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A Splash of Blue

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My name is Marco. I can’t tell you my last name. I can’t tell you the names of my friends or where I live. I can’t tell you where I go to school, or the real names of the place where my dad works or the mall we hang out at, or anything that might be used to identify us. If the wrong people identity us, we’re dead—and so are you. Because as ridiculous and melodramatic as it sounds, my friends and I are the only thing standing between planet Earth and total disaster.

There are bad people out there, you know that already, but what you don’t know is that as bad as you think people can get? These people are worse. Because see, I call them people, but they aren’t—at least, not the way we usually think of people. Because these people, they aren’t human. They’re aliens.

That’s right, aliens as in outer space aliens. And they want to control your brain.

Still with me? Well, if you haven’t decided that I’m just another crazy dude with tin foil on his head screaming about the Martians in the cornfields, here are the quick facts: the bad guys are called Yeerks. They are parasitic aliens about the size, shape, and sliminess of fat gray slugs. They crawl into a host—that’s what they call the people they infest, hosts or Controllers—they crawl in through the ear canal and wrap themselves around the brain, and then…then they own you. Every thought, every memory, ever flinch, every blink of the eye—all of it belongs to the Yeerk. You can scream as loud as you like and no one will hear you, no one will notice, because you’re only screaming inside your own head. The Yeerk controls everything else.

With their access to their host’s memories, they can blend in seamlessly. Anyone can be a Controller: a cop, a librarian, the principle at your school, your brother, your mom…even you.

That’s why we can’t tell you our last names.

But things aren’t totally hopeless. The Yeerks aren’t the only aliens out there with an interest in planet Earth. There are the Andalites too, a species of bright blue…well, think of centaurs, although their lower half looks more like a deer than a horse. (A blue deer.) And they have no mouths, and four eyes; two in roughly the same position as a human’s eyes, and two more rising on stalks on the tops of their heads. They have seven fingers, two arms, four legs, and a tail. Oh, the tail; you will never forget the tail once you see it. Because Andalites are beautiful, peaceful-looking creatures…except for the tail. Imagine that your pretty blue centaur has a fast, muscular tail—think of a scorpion’s but without the insectoid segmentation—and on the end of that tail is a blade, shiny and fast and incredibly sharp.

They could open your throat in the time it would take you to blink, with that blade.

Fortunately Andalites are…well, they aren’t peaceful and they aren’t perfect, but they’re on our side. At least more on our side than not, since they’re fighting against the Yeerks too. They’ve been fighting them for longer than I’ve been alive, I think. Fighting them all across the galaxy—and they fought them in the skies over Earth, too, until they lost. Their ships were destroyed but one Andalite survived the battle long enough to crash on Earth and give me and four other human kids access to the only weapon we have against the Yeerks: the power to morph. We can become any animal we can acquire, at least for two hours at a time.

Yes, it is every bit as awesome as it sounds…and every bit as horrifying, too, at times.

But I’m getting ahead of myself now.

Because this story starts a long time ago, at the mall…

Chapter Text

The mall isn’t one of my favorite places. I’m not big on shopping, or clothing, or fashion—but my best friend? She’s an expert at all three. (She’s the reason I know that “clothing” and “fashion” aren’t actually synonyms; who knew?) Her name is Rachel and she’s…well, picture every stereotypical white-skinned, blonde-haired, pretty princess “mean girl” you’ve ever seen in a movie. Now make her taller, prettier, better dressed, and even blonder. Now you’ve got Rachel.

Or at least, now you’ve got what she looks like. As you should be able to figure out pretty quickly based on the fact that she hangs out with someone like me, she’s not exactly your stereotypical middle school queen bee, not once you peel back the pretty surface a little.

Oh right—me. You don’t know what that means yet. Well, to give you the basic run down: picture a girl with broad shoulders, brown eyes, average height—okay, maybe a little shorter than that—with close-cropped black curls. I don’t know that I’m pretty, but Rachel tells me I am sometimes (usually when she’s trying to convince me to put on some nicer clothes, it’s true, but it still counts a compliment even when it’s said with exasperation) and I don’t think I’m ugly, at least. I spend a lot of time helping my parents at the animal rehab clinic they run on our farm, and as Rachel would be quick to tell you, I dress like it: jeans cut for wear rather than style, overalls, sturdy boots or sneakers, t-shirts, no make-up, hardly any jewelry (jewelry doesn’t usually go over well around wild animals), and sometimes—sometimes—a little bit of animal mess on my cuffs or my shoulder or something.

I don’t look like the kind of person who hangs out with someone like Rachel, is what I’m saying.

But Rachel has always been the sort of person who makes her own rules, and she refuses to let social pressure dictate whom she considers a friend…or anything else, really. I’m always a little confused by her interest in fashion, because that seems to me like letting someone else dictate what you wear, but Rachel is good at making a look her own (based on what other people say about her; I wouldn’t know because I don’t pay enough attention to what’s fashionable to know who’s following a trend and who’s leading it) and maybe that’s enough for her. Sometimes I think what she really likes is the hunt: for the perfect outfit, the perfect accessory, the perfect deal.

This Friday night, we were hunting the perfect jeans. Or to be more accurate, Rachel was hunting the perfect jeans, and I was going along and refusing to let her talk me into buying anything. I didn’t need “nice” clothes; I was comfortable in what I had already. Or at least, I was comfortable, but then Rachel’s cousin Jake came over to talk to us, and then suddenly I wasn’t comfortable in anything—but different clothes wouldn’t have helped with that, because it was Jake who made me uncomfortable. Not in a bad way; I don’t mean like Jake was creepy or cruel or anything like that. Jake was nice.

Jake was very nice.

He was tall, and broad-shouldered, and totally adorable with his crooked grin and his floppy brown hair and his big, beautiful brown eyes that always seemed to light up a little bit more when he smiled at me (or maybe that was just wishful thinking. I did a lot of wishful thinking around Jake).

I also did a lot of blushing. I started the minute he and his friends walked up to us, and I don’t think even the combination of flat mall fluorescents and my thankfully dark cheeks hid that fact. Rachel certainly noticed, based on the smirk she gave me, but she didn’t say anything to tease me about it in front of the boys; she’s a good friend, Rachel…even if she does have an unreasonable dislike for my overalls.

Jake wasn’t alone when he walked over to us, and I made myself smile at his friends too instead of just staring dreamy-eyed at him like some pathetically head-over-heels nitwit. (I wasn’t in love with Jake, anyway; I just thought he was nice…and cute…and tall…and nice…and shut-up. All right so maybe I had a little bit of a crush. Sue me.) There was Marco of course, who was Jake’s best friend, and who went practically everywhere with him except for basketball practice; he was a short, sarcastic Hispanic boy with black hair—long for a boy, but not like, ridiculously long—sharp eyes, and a sharper tongue.

I didn’t really like Marco, but I also didn’t really know Marco; I just knew that boys like him, boys who were always good at spotting a joke, had a nasty habit of making jokes about me. Marco never seemed to go after anyone specific with particular venom at least, and he’d never said anything nasty about me (at least not where I could hear him) but he was sharp and clever and quick, and I shied away from people like that like a rabbit shies from a fox. Maybe that wasn’t fair to Marco…but I wasn’t Rachel; I didn’t get a rush from delivering a kick-butt put-down. I didn’t like to fight…like, at all. So I smiled at Marco, because it was polite, and because he was Jake’s friend, but I didn’t try to get to know him.

I didn’t really know the other boy with Jake either, but I recognized him from school of course: Tobias Whitman.

Just like everyone at school knew who Rachel was, couldn’t help but know who Rachel was, everyone knew who Tobias was because of his place at the extreme other end of the social pool. It’s only the people in the middle who get to disappear, in middle school; people like me. People like Rachel stand out because life seems to have a spotlight set aside just for them, and people like Tobias stand out because…

Well, because Tobias was weird.

He was a skinny, pale boy with dirty-blond hair that he wore a little bit too long, like he was maybe trying to look like he was in a band but that he probably just didn’t get cut regularly enough. I wasn’t much for recognizing fashion, but I knew—from Rachel—that he dressed in what she termed “Goodwill Chic,” whatever that meant. He was quiet and soft-spoken and artistic, and that was a dangerous way for a boy in middle school to act. Being poor didn’t help; there were plenty of kids on the school lunch program who didn’t get teased about it, but Tobias was so weird that he got teased about everything. I wasn’t even sure that the weirdness was his fault, sometimes; maybe he was totally normal, but everyone assumed he was weird because of his mother, and he never had any choice but to go along with their presumption.

Could the son of a lady who talked about being abducted by aliens ever be seen as normal, even if he tried? I don’t know. Maybe Tobias had never been given the option; maybe he latched onto weirdness because he didn’t know anything else; maybe having a mom who talks about aliens like they’re real means you grow up weird no matter what.

(Is that what’s going to happen to my kids, if I ever have kids? No—by then, this war will have to be over one way or the other, won’t it? Either we’ll all be Controllers and no one will be “weird” any more, or the Andalites will have come and saved us, and the people who talk about aliens will be the normal ones now. My kids, if I have kids, won’t be strange because of me.)

I’d always tried to be nice to Tobias—no, scratch that. I’d used to make myself feel good by thinking that I was being nice to Tobias, but I hadn’t been, had I? Because being nice to someone means, well—being something to them. Being nice wasn’t the same as just not being mean. That’s what I had done to Tobias: I hadn’t been mean. But I hadn’t been nice, either. Giving him the occasional small smile if our eyes happened to meet across a classroom wasn’t being nice; it was just existing. True, I’d never pushed him in the hallways or shoved his head down a toilet bowl or shouted ugly things at him in the hallway or taped pictures of little green men and flying saucers all over his locker…but I hadn’t done anything to stop other people doing those things, had I? I hadn’t tried to talk to him, cheer him up, tell him that things would get better when the bullies grew up and discovered better things to do with their lives than try to pick off the weak and the different who straggled at the edges of the herd, like predators have always done.

That would have been nice, and I hadn’t been nice.

I had just been…nothing.

It was Rachel who had made an effort for Tobias, Rachel and especially Jake: Jake was a jock, sure, but he didn’t like bullies. He didn’t feel the need to protect his own masculinity by attacking those who didn’t fit the stereotypical “macho” mold as well. He didn’t build himself up by tearing other people down.

(It was one of the things I liked about him the most, if I was being honest. Jake was one of the few things in my life that I tried not to be honest about, too much.)

I knew that he’d once scared some bullies away from bothering Tobias, not because he liked Tobias or because he felt bad for Tobias, but probably just because he didn’t like bullies bothering anybody. I wasn’t sure if they had started to hang out after that—I didn’t think so, but I didn’t know, I wasn’t some stalker who knew every aspect of Jake’s social calendar, okay?—or if Tobias was just sticking close to Jake right now for protection, but I smiled at him too.

Another useless smile. Great job, Cassie.

The smile that Rachel gave Tobias didn’t look useless at all, and he actually perked up enough to smile back at her. I raised an eyebrow, curious; was there something going on between the two of them? That seemed too Hallmark TV Movie to be true. Girls like Rachel didn’t actually fall for boys like Tobias in real life…did they?

If they did, I wasn’t going to find out about it tonight, because Jake—well, Jake wasn’t immune from trying to show-off sometimes any more than anybody else was, but he went the wrong way about it. I think he could tell he’d made a mistake, from the look on his face right after he said it, but that didn’t stop Rachel from mocking him mercilessly. I winced, and Jake winced, and Marco smirked, and I jumped in quickly because I didn’t want a fight to start, but I made a mistake too: Instead of saying that none of us should walk home through the construction site, I said I wanted the boys to walk with us.

Stupid Cassie. I had no idea that I’d just doomed us all…

Chapter Text

I eyed Cassie speculatively as we walked across the road to the construction site. Was she actually scared about walking home alone, or had she just been angling to spend some time with Jake—maybe thinking that if he got to feel like he was playing the hero, it’d make him keen to spend even more time with her? There were plenty of boys out there like that, I knew (I’d had arguments with more than a few of them) and I didn’t know Jake well enough to say for sure whether he was one or not. We were cousins, yeah, but we weren’t buddies. He was, maybe, the relative I was closest to outside my immediate family since we were about the same age, but we weren’t friends. We wouldn’t have hung out if we hadn’t been family, I mean. And he certainly fit the mold for that type of guy…

Not my type, but who was I to judge if he was Cassie’s? Besides, their mutual crush was as cute as it was tragic. So I smirked and kept my mouth shut and let the boys walk us home.

It wasn’t too horrible, at least; Marco was annoying, but in a way that was more entertaining than aggravating, and Jake was kind of a doofus, but I was used to him, and Tobias…he didn’t say anything, just walked along at the back of the group like he wasn’t sure he should be walking with us but didn’t know what he’d do if he left. He had that kind of air about him a lot: like he didn’t fit in anywhere he went, but couldn’t think of anywhere better to be. It was interesting. He was interesting.

Okay, he was weird mainly was what he was—but it was a nice kind of weird. The kind that sat quietly and drew pictures on the back of his homework assignments and made surprisingly clever comments in class once every once in a while, usually by mistake if the shocked look on his face when he heard his own voice was any indication, and he never tried to show-off how tough he was by hurting someone else.

Granted that was maybe because he’d never met a fight he hadn’t lost, but that didn’t stop some people from being nasty anyway. Tobias never seemed to want to be nasty to anyone, even when he really should have. He reminded me of Cassie in that way, but he didn’t have Cassie’s save-the-whales enthusiasm for the goodness of all living things blah blah blah. He just seemed…nice. Sweet, even.

I’d never been able to get a handle on sweet. It wasn’t my thing. But I could appreciate it in other people. I mean obviously, or I wouldn't have been friends with Cassie since we were little, would I? She's always been sweet and she's also always been my best friend, so it shouldn't have surprised anybody that I liked nice people, even if I couldn't always understand them. You can appreciate something without wanting it for yourself, you know? Like dreadlocks. They're cool as hell, but so not for me. Same thing with Cassie's niceness...and Tobias's.

I also liked his fashion sense, in that he didn’t seem to have a fashion sense that operated on the same wavelength as anyone else on the planet, but still managed to look…maybe not good. Definitely not stylish. But interesting.

Okay, so the boy was interesting. So what? I was allowed to think somebody was interesting, wasn’t I? It’s not like I was drooling all over myself like Jake, or blushing so hard I was lucky my face wasn’t actually catching fire, like Cassie. I was just…interested.

So I was watching Tobias out of the corner of my eye as we walked through the construction site. (Maybe not the smartest route to take, but so what? You could get hit by a bus walking down a well-lit street too. At least some whacked-out druggie or greedy mugger you could fight, if one of those came after you. How were you going to fight a bus with anything shy of a bazooka or an elephant?) Everyone else was looking around, twitchy and nervous and peering into the shadows, trying to pretend they weren’t scared. Tobias was looking up at the sky, at the stars that were already starting to come out through the evening clouds, like he didn’t care about muggers or junkies or tripping over a discarded bit of girder and dying of tetanus. Like there was nothing on the ground that mattered, so he looked to the skies instead. It was cute…in a wistful, almost sad sort of way. It reminded me of those poets that Melissa liked so much.

I wondered if Tobias wrote poetry too, or if he just liked drawing.

I wasn’t going to ask him or anything, but I still flinched a little when he suddenly stopped, like he’d been able to tell what I was thinking—but he wasn’t looking at me. He was still looking at the sky, and his eyes widened like he’d just seen a dozen ghosts.

I looked up.

I felt my eyes widen too, and I narrowed them, squinting; was I really seeing what I thought I was seeing? I looked at Tobias. He was looking at me now, his face pale and terrified—desperate. He bit his lip like he was afraid of what he might say if he let himself speak. He hunched his shoulders like he was afraid I was about to laugh at him, or hit him.

Instead I made myself nod. I couldn’t speak, my mouth had suddenly gone dry, but I made myself nod for him.

The tension oozed from his shoulders but the fear in his eyes grew.

“You see it too?” he whispered.

I had to swallow three times before I could say, “Yeah. I see it too.”

You aren’t crazy like your mom, I didn’t add, but I could see the unspoken words in his eyes. He nodded back at me.

“What is it?” That was Jake’s voice, sounding tense.

Tobias bit his lip again, looking terrified. He didn’t want to be the one to say it.

I cleared my throat. “Look up.”

“What?” Jake, definitely annoyed now.

“Just look up,” I repeated, impatient with him. “Look up!”

Jake looked up. The next time he spoke he didn’t sound annoyed any more. “What is it?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Tobias said. He sounded defensive. He also sounded like he was lying, but who could blame him? With the things everyone said about his mom…

Cassie had no such hesitation: “It’s a flying saucer!” she cried, then flinched and turned to stare guiltily at Tobias. “I mean—I mean it’s…” but what she meant instead she couldn’t say. Cassie never had been very good at lying, after all.

Marco, of course, laughed. “A flying saucer?” he repeated, “Don’t tell me crazy is contagious!” If I hadn’t been so fixated on the sight of that blue-white light blazing ever slower across the sky I would have punched him in the arm for mocking Cassie, for mocking Tobias, but Marco’s laughter died fast.

Guess he finally looked up.

“It’s coming this way,” I announced. Maybe that was wishful thinking, but I didn’t think so. It was definitely getting closer, and unless it changed direction pretty suddenly, it was going to get a lot closer yet.

Jake wasn’t convinced, or maybe that was wishful thinking: “It’s hard to be sure,” he whispered, but I shook my head.

“No, it’s coming this way,” I insisted. How could he not see that? The boy played basketball, for crying out loud; didn’t that mean he had to be able to judge arcs and bounces and stuff? There was no way he couldn’t predict the…the thing’s trajectory.

“It’s not exactly a flying saucer.” Jake was not happy about this, that was for sure. I rolled my eyes. Couldn’t he see that something awesome was happening? “That tail thing,” he continued, still complaining, or maybe just deflecting, “it looks like a weapon.”

It was true; the rest of the ship appeared harmless and gentle enough that it could have been one of Sarah’s toys, but with that wicked looking tail curving up over its egg-and-rods body, it was ready to get down to some serious business. I felt my heart start to beat faster.

Marco said, “Definitely,” which meant that I couldn’t agree with Jake out loud, but I did nod. It didn’t matter; nobody was looking at me, for once. We were all staring at the…well, at the spaceship. How could you not stare, when something like that flew down toward you from the skies?

“It’s stopping,” I announced. I wasn’t sure why I felt the need to point that out; maybe because I hoped that by speaking aloud, I could make it all feel less unreal?

“I think it sees us.” Marco, sounding nervous—or maybe eager? I wasn’t even sure how I felt, how could I judge how anybody else was reacting? He blathered on about video cameras and phasers, and I barely listened; trust Marco and Jake to talk through something incredible. Boys were awful gossips.

It was different when Tobias spoke. He was smiling like he’d never seen anything so wonderful, like he couldn’t help but speak because there was so much joy brimming up inside him that he had to let it out somehow or risk choking on it. I’d never seen him look that happy before. Not even close to that happy. He should have looked stupid, grinning like an idiot with his hair all standing on end—we should all have looked like idiots, except maybe Cassie, whose hair was so short it hardly had any ends to stand on, unlike mine which was basically pulling a reverse Rapunzel as the spaceship hovered overhead—but he didn’t. He looked like somebody coming home.

My eyes widened as I realized that maybe his mom wasn’t crazy.

“Oh man—!” I started to say, but then the ship lowered to the ground and I forgot all about Tobias’s mom. My hair collapsed back around me and I brushed it impatiently out of my eyes, staring at the spaceship. It was strangely beautiful, which made the black burns scraped and melted across the top of the pod look all the more garish and ugly. I swallowed. “It isn’t very big, is it?” I whispered to the others.

Jake and Marco started babbling again—Jake measuring the ship in minivans, of all things, and Marco whining about calling to get some help, or fame, or both—but I was staring at the spaceship, thinking hard. My hands were on my hips now, because it was either plant them there or let them swing around fretfully, and I wasn’t a fidgeting sort of person; I didn’t like fidgeting. I liked motion, and fidgeting felt too much like filler. I didn’t want to stand there and blather, I didn’t want to call someone else to take this off our hands, I wanted to act.

Part of me wanted to act by turning and running as fast as I could in the other direction, but that was a small part. I ignored it.

“I wonder if we should try to talk to it,” I said. The question was, how? And what would we say if we did? What would they say back, if there was a they in there? “I mean, we should communicate,” I clarified, before Marco got the bright idea to say something stupid. “If that’s even possible.”

Tobias nodded. Didn’t make a stupid joke, didn’t tease me for being bossy, didn’t protest that we were out of our depth; just nodded and stepped forward like he wasn’t scared at all. He raised his hands, the universal gesture of peace—at least, in our little corner of the universe it was a universal gesture. For all we knew he was giving whoever was in there the extra-terrestrial version of the middle finger, but what else could we do? We only had the language and body language we knew here on Earth; we would just have to do the best we could with it.

“It’s safe,” Tobias called, raising his voice and speaking with careful clarity. “We won’t hurt you.”

“Do you think they speak English?” Jake wondered, like that kind of question did anybody any good; none of us spoke anything else, as far as I knew. Maybe Marco knew a few words of Spanish (was that racist? I wondered absently. Was it racist to assume that he had better odds of knowing Spanish than the rest of us?) and Jake and I knew a little Hebrew, but mostly just the ceremonial stuff that you learned by rote rather than meaning, and I somehow doubted that space aliens were any more likely to know Spanish or Hebrew than English…

“Please, come out,” Tobias continued, staying focused on what mattered while I stood there and let my thoughts spiral pointlessly. “We won’t hurt you.”

And that was when the alien spoke inside our heads.

It was surreal, but not as surreal as what followed. First, the alien—the Andalite—staggering out of his spaceship, the impossible delight that his presence brought dissolving into horror at the sight of his wounds and the message he brought us: the Yeerks, already here. The war, already begun. The human race, already losing. The Andalite, offering us one chance to fight back. Then the blue box, somehow looking like so much more than a mere glowing little cube, packed full of the impossible power the Andalite held out to us…

“This is nuts,” Marco protested. “This whole thing is nuts. Yeerks and spaceships and slugs taking over people’s brains and Andalites and the power to change into animals? Give me a break.”

Jake agreed with him, of course—boys! Always so big and tough, until something real happens and then they fall apart. “Yeah,” he said, “it is beyond weird.”

“We’re off the map of weirdness by this point,” I said shortly. “But unless we’re all just dreaming, I think we’d better deal with this.”

“He’s dying.” Tobias, staying focused on what mattered again. I smiled at him, glad to see someone else had their priorities in order, but he was staring at the alien still and didn’t see. I jerked my own eyes away from Tobias when I heard Cassie speak:

I’ll do it,” she said, startling me. It wasn’t that Cassie was indecisive; she just usually liked to examine a situation from every angle before she made up her mind. But maybe this was some of the veterinary experience she’d had with her parents coming to the fore: when there was something bleeding Cassie didn’t waste time dithering, she jumped for the bandages and sutures and got her hands dirty. I decided not to make that comparison out loud; I didn’t want the Andalite to think I was thinking about him like a dumb animal just because he had hooves.

“I think we should all decide together,” Jake insisted, always the team player. I rolled my eyes—and then I stopped, staring at the sky.

“What’s that?” I said, watching two bright red points of light streak across the sky. I had a horrible feeling that the answer wasn’t going to be anything good…

<Yeerks.>

We all tensed as the lights slowed, circled, and turned back in our direction.

<There is no more time,> the Andalite told us. <You must decide!>

“We have to do this,” said Tobias, his voice more clear and firm than it ever was at school. “How else can we fight these Controllers?” I wondered how someone so reasonable, so pragmatic, so capable of focusing when it really mattered could be such a magnet for bullies; couldn’t they see the steel buried behind his dreamy smile? Someday he was going to fight back for real, and then they’d be the ones in pain.

“This is so insane!” Marco yelped. “Insane.” He wasn’t focusing when it counted, that was for sure. I gritted my teeth, forcing my temper back down. It wouldn’t help anything if I started yelling.

“I’d like more time,” I said, as diplomatically as I could, “but we don’t have that choice. I’m for it.”

“What do you say, Jake?” Cassie asked. He was the only one who hadn’t made up his mind yet—if you counted Marco’s protests as stating a position, and not just complaining. Why was Jake hesitating?

“We have to,” Tobias told him.

Finally, Jake nodded. “Yes,” he agreed. “We have no choice.”

The Andalite told us to place our hands on the blue cube that Jake had fetched from his ship, told us not to be afraid.

And that was when our lives changed forever.

Chapter Text

<You must find a way. Now run!>

The others ran. I didn’t. I knelt down next to the alien—next to the Andalite—ignoring the bite of cold concrete through the holes in the knees of my jeans. I couldn’t leave him; I had barely been able to take my eyes off of him since he’d walked (fallen, really) out of his spaceship.

It wasn’t just that the blue of his fur and the gleam of his stalk eyes reminded me so much of my mom’s paintings. It was something more than that…

“Have you—” My voice choked and died in my throat. I cleared it and tried again. “Have you been to Earth before? The Andalites, have they been here before?” I had to ask, for her. I had to know, for me.

<Yes,> the Andalite said.

He smiled at me with just his eyes. For a moment, my heart stopped beating. I had seen that smile before, in my mother’s paintings. I hadn’t realized what it was at the time, those wild streaks of blue, but there was no mistaking that smile. That warmth. That was the warmth of my mother’s crazy dreams—no, her fragmented memories—that she had been trying to capture on canvas for as long as I could remember.

My mother had met an Andalite.

