"But Zane was practically special back when he led the Crims. Doesn't Cable understand that?"
"But he didn't really change until after he took Maddy's pill." Shay scooted closer and put her arm around Tally's shoulder, her eyes flickering red in the firelight. "You and I thought our way out, without any help."
"Zane and I started changing from the first time we kissed," Tally said, pulling away. "If he hadn't gotten his brain toasted, he'd be one of us by now."
"So what are you worried about?" Shay shrugged. "He did it once, he can do it again."
Tally turned to glare at Shay, unable to say what they were both wondering. Was Zane still the bubbly guy who'd started the Crims? Or had his brain damage changed all that, dooming him to stay a bubblehead for the rest of his life?
The whole thing was totally unfair. Completely random.
When the Smokies had brought the first nanos into New Pretty Town, they'd left two pills for Tally to find, along with a letter from herself warning about the dangers, but saying she'd given 'informed consent.' She'd been too scared at first, but Zane was always bubbly, always trying to escape from being pretty-minded. He'd offered to take the untried pills.
The nanos were supposed to free the pretties, turning them from bubbleheads into...well, no one had ever bothered to figure out what exactly. What would you do with a bunch of spoiled, superbeautiful people with no limits on their appetites? Let them loose on the fragile world, to destroy it the way the Rusties almost had three centuries before?
In any case, the cure hadn't really worked like it was supposed to. Tally and Zane had split the pills, and Zane had gotten the unlucky one. The nanos in it had eaten the lesions that made him a bubblehead, but then they'd kept right on going, eating away more and more of his mind...
Tally shuddered at the thought of how lucky she'd been. The only purpose of her pill had been to switch off the nanos in the other one. Alone, it hadn't done anything - she'd only thought she'd taken the cure. And yet she'd managed to stop being a bubblehead all on her own - no nanos, no operation, not even cutting herself like Shay's crew had.
That was why she was in Special Circumstances.
"But either one of us could have taken that pill," Tally said softly. "It's not fair."
"Sure, it's not fair. But that doesn't make it your fault, Tally." A laughing, barefoot Cutter ran through the coals before them, scattering sparks. "You were the lucky one. That's what happens when you're special. Why feel guilty?"
"I never said I felt guilty." Tally snapped a stick in two. "I just want to do something about it. So I'm coming with you tonight, okay?"
"I'm not sure you're up to it, Tally-wa."
"I'm fine. As long as I don't have to stick any plastic on my face."
Shay laughed, reaching out to trace the sweeping lines of Tally's flash tattoos with her pinkie-nail.
"I'm not worried about your face - just your brain. Two ex-boyfriends in a row could mess with it."
Tally turned away. "Zane's not an ex-boyfriend. He might be a bubblehead right now, but hell think his way out."
"Look at you," Shay said. "You're shaking. That's not very icy."
Tally looked down at her hands. Made fists to control them.
She kicked a hefty log onto the fire, scattering sparks. Watching as the flames wrapped around it, she opened her hands to the heat. Somehow, the freezing river had given her a chill that wouldn't leave, no matter how close she sat to the blaze.
She just needed to see Zane again, and this weird feeling in her bones would go away.
"Are you shivering because you saw David?"
"David?" Tally snorted. "What gave you that idea?"
"Don't be embarrassed, Tally-wa. No one can be icy all the time. Maybe you just need a cut."
Shay drew her knife.
Tally wanted to, but she snorted and spat into the fire. Shay wasn't going to make her feel weak this way. "I handled David just fine...better than you did, I seem to remember."
Shay laughed and punched Tally on the shoulder playfully, except it actually hurt.
"Ouch, Boss," Tally said. Apparently, Shay was still unhappy about being beaten in hand-to-hand combat by a random the night before.
Shay looked down at her fist. "Sorry. Didn't mean that, really."
"Whatever. So are we even now? Can I go see Zane with you?"
Shay groaned. "Not while he's still a bubblehead, Tally-wa. It'll only freak you out. Why don't you go help look for Fausto instead?"
"You don't really think they'll find anything, do you?"
Shay shrugged, then flicked off her skintenna connection to the other Cutters. "Have to give them something to do," she said softly.
Later, the others were going to head out on their hoverboards and scan the wild. The Smokies couldn't remove Fausto's skintenna without killing him, so his signal would read from a kilometer or so away. But mere kilometers meant nothing in the wild, Tally knew. On her way to the Smoke, she'd traveled at hoverboard speeds for days without encountering any sign of humanity had seen whole cities submerged in desert sands and jungle. If the Smokies wanted to disappear, the natural world was more than big enough.
Tally snorted. "Doesn't mean you have to waste my time too."
"How many times do I have to explain this, Tally-wa? You're special now. You shouldn't be mooning over some bubblehead. You're a Cutter, Zane's not - it's as simple as that."
"If it's so simple, then why do I feel this way?"
Shay let out a groan. "Because, Tally, you're up to your usual trick: making things complicated."
Tally sighed and kicked at the fire, sending a stream of sparks into the air. She remembered a lot of times when she'd been contented - as a bubblehead, even as a Smokey But somehow her satisfaction never lasted very long. She always found herself changing, pushing against the limits, and ruining things for everyone around her.
"It's not always my fault," she said softly. "Things just get complicated, sometimes."
