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#53: The Rebellion

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Chapter 1

Jake

DAY ONE

            The Yeerks know who we are and the world knows about them. An open war. But at the moment, it was basically one-sided.

Marco and I were riding the thermals created by Dracon beams. Dracon beams shooting down from one low-hovering Bug Fighter. Dracon beams that were cutting through our town like a hot knife through butter.

People were crowding to get out of buildings but had only seconds to get away. Most of the people leaving houses escaped, but those in twenty-story buildings were not so lucky.

My peregrine falcon hearing picked up on the panicked commotion coming from the next building in the Dracon beam’s path. With his osprey eyes, designed to spot fish in the water, Marco could see through the windows of the building. He reported hundreds of people fighting their way down stairs to the ground floor.

As I watched, a group of men and women in business suits pushed their way out of a pair of double doors. Only a handful managed to get away from the building before it sizzled and disappeared. Even then I thought the Dracon beam would overtake them, but ...

<It’s turning, curving back the other way,> said Marco.

<Tobias?> I called.

<Got it,> he said. <Leading them left.>

A short way outside the Dracon beam’s course, a few dozen people followed a talking red-tailed hawk away from danger. Pointing them in the right direction was the most we could do. I knew it wouldn’t do any good if the Yeerks decided to pick them off.

            We weren’t the only ones who were improvising. A military truck had arrived on the scene two minutes ago.

A handful of soldiers were now shooting up at the Bug Fighter with anti-aircraft guns. But weapons that would have been formidable to an airplane were just a joke to the alien spaceship. It took no notice of the attack as it continued on its course.

Soldiers ran to keep up with it. Some fell into newly-formed ditches. Ditches that, seconds before, had been basements.

            One soldier shot directly at the Bug Fighter’s Dracon cannon. He maintained his position even as the Dracon beam coming from his target threatened to annihilate him.

            Another soldier pulled the first out of harm’s way, not a moment too soon.

            “Cease fire,” ordered the second soldier.

“No!” The first soldier cried. “General Hobster, we can’t let them get away with this!”

“You will fall back, Lieutenant,” snapped General Hobster. “I want ropes and pulleys over there.” He pointed to the ditches. “I want the truck ready to pick up passengers over there.” He pointed to a herd of running people, struggling to stay ahead of the advancing Dracon beam.

Smart. The general wasn’t going to waste time being ineffective. But I understood the first soldier’s attitude all too well.

<Visser One has enough Controllers to take all of these people by force,> I said, watching the slaughter. <Why waste so many host bodies?>

<It’s not the people they’re after,> said Marco.

He was right. The Yeerks weren’t bothering to destroy the people who were running away. The group following Tobias was growing now that the alarm had spread. Tobias kept spiralling down to fly above the heads of the crowd. I guess he was trying to make sure that they didn’t lose sight of him. I thought of telling Tobias to ease off on the air show so he wouldn’t attract unwanted attention. But the Bug Fighter took no notice of him or his band of refugees.

            The general’s troops were retrieving soldiers from the ditches. Injuries ranged from broken arms to sprained ankles, but there were no fatalities.

            The military truck was crammed with civilians and the soldier driving it was disregarding every speed limit that had ever been invented.

            <The Dracon beam is still curving this way,> I observed.

<It’s a circle,> said Tobias, his thought-speech becoming faint with distance. <Someone go and lead the others out the far side.>

            Marco took off.

            <General Hobster,> I called out. He jumped, looking all around him for the source of the voice. I did a few loop-the-loops to get his attention. <I’m up here. The beam is going to curve back to where it started. Get your soldiers outside the circle before it comes back, okay?>

            He gaped at me.

            <Yeah, I know I’m a bird. Look, just do it.> I left it at that, hoping he would take the hint.

I watched the deadly beam of red light continue on its course, while I tried to think. The Yeerks were clearing structures. Making space for something. Something that would go inside the circle.

Horrifed, I stared down at the completed outline of a circle, which covered about a mile of densely populated city.

Without wasting any more time, I shouted out in public thought-speech: <Everybody down there, RUN! Anyone on Findley, Birch or Gillette street head for Pinewood mall to your right and follow the osprey! Main, Burard and Rosedale head for the hospital, left, follow the hawk! Move, move, MOVE!>

I doubted whether most of them could follow directions at a time like this. They probably couldn’t tell the difference between a hawk and an osprey either. But I kept calling out, repeating the instructions as loudly and clearly as I could, hoping against hope it would make a difference.

Some of them were heading in the right direction, but they were all much, much too far away.

Three more Bug Fighters swooped down.

<Tobias?> I yelled. <Have you got any more people with you?>

No answer. He was out of range.

<Marco?> I asked.

<No, Jake,> he said, simply.

<You don’t have any more following you?>

<Only the ones on the outer rim. None from any of those central streets are going to make it.>

<They can still make it,> I insisted. <The Bug Fighters haven’t—>

Tsssseeeeewww!!!

Dracon beams were now burning up everyone and everything inside the circle.

            I couldn’t watch. I turned and flew toward the mall, figuring that Marco would be easier to catch up with.

<I told General Hobster to follow Tobias, seeing as the hospital’s that way,> said Marco. <I thought it was good advice, but he looked at me like I was the most illogical talking bird he’d ever met.>

<Same thing happened to me,> I said, wearily.

I soared high on a thermal. Marco flew low, leading the survivors further and further away from the Bug Fighters.

            <Should I stop and settle them somewhere?> Marco asked.

            <Better get more distance,> I said.

            <I don’t think we need to,> he said. <The Yeerks outlined a specific area for whatever it is they’re doing. They obviously don’t need any more space at the moment.>

            <What do we do with the ones who made it out?>

<Hork-Bajir valley?> Marco suggested.

<No,> I said, flatly. <We have enough refugees there already. And with this many people in tow we’d be discovered. We can’t support this many either.>

<Then, I guess they’ll have to knock on doors and hope for guestrooms,> said Marco.

<I don’t have a better idea,> I admitted.

I glanced back, wondering what Tobias was planning to do with his homeless followers.

I could still see a few people running for the circle’s perimeter, but the last of the Dracon beams sealed their fate.

After that, the only sound coming from that area was the roar of the Bug Fighters’ engines. The only living things I could see were a flock of pigeons, flying away from the circle of burnt land.

 

 

Chapter 2

James

            <Erica? Craig?> I said. <Tell me you have everyone.>

            <Collette’s not with us,> Erica answered.

            <Neither is Kelly,> Craig added. <We have everyone else.>

            <Not good enough,> I said, tersely. I spun around, flapping to stay airborne. Pigeons don’t exactly glide. <You two, take the rest ahead. I’ll catch up with you in a minute.>

             I flew back to the rehab center. It wasn’t that far away and I knew that I could probably reach my missing Animorphs through thought-speech. But the fear that they would not answer left me searching for pigeons in silence. If Collette and Kelly were still at the center and the Dracon beams were still...

            I silenced the thought before I could finish it. They had to be all right. I just wanted to see it with my own eyes.

            When I came within a few feet of the center I saw two pigeons. They seemed to be having an aerial cat fight. Both flapping madly, they were scratching and pecking at each other with their tiny beaks and claws.

<Break it up!> I shouted at them.

Their heads snapped around to look at me.

<Bug Fighters are buzzing around behind you and this is the time you choose to try out pigeon kung-fu? You’ve got to get away from here!>

<We’re coming,> said Kelly firmly. <It’s just that one of us needs a little convincing.> She tilted her head at her opponent.

<If the center’s going down, we have to get the others out!> cried Collette.

<We don’t know that the center’s going down,> I told her. <The Dracon beams have stopped now. The Yeerks will probably leave what’s left of our town alone.>

<Well then,> said Collette, her voice challenging, <Why are you so anxious to get away?>

<Because…> I was trapped now. How could I explain to her that there was a chance the Yeerks would vaporise our center, that I wanted us to be safe if that happened, and that I didn’t have a plan for saving the ones we’d be leaving behind.

Before I could come up with anything, Kelly said, harshly, <Because we’re fighting the Yeerks to save the world and we won’t be able to do that if we stay here and wait for their next land-clearing whim.>

            <But the others—>

            <Are no worse off than the rest of this town, which won’t thank us for getting killed or captured in a pointless rescue attempt,> said Kelly.

            Collette fell silent. Then she addressed me, quietly, in private thought-speech. <We can’t leave them, James. Just because we can fly. It’s not fair.>

            <None of this is fair, but there’s nothing we can do about it.>

            <You don’t know that,> Collette fired up again. <You just don’t want to risk—>

             <That’s right, I don’t,> I snapped back. <I don’t want to risk losing anyone and you’re already making that difficult.>

            There were more Bug Fighters coming down now and above them, an enormous ship was slowly descending. My tiny bird heart was hammering against my ribs. I took a deep breath. I couldn’t afford to get upset.

            <Please, Collette,> I said. <Come with us. We can come back and check on the center later. We’ll do something, I promise, just…not now.>

            Collette said nothing. She glanced back at the center and then up at the sky. Slowly, she flew away from our former home.

            I breathed a sigh of relief. As we flew toward the rest of the group, I made a mental note to anticipate Collette’s reckless heroics in future. If Kelly hadn’t kept her in check, Collette might’ve morphed crocodile and started evacuating people on her back. I shuddered as I imagined it. The Yeerks definitely would’ve noticed something like that.

            <James?> It was Craig. <Did you get them?>

            <Yeah,> I called back. <Where are you guys?>

            <Waiting for you,> said Erica. <We’re feeling pretty vague about where we’re supposed to be going.>

            <Hork-Bajir valley,> I said, catching up to the group. <There’s nowhere else.>

            I had been using public thought-speech, but it still came as a slight surprise to me when Judy entered the conversation.

            <Isn’t that place already full of dinosaurs?> she asked.

            <Hork-Bajir,> Timmy corrected, <labelled as such in order to distinguish themselves from those extinct reptiles of earth origin.>

            I didn’t expect Judy to understand that. Timmy has a speech impediment when he’s in his own body, so he enjoys thought-speech more than the rest of us. Judy is not someone who can appreciate his wordy sentences.

<So, let’s go hang with the neighbours,> said Majal. She was flying in lazy loops, looking like she hadn’t a care in the world. <We do know the way, don’t we?>

            <I think I can figure it out,> I said. <Jake took me there once, for a meeting.>

            <Speaking of,> said Kelly, abruptly. <Don’t you think there’ll be a meeting now? After…you know.>

            <Yeah, I guess so,> I agreed.

            <Someone’s going to stop by the rehab center to let us know and we won’t be there,> Kelly went on.

            <They’ll know where we are soon enough,> said Jesse, condescendingly. <We’re on our way over to their place.>

Jesse has a talent for criticising. Using the simplest words, she can throw anything you do or say back in your face and make it look bad.

Kelly doesn’t let that kind of stuff get to her. When she next spoke, it was with confidence. <The question is: should we tell the other Animorphs that we’re in their valley?>

            I fixed my beady eyes on Kelly. I had no idea what she was getting at. She looked exactly like every other pigeon around me, but there was definitely something different going on in her head.

            <Why wouldn’t we tell them?> asked Collette.

            <I don’t think they’d like it,> said Kelly. <They said it was important that we stay undercover, that it would raise Yeerk suspicion if we left. They told us that they didn’t want any more refugees.>

            <The circumstances in which we received those instructions have recently altered,> Timmy pointed out. <Our covert base of operations is no longer a secure facility. Jake will certainly recognise that our evacuation was require—>

            <No,> Andrew butted in. He has the least patience for the way Timmy talks. <With all they’ve got in that valley, they wouldn’t want us, no matter what’d happened. Kelly’s right. We should go back.>

            <That’s not what I meant,> said Kelly, annoyed. <We have to go to the valley; that much is obvious. I’m saying we should keep it secret, at least for now.>

            <We couldn’t stay hidden from Animorphs in their stronghold,> Erica objected. <They must be keeping a watch on the place all the time.>

            <What about the Hork-Bajir?> said Raymond, mildly. <Do you think they’d mind us being there?>

Raymond is one of those rare people who would remember to wipe his feet on the doormat when entering a person’s home to escape an approaching tornado. I could hardly call myself so considerate. I didn’t care what the Hork-Bajir thought of our home invasion.

<Well,> said Raymond, as some of us rolled our eyes. <It is their valley. If they welcome us, it won’t matter what the other Animorphs think.>

            <Hork-Bajir are too stupid to know the difference between who they should invite in and who they should shoot down,> said Jesse, scornfully. <That’s why they don’t get to make the important decisions, even if it is their valley.>

            <They are not stupid,> said Collette, angrily. <They are the nicest species in the universe. And anyway, they’ve got Toby to make the decisions.>

            <Who’s Toby?> asked Raymond.

            <She’s a seer,> said Collette. <She was born to lead her people in a time of change. She’s a lot smarter than the other Hork-Bajir.>

            <Why does she have a boy’s name?> Judy wanted to know.

            <She was named after Tobias,> said Collette.

            I was more than a little surprised by Collette’s ready answers. The rest of us didn’t know much about the Hork-Bajir.

            <What do they eat?> Judy asked next.

            <How do you know all this?> I cut in.

            <Tree bark. Marco told me,> answered Collette.

            <You two been hanging out?> Raymond surmised.

            <Are we going to eat tree bark?> Judy wondered.

            <Guys!> Kelly burst out in exasperation. <We are getting seriously sidetracked.>

            <Yeah,> said Majal. <Where is that valley? Let’s get going, already.>

            <You get going,> Andrew snapped. <I still say we should go back.>

            <You may change your mind when you find yourself in a slaughterhouse tomorrow,> said Jesse, sounding less smug than usual.

            <That won’t happen,> said Erica. <The Yeerks aren’t ready yet.>

            <It is conceivable that they intend to spend tomorrow constructing structures to occupy the vacant region,> Timmy observed.

            <Or they might decide that any buildings that are still standing are fun target practice,> suggested Jesse.

            <James,> said Kelly, desperately. <Do something!>

            <If we’re gonna get thrown out of the valley anyway—> said Andrew.

            <Okay,> I said loudly. <Everyone, chill.>

            <—we might as well stay at the center and make our last meal a good one.>

            <Andrew!> I yelled.

            <Lighten up,> said Majal.

            <No, just be quiet, everyone!> I waited a moment. Nobody spoke. As my thoughts settled, I realised that something had been bothering me. <Craig?> I called. <Are you still with us?>

            <Yeah,> said Craig. <I lost track of what you guys were saying. Something about not being able to make a decision?>

            <Here’s one,> I said, jutting my head forward in a commanding sort of way. <We’re going to the Hork-Bajir valley. Give me a head count, will you? I think I’ve lost about seven of us in this discussion we’ve been having.>

I gave Erica the same instructions and both reported back that

all were accounted for.

<Erica’s team, go ahead,> I said. <Fly east toward those hills. Craig’s team follow. Stagger yourselves out. If anyone sees anything, it better look like a stray pigeon minding its own business.>

<What are you going to do?> asked Collette.

<Go back to the center,> I explained. <One of the Animorphs will be there soon to take me to the meeting. We’re keeping our new location a secret, for now. I can find out more about how the others feel at the meeting. Then we can decide what to do.>

With a few parting directions for Erica and Craig, I dropped out of the lead and watched the straggling pigeons go by. I counted off names as they flew past me.

Erica, Collette, Raymond, Diondra, Shawn, Judy, Zack, Jesse, and Erica’s team was gone.

Craig, Timmy, Majal, Liam, Kelly, Tricia, Andrew, Chantel, and Craig’s team was gone.

Seventeen of us. Sixteen people I was constantly checking for. Every time I counted them, they were all there. Still, I always dreaded the counting. I couldn’t overcome the fear that I would find the number short.

 

 

Chapter 3

Jake

            I called a meeting. The Animorphs, the parents, Toby and James. I thought it best to get everyone together. The Yeerks’ latest move was something that we all needed to talk about.

I sat next to Marco at the meeting site. Toby, Ax, Cassie and all the parents were there too. There were still three people missing.

“What’s taking Rachel so long?” I muttered to Marco. “She went to get James three hours ago.”

“Well, considering who else is missing…” said Marco, pointedly.

“You think she’s looking for Tobias?”

“She wanted to go,” said Marco, giving me a pitying look. “When’s the last time Rachel volunteered for a milk run?”

“But…” I was thrown. “Tobias is re-locating civilians. I told her that.”

“Maybe she figured it’s taking too long,” said Marco.

“It’s not!” I said, sharply. But I was worried, mostly because worry had just hit me. Tobias had been gone too long and I had forgotten that that could mean he was in trouble. I felt a sudden rage well up inside me. Marco hadn’t forgotten. “If you thought we should go looking for him, then why didn’t you say something?” I snapped at him.

Marco blinked, looking bewildered. “Take it easy, man. I told you, Rachel’s got it under control.”

            I let my anger fall away with a heavy sigh.

Glancing around, I noticed Cassie watching me. I met her eyes and she looked away. She’d probably heard me freaking out at Marco. I found I didn’t have much space in my brain to worry about what Cassie thought of me. I wasn’t even sure I cared.

<Prince Jake, they are coming,> Ax announced. He had his stalk eyes pointed at the sky.

I followed his gaze and saw two red-tailed hawks and a bald eagle. Rachel had found Tobias. The other red-tailed hawk had to be James. The first two morphs he had acquired were Tobias and a pigeon. They were the only animals we had had with us when we first went to the rehab center to recruit new Animorphs.

            The three birds of prey spiralled down toward us.

            <Hi,> said Rachel, brightly. <Sorry we’re late.>

            As she spoke, one red-tailed hawk landed in our midst and began to change into James.

            “What kept you?” I asked, none too politely.

            <Nothing really,> said Rachel as she landed and began to de-morph. <Tobias decided to do a little eavesdropping and nearly got himself killed.>

            <It wasn’t that bad,> said Tobias, defensively.

            <You would’ve been in serious—> Rachel broke off as she made the transition from mostly bird to mostly human and lost her thought-speech ability. She made impatient gestures while she waited for her mouth to form. “—trouble if it hadn’t been a Taxxon who saw you.”

James sat down on a rock. He was looking around at the group.

            “What happened?” I asked, looking at Tobias, who was still lingering in the sky.

            <Well, getting the townies settled took a while,> Tobias began.

He paused for a moment, staring intently at the crowd of people on the ground. Suddenly, he swooped down for a landing. As soon as his talons hit dirt, he began to morph. A couple of minutes later, Tobias was fully human. When he isn’t on missions, Tobias sometimes likes to be human. Lately, though, he’s been human almost anytime he can be. Or maybe it’s just when his mother, Loren, is around.

He walked over to her, saying, “On my way back, I got a good look at what the Yeerks are up to. It’s the Pool Ship, Jake. They’ve landed it.” He sat down next to Loren and smiled vaguely around at everyone, as if he had just said something casual.

The Pool Ship generates the Kandrona rays the Yeerks need to survive. We had destroyed their Earth-based Yeerk pool. It made sense that they would need their last resort close at hand. It also made sense that they would be extremely paranoid about protecting it.

My mind flashed back to something Rachel had said. “You were seen?” I said sharply to Tobias.

“By a Taxxon,” said Tobias. “Chapman was there, giving everyone instructions. I had to get close enough to…I mean even hawk hearing, it’s…” Tobias faltered, looking at me warily. I was glaring at him. “But I had the situation under control,” he finished, lamely.

            “I had to slash the Taxxon open to get it eaten by the other Taxxons,” Rachel elaborated. “It started to sound the alarm, but I don’t think anyone noticed.”

            “Anyway,” said Tobias, glancing guiltily at Rachel and then back at me. “The Yeerks don’t plan to keep the Pool Ship out of orbit very long.”

            “What did you do with the refugees?” James interrupted.

“A few were admitted at the hospital,” said Tobias. “Some had friends or family to stay with. I managed to find the rest some hospitable strangers.”

“So, you just…I mean you didn’t…You didn’t want…” James winced, looking embarrassed. He had something to say. It looked like he wasn’t sure how to say it.

He stared down at the ground for a moment then he said hesitantly: “You left them there? A few blocks away from where the Yeerks…” he looked from Tobias, to Marco, to me with a probing expression. “You couldn’t take them some place a little safer?”

“Not really,” said Marco. “What happened today was totally random. If this is how the Yeerks are operating now, there’s no way to know where they’ll strike next.”

“What about here?” James blurted. He was still looking uncomfortable, but there was also a strange determination in his face.

“This isn’t the place for civilians,” I said, firmly. “It’s a war base.”

“What if they were part of the war effort,” said James. “People from the military who weren’t safe outside? If they were here to help—”

            “These people weren’t military,” I said. I was confused. “Where’d you get that from? The military isn’t even part of this war.”

            “But would you let them stay here?” James persisted.

            “What, the whole military?” I said, incredulous.

“Or, uh, how about a dozen? Th-thirteen or…so,” James stammered.

“No,” I said, waving my hand impatiently.

“Why not?” James asked.

I was annoyed. This conversation wasn’t doing anyone any good. I wanted to hear what Tobias had learned from spying on Chapman.

“Is it supplies?” James sounded anxious now. “You don’t have enough to support—”

“That’s beside the point,” I exploded, standing up and walking over to him. “We are one base of operations in this war. Your people are another. If the military gets involved, they’ll have their own base too. Separate fronts are what we have to fall back on if something goes down here. We need our fighting force, our spies and whatever else we have going for us where they’re useful. If you want to worry about their living conditions, do it after the war!”

I was panting and my face was flushed.

James didn’t look at all awkward or embarrassed anymore.

I took a step back from him, trying to slow my breathing. I felt Cassie’s eyes on the back of my head, but when I turned to look she was watching James with a puzzled expression. She had just opened her mouth to say something when Ax broke the silence.

<If the Yeerks are planning to keep the Pool Ship out of orbit for a while, we have an opportunity to deal them a vital blow.>

“That’s what I was going to tell you,” said Tobias. “They’re building another earth-based Yeerk pool. As soon as it’s in business, the Pool Ship goes back into space. Chapman estimates that construction will take a maximum of five days.”

“Five days!” I exclaimed.

“Maximum,” Tobias confirmed. “It would make Visser One a whole lot happier if it were done sooner.”

I ran my hands through my hair. Five days, probably less. The Pool Ship was within our reach. I felt a thrill run through me. Ax was right. If we could put the Pool Ship out of action, it would be a vital blow to the Yeerks. It might even defeat them once and for all.

“What are we waiting for,” said Rachel. “Let’s blow up the Pool Ship!”

Much easier said than done,” said Eva. “That ship is no Bug Fighter. It takes up the entire area the Yeerks cleared today and it’s made of alloys that aren’t from around here. Dynamite wouldn’t dent it.”

“How about Dracon beams?” Rachel asked.

“They’d be more effective,” said Eva. “But even if you could commandeer the necessary Bug Fighters, you’d be shot down before you could do any real damage.”

“What if we eliminated the guard beforehand?” Marco speculated.

“The Pool Ship isn’t that vulnerable without its guard,” Eva explained. “It has a powerful defence system of its own.”

            “We’re not seriously talking about this,” said Cassie. All eyes turned to her. I looked away. I knew what she was going to say. “Along with thousands of Yeerks, destroying the Pool Ship would kill thousands of human and Hork-Bajir Controllers. We can’t write them off.”

            <It may be our best chance to save billions of other lives, Cassie,> said Ax. <It may be our only chance to win the war.>

            “At that high a price,” James muttered, “it’s not worth it.”

            I jerked my head in James’s direction. “If you’ve got something to say—” I began, hotly.

            “There is another option,” Toby interrupted. “One that is both tactically and morally better. We could take control of the Pool Ship. Seize its systems, free its Controllers, take it down from the inside.”

Everyone was silent for a moment while they took that in.

I turned to Eva. “What do you think?”

“It would take a miracle,” said Eva.

“We are pretty good at those,” Marco pointed out.

“How would you get inside?” asked Loren.

“Hork-Bajir,” Tobias suggested. “They’d blend in with the local populace.”

“But who, besides Eva, knows anything about that ship’s technology?” said Marco’s dad.

“And how would you free the hosts?” put in Cassie’s dad.

<I know Yeerk technology,> said Ax, stiffly. <As it is very similar to the Andalite technology they stole from us.>

“You really should get the military involved in this,” said Rachel’s mom. “You kids have done more than enough already.”

Rachel laughed. “Mom, the military knows squat about fighting Yeerks. If anyone’s going to win this, it’s going to be us.”

I closed my mind to the voices around me. The parents were getting in the way. Asking too many questions. I needed a plan. I wasn’t going to get one from them.

“Okay,” I broke up the discussion. “It’s getting late. Eva, Toby, Ax, Marco, Rachel, Tobias and James stay behind. Everyone else back to camp.”

            It wasn’t until I caught a glimpse of Cassie’s face that I realised I hadn’t asked her to stay. She didn’t say a word. She gave me one last look and turned to leave with her parents. I almost called after her. I hadn’t planned on excluding her, but at the same time I felt oddly satisfied. All evening I’d had the feeling that Cassie was watching me and the idea was starting to make me uneasy.

Tobias was glaring at me with a hawk’s stare in his human eyes. The rest of them seemed to have similar feelings. Even James had noticed that something was wrong. He was gazing after Cassie, looking confused.

I found my voice and cut straight to the chase. “Hork-Bajir does sound like our best option, but we’re going to need more than that.”

“Right,” said Marco. “We blow our cover and we’re toast. No second chances.”

“We’ll need a diversion,” Toby agreed. “Something to direct the Yeerks’ attention away from the infiltration of their Pool Ship.”

“From what I know of Visser Thr—I mean, One,” said Eva. “He’d take the diversion as a genuine attack on the Pool Ship. It was the original Visser One who could see through such tactics. She could—” Eva put a hand to her forehead and her face darkened. “She could see through anything.”

Eva was sifting through the knowledge she had gained during her time as the original Visser One’s host body. It looked as though she had stumbled across an unpleasant memory in the process.

I felt Marco leave my side and move closer to her.

In a moment Eva went on. “My point is the current Visser One is likely to expect an open attack. I’d suggest making the diversion look as big as possible. Like it’s the Animorphs’ final stand.”

<We are limited in number,> said Ax. <How would we stage a convincing attack, if we’re also infiltrating the Pool Ship?>

“The military,” I said.

Rachel raised her eyebrows. “You picking up on my mom’s ideas now?” she worried.

“They could provide us with the quantity,” I explained. “Then all we need is a handful of Animorphs to prove that it’s an Animorph attack. When Visser One’s attention is focused on them—”

“He’ll probably vaporise them,” finished James.

“But the infiltration team will be inside by then,” I hastened to add. “They’ll have control of the Pool Ship and its weapons.”

“That’s another part I don’t get,” said James. “How exactly are we going to take control of the Pool Ship?”

“Ax?” I said.

<Once inside, I should be able to decrypt the ship’s security codes,> said Ax.

“Should?” James echoed.

<I have never set hoof in that ship,> said Ax. <But I assume its security codes can be deciphered in much the same way as any other Yeerk vessel’s.> He tilted his head disparagingly. <Their systems are too crude to fit an Andalite’s definition of proper security.>

James looked to Eva. “Have you ever been on the Pool Ship?”

“I have,” said Eva, quietly. “But the codes I remember are useless to you now. They are changed at frequent intervals.” She gave Ax a sly smile. “Andalite or not, you will find it difficult decrypting codes that don’t stay still.”

            “How long would he have between changes?” James asked.

            “Last time I was there it was one hour,” said Eva. “But a lot has happened since then. I suspect it is less now.”

            “So,” said James, turning to me. “What’s the back-up plan?”

            I stared at him. I thought I’d explained everything.

            “In case Ax can’t decrypt the codes in time,” said James. “What then?”

            I opened my mouth to reply and then closed it again. I didn’t have a ‘back-up plan.’ I was counting on Ax to pull off the rescue. I was sure that the others would understand, but it was obvious that James needed convincing.

            I closed my eyes, trying to think. Nothing came to me.

I opened my eyes. Everyone was watching me. I felt my shoulders sag. It suddenly occurred to me how exhausted I was.

I guess I looked pretty stressed, because Marco said, “Look, James, we don’t have all the answers right now. The details are going to take some long-term planning.”

“I thought we were short on time,” said James.

“All the same, you’ll need at least three days to clear the military of Controllers,” said Toby.

“That doesn’t mean we should leave ‘long-term planning’ until the last minute,” James argued.

“Yeah,” said Marco. “Still, the way I see it, we’re not going to make much progress without any sleep.” He stared pointedly at James. “So, let’s say we drop this for tonight, pick it up in the morning. Okay?”

James grimaced. He looked slowly around at each of us before he spoke. “Sure,” he said in a would-be-casual voice. “No problem.”

“The meeting’s over,” I announced, relieved. “We’d better get back to camp.”

Tobias had already de-morphed to hawk. He flew away as I spoke. Nobody else moved.

            “Do you need someone to take you back to the center?” I asked James.

            “I know the way,” said James, coldly. “I’ll be back in the morning for the meeting. Don’t bother sending anyone.”

            He turned and walked away.

 

 

Chapter 4

James

            After I’d gone a few steps, I glanced back at the meeting site. Eva and Toby were gone, but the others were still there. It looked like they were continuing the meeting without me. Then again, Toby and Eva had left. I tried to shake off my suspicions. They’d been friends a long time, after all. They were probably just talking. They were the original Animorph team…or at least four of them.

            I thought of Tobias. He hadn’t stuck around a second longer than he had to. He didn’t even have a word to add to the discussion after Cassie left.

I brought my thoughts back to that moment. Jake as good as told her to leave, but it had sounded to me like a careless mistake. I guess I was wrong. Everyone else reacted as though he had deliberately insulted her. Cassie herself had looked so upset it made me wonder just how personal the insult had been.

As I walked, I kept an eye out for stealthy creatures. I’d instructed Erica and Craig to send out a few scouting teams to explore the valley. I had to find one of those teams to lead me to the rest of the group, wherever they had settled.

<James, up here.> Diondra’s voice.

            I looked up. Two small brown birds were sitting in a tree branch over my head. One was Diondra and the other was—

            <It’s me,> said Zack.

            <What do you think?> Diondra stretched out her wings and stuck her beak in the air as though posing for a fashion show. <You want to fit in around here; these are what the popular birds are wearing. Green and red feathers are yesterday’s news. Mud-brown is the way to blend.>

            <Very nice,> I said, giving the insignificant-looking birds a gracious nod. <What are they?>

            <Beats me,> said Zack. <We’ll have to ask our human encyclopaedia.>

            <I don’t know about encyclopaedia, but I think Timmy did memorise the bird section,> said Diondra.

            “Right,” I said. “And a whole lot of other animal sections too. He’s been specialising his studies since we became Animorphs.”

            <Should come in useful,> said Diondra. <But right now, we’re more worried about food.>

            “What have the scouting teams come up with?” I asked.

            <Nothing yet,> said Diondra. <Judy, Liam and Chantel are still out looking for wildlife, but I doubt they’ll find anything more eatable than a rat.>

            I shuddered. “Is vegetation really that scarce?”

            <Not if you eat tree bark,> said Zack, dryly.

            I sighed. I knew, of course, that Jake had a stash of human food somewhere. I had hoped to simply ask for it. But it seemed clear to me now that Kelly’s concerns about him were justified. I planned to keep our location secret.

“So where are you guys camped?” I asked Diondra and Zack.

<In that clearing to your left,> said Diondra. <It’s some distance from Jake’s camp, although there’s no place in this valley far from Hork-Bajir.>

“I think the only Hork-Bajir we have to worry about is Toby,” I said. “I hadn’t really heard her talk until tonight. Collette was right about her; she’s not like other Hork-Bajir.”

            <Collette also says they’ve got real food here,> said Zack, a dreamy look in his beady bird eyes. <Real food they got from some abandoned grocery store. Where do you suppose that is?>

            “You mean Marco didn’t tell her that too?” I said, testily.

            <They don’t talk to exchange information, you know,> said Diondra. <They just talk. These things come up in their conversations.>

            “What conversations?” I demanded. “Since when have they had so much time to talk? I’m the only one who goes to the meetings.”

            <We’ve all been on missions,> said Diondra. <I guess they talk in private thought-speech.>

            “Well, I don’t like it,” I said, forcefully. “If she’s learned so much about the valley, talking to Marco, who knows what he’s learned about us, talking to her.”

            <You think he’s spying on us?> said Zack, disbelieving.

<Last I checked we were all on the same side.>

            I let it go. The truth was I wasn’t so comfortable with the situation. If Jake wasn’t to be trusted, Marco wasn’t either. That much I knew. He’d been covering for Jake when he told me to leave my worries until morning. I could tell the subtext ran something like: ‘Get lost, man. You’re being a nuisance.’

            Diondra and Zack left the branch. <We’re going to the camp,> said Diondra, rather coolly. <You coming?>

            “Go ahead,” I said. “I’ll see you there.”

            They took off.

I started in the direction of Jake’s camp, but soon turned around and wandered back to where I’d started. Back and forth I paced, sometimes getting a little closer to Jake’s camp. My thoughts were as restless as my body. We were all in this together, like Zack said. Jake’s team, my team—on the same side. Just a few hours ago, there’d been no doubt in mind that that was true.

“Is the meeting over?”

I spun around. Cassie was there, a few feet away from me, leaning against a tree.

“Yeah, they, uh…” I stopped. Was the meeting over? I wasn’t sure I knew the answer. I said it anyway, “It’s over.”

Cassie nodded and shifted uncomfortably against the tree trunk. There was a troubled look in her eyes. Whatever it was that had passed between her and Jake at the meeting, she was still thinking about it.

“You didn’t miss much,” I said, trying to sound casual. “Jake thinks we’re going to need the military and a few Animorphs to create a diversion while we infiltrate the Pool Ship. Ax should be able to decrypt the ship’s security codes, but, uh…that’s pretty much as far as we got.”

My last glimpse of Rachel, Marco, Ax and Jake came back to me. Had they continued to discuss the plan? I thought Cassie would want to know what had happened, but for all I knew, I didn’t have the whole truth to tell her.

            “There’ll be another meeting tomorrow morning,” I blundered on, again, feeling uncertain I was telling the truth.

            “Thanks for telling me,” said Cassie.

            “Jake will tell you, too,” I said.

            Cassie shrugged.

            I was casting about for something cheerful to say when Cassie asked, “Are you heading back to the rehab center?”

            “Yeah,” I confirmed. My insides squirmed; now I knew I was lying to her.

             “Better round up the others first,” said Cassie, smiling slightly. “They’re still chasing rodents.”

            I gulped. “The others?”

            “Judy, Liam and Chantel,” said Cassie. “I talked to them a few minutes ago. They wanted me to ask Tobias for information on rat nests.”

            I sighed, exasperated. “That was Judy, wasn’t it?”

            “What makes you say that?”

            “She’s not a complete idiot, but she is a bit stupid when it comes to concepts,” I explained.

            “You mean concepts like secrecy?” Cassie guessed.

            “No,” I said lamely.

Cassie wasn’t convinced. “If you guys are planning on spending the night…” her tone wasn’t leading to a reprimand, but I cut her off, defensively.

            “We have no choice! In case you haven’t noticed, the Yeerks are getting kind of destructive out there. I suppose you’re telling me you would’ve stuck around if Dracon beams were burning up your neighbourhood?”

            “My God,” Cassie gasped, horror dawning on her face. She left the tree trunk and walked over to me. “Was the rehab center…?”

            “No,” I answered. “But that doesn’t mean it won’t be.”

            There was silence as Cassie held my gaze and I tried to tell her without words that I’d made the right decision.

In a moment, she dropped her eyes, looking troubled again. “So…you’re all here, you don’t want us to know, and you’re searching for a furry meal?”

            “Well,” I said, slightly embarrassed. “Rats probably taste better than tree bark.”

            Cassie laughed. “Not all of us are Hork-Bajir and red-tailed hawks. I’ll show you where you can get something human.”

She walked past me and started toward Jake’s camp. “Cassie?” I said.

            She turned.

            “Are you going to tell Jake that we’re here?”

            “If you don’t want him to know,” she said, slowly. “I won’t tell him.”

            “Thanks.”

 

 

Chapter 5

Jake                                                                   

DAY TWO

            We set off for the military base. Me, Marco, Ax, Rachel, Tobias and Cassie. I wasn’t sure whether it was necessary to bring the whole team, but if Tobias’s reaction to leaving Cassie out last night was any indication, excluding someone could mean mutiny. In any case, I wanted Cassie to be in the loop. She was still one of us and I couldn’t escape that, no matter how uncomfortable she made me feel.