We stared at each other, the alien and I. His green eyes were heavy, aching, as they searched my face—for what? I wanted to ask, but I didn’t. I was choked up with too many questions, too many sudden truths that I had always thought were lies. I didn’t know where to begin. I realized that I was squeezing his hand too hard but I couldn’t make myself let go of those delicate blue fingers. They wrapped around mine in their turn, weak but firm, as though he was no more eager to let go than I was. He had said run, but I couldn’t do it; I couldn’t leave him… I stared, concentrated, tried to memorize everything about him from the flecks of gold in his strange green eyes to the pattern in which his fur grew. I don’t know why I bothered; I guess I thought if I could file enough details away in my mind, maybe I could somehow transfer them to mom, fill in the gaps she’d been chasing all her life…

The Andalite’s eyes fluttered closed and his ragged breathing slowed, calmed; my heart got stuck somewhere in the back of my throat, stuck next to all those lies and questions and truths. He was dying—

His eyes opened again. He raised his free hand, pressed it against the back of my head. Something—something indescribable, something enormous—passed between him and me: a feeling, a jolt of energy or emotion or both. It rocked me back on my heels, my hand slipping free of his—or his slipping free of mine—and he dropped his other hand, delicate fingers curling briefly through my hair as they fell away.

I was running before I realized I was moving. I could barely see, could barely keep my feet underneath me, but I was running as hard as I had ever run in my life, clumsily stumbling and staggering over the debris and broken ground. A flash of light behind me—a spotlight coming down—and then hands caught my legs, my arms, pulled me down; Rachel and Marco, tugging me over behind a low wall with the others. I crouched between the two of them but I couldn’t make sense of what was happening, of where I was. My head was still reeling from the Andalite’s last touch and no matter how many times I blinked, my vision wouldn’t clear. So many colors tumbling through my head in a whirl, like I’d just dumped one of mom’s paint palettes over my head…

I barely saw the Bug Fighters land, barely felt the fear that was rolling off the other ship, barely saw the horned and bladed aliens disembark, but then—

<Hork-Bajir-Controllers.>

The Andalite’s words cut through the confusion, settled the whirling colors. I blinked again and this time the world came clear in front of me.

It was full of blades.

I swallowed hard, staring at the two Hork-Bajir. Enormous dark green lizard people, with horns and spikes and blades protruding everywhere. They were a horrible sight—but there was an odd, dangerous beauty about them too, I thought. Not just an efficiency of design, but an elegance too. I inched up a little to see better over the top of the wall, joining the others.

The Andalite was still speaking, and with every word in my head, I could feel my thoughts steadying. As he told us about the peaceful Hork-Bajir and the evil Taxxons (could an entire species really be evil? It didn’t seem possible, but I was sure the Andalite wouldn’t lie to us) my frantic heartbeat slowed, my breath stopped catching in my chest, and my vision sharpened. I was still frightened, but I could think again; could focus again. Hearing the Andalite in my head restored my sense of self, even as the world I thought I’d known fell apart around me.

<Courage, my friends,> the Andalite told us, and then gave us. It was the most beautiful thing. It was like…like every warm and wonderful thing in the world, wrapping around you in a hug. It wasn’t the kind of hug that promised that everything would be all right, but it did promise that whatever was going to happen, you wouldn’t have to face it alone. It was the kind of hug my mom used to give me when I was little, before I stopped letting her.

Is this what it was like for you, mom? I couldn’t help wondering. Is this what you felt when you met your aliens? No wonder you refused to pretend they weren’t real…

And that was the moment I knew it for sure: I no longer doubted my mother. She wasn’t crazy, she wasn’t lying; she had met aliens. She had met Andalites, I was sure of it. She’d never been able to articulate exactly what her aliens had looked like, either in words or in paintings; her memories of them had been too garbled, but she’d captured fragments on her canvases—fragments that looked so much like the Andalite who had just shared some of the last of his strength with us that it couldn’t be a coincidence. It couldn’t be.

I realized I was grinning. I tried to stop and couldn’t—

Until he walked out of the Blade Ship: Visser Three.

On some level he looked very much like Elfangor, this Andalite-Controller, the only Andalite-Controller in the galaxy—but only on the shallowest, most surface level. They had the same four hooves, the same blue fur, the same stalk eyes, the same bladed tail—but beyond that, there was no connection. The Visser felt…wrong.

I felt like throwing up, and swallowed hard to keep it down. I didn’t realize I was shaking until I felt Rachel’s hand close over mine. Under other circumstances that probably would have been enough to make my heart stop, but right now it was thudding too hard with fear and revulsion to react to her comforting touch.

She dropped her hand quickly and I didn’t know if it was because I hadn’t given her any signal to show that I hadn’t minded—that I had, in fact, liked it—or because she was too horrified herself at Visser Three’s speech to spare any extra thoughts for me. I couldn’t have blamed her for either, but I was too focused on the Yeerks and the dying Andalite to try and explain, even if it would have been safe to speak. Rachel was…Rachel was…well, she was something I couldn’t think about right now. Besides, pretty popular girls like Rachel Berenson were so far out of my league…it might as well be outer space.

And outer space, it appeared, was pretty crowded. Just like mom had always claimed.

What was I going to say to her?

I briefly thought—I hoped—that it would be a story of triumph against impossible odds; a story of heroism and victory and happy endings. When Elfangor slashed the Visser, when his ship destroyed the Bug Fighter, I thought maybe… But that was the last gasp of a dying warrior; that was Elfangor wanting to die on his feet, facing his foe, not Elfangor fighting because he thought he had any chance of winning.

There was something incredibly heroic about that, but mostly it was just heartbreaking.

I started shuddering again when Visser Three began to morph. I bit my lip so hard I tasted blood, fighting the urge to shout to Elfangor, to say—what? What could I say that would help? What could I do?

“This isn’t real,” I heard Cassie whisper from her crouch on the other side of Rachel. “This isn’t real.”

But she was wrong, of course. It was real. My mother had been right all along. It was all real.

The monster that Visser Three had become wrapped a horrible tentacle around Elfangor’s neck and lifted him—lifted him into the air—

“No, no, no, no,” Cassie was whispering, over and over, like she could make it go away just by wishing. That was stupid. Wishing never made the monsters go away.

“Don’t look,” said Rachel, and she was crying silently, but she still wrapped an arm around Cassie and pulled her friend in close; still reached out and took my hand for the second time that night, but this time she didn’t let go. I clutched her fingers back as hard as I could, like she was the anchor holding me in the world, and she didn’t flinch at the pressure; just held on tight and strong and resolute as the world ended—

“You filthy—”

It wasn’t me speaking; it took me a moment to realize that it couldn’t be me speaking, because I still had my teeth fastened in my lip to hold in the screams.

<No!> Elfangor cried, and his voice jolted me enough that I could turn and look: It was Jake who had spoken, Jake holding a piece of pipe and halfway over the wall, with Marco hauling him backwards. I wrenched my hand away from Rachel’s—or she wrenched hers away from mine, I couldn’t tell—and moved to help Marco, to hold Jake down even though I wanted nothing more than to grab a second pipe and join him. But Elfangor didn’t want us to die; Elfangor had chosen to die so that we would have a chance to live and fight. We had to honor that. We had to.

Rachel clamped her hand over Jake’s mouth and there was no softness in either her expression or her fingers. Jake’s jaw worked, but he couldn’t shake her iron grip. I would have smirked if I hadn’t been weeping; I knew how strong that grip was now, and Jake would be lucky to make it out without a cracked jawbone if he struggled too hard.

“Shut up, you idiot! You’re going to get us all killed,” Marco snarled at his best friend.

“Jake, don’t.” Cassie’s voice was just as quiet as Marco’s but considerably softer. She leaned around Rachel to put an arm on Jake’s cheek, above Rachel’s white-knuckled fingers. “He doesn’t want you to die for him. Don’t you realize? He’s dying for us.”

At first I thought Jake wasn’t listening, and I knew I should have tried to explain instead; I was sure I could have made it clear somehow, in some way that Cassie hadn’t—but though he shoved Marco and I away, Jake didn’t try and leap back into action. He left the pipe where it was and peeked back over the wall; we all did.

We couldn’t help it.

I will never forget that sight for as long as live. I will never forget the sound of Elfangor’s despairing final cry. Even after I die, some part of me will still remember that sound. It will live in my heart forever, even after every inch of me has turned to dust and ash.

Elfangor-Sirinial-Shamtul was dead.

I couldn’t watch any more; I turned away and covered my face with my hands, trying not to sob. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of crying in front of the others; right then, I could have cried in front of the entire student body and not cared. But I had to be quiet as I cried; I couldn’t let Visser Three or the Controllers hear me. I couldn’t let Elfangor’s sacrifice be wasted just because I couldn’t control myself.

Unfortunately Marco had less self control: he barfed.

I couldn’t blame him either; the only reason I wasn’t throwing up was because my heart hurt more than my stomach. I’d been too busy crying to vomit, that was all—but that didn’t matter to the Hork-Bajir standing next to us, standing close enough to hear the noise of Marco retching.

He froze, and all of us—even Marco—froze as well; he didn’t wipe his face or clear his throat or swallow against the taste of bile…but it was too little, too late. The Hork-Bajir turned and stared straight at the wall we were hiding behind. None of us dared to duck down below it, even though the tops of our heads were exposed; moving would have meant he would see us for sure, while if we stayed still, in the dark and the rubble, maybe…

But then one of us ran. Maybe it was everyone at once; I don’t know. I was slower to move—I was always slower to move, always too slow to get away—so I was still scrambling to my feet by the time the others were upright and lurching into their first desperate strides, but I did my best to catch up. There was no sense trying to hide now. Hiding never worked forever.

So we ran.

I was a little surprised at how easily I caught up with Rachel and Jake, whom I figured would be faster than any of the rest of us, the both of them actually being involved in sports—but then Rachel waved her arms over her head and shouted at the Hork-Bajir. Not just shouted, but swore—and swore well, too. I’d heard my fair share of profanity (usually directed at me) but this was the sort of bluestreak that would land even one of the Honor Students in a week’s worth of detention with Assistant Principle Chapman.

I stared at her. I stumbled over a brick. I figured it out:

She was trying to draw their attention on purpose. Jake wasn’t swearing like Rachel was, but he was keeping pace with her; they were both trying to get the Hork-Bajir to chase them instead of the rest of us. They were giving us—Marco and Cassie and I, the slower runners, the less athletic ones—a better chance to get away.

I hesitated…then I shook my head. What could I possibly do to help? I’d be no good to them if I tried; I’d just get in the way, make it harder for them. The best thing I could do was to get out of there as fast as I could, so the Berenson cousins—the stupid, heroic, beautiful Berenson cousins—could stop risking their lives to save the rest of us losers.

I couldn’t have anyone else die for me tonight. Not after Elfangor—not after what I’d just seen, after what I’d felt. I couldn’t.

So I ran.

Chapter Text

I don’t know how I got home. At some point I stopped running, doubled over and grabbed my knees and sucked down air that stabbed like a knife with every breath; razor-blade breaths that hurt so, so much less than the flashes of memory that kept tumbling through my head.

The spaceship—Prince Elfangor—Visser Three—the monster—running—Rachel—running—and through it all, flashes of that sweet sad smile…

I remember shuddering like a junkie as I stumbled up the sidewalk; remember dropping the house key three times before I could get it to turn in the lock; remember tripping over the cat and almost falling; remember going to the sink for a glass of water and shaking too hard to hold it; remember dropping into bed with my clothes still on…

I remember a hundred memories spilling out across my brain in the darkness…

And at some point, I slept. I only know I did because later, I woke up, and sunlight was streaming through the blinds I hadn’t closed and Aragorn—the cat—had his butt crammed against my ear. He was snoring but that wasn’t what had woken me: it was the sudden, inescapable knowledge that everything was real.

I jolted out of bed, startling Aragorn, who bolted to the foot of the bed, turned back to give me a dirty look, and then ran away to find a more stable spot to sleep. I barely noticed. I doubled over and groaned, clutching my head. Was this what a hang-over felt like? If so, I was never drinking ever. It felt like my skull was going to shatter like an egg, cracks spreading out from my temples all around until the bone disintegrated and I fell to pieces…

(I spent a good ten minutes scrabbling at my ears then, checking to make sure nothing had crawled inside. I was embarrassed as soon as I stopped, but I couldn’t help myself.)

I was still shaking when I finally dragged myself into the kitchen for breakfast.

I started with two aspirin for my head, then read mom’s note while I poured myself some cereal. She’d gone out last night, chasing her stupid visions again, and I wasn’t to wait up. Good news mom, I thought bitterly, I was too busy being chased by real aliens to worry about you running around looking for fake ones…

I froze with a spoonful of Cheerios halfway to my mouth. Mom’s aliens weren’t fake, I reminded myself, which meant that maybe she had been chasing something real. Maybe she had followed the clues to the construction site, had found the Bug Fighters and the Hork-Bajir and Visser Three and…and maybe they had found her…

Next thing I knew I was pacing the kitchen, frantic, desperate. Had she been there? Had we passed in the darkness without realizing? What if she’d come later, when the Controllers were hunting for us? Would they have grabbed her, thinking that she’d seen something? If she started talking about her aliens, would they think she was a crazy lady and let her go? No, of course not; they’d know immediately that she wasn’t making it up…

She wasn’t making it up.

I stood at the front door, frozen with indecision. Should I go back to the construction site? Should I go look for her? Should I stay here, wait in case she came back? But what if it was already too late, and she was dead? Or what if she came back with a Yeerk in her head?

I sat down suddenly, a fresh weight landing on my shoulders as I realized: I couldn’t tell her. I couldn’t tell my mom that I knew she wasn’t making it up, her aliens. I couldn’t risk letting her know that I’d seen an Andalite now, too; couldn’t risk telling her that I was sorry for doubting her, that I understood now, that I believed.

I couldn’t tell my mom the truth, because I couldn’t be sure that she was still my mom and not…not…

I threw the rest of my soggy cereal away, made myself change into clean clothes—less because I was worried about how I looked, and more because I didn’t want to walk around wearing something that some Controller might have seen the night before—and scribbled a half-legible note of my own about going to a friend’s house. I should have thought up a better story (I didn’t have friends, not really) but I couldn’t think straight. It was all I could do to force myself not to run all the way to Jake’s house; I wasn’t the kind of kid who ran for fun, and I wasn’t dressed for exercise, and I didn’t want to look suspicious. If they had seen us…

I tried not to think about it and picked up the pace as much as I dared.

By the time I got to Jake’s I was sweating. The Berensons lived in a much nicer part of town than we did: all neatly trimmed green lawns and two-story, single-family houses with driveways and carports and garages, most of them large enough for two cars, with basketball hoops and hopscotch squares chalked on the sidewalk outside. It almost looked fake, it was so perfect, and ordinarily the sight of Jake’s neighborhood made my stomach ache, but not today.

Today I had bigger things to worry about than how nice a life Jake had, or how his mom’s eyes always filled with quiet pity when she looked at my secondhand clothes and worn-out sneakers. Not that I’d been to Jake’s house often, or met his mother more than a couple of times, but I’d come by for a school project once and Jake had invited me over to play video games twice (probably out of pity, but I’d gone anyway because I was desperate and pathetic) and I’ve always had a good memory for directions. It wasn’t hard to find the place again; this house haunted my nightmares, heavy with envy and longing.

I shook all of that aside and tried to muster up a smile as I rang the bell.

“Good morning, Mrs. Berenson,” I said, trying to sound as polite and cultured as I could. “Is Jake home?”

She frowned at me, the wheels in her head visibly turning, then she smiled and said, “Tobias, isn’t it? Yes of course, come in.”

She led me up the stairs to Jake’s bedroom, my brain answering her small talk on autopilot (hopefully not saying anything I would regret later) and knocked on the door. “Jake, are you awake in there?”

A groan; he hadn’t been. But now: “Um, yeah. I’m up.”

“Your friend Tobias is here.”

“Tobias?” Jake repeated dumbly. I wasn’t sure if he sounded confused because he was still half-asleep, because I wasn’t important enough to remember, or because he hadn’t expected that I would be brave enough to leave my house again for a week after what had happened last night. Maybe a little bit of all three.

“It’s me,” was all I said. His mom was listening. What else could I say? “Can I come in?”

“Um, sure.”

I breathed a sigh of relief and thanked Mrs. Berenson, who politely wished me a good morning and told me to help myself to anything in the kitchen if I got hungry later. I felt my cheeks burn at the implication—that I wasn’t being fed enough at home, and the Berensons could afford to share their bounty—and thanked her again, then closed the door securely behind me.

Jake was sitting up in bed, scrubbing his hands over his face. He didn’t look as awful as I’d felt when I woke up, but he did look exhausted.

“Sorry to wake you,” I said. Suddenly coming here seemed like a stupid idea. Why did I keep trying to dump my problems on Jake? He had better things to do than try and coddle a loser like me—

“S’no problem,” Jake said, yawning. “You get any sleep?”

I shook my head. “Some, I guess,” I said. “You?”

Jake nodded. “Yeah,” he said, sounding bewildered. “I thought I’d have nightmares all night, but…” He shrugged and gave me a humorless smile. “I guess maybe I’m past nightmares, now that real life is so scary.”

I thought it was more likely that he had been too tired and too overwhelmed to dream, but I didn’t contradict him. He’d find out for himself soon enough if he was right or wrong, he didn’t need me playing Cassandra with bad news. I took a deep breath and said, “Um, thanks for—”

But Jake was speaking already, so I shut-up and let him: “Everybody else got home all right,” he told me. “I called them all, but I didn’t have your number. We should probably fix that now.”

I absently jotted it down on a scrap of paper sitting on the cluttered desk he pointed me at, but I had bigger things on my mind: “My mom didn’t come home last night.” I met Jake’s eyes and said, “She was out looking for her aliens.”

At first the look he gave me was kind, pitying; it made my guts twist with shame and misery, like it always did whenever someone looked at me like that—but then his eyes widened. “Oh,” he said, as realization struck. “Oh, no. You don’t think—?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know,” I said. “I mean…I always thought she was crazy, and she wasn’t chasing anything real. But now…?”

“Right,” said Jake. “I’ll call the others.”

* * *

We agreed to meet at Cassie’s. She and her parents live on a farm, or at least it’s a place that still gets called a farm, and it has things like wide fields and horses and even a cow, I think. But no farming gets done there these days. Instead, the big red barn has been remade into the Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic, which her dad runs. You can run across just about anything in there, as long as it isn’t a domestic pet (the regular vets in town service pets; Cassie’s family takes care of everything else): squirrels, birds, deer, skunks—even bobcats and wolves, sometimes.

Between her dad and her mom, who works at The Gardens—this huge amusement part nearby, which includes a zoo—Cassie grew up surrounded by everything from porcupines to polar bears.

Right now she was nowhere in sight, but Rachel and Marco were already there, waiting for us. Rachel was leaning backwards against a wooden fence, her face turned up to the sun as though tanning—or maybe she was just letting the sunlight chase away the shadows of last night. Marco was facing the other direction, his elbows propped on the rough wood, his face lowered in thought—or maybe just tiredness. It wasn’t that early, but this was a Saturday, and we’d all had a pretty tough night.

“Hey, guys,” Jake said. I let him do the talking because I didn’t know what to say. Thanks for agreeing to come talk about how my mom might be a slave to alien slugs right now?

Rachel didn’t bother with greetings; she opened her eyes, pushed off the fence, and thrust a newspaper at us. Jake took it and held it out so we could both read. The article she had folded the paper open to was short: it talked about a disturbance in the construction site last night. It reported several calls made by locals who claimed to have seen flying saucers and bright lights.

My stomach did a flip-flop, as it always did when the topic of UFOs and “little green men” came up in conversation—but I steeled myself. I knew mom wasn’t crazy, now. I had to stop feeling ashamed of her.

“Cool,” was Jake’s response, although I could feel him glancing at me out of the corner of his eye; habit to look at me, whenever the topic of aliens came up. “So then, the cops know about it? That’s a relief.”

Rachel’s voice was grim. “Keep reading,” she told him.

We read. The article claimed that when the police arrived to investigate the claims, they found nothing but teenagers and fireworks. The teenagers fled. The fireworks were confiscated.

The police spokesman had laughed at the reports of flying saucers. "It was just a bunch of kids playing where they shouldn't have been," he said. "There were definitely no flying saucers. People shouldn't be so quick to believe nonsense."

My stomach turned over again, but I couldn’t say that I was surprised.

“But this is a total lie,” Jake protested.

My smile was humorless. “We already know people aren’t keen to believe it when you tell them the truth about aliens,” I said bitterly. “Not even the people who should believe you.” Was I ever going to stop feeling guilty for doubting my mom? Would I ever get the chance to apologize? “Are you really that surprised?”

Rachel shot me a sympathetic glance. When she spoke again, her voice was gentler. “Did you see the last part?” she asked us.

I forced myself to look at the article again. When I read the last sentence, I flinched. Police were offering a reward for information on the teenagers.

“They’re looking for us,” said Marco, his eyes dark and glittering. Was he angry, or had he been crying? With someone like Marco, it could be hard to tell.

“Why would the police be…I mean, why would they lie?” Jake asked, and I had to suppress a sigh; of course someone like Jake Berenson would believe the police were always good, just, truthful, and on his side. I glanced at Marco out of the corner of my eye, wondering if he was going to be the one to break it to Jake, but he was already laughing.

“Let’s see, Captain Brilliant,” he said sardonically, “would it be because the cops are Controllers?”

“Probably not all the cops,” I forced myself to point out, fairly. I didn’t mention that this wasn’t necessarily good news, as not being in thrall to an alien parasite did not necessarily mean a police officer was going to be a decent person. Maybe I was cynical, but having a mother who was presumed to be mentally unstable provided me a lot of access to the darker side of law enforcement.

“If the police have been infiltrated by the Controllers, who knows how many others have, too?” Rachel said, keeping her eyes on the bigger issue. Granted, she was almost as unlikely as Jake to have had any truly unpleasant encounters with the police, but at least she was quick to roll with the new status quo when it appeared. Maybe it was because her mom was a lawyer, so she’d picked up some second-hand awareness of the fact that law enforcement isn’t always on the side of the people they claim to be protecting. “Teachers?” she continued sharply. “People in the government? The newspapers and the TV?”

“Math teachers, for sure,” Marco said. None of us laughed at his joke. Instead we looked around, as though afraid that the peaceful fields of Cassie’s farm might already be filled with Hork-Bajir quietly closing in on us.

“I tried to tell myself it was all a dream,” Rachel admitted.

“Been there,” said Jake.

“It’s no dream,” I said grimly.

“Right.” Rachel shook out her long hair and turned to face me. “So, your mom. Tell us what’s up.”

“Shouldn’t we wait for Cassie?” Jake asked, looking around again, although this time his frown was more concerned than fearful.

Rachel jerked a thumb at the paddock behind her. “She’s right here,” she said. “I’ll call her over so she can hear. Hey, Cassie!” She turned and waved. “They’re here, come on!”

Something moved in the field, but it wasn’t a girl. It was a horse, its black mane streaming behind it as it galloped. At Rachel’s call, the horse left off its run and cantered over to the fence. Jake and I stared, dumbstruck; could that horse really be—?

The horse whinnied. Then it started to change. The big eyes narrowed, the teeth shrank, the muzzle collapsed like a tower of cotton candy in a spring rain. Slowly, slowly, the horse got smaller, its black hair disappearing into slightly lighter smooth brown skin, its long mane coiling up into tight-cropped curls, its hooves melted and split into fingers and toes. Marco sat down on the grass, quite abruptly. Jake, his cheeks suddenly going bright red, started to turn away, then stopped and looked back. “Is that—blue?” he said in a strangled voice.

Rachel nodded. “Leotard,” she explained succinctly. “Cassie figured out that you can morph clothes, but it’s got to be skin-tight stuff. Anything larger gets shredded when you grow.” She smirked and added smugly, “I’ve already extracted a promise that I get to take her shopping for a new jacket to replace the one she destroyed.”

“H-how…what…?” Jake stammered.

“DNA only carries so much info,” said Cassie, the daughter of two biologists. “I mean, hair length and fingernails, for instance—how does the morphing know how to put that back the length it was?” Her voice was strange, deeper than usual, as her neck thinned from horse to human, and her words lisped on her oversized but shrinking teeth, but we could all understand her. That was, somehow, the strangest part; I’m not sure that anyone paid much attention to what she was saying, too distracted by the fact that she was saying anything. “So I thought, if it can do hair, maybe it can do clothes too? But I don’t know what we’re going to do in the winter. Maybe with practice we’ll be able to do more…”

“Uh-huh?” said Jake numbly.

I was staring at the horse that was rapidly becoming a girl. For a moment, the creature hung poised between human and horse, reminding me suddenly of the Andalite. I felt tears prick at my eyes again and I realized that Cassie was doing it on purpose—not the part where she made me cry, but controlling the way she shifted. I wondered if I could do that. I wondered if all of us could.

That’s when it hit me, I think: we could morph.

“I have to try that,” I said aloud.

Cassie stepped forward out of the paddock and laughed. “You do,” she nodded, then sobered quickly. “What about your mom? Have you found her?”

I shook my head, my spirits drooping again. How could I think about morphing when my mom was out there somewhere, in danger—or worse, no longer in danger? I was a selfish, stupid son who should have believed in her.

Cassie hugged me. I froze. I wasn’t used to hugs. The only person who ever gave me them was my mom, and I had been shrugging those off for the past two years or so, not wanting to let her comfort me when I considered it her fault that I was such an outcast. Now I would have given almost anything to have her hug me again, to have a chance to make things up to her…

I cleared my throat and Cassie stepped back. “Sorry,” she said.

“S’okay,” I grunted. I cleared my throat again. “Anyway—”

And that was when we heard tires crunching over gravel. We all froze, then spun to look. Coming toward us down the narrow road was a single car, its black and white paint job unmistakable.

