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.

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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

A Random Excerpt


School and work have been doing everything possible to monopolize my time lately. Since this means no time for writing anything unrelated to those, I’m posting a random excerpt from my novel, Smoldering, to make up for it. 🙂


His stomach was bothering him again. Siph realized that he hadn’t eaten in almost two full shifts, but dreaded running into Gard in the cafeteria. He checked his watch; it had only been fifteen minutes since their return. That annoying man would still be stalking the buffet line.

He paused in a corridor on the third floor, just outside the library. Books might distract him for a time. There was one he’d wanted to finish, before Reeves assigned him to linguist-finding duty. But the library was rarely empty during the fifth shift; Advisor Grimmolden tended to monopolize it then, and not even through any real intent on his part. Siph considered it. Vexatious buffoon, or cantankerous fossil?

The only noise was a faint click from the ornate door handle as Siph pressed down on it. He entered with cautious footsteps and, seeing no one, turned to close the door again just as quietly. Grim didn’t seem to be nearby, though that left plenty of other places.

The library was the largest room in the entire Hub, if it could even be counted as a single room. Like the cafeteria, it was located in the very outer curve of the spiral, taking up every inch from the inner wall to the outer wall. Though there were no interior doors, the occasional pair of floor-to-ceiling bookcases marked a division in the type of material to be found in any given area. As the ceiling was at least thirty feet above Siph’s head, this created quite an impressive effect. Altogether, there were five sections: that just beyond the doors, with three long tables and three rows of dark wooden bookshelves to either side of the walkway. These, along with those shelves along the walls, made up the Earthly portion of the Scod’s information. Siph imagined because of this section’s placement and bulk that the organization’s founder had to be human.

The fourth pair of bookshelves pressed against the ceiling, dividing the Earth reference books from those of Valakao on the right, and the smaller Etherín section on the left. In the darkest corner, just behind Etherín, the once negligible Zalú section was now so large it had needed a balcony built to hold the extra shelves, and so essentially took up two claustrophobic floors. The remaining corner of the library contained the same picture windows as the other floors and an expanse of reading tables.

Siph went all the way to the back, keeping an eye out for Grim, and slipped in among the cramped shelves of Zalút history. He climbed the ladder to the balcony — and almost fell off when he found Advisor Grimmolden sitting on the floor just in front of him, sucking on a pipe.

“Seriously?” the young man asked in monotone, pushing himself out of the hole in the floor.

“Says the one come to disturb my peace,” the older replied.

Grimmolden was, in fact, not as old as he liked to look. Though he kept his beard long and his paunch somewhat round, he had very few wrinkles and very many opportunities to show off his well-preserved biceps. His eyes, fierce for a human, reflected his personality, as would his thin line of a mouth were it visible beneath the beard. Siph thought the man had probably obtained his clothing from Earth sometime in the 1920’s, considering the current unavailability of plaid trousers with suspenders.

“I just came for a book.”

“Oh, then by all means, be as inconsiderate as you want.”

Siph revised his idea of the man not wanting to chase people away.

No longer concerned about his noise level, he passed through the nearest aisle to the spot where he’d hidden his book so no one else would check it out. The lamp attached to the top of the bookcase didn’t quite reach here, but his eyes were good enough that he didn’t need it.

The book was not there. He scanned the shelf again, then those around it, one at a time. He passed along the entire wall, checking the spine of each volume. There wasn’t even a gap where it would have been.

Something dawned on Siph. He turned to Grimmolden, thinking that in three years, he had never seen a librarian; and yet the books were always in perfect order.

Grim seemed to feel Siph’s anger, and looked up with a glint in his eye. “What? Don’t tell me,” he said, lifting an open book from his lap, “that this is the one you wanted?”

Siph could tell from the red cover that it was. He could also tell that Grimmolden was in the same mood as when he’d tried to strangle Daus in the cafeteria less than a month before. “No,” he replied, stepping toward the ladder. “I think mine was downstairs after all.”

“Some very interesting things in this book.” Grim flipped through the pages, finally closing the cover and getting to his feet. “Ngoshi traditions, like Coming of Age Day. The fact that each family has a different tradition involving an ancestral relic.” He held up the volume as though mocking Siph with it. “After living a good many years, I can still think of only one reason you would want to look at this. Just know, boy, that if I ever catch you doing so, I will throw you at the warden and let him hang you for a month. Understand?”

Siph’s skin began to itch, and he knew that threads of red energy were appearing beneath the gray. For the sake of the books, he took deep breaths and tried to reign in his heat. But he did not drop Grimmolden’s gaze. “That demon is after me. If I know nothing of what he wants, how am I supposed to protect myself?”

“Protect yourself?” Grim seemed to find this funny at first, but his amusement quickly vanished. He shook the little red book at Siph. “Protect yourself? Boy, you’re going to be the one to destroy yourself, and probably that whole world along with you!” He dropped the volume on a nearby table, pulled at his suspenders with both hands, and wandered towards the ladder, grumbling under his breath.

When his hands had cooled enough, Siph retrieved his literature. There was no use arguing with the old bastard. What was true was true.

Siph pulled out a chair, adjusted the table lamp, and found the page he’d marked with a scrap of old ribbon. He no longer thought about going to the cafeteria; his stomach was too hot for hunger.

The Lake of Dusk at Dawn


There were rings, and there were speckles; when a breeze came through there were also waves that changed the way the light hit the water, racing through the green and flicking it to blue almost like a set of collapsing dominoes. When the wind couldn’t decide which way to blow, the light danced across the surface of the lake like a million tiny fish scattering. Around the water rose the edges of its limestone bed, a thin strip of sloping rock bordered on the outside by short grasses as green as emerald — with a golden glow. The forest began not far from there, filled with rust-colored tree trunks and foliage of green, red, blue, pink, every color imaginable, each dyed a little more orange by the light of the eternally setting sun. Only the water of the lake maintained its own colors, if you could call them such; for this lake did not reflect the world that existed above its surface.

