Page 21 of Specials (Uglies 3)

Tally wondered if he'd told the other Crims about her. Were they already planning something - a way to ambush Tally and turn her over to the Smokies? Or would they try to escape, leaving her behind, alone in the wild forever?

She imagined sneaking into camp again while the others were sleeping, and telling Zane how bad she felt. But she couldn't bear to face him. She might have gone too far this time, almost throwing up in his face, not to mention cutting up his hands.


Shay had already given up on her. What if Zane also decided he'd had enough of Tally Youngblood?

Toward the end of two weeks, the Crims came to a halt on a cliff that jutted out high above the sea.

Tally glanced up at the stars. It was well before dawn, and the rail line stretched before them unbroken. But the runaways all jumped from their boards and gathered around Zane, looking down at something in his hand.

The position-finder.

Tally watched and waited, hovering just below the edge of the sea cliff, lifting fans keeping her aloft above the crashing waves. After a few long minutes, she saw camp fire smoke; it was clear the Crims weren't going any farther tonight. She drifted closer and pulled herself onto the cliff.

Circling around in the high grass, she made her way closer to the encampment. Flares of infrared erupted as the Crims heated their meals.

Finally, Tally reached a spot where the wind carried sounds and the smell of city food to her.

"What do we do if no one comes?" one of the girls was saying.

Zane's voice answered. "They'll come."

"How long?"

"I don't know. But there's nothing else we can do."

The girl started talking about their water supply, and the fact that they hadn't seen a river for the last two nights.

Tally sank back into the grass, relieved - the position-finder had told them to stop here. This wasn't the New Smoke, obviously, but perhaps this awful journey was coming to an end soon.

She looked around, sniffing the air, wondering what was special about this place. Among the scents of self-heating meals, Tally smelled something that made her skin crawl...something rotten.

She crawled toward the scent through the high grass, eyes sweeping the ground. The stench grew and grew, finally so strong it almost made her gag. A hundred meters from the camp she found the source: a pile of dead fish, heads and tails and picked-clean spines with flies and maggots crawling all over them.

Tally swallowed, telling herself to stay icy as she searched the area around the pile. In a small clearing, she discovered the remains of an old campfire. The charred wood was cold, the ash all blown away, but someone had camped here. Many people, in fact.

The lifeless fire was in a deep pit, banked against the sea breeze, and built to give off heat efficiently Like all city pretties, the Crims always optimized their fires for light instead of heat, burning through wood carelessly. But this fire had been made by practiced hands.

Tally glimpsed something white among the ashes, and reached in to gently draw it out...

It was a bone, about as long as her hand. She couldn't tell what species it belonged to, but it was marked with small depressions where human teeth had gnawed into the marrow.

Tally couldn't imagine city kids eating meat after only a couple of weeks in the wild. Even the Smokies rarely hunted for food - they raised rabbits and chickens, nothing as big as whatever this bone had come from. And the teeth had left uneven marks; whoever they were, they didn't know a lot about dentistry. One of Andrew's people had probably built this fire.

A shiver went through her. The villagers she'd met thought of outsiders as enemies, like animals to be hunted and killed. And pretties weren't "gods" to them anymore. Tally wondered how the villagers felt about discovering that they'd lived inside an experiment all their lives, and that their beautiful gods were nothing but human beings.

She wondered if any of the Smokies' recruits ever thought about getting revenge on the city pretties.

Tally shook her head. The Smokies had trusted Andrew enough to put him in charge of guiding the runaways here. Surely the others they had recruited weren't homicidal maniacs.

But what if other villagers had learned to escape from their "little men"?

As dawn approached, Tally stayed awake, not bothering with her usual catnaps. She watched the sky for signs of hovercars as always, but she also kept an eye on the inland approach to the cliffs, infrared at full power. The unpleasant rumble in her stomach from seeing the pile of rotten fish never completely went away.

They came three hours after sunrise.

NEW ARRIVALS

Fourteen figures showed in infrared, slowly climbing the lazy inland hills, all but hidden by the long grass.

Tally booted her sneak suit, and felt its scales ripple up to mimic the grass, like the hackles of a nervous cat. The only figure she could see clearly was the woman at the front of the group. She was definitely a villager - clad in skins and carrying a spear.

Tally sank lower into the grass, remembering the first time she'd met the villagers - they'd jumped her in the middle of the night, ready to kill for the crime of being an outsider. The Crims would be fast asleep by now.

If there was any violence, it would happen suddenly, leaving little time for Tally to save anyone.

Maybe she should wake up Zane now and tell him what was approaching...

But the thought of how he might look at her, her own disgust mirrored in his eyes, sent her head spinning.

Tally took a deep breath, ordering herself to stay icy. The long nights of traveling - invisible and alone, trying to protect someone who probably didn't even want her around -  had started to make her paranoid. Without a better look, she couldn't assume that the approaching group posed a threat.

She crawled on hands and knees, moving swiftly in the tall grass, giving the pile of rotten fish a wide berth. A little closer, Tally heard a clear voice ring out across the fields, carrying an unfamiliar tune in the random-sounding syllables of the villagers' language. The song didn't sound particularly warlike - more happy, like something you'd sing when your team was winning a soccer game.