“The police!” I exclaimed, my heart racing. Had they already found mom? Were they here now to capture us, too? But no—if they had been coming to collect five teenagers, they would have sent more than one car. Even if they thought a single policeman, or even a pair of partners, could handle collecting five kids, they would need more seats to transport us all.

Unless they were just here to kill us…

I don’t know if I was the only one fighting the urge to flee, but none of us actually tried to run. Instead we stood there, four teenagers in various states of fashion and one in a bright blue leotard, in the middle of the field. We waited as the car squealed to a stop and the cop got out—just one, a burly white dude with red cheeks and a frown. Very stereotypical cop, from my experience anyway.

He smiled as he walked up to us but it wasn’t a nice smile. It was the sort of smile cops gave me when they wanted me to tell them something bad about my mom—like that she was too busy chasing aliens to take care of me, or like she hit me when she got drunk and ranted about her little green men. But mom never drank more than the occasional celebratory glass of cheap wine after she sold a painting, and the closest she ever came to hitting me was trying to teach me some self defense moves so I wouldn’t have as much trouble from bullies (didn’t work). She didn’t rant about little green men, either. She spent a lot of time chasing her aliens, yeah, but she always made sure I was taken care of first. The cops and social workers didn’t like hearing that a crazy lady could still be responsible for a kid, though, so I got to see a lot of smiles like that.

It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and my fists clench. I guess I must have started breathing heavy or something too, because Rachel shifted her weight until she could elbow me without the cop noticing. I felt myself start to blush, but I managed to relax my hands and stop scowling. I made a mental note to thank her when the cop was gone.

“Afternoon, officer,” Cassie said, stepping forward. She looked nervous, but it was her farm so I guess she thought she should speak first. “Anything we can do for you?”

“You kids hear about all that craziness at the construction site?” the cop asked, and we all froze.

It was Rachel who thawed first: she tossed her hair over her shoulder and laughed. “You mean the idiots with the fireworks? Yeah, we were just reading about that.” She held up the newspaper that was still in her hand. I thought that was a mistake—what kids our age read newspapers?—but I guess it was better for us to act like we didn’t think there was anything weird about it than for him to catch us trying to hide it. That would have looked even more suspicious.

The cop smiled back at her, and he gave her a nicer smile than the one he’d started with, but it still didn’t quite reach his eyes. I’d only met a few cops who smiled all the way up to their eyes. Looks like this guy wasn’t one of them.

“Yeah,” he said, and chuckled, “those idiots. Hey listen, do you kids know anything about that? We’re trying to find the kids who did it.” Fake concern filled the cop’s eyes. “It was real dangerous what they did, you see. They could have hurt themselves or someone else pretty bad, so we want to track them down and make sure they understand.”

“We don’t know anything, sir,” Jake said quickly.

It was Marco’s turn to laugh. “We’re not really the firework-playing type,” he said. “More video games and arcades.”

The cop looked at him oddly, maybe thinking that it was strange for couch-potatoes like Marco described to be hanging out on a farm, but all he said was, “And you weren’t anywhere near there last night?”

“Well we were at the mall,” Rachel said, “so I guess we were close, but we didn’t see the fireworks.” She glanced at the paper as if checking the details, although the article hadn’t really given any. “I guess that must have been after we left.”

“And you didn’t cut through the construction site, did you?”

“Are you kidding?” Rachel laughed again. She was good at sounding natural when she forced a laugh. “My mom would kill me.”

“My parents wouldn’t kill me,” Cassie said, “but they would make sure I never stopped doing chores the rest of my life.” She sounded a little less casual, but her nervous laugh probably just seemed like a kid anxious about the prospect of getting in trouble. I hoped.

I didn’t say anything. My mom wasn’t the sort to freak out about what route I used to walk home. She knew I was just as liable to get hurt in broad daylight on an ordinary street, where the bullies from school could be waiting, as I was ducking through a construction site full of junkies. Maybe more so. Junkies didn’t care about me one way or the other; bullies did.

“Yeah we were probably already at home by then, like Rachel said,” Jake confirmed. “We always miss all the cool stuff, don’t we?” He gave a tight laugh.

The cop was staring at him and I tensed. I heard Rachel draw in a breath and shift her weight; was she getting ready to try and punch the cop? No, she couldn’t be, that would be nuts…

“You look familiar,” the cop said. Jake went rigid until the cop continued, “You look like a young man I know named Tom.” We all relaxed—not the whole way, but a little.

“My brother,” said Jake. “You must mean my brother.”

“Tom’s your brother, eh?” said the cop. He was grinning now, properly grinning, not cop-smiling. “Well, he’s a good kid. I know him from The Sharing. I’m one of the adult supervisors. Great group, The Sharing. You should come to a meeting.”

“Yeah, um, Tom invited me already,” said Jake.

“We have a lot of fun.”

“Yeah,” Jake said again. He shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot.

“Well, you call me if you hear anything about these kids in the construction site. I should warn you—they may come up with some wild story to conceal their guilt. But you’re too smart to believe a bunch of crazy lies, aren’t you?”

Marco answered for Jake, who seemed to have run out of words: “He’s a regular genius.”

“That’s good to hear. You all think about what I told you about The Sharing, okay?”

“Okay,” we all chorused, and the cop nodded and walked back to his patrol car. None of us spoke until he was halfway down the lane, his red tail lights gleaming.

“He’s a Controller,” I blurted.

Rachel nodded. “Definitely,” she agreed. “And what was that weirdness about The Sharing?”

Jake looked troubled. “It’s this club Tom’s in. Community outreach, barbecues, stuff like that.”

Rachel rolled her eyes. “Okay, but why was a Controller cop trying to talk us into joining some club? Why would he waste his time on that when he was trying to figure out who saw the Yeerks last night? It seems weird.”

The look on Jake’s face was horrible. Bleak and suddenly broken-hearted. I didn’t know why, but I wanted to change the subject from whatever it was that was making him feel like that. I cleared my throat and said quickly, “What’s weird is us caring about some stupid club when my mom is missing.”

Rachel looked a little hurt, but she immediately nodded. “You’re right,” she said, “I’m sorry, Tobias. We have way more important things to worry about. What are we going to do?”

“I hate to be the one to say it,” Marco said, “but how do we know his mom is actually in any danger?”

We all turned to look at him. He raised his hands. “Hey, I’m not saying Tobias’s mom isn’t probably a very nice lady, but she’s been talking about aliens for years. I knew Tobias was ‘the crazy alien lady’s kid’ before I knew his actual name. No offense, Tobias, but your mom’s brand of crazy is kind of...well established.”

It hurt, but I was so used to hearing things like that that I barely noticed. “Yeah,” I said firmly, “but now we know she isn’t crazy.”

“Do we?”

Marco’s statement hung in the air.

“Um...are you saying that you don’t remember the aliens from last night?” Cassie eventually asked, in the sort of gentle voice that she might use when trying not to spook a wounded animal.

Marco rolled his eyes. “Of course I remember them.” He shuddered and made a visible effort to pull himself back together. “What I’m saying is, just because we know that these aliens exist doesn’t mean that every crackpot conspiracy theorist out there wearing tinfoil on their heads is suddenly legit. Just because there are aliens, that doesn’t mean everyone who thinks they saw aliens really did. Some of them are just crazy.”

I fought to control my breathing, to control my temper. It had been years since I’d tried to defend my mom, had been years since I had thought she was worth defending, but now a half-decade’s worth of muttered betrayals and shameful complicity came roaring over me like a waterfall, like a forest fire. I looked at the ground, letting my hair fall forward like a shield, and forced myself to take a deep breath—another—a third.

I looked back up and made myself meet Marco’s eyes without flinching, without hiding behind my hair. “Some of them are,” I agreed, “but not my mom.” He stared me down. I didn’t blink. Not this time. “I know the aliens she saw were real, because she saw Andalites. I know. I’ve seen the paintings.”

Now it was my turn to make everyone fall silent.

Chapter Text

We walked to Tobias’s. We probably should have taken the bus—Cassie’s farm was out on the end of town, where the woods began, and Tobias and his mom lived in a rental on the other side of Marco’s place—but I think we all felt like we needed the open air to clear our heads.

Or maybe we just didn’t want to waste the money. Who knows.

Either way, the walk took us almost forty minutes, but we didn’t talk much during it. Even Marco was quiet, which he almost never is. I wasn’t sure if it was because he was trying to resist the urge to say something about Tobias’s mom being crazy, or because he was still freaked out about last night.

I was freaked out too. And I did think maybe Tobias was full of it, and his mom was just a crazy lady who thought she’d met aliens once; it was hard to shake an idea like that, when you’d practically grown up with it. Not that any of us had known Tobias when we were real little. Marco and Rachel and Cassie and I, we had all gone to the same elementary school, but Tobias had gone somewhere else. I wasn’t sure if he’d moved to our district later or if he had just gone to one of the other two elementary schools that filed into our middle school; I’d never asked.

I was realizing that there was a lot about Tobias I’d never asked, but then again, I hadn’t asked him to be my friend either. I’d just told some bullies to back off, and next thing I knew, he was hanging around. It wasn’t that I disliked him either, just...I don’t know.

I was thinking about Tobias because it beat the alternative, which was thinking about Tom. Why had he and that cop Controller both tried to talk me into joining The Sharing? Was it just a coincidence? It had to be, right? Tom was acting weird, sure, quitting basketball and everything...but some kids got weird when they got to high school, right? Most brothers with an age gap like ours weren’t as close as we were, maybe it had just finally started to make a difference…

I didn’t like that idea either, but it was better than letting myself articulate the thought that I’d been trying to avoid ever since that weird conversation with Tom this morning: was my brother a Controller?

No. No way. Not Tom. He would never let one of those ugly slugs in his head. Never.

It was a relief to finally reach Tobias’s and shake myself out of my miserable thoughts. He didn’t live in the best part of town, but it wasn’t totally sketchy; our parents probably wouldn’t be thrilled with the idea of us coming down here alone, but they wouldn’t ground us for it, either.

The neighborhood was run-down, but it wasn’t falling apart yet: fading paint, loose shingles, sagging railings, cracked sidewalks. The cars parked along the sidewalk were all older models, most of them battered or dented or patched. The houses had all been split into two or three or sometimes even four different apartments, and the proliferation of house numbers and mailboxes looked weird to me, used as I was to every building being its own single home. There were no garages, no carports; everyone parked on the street here, I guessed. I wondered what they did for street sweeping, but I didn’t ask.

I could tell from the way that Tobias was hunching his shoulders that he waiting for one of us to make some nasty comment about his being poor.

We all stayed quiet as we followed him up the rusty metal staircase to the second floor front door of the apartment where he and his mom lived. The squeak of my sneakers sounded shrill and pitiful and I tried to walk on my toes. The building itself was ratty and faded, its walls a color halfway between gray and brown—or maybe it was just dirty. The door, though, was such a bright blue that it caught me off-guard. I was glad to have a moment to blink and focus while Tobias fished out his key and opened the door, but when we walked inside, I realized the door had just been the start of it.

“Whoa,” I said, looking around.

There was artwork everywhere. Paintings, yes, I had expected paintings, because we all knew that Tobias’s mom was an artist—but the whole apartment was a riot of color, even aside from the canvases. Bits of colored glass dangled from strings, throwing rainbow light across the thin carpet and the patchwork furniture. Colorful rag-rugs were scattered all over the floor and draped across the worn-out chairs and couch. Weird bits of sculpture made out of trash clustered together in the corners, looking prettier than anything made of soda cans and old car parts had any right to look. A fat orange tabby cat slept in a loose ball in the middle of the couch, reminding me of an old man who had fallen asleep watching the TV—but from the layer of dust on top of the ancient television set shoved between two towering sculptures of metal and fabric scraps, I wasn’t sure when the last time was anyone in this house had watched TV.

There was an easel, an actual easel, next to the front window where it would catch the light. The dresser next to it looked like the kind of thing you would find in a kid’s bedroom, but it was covered in paint smears and several jars of muddy water and brushes stood on the top. That must be where Tobias’s mom did her painting, I thought, looking at the tall stool and the paint-splotched sheet bunched underneath. There was a beat-up looking cassette player beside the easel, its buttons marked with colorful fingerprints. For some reason, that made me grin.

“Wait here,” Tobias told us all. His voice was thick with unspoken apologies—for the mess, for the second-hand furnishings, for the smallness of the place, for the cat hair on the cushions...all the things that I wanted to tell him he didn’t need to apologize for, but couldn’t mention without embarrassing him more.

We waited.

I looked around some more. There was no door between the small living room and the smaller kitchen, just a half-counter with three stools in front of it. One of the stools was piled high with catalogues and envelopes and untended junk mail. The other two must be where Tobias and his mom sat to eat, I guessed, after I realized that there was no kitchen table, no dining room. Dishes sat unwashed in the sink, more clean dishes piled high in the plastic drainer on the counter. There was a little window box of herbs under the kitchen’s one lone window, over the trash can, but they looked dry, brown, and forgotten. The refrigerator had smears of paint along its handle, as if someone with messy fingers regularly opened it without remembering to wipe her hands first. So did several of the cupboards and most of the dishtowels.

There were books all over the place too, in both the kitchen and the living room, mostly ratty paperbacks but a few bigger hardcovers too (their dust jackets taped together or long gone) that looked like they were probably full of museum photographs and painting reproductions.

There were plenty of books about alien sightings, too. I tried to ignore those.

It was easy once I started looking at the paintings. Tobias’s mom did some realistic work, which she was okay at; she painted portrait commissions for people, I had heard once, and did some freelance commercial illustration. She was an okay artist, if you looked at those paintings. There were a bunch of Tobias at various ages, and she was good enough for me to tell who he was, at least...but it was the other paintings. The more abstract ones. They were what really caught the eye.

They weren’t totally abstract, I realized as my eyes adjusted to the dim light slanting through the blinds. Impressionistic, was that the word? I suddenly wished I’d paid more attention during those Famous Artist lessons back in elementary school—you know, when a parent volunteer would come in with some big posterboard prints of famous artworks and read you a little blurb on the back, like some kind of museum guide? Aunt Naomi had done it a lot, before the divorce, so I’d had to pay some attention or risk her telling my parents.

I guess some of it stuck, but not enough that I could be sure what kind of art I was looking at. If this was a specific form of art at all, and not just something Tobias’s mom had made up out of her own head. Whatever you called it, there was imagery there, definite things, not just splashes of color. It was just that the brushstrokes were so thick, so fluid, so alive that it took you a minute of looking to see that they were a painting of a thing and not just a painting of paint. It was like looking at the memory of a dream…

Or a nightmare.

I saw flashes of blue everywhere, blue highlighted with soft tan, just like the Andalite’s fur. The resemblance made my stomach churn and I could see why Tobias was convinced that his mom had seen an Andalite, but it could have just been a coincidence. Maybe she just really liked blue. I looked at the others, wondering how I could say that without it sounding cruel…

 Tobias walked back in carrying a painting. It was roughly twice the width of a textbook, which meant it was about average size for a canvas, I guess. I don’t know, I’m not a painter. Tobias was carrying it gently with one hand on either side of the frame, like he might break it if he breathed too hard. He had the front of it turned up to face him, so all we could see were the bars of wood and the staples holding the cloth to the frame. He took a deep breath and turned it around.

I stared. We all stared.

Marco said, “Whoa.”

It was the Andalite—or an Andalite, at least. Not all of him, not a full body image, and not clear, but there was no mistaking those stalk eyes and the smile on the face with no mouth, not when you knew what you were looking for. To most people, I guess it would have just looked like a wild arrangement of blue streaks highlighted with tan and green and yellow flecks, like a particularly cerulean whirlpool; an abstract piece of color and motion with a few soft suggestions of eyes. But once you had seen an Andalite for yourself, you would never be able to look at that painting and not see one looking back at you.

“Okay,” said Marco. His voice was dry. “So your mom isn’t crazy. Cool.”

* * *

Now that I was looking for it, I could see the Andalite everywhere—just fragments, glimpses, blurred and incomplete, looking out at me from a dozen of the paintings that decorated the front room. I wondered how I hadn’t noticed before. Here were his eyes (and did all Andalites have eyes that color of green, or was it a coincidence that Tobias’s mom had met one whose eyes were the same color as Elfangor’s?).  Here were his hooves, dainty even when blurred with motion; there they were again, gracefully poised over blue-green grass. There were his hands, long and delicate with too many fingers. There was his tail blade, sharp and swift but somehow never looking dangerous or cruel. And always that blur of blue, that flash of green…

All four of us roamed and stared. It was Rachel who eventually broke the silence:

“Look over here,” she said abruptly, her voice grim. “I don’t think Andalites were the only aliens your mom met, Tobias.”

We all crowded around and Rachel stepped back so we could see the painting she pointed to. It took me a while to work out what I was looking at but when I saw it, I couldn’t help myself, I gasped.

“Taxxon,” said Marco.

There was no mistaking that sight either, once you knew what you were looking at. The gaping red jaws, the ring of teeth, the beady eyes, the bulbous brown body and hundred tiny legs… The soft, swirling colors that evoked mood more than image—they sharpened with disturbing clarity once you knew what they were really depicting. I shuddered and looked away.

“It looks sad,” Cassie said.

I turned back and squinted at the painting. “What do you mean, sad?”

Cassie raised a finger and traced the edge of the Taxxon’s mouth—holding her finger just above the surface, not touching the paint, but echoing the curve of its toothy jaw gently. “She painted it like it’s sad, don’t you think?”

“I think it looks like an intestine with teeth,” said Marco, but I leaned in closer to the painting. It wasn’t a happy-looking piece, that was for sure—no wonder it had been tucked in the corner, below eye-level, squeezed in between a painting of a yellow Mustang and one of some stylized purple flowers swaying in a breeze—but Cassie might have been right. It didn’t look angry or scary, at least, not if you just looked at the painting itself and tried to forget the sight of the Taxxon-Controllers in the construction site last night.

“I don’t know,” I said, “I guess you’re right.”

Cassie smiled at me like she could tell I didn’t really mean it, but she still appreciated the effort.

I grinned back at her like an idiot.

Marco cleared his throat. “Okay, so this is interesting and all, but what next? Now that we know that Tobias’s mom isn’t nuts...where do we look for her?”

We all stared at Tobias. He ducked his head, staring at his scuffed sneakers as he mumbled, “How should I know? I thought she was crazy too, remember? I didn’t keep track of her wild goose chases.”

I thought he looked miserable and guilty, and I wondered what it would be like to have spent most of your life thinking the person who loved you most in the whole world was crazy, only to discover suddenly that you were the one who had been denying reality. It was probably pretty tough.

“There’s no sense beating yourself up now,” I said. “How could you have known? Marco’s right, most of the people who think they’ve seen aliens probably are just crazy. It’s not your fault that your mom was the, what, the one percent that isn’t?”

Tobias looked up and gave me a smile. It was a shaky, unhappy little smile, but it was still a smile. I decided to call that progress.

“Okay,” I said, “so let’s focus. Did your mom leave any notes or clues around? Maybe an address or a phone number she wrote down? Do you guys have like, a memo pad you keep next to the phone or anything like that? Maybe an address book she forgot to take with her? A calendar?”

Tobias pointed at the kitchen wall. “That’s the calendar,” he said. “There aren’t any notes about her...her alien stuff on it.” He looked away again. “I asked her to stop writing them up there.”

Cassie walked over to the calendar to look at it anyway. I don’t know what she was hoping to find; maybe she just wanted to look at the picture. It was one of those local business coupon calendars that are always sitting around the library for anyone to take. This month’s picture was of a pizza parlor that was trying a little bit too hard to look Italian. Probably she wasn’t looking at the picture.

I looked around the cluttered kitchen counters. “Okay, well what about a memo pad or address book? Anything like that?”

Tobias shrugged. He walked into the little kitchen, which got crowded fast now that he and Cassie were both there, and started rummaging through a collection of take-out menus, fliers, and paper scraps that were piled on the counter underneath the phone. Cassie sidled out past him, getting out of Tobias’s way. He was acting pretty casual for a boy whose mother was missing and possible captured by evil aliens, but from the stiff way he moved, I suspected that he was doing it to try and distance himself from reality in an attempt to avoid freaking out. Focus on the problem, put the fear aside. It was something Tom had told me once when I was learning how to shoot hoops and struggling. I would get nervous about my three-point throws and choke up, the pressure totally destroying my aim. His advice had helped then, but I wasn’t sure if it was going to be enough to help us deal with our new situation.

“There’s nothing here,” Tobias said. His voice was flat but I thought I could hear an undercurrent of panic. I walked over and leaned across the counter to put a hand on his shoulder.

“Hey man, it’s okay,” I told him. “We’ll find her. We’ll figure this out.”

“Before the Yeerks get her?” Tobias asked flatly.

I didn’t have an answer for that.

“Hey.” Rachel, leaning forward beside me, shouldering me aside a little in fact, her blonde hair sliding down her shoulder like a curtain as she stared intently at Tobias. I watched his watery gaze slide reluctantly sideways to meet her blazing blue one. “If they’ve got her, we’ll get her back,” Rachel promised.

“Can you do that?” Marco asked from somewhere behind us, in the living room. I glanced back over my shoulder and saw Cassie sitting on the couch, petting Tobias’s cat. Go figure; she was always good with animals. Marco was perched on the windowsill next to the easel, the sun over his shoulders casting his face in shadow. “I mean, once a Yeerk gets into your head, is there any way to get them out again?”

“Yes,” Tobias said. “They have to leave to feed every three days. Otherwise they die.”

I jerked back around to stare at him, startled. From the way Rachel rocked backwards onto her heels, she was every bit as shocked as me, but it was Marco who spoke:

“What are you talking about?”

Tobias flushed. “I don’t—it’s called Kandrona. They need Kandrona Rays. They have to, um…to bathe in the Yeerk pool in their natural form to absorb the Kandrona Rays. Or they starve to death.” He shook his head. “Don’t—don’t ask me for details. I don’t know any. Yet.”

“Oh, I’m going to ask for details,” Marco drawled. His voice was thick with suspicion. I couldn’t help feeling the same. I pulled my hand away from Tobias’s shoulder and stared at him. “Mainly,” Marco continued darkly from behind me, “I’m going to ask for details on how you seem to know so much about the Yeerks all of a sudden.”

“It isn’t exactly…all of a sudden,” Tobias explained. He looked uncomfortable. “It’s all sort of…confused. Jumbled. I’m still sorting it out, okay?”

“Sorting out your mysterious Yeerk knowledge?” Marco snapped.

“Watch it,” Rachel growled.

“No, you watch it,” he retorted. “What, we’re supposed to just ignore the fact that Tobias somehow knows things he can’t possibly know? Or maybe he doesn’t.” Marco shrugged cruelly. “Maybe he’s just making stuff up, because he’s as crazy as his mom and we’re all falling all over ourselves to pretend she isn’t nuts, just because she has a thing for blue paint.”

“I’m not…not making it up,” Tobias muttered. He was staring at his shoes now, his eyes hidden behind the untidy mop of his hair. “And my mom…my mom isn’t either.”

“Well that leaves us with one other possibility, of course. Because the only way he can know that much about the Yeerks is if he’s got one in his head right now—and you want us to ignore that just because you’ve got a crush on the weirdo?”

I expected Rachel to blush but somehow, she didn’t. She just stared Marco down, cool and collected. “No,” she said shortly, “I expect you to keep your trap shut long enough for Tobias to explain.” She fisted her hands on her hips and glared at Marco. “Or would you rather yap, yap, yap at him until you’ve got him too upset to say anything?”

Marco stood up, his hands balled into fists. On the couch, I saw Cassie tense; I did the same. Then Marco let out a breath and opened his hands. “Fine,” he said. His gaze shifted from Rachel to Tobias. “But talk fast, okay?”

Tobias took a deep breath and let it out all in a rush: “Okay, you remember when the Andalite told us all to run, how I stayed behind?” He didn’t wait for us to nod. I wasn’t sure if he was taking Marco’s threat seriously, or if he was just afraid that if he didn’t say it all at once he wouldn’t be able to force the words out. “Well, Elfangor, he—he gave me…visions, I guess you’d call them.” His blush was getting deeper, I could see that even through the shield of dirty-blond hair. “Pictures. Information. A lot of it, all at once. All jumbled. I haven’t even started to sort it all out. But I do know about the Yeerk pools and the Kandrona.”

“Oh that makes sense,” Marco said. He sounded disgusted.

“I think it does.”

We all turned to stare at Cassie. She was still on the couch, still petting Tobias’s very fat, now very happy, orange tabby cat. “The Andalite communicated with us by thinking—telepathy.”

“Thought-speak,” Tobias corrected.

Cassie nodded. “Right, thought-speak. He projected his thoughts right into our heads. He projected an image of a Yeerk to all of us, too—remember? Well, why wouldn’t he be able to dump a lot of thoughts all at once, if he wanted to, if he could do all that?”

I shifted back and forth on my squeaky sneakers, mercifully silent on the half-worn rug. When Cassie put it like that…

“So why didn’t he give us all this info-dump?” Marco demanded. “Why just Tobias, huh?”

“Probably because he needed a brain to dump the info into, Marco,” Rachel said sweetly, smirking.

Marco shot her a look that was half-annoyed, half-amused, but he shook his head instead of bantering back. “I’m serious,” he said.

“Probably because Tobias stayed,” I said. “The rest of us ran.”

“He told us to run!” Marco burst out. “The Andalite told us to run! Why would he tell us to run if he didn’t want us to?”

Cassie shrugged. “Probably he did want us to run,” she said. “But Tobias didn’t, so the Andalite figured he’d try and share some information, since Tobias was there.”

