She twisted her crash bracelet, but there was no responding tug. They had taken all four of the Specials' boards - Tally was stranded on the ground, like some random hiker lost in the forest.
She shook her head in disbelief. Where had the Smokies gotten sneak suits? Since when did they shoot people? How had this easy trick gone so wrong? She connected her skintenna to the city network, about to call Dr. Cable. Then she hesitated a moment, remembering Shay's orders. No calls, no matter what - she couldn't disobey. All four hoverboards were in the air now, their lifting fans giving off orange glimmers of heat. She could see Shay unconscious in David's arms, and the glowing form of another Special being carried off on a different board. Tally cursed. Tachs still lay on the ground, so they'd gotten Fausto, too. She had to call for reinforcements, but that would be breaking orders...A ping came through the network. "Tally?" the distant voice asked. "What's going on out there?"
"Ho! Where are you?"
"Following your locators. A couple of minutes away."
He laughed. "You're not going to believe what that boy at the bash told me. The one your Smokey was dancing with?"
"Never mind! Just get here fast!" Tally scanned the air, watching in frustration as the Cutters'
boards lifted higher into the dark sky. In a minute, the Smokies would be gone for good. It was too late for regular Specials to get here, too late for anything...
Rage and frustration surged through Tally, almost overwhelming her. David was not going to beat her, not this time! She couldn't afford to lose her head. She knew what to do.
Making a claw with her right hand, Tally dug her fingernails into the flesh of her left arm. The delicate nerves woven into her skin screamed, a torrent of pain piling through her, overloading her brain.
But then the special moment struck, icy clarity replacing panic and confusion. She drew in the cold air in gasps...
Of course. David and the girl had ditched their own hoverboards. They had to have left them close by
She turned and ran back toward the city, hunting in the darkness for the half-remembered smell of David.
"What happened?" Ho said. "How come you're the only one online?"
"We got jumped. Be quiet."
Long seconds later, Tally's nose caught something: David's scent lingering where his hands had polished and tuned, where his sweat had fallen in the chase. The Smokies hadn't bothered to recover their old-fashioned boards. She wasn't completely helpless.
At the snap of her fingers, David's board rose from its hasty covering of pine needles and into the air. She jumped on and it wobbled unsteadily like the end of a diving board, without the sense of power that the lifting fans gave. But Tally had ridden one just like it all those months ago, and it was enough for now.
"Ho, I'm coming to meet you!" The board shot along the city's edge, speeding up as its lifters grabbed hold of the magnetic grid.
She climbed up through the trees, scanning the horizon. The Smokies flickered in the distance, the bodies of their two captives glowing like embers in a fire.
Glancing up at the stars, she calculated angles and directions...
The Smokies were headed out toward the river, where they could use magnetics. Carrying two passengers per board, they needed all the lift they could get. "Ho, head for the western edge of the Trails.
"To save time!" She had to keep her quarry in sight. The Smokies might be invisible, but the two captive Specials shone like infrared beacons.
"Okay, I'm coming," Ho answered. "But what's going on again?"
Tally didn't respond, whipping through the treetops like a slalom rider. Ho wasn't going to like what Tally had to do, but there was no other choice. That was Shay out there, being dragged away by David. This was Tally's chance to pay her back for all those old mistakes.
To prove that she was really special.
Ho was there, waiting where the dark trees of the Trails began to thin.
"Hey, Tally," he said as she zoomed toward him. "Why are you riding that piece of junk?"
"Long story." She twisted to a halt beside him.
"Yeah, well, could you please tell me what's - " He let out a startled cry as Tally pushed him off his board, sending him tumbling into the darkness below.
"Sorry, Ho-la," she said, stepping from the Smokey board onto his and angling it toward the river. Its lifting fans spun to life as she crossed the city's border. "Need to borrow your ride. Don't have time to explain."
Another grunt reached her ears as Ho's bracelets brought his fall to a halt. "Tally! What the - "
"They've got Shay Fausto, too. Tachs is back in the Trails, unconscious. Go make sure he's okay"
"What?" Ho's voice was fading as Tally shot out into the wild, leaving the city's network repeaters behind. She scanned the horizon and caught distant flickers of infrared, like two glowing eyes ahead - Fausto and Shay.
The hunt was still on.
"We got jumped. Aren't you listening?" She bared her teeth. "And Shay said no calls to Dr.
Cable. We don't want any help with this." Tally was certain Shay would hate for Special Circumstances to find out that the Cutters - Dr. Cable's very special Specials - had been made fools of.
For that matter, a squadron of screaming hovercars would only let the Smokies know that they were being followed. All alone, Tally might be able to sneak up on them.
She leaned forward, coaxing every bit of speed from her borrowed board, Ho's protests fading behind her.
She was going to catch them. There were five Smokies and two captives on four boards; no way could they make top speed. Tally just had to remember that they were random, and she was special.
She still had a chance to rescue Shay capture David, and make this all okay.
Tally flew low and fast, barely skimming the surface of the river, staring into the dark trees on either side.
