by Melissa West
Don’t. Ever. Peek.
Seventeen-year-old Ari Alexander just broke that rule and saw the last person she expected hovering above her bed—arrogant Jackson Locke, the most popular boy in her school. She expects instant execution or some kind of freak alien punishment, but instead, Jackson issues a challenge: help him, or everyone on Earth will die.
Ari knows she should report him, but everything about Jackson makes her question what she’s been taught about his kind. And against her instincts, she’s falling for him. But Ari isn’t just any girl, and Jackson wants more than her attention. She’s a military legacy who’s been trained by her father and exposed to war strategies and societal information no one can know—especially an alien spy, like Jackson. Giving Jackson the information he needs will betray her father and her country, but keeping silent will start a war.
From the author:
Melissa West has committed to donating 10% of her earnings for the entire Taking Series, beginning with GRAVITY, to the American Cancer Society. For full details, please visit the American Cancer Society page on her blog.
Praise for Gravity:
“Gravity is a nonstop action thrill ride set in a richly imagined
sci-fi version of Earth, featuring a bold heroine who knows how to fight,
just not who she should be fighting for. Start reading and you won’t. Ever. Stop.”
– Jennifer Bosworth, author of Struck
“”A thrilling debut packed with action and mystery. Aliens never looked so good.”
– USA TODAY bestselling author Jennifer L. Armentrout
© 2012 Melissa West
The T-screen in our family room crackles just before President Cartier fills the screen. I wonder briefly if Lawrence is watching him, too, like the rest of America, or if he was given an advance showing. After all, the president is his grandfather. I remember the first time I met President Cartier. He was less gray then, less wrinkled. He was joking that Lawrence was too mature for a six-year-old and asked me to take him under my wing, teach him how to be young.
Now four years later, staring into the T-screen on one of the biggest nights of my life, I wish I had some of Lawrence’s maturity. I wish I weren’t so…afraid.
President Cartier smiles widely into the camera and begins his talk. It’s prerecorded—the same talk given every year to each new group of ten-year-olds. I’m told they used to show the video in class on the first day of school, but so many children left crying that they felt doing it at home was better. I’m not so sure. Right now, it’s eight o’clock in the evening, which means I have only four hours until they come—four hours to prepare.
“Ladies and gentlemen of our beloved nation,” President Cartier begins. “Today marks the first day of your journey to adulthood. It is not to be taken lightly. But rest assured, your parents and older siblings sitting with you have endured this same talk. Time has not changed our process, which, in the very least, should bring you comfort.”
He smiles again, this time in that condescending way that adults do. It’s supposed to reassure us. It doesn’t.
“Parents, please hand over your child’s Taking patch.”
Daddy holds out the tiny silver case to me, the silver catching the light from the composite crystal chandelier above us. I try to steady my hands as I sit it in my lap, my legs jumping ever so slightly.
“Now, boys and girls, please listen carefully to these instructions, as they will not be repeated.”
The screen dims and an image appears of America just before the fall. A voice-over blasts from the T-screen, explaining all the things I already know. Power led to the most destructive war in our history—World War IV. The screen cuts to the full scope of the nuclear war, showing city after city, at first beautiful and strong, and then the bomb hits and there is nothing left but rubble and smoke and sadness. Our world, decimated and no longer able to thrive.
I lower my eyes from the screen, hoping Daddy doesn’t notice. The commander doesn’t appreciate weakness, even in his daughter, but it saddens me to think how far we fell. I lift my head again and focus back on the screen, anxiously awaiting the important part—the part where the Ancients attacked.
I watch as the screen changes to the alien crafts arriving in our skies, watch as more and more appear until they look like large flocks of birds. There are too many to count. Too many to defend against. We now know that they are older than us as a species, much older. Thousands of years older than the first known existence of man, though I’ve often wondered how they know. Did one of them tell us? Is it a guess? Regardless, that is how we now know them as the Ancients. What they were called before, I’m not sure. Though I can imagine the people of the time thought of something more appropriately frightening than alien.
“Please pay attention, Ari,” Mom says, motioning to the screen.
