How I (usually) Manage Not to Procrastinate


Disclaimer: The lack of procrastination described here-in refers solely to that regarding novel writing, and is exclusive of homework, studying, chores, errands, and all other daily tasks besides eating.

(Because eating, I just forget to do.)

After some months of trying to balance work, school, and more work with no time for writing, I got to the end of the semester and immediately threw all that out the window. My grade in Phonology class? Out of my hands now; I did my best. My students at the ELI? They’d had plenty of warning that I wouldn’t be accepting anything after that Monday; their e-mails went unanswered.

(As a side note, this isn’t as harsh as it sounds. A couple of them missed the final exam and waited until after I’d left town to try giving their excuses, which anyway were not good enough to get them a make-up exam. Seeing as they or no one from the office have called me, the kids seem to understand that they lost that battle.)

So I came to my parents’ house for the winter break, where my responsibilities dwindled gloriously close to zero, and I decided that I was going to write at least a thousand words a day. And for the most part I’ve been successful.

I still marvel at it, because a thousand words is a lot; if I’d been writing that much every day for the whole novel, I would have finished it in fewer than two months.

So what is my motivation? How do I manage to sit in the same spot in the same room for hours and eventually days at a time and come up with word after word — and on top of that, good, useable words? Well, every writer has a different strategy, but this is what usually works for me:

1. Have an outline. I have the (not-so-good) habit of starting to write before I know what I’m writing. To be honest, Smoldering was no exception, but it was unique in that I forced myself to complete a detailed outline of the novel before even finishing chapter two. This made it a LOT easier to just sit down and let the words pour out, because instead of worrying about what to write, I only had to focus on the how (ie the style and phrasing). If my experience with Lavender Eyes is any indication, I would probably be on the second or third rewrite by now without that outline, and maybe still not have a real plot.

2. Put yourself in the zone. I’ll be the first to proclaim that my parents’ house isn’t the ideal place to write, mainly because of the amount of noise going on almost 24/7. There’s also the fact that my mom likes to survive on sweets and junk food and my dad is a carnivore, so my poor brain has been suffering from lack of nutritious vegetables and a spiked intake of sugar, fat, and MSG. Nonetheless, I deal with it. When it’s writing time, I pop in the earbuds and put my Smoldering playlist on repeat. I make sure I have some kind of snack handy so I’m not tempted to get up and waste twenty minutes foraging in the fridge — which, as we writers all know, happens even if we aren’t the least bit hungry. That’s procrastination in thinly veiled disguise.

One thing that really helps put me in the zone is just closing my eyes and imagining myself in the scene. This may seem like a given, but I’m willing to bet a lot of writers don’t do this nearly as often as they should, working from what they can imagine with their eyes open. I still wonder how we manage to write anything at all that way; how can we describe the grimy, crumbling castle if we’re staring at a desk full of highlighters? In my experience, the setting just isn’t as convincing if the writer himself hasn’t been there, even mentally.

3. Just write. Write like every word left untyped by midnight will turn into a dragon and eat you. Write even if every word you put down is crap, because it’s true, you CAN edit it later. And trust me, this is something I had to learn the hard way. (And it took me eight years. Please save yourself the trouble.)

4. Don’t erase. If you write a whole page and realize you can’t use it, just hop down a few lines and start the scene again. If you take away that much from your word count, you’re only going to get discouraged. (Or maybe not, you know yourself best!) Obviously, it’s okay to erase individual words and maybe even a sentence or two, but be careful, or the temptation to edit might overpower you. And then? Word dragon.

5. Conversely, don’t be afraid to erase. I know, it seems like I’m just toying with you now. But seriously, as a writer, you will need to edit your work. Doesn’t matter how piquant, how eloquent, or how much it tickles you to have written that line, if it doesn’t help the story, it’s gotta go. I soften the blow by cut-pasting it into my notes file instead of outright deleting it — who knows, maybe I’ll get the chance to use it in something else. Even so, I wait until the end of the writing day, after I’ve finished my word count, to take out anything and make any changes. Kind of like working overtime, except without the pay.

Granted, the above system doesn’t always work. Case in point, it’s 4:30PM and I’ve only written 22 words today.

