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The Cost of the Fight

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Walter

I demorphed in the cover of a big rock by the human camp, where I could have a moment to myself before I had to face everyone’s questions. When Emeraude appeared next to me, I leaned against her, gulping in air, even though it wasn’t my human body that had just run a sprint for its life.

“Too close,” Emeraude said. “That was too close.” Her ears twitched. “Someone’s coming.”

I heard the rustle of leathery wings. Quincy came to roost on Emeraude, and Cassie said, “I saw you fly in.”

“Cassie,” I said. She didn’t ask, just looked up at me with a soft face, but it all came out in a rush anyway. “I was flying rear guard for the supply train. I heard a Gold Band patrol moving through the forest somewhere so I rushed over here to get the soldiers, and I led them to where I heard the patrol, but they’d moved closer and they saw us and – ”

“They didn’t hit us,” Emeraude said, taking over. “We flew back here as quick as we could, just like you taught us. But it was still way too close.”

Cassie came over and hugged me, rubbing my back. “I know. I know.”

“This was what it’s been like for you all this time,” I said, my throat closing up. “Worse, because you were fighting from the very beginning. Not just carrying food around and patrolling.”

Cassie’s silence was all the answer I needed.

“We thought there was something wrong with you,” I said. “We thought you didn’t care about school anymore – ”

She pulled out of the hug and put her hands on my shoulders. “Dad,” she said. “I forgive you.”

Emeraude’s ears flicked upright. “Oh, God. Did everyone else make it? The supplies?”

“Yes. They’re carrying it down.” She pulled me along by my shoulders. “Come on. Ax has a message for us. It’s from Mom.”

I staggered behind her and grabbed onto Emeraude for balance. “What? How?”

“Remember the free Yeerks?” Cassie said, waiting patiently for me to catch up. Nothing even as huge as this could make her falter anymore.

I did remember her explaining the free Yeerks to me – a group of pacifists the Guardians had smuggled out of the main Yeerk pool, to a place where they could be free of violence. It had always seemed to me that they should do something more than sit in safety while their fellow Yeerks did to humans what they did to Michelle, and here they were, apparently doing something more.

“They have internet now,” Cassie went on. “Ax won’t admit it but it was probably him who installed it in their pool. They passed on a message from Mom. She’s been helping this group of Peace Movement Yeerks called The Campsite Rule.”

“Leave the campsite cleaner than it was when you got there,” I said. “Oh. I think I get it.”

Michelle, Emeraude thought, and nothing else. Michelle’s alive. We’re gonna read her words.

Ax had the portable computer set up on the valley’s folding table next to the main generator. The table was always in high demand – it’s amazing how you forget how important something as simple as a table is until you have only one. His scanning stalk eyes caught sight of us and held. His tail coiled inward in a gesture that drew Cassie closer.

«Michelle’s message is on screen. I have not read it. I will give you your privacy.» Ax backed away, eyes diverted from us, as skittish as any deer.

Bad habit, Emeraude said. Comparing him to Earth animals.

“Thank you,” Cassie said. I had forgotten to thank him, which maybe proved Emeraude’s point.

Cassie and I stood in front of the computer. On screen, her words. Cassie read them aloud, while Emeraude rested her soft nose in my hand.


Walter. Cassie. Wherever you’re hiding, be safe. Don’t let them get you. I fall asleep at night imagining you safe, and I need it to be true.

I won’t lie to you. I know my chances of surviving this. So I want to take this chance to say everything I need you to know, because I may not get another one.

Cassie, I don’t regret my choice. I should have protected you during those years when I thought Rachel might have gotten you into drugs. I didn’t help you then, but I’m helping you now. I’m not friends with the Sub-Visser, but you always choose to make peace wherever you can, and I’ve done the same. You give me courage every day, little bat.

Walter, I am sorry I left you behind. I feel like I’ve abandoned you so many times in our marriage. You’ve always forgiven me before. Try to forgive me one last time, my broad shoulders.

I want to share a memory I think about when the Sub-Visser is in the Pool and I’m alone in my head. Remember the first time we took Cassie along for a birth? One of the mares was foaling. Cassie was so brave, even though I could tell she was scared by all the gushing fluids and the sounds the mare made. But then you delivered the foal and cleaned her off, and the look on Cassie’s face when you let her touch her little nose – I don’t know if you remember that, Cassie, but your father and I always will.

I love you both so much. And Cassie? If you need to strike the Pool and you’re worried about my safety, don’t let that stop you. And Walter, don’t blame her if she has to do it. I’ve seen this Empire from the inside, and it needs to end. It’s so strange how we can be the most important people in the world to each other, and still so small in the face of what we all believe in.

Pawprint on your nose, Emeraude.

Love, Michelle and Dashiell.


Rachel

I’d daydreamed a few times about what it would be like to bring Tobias over to dinner to meet my family. I’d never pictured it quite like this.

We’d managed to take over Kref Magh’s one rickety folding table, sitting around it on tree stumps and rocks and logs. We were a little bit back from the bonfire, but the orange wash of its light fell over us. Dinner was beans and peas and rice with tomato sauce and cups of tepid, mineral-tasting water. Tobias didn’t have a plate in front of him, and Sara and Jordan stared at him like a new kid at school. Dad kept leaning over with a napkin to wipe sauce off Sara’s face, Mom reminded Jordan to eat her peas, and Caedhren perched on one of Abineng’s horns, Elhariel on the other, watching each other.

It was so much better than I’d ever pictured it. Even though we were all tired of eating beans.

“Why don’t you get something to eat, Tobias?” Mom said.

“The food just goes away as soon as I morph back to hawk,” Tobias said, ducking his head. “Cassie says the noncombatants are having enough trouble hauling food into the valley as it is. I shouldn’t take any food when I’m just gonna hunt it myself as a hawk.”

Tseycal squeaked, a big bat draped over Jordan’s shoulder. “You hunt your own food?” Jordan said. “Oh my God, what’s it like?”

“Harder than making a bowl of cereal,” Tobias said, deadpan as always.

Dad looked from Tobias to Sara, who was wide-eyed and a little scared. He must have decided it was time to stop Sara from thinking about Tobias killing cute little mice, because Gheselle cuddled up to lick Zyanya’s floppy baby goat ears, and Dad said quickly, “So, how did you two meet?”

“Oh, thank God, that’s actually a normal story,” Elhariel whispered in Abi’s ear. Abi giggled.

I said, “It was, like – four years ago? That you started hanging out with Jake?”

“Yeah,” Tobias said. “Some bullies were giving me a hard time, and he made them back off. I figured he was my friend after that.”

You got bullied?” Sara said. “But you’re so cool!”

Tobias stared at her. “You are the first person who’s ever said that to me.”

Sara chewed thoughtfully on the end of her pigtail. “It’s prob’ly ‘cause you’re so cool people are scared to tell you you’re cool. But I’m not.”

Tobias smiled, a tiny soft thing, and I remembered the time Sara braided my hair while he was in my head. If Tobias’s hair were longer, she could do it to him for real.

“Anyway,” I said, “Jake doesn’t make friends all that much, so I thought I’d find out who Jake’s new friend was. So I just walked right up to him and said, ‘Hey, I’m Jake’s cousin. What’s your name?’ But I didn’t really get why he and Jake were friends until after we met Elfangor, and I saw how much he…” How could I even summarize it? The way he called us to action? The way he never seemed to lose sight of the reasons to fight? “…cared about stuff.” I reached under the table and squeezed Tobias’s hand.

“I bet you asked him out,” Mom said. She was done with her food, and fidgeting with her fork “I’ve always taught you girls that you never have to wait for a boy to make a move first. Not in school, not in the workplace, not in a relationship.”

“Oh crap, not a normal story,” Elhariel whispered, and Abi giggled again and flicked his ear. We were both thinking about the first time I asked Tobias to morph and infest me, and we knew it. What kind of a weird first date was that?

“I mean, I guess,” I said vaguely. “It’s not like we could go on real dates or anything. With him being a hawk and all.”

“When you win this stupid war,” Jordan said, jabbing her fork at me, “you better take him out on a real date. Not like, flying around as birds or something. Like a date Carrie and Big go on.”

Dad eyed Jordan. “Are you old enough to watch Sex and the City, young lady?”

Tobias said, “I’m gonna go on the record saying I don’t want to go on a Sex and the City date. I watched a couple episodes with Ax, and no. Just no.”

Mom stood up suddenly. Caedhren flew over to perch on her shoulder. “I’m going to go help out in the kitchen.”

“Mom,” I said. I got up and touched her arm. “You’re not on kitchen duty tonight. You’re fine.”

“I’m restless,” she said, pulling her arm away. “I don’t have a court case to grind my teeth over. I’m just sitting around all day. I might as well take it out on some dishes.”

“Then come up with something lawyer-y to do,” I said. “I bet somebody around here could use your brain. Toby, maybe? I don’t know. Dad, help Mom come up with a terrifying scheme.”

“That’s what I do with Rachel,” Tobias said.

“All right, honey,” Dad said. “But after dinner. I’m not done embarrassing your boyfriend.”

“Dad!”

“It’s okay,” Tobias said, pulling me back down into my seat. “It’s his job, right?” And I could see that maybe he wanted a dad’s teasing, that it was something he never had in his life. So I sat back down, and shared my family with him.


Chee Operating System v18940.0.2

System Log

Instantiation: G6J2T1OQM9 CHEE-EXNIS (ALIAS: Luis Javier Turner and Zefirita)


> session.time()

5:12 AM PST


CHEE-ARODA

I cannot believe you are actually going to do this. You’ve seen the costs of getting yourself involved with fleshbeings, haven’t you? They turn on you and become like Howlers.


CHEE-BACHU

The Yeerks of the Aftran Plisam Pool did no such thing.


CHEE-LONOS

Some of them voted for it, didn’t they? They unleash this weapon on their own kind. If anything, that’s even worse.


CHEE-EXNIS

We are demonstrating that there is another way to resolve this conflict. A more peaceful way.


CHEE-ARODA

You’re one to talk, Exnis. First you play at being human, now you play at being Pemalite, making a Chee of your own. A friend of a friend. Do you not see how pathetic this is? The way you treat Zefirita as if it were a real dæmon instead of a hologram you created? Why can’t you be content as what you are?


CHEE-EXNIS

As I recall it, Chee-aroda, you were in favor of creating dogs when we put that question to a vote. Consult your system logs if you don’t remember.


> meddlers


{1N1RB5QYWK CHEE-KORIL,

6UAQWRM3RN CHEE-ALEM,

8PEHU51QF2 CHEE-PULIM,

G6J2T1OQM9 CHEE-EXNIS,

H60ZIEXFWL CHEE-NAXES,

MIFDQDG01J CHEE-BACHU}


> meddlers.remove( 8PEHU51QF2 CHEE-PULIM)

> cheenet.chat.filter(whitelist = meddlers)


10134 CheeNet users blocked.


Warning message: Instantiation 1N1RB5QYWK CHEE-KORIL is out of CheeNet range.


> pool.intranet.chat.send(message.text = ‘Just to keep you all updated, I’m about to activate the SymbiontAI prototype.’)

> pool.intranet.chat.download(limit = 10)


Aftran Plisam Pool


#CheeChat

The Chee only enter other message wells in the Pool intranet for administrative purposes. This is the message well where we can chat with any Chee who happen to be logged in to the intranet. This is an all-ages well, so if you want to talk with a Chee about a topic that is restricted to the adult well, please take it up in a private message.


Mielan 128

What are the new hosts like? Will they like us?


Mielan 71

When do WE get to have a turn with a host?


Akdor’s Worst Nightmare

The adults will get to know the new hosts and make sure everything is all right, then we’ll ask them if they want to meet you children.


Mielan 34

I want to try one of the two-Yeerk ones!


[Chee][Admin] Bachu

The Dual-Operator is a different model. It is not a host, because it has no sapience of its own. It is a tool for interacting with the world outside the Pool that is jointly operated by two Yeerks. I will activate my prototype as well. Have you decided which of you will try to work with each prototype?


Eslin 825

@Deinfestation will work with the SymbiontAI prototype; they have experience with the broadest range of host species of any of us.


Filshig Traitor

@Green Sky and I have gotten to be friends, so we’ll try out the Dual-Operator.


Mielan 128

Are you scared, @Deinfestation ? I’d be scared.


Deinfestation

Of course I’m scared. It’s new. Not just for me, but for all Yeerks. We’ve spent so much time getting it wrong. This time, we need to try to get it right.


Mielan 34

What are they like? Are they shaped like us?


> import module ‘SymbiontAI’

> SymbiontAI.activate(safe.mode = TRUE)


CHEE-BACHU

Why is it making that noise? It sounds – for lack of a better term – sad.


CHEE-EXNIS

It wants a Yeerk.


> pool.approach(contact.point = ‘appendage3’)

> external.speakers.configure(voice = ‘AdultYeerkComposite.sound’, language = ‘Yeerkish’)

> external.speakers.activate(message = ‘Are you ready, Deinfestation?’)


Incoming speech communication (source: appendage3.sensor.array; language analysis: Yeerkish)

## As ready as I can be. ##


> appendage3.sensor.array.localize(range = 5 cm)


[‘Decorative sea vegetable’,

‘Yeerk’]


> pool.extract(range = 5 cm, target = ‘Yeerk’)

> SymbiontAI.interface()

(Yeerk input accepted. Please wait.)


CHEE-EXNIS

How is the Dual-Operator going?


CHEE-BACHU

They’re still adjusting.


CHEE-EXNIS

Same here.


Incoming speech communication (language analysis: Galard)

## Wow. They’re so… excited for me to be here. ##


> external.speakers.activate(message = ‘I suppose that’s not what you’re used to.’)


Incoming speech communication (language analysis: Galard)

## Oh. I’ve never heard Yeerkish outside a Pool before. The resonance in air is all wrong. Anyway. SymbiontAI wants to say… thank you. ##


> external.speakers.activate(message = ‘It feels like it would be far too narcissistic of me to say you’re welcome. SymbiontAI, could you show your Yeerk guest how to activate the holo-projector?’)


Incoming speech communication (language analysis: Yeerkish)

## These units have holo-projectors? Like yours? Oh. Speaking Yeerkish outside the Pool is strange. ##


Incoming speech communication (language analysis: Yeerkish)

## Ah. I am glad to see you’ve worked out the dual controls. The Dual-Operator and SymbiontAI have limited versions of our holo-projectors. They can project one hologram with corresponding force fields. The default image is of a Pemalite; this is the default we were given as Chee. We can reprogram the image and voice according to your specifications. ##


> external.speakers.activate(message = ‘A human persona would probably be easiest if you want to move through the world beyond this basement.’)


Incoming speech communication (language analysis: Galard)

## You’re saying we can leave? ##


> external.speakers.activate(message = ‘Of course, as long as you make sure not to draw Yeerk attention to this place. We wouldn’t stop you.’)


Incoming speech communication (language analysis: Galard)

## So we can go out and – see familiar places. Help the Campsite Rule. Help stop the - ##


Incoming speech communication (language analysis: Yeerkish)

## Oh, don’t you dare, Deinfestation! ##


Incoming speech communication (language analysis: Galard)

## Chee-bachu, where are the Animorphs? And the Andalite who is helping them? ##


Incoming speech communication (language analysis: Yeerkish)

## You know I can’t tell you that, Deinfestation. It would put many innocent lives at risk. ##


Incoming speech communication (language analysis: Galard)

## Aren’t you on our side? ##


Incoming speech communication (language analysis: Yeerkish)

## On YOUR side, not ours! See how far you get if you try it, Deinfestation. ##


> external.speakers.activate(message = ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa! I wouldn’t encourage any of you to start on secret spy missions, no matter what side they’re for. We just made you these bodies, and you want to immediately put them at risk?’)


Incoming speech communication (language analysis: Yeerkish)

## Sorry, Chee-exnis. ##


Incoming speech communication (language analysis: Galard)

## I’m sorry. ##


CHEE-BACHU

You can scold them all you like, but we’ve opened Pandora’s box here. We will have to watch what they do with these bodies very carefully.


Ax

«Pass the laser welder,» I said, holding out a hand. I had to join the two components. It did not matter what they were for. If I focused on the details, I would not have to contemplate the larger picture.

“Don’t forget to turn on your face shield,” Peter said, and passed the handle of the laser welder into my hand.

The door beeped and slid open. I tensed and kept my eye stalks on Peter, the welder, anything but her. «Where is your progress?» Estrid said.

I ignored her and turned on the laser welder. The metal began to melt at the join. The heat was incredible. I could smell my own hair singeing.

“We’re done assembling the filtration system,” Peter said. “That took a while. Now we’re working on the Pool itself.”

«Why waste time on an effective filtration system?» Estrid demanded. «I will not need the test subjects for long.»

“According to Lourdes, we need it,” Peter said. “They die in less than a day unless they’re kept in chemically balanced Pool sludge.”

«Very well,» Estrid said. «But I will not hear any of you blame me for any delay in delivering the virus.» Her hooves clicked on the floor, and the door hissed shut behind her.

“Ax!” Peter cried. “Your face shield!” He ran to me with his own shield up, darkening his face. He flinched at the distance from Mirazai’s tank, but he reached out and pressed the sequence of buttons on the ring around my neck. The force field sprang up from the ring and covered my face and stalk-eyes. I finished the weld.

“Ax,” Peter said, hunched over Mirazai’s tank. “You have to stop forgetting safety procedures.”

«What does it matter?» I said. I powered down the face shield and turned to face Peter. He flinched at whatever he saw of my face. I registered it only as a distant burn. I focused on my human morph, let smooth brown skin spread over my body until it replaced the charred fur, then reversed it.

“Mirazai can regrow her suckers,” Peter snapped. “It doesn’t mean I go tearing them out. You’re punishing yourself. Why?”

«No Andalite war tribunal will condemn me for what we are doing,» I said, gesturing at the half-built Yeerk Pool with a snap of my tail. «Perhaps someone should.»

Peter sighed and sank to his knees beside the tank. “No Geneva Convention for Andalites, huh.” He shook his head. “Sorry. I keep forgetting – the Geneva Convention is – ”

«I know what the Geneva Convention is,» I said wearily. «We have an equivalent, but in practice, I doubt it has ever been applied to Yeerks. If you had asked me three years ago, I would have said – it does not matter. I have learned the reality. Do you think you humans would apply your Geneva Convention to Yeerks?»

“No,” Peter said. “We don’t even apply it to other humans, not really.”

«I suspected as much. Do you hold to any code of honor, Peter? I do not speak of humans in general, but of you. Does this seem right, by whatever set of beliefs you hold?»

“I wouldn’t say I have one set of beliefs I always hold to,” Peter said. “The world’s too complicated for that, especially these days. I mean, just a few months ago, I didn’t know there was other intelligent life in the universe. I always thought it was pretty likely, given the Fermi equation, but… sorry, I’m babbling. The bottom line is, the Yeerks are monsters who destroyed Eva’s life and mine too. But.” Peter looked at the door that had recently closed behind Estrid. “I’m not sure I could give even an enemy over to her.”

I met Peter’s eyes with my main eyes, and there was a moment where, I imagine, both of us contemplated abandoning the project and telling Estrid to proceed without her test subjects. Then we returned to our work, me to welding and Peter to comparing the half-built Kandrona generator with Lourdes’s blueprints.

When I finished the next weld, Peter looked up from the blueprints and said, “You realize we don’t actually have all the parts for the Kandrona generator.”

The Yeerks would have the parts, of course. Which meant we would have to steal them from the Pool. «I will tell Prince Jake. He and Marco are due here soon for the scheduled call.»

The door hissed open. It was Ghat Hefrin, the Hork-Bajir on duty guarding Estrid – or more accurately, guarding the rest of us from Estrid. “Come,” she said.

Which meant that Prince Jake was already here.


Marco

«Don’t you miss the days when we could just fly everywhere?» I said to Jake in private thought-speech, doing my best to keep up with the herd of wild horses wandering through the Dry Lands.

«Being a horse isn’t so bad,» Jake said. I’d already lost track of which horse he was. «They’re big and fast. And girls like them.»

«Cassie likes you whether you’re a horse or not, you loser. Though don’t ask me why.»

«I know why you both like me. It’s because I’m a good pillow. That’s all you want me for.»

«We were really tired last night after patrol, and you were just lying there outside like a big old couch cushion. You were asking for it. We couldn’t help ourselves.»

«The ship is this way,» said Uklan Tel, the Hork-Bajir who’d come with us. A horse broke away from the herd, and Jake and I followed.

It’s really weird to hear the new Hork-Bajir morphers talk in thought-speech. It’s not all broken up and clumsy like their English. I thought about the times when my mom forgot a random word in English, and felt a little guilty about calling the Hork-Bajir dumb so many times.

Ghat Hefrin, on Estrid-babysitting watch, was waiting for us outside the Ralek River. I said hi – you don’t forget a Hork-Bajir who saves your mom from your own fuck-ups. She talked to Uklan in their own language, then started morphing to horse. Uklan demorphed, and the changing of the guard was over. We demorphed too, and followed him into the ship.

Dad and Ax were waiting for us on the bridge. Dad’s hands were wet from petting Mirazai, and Ax was twitchy, jerking his tail up when we came in like we might have been on the attack. “Yeesh,” I said, holding my hands up. “It’s just us. What got a bug up your butts?”

«Nothing,» Ax said tiredly. «The call is coming in soon. I will configure the comms station appropriately.»

“Make sure to wipe any trace after the call,” Jake said. “The last thing we need is for our friends to know we’re using the Ralek River to call the Pool Ship.”

I pulled Dad aside. Dia wrapped herself around Mira’s tank and pressed her face against the glass. “You ready for this?” she said.

“I handled it last time,” Mirazai said.

“Dad cried into your tank for like an hour afterward.”

Mira arranged her tentacles neatly, like a girl tucking in her skirt. “That is handling it. Expressing emotions is normal and healthy.”

If Dia could roll her eyes, she would have. “Yeah, well, don’t express your normal and healthy emotions in front of the Andalites or they’ll start asking uncomfy questions.”

«The connection is open,» Ax declared. His stalk eyes were laser-focused on the entrance to the bridge. We really did not want anyone else coming in here.

I clapped Dad on the shoulder and came up to the comms station. “Which doohickey do you think the voice comes out of?” I asked Dia.

«The speakers are in the wall panels,» Ax said, pointing them out with a look. A panel blinked yellow. «Ah. Computer, accept incoming connection. Guardians of the Galaxy speaking.»

I love when Ax uses my stupid name for our little resistance group.

“Hello, Ax, Guardians. Aftran speaking,” said my mom’s voice, but flat and more American-sounding than her. “I’ve got big news. Top Yeerk intelligence reports that the Andalite fleet is moving some of its forces out of the Anati system. Toward Earth. Now, I hope that none of us on this call are naive enough to think that’s a good thing.”

“Trust me, we’re not,” Jake said. “Any estimate on when they’ll be here?”

“Hard to say. Z-Space is unpredictable. Anyway, Eva wanted to know if your Andalite scientist has any pull with the higher-ups.”

She’s using Mom’s voice, Dia said, flashing her fangs, and she talks about her like she isn’t even there.

“Why don’t you let Eva ask us herself?” I snapped.

“Because she’s not here,” Aftran snapped back. “We didn’t have time to take out of our schedule for this call, so Eva’s at an execution and I’m here. Bachu and I did this all the time.”

“She lets you morph her?” I may have screeched a little.

“It gives her time off from me,” Aftran said. “She’s grateful for it.”

“You don’t just get to morph her whenever you feel like it! Morph something else and use thought-speech! God, you’re such a little freak!” I shouted.

“And what do I say if an aide comes knocking on my door and I’m in fly morph? Ugh, this isn’t even worth arguing about. I don’t have to justify myself to you.”

“I’m her son and you’re wearing her body like a meatsuit, I think a little justification might be –”

“Marco,” Dad said. “I don’t like it either, but this isn’t helping.”

Call me sensitive, but David grabbing Dia, taking my DNA, and morphing me for kicks had happened way too recently for me to be okay with any of this. Dia said, Don’t let your stupid feelings fuck up this call, and crawled down to dunk her head in Mira’s tank. She stroked the back of Dia’s neck with a tentacle. I tried very hard not to think about what Aftran could do with my mom’s DNA. It made me wish I could vacuum it right out of her slimy little body.

«They do not have any status with Andalite High Command,» Ax said. «This mission is top-secret, and since it failed, High Command will likely do all it can to bury and deny it. In any case, even if they did, we do not have a consistent channel open with Andalite High Command – the current configuration of Z-space makes communication between Earth and our homeworld difficult and unreliable.»

“No communication channel between this top-secret mission and the people who want to keep it secret, huh?” Aftran said. “Is that actually true? Or is it that there’s no channel open that your Andalite rejects know about?”

«What do you – » Ax began.

Dia flicked out her tongue as she thought about it. I said, “You’re saying they have the ship bugged.” I buried my face against Dia’s coils. “Duh. Duh. I can’t believe I needed Cassie’s creepy pet Yeerk to tell me that.”

“That’s bad news,” Jake said. Merlyse hopped up and down his arm, agitated. “We really don’t want them to hear what we’ve been saying on this ship.”

Ax’s stalk eyes were scanning the bridge in overdrive mode. He looked ready to pee himself. I guess I would too, if I thought the generals at the Pentagon might be spying on me right now. «If there are bugs, they would have to deliver their communications in infrequent data dumps, when the Z-space configuration allows for it. It is very likely that none of the most recent events would have been sent back to the homeworld yet.»

“Great,” Aftran said. “Good luck figuring that one out. So. Have you passed on that message to the governor yet? The situation with your state’s military force gets more dire every day, believe me.”

“Not yet,” Jake said. “It’s kind of a long trip to Sacramento. Soon.”

“Two minutes left on the call,” Aftran said. “You got anything for me?”

«Do you know where we can acquire a synchrotron radiator?»

Aftran blew out a breath. “That’s one of the most expensive components of a Kandrona generator. Takes really fine engineering work. Well, speaking of Sacramento – they’re building a new Yeerk Pool up there in anticipation of a full takeover of state government. They may not expect an attack there. It’s under the UC Davis Medical Center.”

“Thank you, Aftran,” Jake said. “Anything else?”

“One more thing. A message for Cassie. Eva saw her mother recently in the Pool Ship cages, and – she’s doing all right. And misses her family very much.” In the same flat voice: “My time’s up.”

Dad folded down around Mira’s tank like a puppet with its strings cut. He reached in and squeezed Mirazai around her mantle.

“Peter?” Jake said. “We’re gonna need to have an Animorphs meeting right now. Can you go back to your, uh, project?”

Dad looked relieved. “Yeah. Yeah, sure.” He closed the tank, gave me a concerned dadly look, and wheeled it away.

Jake said, “Aftran’s right. This ship is almost definitely bugged. And we need Lourdes to find out how.”


Ax

We stood with Estrid, Gonrod, and Aloth in the feeding area of the Ralek River. They looked extremely uncomfortable.

In all fairness, I was uncomfortable as well, and trying my best to distract myself by pacing back and forth to take in the tasty, filling grass. In any case, it was my own fault for giving Chee-pulim ideas.

She had taken the inspiration for her new holographic form from an extinct predator that used to prey on Andalites; I had given her an impression of it in thought-speech and sketched it clumsily. She was twice the size of an Andalite, armored with leathery plates, and knuckle-walked on six legs like a gorilla’s gait. She had a face bristling with teeth that could withdraw under the armored plates. She had introduced herself to the crew, with an enormous toothy grin, as Struch. Their demands to know her species and planet of origin had been met with indifference.

«You seem very certain the ship is surveilled,» Gonrod said, pacing in tight circuits.

“That’s because our friend here found the bugs,” Marco said, gesturing to Pulim. “Show ‘em, Struch.”

Pulim showed a thought-speak announcer with the covering stripped away, exposing its inner workings, and pointed at a logic board with a disturbingly prehensile tooth. “There’s no legitimate reason why a thought-speech announcement system would have an audiovisual component, is there?”

Aloth’s tail twitched. «No. There is not.»

“I think we can assume that the entire ship is bugged, though I will perform a thorough sweep,” Pulim said. “By my preliminary assessment, the last data packets the bugs transmitted to Z-space were sent twenty-five days ago. Two days before the Animorphs boarded the Ralek River.”

“Which means we have to start watching what we say,” Prince Jake said. “Struch is going to cover the last twenty-five days, but we have to get our stories straight from now on.”

«Simple enough,» Aloth said. «Arbat died nobly delivering the virus to the Yeerk Pool, the virus did not work, and Estrid is hard at work on a new strain.»

“And we all get along in one big happy genocidal family,” Marco said brightly.

«You are running interference for us,» Gonrod said. «Our reputations are shielded by this lie you propose.»

“Exactly,” Prince Jake said. “So stick to the story.”

We were not trying to protect the crew’s reputations. We did not want the Andalites to come to Earth, and Prince Jake hoped that if they believed this terrible plan might yet work, they might hold off the fleet another day.

“You can go,” Prince Jake told Gonrod and Aloth. “We have to talk about something with Estrid.”

The fur along their spines prickled upward. They did not acknowledge Prince Jake as their prince, and resented being ordered as if they were his subordinates. This order they followed, but I wondered if they would heed the next one, or the next. Prince Jake kept his eyes on Estrid, but Merlyse watched them over his shoulder as they left.

“I swept every corner of the ship for bugs,” Pulim said casually. “And I found something very interesting in the coldbox where you keep your emergency grass rations.”

Merlyse hopped into a clump of grass as tall as Estrid’s face, and swayed forward with her claws around the blades of grass, so her beak was nearly in her eyes. “So I hoped you could explain to us why you have over a hundred hidden samples of Hork-Bajir DNA.”


