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A Mortal Machine Novel
By Jocelyn Adams, Tracy Montoya
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Joanne Galbraith
All rights reserved.
My dorm room wall began to unravel as if someone had found a loose thread on the fabric of reality and sped off with it. It happened a lot around me. I didn't know what might be on the other side and what it wanted. Maybe me. I wasn't about to stick around to find out.
Once upon a time I'd have bolted, but I'd trained myself out of advertising my insanity. I just had to get my stuff and leave calmly, like a normal person, so the walls could seal themselves up again as they always did. I wasn't sure how long it took, but when my nerve steadied enough for me to come back, everything would be normal again. Well, as normal as my life ever got.
A nervous laugh gurgled out of me as I gathered the chaos of books from my bed and stuffed them into my backpack. Denial was a wonderful thing, like a rain slicker to keep the deluge of crazy from soaking too deep into my skin. There was not a black hole in my wall. Nothing would come through it and eat me for breakfast. Deluding myself was also necessary, since Dad had mortgaged the cabin to send me to Waterloo University, and I didn't want to lose my ever-loving mind before graduation.
Not even my reality issues would keep me from class today, even if the devil himself spilled out of my wall. Only one thing scared me more than whatever waited out there on the dark side of the veil, and he taught my ancient civilizations class. I'd witnessed firsthand what Professor Green did to people who arrived late to his lecture. I'd rather have taken a hammer to my knuckles.
I checked my watch. Eight-fifteen a.m., leaving me fifteen minutes to hot-foot it across campus to the Arts Lecture Hall, or the AL. I'd have ten minutes to spare, which was cutting it about as close as I'd dare to.
The temperature began to drop, and my next breath frosted the air. I glanced up while hoisting my pack onto my shoulder. The fuzzing around the upper walls had crawled down at least a foot from the ceiling. I had a sudden image of some giant beast lifting the roof off, reaching in a gnarled finger, and scooping me up.
"Time to go, idiot," I said. "What are you waiting for, the apocalypse?" What if whatever was peeling back my reality opened a big enough hole to come through? Like I needed that visual right at the moment. Nope. I just had to get to the AL, and everything would be fine.
I only made it one step toward the door when something slammed into me from every direction at once, like a concussion wave of sound, only I couldn't hear anything.
That was new. A pulse grew inside me like a giant heartbeat that wasn't mine. Or was it in the room? Or from the darkness beyond the wall? I couldn't draw in air, and my legs ignored my command to run. Oh, God!
Before the full dose of panic hit me, the hush and click of a door snapped my attention back to reality. Released from whatever had turned me into a statue, I lurched forward and almost ran into my roommate, Ava. One note of my scream escaped before I shut my mouth. She stood there, black hair hanging in chocolate springs around her heart-shaped face. The sight of her startled expression made me burst out laughing, which, naturally, caused me to spew out another blizzard into the air. Not that she'd notice. Nobody ever did.
I gaped at her, trying and failing to slow my breathing.
One of Ava's dark eyebrows arched up. "God, Addison, could you get any weirder? Why are you hyperventilating again?" she asked, tracing me up and down with her dark brown eyes. She wore skin-tight yoga pants and a T-shirt straining over her perky boobs. Sweat glistened on her forehead and cleavage, probably from a workout with whatever guy she'd knocked nasties with last night.
"I'm not hyperventilating, I was just ... Gotta go." I swallowed another giggle and detoured around her, my braid sliding over my shoulder to dangle down my plaid shirt. My hair was that so-dark brown, close to black but not quite, with a few natural caramel streaks throughout. "See you later."
"I'm surprised you're still here." She went for the inner door that led from my room into hers. It mostly sucked having the only exit in our shared space in my bedroom, especially considering her busy social calendar. I'd wanted the inner room for more privacy, but one flaming-eyeballed look from her, and I'd agreed to the outer one. "Taking your life in your hands, aren't you? Professor Green is going to roast you on a spit if you go there now. And if you don't go, you're out of his class." Mouth curling up with a grin, she shrugged as if thinking that might be entertaining to see on a Friday morning. "I'd really hate to be you right now."
What is she, high? "I've still got fifteen minutes to get there."
I glanced at my watch again. It read 8:45. I'd lost half an hour. "Shit!" I launched out the door and left her yucking it up in my room. God, there were days when I wanted to slip her a sharp piece of my mind.
I supposed she did have a point about my freakishness. I spent most of my life either hyperventilating, laughing hysterically to cover a scream, or staring at the ceiling to make sure it wasn't coming apart. Not to mention I'd just blanked out for thirty minutes and couldn't breathe all of a sudden, which were odd events even for me — so no, I couldn't get any weirder. She still didn't have to say it out loud. It was no wonder I couldn't make any friends and usually spent my time alone with a book. Maybe the thing would scoop her out through the roof. Although once Professor Green got through with me, I might wish it had gone bobbing for me.
