With a week to go before the operation, Tally and Shay have still not mended their friendship. Lonely and bored, Tally sits at her window and looks across at New Pretty Town, reflecting on the operation. For the first time, she feels some level of reticence about the impending change in her life, and a sense of nostalgia in looking back at her time spent as an ugly. Soon, Shay surprises Tally by sneaking in through her window, and they make up. Shay asks Tally to join her in running away to “The Smoke,” a settlement even farther out than the ruins, where David lives. She admits that she had been planning to escape alongside her prior group of friends some months ago, but chickened out at the last minute and was left behind. After her argument with Tally, she reconsidered, citing Tally’s accusation of immaturity as the catalyst that made her rethink her future. Tally, surprised and dismayed by her friend’s wishes, refuses Shay. Shay departs, leaving Tally with a coded note containing a set of directions, should Tally change her mind.
On the morning of her operation, Tally is asked by a new ugly why she looks so sad. She finds she cannot explain her mixed emotions to this younger child—the regret she feels at failing to convince Shay to stay, the sadness at leaving behind her childhood, the wish that she didn’t have to change herself to garner others’ love and respect. Her dark mood dissolves, however, when she is picked up by a middle pretty for the operation. But when she arrives at the surgery center, she is left waiting for an unusually long time, until a strange man comes in who stirs fear in Tally’s heart. He looks beautiful, but in a terrifying way, like a predator.
The strange man takes Tally to Special Circumstances—a facility entirely populated by people who look as terrifying as he does, devoted to maintaining peace within the city, like a secret police force. There, she meets another of his kind—Dr. Cable.
Dr. Cable cruelly questions Tally about the whereabouts of Shay and her friends, believing Tally to be hiding information. She asks Tally to help find Shay, and when Tally refuses, she tells Tally that as long as she refuses to help them, she will never be pretty.
Back at the dorms, Tally receives a visit from her parents, Sol and Ellie. It comes as a surprise to Tally that they know about Special Circumstances, and even more of a surprise that they believe it is for the best for Tally to help Special Circumstances by finding Shay, so the two can become pretty and get on with life. Tally finds her father’s blind faith to be jarring. He has no idea what life outside the city can be like, she realizes.
Tally also receives a visit from Peris, who is worried and confused that she hasn’t joined him in New Pretty Town yet. She learns from Peris that the people who work at Special Circumstances are called Specials, and that having met one garners one social clout as a pretty. Peris, too, urges Tally to give the Specials what they want, so they can be pretty and popular together. Tally, seduced by his wounded beauty, gives in. She sends a message to Dr. Cable: she is willing to help.
However, when Tally speaks again with Dr. Cable, she discovers that she is expected to make the journey out to the Smoke herself, pretending that she has had a change of heart, and to betray the location of the secret settlement to the Specials. Only Tally can decode the instructions of Shay’s note, Dr. Cable claims. She gives Tally a heart-shaped locket that will only respond to her eye print, which she is to activate when she arrives at the Smoke. Tally balks at this task, but finally agrees to do it when Dr. Cable forces her to look at her own reflection, projected onto the wallscreen, and tells her this is her final chance—if she doesn’t want to look ugly for the rest of her life.
Tally sets off to find the Smoke using Shay’s coded note. The first line is pretty clear: she is to take the rollercoaster past straight the gap in the tracks. But when she follows the direction of the gap, veering away from the rest of the coaster, Tally is perplexed again. She is supposed to “find one that’s long and flat,” but one of what? A track, she discovers, happening upon some old train tracks that stretch beyond the ruins.
Tally follows the tracks and comes upon the ocean, a landmark which correlates with the next line in Shay’s note. At this point, she is supposed to “watch for breaks.” Tally doesn’t know what this means until she almost falls into a chasm between rocks, where the track is spanned by a broken bridge. After her near-death experience, Tally is rattled and takes a break to rest. Food and water sharpen her wits; she finds a way to hike around the chasm.
