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10

12:14 p.m.

DESSOMETRICS

Dess stole glances at her new toy as they drove. The shifting numbers soothed her nerves, reminding her that every problem had a solution, every missing person a location, and every spot on earth a set of delicious coordinates.

Her mind was still buzzing from the weekend. Whatever the others had managed to get mixed up in, Dess had enjoyed herself. Shed spent all Sunday biking around town, watching Geostationary effortlessly reeling off coordinates, turning Bixby into numbers. What could be better?

Shed lived here all her life, but for the first time, Dess felt that she really knew the town, could see its patterns, could map its streets and buildings in her mind. The world shed grown up in was finally inventoried and enumerated; Dess had done the math at last.

Meanwhile the rest of them had spent the weekend being stalked, trying to stalk the stalkers, and getting themselves cornered by darklings. That was what always seemed to happen when she let them out of her sight.

Whats that thing? Jonathan said, glancing down at the GPS receiver in her hands.

She jerked it out of his sight. Nothing.

He just chuckled, biting into his third sandwich. Okay.

They turned onto Rexs street, which ran almost due east, and Dess snuck a peek at the north-south numbers stabilizing, the east-west value dropping slowly. After this visit shed have exact coordinates for both her own house and Rexs. Maybe there was some pattern in the location of midnighters homes.

The car halted, and Dess forced herself to shove the receiver into her coat pocket. She would let Rex in on her discoveries soon enough, but she wanted the math firmly in her head before he cluttered it with his messy lore. Math was pure, but history was always full of weird little gaps and contradictions.

The sagging porch was empty, the creepy old dad nowhere in sight. Maybe Rex was keeping him inside these days.

Halfway across the threadbare lawn, a croaking voice erupted from the house. Dont you damn kids know its a school day?

She flinched, then spotted Rexs face through the front screen door. Not a bad imitation of his father, she had to admit. It was good enough to have sent chills down her spine.

He came through the door, laughing at the scare hed given them. Melissa followed, and Dess peeled her hand off the GPS receiver in her pocket, resolving not to think about it. Amid the clamor of Bixby High, Melissas mind reading was almost as useless as a cell phone at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. But here in thinly populated suburbia, Dess would have to watch her thoughts.

So what brings you two to my humble abode?

Dess frowned. Rex seemed weirdly upbeat, especially if theyd had a messy rumble last night. And Melissas hair was wet, as if shed just showered. She wasnt in headphones and was even managing to smile behind her sunglasses. If it were any other two people Dess shivered and reminded herself that Melissa might be listening. Plus there was no wayas in literally No Possible Way anything like that had happened.

Jonathan wasnt saying much, of course, so she answered, We heard you had some trouble last night.

Rex chuckled and nodded. Its already in the rumor mill? Man, I love this town.

Dess allowed herself to smile back at him. They really were okay. The worry shed been fighting not to feel, that two of her friends might at last have run out of luck in the secret hour, finally evaporated into relief.

What the hell were you doing out there, anyway? Dumbasses. Werent you supposed to be in town?

Yeah, Jonathan added bravely. We looked for you all hour.

Rex smiled and waved them over to a quartet of rusting lawn chairs. They sat there together, like a bunch of old farts on a porch.

I tasted something on the way, Melissa said, and we wound up chasing it.

Sounds like it wound up chasing you, Dess observed.

Melissa nodded, drawing her jacket around her, though it wasnt that cold out here in the sun. Yeah, I guess it did.

I hope you had some decent metal with you, Dess said.

Rex shrugged. Well, they kind of caught us by surprise. But we improvised. And Categorically Unjustifiable Appropriation scared off the last of the bad guys.

Dess smiled, delighted to hear it. Shed always thought the old hubcap was one of her best. It had fallen off a 1989 (which was 153 x 13) Mercedes-Benz (which was a tridecalogism, if you counted the hyphen) on 1264 Farm Road (1+2 + 6 + 4 = duh, 13). Obviously destined to kick ass.

Hang on, Las Colonias arent on the way to Jessicas, Jonathan said, like hed just realized that Rex and Melissa werent telling them everything. Dess could see that much from their faces. The two were grinning like shoplifters whod made it out the door and around the corner, pockets bulging.

No. But I smelled this guy from miles away, Melissa said. Turned out to be your stalker, Jonathan.

Not only that, Rex added, but he apparently works for the darklings.

Desss relief beginning to unravel. He works for them? How?

Rex took a deep breath, then launched into the whole storythe thoughts about Jessica that Melissa had overheard, Darkling Manor and the dominoes, the stalker and his girlfriend, the retreat across the street (Rex showing off the dinky cut that had produced the famous blood), then the appearance of the gruesome half-thing, and finally the rumble. Melissa added her own commentary and contradictions for the first half, then mostly just sat and shivered, eyeballs twitching beneath closed lids.

As Dess listened, fascinated and faintly sickened, she began to realize why the two of them seemed so giggly today. They were actually still scared, piss-in-your-pants scared, right down to their bones. What theyd seen out in Las Colonias must have kept them up all nightbasically too terrified to go to sleepand finally, after a few fitful hours of unconsciousness, they were as she saw them now: dog tired and still pretty much hysterical.

