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r!Animorphs: The Reckoning

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Chapter 01: Jake

<Come inside, please—all of you. And quickly.>

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Tobias start forward, saw him jerk to a stop as Marco’s hand seized his shoulder. I heard Cassie’s soft, terrified gasp, somehow seeming every bit as loud as Rachel’s wild, unbalanced laughter. I felt the crawling tingle of adrenaline flooding my veins, and the tight, breaking-point tension of muscles that didn’t know whether to freeze or flee. The alien ship filled my vision as the voice filled my thoughts, both of them impossible to believe, impossible to ignore.

There was a shout, a muffled thud, a whoosh of air, and I tore my eyes away to see Marco doubling over as Tobias stepped back, his fists clenched. Without a word, he whirled, running toward the ship, toward the ramp and the open hatch above.

<No.>

Tobias froze in mid-step as if the word had been a magic spell, balanced on the toes of one foot, his clothes and hair like carved marble. Behind him, Marco straightened on puppet strings, still coughing and wheezing as some invisible force drew him upright and held him there. I fought back a wave of nausea as Rachel’s laughter lifted another octave, as Cassie’s frightened whimpers cracked and gave way to open sobbing.

Move! I shouted at myself. Run! Scream! Do SOMETHING.

But what?

It was a spaceship.

A spaceship, in the middle of the construction site, where seconds earlier there had been nothing but dusty foundations casting shadows in the moonlight.

What was there to do?

<There will be peace between you,> the impossible voice said again, and I realized with a blood-freezing chill that it was my voice—not some unfamiliar mental interruption, but my own inner voice, the words sounding exactly the same inside my head as they would have if I’d thought them myself.

Whatever was talking to us, it was hijacking our own brains to do it.

<There must be peace between you,> it continued. <You must come together, all of you, or those you leave behind will be lost forever, and you soon after.>

I looked at Tobias, whose eyes were wide and frightened, his nostrils flaring as he struggled within his unseen restraints. I looked at Marco, whose face was a mirror of my own, his jaw clenched with fear and doubt and indecision. I looked at Rachel, who had choked on her laughter and now stood silent and horrified, a hand over her mouth. I looked at Cassie, at the tears that were streaming down her cheeks and disappearing into the dust at her feet.

I looked at them, and they looked at me.

I’m not psychic, you know. I’m not one of those guys who believes in past lives or déjà vu, or who writes down his dreams and thinks he knows what they mean. Up to that point, I’d never even really thought about the future, much less tried to predict it. And even now, if you ask me, I’ll tell you that I don’t really believe in fate, in destiny.

But I swear, in that moment, when the four of them looked to me, I got some kind of a glimpse of what was coming. I think that’s what snapped me out of it, what finally got me moving. Because not moving, not reacting, standing there and letting things just happen—that’s a choice too, you know?

I stepped forward, half-expecting to meet resistance, overwhelmed with relief when I found none. “Why?” I asked, staring up at the ship. I didn’t shout. Somehow, I knew it wasn’t necessary.

<An enemy approaches,> said the voice in my head. <I have delayed it, for now. There are two-to-the-forty-ninth decoys scattered across this hemisphere, and its methods of falsifying them are slow. But our conversation must begin, for we are close to the obvious target, and luck may favor evil as easily as good.>

I couldn’t help it. I shivered. Something about hearing the word evil echoing through your mind, put there by someone else, a thought transplanted against your will. I looked over at Marco again, saw him staring back at me, saw him shake his head slowly in the darkness. I knew what he was thinking. You don’t ever get in the car with the kidnapper, man. No matter how bad it is, it’s only going to get worse once you give them home field advantage.

<I am no kidnapper, Jake Berenson.>

My head snapped back toward the ship so fast that my neck cracked. A low, hopeless groan crawled its way out of Rachel’s throat, and I felt sudden warmth in my hand as Cassie stepped forward and laced our fingers together.

“Then why do we have to come inside?” I asked. “Why don’t you come out here?”

<Because I am dying.>

 

*        *        *

 

“The closest word would be morphing, I think. Shapeshifting would seem to be too broad, since you can’t take the form of anything that is itself incapable of moving or sensing its environment, nor anything that lacks some kind of a genetic map.”

He stood with his back to us, using words that I might have understood if they’d come half as quickly, or if my brain weren’t already stunned and punch-drunk. He was moving as he spoke, his hands darting back and forth across a control panel the size of a dinner table, his eyes tracking dozens of strange symbols as they cast their soft blue light onto his skin.

His human skin.

“It is done with nanotechnology, in response to focused thought, in a process too complicated to explain. Imagine your body being disassembled and stored in an alternate dimension, while a new body is built from scratch in its place, controlled via a mental link. This is a lie, but a useful one—the new body will respond as if it is your own, will feel as if it is your own.”

He didn’t look like he was dying, didn’t sound like he was dying. But—he’d said—appearances could be deceiving.

“You will witness arms becoming wings, eyes becoming antennae, skin becoming scales. For a time, you will be the other organism. Your true body remains unchanged—sent elsewhere, its processes suspended.”

I shook my head, struggling to understand, fighting to make the pieces click and painfully aware that think harder wasn’t exactly a strategy.

“You expand the library of available morphs through manual acquisition. Simply touch the organism you wish to become, focusing your thoughts in a particular way, and the system will begin its analysis. The first analysis will take hours, but given the shared ancestry of life on this planet, subsequent acquisitions will be usable within minutes or seconds.”

We were huddled together on what seemed to be the bridge of the spaceship—a vast, cavernous space filled with panels and instruments, shining in a blue glow that cast no shadows, as if it were emerging from the walls themselves. There were kiosks and consoles arranged in a wide arc around the central viewscreen where the alien now stood. Half of the consoles were burnt, blackened and misshapen, wrenched away from the large, ragged hole that had removed most of the far wall. If it weren’t for the curled, springy grass carpeting the floor, the whole thing could have been a set from the next Star Trek movie.

I still held Cassie’s hand in mine, the two of us gripping tighter and tighter as sweat made our palms and fingers slick. At some point, my other hand had found Marco’s, just as Cassie had reached out to Rachel. It was embarrassing, childish, but no one had said anything. We were all too frightened to care. Even Tobias had grabbed hold at first, taking Rachel’s other hand as the pair of them led us up the ramp. But he’d let go once we reached the bridge and was now standing slightly apart, his eyes locked on the alien as his hands slid back and forth across the consoles, stroking them the way you might pet a sleeping cat.

Vivid.

It wasn’t exactly a thought. Just a word, floating up from English vocab. It attached itself to Tobias like a bookmark—a feeling, a question, a vague sense that there was something there I’d want to come back to, later. I was afraid. Cassie was afraid. Even Marco and Rachel were afraid. But Tobias … Tobias was something else. Deep below the surface, some part of my brain logged it, flagged it, grouped it together with three or four other things and started looking for the pattern.

There had been another moment—outside, when the invisible bonds holding Tobias and Marco had loosened, leaving both boys standing on their own two feet.

“We have to go inside,” Tobias had said, turning to face the rest of us, a painful urgency threatening to crack his voice.

“Like hell,” Marco had shot back. “I can think of a hundred reasons not to, and half of them don’t even involve probes.”

Beside me, Rachel had stirred, shaking her head as if trying to clear her thoughts. “This—is real?” she’d asked quietly, speaking to no one in particular. “This is really happening?”

No one had answered her. “It’s a spaceship, Marco,” Tobias had pleaded. “This is the most important thing that’s ever happened.”

“So take a picture with your phone, send it to the cops, and let’s get out of here.”

“It’s dying. What if it needs our help?”

“It says it’s dying. And even if it is, that’s not our problem. You can go right inside and catch space AIDS, but I’ve got no interest in getting abducted.”

He’d turned to go. Again, I’d felt my thoughts skidding, my mouth hanging open as I struggled to find the right words to say—

“Marco, wait!” Cassie had shouted.

We’d all turned to look at her, Marco included. Cassie, the whisperer, the quiet one. Cassie who never shouted, ever. I’d squeezed her hand, trying to offer support, or reassurance, or something, I wasn’t entirely sure what and probably neither was she. She’d gulped, her jaw trembling, and continued. “It’s just that—it said—it said all of us, right? We all have to go together, or—or else—”

<Or else all of you will die.>

I’d cleared my throat. “Why should we believe you?”

<What would you say, Jake Berenson, if I told you I had seen your future?>

“Bullshit,” Marco had said, without hesitation.

There’d been an amused rumble, the memory of a giant’s laughter. <If I wished you harm, Marco Levy, do you think that you would still breathe? Do you think I need lies to strike you down? I do not even need weapons—if I but hold you for an hour, my enemy will do the rest. What I am offering is help—help you desperately need, help that I cannot give unless you come inside. Make your choice—trust and live, or doubt and die.>

After that, there hadn’t been much more to say. Just another one of those moments, when all four of them had looked at me, as if they somehow needed me to give the order. And so we’d climbed the ramp, and stepped through the door, which had thankfully stayed open behind us. And there, in the graceful, organic hallways, holding hands like kindergarteners, we’d seen the wounds that had been hidden in the darkness of the construction site—the shattered bulkheads, melted consoles, scorched turf.

It was clear that there had been a battle.

It was clear that the alien had lost.

On the bridge, he entered a final sequence of commands, studied the viewscreen for a long moment, and nodded tightly, an uncannily human gesture.

Marco noticed, too. “You’ve been on Earth before.”

The alien—the man—turned to face us, and nodded again. “Yes. I spent several years in human form, in fact. It is—not unpleasant, to wear this body once more before the end.”

I glanced around the bridge, at the alien grass, the domed ceiling, the consoles just a little too tall for comfortable human use. “What do you look like normally?” I asked.

“You will see soon enough, Jake Berenson. But we have sadder matters to discuss, and only minutes to discuss them, for all my skill and subterfuge. Before we proceed, there is one question you must answer, as honestly as possible.” He paused, and I felt the hands gripping mine tighten further, Marco’s no less than Cassie’s. “Human children, what deeds would you do—what burdens would you shoulder—how far would you go, if the fate of your species hung in the balance?”

 

*        *        *

 

A part of my brain that I hadn’t ever noticed before had awakened, was working overtime, pouring new information into the stream of my thoughts as quickly as it could generate it. I saw my friends’ faces, heard their voices, felt a kind of strange certainty as predictions began making themselves without any help from me.

Rachel: Whatever it takes. Just say the word, and I’m there.

Cassie: Just our species? Just humans? What about everything else?

Marco: Why are you asking us? We’re kids, in case you hadn’t noticed.

Tobias: In the balance of what?

Jake:

I frowned. That wasn’t how brains were supposed to work—was it? Why couldn’t I predict what I would say?

“I think you’ve got the wrong guys, Mr. Alien,” Marco quipped. “We’re barely even teenagers; we probably couldn’t get two miles on foot before curfew.”

The alien said nothing, only shifted his gaze, waiting.

“Are you asking us to leave Earth?” Cassie said, her voice shaking. “Is there—is something going to happen, and you can only save a few people? Only humans?”

Another pause, another shift.

“If there’s a fight, I’m in,” Rachel said, her voice suddenly strong and confident.

Shift.

“What is it?” Tobias asked. “What deeds, what burdens, what fate?”

Shift.

I felt a chill run down my spine, felt cold sweat break out on my forehead. Those eyes—there was something about them, something deep and dark and inscrutable, hiding just beneath the surface. Even if we’d met on the street, I’d have known they weren’t merely human.

I took a deep breath. “You said we have only minutes?” I asked.

“Perhaps as many as forty. Perhaps as few as twenty.”

I turned to look at my friends, searching their faces for understanding, for permission, for forgiveness. Tobias’s expression was a wild mix of hope and despair, Rachel’s a grim mask of determination, Cassie’s a tear-stained portrait of uncertainty.

What did mine look like?

I locked eyes with Marco, who bit his lip and glanced significantly at the ragged hole, at the bright points of starlight just barely visible through the gleam of headlights on the highway. I could see the wheels in his head turning, could imagine his thoughts with an unnerving degree of confidence.

Tick tock, Marco was thinking. Tick tock.

I turned back to the alien. “It’s not a fair question,” I said. “But it’s too late to say no, isn’t it?”

 

*        *        *

 

He explained it all with cold, surgical precision.

I had thought we were terrified before.

I needed a new scale.

“The operation is currently limited by the inaccessibility of this system through ordinary means of space travel. There is a single pool ship in orbit, supporting a single nexus on the ground. The invasion force has finite resources, and is largely dependent on co-opted Earth technology, which is far inferior to that of the main Yeerk fleet currently blockaded several thousand light-years from here.”

Bodysnatchers.

“Even so, we estimate that there are roughly twenty thousand host-ready Yeerks in the subterranean pool at the center of your city, and material to support an infestation ten times that size. The pool is where the Yeerks live in their natural state, and where they must return every three days, to absorb kandrona, an essential nutrient.”

Slugs. Blind, deaf, defenseless. Just ugly little slugs that crawled in your ear and seized control of your brain. Talking with your voice. Living with your body. Raking through your memories so that they could impersonate you with absolute precision.

An endless, living nightmare.

“In all likelihood, the number of actual Controllers is currently well under a thousand, but even slow exponential growth will eventually reach a turning point. You have until that point, or until outside reinforcements from the Yeerk fleet arrive.”

“How long?” Marco asked.

“There is no way to be certain. At a minimum, six months. At a maximum, thirty.”

“And your people? The—Andalites? What about outside reinforcements from them?”

The alien shook his head. “The threat is not recognized. My people know little and less of war; they are learning, but without urgency. They see the Yeerks as an irritant, a distraction, a minor problem. By the time seven billion human Controllers begin pouring off the surface of the planet, the war will already be lost.”

“But you came,” Tobias interjected.

“Yes,” the alien said. “But not to save you. If the Andalites do come, it will be to complete the mission that I failed.”

I felt my stomach twist, felt that same odd certainty, this time wrapped in a layer of the coldest, blackest ice. “You came to kill us,” I said. There was a soft rustle as the others straightened, pressure on my shoulders as the space between us closed. “You came to kill us all.”

“Yes,” he answered. He looked at each of us in turn, his eyes like flint, hard and unapologetic. “You are their food, their weapons, their war machine. Seven billion minds chained to their yoke, seven billion bodies to do their bidding. You are the wave they will ride as they sweep the galaxy clean of all who oppose them. I came to deny them their prize, armed with a weapon that should have burned your world to a cinder.”

I swallowed. Rachel’s eyes blazed with anger while Cassie’s shone with tears. Marco’s face was blank, and Tobias’s fingers were gripping the console so hard that his knuckles had gone white. “But it didn’t work,” I said, uncertain whether to feel horrified or relieved.

“No. It did not work. Now, it is up to you.”

 

*        *        *

 

I let out an involuntary gasp at the second stab of pain, somehow much worse than the first. Reaching a hand up to my ear, I felt wetness, drew my fingers away to see blood.

“This device will blend with your body’s hardware sufficiently well to be preserved during the morphing process. It will fatally terminate any Yeerk that attempts to infest you. Note that while this is a tremendous safeguard for the resistance as a whole, it will do little to protect you if you are captured. Yeerks are notoriously—disinterested—in unusable bodies.”

He gave the same treatment to Rachel, Tobias, Cassie, and Marco in turn, then walked back to the cabinet from which he’d drawn the syringe and began keying in a code on a smaller, locked compartment. “The device was developed just prior to our second greatest failure,” he said. “During the battle on the Yeerk homeworld, a single Andalite was made Controller, and the resulting betrayal of our species’ secrets led to the destruction of the thirteenth fleet. Alloran’s Fall, on the tail of Seerow’s Kindness.” Opening the compartment, he reached inside and withdrew a small, blue cube, smiling grimly. “We Andalites have abandoned most of our superstitions, but one of the few that persists concerns the special nature of the number three. Much discussion has been had over when our third failure will come, and what its consequences will be. I can only hope that history will not label it Elfangor’s Trust.”

“Is that your name?” Tobias asked.

“Yes,” Elfangor said simply. Raising his hand, he held the cube up where we could see it. It was roughly eight inches on each side, inscribed with shapes and figures like the ones we’d seen on the ship’s controls, and it glowed with the same blue light that seemed to be the Andalite’s favorite shade. “This is the Iscafil device,” he said. “It is the sole method of conferring the morphing power upon a sapient, living being. I will use it upon each of you in turn, and then teach you how to use it yourselves, and then key it such that any one of you may trigger its self-destruct sequence remotely, via telepathic link. You will keep it safe, and if you cannot keep it safe, you will destroy it.”

“Wait,” I said, holding up a hand. “Why don’t you keep it safe, and come with us? I mean, I know you said you were dying, but—isn’t your real body in, like, stasis? Why can’t you—I mean, why don’t you—”

I faltered, and Elfangor looked down at me with a sad, sympathetic sort of smile. “There is a limitation on the morphing power,” he explained. “The technology draws its energy from the background radiation of the universe, which is not present outside of normal space. The countdown begins the moment your body is extruded, and if you have not demorphed by the time the clock runs out, the change becomes permanent.”

“So you can get stuck as, like, a bird, or whatever?” Tobias asked.

“Worse. The construct body will persist, as it is real and does not require power to maintain. But the pocket dimension will collapse, taking with it your true body and all of the computational hardware upon which your mind and memories are stored. You will simply cease to exist, leaving only the construct in your wake.”

He began to poke at the cube, pressing certain symbols in sequence, peering closely at others. As we watched, the blue glow intensified and began to pulse, cycling through a series of patterns. “For an adult Andalite body, the charge typically lasts around one human hour. Your bodies are smaller, and in some ways less complex; I predict you may be able to stretch the time to two, or perhaps even longer. The cube will tell each of you as it transfers the morphing power; you must check the number again regularly, particularly after any significant growth spurt.”

“So in a few minutes, you’re going to morph back into your own body and just die?” Tobias demanded, an edge of anger creeping into his tone. “Why? Why can’t you just remorph? Or call for help? Or use some kind of medkit?”

Elfangor smiled again, this time casting his compassionate gaze around at each of us in turn. “Do not forget that the Visser approaches. He must not know that you were here, or you will never escape with your lives. I will remain behind as a goad and a distraction, to draw his eye from your trail. Perhaps, if I am lucky, I will even purchase a small victory with my death. It is not the worst fate that could befall an Andalite who would call himself a warrior.”

He turned to me. “Press your hand against the cube, Jake Berenson, and we shall see what fate thinks of a human child’s resolve.”

 

*        *        *

 

“Isn’t there anything else you can give us?” Rachel asked. “Shields? Sensors? Ray guns?”

Elfangor shook his head. “These technologies are all alien to Earth, and thus easily detected and tracked. The cube is risk enough—like an infant given explosives, you would accomplish little, and draw much attention.” He hesitated, then continued. “Also—and please do not take offense—you are strangers to me, and untested. I have some reasons for confidence, but who truly knows what you would do with Andalite military technology, or what those who wrest it from you would find themselves capable of? Better by far to see you fall as humans than to see you rise a threat in your own right; the galaxy does not need two such scourges. That I give you even this small scrap of power is a sign of how desperate the struggle has become.”

Marco’s face twisted in the way it did whenever he caught a teacher trying to feed the class bullshit. “So you’re not willing to see us lose, but you don’t really want us to win, either. What happens if we do take down the Yeerks for you? You’ll be all grateful, and shower us with presents?”

Judging by Elfangor’s expression, he understood the sarcasm every bit as clearly as a human would have. “Your suspicions are not unfounded,” he said, his tone dark. “There is much knowledge among my people, but yet little wisdom. I fear they may learn the wrong lesson from our failure with the Yeerks, and in victory become the opposite of everything Seerow in his kindness intended. Could I arm you against betrayal without committing it myself, I would. But in the end, if humans clash with Andalites….”

Looking back at Marco, he shrugged. “There is reason to hope, however. There are forces larger than any of us at work, and evidence that we have been maneuvered into place by those you might call God. I do not know the future, but I have seen its broader strokes, and can rank possibility far more finely than you would credit. This meeting was not by chance, and if there are few paths to victory, at least be assured that you walk upon the widest.”

“Wait,” Marco said, his eyes wide with disbelief. “What?”

 

*        *        *

 

<Now place your hands upon my flank, and quickly!>

We clustered around him, kicking aside the shreds of his clothes, Tobias and Cassie crying openly, Rachel with fury still etched across her face, Marco with the distant look of desperate calculation. I tried once more to look inside myself, to put a word to the feeling that filled my chest and locked my throat, but there was nothing. It was as if something inside me was coiled and waiting, conserving its strength, leaving me cold and numb.

<Focus your minds upon my form, my essence. Hold the image of me in your thoughts for ten seconds, and listen—you will know when the acquisition is complete.>

I did as Elfangor instructed, looking down at his blue-furred scorpion body, the muscular, segmented tail, the mouthless face with its four eyes, two pointing down, two pointing up. I tried not to look at the gaping hole in his side, at the thick, dark blood that was slowly pooling in the alien turf.

<This body will be one of your primary weapons,> he said, his exhaustion and pain somehow audible in the voice that echoed through our thoughts. <Use it to hide your identity from the Yeerks—make them think that they suffer at the hands of a guerilla force of Andalite shock troops. It is strong and fast, more than a match for Taxxons and able to defeat all but the most skilled Hork-Bajir.>

I looked over at Marco just as his eyes narrowed. Tax-what? Hork-ba-what?

<And now, you must go. Down the ramp, and run, as quickly as you can. The presence of my ship has scrambled their sensors, but you must be out of range when the Yeerks land. They know that I cannot be taken. They will bring only death.>

It was an inadequate conclusion in every possible way. There were a thousand things left to be said, a thousand questions unasked and unanswered. For a dangling, eternal moment, the five of us stood, each looking down at the dying alien, unwilling to be the first to turn away.

Then a flicker of movement caught my eye, and looking out through the ragged hole in the ship’s side, I saw three sparks of light sliding across the starfield. There was nothing to mark them as special or dangerous; from this distance, they could have been nothing more than planes coming in for a landing at the airport south of the city.

But I knew.

In my very bones, I knew.

Move!” I shouted, and they did.

 

*        *        *

 

I wish I could forget the rest of that hour. Forget the horror we witnessed, watching from a distance, as the broken Andalite ship fired on the hovering Yeerk vessels, and was fired upon in turn. As the Visser’s ship landed and an Andalite emerged. As a monster erupted out of it and Elfangor died a pointless, hollow death. As a pair of police cars arrived, and the four men inside were dragged to the ground and infested by a group of Controllers led by what looked like our own vice-principal, Mr. Chapman. As those same four men stood and laughed as the Andalite ship burned.

It was my first battle. Not against the Yeerks, but against human nature, against the flaws and failings of my friends, my allies, my fellow warriors. Against Rachel’s rage, as she threatened to storm out from our hiding space and march herself to slaughter. Against Cassie’s terror, as it shook her to the core and spread like sickness to the others. Against the black desperation that filled Tobias, as if he’d lost his father, his brother, his only reason to live. Against the callous cold that Marco drew about himself like a cloak, as if he could hide from fear and pain by pretending they didn’t matter. I fought to hold them together, to keep them from breaking. I begged, I bargained, I commanded and cajoled—and to my surprise, they listened, and we lived.

It was my first battle, but it wouldn’t be my last. And as we crawled away through the dirt and the darkness, hoping with every step to wake up from the nightmare, I wondered again what I would see, if I knew myself as well as I knew my friends. Four of them, each with flaws that could easily prove fatal.

Who would watch for mine?

Chapter Text

Chapter 02: Marco

I try not to be stupid.

Yeah, yeah, I know—who doesn’t, right? I mean, nobody gets up in the morning and sets out to be a moron.

But there’s a pretty big difference between not-trying-to-do-it-wrong and actually-trying-to-do-it-right. It’s a lot like the difference between telling yourself you’re going to get started on that history paper, and actually pulling the books out of your bag. It’s just one extra step, just a little extra work, but it’s one step further than most people are willing to go.

Even people like Jake, who are mostly on top of things. Jake was doing his best, and his best was turning out to be pretty damn good, not that I was surprised. I’d known him since kindergarten, and watching him wrangle Cassie, Tobias, and Rachel was like connecting dots. That fearless leader thing had always been hiding in there somewhere; it had just never had a good reason to come out.

But instinct and charisma can only get you so far. At some point, no matter how good you are, you’re going to have to stop and think.

I was usually good at thinking. Not just at doing it, but at remembering to do it, at doing it right. Dotting all the I’s, crossing all the T’s.

Which made it all the more embarrassing that I hadn’t noticed the GLARINGLY OBVIOUS DANGER until it had already passed. Luck—we had survived thanks to sheer, dumb luck, and if we hadn’t, I would have died knowing it was my fault.

It was 9:03PM. The construction site was quiet and still, the three Yeerk spacecraft having launched silently skyward a few minutes before. The ground in front of us was empty and barren, with nothing to show that Elfangor’s ship had ever been there. There weren’t even any scorch marks—somehow, the Yeerk weapons had vaporized it with basically zero wasted heat or energy.

Jake had deputized Cassie, who was making soothing, rational noises at Rachel while he did the same for Tobias. I wasn’t paying much attention, because I was too busy mentally kicking myself.

The Yeerk sensors had been jammed by the presence of Elfangor’s ship.

Elfangor’s ship was no longer present.

Which meant that the Yeerks had probably been entirely capable of detecting five stupid kids huddling in the middle of an otherwise empty construction site.

We should have kept running, all the way home. Or better yet, all the way back to the mall, where we could have dropped a few more quarters at the arcade to establish an alibi and then called my dad for a ride.

But no. Instead, we’d stayed to watch.

I felt a sharp pain in my palms and looked down to see that my fists were clenched, my fingers curled so tight that the nails were threatening to break the skin. Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to relax, to think.

Common sense said that the Yeerks should have seen us before lifting off. It said that they should have torched the low foundation we were cowering behind—or better yet, grabbed us with a tractor beam and dragged us out to be infested like those poor cops.

But they hadn’t done that. So either the Yeerks were stupid, or they’d left us alive on purpose, or they just hadn’t noticed us, or their sensors didn’t penetrate concrete, or they didn’t care if anybody saw them because they already controlled the internet, or scanning the site wasn’t standard procedure and the Visser was an incompetent tyrant whose minions were too scared to take any initiative—

I squeezed my eyes shut. Sometimes my brain does this thing where it refuses to admit that it’s finished scraping the bottom of the barrel and is now digging up splinters.

Step one: figure out steps two, three, and four.

We needed to get out of the construction site. We needed to test this whole morphing thing. We needed to talk about the alien invasion going on in the center of our town. We needed to figure out where the center of our town was. We needed to get home. We needed to talk about whether that had actually been vice-principal Chapman, and whether anybody had recognized anybody else. We needed to acquire each other’s DNA in case we ever had to cover for each other. We needed to acquire some adults. We needed to find an adult we could trust. We needed to knock out Rachel and Tobias and Cassie before they could do anything stupid—

Splinters.

Okay. We needed to get out of there, check in at home, and then meet someplace safe to talk it all over. Two, three, and four.

And make really, really, really sure that nobody’s about to crack and call up their best friend or whatever, because that would be really, really, REALLY bad—

Fine. Two-A, two-B, three, and four.

“Jake,” I said.

Jake looked over and held up a finger. I sighed.

Turning away from the group, I looked up at the stars. There weren’t many visible, what with the glare of the lights from the mall and the highway. A few hundred, maybe. None of them appeared to be moving. Probably none of them were spaceships, but who knew? Elfangor’s ship had decloaked right in front of our eyes.

The Yeerk ships didn’t, though. They were visible the whole time. Another mistake? Or a technology they don’t have?

More mysteries. I looked back down at the dirt, at the place where Elfangor had died.

“The morphing process will take approximately two minutes,” he’d said, two minutes before his mouth had disappeared and an extra pair of eyes had sprouted from the back of his head. “You will initiate it with a burst of intense concentration. Simply focus on the desired organism, and visualize the transformation. Imagine it happening, and the morphing mechanism will respond.”

I held out my hand. Elfangor’s had had seven fingers. I distinctly remembered watching the extra two emerge as blue fur spread across his human skin. One of them had grown like a tumor out of the web between his thumb and index finger. The other had split off of his pinky, like in Mrs. Delphi’s life science video on cell division.

Giving in to a sudden, crazy impulse, I let my eyes flutter closed, focused intently, tried to imagine what it would feel like to have seven fingers, four eyes, to feel an extra pair of legs bursting from my abdomen, to sprout a tail whose tip was a deadly, razor-sharp shard of bone. I held the image of the alien in my mind, trying not to notice the words this is insane as they floated across like subtitles.

“Marco?”

I opened my eyes and looked down at my hand. It was pretty dark, but I was reasonably sure nothing had changed.

Well, he did say it would take hours to analyze the first samples.

I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see Jake, his eyes two sparks in the deep shadow of his face. “You okay, amigo?” he asked softly.

I let out a low, humorless laugh. “If any of the rest of them answered yes to that question, it’s time to call the nuthouse.”

Jake looked back at Tobias, who was sitting in the dirt a few yards away, his head in his hands, silent sobs shaking his body. “We need to get out of here,” Jake muttered. “Someplace safe, where we can figure all this stuff out. The Magnuson park playground, maybe. Or Cassie’s barn.”

“Cassie’s barn sounds good,” I said. “But home first. Nothing suspicious. Nothing to make it look like we did anything other than spend a boring Saturday night at the mall. If there really are a thousand Controllers already—”

“—then there’s probably somebody close enough to notice if we start acting weird. Right.” Jake scrubbed at his eyes for a moment, then sighed, his shoulders sagging. “I’m going to have to tell everyone it’s time to go, aren’t I?”

I snorted and rolled my eyes, not caring that he couldn’t really see them in the dark. “Hey,” I called out, loudly.

The others all looked up.

“You guys ready to get out of here?”

No one said anything.

“Oooookay. Um. Look. It’s already after nine. But we need to get together and talk, too. I think—I think we should go back to the mall, chill in the arcade for a bit, and then call for a ride. That way, it looks like we were there the whole time, and just lost track of how late it was.”

I paused, but still no one said anything. They just sat there, staring at me.

“And then, we can all meet up at Cassie’s—everybody know where Cassie lives?”

Crickets.

“Fine, right. We all go to sleep, and then sneak out and meet up at Cassie’s at—let’s say one AM. And we should wait to figure out this whole morphing thing until we’re all together, in case anything goes wrong. Everybody agree?”

As if on cue, Tobias, Rachel and Cassie all turned to look at Jake.

I let out another hollow laugh. That was going to be a problem if Jake ever decided not to listen to reason one day.

Or if Elfangor’s little earplugs don’t work on humans, and the Yeerks get ahold of him.

I shuddered. To cover it, I dropped to my knees and raised my hands above my head, as if in prayer. “Oh, Fearless Leader,” I intoned, kowtowing in Jake’s direction. “Wilt thou call upon the holy spirit of Simon Says, and bestow thy blessing on my humble and unworthy plan?”

Jake shifted uncomfortably. “Since when do you all wait for me to decide these things?” he muttered.

No one answered. Except me, of course—I went ommmm and he kicked me. Then he said some words, and together we headed back toward the mall, the fate of the human race on our shoulders.

 

*        *        *

 

I expected trouble from Tobias and Rachel. I mean, they’ve both got that whole don’t-tell-me-what-to-do vibe going on, you know? Rachel because she’s this total prom queen princess type, and Tobias because he’s this tragic, troubled youth with a bad home life and a leather jacket.

I had not expected trouble from Cassie.

“I’m sorry,” she said, avoiding Jake’s disapproving gaze as she peered out at us from over the stall door, her long mane shriveling into the tight curls of her short-cropped hair. “I wasn’t even really trying to. I was just finishing up with Peppermint, and she went all quiet and still, and I wondered if I’d accidentally done the thing, acquired her or whatever, and then I just thought, you know.” She disappeared from view, and we could hear the rustle of fabric, the sound of zippers and snaps. A moment later, she emerged, biting her lip. “It’s just—I’ve literally had dreams about being a horse for my entire life. And then my parents went to bed at ten thirty, and I came out here to wait, and I just thought—well, what harm could it do?”

I looked over at Jake, realizing a split second too late that I was being an idiot, that Jake wasn’t actually in charge of anything and that furthermore he was pretty much Cassie’s boyfriend and probably couldn’t be relied on to do the appropriate amount of screaming and yelling that this situation called for.

Sure enough, his expression softened. “That was still a really big risk, Cassie,” he said. “You didn’t even lock the barn door. We just walked right in. What if we’d been Controllers?”

She looked sheepish. “Well, I mean, we never lock the barn door, so if my parents had come down, I would have had to explain why it was locked, and I just—I don’t know. It just didn’t seem likely, I guess.”

I was going to point out that suddenly being granted the ability to turn into a horse by a dying alien wasn’t particularly likely, either, and that maybe it was time to start taking unlikely possibilities very, very seriously, but Jake got there first.

For a very loose definition of there, anyway.

“You WHAT?” I spluttered, after actually feeling my jaw drop.

It was Jake’s turn to look sheepish, which he didn’t, instead crossing his arms and frowning as if I was the one who was being unreasonable. “I morphed Homer,” he repeated, matter-of-fact. “In the bathroom, with the door locked, while the shower was running.”

“Me, too,” Tobias said quietly. “I mean, not Homer. Dude. I morphed Dude, my cat.”

“What part of wait until we can all be there didn’t make sense to you people?” I said, completely aware that I was about an inch away from shouting. “We’re messing around with alien technology that’s supposedly shoving our bodies out into hyperspace. We were supposed to do this together—we were supposed to do this smart!”

“Hey,” Rachel interjected. “Who died and made you emperor?”

“Who died and made Jake emperor?” I shot back. “This has nothing to do with who’s in charge, this has to do with what makes sense. With keeping ourselves from getting killed. What did you morph into—a parakeet?”

“No,” she answered quietly. “My sister. Sara.”

There was a soft rustle as the whole group took in a breath. I felt a cold prickle of sweat break out between my shoulder blades. I’d already been thinking about acquiring people, but thinking about it and doing it were two very different things. Even I hadn’t expected that particular line to be crossed so quickly.

“That,” I said, slowly and carefully, “was really st—”

“Oh, shut up,” Rachel snapped, leaping up from the bale of hay where she’d been sitting and sticking a finger in my face. “You think you’re the only one here with brains, Marco? My sister is not a Controller. She’s eight years old. They don’t want her for anything. Besides, if she was, then I would have been—don’t you think the very first move a Controller would make would be to infest the rest of her family? And she didn’t notice me acquiring her, because she was already falling asleep—I did it while I carried her up to bed. And there was no chance anybody was going to catch me, because I did it in my room, with the lights out, with the door locked, and with the dresser shoved up against it. So take that smug little attitude and shove it, okay?”

“Rachel,” Jake began warningly.

No, Jake,” I said, cutting him off. The hot anger I’d initially felt had cooled into obsidian, and my voice was tight and controlled as I stood to face Rachel. She was a good foot and a half taller than me, but I forced myself to loom anyway, pushing forward so that she had no choice but to take a step back. “Rachel’s right. I’m not the only one with brains. Because I never even thought about using eight-year-olds to infest entire families, or how one elementary school teacher could pretty much take out a whole neighborhood. Just put the class down for naptime, open up your Thermos, and there you go—an all-you-can-infest buffet.”

Rachel’s glare didn’t change much, but I saw her eyes widen a little, saw the edges of her mouth compress. Around me, the others had gone rigid, even Jake shocked into silence. “You know who does have brains, though?” I continued. “The Yeerks. Maybe a thousand of them already. A thousand human brains, a thousand slaves, except those slaves can’t even think without their masters knowing about it. Every idea those thousand people have—every escape plan, every desperate hope, every Yeerk weakness they manage to figure out—the Yeerks know. They know all of it, can use all of it. If just one of those people happens to realize, just accidentally makes the connection that oh, hey, you know what, elementary schools are this giant weak spot in humanity’s defenses, then it’s game over, because they don’t just get our bodies, they get our minds too. Every new Controller counts double, because not only do we lose everything that person could have brought to the fight, the Yeerks gain all that.”

I was pushing too hard, could tell that I was pushing too hard, but I didn’t care. I’d been wrestling with the weight of this for an hour, struggling to think through all of the implications, feeling hope slip away, and meanwhile, the rest of them had been morphing into pets. I rounded on them, burned each of them with my glare as I tore at their illusions, their happy ignorance. “There is nothing standing in their way except us—did you get that? This isn’t some movie, where humanity’s going to rise up and pull some bullshit trick out of its ass. The Yeerks are winning. They’ve got a thousand of us already, they could have twenty thousand more in a couple of weeks, and nobody’s noticed. Elfangor said the point of no return might be six months away, and that means that tomorrow it’ll be five months and twenty nine days, and we’ve got nothing on our side except morphing, and you guys have already decided it’s a toy. Did you not see Elfangor get eaten? Do you not understand the stakes? He didn’t give each one of us the destruct code for the box because he believes in equality or democracy or some crap like that, he gave it to all of us because he knew that four of us might die and there might be just one of us left to stop the Yeerks from getting their hands on it. He was coming to destroy the planet because he thought that might be the only way to stop them.”

I ground to a halt. Even though my voice was still quiet, still low and tight, my chest was heaving. The sweat that had begun between my shoulder blades had spread, and I could feel it soaking into my shirt, into the waistband of my boxers. I looked at each one of them in turn, held each pair of eyes for a full five seconds before moving on to the next.

Except for Jake, I didn’t really know these people. They were placeholders, stereotypes, faces in the crowd—Jake’s cousin, Jake’s crush, and that emo kid who hangs around sometimes. Instead of Rachel, Cassie, and Tobias, I could have been walking home with Phillip, Erek, and Jennifer. Or David, Cate, and Elizabeth. I could have been walking home with Melissa Chapman, who—if Rachel was right—was almost certainly a Controller.

I didn’t know these people, but I needed them.

“We’re it, guys,” I said. “Just the five of us. If we don’t make it, if we screw it up, then the human race will actually lose. So yeah, I think it was stupid for Cassie to morph into a horse just to live out some little girl dream. I think it was stupid for Jake and Tobias to morph basically defenseless animals when anyone in their houses might be a Controller already. I think it was stupid for Rachel to morph her sister in her house, when any second her mom could have pulled the whole open-this-door-right-now-young-lady routine. There are seven billion people who are going to live or die based on the mistakes we do or don’t make. Being dumb is something we can’t afford, and I don’t care if you all think I’m an asshole for saying it.”

Suddenly tired, I turned away from them, closed my mouth and dropped heavily onto a nearby bale of hay. I felt drained, empty, as if I’d just finished running the mile in PE. In that moment, I wanted nothing more than to switch off and let someone else take control.

But I couldn’t. And maybe I’d never be able to again.

I looked back up. The four of them were all still frozen, various mixtures of anger, horror, and shame written on their faces as they looked at each other, at the animal cages lining the walls of the barn—at anything but me.

“Cassie,” I said flatly, hoping to change the subject. “What’s the deal with this place? Why do you guys have all these animals?”

She turned toward me, and I was surprised to see warmth and sympathy in her eyes. “This is the Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic,” she said. “Both my parents are vets, and my dad gets money from the state to take care of injured animals picked up by Animal Control, get them ready to be released back into the wild. We’ve usually got hawks and falcons who’ve been shot or hurt during storms, squirrels and raccoons and ‘possums who’ve been hit by cars, sometimes wolves or foxes or deer. We had a small bear one time, but that was a few years ago.”

She bit her lip. “Also,” she said, hesitantly, “also, my mom is the head vet at the Gardens. I can probably get us in without raising any suspicions. The zoo there has sharks, tigers, snakes, bats, elephants—pretty much everything.”

I ran my fingers through my hair. Evidence that we have been maneuvered into place by those you might call God, Elfangor had said.

