Chapter 1 1
WE SHIFT INTO FASTER-THAN-LIGHT SPEED, leaving the cold and rocky surface of Gulaga behind. I grip the hand rests and focus my gaze out the front window. Everything’s a haze, but I still know the other ships are there, the five Earth Force fighter crafts sent to escort Denver Reddy and me back to Earth and the Last Heroes Homecoming Tour.
Our craft is nearly empty—only the captain, a few crew members, and two passengers. Or maybe I should say three passengers. We’re bringing Regis back to Earth. His casket is in the cargo hold.
“It’s weird,” I say to Denver, who’s stretched out on the row in front of me. His arms are slung over his face, probably to block the light. “Regis traveled here in a box, and now he travels home in one.” On our way to Gulaga, Denver, Regis, and I were packed like sardines into a shipping crate and then attacked by Alkalinians before we could rendezvous with Neeka, our Tunneler junior ambassador–turned–Resistance fighter, for the ride to the planet’s surface. We were lucky Regis and I had our gloves. I rub my hands against the secret glove pocket Addy helped me sew into my jacket. I’ll never go anywhere without my gloves again.
“At least we’re not in a box with him this time,” comes Denver’s muffled reply. I definitely don’t disagree with that. After what went down on Gulaga, I’m lucky not to be in a casket myself.
The last time I saw Regis alive was out on the Gulagan tundra during the battle with Earth Force. Minutes earlier, we’d raced to join the fight. Together. I never thought I’d willingly do anything with Regis, and now I never will again.
“I feel guilty.” I’m talking to Denver, but I really just need to say the words out loud.
He sits up and stretches as he turns to face me. “Why?”
I shrug and look down at the worn carpet beneath my feet. “I’ve secretly wished for this moment. I mean, not this exact moment, but something close.”
Denver waves his hand. “The demise of your nemesis? Who hasn’t fantasized about that? It doesn’t mean you caused it, kid. You’re not a god, despite what your million screaming fans on Earth think.” He turns back around and closes his eyes. “There’s work to be done. That’s where your head needs to be. And where my head needs to be is in dreamland. Wake me up when the Lost Heroes Homecoming Tour is over, will ya?”
A few minutes later, his breath is loud and steady—not quite a snore, but he’s definitely asleep. How can he sleep when there’s so much at stake? I could barely string together a few hours of shut-eye the last few days on Gulaga. Rejoining the homecoming tour doesn’t stress me out—not that I’m looking forward to it or anything—but what comes after does. Formal talks between Earth Force and the Resistance. A visiting delegation to the Youli home world. Another reunion with Mira.
As Regis and I raced through the Gulagan tunnels to join the battle, he turned to me and said, “Bounders will be the ones who end this.” His words inspired my strategy that led to a cease-fire between Earth Force and the Resistance. Now that truce is so fragile, it could unravel with a simple tug on the strings that hold it together.
Before we reached that strained peace, we were nearly annihilated. If I hadn’t convinced Waters to get on board with my plan—and Denver hadn’t persuaded Admiral Eames—Addy would be dead. I’d probably be dead, too. Instead, my pod mates, my sister, and I met off-site at a bounding base to hammer out the beginnings of a peace deal. It’s strange that we’re the ones starting to bridge the gap between Earth Force and the Resistance, but somehow both Waters and Eames agreed, thanks to Denver’s urging. Since the alternative was total destruction (the Resistance) or a worldwide televised outing of your generations of lies (Earth Force), I guess you could say we had a lot of leverage.
Even though the off-site meet at the bounding base was my idea, I never could have predicted that Mira would show up on behalf of the Youli. Almost a week has passed since the meet, but I can still feel Mira’s hand on my heart. I wish that moment could have lasted forever. Oddly, it almost felt like it did, like it defied time and space.
In the minutes we were alone together at the bounding base, the past and future didn’t matter. I temporarily forgot how Mira left with the Youli when we were stranded in the rift. I lost the urge to beg her to stay. We were just there, together in space, sharing the most intense connection in the galaxy.
But of course it didn’t last. Mira was there for a reason. She issued an ultimatum from the Youli. We would need to travel to the Youli home world as representatives of Earth. Our planet was required to appear before the Intragalactic Council and answer for its actions. The Youli weren’t messing around. As soon as Mira stated their demands, three Youli ships showed up, armed and ready for battle.
When the ships spun into spheres and bounded away, Mira left, too. It felt like she ripped my heart out and took it with her. I can still feel a hole in my chest, a bottomless cavern that can’t be filled, no matter what.
The good news (sort of) is that I’ve had zero time to obsess about Mira. As soon as we returned from the bounding base, we went into prep mode. Earth Force and the Resistance had to hammer out the details of their cease-fire. Waters reached out to his Youli contacts to clarify and flesh out their demands. Although the primary focus is the Intragalactic Summit that is scheduled to take place in less than a month at an as-yet-undisclosed location, the Youli have insisted that Earth first send ambassadors to their planet. They’ve been very clear who those ambassadors should be: everyone present at the bounding base meet and absolutely no one else. That means Addy, my pod mates, and I are heading to the Youli home world on our own. I’m kind of surprised Waters and Eames agreed, but since both of them want us to get the inside scoop on the Youli prior to the Summit and neither of them are willing to waste their negotiating power on the issue of adult chaperones, we’re going.
For now, though, we’re broken into camps. Earth Force on one side, the Resistance on the other, and Denver and I caught in the middle. So we’re headed back to Earth. Part of the truce between Earth Force and the Resistance is that Denver and I have to finish out the Lost Heroes Homecoming Tour. It helps the Force save face with the public. I hated leaving Addy, Marco, and the rest of my friends behind on Gulaga, especially when I’m diving headfirst into the awkwardness and animosity that comes with going AWOL during your own homecoming tour.
