Danger didn't matter anymore. Nothing did.
She was truly special now.
As dusk began to fall, Tally reached the coastal railroad line.
Clouds had glowered at her from the sea all afternoon, and as the sun went down, a black veil rolled in, covering the stars and moon. An hour after nightfall, the day's heat stored in the railroad tracks began to fade, leaving the path invisible even in infrared. Tally navigated by ear, using only the roar of the surf to stay on course. Here over the metal rails, her bracelets would save her if she fell.
Just as dawn broke, she shot over a camp full of sleepy-looking runaways. She heard shouting in her wake, and glanced back to see that the wind of her passage had scattered embers from their campfire across the dry grass. The runaways were scampering around trying to keep the fire from spreading, beating the flames with their sleeping bags and jackets, screeching like a bunch of bubbleheads.
Tally kept flying. She didn't have time to turn back and help.
She wondered what would become of all the runaways still making their way across the wild.
Could Diego still spare its meager fleet of helicopters to bring them in? How many more citizens could the New System handle, now that it was fighting for its own existence?
Of course, Andrew Simpson Smith wouldn't realize there was a war on. He would still hand out his position-finders, guides to nowhere. The runaways would reach their collection points, but no rides would come. They would slowly lose faith, until they ran out of food and patience, then head back home.
Some might make it, but they were all city kids, clueless about the dangers out here. Without a New Smoke to welcome them, most would be consumed by the wild.
On her second night of flying without rest, Tally fell.
She had just noticed that one board was acting up, some microscopic flaw in its forward lifting fan causing it to run hot. She'd been watching it carefully for the last few minutes, a detailed infrared overlay blotting her normal vision, and she never even noticed the tree.
It was a lone pine, its upper leaves sheered by salt spray like a bad haircut. The board she was riding struck a branch dead center, snapping it clean, sending Tally flying head over heels.
Her crash bracelets found the metal in the rail line just in time. They didn't snap her up short, like they would have in a straight-down fall, but bounced her along the tracks at speed. For a few wild moments, Tally felt like she'd been strapped to the front of some ancient train, the world rushing by on either side, the dark rails stretching before her into blackness, cross-ties a blur beneath her feet.
She wondered what would happen if the railroad line curved suddenly, whether the bracelets would carry her through a turn, or dump her unceremoniously on the ground. Or off the cliff...
The track ran doggedly straight, though, and after a hundred meters her momentum petered out.
The bracelets set Tally down; her heart was pounding, but she was unhurt. Both boards found her signal a minute later, nosing out of the darkness like sheepish friends who'd run off without telling her.
Tally realized that she should probably get some sleep. When her next lapse of concentration came, she might not be so lucky. But the sun would be rising soon, and the city was less than a day's travel away She stepped onto the overheated board and rode it hard, keeping herself alert by listening carefully to every shift in the sound of the damaged fan.
Just after dawn, a high-pitched squeal erupted, and Tally leaped from the stricken hoverboard as it disintegrated into a white-hot mass of shrieking metal. She landed on the other board, turning to watch the screaming remains of the first spin out sideways and fall into the sea, where its impact threw up a geyser of spray and steam.
Tally faced home again, never even slowing.
When the Rusty Ruins came into sight, she headed inland. The ancient ghost city was full of metal, so for the first time since leaving Diego, Tally let herself slow down, resting the lifting fans of her remaining board. She moved in silence through the empty streets, staring down at the burnt-out cars that marked the Rusties' last day. Crumbling buildings rose up around her, all the familiar spots where she had hidden back in her Smokey days. Tally wondered if tricky uglies still snuck out here at night. Maybe the ruins didn't seem so exciting anymore, now that there was a real-live city to run away to.
They still felt creepy, though, as if the vast emptiness was full of ghosts. The gaping windows seemed to stare at Tally, taking her back to that first night Shay had brought her here, back when they were both uglies. Shay had learned the secret route from Zane, of course - he was the ultimate reason that Tally Youngblood wasn't just another bubblehead, happy and clueless among the spires of New Pretty Town.
Maybe after she confessed to Dr. Cable, Tally would wind up there again, all these unhappy-making memories erased at last...
Tally slowed to a halt, not quite believing what she'd heard. The ping was on the Cutters'
frequency, but none of them could have made it here before her. The ID was blank, as if the ping had come from no one. It had to be some abandoned beacon left behind on a training mission, nothing but a random signal in the ruins.
"Hello?" she whispered.
Tally raised her eyebrows. That hadn't been random; it had sounded like an answer. "Can you hear me?"
"But you can't say anything?" Tally frowned.
Tally sighed, realizing what was going on. "Fine. Nice trick, ugly. But I've got more important things to do." She started up her lifting fans again, angling toward town.
Tally slid to a halt, unsure about ignoring this. Any bunch of uglies smart enough to trick the Cutters' frequency might have useful information. It wouldn't hurt to find out how things were going in the city before confronting Dr. Cable.