Oops.

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Ciphers: Chapter 2


Attention: The two chapters available on this blog are from the first draft of my completed manuscript, Ciphers, and belong to me. Both chapters will be removed before the manuscript is published.

Click here for Chapter 1.

*

Bridget had been very careful with her calculations that morning. She knew that in order for her documents to be postmarked that same day, she had to get them in before noon. The post office was ten minutes away by longboard. She needed only twenty minutes to look over her essay and print it out. That meant she could get up at eleven-thirty and be just fine. When she’d arrived back at the dorms at half past four that morning, that plan had seemed so easy to carry out.

The problems started when she slept through her alarm clock.

After four hours’ sleep (which had been preceded by two hours’ tossing and turning, then a sudden epiphany, and then another hour at the computer screen), Bridget had woken to find her eyes aching, her roommates gone, and her deadline passed.

Never very sportsmanlike at losing, she rushed out anyway in the same clothes she’d worn the day before. She was in line at 12:20 when the head of the Linguistics department called, asked about the status of the package, and then in stern tones ordered Bridget to see him as soon as she returned to campus. Bridget did. The first thing he said as she walked in the door was, “I didn’t write you a recommendation letter so you could prove it all wrong, Devlin.”

Bridget didn’t bother to take the chair he offered, or even set down her things. Instead, she remained in the doorway. “I just got caught up in the essay portion…”

Doctor Stavros, a somewhat intimidating Greek expat somewhere between middle-aged and old, set one elbow on his desk and cupped his chin. “Bridget. You are by far the most motivated student this department has had in at least a decade. But you’re proving that even motivation will only get a person so far. You have to be more responsible. I’m sure you see the difference?”

By the end of the encounter, Bridget had to wonder whether the man had taken personal offense to her failure. It was like she’d embarrassed him.

All this so that by one o’clock she was trudging homeward, tired, discouraged, and ready to never try so hard for anything again. The summer sun was a laser on the top of her head. It burned the energy right out of her, so that when she reached the dorm area she abandoned her longboard to climb on top of the stone wall that ran around it. She now walked with the sidewalk  and the street down below to her right, a crisp green lawn at foot-level to her left, and the much appreciated shade of trees from above. Not even the slightest breeze dared to challenge the midday heat. The sidewalk was empty, the road beside it silent. With exam week almost over, most of Bridget’s fellow students had disappeared to more interesting places for summer break: nearby Miami and West Palm, Orlando, Tampa. Bridget herself wouldn’t be leaving for another couple days, but she was fine with that. Home was just one town over, after all.

She couldn’t help thinking that she’d done it again — that she’d lost all sense of perspective and focused too much on just one part of the whole, when she should have stuck to her original schedule. Her schedule had allotted the essay part only two days. But no, she’d had to let her perfectionism get in the way.

She knew there was no such thing as perfect, but even satisfactory, or her idea of it, was too hard. No matter what term Bridget used to describe herself, it always led to her sliding right into the “mediocre” area of a category: she was just another college student, another teenager, another tomboy; just one more human being of average intelligence, no particular skill, and a complete lack of marketable work experience. In a universe where everyone else had at least one quality that made them unique, Bridget realized that her only uniqueness was her ability to be so average.

That was half the reason why getting the internship had been so important in the first place. Average people didn’t get to work with the foremost linguist in the field.

And yet, the universe still refused to choose her.

She didn’t see the man until they were about to walk into each other. In fact, if he hadn’t stepped onto the grass at the last instant, they would have. Bridget had just enough time to realize this, gasp in awareness, and turn her head to apologize before he reached out and shoved her off the wall.

There was nothing she could do to stop it. Her board was in her left hand, her right hand was already groping for some form of safety that wasn’t there. In half a second it would be breaking against concrete. She saw the man’s grin slip away to be replaced with green leaves and bright light. Then she realized that she’d been staring upward for longer than it should have taken to hit the ground, and that for having fallen almost four feet, she was in surprisingly little pain.

“Are you alright, I said!”

Bridget started breathing again. A familiar guy in a “CIA” cap clutched her upper body. Her feet were tensed against the side of the wall. Before she could answer, the man above them drew a long knife from the back of his belt, causing her to yelp in warning. That was all it took for the would-be hero to drop her on the ground. “Siph!” he shouted. “Get her to headquarters!”

