But nothing that sounded like a human moved on the forest floor.
Tally smiled. At least David was making this interesting, standing perfectly still like this. But even with sneak suits hiding their body heat, the Smokies couldn't remain motionless forever.
Besides, she could feel him out there. He was close.
Tally silenced her skintenna feed, switching off the noise of the other Cutters, leaving herself in a hushed, infrared world. Kneeling, she closed her eyes, placing one bare palm on the hard, frozen ground.
Her special hands had chips in them that caught the slightest vibration, and Tally let her whole body listen for stray sounds.
There was something in the air ... a hum at the edge of hearing, more an itch in her ears than a real noise. It was one of those ghostly presences she could hear now, like the buzz of her own nervous system or the sizzle of fluorescent lights. So many sounds that were inaudible to uglies and bubbleheads reached a Special's ears, as strange and unexpected as the whorls and ridges of human skin under a microscope.
But what exactly was it? The sound ebbed and flowed with the breeze, like the notes that sang out from the high tension lines stretching from the city's solar arrays. Maybe it was some kind of trap, a wire strung between two trees. Or was it a razor-sharp knife angled so that it caught the wind?
Tally kept her eyes closed, listening harder, and frowned.
More sounds had joined the first, ringing from all directions now. Three, four, then five high-pitched notes began to ring, their combined volume no louder than a hummingbird at a hundred meters.
She opened her eyes, and as they refocused in the gloom, Tally suddenly saw them: a slight displacement silhouetting five human figures spread through the forest, their sneak suits blending almost perfectly into the background.
Then she saw how they were standing - legs braced apart, one arm pulled back, the other outstretched - and realized what the sounds were...
Bowstrings stretched taut and ready to fire.
"Ambush," Tally said, then realized she'd cut off her skintenna feed.
She rebooted it just as the first arrow flew.
Arrows streaked through the air.
Tally rolled to the ground, flattening herself on a bed of icy, fallen needles. Something whistled past, close enough to ruffle her hair.
Twenty meters away, one of the arrows connected, and an electric buzz shot through her hearing like a network overload, choking off a grunt from Tachs. Then an arrow struck Fausto, and Tally heard him gasp before his feed went silent. She scrambled for cover behind the nearest tree, hearing two bodies thudding against the hard ground. "Shay?" she hissed.
"They missed me," came the answer. "Saw it coming."
"Me too. They've definitely got sneak suits." Tally shoved herself back against the wide trunk, scanning for silhouettes among the trees.
"And infrared, too," Shay said. Her voice was calm.
Tally looked down at her hands, glowing fiercely in infrared, and swallowed. "So they can see us perfectly and we can't see them?"
"Guess I didn't give your boyfriend enough credit, Tally- wa."
"Maybe if you bothered to remember that he was your boyfriend too, you'd ..." Something shifted in the trees ahead, and as her words faded, Tally heard the snap of a bowstring. She threw herself to one side as the arrow struck the tree, letting out a buzz like a shock-stick and covering the trunk in a web of flickering light.
She scrambled away, rolling to a spot where two trees' branches wound around each other.
Squeezing into a narrow crook between them, she said, "What's the plan now, Boss?"
"The plan is we kick their asses, Tally-wa," Shay chided softly. "We're special. They got in the first whack, but they're still just random." Another bowstring snapped and Shay let out a grunt, which was followed by the sound of footsteps sprinting through the brush.
The sound of more bowstrings sent Tally to the ground, but the arrows whipped off into the distance where Shay had retreated. Jittering shadows flickered through the forest, followed by the sounds of electrical discharge.
"Missed again," Shay chuckled to herself.
Tally swallowed, trying to listen through the frantic pounding of her heart, cursing the fact that the Cutters hadn't bothered to bring sneak suits, or throwing weapons, or hardly anything Tally could use right now. All she had was her cutting knife, fingernails, special reflexes, and muscles.
The embarrassing thing was, she'd gotten turned around somehow. Was she really hidden behind
these trees? Or was an attacker looking straight at her, calmly notching another arrow to take her down?
Tally glanced up to try to read the stars, but branches broke the sky into unreadable patterns.
She waited, trying to take slow, steadying breaths. If they hadn't fired at her again, she must be out of sight.
But should she run? Or sit tight?
Pressed between the trees, Tally felt naked. The Smokies had never fought this way before; they always ran away and hid when Specials showed up. Her Cutter training was all about tracking and capturing; no one had ever mentioned invisible attackers.
She glimpsed Shay's hot-yellow form slipping deeper into the Trails, moving farther away, leaving her alone.
"Boss?" she whispered. "Maybe we should call in some regular Specials."
"Forget it, Tally. Don't you dare embarrass me in front of Dr. Cable. Just stay where you are, and I'll swing around from the side. Maybe we can pull off a little ambush of our own."
"Okay. But how's that going to work? I mean, they're invisible and were not even - "
"Patience, Tally-wa. And a little quiet, please."
Tally sighed and forced her eyes closed, willing her heart to beat softer. She listened for the hum of drawn bowstrings.
A wavering pitch sounded not far behind her, a bow pulled taut, its arrow notched and ready to fly. Then another pitch joined in, and a third...but were they aimed at her? She counted a slow ten, waiting for the snap of a loosed arrow.
But no sound came.