As we flew, I started to fill her in on why we were going to a military base.

<I know,> she said. <James told me about the diversion.>

<Oh,> I said. I don’t know why I was surprised. Of course, someone would have told her what had happened at the meeting. James must have met her on his way back to the center.

<He said there’d be a meeting this morning,> said Cassie, trying to keep her voice even. <Did I miss it?>

<There was no meeting,> I said.

<Oh,> said Cassie. <It was cancelled?>

<I don’t remember telling James there would be a—>

 <So, this general we’re going to talk to,> said Rachel, unknowingly interrupting our private thought-speech conversation. <How do we know he’s not a Controller?>

<He was working against the Yeerks yesterday,> I reminded her.

<Which is why the Yeerks may have gotten to him by now,> said Rachel.

<If they had the means to take him, they would have done it before,> I argued. <My guess is the Controllers in the military are outnumbered and don’t want to risk blowing their cover.> 

<On that hopeful note…> said Tobias.

I looked down. There was the base.

<Everyone clear on the plan?> I asked.

<Let’s do it!> cried Rachel, leading the way down.

<We’re doomed,> Marco groaned.

<Come on,> said Tobias cheerfully. <You know you love it really.>

We landed a short distance outside the fence and hid ourselves behind some bushes. There were several soldiers on guard. They were patrolling the fence’s perimeter in pairs but they were spread pretty thin. The two soldiers nearest us were only an Andalite’s leap away. It was perfect.

When we had all de-morphed, most of us re-morphed. I stayed in human form. I crept as close to the edge of the bushes as I dared. I couldn’t risk stepping out into the open until…

Fast as lightning, Ax jumped out from the bushes and whipped his tail blade twice through the air. The two soldiers were unconscious before Ax landed.

            I dashed out and helped him drag them behind the bushes.

            A few minutes later, the very same soldiers strolled casually into the heart of the military base.

            “Hey,” someone called after us, “your shift’s not over.”

            “We have something to do,” said Ax. “Doooo-wuh. Some. Um. Th. Th. Ing. Ing-uh. Thing. Ing-uh.”

I winced.

Ax was waggling his tongue in an experimental manner. “Ing-uh,” he added. “It is over, ovvvvvvv, er, there and not over there. Eeer. Aar.” Ax turned to face each direction with an outstretched arm and a wide smile.

The guy who’d called after us was looking unnerved.

            “We have to report to General Hobster,” I said, loudly. “We’ll be back.”

            “Remember,” I muttered to Ax, as we walked on. “Don’t say anything.”

            “Yes, my prince,” Ax agreed, at once.

            “And don’t call me—”

            “Yes, Prince Jake.”

            Ax and I split up inside the complex. As I searched for the general’s office, I hoped that Ax would keep himself out of trouble. Unlike me, he was alone.

            Sooner than I had expected, I spotted the man I was looking for. There was a large closet nearby. I opened it an inch and peered inside. It wasn’t as roomy as I’d hoped, but it would have to do. I stamped my feet and resisted the urge to scratch my head as I felt movement there. I had been planning to wait a few minutes before making my next move, but at that point, the general noticed me.

            “Lieutenant,” he said, looking me up and down as I stood stupidly next to the closet. “Isn’t there some place you should be?”

            “Yes,” I said. I gave the closet an anxious glance. I couldn’t explain now. I had to play for time.

“Get going then,” said the general.

“I’ve been patrolling the perimeter and I have something to report,” I invented.

            “Well, what is it?” said the general, impatiently.

            I hadn’t planned that far ahead.

“Actually,” I said, taking a few steps closer to the general, “I don’t work for you.”

“Is that so,” said the general, a dangerous glint in his eyes. Every soldier in the room was staring at me now.

“My name is Jake,” I de-morphed as I spoke. It only took a few seconds for the middle-aged man’s face to fade away as my face replaced it. “I’ve come to ask for your help.”

The general staggered a step backwards, his eyes wide in shock.

A few soldiers pulled out their guns.

“Hold your fire,” snapped the general, recovering quickly. He took a deep breath. “How did you do that?” he asked me.

“I’m an Animorph,” I said.

“He’s trespassing!” shouted a soldier who still had her gun drawn. “He could be dangerous!”

“He’s just a kid,” another soldier objected.

            “Hold your fire,” the general said again.

            I focused on him. “You know about Animorphs. We spoke to you yesterday.”

            “Birds!” he gasped.

            “That’s right,” I confirmed. “We fight the Yeerks and right now, we need your help. But before I tell you anything else, I must insist that you detain your men for three days.” I cocked my head at a couple of soldiers who had their guns out. “To ensure that everyone can be trusted.”

            The general looked highly affronted. “That won’t be necessary, son,” he said, crossly. “There are no Controllers on this base. I would never allow it.”

            “He’s one of them!” screamed a soldier, levelling his gun at me.

            “I told you to—” the general began.

            BANG.

            The gun went off. Large padded paws caught me in the chest and shoved me down. I hit the floor and heard the bullet hit the wall behind me. I blinked dazedly at the grey wolf on top of me.

            <The others are coming now,> said Cassie, bounding away to face an approaching soldier.

            Seconds later, the closet door burst open and a grizzly bear, a gorilla and a Hork-Bajir tumbled out in a blur of teeth, claws and blades.

            Cassie had finished first, I realised. She had always been the fastest morpher. No one else had been ready. No one else could have been there in time.

            <Jake!> Marco cried. <Would you morph already!>

            I started. I had been watching Cassie. She and Tobias were herding and disarming soldiers. I jerked my head toward the sound of Marco’s thought-speech voice. He was wrestling guns away from a handful of soldiers who were still aiming at me. I began to morph immediately. My eyes wandered back to the place where Tobias was now fighting beside Rachel.

            “Where’s Cassie?” I yelled at them.

            No one heard me. I cursed the racket the soldiers were making as I waited for my thought-speech to kick in. I looked around. There weren’t that many guns anymore, but some of the soldiers were still trying to make trouble. The rest were just too panicked to comprehend that the wild animals snapping at their heels didn’t really mean them any harm.

            <Where’s Cassie?> I tried again, when I was almost completely tiger.

            <She went out to the fence to round up the other soldiers,> Rachel replied.

            <Alone?> I demanded.

            <Ax went with her,> said Tobias.

            <You mean he’s already done locking the place up and blocking their communications?> I asked.

            <Well, yeah,> said Tobias. <He wouldn’t have come to find us otherwise.>

            <He was here?>

            <Honestly, Jake,> said Rachel, incredulously. <Where have you been?>

            I took off down the hall.

<Where are you going?> Tobias called after me.

I kept running. I didn’t stop until I had cleared the fence. I landed on a body. A closer look told me that he was unconscious. I thought I could see a faint impression of the flat side of an Andalite’s tail blade on his forehead.

<Ax?>

<Yes, Prince Jake, I—>

<Ax!>

I dashed over. Ax’s legs were crumpled beneath him. There was a bullet hole in his chest.

<Ax,> I said, urgently. <You have to—>

<Yes, I know,> he said, groggily. His Andalite fur was slowly becoming human skin and his eyes were turning from green to brown.

<Where’s Cassie?> I asked.

<One of the soldiers escaped,> said Ax, raising his hand weakly. <He went that way.>

I didn’t need any further explanation. Trusting Ax to complete his morph and de-morph without encouragement, I ran in the direction he had indicated.

            Within five minutes, I found Cassie. She was human and kneeling over a dead soldier.

            <Cassie!>

            She didn’t look up. “He had a communicator,” she said, quietly. “Ax said the dampening field wouldn’t work outside the fence.”

            <Morph back,> I said. <You shouldn’t—>

            “I got it away from him,” she said, more forcefully. “And he came here.”

            <Where is here?>

The place was made up of bushes, rocks, trees and dirt. It looked like the middle of nowhere to me.

            “He came to warn them,” she said.

            Reluctantly, I de-morphed and sat down beside her. She tore her eyes away from the dead soldier and looked at me instead. A chill ran down my spine as I saw the hard expression on her face. Cassie’s face had never looked like that before.

“He came to—” I prompted, faintly.

            “—warn them,” said Cassie. She pushed down the thick brambles of a bush and I peered over the flattened top. In a ditch, directly below, was the Blade Ship. It was in bad shape.

            “Are you sure there’s somebody inside?” I said.

            “Wolf hearing,” said Cassie, simply. “There are plenty of Controllers in there.”

Cassie’s gaze returned to the dead soldier. The claw marks on his arms and legs were evidence of desperate attempts to slow him up or knock him over. At his throat was the wound that had killed him. A deliberate bite.

“He was going to warn them,” said Cassie, but her voice had lost its conviction and her hard expression dissolved. Her eyes filled with tears. “And I—”

“You did the right thing.”

“Don’t say that!” Cassie blinked furiously and stood up.

“I just meant—”

“It was the necessary thing,” said Cassie, angrily. “Don’t pretend it was the right thing. It wasn’t!”

“I know.”

“Do you?” said Cassie.

I felt just as uncomfortable as I had at the meeting. I wanted to get away from her probing stare. I stood up.

“I do know,” I said, roughly. “I know what’s right and what’s wrong. But I also know that what is necessary is sometimes more important.”

“If you thought that I didn’t,” said Cassie, her face hardening again, “I hope I have just proved you wrong.”

I stared at her, suddenly numb and speechless. It was the last thing I had ever wanted Cassie to prove to me. That she could be ruthless, like Marco or Rachel…or me.

I thought I’d lost Cassie when she stopped me from killing Tom. When she let Tom get away with the morphing cube. I didn’t think I’d be able to trust her again. But I hadn’t lost her then. I was losing her now.

“I’m sorry,” I said, at last. I didn’t know what else to say.

“Look,” she said, briskly. “I think we should do some recon.” She nodded at the Blade Ship. “I heard them say something about starting a new Yeerk Empire in another galaxy.”

 

 

Chapter 6

James

            “See, this is why an alien invasion is only one of our problems,” said Kelly. She was in rant mode. “Jake’s got us and a few dozen other people set up as diversionary targets, he’s got his hopes set on Ax — who has never even been in the Pool Ship — and he doesn’t want to meet up and discuss a back-up plan. Add to that the fact that Judy has totally blown our cover—”

“She didn’t mean to,” said Collette, reproachfully. “She was trying to find us some food.”

“Yeah,” said Kelly. “But while Judy has good intentions, the rest of us have common sense. I mean, the girl just can’t work out keeping-a-secret-from-Jake equals keeping-a-secret-from-his-friends on her own.”

“Cassie’s not going to tell Jake that we’re here,” I said.

“How do you know?” demanded Kelly.

“Because she told me she wouldn’t.”

            Kelly rolled her eyes.

            “We can trust her,” I insisted.

            Kelly took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “We don’t know who we can trust anymore.”

            We were at camp. Erica and I sat cross-legged among the others, who were propped up against tree trunks. Craig had taken a team to pick up a few things from the rehab center.

It’s only Erica, Craig and I who have the use of our legs when we’re human. A month ago the three of us were in wheelchairs like the others. I was hit by a drunk driver when I was four. Erica and Craig were also disabled due to injury. The morphing process healed those injuries.

The other fourteen are still disabled. They would have to get along without wheelchairs while we were camped out in the valley. But some of them were going to need their medications.

            A coughing fit seized Kelly. She has cystic fibrosis.

Erica was beside her in an instant, holding out a water bottle.

            “Thanks,” gasped Kelly, clutching the bottle.

            “The team’s been gone a while now,” said Erica, turning to me, while Kelly sipped water. “What if something really has happened to the center?”

            “We’ll find meds somewhere else,” I said. “We can’t stay in morph all the time.”

            “Speaking of,” said Collette, anxiously. “Has anyone seen—”

            “Timmy!” Kelly called out in a hoarse voice.

            “Take it easy,” I advised.

            “I’m fine,” said Kelly, exasperated. “But Timmy’s—”

            A small brown bird fluttered down from the top of a tree to perch on a lower branch, a few feet above us.

            <You summoned?> said Timmy.

            “How long have you been in morph?” Kelly wanted to know.

            <I am attending to the task of vigilant observation,> said                               Timmy.

            “Judy and Shawn are the ones on lookout,” I corrected.

            “And that’s not what I asked,” added Kelly.

            <The function Judy and Shawn are currently undertaking is increasingly effective given the additional assistance,> said Timmy. <It is strategically advantageous for three meadow pipits lacking split visibility powers individually to, as an ensemble, obtain simultaneous information by observing the landscape from alternate points of view.>

            “Right,” said Kelly, not bothering to work out the translation. “Better de-morph then.”

            <I fail to comprehend the relevance of that remark in relation to the optical physics I just described,> said Timmy.

            Collette goggled at him. “I didn’t think there was anything any one of us could say that you would ‘fail to comprehend.’ ”

            Kelly looked to me for support.

            “Come and have some food,” I tried, smiling encouragingly up at Timmy. “You barely had any breakfast.”

            <I am sufficiently sustained at present,> said Timmy, shortly.

            “I am not going to let you end up the next Tobias just because you like to talk so much,” Kelly snapped. “Now get down here and get human!”

            <They’re back,> Shawn’s thought-speech voice announced. <Coming fast. They’ve got the meds.>

            Craig, Tricia, Liam and Majal were just visible on the horizon. Four red-tailed hawks flying low and carrying a bed sheet between them.

We got quiet as they approached. Kelly and Timmy had even stopped glaring at each other to look at the sky.

<The explorers return,> Tricia declared. <They’ve faced hurricanes, avalanches and murderous fiends, and yet they—>

“Craig?” I checked.

<Air ducts, a few dropped books and people with pesticide,> Craig assured me.

<When you put it that way you totally downplay our heroic efforts,> Tricia complained.

I grinned as the group landed and released the sheet. It was good to have them back.

“Were the Yeerks still there?” asked Collette.

            <It’s all good,> said Majal. <Not a Bug Fighter in sight.>

            <And we brought cards!> Liam enthused, as if this was a contributing piece of information.

            “Right,” Kelly snorted. “That’ll solve our problems.”

            “Or help us take our minds off them,” said Collette, wistfully.

            While Craig’s team de-morphed, Erica and I distributed the meds. I made a point of giving the cards to Collette. I was sure that she would manage to rope Kelly into a card game. She and Kelly used to play card games all the time. It seemed like just the sort of thing that might cheer Kelly up.

            “Timmy,” I said. “Tell Shawn and Judy to come down. It’s time to switch lookouts.”

            <Happy to oblige,> said Timmy. <I’ll assume their post.>

            “You tell them to come down and then you de-morph,” I said, sternly.

            <There is no need,> said Timmy. <My two-hour duration is not yet expired.>

“Don’t you think the rest of us might enjoy spending more

time as birds too?” said Kelly, swallowing down the pills Erica had given her and narrowly avoiding another coughing fit. “We can’t. We can’t give up on ourselves. I know you feel trapped when you’re in your own body, but if you let yourself become something you’re not, you’ll be trapped in a life that’s not yours either.”

<Maybe that is a life I would be better able to appreciate,> said Timmy.

            “Maybe you should stop being so selfish,” said Kelly, sharply.

Timmy gave her a long look and then, to my surprise, landed and de-morphed. Craig helped him get comfortable against a tree trunk.

            <Hey,> Judy’s voice called down from the sky. <It’s one of those dinosaurs! I mean Bork Hajares! Those, uh, Jigger Forks!>

            <Just a little one,> said Shawn. <It can’t be Toby.>

            “A baby Hork-Bajir,” breathed Collette.

            “Come down,” I yelled, remembering what Timmy had forgotten. “It’s time to change watch.”

            “Shh!” hissed Collette. “Look.”

            A very small Hork-Bajir wandered into the clearing. I had never seen one so young before. The blades on its wrists and elbows were barely an inch long, but they still looked very sharp. The Hork-Bajir didn’t seem to have noticed that there were seventeen kids watching it. It was walking toward the tree that Kelly was propped up against.

            “CCC…arr…rre…f…flll,” Timmy warned.

            “It’s okay,” said Collette. “She’s not going to hurt us.”

            “She?” Kelly raised her eyebrows. “How can you tell?”

            “Two horn blades,” answered Collette.

            The Hork-Bajir stopped when she reached the tree. She stared at Kelly, confused, I think. It was hard to figure out Hork-Bajir facial expressions. Hesitantly, she reached out with the tips of her fingers and touched Kelly’s face. Kelly stayed very still.

“No tree,” the Hork-Bajir decided, withdrawing her hand.

“No,” Kelly agreed, smiling. “I’m not a tree.”

The Hork-Bajir moved slowly away from her. She turned hopefully to Collette, who was sitting against another trunk. But in a moment she gave a little sigh and said, “No tree.”

“Fast learner,” Liam commented.

“She’s so cute,” whispered Collette.

<Cute?> said Sean, disbelievingly. He and Judy had landed and were halfway de-morphed. The Hork-Bajir didn’t seem to have noticed them.

            Collette reached her hand out to the Hork-Bajir, restrained excitement in her face. “Come here,” she said, softly. “Are you hungry? Nice no-tree find you a yes-tree. Come on.”

            With her other hand, Collette peeled a piece of bark from the trunk at her back and slowly extended that hand too.

            The Hork-Bajir girl took the bark and moved closer to Collette. “Nice no-tree?”

            “Here,” said Collette, placing her hands cautiously on the Hork-Bajir’s shoulders and turning her to face a human-free area of tree bark. “See?” said Collette. “Tree.”

            “Tree,” said the Hork-Bajir, happily. She began stripping bark with her wrist blades, moving around the trunk and discovering more and more.

            Kelly laughed. It was good to hear her laugh in a non-sarcastic way. She sounded positively merry. “Well,” she said. “At least someone around here has simple problems.”

            I was laughing too. The Hork-Bajir girl really was kind of cute.

            “I wonder what her name is,” said Majal.

            “Do you think she could tell us?” said Tricia, looking eager but doubtful.

            The Hork-Bajir stopped stripping bark when she completed her trip around the trunk and found herself facing Collette again. “Nice no-tree,” she remembered, brushing Collette’s nose with her fingers.

            “Nice no-tree name Collette,” said Collette, tugging the small fingers towards her chest. “Name Collette,” she repeated. Gently, she turned the Hork-Bajir’s fingers to touch the Hork-Bajir’s chest. “You name?”

            “Alka Wek,” said the Hork-Bajir.

            Collette grinned gleefully. “Hello, Alka,” she said. “Nice to meet a neighbour.”

            “Nice,” said Alka. She turned away and spotted Kelly. “Nice no-tree Col Et,” she declared, pointing at Kelly.

            “Oh, no,” Collette laughed. “That’s—”

            “Please,” said Kelly, hastily. “Don’t confuse her.”

            “Nice Col Et,” said Alka.

            “Thank you,” said Kelly, warmly.

            Alka gave us all one last vague, contented glance and then strolled leisurely out of the clearing.

“That was nice,” said Judy.

 “Personally, I’m getting a bit tired of that word,” Craig remarked.

            “James,” Erica was at my elbow. “Did you send anyone else on watch?”

            “No,” I realised. I had been too preoccupied getting people to de-morph. And then Alka…

            “Well, someone should—” Erica began.

            <Osprey approaching the encampment,> said Timmy, in thought-speech.

            “Damn him,” I muttered as I caught sight of his winged form above me. He had morphed back while we’d all been distracted by Alka. I glowered up at him. Couldn’t he spend five minutes with us anymore, as a human? The way he used to? I couldn’t blame Kelly for being worried. The morphing seemed to have become something of an addiction for Timmy.

            Before either Kelly or I could say anything to him, the osprey hailed us. <It’s me,> said Cassie. <I volunteered to pick you up from the center.>

            “Are we still having a meeting?” I asked.

            <It’s a mission,> said Cassie. <We’ve got a few new problems to deal with.>

 

 

Chapter 7

James

            Less than an hour later, stage one of the plan was already underway. I flew fretfully around, keeping an eye on my two teams. Erica’s was spread out in the sky between the military base and the place where Cassie had found the Blade Ship. Craig’s hovered around the ditch where the Blade Ship was. They weren’t far from the cave-like hole being dug — or rather eaten — out of the side of a small hill.

<Back off,> I ordered. <You’re too close.>

<He’s going the right way,> said Chantel, glancing over at the Taxxon butt disappearing into the hill. <He must have control of the morph.>

<Taxxons are hard to control,> said Tobias, arriving on the scene. <But I’m the one who had the worst time with it. Ax has got this hibernation trick. I think you’re safe.>

<Hibernation?> Timmy flew closer to the hole, his beady bird eyes narrowed. <He hardly appears to be in a state of inactivity.>

<It’s just what he calls it,> said Tobias. <I still wouldn’t go that close to the hole!> he added, hastily. <Even Ax lost control once.>

<You heard him, genius,> Kelly scolded. <Get back over here.>

Timmy complied, muttering darkly, <Naturally, one would prefer to forgo the observation of a potentially dangerous Taxxon, when the observation of an undeniably dangerous Controller-populated vessel is a situation of such superior stability.>

            <If you’re bored, you could morph fly and test out the smelling beacon,> said Kelly.

            Timmy hesitated. <The Taxxon feces have not been excreted yet,> he said. <To undertake such a mission at this time would be premature.>

            If Kelly had a mouth she would have been smirking. <You want to be more careful about your excuses,> she told Timmy. <That one’s only going to last you another thirty seconds.>

            <I harbour no personal reservations regarding the mission itself,> Timmy insisted.

            <Whatever you need to tell yourself,> said Kelly.

            <You’re being too hard on him,> said Collette, confidentially.        

<I was only—>

            <You know he’s not really up to it,> Collette continued.

<All this pressure is only going to upset him.>

            <Right,> said Kelly, cottoning on. <Well, I’m sure we can find someone less squeamish to—>

            <I am most certainly not squeamish.> Timmy landed and began to de-morph. <My tolerance for those tasks the faint of stomach will — in cowardice — abstain is considerable.>

            <Remember the good old days, when proving your manliness involved walking on the side of the street where people dumped their bed-pans,> Raymond teased.

            <Ah, yes,> Chantel pitched in. <Real champions, those guys, parading their clean clothes in the line of disposal. ‘Be not squeamish’ was all a lady need say.>

            <I’m not a lady,> Kelly objected.

            <My opinion coincides,> said Timmy. He had to stop there, because he had become too human to use thought-speech.

            Just when I thought it was safe to change the subject…

            <I wish flies had better eyesight,> said Judy. <Using Taxxon poop to guide us is so gross!>

            <Welcome to the real world of superheroes,> Tobias chuckled. <We once planted a loaded diaper outside an airport flight gate for the same reason.>

            <The technological aspects of this plan,> I steered. <Cassie said something about Androids?>

            <The Chee,> said Tobias. <They’re good with holograms.>

            <And the Yeerks don’t know about them?>

            <If they did, the universe would be in more danger than it is now,> said Tobias. <The Chee’s technology is way more advanced than anything the Yeerks have ever encountered.>

            <Yeah, Cassie told me,> I said. <I still can’t believe the Chee were deliberately programmed not to fight.>

<Well, it was the nature of their creators, wasn’t it?> said Collette. <The Pemalites were innocent and trusting. That’s why their essence lives on in dogs.>

            <Right,> I said, although I couldn’t remember Cassie mentioning that part.

            <I gotta go,> said Tobias, taking off again. <I gotta talk Ax through his course. He’s bound to go in circles, otherwise.>

Meanwhile, Timmy had completed his mission. <The fly brain is highly sensitive to the fresh and appetising stench of the Taxxon feces,> he reported. <Our progress will be enforced by the fly’s potent desire to savour, consume and digest the—>

<Uh, that’s great, Timmy, thanks,> I said, feeling that he had more than proved that he was not squeamish. <Erica, you got anything to tell me?>

<No one’s left the base,> she said. <I guess the soldiers are as secure as Cassie said.>

<In that case, I need some of you to come and help with the rockslide,> I said. <Leave four on lookout.>

I told Craig’s team to do the same.

I soon had eight lookouts in the sky (half watching the road, half guarding the Blade Ship) and eight helpers on the ground.

            Erica and Craig had chosen those with the most suitable morphs for the task at hand. Judy’s elephant would have been best, but I decided to hold off on such a large, noticeable animal until we had seen what we could do with Kelly’s bull and Raymond’s gorilla. Tricia and Chantel morphed mole. The rest of us remained in Meadow pipit morph, keeping our eyes peeled for rocks and directing either Kelly or Raymond towards them. Raymond heaped his powerful arms with stones, while Kelly rolled boulders with her thick-skulled head.

<No time for sand castles, I suppose,> joked Chantel, as she and Tricia piled small mounds of dirt on top of the hill.

<Correct,> I said, stifling an impulse to laugh. Chantel had a heartening habit of finding the fun in something she had to do, no matter how dull the job really was.

About five minutes into construction, Erica, Craig and I abandoned our bird morphs and crawled around in our own fully-functional human bodies, searching the ground for sticks.

By the time we had returned to the hill with a pile of twigs and one small tree branch, Raymond and Kelly were both braced against a massive pile of rocks threatening to slide down the hill and over the hole Ax had made. I was about to tell Judy to risk her elephant morph, when Erica took matters into her own hands.

            “Here!” she cried, dropping her sticks and hurrying forwards. She climbed onto Kelly’s back. “If we can just get all the smaller rocks in the back,” she explained, standing on Kelly as she lowered her hands into the rock pile, “we should be able to push the bigger ones further up the slope without triggering a slide.”

            I scrambled over Raymond to help Erica toss small rocks behind bigger ones. <Ow!> he yelped. <That was my face you just elbowed.>

            “Hold still!” I panicked, as Raymond’s whole gorilla body jerked in indignation. “You’ll knock me off.”

Kelly was being much more considerate of Erica’s disorganised limbs. Even though Erica was jumping all over her to dive at new rocks, Kelly held her own bull body as stiff as a post. She did, however, take care to move her head if one of Erica’s feet came too close to her horns, barely flinching when this adjustment caused Erica’s foot to land in her eye.

At last, Erica and I climbed back down, panting. Once Kelly had managed to shove the boulders up to a more level area of the hill’s slope, the rock pile appeared to be stable. She and Raymond moved away as Craig stepped in to do the delicate work.

Craig sat calmly on the edge of the hill, poking a series of sticks into the loose earth beneath the rocks. He angled each stick so that it was touching several others.

No one seemed to be breathing. Like me, they were worried about breaking his concentration. I bit back the urge to call him off. One wrong move and the whole rock slide would come down on his head! The expression on his face implied no such thought in his mind. In fact, he looked as though he was merely assembling an intriguing jigsaw puzzle. The last piece was the tree branch which he slid carefully under the rocks and between the criss-crossed sticks.

“There,” said Craig, stepping down. “The last person down the tunnel pulls this part in with them,” he indicated a length of the tree branch which was dangling beside Ax’s hole. “And the whole escape route becomes part of the landscape.”

“Works in theory,” I agreed. “As long as—”

A loud burst of thought-speech laughter interrupted me. I started. So did everyone else. I knew that laugh. It seemed odd that Collette would laugh like that when all she was doing was keeping a lookout.

<If Diondra just told her a joke,> said Tricia, thoughtfully, <It must’ve been a really good one. I don’t think she meant to laugh in such public thought-speech.>

            Diondra hailed us a moment later with the news that Jake’s team was on its way over. They had a member of the Chee travelling with them.

            The next laugh to burst from Collette seemed quite unrelated to this news.

<Collette?> said Kelly, uncertainly.

No answer.

<Collette!>

<Huh—? Wha—?> came the distracted reply.

            <What’s up with you?> Kelly demanded.

            <Oh, don’t mind her,> said Diondra, when Collette failed to respond. <She’s got someone else on the line.>

 

 

Chapter 8

Jake

            <Marco?> I tried again. <Marco!>

            <I—uh, what?> he spluttered.

            <I’ve been trying to talk to you,> I told him. <Hello! Where’s your head gone?>

            There was a ringing silence. I’d lost him again.

            <Marco!>

            <Yeah, Jake, uh…hold on a second,> he mumbled.

            Hold on? <What exactly are you—>

            <Shhh!> Marco hissed at me.

            I was so taken aback by the sharpness in his tone that I shut up.

A minute later, I thought I heard someone laughing in my head. It was not a laugh I recognised.

It wasn’t until we had de-morphed in some bushes, about half way between the military base and the Blade Ship that Marco seemed ready to talk to me again.

            “Hi, Jake,” he said cheerfully. “Sorry about that. It’s just I didn’t want to be rude.”

            “You were rude,” I said, confused. “What were you doing and what was that…that laugh?”

            “You heard that?” Marco sounded surprised. Then he grinned appreciatively. “Well, I guess she thought—” his grin faltered at the look on my face. “That I was really, really hilarious,” he finished, tentatively.

“She?”

            “Uh, Collette,” Marco elaborated. He tried for a casual smile. “Told you about her, didn’t I?”

            “You told me she was too cute to be a Controller when we first met her,” I said, scowling. “You never told me you’re currently dating her.”

            “Dating?” Marco repeated, his eyes widening in alarm. “That’s not what…Jake, man, we just talk.”

            “Whatever,” I snapped. “Just get your head back in the game, okay? And don’t go on dividing your attention whenever you’re in morph. I don’t have time for it. You got that?”

            “Got it,” said Marco, sheepishly.

            An osprey and a bald eagle landed nearby; Cassie and Rachel had arrived. Ax was still working on the tunnel and Tobias was with him. A large swarm of bees flew low to the ground, headed for James’s position; our Chee was almost in place.

            My heart was hammering. Everything was coming together. In next to no time, there’d be Bug Fighters in the sky, Animorphs running wild and Controllers at each other’s throats. Just as soon as Ax and Tobias reported their tunnel complete.

            “So,” said Rachel, strolling over from her bush, fully human. “Are we about ready to bait some Yeerks?”

            “Oh, that’s helpful,” said Marco. “Just what I needed. A mental image of fish gobbling worms on hooks. Thanks a lot.”

            “Anytime,” said Rachel, sweetly.

            I noticed the osprey was still standing behind the bush Rachel had left.

            “Cassie?” I asked.

            <James’s people should get into position, don’t you think?> she said.

            “Yeah, I guess so,” I agreed.

            <I’ll let them know,> she said.

            “Okay,” I said, slightly disconcerted. “And then you’ll de-morph? You know, get ready?”

            <Uh-huh,> said Cassie, distantly.

            I felt oddly far away myself. I was thinking about the earlier events of the day.

After I found Cassie and the dead soldier, Cassie and I had morphed fly. It had turned out that so small a morph was not necessary. A hole big enough for a human to fit through had been blasted in the Blade Ship’s roof. We had entered through it and had found ourselves in a strange, deserted room. Its floor was a meter lower than the floor in the room next to it. We had left that room and made our way to the bridge, hitching rides on Controllers headed there.

For almost two full hours, we’d hidden on ceilings and beneath consoles, spying on the Controllers. There were a dozen of them on the bridge, all working feverishly. The ship’s interior was covered in rubble, but no was bothering to tidy. Everyone was far too concerned with repairing damaged systems.

When Tom entered the bridge, it became apparent that Visser One was not the dictator behind this project. The Visser, in fact, knew nothing about the Blade Ship’s whereabouts. Visser One had lent it to Tom and it had been attacked while in Tom’s charge. As far as the Visser knew, Tom’s crew had not yet returned from the mission he had sent them on and Tom intended to keep it that way. Some of the Controllers on the bridge, however, were less keen to stay away from resources on the Pool Ship that could help them with their repairs.

“We have everything we need!” Tom had roared at his disgruntled crew. “Portable Kandrona emitters, food for our host bodies, the morphing cube and this ship. We have it all! The attack has only delayed the plan. We still have the means to start our own empire. An empire in which every Yeerk is morph-capable. That’s what you wanted, remember? Visser One would have none but his most loyal share his power, but I gave you all the chance to be free! Free of your limited, human host bodies. Free of your own bodies should you choose to remain in a morph. We’ll conquer a new planet, in a new galaxy. We’ll find new host bodies and new morphs. We’ll leave Visser One to rot in the mess he has made of Earth!”

            He went on in this vein for some time, finally wiping doubt from every face. Long as I’ve known Tom the Controller, it had unnerved me to see the look on my brother’s face as he rallied his crew. There had been a dangerous greed in his eyes, a lust for power.

“Sir,” one Controller had said, timidly. “Very few of us have yet been initiated. When will the rest of us have our chance to acquire the morphing power?”

“When you have finished repairing our ship,” Tom had replied. “Back to work! Keep it up!”

            So now it was not only Earth that the Animorphs needed to save. Some other unsuspecting planet was doomed to endure a similar invasion, unless we did something to stop it.

My plan was simple. It followed a sort of saying: the enemy of my enemy is my tool.

            At long last, a red-tailed hawk and a northern harrier landed in the bushes.

            <All set, Jake,> said Tobias.

            “Battle morphs,” I ordered. “Tobias, tell James to—”

            <I already did,> said Cassie. She was still in osprey morph.

<They’re on their way.>

            “Cassie…” I said, weakly. “Why aren’t you...?”

            She turned her head sharply and stared into my eyes. My own morph stalled as I watched her de-morph at top speed. She kept on morphing as though no human transition existed. Wolf fur spread down her back before the last of her feathers had disappeared. The whole time, her eyes bore into mine. Small, beady osprey eyes; beautiful, brown human eyes; harsh, yellow wolf eyes. Her morph was complete in less than a minute.

            <I’m ready,> she said, breaking eye contact.

            The others were still completing their single-transition morphs and I had barely started. I gave myself a mental shake and re-focused on the tiger.

            <Getting kind of scary isn’t she?> Marco muttered to me.

            <Yeah,> I said, feeling stunned.

            Soon, we stood together at the edge of the ditch, looking down on the crippled Blade Ship at its bottom.

            <Easy enough to get into,> said Tobias. <But it’s a pretty mad scramble back out again.>

            <With any luck, it’ll be harder for the Controllers,> I said grimly. I went on in a low, hurried voice. <Hard and fast, remember. We make them think they’re in serious trouble; they come out to defend their ship. Cassie and I go in; you keep them occupied. Visser One gets here; you head for the hologram, down the tunnel and back to camp. Everyone clear?>

            <Yes, Prince Jake,> said Ax. The others nodded.

            <Go!>

            We dropped onto the Blade Ship.

 

 

Chapter 9

James

            The sun was setting fast, but visibility was not going to be a problem. Our morphs were selected to cover both light and dark conditions. I and seven others were in owl morph. The rest were red-tailed hawks and meadow pipits.

            The Pool Ship was in sight well before we reached it. In the middle of our town it sat — a monstrous mass of alien technology. The ring of scorched land surrounding its position made me think of bacteria spreading disease from its point of origin.

Pity we weren’t here to exterminate that disease’s primary germ. We were actually here to do Visser One a favour. And the worst part was he was more likely to kill us than to write us thank-you cards.

<So,> came Jesse’s sceptical tone, as we drew near our goal. <Basically, we’re here to say, ‘Hey, Visser One, guess what? Some of your ‘loyal’ followers are planning to take your Blade Ship and your morphing cube and start their own Yeerk Empire. They’re not on any mission you sent them on and they’re not going to help you conquer Earth and…what’s that you say? You didn’t hear any of that, owing to the fact that you blew us all up on sight?’>

            <We’re not going to say anything to Visser One,> I said patiently. <He wouldn’t believe us even if he did stop to listen. We need to show him the truth.>

            <Won’t we still have to say, ‘Hey, Visser One, please leave the safety of your heavily guarded Pool Ship and follow your enemies into a possible trap’?> Jesse inquired.

<You’re never happy unless you’re being negative,> Liam exclaimed in disgust.

<I don’t believe in luck,> said Jesse, flatly.

<Neither do I,> I said.

We pulled up behind the last row of houses on the barren circle’s perimeter. The houses were abandoned and the woods were close by. On our way over, we’d broadcasted warnings to all civilians in the area: <Clear off. There may be trouble here.> We’d also ensured that the trouble would take place on the opposite side of town from the rehab center. I honestly couldn’t think of any safety measure we’d forgotten to take. On our way out, we’d fly over the abandoned houses and through the uninhabited woods. However many Bug Fighters came after us, there would be no townies caught in the cross fire.