Though there was no reply, someone else leapt into the edge of Bridget’s vision and yanked her back to her feet. It might have been the case that the hand clutching hers was unusually hot. But most of her attention just then was on memorizing the features of the man with the knife, and even that brought a shock. His age was strange enough, because a gaunt man who must be at least in his sixties shouldn’t have had the strength he did; but more confusing was the unusual style of his clothes, his brown skin mottled with beige, and the sharp points of his teeth as he grinned, not at her anymore, but at the person digging his nails into her arm.

Then the guy in the hat jumped onto the wall, stealing the attacker’s attention, and the person next to her whispered “Hurry!” before pulling her down the sidewalk at a run.

They passed the dorms, where a student worker surely would have been sitting behind a reception desk near a telephone. They crossed the road in front of the campus security station, but didn’t slow down. Somewhere around the football stadium, Bridget noticed that she’d left her longboard behind. It was about the same moment that Crazy Criminal Number Two dashed out from behind a dumpster.

He and the first one could have been twins, except where the knife-wielder had at least maintained a clean appearance, Number Two wore his hair like a mane and clothes that had almost decayed to rags. He launched himself at them so that Siph, hardly taller or wider than Bridget, was flattened against the ground, and she flew down beside him, trapped in his iron grip. The attacker spared a moment for surprise at this.

Bridget sucked in air through her teeth and screamed as she kneed him in the ribcage.

Siph didn’t waste a second. Letting go of her at last, he used hands and feet to shove Number Two away. The man hit the dumpster full-force, body and head. One punch saw that his head struck it again, this time knocking him out completely. Siph then heaved him into the trash, slammed the lid down, and held it in place as he stood panting.

Bridget got up and brushed gravel off her clothes. Her head felt light as the adrenaline subsided, but she refused to let it show. “Tell me there’s not a third one anywhere.”

At this, the boy straightened up. “But there’s no way he came through,” he muttered to himself. “He can’t. Too powerful.” His eyes roved from the dumpster to the stadium entrance, the parking lot, and finally the nature preserve just across the street. He pointed at the trees. “Let’s go there.”

They crossed into the shade, soon locating the narrow hiking trail that even joggers had given up on. The university made a point of not tending to it, so the path was rampant with coarse grass and weeds and sharp branches poking from the sidelines. Slabs and spikes of limestone poked up through the earth, making navigation a chore. All the same, the old trees and walls of wild shrub offered a sense of protection and at least a little respite from the midday heat. The two of them followed the path a few minutes, then Siph left it for a clear little space Bridget hadn’t even noticed. “You seem to be fine,” he said when they’d positioned themselves with a good view of the trail.

“Sure, if ‘fine’ is being targeted by a bunch of crazies.” She may have been including her two rescuers in this; Bridget herself wasn’t sure.

Siph huffed through his teeth. “You’re not the target, I am.” Then with a furrowed brow he grumbled, “But that doesn’t change anything now. I still have to take you back to the damn Hub.”

“Where?”

“This was originally about a job.”

Bridget almost laughed. After all that had just happened, a job was the last thing she cared about. She bit her lip to restrain the sarcasm. If there’s something I have to do, it’s go report those guys — “Oh god. Is your friend okay?”

“He’s trained for this.”

“We should go to the police.”

“This is beyond their depth. Those two will have disappeared from this city long before the police can ever begin to search. And Gard will head back to headquarters as soon as he can.” He sighed. “Look, it’s safer for you there. If you go home too soon, you run the risk of showing the twins where you live. They won’t care that you don’t actually know me. You’re all they’ve got to go on right now.”

Bridget weighed her options. The guy had just saved her life, and with all his talk of headquarters and being more capable than the police, it sounded like he worked for the CIA or something. Then again, did the CIA stalk people over jobs? She had heard that they would interview people close to her. But Bridget had never even applied to the CIA.

No, more importantly, she couldn’t have those lunatics follow her back to the dorms, where her roommates were probably cramming for their exams, and especially not back home, where her mother would be. Even if the universe was being unfair to her, she refused to involve other innocent people. But that didn’t mean she had to go with him.

