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“Epically fun!”–Max Brallier, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Last Kids on Earth
When Sky Patel-Baum is sent to live with her mysterious uncle, she didn’t imagine she’d end up here: Area 51. A top-secret military base with a bajillion rules and so classified not even the president knows its secrets.
Also, it turns out the place is full of aliens. Lots and lots of aliens. But they prefer to be called Break Throughs, thank you very much.
As Sky sets out to explore her extraordinary new home with her pizza-obsessed pet hedgehog Spike, she meets her otherworldly next-door neighbor Elvis and his fluffy pup, Pickles. But something mysterious is afoot in Area 51. Some of the Break Throughs have gone missing… at the exact same time Sky arrived.
Where could they be? How can Sky and her uncle convince everyone they had nothing to do with the disappearance? And why does the macaroni and cheese at Area 51 Middle have eyeballs in it? New best friends Sky, Elvis, Spike, and Pickles try to crack the case, but the clock is ticking…
This one is for Elili and Luca, my favorite goofballs in all the cosmos
To Maddy, my partner in crime and all our adventures past, present and future that live in books and outside of them
"Seriously, that's it. That's the most important rule here." This is what my Uncle Anish says when I meet him for the very first time. He's wearing his full military uniform even though it's a Sunday. His chest gleams with medals, heavy and bright.
I wonder what he did to earn them.
Because I don't actually know my Uncle Anish.
In the twelve years I've been alive, he hasn't once called or texted or sent an email, but I guess that doesn't matter now. "Water under the bridge," as Grandma would say. Because suddenly, as of today, he is my new guardian.
Which means he's now the boss of me.
"Repeat the rule, please," he says.
"Um, what happens in Area 51 stays in Area 51?" I repeat. I wonder if I'm supposed to salute. Spike, my pet hedgehog, looks out through the bars of his cage, all poke-y and uncertain.
This is not because of my uncle or his serious uniform or the fact that we are currently the farthest we've ever been from home.
Spike always seems poke-y and uncertain.
By the time we were dropped just outside the gates of Area 51 this afternoon, we'd been in the car for almost ten hours. Long enough that I'd spotted license plates from all fifty states. By the time I found Alaska, Spike had already filled three hedgehog diapers.
"Your grandma said not to jump to conclusions about you. That you look a mess but that you're as smart as your mom was. Is this true?" my Uncle Anish asks.
"Um, yeah, I guess," I say, and can't tell if that was an insult or a compliment. I have no way of knowing if I'm as smart as my mother was, but my report cards have always been good enough for Grandma to put them up on our refrigerator with magnets. And back in California, my teachers always liked me way better than my classmates did.
"So your grandma told you about all this, right?" my uncle asks nervously as he waves around at the little house we're standing in. It's tidy; there's no half-read books or half-drunk mugs of tea or half-eaten potato chip bags lying around like at my old house. It's very clear that this has been, until now, a no-kid zone. But I don't think he means the little house. He means everything else. As in the top-secret military base where he apparently lives and works. And where I live now, too, I guess.
We are, after all, in Area 51, a place where everything is so highly classified it's not even on the map.
"I guess," I say, and try to sound serious, despite the breakfast leftovers smeared on my shirt and the sounds of Spike's tiny feet scraping the bottom of his cage, and the weirdness of my being here at all.
I've heard the rumors about Area 51. That fifty years ago, UFOs (unidentified flying objects, not, you know, unidentified food objects) crash-landed here in the desert and that government scientists have been studying them ever since in secret underground labs. That these government scientists have proof that aliens exist.
Not that I believe them.
That would be ridiculous.
"I mean yes," I try again, all official-like. "Sir?"
"You can just call me Uncle Anish," he says, but I swear my "sir" makes him stand a little taller in his uniform, which I didn't think was possible, seeing as he is already the tallest man I've ever seen. He reminds me of the palm trees in Grandma's backyard, and how I have to bend my neck back to see the tops.
Thinking about the palm trees makes me think of Grandma. I already miss her even though we said goodbye only this morning.
I think about what Grandma might be doing right now—I picture her hanging laundry on the line—and then I remember she's not in our tiny cottage by the ocean. She moved to that retirement home crammed like a new tooth into the center of town.
That's why I'm here in this bizarre place. Apparently kids aren't allowed to live in retirement homes. When I asked Grandma why kids were so disturbing to old people, she laughed.
"Too noisy," she said, using that voice she always uses when she means something different from what she says out loud.
I've lived with Grandma almost my entire life. See, I'm an orphan, which can sometimes feel weird because the only other orphans I've met in real life are grown-ups.
