She put her fingernails against the flesh, gritted her razor teeth. "I'm sorry, Zane," she whispered.
"Tally!" came a hissing voice in her head.
She blinked. For the first time since they'd thrown her in the cell, her skintenna wasn't jammed.
"Don't just stand there, you little moron! Act like you're passing out!"
Tally's aching lungs sucked in a breath. The smell of the gas filled her head. She sat down on the floor, red spots swarming across her eyes.
"Yes, much better. Keep pretending."
Tally breathed deeply - she could hardly stop herself anymore. But something strange was happening: The dark clouds were fading from her vision, the much-needed oxygen making her more alert.
The gas was doing nothing.
She leaned back against the wall, eyes closed, heart still pounding hard. What was going on here? Who was in her head? Shay and the other Cutters? Or was it...
She remembered David's words: "You're not alone."
Tally closed her eyes and slumped to one side, letting her head crack against the floor. She waited there, unmoving.
A long moment later, the door slid open.
"That took long enough." The voice was nervous, lingering hesitantly in the hallway.
A few footsteps. "Well, like you said, she's some kind of superfreak. But she's headed for normalville now."
"And you're sure she's not going to wake up?"
A foot prodded her in the side. "See? Out cold."
The kick sent a flash of rage through Tally, but in her month of solitude she'd learned to control herself. When the foot nudged at her again, Tally allowed herself to be rolled over onto her back.
"Don't move, Tally. Don't do anything. Wait for me..."
Tally wanted to whisper, Who are you? but she didn't dare. The two who'd gassed her were kneeling over her now, shifting her weight onto a hovercarrier.
She let them take her away.
Tally listened to the echoes carefully.
The halls of Special Circumstances were much emptier now; most of the cruel pretties had already been changed. She caught a few words of passing conversations, but none carried the razor sharpness of a Special's voice.
She wondered if they had saved her for the very last.
The elevator trip was short, probably only one floor up, where the main operating rooms were.
She heard a double door slide open, and felt her body turning at a sharp angle. The carrier glided into a smaller room filled with metal surfaces and antiseptic smells.
Tally's entire being ached to leap from the hovercarrier, to fight her way to the surface. She'd escaped from this very building as an ugly. If the other Specials really were all gone, no one could stop her now...
But she kept control, waiting for the voice to tell her what to do.
Repeating to herself: I'm not alone.
They stripped her clothes off and lifted her into an operating tank, the room's sounds muted by its plastic walls. She felt the cold smoothness of the table against her back, the metal claw of a servo-arm poking into her shoulder. She imagined it sprouting a scalpel, cutting the Cutter one last time, tearing her specialness out of her.
A dermal braid was pressed against her arm, its needles spraying a flash of local painkiller before sliding into her veins. She wondered when they'd start pumping serious anesthetic into her, and if her metabolism could keep her awake.
As the tank was sealed, Tally's breathing grew panicked. She hoped the two orderlies didn't notice the flash tattoos spinning all over her face.
They sounded very busy, though. Machines were booting up all around the room, beeping and humming, servo-arms stirring around her, their little saws buzzing through test patterns.
Two hands reached in and shoved a breathing tube into her mouth. The plastic tasted like disinfectant, and the air that flowed from it was sterile and unnatural. As the tube booted up, reaching tendrils around her nose and head, it almost made her gag.
She wanted to rip the thing out and fight.
But the voice had told her to wait. Whoever had made her knockout gas harmless must have a plan. She had to remain calm.
Then the tank began to fill.
Liquid poured in from all sides, pooling around her naked body, thick and viscous, full of nutrients and nanos to keep her tissues alive while the surgeons were shredding her to pieces. Its temperature matched her body's, but when the solution ran into her ears, a shiver traveled through Tally The sounds of the room were muffled almost into silence.
The fluid rose above her eyes, over the tip of her nose, covering her completely...
She sucked the recycled air from the tube, fighting to keep her eyes closed. Now that she was practically deaf, keeping herself blind was torture.
"On my way, Tally," the voice in her head hissed.
Or had she just imagined it?
She was trapped now, immobilized, and the city could take its final revenge on her: grinding down her bones to reduce her to average pretty height; cutting the harsh angles from her cheeks; stripping out the beautiful muscles and bones, the chips in her jaw and hands, her lethal fingernails; replacing her black and perfect eyes. Making her a bubblehead again.
Only this time she was awake, and would feel it all...
Then Tally heard a sound, something smacking hard against the plastic side of the tank - she opened her eyes.
The operating solution made everything blurry, but through the transparent tank walls she saw furious movement, heard another muffled crash. One of the blinking machines toppled over.
Her rescuer was here.
Tally leaped into motion, tearing the dermal braid from her arm, then reaching up to yank the breathing tube out of her mouth. The device squirmed, its tendrils tightening across the back of her head, trying to stay on. She bit down on it, her ceramic teeth rending the plastic, and it died in her hand, spitting out a final spray of air bubbles into Tally's face.
She scrambled for a grip on the tanks edges, trying to pull herself up and out. But a transparent barrier barred her way.