She sized him up, finding his gray skin a little weird but seeing little to actually fear. Granted, he’d just thrown a man into a dumpster; but with enough adrenaline she might have managed that, too. “You were stalking me.”

“No more than your government does on a daily basis.”

“I’m not the conspiracy type.”

The boy reached up to play with the wisps of flowering red bottlebrush above his head, but watched the path as though expecting the madmen to find them any moment. “No,” he replied, half distracted. “You’re the type who wants to prove herself. The type who loves being challenged, but only if you win. You spend hours pouring over your books like they’re the only thing in the world, getting stuck on just one piece of the puzzle every single time. And you don’t give up, and you don’t move on.”

The analysis seemed to have distracted him from his fear. His eyes, unfocused, stared toward the feathery red stamens in his hand. Then he blinked and returned to the world.

“And someone at my organization decided this was all a good thing, and forced us to observe you. Long story short, you can either trust me and come back to the Hub, where you’ll be safe and possibly get a job – or you can find your own way back to the dorms, hope those thugs don’t follow you, and stay hopelessly uninteresting for the rest of your life.”

They took the bus, on her money, to the downtown area of Widwell City. It had been safer to put the Diadusis there, where empty buildings disguised themselves as upstanding citizens, the rooms within waiting to be rediscovered after years of a crippled economy. Places forgotten not just by the city, but even by those who would have had use for them; overlooked by the homeless, the teenage deviants, even the underground “businessmen.” Siph acknowledged the convenience of that safety, but didn’t appreciate the hour-long commute in a slow, filth-covered vehicle full of humans who couldn’t seem to do anything but stare at him. He pulled up his jacket hood as they got on and chose a seat in the very back.

To her credit, the girl didn’t gape or gawk or ask what kind of disease he had, even after overcoming her shock of being attacked. She glanced sidelong at him only on occasion, and asked annoying questions about other things instead: who were the loonies, would they be able to find her family, what did they want with him, anyway? Siph’s glare only got a fine then; what was the job, what kind of organization was it; would she be making creepy vampire cult enemies, too?

“I can’t explain any of that to you, it’s Reeves’s job. We don’t even know if you’re qualified yet.”

“Then why are you taking me to your headquarters?”

He closed his eyes against the stupidity. “Do you want to go back and have those ‘vampire cult lunatics’ find you again?”

Bridget turned to the window. “It just seems like an undergrad wouldn’t be worth your time.”

They sat in silence while the bus made a few stops along the tourist routes. Siph glared into the eyes of any passenger that couldn’t seem to fathom why he was wearing long sleeves and a hood in hundred-degree weather. Not one of them would have believed that he hated the heat probably ten times more than they did.

“What was your name again?” Bridget asked.

“Siph.”

“Siph,” she repeated. “As in… syphilis?”

For the first time in three years, Siph let his mouth drop in offense. “How the hell — It’s short for Cipher!”

“But that’s a completely different vowel sound.”

“Siph is a code name.”

“How do you spell it?”

He could only guess how she would hassle him if he answered. Instead, he pointed out the window. “Our stop,” he said, getting up. “Remember it for your trip back.”

They were on the classy side of town, a neighborhood in the business district lavished with fountains and statues and box-shaped shrubbery. Most of the buildings had gone up within the last decade, just in time for all their potential buyers to go bankrupt and leave them empty or rented for much less than the appropriate price. Nestled amid all this were the relics: a two-hundred year old church, a modest but well-kept apartment complex, and a weathered clock tower that stood alone in the middle of a small park. The tower was three stories tall and no wider than the average bedroom, perhaps sixty square feet. The exterior was made of clean but crumbling red brick. The clock itself hadn’t kept proper time in almost ten years.

Siph checked for witnesses, incidental and otherwise, before unlocking the maintenance door with a key that hung around his neck. Bridget looked up at the unmoving clock face, then at the dark interior of the tower.

“My organization owns this building,” Siph explained, glancing around again. The worst would happen if the twins found him here.

“Yeah… what was the organization’s name?”

He sighed. “The Scod.”

“And they specialize in?”

“Information.”

