It was overwhelming, almost like the way the Rusties had lived, debating every issue in public instead of letting the government do its job.
And the changes already in place here in Diego were just a beginning, Tally realized. All around her she felt the city seething, all those unfettered minds bouncing their opinions off each other, like something ready to explode.
That night, she went to the Overlook.
The city interface guided her to the highest point in town, a stretch of parkland atop a chalk-faced cliff that overlooked the city center. The first young pretty she'd met had been right: The park was crowded with runaways, about half uglies and half new pretties. Most wore the faces they'd brought with them, not yet ready to plunge into extremes of cosmetic fashion. Tally could understand why the newbies were hanging out together; after a day on the streets of Diego, the sight of old-fashioned, Pretty Committee-designed faces was a relief.
Tally hoped that Zane would be here. Today had been the longest he'd spent out of her sight since his escape, and she wondered exactly what they'd done to him at the city hospital. Would removing Zane's lesions make him any less shaky? How would he decide to remake himself, here where anyone could look like anything, where the very possibility of being average had disappeared?
Maybe they would be able to fix him better than her own city's hospital. With all their practice in crazy surgery, Diego's surgeons might be almost as good as Dr. Cable.
Maybe the next time they kissed, things would be different.
And even if Zane was exactly the same, at least Tally could show him how much she had changed. Her journey through the wild and what she'd seen in Diego had already made a difference.
Maybe this time she could show him what was really inside her, deeper than any operation could reach.
Tally stalked the darkness outside the hoverglobes' reach, listening to the newcomers. The music wasn't loud - the bash was more about getting to know each other than drinking and dancing - and she heard all kinds of accents, even other languages from the deep south. All the runaways were telling the stories of how they'd gotten here - comic, arduous, or terrifying voyages through the wild to reach pickup spots all over the continent. Some had come by hoverboard, some had walked, and a few even claimed they'd stolen warden hovercars with lifting fans, flying in comfort across the wild.
The party grew as she watched, like Diego itself, more runaways arriving all the time. Soon Tally spotted Peris and a few of the other Crims near the cliff edge. Zane wasn't with them.
She retreated farther into the shadows, eyes searching the crowd, wondering where he was.
Maybe she should have stayed close; this city was so strange. Of course, he probably thought she'd lost the helicopter and was still behind in the wild. Was probably relieved to be rid of her...
"Hey, I'm John," came a voice from behind.
Tally spun around, finding herself face-to-face with a standard new pretty. His eyebrows rose at the sight of her cruel beauty and tattoos, but the reaction was slight. He had already gotten used to seeing crazy surge here in Diego.
"Tally," she said.
"That's a funny name."
Tally frowned. She'd thought "John" sounded pretty random, herself, though his accent wasn't too unfamiliar.
"You're a runaway, right?" he asked. "I mean, that's new surge you're trying on?"
"This?" Her fingers brushed her face. Since she'd woken up at Special Circumstances headquarters, the cruel beauty had felt like something that defined her, made her what she was, and this average boy was asking if she was trying it on, like some new hairstyle?
But there was no point in giving herself away. "Yeah, I guess. Like it?"
He shrugged. "My friends say it's better to wait until you know the fashions. Don't want to look like a mountainous dork."
Tally let out a slow breath, trying to remain calm. "You think I look like a dork?"
"What do I know? I just got here." He laughed. "I'm not sure what look I'll go for. But probably something less, I don't know, scary."
Scary? Tally thought, her anger building. She could show this arrogant little pretty what scary was.
"I wouldn't keep those scars, if I were you," he added. "Kind of grim."
Tally's hands lashed out to grab the boy by his new and brightly colored jacket. Her fingernails ripped into its fabric as she lifted him from the ground, her razor smile as fierce as she could make it.
"Listen, you bubblehead-until-five-minutes-ago, this is not a f ashion statement Those scars are something you'll never even - "
A soft ping sounded in her head.
"Tally-wa," a familiar voice came. "Put that kid down."
She blinked, lowering the pretty to the ground.
Her skintenna had picked up another Cutter.
The boy was giggling. "Hey, neat trick! Didn't see the teeth before."
"Quiet!" Tally loosened her grip from the ruins of his jacket, spinning around to scan the crowd.
"Are you in a clique?" the pretty babbled on. "That guy over there looks just like you!"
She followed his gesture and saw the familiar face coming toward her through the crowd, tattoos spinning with pleasure.
It was Fausto, smiling and special.
"Fausto!" she cried, then realized she didn't have to shout. Their skintennas had already connected, creating a network of two.
"So you still remember me?" he joked, his voice whisper-close in her ears.
The intimacy she'd missed for the last weeks - the feeling of being a Cutter, of belonging to something - sent a shiver through her, and Tally ran toward Fausto, forgetting about the pretty who'd insulted her.
She gathered him into a hug. "You're okay!"
"I'm better than okay," he said.
Tally pulled away. She was so overwhelmed, her brain exhausted by everything it had absorbed that day - and now here was Fausto right in front of her, safe and sound.