I sprinted down the hallway on the third floor of Village Two, the dorm they stuck all of us first years in. Girls on the third floor, guys on the first two. I took the stairs down a few at a time. Maybe he'd go easy if I was panting when I got there? A girl could try.
Spring sunshine smiled through the trees as I clip-clopped along Ring Road, which encircled the campus. Hints of summer warmed the early April breeze, carrying the scent of lilacs and some other white flower that lined the road like some frilly junk old folks set their tea cups on. I wasn't a gardener. If Dad had his way, and he usually did, I'd be a full-fledged chartered accountant.
If I wanted him to put me through university, I had to major in something practical. Since I had bigger aspirations than being a cashier at Walmart, I'd applied to the accounting program and resigned myself to a life of excruciating boredom.
Waterloo was the university in Ontario. If you graduated from there, you were guaranteed a job. Sitting at a desk. Staring at endless scads of spreadsheets and ledgers and crap. God, it was just so ... depressing. Still, my high school marks had been mediocre at best, so when my acceptance letter had shown up in our mailbox, I'd nearly peed my pants.
My dream job was practical to me even if Dad thought I was delusional. I wanted to be a historian, archaeologist, or museum curator. Something that put my hands on cool, old stuff as ancient as the hills and just as interesting, dripping with texture and history and scuff marks from where people long dead had held it just like I would. Okay, so not really practical unless I wanted to live in a big smelly city and probably end up in some dusty archive for the next twenty years while waiting for a decent job to open up — which I didn't, but dreams aren't always rational.
After much pleading on my part, Dad had compromised and let me take one course per year that I wanted to take. Naturally, I'd chosen Professor Green's Ancient Civilizations class. He had a reputation not only for getting nearly violent over lateness and other perceived indiscretions, but for giving fascinating lectures.
I rushed up to the glass double doors of the AL and went inside. My lungs ached. Maybe they'd burst. Maybe, just maybe, that would be a better fate than facing Professor Green. Still, I'd rather take my lumps than be banned from his lecture. I rather enjoyed watching his pants strain across his tight butt as he pointed out interesting features on his slide shows.
Panting, I came to the classroom door, holding still until my nerve calmed. It took a while. For all of the oddness my life handed to me, you'd think I'd be braver. I wasn't. A giant chicken, that's me.
I eased open the door, or tried to. A mournful wail of rusty hinges resounded through the stadium seating full of students riveted to the man standing on the platform at the bottom. I'd totally forgotten about that damn door. He'd probably forbidden the custodians to oil it so nobody could slip in unnoticed.
I stepped inside, painfully aware his hand had stopped moving the dry-erase marker over the white board. The door screeched again and clanged shut. I jumped at the sound. I'd just locked myself in with the beast and holy cow was he pissed. He never went that still unless a category five hurricane of doom blew around on his tongue, which he would soon release upon me, no doubt. I'd seen it happen enough to recognize the warning signs.
A still image of Mayan ruins shone on the screen beside him from the projector dangling from the ceiling. My heart tripped and fell. I'd been waiting all year to get to the Mayans. Why did I have to be late today of all days?
I stalked down the aisle, searching for an empty seat, anxious to hear what he had to say on the subject. Thankfully, I only had to descend a few rows. Head down, I shuffled along the aisle, trying not to play demolition derby with any knees. Most of the girls continued to stare at Green with a dreamy expression, no doubt fantasizing about how they could help him work off his anger without their clothes on. A few people offered me sympathetic gazes. Others smiled, eager for my impending doom.
I dropped into a chair, holding my pack to my chest, the top covering my face to my nose. As if that would keep him from seeing me. He saw everything, like he had eyes in the walls, in the backs of every chair. The ultimate mother-hen-turned-psychotic-cop.
Green turned slowly, his bone-straight jet-black hair glossed under the lights, giving it an almost blue sheen, like a spill of oil in the sun. He wore tan slacks perfectly creased down the legs. Shiny brown shoes polished to a blinding gleam poked out underneath. An Oxford-blue dress shirt covered his broad shoulders, buttoned all the way to his neck and ironed to within an inch of its life. I wondered if he ironed his underwear, too. And maybe his skin.
He appeared way too young and gorgeous to be a full professor, especially one who knew so much about anthropology. From a distance, I'd have put him at early twenty-something, but that had to be wrong. He glared at me with eyes so blue I imagined staring into skies from some far-off world where they had shades of blue I'd never heard of. Bright blue-green, clear as ice, and just as cold. Even though he stood below all of us, he looked at us the way a boot would stare at a herd of ants in its path. Yeah, he'd not only stomp on us all but enjoy the hell out of it, too.
I swallowed, certain everyone could hear it over the hush that had fallen. "I'm sorry," I blurted, jumping at the echo of my too-loud voice in the quiet.
