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1:19 a.m.


The dream came again, full of glowing wire frames, lines of fire forming spheres, like the doubled eights of a baseballs stitching or the twirl of peel left after an orange is stripped in one long spiral. The lines twisted around each other, bright snakes twining on a beach ball, performing new tricks every night. They examined their combinations restlessly, searching for one pattern out of many

Dess woke up sweating, even though her room was cold.

She rubbed her eyes with bitten-down thumbnails and looked at her clock. Damn. It was after midnight; shed slept through the secret hour again.

Dess shook her head. This never used to happen. Even on those rare occasions when she did go to bed before midnight, the passage into the blue time always awakened her with its shudders and sudden silence. What was the point of having a whole secret hour if you slept through it?

But somehow shed missed it again.

The fiery shapes of the dream still pulsed through Desss mind, her latest project troubling her brain again, demanding answers that didnt exist yet in the scraps of data shed managed to gather. The dream came every night now, her mind a renegade calculating engine clattering in the darkness. But she had come to understand what some of the images meant.

The spheres were the earth, this lovely ball of fun that humanity was stuck to, except for Jonathan in the secret hour, lucky prick. The glowing lines were coordinateslongitude and latitude and whatever other invisible geometries made Bixby important. (Now there were two words that should never go together: Bixby and important. Whoever had decided that this town should be the center of the blue time needed to watch the Travel Channel more.)

Dess frowned. Tonights dream had conjured up a new image in her head: a circle of bright diamonds evenly spaced around one of the beach ball earths, orbiting it at a stately pace. There were twenty-four of them, her mind told hera very darkling number. But what did the image mean?

Sometimes she wondered if this whole project had unhinged her. Maybe she was reading too much into Bixbys location.

Dess shook her head. Her fathers oil-drilling maps were very accurate, and math never lied. The intersection of 36 north and 96 west sat a few miles outside town, dead on the snake pit. Those two numbers were stuffed full of twelves. That had to mean something; the snake pit was a source of Rexs lore and a major darkling magnet, squatting in the badlands like a giant spider in the middle of its web.

One thing had become abundantly clear to Dess: the geometry of the blue time was a lot more complicated than any spiderweb. There were asymmetries in the way the secret hour formed itself, subtleties in the way its lines reached across the hard-packed desert and into Bixby. Melissa sometimes complained about how her mindcasting changed depending on where she was, gaining or losing strength like a car radio fading in and out on a drive through the mountains. And now that Dess had bothered to map all of Rexs precious lore sites, a pattern had emerged there too. And of course, there were the people who disappeared, like Sheriff Michaels two years ago. Darklings never seemed to bother stiffs, but they had to eat something. Rex said there were special places where the barrier between frozen and normal time was shaky. That was the real reason behind Bixbys famous curfew. If a normal personor an unlucky cow or rabbitwound up getting frozen near one of these spots, they could be sucked through the barrier for an unexpected trip down the food chain.

All this meant one thing: midnight had a shape, with ripples and rough spots. Maybe there were places where Desss number magic was stronger or weaker, or where Jessicas flame-bringing would really kick ass, or where the darklings couldnt come. Maybe there were also places to hide.

Great theory, but the details were the tricky part. This math was hard. It was trig on steroids, and thinking about it wore Dess out all day and then mangled her dreams at night.

She lay there, staring at the notes scribbled on her blackboard, wishing she had some sort of calculating machine to untangle the numbers. Dess frowned again; shed never used a mere calculator in her life. And the school computer that Mr. Sanchez let her hack around with wouldnt cut it either. What she really needed for this stuff was a NASA-grade, global-warming-predicting, doomsday-asteroid-tracking supercomputer.

Across the room Ada Lovelace stood on her little platform, staring at Dess, stoic as ever.

Yeah, I wish you could help me too, she told the doll. But the real Ada was long dead (for 153 years, in fact), all that talent gone to waste before the world was smart enough to realize how brilliant she was. I know the feeling, sweetie.

Dess rolled out of bed.

The big problem was measuring all this stuff. The blue time didnt come with street signs and trig tables, and you couldnt Google it for more details. When she pumped Melissa for data, Dess always hid her thoughts, not wanting to reveal her sudden interest in the mindcasters reception problems. For some reason, Dess wanted to keep this discovery her own little secret Well, okay, she knew the reason. Rex and Melissa definitely had their secrets, after all, and Jessica and Jonathan were so far up Couple Mountain, she was considering sending a rescue team. This thing was hers.

