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By Melissa West, Liz Pelletier, Heather Howland
Entangled Publishing, LLC Copyright © 2012 Melissa West
All rights reserved.
Seven Years Later
I stare out my window into the darkness, hoping to see them. But of course, that's stupid. It's only 11:53. They haven't even reached Mainland yet.
I'm supposed to be ready, patch secured, but I hate the patch. The way it suctions to my temples like it wants to crawl right into my brain, leaving me immobilized and blind, yet still able to hear, smell ... feel.
I don't get why we have to wear them, but it's required. Their rule, not ours. Something about an encounter years ago. No one talks about it. No one talks about them at all. Odd considering they control so much of our lives. I haven't slept over at a friend's house since I was little. We can't miss the Taking. And I haven't gone to sleep before midnight since I was nine. I can't sleep during the Taking.
Each night I wait by my window, my curiosity almost too much to stand, while I scan the trees hoping to see one of them emerge. I never have, likely never will. "The Ancients prefer discretion," Mom once told me. But I'm not sure it's that simple. Some say they stay hidden because they're so freakish we'd drop dead of fright. Others say they're too attractive, too tempting.
I prefer this theory.
The leaves rustle outside, a sound kind of like wind. They are here. They're unleashing from the trees this very moment, literally moving from their world to ours. The leaves move in rhythm when they emerge, beautiful and unsettling.
As I step away from the window, the first signs of nervousness crawl up my spine. I'm not afraid of them, or at least I'm not afraid of mine, though maybe I should be. I know next to nothing about it. I don't even know if it's a he or a she.
I remember the first time. I remember being unable to shake or flinch or show fear and wondering if I'd ever be able to move again. Losing sight was terrifying enough. But throw in being unable to move, while the rest of my senses—hearing, touch—were heightened ... I'm not sure how I survived.
That night I was afraid, but that was seven years ago. Now ... I'm not sure how I feel. While fear is part of it, if I'm honest, completely honest, there is something deeper than fear inside me for this thing that climbs in my window. I'm curious ... too curious to be of any good.
My alarm clock beeps. 11:55 shines out in bright red, the date, October 10, 2140, below it.
I rummage through my nightstand and grab the silver case that holds my patch. Hurriedly, I pop the lid, preparing to slap it over my eyes, but jerk back.
I flip the drawer upside down. The contents scatter to the floor in a mess. Oh no, oh no, oh no! This isn't happening. I cover my mouth with my hands and force myself to draw a few breaths. I reach for the case, checking it again. Still empty. Of course it's still empty!
The tin roof of my house tings as they step across it. Sort of like a smattering of rain or, better yet, hail. I press the side panel of my stainless steel bed. The hidden drawer slides open. But after another thirty seconds of searching, I'm still empty-handed. I need the patch. I need the patch. I need the patch.
My eyes scour the room and land on my closet, the last place it's likely to be, but I'm running out of options—and time. I hesitate, glancing around my room, and hear my alarm beep again.
I rush to my closet keypad and jab in the code. The steel doors swing open to reveal my perfectly organized shoes and clothes and handbags—perks of being the Engineer commander's daughter. I search the floor, then yesterday's clothes pile, hoping the patch is buried inside. It's not. I scramble out of my closet and to my desk, kicking the chair out of the way.
My hands have just reached into the drawer when the final beep jars me.
11:59. It's time.
The keypad outside my window sings out with the familiar ten-digit code. I run to my bed and lie down, clenching my eyes shut. My heart beats wildly in my chest. I'm on the verge of hyperventilating. If I make it through tonight, I'll either be executed or dosed with memory serum. That's the human punishment, anyway, but how will the Ancients respond? What about my Ancient? There have been stories, old legends—disappearances. Which is why no one is stupid or reckless enough to lose the patch.
Beep. Beep. Beep. 12:00.
The floor-to-ceiling window slides open, letting in a gentle breeze. An earthy smell, like pine or freshly mown grass, fills the room. Their smell. It creeps in, making only the tiniest of sounds, and then the springs of my bed creak. Warmth surrounds me and nervous sweat oozes from every gland in my body, but still I hold my eyes tight. My body tenses, a reflex of years of combat training preparing me to fight if necessary. I feel arms on either side of me, and then air as its body lifts and hovers above me, preparing for the Taking.
The heat intensifies. It bounces back and forth, back and forth. Our bodies make the connection. Now the waiting as the antibodies it needs are sucked from my body into its body.
Five minutes pass, then ten, maybe more. I've tried to count many times but lose track with each breath it releases upon me. Has it noticed I'm not wearing the patch? Surely so, but then wouldn't it say something—do something? I don't know. Chills run over my body, and I fight to push them away. I need to focus, think. And then it happens.
