Is it not good to make society full
of beautiful people?
—Yang Yuan, quoted in The New York Times
New Pretty Town
The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.
Of course, Tally thought, you’d have to feed your cat only salmon-flavored cat food for a while, to get the pinks right. The scudding clouds did look a bit fishy, rippled into scales by a high-altitude wind. As the light faded, deep blue gaps of night peered through like an upside-down ocean, bottomless and cold.
Any other summer, a sunset like this would have been beautiful. But nothing had been beautiful since Peris turned pretty. Losing your best friend sucks, even if it’s only for three months and two days.
Tally Youngblood was waiting for darkness.
She could see New Pretty Town through her open window. The party towers were already lit up, and snakes of burning torches marked flickering pathways through the pleasure gardens. A few hot-air balloons pulled at their tethers against the darkening pink sky, their passengers shooting safety fireworks at other balloons and passing parasailers. Laughter and music skipped across the water like rocks thrown with just the right spin, their edges just as sharp against Tally’s nerves.
Around the outskirts of the city, cut off from town by the black oval of the river, everything was in darkness. Everyone ugly was in bed by now.
Tally took off her interface ring and said, “Good night.”
“Sweet dreams, Tally,” said the room.
She chewed up a toothbrush pill, punched her pillows, and shoved an old portable heater—one that produced about as much warmth as a sleeping, Tally-size human being—under the covers.
Then she crawled out the window.
Outside, with the night finally turning coal black above her head, Tally instantly felt better. Maybe this was a stupid plan, but anything was better than another night awake in bed feeling sorry for herself. On the familiar leafy path down to the water’s edge, it was easy to imagine Peris stealing silently behind her, stifling laughter, ready for a night of spying on the new pretties. Together. She and Peris had figured out how to trick the house minder back when they were twelve, when the three-month difference in their ages seemed like it would never matter.
“Best friends for life,” Tally muttered, fingering the tiny scar on her right palm.
The water glistened through the trees, and she could hear the wavelets of a passing river skimmer’s wake slapping at the shore. She ducked, hiding in the reeds. Summer was always the best time for spying expeditions. The grass was high, it was never cold, and you didn’t have to stay awake through school the next day.
Of course, Peris could sleep as late as he wanted now. Just one of the advantages of being pretty.
The old bridge stretched massively across the water, its huge iron frame as black as the sky. It had been built so long ago that it held up its own weight, without any support from hoverstruts. A million years from now, when the rest of the city had crumbled, the bridge would probably remain like a fossilized bone.
Unlike the other bridges into New Pretty Town, the old bridge couldn’t talk—or report trespassers, more importantly. But even silent, the bridge had always seemed very wise to Tally, as quietly knowing as some ancient tree.
Her eyes were fully adjusted to the darkness now, and it took only seconds to find the fishing line tied to its usual rock. She yanked it, and heard the splash of the rope tumbling from where it had been hidden among the bridge supports. She kept pulling until the invisible fishing line turned into wet, knotted cord.
The other end was still tied to the iron framework of the bridge. Tally pulled the rope taut and lashed it to the usual tree.
She had to duck into the grass once more as another river skimmer passed. The people dancing on its deck didn’t spot the rope stretched from bridge to shore. They never did. New pretties were always having too much fun to notice little things out of place.
When the skimmer’s lights had faded, Tally tested the rope with her whole weight. One time it had pulled loose from the tree, and both she and Peris had swung downward, then up and out over the middle of the river before falling off, tumbling into the cold water. She smiled at the memory, realizing she would rather be on that expedition—soaking wet in the cold with Peris—than dry and warm tonight, but alone.
Hanging upside down, hands and knees clutching the knots along the rope, Tally pulled herself up into the dark framework of the bridge, then stole through its iron skeleton and across to New Pretty Town.
She knew where Peris lived from the one message he had bothered to send since turning pretty. Peris hadn’t given an address, but Tally knew the trick for decoding the random-looking numbers at the bottom of a ping. They led to someplace called Garbo Mansion in the hilly part of town.
Getting there was going to be tricky. In their expeditions, Tally and Peris had always stuck to the waterfront, where vegetation and the dark backdrop of Uglyville made it easy to hide. But now Tally was headed into the center of the island, where floats and revelers populated the bright streets all night.
Brand-new pretties like Peris always lived where the fun was most frantic.
Tally had memorized the map, but if she made one wrong turn, she was toast. Without her interface ring, she was invisible to vehicles. They’d just run her down like she was nothing.
Of course, Tally was nothing here.
Worse, she was ugly. But she hoped Peris wouldn’t see it that way. Wouldn’t see her that way.
Tally had no idea what would happen if she got caught. This wasn’t like being busted for “forgetting” her ring, skipping classes, or tricking the house into playing her music louder than allowed. Everyone did that kind of stuff, and everyone got busted for it. But she and Peris had always been very careful about not getting caught on these expeditions. Crossing the river was serious business.
It was too late to worry now, though. What could they do to her, anyway? In three months she’d be a pretty herself.
Tally crept along the river until she reached a pleasure garden, and slipped into the darkness beneath a row of weeping willows. Under their cover she made her way alongside a path lit by little guttering flames.
A pretty couple wandered down the path. Tally froze, but they were clueless, too busy staring into each other’s eyes to see her rouching in the darkness. Tally silently watched them pass, getting that warm feeling she always got from looking at a pretty face. Even when she and Peris used to spy on them from the shadows, giggling at all the stupid things the pretties said and did, they couldn’t resist taring. There was something magic in their large and perfect eyes, something that made you want to pay attention to whatever they said, to protect them from any danger, to make them happy. They were so…pretty.
The two disappeared around the next bend, and Tally shook her head to clear the mushy thoughts away.
She wasn’t here to gawk. She was an infiltrator, a sneak, an ugly. And she had a mission.
The garden stretched up into town, winding like a black river through the bright party towers and houses. After a few more minutes of creeping, she startled a couple hidden among the trees (it was a pleasure garden, after all), but in the darkness they couldn’t see her face, and only teased her as she mumbled an apology and slipped away. She hadn’t seen too much of them, either, just a tangle of perfect legs and arms.
Finally, the garden ended, a few blocks from where Peris lived.
Tally peered out from behind a curtain of hanging vines. This was farther than she and Peris had ever been together, and as far as her planning had taken her. There was no way to hide herself in the busy, well-lit streets. She put her fingers up to her face, felt the wide nose and thin lips, the too-high forehead and tangled mass of frizzy hair. One step out of the underbrush and she’d be spotted. Her face seemed to burn as the light touched it. What was she doing here? She should be back in the darkness of Uglyville, awaiting her turn.
But she had to see Peris, had to talk to him. She wasn’t quite sure why, exactly, except that she was sick of imagining a thousand conversations with him every night before she fell asleep. They’d spent every day together since they were littlies, and now…nothing. Maybe if they could just talk for a few minutes, her brain would stop talking to imaginary Peris. Three minutes might be enough to hold her for three months.
Tally looked up and down the street, checking for side yards to slink through, dark doorways to hide in.
She felt like a rock climber facing a sheer cliff, searching for cracks and handholds.
The traffic began to clear a little, and she waited, rubbing the scar on her right palm. Finally, Tally sighed and whispered, “Best friends forever,” and took a step forward into the light.
An explosion of sound came from her right, and she leaped back into the darkness, stumbling among the vines, coming down hard on her knees in the soft earth, certain for a few seconds that she’d been caught.
But the cacophony organized itself into a throbbing rhythm. It was a drum machine making its lumbering way down the street. Wide as a house, it shimmered with the movement of its dozens of mechanical arms, bashing away at every size of drum. Behind it trailed a growing bunch of revelers, dancing along with the beat, drinking and throwing their empty bottles to shatter against the huge, impervious machine.
Tally smiled. The revelers were wearing masks.
The machine was lobbing the masks out the back, trying to coax more followers into the impromptu parade: devil faces and horrible clowns, green monsters and gray aliens with big oval eyes, cats and dogs and cows, faces with crooked smiles or huge noses.
The procession passed slowly, and Tally pulled herself back into the vegetation. A few of the revelers passed close enough that the sickly sweetness from their bottles filled her nose. A minute later, when the machine had trundled half a block farther, Tally jumped out and snatched up a discarded mask from the street. The plastic was soft in her hand, still warm from having been stamped into shape inside the machine a few seconds before.
Before she pressed it against her face, Tally realized that it was the same color as the cat-vomit pink of the sunset, with a long snout and two pink little ears. Smart adhesive flexed against her skin as the mask settled onto her face.
Tally pushed her way through the drunken dancers, out the other side of the procession, and ran down a side street toward Garbo Mansion, wearing the face of a pig.
Best Friends Forever
Garbo Mansion was fat, bright, and loud.
It filled the space between a pair of party towers, a squat teapot between two slender glasses of champagne. Each of the towers rested on a single column no wider than an elevator. Higher up they swelled to five stories of circular balconies, crowded with new pretties. Tally climbed the hill toward the trio of buildings, trying to take in the view through the eyeholes of her mask.
Someone jumped, or was thrown, from one of the towers, screaming and flailing his arms. Tally gulped, forcing herself to watch all the way down, until the guy was caught by his bungee jacket a few seconds before splatting. He hover-bounced in the harness a few times, laughing, before being deposited softly on the ground, close enough to Tally that she could hear nervous hiccups breaking up his giggles. He’d been as scared as Tally.
She shivered, though jumping was hardly any more dangerous than standing here beneath the looming towers. The bungee jacket used the same lifters as the hoverstruts that held the spindly structures up. If all the pretty toys somehow stopped working, just about everything in New Pretty Town would come tumbling down.
The mansion was full of brand-new pretties—the worst kind, Peris always used to say. They lived like uglies, a hundred or so together in a big dorm. But this dorm didn’t have any rules. Unless the rules were Act Stupid, Have Fun, and Make Noise.
A bunch of girls in ball gowns were on the roof, screaming at the top of their lungs, balancing on the edge and shooting safety fireworks at people on the ground. A ball of orange flame bounced next to Tally, cool as an autumn wind, driving away the darkness around her.
“Hey, there’s a pig down there!” someone screamed from above. They all laughed, and Tally quickened her stride toward the wide-open door of the mansion. She pushed inside, ignoring the surprised looks of two pretties on their way out.
It was all one big party, just like they always promised it would be. People were dressed up tonight, in gowns and in black suits with long coattails. Everyone seemed to find her pig mask pretty funny. They pointed and laughed, and Tally kept moving, not giving them time to do anything else. Of course, everyone was always laughing here. Unlike an ugly party, there’d never be any fights, or even arguments.
She pushed from room to room, trying to distinguish faces without being distracted by those big pretty eyes, or overwhelmed by the feeling that she didn’t belong. Tally felt uglier every second she spent there.
Being laughed at by everyone she met wasn’t helping much. But it was better than what they’d do if they saw her real face.
Tally wondered if she would even recognize Peris. She’d only seen him once since the operation, and that was coming out of the hospital, before the swelling had subsided. But she knew his face so well.
Despite what Peris always used to say, pretties didn’t really all look exactly the same. On their expeditions, she and Peris had sometimes spotted pretties who looked familiar, like uglies they’d known.
Sort of like a brother or sister—an older, more confident, much prettier brother or sister. One you’d be jealous of your whole life, if you’d been born a hundred years ago.
Peris couldn’t have changed that much.
“Have you seen the piggy?”
“There’s a piggy on the loose!”
The giggling voices were from the floor below. Tally paused and listened. She was all alone here on the stairs. Apparently, pretties preferred the elevators.
“How dare she come to our party dressed like a piggy! This is white tie!”
“She’s got the wrong party.”
“She’s got no manners, looking that way!”
Tally swallowed. The mask wasn’t much better than her own face. The joke was wearing thin.
She bounded up the stairs, leaving the voices behind. Maybe they’d forget about her if she just kept moving. There were only two more floors of Garbo Mansion to go, and then the roof. Peris had to be here somewhere.
Unless he was out on the back lawn, or up in a balloon, or a party tower. Or in a pleasure garden somewhere, with someone. Tally shook away that last image and ran down the hall, ignoring the same jokes about her mask, risking glances into the rooms one by one.
Nothing but surprised looks and pointed fingers, and pretty faces. But none of them rang a bell. Peris wasn’t anywhere.
“Here, piggy, piggy! Hey, there she is!”
Tally bolted up to the top floor, taking two stairs at a time. Her hard breathing had heated up the inside of the mask, her forehead sweating, the adhesive crawling as it tried to stay attached. They were following her now, a group of them, laughing and stumbling over one another up the stairs.
There wasn’t any time to search this floor. Tally glanced up and down the hall. No one up here, anyway.
The doors were all closed. Maybe a few pretties were actually getting their beauty sleep.
If she went up to the roof to check for Peris, she’d be trapped.
“Here, piggy, piggy!”
Time to run. Tally dashed toward the elevator, skidding to a halt inside. “Ground floor!” she ordered.
She waited, peering down the hall anxiously, panting into the hot plastic of her mask. “Ground floor!”
she repeated. “Close door!”
She sighed, closing her eyes. Without an interface ring, she was nobody. The elevator wouldn’t listen.
Tally knew how to trick an elevator, but it took time and a penknife. She had neither. The first of her pursuers emerged from the stairway, stumbling into the hall.
She threw herself backward against the elevator’s side wall, standing on tiptoe and trying to flatten herself so they couldn’t see her. More came up, huffing and puffing like typical out-of-shape pretties.
Tally could watch them in the mirror at the back of the elevator. Which meant they could also see her if they thought to look this way.
“Where’d the piggy go?”
“The roof, maybe?”
Someone stepped quietly into the elevator, looking back at the search party in bemusement. When he saw her, he jumped. “Goodness, you scared me!” He blinked his long lashes, regarding her masked face, then looked down at his own tailcoat. “Oh, dear. Wasn’t this party white tie?”
Tally’s breath caught, her mouth went dry. “Peris?” she whispered.
He looked at her closely.
“Do I…” She started to reach out, but remembered to press back flat against the wall. Her muscles were screaming from standing on tiptoe. “It’s me, Peris.”
“Here, piggy, piggy!”
He turned toward the voice down the hall, raised his eyebrows, then looked back at her. “Close door. Hold,” he said quickly.
The door slid shut, and Tally stumbled forward. She pulled off her mask to see him better. It was Peris: his voice, his brown eyes, the way his forehead crinkled when he was confused. But he was so pretty now.
At school, they explained how it affected you. It didn’t matter if you knew about evolution or not—it worked anyway. On everyone.
There was a certain kind of beauty, a prettiness that everyone could see. Big eyes and full lips like a kid’s; smooth, clear skin; symmetrical features; and a thousand other little clues. Somewhere in the backs of their minds, people were always looking for these markers. No one could help seeing them, no matter how they were brought up. A million years of evolution had made it part of the human brain.
The big eyes and lips said: I’m young and vulnerable, I can’t hurt you, and you want to protect me. And the rest said: I’m healthy, I won’t make you sick. And no matter how you felt about a pretty, there was a part of you that thought: If we had kids, they’d be healthy too. I want this pretty person….
It was biology, they said at school. Like your heart beating, you couldn’t help believing all these things, not when you saw a face like this. A pretty face. A face like Peris’s.
“It’s me,” Tally said.
Peris took a step back, his eyebrows rising. He looked down at her clothes.
Tally realized she was wearing her baggy black expedition outfit, muddy from crawling up ropes and through gardens, from falling among the vines. Peris’s suit was deep black velvet, his shirt, vest, and tie all glowing white.
She pulled away. “Oh, sorry. I won’t get you muddy.”
“What are you doing here, Tally?”
“I just—,” she sputtered. Now that she was facing him, she didn’t know what to say. All the imagined conversations had melted away into his big, sweet eyes. “I had to know if we were still…”
Tally held out her right hand, the scarred palm facing up, sweaty dirt tracing the lines on it.
Peris sighed. He wasn’t looking at her hand, or into her eyes. Not into her squinty, narrow-set, indifferently brown eyes. Nobody eyes. “Yeah,” he said. “But, I mean—couldn’t you have waited, Squint?”
Her ugly nickname sounded strange coming from a pretty. Of course, it would be even weirder to call him Nose, as she used to about a hundred times a day. She swallowed. “Why didn’t you write me?”
“I tried. But it just felt bogus. I’m so different now.”
“But we’re…” She pointed at her scar.
“Take a look, Tally.” He held out his own hand.
The skin of his palm was smooth and unblemished. It was a hand that said: I don’t have to work very hard, and I’m too clever to have accidents.
The scar that they had made together was gone.
“They took it away.”
“Of course they did, Squint. All my skin’s new.”
Tally blinked. She hadn’t thought of that.
He shook his head. “You’re such a kid still.”
“Elevator requested,” said the elevator. “Up or down?”
Tally jumped at the machine voice.
“Hold, please,” Peris said calmly.
Tally swallowed and closed her hand into a fist. “But they didn’t change your blood. We shared that, no matter what.”
