David was one of the Smokies' leaders - the best prize the Cutters could have hoped for on this cold night. Tally could hardly believe he had dared come into the city, but she was going to make sure he would never leave again.
She weaved among the flashing hoverglobes, soaring out over the forest. Her eyes adjusted swiftly to the darkness, and she spotted the two Smokies no more than a hundred meters ahead. They were riding low, tipped forward like surfers on a steep wave.
They had a head start, but Tally's hoverboard was special too - the best the city could manufacture. She coaxed it onward, brushing the tips of the wind-tossed trees with its leading edge, smashing them into sudden plumes of ice.
Tally hadn't forgotten that it was David's mother who had invented the nanos, the machines that had left Zane's brain the way it was. Or that it was David who'd lured Shay into the wild all those months ago, had seduced first her and then Tally, doing everything he could to destroy their friendship.
Specials didn't forget their enemies. Not ever.
"I've got you now," she said.
HUNTERS AND PREY
"Spread out," Shay said. "Don't let them cut back toward the river."
Tally squinted into the onrushing wind, running her tongue across the uncovered points of her teeth. Her Cutter board had lifting fans front and back, spinning blades that would keep it flying past the edge of the city. But the Smokies' old-fashioned hoverboards would fall like stones once the magnetic grid ran out. That's what they got for living Outside: sunburn, bug bites, and crappy technology. At some point the two Smokies would have to make a dash for the river and its trail of metal deposits.
"Boss? Want me to call back to camp for reinforcements?" Fausto asked.
"Too far away to get here in time."
"What about Dr. Cable?"
"Forget her," Shay said. "This is a Cutter trick. We don't want any regular Specials taking credit."
"Especially this time, Boss," Tally said. "That's David up there."
There was a long pause, and then Shay's razor-bladed laugh came through the network, running an icy finger down Tally's spine. "Your old boyfriend, huh?"
Tally gritted her teeth against the cold, all the embarrassing dramas of ugly days heavy in her stomach for a moment. Somehow, the old guilt never completely faded. "Yours, too, Boss, I seem to remember."
Shay just laughed again. "Well, I guess both of us have scores to settle. No calls, Fausto, no matter what. This boy is ours."
Tally set a determined expression on her face, but the knot in her stomach remained. Back in the Smoke, Shay and David had been together. But then Tally had arrived and David had decided he liked her better, and the jealousy and neediness that went with being an ugly made a mess of things as usual.
Even after the Smoke had been destroyed - even when Shay and Tally were clueless bubbleheads -
Shay's anger at that betrayal had never completely disappeared.
Now that they were Specials, ancient dramas weren't supposed to matter anymore. But seeing David had somehow disturbed Tally's iciness, making her suspect that Shay's anger might still be buried deep inside too.
Maybe capturing him would end the trouble between them, once and for all. Tally took a deep breath and leaned forward, urging her hoverboard faster.
The edge of the city was growing closer. Below, the greenbelt changed abruptly into suburbia, the rows of boring houses where middle pretties raised their littlies. The two Smokies dropped to street level, zipping around sharp corners, knees bent and arms out wide.
Tally angled into the first hard turn of the chase, a smile growing on her face as her body flexed and twisted. This was how the Smokies usually got away. Regular Specials in their lame hovercars could only move fast in a straight line. But Cutters were special Specials: every bit as mobile as the Smokies, and every bit as crazy.
"Stick with them, Tally-wa," Shay said. The others were still long seconds behind.
"No problem, Boss." Tally skimmed the narrow streets, only a meter from the concrete. It was lucky that middle pretties were never out this late - if anyone stumbled into the chase, one glancing blow from a hoverboard would turn them into paste.
The tight spaces didn't slow Tally's quarry. She remembered from her own Smokey days how good David was at this, as if he'd been born on a hoverboard. And the girl probably had plenty of practice in the alleys of the Rusty Ruins, the ancient ghost city from which the Smokies launched their incursions into the city.
But Tally was special now. David's reflexes were nothing compared with hers, and all his practice couldn't make up for the fact that he was random: a creature put together by nature. But Tally had been made for this - or remade, anyway - built for tracking down the city's enemies and bringing them to justice. For saving the wild from destruction.
She accelerated into a hard bank, clipping the corner of a darkened house, smashing its rain gutter flat. David was so close that she heard the squeak of his grippy shoes shifting on his board.
In another few seconds, she could jump off and grab him, tumbling until her crash bracelets halted them with a shoulder-wrenching spin. Of course, at this speed, even her special body would feel some hurt, and a normal human might break in a hundred random ways...
Tally clenched her fists, but let her board fade back a bit. She'd have to make her move in an open space. She didn't want to kill David, after all. Just see him tamed, turned into a bubblehead, pretty and clueless and out of her life once and for all.
At the next sharp turn, he dared a quick glance over his shoulder, and Tally caught a glimpse of recognition on his face. Her new cruel-pretty features must be quite the icy shock.
"Yeah, it's me, boyfriend," she whispered.
"Ease off, Tally-wa," Shay said. "Wait for the edge of the city. Just stay close."
"Okay, Boss." Tally let herself drop back a bit more, pleased that David knew who was coming for him now.
