WEAPONS OF MATH DESTRUCTION
“What’s base sixty again?”
“It’s like base ten, except the ones place goes up to fifty-nine, and a hundred’s worth thirty-six hundred.”
“Thirty-six hundred,” Dess repeated. “Sixty squared, silly.”
Jessica looked down at the shield, an elegant spiral snipped from the side of a trash can and shaped to wrap around the wrist. It was for Jonathan, a sort of wing to help him with midair maneuvers. Numbers ringed the edge, but not the normal Arabic kind. They were Phoenician numerals, simple strokes like l’s clustered with sideways V’s, organized into something that Dess kept calling “base sixty.”
Jessica pushed a pencil toward her. “Just write it down; I’ll copy.”
Dess rolled her eyes but put the pencil to paper, the figures spewing from its point as fast as thread from a sewing machine.
Jessica ran her fingers across the wing, anxious to get working again. This afternoon she’d discovered that she enjoyed soldering, loved watching the pinpoint of heat turn wire into drops of molten metal, and didn’t even mind the puffs of smoke that smelled like a cross between new car and old bonfire.
Hanging out with Dess was cool.
On the way here Jessica had been a little nervous about spending the night with the polymath. The only times they’d hung out were in study period or the secret hour. She had no idea what Dess did for fun in normal time. The bus ride had taken forever, and the neighborhood they’d wound up in…
Maybe neighborhood wasn’t really the word for it. It was mostly trailers, like the temps at school, the double-wide kind you saw lumbering down the highway plastered with orange hazard triangles. But resting on cinder blocks as these were, hooked up to pipes and wires like hospital patients, they didn’t look like they would ever move again.
Dess lived in a real house, although something about it didn’t feel completely solid. When the wind blew, which it did pretty constantly out here, the cold penetrated the walls, the whole frame creaking like a ship in rough seas. The floors rang with a hollow sound as they walked.
But Dess’s room was fascinating. Dess made things. Metal constructions cluttered every surface and hung from the ceiling, welded clumps of scrap iron and weightless filigrees of paper clips and thumbtacks. The deep purple walls were covered with watercolor paintings and a big blackboard scrawled with calculations in red chalk.
“That’s you!” Jessica had said when they’d walked in. A self-portrait of Dess with longer hair hung on one wall—black, white, and gray Legos fitted together to form the blocky image.
On a long bench crowded with incomplete weapons and a soldering iron, Jessica saw a mechanical ballerina clothed in black, its gears spilling out across the wood.
“And that’s Ada Lovelace,” Dess said, then winced, as if saying the name had given her a headache. “She was the first computer programmer, back before they had computers.”
“That must have been tricky.”
Dess shrugged. “Imaginary computers are better, anyway. I’ve messed around with the ones at school. They seem mostly to worry about punctuation.”
Jessica frowned. “Mine doesn’t.”
Dess’s eyes widened. “You’ve got a computer?”
“Yeah. My dad was always bringing them home, back when he had a job.”
“Whoa.” Dess nodded slowly, as if stunned by the revelation. Jessica got the same uncomfortable feeling she’d had at Rex’s house on Sunday—she’d never felt rich before coming to Bixby.
She picked up the soldering iron to escape the awkward moment. “So this is where the magic happens, huh?”
“Yeah.” Dess smiled. “You know, Rex and Melissa blew all their weapons the other night, and I’m supposed to make more. You know how to solder?”
Jessica shook her head. When she’d first fallen into the secret hour, the three of them had given her a crash course on metals and tridecalogisms, mindcasting, and antidarkling numbers. But she didn’t really know how the angles of a thirteen-pointed star warded off slithers, or which alloys the darklings were most scared of, or what made a weapon powerful other than its name.
Maybe it was about time she learned more about how this stuff really worked.
“Not a clue. Show me.”
They had worked all afternoon, absorbed in the smell of solder and tungsten, ignoring the sounds of Dess’s parents coming home. Her mother had finally knocked on the door to call them to dinner, and they’d eaten quickly and in silence while Dess’s father steadily drank beer and watched the living room TV over Jessica’s shoulder. She could feel Dess wanting to get back into her room, back into the safe space of numbers and constructions that she had assembled out of the junk around her.
But as she ate, Jessica began to notice Dess’s touches in the rest of the house. The lights all had dimmer switches, there were extra phone jacks and electrical sockets in every room, and the kitchen windows were colored with stained glass in beautiful antidarkling patterns. After dinner Dess’s father had asked about the latest credit card bill, and she’d launched into a long explanation about transferred balances and how they wouldn’t have to pay for another month.
He smiled and said, “That’s my girl.”
Dess beamed for a moment, as proud as a kid with straight A’s. And then the parentals had gone to bed incredibly early.
“They work Saturdays,” Dess explained.
“My mom does too.”
Then they’d hit the soldering irons again, the room silent save for the hiss of metal melting. Rex called at about nine to make sure everything was in readiness, but Jessica was so engrossed she hardly listened. The shield for Jonathan was slowly taking shape, its decoration forming a pattern that had seeped into her mind over the slow repetition of tiny marks. Even the base-sixty thing didn’t give her a headache anymore, as long as she didn’t think too hard about it.
She was lost in the numbers when, about an hour later, the phone rang again.
“Jeez, Rex, wake up my parents,” Dess answered, then a puzzled look came over her face. “Melissa…?”
There was a long pause, and Jessica could hear the girl’s voice from the other end, frantic and stumbling as she rushed through some story.