Peris finally looked directly at her face, not flinching as she had feared he would. He smiled beautifully.
“No, they didn’t. New skin, big deal. And in three months we can laugh about this. Unless…”
“Unless what?” She looked up into his big brown eyes, so full of concern.
“Just promise me that you won’t do any more stupid tricks,” Peris said. “Like coming here. Something that’ll get you into trouble. I want to see you pretty.”
“So promise me.”
Peris was only three months older than Tally, but, dropping her eyes to the floor, she felt like a littlie again. “All right, I promise. Nothing stupid. And they won’t catch me tonight, either.”
“Okay, get your mask and…” His voice trailed off.
She turned her gaze to where it had fallen. Discarded, the plastic mask had recycled itself, turning into pink dust, which the carpet in the elevator was already filtering away.
The two stared at each other in silence.
“Elevator requested,” the machine insisted. “Up or down?”
“Peris, I promise they won’t catch me. No pretty can run as fast as me. Just take me down to the—”
Peris shook his head. “Up, please. Roof.”
The elevator moved.
“Up? Peris, how am I going to—”
“Straight out the door, in a big rack—bungee jackets. There’s a whole bunch in case of a fire.”
“You mean jump?” Tally swallowed. Her stomach did a backflip as the elevator came to a halt.
Peris shrugged. “I do it all the time, Squint.” He winked. “You’ll love it.”
His expression made his pretty face glow even more, and Tally leaped forward to wrap her arms around him. He still felt the same, at least, maybe a bit taller and thinner. But he was warm and solid, and still Peris.
She stumbled back as the doors opened. She’d left mud all over his white vest. “Oh, no! I’m—”
His distress just made Tally want to hug him again. She wanted to stay and clean Peris up, make sure he looked perfect for the party. She reached out a hand. “I—”
“But we’re best friends, right?”
He sighed, dabbing at a brown stain. “Sure, forever. In three months.”
She turned and ran, the doors closing behind her.
At first no one noticed her on the roof. They were all looking down. It was dark except for the occasional flare of a safety sparkler.
Tally found the rack of bungee jackets and pulled at one. It was clipped to the rack. Her fingers fumbled, looking for a clasp. She wished she had her interface ring to give her instructions.
Then she saw the button: PRESS IN CASE OF FIRE.
“Oh, crap,” she said.
Her shadow jumped and jittered. Two pretties were coming toward her, carrying sparklers.
“Who’s that? What’s she wearing?”
“Hey, you! This party is white tie!”
“Look at her face….”
“Oh, crap,” Tally repeated.
And pressed the button.
An ear-shattering siren split the air, and the bungee jacket seemed to jump from the rack into her hand.
She slid into the harness, turning to face the two pretties. They leaped back as if she’d transformed into a werewolf. One dropped the sparkler, and it extinguished itself instantly.
“Fire drill,” Tally said, and ran toward the edge of the roof.
Once she had the jacket around her shoulders, the strap and zippers seemed to wind around her like snakes until the plastic was snug around her waist and thighs. A green light flashed on the collar, right where she couldn’t help but see it.
“Good jacket,” she said.
It wasn’t smart enough to answer, apparently.
The pretties playing on the roof had all gone silent and were milling around, wondering if there really was a fire. They pointed at her, and Tally heard the word “ugly” on their lips.
What was worse in New Pretty Town, she wondered? Your mansion burning down, or an ugly crashing your party?
Tally reached the edge of the roof, vaulted up onto the rail, and teetered for a moment. Below her, pretties were starting to spill out of Garbo Mansion onto the lawn and down the hill. They were looking back up, searching for smoke or flames. All they saw was her.
It was a long way down, and Tally’s stomach already seemed to be in free fall. But she was thrilled, too.
The shrieking siren, the crowd gazing up at her, the lights of New Pretty Town all spread out below like a million candles.
Tally took a deep breath and bent her knees, readying herself to jump.
For a split second, she wondered if the jacket would work since she wasn’t wearing an interface ring.
Would it hover-bounce for a nobody? Or would she just splat?
But she had promised Peris she wouldn’t get caught. And the jacket was for emergencies, and there was a green light on….
“Heads up!” Tally shouted.
The siren faded behind her. It seemed like forever—or only seconds—that Tally fell, the gaping faces below becoming larger and larger.
The ground hurtled toward her, a space opening in the panicking crowd where she was going to hit. For a few moments it was just like a flying dream, silent and wonderful.
Then reality jerked at her shoulders and thighs, the webbing of the jacket cutting viciously into her. She was taller than pretty standard, she knew; the jacket probably wasn’t expecting this much weight.
Tally somersaulted in the air, turning headfirst for a few terrifying moments, her face passing low enough to spot a discarded bottle cap in the grass. Then she found herself shooting upward again, completing the circle, so that the sky wheeled above her, then over and downward again, more crowd parting in front.
Perfect. She had pushed off hard enough that she was bouncing down the hill away from Garbo Mansion, the jacket carrying her toward the darkness and safety of the gardens.
Tally spun head over heels twice more, and then the jacket lowered her to the grass. She pulled randomly at straps until the garment made a hissing sound and dropped to the ground.
Her dizziness took a moment to clear as she tried to sort up from down.
“Isn’t she…ugly?” someone asked from the edge of the crowd.
The black shapes of two firefighting hovercars zoomed past overhead, red lights flashing and sirens piercing her ears.
“Great idea, Peris,” she muttered. “A false alarm.” She would really be in trouble if they caught her now.
She’d never even heard of anyone doing anything this bad.
Tally ran toward the garden. The darkness below the willows was comforting.
Down here, halfway to the river, Tally could barely tell there was a full-scale fire alert in the middle of town. But she could see that a search was underway. More hovercars were in the air than usual, and the river seemed to be lit up extra bright. Maybe that was just a coincidence.
But probably not.
Tally made her way carefully through the trees. It was later than she and Peris had ever stayed over in New Pretty Town. The pleasure gardens were more crowded, especially the dark parts. And now that the excitement of her escape had worn off, Tally was beginning to realize how stupid the whole idea had been.
Of course Peris didn’t have the scar anymore. The two of them had only used a penknife when they’d cut themselves and held hands. The doctors used much sharper and bigger knives in the operation.
They rubbed you raw, and you grew all new skin, perfect and clear. The old marks of accidents and bad food and childhood illnesses all washed away. A clean start.
But Tally had ruined Peris’s starting over—showing up like some pesky littlie who’s not wanted, and leaving him with the bad taste of ugly in his mouth, not to mention covered with mud. She hoped he had another vest to change into.
At least Peris hadn’t seemed too angry. He’d said they’d be best friends again, once she was pretty. But the way he’d looked at her face…maybe that was why they separated uglies from pretties. It must be horrible to see an ugly face when you’re surrounded by such beautiful people all the time. What if she’d ruined everything tonight, and Peris would always see her like this—squinty eyes and frizzy hair—even after she had the operation?
A hovercar passed overhead, and Tally ducked. She was probably going to get caught tonight, and never be turned pretty at all.
She deserved it for being so stupid.
Tally reminded herself of her promise to Peris. She was not going to get caught; she had to become pretty for him.
A light flashed in the corner of her vision. Tally crouched and peered through the hanging willow leaves.
A safety warden was in the park. She was a middle pretty, not a new one. In the firelight, the handsome features of the second operation were obvious: broad shoulders and a firm jaw, a sharp nose and high cheekbones. The woman carried the same unquestionable authority as Tally’s teachers back in Uglyville.
Tally swallowed. New pretties had their own wardens. There was only one reason why a middle pretty would be here in New Pretty Town: The wardens were looking for someone, and they were serious about finding him or her.
The woman flashed her light at a couple on a bench, illuminating them for the split second it took to confirm that they were pretty. The couple jumped, but the warden chuckled and apologized. Tally could hear her low, sure voice, and saw the new pretties relax. Everything had to be okay if she said it was.
Tally felt herself wanting to give up, to throw herself on the wise mercy of the warden. If she just explained, the warden would understand and fix everything. Middle pretties always knew what to do.
But she had promised Peris.
Tally pulled back into the darkness, trying to ignore the horrible feeling that she was a spy, a sneak, for not surrendering to the woman’s authority. She moved through the brush as fast as she could.
Close to the river, Tally heard a noise in front of her. A dark form was outlined in river lights before her.
Not a couple, a lone figure in the dark.
It had to be a warden, waiting for her in the brush.
Tally hardly dared breathe. She had frozen in mid crawl, her weight all poised on one knee and one muddy hand. The warden hadn’t seen her yet. If Tally waited long enough, maybe the warden would move on.
She waited, motionless, for endless minutes. The figure didn’t budge. They must know that the gardens were the only dark way in and out of New Pretty Town.
Tally’s arm started to shake, the muscles complaining about staying frozen for so long. But she didn’t dare let her weight settle onto the other arm. The snap of a single twig would give her away.
She held herself still, until all her muscles were screaming. Maybe the warden was just a trick of the light.
Maybe this was all in her imagination.
Tally blinked, trying to make the figure disappear.
But it was still there, clearly outlined by the rippling lights of the river.
A twig popped under her knee—Tally’s aching muscles had finally betrayed her. But the figure still didn’t move. He or she must have heard….
The warden was being kind, waiting for her to give herself up. Letting her surrender. The teachers did that at school, sometimes. Made you realize that you couldn’t escape, until you confessed everything.
Tally cleared her throat. A small, pathetic sound. “I’m sorry,” she said.
The figure let out a sigh. “Oh, phew. Hey, that’s okay. I must have scared you, too.” The girl leaned forward, grimacing as if she was also sore from remaining still so long. Her face caught the light.
She was ugly too.
Her name was Shay. She had long dark hair in pigtails, and her eyes were too wide apart. Her lips were full enough, but she was even skinnier than a new pretty. She’d come over to New Pretty Town on her own expedition, and had been hiding here by the river for an hour.
“I’ve never seen anything like this”, she whispered. “There’s wardens and hovercars everywhere!”
Tally cleared her throat. “I think it’s my fault.”
Shay looked dubious. “How’d you manage that?”
“Well, I was up in the middle of town, at a party.”
“You crashed a party? That’s crazy!” Shay said, then lowered her voice back to a whisper. “Crazy, but awesome. How’d you get in?”
“I was wearing a mask.”
“Wow. A pretty mask?”
“Uh, more like a pig mask. It’s a long story.”
Shay blinked. “A pig mask. Okay. So let me guess, someone blew your house down?”
“Huh? No. I was about to get caught, so I kind of…set off a fire alarm.”
Tally smiled. It was actually a pretty good story, now that she had someone to tell it to. “And I was trapped up on the roof, so I grabbed a bungee jacket and jumped off. I hover-bounced halfway here.”
“Well, part of the way here, anyhow.”
“Pretty awesome.” Shay smiled, then her face went serious. She bit at one of her fingernails, which was one of those bad habits that the operation cured. “So, Tally, were you at this party…to see someone?”
It was Tally’s turn to be impressed. “How’d you figure that out?”
Shay sighed, looking down at her ragged nails. “I’ve got friends too, over here. I mean, they were friends. Sometimes I spy on them.” She looked up. “I was always the youngest, you know? And now—”
“You’re all alone.”
Shay nodded. “It’s sounds like you did more than spy, though.”
“Yeah. I kind of said hello.”
“Wow, that’s crazy. Your boyfriend or something?”
Tally shook her head. Peris had gone with other girls, and Tally had dealt with it and tried to do the same, but their friendship had always been the main thing in both their lives. Not anymore, apparently.
“If he’d been my boyfriend, I don’t think I could have done it, you know? I wouldn’t have wanted him to see my face. But because we’re friends, I thought maybe…”
“Yeah. So how’d it go?”
Tally thought for a second, looking out at the rippling water. Peris had been so pretty, and grown-up looking, and he’d said they’d be friends again. Once Tally was pretty too…“Basically, it sucked,” she said.
“Except getting away. That part was very cool.”
“Sounds like it.” Tally heard the smile in Shay’s voice. “Very tricky.”
They were silent for a moment as a hovercar went over.
“But you know, we haven’t totally gotten away yet,” Shay said. “Next time you’re going to pull a fire alarm, let me know ahead of time.”
“Sorry about getting you trapped here.”
Shay looked at her and frowned. “Not that. I just meant if I’m going to have to do the running-away part, I might as well get in on the fun.”
Tally laughed softly. “Okay. Next time, I’ll let you know.”
“Please do.” Shay scanned the river. “Looks a little clearer now. Where’s your board?”
Shay pulled a hoverboard from under a bush. “You’ve got a board, right? What’d you do, swim over?”
“No, I…hey, wait. How’d you get a hoverboard to take you across the river?” Anything that flew had minders all over it.
Shay laughed. “That’s the oldest trick in the book. I figured you’d know all about it.”
Tally shrugged. “I don’t board much.”
“Well, this one’ll take both of us.”
Another hovercar had come into view, cruising down the river just above the height of the bridges.
Tally waited for a count of ten after it had passed before she spoke. “I don’t think it’s a good idea, flying back.”
“So how did you get over?”
“Follow me.” Tally rose from her crouch onto hands and knees, and crawled a bit ahead. She looked back. “Can you carry that thing?”
“Sure. It doesn’t weigh much.” Shay snapped her fingers, and the hoverboard drifted upward. “Actually, it doesn’t weigh anything, unless I tell it to.”
Shay started to crawl, the board bouncing along behind her like a littlie’s balloon. Tally couldn’t see any string, though. “So, where’re we going?” Shay asked.
“I know a bridge.”
“But it’ll tattle.”
“Not this one. It’s an old friend.”
Tally fell off. Again.
The spill didn’t hurt so much, this time. The moment her feet slipped off the hoverboard, she’d relaxed, the way Shay kept telling her to. Spinning out wasn’t much worse than having your dad swing you around by the wrists when you were little.
If your dad happened to be a superhuman freak and was trying to pull your arms out of their sockets.
But the momentum had to go somewhere, Shay had explained. And around in circles was better than into a tree. Here in Cleopatra Park there were plenty of those.
After a few rotations, Tally found herself being lowered to the grass by her wrists, dizzy but in one piece.
Shay cruised up, banking her hoverboard to an elegant stop as if she’d been born on one.
“That looked a little better.”
“It didn’t feel any better.” Tally pulled off one crash bracelet and rubbed her wrist. It was turning red, and her fingers felt weak.
The bracelet was heavy and solid in her hand. Crash bracelets had to have metal inside, because they worked on magnets, the way the boards did. Whenever Tally’s feet slipped, the bracelets got all hovery and caught her fall, like some friendly giant plucking her from danger and swinging her to a halt.
By her wrists. Again.
Tally pulled the other bracelet off and rubbed.
“Don’t give up. You almost made it!”
Tally’s board cruised back on its own, nuzzling at her ankles like an apologetic dog. She crossed her arms and rubbed her shoulders. “I almost got snapped in two, you mean.”
“Never happens. I’ve spilled more times than a glass of milk on a roller coaster.”
“On a what ?”
“Never mind. Come on, one more try.”
Tally sighed. It wasn’t just her wrists. Her knees ached from banking hard, whipping through turns so quickly that her body seemed to weigh a ton. Shay called that “high gravity,” which happened every time a fast-moving object changed direction.
“Hoverboarding looks so fun, like being a bird. But actually doing it is hard work.”
Shay shrugged. “Being a bird’s probably hard work too. Flapping your wings all day, you know?”
“Maybe. Does it get any better?”
“For birds? I don’t know. On a board? Definitely.”
“I hope so.” Tally pulled her bracelets on and stepped onto the hoverboard. It bobbed a little as it adjusted to her weight, like the bounce of a diving board.
“Check your belly sensor.”
Tally touched her belly ring, where Shay had clipped the little sensor. It told the board where Tally’s center of gravity was, and which way she was facing. The sensor even read her stomach muscles, which, it turned out, hoverboarders always clenched in anticipation of turns. The board was smart enough to gradually learn how her body moved. The more Tally rode, the more it would keep itself under her feet.
Of course, Tally had to learn too. Shay kept saying that if your feet weren’t in the right place, the smartest board in the world couldn’t keep you on. The riding surface was all knobbly for traction, but it was amazing how easy it was to slip off.
The board was oval-shaped, about half as long as Tally was tall, and black with the silver spots of a cheetah—the only animal in the world that could run faster than a hoverboard could fly. It was Shay’s first board, and she’d never recycled it. Until today, it had hung on the wall above her bed.
Tally snapped her fingers, bent her knees as she rose into the air, then leaned forward to pick up speed.
Shay cruised along just above her, staying a little behind.
The trees started to rush by, whipping Tally’s arms with the sharp stings of evergreen needles. The board wouldn’t let her crash into anything solid, but it didn’t get too concerned about twigs.
“Extend your arms. Keep your feet apart!” Shay yelled for the thousandth time. Tally nervously scooted her left foot forward.
At the end of the park, Tally leaned to her right, and the board pulled into a long, steep turn. She bent her knees, growing heavy as she cut back toward where they’d started.
