The Forgotten Shrine
OUR KNEES TOUCH AS ADDY and I sit on crates in the dirty storage room. The place is packed with boxes and piles of papers that fall to the floor in a cloud of dust every time I shift my weight. In the corner there’s a crate filled with electronics like the ones they sell at the antiques shop—old swipe screens and these odd contraptions people used to wear on their ears for sound. Near the door is a stack of dolls with plastic heads and thick, stuffed bodies. Their lips look like tiny flowers the color of blood. They stare at us with cold, perfectly circular eyes.
Whose stuff is this? Who collects dolls and old headphones?
“Are you even listening to me, Jasper?” Addy runs a hand
through her sandy hair as she rolls her eyes. From the sound of her voice, it’s not the first time she’s asked.
I swat away some cobwebs. “How did you find this place again?”
She shrugs. “I was bored during your last tour. Mom said I couldn’t go outside after curfew, so I explored inside.”
“You’re not supposed to be in the basement.” I lean over and pick up a pair of purple headphones. My movement launches more dust into the stale air.
“Neither are you, yet here we are.” Addy grabs my knees and forces me to look at her. The way her green eyes drill into mine, I’m worried she can read my mind. She’s always been intense, but since I got back from the EarthBound Academy, she seems to have taken it to a new level.
“Can we get on with it?” she continues. “I have a group chat in twenty minutes.”
By “group chat” she means an online meeting of her supposed-to-be-secret Bounders’ rights group, which I’m sure Earth Force is monitoring and recording. During my last tour of duty, Addy connected on the webs with some other Bounders to talk about Earth meet-ups and in-class support for potential cadets. While I think a Bounders’ rights group might make sense, it’s hard to care too much about help at school when you’re being asked to defend your planet against the Youli, an advanced alien race.
“So skip it,” I say. “This is a lot more important than your group chat. Plus, tomorrow we’ll both be shipping out to the EarthBound Academy. You’ll have more Bounder buddies than you can count.”
A sneaky smile lifts the corners of Addy’s lips. “Speaking of shipping out, am I finally going to meet your girlfriend?”
This again? “For the millionth time, Addy, Mira is not my girlfriend.” I’m not exactly sure what Mira is to me, and I’m not sure how I’d ever explain Mira to Addy. I definitely don’t want to tell her about the brain patches and the actual mind-reading part.
“Sure.” Addy’s voice is laced with sarcasm. “Either way, once we blast off, there’s no more secrets, which brings us back to the whole reason we’re down in this dump.”
Right. I made a promise at the end of last tour that I’d stop keeping secrets from my pod mates and my sister. I’d planned to tell Addy the truth when I returned, but the news was blitzed with rumors about aliens and Earth Force lies. The Force responded swiftly, arresting a handful of protestors who tried to land their vessel at the aeroport training facility. They said anyone caught disparaging the Force would be punished.
I’m sure our apartment is bugged. It certainly didn’t do much to calm my fears when an officer showed up unannounced last month to review my “confidentiality commitments” to the Force. I wonder if they suspect a Bounder of
the leaks? After all, Earth Force managed to keep the Youli war a secret until they launched the EarthBound Academy. Anyway, it was just too dangerous to talk to Addy.
Still, I’m not going back into space without keeping my promise and cluing her in, and it’s not like Addy would let me. She suggested we meet here in this old storage room in the lowest subfloor of our apartment building. And from the condition of the place, I’m guessing the only people to have set foot in here for the last fifty years are Addy and me.
I pluck a discarded mobile phone from beneath one of the dolls. “The person who put this stuff here has to be dead, don’t you think?”
Addy shrugs. “Maybe.”
I drag my finger across the dusty phone screen, drawing an E and an intersecting F, the Earth Force logo. “I can’t decide whether this stuff is vintage or trash.”
Addy’s gaze morphs into a glare. “Jasper!”
“You’re avoiding the topic, the whole reason we’re sitting on a stockpile of discarded electronics. What’s the deal with Earth Force? You promised you’d hold nothing back if I found a safe place to talk! Look around. I held up my end of the bargain.”
That’s true. There is no way Earth Force bothered to bug this place. It’s probably one of the most secure spots in all
of Americana East. If Addy and I died in some freak accident, like say if the box of creepy dolls tumbled over and crushed us, they probably wouldn’t even discover our bones for another fifty years. Still, I wish I had time to stall. As much as I want to tell Addy, as much as I’ve committed to tell her, it’s still hard stuff to say out loud. And I’m not sure how she’s going to take it.
But her eyes sear me like lasers. There’s no turning back.
I take a deep breath. “So, you know how we’ve always been told that Earth Force needs the Bounders to expand the quantum bounding space exploration program?”
“Let me guess,” Addy says in a bored voice. “There’s more to it.” She waves her hand in a circle for me to continue.
“Well, yeah, there is. Earth Force’s agenda is not exactly what you hear about on EFAN.” I pause, waiting for her reaction.
“Obviously, J!” Addy throws her hands in the air, sending a dust cloud directly at my face. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on or not? It’s bad enough Earth Force thinks they can make me join their ranks without disclosing the truth about my mission. Now you’re acting just as cryptic as them, when you promised you’d tell me the truth!”
