"Let me talk to Cable."
"She's still with the Council. You have to speak with me first."
"I don't have time to explain everything twice, Maxamilla. My report concerns the entire Council." She paused to take a long, slow breath. "There's another attack coming."
"An attack, and very soon. Tell the doctor I'll be there in two minutes. I'll come straight to the Council meeting."
Tally cut her skintenna feed again, choking off more sputtering replies. She spun her hoverboard around and shot down the long, sloping side of the hill, then turned to face the summit once more, flexing her fingers.
The trick was to make her entrance as dramatic as possible, blustering past everyone and straight into the City Council meeting. Dr. Cable would probably enjoy one of her pet Cutters dashing in to deliver vital intelligence, proof that Special Circumstances was on the job.
Of course, the announcement wasn't going to be what Dr. Cable expected.
Tally urged her hoverboard forward, fans and magnetics fully engaged. She climbed the hill, building speed all the way.
At the top, the horizon suddenly slipped away the ground disappearing beneath her, and Tally soared into the sky.
She cut the fans and bent her knees, grasping the board with her fingers.
The silence stretched out, the roof of the headquarters growing as Tally fell. She felt a grin spreading on her face. This might be the last time she would do something this icy, with all her special senses sucking up the world; she might as well enjoy it.
A hundred meters from impact, her lifting fans spun to life. They pressed the board up against her, struggling to bring Tally to a halt. Her crash bracelets pushed against her wrists, straining against the force of the fall.
The hoverboard smacked hard and flat against the roof, and Tally rolled from its riding surface and straight into a run. Alarms were sounding all around her, but with a single gesture, her skintenna placated the security system. She shouted for emergency access through the hovercar doors ahead.
There was a short pause, then Feaster's anxious voice replied, "Youngblood?"
"I need in, double-quick!"
"I told Dr. Cable what you said. She wants you to head straight for the Council meeting. They're in the Level J operating theater."
Tally let herself smile. Her plan was working. "Got you. Open this door up."
"Right." With a lurching metal scrape, the landing pad beneath Tally began to part, as if the roof were splitting in two. She dropped through the widening seam, falling from bright sunlight into semidarkness and landing on top of a Special Circumstances hovercar. Ignoring the startled hangar workers around her, Tally rolled to the floor and kept running.
The voice popped into her ear again. "I've got an elevator waiting. Right in front of you."
"Too slow," Tally panted, coming to a halt before the elevator bank. "Just open an empty shaft."
"Are you kidding, Youngblood?"
"No! Seconds count here. Do it!"
A moment later, another door slid open, revealing darkness.
Tally stepped into the shaft.
Her grippy-soled shoes shrieked as she bounced from one side of the shaft to the other, her fall barely controlled, descending ten times faster than any elevator. On the headquarters' skintenna channel, she heard Feaster's voice warning everyone out of her way. Light spilled up into the shaft - the door to Sublevel J already open for her.
Tally caught the ledge of the floor above and swung herself through the opening, landing at a dead run. She dashed down the hallway at top speed, Specials pressing themselves against the wall to make way for her, as if Tally were some pre-Rusty messenger bringing news to the king.
At the entrance to the floor's main operating theater, Maxamilla Feaster waited with two Specials in full battle gear. "This had better be important, Youngblood."
"Believe me, it is."
Feaster nodded, and the door slid open. Tally ran through.
She skidded to a halt. The theater was silent, a great ring of empty seats staring down at her from all directions - no Dr. Cable, no City Council.
No one but Tally Youngblood, winded and alone.
She spun around. "Feaster? What is this - ?"
The door slid closed, trapping her in the room.
Through her skintenna, she could hear the amusement in Feaster's voice. "Just wait in there, Youngblood. Dr. Cable will be with you once she's done with the Council."
Tally shook her head. Her confession would be useless if Cable didn't want to believe it. She needed witnesses. "But this is happening now! Why do you think I ran all this way?"
"Why? Perhaps to tell the Council that Diego had nothing to do with the Armory attack? That it was really you?"
Tally's mouth dropped open, her next plea silenced on her lips. She replayed Feaster's words in her mind slowly, unable to believe she'd really heard them.
How could they have known?
"What are you talking about?" she finally managed.
The cruel sound of delight grew in Maxamilla Feaster's voice. "Be patient, Tally. Dr. Cable will explain."
Then the lights flicked off, leaving her in total darkness. Tally started to speak again, then realized that her skintenna had gone dead.
The absolute darkness lasted what seemed like hours. A white-hot rage built inside Tally, a forest fire gaining strength with every passing second. She fought an urge to run blindly through the blackness, destroying everything she could lay her hands on, tearing her way through the ceiling and then the next floor, upward until she reached the open sky.
But Tally forced herself to sit down on the floor, breathing deep and trying to stay calm. The thought kept spinning in her mind that she was going to lose to Dr. Cable once again. Just like she had lost when the Smoke had been invaded, when she had given herself up to be made pretty, and when she and Zane had escaped together, only to be recaptured.