Now Tally was rushing toward the slalom flags, crouching as she drew closer. She could feel the wind drying her lips, lifting her ponytail up.
“Oh, boy,” she whispered.
The board raced past the first flag, and she leaned hard right, her arms all the way out now for balance.
“Switch!” cried Shay. Tally twisted her body to bring the board under her and across, cutting around the next flag. Once it was past, she twisted again.
But her feet were too close together. Not again! Her shoes slipped across the surface of the board.
“No!” she cried, clenching her toes, cupping the air with her palms, anything to keep herself on board.
Her right shoe slid toward the board’s edge until her toes were silhouetted against the trees.
The trees! She was almost sideways, her body parallel with the ground.
The slalom flag zoomed past, and suddenly, it was over. The board swung back under Tally as her course straightened out again.
She’d made the turn!
Tally spun to face Shay. “I did it!” she cried.
Confused by her spin, the board had tried to execute a turn, and dumped her. Tally relaxed as her arms jerked straight and the world spun around her. She was laughing as she descended to the grass, dangling by her bracelets.
Shay was also laughing. “Almost did it.”
“No! I got around the flags. You saw!”
“Okay, okay. You made it.” Shay laughed, stepping off onto the grass. “But don’t dance around like that afterward. It’s not cool, Squint.”
Tally stuck out her tongue. In the last week, Tally had learned that Shay only used her ugly nickname as a put-down. Shay insisted they call each other by their real names most of the time, which Tally had quickly gotten used to. She liked it, actually. Nobody but Sol and Ellie—her parents—and a few stuck-up teachers had ever called her “Tally” before.
“Whatever you say, Skinny. That was great.”
Tally collapsed on the grass. Her whole body ached, every muscle exhausted. “Thanks for the lesson.
Flying’s the best.”
Shay sat down close by. “Never bored on a hoverboard.”
“This is the best I’ve felt since…” Tally didn’t say his name. She looked up into the sky, which was a glorious blue. A perfect sky. They hadn’t gotten started until late afternoon. Above, a few high clouds were already showing hints of pink, even though sunset was hours off.
“Yeah,” Shay agreed. “Me too. I was getting sick of hanging out alone.”
“So how long you got?”
Shay answered instantly. “Two months and twenty-six days.”
Tally was stunned for a moment. “Are you sure?”
“’Course I’m sure.”
Tally felt a big, slow smile roll across her face, and she fell back onto the grass, laughing. “You’ve got to be kidding. We’ve got the same birthday!”
“Yeah, way. It’s perfect. We’ll both turn pretty together!”
Shay was silent for a moment. “Yeah, I guess.”
“September ninth, right?”
“That is so cool. I mean, I don’t think I could stand to lose another friend. You know? We don’t have to worry about one of us abandoning the other. Not for a single day.”
Shay sat up straight, her smile gone. “I wouldn’t do that, anyway.”
Tally blinked. “I didn’t say you would, but…”
“But when you turn, you go over to New Pretty Town.”
“So? Pretties are allowed to come back over here, you know. Or write.”
Tally snorted. “But they don’t.”
“I would.” Shay looked out over the river at the spires of the party towers, placing a thumbnail firmly between her teeth.
“So would I, Shay. I’d come see you.”
“Are you sure?”
Shay shrugged, and lay back down to stare up at the clouds. “Okay. But you’re not the first person to make that promise, you know.”
“Yeah, I do know.”
They were silent for a moment. Clouds rolled slowly across the sun, and the air grew cool. Tally thought of Peris, and tried to remember the way he used to look back when he was Nose. Somehow, she couldn’t recall his ugly face anymore. As if those few minutes of seeing him pretty had wiped out a lifetime of memories. All she could see now was pretty Peris, those eyes, that smile.
“I wonder why they never come back,” Shay said. “Just to visit.”
“Because we’re so ugly, Skinny, that’s why.”
Facing the Future
“Here’s option two.” Tally touched her interface ring, and the wallscreen changed.
This Tally was sleek, with ultrahigh cheekbones, deep green catlike eyes, and a wide mouth that curled into a knowing smile.
“That’s, uh, pretty different.”
“Yeah. I doubt it’s even legal.”
Tally tweaked the eye-shape parameters, pulling the arch of the eyebrows down almost to normal. Some cities allowed exotic operations—for new pretties only—but the authorities here were notoriously conservative. She doubted a doctor would give this morpho a second glance, but it was fun to push the software to its limits. “You think I look too scary?”
“No. You look like a real pussycat.” Shay giggled. “Unfortunately, I mean that in the literal, dead-mouse-eating sense.”
“Okay, moving right along.”
The next Tally was a much more standard morphological model, with almond-shaped brown eyes, straight black hair with long bangs, the dark lips set to maximum fullness.
“Pretty generic, Tally.”
“Oh, come on! I worked on this one for a long time. I think I’d look great this way. There’s a whole Cleopatra thing going on.”
“You know,” Shay said, “I read that the real Cleopatra wasn’t even that great-looking. She seduced everyone with how clever she was.”
“Yeah, right. And you’ve seen a picture of her?”
“They didn’t have cameras back then, Squint.”
“Duh. So how do you know she was ugly?”
“Because that’s what historians wrote at the time.”
Tally shrugged. “She was probably a classic pretty and they didn’t even know it. Back then, they had weird ideas about beauty. They didn’t know about biology.”
“Lucky them.” Shay stared out the window.
“So, if you think all my faces are so crappy, why don’t you show me some of yours?” Tally cleared the wallscreen and leaned back on the bed.
“You can dish it out, but you can’t take it, huh?”
“No, I mean I just can’t. I never made one.”
Tally’s jaw dropped. Everyone made morphos, even littlies, too young for their facial structure to have set. It was a great waste of a day, figuring out all the different ways you could look when you finally became pretty.
“Not even one?”
“Maybe when I was little. But my friends and I stopped doing that kind of stuff a long time ago.”
“Well.” Tally sat up. “We should fix that right now.”
“I’d rather go hoverboarding.” Shay tugged anxiously under her shirt. Tally figured that Shay slept with her belly sensor on, hoverboarding in her dreams.
“Later, Shay. I can’t believe you don’t have a single morph. Please .”
“It’s stupid. The doctors pretty much do what they want, no matter what you tell them.”
“I know, but it’s fun .”
Shay made a big point of rolling her eyes, but finally nodded. She dragged herself off the bed and plopped down in front of the wallscreen, pulling her hair back from her face.
Tally snorted. “So you have done this before.”
“Like I said, when I was a littlie.”
“Sure.” Tally turned her interface ring to bring up a menu on the wallscreen, and blinked her way through a set of eyemouse choices. The screen’s camera flickered with laser light, and a green grid sprang up on Shay’s face, a field of tiny squares imposed across the shape of her cheekbones, nose, lips, and forehead.
Seconds later, two faces appeared on the screen. Both of them were Shay, but there were obvious differences: One looked wild, slightly angry; the other had a slightly distant expression, like someone having a daydream.
“It’s weird how that works, isn’t it?” Tally said. “Like two different people.”
Shay nodded. “Creepy.”
Ugly faces were always asymmetrical; neither half looked exactly like the other. So the first thing the morpho software did was take each side of your face and double it, like holding a mirror right down the middle, creating two examples of perfect symmetry. Already, both of the symmetrical Shays looked better than the original.
“So, Shay, which do you think is your good side?”
“Why do I have to be symmetrical? I’d rather have a face with two different sides.”
Tally groaned. “That’s a sign of childhood stress. No one wants to look at that.”
“Gee, I wouldn’t want to look stressed,” Shay snorted, and pointed at the wilder-looking face. “Okay, whatever. The right one’s better, don’t you think?”
“I hate my right side. I always start with the left.”
“Yeah, well, I happen to like my right side. Looks tougher.”
“Okay. You’re the boss.”
Tally blinked, and the right-side face filled the screen.
“First, the basics.” The software took over: The eyes gradually grew, reducing the size of the nose between them, Shay’s cheekbones moved upward, and her lips became a tiny bit fuller (they were already almost pretty-sized). Every blemish disappeared, her skin turning flawlessly smooth. The skull moved subtly under the features, the angle of her forehead tilting back, her chin becoming more defined, her jaw stronger.
When it was done, Tally whistled. “Wow, that’s pretty good already.”
“Great,” Shay groaned. “I totally look like every other new pretty in the world.”
“Well, sure, we just got started. How about some hair on you?” Tally blinked through menus quickly, picking a style at random.
When the wallscreen changed, Shay fell over on the floor in a fit of giggles. The high hairdo towered over her thin face like dunce cap, the white-blond hair utterly incongruous with her olive skin.
Tally could hardly manage to speak through her own laughter. “Okay, maybe not that.” She flipped through more styles, settling on basic hair, dark and short. “Let’s get the face right first.”
She tweaked the eyebrows, making their arch more dramatic, and added roundness to the cheeks. Shay was still too skinny, even after the morpho software had pulled her toward the average.
“And maybe a bit lighter?” Tally took the shade of the skin closer to baseline.
“Hey, Squint,” Shay said. “Whose face is this, anyway?”
“Just playing,” Tally said. “You want to take a shot?”
“No, I want to go hoverboarding.”
“Sure, great. But first let’s get this right.”
“What do you mean ‘get it right,’ Tally? Maybe I think my face is already right!”
“Yeah, it’s great.” Tally rolled her eyes. “For an ugly.”
Shay scowled. “What, can’t you stand me? Do you need to get some picture into your head so you can imagine it instead of my face?”
“Shay! Come on. It’s just for fun.”
“Making ourselves feel ugly is not fun.”
“We are ugly!”
“This whole game is just designed to make us hate ourselves.”
Tally groaned and flopped back onto her bed, glaring up at the ceiling. Shay could be so weird sometimes. She always had a chip on her shoulder about the operation, like someone was making her turn sixteen.
“Right, and things were so great back when everyone was ugly. Or did you miss that day in school?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Shay recited. “Everyone judged everyone else based on their appearance.
People who were taller got better jobs, and people even voted for some politicians just because they weren’t quite as ugly as everybody else. Blah, blah, blah.”
“Yeah, and people killed one another over stuff like having different skin color.” Tally shook her head.
No matter how many times they repeated it at school, she’d never really quite believed that one. “So what if people look more alike now? It’s the only way to make people equal.”
“How about making them smarter?”
Tally laughed. “Fat chance. Anyway, it’s just to see what you and I will look like in only…two months and fifteen days.”
“Can’t we just wait until then?”
Tally closed her eyes, sighing. “Sometimes I don’t think I can.”
“Well, tough luck.” She felt Shay’s weight on the bed and a light punch on her arm. “Hey, might as well make the best of it. Can we go hoverboarding now? Please?”
Tally opened her eyes and saw that her friend was smiling. “Okay: hoverboard.” She sat up and glanced at the screen. Even without much work, Shay’s face was already welcoming, vulnerable, healthy…pretty.
“Don’t you think you’re beautiful?”
Shay didn’t look, just shrugged. “That’s not me. It’s some committee’s idea of me.”
Tally smiled and hugged her.
“It will be you, though. Really you. Soon.”
“I think you’re ready.”
Tally cruised to a stop—right foot down, left foot up, bend the knees.
“Ready for what?”
Shay drifted slowly past, letting the breeze tug her along. They were as high up and far out as hoverboards would go, just above treetop level, at the edge of town. It was amazing how quickly Tally had gotten used to being up high, with nothing but a board and bracelets between her and a long fall.
The view from up here was fantastic. Behind them the spires of New Pretty Town rose from the center of town, and around them was the greenbelt, a swath of forest that separated the middle and the late pretties from the youngsters. Older generations of pretties lived out in the suburbs, hidden by the hills, in rows of big houses separated by strips of private garden for their littlies to play in.
Shay smiled. “Ready for a night ride.”
“Oh. Look, I don’t know if I want to cross the river again,” Tally said, remembering her promise to Peris. She and Shay had shown each other a lot of tricks over the last three weeks, but they hadn’t been back into New Pretty Town since the night they’d met. “Until we get turned, of course. After last time, the wardens are probably all—”
“I wasn’t talking about New Pretty Town,” Shay interrupted. “That place is boring, anyway. We’d have to sneak around all night.”
“Okay. You mean just board around Uglyville.”
Shay shook her head, still coasting gradually away on the breeze.
Tally shifted her weight on the board uncomfortably. “Where else is there?”
Shay put her hands in her pockets and spread her arms, turning her dorm’s team jacket into a sail. The breeze pulled her farther away from Tally. By reflex, Tally tipped her toes forward so that her board would keep up.
“Well, there’s out there.” Shay nodded at the open land before them.
“The suburbs? That’s dullsville.”
“Not the burbs. Past them.” Shay slid her feet in opposite directions, to the very edges of the board. Her skirt caught the cool evening wind, which tugged her away even faster. She was drifting toward the outer edge of the greenbelt. Off-limits.
Tally planted her feet and dipped the board, and pulled up next to her friend. “What do you mean?
Outside the city completely?”
“That’s crazy. There’s nothing out there.”
“There’s plenty out there. Real trees, hundreds of years old. Mountains. And the ruins. Ever been there?”
Tally blinked. “Of course.”
“I don’t mean on a school trip, Tally. You ever been there at night?”
Tally brought her board to a sharp halt. The Rusty Ruins were the remains of an old city, a hulking reminder of back when there’d been way too many people, and everyone was incredibly stupid. And ugly.
“No way. Don’t tell me you have.”
Tally’s mouth dropped open. “That’s impossible.”
“You think you’re the only one who knows good tricks?”
“Well, maybe I believe you,” Tally said. Shay had that look on her face, the one Tally had learned to watch out for. “But what if we get busted?”
Shay laughed. “Tally, there’s nothing out there, like you just said. Nothing and no one to bust us.”
“Do hoverboards even work out there? Does anything?”
“Special ones do, if you know how to trick them, and where to ride. And getting past the burbs is easy. You take the river the whole way. Farther upstream it’s white water, too rough for skimmers.”
Tally’s mouth dropped open again. “You really have done this before.”
A gust of wind billowed in Shay’s jacket, and she slid farther away, still smiling. Tally had to lean her board into motion again to stay within earshot. A treetop brushed her ankles as the ground below them started to rise.
“It’ll be really fun,” Shay called.
“Sounds too risky.”
“Come on. I’ve been wanting to show you this since we met. Since you told me you crashed a pretty party—and pulled a fire alarm!”
Tally swallowed, wishing she’d told the whole truth about that night—about how it had all just sort of happened . Shay seemed to think she was the world’s biggest daredevil now. “Well, I mean, that alarm thing was partly an accident. Kind of.”
“I mean, maybe we should wait. It’s only a couple of months now.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Shay said. “A couple of months and we’ll be stuck inside the river. Pretty and boring.”
Tally snorted. “I don’t think it’s exactly boring, Shay.”
“Doing what you’re supposed to do is always boring. I can’t imagine anything worse than being required to have fun.”
“I can,” Tally said quietly. “Never having any.”
“Listen, Tally, these two months are our last chance to do anything really cool. To be ourselves. Once we turn, it’s new pretty, middle pretty, late pretty.” Shay dropped her arms, and her board stopped drifting. “Then dead pretty.”
“Better than dead ugly,” Tally said.
Shay shrugged and opened her jacket into a sail again. They weren’t far from the edge of the greenbelt now. Soon Shay would get a warning. Then her board would tattle.
“Besides,” Tally argued, “just because we get the operation doesn’t mean we can’t do stuff like this.”
“But pretties never do, Tally. Never.”
Tally sighed, tipping her feet again to follow. “Maybe that’s because they have better stuff to do than kid tricks. Maybe partying in town is better than hanging out in a bunch of old ruins.”
Shay’s eyes flashed. “Or maybe when they do the operation—when they grind and stretch your bones to the right shape, peel off your face and rub all your skin away, and stick in plastic cheekbones so you look like everybody else—maybe after going through all that you just aren’t very interesting anymore.”
Tally flinched. She’d never heard the operation described that way. Even in bio class, where they went into the details, it didn’t sound that bad. “Come on, we won’t even know it’s happening. You just have pretty dreams the whole time.”
A voice came into Tally’s head:” Warning, restricted area.” The wind was turning cold as the sun dropped.
“Come on, Shay, let’s go back down. It’s almost dinner.”
Shay smiled and shook her head, and pulled off her interface ring. Now she wouldn’t hear the warnings.
“Let’s go tonight. You can ride almost as well as me now.”
“Do this with me. I’ll show you a roller coaster.”
“Second warning. Restricted area.”
Tally stopped her board. “If you keep going, Shay, you’ll get busted and we won’t be doing anything tonight.”
Shay shrugged as the wind tugged her farther away.
“I just want to show you something that’s my idea of fun, Tally. Before we go all pretty and only get to have everybody else’s idea of fun.”
Tally shook her head, wanting to say that Shay had already taught her how to hoverboard, the coolest thing she’d ever learned. In less than a month she’d come to feel like they were best friends.