Soon, she comes upon a second chasm, foreshadowed by the line of Shay’s note that reads, “At the second make the worst mistake.” Tally puzzles over what the worst mistake could possibly be. Everything is dangerous out here. She goes to sleep and dreams that she is flying on her own, no hoverboard. That is, until she falls into a deep rift in the cliffs and drowns. She wakes, screaming her defiance, to the impending night and the vast ocean.
Tally must find a way across the chasm to continue her journey. She decides to follow the chasm as it dips down on her hoverboard, hoping to find iron deposits in the cliffs to keep her aloft. She goes too far and the hoverboard loses power beneath her. As she was in her dream, Tally is in free-fall.
Thankfully, the iron deposits in the water at the foot of the cliffs catch her. This, Tally now realizes, is what Shay meant by “make the worst mistake.”
She follows the next instruction, which indicates that she must travel for four days. Coming upon a forked river, Tally realizes that when the note says she must “take the side you despise,” it means that she should take a right, as this is the side of her face she never uses in the appearance modification game she and Shay played. This smaller tributary narrows as it climbs into the mountains. Tally disembarks from her hoverboard, ready to search for the “firebug eyes” mentioned in the following line. No such luck. Tally beds down for the night in the middle of a vast field of beautiful white flowers.
She wakes to a vast fire devouring the picturesque landscape. Tally mounts her hoverboard and flies above the fire, coming to a hover directly above the river. From there, she can see that there is a helicopter overhead, purposefully spreading the fire. She is knocked from her board by a gust of wind and falls into the river. She sees that the helicopter has landed and people are disembarking. As they rescue her from the churning water, she can see that they are wearing masks that give them bug-like eyes.
Tally and Shay’s final argument reinforces two central thematic binaries in the novel. Tally believes that “it is wrong to live in nature, unless you want to live like an animal.” To her, to live outside society’s constraints is to be uncivilized. In contrast, Shay feels that nature means freedom. It means being able to think for oneself, and live according to one’s own rules.
Tally scoffs at Shay’s view. She doesn’t think a person can “beat evolution," by which she means, Shay will never escape the tyranny of beauty. Her unconventional beliefs won’t help her survive. As far as Shay is concerned, to become a pretty and live in the city is tantamount to eschewing personal authenticity.
Tally’s glorification of beauty is complicated when she learns about the Specials. Their appearance, though engineered to be aesthetically appealing, engenders fear rather than love. That beauty can terrorize as well as lionize, is a new idea for her. Being relegated to her old life at the dorms is psychological torture for Tally, who realizes that if she doesn’t undergo the operation, she will spend her life as a social pariah. Consistent with her state of mind, she once again describes the sunset as “cat vomit.” Tally’s realization is underscored by the visits she receives from her parents and from Peris, neither of whom can fathom another way of life. She feels that the choice she is being offered is no choice at all; if she doesn’t betray Shay, she will have no life of her own.
At the Specials' behest, Tally must live according to the whims of social, behavioral, and natural structures larger than herself. While flying through the ruins on her search for Shay, she feels as if she is “something caught in the wind,” which, in this circumstance, she quite literally is. The nature metaphors continue, as Tally compares Shay’s disappearance to that of the roller coaster track; both left Tally in free-fall.
As she travels further away from the city, Tally finds unexpected joy in the natural world. Sometimes, she feels dwarfed by the towering mountains—her life smaller in scale and significance than she ever realized—but other times, she feels awakened to her own resourcefulness.
Shay’s instruction that Tally must take the side she despises when she reaches the fork in the river operates on two symbolic levels. First, it refers to the side of Tally’s face that she never uses in her morphological games. To get to the Smoke, Tally must choose to champion the ugly side of herself. Second, it references Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, a poem frequently used to describe the fork in one’s path when one is faced with a difficult decision. Though one of the paths is more-frequently traveled—the one that is wide and easy to ford—it can make all the difference to choose the road less traveled, if that is what is in one’s heart. Thus, when Tally chooses the smaller tributary, she is making a decision to dissent from the masses, and indeed from her own previous inclinations.