Tally spun for a moment in the air, overwhelmed and wondering what to do. Then she spotted a stream of littlies pouring from the hospital. They were lining up along the hedgerow barrier around the helicopter landing pad, their minders stopping to count them all before moving on to safety.
She angled her board toward the landing pad and dropped as fast as gravity would take her.
Those helicopters had carried runaways from other cities to the Old Smoke and now here to the New System - Tally somehow doubted Dr. Cables attack was going to leave them untouched.
She brought her descent to a halt just over the littlies' heads, lifting fans screaming, terrified faces staring up open-mouthed.
"Get out of here!" she yelled down at the minders, two middle pretties with classic faces: calm and wise.
They looked up at her in disbelief, then Tally remembered to switch her sneak suit to a rough approximation of warden yellow. "The helicopters could be a target!" she cried.
The minders' dumbfounded expressions didn't change, and Tally swore. They hadn't realized yet what this war was about - runaways and the New System and the Old Smoke - all they knew was that the sky had exploded overhead and they had to account for all of their charges before moving on.
She looked up and spotted a glittering hovercraft breaking from the armada. It swept through a wide, leisurely turn, descending toward the landing pad like a lazy bird of prey.
"Get them to the other side of the hospital, now!" she yelled, then reversed course, climbing toward the approaching hovercraft, wondering exactly what she could do against it. This time she had no grenades, no hungry nano-goo. She was alone and bare-handed against a military machine.
But if this war really was her fault, she had to try.
Tally pulled her hood down over her face and switched the suit to infrared camouflage, then shot toward Town Hall. Hopefully, the hovercraft wouldn't see her coming against the background heat of cannon fire and explosions.
As she grew nearer to the disintegrating building, the air shuddered around her, explosive concussions beating against her body. She could feel the searing heat of the fires now, and heard the thunderous sound of floors collapsing one upon another as Town Hall's hoverstruts began to fail. The armada was destroying the entire building, razing it to the ground, just as she and Shay had done to the Armory.
With the inferno at her back, Tally pulled level with the hovercraft and followed its descent, looking for some weakness. It was like the first one she'd seen rising up from the Armory: four lifting fans carrying a bulbous body bristling with weaponry, wings, and claws, its dull black armor reflecting nothing of the firestorm behind her.
It showed scars from recent damage, and Tally realized that Diego must have thrown up some resistance against the armada - a fight that hadn't lasted very long.
Though all the cities had given up war, maybe some had given it up more than others.
Tally glanced down. The landing pad wasn't far below, the line of littlies inching away from it with maddening slowness. She swore and shot toward the hovercraft, hoping to distract it.
The machine detected her approach at the last moment, insectlike metal claws reaching out toward the white-hot board. Tally tipped back into a steep climb, but she'd changed course too late. The hovercraft's claws jammed into her forward lifting fan, which ground to a noisy halt, and she was thrown from the riding surface. Other claws grasped blindly in the air, but Tally in her sneak suit soared over them.
She landed on the machine's back, and it tipped wildly, her weight and the force of the hoverboard's impact almost rolling the craft over backward. Tally waved her arms as she skidded across the armor, her sneak suit's grippy soles barely keeping her from falling. She bent her knees and grabbed the first handhold she could find, a thin piece of metal sticking up from the hovercraft's body.
Her ruined board sailed past - one lifting fan working, the other destroyed, making it spin through the air like a throwing knife.
As the hovercraft tried to steady itself, the object that had saved Tally suddenly swiveled in her hand, and she jerked away. A little lens glittered at its tip, like an eye-stalk on a crab. She scooted to the center of the machine's back, hoping it hadn't seen her.
Three other camera-stalks pivoted madly around Tally, looking in all directions, searching the sky for more threats. But none of them turned toward her - they were all pointed outward, not back at the hovercraft itself.
Tally realized that she was sitting in the machine's blind spot. Its eye-stalks couldn't turn to see her, and its armored skin had no nerves to sense her feet. Apparently the hovercraft's designers had never imagined an adversary standing right on top of it.
But the machine knew something was wrong - it was too heavy. The four lifting fans tilted wildly as Tally shifted from side to side, scrambling to stay on. The metal claws that hadn't been mangled by her hoverboard swung randomly in the air, searching like a blind insect's for an opponent.
Under her extra weight, the hovercraft began to descend. Tally leaned hard toward Town Hall, and the machine began to drift in that direction as it dropped. It was like riding the world's wobbliest, most uncooperative hoverboard, but gradually she guided it away from the landing pad and the slow-moving line of littlies.
As Town Hall grew nearer, shock waves from the attack rumbled through the machine. Heat from the burning building began to penetrate her sneak suit, and she felt a film of sweat spring up all over her body. Behind her the littlies seemed to have finally moved clear of the landing pad. All she had to do now was get off the hovercraft without it spotting her and opening fire.
When the ground was only ten meters below, Tally jumped from the machine's back, grabbing one of the damaged claws as she sailed past, yanking that side of the machine downward with the force of her fall. The hovercraft spun in midair over her head, lifting fans screeching in an attempt to keep it upright. But it had already tipped too far over; after a brief struggle, her weight on the lifeless claw flipped the machine over and upside down.