Almost like when she’d met Peris as a littlie, and they’d known instantly they’d be together forever. “Shay…”
Tally sighed. “Okay.”
Shay dropped her arms and dipped her toes to bring the board to a halt.
“Sure. Rusty Ruins it is.”
Tally told herself to relax. It wasn’t that big a deal, really. She broke rules all the time, and everyone went to the ruins once a year on school trips. It couldn’t be dangerous or anything.
Shay zoomed back from the edge of the belt, swooping up beside Tally to put her arm around her.
“Wait until you see the river.”
“You said it’s got white water?”
“Which is what?”
Shay smiled. “It’s water. But much, much better.”
“Sleep tight,” replied the room.
Tally pulled on a jacket, clipped her sensor to her belly ring, and opened the window. The air was still, the river so flat that she could make out every detail of the city skyline mirrored in it. It looked like the pretties were having some sort of event. She could hear the roar of a huge crowd across the water, a thousand cheers rising and falling together. The party towers were dark under the almost full moon, and the fireworks all shimmering hues of blue, climbing so high that they exploded in silence.
The city had never looked so far away.
“I’ll see you soon, Peris,” she said quietly.
The roof tiles were slick with a late evening rain. Tally climbed carefully to the corner of the dorm where it was brushed by an old sycamore tree. The handholds in its branches felt solid and familiar, and she descended quickly into the darkness behind a recycler.
When she’d cleared the dormitory grounds, Tally looked back. The pattern of shadows that led away from the dorm seemed so convenient, almost intentional. As if uglies were supposed to sneak out every once in a while.
Tally shook her head. She was starting to think like Shay.
They met at the dam, where the river split in two to encircle New Pretty Town. Tonight, there weren’t any river skimmers out to disturb the darkness, and Shay was practicing moves on her board when Tally walked up.
“Should you be doing that here in town?” Tally called over the roar of water rushing through the dam’s gates.
Shay danced, shifting her weight back and forth on the floating board, dodging imaginary obstacles. “I was just making sure it worked. In case you were worried.”
Tally looked at her own board. Shay had tricked the safety governor so it wouldn’t tattle when they flew at night, or crossed the boundary out of town. Tally wasn’t so much worried about it squealing on them as whether it would fly at all. Or let her fly into a tree. But Shay’s board seemed to be hovering just fine.
“I boarded all the way here, and nobody’s come to get me,” Shay said.
Tally dropped her board to the ground. “Thanks for making sure. I didn’t mean to be so wimpy about this.”
“Yeah, I was. I should tell you something. That night, when you met me, I kind of promised my friend Peris I wouldn’t take any big risks. You know, in case I really got in trouble, and they got really mad.”
“Who cares if they get mad? You’re almost sixteen.”
“But what if they get mad enough that they won’t make me pretty?”
Shay stopped bouncing. “I’ve never heard of that happening.”
“I guess I haven’t either. But maybe they wouldn’t tell us if it had. Anyway, Peris made me promise to take it easy.”
“Tally, do you think maybe he just said that so you wouldn’t come around again?”
“Maybe he made you promise to take it easy so you wouldn’t bother him anymore. To make you afraid to go to New Pretty Town again.”
Tally tried to answer, but her throat was dry.
“Listen, if you don’t want to come, that’s fine,” Shay said. “I mean it, Squint. But we’re not going to get caught. And if we do, I’ll take the blame.” She laughed. “I’ll tell them I kidnapped you.”
Tally stepped onto her board and snapped her fingers. When she reached Shay’s eye level she said, “I’m coming. I said I would.”
Shay smiled and took Tally’s hand for a second, squeezing. “Great. It’s going to be fun. Not new pretty fun—the real kind. Put these on.”
“What are they? Night vision?”
“Nope. Goggles. You’re going to love the white water.”
They hit the rapids ten minutes later.
Tally had lived her whole life within sight of the river. Slow-moving and dignified, it defined the city, marking the boundary between worlds. But she’d never realized that a few kilometers upstream from the dam, the stately band of silver became a snarling monster.
The churning water really was white. It crashed over rocks and through narrow channels, catapulted up into moonlit sprays, split apart, rejoined, and dropped down into boiling cauldrons at the bottom of steep falls.
Shay was skimming just above the torrent, so low that she lifted a wake every time she banked.
Tally followed at what she guessed was a safe distance, hoping her tricked-up board was still reluctant to crash into the darkness-cloaked rocks and tree branches. The forest to either side was a black void full of wild and ancient trees, nothing like the generic carbon-dioxide suckers that decorated the city. The moonlit clouds above glowed through their branches like a ceiling of pearl.
Every time Shay screamed, Tally knew she was about to follow her friend through a wall of sprayleaping up from the maelstrom. Some shone like white lace curtains in the moonlight, but others struck unexpectedly from the darkness. Tally also found herself crashing through the arcs of cold water rising from Shay’s board when it dipped or banked, but at least she knew when a turn was coming.
The first few minutes were sheer terror, her teeth clenched so hard that her jaw ached, her toes curled up inside her special new grippy shoes, her arms and even fingers spread wide for balance. But gradually Tally grew accustomed to the darkness, the roar of water below, the unexpected slap of cold spray against her face. It was wilder, and faster, and farther than she’d ever flown before. The river wound into the dark forest, cutting its serpentine route into the unknown.
Finally, Shay waved her hands and pulled up, the back of her board dipping low into the water. Tally climbed to avoid the wake, spinning her board in a tight circle to bring it to a smooth halt.
“Are we there?”
“Not quite. But look.” Shay pointed back the way they’d come.
Tally gasped as she took in the view. The distant city was a bright coin nestled in darkness, the fireworks of New Pretty Town the barest cold-blue shimmer. They must have climbed a long way up; Tally could see patches of moonlight rolling slowly across the low hills around the city, pushed along by the light wind that barely tugged at the clouds.
She’d never been beyond the city limits at night, had never seen it lit up like this from afar.
Tally pulled off her spattered goggles and took a deep breath. The air was full of sharp smells, evergreen sap and wildflowers, the electric smell of churning water.
“Yeah,” Tally panted. “Much better than sneaking around New Pretty Town.”
Shay grinned happily. “I’m really glad you think so. I’ve been wanting to come out here so bad, but not alone. You know?”
Tally looked at the surrounding forest, trying to peer into the black spaces between the trees. This was really the wild, where anything could be hidden, not a place for human beings. She shivered at the thought of being there alone. “Where to now?”
“Now we walk.”
Shay eased her board to the shore and stepped off. “Yeah, there’s a vein of iron about half a kilometer that way. But nothing between here and there.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Tally, hoverboards work on magnetic levitation, right? So there’s got to be some kind of metal around or they don’t hover.”
“I guess so. But in town—”
“In town, there’s a steel grid built into the ground, no matter where you go. Out here, you have to be careful.”
“What happens if your board can’t hover anymore?”
“It falls down. And your crash bracelets don’t work either.”
“Oh.” Tally stepped from her board and held it under one arm. All her muscles were sore from the wild ride here. It was good to be on solid ground. The rocks felt reassuringly the-opposite-of-hovery under her shakey legs.
After a few minutes’ walking, though, the board started to grow heavy. By the time the noise of the river had faded to a dull roar behind them, it felt like a plank of oak under her arm.
“I didn’t know these things weighed so much.”
“Yeah, this is what a board weighs when it’s not hovering. Out here, you find out that the city fools you about how things really work.”
The sky was getting cloudier, and in the darkness the cold seemed more intense. Tally hoisted the board up to get a better grip, wondering if it was going to rain. She was already wet enough from the rapids. “I kind of like being fooled about some things.”
After a long scramble through the rocks, Shay broke the silence. “This way. There’s a natural vein of iron underground. You can feel it in your crash bracelets. ”
Tally held out one hand and frowned, unconvinced. But after another minute she felt a faint tugging in her bracelet, like a ghost pulling her forward. Her board started to lighten, and soon she and Shay had hopped on again, coasting over a ridge and down into a dark valley.
Onboard, Tally found the breath to ask a question that had been bugging her. “So if hoverboards need metal, how do they work on the river?”
“Panning for gold.”
“Rivers come from springs, which come from inside mountains. The water brings up minerals from inside the earth. So there’s always metals at the bottom of rivers.”
“Right. Like when people used to pan for gold?”
“Yeah, exactly. But, actually, boards prefer iron. All that glitters is not hovery.”
Tally frowned. Shay sometimes talked in a mysterious way, like she was quoting the lyrics of some band no one else listened to.
She almost asked, but Shay came to a sudden halt and pointed downward.
The clouds were breaking, and moonlight shot through them to fall across the floor of the valley. Hulking towers rose up, casting jagged shadows, their human-made shapes obvious against the plain of treetops rippling in the wind.
The Rusty Ruins.
The Rusty Ruins
A few blank windows stared down on them in silence from the husks of the giant buildings. Any glass had long since shattered, any wood had rotted, and nothing remained but metal frames, mortar, and stone crumbling in the grip of invading vegetation. Looking down at the black, empty doorways, Tally’s skin crawled with the thought of descending to peer into one.
The two friends slid between the ruined buildings, riding high and silent as if not to disturb the ghosts of the dead city. Below them the streets were full of burned-out cars squeezed together between the looming walls. Whatever had destroyed this city, the people had tried to escape it. Tally remembered from her last school trip to the ruins that their cars couldn’t hover. They just rolled along on rubber wheels. The Rusties had been stuck down in these streets like a horde of rats trapped in a burning maze.
“Uh, Shay, you’re pretty sure our boards aren’t suddenly going to conk out, right?” she called softly.
“Don’t worry. Whoever built this city loved to waste metal. They aren’t called the Rusty Ruins because some guy called Rusty discovered them.”
Tally had to agree. Every building sported jagged spurs of metal sticking from its broken walls, like bones jutting from a long-dead animal. She remembered that the Rusties didn’t use hoverstruts; every building was squat, crude, and massive, and needed a steel skeleton to keep it from falling down.
And some of them were so huge . The Rusties didn’t put their factories underground, and they all worked together like bees in a hive instead of at home. The smallest ruin here was bigger than the biggest dorm in Uglyville, bigger even than Garbo Mansion.
Seeing them now, at night, the ruins felt much more real to Tally. On school trips, the teachers always made the Rusties out to be so stupid. You almost couldn’t believe people lived like this, burning trees to clear land, burning oil for heat and power, setting the atmosphere on fire with their weapons. But in the moonlight she could imagine people scrambling over flaming cars to escape the crumbling city, panicking in their flight from this untenable pile of metal and stone.
Shay’s voice pulled Tally from her reverie. “Come on, I want to show you something.”
Shay cruised to the edge of the buildings, then out over the trees.
“Are you sure we can—”
Below, Tally saw metal glinting through the trees.
“The ruins are much bigger than they let on,” Shay said. “They just keep that part of the city standing for school trips and museum stuff. But it goes on forever.”
“With lots of metal?”
“Yeah. Tons. Don’t worry, I’ve flown all over the place.”
Tally swallowed, keeping an eye out for signs of ruin below, glad that Shay was moving at a nice, slow speed.
A shape emerged from the forest, a long spine that rose and fell like a frozen wave. It led away from them, off into the darkness.
“Here it is.”
“Okay, but what is it?” Tally asked.
“It’s called a roller coaster. Remember, I told you I’d show you one.”
“It’s pretty. But what’s it for?”
“For having fun.”
“Yeah, way. Apparently, the Rusties did have some fun. It’s like a track. They would stick ground cars to it and go as fast as they could. Up, down, around in circles. Like hoverboarding, without hovering.
And they made it out of some really unrusty kind of steel—for safety, I guess.”
Tally frowned. She’d only imagined the Rusties working in the giant stone hives and struggling to escape on that last, horrible day. Not having fun.
“Let’s do it,” Shay said. “Let’s roller coaster.”
“On your board.” Shay turned to Tally and said seriously, “But you’ve got to go fast. It’s dangerous unless you’re really moving.”
Shay turned away and sped down the roller coaster, flying just above the track. Tally sighed and leaned hard after her. At least the thing was metal.
It also turned out to be a great ride. It was like a hoverboard course made solid, complete with tight, banked turns, sharp climbs followed by long drops, even loops that took Tally upside down, her crash bracelets activating to keep her on board. It was amazing what good shape it was in. The Rusties must have built it out of something special, just as Shay had said.
The track went much higher than a hoverboard could go on its own. On the roller coaster, hoverboarding really was like being a bird.
It wound around in a wide, slow arc, circling back toward where they’d started. The final approach began with a huge climb.
“Take this part fast!” Shay shouted over her shoulder as she zoomed ahead.
Tally followed at top speed, rocketing up the spindly track. She could see the ruins in the distance: broken, black spires against the trees. And behind them, a moonlit glimmer that might have been the sea.
This was really high!
She heard a scream of pleasure as she reached the top. Shay had disappeared. Tally leaned forward to speed up.
Suddenly, the board dropped out from under her. It simply fell away from her feet, leaving her flying through midair. The track below her had disappeared.
Tally clenched her fists, waiting for the crash bracelets to kick in and haul her up by her wrists. But they had become as useless as the board, just heavy strips of steel dragging her toward the ground. “Shay!”
she screamed as she fell into blackness.
Then Tally saw the framework of the roller coaster ahead. Only a short segment was missing.
Suddenly, the crash bracelets pulled her upward, and she felt the solid surface of the hoverboard coming up from under her feet. Her momentum had carried her to the other side of the gap! The board must have sailed along with her, just below her feet for those terrifying seconds of free fall.
She found herself cruising down the track, to where Shay was waiting at the bottom. “You’re insane!” she shouted.
“Pretty cool, huh?”
“No!” Tally yelled. “Why didn’t you tell me it was broken ?”
Shay shrugged. “More fun that way?”
“More fun ?” Her heart was beating fast, her vision strangely clear. She was full of anger and relief and…joy. “Well, kind of. But you suck !”
Tally stepped from the board and walked across the grass on rubbery legs. She found a broken stone big enough to sit on, and lowered herself shakily onto it.
Shay jumped off her board. “Hey, sorry.”
“That was horrible, Shay. I was falling .”
“Not for long. Like, five seconds. I thought you said you’d bungee jumped off a building.”
Tally glared at Shay. “Yeah, I did, but Knew I wasn’t going to splat.”
“True. But, you see, the first time someone showed me the roller coaster, they didn’t tell me about the gap. And I thought it was pretty cool, finding out that way. Best time’s the first time. I wanted you to feel it too.”
“You thought falling was cool ?”
“Well, maybe at first I was pretty angry. Yeah, I definitely was.” Shay smiled broadly. “But I got over it.”
“Give me a second on that one, Skinny.”
“Take your time.”
Tally’s breathing slowed, and her heart gradually stopped trying to beat its way out of her chest. But her brain stayed as clear as it had for those seconds of free fall, and she found herself wondering who had found the roller coaster first, and how many other uglies had come here since. “Shay, who showed you all this?”
“Friends, older than me. Uglies like us, who try to figure out how stuff works. And how to trick it.”
Tally looked up at the ancient, serpentine shape of the roller coaster, the vines crawling up its framework. “I wonder how long uglies have been coming here.”
“Probably a long time. You pass along stuff. You know, one person figures out how to trick their board, the next finds the rapids, the next makes it to the ruins.”
“Then somebody gets brave enough to jump the gap in the roller coaster.” Tally swallowed. “Or jumps it accidentally.”
Shay nodded. “But they all get turned pretty in the end.”
“Happy ending,” Tally said.
“How do you know it’s called a ‘roller coaster,’ anyway? Did you look it up somewhere?”
“No,” Shay said. “Someone told me.”
“But how’d they know?”
“This guy knows a lot of stuff. Tricks, stuff about the ruins. He’s really cool.”
Something about Shay’s voice made Tally turn and take her hand. “But he’s pretty now, I guess.”
Shay pulled away and bit a fingernail. “No. He’s not.”
“But I thought all your friends—”
“Tally, will you make me a promise? A real promise.”
“Sure, I guess. What kind of promise?”
“You can never tell anyone what I’m about to show you.”
“It doesn’t involve free fall, does it?”
“Okay. I swear.” Tally held up her hand with the scar she and Peris had made. “I’ll never tell anyone.”
Shay looked into her eyes for a moment, searching hard, then nodded. “All right. There’s someone I want you to meet. Tonight.”
“Tonight? But we won’t get back into town until—”
“He’s not in town.” Shay smiled. “He’s out here.”
Waiting for David
“This is a joke, right?”
Shay didn’t answer. They were back in the heart of the ruins, in the shadow of the tallest building around. She was staring up at it with a puzzled expression on her face. “I think I remember how to do this,” she said.
“Get up there. Yeah, here it is.”
Shay eased her board forward, ducking to pass through a gap in the crumbling wall.
“Don’t worry. I’ve done this before.”