No wonder they hadnt showed up at school. Rex was in no shape for the real world, and Melissa At Bixby High her brain would have melted like the wicked witch in a car wash.

When the story was over, Dess sat back and let her mind wander, stroking Geostationary. Horrifying as it all was, this little tale promised new data for her coordinates project. Maybe these darkling groupies, whoever they were, already knew the shape of the secret hour. Theyd been hiding themselves somewhere for the last fifty years

Weve got to tell Jessica, Jonathan said, car keys already in his hand. Those two could have orders to go after her today.

Relax. Its not very likely. Rex had his smug smile on. After a dramatic pause he reached into his pocket, pulled out something, and opened his hand. Resting on his palm was a small rectangle of yellow ivoryit looked like an old domino, just as hed said, except instead of the dots

Huh, said Dess. It was Jessicas tag, the lore symbol for flame-bringer.

I took the liberty of stealing this and a few others. Like a set of dominoes for spelling out human names, which must have been used to tell the groupies who Jessica was. Rexs smile got even smugger. There are hundreds of symbols. It should take the groupies a while to notice that a few are missing. In the meantime the darklings are going to be mighty frustrated if they try to communicate anything about Jessica.

Melissa rubbed one finger across the domino (perilously close to touching Rexs bare skin, Dess noticed). Tastes like darklings and feels old. Maybe fifty years. Theres probably only one set of these, passed down through the generations.

Wait a second. If the halflings a human, like you said, why doesnt she just write down what the darklings want to say? Dess said, the image of the creature that passed through her mind giving her a shudder.

Rex shook his head. Even through her, the darklings couldnt think in anything as new as English. The lore symbols are ten thousand years old, older than any language spoken today, His voice grew soft. Thats why they had to use a seer.

Jonathan spoke up, still clutching the rusty arms of his chair. But who are these guys? Where did they come from?

Rex shrugged. Thats what we have to find out. But I think we can assume theyre the same people who did away with our predecessors. I didnt find any of our symbols besides Jessicas, so the rest of us should be careful too.

But where have they been hiding? Dess asked. She turned to Melissa. Why havent you tasted this half-thingie before?

Melissa answered slowly. Theres something weird about that house. I cant mindcast in there for crap. The only times I could hear the guy were after hed left and just before he got back. Its some kind of psychic dead zone. Its like the walls eat thought.

Location, location, location, Rex murmured.

At those magic words another shudder passed through Dess, one of excitement. Take me there.

Together all three of them said, What?

Take me there, right now. She pulled the GPS receiver from her pocket, waved it in front of them. I knew there had to be places like that in Bixbyhiding places. Ive been having these dreams

She came to a halt. They were all staring at her as if her mouth had started to foam.

Dess groaned. Listen, this little gadget turns places into numbers, coordinates. Ive been trying to crack the patternsthe way the secret hour is shaped. Its like topology Okay, blank faces on that one. But better. Oh, screw it. Just take me there and I can figure out how it all works. She hissed through her teeth at their empty expressions. I just need a paradigm!

Rex was the first to utter a sound, a low, soft sigh. Well, youve been busy.

She rolled her eyes. Time for a seer-knows-best lecture.

But you may not have to go there, Dess.

I managed to cast around a little bit in the womans mind before theMelissas lower lip trembledthing got too close.

Shes shared some of what she saw with me, Rex said. We may have the numbers you need.

Eh? Dess felt her throat constrict at the expressions on Rex and Melissas faces. Shared? Something was weirder about the two than just a little post-rumble hysteria.

No possible way, Dess reminded herself.

Well try to write some of it down for you. Rex shrugged. It looks like plans for something being built, something that has to do with the halfling. But its mostly a bunch of numbers, so its all Greek to me.

Arabic, Dess said absently. Melissa was giving her this look.

What? Rex asked.

Numbers are Arabic, moron. She tore her gaze away from Melissa. All the old math is. Al Gebraas in algebrawas this Arab guy a thousand years ago. Trying not to think any more about what had passed between the two of them, Dess imagined having a whole branch of mathematics named after her. Dessology? Desstochastics?

Dessometrics? Melissa said aloud, a smile playing on her lips.

Dess shivered. Busted.

She waved Geostationary. I dont care what you got from her. Or how you shared it. This will give me everything I need. Just take me there.

Rex and Melissa looked at each other, and Dess allowed herself to feel a little burst of triumph as their expressions revealed absolute horror. They really were still terrified, all the way down to the marrow.

Rex shook his head. Someone might have noticed the Ford. It kind of sticks out in that neighborhood. And we might have left fingerprints

Dess snickered at the feeble excuses and gave Jonathans thigh a slap. Come on, Flyboy. Were going to Darkling Manor.

He stood, ready to leave, and gave her and Melissa a clueless look. Whats Dessometrics?

She smiled. Ill tell you on the way.


9 11.10 a.m. MONDAY BLUES | Touching Darkness | 11 1:45 p.m. MORE FLATLAND



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