<Four teams,> I said, as calmly as I could. <Let’s get this over with.>

We split up and veered off.

Tricia, Chantel, Timmy, Liam and I gained altitude.

<Craig? Erica? Kelly?> I contacted the other team leaders.

<Ready,> came a single, united reply.

            My team dove. The Pool Ship, parked Bug Fighters, Hork-Bajir, Taxxons and humans rushed up at us.

            “Tseeeeer!” Two red-tailed hawks — Timmy and Chantel — swooped low over the Pool Ship’s vast roof, where we would be invisible to everyone on the ground.

            “Hoo-hoo!” Tricia and I came up behind them.

            “Tweet! Tweet! Twitter-tweet!” came Liam’s battle cry. He was a tiny meadow pipit, struggling to keep up in our wake.

            The results were instantaneous. Hork-Bajir looked around wildly, slashing their blades at the air. Taxxons shrieked.

Humans scanned the sky with wide, worried eyes.

<Fear the birds, that’s what they cry…> sang Chantel.

            We passed over the edge of the Pool Ship’s roof and out of the Controllers’ blind spot. Human eyes were the first to detect us. Panic turned quickly to action. Chapman was giving orders. Bug Fighters were being boarded. Hand-held Dracon beams were shooting red light into the sky.

            <…slug-headed jerks want us all to die,> Chantel concluded.

<Fall back!> I ordered. <And, Chantel, please can we save

Mary Poppins for a more spoonful-of-sugar moment?>

            <Sorry,> said Chantel. <It helps me concentrate.>

            <Can’t imagine how,> I muttered. We flapped back to the Pool Ship’s roof and the Dracon beams stopped. But now the Bug Fighters were firing up their engines.

Craig’s team took it as their cue to pitch in. He, Judy, Andrew and Majal flitted briefly over the edge of the Pool Ship’s roof and narrowly avoided a second wave of Dracon beams. Once safely out of sight, the four of them broke into a tirade of public thought-speech:

<Animorphs! They’re everywhere!>

<Idiot, they’ve flown away.>

<Then what are you shooting at our Pool Ship for?!>

<They’re still there!>

<They’re not!>

<They’ve boarded the Pool Ship! Send troops inside!>

“Who’s giving orders here?” Chapman turned a face like thunder on a crowd of humans and Hork-Bajir behind him. A babble of hasty denials followed. I saw several desperate gestures indicating that other Controllers were to blame.

<Where’d those birds go?!> Craig’s team continued.

<We can’t let them get away!>

            <Ssseeesstrew trrreeesss wew!> came a brave attempt at Taxxon speech.

            “You want to eat them?” Chapman demanded of the nearest Taxxon.

            <Is that what I said?> Andrew wondered in private thought-speech.

<I don’t want to eat them!> Judy declared in public thought-speech.

I groaned. Taxxons don’t speak English.

“I didn’t think you did,” Chapman said to a nearby Hork-Bajir.

All the same, I noticed Chapman getting a thoughtful look on his face. <Someone else try Taxxon,> I decided.

<Reeesstrew wsweertwe stweee,> said Majal.

“No,” Chapman rounded on a group of Taxxons. “You can not eat them. We’re vaporising them.”

<Visser One is coming!> I told the Controllers.

Chapman made a convulsive movement and turned very white. “Get those Bug Fighters off the ground!” he said into his communicator.

The Bug Fighters began to lift off.

<Okay,> I said, privately. <Let’s keep this up as long as we can. Liam—>

            <Request permission to assume the role in Liam’s stead,> said Timmy.

            <No,> I said.

            <But—>

            <Timmy, the Visser talks like evil Tarzan and I don’t trust you to fake it,> I said, bluntly.

            <After them! Get those birds!> Timmy practiced. <You must exterminate—>

            <There, see, you can’t do it,> I said. <Liam?>

            <FOOLS,> Liam boomed in public thought-speech. <YOU LET ANIMORPHS ON MY POOL SHIP! GET DOWN HERE! FIND THEM! KILL THEM! NOW!>

            A couple of Bug Fighters streaked straight for the ground. Others merely hesitated in their ascent.

            <DON’T KEEP ME WAITING!> Liam yelled at them.

            <Someone who converses in such primitive terms is unsuited to command the Yeerk Empire,> said Timmy, grumpily.

            <Oh, good point,> Jesse drawled. <You remember to mention that if the Yeerks ever decide to hand you Visser One’s evaluation form. Sign Timmy, wanna-be next elected—>

<Jesse,> Kelly cut across her. <You look like a songbird with too many notes in her mouth. How about directing the cacophony elsewhere?>

<Is that you telling me to shut up?> asked Jesse.

<Sadly, no,> said Kelly. She directed Jesse, Zack and Collette in the next round of public thought-speech.

<Why haven’t our ships landed?>

<Chapman, sir, Visser One told them to land, sir, tell them!>

<Visser One will skin them alive!>

<He’ll skin you alive if you don’t stop them!>

Chapman wasn’t taking any chances. He spoke into the communicator: “Get those Bug Fighters out of the sky!”

More Bug Fighters landed.

            <I NEED TROOPS INSIDE NOW!> Liam bellowed.

            Chapman led an army of humans, Hork-Bajir and Taxxons into the Pool Ship. He didn’t notice the two Bug Fighters whose pilots had decided not to be gullible. They remained in the air.

            <Is there any point?> Liam asked me.

            <They don’t buy you,> I said. <We’ll just have to keep them occupied.>

            <Is this helping?> Liam sounded panicked.

            I turned my wide, amber eyes on a Bug Fighter that was chasing a frantically fluttering meadow pipit. <Wasn’t my idea,> said Liam, nervously.

I decided to give the Bug Fighter a bigger target. Tricia, as the other owl on my team, joined me. In a flurry of feathers and a chorus of “hoo-hoos” we captured the pilot’s attention.

            <Close one,> said Liam, gratefully. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his tiny brown form disappear behind the Pool Ship. <Are you guys okay?>

Within seconds, the Bug Fighter had Tricia and I targeted. We flapped around behind it and its Dracon cannon swivelled after us.

            <Hey!> Collette was also in owl morph. She swooped into the Bug Fighter’s line of sight before it could turn around. Tricia and I dropped safely below it.

The Bug Fighter made a bee line for Collette’s position.

<Left and higher!> Kelly told her.

Collette swerved and flapped. The Bug Fighter made to follow.

<Collette!> Kelly plummeted for the Bug Fighter’s window. “Tseeeeer!” her outstretched talons scraped the glass and her wide-spread wings obscured the pilot’s view. The Bug Fighter spun off course.

<What’s the matter with you?> Kelly actually turned in mid-air to give Collette an angry hawk’s glare.

<I’m fine,> said Collette.

<You’re insane,> Kelly argued. <Why do you always have to—>

<Look out!> Collette shouted.

Kelly swerved in time to catch sight of the Bug Fighter she’d distracted, taking aim at her.

Another red-tailed hawk flew out in front of her. The Dracon cannon adjusted to shoot at the new arrival, who dodged the beam. <You too would do well to exercise more caution,> the hawk told Kelly, reprovingly.

<Thanks, Timmy.> Kelly caught a thermal and soared high above the Bug Fighter. Her team followed suit.

            Not too far away, Erica’s team was dodging the other Bug Fighter’s advances.

Craig’s team came out of hiding to take over the job of distracting the first Bug Fighter.

Tricia and I dove behind the Pool Ship. Chantel nearly knocked Timmy out of the air in an attempt to point him in the same direction.

            <ANIMORPHS ON MY POOL SHIP?!>

I shivered. That was not Liam’s voice.

<Guys?> said Kelly. <Visser One’s up from his nap.>

I flapped up to the Pool Ship’s roof and saw the Andalite Controller emerging from a hatch. He stood on the roof. His stalk eyes swung in dizzy circles over his head, taking in every bird above him. <IDIOTS! THEY’RE OUT HERE!>

<Haul wing!> I said to all four teams.

            A Bug Fighter came to hover next to Visser One who scrambled aboard. Then the Bug Fighter took off, and one by one the others followed.

We’ll all be okay, I told myself. Liam, Jesse, Craig and Diondra were small and hard to spot. Timmy, Kelly, Majal, Shawn and Chantel were the fastest fliers. Me and the other owls had the best vision in the darkening sky.

            <We did it!> Collette crowed. <We got a whole troop of ’em after us!>

            <No need to say that like it’s a bad thing,> said Jesse sarcastically.

            Visser One was on board one of the Bug Fighters. The Bug Fighters were following our lead. We remained a survivable distance away from our pursuers.

            All according to plan, I thought. At our end, anyway.

 

 

Chapter 10

Jake

            Snarling, growling, and in my case roaring, we dropped onto the Blade Ship. On impact, we skidded clumsily over the Blade Ship’s hull, scrambling for rough spots to hold onto. Tobias, using his Hork-Bajir blades, was the first to gain control of the situation. He found his way to the edge of the roof and slid down to the ground. Rachel and Marco followed, less gracefully. Ax, whose Andalite hooves offered no traction, toppled off the roof in a heap.

            <We should have all gone Hork-Bajir,> said Tobias, helping Ax to his feet.

            <It wouldn’t have had the same effect,> I pointed out.

From beneath my feet came panicked shouts. Shouts of Controllers aboard a crippled ship that was under attack.

            A grizzly bear, a gorilla, an Andalite and a Hork-Bajir ran all around the ship. Rachel threw her weight against closed hatches. Marco punched his fists into the ship’s sides. Ax and Tobias slashed their blades through windows and weak points in the hull.

Cassie and I continued pounding on the roof with our paws and I roared loud enough for half the town to hear me.

            The idea was to convince Tom’s Controllers that they were surrounded by a vast army of Animorphs.

            “We must protect the ship!” Tom yelled above the panicked voices of his crew. “Get out there and fight them off!”

            “There are too many,” wailed a crewman.

            “I have not yet been initiated,” cried another. “I can not morph!”    

“You will defend this ship!” Tom bellowed.

<Found it,> Cassie whispered.

I lumbered over to where Cassie stood, next to the hole we had found in the hull that morning.

<There’s no one in there,> said Cassie, checking the room below with a quick glance.

            <Let’s go, then,> I said. <Before the Controllers figure out they’re over-reacting.>

            Cassie de-morphed and lowered herself gingerly into the hole. When my own de-morph was complete, I followed, finding it a tighter squeeze than she had.

            To my fly senses the room had seemed a lot bigger, but now that I saw it with my human eyes, I realised.

            “It’s some kind of elevator,” I said. “A turbo-lift.”

            “Yes,” Cassie agreed, peering over the wall which was the floor of the next room. “It must have broken down when they crashed.” She frowned. “Who could’ve done this to the Blade Ship? We never did find out who attacked them.”

            “No point worrying about that right now,” I said.

            “I suppose not,” said Cassie, still looking puzzled.

            I stood beside her, watching the Controllers rushing past our position. Their feet were level with our heads.

            “Move! Move! Move!” Tom’s voice commanded.

            Outside, the others were still putting up a terrific racket.

            “Just a few more minutes,” I grated, my eyes following each Controller as he or she passed. “Once this hallway’s clear, we’ll find the morphing cube.”

            “What will we do with it?” Cassie asked.

            “Keep it safe,” I said, thinking it a strange question.

            “But we don’t need it anymore,” said Cassie.

            “And Tom’s people do?” I turned my head to stare at her. “Cassie, they’re Yeerks! They’re going to use the morphing power to invade other worlds!”

            “I know that,” said Cassie, quickly. “It’s just—” she broke off, apparently at a loss to explain herself. “Do you ever think about what would have happened if we hadn’t walked through the construction site that night?” she said at last.

            I blinked. “All the time. What’s that got to do with—?”

            “I dream about it sometimes,” said Cassie in a very dream-like voice. “None of us know about the Yeerks or about being Animorphs. It’s like an alternate reality. And the Ellimist says…something…”

            “What?”

            “I don’t remember,” said Cassie. “I’m just not sure that we’re the ones who should have the morphing cube right now.”

            A muscle in my jaw twitched. “Is that what you were thinking when you let Tom get away with the thing in the first place? That we’d had our turn with it and had better let someone else have a go?!”

            “No,” said Cassie, quietly. “When I did that, I was thinking about you.”

            “‘Trying to protect me’? ” I quoted her initial defence back at her.

            Cassie shook her head. “That’s only what it felt like.”

            “You’ve lost me.”

            Cassie gazed out at the Controllers for a few seconds and then, turning to face me with a brave sort of grimace, said, “Somehow, I knew, I—I mean, I thought I knew that letting Tom have the morphing cube, well…it seemed like the right thing to do.”

            The right thing to do, I thought, dully. How many times had Cassie said those words? In all she’d ever done, whether it was something so simple as adopting orphaned skunk babies or something so questionable as risking all our lives for a supposedly reformed Yeerk, she’d always been sure it was the right thing to do.

I’d learned to trust her instincts. Aftran, the Yeerk Cassie had spared, went on to start the Yeerk Peace Movement. Cassie had been right to do what no one else would ever dream of doing; she had been right to help a Yeerk. But there was no way she could be right about this. No way.

            “Corridor’s almost clear now,” Cassie whispered. She was standing on tiptoes with her hands on the upper floor’s ledge, sticking her head further out into the corridor to see around the corner. She lowered her arms just as I raised mine to the ledge, too. Her hands caught on my arms as she regained her balance on the turbo-lift floor.

            We both froze.

Goosebumps rose up my arms and at the same time I felt warm. Wonderfully warm. For a moment, it was as though nothing bad had ever happened between us.

In less than two seconds, Cassie had pulled her hands away. She gave me a swift, apologetic look and then averted her eyes.

            “Cassie…” I reached out and took her hand. Warmth came flooding back, but with it came the remembrance that Cassie and I weren’t the way we used to be. Ever since the Yeerks took the morphing cube, maybe even before that, I’d shut her out. I’d given her every reason to believe that I didn’t want her anywhere near me.

            “I didn’t mean to push you away,” I told her. The words sounded empty when I said them out loud, but they were true. Whatever it was that Cassie had done, I didn’t want her to be a stranger.

            Cassie squeezed my hand and gave me a faint smile.

            I held fast to her hand even as she slackened her grip. There was one more thing I had to say.

            “The corridor’s clear,” she reminded me, gently.

            “Cassie, I…”

            “We’d better get moving.” Cassie gave her hand a light tug and I released it. She turned around.

            “I love you,” I said.

            She turned again to face me.

            “You know that, right?”

            “I love you too, Jake.” Cassie’s human eyes held my gaze as she said it and I felt my heart leap. But, seconds later, her eyes were the cold, yellow slits of a wolf’s.

            She leaped out into the corridor, her bushy tail disappearing around the corner.

            I took a deep breath and tried to focus on becoming a tiger.

            I prowled the deserted corridor with all the silent cunning of a predator stalking its prey. The tiger in me was seeking something warm-blooded to pounce on. My human brain knew my goal to be the morphing cube. I had a plan. One that would make both minds happy.

Cassie would search the Blade Ship’s every room. I was going for a more direct approach. To get to the morphing cube, I had to get to Tom.

            He was still on the ship. I was sure of it. He wouldn’t put his own life on the line when he had Controllers under his command to do the dirty work for him. And if he had any fear of Animorphs boarding his vessel, he was probably guarding the morphing cube right now.

            I caught his scent. I followed his trail. I turned a corner and…there he was. Sitting with his back to me, peering through one of the ship’s smashed windows.

            I crept around him, my keen senses tuned to the slightest sign of a blue box. Stupid. Tom was sure to have it in some sort of secret compartment. If only I could smell it.

            Tom whirled around, levelling a Dracon beam. I knocked him to the floor. The weapon fell harmlessly from his hand. I pressed my paw against his windpipe.

            <Where’s the morphing cube?> I demanded, digging my claws in, just a little.

            “Wasting your time,” Tom choked. His throat was expanding and growing black fur. His whole body was changing. I felt a sharp pain in my stomach. Tom had stabbed my exposed belly with his still-forming claws. I rolled off him and struggled to my feet.

Tom now stood on four legs. If I had to give his morph a name I would have called it a panther, but it was a mad scientist’s version of one. He had red, fiery eyes that looked much too big for his head. The other half of his face seemed to be made up entirely of pointy, glistening teeth. Worst of all were the claws. He had only two sets—extending from his two front paws—but they were worth more than the four sets I had. They were long enough to enter through my chest and out my back and looked tough enough to cut through every bone on the way.

            In a blur of movement, faster than the human eye can see, Tom rushed at me. My tiger instincts took over. I dodged Tom’s horrific claws and swiped my own less impressive ones at every bit of him I could reach.

We raced in tight circles. His teeth grazed my shoulder. I twisted out of reach. His claws drew blood but never penetrated as deep as the hole in my stomach. I was losing a lot of blood from that wound. I was slowing down, weakening.

Tom’s jaws snapped at my neck. He was trying to kill me. I couldn’t kill him. I needed him to tell me.

            I managed to sink my teeth into his shoulder. Deep into muscle and sinew. <Where’s the morphing cube?> My teeth were locked. I yanked him a few feet across the floor. <Tell me!>

            But Tom’s claws had found my shoulder. My grip on him loosened as I roared in pain.

My head was spinning. My legs shook. I sank to the floor, slipping in a pool of my own blood.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Tom’s incredibly long, sharp claws coming down at my neck. They were inches from their mark, when they retracted. The black beast was suddenly shaking.

            I climbed painfully to my feet. Tom stared down at his front paws. They jerked backwards and forwards on the floor, as though the object of an invisible tug-of-war.

            Tom didn’t see me coming. I rammed him. Tom collapsed like a puppet whose strings had been cut. For a moment, I was too surprised to press my advantage. I couldn’t have injured him so badly simply by banging my head against him.

He lay where he’d fallen, still staring at his paws with unwavering concentration. As I watched, the tips of his claws erupted and then retracted again.

<LET GO!> Tom’s thought-speech seemed to vibrate in my head. He was furious. He was also afraid.

            Then I knew. There was a tug-of-war going on. There was an internal battle being fought over Tom’s claws. One side wanted to kill me with those claws. But it was the other side that was winning. It was the real Tom.

            The Yeerk was distracted. I might have a chance. I pounced on his crumpled form.

<Where’s the morphing cube?> I waited, hoping he would

tell me. When he didn’t, I buried all four sets of claws in his flesh.

            He screamed.

<Where—> I began.

            <Don’t know!> he shouted. <Attacked us…took it…took it away…>

            He was lying. He had to be.

            <Jake?> It was Cassie. <I think I’ve found Tom’s quarters. There’s some sort of high-tech safe here. It may have been where the morphing cube was.>

<What do you mean ‘was’?>

<The safe’s been broken into,> said Cassie. <Looks like someone stole it.>

The information hit me like a ton of bricks. Like dominoes the rest of it fell into place. Whoever had attacked the Blade Ship had stolen the morphing cube. Tom had only told his crew he still had it. They didn’t know that he didn’t. They thought Tom could do all he had promised. They thought that he could give them all the morphing power. “Very few of us have yet been initiated,” they had said. And no more of them would be. Tom had lied to them.

<WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU’VE LOST THEM?!> An incredibly loud thought-speech voice demanded. The voice of Visser One.

Tom’s head jerked agitatedly from side to side. His limbs thrashed weakly against my legs as I held him down. Forcefully, but in a very strained voice, he spoke in thought-speech. He wasn’t speaking to me. <Visser One…got to get to…Visser One…Let…Go! Won’t hurt…your precious…LET GO!>

Tom suddenly stopped thrashing. He shoved me off him with his powerful paws, his claws still retracted.

Any thoughts of following him left my mind as my legs wobbled and my vision blurred. I needed to de-morph.

When I had done that I began to morph fly.

<THERE!> Visser One yelled. <THEY’RE OVER THERE!>

Before I lost my human hearing, I heard the tsseeww! of the first Dracon beams being fired outside.

            <That’s the signal,> I said to Cassie. <Let’s get out of here.>

 

           

Chapter 11

James

            We flew like crazy. Our four teams broke apart. Still a safe distance from pursuing Bug Fighters, I and six others led the way to the Blade Ship and our means of escape. The place was close now.

            We flew lower under cover of the trees, slipping in and out of sight. Finally, we landed in the bushes. I merely watched as the other six de-morphed.

            <Where are you guys?> I called to the rest of the group.

            <A few Bug Fighters behind you,> Erica answered. <We got caught up in the back wash of those last ships that took off.>

            <When are you going to get here?> I asked.

            <Not for a while,> said Erica. <We have to stay out of sight. Wait until the Bug Fighters are out of firing range.>

            <Fine,> I said. <Keep me posted.>

            “James?” Craig had completed his de-morph. He gave me a questioning look even as he started to morph fly.

            <I’m not coming yet,> I said. <I need to keep an eye on things out here.>

            “But—”

            <Someone has to know what’s going on,> I lifted off from the ground and glided silently onto the branch of a nearby tree.

From here I had a good view of the ditch where the Blade Ship was. I also had a good view of the hologram that covered our tunnel in the side of the hill and the rocks posed above it. The hologram showed a hill with rocks piled at its base. It looked as though the rockslide had already taken place, because, of course, we wanted it to look as though nothing had changed once the hologram was taken away.

<Just get moving,> I said to Craig. <And take attendance.>

<WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU’VE LOST THEM?> Visser One’s public thought-speech boomed.

I held my breath as the first Bug Fighter arrived on the scene. It spun around, looking for something to aim at. But it couldn’t see what my eyes could.

Six flies flew into the rocks at the bottom of the hill, disappearing behind the hologram.

<Jesse, Shawn, Chantel, Timmy, Diondra and me,> Craig reported.

Six down and seventeen to go, I thought.

<THERE!> Visser One bellowed. <THEY’RE OVER THERE!>

Tsseeww!

            The Bug Fighter shot at a flock of birds that had just risen up from the ditch where the Blade Ship was.

            The birds appeared to sizzle. The Chee projecting them even made them convulse in pain before they disappeared.

            <FOOLS!> Visser One triumphed. <I WILL KILL YOU ALL!>

            Unnoticed by anyone but me, four flies left the Blade Ship’s ditch and entered the hill.

            <Marco, Rachel, Ax and Tobias,> said Craig.

            Thirteen to go.

            Four more Bug Fighters pulled up behind the Visser’s.

            <Only one more on the way,> said Erica. <We’re coming in behind it.>

            Visser One’s Bug Fighter was now hovering directly over the Blade Ship. I could only imagine how he reacted when he saw what had happened to his favourite ship. All I knew was that he had finally decided to be more careful with his thought-speech.

It seemed that the Bug Fighters had received orders from him. Three descended with the Visser, converging on the Blade Ship. One held position above the Blade Ship.

Two more flies emerged from the ditch.

<Cassie and Jake,> said Craig, a moment later.

Eleven to go.

The last Bug Fighter arrived.

<We’re de-morphing,> Erica informed me.

Tsseeww!

I fell out of my tree. Or, to be more accurate, the tree fell out from under me. Its base sizzled and disappeared. I barely managed to flap away before the rest of it followed. I dropped behind a bush and stared at the last Bug Fighter.

            <They’re vaporising the trees!> I cried. <What do they want to do that for?>

            <Clearing space to land,> Zack suggested.

            <Or trying to eliminate Animorphs in hiding,> I said, nervously.

            <We’re going as fast as we—> Erica’s thought-speech cut out. She’d become too human to use it. I hoped.

            Whatever the Controllers were trying to do, they lost interest when they discovered a tree that did not go up in vapour.

            <Oh…no…>

            <What’s wrong?> Kelly demanded.

<I think they’ve found the Chee,> I said.

            One more fly entered the hill.

Ten to go.

I was waiting for Craig to give me a name, when I was distracted by the Bug Fighter.

            <It’s landing,> I said. <There’s a Hork-Bajir, a Taxxon and a human — Chapman — getting out. They’re walking up to the Chee.>

            I reported all I heard to the rest of the group.

            “I’m telling you, there’s something here,” said Chapman.

            “Our scanners detected nothing unusual,” said the Hork-Bajir.

            Chapman tried to touch the tree trunk and then jerked his hand back as though he’d been shocked.

            “I’d say that a tree protected by a force field is unusual,” said Chapman, a manic gleam in his eyes. “The humans who fight us have Andalite allies. This is Andalite technology that they wish to hide from us.”

            “Sssweer eeesstrew trrreeessswew,” said the Taxxon.

            “It is not a tree,” Chapman argued. “There is a force field here. This ‘tree’ is a hologram concealing Andalite technology. It must be!”

            I stopped listening as another fly entered the hill. Craig said nothing.

            <Who do you have now?> I asked him.

            <No one since Cassie and Jake,> said Craig.

            <I’ve seen two more enter since then,> I said.

            <No one else has reported in,> said Craig.

            <James!> Kelly shouted at me. <What’s happening?>

            I turned my attention back to Chapman.

            “It is not unreachable,” Chapman was saying. “At close range and on full power…” He fiddled thoughtfully with his hand-held Dracon beam.

My mind raced. If Chapman did manage to disable the force field, the Chee would be discovered. Chee technology was superior to anything the Yeerks had ever encountered before. Superior even to Andalite technology. The Chee couldn’t fight them. The Chee would fall into Yeerk hands.

And if this Chee was damaged, the hologram covering our escape route would fail. There were still nine of us outside the hill. Nine who hadn’t escaped. We couldn’t get noticed now.

I left the bushes and dove into the hologram. There was space enough here to morph to lion.

<Everyone, keep moving,> I said as I de-morphed. <I’m going to get that Dracon beam away from him.>
            <Way ahead of you,> came Kelly’s voice from right beside me.

            She and Collette were both behind the hologram with me. They were the flies who hadn’t reported in. Neither of them were flies anymore. Kelly was rapidly morphing to bull and Collette was de-morphing to human.

            <What are you doing?> I exclaimed.

            <Saving a race of pacifist androids from becoming tools of the Yeerks,> Kelly replied.

            <That’s what I’m doing,> I said, furiously. My thought-speech cut out, but my vocal chords kicked in fast. “This isn’t what you’re supposed to be doing! You make it here and you run like hell, remember?”

            “But we can help,” Collette insisted.

            <Told you, I don’t need your help,> Kelly snapped at her.

            “Too bad,” said Collette. She was almost completely human.

I was struggling to start my lion morph before I had finished de-morphing. It was no use. As long as a single feather remained, I couldn’t get any closer to golden fur. Kelly, meanwhile, was a full-grown bull, sprouting horns.

“Look, you—” I started to say.

<I don’t need your help either,> said Kelly. <You two want to make yourselves useful, you’ll give Craig a couple more names to add to our escaped Animorphs list.>

I was speechless. Kelly could be pretty headstrong sometimes, but she had never used such a commanding tone with me before.

            <We’ve got Majal,> said Craig.

            <Keep them coming,> Kelly muttered to no one in particular.

            With my human eyes, I saw Chapman’s gleeful face illuminated in a blast of red light.

            Kelly bounded out from behind the hologram.

            “Wait!” Collette hissed.

            <I’ll be right back,> said Kelly, tersely.

            The tree flickered. So did the hill. For just a split second, both the android and our tunnel were exposed. The Controllers’ backs were turned to us, but they had definitely noticed the android. What they did not notice was the bull that charged from behind, knocking Chapman, the Hork-Bajir and the Taxxon off their feet. The red light disappeared. Chapman’s Dracon beam flew from his hand and landed in a bush a few feet away.

            <Raymond,> Craig announced.

            How many were left? I had lost count.

I was still morphing lion as fast as I could.

            Chapman rolled over on the ground and pulled a communicator to his face. “Animorph,” he said into it.

            <Get out of there!> I yelled at Kelly.

            The Bug Fighter parked in the air above the Blade Ship was starting to move.

            Kelly hesitated as the three Controllers got back to their feet. I knew what was going through her head: she didn’t want to lead them back to us.

            <Tricia,> Craig reported.

            Kelly kicked the Hork-Bajir aside and, side-stepping the Taxxon, jabbed her horns at Chapman’s stomach. She drew blood. Chapman’s eyes widened in horror. The Taxxon’s wide, gaping mouth went straight for him. Taxxons are always hungry and can never resist the urge to eat when they smell blood. It is an instinct that even the Yeerks in their heads are unable to control. The Hork-Bajir became preoccupied with saving Chapman from being devoured.

            Without another moment’s hesitation, Kelly ran for the hill.

            <Liam,> said Craig.

            The Bug Fighter had arrived. Its twin Dracon cannons aimed at the large, easy target running. Running. But not fast enough.

            <Kelly!>

            She didn’t answer. She was suddenly immobilised in a blazing glow of red light. She shuddered, sizzled…and disappeared.

            I stopped morphing. I stopped breathing.

            <Andrew,> said Craig.

            In a tunnel, I thought. He was a fly in a tunnel. He hadn’t seen. No one had…except…

            Collette’s human face was frozen in shock. Crocodile scales had begun to spread up her arms, but her morph had frozen. She gasped as though she had not breathed in a long time. I clamped my paw over her mouth to stifle her scream. She came to life in an instant, continuing to morph, trying to bite my paw with her human teeth.

            I saw three flies pass our position.

            <Erica, Zack and Judy,> said Craig. <We’re still three short.>

            <It should just be James left now,> said Erica. <Kelly and Collette were ahead of us.>

<Collette’s with me,> I said.

<And Kelly?> Erica prompted.

<Not joining us,> I said jerkily.

<But why—?> Judy began.

<Get moving,> I said. <I’m about to close the tunnel.>

<We can’t do that now,> Zack cried in outrage. <We have to wait for Kel—>

<She’s dead!> I screamed at them. The words echoed in my head. I heard them over and over again.

Stupid, stupid flies. I couldn’t help hating them. They

hadn’t seen it. They had to make me say it. Had to make me admit it.

            I kept screaming at them. My thought-speech voice didn’t even sound like me anymore. <Everyone down that tunnel! Get out of here! Back to camp! MOVE!>

            Collette’s jaw was widening and her teeth were becoming threatening. I wrenched my paw from her mouth.

            <Erica,> I said, more quietly. <De-morph. Morph something mean if you have to. Collette needs…convincing.>

            Even at a time like this, Erica was quick to act. I saw her human form rising rapidly, a few feet inside the tunnel’s opening.

            I got on top of Collette, holding her down. She was barely half a crocodile and already struggling to get clear of the hologram hiding us from view. Her cold, empty crocodile eyes were fixed unblinkingly upon the Bug Fighter. It hovered tauntingly low over the place where it had claimed its victim.

            <Let me go!> Collette jerked her head around to snap at me. I stayed out of reach.

            I watched Erica de-morph, waiting as long as I possibly could.

            I knew full well that a crocodile and a lion would not fit down that tunnel. I was going to have to wait outside.

            <Let me go!> Collette thrashed so violently that I almost lost my hold on her. She clawed and snapped at the dirt, doing all she could to drag herself towards the Bug Fighter. <Let me go!>

            <Not that way,> I told her.

            With great difficulty, I rolled her over. I body-slammed her into the tunnel’s entrance.

            Erica’s human hands closed around Collette’s scaly tail and pulled her deeper into the tunnel.

            Then I bit down on the tree branch and ran with it to the edge of the hologram.

The landslide worked like a charm. It sealed the tunnel, cutting Collette off from danger, ensuring that they would all be safe. It was small comfort to me. I was alone now, surrounded by enemies and without a friend left to save.

I hid behind the hologram, a useless lion. I stared out at Kelly’s murderers. I clenched my teeth and flexed my claws, longing to hurt something. But all I could do was watch and listen.

            The Taxxon was dead. The Hork-Bajir was half-carrying, half-dragging Chapman back to their parked Bug Fighter. “The tree,” Chapman said thickly. “We have to—”

            “It’s not there anymore,” said the Hork-Bajir. “Neither is that Andalite technology you thought you caught a glimpse of.”

            “Changed hologram. Moved,” Chapman was hurt pretty bad. His head lolled like a rag doll’s. His eyes rolled madly. “Burn the rocks! The bushes! Burn it all! It’s only…hiding…”

“You are delirious,” the Hork-Bajir said. “The whole thing was a hologram. A decoy. If there had been any Andalite technology, it would still be there now.”

“But it could have—”

“Changed its hologram and walked away? Like some sort of sentient robot?” The Hork-Bajir gave Chapman an irritable shove. “As I said, you are delirious. In your right mind you would know that neither we nor the Andalites have yet accomplished any technical feat of that magnitude.”

The Hork-Bajir deposited Chapman in their parked Bug Fighter. A moment later he leaped inside himself and sealed the hatch in a hurry.

The Bug Fighter that had killed Kelly rocketed upwards.

Visser One came up from the Blade Ship’s ditch. He was in a morph I’d seen him in once before. A giant squid-like monster with spike-covered tentacles. There was a human wrapped tightly in one of those tentacles. It was Tom.

“Please, let me explain…” said Tom.

<YOU FAILED!> Visser One’s free tentacles cracked like whips and his red eyes bulged.

“It’s the Blade Ship,” Tom sounded remarkably calm under the circumstances. “The traitors came after it. They came after the morphing cube.”

Traitors? My numb brain laboured to make sense of it.

<YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO DESTROY THE TRAITORS!> Visser One looked about ready to breath fire, although I knew that this particular morph didn’t do that.

“They didn’t get the morphing cube,” said Tom, quickly. “Rest assured it remains in my care.”

<THEN YOU DESTROYED THE TRAITORS?> Visser One demanded.

“No…” said Tom, and there was a sly smile playing across his face now.

            Visser One’s tentacles twitched nervously.

            “There’s no telling how many traitors there really are,” Tom went on. “Out there…or still among us.”

            Visser One released Tom. He was looking about as worried as a giant squid creature could look. His thought-speech lessened in volume and doubled in urgency. <You must complete your mission,> he told Tom.

            “Of course,” said Tom, smoothly. “But I fear the Blade Ship is in no condition to—”

            <There’s no time to waste repairing it,> said Visser One. <You will take the new ship. It is in the final stages of construction and will be ready sooner.>

            “Thank you, Visser.” The smile on Tom’s face would have made the single most dumbest person alive suspicious. “That suits my plans very well.”

            <Tell your staff to return to the Pool Ship and prepare for the mission,> came the clueless response.

            Idiot. I wasn’t sure who I meant. Visser One, for being so blind. Jake, for being so confident that this would work. Me, for trusting him. Too many assumptions. Too little time to figure the whole thing out. I hadn’t even tried.

            Kelly. My mind reeled at the thought. She tried to tell me about Jake…

I de-morphed. I was afraid that I would lose control of the lion’s coiled muscles if I allowed myself to see or hear anything more. Merciful human vision blurred the abhorred figures moving around in the dark.

Tears spilled down my cheeks. It felt as though they had been there all the time, unable to fall until now.

Blissful human hearing muffled the sounds of the humans, the Hork-Bajir and Taxxons outside the hologram. But there was no way to block out Visser One’s public thought-speech.

And even worse were the voices of my friends. Their chaotic cries were heart-rending and open to sixteen minds.

<Kelly? She’s really…?>

<How could she just…just now…just like that…>

<I don’t believe it.>

<You saw—?>

<They killed her!>

<No… she can’t be…>

<She’s dead! Kelly’s dead!>

 

 

Chapter 12

Jake

                                                                                      DAY THREE

            “I’m sorry,” I said.

            “Sorry?” James was white with rage. “What the hell is that supposed to mean to me? Or Collette? Or Timmy? Or anyone?!”

            “How is Collette?” asked Marco, quietly.

            “None of your business,” James snapped.

            It was morning. We were safe and sound again in the Hork-Bajir valley. I’d called a meeting: Eva, Toby, and the Animorphs. Cassie had volunteered to go to the rehab center, but before she could start out, James had shown up of his own accord. His story became the subject of our meeting.

James had sealed the escape tunnel from the outside and had spent at least an hour hiding behind the hologram, waiting for the Bug Fighters to return to the Pool Ship. This meant that he had more information than we did about Visser One’s next move. But what James really felt like talking about was the fact that he had lost one of his people to a mission that failed.

            “I’m sorry it happened,” I told James. “I’m not saying there’s anything I could have done about it.”

            “Like you even care.”

            I swallowed down a retort. James was the one who wanted a fight.

The two of us were standing in the middle of the meeting site, with the rest sitting around like spectators at a boxing match. Our conversation was starting to feel like one. But no one was cheering.