“I think I already had my initiation for tonight, Shay.” Tally wasn’t in the mood for another one of Shay’s jokes. She was tired, and it was a long way back to town. And she had cleanup duty tomorrow at her dorm. Just because it was summer didn’t mean she could sleep all day.
But Tally followed Shay through the gap. Arguing would probably take longer.
They rose straight into the air, the boards using the metal skeleton of the building to climb. It was creepy being inside, looking out of the empty windows at the ragged shapes of other buildings. Like being a Rusty ghost watching as its city crumbled over the centuries.
The roof was missing, and they emerged to a spectacular view. The clouds had all disappeared, and moonlight brought the ruins into sharp relief, the buildings like rows of broken teeth. Tally saw that it really had been the ocean she’d glimpsed from the roller coaster. From up here, the water shone like a pale band of silver in the moonlight.
Shay pulled something from her shoulder pack and tore it in half.
The world burst into flame.
“Ow! Blind me, why don’t you!” Tally cried, covering her eyes.
“Oh, yeah. Sorry.” Shay held the safety sparkler at arm’s length. It crackled to full strength in the silence of the ruins, casting flickering shadows through the interior of the ruin. Shay’s face looked monstrous in the glare, and sparks floated downward to be lost in the depths of the wrecked building.
Finally, the sparkler ran out. Tally blinked, trying to clear the spots from before her eyes. Her night vision ruined, she could hardly see anything except the moon in the sky.
She swallowed, realizing that the sparkler would have been seen from anywhere in the valley. Maybe even out to sea. “Shay, was that a signal?”
“Yeah, it was.”
Tally looked down. The dark buildings below were filled with phantom flickers of light, echoes of the sparkler burned into her eyes. Suddenly very aware of how blind she was, Tally felt a drop of cold sweat creep down her spine. “Who are we meeting, anyway?”
“His name’s David.”
“David? That’s a weird name.” It sounded made up, to Tally. She decided again that this was all a joke.
“So he’s just going to show up here? This guy doesn’t really live in the ruins, does he?”
“No. He lives pretty far away. But he might be close by. He comes here sometimes.”
“You mean, he’s from another city?”
Shay looked at her, but Tally couldn’t read her expression in the darkness. “Something like that.”
Shay returned her gaze to the horizon, as if looking for a signal in answer to her own. Tally wrapped herself in her jacket. Standing still, she began to realize how cold it had become. She wondered how late it was. Without her interface ring, she couldn’t just ask.
The almost full moon was descending in the sky, so it had to be past midnight, Tally remembered from astronomy. That was one thing about being outside the city: It made all that nature stuff they taught in school seem a lot more useful.
She remembered now how rainwater fell on the mountains, and soaked into the ground before bubbling up full of minerals. Then it made its way back to the sea, cutting rivers and canyons into the earth over the centuries. If you lived out here, you could ride your hoverboard along the rivers, like in the really old days before the Rusties, when the not-as-crazy pre-Rusties traveled around in small boats made from trees.
Her night vision gradually returned, and she scanned the horizon. Would there really be another flare out there, answering Shay’s? Tally hoped not. She’d never met anyone from another city.
She knew from school that in some cities they spoke other languages, or didn’t turn pretty until they were eighteen, and other weird stuff like that. “Shay, maybe we should head home.”
“Let’s wait a while longer.”
Tally bit her lip. “Look, maybe this David isn’t around tonight.”
“Yeah, maybe. Probably. But I was hoping he’d be here.” She turned to face Tally. “It would be really cool if you met him. He’s…different.”
“Sounds like it.”
“I’m not making this up, you know.”
“Hey, I believe you,” Tally said, although with Shay, she was never totally sure.
Shay turned back to the horizon, chewing on a fingernail. “Okay, I guess he’s not around. We can go, if you want.”
“It’s just that it’s really late, and a long way back. And I’ve got cleanup tomorrow.”
Shay nodded. “Me too.”
“Thanks for showing me all this, Shay. It was all really incredible. But I think one more cool thing would kill me.”
Shay laughed. “The roller coaster didn’t kill you.”
“Forgive me for that yet?”
“I’ll let you know, Skinny.”
Shay laughed. “Okay. But remember not to tell anyone about David.”
“Hey, I promised. You can trust me, Shay. Really.”
“All right. I do trust you, Tally.” She bent her knees, and her board started to descend.
Tally took one last look around, taking in the ruins splayed out below them, the dark woods, the pearly strip of river stretching toward the glowing sea. She wondered if there was anyone out there, really, or if David was just some story that uglies made up to scare one another.
But Shay didn’t seem scared. She seemed genuinely disappointed that no one had answered her signal, as if meeting David would have been even better than showing off the rapids, the ruins, and the roller coaster.
Whether he was real or not, Tally thought, David was very real to Shay.
They left through the gap in the wall and flew to the outskirts of the ruins, then followed the vein of iron up out of the valley. At the ridge, the boards started to stutter, and they stepped off.
Tired as Tally was, carrying the board didn’t seem so impossible this time. She had stopped thinking of it as a toy, like a littlie’s balloon.
The hoverboard had become something more solid, something that obeyed its own rules, and that could be dangerous, too.
Tally figured that Shay was right about one thing: Being in the city all the time made everything fake, in a way. Like the buildings and bridges held up by hoverstruts, or jumping off a rooftop with a bungee jacket on, nothing was quite real there.
She was glad Shay had taken her out to the ruins. If nothing else, the mess left by the Rusties proved that things could go terribly wrong if you weren’t careful.
Close to the river the boards lightened up, and the two of them jumped on gratefully.
Shay groaned as they got their footing. “I don’t know about you, but I’m not taking another step tonight.”
“That’s for sure.”
Shay leaned forward and eased her board out onto the river, wrapping her dorm jacket around her shoulders against the spray of the rapids. Tally turned to take one last look back. With the clouds gone, she could just see the ruins from here.
She blinked. There seemed to be the barest flicker coming from over where the roller coaster had been.
Maybe it was just a trick of the light, a reflection of moonlight from some exposed piece of unrusted metal. “Shay?” she said softly.
“You coming or what?” Shay shouted over the roar of the river.
Tally blinked again, but couldn’t make out the flicker anymore. In any case, they were too far away.
Mentioning it to Shay would only make her anxious to go back. There was no way Tally was making the hike again.
And it probably was nothing.
Tally took a deep breath and shouted, “Come on, Skinny. Race you!” She urged her board onto the river, cutting into the cold spray and for a moment leaving a laughing Shay behind.
“Look at them all. What dorks.”
“Did we ever look like that?”
“Probably. But just because we were dorks doesn’t mean they’re not.”
Tally nodded, trying to remember what being twelve was like, what the dorm had looked like on her first day there. She remembered how intimidating the building had seemed. Much bigger than Sol and Ellie’s house, of course, and bigger than the huts that littlies went to school in, one teacher and ten students to each one.
Now the dorm seemed so small and claustrophobic. Painfully childish, with its bright colors and padded stairs. So boring during the day and easy to escape at night.
The new uglies all stuck together in a tight group, afraid to stray too far from their guide. Their ugly little faces peered up at the dorm’s four-story height, their eyes full of wonder and terror.
Shay pulled her head back in through the window. “This is going to be so fun.”
“It’ll be one orientation they won’t forget.”
Summer was over in two weeks. The population of Tally’s dorm had been steadily dropping for the last year as seniors turned sixteen. It was almost time for a new batch to take their place. Tally watched the last few uglies make their way inside, gawky and nervous, unkempt and uncoordinated. Twelve was definitely the turning point, when you changed from a cute littlie into an oversize, under-educated ugly.
It was a stage of life she was glad to be leaving behind.
“You sure this thing is going to work?” Shay asked.
Tally smiled. It wasn’t often that Shay was the cautious one. She pointed at the collar of the bungee jacket. “You see that little green light? That means it’s working. It’s for emergencies, so it’s always ready to go.”
Shay’s hand slipped under the jacket to pull at her belly sensor, which meant she was nervous. “What if it knows there’s no real emergency?”
“It’s not that smart. You fall, it catches you. No tricks necessary.”
Shay shrugged and put it on.
They’d borrowed the jacket from the art school, the tallest building in Uglyville. It was a spare from the basement, and they hadn’t even had to trick the rack to get it free. Tally definitely didn’t want to get caught messing around with fire alarms, in case the wardens connected her to a certain incident in New Pretty Town back at the beginning of summer.
Shay pulled an oversize basketball jersey over the bungee jacket. It was in her dorm’s colors, and none of the teachers here knew her face very well. “How’s that look?”
“Like you’ve gained weight. It suits you.”
Shay scowled. She hated being called Stick Insect, or Pig-Eyes, or any of the other things uglies called one another. Shay sometimes claimed that she didn’t care if she ever got the operation. It was crazy talk, of course.
Shay wasn’t exactly a freak, but she was hardly a natural-born pretty. There’d only been about ten of those in all of history, after all. “Do you want to do the jump, Squint?”
“I have both been there and done that, Shay, before I even met you. And you’re the one who had this brilliant idea.”
Shay’s scowl faded into a smile. “It is brilliant, isn’t it?”
“They’ll never know what hit them.”
They waited until the new uglies were in the library, scattered around the worktables to watch some orientation video. Shay and Tally lay on their stomachs on the top floor of the stacks, where the dusty old paper books were stored, peering through the guardrails down at the group. They waited for the tour leader to quiet the chattering uglies.
“This is almost too easy,” Shay said, penciling a pair of fat, black eyebrows over her own.
“Easy for you. You’ll be out the door before anyone knows what’s happened. I’ve got to make it all the way down the stairs.”
“So what, Tally? What are they going to do if we get caught?”
Tally shrugged. “True.” But she pulled on her mousy brown wig anyway.
Over the summer, as the last few seniors turned sixteen and pretty, the tricks had grown worse and worse. But nobody ever seemed to get punished, and Tally’s promise to Peris seemed ages ago.
Once she was pretty, nothing she’d done in this last month would matter. She was anxious to leave it all behind, but not without a big finish.
Thinking of Peris, Tally stuck on a big plastic nose. They’d raided the drama room at Shay’s dorm the night before and were loaded with disguises. “Ready?” she asked. Then she giggled at the nasal twang the fake nose gave her voice.
“Hang on.” Shay grabbed a big, fat book from the shelf. “Okay, showtime.”
They stood up.
“Give me that book!” Tally shouted at Shay. “It’s mine!”
She heard the uglies below fall silent, and had to resist looking down to see their upturned faces.
“No way, Pignose! I checked it out first.”
“Are you kidding, Fattie? You can’t even read!”
“Oh, yeah? Well, read this !”
Shay swung the book at Tally, who ducked. She snatched it away and swung back, catching Shay solidly on her upraised forearms. Shay rolled back at the impact, spinning over the railing.
Tally leaned forward, watching wide-eyed as Shay tumbled down toward the library’s main floor, three stories below. The new uglies screamed in unison, scattering away from the flailing body plummeting toward them.
A second later the bungee jacket activated, and Shay bobbed back up in midair, laughing maniacally at the top of her lungs. Tally waited another moment, watching the uglies’ horror dissolve into confusion as Shay bounced again, then righted herself on one of the tables and headed for the door.
Tally dropped the book and dashed for the stairs, leaping a flight at a time until she reached the back exit of the dorm.
“Oh, that was perfect!”
“Did you see their faces?”
“Not actually,” Shay said. “I was kind of busy watching the floor coming at me.”
“Yeah, I remember that from jumping off the roof. It does catch your attention.”
“Speaking of faces, love the nose.”
Tally giggled, pulling it off. “Yeah, no point in being uglier than usual.”
Shay’s face clouded. She wiped off an eyebrow, then looked up sharply. “You’re not ugly.”
“Oh, come on, Shay.”
“No, I mean it.” She reached out and touched Tally’s real nose. “Your profile is great.”
“Don’t be weird, Shay. I’m an ugly, you’re an ugly. We will be for two more weeks. It’s no big deal or anything.” She laughed. “You, for example, have one giant eyebrow and one tiny one.”
Shay looked away, stripping off the rest of her disguise in silence.
They were hidden in the changing rooms beside the sandy beach, where they’d left their interface rings
and a spare set of clothes. If anyone asked, they’d say they were swimming the whole time. Swimming was a great trick. It hid your body-heat signature, involved changing clothes, and was a perfect excuse for not wearing your interface ring. The river washed away all crimes.
A minute later they splashed out into the water, sinking the disguises. The bungee jacket would go back to the art school basement that night.
“I’m serious, Tally,” Shay said once they were out in the water. “Your nose isn’t ugly. I like your eyes, too.”
“My eyes? Now you’re totally crazy. They’re way too close together.”
Shay splashed a handful of water at her. “You don’t believe all that crap, do you—that there’s only one way to look, and everyone’s programmed to agree on it?”
“It’s not about believing, Shay. You just know it. You’ve seen pretties. They look…wonderful.”
“They all look the same.”
“I used to think that too. But when Peris and I would go into town, we’d see a lot of them, and we realized that pretties do look different. They look like themselves. It’s just a lot more subtle, because they’re not all freaks.”
“We’re not freaks, Tally. We’re normal. We may not be gorgeous, but at least we’re not hyped-up Barbie dolls.”
“What kind of dolls?”
She looked away. “It’s something David told me about.”
“Oh, great. David again.” Tally pushed away and floated on her back, looking up at the sky and wishing this conversation would end. They’d been out to the ruins a few more times, and Shay always insisted on setting off a sparkler, but David had never showed. The whole thing gave Tally the creeps, waiting around in the dead city for some guy who didn’t seem to exist. It was great exploring out there, but Shay’s obsession with David had started to sour it for Tally.
“He’s real. I’ve met him more than once.”
“Okay, Shay, David’s real. But so is being ugly. You can’t change it just by wishing, or by telling yourself that you’re pretty. That’s why they invented the operation.”
“But it’s a trick, Tally. You’ve only seen pretty faces your whole life. Your parents, your teachers, everyone over sixteen. But you weren’t born expecting that kind of beauty in everyone, all the time. You just got programmed into thinking anything else is ugly.”
“It’s not programming, it’s just a natural reaction. And more important than that, it’s fair. In the old days it was all random—some people kind of pretty, most people ugly all their lives. Now everyone’s ugly…until they’re pretty. No losers.”
Shay was silent for a while, then said, “There are losers, Tally.”
Tally shivered. Everyone knew about uglies-for-life, the few people for whom the operation wouldn’t work. You didn’t see them around much. They were allowed in public, but most of them preferred to hide. Who wouldn’t? Uglies might look goofy, but at least they were young. Old uglies were really unbelievable.
“Is that it? Are you worried about the operation not working? That’s silly, Shay. You’re no freak. In two weeks you’ll be as pretty as anyone else.”
“I don’t want to be pretty.”
Tally sighed. This again.
“I’m sick of this city,” Shay continued. “I’m sick of the rules and boundaries. The last thing I want is to become some empty-headed new pretty, having one big party all day.”
“Come on, Shay. They do all the same stuff we do: bungee jump, fly, play with fireworks. Only they don’t have to sneak around.”
“They don’t have the imagination to sneak around.”
“Look, Skinny, I’m with you,” Tally said sharply. “Doing tricks is great! Okay? Breaking the rules is fun!
But eventually you’ve got to do something besides being a clever little ugly.”
“Like being a vapid, boring pretty?”
“No, like being an adult. Did you ever think that when you’re pretty you might not need to play tricks and mess things up? Maybe just being ugly is why uglies always fight and pick on one another, because they aren’t happy with who they are. Well, I want to be happy, and looking like a real person is the first step.”
“I’m not afraid of looking the way I do, Tally.”
“Maybe not, but you are afraid of growing up!”
Shay didn’t say anything. Tally floated in silence, looking up at the sky, barely able to see the clouds through her anger. She wanted to be pretty, wanted to see Peris again. It seemed like forever since she’d talked to him, or to anyone else except Shay. She was sick of this whole ugly business, and just wanted it to end.
A minute later, she heard Shay swimming for shore.
It was strange, but Tally couldn’t help feeling sad. She knew she’d miss the view from this window.
She’d spent the last four years looking out at New Pretty Town , wanting nothing more than to cross the river and not come back. That’s probably what had tempted her through the window so many times, learning every trick she could to sneak closer to the new pretties, to spy on the life she would eventually have.
But now that the operation was only a week away, time seemed to be moving too fast. Sometimes, Tally wished that they could do the operation gradually. Get her squinty eyes fixed first, then her lips, and cross the river in stages. Just so she wouldn’t have to look out the window one last time and know she’d never see this view again.
Without Shay around, things felt incomplete, and she’d spent even more time here, sitting on her bed and staring at New Pretty Town .
Of course, there wasn’t much else to do these days. Everyone in the dorm was younger than Tally now, and she’d already taught all of her best tricks to the next class. She’d watched every movie her wallscreen knew about ten times, all the way back to some old black-and-white ones in an English she could barely understand.
There was no one to go to concerts with, and dorm sports were boring to watch now that she didn’t know anyone on the teams. All the other uglies looked at her enviously, but no one saw much point in making friends. Probably it was better to get the operation over with all at once.
