She felt a smile spreading across her face. After two weeks of skulking after the Crims, it would be a relief to face a real challenge, one that would make her feel like a Special again.
And even better, the New Smoke had to be close. She had almost reached the end of the line.
Soon the pretties were all loaded into the helicopter, and the two villagers stepped back, waving and smiling.
Tally didn't wait for it to take off. She headed southward down the coast, back in the direction it had come from, staying below the cliffs to keep out of sight. The trick would be waiting until the machine was far enough from the villagers before climbing into the open sky. After weeks of hiding, she didn't want to be spotted this close to her goal.
The helicopter's spinning blades changed pitch, the whine building slowly to a thunderous beating in the air. She resisted the urge to look back, keeping her eyes on the winding and rugged cliff wall. She snaked along it, only an arm's length away, staying low and out of sight.
Tally's ears told her when the helicopter lifted into the air behind her. She urged her hoverboard faster, wondering what the Rusty contraption's top speed was.
Tally had never pushed a Special Circumstances board as fast as it could go. Unlike hoverboards designed for randoms, the Cutters' didn't have safety features to keep you from doing anything stupid. If you let them, the lifting fans would spin until they overheated, or worse. She knew from Cutter training that fans didn't always fail gracefully - you could push them until they tore themselves apart in a shower of white-hot metal...
Tally flicked on her infrared vision and glanced down at the fan in front of her left foot; it already had the red-hot glow of campfire embers.
The helicopter was catching up, its thunder closing in behind and above her, battering the air. She dropped farther below the cliff level, the crashing waves passing beneath her in a wild blur, every outcrop of rocks threatening to take off her head.
By the time the helicopter drew even overhead, it was a hundred meters off the ground and still climbing. She had to make her move now.
Tally angled back and shot up over the cliff's edge, skimming the earth to a spot directly below the helicopter, out of view of its bulbous windows. Behind her the two villagers had shrunk to mere dots.
Her sneak suit was tuned sky blue, so even if they were still watching, they would only see the sliver of her hoverboard.
As Tally climbed toward the thundering machine, her board began to shiver, the vortex beneath the helicopter flailing at her with invisible fists. The air pulsed around her, like a sound system with the bass turned way too high.
Suddenly, her board dropped out from under her, and Tally found herself falling for a moment.
Then its grippy surface bucked up under her feet again. She glanced down to check if one of her fans had failed, but they were both still spinning. Then the board dropped again, and Tally realized that she was hitting random pockets of low pressure in the maelstrom, the board abruptly finding itself without enough air to push against.
Tally bent her knees and climbed faster, ignoring the white-hot glow of her lifting fans and the buffeting blows of the tempest around her. She didn't have time for caution - the helicopter was still climbing, still gaining speed, and would soon be out of reach.
Suddenly, the wind and noise quieted - she had reached a zone of calm, like the eye of a hurricane. Tally glanced up. She was directly underneath the machine's belly, sheltered from the turbulence created by the spinning blades. This was her chance to climb aboard.
She climbed higher, reaching out with grippy-gloved hands. Her crash bracelets tugged upward, connecting with the metal in the craft. Another meter higher and she would be there...
Out of the blue, the world seemed to tilt around Tally. The helicopter's belly dipped to one side, then pulled away. The machine was banking hard, making a sudden turn inland, stripping her of the protection of its massive body, like coming around a corner into the path of a storm.
The wind hit Tally in a roiling wave, whipping her legs out from under her and sending the hoverboard fluttering away. Her ears popped in the eddies and currents of the helicopter's vortex, and for a terrifying second she saw the giant blades loom close to her in a great blurred wall of force, their ear-shattering beat pounding through her body.
But instead of cutting her to ribbons, the blades' fury flung her away; she spun in midair, the horizon wheeling around her. For a moment, even her special sense of balance failed, as if the world was whirling into chaos.
After a few seconds of freefall, Tally felt a tug on her wrists, and made the gesture to recall her hoverboard. It had leveled itself off and was shooting toward her at top speed, its lifting fans so hot they had turned whiter than the sun.
She made a grab for the board, and the superheated riding surface burned her hands even through gloves, the scent of grippy plastics at their melting point assaulting her nostrils. The heat was so intense that her sneak suit switched itself to armored mode, trying to offer some protection.
Still spinning, Tally hung from the board for a moment, until its winglike shape stabilized her. Then she rolled herself up onto it and rose to a riding stance.
She switched the sneak suit back to sky blue and looked ahead - the helicopter was receding into the distance.
Tally hesitated, realizing that she should give up now, return to the pickup point, and wait for the next group of runaways. Surely helicopters made this trip regularly.
But Zane was in there, and she couldn't abandon him now. Shay and the rest of Special Circumstances might already be on their way.
Tally urged her overheating board faster. The helicopter had lost altitude and speed during its turn, and soon she was catching up.
The heat of her hoverboard's surface began to burn the soles of her feet, and Tally felt its vibration shifting beneath her. The metal fans were expanding in the white heat, changing the board's sound and feel. She pushed it forward, until the tempest swirling around the helicopter began to batter her again, the air rumbling as she made another approach.
But this time Tally knew what to expect; she had learned the shape of the invisible vortex in her first trip through. Instinct guided her through its whorls and eddies and into the small bubble of protection underneath the machine.
