"But - "
"Don't argue with me, Tally. I won't lose your boyfriend. Just get moving, and don't let them see you."
"Okay, Boss." Tally dropped toward the river to let her hoverboard's fans cool. Zooming toward the approaching Crims, she booted her suit, pulling the hood over her face. Tally angled closer to the bank and its cover of overhanging plants, slowing almost to a halt.
Within a minute, the Crims shot past, unaware, and she recognized Zane's unsteady form among the others.
"Got them," Shay said a moment later. Her voice was already fading. "If we go off river, I'll leave a skintenna beacon for you."
"Okay, Boss." Tally leaned forward, heading toward the mysterious ninth figure.
"Be careful, Tally-wa. I don't want to lose two Cutters in the one week."
"No problem there," Tally said. She wanted to get back to following Zane, not get captured herself. "See you soon."
"Miss you already...," Shay said as her signal faded.
Tally's senses scanned the forests on either side of the river. The dark trees crowding the banks were full of infrared phantoms; small animals and nesting birds flashed past as random flickers of heat.
But nothing human-size...
As Tally neared the spot where the Crims had met their mysterious friend, she slowed, crouching low on her board. She smiled, beginning to feel icy and excited. If this was another ambush, the Smokies were going to discover that they weren't the only ones who could turn invisible.
She glided to a halt on the muddy riverbank, stepping from her board and sending it into the sky to wait for her.
The spot where the Crims had stood was marked by a swarm of footprints. The smell of an unwashed human lingered in the air, someone who had been days or longer without a bath. That couldn't be one of the Crims, who'd smelled like recyclable clothes and nervousness.
Tally moved carefully into the trees, following the trail of scent.
Whoever she was following knew something about woodcraft. No broken branches marked a clumsy passage, and the undergrowth showed no telltale signs of footsteps. But the smell grew stronger as Tally moved ahead, enough to make her nose wrinkle. Running water or not, even Smokies didn't smell this bad.
A flicker of infrared glow came through the trees, a human form ahead of her. She paused a moment to listen, but hardly a sound carried through the forest: Whoever it was could move as silently as David.
Tally crept forward slowly, eyes scanning the ground for the subtle markers of a trail. Seconds later she found it - an almost invisible channel through the dense trees, the path that the figure was following.
Shay had warned her to be careful, and whoever this person was - Smokie or not - they wouldn't be easy to sneak up on. But perhaps one ambush deserved another...
Tally veered off the trail, running deeper into the forest. She moved silent and light-footed through the soft undergrowth, sweeping around her quarry in a slow arc until she found the trail again. Then she crept forward, ahead of them now, until she spotted a high tree branch that stretched directly over the path.
The perfect spot.
As she climbed, her suit-scales sprouted the rough texture of bark, its colors shifting into a dappled moonlit pattern. She clung to an overhanging branch, invisible and waiting, her heartbeat quickening.
The glowing figure came through the trees in total silence. There were no synthetic smells among those of unwashed humanity: no sunblock patches, insect repellent, or even a trace of soap or shampoo.
As Tally flipped through vision overlays, she detected no signs of electronics or a heated jacket, and her ears didn't catch the slight buzz of night-vision goggles.
Not that equipment would help her quarry. Absolutely motionless in her sneak suit, hardly breathing, Tally was undetectable even to the best technology...
And yet, just as the figure passed below her, it slowed, cocking its head as if listening for something.
Tally held her breath. She knew she was invisible, but her heart beat faster, her senses amplifying the sounds of the forest around her. Was there someone else out here? Someone who'd spotted her climbing the tree? Phantoms flickered at the corners of her vision. Her body longed to act, not hide up here among the leaves and branches.
For a long moment, the figure didn't move. Then, very slowly, its head tipped back to gaze upward.
Tally didn't hesitate - she dropped, flattening her scales to night black armored mode, wrapping both arms around the figure, pinning its arms as she dragged it to the ground. This close, the unwashed smell was almost choking.
"I don't want to hurt you," she hissed through the suit's mask. "But I will if I have to."
The young man struggled for a moment, and Tally saw the flash of a metal knife in his hand. She squeezed harder, pushing the breath from his lungs with a cracking of ribs until the knife slipped from his fingers.
"Sayshal," he hissed.
His accent sent a shudder of recognition through Tally. Sayshal? She remembered that strange word from somewhere. She flipped off her infrared, pulled him to his feet, and pushed him backward, taking in his face in a stray beam of moonlight.
He was bearded and dirty-faced, his clothing nothing but strips of animal skins sewn crudely together. "I know you...," she said softly. When he didn't answer, Tally pulled off her hood, letting him see her face.
"Young Blood," he said, smiling. "You have changed."
His name was Andrew Simpson Smith, and Tally had met him before.
When she'd escaped the city back in her pretty days, she'd stumbled across a sort of reservation, an experiment maintained by the city's scientists. The people inside the reservation lived like pre-Rusties, wearing skins and using only Stone Age tools - clubs and sticks and fire. They inhabited small villages that were constantly at war with each other, an endless cycle of revenge killings for the scientists to study, like a purified layer of human violence squeezed between the halves of a petri dish.
