Here’s a story set in the Uglies world, with characters from the original series.
Lots of people have asked me over the years, “How did David get his scar?” So this is written in his point of view, a few months before he and Tally meet for the first time. It shows him and his crew out recruiting uglies to come to the Smoke.
Last year, I posted another Uglies short story set in the new Impostors series. Click here to read that one.
“How David Got His Scar”
The three hoverboards approached the strange city at low speed, gliding just above the rocks and dirt of the dried-out streambed. The riders knelt or crouched, wearing camo jackets and night-vision goggles. The valley below glittered with city lights and safety fireworks, but up here only slivers of starlight cut through the trees.
“Picking up some broadcast feeds now,” Croy said. He was riding at the back, his board obediently following the others’ as he stared into a handscreen. Woven through his camo jacket were antennae that flowed out behind him like wings, their smart fibers deftly twisting to avoid the branches.
“Anything interesting?” asked the rider in the lead. Of the three, David crouched the lowest on his board, wary and nervous this close to a new city.
“Just the usual,” came Croy’s voice. “Fifty channels for the bubble-heads; only one for the city council meeting.”
“Just like home,” the middle rider said. “Cities are all the same.”
David only grunted at this. It was Astrix’s first contact mission—she would learn.
Cities always seemed alike at first, with their spires held aloft against the law of gravity, their hide-bound leaders, their spoiled and clueless uglies. But often the differences could surprise you, and growing up in the wild had taught David to be careful of surprises.
“Hang on,” Croy said. “Something funny up ahead.”
David raised his hand and banked to a stop, the others gliding up behind him. They huddled around the handscreen, close enough to whisper.
The tendrils of antennae in Croy’s jacket drifted up into the air, snaking through the tree branches, greedy for signal. David tried not to watch them. Smart fibers were useful, but creepy, so he always let Croy do the scanning. Tech was one thing city kids were good at.
Croy gestured at a dozen little thumbnail images across the top of his screen, singers and fashion shows and costume dramas.
“That’s the city’s main feeds, the usual crap. But check these out.” His finger moved to three tiny lights in the center of the screen, pulsing with gentle hieroglyphics. “The signal’s from just ahead of us, low-powered pings every few seconds. Some kind of device checking in with the city network.”
“Motion sensors,” David whispered. “Somebody doesn’t want us sneaking in.”
“No city’s that paranoid.” Astrix bent closer to the screen. “It’s probably just some kind of tracking system, in case a hiker gets lost.”
David almost laughed. “But you can see the buildings from here. Even a city kid couldn’t get lost this close to home!”
Astrix and Crow both gave him a look. They’d been city kids not that long ago much. Everyone back in the Smoke had started out life as a city kid, except for David.
“You know what I mean,” he added. “We’ll go around them, just in case.”
“Whatever you say, boss,” Astrix said, and angled her hoverboard away.
They were beyond the edge of the city’s metal grid, so as the minerals of the dried stream bed fell behind, the hoverboards began to sputter, drifting toward the ground. Soon they had to be carried, the three Smokies pressing ahead on foot through the branches.
It was always tricky, approaching a new city for the first time, looking for rebellious uglies to teach about the Smoke. Some authorities were open to the idea of letting their uglies head off into the wild to live, like it was all some kind of outdoor education project. Some merely turned a blind eye, trusting that their spoiled brats would come crawling back. Most of the time, they were right.
But a few cities were like fortresses, or prisons, depending on whether you wanted in or out. They jealously guarded their citizens from outsiders, from new and unexpected ideas. Over his years of helping runaways find the Smoke, David had encountered wild animals, forest fires, and bio-engineered poisonous plants. But nothing was more dangerous than a city afraid of change.
Astrix and Croy had escaped from their paranoid, controlling city only half a year ago, but even their home hadn’t been protected by motion sensors. David looked into the valley again. For whoever was in charge down there, even brain-addling surge wasn’t enough control. They needed electronic surveillance as well.
“More sensors ahead,” Croy said after ten minutes’ struggle through the trees. “Looks like they got the whole city ringed.”
“Okay.” David turned back toward the stream bed. “If we can’t go around, we go through them. Either of you ever cloned a sensor before?”
The other two both stared at him, and he smiled. It was always fun to teach new Smokies the tricks of the trade.
David let Astrix take the lead. She’d been a competitive hoverboarder back in her home city, and a dancer as well. She could move very gracefully when she wanted to.
She and David were crawling toward the nearest sensor, staying low, taking their time. They froze whenever the air grew still, only moving when the leaves around them were dancing in the wind, distracting the sensors.
The descent into the valley was steep here, the stones loose underfoot. David stayed ready to call for their boards if either of them slipped, or if the motion sensors set up an alarm.
