After all, if they've got sneak suits, they can go anywhere."
Tally's eyes scanned the trees around them. In a well-tuned suit, as David's ambush had proven, you could hide even from a Special's senses. "That reminds me, Boss. Where did the Smokies get hold of those suits? They couldn't make them, could they?"
"No way. And they didn't steal them either. Dr. Cable said that all the cities keep track of their military equipment. But nobody's reporting anything missing, not anywhere on the continent."
"You told her about last night?"
"About the sneak suits, yes. But not about losing Fausto or our boards."
Tally pondered this, floating in a lazy arc above a flickering torch. "So...you think the Smokies found some old Rusty technology?"
"Sneak suits are too clever for the Rusties. They were only good at killing." Shay's voice faded, and she stayed silent for a moment as a group of Bashers walked through the trees below, drumming loudly as they headed to some party by the river. Tally peered down, wondering if they looked more lively than normal Bashers. Was everyone in town getting more bubbly? Maybe the nanos' effects would rub off even on pretties who hadn't taken a pill - just as being around Zane had always made her bubblier.
After the group had passed, Shay said, "Dr. C thinks the Smokies have some new friends. City friends."
"But only Special Circumstances has sneak suits. Why would one of us - ?"
"I didn't say this city, Tally-wa."
"Oh," Tally murmured. Cities didn't usually mess with one another's business - that sort of conflict was too dangerous. It could wind up like the wars the Rusties used to have, with whole continents vying for control, trying to kill one another. Just the thought of fighting with another city's Special Circumstances sent a nervous trickle down her spine...
They landed on top of Pulcher Mansion, coming down among solar cells and air extractors. A few bubbleheads stood on the roof, but they were transfixed by the dance of hot-air balloons and fireworks overhead and didn't see a thing.
It felt strange being on the roof of Pulcher again. Tally had practically lived here with Zane last winter, but she saw everything differently now. Smelled it differently too - scents of human habitation came from the spinning air extractors that dotted the roof. Totally unlike the fresh air of the wild, it made her feel anxious and crowded.
"Check this out, Tally-wa," Shay said, sending a vision overlay through her skintenna. Tally opened it, and the building underfoot faded to transparency, revealing a grid of blue lines marked with glowing blobs.
She blinked a few times, trying to make sense of the overlay. "Is this some kind of infrared?"
Shay laughed. "No, Tally-wa. It's a feed from the city interface." She pointed to a cluster of blobs two floors below. "That's Zane-la and some friends. He's still in his old room, see?"
As Tally focused on each blob in turn, a name popped up beside it. She remembered the interface rings that bubbleheads and uglies wore, and how the city used them to keep track of people.
Like all troublemaking pretties, though, Zane had probably been fitted with a bracelet, which was basically an interface ring that you couldn't take off.
The other blobs in Zane's room were labeled with names, most of which she didn't recognize. All her old Crim friends had been part of last winters big escape into the wild. Like Tally, they'd thought their way out of being bubbleheads, so they were Specials now - except for those who were still out in the wild, still Smokies.
Peris's name hovered right next to Zane's. Peris had been Tally's best friend since they were littlies, but during the escape he'd backed out at the last minute, deciding to stay a bubblehead. He was one pretty who would never be special, that much Tally knew.
But at least Zane had a familiar face around.
She frowned. "It must be weird for Zane. Everyone can recognize him from all the tricks we pulled, but he might not even remember any of it..." She let her whisper fade, pushing the awful thoughts away.
"At least he's got some standards," Shay said. "There's about a dozen bashes happening in New Pretty Town tonight, but apparently none of them are bubbly enough for Zane and his crew."
"But they're just sitting around in his room." None of the blobs looked to be moving much.
Whatever they were up to, it didn't look very bubbly.
"Yeah. Talking in private is going to be tricky." Shay had planned to trail Zane for a while, then pull him aside in some dark spot between parties.
"Why are they all doing nothing?"
Shay touched Tally's shoulder. "Relax, Tally-wa. If they let him come back to New Pretty Town, Zane's fit to party. What would be the point otherwise? Maybe it's too early, and going out would be bogus."
"I hope so."
Shay made a gesture, and the vision overlay faded a little, the real world around them coming back into focus. She pulled on her climbing gloves. "Come on, Tally-wa. Let's go find out for ourselves."
"Can't we hear them through the city interface?"
"Not unless we want Dr. Cable listening in. I'd rather keep this between us Cutters."
Tally smiled. "Okay, Shay-la. So, between us Cutters, what exactly is the plan tonight?"
"I thought you wanted to see Zane," Shay said, then shrugged. "Anyway, Specials don't need plans."
Climbing was easy these days.
Tally didn't fear heights anymore - they didn't even make her icy There was only the slightest sensation of warning as she looked over the edge of the roof. Nothing panicky or nervous-making - more like a little reminder from her brain to be careful.
She swung both legs over and lowered herself, letting her feet slide down Pulcher Mansion's smooth wall. One grippy-shoed toe wedged into a seam between two sections of ceramic, and she paused, letting the sneak suit turn itself the color of the mansion. She felt its scales shifting to match the building's texture.