            Tobias had come to the meeting in his human form and was starting to look like he regretted the decision. Eva, Toby and Ax were visibly struggling with a strong impulse to leave. Marco kept looking at James as though he were searching for something. Rachel’s gaze travelled slowly between me and James with a kind of grim determination. Cassie barely looked at either one of us.

“You said that Visser One has given Tom a new ship?” I asked James.

            “That’s right,” James’s tone had not changed in the slightest. “Now Tom has more than morph-capable Controllers and a crippled ship. He has morph-capable Controllers and a fully-operational ship.”

            “I’m afraid Visser One is not to be relied upon when it comes to his intelligence,” said Eva.

            “No kidding,” James rounded on her. “Could’ve told them that, could you? What else did you forget to mention?”

            “Leave her out of it,” said Marco, swiftly. “She didn’t know about the plan.”

            James turned back to me with narrowed eyes. “Toby? The other Hork-Bajir? The other parents? Did you bother to discuss the plan with anyone?”

            Out of the corner of my eye, I registered a guilty expression creeping into Cassie’s face. I sent her a furtive look. Don’t, I thought hopelessly at her. You don’t have to say anything.

            “Me,” Cassie told James. “Jake discussed it with me.”

            James turned his head very slowly and Cassie braced herself for his reaction.

“Cassie heard about it first because she was on the recon mission with me,” I said. “The plan was my idea.”

            As I’d hoped, James decided to focus on me again. “And that’s where you got it from,” he said, his breath quickening and his voice rising. “One two-hour recon mission and you—”

            “We were wrong,” said Cassie, dejectedly. “We shouldn’t have risked so much, when we didn’t know what was going on. We didn’t know what mission Visser One sent Tom on. We didn’t know who attacked the Blade Ship. We didn’t really know where the morphing cube was. It was stupid. A few more recon missions might have told us all that, but we didn’t even try to find out.”

This time, James turned around. He stared at Cassie with an expression that showed no signs of anger. I had the feeling that she had just stated everything that James had been planning on shouting about.

“Kelly died for all of you and for the Chee,” said Cassie, softly. “I can’t begin to tell you what the Chee owe her for that. And you…I know you must be…I’m so sorry.”

James’s breathing slowed then and what little tension there was in his face left it. It unnerved me. Every one of us had tried to offer James condolences and he’d been a relentless storm cloud.  So Cassie had something to say and suddenly he felt…what? Respected? Understood?

It did occur to me that this might be a good thing. It occurred to me that maybe I should give Cassie time to say more. But I didn’t.

“I hope you and your people are still up for the Pool Ship mission,” I said at James’s back. “That’s the reason I called this meeting. I wanted to make sure we’re all clear on the details.”

James whirled around. Whatever spell Cassie had cast over him vanished in an instant. “Last I heard, details were ‘long-term planning’ that we hadn’t gotten around to yet!” he raged at me. “When exactly did time run out on that?”

“We settled that,” I said, although I wasn’t entirely sure what he was talking about. “The Pool Ship may leave orbit in less than two days. I need you to—”

            “Set the rest of my people up to get vaporised?” James broke in. His eyes were burning in his white face.

            I saw Cassie jerk as though she had received an electric shock. James was getting to her. I tried to tell her that he was over-reacting, but she wasn’t looking at me.

“We told you,” Marco was saying to James. “Ax will—”

“Decrypt codes he’s never seen and gain control of a ship

he’s never been on, just in the nick of time,” James reeled off. “Yeah, you told me.”

<I am confident I will be able to decrypt the codes in time,> said Ax.

“Willing to bet your own life on that?” James demanded.

<Of course.>

“Who said it was only your people on the diversion team, anyway?” said Rachel. “I’ll go. I’d rather be fighting than sneaking around on the Pool Ship.”

“No.” I caught Rachel’s eye. I hadn’t told her yet. I was going to need her somewhere else. “James, the diversion has got to be big. It’s got to look like the real thing. I need all seventeen of—”

James’s eyes flashed dangerously.

“A-All sixteen of you,” I amended, my voice catching in my throat. “If the diversion has any chance of succeeding.”

James stood stock still, staring me down. I stared right back at him, looking for some way past his grief and anger; barriers he refused to lower. Until he did, I couldn’t make him understand.

“How am I supposed to believe that ‘success’ won’t turn out to be Visser One celebrating a successful Animorphs slaughter?” James demanded.

“You’re just going to have to trust me,” I said.

            “Been there,” James’s tone grew colder with every syllable. “Tried that. Didn’t turn out so well.”

            “Then don’t trust me,” I snapped, losing patience. “Don’t trust Ax. Don’t trust anyone if that’s what you need to do. I’m sorry about Kelly, but it doesn’t change anything. We still have a war to win.”

            “And I still command my team,” said James, stubbornly. “I won’t order them to get themselves killed.”

            “You’ve got a lot to learn about war if you think you can come out of it without losing people!” I yelled at him. “If you can’t handle that, you might as well go back to the rehab center and stay there. You had that choice in the first place. You decided to fight the Yeerks. No one ever told you it was going to be easy. But you wanted to help.”

“I still want to help,” said James through gritted teeth.

“Then be in position when the time comes,” I said. “I’ll give you the signal. The military will meet you there.”

I walked away. James and I both needed space. I left him at the meeting site.

 

 

Chapter 13

James

            Jake left. He thought I was going to do it. I couldn’t believe him.

            I looked around at the others. Eva and Toby exchanged awkward looks and they too, left. Ax followed them.

            I tried to catch Marco’s eye as he rose to do the same. “You really care what happens to Collette?” I asked, harshly.

Marco stopped dead. He turned his head halfway towards me and in his face I thought I caught a glimpse of something that would answer back. But then he walked away, just like the rest of them.

            Rachel went next, hesitating only long enough to give me a weak, uncertain smile.

            “Ax can do it, James,” said Tobias. “I know he can.” He followed Rachel.

            I waited. Cassie didn’t move.

            <Time’s almost up,> said Craig.

<Everyone’s gone, right?> said Jesse. <All done with their uncomfortable presence in your righteous wrath?>

            My friends were all there with me. They were in fly morph. Once again they relied on my sight. It was okay. What was important to me was that they were all able to hear.

Cassie still showed no signs of leaving.

“You’re clear to de-morph,” I decided.

They did, most of the paraplegias managing to prop themselves against tree trunks in the process. Erica and Craig made their usual rounds to help those who were having trouble.

Cassie didn’t seem surprised to see us all there. I received a few dirty looks when the group noticed her.

            “When you say ‘clear’—” Andrew began.

            “Any thoughts on this diversion business?” I interrupted.

            “Yeah,” said Shawn, with a most uncharacteristic scowl. “They think we’re expendable.”

            “Jake’s singling us out,” Diondra agreed. “If he believed it was safe, he would’ve let Rachel join us.”

            “She offered to join us,” Liam protested. “She wouldn’t have done that if…”

            “They believe that it will work,” said Erica. “That doesn’t mean it will.”

            “No way we’re risking it on the strength of what they believe,” Andrew exploded. “Look what happened the last time we stuck our necks out for them!”

            “They’re not the enemy,” said Craig, evenly. “The Yeerks are.”

            “We’re going to fight the Yeerks, aren’t we?” asked Judy.

            “Kelly didn’t trust Jake,” said Zack. “She said we couldn’t trust anyone.”

            “She would have wanted us to fight,” said Judy, confidently.

            “She wouldn’t have wanted us to do this,” Raymond countered.

            The talk went on. Everyone had something to say about the other Animorph leader, the opposing army, and our lost comrade. I kept quiet, listening.

            I occasionally shot questioning looks at Timmy and Collette.  Neither seemed inclined to take part in the discussion.

Timmy doesn’t like to speak when he is human. But I was sure, if he had something to say, he wouldn’t hesitate to morph and use thought-speech. His silence now could only mean that he didn’t want to contribute. It was not like him at all.

            I hadn’t heard Collette speak since the night before. Her face had not yet lost the expression it had had at the moment of Kelly’s death. As I looked at her, Collette’s head drooped onto her shoulder and her face disappeared behind her hair.

            “Look,” I said at last. “We’re not out of this fight. Before all this is over, there’s going to be somewhere we’re needed and we’re going to be there.”

            “You think we should go along with Jake’s plan?” Andrew demanded.

            “Not for a second.” I looked around at each of them, meeting their eyes. Collette still refused to look up. “Kelly shouldn’t have had to do what she did. No one should have been there. I won’t let that happen again.”

Jake’s words came back to me in a rush: “You’ve got a lot to learn about war if you think you can come out of it without losing people!” The memory was enough to make my blood boil. He felt entitled to tell me that? I had watched Kelly disappear off the face of the Earth.

“Our lives are at risk,” I went on. “So are countless others. Humans, Hork-Bajir, aliens we haven’t even heard of. The victims, the slaves, the warriors, we’re all in this together. We all fight for freedom. We can’t give that up.”

I fell silent, confirming unanimous agreement with a quick scan of every face.

“We’ll find our own part in this fight,” I concluded. “It’s not going to be as targets for the Pool Ship’s Dracon cannons.”

“Good call,” said Erica, dryly. “If that’s all the Pool Ship’s going to do with us, we might as well be holograms.”

            “What is she still doing here?” Jesse lashed out. She was glaring at Cassie.

“It’s cool,” said Liam. “She knows we’re here.”

“She’s on Jake’s team,” Jesse shot back.

She is sitting right there,” said Majal, crossly. “Cassie?” she added. “Why are you here?”

Cassie looked startled. She opened her mouth to speak and then closed it again. Majal held her gaze as she struggled to answer the question.

“I want to help,” said Cassie at last.

            “Then you won’t mind keeping another secret for us?” I asked. “I’m afraid I don’t trust Jake to understand this one either.”

“I can do more,” Cassie spoke slowly and deliberately, as though the words were difficult to put together. “There are things Jake won’t tell you. Things he might tell me. I can help you find your part.”

I believed her. She hadn’t told Jake we’d left the center. She hadn’t walked away when I’d said that we wouldn’t participate in the diversion. I’d once told Kelly that we could trust Cassie and it was not a statement I felt inclined to take back.

            Others looked less convinced. Collette finally lifted her head. Her eyes were red and her cheeks tear-stained. She fixed Cassie with a piercing, merciless stare. “You love Jake,” she said. “Don’t you?”

            Cassie blinked. A slight tremor ran through her. But in a moment she answered, firmly: “That doesn’t mean I’m not on your side.”

 

 

Chapter 14

Jake

            Before we’d met up with James that morning, Marco and I had agreed to do some recon on the Pool Ship. Especially now that I was up to date on how much we didn’t know, I wanted a few questions answered. I wanted to know what mission was so important that Visser One would forgo punishing incompetent subordinates to see it carried out. I wanted to know what had happened to the morphing cube. Most of all, I wanted an estimate on how many morph-capable Controllers were planning on escaping the galaxy with Tom.

            I cornered Marco after the meeting. He wasn’t in the most co-operative mood.

            “Sounded like you had all the answers back there.” He jerked his head at the place where we’d left James.

            “I don’t,” I said. “That’s why I told you, we need to—”

            “Take Ax,” said Marco. “He’s the one who should be studying Pool Ship security.”

            “Ax can come with us,” I consented.

            “Have a good time.” Marco waved me off with a smirk.

            “This is no time for jokes.”

            “I know that!” he snapped.

            “What is your problem?” I demanded.

“No problem.” Marco made a noise that sounded like it was supposed to be a laugh. “That’s what we said, right? James is just being paranoid and worked up and messing with personal stuff that has nothing to do with anything, it’s just him—”

            “Messing with…” I stared at Marco, uncomprehending. “Did James say something to you after I left?”

            Marco looked away. “Let’s check out the Pool Ship,” he said abruptly.

            I wasn’t about to argue with that.

We found Ax with Rachel and Tobias. I was surprised to see that Tobias was still human. He’d been low on time when he’d left the meeting.

“I re-morphed,” Tobias explained when I gave him an alarmed look.

“Any particular reason?” I asked.

“Toby says that she’s seen berry bushes growing in the outskirts of the valley,” said Tobias. “Saskatoons or something.”

“We thought we’d investigate,” said Rachel. “Everyone is getting pretty tired of dried food.”

“If we leave now, we could bring back enough berries for supper tonight,” Tobias added.

<By ‘we’ they mean only the two of them,> Ax informed me. <They seem to think that this arrangement is a mission requirement, although I did point out that Hork-Bajir guidance in the unknown territory would be beneficial.>

“It’s berry bushes,” said Rachel, like Ax had just suggested that she and Tobias couldn’t cross the street without guidance. “We don’t need Hork-Bajir to help us find berry bushes.”

Marco was suddenly looking a whole lot happier. He gave Rachel and Tobias a cocky wink. “Oh, I bet you don’t need Hork-Bajir anywhere near you and your ‘berry picking.’”

“Because it’s berries,” Rachel snapped at him. “Hork-Bajir specialise in tree bark, duh.”

“About expertise, is it?” said Marco. “And what if I told you I knew something about saskatoons?”

“You’re not coming,” said Tobias.

“Aww. Such deliberate exclusion,” Marco pouted. “I’m hurt.”

“Not yet, you aren’t,” said Rachel, warningly.

Marco was still looking highly amused and Ax at a complete loss to figure out what was so funny.

I was thinking about something else. “Where’s Cassie?”

“I didn’t see her leave the meeting site,” said Tobias.

“You mean she’s still with James?” I asked.

“Probably best,” said Marco, getting serious again. “If anyone can get through to him, she can.”

            “He doesn’t know Cassie any better than he knows the rest of us,” I said, nettled.

            “Yeah, but she’s, you know, Cassie,” Marco explained.

            “She was with us when we first met him,” I recalled.

            “And she talked him into becoming an Animorph,” Marco pointed out.

            I wasn’t listening. “She’s gone to pick him up from the center a few times, but so has everyone else. She said that he told her what happened at that meeting—”

            “You mean the one you decided to keep her in the dark about?” Tobias accused.

            “I didn’t!” I exclaimed. “I was going to tell her everything. James told her first.”

            “Any one of us would have done the same,” said Rachel, coldly. “You’re the one who stopped trusting her.”

            I blew past that. “When else, though? Meetings and missions, right? He doesn’t know Cassie. She doesn’t know him.”

            “We back on James now?” said Rachel. “What’s he got to do with this?”

            “He’s got nothing to do with this,” I insisted.

            “You keep bringing him up,” said Tobias. “He must have something to do with this.”

            <What is ‘this’?> Ax wondered.

            “A code word used to replace direct communication,” Marco muttered to him. “Give me a minute; I’ll see if I can crack it.”

            “There is no code!” I flared. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

            “That’s subtext,” Marco told Ax. “He means that we’re close to figuring it out.”

            “You’re close to getting your butt kicked if you keep that up,” I warned.

            “And that is direct communication,” Marco gave Ax a meaningful look. “See the difference?”

            I heard a noise and spun around. Cassie was walking toward us.

            “How’s James?” Tobias asked.

            “He wants to help,” said Cassie. “He says they’ll be there when the time comes.”

            Marco gave me an I-told-you-so look.

            “He’s gone back to the center?” I asked.

            Cassie gave a half-hearted sort of nod. “He needed to talk to his people.”

            Something was bothering her. She was careful to meet my eyes when she spoke, but looked away the second she’d finished.

            Rachel had clearly noticed the same thing. “What’s wrong?” she asked Cassie.

            “James was still pretty upset,” said Cassie, vaguely.

            “Hard to talk to?” Rachel sympathised.

            “No,” said Cassie.

            I frowned at her. I had found James extremely “hard to talk to.” Everyone had. Cassie was Cassie. But even she must have noticed that James was raving.

            <Weren’t we going to conduct reconnaissance?> Ax interrupted my search for something to say.

            “Right,” said Tobias, uncomfortably. “Did you, uh, need us to come?” he indicated Rachel.

I sensed a familiar reluctance. It was something Tobias had struggled with from the very beginning: the reluctance to change his form. I sometimes worried that he would become trapped again—before we were allowed to stop being Animorphs.

I could tell that Tobias really wanted to stay and investigate berries. Rachel felt the same way. She cast a wistful look at the unexplored end of the valley and another one at Tobias who looked back at her.

They both looked at me. I considered telling them that berries weren’t a priority, that I needed them where the action was, and that there’d be time to socialise after the war was over. But then I remembered: there wouldn’t be any more time. Not for them. Not if…

“I don’t need you to come,” I told them, trying to sound casual despite a huge lump in my throat. “It’s only recon. Marco, Ax and me can handle it, just the three of us.”

            “I’d like to come,” said Cassie.

            “Four of us, then,” I agreed.

            Rachel nodded approvingly and sent Cassie a bracing look. Then she turned back to Tobias with one of her wild, Rachel grins. “We’d better get hunting.”

“Yeah,” said Tobias, glancing carelessly at the rest of us while intertwining his fingers with Rachel’s. “See you guys later.”

            “Have fun,” I said, dully.

            Tobias didn’t notice my miserable tone. He smiled at me and he and Rachel walked off, hand in hand. I watched them go with a horrible sinking feeling in my stomach.

            Cassie was trying to catch my eye. I wasn’t sure whether I imagined it or not, but I thought I saw something like suspicion in her gaze. I kept my head down, working to clear my expression of any evidence of my thoughts. When I lifted my eyes, I found I still couldn’t look at Cassie.

            “Let’s go,” I said to a tree behind Marco and Ax.

            It was a fifteen minute flight from the Hork-Bajir valley to the Pool Ship.

            Marco passed the time with incessant chatter about the “perks and drags” of the refugee lifestyle. Ax and I occasionally threw in a question or comment, but neither of us paid very much attention. Cassie was so quiet, I was certain that she wasn’t listening at all. Her osprey eyes seemed glazed over, like she’d completely tuned out.

Once, I tried to cut through Marco’s chatter to address Cassie in private thought-speech.

<I guess our safe haven’s got its own fruit stand now, but I can’t throw a real party until the pizza delivery guy’s allowed over,> Marco was saying.

<Cassie,> I said. <Are you—?>

<Would you two both just…> Cassie shook her head, agitatedly. <I’m trying to…> Cassie’s eyes snapped back out of focus.

<No cable, but hey, at least our own lives cover the space channel,> said Marco.

<What are you trying to do?> I asked Cassie.

<Think!> she exclaimed, distractedly. <Stop interrupting!>

So, I was stuck with Marco’s talk which soon started going in circles: <No take-out, no TV, but then there’s berries and sci-fi.> I got the impression that he was trying not to think.

When we arrived at the abandoned houses surrounding the Pool Ship, I ordered a halt. <We’ll have to be careful about how we do this. The Yeerks have had way too much attention from birds lately.>

<Our visual range is sufficient from here,> Ax observed. <But, as Tobias demonstrated the other day, getting close enough to overhear anything is a risk.>

<And since Rachel’s not here to slice open any Taxxons…> said Marco. <How about eavesdroppers go in as flies?>

            <Good idea,> I said. <Cassie and I can keep a lookout from here.>

<In other words, Ax, you and me get the disgusting mouth parts,> said Marco, resentfully. <Thanks a lot, Jake.>

            He and Ax landed behind the houses to morph.

            <Cassie?> I tried.

            <I’m listening, I’m…coming,> said Cassie, absently.

            <I was just going to say that we should get some more altitude,> I said.

            Cassie caught a thermal and soared high alongside me.

We looked down on the Pool Ship. The place was crawling with Taxxons, Hork-Bajir and humans holding hand-held Dracon beams. It was a far bigger guard than what Tobias had seen a couple of days ago, but that was before James’s people had pulled their little thought-speech stunt. Typical Visser One, I thought, smugly. The enemy outwitted me, so I doubled my firepower.

            Then—for no reason I could see—Chapman shot a beam of red light at a Hork-Bajir, sustaining the beam until the Hork-Bajir disintegrated completely.

            <Did you see that?> I said to Cassie. <Talk about trigger-happy. What did that Hork-Bajir ever do to him?>

            Cassie said nothing.

<Cassie?>

            <I heard you,> she said.

            <We are in position, Prince Jake,> Ax announced.

            <Yeah and guess what?> said Marco. <A Hork-Bajir just got shot down for holding his Dracon beam the wrong way. Chapman says they’re taking no more chances; if it’s suspicious, it could be an Animorph and it must die.>

            <Yikes,> I said.

            <It appears that our infiltrating as Hork-Bajir would now be unwise,> Ax agreed.

            <Ya think?> said Marco.

<Jake, look, there’s Tom,> said Cassie.

<Now you feel like talking to me?> I said, grumpily.

<If Tom’s new ship is fully-operational, securing the Pool Ship won’t stop him from leaving the galaxy with all those morph-capable Controllers,> Cassie persisted.

<I know,> I said, tersely. <I’m working on it.>

<You mean you have a plan?> said Cassie.

<I mean I’m working on it,> I said, fighting off a wave of emotion, as the image of Rachel and Tobias walking away together came back to me. <It’s part of the reason we’re here, right? We need more information. That’s what you told James at the meeting, wasn’t it? We shouldn’t have rushed in when we didn’t know what was going on?>

Silence.

<And now you don’t feel like talking to me,> I surmised.

<Now, I’m…thinking, again,> said Cassie.

If I were human, my face would have been contorted with frustration. Why did I bother? Cassie wasn’t even listening!

<You guys got anything new yet?> I snapped at Marco and Ax.

<No, Prince Jake,> Ax’s tone was as respectful as always. It made me feel guilty for snapping, which made me mad at Ax.

Then Marco re-directed my anger. <Jake,> he whined. <I think I’m losing my mind to the fly’s poop-eating instincts. If I get a therapist’s note, can I go home insane?>

<You’re not going anywhere,> I told him. <Just let me know if you have anything important to say.>

<Reassert your individual consciousness and perhaps your mind will be saved,> Ax said to Marco.

<Thanks for caring, Ax-man,> said Marco.
            Then I felt guilty again. Crazy. Marco was only fooling around.

<Cassie?> I said, in a determinedly calm voice. <Are you there?>

No answer.

<Or have you lost your mind to the osprey’s instincts to flap its wings,> I muttered, mutinously.

<I’m fine,> said Cassie.

<Well, would you mind being in your mind when someone talks to you?>

            <You mean you, or Marco, or Ax?> she asked.

<Duh,> I said, exasperated. <Not talking to anyone else, are you?>

<No!> said Cassie, so quickly you’d have thought she was lying.

            <Someone should get back soon, anyway,> said Marco. <It’s been a few hours since an Animorph stopped by the military base. And we know Rachel and Tobias aren’t in the mood.>

<Oh, you don’t need to check on General Hobster anymore,> said Cassie, hurriedly. <James said that his people can do that.>

<Why should they?> I demanded. <We’re the ones without a

cover to keep up.>

<They leave the rehab center to go on missions all the time,> said Cassie.

<Only when they have to,> I protested. <And we’ve been

keeping tabs on the general just fine without them.>

<Well,> said Cassie. <James seems to think it would be good for his people to have something to do, and I told him we’d appreciate the help.>

<You told him we’d appreciate it,> I repeated, incredulously.

<It’s not a problem, is it?> said Cassie.

<If it’s what we’d appreciate, I guess you know what you’re

talking about,> I snapped.

<I only meant—>

<I get it,> I said. <James lost an Animorph. You feel sorry

for him.>

<Yes, but—>

<So he asks and you agree on behalf of everyone,> I yelled. <I guess it never occurred to you that that’s all James really wanted in the first place.>

            Cassie didn’t say anything. Her eyes told me that she’d tuned out again. It made me want to yell at her some more.

Before I could, Marco said, <Jake…you’re being weird. So James takes the military job. We’ve got enough to worry about as it is. So what’s the big deal?>

I didn’t know how to argue. There was no real reason why James shouldn’t take over the job. It even made sense; James’s people were the ones who would be working with the military in the diversion. Why shouldn’t they be the ones to watch over the military base in the meantime? I didn’t have an answer.

But I couldn’t suppress a nagging suspicion that Cassie was not telling me everything.

 

 

Chapter 15

James

            There were, of course, no longer any soldiers patrolling the perimeter of the military base. General Hobster was the only one with a clean bill of freedom. He was the only one we could trust to guard his soldiers.

            I flew right up to the complex and landed in front of the heavily locked door.

<Chee,> I said. <Open up, general. Animorph here.> ‘Chee’ was the password. It was the one word that no Yeerk, no matter whose head they had been in, could possibly know.

            I de-morphed and in a few minutes, the door opened. General Hobster stood there, blinking dazedly in the light of day.

            “You’re new,” he said.

            “I get that a lot,” I said, slightly annoyed.

            “Well, no matter, no matter,” said the general. “Come on in, will you, son? Indoor lighting is kinder on the eyes.”

            I stepped inside and followed him down a hallway.

            “How’re you holding up?” I asked.

“Not too bad,” he said, absently. “And yourself?”

            “I’ve been better,” I said. “How about your soldiers, though? Down to about twenty-four hours, aren’t they?”

            “Thirty,” said the general, rubbing his eyes.

            “I’ll post an Animorph guard to take over for a while,” I offered.

            General Hobster shook his head. “No. No, you kids have enough to worry about.”

            We arrived at his office.

            “Tea?” he asked, pulling up a chair opposite his desk. “I wouldn’t recommend my coffee. It’s a very strong blend.”

            “Nothing, thank you,” I sat down.

            The general poured himself a cup of coffee.

            “You have been sleeping, haven’t you?” I said, suspiciously.

            “Oh, well, not just yet, son,” he said. “Not a good time, you know.”

            “Haven’t there been any Animorphs here to take shifts?”

            “They don’t stay too long,” said the general, shrugging. “Told them I didn’t need help, anyway.”

            “You can’t stay awake for three days,” I insisted.

            “Very strong blend,” he repeated, lifting his coffee mug in a kind of toast. “I’ll be fine.”

            “You don’t have to do this all by yourself,” I said.

            “Don’t worry about it,” he said, tersely.

            “But—”

            General Hobster slammed his mug back on his desk, spilling half the coffee. “I can take care of my own,” he said. “I got them into this. I’ll get them out!”

            I stared blankly at his agitated face. “You didn’t get them into anything.”

            “Controllers, aren’t they?” he said. “Those Yeerks we’ve been hearing about. They were in the heads of them that burned a great gaping hole in our town. My soldiers,” his eyes were very bright as he went on. “They’re good people. I know they’d rather die than let those things use ’em like that. I could’ve done something sooner. I just didn’t believe…I didn’t think that…” he cleared his throat, looking embarrassed. “I thought that if any of my soldiers were Controllers, I’d know. I thought that if they were, they’d act…different.”

            I forced back a smile. “You’re not the only one who has thought that way,” I told him. “But it’s going to be okay. Every one of your soldiers will come out of this a free human being.”  “I know,” said the general, his voice gaining strength again. “You’re right, of course. It’s just that I…well, no matter. Freedom, that’s what matters. It will be a great comfort to know I can trust them again. And they’ll be able to fight those slugs that enslaved ’em, helping you with that diversion of yours.”

            “Actually,” I said. “There’s been a change of plans.”

He leaned forward. “Oh?”

            “The diversion has been cancelled. We’re working on a new strategy.”

General Hobster looked taken aback for a moment, but his expression soon cleared. “Well then, son, how can we help?”

            I was surprised. No ‘Why did you change your mind’? No ‘What’s your new strategy’? Just ‘How can we help’? Then, I realised: I’d expected him to be more like me. But he trusted the Animorphs. Animorphs had worked with him to evacuate the city, when Dracon beams had threatened it. Animorphs had alerted him to the presence of Controllers at his base. He knew we were kids. He talked to us like we were kids. But he knew, at the same time, that we were fellow warriors and that, in this war, we were the ones who knew what was going on.

            “I don’t know yet, how you can help,” I told the general.

“I’ll let you know, as soon as I figure it out.”

            He nodded and drained the last of his coffee. “Best of luck, then. I’ll keep an eye on things here; guarantee you one batch of free-willed humans should you need them.” He rubbed his fingers against his temples as he spoke and a slight groan escaped him. “Pass me some Tylenol, would you, son? It’s in that drawer next to you.”

            I handed it over and stood up. “I have to go. I’ll send a couple of Animorphs over to help keep watch for a while.”

            “Don’t bother,” said the general. “I couldn’t sleep if I tried.”

            “To keep you company then,” I said, firmly.

            In the end, he agreed and I left to get the promised company.

On the way, I met Tricia. She and I were identical red-tailed hawks, sharing a thermal.

            <Hi,> I said. <You here by yourself?>

            <I’m part of the telephone line,> she explained. <Hold on a sec; I have to tell Chantel to put the report on hold so I can talk to you.>

            <What’s Chantel doing?> I asked, when Tricia gave me the all-clear.

<Talking to Cassie,> said Tricia. <Chantel passes Cassie’s report to me and I pass it to Judy who reports it to everyone else back at camp. That’s the kind of thought-speech distance we’re dealing with.>

            <Where is Cassie?> I asked, puzzled.

            <At the Pool Ship doing recon with Jake, Marco and Ax,> Tricia replied.

I felt weird about the ‘telephone’ thing.

<Cassie can tell us what happens when she gets back,> I said. <You don’t need to spy on them first-hand.>

            <We decided to stay in contact,> said Tricia. <If they get into trouble someone needs to alert the cavalry.>

            <Oh, we should worry about them,> I said in a very sarcastic tone. <After all, they’ve been so worried about us.>

            <Cassie has been,> Tricia snapped.

            <I know,> I said quickly. <I didn’t mean her.>

            <But you meant the rest of them?> Tricia demanded. <You think they want us to die?>

            <I think that Jake could be putting a little more effort into seeing that we don’t,> I said.

            <They don’t think we’re expendable. They just think that their stupid plan will work.> Tricia was angrier than I’d ever heard her. <And don’t you dare go saying things like that in front of Collette.>

            My insides squirmed, guiltily. <How is she? Is she still—>

            <Beating herself up with a mental sledgehammer?> Tricia finished. <Yeah.>

            I sighed. <What makes her think any of this is her fault?>

            <She’s not thinking at all,> said Tricia. <But the things she says…it’s like Kelly died, because she was afraid to come out of her hidey-hologram.>

            <She wasn’t, that was—>

            <Because she ever put herself in danger that Kelly had to get her out of,> Tricia continued.

            <That’s got nothing to do with—>

            <Because she ever socialised with Marco,> Tricia raised her voice.

            <Why would that—>

            <Because you’re making them out to be the enemy,> Tricia practically screamed at me. <So why don’t you give it a rest? They didn’t shoot Kelly!>

            I didn’t know what to say. We’d all been severely shaken by Kelly’s death. Most of us were past the shock, but no one was quite the same as they were before. Some, like Timmy, were quieter—or in his case way quieter—than usual. Some, like Judy, toiled on as best as they could, betraying only the occasional sign of depression.

Then there were those like me, who felt better about everything when they had someone to hate. Maybe I was taking it too far. Craig was the one who knew how to be objective. I had a tendency to take personal issues, well, personally. I’d lashed out at everyone, including Marco, and maybe it had hurt Collette. She, too, was fixated on blame. The difference was that hers was self-directed.

            <If Kelly was here,> I said to Tricia. <She would tell Collette to snap out of it.>

            <I guess that’s the problem,> Tricia’s voice broke. She soared higher on the thermal and veered away from me.

            I took the hint and flew on to my destination.

            Five minutes later, I saw another red-tailed hawk. That was Judy.

There was a big golden eagle a short distance away. No one I knew. It was an ordinary bird.

            I found the tell-tale trees surrounding our camp. Their vast, leafy tops made the people propped up against their trunks invisible from the air. I dove through the leaves and surveyed the scene.

            “That club can’t go there,” Majal waggled her finger over the cards spread out in front of Liam. He was playing FreeCell.

            Erica and Craig entered the clearing, carrying packaged, non-perishable goods fresh from the local supermarket — aka the shed-sized, log-piled storehouse Cassie had shown us.

            “Get that eight out of the way, then that jack can go on that queen,” Majal told Liam. “That’ll free up the ace of diamonds and then the eight can go on that nine.”

            “I knew that,” snapped Liam.

            “Or you used to,” said Majal, taking a box of animal crackers from Craig. “Look, you’ve got the ace of spades up and you went and buried the two of spades under those court cards. What’s up with that?”

            “I can’t concentrate with you breathing down my neck,” Liam decided.

            <Visser One just fed a human-Controller to a bunch of Taxxons because he thought the guy was an Animorph in morph,> Judy reported.

            “And that’s not helping either,” Liam shook his fist at the sky.

            “Don’t knock it,” Erica pressed a bag of peanuts on Liam. “We need to know what’s going on. Hi, James.”

            I had landed and de-morphed.

            <Cassie’s got a visual on Tom’s new ship and Ax is listening to Chapman talk about the ship’s improvements,> said Judy.

            “Would you please exclude me?” Liam yelled at the sky. “There are enough listeners on this radio station to bring me up to date later!”

            Judy fell silent in the middle of listing the new ship’s enhanced systems.

            “Thank you!” said Liam.

But Judy wasn’t talking to anyone anymore. And it didn’t sound like a natural pause.

“Judy?” I shouted.

            <New ship’s got new stuff,> Judy grunted, sounding like a boxer talking around her punches. <But it’s pretty much the same so…ah…just a minute.>

            For a couple of minutes we exchanged bewildered looks and scanned the empty sky.

<So they’re still calling it “the Blade Ship,” because it’s based on the same model as the old one.> Judy appeared low over our heads. Her frantically fluttering wings looked as though they could barely support her weight. She made it to the ground in a heap of quivering feathers and immediately began to de-morph. No one was in any doubt why.

“You’re bleeding!” Erica cried.

            <Yeah,> said Judy. <Stupid bully-bird. Sky was plenty big enough for the both of us and I was minding my own business and he just—>

            “A golden eagle?” I asked, remembering suddenly.

            Judy shrugged her half-formed shoulders. <He didn’t have the manners to introduce himself before he started trying to beat me into a bloody—>

            “A golden eagle attacked you,” I gaped. “And you felt like telling us about Yeerk ship schematics?”

“I won,” said Judy, proudly. “Bully-bird rammed me with his big, freaky talons and I nearly fell out of the sky, but then I went right back at ’im and I slashed and I bashed and I beat his golden butt back to wherever the heck he came from.”

            Craig tossed a granola bar into Judy’s lap. “Take a break,” he said, morphing to red-tailed hawk. “I’ll go up for a while.”

            “No way!” Judy flung the granola bar back at him. “I don’t want a break. I only came down to re-morph.”

            “I’ve already eaten,” said Craig, in that same hard-done-by tone people usually use when referring to a tedious chore. “It’s your turn.” Craig dumped the last of the granola bars on Judy before his arms became wings. He flapped away, with Judy still throwing granola bars after him.

“Jerk,” Judy grumbled. “If I’d wanted replacing I would’ve asked.”

“Craig’s a bit restless,” said Erica, apologetically. “What with the grocery shopping, the eating and then that conversation he nearly had…” She shook her head. “The lack of strenuous effort is stressing him out.”

“Then I hope he meets a golden eagle, gets strenuously beaten up and feels better!” huffed Judy.

“I’m sure he will,” said Erica, soothingly. She handed Judy a packet of dried papayas. They were Judy’s favourite fruit.

Judy sighed and took the packet without further complaint.

I smiled quietly to myself. Erica had cried as hard as anyone else during those long hours left in the night after we’d lost Kelly, but she was definitely among those who were coping. Better still, she seemed to have a good grasp on how the others were dealing. She knew who to nag about eating, who to time for morphing and what to say when people clashed.

My eyes travelled slowly around the group: idle superheroes enjoying some downtime. But when Erica wasn’t trying to cheer someone up her face fell into a sullen expression. Timmy was pulling up the grass beside him as though he hated every blade. Liam was playing FreeCell like a frustrated amateur and Majal was watching his progress with that blank expression you get when you watch a TV screen for no reason. Collette sat still and silent, oblivious to everything around her.

I finally remembered General Hobster and asked for volunteers to go and help him out.

“Me,” said Judy at once, stuffing three more papaya sticks into her mouth and passing the empty packet back to Erica.

Majal jerked out of her trance. “I’ll go too,” she said. “Watching Liam flip cards isn’t getting any less boring.”

“You could’ve played a game with me,” Liam pointed out.

“No one wants to see you play cards with me,” said Majal in mock weariness. “You get hyperactive when you lose.”

