“Ada,” Dess said.
She saw the knowledge go. One moment the crumpled house held fascination and promise, the sight of it filling her with intrigue and the thrill of secrecy. A few seconds later it was just another house, its curtained windows signifying nothing, like the scores of other run-down places she’d ridden by on the way here without a second glance.
Except that standing there, not remembering anything, Dess did give it a second glance. The exact geometry of its broken eaves and sagging porch triggered something inside her, a sudden, inexplicable need to speak a name aloud.
“Lovelace,” she whispered.
The door in her mind reopened, and Dess wavered on her feet. The secret history of Bixby flooded back into her mind—the kidnapped seer and hidden survivors, the crepuscular convolution and the battle lost to air-conditioning—along with memories of maps and charts she’d studied here, everything she’d learned from the veiled archive. And rising from this flood of knowledge was the pleasure of remembering that all of it had been revealed to her and her alone.
Dess smiled. Opening and closing the door in her mind was cool. Maybe one more time…
“Quit fooling around out there! You’re giving me a headache.”
Dess jumped at the booming call from the house. What was it about grumpiness and mindcasters?
She walked up the leaf-strewn path and through the screen door without knocking. Getting yelled at counted as being invited in.
“Be careful not to bump your head,” Madeleine said, pulling on a rope that hung from the ceiling. The attic stairway descended, like the gangplank of a flying saucer belonging to aliens who were really into rusty springs. When the bottom step touched the floor, the old woman climbed up with quick, confident steps.
Dess looked dubiously at the loaded tea tray she held.
“Well, come on. Don’t let it get cold! If I can make it up here, surely a young person like you can.”
Dess scowled at the unfair comparison. She hadn’t seen Madeleine carrying anything heavier than a scrolled-up piece of paper. But she placed one foot on the wobbly stair, bringing a tiny complaint from the ancient springs. Another step up and she found her balance, the objects on the tray beginning to chatter like windup teeth.
“Come on, girl! Don’t dawdle.”
Why anyone would want to build a house with an attic here in Oklahoma, Dess didn’t know. It would be a killer heat trap in summer and relentlessly fill up with dust year round. She kept climbing step by step, reaching the top with only one moment of blind terror when her center of gravity shifted, the tray pushing her backward like a heavy hand before relenting and allowing her to proceed.
Once Dess had cleared the hatch, Madeleine lifted the burden from her arms and said, “Been a very long time since I’ve had my tea up here.”
“Gee, I wonder why,” Dess muttered.
But as she took in the attic, her annoyance turned to surprise. Dess had expected a junkyard, like the rest of the house, multiplied by its atticness. But it was almost empty up here, no furniture, nothing except a stack of cushions in one corner. A few shafts of afternoon sun lit the dusty air, shining through chinks in the small, painted-over windows. The beams of the roof met overhead, leaving barely enough space to stand.
With a crouching walk, Madeleine carried the tea tray to the corner with the cushions and began to arrange the dishes, calling out, “This may explain things.” She tossed the rolled-up piece of paper to Dess.
Unscrolling it, Dess immediately recognized the angles of the house, a three-quarter plan drawn back before the place had started to sag. It was like Madeleine’s map of Bixby, marked with the eddies and swirls of midnight, but scaled to show incredible detail. Dess frowned and pulled out Geostationary, checking the digits with the highest precision, effortlessly converting the plan’s quaint feet and inches to the device’s meters and centimeters.
She looked around the attic again, seeing its dimensions clearly now, and her eyes fell on the corner occupied by the tea tray. Of course, just there, where Madeleine had placed her own cushion…
“This is where you mindcast from!” Dess cried.
“I knew your grasp of the obvious wouldn’t fail you.”
Dess ignored the jibe and stared at the diagram, sinking into its geometries. No wonder they had built an attic onto the house! This was the spot from which the crepuscular contortion opened onto the rest of midnight, a one-way mirror behind which Madeleine was hidden but from which she could observe without revealing herself and maybe even…
“Hey, did you help out my friends night before last? Put something in their heads?”
Madeleine paused, a cup half poured before her, and shot a cold glance across the attic. “It couldn’t be avoided.”
Dess raised her eyebrows. “Uh, I think they appreciated it, actually. Or would have if they’d known what the hell was going on. Rex and Melissa were dead meat until Jess showed up.”