Maybe he’d been telling the truth. Maybe the deck really was stacked in our favor, at least in some ways.

I looked around at the cages. About half of them were empty, but near the door were four large ones, each with a bird of prey. There was some kind of hawk with reddish feathers in its tail, a black-and-white osprey with one wing encased in plaster, a tawny owl with only one eye, and what looked like a young bald eagle.

Cassie had been following my gaze. “Do you think we should acquire them?” she asked timidly. “I can pull them out.”

If we morph an injured animal, do we get the injuries?

If we get injured in morph, do the injuries go away when we re-morph?

If one of us acquires an animal, can the others acquire from the morph, or do they have to acquire the original, too?

I shook my head. “Yes. But not yet. There’s something else I think we need to do, first.”

 

*        *        *

 

We’d decided to stay in the barn. The woods would have been safer in terms of the risk from Cassie’s parents, but the Yeerk ships had looked like they were headed for orbit, and it was a clear night. No sense in making satellite surveillance any easier than it had to be.

I was in the farthest stall at the back of the barn, away from Cassie’s three horses, with Jake and Tobias standing beside me. Rachel was just outside the door with her back turned; after seeing what happened to Elfangor’s clothes when he went from human to Andalite, I’d left mine in a pile in the corner. Cassie had stayed up front, where she was pretending to clean an empty cage, ready to head off her parents if they showed up.

Tobias had wanted to do it, but in a surprisingly generous move, Rachel had stepped up in my defense, arguing that out of the five of us, I was the only one who hadn’t gotten to try out the morphing power yet. I wasn’t totally comfortable with that kind of reasoning, but I appreciated the olive branch.

“You ready?” Jake asked.

I nodded tightly, trying not to let my nervousness show as I stood there, covering as much as I could with my hands. It was one thing to play around with imagining extra fingers when you were half-convinced it wouldn’t work. It was another thing to contemplate actually turning into some kind of alien centaur scorpion.

“It doesn’t hurt,” Tobias said. “It’s super gross and disturbing, but it doesn’t hurt.”

I nodded again. Taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes and focused.

This time, I could feel the changes immediately, feel the grinding as my bones rearranged, the sloshing as my organs liquefied and re-formed into new and complex structures. I was unable to keep my eyes closed and they snapped open just in time to see the two new legs bursting out of my abdomen, complete with blue fur and dark, sueded hooves. Unbalanced, I fell forward, Jake and Tobias reaching out to steady me.

There were a thousand changes, all of them happening in a rush, the two minutes flashing by as every piece of my body’s familiar territory was replaced with an alien landscape.

My mouth, sealing shut like a Ziploc bag as my nose flattened and my jawbone melted away.

My ears, turning pointy and sliding upward as my hearing sharpened noticeably.

My arms, withering slightly as they became the slender, graceful arms of an Andalite, complete with seven fingers at the end of each flexible hand.

My spine, lengthening and bending as the middle of my back became a sort of second hip, a hinge that left my upper body not quite upright, like a cobra preparing to strike.

My eyes—my new eyes, opening at the ends of two long stalks that sprouted from the back of my neckless head, offering me a full three hundred and sixty degrees of vision.

My tail.

It was the tail that marked the end of the transformation, a thick column of muscle, as heavy as my whole torso, counterbalancing the centaur body. I felt it grow, and grow, and grow, impossibly long, until it was fully capable of whipping over my—was it really still a shoulder?—and hitting targets outside of my arms’ reach. The blade of bone seemed to slide out of the shaft like Wolverine’s claws, a wicked scythe more than a foot long, as thick as a book at the base and tapering to a razor’s edge, a needle’s point.

As I lashed it back and forth, unable to resist the sheer sensation of power, I felt the body’s brain awaken. There were no thoughts, no memories, no personality—only a strange sort of reaching, a cup somehow straining to be filled. It was like a house where someone’s mind had lived, the ghost of consciousness still lingering in empty archives, in idle processors. The brain’s structure pulled at me, tugged on me, drew my own mind forward as if eager to absorb me and start thinking again.

“Marco?” Jake asked. “You okay in there?”

I turned to look at him with all four eyes, tried opening my mouth and remembered that I didn’t have one. <I think so,> I thought at him. <Can you hear me?>

Jake grinned, relief plain on his face. “Yeah, I can hear you. That’s amazing, actually.”

Tobias tapped me on the shoulder, and I swiveled my stalk eyes in his direction, keeping my main eyes on Jake. “What’s it like?” he asked.

I considered briefly. <It’s—>

<ELFANGOR. BROTHER. HELP ME.>

Chapter Text

Chapter 03: Rachel

I straightened in the stall, giving my body a quick once-over to confirm that all of my parts had, in fact, returned to their rightful places. Pulling on my clothes, I called out to the others. “I’m clear.”

The door swung open to reveal Cassie and Jake, both standing with expectant looks on their faces. “Still there,” I said. “Exactly the same as what everybody else heard. The voice goes ‘Elfangor, brother, help me,’ and then there’s like a ten second pause, and then it repeats.”

Jake nodded, the muscles in his jaw tight. “Did you mark the angle?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “Again, same as what you guys got.” I stepped aside so that they could see the two lines I’d gouged with my Andalite tail blade—one in the rough, unfinished wood of the stall wall, and one in the dirt of the floor. “It was definitely coming from under the ground.”

Cassie stepped forward, holding the plastic protractor she’d retrieved from her bedroom earlier that morning, when we’d reassembled after a long and sleepless night. “It’s tough to be really accurate,” she said. “But it looks just like yours and mine. Thirty-ish degrees below horizontal.”

“And just a little bit south of west,” I added, pointing at the line on the ground. “So unless it’s coming from the middle of the planet somehow—”

“—then Elfangor’s brother is trapped somewhere in the middle of the Pacific ocean,” Jake finished. He sighed, scrubbing at his eyes again, and looked over at Cassie’s globe, conspicuously out-of-place amid the hay bales and the dull metal cages. We’d tried extrapolating based on the direction the voice seemed to be coming from, had drawn a circle around our best guess as to its origin. It was about an inch across, a tight little loop in the middle of a wide patch of blue.

Just a little bigger than Texas.

“We’re definitely assuming this isn’t some kind of trick, then?” I asked.

Jake shrugged. “I don’t see how it could be, or why anyone would bother. Elfangor’s dead. And we’re only hearing the message when we’re in Andalite morph. I don’t know how hack-proof thought-speak is, but if the signal is somehow keyed to Elfangor’s DNA…”

“It might not be his DNA,” Cassie pointed out. “It could be his brainwaves, or something. I mean, if what we’re morphing is an exact copy of his body, all the way down to the neurons and stuff…”

“Not important,” I interrupted. “What’s important is figuring out what we’re going to do about it.”

Jake and Cassie exchanged glances, and I felt a flicker of irritation. “There might not be anything we can do, Rachel,” Jake said quietly. “That’s thousands of miles away from here. Hundreds of miles from the nearest land. If that circle’s in the right place, the globe says the water’s over two miles deep.”

The flicker turned into a small, bright flame and my eyes narrowed. “So it’s not going to be easy,” I said, letting my voice go sharp. “Don’t tell me you think that means we ought to do nothing.” I looked back and forth between them, but neither offered a response. “Elfangor died so that the five of us could get away. We can’t just abandon his brother.”

“After the mission to kill us all didn’t go according to plan, you mean,” Jake corrected. “We don’t know who his brother is, or what he’ll want, or how he’ll react when he finds out Elfangor is dead.”

“So your solution is to just ignore him? Leave him to drown, or starve?”

“That’s not what I’m—”

“Guys!” Cassie broke in. “This isn’t—I mean, can we please just wait for Tobias and Marco to get back? Instead of trying to figure it out by ourselves?”

Jake crossed his arms, his mouth clicking shut. I could see him wrestling with his own irritation, struggling to keep his cool. I said nothing, only spun on my heel and began pacing up and down the length of the barn.

It wasn’t Jake’s fault. I was on edge, overreacting, looking for excuses to argue. I couldn’t help it—I hadn’t slept at all, and every minute or so, my body would send another wave of adrenaline crashing through my bloodstream. It had been almost fifteen hours since Elfangor’s ship had appeared in front of us, and since then, we’d done nothing but stand around and talk.

Okay, that wasn’t true. We’d all tried morphing, and we’d gone ahead and acquired every animal in Cassie’s barn the night before so that the analysis could run its course. We’d confirmed that the message from Elfangor’s brother was, in fact, a message, and not a live communication, and we’d gone ahead and started working out its origin while Marco and Tobias went out into the woods to experiment with the telepathy that seemed to be part of the morphing technology.

But we hadn’t done anything, and I was starting to unravel. I could feel the pressure of inaction across every inch of my skin, getting tighter and tighter as the seconds ticked by.

On my third lap across the barn, I stopped abruptly. “I’m going to practice morphing until they get back,” I said. “I’ll use the stall.”

I ducked back inside before they could reply, pulling the door shut behind me. Taking my phone out of my pocket, I set it on a small ledge and opened up the stopwatch app, then stripped down. With a deep breath, I pushed start and focused all of my thoughts on my chosen target.

Badger, I thought to myself.

I had actually met the badger before, a scarred old male who’d been pulled out from under a log by a pair of hikers in the national park. Cassie and I had been working on homework together on the day he’d been found, and I’d been conscripted into helping while she and her dad operated on his broken back. Closing my eyes, I pictured his thick, wiry fur, his long, hooked claws, his wide, stubby tail.

The first thing I noticed was a feeling of falling. My eyes shot open as my body shrank down, the rest of the barn rocketing skyward. I was barely three feet tall before anything else started to change.

As I watched, my body began to turn colors—mostly black, but with bright slashes of pure white. There was an itchy, tingling sensation, and suddenly everything shattered and shivered and split, a million tiny hairs forming themselves out of what had moments before been smooth skin.

It was about then that my eyesight started to weaken, the world around me blurring as my eyes shrank and receded, changing from bright blue to the badger’s beady dark brown. At the same time, my nose and mouth began protruding, stretching farther and farther forward as the bones of my face rearranged into a long, sturdy snout.

I fell forward onto hands and knees just as my arms and legs began to shrink, sucking up into my body like spaghetti. I felt the connection between my head and my spine disappear as my skull rotated backward, then felt it re-form, the vertebrae clicking into place in their new arrangement. It was like being at the dentist—I could sense what was happening to my body, could tell that it should hurt, but I felt it only vaguely, distantly, as if it were happening to somebody else.

It was a good thing, too, because as my claws ripped their way out of my fingers and toes, I not only saw the bones inside my hands—I smelled them, too. If I’d been able to sense pain normally, I would have been driven completely insane before the morph was even halfway done. Every single piece of me had been torn apart, rearranged, and stuck back together.

With a nauseating sound like cutting meat, my tail pushed out from the base of my spine, and the morph was complete. Holding still, I braced myself for the appearance of the badger’s mind.

We’d discovered that our control over the morphs wasn’t a hundred percent—which was actually a relief, because it meant we didn’t have to figure out how to swim and crawl and fly from scratch. There was a sort of residual awareness, a collection of emotions and instincts that were more than capable of running the morphed body on their own.

For some morphs—like Elfangor’s body, or the birds of prey—the effect was pretty mild. There was hunger, and maybe a drive to hunt or hide, and some subtle shifts in what caught your attention, but otherwise, you mostly felt like you.

With the horses, though, it was almost impossible to shake the skittishness. It was like being on five cups of coffee—there would be a sound, and the horse body would have already reacted before your human brain had even registered it. And when Cassie tried out squirrel morph, she lost control completely for almost five minutes, tearing around the barn in a panic. The squirrel’s instincts were just too powerful, too ingrained, and it wasn’t until Tobias dipped back into hawk morph and communicated with her telepathically that she was able to get a grip.

I was pretty confident that the badger would be easy to handle. It was a big and powerful animal, fairly high up on the food chain, and this badger in particular had seemed more bored than afraid each time I’d seen Cassie give him his meds. But I steeled myself mentally, just in case.

As it turned out, I didn’t need to worry. The badger was sleepy, confident, and hungry, in that order. It was like sharing my brain with the essence of Saturday mornings. Other than a slightly-higher-than-usual desire to sniff around in the dirt of the stall floor, I felt completely normal and completely in control.

Rearing, I tried to make out the numbers on my phone. The ledge where I’d left it was only a foot above my head, but the badger’s vision was terrible. Everything was blurred, and all of the colors were washed out and subtly shifted. I could see a dark, rectangular shape with something bright moving inside, but otherwise nothing.

Okay, fine. I’d been in morph for—what—thirty seconds? If I demorphed immediately, I could still get a pretty decent estimate of how long the transformation had taken. I was interested in finding out whether morphs of different size took different amounts of time, or whether the technology responded to a harder mental push. Taking one last sniff, I focused on my own body and began to reverse the changes.

My normal human vision returned in time to see the stopwatch tick over from 2:59 to 3:00, and I kept my eyes locked on it for the rest of the transformation. It read 3:47 when the last of the squelching, schlooping, and grinding finished, and I did the math in my head in a heartbeat.

Just over a minute and a half. No different, in other words, than when I’d morphed into Sara or Elfangor. It wasn’t enough to lock in the pattern for sure, but it was pretty solid evidence to start with. Human child, dog-sized mammal, or full-sized alien—apparently, size and complexity made no difference.

Resetting the timer, I focused on the squirrel, and began my second morph. My sixth, in total.

Four minutes later, as I returned to human form, I suddenly realized that my whole body was trembling and tired, my arms heavy as if I’d just finished running through my gymnastics routine. Frowning, I took a step, and was just barely able to stop my knees from buckling.

That was new.

“Guys?” I called out weakly. Reaching for my clothes, I overbalanced, my shoulder slamming against the stall wall. I stayed in that position as I tugged on my jeans, leaning heavily against the wood as I slid them past my hips. Stashing the phone in my pocket, I threw my coat around my shoulders and stepped shakily back out of the stall.

Cassie and Jake were over by the barn door, poring over the globe and a sheet full of scribbled drawings and diagrams. They looked up as I walked out, their faces immediately flooding with concern.

“Rachel!” Cassie shouted, as they both ran over to me. “Sit down!”

I levered myself toward one of the hay bales, feeling tired all over, and just barely made it, my muscles giving way as I dropped heavily into a sitting position. “Tired,” I said.

“What happened?” Jake asked. “Are you okay? You’re white as a sheet.” Behind me, Cassie grabbed my shoulders, pulling me back to lean against her thighs and stomach.

“Morphed and demorphed,” I said, each word a weight that had to be lifted individually. “Twice, rapid-fire.”

“And it did this?” he said, appalled. “You look like you did when you had pneumonia last year.”

I shook my head, trying to clear it. “Not like that.” I lifted my arm, let it drop back into my lap. “Not dizzy. Not sick. More like, just ran ten miles.”

I felt Cassie’s fingers gently buttoning my jacket for me, then twitched when they pressed against the line of my jaw. I realized she was checking my pulse, and held still, noticing as I did that my breathing was normal, neither particularly fast nor particularly slow.

“Heart rate’s about fifty-four,” Cassie announced. “A little low, but she’s a gymnast. Totally normal.”

I shrugged my shoulders and tensed my legs. “Not sore, either,” I said. “Just really, really—”

I broke off. I had been about to say really, really tired, but in the minute or so that I’d been sitting there, one of the reallys had dropped off. Now I only felt like I’d run five miles.

“What is it?” Jake asked, still sounding slightly hysterical.

“Nothing,” I replied. “It’s weird. It’s already fading.” I gently pulled Cassie’s hands off of my shoulders and straightened, still sitting on the bale. “It hit me like a ton of bricks, but I’m already halfway back to normal.”

“Don’t stand up yet,” Cassie warned. “You’re still looking pretty pale.”

I nodded, and stayed seated. “Do you think it has something to do with the morphing tech?” I wondered aloud. “Like, obviously, duh. But with the morphing tech itself. The nanobots, or whatever.”

Jake shrugged, his expression still tight. “Could be. Elfangor said something about them having a charge. But I don’t see why that would make you tired.”

“Some kind of fail-safe?” Cassie suggested. “An automatic shutoff, to stop you from overloading the system?”

“If so, that’s something we’re going to have to do more experiments with,” I said. “Don’t want to suddenly run out of morphing power in the middle of a fight.”

“Like hell,” Jake snapped. “I don’t care about some fight, I care about the fact that my cousin just came this close to dying of exhaustion.”

I smiled, feeling the last of the strange fatigue draining away from my arms and legs. “Real sweet, Jake, but I’m fine. Look.” Standing, I shook out my hands and feet, rotated my shoulders and hips.

“Still,” Jake said. “That’s—what—ten transformations this morning? Counting both morphing and demorphing? Six in the past fifteen minutes. I don’t want you doing any more for at least a couple of hours.”

“Who’s gonna stop me?”

“Rachel—”

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” I said, holding up my hands as Jake put on his best stern-dad expression. “I’ll hold off for a while. But we really do need to figure out what the limits are.” I looked over at the globe. “Especially if we’re going to have to chain morphs together all day while we swim or fly across an ocean.”

I looked back just in time to catch Jake’s grimace, and then my own voice filled my head.

<Eagle Leader to Eagle Nest. Inbound, ETA thirty seconds, Tobias ate a mouse. Over.>

 

*        *        *

 

“Short version: thought-speak has a range of about three hundred yards, and shouting or whispering doesn’t change the range, but it does change the volume. It clicks on about halfway through the morph no matter what, and you can thought-speak from any morph, including human. It doesn’t matter if there’s stuff in the way, and you can send things that aren’t words, like humming or beeps, but they still translate into the other person’s ‘voice.’ It also has some kind of automatic built-in privacy targeting thingy—I was right next to Tobias and basically thought-shouting, but he couldn’t hear me unless I wanted him to. Oh, and side note—we tried acquiring from a morph, and it works. I can now officially impersonate Tobias’s cat, Dude.”

We were sitting in a circle in the barn, just as we had the night before. Marco was perched on the same high, sturdy shelf where he’d left his spare clothes, his legs kicking and dangling as he looked down at the rest of us. He’d flown in, demorphed in place, and immediately begun talking, a hint of excitement leaking through his doom-and-gloom attitude. Jake and Cassie and I were listening, having already explained about the morphing fatigue while the pair of them were coming out of bird form. Tobias was off to one side, slightly apart from the rest of us, a queasy sort of look on his face.

“Did you check the distress signal?” Jake asked.

“Yeah,” Marco said, nodding. “It was just as strong and coming from the same direction even when we went two or three miles out, so it’s definitely not just three hundred yards deep underground or anything like that. Oh, and there’s something special about it, because when Tobias and I were talking at each other, we couldn’t tell where our thoughts were coming from.”

I frowned. “A homing beacon? Tied right into the message somehow?”

“Makes sense, for a distress signal,” Jake said. “Did you guys run into any trouble with multiple morphs? Like what happened to Rachel?”

“Not really,” Marco said. “We got a little tired after a while, but we never did four changes back-to-back like that.” He glanced at Tobias. “We did run into a little trouble with the morph’s instincts. Turns out they can take you by surprise pretty quick.”

Tobias’s mouth thinned to a tight line, and his cheeks flushed. “There was a mouse,” he said curtly. “It was like flipping a switch. The hawk just took over.”

“Which raises an interesting question, actually,” Marco said. “Is there a mouse inside you right now?”

I saw Jake and Cassie’s eyes widen with surprise. Tobias’s face didn’t change—he’d clearly already been considering the possibility, and was none too thrilled about it.

“Because the way the morphing seems to happen,” Marco continued, “your body changes piece by piece, right? So theoretically, you might have morphed around the mouse.”

“Do we really have to talk about this?” Cassie asked, her eyes on Tobias, whose blush had turned slightly green.

Marco shrugged. “No. But the question becomes a lot more interesting when we’re talking about bullets, instead of mice.”

I shivered. Jake gave a low whistle and stuck his hands in his pockets, while Cassie reached out to put a hand on Tobias’s shoulder. For a moment, we were all silent.

Then a thought occurred to me. “Hey,” I said. “Actually, that reminds me—you said thought-speak works when you’re in human morph?”

Marco nodded.

“You and Tobias morphed each other?”

Another nod.

“What—um. What happened to your clothes? When you morphed?”

“Nothing. We just morphed inside them, basically.”

“But they fell off when you morphed into birds?”

“Yeah. They’re stashed out by those big rocks, at the edge of the woods. Figured we’d pick them up on the way out.”

I frowned. Something was tickling at the edge of my thoughts, but I couldn’t quite put it into words.

“What is it, Rachel?” Cassie asked.

I shook my head. “Dunno,” I replied. Our clothes had fallen off each time we’d morphed something small. And when Elfangor had demorphed from human to his larger Andalite body, his clothes had ripped and torn. Basically, clothes were completely separate from the morphing process, which was about what you’d expect, if it was based on a genetic scan. Except—

“Elfangor’s clothes,” I said. “Where’d they come from?”

Marco shrugged. “He probably had some stashed away, right? I mean, he’d morphed human before.”

“Those weren’t human clothes, though,” I said.

There was a long pause as everyone gave me the same blank look. “What?” I asked, a little defensively. “They weren’t. The seams were totally weird—they were in all the wrong places, and they didn’t look like they were held together by thread.”

“Leave it to Rachel to pick up on the finer points of intergalactic fashion design,” Jake said dryly.

“Excuse me,” Cassie interrupted, holding up a hand. “I don’t mean to butt in, but can we back up for a minute? I mean, we’ve been doing experiments and figuring stuff out all morning, but we haven’t even stopped to talk about the big picture.”

“What big picture?” I asked.

“Everything!” Cassie said, and suddenly her voice was no longer strong and steady. “All that stuff that Marco was talking about last night! The alien invasion going on in our hometown! Mr. Chapman infesting those police officers! You guys are talking about bullets and—and rescue missions to the middle of the ocean, and we just watched someone get eaten, and—we’re just a bunch of teenagers in a barn! What are we going to do? What’s the plan?”

“We fight,” I said.

“Fight who? Fight how? None of us know anything about how to—to wage war. I haven’t ever even punched anybody. And how are we supposed to fight anything when we can’t even leave the house without telling our parents where we’re going? This is too big, you guys. Too big. We—we could die. Elfangor died. Those cops got turned into slaves right in front of us. How are we supposed to do anything about any of this?”

“Okay,” Jake said, springing to his feet and holding out both hands. “Everybody hang on a sec. Please. Just hang on and take a deep breath.” He looked around the circle for consent, then nodded grimly. “Okay. First off—Cassie, you’re right. We need to start at the beginning. And we need to go slow, so that we all have a chance to talk.”

He paused again, glancing at each of us in turn. “Anybody mind if I talk first?”

“You’re in charge, boss-man,” Marco quipped.

Jake winced, and I raised my hand. “Actually,” I said, “that’s maybe the first thing we need to figure out. Who is in charge?”

“Aren’t we all in charge?” Tobias asked. “Democracy, and all that?”

“Democracy means voting,” Marco pointed out. “Which means majority rule, which means if it’s four against you, you shut your mouth and toe the line.”

“I’m not doing anything just because the four of you tell me to,” Cassie said, and there was steel beneath the tremble in her voice.

“Stop,” Jake said, and everyone fell silent again. He took a deep breath, then another, then a third. “I—okay, look. Just for right now. Just for five minutes. You all know me. Rachel, you’re my cousin. Marco, you’re my best friend. Tobias, we’ve been hanging out all year. Cassie—you trust me, right?”

Cassie nodded.

“Okay. So I’m the common link. I’m the one that everybody knows best. For the next five minutes, I’m in charge.”

He paused again, looking around the circle as if giving us a chance to object. None of us did.

“Okay. I’ll go first, then I’ll call on somebody.” He stuck his hands in his pockets, looking down at his feet, his tone neutral and flat. “Okay. Three things. First, are we even going to do this—are we going to fight.”

I felt another flicker of irritation, this one accompanied by a healthy dose of impatience. Of course we were going to fight. What was the alternative—just stand there and do nothing?

But I suppressed the emotion, looking around the circle at Marco and Cassie and Tobias, looking at the weight that seemed to press down on Jake’s shoulders.

They were afraid.

“And everybody gets to make their own decision,” Jake continued. “No guilt. No pressure. We all saw what happened to Elfangor. I can’t—we can’t ask anybody to face that. Not if they aren’t ready. Nobody’s in unless they want to be.”

All four of them, terrified. Dealing with it, yeah, but the fear was there, written right across their faces where anyone could see.

Why wasn’t I afraid?

Should I be afraid?

“Second, are we a team. Like, are we in this together, or not. Because if we are, we’re going to have to trust each other. And if we don’t, it’s not going to work.”

I dug down into myself, trying to get a finger on the pulse of my emotions. I had to be feeling something, right?

“Third, what should we do. What’s our first step. Because we’ve got Elfangor’s brother out there somewhere, and we’ve got vice-principal Chapman, and we know the Yeerk pool is underground in the middle of town, whatever it is. And we don’t know who else we can trust.”

And then I realized. I wasn’t afraid, but it wasn’t because there was no fear inside of me. It was there, deep down—a whole ocean of it. I’d just refused to let it up. Looked away from it. Covered it up with a layer of cold resolve.

Like in gymnastics, when I’d been too scared to do backflips until I’d worked myself into a frustrated rage. Like when my mom and dad got divorced, and I didn’t talk to either of them for two months. Like last night, when Tobias and Cassie had been in tears, and all I’d felt was fury.

“Fourth, I guess. Sorry. What are the rules. How do we make decisions. What are the lines we can’t cross. What do we do if one of us—if somebody—if everything goes wrong.”

Was it better to be angry? Or afraid?

I looked around the circle again.

“That’s it, I guess. Who wants to go next?”

Angry.

I raised my hand.

“Rachel,” Jake said. “Your turn.”

I stood up. “I don’t have a whole lot to say,” I began. I deliberately kept my hands out of my pockets, kept my chin up and my eyes forward. “I’ve never been in a fight before, either. I don’t know anything about war. But right now, we’re the only ones with our eyes open. We’re the only ones who know, who are free, and Elfangor died to make that happen. Died a billion miles from home. I don’t know what good turning into a badger is going to be, but—”

I stopped and shrugged. I looked across the circle to Cassie—my best friend, and the sweetest, gentlest person I knew. “But they can’t have my sisters. And they can’t have my mom. They can’t have my dad, or my friends, or my coach. Not if there’s anything I can do to stop it. I’ll do whatever it takes—if one of you guys has a plan, count me in. But even if you don’t. Even if I’m on my own. Even if it’s hopeless. Because thanks to Elfangor, the worst they can do to me is kill me. And I’m not going to run away from that—not when everybody else is up against something so much worse.”

I sat back down, and silence filled the barn.

“Anyone else?” Jake asked. Cassie raised her hand, and he nodded to her.

“I’m not arguing with any of that,” she said. “But how can you possibly fight when every single bad guy is living inside an innocent human shield?”

 

*        *        *

 

By the time we finished talking, the sun was already halfway to the horizon. Tobias left on foot, Marco on his bike. Jake stayed behind to have dinner with Cassie’s family, who would drop him off at home afterward. We had all agreed not to risk flying home—not to morph at all, unless somebody’s life was at stake.

We hadn’t accomplished much. Nobody was out, but only Jake and Marco were really in. Cassie still had too many questions that no one could answer, and Tobias had mostly stayed silent.

We’d managed to agree that Jake was our leader, although nobody really knew what that meant, least of all Jake. In the end, it had boiled down to the fact that he was the only one who linked us all together. And—as Marco pointed out—that he was pretty much doing the job already, and it was working out so far.

We were going to meet up again tomorrow afternoon, at the Gardens. Cassie was fairly certain she could get us back door access to most of the animals, and if she was wrong, we were going to use the trip to scope things out for a possible night mission afterward. Her condition: it would be a non-morphing, non-violent operation. Anything we couldn’t accomplish in our own, regular bodies would have to wait. Marco had joked that we should bring spray paint and marijuana as cover; everybody had laughed until Tobias asked how much we would need.

Somehow, that had made it all a little too real.

About halfway through the conversation, I’d started to feel that pressure again, the itch of inactivity that made me want to get up and pace, made my fingers twitch and cut my patience in half. It had grown worse and worse as the others bickered and dithered, until finally I’d had to step outside to get some fresh air. Luckily, an idea had come to me, and I’d spent the rest of the discussion fleshing out a plan in my head.

For everyone else, the war would start tomorrow.

For me, it started tonight.

My house was a couple of miles away from Cassie’s, a walk I’d done hundreds of times. There was a small boutique in a strip mall right at the halfway mark, where I’d drag Cassie every once in a while when she showed signs of being willing to wear something other than overalls. They knew me there; it wouldn’t be at all out of the ordinary to stop in on a Saturday afternoon and try on some blouses.

More importantly, their dressing room doors went all the way to the floor.

Elfangor had read our minds from inside his ship—had pulled Jake and Marco’s names right out of their heads. And whatever was actually going on with thought-speak, it had noticeable, physical effects—if words were showing up in our brains that wouldn’t have been there otherwise, then there had to be neurons firing that would have otherwise been dormant—right?

I worked through the implications as I thumbed through the racks. Andalites didn’t have a mouth. Thought-speak, for them, wasn’t technology—it was how they naturally communicated.

Right?

So they had to have some kind of organ that would let them sense—and alter—thought. That would let them monitor and manipulate the firing of neurons—or whatever it was that aliens had—in someone else’s brain. Like the way sharks could sense electric fields, only in both directions.

Which meant that maybe—just maybe—we could figure out a way to detect Controllers from a distance.

I headed for the dressing room, armed with enough items to guarantee myself at least half an hour of privacy. I felt a slight twinge of guilt over the fact that I was already breaking my agreement not to morph, but I pushed it aside. Besides, technically, I was justified—lives were at stake.

Three of them, to start with.

It was cramped in the dressing room. Elfangor’s centaur-scorpion body was easily six feet long, not counting the tail. But I didn’t need to move—I just needed to think.

<ELFANGOR. BROTHER. HELP ME.>

I closed my four eyes and sat as still as I could, feeling the hyperconscious Andalite brain ticking and churning away beneath my own stream of thought. I reached out, visualizing the brains of the people around me, hoping to catch a glimpse, an echo, a spark.

<ELFANGOR. BROTHER. HELP ME.>

Nothing.

I tried relaxing instead of focusing, letting my own mind recede, allowing the Andalite brain to take over. It was like turning my thoughts over to a computer—I could feel my reaction time shrinking, feel my attention dividing into multiple tracks, each capable of running at full efficiency. But there was nothing new there—no new senses, no ESP.

<ELFANGOR. BROTHER. HELP ME.>

Frustrated, I resisted the impulse to lash my tail back and forth. There was something I wasn’t seeing, some missing piece to the puzzle. Maybe there wasn’t an organ for listening to other people’s thoughts at all? Just the projector—just the “voice,” and it worked on top of whatever inner monologue was there to begin with?

But Elfangor knew Jake’s name. It sounded like he knew exactly what Jake was thinking.

<ELFANGOR. BROTHER. HELP ME.>

Sighing inwardly, I began to demorph.

Giving up already?

No. But I was pushing it already, morphing in a public place, and there was no sense in risking it any longer than I had to.

Besides, I had a Plan B.

One of my neighbors, Mr. King, used to work as a dog trainer for the local police department before he retired. Whenever one of the dogs got too old or got injured on the job, he’d take it in. He usually had about six or seven of them living in his big, fenced-in backyard.

Every now and then, I’d run into him as he and his wife or his son—a kid named Erek, who was in my grade—walked them around the neighborhood. The last time, I’d gotten an earful about his newest acquisition, a German Shepherd named Buzz who’d recently torn a ligament bringing down a drug smuggler on the other side of the city.

A drug smuggler they’d identified when Buzz sniffed out the traces of cocaine from a shipment the guy had moved two days earlier.

I’d heard about dogs who could take one sniff of a person, and tell if they had cancer. My mom had told me about dogs that were trained to bark a warning whenever their diabetic owners’ blood sugar dropped too low.

I was willing to bet that Buzz would have no trouble sniffing out an evil alien slug sitting in the back of my vice-principal’s head.

One hour later, and I was lying on my paws on the sidewalk in front of Mr. Chapman’s house, a cheap, dollar store collar loose around my neck, absorbing the warmth from the last rays of sunshine.

I hadn’t brought it up in front of the others, but Melissa Chapman had been a friend of mine since elementary school. We’d been on the same gymnastics team for years, and had spent entire summers sleeping over at one another’s houses. We’d drifted apart since I’d started hanging out with Cassie, but she was still one of the most important people in my life. She knew me better than anyone, had helped me through my parents’ divorce, knew the passwords to all my accounts.

And her father was an alien slave.

As I waited, watching the sun slip below the horizon, a fierce battle raged inside me. Half of me wanted to believe that Melissa was safe, that the Yeerks didn’t have any use for her this early in the invasion, that I’d have noticed if they’d taken her. The other half had already gone cold as ice, and was planning ahead.

To how I would kidnap her, and take her away.

To how I’d hold her, somewhere up in the mountains, until the Yeerk in her head died of kandrona starvation.

To how I’d give her the morphing power, and make her our first recruit.

To how we’d come back, and take her parents, and set them free, too.

But first, I had to be sure.

It was twilight by the time Mr. Chapman’s mini-van pulled into their driveway, coming back from their weekly family dinner out. Leaping to my feet, I let out a friendly bark and began wagging my tail. As the doors opened, the German Shepherd brain seemed to hesitate, a wordless question forming in my head.

Friend?

I stepped forward cautiously, nostrils flaring. With a smile, Mr. Chapman reached down, holding out his fingers. I licked them gently, and he scratched me on my forehead.

Yes, I told the dog brain. Friend. But I continued to sniff, my human brain digging through the information as quickly as it could.

Buzz’s sense of smell was nothing short of extraordinary. Lying there on the sidewalk, I had been able to detect every single person and animal that had passed by since the last rain, a week earlier. I’d been able to smell the food in each of the nearby houses, the water running through the sewers under the street, the gasoline burning in the cars driving by. I could pick apart odors as easily as my human eyes could pick apart colors, and there were if anything more smells than there were shades.

But Buzz’s animal brain didn’t come equipped with a dictionary. There was no way for it to tell “natural” from “unnatural.” The suburban world was a crazy mix of organic and artificial, with plenty of perfectly ordinary smells that would have been utterly alien to a wild dog who’d grown up in some forest somewhere.

So I’d expected it to be difficult—maybe impossible—to identify the smell of Yeerk on my first pass. Especially since I didn’t really know if all three Chapmans were infested—a strange smell coming from all three of them might have just meant that they all used the same detergent or the same shampoo or whatever.

There was one thing, though, that my dog brain was entirely qualified to detect. Something that millions of years of evolution and thousands of years of breeding had made automatic, instinctive, and immediate.

Mr. Chapman was terrified.

It was subtle. Suppressed, as if the Yeerk inside was tampering with the process, shutting down the pathways by which the fear would express itself as sweat and hormones and dilated pupils. I probably would have never noticed, as a human. But to Buzz, it was like an alarm bell. I struggled to maintain control, to keep Buzz’s hackles from going up, to keep his own empathetic response from taking over. Friend, I told myself firmly, and I forced myself to roll over onto my back, exposing my belly. Mr. Chapman laughed and began rubbing my short, clean fur.

Melissa and her mother came around from the other side of the van. “Who’s this?” Mrs. Chapman asked.

Melissa crouched down, offering me her fingers. Friend, I told the dog brain again, as I leaned forward and sniffed.

Fear.

Rage.

Despair.

“Must belong to one of the new neighbors,” Mr. Chapman said. “There’s no tag on the collar.”

I sprang to my feet again, letting out another short bark and bowing onto my elbows as if eager to play. Mr. Chapman laughed again, and Melissa turned back to the van, reaching inside and rummaging around for a moment before drawing out a tennis ball.

“Here, boy,” she said, her voice sounding perfectly normal and happy. “Fetch!”

I reared up onto my hind legs, maintaining the illusion as rage threatened to shatter my control. She threw the ball, and I was after it like a shot, snatching it out of the air and racing back toward the three of them, where I dropped it and began sprinting in circles around the minivan.

My friend.

They’d taken my friend.

Taken her, and her father, and her mother. Taken three people I’d known since I was a little girl. People I’d eaten with, gone on vacations with, shared Christmas mornings with. Trapped inside their own heads, not even able to scream.

Melissa threw the ball again, and I tore after it, this time continuing to run after I caught it in my jaws. “Hey!” Melissa shouted. “That’s not yours, boy!”

But I ignored her, cutting across yards and leaping past hedges until I was half a dozen blocks away. Only then did I relinquish my iron grip on the dog’s instincts, allowing my anger to bleed through, allowing Buzz’s hackles to rise and his lips to curl back, allowing his instincts to lead us to a dark hedge corner, where we didn’t have to worry about anything sneaking up behind us.

It was funny. The German Shepherd’s reaction to fear was basically identical to my own. Buzz wasn’t cowering, he was coiling. Preparing to strike, to lash out.

He didn’t want to run. He wanted to fight.

I waited for a few minutes, letting my anger turn from fire to ice, feeling the lightning draining out of my canine veins. Padding back toward Melissa’s, I began circling the neighborhood, checking for other signs of infestation. I stopped to greet three kids, one old lady, and a couple out for a walk. No trace of that sick, suppressed fear.

Just the Chapmans, then.

I slipped into the yard of the house behind theirs, lying down out of view behind a stack of firewood. Marco had said that thought-speak had a range of about three hundred yards, and that it would auto target, being heard only by the intended recipients.

I focused on Melissa and her parents, mentally excluding the Yeerks they were carrying. The alien slugs would hear it anyway—they’d have to. But if my guess was right, they’d be unable to tell it apart from any other thought. It would sound just like Melissa, just like Mr. and Mrs. Chapman, my message translated into their own internal voices, just as Elfangor’s voice had been translated into mine.

<Enjoy it while you can, Yeerk,> I thought. <The Andalites are coming.>

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 04: Cassie

I want to say that I never asked for any of this. That I wish it could all go back to the way it was.

Both of my parents are veterinarians, you know. I’m going to be one too, someday. I’ve been dealing with death since I was a toddler. Looking it right in the face, in all its ugly, sad, unfair detail. More than Marco, more than Jake, more than Tobias and Rachel, I knew what was coming if we decided to fight in this war. And while I maybe didn’t understand exactly how horrible it would be, I understood how little I understood. I could see the gap where that awful knowledge would go. And I want to say I’d give up anything to stop myself from learning it.

But if I’m honest with myself—really, truly honest—then I can’t. Because even knowing what was coming, I was happy. Happy in a way I’d never thought I’d be. Happy in a way I’m not sure I could ever decide to give up.

And I’d definitely asked for it. Prayed for it. Wished for it a thousand times over.

I don’t know what that says about me, as a person. Probably not much. I mean, everybody’s got something they’d give it all up for, right? Everybody’s got a price.

If I really had time to think about it—if some genie showed up and said, you can stop this war right now, and all you have to do is give up the morphing power—well, I’d probably make the right decision.

But it hurts to know how bitter I’d be. To know that, deep down inside, I’m not that good of a person. That the kind, caring, empathetic face I show the world is only half the story, and if I cared just a little bit less, I might sacrifice the freedom of the whole human race, just so that I could feel the wind in my mane, hear the thunder of my hooves as I raced across the fields beyond my family’s property.

So fast.

I’d never felt so fast. So strong. So capable. Peppermint’s body—my body—was a thousand pounds of lean, liquid muscle. I felt like I could run for days, like I could kick a hole through concrete, like I could leap tall buildings in a single bound. For the first time in my life, I was starting to understand what it was like to be Rachel, out there on the gymnastics floor. I was the embodiment of power.