Where were they?
The Smokies couldn't be that far in front - not with only a couple of minutes' head start. But like her, they were flying low, using the mineral deposits in the winding riverbed for extra push, keeping under cover of the trees. Even the special-hot infrared glow of Shay's and Fausto's bodies couldn't penetrate the dark cloak of the forest. And that was a problem.
What if they'd already pulled off the river, sneaking into the trees to watch her fly past? On their stolen boards, the Smokies could head off in any direction they wanted.
Tally needed a few seconds up in the sky, looking down. But the Smokies also had infrared. To take a peek without giving herself away, she would have to cool her body temperature way down.
She looked into the dark water rushing past her feet and shivered.
This was not going to be fun.
Tally spun to a stop, freezing spray spitting up from the tail of her board, tickling her arms and face, sending another shiver through her bones. The river was running fast, filled to the brim with melted snow rolling down from the mountains, as chill as a champagne bucket back in bubblehead days.
"Wonderful," Tally said with a scowl, then stepped from the board.
With toes pointed, she barely made a splash, but the freezing water set her heart pounding madly.
In seconds her teeth began to chatter, her muscles clenching, threatening to snap her bones. She pulled Ho's board down into the water beside her, and the lifting fans spat out tendrils of steam as they cooled.
Tally began an endless, torturous count of ten, wishing bad luck and destruction down on David, the Smokies, and whoever it was who'd first invented freezing water. The cold seeped into her body, making her nerves scream and leeching deep into her bones.
But then it hit her, the special moment. It was like when she cut herself, the pain building until she could hardly stand it anymore...then suddenly flipping inside out. And hidden within the agony the strange clarity came again, as if the world had ordered itself into something that made perfect sense.
Just as Dr. Cable had promised so long ago, this was better than bubbly. All of Tally's senses were on fire, but her mind seemed to stand apart from them, observing their sensations without being overwhelmed.
She was non-random, above average...almost beyond human. And she had been made to save the world.
Tally stopped counting and let out a slow, calm breath, and bit by bit, her shivering faded away.
The icy water had lost its power.
She pulled herself back onto Ho's board, grasping its edges with bone-pale knuckles. It took three tries to snap her numbed fingers loud enough, but finally the hoverboard began to rise into the dark sky, climbing as high as the cool and silent magnetic lifters would take it. As she cleared the trees, the wind hit like an avalanche of cold, but Tally ignored it, her eyes sweeping across the marvelously clear world below.
There they were - only a kilometer or so ahead - a flicker of boards against the black water, a glimpse of a glowing human in infrared. The Smokies seemed to be going slowly, hardly moving at all.
Maybe they were resting, unaware that they were being followed. But to Tally, it was as if her moment of icy focus had stopped them in their tracks.
She let the board drop, falling out of sight before her body heat could cut through the chill of soaked clothes. The costume dorm uniform clung to her like a wet woolen blanket. Pulling off the jacket, Tally let it fall into the river.
Her board roared back to life, skimming forward with fans fully engaged, leaving a meter-high wake.
Tally might be soaking and frozen to the bone, and only one against five, but the dunking had cleared her head. She felt her special senses dissecting the forest around her, her instincts spinning, her mind calculating from the stars overhead exactly how long it would take to catch up.
Her hands flexed numbly, but Tally knew that they were the only weapons she needed, no matter what other little tricks the Smokies had brought along.
She was ready for this fight.
Sixty seconds later, she saw it: a lone hoverboard waiting for her, just past a bend in the river. Its rider stood calmly, black silhouette holding the glowing form of a Special.
Tally swirled to a halt, whipping in a tight circle to scan the trees. The forest's deep purple background was filled with half-glimpsed shapes whipped into motion by the wind, but no human forms.
She looked at the dark figure blocking the river before her. The sneak suit hid his face, but Tally remembered the way David stood on a hoverboard: his back foot pointed forty-five degrees out, like a dancer waiting for the music to start. And she could feel that it was him.
The glowing-hot form sagging in his arms had to be Shay, still unconscious.
"You saw me following you?" she asked.
He shook his head. "No, but I knew you would."
"What is this? Another ambush?"
"We need to talk."
"While your friends get farther away?" Tally's hands flexed, but she didn't shoot forward and attack. It was strange to hear David's voice again. It traveled clearly over the rushing water, carrying a hint of nerves.
She realized that he was scared of her.
Of course he was, but it still felt strange...
"Can you remember me?" he asked.
"What do you think, David?" Tally scowled. "I remembered you even when I was a bubblehead.
You always made a big impression."
"Good," he said, like she'd meant that as a compliment. "Then you remember the last time you saw me. You'd figured out how the city had messed up your head. You forced yourself to think clearly again, not like a pretty. And you escaped. Remember?"
"I remember my boyfriend lying on a pile of blankets, half-brain-dead," she said. "Thanks to those pills your mother cooked up."
At the mention of Zane, a tremor went through David's dark form. "That was a mistake."
"A mistake? You mean, you sent those pills to me accidentally?"