That much was obvious: Shay's dance was spreading, sucking in the people around her. Until now, the party had been a nervous bubble hovering in the air, and she'd popped its surface tension, releasing something icy inside. The crowd started to pair off, arms wrapping around each other, moving faster. Whoever was crewing the music must have noticed - the volume went higher, the bass deeper, the hoverglobes overhead pulsing from blackness to blinding radiance. The crowd had started jumping up and down with the beat.
Tally felt her heart accelerate, amazed at how effortlessly Shay had brought them all along. The bash was changing, flipping inside out, and all because of Shay. This wasn't like their stupid tricks in ugly days - sneaking across the river or stealing bungee jackets - this was magic.
So what if she was wearing an ugly face? Like Shay always said in training, the bubbleheads had it all wrong: It didn't matter what you looked like. It was how you carried yourself, how you saw yourself. Strength and reflexes were only part of it - Shay simply knew that she was special, and so she was. Everyone else was just wallpaper, a blurred background of listless chatter, until Shay lit them up with her own private spotlight.
"Come on," Fausto whispered, pulling Tally away from the thickening crowd. They retreated toward the party's edge, sliding unseen past the eyes locked on Shay and her random boy. "You go that way. Stay sharp."
Tally nodded, hearing the other Cutters whisper as they spread out across the party. Suddenly, this all made sense...
The bash had been too dead, too flat to cover the Specials or their prey. But now the crowd's arms were up, waving back and forth with the beat. Plastic cups flew through the air, everything a storm of movement. If the Smokies were planning to crash the party, this moment was what they'd been waiting for.
Moving was tricky now. Tally made her way through a swarm of young girls - practically littlies - all dancing together with eyes closed. The glitter sprayed across their uneven skin flashed in the hoverglobes' pulsing light, and they didn't shiver as Tally pushed through them; her special aura had been drowned out by the party's new energy, by Shay's dance-magic.
The ugly little bodies bouncing against hers reminded Tally how much she had changed inside.
Her new bones were made from aircraft ceramics, light as bamboo and hard as diamonds. Her muscles were sheathed whips of self-repairing monofilament. The uglies felt soft and unsubstantial against her, like stuffed toys come to life, boisterous but unthreatening.
A ping sounded inside her head as Fausto boosted the skintenna network's range, and snatches of noise drifted through her ears: screams from a girl dancing next to Tachs, a rumbling beat from where Ho stood close to the speakers, and under it all the distracting things Shay was whispering in her random boy's ear. It was like being five people at once, as if Tally's consciousness were smeared across the party, sucking in its energy in a blend of noise and light.
She took a deep breath and headed toward the edge of the clearing, seeking the darkness outside the hoverglobes' light. She could watch better from out there, keep better hold of her clarity.
As she moved, Tally found it was easier to dance, going with the crowd's motion rather than forcing a path through it. She allowed herself to be pushed randomly through the throng, like when she let high wind currents guide her hoverboard, imagining herself a bird of prey.
Closing her eyes, Tally drank the bash in through her other senses. Maybe this was what being special was really all about: dancing along with the rest of them, while feeling like the only real person in the crowd...
Suddenly, hairs stiffened on the back of Tally's neck, her nostrils flaring. A scent, distinct from the human sweat and spilled beer, sent her mind reeling back to ugly days, to running away, to the first time she'd been alone out in the wild.
She smelled smoke - the clinging reek of a campfire.
Her eyes opened. City uglies didn't burn trees, or even torches; they weren't allowed to. The party's only light came from the strobing hoverglobes and the half-risen moon.
The scent must have come from somewhere Outside.
Tally moved in widening circles, casting her eyes over the crowd, trying to find the source of the smell.
No one stood out. Just a bunch of clueless uglies dancing their heads off, arms flailing, beer flying.
No one graceful or confident or strong...
Then Tally saw the girl.
She was slow-dancing with some boy, whispering in his ear intently. His fingers twitched nervously across her back, their movements unconnected to the music's beat - the two looked like littlies on an awkward playdate. The girl's jacket was tied around her waist, as if she didn't mind the cold. And along the inside of her arm lay a pattern of pale squares where sunblock patches had been stuck.
This girl spent a lot of time outside.
As Tally moved closer, she caught the scent of wood smoke again. Her new and perfect eyes saw the coarseness of the girl's shirt, woven from natural fibers, lined with stitched seams and giving off another strange smell...detergent. This garment wasn't designed to be worn and then tossed into a recycler; it had to be washed, lathered up with soap, and pounded against stones in a cold stream. Tally saw the imperfect shape of the girl's hair - cut by hand with metal scissors.
"Boss," she whispered.
Shay's voice came back sleepily. "So soon, Tally-wa? I'm having fun."
"I think I got a Smokey."
"Positive. She smells like laundry."
"I see her now," Fausto's voice cut through the music. "Brown shirt? Dancing with that guy?"
"Yeah. And she's tanned."
There was an annoyed, distracted sigh, a few mumbled apologies as Shay disentangled herself from her ugly boy. "Any more?"
Tally scanned the crowd again, making her way around the girl in a wide circle, trying to catch another whiff of smoke. "Not as far as I can tell."
"Nobody else looks funny to me." Fausto's head bobbed nearby, winding his own path toward the girl. From the other side of the bash, Tachs and Ho were closing in.