And yet, at the same time, I was at peace. There was no anger in the horse’s mind. No ego, no malice. She was happy to be running, happy to rest, happy to nibble at the grass in the cool morning sunshine. She was content just to live, with nothing to prove and no battles to win.

I would have stayed that way forever, if I could have.

<Cassie!> came the voice in my head. <Cassie, if that’s you, don’t screw around. I’m not going to rat you out to Jake. But I need to talk to you right now. We are in crisis mode as of twenty minutes ago.>

I slowed to a trot and looked up at the sky, unable to stop myself from tossing my head. A single bird of prey was arrowing across the blue, its wings pumping like a sparrow’s, its flight unnaturally straight. <It’s me,> I said, feeling my human heart sink behind the curtain of Peppermint’s calm.

<Barn. Demorph. Now. I’ll watch out for your parents.>

 

*        *        *

 

I dragged the overalls out from the cabinet where they’d been sitting for months, the fabric stiff and crusted with mud and poop from half a dozen species. “Sorry,” I said, as I handed them over the stall door.

“Doesn’t matter,” Marco replied. His voice was tight, his sentences clipped. Throwing the overalls on, he emerged from the stall without the slightest hint of self-consciousness, stopping right in front of me and looking straight into my eyes. “Cassie. I’m about to make you freak, okay? I’m going to say some words, and you’re going to want to freak. But you can’t freak, okay? We do not have time for freaking right now. I need you to promise that you’ll hold it together even after I’ve given you a really, really good reason not to.”

I opened my mouth, then closed it again and swallowed. Suddenly the barn felt hot and airless. “Why are you here, Marco?” I asked slowly. “Why are you here instead of Jake or Rachel? Why are you talking to me instead of to Jake or Rachel?”

Marco reached out and put a hand on each of my shoulders. “Promise, Cassie. Say the words.”

And that’s when I felt it. Felt the first glimmers of understanding as the world disappeared out from under me.

Don’t act like you didn’t see this coming, girl, said the only part of me that wasn’t reeling. It was always going to be too soon—you know that. No such thing as right on time. Not with something like this.

I tried to take a deep breath, but I could only get about half of one. “I promise,” I croaked, not sure why he thought it would make a difference.

“Melissa Chapman and her parents are dead.”

There was a complicated half second, during which the world unexploded, started to celebrate, then took a hammer blow that left it cracked and listing. Amazingly, I felt myself keeping my promise, and my hands were steady as they gently lifted Marco’s off my shoulders. “How?” I asked, my voice level.

Oh, my God. You don’t even care, do you? It wasn’t Jake or Rachel, so no big deal?

“Car accident. Head-on collision, late last night. This morning, technically.”

“How did you—I mean, where did you—”

“I’ve had the news going nonstop since Friday, and I’ve been checking the internet every half hour, just in case. It was on Channel Eight a few minutes ago—seven AM round-up.”

“Oh, my God,” I said. “Do you think Rachel—”

“I don’t know,” Marco interrupted. “Probably not. But that’s going to be Jake’s job, okay? That’s why I’m here. There’s something else you have to do, and it has to be today.”

I could feel my thoughts starting to spin as shock, relief, and self-hatred settled in and began chasing one another. “Does Jake know yet?” I asked.

“No. I’m going to his house next, and we’re going to go to Rachel’s together. But you, Cassie”—he shifted, and I felt his hands slip into mine—“you’ve got to go to the Gardens.”

“What? Why?”

“This is the Yeerks, Cassie. Or at least, we have to assume it’s them, nothing else makes sense. All three Chapmans, in a car wreck at two in the morning? And whatever they’re up to, it’s not good news for us.”

“But why—”

Think, Cassie. This weekend, we don’t go because of the news, next weekend we don’t go because of the funeral. Two weeks until we get anything bigger than a badger? No go. Things are accelerating, and we haven’t even started moving yet.”

“But I—”

“You’re the only one who can pull it off, Cassie. Tell them—tell them you don’t want to think about it, you can’t handle talking about it, you just—want to be with the animals for a day. Just one day. They’ll give it to you. They’ll let you go anywhere in the zoo, today, probably places they wouldn’t even let you go normally. You’ll be able to acquire any animal you need, and then we can copy them off you. You can—you can use this.”

Something must have been happening to my face, because Marco quailed, his jaw trembling as he let go of my hands and took a step back. “I know,” he said. “I know, okay? And if it makes you feel any better, I knew that Jake—that you—”

He stopped, took a breath, and started over, not quite managing to look me in the eye. “If Jake were here, I’d explain it to him, and when I was finished, he’d ask you to do it. He’d ask you, and you’d hate him, you’d hate him for being the one to say the words, but you’d do it because you see, don’t you? You know it’s the right move. So I figured—figured I’d save you both the trouble.” He gave a hollow little laugh. “After all, it’s not like our friendship was going anywhere special. Sorry.”

And that’s when I realized that Marco didn’t know me. That he’d seen the squirrels and sparrows and overalls, and thought he’d understood. That just like Jake, he’d missed the difference between the face I showed the world—the person I wished I was—and the girl I really was, deep down inside.

If a genie offered the choice to Marco, he’d make the right move in a heartbeat. I wanted to hate him for that, a little. But I couldn’t, so I just hated myself instead.

“I’ll do it,” I said, my voice still steady. “And Marco—”

He raised his eyes and looked into mine. “Yeah?”

“You don’t have to say sorry.”

 

*        *        *

 

Large bulldozer morphs—elephant, rhino, gorilla, grizzly, Canadian moose.

Check.

Agile combat morphs—tiger, gray wolf, kangaroo, Burmese python, chimpanzee, cassowary.

Check.

Utility morphs—black mamba, Australian ghost bat, great horned owl, great snipe, Brazilian huntsman spider, star-nosed mole, beaver, ferret, otter, skunk, polar bear, cheetah, bottle-nosed dolphin, tiger shark, dormouse, housefly, cockroach, ant.

Check.

Marco had started to give me a list, but I’d shut him down pretty fast. He may be smart, but this was my world. I knew every last inch of the animal kingdom.

The saltwater crocodile could generate over three thousand pounds of bite pressure per square inch, enough to chew through steel pipe like it was beef jerky.

The sting of the tarantula hawk—a kind of hornet—hurt so badly that for the first three minutes, people usually couldn’t even stop screaming.

The loggerhead sea turtle could hold its breath underwater the entire time we were morphed.

There was a reason I wanted to be a vet.

But there was also a reason that Mom came home looking like a zombie half the time. Working with animals was hot, sweaty, exhausting stuff. Over the course of the day, I’d gone through practically every exhibit, talked to nearly every handler. I’d been on my feet for almost eleven hours, racing back and forth as I tried to catch each animal during feeding time or daily checkup, and I’d spent at least ten or fifteen minutes helping out with most of them. I was beat.

And it was going to take days for me to transfer all these morphs to the others.

Mom was quiet on the car ride home. I think she wasn’t quite sure what to make of my “reaction.” Melissa and I hadn’t been close—we really only knew each other through Rachel—but this was the first time one of my classmates had passed away. Knowing Mom, she was sitting on top of a big, heaping pile of parental wisdom, and was just holding back until I gave her some sort of signal that I was ready to hear it.

It was going to be a while, though. The last thing I wanted to do was listen to empty reassurances about God’s plan, and everything turning out all right in the end. I’d spent most of the day thinking about it, and Marco was right—this had to be the Yeerks, and it couldn’t mean anything good.

I leaned my head against the window and let my eyes flutter shut, the lights of the freeway tracing dim patterns on the back of my eyelids. I felt my mother’s hand reach over to pat me on the shoulder, then slide up to rub the back of my neck.

Tzzzzzzz-ZAP.

There was a sound, a touch of pressure, and suddenly my entire body went limp, sagging into the handle of the passenger side door.

What—

My eyes were still closed, behind lids that might as well have been welded shut, for all I was able to move them. I tried to speak, and my jaw refused to respond, my tongue lying dead inside my mouth. Even my breathing was shallow and irregular, the contraction of my diaphragm sluggish and weak.

Paralyzed.

My mother had touched me, and now I was paralyzed.

Which meant that—

No.

No no no no NO.

I felt the car swerve just a little, the way it did whenever Mom checked the GPS or looked at her phone. There was a soft click, and then something hot and wet touched my neck.

Oh, no, oh God please no—

I could feel myself slipping into a kind of mad panic as the hot wetness slowly began to climb upward, feeling its way along my jawline. I scrabbled frantically inside my head, trying with every last scrap of willpower to move my hand, my head, to open my mouth and scream.

They knew.

They had taken my mother, and now they were taking me.

“Welcome back, Eldar three-two-seven,” came my mother’s voice, sudden and cold. “Orders have changed since you went into stasis. The fleet is delayed, and there is a new protocol—free spread is suspended, and no one is to travel alone.”

I felt a sliver of warmth edge its way into my ear, and realized with horror that the Yeerk inside my mother was talking to me—was leaving orders in my memory, knowing that its partner would dig through my brain and find them.

“I will provide you with fourteen of our siblings,” she continued. “This host shares sleeping quarters with its mate; you will not be needed during conversion. Stand by as a backup, and prepare to take the human Jake—my host indicates he is the most appropriate primary counterpart for yours. Pass him eleven, and the following command: he is to convert his household, give each member two spares, and await further instructions. You and I, along with Onu Two-nine-nine, are to make arrangements to defend the animal collections against Andalite incursion. The Visser predicts that the Andalites will attempt to acquire Earth morphs, if they have not already.”

The sliver of warmth became a needle, threading deep into my ear, probing, pushing further than anything I’d ever felt. Then the needle thickened into a river of fire as the body of the Yeerk surged forward, tearing its way into my brain.

I felt my frantic desperation reach a peak, felt the last shreds of my composure shatter as the pressure disappeared and the Yeerk vanished into my head. The implants! I screamed silently. They were supposed to kill it!

There was a spasm of not-quite-pain, a flash of not-quite-light and a deafening not-quite-roar. Something touched me at every point of consciousness simultaneously, a groping, questing finger poking every thought and feeling and memory at once. I heard a voice, sensed a presence, felt my eyes open at someone else’s command—

Then there was a flash of actual pain, a searing, electric jolt, and everything seemed to dissolve. For a moment, I saw double, thought double, felt double, and then—

Then everything was quiet.

My eyes were open, though my body was still slumped awkwardly into the space between the seat and the door. The car was still gliding smoothly down the freeway, the alien gripping the wheel with my mother’s hands.

Hardly daring to breathe, I tried closing one eyelid—my right one, the one she couldn’t see.

It worked.

It worked, and I had done it.

The Yeerk was dead. Elfangor’s implant had done its job, and the paralysis was wearing off.

I could still feel the panic gripping me, the nauseating horror that threatened to close my throat and send my heart bursting through my ribcage. Any minute now, my mother would realize that something had gone wrong. She had some kind of stunner, and spare Yeerks somewhere—did she have a communicator? Some kind of panic button? Was there some code word I was supposed to give?

How much time did I have?

I watched through watery eyes as we pulled off the freeway. We were coming up the back way, away from the suburbs, taking the long, empty, twisting road that wound its way through the woods and fields.

Come on, think of something, think think, she’s going to notice, you have to do something, you have to—

Have to—

Have to—

To—

But there was nothing. My brain was spiraling, redlining, my thoughts going nowhere at a million miles per hour. I was trapped. Caught. Beaten.

notoriously disinterested in unusable bodies—

They were going to kill me.

They were going to kill me!

Oh God oh God okay hang on come on what would Jake do what would Rachel—

I flinched away.

Marco—

No.

“Eldar three-two-seven, report. Are you experiencing trouble with your host?”

My body went rigid, my mind suddenly, completely blank.

“Command. Ispec one-four-two reporting. Possible trouble with conversion of my host’s offspring. Currently in a car on Thistledown Road. Please track my position.”

Lie, you’re supposed to lie, you’re supposed to LIE NOW, CASSIE—

But fear and uncertainty had me transfixed like a deer in the headlights. I couldn’t think of anything, and so I remained silent and still as tears began to trickle down my cheeks.

“Eldar three-two-seven, I am immobilizing your host body. When you regain control, give formal confirmation.”

Tzzzzzzz-ZAP.

This time, the paralysis only took me from the neck down, leaving my eyes open. I felt my body sag a little heavier against the door, my head knocking against the window as the car rumbled over bumps and cracks in the road. In another ten minutes, we’d be home, and then the Yeerk in my mother’s head would take my father, too.

And then they’d go after Jake.

“Command. Ispec one-four-two. No response from Eldar. I suspect the offspring is unruly. Will not proceed to host home alone; awaiting assistance.”

The car slowed, drifting, then shuddered to a halt as the tires left the asphalt and bounced into the grass and dirt of the shoulder. My mother turned off the car, and an eerie silence fell.

For a moment, the cacophony in my brain refused to follow suit, as panicked, useless thoughts continued to bounce back and forth inside my skull.

Slowly, though—oh, so slowly—a kind of clarity began to emerge, born of a helpless desperation that sucked everything else down and away.

My mother was caught.

I was caught.

My father was still free.

Not for long, though, whispered a small voice. It sounded an awful lot like Marco. Not if you don’t get out of this car before the cavalry shows up.

But it was impossible. There was no way out.

Unless you break the rules.

I had almost thought of it, earlier, had flinched away reflexively before the idea could take hold. If I had hit my mother while we were still driving—hit her in the face or the throat, wrestled the wheel away from her and sent the car off the road—

It was the sort of thing Rachel would have done. It was the sort of thing Jake might have done, even. It was the obvious thing to do, once you took that tiny little step of admitting that my mother wasn’t worth saving anymore.

But was that an admission I was willing to make?

Well, it doesn’t matter now. You’re paralyzed.

And it wasn’t wearing off, either. The second shock had felt no different from the first, but it had already been at least two minutes, and my body was still dead, useless, utterly unresponsive.

My human body, anyway.

I felt my mouth go dry. If I morphed, would the new body be paralyzed, too? I couldn’t think of any reason why it would be.

She’ll just shock it again, though.

And there was no way that her weapon would fail to work on an Andalite body, which is what I’d have to morph if I wanted to maintain our cover.

Your cover is already blown. They’re going to find out you’re human about thirty seconds after they start torturing you.

If I was going to break all the rules…

Could her stunner take down an elephant?

Yeerk reinforcements were on the way. I didn’t know how many, or whether they’d come in a car or from the sky. But either way, I couldn’t have much time. Minutes, maybe. Maybe less.

One slim chance.

I began to morph, focusing with all my might on channeling the changes, keeping them subtle and invisible for as long as possible. I didn’t even know if that was possible—so far, every time we’d morphed it had been random and horrible. But if sheer desperation made any difference…

I could feel the inside of my body shifting and rearranging, feel the changes straining against the boundary of my skin as I fought to control them, to hold them back. The half-numb paralysis began to fade as my own stunned nerves were replaced by new ones, my frozen muscles disappearing as the elephant’s swelled in their places.

So far, I had managed to maintain my size and shape. I could feel the morphing tech resisting, growing sluggish as I pushed it further and further away from whatever default plan it wanted to follow. After thirty or forty seconds, it stopped entirely, unable to proceed in the face of my mental restrictions.

Just the right side, maybe. Where she can’t see.

Hardly daring to breathe, I slowly started morphing again, my half-human heart thudding in my chest as the fingers on my right hand shrank and my wrist thickened until it was as big around as a coffee cup. I felt my right foot grow snug inside my shoe, felt wiry hairs sprout across the whole right side of my body.

And still my mother said nothing. Just sat in unnatural silence. I wondered if the Yeerk was talking to her—if my mother was even awake, beneath the Yeerk’s infestation.

For a second time, the morphing process ground to a halt. I was now the circus freak of the century, half girl and half elephant, my smooth, dark skin transitioning to cracked gray along the line that ran from my nose to my navel.

I took a deep, quiet breath, the air moving strangely inside my patchwork lungs. If I was right, I could finish the morph in just a little over thirty seconds. And then—

What?

THEN what, Cassie?

Every choice was intolerable. I couldn’t hit my mother, couldn’t risk accidentally killing her. Couldn’t abandon her to the Yeerks. Couldn’t stay with her, to be captured and tortured. Couldn’t take her with me—if she had stunners, a radio, and over a dozen spare Yeerks, she was bound to have some kind of tracking device.

No matter what I chose, I’d be unable to live with myself.

Dad. You can still save Dad.

Squeezing my eyes shut, I focused once more.

I’m sorry, Mom.

The change in size was shockingly swift, as if the morphing technology were making up for lost time. There was an almost immediate tearing sound as my shoes and clothes were reduced to tatters, and a startled “What—” from my mother, followed by the sound of her door opening. Barely a second later, the car split open like a baked potato, the glass and metal slicing into my flesh as a ten-ton African bush elephant erupted from my thirteen-year-old frame.

“The girl!” I heard my mother shriek, as I rolled away from the wreckage and struggled to my feet, the last of my bones still stretching and grinding into place. “Cassie Withers, my host’s daughter! She just morphed into an elephant!”

There was a sound, a kind of TSSEWWWW, and pain like hot knives sliced across my legs, causing one of them to buckle underneath me. I screamed in pain, the sound coming out as a trumpeted shriek.

Holding my injured leg in the air, I limped clumsily in a circle, looking for my mother. She was about twenty feet away from the ruins of our car, a strange weapon in her outstretched hand. She was frozen in place, her entire body trembling, her expression flickering back and forth between rage and determination. She looked the same way Tobias had, when he’d been caught in Elfangor’s tractor beam—like some invisible force had rooted her to the spot.

It’s Mom, I realized, and the shock was so great that even in elephant form my jaw dropped. She’s fighting the Yeerk!

I didn’t think. Didn’t consider the consequences. I just acted, instinctively, making the only choice my conscience would allow. Stepping forward, I knocked the weapon out of her hand with my trunk and lifted her up into the air.

I was taking her with me. In three days, she’d be free.

I’d gone only a couple of steps, though, before I heard a familiar, electric sound, and suddenly my trunk went numb and limp, my mother’s body tumbling toward the asphalt below. She twisted in midair, trying to get her feet underneath her, and landed at an angle on one leg with a sickening crack.

<No!> I shouted, unable to stop myself. Even in the dim glow of the moonlight, I could see blood seeping through her khakis around the sharp, unnatural bend in the middle of her shin. I shook my massive head, hoping that the stunner had only delivered a momentary shock, but no—the trunk was paralyzed, every bit as useless as my human body had been.

My mother’s face contorted again as she and the Yeerk continued to battle behind her eyes. She’d gone past trembling and now looked like she was having a full-blown seizure.

“Cassie!” she screamed, her voice strained as if she were lifting a thousand pounds. “Run! Get Walter—aaaaaaaghhryour daughter is dead, fool! And you are next!”

I stood, still and horrified, as my mother suddenly stopped twitching, the tension draining from her body. “Finally,” she muttered, the word loud and clear in my elephant ears. She turned her eyes on me, and they blazed with an alien menace. “They always try. Sometimes they even succeed, for a time. But they all learn in the end.”

Pale and sweating, she pushed herself up to a sitting position. “So, Andalite,” she said, her voice dripping with hatred. “I see that Seerow’s work has continued. Morphing in mere seconds, and without returning to your true form in between. And after holding human form for an entire day! Visser Three will be exceptionally interested in learning how you accomplished that.”

I hardly dared to breathe. A moment before, I had been frozen with indecision, unable to force myself to abandon my mother in the middle of the street with a broken ankle and an alien wrapped around her brain. But now, I was just confused.

It still thought I was an Andalite?

“Impressive, that you found the zookeeper’s family so quickly. We were sure we had gotten to them first. Perhaps you landed before the battle? A reconnaissance mission, to infiltrate and observe? I wonder how many of you there are.”

Was it a trick? A lie, to keep me off balance until it could report back to—

Oh.

Of course.

It was already reporting back to the Yeerk command. It wasn’t just stalling—its communicator had been on the whole time. That’s why it was monologuing like some cheesy cartoon villain.

Which meant it probably really did think I was an Andalite.

“I congratulate you on your mimicry, by the way. As good as any Yeerk. I have looked back through my host’s memories, and she did not suspect a thing.”

Somewhere in the back of my head, Marco was laughing. It all made sense, as long as you started with all the wrong assumptions. I remembered Elfangor’s coldness, his arrogance, his reluctance. His willingness to slaughter us all, just to prevent us from becoming pawns in his war with the Yeerks.

Humanity wasn’t a player in this war. We were inventory. Cattle. Beneath consideration. If you saw a cow firing a rocket launcher, you wouldn’t think, Who gave that cow a rocket launcher? You’d think, How’d they make such a good cow costume?

A huge breakthrough in morphing technology was impossible. A human with the ability to morph was, to a Yeerk, inconceivable.

It was a miraculous, glorious, incredibly lucky mistake. And with a sinking feeling, I realized I knew exactly how to capitalize on it.

All I had to do was break my mother’s heart, and abandon her to her fate. Save myself, and walk away.

Not just yourself. You can still save Dad.

<Your host is as blind and stupid as the rest of her backward species,> I said, pouring as much contempt and derision into the words as I could. <We took her daughter weeks ago, and she never even noticed.>

I turned away from my home and began limping back the way we’d come as the Yeerk threw back my mother’s head and laughed.

 

*        *        *

 

Ten minutes in a car at fifty-five miles per hour meant my house was about nine miles away by road. It would take an elephant hours to cover that distance even without an injured leg. As soon as I had hobbled out of sight, I demorphed and remorphed.

The European great snipe can travel over four thousand miles nonstop, at an average speed of sixty miles per hour, crossing whole continents in days. And if I ignored the road and cut across the forest, I could be home in no time.

How long had I lingered with my mother? It had to have been at least a couple of minutes, plus three or four more in the car. Add in the time it had taken me to change form, and it had been over ten minutes since the Yeerk’s first request for backup. Maybe seven or eight since she’d reported my morphing.

I didn’t know how long it took the Yeerks to mobilize. If they’d gone straight for the house, I might already be too late. But there was a chance that my misdirection had worked—that they believed I’d gone the other way. A true Andalite would have no interest in the last member of the Withers family.

I rose into the air, my wings pumping seven times per second as I arrowed straight toward my house. I stayed low and close to the treetops, eyes alert for any sign of Bug fighters sliding across the field of stars.

If I’d had human eyes, I wouldn’t have been able to see through the tears. The words too soon, too soon kept running through my head, a ringtone on repeat.

Could I have saved my mother?

Probably not. But then, I hadn’t really even tried. The Yeerk had paralyzed my trunk, and I’d dropped her, and then I’d simply given up. Just like I’d given up in the car, when I’d refused to let myself consider running us off the road.

Because I was afraid. Because I wasn’t clever. Because I didn’t want to be clever—not if being clever meant being like Marco or Rachel. I didn’t want to have to choose between my father’s life and my mother’s, or between both their lives and my own. I didn’t want to be the sort of person who could calmly consider killing her own mother, even to save the whole planet.

Because that’s what I should have done, I knew. That’s what the Yeerks would have expected, what any real Andalite would have done. From their perspective, my mother was just another tool, and by leaving her behind, I’d missed my chance to deny the Yeerks an important resource.

I might have just blown our cover anyway.

But what was the point, if that was how we had to fight? What would we be saving, if we gave up our humanity to win? If we became cold and dark and unfeeling, just to survive?

I climbed a little higher in the sky, fighting for altitude in the cold, dead air. The lights of my house were just barely visible, maybe a couple of miles away. I couldn’t be sure, but there didn’t seem to be any unusual activity. No extra cars in the driveway, no spacecraft hovering overhead.

Wait.

I rose higher, angling for a true bird’s eye view.

There were no cars in the driveway at all. The harsh blue floodlights shone down on broken weeds and empty gravel.

I’d thought I was already flying as fast as possible, but somehow I managed an extra burst of effort, my muscles trembling as I pushed them to the limit. Dad was supposed to be home—he’d said he was staying home, all day, to keep an eye on the raccoon with the punctured lung, he wouldn’t have left except—

I staggered in midflight, my wings losing their rhythm, dropping twenty feet before I could recover.

He wouldn’t have left except for an emergency.

Like if Mom had called him to say that our car had been totaled on the way home.

I felt a scream start up in the back of my head, a long, wordless keen of anguish and dread. I’d left her there conscious, left her with her purse just a few feet away, with a cell phone and stunners and Yeerk reinforcements incoming—

I banked like a fighter jet, veering off course, turning back toward the winding road. Dad’s beat-up old pickup was twenty years old; it could barely go forty miles per hour.

How long? How long ago did she call him?

I could head straight for the road and be there in thirty seconds, a mile and a half from the house. Or I could head back to my mother, get there in maybe three minutes, nine miles from the house. Or anything in between. I couldn’t see the road itself from the air—the trees were too thick, the angle too shallow for headlights to shine through.

The scream in my head became an actual warbling cry, cutting the night air as I struck out for the middle, unable to decide. I tore across the sky, angling slightly downward for every last possible scrap of speed. <DAD!> I broadcast, just barely remembering to restrict my thoughts so that only he could hear. <DAD, STOP THE CAR! WHEREVER YOU ARE, STOP THE CAR NOW!>

Time seemed to slow as I raced toward the break in the forest, the distance stretching out in front of me. As I neared the road, I banked again, shooting past the treetops and zooming along the yellow lines like a missile, twice as fast as Peppermint had ever run.

Empty.

Empty.

Empty.

I tore around the curves, occasionally rising back over the treetops as I cut across the larger bends. I had hit the road about four miles away from where I’d left my mother, and now I was only two miles out.

Nothing.

I started to call out in thought-speak again, then realized with a shiver of fear just how deeply stupid I had been. If they’d already caught him, or if they caught him after he’d heard my desperate pleading—

Shut up and fly.

A mile and three quarters.

Nothing.

A mile and a half.

Nothing.

A mile and a quarter.

Nothing.

One mile away from where I had left my mother, the road curved into a long straightaway, and for a moment I thought I saw brakelights at the far end, disappearing around the next bend.

Please, I begged. I didn’t know if I was talking to God, or to the universe, or just to myself. I didn’t even have the words for what I wanted. Just please.

But the answer was no. As I came around the final turn and flitted up into the trees, I saw my father’s truck, parked at an angle next to an ambulance, a fire engine, and two police cars, the lights still on and the driver’s side door hanging open. My mother was on a stretcher, sitting upright as she talked to one of the police officers, and my father was on the ground, lying motionless as everyone else moved around him like he wasn’t even there. There was a streak of slime on the side of his face, leading to his ear, glimmering blue and red in the wild, flickering light of the police cars. After a minute, he twitched, then stood up and walked over to the wreck, where four firefighters were cutting my mother’s car into chunks with what looked like acetylene torches.

He didn’t even glance at my mother.

Too soon, too soon.

It was always going to be too soon.

I don’t know how I made it out of there. I don’t remember where I went. I must have demorphed and remorphed at least once, because it was almost three in the morning by the time I found myself fluttering onto a branch outside of Jake’s window.

<Cassie? Is that you?>

There was an owl perched on the ridge of the roof. I hadn’t even noticed it.

<Jake,> I thought. I didn’t have the strength to add any other words.

<Tobias, actually. Thank God—Jake’s been losing it. He’s been looking for you all night. We thought—when you didn’t come back to the barn, we weren’t—>

<The barn,> I interrupted. <You can’t—>

I broke off, unable to say it, to force my brain to put together the thought. I wished I didn’t have to put it together, that there were some way for Tobias to simply know. He should’ve known already—should have noticed that the world had stopped spinning.

<It’s my parents,> I said finally, knowing that nothing would ever be the same again. <They’ve been taken.>

Chapter Text

Chapter 05: Tobias

 

“This is my family.”

“I know that, okay? But Jake—look—listen—think it through, man. The Yeerks know that we know that they were coming after your family next. Don’t you think they’ll be a little suspicious, if all of a sudden the four of you just up and disappear? It’s not like Andalites would care one way or the other.”

I was forty feet up, perched in a tree, still in owl morph as I kept watch. The scene below was incredibly clear to my predator senses, as if it were lit up by spotlights and covered in microphones. I could see Jake, his jaw set, his eyes glinting in the light of the distant streetlamp. I could see Marco, whose tone was growing more and more brittle as the long night wore on. I could see Cassie, a short distance away, sobbing quietly into Rachel’s shoulder, and Rachel, whose face might as well have been carved from stone.

“Besides,” Marco continued, still whispering softly enough that the girls couldn’t hear. “From what Cassie said, it sounds like they only wanted you as cover for her. Since she’s—”

He broke off, glancing over his shoulder. “Since she’s dead, they might not even bother.”

The four of them were hunkered down in a tiny patch of woods in the space between two backyards, a few houses down from where Jake lived. They were shivering slightly in the cold, naked except for the towels and blankets that Jake had smuggled out of his house, their breath forming little puffs of mist.

“We are not,” Jake bit out, each word icy and sharp, “doing nothing.

To me, his clenched fists were a beacon, plainly visible. To Marco, they probably just looked like shadows.

“Then what, Jake? What are we doing? Because we don’t even have a place to stash Cassie, let alone Tom and your parents. And unless you’re ready to spill the beans on all of it, how exactly do you propose to get them all to pack up and leave in the middle of the night?”

The day had started with Rachel crying, had turned into a frantic search that had Jake crying, had transitioned into Cassie crying, and now looked like it was headed for a fistfight between Jake and Marco.

At four in the goddamn morning.

<Just light it on fire,> I said wearily.

They both twitched, looking up in the wrong direction, and I rustled my wings to show my position. <I mean, if we just want to get them out of the house without saying anything.>

“You got a lighter, or are we rubbing two sticks together?” Marco shot back, no longer whispering. He turned back to Jake. “Listen, we can’t just—”

“Then we cause a distraction,” Jake said, cutting him off. “We go on the offensive. Turn up the heat so they don’t have time to worry about tying up loose ends.”

“How? The only Controllers we know by sight are Cassie’s parents. You want to turn up the heat on them?”

“There’s the firefighters,” Jake said stubbornly. “The cops. Probably the teachers and the principal, since Cassie’s mom said they aren’t allowed to be alone. Which means at least one other person at the Gardens, too.”

“Yeah, but which ones?”

“Cassie,” Rachel whispered urgently, as Jake and Marco continued to argue. I swiveled my head to look down at them. “Which breeds of dog might be able to sniff out a Yeerk?”

“—if we stake out the station—”

“We’ve got school tomorrow—”

“Mom said it was going to be cancelled, out of respect—”

I watched as Cassie sniffed, gulped, squeezed her eyes shut for a moment before answering in a shaky murmur. “German Shepherd. Labs. Spaniels. Vizslas. Border collies. Doesn’t matter, really—they’ve all been used in cancer research. I guess bloodhounds would be the best.”

“Guys,” Rachel called out, interrupting Marco mid-rant. “We could use a German Shepherd morph to sniff out Controllers.”

The boys fell silent. “Cassie,” Jake said, his voice suddenly soft and gentle. “Would that actually work?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Marco cut in. “We’d have to get close enough without raising suspicions, and that’s not going to happen now that the Yeerks are on alert.”

<Weren’t we trying to decide whether or not to save Jake’s family?> I asked.

“Actually, what we should be talking about is how to rescue Cassie’s family,” Rachel interjected.

“No, we should be talking about how to save the frigging planet,” Marco hissed. “Which is a much bigger deal than anyone’s family.”

Silence fell, and I found myself wishing I had hands to applaud with.

Up until two days ago, I’d never really paid any attention to Marco. He was just this wiseass kid that Jake liked to hang around with, the kind of guy who laughs at his own jokes and then acts like anyone who doesn’t laugh didn’t get it. I’d put up with him because he and Jake were a package deal, and Jake had seemed like the kind of guy you wanted on your side when social services dumped you into a new school in the middle of September.

Now, though, I was starting to see that Marco went a whole lot deeper than he let on. Yeah, he was just another spoiled suburban softie, but he got it, you know? He saw through the bullshit, understood how the world really worked. Drop Jake or Rachel or Cassie on the wrong side of the tracks, and they’d be conned, mugged, and left for dead before they ever figured out the grownups weren’t coming to save them. Jake and Rachel and Cassie still thought rules were a thing.

Marco, though—Marco knew the score. Which was pretty much the only reason I hadn’t taken off already. Spend enough time out on your own, and you learn pretty quick that some kinds of friends are worse than no friends at all.

<Can we at least agree that keeping us out of the Yeerks’ hands is the most important thing right now?> I asked. <I mean, if it comes down to a choice between you and your parents—>

“Our parents are a part of staying out of the Yeerks’ hands,” Jake said flatly. “If they get taken, we either get captured along with them, or we get exposed. We’re on thin ice with Cassie as it is, and there’s no guarantee they aren’t just playing along for some reason or other. We need to decide what we’re doing about this yesterday.” He took a deep breath and crossed his arms. “Options. Everybody.”

“Recruit,” Rachel answered immediately. “We have the cube. Give them the power, and they’re that much better able to protect themselves.”

“They’re not Yeerk-proof, though,” Marco pointed out. “Even one of them goes down, and it’s all over. Better to just get them out of Dodge—there’s only one Yeerk pool, and it’s here. Anything outside the county is probably safe for the next few months.”

“Yeah, but what could we possibly tell them to convince them to get up and go?” Jake asked. “Even if we told them the truth, what’s stopping them from just deciding they know better than us? Telling the cops, or going public?”

“Maybe we should go public,” Rachel said. “I mean, if the Yeerks want this invasion to stay secret, then we don’t—right?”

<Unless it’s like, they’re being secret because they want seven billion hosts, and they know an all-out war would end up killing half the planet,> I put in. <But maybe they’d still rather have three billion than walk away empty-handed. We go public, we could kick off the apocalypse.>

“Or just get laughed at, more likely,” Marco muttered. “So far, it looks like they’re doing this thing smart, and if they’ve already got the police, then they’ve probably got the media, too.” He scrubbed at his eyes. “Then again, they’re here picking up zookeepers instead of in Washington nabbing Senators, so maybe they’re not that smart.”

“Actually,” Jake put in, “there’s a problem there. Why did they take Cassie’s mother in the first place?”

<It makes sense, doesn’t it?> I answered. <I mean, the Gardens is the obvious place to pick up new morphs.>

“Yeah, but why would they be worried about Andalite bandits at all? From the way Elfangor was talking, the Yeerks won the space battle hands-down. And it’s not like we’ve done anything to get on their radar.”

<Maybe they’re just paranoid?>

“Or maybe,” Marco said, his voice suddenly taut, “maybe there are Andalite bandits. I mean, something stirred them up, right? We already know Elfangor’s brother is out there somewhere. What if another ship made it through? We could have allies down here.”

I heard Rachel suck in a breath, felt the owl’s feathers fluff and stand on end. That would change everything

“No,” Cassie said, speaking up for the first time. Her voice was a hoarse croak, and she bit her lip as Jake and Marco turned to look at her. “Not allies. They’re fighting to beat the Yeerks. We’re fighting to save Earth. That’s—those are two different things.”

She lapsed back into silence, and a grim silence followed as we all worked through the ramifications. I found myself remembering Elfangor’s cold assessment of the situation, his solemn declaration. You are the wave they will ride as they sweep the galaxy clean of all who oppose them.

Maybe we should kick off an all-out war. Maybe a few billion dead humans was exactly what the galaxy needed.

I looked down at the others again. Cassie, returned to her quiet weeping, and Jake, pacing back and forth like a caged tiger. Marco, his frustration written in the set of his shoulders and the thin line of his lips. Rachel, uncharacteristically silent. All of them shaken, on the verge of falling apart, and Cassie’s parents weren’t even dead.

I shook my head, fighting to think through the haze of sleep deprivation. The sun would be up in two hours. There were only two possibilities—either the Yeerks were already closing in, or they weren’t even coming. And in either case, this?

This wasn’t helping.

The little voice in the back of my head—the one that told me when to move my money out of my wallet and into my sock, the one that knew exactly which couples wanted an orphan for all the wrong reasons, the one that had first told me to make friends with Jake—that voice had been getting louder and louder as the day wore on.

These people are a mess.

You don’t owe them anything.

They’re not going to make it, and they’re going to drag you down with them.

Get out while you still can.

I looked through the trees, through the dark windows of the nearest house, to the clock on the microwave in the distant kitchen. I had forty minutes left in morph.

<Look,> I said, breaking the silence. <I know I’m not exactly qualified to have an opinion, here. I don’t have parents or brothers or sisters to worry about. So stop me if I’m being rude.>

I paused, but they just looked up at me, shoulders slumped and faces drawn. <But Cassie’s parents—they’re safe now, aren’t they? I mean, I know being Controlled can’t be fun, but—the Gardens—they’re important people—the Yeerks are going to protect them, keep them alive. And as long as they’re alive, there’s hope, right?>

“Tell that to the Chapmans,” Marco growled.

Rachel winced as if punched, and I hastened to clarify. <I’m just saying, it’s just a matter of time, isn’t it? I mean, one way or another, they’re going to come after your families. Doesn’t even have to be personal. They’re coming after everybody. So you might as well decide right now, right? Either get them out now—tonight—or go ahead and accept that it’s going to happen, and let it.>

“There’s still that little problem of what happens when they send a squad out to pick up Tom and Jake and Mr. and Mrs. Berenson, and they come back with just Tom and the grownups and a story about Jake turning into a pigeon and flying away,” Marco said dryly.

<Only if there are four people in the house when the Yeerks come calling,> I pointed out. <If you can’t think of a way to get them out, why not get you guys out? Fake your deaths, or run away, or whatever? The Yeerks show up a month from now, and there’s no link.>

“There’s still a link,” Jake said. “Even if we assume they bought Cassie’s story, they have to be suspicious. If all of her friends start disappearing, one by one…”

<So don’t start with her friends. Start by disappearing some other kids, somebody completely unconnected. You guys could be, like, three, five, seven, and nine out of ten.>

“Aaaand we’re back to recruiting,” said Marco.

<You’ve got to do something,> I snapped. <Sitting here in the woods bickering until the Yeerks show up is not a plan.>

“Fine,” Jake said. He stopped pacing and folded his arms. “We vote.”

“I thought that wasn’t—”

“We vote first, then argue about whether or not this should be decided by a vote. A, we get all our families out, tonight, and start working on a plan to rescue Cassie’s parents. B, we start figuring out how to get ourselves out. C, we try to figure out a strategy for staying in place.” He paused. “Anybody care to speak up first?”

No one spoke. “Fine,” he repeated. “I vote A.”

<B,> I countered.

Marco and Rachel turned to look toward each other in the darkness. Seconds ticked by, each one adding to my mounting frustration. It had been two days and seven hours since Elfangor told us there were a thousand Controllers already. How much had that number grown since then? How much had it grown while we’d been sitting here dithering?

You’re wasting time, the little voice said. This family bullshit isn’t your problem.

Rachel spoke first. “B,” she said, her tone reluctant.

No one but me could see Marco’s raised eyebrow, but the silence implied it well enough, and she continued, looking anywhere but down at Cassie. “I can’t—I mean, I don’t want to—to abandon my family. But we need room to maneuver. We need time to think. And we shouldn’t—we can’t put anyone else in the line of fire. Not unless they know what’s going on, and—and can protect themselves. If we stay, then our parents, my sisters, Tom—if the Yeerks figure us out and come in guns blazing, they’ll—”

She stopped, took a deep breath, composed herself and continued. “We get clear now,” she said, “we can build up an army and when we come back, we’ll have help, we can get all of them out.”

Marco shook his head. “The problem is, these are all terrible choices,” he muttered. “C is just obviously wishful thinking at this point. Like Tobias said, they’re coming, sooner or later. As for A versus B…” He took a deep breath in through his nose and let it out with a sigh. “It’s got to be A. Four families moving out of the county is going to be a lot less suspicious than four kids going missing.”

“Three families,” Jake corrected softly, and Marco winced.

