Tally blinked. She'd never thought of herself as some sort of endangered animal. But she wasn't about to argue. The thought of freedom made her head spin.
"Just get out, Tally. Take any elevator to the roof. The building's almost empty, and I've shut down most of the cameras. And frankly, no one can stop you. Leave, and for my sake, keep yourself special. The world may need you, one day."
Tally swallowed. Just walking out seemed too simple. "What about a hoverboard?"
"It's waiting for you on the roof, of course." Dr. Cable snorted. "What is it about you miscreants and those things?"
Tally looked down at the three unconscious forms on the floor.
"They'll be fine," Cable snorted. "I am a doctor, you know."
"Sure you are," Tally muttered, kneeling to gently peel the scrubs from one of the orderlies. When she pulled them on, the operating solution soaked through in dark blotches, but at least she wasn't naked anymore.
She took a step toward the door, but turned back to face Dr. Cable.
"Aren't you worried I'll get myself cured? Then there won't be any of us left."
The woman looked up, and her defeated expression changed, a glint of the old evil returning to her eyes. "My faith in you has always been rewarded, Tally Youngblood. Why should I start worrying now?"
When she reached the open air, Tally stood for a long minute looking up at the darkened sky.
She didn't worry about pursuers. Cable had been right: Who was left to stop her?
The stars and the crescent moon glowed softly, the wind carrying scents from the wild. After a month of recycled air, the cool summer breeze tasted alive on her tongue. Tally breathed in the icy world.
She was finally free of her cell, of the operating tank, of Dr. Cable. No one would change her against her will, not ever again. There would be no more Special Circumstances.
But even as relief spread through her, Tally felt herself bleeding inside. Freedom was cutting her.
Zane was still dead, after all.
The taste of salt found its way to Tally's lips, a reminder of that last bitter kiss by the sea. The scene that she'd reimagined every hour in her underground cell: the last time she'd spoken to him, the test she'd failed, pushing him away. But somehow the memory played differently this time, long and slow and sweet in her mind - as if she hadn't felt Zane trembling, as if she'd let that kiss go on and on. ...
She tasted salt again, and finally felt the heat streaming down her cheeks. Tally reached her hands up, not quite believing until she saw her own fingertips glistening in the starlight.
Specials didn't cry, but her tears had finally come.
Before she left the city Tally booted her skintenna, and found three messages waiting for her.
The first was from Shay. It told her that the Cutters were staying in Diego. After their help in the Town Hall attack, they had become the city's defense force, not to mention its firefighters, rescue workers, and heroes of last resort. The City Council had even changed the laws to let them keep their morphological violations, for the moment, anyway.
Except the fingernails and teeth. Those had to go.
With Town Hall still a pile of rubble, Diego needed all the help it could get. Though the cure was already invading other cities, slowly changing the entire continent, new runaways still arrived in Diego every day, ready to embrace the New System.
The old static bubblehead culture had been replaced by a world where change was paramount.
So one day some other city would catch up - from now on fashions were guaranteed to shift - but for the moment, Diego was still the place that changed faster than everywhere else. It was the place to be, and it grew larger every day.
Shay's original message had been appended hourly, a diary of the challenges the Cutters faced as they helped to rebuild a city even as it transformed before their eyes. It seemed that Shay wanted Tally to know everything, so that she could jump right in and help when she was freed at last.
Shay was sorry about one thing, though. They'd all heard about the despecializations. They were public knowledge, a gesture of peace. The Cutters desperately wanted to come and rescue Tally, but they couldn't just rush in and attack the city now that they had become Diego's official defense force.
They couldn't reignite this war when it was so close to fizzling out. Tally could see that, right?
But Tally Youngblood would always be a Cutter, whether she was special or not...
The second message was from David's mother.
She said that David had left Diego, had struck out into the wild. The Smokies were spreading across the continent, still working to smuggle the cure into those cities that clung to the bubblehead operation. In not too long, they would be sending an expedition into the deep south, and another across the seas to the eastern continents. Everywhere, it seemed, runaways were already streaming from their cities, setting up their own New Smokes, inspired by ugly rumors from afar.
There was an entire world waiting to be liberated, if Tally wanted to lend a hand.
Maddy ended with the words, "Join us. And if you see my son, tell him I love him."
The third message was from Peris.
He and the other Crims had left Diego. They were working on a special project for the city government, but they didn't much like staying in town. It was really bogus, it turned out, living in a place where everyone was Crim.
So they traveled across the wild, gathering up the villagers that the Smokies had released. They were teaching them about technology, about how the world outside their reservations worked, and about how not to start forest fires. Eventually, the villagers they worked with would go back to their own people and help bring them out into the world.
In return, the Crims were learning everything about the wild, how to hunt and fish and live off the land, gathering the knowledge of the pre-Rusties before it was lost again.
Tally smiled as she read the last lines:
This one guy, Andrew Something, says he knows you? How did that happen? He says to tell you, "Keep challenging the gods." Whatever.
