Dess strained to push her bike faster, hoping that the batteries in her headlight didn’t totally croak before she made it home. The shuddering little pool of light that traveled just ahead of her had started out pretty dim, and it was fading out like Tinkerbell full of poisoned cake. She should have started home ages ago; the parentals were going to freak that she was out past midnight.
Good work had been done today, though. Dess patted the lump of Geostationary through her coat. Her mind felt clear for the first time in a week, finally purged of the maelstrom of her dreams. At last the equations had done what they always did, resolving into rules and patterns and meaning. Once again her mind had given her the answers.
A frown flickered across Dess’s face. The answers… They seemed fuzzy now. She remembered a pattern of some kind that stretched across Bixby. A base-sixty thing, having to do with minutes and seconds. But why had she been out here riding her bike until after midnight?
Her smile returned. Not to worry. That special Dess-triumphs-again glow was sitting pretty right in the middle of her chest. She couldn’t remember all that clearly what she’d done since leaving school, but that figured. She’d been abstracted, lost in the world of pure math. And the answers were fuzzy because sometimes the really complicated solutions took a few run-throughs before your brain had them down cold.
What was the trick to it again? That’s right, there it was…
“Lovelace,” she said aloud.
A door opened in her mind, and the bitter taste of milky tea flooded into her mouth. She remembered…
“Damn.” The headlight wavered for a few seconds.
The ramshackle house squatting in the center of the dead zone, the old woman, the secret history of Bixby pouring out of her as the sun went down. But like any good secret, Dess had to hide it from the rest of them, especially Melissa.
Then she shivered in the growing cold, remembering what had been bugging her, the reason she’d switched the memories off ten minutes ago, why she wanted to hide them even from herself.
Madeleine had started out crotchety and maybe a bit spaced-out but had gradually become much scarier, even… Melissa-like.
But that wasn’t fair. Even if her story had scared the bejesus out of Dess, the woman wasn’t anything like Melissa. For one thing, growing up in Bixby hadn’t left Madeleine a mental cripple. Somehow she had borne the gift of mind-casting without going nuts. She was definitely sane.
Well, maybe not sane sane. There was the little matter of air-conditioning. Television, Dess could deal with—Madeleine wasn’t the first old person to rag on TV to a slightly nutty extent. (The thought made Dess frown as she wondered if the house had cable or not. Another shiver passed through her—stuck inside for forty-nine years without the Discovery Channel.)
Still, crazy or not, you couldn’t deny that Madeleine spoke from experience. She’d actually been there when the darklings had eliminated a whole generation of midnighters. If she wanted to blame air-conditioning… whatever.
Car headlights were approaching, and Dess pedaled harder. She was keeping to back roads, trying to avoid being seen. It wasn’t curfew that had her nervous but the final part of Madeleine’s story.
When the car passed out of sight, Dess let out a sigh of relief. Her headlight was fading badly now; maybe she should just turn it off. Invisibility might be safer.
The old woman had watched Rex and Melissa for the last sixteen years and Dess for fifteen, always wondering why the darklings hadn’t bothered to pick them off. It wasn’t just their wild-animal indifference or the fact that none of them had ever amounted to much of a threat—not until Jessica had showed up, anyway. Midnighters were good to eat, after all.
But what Madeleine had slowly realized was that the darklings actually wanted a few midnighters around, as long as they were isolated, disorganized, and ignorant of history. Midnighters were useful, in case anything ever happened to the precious halfling. Midnighters could be harvested.
Another pair of headlights appeared in the distance. It was a van, white and generic, the kind of anonymous piece of crap you’d rent for a kidnapping. As it drove closer, the cold Oklahoma wind grew teeth, biting into Dess’s coat and tearing through goose-pimpled flesh straight into her bones.
One of the windows was opening…
The van roared past, an empty beer can clattering on the street behind her.
“Missed!” she called through gritted teeth. “Assholes.”
Her pounding heart gradually slowed, and she reached up and flicked off the headlight. Staying dark was safer after all. Now she really remembered why she had been waiting to think about all this until she got home. It was just too damn spooky on the open road at night.
She murmured the other half of the mind trick: “Ada.”
The door in her consciousness swung closed again, leaving one last memory fading before her mind’s eye. As she had left Madeleine’s house, the old woman had reached out and touched her on the cheek, asking her to say the name of someone important to her from history, and something huge and powerful had surged across Dess’s mind.
A door. That was what it had been—a barrier to protect her new knowledge from Melissa’s prying because what Melissa knew, the darklings would know soon enough. They could taste each other across the desert all too well.
Then the door closed completely, shutting out the terrible thoughts about harvesting and lonely old ladies and air-conditioning, leaving only one imperative: Don’t let Melissa touch you.
Dess laughed. Sure, like Melissa ever touched anyone if she could help it.
She struggled along in the dark for a while. Cars passed, but she ignored them, feeling only the happy glow of math well done, equations resolved into rules and patterns and meanings. Her mind felt clear for the first time in a week, finally purged of the maelstrom of her dreams.
A fallen tree branch snapped under her front wheel, and she cursed. Why exactly was she riding along in the dark?
She switched on her headlight. Dim, but better than nothing.