I could feel my shoulders hunching, my wings lifting up behind me in an involuntary response to the tension and stress I was dumping into the owl’s brain. I had thirty-six minutes left in morph, and maybe thirty-six seconds of patience remaining.

“Cassie?” Jake asked, his voice still soft.

Cassie said nothing—only shook her head, almost invisible against the dark blue of the blanket Rachel was wearing. “She’s not voting,” Rachel translated.

Jake raised a hand and ran his fingers through his hair. “So we’ve got a tie, then,” he said wearily.

Fuck this. They want to get completely paralyzed over, like, seven people while the world ends, that’s their business.

<No, you don’t,> I said aloud, spreading my wings to their full length and testing the cold night air. <I’m changing my vote.>

“To what?”

<To nothing.>

And with that, I leapt out of the tree and winged my way up into the sky.

 

*        *        *

 

I gave the tiny mouse an extra squeeze with my talon, feeling the bones in its hips pop out of joint. Its squeaks were pitifully loud in the owl’s ears, and I felt more than a little guilt as I held it down with one wing and began to demorph. This didn’t, strictly speaking, have anything to do with saving the world…

A minute and a half later, I was standing naked in the parking lot of the rundown thrift shop, shivering in the early morning cold as I acquired the mouse that lay dying in my hand. Trying to look in all directions at once, I strode across the rough asphalt toward the side entrance.

It took another five minutes and a brief stint as a mouse, but soon enough I was inside, thumbing through the racks of clothes in the dark and wishing that I still had owl’s eyes. Foregoing the secondhand underwear, I threw together what felt like a sane outfit, grabbed some shoes and a watch off the shelf, and left through the front door, ignoring the wail of the alarm as I started to jog down the street.

I was definitely going to have to do something about the whole clothes problem.

As I jogged, I focused on Marco, on the DNA I had acquired what felt like weeks ago. As before, there was a feeling of vertigo as my head eased closer to the ground, and a blurring of my vision as my eyes were replaced with Marco’s slightly nearsighted ones. The shrinking was followed by a kind of tugging sensation as my hair shriveled and stiffened, going from near-shoulder-length to only a couple of inches long.

There was also—though I hadn’t mentioned this to Marco—a very uncomfortable sort of tightening sensation in my groin. My parents had decided not to have me circumcised when I was born. Marco’s had apparently had different feelings on the matter.

I didn’t quite know what to make of that. Clearly, the morphing technology took more than just a DNA sample. There had to be some kind of scanning going on during the acquiring process, or else all kinds of things would have been different—I’d read, for instance, that height had almost as much to do with hormones and nutrition as it did with actual genes.

But the owl I’d acquired had only had one eye, and I’d definitely had two when I morphed it. The same went for Marco’s osprey, which had been nursing a broken wing. What was the difference between that and a little scar tissue? It couldn’t be based on expectation—I’d had zero opinions on the issue of Marco’s foreskin until after the morph had finished.

Just put it on the list.

Along with what a Yeerk pool was, which teachers were Controllers, and how long it would be before the air on Elfangor’s brother’s ship ran out.

The morph complete, I slowed and stopped, putting the size eightish shoes on my now-size-eightish feet. I walked for another ten minutes as my sweat cooled and vanished, until the squat brick structure of the Oak Landing Home for Children came into view.

My home, for the last five years.

I checked my stolen watch, the screen glowing faintly green in the darkness. It was 4:45, the sky still black, the streets empty. I walked down the sidewalk like I had nothing to hide, turning into the parking lot and striding past the low, barred windows until I reached the one that looked in onto my room. My old room, now.

I didn’t bother trying to peer inside. It was pitch black, after all, and besides, I knew every inch of it. The four double-decker bunks, two to each wall, with trunks between them and a worn, splintering wooden floor covered in a threadbare gray rug. The peeling paint, broken only by the single mirror and the one old poster for the original release of Star Wars. The eight sets of thin blankets, the eight flat pillows, and the seven sleeping boys, three of them snoring like chainsaws.

I crouched down, reaching for the strangely-too-close ground, turning to sit with my back against the rough brick, keeping my eyes peeled for any sign of movement in the grounds around me. I’d never really been afraid of the dark before, but I’d also never really believed in monsters before, either.

Things change.

<Garrett,> I called out silently, keeping the beam of my thoughts tightly focused. <Garrett, wake up. Wake up and come to the window.>

Jake, Rachel, Marco—they had families. Marco’s dad, Rachel’s mom. Rachel’s sisters, and Jake’s brother Tom. People they loved for no reason at all except habit. People who loved them back.

<Garrett, wake up. This isn’t a dream. Wake up and come tap on the glass.>

I didn’t have a family. I didn’t even, properly speaking, have friends. It’s hard to make connections when you’re in a different school every year, when the guys in your room are all different ages and they’re in and out of foster care and you only have a month or two to get to know most of them and the ones you know for longer are assholes anyway because the good kids don’t tend to come back.

<Garrett, it’s Tobias. I’m outside—you can hear me, but I can’t hear you. Get up and tap on the window so I know you’re awake.>

What I did have was Garrett. Garrett, and a promise we’d made to each other, almost two years before, cutting our palms with a shard of glass from a broken bottle and clasping hands while the blood dripped down our wrists. We’d both been put on room restriction for that—half the summer had gone by before they let us out for free play again.

<Garrett, wake up, buddy. It’s Tobias. I’m—>

Tap.

I sucked in a breath. This was it—the point of no return. At this exact moment, there was a grand total total of five people on the entire planet who were in a position to make a stand against the Yeerks. If I said one more word, then one way or another, Garrett was going to be involved. Was going to be vulnerable, hunted, a conscript in a very small and ill-prepared army.

But he’s vulnerable already. He just doesn’t know it yet.

<Hi, buddy. It’s me. Tobias.>

Tap.

<I’m—um. I’m outside. I’m speaking to you telepathically. And no, I can’t hear what you’re thinking.>

Tap tap.

<Yeah, I don’t know what that means. Look, do you think you can get out without waking anybody up? I’ll explain everything once you’re out here.>

Tap.

<Okay. Good. And—um. You remember our pact, right? That if either one of us ever figured out a way out of—>

TAP.

<Careful, quiet! Okay. Right. Listen, you should—you should grab your bag. And anything else you want to keep, because—>

Tap. Tap tap tap tap tap.

<Yeah. I don’t think we’re going to be coming back.>

 

*        *        *

 

I stared down at the tiny, crumpled note, easily readable in the predawn light. A mess of conflicting emotions swarmed into my brain—suspicion, anger, embarrassment, astonishment, frustration, shame. “Jake,” I called out, loud enough to be heard from any of the nearby cavernous structures. “You just stay put until I’m done here.”

“Who’s Jake?” Garrett asked.

We were standing in the middle of the construction site, not far from the spot where Elfangor’s ship had landed. Beside us was a low, half-finished foundation, filled with hard-packed earth. I had pulled aside a dozen or so of the loose cinderblocks, revealing the dark hole in which Jake had stashed the Iscafil device.

“You’ll find out in a minute,” I said darkly, letting the scrap of paper fall to the ground as I hefted the alien cube. “This first.”

Garrett eyed the blue box warily, very obviously standing just out of arm’s reach. “You lied,” he said, a tremor in his voice.

“What?”

“You said you’d explain everything once I came outside.”

“I did. I mean, okay, I haven’t told you the second half yet, but I explained this part.”

“No, you didn’t. You said ‘Andalite’ and ‘morphing power’ like those were answers. What’s going to happen to me if I touch that thing?”

“It’s not going to hurt you.”

“How do you know?”

“It didn’t hurt me.

“Neither do shrimp, but if I eat one, I die.”

I gritted my teeth, suppressing the urge to snap. For one, that sort of thing never worked with Garrett, and for another, he had a point. I’d seen the morphing cube work on exactly five people. That could mean it was completely safe, or it could mean it killed half the people who used it, and we’d just gotten lucky. Elfangor hadn’t mentioned it being dangerous, but something told me the Andalites hadn’t done a whole lot of beta testing on humans.

I dropped down onto one knee, putting my head just below Garrett’s chin. “You’re right,” I said quietly, forcing calm into my voice. “I don’t really know what’ll happen to you. I don’t really know what happened to me. It’s alien technology, and I probably wouldn’t understand it even if Elfangor had explained it for hours. But it didn’t hurt me, and it didn’t hurt the other people I was with, and you saw that it works. Think about it, buddy. Any animal in the world. Any person in the world. You’ll be able to go anywhere, do anything. You won’t ever have to go back to Oak Landing again.”

“Any animal I can touch. For two hours at a time. Two minutes to change. Back to me in between.”

I nodded. “Yep. Those are the rules.”

<Actually, there’s one more rule.>

I stiffened and stood, turning to scan the skeletal buildings around me. “Jake,” I warned. “Let me handle this.”

<Sorry,> Jake replied, and something in his tone told me that he had switched to private thought-speak. <Your family is your business, but the cube belongs to all of us. I’m coming out. I’m in Andalite morph—warn the kid.>

“Who’s Jake?” Garrett asked again.

“A friend,” I said reluctantly. I looked down at the note lying in the dirt, written in Jake’s neat, careful handwriting.

 

TOBIAS—

Figured you’d come back for the cube. Notice how I DIDN’T take it away and hide it. That’s a peace offering. I’m alone…can we talk?            —Jake

 

“Brace yourself,” I muttered. “You’re about to find out what an Andalite looks like.”

There was a soft crumbling sound from one of the concrete structures, the crunch of hooves on gravel. A shadow took shape in one of the open doorways, and I heard Garrett gasp as it stepped out into the gray morning light.

I hadn’t really registered it the first time, on board Elfangor’s ship. And there had been too many things on my mind the second time, in Cassie’s barn. But now, watching the lithe blue shape emerge from the darkness of the half-finished building, I couldn’t deny it.

Andalites were terrifying.

It was like a centaur, if centaurs had been half-scorpion instead of half-horse. The body, low and wide, rippling with muscles under the short fur. The legs, short and side-cocked, their every motion unnervingly fast, like a movie with dropped frames. The torso, held parallel with the ground, the arms waving like feelers over the dirt, ready to act as a third pair of legs if necessary. The eyes, one pair pointing forward and down, the other mounted on stalks, swiveling constantly.

And of course, the tail.

It had to be almost ten feet long, a smooth, tapering whip of pure muscle, capped by a reaper’s scythe of dense bone. It hovered and dipped and darted in a strangely hypnotic dance, as if following the flight of a drunken mosquito. Beside me, Garrett squeaked and then disappeared over the wall of another low foundation, peering out over the cinderblocks with only his eyes and forehead visible.

“Jake, meet Garrett,” I grumbled. “Garrett, this is Jake. He usually doesn’t look like this.”

<Hi, Garrett,> Jake said, coming to a stop and rearing so that his torso stood more or less upright.

“You’re a human?” Garrett asked, his voice shaky. “You’re morphed?”

<Yeah. This is Elfangor’s body. He let us acquire him before he died.>

“Turn back into a person, please.”

Jake gave no response, but the fur covering his body immediately began to shrink, the hairs thinning away to reveal pinkening skin beneath. Garrett watched with wide eyes as Jake’s tail and back legs disappeared, as the smooth curve at the end of his torso reformed into head and neck and shoulders. A minute and a half passed, and the Andalite was gone, leaving a thirteen-year-old human boy standing in its place.

I noticed with begrudging respect that Jake made no attempt to cover up, showed no sign of shivering as he stood naked and barefoot in front of us, his hands clasped behind his back. His expression was calm and composed, his eyes sharp and commanding. It was the same look he’d given the three bullies who had me cornered, on the day we’d first met—a look that said you had two options, and only one of them was going to work.

He turned to me. “We ended up compromising,” he said. “Marco’s getting his dad out. Rachel and I are going to stay on alert for a couple of days. If they come for us, or for any of our family members, we bail. If they don’t, we start working on plans to extract everybody. Cassie’s on her way up into the mountains already with some spare camping gear Marco had lying around.”

“None of that is my problem,” I said bluntly.

Jake nodded. “I know. I get it. I got it back in the woods, when you stopped saying ‘we’ and started saying ‘you.’” He turned to look at Garrett, who was still standing behind the low cinderblock wall. “Did Tobias tell you about the Yeerks yet?” he asked.

“After,” I said, before Garrett could answer. “Two separate choices. He gets the morphing power either way.”

Jake shook his head. “No. I mean, okay, yes, fine, you get to make your own call on that, I’m not the boss of you and we both know how to blow up the cube, so there’s no point in giving you orders you’re just going to ignore. But if he’s not in, then he has to be out—all the way out, like out of the state, where he’s not going to leave us vulnerable.” He fixed me with a steady gaze. “Same goes for you.”

“You don’t get to make up rules,” I snapped.

“That’s not a rule, it’s common sense,” he answered mildly. “And don’t act like it isn’t just because you’re pissed off. We’re still on the same side, here.” His gaze flickered over to Garrett before returning to me. “It also seems like common sense to say that recruiting ten-year-olds is a bad idea, and to point out that this little kid could be a Controller, and to find out just what the hell you think you’re doing right now, but the sun’s about to come up and I haven’t slept all night and I’m just going to go ahead and ask you to look me in the eye and tell me why this isn’t insane.”

“I turn twelve in three months and eight days,” Garrett remarked.

“My bad,” Jake said, his eyes still on me. We stared at one another for a long, tense moment.

You are still on the same side, the little voice in the back of my head whispered. And he didn’t take the cube away. That should count for something.

“I’m going after Elfangor’s brother,” I said finally.

Jake’s eyes widened in surprise, and I continued. “He’s been out there for almost three days. He could be dying, and the rest of you are just—sitting around. I’m going to find him, and I’m going to rescue him if I can. He might have intel. Weapons. Alien morphs, maybe. Stuff we can use. And even if he doesn’t—we’re the only ones who can save him.”

The surprise had faded, and Jake’s expression was now carefully, deliberately neutral. “Marco still thinks there might be actual Andalite bandits out there,” he said.

I shrugged. “So maybe I get there and he’s already gone. It’s not like I’ve got anything better to do.”

“And Garrett?”

“I trust him,” I said simply. Jake could draw whatever conclusions he wanted out of that statement.

“He’s eleven.”

“I trust him,” I repeated. “And I need somebody to watch my back.”

Jake turned to look at Garrett, who had climbed up onto the wall and was now sitting there, watching us wordlessly. “A thousand Controllers,” he said softly.

“You see any Bug fighters?” I countered. “Besides, the odds are only going to get worse. Now’s the time to take that risk.”

Jake shook his head. “Too much risk. There has to be a way to be sure. If you wait three days, maybe.”

“Look, if we don’t get moving, the Yeerks are going to win by default.”

He looked me straight in the eye. “So it’s ‘we’ again?”

I didn’t answer. Just looked down at the cube in my hands, remembered watching each of the others shiver as the morphing technology took hold.

“Yeerks are—aliens?” Garrett broke in hesitantly. “Bad ones?”

Jake gave me a look that said you want to tell him, or should I?

“They’re bodysnatchers,” I explained. “Little slugs that crawl into your ear and take over your brain. Once they’re inside you, they know everything you know, and they run your body like it’s a remote control car.”

Garrett’s eyes widened slightly.

“They’ve taken maybe a thousand people already,” Jake said. “Cops, firefighters, EMTs. Some of the teachers at our school. The mom and dad of a friend of mine. They’re trying to take over the whole planet. They want to turn each and every one of us into a slave.”

“Why?” Garrett asked.

Jake and I exchanged glances again.

“To use us as weapons to take over the rest of the galaxy,” Jake answered.

Why, though? What’s the point? Like, what do they want in the end?”

I blinked. None of us had really stopped to ask that question yet. “Um. I guess because—I mean, they’re just slugs, right? They can’t see or hear or—or do anything, really. Not unless they have a host body to control.”

Jake gave a low, quiet whistle, and I couldn’t help wincing a little myself. When you put it that way, suddenly the whole thing felt a lot less black and white...

Except that every “free” Yeerk means another trapped human. No middle ground. It’s literally us or them.

Garrett’s head was tilted to one side, his expression thoughtful. “Once they’re in, can you get them back out again?”

“We think so,” Jake said. “Haven’t actually tried, though.”

“Can they take over animals?”

“We don’t know.”

I glanced at the horizon, growing brighter as the sun began to rise behind the clouds. “We need to get out of here soon,” I interrupted, holding up the cube. “Jake?”

He raised his eyebrows. “If I tell you not to do this, will you listen?”

“No.”

“Then why are you asking?”

“Because you might say yes.”

Jake’s eyes narrowed. “Elfangor gave us morphing so we could fight the Yeerks. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what it’s for. You already put the whole human race on the line just by talking to this kid. If you use the cube on him, and the Yeerks take him—”

He broke off, shaking his head. “There’s not a lot of ways this can play out, Tobias. You just spent a bunch of points you don’t really have. Ask me what Marco would say we need to do about you.”

I’ll admit it—that one gave me a little chill. “We’re still on the same side.”

“Are we?”

“I’m trying to get something done here.”

“By cutting us down from five to four, and bringing in a stranger without any input from the rest of us.”

“We’re all strangers, Jake. Rachel, Marco, Cassie—I don’t know those people. I barely even know you. You’re a nice guy, and all, but—I don’t trust you with my life. I can’t. You’re not—hard enough. You guys keep acting like we’ve got time to waste, like there’s somebody going to show up and save us.”

“Elfangor showed up.”

“Exactly! That was our miracle! We’re not going to get another one.”

Jake sighed. “Yesterday—” He broke off, looking at the sky, and started again. “Two days ago, you chose me as your leader.”

“That was before you fucking fell apart when Cassie went missing.”

He stiffened, his eyes glittering, and I felt my shoulders tense. For a long moment, neither of us said anything.

“Fair,” he growled. “I’m not as jaded and cold as Tobias the street-smart tough guy. I lost it, a little. Lesson learned. But you don’t see Tom anywhere around here, do you?”

I shrugged. “I need somebody to watch my back,” I repeated.

“Somebody who’s not one of us. Somebody you trust.”

I didn’t respond.

“Cuts both ways, doesn’t it?” he asked.

I still didn’t answer. Just watched as he gnawed at his lip, looked at me, looked at Garrett, looked around at the empty, skeletal ruins of the construction site. As he shifted back and forth, and shivered.

Once.

“Garrett,” he said abruptly. “You take orders from Tobias?”

“No.” Garrett’s eyes were wide, and they didn’t quite meet ours, shifting back and forth between my forehead and Jake’s. “But I listen to him.”

Jake turned his gaze back to me. “Tell him.”

I grimaced. “Garrett,” I said tightly. “If you take the morphing power, you either have to come with me, or you have to go away. Far away, like England or Canada, and never come back. Because if you come back, they might catch you, and if they catch you they’ll catch us all.”

“That’s a rule?”

“That’s a rule.”

“Not quite,” Jake cut in. “There’s a third option. You can come back and stay with us. With me and the rest of my group. But if you do that, you have to follow our rules.”

Garrett nodded silently.

“As for you, Tobias,” Jake said, crossing his arms. “I’m sending you on a mission. Go find Elfangor’s brother. Bring him back if you can, or at least find out what happened to him. And if you need somebody to watch your back, you can use the morphing cube—once.” He looked Garrett up and down, his gaze measured and calculating. “But it has to be somebody who’s worth the risk. Not just somebody you like or care about. Somebody we can trust.”

I bit back a bitter laugh. “That’s how we’re going to play this, then?”

Jake didn’t flinch. “That’s how I’m going to play this,” he said. “You can do whatever you want. But I don’t exactly see how us being enemies helps anybody but the Yeerks. Maybe next time you’ll think about that before writing the rest of us off.”

And with that, he turned and strode away, feathers sprouting from his skin as he disappeared among the dark, looming structures.

 

*        *        *

 

<Something’s wrong,> Garrett said.

<You’re just not used to it yet,> I answered. <Try to relax, let the bird do the flying.>

We were both in hawk morph, floating above one of the parks on the edge of the city. Our clothes—and Garrett’s bag—were stashed high in the gnarled oak tree where we had morphed, hidden from the ground by the thick, leafy branches.

I had gone first so that Garrett could acquire from me, then demorphed again to hold him steady in the tree as he attempted his first transformation. It had gone without a hitch, and he’d immediately taken to the air, his delighted laughter filling my head.

Now, though, I could see him struggling, the rhythm of his wingbeats erratic as he fought to maintain altitude.

<Relax!> I called out again. <Don’t try to take control yourself!>

<I’m not!> he answered, panic creeping into his words as they played through my thoughts. <Total autopilot, I swear!>

He began to twitch as I closed the gap between us, his muscles spasming as if he were having a seizure. <Never mind,> I shouted, <take control! Take control!>

<It’s not working!>

Suddenly, his wings folded and he tumbled, plummeting toward the ground three hundred feet below. <AAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!>

<Hang on!>

I tucked my own wings and dove, raking my talons forward. We collided a second or two later, my claws digging into his flesh, his actual scream cutting through the air as his mental one filled my head.

I flapped furiously, struggling to slow our descent, his own out-of-control wings buffeting me as we curved toward the ground. <Hang on!> I shouted again. <This is going to—>

CRUNCH.

I let go just as we slammed into the earth, both of us rolling, a mass of dust and feathers. I’d only managed to slow us to maybe twenty miles per hour, and even the lightweight hawk body was stunned by the impact. A sharp pain shot up my right wing, and I let out an involuntary cry as I struggled back to my feet.

<Garrett!> I called out. <You okay?>

<No flying,> he moaned, his body still twitching in the dirt, tiny droplets of blood leaking through his feathers where I’d grabbed him. <No flying, no flying, no flying.>

<Are you okay?> I asked again. I scanned the park around us. It was still early, maybe a quarter to seven, and as far as I could tell, no one had witnessed our wild tumble. There were a few bushes about fifty feet away where we would be able to demorph and remorph, restoring our hawk bodies to full health.

Except that whatever was wrong with Garrett’s would still be wrong, since the morphed body was identical every time.

<No. Flying.>

I shuffled closer, holding my one unbroken wing out for balance. <Did you break anyth—>

I stopped mid-thought, looking down at his crumpled body in shock.

No way.

Slowly, carefully, I extended my healthy wing again, watching as the muscles in Garrett’s own wing twitched in response. I flapped once.

Twitch.

Twice.

Twitch, twitch.

I hopped backwards, fluttering, watching as a series of tiny spasms rippled across his body. The second I stopped moving, they ceased.

Holy shit.

<Garrett,> I said. <Can you fly?>

<NO FLYING.>

<You’ve either got to fly or you’ve got to climb the tree naked,> I said.

<Naked. No more flying. Never again.>

<Fine, no flying. Can you stand?>

I held still as he rolled over, coming to his feet. <Yes,> he answered.

<The bushes, over there. You can demorph and make a run for it.>

<What about you?>

<I’ll wait here until you’re demorphed. I think I’m—I think there’s some kind of interference between us, from both using the same body at the same time. Every time I move, you twitch.> I extended my wing and flapped it once to demonstrate.

<Don’t,> Garrett said flatly. <Bushes. Morph. Tree. Got it.>

I waited until Garrett streaked past me before heading toward the bushes myself. It was a slow, agonizing process, my dead wing dragging behind me, sending shooting pains up through my shoulder. By the time I reached cover and demorphed, Garrett had reappeared, carrying his bag and my stolen clothes.

We left the park on foot, Garrett still visibly shaken. “Didn’t you guys test that?” he asked, as we passed through the gate and headed down the street.

“Just for a minute,” I admitted, embarrassed. “We checked to see if Marco could morph Dude. But he demorphed as soon as we saw that it worked, so we didn’t have time to notice.”

“Never flying. Never ever flying again.”

“Oh, come on,” I chided. “It worked fine until I got up there, too.”

Though that did throw a wrench into the works. I had borrowed a fast-flying morph from Cassie, one that could theoretically make it out to Elfangor’s brother in just two or three days. But it had come from the Gardens, and if Garrett and I couldn’t share it, we were going to need a new plan.

“Where are we going?” Garrett asked, as we turned a corner and entered one of the nicer suburban neighborhoods.

“Marco’s house,” I said. “We need to warn the others about the resonance. And he’s the closest to the beach.”

“Why does that matter?”

“Because Elfangor’s brother is somewhere in between Hawaii and Russia.”

“We’re leaving now?”

“He’s been out there for three days already. We don’t have any time to waste. And if anybody does decide to notice that we’re gone, it’d be better not to be here.”

“How are we going to get to him?”

“Don’t know yet. Let me know if you come up with any ideas.”

Another quick morph, a brief thought-speak conversation, and we were on our way once more. Traffic was picking up as the Monday rush hour began, and the driveways and street corners began to fill up with kids waiting for their school buses. We moved off of the main roads and began cutting through parks and backyards, avoiding the places where truant officers were likely to look. It was quiet and calm, the morning sun breaking through the clouds and warming our backs as we went.

“We’re going to have to stash my bag somewhere,” Garrett said, after a long silence.

“We’ll find a place,” I assured him. We climbed over a fence and crossed the railroad tracks, the smell of salt strengthening as we got closer to the ocean.

“Tobias?” Garrett asked quietly, his voice barely audible over the crunch of our footsteps.

“Yeah?”

“Why me?”

“What?”

“I mean—why not Louis, or Fletcher, or Johnny. They’re—you know. Older. Smarter. Braver.”

The last word was almost a whisper, as if Garrett wasn’t quite sure he wanted me to hear it. I was silent for a while, considering my answer as we cut through a small patch of woods. “We made a promise,” I said finally, looking over at the younger boy.

Garrett didn’t look up. His brow was furrowed as he stared down at the ground, placing each step with careful precision. Another minute went by before he spoke again.

“I didn’t think you were coming back,” he said. “When you didn’t come home Friday, and then you didn’t come home Saturday either. Xander took your bunk last night. We all thought you’d just—gotten out.”

“We made a promise,” I repeated.

“I’m just saying. If you’d broken it. If you hadn’t come back. You could’ve—I wouldn’t’ve blamed you.”

I stopped. After a few more steps, Garrett did, too.

I felt a kind of cold anger coming over me, the product of almost eight years of orphanages and foster homes and shitty roommates and grownups who weren’t doing their jobs. Of swirlies and meatloaf and secondhand shoes, flat pillows and no money and no one, no one, no one you could really count on, all of it flashed into my head, crystallizing into a single, sharp icicle of bitter resentment. “Fuck that,” I said, reaching out and grabbing Garrett by the shoulder, spinning him around to face me. He twitched uncomfortably out of my grasp, but I stayed close, almost nose to nose, looking straight into his eyes as they stared resolutely at my chin.

“You damn well better blame me, if I ever pull some bullshit like that,” I hissed. “You’d better be fucking furious. Don’t you ever try to play like it’s okay for people to just blow you off, like—like you’re nothing, like you don’t count.

“Everybody bails eventually,” he said softly.

No,” I shot back. I held up my hand, the scar from our pact almost invisible among the lines of my palm. “Most people bail. Most people don’t know what the fuck a promise is. But that’s their problem, not yours.”

I turned and started walking again, holding my breath until I heard the rustle of Garrett’s footsteps behind me. We went on in silence for another handful of minutes, as the ground flattened out and the gentle crash of waves became audible over the breeze.

“I’m scared,” he said finally.

“Me, too,” I replied, looking back over my shoulder. “You don’t have to come, you know.”

“I thought you needed somebody to watch your back.”

“I do. And—look, I want your help, okay? You’re not—you know how to take care of yourself, and you’re somebody I can trust. Nobody else I know is on both lists. But I didn’t get you out just so I could boss you around. You want out, just go. Jake’s a decent guy, he’ll look out for you. Or go to Canada. You can morph, so you’ll be able to get food and stuff. You’ll be safe there as long as anybody.”

Garrett was quiet for another long minute. “It’s really happening?” he asked. “The invasion.”

“Yeah. You heard about vice-principal Chapman?”

Garrett nodded.

“They killed him. His wife and daughter, too.”

“How are you going to stop them?”

I shrugged. “No idea,” I said. “But saving Elfangor’s brother seems like a good first step.”

We stashed his bag under the roots of a half-toppled oak tree and emerged out into the headlands, scrambling our way down the steep slope until we came to the beach. “What now?” Garrett asked.

“Now we try to think of a plan,” I said. “We look for animals we might be able to use, or walk down to the shipyard and find a boat that’s heading the right dir—”

I broke off abruptly as we rounded the cape, my jaw dropping in shock. For a full ten seconds, my brain simply refused to work, unwilling to believe the signals my eyes were sending it.

“Oh,” said Garrett as he stopped beside me, his voice shaky. “Wow. Hey, Tobias—I think I just came up with an idea.”

The beach in front of us was packed, over a hundred people milling around, the air filled with the buzz of quiet conversation. Most of them were carrying buckets, the rest snapping pictures with their phones, or just standing there watching. They were gathered around an enormous, towering creature, a wall of gray flesh longer than a train car and almost as tall.

Sperm whale, said Cassie’s voice, echoing out of a memory of her barn, two days and two lifetimes ago. Sperm whale and giant squid. Those are the only big animals we know of that go that deep, and they don’t have either one of them at the Gardens. They don’t have either one anywhere, as far as I know.

“This is impossible,” I whispered, still trying to convince my sluggish brain to work. It was too convenient, too perfect to be a coincidence. I could see the whale’s labored breathing, see the pooling of its flesh as it collapsed beneath its own weight. In a few hours, it would be dead. It had beached itself at exactly the right time for me and Garrett to come across it.

“Oh,” Garrett said. “Is it a trap, then?”

I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to think. That would mean that the Yeerks knew we were human, that they knew about Elfangor’s brother, that they could pluck a whale right out of the ocean and that they somehow knew in advance when Garrett and I would be arriving on the beach—

No. If they had that much power, the war would already be over.

But as I stared at the dying animal, I couldn’t help remembering another conversation, this one much more recent than Cassie’s lecture on marine biology.

Elfangor showed up, Jake had said.

Exactly! I’d answered him. That was our miracle! We’re not going to get another one.

“Tobias?” Garrett asked. “What should we do?”

I looked at him. Looked at the whale. Looked out at the endless horizon.

Three thousand miles of water, and somewhere in the middle of it, Elfangor’s brother. Calling out for help.

Just put it on the list.

“We acquire it,” I said. “And then we watch each other’s back.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 06: Esplin 9466

Breached the theoretical mass synchronization collapse limit? Eliminated the unitary host-construct dependency? Tripled the efficiency of the controller-construct Z-space replacement algorithm?

Impossible.

Esplin nine-four-double-six stared at the report, feeling the odd mixture of fear and happiness that was always his host body’s response to bad news. Fear, because they had been one for so long that it felt his own emotions on the deepest possible level. Happiness, because no matter how completely he ruled, Alloran still lived beneath the surface.

Not that he truly wished to be rid of Alloran. Not anymore. It would be so lonely, after all, with only one mind in his head. So boring, with no audience. So easy, with no critic.

There were times, though, when the Andalite warrior’s joy was a burden that Esplin tired of bearing.

Esplin scanned the report again, taking separate note of each development.

One—the Andalites had successfully replaced a human girl, with mimicry on par with that of a Yeerk. Conclusion: someone else in the Andalite chain of command had discovered Alloran’s little back door.

Two (related)—at least one of them had been on Earth for multiple cycles, long enough to gather sufficient intelligence to choose precisely the right human for easy access to genetic material, likely since the arrival of the Yeerk’s own invading force. Conclusion: stowaways.

(Corollary: another upgrade to the morphing technology? The disguised Andalite agent had been executing the acquisition process in morph prior to being uncovered. Alternate hypothesis: handheld extractor/scanner, for later integration.)

Three—it had morphed directly from construct to construct, in roughly one third of the standard interval, after remaining in disguise for an unknown period of time (but at least eight times the original theoretical maximum). Conclusion: __________?

Beneath the surface, Alloran supplied a string of appropriate Andalite expletives, each tinged with an acid mix of mockery and smug triumph. Esplin responded with a searing lash of pain, and Alloran laughed even as he shrank back into silence.

This was frightening. If the Andalites had indeed managed to overcome three (possibly four!) of the morphing technology’s largest weaknesses, then the Leeran morph (with all of its disadvantages) was now the only method of determining which of his subordinates could be trusted. And if his corollary was correct, and they had somehow infiltrated his ship, then they could be literally anywhere, lying in wait for just the right opportunity—to press just the right buttons, to launch just the right people out of an airlock at 0.5c

(It would explain nearly every obstacle they had encountered so far—every setback, every delay, every frustrating malfunction, so much incompetence and always just short of something truly unforgiveable.)

Even the coercive demorphing field, so close to functional, might no longer hold any promise. Changes that significant suggested a fundamentally new approach to the entire morphing process, one that could easily rely on a completely different source of power.

With a quick tap of his controls, Esplin initiated the standard lockdown protocol, sealing his quarters and beginning the combination scan and decontamination. Ordinarily, the lockdown took place at random intervals, with a maximum of half a morphing period between cleans, but even that might no longer be sufficient. Esplin had long ago depilated his host’s body, to hinder infestation by tiny morphed parasites, but if the Andalites had gone this far, who was to say they wouldn’t try infiltrating as bacteria, to slip through the holes in the decon net?

(On a parallel line of thought, his constant monitoring of Alloran picked up a thread of curiosity, noting with bemusement that his pet warrior was even now unable to ignore the temptation of an interesting problem. Possible applications of the new morphing technology streamed through the link between them, and Esplin filed them away, to be guarded against later. Likely most of the precautions would be unnecessary and redundant—he had yet to meet another Andalite who was a match for Alloran in pure savagery and clarity of thought, who had the same inexorable drive—)

((Alloran scoffed at the backhanded compliment, but could not quite suppress the minute wash of pride—))

(((Oh yes, they were made for one another, if only the warrior could see past the narrow interests of his native species, and take the larger view—)))

Suddenly Esplin’s musings flashed to a halt, all of his speculations ceasing, all layers collapsing into one as he directed every level of attention toward the path of Alloran’s thoughts. The process was immediate, automatic, a reflexive response to a trigger Esplin had installed long, long ago, when he had only just begun to learn what it was to govern a mind that was greater than your own:

Alloran was confused, which meant that it was time for Esplin to pay attention.

The warrior’s mind instantly went blank, his thoughts smoothing into the placid flow of meditation as he tried to cover his involuntary betrayal. Esplin merely laughed, seizing the reins and forcing the neurons to fire, unwinding the spool of thought to see what tiny flaw had caught his host’s attention.

and even then, why leave Ispec alive AFTERWARD, a critically-positioned host, it made NO SENSE—

—farther back—

surely not so utterly shortsighted as to throw away an invaluable tactical advantage on a SCARE TACTIC—

—farther back—

unless for some reason he WANTED the Yeerks to receive Ispec’s report? But what possible justification—

—farther—

the first, most basic, most OBVIOUS move being to grind the filthy slug into the dust, even a stiff-tailed cadet could not HELP but notice the open communication channel—

Ah.

Carefully, suppressing his desire to leap to a conclusion, Esplin reconstructed the scene in his mind’s eye. The mighty Andalite, exposed but triumphant. The lowly Yeerk, cowering in a weak and feeble body. The gloating reveal—you have no idea of the depth of your failure! We took the girl weeks ago, and you clumsy, stupid Yeerks noticed nothing! Yet another victory for the superior Andalite race!

(It would have gone something like that, anyway.)

Yes, it was in character, all right, character so perfect it was almost a mockery. But the flaws were obvious when you looked at it objectively. If they’d had the girl for weeks, then why the sudden rush to visit half of the animals in the collection?

Obviously, it was a bluff. Some thick-stalked ship-jockey, who had never so much as heard the word “espionage,” found himself stranded after the battle, moved immediately to acquire local morphs—

at least the idiot had followed ONE protocol correctly—

—and blundered right into the middle of the Yeerks’ damage control operation (triggered by some other cloud-furred fool?). Desperate, he changed forms, got his leg shot off, and then, unmasked and stranded deep in enemy territory, tried to cover up his blunder with boasting. It made sense.

Except—

(Alloran desperately tried not to object, but he had no choice, really…)

at that point, WHY didn’t the oaf terminate the enemy host?

It went against every scrap of Andalite military doctrine, half of which Alloran himself had written, replacing centuries of obsolete folly. It was the first lecture given to every cadet who entered the armed forces: You identify the enemy. You find the enemy. You destroy the enemy. End process. You don’t make the enemy squirm by parading tactical information in front of them!

For a moment, Esplin enjoyed the feeling of camaraderie as he and his host were united by their shared frustration at the eternal incompetence of underlings. Then the moment passed, Alloran recoiled, and they each turned their mind back to the problem, the master eagerly, the pet involuntarily.

Who were the key players? Subject A, a midgrade Yeerk operative, being outwitted by subject B, a stunning example of Andalite mediocrity. In the background: the incoming reinforcements? A frustrated field commander?

The host.

Laughable. Of course Alloran would think that—he had to, lest he cease to be able to deny his own irrelevance. Though the human had in fact apparently fought her Yeerk to a standstill, so credit where credit was due. Such a wasted effort, only to have her words fall on uncaring Andalite ears. They’d taken her mate within minutes while the oaf blundered off in the opposite direction—

The host’s daughter.

Dead. Obviously. Even dust-fed buffoons would not risk the sudden arrival of a doppelganger—

Unless she was cooperating.

Esplin froze, cursing himself. Of course—that would not only justify the ill-advised and irrational mercy, it would also explain the swiftness with which the Andalites had learned of the animal collection, and infiltrated its security.

The castigation turned to laughter as Alloran’s sense grew thick with horror. Oh, the proud Andalite race, reduced to alliance with planetbound primates! Would they invite the monkeys into space, next? Give them weapons, perhaps? Maybe some of the lonelier sort would morph and seek mates among the humans, as rumor said had been done during the conquest of the Hork-Bajir, on the homeworld of the Arn—perhaps Esplin and Alloran would give it a try, together?

Alloran snarled, a wordless expression of pure fury, and Esplin reveled in the wash of hormones that filled the skull where the pair of them lived. Meanwhile, in the back of their shared mind, a lower, slower sort of process began following up on the new hypothesis, working through the strategic implications of a human-Andalite alliance, combining it with all of the other data on the current situation—

(((Cassie Withers, my host’s daughter! She just morphed into an elephant!)))

(((We took her daughter weeks ago, and she never even noticed.)))

((Cassie Withers, my host’s daughter! She just morphed into an elephant!))

((And after holding human form for an entire day! Visser Three will be exceptionally interested in hearing how you accomplished that.))

(Cassie Withers, my host’s daughter! She just morphed into an elephant!)

(Enjoy it while you can, Yeerk. The Andalites are coming.)

Cassie Withers, my host’s daughter! She just morphed into an elephant!

Like a rocket launching skyward, the realization tore through every layer of Esplin’s attention, each fraction of his mind demanding greater priority for the thought until even Alloran’s misery failed to be more interesting.

Unless she was cooperating.

A human that could morph—

A human that didn’t have to bypass the mass synchronization limit because it wasn’t morphed in the first place—

A human that could transform straight into a construct because it wasn’t morphed in the first place

A human that could acquire animals directly, without demorphing to Andalite form, because IT WASN’T MORPHED IN THE FIRST PLACE—

A human that didn’t stomp its captive into the dust because it hadn’t read the Andalite war journal, and because the captive hadn’t been another faceless Yeerk but the human’s own mother

It all clicked into place, a hypothesis far more elegant than any of the others—a single, deft principle that explained every one of the oddities that had troubled them both so far, dispensing with the need for impossible leaps in technology and implausibly incompetent operatives—

((Well, not the oddities aboard ship, but there was no fundamental reason to expect those to be related.))

(Esplin ignored the rising echoes of Alloran’s seething self-hatred as the warrior realized he had once again guided his master to the solution.)

