Authors: Scott Westerfeld
Tags: #General, #Young adult fiction, #Science Fiction, #New Experience, #Brainwashing, #Friendship, #Action & Adventure, #Fantasy & Magic, #Personal, #Social Issues, #Beauty, #Teenage girls, #Beauty & Grooming, #Fiction, #Health & Fitness, #Juvenile Fiction
Crim,” Tally said, and jumped off the bed to hug him.
With Peris in her arms, it didn’t feel like the party was going to suck, or that anyone was going to vote against her. His big brown eyes beamed down into hers, and he lifted her up and squeezed her hard. She’d always felt this close to Peris back in ugly days, playing tricks and growing up together. It was bubbly to feel this way right now.
All those weeks that Tally had been lost in the wild, all she’d ever wanted was to be back here with Peris, pretty in New Pretty Town. It was totally stupid being unhappy today, or any day. Probably just too much champagne. “Best friends forever,” she whispered to him, as he set her down.
“Hey, what’s this thing?” Shay said. She was deep in Tally’s closet, poking around for ideas. She held up a shapeless mass of wool.
“Oh, that.” Tally let her arms fall from around Peris. “That’s my sweater from the Smoke, remember?” The sweater looked strange, not like she remembered. It was messy, and you could see where human hands had knitted the different pieces together. People in the Smoke didn’t have holes in the wall—they had to make their own things, and people, it turned out, weren’t very good at making things.
“You didn’t recycle it?”
“No. I think it’s made of weird stuff. Like, the hole can’t use it.”
Shay held the sweater to her nose and inhaled. “Wow It still smells like the Smoke. Campfires and that stew we always ate. Remember?”
Peris and Fausto went over to smell it. They’d never been out of the city, except for school trips to the Rusty Ruins. They certainly hadn’t gotten as far as the Smoke, where everyone had to work all day making stuff, and growing (or even killing) their own food, and everyone stayed ugly after their sixteenth birthday Ugly until they died, even.
Of course, the Smoke didn’t exist anymore, thanks to Tally and Special Circumstances.
“Hey, I know, Tally!” Shay said. “Let’s go as Smokies tonight!”
“That would be totally criminal!” Fausto said, his eyes full of admiration.
The three looked at Tally, all of them thrilled with the idea, and even though another nasty ping went through her, she knew it would be bogus not to agree. And that with a totally bubbly costume like a real-life Smokey sweater to wear, there was no way anyone would vote against her, because Tally Youngblood was a natural Crim.
The bash was in Valentino Mansion, the oldest building in New Pretty Town. It sprawled along the river only a few stories high, but was topped by a transmission tower visible halfway across the island. Inside, the walls were made of real stone, so the rooms couldn’t talk, but the mansion had a long history of giant and fabulous bashes. The wait to become a Valentino resident was at least forever.
Peris, Fausto, Shay, and Tally walked down through the pleasure gardens, which were already bubbling with people headed to the bash. Tally saw an angel with beautiful feathered wings that must have been requisitioned
ago, which was so cheating, and a bunch of new pretties wearing fat-suits and masks that gave them triple chins. A mostly naked clique of Bashers were pretending to be pre-Rusties, building bonfires and drumming, establishing their own little satellite party, which was what Bashers always did.
Peris and Fausto kept arguing about exactly when to light themselves on fire again. They wanted to make an entrance but also save their sparklers for the other Crims. As they got closer to the mansion’s noise and glimmer, Tally’s nerves started to jump. The Smokey costumes didn’t look like much. Tally wore her old sweater and Shay a copy, along with rough pants, knapsacks, and handmade-looking shoes that Tally had described to the hole in the wall, remembering someone wearing them in the Smoke. For unbathed authenticity they had rubbed dirt into their clothes and faces, which had seemed bubbly during the walk down, but now just felt dirty.
At the door were two Valentinos dressed up as wardens, making sure no one got inside without a costume. They stopped Fausto and Peris at first, but laughed when the two set themselves on fire, waving them through. They just shrugged at Shay and Tally, but let them in.
“Wait till the other Crims see us,” Shay said. “They’ll get it.”