Crap! she thought, fingers scrabbling for any gap in the plastic walls. She'd never seen an operating tank in use; when they were empty, the top was always open! Tally scratched the sides with her nails, scoring them as her panic built.
But the walls didn't break...
Her shoulder brushed against a servo-arm's scalpel, already deployed, and a pink cloud of blood blossomed across her vision. The nanos in the operating fluid took only seconds to staunch the bleeding.
Well, that's convenient, she thought. Of course, breathing would be nice too!
She peered out through the blurry solution. The fight was still going on, one figure against many.
Hurry up! she thought, scrambling to find the breathing tube again. She shoved it into her mouth, but it was dead, clogged by the operating fluid.
At the top of the tank was a bare centimeter of airspace, and Tally pushed herself up to suck in the tiny bit of oxygen. But it wouldn't last long. She had to get out of this thing!
She tried to pound her way through the tank wall, but the solution was too thick and viscous.
Tally's fist moved in slow motion, like punching through molasses.
Red dots sparkled at the edge of her vision...her lungs were empty.
Then she saw a blurry figure stumbling straight toward her, thrown back from the fight. It crashed against the side of the tank, making the whole thing wobble unsteadily on its stand.
Maybe that was the way.
Tally began to rock herself from side to side, setting the solution sloshing around her, the tank swaying a little farther each time. Scalpels tore at her shoulders as she threw herself one way and then the next, the buzz of repair nanos matching the swarming dots before her eyes, a pink tinge of blood filling the liquid.
But finally the tank was tipping over.
The world seemed to tilt around her, liquids swirling as she tumbled, the whole tank turning as it fell. Tally heard the muffled smack of plastic as she hit the floor, saw the tank's walls webbing with cracks. Solution drained from around her, sound rushing back into her ears as she drew her first breath of air.
She dug her fingernails into the fractured plastic and tore, pulling her way free from the operating tank.
Bleeding and naked, Tally stumbled forward, gasping for more air, the solution clinging to her as if she'd stepped from a bathtub full of honey. Unconscious doctors and orderlies lay in a pile, the solution rolling across them.
Her rescuer stood before her. "Shay?" Tally wiped the liquid from her eyes. "David?"
"Didn't I tell you to lie still? Or must you always destroy everything?"
Tally blinked, unable to believe her eyes. It was Dr. Cable.
She looked a thousand years old. Her eyes had lost the blackness in their depths, their evil sparkle. Like Fausto, she had become champagne without bubbles. Cured at last.
But she still managed to sneer.
Gasping for air, Tally said, "What are you ... ?"
"Rescuing you," Dr. Cable said.
Tally looked at the door, listening for alarms, for footsteps.
The old woman shook her head. "I built this place, Tally. I know its tricks. No one's coming. Let me rest a moment." She sat heavily on the soaking floor. "I'm too old for this."
Tally stared down at her old enemy, hands still curled into deadly claws. But Dr. Cable was panting, a cut on her lip beginning to bleed. She looked like a very old crumbly, one whose life extension treatments were running out.
Except for the three unconscious doctors who lay at her feet.
"You still have special reflexes?"
"I'm not special at all, Tally. I'm pathetic." The old woman shrugged. "But I'm still dangerous."
"Oh." Tally wiped more operating solution from her eyes. "Took you long enough, though."
"Yes, that was clever Tally, taking out your breathing tube first."
"Sure, great plan, leaving me in there until they almost ..." Tally blinked. "Um, why are you doing this again?"
Dr. Cable smiled. "I'll tell you, Tally if you answer me a question first." Her eyes grew sharp for a moment. "What did you do to me?"
It was Tally's turn to smile. "I cured you."
"I know that, you little fool. But howl"
"Remember when you snatched my transmitter? It wasn't a transmitter at all - it was an injector.
Maddy's made a cure for Specials."
"That miserable woman again." Dr. Cable's gaze sank back to the soaking floor. "The Council's reopened the city's borders. Her pills are everywhere."
Tally nodded. "I can tell."
"Everything's going to pieces," Dr. Cable hissed, glaring up at Tally. "It won't be long before they start chewing up the wild, you know."
"Yeah, I know. Just like in Diego." Tally sighed, remembering Andrew Simpson Smith's forest fire. "Freedom has a way of destroying things, I guess."
"And you call this a cure, Tally? It's letting loose a cancer on the world."
Tally shook her head slowly. "So that's why you're here, Dr. Cable? To blame me for everything?"
"No. I'm here to let you go."
Tally looked up - this had to be a trick, some way for Dr. Cable to get her final revenge. But the thought of being out under the open sky again sent a painful ping of hope through her.
She swallowed. "But didn't I, you know, destroy your world?"
Dr. Cable stared at her for a long time with her unfocused, watery eyes. "Yes. But you're the last one, Tally. I've watched Shay and the others on the Diego propaganda feeds - they aren't right anymore.
Maddy's cure, I suppose." She sighed slowly. "They're no more right than I am. The Council has despecialized almost all of us."
Tally nodded. "But why me?"
"You're the only real Cutter left," Dr. Cable said. "The last of my Specials designed to live in the wild, to exist outside the cities. You can escape this, can disappear forever. I don't want my work to become extinct, Tally. Please ..."