City tech was unpredictable. Sometimes it was easy to fool, built so tricky uglies could find ways around it. Other times it was deadly serious, especially here on the borders of a city that was clearly terrified of intruders.
“Those sensors keeping quiet?” David asked during a pause in their descent.
Croy’s voice came through David’s headset. “Like I wouldn’t tell you?”
Astrix laughed softly. “Don’t worry, nature boy. I was sneaking out of my dorm room back when you were learning how to start a campfire. I got this.”
David rolled his eyes. Whenever he took them on contact missions, city kids always sounded like they’re were spouting dialog from an old flatscreen thriller he’d never seen. It was best to just ignore them.
But he couldn’t resist saying, “Just remember, Astrix, snakes are cold-blooded, so they’re invisible in these thermal goggles.”
“Cute,” she said.
The wind picked up, the leaf shadows fluttering around him, and David crawled forward again.
Something loose shifted beneath his left elbow, and a rain of pebbles tumbled down, skittering and dancing as they went. David swore. This part of the hill was steep enough to bloom into a waterfall later in spring, but now the dirt was dry and crumbly. He felt the ground slowly shifting under him, and tried to brace himself . . .
But something big was giving way.
David began to slide forward, for a moment riding the crumbling ground beneath him. Then he was tumbling, and curled himself into a ball, dirt spraying against his goggles, rocks jabbing at his spine and sides. The shoulder of his jacket hung on something, and he was yanked to a skidding halt.
“You’re welcome,” Astrix said.
David opened his eyes. She was grinning down at him, her gloved hand grasping him by the shoulder. Beneath him was a torn packet of SpagBol. His favorite camping rations spilled out across the rocks.
But a worse sight was the motion sensor ten meters ahead, spiky and hovering a few meters in the air, like a pinecone halfway fallen from a tree. There was no way it hadn’t spotted his humiliating tumble.
“We have to get out of here!” He reached for his crash bracelet to call the hoverboards.
“Wait!” came Croy’s harsh whisper in his headset.
David and Astrix froze, staring at the motion sensor. It didn’t seem to be doing anything, but surely it was signaling the city’s wardens, or Specials, or whatever they called enforcers here.
“Huh,” Croy said an endless moment later. “Not a peep.”
“My fingers are . . . unhappy,” Astrix said through gritted teeth. Her hand was still wrapped around the shoulder of his jacket.
David moved carefully, digging his boots into the crumbly ground beneath him, reaching for a branch to his right. “Okay. Let go.”
She did, and David felt his weight settle.
“Ow.” She wriggled her fingers.
“Stay still,” he warned.
“Are you kidding? That thing’s obviously busted.”
David stared at the hovering sensor. Maybe it was defective, or maybe it was being clever, sending some sort of signal that Croy’s equipment couldn’t detect, like a dog-whistle pitched too high to hear.
“We stick to the plan,” he said. “Grab it, clone it, and leave a fake one sending out the same pulses.”
“Why bother,” Astrix said, “when we can just crawl past?”
“Because when we come back, we might be in too big a hurry to crawl. And this leaves a permanent hole in their perimeter. Stick to the plan.”
She let out a sigh. “Whatever you say, boss.”
Half an hour later they were back on their boards and riding down into the valley, the cloned sensor in place behind them, dutifully updating the network every few seconds. The real one was in David’s backpack, disabled. He could take a proper look at it back at the Smoke, and figure out why it hadn’t spotted him.
About a klick below the sensors was a large open field. It was clear of trees, and the ground was level in a way that suggested earth-moving machines. The cities professed to love nature, but they always found some way to improve it.
The field was strewn with plastic cups and other rubbish, and the grass was beaten down. There’d been a party here tonight.
He surveyed the wreckage from his board, sighing. Dealing with the sensors had put the Smokies behind schedule, and it was getting close to dawn. Probably too late for even the trickiest uglies to be out making mischief. And any party this big was probably for pretties only—anyone who’d had the surgery wouldn’t dream of leaving their luxurious life to live in the Smoke.
But with the ring of sensors breached, the three Smokes could always sneak back again tomorrow night.
Then David saw a flicker of heat in his goggles, two forms in the trees at the edge of the field. They seemed to be hiding, which was a good sign. Pretties never hid.
David signaled for Astrix and Croy to wait, then angled his board toward the hidden figures, skimming just above the grass. As he drifted to a halt, he pulled off the night-vision goggles, revealing his un-pretty features.
“Hello?” he called into the trees. After three years of making contact with city kids, this was still the best greeting he’d come up with. It worked better than, I’m here to start a rebellion. Want to run away from everything you’ve ever known?