“Agreed. Come here and sit down.” Madeleine poured out more tea. “Milk, no sugar, correct?”
“Sure,” Dess said, making her crouching way to her cushion, the scent of tea turning her stomach. Some mind reader. Madeleine didn’t even know she hated tea, even up here in mindcaster heaven, the mother of all psychic duck blinds. Although maybe because Dess was up here herself, her mind was shielded too. Which was a reassuring thought.
“To reach out that far, during midnight…” Madeleine shook her head. “They’ll have tasted me.”
“Melissa sure did. Jonathan and Jessica too.”
“Not them, you simpleton. The old ones in the desert.”
“Jeez, sorry.” Grumpier and grumpier.
“They’ll be looking for me now.” Madeleine looked up and caught her eye, deadly serious.
Dess nodded. No wonder she was in such a crappy mood. Rex and Melissa’s little foul-up at Constanza’s had cost Madeleine her psychic cover. Forty-nine years of secrecy blown because they hadn’t bothered to leave a clear phone message.
“Yeah, those two don’t have their heads screwed on very tight these days,” Dess said. “They’ve been doing the psychic nasty with each other, which has got them acting all… weird.”
Madeleine shot her a glance. “I know about that too, of course. And thinking there’s something wrong with a mind-caster touching another midnighter is a bunch of old chicken-fried baloney. It’s helping Melissa gain control.” She shook her head. “If only I could have guided them, they might have begun long ago.”
Dess frowned, remembering that Madeleine had touched her as well, reaching out casually as she’d left here Tuesday night. A few seconds contact between fingers and cheek was all it had taken, and the mental garage-door opener that hid her new knowledge from Melissa had been installed.
Dess watched the milk swirling into her tea—a collision of two galaxies, one light, one dark. “Well, you weren’t guiding anyone; you were hiding.”
She looked up, expecting a tongue-lashing.
“Indeed,” was all Madeleine had to say.
Dess took a drink of tea: a burst of acid combined with an unsettling hint of flowers. She pursed her lips. Why did she always wind up drinking the stuff? Darn peer pressure.
Madeleine stirred her tea, the tinkle of metal and porcelain filling the attic. “They’ll be much more fearful of you now, if they suspect you’re no longer orphans. They may move against you sooner than I had expected.”
“Move against us,” Dess repeated dryly. Rex kept saying that too, like this was a chess game.
“Yes, that’s why I called you here today.”
“Called me…?” Dess snorted. “I had the wacky notion that coming here was my idea.” Last night Jessica and Jonathan had shown up during the secret hour with a stack of Aerospace Oklahoma geology reports, including a detailed map of the planned runway. During study period this morning Dess had suddenly realized she should cross-reference Jessica’s information with the archive here.
But maybe Madeleine had put that inspiration in her mind, just like she’d shown Jonathan the route to Constanza’s.
Dess frowned. If this was a chess game, she had just been demoted to pawn. Which sucked. The whole reason she’d worked so hard on coordinates and midnight was to have her own thing, a piece of midnight separate from the other four, just as they had their private couple realities.
She took a long drink of tea, its acid taste suiting her mood.
“Are all you mindcasters so manipulative?”
Madeleine raised an eyebrow. “Manipulative?”
“Uh, yeah. Maybe the darklings don’t even care about you anymore. Maybe you just hang out up here because you enjoy pulling people’s strings. And occasionally—reluctantly—reaching out to help us.”
“Help you? I don’t merely help you, young lady. I made you.”
Dess blinked. “Come again?”
Madeleine placed her teacup and saucer firmly onto the tray, with a look so intimidating that Dess shifted on her cushion. Could a mindcaster really do anything to you with her touch? she wondered. Madeleine had installed a mental block in her brain with a brush of her fingers—could she just reach across the tray and hit the erase switch, leaving her a dribbling idiot? Dess’s fingers flexed, reaching for the comforting weight of Geostationary in her jacket pocket.
“How many seconds in a day, Dess?” Madeleine said softly.
“Eighty-six thousand, four hundred,” she replied automatically. “Duh.”
“And how many new students at Bixby High in the last three years?”
Dess shrugged. “I don’t know… ten?”
“And how many of those happen to have been midnighters?”
A shock went through Dess. Two… Jessica and Jonathan.