Not just grown-ups, but old grown-ups.
But there are lots of kid orphans in books, and kid orphans in books always have amazing adventures. I've been telling myself that moving in with Uncle Anish will be the start of mine. I'm convinced this is what my fifth-grade teacher called an inciting incident.
The plan for me to move in with my uncle, however, was always more than a little misleading. For example, until today I always thought my Uncle Anish was a paleontologist in South America. I thought I'd be joining him on a dinosaur bones expedition. That I wouldn't be able to call my grandma for a while because there wouldn't be cell service.
He is not a paleontologist in South America.
And as far as I know, there are no dinosaur bones here to dig up.
At least now I understand why Uncle Anish has never reached out to me before.
ALL THE THINGS BANNED IN AREA 51:
"Remember, no one can ever know this place exists," Uncle Anish says. "To the rest of the world, Area 51 is just a creepy old training base. They like to make wild guesses about what happens here. But they have no idea."
He sounds full of pride, like he built Area 51 with his own bare hands. I look around, but so far I haven't seen anything that interesting or impressive. On the golf cart ride from the security check to Uncle Anish's house, we took what Uncle Anish called the "back roads." I didn't see anything except a row of small pastel-colored homes with square yards of fake green grass.
"There is no other place like this on the entire planet. You have no idea how lucky you are," he says.
He's right about that. I don't feel lucky at all.
"Those of us who live and work in Area 51 devote our entire lives to studying unidentified aerial phenomena—what the average person would call UFOs—and, of course, the Break Throughs."
"Break Throughs?" I ask.
"Break Throughs are beings from other planets who have traveled here. Extraterrestrials. We call them Break Throughs because they've survived the transition through the Earth's atmosphere. And they live among us as our neighbors and friends."
"When you say 'Break Throughs,' do you mean…aliens?" I ask.
"Yes, in common parlance, aliens," Uncle Anish says. "In Area 51 there are lots and lots of aliens."
"Your grandma didn't mention the hedgehog," Uncle Anish says, and drops a heavy, thick hardcover book titled Area 51 Handbook on the small kitchen table in front of me. It makes a loud, echoey thud.
Does Uncle Anish expect me to read that thing?
"Yeah, well, she didn't mention the aliens, either," I say, and glance around the little house. But I don't see any aliens—or, excuse me, "Break Throughs." I see only typical kitcheny things, like a refrigerator and a random assortment of chipped old-fashioned-looking dishes stacked in the glass-fronted cabinets.
Uncle Anish sits down across from me and examines me with the same intensity I examine him. I notice we have the same cheek dimple right under our left eyes.
Weird. When I first got here, I thought Grandma had accidentally sent me to a prison. She had been cagey—no pun intended—about where I was going and how things would work in my new life. She'd promised that Uncle Anish would take good care of me and warned that since I'd be off-grid, we'd be out of touch for a while.
But I hadn't expected this.
I was escorted to Area 51 in a vintage convertible, with a driver who didn't even look at me or Spike. As if he was very used to driving around hedgehogs in diapers.
There had been a series of signs as the car pulled closer and closer to the base.
But the driver Uncle Anish had sent for me kept on going, as if he knew exactly where we were headed. He didn't even have a GPS. Not that there's cell service this far out in the desert.
My first view of Area 51 wasn't pretty. High glass walls surrounded the edges of the base, and barbed wire looped around on top of those.
My first experiences here weren't pretty, either.
On this side, though, things feel friendlier. I like that Uncle Anish's house is pink, his neighbors' the pale blue of the sky on one side, lilac on the other. The sun shines hot and bright even though it's almost evening. There seems to be a surprising amount of fluorescent-painted buildings.
"Uncle Anish?" I finally say, breaking our intense eye contact. The words feel unfamiliar in my mouth, especially the uncle part. It's always been just Grandma and me, though she doesn't have a dimple. "Why aren't there any trees here? Is it because we're in the desert?"
"Good eye, kid. Excellent attention to detail. There are no plants at all in Area 51. All that oxygen bothers the Break Throughs."
"Huh," I say.
"Don't worry. You'll get used to it."
Spike scratches angrily at his cage. There's nothing Spike enjoys more than chasing squirrels up trees.
"It's okay, buddy. You'll find a new hobby," I tell him, and reach my finger between the bars to pet his nose.