She dropped the short distance, and her crash bracelets stopped her fall, depositing her gently on the ground.
Above, the hovercraft spun sideways toward Town Hall, still careening out of control, claws flailing mindlessly. It crashed into the building's lowest floor, disappearing into a gout of flame that swept across Tally, her sneak suit reporting malfunctions all across its skin. The scales that had absorbed the explosion rippled to a halt, and Tally smelled her own hair singeing inside the hood.
As she ran back toward the hospital, fierce concussions shook the earth, knocking Tally's feet out from under her. Looking back, she saw that Town Hall was finally crumbling. After the long minutes of bombardment, even its alloy skeleton was melting, bowing under the weight of the burning building.
And it was practically on top of her.
She rose to her feet again, turning her skintenna on, her head filling with the Cutters' chatter as they organized the hospital evacuees.
"Town Hall's collapsing!" she said, running. "I need help!"
"What are you doing way over there, Tally-wa?" Shay's voice answered. "Roasting marshmallows?"
"Tell you later!"
"We're on our way."
The rumbling grew, the heat behind her redoubling as tons of burning building collapsed in upon itself. A chunk of fiery debris flew past, setting fire to the motionless slidewalks' grippy surface as it bounced to a halt. The light behind her brightened, Tally's flickering shadow stretching out like a giant's in front of her.
From the direction of the hospital, a pair of shapes shot into view. Tally waved her arms. "Over here!"
They swept around her and circled back, the collapsing building silhouetting their black forms.
"Hands up, Tally-wa," Shay said.
Tally jumped into the air, both hands reaching. The two Cutters grabbed her wrists, pulling her away from Town Hall and toward safety.
"You okay?" Tachs's voice cried.
"Yeah, but it's ..." Tally's voice faded. Carried backward, she found herself watching the building's final collapse in awestruck silence. It seemed to fold into itself, like a balloon deflating, then a vast billowing cloud of smoke and debris gushed outward, like a dark tidal wave swallowing the fiery remains.
The wave raced toward them, closer and closer...
"Uh, guys?" Tally said. "Can you go any - ?"
The shock wave broke over the Cutters, full of swirling debris and furious winds, knocking Shay and Tachs from their boards and hurling all three of them to the ground. As she rolled, the burn-damaged scales of Tally's sneak suit jabbed into her like sharp elbows, until she finally tumbled to a halt.
She lay on the ground, her breath knocked out of her. Darkness had swallowed them.
"You guys okay?" Shay asked.
"Yeah, icy," said Tachs.
Tally tried to speak, but wound up coughing; her sneak-suit mask had stopping filtering the air.
She pulled it off, the smoke stinging her eyes, and spat out the taste of burnt plastic. "No board, and my suit's ruined," she managed. "But I'm okay."
"You're welcome," Shay said.
"Oh, yeah. Thanks, guys."
"Hang on," Tachs said. "You hear that?"
Tally's ears were still ringing, but a moment later she realized that the barrage of cannon fire had ceased. The quiet was almost eerie. She flicked down an infrared overlay and looked up. A glowing vortex of hovercraft was forming above, like a galaxy gathering itself into a spiral.
"What are they going to do now?" Tally asked. "Destroy something else?"
"No," Shay said softly. "Not yet."
"Before we came here, we Cutters were in on Dr. Cable's plans," Tachs said. "She doesn't want to demolish Diego. She wants to remake it. Turn it into another city just like ours: strict and controlled, everyone a bubblehead."
"When things start to fall apart," Shay said, "she'll be here to take over."
"But cities don't take each other over!" Tally said.
"Not normally, Tally, but don't you see?" Shay turned toward the still-burning wreck of Town Hall. "Runaways running free, the New System out of control, and now the city government in ruins...
this is a Special Circumstance."
The hospital was full of broken glass.
All the windows on the Town Hall side had been blown inward by the building's final collapse.
Their shattered remains crunched underfoot as Tally and the other Cutters checked each room for anyone left behind.
"Got a crumbly up here," Ho said from two floors above.
"Does he need a doctor?" Shay's voice asked.
"Just a few cuts. Medspray should do it."
"Let a doctor take a look, Ho."
Tally tuned out the skintenna chatter and peered into the next abandoned hospital room, staring once more through the empty window frames at the glowing wreckage. Two helicopters hovered overhead, spraying foam down onto the fire.
She could escape now, simply turn off her skintenna and disappear into the chaos. The Cutters were too busy to chase her, and the rest of the city was hardly functioning at all. She knew where the Cutters' hoverboards waited, and the crash bracelets Shay had given her were keyed to unlock them.
But after what had happened here tonight, there was nowhere left to go. If Special Circumstances was really behind this attack, running back to Dr. Cable was out of the question.
Tally would almost have understood if the armada had gone after the new developments, teaching Diego a lesson about expanding into the wild. Whatever else was happening in Random Town, that had to be stopped. Cities couldn't just start grabbing land whenever they wanted.
But cities couldn't just attack each other like this either, blowing up buildings in the middle of town. That was how the insane, doomed Rusties had solved their disputes. Tally wondered how her own city had forgotten the lessons of history so easily.