Page 19 of Specials (Uglies 3)

It was a soft, sudden intake of breath, a noise of surprise. She waited motionless, hoping it had been a nightmare, and that the breathing would settle back into sleep. But her senses told her that someone was awake.

Finally she turned her head with excruciating slowness to look over her shoulder.

It was Zane.

His eyes were open, sleepy and squinting in the sunlight. He stared straight at her, dazed and half-asleep, unsure if she was real.

Tally stood absolutely still, but the sneak suit didn't have much to work with. It might show a blurry version of the water behind Tally, but in broad daylight Zane would still see a transparent humanoid figure, like a statue of solid glass standing half in the river. To make things worse, mud still clung to the suit, clods of brown hovering against the background.

He rubbed his eyes and looked around the empty riverbank, realizing that the hoverboards were missing. Then he looked up at her again, a puzzled expression still on his face.

Tally remained motionless, hoping that Zane would decide this was nothing but a strange dream.

"Hey," he said softly. His voice came out croaking, and he cleared his throat to speak louder.

Tally didn't let him. She took three swift steps through the mud, whisking off one glove, flicking out the stinger from her ring.

As the tiny needle plunged into his throat, Zane managed to let out a soft and startled cry, but then his eyes rolled back up into his head and he sank back to the ground, fast asleep again. He began to snore softly.

"Just a dream," Tally whispered into his ear. Then she lowered herself onto her belly and slithered back into the river.

Half an hour later, the warden's hovercar passed, moving from side to side like a lazy snake. It didn't spot the Crims, never pausing for a moment in the sky.

Tally stayed close to the camp, hidden in a tree about ten meters away from Zane, her sneak suit prickly with the texture of pine needles.

As the afternoon wore on, the Crims started to wake up. No one appeared to worry too much about the windblown hoverboards, just dragged them back out into the sunlight and went on with the process of breaking camp.

As she watched, the runaways wandered off into the woods to pee, cooked themselves meals, or took quick swims in the cold river, trying to clean off the mud and sweat of travel and the general greasiness of sleeping rough.

All except Zane. He stayed unconscious longer than the rest, the knockout drugs slowly working their way through his system. He didn't wake up until the sun was setting, when Peris finally leaned over him to give him a shake.

Zane sat up slowly, holding his head in his hands, the perfect picture of a pretty with a bad hangover. Tally wondered what he remembered. Peris and the others so far believed the wind had moved their hoverboards, but they might change their minds after hearing about Zane's little dream.

Peris and Zane huddled together for a while, and Tally slid slowly around her tree, gaining a vantage where she could almost read their lips. Peris seemed to be asking if Zane was all right. New pretties hardly ever got sick - the operation made them too healthy for trivial infections - but with his condition and all ...

Zane shook his head and gestured down at the riverbank, where the hoverboards were soaking up the last rays of sun. Peris pointed toward the spot where Tally had arranged them. The two walked over to it, coming alarmingly close to where Tally clung to her tree. The expression on Zane's face looked unconvinced. He knew that at least one part of his dream - the missing boards -  had been real.

After a few long, tense minutes, Peris returned to packing up camp. But Zane stayed, sweeping his gaze slowly around the horizon. Even invisible in her suit, Tally flinched as his eyes slid past her hiding place.

He wasn't certain of anything, but Zane suspected what he'd seen had been more than a dream.

Tally would have to be very careful from now on.


Over the next few days, Tally's pursuit of the Crims fell into a steady rhythm.

The runaways stayed up later each night, their random bodies slowly adjusting to traveling in darkness and sleeping during the day. Soon they managed to ride all night, making camp only when the first rays of dawn broke on the horizon.

Andrew's position-finder was leading them south. They followed the river to the ocean, then hopped onto the rusting rails of an old high-speed train line. Someone had made the coastal tracks safe for hoverboarding, Tally noticed, with no dangerous gaps in the magnetic field. Wherever the line was broken, buried metal cables kept the Crims from crashing. They never even had to hike.

She wondered how many other runaways had used this path, and from how many other cities David and his allies were recruiting.

The New Smoke was certainly farther away than she'd expected. David's parents were originally from Tally's city, and he had always hidden within a few days' travel of home. But Andrew's position-finder had led them halfway to the southern continent, the days visibly growing longer and the nights warmer as they headed south.

As the coast began to rise into high cliffs, the waves crashing far below faded to a dull roar, and tall grasses choked the ancient train tracks. In the distance huge fields of the white weed glimmered in the sun. The weed was a form of engineered orchid that some Rusty scientist had let loose upon the world. It grew everywhere, leeching the ground of nutrients and choking whole forests in its path. But something about the ocean, perhaps the salt air, kept it away from the coast.

The Crims seemed to grow used to the routine of travel. Their hoverboarding skills improved, though following them was never a challenge. The steady practice didn't hurt Zane's coordination, but compared to the others he was still unsteady on his board.

Shay had to be getting farther ahead every hour. Tally wondered if the rest of the Cutters had joined her. Or was she being cautious and traveling alone, waiting until she'd found the New Smoke before calling in reinforcements?