“Oh my God.” Her head began to spin, calculating the odds. It all depended on how close you had to be born to straight-up midnight to see the secret hour. But even if a person born within a full minute on either side became a midnighter, there’d still be only one in every 720 people, not two out of ten. And if you had to be born within a second or so, the odds went soaring to about forty thousand to one, which made the chances of two midnighters showing up in a row around 1.6 billion to one, in which case two out of ten was… pretty darned unlikely.
Dess realized with growing horror that she’d done the thing she hated most, ground her teeth over every day, and constantly railed against whenever anyone would listen…
She hadn’t done the math.
“So much for my famous grasp of the obvious,” Dess muttered.
She thought of Jessica’s mother and her lucky new job at Aerospace Oklahoma, Jonathan’s father and his trouble with the police that had forced him to move from Pittsburgh… like anyone would move to Bixby to get away from cops.
She glared across the tea tray. “You’ve been jerking people around.”
“And what about us three?” Dess continued. “All born in Bixby within a year of each other? That must be a stochastic fluke right up there with the dinosaurs getting beamed by a meteor!”
“I have to be very quiet at midnight,” Madeleine said softly. “But years ago I could cast freely during the rest of the day. When a woman is in labor, her mind is very open to suggestion. If she pushes at just the right moment…”
Dess felt sick to her stomach. Pawn didn’t even cover it. She took every mean thing she’d ever thought about Melissa back because right here, right now, she was sitting and having tea with the biggest queen bitch of all time.
“It only works one time in a hundred,” Madeleine said. “After my successes, I was exhausted.”
“But Jonathan and Jessica moved here from hundreds of miles away… Are you saying you can mess with people all the way in Chicago?”
“From within this contortion I can feel potential midnighters all over the continent, so I knew Jessica was special. And at my age I no longer need to touch daylighters to change their minds. But I did the real work here in Bixby, making sure that certain executives at Aerospace Oklahoma formed a good opinion of Jessica’s mother.”
Dess narrowed her eyes. “Didn’t her father lose his job about the same time?”
“He was about to.” Madeleine snorted. “It doesn’t take a mindcaster to make a company called sockmonkeys dot com go out of business.”
Dess’s skin was still crawling; the feeling of being manipulated… created by someone made her want to flee right down the rickety stairs and out the door. But she had to ask one more question: “Why?”
“To save Rex and the lore.”
“What do you mean, save Rex?”
“He’s older than you and Melissa, and he was born naturally at midnight, a seer. He was my chance to create a new generation. Alone, Rex would have drifted off into insanity and irrelevancy. He needed the rest of you to lead and to protect him from the darkness.”
Dess remembered Rex’s tales of seeing marks that no one else could see, thinking he was crazy and that the frozen blue world was a dream. She recalled her own awful isolation before Melissa had finally found her. A whole lifetime of being a lone midnighter would have been terrible.
Of course, Madeleine would know all about facing the secret hour alone…
“So you yanked around the rest of us just for Rex?”
“Mindcasters have always recruited midnighters from far away, Dess,” she said. “It has been done this way for thousands of years. The ancient tribes would send war parties to kidnap young children with the gift. And in the last century there would be telegrams with offers of employment. My own mother was brought here as a schoolteacher when I was an infant. This is a dust bowl, Dess. It has never been a populous place.”
“Oh.” She sipped, her mind still reeling. “I just hadn’t… done the math.”
There was a long silence, in which Dess concentrated on not feeling like a puppet. Bixby was so small—of course they’d have to bring in midnighters from outside. Otherwise you’d never have more than one every few decades, feebly poking around the secret hour alone, unsure if any of it was real or not.
Letting her mind drift, Dess found herself disturbed by the faint but growing possibility that she was starting to like hot tea. She wondered if Madeleine was reaching out with her mind right now, changing the neurons in Dess’s head one by one until her taste buds fit the right configuration.
Or maybe drinking tea was like discovering some horrible new fact, and like bad news: eventually you just got used to it.
“So what should we do to survive?” she said after a while. “I mean, I wouldn’t want to waste your sixteen-year investment.”
“That’s the spirit,” Madeleine said. “And my request is very simple: you have to end the threat of the Grayfoots forever.”
Dess snorted. “Oh, is that all?”
“Easier than you might think, Desdemona. Anathea is wasting away.”
“Why? She only lives one hour a day, so fifty years has only been a couple of years for her, right?”