She checked the signal strength. It was strong and clear. Whoever had rigged it up wasn't far away.
Tally drifted down the empty street, watching the signal carefully. It grew slightly stronger on the left. She turned in that direction and glided a block farther.
"Okay, kid. One means yes, and two means no. Got that?"
"Do I know you?"
"Hmm." Tally kept going until the signal weakened, then turned around and made her way slowly back. "Are you a Crim?"
The signal's strength peaked, and Tally looked up. Towering above her was the tallest building left standing in the ruins, an old Smokey hangout and the logical place to set up a broadcasting station.
"Are you an ugly?"
There was a long pause. Then a single ping.
Tally began her silent ascent, the hoverboard's magnetics taking hold of the tower's ancient metal skeleton. Her senses expanded, listening for every sound.
The wind shifted, and she smelled something familiar, her stomach clenching.
"SpagBol?" She shook her head. "So you come from this city?"
Then she heard a sound, movement in the rubble of some ruined floor above. Tally stepped from her board through an empty window frame, setting her damaged sneak suit to a rough approximation of broken stone. She took both sides of the frame and leaned in, peering upward.
There he was above, looking down at her. "Tally?" he called.
She blinked. It was David.
"What are you doing here?" she called.
"Waiting for you. I knew you'd come this way...through the ruins one more time."
Tally climbed toward him, swinging from one iron beam to the next, covering the distance in a few seconds. He was huddled in the corner of a floor that hadn't completely collapsed, barely enough room for the sleeping bag splayed out beside him. His sneak suit was set to match the shadows inside the ruin.
A self-heating meal in his hand chimed that it was ready, and the revolting smell of SpagBol hit Tally again.
She shook her head. "But how did you ... ?"
David held up a crude device in one hand, a directional antenna in the other. "After we cured him, Fausto helped us rig this up. Every time you guys got close, we detected your skintennas. We could even listen in."
Tally squatted on a rusty iron beam, her head suddenly spinning from three days of constant travel. "I wasn't asking how you pinged me. How did you get here so quickly?"
"Oh, that was easy. When you left without her, Shay realized that you were right: Diego needs her more than you do. But they don't need me." He cleared his throat. "So I took the next helicopter to a pickup spot about halfway here."
Tally sighed, closing her eyes. "Special-head" Shay had called her. She could have gotten a ride most of the way. That was one problem with dramatic exits: Sometimes they wound up making you look like a bubblehead. But she was relieved to hear that her fears about the runaways had been unfounded.
Diego hadn't abandoned them yet.
"So why exactly did you come?"
David wore a determined look. "I'm here to help you, Tally"
"Listen, David, just because we're sort of on the same side now doesn't mean I want you around. Shouldn't you be back in Diego? There's a war on, you know."
He shrugged. "I don't like cities much, and I don't know anything about wars."
"Well, I don't either, but I'm doing what I can." She signaled for her board, which still hovered below. "And if Special Circumstances catches me with a Smokey, it's not going to make it any easier convincing them I'm telling the truth."
"But Tally, are you okay?"
"That's the second time someone's asked me that stupid question," she said softly. "No, I'm not okay."
"Yeah, I guess it was stupid. But we're worried about you."
"We who? You and Shay?"
He shook his head. "No, my mother and me."
Tally let out a short, sharp laugh. "Since when was Maddy worried about me?"
"She's been thinking about you a lot lately," he said, setting his untouched SpagBol on the floor.
"She had to study the special operation to cure it. She knows quite a bit about what it's like, being what you are."
Tally leaped up, hands curling, and jumped across the void between them in a single bound, sending a shower of rust down into the chasm of the building's core. Her teeth bared, she said straight to his face, "No one knows what it's like to be me right now, David. I promise you: no one."
He held her gaze without flinching, but Tally could smell his fear, all the weakness leaking out of him.
"I'm sorry," he said evenly "I didn't mean it that way...This isn't about Zane."
At the sound of his name, something fractured inside Tally, and her fury faded. She sank onto her haunches, breathing raggedly. For a moment, it felt as though the burst of rage had shifted something heavy and leaden inside her. It was the first time since Zane's death that anything, even anger, had broken through her despair.
But the feeling had lasted only a few seconds, then the fatigue from her uninterrupted days of travel came tumbling down.
She lowered her head into her hands. "Whatever."
"I brought you something. You might need it."
Tally looked up. In David's hand was an injector.
She shook her head tiredly. "You don't want to cure me, David. Special Circumstances won't listen to me unless I'm one of them."
"I know, Tally. Fausto explained your plan to us." He placed a cap over the needle, snapping it down. "But keep this. Maybe after you tell them what happened, you'll want to change yourself."
Tally frowned. "There doesn't seem like much point thinking about what happens after I confess, David. The city might be a little upset with me, so I might not have much say in the matter."
"I doubt it, Tally. That's what's so amazing about you. No matter what your city does to you, you always seem to have a choice."