"What's she doing?" Shay asked.
"Dancing, and ..." Tally paused, her eyes catching the girl's hand slipping into the boy's pocket.
"She just gave him something."
Shay's breath cut off with a little hiss. Until a few weeks ago, Smokies had brought only propaganda into Uglyville, but now they were smuggling something far more deadly: pills loaded with nanos.
The nanos ate the lesions that kept pretties bubbleheaded, ramping up their violent emotions and raw appetites. And unlike some drug that would eventually wear off, the change was permanent. The nanos were hungry, microscopic machines that grew and reproduced, more of them every day If you were unlucky, they could wind up eating the rest of your brain. One pill was all it took to lose your mind.
Tally had seen it happen.
"Take her," Shay said.
Adrenaline flooded Tally's bloodstream, clarity blanking out the music and the motion of the crowd. She'd spotted the girl first, so it was her job, her privilege to make the grab.
She twisted the ring on her middle finger, felt its little stinger flicking out. One prick and the Smokey girl would be stumbling, passing out like she'd had too much to drink. She'd wake up in Special Circumstances headquarters, ready to go under the knife.
That thought made Tally's skin crawl - that the girl would soon be a bubblehead: pretty, beautiful, and happy. And monumentally clueless.
But at least she'd be better off than poor Zane.
Tally cupped her fingers around the needle, careful not to stab some random ugly in the crowd. A few steps closer, and she reached out with her other hand, pulling the boy away. "Can I cut in?" she asked.
His eyes widened, a grin breaking out on his face. "What? You two want to dance?"
"It's okay," the Smokey girl said. "Maybe she wants some too." She untied the jacket from around her waist, pulling it up over her shoulders. Her hands went through its sleeves and into the pockets, and Tally heard the rustle of a plastic bag.
"Knock yourself out," the boy said, and took a step back, leering at them. The expression brought another flash of heat into Tally's cheeks. The boy was smirking at her, amused, like Tally was average and anyone's to think about - like she wasn't special. The uglifying smart plastic on her face began to burn.
This stupid boy thought Tally was here for his entertainment. He needed to find out otherwise.
Tally decided on a new plan.
She stabbed a button on her crash bracelet. Its signal spread through the smart plastic on her face and hands at the speed of sound, the clever molecules unhooking from each other, her ugly mask exploding in a puff of dust to reveal the cruel beauty underneath. She blinked her eyes hard, popping out the contacts and exposing her wolfen, coal black irises to the winter cold. She felt her tooth-caps loosen, and spat them at the boy's feet, returning his smile with unveiled fangs.
The whole transformation had taken less than a second, barely time for his expression to crumble.
She smiled. "Buzz off, ugly. And you" - she turned to the Smokey - "take your hands out of your pockets."
The girl swallowed, spreading her arms out to either side.
Tally felt the sudden rush of eyes drawn to her cruel features, sensed the crowd's dazzlement at the pulsing tattoos that webbed her flesh in scintillating black lace. She finished the arrest script: "I don't want to hurt you, but I will if I have to."
"You won't have to," the girl said calmly, then she did something with her hands, both thumbs turning upward.
"Don't even think...," Tally started, then she saw too late the bulges sewn into the girl's clothes - straps like a bungee jacket's, now moving of their own accord, cinching themselves around her shoulders and thighs.
"The Smoke lives," the girl hissed.
Tally reached out ...
...just as the girl shot into the air like a stretched-taut rubber band let go from the bottom. Tally's hand passed through empty space. She stared upward, open-mouthed. The girl was still climbing.
Somehow, the bungee jacket's battery had been rigged to throw her into the air from a standstill.
But wouldn't she just fall straight back down?
Tally spotted movement in the dark sky. From the edge of the forest, two hoverboards zoomed over the bash, one ridden by a Smokey dressed in crude skins, the other empty. At the top of the girl's arc, he reached out, hardly slowing as he pulled her from midair onto the riderless board.
A shudder went through Tally as she recognized the Smokey boy's jacket, leather and handmade. In a searing flash from a hoverglobe, her special vision caught the line of a scar running through one of his eyebrows.
David, she thought.
"Tally! Heads up!"
Shay's command pulled Tally from her daze, drew her eyes to more hoverboards shooting over the crowd at just above head level. She felt her crash bracelet register a tug from her own board, and bent her knees, timing the jump for its arrival.
The crowd was pulling away from her, shocked by her cruel-pretty face and the girl's sudden ascent - but the boy who'd been dancing with the Smokey grabbed for her. "She's a Special! Help them get away!"
His try for her arm was slow and clumsy, and Tally flicked out her unspent stinger to stab his palm. The boy pulled his hand back, stared at it with a stupid expression for a moment, then crumpled.
By the time he hit the ground, Tally was in the air. With two hands on the grippy edge of her hoverboard, she kicked her feet up onto its riding surface, her weight shifting to bring it around.
Shay was already on board. "Take him, Ho!" she ordered, pointing down at the unconscious ugly boy, her own mask disappearing in a puff of dust. "The rest of you, with me!"
Tally was already zooming ahead, the chill wind sharp against her bare face, an icy battle cry building in her throat, hundreds of faces looking up at her from the beer-soaked ground, astonished.