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. She’d spent all Sunday biking around town, watching Geostationary effortlessly reeling off coordinates, turning Bixby into numbers. What could be better?
She’d 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 she’d 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.
“What’s 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 Rex’s 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 she’d have exact coordinates for both her own house and Rex’s. 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. “Don’t you damn kids know it’s a school day?”
She flinched, then spotted Rex’s 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 he’d 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, Melissa’s 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 they’d had a messy rumble last night. And Melissa’s hair was wet, as if she’d just showered. She wasn’t 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 way—as in literally No Possible Way anything like that had happened.
Jonathan wasn’t saying much, of course, so she answered, “We heard you had some trouble last night.”
Rex chuckled and nodded. “It’s already in the rumor mill? Man, I love this town.”
Dess allowed herself to smile back at him. They really were okay. The worry she’d 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. Weren’t 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 wasn’t 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. She’d 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 aren’t on the way to Jessica’s,” Jonathan said, like he’d just realized that Rex and Melissa weren’t telling them everything. Dess could see that much from their faces. The two were grinning like shoplifters who’d 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.”
Dess’s relief beginning to unravel. “He works for them? How?”
Rex took a deep breath, then launched into the whole story—the 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 they’d seen out in Las Colonias must have kept them up all night—basically too terrified to go to sleep—and 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 hadn’t 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. They’d been hiding themselves somewhere for the last fifty years…
“We’ve got to tell Jessica,” Jonathan said, car keys already in his hand. “Those two could have orders to go after her today.”
“Relax. It’s 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 ivory—it looked like an old domino, just as he’d said, except instead of the dots…
“Huh,” said Dess. It was Jessica’s 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.” Rex’s 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 Rex’s bare skin, Dess noticed). “Tastes like darklings and feels old. Maybe fifty years. There’s probably only one set of these, passed down through the generations.”
“Wait a second. If the halfling’s a human, like you said, why doesn’t 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 couldn’t 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. “That’s 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. “That’s what we have to find out. But I think we can assume they’re the same people who did away with our predecessors. I didn’t find any of our symbols besides Jessica’s, so the rest of us should be careful too.”
“But where have they been hiding?” Dess asked. She turned to Melissa. “Why haven’t you tasted this half-thingie before?”
Melissa answered slowly. “There’s something weird about that house. I can’t mindcast in there for crap. The only times I could hear the guy were after he’d left and just before he got back. It’s some kind of psychic dead zone. It’s 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 Bixby—hiding places. I’ve 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. I’ve been trying to crack the patterns—the way the secret hour is shaped. It’s 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, you’ve 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 woman’s mind before the”—Melissa’s lower lip trembled—“thing got too close.”
“She’s 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 Melissa’s faces. Shared? Something was weirder about the two than just a little post-rumble hysteria.
No possible way, Dess reminded herself.
“We’ll 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 it’s mostly a bunch of numbers, so it’s 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 Gebra—as in algebra—was 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 don’t 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 Jonathan’s thigh a slap. “Come on, Flyboy. We’re going to Darkling Manor.”
He stood, ready to leave, and gave her and Melissa a clueless look. “What’s Dessometrics?”
She smiled. “I’ll tell you on the way.”