It had Elfangor’s scent all over it—a final, desperate ploy, recruiting a handful of primitives and arming them with the most devastatingly powerful technology in the known universe—

(And that was why he had allowed himself to be dispatched so easily, rather than morphing and leading them on a merry chase. Esplin and Alloran had been somewhat disappointed.)

A quick explanation (inadequate)—a quick activation (untested! Irresponsible!)—a noble sacrifice (all poor Elfangor ever wanted)—and behold, a brand-new piece made its entry into the game. Morph-capable humans! Children, some of them! How many would the Beast have had time to recruit? Seven? Fourteen?

For the third time in as many minutes, Esplin’s thoughts ground to a halt, his mind stunned by the sudden recognition of a new expanse of possibility.

Had Elfangor left the Iscafil device in their hands?

(Beneath the surface, Alloran howled with despair at the folly, the absolute folly, for they both knew that that was exactly what the Beast would have done.)

And now Esplin felt that odd mixture of fear and happiness again, its sources reversed, its flavor subtly but deliciously different. Here was a challenge worthy of his full attention, with the potential to strike years off the time that his true plan required. They were down there, somewhere—frightened humans with the key in their hands, a key which they would surely destroy rather than allow him to have, a key which not even his fellow Yeerks could be permitted to discover.

Esplin opened a channel to the central command hub. A bladed Hork-Bajir answered immediately, its salute crisp and respectful, its eyes dull and uncomprehending.

Message, Visser Three signed, and the Hork-Bajir signaled confirmation.

The Andalite bandits are cooperating with the humans. Investigate all known associates of Hedrick Chapman, Paula Chapman, Melissa Chapman, Walter Withers, Michelle Withers, and Cassie Withers, and place a full surveillance net on Walter and Michelle Withers. Do not engage; observe and report only.

The Hork-Bajir signaled confirmation again, and Visser Three closed the channel, turning to the small compartment that stood beside his interface.

A little snack, before the real work began…

Chapter Text

Chapter 07: Jake

—I watched, helpless, as Tom smiled, his eyes like chips of ice. He lifted the knife and drew it across his own throat, and I screamed as blood spurted out, as the laughter of the Yeerk inside his head became a hideous gurgle—

—I watched, helpless, as my mother’s foot pressed down on the accelerator, as the car surged forward, faster and faster, as she looked into my eyes and yanked the wheel. The car shrieked, twisted, tumbled over and over again, and my mother’s body flew out of the windshield and dragged along the highway, still laughing—

—I watched, helpless, as my father opened the door to the hospital roof, as he pocketed the keys and strode across the gravel, whistling a happy tune. He stepped up onto the low wall around the edge and paused, grinning, his eyes finding mine as he took the final step out into the open air—

—I watched, helpless, as Rachel—

—as Marco—

—as Cassie—

I awoke to the vibration of my phone, buried inside my pillowcase, followed a second later by the soft chime of bells in the one earbud that hadn’t fallen out. My sheets were twisted and knotted around my body, musty and wet with the sweat that was still pouring out of me. Holding back a groan, I rolled over and looked at the clock.

3:45AM.

I could feel adrenaline tracing lines through my body, feel the pounding of my heart in my temples, my jaw, my fists. The nightmares were no surprise—I’d woken up to them twice tonight already. If anything, I was grateful that I’d slept long enough to have them. It was the fourth night since the construction site, and I had yet to stay asleep for more than two hours in a row.

Reaching out, I reset both alarms—the phone to 5:45, the clock to 5:50—then woke up my computer, squinting against the sudden, searing light. I switched the final backup alarm from 3:51 to 5:51 and killed the monitor, trying to recover my night vision so that I could make my way through the maze of hazards on my floor in silence.

The world outside my bedroom window was quiet and empty—no lights sliding across the clear night sky, no monstrous figures lurching through the darkness, no mysterious cars parked down the street. Tiptoeing carefully across the room, I double-checked the locks on my door and tumbled back into bed. Wearily, I pulled out my phone, swiped my passcode, and opened up our shared thread.

night guys (9:48PM)

can’t sleep lol (Marco • 10:36PM)

no news (Rachel • 11:12PM)

alls well (11:48PM)

can’t sleep lol (Marco • 12:34AM)

still working on hw (Rachel • 1:16AM)

np (1:49AM)

can’t sleep lol (Marco • 2:33AM)

stfu marco (Rachel • 3:15AM)

I tapped np again, pushing send just as the time ticked over to 3:47. It was an empty, meaningless gesture—if the Yeerks managed to take one of us in the night, they would almost certainly also be capable of sending a fake all-clear, and smart enough to do so—but we’d unanimously agreed that it was better to wake up to something.

Setting the phone aside, I stared up at the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling and began to demorph.

In the days since we’d met Elfangor, I had undergone over a dozen transformations. I had been a dog, a falcon, an alien—four times!—and a squirrel, and the DNA of a handful of other animals, hastily acquired from Cassie, floated somewhere in my blood or my brain or wherever the morphing technology stored its templates.

But this transformation was the strangest by far, precisely because it wasn’t. I could feel the process working, feel the subtle shift and tingle as it filtered every cell and molecule, calling my true body back from hyperspace as it disassembled the construct particle by particle. And yet, as I lay there, the only noticeable change was the gradual shrinking of my fingernails.

It had taken us an embarrassingly long time to stumble upon the idea of a marker, a trigger—some tangible difference that could separate the morph, in our minds, from the original. But in the end, it had proven to be that simple. Marco acquired me, Marco morphed me, I trimmed my fingernails, I acquired myself. A little over a minute and a half later, and the fingernails were back.

It was an exhilarating hack, the first unconditionally good news we’d had since Elfangor’s death, and it would have been cause for celebration if we hadn’t already been dead on our feet from exhaustion. Access to thought-speak alone would have been worth the hassle of demorphing and remorphing every two hours, and on top of that, we would be able to heal any non-lethal injury in minutes, and to morph out from under a Yeerk stunner without giving ourselves away.

“Of course, if they infest us in between, we might still be screwed,” Marco had pointed out. “Elfangor’s little earplugs probably aren’t staying put.” But in that case, Rachel had argued, what was to stop us from simply demorphing, and scattering the Yeerk’s atoms into nothingness?

We’d done a little test, each within a carbon copy of our own bodies, downing Doritos and Pop Tarts until we couldn’t eat any more, then demorphing to find ourselves hungry again. It wasn’t conclusive, by any means, but the chill we’d all felt when we remorphed a moment later and were still hungry…

Rachel had seemed almost eager, after that.

Running a thumb along my fingertips, I stifled a yawn and refocused. It was Tuesday night—technically Wednesday morning—and school would be cancelled for two more days. We’d been on alert for three nights already, and I could feel the beginnings of a headache behind the bridge of my nose, and that little pain you get in your neck when it hasn’t rested long enough. I kicked and tugged at my sheets, trying to find a comfortable position as my body slowly disappeared and was replaced by a copy of itself.

Four more hours, I thought to myself. Four more hours, and then it would be time to get up, and then—

Well. One way or another, the next night would be different.

My armor in place, I closed my eyes and rolled over, slowly sinking back into my nightmares.

 

*        *        *

 

My name is Jake Berenson.

It’s weird, to think that that’s now a secret. Like one of those fairy tales, where people who know your true name have ultimate power over you. If the Yeerks find out who I am…

Well, they won’t quite have ultimate power over me. Cassie had gone through hell, but at least the implants had worked.

They can take my parents, though, and my brother Tom.

Take my friends, the ones who aren’t a part of our little resistance movement.

They can take my neighbors, my teachers, my coach, my troop leader.

In the end, they’re going to try to take everybody.

How much does it take, to break a person? How hard would it be for the Yeerks to push me over the edge, if they had everyone I loved, and knew me like they’d raised me, like they’d grown up beside me?

In my dreams, Tom had killed himself, over and over, a hundred different ways, and laughed each time as he died.

The Yeerks didn’t need ultimate power. Regular power was more than enough.

I’m a younger brother, you know. I think that makes a difference. Marco and Cassie and Tobias—sort of—they’re all only children. Rachel’s got two younger sisters, but she was almost six by the time Jordan was born. She remembers what it was like to be the only kid in the family—she became an older sister.

I’ve always been a younger brother. As long as I’ve lived, there’s always been somebody bigger and stronger, somebody with more knowledge, more power, more respect. Not that Tom’s a bad guy—we get along just fine, most of the time. But that gap, that difference—it’s real, and it matters. Tom is three years older than me. He was already in high school by the time I got to middle school. He got his license just before Christmas last year, and inherited Dad’s old Nissan.

I got a PS4. At the time, I was thrilled.

When I was maybe nine years old, our parents decided they were tired of the way Tom and I were constantly bickering with one another, and ordered us to find another way to settle our differences. After some spirited debate, we settled on rock-paper-scissors, best two out of three.

It seemed fair, at the time. I mean, you’ve got exactly three options, right? You win, you lose, or you draw. No gray areas. Simple. Straightforward.

Except, as it happened, I was a lot better at rock-paper-scissors than my older brother. Turns out if you understand how someone thinks—I mean really understand, on a deep, intuitive level—you can cut those three options down to one without much trouble. For a few short weeks, I won every argument. One day, I even wrote down scissors scissors rock paper rock rock rock paper in advance, put it in my back pocket, and proceeded to win all eight tosses. Tom locked me in a closet, Dad made him do all the yardwork, and we switched to flipping coins after that.

It’s not that my brother is stupid, or unimaginative, or especially predictable. It’s just that growing up with him forced me to pay attention—to perfect a kind of awareness that Tom never had any incentive to develop. It wasn’t a conscious thing. It’s not like I was thinking hmmm, he threw rock last time and lost, so he’d stick with rock to surprise me, except he knows I’d predict that, so he’s actually going to switch to paper! No, I just looked at him, and some part of my brain spat out paper or scissors or rock, and if I listened to it, I won, nine times out of ten.

Against Marco and Rachel, it was more like seven or eight.

Against random kids in the cafeteria, it was closer to six—not great, but still enough to win more often than I lost.

It’s not hard, when there are only three choices, and there’s always a right answer. When you can look the other person in the eye and get a sense of how they think, even if you don’t know them all that well. When there’s nothing real at stake, and you can just keep playing until even the tiniest edge starts to make a difference in your favor.

But that’s not the game we’re playing now.

I’d lucked out, with Tobias. It had felt right, waiting by the cube for him to come back, but I didn’t have that same sense of certainty that I had with Tom. Tobias was still just too much of a stranger, even after almost a year of hanging out with him in the halls at school. I’d been completely thrown when he said he was going after Elfangor’s brother, and I still didn’t know whether I’d been right to trust him about the kid, Garrett.

And if I couldn’t even predict Tobias

We have no idea who the Yeerks really are, deep down inside. No idea what they are. How they think, or what they want, or how far they’ll go to get it, or even how they define ‘far.’

They executed the Chapmans for no apparent reason, in the middle of the night, when the three of them had no plausible excuse for being out in a car together.

They took Cassie’s mother in a preemptive move, allegedly as part of a larger strategy to keep rogue Andalites from acquiring powerful Earth morphs.

They had infested a number of cops, firefighters, and EMTs, and were using those hosts to respond to Controller distress signals, and maybe just to infest anybody who called 911.

They had set up shop in a medium-sized city on the Pacific coast, instead of in Washington or New York or Beijing—where they’d have had easy access to power—or the middle of some quiet, backwater village—where they wouldn’t have had to worry about being discovered.

They were traveling in pairs, converting whole families, carrying stunners and communicators and spare Yeerks apparently just in case, but they’d also somehow missed the five of us cowering pretty much out in the open in the middle of a construction site.

The scattered facts made no sense together, formed no recognizable pattern. It was an opaque mixture of smart and stupid, capable and incompetent. And my little black box needed a pattern—needed something to latch on to, before it was willing to offer up predictions, to throw its support behind one plan or another.

I could have recruited Tom, gone back for the cube after Tobias and Garrett left—could have brought him immediately into our circle, into the fight.

Would that have been good, bad, or neutral?

I could use Elfangor’s body—morph into an Andalite in the middle of the mall or the stadium or downtown, pretend to be an alien coming out of disguise and just start yelling <Take me to your leader.>

Win, lose, or draw?

We could hijack a plane—or better yet, a Bug fighter—and crash it into the center of town, try to take out the Yeerk pool. Or fly it up into orbit, to whatever mothership the Yeerks had hidden up there. We could kidnap the president—or try, anyway—hold her for three days, and then give her the morphing power. We could start building an army, or give the morphing cube to the Army.

The problem was, none of those ideas were good or bad, on their own. Rock, by itself, isn’t a winning throw. It isn’t anything, except in relation to scissors or paper or another rock. And we had no way of knowing what the Yeerks were thinking, what they were planning, what they were going to do next.

The solution, Marco had said, was to try to find a move which was good under any circumstances—something the Yeerks couldn’t anticipate or twist to their advantage.

No, Rachel had argued, the solution was not to play. To get clear, regroup, gather more information. We’d almost lost Cassie, she’d pointed out. It would only take one mistake to lose everything.

To which Marco had countered that all the Yeerks needed to win was for us to do nothing.

And that’s when my phone had buzzed, and Rachel’s just after.

Apparently, the Yeerks had bought Cassie’s off-the-cuff cover story. Bought it so completely that they’d written off Cassie entirely, and thrown in both of her parents for good measure. They’d put a fifteen-second slot on the morning news, announcing the tragic deaths of Walter, Michelle, and Cassie Withers, in an accident on Thistledown Road involving a deer, a tree, and no other vehicles.

We’d sort of stopped arguing for a few minutes, after that.

“Loose ends,” Marco had growled, once Rachel and I managed to get ourselves mostly under control. “They’re getting rid of any host whose identity has been compromised. Which means there are Andalite bandits out there—they must have figured out that Mr. Chapman was a Controller, so the Yeerks took him out of the picture before they could expose him or follow him to the pool or whatever.”

“We have to—somebody has to—to tell Cassie,” Rachel had said, her voice still catching on silent sobs.

I hadn’t responded to either of them. On the surface, I was still reeling. My brain kept replaying a memory of Cassie’s parents from a week before, the last time I’d had dinner at her house. It was somehow impossible to imagine that kitchen being dark and silent and empty.

But on a deeper level, everything else was falling into place. Like a marble in a game of Mouse Trap, Marco’s theory had clicked, rolled, and tumbled through my little black box, setting in motion half a dozen tiny chain reactions, leaving me with a sudden feeling of clarity.

The Yeerks were afraid.

Not careful, not prudent, not cautiously circumspect, but actively and aggressively paranoid. They were jumping at shadows. They were genuinely worried about the threat of exposure, so much so that they’d staged two car accidents in as many days, just to keep their operation hidden from Andalite eyes.

They were vulnerable.

They were vulnerable, and I was angry.

“New plan,” I’d said, my voice coming out brittle and sharp. “Marco, you can get your dad out if you want, but you need to stick around. Rachel—we don’t know where Cassie is, and there’s no point wasting time tracking her down.”

I didn’t think—not exactly. There wasn’t really time to think. I just knew, as if a switch had been flipped—as if I’d known all along, and had only just remembered.

I still had no idea who the Yeerks really were. I didn’t understand all of the choices they were making, wouldn’t have dared to predict where the war would go in two weeks or two months or two years. But I thought I knew what they were going to do next.

And scissors beat paper.

“We’re going after the pool.”

 

*        *        *

 

<Run it by me one more time, and this time listen to yourself.>

I sighed, fiddling absentmindedly with the controls of the racing game as the clock ticked down to zero and the words YOU LOSE flashed across the screen. Around me, the arcade echoed with the sounds of lasers and laughter, packed with kids enjoying the impromptu vacation.

<They’re trying to keep a low profile,> I said, holding the beam of my thoughts narrow so that only Marco could hear them. He was a hundred yards away, shadowing our target as she ate dinner in the food court. <It’s already a stretch that two families with kids in the same grade both died in car wrecks one after the other. They’re going to want to wait until all of this settles down before they make any new moves.>

<Yeah, I’m with you on that part. Fits with what Cassie said about free spread being on pause, or whatever. And sure, yeah, that makes this a good time to try to make our first move. But this chick hasn’t done anything weird or suspicious at all.>

<We haven’t been watching her the whole time.>

Reaching into my pocket, I dug out another four quarters and dropped them into the machine, double-taking as I had every time at the unexpected shade of my skin. I was incognito, wearing the body of a random teenager from the far side of town. We’d biked over to the other mall on Monday evening, and Marco had done some incredibly stupid patter about practicing hypnosis, somehow convincing a bunch of people to let us hold their hands long enough to acquire them.

<Look,> I continued. <There was no wreck, right? And they have Cassie’s parents’ bodies, but no Cassie. So fine, they tell everybody it’s got to be a closed-casket thing, but there’s always some family member that has to take a look. To identify them and stuff. And Cassie’s aunt Mikayla is the only one in town.>

<So they bring her in Sunday night, infest her on the spot, and she fields the questions for anybody else who’s being nosy—>

<—and now it’s Wednesday, and she’s due for a visit to the Yeerk pool.>

On the screen, my car slammed into a railing and spun out, dropping me from fourth place down to eleventh.

<This is so thin I can’t use it for toilet paper, man. Like, I can’t even count how many ways this whole thing falls apart. Maybe they didn’t make her a Controller in the first place. Maybe they did, but not until Monday, or maybe she just went to the pool yesterday while we were all stuck at the Chapman memorial thing. I mean, just because Elfangor said every three days doesn’t mean it’s three days exactly, right? And even if she is a Controller and she does lead us to the pool, what’s stopping them from having some kind of crazy force field bio-filter in place? It’s what I’d do, if I was worried about Andalite bandits. Or worse, this whole thing could be one giant trap.>

<It’s not a trap,> I said flatly.

Yanking the wheel, I skidded out again, this time falling completely off the map. I’d already poured eight dollars into the game over the past ten minutes. If I didn’t pull it together soon, I was going to run out of money.

The problem was, everything that Marco was saying was true. It was full of holes, and I was making a ton of assumptions. But every time I tried to lay out a good argument, I just couldn’t find the right words. Like how the Yeerks’ fear meant that the pool wasn’t secure yet, which meant there weren’t any crazy force fields, and we would be able to infiltrate it. Or how the Yeerks would know humans well enough by now to grab Cassie’s aunt and use her, but how Andalites wouldn’t know humans well enough to anticipate it, and how the Yeerks knew that, so they’d see it as a safe move and wouldn’t guard against it the way they were probably guarding against us tracking down one of the cops or EMTs…

Somewhere inside my little black box, it all added up. But there were too many layers, too many ifs. I couldn’t keep up with Marco when it came to logic-chopping, and so I was leaning on my “authority” pretty hard.

<We can always bail,> I reminded him. <If things start looking dicey. And it’s not like we’ve wasted a ton of time trailing Mikayla. If she doesn’t lead us anywhere tonight, we call it off and switch to plan B.>

Marco was silent for a moment. <Just make me one promise,> he said finally. <If it turns out you are right, don’t go nuts and start thinking you have some kind of spider sense, okay? Because right for the wrong reasons is only a tiny bit better than flat-out wrong.>

I hesitated, trying to come up with a good response, and then another voice broke into my thoughts.

<She’s on the move. Marco, you on us?>

<Yeah, I’ve got you. She’s getting up to dump her tray—safe bet she’s headed back to her car. I’ll follow and let you know when to bail out. Jake, time to roll.>

It was tough, trying to tail a possible Controller with only three people, especially when we had no idea where the Yeerk pool might be, or what its entrance might be like. For all we knew, Mikayla would just duck into a bathroom somewhere and never come back out.

So we’d settled on a rotation. One of us would stick to her—literally—in fly morph, one of us would tail her from a distance in a human disguise, and the third person would be on standby, watching the clock and moving the bags of extra clothes we’d brought into position for emergency demorphs. Tagging out was tricky—the fly couldn’t really see anything further than two or three feet away, so we either had to know exactly where Mikayla would be in advance, or we had to coordinate a drop-off at close range.

I got up and left the arcade at a brisk walk, demorphing inside my clothes as I went, keeping the process slow enough that none of the other mall patrons would notice. Mikayla’s car was in the outdoor parking lot, just a short walk from the closest entrance.

<Yep, she’s leaving. Jake, ETA is maybe three minutes, maybe less. Want me to slow her down?>

I pushed my way through the double doors and out into the sunlight. <No, I’ve got it,> I said, just as my ability to thought-speak disappeared.

Walking over to her car, I did a quick spin to confirm that no one else was nearby or paying attention, and then dropped to the ground and rolled underneath. I would have to leave my shirt, shorts, and flip-flops behind; fortunately, they were Tom’s old beach clothes, and probably wouldn’t be missed.

Taking a deep breath, I focused my mind and felt the changes begin.

So far, every morph had been different, and every morph had been horrible in one way or another. Once, while morphing Elfangor, the bones for my extra fingers had simply shot out of the side of my hands, the flesh and skin crawling up them afterward like some kind of creepy time-lapse of vines growing.

This time, the first thing to change was my vision. For a moment, everything went dim and blurry, and then the world sort of shattered as I felt my eyeballs bulge and divide, becoming the compound eyes of an insect.

Fortunately, my human brain wasn’t quite equipped to process all the new information, so I couldn’t see too much detail as the hairs on my arms began to thicken into razor-like barbs, or as my skin turned black and waxy like burnt brownies.

<Drop off now, Rachel,> said Marco. <Head for the heavenly smell—the dumpster’s thirty feet to your left, and the coast is clear. Jake, two minutes, give or take.>

<I’m not going to be airborne in time to guide you into the car, Jake,> Rachel warned. <Hope you can figure it out.>

It was still too early for me to reply by thought-speak. I had started to shrink, the shirt and shorts ballooning around me as my arms and legs shriveled and another pair of limbs started to squirm their way out of my abdomen. I felt a kind of peeling sensation on my back, and suddenly my skin split into sheets and became wings.

I’m pretty sure that whatever Andalite scientist came up with morphing belongs firmly in the “mad” category. I wondered vaguely how they’d gone about testing the technology, and whether they’d thought to include some kind of numbing factor right from the start, or whether they’d figured that out only after some poor test subject lost his mind from the pain.

<Testing,> I called out. <Can you hear me?>

<Roger,> came the reply. <This is Marco; Rachel’s demorphing. Mikayla will be at the car in about one minute. You going to be ready?>

The shrinking stopped, and the sloshing and grinding slowed as the last few changes fell into place. <Yeah. Coming out from under the car now.>

Ever wondered what it would be like to be the Flash? Not just to zip around at supersonic speeds, but to go from zero to a million in the blink of an eye?

Flies are fast.

One second, I was under the car, surrounded by the smells of sweat, detergent, and motor oil. The next, I was clinging to the door of the car, feeling the heat of the afternoon sun, completely indifferent to the fact that my whole world had turned sideways. In between, I’d traveled what felt like a hundred miles while strapped to the nose of a rocket.

You wouldn’t think being a fly would be fun, compared to being a dog or a bird or an alien. But once you got past the all-consuming grossness of the situation, it was like riding the ultimate rollercoaster. Forward, backward, sideways, upside-down—the fly didn’t care. It could change direction four or five times in a second.

I counted in my head as I waited, fighting the fly’s instinctive desire to move, to hide, to follow the smell of food. If I was interpreting the wild mosaic of my vision correctly, I had managed to plant myself just behind the driver’s side door, low enough to the ground to avoid notice against the dark color of the paint.

<Now,> Marco said, just as I sensed the vibrations and pressure changes of someone approaching the car. A continent moved—the door opening—a giant swept past—Mikayla, slipping into the driver’s seat—and in another flash, I was inside the car, hunkering down on the floor in the back. <I’m in,> I reported.

<Roger. Time is 6:48. Your limit was two-oh-four, right? So counting the minute you just spent waiting, you’ve got until 8:51. Rachel, you up yet?>

<Almost. I’ll be able to catch up—just give me a direction.>

<North exit. Heading toward midtown. Looks like she’s not going home just yet.>

<Can you stay on her?>

<Yeah, there’s plenty of traffic. Going dark for a minute while I reset my clock.>

For a few minutes, all was quiet. I could feel the rumbling of the car as it rolled down the rough pavement, sense the lurching as Mikayla braked and accelerated. I had a sense that seemed to correspond to hearing, but it was impossible to make out actual sounds—everything was muffled and alien, the fly brain built to mine the data for food and threats and nothing else. <Rachel,> I called out tentatively. <Any guesses where we’re going?>

<Doesn’t look like she’s headed for the school,> Rachel answered back. <She’s driving down Church Street. There’s the YMCA, city park, a bunch of strip malls and small stores and stuff. Maybe the courthouse? Tough to say.>

The car lurched again, and a cheese ball rolled out from under one of the seats. I resisted the sudden urge to vomit on it, and tried not to think about the fact that I had a proboscis. <Okay,> I said. <I guess I’ll settle in.>

 

*        *        *

 

<Um. Jake. Anything weird just happen on your end?>

I felt a little spike of fear and took stock of my surroundings. I was somewhere near Mikayla’s right ankle, riding along as she walked through the hallways of the YMCA. Marco and Rachel were both outside—Marco in osprey morph, Rachel in human disguise, wearing one of the sets of spare clothes.

I could hear/feel the sound of impacts in the distance, the low variable murmur that I was beginning to associate with speech, the buffeting wind that came and went with each step Mikayla took. What little I could see of the hallway seemed completely normal—fluorescent lights, dingy tile, pale blue walls with peeling paint.

<Nothing, why?>

<Because you just disappeared.>

I felt another spike, larger this time, and almost lost control to the fly body, which was extremely unhappy about remaining so still for so long. <What?> I demanded.

<I’m looking at the hallway you should be walking down, and Mikayla’s not there. I can see it through the windows, and it’s completely empty. That guy at the desk buzzed you through the door, I saw you go through it, but you didn’t show up on the other side.>

<I—what—>

<Some kind of portal?> Rachel asked, her voice taut. <Or a hologram?>

<Jake, what do you see?>

I looked around again, trying to make sense of the insane swirl of images. <Nothing,> I said. <I mean, not nothing—it looks like a normal hallway. I think I can hear basketballs. It smells the same as it did thirty seconds ago. I—I don’t think I teleported anywhere, or anything like that.>

Mikayla’s footsteps slowed, and I felt another rush of air as she pushed open a door and stepped into a stairwell.

<Safe money’s on hologram, then,> Marco said. <Looks like you were right after all, Jake.>

<Should he bail?> Rachel asked. <Should we go in after him?>

<Not yet,> I ordered, clamping down on my own fear. <We need information. So far we’ve still got nothing.>

<Where are you?>

<In a stairwell. At the end of the hallway, I think. Feels like we’ve gone down…two stories?> There was another rush of air, this time bringing with it a barrage of new sounds and smells. <Out of the stairwell now. I’m in another hallway, I think—no, wait. A—a bathroom? Locker room?>

I heard an echo of grim laughter in my head. <The subterranean pool at the center of the city,> Marco said, his voice bitter. <The YMCA pool? The one that’s basically the basement of the entire building?>

<Holy crap,> Rachel breathed. <I thought—the way Elfangor said it—>

<Yeah, me, too. But I guess this is more their style, anyway. I mean, why build something from scratch when you can just steal and repurpose? Plumbing, power, restricted access…>

<I’m jumping ship,> I broke in. <This room sounds like it’s empty except for Mikayla. I’m going to try to find a corner and get into a morph with better senses.>

<Jake, be careful!>

No shit. Launching myself away from Mikayla’s ankle, I did a quick aerial tour of the space. It was hard to be sure, but it looked like a locker room. Perching on the ceiling, I peered down at the blurred shape that was Cassie’s aunt. She was shuffling around, bending and twisting without going anywhere.

Changing clothes.

I let go of the rough surface of the drop ceiling and headed for the opposite corner of the room, moving at approximately Mach seven. There was a series of quiet, dark cells that might have been showers or changing rooms. I zipped into one of them and paused again, unable to stop myself from rubbing my forelimbs together.

Mikayla’s movements were like a thunderstorm, distant and muffled, the pressure waves broken and distorted as they bounced off the walls and ceiling and wormed their way into the enclosed space of the stall. After a couple of minutes, they tapered off, ending with a pair of loud bangs that might have been doors slamming shut. Then there was silence.

<Demorphing,> I broadcast, unable to keep the tension out of my tone. <If you don’t hear from me in three minutes, something’s gone wrong.>

If I’d had a heart, it would have been pounding. Every instinct I had was crying for me to stay hidden, to stay small, to find my way out of the locker room and out of the building. I wanted nothing less than to find myself naked and alone in a women’s locker room in the middle of a bodysnatcher stronghold.

But alongside the fear was an icy, uncompromising resolve. They had taken Cassie’s family. They were going to try to take mine. And Marco and Rachel were waiting, would take either inspiration or discouragement from my example.

How far would you go, if the fate of your species hung in the balance?

No, that was the wrong question. As I hesitated, I saw once more the image from my nightmares, my brother Tom laughing as the Yeerk inside his head dragged a knife across his throat.

Never.

Focusing, I began to change, my mind already leaping ahead to the next phase of the operation. I had over a dozen options to choose from—dog, squirrel, falcon, various humans. Most of them I hadn’t actually morphed yet—tiger, wolf, bat, spider, lizard.

The lizard.

Cassie had called it a six-lined something-or-other. It was small, only a little over six inches, and not particularly brightly colored. It could see and hear well enough to catch bugs, which meant I should be able to get a sense of my environment. It could climb. Most importantly, it was fast—Cassie had said they could sprint up to eighteen miles per hour, and were almost impossible to catch.

The decision made, I wasted no time in starting my next morph. Ninety seconds later, I was skittering across the empty locker room, hugging the grime-coated corner as I headed for the door.

<Rachel,> I called out. <What time is it?>

<7:11. You’ve got until 9:15.>

<Marco. Can you see the pool from the outside? Through the windows?>

<Yeah. Looks totally normal. Maybe twenty people swimming, ten people around the edges, couple of lifeguards.>

<Rachel. Can you get into the lobby? Start asking about memberships, maybe get a sense of what people have to do to get past the door guard?>

<On it. Where are you?>

<I’m in lizard morph, leaving the locker room. I think I can make it down the hall without anybody seeing me.>

Roughly a thousand Controllers, visiting the Yeerk pool every three days. Call it three hundred and fifty per day, probably sticking to business hours. Thirty five or so per hour. One arriving every two minutes, on average, probably with some big spikes in the morning before school and in the evening after work.

There would be someone in the hallway.

Reaching the door, I flattened myself out and stuck my head under the crack. I tasted the air, my eyes swiveling to take in the scene. Sure enough, there were two men just emerging from the stairwell. I waited until they disappeared around the corner, and then darted after them, still sticking close to the wall.

They were disappearing into the men’s locker room, the door swinging shut behind them. Ahead of me ran another long hallway, this one ending in a pair of double doors with a large blue sign reading POOL.

<Found the pool,> I said. I darted forward again, the lizard’s powerful legs churning underneath me, and stopped a few feet short of the entrance. This one was tightly sealed, with a kind of brush or comb at the bottom of each door, as if to keep out dust. I would have to wait for someone else to come through.

<Has it occurred to you that maybe now is the time to bail?>

I could tell by the intonation that it was Marco, and that the question was private, audible only to me. <We still don’t have any real information,> I pointed out. <We don’t know what the pool looks like, or what goes on inside, or how to disrupt it. We don’t even really know that this is the place—not for sure.>

<It’s the place,> Marco said darkly. <The people in the pool just looped. Like a gif. It’s another hologram, a recording—maybe five minutes long.>

<All the more reason to get inside and take a look.>

<You’re alone in there, man. You run into trouble, it’s going to be a long ten minutes before Rachel and I can get close enough to help.>

In front of me, there was a click, and then the door swung open. A woman emerged, followed by the sound of screaming. <Too late,> I said, rushing forward as the door began to close.

And before Marco could object, I stepped across the threshold, and into hell on earth.

Chapter Text

Chapter 08: Marco

I’ve always believed in the power of laughter.

It sounds so dumb, right? Like some corny thing Dumbledore would say to Harry Potter instead of, y’know, actually teaching him a useful spell.

But it’s true. Laughter is a shield. It’s a crutch. It’s a lifeline, when the rest of the universe is trying to tear you up, drag you down, grind you away. When my mom disappeared, my dad stopped laughing, and looking back, that’s what really made the difference between him and me. It’s why he fell apart, and why I managed to hold together. Being able to joke about stuff doesn’t make it better, but it’s something.

Sometimes, though, there really is nothing to laugh about. No silver lining. Nothing but fear and darkness and pain.

<Hang in there, buddy,> I said, trying desperately to inject some kind of soothing quality into my thought-speak. I was as close to the building as I dared to get, perched on a small sapling just a dozen or so feet away from the false windows. The illusion was perfect—color, depth, everything. I could hear the muffled sound of laughter, the echoing splash as the fat kid belly-flopped off the diving board, exactly the same as when he’d done it five minutes earlier.

All lies.

<There’s kids here, Marco,> Jake whispered, his words just for me, and even through the filter of my own inner voice, I could hear his horror, his despair. I’d never heard Jake sound like that before, not even when he was losing his shit over Cassie going missing. It was like he was made of glass, hollow and empty inside.

<We’re on it, man,> I babbled. <We’re going to put a stop to it.>

<There’s kids, and they come in with their parents, and they get in line, and they don’t play or fidget or—or say anything, not one word, and then they bend over the water, and the Yeerk drops out, and all of a sudden they’re—there’s one girl, she’s only like five or six, she still hasn’t stopped screaming. I think her—her mom, I think her mom is the one who’s guarding the cages, she hasn’t even looked at her—oh, Christ—>

<Jake, listen to me, buddy, are you safe? Are you in a good hiding spot?>

<And the things on the pier—they’re like demons, man, like actual demons with horns and spines and claws and spiked tails and—>

The last time I’d felt this useless, this impotent, had been when Mom’s boat washed up on shore without her in it.

<Jake, man, you’re scaring me. Pull it together, tell me you’re somewhere where nobody can see you.>

<What? …yeah. Yeah, I’m in a corner, on the roof of the supply closet. It’s all dark, no one can see me. I can see. I can see.>

<Do you need backup? Do you need me and Rachel?>

I wanted to kick myself for letting him go in there alone. I wanted to kick myself for letting him talk me into the whole Mikayla scheme in the first place. I’d been so sure his magical predictions were bullshit that I hadn’t really stopped to ask myself what we’d do if it turned out he was right.

And now my best friend was in the middle of a Yeerk stronghold, and I was totally, completely, utterly helpless.

<No,> Jake answered. There was a strange mental sensation, like the telepathic equivalent of someone sucking in a breath, and when he spoke again, his voice was firmer, some of its authority returning. <No, I’m okay. Sorry. I can—I’ve got this. It’s just—Jesus, Marco. This is so much worse than we thought. So much worse in every way. This is like, Auschwitz-level bad.>

We needed to get him out of there.

<Rachel,> I beamed privately. <Any updates on security at the—>

<DON’T DO THAT.>

<Do—what?>

<Shut up. Can’t talk.>

<We’re going to make them pay for this.>

Jake’s voice, right on the heels of Rachel’s. I tried to answer both of them at once and ended up saying nothing at all.

<Now. Tonight. This can’t be allowed to continue.>

He still sounded hollow, but it was the hollowness of steel. <Might be a little premature there, Fearless Leader,> I said. I was pumping for altitude, trying to get enough height to circle back around to the front of the building. The YMCA was built into the side of a hill, with the main entrance at ground level on the top floor, and the pool dug into the basement on the opposite side. <Something’s up with Rachel.>

<What?>

<Not sure,> I said tersely. <I pinged her, and she told me to shut up. Sounded tense. I’ll have eyes on her in ten more seconds.>

Nine seconds later, I was back up to the front, able to see Rachel through the windows of the lobby. She was wearing the body of a single mom she’d acquired during our field trip to the other side of town. She looked fine, if a little flushed.

<Looks okay,> I reported. <She’s still talking to—no, wait, she’s just now wrapping up with the girl at the front desk.>

<Stay on her. I’m going to check out the inside of this closet-shed thing.>

<Jake, hold on a—>

<Whichever one of you interrupted in the middle of my sentence, you almost made me say my name out loud. You did make me ask if they were open on nights and any updates on security.>

It took me a long moment to disentangle her sentence as I angled toward another tree, half of my brain still worried about Jake while the other half fought the osprey body’s intense interest in the squirrels below. Beneath me, Rachel pushed her way out through the front doors and set off down the sidewalk, her pace casual.

<Well, there’s a problem,> I said, filing it away alongside the resonance issue that Tobias had warned us about. <Although I guess this means we can make morning announcements a lot more interesting now.> I swiveled my head to look at the girl sitting inside at the front desk. She was leaning back in her chair, idly tapping at her phone. <Jake—>

<I’m inside the closet. There’s a bunch of stuff here—looks like weapons, maybe some heavy machinery. I can’t really see, but I think maybe half of it is alien, half of it human.>

<I’m demorphing,> Rachel interjected.

<Wait,> I called out to both of them at once. The split conversations were piling up on top of my own thoughts, too fast for me to juggle, adding to my growing sense that everything was spiraling out of control. <Just—hold on a second, both of you. We need to stop and think. Jake, we need to get you out of there and regroup.>

<No,> came a voice in my head.

<Which one of you was that?> I asked.

<Me. Jake. I’m not leaving until we find a way to shut this whole thing down.>

<We came here for intel—we’re not ready for any kind of mission. Let’s quit while we’re ahead.>

<I still haven’t checked any of the doors leading away from the main area, or any of the rest of the building.>

<Rachel,> I pleaded. <Help me out, here.>

<Marco’s got a point,> Rachel said. <Jake, are you sure you’re not in the middle of an ambush? What if they know you’re there?>

<I’ve been climbing all over this place for ten minutes now,> Jake pointed out. <Nobody’s following me, nobody’s hanging around. Everybody’s either got a job or they’re in a cage. Plus, I’ve seen a bunch of bugs and spiders and at least one mouse. If this is a trap, I don’t know why they’d still be waiting.>

<They could be waiting for you to demorph,> I offered.

<Or for him to call for backup, in which case they’d capture more than one of us.>

<No,> Jake said firmly. <Doesn’t fit. Not their style.>

I clamped down on my objection. Jake’s whole Professor X thing was a good bit more than I was ready to swallow, but this wasn’t the time to nitpick. <This is crazy,> I said. <We don’t have anything even remotely resembling a plan, here. Why don’t you come back out, we can figure out a strategy, come back again tomorrow?>

<We might not have until tomorrow,> Jake said. <They’re building something around the inside of the doorway. Alien tech, red lights. Ten bucks says it’s not for catching shoplifters.>

I did the avian equivalent of frowning, which was apparently hunching one’s shoulders and rustling one’s feathers. There were too many threads, too many threats—too many plausible possibilities, and almost none of them good. Even if they hadn’t noticed Jake’s presence, that could all change in an instant, and the lizard body had almost nothing going for it in a fight. It was obvious that we were overextended, but at the same time, if he was right—if it really was now or never—

He’s just saying that because he’s pissed off and he wants to do some damage.

True. But the Yeerks probably were planning to beef up their security. They had to know that a buzzer at the door wasn’t going to cut it in the long run.