“And they operate from a tiny broken clock tower because?”

“They don’t, but I can’t exactly explain it to you out here.” Having no more patience for questions, he stepped inside, leaving the girl to call out after him,

“You have ten seconds to prove to me that I should follow you!”

He didn’t. His dark form soon disappeared, and the sound of footsteps moving up wooden stairs was Bridget’s only answer. Ten seconds later, annoyed, she blundered after him.

The tower had no windows; it took only one turn on the stairs for Bridget to lose the light from the open door, and with it, her boldness. “Hurry up,” the other said from the landing above. “They’ll be annoyed that you don’t have clearance.” Bridget would have made a snappy reply, but the misjudging of a step made her stumble. She wondered if the whole climbing in the dark thing was some form of revenge for her syphilis comment. By the time her eyes adjusted, she was on the landing with Siph and an open closet door that led, if possible, into an even darker space.

“You’re screwing with me.”

“You’ll understand once you go in.”

She was sure he couldn’t see her face, but glowered anyway. “I should’ve trusted my first impression of you and your partner. No one respectable would shove a girl on purpose while his buddy watches from the shadows.” She kept her eyes on the boy and slid her foot backward a step. “Not getting into a closet with you, buddy.”

“I bet you didn’t close the front door, either.”

Bridget spun. Though she wasn’t very fast, she thought there would at least be time to leap down a few steps before the guy could react. But the first foot hadn’t even left the ground when his arms wrapped around her midsection and yanked her into the air. Likewise, her backward kick, which should have struck between his legs, stuck nothing. She landed on the wooden floor of the closet; the door slammed behind her.

Siph learned a good handful of new words over the following three minutes, as well as just how hard Bridget was willing to throw herself against the door to break free. He held it fast, waiting until she had to pause for breath. “Ready to listen?” he asked.

Bridget responded with some unusual synonyms for things he would never be able to think of the same way again, as well as some explicit directions for self-induced violence.

“Open the door,” Siph groaned.

“I would if you quit leaning on it!”

“The other one. Behind you.”

There was silence. Then the floor creaked as Bridget moved across it, and seconds later an opening door followed suit.

“Sunspot clusterf—” was the last sound to come through before a vibration underfoot signaled that she’d gone through the Diadusis. Siph relaxed his hold on the handle, heaved a sigh, and went downstairs to lock up the building.

Ciphers: Chapter 1


Attention: The two chapters available on this blog are from the first draft of my completed manuscript, Ciphers, and belong to me. Both chapters will be removed before the manuscript is published.

*

He hated the brightness of this world, searing his eyes with light reflected from windows, cars, countless man-made things. He hated the heat that seeped into his dark gray skin, turning his perspiration into steam that shimmered around him. The smell of frying sausage wafted out of an open dormitory window, and it made him hate his stomach, too.

The late-twenty-something man beside him, however, seemed perfectly content to let the sun darken his light brown skin. “That’s the one we want. Look, she’s walkin’ around with the textbooks and everything.”

“Which?”

“Eh, Historical Linguistics?”

Siph glared at his partner, eyes revealing the distinct wish that a rock would fall on the man’s head. “I don’t care about the book,” he said. His voice, though annoyed, remained low with just a hint of danger. “That grungy, plank-riding bohemian is the girl we need? Fine. But why?”

Gard adjusted his binoculars and pushed up the bill of his black ten-dollar “FBI” cap, revealing dark hair that dripped perspiration. “Oh, come on. You were there–”

“I was at the briefing, yes. I understand what she is and why she’s on the list. I do not understand why we have passed over half a dozen other names — names of professionals — to look after her.”

“Better an open-minded amateur than a closed-minded veteran.” Gard dropped the binoculars against his chest. “And now,” he said, pausing to wave down at a confused dorm resident who had just spotted them, “it’s time to get off the roof.”

Siph took a good number of things personally, not the least of which was his new partnership with Gard. Aside from his strange obsession with climbing things, the three-fourths human, New York-born field agent maintained a level of optimism matched only by his ignorance, couldn’t take anything seriously, and was a complete kiss-ass. Considering the organization’s profound interest in Siph, he often wondered if the Scod had hired Gard just to annoy him.