Half the time, she wished the doctors would just kidnap her in the middle of the night and do it. She could imagine a lot worse things than waking up pretty one morning. They said at school that they could make the operation work on fifteen-year-olds now. Waiting until sixteen was just a stupid old tradition.
But it was a tradition nobody questioned, except the occasional ugly. So Tally had a week to go, alone, waiting.
Shay hadn’t talked to her since their big fight. Tally had tried to write a ping, but working it all out on-screen just made her angry again. And it didn’t make much sense to sort it out now. Once they were both pretty, there wouldn’t be anything to fight about anymore. And even if Shay still hated her, there was always Peris and all their old friends, waiting across the river for her with their big eyes and wonderful smiles.
Still, Tally spent a lot of time wondering what Shay was going to look like pretty, her skin-and-bones body all filled out, her already full lips perfected, and the ragged fingernails gone forever.
They’d probably make her eyes a more intense shade of green. Or maybe one of the newer colors—violet, silver, or gold.
Tally jumped at the whisper. She peered into the darkness and saw a form scuttling toward her across the roof tiles. A smile broke onto her face. “Shay!”
The silhouette paused for a moment.
Tally didn’t even bother to whisper. “Don’t just stand there. Come in, stupid!”
Shay crawled into the window, laughing, as Tally gathered her into a hug, warm and joyful and solid.
They stepped back, still holding each other’s hands. For a moment, Shay’s ugly face looked perfect.
“It’s so great to see you.”
“You too, Tally.”
“I missed you. I wanted to—I’m so sorry about—”
“No,” Shay interrupted. “You were right. You made me think. I was going to write you, but it was all…”
Tally nodded, squeezing Shay’s hands. “Yeah. It sucked.”
They stood in silence for a moment, and Tally glanced past her friend out the window. Suddenly, the view of New Pretty Town didn’t seem so sad. It looked bright and tempting, as if all the hesitation had drained out of her. The open window was exciting again. “Shay?”
“Let’s go somewhere tonight. Do some major trick.”
Shay laughed. “I was kind of hoping you’d say that.”
Tally noticed the way Shay was dressed. She was wearing serious trick-wear: all black clothes, hair tied back tight, a knapsack over one shoulder. She grinned. “Already got a plan, I see. Great.”
“Yeah,” Shay said softly. “I’ve got a plan.”
She walked over to Tally’s bed, unslinging the knapsack from her shoulder. Her footsteps squeaked, and Tally smiled when she saw that Shay was wearing grippy shoes.
Tally hadn’t been on a hoverboard in days. Flying alone was all the hard work and only half the fun.
Shay dumped the contents of the knapsack out onto the bed, and pointed. “Position-finder. Firestarter. Water purifier.” She picked up two shiny wads the size of sandwiches. “These pull out into sleeping bags. And they’re really warm inside.”
“Sleeping bags? Water purifier?” Tally exclaimed. “This must be some kind of awesome multiday trick.
Are we going all the way to the sea or something?”
Shay shook her head. “Farther.”
“Uh, cool.” Tally kept her smile on her face. “But we’ve only got six days till the operation.”
“I know what day it is.” Shay opened a waterproof bag and spilled its contents alongside the rest. “Food for two weeks—dehydrated. You just drop one of these into the purifier and add water. Any kind of water.” She giggled. “The purifier works so well, you can even pee in it.”
Tally sat down on the bed, reading the labels on the food packs. “Two weeks?”
“Two weeks for two people,” Shay said carefully. “Four weeks for one.”
Tally didn’t say anything. Suddenly, she couldn’t look at the stuff on the bed, or at Shay. She stared out the window, at New Pretty Town , where the fireworks were starting.
“But it won’t take two weeks, Tally. It’s much closer.”
A plume of red soared up in the middle of town, tendrils of fireworks drifting down like the leaves of a giant willow tree. “What won’t take two weeks?”
“Going to where David lives.”
Tally nodded, and closed her eyes.
“It’s not like here, Tally. They don’t separate everyone, uglies from pretties, new and middle and late. And you can leave whenever you want, go anywhere you want.”
“Anywhere. Ruins, the forest, the sea. And…you never have to get the operation.”
“You what ?”
Shay sat next to her, touching Tally’s cheek with one finger. Tally opened her eyes. “We don’t have to look like everyone else, Tally, and act like everyone else. We’ve got a choice. We can grow up any way we want.”
Tally swallowed. She felt like speech was impossible, but knew she had to say something. She forced words from her dry throat. “Not be pretty? That’s crazy, Shay. All the times you talked that way, I thought you were just being stupid. Peris always said the same stuff.”
“I was just being stupid. But when you said I was afraid of growing up, you really made me think.”
“I made you think?”
“Made me realize how full of crap I was. Tally, I’ve got to tell you another secret.”
Tally sighed. “Okay. I guess it can’t get any worse.”
“My older friends, the ones I used to hang out with before I met you? Not all of them wound up pretty.”
“What do you mean?”
“Some of them ran away, like I am. Like I want us to.”
Tally looked into Shay’s eyes, searching for some sign that this was all a joke. But the intense look on her face held firm. She was dead serious.
“You know someone who actually ran away?”
Shay nodded. “I was supposed to go too. We had it all planned, about a week before the first of us turned sixteen. We’d already stolen survival gear, and told David that we were coming. It was all set up.
That was four months ago.”
“But you didn’t…”
“Some of us did, but I chickened out.” Shay looked out the window. “And I wasn’t the only one.
A couple of the others stayed and turned pretty instead. I probably would have too, except I met you.”
“All of a sudden I wasn’t alone anymore. I wasn’t afraid to go back out to the ruins, to look for David again.”
“But we never…” Tally blinked. “You finally found him, didn’t you?”
“Not until two days ago. I’ve been out every night since we…since our fight. After you said I was afraid to grow up, I realized you were right. I’d chickened out once, but I didn’t have to again.”
Shay grasped Tally’s hand, and waited until their eyes were locked. “I want you to come, Tally.”
“No,” Tally said without thinking. Then she shook her head. “Wait. How come you never told me any of this before?”
“I wanted to, except you would have thought I was crazy.”
“You are crazy!”
“Maybe. But not that way. That’s why I wanted you to meet David. So you’d know that it’s all real.”
“It doesn’t seem real. I mean, what is this place you’re talking about?”
“It’s just called the Smoke. It’s not a city, and nobody’s in charge. And nobody’s pretty.”
“Sounds like a nightmare. And how do you get there, walk?”
Shay laughed. “Are you kidding? Hoverboards, like always. There are long-distance boards that recharge on solar, and the route’s all worked out to follow rivers and stuff. David does it all the time, as far as the ruins. He’ll take us to the Smoke.”
“But how do people live out there, Shay? Like the Rusties? Burning trees for heat and burying their junk everywhere? It’s wrong to live in nature, unless you want to live like an animal.”
Shay shook her head and sighed. “That’s just school-talk, Tally. They’ve still got technology. And they’re not like the Rusties, burning trees and stuff. But they don’t put a wall up between themselves and nature.”
“And everyone’s ugly.”
“Which means no one’s ugly.”
Tally managed to laugh. “Which means no one’s pretty, you mean.”
They sat in silence. Tally watched the fireworks, feeling a thousand times worse than she had before Shay had appeared at the window.
Finally, Shay said the words Tally had been thinking. “I’m going to lose you, aren’t I?”
“You’re the one who’s running away.”
Shay brought her fists down onto her knees. “It’s all my fault. I should’ve told you earlier. If you’d had more time to get used to the idea, maybe…”
“Shay, I never would have gotten used to the idea. I don’t want to be ugly all my life. I want those perfect eyes and lips, and for everyone to look at me and gasp. And for everyone who sees me to think Who’s that? and want to get to know me, and listen to what I say.”
“I’d rather have something to say.”
“Like what? ‘I shot a wolf today and ate it’?”
Shay giggled. “People don’t eat wolves, Tally. Rabbits, I think, and deer.”
“Oh, gross. Thanks for the image, Shay.”
“Yeah, I think I’ll stick to vegetables and fish. But it’s not about camping out, Tally. It’s about becoming what I want to become. Not what some surgical committee thinks I should.”
“You’re still yourself on the inside, Shay. But when you’re pretty, people pay more attention.”
“Not everyone thinks that way.”
“Are you sure about that? That you can beat evolution by being smart or interesting? Because if you’re wrong…if you don’t come back by the time you’re twenty, the operation won’t work as well. You’ll look wrong, forever.”
“I’m not coming back. Forever.”
Tally’s voice caught, but she forced herself to say it: “And I’m not going.”
They said good-bye under the dam.
Shay’s long-range hoverboard was thicker, and glimmered with the facets of solar cells. She’d also stashed a heated jacket and hat under the bridge. Tally guessed that winters at the Smoke were cold and miserable.
She couldn’t believe her friend was really going.
“You can always come back. If it sucks.”
Shay shrugged. “None of my friends has.”
The words gave Tally a creepy feeling. She could think of a lot of horrible reasons to explain why no one had come back. “Be careful, Shay.”
“You too. You’re not going to tell anyone about this, right?”
“You swear? No matter what?”
Tally raised her scarred palm. “I swear.”
Shay smiled. “I know. I just had to ask again before I…” She pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to Tally.
“What’s this?” Tally opened it up and saw a scrawl of letters. “When did you learn to write by hand?”
“We all learned while we were planning to leave. It’s a good idea if you don’t want minders sniffing your diary. Anyway, that’s for you. I’m not supposed to leave any record of where I’m going, so it’s in code, kind of.”
Tally frowned, reading the first line of slanted words. “‘Take the coaster straight past the gap’?”
“Yeah. Get it? Only you could figure it out, in case someone finds it. You know, if you ever want to follow me.”
Tally started to say something, but couldn’t. She managed to nod.
“Just in case,” Shay said.
She jumped onto her board and snapped her fingers, securing her knapsack over both shoulders.
“Bye, Shay. I wish…”
Shay waited, bobbing just a bit in the cool September wind. Tally tried to imagine her growing old, wrinkled, gradually ruined, all without ever having been truly beautiful. Never learning how to dress properly, or how to act at a formal dance. Never having anyone look into her eyes and be simply overwhelmed.
“I wish I could have seen what you would look like. Pretty, I mean.”
“Guess you’ll just have to live with remembering my face this way,” Shay said.
Then she turned and her hoverboard climbed away toward the river, and Tally’s next words were lost on the roar of the water.
When the day came, Tally waited for the car alone.
Tomorrow, when the operation was all over, her parents would be waiting outside the hospital, along with Peris and her other older friends. That was the tradition. But it seemed strange that there was no one to see her off on this end. No one said good-bye except a few uglies passing by. They looked so young to her now, especially the just-arrived new class, who gawked at her like she was an old pile of dinosaur bones.
She’d always loved being independent, but now Tally felt like the last littlie to be picked up from school, abandoned and alone. September was a crappy month to be born.
“You’re Tally, right?”
She looked up. It was a new ugly, awkwardly exploding into unfamiliar height, tugging at his dorm uniform like it was already too tight.
“Aren’t you the one who’s going to turn today?”
“That’s me, Shorty.”
“So how come you look so sad?”
Tally shrugged. What could this half-littlie, half-ugly understand, anyway? She thought about what Shay had said about the operation.
Yesterday they’d taken Tally’s final measurements, rolling her all the way through an imaging tube.
Should she tell this new ugly that sometime this afternoon, her body was going to be opened up, the bones ground down to the right shape, some of them stretched or padded, her nose cartilage and cheekbones stripped out and replaced with programmable plastic, skin sanded off and reseeded like a soccer field in spring? That her eyes would be laser-cut for a lifetime of perfect vision, reflective implants
inserted under the iris to add sparkling gold flecks to their indifferent brown? Her muscles all trimmed up with a night of electrocize and all her baby fat sucked out for good? Teeth replaced with ceramics as strong as a suborbital aircraft wing, and as white as the dorm’s good china?
They said it didn’t hurt, except the new skin, which felt like a killer sunburn for a couple of weeks.
As the details of the operation buzzed around in her head, she could imagine why Shay had run away. It did seem like a lot to go through just to look a certain way. If only people were smarter, evolved enough to treat everyone the same even if they looked different. Looked ugly.
If only Tally had come up with the right argument to make her stay.
The imaginary conversations were back, but much worse than they had been after Peris had left. A thousand times she’d fought with Shay in her head—long, rambling discussions about beauty, biology, growing up. All those times out in the ruins, Shay had made her points about uglies and pretties, the city and the outside, what was fake and what was real. But Tally had never once realized her friend might actually run away, giving up a life of beauty, glamour, elegance. If only she’d said the right thing. Any thing.
Sitting here, she felt as if she’d hardly tried.
Tally looked the new ugly in the eye. “Because it all comes down to this: Two weeks of killer sunburn is worth a lifetime of being gorgeous.”
The kid scratched his head. “Huh?”
“Something I should have said, and didn’t. That’s all.”
The hospital hovercar finally came, settling onto the school grounds so lightly that it hardly disturbed the fresh-mown grass.
The driver was a middle pretty, radiating confidence and authority. He looked so much like Sol that Tally almost called her father’s name.
“Tally Youngblood?” he said.
Tally had already seen the flash of light that had read her eye-print, but she said, “Yes, that’s me,” anyway. Something about the middle pretty made it hard to be flippant. He was wisdom personified, his manner so serious and formal that Tally found herself wishing she had dressed up.
“Are you ready? Not taking much.”
Her duffel bag was only half-full. Everyone knew that new pretties wound up recycling most of the stuff they brought over the river, anyway. She’d have all new clothes, of course, and all the new pretty toys she wanted. All she’d really kept was Shay’s handwritten note, hidden among a bunch of random crap.
“Good for you, Tally. That’s very mature.”
“That’s me, sir.”
The door closed, and the car took off.
The big hospital was on the bottom end of New Pretty Town. It was where everyone went for serious operations: littlies, uglies, even late pretties from way out in Crumblyville coming in for life-extension treatments.
The river was sparkling under a cloudless sky, and Tally allowed herself to be swept away by the beauty of New Pretty Town . Even without the nighttime lights and fireworks, the city’s surfaces shone with glass and metal, the unlikely spindles of party towers casting thin shadows across the island. It was so much more vibrant than the Rusty Ruins, Tally suddenly saw. Not as dark and mysterious, perhaps, but more alive.
It was time to stop sulking about Shay. Life was going to be one big party from now on, full of beautiful people. Like Tally Youngblood.
The hovercar descended onto one of the redX s on the hospital roof, and Tally’s driver escorted her inside, taking her to a waiting room. An orderly looked up Tally’s name, flashed her eye again, and told her to wait.
“You’ll be okay?” the driver asked.
She looked up into his clear, soft eyes, wanting him to stay. But asking him to wait with her didn’t seem very mature. “No, I’m fine. Thanks.” He smiled and went away.
No one else was in the waiting room. Tally settled back and counted the tiles on the ceiling.
As she waited, the conversations with Shay in her head came back again, but they weren’t so troubling here. It was too late for second thoughts now.
Tally wished there was a window to look out onto New Pretty Town. She was so close now.
She imagined tomorrow night, her first night pretty, dressed in new and wonderful clothes (her dorm uniforms all shoved down the recycler), looking out from the top of the highest party tower she could find.
She would watch as lights-out fell across the river, bedtime for Uglyville, and know that she still had all night with Peris and her new friends, all the beautiful people she would meet.
Sixteen years. Finally.
Nothing happened for a long hour. Tally drummed her fingers, wondering if they always kept uglies waiting this long.
Then the man came.
He looked strange, unlike any pretty Tally had ever seen. He was definitely of middle age, but whoever had done his operation had botched it. He was beautiful, without a doubt, but it was a terrible beauty.
Instead of wise and confident, the man looked cold, commanding, intimidating, like some regal animal of prey. When he walked up, Tally started to ask what was going on, but a glance from him silenced her.
She had never met an adult who affected her this way. She always felt respect when face-to-face with a middle or late pretty. But in the presence of this cruelly beautiful man, respect was saturated with fear.
The man said, “There’s a problem with your operation. Come with me.”
This hovercar was larger, but not as comfortable.
The trip was much less pleasant than Tally’s first ride that day. The strange-looking man flew with an aggressive impatience, dropping like a rock to cut between flight lanes, banking as steeply as a hoverboard with every turn.
Tally had never been airsick before, but now she clutched the seat restraints, her knuckles white and eyes fixed on the solid ground below. She caught one last glimpse of New Pretty Town receding behind them.
They headed downriver, across Uglyville, over the greenbelt and farther out to the transport ring, where the factories stuck their heads aboveground. Beside a huge, misshapen hill, the car descended into a complex of rectangular buildings, as squat as ugly dorms and painted the color of dried grass.
They landed with a painful bump, and the man led her into one of the buildings, and down into a murk of yellow-brown hallways. Tally had never seen so much space painted in such putrid colors, as if the building were designed to make its occupants vaguely nauseated.