Uncle Anish is still just sitting there awkwardly, so I open the Area 51 handbook to a page with a picture of a creature that looks like a hammerhead shark with legs. Next to it, there's a list:
FIVE FUN FACTS ABOUT BREAK THROUGHS AND AREA 51
- All information about Area 51 is fully classified and must never be revealed to anyone off base or in the wider world.
- Members of the Area 51 community, Break Throughs and humans alike, are not allowed to leave the base. Ever. Like not even once.
- Species come in all shapes and sizes and have many interesting identifiable characteristics! The Audiotooters, for example, fart out of their ears and release a delightful whiff of roses.
- In Area 51, we live by "no waste" principles, and all items must be carefully reused or recycled.
- All members of the 51 community come in peace and love and seek harmony.
I close the book quickly. Turns out we have different ideas of what a "fun fact" is. I'm not really a fan of looking at pictures of hammerhead sharks with legs. That possibly exist in real life. Within the sixty square miles in which I now currently live. A real fun fact would be like "On Fridays we have pajama day!"
This can't be real.
"So just to be clear…you were joking about the aliens, right?" I ask Uncle Anish.
"I don't joke," Uncle Anish says. "Never learned how." He gestures me over to the window. "Here, come see."
I laugh, because I assume he is joking about not joking.
But nope. He is not joking about not joking.
Sorry to confuse you.
What I mean is he's totally serious.
I live in Area 51 now.
And no joke, there are aliens here.
Uncle Anish, it turns out, is a very busy man. His official title is Deputy Head of the Federal Bureau of Alien Investigations, known as the FBAI, which he says means he's the second-in-command here.
Uncle Anish explained that the FBAI's most important responsibility is to keep the Break Through community in 51 safe and healthy. But apparently the FBAI is also in charge of studying Break Throughs. Its motto is "Learning and protecting the secrets of the universe."
It actually says that on the badge.
"Forget everything you've ever learned about our planet and our solar system. It's all wrong," Uncle Anish whispered last night, after dragging me outside to look at the stars even though both of us were already in our pajamas. "Our world is so much bigger than we ever knew. Don't be afraid. The Break Throughs only come in peace. They are our friends."
This morning he was back to looking official in his uniform, with a walkie-talkie and a flashlight clipped to his belt. He told me he won't come home till late tonight. I get the impression that he's not used to taking care of a kid, because he doesn't even mention lunch. At least I have the granola bars Grandma packed for me.
I can't start school until I get a higher security clearance, but Uncle Anish claims he's working on it. In the meantime, I'm supposed to "lie low."
The problem is that because Area 51 is off the grid, there's no cable or satellites. Watching TV means watching the only channel on the base, which plays the same newscast from 1951 over and over.
So when Uncle Anish leaves for work, I snoop around his house, looking for I-don't-know-what. Pictures of my mom, maybe? Evidence that this whole thing is not a bizarre dream and I'm actually living in a land full of aliens?
To be honest, even if I hadn't just found myself in the strangest place on the planet, literally, I'd still be snooping.
My grandma calls me curious.
Everyone else calls me nosy.
It doesn't matter, though, because I find nothing except a pantry full of boxes of Cheerios and a closet full of FBAI jumpsuits. Unlike Grandma's house, there are no piles of papers and old magazines, no abandoned craft projects, no jars of peanut butter you're allowed to eat from with a spoon.
I'd happily spend the day looking out the front window watching the Break Throughs walk, glide, roll, fly, and jump by, but my uncle told me I needed to keep the blinds closed. He said we are currently on "high alert," whatever that means.
Spike and I are so bored we resort to playing hide-and-go-seek. I'm hiding in the closet when I first get the feeling someone is watching me. Not Spike—I saw him scuffle into the kitchen and hop onto the counter. Spike isn't great with understanding spaces, so he's always looking for me in places much smaller than I can fit, like the drain in the bathroom sink. He once looked for me in Grandma's medicine cabinet, which can barely hold much more than a toothbrush.
But right now, while I hide in the closet, I can sense that someone else is here. I feel eyes on me as sharp as a laser.
I shiver in fear.
I crawl out of the front closet and grab one of Uncle Anish's shoes, the closest thing I can find to a weapon. I think of all the questions I should have asked before this moment: What do the aliens look like? Where do they fall on the Myers-Briggs personality test? Do they have superpowers? Will they eat me? Those questions suddenly seem much more important than the one I did ask Uncle Anish when I first got here: Where is the bathroom?
Spike doesn't hear me. He's too busy looking for me in the dishwasher. Hedgehogs make great best friends, but they are terrible in a crisis. I look around for a phone so I can call 911, and then I remember there are no phones in Area 51.
Think, Sky, think, I tell myself.
