The Heroes Return
WHAT ARE THE ODDS? I’VE spent my whole life hearing about the Incident at Bounding Base 51 and the famous aeronauts who were lost that day. Now here I am standing right next to them.
In the rift.
Even though Gedney theorized there may be a place in the galaxy where time moved differently—almost like a rip in space itself—no one knew for sure. I guess the lost aeronauts, Mira, and I are living proof of his hypothesis.
We’re living for now, at least. The longer we stay here, the more time we lose back on Earth. The aeronauts say they’ve been stuck in the rift for two days, but more than fourteen
years have passed. Mira and I were here for at least an hour before we even found the lost aeronauts. That’s got to be a couple of months back on Earth.
It’s not like we can just wave our gloves and go back. For starters, my gloves were lost on Alkalinia. I managed to bring the shield down, giving Earth Force at least a fighting chance against the Alks and Youli, but then Mira bounded us out of the action. I can’t believe I abandoned my friends—I abandoned my sister, Addy—on that sinister snake world, not that I would have been much help trapped at the bottom of the toxic sea. The only reason I was trapped at all was that my gloves were stuck. When we bounded, my gloves got left behind.
I doubt my gloves would make much difference here in the rift, though. Mira’s gloves don’t seem to work. In other words, it’s not so easy to get out of here. Proof: the human bones we found a few minutes ago.
The aeronauts won’t stop running their mouths. “There’s no way we’ve been here for that long!” “Where are we anyway?” “Why on earth did the Force send you to rescue us?”
Even though the glum grayness of the rift swallows their voices into near nothingness, their chatter is still loud enough to obliterate any chance of me thinking things through. I get that this is a stressful situation, but competitive talking won’t get us out of here.
Mira squeezes my hand. Ignore them.
I wish it were that easy.
“Shut up!” I finally shout.
Everyone stops talking at the same time. Their words fall slowly in the thick air, like feathers on a breeze, until they’re absorbed into the spongy ground beneath our feet.
“Seriously,” I continue, “if we’re going to figure out how to get out of here, you need to stop freaking out! Be quiet and let me think!”
“Listen, hotshot,” starts the tall aeronaut with short dark hair. I know from watching web specials that it’s Bai Liu. “I don’t know who you are or how you got here, but I’m not about to let a kid tell me what to do, especially one who wears the Earth Force insignia. I outrank you. Stand and salute.”
“Take it down a notch, Bai,” the aeronaut next to her says. “The kid’s got a point. If we’re all talking at once, we’ll never come up with a plan.” He steps in front of her and crosses his arms.
Despite how strange and unexpected all this is, I recognized Captain Denver Reddy the second I saw him. He’s one of those icons who everyone knows. Tall, brown skin, lots of swagger. Mom says she and her friends used to swoon over Denver.
Bai throws up her hands but doesn’t talk back. She was Denver’s co-captain on the failed bound and is almost as famous as he is, but it’s clear who’s in charge.
If I’m being honest, I’m kind of starstruck. It’s not every day that you run into the famous lost aeronauts from the Incident at Bounding Base 51.
I shake my head to clear my thoughts and take a deep breath of the stagnant, musty air. “Give me some time to think.”
Time we don’t have. If they’ve been here for fourteen years, and it only feels like two days to them, that means we’re losing time at the rate of almost two days per minute. A shudder rips through me. Losing more time? It’s like a sick joke after being trapped on Alkalinia. The Alks drugged us by loading us up with delicious fake food. Then they poked and prodded us with needles while we slept for days. I can’t believe we managed to bound away only to get stuck here, where we’re losing more time. A lot more time.
We go round and round with ideas but get nowhere. Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking. Just like that, another hour slips by.
There’s got to be something we can do. “Mira, can you bound? Or are you still blocked?”
“Bound?” the older aeronaut who first found us asks. “Do you see a ship around here?”
“We don’t need—” I start.
Mira kicks my foot. Quiet! She takes my hand and pulls me from the group. The aeronauts start to fade as we retreat into the fog.
“Wait!” one of the aeronaut calls as we disappear into the gloom. “Where did you go? Don’t leave us! We need—”
Let’s go! Mira’s fingers curl tight against the back of my hand. We need space to think. We walk farther from the group, our feet sinking, the aeronauts’ voices fading, with each step.
The darkness swallows us up, so there’s no trace of the lost aeronauts, even though they can’t be more than a dozen meters away.
My mind races. How long have we been here already? How long have we been gone? I wish the answers to those questions were the same, but I know they’re not. As every minute ticks by in the rift, more days pass on Earth. We’ve got to get out of here!
The battle on Alkalinia is long over by now. Sure, I got the shield down, but was it enough? Were the Earth Force troops able to thwart the plans of the Youli and Alkalinians? What happened to my other pod mates?
Did Addy survive?
I sink my knees to the ground. “What are we going to do?”
Mira kneels beside me. Brain-talk.
She’s right. We don’t need the lost aeronauts hearing anything that would require us to waste time educating them about stolen alien biotechnology.
I bow my head to my knees and try to clear my mind. For a second, I’m grateful for the utter desolation of this place. It
swallows up sound and color and movement so completely that it feels like quicksand for the senses. I can easily forget that a crowd of lost aeronauts stands only meters away, and they’re all probably expecting me to come back with an answer for how to get out of this mess, an answer that is not coming.