At top speed, the chase soon reached the factory belt. They all climbed to avoid the automated delivery trucks rumbling through the darkness, orange underlights reading the road markings to find their destinations. The other three Cutters spread out behind her, cutting off any chance of the Smokies doubling back.
With a glance upward at the stars and a lightning calculation, Tally saw that the two were still headed away from the river, zooming toward certain capture at the city's edge.
"This is kind of weird, Boss," she said. "Why isn't he heading for the river?"
"Maybe he got lost. He's just a random, Tally-wa. Not the brave boy you remember."
Tally heard soft laughter over the network, and her cheeks burned. Why did they keep acting like David still meant something to her? He was just some ugly random. And, anyway, it did show some bravery, sneaking into the city like this...even if it was pretty stupid.
"Maybe they're heading for the Trails," Fausto said.
The Trails were a big preserve on the other side of Crumblyville, the sort of place middle pretties went hiking to pretend they were out in nature. It looked wild, but you could still get picked up by a hovercar when you got tired.
Maybe they thought they could disappear on foot. Didn't David realize that Cutters could fly past the edge of the city? That they could see in the dark?
"Should I move in?" Tally asked. Here in the factory belt, she could yank David off his board without killing him.
"Relax, Tally," Shay said flatly. "That's an order. The grid ends, no matter which way they go from here."
Tally clenched her fists, but didn't argue.
Shay had been special longer than any of them. Her mind was so icy that she'd practically made herself into a Special - brain-wise, anyway - breaking out of bubbleheadness with nothing but a sharp knife against her own skin. And Shay was the one who'd made the deal with Dr. Cable, the arrangement that allowed the Cutters to destroy the New Smoke any way they wanted.
So Shay was the Boss, and obeying wasn't really that bad. It was icier than thinking, which could get you all tangled up.
The neat estates of Crumblyville appeared below. Bare gardens flashed past, waiting for late pretties to plant spring flowers. David and his accomplice dropped to just above ground level, staying low to give their lifters every bit of purchase on the grid.
Tally saw their fingers brush as they hopped a low fence, and wondered if the two of them were together. Probably David had found some new Smokey girl's life to wreck.
That was his thing: going around recruiting uglies to run away, seducing the best and the smartest city kids with the promise of rebellion. And he always had his favorites. First Shay, then Tally...
Tally shook her head to clear it, reminding herself that the social life of Smokies was of no interest to a Special.
Leaning forward, she coaxed her board faster. The black expanse of the Trails was just ahead.
This chase was almost over.
The two plunged into the darkness, disappearing into dense trees. Tally climbed to skim the forest canopy, watching for signs of their passage in the sharp light of the moon. In the distance beyond the Trails, the true wilds lay, the utter blackness of Outside.
A shiver played across the treetops, the Smokies' two hoverboards streaking like a gust of wind through the forest....
"They're still headed straight out," she said.
"We're right behind you, Tally-wa," Shay answered. "Care to join us down here?"
"Sure, Boss." Tally covered her face with both hands as she dropped, a spray of needles traveling from foot to head, the caress of pine branches shooting along her body. Then she was among the tree trunks, zipping through the forest, knees bent, eyes wide open.
The other three Cutters had caught up with her, arrayed a hundred meters apart, cruel-pretty faces fiendish in the flickering moonlight.
Ahead, at the border between the Trails and the true wilderness, the two Smokies were already descending, their boards' magnetic lifters running out of metal. Their skidding descent echoed through the brush, followed by the sounds of running feet.
"Game over," Shay said.
The lifting fans of Tally's hoverboard kicked in beneath her, a low thrum drifting through the trees like the growl of some hibernating beast. The Cutters slowed, dropping to a few meters' altitude, scanning the dark horizon for movement.
A shiver of pleasure ran down Tally's spine. The chase had become a game of hide-and-seek.
But not exactly a fair game. She made a finger gesture, and the chips in her hands and brain responded, laying an infrared channel over Tally's vision. The world was transformed - the snow-patched ground turning a cold blue, the trees emitting soft green halos - every object illuminated by its own heat. A few small mammals stood out, red and pulsing, heads twitching, as if they instinctively knew that something dangerous was nearby Not far away, a hovering Fausto glowed, his feverish Special-body bright yellow, and Tally's own hands seemed to course with orange flames.
But in the now-purple darkness ahead of her, nothing of human size appeared.
Tally frowned, flicking back and forth between infrared and normal vision. "Where'd they go?"
"They must have sneak suits," Fausto whispered. "Otherwise we could see them."
"Or smell them, at least," Shay said. "Maybe your boyfriend's not so random after all, Tally-wa."
"What do we do?" Tachs said.
"We get off and use our ears."
Tally let her hoverboard drop to the ground, the lifting blades splintering twigs and dry leaves as they spun to a halt. She stepped from the riding surface as it stilled, and the late winter cold leeched up through her grippy shoes.
She wriggled her toes and listened to the forest, watching her breath curl out in front of her face, waiting for the whine of the other boards to peter out. As the silence deepened, her ears caught a soft sound pattering all around her - the wind rattling pine needles in their tiny sheaths of ice. A few birds disturbed the air, and hungry squirrels who'd woken up from a long winter's sleep scrabbled for buried nuts. The breathing of the other Cutters came through on the skintennas' ghostly channel, separate from the rest of the world.