There were more people like the man.
They were all dressed in formals, raw silks in black and gray, and their faces had the same cold, hawkish look. Both the men and women were taller than pretty standard, and more powerfully built, their eyes as pale as an ugly’s. There were a few normal people as well, but they faded into insignificance next to the predatory forms moving gracefully through the halls.
Tally wondered if this was someplace where people were taken when their operations went wrong, when beauty turned cruel. Then why was she here? She hadn’t even had the operation yet.
Tally swallowed. What if these terrible pretties had been made this way intentionally? When they had measured her yesterday, had they determined that she would never fit the vulnerable, doe-eyed pretty mold? Maybe she’d already been chosen to be remade for this strange, other world.
The man stopped outside a metal door, and Tally halted behind him. She felt like a littlie again, jerked along by a minder on an invisible string. All her ugly senior’s confidence had evaporated the moment she’d seen him back at the hospital. Four years of tricks and independence gone.
The door flashed his eye and opened, and he pointed for her to go in. Tally realized he hadn’t said a word since collecting her at the hospital. She took a deep breath, which made the paralyzed muscles in her chest flinch with pain, and managed to croak, “Say please.”
“Inside,” was his answer.
Tally smiled, silently declaring a small victory that she had made him speak again, but she did as she was told.
“I’m Dr. Cable.”
Dr. Cable smiled. “Oh, I know who you are.”
The woman was a cruel pretty. Her nose was aquiline, her teeth sharp, her eyes a non reflective gray.
Her voice had the same slow, neutral cadence as a bedtime book. But it hardly made Tally sleepy. An edge was hidden in the voice, like a piece of metal slowly marking glass.
“You have a problem, Tally.”
“I had kind of guessed that, uh…” It was strange, not knowing the woman’s first name.
“Dr. Cable will do.”
Tally blinked. She’d never called anyone by their last name in her life.
“Okay, Dr. Cable.” She cleared her throat and managed to say more, in a dry voice. “My problem right now is that I don’t know what’s going on. So…why don’t you tell me?”
“What do you think’s going on, Tally?”
Tally closed her eyes, taking a rest from the sharp angles of the woman’s face. “Well, that bungee jacket was a spare, you know, and we did put it back on the recharge pile.”
“This isn’t about some ugly-trick.”
She sighed and opened her eyes. “No, I didn’t think so.”
“This is about a friend of yours. Someone missing.”
Of course. Shay’s disappearing trick had gone too far, leaving Tally to explain. “I don’t know where she is.”
Dr. Cable smiled. Only her top teeth showed when she did. “But you do know something.”
“Who are you, anyway?” Tally blurted. “Where am I?”
“I’m Dr. Cable,” the woman said. “And this is Special Circumstances.”
First Dr. Cable asked her a lot of questions. “You didn’t know Shay long, did you?”
“No. Just this summer. We were in different dorms.”
“And you didn’t know any of her friends?”
“No. They were all older than her. They’d already turned.”
“Like your friend Peris?”
Tally swallowed. How much did this woman know about her? “Yeah. Like Peris and me.”
“But Shay’s friends didn’t wind up pretty, did they?”
Tally took a slow breath, remembering her promise to Shay. She didn’t want to lie, though. Dr. Cable would know if she did, Tally was sure. She was in enough trouble already. “Why wouldn’t they?”
“Did she tell you about her friends?”
“We didn’t talk about stuff like that. We just hung out. Because…it hurt being alone. We were just into playing tricks.”
“Did you know she’d been in a gang?”
Tally looked up into Dr. Cable’s eyes. They were almost as big as a normal pretty’s, but they angled upward like a wolf’s.
“A gang? How do you mean?”
“Tally, did you and Shay ever go to the Rusty Ruins?”
“But did you ever sneak out to the ruins?”
“Yeah. A lot of people do.”
“Did you ever meet anyone there?”
Tally bit her lip. “What’s Special Circumstances?”
“Tally.” The edge in her voice was suddenly sharp as a razor blade.
“If you tell me what Special Circumstances is, I’ll answer you.”
Dr. Cable sat back. She folded her hands and nodded. “This city is a paradise, Tally. It feeds you, educates you, keeps you safe. It makes you pretty.”
Tally couldn’t help looking up hopefully at this.
“And our city can stand a great deal of freedom, Tally. It gives youngsters room to play tricks, to develop their creativity and independence. But occasionally bad things come from outside the city.”
Dr. Cable narrowed her eyes, her face becoming even more like a predator’s. “We exist in equilibrium with our environment, Tally, purifying the water that we put back in the river, recycling the biomass, and using only power drawn from our own solar footprint. But sometimes we can’t purify what we take in from the outside. Sometimes there are threats from the environment that must be faced.”
She smiled. “Sometimes there are Special Circumstances.”
“So, you guys are like minders, but for the whole city.”
Dr. Cable nodded. “Other cities sometimes pose a challenge. And sometimes those few people who live outside the cities can make trouble.”
Tally’s eyes widened. Outside the cities? Shay had been telling the truth—places like the Smoke really existed.
“It’s your turn to answer my question, Tally. Did you ever meet anyone in the ruins? Someone not from this city? Not from any city?”
Tally grinned. “No. I never did.”
Dr. Cable frowned, her eyes darting downward for a second, checking something. When they returned to Tally, they had grown even colder. Tally smiled again, certain now that Dr. Cable knew when she was telling the truth. The room must be reading her heartbeat, her sweat, her pupil dilation. But Tally couldn’t tell what she didn’t know.
The razor blade slid back into the woman’s voice. “Don’t play games with me, Tally. Your friend Shay will never thank you for it, because you’ll never see her again.”
The thrill of her small victory disappeared, and Tally felt her smile fade.
“Six of her friends disappeared, Tally, all at once. None of them has ever been found. Another two who were meant to join them chose not to throw their lives away, however, and we discovered a little about what had happened to the others. They didn’t run away on their own. They were tempted by someone from outside, someone who wanted to steal our cleverest little uglies. We realized that this was a special circumstance.”
One word sent ice down Tally’s spine. Had Shay really been stolen ? What did Shay or any ugly really know about the Smoke?
“We’ve been watching Shay since then, hoping she might lead us to her friends.”
“So why didn’t you…,” Tally blurted out. “You know, stop her!”
“Because of you, Tally.”
Dr. Cable’s voice softened. “We thought she had made a friend, a reason to stay here in the city. We thought she’d be okay.”
Tally could only close her eyes and shake her head.
“But then Shay disappeared,” Dr. Cable continued. “She turned out to be trickier than her friends. You taught her well.”
“I did?” Tally cried. “I don’t know any more tricks than most uglies.”
“You underestimate yourself,” Dr. Cable said.
Tally turned away from the vulpine eyes, shut out the razor-blade voice. This was not her fault. She had decided to stay here in the city, after all. She wanted to become pretty. She’d even tried to convince Shay.
“It’s not my fault.”
“Help us, Tally.”
“Help you what?”
“Find her. Find them all.”
She took a deep breath. “What if they don’t want to be found?”
“What if they do? What if they were lied to?”
Tally tried to remember Shay’s face that last night, how hopeful she had been. She’d wanted to leave the city as much as Tally wanted to be pretty. However stupid the choice seemed, Shay had made it with her eyes open, and had respected Tally’s choice to stay.
Tally looked up at Dr. Cable’s cruel beauty, at the puke-yellow-brown of the walls. She remembered all the tricks Special Circumstances had played on her today—how they’d kept her waiting for an hour in the hospital, waiting and thinking she would soon be pretty, the brutal flight here, and all the cruel faces in the halls—and she decided. “I can’t help you,” Tally said. “I made a promise.”
Dr. Cable bared her teeth. This time, it wasn’t even a mockery of a smile. The woman became nothing but a monster, vengeful and inhuman. “Then I’ll make you a promise too, Tally Youngblood. Until you do help us, to the very best of your ability, you will never be pretty.”
Dr. Cable turned away.
“You can die ugly, for all I care.”
The door opened. The scary man was outside, where he’d been waiting all along.
Ugly for Life
They must have forewarned the minders about her return. All the other uglies were gone, off on some unscheduled school trip. But they hadn’t found out in time to save her stuff. When Tally reached her old room, she saw that everything had been recycled. Clothes, bedding, furniture, the pictures on the wallscreen—it had all reverted back to Generic Ugly. It even looked as if somebody else had been briefly moved in, then out again, leaving a strange drink can in the fridge.
Tally sat down on the bed, too stunned to cry. She knew she would start bawling soon, probably losing it at the worst possible time and place. Now that the encounter with Dr. Cable was over, her anger and defiance were fading, and there was nothing left to sustain her. Her stuff was gone, her future was gone, only the view out the window remained.
She sat and stared, having to remind herself every few minutes that it had all really happened: the cruel pretties, the strange buildings on the edge of town, the terrible ultimatum from Dr. Cable. Tally felt as if some wild trick had gone horribly wrong. A weird and horrible new reality had opened up, devouring the world she knew and understood.
All she had left was the small duffel bag she’d packed for the hospital. She couldn’t even remember carrying it all the way back here. Tally pulled out the few clothes, which she’d shoved in at random, and found Shay’s note.
She read it, looking for clues.
Take the coaster straight past the gap,
until you find one that’s long and flat.
Cold is the sea and watch for breaks.
At the second make the worst mistake.
Four days later take the side you despise,
and look in the flowers for fire-bug eyes.
Once they’re found, enjoy the flight.
Then wait on the bald head until it’s light.
Hardly any of it made sense to her, only bits and pieces. Shay had obviously meant to hide the meaning from anyone else reading it, using references only the two of them would understand. Her paranoia made a lot more sense now. Having met Dr. Cable, Tally could see why David wanted to keep his city—or camp, or whatever it was—a secret.
As Tally held the note, she realized that it was what Dr. Cable had wanted. The woman had been sitting across the room from the letter the whole time, but they’d never bothered to search her. That meant that Tally had kept Shay’s secret, and that she still had something to bargain with.
It also meant that Special Circumstances could make mistakes.
Tally saw the other uglies come back in before lunchtime. As they filed off the school transport, all of them craned their necks to look up at her window. A few pointed before she ducked back into the shadows. Minutes later Tally could hear kids in the hall outside, growing silent as they passed her door.
A few even giggled, as new uglies always did when tried to keep quiet.
Were they laughing at her?
Her rumbling stomach reminded Tally that she hadn’t eaten breakfast, or dinner the night before. You weren’t supposed to have food or water for sixteen hours before the operation. She was starving.
But she stayed in her room until lunch was over. She couldn’t face a cafeteria full of uglies watching her every move, wondering what she had done to deserve her still-ugly face. When she couldn’t stand her hunger anymore, Tally stole upstairs to the roof deck, where they put out leftovers for whoever wanted them.
A few uglies saw her in the hall. They clammed up and stood aside as Tally passed, as if she were contagious. What had the minders told them? Tally wondered. That she’d pulled one too many tricks?
That she was inoperable, an ugly-for-life? Or just that she was a Special Circumstance?
Everywhere she went, eyes looked away, but it was the most visible she’d ever felt.
A plate was set out for her on the roof deck, sealed in plastic wrap, her name stuck to it. Someone had noticed that she hadn’t eaten. And, of course, everyone would realize that she was in hiding.
The sight of the plate of food, wilted and solitary, made the suppressed tears well up in her eyes. Tally’s
throat burned as if she’d swallowed something sharp, and it was all she could do to get back to her room before she burst into loud, jagged sobs.
When she got there, Tally found that she hadn’t forgotten to bring the plate. She ate while she cried, tasting the salt of her tears in every bite.
Her parents came by about an hour later.
Ellie swept in first, gathering Tally into a hug that emptied her lungs and lifted her feet off the ground.
“Tally, my poor baby!”
“Now don’t injure the girl, Ellie. She’s had a tough day.”
Even without oxygen, it felt good inside the crushing embrace. Ellie always smelled just right, like a mom, and Tally always felt like a littlie in her arms. Released after what was probably a solid minute, but still too soon, Tally stepped back, hoping that she wouldn’t cry again. She looked at her parents sheepishly, wondering what they must be thinking. She felt like a total failure. “I didn’t know you guys were coming.”
“Of course we came,” Ellie said.
Sol shook his head. “I’ve never heard of anything like this happening. It’s ridiculous. And we’ll get to the bottom of it, don’t you worry!”
Tally felt a weight lift from her shoulders. Finally there was someone else on her side. Her father’s middle-pretty eyes twinkled with calm certainty. There was no question that he would sort everything out.
“What did they tell you?” Tally asked.
Sol gestured, and Tally sat down on the bed. Ellie settled beside her while he paced back and forth across the small room.
“Well, they told us about this Shay girl. Sounds like she’s a lot of trouble.”
“Sol!” Ellie interrupted. “The poor girl’s missing.”
“Sounds like she wants to be missing.”
Her mother pursed her lips in silence.
“It’s not her fault, Sol,” Tally said. “She just didn’t want to turn pretty.”
“So, she’s an independent thinker. Fine. But she should have had better sense than to drag someone else down with her.”
“She didn’t drag me anywhere. I’m right here.” Tally looked out the window at the familiar view of New Pretty Town . “Where I’ll be forever, apparently.”
“Now, now,” Ellie said. “They said that once you’ve helped them find this Shay girl, everything should go ahead as normal.”
“It won’t make any difference if the operation happens a few days late. It’ll be a great story when you’re old.” Sol chuckled.
Tally bit her lip. “I don’t think I can help them.”
“Well, you just do your best,” Ellie said.
“But I can’t. I mean, I promised Shay that I wouldn’t tell anyone her plans.”
They were silent for a moment.
Sol sat down, taking one of her hands in his. They felt so warm and strong, almost as wrinkled as a crumbly’s from days spent working in his wood shop. Tally realized that she hadn’t visited her parents since the week of summer break, when she’d mostly been anxious to get back to hanging out with Shay full-time. But it was good to see them now.
“Tally, we all make promises when we’re little. That’s part of being an ugly—everything’s exciting and intense and important, but you have to grow out of it. After all, you don’t owe this girl anything. She’s done nothing but cause you trouble.”
Ellie took her other hand. “And you’ll only be helping her, Tally. Who knows where she is now and what’s happening to her? I’m surprised you let her run off like that. Don’t you know how dangerous it is out there?”
Tally found herself nodding. Looking into Sol’s and Ellie’s faces, everything seemed so clear. Maybe cooperating with Dr. Cable would really be helping Shay, and would set things back on course for herself. But the thought of Dr. Cable made her wince. “You should have seen these people. The ones investigating Shay? They look like…”
Sol laughed. “I guess it would be a bit of a shock at your age, Tally. But of course we old folks know all about Special Circumstances. They may be tough, but they’re just doing their jobs, you know. It’s a tough world out there.”
Tally sighed. Maybe her reluctance was just because the cruel pretties had scared her so much. “Have you ever met them? I couldn’t believe the way they looked.”
Ellie furrowed her brow. “Well, I can’t say I’ve actually met one.”
Sol frowned, then broke into a laugh. “Well, you wouldn’t want to meet one, Ellie. And Tally, if you do the right thing now, you probably won’t ever meet one again. That sort of business is something we can all do without.”
Tally looked at her father, and for a moment she saw something other than wisdom and confidence in his expression. It was almost too easy the way Sol laughed off Special Circumstances, dismissing everything that went on outside the city.
For the first time in her life, Tally found herself listening to a middle pretty without being completely reassured, a realization that made her dizzy. And she couldn’t shake the thought that Sol knew nothing about the outside world Shay had fled to.
Maybe most people just didn’t want to know. Tally had been taught all about the Rusties and early history, but at school they never said a single thing about people living outside the cities right now, people like David. Until she’d met Shay, Tally had never thought about it either.
But she couldn’t dismiss the whole thing the way her father had.
And she had made Shay a solemn promise. Even if she was just an ugly, a promise was a promise.
“Guys, I’m going to have to think about this.”
For a moment, an awkward silence filled the room. She’d said something they hadn’t expected.
Then Ellie laughed and patted her hand. “Well, of course you do, Tally.”
Sol nodded, back in command. “We know you’ll do the right thing.”
“Sure. But in the meantime,” Tally said, “maybe I could come home with you?”
Her parents shared another look of surprise.
“I mean, it’s really weird being here now. Everyone knows that I…I’m not scheduled for classes anymore, so it would just be like coming home for autumn break, but a little early.”
Sol recovered first, and patted her shoulder. “Now, Tally, don’t you think it would be even stranger for you out in Crumblyville? I mean, there’s no other kids out there this time of year.”
“You’re much better off here with the other children, darling,” Ellie added. “You’re only a few months older than some of them. And goodness, we don’t have your room ready at all!”
“I don’t care. Nothing could be worse than this,” Tally said.
“Oh, just order up some more clothes, and get that wallscreen back the way you want it,” Sol said.
