Shay laughed. "So the wardens are supposed to believe the Crims have a reading group?"
He shrugged. "It's not real wardens, as far as we can tell, only software. As long as someone's talking, it stays happy."
Tally sat down on Zane's unmade bed slowly, a shiver moving through her. Zane wasn't talking like some clueless pretty at all. And if he was covering for his friends while they did something criminal, then he was still bubbly, still the sort of tricky pretty who could one day become a Special...
She breathed in the familiar scent of him from the bedclothes, wondering what her tattoos were doing - probably spinning halfway off her face
But Zane wasn't wearing an interface ring himself, or a bracelet. How were the wardens tracking him?
"Your new face is about a mega-Helen, Tally-wa," Zane said, his gaze traveling the web of flash tattoos on her face and arms. "It could launch a billion ships. But pirate ships, probably."
She smiled at the lame joke, trying to think of something to say. She'd been waiting for this moment for two months, and suddenly all she could do was sit here like an idiot.
But it wasn't just her nerves that were making her word-missing. The more she looked at him, the more Zane looked wrong, somehow, and his voice sounded like it was coming from another room.
"I was hoping you'd come," he added softly.
"She insisted," Shay said, her words whisper-close.
Tally realized why Zane sounded so distant. With no skintenna in his flesh, his words didn't come through like the other Cutters'. He wasn't part of her clique anymore. He wasn't special.
Shay sat down next to Tally on the bed. "But if you don't mind, you two can be all bubbleheaded some other time." She pulled out the small plastic bag of nano pills that Ho had taken from the ugly boy the night before. "We came about these."
Zane half-rose from the chair and held out his hand for them, but Shay just laughed. "Not so fast, Zane-la. You have a bad habit of taking the wrong pills."
"Don't remind me," he said wearily.
Another shudder went through Tally. As he eased himself back into the chair, Zane moved slowly, deliberately, almost like a crumbly.
Tally remembered how Maddy's nanos had damaged his motor control, disrupting the part of his brain in charge of reflexes and motion. Maybe that's all it was, minor tremors left by the tiny machines.
Nothing to freak out about.
But again, when she looked into his face, something was missing there, too. It had no gorgeous web of flash tattoos, and gave her none of the thrill she felt when she looked into another Cutter's coal black eyes. He looked sleepy in a way that Specials never did, as if he were wallpaper, just another pretty.
But this was Zane, not some random bubblehead...
Tally dropped her eyes to the floor, wishing she could turn off the perfect clarity of her vision.
She didn't want to see all these unsettling details.
"Where did those pills come from?" he said. His voice still sounded so far away.
"From a Smokey girl," Shay answered.
He glanced at Tally. "Anyone we know?"
She shook her head, not looking up from the floor. The girl hadn't been a former Crim or anyone from the Old Smoke. Tally had a flash of wondering if she'd come from another city. Maybe she was one of the Smokies' mysterious new allies...
"But she knew your name, Zane-la," Shay said. "Said these were for you specifically. Expecting a delivery?"
He took a slow breath. "Maybe you should ask her."
"She got away," Tally said, and heard Shay let out a tiny hiss.
Zane laughed. "So Special Circumstances needs my help?"
"We're not the same as ... ," Tally started, but her voice faded. She was in Special Circumstances, Zane could see that for himself. But suddenly she wished she could explain how the Cutters were different, not like the regular Specials who'd pushed him around when he was an ugly. The Cutters played by their own rules. They'd found everything that Zane had always wanted - living in the wild outside the city's dictates, their minds icy, free from the imperfections of ugliness...
Free of the averageness that seemed to be leaking out of Zane.
Her mouth closed, and Shay rested a hand on her shoulder.
Tally could feel her heart beating faster.
"Sure, we need your help," Shay said. "We need to stop these" - she held up the bag of pills - "from making more pretties like you." At the last word, she threw it toward him.
Tally saw every centimeter of the bag's flight, watching as it shot past him - his hands coming up a full second too late to catch it. The pills skidded along the wall, dropping into the corner.
Zane let his empty hands fall back into his lap, where they lay curled like dead slugs.
"Nice catch," Shay said.
Tally swallowed. Zane was crippled.
He shrugged. "I don't need pills, anyway, Shay-la. I'm permanently bubbly." He gestured at his forehead. "The nanos damaged me right here, where the lesions are supposed to go. I think the doctors put more in, but as far as I can tell, they don't have much to grab on to. That part of my brain is all new and changing."
"But what about your ..." Tally's throat closed up around the question.
"My memories? My thoughts?" He shrugged again. "Brains are good at rewiring themselves. The way yours did, Tally, when you thought your way out of being pretty And yours, Shay-la, when you cut yourself." One hand lifted from his lap, soaring like a trembling bird. "Controlling someone by changing their brain is like trying to stop a hovercar by digging a ditch. If they think hard enough, they can fly right over."
"But Zane...," Tally said. Her eyes felt hot. "You're shaking."
And it wasn't just the infirmity of his movements - it was his face, his eyes, his voice...Zane wasn't special.
His gaze fixed on her. "You can do it again, Tally."