To these people, of course, random violence pretty much was a soccer game.

As they grew closer, Tally raised her head...

And breathed a sigh of relief. Only two of the approaching group wore skins. The rest were city pretties - bedraggled and tired-looking, but definitely not savages. The whole group balanced water packs on their shoulders, the bubbleheads hunched under the weight, the villagers carrying it effortlessly Tally looked into the distance the way they'd come, and saw the glimmer of water from an ocean inlet.

They'd only been away on a provisions run.

Remembering how Andrew had detected her, Tally stayed well clear of the group. But she was close enough to make out their clothes. The city pretties' seemed all wrong, totally fashion-missing, or maybe a few years out of style. But these kids hadn't been out here that long.

Then Tally heard one boy asking how far it was back to camp, and the strangeness of his accent sent a shiver through her. They were from another city, somewhere far enough away that they talked differently. Of course, she was halfway to the equator. The Smokies had been spreading their little rebellion far and wide.

But what were they doing here? she wondered. Surely this little patch of cliff wasn't the New Smoke. Tally crawled along behind the group, still watching them warily as they approached the sleeping Crims.

Suddenly, she came to a halt, feeling something in her bones - something all around, as if the earth were rumbling under her.

A strange noise came from the distance, low and rhythmic, like huge fingers drumming on a table.

It faded in and out for a few moments before steadying.

The others could hear it now. The villager heading up the little party let out a cry, pointing toward the south, and the city pretties all looked up expectantly. Tally could already see it, thundering across the hills toward them, its engines glowing hot in infrared.

She raised herself into a half crouch and started running for her board, the thrumming sound building around her. Tally remembered her first trip into the wild, when she'd gotten a lift to the Smoke in a strange Rusty flying vehicle. The rangers, naturalists from another city, had used old contraptions like this one to fight the white weed.

What were they called again?

It wasn't until she had made it back to her hoverboard that Tally remembered the name.

The "helicopter" landed not far from the cliff's edge.

Twice the size of the one Tally had ridden to the Smoke, it descended with an awesome fury, the whirlwind battering down the grass in a wide circle. The helicopter kept itself aloft with two huge spinning blades that mercilessly beat the air, like huge lifting fans. Even in her hiding place, their sound rattled Tally down to her ceramic bones, her hoverboard bucking beneath her like a nervous horse in the windstorm.

The Crims were awake by now, of course, shaken to consciousness by the thundering beat.

Whoever was flying the helicopter had spotted them from up high, and had waited for them to furl their boards before landing. By the time the machine came down, the other group had made its way back to the cliffs. The two sets of runaways were eyeing each other warily as the helicopter's crew jumped out onto the beaten grass.

The rangers, Tally remembered, came from a city with different attitudes from her own, one that didn't particularly care whether the Smoke existed or not. Their main concern was preserving nature from the engineered plagues that the Rusties had left behind, especially the white weed. The rangers had traded favors with the Old Smoke sometimes, giving runaways lifts in their flying machines.

Tally had liked the rangers she'd met. They were pretties but, like firefighters or Specials, they didn't have the bubblehead lesions. Thinking for themselves was a part of their job description, and they possessed the calm competence of the Smokies - without the ugly faces.

The helicopter's blades kept spinning as it sat on the ground, stirring the air beneath her board and making it impossible to hear a thing. But from her vantage hovering just below the edge of the sea cliff, it was obvious that Zane was introducing himself and the other Crims. The rangers didn't seem to care, one listening as the others checked over their ancient, cantankerous machine. The two villagers regarded the newcomers suspiciously, though, until Zane produced the position-finder.

At the sight of it, one of them pulled out a scanning wand and began to wave it around Zane's body. She took special care to check his teeth, Tally noticed. The other villager was busy scanning another Crim, the two of them checking all eight of the new arrivals thoroughly.

Then they began to herd the runaways, all twenty of them, onto the helicopter. The thing was much bigger than a warden's hovercar, but it was so crude and loud and ancient-looking...Tally wondered how it could carry them all.

The rangers didn't seem worried. They were busy sticking the city kids' hoverboards onto the machine's undercarriage, sandwiching them together magnetically.

As crowded as the runaways would be inside, it had to be a short trip...

The problem was, Tally wasn't sure how she could tag along. The helicopter she'd ridden in was faster and could go much higher than any hoverboard. And if she lost sight of them, there would be no way to follow the Crims the rest of the way to the New Smoke.

Tracking the old-fashioned way had its disadvantages.

She wondered what Shay had done when she'd reached this point. Tally boosted her skintenna, but found no trace of another Special nearby; no waiting beacons pulsed a message for her.

But Andrew's position-finder must have led Shay here as well. Had she disguised herself as an ugly and tried to fool the villagers? Or had she managed to follow the helicopter somehow?

Tally peered at the undercarriage again. Among the twenty sandwiched hoverboards was just enough space for a human being.

Maybe Shay had snuck a ride...

Tally pulled on her grippy gloves, readying herself. She could wait until the helicopter took off, then pursue it in a short chase across the hills, followed by a quick climb up through the windstorm of its spinning blades.

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