Every day that the Crims didn't reach their goal, it became more likely that Special Circumstances was already there, and that their entire journey was a cruel joke, just like Shay had said.

Traveling alone gave Tally a lot of time to think, and she spent most of it wondering if she really was the self-centered monster Shay had described. It didn't seem fair. When had she even had a chance to be selfish? Ever since Dr. Cable had recruited her, other people had made most of Tally's choices for her. Someone was always forcing her to join their side in the conflict between the Smokies and the city.

Her only real decisions so far had been staying ugly in the Old Smoke (which hadn't worked out at all), escaping from New Pretty Town with Zane (ditto), and splitting up with Shay to protect Zane (not great so far). Everything else had happened because of threats, accidents, lesions in her brain, and surgery changing her mind for her. Not exactly her fault.

And yet she and Shay always seemed to wind up on opposite sides. Was that a coincidence? Or was there something about the two of them that always turned them from friends into enemies? Maybe they were like two different species - hawks and rabbits, say - and could never be allies. So who was the hawk? Tally wondered. Out here alone, she felt herself changing again. Somehow the wild made her feel less special. She still saw the world's icy beauty, but something was missing: the sounds of the other Cutters around her, the intimacy of their breathing in the skintenna network. She began to realize that being a Special wasn't just about strength and speed; it was about being part of a group, a clique. Back at camp Tally had felt connected to the others - always reminded of the powers and privileges they shared, and of the sights and smells only their superhuman senses could detect.

Among the Cutters, Tally had always felt special. But now that she was alone in the wild, her perfect vision only made her feel minuscule. In all its glorious detail, the natural world seemed big enough to swallow her.

The distant group of runaways weren't impressed or terrorized by her wolflike face and razor fingernails. How could they be when they never even glimpsed her? She was invisible, an outcast fading away.

She was almost relieved when the Crims made their second mistake.

They'd stopped to make camp on one side of a tall rocky outcrop, protected from the wind coming off the ocean. The weeds were close here, glowing softly as the sun rose, turning the inland hills as white as sand dunes.

The Crims unfurled their boards and weighted them down, made a halfway competent fire and ate their meals. Tally watched them drop off to sleep with their usual speed, exhausted from a long day of travel.

This far from the city, she no longer had to worry about the boards being spotted. Her skintenna hadn't picked up traffic from the wardens for days. But as she settled in for a long day of watching, Tally noticed that one of the boards -  Zane's - had been left out in the ocean breeze whipping around the outcrop.

The board fluttered, and one of the stones weighting its corners rolled off.

Tally sighed - after a week on the trail, the runaways still hadn't learned to do this right - but inside she felt a ping of eagerness. Fixing this would give her something to do, at least, and maybe make her feel less insignificant. For those few moments she wouldn't be completely alone. She would hear the breathing of the sleeping Crims and take a closer look at Zane. Seeing him still and asleep, untroubled by his shaking, always reminded Tally of why she had made the choices she had.

She crawled toward the camp, her sneak suit turning the color of the dirt. The sun was rising behind her, but this would be much easier than the riverbank, where all eight boards had gone astray.

Zane's hoverboard was still fluttering, another corner having freed itself, but it hadn't leaped into the air just yet. Perhaps its magnetics had found purchase with some underground vein of iron, and were dutifully holding it down.

When Tally reached the board, it was flapping like a wounded bird, the breeze swirling around it smelling of seaweed and salt. Strangely, someone had left an old leather-bound book open next to the hoverboard. Its pages snapped noisily in the wind.

Tally squinted. It looked like the one that Zane had been reading, that first night she'd seen him back from the hospital.

Another corner of the board slipped free, and Tally raised a hand to snatch it before the wind pulled it away.

But the hoverboard didn't budge.

Something was wrong here...

Then Tally saw why it wasn't moving. The fourth corner was tied to a stake, secured against the wind, as if whoever had placed it out here in the breeze had known the stone weights would fail.

Then she heard something over the fluttering pages of the book - the stupid, noisy book that had obviously been left here to cover other sounds. One of the Crims was breathing less evenly than the others...someone was awake.

She turned and saw Zane watching her.

Tally jumped to her feet, whipping off her glove and flicking out her stinger in one motion. But Zane raised one hand: It held a collection of metal stakes and firestarters. Even if Tally somehow made it those five meters and stung him, all that metal would fall clattering to the ground, waking the rest of them.

But why hadn't he just cried out? She tensed, waiting for him to raise an alarm, but instead he lifted a finger slowly to his lips.

His sly expression said, I won't tell if you don't.

Tally swallowed, scanning the other Crims in the darkness. None of them watched through slitted eyes; they were all fast asleep. He wanted to talk to her alone. She nodded, her heart beating fast.

The two crept out of the camp and around the outcrop, to where the breeze and crash of waves would cloak their words in a steady roar. Now that Zane was moving, his trembling had started again. As he settled himself next to her in the scrubby grass, Tally didn't look at his face. She already felt revulsion threatening to rise up inside her.

"Do the others know about me?" she asked.

"No. I wasn't sure myself. Thought I was imagining things." He touched her shoulder. "I'm glad I wasn't."

"Can't believe I fell for that stupid trick."