Anyway, see you soon, Tally-wa. Best friends forever, finally!
Tally didn't answer any of them, not yet. She hoverboarded up the river, taking one last ride through the rapids that she would never see again.
Moonlight illuminated the white water, each burst of spray glittering around her like an explosion of diamonds. The icicles had all melted in the warm air of early summer, releasing the pine smell of the forest to coat her tongue like syrup. Tally didn't gesture for infrared vision, letting her other senses probe the darkness unassisted.
Amid all this beauty, Tally knew exactly what she had to do.
Her lifting fans sprang to life as she took the old familiar path, down the trail that led to the natural vein of iron discovered by some tricky ugly generations ago. She skimmed across it on magnetics, down into the dark bowl of the Rusty Ruins.
The dead buildings rose up around her, towering monuments to the people who had once let themselves grow too greedy and too many, hungry billions of them spreading across the globe.
Tally stared long and hard as she passed the burnt-out cars and gaping windows, her special eyes returning the blank gaze of a crumbling skull. She never wanted to forget this place.
Not with all these changes coming...
Her hoverboard climbed the iron frame of the tallest building, the place Shay had brought her that first night she'd been Outside, almost exactly a year ago. On silent magnetics, Tally drifted up through its empty shell, the silent city sprawling around her through the empty window frames.
But when she reached the top, David was gone.
His sleeping bag and other equipment had all disappeared, only empty self-heating meals remained scattered around the half-crumbled section of floor. There were a lot of them - he'd waited for her a long time.
He'd also taken the crude antenna he'd pinged her with.
Tally flicked on her skintenna and felt it reach out across the dead and empty city, waiting with her eyes closed for some kind of reply.
But no ping came. A kilometer was nothing in the wild.
She went higher, up to the summit of the tower, slipping through one of the gaping holes in the roof up into the rushing wind. Her board kept climbing until its magnetics lost their grip on the skyscraper's iron frame. Then her lifting fans spun to life, turning red-hot as they strained to push her higher.
"David?" she said softly.
Still no answer.
Then she remembered Shay's old trick, back in ugly days.
Tally knelt on the wavering, windblown board and reached a hand into its storage compartment.
Dr. Cable had loaded it with medspray, smart plastic, firestarters, and even a single meal of SpagBol, just for old times' sake.
Then Tally's fingers closed around a safety flare.
She lit it, raising it in one hand, the fierce wind scattering a stream of sparks behind her as long as a kite string. "I'm not alone," she said.
She held it there until the hoverboard grew white-hot beneath her feet, the flare finally sputtering out to a single glowing ember.
Then Tally dropped back into the Rusty skyscraper and curled up on the high section of broken floor, suddenly overwhelmed by her escape, almost too exhausted to care if anyone had seen her signal.
David came at dawn.
"Where were you?" she said sleepily.
He stepped from his board, exhausted and unshaven. But David's eyes were wide. "I've been trying to get into the city. Trying to find you." Tally frowned. "The borders are open again, aren't they?"
"Maybe if you know how cities work ..." She laughed. David had spent all of his eighteen years out in the wild. He didn't know how to deal with simple things like security drones.
"I made it in finally," he continued. "But then I had some trouble finding Special Circumstances headquarters." He sat down wearily.
"But you saw my flare."
"Yeah, I did." He smiled, but he was watching her closely. "The reason I was trying to ..." He swallowed. "I can pick up the city feeds on my antenna. It said they were going to change you all. Turn you into something less dangerous. Are you still ... ?" She gazed at him. "What do you think, David?" He peered into her eyes for a long moment, then sighed and shook his head. "You just look like Tally to me."
She looked down, her vision blurring.
"What's the matter?"
"Nothing, David." She shook her head. "You just took on five million years of evolution again."
"I what? Did I say something wrong?"
"No." She smiled. "You said something right."
They ate a meal of city food, Tally swapping the SpagBol in her storage compartment for a can of David's PadThai.
She told him how she'd used his injector to change Dr. Cable, and about her month of captivity, and how she'd finally escaped. She explained that the debates David had heard on the newsfeeds meant that the cure was taking hold, the city transforming at last.
The Smokies had won, even here.
"So you're still special?" he finally asked.
"My body is. But the rest of me, I think that's all..." She had to swallow before using Zane's word. "Rewired."
David smiled. "I knew you'd manage."
"That's why you waited here, isn't it?"
"Of course. Someone had to." He cleared his throat. "My mom thinks I'm busy seeing the world, spreading the revolution."
Tally looked out at the ruined city. "The revolution's going pretty well on its own, David. It's unstoppable now."
"Yeah." Then he sighed. "But it's not like I did a very good job of saving you."
"I'm not the one who needs saving, David," Tally said. "Not anymore. Oh, right! I forgot to mention, Maddy sent me a message for you."
His eyebrows went up. "She sent you a message for me?"