I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to tell Addy she’s signed up to fight in an alien war. She’s already angry. That might throw her over the edge.
“We’ve always known we’re Bounders, Addy,” I say in a quiet voice. “I don’t understand why you’re so mad. What’s changed?”
“What’s changed? Really? You have no idea what it was like while you were gone! Everyone knew I was a Bounder, but I didn’t get to go to space! I had to face all the stares and questions on my own! Thank goodness I found the chat group. They’ve been a lifeline for me.”
“I guess I didn’t know it was so hard on you.”
“Forget it. I’m fine. But where have you been since you got back from your last tour? Did you bury your head in that beanbag of yours? The rumors are rampant, and they all come back to the Bounders! What is Earth Force hiding?”
What rumors about the Bounders? The gossip I heard was about aliens. “Where’d you get this stuff? In that chat group? I thought you talked about Bounders getting help at school.”
“Please, Jasper. You are so naive. That’s just what I tell Mom to keep her off my back.”
Naive? Hardly. If she knew how I spent my tours of duty, she wouldn’t say that. The way she’s talking reminds me of Barrick and the Wackies, the group of rebels we met on Gulaga. It turned out Waters was closer to them than he was to Earth Force. If what Addy’s hinting about her group is true—if they’re anything like the Wackies—she’s lucky she hasn’t been arrested. I need to tell her the truth. It may be the only way to keep her safe. I take a deep breath.
“Fine. You want the truth? You know the Incident at Bounding Base 51? The failed bound where all the aeronauts were lost?”
Addy leans forward, her gaze latched with mine.
Here goes. “It wasn’t an accident. It was an alien attack. Earth Force is at war with an alien race, Addy. And we’re their soldiers.”
Addy stares at me, unblinking, kind of like the creepy dolls.
I wait. Seconds pass. She doesn’t talk or even move.
“Addy, do you understand? Earth has been at war since before we were born. That’s why they bred the Bounders. We were born to fight!”
Addy slowly drops her eyes. I wish I knew what she was thinking.
I reach for her hand. “Look, I know this is difficult to hear, and—”
She pulls her hand away and crosses her arms against her chest. “So what they’re saying is true, then? Earth Force has kept the existence of an alien war secret for years? They didn’t even tell us these aliens were out there? These . . . Youli? I think that’s what they called them.”
She knows their name? Geez. Most cadets didn’t even know the Youli existed until they attacked us on the Paleo Planet. “That about sums it up. I guess your group brought you up to speed before I did. Which, by the way, is the riskiest thing you
could be chatting about.” I would add dumbest thing, but I don’t think that would spin the conversation in a positive direction.
Addy’s lips quiver, and I worry I may have a sobbing sister on my hands. Not my specialty.
But then she balls her fingers into fists and clamps her front teeth over her bottom lip. She lifts her arm and waves a finger above her wrist screen. “There’s still five minutes until the group chat. If I head up now, I can still make it.”
“Wait . . . what? You can’t just leave!”
Addy stands. “I have to talk to my friends. They need to know the rumors are true.”
“No! You can’t tell anyone about this, Addy!”
“I have to tell them! Some of them are Bounders! They have a right to know!”
“They’ll know soon enough!”
“How can you say that? How can you act like this is no big deal?”
“That’s not what I’m doing! Don’t you remember the visit from the Earth Force officer? If they discover I breached confidentiality, I could go to prison! And you could be arrested for disparaging the Force!”
Addy slowly sinks back onto the box. Her face keeps contorting through different emotions, like every time she fights off the urge to cry, she decides she’s going to punch someone. Hopefully not me.
I take her hand, and this time she lets me hang on. “Do you remember what I told you before my last tour, Addy? That all of this would make more sense if you found out for yourself? Maybe I was right. Maybe you should learn the rest when you get to the Academy.”
“It’s not like I have a choice.”
“You don’t want to go to the Academy?”
“I’m not sure what I want.” Addy pulls up her knees and wraps her arms around them. “Part of me is desperate to go, to experience all the things we’ve looked forward to since we were little, to find out for myself what’s going on. Part of me wants to stand my ground here on Earth. But that’s the thing, Jasper. I have to serve in Earth Force. I don’t have a choice, right?”
I drop my gaze to my dusty shoes. We both know the answer to her question.
She squeezes her eyes shut and shakes her head. When she opens them, tears leak from the corners. “You’re okay with this, Jasper? You don’t care that Earth Force lied?”
“Of course I care, Ads. But things are complicated. And there’s no ignoring the fact that Earth’s at war. I want to keep our planet safe. I’m willing to fight for it.”
Addy blinks another round of tears as she processes what I said. “I always thought we were special, J. We were going to be these amazing aeronauts traveling all around the galaxy, remember? Now I’m just an Earth Force pawn.”
“Pawn or not, the other stuff hasn’t changed. Being a Bounder is really amazing, Addy.” I lean forward and wait until her eyes lift to mine. “Trust me.”