Maybe it won’t be so bad. The Force’s culture of secrecy might work in my favor this time. Admiral Eames might have kept the truth about Denver’s and my involvement with the Resistance to a small circle of confidantes, leaving most of the Force in the dark as to why we’ve been missing for a week and the tour visits had to be rescheduled. For all I know, everyone without a level-one security clearance has been fed the public narrative (the Force’s feel-good word for lie) that Denver and I were injured in the attack at the rally in Americana East.
Two people who definitely know the truth? Cole and Lucy. By the time we said good-bye at the bounding base, some of the tension in the pod had faded. Still, there’s no way they’ve forgiven me for bailing on the tour, going to Gulaga, and fighting with the Resistance.
Since we’re traveling at FTL, it won’t be long until we’re back on Earth and back on the tour. Soon, Denver and I will know who buys into the Earth Force narrative, and we’ll be the ones onstage repeating the lies to thousands of screaming fans.
The smoke clears, and the Eurasia West skyline comes into view out the front window. The Eiffel Tower rises high above the other buildings. When we were little, Mom read Addy and me a book about Paris. It described the city from hundreds of years ago, when you could buy bread and pastries from a corner baker and visit museums with tons of real paintings hanging on the walls. All that’s gone now, but the Eiffel Tower still points to the sky, just like it did in the book.
Mira is from Eurasia West, although not from Paris specifically. She grew up in a northern district. Still, she must have left from here to travel to the Americanas. I wonder what she thought of the Eiffel Tower. Maybe she had a copy of the Paris book, too. Maybe her family will be at the rally later, hoping to hear firsthand how she died during our infamous rescue of the lost aeronauts. That’s a lie I particularly hate.
We make our way to the exit ramp. A motorcade is waiting to escort us back to the tour. A group of Earth Force officers stands at attention. Off to the side is a familiar woman wearing a formal black suit and enormous sunglasses.
Why is Florine Statton here? The last thing I knew, she’d been banished to hotel voice-over work.
“Who’s the suit?” Denver asks me. When I tell him, he shrugs. “Never heard of her.”
He really has been missing for a long time. “Don’t tell her that.”
We make our way across the tarmac. I smell Florine long before I reach her. She’s still going overboard with the rose perfume. Lucy isn’t a fan of Florine, but she follows her taste in fragrance and nail polish.
Florine extends a limp hand to Denver and then to me. Her nails shine, pink and glossy. She goes through the introductions in her typical bored voice, but then she leans forward and whispers in a conspiratorial tone, “I have a business proposal to discuss later. I think you could make a fortune in celebrity appearances.”
“No thanks,” Denver says.
Florine laughs like she thinks he’s joking.
The officers wave us toward the waiting hovers, but something catches my eye on the other side of the craft. A man and a woman in civilian clothes are waiting by a large commercial hover that isn’t nearly as new and shiny as the Earth Force vehicles. The woman is crying. Her shoulders bob up and down. Her hands are wrapped tightly around her middle. The man stands stiffly with his hand placed on the woman’s back.
Something about the man is… familiar.
The crew is unloading the craft. The cargo plank rises on the accordion lift and lowers with baggage and goods. The next time it rises, crew from the craft push a familiar box onto the lift: Regis’s casket. As soon as it comes into view, the woman bursts into sobs.
The realization hits me as his casket is lowered to the ground. That’s why the man looks familiar. He looks like Regis. Those must be his parents.
Two men in suits exit the civilian hover and cross to the casket. As they wheel it back, the woman races over. She drapes herself across the box that contains her son’s remains. Her sobs are loud now. Her body shudders. Her shoulders heave. Regis’s father is trying to coax her away so the casket can be loaded onto the waiting hover.
An officer’s hand is on my arm, steering me to the motorcade. “Let’s go, Adams.”
I shake him off and dart across the tarmac.
It won’t do me any favors in the Earth Force popularity department, but I can’t turn my back.
“Excuse me,” I say, nearly slamming into the casket as I skid to a stop in front of Regis’s parents.
“Yes?” the man says. He must recognize me from the webs. My face has been plastered everywhere since I returned from the rift with the lost aeronauts. I can see the confusion on his face. Why is an Earth Force hero talking to the parents of the only student ever expelled from the EarthBound Academy?
Now that I’m here, I’m not sure what to say. “I… uh… I’m… sorry about your son.”
The woman steps away from the casket and turns to face me. Tears still stream down her face, but her crying is quiet now. “Did you know Regis?” she chokes out.
I’m not sure what to say. That yes, I knew her son, and I hated him. He tried to kill me multiple times, and that’s why he was booted from the Academy. I don’t think those sentiments would add anything to this horrible moment. Plus, in the end, did I really hate the person Regis had become?
“Regis and I were… well, we… he and I… we fought together.” I take a deep breath and search for the right words. “And no matter what anyone else tells you, I want you to know that he died admirably.” I stick out my hand to Regis’s father. He stares at it for a second, then quickly clasps and releases my palm.
His mother grips my shoulders and then pulls me in for a hug. It’s a gesture that’s so motherly it makes me miss my own mom. Before she steps back, she whispers in my ear, “Thank you.”
I nod at them both, then turn and jog back to the waiting motorcade, wiping away a few stray tears that I don’t want anyone in Earth Force to see. I ignore the glares from the officers and slide into my seat next to Denver.
He gives my knee a slap. “Good on you, kid. You’re one of the best kind.”