No answer came at first, but then a short, slight girl stepped from the darkness into starlight.
“Hello, yourself,” she said.
David smiled. It was dark, but with her lopsided grin and the wary, intelligent look in her eyes, this girl definitely hadn’t had the operation.
“My name’s David.”
She frowned. David was a Rusty name from way back, the perfect way to set city kids on edge. Nice work, parents.
“Zada.” She turned toward the trees. “And this is my scaredy-cat friend, Ardy.”
A tall reedy boy stepped from the shadows, looking sheepish.
“Thought you were a warden,” the boy said.
“We were videoing the party,” Zada explained. “For this Civics project we’re doing, about exclusionary practices.”
“Sounds interesting.” David smiled. Any uglies willing to spy on a pretties-only party were prime candidates for the Smoke.
“Nice hoverboard,” Ardy said.
“It’s for cross-country,” David explained as he stepped off. “Stronger lifters, recharging flaps.” Talking about the board was the most natural way to get a conversation about the wild started.
“Where are you from?” Zada asked.
Of course, sometimes the direct route was easiest.
“The Smoke,” David said. “You heard of it?”
Zada’s mouth fell halfway open. Clearly she’d heard rumors. Most tricky uglies had.
Her eyes were scanning David now—his handmade leather jacket and boots, the survival-hardened tech of his goggles and hoverboard. All those serious textures that the city’s holes in the wall never got right.
She took another step out of the trees and reached out to him. “Can I look at your hands?”
“Um, sure?” David said.
Zada took his hands in hers, staring down at his calluses and the dirt ground into the whorls of his palm. City kids were always so clean and soft, as if they’d never touched the raw earth in their lives. Zada’s hair was tangled and she might look tired, like someone who’d been spying on a party all night, but David and the others had been camping rough for two weeks straight, bathing sparingly in freezing streams. There was no comparison.
She looked up. “So the Smoke is real.”
“Realer than anything you’ve ever seen.” He pulled his hand from hers, and started his standard speech. “You don’t have to get the operation. You don’t have to look like everyone else and think like everyone else. There’s a place you can live in the wild, follow your own rules. It isn’t easy, but it’s real.”
“Whoa,” Ardy said. “I thought Leland was just making that stuff up!”
David turned to him. “Leland?”
“Our Civics teacher,” Zada broke in. “He’s always talking about how any system as ordered as the pretty regime creates revolutionary opposition. The Smoke is a typical example.”
David blinked. “Um . . . they actually call it the ‘pretty regime’ here?”
“Yeah, but only in Civics class,” Zada said. “Hey, it would be awesome to do a project on you guys! Can we interview you?”
David stared at the two kids in front of him, so full of energy and enthusiasm, so ready to question authority—as long as they got a good grade out of it.
Some cities, like Diego, controlled rebellion by turning it into fashion, allowing their citizens to get weird surgeries or shocking colors of hair and skin. In other places, uglies were allowed to play all the tricks they wanted, but ultimately the clever ones became enforcers. In this city, apparently, the authorities crushed revolutions before they started, by turning them into homework.
“Sure, we can do an interview,” David said. “Let’s say we meet back here tonight.”
“Fantastic!” Zada said.
“Two conditions. One: if any of your friends want to come, you have to bring them along.”
Ardy frowned. “But how are we supposed to get extra credit if everyone gets to meet you!”
“This isn’t about getting extra credit,” David said. “It’s about spreading the word that the Smoke is real. Bring at least five more uglies with you tonight, or the interview’s off. Understand?”
“Okay,” Zada grumbled.
“The second thing is, you can’t tell your Civics teacher about us until tomorrow. In Don’t tell anyone who’s had the surgery that you’re meeting us.”
“Duh,” Zada said.
“Besides,” Ardy added. “It’ll be way better as a surprise project!”
David sighed. Every group of city kids had their own motivations for wanting to come to the Smoke, he supposed. Whether it was rebellion, a hunger for adventure, or just plain boredom didn’t really matter. The main thing was getting them to imagine a future other than perfect beauty and lifelong compliance.
This was a start at least.
As dawn began to break, the three Smokies headed back up into the mountains. The sky was turning slowly pink, and the scudding clouds were high and thin. No rain tonight.
“Isn’t that weird?” Astrix was saying. “Their teacher tells them about the Smoke, but the city’s surrounded by motion sensors?”
David only shrugged, dipping his board around a tree. The brain-missing logic of city authorities was always exhausting. As if they knew that the pretty regime couldn’t last forever, and were just improvising until it fell apart.
“Maybe they don’t stop runaways,” Croy said. “But they want to keep an eye on them. Those sensors could shoot out a tracker of some kind as you walk past.”