It didn’t sound at all like Melissa.
“Okay, we will. See you soon.” Dess hung up the phone, dumbstruck.
Jessica leaned back from her soldering iron, eyes stinging from the smoke. “Who was that?”
“Melissa. You’ve got to call Jonathan. Tell him to get his ass over here now.” Dess thrust the phone toward her. “Oh, man.”
Dess shook her head, as if unable to believe her words: “Rex is gone.”
“Taken. His house was broken into, and he’s gone. And he left a message for Melissa: they got him.” She shoved the phone firmly into Jessica’s hand. “Call Jonathan. We need him now. Melissa was at a pay phone. She’s already halfway here.”
Jessica looked at the phone, the base-ten numerals on its buttons momentarily mysterious to her. She dialed Jonathan’s number with trembling fingers.
He answered after one ring.
“Come to Dess’s… quick. Rex is gone.”
“Jessica? Gone where?”
“Kidnapped.” She looked up into Dess’s wide eyes for confirmation and found her stunned gaze returned.
“Rex was kidnapped? By who?”
“Just come here. Fast. I need you. Please…”
“Okay. I’ll be there as fast as I can.” He hung up.
“Lovelace,” Dess was muttering. “Lovelace. Listen, Jessica? You’ve got to do something for me when Melissa gets here.”
Jessica stared at the silent phone, unable to think. “Do Something?”
Dess took her shoulders and spoke slowly and carefully. “You have to tell her. They took Rex out to the desert, to where the runway’s being built. That’s the only place they can change him. We need to get out there and find him before midnight. Can you tell Melissa that?”
Jessica swallowed. “Sure. But where are you going?
“Nowhere,” Dess said. “I’ll be right here. But you have to remember. You have to tell her.”
“Why? I mean, Melissa will listen to you more than she will me. She doesn’t even like me. And you’re the one who knows about maps and stuff.”
Dess closed her eyes, her right thumbnail between her teeth. “But I won’t remember.”
“I can’t remember, or Melissa will find out…” Dess shook her head and muttered, “Crap! I can’t tell you either, she’ll taste it in your head. This is not going to work.” She started swearing, a muttering rant in low, even tones.
“Dess, what’s happening? What’s wrong with you?”
“There’s something in my head, something I have to hide from Melissa. But I’m pretty sure I know where Rex is, okay? He’ll be somewhere on the runway site. That’s where they make halflings, so they’ll take him there. That’s why the darklings don’t want the runway built. It’ll run straight through the place where they make halflings!”
Jessica felt nausea rising in her at the thought of Rex transformed. At least the darklings had only tried to kill her, not turn her into something inhuman. She squeezed her eyes shut and opened them again to clear the picture from her mind. “How do you know this, Dess?”
“I can’t tell you, or Melissa will see it in your mind. She can’t know where I got the information, understand?”
“Listen, the darklings feel Melissa more than they do the rest of us, Jess. We have to keep this secret from her. Okay?”
Dess pulled away, her hands shaking. “Earth to Jessica if I tell you, it won’t be a secret.”
Jessica groaned and sat on the bed with her head in her hands. Dess had lost it. If Rex’s disappearance was freaking her out this bad, Melissa was going to be a basket case. Jessica wished that Jonathan were here already, but he was miles away, all the way on the other side of town.
“Listen,” Dess said, her voice under control again, “this is just like the base-sixty thing. You don’t have to understand it, you just have to do what I say.” She grabbed a piece of paper and quickly sketched the runway, each end marked with rows of numbers that spilled from the pencil. “Just tell me to take you to the runway. I’ll still know where it is because you showed me the map; she didn’t.”
“She who?” Jessica asked. “Melissa?”
“No. Someone else.” Dess wrote REX in huge letters across paper and thrust it at Jessica. “Tell Melissa I drew this, and I agree with you because it’s true… I think.”
“You think it’s true that you drew this?” Jessica asked, the paper slipping from her hands.
“No, I think I’ll know that I… because I’ll remember drawing this… Oh, screw it. Just tell her to drive us to the runway!”
Jessica lifted the paper from the bed and stared at it, mysterious numbers and all. Dess was going nuts without Rex around, and Melissa had sounded just as bad.
Jessica took a deep breath, trying to recall the sensation she’d gotten from wielding Demonstration against the darklings, the power flowing through her. She had taken a lot on faith since arriving in Bixby—trusting rows of thirteen thumbtacks to protect her, believing in a history that wasn’t in her textbooks, banking on a flashlight to save her life. But so far, she’d survived.
She had to trust Dess now, even if the girl wasn’t making any sense.
“Okay,” Jessica said in a calm, firm voice. “I’ll tell Melissa we’re going to the runway. Because you said so.”
“In the meantime let’s finish these weapons, okay? We might need them.” Anything to keep Dess occupied until Melissa got here.
“Sure. Just one more thing…”
Dess stared at Jessica, her eyes bright with panic. “Don’t think about this conversation when she gets here. Don’t let Melissa taste anything I’ve been saying to you. If she knows, the darklings will know. Just… don’t… think about it.”
“Sure thing.” Jessica nodded slowly and turned to the shield again. The darklings will know what? As Jessica worked to finish the shield, she wondered how you didn’t think about something, how you kept it from your mind without it being in your mind in the first place that you weren’t supposed to have it in your mind…
Thinking like this was far worse than base sixty.
Jessica was still busy not thinking about the thing she wasn’t supposed to think about when Melissa’s car slid to a stop outside.