Marco didn’t argue, but he didn’t look happy either. I wasn’t sure that anything was going to make him happy, now.

“Look, Marco,” I said, “either Tobias is telling the truth, and we’ve got more information than we thought we had—information we’re going to need—or he’s making it up like you said, in which case, we’ll figure out pretty quickly that it’s bogus, won’t we?” I shot Tobias an apologetic look, but he was still watching his shoes.

“It isn’t bogus,” he mumbled.

“Hang on,” Marco said, frowning suddenly. “Hang on, go back a second. What do you mean, ‘information we’re going to need’?”

“Umm, duh,” said Rachel, “how are we supposed to fight the Yeerks if we don’t know anything about them other than that they’re slugs living in people’s heads? I mean what do we do with that, try and convince everybody to adopt a high-sodium diet? Come on.”

“Who said anything about fighting the Yeerks?” said Marco. “Nobody said anything about us fighting—”

“The Andalite did.” Tobias’s voice was shockingly firm all of a sudden. “That’s why he gave us the morphing power. So we could fight the Yeerks. So we could save Earth. That’s why he died for us.”

“No,” said Marco. “No, no, no, no, no way. No way. This isn’t—this isn’t happening. Jake! Buddy!” He jumped past Cassie and grabbed me by the arm. “Jake, tell me you at least haven’t gone off the deep end. You don’t think we ought to—what? Jump into battle against a bunch of super advanced aliens and get ourselves killed, do you?”

I hesitated. Of course I didn’t—but at the same time…I mean, the whole world was in danger…

In the silence of my hesitation, we all heard it: footsteps on the stairs. A jangling of keys. The click of a doorknob turning…

Chapter Text

The door opened and Tobias’s mom walked in. I mean, I’d never met Tobias’s mom before, but I knew who this lady had to be. First because she looked so much like Tobias, and second because who else would be walking into their apartment like that? She looked up and saw four kids she didn’t know standing in her living room and she froze, her eyes going wide. They were the same dreamy blue color as Tobias’s but they sharpened fast at the sight of us, sharpened and darted around the small room. When she spotted Tobias in the little kitchen, the sharpness faded and she smiled.

“Hello,” she said.

I swallowed. I get weird sometimes, around people’s moms that I haven’t met before. It’s not a big deal, it’s just a stupid thing that happens. It’s like…like if I haven’t met somebody’s mom, then in my head, maybe they don’t have one. Maybe they’re like me. But then I meet her, and I know they aren’t, and I just…get a little weird. Just for a second or two. It’s not a big deal.

But anyway, I kind of froze and stared at her for a second. Then I remembered she might have an alien slug in her head and be about to call in the walking salad shooters and the giant worms with teeth to murder us all, and I stayed frozen.

“Hi mom,” said Tobias. I thought his voice sounded a little stuffy all of a sudden, but maybe he was thinking about the possibility of slug-infestation too. That would be enough to make anyone sound a little weird. “These are, uh…” He hesitated far too long, long enough that I turned away from his mom to frown at him, before he finally said, “my friends. These are my friends. Uh…this is Jake and this is Rachel,” he pointed to the cousins, who responded with eerily similar smiles. “That’s Cassie, on the couch with Aragorn.” Cassie lifted one hand off the cat to wave. “And that’s Marco.”

I turned to face Tobias’s mom again and made myself smile at her, trying not to think about the fact that she might already be a Controller, or about the fact that she was alive and smiling at all of us. “Hi, Tobias’s mom,” I said cheekily. What can I say? When I get nervous, I get cheeky.

Okay, I’m also cheeky when I’m bored or excited or smug or…just about anything, really. But I also get cheeky when I’m nervous. And right now, staring at Tobias’s mother, I was nervous.

“Loren, please…Marco, was it?” she said. “You can all call me Loren.”

I squirmed a little; I wasn’t the only one. None of us, I guess, had the sort of parents who went around telling other kids to call them by their first name—not on first meeting, at least.

“Um, okay…L-loren,” Jake said, stumbling awkwardly over the casual form of address. I smirked at him. “It’s, uh, it’s nice to meet you,” he forged onward, valiantly ignoring the blush creeping up his cheeks.

I smirked harder.

Tobias’s mom—Loren—closed the door behind her and put down her heavy purse. She looked a lot like Tobias: same blue eyes, same slight build, same soft blonde hair—a few shades lighter, but that could have just been from age, or maybe she spent more time outdoors than Tobias—and same gentle smile. She was a little paler than him, straight-up white where his ancestry was more ambiguous; I guess he must have gotten that from his dad’s side, whoever his dad was, because Loren was the picture of an All American Girl Next Door all grown-up.

It was hard to say exactly how old she was; younger than my pa—than my dad, anyway. The clothes were what made it hard to tell, I think, because she was dressed more like a college student than a mom: crappy sneakers, faded jeans, faded band t-shirt, big red scrunchie in her hair. All of her clothes were marked with paint, from a few dots on her sneakers to a proliferation of rainbow streaks across her jeans. And the jewelry—oh man, the jewelry. Rachel’s little sisters would have had a field day with the bright plastic circles and beads that dangled off this lady’s wrists. No rings, though, not even a wedding ring, and no earrings either. That drew my attention to her ears, and that reminded me of the Yeerks, and suddenly I didn’t feel like grinning at her strangely youthful clothes anymore.

“Something’s wrong?” Loren said. It sounded like a question, the frown on her face made it look like a question, but somehow…not a question.

We all glanced at Tobias. This was his play, we knew; this was his mom. It was up to him to decide how to handle her.

“Nothing’s wrong,” he said quickly, and I let out a sigh of relief. I had been afraid that he was going to spill the whole can of beans to her, start gushing about how his aliens and her aliens were the same aliens, and oh gosh mom I’m sorry I doubted you, let’s all hug it out…

Loren didn’t look convinced, though. She raised her eyebrows and turned to look at us all, one by one.

“Okay,” she said, in a voice that meant the complete opposite of agreement. “Well…can I do anything? I could make pancakes, maybe, if you’re hungry…?”

“Mom, it’s almost lunch time.” Tobias’s voice was gentle but impatient, like somebody explaining something to a toddler, or a grandparent who had started wearing underwear on their head and kitchen mitts for slippers. It was a weird way to talk to your mom, I thought, but then again, Tobias’s mom was crazy. Maybe crazy. Probably crazy.

Maybe.

She shrugged and smiled again. “Nothing wrong with pancakes for lunch,” she said lightly, and stepped forward through the room. We all moved aside to let her pass, but she headed for the couch and Cassie and the cat. I tensed, wondering if crazy alien conspiracy ladies could also be crazy racist conspiracy ladies, but she just looked down at Cassie and said cheerfully, “Wow, Aragorn seems to really like you.”

Cassie looked up with a grin. “I like animals,” she said.

Loren nodded. “Me too,” she said.

I rolled my eyes. I turned to look at Jake. This is getting us nowhere, I mouthed.

Jake shrugged.

I rolled my eyes again. Obviously somebody had to take charge of this pathetic little gathering, and just as obviously it wasn’t going to be Jake, so I guess it would have to be me.

“Well,” I said loudly, “since that school project seems to be all taken care of now, I guess we’ll just be going…”

I tried to wave the others toward the door, but nobody else moved. I sighed and turned back around.

Loren had left the couch and walked toward the hallway that led, I presumed, to the bedrooms and bathrooms. She looked down and cocked her head curiously, then bent over. It wasn’t until she straightened up that I realized what she had been looking at: the painting that Tobias had brought out to show us, the one that showed kind of a resemblance to the Andalite, if you squinted the right way at the sloppy brushstrokes. If you squinted the other way, it looked kind of like a toilet bowl after you squirted in the cleaner, but I’d had a feeling that nobody else would have been interested in listening if I’d tried to point that out.

She turned around, holding the painting in much the same way that Tobias had, although where his grip had been light, almost reluctant, Loren’s hands were clenched so tightly around the frame that her already pale knuckles whitened to a color barely darker than bleached bone.

“Were you…” She swallowed, cleared her throat, and tried again. “Were you showing your friends my art?” she asked. Her voice was light, cheerful—too light, too cheerful. Her smile trembled and her eyes were full of hurt. She thought that Tobias had brought us over here to laugh at his mom’s delusions, to poke fun at her paintings.

I saw Cassie draw in a breath, start to rise; I saw Jake tense his shoulders, start to raise his hands placatingly; I saw Rachel take a step forward, her head beginning to shake from side to side—

“Yeah,” Tobias said. His voice was hoarse. “Yeah, I thought they’d like to see them.”

“Oh,” said Loren. Her voice was very small. “Well…that’s nice.” Her smile was trembling harder than ever. She started to blink rapidly and I looked away. I was not ready to watch somebody’s mother cry.

“They’re really pretty, Ms.—Loren,” said Rachel earnestly. “You’re a great artist.”

Loren shook her head, her smile still weak and her eyes still misty, and said, “Oh, well, not really, but that’s nice of you to say.”

“No it’s true!” Cassie, jumping up off the couch, the cat hopping to the floor and bolting for the underside of the nearest chair. “It is, we really liked them!”

Loren nodded, but didn’t seem to mean it. “That’s…that nice. Thank you, Cassie.” She looked at her son and the pleading in her eyes made my stomach turn over.

Tobias broke their gaze, looked away. “Yeah, well, anyway. Like Marco said, we’re…we’re done with that project now, so…so I guess we’ll go.”

“Okay,” Loren said. “Will you…will you be back for dinner?”

“Sure,” said Tobias. He was looking at his feet again. The rest of us started inching toward the door. I wondered if the others felt awkward and cruel too, or if it was just me. “Sure, probably.”

“Well…h-have a good time!” The false cheer in Loren’s voice cut me like a knife. I shouldered past in front of Cassie, through the door. My feet squeaked on the swaying metal steps. I couldn’t get out of that place fast enough. The only reason I didn’t keep going when I hit concrete was because Jake was in front of me, and I ran into him.

He caught my arm, steadied me, kept me out of the gutter. For some reason I was breathing hard, even though it had only been one flight of stairs. The brightness of the afternoon sun made my eyes water after so long in that dim room, too. I wiped the back of my hand across my eyes, drying them.

“Well,” I said cheerfully, “that was fun. Let’s never do it again.”

* * *

We were back at the mall. The food court, this time. Like Tobias had told his mom, it was almost lunch time. We needed to eat…even if most of us didn’t want to. My own stomach was still churning and I looked at the slice of pizza in front of me with a glare of betrayal. How could I be sitting here smelling delicious, cheese-dripping, sausage-covered pizza and not want to stuff my mouth?

The only one of us who was eating with any real enthusiasm was Rachel. Cassie had a salad (gross) which she was picking at (like you do with a salad) with more habit than appetite. Jake had a burger that he’d managed to take two bites out of so far, and a carton of fries that he had put more effort into stacking in criss-cross piles than in putting into his mouth. Tobias hadn’t ordered any food, claiming he wasn’t hungry yet. Ordinarily I would have assumed that he just didn’t have money to spare and was too embarrassed to admit it, but given the way my stomach felt—and it hadn’t been my mom we’d just almost made cry—I was inclined to believe him. All he had was a coke, which he was nursing as slowly as an old gunfighter in a saloon, looking bereft and fragile.

I picked up my pizza and took a huge bite. My stomach recoiled, but I made myself chew and swallow. This is pizza, I told my body firmly. Greasy, cheesy, delicious, hot sausage pizza. You love this! So enjoy it!

My body didn’t listen. I kept eating anyway.

“I don’t think she was a Controller,” said Cassie.

We all stopped eating. Or at least, I stopped eating and so did Rachel. The others hadn’t really started, so they didn’t have anything to stop. Jake put down the fries he was playing with, though, and Tobias let go of his soda.

“No,” Tobias said softly, “no I don’t think she was.” He shuddered a little but didn’t say anything else.

I shuddered too, and tried not to wonder what it felt like to worry about Yeerks in your family’s heads. “I guess the Yeerks only want the sane ones, huh?” I said, forcing a grin. “Good news, Jake, you’re safe.”

“Ha, ha,” said Jake, glaring at me.

“And you’ll be safest of all,” Rachel told me, leaning forward to pluck a piece of sausage off my pizza. She licked it off her fingers with every evidence of actually enjoying it, and my stomach clenched. I glared at her, more for the indignity of her being able to enjoy my pizza when I couldn’t than over the insult.

“Yeah, yeah, hilarious. But seriously, do you think we’d be able to tell?”

The others all turned to stare at me. I stared back.

“Do you think we’d be able to tell? If she were a Controller, I mean?” I waved my hand to take in the bustling food court, less packed than it would be in half an hour or so but still populated with plenty of shoppers, all laughing and arguing and stuffing their faces. “How many of these folks do you think are Controllers, secretly? Unless they start asking us about construction sites and fireworks, what would give them away?”

“I think if mom had been a Controller, she would have reacted differently to the painting of the…of the Andalite,” Tobias said. “I think…” He swallowed hard before continuing. “I think she would have been more surprised or even excited, and less…less hurt.” He hunched in on himself, dropping his head so his hair slid forward over his eyes again. That stupid little defensive gesture was beginning to annoy me.

“Maybe she was faking it,” I insisted.

“Give it a rest, Marco,” said Rachel. She stole another piece of my sausage, just to be a jerk. “Tobias is right. If she’d been a Controller, she would have known immediately why Tobias had brought that painting out to show us. She would have known we’d been the kids at the construction site last night, and we’d already be under Hork-Bajir arrest.”

“How?” I said, belligerent. I wasn’t sure why I was pushing so hard. Maybe I was just annoyed that no one else seemed to be taking the threat of infestation seriously enough. Maybe I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t the only one scared out of my mind. “You think she was hiding a Hork-Bajir in the refrigerator? No offense, Tobias, but I don’t think your apartment’s even big enough to fit a Hork-Bajir.” Not that I had a lot of room to talk, the apartment that my dad and I had had to move into after mom died being not that much larger, but it was still a good point. “Maybe she called them as soon as we left. Maybe there are Yeerks driving over here right now…”

“Well then they’re taking their sweet time about it,” growled Jake.

I turned to look at him, feeling betrayed.

“Seriously, Marco, if Tobias’s mom was one of them, we’d already be in trouble.”

For some reason that just made me madder. “You don’t think I get that?” I said. “That’s the whole point, that’s what I’m talking about! We need to be more careful!” I looked around at the others. They were staring at me balefully, except for Tobias who was still staring at the ground. “If Tobias’s mom had been a Controller, we’d be dead right now—or infested ourselves. We were careless. We can’t do that again.”

“What are you saying?” asked Jake, his voice heavy with suspicion.

“I’m saying, no more letting anyone else catch on that we know what Andalites are. No more talking about them, or Hork-Bajir, or Yeerks, or any of it. No more morphing, no more anything.”

“No more morphing?” Cassie’s eyes were troubled. “I don’t think you’d be saying that if you’d tried it,” she said. “We can’t just give that up…”

“And what happens when some Controller happens to be going for a walk while you’re turning into a horse?” I asked her. “What happens when you get a Yeerk shoved in your big horse ear because you wanted to go run with the ponies?”

Cassie looked hurt, but she didn’t argue with me. None of them did. “Don’t you get it? This isn’t a game. We could die.”

“Maybe Marco is right,” Rachel said, shocking me. “This is too big for us. We’re just kids. We need to find someone important to tell this to. Someone we can trust.”

More surprisingly than Rachel agreeing with me was Tobias disagreeing with her: he lifted his gaze from the protective curtain of his hair and said flatly, “We can’t trust anyone. Anyone could be a Controller. We tell the wrong person, we are all dead. And the whole world will be doomed.”

Cassie looked anxious, but she was worried about the wrong thing, as far as I was concerned. “I don’t want to stop morphing,” she said wistfully. “Do you realize all we could do with this power? We could communicate with animals, maybe. Help save endangered species.”

“Humans may be the next endangered species, Cassie,” Tobias said in a quiet voice.

The frown on Cassie’s face deepened. She turned away from Tobias to look at Jake. “What do you say, Jake?” she asked.

“Me?” Sudden panic seemed to flare in Jake’s brown eyes. “I don’t know. Marco’s right, we could all get killed. Rachel’s right, this it too major for a bunch of kids.” I started to lean back in my chair, relieved that we were all starting to see sense—but then Jake kept talking. “But Tobias is right, too,” he said. “I mean, the whole world is in danger. And we can’t trust anyone.”

“So, what do we do?” Rachel sounded angry. She’d totally forgotten about both her sweet and sour chicken and my sausage.

“Hey,” Jake protested, just as upset, “it’s not up to me to decide.”

Before anyone else could venture an opinion Rachel said, “Let’s take a vote.”

I spoke quickly. “I vote we try to live long enough to get driver’s licenses.”

Tobias’s didn’t hesitate before arguing. “I vote we do what the Andalite said—fight.”

“You’ve never even been in a fight,” I sneered at him. “You can’t handle the punks at school. Suddenly now you want to kick butt on that Visser Three freakazoid?”

He blushed and looked down again, hiding behind his hair. Oh yeah, he was going to give the Visser nightmares, the boy too scared of the world to even look at it. I rolled my eyes.

“I vote with Tobias,” said Rachel, glowering at me. She’d sure gotten over her concerns fast, I thought sourly. “I wish we could dump all this on someone else,” Rachel continued, not breaking eye contact. “But we can’t.”

I glared back at her. I wasn’t going to back down just because Miss H&M wanted to get her manicured hands dirty. I bet she’d change her tune fast the minute things got nasty, anyway. Girls like Rachel weren’t usually keen on any kind of fight that couldn’t be fought with cutting remarks and cold shoulders. And somehow, I didn’t think Visser Three would care if she laughed about his mismatched socks.

“Let’s think it over for a while,” said Cassie in a soothing voice. “This is a big decision. I mean, it’s not like we’re deciding whether to wear jeans or a skirt.”

I figured that remark was meant for Rachel, but she didn’t look abashed. We kept glaring at each other until Jake said, “Yeah, let’s wait a while. In the meantime, no one say anything to anyone. We just go back to normal.”

I smirked. I knew what that meant. It meant I’d won, and Jake was too nice a guy to say it to Rachel and Tobias’s faces.

And maybe that’s what it did mean, right then. But then we discovered that Tom was a Controller. And I knew—I didn’t want to admit it, not even to myself, but I knew, I knew—that we were going to do it. We were going to fight. Or Jake was, at least, and he’d drag the rest of us along—because Tom was his brother. And Jake would sooner die than leave his brother in the hands of a bunch of evil alien parasites.

“Dammit, Tom,” I whispered to myself. “You’re going to get all of us killed.”

Chapter Text

Jake and Marco took off, probably to go play basketball or video games or something. Blow off steam, pretend everything was still normal. I couldn’t deny that part of me wanted to do the same thing—well, not the video games thing, I’d never really gotten into video games, and basketball wasn’t my jam either—but pretending like things were the same? Yeah, that definitely sounded tempting…

But morphing. Oh man, there was nothing like it. Nothing. I had been a horse, just this morning. I had been a horse!

Tobias and I stayed with Rachel while Marco and Jake walked away, Tobias nursing his soda and me pretending to eat my salad. I couldn’t concentrate on it, though; I was remembering what it felt like to gallop across a field with the wind in my hair—my mane.

Rachel picked at her chicken for a while but I guess the argument had made her lose her appetite, because she pushed it away suddenly and said, “I give up. Tobias, you want any of this?”

He jumped, then looked hurt. “Why would I want your food?” he asked, suspicious.

Rachel shrugged. “Boys are always hungry, right? Anyway I know Cassie won’t eat it, she barely eats any meat.”

“I’m thinking of becoming a vegetarian,” I explained to Tobias.

The shadowed, suspicious look faded from his eyes, but it didn’t go away completely. “I see,” he said.

“I don’t like the idea of just throwing all this out,” Rachel continued, “but I can’t eat any more. Are you sure you don’t want any?”

Tobias huffed a little, like he suspected some kind of ulterior motive, but eventually he popped a few pieces of chicken into his mouth. I forced myself to eat some more of my salad. Okay, mostly I picked out the chunks of cheese and cranberries, but that counted.

“Listen,” I said, “do you…do you guys want to come back to my house?”

Rachel shrugged. “I dunno, I was thinking as long as we’re at the mall I might stop in and see if Express or the Limited are having any sales. I could find you a jacket to replace that one you destroyed,” she offered, like she was suggesting a treat.

I smiled at her. “You could shop, I guess…but I was thinking, we have a lot of animals at the barn right now. Would you guys like to try what it’s like to morph?”

* * *

We went to the barn, of course. Even Rachel didn’t like shopping that much.

The barn is left over from when this used to be a fully functioning farm. The place has been in my family’s hands basically since the Civil War, as my older relatives never tire of telling everybody. I guess that kind of heritage made it special, but mostly I just liked it because I felt comfortable out here with all the wild life and open grass and trees. I felt at home here the way I never really felt when I was in the suburbs where the others lived. Too many people there, too many buildings, too many judgments. Animals don’t judge, they just are.

I guess maybe it’s true what people say, and I do like animals better than people. But come on—animals are awesome! And now instead of just hanging out with them and helping to take care of them, I could actually be them. It was the coolest thing in the world.

Almost cool enough to let me forget about the Yeerks for a few minutes. Almost.

Rachel had been in the barn many times before, of course. She’d even helped me muck out the stalls once or twice, believe it or not. (Nobody had ever made shoveling manure look more fashionable.) Tobias hadn’t, though. He looked around, a little awed.

At least I hoped it was awe.

See, the barn isn’t exactly the cleanest place in the world. It’s a barn. It’s also full of wild animals in various states of injury or distress. So yeah, we sweep and shovel and stuff, and we clean out the cages regularly, but we don’t go in and Windex everything down on the regular. It’s a barn. We had bright florescent lights all along the ceiling so we could see what we were doing, and a bunch of medical supplies and veterinary equipment, but it was still a barn at heart, not a hospital. There was straw scattered on the floor and buckets stacked all around and long hoses for filling water troughs and washing away blood or other fluids. There were barrels of hay against one of the walls and cages everywhere else. We have partitions between different sections of cage, of course, because a horse isn’t going to relax enough to recover if it’s staring at a wolf the whole time, is it? But at its heart, the place really wasn’t all that different than it had been back when this had been a working farm.

Tobias looked a little overwhelmed by the sights and the sounds (and the smells), but he didn’t sneer or roll his eyes or say anything nasty. I relaxed a little and turned my attention back to the animals.

I cleared my throat and spread an arm wide, like Vanna White introducing the next set of letters on Wheel Of Fortune. “Ta da,” I said, and grinned. “So, who wants to morph what?”

“Oh man,” Rachel said, walking forward eagerly, “this is awesome. It’s like trying to choose the perfect blouse, only cooler.”

I beamed a little at that. I knew how much Rachel enjoyed shopping, so having her say that about my idea, about my animals? It made me feel pretty good.

“Would you like to be a horse, Tobias?” I offered, remembering how his eyes had lit up when I was demorphing early that morning.

His eyes weren’t on the horses at the end of the barn, though, but rather on the section of cages devoted to birds. “Maybe,” he said hesitantly. “That does sound pretty cool, but…” He ran a hand lightly over the bars of a cage that held an osprey. The osprey watched him suspiciously, its eyes sharp. Tobias grinned back, looking like a kid in a candy store who had just been told he could pick out as many sweets as he could carry.

Rachel was crouched on her haunches looking at a raccoon with a broken paw. I rolled my eyes affectionately. Trust Rachel to head straight for one of the grumpiest animals we had.

“Actually, I think…I think I’d like to fly.” Tobias turned to look at me, a sheepish smile on his face. “Is that…would that be okay?”

I grinned at him. “Sure,” I said. “Who do you want to fly as?”

Tobias looked back at the birds. He walked up and down the row of cages, drinking in the sight of the various beaks and talons and tail feathers. Eventually he stopped in front of a cage that held a red-tailed hawk with a broken wing. The hawk stared at him. It can be pretty intense to get stared at by a bird of prey, but Tobias didn’t flinch. He stared at the hawk like it was the most beautiful thing he’d seen since—

Well, since the Andalite.

“This one,” he said. “Can I be this one?”

I helped Tobias acquire the hawk. Then, because she was never one to be left out, I helped Rachel acquire a bald eagle. I wasn’t sure if Rachel had chosen her because she was the biggest bird we had at the moment, or because she liked the idea of turning into a national symbol. I didn’t ask; just kept my face straight and helped her acquire the eagle without getting her hand savaged. Fortunately the eagle was pretty out of it, recovering from the nasty dose of poison it had ingested (probably from eating a rodent that had eaten some rat poison) so it was actually easier to manage than the hawk, despite being so much larger.

They both looked kind of nervous when they’d finished, nervous and excited.

I closed the door of the eagle’s cage. “Well,” I said, “who wants to go first?”

“I’ll do it,” Rachel said immediately. “Unless—?” She turned to look questioningly at Tobias.

I was a little surprised. Usually Rachel has this whole “take the lead” attitude, but not because she’s bossy; she just doesn’t like hesitating so once she makes up her mind to do something, she jumps straight in. Most people spend more time thinking before we act, or at least I do. But she was going out of her way to let Tobias go first, if he wanted to, and it was…well, was it sweet? Certainly I didn’t think it was because she was afraid. When something scares Rachel, she just does it more and faster. (Like her whole thing with the balance beam in gymnastics. She hates the balance beam, which I’m sure is why I’ve never seen her hesitate to throw herself onto one.) No, she was backing down for a different reason. Maybe she felt bad because of how worried Tobias had been about his mom?

Or maybe she did have a crush. Huh.

Tobias took a deep breath and then said, “Okay.”

Before either of us could talk about it anymore, he closed his eyes.