Her hoverboard was whining furiously now, but she urged it upward toward the undercarriage, arms outstretched...
Closer and closer.
Tally felt the moment of breakdown through the soles of her feet, the board's unsteady vibration changing all at once into a wild shudder. A metal scream reached her ears as the lifting fans disintegrated, and she realized it was too late to go any direction but up. She bent her knees and leaped...
At the peak of her jump, Tally scrambled for something to grab on to, her fingers brushing against the stored hoverboards. But they were packed into thick sandwiches without any handholds, and the helicopter's landing struts were out of reach on either side.
Tally began to fall...
She stabbed at her crash bracelets' controls, setting them to exhaust their batteries, to pull her toward the tons of metal above as hard as they could. A sudden, crushing force seized her wrists - the combined magnetics of twenty boards booting up and taking hold. The bracelets dragged her upward, pinning Tally against the nearest riding surface, her arms almost ripped from their sockets by the sudden jerk.
Below, the screech of her hoverboard turned into a wracking cough, then it dropped away.
Tally's ears caught the metal squeal of the board, tearing itself to pieces as it fell, until the helicopter's portable maelstrom whisked the noise away.
Tally found herself stuck to the underside of the helicopter, its vibration rumbling through her like crashing waves.
For a moment, she wondered if the pilots and passengers had heard her board disintegrate, but then Tally remembered her own helicopter flight the year before. To make themselves heard, she and the rangers had been forced to shout over the roar of the blades.
After a few minutes of hanging from her wrists, Tally turned off the magnetics in one of her bracelets and swung out both feet, wrapping them around a landing strut. She switched off the other, then dangled head-down from the strut for a nervous-making moment in the furious wind before pulling herself up into a small gap between the runaways' boards. From there, she watched as the trip unfolded.
The helicopter proceeded on its inland course, the world growing more lush and forested as the sea slipped away behind. It climbed still higher, moving faster until the trees were nothing but a green blur below. Only a few spots had been touched by the white weed here.
Keeping a careful grip, Tally pulled off her gloves and checked her hands. The palms were burned, with a few pieces of melted plastic stuck to them, but the flash tattoos still pulsed, even those already broken by her cutting scar. Her medspray had gone down with the hoverboard, along with everything else. Only her crash bracelets, ceremonial knife, and sneak suit had survived.
But she'd made it. Tally finally allowed herself a slow breath of relief. Watching the scenery pass below, the pleasure of accomplishing a really icy trick washed through her.
Tally's fingers brushed the old metal belly of the helicopter - Zane was only a few meters from her. He had accomplished quite a trick as well. Despite his lesions and his brain damage, he had almost made it to the New Smoke. Whatever Shay thought of Tally now, she couldn't deny that Zane had earned the right to join Special Circumstances. After all this, Tally wouldn't take no for an answer.
By Tally's internal software, it was an hour later that the first signs of their destination began to appear below.
Although the forest was still dense, a few rectangular fields came into view, the trees chopped down and stacked to make way for some sort of building project. Then more marks of new construction: huge diggers tearing at the earth and magnetic lifters moving hoverstruts into place. Tally frowned. The New Smoke was crazy if they thought they could get away with clear-cutting.
But then more familiar sights began to pass below. The low buildings of a factory belt, then the dense row houses of suburbia. Then a cluster of taller buildings rose up on the horizon, and the air began to fill with hovercars. A ring of soccer fields and dormitories passed below, exactly like Uglyville back in her own city.
Tally shook her head. All this couldn't have been built by Smokies...
Then she remembered Shay's words the night they'd snuck into New Pretty Town to see Zane, about how David and his pals had acquired sneak suits from mysterious allies, and she realized the truth.
The New Smoke wasn't some hidden encampment in the wild, where people crapped into holes and ate dead rabbits, burning trees for fuel. The New Smoke was right here, spread out below her.
An entire city had joined the rebellion.
Tally had to get off before the helicopter landed.
She didn't want to be found clinging to the underside when they touched down. Zane would see her, and the rangers would probably know that her cruel beauty marked her as an agent of another city.
But as the helicopter settled into a circling approach, headed toward a landing pad, Tally could see nowhere safe to drop.
In her own city, a river wrapped around the island of New Pretty Town. But she saw no convenient bodies of water to jump into, and she was too high to use crash bracelets safely. The sneak suit's armor might protect Tally, but the landing pad was nestled between two large buildings, surrounded by crowded slidewalks full of fragile pedestrians.
As the helicopter made its final approach, she spotted the tall hedges surrounded the landing pad - sturdy enough to dampen the wind from the helicopter's blades. They looked prickly, but a few thorns were nothing the sneak suit's armor couldn't handle.
The helicopter slowed as the pad loomed below, and Tally pulled her hood down to protect her face. As the helicopter banked to bring itself to a halt, she let herself drop, rolling into a ball as she fell, like a littlie jumping into a swimming pool.
Her left shoulder hit the hedge with a sudden crunch, branches snapping off against the suit's armor, and she bounced away from the barrier in an explosion of leaves, spinning through the air. She managed to land on her feet, but found herself stumbling across an unsteady surface...the quick-moving slidewalk she'd seen on the way down.