In fact, this was quite probable; the Scod collectively realized that the success of their main goal, the acquisition of information from the four known worlds, depended on their agents. Because of this they paid a lot of attention to the personal “growth” of the individuals who worked for them. This usually just meant that they approved requests for training advancement and provided free counseling in the medical center. Siph, however, being unique, was also subject to a unique method of treatment.

Coordinator Reeves had unfortunately just tossed back his afternoon cocktail when Siph burst through his office door, making Reeves jump and the olive leap from the glass to his throat. His shoulders gave a little jerk. His eyes popped in alarm.

With only a short pause to think it over, Siph went around the desk and smacked the coordinator on the back until he could breathe again. “We need to talk.”

Reeves hacked the olive into a napkin. “Probably not as much as you think,” he muttered, collapsing into his chair. The emergency over, weariness took over his face and slumped his body.

“Did you get my request?”

“Yes, Siph, I got your request. Sit down.”

Siph remained standing, though he did cross back around the desk and clasp his hands behind him. Despite the aid of noontime sunlight from the adjacent window, his skin remained dark gray with no hint of color, something hidden at first glance only by the strategic bright oranges he wore on his black clothes. His lips and palms were just a couple shades lighter. His hair was onyx. Only his eyes, thanks to his human father, held any saturation: a pure, rich brown. His posture, as usual, was rigid, and though he was rather on the short side, that and his gaze helped him make an intimidating figure.

Reeves was long accustomed to the young man’s stony guardedness, but nevertheless appreciated the space between them as he flipped through the documents on his desk. Though he could identify Siph’s file right away, he took his time checking and rechecking each label before admitting defeat. He opened the proper one, which overflowed with reports and previous requests, and linked his fingers over it. “You know I can’t let you work alone, Siph.”

This received a pair of lowered black eyebrows. “That’s why I’m asking for a new partner this time.”

“I know. And while your request mentions several pages’ worth of complaints on your current one…”

“I have more,” Siph said. He slid the extra page toward Reeves, a neatly typed, double-sided document covered with bullet points. It had been so carefully prepared that the older man stared at it a moment before answering.

“Look, I’m not giving you a new partner. First off, none of these reasons is arguable ground. ‘Gard is optimistic?’ Most people would consider that praise.”

“I said he is vapidly optimistic.”

“I think he’s good for you,” Reeves countered.

They stared at each other in silence. Though the lighting in the room didn’t change, Siph’s coal-gray skin appeared to darken. Lines of incandescent red appeared like veins across the backs of his hands, and his fingertips began to shimmer with heat. “It seems the rules are just as effective being obeyed as being broken.” He again kept his voice low, and his movements held no threat as he reached to retrieve his addendum; but the moment he touched the paper it curled up into black ash.

“Stop that!” Reeves threw his hand out, groaned as he saw that he’d move too late, and had to brush the remains from his desk instead. Black streaks remained on his fingers and the desk’s wooden surface. “Listen here,” he said, wiping the ash onto his slacks, “Gard is to remain your partner, and you are to make sure that he and Miss Devlin remain safe. If anything happens to either of them, you will not get a second chance. Understand?”

The heat pulled back, but left its trace in the small office. Theirs was an ongoing battle between Siph’s temper and Reeves’s power of bureaucracy — another thing Siph took personally, because the bureaucracy was mostly used to restrict him somehow. What separated it from most of his other problems was the fact that he hadn’t yet found a way to destroy it, a fact much exploited by Reeves.

The Scod were tracking Siph, always. So much as one unauthorized shoe tip out of the Hub and he’d be wasting in a prison cell for weeks. Fighting, complaining, using his kadha in any way, all of it was forbidden him. He couldn’t even mumble a threat to an empty hallway without getting a mark on Grim’s strike sheet — and three strikes inevitably meant lockup.

Not that Siph couldn’t withstand the temporary imprisonment; he just had more important things to do. Things that those in charge couldn’t and didn’t want to understand.

Reeves let a bit of the sympathy he felt show on his face. “Anyway, all we really want is to keep seeing improvement. I know how hard it’s been, but help yourself a bit, Siph… Please, find someone, just one person, that you can let yourself trust even a little. Having a friend would–”

“I am not a child. And I’ve never once asked for your advice, old man.”

