12:00AM "Search Party"
"Something bad is happening."
Melissa's words were spoken softly, and filled
the silence of the blue time like an urgent whisper. Dess looked
to the edge of the junkyard lot where her friends stood. Melissa's
upturned eyes caught the light of the midnight moon. Rex, as usual,
hovered close to her, focused on every word.
Dess waited for more, but Melissa just stared
into the sky, listening with her whole being, tasting the motionless
Dess shrugged and returned her gaze to the ground,
scanning the pile of metal bits that Rex had picked for her. According
to him, all of them were untouched by inhuman hands. If he was right
about tonight there was the possibility of a serious rumble, and
she was going to need clean steel to work with.
Of course, Rex could be wrong. It didn't feel
like a bad night to Dess. Friday, September 5, the fifth day of
the ninth month. The combination of nine and five wasn't particularly
nasty: the numbers made 4, 14, or 45 (when subtracted, added, or
multiplied), which was kind of a cute pattern if you liked fours,
which Dess did, but hardly dangerous. On top of that, "S-e-p-t-e-m-b-e-r
f-i-v-e" spelled out had thirteen letters, which was as safe
as any number could be. What was to complain about?
But Rex was worried.
Dess looked up. The dark moon looked normal,
rising at its usual stately pace and resplendent with its usual
gorgeous, pale blue light. So far, Dess hadn't heard the sounds
of anything big roaming. Nor had she seen too many slithers. Not
a single one, in fact, not even out of the corner of her eye.
That was weird, actually. She looked around
the junkyard. There were rusted-out cars, a corrugated iron shack
flattened by some ancient tornado, and a jumbled tire pile--plenty
of places to slither under and peer out from, but not a flicker
of movement anywhere. And even when they couldn't be seen, the chirps
and calls of slithers were usually audible. But none of the little
guys were watching tonight.
"Almost too quiet," she said to herself
in a bad-guy accent.
Across the junkyard, Melissa moaned, and despite
the constant warmth of the blue time a shiver passed through Dess.
It was time to get started.
She squatted and began to sort through the
pieces of metal, looking for bright steel uncorrupted by rust. Stainless
was best, unpainted and shiny. The twisted, uneven shapes of the
metal also played a part in her selections. The long trip from factory
to junkyard had weathered some pieces to certain proportions, small
rods with elegant ratios of length and width, scarred old bolts
with harmonious spacings between their dents. Dess arranged her
finds happily. Steel came alive here in the blue time. She saw iridescent
veins of moonlight streak across the metal and then fade, as if
the steel were reflecting a fireworks show in the pale sky above.
As she chose from the bits of metal, Dess brought
each to her mouth and blew a name into it.
Some of the big pieces were beautiful, but
she needed to be able to carry all of them easily, possibly while
running for her life. She selected a small but perfect washer, rejecting
a heavy length of pipe.
"Overzealously," she whispered to
Words tumbled through her head, some of which
she didn't even know the meanings of, scraps of language that had
stuck in her mind because of the number or arrangement of their
letters. Words weren't really her thing, except when they collided
with numbers and patterns, like stretching across a Scrabble board
to grab a triple-word score.
What she wanted tonight was pretty straightforward:
thirteen-letter words to boost the power of these pieces of steel.
"Fossilization," she named a long,
thin screw, the thread of which wound exactly thirty-nine times
around its shaft.
The crunch of Rex's boots came from right behind
her. She hadn't heard him approach, lost as she was in the pleasures
"If you were a slither, you'd've bit me,"
she murmured. The foul little things didn't exactly bite, of course,
but close enough.
"Melissa's found her," Rex said.
Dess lifted an old hubcap up to the light.
Trapped blue fire coursed around its rim.
"But she says we have to hurry. There's
trouble. Something big out there, or just nasty. Whatever it is,
it's giving Melissa a serious headache."
Dess brought the hubcap close to her lips.
"Hypochondriac," she whispered to
"You ready?" Rex asked.
"Yeah. This stuff's all weaponized."
"Let's go, then."
She stood up, clutching the hubcap in one hand
and dropping the smaller bits of metal into her pockets. Rex turned
and jogged to the edge of the junkyard, where their bikes were stashed.