<Rachel,> I called out. <What’s the deal up at the front door?>

<Six people came out, five more went in while I was talking to the girl at the desk. They all had little laminated IDs, and I think maybe there’s passwords—more than one password. She kept using different greetings, and the people walking by sounded pretty natural, but I think the first and fifth person had the same combination. I think, anyway. She said something like, “hey, you’re back already,” and I’m pretty sure they both answered “yeah, I’m on a roll.”>

I felt the osprey’s heartrate tick upward. <Okay, that’s not a good sign.>

<What do you mean?>

I thought the question had come from Jake, but I realized I was wrong a split second later when he answered it, his inflection unmistakable. <It means they’re smart enough to know that one password would be easy to crack and super obvious to random people hanging out in the lobby. Which means they’re also smart enough to know that their current security is nowhere near good enough to keep out Andalites.>

Rachel got it right away. <So it’s going to get tighter.>

<It’s not going to get tighter tomorrow,> I argued, feeling slightly dirty as the voice in the back of my head pointed out that it absolutely might. <Jake—come on, man, we have no idea what you’re up against down there. You could walk around some corner and just get fried.>

<That’s why I’m not leaving yet. We have to know what we’re dealing with. And if I see an opportunity while I’m poking around, well—this might be our only shot.>

<Jake—>

<This isn’t a vote,> Jake said, cutting me off, and where his voice had been hollow steel, it was now diamond holding back vacuum. <Those demon things just dragged that little girl out on the pier and shoved her head under the water like they were trying to drown her, and when she came up, she wasn’t screaming anymore. I am not walking out of here until I’ve done something.>

<Jake—> I began again, more softly this time.

<Marco,> Rachel interrupted. <I don’t think he’s going to listen.>

<He’d better,> I shot back privately. <This is how we end up getting ourselves killed. We can’t just charge in half-cocked—>

<I know,> she said. <I know. But—aren’t you listening? You’re not going to talk him out of this one. And besides, what if he’s right?>

<If he gets himself killed in there—>

<Saving the world, remember? I kind of get the feeling we’re not all going to make it through this thing anyway.>

I fell silent, looking down at the entrance from my perch in the tree, at the alien slave sitting behind the counter, pretending to be human. I could feel the moment slipping out of control, all of my calm, rational arguments falling flat in the face of the enormity of the situation. Jake could die. Jake could get captured. Jake could get exposed, and the rest of us could go down as a result.

But we did need a way to take out the pool. It was the only weakness the Yeerks had, as far as we knew. The only way to hit them all at once. And every day that went by, they were taking more people, fortifying their position.

I remembered sitting in the woods behind Jake’s house, just a few days earlier, telling Rachel that all the Yeerks needed to win the war was for us to do nothing.

But dammit, this was crazy. There was no way that the Yeerks had failed to put together some kind of Andalite response protocol. If they saw him—if they caught him—if he tripped some kind of hidden alarm—they were ready in all the ways that we were not. They would have guns. Force fields. Reinforcements.

And my best friend was down there alone.

<Fine,> I snapped, including Jake in the beam of my thoughts once again. <Fine. Give me twenty minutes to get down there. If you’re going to do this, I’m going to watch your back.>

<Hey, wait—what about me?> Rachel objected.

<No,> said Jake.

<What? Why?>

<You’ve got to stay outside so we can feed you information,> I explained. <If we both—I mean, if anything goes wrong, you and Cassie and Tobias need as much intel as possible.>

I launched myself out of the tree, spiraling down toward the roof of the building. I could demorph there and remorph into a fly—with a little guidance from Rachel, I should at least be able to find my way into the lobby, where I could hitch a ride on the next Controller to pass through.

<Besides,> I said, trying to inject a little humor into the situation, <it’s the YMCA. Men get dibs.>

For some reason, neither one of them laughed.

 

*        *        *

 

<Where’s Mikayla?> I asked as the last of my human body disappeared again, my feet curling and hardening into the sharp talons of an Australian ghost bat.

<Gone already,> Jake said. <You probably passed her on your way in without noticing.>

<So that’s, what—half and hour or so, that someone’s Yeerk needs to swim around and feed?>

We were both on top of the plastic supply closet, wedged into the back corner of the cavernous room, hidden from view by the dim lighting and the gently peaked roof. I had managed to make it all the way in as a fly, and had demorphed and remorphed as quickly as I could, fear prickling my spine as soon as it grew into place. Jake had done the same, resetting his clock. It would have been better if we could have shared the lizard morph, but we’d both acquired it from Cassie, and we still weren’t totally clear on how the interference thing worked.

<Sounds about right,> Jake said, his voice still hard and cold.

I didn’t blame him. The Yeerk pool was every bit as horrible as his reaction had led me to believe.

There were no windows—or if there were, they’d been solidly hidden by the brownish metal plates that had replaced the usual paint and tile. The space was dimly lit with a hellish red glow, like a sunset in the middle of a dust storm. The air was filled with screams and sobs, and a sulphurous, evil smell lay like a layer of smog over everything. There were six half-filled cages evenly spaced around the pool, up against the walls, each large enough to hold thirty or forty people.

But the worst by far was the pool itself. It was huge, almost Olympic-sized, and filled to the brim with a dark, sludgelike liquid that constantly swelled and splashed as the Yeerks surged beneath the surface. There were two long metal piers stretching out into the middle, each about ten feet wide. Both were manned by the demon aliens Jake had described—on the first pier, they stood by to seize people as soon as their Yeerks relinquished control, and on the second, they dragged those same people back out and forced their heads under the water.

Some of the people cried. Others yelled and fought, struggling uselessly against the seven-foot-tall monsters. The saddest were the ones who didn’t even try—who just hung there, limp, as the aliens threw them into the cages and then brought them back out half an hour later. I thought I recognized one of my old middle school teachers among them, and squeezed my eyes shut before I could be too sure.

Then I opened my eyes again. We needed to identify as many Controllers as possible, after all.

<I make twenty of those demon guys going back and forth, plus the seven humans,> I said, making sure to include Rachel in my thought-speak. <One by the main entrance, one in front of each cage, all carrying some kind of phaser-looking gun.>

<The demon guys, too?>

<No. But they don’t need them—they’ve got blades sticking out everywhere we’ve got wrinkles.>

Beside me, Jake twitched, his lizard tongue tasting the air. <Only one exit for sure,> he said. <All the Controllers have been coming and going through the main door. There are three doors along the long side of the pool—I’ve seen human guards going in and out of one of them, and demon guards going in and out of the middle one. The one on the right hasn’t opened.>

<Three doors?> Rachel said. <What do they look like?>

<Big. Metal. But, like, human metal. You know, the kind that has a handle on one side and a horizontal bar on the other.>

<There should only be two,> Rachel said. <I used to swim here. The one closest to the exit was the lifeguard’s office, and the other one was the break room. Had a snack bar, tables, arcade games, that kind of stuff.>

<Can you remember exactly where they were?> I asked.

<Doesn’t matter,> Jake cut in. <Mystery door is where we’re headed. Too much traffic through the other two to risk it. I’m betting the third one is storage or machinery or something like that. That’s where we’re going to be able to do some damage.>

<They’re all pointing back into the hillside,> I observed. <Might be machinery, but it could be an underground exit, too. Or they could be digging back there. Expanding.>

<Either way, that’s first on the list. After that, we can either go fly and try to get into the other rooms, or get out and check out the rest of the place. There’s a lot more to this building than just the pool.>

We set off across the darkened space—Jake darting along the floor, hugging the wall, and me flitting from perch to perch, waiting for moments when no one was looking in our direction. Once, as we passed one of the cages on our side of the pool, I thought I saw one of the prisoners look up at me. But if he saw me, he gave no sign—only slumped his shoulders and sagged back against the bars.

Soon enough, we were there. I clung to a section of piping near the ceiling, feeding Rachel more observations while Jake explored the door from below.

<I can make it underneath the crack,> he said.

<Hear anything?> I asked.

<No. You?>

<Nope. Might as well take a peek. If the coast is clear, maybe you can demorph and let me in.>

I watched as Jake vanished into the tiny space between the door and the floor. <Pitch black in here,> he said. <Rough ground—dirt and rock and gravel. I get the sense that it’s pretty roomy, but I can’t hear much of anything. There’s maybe some machinery way far off in the distance? Like a constant rumbling. But nothing close by.>

<Wait by the door for a couple of minutes,> I suggested. <Be ready to bail if anything happens. If it’s safe, you can open it up for me.>

We both fell silent. I turned my head to look out across the pool, doing my best to memorize the space. I recognized four more Controllers in the various cages—two of them kids from our own school, though not from the same grade. With a small note of surprise, I noticed that the Controller guarding the cage directly across the pool was younger than me, the dangerous-looking weapon making her small hands look fragile and delicate.

Guess age doesn’t matter much to Yeerks.

<Okay,> Jake said finally. <I feel pretty safe. I’m just going to demorph halfway—enough to open the door, then back to lizard.>

<You only need to open it about three inches,> I said. <We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves.>

Of course, if the door had an alarm on it, we were boned either way. But clearly we had decided to throw caution to the winds. Besides, they had no reason to put an alarm on an internal door, right?

Yeah, no reason at all. Definitely not like this EXACT SITUATION might have occurred to them.

With my heightened bat senses, I thought I could hear the shifting and slurping of Jake’s body as he partially demorphed on the other side of the gray metal. I wondered if half-demorphing had any affect on Jake’s time limit—if it reset his clock, or if it burned up even more of his stored charge. I made a mental note to get him out of morph a few minutes early, then realized I was being dumb and just told him.

Suddenly, the door creaked open, revealing a black space a few inches wide. I dropped like a bombshell into the crack, veering sharply to the right and latching onto one of the rough walls as the door quietly clicked shut behind me.

<It’s a tunnel,> I said, firing off an echolocation burst and letting the bat brain sort out the resulting echoes. <Maybe fifteen feet wide, round—very rough, like it was just hacked out yesterday.>

<That fits with there only being a thousand Controllers,> said someone—Rachel? <This whole operation feels like it’s still in its first month.>

<It’s long, too,> I continued. <Goes at least two hundred feet back into the hillside before it doubles back. Can’t be sure, but I think it drops off when it turns.>

With most of my attention tuned in to my sense of hearing, I also noticed the rumbling sound that Jake had reported. It sounded to me like distant digging—the scraping of dirt, the crunching of rocks. Mixed in were a million tiny clicking sounds, and an occasional otherworldly screech, like a parrot being boiled alive.

Cheerful.

<I think whatever dug this tunnel is some kind of animal,> I added, feeling my apprehension growing again. <I can hear what sounds like digging down at the other end. Sounds like it’s pretty far off, and sounds like there’s a lot of it.>

Firing off another burst, I “saw” Jake as he skittered forward, his path zigzagging a bit as he navigated the pits and rocks blind. <So we’re investigating?> I grumbled.

<There were people going in and out of the other two doors, and according to Rachel, those are just rooms. Probably the command center for the pool, and maybe barracks for those demon things. We’ll want to check them out, but this is bigger. Whatever this is, it’s not good.>

I took wing, easily outpacing Jake as I flitted through the dark tunnel, the bat brain very much at home in the dark, still air. Reaching the corner, I banked right, staying close to the ceiling. It began to slope downward at about ten degrees, the tunnel pointing back at the pool but at an angle that would take it well beneath it. This time it stretched further, maybe four hundred feet before it turned once more.

<Rachel, we might just lose contact with you,> I said. <Are you somewhere close to the ground?>

<No, but I can be,> she answered. <I’m in snipe morph. I don’t think anybody’s going to notice.>

<Jake,> I called back. <Heads up—looks like the whole thing is one big downward spiral.>

<Rachel, keep pinging us every thirty seconds or so,> Jake ordered. <If we lose touch, I want to know when and where it happens.>

<Roger.>

We continued spiraling downward for the next five minutes, taking two more turnings just like the first. The tunnel began to widen, with small offshoots appearing. I fired echolocation bursts into the first few entrances. Some of them were just tiny alcoves, but some of them opened up into caves or twisted and turned out of sight.

<This reminding you of anything?> I asked, as we took another turning and the side holes began to appear more and more frequently.

<Yeah,> Jake said grimly. <That aluminum anthill cast that Ms. Miller showed us back in sixth grade.>

<I vote we go back,> I said, fluttering up to a boulder sticking out of the wall and resting my wings. <Those noises are a lot clearer now, and I’m not sure I want to meet whatever ant digs tunnels this big.>

Jake came to a halt as well, his lizard tongue tasting the air again. <Yeah,> he said. <I’m getting some really strong smells from some of the side tunnels, too, and the lizard brain doesn’t like them at all. Rachel, you still there? How much time do we have left in morph?>

<You guys remorphed only twelve minutes ago. Jake, you’ve got until 9:52—that’s an hour and fifty-two minutes. Marco’s got until 10:16—two hours sixteen.>

<Intel,> Jake said. <The more we know, the more likely we are to find something we can use to blow this whole thing sky-high.>

<Do we really have to know what’s at the end of the evil fucking tunnel, to know that we’re going to need to deal with it one way or another? I’m tired of waiting for something to go wrong, here, and I’m definitely starting to get a zombies-creeping-up-behind-you feeling from all those open tunnels we passed.>

<Fine,> Jake conceded. He spun around in the dark and began heading back uphill. <This the right way?>

<Mostly,> I said. <You’re going to want to bear left a little—no, left, that’s the entrance to one of the offshoots—>

<AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!>

It happened in a flash—an explosion of movement and sound, followed by Jake’s psychic scream. I found myself in midair, the bat brain fully in control as I zigzagged back down the tunnel, away from danger.

<Jake!> I cried out, forcing the body’s instincts into submission and wheeling around again. I fired off another echolocation burst, and almost dropped out of the air in horror.

It was a giant centipede, almost ten feet long, its conical legs the length of butcher’s knives and each of its segments as large as a barrel. It had four irregular, jelly-like eyes spaced radially around its front end, and a gaping, circular mouth like a gun barrel, lined with rows and rows of teeth. As I watched, the monster slammed its “face” into the ground again, an awful crunching sound filling the air as it sheared away a layer of stone the size of a steering wheel.

<AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH! AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH! IT ATE ME!>

<Jake, demorph! Demorph now!>

I dove toward the heaving alien monster, ignoring the bat’s desperate fear as I raked my talons across one of its jelly eyes. The thing screamed, a feral shriek that echoed down the tunnel. With heart-stopping dread, I heard another shriek in answer.

<Jake!> I cried out again.

<What’s happening?> someone shouted.

Rachel. <Jake’s down,> I shouted back, flittering around and stabbing at another of the hideous eyes, barely dodging as the monster thrashed and reached for me with a whiplike tongue. <Alien—like a giant centipede—it was completely silent, must not have even been moving, I didn’t see it, didn’t hear it—JAKE!>

<I’m here!> he called out, his voice thick with panic. <I’m alive—demorphing. It got—the lizard body, it’s dying, but I think I can—>

<What do I do?> Rachel asked, frantic.

<Nothing,> I said, ripping into the alien’s third eye. <Stay there—if we go down, you have to—>

I broke off. As the alien screamed again, I heard the answering cries once more, already sounding closer. <Jake, are you going to make it?> I demanded.

<Think so. Burning—acid—can’t breathe—>

<We’re going to have company,> I said, and—hating myself—I abandoned my attack on the monster and flew back up the tunnel, landing a few dozen yards uphill. I began to demorph as quickly as I could, my mind racing to choose the right weapon—Andalite, tiger, tarantula hawk—

Behind me, the alien scream changed in pitch, grew higher and became a gurgle. I fired off another echolocation burst as my wings thickened back into arms, saw the unnatural bulge in the alien’s midsection as Jake grew within its belly. There was a horrible ripping sound, a sick-wet squelch, and with the last of my bat vision I saw a fist tearing its way through the soft tissue.

If I’d had a normal stomach, I would have vomited. A foul, greasy stench filled the air, and I heard more tearing and splattering as Jake fought his way out of the alien’s corpse, gasping for air.

How long did we have before more of them arrived? My super-sensitive hearing was gone, but I could still hear the echoing cries of other monster worms, could now make out the clatter of a thousand needle feet on rock and gravel. I was halfway out of morph, Jake was twenty seconds ahead of me—

I couldn’t see it, but I heard it. Jake’s panicked yell as the first of them arrived, turning into a wild shriek as the unmistakable sound of chomping and chewing filled the tunnel. It was like a feeding frenzy, a wild orgy of violence and hunger as what sounded like fifty other worms crammed themselves into the narrow space, all of them screeching and gnashing their teeth.

Jake screamed again, and I screamed with him, hoping to give him something to latch onto, a direction to crawl toward—anything. I felt Elfangor’s tail slither out of my spine, and I staggered forward, half-morphed, groping in the dark. My hands touched alien flesh, and I spun, striking out with the still-growing blade, feeling hot liquid gush across my body as I made contact.

<Jake!> I cried. There was no answer. Again and again I struck, fumbling blindly forward, following the sounds of the worms as they turned on each other and began to eat their wounded, always checking to be sure that I didn’t hit Jake, careless of my own limbs. One of the monsters got ahold of my right arm and ripped it off at the elbow before I lopped off its top quarter; another seized one of my legs and was stomped into the dirt. Behind me, Jake’s screams began to taper off, his breathing labored and weak as I carved my way further and further down the tunnel.

<Jake!> I called out again, remembering Elfangor’s mortal wound as my own blood gushed from a dozen ragged holes. <Jake, morph! Morph now!>

He offered no response, and I switched to Rachel. <Rachel, talk to Jake! Stay on him, get him to morph, don’t let up until he answers you back in thought-speak!>

<What—>

<He’s dying, just do it!>

In the back of my mind, I heard Rachel take up the call, and I let go of everything else, spinning and slicing and stomping, becoming a whirlwind of death. Finally, after what felt like twelve lifetimes, I buried my tail blade in the last of the horde, with only the fading squeaks of the dying around me. I could taste bile through my hooves, could feel whole swaths of fur and flesh missing, sense the numbness of my arm where it ended in a mangled stump. Ahead of me, further down the tunnel, I could hear another group of monsters approaching.

<Jake, are you there? Get uphill—get past the bodies, where it’s clear.>

They were cannibals—if we could get far enough past the pile, maybe none of them would bother to chase us. I followed my own advice, slowly picking my way against the gentle slope of the tunnel floor, placing each step carefully so as not to crush my friend. A wave of dizziness hit me and I stumbled, my head spinning from blood loss.

My Andalite body was dying.

<Jake!> I screamed. <Where are you?>

“I’m alive,” came the answer, weak but clear. “I think they—they ate—I couldn’t think straight—ended up in my own body. My morph armor.”

<No problem,> I said. <Can you walk?>

“Yeah. I can’t see, though. And I’m barefoot.”

<Can’t help it. Just head uphill. Left hand on the wall, right hand out in front, spiral up.>

“The holes—”

<There aren’t any of them in the higher holes,> I said. <They all came up from below.>

We began moving, Jake unsteady, my own pace slow as I demorphed in motion. Behind us, the clamor rose again as the next group of worms found the pile of corpses and began to feed.

“What—what were those—”

“I don’t know,” I said, my human mouth emerging. “But whatever they are, it looks like they’re not about to pass up a free meal to come chase us.”

Far ahead of us, echoing down the tunnel, came the faint but unmistakable sound of a door slamming shut. “Dammit!” I muttered. “They’re coming down to investigate.”

“Side tunnels,” Jake said, still sounding weak and exhausted.

“Screw that.”

“Like you said…worms all down below…”

I grimaced in the darkness. He was right. Groping for his hand, I turned and retraced my steps to the last hole we’d passed. It was one of the shallow ones, going just a dozen feet back into the rock, with a slight turn to one side at the very end. I pushed Jake in front of me, hiding him in the little alcove, and began to morph once again, hoping that I still had at least one change left before exhaustion hit.

“What are you doing?” Jake asked, his voice a pale whisper.

“Gorilla,” I said. “It’s black—won’t show up in the dark.”

Twenty seconds later, a dim, unsteady glow appeared in the tunnel, brightening rapidly as the sound of running feet grew nearer. By the time the glow was bright enough to see my own hands and feet, my skin had already turned black and coarse hairs were beginning to sprout from every pore.

I’d practiced the gorilla morph just once since borrowing it from Cassie. I’d tried to rip a six-inch-thick sapling out of the ground. It hadn’t quite worked, because I’d accidentally ripped the tree in half.

<Stay back,> I warned Jake. <This thing is narrow, but if they come on hard enough, I can’t keep them all from slipping past me.>

I clenched two fists the size of cinderblocks and waited. The thunder of feet grew louder still, and the tunnel suddenly glowed bright as daylight as the investigators rounded the nearest hairpin bend—

—and ran right past our little hiding spot without so much as a glance, a dozen of the demon monsters carrying lights and what looked like ordinary human cattle prods. They were visible for barely two seconds, and then they were gone, the light dimming as they sprinted downhill toward the feeding frenzy.

But—

I felt my brain click into overdrive. Cannibals—tunnel diggers—bloodlust—this wasn’t the first time the monster worms had collapsed into violent chaos. The Yeerks still didn’t know we were here.

<Come on,> I said, reaching back to guide Jake out of the alcove and into the main tunnel. <We’ve got to get out of here before they come back.>

The Yeerks didn’t know we were here, which meant they wouldn’t be standing in a semicircle around the door with guns. The smart thing to do was to demorph and remorph, using the fly or the lizard to sneak out the same way we’d snuck in.

But I’d heard Jake screaming in the darkness, and I remembered the damage that my own Andalite body had taken. That hadn’t been Jake-in-morph—it had been Jake. If he demorphed back to his own body, there was no telling whether he’d be able to hold it together long enough to make it through another change. Not to mention that I’d morphed six times myself in the past thirty minutes.

We were going to have to make a break for it.

<Rachel,> I broadcast. <You there?>

<Yes,> she replied immediately. <What’s going on? Are you both all right?>

<No,> I said. <But we’re alive.> Behind me, Jake stumbled and collapsed, and I reached back and lifted him into the air, throwing him over my shoulder. <Jake’s in a bad way. He’s human and can’t morph. I need to know the building exit closest to the pool.>

Thankfully, Rachel didn’t ask any stupid questions. <Out the double doors and immediately left,> she said. <It opens out into the lower parking lot.>

<We’re going to make a run for it,> I said. <Cover’s going to be blown. You got anything that can keep them off our backs while we bail? Something that can make a good escape on its own?>

<Cassie gave me the tiger.>

<They’ll have guns.>

<I’ll take out the ones with guns first.>

<Okay. Three minutes?>

<Five, to demorph and remorph and get in position.>

<Counting.>

I slowed as we turned around the final corner, the metal door outlined in red light two hundred feet away. <Jake,> I murmured. <You ready?>

There was no answer. Reaching up with a giant fist, I put my hand on his back. He was still breathing, long and slow and deep. He must have passed out.

Better that way anyway. I lowered him gently to the floor, feeling around for a patch of dirt or mud. Finding one, I began gently painting his face and hair, obscuring his identity as best I could.

I felt strangely calm, given the circumstances. Maybe it was shock. Maybe it was hormones. Maybe it was the gorilla, who knew next to nothing of fear. But for once, I found myself unable to worry. There was nothing to plan for, no uncertainty to integrate, no options to consider. It was no longer a question of whether—it had simply become a question of when.

Behind me, the echoes of the feeding frenzy were tapering off as the demon guards restored order. How long did we have before they started making their way back up to the surface?

<Rachel?>

<Almost remorphed. Ninety seconds.>

I hauled Jake back onto my shoulder, picturing the path from door to door, the line that would take me past the cage, along the pool, and out through the half-built alien archway. I could make the run in under ten seconds, if I didn’t slow down. But there were the demon’s blades, and the armed humans—two of them directly between us and freedom.

The cage.

I smiled. Apparently, gorillas do that.

<Go now,> Rachel whispered. <I’ll be there by the time you get out.>

I loped forward, feeling like a freight train. I was going faster than a human could run by the time I hit the door, and it flew off its hinges and skidded straight into the pool. It hadn’t even hit the water by the time I had reached the first human guard.

I sank a fist into his stomach, grateful that it wasn’t the cage across the pool—the one guarded by the little girl. I hit a little too hard, and felt a sickening crunch as he went down.

Around me, the other Controllers were starting to react. I heard cries of “Andalite!” and squinted my eyes shut against the flash of some kind of laser weapon. Roaring, I picked up the fallen guard’s weapon and brandished it wildly, unable to pull the trigger but hoping that the Controllers wouldn’t realize that. I tucked it under my arm for later, took one step, and reached for the cage door.

It was locked, of course.

The gorilla didn’t care.

There was another flash of light, and I roared again as pain lanced across my shoulder. I swung the cage door like a Frisbee, and hooted with satisfaction as my attacker—the human at the entrance—dodged out of the way. The hunk of metal smashed into the weird archway flanking the double doors, and there was another flash of light as some kind of alien power supply surged and died.

I saw the demon guards, running down the piers as they moved to cut me off.

I saw the other human guards, cowering behind their guns.

I heard the prisoners yelling behind me, shouting their defiance as they poured out of the cage.

And I saw freedom in front of me.

I ran.

 

*        *        *

 

I looked at Jake.

Jake looked at me.

Around us, the patch of grass was covered in blood, spurts and spatters and one thick pool, quickly soaking into the dry earth.

“Okay,” I said, fighting to keep my voice level. “So you can’t demorph.”

Jake’s face was pale in the moonlight as he began to unwind the makeshift tourniquets from his left bicep, his left ankle, his right knee. He said nothing—only bit his lip as he reached into our t-shirt cache and began to wipe the gore off of his newly-reformed arms and legs.

“Maybe if we went to a hospital, got you into an emergency room first—”

“No,” Jake said, his voice cracking. “We can’t risk it. Any one of the doctors could be a Controller. We know they’ve taken EMTs, remember? Even if they aren’t, how do we explain a perfectly healthy kid’s arms and legs suddenly disappearing and being replaced by—by—”

He broke off, sucking in a breath. Squaring his shoulders, he turned to face me with solemn, ageless eyes. “We can’t risk it,” he repeated. “Humanity, the whole war, everything. You know that. If I’d died back in the tunnel—”

He broke off again, and I scrubbed angrily at my eyes.

It wasn’t fair.

It wasn’t fair.

Sure, we’d been stupid. I had been stupid. I’d let him talk me into it, even though I knew it was risky, even though I knew we didn’t have a plan. And now—

What?

What was going to happen?

“Not your fault, Marco. I’m in charge, remember?”

A joke. I needed a joke. Something to laugh about, some reason why I shouldn’t just say fuck it and give up.

“This was still a success. You guys know where the pool is. For the next day or two, you know how it’s guarded. You ID’ed like six Controllers, and who knows—maybe some of them got out after us. And we have the gun.”

I looked down at the alien weapon, lying on the grass between us. It glistened wetly beneath the stars, covered in my best friend’s blood.

One mistake. We made one mistake! Things shouldn’t go this wrong based on one fucking mistake!

Come on, Marco, you know better than that. Your mom made one mistake, too. You’ve already learned this lesson.

“Besides,” Jake continued, “maybe I’ll get lucky. I mean, at least I ended up back in my own body. I could’ve panicked and gotten stuck as a bird or something. Maybe—maybe it’ll work out, you know?”

It wouldn’t. The universe just wasn’t that kind.

“Look, man, can you say something? I mean, I hate to be—whatever—but, I dunno. I just—I could use a little Marco right now.”

I looked up, feeling a lump the size of a cue ball in my throat. Jake’s smile was lopsided and cracked, his eyes full of fear.

Say something funny, asshole!

But I had nothing.

“I’ll—” I began, and then I broke off. Clearing my throat, I tried again. “I’ll look after Cassie. And Tom. And your parents. I’ll make sure—I’ll make sure they come through this.”

Jake let out a breath, his shoulders relaxing fractionally. “I know. No better hands, man.” He looked up at the moon. “How much time do I have?”

I checked the watch we’d left in the cache of clothes. “Maybe two minutes. Maybe more. I don’t know exactly when it happened.”

“I guess I should lay down, or something. In case I faint or whatever.”

He took a few steps away from the bloodstained patch, and slowly lowered himself down to the ground, lacing his fingers together behind his head. I felt my fists clenching, felt an all-consuming anger building up inside me, threatening to tear everything apart.

Not yet. Not until after.

I sat down beside him, crossing my legs, forcing myself to stay calm, to breathe, to run my fingers through the grass without ripping it up. I wished I had something meaningful to say to him—some secret I’d kept locked away, some apology I’d always held back.

But we didn’t have anything like that between us.

Except—

“Jake.”

“Mmm.”

“When my mom drowned.”

“Mmm?”

“I never said thanks. For—for everything.”

The grass rustled as Jake propped himself up on his elbows and looked over at me. “Which things?” he asked quietly.

“For—”

My voice hitched, and I swallowed. “For never telling me some bullshit like sorry for your loss,” I said, as steadily as I could. “For dragging me out to Six Flags on the anniversary. For laughing at all my stupid jokes. God, every one. You laughed at every single one, man. That—those laughs kept me going.”

Jake nodded, another crooked smile spreading across his face. “Yeah,” he said. “Those were some good jokes.”

Last chance, Marco.

“Hey, Jake—what’s Helen Keller’s favorite color?”

He shrugged.

“Velcro.”

There was a heartbeat’s pause, and then Jake threw back his head and laughed—a long, rich laugh, full of light and life. “You dork,” he said. “You’re going to go to hell for that one.”

He reached over and punched my knee, and I smiled weakly. Then he lay back once more, his eyes closing as his breathing slowed.

“Jake,” I said softly.

Then again, louder. “Jake.”

There was no answer.

Chapter Text

Interlude

[PULSING PRESSURE, A VISION OF DEEP BLOODRED]

[A GOLDEN SUN, JUST ABOVE THE HORIZON, SINKING FAST]

[A CLIFF WHERE THE WORLD SEEMS TO END, LOOKING OUT OVER NOTHINGNESS]

 

 

[EIGHT BRIGHT LEAVES SWIRLING IN A POOL; ONE IS CAUGHT IN A CURRENT AND SWEPT ONWARD DOWN THE STREAM]

[A SEVEN-FINGERED HAND REACHING INTO A BAG AND FINDING NOTHING]

[A VAST EMPTINESS OF PURE WHITE; A BLACK MOTE OF INFINITE DENSITY]

[A STORM RAGES OUTSIDE; A CAVE, WARM AND DRY]

[A BURDEN THAT CAN NO LONGER BE BORNE; ARMS COLLAPSING IN EXHAUSTION]

[A CLOUD IN THE SKY IN THE SHAPE OF A BIRD; THE WIND BLOWS AND THE CLOUD DISAPPEARS]

 

 

[A WELL-TRODDEN PATH THROUGH TALL GRASS] 

[A HOME NOT SEEN FOR MANY YEARS]

[AN IMAGE OF AN ANDALITE FACE, REFLECTED IN STILL WATER]

 

 

[A BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL DAY OUTSIDE; A CAVE, WARM AND DRY]

[AN ALIEN BODY, WITH PALE PINK SKIN, FOUR LIMBS, AND TWO EYES FLANKING A HOOF]

[A CIRCLE OF ANDALITES, MOVING TOWARD THE SUN, LEAVING A LONE INDIVIDUAL BEHIND]

[A STRING, STRETCHING—A STRING, SNAPPED]

[A DARK SKY WITH NO STARS; AN INFINITE SADNESS]

 

 

[AN ENORMOUS CAVE, FILLED WITH THE FLICKERING LIGHT OF TORCHES. A CROWD OF ANDALITES, EACH WITH ALL FOUR EYES TURNED TO FACE THE WALL. A PAINTING IN SAP AND ICHOR, A BLUE SHAPE WITH SIX LIMBS AND A LONG, SINUOUS TAIL. ONE BY ONE, EACH ANDALITE PASSES; ONE BY ONE, EACH ANDALITE GOUGES THE STONE IN THE PLACE WHERE THE TAIL ENDS.]

 

 

Translation:

‹Warning—you are approaching the time limit. In seven minutes, energy reserves will be depleted and the Z-space alcove will decohere. You must-should-please-truth-unity demorph. If you remain in your construct, you will die. You will never be forgotten.›

Chapter Text

Chapter 09: Rachel

Letting the blood-soaked handgun fall from my jaws, I turned in a tight circle and froze, listening.

I could hear the shouting and chaos in the distance as the escaped humans continued to struggle against the Yeerks inside the YMCA, the sounds leaking out through the door Marco had smashed off its hinges.

I could hear the lumbering of noisy human Controllers as they tromped through the woods behind the building, searching for me.

I could hear the movements of the alien demon-things, far stealthier as they worked their way from tree to tree, hardly ever touching the ground.

All of the sounds were close, confined to the ten or so acres of park just beyond the lower parking lot. I’d managed to slow them down as they came out of the door, and then I’d led them into the woods before circling back around. As far as I could tell, they’d given up the chase and were now focused on securing the area.

Settling down into a wary crouch, I considered my options.

I was well outside of the Yeerks’ search cone, deep within a maze of thorns and brambles almost fifty feet wide. If they stuck to their current pace, it would be at least five minutes before the Controllers reached the edge of it, and several more before they got close enough to notice me. They had left their lasers inside, and even taking the demons’ machete limbs into account, I was pretty sure I had plenty of time to think, demorph, and remorph. They clearly didn’t have—or weren’t using—any kind of heat-seeking or life-detecting technology, and neither the demons nor the humans could see anywhere near as well as the tiger in the thick, dark undergrowth.

What I was supposed to do—obviously—was leave. Jake and Marco were both injured, and the Yeerks were in full red-alert mode. Even in the dark, I couldn’t exactly run down the street in tiger morph—common sense said I should morph to bat or snipe and head straight for the rendezvous point.

But—

With a mental movement that felt like cocking a trigger, I stopped the thought dead in its tracks. Careful, I said to myself, slowly and deliberately. That’s how you got—

flinch

how we ended up in this mess in the first place.

For several long seconds, I held my mind in a state of forced quiet, thinking nothing. I listened as the Controllers continued to crash through the leaves and bushes, none of them heading my way.

Okay, but the problem there was that you didn’t THINK. It was that you did the WRONG thing, not that you did-anything-at-all.

Another long pause. Far away, through the open door, I could hear the last of the commotion dying down as the Yeerks reestablished order in the area around the pool.

While Jake and Marco were still in danger, the right answer had been obvious—slow the Yeerks down, draw them off the trail, take out as many as I could while keeping myself alive. Simple, straightforward, and—given the power of the tiger morph—easy.

Now, though, things weren’t so clear.

I could leave, and head for the rendezvous.

I could stay, and try to re-infiltrate the pool—see how they handled the aftermath, watch them start repairs, maybe find out who was in charge of the whole thing. It would be risky, but with the door smashed wide open and the Yeerks in disarray, I had a one-of-a-kind opportunity to judge them in action.

On the other hand, there were plenty of Controllers outside for me to hunt.

I felt the tiger’s claws flex, digging into the mulch and loam next to the stolen handgun. There was blood on those claws, and on my chest, and on my face—some of it red, some of it a deep evergreen. If there had been a thousand Controllers at the start of the evening, there were now only nine hundred and ninety three.

You should not be okay with how okay that feels.

But I was okay with it—there was no point in pretending. After days of just sitting and waiting, it had felt good to finally do something—to take the fight to the enemy, start paying back a little bit of the fear and pain.

I wasn’t stupid. I knew that it wasn’t going to bring back Melissa, or Cassie’s parents. I knew that the people under Yeerk control were basically innocent, and that we weren’t going to win this war by killing Controllers one at a time. But they had been pointing guns at my friends, and now—

Now they weren’t. With everything else that had backfired, snowballed, and basically gone to crap, I had at least done that part right.

One for two, then.

I shifted carefully between the brambles, peering back toward the distant building. I could see two human Controllers silhouetted in the wrecked doorway, both armed. There was no one else in the parking lot; all the rest of the guards were either in the woods with me, or keeping order inside. Off to my right, I could hear the search teams getting closer, only a few minutes away from the edge of the briar patch.

Time to make a decision.

I began to demorph, keeping my front right paw near the gun, ready to grab it as soon as I had a trigger finger.

Heading for the rendezvous is your default choice. Anything else has to have benefits that outweigh the risk.

By that measure, staying in the woods to hunt Controllers was clearly the wrong move. It would make me feel better, but the risk of getting ambushed was high—and getting higher—and there was no real payoff at the end of it. A dozen Controllers, more or less, wasn’t going to make any difference in the overall war. I’d thought about trying to drag one of the demon-things off somewhere so that I could acquire it, but they were moving through the trees in trios, watching one another’s backs, and I wasn’t at all sure I could take on three of them at once.

That left trying to infiltrate the pool.

After tonight, they’re going to quadruple their security. This might be your only chance to gather intel. And besides, they think the attack is over. I mean, they saw you and Marco both trying to escape. They’re not going to expect anybody else to—

I cut off the thought, grimacing through half-human teeth. That was wishful thinking—of course they’d be on guard against a follow-up attack. They were probably already scouring the inside of the building for any Andalites who’d stayed behind, doing checks of every Controller to make sure there weren’t any morphed impostors.

But how would they scour the building? Would they have detectors? Robotic drones? Would the Controllers have to give passwords, or was there some kind of special sensor that could scan for the presence of a Yeerk inside someone’s head?

Jake had pushed for this mission—pushed hard, against Marco’s objections—because he’d recognized that we needed information. We still knew next to nothing about the Yeerks’ operation—what kinds of technology they’d brought with them, what their major targets were, how they worked together as a group. The stuff Jake and Marco had relayed to me over the past hour barely scratched the surface of what we needed to know.

And I probably could get inside. I had the fly and the bat, not to mention the human woman, and it was dark in the pool area—dark enough that Jake’s lizard morph had gone unnoticed. Given the fact that half of the guards were still out in the woods, this was probably the best chance I was ever going to get.

I tried to picture Marco’s face, to imagine his response after he heard that I’d gone back into the pool. But I couldn’t pull up anything useful. He’d yell, probably, but I didn’t know what he’d yell about.

The long, shallow gash along my flank—a gift from one of the demons—began to knit together and disappear, even as the flesh beneath it halved and halved again, my body going from over five hundred pounds down to my normal one-oh-five.

Are you sure you’re not doing this just to make yourself feel better?

I calmed my thoughts again, turning my attention to my body as the last traces of tiger vanished, leaving me exposed and human in the middle of the briar patch. I dropped my mind into my chest, searching for sensation—for the tightness of fear, the vibrating heat of anger, the cold pressure of fury.

I didn’t feel emotional.

And we did need information.

And this was the right moment to try to get it.

…right?

I clenched my fists, my right hand curling tight around the grip of the handgun. This kind of double-thinking and second-guessing—it wasn’t me. I was used to trusting my instincts.

But those instincts had gotten the Withers and the Chapmans killed.

Well, you can’t just sit here forever.

Gritting my teeth, I began to morph again, shrinking down and away from the thorns, focusing on the fly in all of its gross, tiny detail.

It wasn’t a decision—not in the sense of knowing what I was doing, of being sure or even confident. I didn’t actually know that I would be able to handle whatever was waiting for me beyond the broken door. I didn’t actually know that I was making the right choice.

There was no chance, though, that I could just walk away, having let Jake and Marco take all of the risks, pay all of the consequences. Not when this whole thing was my fault to begin with.

Once around the pool, then out. No heroics, no unnecessary risks.

I at least tried to believe it.

 

*        *        *

 

The Yeerks were most definitely not stupid.

It took me ten minutes to get past the two Controllers guarding the entrance, both of whom were wielding some kind of wide-beam ray gun and watching the doorway like hawks. I couldn’t be sure, with the fly’s insanely shattered vision, but I thought I saw them take out a dozen mosquitoes, a couple of fireflies, and at least one squirrel. In the end, I had to wait until one of them sneezed, zooming past at ground level while the other one reflexively said “Bless you.”

The interior of the building was lit by over a hundred spotlights, every surface illuminated and shadowless, with no place for a bat or a lizard to hide. There was a handful of technicians busy dismantling the wreckage of the alien archway that Marco had smashed, and another pair trying to repair the door to one of the large cages. There weren’t any scanners or robot drones, but there were plenty of regular old humans walking around, each armed with the same wide-beam burner. I stayed as high as I could, hoping to avoid notice.