“They took her too young. The human half of her body is being consumed by its darkling side. When she dies, the darklings will have no way to communicate with their human allies. And with the flame-bringer here in Bixby, the darklings wouldn’t dare move against any of us. I might even be free again.”
Dess’s eyes widened. Maybe this had been Madeleine’s real motivation all along. It wasn’t about saving Rex; it was about raising her own private army to free her from the castle of crepuscular contortions.
“So we just wait for the halfling to die?” she asked.
Madeleine shook her head. “They will try to make another, with my Rex. But you must make sure they never do, Dess.”
She swallowed. “How?”
Madeleine tipped her head back, eyes closing. For a moment she looked like Melissa when she was casting—her expression sensuous and yet inhumanly distant. “Joining a human being with a darkling is a tricky business. The place where Anathea was transformed must be special, as unique as the spot where we sit now. You must take Jessica there and raze it to the ground with the power of the flamebringer. Once white light has burned there, it will be ruined.” She opened her eyes. “They’ll never make another halfling again.”
“Okay,” Dess said. “Tell me where.”
Madeleine shrugged. “I’m afraid it isn’t on the old maps, and it’s as hidden as we are here. You’ll have to find it yourself.”
Dess chewed her lip, remembering the maps and folders that Jessica and Jonathan had brought over the night before, the black bolt of the runway jutting into the desert, its simple geometry mixing with the swirls and eddies of midnight.
And suddenly, without knowing precisely where her target lay, Dess realized what had gotten the darklings in such a panic.
“You know about the runway?” she asked.
Madeleine nodded, smiling slowly and regally, her expression like that of a cat.
“Why, Desdemona. Isn’t it a pleasant feeling when your grasp manages to exceed the obvious?”
On the way home, Dess wondered why she was helping Madeleine.
The woman had yanked her around like a dog on a leash, manipulating her dreams without asking. She’d boarded up a portion of Dess’s memory and nailed it shut to protect herself from the darklings. And she’d messed with Dess’s mother when she was at her most vulnerable, prodding her to give birth at the exact moment of midnight.
And she’d done it to hundreds of others too, a host of 11:59s and 12:01s that hadn’t quite hit the bull’s-eye, all to build her darling Rex a posse.
A car passed, kicking up gravel that pinged through the spokes of Dess’s bike. Her shadow was long in front of her, the last rays of warmth on her back bleeding away. It was going to be another dark, cold ride home.
Thinking of home, Dess wondered for a moment what her life would be like if she’d been one of those 11:59s. Would she know numbers like she did? Maybe polymaths were people who were good at math anyway, who just happened to be born at midnight. But without the secret hour, it wouldn’t be the same. Sure, she could still build bridges, design computer games, or get rockets into space, but in normal time math was just a tool for engineering. And something beautiful on its own, of course, a frozen music of values and ratios and patterns.
But in the blue time math kicked ass.
Being born without that would’ve sucked. She’d be just another kid who lived beside a trailer park. Sure, one who got easy A’s in trig and who knew that one day she was going to leave this crappy town behind and make lots of money in the stock market or something.
But she would never have forged a weapon like Resplendently Scintillating Illustrations and slain a darkling with it. In the daylight world there were no darklings to slay.
Maybe that was why she was helping Madeleine. She might be a manipulative bitch, but Dess couldn’t imagine living in any other reality than the one those manipulations had created. In a way, Dess owed the old mindcaster something.
Like her life, such as it was.
So at the door, when Madeleine had asked Dess if she could touch her again, she’d said yes.
“Just a little piece of knowledge, protection in case Melissa tries to touch you. Something to throw in her face.”
Dess stopped pedaling, her bike wobbling. She let it roll to a stop, concentrating on the ground and breathing hard, trying to keep her stomach under control. But in the end she let the bike fall and ran into the roadside grass, puking up lunch and stomach acid at the memory that Madeleine had given her.
Had they really done that? Back when they were twelve years old?
Dess shook her head, tearing up a handful of dry spear grass and wiping her mouth on it. Her stomach was mostly empty now, but she didn’t want to deal with this all the way home. It was almost dark and the wind was picking up.
“Ada,” she said, and the memory slipped mercifully away. She could feel it just out of reach, however, ready for if she ever needed to burn Rex and Melissa to the ground.