Reeves sighed and let the conversation end there. Pulling a collection of bottles from the desk drawer, he busied himself with his next cocktail as though already alone. Siph waited, then, itching to burn something more substantial than paper, left in the direction of the living quarters.

His pace was steady, unrushed, as he made his way through the spiraling corridor, letting all his frustrations build up within him. He left the office area, treading through hallways where pairs of agents or staff members stood hovering over assignments that left no time for even sleep. No windows here, no sunlight. No telling whether this part of the Hub existed somewhere on Earth or in some dark corner of Zalú. The floor reeked of citrus and chemicals. Rules hung like fumes in the air Siph inhaled.

He quickened his pace as he neared the outer ring of the Hub, its walls having devolved from pristine white plaster to cement to natural mountain stone. The corridor narrowed and grew colder, and finally ended at a heavy iron door. Siph heaved it open, his body heat causing the metal to glisten with melting frost even as an icy wind hit his face from the other side. He crossed through the sheltered wooden veranda that clung to the side of the precipice, and stepped onto the old rope bridge linking one bleak, oppressive mountain face to the other. Both sides of the canyon disappeared into mist before ever finding the ground below. A light snow was falling from the pale gray sky; the flakes liquidized before even reaching his body.

For just one minute, Siph lingered in the middle of the bridge, allowing the snow-filled air to cool his burning skin and ease some of the frustration. If only he could close his eyes and rest here, finally able to breathe…

Once across, he pushed open the barracks door. A pair of black-trousered legs were propped up on a wooden footstool just inside, their owner hidden by the tall back of an upholstered chair and suffocating the whole common room from the fireplace out. “That you, demon boy? You’re the only one who never lets a draft get by.” Grim’s laughter creaked with the hoarseness of tar-filled lungs. Siph held his breath against the bite of cigar smoke and passed into the corridor with no other acknowledgement.

Normally he hated being confined to the dark, stony rooms of the barracks. The walls, hacked and filed out the mountain’s core, were so unshapely that they seemed to bear down on him. Bare bulbs were slung at intervals down the length of the narrow corridor, connected to some unquestioned power source by a cord that hung too low over Siph’s head. Tunnels split off from the main hallway, and in them, wooden doors numbered in white paint lined both walls. His own room number should have been 6-5 (the fifth room in the sixth section), but one of his neighbors had long ago edited the five and added an extra six, probably thinking that if he wasn’t being original, he was at least making it clear that no one wanted Siph around. The flaw of his thinking was that Siph had long since known this.

That neighbor was gone now, along with many other problems Siph had been forced to deal with since his arrival three years ago. In fact, Siph’s problems, numerically at least, were at an all-time low. The advisors had even let him out of the Hub — not to Zalú, which claimed half of his ancestry, but to Earth. Earth was supposed to be safe. And yet his instinct told him there was something out there to fear. For that reason alone he now found his barren room a little less loathsome, the cloudless sky a little less blue when he looked through the bars of his window into that world.

For Zalúts, instinct never lied.

Bridget Devlin knew a good deal when she saw one, and the assistantship in Australia was more than she could have hoped for. Airfare reimbursement, a monthly stipend, and six months of field work on the Badimaya language? Yes, please. Even better, the position would have her working with Dr. Harrison himself — the Dr. Harrison, the endangered language specialist.

Bridget glanced at the clock hanging near the circulation desk. On the one hand, it was convenient that the library stayed open until four in the morning during exam week. On the other, not getting kicked out at one really made her lose track of the night. She should have left hours ago.

With a sigh, she turned back to her application essay, flicking a long strand of red- and copper-highlighted hair — originally dark brown — out of her face. “Perfectionist paralysis,” she mumbled to her laptop. “Why do you have to hit me now?”

She had been stuck on a single word for almost fifteen minutes, and not even a very important one. The thesaurus had been of so little help she was actually starting to doubt that the word she wanted even existed. Her fingers twitched on top of the keyboard. Her eyes drifted away from the screen, past the circulation desk, over some guy in an FBI cap reading manga, to the full-length windows through which the city lights shone. She wondered how stars would look from the Australian outback, and whether six months in a foreign land would finally make her appreciate her hometown. She thought about how to tell her mom if she got the internship. Not a word beforehand — she didn’t want to jinx it. But the moment she knew for sure, she would have to sit Anna down and explain it in a way that didn’t worry her.