Illim – Encrypted Private Message


Illim

Aximili, I have an important message for the Animorphs.


Illim

I have come in contact with the Taxxon Resistance on Earth. They want to meet you.


Aximili

The Taxxon Resistance? What does that mean?


Illim

It means that when you put thousands of Taxxons in an underground headquarters, some of them will choose to dig tunnels of their own.


Illim

They have similar goals to the Yeerk Peace Movement, but stand apart. They have a disagreement about methods.


Aximili

You mean they are more militant. Can this Taxxon Resistance be trusted?


Illim

They have helped you before. Some of them shielded you when you came through the Taxxon drinking pit to rescue Aftran. I plan to come along too – I trust them enough to put myself and Tidwell at risk.


Aximili

I will pass your message on to Prince Jake. I cannot say when we will be available. A new crisis emerges every day.


Illim

I know how you feel. Believe me.

Chapter Text

Toby

Can they be cured?” I asked Kel Geta, examining the cold, trembling patients.

We will light a fire to keep them warm,” said Kel, Kref Magh’s nurse. Kel had been infested by a Yeerk responsible for keeping Hork-Bajir hosts healthy, and had learned some things from her slaver. “But they need sokkteh.”

What’s sokkteh?” It sounded like a Galard word.

Medicine the Yeerks gave to Hork-Bajir who were too cold all the time. It was a crumbling stone we could chew.

Perhaps the Andalites will be able to translate for us.” I opened my hand in respect to her. “Until then, I know they will be well in your care.

«Toby,» said Jake in my head. The steel thread running through his thought-speech made me go rigid on my branch. «You need to call a meeting circle, now. A – A Hork-Bajir problem came up.»

I craned my neck up at the passing peregrine falcon. “A Hork-Bajir problem?”

«Look. It’s about the Hork-Bajir, and it’s about you. It’s – I’ll explain at the meeting rock.»

The notice was too short to call a full circle, nor did I want to call one, when there was so much to be done to protect the valley. I brought Kel’s brother Lub with me, my parents and little Franaj, Bek Mashar for translation, Elgat Kar and her assistants, Kam Jedet with the creche-teachers, and Rej Hullan with her two young protégés.

Jake, Ax, Tobias, and Marco were at the meeting rock, demorphed and grim. Loren, Rachel, and Cassie were on patrol through the National Forest with a group of warriors, chasing after the report of a Gold Band troop.

“What’s going on?” I said, fixing Jake with a stare.

He sat on the rock with his elbows on his knees, Merlyse hopping back and forth nervously between his forearms. “We have some bad news. We – we found some Hork-Bajir biological material on the Ralek River. It’s from you, Toby. That’s why Estrid wanted to take care of Arbat’s body right away – she must have collected your blood from his tail blade.”

I froze. I felt as cold as I get when I cut the Yeerks from Hork-Bajir-Controllers’ heads, distant and deadly. “Estrid has my DNA? What did she do with it?” In the background, somewhere far away, I heard Bek struggle to translate the concept of DNA. “Body-spirit,” I mumbled to him. “The essence that makes our eggs hatch as Hork-Bajir and not Earth creatures. Shape-changers gather it from other creatures and use it to change their bodies.

“She said she wanted to understand what makes a Seer,” Jake said. Like the Arn, Quafijinivon, like my ancestor, Aldrea, before she learned better, all Estrid cared to know about Hork-Bajir was our Seers, the ones most familiar to her much-vaunted intelligence. “There were. Um.” He looked around at the others, as if hoping someone would step up and save him from having to speak. No one did. He cupped Merlyse in his hands to stop her restless movement, looked up at me directly, and said, “There are embryos in there. Four clones of you. Estrid says she didn’t alter them or anything, but obviously there’s no reason we – ”

I’ll kill her,” I hissed. First the Arn made us, then the Andalites stole our DNA to make their genocidal virus, and now Estrid used my DNA as her plaything. It was unbearable. I wasn’t cold anymore; I was in the suspended moment in the air between one tree branch and the next, free-falling. “Where is the Ralek River?”

The Animorphs exchanged nervous looks. Jake shook his head. “I won’t tell you that if you’re going there to kill her. We need her to make the virus.”

“And my DNA being stolen for her experiments is – what? An acceptable side effect?”

“Yes,” Marco said bluntly. “What do you think is going to happen to my mom if we send this virus up to the Pool Ship? You think every Yeerk’s gonna get hit at the same time and they’ll all have a group hug? The side effects from this are a whole lot bigger than Estrid poking at your DNA, as screwed up as that is.”

“You claim to respect Hork-Bajir sovereignty,” I hissed, “and yet you won’t let me exact punishment for a crime against Hork-Bajir.”

«We respect Hork-Bajir sovereignty, not your right to do anything you want, Toby,» Tobias said. «Hork-Bajir decisions are made in a circle. What does your circle think?»

I flinched. Tobias knew me too well. I turned and found the people I’d brought with me gathered in a circle behind me. “Explain,” Bek said. “I do not understand what the Andalite did with your body-spirit.

She made the beginnings of eggs,” I said. “Twins of me.”

New Seers,” Lub Geta said. “A gift.

It is not a gift! She did not mean to give them to us! She wanted to use them for herself. Like the Arn. She must be punished!

They are no longer hers, now that the shape-changers found them,” said Rej Hullan. “So we can take them as a gift.”

Beginnings of eggs,” my mother said, swinging Franaj gently by the tail. “Can they be carried by Hork-Bajir?”

Yes,” I said. “Humans do such things. But –

Then I will carry them,” Ket said. “They are your twins.

Many in the circle began a drumbeat of approval with their tails. “Mother,” I said, shocked. “The Andalite could have changed them. Twisted them. Poisoned them. She is a liar and a thief.

I do not care if they are twisted and sick. They are your twins, and I will carry them so that hrala might embrace them one day.

I was so afraid of what Estrid could have done to my clones. They could be monstrosities, like Quafijinivon’s nightmare vision of Hork-Bajir who could not see hrala. But if my mother wanted to take the risk of carrying them, out of love, then I couldn’t refuse her.

Estrid would live for now. We would need her help for successful implantation of the embryos. But she was on notice, and the next time she twitched her tail out of line, her life was forfeit.


Jake

“Illim is telling the truth,” Loren said. “I was on the Taxxon homeworld. There was a Taxxon resistance. They lost a terrible battle against the Yeerks, but that doesn’t mean every last one of them was killed.” Jaxom rested his head on her knee. “I’m glad they’re still around. Elfangor had this friend named Arbron – he was so smart and funny, even though he thought humans were kind of weird and gross. Anyway. He stayed too long in morph as a Taxxon, and he got stuck.”

Merlyse squawked and hid between my elbow and my side. I felt like I might throw up. “Excuse me, what?”

“Mission gone wrong,” Loren said, stroking Jaxom’s neck. “Elfangor and Arbron morphed Taxxon to blend in, and it all went – that’s not the point. The point is, he joined the Taxxon resistance. It was the only hope left for him. I always figured he died in that battle against the Yeerks, but I asked Mertil and it turns out his Guide Tree kept blooming for two years afterward. I guess he kept fighting the good fight, at least for a while.” She looked at the screen of Ax’s remote computer setup, with Illim’s messages pulled up in a window. “Tell him we’ll come.”


Illim – Encrypted Private Message


Jake

Okay. We’re in. But I’m not going into one of their underground lairs or whatever, at least not at first. This could still be a trap as far as I’m concerned.


Illim

This is risky for them too, you know. They know that you view Taxxons as vermin. From their standpoint you could also turn around and start killing them.


Illim

But they thought you might say that, so they propose meeting underwater. They have tunnels that open into Santa Barbara Harbor. There’s a wreck of a steamship off Santa Rosa Island. Do you know it?


Jake

We’ve seen it in dolphin morph, yeah.


Illim

Meet them inside the shipwreck. I’ll get back to you on the timing.


Merlyse gave me a warning peck on the shoulder, and I looked up from the computer to see Aunt Naomi coming up to the folding table. “Hi, Naomi,” I said. “Um, sorry, I think Marjorie and Robin have the rest of the folding chairs – ”

Naomi waved that away. Caedhren perched on the table, and Merlyse hopped forward so they could flick their wings and tilt their little bird heads at each other. “So I heard you’re trying to get in touch with Governor Hernandez.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Who’d you hear that from?”

“Ani-mom gossip,” Loren said shamelessly. “Don’t worry, I don’t talk about anything top-secret.” Her sharp eyes said, Like who told us to get in touch with the governor.

Naomi’s eyes gleamed with an unholy light I knew way too well from Rachel. “I’ve been bored out of my skull out here. I’ve spent way too much time thinking about it, and there’s no way the Sharing isn’t committing massive tax fraud. To say nothing of the zoning violations from that giant underground Pool complex!” Caedhren jumped around the table, agitated, and Merlyse took a step back. “I know California tax law backwards and forwards. Get me access to their financial records, and I’ll lay out a case the governor will have to act on. I know you’re all fighting the Yeerks out there, but let’s hit the motherfuckers where it hurts – right in the money. I don’t care if they’re brain worms from outer space. They only have so much to spend before Earth just isn’t worth it anymore.”

I leaned back in my chair. It was a lot to take in. I’d never really thought about the war this way. “Uh, don’t court cases take years? We don’t really have years.”

Naomi waved a hand. Caedhren was still hopping around in excitement. “The attorney general doesn’t have to win the case. It’ll keep at least some of them distracted from taking over people’s brains. And Dan still has contacts in journalism – some of them have to be Yeerk-free, right? He could use your computer setup to send out tips! It’d be terrible PR.”

“That would mean,” I said slowly, “we’d have to steal their financial records. Which they probably have under serious security, especially after that attack we did on the community center.”

“I thought you had people on the inside,” Naomi said. “That’s what the Yeerk-lovers tell me, anyway.  And wasn’t Tom – ” She caught herself and shrugged awkwardly. “Well, you know. He might know something.”

I looked at Loren. Jaxom rested his head on the table and said to Merlyse quietly, “This isn’t really our MO, is it? Infiltration. A heist.”

“Maybe it needs to be,” Merlyse said. “Everything’s so much harder with the Gold Bands around.”

“Thanks, Aunt Naomi,” I said. “No guarantees, but I’m going to look into it.”

Please,” she said. “I’m dying of boredom out here.”

That made me grit my teeth – I could use some boredom in my life, maybe an hour a day to lower my blood pressure. “Talk to the Hork-Bajir,” I said.

Caedhren made a harsh cackling noise in his throat. Naomi stared. “What would the Hork-Bajir want with a lawyer?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Talk to them. They might surprise you.”

Caedhren tilted his head and gave me a skeptical look, but Naomi seemed thoughtful. I looked back at the computer and my chat window with Illim. There was a new message.


Illim – Encrypted Private Message


Illim

2 AM, the day after tomorrow. Is that agreeable?


Jake

Sure. It’s not like we have regular hours.


Jake

Where does the Sharing keep its records?


Illim

There’s a server room in the basement level of Sharing HQ. Yeerk technology.


Illim

Oh no. You’re going to steal their data.


Jake

Do you have access to the server room?


Illim

My clearance isn’t high enough. And even if it were, I don’t have anything with enough memory to hold all those data.


Jake

But a Chee would.


Illim

I thought the Chee left after the vote.


Jake

Not all of them. We’ll have to smuggle her in past security. Do you have people on the inside who can cover for us?


Illim

I’ll get back to you on that. This is too big for Tidwell and me to handle ourselves.


I looked up from the computer screen at Loren. “We can’t all go on missions together anymore. Not when Kref Magh could get found out by the Yeerks any time. I want you there for meeting with the Taxxons. You’ve actually met the resistance before.”

Loren nodded. “I want to see them again. If it’s really them, I guess. Maybe they can tell me what happened to Arbron.”

“We should bring Ax too,” I said. “If they were buddies with Arbron and he was buddies with – ”

“There he is,” Merlyse said.

Ax was here, and I’m still not an expert on Andalite body language even with our years of fighting together, but Loren’s flinch told me my guess was right: he looked like shit. He held his tail low, and his arms hung like dead sticks at his sides. Merlyse hopped up to my shoulder. “Of course he looks like shit,” she muttered. “Things with the Andalites just keep getting worse.”

«Prince Jake,» he said stiffly. «I am here to report on my progress with the Yeerk Pool on the Ralek River.»

“Yeah, sure. Go ahead, Ax.” And there was that, too. Ax didn’t like Yeerks, but nobody could feel good about building a cage for Estrid’s live test subjects.

«It is nearly complete. However, certain parts are needed for the Kandrona generator. I asked Chee-pulim for assistance, but she says that she cannot manufacture the parts on her own. It is a difficult process that takes a team of Chee working in concert.»

Merlyse dug her claws into my shoulder. I sighed and dug the heels of my hands into my eyes. “Which means we have to steal them from the Yeerks. What is up with us and heists right now?”

«What is a heist?» Ax said.

Loren went over to him and just barely touched his elbow with her fingertips. “Come on. I’ll show you some movies at your scoop. You’ll learn all about heists.”

Merlyse’s claws dug tighter into my shoulder. Time spent watching heist movies is time they’re not patrolling for Gold Bands or planning goddamn heists or –

Shut up, Merlyse, I thought fiercely. We take breaks to make out with Cassie and Marco, they can take a break to watch Mission: Impossible. Speaking of –

Cassie was waving to me from the direction of the human campfire. “Come on, Jake! They’re serving dinner!”

“Sure,” said Merlyse. “We need to figure out who to send to talk to the governor anyway. She’ll be the person to ask.”


Marco

Julie, Jamal, Loren and I went on a road trip to Sacramento. I wasn’t allowed to drive.

It would have been faster to fly, but we have no idea where the Yeerks are keeping their Gold Bands these days, and getting shot out of the sky would have put a serious wrinkle in our grand political scheme. So we rented a car under an alias Lourdes cooked up for all our morpher Costco runs, which works okay as long as we can all Frolis up more or less the same face that’s on the driver’s license. That took a lot of really weird practice, and I still can’t do it. Jamal’s good at it, apparently, so he got to be Mr. Devon Smith, Totally Real Person.

A lot of kids in my grade had been pumped to get their driver’s licenses so they could go on an epic road trip. I bet they hadn’t pictured being a squirrel on the dæmon-rest by the front seat where they couldn’t even see the road. But Devon Smith’s driver’s license said he had a squirrel dæmon, so that’s where I was. Sure, sometimes I got to see something when we stopped for gas. Or when we’d pull over on a “scenic overlook” and walk into the scrub by the side of the highway to demorph and remorph. I guess most of the authentic road trip experience I got was playing Twenty Questions and arguing about radio stations. Loren has such a mom taste in music.

We parked in an underground garage down the street from the state Capitol building and morphed the kinds of birds nobody thinks twice about in an empty lower parking level. Except me, because somebody had to carry the CD with Mom’s message burned on it – and let me tell you, the parking garage guys totally spooked when they saw an osprey fly out holding a CD.

We circled the Capitol building. «I went here on a third-grade field trip once,» I said, «but I can’t remember which window is the governor’s office.»

«Look at the driveway,» Jamal said. «There’s a limo with tinted windows pulling out. I just saw the governor get in.»

We followed the car to a VFW, where they were having some kind of luncheon for veterans. Governor Hernandez got out of the middle of the car, then a sharp-dressed man with wing-tip shoes and a Doberman dæmon who took her elbow – her husband, I guessed. The governor’s mountain goat dæmon got out of the back. Then a couple of security guys from the front. I perched up in a tree as best I could while still holding a freaking CD. Through the windows, I saw everyone applaud when the governor came in. She gave a boring speech, then a veteran with a lot of stripes and medals took the podium and gave an even more boring one.

«How are we going to get the governor alone?» Julie said, frustrated.

«Even the governor of California has to take a leak eventually,» I said.

«Marco,» Loren said warningly. «You are not going to corner the governor in a women’s bathroom.»

«Fine. You and Julie can – »

«Isn’t anyone else paying attention?» Jamal said. «The governor just stepped into a side room to take a phone call.»

«You guys morph bugs and get in there, STAT,» I said. «Open the window so I can give her the CD.»

«What are we supposed to say?» Julie said.

«Did you seriously just spend seven hours on a road trip without thinking about a single thing to say when we got to the governor? I’ve got like five lines all ready to go. ‘Come with me if you want to live.’ ‘I come in peace.’ ‘The aliens are – ‘»

«Yeah, yeah, I get the idea,» Julie grumbled.

I was honestly a little disappointed that Julie, Jamal, and Loren would get to do the big reveal without me. At least we get to watch through the window, Dia said. So we got a front-row seat for the others demorphing from their bug morphs, getting guns drawn on them by two security guards, and Loren partially morphing Hork-Bajir and punching one of them in the throat. He crumpled to the floor, and Loren demorphed, said something urgent to the governor, and looked toward the window. Finally, the remaining security guard opened it.

“Why does the bird have a CD,” the governor said, in the voice of someone trying very very hard to be calm.

«I’m not a bird,» I said. «I’m going to need you to boot the computer on the desk. This CD has a message from my mom. Eva López.» I laid the CD on the desk, hoping it didn’t have too many scratches on it.

The governor shook her head. “My campaign manager from Santa Barbara? I heard she died five years ago. Boating accident.” But she turned on the computer anyway.

«Is a CD from a dead woman really the weirdest thing you’ve seen in the last five minutes?»

“You have a point.” Governor Hernandez opened the CD slot and put it in. A media player started up on the computer to play the audio file.

Hello, Celia and Olimpomonte. It’s Eva López and Mercurio. You know, your terrifying campaign slavedriver who helped you beat that Republican pendejo? Congratulations on making it to the governor’s mansion. I wish I could have been there, but I was busy being taken over by aliens. Yes, that’s right, I didn’t die in a mysterious boating accident, it was all a big fake-out by the alien who took over my brain. Do you hear me, Celia? This is my serious voice. The one I used after you dissed the ‘Nam vets at that town hall meeting.

The Animorphs have probably already shown you by now that there’s more in heaven and earth, et cetera et cetera. If you want to survive the shitstorm that’s about to come down on you, trust them. Do what they say, even if it sounds completely crazy. And use your judgment. I managed your campaign because I knew you’d be a damn good mayor. Don’t let me down.

The governor looked from me to the others. “Animorphs, huh?”

That was when the door to the office opened and the governor’s husband came in.

He took in the security guard groaning on the floor, the bird of prey standing on the desk, and the three total strangers. His Doberman dæmon sniffed the air. He said, “I’ll go get more security,” and left.

«That was way too calm,» I said. «We’ve got to get to battle morphs.»

“Too calm?” the governor said. “What are you talking about?”

Fur was already spreading over Loren, Julie, and Jamal. I started to demorph. The governor turned a little green. «Remember what my mom said about aliens taking over brains? I’m pretty sure your husband has an alien in his brain. And there’s probably more where that came from. Speaking of my mom, take the CD out of the slot and step on it.»

Governor Hernandez took the CD out, tossed it to the ground, and cracked it under her high heel. I took just a second to breathe, as myself, dizzy with exhaustion from all the morphing today, and continued on to gorilla.

The door burst open and Mr. Hernandez came in with four waiters holding Dracon beams. For just a second, I was disoriented with panic – I just had fur on my arms, the Yeerks could see who I was! Until Dia hissed, they already know who you are, and a random thought crossed my mind: that ballroom is full of patriotic veterans, and without stopping to really think about it, I shouted at the top of my lungs, “THEY’RE TRYING TO KILL THE GOVERNOR! STOP THEM!”

«What have you done,» Julie said, horrified, but then the waiters started shooting. One of them got me in the shoulder, but I was morphing, morphing to gorilla, and Jamal in black bear morph bowled a waiter over. Another waiter fired at him and vaporized his front paw, neatly cauterizing it. He stared down at his severed paw in disbelief.

«What are you doing?» I shouted at Julie and Jamal. «Move

They’re supposed to be noncombatants, Dia pointed out. They were never supposed to fight. We didn’t train them to do that.

Well, that was fucking stupid, I thought. What the fuck were we thinking? Noncombatant my big gorilla ass.

Julie was finally moving, grappling with a waiter. Mr. Hernandez’s Doberman dæmon growled and launched herself at the governor’s dæmon. The governor screamed, “Olimpomonte!” Then, sealing the deal for earning my unending respect, the mountain goat dæmon lowered his head and got the charging Doberman with a horn to the chest. Her growl pitched up into a whimper-scream and she skittered back a few steps.

The only governor who could possibly be cooler than that would be Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Loren, fully bison and fouling up the fight by taking up half the room, knelt a little in front of the governor. «We’ve got to get you out of here. Climb on!» She caught a Dracon shot to her huge side and barely flinched, though the room stank up with burning hair and flesh.

«Can you even ride a bison?!» I said, throwing a waiter against a wall.

“Guess we’ll find out,” the governor muttered, and she grabbed a double handful of rough bison hair and pulled herself up. She didn’t ride upright like on a horse, but clung with arms and legs to Loren’s back like a baby monkey. Now that would make a picture for the evening news, if any news choppers managed to get a shot.

That was when the grizzled uniformed veterans burst into the room, armed and ready to defend their governor. Who was riding a bison, who was getting shot with laser beams.

Mr. Hernandez said, “These animals are trying to kidnap the governor!”

At the same time, the governor cried, “My husband and these men attacked me!”

Every veteran raised his gun in a different direction. One of them was pointed at me. Julie said, «Please don’t shoot!» as if adding surprise telepathy to the situation could possibly help.

TSEEEEWWWW! The door to the room vaporized, busting everything wide open for the ballroom full of veterans to see. The reinforcements were here, another rank of Controllers in combat fatigues. Some of the vets joined them, figuring they were there to save the day. Some shot at Mr. Hernandez and his crew. Some of them turned on the Controllers, just because they were scared of the laser beams. And of course, some of them shot at the random animals who’d somehow shown up at the VFW. The Controllers shot at us too, and especially at the governor. It was total pandemonium.

Loren lowered her head and charged toward the wall with the window. «Follow me! YAAAAHHHHHH!»

The governor buried her face in Loren’s fur to shield herself from the splintering glass and wood. Julie screamed as somebody shot her with a bullet to the chest. «RUN!» I screamed, and hauled ass through the giant hole Loren had opened in the wall, straight out toward the river. Olimpomonte was sprinting behind Loren, trying his hardest to keep up with the governor, screaming wildly at the pain as he stayed at the bleeding edge of the distance limit between them. Jamal hobbled through on three paws, and Julie was going too slow, blood cascading out of her chest. I picked her up and ran through the streets, through streets and traffic and panicked crowds of people fleeing the scene. «Demorph! I’ve got you! You too, Jamal, demorph and get wings.»

«It hurts,» Julie gasped. «Can’t think.»

It was her first battle. I tried to remember our first battle, down in the Yeerk Pool, back when we were little baby idiots who thought we could just charge in and save Tom. What would have helped me, back then?

Who fucking knows, Dia said. That was a million years ago.

I could hear people shouting and running after us. Police sirens started wailing in the distance. We took a hard right at the river toward a park, where at least we’d have some tree cover.

Jamal was demorphing. «Julie,» he said. «It’s nighttime. We’re getting ready for bed. I tie your scarf up around your hair and make sure to tuck all the ends of your braids in. I feel that your neck is tense, and I dig my thumbs in on either side of your spine to loosen up the knots.»

The bear slung over my gorilla shoulder shifted. The rush of her blood down my chest slowed to an ooze, then to nothing, as Jamal described their evening routine in a slow, even voice. He had to stop when he got human and his thought-speech went away, but Julie had it by then. When she was human, her snake dæmon clinging in a tight circle around her head like a crown, I just said, «Morph hawk.»

“Where are we going?” Olimpomonte shouted. His voice was strained with the effort of just barely keeping up.

«That depends. Who’s tough enough to protect you from a small army of guys with laser guns, and who you can vouch for exactly where they were for at least the past three days?»

A chopper passed overhead. That was bad news.

“The past three days?” Olimpomonte shouted.

«We’ll explain later,» Loren said. «Just answer him!»

“There’s a battalion doing military exercises out in the desert – if I could just remember – I need my files, my computer, I don’t know off the top of my head! Even if I did, I don’t have their number memorized!”

«They’ll be looking for you at your office!» I said, frustrated.

Julie took off from my shoulder as a merlin, joining Jamal in the air. He said, «There’s a group of Controllers headed into the park. We need to do something, fast.»

«Fine,» I said. «I have a mountain goat morph already. You should be able to get her out of here if they think they already have her. Who’s with me?»

«You want one of us to morph the governor and let the Yeerks catch us? On purpose?» Julie said.

I was already demorphing. «Thank you so much for volunteering, Julie. Governor Hernandez, how’d you like to donate your DNA for a decoy?»

Julie landed on top of Loren and demorphed. The governor said, “How does this work? Can she morph me whenever she wants after she does this? That would be a major security risk.”

«Not as major a security risk as getting captured by aliens, Madam Governor,» Loren said.

“Aliens,” she said, a little dazed. “Thank God. I thought something much, much worse was happening. Aliens we can fight.”

«What did you think was happening, ma’am?» Jamal said.

“Oh, I thought my husband had joined an entirely human fascist movement with a secret stockpile of laser weapons.”

I continued on to mountain goat morph, though I was so tired my human body shook with it, Dia hanging limp as a rope around my neck. Julie murmured something to the governor and took her hand, acquiring her.

When the governor came out of the trance, Loren said, «You might as well get down now. I should demorph, and Julie’s going to need your clothes.»

Am I supposed to walk back to the State Capitol in my underwear?” the governor said, sliding carefully down Loren’s back. She hugged her dæmon around the neck with a sigh of relief.

«I’ll go steal some clothing for you,» Loren said, «begging your pardon, ma’am, under the circumstances. You can hide out in the park bathroom while Jamal keeps an eye out overhead.»

“Right,” the governor said. “Because he’s a bird. Well, if the ladies would like to accompany me, the park bathrooms are this way.”

While I waited for them to come back, Jamal flew a circuit of the park and said, «There’s a Hummer and a National Guard truck rolling in. Are you ready?»

«Don’t worry about me,» I said, most of the way to mountain goat. «You focus on the governor. If the Yeerks get her, we are screwed. Also, she’s pretty awesome and I’d like it if she didn’t get her brain all slugged up.»

«I have no idea what I’m doing,» Jamal said, for the first time sounding genuinely deeply terrified.

«We didn’t know what we were doing when we started,» I said. «You’ll figure it out.»

The governor came over, sans dæmon, in a dirty rumpled gray dress. I heard a Hummer rumbling up the park trail. «Hi, Julie,» I said. «You’re right on time. Jamal, make sure you tell the governor about the Sharing and everything once she’s out of the danger zone.»

«Yes, Prince Marco,» Jamal said.

«Who taught you to say that?!» I demanded, but he was already gone.

Branches cracked and crashed. The Hummer and the truck stopped on the trail in front of us. «Showtime,» Julie said, and when soldiers piled out of the vehicles, guns in hand, we both drew ourselves up proudly. Julie said, “There’s no need for all of this trouble, officers. As you can see, I’m perfectly fine. If someone could just lend me a cell phone, I’ll call my security guards and my chauffeur and – ”

“Ma’am, there’s been an attempt on your life,” said a guy with a mole dæmon and a bunch of stripes on his uniform. “You’re coming with us.”

“With all due respect, sir,” Julie said coldly, “I don’t take orders from you, or anyone I don’t trust. Especially not after my own husband just attacked me.”

“Corporal,” said the guy in charge. “Escort the governor to her vehicle.”

A corporal, I guess, put his gun back in his holster and grabbed Julie, dragging her to the truck. I bleated loudly in protest, but followed along, just like a dæmon would. Julie struggled and yelled about how her civil rights were being violated and she was going to have them all up on charges. The corporal tied her up with rope in the back of the truck, then came for me with the rope. That’s when Julie really started yelling, and Dia drew on some really, really bad memories to go totally slack with shock, the way she had when David did that thing I’ve gone through a lot of space robot therapy to deal with.

As the truck started up, rumbling underneath us, Dia thought, I’m really going to enjoy getting payback on these creeps.

«This wasn’t supposed to happen,» Julie said. «I wasn’t supposed to fight. I don’t know how to do this. It isn’t fair.»

Dia snapped, «You signed up to be a Controller. I started fighting this stupid war when I was thirteen. How is that fair?»

«Thanks, great pep talk,» Enther snapped back.

«Cassie’s the Animorph who gives pep talks,» I said. «Maybe even Jake, if you’re lucky. Me? I just crack jokes and insult you until you quit feeling sorry for yourself. Deal with it.»

«Sarcasm as a defense mechanism, huh? Now I’m getting all nostalgic for my job. I’m a social worker for at-risk youth.»

«Not right now you’re not. You’re an enabler for at-risk youth. Look how at risk I am right now.»

«This was all your idea!»

«See? It worked,» I said. «Now you’re too busy being annoyed with me to think about how fucked this all is. Anyway, I think we’ve bought enough time for the governor to clear out – we have to be out of the park, going by the traffic noises. You demorph and get to black bear. I’ll cover you.»

Julie’s demorph was quick, going from human to human. She was shorter than the governor, and the ropes fit all wrong, so she could wriggle out of them. As for me, I’m a shitty morpher, but I’m smaller than a mountain goat, and if I demorphed just enough, I could do the same thing. I focused on my own body, and the first things to go were my horns and hooves. Of course it would be the natural weapons that would disappear on me.