It’s no use, I say to Mira. We’re trapped.
She presses her palm to the back of my neck, where my Youli brain patch is implanted. A wave of feeling washes over me. Optimism. I know it’s Mira’s way of telling me that not all is lost.
She’s obviously delusional. I close my eyes and try to push back the growing wave of panic.
A bright light shines behind my eyelids.
I bolt upright. All I can see is the brilliant glow. I jump to my feet and spin around. There’s nothing but the brilliance and the sucking gray of the rift. Mira is gone.
“Mira! Where are you? Mira!”
The light shifts and solidifies. The ground shakes beside me, like something was dropped from the sky.
I turn. Mira is on her hands and knees. She tries to lift her head. Her arms collapse beneath her.
“What’s wrong, Mira? What happened?” I know she wasn’t here a second ago. There’s no way I would have missed her.
Mira’s brain alights with electricity. Something about it is different, more textured, more complex.
“Mira, are you okay? Did you bound?”
She presses her palms against the gray, squishy ground and slowly pushes herself up. I repeat my questions brain to brain, but all I sense from her is static.
The light before us fades, and I realize we’re not alone. Three Youli stand directly in front of us.
My senses slam into focus, and I reach for my missing gloves. Then I jump in front of Mira to shield her from the Youli. She’s still trying to stand. Her mind is sparking, but it’s like she’s not fully conscious.
Whatever happened to Mira must have something to do with the Youli. “Stay away from her!”
The Youli don’t respond. They tip their huge heads to the side and stare at me with their bottomless black eyes, like they’re carefully considering what I said. Their skin is the color of smashed peas. Their bodies pulse with the glowing beat of their alien hearts.
A razor-sharp pain drills at my temples. The loudest, shrillest noise sounds in my brain. I collapse to my knees and press my hands against my skull. How can I protect Mira when my head’s about to explode? When I fear I’ll lose consciousness, the pain starts to subside and a word rings in my mind, in my body, in the air. Everywhere.
I force my gaze to the Youli standing before us. It’s clear the
word peace is coming from them. The same word they uttered on the Paleo Planet, the same word I heard on the Youli ship.
Pushing aside the last of the pain, I keep my voice low and level. “What did you do to Mira?”
I surge to my feet and burst forward. Right into a solid wall of nothingness. I bounce backward and land on my butt. The Youli’s powers obviously work here in the rift.
Next to me, Mira still struggles to stand. When she finally makes it to her feet, she braces herself against the Youli’s invisible wall.
Mira! Get back!
Her brown eyes find mine and I’m flooded with emotion. I can’t decipher what any of it means, but my throat turns thick. Mira’s eyes fill with tears. She holds my stare, gazing at me like we’ve been apart for a long time.
What’s wrong, Mira? What’s happening?
Mira closes her eyes. She reins back her despair and shuts it inside a closed door in her mind. When she looks at me again, her mind is empty, but only for a moment. Her brain touches mine and opens wide. I hear voices, and they’re not just Mira’s.
Thoughts race around my head, too many thoughts to concentrate. What is going on? Why are the Youli here? What happened to Mira? Did the Youli take her? Were those Youli voices in her brain?
Even as my panic rises, waves of calm begin to swish in my skull. They must be coming from the Youli—or maybe even Mira—because there’s nothing about me that feels calm. Although now . . . I’m kind of . . . maybe . . . relaxing? It’s like I’ve just sat through an hour of Mom’s meditation music, but here the effect is instantaneous.
Which means it’s not real. If my time on Alkalinia taught me anything, it’s that there are lots of things that aren’t real.
Mira’s hand is pressed against the invisible wall. Her face has that radiant, open quality I remember from way back in the cell block at the space station. As I stare at her face, searching for answers, her hand drops, and she stumbles.
The wall must be gone. I surge forward. This time, there’s no wall, but one of the Youli lifts his palm and grabs my atoms, freezing me in place.
“Let go of me!” At least my mouth and vocal cords aren’t frozen. One of the Youli approaches Mira, stepping right through the space in the rift that used to hold the invisible wall.
“Don’t take one step closer to her!”
Brain-talk. I hear in my mind from a voice that’s unmistakably Mira’s. They’ll understand.
If that’s how it is, fine. I focus all my mental energy at the Youli. Get away from her!
They turn their large green heads toward me and gaze
upon me with their deep black eyes. Again, one word radiates from them: Peace.
Do they think I’m a fool? The Youli on Alkalinia weren’t looking for peace. They planned to kidnap me and Mira and kill the other Bounders—they were going to murder Addy. I saw them shooting at Earth Force across the Alkalinian sea. I was nearly caught in the cross fire!
“Peace? You weren’t saying peace back on Alkalinia!” I shout before remembering what Mira said about brain-talk.
I try to clear a space in my mind to form words, but my anger fills up my whole head.
Still that word rings all around: Peace, peace, peace.
I want to clench my fists. I want to punch the Youli in the face. But I’m frozen. All I can do is press my lips together and glare at the Youli. There was no peace for my friends. Not on Gulaga. Not on Alkalinia. How can you bring us here and call it peace? We’re trapped!
Mira steps beside me and places her hand on my arm. Even though I can’t move, I can feel her long, cold fingers through my Earth Force uniform.
I brought us here by mistake, she says. The Youli can get us out.