“Maybe it’s someone’s Civics project!” Astrix added, and the two of them had a good laugh.
David pulled on his night vision goggles again. Even with dawn breaking, it was dark here beneath the canopy of trees, and they were getting close to the sensors again. They had to fly past the sensor they’d cloned, careful not to set off the ones on either—
What the hell was that?
A huge form loomed just ahead, pulsing in David’s thermal vision. Something alive, much hotter than the surrounding landscape.
It was waiting at the exact spot where he’d fallen on the way in.
He held up his hand for a halt. “Guys . . . ”
The huge form turned to stare at David. Sharp eyes and a long snout, bright with body heat.
A rumbling growl reached David’s ears.
“Straight up! Straight up! Straight up!” he cried, tipping the nose of his board back as hard as he could.
As it rose, he turned to see Astrix and Croy looking at him with confused expressions.
“Now!” David yelled, just as something struck him a hard blow to the forehead. The snap of a tree branch reached his ears, along with the flutter of leaves falling around him.
He open his eyes, and the world was a riot of random colors and glittering stars. His goggles were knocked askew.
As he pulled them off, a roar came from beneath, like thunder shuddering in his bones.
The huge sound broke the spell on Astrix and Croy, and the two of them shot up into the air on their boards. A quarter ton of teeth and claws and fur went charging through the spot where they’d been, still roaring.
“Holy crap!” Astrix cried, looking at the ground in astonishment. “What is that thing?”
“Grizzly bear,” David managed to say. He sank to his knees, gripping the hoverboard with both hands. He was dizzy, and blood was running into his eyes. If he fell off now, crash bracelets wouldn’t save him from being eaten.
The three of them stared down at the bear from five meters up, as high as the hoverboards could manage here at the edge of the city grid. The bear stared back at them, pacing and snarling, testing a couple of the nearby trees for climbing. But their trunks were too young and thin to hold its weight. Eventually, the grizzly ambled back to where David had first seen it–the spot he’d fallen on the way in—and began snarfling in the dirt.
“My SpagBol,” he said, and the other two just stared at him.
David shook his head, too light-headed to explain. Here in the final throes of winter, the hungry bear had smelled the spilled food and headed down into the valley.
“Oops,” Croy said, apparently having the same thought.
Astrix turned to face him. “What?”
“The motion sensors,” Croy said. “They weren’t about us. Or runaways either. That’s why they didn’t notice David’s little tumble.”
“They were set for bear,” David said. “Calibrated to ignore anything smaller than a grizzly. We could’ve walked right past them.”
“You mean, like that bear’s doing now?” Astrix asked.
True enough, the grizzly was descending into the valley, ignoring the cloned motion sensor. No doubt he could smell the leftovers from the party the night before.
“Yep,” Croy said. “And we let him in.”
“Or her,” Astrix pointed out.
David pulled the motion detector from his pack. “Put this back in place, Croy. I’ll go set off the next one over, so the wardens come and deal with this bear.”
“I got it, boss.” Astrix pointed at his jacket, and David looked down. Blood glistened dully in the dawn light.
“Right,” he said. “Tree branch.”
An hour later they were back at their base camp high in the mountains. The sun was fully up, and with the adrenalin of the bear attack worn off, David’s head was throbbing. The tree branch had cracked the goggles against his eyebrow, splitting the skin.
“Bear sensors is so boring,” Astrix was saying. “Imagine a city teaching their kids about rebellion and freedom, and then using surveillance tech to make sure they never acted on it.”
“Sounds like a Rusty idea,” Croy said.
“Ouch,” David said. His needle had slipped a little.
Astrix looked at him in horror. “Speaking of Rusty ideas, I still can’t believe you’re sewing your face back together.”
“Stitches are pre-Rusty tech, actually,” David said. It was an ancient way to close wounds, one that his father had shown him in case he was ever stuck without medspray.
The needle and thread had come from David’s repair kit, and Croy’s handscreen had a front camera, so it was a decent mirror.
David had used just enough med-spray to kill the pain and prevent infection, but not enough to close the wound. Even with his nerves switched off, it was pretty weird sticking a needle into his own face.
But he wanted a record of this accident—a scar.
The cut had been opened by a tree branch, but that would make a pretty boring story. He could also blame a hasty ascent on a hoverboard, one of the most modern and sophisticated pieces of tech around. But really, it was something much more basic and primal that had caused this scar—the vital hunger of a beast, the desire of a human being to not be eaten.
Stitches weren’t as painless as slathering on more med-spray, and were a lot trickier, but his father always said they left a better scar. So old-fashioned was the way to go.
This was a story David might want to tell someday.