Nothing lived near the lake. Its magic was such that, though deer and many small animals roamed the forest, some instinct kept them away from the water’s edge. However lost, none would approach it; however thirsty, none would drink from it. The grass remained untread upon.

The forest’s name was Tashgard. The lake was called the Lake of Dusk at Dawn, and it was a legend known only to the Yuyak, who guarded it from within Tashgard, and the Peesh, who once guarded it from their own world.

But therein was the problem: the Peesh were gone, and a creature known as man, ever ambitious, crept closer and closer toward his discovery of this lake that, no matter what time of day, reflected only the fiery orange glow of sunset upon its waters.

Mount Fuji Story (part 1)


If there was one place I’d never expected my outwardly boring, sedentary life of languages would lead me, it was to Mount Fuji for a night I almost didn’t walk away from.

From April to August 2009 I studied at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. Though it was my second time studying in Japan, the length of my first trip, only one month, had left me unable to experience much of the Japan I’d wanted to see. By the end of this second trip, however, I’d visited Hokkaido, Shikoku, and rural Kyoto Prefecture with a competitive yosakoi dance team. I’d experienced Tokyo long enough to know it was not my cup of tea, and Hiroshima long enough to feel guilty about being an American. And still it never occurred to me to visit the sacred mountain, until some of my dorm mates invited me along.

The six of us departed immediately after the university’s semester completion ceremony: Brian, the mastermind behind the trip; Michelle, his girlfriend; Kevin and Zealyn, an adorable but non-athletic couple; Miho, our Japanese friend and guide; and me, the complete mountain-climbing novice. We had little time to prepare. As early in the evening as possible I shed my yukata and biked home from the ceremony in shorts and a tanktop. The backpack I’d borrowed from a friend revealed itself to have much less room inside than appeared, and beyond the necessary toiletries and a light coat I dithered about what to pack. On Brian’s advice, I added a change of clothes, a light sweater, a two-liter bottle of Pocari Sweat sport drink, and a ziploc bag of cereal.

The idea to consult the internet for other mountain climbing essentials never crossed my mind.

My part of the journey began with Miho and a very long walk to the Hanazono train station, where we met the others and took the train to Fujinomori. This station, despite the name, was still in Kyoto, just south of Fushimi Inari. From there, a private bus drove us overnight to the mountain. Knowing it would be suicide to climb under the influence of sleep deprivation, I tried to make myself comfortable during the journey, but soon watched the dawn creep in with no idea whether I’d slept at all. With the lightening of the sky the bus turned uphill, leaving behind the little wooden houses on the outskirts of Fujinomiya City. Except for the road, there were no signs of human invasion here; only trees with trunks as dark as forest earth and leaves as green as gems, and beneath them a carpet of bright green scrub. A mist lingered all around us even as dawn passed into the fuller light of morning.

Around seven we pulled up in a broad parking lot filled with hikers, a few other buses, and a number of crewmen in orange uniforms. This was Go-goume, or the Fifth Station of ten on the way to the summit. Toward the outside of the plateau was a three-story building of the style one might expect from a Swiss mountain lodge. Beside it stood a more modern unit that boasted “green tea” and “food.” We went into the first and discovered it was a souvenir shop, but didn’t linger long. Brian, not just the leader but also the most experienced mountaineer among us, wanted to get a good lead early in the climb so that we’d have nothing to worry about later.

“It should take us seven hours to get up and about four hours to get down,” he said. “That’s what they say. Just keep in mind is that the bus leaves at eight tonight, and if we’re not on it we’re screwed.”

Though it was misty enough that we couldn’t see the trail more than fifty feet away, let alone any part of the mountain above our heads, I spent the first hour or so in perfect serenity. The trail was wide and easy, the forest silent, my friends and fellow hikers cheery. Every few minutes a traveler would come down the black trail on horseback. The trees grew horizontally from the sloping earth and bent and twisted as they reached over each other into abyss. Despite their bizarre appearance, I thought the whole scene beautiful.

After a while the trees grew scraggly, then disappeared altogether and left us in a strange wasteland. Here, the bare mountain had been carved into and was held up by thick walls of rust-colored rebar, grids of steel, and steps formed by wooden slats to keep the ground level. This path zig-zagged across the unfortunate mountain face. Underfoot we were sometimes lucky enough to have dirt strewn with pebbles, sometimes troubled by a full layer of slippery, fist-sized rocks. Oddly enough the vegetation began to return in the form of little green shrubs as we came upon the Sixth Station, where we took our first rest and waited for Kevin and Zealyn to catch up.

Though later parts of the climb were more memorable, the Sixth Station definitely had, in my opinion, the grandest view on the whole mountain. The sun came out at last, allowing me to remove my sweater and enjoy the fresh air. Sitting on a wooden bench at the very edge of the station, Michelle and I looked over the railing to see the top of a cloud just above our heads. Its bottom hung low over the trail below us, and it was then that I realized what we’d been walking through the whole time — not fog, but pure, ozone-filled clouds.

I made the mistake of expressing my discovery to Brian, who got a good laugh out of it. He and Kevin loved to mock me for being a flat-lander and a tropical freak — in other words, Floridian. Most amusing to them was the fact that my fingernails literally turn blue in anything less than seventy degree weather. In fact, I still wonder if some amount of sadism helped inspire their invitation to me for this trip.

(To be continued.)

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