Tally waved her arms, almost regaining her balance, but one last step took her onto another slidewalk going the opposite way, which spun her around and dumped her on her back, spread-eagled and staring dumbfoundedly up at the sky
"Ouch," she murmured. Specials might have unbreakable ceramic bones, but there was still plenty of flesh to be bruised and nerve endings to complain.
Two tall buildings crowded the sky above her. They seemed to be moving gracefully past...She was still being carried along by the slidewalk.
A middle-pretty face came into view, looking down at her with a stern expression. "Young lady!
Are you all right?"
"Well, I am aware that standards of conduct have changed. But you could still be reported to the wardens for a stunt like that!"
"Oh, sorry," Tally said, rising painfully to her feet.
"I suppose that suit was meant to protect you?" the man continued sternly. "But did you ever stop to think of the rest of us!"
Tally rubbed her probably bruise-covered back with one hand, held up the other in defense. For a middle pretty, this guy wasn't very understanding. "I said I was sorry. I had to get off that helicopter."
The man snorted. "Well, if you can't wait to land, next time use a bungee jacket!"
A sudden wave of annoyance came over Tally. This average, aging middle pretty just wouldn't shut up. She decided she was bored with the conversation and pulled off the sneak suit's hood, baring her teeth. "Maybe next time, I'll aim for you!"
The man looked straight back into her black and wolfen eyes, her lacework tattoos and razor smile, and only snorted again. "Or maybe you'll break your pretty neck!"
He made a satisfied little noise and stepped onto the faster lane of the slidewalk, which whisked him away without another glance back at Tally.
She blinked. That hadn't been the reaction she'd been expecting. In the windows of the passing building, her warped reflection drifted by. She was still a Special, her face still marked with all the signs of cruel beauty, designed to call up all humanity's ancient fears. But the man had hardly noticed.
Tally shook her head. Maybe in this city Special Circumstances agents didn't keep themselves hidden, and he'd seen cruel pretties before. But what was the point of looking terrifying if everyone had a chance to get used to it?
She played the conversation back in her mind, realizing how close the man's accent was to how she remembered the rangers' - fast, clipped, and precise. This had to be their home city.
But if this whole city really was the New Smoke, where was Shay? Tally boosted her skintenna range, but got no answering ping. Of course, cities were big - she might simply be out of range. Or maybe she had switched off, still sulking over Tally's latest betrayal.
Tally glanced back toward the landing pad. The helicopter's engines were still idling. Perhaps this city wasn't the New Smoke, and was only a refueling stop. Stepping over onto the opposite slidewalk, Tally headed back toward the pad.
A couple of new pretties glided by, and Tally noticed that they were wearing costume surge. One had skin much paler than any Pretty Committee would ever allow, with red hair and a smattering of freckles across her face, like one of those littlies who always had to worry about sunburn. The other's skin was so dark it was almost black, and his muscles were way too obvious.
Maybe that explained the middle-pretty man's reaction, or lack of it. There had to be some sort of costume bash happening tonight, one that all the new pretties were surging up for. The costume surgery was more extreme than would ever be allowed back in Tally's city, but at least it meant she wouldn't stick out like a sore thumb while she tried to figure out what was going on.
Of course, the armored black of her sneak suit wasn't exactly fashionable. With a little fiddling, she tuned it to resemble the clothing the two new pretties had been wearing: striped patterns in bold colors, like you'd dress a littlie in back at home. The garish hues made her feel even more conspicuous, but when a few more young pretties glided past - with translucently pale faces, oversize noses, and wildly colored clothes - Tally almost felt as if she was starting to fit in.
The buildings here didn't look too different from those she'd grown up with. The two on either side of the landing pad looked like typical government monoliths. In fact, the closer of the two had stone letters cut into it spelling out town hall, and most of the slidewalk step-offs were labeled with the names of city agencies. Ahead of Tally were the hovering party towers and sprawling mansions of what had to be New Pretty Town, and she could see ugly-dorms and soccer fields in the distance.
It seemed strange, though, not having a river between New Pretty Town and Uglyville. It would be too easy to sneak across, hardly a challenge at all. How would you keep party-crashers out?
She hadn't seen any wardens so far. Would anyone here know what her cruel beauty meant?
A young pretty stepped onto the slidewalk beside her, and Tally decided to see if she could pass for a local.
"Where's the bash tonight?" she asked, trying to imitate the local accent and hoping she didn't sound too random for not knowing.
"The bash?. You mean a party?"
Tally shrugged. "Yeah, sure."
The young woman laughed. "Take your pick. There's mountains of them."
"Right, mountains. But which one's all the costume surge for?"
"Costume surge?" The woman looked at Tally like she'd said something totally random. "Did you just get off the chopper or something?"
Tally's eyebrows rose. "Um, the helicopter? Yeah, sort of."
"With a face like that?" The woman frowned. Her own skin was dark brown, her fingernails decorated with tiny video screens, each showing a different flickering image.
Tally could only shrug again.