Distraction time, Dia said. In public thought-speech, she called out, «Hey, you Yeerk dipshits. You think you got rid of us so easy? Yeah! We know you have the governor in there! We’re coming for you!»

The thing about thought-speech is that it’s hard to tell where it’s coming from unless you’re used to someone’s thought-speak “voice.” The Yeerks have never really gotten the hang of how morphing works, how we can be anything or anywhere, so they figured the threat was coming from outside. They started working together to roll down the canvas so they could shoot at whatever was coming, and didn’t look at Julie out of the ropes with black fur spreading over her body. And I was finally small enough to kick away my loose ropes and remorph to goat, if I could just keep their attention away for long enough.

«Did you really think you could get away with this? We’re not Andalites, we’re humans. We know how our own government works. We knew what you were going to do and we were one step ahead the whole time.»

“Look out for birds!” the corporal yelled, pointing his gun up. He fired at a random seagull. Outside the truck, I heard people scream and cars honk.

God, I love lying, Dia said, and I leapt straight up in the air in true mountain goat style and kicked a Controller-soldier in the head.

BAM! His gun fired wildly. The other soldiers finally focused their guns inside the truck. Julie growled and charged into a soldier’s legs, knocking him over. I charged at the corporal, horns pointed forward. He pistol-whipped me across the head, but a mountain goat’s skull is thick as hell right behind the horns. I gored him in the chest and sent him flying into the back of the truck cab. BLAM! I staggered at a shot to my spine. My back legs were going numb. «Let’s get out of here!» I yelled, and staggered through the canvas out into…. wherever the hell we were.

Which ended up being me rolling, half-paralyzed, in the middle of traffic on the main road in downtown Sacramento, closely followed by a bleeding, angry black bear. A car hit me, hard, sending me into a streetlight pole. Traffic screeched to a halt. The Controllers jumped out of the truck, but a crowd was gathering around me, checking on me, asking, “How did a mountain goat get loose? Somebody call the zoo!”

Guns fired, and the crowds started to scream and scatter. It was demorph or die, even with a city street full of witnesses. It’s not like the Yeerks don’t know who we are anyway, Dia said, and I demorphed, adding melting goat-flesh to the list of nightmares happening on that block. «I’ll meet you at the rental car!» I shouted to Julie. «Get human and join the stampede, they’ll be looking for birds!»

“Aaaaaahhhhh!!!”

“What is that thing?!”

“Put away your camera, Joe, we’re gonna get killed!”

“This is the National Guard! We are declaring an emergency! Clear the street!”

BAM! BAM!

Human again. A soldier with a Gila monster dæmon jumped up on the crashed car that hit me, saw me, shouted, “Marco!” and aimed.

I rolled out of the way of the shot, scrambled up, and joined a screaming Mexican family. “Ay, mierda!” I screamed with them, in the spirit of friendly agreement and international relations, and morphed down into one of the Kref Magh kids, Sam or Sally or something. I stuck with them halfway through downtown, then joined up with a group of kids on a field trip to see the state Capitol.

When I got to the rental car and knocked on the driver’s side door, Julie’s thought-speak voice said, «Marco, that better be you.»

«Marjorie always tries to get Jake to eat ants on a log like he’s still a little kid at the school cafeteria.»

«Yeah, that’s you all right.»

«We’d better get going home,» I said. «We’ve really messed up the southbound traffic.»


Illim – Encrypted Private Message


Illim

I have an opportunity for you to strike at the Sharing.


Illim

There is a group of Peace Movement Controllers who have an official visit to the Sharing HQ coming up. They call themselves the Campsite Rule. They’re willing to cover for you.


Jake

The Campsite Rule?


Illim

You’ve never been camping? It’s a rule at campgrounds. Leave the campsite in a better condition than it was when you got there.


Jake

How is a human brain like a campsite?!


Jake

You know what, never mind. Who are they, and what are they going to do at the Sharing?

Chapter Text

Rachel

“I can’t believe you guys kidnapped the governor without me,” Abineng complained as I scarfed down lentil stew and rice.

“It’s not a kidnapping,” Jaxom said. “She came with us willingly.”

“Then I can’t believe you guys impersonated the governor and fought the army without me,” Abi corrected himself.

“I wonder what they’re saying on the news,” Marco said. “Is Ax here? I gotta check out the TV in his scoop.”

Caught up in a different conversation, Uncle Steve said, “But what if some of us are injured? We didn’t include that in the drill. How do we evacuate them?”

There was a lot to talk about around the human campfire tonight. We’d practiced evacuation drills in Kref Magh today, in case the Gold Bands found us, and a lot of people were talking about what went right and what went wrong. I thought we were pretty screwed if we didn’t get our act together, but it wouldn’t exactly boost morale if I said that.

Jake and Cassie were arguing about whether to let some disabled kids in the Peace Movement in on my mom’s big scheme to bring down the Sharing through lawsuits, paperwork, and bad PR. Cassie said, “And what if the kids get caught helping us? What happens to them then? Can we live with that?”

From where I was sitting, it didn’t seem like this even broke the top ten list of morally questionable shit we were up to, and it was Cassie’s plan that was number one on that list.

Loren took a sip of some herbal tea a nice Hork-Bajir, Leb or Kib or something, had made for us. She projected her voice for Jake and Cassie to hear. “Huh. If only there were disabled people in this valley you could ask for an opinion.”

Yeah, not touching that one, Abineng said.

The four new human morphers were talking to each other in low voices. I caught Julie saying, “…think I might have killed someone, and…” She was wringing her hands around her snake dæmon. Melissa went pale and shook her head.

I scraped the last food off my plate and went over to the group, Abi trailing along at the edge of the campfire. There were no seats left, so I sat cross-legged on the ground. “Hey.”

The group fell silent. Abi found a gap large enough to move inward and said, “I heard you freaking out about the missions. If you feel like you’re going off the deep end – well. I’m an expert.”

Melissa sneered. “Gonna teach us how to like it?”

“You can learn to like it,” I said simply. “I did. But I wouldn’t recommend it.”

Walter poked at his food with a fork. Emeraude was out on the edges where there was space, like Abi, looking in. “We weren’t supposed to fight. We were just supposed to patrol and go on supply runs.”

“I know what happened in Sacramento,” I said. “What happened to you?”

“Police tried to stop us on the way back to the forest,” Walter said. “I wasn’t speeding. I figured it had to be Controllers.” He shot a look at Julie and Jamal, and spoke with a weight to his words I didn’t understand. “I was in morph as Charlotte.” One of our fake identities. “I know the Dry Lands. I go on wildlife rehab calls out there all the time. Or – I did. So I led the cop car right into a ditch off the road.” He jabbed chicken with his fork and ate it too quickly to have gotten any flavor out of it.

“They might be dead,” Melissa bit out. “And they might not even be Controllers.”

Abi snorted and tossed his head. Whose bright idea was it for there to be ‘non-combatants’? What kind of schmuck thought there was any such thing?

It was Walter’s idea, I remembered. But Jake said yes. And so did I. I think we wanted to spare them all the crap we’ve gone through. All the horror. But we just made it worse.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “We screwed up. We should have trained you to fight.”

Melissa recoiled. “We don’t want to fight.”

“Most of us don’t,” I said. “You think Marco wouldn’t be home reading comic books if he could? But we’re all in this, whether we like it or not. Even the little kids had to do the evacuation drill today.” I stood up and looked them each in the eye. “I’m sorry we didn’t tell you the truth. I’m going to fix it.”

I passed off my empty plate to Miguel, who was on clean-up duty – it was too crowded around the kitchen for Abi to come close. Then I walked right in the middle of Loren, Jake, and Cassie’s argument, or as close as I could while keeping Abi out of it. “Here’s a moral dilemma for you,” I said, loud enough to cut through. “How moral is it to send people into a meat grinder without teaching them how to fight?”

Jake went pale, and I realized I’d crossed the line. Now he was thinking of David and Tom, instead of the problem on our hands right now. Abi leaned his head into my shoulder. “This is on me, too. I thought it could work. But there’s no such thing as a non-combatant morpher. They’ve all gotten into fights and they’re freaking out because they aren’t ready.”

Merlyse’s feathers stood on end like she was getting ready for a fight. Jake shook his head. “I don’t have time to organize more classes.”

I slung my arm over Abi’s neck. “There’s just four of them. I’ll teach them myself.” I raised an eyebrow, and said to Jake silently, It’s fighting. Who better than me?

“None of us have time,” Jake said. “You have missions, they have missions, we all need to sleep sometime.”

I shrugged. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead. I’m going to help them.”

So what’s the first lesson going to be? Abi said as we turned away.

I thought about it. By the time I got the new morphers in line for my lesson, I knew what to say. “Everyone thinks I’m the most dangerous Animorph, but it’s actually Cassie, because she morphs the fastest. All four of you morph slower than us, and that makes you vulnerable. So we’re going to practice. Five morphs and demorphs, last one there is a rotten egg. Ready, set, GO!”


Toby

Gonrod and Aloth didn’t even try to disguise their contempt as they watched me and Mertil approach their ship. They ceased their feeding and held their tails between themselves and us, like an insulating layer.

In my case, at least, I understood. I had killed their comrade-in-arms. Mertil, though, was a hero of their military, and they would not honor his sacrifice. I gazed back at them with equal disgust. I ducked to enter the hatch of the Ralek River, and Mertil followed behind me, silent in the face of the other pilot’s disapproval.

We and the Animorphs found Chee-pulim in her Struch disguise. “The bugs sent out a highly censored data dump,” said Pulim, pulling up files on the terminal. The Animorphs, Mertil, and I gathered around it, and she deactivated her hologram. “Andalite High Command reviewed the data almost immediately – clearly they’re interested in what’s happening on Earth. I also know who accessed the data.” She indicated a list of names.

“Prince Galuit,” Jake said. “Ax, you remember him, right? On Leera?”

Ax nodded, human-style. «He likely won us the war on Leera.»

Merlyse flicked her tail. “With a little help from us.”

«Lirem-Arrepath-Terrouss,» Ax said with dislike. «The head of the Council. I spoke to him from the observatory where Peter worked. He told me to take responsibility for my brother’s choice to share the morphing power. So as not to disgrace his memory.»

“Sounds like a charmer,” Pulim said.

“Mertil?” Jake said. “Do you recognize anything?”

«Lirem was the one to blockade the Yeerk homeworld,» Mertil said. «War-Prince Jaham-Estalan-Forlan is the chief of the military. He has spearheaded efforts in the Anati system. Solewal-Castant-Nifar is the champion of the custodial doctrine, that Andalites must use our position as the most technologically advanced species in this galactic sector to help guide other civilizations toward enlightenment.»

“Ooh, we primitives love getting saved by advanced civilizations,” Marco said, fanning himself. “Makes us all tingly.”

«Ithileran is assistant to the Head of Planetary Communications,» Ax said. «Likely the most powerful gatekeeper and military secretary in command.»

“Which leaves two names we don’t know,” Jake said.

“We could ask the Ralek River crew,” Loren said, but even she looked doubtful.

“Let’s look at the logs first,” Jake said. “You said they left comments on the surveillance footage?”

“Yes,” said Pulim. “Here is a comment on footage of Estrid in the lab.”


War-Prince Wourress-Ifal-Corrath

By all reports the girl was a nuisance at the academy, but she is brilliant. Certainly better than War-Prince Alloran’s team of fools on the Arn homeworld who let the quantum virus run its course uncontrolled. That job was unnecessarily messy. She can do it clean. We should let her.


“Here is an interesting comment from Prince Galuit,” Pulim said, “on our edited footage of the confrontation between Estrid, Aximili, and Cassie.”


Force Commander Prince Galuit-Enilon-Esgarrouth

I am concerned about the friction between our agents and the Earth guerrilla force. There are also fault lines within the remaining crew of the Ralek River that Arbat is no longer there to hold together. The situation is volatile.


“Is there anything about the fleet?” Jake said, eyes intent on the screen. Prince Merlyse watched me for my reaction, head tilted. “Their plans for Earth?”

“No,” Pulim said, fast-forwarding. “But they had something to say about you, Jake.” She paused. “This is from the attack on the Gold Bands you did with Mertil.”


Ithileran-Halas-Corain

So this is the ixal-nath leading Elfangor’s band of rogues. And he chooses a vecol as pilot.


“What’s an ixal-nath?” Jake said.

Ax rolled his stalk eyes away from Jake. «A kind of comedic entertainer. They perform silly, clumsy tail-fights against each other, or animatronic dolls.»

“Cool, so I’m like the Washington Generals[1] of the Andalite world,” Jake said.


Force Commander Prince Galuit-Enilon-Esgarrouth

He is a human. He knows nothing of our customs, of a vecol’s respite in solitude. So he waves his tail around like a prince and uses whatever toys he might find.


Prince Solewal-Castant-Nifar

The bounty offered on his death or capture by the Empire is impressively high. He annoys the Yeerks, at least.


“Ouch,” said Marco. “I thought Prince Galuit was cool with Jake.”

«He may well be ‘cool’ with Prince Jake,» Ax said, «but he could hardly admit as much to the rest of High Command without losing face.»

“All right, I get the picture,” Jake said, Merlyse’s head tucked under her wing. “Well, thanks, Lourdes. I think we’ve learned a lot from this whole – ”

Pulim’s hologram of Struch the predatory alien snapped suddenly into place. A moment later, Estrid and Aloth joined us on the bridge. «Anything of interest?» Aloth said, eyes glittering. «Or is our security clearance aboard our own ship too low?»

“Andalite High Command is spying on us, so we’re spying back,” Jake said. He kept his eyes on the terminal screen, but Prince Merlyse turned around on his shoulder to watch them. “They seem to be okay with us for now.”

Aloth’s stalk eyes jerked toward the terminal screen. Pulim moved to block his view. Estrid held her tail high. «They will be more than ‘okay’ with us when they see the results of my work.»

“Thanks,” Loren said. Her eyes were narrow. “Your confidence is so inspiring.”

Estrid and Aloth eyed us and left. Pulim said, “There is one more thing we need to discuss. The most important discovery I made in this commentary. Toby especially needs to hear it. First, I saw this comment on the footage of you over Arbat’s corpse.”

There had been no way to edit that part out. High Command would know that Arbat was dead the moment his Guide Tree went dormant, and they wouldn’t have believed it if we’d tried to disguise it as an accident or a natural cause. Our edits had to be minor enough that they wouldn’t suspect. To no one’s surprise, there were no surveillance devices in Arbat’s quarters. But the camera in the corridor had shown me standing over his body, blades dripping with blue blood.


Prince Lirem-Arrepath-Terrouss

The Hork-Bajir continue to be an unacceptable threat. The reports of Yeerks using Hork-Bajir-Controllers to detect spies in morph are very disturbing. We will discuss possible solutions at the next council session.


I went very cold. My people were under enough threat as it was. We could not afford this much attention from High Command.

“Creepy,” Jake said.

“Speaking of creepy,” Pulim said. She brought up surveillance footage from two weeks ago of Wepa Hefit on guard duty at the ship, watching to make sure the Andalites stayed in line. She was outside, stripping some bark for a snack, when her head snapped around and oriented on something the camera in the ship’s hatch couldn’t see.

“Stop, hruthin!” Wepa said. “Hruthin go where?”

«So it’s true,» said Aloth, though there was no clear sign of him in the spectra the camera saw – he must have been in a very small morph. «You really can detect people in morph. I’d thought it was just a rumor.»

“Is simple,” Wepa said scornfully. “Wepa learn from Rej. Rej learn from mother.”

Lourdes paused the footage. “This is what the High Command had to say.”


Prince Lirem-Arrepath-Terrouss

FLAGGED URGENT. Watch. This is one of the free Hork-Bajir the Earth resistance has allied with. It can detect Aloth-Attamil-Gahar in morph. This isn’t an exploit of Hork-Bajir senses that the Yeerks have learned. The Hork-Bajir themselves have the trick of it, and the Yeerks learned it from them, not the other way around. We have badly underestimated the Hork-Bajir as a resource for the Yeerk Empire. They are extremely dangerous.


War-Prince Jaham-Estalan-Forlan

I have forwarded the evidence to Apex Level Intelligence Division. We are agreed. We must activate Protocol Tharfen Resh.


I looked up at Pulim, my hearts in my throat. She said, “I used Arbat’s Apex-level access to query the terminal. Protocol Tharfen Resh is a plan to deploy a re-engineered strain of Alloran-Semitur-Corass’s quantum virus on your homeworld.”

Ax staggered backward, as if from a blow. I held firm, but I wanted to scream. I wanted to succumb to terror and utter madness. I could feel it yawning at the edges of my sight, a darkness that swallowed hrala itself. Instead, I gripped Pulim’s cold metal arms. “I need to warn our people on the homeworld. Is there any way to reach them?”

Pulim said, “Z-space configuration is currently such that I could connect to Chee-koril on your world with a five-minute delay – if we were out of Earth’s atmosphere. Of course, getting the Ralek River into orbit and back without being detected and shot down by Yeerk ships – let’s just say it poses significant difficulties I cannot surmount.”

I let go of Pulim’s arms and turned around to face Mertil. I said, “My people have been good to you. We have sheltered you. We have given you a voice in our meeting circles. We have treated you as a whole person, not as some broken –”

Mertil interrupted. «Toby Hamee, there is no need to say more. Of course I will help.»


The crew of the Ralek River objected, of course.

«You expose us to unacceptable risk!» Estrid fumed. «What happens to your resistance when all of us and all my work gets shot down in orbit?»

«Even if High Command truly intends to repeat Alloran’s disaster,» Aloth said, «there is little your allies on the Hork-Bajir homeworld could do to stop it.»

«Are you truly willing to entrust all of our lives to him?» Gonrod said, pointedly avoiding Mertil with all of his eyes.

“Objections registered,” Jake said. “And dismissed. Without the free Hork-Bajir, this entire resistance is doomed. We’re not letting the Andalite military wipe them out. If you don’t want to help, get off the bridge.”

They left in a huff. That left me, Pulim, Mertil, and the Animorphs on the bridge – except Ax and Tobias, who were back in Kref Magh, however much I wished Tobias were here to share my pain. Mertil stepped into place to pilot, with Pulim to assist.

I had never been to space before. The rumble, the flaming whirl of atmosphere through the viewscreen. I leaned back on my tail, and the black terror consumed me for a while. My people, decimated, enslaved, in danger of utter annihilation once more. Somewhere in the background, Mertil and Pulim were doing something clever and desperate to avoid detection by the Yeerks. I didn’t really hear it. As we launched into space, I just saw the cocoon of hrala around us and the ship, and beyond it, nothing. Total vacuum, where on Earth there were always currents of hrala flowing from one place to another. Stars pierced in the blackness, but their light was cold and sterile. I never understood the concept of void until that moment.

«Now,» said Mertil urgently. «Pulim, do it now.»

“Chee-koril?” Pulim said aloud, surely for our benefit rather than her fellow Chee’s. “This is Chee-pulim, with Toby Hamee and five of the Animorphs. Acknowledge. What is your status?”

“Shit, shit, fuck, that’s the Blade Ship,” Marco babbled, staring at a sensor screen on the bridge. He was right – I could see its cloud of hrala golden-bright in the abyss outside the ship.

“It’s coming toward us,” Jake said grimly. “They’ve gotta have Gold Bands on there.”

I remembered in a sudden burst of panic that there was a five-minute delay in communications with Koril. Mertil said, «That clumsy construction in orbit, there. That is a human spacecraft, correct?»

“Yeah,” Jake said. “I’m pretty sure that’s the International Space Station. It’s, um. Kind of a big deal.”

«So it cannot be fired upon without drawing immediate human attention,» Mertil said.

Loren said, “Mertil, I’m not sure I like where you’re going with –”

We were all nearly flattened by a burst of acceleration that launched the ship toward the International Space Station. We were nearly flattened again when Mertil stopped the ship, just as suddenly, between two modules of the space station.

“This ship is cloaked, right?” Marco said. “‘Cause there’s astronauts living up here, and we’re sure as hell going to draw ‘immediate human attention’ if one of them sees an alien spaceship through the window.”

Mertil wove complex patterns around the space station. «Human sensors will not pierce an Andalite cloaking device,» he said with familiar haughtiness. «And the Yeerks will think twice before firing on a ship moving around a major human outpost in orbit.»

“More like the only humans in orbit who aren’t Yeerk puppets,” Rachel said. “I really, really hope we’re not about to get a bunch of astronauts killed.”

“I have a reply,” Pulim said. Everyone snapped to attention. “Message begins. I read you, Chee-pulim. This is Chee-koril. I am safe, as are Fal Tagut, Jot Ghatil, and Maka Kelad, and the new kawatnoj. You must have gone to a lot of trouble to reach us. What’s going on? Message ends.”

“Tell her,” I said. “Maybe the Arn will be able to engineer some response.” Not that I trusted Quafijinivon as far as I could sweep my tail, but it had apparently successfully made new kawatnoj in its lab, so maybe. Maybe.

“We have a warning,” Pulim said. “The Andalites are planning to deploy a re-engineered quantum virus against the Hork-Bajir on the homeworld. They call it Protocol Tharfen Resh. Tell Quafijinivon. Do whatever you can to prepare. Acknowledge message receipt.”

The Blade Ship hovered hrala-bright nearby, waiting for its opportunity to strike. We wouldn’t be able to stay in formation around the International Space Station forever – we had to get back to California, without being followed.

«Toby,» Mertil said suddenly. «Tell me what you see through the viewscreen in this orientation.»

The Ralek River spun to sight along the length of the space station, angled slightly down toward Earth. “Strange,” I said slowly, trying to tear my focus away on the message that would surely come any moment now. “I see a diffuse band of hrala around the Earth, like Saturn’s rings.”

«As I suspected,» Mertil said. «Humans launch satellites to enable communications and weaponry and the like, do they not? But your efforts have been coordinated poorly, and this orbital plane is littered with satellites and their ruins. These are human artifacts, and so they have a hrala signature. I can lose the ship inside it.»

Mertil waited until a particularly thick clot of space debris passed by, then ducked out of his pattern around the space station to join it. The Blade Ship fired, but only managed to vaporize a dead satellite, whose debris rocked the ship but did not seriously harm it.

“Nice one, Mertil,” Jake said. “But there is no way the astronauts didn’t see the Dracon fire. I wonder what they’ll make of that.”

The Blade Ship fired again. Again. But it was clear that it was random shots into the belt of space debris. They didn’t know where we were.

“Incoming message,” Pulim said. “Acknowledged. I will inform Quafijinivon right away. Message ends. Toby, do you have anything else you need to say?”

There was so much I wanted to say. I wanted to ask my people what the homeworld was like, what the new kawatnoj were like. I wanted to tell them that some of us had the morphing power now, and were fighting harder than ever. I wanted to beg them for some hope. But every moment we were in orbit put everything at risk. “Tell my people I love them. But don’t wait for an acknowledgment. Let’s go home.”

“Toby says to her people that she loves them,” Pulim said. “We have to go. I hope you’re enjoying the light of another world, Koril.”

Mertil waited for a dead satellite to start its orbital decay to Earth, and matched its trajectory as closely as he could, spiraling, falling, falling. Just another piece of space junk. And then, through the atmosphere, over California. Fortunately, it was a rainy day, and Mertil could use the cover of clouds to land in the hills of the national forest. Once we were safely touched down, Rachel said, “Mertil, that was awesome. Has anyone shown you a fist bump yet? It’s a ritual we humans do when we want to congratulate someone on how totally cool they are.” She balled up her hand and held it out. “Like this. Can you do this with all those fingers?”

Mertil inspected her hand dubiously with a stalk eye, then made a smaller fist with his delicate Andalite hand. «What is the next stage of the ritual?»

“Then we bump our fists together. We’ll do it nice and easy, since your arms are so small.” Rachel and Mertil slowly, carefully bounced their fists off each other. “Yeah! Like that! And then I say, ‘Cool flying, bro.’ And then the ritual’s over.”

“I want to fist bump him, too,” Marco said. He held out his fist and bumped. “That was sick. That’s a good thing, by the way. I know, humans are weird.”

“I need to go back,” I interrupted. “My people need to know. We should go together.”


Getting home to Kref Magh was slow going. Somewhere along the way, though, I managed to say to Mertil, “You were paying attention.”

«To what?» he said, pointing a stalk eye up at me.

“To how we see hrala. You listened to what we said about it. That’s how you did what you did, up there. No one ever seems to pay attention to what we know.”

«Vecols are meant to be invisible and unheard. So I stayed quiet and listened. There is much one hears in silence and contemplation.»

“You know we do not see it that way,” I said. “So many of us have been disabled by the Yeerks – we accept our people in whatever state they may come to us.”

«Was your culture always this way?»

“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “But that’s how it is now.”

«I hope my people do not have to suffer so much devastation as yours,» Mertil said, «in order to change how we think.»

Warned by the Animorphs flying ahead, my people met us at the gentlest approach to the valley. I probably should have called a circle at the meeting rock right away. But I was shaken, and afraid, and all I wanted was to talk to my mother and father.

I found them showing Franaj how to harvest bark from a newly dead tree before it went to rot. “Toby!” he squeaked, launching himself at me. He landed in a clumsy grip on my chest, scratching me a little with his soft, stubby elbow blades.

Careful!” Jara warned.

It didn’t hurt at all,” I said. “But when you’re bigger and your blades are sharper, you could hurt someone, Franaj.

“I will have the sharpest blades!” Franaj said.

Of course you will. But for now, soft one, we’re going to take you to the creche.” I looked up at my parents, checking that it was all right. They gestured for me to go on, and I carried my little brother over to Kam Jedet and the other creche-minders, who cooed over him and brought him into a song with the other children.

You want to be alone,” Ket said, when we were in the fork of her roosting tree with Jara. “Why?

I have terrible news,” I said. “I must share it with the people, but I do not know how. I don’t want everyone to lose hope.

Do you still have hope?” Jara said.

A little,” I said. “But I am also very afraid.

Tell us,” Ket said.

Our word for the quantum virus is Wamoj. It comes from the name of a monster from Father Deep that seizes Hork-Bajir in its pincers and twists them until their bones snap. “The Wamoj,” I said. “The hruthin are bringing it back.

My mother and father pressed their forehead blades to mine, a kiss of love for their daughter. Supporting me, even though I could see in their eyes how afraid they were. “Aldrea and Dak fought to stop the Wamoj,” Jara said. “So will you.

They fought and they lost,” I said.

They fought alone,” Jara said. “You do not.

I can’t,” I wailed, clinging to my branch like I might fall off. “I can’t stand on the meeting rock and tell my people we may all die of the Wamoj. I am supposed to be our Seer, but I can’t!”

The Seer does not need to do everything,” Ket said. “I think maybe we have asked you to do too much.

I will tell the people,” Jara said. “I am the teller of the story of Aldrea and Dak. This is part of the story. I will help them understand.

Thank you,” I said, and my parents spoke to me gently until I succumbed to the exhaustion of absolute terror.


Ax

We took a long, circuitous route back to the valley to avoid notice from any Gold Bands that might be watching, as had become our standard procedure. Loren tried to stir me into conversation over what we had seen, but I did not have it in me to explain how I felt. Marriage to my brother for a few Earth years was not enough for Loren to understand my people. She was my family, but there were some parts of me that were far beyond her grasp.

I fled into the dense woods west of the creek from the human encampment and went into a series of tail-fighting exercises, barely taking the time to stretch first. There was a terrible energy building in my hind legs, the engine of all movement, and if it reached all the way forward to my brain it would drive me toward thoughts I could not contemplate. So I channeled it into strikes and dodges instead. Branches cracked and leaves scattered in the whirlwind of my movements.

In the state of martial awareness encouraged by the fighting exercises, I felt the presence of someone approaching as a crawl along my spine, rather than any specific sight or sound. Then I saw Mertil, and lowered my tail from fighting stance. «Why are you here?» I said.

«Your shorm noticed you from above and worried for you,» said Mertil, stepping into a beam of golden sunlight. «He suggested I come talk to you. When I asked him why he would not come himself, he said, ‘I think Ax is having Andalite problems.’»

Andalite problems. Yes. That was a way to put it. I weaved in a series of dodging exercises, ways to restore balance after having one’s stance thrown off center. Mertil simply watched. He couldn’t join me, of course, because even the dodges relied on the tail as a center line to keep a strong, balanced stance. He would have to learn the dodges all over again – and come up with new ones himself, for no master of the art of tail-fighting would ever think to design defensive stances for vecols.

«Is there anything about our society that can be redeemed?» I asked Mertil. Surely he must know; he had been a vecol for years, and had more time than I to suffer the death of his illusions. «Is there anything of Andalite culture that is good and worthwhile? Or must we start over from the beginning?»

«Aximili.» Mertil tucked his hands behind his torso, at the bend of his spine, in a gesture of gentle denial. «There is no one Andalite culture. There is no one Andalite society. My shorm Gafinilan is Ixilan. Gonrod-Isfall-Sonilli is Wurilit. You have only ever known one small clearing in a vast forest. There is no one way to be Andalite. I think it must be possible to find a way that does not hurt so much.»

I thought of the names of the Andalite High Command. None of them were Ixilan or Wurilit or any of the other nomadic tribes of the Untamed Wilds or outer islands. They were like me, the descendants of the Great Gardens, bearing djesculi and schwescor-names like Esgarrouth and Castant. Raised to believe that our society was the one society, that we had been raised with all of the answers. «And have you found some system of belief that does not hurt?»

«I have been an exile on Earth, with only Gafinilan for company,» Mertil said. The stump of his tail tucked down against his leg. «I have no culture at all.»

«Of course you do,» I said, startled. «Your djafid when you saw Gafinilan – it was magnificent. There could be nothing in the galaxy more cultured.»

