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.”
“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,” 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?”
“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.