"What happened to you? How did you escape?"
"That's a long story."
She nodded, then shook her head and said, "I'm so confused, Fausto. This place is all so random. What's going on?"
"Here in Diego?"
"Yeah. It doesn't seem real."
"But how did this all happen? Who let it happen?"
He looked out toward the cliff, gazing thoughtfully at the city lights. "As far as I can tell, it's been happening for a long time. This city was never like ours. They didn't have the same barriers between pretties and uglies."
She nodded. "No river."
He laughed. "Maybe that had something to do with it. But they've always had fewer bubbleheads than us."
"Like the rangers I met last year. They didn't have the lesions."
"Even the teachers didn't, Tally. Everyone here grew up being taught by non-bubbleheads."
Tally blinked. No wonder the Diego government had been sympathetic to the Smoke. A little colony of freethinkers wouldn't seem threatening to them at all.
Fausto leaned closer. "And you know what the weird thing is, Tally? They don't have any kind of Special Circumstances here. So when the pills started coming in, Diego didn't have a way stop them.
They couldn't keep control."
"You mean the Smokies took over?"
"They didn't exactly take over." Fausto laughed again. "The authorities are still in charge. But the change came a lot faster here than it will at home. It only took a month or so after the first pills came in before most people were waking up, the whole system falling apart. It's still falling apart, I guess."
Tally nodded, remembering all the things she'd seen in the last twelve hours. "You got that right.
This whole place has gone crazy."
"You'll get used to it." The smile grew on his face.
Tally narrowed her eyes. "And none of this bothers you? Didn't you notice that they're clear-cutting out on the edge of the city?"
"Of course, Tally-wa. They have to expand. The population's going up fast."
The words hit her like a punch in the stomach. "Fausto...populations don't go up. They can't do that."
"It's not like they're breeding, Tally. It's just runaways." He shrugged, like it was no big deal, and Tally felt something start to spin inside her. His cruel beauty, the intimacy of his voice in her ears, even his flash tattoos and razor teeth didn't excuse what Fausto was saying. This was the wild he was talking about, being chewed up and spat out to make way for a bunch of greedy pretties.
"What did the Smokies do to you?" she said, her voice suddenly dry.
"Nothing I didn't ask for."
She shook her head furiously, not wanting to believe.
Fausto sighed. "Come with me. I don't want any city kids to hear us - there are some weird rules here about being special." He placed a hand on Tally's shoulder, guiding her toward the far end of the party. "Remember our big escape last year?"
"Of course I remember. Do I look like a bubblehead?"
"Hardly." He smiled. "Well, something happened after that tracker in Zane's tooth went off, and you insisted on staying behind with him. While we were all running away, us Crims came to an agreement with the Smokies." He paused as they passed a clique of young pretties all comparing their new surge - skin that flashed from paper white to pitch black, following the music's beat.
Letting their skintennas carry the words, Tally hissed, "What do you mean, an agreement?"
"The Smokies knew that Special Circumstances had been recruiting. There were more Specials every day, most of them the same uglies who'd run away to the Old Smoke."
Tally nodded. "You know the rules. Only the tricky ones become special."
"Sure. But the Smokies were just starting to figure that out." They had almost reached the shadows at the other edge of the party, where a stand of trees cast deep shadows. "And Maddy still had Dr. Cable's data, so she thought she could make a cure for being special."
Tally froze in her tracks. "A what?"
"A cure, Tally. But they needed someone to test it on. Someone who could give them informed consent. Like you gave consent to be cured, before you let yourself be turned pretty."
She looked into his eyes, trying to peer into their black depths. Something was different in them...they were flatter, like champagne with no bubbles.
Just like Zane, Fausto had lost something.
"Fausto," she said softly. "You're not special anymore."
"I gave my consent as we were running away," he said. "We all agreed. If we got caught and turned into Specials, Maddy could try to cure us."
Tally swallowed. So that was why they'd kept Fausto and let Shay escape. Informed consent - Maddy's excuse for playing with people's brains. "You let her experiment on you? Don't you remember what happened to Zane?"
"Someone had to, Tally." He held up an injector. "It works, and it's perfectly safe."
Her lips slid back from her teeth, her skin crawling at the thought of nanos eating away at her brain. "Don't touch me, Fausto. I'll hurt you if I have to."
"No, you won't," he said softly, then his hand darted toward her neck.
Tally's fingers shot up, catching the injector a few centimeters from her throat. She twisted hard, trying to make him drop it, and a cracking sound came from his fingers. Then his other hand moved, and she realized it held another injector. Tally dropped to the ground, his swing passing inches from her face.
Fausto kept coming, both hands trying to land a needle in her. She scrambled backward on the grass, barely staying clear. He flailed at her desperately, but she fended him off with a kick to his chest, then another that connected with his chin, sending him stumbling back. He wasn't the same - still faster than a random, maybe, but no longer as fast as Tally Something ruthless and sure had been sucked out of him.