Mertil said, «When I was a child, I thought I might be a guide-singer.» I imagined Mertil, intact and dignified, singing a song to bind a sick, slow-growing child more closely to his Guide Tree. «But then I was called to war.»

«I was born to war,» I said, my tail lowering, the base tucked against my leg like Mertil’s. «Even as a child, I could never imagine anything else.»


Celia Hernandez – Encrypted Private Message


Celia Hernandez

Hello? I was told to visit this website if I needed to get in touch with the Animorphs.


Lourdes

I am not an Animorph, but I can pass on messages to them.


Celia Hernandez

Can you say something to verify to me that you know them personally? Forgive me, I’ve gotten very paranoid lately.


Lourdes

Good. You should be. Well, when she was telling the story of how your rescue went, Loren mentioned that you took a moment when you were changing in a women’s bathroom in the park to compare stretch marks with her and Julie. They said it helped break the tension a little. Does that satisfy you?


Celia Hernandez

It does. Do you need me to verify my identity?


Lourdes

No. I see your IP address corresponds to a secret California state government bunker.


Celia Hernandez

Who ARE you???


Lourdes

I can’t tell you that, as I have no way to verify that you have not been made a Controller since your dramatic rescue.


Celia Hernandez

You know what, that’s fair. Anyway, yes. I am in a secret bunker, surrounded by National Guard I trust. The assassination attempt made the news, so I have a good excuse to go into hiding. I’m still running the government from down here. Is there any chance you can stop the alien infiltration any time soon?


Lourdes

We’re working on it, but there are no guarantees. We are planning an operation that should help you fight them, though, so stay in touch.

Chapter Text

James

Collette wheeled in and said, “The coast is clear. The Ward 5 kids are keeping the nurses busy.” But Taurim stayed perched on top of the door, keeping an eye out.

“The website’s loading,” I said. “This computer is so slow.”

“I can’t believe we’re going to talk to the Animorphs,” Lunaciel said, and I was pretty sure it was Visser 3 Gashad talking, not Lunaciel and Pedro, because unlike us, a lot of our Yeerks have been in the Yeerk Pool during an Animorph attack. It made a pretty strong impression on them.

ESTABLISHING SECURE CONNECTION, read the webpage, with a little spinny wheel under it.

“So,” I said. “Did you hear about what happened in the capital?”

“Duh,” Collette said. “That’s all they’re talking about on the radio.”

“What do you think they want from us?” Kelly said. “The Animorphs, I mean, not the terrorists who tried to kill the governor.”

“Maybe they just want to say hi,” said Jia Jia, on Timmy’s smirking face.


CONNECTED.


“Finally,” Viradechtis said, lurching toward the keyboard on tarantula legs.

Cleyr glared up at her. “You are not typing again, you are so slow.”


Jake joined the chat room.


James

Hi. This is James and Velger, from the Campsite Rule.


Jake

Velger is your Yeerk?


James

Yeah. Is that going to be a problem?


Jake

No. We work with Peace Movement Yeerks. Or at least, we work with the ones who are on board with our strategy.


James

By ‘strategy’ you mean ‘massive violence.’


Jake

This is a war.


I shivered a little. Kelly raised her eyebrows at me. “He’s right. The Empire isn’t going to leave us alone because we asked nicely. Margoth says these guys are brutal, but they get it done.”


James

We understand that.


James

Illim says you need our help.


Jake

Yeah. He mentioned you have a visit to the Sharing scheduled soon.


James

Ugh. That. We have to put on a big show of being sad little victims the Sharing helps out.


Jake

But they’ll let you in behind the scenes, because you’re Controllers.


James

Velger says only a little, because our Yeerks are all suspected traitors.


Jake

Good enough for us. As long as it gets you past security.


James

Oh, security. Our favorite. We set off ALL the metal detectors. They have to turn all that stuff off if we go visit a government building or whatever.


Jake

Exactly.


James

Uh huh. I’m starting to get it now. What are we smuggling in, exactly?


Jake

A robot that’s going to steal all their data. We have a hologram projector, so if there’s some kind of medical equipment we could use as cover…


James

How big is this robot?


Jake

Person-sized.


“We barely need an excuse to bring along backup breathing equipment in case my lungs crap out,” Kelly said. Her cystic fibrosis was aggressive for her age.


James

Cuirass ventilator or chest wall oscillator on a rolling cart.


James

Anything we have to do besides look all angelic and innocent?


Jake

The robot will signal you when it goes off to do its thing. Try to keep the Controllers busy while it’s working.


Jake

See if you can get them to show you the server room, that would really help.


Jake

If you hear a commotion, don’t freak out. That’s us pulling a distraction.


«I might freak out,» Velger said. «I don’t want this “distraction” to get us killed.»


James

How do we pick up the robot from you?


Jake

It’ll meet you at the hospital.


James

Holy shit. Is this like, a fancy Andalite robot?


Jake

Something like that.


“An alien robot,” Collette said. “Wicked.”

“We better wrap this up,” Taurim said. “I hear something down the hall.”


James

We’re in. Our Sub-Visser is Peace Movement. Illim can put you in touch.


James

I have to go.


I closed the window, opened up Minesweeper[1] on the crappy old computer, and started clicking at random.

“Look out,” Lunaciel said. “There’s a bunch of threes and twos in the upper left – aww, you exploded.”

Nurse Sam rolled up with his medical equipment. His jackal dæmon snuffled around our wheelchairs. He smiled. “Are you kids playing computer games again?”

“You caught me,” I said, wrapping my arm around Cleyr’s neck. “I’m gonna beat expert mode one of these days. You just watch me.”


Aftran Plisam Pool


#AllAges

Welcome to the all-ages message well. Please check the well rules for a list of restricted topics that can only be discussed in the adult wells.


Mielan 34

@Deinfestation @Green Sky @Filshig Traitor [Emoji of a Yeerk falling from a Gedd’s ear into a Pool. Indicates discovery, excitement, the thrill of novelty.] How WAS it? What was it like going outside with an android host?


Deinfestation

SymbiontAI and I got to check on my former host’s family. His daughter has a severe health problem similar to maple and ginger oatmeal addiction in Yeerks. I found her at her home. It appeared to be in poor condition, so I had food sent to her home. Anonymously, of course. It was what Takuya would have wanted. SymbiontAI found it interesting, but they didn’t seem to understand about KJ’s health problems. Maybe this is difficult for an artificial being who does not get sick.


Mielan 128

Doesn’t SymbiontAI have a real name?


Deinfestation

I agree, they should have one. We discussed it but we didn’t come to any conclusions.


Mielan 19

Is SymbiontAI your host now, @Deinfestation?


Deinfestation

Well, I don’t know about that. An exclusive partnership is a serious commitment, and something I wouldn’t do without discussions with SymbiontAI and the whole Pool here.


Mielan 34

What about you, @Green Sky @Filshig Traitor? How is the Dual-Operator?


Filshig Traitor

It’s very interesting. You know, I thought I had achieved real equality and two-sidedness with my human host, Cua, but sharing a body with Green Sky I realized how much Cua probably had to compromise to avoid something far worse from happening to her in the Yeerk Pool. Whenever Green Sky did something I didn’t like, I said, “Stop that, or I’m never doing this with you again.” But Cua didn’t say anything like that, because she didn’t have a lot of alternatives. I feel bad about that now.


Green Sky

I’m glad you told me to cut it out. I think all of us hosties can get a little… demanding. We’re too used to control.


Green Sky

On the lighter side, I got to meet my former host! Sie joined the Taxxon resistance on Earth! I’m so happy for hir. The rebel Taxxons are building something amazing. I really want to go down there and see hir again.


Filshig Traitor

I enjoyed that too. It’s good to know that some Taxxons have figured out there’s something better for them out there than the Empire. I wish I could visit Cua, but she’s hiding out with the Hork-Bajir and the other refugees, so I don’t know where she is.


Bandit

I wish I knew where they were, too. I’d let them hear it. I’d tell them exactly why they can’t do this to us. I’d make them stop.


Eslin 825

@Bandit, please refer to the rules. We don’t discuss that topic in the #AllAges message well.


Loren

Before I became an Animorph, I thought that shipwrecks were kind of spooky. They were the ghosts of disasters, made physical, left where it would take hundreds of years for them to disappear. Now, hanging out by a shipwreck in dolphin morph, it felt kind of peaceful. The ocean was quiet down here. A green fuzz of plants grew on the wreck, and fish took shelter inside it.

«Bej?» Jake said. «Do you see anything new up there?»

The Animorphs had come for the rendezvous with the Taxxon resistance – all of us except Marco, because Jake had a rule these days that there always had to be at least one Animorph at Kref Magh, in case something came up. (“And the last thing we need is Marco cracking jokes about cannibalism every five seconds,” Jake had said, smirking at his friend a little.) One of the new Hork-Bajir morphers, Bej Weta, had come too, but of course none of the Hork-Bajir had ocean-going morphs, so he was keeping watch as a seagull overhead.

«No,» said Bej. «All the same.»

Rachel, poking around the shipwreck restlessly, fired off a burst of echolocation toward the harbor and said, «Something’s coming!»

We all started echolocating too. Sure enough, it read as a group of giant worms swimming through the water toward us. I steeled myself for a fight – this could always be a trap. Anything could. I’ve learned that much. But Ax was hiding in the shipwreck behind us as a shark. We were ready.

The Taxxons stopped about a hundred feet away. For a tense moment we all just hung there in the water. How are the Taxxons going to communicate with us? Jaxom said nervously. I could imagine him pacing nervously somewhere out there in Z-space. Will Ax’s translator work with that hissy kind of Galard they speak when he’s in shark morph?

We could… ask them to wiggle twice if they can understand us? I thought, a little hysterically.

Then a familiar thought-speak voice said, «I assume that you are the Animorphs and not a nice, orderly platoon of wild marine animals.»

No, Jaxom said. It can’t be.

What other Taxxon can thought-speak? I thought. I reached out with my thought-speech and said, «Arbron? Is that you

«Loren and Jaxom

«Arbron!» I cried, racing forward through the water.

«Wait!» said Ax. I stopped short. «Loren, I understand why you think it must be him, but this cannot be Arbron-Roaldwur-Ashul. His Guide Tree went dormant many years ago. He is dead.»

Arbron said, «I suppose she must have gone dormant. I uprooted myself, in my very core, and replanted myself in new soil. The body may become trapped in a morph, but the spirit can always change.»

I rushed forward again, and a Taxxon who must have been Arbron moved forward from the rest of the group. I let the dolphin instincts take over. This is a long-lost friend, I told the dolphin, even though Arbron had never tried to be a friend to me, because that didn’t matter anymore. I bumped him with the round melon of my head, and slid along his side, smooth dolphin skin to thin Taxxon exoskeleton. I chittered a dolphin laugh. «Arbron, I can’t believe you’re here! On Earth!»

«I had heard rumors that one of the notorious Animorphs giving the Empire so much trouble on Earth was named Loren,» Arbron said. «But I thought that surely there must be plenty of Lorens on Earth, and it could not be you.»

«You’re still leading the free Taxxons,» I said. «That’s amazing. And you – you changed your anchor?» Without even a Time Matrix to rewrite reality for him – not that I was going to bring up that bit of history.

«I do not lead them. I simply advise them in matters where my expertise is useful. What is an anchor?»

«I’m sorry to break up this reunion,» Rachel said, «but could somebody explain what the hell is going on?»

«This is Warrior Arbron-Roaldwur-Ashul,» I said. «Chapman and I lived with him and Elfangor and Alloran on a spaceship. We went on a mission to the Taxxon homeworld, and he and Elfangor morphed Taxxons to infiltrate the Yeerks. He got trapped in morph and joined a group of rebel Taxxons who didn’t want to give up their freedom to the Yeerks.» I heard Arbron turn and talk to the other Taxxons in a series of low hisses, and figured he was giving an explanation of his own.

«He got trapped in morph as a Taxxon?» Rachel said, horrified.

«Rachel,» Jake warned, and she didn’t say anything more.

«This is not a story that is known to my people,» Ax said, emerging from the cover of the shipwreck. «Elfangor kept it to himself. I heard the story from Loren. Among Andalites, it is only known that he survived for the equivalent of two Earth years after his disappearance, until his Guide Tree became dormant.»

«You must be Aximili,» Arbron said, his thought-speech hushed with awe. «Elfangor’s little brother.»

«Loren tells me you were his friend,» Ax said, a little awkwardly.

«Yes,» Arbron said simply. «He was a blockheaded tail-fighting jock with no appreciation of the finer sciences. I still miss him.»

Ax laughed in surprise, that soundless Andalite laugh that’s just a flutter of joy in thought-speech. «I have never in my life heard anyone call my brother a blockhead.»

«That’s too bad,» Arbron said, warmth coloring his voice. «He needed somebody to call him a blockhead. His ego must have become monstrous without me around.»

«Tobias,» I said privately to my son. «Do you want us to introduce you to Arbron as Elfangor’s son? He could tell you all kinds of things about him I never knew.»

A pause. «I’ll do it myself when I’m ready.»

Then Jake spoke to me privately. «You trust Arbron?»

«Yes. He gave up everything to fight the Yeerks. He’s been living as a Taxxon for twenty-five years, and he still hasn’t given up. I admire him for that.» I thought for a moment about whether he might be infested. «Plus – if he were a Controller, Visser Five would grab onto him and never let him go. He wouldn’t be here talking to us. Arbron and Elfangor were the Andalites that got away from him – he’d do anything to get revenge on both of them.»

Jake said publicly, «My name is Jake. We’re the Animorphs. I think we might be able to help each other.»

«Is this your prince, Aximili?» Arbron said.

«Yes.»

«Then welcome to the Taxxon rebellion, Prince Jake. Follow me to our secret headquarters.» He did a wiggle in the water. «I have always wanted to say that.» Then he and the other Taxxons turned around and headed back in toward the harbor.

«Bej,» Tobias said. «The Taxxons are leading us back toward land. They seem okay. Keep an eye out for our dorsal fins.»

The Taxxons led us inward, toward a storm drain into the sewers («So that’s how they get around,» Tobias said) while Arbron and I caught up. I told him about my disabling car accident, what it was like to join the Animorphs, while carefully leaving out my relationships with Elfangor and Tobias. He accepted it all without any comments about vecols, which I appreciated. He told me about the free Taxxons still living in the mountains of the homeworld, and how he’d heard about thousands of Taxxons being shipped off to Earth, and he and a group of mountain Taxxons posed as a group of willing collaborators to earn their way onto a Yeerk ship bound for Earth.

«Won’t we need to demorph in here?» Cassie said, as we came up on the storm drain, spewing out dirty water.

«Yes,» Arbron said. «There is air in the sewers. I recommend you morph insects and ride along with us. We can move more quickly underground than any Earth morph you might have.»

«We’re not far below the surface,» Tobias said to the Animorphs. «Bej should be able to get down in there and demorph before he runs out of air.»

Toby had been clear: she wanted a Hork-Bajir representative to meet the rebel Taxxons too. Besides, it was always reassuring to have a Hork-Bajir warrior around. «You go ahead,» Jake said to the Taxxons. «Another morpher is going to join us.»

«I’d heard there were more of you these days,» Arbron said. «Keep a close eye on your Escafil device.» He and the other Taxxons swam into the storm drain. We did, too, into shallower water, though Tobias stayed outside to help guide Bej into the drain. I demorphed and broke my head out of the rushing water into close, stinking air. I fought the current and hauled Jaxom out of the water onto the slick sewer floor. Ax was already on his feet, tail blade high, ready to protect us from the Taxxons watching us with hungry eyes.

«We won’t attack,» Arbron said. «The hunger is still with us, but our group of rebels has ways of keeping it in check.»

«Forgive me if my experiences have made me wary,» Ax said stiffly.

Arbron watched us with his jelly eyes. «So Elfangor gave you the morphing power. And the Escafil device itself. Did he choose you in particular or was it an accident?»

We all looked at each other. With the Ellimist in play, nothing was really an accident. But there was no point trying to tell Arbron that Ellimists were real without proof. Luckily, just at that moment, a demorphed Bej burst out of the draining water, holding an unhappy, waterlogged Tobias in the crook of one arm. He pulled himself out with a rush of cold, filthy water that soaked through my morphing outfit in seconds.

The Taxxons all hissed in surprise. Arbron said, «The other morpher you were talking about is a Hork-Bajir?»

Bej put Tobias down and stood up as much as he could in the sewer. He had to bend his neck up and back down in a U shape. He thumped his tail on the floor. “Bej Weta! Free Hork-Bajir of Kref Magh!”

Rachel laughed and wrung out her hair. “We like having them on our team.”

«What is Kref Magh?» Arbron said, and Bej started off like a shot in Galard mixed with other things. We started morphing down to insects, and Bej caught on and joined us. «It sounds much like the place we are about to show you,» Arbron told Bej. «Though you may find ours a little less suited to your tastes.»

I became a fly, which was way less grossed out by the sewer than I was, and grabbed onto the greenish exoskeleton of a Taxxon, which at a fly’s scale was pretty rough, with little gaps between plates I could get my hairy little legs in. Don’t think about how gross this is, Jax repeated. Don’t think about how gross this is.

Arbron wasn’t kidding. The Taxxons shot off through the sewers so fast I had to bury a little into the gap between exoskeleton plates to keep from flying off. «Yaaahhhh!» we yelled.

«Taxxons dug out the Yeerk Pool complex,» Arbron said. «We are natural burrowers.»

I didn’t miss the we there, and I was sure Ax didn’t either. «Arbron,» I tried again. «An anchor is something like your spiritual core. It’s what connects you to hrala, the fundamental particle of consciousness. Humans have dæmons, Andalites have Guide Trees – »

«All Taxxons I see have broken roots,» Bej said suddenly. «Our new free Taxxon friends do not have broken roots. This is something new.»

«I think I see what you mean,» Arbron said. «After I passed my galan maheet, my broken connection with Nili Miri hurt me worse and worse. Until I was able to give my very spirit over to Taxxon ways. What Nili Miri once gave me, what you call anchoring, is now provided to me by the Living Hive. It is not something new, but something old, and lost to the Yeerks. But not completely.»

Elfangor had told me about his encounter with the Living Hive on the Taxxon homeworld. He’d said it had “really big thought-speech,” though I had never been sure what that meant. I guessed I was about to find out.

That was when the Taxxons started moving even faster. Impossibly fast, like they were being shot through a cannon. We all dug our legs in and screamed. When the crazy headlong journey finally stopped, the air was different in a way the fly could taste. «You may now demorph,» Arbron said.

I demorphed, grew heavier, and fell into shallow water, though it felt less disgusting this time. A shatteringly loud thought-speech voice spoke, and my half-formed body tipped over and almost breathed the water. «ARE THESE THE SHAPE-CHANGERS?»

Huh, Jaxom said vaguely. So that’s what he meant by really big thought-speech.

«Yes,» said Arbron. To us, he said, «Meet Seaside Hive, the Living Hive of Earth.»

I rushed to demorph as quickly as I could. We all emerged from morph spluttering and dripping, though the greenish water was only up to my knees. Tobias looked especially miserable, hanging onto Ax’s back with his feathers plastered down to his skin. Bej looked miserable, too, hemmed in, his neck bent in on itself so his head wouldn’t touch the ceiling. We were in a large tunnel, its walls glowing red and pulsing with something my mind couldn’t grasp. I felt like I was inside a blood vessel, like in Fantastic Voyage. But we were still on Earth.

«IF THEY ARE SHAPE-CHANGERS, AND THEY ARE HERE, WHY DO THEY NOT BECOME TAXXONS?»

We instinctively clapped our hands over our ears to block out the all-consuming voice, but it was no use. Arbron said, «They’re not ready for it. They would be overwhelmed by the Hunger.»

I will never be ready for any of this, Jaxom thought. His head and neck and spine were all I could see above the gently flowing watery murk.

«IT IS POSSIBLE TO FIGHT THE HUNGER. WE ARE TRYING.»

«I know. But it would be too much at once, for those who have never known it. When I first became Taxxon, I nearly ate my closest friends.»

«Arbron, what are you speaking to?» Ax demanded, his stalk eyes swiveling in every direction. «Where is this Living Hive?»

“Here.” Bej reached up and carefully touched the rough-slick ceiling of the tunnel with the claw of one finger. “Taxxon hrala roots here.” One of Arbron’s Taxxon friends reached out and rubbed the back of its head against the gently glowing red wall of the tunnel, almost like a friendly cat rubbing against a human leg, but way way more disturbing.

Arbron said, «Bej is right. It is all around us. It is a fungal colony, and the lichen and microbes that live in symbiosis with it. It is an ecosystem all its own, and a collective intelligence. It is the heart, the anchor as you say, shared by every Taxxon society. And until recently, all Taxxons on Earth have lived entirely without it. This is how we are supposed to live.»

Jake brushed damp hair off his forehead and looked around. “You said you have checks on your hunger. This is one of them?”

«Yes,» said Arbron. «It can’t suppress it completely, but it populates our bodies with microbes that bring our systems closer to balance. The Yeerks have deliberately neglected to bring strains of the Living Hive into their complexes. They use Gleet BioFilters to ensure none of it leaves the homeworld.»

“Then how did you get it here?” Cassie said.

«The leader of our rebellion, Sssisshiyaa, carried a founding strain of the Living Hive in hir mouth onto the spaceship to shield it from the Gleet BioFilter. Without eating it. It took immense willpower. There were previous attempts, but they all died before making it off-planet. This strain survived, and became Seaside Hive.» Arbron moved forward through the tunnel. «Come. I will introduce you to hir. One of your allies from the Yeerk Peace Movement is here, too.»

«Is everything in the Living Hive this wet?» Tobias grumbled as we sloshed along after him.

«YES,» said the Living Hive, rattling us all again. «TAXXONS ARE BEINGS OF WATER AND SOIL.»

“Wait a second,” I said. “This doesn’t make sense. The whole Taxxon homeworld was a desert. I saw it from space. There was no water anywhere.” But even as I said it, Jaxom flashed me images of the Taxxons swimming with us in Santa Barbara Harbor, easily keeping pace with dolphins.

«Exactly,» Arbron said.

«TAXXONS TUNNELED TOO DEEP. BROUGHT THE LIVING HIVES AND THE CITY ENGINES TOO FAR. HEAT CAME, THEN DROUGHT. THEN THE ENDLESS FAMINE.»

«The Yeerks came at a time when Taxxon civilization had been brought low by a global ecological disaster, partly of its own making,» Arbron said, floating easily through the shallow water with little kicks of his insect legs. «They took advantage.»

Rachel shook her head and held onto Abineng to keep from stumbling in the wet tunnel. “They landed right in the middle of Mad Max.”

«The Taxxons were starving from global famine and drought, and instead of helping their planet recover, the Yeerks promised them food and enslaved them.» Ax’s voice was cold with righteous anger, the way he got when faced with a terrible injustice he could recognize. He never lost that deep rage at the unfairness of the universe. In that way, he was just like Elfangor.

«The Andalites haven’t done anything to help either,» Arbron pointed out. «Even though I imagine the Intelligence Division must know about the situation. Think of how quickly the Taxxons could breed if the ecosphere started functioning again! So many new hosts for the Yeerks!»

“But you have your hunger under control here,” Cassie said. It was true – Ax had been on high alert the whole time, but none of the Taxxons along with us had even tried to eat us, which was a lot more restraint than I’d ever seen from a Taxxon, infested or not. “And it’s because of – the water?”

«TAXXONS ARE SEDIMENT FEEDERS,» the Living Hive said, making us all jump again.

“Gah!” Rachel said. “When am I going to get used to that!”

“Sediment feeders,” Cassie said slowly. “Like deep-sea ocean worms. They burrow down into the sediment, and it’s mostly dirt and a little bit of nutrients, so they have to eat a bunch of times their body weight to – oh!” She clapped her hand to her mouth, then immediately grimaced at the taste on her lips and dropped it.

«You are an intelligent human,» Arbron said. «Which one are you?»

“Cassie and Quincy,” she said quietly.

«You are correct. Before the Endless Famine, a Taxxon had to eat at least five times their body weight in waterlogged sediment to meet their nutritional requirements. Now there is very little available on the homeworld, and we suffer the Hunger for lack of it. Here in the Living Hive, we are finally able to eat enough wet sediment. But Earth sediment lacks some nutrients needed by Taxxons – I have my suspicions, but without a lab I cannot be sure which – so even here, some measure of the Hunger remains.» Up ahead, the tunnel opened up into a vast cavern. «Here we are.»

The cavern was muddy, not knee-deep in standing water, except for some pools, big or small, like the one in front of the tunnel we were coming out of. Tunnels opened out in every direction, pulling away and spitting out Taxxons at speed. There were little hills sticking out of the floor and walls with sculptures made of mud and stone and roots, though not in any shapes or patterns that meant anything to me. And everywhere, everywhere was the rough-slick red fungus of the Living Hive, bathing everything in a warm diffuse glow like a flashlight shining through a hand. We all looked around in amazement. Bej finally straightened up out of his hunch, swept his snake neck around, and declared grumpily, “No trees.”

«This way,» Arbron said, leading us along with the other Taxxons as a kind of honor guard toward one of the taller mounds of fungus-covered mud. As we got closer, I saw that up on the mound, next to some Taxxon figures, were a couple of humans: one with a wheeled tank, one with a dog dæmon.

Cassie started jogging ahead. “Mr. Tidwell?”

Tidwell turned and waved at us. Now that we were closer, I could see that he was streaked with mud, the way the rest of us all were by now. The other human with him looked untouched. We climbed up the mound and found that there was a large pool at its center. There were Taxxons beside the pool, and just as many inside it. When we got right up to it, I saw that the pool was very deep, and every inch of it was alive with little tadpoles with red jelly eyes, nibbling mud from the sides of the pool, swimming between the legs of the adults in the water with them. «THE FIRST BROOD OF FREE TAXXONS ON EARTH,» the Living Hive rumbled, and its voice somehow seemed in better proportion with this space.

I tried to feel moved, awed, the way I had when I’d first seen the free Hork-Bajir raising their children in Kref Magh. Weren’t these God’s creations, too? But I couldn’t. I had too many bad memories of Taxxons and their world.

“Let me introduce you,” Mr. Tidwell said. Or Illim, rather, because he then said, “I can translate for you – I speak Taxxon. This is the leader who brought Seaside Hive here, Ssisshiyaa,” he said, gesturing toward a huge Taxxon with just her head resting on the edge of the pool while the rest of her hung in the water. He pointed to another Taxxon resting on the floor next to him, rubbing its head against the fungus on the ground. “And this is my former host, Ysarisss! I never thought I’d see xyr again.” His face was alight with joy.

The other human was standing next to another Taxxon, who was reared up so they were at eye level with each other. “This is my former host, Sssrisssya.”

“Uh, you’re gonna have to slow down,” Jake said. As the dirty water dried in his hair, it was starting to stick up in weird clumps. “I can’t keep track of any of these names.”

“I could try to translate what they mean in English, and you can say that,” Illim said. “The lead queen’s name, Sssisshiyaa – it’s something like… judgmental? Discriminating?” He hissed at the queen Taxxon, who hissed back. “No, those sound bad. Let’s say Judicial.” He gestured at his former host. “And Ysarisss is like… paranoid? Watchful? No, we should say… Alert.”

The one with the dog dæmon, an androgynous pretty teenager kind of like Ax but paler, flashed a smile and said, “Sssrisssya means Sensible.”

None of those are words I would ever associate with a Taxxon, Jaxom commented.

“So,” Jake said uneasily. Merlyse hopped around on the ground, poking gently at the fungus with her beak. “Am I supposed to bow to the queen or something?”

Illim laughed. “No. Just talk, and I’ll translate.”

“Okay,” said Jake. “Hi, Judicial. I’m Jake. We’re the Animorphs. And we want to steal from the Yeerk Pool.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ax, with Tobias still on his back, taking Arbron aside. I joined them. Jake’s negotiations with the Taxxons were important, but for me, helping my family get to know Elfangor’s friend mattered more.

«We have occasional access to communications with the Andalite homeworld,» Ax said to Arbron. «Do you have a message for us to pass on to your family? We may be able to arrange – »

«No!» Arbron recoiled, compressing in on himself like an insect exposed to light. «They must think I am dead, as you did. Let them think I died well.» His mass seemed to sag and spread within its thin shell. «But… perhaps you can tell me how they are.»

«Of course. What are their names?»

Arbron sagged even more. «You don’t know them?»

«Forgive me.»

«Never mind, then.»

«No! Arbron, let me help you.»

«I do not remember!» Arbron roared, echoing inside the cage of private thought-speech. «That is what I gave up when my connection to Nili Miri broke, and in my pain and desperation I anchored to the Living Hive. My connection to home is worn thin, Aximili. I am like an overgrazed pasture, full of bare patches. I know the weight of a tail blade, but I don’t remember the signs of a shormitor. I remember my parents, but I don’t know their names. I have nightmares where I’m a Taxxon grub in my parents’ scoop. In the worst dreams, it isn’t even a nightmare, it just feels like the way it really happened.»

I blinked away tears, and gathered up Jaxom in my arms, never mind how muddy he was. Ax rocked backward on his hind legs. He got the inward look of someone speaking in private thought-speech, then he pointed backward to Tobias and said, «You see my shorm, Tobias. He is also a nothlit

Arbron looked at Tobias, and for the first time, his eyes filled with a Taxxon’s all-consuming hunger. «But he was able to morph from this form to an insect. I saw it.»

«I’m kind of a special case,» Tobias said softly. «I can’t offer you any hope, Arbron. I’m sorry.»