I keep my eyes locked with hers, even though it’s hard to watch the tears fall. I’m not used to being the strong one, at least with Addy. I know it’s kind of backward, since I’m the older brother, but before I left for my first tour of duty, I always counted on her to take care of stuff. Now things have changed, and I need to step up. I’ll do everything in my power to keep Addy safe.
Addy gives a small nod, then whispers, “Tell me everything, J. I swear I won’t tell anyone. I won’t say anything until we leave for the Academy.”
I need to turn this conversation around. Because, like Addy said, she’s shipping out to the EarthBound Academy whether she likes it or not. “There are these awesome gloves that let you bound through space without a ship,” I start.
Addy’s eyes still brim with sadness and rage, but there’s a fresh sparkle at the corners. “Bound without a ship? Really?”
I spend the next hour divulging Earth Force secrets. I don’t lie, but I don’t emphasize the bad stuff. I spend a lot of time talking about the glove technology and the space station and my friends. I want Addy to understand that Earth Force has been keeping secrets and the battle lines are blurred, like Waters always says, but I also want her to know that there are
some awesome things about being a Bounder. The more I talk, the more I realize I’m excited to head out on my third tour tomorrow. I can’t wait to pal around with Cole and Marco, to hear about Lucy’s dramatic adventures in Americana West, and to reconnect with Mira. I’m happy I finally get to share the EarthBound Academy with Addy.
By the time we leave the storage room and make it back to the apartment, we’re laughing and joking. Although some things about Earth Force are pretty awful—especially all the secrets—it’s still pretty awesome to be Bounders. I’m happy to share that with Addy. Even though I know she’s still mad, I think she might be getting excited about shipping out to the space station, too.
That is, until we open our apartment door and see the Earth Force officer.
“Mom, what’s going on?” I ask as soon as I walk in. Thoughts race through my head. Do they know Addy and I were talking downstairs? Has she come to arrest us? I step in front of my sister, shielding her from the officer.
Or what if she’s here to take me to Waters’s labs like last tour, when officers came for Cole and me the night before we were supposed to ship out? We spent a week at Waters’s labs with our pod mates testing secret technology. It was definitely an unexpected change of plans.
That can’t be it. Waters went missing at the end of last tour. I can’t imagine he’s back on Earth.
Either way, I don’t want to leave Addy. I want to be with her when she ships out for the first time, when she takes the oath.
The officer tips her head. “Good afternoon, Officer Adams, Miss Adams.”
Addy steps beside me. She stands tall, her chin lifted, her arms crossed against her chest.
“I’ve dropped off badges for your family,” the officer continues. “We expect security to be extra tight at the launch, and I was sent to review the protocol.”
I let out a long, quiet breath when I realize she’s not here for us. Or, at least, she’s not here to arrest us or shuffle us off to space ahead of schedule.
My mother invites the officer to sit and offers her a glass of water. Then she asks me to turn off the web that’s streaming on a screen above our mantel.
I cross the room and stare at the screen. The EFAN ticker runs across the bottom. A colorful landscape comes into view, and the unmistakable voice of Maximilian Sheek describes the scenery. I’ve watched this special a dozen times, and every time it takes me back to my first battle with the Youli. Soon the hovers will glide across the screen, and Ryan, Meggi, and Annette will be in the crowd of spectators for the inaugural
tour of the Paleo Planet. That was their prize for winning the Tundra Trials last tour.
Our pod was disqualified from the Tundra Trials. Our disappointment didn’t last long because Earth Force sent us on a mission to plant a degradation patch on the Youli’s systems. We got their ship’s coordinates from our new allies, the super shady Alkalinians, a reptilian alien race that Waters called “bottom of the barrel.” Gedney told us that Admiral Eames might send a Bounder delegation to Alkalinia during the next tour. I didn’t mention that to Addy, probably because I’m desperately trying to block that possibility from my brain.
“Jasper?” my mom calls. “We’re waiting.”
Her words shake me back to Earth. I join them at the table, and the officer describes the procedures for arriving at the aeroport, including how our belongings must be stowed and packed. We’re instructed not to give interviews to the press and not to engage the protestors for any reason. Next to me, Addy clenches her fists on her lap, but thankfully, she stays silent.
Shortly after the officer leaves, Dad gets home from work. He walks in expecting the usual—me playing Evolution on my tablet, Addy chatting with friends online—and stops cold when he sees our serious faces at the table.
“What happened here?” He glances at the blank screen above the mantel. “Did our web connection wink out?”
“We had a visitor,” Addy says.
“An Earth Force officer,” Mom clarifies.
“Everything still on schedule?” he asks, probably wondering whether I’ll be leaving early like last tour.
“No change,” I say, “just lots of rules.”
Dad raises his eyebrows, but Mom shakes her head, her clue that she’ll fill him in later, after we’re asleep on our last night at home.
“Earth Force expects a lot from the Bounders,” Addy says in a cold, dark voice.
Her words are true, but it’s what she doesn’t say that makes me worried. Earth Force expects us to follow orders. I’m not so sure Addy is cut out for that, especially when the orders conflict with what she feels is right. And knowing Addy, I’m sure there will be lots of those conflicts at the EarthBound Academy.