The villagers didn't know about the rest of the world, or that every problem they faced - illness and hunger and bloodshed - had been solved by humanity centuries before. That is, they hadn't known until Tally had stumbled into one of their hunting parties, been mistaken for a god, and told a holy man named Andrew Simpson Smith all about it.
"How did you get out?" she asked.
He smiled proudly. "I crossed the edge of the world, Young Blood."
Tally raised an eyebrow. The reservation was bounded by "little men," dolls strung from the trees and armed with neural scramblers that caused terrific pain to anyone who got too close. The villagers were far too dangerous to be let loose into the real wild, so the city had given their world impassable borders.
"How did you manage that?"
Andrew Simpson Smith chuckled as he bent to pick up his knife, and Tally fought an urge to kick it from his hand. He had called her a Sayshal, the villagers' word for hated Specials. Of course, now that he'd seen her face, he remembered Tally as a friend, an ally against the gods of the city. He had no idea what her new lace of flash tattoos meant, no understanding that she had become one of the gods' feared enforcers.
"After you told me how much lay beyond the edge of the world, Young Blood, I began to wonder if the little men were afraid of anything."
"Yes. I tried many ways to scare them. Songs, spells. The skulls of bears."
"Um, they're not really men, Andrew. Just machines. They don't exactly get afraid."
His expression grew more serious. "But fire, Young Blood. I learned they fear fire."
"Fire?" Tally swallowed. "Um, Andrew, was this a really big fire, by any chance?"
His smile returned. "It burned many trees. When it was done, the little men had run away."
She groaned. "I think the little men were burned away, Andrew. So you're saying you started a forest fire?"
"Forest fire." He considered this for a moment. "Those are good words for it."
"Actually, Andrew, those are bad words. You're just lucky it's not summer, or that fire could've taken out your whole...world."
He smiled. "My world is bigger now, Young Blood."
"Yeah, but still...that wasn't what I had in mind."
Tally sighed. Her attempt to explain the real world to Andrew had resulted in massive destruction instead of enlightenment, and his fire had probably released several villages full of dangerous barbarians into the wild. There were Smokies and runaways and even campers from the city out here. "How long ago did you do this?"
"Twenty-seven days." He shook his head. "But the little men came back. New ones, who are not afraid of fire. I have been outside my old world ever since."
"But you've made some new friends, haven't you? City friends."
He looked at Tally suspiciously for a moment. He must have realized that if she'd seen him with the Crims, she had been following them. "Young Blood," he said cautiously. "By what fortune do we meet?"
Tally didn't answer right away. The concept of lies had hardly seemed to exist in Andrew's village, at least until Tally had explained the big lie they were all living in. But surely by now he was more wary of city people. She decided to choose her words carefully. "Those gods you just met, some of them are friends of mine."
"They are not gods, Tally. You taught me that."
"Right. Good for you, Andrew." She wondered what else he understood these days. He had grown more comfortable with the city's language, as if he'd been practicing a lot. "But how did you know they were coming? You didn't just run into them accidentally, did you?"
He looked at her warily for a moment, then shook his head. "No. They're running from the Sayshal, and I offered help. They are your friends?"
She chewed her lip. "One of them was ... I mean, is... my boyfriend."
Comprehension spread across Andrew's face, and he let out a low chuckle. Reaching out one hand, he patted her shoulder roughly. "I see now. That's why you follow, making yourself as invisible as a Sayshal. A boyfriend."
Tally tried not to roll her eyes. If Andrew Simpson Smith wanted to think she was a jilted lover tagging along after the runaways, it was certainly simpler than explaining the truth. "So how did you know to meet them here?"
"After I found I could not go home, I set off to look for you, Young Blood."
"Me?" Tally asked.
"You were trying to get to the Rusty Ruins. You told me how far, and in what direction."
"And you made it there?"
Andrew's eyes widened as he nodded, a shiver passing through his frame. "A huge village, full of the dead."
"And met the Smokies there, didn't you?"
"The New Smoke Lives," he said gravely.
"Yeah, it sure does. And now you help runaways for them?"
"Not just me. The Smokies know how to fly above the little men. Others from my village have joined us. One day, we'll all be free."
"Well, that's great news," Tally said. The Smokies had really gone crazy now, letting a bunch of deadly savages out into the wild. Of course, the villagers would make useful allies. They knew woodcraft better than any city kids could ever hope to, probably even better than the oldest Smokies. They knew how to gather food on the trail and make clothes from natural materials, all the skills the cities had lost.
And after generations of tribal warfare, they'd be experts in the art of ambush as well.
Andrew Simpson Smith had somehow sensed Tally overhead, even in her sneak suit. Instincts like that took a lifetime in the wilderness to hone.
"How did you help those runaways just now?"
He smiled proudly. "I gave them the way to the New Smoke."
"Great. Because, you see, I've sort of been out of the loop. And I was kind of hoping you'd help me out with that too."