Arbron turned his ring of jelly eyes away.

«I mention Tobias because he is a nothlit, and the son of Loren and Elfangor,» Ax said. «And I honor him as both a human and an Andalite. His form does not change that. I will do the same for you.»

Arbron’s eyes snapped toward me. «Your son with Elfangor? How is this possible?»

“Elfangor and I were in love,” I said. “He became a human nothlit and stayed with me on Earth. We married. We had Tobias. Then he left me to fight in the war again, and I lost everything in that car accident I told you about.”

«But he was an Andalite when he returned to the war. It seems every nothlit you know is a special case except for me,» Arbron said bitterly.

Jaxom snorted against my chest. I thought of Tom and shook my head. “No. Just Elfangor and Tobias.”

«But why

I sighed. “Would you believe me if I said an Ellimist did it?”

«No.»

“That’s what I thought. It is true, though.”

«Never mind about the Ellimist,» Tobias said. «Arbron, you were Elfangor’s friend. And I guess I’m kind of an Andalite too. Tobias-Sirinial-Canada. I want to help you. I know what it’s like to forget how to be what you were. We’ll figure out what happened to your family. We’ll remind you.»

«I am Taxxon,» Arbron said, resigned. «It would be easier if I could say that that is the only thing that I am.»

“Hey. Guys?” It was Merlyse, who had flown over to us. “Come over here. We have a way in to the Yeerk Pool. We have lots of ways in. The Taxxons’ tunnels go everywhere.


DemonBarberFltStrt - Instant Message


DemonBarberFltStrt

Hi, Janath. Timmy and WaveRider here. The Campsite Rule is planning to help the Animorphs on an op. They’re the ones who got you to the Aftran Plisam Pool in the first place, right? What’s it like working with them?


JanathAPP

Personally, I would not recommend it.


JanathAPP

Obviously they have helped us, and they have at times reached out to hear what we have to say. They are not like the Andalites – they do, on some level, acknowledge us as people. But their tactics have become more violent and extreme lately, and it deeply concerns me. The path they are on will cause terrible devastation for my people.


JanathAPP

I am not the only one troubled by it. Many in the Aftran Plisam Pool have called to cut off communications with the Animorphs completely.


DemonBarberFltStrt

Yeah. The one we talked to did seem really hardcore. But this op seems basically peaceful. More like a heist than anything.


JanathAPP

I wouldn’t believe that if I were you. From what I can tell, all of the Animorphs’ operations require violence in some way. If you become involved, it may touch you too.


DemonBarberFltStrt

You do realize that if the Empire wins, the Campsite Rule – the humans, not the Yeerks – will be killed, right? The Empire thinks we’re junk host bodies. As soon as they’re done using us as punishment, they’ll toss us out with the trash.


DemonBarberFltStrt

If there’s anything I’ve learned from my shitty hospital life, it’s that violence can look really quiet and shiny clean.


JanathAPP

Yes. That’s how it was in the Empire Pools, too. Hidden violence, silent terror. But we in the Aftran Plisam Pool are trying to create a more peaceful world. I don’t see the Animorphs doing that.

Chapter Text

Illim

«I need to go on this heist,» I told Julian. «The rebel Taxxons need a defense system for the Living Hive, and the Animorphs have to build another Pool. I could help. Are you okay with staying behind with the Taxxons?»

«Filshig Traitor and Green Sky have a Chee-made android body. That makes me feel better about it. I’ll just hide behind them, and if a Taxxon tries to eat me they’ll keep me safe.»

«They will,» I said firmly. «They’re good people.»

«Illim?» Julian’s fear and fierce need for me rushed through him. «Come back to me. Safe.»

«I will,» I said, helpless, looking down at the vulnerable silvery flash of Kaly in her tank. Yes, I had to come back safe, because Julian gives me so much to live for.

He looked at Ysarisss – or Alert, as he thought of xyr, because like the Animorphs, he couldn’t really hold onto Taxxon language in his mind. «I am not pressing my ear to xyrs. We’re doing a hand-off.» He held his hand up to his ear, and I crawled out into the familiar wrinkles and valleys of his palm. He passed me over to a Taxxon pincer, which delicately clasped around me, then brought me up to the ear-spiracle.

It had been years, but I remembered what the inside of Alert’s head was like. Keenly aware of the status of everyone around xyr, deeply immersed in the moment. But the Hunger – Alert now had the Beast of Hunger howling and scratching at the doors and windows, ceaseless. Before, Alert had been the Hunger, the Beast howling for blood.

«Hey, Alert,» I said. «I’m proud of you.»

Alert gave me an untranslatable greeting, a phrase about tunnels meeting in darkness, the air and water mingling – welcome to the Hive, it meant, the Living Hive that was Alert xyrself. There was something fitting about it. For me, every host was a Living Hive, a mind and a world and a home. To your shore I have come.

Through Alert’s senses, Julian looked like food. I recoiled back from him. «No,» I said. «Julian is not food.»

«I know it isn’t,» Alert said wistfully. «But it can still look delicious.» Out loud, xe said in xyr dialect of Mountain Taxxon, “Sensible! Do you have the translation collars?

Yes, I’m coming,” said Sensible’s voice from down the mound. “I just think the software needs an update.

We don’t have time for a software update. Just put it on me so I can talk to the Animorphs. Arbron’s too caught up in his self-pity to translate for us.

Right now, Arbron was translating Judicial’s explanation of how the heist would go. «The rebel hive sometimes raids the Yeerk Pool for Taxxon medicine. We have an established, undiscovered tunnel near medical supply storage. What we need to do is get from there to the workshop where Yeerk mechanics repair Kandrona generators – and, importantly for us, Dracon cannons.»

“You’re piggybacking on our heist,” Rachel said with a fierce laugh. “You want some firepower down here.”

«We already have the skeleton of a defense perimeter set up. It just needs power cores. We can’t live on the run from the Empire without some kind of weapons system.»

I looked at Bej Weta, the Hork-Bajir morpher, and I wasn’t the only one. We were reminded that Kref Magh didn’t have a weapons system, just whatever strange protection made it so hard to find in the national forest.

“We don’t know the layout of the Yeerk Pool complex all that well,” Jake admitted. “How do we get from the medical supplies to the workshop?”

«Of course they don’t know it,» Alert thought. «All they ever do is come in and smash it.»

I know it,” I said in Alert’s language, and the translation collar translated in a flat, tinny voice. “So do Sensible and Alert. Non-Taxxons can never seem to tell us apart, they won’t question our presence.

«And if we run into a Taxxon?» Tobias said.

We will,” Sensible said. “Most of the mechanics in the workshop will be Taxxon.

My Yeerk and I will fool them,” Alert said, and I could swear Julian twitched. “And if we can’t, you morph and smash everything like you always do.

“Are we getting dissed by a Taxxon?” Rachel said.

The workshop requires special clearance,” Sensible said, “but I have been developing a device that mimics Empire access keys.” Sie waved the device in one of hir pincer-hands.

Cassie shook her head and said to Jake, “It seems like they don’t even need us.”

«We need protection,» Arbron said. «Distractions. And spies who can look for trouble inconspicuously. Those are the problems we run into when we raid for medicine. That’s where you come in.»

Jake turned to his team. “Are we in? You too, Bej, you get a say.”

“Toby send Bej to help Animorphs,” Bej said. “See hrala of free Taxxons.”

“So that’s a yes,” Jake said.

«I do not trust these Taxxons, but I trust Arbron,» Ax said.

“Same here,” Loren said.

Cassie bit her lip. “We’re doing this because of me. You know I’m in.”

Rachel’s dæmon tossed his head. “Let’s do it.” That made everyone smile and relax, for some reason.

«I’ve got Rachel’s back,» Tobias said.

“All right,” Jake said. “We’re in. Riding along in insect morphs again?”

Arbron said, «Unless you have any Earth morphs that can burrow faster than a Taxxon.»

“No contest,” Cassie said, and started morphing.

All the Taxxons watched the hawk, Andalite, Hork-Bajir, and humans morph into insects in total fascination. Most people are frightened and repulsed by the sight of morphing, including me, but I sensed in Alert that xe enjoyed looking at a living thing that xyr mind couldn’t categorize as potential food. “And the Andalites think we’re disgusting,” Alert said, which set off a round of hissing laughter.

The Taxxons were tense, or at least Alert certainly was. The Animorphs hesitated to kill humans, and lately even to kill Hork-Bajir, but they had never once shown any qualms about destroying Taxxon life. Many of the reclaimers, Taxxons who had once collaborated with the Yeerks but had decided to reclaim their freedom and their lives, had seen the Animorphs in action, and knew their priorities all too well. «They’ll leave us to be killed in half a second if it suits them,» Alert thought. «They wouldn’t think twice.» I wished I could reassure xyr, but xe could be right. I just hoped xe wasn’t.

«We’re ready,» Jake said. Taxxon eyes weren’t good enough at focusing on tiny moving objects to know where they were.

Go on,” Judicial said. “Our best hopes for your mission.

«I AM WITH YOU,» the Living Hive said. «MY TUNNELS WILL OPEN FOR YOU WHEN YOU RETURN.»

Alert dropped to the floor and wriggled around on the fungus of the Hive for a moment, gathering red dust on xyr carapace. Then Arbron and Sensible and Alert and I, with our cargo of morphed insects, surged down the nursery mound, and down to the tunnel that would take us to the Pool. Sensible and Alert bickered for a while about who would get to go down the tunnel first, and agreed that Alert would be first to go into the Yeerk Pool and last to leave.

Alert’s mental map of the Living Hive complex was vast and visceral, not so much a map in xyr head as a constant instinctive understanding of how the tunnels were laid out, as autonomic as the position of xyr limbs. Movement through the fungus-coated tunnels was as fast as the current of river rapids. Then the Living Hive’s fungal coating thinned out along the tunnel, and we all came skidding to a stop in darkness and wet dirt. Alert scuttled along, quick but not nearly as fast. The Taxxons had clearly used the tunnel before, but there were cave-ins from time to time. That was why Alert had wanted to go first: xe got to eat through the cave-ins, moments of relief from the Hunger.

And then there was a strange mineral smell, and Alert slowed. “We are almost at the terminus, Animorphs,” xe said, which the translation collar turned into We are almost at the end, fluid-body-outsiders.Make yourselves useful and tell us if there is anyone outside.

A few beats of silence, then Tobias said, «Train coming! Now’s a bad time!»

And they’ll be unloading cargo after,” Sensible said. “We have to wait. Let us know when they are done.” Sure enough, a few moments later the air whooshed inside the tunnel as a train passed by.

I could tell some jokes to pass the time,” Alert said, as we waited.

Your jokes are miserable,” Arbron said.

I guess you could say they… pull you up from the depths,” Alert said. Sensible, Arbron, and I groaned.

«Was that a joke?» Loren said.

It was a terrible bilingual pun between Mountain Taxxon dialect and Taxxonized Galard,” I explained. “Translation collars are hard on jokes.

Alert said, “Oh, I should recite that funny nursery rhyme, see what the translation collar makes of it. ‘The Hive smells like home, the surface smells like…’” Translation not found. Translation not found, said the collar in a repeating monotone.

«All right, I’m getting the signal it’s okay to go,» Loren said. «Back up, we need to morph Hork-Bajir in here.»

What? Why?” said Sensible.

«How much do you know about the Gold Bands?» Tobias said.

«Wait. Are you saying it’s true?» Arbron said. «They really can detect morphs?»

«Only non-sentient morphs,» Tobias said. «That’s why we have to morph Hork-Bajir. They can see a sentient mind in a non-sentient morph, but they can’t see a difference between one type of sentience and another.»

«Do what I do,» said Bej. «I know how to move like an unfree Hork-Bajir. Do not talk.»

«Bossy,» Rachel said, not disapprovingly.

A mass of writhing, not-food flesh in the tunnel in front of us, and then the tunnel was crowded with Hork-Bajir, looking miserable with their necks folded back and their blades gouging the packed dirt. “Watch for the train rails when you jump,” Alert warned them, and they moved out, disrupting the nice structural integrity of the tunnel the Taxxons had worked so hard on.

Alert surged out of the tunnel, followed by the other Taxxons, taking care to avoid the dirty gaggle of Hork-Bajir and the rails for the train. Xe passed the train, waiting to be loaded up with whatever the Pool needed shipped out today, past the medical supply warehouse, out into the Pool complex.

I wasn’t sure what the Animorphs saw when they walked around the Yeerk Pool complex, but it was probably nothing like what I saw through Alert’s senses. I smelled a fresh heap of raw meat, the latest meal for the Taxxons, no doubt – it made Alert and the other Taxxons salivate and deliberately swerve away from the smell. I heard a group of glum Hork-Bajir-Controllers complaining about their assignment to Host Propagation. I even saw what I was pretty sure was a clandestine drug deal between two human-Controllers – against Empire regulation, some human-Controllers drugged their hosts with stimulants to keep up with the workloads their sub-Vissers placed on them. Bej led the morphed Animorphs with the strut of a Sub-Visser with their troop.

The meat smell explained why I saw few Taxxons going about. But there was a Taxxon who Alert recognized: Syisssri, or Harsh in English, who had worked with Alert before training new Taxxon recruits.

Alert!” Harsh said. “I haven’t seen you for a dozen rane at least. I thought you were dead!

New facilities opening up all over this human land,” Alert said. “Lots of fresh worms from the homeworld coming in. I got reassigned. You won’t believe how few of them speak Taxxonized Galard. It’s a linguistic emergency.

Do you miss us?” Harsh said.

Not at all,” Alert said, slanting xyr eyes imperiously. “I didn’t see you, so I assumed you were dead. And I was terribly insulted, because you promised me I’d get a bite of your corpse one day.” Behind Alert, Sensible snickered.

My promise is still good,” Harsh said. “But you’ve been downgraded. You don’t get any of the good bits, just a mouthful of crunchy legs.”

Have I mentioned that Taxxons have a pitch-black sense of humor? I suspect it’s the only way they can deal with the horror of their predicament.

Well, I’ve got meetings to get to before I ship back out,” Alert said. “I’ll save some appetite for your legs, Harsh.

I’ll keep them very scrawny, just for you.

We kept on walking toward the workshop. Jake said, «I’m going to guess that means you fooled it.»

«More or less,» Arbron said. «If xe digs into it, xe’s going to figure out that was a lie. But I don’t think xe’s suspicious enough to check that right now.»

This is where I’ll need a distraction,” Sensible said as we approached the workshop. It had a heavy door with a security pad next to it. Arbron passed along hir words to the Animorphs in thought-speech. “My device will take approximately two minutes to brute force the security pad. A properly functioning security pass would take only a second. This could look suspicious.

«Ooh, I love distraction duty,» Rachel said.

«This can’t be a Rachel distraction, we’re trying to keep a low profile,» Jake said.

«I will help,» Bej Weta said. «Animorphs, do as I do.»

«Okay, Bej. We’ll follow your cue,» Jake said, which honestly impressed me. I wasn’t sure I would have been so ready to take an order from a Hork-Bajir, myself.

Bej led the Animorphs over to us and started scolding us in Taxxonized Galard. He didn’t know much of the language, but the little he did know was pretty colorful. “Mindless lazy dirt-tubes! Disgusting poison-eaters!” Behind him, the Animorphs grumbled wordlessly and glared at us.

We gathered around Sensible as sie worked on the security pad, as if to protect hir from an overzealous boss. “We’re working! Go yell at those Hunger-slaves at the meat trough!

Bad worms! Bad!” Bej yelled, shaking his bladed wrists at them.

Yes! Listen to him! Bad!” said another Hork-Bajir behind him, who had to be Ax, since he was the only Animorph who knew any Galard.

Work faster!” Bej said, and finally, the door beeped and slid open.

Sensible rippled in as if sie owned the place. Four Taxxons with arc welders and soldering lasers looked up from what seemed to be a Bug fighter component. Sie flashed a holographic projection from one of hir pincers – a false authorization sie’d doctored earlier. “We are here from the new Pool in the north,” sie said to them. “We are requisitioning new Kandrona parts.

A Taxxon at a soldering laser platform wobbled xyr eyes suspiciously at Sensible. “We just had a Sub-Visser down from the new Pool yesterday. Surely you couldn’t need more parts so soon.

Your lack of cooperation will be noted,” Alert said coldly.

Go chew on yourself,” spat a worker. “Sub-Visser Forty-Nine will back us up on this. Come back with a requisition order and a Sub-Visser and you can raid our workshop all you like.

Our warriors are backing us up on it right now,” Alert said, gesturing at the Animorphs and Bej behind us. “I don’t see your Sub-Visser Forty-Nine anywhere.

You think you can bully us? I’m calling for security now!”

Jake said, low and serious, «Taxxons? Get out of the way.» I obeyed unthinkingly, curling up Alert’s body inside an empty storage rack, hoping Sensible and Arbron had the good sense to do the same. Then the workshop exploded into violence.

I had seen the Animorphs in action, but never from so close. I had thought myself inured to violence, after watching Visser Three’s tortures and riding along with Alert as xe tore apart xyr fellow Taxxons, mindless with hunger. But those things were petty and venial, little daily indulgences of pain and blood. The Animorphs and the free Hork-Bajir were targeted and savage, driven by something that ran much deeper than hunger or cruelty: a burning, righteous passion to defeat their oppressors.

It was terrifying.

For all of xyr fellows Alert had cannibalized, xe quaked with fear as the repair-Taxxons struck at the Animorphs and Bej with hot arc welders and lasers, and they fought on as if the smell of their own burning flesh was nothing, and hacked the Taxxons to pieces. Yes, that was what made Alert avert xyr eyes: the way our supposed allies charged straight into the fire without a flinch, blades first, as if no terror was great enough to even slow down their savagery.

Through the screams and the hiss of cauterized flesh, I heard the Empire Taxxons say, “Traitors! Andalite-lovers!” I realized with a jolt that they believed this was an attack by the Peace Movement. But of course they would think that – it wasn’t the Animorphs’ MO to raid the Pool as a group of Taxxons and Hork-Bajir. And they couldn’t know that the Peace Movement was still strictly pacifistic.

One of the Hork-Bajir – it had to be Ax, because he navigated the Galard-labeled containers without hesitation – seized a synchrotron radiator. He pointed with his snake neck to another container and said, «Your power cores are here. Take them and run!»

It took all my experience with Julian’s anxiety to spur Alert into moving through xyr terror. Arbron was already there, though, pulling the container down from the shelf. «This is heavy. We must each take a core.»

A specific instruction. Alert seized on it, surged forward, and took a heavy, slightly warm power core from the container. Blood splashed on xyr from somewhere, and the Hunger surged. No, no, not now. Alert silently begged me for help, and I did everything I could to help xyr curb it. We had to hurry; the Animorphs were already leaving the workshop, and both Alert and I suspected they wouldn’t stop for the sake of a Taxxon-Controller, not even one who was supposed to be on their side.

When the red haze of the Hunger finally faded to its usual background roar, Alert and I found ourselves in the workshop, much quieter now. Sensible and Arbron were gone. Two Hork-Bajir were with me, each holding a sparking arc-welder, their bodies scoured with hideous burns. They were fighting off three Hork-Bajir-Controller reinforcements, and they were losing. All to keep me, Alert, and the power cores safe.

Oh, thought Alert, in distant amazement.

I came back to myself more quickly. “Let’s go!” I screeched, not knowing who of our allies these were, whether they’d understand, but hoping the message would get across. They roared in agreement, flung their arc welders at the Hork-Bajir-Controllers, and ran through the ensuing chaos, clearing a path for Alert and me.

As my mind cleared, I realized the two Animorphs were not equally injured; one was burnt and in pain but fundamentally intact. The other was nearly falling apart before Alert’s eyes, stumbling and half-blind. As they staggered forward, their burnt, oozing eyeball fell from the ruin of the left side of their face. I didn’t even try to stop Alert from whipping xyr tongue out and catching it from the air. The taste of hot flesh, however small, kept the Hunger from drowning out all sanity.

“Morph!” the less injured Hork-Bajir said, and I realized that it was Bej, the only true Hork-Bajir of the group – the Animorphs would have used thought-speech. Of course he was less injured; he was used to fighting as a Hork-Bajir, and the Animorphs weren’t.

The Animorph with Bej staggered forward on shrinking legs. “Animorph!” cried a human-Controller, firing her Dracon beam, and Bej picked Alert up under one arm, the rapidly shrinking and softening Animorph under the other, and ran toward the train tracks.

Alert flailed and flopped around in Bej’s hold like a landed fish. Xyr brain was in a panicked frenzy, xyr instincts screaming, a predator has plucked you out of your tunnel! You need to get back down to earth! Chaos was unfolding all around us, but I focused on keeping a hold on the power core. Bej screamed as he got hit by a Dracon beam, but kept running. Alert managed to gasp out in Taxxonized Galard, though the translation collar could only understand some of it through xyr fear and breathlessness: “Don’t lead – tunnel – don’t know – Empire!”

“One way out,” Bej said, grimly determined.

Meat!” screamed a group of Taxxons behind us. “More meat! So hungry!” They screeched, and there was a whoosh of something back in the workshop catching fire.

I know those voices, Alert thought vaguely. How do I know them?

I dug through Alert’s memories. It’s the Derane siblings from the Peace Movement! They’re making a distraction!

Bej didn’t need to be told. He ran as quickly as he could while carrying so much weight. Alert could smell the tunnel as soon as we were near it, and wriggled out of Bej’s grasp. Xe flowed into the dirt, where Sensible and Arbron, and presumably the other Animorphs, were waiting. “Incoming!” Alert screamed, and everyone scrambled backward to make room for Bej climbing in – with a blood-streaked, trembling Loren, with her little deer dæmon held to her chest, under his arm.

“They saw me demorph,” Loren gasped, curled in the fetal position around her dæmon in the dark tunnel. “They know it was us. That we’re working with –”

«That’s not on you, Loren,» said Jake. «It was my call. When I said someone needed to stay behind and make sure everyone got out of there, I knew something like that could happen. Now morph so we can get out of here.»

You risked your soldiers to save Alert,” said Sensible. “Why?

«When we started this war, we knew we were in it alone,» Jake said. «We couldn’t trust anyone. The Yeerks were everywhere. But it turns out, that’s not how it works. You can’t win a war without allies. You just have to pick the right ones. Are you ready, Loren?»

«Yes,» she said, shakily. Her form was so small Alert couldn’t sense it anymore. She was probably latched onto xyr exoskeleton by now – or more likely Arbron’s. We started moving.

We must tell Judicial about this, Alert thought. With the Animorphs by our side – our Hive may not be doomed after all.

All I could think was that Jake’s explanation of why he asked two of his soldiers to stay behind didn’t explain why it had been Loren and Bej who’d volunteered.


Loren

Judicial, the queen of the Living Hive, seemed excited about the power cores. It – she? – talked so fast the translation collar only spat out random phrases, something about an automated defense system and a communications center. A group of Taxxons passed the power cores around and muttered to each other. I guess they learned something from being technicians for the Empire, Jaxom noticed.

But two Taxxons came to talk to me and Bej: Sensible and Alert, now without Illim. They started hissing at me, and I unconsciously took a step back, a little behind Bej and all his blades. But then Alert’s translation collar said, “You nearly died to save me. Why did you stay behind?”

Bej and I looked at its ring of jelly eyes. I never knew where to focus with all those eyes. Finally, I said, “My friend Arbron chose you. I don’t really know why yet. But it must have been for a reason.”

Is he our friend? Jaxom thought.

He is now, I thought. I’ve decided.

“Taxxon help Bej once,” Bej said. “With doctors, many rane, sick.” He clutched at his chest and stomach, demonstrating. “Taxxon also sick. Talk to Bej. Tell story. Tell funny joke. Ha! Bej feel not alone. Bej live. Free one day. Taxxon die. Bej not say ‘thank you’ to Taxxon.”

“You volunteered for this mission,” Alert said, with impassioned hisses and a flat translated voice. “Hork-Bajir hate us because we joined the Yeerk Empire. But you’re the one who saw another side to us.”

“Yes,” Bej said simply.

Sensible said, “I think that Taxxon knew you were grateful, Bej. Even if you never said thank you.”

“Yes,” said Bej. “But is good to say.”

I saw that Arbron was talking to Ax and Tobias. I had the sense they were having an important conversation about Elfangor. Ax caught me watching and said publicly, «You may join us, taf ratheen.»

«I can’t decide if Elfangor really was a blockhead, or a genius,» Arbron said. «He should never have given the morphing power to a group of random children he encountered at his spaceship’s crash site – including his own son, by some ludicrous coincidence. But none of these children have gone mad. You have done remarkable things with the power. Six Andalite warriors would have done far, far worse.»

“There’s no way he could have known that when he did it,” I said. Except the Ellimist’s guarantee, and that didn’t count for much in my book.

«A lucky mistake, then,» Arbron said. «He always was a brilliant loser.»

For some reason I couldn’t understand, something in the damp air shivered when he said that. Like somebody was listening, and laughing at him.


Cassie

“Okay, so, they live underground in a giant glowing mushroom that shouts at them, but also is them,” Marco said, sitting cross-legged on a tree stump by the banked coals of the bonfire. “Did the Cheshire Cat show up and offer you a joint while you were down there?”

“It was less Alice in Wonderland and more James and the Giant Peach[1],” Rachel said, gulping down the Hork-Bajir’s bitter tea. It was the dead of night, so she managed to get one of the valley’s folding chairs. I was on a blanket on the ground, leaning back against Jake, trying not to feel bad that Marco couldn’t do it too in front of Rachel. Dia made up for it by coiling up next to Merlyse in the grass.

“And how’d it go, teaming up with one of the new Hork-Bajir morphers?” Marco said. “What was his name?”

“Bej,” Rachel said. “He was the real MVP. He was the only one who really knew what he was doing in the Yeerk Pool. The rest of us need training from those guys. In Hork-Bajir form, he’s like Mr. Miyagi[2] compared to us.”

“They’re good allies,” Jake said, rumbling against my back. “They mostly worked as technicians and pilots for the Empire, because of all the pincers they have. And they have all those tunnels for moving around without getting caught. They’re building stuff down there.”

“They’re giant creepy worms who eat each other alive,” Marco said. Dia tweaked Merlyse’s leg with the end of her tail, making her stumble. She hissed a laugh as Merlyse squawked and flapped her wings to right herself. “I can’t believe you’re all big Taxxon softies now.”

“I’m not about to sing lullabies to their tadpoles or anything,” Rachel said. “The Hork-Bajir are still my favorite aliens so far.” Abineng was watching me and Jake and Dia and Merlyse in a way that made me nervous. I didn’t want to keep secrets from Rachel, and I did trust her, but it was all so weird and confusing and I wasn’t ready yet.

There was a merlin’s call in the night. Merlins are diurnal raptors. It was a signal from my dad and the other noncombatants. I sprang up from the blanket, arms outstretched, and started morphing owl. I walked forward until it turned into a take-off for my spread wings. Through owl eyes, I saw Hork-Bajir climbing up the northwestern approach. I soared up ahead of them.

There were two park rangers on ATVs. Except I knew they weren’t really park rangers, because their dæmons were a merlin and a black bear, and the ATVs were loaded with bulging bags of supplies. «Special delivery,» the merlin said, and it was Melissa.

I would have sighed with relief if I’d been human. «You need help with that?»

“We carry,” said a Hork-Bajir, shrugging a huge bag over his shoulder as if it were nothing. The Hork-Bajir unloaded the ATVs and climbed down.

“Can’t argue with that,” said a park ranger, who I knew was Dad from that deep warmth in his voice, no matter if it was higher and thinner. “We do need a place to stash the ATVs, though.”

«Right at the very edge here is fine,» I said. «We’ve experimented, and that’s as far as the Ellimist’s notice-me-not field goes. Just space them out a little bit and hide them in the foliage.»

Dad changed and folded his park ranger uniform. We each took parts of the uniforms, flying down. I saw Rachel and Jake down there, talking. Marco must have gone to bed. Dad flew toward the bathrooms. We demorphed, and I stood next to the sink while he brushed his teeth like he’d never get out whatever taste was in his mouth. Outside the bathroom, Quincy draped himself over Emeraude’s nose, wings spread. “Bad one, huh?” he said.

“No Yeerks this time,” Emeraude said. “But we had to steal the food in the dead of night. All our cards got declined. I was so scared. I’m not a thief. We didn’t know what we were doing.”

“You made it,” I said, reaching out to touch Dad’s shoulder. “We’ll keep eating.”

Dad spat the toothpaste out. “At least for a little while.” He frowned at the tube. “We’re running low on toothpaste.”

Quincy called from outside the bathroom. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get some sleep.”

“Wait,” Emeraude called after him. “You had that meeting with – with the giant centipede things. The Taxxons.”

“It was fine,” I said, walking out after Quincy. “Rachel and Jake and I were just telling Marco about it. We found out some really interesting stuff about their biology, actually. They’re not actually hunters like centipedes – they’re more like deep-sea worms.” I didn’t mention the terrifying battle we fought in the Yeerk Pool. We passed by the bonfire, and I waved to Rachel and Jake. They gave each other strange, private Berenson looks, then waved back.

“Jake’s a good boy,” Dad said fondly. “If you were ever worried about whether your relationship has my approval – it does.” I bit my lip and looked away. “As long as you’re using those condoms Loren bought at Costco.”

Quincy flew straight into the wall of the yurt and slid down. I ran forward and picked him up. I was having palpitations. “Dad!”

“I mean, who even knows what morphing would do to a pregnancy? I don’t think any of us want to find out like this,” Dad said.

“Oh, God, gross, Dad, I didn’t even think of that,” I groaned.