“I didn’t mean the room—”
“In any case,” Ellie interrupted, “why make a fuss? This’ll all be over in no time. Just have a nice chat with Special Circumstances, tell them everything, and you’ll be headed where you really want to be.”
They all looked out the window at the towers of New Pretty Town.
“I guess so.”
“Sweetheart,” Ellie said, patting her leg, “what other choice do you have?”
During the daytime, she hid in her room.
Going anywhere else was pure torture. The uglies in her own dorm treated her like a walking disease, and anyone else who recognized her sooner or later asked, “Why aren’t you pretty yet?”
It was strange. She’d been an ugly for four years, but a few extra days had brought home to her exactly what the word really meant. Tally peered into her mirror all day, noting every flaw, every deformity. Her thin lips pursed with unhappiness. Her hair grew even frizzier because she kept running her hands through it in frustration. A trio of zits exploded across her forehead, as if marking the days since her sixteenth birthday. Her watery, too-small eyes glared back at her, full of anger.
Only at night could she escape from the tiny room, the nervous stares, her own ugly face.
She fooled the minders and climbed out as usual, but she didn’t feel much like any real tricks. There was no one to visit, no one to play a prank on, and the idea of crossing the river was too painful to consider.
She had gotten a new hoverboard, and tricked it up like Shay had taught her, so at least she could fly at night.
But flying didn’t feel the same. She was alone, it was getting cold at night, and no matter how fast she flew, Tally was trapped, and she knew it.
The fourth night in ugly exile she took her board up into the greenbelt, staying at the edge of town. She whipped it back and forth past the dark columns of tree trunks, shooting through them at top speed, so fast that her hands and face collected dozens of scratches from the branches blurring by.
After a few hours’ flying had worn away some of her anguish, Tally had a happy realization: This was the best she’d ever ridden; she was almost as good as Shay now. Never once did the board dump her for getting too close to a tree, and her shoes held on to its grippy surface like they were glued there.
She worked up a sweat even in the autumn chill, riding until her legs were tired, her ankles aching, her arms sore from being spread out like wings guiding her through the dark forest. If she rode this hard all night, Tally thought, maybe tomorrow she could sleep the hideous daylight away.
She flew until exhaustion forced her home.
When she crawled back into her room at dawn, someone was waiting there.
His features burst into a radiant smile, big eyes flashing beautifully in the early light. But when he looked closer, his expression changed. “What happened to your face, Squint?”
Tally blinked. “Haven’t you heard? They didn’t do the—”
“Not that.” Peris reached up and touched her cheek, which smarted under his fingertips. “You look like you’ve been juggling cats all night.”
“Oh, yeah.” Tally ran her fingers through her hair, and rummaged through a drawer. She pulled a medspray out, closed her eyes, and squirted herself in the face.
“Ow!” she yelped in the few seconds before the anesthetic kicked in. She sprayed her scratched hands as well. “Just a little midnight hoverboarding.”
“A little past midnight, don’t you think?”
Out the window, the sun was just beginning to turn the towers of New Pretty Town pink. Cat-vomit pink. She looked at Peris, exhausted and confused. “How long have you been here?”
He shifted uncomfortably in her window chair. “Long enough.”
“Sorry. I didn’t know you were coming.”
He raised his eyebrows in beautiful anguish. “Of course I came. The moment I figured out where you were, I came.”
Tally turned away, unlacing her grippy shoes as she collected herself. She’d felt so abandoned since her birthday, it had never occurred to her that Peris would want to see her, especially not here in Uglyville.
But here he was, worried, anxious, lovely.
“It’s good to see you,” she said, feeling tears come into her eyes. They were red and puffy most of the time these days.
He beamed up at her. “You too.”
The thought of what she must look like was too much. Tally collapsed onto the bed, covering her face with her hands and sobbing. Peris sat next to her and held her for a while as she cried, then wiped her nose and sat her up. “Look at you, Tally Youngblood.”
She shook her head. “Please don’t.”
“You’re an absolute mess.”
Peris found a brush and ran it through her hair. She couldn’t meet his eyes, and stared at the floor.
“So, do you always go hoverboarding in a blender?”
She shook her head, lightly touching the scratches on her face. “Just tree branches. At high speed.”
“Oh, so getting yourself killed is your next brilliant trick. I guess that would just about top your current one.”
“My current what?”
Peris rolled his eyes. “This whole trick where you haven’t turned pretty yet. Very mysterious.”
“Yeah. Some trick.”
“When did you get modest, Squint? All my friends are fascinated.”
She turned her puffy eyes to her friend, trying to figure out if he was kidding.
“I mean, I already told everyone about you after that fire alarm thing, but they’re really dying to meet you now,” he continued. “There’s even a rumor that Special Circumstances is involved.”
Tally blinked. Peris was serious.
“Well, that’s true,” she said. “They’re the reason I’m still ugly.”
Peris’s big eyes widened even more. “Really? That is so bubbly!”
She sat up and frowned. “Did everyone know about them but me?”
“Well, I had no idea what anyone was talking about. Apparently, Specials are like gremlins; you blame them when anything weird happens. Some people think they’re totally bogus, and no one I know has actually seen a Special.”
Tally sighed. “Just my luck, I guess.”
“So they’re real?” Peris lowered his voice to a whisper. “Do they really look different? You know, not pretty.”
“It’s not that they’re not pretty, Peris. But they’re really…” Tally looked at him, gorgeous and hanging on every word. It felt so perfect to be sitting next to him, talking and touching, as if they’d never been apart. She smiled. “They’re just not as pretty as you.”
He laughed. “You’ll have to tell me all about it. But don’t you dare tell anyone else. Not yet. Everyone’s going to be so intrigued. We can throw a big party when you get yourself prettied up.”
She tried to smile. “Peris…”
“I know, you’re probably not supposed to talk about it. But once you’re across the river, just drop a few hints about Special-you-know-what and you’ll get invited to all the parties! Just make sure you take me with you.” He leaned closer. “There’s even a rumor that all the bubbly jobs go to people who had tricky records as kids. But that’s years from now. The main thing is to get you pretty already.”
“But, Peris,” she said, her stomach starting to hurt. “I don’t think I’ll…” “You’ll love it, Tally. Being pretty’s the best thing ever. And I’ll enjoy it about a million times more once you’re there with me.”
He frowned. “Can’t what?”
Tally looked up at Peris, clutching his hand. “You see, they want me to tattle on a friend of mine. Someone I got to know really well. After you left.”
“Tattle? Don’t tell me this is all about some ugly-trick.”
“So, tattle away. How big a deal can it be?”
Tally turned away. “It’s important, Peris. It’s more than a trick. I made my friend a promise that I’d keep a secret for her.”
His eyes narrowed, and for a moment he looked like the old Peris: serious, thoughtful, even a little bit unhappy. “Tally, you made me a promise too.”
She swallowed and stared back at him. His eyes shone with tears.
“You promised you wouldn’t do anything stupid, Tally. That you’d be with me soon. That we’d be pretty together.”
She touched the scar on her palm, still there, even though Peris’s had been rubbed away. He reached over and held her hand. “Best friends forever, Tally.”
She knew that if she looked into his eyes again, it would be all over. One glance, and her resistance would evaporate. “Best friends forever?” she said.
She took a deep breath and let herself stare into his eyes. He looked so sad, so vulnerable and wounded. So perfect. Tally imagined herself by his side, just as beautiful, spending every day doing nothing but talking and laughing and having fun.
“You’ll keep your promise, Tally?”
A shudder of exhaustion and relief went through her. She had it now, an excuse to break her vow. She’d made that promise to Peris, just as real, before she’d ever met Shay. She had known him for years, and Shay for only a few months.
And Peris was right here, not out in some strange wilderness, and was looking at her with those eyes…
“Really?” He smiled, and it was as bright as the daybreak outside.
“Yeah.” The words came out so easily. “I’ll be there as soon as I can. I promise.”
He sighed and hugged her tight, rocking her softly. Tears rose up in her again.
Peris finally released her, and looked out at the sunny day.
“I should go.” He waved at the door. “You know, before the…thingies…all wake up.”
“It’s almost past my bedtime, and you’ve got a big day ahead of you.”
Tally nodded. She’d never felt so exhausted. Her muscles ached, and her face and hands had started stinging again. But she was overwhelmed with relief. This nightmare had begun three months ago, when Peris went across the river. And soon it would end.
“Okay, Peris. I’ll see you soon. As soon as possible.”
He hugged her again, kissed her salty, scratched cheeks, and whispered, “Maybe in just a couple of days. I’m so excited!”
He said good-bye and left, checking both ways down the corridor before departing. Tally looked out the window for another glance at Peris, and realized that a hovercar was waiting for him below. Pretties really did get whatever they wanted.
Tally wanted nothing more than to fall asleep, but acting on her decision couldn’t wait. She knew that with Peris gone, the doubts would come back again and haunt her. She couldn’t stand another day like this, not knowing if her ugly purgatory would ever end. And she’d promised Peris she’d be with him as soon as possible.
“I’m sorry, Shay,” Tally said quietly.
Then she picked up her interface ring from where it had lain on the bedside table all night, and slipped it on. “Message to Dr. Cable, or whomever,” she said to it. “I’ll do what you want. Just let me sleep for a while. Message over.”
Tally sighed, and let herself fall back onto the bed. She knew she should spray her scratches again before passing out, but the thought of moving made her whole body ache. A few dozen scratches wouldn’t keep her from sleeping today. Nothing would.
Seconds later, the room spoke. “Reply from Dr. Cable: A car will be sent for you, arriving in twenty minutes.”
“No,” she mumbled, but realized that it would be useless to argue. Special Circumstances would come, they would wake her up, they would take her.
Tally decided to try for a few minutes of sleep. It would be better than nothing.
But for the next twenty minutes, she never once shut her eyes.
The cruel pretties seemed even more unearthly to exhausted eyes. Tally felt like a mouse in a cage full of hawks, just waiting for one to swoop down and take her. The trip in the hovercar had been even more sickening this time.
She focused on the nausea eating away at her stomach, trying to forget why she was here. As Tally and her escort made their way down the hall, she tried to pull herself together, tucking in her shirt and tugging at her hair.
Dr. Cable certainly didn’t look like she’d just gotten up. Tally tried without success to imagine what a tousled Dr. Cable would look like. Her darting, metal-gray eyes hardly seemed as if they would ever close long enough to sleep.
“So, Tally. You’ve reconsidered.”
“And you’ll answer all our questions now? Honestly and of your own free will?”
Tally snorted. “You’re not giving me a choice.”
Dr. Cable smiled. “We always have choices, Tally. You’ve made yours.”
“Great. Thanks. Look, just ask your questions.”
“Certainly. First of all, what on earth happened to your face?”
Tally sighed, one hand touching the scratches. “Trees.”
“Trees?” Dr. Cable raised an eyebrow. “Very well. On a more important subject, what did you and Shay talk about the last time you saw her?”
Tally closed her eyes. This was it, the moment when she would break her vow to Shay. But a small voice in her exhausted brain reminded her that she was also keeping a promise. Now she could finally join Peris.
“She talked about going away. Running away with someone called David.”
“Ah, yes, the mysterious David.” Dr. Cable leaned back. “And did she say where she and David were going?”
“A place called the Smoke. Like a city, only smaller. And no one was in charge there, and no one was pretty.”
“And did she say where it was?”
“No, she didn’t, not really.” Tally sighed and pulled Shay’s crumpled note from her pocket. “But she left me these directions.”
Dr. Cable didn’t even look at the note. Instead, she pushed a piece of paper from her side of the desk over to Tally’s. Through bleary eyes, Tally saw that it was a 3-D copy of the note, perfect down to the slight incisions of Shay’s labored penmanship on the paper.
“We took the liberty of making a copy of that the first time you were here.”
Tally glared at Dr. Cable, realizing she’d been duped. “Then why do you need me? I don’t know anything more than what I just said. I didn’t ask her to tell me any more. And I didn’t go with her, because I just…wanted…to be pretty !” A lump rose in her throat, but Tally decided that under no circumstances—special or not—was she going to cry in front of Dr. Cable.
“I’m afraid that we find the instructions on the note rather cryptic, Tally.”
“You and me both.”
Dr. Cable’s hawk-eyes narrowed. “They seem to be designed to be read by someone who knows Shay quite well. By you, perhaps.”
“Yeah, well, I get some of it. But after the first couple of lines, I’m lost.”
“I’m sure it’s very difficult. Especially after a long night of…trees. I still think you can help us, however.”
Dr. Cable opened a small briefcase on the desk between them. Tally’s tired brain struggled to make sense of the objects in the case. A firestarter, a crumpled sleeping bag…
“Hey, that’s like the survival stuff that Shay had.”
“That’s right, Tally. These ranger kits go missing every so often. Usually just about the same time that one of our uglies disappears.”
“Well, mystery solved. Shay was all ready to travel to the Smoke with a bunch of that stuff.”
“What else did she have?”
Tally shrugged. “A hoverboard. A special one, with solar.”
“Of course a hoverboard. What is it about those things and miscreants? And what did Shay plan to eat, do you suppose?”
“She had food in packets. Dehydrated.”
“Like this?” Dr. Cable produced a silvery food pack.
“Yeah. She had enough for four weeks.” Tally took a deep breath. “Two weeks, if I’d gone along.
More than enough, she said.”
“Two weeks? Not so very far.” Dr. Cable pulled a black knapsack from beside her desk and started to pack the various objects into it. “You might just make it.”
“Make it? Make what ?”
“The trip. To the Smoke.”
“Tally, only you can understand these directions.”
“I told you: I don’t know what they mean!”
“But you will, once you’re on the journey. And if you’re…properly motivated.”
“But I already told you everything you wanted to know. I gave you the note. You promised!”
Dr. Cable shook her head. “My promise, Tally, was that you wouldn’t be pretty until you helped us to the very best of your ability. I have every confidence that this is within your ability.”
“But why me?”
“Listen carefully, Tally. Do you really think that this is the first time we’ve been told about David? Or the Smoke? Or found some scrawled directions about how to get there?”
Tally flinched at the razor-blade voice, turning away from the anger on the woman’s cruel face. “I don’t know.”
“We’ve seen all this before. But whenever we go ourselves, we find nothing. Smoke, indeed.”
The lump had return to Tally’s throat. “So how am I supposed to find anything?”
Dr. Cable pulled the copy of Shay’s note toward herself. “This last line, where it says to ‘wait on the bald head,’ clearly refers to a rendezvous point. You go there, you wait. Sooner or later, they’ll pick you up. If I send a hovercar full of Specials, your friends will probably be a bit suspicious.”
“You mean, you want me to go alone ?”
Dr. Cable took a deep breath, a disgusted look on her face. “This isn’t very complicated, Tally. You have had a change of heart. You have decided to run away, following your friend Shay. Just another ugly escaping the tyranny of beauty.”
Tally looked up at the cruel face through a prism of gathering tears. “And then what?”
Dr. Cable pulled another object from the briefcase, a necklace with a little heart pendant. She pressed on its sides, and the heart clicked open. “Look inside.”
Tally held the tiny heart up to her eye. “I can’t see anything…ow!”
The pendant had flashed, blinding her for a moment. The heart made a little beep.
“The finder will only respond to your eye-print, Tally. Once it’s activated, we’ll be there within a few hours. We can travel very quickly.” Cable dropped the necklace onto the desk. “But don’t activate it until you’re in the Smoke. This has taken us some time to set up. I want the real thing, Tally.”
Tally blinked away the afterimage of the flash, trying to force her exhausted brain to think. She realized now that this had never been simply a matter of answering questions. They had always wanted her as a spy, an infiltrator. She wondered just how long this had been planned. How many times had Special Circumstances tried to get an ugly to work for them before? “I can’t do this.”
“You can, Tally. You must. Think of it as an adventure.”
“Please. I’ve never even spent the whole night outside the city. Not alone.”
Dr. Cable ignored the sob that had cut through Tally’s words. “If you don’t agree right now, I’ll find someone else. And you’ll be ugly forever.”
Tally looked up, trying to see through the tears that were flowing freely now, to peer past Dr. Cable’s cruel mask and find the truth. It was there in her dull, metal-gray eyes, a cold, terrible surety unlike anything a normal pretty could ever convey. Tally realized that the woman meant what she said.
Either Tally infiltrated the Smoke and betrayed Shay, or she’d be an ugly for life.
“I have to think.”
“Your story will be that you ran away the night before your birthday,” Dr. Cable said. “That means you’ve already got to make up for four lost days. Any more delays, and they won’t believe you. They’ll guess what happened. So decide now.”
“I can’t. I’m too tired.”
Dr. Cable pointed at the wallscreen, and an image appeared. Like a mirror, but in close-up, it showed Tally as she looked right now: puffy-eyed and disheveled, exhaustion and red scratches marking her face, her hair sticking out in all directions, and her expression turning horrified as she beheld her own appearance.
“That’s you, Tally. Forever.”
“Turn it off…”
“Okay, I’ll do it. Turn it off.”
The wallscreen went dark.