While Liam made faces and struggled to come up with a witty retort, Judy and Majal morphed to red-tailed hawk.

I knelt down next to Collette. “You want to go with them?” I asked her. “Get some fresh air?”

Collette frowned at me. “I’m already outside.”

“Some, uh…different air,” I said, awkwardly. “Thermals, you know…warm outdoor air? And then…warm indoor air at the base?”

“I’m not cold,” said Collette.

“No, and that’s good, great, really,” I babbled. “But I thought you might like to…”

The look on Collette’s face was answer enough: she didn’t want to do anything.

            “Dahh!” Liam exclaimed, shoving the cards violently away from him. “I don’t believe this! I’m losing to myself!”

            <Take deep breaths,> Majal advised. She and Judy made to take off.

            “WWW…aaii…ai…”

            I looked around at Timmy. “You want to go?”

He nodded and began to morph.

Judy and Majal waited for him and then the three of them soared away. I was pleased. After Collette, Timmy would have been my second choice.

            Erica collected the scattered playing cards into a pile and sat down across from Liam. “Go fish?” she offered, shuffling the deck. “A game of chance. No self-esteem endangerment there.”

            “Except by admitting you need a game that does that,” Liam muttered. Erica dealt the cards anyway and Liam settled lazily into the game’s simple pattern.

            <Guys,> came Craig’s voice in our heads. <Cassie’s…>

            “What?” I said, although I knew that Craig couldn’t hear me.

<She’s...well, Tricia says she’s…emotional,> Craig finished.

            I gave the sky a disbelieving look. Craig was the last person who’d think news like that was worth reporting, even if Tricia did.

            Craig was back on the air a minute later, with an even more confusing message. <It’s bad…or it could be, she’s not sure. But she thinks we should look into it. If it is what she thinks it is...>

I waited.

<That’s all I got,> said Craig.

 

 

Chapter 16

James

                                                                                      DAY FOUR

It had been nearly twenty hours now since we’d begun our recon on Rachel. We’d learned that Rachel’s mother, Naomi,

had spent her normal life as a lawyer and was, in her current situation, reduced to teaching Hork-Bajir their ABCs. We’d gotten to know the three valley ‘house guests’ who had never been to a meeting: Rachel’s two little sisters, Jordan and Sara; and Champ, a German shepherd belonging to Tobias’s mother, Loren.

Our surveillance had begun with Rachel and Tobias making their way back from the outskirts of the valley with as many saskatoons as they could carry.

Then, there’d been sleeping — for Rachel, not us — and when that was finally over, there’d been Rachel’s daily routine:

 

  1. Yell at Jordan and Sara for waking her up too early.
  2. Yell at her mother for asking her to take care of her sisters for the day.
  3. Help Toby coach Hork-Bajir battle practice.
  4. Yell at Sara for trying to wheedle piggy-back rides from the enraptured Hork-Bajir who were supposed to be focusing on violence.
  5. Discuss Pool Ship infiltration with Marco and Ax.
  6. Yell at Jordan for interrupting.
  7. Dump her sisters off on Cassie for a while.
  8. Yell at Sara for telling her that Cassie was a nicer baby-sitter than she was.
  9. Meet Tobias after his mouse hunt and discuss valley improvements over lunch.
  10. Yell at Jordan for saying ‘is your boyfriend always so charming?’
  11. Yell at her mother for suggesting that she shouldn’t yell at her sisters so much.

 

We were calling the operation ‘recon,’ although it was starting to feel a lot like spying on Rachel’s personal life. If we had a few qualms about that, Cassie’s permission was a helpful thought to keep in mind.

Right now, there were four of us on duty. Shawn, Diondra and I were meadow pipits, flying casually from tree to rock to cabin, keeping Rachel in our sights at all times.

Andrew—a red-tailed hawk—gave us the camp’s overall layout from above. He couldn’t exactly fly from perch to perch without getting noticed, whereas meadow pipits were recognised as natural inhabitants of the valley.

Rachel was at the outdoor array of patio furniture called ‘Hork-Bajir school,’ ranting at her mother about how she couldn’t get anything done with her sisters tagging along. Naomi’s temper rose to meet Rachel’s and the two of them were soon locked in verbal combat.

<Man,> Shawn was commentating. <Earth to Rachel: let it go already. She never gives up, does she? Naomi totally had her beat with that ‘responsibility’ argument, and Rachel’s still going at it like she’s got effective come-backs hidden up her sleeves.>

<Losing battle alright,> said Andrew from somewhere over our heads. <She’s just not willing to admit it.>

Naomi abandoned the Rachel battle when her two younger daughters started a game of leap-frog with her Hork-Bajir class. “Sara, no, that’s not safe. Jordan, you should know better. Mind his blades!”

“See?” said Rachel. “This is why they should stay in the cabin where they can’t—”

<—‘question my patience and make fun of my birdfriend,’> Andrew yawned. <Didn’t I already do this like two hours ago?>

<Six,> I told him.

<You know you’re short-staffed when you break the eight hour rule,> said Andrew, reprovingly.

Naomi dismissed her Hork-Bajir students and took Sara and Jordan back to the cabin. Still fuming, Rachel went to help Marco and his parents test out defensive weaponry.

<What about Collette?> said Diondra. <Why hasn’t she taken any shifts?>

<Erica’s orders,> I said. <According to her, Collette’s not to do any more morphing until she starts eating.>

<I can’t imagine how that’s going to work, when Collette doesn’t want to morph anyway,> said Shawn.

<It doesn’t matter,> I grated. <Someone who hasn’t eaten in over twenty-four hours shouldn’t be morphing, on principle. Morphing takes energy that fasters don’t have.>

            <Cassie said she’d try to bring us some saskatoons, right?> said Andrew, practically. <Maybe Collette will eat those.>

<It’s not about the food itself, stupid,> said Diondra. <Don’t you know anything about depression?>

            <Oh, like you do,> Andrew sneered. <You didn’t take ten seconds to mope over Kelly.>

            <What?> Diondra’s voice wavered. <No, I—>

            <You’d like to pretend she’s still here,> said Andrew. <You can get away with it, because you didn’t watch her burn up like Collette did.>

            <That’s not fair,> said Diondra. <I miss Kelly too. We all do.>

<But while Collette’s been crying her eyes out and Timmy’s been struck dumb, you’ve been about as cracked up as a counsellor with a psychology project.>

            <I’m only trying to make things better,> Diondra pleaded.

            <Yeah, well, maybe you can’t,> snapped Andrew. <Maybe Timmy and Collette’ll both end up catatonic. Maybe you just need to accept the fact that Kelly’s really gone and there’s nothing you can do about it.>

            <It’s pretty obvious Kelly’s not here, Andrew,> said Shawn, sharply. <She’d be telling you to shut up about now.>

            Surprisingly, this did shut Andrew up. It was strange, because he never listened to Kelly when she was alive.

            There was a moment’s silence while we watched Rachel use a sling-shot to pelt rocks at a battered wall of logs.

<Timmy is doing better,> I said.

            <Do you really think so?> said Diondra, hopefully. <Majal said that he talked a little, last night at the military base, but…she made it sound like a bad thing.>

            <According to Judy he was ‘too easy to understand,’> I confessed.

            <Judy said that about Timmy?!> Shawn exclaimed.

            <Oh, God.> Diondra was genuinely dismayed. <We’ve lost him.>

            <We haven’t,> I said, more sharply than I’d intended. <He went with Chantel and Raymond today, to visit General Hobster again.>

            <So at least he’s getting out,> said Andrew. <I guess Erica’s more worried about Collette.>

            ‘Erica’ was the name Andrew generally used when he wanted to express his own concerns.

            <Well,> I said, cautiously. <Maybe Collette will eat saskatoons.>

Rachel let her next volley of rocks fall free of the tensed sling-shot as a dog rushed out in front of the target wall. “Champ!”

“Whoa, boy.” Marco’s dad pulled Champ off to one side. “These aren’t Frisbees being thrown here.”

“They might as well be,” said Marco’s mom, whose name I knew was Eva. “We’ve got nothing here that would even disorient a Bug Fighter.”

“More force,” Rachel mused. “Bigger rocks.”

“Catapult,” Marco suggested.

“It’s no use,” said Eva. “We need Dracon beams.”

Rachel threw down her sling-shot, looking put out. “Great. Well, it was fun while it lasted. Come on, Champ.” Rachel grabbed Champ’s collar and dragged him along behind her.

She steered the dog into the heart of camp where there were four cabins; one each for Rachel’s and Cassie’s families, one for Marco’s family plus Jake, and one for Tobias’s mother.

Tobias spent a great deal of time at his mother’s cabin during the day, but because he needed to sleep as a hawk, tended to spend nights in a tree by Ax’s ‘scoop.’ A ‘scoop’ is, in human terms, a deep, partially-covered hole in the ground. It’s what Andalites call ‘home.’

Rachel led Champ past Ax, who was fiddling with a hand-held technological device I did not know the purpose of.

Past Cassie, who was treating sick Hork-Bajir and occasionally sending stray meadow pipits a fleeting, curious look.

            Jake was nowhere in sight. For hours now, he’d been shut up indoors.

            <Maybe Cassie was wrong,> Diondra introduced an already thoroughly discussed topic. <Jake hasn’t said a word to Rachel all day.>

            <The day’s not over yet,> I pointed out.

            <I don’t know,> said Shawn, sceptically. <The whole thing is pretty far-fetched.>

<Jake’s planning to do something about the Blade Ship,> I said. <This is the only theory we’ve got going for us.>

<Yeah, but it’s crazy,> said Shawn. <I mean, us I almost get, but this is Rachel we’re talking about. It’s not like she’s someone Jake met a month ago.>

<It is crazy,> I agreed. <But Cassie knows him better than we do.>

<And she’s worried,> said Diondra. <But maybe—>

<Look,> Shawn interrupted. <Jake!>

Jake approached Rachel as she released Champ. The dog bounded away.

Rachel’s eyes followed Champ to the place where Tobias was helping Loren attach wind charms to her cabin. As usual, Rachel’s gaze lingered on Tobias. It seemed that the sight of him in human form was a novelty that hadn’t worn off.

Jake stopped in front of Rachel. “I need to talk to you.”

“Sure,” said Rachel, snapping out of her reverie. “What’s up?”

“Not here.” Jake glanced uneasily around at the surrounding cabins. “Can you come flying with me for a minute?”

Rachel considered.

<Don’t do it,> said Diondra, but only so we could hear her. <He’s got a funny look on his face.>

“Yeah, sure,” said Rachel.

She and Jake morphed.

<Birds of prey,> I observed. <Andrew?>

<I’ll keep an eye on them,> said Andrew.

            <Jake and Rachel flew away,> I told Cassie. <Andrew’s following.>

            Cassie put her thumb and finger together in an “OK” sign to show she had heard.

            We waited.

            <Well,> said Shawn, impatiently. <Where are they going?>

            <Nowhere,> Andrew replied. <They’re just sort of flying around.>

            <Jake was only after private thought-speech,> Shawn surmised. <How are we supposed to eavesdrop when people go doing inconsiderate things like that?>

            About five minutes later Rachel and Jake landed in the same spot they’d started out from and de-morphed.

            “I’ll tell them…something,” said Jake. “You don’t have to…”

            “You’ll have to tell them something tomorrow,” said Rachel. “I got this.”

            “You’re sure?”

            Rachel nodded grimly. She headed for Cassie’s circle of sick Hork-Bajir.

Jake stared after her for a few seconds and then went straight for the cabin he shared with Marco’s family. Marco and his parents were still testing weapons. Jake entered the empty cabin and shut the door behind him.

Cassie was now down to nine Hork-Bajir patients. All were suffering from an unfortunate taste-testing of the wrong kind of tree bark. Fortunately, the possibility of discovering Earth tree barks that would be incompatible with the Hork-Bajir digestive system had been anticipated by Cassie’s parents. With Toby’s help, they had developed a curative compound.

The stuff had the consistency of mashed potatoes and the colour of faded yellow paint. Cassie doled it out of a big bowl. She was careful to prepare each patient for its bad taste using a series of distracting human objects, among which were a couple of Loren’s wind charms.

Rachel stepped through a gap in the circle of waiting Hork-Bajir.

            “Rachel.” Cassie dropped her supplies and stood up. “How are you?”

            “I won’t be seeing you tonight, Cassie,” said Rachel. “I’ve got stuff to do at home.”

            “But how—”

            “I’m fine,” said Rachel. “Why?”

            “I saw you fly away with Jake,” said Cassie. “I was just wondering what he—”

            “He wanted to talk to me,” said Rachel. “Point out some things that needed attention, that’s all.”

            Cassie looked no less worried. “You’d tell me, right? If Jake were asking you to do anything that—”

            “What?” Rachel cut her off, looking startled. “Recon, Cassie. I told you.”

            “Recon on Tom’s new Blade Ship?” asked Cassie.

            Rachel was still looking fairly unnerved as she said, “We already know everything we need to know about that.”

            Cassie shook her head, like she couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

Rachel, meanwhile, was rearranging her face into a more relaxed expression. “Jake loves you, you know,” she said. “He can be a real jerk sometimes. But he does love you.”

            “I know,” said Cassie, quietly.

            “And he’d never do anything to hurt you,” said Rachel. “Not unless…” she paused. “There are things he needs to do for the war. Things we all need to do. It shouldn’t get in the way, after…after this is all over.”

“Rachel.” Cassie gave her a long, steady look. “Tell me. What’s wrong?”

“I’m fine.” Rachel clamped a strong, reassuring hand on Cassie’s shoulder and placed a less confident smile on her own face. “Take care, okay?”

Rachel walked away. Cassie watched with a stricken expression which reminded me forcibly of a look I’d seen on Collette’s face recently.

<We’re on it,> I told Cassie. <Just hang on.>

Shawn, Diondra and I flew into a beech tree we’d come to refer to as ‘the Tobias spot.’

Loren was playing with Champ; throwing a Frisbee for him to catch, running to meet him when he came back with the Frisbee in his mouth. Loren went about it so joyfully, it was enough to make anyone want to jump up and chase Champ around with her.

But, for the moment, Tobias was just standing off to one side, watching them.

Rachel stopped a short distance behind him. She spoke before Tobias had even noticed that she was there. “Tobias, I can’t—”

“Hi,” Tobias looked around at her and a smile spread across his face. “You manage to shake off your sisters for another few seconds?”

“No, I mean, yes…but I…” Rachel stood rooted to the spot as Tobias came closer. Her expression was a perfect poker face, betraying no emotion. “I can’t hang out tonight,” she said. “I’ve got to help out with…stuff. Babysitting.”

“Sara and Jordan aren’t about to let you off on that ‘one thousand and one Animorph nights’ deal, huh? One tale told; one thousand left to tell?” Tobias laughed, softly. “Don’t be too hard on them. They have a lot of catching up to do. I can relate.”

Rachel looked past Tobias to watch Loren coaxing the Frisbee from Champ’s mouth. “It’s been so good for you lately, with your mom and everything.”

            “Yeah,” said Tobias, glancing over at Loren. “You know I told her about Elfangor. But I’m not sure how sad she is that he died. She really can’t remember him at all.”

            “She couldn’t remember you, either,” Rachel’s voice had some feeling in it, even as her face remained neutral. “But now it’s like you two have always been together. Maybe it’ll all come back to her in time.”

            “I hope so,” said Tobias.

            “I’m glad,” said Rachel. “She’s given you a good reason to be human.”

            Tobias smiled. “Plus every other reason I had before.” The way he was looking at Rachel, I got the feeling he meant her.  Rachel looked back at him, seemingly uncomfortable. “One reason’s enough.”

            “It should’ve been,” said Tobias, seriously.

            “I meant your mom,” said Rachel.

            A slight frown creased Tobias’s forehead. “I know I didn’t really want to be human before she came along. I know I put you through a lot.”

            Rachel shook her head. “No, that’s not what I—”

“But it’s so much easier now. Being human, I mean. I love picking berries, throwing that Frisbee, trying to do things I don’t know how to do, helping out with stuff that isn’t recon or rodents. And you…” Tobias gave Rachel that meaningful look again. “Just spending time with you…like this,” he shrugged his human shoulders in a comfortable sort of way.

            “Told you,” Rachel muttered at the ground. “It’s not that.”

            “What?” said Tobias.

            Rachel met his eyes again. “You’ll be okay.”

            “Of course.” Tobias looked deep into her eyes, smiling once more. “Sure you can’t stay a while?”

            Rachel swayed on the spot, first towards and then away from Tobias. A look of longing flitted across her carefully controlled face.

“Now,” she said, more to herself than to Tobias. “I have to go now.”

            “Okay,” said Tobias.

            Rachel stood very still for a moment. Then, without warning, she wrapped her hands around Tobias’s neck and kissed him on the lips. Tobias was only surprised for a split second before he reacted, moving his hands along her back. Rachel tore away before his arms could close in around her.

She turned to expose a tidal wave of emotion to an indifferent beech tree. But the revelation did not go unnoticed by the three meadow pipits in that tree’s branches. I saw guilt and grief mingled with dread in her face. She walked swiftly away.

Tobias let his hands fall at his sides and gazed confusedly after her. He didn’t know what had hit him. “I’ll…see you later…then…”

            Shawn, Diondra and I stayed perched in the tree, gazing after Rachel, too. It wasn’t until she was out of sight that I remembered we were supposed to be following her.

<Come on,> I said.

We found our next perch on the roof of Rachel’s cabin.

            Rachel was leaning against the outside wall, breathing hard. She closed her eyes. When she opened them, she had her game face set firmly back in place. She entered the cabin.

            <I call the window ledge,> said Shawn, at once.

            <I’m going for the peep-hole in the roof,> Diondra announced.

            Which left me with the crack under the door. <I don’t know why I pretend that I’m the one in charge,> I grumbled.

It was no big deal, really. It was just that this was the tenth time in three shifts that I had been stuck with the worst spot. The system for assigning the spy posts was somehow understood to be ‘first say, first get.’ But I hadn’t agreed to it.

I settled down in the grass outside Rachel’s front door and tilted my head to look through the crack. It was a fairly wide crack and with my head at just the right angle, I could see most of the room inside.

Naomi was sitting at a small wooden table, shuffling through papers. I caught a flash of a huge letter ‘C’ on one.

Jordan was squirming around on the floor with her legs locked and her arms stretched menacingly towards Sara. “Ssssssssss, I’m a Taxxssssson and I’m going to eat you!” she hissed.

Sara issued a dramatic scream and hid behind her mother’s chair. “Save me, mommy! Save me! She’s going to eat me!”
            “That’s not funny,” snapped Naomi. “Taxxons are horrible creatures and they really would eat little girls like you.”

“Jordan’s not a real Taxxon, mommy,” said Sara, in her most innocent explaining-things-to-adults voice.

            “I don’t care,” said Naomi, sternly. “I still don’t want

you—”

            “Don’t bare your teeth like that,” Rachel said to Jordan. “When a Taxxon wants to eat someone it holds its mouth wide open and wiggles its tongue.”

            Jordan dropped her jaw and stuck out her tongue. The result was much closer to the vacant, mindless expression of a typical Taxxon. Wiggling her tongue enthusiastically, Jordan snaked across the floor and grabbed at Sara’s ankles.

            Sara laughed wildly and darted out from behind the chair to get chased around the room again.

            “Rachel,” said Naomi, reproachfully.

            “Mom, they know that Taxxons are real,” said Rachel. “Why spoil their fun?”

            “You’re in a strange mood,” Naomi remarked. “Less than half an hour ago, you wanted them sent to bed early for getting in your way today.”

            Rachel shrugged. “They weren’t that bad.”

            Naomi turned back to her papers.

            “So how was teaching today?” asked Rachel. “Got any Hork-Bajir past the ‘C’-can-say-‘sss’-and-‘kuh’ concept yet?”

            “No,” said Naomi, tiredly. “It was confusing enough for them to find out that ‘B’ is called ‘bee’ and sounds like ‘buh.’”

            Jordan had now captured Sara and was making loud devouring noises.

            Sara lay still for about two seconds and then jumped up and ran over to Rachel.

“Hah!” she called to Jordan from behind Rachel’s legs.

“Rachel morphed her grizzly bear and saved me! So there!”

“You can’t do that!” Jordan protested. “I already ate you.”

Rachel gathered Sara up in her arms. She didn’t say

anything; just held her little sister up on her hip and looked at

her.

Jordan made a face. “Are you okay?” she asked Rachel.

Rachel took Jordan’s hand in the one that wasn’t supporting Sara. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“That,” said Jordan, looking down at Rachel’s hand holding hers.

            Rachel pulled Jordan into a one-armed hug. “Daddy wasn’t taken. The Yeerks didn’t bother to look for him. He’ll be safe until you get out of here.”

“I know,” said Jordan.

            “And you’ll find him,” said Rachel.

            “Won’t you come with us?” asked Sara.

            Rachel released Jordan and put Sara down. She turned to her mother. “I’m staying over at Cassie’s tonight.”

            Naomi looked up from her papers. “Cassie’s? Why?”

            “Don’t go, Rachel,” Sara cried. “We won’t wake you up early tomorrow. We promise!”

            “I have to get up early anyway,” said Rachel. “We have the Pool Ship mission. It’s better I stay with Cassie.”

            Naomi sighed. “I expect you will sleep better without these two tearing around.”

            “We’ll be quiet!” shrieked Sara.

            Naomi stood up and put her hands on Rachel’s shoulders. “Be careful tomorrow,” she said. “I know you’re going with your friends and you’ve all been through this sort of thing a million times before. But be careful.”

            <James?> said a voice in my head.

            I jumped and hit my head on the bottom of Rachel’s front door. I had almost forgotten where I was.

            <Andrew,> I said. <What is it?>

            <Craig’s got the next team ready to take over whenever you guys are ready,> Andrew replied. <You’ve still got about twenty minutes left in morph.>

            <What about you?> I asked.

            <I’m on my way back to camp,> said Andrew. <I’m down to ten minutes in morph. Should I tell Craig to send the replacement team?>

            <Aaahh!> I flapped my wings, struggling to get airborne. I’d just seen Rachel heading for the door and I really didn’t want my tiny bird head to be wedged underneath the door when she opened it.

            <James?> said Andrew, uncertainly.

            Rachel opened the door and closed it quietly behind her. I hovered over her head. What I saw nearly made me fall out of the sky. Rachel was crying.

            <James,> said Andrew. <The team?>

            Crying. Tears streaming down her face, her shoulders shaking, Rachel walked away from her cabin. She walked away from Cassie’s cabin and every other building in the valley. I stared and stared. Two fellow meadow pipits fluttered over to stare with me.

            <James!> Andrew yelled.

            <Tell Craig to forget the team,> I said. <Recon’s over.>

            <What?> said Andrew, taken aback. <Why?>

            <You tell me,> I said. <You’re the one with long-distance vision. Can you see where Rachel’s going?>

            Andrew got back to me in a moment. <She’s headed for the outskirts. It looks like she’s walking right out of the valley.>

            <So recon’s over,> I repeated. <Cassie was right.>

            On our way back to camp, I made a point of telling Cassie just that. <We’ll need your help,> I concluded. <When do you think you can meet us?>

            Cassie pointed from herself to her single remaining Hork-Bajir patient and then moved her finger to point in the direction of our camp.

            <See you in a few minutes then?> I surmised.

            Cassie nodded.

My recon team reached camp and de-morphed against tree-trunks somewhat removed from the rest of the group. I sat down with them.

“So what now?” asked Andrew.

“Obvious, isn’t it?” I said. “We’ve found the weak spot in Jake’s plan.”

“I wouldn’t call Rachel a weak spot,” said Diondra. “Everyone says she’s the Animorphs’ strongest fighter.”

“Which is why Jake’s decided to count her as ten,” I said, tersely. “I guess he is low on options, since he’s already put us in such a necessary place.”

“Cassie couldn’t give us much of an estimate on how many morph-capable Controllers Tom’s got,” said Andrew. “How can you be certain Rachel will be hopelessly outnumbered?”

“I’m certain that she left this valley without any intention of ever coming back,” I said.

Andrew gave me a sideways look. “That’s what this is really about, isn’t it?” he said. “You saw Rachel cry and now you want to drag us all along with you to save a damsel in distress.”
            “Warrior in crisis,” Diondra corrected.

“And you’re free to stay behind,” I told Andrew.

“You just don’t get it,” said Andrew, shaking his head like he had me all figured out. “A day watching Rachel and you’ve lost sight of the big picture. It’s just one person being sacrificed for the greater good.”

I grit my teeth. Just one person. All a game, was it? Just one pawn. Andrew could be really dense sometimes. But there was one explanation that he would understand.

“Just one person,” I mimicked his casual tone. “Would you have said that about Kelly?”

As I expected, Andrew was suddenly looking less comfortable with the conversation. “No,” he admitted.

“Then you have no right to say that,” I told him.

“We should get going, shouldn’t we?” said Andrew, gruffly. “What happened to Cassie helping out? We don’t know the way to the Chee’s house.”

Shawn and Diondra looked to me as well.

“Cassie said she’d meet us here as soon as she’d finished with that last Hork-Bajir patient,” I informed them.

Shawn raised his eyebrows.

“Yeah,” I said. “I guess she got held up.”

 

 

Chapter 17

Jake

            I was staring out the cabin window; just staring and trying not to think about anything, when I saw Cassie. She wasn’t walking in any particular direction. Not towards anyone’s cabin, or training ground, or building site. But she was carrying what looked like half the saskatoons that Rachel and Tobias had picked the night before.

            I left the window. I was standing in the shadow of the cabin doorway as Cassie walked past. “Where are you going?”

            Cassie spun around in alarm. “Jake, you scared me.”

            “Sorry.” I stepped out into the late-afternoon sunlight. “I was just wondering…”

“Nowhere,” said Cassie.

I looked questioningly at the two baskets of saskatoons she was holding.

Cassie’s eyes darted from me to the saskatoons and back again. “You already got yours, right?”

I nodded. “I didn’t know you had so many.”

“My parents let me have theirs,” said Cassie.

I stared at the abundant supply in the baskets.

“And Marco’s parents,” Cassie acknowledged. “They said they didn’t mind.”

I couldn’t believe Cassie would want so many berries for herself. My puzzlement must’ve shown in my face.

“You know Rachel and Tobias really brought back way too many,” said Cassie. “The others didn’t want them. I mean, I wouldn’t have…if they…” Cassie trailed off, looking embarrassed. “Eva says she likes dried fruit better, anyway. This way, I’m…I’m leaving more of that sort of thing for everybody else.”

That got me thinking about another issue. “We are running low on dried food,” I agreed. “It’s weird. There are only twelve humans here. The way supplies have dropped in the last few days, you’d think we were twice that many.”

Cassie now had a strange look on her face. Like she’d said the wrong thing and was unsure how to fix it. “We don’t need those supplies to last much longer,” she said. “It’s nothing to worry about.”

“But it is weird.”

            “I don’t think so,” said Cassie.

            “What do you think it is?”

            “It doesn’t matter!” Cassie’s tone surprised me. Cornered. Desperate.

Instinctively, I moved towards her. “Are you okay?”

She gave me a look that made me hold myself in check. Like she wasn’t okay. Like it was my fault.

All too easily, I could think of what would make Cassie look at me that way. I thought of what I’d just asked Rachel to do.

But Cassie didn’t know about that…yet. I wasn’t kidding myself. She would find out. And when she did, she would hate me, almost as much as Tobias would. I’d been trying so hard to block out those thoughts. I wanted Cassie not to hate me, just a little while longer.

            “What’s wrong?” I asked again, resisting the urge to move closer to her.

            Cassie shifted the berry baskets higher up on her arm. “I have to go.”

            “Why?”

            “I’m late,” said Cassie.

            “Late…? For what?” I wasn’t planning on going anywhere until she answered.

But at that moment, Marco walked in on the scene. “So,” he said breezily. “We had plan A: infiltrate the Pool Ship pretending to be Hork-Bajir Controllers, get caught mishandling equipment and therefore labelled as Animorphs, get the telling off and the cane and the horrible death by Taxxon ingestion. Plan B: avoid unnecessary public humiliation, right?”

            “Right,” I said.

Marco looked suspiciously at me and Cassie as we continued to stare at each other. “Isn’t there someone we should be recruiting?”

            “The Chee,” I remembered. “We’ll need their help.”

            “Erek should be home now,” said Marco. “You want me to go and—”

“I’ll go,” said Cassie.

I frowned. “I thought you said you were late for… something.”

“It is getting late,” said Cassie, evasively. “I’ll just put these baskets away and then I’ll go.”

I whirled after Cassie as she walked past me. I took one step forwards and felt Marco’s hand tugging at my shoulder.

“What?” I said, without turning around.

“That’s what I was going to ask you.” Marco walked around to my front. “What’s with your face like thunder?”

I looked over Marco’s shoulder to watch Cassie enter her cabin. “She just keeps…I don’t…I mean, she’s…and it’s…so how…I just…”

“Yeah,” said Marco, nodding in mock sympathy. “That does explain a lot.”

I began to morph to peregrine falcon.

“Where are you going?” asked Marco.

“To get Erek,” I said, tersely.

“Cassie’s doing that,” said Marco.

“And I’m doing it with her.”

Marco gave me a long, considering look. “You know what? I’m coming too.”

I opened my mouth furiously.

“Believe me,” said Marco. “You need someone else to talk to.”

“But, I—”

“It’s cool,” said Marco, in an annoyingly calm, patient voice. “Just hang tight and if Cassie starts to make your head explode, you can talk to me instead.”

“My head is not exploding!” I yelled.

“So let’s keep it that way.” Marco began to sprout feathers.

Cassie stepped out of her cabin to find the two of us dwindling down to bird size.

“We’re going with you,” Marco explained.

Cassie nodded and morphed to osprey. Then she waited for Marco and I to finish our morphs and the three of us took off together.

Amazingly enough I was grateful for Marco’s company. Cassie was as unresponsive to me as she had been the last time we’d been flying.

<Your parents let Cassie have their saskatoons?> I asked Marco.

<Sure,> said Marco. <I gave her mine too.>

<Why?>

<She seemed like she really wanted them,> said Marco, lightly. <I figured I’d make her happy. It’s not like I’m crazy about saskatoons.>

<Cassie’s not crazy about saskatoons either.>

<Times like these, people get crazy about food that isn’t made of granola,> said Marco.

<Not Cassie,> I insisted. <She would never let anything she wanted take away from what other people have.>

Marco made a scoffing noise in my head. <That’s a dramatic thing to say. You do know that we’re talking about berries?>

<It’s a principle,> I bristled.

<If you say so,> said Marco. <Personally, I wouldn’t worry about it.>

<That’s because you never worry about anything,> I snapped.

<How dare you question my blood pressure,> Marco exclaimed in affronted tones. <I’ll have you know that I fret regularly from dawn ’til dusk, on the hour, every hour, for sixty minutes. No coffee breaks! I frown on Hakuna and I stamp on Matata. I put the worry in wart.>

I laughed despite myself. <Okay. You’re a wart. I’ll

give you that.>

            <Thanks, man, I love you too,> said Marco.

I looked down at the rooftops rolling by below us. <So you don’t think Cassie’s—>

<All that you can talk about?> said Marco.

<I’m serious,> I said. <I think she’s up to something.>

<Like berry binging?> Marco’s tone edged on bored.

<Like…> I struggled to come up with words that would explain it. I couldn’t. I didn’t have the words to explain it to myself.

Marco chose to interpret my silence as permission to change the subject. <You know that defensive weaponry we’ve been working on for the Hork-Bajir valley?>

I sighed. <Any progress?>

<Oh yeah,> said Marco. <We’ve come to realise that sling-shot rocks are a problem and after careful consideration we found a solution.>

<Bigger rocks?>

<Rubber chickens,> said Marco, solemnly.

<What?>

<Picture it,> said Marco in a hushed, excited voice. <It’s a Bug Fighter; Yeerks ready for every human weapon they’ve ever encountered and what will they see instead? Aaaah! It’s a bombardment of flimsy, hostile chickens! They’ll be dazed, they’ll be baffled, they’ll be ‘what the hell was that?!’ and then we’ll run like chickens, bawk, bawk, bawk, bawk…>

<‘We’ll run’?> I repeated.

            <Did I say that?> said Marco. <Hm. Must be a subconscious shred of doubt regarding my brilliant plan. Can’t imagine how it got there.>

            I laughed. <It is a brilliant plan.>

            <Should make an impression,> Marco agreed. <At least until we run out of chickens.>

            <And then what?>

            <Then we re-group,> said Marco. <The Yeerks finish panicking, we dodge Dracon beams, and crocodile distract the Yeerks while we pick up our weapons.>

            <Huh?>

            <Toby said they’re ready for action, right?>

            <You mean Hork-Bajir,> I said. <Hork-Bajir will distract the Yeerks.>

            <What did I say?> asked Marco.

            <Crocodile,> I told him.

            If he’d been planning to make a joke out of the slip up, Marco missed his cue.

I decided to ask. <What made you say—>

            <I don’t know,> Marco didn’t sound remotely amused. <I guess it’s been on my mind lately.>

<Crocodiles?> I said, bewildered.

<No,> Marco got defensive. <Look, I know what we’re getting into. I know Ax. I know what he’s capable of.>

<This is about Ax?>

<No,> said Marco. <My mom knows her stuff, but she’s been overly pessimistic before now. And no wonder. But she wouldn’t have believed half the things we’ve pulled off in the past.>

<This is about your mom?>

<No, it’s not my mom. It’s me. It’s…> Marco paused. <Irony Gods.>

<What?>

<You know,> Marco spoke hurriedly; fighting to get past whatever it was that he was trying to say. <Everything’s great, or was, or could be and that’s when the Irony Gods come along and say ‘serves you right for being cocky.’ And yeah, I know it’s stupid. I know that. But it’s still there, anyway, like maybe it’ll all blow up in your face just because you don’t want it to, you know?>

<I’m really not following,> I said helplessly.

<Forget it,> said Marco. <It doesn’t matter.>

Something told me that ‘it’ did matter. I had the uncomfortable conviction that a better friend would try and find out what ‘it’ was.

An awkward silence fell between us. Marco didn’t feel like talking and I didn’t know what to say.

I focused on tracing the familiar rooftop patterns to our destination.

Marco, Cassie and I spiralled down into Erek’s neighbourhood.

Then, out of nowhere, Marco hit me with, <What did Ax say when you asked him about that Andalite gadget he was working on today?>

<What gadget?>

<That alien thing-a-majig,> Marco elaborated. <About as big as your hand, you didn’t see it?>

<No.>

<Ax took it apart and put it back together again,> said Marco. <And I know I recognised one of the parts: a Z-space transponder.>

<What?> I bleated. <But that must mean—>

<He’s got Andalite High Command on the phone,> finished Marco.

My blood ran cold. All Andalites are sworn enemies of the Yeerks and Andalite High Command is no different. But they had once chosen to fight the Yeerks by planting a virus on the Hork-Bajir home world. Back then, it was the entire Hork-Bajir species that was enslaved by the Yeerks. The Andalites in charge decided to eliminate the Hork-Bajir Controllers in order to strike a blow against the Yeerks. It was an act which nearly reduced the Hork-Bajir population to extinction.

It was later disavowed by the Andalite people. But there were still plenty of Andalite military leaders who considered the genocide of other species to be a necessary means of destroying the enemy.

If Ax had, in any way, directed their attention towards Earth…

<I’ll bet you anything Tobias knows,> said Marco, bitterly. <He and Ax have a history like that: Ax tells Tobias that he’s done a bad thing. Tobias promises not to rat on him and only breaks that promise when the situation lands Ax in mortal peril.>

            <It can’t be Andalite High Command,> I said. <Ax would know better than that.>

<I dunno,> said Marco. <He’s a little too close to the whole thing.>

<You don’t know that he’s actually contacted anyone,> I pointed out. <You only know that he’s got a device that can.>

<I guess,> said Marco, grudgingly.

We landed outside Erek’s front door and de-morphed. Cassie knocked, while Marco and I fought to rid our faces of remaining bird features.

“Hi.” Erek answered the door, wearing his usual human hologram.

In unison, Marco and I looked down at the ground with our hands spread like hat brims over our foreheads.

“Hi.” Marco waved one hand high over his lowered head.

“Hi, Erek,” said Cassie. “Are you the only one upstairs?”