It was Rachel’s turn to look surprised. I don’t think she’d expected him to want to. She didn’t protest, though, or try to bully her way in to go first after all; instead she stepped back next to me, giving Tobias plenty of room.

For a moment, nothing seemed to be happening, and I frowned thoughtfully. Maybe the morphing would only work on mammals? Maybe you couldn’t turn into something as evolutionarily distant as a bird? But then I realized—feathers. His pale skin was patterned all over with markings like feathers.

As we watched, the pattern stiffened and rose, becoming three-dimensional. Feathers started rising from his skin all over as his fingers started to melt. He was shrinking too, rapidly sagging toward the floor as his clothing billowed out around him.

“Oh,” he gasped, and I couldn’t tell if his voice was reverent or horrified, “Oh this is so shREEKHH!”

His teeth had burst forward through his lips, hardening and darkening into the sharp, black-tipped beak of the hawk. I saw his soft blue eyes shift to yellow, sharpening like a blade as they switched to raptor vision, and then he disappeared into the tent of his clothes.

“Tobias?” I called tentatively.

There was no answer, but the bundle of clothing thrashed.

“Tobias, if you can hear me, I’m going to move your clothes so you can get out, okay?” Rachel said.

I opened my mouth to caution her, but too late: she stepped forward and lifted Tobias’s shirt. Immediately a hawk’s frightened, angry shriek sounded, making her stumble backwards—and just in time, because with the smothering blanket of his shirt removed, Tobias lunged upward, beating his wings, and launched himself bodily into the air.

Rachel ducked as his talons soared past over her head.

We both spun to watch as the bird that had been a boy no more than three minutes ago flapped clumsily around the barn. Around us the other animals burst into noise—chittering, shrieking, nickering, whatever their particular vocal abilities suited them to—as the sight of the hawk flying free riled them up, either fearful or excited depending on their particular ecological relationship to red-tailed hawks.

I was a little worried that my dad might come out to see what was going on, but unless the animals started getting really loud or kept the racket up for more than a few minutes, I didn’t think it was likely. Sometimes our patients made noise; it wasn’t always for a reason, at least not one that we humans could recognize. Unless they sounded really upset or frightened, we didn’t worry.

“Wow,” said Rachel, her eyes bright as she watched Tobias. “Oh yeah, I’ve got to try that.”

“Tobias,” I said, “Tobias, can you hear me? The hawk is panicking because he doesn’t know where the exit is. Hawks don’t like being indoors,” I explained, “and he can’t find the sky. I’ll open the door after Rachel’s changed too so you can both try flying outside, but I don’t want to do that until I know you’re in control, okay?”

“What do you mean, in control?” Rachel asked nervously.

I hesitated, then admitted, “When I morphed the horse the first time, it took me a few minutes to…to remember that I’m Cassie, that I’m human. It was really exciting, just running, feeling the air and the sun and the grass and everything. I mean, I had all the instincts of a horse, right? Only I’d never been a horse before, so I didn’t really know what to do with them.” I gave a self-deprecating little laugh. “I guess not many people can say they’ve got experience with that, right?”

Rachel grinned at me, then looked back at Tobias as he fluttered anxiously around the corners of the barn. She frowned. “Why isn’t he saying anything? He should be able to use thought-speak, right? You did when you were the horse…”

“Because the hawk is panicking,” I said grimly. “I should have thought of this. Birds aren’t comfortable indoors, not wild birds like hawks. So the hawk is freaking out, and that’s freaking Tobias out, and he can’t get control. Tobias,” I called, making my voice as gentle as I could while still making it loud, “Tobias, hey, try and exert control over the morph, okay? Remember who you are, okay? What you are? You aren’t a hawk, Tobias. You have to control the hawk.”

Rachel seemed to pick up on what I was trying to do because a moment later she said, “Remember drawing, Tobias? You draw a lot in class. Remember doing that? You can’t do that with hawk talons, can you? You need human hands for that, right? Because you’re human, Tobias. Remember, human?”

“Just try and focus and be calm,” I said. “I don’t want to open the door while you’re freaking out, I’m afraid the hawk would fly away and take you with it, and we don’t want to lose you, right?”

He hadn’t spotted the hayloft yet. I was scared that he was going to notice it and go soaring out into the great outdoors, and we would never see him again. Suddenly this was starting to seem like a really bad idea.

“Remember your mom, Tobias?” Rachel said. “She’s a human, right, not a bird? So you have to be human too, don’t you?”

I wasn’t sure if I was imagining it or not, but I thought he was flapping a little slower now. Maybe he was just getting tired. Most animals, when they panic, the burst of energy ebbs fast if they can’t escape right away.

“Remember the Andalite?” I said, struck by a sudden flash of inspiration. “Remember holding his hand? Remember him talking to us in our heads?”

<The…the Andalite?>

Tobias’s voice, broadcasting in thought-speech.

I sagged against the shelf with the squirrel’s cage. He sounded uncertain and frantic still, but he was there.

“That’s right,” I continued, “the Andalite. Remember him? He gave us the power to morph? To do things like turn into hawks?”

Tobias fluttered down to perch on the top of one of the horse stalls. The horse snorted at him, but didn’t try and do anything else. Horses don’t really care about birds unless they bother them first, and vice versa.

<I remember,> Tobias said. <Sorry. I just…wow. That was…wow.>

I smiled. “Yeah,” I said, “I know what you mean. I’m sorry I didn’t think about the fact that morphing in here would probably freak the hawk out. I should have warned you.”

<It’s okay,> he said, and chuckled drily. <I think I would have freaked-out a little no matter where I morphed. This is…this is intense.>

“Cool,” said Rachel. “I want to try it.” She started pulling her shirt off over her head and I yelped.

“Rachel! Tobias is still a boy, even though he’s a hawk!”

Rachel rolled her eyes at me. “Well I don’t want to get trapped in my clothes, do I?” she retorted. “Besides, I’ve still got my bra on.”

<I won’t look,> Tobias promised anxiously.

Rachel paused, her shirt up around her ribs, and grinned at him. “I know you won’t,” she said.

If hawks could blush, I swear Tobias would have. Instead he turned his head and stared intently into the corner opposite where Rachel and I stood. I gathered Tobias’s clothes off the floor and set them on the shelf next to the raccoon’s cage. Rachel, now dressed in nothing but her underwear and her training bra, folded hers neatly beside them.

She looked at me and said, “I should be able to morph with these, right? Like you did the leotard?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “It took me a couple tries to get that to work.”

“Okay,” said Rachel. She hesitated a moment, then stripped the rest of the way. I didn’t blush; Rachel and I had been having sleep-overs since we were little kids. We’d seen each other naked way too many times for either of us to be bothered by the idea. “I don’t want to have my wings trapped in my bra straps or something,” she explained, laying her panties on top of the pile of clothes.

I nodded. “Good idea,” I said. “You can work on the clothing once you’ve tried morphing on its own once or twice. Now remember, concentrate on—”

“On ‘the eagle within me,’ right,” Rachel said, smirking at me. “I remember how you described it before.”

“And try not to freak-out because you’re indoors!” I reminded her hurriedly, but she had already closed her eyes and started to change.

It was a more painful-looking process than it had been with Tobias, possibly because he had done a fair portion of the morphing underneath the tent of his clothing while Rachel had nothing but her long golden hair to obscure the sight of shifting flesh and twisting bones. I stared, fascinated. I myself had morphed before, of course, but watching it happen to someone else was completely different. It looked like it should hurt, but I knew it didn’t; it looked like…well, it looked like a dozen different nightmares all packed into one, but it was kind of beautiful too. Rachel was becoming a bird. A girl, becoming a bird! It was impossible, it was incredible, it was a miracle!

The only damper on the whole thing was that I couldn’t share it with my mom and dad. I knew they would have a hundred thousand questions, knew they would be even more excited and curious than I was—but I also knew I couldn’t tell them. Not yet. Not until I knew it was safe…

Once Rachel’s soft pink human body finished becoming a taut, muscular, feather-covered American icon, I held my breath, waiting to see what she would do.

For a moment, nothing happened. The eagle looked around—at the animals in their cages, at Tobias on the stall, at the wooden walls, at me.

It is indescribably unsettling to be stared at that closely by a bird of prey, if you were wondering. I couldn’t help shuddering, even though I knew that behind that steely glare was my best friend. Besides, it might not be her in control yet…

The eagle let out a screech and flapped once, twice, three times, lurching up to perch on one of the rafters. It screeched again. I flinched. I heard Tobias’s feathers rustle. The other animals fidgeted and cried out and twitched, but it wasn’t as bad of a racket as before. I didn’t think dad would bother coming to see what had excited them. Not yet, anyway.

“Rachel?” I asked hesitantly.

<Rachel, are you in there?> Tobias sounded worried.

It occurred to me that maybe I should have let Tobias out of the barn before Rachel morphed. True, bald eagles didn’t normally attack red-tailed hawks, but this wasn’t a normal bald eagle…

<I…I’m here,> said Rachel. Her thought-speak voice was faint. Strained. <I don’t…wow. Yeah. Yeah, I’m here. I’m here.>

Tobias and I both breathed a sigh of relief, although his only sounded inside our heads.

“Okay,” I said, grinning shakily. “Okay, great. So…do you guys want to try flying?”

Chapter Text

Tobias and I walked home from Cassie’s together—or I suppose it would be more accurate to say that he walked me home, because we split-up then so he could keep going to his apartment, which was further away. We walked because Cassie pointed-out that we had no way of carrying our clothes with us if we’d flown, and it would have looked pretty weird for us to try and sneak back into our homes buck-naked, but we didn’t want to. Flying was amazing.

I have got to figure out how to morph some clothing.

As soon as I got home I started sorting through my gymnastics stuff. Fortunately I had plenty of leotards to choose from. I picked out my least favorites and put them in one pile, to practice with; that way if I destroyed them the way Cassie had her jacket, I wouldn’t care. Then I picked out my favorites and put them in another pile, to save for actually doing gymnastics in. The rest—the bulk of them—went into the “to morph with once I figure out how to do it right” pile.

I grinned at my handiwork and stepped back.

That was when the phone rang.

I ignored it, letting my little sisters fight over who got to answer it, until I heard Jordan calling, “Rachel! Rachel, it’s for you! It’s cousin Jake!”

I frowned. What did Jake want? Then my heart started beating a little faster. Maybe he had made a decision. Maybe he was ready to fight!

I hurried to the upstairs extension. “Hi Jake,” I said, “it’s Rachel. Jordan, you can hang up now.”

A muffled giggle. I rolled my eyes.

I guess Jake heard it too, because he said, “Great, do you have your math book? I wanted to talk about problem twenty-three. If you divide seventeen by ninety-five times x, and multiply the result by twelve—”

There was a click. Jordan had hung up.

I smirked. I figured Jake was smirking too, but when he spoke, there was no trace of humor in his voice.

“Rachel, I want to—I want to go to that meeting tonight. The one we were invited to this morning.” There was a pause, as though he was struggling to find the words. “Marco—Marco thinks maybe—thinks Tom is—you know—thinks he’s…” His voice broke. I froze.

“Tom is what?” I said.

I heard Jake take a shuddering breath. “Nothing,” he said. “Tom’s nothing. It’s all cool. But I do want to go to that meeting. The one The Sharing is having tonight? It sounds—it sounds fun. I thought I’d maybe go and look around. Do you want to come along?”

My heart was pounding. Was Jake saying what I thought he was saying? Because it sounded like he was saying that Tom was like that cop from this morning. It sounded like he was saying that Tom was a Controller.

It also sounded like he was saying that he wanted us to go bust in on a possible Yeerk gathering.

I didn’t hesitate. “I’m in,” I said. “Let’s do it.”

* * *

It wasn’t that far to the beach, so we decided not to drive there with Tom. We walked.

On the way, we talked about what we were going to do.

“We’re just going to look around,” Marco said, “so try not to freak-out and cause any scenes, okay? No talking about aliens and Andalites.” He was looking at Tobias as he said it, and I bristled. Tobias just nodded though, so I didn’t say anything. I did glare at Marco, but he was looking at the beach ahead, not at me. I don’t think he noticed, and I was walking too far away to “casually” elbow him in the side or step on his foot without leaning all the way across both Jake and Cassie, which I figured wouldn’t be exactly subtle.

I let it go. For now.

“Everyone knows this is crazy, right?” Jake said. “This is just…just some kind of coed Boy Scouts. I mean…a barbecue? Volleyball? No way are the Yeerks wrapped up in something this lame.”

I opened my mouth to point out that if it was coed, he could have just as well called it Girl Scouts as Boy Scouts, but Cassie caught my eye and shook her head. She looked concerned, but not about where we were going. It was Jake she kept sneaking little looks at, not the beach ahead.

I shut-up again.

Marco didn’t say anything either, but his mouth was thin and his eyes were narrow. It didn’t take me too long to figure out that it hadn’t been Jake who had gotten suspicious of Tom—or at least, it hadn’t been Jake who had actually voiced those suspicions. I wondered if Marco was just being paranoid.

I hoped Marco was just being paranoid.

It did sound crazy. I mean…Tom? What would the Yeerks want with him? He was just some high school kid. Unless they were hoping to beat the Andalites in interstellar basketball, how could Tom possibly be useful to them?

I shook my head and kept walking.

“We’re going there to take a closer look at things, right?” Tobias said after a while, when it became clear that nobody else was going to say anything in direct reply to Jake. “So I think we should have some better eyes along.”

Jake looked at him curiously. “What are you talking about?” he said, but I knew exactly what Tobias meant. I grinned.

“Good idea,” I said. I turned to Jake. “Tobias and I can morph birds, get some height, spy it out from above.”

“Birds of prey,” Tobias clarified. “Raptors. Their eyesight is…” He shook his head. “Incredible,” he said, his voice reverent. “Incredible.”

“It is,” I confirmed. “It’s the best.”

 “Okay,” Jake said, “but not both of you. Just Tobias.”

I stopped walking and planted my hands on my hips. “Excuse me?”

Jake sighed. “Look, we want to look casual, right? Like we’re just a bunch of friends hanging out, not…”

“Not a group of Animorphs trying to infiltrate an alien conspiracy,” Marco grumbled.

We all turned to look at him. “Animorphs?” said Cassie.

Marco looked uncomfortable. “Animal-morpher, Animorph...forget about it.”

Tobias grinned. “No,” he said, “I kind of like it. Animorphs.”

Marco rolled his eyes. He looked like he regretted saying anything. “Whatever,” he said sulkily.

“Back on topic…”

We all turned back to Jake. “Look, it makes sense that Marco would come with me, we hang out all the time. And Rachel, you’re my cousin, and it was Tom who asked, so—”

“So it would make sense for you to drag me along too,” I said sourly, “I get it.”

“And you dragging Cassie along makes more sense than either Marco or I asking her to come along without you,” Jake continued, ignoring me. “But Tobias—”

“I get it,” said Tobias lightly. “I’m not really friends with any of the rest of you.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Jake protested, but Tobias was shaking his head.

“No, I get it. With Rachel along, Cassie fits in. If she isn’t here, it looks weird, and I’m out of place no matter what.”

“Well, either that or it looks like Jake finally—” Whatever Marco was going to say (and I had a good idea what it was going to be) was lost in a fit of coughing after Jake elbowed him in the gut. From the way both he and Cassie blushed I had a feeling they knew what he’d been able to say, too. I smirked.

“I’m not offended,” Tobias said, when Jake still looked upset even after he was finished tussling with Marco. “It’s logical. And it’s true. And anyway,” he added with a sudden grin, “it means I get to be a hawk again. I’m not going to complain about that.” He winked at me and I stuck my tongue out at him.

“Jealous?” he teased.

“You bet,” I said honestly. I grinned at him, though. He looked cute when he smiled like that, like for once he’d forgotten to be sad about the world.

Jake cleared his throat. “Okay,” he said. “Tobias, what do you need to morph?”

“Nothing,” said Tobias. He closed his eyes, then opened them again. “Um,” he said. “Although I should probably get undressed first so I don’t get stuck in my clothes again.” A blush rose up his cheeks.

Cassie and I laughed and politely turned our backs while Tobias stripped. Marco had one of those little string bags in a pocket of his cargo shorts—he muttered something about stopping for groceries on the way home and looked away, like he was embarrassed about it—and he stuffed Tobias’s clothes in there and slung it over his shoulder.

We all set out again, Tobias up in the sky this time.

“Have fun!” I called as he powered his wings, thrusting himself up in the night air. Hawks can’t smile, but I swear the look he shot me as he found a thermal and veered away was practically a grin.

“Man,” Jake said, almost wistfully, “I have got to try that.”

“Definitely,” I confirmed, and we set out again.

Ahead, the bonfire burned bright on the dark beach. People were all around it, playing, talking, eating. Kids from school. Adults. People I didn’t know. Others I did. Were they all Controllers? I wondered. How could I ever know? And was Jake’s brother one of them?

After about an hour of hanging out there on the beach, I was starting to get freaked out. Everyone was having a great time. A little too great of a time, if you know what I mean. People were being nice, but they were so nice it was creepy. Everybody was trying a little too hard, especially the “full members,” whatever that meant. Especially them.

I mean, I still ate the barbecue. It was good barbecue. But I felt like I was on edge the whole time. I kept my stupid, “performing gymnastics in front of people” smile on my face and made dumb, boring small talk and tried to ignore the way the hair on the back of my neck was standing up.

<How’s it going down there?> Tobias asked, from somewhere overhead in the darkness.

I couldn’t answer back, of course. Thought-speak only works one way, it appears, and I was too human to use it. But I looked up so he’d know I’d heard him and I shook my head. I was sure he’d be able to see the way I wrinkled my nose and pulled back my lips, grimacing briefly before I resumed my too-happy, vapid grin. I’d had raptor eyes too. Wherever Tobias was, he could see everything.

And I was stuck down here playing Little Miss Cheerful. Ugh.

I drifted through the meeting, making chit-chat, keeping my smile in place. I’d lost track of the others at some point, but we hadn’t come to hang out anyway. We’d come here to scout things out, and we probably made better scouts if we were spread-out. Still, I felt exposed and vulnerable all alone out there, surrounded by all the creepy happy people.

<Is that a pimple on that dude’s face or is his nose just shaped like that?>

Tobias, speaking quietly inside my head while I tried to politely extricate myself from another conversation with a full member. I burst out laughing right in the dude’s face and had to come up with a quick excuse so he didn’t think I’d been laughing at him. As soon as I could, I said I wanted another soda and fled to the sands.

“Oh man, Tobias, don’t do that,” I whispered to myself, but I was grinning. I looked up and winked at the sky, hoping he could see me.

I guess he could, because for the rest of the evening, he kept slipping sly little comments into my head as I walked around and made horrible small talk. I was glad. I was still creeped out, and I definitely wasn’t having fun, but I felt a lot less lonely with Tobias’s voice in my head.

After about an hour, I caught sight of Tom walking away from Jake and I started making my way over to him. Cassie and Marco came drifting in from the other direction, where they’d been playing Frisbee with a group of other kids. Jake was turned away from the bonfire so I couldn’t see his face, but the other two were smiling, like they hadn’t noticed anything weird—or more likely, like they were trying to act like they hadn’t noticed anything weird, like me.

Although with Marco who knows. He might be too weird to notice weirdness.

He was laughing. “Okay,” he said, “I admit it. I was wrong. These are just normal people having a good time. And Tom isn’t a Controller.”

I would have argued with him, but just then Jake turned around. For a minute, I stopped walking. For a minute, I stopped breathing. The look on his face…he knew. He knew.

“They’re all going off to a separate meeting,” Jake said. His voice was rough. “All the full members. I’d sure like to know what goes on in that meeting.”

I pointed off into the darkness. “I saw people heading that way,” I offered.

“Let’s see if we can get close,” said Jake.

Marco wasn’t laughing anymore. “What’s going on?” he demanded. “I thought we just decided everything was normal here.”

I rolled my eyes before I replied, which gave Cassie a chance to speak first. That was probably just as well; I would have just said something sarcastic. What Cassie said was, “Nothing is normal here. Can’t you feel it?” She was shivering, like she was even more freaked-out by it all than I was. “All these so-called full members, they’re all being so perfectly nice. So perfectly helpful. They’re so perfectly normal it’s abnormal. And all the time their eyes are following you, watching you. Watching you like…like a hungry dog watching a bone.”

“Creepy,” I agreed fervently. “Like if you took cheerleaders, combined them with gym teachers, and made them all drink ten cups of coffee.”

I expected Marco to argue some more, but instead he said reluctantly, “They are all just a little too happy, aren’t they? People keep telling me how all their problems disappeared once they became a full member of The Sharing. It’s like some cult or something.”

“I’m getting into that secret meeting,” Jake insisted. There was something about his voice that worried me. What had Tom said to him? “Let’s get away from the fire. Over behind that lifeguard stand.”

“How are you going to get into the meeting?” Marco asked.

“I don’t know,” said Jake. He shook his head. He sounded frustrated.

We walked away from the fire, into the darker space behind the lifeguard stand. Jake started kicking some dune grass. I looked around to see if anyone from the meeting was watching us, then looked up and scanned the starlit skies. I couldn’t see anything but I guess Tobias saw me looking, or else he just figured he might as well come over since we had separated from everyone else.

<What’s up?> he asked, swooping out of the darkness to perch on the lifeguard stand.

“The full members are off in some private get-together,” Jake told him. “Do you know where they are?”

<Of course. With these eyes I can see the mice scampering through the dune grass. Nice, plump, tasty-looking things.>

“Tobias! Get a grip,” Jake cautioned. “Don’t start eating mice just because you’re in a hawk’s body. What’s next? Road kill?”

Tobias didn’t say anything. I glared at Jake. Tobias glared at Jake too, but with a hawk’s eyes, he couldn’t do anything else.

“You don’t know what morphing is like,” I snapped. “You have no idea.”

Jake slumped a little. “Sorry,” he said. “You’re right. But still…stay away from the mice Tobias, okay?”

“I could go steal you some barbecue sauce for ‘em,” Marco offered.

We all laughed a little at that, even Tobias.

 “So, how are you going to get close to the meeting?” Marco asked Jake after the laughter faded, getting us back on topic. “You’re not exactly invisible.”

<I am,> Tobias said. <As far as they’re concerned, anyway.>

“As long as you stay in the air you are,” Marco pointed out. “Everybody’s going to notice a red-tailed hawk if it sits down beside them and starts taking notes.”

“Your hearing isn’t that much better than a human,” Cassie agreed. “You can see them from halfway across the beach, sure, but you’d have to get too close to overheard what they’re saying. You’d be spotted.”

“We should have acquired more animals,” I grumbled. “What good are birds and a horse right now?”

<Sorry,> said Tobias.

I rolled my eyes at him. “What are you sorry for?” I said. “You’ve done more than any of the rest of us so far.”

“Yeah,” said Jake, “and now you need to morph back.”

<No, I’ll keep watch from above for a while longer,> he said. I knew how he felt. Giving up those powerful wings, those sharp eyes, to crawl on the ground again…it wasn’t awesome.

But Jake said, “No, Tobias.” His voice was sharp, commanding. “You’ve been in that body for over an hour. You need to morph back. You’ve done what we needed you to do.”

Tobias’s thought-speak voice, when he spoke again, sounded embarrassed. <Um, there is that little problem…I don’t exactly have any clothes on.>

“Marco has your clothes in a bag. Rachel and Cassie will turn away while you morph.”

Cassie grinned. “I am going to have to teach you all how to morph clothing.”

Still Tobias hesitated. <I hate changing back. It’s like going back to a prison or something. I hate it when I don’t have wings.>

I nodded sympathetically but said, “Tobias, you can always return to your hawk’s body later. I want to go flying again, too. But not forever.” I gave him what I hoped was a reassuring smile. “Now, come on. Let the hawk go. For now.”

Tobias sighed but he fluttered down to the sand and started to morph. I saw his beak suck back into his face—ew—and his scaly bird legs start to grow out—double ew—before I remembered that he would be naked once his feathers went away, and then I quickly turned around to look at the dunes instead.

After a while I heard Tobias say, “Okay, I’m done. I’m dressed. But now what? If neither Rachel nor I can use our bird morphs, and Cassie’s horse won’t exactly blend in, what are we supposed to do? Give up and go home?”

“I could just go up there and pretend I got lost if anybody sees me,” I suggest. “Or what if I pretend I twisted my ankle and I was looking for Tom for a ride home?”

“No,” Jake said, very quickly. I was a little taken about by the vehemence in his voice.

“Oh-kay…” I said.

Jake shook his head. “No, we can’t—we can’t count on Tom. It’s too risky. What if—Tobias, you said there were mice in the dunes? What if we caught one of those and I acquired it? Nobody would notice a mouse.”

“Nobody except for a hungry hawk, anyway,” Marco smirked.

“Actually,” Cassie said slowly, “I think I have another option…”

That was when I realized that Cassie’s skin was lightening. No—not her skin. Her fur. She was growing fur all over her face, soft orange fur.

“Oh man,” I breathed.

“I, um, I might have acquired Tobias’s cat this morning. Sorry for not asking first, Tobias.”

“Um, that’s—that’s okay, Cassie,” said Tobias. He sounded a little dumbfounded. Given that we were currently watching a short, pretty black girl in overalls shrink down to a pudgy orange tabby cat, her clothes billowing up around her like a stiff denim tent and her blue leotard disappearing beneath a fine coating of fur, I don’t know what else he could have said. Under the circumstances, who would object?

“There aren’t a lot of cats on the beach,” Jake pointed out, sounding reluctant.

<True,> Cassie said in our heads as she crossed the border to the point of the morph where she could use thought-speak—still partially human, still larger than the average house cat, but now down on all fours with pointy ears on the sides of her head. <But a stray cat wandering around is still less noticeable than a kid poking around where they shouldn’t be.>

As I watched, her tail came shooting out of her spine like a fur-covered slinky.

