Tally leaned against the wall, feeling weaker every second. The padding was suddenly so comfortable, as if someone had put pillows everywhere. She managed a few interface gestures with her left hand, setting her software to ping her every ten minutes. Tally had to wake up before they were ready to operate.
She tried to focus, to plan, but the sparkling of the little lenses in the padding was so lovely. Her eyes slid closed. She had to escape, but first Tally needed to sleep.
Sleep wasn't that bad, really, like being a bubblehead again, nothing to worry about, no anger deep inside...
It was nice here. Nice and quiet.
For the first time in a long while, Tally felt no fury, no frustration. The tension in her muscles had gone, along with the feeling that she had to be somewhere, do something, prove herself again. Here in this place, she was just Tally, and that simple knowledge flowed across her skin like a pleasant breeze.
Her right hand felt particularly nice - all bubbly, as if someone were dribbling warm champagne over it.
She half-opened her eyes. Everything was pleasantly out of focus, not all sharp and edgy like usual. In fact, it was pretty much all clouds around here, white and fluffy. Like a littlie staring up into the sky, Tally could see any shape she wanted. She tried to imagine a dragon, but her brain couldn't make the wings look real...and the teeth were sort of complicated.
Besides, dragons were too scary. Tally, or maybe it was someone she knew, had once had a bad experience with one.
It was better to imagine her friends: Shay-la and Zane-la, everyone who loved her. That's all she really wanted, to go and see them once she'd gotten a little more sleep. She closed her eyes again.
There was that sound again. It came back every once in a while, like an old friend checking up on her.
"Hi, ping-la," she said.
The ping never answered. But Tally liked to be polite.
"Did she just say something, Doctor?" someone asked.
"Couldn't have. Not with what we gave her."
"Did you see her metabolic chart?" a third voice said. "We're not taking any risks. Check those straps."
Someone grumbled, then started fiddling with Tally's hands and feet one by one, in a circle that started with her bubbly right hand and went clockwise. Tally imagined that she was a clock, lying there and quietly ticking.
"Don't worry, Doctor. She's not going anyplace."
The voice was wrong about that, because a moment later Tally was going places, floating along on her back. She couldn't open her eyes, but it felt like being on some kind of hovercarrier. Lights pulsed overhead, bright enough to see even through her eyelids. Her inner ear felt the hovercarrier take a left turn, slow down, then rumble across a bump in the magnetic grid. Then she was accelerating upward, fast enough that her ears popped a little.
"All right," one of the voices said. "Wait here for the prep team. Do not leave her alone, and call me if she moves."
"Okay, Doctor. But she's not moving."
Tally smiled. She decided to play a game where she didn't move. Somewhere in the back of her mind was the idea that fooling the voice would be lots of fun.
"Hi," she answered, then remembered about not moving.
Tally lay still for a moment, then started to wonder where the pings were coming from. They were starting to get annoying.
She shifted her fingers, until an interface dropped down over the inside of her eyelids. Her internal software wasn't as fuzzy as everything else, and she didn't have to do anything but twitch her fingers to make it work.
Tally saw that the pings were a wake-up reminder. She was supposed to get up and do something.
She let out a slow sigh. Lying here was so nice. Besides, she couldn't remember what it was she had pinged herself about. Which made the whole ping pretty pointless. In fact, the whole ping was silly.
Tally would have giggled, if giggling weren't so difficult. Suddenly, every ping was silly.
She twitched a finger to switch off the wake-up cycle, so it wouldn't bother her again.
But the question kept bugging Tally: What was she was supposed to do? Maybe one of the other Cutters would know. She flicked on her skintenna feed.
"Tally?" a voice asked. "Finally!"
Tally smiled. Shay-la always knew what to do.
"Are you okay?" Shay said. "Where've you been!"
Tally tried to answer, but talking was too hard.
"Are you all right, Tally?" Shay said after a few moments, sounding worried now.
Tally remembered that Shay had been mad at her, and her smile grew. Shay-la didn't sound mad anymore, just concerned.
Tally tried hard, and managed to drawl, "I'm sleepy."
That was weird, Tally thought. Two voices had said "Oh, crap" at exactly the same time, in exactly the same scared way. One voice was Shay's inside her head, and the other was that other voice she kept hearing.
This was getting complicated, like the dragon's teeth she'd tried to imagine.
"Need to wake up," she said.
"Oh, crap!" said the other voice.
At the same time, Shay was saying, "Stay where you are, Tally. I think I've got your feed located.
You're in the hospital, right?"
"Uh-huh," Tally murmured. She recognized the hospital smell, even though the other voice was making it hard to concentrate. It was shouting stuff in a way that hurt Tally's head. "I think she's waking up! Someone get something to put her back down!" Blah, blah, blah...
"We're close by," Shay said. "We figured you were somewhere in there. You're scheduled for despecialization in an hour."
"Oh, right," Tally said, remembering now what she was supposed to do: escape from this place, which was going to be really difficult. Much harder than moving her fingertips. "Help, Shay-la."
"Just hang on, Tally, and try to wake up! I'm coming for you."
"Yay, Shay-la," Tally whispered.
"But turn off your skintenna, now. If they've scanned you, they might be listening in..."
