The Cut

“You were right. That was horrible.”

“Poor Tally-wa …” Shay swept her hoverboard closer. In the water below, the moon’s reflection kept pace with them, warping madly with the ripples of the current. “I’m really sorry.”

“Why does he look so different? It’s like he’s not the same person.”

“You’re not the same person, Tally. You’re special now, and he’s just average.”

Tally shook her head, trying to remember Zane back in their pretty days. How bubbly he was, how his face glowed with excitement as he talked, and how that thrilled her, made her want to touch him…Even when he was being annoying, there’d never been anything average about Zane. But tonight he’d seemed emptied of something essential, like champagne with all the bubbles gone flat.

There was a split screen in her brain: the way she remembered Zane and the way she saw him now, two pictures crashing against each other. The endless minutes with him had left her feeling as if her head were about to break in half.

“I don’t want this,” she said softly. Her stomach was uneasy and the moonlight on the water was too bright, its lines too sharp in her perfect vision. “I don’t want to be this way.”

Shay angled her board sideways, sweeping directly into Tally’s path and spinning to a sudden, dangerous stop. Tally leaned back, and both hoverboards shrieked like buzz saws as they halted, coming to rest only centimeters apart.

“What way? Annoying? Pathetic?” Shay shouted, her voice all razors and ground glass. “I tried to tell you not to come!”

Tally’s heart was pounding from the near collision, and anger rushed through her in a torrent. “You knew that seeing him would do this to me!”

“You think I know everything?” Shay said coldly. “I’m not the one in love. Haven’t been since you stole David from me. But maybe I thought love might make a difference. Well, Tally-wa, did it make Zane special for you?”

Tally flinched, something inside her flipping over. She looked down at the black water, feeling like she was going to throw up. She tried to stay icy, to remember how Zane had made her feel back in pretty days. “What did Dr. Cable do to us, Shay? Do we have some kind of special lesions in our brains? Something that makes everyone else look pathetic? Like we’re better than them?”

“We are better than them, Tally-wa!” Shay’s eyes shone like coins, reflecting the lights of New Pretty Town. “The operation gives us the clarity to see that. That’s why everyone else looks confused and pitiful, because that’s how most people are.'”

“Not Zane,” Tally said. “He was never pitiful.”

“He’s changed too, Tally-wa.”

“But it’s not his fault…” Tally turned away. “I don’t want to see this way! I don’t want to be disgusted by everyone who’s not part of our clique, Shay!”

Shay smiled. “You’d rather be all happy and loving, like a clueless bubblehead? Or live like a Smokey crapping in holes and eating dead rabbits and feeling all virtuous about it? What part of being special don’t you like?”

Tally’s fingers curled into fighting position. “I don’t like the part where Zane looks wrong to me.”

“Do you think he looks right to anyone, Tally? His brain’s a mess!”

Tally felt tears burning inside, but the heat didn’t spill into her eyes. She’d never seen a Special cry, and didn’t even know if she could. “Just answer me: Is there something in my head that makes him look wrong? What did Cable do to us?”

Shay let out a frustrated sigh. “Tally, in every conflict both sides do things to people’s heads. But at least our side gets it right. The city makes bubbleheads the way they are to keep them happy and the planet safe. They make us Specials see the world so clearly that its beauty almost hurts, so we won’t let humanity try to destroy it again.” Shay edged her board closer, reaching out to take Tally’s shoulders. “But the Smokies are amateurs. They experiment on people, turn them into freaks like Zane.”

“He’s not a…,” Tally began, but couldn’t finish. The part of her that despised his weakness was too strong—she couldn’t deny the way Zane sickened her, like something that shouldn’t be allowed to live.

But it wasn’t his fault. It was Dr. Cable’s, for not making him special. For following her stupid rules.

“Stay icy,” Shay said softly.

Tally took a deep breath, trying to get her anger and frustration under control. She let her senses expand, until she could hear the wind playing in the pine needles. Scents rose up from the water—the algae on its surface, the ancient minerals down below. Her heartbeat slowed a little.

“Tell me, Tally: Are you certain you really love Zane, and not just some leftover memory of him?”

Tally winced, closing her eyes. Inside her, the images of Zane still warred with each other. She was trapped between them, and clarity wouldn’t come.

“It makes me sick to look at him,” she whispered. “But I know that’s not right. I want to go back … to how I felt before.”

Shay’s voice lowered. “Then listen, Tally. I have a plan— a way to get that necklace off.”

Tally opened her eyes again, gritting her teeth at the thought of the collar around his throat. “I’ll do anything, Shay.”

“But it has to look like Zane escaped on his own— otherwise Cable won’t want him. Which means tricking Special Circumstances.”

Tally swallowed. “And we can really do that?”

“You mean will our brains let us?” Shay snorted. “Of course. We’re not bubbleheads. But we’re risking everything we have. Understand?”

“And you’d do that for Zane?”

“For you, Tally-wa.” Shay grinned, her eyes flashing. “And for the fun of it. But I need you absolutely icy.”

Shay drew her knife.

Tally closed her eyes again, nodding. She wanted clarity so badly. She reached out to grasp Shay’s knife by the blade.

