In Case of Damage

They took her to the library. It had been transformed into a headquarters for the invasion, the long tables filled with portable workscreens manned by Specials, its usual quiet replaced by a buzz of clipped exchanges and commands. The razor voices of the cruel pretties set Tally's teeth on edge.

Dr. Cable waited at one of the long tables. Reading an old magazine, she seemed almost relaxed, at a remove from the activity around her.

"Ah, Tally." She bared her teeth in an attempt at a smile. "Nice to see you. Sit down."

Tally wondered what was behind the doctor's greeting. The Specials had treated Tally like an accomplice. Had some signal from the pendant reached them before she had destroyed it?

In any case, her only chance of escape was to play along. She pulled out a chair and sat down.

"Goodness. Look at you," Dr. Cable said. "For someone who wants to be a pretty, you're always such a sight."

"I've had a rough morning."

"You seem to have been in a scrape."

Tally shrugged. "I was just trying to get out of the way."

"Indeed." Dr. Cable placed the magazine facedown on the table. "That's something you don't seem to be very good at."

Tally coughed twice, the last bit of pepper leaving her lungs. "I guess not."

Dr. Cable glanced at her workscreen. "I see we had you among the resistors?"

"Some of the Smokies already suspected me. So when I heard you guys coming, I tried to get out of town. I didn't want to be around when everyone realized what was happening.

In case they got mad at me."

"Self-preservation. Well, at least you're good at something."

"I didn't ask to come here."

"No, and you took your time, too." Dr. Cable leaned back, making a steeple of her long, thin fingers.

"How long have you been here exactly?"

Tally forced herself to cough again, wondering if she dared lie. Her voice, still harsh and uneven from inhaling the pepper, wasn't likely to give her away. And although Dr. Cable's office back in the city might be one big lie detector, this table and chair were solid wood, without any tricks inside.

But Tally hedged. "Not that long."

"You didn't get here as quickly as I'd hoped."

"I almost didn't make it at all. And when I did, it was ages after my birthday. That's why they suspected me."

Dr. Cable shook her head. "I suppose I should have been worried about you, out in the wild all alone. Poor Tally."

"Thanks for your concern."

"I'm sure you would have used the pendant if you'd gotten into any real trouble. Self-preservation being your one skill."

Tally sneered. "Unless I'd fallen off a cliff. Which almost happened."

"We still would have come for you. If the pendant had been damaged, it would have sent a signal automatically."

The words sunk in slowly: If the pendant had been damaged… Tally gripped the edge of the table, trying not to show any emotion.

Dr. Cable narrowed her eyes. She might not have machines to read Tally's voice and heartbeat and sweat, but her own perceptions were alert. She'd chosen those words to provoke a reaction. "Speaking of which, where is it?"

Tally's fingers went to her neck. Of course, Dr. Cable had noticed the pendant's absence immediately.

Her questions had been leading to this moment. Tally's brain raced for an answer. The handcuffs were off. She had to get out of there, to the trading post. Hopefully, her hoverboard still lay on the roof, unfolded and charging in the morning sun. "I hid it," she said. "I was scared."

"Scared of what?"

"Last night, after I was sure this really was the Smoke, I activated the pendant. But they have this thing that detects bugs. They found the one on my board-the one you put there without telling me."

Dr. Cable smiled, spreading her hands helplessly.

"That almost blew the whole thing," Tally continued. "So after I activated the pendant, I got scared they'd know a transmission had been sent. I hid it, in case they came looking."

"I see. A certain amount of intelligence sometimes accompanies a strong sense of self-preservation. I'm glad you decided to help us."

"Like I had a choice?"

"You always had a choice, Tally. But you made the right choice. You decided to come here and find your friend, to save her from a life of being ugly. You should be happy about that."

"I'm thrilled."

"So pugnacious, you uglies. Well, you'll be growing up soon."

A chill went down Tally's spine at the words. To Dr. Cable, "growing up" meant having your brain changed.

"There's just one more thing you have to do for me, Tally. Do you mind getting the pendant from where you've hidden it? I don't like to leave loose ends lying around."

Tally smiled. "I'd be happy to."

"This officer will accompany you." Dr. Cable lifted a finger, and a Special appeared at her side. "And just to keep you safe from your Smokey friends, we'll make it look like you've been a brave resistor."

The Special pulled Tally's hands together behind her back, and she felt plastic bite into her wrists again.

She took a breath, her pulse pounding in her head, then forced herself to say, "Whatever."

"This way."

Tally led the Special toward the trading post, taking in the situation. The Smoke had been beaten into silence. Fires were left to burn freely. Some were already exhausted, clouds of smoke still rising from the blackened wood and swirling through the camp.

A few faces turned to look up with suspicion at Tally. She was the only Smokey still walking around.

Everyone else was on the ground, handcuffed and under guard, most of them gathered near the rabbit pen.

She tried to give those who saw her a grim smile, hoping they noticed that she was handcuffed just like they were.

When they reached the trading post, Tally looked up. "I hid it on the roof."