“Yeah,” said Erek. “Why? Is there someone else you need to talk to?”

“We came to talk to you,” I asserted from behind my hands.

“I’d appreciate it if you’d ask one of the others to come up for a minute,” said Cassie.

I dropped my hands, revealing the big, ugly bird beak smack in the middle of my otherwise human face.

Erek laughed.

Marco looked up two seconds later with a fully human face. “Hey, watch out, Big Bird. There’s a Jake on your beak.”

“Shut up.” I morphed the beak away and followed Erek into the house.

            Erek led the three of us into his very normal living room and then left to call someone up from his not-so-normal basement. The place was a huge underground park where Erek and his fellow androids liked to hang out and play with their many dogs.

            Erek was back in a minute, accompanied by another Chee. I didn’t recognise her hologram.

Evidently, Marco did. “Jenny, right?” he said. “You were with Erek when he introduced himself: ‘Hi, Marco. I know you’re an Animorph. I’m an android. This is my friend Jenny.’ ”

“I’m going by Jennifer now,” she said. “It’s what the humans call me now that I’m out of high school.”

“College?” asked Cassie.

“Freshman,” said Jennifer, smilingly. “It’s better than it was the last time I tried higher education. They didn’t even have PowerPoint back then.”

“Plus you had to go in as a member of the clergy,” said Erek.

“And you’re still in high school.” Marco grinned at Erek. “Tell me, when are you going to crack and skip ahead to retired accountant?”

“For your information, I intend to try my hand at a McDonald’s career after high school,” said Erek, stoutly. “And I’m sure I’ll enjoy it immensely.”

The Chee, being androids, are immortal. But they’ve each acted out many human lives since their arrival on Earth a few millennia ago. They choose a character to assume the role of and then cause their human hologram to age and die naturally. They consider every level of society to be a worthwhile experience. Before she was a student, ‘Jennifer’ might’ve been anything from a famous movie star to a homeless beggar.

“Enough about us,” said Erek. “What can we help you with?”

“You keep your dog food in the kitchen, right?” said Cassie. “I’d like to see what it is you feed them.”

I stared at her. “Cassie, we need Erek to—”

“Jennifer can show me.” Cassie plunged her hand through Jennifer’s holographic wrist and grasped the mechanical arm underneath. “Please, just for a minute?”

Jennifer shrugged and allowed herself to be steered into the kitchen.

“Oooookay,” said Marco. “Anyway, Erek, we were wondering if you’re free tomorrow to help us save the world.”

“I can make time,” said Erek. “What’s the plan?”

            “We’re infiltrating the Pool Ship and we need holograms to cover our entrance,” I said. “The Yeerks are seriously paranoid about Animorph interference right now. You’re our secret weapon.” The moment the words were out of my mouth, I regretted them.

            Erek was looking troubled. “I do want to help you liberate Earth, Jake. But you know I’m not a weapon. Violence of any kind is against my programming. I can’t help you launch an attack.”

            “It’s not like that,” I hastened to say. “We’re taking control of the Pool Ship’s systems.”

            Erek’s expression cleared somewhat. “And once you have control of the ship, what will you do with the Controllers on board?”

“We’re locking them down in quarters,” I said.

            Marco gave me a sideways look. I’d told him a different story. But I knew Marco understood; if we told Erek the truth, he wouldn’t be able to help us.

            Ruthlessness was something that Marco understood. Rachel understood. Ax would understand. Tobias wouldn’t.

And Cassie…she was the last person I could trust and the first person I wanted to. But she wouldn’t understand.

Marco answered Erek’s questions, while I waded through thoughts that made my head feel heavy.

            I saw that Cassie was still in the kitchen with Jennifer.

            Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Erek was talking to me. “So I guess I’ll camp out in the valley tonight?” he said.

I was staring across the room at Cassie.

“He does that sometimes,” Marco apologised.

“No need to tell me,” said Erek.

“We’re going?” I checked.

            “Yes, Jake,” said Marco in his annoying, patient voice.

“Cassie,” I called across the room.

Cassie glanced over at me and turned hurriedly back to Jennifer.

“You just about done?” I asked.

Cassie ignored me.

“We’re going,” I told her. “Morphing now.”

“Empty threat,” Marco muttered.

Sure enough, Cassie spent another minute and a half talking to Jennifer, then morphed to osprey in thirty seconds and ended up waiting for us again.

<Do you mind?> Marco ruffled his half-feathered wings indignantly. <We’re pathetic; try to fit in.>

Cassie made no reply. She had her beady bird eyes fixed on a point somewhere outside Erek’s window.

<She’s talking to someone,> I said to Marco. <She keeps doing that.>

<Oh, don’t tell me she’s talking to Someone again,> Marco moaned. <That Someone, he’s such a bad influence.>

<She shouldn’t be talking to him.>

<Him?> Marco laughed. <Jake, I was joking.>

<I mean James,> I said.

Erek opened the front door and walked out, replacing his human hologram with a swarm of bees.

<What are you on about?> said Marco. <Last I saw, Cassie was talking to that Jennifer Chee.>

            <And that’s weird,> I agreed. <But it all comes back to James.>

            <It does?> said Marco, sceptically.

We took off through the open door.

<Cassie’s been avoiding me,> I said.

<And you think she’s making up the time with James?>

<It’s not about James.>

<But you said—> Marco began.

<It’s about Cassie,> I grated. <She’s not herself lately.>

Marco sighed. <I really think you should be talking to her about this.>

<I can’t,> I said, exasperated. <I don’t know whose side she’s on anymore.>

<Please,> Marco scoffed. <Do me a favour and tighten your hold on that last shred of sanity you’ve been clinging to.>

We gained altitude.

An owl swooped silently past our position.

<What if—>

<Get a grip,> said Marco, calmly. <Your endangered love life doesn’t equal a big, giant conspiracy.>

I glared at Marco until he caught a thermal and soared out of glaring range. It wasn’t just me. There was something going on. Just because it involved Cassie, Marco wasn’t willing to take me seriously. I racked my brain for factual evidence that wouldn’t make me sound love-crazy.

Fact one: James filled Cassie in on the meeting I’d excluded her from. I made one wrong move and James had to be there to fix it. So Cassie didn’t need me to explain, or apologise, or make anything up to her. James had told her what I hadn’t, trusted her when I hadn’t. It was a lot of nerve coming from someone who—

Wrong train of thought, I realised.

Okay. Fact two: James had been hopping mad at the lot of us over his lost Animorph and he’d looked at Cassie like she wasn’t part of it. Like he wasn’t mad at her. Like he didn’t hate her.

This particular fact gave me a hot, sick swoop of anger in my stomach that didn’t feel very rational.

Fact three: Cassie had stayed behind to talk to James after that meeting. No one else had managed to get a word through James’s thick skull. Ten minutes alone with James and Cassie had convinced him. So he would help us in the final battle, so he wouldn’t chicken out, just because Cassie had talked to him.

Then there was the fact that Cassie hardly talked to me anymore. Hardly heard me when I talked to her. Made excuses to get away if I tried to come anywhere near her.

And she said it wasn’t hard to talk to James. It wasn’t hard to talk to that

I cut myself off, sensing a lack of logic in the words I’d been searching for.

I could picture Marco smirking over my ‘evidence.’

Berries, I thought desperately. I didn’t care what Marco said; Cassie would never…and there was more. Food rations running low. Blankets out of stock. Things like that were…

Then, suddenly, I remembered the owl. There’d been an owl flying around Erek’s neighbourhood. What was an owl doing there?

<Did you see that?> I asked Cassie.

<What?> she said.

<A big brown owl flying back the way we came,> I said.

<I don’t see an owl,> said Cassie.

<No, before.>

<Before what?>

<Just a few minutes ago.> It felt important, somehow. I wanted Cassie to agree with me. <There was an owl.>

<I can’t see it,> said Cassie.

<It’s too late now, we’re past it, Cassie, we’ve been past it for, like, if the owl were an Animorph he’d be de-morphed and talking to the Chee by now. You’re telling me you didn’t—>

<No,> said Cassie, stubbornly. <I didn’t notice anything.>

 

 

Chapter 18

James

            “So that’s about sixty human soldiers,” I said to the Chee called Jennifer. “Also a lion, a crocodile, a bobcat, an elephant, a buffalo, a gorilla, a panther.” I counted them off on my fingers. “A wolf, a scorpion, a rhino, a jaguar, a polar bear, a coyote, a hyena, a rattlesnake, a cougar…” Mentally, I couldn’t help completing the list with ‘and a bull.’ But that had been Kelly’s morph.

            “Seventy-six figures altogether,” Jennifer surmised.

“Did you get all the morphs?” I asked. “I could write them down, if…”

Jennifer raised her eyebrows pointedly.

“Android,” I remembered. “Computerised brain, memory files.” It was hard to imagine, looking at her very solid-seeming human hologram. “I forgot; you look so normal.” I winced. “No offence.”

Jennifer just smiled.

“So, you think you can pull this off?” I said, anxiously. “I mean…with seventy-six?”

“Absolutely,” said Jennifer. “Erek projected a bigger scene than that when he convinced the Yeerks that they had destroyed the Hork-Bajir valley. I am equally adept.”

There was only one more thing I could think of that might be a problem. “You know that it’s me asking you to do this, right? Jake’s not in on the loop.”

“Cassie told me,” Jennifer replied. “And I am little concerned with who asks me to do anything when the intent is to save lives. All Chee are,” she smiled, “wired that way.”

“Great,” I said with a weak laugh. “Tomorrow, then?”

Jennifer nodded. “I’ll be standing by.”

I thanked her and flew back to the valley.

I intercepted Erica a short distance outside of camp. She had a sack of dried food slung over her shoulder. Craig lagged behind, carrying a heavier load.

Erica noted my descent, set down her load and waited for me to de-morph.

“What’s happening?” I asked.

            “Judy needs a new battle morph,” Erica reported. “Her elephant’s too big for the upcoming battlefield. I’ve sent a team with her to get a Hork-Bajir. Everyone else is checked in for the night…most of the night, anyway.”

            “How long did you figure we have?”

            “A few hours,” said Erica.

            “We can’t leave any sooner?”

“I already gave you the math on this,” said Erica. “It’s six a.m. minus flight time, minus morph time, minus boarding time. If we leave any sooner, our ride won’t be out of bed within the two hour time limit.”

            “Everyone has flea morphs?” I asked next.

            “Everyone.” She frowned at me. “You know that.”

            “Right,” I said. “I know, I’m just…checking.”

            Erica sighed. “In case you feel like checking on anything else, I might as well tell you: we did watch Rachel leave the valley and we have confirmed her current position. I did take that team to scope out the Blade Ship and you have contacted the Chee—”

            “You’re telling me there’s nothing I can do?” I demanded.

            “I’m telling you that you’re up to speed and can’t go any faster,” Erica countered. “So just believe me when I say that R and R is allowed right now.”

            “Don’t feel hard-done-by,” said a voice in my ear. I jumped and looked around at Craig standing behind me.

Craig jerked his head at Erica. “She’s got the same lecture for everyone: ‘Less stress! More free time!’ It’s annoying, I know. But so far mutiny’s been unsuccessful.” He shrugged with a helpless ‘what can we do?’ sort of expression and led the way into camp.

            Before we got there, I looked to Erica for the answers to my last two questions. “Timmy?”

            “On lookout,” said Erica.

            “Collette?”

            Erica shook her head. “No change.”

            I rubbed my forehead, resignedly. Collette’s moods were often highly contagious. I knew that the one she was currently stuck in wasn’t making anyone very happy.

            I walked into camp and registered all but four of thirteen tree trunks occupied. So there were two with Judy getting her a Hork-Bajir morph. Timmy, I saw, was in meadow pipit morph, perched on a fairly low branch.

            I avoided looking at Collette as I watched Erica and Craig hand out supper. I knew she wasn’t eating.

            “Here.” Erica handed me a block of oatmeal banana bread. “Pull up a grass patch.”

            “You’re sure you’ve got the Blade Ship figured out?” I said. “Maybe I should—”

            “You’re off duty,” said Erica. “I told you: everything is taken care of.”

            I didn’t sit down. “Someone needs to make up the beds,” I pointed out. “And we shouldn’t leave these wrappers lying around.”

“I got it,” said Erica, sternly. “And Craig can take out the garbage. You should turn in early.”

I shrugged. “That’s okay. I’ll take a turn on lookout.”

“James, you took half the recon shifts last night,” said Erica. “You’ve been morphing on too little sleep.”

“I’m not tired,” I lied.

Raymond exchanged a meaningful look with Chantel.

“Where have we heard that before?”

“General Hobster,” said Chantel. “He’s pretty stubborn about bedtime too.”

“I’m not stubborn.” I sat down. “Anyway, General Hobster’s pushing his limits.”

“Definitely,” Chantel agreed. “The man doesn’t like letting his guard down, even when he’s got help. But we figured if we could just get him off caffeine for a while, he’d pass out whether he wanted to or not.”

“We had our work cut out for us, even when he did stop drinking coffee,” said Raymond. “I tell you, it was like convincing a two-year-old to go to sleep.”

            “I suppose you sang him lullabies, did you?” said Jesse to Chantel.

            Chantel went scarlet. “No.”

            “We did have it in mind as a last resort,” said Raymond, good-naturedly. “But Timmy was the one who finally got General Hobster snoring.”

            “Really?” I said, interested. “How?”

            Chantel grinned. “He started talking about physics.”

            “Ha!” Zack swung his head up to salute the meadow pipit on lookout. “What d’ya know? Those swallowed textbooks really did come in useful. Congrats. A military leader faces tomorrow well-rested because you know how to be boring.”

Timmy’s thought-speech voice carried no hint of hurt

dignity. <Tedium was a compulsory component in achieving our objective of securing General Hobster in an unconscious state. I deliberately applied monotonous aspects to authentically alluring subject matter in order to achieve the objective.>

            “Man, I did not understand a word you just said!” said Zack,

gleefully.

            <Your sensory area lacks sufficient capacity,> said Timmy.

            “I love it,” said Zack. “You’re making fun of me and I don’t even know how. It’s like old times.”

            <It is not,> said Timmy, sharply.

            Zack had the grace to look ashamed of himself.

But in a moment, Timmy went on, <Kelly is irreplaceable and therefore the present can not resemble the past. I do, however, recognise the actuality: adaptation is essential. Without it, loss will only continue to occur—in other forms.>

“Wow.” Zack was looking somewhat awed. “You know, I totally understood that.”

<Perhaps you understood before I did,> said Timmy.

I looked over at Collette. Her face was pale, blank and as miserable as ever. But I knew she had heard Timmy.

The whole group felt better to me when Timmy used his usual range of vocabulary. It was what we needed from him. What he needed in order to be himself.

I knew what that was for Collette. Something that barely three days ago had burst the boundaries of her private thought-speech conversation with Marco, and something we hadn’t heard since.

“We’re back,” said a strange, guttural voice from the edge of camp.

Judy was in her newly-acquired Hork-Bajir morph. Two meadow pipits hovered over her head.

            The meadow pipits landed and de-morphed into Tricia and Liam.

            “I feel good about Hork-Bajir,” Judy announced, de-morphing also. “It’s like a morph that fits.”

            “Like a glove,” said Tricia.

            “She’s even sampled tree bark,” said Liam.

            “And guess who followed me home?” said Judy.

            It was Alka Wek, the little Hork-Bajir girl. She toddled out into our clearing, staring around with wide, troubled eyes. “No Fal Tagut,” she said wonderingly. “Fal Tagut gone.”

“Sorry,” said Judy. “That was me. Fal Tagut that way.” She pointed in the direction from which she had come. “Me here. Me Judy. See?”

Alka walked up to Judy and looked interestedly from her human face to the tree trunk at her back. “Nice no-tree Col Et!” she declared.

            “Sort of…” said Judy.

            Alka moved from trunk to trunk, stripping bark from the ones that were ‘trees’ and stopping to greet each one that wasn’t.

            “Nice no-tree Col Et,” said Alka to Chantel.

            “Name Chantel,” Chantel explained. “Chantel.”

            “No nice no-tree Col Et?” Alka marvelled.

            “No Collette,” Chantel confirmed.

            “No nice no-tree?”

            “No, no,” said Chantel. “No, I am a nice NO-tree.” She looked nervously at Alka’s wrist blades.

            “Nice no-tree Col Et,” Alka insisted.

            “Fine,” Chantel sighed. “Whatever works for you.” She smiled over at Collette. “It seems you’ve become our uniform identity.”

            “Think I could have a guy’s name if I were a mean no-tree?” asked Zack.

            Chantel was about to spare him an exasperated look, but then her eyes snapped back to Collette.

Alka was walking towards the ‘nice no-tree’ who had found her a ‘yes-tree.’ Collette stared unseeingly at the little Hork-Bajir girl.

Alka seemed to have noticed that Collette wasn’t rolling out the welcome mat. She stopped short, looking hurt.

“Nice Alka Wek,” she assured Collette.

Collette blinked. “I know,” she said, tremulously. With what looked like a great effort, she managed a smile. “It’s not you.”

Alka came right up to the tree trunk. She peered anxiously at Collette, who was having trouble maintaining her inviting expression. Alka stepped sideways to scrape a piece of bark from the tree. She held the bark out to Collette.

“No thank you,” said Collette.

“No eat?” Alka’s face fell.

“Sorry,” said Collette.

Alka gave a great sigh, clearly disappointed.

“Hey, Alka,” said Raymond, waving at her from his tree trunk. He tossed a bag of dried-fruit mix at the Hork-Bajir’s feet. “Nice no-trees eat that.”

Alka snatched it up and turned eagerly back to Collette. “Col Et eat?” she inquired.

Collette hesitated long enough for Alka to start looking worried again. I guess that was the deciding factor.

Collette took the bag.

Alka watched Collette nibble on a dried apple, grinning a happy Hork-Bajir grin which actually made her look pretty scary. Seemingly out of politeness, Collette grinned back.

            Satisfied, Alka wandered off again. On her way out, she made a point of telling each of us: “Nice no-tree Col Et nice.”

“It’s not that I don’t like her,” said Craig, looking after Alka with a pained expression. “But I swear, I hear the ‘N’ word one more time, I’m going to lose it.”

“That’s nice, Craig,” I said.

Everyone laughed. I looked sharply at Collette, hardly daring to believe it.

Yes. Collette was laughing too.

There was a mad scramble to throw fuel on the fire:

“It’s nice that we’re such nice people.”

<Exceptionally, extraordinarily, exceedingly nice.>

“Nice attempt at normal, Timmy.”

“Nice evening, don’t you think? Look at the nice sunset.”

            “‘Nice’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. You need more words like, ‘nice, nice, nice, nice…’”

Craig ‘lost it.’ He stretched his mouth wide in a silent howl of agony and banged his head repeatedly against the ground.

“Oh, look, we’re hurting the nice boy’s head. I’m going to stop saying ‘nice’ now.”

“That’s nice of you.”

“Thank you. It’s nice of you to say so.”

Collette kept laughing. The more she laughed the more everyone else did. Even Craig couldn’t keep a straight face, although he made a valiant effort to make his laughter look like the product of insanity.

I was laughing so hard, it was a while before I noticed that there was someone watching us.

Cassie had arrived at our camp, holding two large baskets of saskatoons. She set them down in our midst and edged silently away.

            “Cassie.” I caught her eye. “Thanks.”

            “No problem,” said Cassie. She left.

            “Oh, nice!” Zack grabbed handfuls of saskatoons as the first basket was passed around. “Wet, squishy food! Yes!”

Somehow or other, the second basket had been left sitting next to Collette. Absent-mindedly, Collette trailed her fingers through the berries, her eyes on Majal who was using an empty cereal box to beat Zack off the berry basket he was hogging.

            I leaned back in a pile of leaves. My eyes roved lazily from face to smiling face. I closed my eyes and still I saw those faces. I let their voices wash over me like music.

            “Now I have a headache.”

            “That’s not nice.”

            “Shh!”

            “What?”

            “Look at James.”

            “Oh.”

“Aren’t we something? That’s two insomniacs conked in one

day.”

            <I applied no discourse to induce this outcome.>

            “Timmy, don’t use public thought-speech. James is sleeping…”

 

            My ears heard no more sounds. My mind heard no more thought-speech.

What I heard now was a voice that came from nowhere at all. It vibrated unbearably loud, “I’ll be right back,” and then died down in eerie echoes, “back, back, back, back…”

I chased after the retreating word; chased the voice into a blazing red fire. “Kelly! No! Don’t go that way!”

“Went that way,” said Kelly.

I searched the fire for her human face. But there was no one there. “Kelly!”

            “Now’s when you run,” said Kelly.

            The fire was spreading. I didn’t care. I walked purposefully into it. But every step only took me further and further from it. I was borne, as though on wings, to a place I couldn’t see, high up and far away. I looked down at the fire and saw fifteen human faces burning.

Jake was beside me, watching it with me. “I’m sorry it happened,” he said. “I’m not saying there’s anything I could have done about it.”

 

I felt a hand on my shoulder, shaking me. “James, wake up.”

            The dream faded fast as I recognised the voice. “Craig?” I said, thickly. “What time is it?”

            “Time to go,” said Craig.

My eyes snapped open. A heavy blanket fell off me as I stood up.

It was dark now. The moon was up. It cast a dim, blue light over the camp. Beds made up of numerous blankets were laid out alongside the tree trunks. There were sleepy people stirring and some still lying down.

            Collette was muttering in her sleep. “Kelly…wait…”

A few feet away, Chantel was dragging herself towards Collette.

Collette’s face twitched. Her eyes rolled wildly beneath her eyelids. Then, all at once, she let out a stifled scream and opened her eyes. She stared straight ahead, drawing in shuddering gasps of air.

In a moment, Collette sat up. She took each of her legs in her hands and moved them so that her back leaned against her tree trunk again. Chantel settled herself against Collette’s tree trunk too.

I knelt down beside them. “Bad dream?”

“Bad memory,” said Collette, shakily.

Chantel put her arm around Collette’s shoulders. She didn’t need to ask what that memory had been.

Collette rested her head against Chantel’s, taking deep, calming breaths. She wasn’t crying, but there was still a look in her eyes that worried me.

“Look, Collette,” I said, hesitantly. “We’d all understand…I mean, if you want to stay here, while we’re—”

“What?” Collette looked up at me with startling suddenness. “Me? Stay here and leave you all to fight for your lives? You think I’d do that?! You’re crazy!”

“What about food?” I asked. “You eaten any?”

“That packet of dried fruit mix, three hot rods, five granola bars and more than my fair share of saskatoons,” said Collette, throwing Erica a disgruntled look.

Erica nodded to confirm.

“So I’m going,” said Collette. It wasn’t a question.

            One by one, we completed our owl morphs.

            We left the Hork-Bajir valley behind in the night, with all its official occupants still sound asleep.

 

 

Chapter 19

Jake

                                                                                      DAY FIVE

            I knew I was asleep. I knew I was dreaming. But it was hard to hold on to the idea, because I was dreaming something that had actually happened.

 

            “Hey! Hey! Are you in there? Cassie!” I was stomping on the roof of a skunk burrow.

            <What?> she said.

            “It’s me, Jake. Cassie, get out of there. Now! You’ve been in morph for almost two hours!”

            She shot out of the burrow and began to de-morph.

            “What did you think you were doing?!” I yelled at her. “You were ten minutes away from spending the rest of your life as a skunk!”

            <I fell asleep,> said Cassie.

            “Are you out of your mind? What is the matter with you?” I was beyond mad.

            “Look, I’m sorry,” Cassie mumbled.

            “This is not why we have this ability. We are not trying to save every lost skunk in the world,” I ranted. “We are an army. A small, weak, pathetic, outnumbered army. We have exactly six members. Tobias has already been trapped in morph. But he was trapped fighting the Yeerks. I can’t believe you would nearly get yourself trapped in morph over some skunks!”

            “Jake?” said Cassie, hesitantly. “Um…my dad will have the skunk mother ready to be returned here in a day or so. I’m not going to just abandon these kits.”

            I glared at her. “You can’t stay in morph that long, and you know it.”

            “I know,” said Cassie. “But I have to make sure no predators come around. I have to get them food. And I have to morph at least some of the time, so they can imprint on their mother here in the wild. Look…I know it seems stupid to you and Marco and probably everyone. But I have to do this.”

            “Tobias will keep watch. We’ll work something out,” I said. “We’ll save the lousy skunks. After all, it’s not like we have anything else to do. Aside from saving the world.”

            “Thanks, Jake,” said Cassie. “And...sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. I’ll be okay now, I think.”

            I smiled. “I’ll be okay, too, Cassie. As long as you’re—”

 

            “—around.” The last word I heard myself say aloud. I was awake. I was in the cabin I shared with Marco’s family. In the small room where Marco and I slept.

Marco was on his feet, holding an open bag of Rice Krispies. “‘Around’ what? What did you say, Jake? Oh.” Marco stood over my bed. “You were sleeping?”

            “Yeah,” I said, coming slowly back to my senses. “Why, what am I supposed to be doing?”

            “Uh, today’s our suicidal mission, remember?” Marco pulled a sulky face. “It was supposed to be a big deal. You said ‘let’s book ourselves as Taxxon dinner at the Pool Ship to celebrate three happy years of not getting killed,’ and I said ‘Great. Looking forward to it.’ Don’t tell me you forgot.”

            “That’s now?” I gasped.

            “It is morning,” said Marco.

            “Morning,” I repeated, getting to my feet. “What’s our status? Is everyone awake? Did anyone check on…is anyone… Why wasn’t I awake?”

            “Relax, Sleeping Beauty,” said Marco. “Cassie was up early. She double-checked everything.”

            “Cassie…” I was mad at her. I tried to remember why. Because she almost got herself trapped in skunk morph? No. That wasn’t it.

            “Here.” Marco put his bag of Rice Krispies in my hands. “Just salivate really hard and maybe it’ll taste like milk.”

            “What did Cassie check on?” I asked.

            “You know,” said Marco. “Toby’s people, Hobster’s people, James’s—”

            And then I remembered. “Why does Cassie have to check on him?”

            “Because some of us need our beauty sleep,” Marco tucked me under the chin. “Anyway, everyone’s ready. So all you have to do is breakfast.” He pointed helpfully at the cereal bag in my hands.

            I sat down on the bed. “Cassie and I don’t save skunks anymore.”

“There’s also a packet of pancake mix powder if you’d rather have that,” said Marco.

“We stopped saving skunks,” I said. “I stopped and then she stopped and now we never can again.”

“So it’s dried apricots you’re after?” said Marco, wisely. “Don’t worry. I’ve got those too.”

“But I can’t just watch her save skunks with someone else.”

“I’m going to spoon feed you in a minute,” Marco threatened.

            “You wouldn’t dare.”

            Marco began to morph gorilla.

            “Okay!” I started stuffing my mouth with dry cereal.

            Marco laughed and abandoned his morph.

            “James doesn’t care about skunks,” I said between swallows. “He’d let them die. I know he would.”

Marco was looking at me with a half-amused, half-worried expression.

“I’m not crazy,” I choked.

            Marco handed me a water bottle. “I’ll back you up on that, even if they send me your committal papers.”

            I gulped down a few more handfuls of Rice Krispies with the help of the water.

            Then Marco’s parents came in. Peter and Eva, I called them.

            Peter put on his brave face. “Armed and ready?”

            “Armed to the teeth,” Marco plucked at his morphing outfit—skin-tight shorts and t-shirt.

            Eva was very tense. She knew better than anyone what Marco was about to face. “Remember, it’s only those control rooms I’ve told you about that you’ll need to go anywhere near. Take the short cuts. Don’t stop to investigate anything you don’t have to.”

“Check. No site-seeing,” said Marco.

            “You look after yourself,” said Peter. “You too, Jake,” he added.

            Eva sent me a polite smile, also.

            I wished they wouldn’t try.

            Eva turned back to Marco with genuine emotions. “If I could only be sure Ax knows as much about Yeerk vessels as he claims. But how can he, when even I can’t tell you enough to…Marco, it’s not enough.”

            Peter put his arm around her. “He’s been through worse.”

            Eva shook her head. “Not on the Pool Ship.”

            “Mom,” Marco spoke in an earnest tone I rarely heard him use. “It’s a two-way ticket. I promise.”

            The three of them looked at each other. The love in the room was like a knife carving a hole in my chest. Any minute now, the emptiness would overpower me.

            Marco’s mother hugged him and Marco hugged her back. His father placed a hand on each of their shoulders, loving and protective.

I left. No one noticed. Even if I had no one else to say good-bye to, Marco’s parents weren’t my parents. I didn’t need to be there.

I walked away from the cabin and stared out at an empty stretch of valley, trying not to think. I’d been doing that so often lately, it should have come easily. But I couldn’t block out these thoughts. I couldn’t help thinking them, here in the valley, living with Marco’s parents and longing for my own.

            Just over a month ago, my parents were taken. They were Controllers now. Like Tom. Tom had taken them. I’d arrived too late.

            Today, Tom would die, practically at my own hands.

I was past pretending that there was any other way. I couldn’t save Tom. My parents were the same story.

I’d already lost them. And almost everyone I had left, I was about to lose today.

“Hey.”

I looked around. Marco had found me. He came and stood beside me.

I turned back to the trees I’d been staring at. Marco looked at them too.

We stood in silence and I felt better, just having him there.

“You ready?” he said at last.

“Yeah,” I said, grimly. “Let’s get this over with.”

Marco led the way. We walked up a steep slope to where the Hork-Bajir were assembled. Erek was there with them.

“Free or dead!” Toby rallied her troops with the Hork-Bajir battle cry. The young and elderly Hork-Bajir who would be staying behind joined in the cheer.

Many tender good-byes were exchanged. Hork-Bajir clung to each other, held each other close, pressed their foreheads together. Eventually, the stay-at-home Hork-Bajir backed away, down the slope.

            The cheering stopped. Toby’s warriors stood silent on the hill, waiting.

            Toby squared her shoulders and nodded at the android standing beside them.

Erek covered them all in a holographic dust cloud, reaching from the ground to several feet above the tallest Hork-Bajir. The massive illusion sped out of the valley, looking innocently like dirt in the wind.

Hork-Bajir run like wolves and Erek can move ten times faster than that when he has to. They wouldn’t need much of a head start.

The Animorphs went next. I watched the others morph and fly away. Cassie. Tobias. Marco.

            I formed a mental image of a peregrine falcon and began to change. The bird’s sight and hearing kicked in before I was halfway morphed. From my vantage point on the hill, I could see most of our camp.

Ax was still there. I saw him stow a hand-held Andalite gadget in his scoop, before he began to morph. The device stirred something in my recent memory. Something that Marco had said. I was trying to remember when sounds coming from Rachel’s cabin drew my focus.

As I turned my head to look, Sara ran out of the cabin closely pursued by her mother, Naomi.

            “But, mommy, I want to see them fly away,” Sara panted, dancing out of Naomi’s reach. “Rachel’s the bald eagle, mommy, I can show you.”

            “You’ve seen Rachel fly before,” said Jordan from the cabin doorway.

            “But I want to see her fly now,” Sara whined.

            “They’re trying to mobilise,” said Jordan, bossily. “You’ll only get in the way.”

            Naomi picked Sara up and carried her kicking and screaming back to the cabin. “Stop that!” said Naomi. “Now don’t be silly, Sara. You can see Rachel when she gets back.”

Rachel’s little sister kept screaming. The more I listened the more the scream seemed to change. What was a tantrum echoed in my mind as something much worse.

My mental image of a peregrine falcon blurred. I lost control of my morph. Feathers popped out of human skin and sank back in. I shrank and then I grew. My beak morphed in and out of existence.

I saw Ax fly away. The others had gone ahead of him. I struggled to complete my morph. To shake Sara’s scream from my ears.

<Jake?> said Marco. <Are you coming or what?>

            <I’m mor—> my thought-speech cut out. “—phing,” I said with my human mouth.

            Sara stopped screaming.

            I made it halfway back to bird and then the morph reversed again.

            <I’m morphing,> I told Marco, before I lost my thought-speech.

<Well, hurry up,> said Marco. <We haven’t got all day.>

I tried to hold the morph still. It kept going back and forth. Bird. Human. Feathers. Skin. I couldn’t hold either image still in my mind. I had to find something that would make my mind still.

            Before I’d even tried, I thought of Cassie. I pictured her face, the way she’d looked at me when I’d said I would help her save the skunks. I imagined her voice. “Thanks, Jake.”

            Slowly, my morph lost its momentum and came to a stand still.

Slowly, I replaced Cassie’s face with the image of a peregrine falcon.

I started morphing in the right direction. Feathers sprouted. Talons appeared.

I kept Cassie’s voice playing in my head as the morph continued to progress. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I’ll be okay now.”

I finished the morph. I silenced the voice before a fresh wave of guilt could catch up with me.

For fifteen minutes I flew, with as blank a mind as I could manage.

Toby’s people were crouched behind the abandoned houses surrounding the Pool Ship.

Erek’s dust cloud was gone. Now he was projecting our cover: a Yeerk supply ship, about twice the size of a Bug Fighter. The hologram hovered halfway down the side of a tall building.

I spotted four birds on the roof of the building. Two ospreys. A red-tailed hawk. A northern harrier.

I landed on the roof. <Get ready to dive.>

<We’re not all here yet,> said Tobias.

The remark started a pressure in my chest. I don’t know

what I’d been expecting. But I hadn’t just staved off one guilt attack to be faced with another. <Once we’re inside the hologram, stay low until we enter the Pool Ship.>

Tobias turned his head to stare at me.

<Count of three,> I went on. <One, two…>

            <What, no ‘let’s do it’?> said Marco. <Aw, come on, Xena, we can’t do this without—> he broke off. <Wait. Where is Rachel?>

            <Like I said—> Tobias began.

<She’s on the back-up team,> I said. <Toby’s got Hork-Bajir round the other side of the Pool Ship. Rachel’s helping them.>

When no one said anything I felt the pressure in my chest double. <She’s been coaching their battle practice. They needed her to help out today. She morphed early and—> I stopped. I couldn’t tell from Tobias’s hawk stare whether or not I was convincing him.

I turned my eyes back to the holographic ship below. <One, two…>

<Let’s do it!> cried Marco. Then he winced. <It doesn’t sound right when I say it.>

<No,> Tobias agreed. I swear I could feel his eyes on me, even as we dove. His tone told me he wasn’t entirely reassured.

The air shimmered as we entered the hologram. Once inside, we were invisible to everyone on the outside. Our enemies, on the other hand, were completely visible to us. Slowly and carefully, Erek moved the hologram with us flying inside it. Roomy as the holographic ship was, it was a struggle to keep our wing tips from sticking out of the hull. Erek, meanwhile, had a million other things to worry about, steering the hologram clear of any solid object that would expose it as an illusion.

Tobias was silent as we passed safely over the Pool Ship’s guard. He was silent as we ducked under a descending Bug Fighter and veered for a docking port in the Pool Ship’s side.

The pressure in my chest had just begun to lessen when Tobias’s voice jumped abruptly into my head. <You said that Rachel’s on Toby’s team? She’s supposed to have morphed Hork-Bajir and gone with them, right?>

The docking port opened to receive us. I adjusted my wings to compensate for the change in air current, from outdoors to indoors.

<Well,> said Tobias, edgily. <Those Hork-Bajir stood on that hill in the valley for over two hours going through pre-battle rituals and I didn’t see a single new Hork-Bajir join them after they got started. If Rachel was with them she’d be trapped in morph by now.>

We entered the docking port. I kept my eyes peeled for Taxxons.

<She wouldn’t have done that,> Tobias persisted. <She can’t be round the other side of the Pool Ship either. That side’s got no cover.>

<Get ready to hit the ceiling,> I told him. <The hologram doesn’t go much farther.>

Tobias wasn’t diverted. <And if she were that close she’d be in thought-speech range, which she’s not.>

My stomach lurched. I knew where Rachel was. She was in thought-speech range. <Rachel?> I said.

Rachel answered. <All set here, Jake. Just tell me when.>

<Has Tobias been talking to you?> I asked.

<Yeah,> Rachel’s thought-speech voice was suddenly quivering with suppressed anger. <Honestly, Jake. ‘Hork-Bajir back-up team’? You really thought that through.>

<Can’t you tell him—> I began.