“Eurgh,” I said.

<Besides,> Cassie added, in a voice that was way bolder than she usually sounded, <I’m a cat, it’s nighttime, I’m in my element. This will be a piece of cake.>

Jake and I exchanged a dubious look, then I shrugged. Cassie wasn’t the sort of person to overestimate her capabilities (the opposite, mostly, in my opinion) so if she said she could do it, she could do it. Leaping without looking was my thing, not hers.

“Where are the full members?” Jake asked.

“About a hundred yards down the beach,” Tobias replied. “There’s a little bowl-like area formed by the dunes. There are people posted all around, though, like guards.”

<Guards?> Cassie said. <Please. They’ll never even see me.>

I was starting to get a bad feeling about this, but Cassie was already bounding away across the dunes.

“Okay,” I said, watching her furry cat butt disappear into the darkness. “So I guess we just...wait?”

In the end, we walked back out to rejoin the rest of the party. No sense letting anyone start wondering where we had all gone off to, right? Besides, Tobias hadn’t gotten to eat anything. Probably.

Hopefully.

I had to punch Marco in the shoulder for his continued mouse-barbecue comments as Tobias filled a plate, but Tobias laughed shyly. “You know,” he said, in between bites, “in some parts of the world mice are considered a delicacy. I think they eat them with honey, if I remember right, but I’m sure nobody would object to a good barbecued mouse-kebab. I bet I could go get you one if you wanted, Marco. We could pop it on the grill here and you could—”

“Okay, okay, I take it back!” Marco cried, covering his ears. “Please. Do not ruin barbecue for me. I beg you. Have mercy.”

We all laughed. But inside, my stomach clenched. All I could think about was Cassie, alone out there trying to eavesdrop on a bunch of Controllers. Jake met my eyes across Marco’s head and I could tell he was worried too. One of us should have gone with her.

“I’m going to go find a mouse,” I said suddenly. “Not for barbecuing, Marco, shut-up. Somebody needs to go back-up Cassie. I’m going to—”

<Guys!> Cassie’s thought-speak voice in our heads. We all jumped. <Guys, it’s bad! It’s so bad.>

Chapter Text

Cassie hadn’t exaggerated, it was bad. So bad that I’m pretty sure she didn’t tell the rest of us everything she did Jake. I’m pretty sure about that because she told us some of it before she morphed back (and it was weird, hearing Cassie’s “voice” come out of my cat; I kept fighting the urge to go scratch his—her ears) when she could still use thought-speak. And she paused at one point and looked directly at Jake without saying anything, at least nothing that the rest of us could hear.

Jake went kind of pale and turned to stare at the ocean.

He didn’t look back around until Cassie had finished telling us everything else she’d overheard. She demorphed back to human while she talked, pulling her outer clothes on over her blue leotard. She made it look so easy, so seamless. I resolved to practice morphing with clothes that night after I got home.

It was better to think about that than dwell on everything Cassie had said.

I guess Jake must have been pretty upset to know for sure that his brother was a Controller, but he didn’t seem surprised when Cassie told him; just nodded sadly like he’d been expecting it. Whatever she told him after, that made him stare out over the water, it wasn’t that.

I shivered a little, wondering what could be worse, but I didn’t ask. I knew it wasn’t my business. I figured Jake would talk about it to Marco later, if he wanted to talk about it. He and Marco were actual friends, and I was just…there. I tried not to feel jealous about that. We had more important things to deal with than my pathetic envy of other people’s lives.

“So Chapman’s a Controller,” Marco mused. “I wonder what good the Yeerks think an Assistant Principle at a middle school is going to do them?”

“Recruitment,” I said grimly. The others all turned to stare at me. “Come on,” I said, “look around at everything going on here tonight. The whole idea of The Sharing? It’s all to sucker people into joining up so they can be used as hosts for the Yeerks. How many kids and parents do you think Chapman has suggested The Sharing to already?”

Rachel made a face. “He sees a kid struggling in school, he tells their parents what a great extra-curricular The Sharing is. Mom and dad send their kid, next thing you know, wham, Yeerk in their head.”

“Or their parents’ heads,” Cassie pointed out. “Anybody who’s in a job that Chapman thinks would be useful to the Yeerks, he pulls the same thing, and the family comes to a meeting, and…”

“You’re right,” Marco said, not looking happy about it. “Chapman’s in a perfect position for them.”

Cassie was shivering. “Man,” she said quietly, “I miss being that cat. I’ve never felt so…so confident about everything.” She sighed. “It’s strange, you know? I’m so much larger now than I was when I was the cat, but I didn’t feel small. Now I do. I feel small and I feel scared.”

“Hey, at least they aren’t going to try and kill us,” Rachel said bracingly. “That’s good news.”

Cassie had told us that one of the Controllers at the meeting wanted us dead just on grounds of Tom’s suspicions, but Chapman—or at least, the Yeerk in Chapman’s head—hadn’t wanted to risk murdering five kids at a Sharing event on unfounded suspicions. It was almost nice of him. “They want a higher profit-loss ratio,” Marco had sneered. I don’t think Marco was big on nice.

Now Cassie shook her head at Rachel, not looking very comforted. “I’m not sure how ‘good’ it is. They get proof that it was us there that night, and bang—we’re dead.”

“And that’s why we aren’t going to say anything about it,” said Marco firmly. “We aren’t going to say anything, we aren’t going to do anything. We are forgetting everything we saw. We are getting on with our normal lives.”

Jake turned around. “And leave Tom the way he is?” he demanded. “No way. Never. He’s my brother. I’m going to save him.”

“Just how do you figure you’ll do that?” Marco asked sarcastically. “Let’s see, it’s you versus Chapman, the cops, a bunch of Hork-Bajir and Taxxons, and, worst of all, that creep, Visser Three. So far your big idea was turning into a mouse. A mouse, Jake. A mouse versus Visser Three. It’s like being stuck in the most impossible video game ever invented.”

“Yeah, it is, kind of,” Jake agreed. His teeth were bared in something that was kind of like a grin, but without any humor. “But I’m pretty good at video games.”

“And he won’t be alone,” Rachel said immediately. “I’m in this, too.”

“And me,” I said, right on her heels. I was a little surprised that I didn’t hesitate more, but I didn’t feel even the slightest urge to take the words back. I was scared, yeah, but it wasn’t the sort of paralyzing fear I felt when a bunch of bullies cornered me. It was different somehow. Maybe that was stupid, seeing how the Yeerks were a million times more dangerous than some punks who wanted to use me as a punching bag, but stupid or not, it was true.

I guess I wasn’t the only one to feel that way, because Cassie said, “Me, too.” Her voice was still shaky, but she managed to smile.

Marco wasn’t on board, though. “Swell,” he drawled. “So suddenly you’re the Fantastic Four. This isn’t a comic book. This is real.”

I wanted to ask Marco what he knew about real life, with all his jokes and his sarcasm and his knack for making even the teachers laugh, but just then we heard the sound of people coming through the dunes. The meeting of the full members had broken up.

“Everyone, quiet,” Jake said. “We’ll let this ride…for now.”

I might have argued, but I caught Rachel looking at me out of the corner of my eye. She had one eyebrow raised and her lips were tight. I knew just looking at her that she had no intention of letting any of this ride.

Good. Neither did I.

* * *

I was distracted all the way home, thinking about the Yeerks and the Andalite and where the Yeerk pool might be. It took me two tries to get the door locked behind me, I was so distracted. Maybe tomorrow, after school, I could morph hawk again and scout around, see if I could find it from the air…

“I thought you’d be home for dinner.”

Mom’s voice, sad. I winced. I had forgotten about dinner, had gone to The Sharing’s barbecue on the beach instead.

“Yeah, sorry,” I said, making myself smile before I turned around, “I was hanging out with—with my friends, and we kind of lost track of time. I grabbed some food with them, don’t worry.” It was hard to say the word—friends—when I didn’t think it was true, not really. Sure, I’d been hanging out with the others, but just because we had all been there in the construction site the other night, had all seen the same impossible things, that didn’t make us friends.

Did it?

“Oh,” said mom. “That’s—that’s good. That you’re making more friends.” She cleared her throat. “Did you have fun?”

“Uh, sure,” I said, kicking off my shoes. I looked over into the kitchen and my heart sank. There on the counter sat a can of coconut milk, a bag of tortilla shells, cabbage, an avocado, a bunch of spices, a lime, and cilantro. The skillet was sitting on the stove, stone cold. The rest of the ingredients were obviously in the fridge, but I didn’t need to see them to know that mom had been planning to make her special fish tacos.

I felt like a jerk. We mostly eat boxed and packaged stuff, a lot of pasta, a lot of rice and beans. Cheap food, easy to prepare food. Maybe to most people fish tacos aren’t a big deal, but the way my mom makes them—oh man. They are one of my favorite foods in the whole world. She adds a little bit of peanut sauce and honey, some sesame oil and chili paste, and by the time she’s done they’re absolutely heavenly.

She doesn’t make them often. Mostly for special occasions, or when she wants to do something extra nice for me. And I’d blown her off.

“I’m sorry, mom,” I mumbled, looking down so I could hide behind my hair.

“Oh don’t worry about it,” she said. “Maybe we can do tacos tomorrow, what do you think?” She started putting the stuff away in the cupboards. I wished that I could sink down into the floor—morph an ant or a flea maybe, and just disappear. But the only thing I could morph was a hawk and the hawk wouldn’t help me now.

“Tomorrow sounds great,” I said miserably, watching her transfer the fish from the fridge to the freezer. “But what about you, mom? Have you had dinner yet? You should go ahead and make some tacos.”

Mom shook her head. “Don’t be silly.” She smiled at me. “I’ll just make some ramen or something. Tacos should be—” She had to stop and clear her throat. “Well, it’s too much work to make just for one person. We’ll do it tomorrow. Together.”

“Together,” I promised, “tomorrow. Absolutely.”

I saw Aragon snoozing on the back of the couch and I went into the living room to pet him. I hoped his purring might make me feel less like a jerk. I flopped down on my knees on the couch, half-turned backwards so I could reach him, and tried to push the memory of Cassie morphing my cat out of my head. It was a good position for petting Aragorn. It also gave me an excuse to put my back to the kitchen where mom was standing without looking like I was trying to avoid her.

I dropped a hand onto Aragorn’s head and started to rub his ears the way I know he likes. He looked up and glared at me for interrupting his nap, but he closed his eyes and started to purr when he realized what I was doing.

I sighed. My mom doesn’t have the best memory, never has. I was used to repeating conversation, used to her forgetting plans and appointments, used to having to remind her of the world outside her head. It figures that my broken promise to be home for dinner would be one of the things she would remember. As if I didn’t feel crappy enough already for all those years of thinking she was crazy...

“So where were you?” mom asked. Her voice was light, just trying to make conversation, but my stomach still turned over.

“Just down at the beach,” I said. I looked at Aragorn so I wouldn’t have to look at her. “We, uh, we were invited to go to this picnic thing by Jake’s brother, Tom.”

“Oh?” said mom. She was trying too hard to sound cheerful. It made me feel even worse. “That sounds fun. Were there a lot of people there?”

Mom worries about the fact that I don’t have many friends. I think she feels guilty too, because on some level she knows that it’s at least partly her fault.

“Yeah,” I told her, trying to sound happy about it, “loads. It was hosted by this group called The Sharing. Jake’s brother is a member. I think like, half the kids from school might have been there.” I laughed hollowly, wondering how many of those kids would end up with a Yeerk in their head. I was exaggerating—it hadn’t been anywhere near half—but it had still been too many. Way, way too many.

“The Sharing?”

I froze. Mom’s voice sounded strange. Why did she care about The Sharing?

Aragorn meowed at me—I’d stopped petting him—but I didn’t move. I wanted to turn around, to look at mom, but I couldn’t bring myself to face her. Instead I raised my eyes to the window. The blinds were up; mom must have been painting earlier. In the faint reflection of the kitchen’s lights on the glass, I could vaguely make out her face. She looked like she was frowning.

“Isn’t that that group that Mr. Chapman helps run?”

I nodded. I couldn’t speak, my mouth had gone dry.

“Do you…do you think it’s a good idea, hanging out with them?” mom said.

I spun around. “What?” I gasped. Aragorn jumped down from the couch, annoyed with me. I barely noticed.

Mom wrinkled her nose. “I just don’t like that man,” she said. “You know that. I don’t know what it is, but something about him has always rubbed me the wrong way. I’m not sure I like you spending a lot of time with this Sharing group, not if it’s something he’s connected to.”

My heart was pounding in my chest. “Okay,” I said. “No problem.” My voice sounded like it was coming from a long way away. “It wasn’t much fun anyway,” I continued. “I mean, hanging out with—with Jake and Rachel and the others, that was cool. But the stuff with The Sharing itself was…well, it was kind of boring.” I made myself laugh, like it was no big deal. Like every nerve in my body wasn’t singing with energy.

Like my mom hadn’t just told me to stay away from the Yeerks’ big recruiting organization.

I grinned at her. There was no way she was a Controller, not if she was telling me to avoid The Sharing. I had been convinced before, by the way she’d reacted to the painting of the Andalite, but I hadn’t been sure. Now I knew—my mom didn’t have a Yeerk in her head. She was free.

“Tobias?” she said, frowning at me. I guess my sudden mood swing had unsettled her. “Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, mom,” I said gleefully, “yeah, everything’s great. Absolutely awesome.”

Chapter Text

“Screams,” I said. “Human screams. They sounded far off, but that’s what they were.”

I filled the others in on what I had learned while following Chapman in lizard morph. We were at the mall again, at the food court. We figured it was the best way not to look suspicious. No one thinks there’s anything weird about kids hanging together at the mall, eating nachos.

In the end none of us turned out to have much of an appetite for the nachos.

The day didn’t get much better from there. The trip to The Gardens seemed to take forever, even though I had plenty of distraction copying notes for all the classes I’d missed. My stomach was churning and I kept wondering—was I doing the right thing?

Would any of the animals we found there—even the tiger—be enough to prepare us for what was coming next? Down into the Yeerk pool…and before that, another night of pretending that everything was normal. That I didn’t know that aliens were real. That I couldn’t turn into a lizard or a tiger. That my friends and I hadn’t watched an Andalite die and had our lives forever changed by his little blue box.

That my brother was still my brother, and not an alien slug’s slave.

It was probably the worst family dinner of my life.

After Tom left, I went to the upstairs phone, where my parents couldn’t overhear me. I called Marco.

“He’s on his way,” I said.

I called Tobias and Rachel and Cassie. I told them the same thing. The plan was set: attack the Yeerk pool and rescue Tom.

Somehow.

I rode my bike to the school. I hid my bike across the street, the way we had planned. Then I hooked up with Marco and Cassie and Rachel.

“Where’s Tobias?” I asked. Had he chickened out? Had he changed his mind? Could I blame him?

Rachel pointed to the sky. The sun was setting fast, but I could see Tobias circling high overhead.

“What’s the matter with him?” I exploded. “He’s got a two-hour time limit and we don’t know how long this is going to take!”

“Relax,” Rachel said. “He just went up to do some surveillance.”

“They drew straws,” Marco said, jerking his thumb at Rachel. He looked smug. “She lost.”

“Bite me, Marco,” Rachel said. Her voice contained less venom than I expected and I looked at her curiously but she just gave me a bright, dazzling Rachel smile. I let it go.

“We don’t know how many morphs we can do in a row,” I complained. “It was stupid of him.”

“Sorry we didn’t check with you first, fearless leader,” Rachel sneered, “but you weren’t here, so…”

I glared at her. “I’m the one who had to call everyone, remember?” I said. “I had to leave last. And I’m nobody’s leader.”

She might have kept arguing with me, but Cassie put her hand on Rachel’s arm. “Let’s not fight about it,” Cassie said. “We’ll p-probably have plenty of fighting to deal with soon enough.” She smile she gave me was shaky and I immediately felt bad for losing my temper.

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m just stressed-out.”

“We all are,” Marco said flatly, for once without any sarcasm.

I looked at Marco. “Are you sure about doing this?” I asked him quietly.

He glared at me. “I said I was in, wasn’t I?” he snapped. “For Tom. I’m in. I’m scared, but I’m in.”

“Okay,” I said. “Thanks, Marco.”

He grunted and looked away.

Tobias swooped down and perched on Rachel’s shoulder. It surprised me a little. Why would Tobias perch on Rachel’s shoulder? And she didn’t seem at all annoyed. She rubbed her head against him a little.

<Are we doing this, or not?> Tobias asked.

I took a deep breath. “Yeah, we’re doing this,” I said. I met Tobias’s eyes, fighting the urge to look away from that fierce hawk’s glare. “So you better get ready.”

He hesitated. <I don’t know,> he said, <I think maybe it would be better if I stayed like this. A hawk can do plenty of damage if it puts its mind to it, and a little air support might come in handy.>

“We don’t know what’s going to come in handy,” Cassie pointed out. “We’re going to some kind of underground pool. There may not be a lot of room for flying down there. The cougar might be a better choice.”

<But if—>

“Cassie’s got a point,” I said. “Better to go down human, then we can decide what to morph when we get there and see what’s what.”

“Right,” Marco snorted, “because choosing between a tiger and a lizard, that’ll be a real toss-up for you.”

I rolled my eyes and ignored him.

“At least the rest of us have options,” Rachel retorted. “You’re stuck being a monkey no matter what.”

“Ha, ha,” said Marco.

Tobias fluttered to the ground and began to demorph. I looked away, hoping that he had his clothes hidden nearby, but when the sound of rustling feathers was gone and I looked back, he was standing there in a tight t-shirt and a pair of blue exercise leggings. They were a little baggy on him, but not too much that he couldn’t morph them, I guess. I stared at him.

A blush crawled up Tobias’s cheeks. “I raided my mom’s closet,” he mumbled, clearly embarrassed. He tried to tug the t-shirt down over his butt but it was too short. “I don’t own any bike shorts or anything and I didn’t exactly have a chance to go shopping, okay?”

“You look fine,” I reassured him. Marco snorted and I amended my statement to, “Okay, no, you look like an idiot, but we’re all going to look like idiots when we ditch our regular clothes, so you’ll fit right in with the rest of us.”

“Give me a minute, I’ll get my jeans—“

I shook my head. “Why bother?” I said.

“Because he looks like a complete dweeb?” said Marco, snickering.

“We’re all going to look like dweebs in a few minutes,” Cassie pointed out.

Without speaking, Rachel took off her denim jacket and handed it to Tobias. He muttered something that sounded grateful and pulled it on, then stuffed his feat back into his beat-up canvas sneakers. He still looked like a dork, but it was the kind of dorkiness that people would just think was a really bad fashion choice. If he’d been a girl, and the t-shirt had been a little longer, he could have even pulled the look off.

Well, Rachel could have pulled the look off. Most people don’t have her confidence, though.

“Let’s just do this,” I growled. The longer we stood around, the more tempting it was to just turn and go home and pretend none of this had ever happened. If it wasn’t for the memory of those screams I’d heard following Chapman, and the thought of Tom down there, I would have done just that.

The school was locked up for the night. But Marco had taken care of that little problem. He knew of a window in the science lab that didn’t lock.

We crawled into the science lab through the window. It was dark, except for the dying light of the sun that glinted off the glass beakers and the test tubes.

“Let me take a look,” I said. I opened the door as slowly as I could and peeked out through the crack. I could see down the nearly dark hallway to the janitor’s closet. Instantly I pulled back in.

“There are people out there!” I said. “Three people heading into the closet.”

“Controllers,” Rachel said. “I guess it’s dinnertime for Yeerks.”

None of us thought that was very funny.

“You know, I could barely look my parents in the eye at dinner tonight,” Cassie said softly. “I just kept thinking—is this the last time I’ll ever have a meal with them?” She shook her head. She looked like she was on the verge of crying. “I wanted to tell them how much I loved them, how much I would miss them, if…” She swallowed. “I didn’t,” she said, as if in answer to a question that none of us had asked. “I didn’t want them to think anything was weird, so I didn’t tell them anything. I didn’t tell them I loved them.”

I wanted to grab Cassie’s hand, to hug her and tell her it would be okay.

I didn’t.

“I know what you mean,” Rachel said, surprising me. “I thought about calling my dad, you know? I mean…I haven’t even seen him in like, two weeks. At least mom and my sisters, we got to eat dinner together, even if I couldn’t tell them anything, but dad…” She shrugged and glared at the floor, as though it had offended her. “I played with Jordan and Sara for a little before I left, though,” Rachel added in a very soft voice. “I didn’t tell them anything, but we all played Barbies together. They were thrilled.” She looked up and smiled without humor. “So there’s that, at least. What do they say, actions speak louder than words?” She laughed bitterly.

“I told my mom,” Tobias said softly. “Told her I loved her, I mean. Before I left. She’d made fish tacos…”

We all stared at him.

Tobias shrugged. “Hey, everybody thinks my mom is crazy, right? So even if something—you know, if something happens, so what? Mom could tell people the sky is blue and nobody would believe her. She probably won’t even remember I said anything by tomorrow anyway.” His laugh didn’t sound very amused, either.

I looked at Marco, wondering how his night with his dad had been. He looked sick, but he didn’t say anything. I thought about telling him to go home, to go spend the night with his dad instead of helping us with this insane idea to save my brother. He noticed me looking at him and he gave a tiny shake of his head.

I stayed quiet.

Marco looked away. “How are we going to get in there?” he asked.

“Wait a minute,” Rachel said. “Do all the Controllers know each other by sight? I mean, maybe we’re Controllers, right?”

“Don’t say that,” Cassie whispered. She shivered, even though the night was pretty balmy.

“Rachel has a point,” Tobias said.

“So we just walk right on in like we belong there?” Marco asked. “Wonderful plan, Rachel. I have a better idea—let’s just kill ourselves now and get it over with.”

“Maybe Rachel’s right,” I said.

“Big maybe,” Marco pointed out. “Big, huge maybe. How about Tom? He would know whether you were a Controller.”

I cracked the door again and looked out. “I think Tom’s already down there,” I said. “Besides, the hallway’s empty now. I guess they all went down already.”

“So what do we do?” Cassie asked nervously. “Do we just…follow them?”

“Do you have a better plan?” I asked. “Come on…let’s get this over with. Just try and act like you’re supposed to be here.”

Marco barked a harsh laugh. “Fly casual,” he quipped. No one else smiled.

“See?” Rachel whispered to Tobias. “Just as well you morphed back already.”

Tobias gave her a wan smile.

“I don’t know,” Marco teased softly, “we could just put him back on your shoulder and if anyone asks, tell them his name is Polly and he really, really likes crackers.”

“Marco?” I hissed.

“Yeah?”

“Shut-up.”

I knew Marco was only joking so much because he was nervous, but he was making me nervous. Besides, I really, really didn’t want to think of how we’d talk our way out of it if some Controller heard him. For some reason, I had a feeling that Yeerks weren’t big on telling jokes.

We stepped out into the dark hallway. My legs were stiff. My knees were rickety. I was walking like Frankenstein trying to look casual.

We headed for the janitor’s closet. Fortunately, no one else was in the hallway.

We entered the tiny room and stepped inside. I tried to recall the sequence for opening the door. Faucet to the left, then twist the second hook around right.

The door swung open.

There was more noise than there had been the other day. Or maybe it was just that my human ears heard it better than my lizard ears had.

There was a deep sloshing, swooshing sound, almost like gentle surf breaking on the shore. But that was the nice sound. The other sounds were horrifying—despairing cries, terrified screams, shouts, shrieking triumphant laughter.

“You sure this is just the Yeerk pool?” Marco said in a nervous, shaky voice. “I see a guy with horns and a pitchfork and I am outta here.”

This time I didn’t tell him to shut-up. I stepped into the opening. The stairs were steep and there was no rail, so you felt like you were about to pitch forward with every step.

We descended together. The door closed automatically behind us.

Chapter Text

We walked down the stairs. We walked down into Hell.

I mean, I’m not religious—my parents were into science, not faith—and I’m not an idiot. I knew it wasn’t actually Hell. I’m pretty sure there isn’t an “actual” Hell. But if any place came close, it was this one.

The enormous cavern, the ponderous earth-movers, the rows and rows of cages, the multitude of staircases, the great sloshing pool—it was all horrible. Nightmare-stuff, for sure. There was even a comfortable lounge area for the voluntary hosts. I think that was the worst part, somehow.

There were two piers, one where the Yeerks left their hosts and one where they returned. I watched, a sick feeling in my stomach, as a Hork-Bajir dragged a weeping man about my dad’s age up to the edge of the second pier. He was nobody special, just some dude with a bald patch and a flabby paunch, but I couldn’t look away. Tears streamed down his face as the Hork-Bajir forced his head down into the pool.

“No, no, not again, I’m telling you, not again, I can’t, I won’t, you can’t put that thing back in my head, you can’t, I won’t let you, I won’t, I won’t, I’d rather die, I won’t—”

Then the tears stopped. The man smiled, nodded politely at the Hork-Bajir guards, and walked back down the pier. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his face. He was whistling cheerfully to himself.

I looked away, fighting the urge to throw up.

No, I take that back. The worst part was those two piers.

“Does anyone see Tom?” Jake asked.

We all shook our heads. The purple gloom was too thick for us to make-out details like individual faces from so far away. I knew what Jake was worrying about, though. I knew his eyes would be drifting toward that cheerful, well-lit lounge area, with its tables of snacking hosts and happy laughter. I knew he would be struggling to breathe, wondering if his brother was sitting at one of those tables, making jokes, hanging out while he waited for his Yeerk to finish its meal.