Again and again, Tally pushed the rage down, clenching her fists so hard it felt like her fingers would break. She felt powerless, just like when Zane had lain before her, dying...
But she couldn't afford to lose again. Not this time, when the future was at stake.
So she waited in the darkness, struggling.
Finally, the door opened, framing Dr. Cable's familiar silhouette. From the ceiling, four spotlights popped on, shining directly into Tally's eyes. Blinded for a moment, she heard more Specials slip through before the door slid closed behind them.
Tally jumped to her feet. "Where's the City Council? It's urgent that I speak to them."
"I'm afraid that what you have to say might upset them, and we can't have that. Very jumpy these days, the Council." A chuckle came from Dr. Cable's silhouette. "They're up on Level H, still droning to each other."
Two floors above...She'd gotten so close, only to fail again.
"Welcome home, Tally," Dr. Cable said softly.
Tally looked around the empty auditorium. "Thanks for the surprise party."
"You were the one planning to surprise us, I believe."
"What, by telling the truth?"
"The truth? From you?" Dr. Cable laughed. "What could be more surprising?"
A flash of anger went through Tally, but she took a long, slow breath. "How did you know?"
Dr. Cable stepped into the light, drawing a small knife from her pocket. "I believe this is yours."
She threw the knife into the air. It spun, glittering in the spotlights, and sunk deep into the floor between Tally's feet. "The skin cells we found on it certainly were."
Tally stared down at the knife.
It was the one Shay had thrown to set off the Armory's alarm, the same one Tally had used to cut herself that night. Tally opened her clenched fist and stared at her palm; the flash tattoos still spun in their halting rhythm, broken by the scar. She had seen Shay wipe it for fingerprints, but some tiny trace of her flesh must have lingered...
They must have found it and run her DNA soon after the attack, and known all along that Tally Youngblood had been there at the Armory.
"I knew that nasty habit would eventually get you Cutters into trouble," Dr. Cable murmured.
"Does it really feel so wonderful, cutting yourself? I must look into that, next time I make Specials so young."
Tally knelt and pulled the knife out of the floor, weighing it in her hand, wondering if a well-aimed throw could find its way into Dr. Cable's throat. But the woman was just as fast as Tally, just as special.
She couldn't afford to be a Special-head any longer. Tally had to think her way out of this.
She threw the knife aside.
"Just answer me one question," Dr. Cable said. "Why did you do it?"
Tally shook her head. Telling the whole truth would mean bringing Zane into it, which would only make it harder to keep control.
"It was an accident."
"An accident?" Dr. Cable laughed. "That's quite some accident, destroying half the city's military."
"We weren't planning to let loose those nanos."
"We? The Cutters?"
Tally shook her head - no point in mentioning Shay either. "One thing just sort of led to another..."
"Indeed. That's how it always works with you, isn't it, Tally?"
"But why did you lie to everyone?"
Dr. Cable sighed. "That should be obvious, Tally. I couldn't very well tell them that you had almost dismantled the city's defenses. The Cutters were my pride and joy, my special Specials." Her razor smile spread across her face. "Besides, you'd given me a splendid opportunity to get rid of an old opponent."
"What did Diego ever do to you?"
"They supported the Old Smoke. They've taken in our runaways for years. Then Shay reported that someone was supplying the Smokies with sneak suits and huge quantities of those appalling pills.
Who else could it have been?" Her voice grew stronger. "The other cities were just waiting for someone to take Diego down, with their New System and their flouting of morphological standards. You simply provided me with the ammunition. You've always been so useful, Tally."
Tally squeezed her eyes shut, willing Dr. Cable's words to somehow be heard up in the Council meeting. If only they knew how they'd been lied to. ...
But this whole city was too scared to think clearly, too thrilled by their own counterattack, too ready to accept the rule of this twisted woman.
Tally shook her head. She'd spent the last few days focused on rewiring herself, but she needed to rewire everyone.
Or maybe just the right someone...
"When does it all end?" she asked quietly. "How long does this war go on?"
"It never ends, Tally. I'm getting too much done that I could never do before, and believe me, the bubbleheads are having such fun watching it on the newsfeeds. And all it took was a war, Tally. I should have thought of this years ago!" The woman stepped closer, her cruelly beautiful face aglow at the edge of the spotlights. "Don't you see, we've entered a new era. From now on, every day is a Special Circumstance!"
Tally nodded slowly, then let a smile creep onto her face. "Nice of you to explain that to me. And to everyone else."
Dr. Cable raised an eyebrow. "Pardon me?"
"Cable, I didn't come here to tell the City Council what happened. They're a bunch of wimps, if they put you in charge. I came to make sure that everyone knows about your lies."
The woman let out a low, rumbling laugh. "Don't tell me you made some sort of video of yourself, Tally, explaining that you started the war? Who'll believe it? You may have been famous once among the bubbleheads and uglies, but no one over the age of twenty even knows you exist."
"No, but they know you, now that you've put yourself in charge." Tally reached into her sneak suit's carrying pouch and pulled out the injector. "And now that they've watched you explain that this entire war was bogus, they'll remember you forever."