<No, I can’t!> Rachel exploded. <I can’t start talking to him. If he knows he can reach me, he’ll keep trying. I need him out. He’s making it…> She paused. <You’re just going to have to keep him on task, alright?>

<Alright,> I said, weakly. <I’ll figure something out.>

Rachel’s tone softened slightly. <We’ll win this war, Jake. Whatever else happens, we’ll win. That’s what matters.>

I turned my attention back to my physical surroundings. Our holographic ship glided a short distance across the docking bay floor and then disappeared. We’d gone unnoticed so far, but I heard the unmistakeable sounds of Taxxons somewhere nearby.

I flapped up to the ceiling.

Cassie, Marco and Ax followed my lead.

Tobias was paying less attention. He kept flying straight ahead, skimming the floor with his wing tips, swerving carelessly from side to side.

<Tobias, watch where you’re—>

<So Rachel’s out of thought-speech range and you can’t tell me why?> Tobias demanded. <Do you even know where she is?>

Obviously ‘no’ wasn’t going to help Tobias focus. And neither was the truth. <She’s got a back-up team at the military base,> I told him. <In case any Yeerks escape this area.>

Tobias still sounded suspicious. <Why didn’t you say that before?>

<Why don’t you get off my back?>

<I will,> said Tobias. <Just tell me where we’re meeting Rachel.>

<You shouldn’t be worrying about that now,> I said.

<Why not?> Tobias challenged.

<There’s a Taxxon behind you.>

Tobias swung his head around. In the time it took him to do that the Taxxon had slithered the length of the hallway.

I dropped to the floor and knocked Tobias out of the way.

Ax raked the Taxxon’s jelly eyes with his talons.

Tobias flapped up to the ceiling.

I skidded across the floor. The Taxxon’s gaping mouth bore down on me even as Ax continued to tear at its eyes.

Marco dove at the Taxxon and seized its tongue in his talons.

<Jake!> Cassie was beside me. I felt human hands underneath me, lifting me off the floor.

I gained altitude and looked down at Cassie’s human hands disappearing back into her bird body. She’d done it in the blink of an eye. Morphed human hands without changing a feather anywhere else on her body.

Marco yanked the Taxxon’s tongue clean out of its mouth and dropped the big, long, slimy thing with a shudder. <Yuck,> he commented.

Ax, too, seemed to have finished with his molesting. He flapped up and away from the mess he’d left of the Taxxon’s eyes.

<I’ve found the hatch,> said Tobias. <Get up here! There are more Taxxons coming!>

Taxxons swarmed the corridor, thick and fast. They were following the scent of their wounded fellow. Many desperate, salivating mouths fell upon the bleeding Taxxon, devouring him.

Taxxons who couldn’t get close enough aimed their greedy mouths instead at the retreating birds. With one swift rake of his talons, Ax secured us a second bleeding Taxxon to divert their appetites.

Marco went to help Tobias pry open the hatch in the ceiling. <Got it!>

<Hatches that such a primitive earth species can access,> Ax muttered contemptuously. <The Yeerks still have no appreciation for effective security.>

<Yeah and we’re real broken up about that,> said Marco.

<Watch who you’re calling primitive,> Tobias teased.

I was about to follow them through the hatch, when my mind froze in sudden horror.

Cassie had paused in mid-ascent. Her eyes were glazed over. She didn’t even twitch as the first Taxxon to give up on cannibalistic feasting noticed her.

<Cassie, Taxxon on your left!> I cried.

Cassie continued to hover where she was.

<Cassie!>

<Jake?> said Cassie, like she’d just noticed. <What did you say?>

<Taxxon!>

<Oh.> Cassie flapped out of the Taxxon’s reach and veered for the hole in the ceiling.

<Why didn’t you hear me the first time?> I demanded.

<I’m, uh, busy,> Cassie mumbled.

<Fine,> I snapped. <Next time I’ll let you get eaten.> <Okay,> said Cassie, distantly.

She wasn’t listening. I knew she wasn’t.

Ax led the way along the narrow, winding passageway above the docking port. He followed a series of colour-coded lights on the walls which he said indicated directions to different locations in the ship. <I only hope we do not attract Yeerk attention before I have the means to lock them out of the control room.>

<Seventy-six on the diversion team ought to steal the show,> said Marco.

<Sixty human soldiers?> Tobias surmised. <Isn’t that Hobster’s entire army?>

<That was the final count, right, Cassie?> said Marco.

<What?>

<General Hobster, when you checked on him this morning?>

<Yes,> said Cassie.

            <Prince Jake,> said Ax. <I believe we may encounter problems once we reach the—>

<So the military base is empty,> Tobias interrupted. <Jake? When are you going to tell me where Rachel really is?>

I ignored him.

<Jake!> Tobias yelled.

            I couldn’t take it. Couldn’t do anything but shut it all out. I flew straight ahead in a determined stupor. I had to get this done and every thought I allowed in my head made my world spin.

            I wanted my parents to tell me it was all a horrible dream. I wanted Tom to tell me I was being a sissy.

I wanted Sara to stop screaming. I wanted Rachel to stop dying. I wanted Tobias to stop worrying.

And no matter how hard I tried not to, I wanted to know who Cassie was talking to.

 

 

Chapter 20

James

            <We’re in,> said Cassie. <I think the Blade Ship’s docked somewhere nearby. Are you all onboard?>

            <A flea can’t tell,> I said. <But it looked like the right place the last time we de-morphed.>

            <Ax said that the main floor would have multi-textured panelling,> Cassie reminded me.

            <Yeah.> I looked around at the blank blur of nothingness. <That should be where we are now. We lost our original ride. Had to hitch-hike the first Controllers who stayed still long enough to jump onto. But as long as they’re here, they’re part of Tom’s crew, right?>

<Not necessarily,> said Cassie. <According to Ax, there are still maintenance workers who will be going back and forth between the Blade Ship and the Pool Ship.>

<Ah,> I said, uncomfortably. <That complicates things.>

<You said you’re on more than one Controller?> said Cassie, sounding panicked. <What happened to staying together?>

<Been meaning to tell you about that,> I said. <We made this discovery about sixteen fleas on one person: it makes the person itchy.>

<Oh,> said Cassie. <I guess that was a bad situation for you?>

<The guy got kinda ticked off,> Andrew confirmed.

<‘Wretched parasites! They’re eating me alive! Oh, make it stop!’> Tricia elaborated.

<He totally overreacted,> said Shawn.

<It’s not like we’re enjoying the blood-sucking,> asserted Judy. <It’s the grossest thing I’ve ever done.>

<It would be so much cooler if we were vampires,> Liam reflected.

<Thanks, guys, for the…contributions,> I said. <Cassie, you still there?>

<Yes,> said Cassie. <But I have to de-morph now. We’re in the control room.>

<Will you be in contact later?> I asked.

No answer.

<Cassie?>

<Sorry. Jake’s…> Cassie sounded distracted. <I have to de-morph. I don’t know when I can…but I’ll get back to you.>

<Okay,> I said.

I wondered whether or not Cassie was in trouble at the other end for not paying attention. I knew it must be hard for her, keeping up with her own mission while trying to help us with ours. She wasn’t complaining, but then Cassie never complained, even when the rest of my team felt the need to fill her in on the less-vital details of our adventures.

I couldn’t exactly blame them. We’d spent most of the morning in flea morph. It was a fairly nerve-racking experience in itself. And to make matters worse, we’d exhausted every possible form of entertainment.

Five minutes after we lost contact with Cassie, the group had fallen into its usual cycle of hopeless boredom.

<Any ideas?> said Collette, wearily.

<Knock, knock,> said Judy.

            <No!> several people groaned.

            <Any minute now, I’m going to ask Chantel to start singing Broadway tunes again,> said Majal.

            <The hills are alive—> sang Chantel.

            <Not yet,> said Majal.

            <Think we could verbalise a card game?> Liam suggested.

            <Right,> said Andrew, testily. <I have a royal flush and you have two high. Game over!>

            <Your methods of mental occupation refute the seriousness of our mission,> said Timmy.

            <I suppose you’re passing the time in a more dignified manner?> said Erica.

<Indeed, I am contemplating our current physiology. Quite apart from the fact that we are less than three millimetres long and weigh only one-millionth of a pound, it is the fact that our viscera—>

<Now, Chantel!>

<—with the sound of music…>

I left them to it. I was busy enjoying my ‘method of mental occupation’: paranoia.

            I had every fear a human flea usually has. What if we overdosed on a blood vessel? What if our host broke out the flea powder?

            And on top of that, every fear a human flea in unusual circumstances has. What if our host got vaporised or eaten by Taxxons? What if we had to de-morph in a room full of Controllers?

            It was nothing to what had been going on in my head earlier that morning. The fact that we had made it so far was a boost for hope.

I nevertheless made of point of bringing us all back to reality between songs.

            <If this is the main floor we have no way of knowing,> I said as Chantel finished. <Does anyone remember seeing multi-textured panelling when we de-morphed?>

            <Right,> Jesse snorted. <Architecture was all I could think about while you were screaming, ‘Morph! Morph! If they see us we’re dead!’>

            <We don’t even know if we’re heading in the right direction,> said Chantel.

            <I’ll de-morph and take a look around,> Erica volunteered.

            <You can’t do that!> cried Collette.

<You’d need to be human to climb up those tunnel ladders between floors,> said Liam. <Unless anyone has a monkey morph?>

            <My gorilla,> Raymond offered.

<That is a species of ape and ought not to be, even inadvertently, referred to as a monkey,> Timmy pointed out.

            <And it’s too big,> added Judy.

            <So I’ll go human,> said Erica. <I’ll find a populated level then spy on the Controllers until I know who’s headed for the bridge.>

<No way,> said Craig. <It’s too dangerous.>

            <James?> Erica asked.

            <I don’t like you out of contact,> I said.

            <That can’t be helped,> said Erica.

            It was true. We needed someone to take the risk. Someone with a human body that could climb ladders. Only two other options: me or Craig. I was always more comfortable with it being me. But I knew Erica to be the one that any goal-focused leader would choose.

            <I can morph once I’m close enough to eavesdrop,> Erica pressed. <I’ll contact you then.>

            <Ten minutes,> I told her. <Or we’re coming out of hiding.>

            <Understood.>

Somewhere way beyond my powers of vision, Erica was moving as far as she could from human body heat.

De-morphing was always a risk, but we had managed so far. The ship had enough empty rooms to suggest that its full crew was not yet onboard. Using the flea’s heat sense, we found these rooms and de-morphed unnoticed.

Travelling in human form, Erica was in even greater danger. On the other hand, she was getting an early release from the world of dandruff.

            The rest of us had about half an hour to kill.

            <Someone tell a joke,> Craig ordered.

<I’ve got one,> said Zack. <What do you call a creature with an ego a million times its size?>

<A Helmacron,> said Collette.

<No, not—> Zack stopped. <What?>

<Helmacrons,> said Collette. <They’re the size of ants and they think they’re the masters of the universe.>

<That’s not the answer,> said Zack. <It’s—>

<Where’d you hear about Helmacrons?> Raymond asked Collette.

<It just came up once…talking.>

<Marco,> Diondra translated.

<So I’m guessing the word used to describe Helmacrons was ‘insane’?> said Tricia.

            <Well, they are,> Collette defended. <They say the craziest things.>

<You’re stealing my thunder,> Zack complained.

<Sorry,> said Collette.

Zack abandoned his sulk instantaneously. <What kind of things do Helmacrons say?>

<Oh, things like: ‘be crushed beneath our feet’ or ‘tremble before our unstoppable might,’> said Collette.

<And they’re ant size?> Raymond whistled. <Sounds like they’ve got issues.>

<Their grandiose perception of reality obscures their awareness of altitudinal limitations,> Timmy agreed.

<What do they look like?> asked Judy.

<They’re blue with flat heads and little green marble eyes balanced on top,> answered Collette.

<That is too cool,> said Shawn.

Jesse made a disbelieving noise. <I bet Marco made that up.>

<Maybe,> Collette conceded. <I’ll check with Cassie sometime.>

There was a moment’s silence.

<I’m alive,> Erica reported. <No further information so far.>

<Thank you,> I said.

Another silence.

<I spy?> Judy suggested.

<Yeah right,> said Majal.

<Aaahh!> yelped Zack. <I’ve got an earthquake happening here. Does anyone else feel that?>

<I believe that the entity on which you are stationed has revived his attempts to alleviate the irritation caused by your parasitic habits,> said Timmy.

<Was that ‘yes’ or ‘no’?> Zack wondered.

<You’re being scratched again,> Collette explained.

<Oh, man,> said Zack. <That’s just no fun.>

<Wuss,> sneered Andrew. <Take it like a flea.>

<Hey, pal, I’m twice the flea you are.>

I stopped listening. It had just occurred to me that Erica wouldn’t know where to find us once she’d figured out where we needed to go. She didn’t usually forget to work out those complications beforehand. But then neither did I.

            When I tuned back in, Andrew and Zack were still going at it.

<You know I’m the toughest flea there ever was,> said Andrew. <You’re just jealous.>

<You dare insult me!> cried Zack. <My all-powerful flea hairs tower above your insignificant stubble! So, tremble before my unstoppable might!>

<No, you tremble before my—>

<Quit fooling around,> I snapped. <We need to focus.>

<Relax,> said Majal.

<Not likely,> I countered.

<I’ve booked us new transit,> called Erica. <A couple of Controllers are due on the bridge in about an hour and a half. They’re sitting down to eat first.>

<Good,> I said. <Can you make it back to, uh, wherever it is we are?>

<You’re in the cargo bay,> said Erica. <I can see your Controllers from here.>

<How can you—> I stopped in sudden suspicion. <What are you?>

<I’m a mouse,> Erica admitted. <I’ve got pretty decent eyesight.>

<A mouse?> I repeated in alarm.

<I couldn’t go any smaller,> said Erica, defensively. <How did you expect me to pick up on anything with flea senses?>

<I thought you’d morph fly,> I said.

<Wait,> said Liam. <Erica’s a mouse? Mouse was an option? We could’ve been mice this entire time?>

<No!> I said, sharply. <We are still on a Controller-populated vessel here. Controllers. As in ‘if it’s suspicious it could be an Animorph and it must die.’ We. Are. Not. Morphing. MICE!>

<Whoever’s stressing James out, please stop,> said Majal.

<It was Liam’s fault,> Diondra decided.

<What did I do?> said Liam, blankly.

<You’re doing it now,> Jesse accused.

<Yeah,> said Shawn. <Stop…being yourself.>

I laughed. It was probably out of nerves.

<You need to jump now,> said Erica.

<You’re in the cargo bay too?> I checked. <Our Controllers are leaving and there aren’t any others hanging around?>

Erica sighed exasperatedly. <That’s why I said: jump!>

We did. Like only a flea can, I sprang out into a cold, bloodless world, away from human body heat.

<Clear,> said Erica. <You can de-morph.>

I didn’t question her assurance. But I wasn’t ready to de-morph. I hadn’t seen us all together since the last time we’d de-morphed. My mind was fully occupied with the usual urgent question. <Craig—>

<We’re de-morphing,> said Craig.

<You’ve got everyone?> I checked.

<So they say.>

<Erica?> I asked.

<Everyone’s reported in.>

I de-morphed.

            I barely registered the cargo bay we were in before I started counting off names. I saw Erica and Majal in the corner across from me. Raymond and Tricia had settled themselves against the far wall. I kept counting, name by name. Shawn. Zack. Craig. Halfway through I knew that something was wrong. Diondra and Chantel were by a shelf of metallic boxes. Judy and Andrew a few boxes down from them. Then there was Jesse, Timmy, Liam…

            Then I realised. The others had realised too.

            “Where’s…”

“Collette!”

“What the—”

“How—”

“Erica, didn’t you...?”

The colour drained from Erica’s face. “She answered just a minute ago. She said she was here.”

Craig was walking all around the cargo bay, checking behind every obscuring object. The rest of the group exchanged fearful looks, wondering what to do. Craig came back with the answer in his face: panic.

I morphed to lion as fast as I could. <Collette!>

<What?> said Collette. <I’m de-morphing.>

            <You’re not here!> I exclaimed.

<Sure I am,> said Collette. <I’m next to the big yellow stick things. You know, they look like those antennae spears on Bug Fighters.>

I looked hopelessly around at the plain, grey boxes that filled the cargo bay. <That’s not here!>

<My thought-speech is about to cut out,> said Collette.

<You have to tell me where you are,> I demanded.

<I don’t know. I’ve never been—> Collette stopped talking.

It took me five whole seconds to remember that it was because she was too human to use thought-speech.

<Cassie?> I called, struggling to keep the panic out of my voice. <If you have a second, any ideas on where the Yeerks store their spare Bug Fighter parts?>

 

 

Chapter 21

Jake

Cassie got a startled look on her face and began morphing to wolf.

            “Cassie, what’re you—” I started to ask.

            “I need thought-speech,” said Cassie, distractedly.

“Why?”

“I need to talk to Ax,” said Cassie.

We were in the control room. A small room tucked into the crook of one of the Pool Ship’s spider-like legs. Inside there was only one console in the middle of the floor and three hatches against the back wall. A doorless arch opened into one other room containing a second console.

As usual, Cassie’s actions were a mystery to me. Ax was only in the next room. Closer even than shouting distance. Using thought-speech to talk to him seemed…

<Rachel’s still not in thought-speech range,> said Tobias.

“I told you,” I snapped at him. “You don’t need to keep checking.” I knew that Rachel was going through more emotional turmoil than she could stand, refusing to answer Tobias’s hails.

<If you don’t know where she is, someone needs to try to figure it out,> Tobias retorted.

I sighed in exasperation.

Once Tobias had decided that Rachel couldn’t possibly be in any of the places I’d claimed, I’d had no choice but to invent a more believable story. I told him that I didn’t know where Rachel was and that I’d lied so that he wouldn’t worry about it until after the mission. If I thought that this would make him worry less, I was dead wrong.

Tobias was now summoned to help Ax with something in the next room. Hopefully, it would put him off calling to Rachel for a while.

Cassie was in wolf morph, supposedly ‘talking to Ax.’

I glanced suspiciously from her to the next room before turning to Marco. “Three tunnels outta here, right?”

“My mom had them labelled in her sketches,” Marco pointed over at the three hatches. “That first one leads to other control rooms, the third one takes you out into the main corridors, and the one in the middle is a direct route to the bridge.”

<What about the Blade Ship?> asked Cassie. <Where do they keep spare parts?>

Marco frowned. “Huh?”

<Ship parts,> said Cassie.

“For building or fixing ships?” Marco surmised. “That kind of stuff doesn’t travel around with small ships.”

<Then it’s not on the Blade Ship?> said Cassie.

“What’s not?” said Marco.

<Storage,> said Cassie.

“Well, that’s everywhere.”

<On the Pool Ship?>

“Yeah.”

“What are you two doing?” I demanded.

“I dunno,” Marco shrugged. “She started it. Hey, what’s

that?” he added as I started to say something to Cassie. He moved over to the first console. “Looks like Ax has got us sensors for the floor below. There’s something funny happening down there.”

“What?” I said, looking over Marco’s shoulder.

“They’ve got damage reports coming in,” said Marco. “Security’s after people inflicting deliberate damage to the ship’s equipment.”

            “Sabotage?” I said, blankly. “Toby’s people aren’t aboard.”

            “There are only Controllers in that area,” Marco confirmed.

            “Well, what does that mean?”

<Traitors,> Cassie whispered.

I spun around. “What?”

<Visser One wanted Tom to destroy ‘the traitors.’ It was the mission he sent Tom on with the original Blade Ship. Visser One is afraid of ‘the traitors.’ He gave Tom a second chance, because he believes that Tom can stop them.>

            “What?” I spluttered. “When did—”

            <James overheard it that night he saw Visser One and Tom talking,> Cassie explained.

            “James only told us that Visser One gave Tom a new ship,” I protested. “He was too busy jumping down our throats to tell us anything else.”

<He told me,> said Cassie.

I could feel my face burning. “James told you?”

Cassie appeared not to have heard me. <It’s the Yeerk Peace Movement. It must be. I can’t believe I didn’t think of it until now.>

“What else has James told you that you haven’t told me?” I demanded.

<She’s safe,> said Cassie. <She’ll be safe there as long as—>

“Who?”

<Oh, not you,> said Cassie in alarm. <Sorry. I meant—>  She broke off.

“Cassie, what—”

<Ja—> Cassie jerked away from the word very suddenly.  <Jake, please, not now.>

I threw my hands in the air. “Why is now so important?”

<An Andalite vessel has just emerged from Zero Space,> Ax announced.

“Well, that’s one answer.” Marco grabbed my arm and dragged me to where Ax was standing by the second console.

Tobias was perched there, gazing intently at the data on the screen.

Ax’s many-fingered Andalite hands moved agitatedly across the panel. I noticed that he wasn’t pressing any buttons.

“Aren’t you going to hail them?” I asked.

<I will, Prince Jake.> Ax’s hands fidgeted worse than ever. <I am, as of yet, uncertain what to say.>

Marco narrowed his eyes. “What’s wrong with ‘Welcome to

Earth. The fight against the bad guys is down the hall and to your left’?”

<I do not believe that they are here to aid our efforts,> said

Ax, shiftily.

            Marco and I exchanged wary looks. Tobias continued to stare at the data screen above the console.

<I have…been in contact with Andalite High Command,>

said Ax. <I thought to acquire their assistance—>
            “And you got it?” Marco surmised.

“A virus?” I asked.

            <No.> Ax scuffed his hooves in great discomfort. <Andalite High Command wants to eliminate all possibility of Yeerk survival in this system. They are under the impression that their attack on the Hork-Bajir home world was a flawed cleansing, because it allowed for survivors. In this second attack—>

            “AX!” My impatience boiled over. “What are they going to do?”

            <They have been developing full-scale planetary explosives,> answered Ax.

            I was positive that every organ in my body had just stopped functioning.

            Marco was trembling with mingled fury and terror.

<I have been attempting to dissuade them,> said Ax.

Attempting?” I repeated.

<It’s not his fault,> said Tobias.

I rounded on him. “You knew about this?”

“Told you he would.” Marco’s eyes flashed angrily from Ax to Tobias and back again. “Even world annihilation isn’t enough to override alien/bird-boy confidentiality? You’d rather watch Earth get blasted—”

<You want to shut up now,> Tobias snapped.

Ax said, <My chances of dissuading Andalite High Command are greater than they were. Now that we have access to the Yeerks’ largest remaining Yeerk pool—>

“Now you have a plan?” I exploded. “What were you going to do if they’d shown up yesterday and blown us all up in our sleep? You do not keep things like this from us, not ever! You want to play around with Andalite High Command’s moral education; you do it on your own planet!”

Tobias glared at me.

Ax hung his head. His tail sagged; I heard the blade on the end scrap the floor. <I am sorry, My Prince. I sought only to end this outrage before it could incite much fear…or shame.>

Both he and Tobias were silent for a moment. I suspected that private thought-speech passed between them.

            Then Ax said, <I withheld vital information, Prince Jake. I endangered your people. All I would dare ask of you now is that you trust me enough to make amends.>

<Of course he trusts you,> said Tobias, still glaring at me.

            <Tobias…> Ax chided. The Andalite turned to me with his steady, solemn gaze, requesting judgement.

            I jerked my head at the red-tailed hawk perched on the console. “What he said.”

            Ax smiled his strange Andalite smile using only his eyes.

            “We need someone in the upper control room,” I ordered. “Tobias?”

            <Yeah,> he said.

            Ax opened the first hatch and Tobias flew through it. He was headed for the next floor where there was a control room with better access to internal sensors.

            Ax went back to work on the console. <The Pool Ship’s anti-tampering systems are more effective than I anticipated,> he said, uneasily. <The computer wipes data from the screen almost as fast as I access it.> With the tip of his tail blade, Ax carved a combination of letters and numbers into the side of the console. <I may have need of it later,> he explained.

            “You can still do it, right?” said Marco. “Before the diversion gets here?”

            I peered through the control room window. “They’re on their way. I can see the elephant from here.”

            <You’ve been detected,> said Tobias, from his station on the floor above. <There’s a group of Controllers headed your way. They haven’t noticed the diversion.>

            I looked at Ax. “You blocked their external sensors?”

            <No,> he said. <It must be a malfunction. The sensors aren’t picking up on the diversion at all.>

            “Better keep it that way,” said Marco, tensely. “We’re not ready for them yet.”

            “We don’t need to divert Yeerk attention until it becomes absolutely necessary,” I agreed.

            “And not until Ax has control of the Pool Ship’s weapons,” said Marco.

            “Right,” I said.

            Marco turned to Cassie. “Ask Tobias if—”

            <What?> Cassie jerked out of her trance. <Why me?>

“You’re morphed.”

<I’m busy,> said Cassie.

“Doing what?” I asked, sharply.

<Oh, God,> Cassie gasped. <It’s not just one place is it? It could be anywhere that they store anything.>

My face was getting hot again. My breathing more rapid. “Look, I don’t know what you—”

<I’m losing the data links up here,> called Tobias.

            <The codes have changed,> Ax muttered. His stalk eyes scanned the screen while his main ones focused on his hands on the console. <This station is likewise losing its connections.>

            I took a deep, steadying breath. “What can you do?”

Ax left the console. <I will proceed down the third exit aperture.>

            “But that one—”

            <Leads to better connected areas.> Ax opened the third hatch. <My efforts from here are being blocked.> He waited with one hoof inside the hatch.

            I nodded. “Go.”

            Ax went.

            For several tense moments, we waited.

            Tobias’s voice broke the silence. <Forget what I said about those Controllers headed your way. They got halfway along that third tunnel and were shot down by another group of Controllers. Ax saw it happen. The shooters let him pass.>

The Yeerk Peace Movement, Cassie had said. I looked over at her – a wolf standing still and silent in a corner of the room. She’d said other things. Nothing I had understood. Nothing she felt like telling me either.

Marco was getting restless. He paced the small room and flexed his hands in and out of fists. “Come on, come on, come on, come on.”

            “Ax needs more time,” I told him.

            “We don’t have time!”

            “You don’t need to freak—”

            “I’m not!” Marco looked sharply at the approaching diversion. He started morphing gorilla, snapped the morph back to human and started pacing again. “See?” he said shakily. “I don’t need to do that.”

            <YOU ARE BEHIND SCHEDULE,> Visser One’s public thought-speech blew in our minds like a foghorn. He was on the bridge, talking to his crew. But he rarely bothered to shut anyone out when he spoke. <WE ARE NOT WAITING ANY LONGER.>

            Marco shot another glance out the window. “Ax, now would be good.”

            <GET THIS SHIP IN ORBIT,> Visser One ordered his crew.

            <I have opened the exterior doors,> said Ax.

            “Doors?” Marco sounded hysterical. “You’re worried about doors? Visser One’s still got the weapons. Ax!”

            “He can’t hear you,” I said.

Marco rounded on Cassie. “What the hell is he doing?”

            <He’s working on it,> said Cassie, in a moment. <There’s a code for every system on the ship. Weapons are encoded beneath several other systems.>

            “No,” Marco whispered.

Eva had said that the codes would change. She had not said that they would also be buried. This was a new development in security. Something that she had not anticipated.

            <Toby’s got all her people aboard,> said Tobias, from his observation station on the floor above. <Erek’s here too.>

            <I DON’T CARE WHO WE’VE LEFT OUTSIDE,> declared Visser One. <TAKE US UP.>

It was impossible to feel the enormous ship move, but the data screen over the console projected a confirmatory image.

“We’re lifting off,” I noted.

            “No,” said Marco. “What about engines, Ax, can you—” He turned to Cassie. “Can he?”

            Cassie was silent.

            “Hey!” Marco yelled at her.

            <Ax can’t get at the engines,> she said. <He’s got to decrypt sensors first.>

            “Right.” Marco swung his fist into the wall. “Decrypt sensors, so we can sense the way Visser One’s gonna stomp all over us.”

            “Ax will figure out the engines,” I said. “Even if the ship makes it to orbit, Ax can take it down again.”

            Marco stared at me. “Orbit?” He laughed. It was a very ugly laugh. “Animorphs on the ground. Dracon beams up here. Don’t you think there’s maybe one tiny, little thing Visser One might feel like doing before he parks?!”

            <Toby’s people are fighting their way to the bridge,> said Tobias. <They can’t possibly lock those Controllers down in quarters while Ax has no control over the interior doors. Jake, they’re killing. When Erek sees…>

            “When Erek sees that containing the Controllers never was the plan…” I muttered to Marco.

            Marco wasn’t listening. He’d gone over to the control room’s narrow window. He pressed the side of his face up against it.

<I have managed to clear Tobias’s station for external sensor use,> Ax reported. <The data he’s sent me indicates Andalite High Command’s vessel to be within firing range of Earth.>

“Ask him how soon,” I said to Cassie.

She showed no sign of having heard me.

“Cassie, did you—”

<I’m asking,> said Cassie, tersely.

<If they so choose, it will be now,> came Ax’s reply. <My attempts to hail them—>

            <No luck so far,> Tobias muttered.

            My tensed muscles hit a new level of taut.

            <I mean Rachel,> said Tobias. <She’s got to be somewhere looking for us. Maybe getting closer all the time. But she’s still not in thought-speech range.>

The fingernails digging into the palms of my hands were close to drawing blood. I had my teeth locked together to keep from screaming. All I needed now was for Rachel to tell me to keep Tobias out of her head and I’d lose control completely.

“Tell Tobias to focus on planetary bombing,” I yelled at Cassie.

<Can’t you morph?> Cassie yelled back. <Tell him yourself!>

Cassie yelling at all was a shock to me. Thought-speech yelling inside my head made it even scarier.

“What, are you still talking to Ax?” I asked more quietly. “Just tell him to—”

            <No!> Cassie yelled. <Not Ax too! Tell him yourself!>

            I felt blood rush to my head. “Tobias…Ax…” Blood pounded in my ears. “You need me to talk to Tobias and Ax? Who else are you talking to?!”

            Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Marco move away from the window. “They’re too close. Jake—”

            “Is it James?” I yelled at Cassie. “You’re talking to James? Whose side are you on?”

            <I don’t want there to be any sides!> Cassie yelled.

            “So there are sides?” I demanded.

            “Jake.” Marco was talking at my back. “James’s people, they’re—”

            “They’re doing their job,” I said, still looking at Cassie.

 “When you say sides—”

            “What is wrong with you?” Marco’s tone yanked me out of my thoughts as painfully as a noose around my neck.

I turned to him.

“This was the plan?” he ranted. “Diversionary tactics means sixteen dead Animorphs? That’s them doing their job?!

“Marco, I—”

            “Or is this about James? Your psychotic issues with him lately? You want him gone and you don’t care who gets gone with him?”

I stared at Marco, unable to believe what I’d just heard. “You can’t possibly think—”

“I don’t know what to think, Jake.” Marco’s voice had a dangerous edge to it. “I thought I just heard you say they’re expendable.”

“I didn’t say that,” I said hoarsely.

I’d been so angry. Now, I just felt faint. Marco couldn’t be looking at me like that. Like he didn’t trust me. It was as if the ground had fallen out from under my feet.

Meanwhile, Cassie’s yellow wolf eyes snapped in and out of focus. <If the storage alcoves are all over the ship—>

<Erek won’t co-operate until Toby’s people hold off on the slaughter,> Tobias said to me. <I don’t know what to tell him. You never told me we weren’t locking these Controllers down in quarters.>

<The alcoves,> said Cassie, desperately. <Does anyone know?>

<WHAT’S OUT THERE?> Visser One’s public thought-speech boomed. <DON’T TELL ME YOUR SENSORS AREN’T WORKING!>

            <I have full control of the Pool Ship’s sensors,> Ax reported.

            “Okay.” Marco braced two shaky hands against the console. “Now see if you can do something about the windows before—”

Visser One’s gleeful laughter filled our heads. <ANIMORPHS! AND A HUMAN ARMY WITH THEM! LOOK HOW MANY!>

Marco’s knuckles went white.

<GIVE ME TACTICAL,> roared Visser One. <I WILL BE THE ONE TO MAKE THEM BURN!>

“I’m cutting him off at the bridge.” Marco started prying at the control room’s central hatch.

The ground seemed to recede even further under my feet. Marco wasn’t reckless. Not ever.

The wolf standing off to the side twitched. <No…Marco…> Cassie sounded like she was having trouble keeping us in focus. <…they’ll be okay.>

            Marco shot her a furious look. “Now what are you talking about?”

            <Erek’s not going to help us,> Tobias reported. <He’s threatening to leave.>

            Marco opened the hatch.

            Cassie jerked her grey, shaggy head towards him. <Don’t.>

            “You want to let them die too?” Marco demanded.

<You don’t understand,> said Cassie.

She started to say more but her words were drowned out by Visser One’s next tirade of thought-speech. <WHAT’S TAKING SO LONG? THOSE ANIMOPRHS WON’T KILL THEMSELVES. TAKE US HIGHER!>

<I am tapping into the engines,> said Ax. <I need the access code I marked on your console earlier.>

Marco pulled his legs out of the hatch and dashed over to the console. “NineBZeroTTwoOneVio. Cassie?”

Cassie started. <What was it?>

“Nine. B. Zero. T. Two. One. Vio.” said Marco through gritted teeth.

<I’ll tell Ax,> she said.

            Thirty seconds passed. The rising Pool Ship came to a halt about fifty feet above the ground. Not as high as the Visser had intended to go, but still high enough to give the ship’s Dracon cannons a decent aim at the Animorph army below.

            “Down,” Marco said to Cassie. “How about down?”

            <There has to be a way to tell the storage alcoves apart,> said Cassie. <Ax didn’t say, did he?>

            Marco’s face reddened. “Would you tell Ax—”

            <My codes have been countermanded,> said Ax. <The engines are no longer under my control. I can’t access the weapons either.>

            “Back to plan a,” said Marco, tersely.

My already over-hyped adrenaline system flooded with panic as Marco moved once more towards the hatch.

“Marco!” I grabbed his arm.

He wrenched it loose. His eyes were very cold. “Don’t touch me, Jake. Don’t ever touch me.”

I felt the last of my strength leave me. My knees buckled. I dug my fingers into a weapon rack behind me and held on. I leaned my whole weight against the wall. All I could think about was breathing.

<Erek’s gone,> said Tobias.

            <The Pool Ship has resumed its ascent,> Ax announced.

<I need to know where—> Cassie began.

            “Cut it out!” Marco’s words tumbled from him in a mad rush. “We don’t care about your stupid storage alcoves. We have to save Col—James’s people. Hobster. God, Cassie! Don’t you know what’s going on?”

 

 

Chapter 22

James

<I guess Cassie’s told you?> said Collette. <Turns out I’m on the Pool Ship.>

            <Yeah,> I said. <Pretty big place to be lost in. Cassie said she was trying to narrow it down, but uh…>

            <Give her a minute,> said Collette. <I think she’s a little distracted just now.>

            <Multitask-thought-speech stress,> Timmy surmised.

            <Wow,> said Diondra. <That sounds like an actual thing. Like something out of a psychology textbook.>

<Multitask-thought-speech stress,> said Raymond, thoughtfully. <M.T.S. for short.>

<All those people talking in your head at once,> Judy speculated. <Like thoughts you can’t control. Plus everyone who’s not morphed trying to talk to you on the outside of your head.>

<Right,> said Liam, guiltily. <And on top of Jake’s team, in different places, she’s got the sixteen of us.>

<I’d grant her an M.T.S. bracelet,> said Chantel.

<Provided she exhibited symptoms severe enough to warrant medical attention,> Timmy mused. <Although initial signs, such as headaches and disorientation, may be associated with any number of common ailments, M.T.S. would be specifically indicated through the patient’s divided attention, distracted responses and misdirected addresses among her thought-speech correspondents. Left unchecked said condition would accelerate to include emotional affliction, sentence fragmentation, identity confusion—>

<—and total loss of sanity,> Jesse concluded.

            <So,> I said, loudly. <How about we maintain thought-speech silence until Cassie’s ready to—>

            <I think I’ve got something,> said Cassie.

            <Speedy recovery,> said Tricia, admiringly.

<No way,> said Shawn. <People don’t just snap out of M.T.S. without—>

<Guys, later in your Animorph discovery journals, please,> I said. <Go on, Cassie.>

<I’ve got inventory records on the computer here,> said Cassie. <There are Bug Fighter parts in every storage alcove on deck ten. That deck’s got the Yeerk pool on it, but it’s four floors below the bridge. So it’s not as dangerous as it could be.>

<But it is dangerous?> I said, anxiously. <How often do people go into those alcoves?>

<I don’t know,> said Cassie. <I guess not too often if it’s only spare parts.>

<There are Dracon beams here too,> Collette reported.