The Special eyed the building suspiciously. "All right, then," he said. "You wait here. Sit down and don't stand up."

She shrugged, kneeling carefully.

The Special swung himself onto the roof with an ease that made Tally shiver. How was she going to overcome this cruel pretty? Even if her hands weren't tied, he was bigger, stronger, faster.

A moment later, his head stuck out over the edge. "Where is it?"

"Under the rapchuck."

"The what?"

"The rapchuck. You know, the old-fashioned thingy where the roofline connects with the abbersnatch."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"It's Smokey slang, I guess. Let me show you."

A fleeting expression crossed the Special's impassive face-annoyance mixed with suspicion. But he leaped down again and stacked a couple of crates. He jumped onto them and pulled Tally up, sitting her on the edge of the roof as if she weighed nothing. "You touch one of those hoverboards, I'll put you on your face," he threatened casually.

"There're hoverboards up here?"

He leaped past her and hauled her onto the roof. "Find it."

"No problem." She walked gingerly up the slanted roof, exaggerating the difficulty of balancing without her hands. The solar cells of the recharging hoverboards were blindingly bright in the sun. Tally's board lay too far away, on the other side of the roof, and it was unfolded into eight sections. Folding it back up would take a solid minute. But Tally saw one nearby, Croy's maybe, that had only been unfolded once.

Its light was green. One kick to close it and the board would be ready to fly.

But Tally couldn't fly with her hands bound. She'd fall off on the first turn.

She took a deep breath, ignoring the part of her brain that saw only the distance to the ground. As long as the Special was as fast and strong as he seemed…

"I'm wearing a bungee jacket," she lied to herself. "Nothing can possibly happen."

Tally let her bare feet trip, and tumbled down the slope.

The rough shingles battered Tally's knees and elbows as she rolled, letting out a cry of pain. She fought to stay on the roof, her feet scrambling against the wood to slow herself down.

Just as she reached the edge, an iron grip fastened onto her shoulder. She rolled off into space, the ground looming below. But Tally jerked to a halt, her arm wrenching in its socket, and she heard the Special's razor voice curse.

She swung for a moment, her fall arrested, then they both started to slip.

She could hear the Special's fingers and feet scrabbling for purchase. However strong he might be, there was nothing for him to hold on to. Tally was going to fall.

But at least she was going to take him with her.

Then a grunt came from the Special, and Tally felt herself being pulled up in a mighty heave. She was thrown back onto the roof, and a shadow passed over her. Something hit the ground below. The Special had thrown himself off the roof to save her!

She rolled up into a crouch, stood, and lifted half of Croy's hoverboard with one foot, flipping it closed.

A noise came from the edge of the roof, and Tally stepped away from Croy's board.

The Special's fingers appeared, then his body swung into view. He was completely unhurt.

"Are you okay?" she asked. "Wow. You guys are strong. Thanks for saving me."

He looked at her coolly. "Just get what we came for. And try not to kill yourself."

"Okay." Tally turned, managed to get a foot tangled on a shingle, and teetered again. The Special had her in his arms in a second. Finally, she heard real anger in his voice. "You uglies are so…incompetent!"

"Well, maybe if you could-" Even before it was out of her mouth, she felt the pressure on her wrists disappear. She brought her hands around in front, rubbing her shoulders. "Ow. Thanks."

"Listen," he said, the razors in his cruel voice sharper than ever, "I don't want to hurt you, but-" "You will if you have to." Tally smiled. He was standing in exactly the right place.

"Just get whatever Dr. Cable wants. And don't you dare touch one of those hoverboards."

"Don't worry, I don't have to," she said, and snapped the fingers of both hands as loudly as she could.

Croy's hoverboard jumped into the air, knocking the Special's feet out from under him.

The man rolled off the roof again, and Tally leaped onto the board.


Tally had never ridden a hoverboard barefoot before. Young Smokies had all kinds of competitions, carrying weights or riding double, but no one was ever that stupid.

She almost fell off on the first turn, zooming down a new path they'd spiked with scrap metal only a few days before. The moment the board banked, her dirty feet skidded across the surface, spinning her halfway around. Her arms flailed wildly, but somehow Tally kept her footing, shooting across the compound and over the rabbit pen.

A ragged cheer rose up below as the captives below saw her fly past and realized that someone was making an escape. Tally was too busy staying on board to glance down.

Regaining her balance, Tally realized she wasn't wearing crash bracelets. Any fall would be for real. Her toes gripped the board, and she vowed to take the next turn more slowly.

If the sky had been cloudy this morning, the sun wouldn't have burned the dew off Croy's board yet. She'd be lying in a crumpled heap in the pen, probably with a broken neck. It was lucky she, like most young Smokies, slept with her belly sensor on.

Already, the whine of hovercars taking off came from behind.

Tally knew only two ways out of the Smoke by hoverboard. Instinctively, she headed for the railroad tracks where she worked every day. The valley dropped behind her, and she managed to make the tight turn onto the white-water stream without falling off. With no knapsack and her heavy crash bracelets missing, Tally felt practically naked.