But there is no time for thinking, because when I look up, I finally see where the eyes are coming from.
Not an alien. Phew. A dog.
A giant fluffy dog looks at me through the small space between the blinds in the front windows. He has patchy black-and-white fur sticking out in all directions, like he just came out fresh from the dryer. His tongue lolls out of his mouth and his tail wags to a beat only he can hear. I break into a grin.
I jump up, drop the shoe, and run out the front door, immediately forgetting Uncle Anish's rule number 4: Do not leave the house. Apparently I need security clearance for that, too.
Attached to the dog is a leash, and attached to the leash is a boy. At first glance, at least, he looks to be a normal kid around my age. Light brown skin, a mess of short brown hair, and brown eyes.
Not scary, I tell myself.
Just another kid, I tell myself.
Until I notice he's wearing a yellow T-shirt that looks just like mine. But instead of a needlepoint sun on it, there's a picture of my grandma eating an ice cream cone.
What the heck?
It's impossible for him to have bought that shirt in a store. Are there even stores in Area 51?
I start to roll up the sleeves of my sweatshirt because that's what kids who are about to fight do in movies. Who is this boy? How dare he wear a shirt with a picture of my grandma?
Seeing her face, especially in such an unexpected place, makes my stomach hurt. I still don't understand why I can't talk to or write to her. Why didn't she better prepare me for this?
Be brave and strong, she said.
Suddenly, I hate this place and everyone in it.
"Your shirt," I say.
"Excuse me?" the boy asks.
"Your shirt. Where did you get that?
"I am not wearing a shirt," he says, infuriatingly calm. He kneels next to his dog, who rolls over. The boy scratches the dog's belly, which the dog apparently likes, because he does a little dance along the floor. Head one way, bottom the other. I would find it adorable if I weren't currently so angry I could spit.
"You are! And that's my grandma!"
"You must be Agent Patel's niece, Sky. We heard you were coming. I'm your new neighbor. Have you been debriefed?"
"I haven't been debriefed, but you're about to be deshirted," I say.
The boy laughs, and I feel the heat rise in my cheeks.
"You're funny. I'm Elvis, and this is my dog, Pickles. Nice to meet you." The boy holds up his fingers in a peace sign. "I didn't steal your shirt. You are imagining me in it. That's how my species works. I shape-shift depending on who is looking at me. I'm a Break Through. You've heard about us, right?"
Am I talking to…an actual…alien?
Is this even real life?
"Um," I say, and it sticks in my throat. This can't be happening. It's one thing to have seen aliens outside Uncle Anish's window last night, which felt a bit like watching a cartoon come to life. It's a whole other thing to be chatting with an alien like it's no big deal.
"I see you only have security clearance one," Elvis says. I follow his eyes; there's a flashing hologram of the number one over my shoulder. How did that get there?
"We should go back inside before the authorities catch us," he says.
Authorities? Clearly Uncle Anish wasn't joking when he told me rule number 4. I assumed the rules were more like suggestions, sort of like how Grandma limits my screen time. Now I wonder what would happen if we got caught.
Spike totters out next to me and climbs up my leg, settling on my left shoulder. I know he's at full poke-y because I can feel his quills dig into my skin. I'm frozen in place.
"Come on. We have to hurry," Elvis says, and walks right into Uncle Anish's house. I look at Spike, who has skidded down my arm, leaving lines of scratches.
Spike might be terrible in a crisis, but he's a good judge of character. I look at him and silently ask him what I should do.
Spike nods at me, so I follow Elvis inside.
I'm sitting on Uncle Anish's couch with a strange boy who's wearing a T-shirt with a picture of my grandma on it and who I'm 95 percent sure is not actually human.
This. Is. So. Weird.
"Is the dog…" I don't know the polite way of saying Is your dog a dog or an alien I somehow see as a dog? but Elvis seems to understand my question without my having asked.
Stay curious, Grandma said.
"Pickles is a real dog. Canis lupus familiaris. Common household pet for Earthlings," Elvis says. "He is not the snack or the hamburger garnish made from fermented cucumbers."
"And your hedgehog's name?" Elvis asks.
"Spike," I say. "He's a real hedgehog."
"Did you know his quills are made of keratin, the same biological material as human fingernails and hair?" he asks.
"Yeah," I say. "I did."
"Sorry. Galzorian brain capacity is a bit bigger than humans', but Agent Patel said you're smart. We absorb and savor interesting factoids the same way your kind absorb Doritos."
- On Sale
- Sep 13, 2022
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Hachette Book Group