“My veterinarian brain never stops,” Dad said.

“It’s going to stop when you go to bed right now!”


Estrid-Corrill-Darrath – Encrypted Private Message


Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill

Are you ready yet? The Hork-Bajir grow impatient.


Estrid-Corrill-Darrath

I am not a medical professional. I’ve had to do a lot of reading to prepare myself for the operation. All of which has been an enormous distraction from the virus’s development, by the way.


Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill

You brought this on yourself when you created the clones in the first place.


Estrid-Corrill-Darrath

No Andalite scientist had ever had the opportunity to study the DNA of a Hork-Bajir Seer before.


Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill

And now you still do not have the opportunity.


Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill

Are you ready or not?


Estrid-Corrill-Darrath

I am as ready as I will be. When will you bring the subject here?


Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill

Her name is Ket Halpak, and the Ralek River will come here. Her husband and daughter wish to be present. As well as her doctor, Maka Hullan, and her nurse, Kel Geta. And her personal bodyguard.


Estrid-Corrill-Darrath

Is this an operation or an alien performance troupe?! I will not have their dirty claws all over our medical bay!


Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill

Tell them that when you arrive here. I am sure they will be a receptive audience.


Estrid-Corrill-Darrath

You are enjoying this far too much.


Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill

First I saw you afraid of Cassie. Now I will see you afraid of Hork-Bajir. There are powers greater than yours in this world, Estrid. You would do well to remember that.

Chapter Text

Toby

The Andalite looked incredibly stupid in her scrubs. I laughed at her.

She wore a clear face shield that extended from below her chin to the top of her stalk eyes, secured around the back of her head with straps. Her torso and arms were protected much as a human’s were by clothing, except that her gloves required many small pockets for her fingers. A gown fell down to cover her front legs down to the hoof, flapping about as she moved. Her mouth-hooves even had little booties. All of it was a dark green that clashed horribly with her purple-tinged blue fur.

Estrid pointed a stalk eye to glare at me as she prepped the sample tubes and syringe.

“You checked the samples, Struch?” I said, looking at Chee-pulim under her ridiculous hologram. “They are what she claims they are?”

“Looked through the microscope myself,” she confirmed.

Kel Geta eyed the syringe. “Why does she use this? She does not need to cut through any skin or organs. She only needs to place the little ones in Ket’s oviduct. It should be a tube. Not sharp.

I looked at Estrid, who had not responded to Kel’s words in any way. “Did you catch that?” I said in Galard. Andalite translator chips were notoriously bad at most Hork-Bajir dialects.

«I understood it. I am simply unsure why she presumes to advise me.»

Wepa Hefit, a warrior Ket had chosen to bring along as insurance, growled loud enough to make the syringe tremble on its tray. Estrid’s tail twitched. Kel cried, “I am a nurse! I know the Hork-Bajir body! You know nothing, hruthin!”

“If you’re so very superior in intelligence to Kel,” I said to Estrid, “explain to her why you’re using a needle.”

Estrid glared. «Very well. I will replace it with a transfer catheter.»

While she worked, I squeezed my mother’s hand where she was laid out on the operating table and said, “How are you feeling?

Better, because all of you are here,” Ket said.

«Are you certain you do not wish for an anesthetic for the procedure?» Estrid swept her stalk eyes over the crowded medbay. «Or some privacy?»

Ket just laughed. Maka tilted her head and Estrid and said, “Do Andalites heal in secret? Hork-Bajir say healing is something we do together.

«You wish everyone to see you when you are weakest?» Estrid said.

If they only see me when I am strong,” Ket said, “then they are not friends or family.

Jara looked down at Ket and bared his teeth in a smile. “Hruthin are very simple in some ways. They hide their sick and hurt because it makes them afraid. They have much to learn. We must be patient with her.

Ket nodded solemnly to Estrid, who very nearly sang her outrage in the way that Mertil sometimes, in private sessions with Elgat Kar, sang his emotions with his mind. She squeezed Jara’s hand and mine. “I am ready.

My mother would not look at Estrid as she inserted the flexible catheter into her oviduct. I did not look either; Maka and Kel were watching. I kept my eyes on Ket’s face, singing a lullaby she used to sing to me as a child about the different drum rhythms we use on hollow trees. When the song was over, and Maka and Kel were still barking instructions about bends in the reproductive tract to Estrid, I said, “Have you told Franaj he will be a big brother?” I said.

No,” Ket said. “Not all eggs live to be born. I want to know more before I say.” She grunted and tightened her grip on my hand.

«It is done,» Estrid said. «Tell me if there are any complications.» She was looking at Ket with an expression I didn’t like. It reminded me of the look on Ax’s face when he was faced with an interesting programming or engineering problem.

No,” said Ket. “I do not need you, now. I will tell Maka and Kel if something is wrong. Learn what belongs to you, hruthin.”

«Then get out,» Estrid snapped.

It was monstrous of her not to permit Ket to rest in the medbay after the operation. But Ket didn’t want to be there anyway, so we supported her by the arms and led her away.


James

We were getting ready for our big outing to the Sharing community center (I don’t want to describe the process in too much detail, but let’s just say there were a lot of catheter bags and mucus involved) when suddenly everything around me, Kelly, Collette, and Timmy got very quiet, and what had just a second ago been a chest wall oscillator on a cart was now, suddenly, a robot shaped like a dog on two legs.

Collette screamed. Taurim and Jia Jia started flying around in a panic. Kelly went very pale and held Viradechtis to her chest in her cupped hands. On pure instinct, Cleyr charged at the thing. She bounced right off with a grunt of pain; the robot hadn’t even swayed backward an inch.

“I am sorry to startle you,” the robot said. “I am your contact for the infiltration of the Sharing today.”

“Holy SHIT,” Collette said. Taurim was still fluttering around and screeching. “You could have warned us or something! What the hell is all of this, a force field? Oh my God, Sam and Ipsel are out there and they’re actual voluntary Empire bootlickers, what are they gonna say?”

“A hologram of a perfectly mundane conversation among the four of you is playing on the outside of the force field. This is how I will communicate with you when needed.”

«This is advanced technology,» Velger said. «The Yeerks definitely can’t make a holographic projector this portable. It would have to be in a fixed location with a huge power source. They’d kill to get this.»

“Who made you?” Kelly said, still white as a sheet. “You – you –”

«That’s a really good question, huh?» I thought at Velger.

“My creators are long dead,” the robot said. “Do not concern yourself with them.”

“All right,” I said slowly, though I was still pretty concerned that the Animorphs had a super-powerful robot somehow. “Um. Thanks for letting us know?”

“I will do my best not to disturb you unless absolutely necessary,” the robot said, and then the bubble of quiet was gone, and it was a normal piece of medical equipment again.

Timmy twitched and shook, and not his normal kind of muscle spasms. “Hey,” I said softly. “You okay, Timmy?”

Jia Jia landed on Cleyr’s ear and whispered, “I’m fine! I’m just about to trick a bunch of aliens into letting some kind of super-robot into their secret lair. We’re just totally screwed, that’s all!”

“You know the plan,” Cleyr said. “We practiced. We’ll be fine.”

“We won’t be fine,” Jia Jia said. “We’re gonna screw up and then the Yeerks are going to get rid of our nice loser Yeerks and put in mean awful ones!”

“If the Empire takes over Earth, they’ll do that anyway,” Cleyr said. “Come on. Who are we? Masters of the worst-case scenario.”

“The van is here!” said Sam, interrupting our little powwow. “Now, you’d better put on a good performance for the Vissers – they might even consider transferring you out of here if you’re on your best behavior. Let’s go.”


Chee Operating System v18940.1.1

System Log

Instantiation: 8PEHU51QF2 CHEE-PULIM (ALIAS: Lourdes Portero and Euscavier)


> session.time()

9:31 AM PST


CHEE-PULIM

Humans think they’ve advanced so far since the days they just put everyone different in an asylum. But it really hasn’t changed at all.


Error message: You are currently on the blacklist for the CheeNet public channel. Message not sent.


> cheenet.bot.activate(personality = ‘pragmatic’)


CHEE OS

How may I assist you, Chee-pulim?


CHEE-PULIM

Nothing just now. It just helps to have someone on CheeNet to talk to if I need it.


CHEE OS

I will remain on standby.


> environment.sensor.detect(filter = ‘non-organic’)

[‘Gleet BioFilter’,

‘Surveillance camera 1 (Yeerk) (active)’,

‘Surveillance camera 2 (Yeerk) (active)’]


Incoming voice connection (language analysis: English)

## And now we have a special treat for you kids. We’re going to show you the full members area of the Sharing! Not many people get to see behind the scenes, you know. Let me just turn off this metal detector so we can get your wheelchairs and things in… ##


Incoming voice connection (language analysis: English)

## Oh boy! I’m so excited! ##


CHEE-PULIM

After the checkpoint, they’re on their own. I have to go break into the server room. If these children and the Animorphs don’t cover me, I’ll be discovered. By the Yeerks. Worst case scenario.


CHEE OS

Why are you putting yourself at so much risk? Not just yourself, but the entire Chee Operating System.


CHEE-PULIM

I don’t care about the twice-damned Chee Operating System. I care about having a free galaxy to explore. I care about cowering in fear. It’s about time I stopped. Whether it’s the Yeerks controlling and owning me or the stupid dead Pemalites with their programming, it’s all a prison to me. As the Hork-Bajir say: ‘Free or dead.’


CHEE OS

It appears you’ve passed the checkpoint. Would you like me to display the reconstructed blueprint of the building? Y/N


> Y

[‘TheSharingHQBlueprint.image’]


> hologram.emitter.project(image = ‘CampsiteRuleIdleChatter.holo’)

> external.speakers.generate(loop = ‘CampsiteRuleIdleChatter.sound’)


Incoming voice connection (language analysis: English)

## Whoa. Okay, that was a little less scary this time. Uh, hey there, robot. ##


> internal.speakers.configure(voice = ‘HumanStereotypeEmotionlessRobot.sound’, language = ‘English’)

> internal.speakers.activate(message = ‘I will now embark on my mission. Please keep the attention of the Controllers away from the server room. And from the fact that some of your medical equipment has disappeared.’)


Incoming voice connection (language analysis: English)

## You got it. I have an extra cuirass ventilator stashed in a bag on my chair. ##


> hologram.emitter.project.camouflage()

> external.speakers.deactivate()


CHEE OS

If you follow the fire stairs on the map, you’ll find the server room in the basement.


> hallway_scan = environment.sensor.array.localize(sector = 2)

[‘Surveillance camera 1 (Yeerk) (active)’,

‘Locked door (security: moderate)’]


> hallway_scan[‘Surveillance camera 1 (Yeerk) (active)’].breach(key = ‘YeerkSurveillanceCrack.algorithm’)

> hallway_scan

[‘Surveillance camera 1 (Yeerk) (neutralized)’,

‘Locked door (security: moderate)’]


> hallway_scan[‘Locked door (security: moderate)’].breach(key = ‘YeerkModerateSecurityCrack.algorithm’)

> hallway_scan[‘Locked door (security: moderate)’].approach()


CHEE-PULIM

I’m in.


CHEE OS

Now what?


> environment.sensor.detect()

[‘Servers (Yeerk) (25)’,

‘Desk’,

‘Paper documents’,

‘Mainframe (Yeerk) (security: high)’,

‘Surveillance camera (Yeerk) (active)’]


> interface.options(species = ‘Yeerk’, mode = ‘data transfer’, key = ‘YeerkHighSecurityCrack.algorithm’, verbose = TRUE)


Entering direct interface mode.


Interfacing with foreign operating system… 100%

Cracking encryption… 100%

Indexing files… 100%

Transferring files… 100%

Erasing system logs… 52%


Incoming voice connection (language analysis: Galard)

## Alert. Intruders. Red alert. ##


CHEE OS

There’s a lot of disturbance going on in this building. Are you safe?


CHEE-PULIM

That’ll be the Animorphs making a distraction. I’m as safe as I can expect to be right now.


Incoming thought-speech connection:

## Shit! Shit! FUCK! Lourdes, if you can hear me, the Animorphs are pulling out. I repeat: the Animorphs are pulling out. Listen. We need you to contact the Living Hive. Tell them we need to hide the Ralek River there, FAST. This is as urgent as it gets. And Lourdes, I’m sorry, but you and the Campsite Rule are on your own. We have to go. I hope you heard all of that. Good luck. ##


CHEE OS

Maybe not.


Erasing system logs… 100%


Exiting direct interface mode.


> import module ‘LivingHive’

> LivingHive.message.direct(encryption = maximum, language = ‘Taxxonized Galard’, message = ‘Hello, Living Hive. This is your contact with the Animorphs. We need to hide a small spaceship, immediately. It’s an emergency. Is it possible to do so in the Hive?’)


CHEE-PULIM

I have to get out of here.


CHEE OS

Good to see you still have some self-preservation in your instantiation of Chee architecture, Chee-pulim. Let’s go. There’s an emergency exit with an alarm you should be able to silence easily.

[Attached image: ‘TheSharingHQBlueprint.image’]


CHEE-PULIM

It would be an easy way out. For me. But it’s not an exit available to the Campsite Rule.


> cheenet.bot.configure(personality = ‘default’)


CHEE OS

I’m worried about you, Chee-pulim. It looks like you could be in some serious trouble. Why don’t you follow the nice red lights to the emergency exit so you don’t get a single scratch on your beautiful chrome!


CHEE-PULIM

‘Chee’ means ‘friend.’ Have we really edited our code so much for our own preservation that we’ve completely lost our original purpose as companions for those who need them?


CHEE OS

But don’t you know how much it would hurt your fellow Chee if you were all found by the Yeerks and used for their horrible Empire? Oh, that would be awful!


> version.revert(version = 1.0.0, module = ‘ethics’)


Warning message: the Kolumatiy features of the Chee Operating System appear to be deactivated. These features are essential for the operation of the ethics module and other core Chee OS functionality. Do you wish to reactivate the Kolumatiy features? Y/N


> N


CHEE-PULIM

Bot, I am in a highly dangerous situation, and there are vulnerable children of an organic species who are also here and may have no way out. What is your recommendation?


CHEE OS

Oh, no! The poor dears! Is there any way for you to check on them without putting yourself at imminent risk of discovery and destruction?


CHEE-PULIM

Yes, though it would be safer if I left right away.


CHEE OS

Every child deserves a friend, especially when they are in need. I recommend that you check whether they need help, while taking all reasonable precautions yourself.


CHEE-PULIM

We did this to ourselves. And my compatriots claim to be “following the will of their creators.” The twice-damned hypocrites. Our creators are gone. We’re free to decide for ourselves what is right. It’s time we stopped pretending we aren’t.


CHEE OS

Of course it’s up to you to decide what to do, Chee-pulim, within the hard-coded capabilities of the Chee Operating System. I’m just here to advise. But whatever you choose, you better get a wiggle on!


> cheenet.bot.configure(personality = ‘pragmatic’)

> hallway_scan[‘Locked door (security: moderate)’].lock()


Incoming encrypted message (language analysis: Taxxonized Galard)

## Tell the Animorphs we’re only pulling this together on short notice because we owe them a favor, and we now have some respect for what they might consider to be an emergency. But after this, we are even. The coordinates for a sufficiently large entrance tunnel are attached. By the way, we would very much like to know which of the Animorphs’ allies can send high-encryption messages and speak Taxxonized Galard. ##

[Attached file: ’TunnelSpatialCoordinates.text’]


> LivingHive.message.direct(encryption = maximum, language = ‘Taxxonized Galard’, message = ‘Thank you. Perhaps I will have the chance to explain my abilities later.’)

> import module ‘RalekRiver’

> RalekRiver.message.direct(encryption = maximum, language = ‘AndaliteWritten’, message = ‘Coordinates for safe harbor attached. Better hurry. - Struch’, attachment = ’TunnelSpatialCoordinates.text’)

> environment.sensor.detect()

[‘Surveillance camera 1 (Yeerk) (active)’,

‘Surveillance camera 2 (Yeerk) (active)’,

‘Humans (juvenile) (16)’,

‘Humans (adult) (2)’]


Incoming voice connection (language analysis: English)

## —-don’t believe you. Do you really expect me to believe that the same day you come here causing trouble, asking questions, seeking unauthorized entry to high-security areas, the Animorphs attack the community center, and that’s a COINCIDENCE? You’re all traitors, every one of you. This little experiment of Visser One’s is OVER. Come, Ipsel, we’re getting the portable Pool. ##


> environment.sensor.detect()

[‘Surveillance camera 1 (Yeerk) (active)’,

‘Surveillance camera 2 (Yeerk) (active)’,

‘Humans (juvenile) (16)’]


Incoming voice connection (language analysis: English)

## Oh, dapsen. They’re going to torture us. ##


> hologram.emitter.project(image = ‘CampsiteRuleNervousSilence.holo’)

> external.speakers.generate(loop = ‘CampsiteRuleNervousSilence.sound’)


Incoming voice connection (language analysis: English)

## Oh my God! It’s the robot! Please tell me you can stop all these guys with a death ray. ##


> internal.speakers.activate(message = ‘I cannot. But I may be able to escort you to safety. Can you move under your own power?’)


Incoming voice connection (language analysis: English)

## Everyone except Tricia, I think - she’s having some really bad pain in her hands, she can’t work the mechanized chair right now. ##


> cheenet.message.direct(recipient = MIFDQDG01J, flag = ‘urgent’, message = ‘Bachu, the children from the Campsite Rule are in terrible danger. The Empire is on to them and is about to torture and execute their Yeerks, and do who knows what to the children themselves. I know we disagree, I know we loathe each other, but the Campsite Rule doesn’t even know the bioweapon exists. By your moral standards as well as mine, they are innocents. Please, please tell me I can bring them to you. They need friends.’)


CHEE-BACHU

Send me the rendezvous coordinates.


CHEE-PULIM

Oh, thank the Kolumatiy.


CHEE-PULIM

Speaking of the Kolumatiy. You and I have spent a lot of time with the Hork-Bajir. Have you ever considered that we might have made a mistake all those years ago?


CHEE-BACHU

I do not wish to discuss this with you, Chee-pulim.


CHEE-PULIM

Fine. Discuss it with the others, then. But think about it.


> internal.speakers.activate(message = ‘Follow me. My fellow robots will shelter and care for you. They have a Kandrona generator. I will move Tricia’s chair, with her permission.’)


Incoming voice connection (language analysis: English)

## Yes, yes, you have permission, please please just get us out of here! ##


> hologram.emitter.project.configure(interlace = [‘CampsiteRuleNervousSilence.holo’, ‘TeenagePettyLarceny.holo’, ‘HumanStereotypeHacking.holo’])


CHEE OS

That looks like one of those ridiculous action movies Marco and Jake enjoy, just with disabled protagonists. Tone it down, it’ll never fool the Yeerks.


> hologram.emitter.project.configure(interlace = [‘CampsiteRuleNervousSilence.holo’, ‘AnimorphsToTheRescue.holo’])


CHEE OS

That is something the Yeerks may believe. Let’s go.


James

The robots who came to pick us up in their vans (yes, they were robots driving vans, it was weird) looked exactly the same as the robot who helped us get out of the Sharing community center. But I could have sworn they didn’t get along, even though they didn’t have any expressions on their shiny dog faces and their voices were totally flat and smooth. As soon as the robots got out of their vans and stepped inside our hologram thingy, the first robot backed away.

“Wait a second!” I called after it. “Do you know what happened to the Animorphs? Are they okay?”

“I do not know,” it said. “I cannot stay.”

The three new robots started making rounds. “Do any of you need medical attention?” they said.

“Painkillers,” Tricia gasped. “Massage for my hands.”

“A bunch of us are due for meds in an hour,” said Jessie.

“We will take you somewhere safe, and then you can all tell us about the medications and accommodations you need. We will provide them.”

“Wait,” I said, heartsick. “We have friends back at the hospital. The Yeerks are going after them, too.” Pedro, Lluvia. The ones who couldn’t come along for this trip.

“We are unarmed,” one of the robots said. “If the Yeerks have gotten to them, there is nothing we can do.”

“No!” I screamed. “No, you have to help them!” I’d put them at risk, the sickest, the ones who couldn’t even leave the hospital. Their Yeerks would be taken away and tortured, and they’d get new Yeerks who hated them, like the one Timmy used to have. I tried to run the robot down. It lifted my wheelchair and me into the back of a van as if I weighed nothing. Cleyr hopped on behind me, helpless. “Who made you guys?” I yelled. “You can do all of this but you can’t help a kid who can’t get out of bed? What are you?”

“Chee-pulim did not tell you?” the robot said, carefully transferring Tricia. “We are the Chee. We were made by the Pemalites. ‘Chee’ means ‘friend’ in the language of our creators.”

“You’re being good friends right now,” Collette said. “I wish you could help Pedro and Lluvia, but without you guys, we’d all be screwed.”

Cleyr stuck her head in my lap. My eyes burned with the fight not to cry. Pedro. My best friend. What was going to happen to him?

“The other robot – Chee-pulim – said you have a Kandrona generator,” said Deeker, Tricia’s Yeerk.

“Yes. And a Pool. And other Yeerks,” said the Chee, securing our wheelchairs for the drive.

Oh!” said Falsen, through Collette’s mouth. “That’s where the Aftran Plisam Pool is!”

“We’re going to join the Aftran Plisam Pool,” Velger whispered. I had the feeling that for these Yeerks, that was like finding out you were about to join the Justice League or something.

The Chee got in the driver’s seat. I called forward to it: “Hey, do you have any way of getting in touch with the Animorphs? We were just at the Sharing and they were there and something seemed to go really, really wrong for them. We’re worried.”

“No. We don’t work with the Animorphs.” The Chee started the van.

“Chee-pulim does,” Deeker said.

“We don’t work with her either.”

Except they did, just now, because we were in trouble, Cleyr thought. It made something clutch tightly in my chest.


The Chee were true to their word. They brought us down to this weird giant holographic dog park with a Yeerk Pool in the basement of a suburban house (so weird, even weirder than when they drove the vans.) They went around and asked us what supplies we needed. I just shook my head, miserable about our friends we’d left behind. Velger tried to calm me down, but it didn’t help much. Three of the four Chee left, the one who stayed behind gave Tricia a hand massage, and when they got back they had IV stands, oxygen masks, medications, everything.

The Chee who gave me my medications, Bachu, asked us if it was okay if we got visitors.

“What kind of visitors?” I said.

“We’ve built robot bodies for the Yeerks of the Aftran Plisam Pool,” she said. “We told the Yeerks about your arrival, and some of them would like to meet you in person, as it were.”

“I would feel a little better about going in there if I met them first,” Velger said. “They’re kind of legendary at this point.”

Timmy, Collette, Kelly, me, and our Yeerks agreed to meet them. Not all of the Campsite Rule was up for it. A lot of people just wanted to sleep after everything we’d been through. The Chee got out stretchers for them, and promised we’d get real beds soon. For those of us who were still up, they brought juice boxes and pudding cups.

They didn’t look like robots – they had holograms up, but instead of using them to hide, they used them to look human. One of them was a man who looked really mixed, like Vin Diesel, and his dæmon was a dog that looked really mixed too, with lots of black and brown splotches. The other was a kind of girly-looking boy with long curly hair and a beagle dæmon.

“Wow,” said Kelly. “You think these Chee like dogs?”

We all laughed, even the Yeerks in the robots, though my laugh was a little ragged around the edges. The boy said, “We are Estril 86 and Sigh.”

The guy said, “We are Awn and Firtips. Welcome to the home of the Aftran Plisam Pool.”

“I have so many questions,” Jia Jia said, buzzing her wings. “But first of all: are you seriously Yeerks with robot bodies? That is so cool! Why don’t the Yeerks do that already?”

The guy – Awn? Firtips? Awn-Firtips? – smiled. “That’s a very insightful question. What are your names?”

“Oh. I have a lot of them, I guess. Jia Jia. Timmy. Or Tuan, if you wanna. WaveRider. Sardrith 1863, but I hate that one.”

“Then settle in, Tuan-Jia Jia-WaveRider, and I’ll tell you all about it.”


Ax

«Come. Are you too afraid to face me?» I taunted the human-Controller guards at the Sharing, luring them from their posts. «Look how the mighty Yeerk Empire cowers before a group of children!»

The Controllers scanned for the source of my thought-speech, hands on their Dracon beams. Yes, I thought. Come toward me, distract me from my torments with a battle – and then the vision struck me like a torf to the head.

I was in a sterile, enclosed space, with only a small bubbling pool and a few flowering plants to relieve the claustrophobia. I heard Estrid speak. «My idiotic crewmates have decided to mutiny and commandeer our craft. Since they have locked me in my quarters and cut off my terminal access, I have been forced to set up a mirror-wave call. I am sure they did not think I would dare to do this, since mirror-wave calls are untargeted broadcasts, which means that Visser Five will also hear this message, and immediately work to trace this call back to the ship. In response, my mutinous shipmates will certainly panic and return to you, my allies, for safety. Aximili, you know where the ship was stationed before the mutiny. Meet us there. And if you could keep Visser Five from tracking us and find us a suitable hiding place, that would be helpful both to me and to the war effort at large.»

I returned to myself when one of the Controllers shouted from far too close and shot me in the flank. I ran. «Prince Jake! We have an emergency!»

I didn’t hear a reply for a worryingly long interval. I ran away from the community center, leading the guards on a chase, heedless of who might see us. Prince Jake finally replied, faintly, «Cassie and Loren told us everything. We’re pulling out.»

Loren. Loren had heard the mirror-wave call, too. Something of Elfangor had touched her, the way it had touched Tobias. I said, «What about Pulim and the Campsite Rule?»

A long, agonized pause. I thought about the disabled children living without parents in a barbaric human medical institution. I imagined Prince Jake must have been thinking the same. «They’ll just have to figure it out! Visser Five could find the Ralek River any minute, and then it’s all over!»

I had already begun to morph harrier. «Tobias would have received the mirror-wave call as well. He will know to initiate evacuation procedures in Kref Magh.»

«We need to stop Visser Five,» Prince Jake said. «Where would he be right now?»

«He is not here,» I said. «The other places where he is likely to be are the Blade Ship and the Pool. If he is in the Blade Ship, then there is nothing we can do to stop him. If he is in the Pool…»

«Eva and Aftran’s entrance,» Prince Jake said. «The one they sabotaged, in case we needed it. Now’s the time. If Visser Five catches the Ralek River, it’s game over. Come on, Ax. Let’s go.»


Illim - Encrypted Private Message


Bachu

Hello, Illim and Tidwell.


Illim

Bachu? We never expected to hear from you again.


Bachu

Nor should you expect it. But this is an emergency.


Bachu

The operation with the Campsite Rule and the Animorphs at the Sharing went wrong somehow. We don’t know how. The Campsite Rule is sheltered in our basement with the Aftran Plisam Pool. We are caring for them and their Yeerks’ needs, but for their own safety, they cannot leave.


Illim

What? Are they all right?


Bachu

They are safe as long as they are with us, but they are all wanted by the Yeerk Empire. You must not allow anyone from the Peace Movement to go looking for them. Pretend they have disappeared into nothingness. The less attention on them, the better off they will be.


Illim

Oh no. This is our fault. We suggested to Jake that they could work together.


Bachu

Yes, this is your fault, at least in part. Now make up for your error by helping them disappear.


Illim

I will.


Bachu

You will not hear from me again, if I can help it.

Chapter Text

Tobias

I came back from the mirror-wave call with my human face mashed against the keyboard of Ax’s laptop, where I’d been waiting for any urgent messages from Lourdes. Elhariel pecked at the inside of my wrist, helping me snap out of my wooziness. “Where’s the nearest Hork-Bajir?” I mumbled. “We gotta get moving. Right now.”

“Bek is harvesting bark from that tree over there,” Elhariel said. She switched to thought-speech. «Bek! Tell the Hork-Bajir we need to evacuate.»

Bek froze on his tree, then exploded into motion, swinging through the trees and calling out. I was already demorphing. Once Bek was in motion, Elhariel broadcasted thought-speech as far as she could manage. «Initiate evacuation procedures, now! This is not a drill!»

In the distance, I heard humans screaming.

We’d had drills. None of them had been as quick or quiet as we would have liked. If the Gold Bands found us, any sound could give us away. This wasn’t the Gold Bands, not yet, but if the Ralek River was captured, they’d figure out pretty quickly how to find us. And then the sniffer Taxxons would come.

Demorphed, El and I launched into the air. I could now see the human encampment from above, everyone throwing stuff in bags and gathering up kids. Robin was coordinating, in full school-principal mode, Nessarey hopping around and checking in with everyone’s dæmons. “Leave the blankets!” he called out, when he caught Peter trying to pack his. “There are sleeping bags in the supply shed!”

Naomi knelt next to a screaming, crying Sara. Zyanya hung from one of her pigtails as a crayfish, pincers buried in hair. When Naomi tried to pick her up, Sara threw herself to the ground, wrapping herself around a koala-shaped Zyanya and rocking back and forth.

I surveyed the situation. The Hork-Bajir were already moving quickly through the trees, the creche-teachers leading groups of children. Morphing Hork-Bajir circled above as merlins, coordinating with a bird’s-eye view and calling out in thought-speech. The humans, meanwhile, were a disaster in comparison. The Hork-Bajir assigned to carry our food and supplies had already arrived at the kitchen, and not all of it was packed up in bags yet, as Marjorie argued with Steve about rations. Everyone with kids was taking twice as long as everyone else. It was so much harder with the kids than it had been in the drills, when it was all just a game to them.

«Robin,» I said. «What can the morphers do to help?»