A single drop of liquid hits my lip, and reflexively I lick it away. My taste buds explode with flavor. A perfect mixture of sweet and sour, warm and cold. I've felt the droplets before but only ever a single drop. I hardly gave it notice. Another drop and another.
My eyes fly open and round out in shock.
It—he—hovers above me as light as air. A bright glow encircles him. His eyes are closed. A sweet smile rests on his perfect face. Another drop hits my cheek, and I glance up to see tiny teardrops slip from his eyes, as though the Taking is too overwhelming to handle.
I should move. I should speak. I should do something, but I can't look away. I want to reach out to him. Touch his face to see if he's real. Because he can't be ... this can't be. Yet it is.
My Ancient is Jackson Locke.
Athletic. Smart. Arrogant. The kind of boy all the girls notice at school but few are comfortable enough to talk to. He leads in everything he does ... and he's my great competition for top seed.
My mind replays every instance I can remember of seeing him. He looked so normal—looks so normal. But he's here. So he must be ...
His eyes snap open and, startled, I jerk up in bed, slamming into him. He crashes down on top of me. "Hey!" I fight to get his giant six-foot body off me.
"Shhh. Are you crazy?"
"What are you doing here?" I ask, my voice shrill.
"Be quiet! We don't want to— Oh no." His head jerks to the window. "No faith, that's for sure," he mutters, and I shake my head in confusion. He isn't making any sense. I strain to listen, but I can't hear or see anything at all. Then I realize someone is coming. Another Ancient. I'd forgotten about Dad's and Mom's Ancients. They may have been in the house when I screamed. For the first time since losing my patch, fear grips my chest, coursing through my body like an electrical pulse.
Jackson's gaze falls on mine. "Ari ..." he whispers. "I know how this looks and I can explain, I can, but not now. Tomorrow night."
His head jerks to the window again, and I feel his body tense against mine. I don't know what to say. I don't know what to think. All I know is that I'm in trouble, maybe even we 're in trouble, yet all I can think about is the way he just said my name. Ari. Not with menace or sarcasm or jealousy, like I'm used to from everyone—including him, the few times we've faced each other at school. He says it like I'm more than just a girl who everyone recognizes but no one sees.
He looks back down at me. "Close your eyes," he whispers. "We have to finish the Taking."
I hesitate, not wanting to be so vulnerable, but eventually close my eyes. What choice do I have? Seconds tick by, then minutes. The heat returns. He's over me again. Then a soft tap sounds against the window.
Jackson lowers himself off the bed. I want to steal a peek, but fear forces me to stay still, eyes shut tight.
A conversation starts low, too low for me to hear. Sort of like a fly buzzing close to your ear. I ache to move closer, to hear what they're saying. Jackson's tone hardens.
"No," he says. "Same as usual. I'm done. Let's head back."
"She can't move," he says, which would be true if I were wearing the patch. But I'm not, which he knows. He's protecting me.
"Yes, it's fine. I'm sure."
Why is he protecting me? Hosts are assigned. He has known me most of my life. The revelation sends my mind into turbo mode. He knew me all along yet has never given me a moment's notice in school. Do the Engineers know? Does Dad know?
My mind continues to contemplate everything I've always known and everything I've never guessed, until the sweet smell of his skin evaporates. The window slides open and clicks closed.
Everything that just happened is swarming my thoughts at once, but one thought rises above all the others ...
I'm not sure I can wait until tomorrow night to find out what's going on.CHAPTER 2
I jerk up in bed, my eyes darting around for Jackson before I remember that he already left. I yank off the covers. What time is it? Time, time, come on, where are you? I stumble through the darkness until I find my alarm clock, which is facedown on the floor. 5:10. I spin around, cursing myself for not setting out training clothes last night.
I'm almost to my closet when my bedroom door slides open and my dad storms in. He's so tall his head barely clears the doorframe. As usual, he looks as though he wakes already dressed for the day—gelled dark brown hair, smooth shave—except that instead of his usual black collared shirt and slacks, he has on his training clothes. Uh oh. Since Dad is too rigid to be normal, he fully dresses for the day when he works in his home office during the hour before our training. The fact that he's already changed means I'm even later than I thought.
"Do you see the time?" he asks. "I expected you downstairs ten minutes ago. You know my schedule. I—"
"I know, I know, I'm sorry. My alarm didn't go off. I'm almost ready. Give me five minutes." I fumble with my closet keypad, entering the code wrong three times before I get it right.