I tried to think of something funny to say that would make him feel better, but for once I drew a blank.

“Let’s go,” Rachel said quietly. “Someone’s going to notice us if we just stand here.”

“Right,” said Jake, shaking it off. “Let’s go look around. Everybody stick together, okay?”

We set off across the cavern, trying to look like we belonged. No one looked at us suspiciously, or asked us who we were, or what we thought we were doing there, so I guess we blended in okay. Or maybe the Yeerks were just so confident that no force on Earth could stand against them that they didn’t bother looking for trouble this close to home.

I wished I could say that confidence was misplaced, but looking around? It didn’t seem like they were wrong.

“Jake, promise me something,” I said. My voice was hoarse. “If I have to die, okay. But don’t let them take me. Don’t let them put one of those things my head.”

“It’ll be okay,” Jake said, but I shook my head.

“Just promise me,” I pleaded.

“We’ll make a pact.” Rachel’s voice, making me jump. I turned to look at her but she was staring grimly off across the lake, toward the infestation pier. “All of us Animorphs. They don’t take us alive. Not any of us. Not ever.”

Cassie looked concerned, clearly not onboard with the idea of a group-suicide pact, but I smiled weakly. Rachel might be a pain in the butt sometimes, but the girl was no idiot. “A pact,” I agreed. “An Animorph pact. Absolutely.”

I was really beginning to regret coming up with that word.

We walked, giving a wide berth to the creepy lake and especially to those two bleak piers. No one stopped us but I felt like a hundred eyes were watching me.

“Too much more of this and my skin is going to crawl right off,” I grumbled.

Jake gave me a little smile that was probably supposed to be reassuring, but I could see the distraction on his face. For the rest of us, this was a nightmare. For him, it was worse than that: it was a question that was about to be answered. Was his brother down here in this hell? And if he was…where?

Suddenly Cassie whispered, “I see him. I see Tom.”

My pulse picked up, but I was sure it was nothing compared to Jake’s. “Where?” he croaked. “Is he in the cages? Or is he…voluntary?”

“The cages,” Cassie said. “Look at that one on the left—see him?”

We all looked. We saw. Jake smiled. “Yes!” he cried, a soft little whisper of glee. It might have seemed weird, him being so happy to see his brother weeping in a cage—but given the alternative, I didn’t think it was weird at all.

“Okay,” I said, “we found Tom. What are we supposed to do now?”

“We bust him out, of course,” said Rachel.

“Okay,” I said again, “but how?”

None of them had an answer for me.

* * *

We walked around the Yeerk pool. We took care to skirt the cage with Tom in, in part because if he recognized us that would be bad, because he would definitely start freaking out if he saw his little brother down here, an apparent Controller. In part, though, we kept our distance for Jake. He had been relieved to discover his brother wasn’t a voluntary host, yeah, but that didn’t mean he wanted to get up close and watch Tom raging and crying at the Hork-Bajir guarding his cage. So we sidled out closer to the pool itself, and tried to ignore the sight of all those ugly slug bodies bobbing through the thick, ugly liquid.

We tried to ignore the screams, too. I don’t know how well the others did at that, but I do know that no matter how hard I tried to tune them out, I couldn’t. So I kept my eyes pointed straight ahead and just kept walking, doing my best to think about anything other than where I was, and what I was surrounded by.

It was eerie, it was sick, it was terrifying. But the alternative was to stop and stare, and that would definitely attract attention. If we just kept moving, maybe nobody would notice us in all the hustle and bustle.

Hopefully.

Then Rachel stopped.

Tobias turned back almost immediately, but it took the rest of us a second or two to realize they were no longer keeping pace with us. We hurried back.

“What are you doing?” Jake hissed. “Come on, we have to keep moving, or—”

“Look at them,” Rachel whispered. Her face, normally a pretty healthy tan for a white girl—not overcooked and crispy like somebody who spent all their time in tanning beds, or orange and gross like someone who smeared fake tanner all over themselves, but the light buttery-gold shade of a girl exposed to natural sunlight—had gone an ugly milk-white color. She looked like she was on the verge of vomiting. “Look at them all just…just sitting there,” she spat and shuddered.

I glanced over my shoulder to see what she was looking at and felt my own stomach turn over as I stared at the voluntary hosts hanging out, gossiping, stuffing their faces, sharing laughs like this was all one big joke. I’m something of a joker myself, sure, but even I know where to draw the line, and this place? This place was way over that line. There was nothing funny about the Yeerk pool.

“I see them,” Jake said, “I know. I know.” His voice was surprisingly gentle. “But we can’t just stand here, Rachel, come on.”

With Cassie tugging on one arm and Jake coaxing her from the other side, we got Rachel moving again.

I looked over my shoulder nervously, wondering if anyone had noticed us, and then realized that looking around like that just made us look more suspicious. I quickly faced front again.

“I’m sorry,” Rachel whispered over and over, “I’m sorry, it’s just—just thinking about someone giving up their body to the Yeerks voluntarily, somebody selling out their whole species like that, it just…it just…” She shook her head and fell silent, a greenish tinge creeping across her cheeks now, like the beginning of mold. She couldn’t say how it made her feel, but she didn’t need to.

“Yeah,” I agreed a little hoarsely, “yeah.”

We all tried not to look at the lounge and food court area as we walked quickly past it.

When it was safely behind us I could no longer help myself, I had to say it: “Jake, man…what do we do?

Jake was silent for a while. So long, in fact, that I started to worry that maybe he was freaking out or something—or at least had gotten so distracted by the horrors of the Yeerk pool that he’d forgotten I'd said anything. But then at last he said, in a whisper so soft I could barely hear it, “Okay, you see those big buildings over there? The ones by all the construction equipment?”

I nodded. “Sure,” I said, “yeah. They’re only, like, the size of trucking warehouses, but hidden underground next to a creepy alien slug pool. How could I miss them?” I started to giggle. It wasn’t a healthy-sounding giggle.

I forced myself to stop.

Jake nodded, like I hadn’t just had a momentary break-down. I guess he was just as freaked as I was, if not more so. After all, I didn’t have any family members down here, waiting for an extra-terrestrial parasite to crawl back inside their skull. I was impressed that he was managing to keep it together so well, but I guess he didn’t have much choice if he wanted to get Tom out of here. Good old responsible Jake… Maybe I’d tease him about that a little bit less from now on, if we got out of here alive.

Maybe.

“Well,” Jake continued quietly as we all drew in a little closer to listen, “it doesn’t look like the two at the end nearest the backhoes and stuff are finished. I figure they’re basically going to be empty, just half-built shells, right?”

“Is anyone else worried by the fact that the Yeerks have something this big and elaborate down here already, and yet they’re expanding it?” Cassie asked.

“Terrified,” Jake said with a nod, “but let’s focus on one problem at a time, okay?”

“Or one problem, total,” I said. I saw Rachel roll her eyes at me but I ignored her. I wasn’t here to get involved in some crazy war against a bunch of insanely powerful and dangerous aliens. I was just here to help Jake save his brother. That was it. Then I was done with all of this morphing, all of this Controller stuff. Done.

I repeated it to myself a second time, in hopes that it would stick.

“Anyway,” Jake said, in a voice laced with so much patience it sounded dangerous, “we should be able to slip inside one of them pretty easily, morph, and then charge the cages. We get as many people out as we can—”

“And Hork-Bajir,” Cassie interrupted.

We all glanced at her. She didn’t blush, didn’t hesitate. “The Andalite said they were peaceful before the Yeerks enslaved them, right? And there are hardly any Hork-Bajir-Controllers in the…the voluntary Controllers area. Most of them are in the cages. They’re on our side.”

“We don’t have a side,” I pointed out. “They can’t be on our side, because we aren’t a side. We’re just a bunch of stupid kids, here to save Jake’s brother and then live to go home and have normal, safe, boring, peaceful lives.”

I think the others ignored me. At any rate, they kept talking like I hadn’t said anything.

“Good idea,” Tobias said. “We should save as many everyone as possible, not just humans.” He paused, glanced at Jake, then looked away again. “Not just Tom,” he added softly.

Jake looked a little uncomfortable, but he nodded. “Yeah,” he said, “of course. As many as possible.”

“The Hork-Bajir cages look stronger than the cages where they’re keeping the human hosts, though,” I pointed out. This time they heard me. Go figure.

“I bet they aren’t strong enough to stop an elephant,” Rachel said and grinned. Grinned! Like she was planning some big shopping trip, or a pool party! I almost had to admire her, except for the fact that I wanted to shake her. Did she think this was some kind of game?

“We’ll deal with that when we get to it,” Jake said firmly. “If we can’t get their cages open, well, then we’ll have to leave them. But if we can, we will. Okay?”

“Okay,” Cassie said.

“Okay,” said Tobias.

“Let’s do it,” said Rachel.

I groaned and followed my idiot friends.

Chapter Text

Morphing was a lot different down here in the Yeerk pool than it had been back at my house, in the fields and the barn. The sounds from outside kept distracting me, breaking my concentration. The others seemed to be suffering from the same thing, though; they were morphing even more slowly than I was. Maybe that was because they were all trying new morphs, while I was returning to the horse—

Or at least, I’d assumed everyone was doing the new morphs they had acquired at The Gardens, but then I heard Rachel hiss, “Tobias, what are you doing?”

I looked up from watching my fingers melt into hooves and glanced over at Tobias.

He looked guilty. “What do you mean?” he said evasively. “I’m morphing…”

“Into the hawk again!” Rachel glared at him. She was already twice her normal size and still growing. Her skin was getting thick, wrinkled, and gray, and her legs and arms were thickening like tree stumps. Say what you will about the elephant, and personally I think they’re majestic creatures with surprising grace for their girth, but a human girl a quarter of the way into transforming into an elephant? Not an attractive image, even when it’s Rachel. Especially not when she looks that angry. “What about the cougar?” she demanded.

Tobias hedged. His arms had already melted halfway to wings, and feathers were rising up across his face. He was shrinking too, shrinking in counterpoint to Rachel’s expanding. “Well, I thought it would be redundant,” he demurred. “I mean, a tiger—well, a cougar’s nothing compared to that. Jake’s already got the ‘big cat’ morph handled, so I…you know…I thought I’d just try and give us as much variety as possible.”

“Tobias, you—” But at that moment Rachel’s trunk unrolled from her face, cutting off whatever else she was going to say. Tobias looked the other way and finished his morph quickly.

<There’s more than enough room in that cavern for flying,> he hurried to add. <And this way I’m not trying to compete with Jake.>

“It’s not a competition,” Jake said. His voice was low and gruff, because he was already partway shifted into his new tiger morph, but he wasn’t far enough along yet that we couldn’t understand him. “Honestly, Tobias—”

<Too late to worry about it now,> said Marco. <The longer we’re in here the higher the chances of somebody spotting us, and that’ll ruin our element of surprise. There’s no time for him to morph again.> Maybe because a gorilla and a human aren’t as far apart evolutionarily as any of the other morphs we were doing, he had transformed surprisingly quickly for his first ever morph. Possibly the fact that his body didn’t have to completely rearrange itself, like reversing the direction or any joints or transferring internal organs to drastically different location, had made the experience less jarring for him, so he hadn’t gotten distracted by the shock of feeling his bones and body shift.

Or maybe he was just better than the rest of us at tuning out the screams.

My horse morph was not enjoying the sounds of the Yeerk pool. I tossed my head nervously, my mane slapping against my long black neck. <Marco’s right,> I said. I knew I sounded nervous but there was nothing I could do about it. <And I’m sure having somebody with wings will come in handy.>

Tobias shot me a look. Him being a red-tailed hawk right now, that look was a fierce glare, but I told myself that if he’d been in his normal body it would have been a grateful smile. Probably.

Rachel just snorted. Her being now almost entirely elephant, it was quite a complex snort.

<Whatever,> she said, and pawed the ground with one massive foot. <Let’s do this!>

It was a good thing the building we were in was still under construction. It consisted of little more than an exterior shell, half a roof, and a few incomplete walls and some wooden frames where other walls would eventually go. It was still barely large enough to contain the bulk that was an African Elephant, and the empty doorway we had entered by was way too small for Rachel to fit back through now.

That was okay. Rachel made her own door by taking off half the wall.

Surprisingly, no one seemed to notice us at first as we burst out of the empty, now broken shell of a building and charged around the shore of the pool toward the first row of cages. I guess there was enough noise, enough controlled chaos and complacency, that a disturbance like five wild animals tearing down an empty building and running across the cavern just didn’t stand out against the ugly, hellish backdrop of the Yerk pool.

Not right away, at least. I heard a slow rumble of confusion start to rise from the cluster of voluntary Controllers as we raced past their little relaxation area. As we powered towards the cages, the first shouts started to break through the general tumult.

“Did you see that? Did you see that?”

“Holy—that was an elephant! An elephant!”

“Forget the elephant, that’s a tiger! An actual tiger!”

“There’s a pony, too! And a monkey!”

<Monkey?> I heard Marco say, mock-outraged in private thought-speak directed to the other four of us. <I’ll show them monkey.>

The way he jumped up onto the first cage and yanked the pin out of the hinge in its heavy metal door, I had to wonder if the outrage had been entirely mock after all. He dropped back to the ground and yanked out the second pin and then, even more surprisingly, he suddenly bent his burly gorilla body in a bow and twitched his finger in a beckoning little gesture. It seemed to work because the frightened-looking humans inside surged forward, as though deciding in that one instant that this gorilla was their new best friend.

I almost laughed, and shook my head instead. I could not figure that boy out.

Then Rachel reached a cage full of Hork-Bajir and I stopped worrying about Marco’s attitude. She didn’t try and pull the door open, or use her dexterous trunk to fiddle with the hinges or the locks. Oh no, she just reared up onto her hind quarters and brought her front legs crashing down on the front of the cage.

It opened. It opened like an eggshell cracking. A big, sturdy, black metal eggshell built of bars thicker than my forelegs.

Startled Hork-Bajir spilled out through the mangled, twisted metal. I worried that some of them might have been hurt by Rachel’s enthusiasm, but I guess the sight of an enormous elephant charging at their cage must have been enough to warn them away from the door, because I didn’t hear any groans of pain or screams of grief—at least, not that I could recognize. At that point, I didn’t yet know what a Hork-Bajir sounds like when they shriek in pain.

I would find out soon, but not right away. For the moment, everyone was still too shocked to react to us.

Everyone except for the newly freed prisoners, that was. They didn’t waste time asking questions, like “what is this enormous gray creature?” in the case of the Hork-Bajir, or “why are a bunch of zoo animals breaking me out of alien jail?” in the case of the humans. They just ran.

So did we, onto the next cages. Once again Marco and Rachel took the lead in getting them open, Marco making use of the gorilla’s opposable thumbs and enormous biceps, and Rachel just using her elephantine bulk to tear through the strong metal. I had to fight the urge to join the fleeing prisoners. I told myself it was because horses are herd animals, and so the morph’s instincts were pushing me to join the larger, running group, but I think at least in part it was just because I was scared. I did not want to be down there, and I definitely didn’t want to be running towards the cages and their guards.

I took a hard grip on the horse’s fear and on my own, and followed the others. We let Marco and Rachel stay in the lead, since they were the ones best suited to open doors. I’d lost sight of Tobias somewhere overhead but I could see Jake loping along easily beside me. It was a good thing I was looking at him because I saw him open his mouth, and that prepared me for the sound of the tiger’s roar enough that I could keep the horse from completely bolting when he let loose. For a moment the whole world seemed to freeze as the echoes of that fearsome, ferocious roar faded across the sludgy gray pool.

Then everyone else lurched back into action.

Other Hork-Bajir, those with Yeerks already in their heads, came racing towards us. They were met by their freed brethren, blades and voices both raised high, and the next few seconds of blood and carnage were a little too much for the horse to handle.

They were a little too much for me to handle.

Then the Taxxons showed up, and I had to force myself back into things because the Taxxons were…well, I had thought that the brutal slashing savagery of Hork-Bajir in battle was awful. Then I’d seen the Taxxons with their gaping, ravenous jaws and beady little red jelly eyes, long tongues lashing out to slurp up whatever they could reach—the dead and the dying—and that was a thousand times worse.

I almost didn’t realize it when the human Controllers entered the fight. If it hadn’t been for the startling sight of a man in a police uniform soaring overhead, tossed away by Rachel’s powerful trunk, I don’t know that I would have noticed. But suddenly there was an angry man grabbing at my mane, trying to pull me down. I reared up in panic and tossed my head. He lost his grip. I kicked out, hard, with the horse’s front legs. One missed. The other caught him in the shoulder and he went down, his eyes glazing over and his mouth making a round “O” shape that was probably accompanied by a soft cry of pain. I couldn’t hear it over the tumult of freed hosts, angry Controllers, pleading or cheering prisoners, and the roaring of the tiger that was Jake.

Rachel raised her trunk in the air and trumpeted, louder than all the rest of it. I wasn’t sure if she was issuing a challenge, a warning, or just crying out from sheer excitement.

Then—a voice inside my head! <Cassie, duck!>

Horses aren’t exactly made for crouching, but I lowered my long neck to the floor, like I’d just spotted a tasty bite of grass. A laser—a Dracon beam, I suppose—exploded above me where my head had been a moment before. I gasped, but before I could do more than whicker in panic, a blur of brown feathers shot past me in the opposite direction.

“TSEEER!”

Tobias in hawk morph, diving, talons raised. He scraped a Controller who fell back with a scream, clutching his face. The Dracon beam tumbled from his hands and I stomped on it with my sturdy horse hooves. I’d like to say I did that on purpose, but it’s hard to aim a horse and I think I mostly got lucky. Either way, the weapon shattered.

That wasn’t the only Dracon beam being fired, though. Fortunately—and it made me cringe to even think it, but fortunately—most of them seemed to be focused on Rachel as the biggest threat, or at least the biggest target. And her elephant morph was too big to be taken down by their little handheld lasers. I saw black burned spots on her hide, saw smoke rising from her wrinkled gray skin, but none of the burns looked serious; just flesh wounds, little more than an annoyance to the elephant.

And oh man, was the elephant annoyed.

<Puny little nothing!> I heard Rachel yelling inside my head. <You attack ME?!>

Someone else went flying by overhead. I tried not to look.

I focused on running and kicking, doing my best to encourage the freed humans and Hork-Bajir to run for the nearest staircase. I wasn’t sure if the herding instinct was translating across the species barrier, or if the idea of getting out of there was just too strong for anyone to resist, human or Hork-Bajir or horse, but we were all making some serious progress towards the exit.

I caught sight of Marco moving alongside the crowd. He punched a Hork-Bajir in the face. It went down hard, and several free Hork-Bajir trampled it.

I saw a tiny old woman raising a Dracon beam and I charged her, butting her hard in the chest before she could fire. She went down too. I winced and whickered nervously, but I heard her groan so she wasn’t dead, just winded.

I think I heard her groan.

I was off again, trying to nudge and head-butt the freed humans into running faster. I was anxiously scanning the crowd as I ran, trying to keep half my attention turned outward so I could fend off any Controllers who got past the others. We were losing people as we fled, either to injury or capture, but there wasn’t anything I could do about that. If I’d stopped to try and save all of them, it would have let the Yeerks grab everyone else. But there was one person in particular I wanted to make sure made it out…

There! He was easy to recognize, because he looked so much like Jake: taller, broader, with darker hair, but still so much like Jake that it was impossible to mistake them for anything but brothers. Tom. He was still with us!

I would have breathed a sigh of relief if I hadn’t been breathing so hard from all the running and the fighting. Horses are great runners, but they aren’t big on fighting. Neither was I, to tell the truth, which made it hard to force the skittish horse brain to turn around and fight when all it wanted to do was run, run, run away.

I didn’t. I fought instead, fought amidst the carnage of Hork-Bajir blades and tiger claws and gorilla fists and hawk talons and the furious, trumpeting trunk and tusks of the elephant.

I front-kicked a Hork-Bajir-Controller in the chest and he stumbled, staggered; in seconds his fellow free Hork-Bajir were on him (or her? How could you tell the difference? I wondered distantly), taking advantage of his distraction to carve and slash. I looked away from the gush of blood and shot out my rear hooves to kick a human-Controller in the back. He shrieked and spun and hit the ground. A Taxxon rushed forward and before he could rise—

I jerked my face away, not wanting to watch, feeling sick deep in the pit of my stomach. I kicked the next Taxxon I saw and he collapsed—collapsed like a bursting balloon, a balloon full of yellow bile and guts and impossible, vile stink. The horse—I—we—shrieked and reared, flailing with my hooves—my vile, Taxxon goo-stained hooves—at anything near. A Hork-Bajir reeled away, clutching its head, and I had no idea if it was a Controller a not.

That sobered me, and I forced myself to wrest control from the panicking horse. There was no one to wrestle control away from my panic, but I clamped down on it hard and kept running.

The Controllers were starting to get better organized. More and more of the Hork-Bajir and Taxxons were carrying weapons now, not just the humans. I looked over the horse’s shoulder and saw more human-Controllers running up, having armed themselves as well; since humans had fewer natural weapons like the Hork-Bajir’s blades or the Taxxon’s teeth, those without Dracon beams had held back, staying out of the fight until they could prepare. Even with weapons they weren’t much of a match for an angry tiger or an outraged gorilla, but they could strike from a distance.

Of course, so could Tobias.

I heard more than one human-Controller shriek and clutch at their head, their face, their hands; saw more than one Dracon beam go tumbling away forgotten as a red-tailed hawk dove again and again out of the darkness overhead. I marveled at the speed Tobias was getting out of his hawk’s body. There couldn’t be many thermals underground, I was sure the air was nearly dead, but he rose again and again, flying too fast for any of the Controllers to track a clear shot on in the murky light.

<Tobias!> I shouted in thought-speak, worried about him all alone in the air like that. <Don’t get too far away! I can’t see too well,> I said, which wasn’t entirely a lie: the horse had terrible depth perception and it was a lot harder to figure out what to do with my wide-spaced eyes down here in all this tumult than it had been to deal with when I’d just been running around in a field. <I need you to watch my back, please!>

He shrieked back with his hawk’s voice and swooped back over my head, slashing a Taxxon’s back almost casually on his way.

<Don’t worry, Cassie,> he called to me. <I can see everything. Everything!> He laughed. <I’ll watch your back. With these eyes, I can watch everybody’s back!>

<Thanks,> I said. <Just be careful.>

<It’s the Yeerks who ought to be careful,> Tobias crowed. <They don’t stand a chance against us Animorphs!>

My nausea started to twist into giddiness. There were already some freed hosts mounting the stairs, climbing as fast as they dared on those open steps, many stumbling and staggering either from wounds or exhaustion, but still climbing. We were going to make it!

And then he stepped out daintily from a group of Hork-Bajir.

He seemed almost harmless in his Andalite body. A gentle half-deer, half-human creature with bluish fur and an extra set of eyes on comical stalks. He probably didn’t look all that scary, to most people; he probably looked like something out of a fairy tale story, or a cartoon like The Last Unicorn. To me he looked like a horrible mismatch of evolution, a collection of limbs that would never, could never, make biological sense—but his form was still gentle, still beautiful in an impossible, unearthly sort of way.

But there was nothing gentle about Visser Three. And there was nothing gentle about a body that could morph, one that had probably been all over the galaxy acquiring the genetic patterns of dozens of monsters like nothing ever seen on Earth.

It wasn’t the horse panicking now. The horse had no idea what Visser Three was, had no frame of reference for the smell or the sight of that delicate-looking blue body. But I did.

I would never forget the sight of him lifting Elfangor up into the air, over his enormous maw, and then—and then

I looked around frantically, spotted my friends in the crowd: Jake, bloody and snarling, facing off against the Visser near the front of the group. Marco, scorched and slashed, fighting back-to-back with two freed Hork-Bajir against a crowd of Hork-Bajir-Controllers. Rachel, huge and furious, surrounded but far from subdued, a struggling Hork-Bajir wrapped in her trunk like the first act in some bizarre circus stunt. And Tobias—where was he? I couldn’t see him anywhere. Was he somewhere up there in the darkness of the cavern’s ceiling, lining up for another savage dive? Was he already fallen, already gone? I couldn’t see. I couldn’t see!

<Tobias!> I shouted.

A Taxxon slithered up beside Visser Three and spoke. It was a weird, half-whistling sound. "Ssssweer trrreeesswew eeeesstrew."

Visser Three said nothing. He just looked at us with the vertical slits that were his eyes.

<This Taxxon fool says you are wild animals,> Visser Three said. <He wants to know if he and his brothers can eat you.> He laughed silently. <But I know you are not animals. I know who and what you are. So. Not all of you Andalites died when I burned your ship.>

It took me a couple of seconds to realize what he meant. Then it hit me. Of course! He thought we were Andalites. He'd guessed that we were morphs, not real animals. And he knew that the Andalites were the only species with morphing technology.

<I compliment you on getting this far. But it will accomplish nothing. Because now, my brave Andalite warriors, it is time. Time to die.>

He began to morph.

<I acquired this body on the fourth moon of the second planet of a dying star. Like it?>

I realized I'd been wrong to be hopeful.

We were not going to make it.

Chapter Text

From Visser Three’s Andalite body, the creature grew. Tall as a tree, towering over even me in my enormous elephant morph. Eight massive legs. Eight long, spindly arms, each ending in a three-fingered claw. And from the place where the top set of arms grew came the heads.

Heads. Plural. Eight of them. This creature had a thing for the number eight. Even the Hork-Bajir-Controllers backed away. Even they didn't want to be near Visser Three when he morphed this way.

But the Taxxons edged in closer, crowding around their leader like a pack of hungry dogs looking for table scraps.

