Shape of Secrets is the second novel in the loosely interrelated collection known as 46. Ascending. Each novel tells the tale of an otherwise normal person coming to terms with having unusual abilities. The stories are designed to be read in any order as they overlap in time and build upon each other in all directions.
Excerpt 1 (from Chapter 1. The Question)
One afternoon, Zane took a deep breath as he watched Balthazar change colors, and he forced back his fear and made himself remember that time last summer. Zane’s dad had made him go outside and play, and he had gotten stuck in a game of hide and seek with neighbor boys he didn’t like. They did more mean things than most, so Zane hid well because he did not like to be “it” with these guys.
As one boy came close to the bushes where he hid, Zane saw his bare foot sticking out onto the orange-brown soil. He dare not move it, so he thought hard about his foot muscles and did his best to flatten the foot tight against the ground, and hold it still.
The skin on his foot had started to burn and itch and an alarmed Zane saw his foot was blushing. At least, it had turned an orange brown that mimicked the dirt. It had been his first inkling he could do more than make his body’s shape twist and warp. Zane watched his orange brown foot in fascination while the neighbor boy ran by.
Every so often after that, Zane’s skin would surprise him in the same way his muscles did. He could feel a color change coming, but didn’t know how to control it. He figured he needed a wise teacher, like Balthazar.
“Can I learn to do that when I want to, wise one?” he asked his chameleon. He tried to make the feeling he felt when his skin did this. He concentrated hard on his arm. At first nothing happened. Then, yes. He felt the feeling. He made the feeling. His skin went from its normal light tan to a tan orange. Zane’s grin widened.
“You and I are going to be great friends,” Zane told Balthazar. “You can teach me ways to fight bullies and you’ll be the only one who knows how strange I am.”
Zane could have sworn Balthazar turned even brighter in delight.
Excerpt 2 (from Chapter 3. Selling Trust)
Toby was considering whether he should buy more pineapples. Samoan pineapples were tasty and he loved them, but he didn’t want more than he could eat before they spoiled. He was concerned he had bought more fish than he could eat, but it was too late to remedy that.
He looked behind him and saw a young man with unusually straight jet-black hair and a Polynesian’s round face with East Asian eyes. A genetic blend of the Pacific Rim, the young man was wandering along the dock near the back of his boat. He was thin and wiry for a local, and looked harmless as he took off his shirt and shoes as though he were thinking of jumping into the water. Toby glanced away, giving himself one last minute to enjoy the sight of the pretty harbor with the older wooden houses and shops framed by the fast-rising hills and dense trees. He heard a splash he assumed was made by the young man going for his swim, and turned to focused on getting the rest of his gear aboard.
He started his engine, preferring to use it to get in and out of a harbor, then he noticed three stout Samoan men wearing the traditional wrap around lava-lavas marching towards his boat as though they had made a decision.
The oldest of the three waved at him and shouted. “Stop your engines. We need to check your boat for a missing boy. We saw him heading onto this dock.”
“Oh, sure, I saw him,” Toby yelled back as he waved a hand agreeably, pointing towards a shirt lying on the wooden pier. “He jumped in the water here. He didn’t bother me.”
“We’d like to make sure he’s not on your boat,” the Samoan persisted as the three men approached the craft. Toby shrugged. “Look for yourself.”
There wasn’t much looking to do on his vessel. Seating for up to six was above deck, and below was a cabin with a head and separate shower, a compact galley area and sleeping areas for up to five, depending on what was raised or lowered. The men boarded without further courtesy, which irked Toby. He was sensitive to people walking into his home. One man methodically began opening each of his storage areas above deck, while another descended below and opened the door to the head to reveal a small toilet seat with no one on it.
“I’ve been right here. I promise you he is not onboard,” Toby added with growing irritation, not so anxious to have this bunch of strangers pawing through his possessions, legal though they were. “Please gentleman, I would like to be on my way.”
The man who had opened the door to the head ignored him, opening the larger storage areas located below deck, starting with those beneath the sleeping and sitting areas. One was filled with kitchen supplies, another held clothes and toiletries, yet another lifejackets. He shrugged to his cohorts.