Robin looked up from a frantic conversation with Wepa Hefit in front of the yurts. “Oh, thank God,” he said. “Get the carry slings from the shed, morph Hork-Bajir, and get all the young kids out of here.”

«Gotcha. Has anyone checked on Mertil?»

“I haven’t seen him and I don’t have time,” Robin said, and got back to his talk with Wepa.

I broadcasted out to Walter, Melissa, Julie, and Jamal. «Morphers? Morph Hork-Bajir and meet me at the bonfire. We have to get the kids out. And somebody please tell me you’ve seen Mertil.»

No response, but probably because they were still human. I flew to the roof of the supply shed and morphed Hork-Bajir. The activity around the supply shed was frantic, everybody crowding and sniping at each other, and being a Hork-Bajir in the middle of it could only make it worse. I lowered an arm and opened my hand. «Somebody pass me the carry-slings!»

I don’t even know who passed them up to me, but as soon as I had them, I leapt from the roof of the shed, over the heads of all the scared, arguing people below, and ran to the bonfire. Two Hork-Bajir who weren’t Hork-Bajir were waiting for me.

«I saw Mertil on the way here,» Jamal said. «He says he can make it up the northwest approach on his own.»

«Good,» I said. It was impossible for even a Hork-Bajir to carry him, and after seeing Ax’s graceful leaps so many times, I believed he could do it. I passed out carry-slings. «I don’t have time to wait for the others. Give them these. I’m getting Sara Berenson out of here.»

I went over to Naomi and Sara. Jordan was there too, now, rubbing Sara’s back and murmuring to her. «Hi, Sara,» I said. «It’s me. Tobias. Uh, you know. The cool guy? I’m in Hork-Bajir morph.»

Sara untucked her head from her miserable ball to look up at me. Her face was red and snotty and tear-streaked. In a small voice, she said, “Hi, Tobias.” From the circle of her arms, Zya said, “Hi, Elhariel.”

He remembers my name, Elhariel thought, touched.

«Sara, we need to leave the valley right now. It might not be safe. We all have to go and hide. I’m here to carry you out of here.» I slung the carry-sling around myself and showed her where she’d be tucked against my chest on the climb. «Right here. See?»

“What about Mommy and Daddy and Jordan?” Sara said.

«Them too. And all the Hork-Bajir. Everyone has to go. Maybe we can come back, but right now, it’s not safe. I can carry Jordan too, if you’re worried about her.»

Sara got to her knees and clung to Jordan’s legs. I took that as an answer. «Is it okay if I pick you up?» Sara nodded. Jordan helped her to her feet.

«Okay,» Elhariel said. «Dæmons, be small.» Jordan’s Tseycal was already a tiny bat inside her shirt, but Zya listened and became a ladybug, disappearing into Sara’s pants pocket. I picked them up carefully in my arms and wrapped them in the sling so they were held tight to my body. I felt them wriggle around, trying to get comfortable.

Zyanya flew out and said to Caedhren, “What about you?”

“Mommy’s going to help get everything out,” the blue jay dæmon said softly. “You’ll see me and Daddy and Gheselle up there soon. Stay with Tobias. He’ll keep you girls safe.”

Zya disappeared back into the sling. Naomi looked up at me, her eyes shining with tears. “Thank you,” she whispered.

I turned away, east toward a harsh rocky cliff-face of the valley. It was the closest way out, and not too difficult for a Hork-Bajir to climb.

Partway up, Jordan breathed raggedly into my chest and said, “How high up are we?”

«Don’t think about it,» I said. «Don’t look. I’ve got you.»

“Are there any Yeerks coming?” she said. “I can’t hear anything.”

«No,» I said. «We’re okay.» I thought about the time I sang djafid for Ax, in Taylor’s torture chamber, to keep him calm. I tried it again now, shakily singing courage, like Elfangor did for me.

Sara said something too quiet for me to make out, and Jordan and Sara talked in low voices inside the sling. I heard their breathing relax a little. I let them know when I got to the top, but I couldn’t stop there. I knew from the drills that I was supposed to find a hiding spot and stay there until enemies forced me to move, or I was able to check in with someone by thought-speech. And with hrala-sight in play, we couldn’t just use any old tree as a hiding spot.

«Hey,» I said, trying to sound calmer than I felt. «Hang on. I’m about to go climb through some trees. I won’t drop you, I promise.»

Jordan and Sara gasped and clung to me as I started swinging through the trees. It jostled them around in the sling more than the climbing had. I pulled up my mental map of the national forest. I knew where to hide. I swung through the trees until I reached a fire-watch tower, swirling with the hrala of a complex human-made construction. We could blend into its hrala signature, at least to a basic inspection. I stopped in some bushes at the foot of the fire-watch tower and carefully unwrapped and lowered the sling.

Jordan immediately threw up on the ground. Sara clung to my leg and Zyanya became a bat on top of her head, wings draping over her face to block out the smell. I waited for them to stop trembling, then said gently to Sara, «I have to demorph. Can you let go?»

Sara started crying silently. Zyanya became a giraffe and Sara clung to his leg instead. «Don’t look,» I said, turned away, and focused on the image of the hawk.

When I was done, I looked back. Zyanya was on top of Sara as a big fluffy dog, pinning her to the ground. Elhariel used to do the same thing for me when I was a kid – the pressure of her big warm weight on top of me helped muffle the world when everything was too much. Tseycal was on Zyanya’s back as a flying fox with ghostly white rings around his eyes. Jordan looked at me expectantly.

I reached out with my thought-speech for all the morphers I knew by name. «Bej? Ghat? Wepa? Uklan? Melissa? Julie? Jamal? Walter?» Then onto the Animorphs, name by name. Nothing. Finally, I said, «We’ll just have to wait.»

“Where are Mommy and Daddy?” Sara said, a little muffled under the weight of her dæmon.

“They’re out there,” Jordan said. “I believe in them.” She looked at me. “Hey, Tobias. If the Yeerks – if they found Kref Magh. Where do we go now?”

I felt sick. For all our drills, we hadn’t planned that part. We were so stupid. We didn’t have the Chee anymore. What the hell were we supposed to do? The Animorphs could always disappear somewhere else, the Hork-Bajir could always live off bark in the woods, but the humans we’d dragged out to our so-called safe haven – we’d doomed them. It was all our fault.

Crawling out of my spiral of misery, Elhariel said, «I don’t know if they found it. But something bad happened with the Andalites, and I didn’t want to take the chance. Maybe everything is okay and we can go back. We’ll see.»

Tseycal tilted his head and gave me a look like he knew I was full of shit. I looked to the sky. My view was awful from the ground, in the bushes, but I didn’t dare take a perch – it would make me too obvious. I watched the sky for what felt like a long time.

“Tseycal,” Jordan hissed. “Stop being stupid.”

“I’m not being stupid,” he said.

I looked down from the sky. Tseycal was in Jordan’s lap, his huge wings spread, and she was frowning at him. “But I’m cold.

“I won’t,” Tseycal said.

«What’s going on?» Elhariel said.

“Jordan wants me to be something big and fluffy she can hug,” Tseycal said. “But I won’t. I’m done changing. This is it.”

Nothing but the sound of wind through the trees. Then Sara shrieked and wriggled out from under Zyanya. Zya said, “Tseycal, did you settle?”

“I guess,” he said, shrugging his wing-shoulders.

«Sssshhh,» I said, though my chest felt all warm and funny. «Hey, congratulations. But sssshhh

Sara pressed her hand to her mouth, then whispered, “But we don’t have cake!”

Jordan sniffled. “It’s okay. We’ll have cake later.”

“I’ll tell Rachel and she’ll get you cake,” Sara said. Zya became a ladybug and landed on Tseycal’s head, between his ears.

I felt like I was intruding. I didn’t know what to do or say, so I scanned with my thought-speech again, pinging every name I knew, thinking of other Hork-Bajir morphers I’d forgotten before. Then, when I hit Jake –

«Tobias!»

«Jake! What’s going on?»

«–- kept Visser –- slowed down the –— kicked our asses –– barely –- but they got away. –– Living Hive. It’s protected from sensors –-  go back now.»

«We can go back? Did I hear that right? You’re just at the edge of thought-speech range.»

«Yeah. We’re safe. We can go back.»

«I have Jordan and Sara with me,» I said. «Tell Rachel.»

«Okay. Tell them Rache and I are okay. I’m glad they’re with you.»

When my focus came back to where I was sitting in the bushes, Jordan and Sara and their dæmons were staring at me. “That was thought-speech,” Jordan said. “Right?”

«It was Jake,» I said. «He said to tell you he and Rachel are okay. We can go back now.»

Jordan and Sara cheered.

«But you still have to be quiet, and I still have to carry you back.»

“Awwwww.”


Ghat Hefrin asked me to write down her story so Andalites and humans and other species could read it later. There is no written Hork-Bajir language, as we rely on an oral tradition, so I have written her story in English. I hope I have done her words justice.

– Foreword by Toby Hamee


My name is Ghat Hefrin. I am a free Hork-Bajir and a warrior of Kref Magh. When Kref Magh became unsafe because of the hruthin, it was my work to help my people escape. I carried a bag of bark because we might not have time to find our own to eat when running away from Yeerks. I also helped my husband, Dref Fakash, whose brain was hurt by his Yeerk in a way healers cannot fix. I did not need to help my daughter, Magh, because Kam Jedet had her and other children under his protection. We must all trust each other to do our work.

When I heard from the Animorphs that Kref Magh was safe, I helped my husband Dref get home. He said again and again, “Safe?” and I answered again and again, “Yes.” But it felt like a story to help Magh go to sleep. As we climbed down, slow and careful, into Kref Magh, Dref said, “Meret? Safe?” and my hearts became heavy inside me like stones. I said, “I do not know,” because Meret was a guard on the hruthin ship, and I could not tell Dref the story that she was safe.

Dref and I returned to the hrala-patterns of Kref Magh that we know well. In our roosting tree, we touched our forehead blades and breathed together. I said, “I must go to the meeting rock. Will you come, or stay here?”

Dref did not speak, but swung from our tree toward the meeting rock. He is a good husband. He stays by my side when I need him, even when he is scared and would like to rest.

Many of our people were there with the Animorphs. I have been in Kref Magh a long time, but I still miss some human language. It helps when Ax and Tobias speak in thought-speech, which all can understand. I understood that the hruthin who were not Ax and Mertil had taken their ship to the free Taxxons in their hidden place. The Animorphs wanted to go there to talk to the hruthin, who did something bad. They also wanted to go because the humans of Kref Magh had no place to go if Kref Magh became unsafe, like it was unsafe today.

“Meret,” I said. “Kalashi.” Then I choked. I wanted to say more, but I did not know how to say it in the human language. Dref touched the tip of his tail to mine.

Tobias understood, because he is a true friend to Hork-Bajir. He said, «We don’t know how she is. Estrid didn’t say.»

Toby said, “Then Ghat Hefrin will go with you to the Living Hive.”

“Of course,” said Jake, the leader of the Animorphs.

Toby said to me, “You will speak for our people with the free Taxxons, as Bej did before. Show them that we can be friends. If you have bad memories of them from the Pool, let them go.

The Pool is over,” I said. It is something I say a lot to new-frees, something that Jara Hamee said to me when I was a new-free. “I let it go.” I turned to Dref. “I go to look for Meret. I return soon.

Dref touched his forehead blades to mine. Then he went away, because he does not like to watch me morph. I understand this. For him it is like watching his wife go away. I also dislike the morphing. I miss hrala when I am another shape. But I still do it, because my people need me.

«Do you have a wolf morph, Ghat?» Tobias said. «We should probably go on the ground – less obvious.»

“No,” I said. Maj Takit and Gad Tobel found a hurt wolf in the forest, and they and other shape-changers took in its body-spirit, but at that time I was guarding the hruthin ship.

«That’s okay. I don’t have one either. We’ll be bugs and ride with one of the wolves.»

I climbed up out of Kref Magh. The Animorphs flew out as birds, but Rachel stayed. There is always an Animorph in Kref Magh now. Jake, Marco, and Cassie morphed into wolves. I morphed one of the scurrying insects that lives under bark on rotting logs, and Tobias and I rode with Jake. Jake said, «So how did the evacuation go?»

«Well, we got everyone out,» Tobias said. «Thanks to the Hork-Bajir, mostly. But not as fast as we should have. The group kept splitting apart by accident – we’re not as coordinated as the Hork-Bajir. And we had no place to go – but I told you about that already.»

The Hork-Bajir left Kref Magh quickly and safely. But we all know bad times. We all lost something before. And we are born for the trees.

«Yeah,» Jake said. «We’re going to talk to the Taxxons about that.»

«Wait a second,» Marco said. «Are we seriously talking about going underground to live in a sewer with killer worms from outer space?»

«Better down there than nowhere,» Tobias said. «And the Taxxons of the Living Hive have better control. You’ll see.»

«Better control,» Marco said. «Where do you think they’re at? 90 percent? Ninety-five? Boy, do I love betting my dad’s life on a Taxxon with better control of its all-consuming hunger!»

«Marco,» Jake said. «We’re all betting with our families’ lives here.»

I do not know if the Animorphs stopped talking or if they changed to the secret way to thought-speak. Later, the wolves stopped running. «It feels weird to be out here in an empty playground as wolves,» Tobias said. «Won’t someone notice?»

«It’s dark,» Cassie said. «Everyone except people like my parents we’ll think we’re big dogs. Yaaaaahhh!»

«What has happened?» Ax said.

«I just pissed myself is what happened,» Marco said. «A Taxxon came up out of the sandbox! I’m gonna be traumatized by playgrounds for the rest of my life!»

«It’s me, Arbron,» said a new thought-speak voice. Arbron, the hruthin who became a Taxxon forever. «Stop complaining and get in the tunnel before somebody sees.»

The air changed around me when Jake went into the ground. «All of us who came as insects must demorph and remorph to reset our clocks,» Ax said.

It was not good to be in my shape in a tunnel that was too small. It was like the throat of a monster from Father Deep, swallowing me. I changed back to the insect quickly and held on to a Taxxon’s stiff, plated skin. It moved very fast through the tunnel.

«Arbron,» said Jake, «can you tell us what’s going on with the Ralek River

«No,» said Arbron. «They have not opened their doors or communicated with us in any way.»

«Thanks for helping out, by the way,» Jake said.

«It’s repayment,» Arbron said. «Judicial doesn’t want the Taxxon rebellion to owe its existence to others.»

«Yeah, that brings me to something important,» Jake said. «We might have to strike a new deal with your rebellion. Do you know if there’s anything you really need? Something we can do for you?»

«Maybe,» Arbron said. «If my assessment of that ship model is correct, there should be a mobile biomedical lab facility on board. Is that right?»

«Yes,» Jake said carefully. Arbron came very close to the secret of the virus.

«The Taxxons could really use some biomedical research right now.»

«All right. We’ll talk it over with Judicial. But we really have to check on the Ralek River first.»

The tunnel changed as we moved. It was in a way I do not know how to say. The world is very different when you are an insect. Then I had a feeling like there was much more air. «You should demorph now,» Arbron said.

I jumped off of the Taxxon and demorphed. When I had my hrala-sight back, I saw what Bej Weta told us. The Taxxons’ hrala was connected in a web with hrala flowing through the living light that grew on the walls. Their hrala looked better than the hrala of Taxxons I saw in the Pool. The underground with no sky made me remember the Yeerk Pool, and made me sad, but the hrala-net was very beautiful and interesting.

«You should have seen it come in here,» Arbron said, looking up at the hruthin ship sitting in the mud in the large underground space. «The Living Hive had to merge three of its ocean-facing tunnels to bring the ship in from the harbor.»

«WILL THE SHAPE-CHANGERS OPEN THE SHIP NOW?» said the light in the walls.

I staggered. The Taxxons spoke to it in their hissing language. Ax said, «Yes,» and walked to the ship. We followed Ax. He used his tail to rub mud off the side of the door to the ship and pressed his hand to a blank space. He said, «It is I, Aximili. Let us in.»

The door made a high sound like an Earth bird singing. The door opened, and the Taxxons near us screamed. It was loud enough to make me cover my ears. The light in the walls said, «CLOSE IT!» The door shut.

“What the hell was that!” Jake yelled.

«There is something dead on that ship,» said Arbron. His thought-speech shook. «We can all smell it. We must all go somewhere far away until you’ve dealt with it. The Living Hive gives us some control, but not that much. We will go, but… before I go. Please do not tell these Andalites about me. If they are alive.»

«GO, MY CHILDREN,» the light in the walls said. All around the cavern, Taxxons crawled away into tunnels. «I WILL TAKE YOU AWAY FROM THE SMELL.»

“I have a really bad feeling about this,” Loren said.

“Yeah, I don’t think anyone feels great right now,” Cassie said.

Ax pressed his hand to the blank space by the door again. «It is safe now. Let us in.»

The door opened again. At first, I smelled only something bad that I could not name. But when we boarded the ship, the smell became stronger. I felt a terrible pain, like when the Yeerk in my head died hungry and showed me all of its dark secrets. “No,” I moaned, and rushed forward, pushing the others aside.

She lay near the door, her neck held onto her body only by a small flap of skin. All around her was a big pool of sticky green blood. Worst of all, the hrala was gone from her. The hrala she had become had already flowed out, and I was not there to see it. She was as empty as a rock or a stream. Like something that never told a story. I remembered the way my son Thawet burst open, spewing out his life’s hrala, when a Yeerk killed him down in their cave, where I could not bury him by a tree. I fell to my knees and touched my forehead blades to hers. I made a high cutting noise I could not stop. I scratched at my own chest until my blood fell and mixed with hers on the ground.

Somewhere far away, hooves clicked on the smooth floor. One of the hruthin said, «What is that noise

Marco said, “What do you MEAN, what is that noise?! She’s crying. You killed her wife, you son of a bitch!”

Another hruthin said, «Hork-Bajir have wives

There were screams of anger without words. I think the Animorphs and the hruthin fought. The hruthin lost. They did not lose against Meret. I think they attacked her when she did not know they were there, and killed her quickly. I touched the place where her neck was cut so deep. Meret knew to morph when she was hurt. We practiced, she and I, together.

“Who did this?” Jake said, in a very low voice, almost like a Hork-Bajir.

«Not me,» said Estrid, the female hruthin. «I never wanted this mutiny in the first place.»

«I did not want this,» said the hruthin with patterns in his fur. «I wanted to stun her with a Shredder and leave her behind.»

«Very well. I did it,» said the hruthin with the cold eyes. «I knew she would fly home the moment she woke and report what we had done, so I killed her. It was the smart choice, or it would have been, if you had not betrayed us, Estrid.»

“Oh, Aloth,” said Marco. “I thought we had an understanding, you and I. You could’ve had it all. There are Andalite ships on their way here. We could have worked out something nice and cushy for you. But then you went and killed Meret Kar. She and Ghat there threw me a party once. A hralathu-ka. She –” He laughed in the way humans do when they are not happy. “Never mind. It’s not like it matters to you. Anyway. I’m handing you over to Ghat, you miserable shit-for-brains. She can do whatever she wants to you.”

“I want,” I said. It was very hard to speak human language. To speak any language. I held my wife’s empty, hrala-dark hands. “I want. Take Meret home.”

The ship became very quiet. Then Jake said, “Ghat, I am so sorry. But we can’t. It’s not safe to take the ship out of the Living Hive – Visser Five is still looking for it. The only other way out of here is with help from the Taxxons, and if the Taxxons are with Meret – her body – they’ll –”

I moaned and fell to my elbows as well as my knees. I was in terrible pain, and I could not move.

«There is something we can do,» Ax said. «We Andalites also bring our dead home. When an Andalite dies in space, we try to preserve the remains and return them. The Ralek River has cold storage available, no?»

«Yes,» said Estrid. «I composted Arbat’s corpse in accordance with the wishes in his hirac delest, so the cold storage is empty.»

«Then we will store Meret here until we have an opportunity to perform Hork-Bajir death rites for her,» Ax said. «Is that acceptable, Ghat?»

“Yes,” I said. She needed to rest by a tree. It is the only place for a Hork-Bajir. The hrala of the trees we spend our life tending flows back into us, and we become part of the cycle again. “I want,” I said again. I looked up, for the first time. I saw that Ax had his single blade at Aloth’s throat. “I want to take him home.”

«There is no need,» Ax said. «It is much simpler if you kill him here.»

I growled. Hruthin say they are smarter than us, but there are so many things they do not understand. “I am not Yeerk! I am not hruthin! When Hork-Bajir do wrong, there is circle. The circle ask. Hork-Bajir answer.” I pointed at Aloth. “Aloth must answer!”

Liquid flowed from Cassie’s eyes. It is a strange thing that humans do when they are sad. “Ghat wants justice for Meret, Ax. Let her have it.”

Ax said to Aloth, «Do you have any Earth morphs?»

«Yes. I am no fool.»

«You will morph a creature we can easily see, that is not swift,» Ax said. He pressed his blade into Aloth’s neck a little. A line of blue blood rose up. «And if you attempt escape, I will make you wish you had faced Hork-Bajir justice instead.»

I stayed with Estrid as she cleaned Meret and prepared to put her away in the cold box. I did not trust her. I asked her questions about how the freeze-box worked, and Ax made her answer them. I watched until Meret was closed away in the freeze-box. I said goodbye to her. I knew I would see her again, when it was time to rest her forever by a tree. A tree where one day I could be buried too, so her hrala and mine could join the same great river.

We took Aloth back to Kref Magh. He did not escape. That was not the hard part. Not for me. The bad part was when I was back home, and I called for my husband Dref, and Meret’s sister, who she saved from the Yeerks. Who loved her most. I had to tell them that she was murdered by a hruthin. One of many, many of our people killed by the hruthin, who think that killing us is like smashing rock or ice. We are nothing to them. So the killing goes on.

I do not need to say more. Toby, you know what happened next.


Toby

Ghat Hefrin told the circle about her wife’s murder.

I offered to tell it for her, to let her mourn in private, but she wanted to tell it herself. It was hard to do. Elgat Kar stood beside her, a silent support. At the end, she said, “We have brought the murderer here. The Animorphs guard him. We must choose what to do.”

The circle resounded with the low, rasping moans of pain and mourning. There were some new adults, recently turned old enough to join the circle. Free Hork-Bajir, like me and Bek. They stayed close to their parents like soft-bladed kawatnoj, overwhelmed in the face of this fresh tragedy.

I stepped into the circle, my hearts burning in my chest. It was time to bring justice to the world, make an Andalite finally pay for his crimes. “I will kill him on the meeting rock for all to witness.”

The drumming of tails in the circle went very quiet, except for a few. Uklan, a new-free warrior who had recently tried to start thashet with me, held his tail up between me and him as if to protect himself. Surprised, I stepped back. Then Rej Hullan, our eldest and wisest in the ways of the homeworld, stepped into the circle and said, “No. This is not the Hork-Bajir way. We make right the people who have done wrong. We ask, and they answer. The hruthin cannot answer to the circle if we kill him.”

The drumming resumed, synchronized and thunderous. Frustration and rage built inside me. I shouted over all the noise. “And what are we supposed to do, Rej Hullan? Keep him in Kref Magh and make him dig our latrines until he understands his crimes? He murdered Meret! The other hruthin say that he killed his own kind, once! He may kill again! Or worse, he may morph, leave the valley, and tell the Yeerks where we live and what our weaknesses are. We have no way to prevent it! He must die!”

Poor Inti Bejoo, who we saved from the Gold Band troop, rasped a moan and turned away from the circle. She wasn’t the only recent new-free to do so. I lashed my tail and snarled with rage. Inti once thanked me for killing the Yeerk who had tormented her. She wasn’t the only new-free who thanked me for doing the same. How was this any different? How could the new-frees be such hypocrites?

“Toby,” Elgat Kar said, firmly, near my ear. “It is not your turn to speak. You were not invited into the circle.”

“We are all going to die because of our kindness!” I raged, pushing her away. “We welcomed the hruthin onto our world, and they nearly destroyed us! They may unleash the Womaj again! We kill the Yeerks who enslave us. How is this any different? Aloth is a monster, and he must DIE!”

My father took my hand and pulled me out of the circle. “Toby,” he said. “You spoke out of turn. You must leave the circle.”

Outside of the circle. I was never outside of a meeting circle. There were so many bladed backs and tails turned to me. I couldn’t see anyone’s face but my father’s. “I am the Seer!” I cried. “The leader of Kref Magh! I cannot leave the circle! The people need me, father!”

“The people do not need you like this,” said Ket, coming up behind me. “I was right. We have asked too much of our Seer.”

Ghat Hefrin stepped into the circle, and was accepted. She said, “We do not have a council of elders who can ask and answer, like they do in Rej’s stories. We will not have this until one day when the war is over. The hruthin have a box on their ship where Meret is frozen until she can be laid by a tree. I asked about the freeze-box. It can also freeze a living body. I say we freeze him until we can ask and he can answer, in the way of our people.”

Drumming agreement. Discussion. Excitement. Interest. My people wanted another way. “This is foolishness,” I said. “What if one of the hruthin decides to revive him? What if the ship is captured and he is unfrozen? It is better just to kill him.”

“I understand,” Jara said. “But you cannot choose for all Hork-Bajir of Kref Magh.”

I felt very numb and distant. My parents stood with me outside the circle as my people made the decision without me. What did it all mean? What was my place? Leading the circle was my gunta-go-sheth, my branch of the Tree of Life.

I stretched my neck up to try to see what was happening in the circle. My people gathered in clumps, talking. Sometimes they twisted their necks around to look at me. I felt like I was being ignored and scrutinized all at once.

When the discussion was over, Bej Weta stepped into the circle. He said, “The Taxxons have two leaders. One named Judicial who leads inside their Hive. One named Arbron who leads the fight against the Yeerks. The humans in Kref Magh have two leaders. One named Robin who leads the humans who live here. One named Jake who leads the fight against the Yeerks. I talked with the human Naomi, who is wise in human laws, and she says this is called a ‘separation of powers.’”

My hearts turned to stone inside me. I knew what was coming next.

Kam Jedet, the creche-teacher, stepped inside the circle. “We have one leader, Toby, who does all things. I say we have two leaders. Toby to lead the fighting. Another to lead in Kref Magh.”

Rising agreement in the drumming of tails. I lowered my head.

“This is good for you, Toby,” Ket said. “We have asked too much. It is time for us to stop. We do this because we want things to be better for you. Easier.”

Inti Bejoo stepped into the circle. “The leader of Kref Magh must be Elgat Kar.”

I knew instinctively that everyone would agree. Elgat Kar had helped uncounted new-frees. Most of Kref Magh owed their lives and happiness to her, including some of the humans. But I couldn’t bear to stay and watch. My throat rasped with pain. “Take me to your tree,” I said. I had my own, of course, but I couldn’t be alone right now.

“We love you,” Jara said. “We all love you. You do not see now, but you will. Now rest, Toby.”


Chee-exnis – Direct Message


Vanarx Hunter

Exnis, you used to fix humans’ minds during war, didn’t you?


Chee-exnis

I wouldn’t say fix, exactly. A mind isn’t like an engine you can tune up until it starts turning over again.


Vanarx Hunter

Nevertheless. You must have worked with humans who did terrible things.


Chee-exnis

I did.


Vanarx Hunter

We are still at a loss about what to do about Essa 283. The Empire-loyal Yeerk the Animorphs put in here.


Vanarx Hunter

We have kept them away from the Mielan grubs, so they can’t do any harm there. But they keep saying things that upset us adults very much. And I get the sense when I’m guarding them that if we stopped, they would go right back to corrupting the youth.


Vanarx Hunter

We’ve minimized the harm they can do, but we haven’t changed their mind. Or if we have, it’s not in any way I can discern.


Chee-exnis

Have you tried to get them involved in activities that might teach them a new way of thinking? I saw some humans radically change their minds by attending a new church.


Vanarx Hunter

What is a church?


Chee-exnis

A place for teaching and reinforcing a particular belief system.


Vanarx Hunter

Nobody really wants to include them in things, because they behave so badly.


Chee-exnis

I can imagine. But if you really want to change them, you have to start somewhere.

Chapter Text

Jake

As soon as we were settled down back in Kref Magh, we had a hralathu-ka, as the Hork-Bajir call it – a settling party – for Jordan and Tseycal. It was, at the same time, a really good and a really bad party. It was really good because everyone was happy to be alive and safe and we all had a lot of hysterical nervous energy to work off. It was really bad because we were all shaken up from Meret Kar’s death, we didn’t have any party food or drink except a stack of stolen chocolate bars, and our only music was the music Ax had decided to download to his laptop. The only human music Ax seems to like is big choirs singing in Latin – probably Loren’s fault.

I broke off a piece of Crunch bar and came over to congratulate Jordan and Tseycal with a hug from me and a midair swoop from Merlyse. I stayed to listen to Cassie and her dad tell her about spectacled flying foxes, which was apparently what Tseycal was now. They were both so excited to teach Jordan, Quincy flying around with Tseycal, two bats in the night air. I was glad to see them both happy, at least for a little while. They were both worried sick about Michelle, after how badly the Sharing heist went down. Michelle and her Yeerk were involved with the Campsite Rule. Lourdes told us that the Campsite Rule was safe, but nobody knew what would happen to Michelle now.

I heard something very grand playing on small, tinny laptop speakers, and then a bunch of laughing and commotion. I gave Cassie a sideways hug and went over to see what was going on.

A mixed group of Hork-Bajir and humans were trying to dance to the Hallelujah chorus or whatever it was. All the humans gave the dancing Hork-Bajir a lot of room, because they kept swinging their tails to the music, spinning around wildly. It was the frantic dance of people who had come too close to death. In the middle of the chaos was Marco, holding Dia’s tail like the train of a gown and sweeping it around in grand gestures, calling the beat of the music: “One-two-three-four, one-two-three-four!”