She must be hidden here. But she'd counted five Smokies in all. If three had their bows drawn, where were the other two?
Then, even softer than Shay's calm and steady breathing, her ears caught the sound of footsteps moving through the pine needles. But they were too careful, too quiet for a city-born random. Only someone who'd grown up in the wild could move that softly.
Tally stood slowly, sliding her back up the tree trunk, eyes opening.
The footsteps grew closer, coming up on her right. She eased herself sideways, keeping the trees'
bulk between herself and the sound.
Daring a quick glance upward, Tally wondered if the branches were thick enough to shield her body heat from infrared optics. But there was no way she could climb without David hearing.
He was close...Maybe if she darted out and stung him before the other Smokies loosed their arrows. After all, they were just uglies, cocky randoms who no longer had the advantage of surprise.
Tally gave her stinger ring a twist, flipping out a freshly charged needle. "Shay where is he?" she whispered.
"Twelve meters from you." The words were carried on the slightest breath. "Kneeling, looking at the ground."
Even from a standstill, Tally could run twelve meters in a few seconds...Would she be too fast a target for the other Smokies to hit?
"Bad news," Shay breathed. "He's found Tachs's board."
Tally's teeth closed on her lower lip, realizing what the ambush was all about: The Smokies wanted to get hold of a Special Circumstances hoverboard.
"Get ready," Shay said. "I'm headed back toward you." In the distance her glowing form flickered between two trees, brilliantly obvious but too fast and far away to be caught by anything as slow as an arrow.
Tally forced her eyes closed again, listening hard. She heard more footsteps, louder and clumsier than David's - the fifth Smokey searching for another of the Cutters' boards.
It was time to make her move. She opened her eyes...
A sickening sound rumbled through the forest: the lifting fans of a hoverboard starting up, spitting out chopped-up twigs and pine needles.
"Stop him!" Shay hissed.
Tally was already in motion, streaking toward the noise, realizing with a sick feeling that the lifting fans were loud enough to drown out the snap of bowstrings. The board rose before her, a hot-yellow figure on it sagging in the arms of a black silhouette. "He's taking Tachs!" she shouted. Two more steps and she could jump... "Tally, duck!"
She dived for the ground, an arrow's feathers skimming past one shoulder as she twisted through the air, the sizzle of its electric charge raising the hairs on her scalp. Another shot past as Tally rolled to her feet, blindly hoping that more weren't on the way.
The board was three meters up and climbing slowly, wavering under its double load. She jumped straight up, the furious wind of the fans blowing straight down on her. At the last moment Tally imagined her fingers thrusting into the lifting fans - chopped into a spray of blood and gristle - and her nerve faltered. Her fingertips caught the riding surface's edge, barely clinging, and her added weight began to pull the board slowly earthward.
In her peripheral vision, Tally saw an arrow flying toward her, and twisted wildly in midair to dodge it. It shot past, but her fingers had lost their grip. One hand slipped, then the other...
As Tally fell, the growl of a second hoverboard ripped the air. They were stealing another one.
Shay's cry shot through the noise: "Give me a boost!"
Tally landed in a crouch inside the whirlwind of pine needles and saw Shay's yellow-glowing form running full tilt right at her. Tally laced her fingers together and cupped her hands waist-high, ready to throw Shay up at the board, which was straining to climb again.
Another missile streaked toward Tally from the darkness. But if she ducked, Shay would take the arrow in midleap. Her teeth clenched, waiting for the agony of a shock-stick slamming into her spine.
But the board's rotor-wash eased the arrow downward like an invisible hand. It struck between Tally's feet, exploding into a brilliant spiderweb on the icy ground. She tasted electricity in the damp air, and tiny and invisible fingers played across her skin, but her feet were insulated by the soles of her grippy shoes. Then Shay's weight landed in her cupped hands, and Tally grunted, flinging upward with all her strength. Shay screamed as she soared into the air. Tally threw herself to one side, imagining more arrows in flight, her feet skipping across the still-buzzing shockstick. She spun around and fell backward to the ground.
Another arrow shot past her in a blur, missing her face by centimeters...
She glanced up: Shay had landed on the hoverboard, setting it teeter-tottering wildly. The lifting fans shrieked at its triple load. Shay raised a stinger hand, but David's dark silhouette shoved Tachs toward her, forcing her to catch his limp form. She danced at the board's edge, trying to keep them both from tumbling off.
Then David lashed out, catching Shay in the shoulder with a handheld shock-stick. Another web of sparks lit the night sky.
Tally rose to her feet, running back toward the struggle. The Smokies were not fighting fair!
Above her, a bright yellow form was tumbling from the board, headfirst...Tally leaped forward, stretching out her hands. The dead weight thudded into her arms - the special bones as hard as a sack of baseball bats - and sent her sprawling to the ground. "Shay?" she whispered, but it was Tachs.
Tally glanced up. The hoverboard was ten meters up now, hopelessly out of reach, Shay's limp form wrapped around David's sneak-suited darkness in an awkward embrace.
"Shay!" Tally screamed as the hoverboard rose still higher. Then her ears caught the snap of a bowstring, and she threw herself to the ground again.
The arrow missed wildly - whoever had fired it was running. Sneak-suited forms were everywhere, and more boards were buzzing to life all around her, the Smokies lifting into the air.