"Okay," Tally said, and as her fingers gestured, the voice in her head went quiet. The other voice was still shouting, still complaining in its worried way. It was starting to give Tally a headache.
"Doctor! She just said something! Even after that last dose! What the hell is she?"
"Whatever she is, this should keep her down," someone else said, and sleepiness swept over her again.
So Tally went back to not thinking at all.
Consciousness returned in a burst of light.
Adrenaline shot through Tally, like waking up from a nightmare screaming. The world was suddenly diamond clear, as sharp as the teeth in her mouth, as bright as a spotlight in her eyes.
She sat bolt upright, breathing hard and clenching her fists tight. Shay stood at the end of the hospital bed, fiddling with the straps around her ankles.
"Shay!" she shouted. Tally felt everything so brilliantly she had to shout.
"That woke you up, didn't it?"
"Shay!" Her left arm stung; someone had just given her a shot. Energy was boiling through her, all her fury and strength returned. She jerked one foot against an ankle strap, but the metal restraint held.
"Calm down, Tally-wa," Shay said. "I'll get it."
"Calm down?" Tally muttered, her eyes scanning the room. The walls were lined with machines, all of them flickering with activity. In the room's center was an operating tank, life-support liquid slowly gurgling into it, a breathing tube hanging loosely, waiting to be put to use. Scalpels and vibrasaws waited on a nearby table.
Lying on the floor were a pair of unconscious men in hospital scrubs - one a middle pretty, the other young enough to sport leopard spots all over his downy fur. At the sight of them, the past twenty-four hours came rushing back to Tally: Random Town, being captured, the threatened operation to make her average again.
She twitched against the ankle restraints, needing to escape this room now.
"Almost got it," Shay said soothingly.
Tally's right arm itched, and she found a braid of wires and tubes stuck into it, life support for major surgery. She hissed and ripped them out. Blood spattered across the spotless white floor, but it didn't hurt - the collision between anesthetic and whatever Shay had used to awaken her had filled Tally with a pain-numbing fury.
When Shay finally got the second ankle strap unlocked, Tally leaped up, her fingers curled.
"Um, maybe you better put this on," Shay said, tossing her a sneak suit. Tally looked down at herself. She was wearing another disposable nightgown: pink with blue dinosaurs.
"What is it with hospitals?" she shouted, ripping the gown off and sticking one foot into the suit.
"Quiet down already, Tally-wa," Shay hissed..."I've plugged the sensors, but even randoms can hear you shouting like that, you know. And don't turn on your skintenna yet. It'll give us away."
"Sorry, Boss." A sudden wave of dizziness came over Tally; she'd stood up too fast. But she managed to slide her legs into the sneak suit and pull it up around her shoulders. Detecting her wild heart rate, it booted up straight into armored mode, scales rippling, then lying flat and hard.
"No, tune it this way," Shay whispered, one hand on the door. Her own suit was set to a pale blue, the color of hospital scrubs.
As Tally tuned her suit, trying to match the color of Shay's, her head still spun with wild energy.
"You came for me," she said, trying to keep her voice low.
"I couldn't let them do this to you."
"But I thought you hated me."
"I hate you sometimes, Tally. Like I've never hated anybody else before." Shay snorted. "Maybe that's why I keep coming back for you."
Tally swallowed, looking around once more at the operating tank, the table full of cutting instruments, all the tools that would have turned her average again - despecialized her, as Shay had put it. "Thanks, Shay-la."
"No problem. Ready to get out of here?"
"Wait, Boss." Tally swallowed. "I saw Fausto."
"So did I." There was no anger in Shay's voice, simply a statement of fact.
"But he's ..."
"You know ..." Tally took a step forward, her mind still spinning from waking up, from everything that was happening. "But what are we going to do about him, Shay?"
"We have to go, Tally. The rest of the Cutters are waiting for us on the roof. Something big is coming. A lot bigger than the Smokies."
Tally frowned. "But what - ?"
The shriek of an alarm split the air.
"They must be getting close!" Shay cried. "We have to go!" She grabbed Tally's hand and pulled her through the door.
Tally followed, her mind reeling, her feet still unsteady beneath her. Outside the room, a long, straight hallway stretched in both directions, the alarm echoing down its length. People in hospital scrubs were spilling out of doors on either side, filling the hallway with confused babble.
Shay sprinted away, slipping among the stunned doctors and orderlies like they were statues. She was so light-footed and quick, the milling crowd hardly noticed the matching pale blue streak hurtling through them.
Tally thrust aside her questions and followed, but her just-woken-up dizziness was fading very slowly. She dodged people as best she could, plowing straight through any who got in her way. She caromed off bodies and the walls, but managed to keep moving, letting her wild energy carry her.
"Stop!" a voice shouted. "Both of you!"
In front of Shay, a cluster of wardens stood in their yellow-and-black uniforms, shock-sticks glowing in the soft, pastel light.
Shay didn't hesitate, her suit turning black as she plunged into them, hands and feet flashing. The air filled with the smell of fresh lightning as shock-sticks struck her armored scales, sizzling like mosquitoes frying on a bug light. She spun wildly amid the fracas, sending yellow figures staggering in all directions.