"Well, trust me on this one, Tally. Seeing Zane is going to make things really complicated. Just give him time to find his own way here. Aren't you happy with us?"
Tally nodded slowly - she was happy. Her special senses made the whole world icy, and every moment spent in this new body was better than a year of being pretty. But now that she knew Zane was healthy, his absence muddled everything. Suddenly, she felt unfinished and unreal.
"I'm happy, Shay-la. But remember when Zane and I escaped the city last time? And we left you behind? Well, I can't do that again."
Shay shook her head. "Sometimes you have to let people go, Tally-wa."
"So I should have let you go last night, Shay? Just let you drown?"
Shay groaned. "Great example, Tally. Look, this is for your own good. Believe me, you don't want this complication."
"Then let's make it simple, Shay-la." Tally put the tip of her thumb between her razor teeth and bit down. With a prick of pain, the iron taste of blood spread across her tongue, and her mind cleared a little.
"Once Zane is special, I'll stop. I'll never make things complicated again." She held out her hand.
"I promise, blood for blood."
Shay stared at the little drop of blood. "You swear to that?"
"Yes. I'll be a good little Cutter and do whatever you and Dr. Cable tell me. Just give me Zane."
Shay paused for a moment, then flicked her own thumb across her knife, watching thoughtfully as the blood welled up. "All I ever wanted was for us to be on the same side, Tally."
"Me too. I just want Zane here with us."
"Anything to make you happy." Shay smiled and took Tally's hand, squeezing their thumbs together...hard. "Blood for blood."
As the pain pushed through her, Tally felt her mind grow icy for the first time all day. She could see her future now, a clear path with no more reversals or confusions. She'd fought being ugly and she'd fought being pretty, but that was all over - she just wanted to be special from now on.
"Thank you, Shay-la," Tally said softly. "I'll keep this promise."
Shay released her, cleaning the knife with a few quick swipes across her thigh. "I'll make sure that you do."
Tally swallowed, then licked her still-throbbing thumb. "So can I come with you tonight, Boss?
"I suppose you have to now," Shay said, smiling sadly. "But you might not like what you see."
NEW PRETTY TOWN
After the others headed into the wild, Shay and Tally banked the bonfire, jumped on their boards, and flew toward the city.
New Pretty Town was lit with colorful explosions in the sky, just like every other night. Tethered hot-air balloons floated above the party spires, and gas torches lit the pleasure gardens, like bright snakes ascending the island's sloping sides. The tallest buildings cast jittering shadows in the fireworks'
momentary light, reshaping the city's silhouette with every burst.
As they approached New Pretty Town, the ragged cheers of drunken bubbleheads scattered down to meet them. For a moment, the joyous sound made Tally feel like an envious ugly watching from across the river, waiting to turn sixteen. This was her first trip back to New Pretty Town since becoming a Special.
"Do you ever miss pretty days, Shay-la?" she said. They'd only spent a couple of months together in bubblehead paradise before everything had gotten complicated. "It was kind of fun."
"It was bogus," Shay said. "I'd rather have a brain."
Tally sighed. She couldn't disagree - but having a brain hurt so much sometimes. She licked her thumb, where a red spot still marked her promise.
Climbing the island's slope through a pleasure garden, the two of them kept to the shadows, heading for the center of town. They glided right above a few entangled couples, but no one spotted them overhead.
"Told you we didn't need to switch on our sneak suits, Tally-wa." Shay chuckled softly, letting the skintenna network carry her words. "When it comes to bubbleheads, we're already invisible."
Tally didn't answer, just looked down at the new pretties passing below. They looked so clueless, so completely unaware of all the dangers they had to be protected from. Their lives might be full of pleasure, but they seemed so meaningless to her now. She couldn't let Zane live like this.
Suddenly, laughter and screams came through the trees, approaching fast ... at hoverboard speed. Flicking her sneak suit on, Tally angled into the thick pine needles of the nearest treetops. A line of boarders came slaloming through the garden, laughing like hysterical demons. She crouched lower, feeling her suit sprout dappled camouflage and wondering how so many uglies had snuck over to New Pretty Town all at once. Not a bad trick...
Maybe this bunch would be worth following.
But then she saw their faces: beautiful and huge-eyed, perfect in symmetry, absolutely clear of blemishes. They were pretties.
They shot past unaware, shrieking at the top of their lungs, zooming toward the river. Their screams faded, leaving only the smell of perfume and champagne.
"Boss, did you see - "
"Yeah, Tally-wa, I did." Shay was silent for a moment.
Tally swallowed. Bubbleheads didn't hoverboard. You needed all your reflexes to stay on; you couldn't be all fuzzy-brained and easily distracted. When new pretties wanted thrills, they jumped off buildings wearing bungee jackets or rode in hot-air balloons, things that didn't require any skill.
But these pretties hadn't simply been boarding; they'd been doing it well. Things had changed in New Pretty Town since the last time Tally had been here. She remembered Special Circumstance's latest report, that there were more runaways leaving the city every week, an epidemic of uglies disappearing into the wild. But what would happen if pretties got it into their heads to run away? Shay emerged from her hiding place, her suit shifting from dappled green to matte black. "Maybe the Smokies have been passing out more pills than we thought," she said. "They could be doing it right here in New Pretty Town.