He lowered his butt onto the edge of his desk and crossed his arms, the fabric of his shirt straining over his muscled chest and biceps. Menacing was the word that came to mind whenever he struck that pose. If Lucifer posed for a Calvin Klein photo spread, he'd look like that. Green had the bronzed complexion of someone from across the ocean, maybe the Middle East. A shadow of a beard always lay across his arrogant chin, and I wondered if it bothered him. The rest of him was as clean cut as a razor, but I bet he could have shaved until the cows came home, and he'd never rid himself of that shadow. Was it petty of me to find a little satisfaction that he was one stop short of perfect? Yeah, probably.
"I've changed my mind," Professor Green said at last in the tone of Thor about to unleash lightning on us. Dark, dangerous, and, I had to admit, frighteningly sexy if you liked a little danger in the bedroom. He'd be like riding a wild, prehistoric beast. If you could catch him, had the nerve to climb on, and he didn't tear your face off right away, the ride would be exhilarating, leaving you winded and flushed and hotter than Mount St. Helens' guts.
I wondered what he'd look like without that Oxford on. Um ... what? I righted myself, remembering he was about to give me a public thrashing of some sort and I shouldn't be daydreaming about my professor, no matter how hot and tempting he appeared to be.
I wanted to ask him what he'd changed his mind about, but nobody rushed the man. Two minutes went by. Three. God, why didn't he get it over with?
"Since Plaid here has decided she's more important than the rest of us, I don't feel like teaching today." He withdrew a little green tub of lip balm from his pocket and slathered it on as he often did.
I glanced down at my blue plaid shirt and back at him, frowning. I hadn't really expected him to know my name, but "Plaid"? So what if I liked to be comfortable and unflashy in my country-girl-chic ensemble? Was that a crime? He probably would have commented on my sock-monkey-socks, worn jeans, and scuffed hiking boots if he could have seen them. I was glad he couldn't.
"You will all hand in a paper on the cycles of the Mayan calendar before you leave today," he said, a trace of malignant humor in his crystal tone. "Three thousand words. Double-spaced, handwritten. Begin."
Groans rose, and one guy shouted out, "But we haven't covered that yet."
"Your problem, not mine." Green's strange blue eyes sliced me again, arms still crossed over his spiffy shirt. "If you have a problem with it, I'd suggest taking it up with Plaid after class."
When every eye in the room rolled in their sockets toward me, I froze and worked my throat like crazy to hold in the hysterical laughter that bubbled in there.
Most of the time nobody noticed me. The invisible girl, that's me. I preferred invisible. If anyone did bother to notice, it was usually because I was making a fool of myself while escaping one of my reality-unraveling episodes. Now everyone in the room just hated my guts.
Somebody shoot me.CHAPTER 2
The scritch-scratch of pencils moving on paper filled the lecture hall. The heat of everyone's anger hung in the air like smoke, thick and choking. Could a person pass out from embarrassment? Not even that would get me out of the paper I had to write on the subject we hadn't yet talked about. Good thing I'd already read everything I could find about the Mayans. By the moans and grumbling around the room, I didn't think the rest of the class had been so industrious.
My hand cramped when I started my third page, having finished with the Long Count, the first of the three Mayan calendars, and moved on to the Tzolk'in, the calendar marking religious and ceremonial events and, to me, the most fascinating. I shook my fingers out and rubbed my palm against my jeans, reading over the last paragraph.
While I grinned like a fool over my progress, a current of arctic breath ruffled the downy hairs on my nape. Subtle, but enough that I looked up.
Not again. Piss off, would you! I'd been spilling the words out just fine, but if that thing had followed me to the lecture hall, it would be nearly impossible for me to concentrate. I still hadn't even mentioned the third calendar. I needed to impress Green, and only a completed paper would do.
Darkness fuzzed along the corners of the sloped room where the ceiling met the wall. Maybe it was just a trick of the light. Or I really was losing my mind. Either way, I would not flunk out of the only class I never felt like sleeping in.
My hand and mind worked furiously to fill the rest of the page while I slipped back into glorious denial. The walls were not falling apart. Nothing was out there. Just us ants.
The temperature dive-bombed at least fifteen ticks on the centigrade scale. I imagined most of the brown of my eyes had disappeared, eclipsed by my pupils. They felt stretched, the light too harsh with my shutters open too far. Snow crystals from my breath peppered my hands, stinging with frost and coating my paper. Glancing left and right, I picked up my binder and shook the snow onto the floor — not that any of the other people in the room would see the crystals, anyway. They all slouched over their papers, blissfully unaware.
That little blip of blackness sped back and forth along the wall, unraveling more and more. At least a foot of the dark, icy nothing beyond the wall showed now. It was fast this time. My body shook with cold and the now-familiar terror walking my spine with spiked heels. Hard to deny something when it was so good at being scary.
While I considered how much of an aneurism Green would have if I high-tailed it out of the AL, something shimmered out of the endless, deep black in the front right corner of the room. It slid down the wall and then pushed away from it, sweeping out over the lowered heads of my classmates like a faint, jet-propelled cloud.
Excerpted from Darkside Sun by Jocelyn Adams, Tracy Montoya. Copyright © 2014 Joanne Galbraith. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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