When the suit finished its adjustments, Tally released her hold on the roof-ledge. She half-fell and half-slid, hands and feet scraping down the ceramic, darting out madly to catch more seams, the edges of window frames, half-repaired cracks in the wall. None of the imperfections was sturdy enough to hold her weight, but each momentary hand- or foothold slowed her just a little, the descent always under control. It was thrillingly tenuous, as if Tally were a bug running across water too quickly to sink.
By the time she reached Zane's window, Tally was falling fast, but her fingers shot out and caught the ledge easily. She swung in a wide arc, grippy gloves sticking to the ledge as if glued there, her momentum slowly expending itself as she pendulummed back and forth.
When she looked up, Tally saw Shay perched a meter above, balanced on a tiny ridge of window frame that stuck out no more than a centimeter from the wall. Her gloved hands were splayed behind her like five-legged spiders, but Tally couldn't see how there was enough total friction to hold her weight. "How are you doing that?" she whispered.
Shay giggled. "Can't tell you all my secrets, Tally-wa. But it's a bit slippy up here. Quick, take a listen."
Hanging from one hand, Tally clamped her other gloves fingertips between her teeth. She pulled it off and stretched out a finger to touch the corner of the window. The chips in her hand registered the vibrations there, turning the expanse of glass into one big microphone. She closed her eyes, hearing the noises inside the room with a sudden intimacy, like pressing one ear to a drinking glass against a thin wall.
She heard a ping as Shay listened in through her skintenna.
Zane was talking, and the sound sent a little tremor through Tally. It was so familiar - yet distorted, either by her eavesdropping hardware or the months they'd been apart. She could make out the words, but not what they meant.
"All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away," he was saying. "All new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify ..."
"What's he babbling about?" Shay hissed, adjusting her grip.
"I don't know. Sounds like Rusty-talk. Like some old book."
"Don't tell me Zane's... reading to the Crims?"
Tally looked up at Shay in puzzlement. A dramatic reading didn't sound very Crim, actually. Or very anything but random. And yet Zane's voice kept going, droning on about something melting.
"Take a peek, Tally-wa."
Tally nodded, pulling herself up until her eyes cleared the window ledge.
Zane sat in a big, soft-cushioned chair, holding a tattered old paper book in one hand and waving the other around like an orchestra conductor as he declaimed. But where the city interface had placed the other Crims, there was only empty space.
"Oh, Shay," she whispered. "You're going to love this."
"What I'm going to do is fall on your head, Tally-wa, in about ten seconds. What's going on?"
"He's all alone. Those other Crims are just..." She squinted into the gloom outside Zane's reading light. There they were, spread around the room like an attentive audience. "Rings. They're all just interface rings, except for Zane."
Despite Shay's wobbly grip on her perch, she let out a long snicker. "Maybe he's bubblier than we thought."
Tally nodded, grinning to herself. "Should I knock?"
"Might startle him."
"Startled is good, Tally-wa. We want him bubbly. Now hurry up, I'm starting to slip."
Tally pulled herself higher, getting one knee onto the narrow ledge outside the window. She took a deep breath, then rapped twice, trying to smile without showing the razor sharpness of her teeth.
Zane looked up at the sound, startled for a moment, then his eyes widened. He made a gesture, and the window slid open.
A grin spread across his face.
"Tally-wa," he said. "You've changed."
Zane was still beautiful.
His cheekbones were sharp, his stare hungry and intense, like he was still using calorie purgers to keep himself alert. His lips were as full as any bubblehead's, and as Zane stared at Tally, he pursed them in childlike concentration. His hair hadn't changed at all; she remembered how he'd dyed it with calligraphy ink, turning it a bluish black that was way beyond the Pretty Committee's standards of good taste.
But there was something different about his face. Tally's mind spun, trying to figure out what it was.
"You brought Shay-la with you?" he said as the squeak of grippy shoes came from the window behind Tally. "How happy-making."
Tally nodded slowly, hearing in his voice that he wished she'd come alone. Of course. They had so much to talk about, hardly any of which she wanted to say in front of Shay.
It suddenly seemed like years since she'd seen Zane. Tally felt all the differences in her body - the ultralight bones and flash tattoos, the cutting scars along her arms - as reminders of how she'd changed in the time they'd been apart. Of how different they were now.
Shay grinned at the interface rings. "Aren't your friends finding that musty old book a little boring?"
"I've got more friends than you think, Shay-la." His eyes swept across the four walls of the room.
Shay shook her head, pulling a small black device from her belt. Tally's sharp ears caught its barely audible hum, a sizzling like wet leaves thrown onto a fire. "Relax, Zane-la. The city can't hear us."
His eyes widened. "You're allowed to do that?"
"Haven't you heard?" Shay smiled. "We're special."
"Oh. Well, as long as it's just us three..." He dropped the book onto the empty chair beside him, where it set Peris's ring jiggling. "The others are off on a little trick tonight. I'm covering, in case the wardens are monitoring us."