He jumped on his and rode after Melissa, who was already headed
down the road toward downtown. Of course, Dess thought. Gillian
Day was a city girl. Her parents could afford to live close in,
away from the badlands and the smells of oil rigs and roadkill.
Dess walked over calmly and pulled her bike
up, mounted and began to pedal after the two. She didn't rush. Melissa
could only move so fast without losing her way, as she cautiously
felt for the trembling threads in the tenuous psychic spiderweb
of midnight. And even with her crappy one-speed, Dess could beat
either of them in a race. It would be no problem to catch up before
the fireworks started.
She just hoped this wasn't a wild goose chase,
a symptom of Rex's beginning-of-the-school-year paranoia. Sure,
there was a new midnighter in town, but that had happened once before,
and the consequences hadn't exactly been earth shattering.
Rex had sounded pretty scared on the phone,
though. So Dess had worn her sensible shoes. Running shoes.
The hubcap rattled happily in the basket on
Dess's bike. She smiled. Whatever was out there, she wouldn't have
to run right away. The comforting weight of metal clinked heavily
in her pockets, and Dess knew without counting how many weapons
she had made tonight.
"Lucky thirteen," she said.
They drew closer to the city, the wide, blank
spaces of vacant lots and new developments giving way to strip malls
and gas stations, and, of course, her favorite store: 7-Eleven,
a fraction also known as point-six-three-six-three-repeat-to-infinity.
Up ahead, Melissa was going faster now, no
longer feeling her way, apparently certain of the direction. Something
was really giving off bad vibes tonight. Dess pedaled a little harder,
swerving her bike around the occasional motionless cars that hogged
Rex was right behind Melissa, making sure she
didn't crash into a car while she had her nose in the air. Melissa
was a lot more functional here in the blue time, but Rex still hovered.
Eight years of baby-sitting was a hard habit to break.
Dess saw a shape in the sky. Silent and gliding--a
winged slither. Against the almost fully risen moon, she could see
the fingers in the wing. Like a bat's, the slither's wing was really
a hand: four long, jointed finger bones spread out like kite struts,
with paper-thin skin webbed between them.
The slither made a chirping call, a strangled
little noise that sounded like the last cry of a stomped-on rat.
Answers sounded. There were more of them up
there, a full flock of twelve. They were headed in the same direction
as Dess and her friends.
Dess swallowed. It was probably a coincidence.
Or maybe the little guys were just coming along for the ride. There
were always some around, curious about the little tribe of humans
who visited the blue time. They didn't usually make trouble.
She looked up. Another flock had swept in to
join the first group. She counted the dark, translucent shapes with
a glance: twenty-four of them now.
Dess started counting aloud to calm her nerves.
"Uno, dos, tres . . . " She knew how to count in twenty-six
languages, and was working on a few more. The rhythmic sounds of
number-words soothed her, and she always found the different ways
of dealing with the tricky teens amusing.
She switched nervously to Old English. "Ane,
twa, thri, feower, fif . . . "
September the fifth. Nothing big was happening
tonight, she was positive. Nine plus five was fourteen. And it was
the 248th day of the year, and two plus four plus eight also made
fourteen. Not as good as thirteen, but no bad karma there.
There were still more shapes in the sky. Their
calls came mockingly from every direction.
"Un, deux, trois, quatre," she switched to French, counting
louder to drown the slithers out. Dess decided to go all the way
to eighty, which was "four twenties" in French. "Cinq,
six, sept . . . "
"Sept!" she said aloud, skidding
her bike to a halt.
Sept meant seven in French, and in a bunch
of other languages too. (A septagon had seven sides, her brain uselessly
informed her.) Sept as in September. She remembered now--way back
in the old days, a thousand years ago, September had been the seventh
month, not the ninth.
September fifth had once been the fifth day
of the seventh month.
And seven plus five was twelve.
"Oh, crap," Dess said.
She lifted from her bicycle seat, thrusting
her right foot down hard against its pedal as she pulled up on the
handles, straining to get the bike moving again. Melissa and Rex
had gotten way too far ahead. On a night this serious, she and her
weapons should be leading the pack.
A long, piercing cry sounded above her, and another thirteen-letter
word came unbidden into Dess's head.
"Bloodcurdling," she whispered, and
kept on pedaling.