Three notes chimed over the intercom as the hour changed. “Attention: the library is now closed. Please gather your belongings and exit through the main door.”

Bridget closed her laptop and swapped it for the longboard sticking out of her duffel bag. In any case, talking to her mom wouldn’t even need to happen if she didn’t finish this essay by tomorrow. Or today, technically. She covered a yawn with the back of her hand and shuffled toward the exit with the rest of the all-nighter crowd. She had just stepped into the humidity of the morning when someone stumbled on top of her from behind, pushing her into the raised brick flowerbed next to the sliding doors. Her knee smacked the side; her hands hit the dirt.

“Sorry about that,” the offender said, reaching for his fallen cap before getting around to her. “Tripped right over the door…thing.”

“You mean the door sill?” Bridget grumbled, emphasizing the last word instead of letting a curse follow it. Profanity control was something she tried to work on these days. She ignored the offer of his hand and stood, brushing dirt from her jeans and palms. She thought about checking her computer for damage, but if it wasn’t dead after so many longboard incidents, a random guy with klutz-all wasn’t going to do it in. Though there was a new hole in the only good pair of jeans she’d had.

In response to her look of vexation, the guy cheesed it. “Well, glad you’re all right,” he said. Throwing a double thumbs-up, he scampered off toward the shadows before Bridget could respond. A haze of lightning threw itself across the sky to reveal another guy waiting for him. Thunder rumbled through not long after.

Creepy, Bridget thought, turning homeward. But on the bright side, I’m not sleepy any more. She finished examining her jeans, carried her longboard to the curb, and set it down in the street. The incident was already being replaced in her mind by calculations of just how much sleep she could get away with before rushing her application to the post office.

“That was unnecessary,” Siph told his partner for the second time that night. They watched as the girl stepped onto her trundling plank and propelled herself away. “And your method was utterly reckless.”

“At least now we know that she has a personality. What info did you have on her?”

“Enough for the purpose,” Siph said. “She wears boy clothes and can’t decide what color she wants her hair. She never goes anywhere without that piece of wood, speaks to her mother like clockwork every single day, and doesn’t even seem to be good at her major. I don’t believe she’s worth our time.”

Gard grinned. “You wishing she wore tighter pants, too?”

He was lucky to have the speed of a caffeinated housefly, or his head might have been knocked off and kicked into a recycling bin. As it was, Siph did achieve a minor form of revenge; though he barely scraped the FBI cap with his fist, its bill disappeared beneath a rush of flame. The destruction spread so quickly Gard almost didn’t have time to save himself. He tossed the hat away in panic and watched it smolder on the ground, his face a picture of shock and sadness at the loss.

Siph himself had an expression that suggested the result of this attack was not what he had planned it to be. He pulled his fist back and glared at the smoke rising from his gray skin. Had there been any glow, even as little as could be seen on this dark night, the Scod would have been on him in minutes. Even Gard had to report back to Grim about Siph’s behavior.

But no, there was a bigger danger now. Even though he couldn’t say what it was, he could sense it, and his body was reacting on its own.

“What is wrong with you lately?”

Siph didn’t reply. From the base of his spine rose an irrepressible shiver. He felt eyes, and intent, and strength that eclipsed his own like death.

“I really liked that hat.”

“Quiet,” the younger hissed. “It’s time to go back.” Fear was dangerous. It begat ill judgment, lack of self-control. It was something Siph couldn’t trust himself with.

A silent lightning fork lit up the distance as Gard dumped the remains of his hat in a nearby garbage bin. Though Siph called him vapid, that was more to do with attitude than intelligence. Gard couldn’t say he understood his new partner, but he did have an awareness of how urgent Siph’s desire to leave was. For that reason he shoved his hands in his pockets, sulking only a little, and led the way to the bus stop without asking any questions.

Siph, busy trying to pinpoint the source of his fear and following desperately close, could not have answered one anyway.

Chapter 2

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