The four pushed through the crowds and into a total confusion of costumes. Tally saw snowmen, soldiers, thumb-game characters, and a whole Pretty Committee of scientists carrying facegraphs. Historical figures were everywhere in crazy clothes from all over the world, which reminded Tally how different from one another everyone used to look back when there were way too many people. A lot of the older new pretties were dressed in modern costumes: doctors, wardens, builders, or politicians—whatever they hoped to become after having the middle-pretty operation. A bunch of firefighters laughingly tried to extinguish Peris’s and Fausto’s flames, but only succeeded in annoying them.
“Where are they?” Shay kept asking, but the stone walls didn’t answer. “This is so missing. How do people live here?”
“I think they carry handphones all the time,” Fausto said. “We should have requed one.”
The problem was that in Valentino Mansion you couldn’t just call people by asking—the rooms were old and dumb, so it was like being outside. Tally placed one palm against the wall as they walked, liking how cool the ancient stones felt. For a moment, they reminded her of things out in the wild, rough and silent and unchanging. She wasn’t really dying to find the other Crims; they’d all be looking at her and wondering how to vote.
They wandered the crowded hallways, peeking into rooms full of old-timey astronauts and explorers. Tally counted five Cleopatras and two Lillian Russells. There were even a few Rudolph Valentinos; it turned out the mansion was named after a natural pretty from back in the Rusty days.
Other cliques had organized theme costumes—teams of Jocks carrying hockey sticks and wobbly on hoverskates, Twisters as sick puppies wearing big cone-shaped plastic collars. And of course the Swarm was everywhere, all jabbering to one another on their interface rings. Swarmers had skintennas surged into them so they could call one another from anywhere, even inside Valentino Mansion’s dumb walls. The other cliques always made fun of the Swarm, who were afraid to go anywhere except in giant groups. They were all dressed as houseflies with big bug eyes, which at least was sense-making.
No other Crims appeared among the tumult of costumes, and Tally began to wonder if they’d all ditched the party rather than vote for her. Paranoid thoughts began to plague her, and she kept catching glimpses of someone lurking in the shadows, half-hidden by the crowds, but always there. Every time she turned around, though, the gray silk costume slipped out of sight.
Tally couldn’t tell whether it was a boy or a girl. The figure wore a mask, scary but also beautiful, its cruel wolf eyes glinting in the low, flickering party lights. The plastic face jarred something in Tally, a painful memory that took a moment to gel.
Then she realized what the costume was supposed to be: an agent of Special Circumstances.
Tally leaned back against one of the cool stone walls, remembering the gray silk coveralls that Specials wore and the cruel pretty faces they were given. The sight made her head spin, which was the way Tally always felt when she thought back to her days in the wild.
Seeing the costume here in New Pretty Town didn’t make any sense. Besides herself and Shay, hardly anyone had ever seen a Special. To most people they were just rumors and urban legends, blamed whenever anything weird happened. Specials kept themselves well hidden. Their job was to protect the city from outside threats, like soldiers and spies back in the days of the Rusties, but only total criminals like Tally Youngblood ever met them in person.
Still, someone had done a pretty good job on the costume. He or she must have seen a real Special at some point. But why was the figure
Every time Tally turned, it was there, moving with the terrible and predatory grace she remembered from being hunted through the ruins of the Smoke on that awful day when they had come to take her back to the city.
She shook her head. Thinking of those days always brought up bogus memories that didn’t fit together. The Specials hadn’t hunted Tally, of course. Why would they? They’d
her, bringing her home after she’d left the city to track down Shay. The thought of Specials always left her spinning, but that was just because their cruel faces were designed to freak you out, the same way that looking at regular pretties made you feel good.
Maybe the figure wasn’t following her at all; maybe it was more than one person, some clique all dressed the same and spread out across the party which made it feel like one of them was lurking her. That idea was a lot less crazy-making.
She caught up with the others, and joked with them as they searched for the rest of the Crims. But as Tally kept one eye out for figures in the shadows, she slowly became sure that it wasn’t a clique. There was always exactly one, not talking to anybody, totally lurking. And the way the figure moved, so gracefully . . .
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