<Those hand-held ones that the Hork-Bajir guards use.>

<What?> I felt a jolt of panic. <Why didn’t you say—>

<I just noticed,> said Collette.

<You shouldn’t be noticing things now!> I exclaimed.

<I’m in crocodile morph,> said Collette.

<Not if Hork-Bajir guards show up, you’re not,> I said, more harshly than I’d intended. <Get small. Stay hidden. Cassie,> I added. <How far are you from deck ten?>

<It’s two floors up from where we…> Cassie trailed off in sudden horror. <I am…Marco!>

<Can you get there if Collette needs help?> I pressed.

<What was that about Marco?> asked Collette.

<Were his descriptions regarding the Helmacron species based upon a factual encounter?> asked Timmy.

<He’s...he’s gone to…> Cassie struggled to focus on Collette’s question. <It’s okay…Jake will…stop him…he’ll...> she paused. <What?>

<The alleged existence of—>

<Hello!> said Chantel to Timmy. <Where were you when we discussed causes and symptoms? Quit making her M.T.S. worse!>

<Security closet,> Cassie murmured. <Spare parts in the back…I’ve got it. I can get there. I can go right now.>

<I don’t need help,> Collette protested.

<Go,> I told Cassie.

Collette argued, but in the end it was fifteen against one.

Cassie set off for deck ten.

<It’s not like the Yeerks have any idea that I’m here,> Collette grumbled.

<And if that changes, Cassie’s on standby,> I said. <Unless you’d rather we try busting our way over?>

<Alright,> Collette sighed. <I’ll deal.>

<Much appreciated,> I said.

We drifted into another dull, weary silence. Collette had nothing more to tell us about her situation and we certainly had nothing new to tell her about ours. The two Controllers we had boarded a few minutes ago were no more exciting than the last ones and, as some people felt the need to point out, no more hospitable either.

<Taxi drivers at least will talk to you sometimes, or turn on the radio.>

<You’re a flea, Raymond, you have no ears.>

<It’s the thought that counts.>

<This is more like a bus ride, isn’t it? Bus drivers don’t talk to their passengers.>

<The cool ones do Bus Idol.>

<What’s Bus—>

<Ahhhhh!> Zack’s scream put an end to the conversation.

Why he screamed was apparent before anyone needed to ask.

<Earthquake!>

<More like a volcano!>

<It’s too big! I’m too small!>

<Stop! Stop! Why, why, WHY is he scratching so hard?!>

<That is not scratching!>

<What?> said Collette. <What’s wrong?>

She was in a storage alcove on the Pool Ship, probably worried sick by what we were saying. But we weren’t in the habit of cutting her out of our thought-speech. I doubted whether anyone would think to do so now.

<It may be our miniscule size which interprets orthogonal activity in the epidermis as catastrophic,> said Timmy. <Most likely, our Controller is perspiring, shivering or—>

<Morphing!> shrieked Judy. <He’s morphing. Can’t you taste it? The blood’s changing. Eww! It tastes awful!>

<You liked it before?> Liam cringed.

<More importantly…> I said.

The human skin beneath us was expanding, billowing out and piling in loose folds. Keeping on top of these piles was a real struggle.

<It’s kinda like surfing,> said Majal.

I was forced to detach myself from the skin as a huge wave of it threatened to swallow me up. The cries in my head told me that I was not the only one who was now sliding and tumbling out of control.

            <My mouthparts! I lost them!>

            <I’m pinned! There’s skin pushing in from all sides!>

<My legs! This skin flap is crushing my legs!>

            <I’m good.>

Exasperation overrode my fear. <Majal, you are a flea on a mutating mass of flesh. Can you please just—>

            <Freak out?> Majal surmised. <Right you are, Boss. I’m all over it. Ah! Yikes! Bad! Scary! See?>

            <I am experiencing genuine terror, although I choose to express it calmly.>

            I sighed. <That’s great, Timmy, but—>

<Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahh! Heeelp! NO! Nononono! Oohhh! Noooooooooo!>

            <I think Zack is doing enough freaking out for the lot of us,> said Jesse.

<Just morph, morph, morph!> I shouted. <De-morph, morph, don’t stop until you’re dangerous!>

<My morph’s not coming!> cried Chantel. <I can’t concentrate.>

<You sing if it helps,> I ordered.

            <Head and shoulders, knees and toes. Stretch the spine. Make nose grow.>

            <Chantel?> called Collette. <Chantel, are you okay?>

            <Fleas don’t impress the enemies—two more verses, I’ll be fine—give me claws, if you please…>

            <Aaaaaaaaaaahh!>

            <What’s Zack gonna do?> Andrew worried. <He can’t even sing in the shower.>

            <Aaa—I can so! Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle—>

<Is this helping you morph?> I demanded.

            <No,> said Zack. <I thought we were singing.>

            <MORPH!>

            <Okay!>

            <Everyone’s all right, right?> said Collette, urgently. <You’re de-morphed, morphed, morphing, right, you’re all big and you’re not small and you—>

            <We’re fine, Collette,> I said. <Calm down.>

            <I can’t calm down; I don’t know what’s happening!>

            <I told you. We’re—> halfway through my de-morph, I felt a huge, gritty fist ram me in the gut. <—coping,> I groaned.

            <James!>

            <Collette, I’m fine.> I bore down on my de-morph, shutting all else from my mind.

I could make the changes happen faster, but I had no control over how. Tiny flea legs grew with the rest of me, weighing heavily on my half-formed human chest, before they began to shrink away into nothing. Human eyes, nose and mouth began to emerge underneath the exoskeleton that still covered my head. On my left side my human limbs were fully formed, while on my right my arm and leg did not yet exist.

            Through a hole in the receding exoskeleton, I saw the thing that had hit me.

Its size made me realise just how big the room we were in was. The ceiling was as high as the roof of a three-story building. The Controller I’d been riding had morphed into a bipedal creature whose head nearly touched this ceiling.

Relative to his height, he was pretty skinny. Skiny also, as in skin. From his neck all the way down to his wrists and ankles his skin was like an outfit that was three times too big for him. His enormous feet were firm and flat as skipping stones. His hands, completely devoid of skin, looked like they were made of sandpaper. On his head there was strangely tight, smooth skin made ugly by spiral-patterned eyes and scissor-shaped mouth.

There were two of these things looking down at us in our various stages of change.

Majal stood on all fours, just a few hairs short of being a hyena.

Erica and Craig swung their human fists and feet at the Controllers, while morphing to polar bear and jaguar.

Still singing quietly to herself, Chantel was beginning to morph wolf.

            No one else had quite finished their de-morphs. They lay on the floor, most of them paralysed from the waist down and none of them able to stand.

I joined Erica and Craig in their efforts to keep the Controllers away from them. It became more difficult as our own morphs progressed.

Majal covered for us to the best of a hyena’s ability.

The others were morphing as fast as they could.

            Judy was crouched in a corner with her eyes shut tight. It wasn’t until she was fully Hork-Bajir that she caught her first glimpse of the enemies. <I should of morphed elephant.>

            <Never mind now, we’ll do without.> I wasn’t about to let anyone back to human for the sake of tactics.

            I saw Liam—mostly human—plucked from the floor by one massive sandpaper fist.

            “Aahhh! Put me down! Ow! You need serious hand caaaaarrre!”

Liam’s arms were pinned to his sides and beginning to bleed where the Controller’s gritty fingers scraped them. His human legs dangled helplessly.

            Liam put his morph into overdrive. The creature lifted him to its scissor-like mouth. With his newly-formed hind legs, Liam lashed out at the hand. He twisted free of the Controller’s grip, fell and landed on his feet, fully cougar.

            Diondra lay immobile as the other Controller’s foot aimed to crush her. “Nooooo!” Rhino hide grew thick and fast over her human spine. In a few more seconds she had heaved the entire foot off her.

Timmy was the last to join us. He lay flat on his back, morphing slowly to bobcat. <Have you observed the enclosure in which a member of this unknown species is confined? It appears that our Controllers came here to acquire—Ahhhhh!>

            The foot that had failed to crush Diondra came crashing down on Timmy. By unspoken agreement Jesse, Craig and I leapt at the advancing limb and knocked it off course.

            <Timmy!> Collette cried. <What’s wrong with him?>

            <I suffered a lapse in concentration and have recovered,> Timmy called to her. He rolled over and stood up, fully bobcat.

            People with bigger morphs drew the Controllers’ attention, risking death with every daring dash at flesh.

            People with smaller morphs had even more to worry about.

<Get your pincers out of my ears,> Majal said to the scorpion on her head.

<How am I supposed to hold on?> said Zack.

<Rattlesnake poison’s not working.> Tricia slithered swiftly away from one Controller’s ankle as the other Controller’s fist came rushing down at her.

<You need to get it where there’s less flesh.>

            <Like its head?>

            <How’s anyone going to get up there?>

            <Hork-Bajir can jump,> said Judy.

<Take Zack.> Majal pawed the scorpion off her head and into Judy’s right hand.

            Tricia coiled herself around Judy’s left leg.

            <Whoa,> said Zack. <What are we doing? I don’t want…aaaahhh!>

Judy leaped. One of her blades caught in the loose folds of skin at the monster’s neck.

<You get the eyes,> Tricia said to Zack.

<Eyes,> Zack repeated faintly. <Right above the mouth? The mouth that could cut me in halves and then quarters and—>

<Ah!> Chantel gasped. Backed into a corner of the room, she cowered as the creature’s hands moved in to finish her.

<Hey, hey, hey!> Zack climbed right over the monstrous mouth and dug his pincers into the thing’s eyes. <Cut that out! I’ll cut this out! And this! And this! And that!>

The Controller fell back in howls of agony as Zack chopped his eyes into blocks of bloody jell-o.

Tricia started to wrap herself around the creature’s neck. <Hey,> she said. <This thing’s got a really big ear.>

I swung my head up at her. <What’s that supposed to—>

<Keep him busy.> With the lower half of her body still wrapped around the beast’s neck, Tricia drew her upper body high to aim at the side of its head. She plunged her snake’s head down the monster’s ear canal.

An increase in the Controller’s howls announced that he had registered the event. Most of the snake dangled helplessly from his ear. Before he could do anything about it, he had a coyote, a jaguar, a wolf and a cougar tugging viciously down on his arms.  I leapt across the room to help the rest of the group with the second Controller.

The monster’s fingers were splayed wide and waving wildly about in an idiotic attempt to capture every irritating animal.

On one branch-sized wrist, the gorilla hung by his feet, pummelling every bit of monster flesh that came within reach of his fists.

Around the ankles Jesse slashed and dodged at peak panther efficiency.

With a stir of resentment, I noticed that the bobcat was sitting on a desk by the cage, nosing through an open binder of loose-leaf paper. <Timmy, this is not the—> I began.

            A pain-wracked animal yipe coming from the second group put my enemy back in focus.

I hurried into the fray. I sank my claws into the second Controller’s thighs and started gnawing at the excess flesh. Even the lion part of my brain found the taste disgusting.

Over and over again, the buffalo butted his head against the creature’s flabby calves. <What’s it take?> Andrew panted, backing up for another charge.

<You trying to make a dent in his leg?> Jesse inquired.

<I am trying to knock him off his feet,> said Andrew, stoutly.

On the other side of the room, the first Controller appeared to have keeled over of his own accord.

<This one’s history,> said Tricia, slithering back out of the dead monster’s ear. <Man, I do not wanna know what I bit down on in there.>

The second Controller continued to make trouble, still upright despite Andrew’s persistent efforts.

Diondra finally finished him. Being a rhinoceros, she didn’t have the best eyes for aiming, but with a few directions from Timmy—translated by Erica—Diondra plunged her long, deadly horn into the monster’s only heart.

He fell heavily to the floor. Diondra pulled her horn out of his left knee.

            <What kind of encyclopaedia ever told you where alien-monster hearts are?> Andrew demanded of Timmy.

            <The so called ‘alien-monster’ is, among informed parties, referred to as a Garoksli,> said Timmy, using his paw to close the binder he’d been nosing through. <The species originates from the planet Mulp where they are transferable property between alien species of superior intelligence. The Garoksli heart evolved to reside in that unlikely location due to—>

            <I asked you to talk,> Andrew realised. <My bad. I just meant: good job, man.>

            Behind Timmy, the Garoksli that the Controllers had acquired was tugging at its chains. The cage door had been left open.

            <Raymond,> I ordered.

            The gorilla loped casually over to the cage and pushed the door closed. The locks snapped shut automatically.

<Hey,> said Craig, from the window. <Did anyone know that this Blade Ship’s docked on the outside of the Pool Ship?>

<What?>

<Yeah,> said Craig. <And the Pool Ship’s off the ground. Come and see.>

We crowded around the window. We were high up in the sky, looking down at the bare expanse of land where the Pool Ship had been.

Small, but clearly visible, an army of humans and animals broke ranks and ran. Hobster’s people and us in our battle morphs. The Pool Ship’s Dracon cannons swung lazily after each retreating figure.

Jennifer had done a good job on those figures. The holograms were realistic enough to fool their living counterparts, let alone Visser One. Like everything Chee-made, Yeerk sensors would not detect it. But Visser One had evidently decided that what his naked eye saw was proof enough.

As we watched, one of the ‘soldiers’ was vaporised.

            <Would you look at that?> said Zack, resentfully. <We’re all about to die.>

<WHAT?!> Collette screamed at us.

<He’s joking,> I told her. But I felt sick to my stomach all the same. <Sort of…>

 

 

Chapter 23

Jake

            I left deck eight. I followed Marco to the Pool Ship’s bridge. I couldn’t stop him leaving the control room. He took no notice of me when I called after him. He took no notice of me now as I struggled to keep up with him.

            Six floors straight up, the tunnel was one long ladder of metal rungs jutting a few inches out from the wall.

On the wall behind, there were narrow strips of blue light illuminating the tunnel.

            As I climbed, I saw the deck numbers go by on the wall beside me. Nine. Ten. Eleven.

            “Mar…co…” I panted. “You…can’t…”

            Marco spared no breath on me. He had his whole attention focused on climbing those rungs as fast as he possibly could.

            I fell behind. A dozen rungs. Two dozen. My foot slipped. I caught the rung beneath the one I had been reaching for and clung. I was shaking too hard to move.

            Marco climbed steadily on.

            “What’s gotten into you?” I hollered after him. “Visser One’s up there!”

            Marco’s feet disappeared out the top of the tunnel. The hatch closed behind him.

            Still shaking and sweating so that I could hardly maintain my grip, I heaved myself higher up the ladder. Step by step. Deck by deck. Twelve. Thirteen.

            ‘Fourteen’ read the wall below the exit hatch. I nearly fell back down the tunnel while I fumbled with the latch. I got it open and pulled myself out into the horizontal world.

TSSEEWW! The sound of Dracon beams filled my ears. There was no one in sight anywhere along the narrow corridor.

I followed the sound. A few steps in the right direction, around a few corners, and I was there.

Marco had his body pressed up against a force field standing between him and the bridge door.

A diagonal slash divided the door into the usual two shades of hull material: transparent and opaque. Through the door’s upper triangle I saw Visser One standing at tactical.

He had his back to us and both sets of eyes focused on the view screen. The screen displayed his enemies on the ground below. From a point above the screen, the Dracon beams lanced down at individual humans. Humans bearing military uniforms and weapons that were no use to them.

Without a grimace of pain, Marco leaned his whole weight against the hallway’s invisible barrier. To my surprise the force field was flickering.

TSSEEWW!

The burning-energy sound of the Dracon beams was unnaturally loud. Perhaps Visser One had raised the volume to be heard above his own booming laughter.

Barely audible, a timid voice interrupted: “Visser, the traitors’ sabotage of our ship is starting to affect secondary systems. The traitors are slowly disabling every force field on this deck. We can’t hold them off primary systems much long—”

Visser One decapitated his crewman with a casual flick of his tail. <ANY OTHER FAILURES TO REPORT? PROBLEMS? MISFORTUNES? BAD NEWS?>

The crew’s silence implied the ship’s systems to be operating at peak efficiency.

<GOOD.> Visser One wrapped his delicate Andalite fingers once more around the Dracon cannon’s trigger. <WHERE WAS I?>

TSSEEWW!

            Hobster’s people. The soldiers we’d recruited. Some of them ex-Controllers who, mere hours ago, had reclaimed their freedom. Visser One burned every last one of them to nothing before turning his attention to the Animorphs.

            <BEST FOR LAST,> he chuckled.

            Marco tumbled through the faltering force field. I went after him. The force field passed over me like static electricity, not nearly as painful as a fully-functional one.

            Marco’s hand touched the bridge door.

            “Intruder alert,” said the ship’s computer.

            Visser One turned a stalk eye to look at us. <COME TO WATCH?> He dragged the Dracon beam slowly across the ground. Not bothering to aim, he nonetheless hit every animal in mid-run. He hit them once and they fell, partly disintegrated. He swept the beam back over them again. Again and again. One by one, they died. Some long before they were completely vaporised.

            The new Animorphs. Barely a month ago, we had recruited them. Recruited kids in wheelchairs because the Yeerks didn’t want them as host bodies. They were safe for us to ask. And we needed help fast.

            Now Visser One’s laughter accompanied every beam of light wiping them out.

            I could remember the names of only four. The four that Cassie, Marco and I met the day we went to the rehab center.

Collette had told us who they were. “James isn’t too friendly. But he’s cool. He’s the one who makes sure we get what we need.”

James. He was the lion.

“Collette!” The pale girl beckoned. “You want to play cards or not?”

“That’s Kelly.”

            Kelly. I looked for her morph before I remembered: she was the one who’d died a few days ago.

            “The other guy is Timmy.”

            Timmy…I couldn’t remember what his battle morph was.

            I knew who the crocodile was. I saw Marco’s horror-struck face watching the crocodile burn.

At the same time, I saw Marco’s face back then. He was grinning after Collette as she wheeled back to her card game. “Did you see that? She winked at me!”

            And now she was dead. They were all dead.

 

 

Chapter 24

James

            <Aw, that just sucks.>

            <Anyone see their life flash before their eyes?>

            <Being dead disagrees with me.>

            <You are aware that we’re not dead?>

            <Well, even in theory, it sucks.>

            <Yeah. Let’s never do that again.>

            <All in favour say ‘aye.’>

            <The termination of all our lives is an event I would recommend we never again experience.>

            <And I so thought I had you, Timmy. You’re unbelievable, you know that? ‘Aye’ is supposed to be too short to stretch into a thousand words.>

            <Okay,> I called the circus to order. <That was freaky. I agree. But the show’s over. Now, can we please get back to reality?>

            <Check,> said Liam. <We are a living, breathing mess of mammals and reptiles hanging out at the Yeerks’ specialty zoo for Mulpen Garokslis, where we await the opportunity to be fleas on a Controller’s scalp. Ah, the mundane normalcy of life.>

            <Such a drag,> Jesse yawned.

            <How’re you guys going to get to the Blade Ship’s bridge?> asked Collette. <You don’t know who’s headed there anymore.>

            <No.> Erica kicked a back paw at our dead Controllers. <These two blockheads failed to mention that they would be unreliable transportation. I didn’t look for any others. I could go again, if—>

            <I don’t think that’s such a good idea.> Shawn had his ears pricked towards the two uniforms lying on the desk. The Controllers had put the clothes there before morphing. Shawn pulled back the folds of fabric covering two communicators.

The muffled sounds coming from them became clearer: “…aboard. All hands report to stations. Standby for launch. Repeat. Full crew is now aboard…”

            <No one’s going out there,> I agreed. <Not as anything visible.>

            <‘All hands report to stations’ means that no one’s showing up here,> Erica pointed out. <Fleas don’t go far by themselves.>

            <Flies?> Collette suggested. <Eyesight’s not much better. But you could try following sounds.>

            <Your thought-speech is getting weaker,> I told her.

            <Yours too,> said Collette. <I guess we’re coming to the edge of our thought-speech range.>

            <We haven’t gone anywhere,> I said. <That means you—>

            <I had to leave the storage alcove.>

            <What? Why?>

            <I couldn’t see anything from there,> Collette spoke in a carefully casual tone. <There’s something going on in the Yeerk pool chamber. I’m just trying to see what they’re—>

            My own protests were drowned out by the rest of the group’s.

            <Are you out of your mind?>

            <You can’t do that now; you’ve got no back up.>

            <If you can see them—>

            <How are you even seeing anything?>

            <I’m still in crocodile morph,> Collette explained.

            My temper rose with my panic. <I told you to—>

            <Get small. Stay hidden,> said Collette, tiredly. <I am hidden.>

            <And scaly and green,> I shrilled.

            <What’s your point?>

            <Don’t play games with me, Collette. You know what I—>

            <I know,> said Collette, bitterly. <You wanted me to sit this mission out in the first place. Now you’re not here to keep an eye on me, you don’t want me to do anything.>

            <Because I don’t trust you.>

            <What?> she said in a slightly choked voice.

            <To put yourself first,> I clarified. <You’ll throw caution to the winds. Give yourself up. Like you did when Kelly—>

            <You think I’m suicidal?>

            <How would you explain why you’re using a crocodile to spy on Controllers? Your hawk morph lost its super vision?>

            <No, but—>

            <Not to mention its small, dim-coloured, flight-capable body,> I said, pointedly.

            <I’m fine,> Collette mumbled.

            It didn’t take a genius to know that she wasn’t. Maybe something close to one to figure out what was going on in her head. What I did know was that a crocodile stalking Controllers was bound to get noticed. I could try talking her into a safer morph all day. But I didn’t have that long. <Cassie?> I said instead. <Where are you now?>

            <Deck ten,> said Cassie. <Collette’s not where I thought she was.>

            I brought Cassie up to date. <Just see if you can find her,> I concluded. <And pin her tail to something if she starts—>

“Repeat,” The communicators interrupted. “All hands report to stations.”

            <We’ve got to get moving over here,> I told Cassie. <You think you can find Collette?>

            <I don’t know if I’m going the right way.>

            <Sounds like you are,> I said. <Your thought-speech is getting weak like hers.>

            Collette chose that moment to start talking again. <The Controllers here are looking pretty paranoid. By the sounds of it, it has something to do with…‘traitors’?> She puzzled over the word. <Is that people who sided with Tom or with Visser One?>

            <That’s people on our side,> said Cassie. <They’re members of the Yeerk Peace Movement.>

            <How do you know?> I asked.

            <I’ve just met one I know. Mr. Tidwell. He says that most of the Movement’s gone after Yeerks invading Andalite space. They stole the morphing cube from Tom and left Earth about a week ago. Some of them stayed here. They’ve been waiting for us to make our move.>

            <Nice to know we have back up,> I said.

            <They’re spread pretty thin,> said Cassie. <But they’re all over the ship, stirring up trouble.>

            <It’s happening here,> said Collette, excitedly. <One of the human guards just unlocked a cage of Hork-Bajir hosts. Ohhh!>

<Collette?> I checked.

<He’s been beheaded,> she said, shakily. <The Hork-Bajir guards killed him and now they’re fighting the free Hork-Bajir. There were five in that cage. One no bigger than Alka. And they’re outnumbered…>

            I started talking to Cassie again. <I don’t suppose there’s much chance of Peace Movement activity here on the Blade—>

<The free Hork-Bajir,> Collette muttered, half to herself. <They need help.>

            <What?> I said, sharply. <No, you—>

<The guards have won,> said Collette with growing horror and sympathy. <They’re not going to re-infest the Hork-Bajir. They want to feed them to the Taxxons. The little one too. I can’t let that happen.>

I don’t know how often it is that lions have heart attacks. Maybe I was setting a record. <Collette,> I said in my most dangerous voice. Unfortunately, it’s not a tone that works on anyone who knows me.

<The Hork-Bajir don’t stand a chance against Taxxons now,> Collette went on. <They’re bleeding and the guards have them chained to the wall.>

<Leave it alone,> I grated.

            <There’s no one else here who wants to help them,> said Collette, indignantly. <Don’t you think I should—>

            <No! Your job is to stay alive. Alive. You got me? Just—>

            <I’m breathing as hard as I can,> snapped Collette. <And I’m not out to get myself killed. That doesn’t mean I’m going to sit here and watch—>

            <Wait until Cassie gets there.>

            <I can’t wait, James, the Taxxons are coming now!>

            <Don’t!>

<The guards have left,> Collette’s thought-speech grew faint as she moved further away. <They’re bleeding too, so they can’t be here when the Taxxons—>

<Collette!> All fifteen of us called after her as her thought-speech died away completely.

<Do you see Collette?> I asked Cassie.
            <I think she’s in the Yeerk pool chamber,> Cassie’s thought-speech was fading fast. <I see Taxxons headed that way. I’m going to—> And then there was nothing.

<Cassie!> I exclaimed. <Tell me you’re still there. What happened to Collette?>

Silence. They were both out of thought-speech range.

The unanswered question drove everything else from our minds.

<If the guards are gone…>

<Only the ones who were wounded in the fight.>

<How many were there?>

<She didn’t say.>

<There’s still the Taxxons.>

<And Dracon beams. If there’s even one guard with a hand-held Dracon beam…>

<Don’t say that!>

Then the communicators started up again: “This is your final warning, Lieutenant Cosk. You are to report to your station. Standby for launch.”

“This is your final warning, Crewman Murphy. You are to report to your station. Standby for launch.”

            I cut through my people’s thought-speech. <We have to get to the bridge.>

<You don’t think Collette’s—>

            <She’ll be fine,> I said. I had to believe it. I had fourteen other people to worry about.

            <How’re we going to—>

            <Mice,> I announced. <We’re morphing mice.>

            <I thought they freaked you out,> said Liam.

            <I don’t have a mouse morph,> said Zack.

            <Just a few of us,> I thought aloud. <The rest can be fleas on—>

            <Fleas?!>

<No fair.>

<How come some people get to be mice?>

<I thought we were done with fleas. I went through this whole healing process.>

<I don’t want to go back to the bad place.>

            Now I was a lion with a headache. <Anyone want to make this just a little easier?>

<I am willing to assume whatever form it is that the mission requires.>

<Thanks, Timmy,> I said.

<I have a rat morph!> wailed Zack. <Let me be a rat! Please, please, please…>

<No rats!> I snapped. <Mice. Five mice. Two fleas per mouse. That’s final.>

            <Who gets to be mice?>

<Timmy, Diondra, Raymond, Majal and Shawn,> said Erica, promptly.

            <Why them?>

            <They didn’t ask,> said Craig. <It’s our new system.>

            We de-morphed.

“Another nauseating road trip,” Jesse groaned.

            “Buckle up,” said Majal, brightly. “You and Erica can come with me.”

            “I refuse to be affected by that ridiculous good mood of yours,” said Jesse.

            “Bite me.”

            “You don’t have to be—”

            “I mean literally,” said Majal. “You latch on and we’ll morph together. It could take a flea longer than we have to jump directly onto a mouse.”

            “Good idea,” I said. “Everyone do that.”

            Liam squirmed. “Can’t we just hold hands?”

            “Fleas hold on with their mouthparts,” I said, sternly. “It’s the safest way.”

            “I’ll bite Diondra,” said Andrew.

            “I’m taking Chantel and Tricia,” she snapped.

            “Liam and James,” said Shawn.

            “I’ll take Zack and Craig,” said Raymond.

            <I will accommodate Judy along with the individual who was repudiated,> said Timmy, holding on to his thought-speech as long as possible while he de-morphed.

            “So noble,” Andrew sneered. “You wait ’til I’m a tick in your fur, I’ll itch you silly.”

            Once Erica, Craig and I had helped every other flea-assigned Animorph to their volunteered hosts, we began our own morphs.

            Tentatively, Liam and I dug our teeth into Shawn’s shoulders. An uncomfortable situation for all three of us. But we got past it once we were a little less human.

I knew that the Blade Ship had to be stopped. I knew that there was a galaxy at stake if Tom’s crew got their chance to rebuild the Yeerk Empire. I also knew that I would never in a million years have sacrificed one of my people in an attempt to prevent it.

I guess that makes me a lousy general. War heroes are people who haven’t ‘lost sight of the big picture.’ People who don’t ‘have a lot to learn about war.’

As I’ve been told, there are concepts I don’t know how to deal with. Where I can’t deal, I fight.

We were ten fleas on five mice in a race against time. Two clocks to outrun: Rachel’s death and the Blade Ship’s departure.

And it wasn’t a Yeerk holding the stopwatch for the first one.

Ten minutes, I thought. Give me ten minutes, Jake.

<Blue light! Cassie said it’s the blue light that leads to the bridge.>

<Come on, let’s scurry.>

            <Not that way!>

            <Our presence here appears to be arousing suspicion.>

            <We’ll have to go around.>

Maybe fifteen…

 

 

Chapter 25

Jake

            “Marco…” I made to put my hand on his shoulder and then lost my nerve. “I…didn’t…I’m…I...” Every word died in my throat.

            Marco wouldn’t look at me. He wouldn’t look at anything but the bare stretch of land on the Pool Ship’s view screen. It felt like a lifetime since we had seen people there. Seventy-six people running for their lives. All that was left now were scorch marks on the ground.

I had imagined the slaughter. In the back of my mind, I knew that I had. Not coldly. Not deliberately. It was the same way I had imagined innocent human and Hork-Bajir hosts killed by Toby’s army: a sacrifice we could hope to avoid and prepare to accept.

            Not once had I imagined Marco’s face the way it was now. Like he’d lost someone. Someone I had hardly heard him talk about. Someone I didn’t even know.

            He may have stopped being my best friend twenty minutes ago. I had stopped being his long before that.

            The door to the bridge opened.

            Marco moved forward. Didn’t bolt. Didn’t rush. Just walked out onto the bridge like it was what he was supposed to be doing.

            I stared unblinkingly at the scene. Marco surrounded by the bridge crew. All of them looking at him.

            I saw Visser One’s eyes gleam with fresh kill-lust. He swung his tail blade high over his head.

            I couldn’t move. “Marco!”

            Tseeewww!

            A red beam of light hit Visser One square in the chest. He sank to the floor and slid under a console.

            From another doorway opening onto the bridge, Toby stepped clear of the shadows. Her Hork-Bajir army poured onto the bridge.

            Toby shot the Dracon beam without pause, aiming around her own people as best she could. Twice she missed. Five times she shot down one of her own to get at a Controller using the Hork-Bajir as a shield.

            Within seconds, either by Toby’s shots or by her Hork-Bajir’s blows, every Controller on the bridge lay motionless.

Marco stood still where he was. He didn’t look nearly as startled as I was.

“Toby!” I gasped, stepping out onto the bridge.

Toby tossed me the Dracon beam. It was one of those big-handled ones designed for Hork-Bajir. The slide by my thumb indicated that it was set on the lowest power setting. Set to stun.

“I wouldn’t put it any higher if I were you,” said Toby. “The faces around here are hard to tell apart.”

Toby’s people dragged their seven stunned fellows off to one side. “Free. Safe. No cage. No wait. Help now,” they said.

“These are the Hork-Bajir you can exclude from the three day lock-up,” Toby explained. “Try to contain the others. Send mine down to deck ten when they regain consciousness.”

“What’s on deck ten?” I asked.

“The Yeerk pool,” said Toby. “Apparently it’s where our support from the Yeerk Peace Movement is weakest. It should even the odds if my people can open a few of the host cages there.”

I held out the Dracon beam.

            Toby shook her head. “Keep that in case anyone barges in on you.” She and her Hork-Bajir left the bridge.

I looked down at the Dracon beam. I didn’t know how useful the thing was in my hands. My middle finger could barely reach the trigger.

Just as Toby’s footsteps died away, I heard new ones approaching. I started to raise the Dracon beam before I realised that the sound was of hooves.

Ax came galloping onto the bridge, tail blade held high. It didn’t take four eyes long to register what had happened. <I assume that you no longer require assistance?>

“Not with them.” I waved my hand at the Controllers on the floor. “How’s your control of the ship coming?”

<Members of the Yeerk Peace Movement have helped me tap into most of the primary systems,> said Ax. <I now have access to the ship’s environmental controls, engines, weapons—>

Marco made an indistinct noise in his throat.

Both Ax and I looked at him.

Marco refused to look at me. He met Ax’s eyes with grim reproach.

<I regret,> Ax dropped his eyes. <I was not able to access weapons…any earlier.>

Marco’s jaw twitched. He went back to looking numb.

I didn’t know what to do for him. I took Ax aside. “Andalite High Command?”

            <Delayed.> Ax took the pilot’s station. He raised the Pool Ship into space and pointed out the Andalite vessel in orbit. <They would not respond to my hails. I used our com link to transmit a virus to their main computer.>

I watched Ax move away from the helm and, rather unsteadily, towards the opposite side of the bridge.

            Ax studied the console and fingered the controls at tactical. <They will be stopped one way or another, Prince Jake. For now…> He pulled his shaking fingers back from the controls. <I have given them time to change their minds.>

            “How much time?”

            <An hour at least, until they can isolate the virus. After that…> Ax looked mournfully, almost longingly at the Andalite ship. <I don’t know how long.>

Earth would be saved. I could believe that. With that belief, I felt the first pangs of sympathy stirring beneath my resentment.

Poor Ax. The first of his own kind he’d seen in a long time and he might have to shoot them down.

But just like with Marco, I didn’t know what to do, what to say that would help.

Ax moved to another console.

            “What are you doing?” I asked.

            <Tobias is not in thought-speech range,> said Ax. <I am attempting to secure a com link to his station.>

            “He’s still on deck nine?” I surmised.

            <Yes, although I fear he is becoming restless there. Perhaps when Rachel returns—> Ax broke off.

            “What?” I said, a little too sharply.

            <An unauthorised launch.> Ax pointed at a small flashing light on the console’s data screen. <It’s the Blade Ship.>

            My heart sank. It was time. I had to tell Rachel.

            <The Blade Ship is too small, too fast for us to outmanoeuvre,> Ax worried. <We will be unable to target it before it reaches Zero Space.>

            “I know,” I said, irritably. “You told me.”

            <I do not understand,> Ax’s tone remained respectful. <Two days ago, you said you had devised a plan—>

            “I have,” I said.

At that moment everything hurt. The floor I was standing on. The air I was breathing. Ax’s questioning, unsuspicious gaze. Marco’s stubbornly averted eyes.

And there was a lot more pain on the way. Some of which I still wasn’t ready to face.

            “That com link to Tobias,” I said to Ax. “You haven’t got that open yet?”

            <No.> Ax seemed unsettled by my tone. I guess I had made the question sound too significant.

            Finally, Marco was looking at me. I immediately wished that he wasn’t.

            “Rachel’s on the Blade Ship,” I said. “She’s there to stop them.” I took several shallow breaths as I felt that pressure again in my chest. “She’s not coming back.”

            Marco stretched his mouth in a humourless smile. A crooked, bitter smile that sent a chill down my spine. “‘Go observe Pool Ship activity, Tobias. Don’t worry about Rachel. We’ll worry about Rachel after she’s dead.’” He laughed – a laugh as cruel as his smile. “That’s convenient. And where exactly did you send Cassie?”

            I lowered my eyes. I didn’t know where Cassie was. I hadn’t sent her anywhere. But Marco was right. I wouldn’t have said it in front of her either.

The look on Marco’s face felt like a physical blow to my chest. I’d been prepared for hatred. I’d been prepared to lose everyone. Like I’d lost my family. I wasn’t prepared to lose Marco.

            I looked to Ax for the strength I needed. His stalk eyes drooped. His main eyes held no anger. He was sad, but he understood what I’d done. Maybe he was the only one who did.

            Rachel was waiting for my word. She was safe from harm until I told her to put herself in harm’s way. I could tell her to stay hidden. I could tell her to wait.

The Blade Ship would take off and no one would stop it. But Rachel would live. Maybe find a way out. Maybe make it back to us. While morph-capable Controllers invaded an alien galaxy, Rachel would live.

Tobias would forgive me for what I had done. Cassie would forgive me.

If Rachel lived, I wouldn’t lose them. And I’d have condemned a galaxy to slavery for letting people I cared about get in the way.

I morphed to tiger so that I could use thought-speech. <Rachel,> I said. <Go.>