Dad crosses his arms, oozing disappointment and annoyance. Heat rises on my neck and my palms grow clammy, like my body can't decide whether to be angry or embarrassed. "Fine, you have five minutes," he says. "But I expect you to take this seriously." He reaches for my nightstand. "I'll log your patch—"
"No!" I race to the nightstand and slam the drawer before he can pull out my patch case. The case that, once placed in our reader, will show my patch missing. I don't think the Ancients require executions anymore, but memory serum sucks. Every kid has been given it for accidentally forgetting the patch or not putting it on correctly ... and none of us ever wants to get it again. No memories for twenty-four hours. A whole day gone, and that's precautionary. The whole thing leaves you feeling violated.
Dad cocks his head. "What are you doing?"
"Nothing," I say as I plant myself between him and the evidence.
"Your patch case. Now."
"I'll do it, Dad, really. You go set up." I fight the urge to cringe. I can't let him know I have an ulterior motive.
He hesitates but marches from the room. As soon as he leaves, I slump against my bed and draw a long breath. I feel like I've lied to him, even though I didn't say a single untrue word. With him gone, the events of last night flash through my mind like lightning, one after the other, each more confusing than the last.
I think back to yesterday when Coach revealed he and I were the top two seeds. Jackson had nodded toward me and I to him, respectful. I tried not to watch him fight after that, but I couldn't help it. It's hard to avoid watching your biggest competition. I watched as he quickly beat his opponent and felt a tinge of jealousy. He made it look so easy. Now I know why.
I get dressed in a daze, throwing on the stretchy gray pants and tank Dad had designed for our training, and head downstairs. The case reader is visible from the bottom step, implanted in the wall, sort of like a safe except with a glass front. Mom and Dad already placed their cases inside. Each has a green light beside it, letting us know all is well ...and no investigation will be commencing. I have no idea how the Ancients are assigned to us or, more likely, how we are assigned to them, considering they are the ones who require the patch and monitor the case readers. But it seems odd that of all the people in our city of Sydia, Jackson Locke is assigned to me.
The reader activates as I near. I press my thumb into the fingerprint scanner, causing the glass to slide open. A cold mist releases from the box and I wonder, not for the first time, what they do to the patches when analyzing them. I fiddle with the case in my hand, hoping the device won't detect the missing patch. Maybe I can tell Mom I lost it. No, she'll tell Dad, and even he won't be able to save me from this. I lift the case up and then lower my hand, up again, then drop it. Blast!
Finally after several seconds of staring, I drop my case in its slot and back away, my eyes clenched tight. I hear the glass close. Then something magical happens—it clicks off. I open one eye and see a green light beside my case. I can't help it. I have to check.
I press my thumb into the scanner, and once the glass lifts, grab the case and pop the lid, preparing to slam it back into its slot, but stop cold. My patch is there, silver and shiny and staring at me as innocent as ever. My mouth drops. How did it ...? I shove the case back and rush from the scene before whatever just happened reverses and my patch goes missing again.
I think to last night. It wasn't there. I had dumped my case upside down. I checked everywhere in my bedroom. Yet ... maybe it was a dream. And if I imagined that, then maybe I imagined Jackson, too. My mind replays his face, his eyes, the way his jaw looked so strong, confident. I didn't imagine it.
I need to tell Dad, but if I do I'll get interrogated and dosed with memory serum for sure. I release a long breath. I have to tell him but not yet. I need to question Jackson first.
I step over to our transfer door. The glass lifts, and once I'm inside, the elevator shoots down to one of the most advanced training rooms in the city. The four gray walls appear ordinary, but these walls are temp-treated, soundproof, and able to absorb a bullet without causing it to ricochet back. Dad structures the rest of the room according to our training schedule. Last year, there were four shooting stations. Now, the room is empty except for the combat mat positioned in the center. Dad is already on it, bouncing around as though he's still a trainee. Sometimes I think he wishes he still were one, which is why he pushes me so hard. Reliving it and all.
"I'm here," I say without looking at him.
"Put on your gear."
The air-conditioning blows through the air ducts in the ceiling. I shiver as I pass underneath one. He knows I hate being cold. I yank a pair of gloves from the weapons shelves against the left wall and walk back to the mat. I bounce for a second, finding my balance, and then slide on the gloves.
I tilt my head to the side until my neck cracks, an anxious response, Dad tells me, but I do it to remind myself that I'm tough. Dad waves me forward with his hands. He likes me to take the first jab, so he can tell me what I did wrong and then test my blocking ability by demonstrating on me. Any other day, I'd go along with it, but I don't have time for this today.
The sooner I finish training, the sooner I can get to Jackson.
I flip forward and switch kick, aiming for his face, but he grabs my foot, spinning me around so I land hard on the mat. I bounce up and jab, not letting him stop to demonstrate, and end up clipping his jaw. I cringe, unsure of what he'll say or do.
Excerpted from Gravity by Melissa West, Liz Pelletier, Heather Howland. Copyright © 2012 Melissa West. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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