But her secrecy didnt leave Dess much to work with, just midnighter gossip and her dads oil-drilling maps. And those she had to borrow in the middle of the night.

Speaking of which It was 1:25 A.M. now, a solid 16,500 seconds before the old grumps alarm clock went off, if he was working this weekend. The perfect time to do a little map math.

Dess swung her bare feet to the floor, feeling the wind pushing up between the ancient boards. She tested her weight against the woodsome nights were creakier than others. Her bedroom door opened silently thanks to her weekly treatments of WD-40. (Sometimes it was useful having a dad whod wanted a son.)

The wind was fierce tonight, a low, insistent moan marked by the beat of a loose shutter somewhere in the trailer park across the field in back. Thankfully, there were enough random creakings throughout the house to cover any noise she might make.

In the middle of the Living room was a big flat file, the metal top marked with rust circles the exact circumference of a Pabst Blue Ribbon bottle. Among the empties and bottle caps filled with cigarette ash was a row of precisely arranged remote controls that she rarely touched. Dess had done her parents taxes and paid their bills for them since she was a kid, but she did not do VCR manuals.

Over the last week shed already worked her way through the top three drawers of maps, so Dess carefully slid open the fourth one down. The dark smell of Oklahoma crude emerged, the scent that signified Dad to some part of her brain and brought to mind the black half-moons that never left his fingernails.

The edges of the maps curled up, as if they were smiling at the sight of her.

Hello, my pretties, she whispered, then squinted in the dark. What on earth are you?

Weighing down the center of the maps was an unfamiliar little device, about as big as a package of cigarettes. It looked new, without the oil smudges and dinged corners that her fathers stuff always acquired. For a moment she thought it was some new remote control, the sort of widget that might command an industrial-grade TV dish.

But then she picked it up and saw the compass logo above its small, blank screen, reading with one sweep of her eyes the multitude of tiny buttons underneath.

Whoa. Her mind flashed back to the new image in her dream: the twenty-four bright diamonds in orbit around a wire-frame earth, evenly spaced around its equator and casting out lines of triangulation that hooked onto its surface.

She ran her fingers across the device and suddenly knew what the diamonds weregeostationary satellites, each forever suspended above one spot on the planet, sending out Global Positioning System signals all day long.

Dess pushed the power button, and the little screen came to life.

N 12 16.41320

W 96 51.21380

Oh, yeah.

The coordinates flickered through Desss mind, swinging a radiant x and y across a well-memorized map in the second drawer from the top. They were familiar but far more precise than anything she could figure from the little numbers that marched around a maps edges: the device was giving the position of her house. Her living room, in fact, down to a meter of precision.

Forget the supercomputerthis was the machine she needed. A little beastie that always knew exactly where it was, that would give her all the numbers she needed to crack the blue times code.

Dess stared at the device, suddenly thirsty, her right thumbnail between her teeth. The only problem was how to borrow it. The thing wouldnt work in the secret houreven if Jessicas flame-bringer voodoo sparked it up, a lone GPS receiver was worthless without those twenty-four satellites pinging away up in space. Dess would have to use it in normal time.

Which would be tricky, unless she just

Dess swallowed. Certainly her father hadnt bought this. He wouldnt spend good beer money on a toy. He was a foreman now; the company must have just given it to him. He probably wasnt even using it. Dad hated all forms of fancy technology unrelated to football instant replays.

She looked down at the glowing numbers again.

Pretty she whispered. And damn it if geostationary wasnt a tridecalogism, thirteen letters exactly!

At worst, shed have to hide the GPS carefully and listen to the old grouch rant and rave and turn the house upside down for a few hours. Like that didnt happen every time he lost his car keys.

No sense sitting here in the dark, Dess decided. She already knew what she was going to do. Her dreams had shown her what she needed.

But Dess paused a moment at that thought. Why had she dreamed about the Global Positioning System when her awake mind hadnt had any idea that her father owned one of these things? That was something to consider.

In the meantime, though

She closed her hand around the device and whispered, Mine.

2 12:01 a.m. FLATLAND | Touching Darkness | 4 9:45 a.m. CORIOLIS FORCE