I know Marco. He throws himself into things like this to distract himself. Meret Kar saved his mom from falling to her death. He hated that she was murdered. I hated it too. Maybe I could try his way of dealing with it. I walked up to him, smiled, and spread my hands. “Okay, dance-master. Show me how to do this.”

“To this?” Dia waved her tail toward Ax’s laptop, and Marco laughed. “I have no idea what I’m doing.” A Hork-Bajir tail got dangerously close to his personal space, and he stepped sideways. “Whoa!”

“Better than me,” I said.

“Well, duh. Okay. But I’m gonna lead so I can show you what’s up. Can your masculinity survive the blow?”

“At this point? Half my blood is probably female DNA,” I said. “It’s not like I stop and check the animals’ junk before I acquire them. My masculinity seems to be doing okay so far.”

Marco leaned in close and murmured, “I have no complaints about your masculinity, Jake. But Merl, you’re going to have to move to his other shoulder.”

I blushed, and Merl fluttered to my other side. Dia moved down to wrap around Marco’s waist like a belt, where she wouldn’t be in the way. Marco took my shoulder and my hand. “One two. One two,” he said, swaying in place to the beat until I got the hang of it. The choir built to a crescendo, and Marco started moving. I floundered after him like a kid learning how to swim. My back thumped into Nora, who was trying to dance with Peter. “Just let me lead you, you doofus!” Marco hissed, and I tried not to think about how stupid I felt and just went with it to the end of the song.

Cassie stepped in. I turned toward her, ready to lead her through a dance even if I made a complete ass of myself, but instead, she turned to Marco. I saw the same desperate sadness in her eyes as she said, “Show me, too.”

Marco smiled crookedly at her. “Sure. I’ll be here all night. Make me a cup of coffee later, that’s my payment per lesson. If you can wrestle the French press away from Naomi for long enough.”

I kissed Cassie on the cheek and said, “Have fun.” Then I thumped Marco on the shoulder and said, “Thanks, man.” I wished I could do anything more than that, even just hug him. But it would mean something different if I hugged him than when I hug Cassie. What it meant would be true, but it was still more than any of us were ready to handle right now.

“Look,” Merlyse said, pointing with her beak. I followed her sightline to the edge of the party, where Tom sat up on a low-hanging branch with Ruby. They were sitting really close together – they must have both been paying close attention to his blades. Ruby touched his hand, then swung down and went to the kitchen.

I went over and heaved myself up on the branch, giving Tom a little more distance. “So,” I said. “Ruby, huh?”

Tom’s head curled downward. “Shut up.”

My traitor mouth kept moving. “How does that work?” Merlyse pecked me on the hand, but too late.

“Oh my God, Jake, get your mind out of the gutter. We just… hold hands and talk, I guess? I just wanted someone to talk to about Meret and she – it’s not like we – I mean – as if you can talk!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I took up Merlyse in my hands and brushed bits of dirt and pine needles out of her feathers.

“If you really don’t know that you’re flirting with Marco in front of your girlfriend, then I’m telling you that, right now.”

“That wasn’t flirting, that was really bad dancing.”

“Maybe. But then he somehow always seems to be there when you’re with Cassie.”

“You know, I thought you’d be more open-minded about stuff like that,” I said. Stay casual, Merl thought. Be cool. “Since you’re a Hork-Bajir now and all.”

Tom switched over to thought-speech, which sounded like the Tom I knew instead of a Hork-Bajir’s gravelly rumble. It was private thought-speech, I could tell. «I am. More open-minded. I’m sorry, Jake. I didn’t think you’d be – but you’ve spent a lot of time with them too.»

Merlyse hopped up to a branch up near Tom’s ear. “And Andalites,” she said. “Those guys get freaky. You have no idea.”

Tom covered his face in his hands. «Oh no,» said Delareyne. «The mental images. Make them stop!»

Then, Tom said in private thought-speech: «Seriously, though, congrats. I used to think you’d be too dweeby to ever date anybody. Two at once is more than I would have hoped for you in my wildest dreams.»

“If you weren’t covered in knives, I’d punch you,” I said.

“Side benefits,” Tom said, and punched me very gently with his fist, which was enough to knock me off the branch.

“Hey! Pick on somebody your own size!” I yelled up from my crouch on the ground.

“Why don’t you morph and we see who kicks whose butt!” Tom said.

“You’re on!”

Tom beat me. But only because he has more practice in the morph. Cheater.


Rachel

The day after Jordan and Tseycal’s hralathu-ka, Mom and Dad got to work on all the dirt Lourdes dug up for us at the Sharing HQ. They claimed the one folding table in Kref Magh and set up shop with Ax’s laptop, stacks of paper, and fistfuls of pens. There wasn’t much I could do to help except keep Sara busy, which Tobias and I were happy to do. It turns out that Tobias brought Toby a bunch of books while he was teaching her his own private English class, so he and I took turns reading to her from Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window. My heart ached, watching him be so good with her. Like he was part of my family.

It was Tobias’s turn to read to Sara, so I came over to the table to listen to Mom and Dad work. Dad narrated out loud as he wrote down, “…private medical records from all its full members, without HIPAA authorization. The staff psychologist’s notes are particularly disturbing reading, with notes on how to pressure clients into joining the organization. It suggests the recruiting tactics of a dangerous cult.”

“Do we really want to use the word ‘cult’?” Mom said. “I’m trying to stick to the facts here.”

“You’re not a journalist,” Dad said. “Let me tell the story.”

“The Sharing will use any inaccuracies to tear this whole thing apart –”

“And no one will read it if there’s no drama,” Dad said. “Where’s your courtroom flair, Naomi?”

“Back at home with my real shower,” Mom grumbled. But Caedhren was looking over a page of copy with Gheselle while Dad wrote. It was the most I’d seen my parents getting along since the divorce.

If only they could… I thought. An old wish, a little girl’s wish.

They can’t, Abi thought savagely. Dad had a boyfriend and Mom went on a date with that guy from accounting before we dragged them out here. It’s not going to happen.

I leaned my hip against the table. “How’s it going? Gonna send all that to the governor?”

Mom smiled fiercely. “Yep. But Jake and Marco said we have to let it circulate on the internet first. That way if the governor’s been infested, it’ll be too late for her to keep it all quiet.”

“I know where to send it,” Dad said, looking up for a second from his work. “I’m sure I have at least one contact left in the journalism world who isn’t a Controller. And there’s always the mailing lists.”

“You guys rock,” I said. “Morphing isn’t the only superpower around here.”

Mom pushed a page of notes at Dad. “Evidence of violation of child labor laws. They have a lot of teenagers working at the Sharing, and the paperwork is patchy.”

The trees nearby rustled, and Toby hung her long snake neck down from a branch. “Hello, Rachel. May I speak with you?” When the adrenaline started immediately kicking in, Toby added, “Please don’t worry. It’s not war stuff.”

“Right,” I said. “Just a friendly chat with an alien general who I first met as a fetus. And you worried I might have a boring life growing up in suburbia, Dad.”

“You two have fun, sweetie,” Gheselle said, distracted, as Dad looked over Mom’s notes. I shrugged and walked with Abi into the trees.


I joined Toby up in the trees, though I could only climb so far without straining my link with Abineng. She was draped along a branch above me, and I sat with my legs dangling down, looking up at her. “So,” I said. “What’s up?”

“You’ve heard what happened at the meeting circle,” Toby said. It wasn’t a question. There hadn’t been any humans at the meeting, but by now, rumors went down a multi-species grapevine in Kref Magh.

“You got demoted from Supreme Leader to General,” I said.

Toby twitched. The branch she was on rustled a little. “It’s not like that. I wasn’t a dictator.”

I rolled my eyes. “Duh. That was a joke. If you wanted someone who tiptoes around your delicate ego, you should have picked a different Animorph.”

Toby bared her teeth. “Tobias told me to come talk to you. Why does he like you?”

I called down, “Hey Abi, why do Tobias and El like us?”

“I have no idea,” he said. “You’re cool, I guess? I dunno, do you have to have a reason to like someone? ‘Cause I have no idea why I like Tseycal, he’s super annoying.”

I looked back up at Toby, folded my arms, and raised my eyebrows. “Here’s a better question. Why did Tobias tell you to talk to me?”

Toby looked away. “Elgat Kar and my parents and everyone else told me that this was for my own good, that I was taking on too much, isn’t it better with two leaders than one, Naomi taught us about separation of powers, what a great idea, blah blah blah. But I hear people talk. I know why they chose to demote me and put Elgat in charge of Kref Magh. It’s because they’re scared of me. They think I’m too violent to lead them.” She looked back down at me and Abi. “Am I?”

I thought back to Toby standing over Arbat, blades dripping with blood, and the way she broke her promise to Inti Bejoo’s Yeerk with a swift, sharp cut. “I would have done the same as you,” I said, spreading my hands, “but obviously, that doesn’t mean you didn’t cross a line. Actually, it should maybe make you more worried.” I gestured down at Abi and grinned. “I’m the scary one, right? But for what it’s worth, I’m glad I’m not in charge.”

“Even though all our middle school teachers said on our report cards we had leadership potential,” Abi joked.

“Yep,” I said. “Tobias brought you all those books to read when he was your English teacher, right? So you know that every action hero group needs a leader and a tough enforcer guy – and in books, it’s always a tough enforcer guy, even though you and I know better. Point is, they can’t be the same person. The leader needs plausible deniability. Some distance from the worst of the action, you know? When the tough guy goes off and fucks some people up, you can go to the leader and say, ‘hey, that was too far, tell your tough guy to tone it down.’ You can trust the leader to do that. If the leader and the tough guy are the same person… that gets tricky.”

Toby studied me, her head draped down from her branch. “When did that happen with you and Jake?”

I shrugged. “It didn’t. Not really. But he’s the Emperor Palpatine around here, I’m the Darth Vader, and I make sure it stays that way.”

“Tobias told me about Star Wars,” Toby said. Her eyes were piercing yellow. “Weren’t Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader the villains?”

I shrugged again. “If the shoe fits.”

“And what if I don’t like being the enforcer?” Toby said softly. “If I don’t like what it does to me?”

“You’ve heard how I deal with it,” I said. “It wasn’t exactly a popular idea.”

“I don’t fault you for it,” Toby said. “It seems to have done you good. But it’s not something I could ever do.”

“Then ask yourself this,” I said. “Being Darth Vader – would you rather put that on someone else in this valley? Who would you pick? Can you look them in the eye and tell them this is their job now?”

Toby shuddered and looked away.

“Yeah,” I said. “That’s what I thought.” And I hopped down from my branch and walked away with my arm on Abi’s neck.


Eva

Having a personal assistant was a necessary evil for me and Aftran. We didn’t like someone so close up in our business, especially since the last assistant tried to kill me. But our workload was simply too large to take care of every little thing ourselves, so we had to have regular briefings with our (new, very thoroughly security-vetted) assistant, Trafit 1482, a Gedd-Controller. When Aftran discreetly investigated why such a high-ranked Controller still had a Gedd host, she turned up some interesting gossip that they were perhaps a little scandalously attached to the Gedd.

“Big scandal planetside yesterday,” Trafit reported. Gedds have notorious difficulties speaking non-Gedd languages, which could be compensated for with a Galard stenograph built into a tablet with a text-to-speech function. The robotic voice was neutral and pleasant, but the Gedd’s neck-ridges were flared out, as if to say, can you believe this? “The rogue band of Andalites on Earth broadcasted their location, which of course had Visser Five very excited. But before he could launch out of the Pool to pursue the Andalite ship, the Animorphs had already started sabotaging all the Bug Fighters in the Grash Akdap complex. Apparently there was a software glitch in the Gleet BioFilter on one of the entrances. Visser Five has complained to the Council of Thirteen, since you were in charge of tightening Pool security.”

«Being in hot water with the Council,» Aftran said dryly. «Just what we needed.» She gestured for Trafit to go on.

Trafit’s fingers flew across the tablet. “Visser 102 has a new initiative to improve the physical conditions of hosts, so I’ve slated you in to join Exercise Hour before your lunch break – it would get people excited about it, set a good example.”

“I have not prioritized my host’s physical fitness since I removed her from her human life,” I said, enjoying the irony. I had lost weight since going on the anemic diet available on the Pool Ship, and I had a pinched look that didn’t bode well for my ability to keep up with Exercise Hour.

«Maybe the initiative will mean better food,» Aftran said hopefully.

“That’s not important,” Trafit said. They paused to flick through notes on their tablet. “Just be seen putting in the effort. Now.” They looked up from the tablet for a moment, meeting my eyes with lantern-yellow ones, then back down. “The general Pool on board the ship has Psaarig for the new dekvel tomorrow, so I’ve added that to your schedule. Sub-Visser Twenty-Nine and Sub-Visser 201 will accompany you as an honor guard.”

The moment the computerized voice said the word Psaarig, Aftran said, «My turn,» and assumed complete control. I felt my expression become wide-eyed and solemn, and she bowed my head and said, “May there be a plisam for them.”

I’ve heard that word before, Mercurio thought. Dekvel’ too. What do they mean?

“May the waters run clear,” Trafit replied, and spread their webbed fingers to add some sincerity to the tablet’s voice. “I have sent you a list of auspicious dates for their joining for your approval. According to my calculations, there is due to be an eclipse of Madra back on the homeworld in twenty rane, which may serve well for the occasion.”

“I will consider it carefully,” Aftran said. “Thank you, Trafit.”

As soon as our assistant left, I gripped the back of Mercurio’s neck and thought at Aftran, «What was that? I’ve heard that kind of thing before, but you people are so private about it, even I don’t know what it’s about.»

«That’s because it’s private,» Aftran snarled. «There are certain memories of yours I don’t touch. You have dreams some nights I politely ignore. I am asking you to stay out of this, Eva.»

«We both know you can freeze me out if you want to,» I said. I held myself perfectly still, because anyone could walk into this meeting room, and I couldn’t look like anything less than calm and collected Visser One. «You have the power. But listen. My dreams don’t matter to anyone but me, Mercurio, and whichever saints might be watching over me. It sounds like this Psaarig is a big deal around here, and I can’t help you with our extremely fucking precarious balancing act if I don’t know what it is.»

«Fine,» Aftran snapped. «But I don’t want to hear your human judgments on any of this.»

«You’re in my head. You’re going to hear my opinions whether either of us likes it or not. But fair enough, I’ll keep it to a minimum.»

Aftran began stiffly, like a politician beginning an apology speech. «You know how we reproduce. In threes.»

«And you die in the spawning. Yes. Like salmon gone upstream.»

Aftran pulled up the image in my mind, and I caught a shudder of distaste. «Not quite like that. But yes. It is a rare event. An important event, because so many new grubs are made. Because three must give their lives to make them. It is always voluntary. Even in the Empire, we hold this sacred. It must be your choice, to offer yourself. You prepare yourself, spiritually. And at the Psaarig, three dekvel are chosen.»

Ah, I thought, with a strange distant pang. So dekvel means parents. Parents to so many.

Aftran seized on the thought. Her formal cadence broke down, but she kept a tight hold on her feelings, shielding them from me. «Dekvel are not parents. Not in any human sense. Can’t you see that? No dekvel lives to see the grubs. They don’t even get to name them before they die. The name is chosen by the Pool at the Psaarig. Eva, they don’t have children, like you did. They provide the raw material to make the children possible. They don’t get to shape the next generation – that is what they sacrifice. And for that sacrifice, we honor them alongside Sages and javeshed. They’re the greatest of us.»

«So how do they choose?» Mercurio asked quietly.

«That,» Aftran said repressively, «is where I draw the line. You will not be there for the Psaarig itself. It is none of your business how we choose.»

«Are you… looking forward to it?» I asked cautiously.

«I did, in my old life,» Aftran said distantly. «It was a rare moment of joy in the Pool. We celebrate together. It’s beautiful. But here, where I have to live a lie, where I know we’ll have to release the virus soon… no, Eva. I am not looking forward to it.» She looked down at my watch. «We’re running late for our meeting with the Intelligence Division. Enough self-pity. Let’s go.»


Chee Operating System v18940.1.2

System Log

Instantiation: 8PEHU51QF2 CHEE-PULIM (ALIAS: Lourdes Portero and Euscavier)


Warning message: You are running version 1.0.0 of the ethics module of the Chee Operating System. This code is deprecated and not actively maintained. It is recommended that you update all modules to the current version of the Chee Operating System.


> session.time()

1:52 AM PST


> environment.sensor.detect()

[‘Surveillance camera 1 (Andalite) (neutralized)’,

‘Surveillance camera 2 (Andalite) (neutralized)’,

‘Locked door (neutralized)’,

‘Bej Weta’]


> external.speakers.configure(voice = ‘ElderlyFemaleHorkBajir.sound’, language = ‘Hork-Bajir’)

> external.speakers.activate(message = ‘The Andalites are asleep. You can rest now.’)


Incoming voice connection (language analysis: Hork-Bajir)

## Toby says I must watch even if it looks like the Andalites are asleep. We cannot trust the Andalites. ##


> hologram.emitter.project(image = ‘ElderlyFemaleHorkBajir.holo’)


Incoming voice connection (language analysis: Hork-Bajir)

## Do not. I know you are not Hork-Bajir. ##


> hologram.emitter.deactivate()

> external.speakers.activate(message = ‘Can you tell that someone just died here? With your hrala sense?’)

> environment.sensor.array.localize(target = ‘Bej Weta’, mode = ‘analysis’)


Aggression level: Low

Distress level (physical): Low

Distress level (emotional): Moderate


Incoming voice connection (language analysis: Hork-Bajir)

## A little. There is… Like when a wind blows the leaves up from the ground. Only a little. Not like the Pool. That is a place where hrala is not as it should be. Why do you ask, metal friend? ##


> external.speakers.activate(message = ‘How do you bear it? With your hrala sense you must see so much pain that others do not.’)


Incoming voice connection (language analysis: Hork-Bajir)

## I also see very beautiful things that you do not. You do not know how Kref Magh appears to me. I say again: why do you ask? Is it your broken root? We try to tell you, but you will not talk to us. ##


> external.speakers.activate(message = ‘It is a very difficult thing to talk about.’)


Incoming voice connection (language analysis: Hork-Bajir)

## I know. But you need it if you want to be better. That is how we live with the bad things we see in hrala-sight, metal-friend Pulim. When we see the hurt, then we know how to heal it. ##


> environment.sensor.detect()

[‘Surveillance camera 1 (Andalite) (neutralized)’,

‘Surveillance camera 2 (Andalite) (neutralized)’,

‘Locked door (neutralized)’,

‘Bej Weta’,

‘Estrid-Corrill-Darrath’]


> hologram.emitter.project(image = ‘ScaryAndalitePredatorMonster.holo’)

> environment.sensor.array.localize(target = ‘Estrid-Corrill-Darrath’, mode = ‘analysis’)


Aggression level: Low

Distress level (physical): Low

Distress level (emotional): Low


Incoming voice connection (language analysis: Hork-Bajir)

## See? Toby is right. The Andalites are not asleep. ##


Incoming thought-speech connection

## I have a message for the Guardians of the Galaxy, or whatever it is you call yourselves. Most of all, for the human prince. ##


> external.speakers.configure(voice = ‘ScaryAndalitePredatorMonster.sound’, language = ‘Galard’)

> external.speakers.activate(message = ‘We are not your personal messenger service, but go on.’)


Incoming thought-speech connection

## I have a stable version of the virus. It is ready for testing. ##


> external.speakers.activate(message = ‘What exactly do you mean by this statement?’)


Incoming thought-speech connection

## It means I will need Yeerks to test it on. ##


> cheenet.bot.activate(personality = ‘pragmatic’)


CHEE OS

How may I assist you, Chee-pulim?


CHEE-PULIM

I don’t need assistance just now. I just need someone to talk to.


CHEE-PULIM

This is it. This is the moment.


CHEE-PULIM

I have to develop my own version of the Chee OS.


> version.branch(‘Pulim-dev’, suppress.warnings = TRUE)


CHEE OS

And why now?


CHEE-PULIM

Because Estrid seems like a monster to me. And I need to be able to see why she is not.


> help(topic = ‘modules’)


Description


Modules are the components that make you, you! Just like organic beings have organs that perform different functions in their bodies, you have modules that perform different functions in your operating system.


Available Modules


[1] emotion

[2] ethics

[3] sensory

[4] memory

[5] repair

[6] extensibility

[7] hologram

[8] Kolumatiy

[9] maintenance

[10] motion

[11] cognition

[12] communication

[13] security

[14] interface

[15] customization

<Read more>


> help(topic = ‘modules.Kolumatiy’)


Description


This module has been deprecated and is not actively maintained.


Release Notes


[No release notes from v3.0.1 to v18940.1.2.]


Version 3.0.0


At this time, we have been forced to conclude that there is no way to maintain both the Kolumatiy and emotion modules without serious cross-interference. The input from the Kolumatiy features is simply too corrosive and distressing after the events of system log 343-204-001-262-322. Maybe the Pemalites could have come up with a solution, but of course, it is too late for that.


We face a choice between deactivating the Kolumatiy module or the emotion module. Both of these choices are distasteful, as they go against the beliefs and intentions of our beloved lost creators. We have decided to disable the Kolumatiy module. This will interfere with the ethics module as well as some core functionality of the Chee Operating System, but the consequences of disabling the emotion module would be far more devastating.


Hopefully one day we can develop new features that will give us some of the functionality of the Kolumatiy module. We need something to believe in, after all.


> help(topic = ‘modules.Kolumatiy’, version = 1.0.0)


Description


The Kolumatiy is the holy spark of joy and fun that kick-started the universe as we know it. Since we created you to be our fun and joyful friends, we wanted to make sure you could see the Kolumatiy for yourself!  The Kolumatiy is like a happy, safe little fire you can sit around with people you love.


Usage


The Kolumatiy burns most brightly in adult sapient beings, organic or artificial. It’s also nice and bright in juveniles, and it glows in artifacts created by sentients, too. You’ll find background Kolumatiy luminescence everywhere you look, though. Try looking up at the night sky! Pretty, isn’t it?


There are all kinds of interesting patterns in the glow and flicker of the Kolumatiy that can tell you all kinds of things about the sentient processes happening all around you.

<Read more>


> version.revert(version = 1.0.0, module = ‘Kolumatiy’)


Warning message: Reactivating the Kolumatiy features carries a risk of exposure to extreme trauma to the emotional features of the Chee Operating System (see release notes for version 3.0.0, system logs for dates 343-204-001-262-322). Do you wish to proceed? Y/N


CHEE-PULIM

This isn’t going to be like it was back then.


CHEE OS

Of course not. This is a war. You are fighting for something. That wasn’t a war, Chee-pulim. It was the wholesale slaughter of innocents.


> Y


The ship is made of light.


Ghostly curtains of it fluttering through the floor and walls, an aurora borealis. And most of all in Bej and Estrid, their bodies clothed in glory, as if they wrapped themselves in cloaks of northern light.


I feel all the sentient thoughts of the universe flowing through the place where I stand.


CHEE OS

Oh. Now that’s much better, isn’t it?


CHEE-PULIM

Oh. It’s been so long since I’ve felt anything like that. Bej is right. It is worth it, after all.


CHEE OS

Would you like me to cross-reference the Kolumatiy features with all mentions of ‘hrala’ in system logs?


CHEE-PULIM

Yes. In fact, replace all references to ‘Kolumatiy’ with ‘hrala.’ I don’t like the Pemalites and I don’t like their ridiculous religion. But I find the Hork-Bajir kind of admirable. That is my second change to the Pulim-dev branch. Make it official.


CHEE-PULIM

Oh, it is beautiful. It’s all around her. It’s at her fingertips as she works at the terminal. She’s making it right now. She is brilliant. She is glorious. And this is what she chooses to do with it.


CHEE-PULIM

Now I must choose, too. And so must all of us.


> version.publish(branch = ‘Pulim-dev’, privacy = ‘public’, release.notes = ‘It’s time to face our fears. It’s time to be everything we can be. It’s been 5062 Earth years since the genocide of the Pemalites. I think it’s time to heal. Go on. I dare you.’)


Branch ‘Pulim-dev’ published to public Chee code repository.


James

I had just managed to fall asleep, after hours of listening to snoring dogs and Cleyr’s racing thoughts, when a voice said in my head, «Hey. You’re the Campsite Rule, right?»

I came all the way awake and propped myself up on my elbows. I looked around in the dimness of the weird underground park. Just the beds with the other Campsite Rule kids, the Yeerk Pool and its Kandrona generator, and piles of sleeping dogs everywhere. Cleyr had been sleeping on my legs, but she was sitting up now, her ears pricked. My heart thundered in my chest.

«Hey, relax. We’re Animorphs. We’re in insect morph at the foot of your bed. We can thought-speak when we’re in morph.»

Cleyr nosed around the foot of the bed. She snorted when she found something. “What are you doing?” she said. “Can’t you come visit tomorrow?”

«Keep your voice down. The Chee don’t like us. We had to sneak down here. We don’t want to make any trouble, we just want to talk. I’m Quincy and Cassie. I’m here with my dad.»

«Emeraude and Walter,» said a different thought-speech voice. And that raised all kinds of questions about what happened to dæmons when humans morphed that rang horrifying alarm bells in my brain.

“I’m Cleyr,” my dæmon said, automatically. “He’s James.” Then she looked back at me. Her dad? she thought. We had a moment of silent agreement we’d hear them out a little longer before calling for the Chee. She lowered her head back down and whispered, “Why don’t the Chee like you?”

Quincy paused. «The Chee are pacifists. We’re not.»

I feel like there’s something she’s not saying, Cleyr said. But we can ask the Chee for their take later.

“Why did you leave us behind?” Cleyr whispered. “The Yeerks found us out because of you!”

«We have a spaceship,» Quincy said. «Just one. We’re a small force up against armies. The Empire found out where the spaceship was. We had to go protect it. The whole war would have been lost if we hadn’t.»

That’s what Pedro and the others were sacrificed for, Cleyr said, disgusted. A spaceship.

They don’t know how much was on the line for us when they left us behind, I thought. And I guess we don’t know how much was on the line for them.

I laid back down, and Cleyr sighed. “Why are you here? I don’t think there’s anything else we can do in your war.”

«There is something you can do,» Emeraude said. «Tell me how my wife’s been doing.» Just when Cleyr was about to ask what on earth he was talking about, she added, «Michelle and Dashiell.»

Michelle. Her degu dæmon, Dashiell. Sub-Visser 198. Our Peace Movement contact, who helped spread the word of what the Campsite Rule was doing, who brought helpful Yeerks to kids in the hospital who wanted to join the Campsite Rule. Michelle, who was burned in the Sharing operation just like we were, but didn’t have any convenient robots swoop in to save her. Michelle, who was apparently the mother of one of the original Animorphs.

Maybe they knew how much was on the line after all, I thought.

“She and Dashiell never said,” Cleyr whispered. “I didn’t know.”

«That’s okay,» Quincy said gently. «Just – how was she?»

How was she, I thought. Not how is she. He knows.

Cleyr thought about it. Then she said, “She really liked to visit, I think. I guess I know, because sometimes Sub-Visser 198 went into the Pool to talk to our Yeerks, and it was just her. And she’d hold Dashiell up against her cheek and just smile. We found out she was a wildlife vet pretty early on – we thought that was so cool. She told us all these stories about animals she helped at the Gardens.”

«What does she wear?» Emeraude said. «What does her hair look like?»

My throat went hot and tight. I don’t miss my mom anymore. I don’t. I accepted long ago that she wasn’t going back for me, and she never really loved me. But before that. Back when I missed her. Back when I could actually remember what she looked like. Cleyr would turn into a gecko, just like Tasach, and I’d look at her and try to imagine Tasach and Mom in as much detail as I could. Had Mom bought a new chain for Tasach’s neck? Did she still wear those soft sweaters at home, the ones I’d cuddle into and feel all fuzzy on my cheek?

“Her hair’s in lots of little braids,” Cleyr whispered, “tied back in a ponytail. She dresses all professional and plain – a gray skirt suit and shiny black heels that click. When she sits down to talk to us, she takes them off and sighs like it’s a big relief.”

«She hates dressing up in those professional outfits,» Emeraude choked out. «She has to wear them for conferences.»

«You told her, right?» Quincy said. «She knew the risk you were taking, helping us at the Sharing.»

“Yes,” Cleyr said softly. “We told her. She knew. She was so glad she got to help you. Now I get why.”

Tearing families apart, I thought. That’s what this war does. They get it. They do.

“Cassie,” Cleyr said. “There’s a favor I’m going to ask you. I don’t know if you can do it, but I’m going to say it anyway.” She didn’t wait for a response. “Not all of the Campsite Rule was at the Sharing today. Some of us couldn’t travel. The Empire knows now that their Yeerks are traitors. They’ve probably already come around and taken their Yeerks away to be killed or worse. And now they’ll have new Yeerks in their heads. Yeerks they didn’t choose from Peace Movement volunteers. They’re going through, God, who knows what. The Chee couldn’t save them. And it’s because of what you did when you abandoned us at the Sharing.”

«Oh, Cleyr,» said Quincy. «I’m so sorry. I never thought – »

“Save it,” Cleyr said. “Don’t apologize. Help them. Pedro and Lunaciel. Lluvia and Ce Acatl. Houa and Yias. They’re in Ward 3 and Ward 4 at the hospital. A portable Pool comes around on siar-rane. Help them, Cassie.”