“Hang on, not your hand…”

But Tally squeezed down hard, driving the razor edge into her flesh. The delicate and fine-tuned nerves woven into her palm, a hundred times more sensitive than any random’s, split apart, screaming. She heard herself cry out.

The special moment came with its wild clarity, and Tally could finally see through her own tangled thoughts: Deep inside herself were threads of permanence, the things that had remained unchanged whether she was ugly or pretty or special—and love was one of them. She longed to be with Zane again, feeling everything she’d felt with him before, but amplified a thousandfold by her new senses. She wanted Zane to know what it was like to be a Special, to see the world in all its icy clarity.

“Okay.” Her breath was ragged. She opened her eyes. “I’m with you.”

Shay’s face was radiant. “Good girl. But it’s traditional to use the arms.”

Tally opened her hand, the skin of her palm tugging free from the knife, setting off a fresh wave of pain. She sucked in breath.

“I know it hurts, Tally-wa.” Shay was whispering now, staring in fascination at the blood-slicked blade. “It made me sick too, seeing Zane like that. I didn’t know he’d be so messed up, honest.” Her board slid a little closer, and she placed her hand softly over Tally’s wounded palm. “But I’m not going to let this break you, Tally-wa. I don’t want you turning all mushy and average. We’ll make him one of us and save the city too; we’ll fix everything.” She pulled her medical kit from a sneak-suit pouch. “Just like I’m going to fix you now.”

“But he won’t give the Smokies up.”

“He doesn’t have to.” Shay sprayed the wound, and the pain quickly faded to a faraway tingling. “He only has to prove he’s bubbly, and we’ll do the rest—get him and Fausto back, then capture David and the rest of them. It’s the only way to stop what’s happening. Like Zane said, arresting a bunch of pretties won’t help. We have to cut this off at the source: We have to find the New Smoke.”

“I know.” Tally nodded, her mind still icy. “But Zane’s so crippled, the Smokies will know that we let him escape. They’ll pull apart everything he’s carrying, scan every bone in his body.”

Shay smiled. “Of course they will. But he’ll be clean.”

“Then how will we track him?” Tally asked.

“The old-fashioned way.” Shay turned her board around, reaching out to take Tally by her unbloodied hand. They climbed, lifting fans thrumming to life underfoot as Shay pulled her higher and higher, until the city was spread out around them, a great bowl of light surrounded by darkness.

Tally glanced down at her hand. The pain had faded to a dull pounding that throbbed in time with her heartbeat, and the medspray was congealing her spilled blood, turning it to a dust that blew away as they rose. The wound had already sealed, leaving nothing but a ridge of raised skin. The scar cut straight across her flash tattoos, breaking the dermal circuitry that made them dance. Her palm was a jittering mess of lines, like a computer screen after a hard crash.

But Tally’s thoughts were still clear. She flexed her fingers, sending little pings of pain up her arm.

“See that blackness out there, Tally-wa?” Shay pointed toward the city’s nearest edge. “That’s our space, not the randoms’. We were designed for the wild, and we’re going to be tracking Zane-la and his pals every step of the way.”

“But I thought you said—”

“Not with electronics, Tally-wa. We’ll use sight and smell, and all the other old ways of the forest.” Her eyes flashed. “Like the pre-Rusties used to do.”

Tally looked across the orange glow of factories, out to where darkness marked the Outside. “Pre-Rusties? You mean, look for bent branches or something? People on hoverboards don’t leave a lot of footprints behind, Shay-la.”

“True. Which is why they’ll never suspect someone’s following them, because no one’s done that kind of tracking for at least three hundred years.” Shay’s eyes flashed. “But you and I can smell an unwashed human from a kilometer away, a burnt-out campfire from ten. We can see in the dark and hear better than bats.” Her sneak suit flickered to night black. “We can make ourselves invisible and move without a sound. Think about it, Tally-wa.”

Tally nodded slowly. The Smokies would never imagine anyone watching from the darkness, listening for every step, sniffing out every campfire and chemically cooked meal.

“And with us along,” Tally said, “Zane will be okay even if he gets lost or hurt.”

“Exactly. And after we find the New Smoke, you two can be together.”

“Are you sure Dr. Cable will make him special?”

Shay pushed off from Tally, laughing as her board dropped. “After what I’ve got planned, she’ll probably give him my job.”

Tally looked down at her still-tingling hand. Then she reached out with it and touched Shay’s cheek. “Thank you.”

Shay shook her head. “No thanks necessary, Tally-wa. Not after the way you looked back in Zane’s room. I hate seeing you all miserable like that. It’s just not special.”

“Sorry, Boss.”

Shay laughed and tugged her into motion again, off the river and toward the factory belt, descending to normal flying height. “Like you said, you didn’t leave me behind last night, Tally-wa. So we’re not leaving Zane behind either.”

“And we’ll get Fausto back, too.”

Shay turned back toward her and half-grinned. “Oh right, let’s not forget about poor Fausto. And that other little bonus…what was that again?”

Tally took a deep breath. “The end of the New Smoke.”

“Good girl. Any more questions?”

“Yeah, one: Where are we going to find something that can cut orbital alloy?”

Shay spun in one complete circle on her board, holding a finger in front of her lips.

“Somewhere very special, Tally-wa,” she whispered. “Follow me, and all will be revealed.”

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