The sight disgusted me. I shook off the stupor that had gripped me at the arrival of the Visser—at the sight of this horrific new morph—and absently tossed the Hork-Bajir in my trunk away. I’m not sure where he landed. I picked up another handful of shallow cuts from his blades, but so what? I already sported dozens of small wounds like that, and burns from ineffectual Dracon beam fire. They hurt, but so what? They also made me mad.

And I could use mad.

I took a deep breath and prepared to charge the Visser, but then I heard Jake’s voice shouting in my head. <Run! Up the stairs!>

<Yes, run,> Visser Three crowed. <It makes a more challenging target.>

I didn’t like being mocked like that, and I stomped one of my huge feet on the ground—absently crushing half a Taxxon that had gotten too close—and prepared to charge. Then, Visser Three struck.

From one of the heads a round, spinning ball of flame erupted. A ball of flame that flew like a missile.

It skimmed through the air over the heads of the freed hosts. I watched in horror as it splatted against the back of a woman riding on Cassie. She screamed and fell, rolling as she burned. Stop, drop, and roll! a giddy voice said in the back of my mind, and I shook my massive head to clear it.

Cassie was still moving. She still had one rider on her when she reached the base of the stairs and started climbing.

<Target practice!> Visser Three laughed. He fired fireball after fireball, one head after another.

They were all too close for comfort, and I was way too big to dodge. The first one struck Jake, but it was just a glancing blow; he roared and I couldn’t tell if it was more in pain or anger but he was still moving. The second engulfed a middle-aged woman in an outdated haircut. Another hit a group of humans on the stairs who fell off the side, all screaming together. One hit me right in the middle of one enormous, flag-like ear. It hurt, and the elephant screamed. So did I, shrieking in my friends’ heads. I had had no idea that anything could hurt the elephant so much! It was all I could do to keep the animal from panicking and racing off, away from the pain, away from the stairs. The air was full of fire! It was all I could do to keep the elephant from trampling everyone around me, friend and foe alike.

I was glad I didn’t have human lungs then, a human mouth. If think if I had, I would have cried.

<We have to get out of here!> Marco yelled.

<Yes, run! Run for the nearest stairs!> Jake repeated. <Rachel! Get moving! Clear a path!>

I might have argued, but through the haze of blood covering my eyes I saw the crowd of panic-stricken, hollow-eyed Controllers clustering around us. They didn’t need us to fight Visser Three, they needed us to lead them out of there.

All right Jake, I thought. We can run. This time.

If part of me was relieved to get away from the pool, to get away from Visser Three, to get away from the fire, I ignored it. I did what Jake had said: I cleared a path.

I started with a Taxxon that was reaching for Tom. A whole swarm of the disgusting, hungry creatures had closed in around us while I was busy fighting Hork-Bajir and getting burned by Dracon beam fire and Visser Three. Taxxons didn’t worry me, though; Taxxons couldn’t do anything to hurt the elephant.

I simply ran right over the Taxxon, crushing him into a filthy, disgusting paste beneath my enormous feet. I did the same to any other Taxxon that didn’t get out of the way quickly enough. I barely felt the goo splatter my legs as I moved forward, barely felt the glancing cuts as I muscled Hork-Bajir aside, clearing the way for the others.

Then I hit the stairs. I couldn’t go any further.

There are a lot of things elephants are great at. It turns out that climbing stairs is not one of those things. I hesitated. I’d cleared a path through the Taxxons, but now I was the thing blocking the way. What should I do?

<Morph back!> Jake, in my head. He must have seen my hesitation.

I shouldn’t have listened—I should have shouldered my way back through the crowd of frantic humans, found a way to move away from the stairs without crushing them all, and stayed to fight—but I was hurting, and exhausted, and scared. And I was in the way.

I listened to Jake.

I couldn’t wait for the morph to finish, of course; the point was to get my big elephant body out of the way as quickly as possible, and that meant that as soon I as I could stagger forward, I did. My trunk dragged along behind me like some grotesque parody of a bride’s train and it was all I could do to keep from tripping on it as my huge body shrank and shriveled.

The others ran behind me. I couldn’t risk turning around to look, not unless I wanted to trip over my trunk and go tumbling off the stairs, crushing everybody below me, but I could hear dozens of feet on the stairs behind me, could feel hands—human and Hork-Bajir—pressed frantically against my thick, wrinkled, rapidly thinning elephant hide as I tottered ever upward, ever shrinking.

I could hear my friends behind me, roaring and whinnying. I could hear Visser Three’s fireballs exploding. I could hear people screaming.

I kept climbing. What else could I do?

I looked up and saw Cassie, a woman clinging desperately to her back as she surged up the stairs on her sturdy horse legs, only a few dozen steps from the point where the walls narrowed like a shield around the steps. There wasn’t anyone else left between her and me, and I stared at the empty, scorched stairs. I had been concentrating so hard on demorphing, on not falling as my flesh shifted, that I hadn’t seen what had happened to them—but I knew that there had been other people there, between her and me, when I had started climbing the stairs.

I tried to see past Cassie, but it was too dark. What about the people who had started climbing before us? Were they still there? Had they already escaped, or had they…not?

I made myself climb faster.

I couldn’t look back, so I didn’t see Tom charge Visser Three. I didn’t see Jake attack the Visser, didn’t see him forced to flee under the deluge of fire. I didn’t see Tobias come shrieking down to slash at the Visser’s heads, to distract him before he could burn the rest of us. I didn’t see Marco scoop Tobias up in one massive gorilla paw when a Dracon beam took off one of his wings and carry his small, dying bird body up the stairs with us. I didn’t see the last two Hork-Bajir turn as one to block the way. I didn’t see the other freed hosts falling backwards, frying, dying. I didn’t see Visser Three stop at the edge of the tunnel, foiled by the size of his own morph.

I would hear about all of that later, from the others, but for now as I climbed all I could hear was Visser Three screaming behind me, <I’ll kill you all, Andalites. Run away, it doesn’t matter! I’ll kill you. Kill you!>

I climbed.

I demorphed.

I escaped.

And thankfully, thankfully, I wasn’t alone. My friends made it out with me, all four of them.

Cassie was already there, of course. She had almost finished demorphing when I came stumbling out through the door into an unfamiliar storage room. I think I was human by then, too, but it was hard to tell. It was hard to tell what was human anymore, really, after that night.

I tripped on the threshold and Cassie ran over, grabbed me by the hands, helped pull me up and drag me out of the way as the gorilla shouldered his way through the doorway.

 <Demorph!> I heard Marco screaming at Tobias, his fragile bird’s body cradled in one massive black paw. There was blood and Taxxon gore smeared all over Marco’s fur and cuts on his rubbery face that bled sluggishly, but I don’t think he noticed them. His savage teeth were bared, his lips pulled back in fear. <Demorph, Tobias, demorph! You’re dying, demorph!>

They fell through the doorway together, a shifting mass of fur and feathers and patchy, shivering skin. I ran forward as Marco shrank and Tobias grew. I wasn’t sure what I could do to help, but I couldn’t stop myself from running to them. I hugged them both, even Marco. He didn’t make any smart-aleck remarks about it, either, just hugged me back as hard as he could. It wasn’t until I felt the hot burn of Tobias’s tears on my shoulder that I realized I was crying, too.

Jake was the last up. He came panting and staggering, tiger stripes still swirling across his flesh, and collapsed on the floor beside us. He was sobbing as he demorphed.

And he was alone.

“Where are we?” I asked Cassie. My voice was a croak.

She shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said. “Somewhere else. Some other entrance.”

We had run for the closest stairs, rather than trying to fight our way all the way back across the cavern to the staircase we had taken down from the school. Now we picked ourselves up off the floor and moved forward, shaky and shaken. I don’t think any of us could have handled another fight just then, not even me, but fortunately there was nobody else there.

Well, nobody except for the woman we had brought up from the pool with us. The one who had ridden on Cassie’s back, who had somehow managed to hang on the whole way up out of that pit. She looked confused, frightened by her sudden freedom, but none of us had any attention to spare to deal with her right now. She followed us out into the hallway, probably because the only other option was to go back down into the Yeerk pool.

If we’d been thinking clearer, we would have done something to block the door, but I don’t think the possibility of being followed occurred to any of us until later, in our nightmares. That’s when I thought of it, at least.

Fortunately, nobody followed us. At least not then. Probably they were all too scared to try and squeeze past Visser Three as he stood raging, too large to follow, too angry to demorph fast enough…

The short hallway we were in was too dirty for me to tell if any of the former Controllers we had freed had run through before us. I thought about asking Cassie if anyone had made it out ahead of her, but I was too tired to form the words. We stumbled forward on our bare feet, leaving more indistinguishable scuff marks on the dirty tiles, moving as fast as we could.

I tried to ignore the wet, hollow sound of Jake’s sobs. Cassie had him by the hand and was leading him forward gently. I’m not sure if he noticed, or if he was beyond caring what else happened at that point. Maybe it was easier to let her pull him along than it was to struggle and get free.

We pushed the door open and stood there, blinking in the bright light for several minutes.

We were inside a convenience store, something like a Seven Eleven but without the brand name. It was attached to a gas station, I guess. They’d left the lights on, probably to deter burglars—or maybe to make it easier for any Controllers who wanted to come through for a late night snack. The entrance to the Yeerk pool was in the back of a supply closet between the men’s and women’s restrooms. I might have laughed at the shabbiness of it all, if I had felt like laughing. Some high-tech alien invasion this was…

“Surveillance cameras,” Tobias croaked suddenly.

We all turned to stare at him. “Places like this usually have surveillance cameras,” he said. “We don’t want them to see our faces.”

I glanced at Jake but he was still crying, one hand over his face.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll take care of this.”

I went back into the hallway. I was a little surprised when Marco went with me, but I didn’t argue with him. I was too tired to argue.

It took every ounce of courage I had to walk back into that supply closet. I’m not sure I could have done it if Marco hadn’t been there, someone for me to act brave in front of. It didn’t take us long to find the rolls of paper towels stacked on one of the shelves. We grabbed two rolls each and returned to the others.

Paper towels don’t make for great masks, but we tore the rolls open and wrapped several lengths of the rough white sheets around our heads, like really badly made turbans. We crept to the front door and filed out into the darkness, our identities obscured by swaths of Brawny. I guess it wasn’t just the Yeerks who were into high-tech techniques, huh? Whatever; the important thing was, no cops would be making the rounds at the school later, showing grainy surveillance photos to our friends and asking if anyone could identity these five kids, gosh, we’d really appreciate your help…?

I looked up through the gap in my makeshift mask, drawing in a breath of night air. It smelled like gasoline and burned rubber. It smells like stale cigarettes and burnt coffee. It smelled like normal life and it smelled wonderful.

“I think we’re on Chestnut Street,” Marco said. He sounded dazed, his voice a little muffled as he pulled the paper towels away from his mouth. “Chestnut Street, by the library.” He pointed into the darkness. We all looked. I stared at the bulky building at the end of the block, the silhouette of the Chestnut Street Public Library, and thought about what a long walk it was going to be to get home from here.

The woman with us—the woman who had ridden on Cassie’s back up out of that hellish pit—looked around at the empty gas pumps like she couldn’t believe what she was seeing.

“What now?” she moaned. “Oh god, what now? If they find me again—if they take me back—I can’t—I can’t go back! Where do I go? What do I do?”

“Get away,” Marco rasped at her. “Get far, far away, and never come back. Never tell anyone what happened, never tell anyone who you are. Just get away. Live.”

She looked terrified underneath her veil of paper towels. I found it hard to care about her, just then, this woman we’d rescued from the Yeerk pool. We’d gone down there for Tom, and we hadn’t gotten him. Jake’s brother, my cousin, was still down in that hellhole—if he was even still alive. I didn’t know. I’d seen him in the crowd at one point, out of his cage, but I didn’t know what had happened to him after that.

Watching Jake sob, broken and defeated, I found it really hard to care about this frightened stranger. It should have been Tom on Cassie’s back, not her. It should be Tom here with us right now, not her.

I turned my back on her tears.

Tobias didn’t. (See? He is sweet.) “Come with me,” he told the former Controller gently. “Come with me. My mom will be able to help you.”

I wasn’t so sure about that, but I didn’t have any better ideas, and I was exhausted. I had bigger things to worry, anyway: I had Jake.

I half expected him to protest Tobias’s offer, to say that it was too risky or that he had a better idea. But he didn’t say anything, he just walked away with his head down. He seemed shell-shocked. Marco glanced dubiously at Tobias and at the weeping woman, but then he shrugged and headed off in the opposite direction, toward the apartment complex where he lives with his dad. I could hear the soft slap of his bare footsteps on the pavement. It was eerie how quiet everything was up here, after the screams of the Yeerk pool.

Tobias and the woman left, him leading her gently by the hand. I think she was crying.

Cassie and I walked home together, behind Jake, keeping an eye on him. I don’t think he knew we were there. He walked like someone trapped in a dream, or maybe a nightmare. He wasn’t the only one: Cassie kept shivering, even though I wrapped my arm around her shoulders. My jean jacket was gone, abandoned in the Yeerk pool with our shoes and jeans and shirts, but I wasn’t cold. I could still feel the burst of fire across the elephant’s ear, could still feel my own flesh crisping and popping like bacon in a pan. I wanted to get home and jump into an ice cold shower, stand under the frigid water until I had lost all memory of how it felt to burn; stand there until I felt like a popsicle instead of a girl.

“We’re alive,” I whispered to Cassie. “Hey, hey, we’re alive. It’s okay. We’re alive.”

She nodded, but she didn’t say anything. I don’t think she could bring herself to speak.

That was okay. I was too tired to want to talk, either. Tired, and terrified, and angry.

Oh yeah, I was still angry. But I could wait until tomorrow to make the Yeerks pay. Tomorrow…

Chapter Text

I was nervous as I led the former Controller to my apartment, but not for the usual reasons. Sure, she might sneer at the cramped quarters and the cheap furnishings and the clutter and cat hair, but right then, I was too tired to care. Besides, given that she’d been recently saved from a life of living hell, I couldn’t imagine she would mind that my home was kind of crappy.

And she certainly wasn’t going to laugh at people who believed in aliens.

No, I was nervous about my mom. How would she react to me dragging a strange lady to our home in the middle of the night?

How would she react to me telling her that I finally knew she’d been right all along?

Because see, that was what I had made up my mind to do. I didn’t know any other way of explaining who this woman was, why we had to help her. I had to tell my mom that I believed in aliens, too.

I had to apologize.

Maybe I wasn’t thinking straight. I was exhausted, traumatized, still shaking from my near-death experience in the Yeerk pool. But I didn’t know what else to do, and none of the others had seemed ready to step-up and deal with the woman we’d saved. I didn’t know what to do with her either, but I hoped mom would.

Apparently she knew a lot more than I’d given her credit for, after all.

I ushered the woman inside, closed the door behind us, locked it with trembling fingers. I felt safer with the door shut even though I knew that safety was an illusion; yes, I was home, but our solid blue door wasn’t going to keep out any Hork-Bajir who wanted inside. Even a human-Controller with a strong kick could get it open, if they really wanted to. But logic didn’t matter. I was home and that meant I was safe.

I could still smell the lingering aroma of the fish tacos mom and I had eaten for dinner, before the pool. The sweet, spicy smell made my nervous stomach clench, but it comforted me too.

“Mom?” I called softly. It was dark inside, the room lit only by the thin glow from a grimy streetlamp. What time was it? How long had we been down there in the Yeerk pool? It felt like days, but it couldn’t have been more than a couple of hours. My head reeled, I was so tired. Was it even midnight? I didn’t know. “Mom?” I called. “Are you awake?”

For a moment, silence. Then, a quavering voice: “Tobias?”

The light in the hall clicked on and I squinted against the sudden glare. Mom walked out of her room, her pale hair tousled from sleep. She was wearing the oversized t-shirt she’d bought during our one and only trip to Disneyland, back before my dad had left. I’d just been a baby at the time so I couldn’t remember anything about it, and mom’s shirt was so faded now that you could barely make out the ghost of Tinkerbell on the soft cotton, but the sight comforted me anyway. It was familiar. It was my mom.

She looked uncertain, even a little fragile, squinting at me through the darkness. I realized suddenly how strange this had to look for her: me dressed in a pair of her exercise leggings and a shirt I should have given to Goodwill three years ago, barefoot, standing next to some woman neither of us knew. The former Controller was maybe forty years old, a wan black woman in a rumpled red suit, the soot on her face half washed away by tears. We were both shaking with fear and exhaustion.

Mom’s bewildered expression hardened when she noticed that I wasn’t alone. “What’s going on?” she said, striding forward into the living room. I led the woman to the couch and let her sink down numbly while I hurried across the room to close the blinds. Mom watched me with a frown on her face and her hands on her hips, but I guess she could tell that I wasn’t refusing to answer, just waiting until I could sit and face her, because she didn’t repeat the question.

I perched on her painting stool. All I wanted to do was collapse on the couch, or in my bed, and go to sleep, but I was afraid that if I sat somewhere comfortable I would fall asleep, and I knew I had to explain first. I took a deep breath and said, “Mom, this lady needs some help. She just escaped from some aliens.”

Mom stared at me. For a moment I saw a shadow of suspicion, of hurt, flicker across her blue eyes; was I playing with her? Then she looked at the woman on our couch. She wasn’t crying anymore but there were tear streaks down her cheeks and her eyes had a red-rimmed, hollow look, like she had seen too many horrors to process.

I was pretty sure that wasn’t a metaphor, in this case.

“She did?” mom asked softly. She walked forward, crouched down in front of the woman, and said gently, “Hello. My name is Loren. Can you tell me your name?”

The woman blinked at my mom. “Alice,” she croaked after a while. “My—my name is Alice.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Alice,” mom said. “I guess you had kind of a tough night, huh? Why don’t I make us all some tea and you can tell me about it, okay?”

I wasn’t sure what Alice was going to say, but my mom has always had a knack for making people relax—at least when she isn’t talking about her aliens. Most people tend to get a bit tense during those conversations.

After a moment, Alice nodded and mom stood up. She caught my eye and jerked her head sideways, then walked into the kitchen. Obediently, I slid off the stool and followed.

“What’s going on, Tobias?” mom asked quietly. Her voice trembled. So did her hands, so I gently pushed her out of the way and filled the kettle myself before she could spill it.

“We met some aliens, mom,” I said, just as quietly. Filling the kettle was a good idea. It kept me too busy to look up and meet her eyes. “My friends and I. We met…” I hesitated. Should I tell her about the Andalite, tell her about Elfangor? No—not tonight. I was exhausted and we needed to figure out what to do with this woman, this Alice. There would be time for the whole story later.

“Well, they weren’t very nice aliens,” I said. I opened the cupboard and rummaged around for the box of teabags. I kept busy, so I wouldn’t have to look at my mom while I talked. “They were keeping some people prisoner. We helped this lady get away from them, but we don’t know what to do now. They know who she is, so if she goes back home they’ll probably just grab her again. I thought you’d have a better idea what to do.”

I could feel mom staring at me. I fussed with the bags, arranging the strings just-so across the handles of the three mugs I’d grabbed. I didn’t turn around.

After a while mom said, “Okay.” Her voice was rough but she squeezed my shoulder reassuringly as she slipped past me out of the kitchen. She walked back over to Alice and sat down next to her on the couch. I could hear them talking quietly but I stayed where I was, waiting for the kettle to boil.

 By the time I walked back out with the tea, mom had one arm around Alice and was gently stroking her back, like she’d used to do with me when I came home from school in tears. (I still came home from school in tears sometimes, I just didn’t run to mom for comfort anymore.) The sight made my stomach clench again but I forced a smile and handed over the mugs of tea.

“Here,” I said, gently forcing the handle of one mug into Alice’s shaking hands. She wrapped her fingers around the tea like it was an anchor that could hold her to the world. I wondered when the last time was that she’d been able to eat or drink anything under her own power, the last time she’d been able to decide whether or not to hold something. I felt sick at the thought. The Yeerks were monsters.

I didn’t realize I’d spoken aloud until I heard mom say, “Yeerks?”

I paused, halfway back onto the stool, and looked up at her. She looked troubled, her eyes distant and her brow furrowed in a frown. I finished sitting and blew on my tea to cool it, watching my mom nervously over the rim of the mug.

“Yeerks…” she said again, turning the word over slowly like she was trying to find the meaning in it. For some reason, I shivered.

“Yeerks,” Alice repeated, and her voice was thick with loathing. “That’s what they call themselves. Slavers, demons, devils. They take…they take everything. They take who you are, they steal it, use you like a suit. They crawl inside your head, control you. Control everything. They’re everywhere, anyone. You can’t tell. You can never tell! They’re everywhere, everywhere! Inside your head…your life…” She was shaking so hard she could barely raise her tea to her mouth. Mom put a hand on the bottom of the mug to help steady it, but I could tell that she was distracted.

My heart was pounding. Mom knew Andalites, even knew Taxxons. Did she know Yeerks too? I guess it would have made sense, if she did…but after a while she shook her head and said, “Okay, so these Yeerks…they’re the aliens you’re running away from? The ones who know who you are?”

Alice nodded. “They were…one of them was…inside me.” She pointed to her ear and shuddered.

Mom frowned. “What do you mean?” She sounded confused, like anyone would at hearing such a crazy story, but she also sounded…I don’t know. Tense? Eager?

“They crawl inside your head,” Alice explained flatly. “Your brain. Enslave you from inside.”

Mom nodded, but I was afraid she hadn’t grasped the extent of the danger yet.

“We know there are Controllers in the police force,” I blurted. “Controllers—that’s what it’s called when someone has a Yeerk in their head. They’re a Controller. They can be anyone, anyone at all.”

Alice shuddered. For a while we just sat there, sipping at our tea.

“Okay,” said mom, “so these Yeerks…you don’t want to let them find you again, Alice. That means you have to stop being Alice.”

The woman looked up at my mom. I couldn’t see her face now, because she was facing away from me, but I could guess at the expression on her face: confusion, horror, hurt.

Mom smiled gently. “I know it won’t be easy,” she said, “or even fun, but it’s better than getting caught again, isn’t it?”

Alice jerked her head in a rough nod.

Mom patted her shoulder. “Stay here tonight. Get some rest. Tomorrow we’ll get you some stuff together, get you a ticket on a bus or a train to somewhere far away. You can start over, make a new life. A safe one.”

Alice was nodding along with mom’s words. “Okay,” she croaked. She looked wiped-out, empty, done.

“You can have my bed,” I offered. “I’ll sleep on the couch.”

Mom helped Alice stand up and took her back to her bedroom, I guessed to get her something more comfortable to sleep in. I went to my room and grabbed one of the pillows off my bed and a spare blanket. It was only September so it was still pretty warm, even at night, so I figured I’d be fine with that.

At this point, I was so exhausted that I probably could have slept on bare concrete and not minded. I crawled onto the couch, not even bothering to change clothes, and closed my eyes.

It felt like maybe two minutes later that someone shook me by the shoulders, dragging me out of slumber.

“Huh—what?” I mumbled, rubbing my eyes and squinting against the uncomfortable flare of daylight.

“Wake-up, Tobias.” Mom’s voice, gentle, apologetic. “It’s time for Alice to catch her bus, and she wants to say goodbye before she goes.”

I shook off my stupor, shook Aragorn off my legs, and dragged myself up off the couch.

Alice was standing by the kitchen counter, but she looked like a completely different woman. Her brown hair was now both damp and a vibrant teal, and she was dressed like a punk rocker. It was a weird look for a forty-something woman, and she seemed uncomfortable in the tattered jeans and one of mom’s old leather jackets, but I understood the plan immediately. Nobody who was looking for Alice would give this teal-headed punk a second glance.

I almost laughed. I definitely smiled. “Cool outfit,” I said sardonically, and then suddenly Alice was hugging me. I froze, but I let her do it.

“Thank you,” she whispered in my ear. “Thank you, Tobias, you and all your friends. I don’t know how you did what you did, but thank you. I owe you—everything. Thank you.”

“Sure,” I said lamely, “no problem.”

She let me go, gave me a kind of watery smile, and picked up one of mom’s paint-stained backpacks. It probably had a change of clothes inside, something a little more normal for Alice to wear when she was farther away. “Thank you,” she said again.

I stood there while mom walked Alice down the stairs. I don’t know if she walked her all the way to the bus stop, don’t know if she waited there with her until the bus came. I was still kind of out of it, so it might have been only five minutes later when mom came back, or it might have been half an hour. I flopped back onto the couch and put my head in my hands. From the weak, sickly glow of the light outside, I guessed it was barely past dawn. I wondered how much sleep I’d gotten?

I shook myself alert, or as close to alert as I could get when I was yawning so wide I was surprised my jaw hadn’t split, when mom returned alone. She shut and locked the door a little nervously, reminding me of myself from last night. I swallowed hard.

Mom stared at me for a while. Her expression was impossible for me to read. “So,” she said in a light, airy voice, “you saved a lady from some evil aliens. That was nice of you.”

My stomach lurched at the memory of the Yeerk pool but all I said was, “Well, it seemed like the right thing to do. Is she going to be okay?”

Mom nodded. “I think so,” she said. “I mean, it all depends on what kind of tracking methods these Yeerks have, but she should be. She’s heading to the bus depot, she’ll get a ticket there for somewhere out of town, out of state.” Mom’s eyes caught mine and stared at me, hard.

I squirmed and looked away. “Good,” I said, “that’s good. Thanks for helping.”

“Of course,” she said softly. “You know I’d help you with anything, Tobias.”

I did know. Even during those years when I hadn’t wanted my mom’s help, I’d known she would be there for me the minute I asked her—let her—no matter what I’d said to her, or what I’d said to hurt her. No matter that I hadn’t believed her.

But I did now.

“Mom,” I said, “there’s something else I have to tell you…”