Unfortunately, this meant that I couldn’t even catch the vibrations from the Controllers down below, let alone try to interpret it as speech. I spent three heart-pounding minutes changing bodies on the roof of the shed in the corner, after first circling the area four times to confirm that there were no obvious cameras and that none of the sentries circling below were climbing up to check it. The very last morph that Cassie had given me before disappearing into the mountains was a bird called a white-throated needletail. It was about the same size as a robin, with black feathers everywhere except the throat and the tail. She’d called it the cheetah of the skies, said it could fly over a hundred miles per hour in a straight line.

“It can’t hold that speed for very long,” she’d told me. “Maybe a couple of miles. I couldn’t use it when—the snipe is better, if you need to go farther than that. But if you ever need a quick getaway, this can take you from the school to the mall in about forty-five seconds.”

Even so, I’d kept an extremely low profile, forcing the bird body to flatten itself against the roof just below the peak. There was no point in taking chances, after all, and the needletail was perfectly capable of seeing and hearing at a distance.

As it turned out, though, there was almost nothing to see or hear. Nothing that didn’t match with Jake and Marco’s descriptions, anyway. Other than the repairmen and the handful of extra guards sweeping the space, the Yeerks had already returned to normal. There were only a few children remaining in the cages—it was already after nine o’clock, and the YMCA closed at ten—but there were still plenty of people, most of them wearing the kind of clothes my mom and dad wore to work.

Occasionally, one of the side doors would open briefly. The middle one seemed to be mostly for the demon-things, and the one closest to the entrance mostly for humans, although occasionally one of the demons would come in from outside and go through it—reporting, maybe? Although that didn’t make much sense, since they presumably all had communicators.

The door on the right gaped open, its frame twisted out and away from the wall where Marco had burst through. Inside was a tunnel of the deepest black, flanked by six demon guards carrying ordinary human guns. Occasionally, I thought I heard the scrape of something moving inside, but it was impossible to be sure over the sounds of sobbing and screaming.

It was those sobs and screams that kept drawing my attention. They weren’t quite what I had been expecting—the way Jake and Marco had described them, it had sounded like there would be nothing but horror and despair. And maybe there had been, forty-five minutes ago, but now there was a different quality in the chorus of voices.

Defiance.

“Fuck you!” one man was shouting, his face wild and sweaty, his suit in disarray. He was pressed up against the bars, as close to his captors as he could get, occasionally reaching through to swipe at the passing guards, or to throw up his middle fingers. “Fuck all of you, you fucking slugs! You’re going to die, every last motherfucking one of you! I’m going to pour salt into your fucking pool and swim in it!”

“You can beat them!” yelled a middle-aged woman in a floral dress. Her hands were cupped to her mouth as she called across the pool to the other cages. “If you try hard enough, you can take back control! If enough of us do it, there’s no way they can keep it a secret!”

“Sam!” cried a young boy, his voice breaking. “Sam, don’t worry! It’s going to be okay! I’m here, Sam! I’m not going to leave you!”

Farther back within the cages, small groups had formed around individuals who were crying or screaming, men and women offering what comfort and solace they could. I could see a trio of teenage girls—just a few years older than me—huddled together in a corner, their expressions grim but determined as they spoke in rapid, low whispers.

Once, a man began taking off his belt—whether to use it as a tool or a weapon, I couldn’t tell—only to be stunned by one of the human guards. As his body sagged, the rest of the prisoners surged forward, spitting and hissing and throwing change. Each time the demon-things came to open the door, they had to activate some kind of force field that rooted everyone in place, and twice the people packed themselves so densely around the door that the whole group had to be stunned and heaved aside.

I had expected it to be bad.

I hadn’t expected it to give me hope.

Still flat against the roof, I turned my head, sweeping my gaze across the five half-filled cages. I wanted with all my heart to call out to them, to offer some scrap of encouragement or support. Or better yet, to join them—to put on Elfangor’s body and carve my way through the enemy, breaking open the cages and setting every last one of them free.

But that already happened, whispered the tiny voice in the back of my head. Marco let them out, and the Yeerks just rounded them up and put them right back in.

Balance of power—there were just too many Controllers. Twenty or thirty running the reinfestation process, another twenty or thirty sweeping the space, another twenty or thirty outside, and who knew how many lurking behind the doors or in the rest of the building.

We couldn’t win this war. Not with just me and Jake and Cassie and Marco and Tobias and the kid Jake said Tobias had recruited. Not against a thousand of them, with twenty thousand more just waiting to crawl out of the pool.

I clicked my beak and fluffed my feathers. It was time to get out of there, to catch up with Jake and Marco and start planning our next move. Staying low, I turned my attention back to the entrance, measuring the danger. There were enough Controllers between me and the door that it might make more sense to morph back to—

I paused, letting my thoughts coast to a halt as the seed of an idea blossomed in the back of my mind. I looked back at the cages, at the people still shouting their contempt. I looked at the guards, at the pattern of their movements, the spread of their formation. I counted quietly in my head, watching as a human Controller swept past the shed, her burner at the ready.

One hundred miles per hour times about five thousand feet per mile is five hundred thousand feet per hour divided by sixty minutes in an hour is about ten thousand feet per minute divided by sixty seconds in a minute is about two hundred feet per second. Double it for the time it takes me to get up to speed, and double it again for dodging and slowing down at the door—

Four seconds.

I could make it through, even if the Controllers were on alert. It could work.

NO, said the tiny voice, suddenly not so tiny. Not like this. You know what happened last time.

This is different, I argued, straining my ears as I trained my eyes on the farthest cage. It wasn’t easy, but I thought I could make out the voices of two of the loudest people, even from over a hundred feet away. They’re not going to kill ALL of them.

How do you know that?

Slowly, carefully, I pushed myself up to my feet, standing a few inches back from the peak of the roof, resisting the urge to flap.

I didn’t know that. I couldn’t, couldn’t be sure, not after what they’d done to the Chapmans, and to Cassie’s parents. But there were over a hundred people spread out between the five cages. Even if the Yeerks had doubled their presence in the week since the construction site, they couldn’t afford to lose that many hosts.

Could they?

You can’t, the voice insisted.

But it was wrong. Marco couldn’t. Jake couldn’t. Cassie and Tobias couldn’t. And maybe I could learn a thing or two from them, from the rest of our ragtag little army. One week in, and my mistakes had already cost us more than I could ever repay. A part of me had been screaming never again nonstop since Saturday.

But this was just the kind of crazy risk that the rest of me had been crying out for, ever since the moment Elfangor’s ship decloaked in front of us. It was all-or-nothing, win or lose, with me and a couple hundred captives balanced against maybe the whole war effort. If the needletail was fast enough, I’d be outside in minutes, and if it wasn’t—

I looked back at the first cage, at the middle finger man. He was still shouting, his voice showing no sign of giving out.

Well. At least this time, the consequences would fall on the willing. On me, and my fellow warriors—the ones who refused to give up.

I waited on the roof while the guards made a few more rounds—considering the timing, practicing the words in my head. I tried to recall the huge strangeness of Elfangor’s voice, the heavy, prophetic tone.

Don’t do this, the voice whispered, one final, quiet plea.

But we needed information, and this was the right moment to get it.

Flexing my wings, I pushed my thoughts out into the air, willing them into the heads of the prisoners in the cages, leaving out everyone else—the people on the piers, the Controllers, the stalking demons. I made my voice as loud as possible, forming each word with careful precision.

<HUMANS,> I bellowed, and the air fell silent. <My name is Elfangor.>

The guards paused in their rounds, unnerved by the sudden and unexplained calm.

<I fight the Yeerks,> I said. <I and my fellow Andalites. You fight them as well, and for that I honor you.>

Somewhere in the background, an alarm began to wail. The middle door opened, and a dozen of the demon guards poured out onto the floor, their heads turning in every direction. I was above them, between them and the spotlights, hidden by the glare.

<I cannot free you today,> I said. <But if you hate the Yeerks—if you would see them gone from this planet—then search your memories. You have seen their plans—they have used your bodies to carry out their foul purpose. I need information—the identity of highly placed Controllers—the locations of their major targets—any tactical detail that might allow us to strike a blow against them. You will suffer for this. Your controllers will punish you for speaking out. But if you have the knowledge I seek, shout it—shout it now! I will hear it, and I will make them pay!>

There was a pause, a silence like the gap between lightning and thunder, and then the voices rose once more.

I listened, my heart breaking.

I listened, and then I flew, leaving all of them behind.

 

*        *        *

 

“Marco!” I cried out, emerging from the woods. “Sorry—I stayed behind, went back into the pool. I heard—I found out—”

I broke off as Marco turned, felt all of the strength go out of my legs as I saw the tears on his face, glistening in the light of the campfire.

 

*        *        *

 

Taking in a breath, I padded closer to the flame. I could feel the tiger’s indecision, the mix of fascination and fear.

It’s just pain. It isn’t permanent.

Slowly, hesitantly, I reached out with one giant paw, feeling the heat of the fire soak its way into my muscles. The sensation peaked, spiked, and I jerked back reflexively, the claws unsheathing themselves. Gathering my resolve, I inched closer and reached out again.

Pain, you can handle.

Every muscle of the tiger’s five hundred pound body began to tremble as the air filled with the smell of burning flesh and hair.

Just pain.

The heat traveled in waves up my leg—fire—followed by liquid ice—followed by white-hot lightning—followed by a horrifying nothingness as the nerves began to die.

You are stronger than the pain.

I watched, with clinical interest.

I watched, with screaming horror.

You can do this.

A pitiful shriek tore its way out of the tiger’s mouth, a primal expression of rage and terror that could not be suppressed. It wasn’t just the pain. It was the damage. It was the loss of power, of movement, of freedom and speed. It was an antelope, escaping across the plain—a charging rhino that couldn’t be dodged—a disinterested mate, loping away. It was a lesson learned again and again over a billion years of evolution—somewhere, deep within its soul, the tiger knew that this was death.

But the tiger was not in control. I was in control, and I was not afraid.

Not of mere pain.

I pulled the ruined paw away from the flame, set it down on the rocky earth, forced myself to put weight on it. Waves of agony smashed into my brain, my vision darkening and narrowing as the tiger body begged me to stop, to roll over, to do anything else. I took a few careful steps, and the body rebelled, threatening to collapse.

I tightened my grip.

It was getting easier. The first time, it had taken me half an hour just to get close enough to blister, and I had demorphed almost in a panic, some part of me halfway convinced that the burn would still be there on my human hand. Now, I was able to run even as the tiger screamed in protest.

I circled the clearing at a sprint, taking in the sounds and smells, returning to the campfire where Jake lay motionless inside his sleeping bag. Turning, I placed my other paws in the embers, one by one, steeling myself as the flesh burned. Bending down, I seized a red-hot coal with my jaws, held it in my mouth until it stopped sizzling.

You deserve this.

The thought was just a whisper, but I moved to crush it immediately. This was not about guilt. Guilt would not bring Melissa back. It would not bring Cassie’s parents back. It would not undo the disaster at the pool, wake Jake from his coma. The only thing to be gained from punishing myself was absolution, and I didn’t want absolution.

I wanted—

<Rachel?>

Dropping the coal, I stepped away from the fire and began to demorph. <Here,> I called out. <Give me two minutes.>

“Those were burns,” Marco said tonelessly, emerging from the forest two minutes later clad in gym shorts and a t-shirt. The smell still hung thick in the air, and there were dark footprints glistening wetly near the fire.

I shrugged. “Building up pain tolerance,” I said. “Based on what you told me about what happened in the cave, it sounds like it’s probably going to come in handy.”

Marco held my gaze for a long moment, and I prepared to defend myself—I did a sweep, there was no one around, I can still fight on burnt paws, that’s the whole point—but he said nothing. Shifting, he nodded toward the sleeping bag. “Any change?” he asked.

“None,” I said. “I spent most of the afternoon dripping smoothie into him. Took forever, but I got it all in.”

“I picked up some baby wipes,” Marco said. “I didn’t get any more diapers. I figure if the box we’ve got doesn’t last…”

He trailed off, turning to gaze into the fire. “His folks are getting worried. They kept me right up to the time limit at dinner today, wanting to talk. They kept saying I wasn’t acting like myself.”

“Are they sending him—you—back to school on Monday?”

“Maybe. Right now, I’m more worried about tomorrow. They said they wanted me home by ten tonight, and I get the sense they’re thinking about taking a road trip out to the cabin, now that all the funerals are over.”

I felt my heart sink. “That’s a three hour drive, isn’t it?”

Marco nodded. “And you know Jake’s dad. No bathroom breaks. I’d have to demorph under a blanket. With Tom right there next to me.”

I looked over at my cousin, still lying exactly where I’d left him when I finished with the smoothie. His breathing was slow but shallow, the movement of the sleeping bag barely visible in the fading light.

Just like it had been two nights ago, when I’d finally arrived after escaping from the pool, five minutes too late to say goodbye.

Stop it. Don’t you dare.

“Then we take him to a hospital ourselves. You can leave a note or something, saying he ran away.”

Marco shook his head. “First thing they’ll do is just bring him back. St. Mary’s has the best neurological department in the state. I checked last night.”

It also had over four hundred doctors, nurses, technicians, and analysts, of which nearly half were Controllers. According to the prisoners, the Yeerks were planning to use the hospital for a major infestation push that would start in a little over a week. It was the third most disturbing piece of information I’d managed to fly away with.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop them from starting the push sooner, now that they think the Andalites are watching.

Or would they do something completely different instead, now that their plan was compromised?

I wasn’t sure. Figuring out that kind of stuff was Jake’s specialty, not mine.

“So we fall back to plan B,” I said brusquely, refusing to let my voice waver. “We tell his parents the truth, get them to take him somewhere out of state.”

Marco didn’t even shake his head this time, just slumped a little further as he stared into the fire. “Can’t,” he said dully. “They either listen, or they don’t, and either way—”

He sighed, as if too tired to finish the thought. “Trust me, it doesn’t work out.”

I waited, but he said nothing more. After a dozen heartbeats I began to pace back and forth, kicking at the rocks and leaves that were scattered across the little clearing.

Either way—

Trust me—

You wouldn’t understand if I explained it to you, Rachel, so I’m not going to bother.

For the hundredth time, I found myself fighting back against my brain, against the sneaking, slithering, corrosive despair it kept trying to push into my thoughts. Marco was just tired. Tired and burnt-out and grieving—it had nothing to do with me.

Still, though, I did want to understand. Gritting my teeth, I pulled my mind away from its defeatist monologue and forced it to focus.

They either listen, or they don’t—Jake’s parents would either believe us, believe in the threat, or they would think we’d gone crazy and try to get us locked up.

But that didn’t make any sense, because we could morph right in front of them. There’s no way they wouldn’t believe us after that—Marco must have meant something else.

What else would they not believe us about?

The Yeerks? I mean, morphing doesn’t prove that.

…and if they didn’t buy into the threat of the Yeerks, or even if they just underestimated it a little…

They could try to go public. Here, in town—which would get them killed or taken—or elsewhere, which would either get them locked up or maybe actually work, in which case the Yeerks might give up on their slow infiltration and just glass half the planet…

And if they did listen?

Oh. Right.

“You think they’d pull us out of the fight?”

“No, I think they’ll be totally cool with letting a couple of teenagers who can’t even drive repeatedly risk their lives in mortal combat with brainsucking aliens. I mean, hey, it’s the twenty-first century, right? Kids gotta learn sometime.”

There was no humor in Marco’s voice, no spark of laughter or happiness. He said the words as if he were reading off of a script—as if he didn’t have the energy to come up with something real, and was falling back on sarcasm by default.

I knew how he felt. It’s why I was angry, after all.

“We have to do something,” I bit off, trying to keep my words level. “We don’t know how to take care of a coma patient. If he doesn’t wake up soon, and we don’t get help, he’s going to die out here.”

“He’s already fucking dead!”

I blinked at the unexpected outburst, blinked and almost missed Marco leaping to his feet, his face wrenched in anguish, sudden tension tightening every muscle. He closed the distance between us in a flash, thrust a finger into my face, seeming six inches taller than he really was. “He died two days ago! You just don’t want to fucking admit it! Whatever alien dimension his body was in, it’s gone, okay? He’s gone. And that thing—that fucking body over there—just because it doesn’t know it’s supposed to stop breathing—”

For a moment, I thought he was going to hit me, hit Jake, lose all control and just start tearing things apart. He raised his hands, his fingers curled like claws, and let out a wordless cry of anger and frustration. Then he spun on his heel, walked straight to the nearest tree, and punched it—hard.

I heard the crack of something breaking, stood there stunned and speechless as I waited for Marco to yell again.

But he said nothing. Not a word, not a whimper. He just stood there, looking down at his knuckles, his shoulders heaving silently.

Yes, I knew how he felt.

This is your fault, too.

“I’m not giving up,” I said finally, after a full minute of silence. “Not on Jake, and not on the war. We know what they’re up to, now. We can figure out a way to stop them. And in the meantime—as long as you’re breathing, there’s hope.”

Thanks, Mother Theresa.

That’s what Marco should have said. Instead, he just slumped again, leaning against the tree, his face pressed into the rough bark, his eyes brimming with tears.

I wanted to join him. To let go, and grieve—to start dealing with the fact that I didn’t really know if my cousin would ever wake up again.

But I couldn’t.

I had work to do.

 

*        *        *

 

The bell rang, and the room filled with the sounds of binders snapping and zippers zipping, the shriekscrape of chairs on linoleum. Swinging my bookbag onto my shoulder, I followed the crowd out into the hall.

It was Monday, the second day of school since the Chapmans’ car accident, and my first day back since Elfangor. I walked through the hallways on autopilot, surrounded by a bubble of silent, awkward sympathy. Nobody knew quite how they were supposed to deal with me, so instead, they simply didn’t.

I didn’t mind. It made it easier to slip away unnoticed to morph.

So far, I’d skipped two of my seven classes, stashing my clothes in a Ziploc bag in the tank of the toilet in the girls’ bathroom each time. US History had been spent skittering through the ceiling in the lizard morph, while PE had given me a chance to eavesdrop on the teacher’s lounge for almost an hour.

Neither excursion had turned up any new information. If the prisoners in the Yeerk pool were to be believed, every single faculty member was now a Controller, and there were plans to take the whole student body in the very near future. Yet even in private, their conversations were mundane and boring and depressingly human. Mr. Plumblee, the AP Biology teacher, was going to have to cancel his vacation so his wife could visit her father, who was going through some kind of surgery. Mrs. Tilman, who taught Spanish and French, was trying to talk the rest of the staff into un-cancelling their surprise birthday party for Ms. Vickers, because it wasn’t her fault that people got into car accidents. Three teachers I didn’t know from the math department spent almost twenty minutes shipping various combinations of their students, before getting sidetracked on how awful the new state standardized tests were going to be.

Just once, while peering through a vent at our principal, Mr. Krouse, I thought I heard the word “Visser.” He was talking on the phone, his voice low and serious, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying, and I didn’t want to risk crawling out of the vent to get closer.

If they were all Controllers, they were keeping up the act—probably to prevent the very thing that I was trying to do. After the second round of spying, I’d given up and morphed back into my self-copy, resigned to a regular day of school.

Or as regular as possible, anyway. It was lunchtime now, and I headed for the cafeteria, dropping my stuff off in my locker and dodging the compassionate stares of my classmates. I sat in the corner, eating quietly, and my presence was like a force field, keeping the space around me empty for three seats in every direction.

How many of them had already been taken? I looked out across the tables, at the mix of conversation, only a little more subdued than usual. It was hard to believe that any of them had an alien slug lurking behind their eyes.

But Melissa had. For days, maybe weeks. And I hadn’t noticed.

They could be doing their big push right now. How would you even know? Maybe it happened during PE. You walk into the locker room, they zap you, you come out a Controller. You could already be one of the very last ones.

I shook my head, trying to clear my thoughts. It was true, but it wasn’t useful. According to the prisoners, I had at least until Friday, and even if they’d pushed up their timetable, they weren’t likely to be making their move today. I needed to stay focused on things I had the ability to do something about—worrying about nightmare scenarios only helped if it led to some kind of action.

Raising my cheeseburger to my mouth, I took a bite just as someone slid into the seat right next to me. I turned to look and saw Erek King, the retired dog trainer’s kid. Mouth full, I simply raised an eyebrow in greeting, chewing as fast as I could.

Erek nodded back. “Hello, Elfangor,” he said softly.

 

*        *        *

 

Time stopped.

I sprang to my feet, barely stopping myself from choking as I swallowed the entire mouthful half-chewed. Around me, the rest of the cafeteria had frozen in place, all laughter and conversation cut off as if a switch had been flipped.

“Wait!” said Erek, and rounding on him, I saw that he had disappeared, replaced by a gleaming, chrome-and-ivory robot with six limbs and no head, just a little bit smaller than me and very obviously alien.

I tried to jump backward, out and away from the table, and found myself caught as if I’d come up against a vertical wall of glue.

“Don’t panic! I won’t hurt you!”

“Let me out,” I growled. “Let me go right now, or we’ll see who hurts who.” I was already poised on the edge of morphing, my brain flickering between gorilla, elephant, and rhino. The robot looked tough, but not two-tons tough.

“I can’t,” it said, its voice still distinctly that of a teenage boy.

Now,” I barked, my fists clenching as my heartrate continued to rise.

“I can’t,” it repeated. “If I let you out now, it’s likely you’ll hurt yourself or someone else. I literally can’t let that happen.”

My brain began catching up with my body, and my eyes darted around, taking in the frozen tableau. “What did you—how did you—”

How did you stop time? I wanted to say. I suddenly felt very stupid for having tried to threaten the robot ten seconds earlier.

“I didn’t,” it said simply. “You’re inside a holographic force field. Everything’s normal outside it. As far as anyone else can see, the two of us are just sitting next to each other, talking.” Some movable parts near the top of the robot shifted, giving the impression of a frown. “Couldn’t you—can’t you tell? Our sources told us that Andalites are familiar with this kind of technology.”

I took several deep breaths, my nostrils flaring as I struggled to get myself under control. “What’s an Andalite?” I said lamely, trying to stall for time.

The robotic frown deepened. “The odds of that being a genuine question are low,” it said. “Maybe one-in-forty-six-thousand-six-hundred-fifty-six low. I can see the energy from the Z-space interlink lighting up that skull you’re wearing.”

I tried to pull free of whatever was holding me, found that I could move inches but not feet. A part of me was following up on what the robot had just said—morphing gives off detectable energy? Do the Yeerks know?—while the rest of me scrabbled uselessly for something intelligent to say. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.

“Please,” the robot answered back, a note of pleading entering its voice. “Trust me. I’m incapable of harming you, even if I wanted to, and I don’t. You’re resisting the Yeerks. We heard your voice in the pool on Wednesday. We’ve been trying to find you ever since.”

They had heard me?

The robot tilted its top section, and a piece of ivory plating slid back, revealing a compartment containing a thick, gray slug, suspended amid hundreds of delicate wires.

If I hadn’t already been glued to the air, I would have jumped three feet in shock. “You’re a Controller?” I blurted out.

So much for pretending to be clueless.

“No,” the robot answered. “I hold the Yeerk in stasis, drawing on its knowledge. When it’s time to release it into the pool, I adjust its memory so that it thinks it’s been controlling me.” It paused, and somehow its body language conveyed the sense of someone mustering courage. “I’m sharing this information with you in the spirit of compromise. Now you know who I am—you know my public identity. If you wanted, you could call your companion to come and destroy me. Can we please talk calmly for a bit? As allies?”

My heart was still hammering away inside my chest, but some of the adrenaline had leaked back out of my bloodstream, and I could feel my panic slowly ebbing. “Let me go,” I said slowly, my voice still slightly shaky. “Let me sit down, and let me see what’s going on around me. If you do that, I’ll stay and talk.”

“Deal.”

I felt the pressure around me ease and vanish, and I slid back into my seat, pressing my sweaty palms against the smooth, cool surface of the table. Around me, the frozen cafeteria suddenly snapped into motion, a wall of sound washing away the temporary quiet. I let out a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding, feeling my shoulders relax—until I realized that this could just as easily be another hologram.

“They can see us, but they can’t hear us,” the robot said. “I’m projecting an image of us talking about the human girl’s friends, Cassie and Melissa. Speaking of which—”

It straightened noticeably, its movable facelike parts rearranging into something resembling seriousness. “What did you do with the girl whose form you’ve taken? Did you harm her? Is she somewhere safe?”

I blinked, my mind racing as I struggled to assemble an appropriate answer. This whole thing could be a Yeerk trap, a part of me whispered. It doesn’t feel like one, but a smart trap wouldn’t.

“She’s safe,” I said finally. “We offered her protection in exchange for information and the use of her body.”

It wasn’t the best phrasing I could have come up with, but the robot didn’t seem to notice the double entendre. It simply nodded, its limbs relaxing with a gentle whirr. “Good,” it said. “You’ll produce her, at some point? So we can confirm?”

“I don’t see why I should,” I shot back. “If this is a—”

“It’s not a trap.”

“So you say. And I say the girl—Rachel—she’s fine.”

The robot held very still for a fraction of a second. “Fair enough,” it said, still sounding perfectly human. When it spoke again, its tone was distinctly dry and bitter. “I’ll note that if you have hurt her, you’re probably better off lying to me about it.”

I frowned, opening my mouth to ask—

Something in my brain clicked, and I closed my mouth again. Incapable of harming you, even if I wanted to. “You have some kind of block against violence?” I asked.

“Unfortunately.” The robot turned away and sort of fidgeted, its body language signaling frustration loud and clear. “We can’t take any positive action that results in harm to a sapient being, and we’re sometimes compelled to act if violence seems imminent. There’s a limit to how far ahead that chains—we don’t have to worry about low-probability consequences that are weeks in the future—but anything directly intentional or even just relatively likely is completely off the table.”

“Who’s we?” I asked.

“We are the Chee,” it said simply. “The last remaining legacy of an ancient, peace-loving species—the Pemalites, who designed and built us. We came to this planet thirteen million, five hundred fourteen thousand, one hundred and seven days ago, at the end of the Howler war, and settled here on the orders of the last surviving Pemalite.”

“How many of you are there?”

The robot fixed me with a look. “How many of you are there?”

I hesitated, but only for a moment. “Six,” I said honestly, noting a tiny shift in the robot’s posture as I spoke. “Maybe seven, if we can recover one of our comrades, who crashed in the—who crashed somewhere else.”

“There are one hundred thirty-nine thousand, three hundred and twenty-one Chee, including the One Who Is Remembered.”

I could hear the capitals as he spoke, and I filed the obvious question away for later. “How many of you are fake Controllers?”

“Very few. We’re scattered across the planet, in groups of six or twelve or at most eighteen, and the Yeerks have yet to spread beyond this city. More of us are gathering—slowly, so as to avoid suspicion—although it’s not yet clear whether anything will come of it.”

My head was spinning, trying to make all of the numbers mean something. “What—” I began, and then I faltered. Taking a breath, I tried again. “Why have you—I mean, why are you telling me this? Showing yourself to me?”

“Because you resist the Yeerks. Because everything we know of them tells us that they must be stopped. Until now, we’d thought that we would have to rely on human strength, human ingenuity. We watched the battle ten days ago, and we saw the Andalite dome ship fall into the sea. We assumed that no more help was coming, until we heard your voice in the pool.”

“I didn’t see you in the cages.”

“If one of us sees something, the rest of us can remember it, unless there’s a reason to forget. And I might have been in the cage—like yours, my outward form is a deception.” There was a flicker, and suddenly the robot vanished, replaced by the familiar face of Erek King, which them smoothly aged until it appeared to be seventy, and then morphed into my own. “I can take on a lot of different shapes, though for the sake of reasonable caution I usually stay within my established identity.”

I scrubbed at my eyes, trying to think. I had the feeling that there were a hundred questions I should be asking, a hundred things that Jake or Marco or even Tobias would identify as crucially important.

But that wasn’t the way my brain worked. I couldn’t just think my way into being smarter, or more perceptive.

“You want to—to form some kind of alliance?”

“Yes.”

I looked around the cafeteria, at the other students sitting and eating and laughing. Lunch was short; it would be ending in fifteen more minutes. “This isn’t the time or the place,” I said slowly. I couldn’t quite keep the reluctance out of my tone—the part of me that hadn’t learned anything over the past week wanted to charge ahead at full speed. “And I can’t make this sort of decision alone. I think the answer is probably yes, but—can you meet me at”—I hesitated—“at the playground at Magnuson park? Tonight, after dark?”

The image of Erek King frowned. “Time’s pretty short, after what happened at the pool,” he said, his voice sounding somehow less formal now that it was coming out of a human mouth. “I think everything the Yeerks were planning for next week is going to happen in the next couple of days instead. There’s a chance that even a few hours might make a difference. Is this something you and your companion could decide together?”

“Probably,” I answered, “but I’m not going to see him until after school anyway.”

Erek went suddenly stiff, his eyes widening, muscles seeming to tense beneath his holographic skin. “Um,” he said, sounding more human than ever. “Um. I don’t understand. Is the other Andalite not a part of your group?”

I felt my own eyes narrow as my heartrate spiked once again. “What other Andalite?”

He pointed openly, and I almost shouted before remembering that we were both safely hidden behind a hologram. I followed the line of his finger to a boy I didn’t know, sitting alone near the middle of the cafeteria.

“That one, there,” Erek said. “He’s got the same kind of radiation signature as you. It’s different, like a fingerprint—that’s how I knew you were the one we saw at the pool. But that’s not a real human.”

I don’t know if it was the adrenaline, or the fear, or the practice I’d been putting in over the past week as I tried to learn from my mistakes. It might have just been a chance flash of insight, a lucky intuition. But for a moment, I felt like Marco as all of the pieces clicked into place at once.

We’d guessed that there might be Andalite bandits, other survivors from the crash. If there were, it was only natural that they’d make their way to this city—to the center of the Yeerk operation.

But the odds of one being here, in the middle of my school cafeteria—

Zero, or close enough that it made no difference.

They know. First Melissa, then Cassie—I’m the obvious next person to investigate.

As I watched, I thought I saw the boy’s eyes linger on us for just a moment, as if he were trying to keep an eye on us, and also trying not to be obvious about it. Even though I knew we couldn’t be seen, I felt a wash of cold that ran from my spine all the way down to my fingers and toes.

“Erek,” I said. “That force field you used to hold me in place. Will it stop a laser beam?”

“Yes. But if you’re thinking of doing something violent—”

“Not me,” I interrupted. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a voice was whispering, running down a list that was starting to become all too familiar—gorilla, rhino, elephant, tiger. “I think that boy over there is Visser Three.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 10: Cassie

On Wednesday, the voice of Elfangor’s brother fell silent.

I was in the small cave I’d discovered in my first day, among the shattered boulders of a steep hillside deep within the forest. It was twenty miles from the nearest human structure—almost forty, by road—but I still did a sweep of the entire area in osprey morph and stayed as far back into the darkness as I could manage. In the three days since I’d left the others, I’d seen almost a dozen hikers on the nearby trails, and a handful going cross-country. I didn’t want to have to think about what would happen if one of them spotted an alien—or worse, caught me mid-morph—so I always made sure there was no one nearby.

I’d been checking the distress beacon each day, at sunrise and sunset. It was almost comforting, a way to stay connected to the others while I waited up in the woods. Officially, I was supposed to be finding or building some kind of base camp—a place where the others might live if their cover was blown, or where we might bring my parents once we captured them and starved the Yeerks out of their heads.

But I didn’t really know anything about camping or construction or survival skills. My dad took us out into the woods all the time, but for him it was more about being with nature, and not so much about living in it. We always brought tents, lighters, prepackaged food—I knew a little bit about how to find paths, and which roots and mushrooms were good to eat, but I’d spent a lot more time identifying bird species than rubbing sticks together.

I’d spent an hour in grizzly morph in that first afternoon, digging the rotting muck out of the cave and bringing in pine boughs to make a kind of floor, but after that I’d run out of ideas. So I’d simply kept morphing, dipping in and out of the amazing range of bodies at my disposal, wandering the forest as a wolf, as a gorilla, as a mouse. I slithered my way up to the treetops in the body of a Burmese python, glided back down on the winglike membranes of a flying squirrel, dug through the riverbanks with the paws of a star-nosed mole, and defied the rushing currents with the reckless speed of an otter.

A part of me knew I was hiding. Running away from the pain, hoping not to think about it. I hadn’t morphed into the snipe or the elephant since passing them on to the others—it was too easy, wearing those bodies, to remember every detail of Sunday night, to hear the crack of my mother’s shin and see the blank emotionlessness of my father’s Controlled face.

Maybe that makes me a coward. The part of me that spoke in Rachel’s voice certainly thought so. Each minute I spent riding the thermals or galloping through the meadows was a minute my parents were spending locked inside their own brains, unable to escape. Each rush of euphoria was a betrayal, and the guilt of each morph made the next one more inevitable as I spiraled downward, orbiting a black hole I couldn’t bear to look at.

It was my fault. But what good did it do to sit around obsessing over it? Jake and the others had banished me—sent me to the woods where I wouldn’t be in the way, wouldn’t be a risk, wouldn’t be putting everyone else in danger. There was literally nothing I could do except practice morphing.

So I did. And each day, twice a day, I returned to the cave. To Elfangor’s body, and to the reminder that I was not the only one alone and waiting.

I hadn’t realized just how much I’d started to lean on that reminder—how much I needed the voice of Elfangor’s brother to be there. Its sudden absence hit me like a physical blow—as the seconds stretched out in silence, I felt the strength drain from my Andalite limbs, felt my tail drooping as I dropped down to all sixes.

Elfangor. Brother. Help me.

I whispered the words in my own head, a pale imitation.

Maybe—maybe they came to rescue him. Other survivors, or another Andalite ship.

Or maybe he’d escaped on his own—figured out a way off whatever island or out of whatever deep ocean trench he’d ended up in. He was an Andalite warrior, after all. He had morphing power—thought-speak—advanced weapons I probably couldn’t even imagine.

But then again, so did the Yeerks. Visser Three, the monster at the heart of the nightmare, the one that had torn Elfangor apart right in front of us.

I’d spent almost as much effort trying not to think about that memory. The way the Visser’s body had—had unfolded, bloodblack plates of armor sliding forth from his chest like a flower blossoming in time-lapse. The way even his own minions had hesitated, had shuffled back, nervously fingering their guns. The spray of mist that I thought I’d seen, hovering against the night sky for just a split second after the jaws snapped shut—

I had felt the raw power of the Andalite brain, tapped into it the same way I tapped into the elephant’s hearing or the wolf’s sense of smell. It was like being plugged into a computer—in Elfangor’s body, I could follow three lines of thought at once, multiply four-digit numbers together in a second, track everything that was going on around me with three-hundred-and-sixty-degree vision. For brief stretches of time, I could play at being a genius.

The Visser was a genius. There hadn’t been time for a long history lesson, in those few brief minutes on the bridge of Elfangor’s ruined ship. But there had been enough time for him to tell us about Alloran—about the changes the war-prince had been making to the Andalite military, the brilliance of his tactical theory. How he’d spurred a renaissance of curiosity and exploration, drawing an entire generation into space. How his insight had led to Seerow’s breakthrough and the development of morphing technology. How, even after his Fall, the doctrines he’d left behind had guided the Andalite fleet to victory in the battle over Gara—though only, Elfangor said, because the Visser himself had not been present.

Taking Alloran had been the opening move of the war, the Yeerks’ first and most successful gambit. Every triumph they’d had since then had hinged upon his aptitude for war. If Elfangor’s brother was dead—and what else could his sudden silence mean?—the odds were that Visser Three was the reason why.

And it was Visser Three that we had to beat, if I wanted to get my parents back.

I could sense myself slipping into despair, into the sick, overwhelmed fog that had hung over me since Sunday night. The war was just so big—even now, when it had only just begun. The Yeerks had a thousand slaves already, and I didn’t even know how to make a campfire without my dad’s help. Visser Three was an actual evil villain, and I hadn’t even had the presence of mind to knock my mother unconscious.

If I had, my dad might have been there with me.

I wondered if the Yeerk inside him was letting him take care of the animals—if the Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic was important enough to keep going, as cover.

Stop it. Stop this. Stop moping around and DO something, Cassie!

Taking in a deep breath through the Andalite’s folded nostrils, I tried to gather my resolve, to lend weight to the part of me that was burning to set my parents free instead of the part that said it was all already over. But no matter how small that second voice shrank, I could never quite get it to go away.

Wearily, I pressed myself back up off the floor of the cave, my tail lashing as it counterbalanced my heavy torso, keeping me from toppling forward. I clenched Elfangor’s seven-fingered fists, looking down at them with the super-3D vision that came along with having four eyes. Below me, my hooves smelled/tasted the acrid needles of the pine boughs, took an experimental bite and closed in disgust.

Good night, brother, I whispered silently.

On a sudden impulse, I reached out with my tail blade, tapped it gently against the stone of the cave wall. It made a small sound, like hitting two sticks together. I struck a little harder, leaving a scratch mark, and then harder still, watching tiny flecks of rock scatter into the darkness.

With a few swift, sure strokes, I carved a pair of figures into the wall—four legs, two arms, furred four-eyed bodies and long, sinuous tails. Behind them, I traced a simple, bare horizon and a single shining sun.

It wasn’t enough, for a warrior who had given his life to buy us time. It wasn’t enough for his living, breathing brother, who’d crossed half a galaxy only to spend his last few days in lonely despair. I had no idea how Andalites remembered their dead, no idea what sort of words I should say.

But it was all I could think of, so I turned away and demorphed.

 

*        *        *

 

Focusing my thoughts, I applied a little pressure—felt my thoughts slide—felt the corresponding mental click—and watched from within as the red-tailed hawk came to life. It sprang from the ground, flapping powerfully in the cool morning air, taking us up into the trees where it perched near the top of a pine, looking out over the crystal blue lake.

I would never, ever, ever get bored of flying. Even in the midst of my despair, the feeling of air beneath my wings, the sky stretched all around me and the earth so green and alive below—

Like clockwork, the guilt kicked in, and I hunched and ruffled my feathers, my body spasming slightly as my instructions conflicted with those of the hawk brain.

During the first few days, I’d spent a lot of time trying to disappear—to vanish inside the morphs, really become a horse or a bear or a raccoon or an owl. It had seemed like a better option than going around in endless circles inside my own head.

But I’d found that it wasn’t that easy. The animal brain seemed to be there, under the surface, but it didn’t have freedom of movement. There were controls, safeguards, blocks—I could tap into the hawk’s instincts and experiences for things like knowing how to bank and soar, but I couldn’t just not be in control. Even when the instincts took over—like with Tobias and the mouse—there was still some level at which the body needed me to provide it with energy. It was like I was the battery, and without my participation, the system wouldn’t run. I could stand there all day thinking go on, do your thing and it would have no more effect than trying to raise my arm by telling it to.

After hours of fruitless straining, though, I’d discovered a workaround—a kind of mental switch that unlocked the controls, letting the animal mind take over. It was like the morphing equivalent of an autopilot—I could still see and hear, could resume control in an instant, but in the meantime the body would run itself, without any need for input from me.

Which was good, because I had no idea how to hunt for squirrels.

Taking off once more, the hawk body began to circle, rising and rising on a column of hot air as the morning sun began to warm the forest. I could sense its attention darting around, feel its eyes—our eyes—tracking each tiny movement in the landscape below, our wings responding to changes in the breeze with shifts as subtle as moving a single feather.

There was a meadow about a mile from the cave, a few minutes’ flight north of the lake. The red-tail liked to hunt there, waiting in the trees around the perimeter as it considered its next move. Reaching the peak of its spiral, it turned its beak toward the grassy patch and began to glide, angling effortlessly through the air.

