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.”
“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.