“We guess he jumped in the water then. Let us know if you see him. He could be dangerous.”
Toby’s dark brown eyes widened. “What’s he done?”
“We don’t know details. He’s one of the young men being kept at that special schools for troubled teens. These kids are lavished with good care and opportunities but sometimes they don’t realize what they’ve been given, and they try to escape so they can return to their troubled ways. We help the school by returning the misguided ones. He’s better off at this school, believe me. If he does turn up, do him a favor and let us know.”
“I will. Thanks for telling me.”
Well that was a new one, Toby thought. Maybe these men had a point. He didn’t even realize there were schools for, what, misguided youth. Go figure.
He had gotten safely past both reefs and was tacking slightly under a nice slow breeze, heading northwest on a course for Funafuti, when he decided to go below and grab some water. A movement caught his eye. The lid to one of the smaller storage areas was opening slowly. No person could fit into that space. Toby felt a surge of fear, and looked around for something to use as a weapon.
He grabbed a knife as the stowaway tumbled to the floor in a mess of ropes. A small young man in the briefest of underwear rose slowly, shook himself as he stood, then turned to face Toby with apology in his eyes.
“I am so sorry. And sorry about no clothes. Please do not hurt me. Please.”
Toby took a deep breath and decided to hear the other side to the story.
Excerpt 3 (from Chapter 6. The Laws of Nature)
It was hard not to like Peter Hulson when one talked to him in person. In spite of his age, he had a liveliness about him, and his sharp, bright blue eyes were probing but not unfriendly. He shook Zane’s hand warmly, gestured him onto a soft green velvet-covered settee and offered Zane water or coffee. Zane passed, although he wasn’t sure if it was ruder to accept or to decline. He allowed himself an appreciative peek at the surprisingly unobstructed view of Lake Michigan.
“I’ll get right to the point, young man,” Peter began, drawing his attention back. “It’s well known I am always seeking bright new young people, and I like to mentor them myself. I get a fair amount of grief from my VPs about it being beneath my pay grade, but the fact is I want my company to thrive for a very long time. The way I see it, that only happens if I can hand the reins over to at least two more generations of focused and brilliant successors.”
A swirl of sorrow came and went from his face so quickly Zane thought he might have imagined it. The older man kept talking.
“I’m finding these brilliant successors to be a bit in short supply. But, you’ve landed on our doorstep with excellent grades from an exceptional school, and managed to get yourself in a position reporting directly to my director of sales and marketing. Word is she thinks you have excellent potential.”
Zane tried to smile appreciatively.
“Excellent potential.” Peter repeated the words for emphasis. “I don’t think there are two finer words in the English language. So I’d like to personally do what I can to encourage you.”
Zane tried to make the smile even more appreciative because he had no idea what to say.
“Would you consider a trip to Fiji to be encouragement?”
Okay, he could answer this one.
“Yes. I think most people would.”
The older man chuckled. “Good, good. Brenda and Gil are in the process of putting together an important conference for us and I’ve told them to spare no expense. We believe we can save families huge amounts of grief by providing a treatment to guide young people into making more mature and acceptable choices. Mind you, the drugs aren’t new, but the combination and the approach are. This conference in Fiji will introduce our new product in the most favorable light possible, so its success is important. I’ve okayed sending Brenda to Fiji late this month to do a recon and I want you to go with her. Help her with travel and logistics, but also keep your eyes open and your brain on. Help us find ways to make this symposium better. Have ideas for us, Zane. Think for us. Will you do that?”
Of course Zane said yes. He said it sincerely and shook the man’s hand and thanked him. Because Zane wasn’t an idiot.
But on the ride back down on the elevator, Zane kept seeing his fourteen-year-old sister Teddie’s face. She had anger. She had issues. More than he’d had at that age, for sure. But she also had a huge heart and a creative streak a mile wide and Zane really wondered if both Teddie and the world would be better off if some doctor was convinced to medicated her.