"Oh, I see. Couldn't wait to look like one of us?" She laughed again. "Listen, kid, you should really be hanging out with the other newbies, at least until you know what's going on here." She squinted her eyes, her fingers making an interface gesture. "Diego says they're all up at the Overlook tonight."
"The city." She laughed again, her fingernails flashing in tandem with the sound. "Wow, kid, you really are just off the chopper."
"Yeah, I guess. Thanks," Tally said, suddenly feeling very average and helpless, not special at all.
Trying to navigate this new city her strength and speed meant nothing, and even her cruel beauty didn't seem to impress anyone. It was like being an ugly again, when things like knowing the best bashes and how to dress had been more important than being superhuman.
"Well, welcome to Diego," the young pretty called, and stepped into a high-speed lane, waving good-bye with the vague embarrassment of ditching a loser at a party.
As she approached the landing pad, Tally kept a wary eye out for the runaway Crims. She stepped off the slidewalk where the hedge showed damage from her collision, and peeked through one of the gaps she'd left behind.
The runaways had unloaded from the helicopter, but they were still getting themselves sorted.
Like typical bubbleheads, they were having trouble figuring out which hoverboard was whose. They clustered around the ranger who was trying to organize things, like littlies after ice cream.
Zane was waiting patiently, looking the happiest Tally had seen him since they'd escaped the city.
A few of the other Crims crowded around him, slapping him on the back and congratulating one another.
One of the Crims brought Zane his board, and all eight of them set off toward the huge building across from Town Hall.
Tally saw that it was a hospital. That made sense. Anyone from outside would be checked for diseases, and for injuries and food poisoning from the trip. And since this city really was the New Smoke, newcomers would have their bubblehead lesions taken away as well.
Of course, Tally thought. Maddy's pills didn't have to work perfectly anymore. The runaways would all wind up here, where a city hospital staffed with real doctors could take care of their lesions.
She took a step back, breathing out slowly, finally admitting it to herself: The New Smoke was a thousand times larger and more powerful than she and Shay had expected.
The authorities here were taking in other cities' runaways, curing them of bubbleheadness. Now that she thought about it, none of the people she'd met so far had the lesions. All of them had expressed their opinions openly, not like bubbleheads at all.
That would explain why this city - "Diego," the woman had called it - had thrown out the Pretty Committee's standards, letting everyone look the way they wanted. They'd even started to build new structures in the surrounding forests, expanding out into the wild.
If that was all true, it was no wonder that Shay was no longer here. She'd probably gone home to report all this to Dr. Cable and Special Circumstances.
But what could they do about it? Cities couldn't tell one another how to run their affairs, after all.
This New Smoke could last forever.
Tally spent the day walking around the city, marveling at how different it was from her own.
She saw new pretties and uglies hanging out together, friends that the operation hadn't separated.
And littlies clinging to their ugly older brothers and sisters instead of being stuck in Crumblyville with their parents. Those small changes were almost as surprising as the wild facial structures, skin textures, and body mods she encountered. Almost. It might take a while to get used to coats of downy feathers, pinkie fingers replaced with tiny snakes, skin every shade between deep black and alabaster, and hair that writhed like some sinuous creature under the sea.
Whole cliques wore the same skin color, or shared similar faces, like families used to before the operation. It reminded Tally uncomfortably of how people grouped themselves back in pre-Rusty days, into tribes and clans and so-called races who all looked more or less alike, and made a big point of hating anyone who didn't look like them. But everyone seemed to be getting along so far - for every clique of people who looked alike, there was another of wild variations.
Diego's middle pretties seemed less crazy about the whole surgery thing. Most of them looked more or less like Tally's parents, and she heard more than a little grumbling about "new standards," how current fads were an eyesore and a disgrace. But they did so in such a forthright way that Tally had no doubt their own lesions were gone.
Disconcertingly the crumblies seemed to be further into surgery than anyone else. A few wore the wise, calm, trustworthy faces that the Pretty Committee enforced at home, but others looked weirdly young. Half the time Tally wasn't exactly sure what age people were supposed to be, as if the city's surgeons had decided to let all the stages of life blur together.
She even heard a few people who, from the sound of their conversation, were still bubbleheads.
For some reason - whether it was a philosophical position or a fashion statement - they had elected to keep the lesions in their brains.
Apparently, you could do just about anything you wanted here. It was like she'd landed in Random Town. Everyone was so different that her own special face practically faded into...nothing.
How had this all happened?
It couldn't have been very long ago. The transformations seemed to be still rippling all around her, as if a stone had been hurled into a small pond.
Once she managed to tune her skintenna to the city newsfeeds, Tally found them full of arguments. There were discussions about the wisdom of taking in the runaways, about standards of beauty, and most of all about the new construction at the city's edge - and not everyone bothered with the pleasant, civil debating style of home. Tally had never heard squabbling among adults like this before, not even in private. It was as if a bunch of uglies had taken over the airwaves. Without the lesions making everyone agreeable, society was left roiling in a constant battle of words, images, and ideas.