"Do what?" she said.
"Undo what they did to you. That's what my Crims are doing - rewiring themselves."
"I don't have any lesions."
"Are you sure?"
"Save it for your lame new Crim pals, Zane-la," Shay said. "We're not here to talk about your brain damage. Where did those pills come from?"
"You want to know about the pills?" He smiled. "Why not? You can't stop us. They come from the New Smoke."
"Thanks, genius," Shay said. "But where is it?"
He looked down at his quivering hand. "I wish I knew. Could use their help right now."
Shay nodded. "Is that why you're helping them? Hoping they'll fix you?"
He shook his head. "It's a lot more important than me, Shay-la. But, yeah, we Crims are passing out the cure. That's what these five are doing right now while they're supposedly sitting here." He gestured at the interface rings. "But it's bigger than us - half the cliques in town are helping. We've given out thousands so far."
"Thousands?" Shay said. "That's impossible, Zane! How're the Smokies making that many?
Last I saw, they didn't have flush toilets, much less factories."
He shrugged. "Search me. But it's much too late to stop us. The new pills work too fast. There are already too many pretties who can think."
Tally glanced at Shay. This really was bigger than Zane. If what he was saying was true, no wonder the whole city seemed to be changing.
Zane held out his quivering hands in front of him, the wrists close together. "Want to arrest me now?"
Shay paused for a moment, her flash tattoos pulsing on her face and arms. Finally, she shrugged.
"I'd never arrest you, Zane-la. Tally wouldn't let me. And besides, at the moment I don't really care about your little pills."
He raised an eyebrow. "So what do you Cutters care about, Shay-la?"
"Other Cutters," Shay said flatly. "Your Smokey pals kidnapped Fausto last night, and we're not happy about it."
Zane s eyebrows rose, and he flashed Tally a look. "That's...interesting. What do you think they're going to do with him?"
"Experiment. Make him all shaky like you, probably," Shay said. "Unless we find him in time."
Zane shook his head. "They don't experiment without consent."
"Consent? What part of 'kidnapped' did you not catch, Zane-la?" Shay said. "These aren't the old wimpy Smokies anymore. They've got military gear and an icy new attitude. They ambushed us with shock-sticks."
"They almost drowned Shay," Tally said. "Pushed her into the river unconscious."
"Unconscious?" The smile on Zane's face grew. "Sleeping on the job, Shay-la."
Shay's muscles tensed, and for a moment Tally thought she was going to spring up from the bed and strike - her diamond-hard fingernails and teeth against Zane's defenseless flesh.
But she only laughed, hands uncurling from fighting position to stroke Tally's hair. "Something like that. But I'm very awake now."
Zane shrugged, as if he hadn't noticed how close she'd come to ripping his throat out. "Well, I don't know where the New Smoke is. I can't help you."
"Yes, you can," Shay said.
"You can escape."
"Escape?" Zane's fingers went to his throat. Around his neck was a metal chain, its links a dull silver. "That would be tricky, I'm afraid."
Tally closed her eyes for a moment. So that was how they were tracking him. Zane was not only infirm and unspecial, he was collared like a dog. It was all she could do to keep herself from jumping up and diving out the window. The smell of the room - recycled clothing, the musty book, the sticky sweetness of champagne - all of it was making her sick.
"We can get you something to cut that off," Shay said.
Zane shook his head. "I doubt it. I've tested this in the shop shed; it's the same alloy they use on orbital craft."
"Trust me," Shay said. "Tally and I can do whatever we want."
Tally glanced at Shay. Cut orbital alloy? For technology that serious, they'd have to ask Dr.
Cable for help.
Zane fondled the chain. "And for this little favor, you want me to betray the Smoke?"
"You wouldn't do that for your own freedom, Zane," Shay said, and put her hands on Tally's shoulders. "But you'd do it for her."
Tally felt the two sets of eyes on her - Shay's black and deep and special, Zane's watery and average.
"What do you mean?" he said slowly.
Shay just stood there silent, but through the skintenna, Tally heard her lips mouth a few words, carried on a breath of air.
"They'll make him special. ..."
Tally nodded, searching for the words. He'd never listen to anyone else.
She cleared her throat. "Zane, if you escape, it'll prove to them that you're still bubbly. And when they capture you, they'll make you like us. You wouldn't believe how good it feels, how icy. And we can be together."
"Why can't we be together now?" he asked softly.
Tally tried to imagine kissing his childlike lips, stroking his shaking hands, and the thought disgusted her.
She shook her head. "I'm sorry...but not the way you are."
He spoke softly, as if to a child. "You can change yourself, Tally - "
"And you can escape, Zane," Shay interrupted. "Get out into the wild and let the Smokies find you." She pointed into the corner. "You can even keep that bag of pills, bubbly up some of your Crim friends if you want."
His eyes didn't leave Tally. "And then betray them?"
"You don't have to do anything, Zane. Along with the cutting tool, I'll give you a tracker," Shay said. "Once you reach the New Smoke, we'll come get you, and the city will make you strong and fast and perfect. Bubbly forever."