I clear my throat and nod. I didn’t realize I was staring at my patch case, hard in my hand. It’s small. Maybe eight inches long and four wide. And inside…inside rests the single most frightening thing any of us has ever held. Our patch.
The screen cuts again to the signing of the Treaty of 2090. The five leaders of Earth with the Ancient leader, though there was no Ancient present that day, or at least not visible to us. I know little to nothing about what they actually are or what they looked like prior to our agreement. I know only what the current Ancient leader looks like and he looks human, though most say they aren’t really like us. It’s an illusion. Some say they’re made of water. Some say plant. Others say they are no form at all, existing yet not—at least not in the way we do. I’m not sure. Still, there is an empty chair present at the table, as though the Ancient leader sits there, bored, waiting for the meeting to adjourn.
The screen zooms in on the treaty, to the six signatures that agree to our new role. From that moment on, we were no longer just human beings—we were hosts. We provide them with antibodies through the Taking so they can survive life on Earth, which is the only reason we’re alive. Had their bodies responded to Earth as they had hoped, we would all be gone. Genocide of the human species. Instead, they needed us—and we needed them. Our planet was destroyed, and they alone possessed the ability to terraform Earth back to health. Could we have done it on our own? Yes, but not before millions died of dehydration or starvation. We needed an answer quickly. They needed a new planet. And so the treaty was signed and we agreed to follow their rules.
President Cartier returns, another fake smile on his face. “You now understand our history and the importance of what you are about to embark upon. Please remove your patches from their cases and let us go through the proper Taking protocol for this evening.”
I slip my hand over my patch case and pop the lid open, exposing the tiny silver patch inside. It’s as light as composite silk, as smooth as water. Two large oval pieces connected by a thin one-inch piece of cloth that goes over the bridge of your nose. I lift the patch into my hand and hear a nearly silent buzzing from it, as though it’s alive—though I know that must be whatever Chemist technology is within it that allows the patch to immobilize us.
I run my thumb easily over the fabric. It doesn’t look or feel so scary. Then President Cartier instructs us to put on our patches and I feel my body turn to stone. My eyes widen as they lift to the T-screen.
“Go on, dear,” Mom says from beside me. She pats my knee easily and smiles brightly. “It’s okay.”
“I thought we did it at night?” I say, my voice small.
“We do. This is just a test. It allows you to feel the sensation with us around you. That way you are less afraid. Let me help.” She takes the patch from my hand and starts for my face.
“Wait,” I say, fighting to keep my voice steady. “What’s going to happen? What will I see? How will I get it back off? What if I can’t—”
“It’s okay,” she says again. Then she leans closer to me and I feel my breath catch. I don’t want to do this. Please don’t make me do this.
And then the smooth cloth slides over my eyes, blinding me. I relax for only a moment, then the patch suctions around my eyes as though laced into the bone, and I feel it against my temple, pressing, digging in. I want to pull it away. I scream out for Mom to help me and hear her say over and over that it’s okay, everything’s okay.
Briefly, I hear President Cartier’s voice in the background. He explains the Taking, how our bodies don’t feel the Ancients receiving our antibodies. How our daily supplements guarantee we have plenty. How our assigned Ancient will come into our room at midnight and how the Ancient will Take for thirty minutes before returning to Loge, their planet. The patch then deactivates, he says. I wonder why he’s saying all of this so quickly and then I know.
As though someone turned off the sound, I can no longer hear. I strain to find a sound in the silence, but there is nothing. And then I can no longer feel or smell. My lungs burn and for a moment I’m sure I’m being suffocated. I try to move my arms, to reach for Mom, but they won’t budge. I try to scream out but no words come. Panic sears my mind, and then one by one my senses return. I feel Mom’s hand gripping mine hard, hear President Cartier’s voice in the background, but still I can’t see or move.
I know I should be listening. I know I should try to remember what to do and how and when. But all I can think about is how in four hours I will have to do this all by myself, in the darkness of my room, waiting, blind and immobilized…as one of them comes for me.
If I could scream…I would.
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.