going to be extremely boring."
"Relax, Tally. We won't let anything happen to your boy." Shay dropped into the pine trees. Tally stayed up high for another moment, watching the little group's slow progress. It would be an hour before they made the river and could use their boards again, but she was reluctant to lose sight of the runaways out here in the wild.
"A little early in the trip to burn your fans out, don't you think?" Shay's voice came from below, intimate in the skintenna network's feed.
Tally sighed softly, then let herself descend.
An hour later, they were sitting on the riverbank waiting for the Crims to catch up.
"Eleven," Shay said, tossing another rock. Spinning wildly, it skipped across the water as she counted aloud, finally sinking after the eleventh bounce.
"Hah! I win again!" Shay announced.
"No one else is playing, Shay-la."
"It's me against nature. Twelve." Shay threw again, the rock bouncing happily out into the middle of the river, dropping to the bottom after exactly twelve skips. "Victory is mine! Come on, you try."
"No thanks, Boss. Shouldn't we check on them again?"
Shay groaned. "They'll be here soon, Tally. They were almost at the river last time you checked, which was about five minutes ago."
"So why aren't they here yet?"
"Because they're resting, Tally. They're all tired after lugging their crappy boards through the forest." She smiled. "Or maybe they're cooking up a delicious feast of Spagbol."
Tally grimaced. She wished the two of them hadn't flown ahead. The whole point of this trick was to stay close to the runaways. "What if they went the other way? Rivers go two ways, you know?"
"Don't be so random, Tally-wa. Why would they head away from the ocean? Once you get past the mountains, there's nothing but desert for hundreds of kilometers. The Rusties called it Death Valley even before the weeds took over."
"But what if they arranged to meet the Smokies back there? We don't know how much contact the Crims have had with outsiders."
Shay sighed. "Fine. Go and check." She kicked at the dirt between her feet, trying to find another flat rock. "Just don't stay up too long. They might have infrared."
"Thanks, Boss." Tally stood, snapping for her board.
"Thirteen," Shay answered, and threw.
From up high, Tally could make out the runaways. As Shay had suspected, they were on the riverbank, unmoving, probably resting their feet. But as she tried to figure out which was Zane, Tally frowned.
Then she realized what was bothering her: There were nine glowing blobs of heat, not eight. Had they built a fire? Was some self-heating meal tricking her infrared?
She adjusted her vision to bring them into focus. The silhouettes sharpened until Tally was certain that all of them were human-size.
"Shay-la," she whispered. "They did meet someone."
"Already?" Shay answered from below. "Huh. I didn't think the Smokies would make it this easy."
"Unless it's another ambush," Tally said softly.
"Let them try. I'm coming up."
"Hang on, they're moving." The glowing forms were slipping out onto the river, headed toward her and Shay at hoverboard speed. But one remained behind, walking into the cover of the forest.
"They're on their way here, Shay. Eight of them, anyway. Somebody's going the other direction."
"Okay, you follow that one. I'll stick with the Crims."