Croy's board wasn't as fast as hers, and it didn't know her style. Riding it was like breaking in new shoes-while running for your life.

Over the water, spray struck her face, hands, and feet. Tally knelt, grasping the edge of the board with wet hands, flying as low as she dared. Down here, the spray might make it even harder to ride, but the barrier of the trees kept her invisible. She dared a glance backward. No hovercars had appeared yet.

As she shot down the winding stream, swerving through the familiar hard turns, Tally thought of all the times she and David and Shay had raced each other to the work site. She wondered where David was.

Back in camp, bound and ready to be taken to a city he'd never seen before? Would he have his face filed down and replaced by a pretty mask, his brain turned into whatever mush the authorities decided would be acceptable for a former renegade raised in the wild?

She shook her head, forcing the image from her mind. David hadn't been among the captured resistors.

If he'd been caught, he definitely would have put up a fight. He must have escaped.

The roar of a hovercar passed overhead, the shock wave of its passage almost throwing Tally from the board. A few seconds later, she knew it had spotted her, its screaming turn echoing through the forest as it cut back to the river.

Shadows passed over Tally, and she glanced up to see two hovercars following her, their blades shimmering as bright as knives in the midmorning sun. The hovercars could go anywhere, but Tally was limited by her magnetic lifters. She was trapped on the route to the railroad.

Tally remembered her first ride out to Dr. Cable's office, the violent agility of the hovercar with its cruel pretty driver. In a straight line, they were much faster than any board. Her only advantage was that she knew this path backward and forward.

Fortunately, it was hardly a straight line.

Tally gripped the board with both hands and jumped from the river to the ridge line. The cars disappeared into the distance, overshooting as she skimmed the iron vein. But Tally was out in the open now, the plains spreading out below her as huge as ever.

She noticed fleetingly that it was a perfect day, not a cloud in the sky.

Tally lay almost flat to cut down wind resistance, coaxing every ounce of speed from Croy's board. It didn't look like she'd make it to the next cover before the two cars had swung around.

She wondered how they planned to capture her. Use a stunner? Throw a net? Simply bowl her over with their shock waves? At this speed and without crash bracelets, anything that knocked Tally off the board would kill her.

Maybe that was just fine with them.

The scream of their blades came from her right, louder and louder.

Just before the sound reached her, Tally dragged herself into a full hover skid, her momentum crushing her down into the board. The two hovercars shot past ahead, missing by a mile, but the wind of their passage spun her around in circles. The board flipped over and then back upright, Tally hanging on with both arms as the world spun wildly around her.

She regained control and urged it forward again, bringing it back to full speed before the hovercars could turn back around. The Specials might be faster, but her hoverboard was more maneuverable.

As the next turn drew near, the hovercars were headed straight for her, moving slower now, their pilots realizing that at top speed they would overshoot her every time.

Let them try to fly below tree level, though.

Now riding on her knees, gripping the board with both hands, Tally twisted into the next turn, dropping to skim just above the cracked dirt of the dry creek bed. She heard the whine of the hovercars steadily build.

They were tracking her too easily, probably using her body heat to pick her out among the trees, like the minders back home. Tally remembered the little portable heater she'd used to sneak out of the dorm so many times. If only she had it now.

Then Tally remembered the caves that David had shown her on her first day in the Smoke.

Under the cold stones of the mountain, her body heat would disappear.

She ignored the sound of her pursuers, shooting down the creek bed and across a spur of ore, then onto the river that led to the railroad. She careened along above the water, and the hovercars stayed above tree height, patiently waiting for her to run out of cover.

As the turnoff to the railroad approached, Tally increased her speed, skimming the water as fast as she dared. She took the turn at full skid and hurtled down the track.

The cars swept away down the river. The Specials might have expected her to turn off on another river, but the sudden appearance of an old railroad track had surprised them. If she could make it to the mountain before the hovercars completed their slow turns, she would be safe.

Just in time, Tally remembered the spot where they had pulled up the track for scrap metal, and angled her board for a stomach-wrenching moment of freefall, soaring over the gap in a high arc.

The lifters found metal again, and thirty seconds later she came to a skidding halt at the end of the line.

Tally jumped from the hoverboard, turned it around, and gave it a shove back toward the river. Without her crash bracelets to pull it back, the board would drift along the straight line of the railroad until it reached the break, where it would drop to the ground.

Hopefully, the Specials would think she'd fallen off, and start their search back there.

Tally crawled up the boulders and into the cave, scrambling back into the darkness. She pulled herself as far as she could go, hoping that the tons of stone overhead would be enough to hide her from the Specials. When the tiny aperture of light at the mouth of the cave had shrunk to the size of an eye, Tally dropped to the stone, panting, her hands still shaking from the flight, telling herself again and again that she'd made it.

But what had she made it to? She had no shoes, no hoverboard, no friends, not even a water purifier or a packet of SpagBol. No home to go back to.

Tally was completely alone. "I'm so dead," she said aloud.

A voice came out of the dark.

"Tally? Is that you?"