Since discovering the autopilot switch, I’d been wondering about other aspects of the morphing technology. In the car, with my mother, I had managed to control the shape and speed of the transformation, which seemed to imply that there might be other controls or settings or options that we could access. There would be a lot of power in being able to do partial morphs—or combined ones—or in being able to fiddle with the acquiring process.

If I acquired two different squirrels, and visualized something that looked like a mix between them, what would happen?

For that matter, what if I could control which genes the morphing technology was choosing to flip? I’d read articles about paleobiologists who were trying to create a dinosaur by interfering with the development of ordinary chicken embryos.

There was a part of me that very much wanted to be wearing the body of a Tyrannosaurus Rex the next time I encountered Visser Three.

Arriving at the meadow, I watched as the hawk folded our wings and plunged us toward the treetops, flaring at the last second and coming in to perch on a thin branch a hundred feet off the ground. There was another hawk at the opposite end of the meadow—its individual feathers as sharp in my vision as if I was looking at them through a magnifying glass—but it made no move to defend its territory. There was plenty of prey for everyone, rabbits and mice and squirrels and voles, and what looked like twenty or thirty chipmunks.

Over the past few days, I’d managed to add one of each to my repertoire of morphs, catching them and holding them down as I returned to my human body. Now, it was time to find a duplicate.

The red-tail fluffed my/its feathers, shifting its/our weight on the branch as it/we settled into a more comfortable position. Hunting was a long, uncertain process, almost entirely made up of watching and waiting. There were patterns in the movements of the creatures below, and the hawk brain needed to know which way its prey would dart before it made its move.

I still wasn’t sure how I felt about using the hawk morph just to acquire other creatures. I had no problem with hunting—I wanted to be a zoologist if I couldn’t be a vet—but I wasn’t eating the animals, just holding them down so I could borrow their DNA. Somehow, that made it worse—three of them had been pretty badly hurt in the process, and one had died before I’d fully demorphed. I’d acquired it anyway, just to see, and was slightly disturbed when it worked just fine.

But the only other way to catch them was with traps, and while I thought I could build a snare, I had nothing to use as bait except the berries and crickets that were already available everywhere.

So hawk it was. I let my own consciousness recede, sinking deeper into the experience as the animal mind continued to observe. Part of the beauty of the autopilot was that I no longer had to be fully human for twenty-four hours a day—no longer had to think or plan or remember. It was easy, inside an animal’s body, to dodge thoughts of my parents, or of Visser Three, or of Jake…

Long minutes passed. The sun crawled across the sky, occasionally dipping behind the clouds. At the other end of the meadow, the other hawk tried for a rabbit, failed, and flapped dispiritedly back up to its perch.

My own hawk brain had zeroed in on one of the chipmunks, an older, fatter male with one eye missing. It was jumpy and suspicious, always turning and turning, but there was something wrong with one of its legs. It was just a hair slower than all the rest, with a noticeable bias toward dodging to the left.

Silently, gracefully, we took to the air, moving in a tight spiral, once more allowing the thermals to lift ourselves higher and higher. Two hundred feet—five hundred—nearly a thousand feet up, and the chipmunk was still as clear in my sight as if it had been in arms’ reach.

My human brain resurfaced just long enough to note that rollercoasters would never be the same, and then we were diving, the hawk body tight and streamlined as we arrowed toward the ground. Our target moved a couple of inches, oblivious, and the hawk adjusted effortlessly, changing course in the space of an instant. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a voice began to count—three—two—one—

At the last, the very last moment, the hawk spread our wings, dropping almost instantly from a hundred miles per hour to something like twenty or thirty. It raked our claws forward, our eyes still locked onto the chipmunk—

Success. Seizing control, I felt my talons dig into the dirt, the tiny mammal caught between them, pinned to the ground. I suppressed the urge to squeeze, the predator’s killer instinct, and immediately began to demorph.

The other chipmunk I had pinned—two days earlier—had been the one to die. She’d been a female, her markings lighter, with fewer stripes around her face. She’d been younger, too, probably only a year old. I’d accidentally broken her spine in the dive.

I had used a couple of sticks to dig a shallow grave, unwilling to leave her lying in the field for other birds, even though I knew the foxes and the raccoons would dig her up as soon as night fell.

This one, though—it would live, as soon as I finished acquiring it and let it go. As my feathers melted and ran together, becoming skin, I reached down under my foot and gripped it, tightly. It struggled madly, scratching and squeaking until I finished demorphing and the acquiring hypnosis took hold.

Staying crouched in the dirt—I still wasn’t comfortable being naked outdoors, even though I knew there was no one around for miles—I began to concentrate, holding the images of both chipmunks in my mind. A blend of the two of them would be sandy brown with six stripes, maybe three ounces and two years old, with white around its eyes…

I felt the changes begin. Fighting the urge to celebrate, I continued to focus—for all I knew, the morphing tech was simply defaulting to one chipmunk or the other. I would have to figure out some way to confirm the difference from the inside—if I ended up young and male, for instance, or old and female.

It took another minute for the morph to finish—and several long seconds to be certain—but in the end, I was convinced. My body was young, male, and thin, with markings on its paws that didn’t match either of the animals I had originally acquired.

So, I thought to myself. I guess it’s that easy.

Or at least, it was that easy to get one combination. I would have to play around a lot more to see if I could control the mixture of traits, or to find out whether it was possible to combine DNA from multiple species.

But still. Even if the process was automatic, and couldn’t be adjusted, I’d just unlocked a whole new world of human disguises. I would be able to wear grown-up faces without putting real grown-ups at risk. That, coupled with the autopilot and my ability to control the morphing process—

It might not be enough. But it no longer felt like nothing.

 

*        *        *

 

I hadn’t slept in six days.

I’d been continuing to push the boundaries of the morphing power, acquiring more and more animals for experimentation. I hadn’t yet cracked cross-species morphing, but I had managed to change the fur pattern of a single, specific fox just by concentrating very hard, and been able to remorph it again without extra effort. I’d also finally figured out how to morph clothing—I couldn’t morph into something with clothes, obviously, but I could morph my own clothes away, and they returned with the rest of my body when I came back.

Whenever I wasn’t experimenting, I was exploring, learning the ins and outs of the landscape in a dozen different bodies. I had stopped wandering aimlessly and begun moving in a pattern, and I’d covered almost four hundred miles traveling practically nonstop, day and night.

At first, I’d thought I was just sort of manic—charged-up from the stress, from the constant circling of my thoughts as I swung back and forth between determination and despair. After a few days, I had turned not-thinking-about-it into an art form.

By the time the weekend rolled around, though, it was clear that there was something else going on. Not only had I not slept, I wasn’t even tired. And it had been Thursday when I’d last had something to eat or drink.

I had a sneaking suspicion that I knew the answer. To test it, I flew back to the cave and demorphed back to human for an evening—the first time I’d spent more than a few minutes in my own body in over a week. Sure enough, after a few hours of huddling inside my sleeping bag, hunger and exhaustion began to set in.

Your true body remains unchanged—sent elsewhere, its processes suspended. That’s what Elfangor had said, when he’d explained the morphing technology to us. He’d also said it was all a lie, whatever that meant.

But in six days, I’d spent only a couple of hours in my own body, and as far as I could tell, a couple of hours was all that my body had experienced. It hadn’t gotten tired, hadn’t gotten hungry, hadn’t needed to pee—not until I stopped morphing.

I tried another test, hyperventilating until my blood was saturated with oxygen and then holding my breath and counting. With effort, I could manage a little over two minutes.

I did it again and began to morph, returning to the body of the osprey. It was a fishing bird, able to dive underwater, which meant that it, too, knew how to hold its breath. I made it all the way through the change before inhaling, and spent a few minutes scoping out the area in the predawn light before returning to the open patch of mulch and leaves outside the cave.

Taking in several quick, shallow avian breaths, I began to demorph.

As the change passed through my chest, I could feel my lungs returning, feel the tight, urgent pressure awaken in the back of my mind. I counted to forty-seven before I had to start breathing again, and I started by letting air out—far more than I could have held in the bird’s tiny chest.

Okay. So the stasis thing is true.

That meant—

It meant—

What did it mean?

There were questions that Marco would ask, or angles that Jake or Rachel would see—clever tricks and surprising connections. I could probably see them myself, if I thought it through carefully enough.

Okay. You can hold your breath. That means you might be able to demorph and remorph entirely underwater, with the right kind of preparation.

And I’d already discovered that I could go basically forever without sleep or food, as long as I could keep morphing. If I hurt myself, I could probably morph into some other body long enough to get to a hospital. And if I kept going the way that I had been, I’d start aging more slowly—I’d already lost almost a week by spending so much time in morph. And—

And—

My breath caught in my throat, a shiver running down my spine.

Wait—what—when I morph, what’s—

I had a hard time finishing the thought.

When I morph, what’s doing the thinking?

I swallowed painfully, my throat suddenly dry, feeling very glad that I was in my own body.

I had been a horse, a bird, a spider, a mouse. I’d been a lizard, a fly, even an alien. In each of those forms, I’d had thoughts—feelings—memories. I’d felt the rush of adrenaline, the burning sensation of fear and shame, the soaring tingle of euphoria—all the familiar flags of normal, human emotion.

I hadn’t stopped to ask how that was possible, in bodies so different from my own. It had just felt so normal—so obvious. On some deep, unconscious level, I’d just assumed that my human body was out there somewhere, hooked up to the morph through some kind of real-time VR link.

But if my body’s functions were paused so thoroughly that air wasn’t even circulating through my lungs—

Then my synapses couldn’t be firing. My nerves couldn’t be sending signals. My neurotransmitters couldn’t be ebbing and flowing.

Which meant that I couldn’t be thinking.

Calm down, Cassie. It works, remember? You must have morphed almost a hundred times by now. No point in freaking out.

But what was going on?

*        *        *

 

Maybe I was just going crazy, out in the woods all by myself.

It was Sunday, almost a full week since I’d left the others. I was maybe twelve miles out from the cave, hunting bears in the new valley I’d discovered.

Not to eat, of course—after a night of raw berries and cold terror, I’d gone back to staying in morph pretty much all the time. It had occurred to me that I could use morphing to make infinite food, if I was willing to chop off my own leg—

—and it had occurred to me to be pretty disturbed about the fact that this thought had occurred to me at all—

—but I wasn’t willing, and I’m pretty much a vegetarian anyway, so that was that.

No, I was looking for a rematch.

Closing my eyes, I finished my morph, and when I opened them again, my vision was razor sharp once again. This time, I’d gone with the peregrine falcon, the fastest animal on earth. Picking my way awkwardly through the pine needles, I found a nice, clear space and launched skyward.

It had all started by accident, while I was inside of a badger on autopilot. I had been daydreaming, paying too little attention, and had stumbled across another badger, this one just slightly larger than me.

I’d read that badgers were not particularly territorial, but I suppose some combination of the fact that this one was in the middle of dinner and that I had tumbled out of a bush practically right in its face was enough to set it off. It reared, hissing, and my own body responded, and before I knew what was happening, the pair of us were snapping and swiping and grappling as we rolled through the undergrowth.

Despite the other badger’s size, I had human ingenuity on my side—I managed to shake it off by tossing dirt into its eyes and mouth and then using the sticks littering the forest floor as pikes. Disgruntled, it had retreated back into a thicket, leaving me to lick my wounds and demorph.

Except that I hadn’t demorphed—not right away. I’d stayed in the badger body, feeling the twinge and ache of bruises, the delicious trickle of blood from my scratches—

delicious?—

—the heavy, wet heat of adrenaline and exhaustion. The sudden battle had awakened something buried just beneath the surface, something decidedly “not Cassie” and yet very, very much me.

Maybe it was the stress. The fear, the doubt, the impotent helplessness.

Maybe it was the isolation. Seven days with only a few hours of sleep, without human contact of any kind.

Maybe it was the morphing. The raw, animalistic instinct.

Or maybe, just maybe, the mask was slipping a little. I’d always known I wasn’t really a good person, deep down inside. It was why I tried so hard—why I put so much effort into my morals, my code, my way of living. I couldn’t live the way Rachel did, always on the edge of fury. I needed more of a buffer.

But my buffer was wearing thin.

I still tried to justify it, inside my head—told myself that I didn’t actually know enough about how most of my morphs would hold up in a fight, that I needed some real-life experience. I’d learned a bit about rhinos and elephants from my mom at the Gardens, and I knew a lot about wolf hunting behavior, but—

Where was a barn owl, in the pecking order?

Could a gorilla handle a grizzly?

How effective was a skunk’s spray, really?

Were ferrets better at wrestling, or at running away?

I made a little list of questions, every one of them plausible, every one a cover for the real reason—that I’d dug my teeth into the other badger’s shoulder, and I’d enjoyed it.

That might have scared me, if I’d let myself think about it.

I started picking fights, at first in situations where I knew I’d have the upper hand, but growing gradually bolder as I realized that starting to demorph would scare away almost any animal except a moose. Moose are crazy—I can’t remember where I learned that, but I was pretty sure I didn’t want to risk it.

I’d decided to start every battle on autopilot, to see what the animal brain would do, find out what each animal’s natural style could teach me. I’d worked my way upward from skunks and raccoons to foxes and wolves, and was now tracking a huge, grumpy black bear who’d thoroughly outmatched my kangaroo morph.

I was going too far, I knew. I could feel myself going too far, could feel myself spiraling again, upward this time, losing control.

But what good was control?

Control wasn’t going to save my parents.

Spotting the bear in the bushes below, I circled, marking its general direction, confirming as always that there were no humans nearby. Aiming for a clear space a few hundred yards ahead of it, I swooped, dropping down into the tall, dry grass.

The valley I had discovered was almost perfect as a hiding spot, a mile-long gash through the mountain with steep, rocky walls, narrow entryways, and trees growing out from either side, forming a kind of tunnel or trellis. Only in the very center was the gap wide enough for the sun to poke through, shining down on a medium-sized meadow with a creek running down its center. You wouldn’t notice the valley at all unless you were directly above it, or unless you happened to spot the tiny, twisting pathways through the brambles at either end.

Between fights, I’d begun cutting down some of the trees inside, using the beaver morph to cut through the trunks and the elephant morph to move them, being careful not to thin out the canopy too much. I had an idea that I might be able to build an actual shelter, right next to the spring where the creek bubbled out from the rock.

But at the moment, I had more pressing matters to attend to. The bear had rolled down into the valley and was currently picking its way idly through the berry bushes—my berry bushes—at the edge of the clearing. In another few minutes, it would pass right by the hollow where I was quietly demorphing.

Rock, paper, scissors, bear.

I had yet to test out the tiger, the rhino, the gorilla, or the grizzly, as none of the opponents I’d come across rated quite that level of firepower. The best fights were the ones where the other animal was stronger than me—where ingenuity and nerve made the difference.

The gorilla.

I spared a brief regret for the fact that I didn’t have any rope—I was still conscientious enough to avoid giving any of my opponents a concussion that might be lethal, but it would’ve been nice to acquire the bear—and took in a deep breath as the last of the feathers disappeared from my arms, leaving me fully human. The bear was only a hundred yards away, now, and I was about to refocus when another, more interesting possibility occurred to me.

It had been days since I’d morphed Elfangor—not since the morning after his brother fell silent, when I’d checked one last time to see if the voice had returned. I’d been sort of reluctant to return to it, after that—it was another reminder of just how alone I was, out here in the mountains.

But I’d made up my mind to return to the city tomorrow night anyway, and in the meantime, I was curious to see how the Andalite body would react to the autopilot trick. It was a strange mix of predator and prey, at least according to Earth archetypes—I wasn’t sure whether it would be aggressive and confident, or stealthy and cautious.

Raising a hand to shade my eyes, I looked over toward the edge of the clearing, where the bear had changed direction slightly and was now pulling at a young sapling. If it stuck to its general pattern, I had at least another couple of minutes before it reached me.

Closing my eyes, I held the image of Elfangor in my mind and began the change.

Even though Andalites had fur and hooves, the process of morphing into one was very different from the process of morphing into an Earth mammal. It was mostly the extra eyes and the extra pair of limbs, I guess—more than anything, it reminded me of morphing into a cockroach or an ant.

This time, instead of bursting out of my chest or stomach, the extra legs emerged from the ones I already had, the flesh and bone pinching and splitting right down the middle, giving me a nauseating glimpse of my own marrow before filling out again with new muscle. I would have flinched, but I was used to things like that now—two days earlier, when morphing into a trout, my skin and tendons had melted away from my hands almost entirely before the bones themselves began to shrink.

I felt my jawbone begin to dissolve as my throat sealed shut, my digestive tract shifting and rearranging itself, reaching down into my legs. With an audible crack, my four knees reversed themselves, and I fell forward onto my arms, lifting myself back up as my fingers multiplied from ten to fourteen.

It wasn’t so bad. Last week, I’d gotten more than halfway into fly morph while remaining entirely full-size. I’d had a proboscis that was three feet long.

My body began to rebalance as the long Andalite tail extruded itself from my spine, the blade growing out like a fingernail while the fur sprouted all along my back and sides. I felt a brief absence, a partial blindness as my brain switched over to four-eyed vision before the eyes themselves appeared, and then the stalks emerged from the back of my skull.

This time, the final change was in my nose and ears, the former flattening and splitting into an extra pair of elongated nostrils while the latter grew delicate, elfin points and slid backwards toward my “neck.” I felt the Andalite sense of smell emerge—not as keen as a wolf’s, but still better than a human’s—and the morph was complete.

Rearing up into centaur stance, I checked on the bear. It was closer, still unaware of my presence as it dug at a gopher barrow. Swishing my tail back and forth, I concentrated, looking for the little mental catch that was the autopilot switch.

Click.

I almost didn’t react quickly enough. Without the slightest hint of warning, my tail blade whipped forward, striking toward my own throat. I seized control with less than an inch to spare, the muscles quivering and spasming as the Andalite equivalent of adrenaline flooded my system.

<YEERK!> bellowed a voice in my mind, loud and harsh and impossibly close. <GET OUT OF MY HEAD!>

Chapter Text

Chapter 11: Tobias

Cold like knives, even through the thick blubber of the sperm whale’s body—water so cold it should have been ice.

<We’re not afraid.>

Darkness blacker than the inside of a grave, darkness somehow close, rather than distant—like the rest of the universe had disappeared, leaving only nothingness.

<We’re not afraid because if we let ourselves get too scared we might not be able to do what needs to be done.>

Pressure so great that even the whale was claustrophobic, the weight of a truck pressing down on each and every inch of my body, squeezing tighter and tighter as it tried to crush me down to a point, a speck, a singularity.

<And we aren’t the type of people who back down. We’re the type of people who do the right thing, even if it’s hard.>

I had never been so afraid.

Not when my mom walked out on me. Not when I’d run away from Oak Landing and spent a week on the street. Not even on the night Elfangor had died, when we’d gotten our first glimpse of the horror to come. Always, always, always, there had been a way out, or a way to fight back, or a place to hide.

<Right now, the right thing is to rescue Elfangor’s brother.>

Garrett’s voice floated through the nightmare, unspooling in my thoughts.

<Because the world’s in trouble, and he might be able to help us save it.>

My words, reflected back at me. My own reassurances, only half-sincere, sounding so much stronger coming from the heart of Garrett’s steely certainty.

<And even if he can’t, or if we can’t find him, we’ll just do the next thing, and the next, and the next. We’ll keep on trying until we figure out a way.>

We hung in the infinite blackness, two tiny spots of warmth and life, using the sperm whale’s echolocation to stay within thought-speak range of one another as we circled, searching. We were at least a mile and a half below the surface, deep enough that the used-up air in our lungs felt like it was slowly turning to diamonds.

<We’re not afraid,> Garrett began again, his inflection unchanged, starting the loop for what felt like the hundredth time.

It was our third trip into the abyss. Our third try, since reaching the point where the distress beacon seemed to be coming from absolutely straight down. We’d spent a day and a half on a cargo ship that was going in mostly the right direction, and had gone overboard with a small buoy and some rope once it seemed like we weren’t getting any closer. We’d come the rest of the way as whales, demorphing in shifts, stopping every few hours to confirm our direction.

<We’re not afraid because if we let ourselves get too scared we might not be able to do what needs to be done.>

It had been hell. The waves in this part of the ocean were nearly fifteen feet high, and it was cold enough that frost would form on my hair in the brief seconds between morphs. We were getting better at staying out of the water—as one of us began to demorph, the other would rise up beneath him, forming a kind of island—but every now and then a rogue wave would crash over us and we’d spend a harrowing minute or two just trying not to drown.

<And we aren’t the type of people who back down.>

At first, it had been the mission that held me together, kept me going. Rescuing a fallen warrior, defeating the Yeerks, saving the world. Fate of humanity on our shoulders, and all that. Those were the words I’d used to bolster Garrett, to hold back his panic the first time he’d sucked down a lungful of sea foam. They were the words that had first carried me down into the darkness.

<We’re the type of people who do the right thing, even if it’s hard.>

But as the rest of the world faded away, so did the sense that any of that mattered. I wanted to care—wanted to believe that what I was doing was the right thing, that it would make a difference.

But all I felt was fear. Fear, and an overwhelming desire to escape. To give up, go home, find another way. That little voice, whispering in my head—what’s humanity ever done for you, that you should be out here risking death to save it?

<Right now, the right thing is to rescue Elfangor’s brother.>

It was Garrett who stopped me, then. Not on purpose. Not by trying. It’s just—I’d said those words to him, and he’d believed them, you know? Taken them to heart, turned them into armor. They’d actually worked.

For him.

Because he trusted me.

I couldn’t take that away from him, couldn’t bring myself to pull the rug out from under him when we were a thousand miles away from home on a mission I’d created.

<Because the world’s in trouble, and he just might be able to help us save it.>

So I’d put on a brave face, pretended to be convinced as we dove, down and down and down into the blackness until even the whale could go no further, the sea floor impossibly far away. I’d maintained my composure as we searched, resurfaced, came up with a new plan and tried again. I’d kept up the act through our second round of demorphing, as we checked on the beacon and noticed that the current had pushed us so that the signal was no longer coming from directly below.

<And even if he can’t, or if we can’t find him, we’ll just do the next thing, and the next, and the next.>

And when we’d realized that it wasn’t working, that we’d have to try something truly dangerous—

That’s when I’d almost lost it. When I’d found myself clinging to Garrett’s mantra for dear life, wishing I believed it so hard that I almost actually did.

<We’ll keep on trying until we figure out a way.>

I turned uselessly in the darkness, pulling my fins against the liquid midnight, feeling a soft ribbon of warmth on my face as I passed through the trail of my own blood.

“Anything small is a deathwish,” Cassie had said, that first afternoon in the barn. “Nowhere to demorph if you run into trouble. It’s got to be a sperm whale or a giant squid, and I don’t know how we’d get either one.”

We’d gotten the whale, whether through dumb luck or divine intervention or some crazy plot I still didn’t understand. But it was the squid that went deeper—all the way to the bottom.

There were whales that came up from the black, bleeding from sucker scars, with squid body parts sloshing around in their bellies.

There were others that didn’t come up at all.

<We’re not afraid.>

Only I was, deep down in my bones—a gnawing, clawing fear that made me afraid that even my thought-speak would come out unsteady. It was like being buried alive, or like being paralyzed—like one of those nightmares where you’re unable to move as you watch the monster closing in.

It had been Garrett’s idea to try wounding one of the whale bodies, to see if the blood would attract a squid where our random zigzagging had not. We’d considered doing rock-paper-scissors, until we’d realized that would mean we’d both have to be demorphed at the same time in fifteen-foot waves.

And until I’d realized that I couldn’t stick a tail blade into Garrett. Not even to save the world. Not when I could just tell him to cut me, instead.

<We’re not afraid because if we let ourselves get too scared we might not be able to do what needs to be done.>

I fired off an echolocation burst—a sort of click, shockingly loud—and the echoes that came back formed a picture in my head.

Nothing. Just me and Garrett, suspended in infinite emptiness.

<And we aren’t the type of people who back down.>

You sneered at Marco and Rachel because they weren’t paying enough attention to the big picture.

<We’re the type of people who do the right thing, even if it’s hard.>

You flat-out insulted Jake for giving in to his emotions.

<Right now, the right thing is to rescue Elfangor’s brother.>

And after he faced down three juniors for you, when he didn’t even know you.

It was bizarrely irrelevant—six months in the past and a thousand miles removed. But somehow it helped, mixing together with Garrett’s litany to form just enough glue to hold me together.

<Because the world’s in trouble, and he just might be able to help us save it.>

I fired off another click, let out a fraction of a breath, the bubbles hissing and crackling as they divided and subdivided, crawling upward, vanishing into nothingness. Turning once again, I began to make my way back toward Garrett, the only other object in my universe.

<And even if he can’t, or if we can’t find him, we’ll just do the next thing, and the next, and the next. We’ll keep on trying until—>

<Garrett,> I said, cutting him off.

<Yeah?>

<How many times have you said all that stuff?>

<This morph?>

<Yeah.>

<One hundred and twelve. Almost. You didn’t let me finish.>

I did the rough calculation in my head. He was pretty regular, running through the entire thing about three times every four minutes. <So we’ve got about forty-five minutes left,> I said.

<My time limit’s a hundred and—>

<A hundred and fifty-seven, right. I remember. But we should go up together, just like last time.>

Garrett didn’t say anything. I’d have bet ten dollars he was trying to figure out whether not being scared meant he was supposed to fight to stay down below while I went up and refreshed my clock. I took advantage of the silence to drift past him, firing off another echolocation click. The image bounced back—there was a school of small fish swirling a few hundred yards in the distance, and absolutely nothing else.

Finally, Garrett spoke. <What happens if we can’t get a squid?> he asked quietly.

<We can keep this up for a while,> I pointed out. <I mean, it took us two and a half days to get here. We might as well try for at least a whole day before we give up.>

<I don’t like this,> Garrett said bluntly. <I know you said we’re not supposed to be scared, but I’m scared. I’m scared and I’m cold and I’m tired and I’m scared and I want to go back to—>

<Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, come on,> I said gently, stopping him before he could spiral out of control. <I’m right here with you, okay? We’re—we’ve got this.>

<You’re scared too,> he shot back. <And you don’t want to be here, either.>

I started to object, felt the words catch in my thoughts, ended up saying nothing.

He trusts you. That doesn’t mean he’s blind.

I had lied to Garrett—real, outright lies—exactly twice in the whole three years we’d known each other. Both times had been for his own good, and they’d still both felt like betrayal. Lying to him wasn’t like lying to anyone else. He didn’t have any defenses against it. He knew his view of the world was broken, knew that his brain came up with the wrong answer half the time, and so he either trusted you or he didn’t—no middle ground.

Which means that if I told him something, he’d just—take it. Take it in, believe it, make it a part of his universe.

I could convince him he was wrong. That I was brave, that I wanted to be there, that the mission felt just as important to me now as it had back when we were both safe on dry land.

But I didn’t want to. Not for what it would cost.

<You’re right,> I said finally. <I’m scared, too. I’ve never been more scared in my life. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to die down here.>

<So why don’t we just leave?>

I clicked again, found him in the darkness, brushed one of his fins with mine. <Because everything we said before is still true,> I said. <Because I do want to stop them. The Yeerks. And this—I think this is how we have to do it.>

<Doesn’t feel like saving the world,> Garrett said. <Feels like—like—like—>

<I know,> I said, my own fear ebbing a little as the arguments began to take hold, as I said the words and forced myself to believe them. <But there’s nobody else, right? I mean literally nobody else. Jake won’t do it, and if there were other Andalites out there, they’d have found him by now. We’re his only hope. And we—we’re the kind of people who don’t back down.>

I paused, waiting.

Come on, buddy.

<We’re the type of people who do the right thing,> Garrett said dully.

<Even if it’s hard,> I said, packing as much confidence as I could into my tone.

<Even if it’s hard.>

<Right now, the right thing is exactly what we’re already doing. There’s two of us—we can handle ourselves as long as we watch each other’s back. And if we want to stop the Yeerks, this is the place to be.>

There was another long pause. <Yeah,> said Garrett. <Maybe.>

I reached out with my fin again, brushed it gently against his, and turned outward once more, facing the darkness.

I couldn’t blame him for being skeptical. I’d almost lost my grip on the connection myself—that saving the world meant beating the Yeerks, which meant gathering intel and allies, which meant rescuing Elfangor’s brother, which meant acquiring a truly deep-water morph, which meant trapping a giant squid, which somehow translated into hanging out in pitch black water a mile beneath the surface of the ocean with a ten-foot gash down my side, waiting for a monster to come along and try to eat me.

There were a lot of steps between A and B. A lot of jumps that the emotional half of my brain didn’t fully buy. It sounded true, but it didn’t feel true.

Or rather, it had felt a lot truer three days ago, when we’d been focused on what could go right instead of what could go wrong.

<Tobias?>

I threw another click and turned back toward Garrett, swimming once more through the trail of my own blood. <Yeah?> I called out.

<Tobias, come back.>

I started to reply, then stopped short, an icicle of fear piercing through my confused, cobbled-together courage.

<I hear it, too,> I said, my thought-speak instinctively dropping to a whisper. <I’m coming.>

It was a kind of whooshing sound, somewhere in the empty blackness beyond my friend—a soft, distant pulse, with just the barest hint of a gurgle behind it. Somewhere underneath the layer of my control, I felt the whale brain awaken, felt it come alive with predatory interest even as the human part of me began to come apart.

Run leave hide go get out get up go up to the light the light the surface get away from it run—

A chorus, an avalanche, a flood of voices as nearly every part of my mind and soul united in sudden, urgent agreement. This wasn’t where I wanted to die. This wasn’t a fight I needed to pick. Every lingering doubt, every unanswered question, all the other possible plans I’d only half-imagined—in that moment, they were all outlined in bold, clear and sharp and undeniable, all pointing in the same direction.

Leave!

Only—

When I tried—

I couldn’t—

It was like something in my mind had turned to stone—some part of me that wasn’t quite able to drive me forward, but was absolutely adamant that I would not go back. I pushed at it, frantic—scrabbled at it, threw myself against it and from the depths of my panic shouted why

Garrett.

He can leave WITH you, asshole! He’s RIGHT THERE!

Only that wasn’t it. Not quite.

<Tobias,> Garrett called out again, fear edging his thought-speak, and in that instant a memory flashed across my mind, a memory made of everything I hated about the world.

We made a promise, I’d said.

I’m just saying. If you’d broken it. If you hadn’t come back. You could’ve—I wouldn’t have blamed you.

Garrett, thinking I had left him behind at Oak Landing, and telling himself it wasn’t betrayal.

It was a tiny thing, really.

Just faith.

Just trust.

Just one sad little orphan kid who had no reason to believe that the universe would ever be fair—that there was any such thing as justice or kindness or honor. A kid who would stay or go depending on what I did, who was looking to me to show him what the world was made of.

If it had just been Elfangor’s brother, I wouldn’t have had the courage. But I had something else to protect—something I had never put my finger on until that exact moment.

<Don’t think,> I said sharply, surging past him in the inky water. <Drop into the whale. Feel it—it isn’t afraid.>

<Tobias, I don’t think I can—>

<Let go, Garrett,> I repeated, and then I took my own advice, wrapping myself in the whale’s supreme confidence.

Okay. Let’s hunt.

I could still feel my own fear, the desire for air and light and safety. But it was different now, smaller and easier to deal with. It was as if it had been drawing its power from my own indecision—from the possibility that I might decide to run—and now that the door had finally shut, it was just a quiet, irrelevant voice.

<Hang back,> I said. <Stay right here, don’t move. If it figures out that there are two of us, it might run, and I don’t know if we’re fast enough to catch it.>

<But—>

<I’ll be fine. Wait until it’s too late—until we’re tangled up—and then you’ll be the cavalry. Okay?>

<What if you go out of range?>

<You can still hear me. Swim slow—quiet.>

The sound of the squid was noticeably clearer already, somewhat higher in the water than we were and heading almost straight across the “horizon,” from left to right. Putting on a burst of speed, I pulled ahead and turned parallel to its course, leading it by what my whale brain told me was something like a mile.

<What are you doing?> Garrett asked. The fear had disappeared from his voice once again, and somewhere in my soul I pumped a victorious fist into the air.

<It’s too far away. I need to cross in front of it, give it a chance to smell the blood.>

Flexing against the cold, I tried to pull the long, thin gash on my flank open wider, encouraging more blood to spill into the water. I slowed my pace, letting both fins move in a sluggish, erratic pattern.

Come on. Easy prey. Come and get it.

A long minute passed. I slowed down a little more, trying to make plenty of noise in the water. Behind me, I heard a change in the pulsing pattern as the squid paused, then picked up speed. I fired off a click—still too distant to “see” anything—and thrashed a little, hoping to seal the deal.

<It’s heading right for you,> Garrett said quietly. <It just zipped past me. Didn’t even slow down.>

<Good,> I said. <Stay back a little longer.>

<It’s big, Tobias.>

I felt another little spike of fear, felt it disappear in the wash of the whale’s frustration. The whale wanted to move—to turn and hunt, not to feign weakness.

But I was firmly in control, and I slowed my body’s pace even further, letting my tail drag listlessly in the water. <How big?> I asked.

<I couldn’t see it. Big.>

Turn and face it? Or pretend to run?

The whooshing was much louder now. Stalling in the water, I turned and let out another click, receiving a snapshot in return.

Horror—horror so thick that even the whale’s predatory enthusiasm dimmed.

It was enormous—its main body more than half as long as my own, and its tentacles a writhing mass even larger still. I fired off three more clicks in rapid succession to get a sense of its speed.

Fast.

The whale wanted to reorient, to face the monster head-on, but I resisted the instinct, instead curving back toward Garrett, leading it on, hearing the swish and gurgle as it changed course to match. <Five more seconds,> I said. <It’s coming in pretty—AAARRRGGHHHH!>

<TOBIAS!>

Pain. Pain like hot knives digging into my flesh, pain like being torn in half. With chilling, alien intelligence, the squid had reached out with its two longest tentacles and gone straight for the wound in my side, tearing the gash wider, peeling back layers of already-weakened flesh. I thrashed wildly, trying to get away, and only made it worse, my own motion ripping an entire section of muscle away from my ribs.

<NO!>

I screamed, the air emptying from my lungs as I twisted in the water, dragging the squid along behind me. I managed to close my jaws over two of its tentacles just as two others lanced into my face, one of them pressing down over my eye. It pulled away, taking the eyelid with it, only to be replaced an instant later by two more. Yet another tentacle hammered at my back, its suckers shredding the skin and blubber like a chainsaw.

I could feel myself shutting down already, waves of pain and shock crashing into my brain, fracturing my thoughts. The squid was everywhere—above, below, in my eyes, in my mouth. The water around me was thick and hot with blood, and even as I caught another tentacle in my mouth and bit it off, I could tell it wouldn’t be enough.

I beat feebly at the water with my fins, hoping to strike something breakable. An inner darkness began to descend as oxygen deprivation took its course.

No—wait—you—

<EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE>

Suddenly, the squid spasmed, every tentacle retracting in a defensive reflex.

<EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE>

It was—not thought-speak, exactly. Something deeper, louder, more primal—a wordless mental siren more piercing than the loudest shriek. It smashed into me like a shock wave, erasing every thought, every feeling, every order I might have sent to my failing limbs. I fell limp in the water, felt the squid’s grip loosen.

<EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE>

A vast presence, like an airplane flying too close overhead. Something swept past me in the water, slamming into the squid with the force of a freight train. Two of the tentacles tore away from me, taking slivers of flesh with them. A third remained, tearing away from the squid instead.

<EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEeeeeaauh>

Almost as suddenly as it had begun, the scream tapered and died, replaced by confusion and noise. I could hear thrashing—feel the waves of pressure as the water churned violently around me—track the voice in my head as it shouted nonsense. Time passed in immeasurable surges, seconds indistinguishable from centuries.

<Tobias! Up, now!>

I didn’t move, didn’t reply. I’d forgotten how to reply—forgotten that movement was a thing I was capable of doing.

Something slammed into me from below, driving me upward. <Tobias!> the voice screamed again. <I can’t do this by myself!>

I could feel the movement of water against my face, the sensation of swimming. Somewhere deep inside the whale, instinct stirred, begging to be unleashed, to take control, to do something

But I didn’t know how to let go.

<TOBIAS!>

Around me, the cold began to recede, replaced by a pleasant warmth. My one working eye began to register color—first the darkest midnight blue, then navy, and then, with shocking speed, the royal blue of twilight.

I could see.

Me.

I.

With a convulsive effort, I dragged myself awake, pushed back against my confusion. <Garrett?> I called out.

<Tobias! Swim! Now, up, demorph!>

His tone was sharp and commanding like I’d never heard it, and I responded without question, marshaling my ruined body. What didn’t hurt was terrifyingly numb, and I could barely manage a rhythm with my tail as my empty lungs screamed in protest, but I did what I could. As I took control, I felt the pressure beneath my belly vanish, Garrett slipping out from under me to continue his own arduous climb.

Two thousand feet—one thousand—five hundred—closer and closer, fighting against blackout the whole way, and finally we broke the surface, my whale body literally coming to pieces as I sucked in a huge, gasping breath.

<Demorph!>

Again, I didn’t ask questions, just focused as hard as I could. I was halfway through the change before enough of my own nerves had returned to give me a reliable sense of my own body. Just in time, too—the waves were still over ten feet high, and as most of my mass vanished back into whatever dimension it had come from, I found myself desperately treading water.

“Garrett?” I called out, trying to keep my head above the surface.

<Here,> came the exhausted reply, though without any sense of direction attached.

I turned in a circle, craning my neck as a swell carried me up and then back down again. “Where?” I shouted.

There was a pop-hiss, and a geyser spout appeared a few dozen yards to my right. Holding my breath, I ducked below the surface and opened my eyes.

The water around me was pink with blood and bits of gore, most of it freefloating but some of it leaking from the hundreds of welts and sucker wounds on the sperm whale floating quietly beside me. Two of the squid’s tentacles were still wrapped around the whale’s body, emerging from the shattered blob of jelly cradled gently in its mouth.

<Acquire it,> Garrett said, his tone flat.

He swam toward me, breaking the surface, and I climbed up onto his back, reaching out to place my palm on one of the columns of flesh. Closing my eyes, I focused, feeling the transfer as the squid’s DNA became a part of me.

<Keep it in the trance as long as you can.>

Beneath me, the flesh of the whale began to shift and melt, the suckers tearing away as Garrett shrank out from under them. Taking in another breath, I wrapped my arms around the limp tentacle, maintaining my focus to keep the monster from waking back up. A minute or so later, and Garrett was treading water beside me, his own hand small and pale as it pressed up against the mottled pink flesh next to mine.

“Want to go bird for a while?” I asked. “Catch our breath?”

“No,” he said curtly. “Keep acquiring it.”

“What—”

“Just keep it from waking up.”

As I watched, Garrett began to swell again, the now-familiar pattern of the sperm whale’s skin emerging like a rash. He leaned away from me, filling his lungs and disappearing below the waves.

<Move,> he commanded, sixty seconds later.

I moved.

Beside me, the squid began to stir, its last two tentacles waving feebly in the swells. For a single, nerve-wracking moment, I thought it might still have enough energy to lash out, and then a mountain emerged from the water, Garrett’s mouth gaping open large enough to swallow a car.

It took maybe two minutes for him to eat what was left of the squid, two minutes in which neither of us said a word. When he was finished, he dove down under the surface again, rising up beneath me like a living island.

<Now you can go bird,> he said.

“What about—”

<No flying.>

*        *        *

 

Darkness?

What darkness?

All around us was a world of light, traced out in impossibly faint swirls and streaks, the currents themselves glowing like something out of Pocahontas or Fern Gully. Near the bottom, I could see the blues and purples of deep-sea fish, the Christmas-light lures of predators, but even in the upper darkness, the water glowed with life.

<Pretty,> Garrett had said, and then he’d fallen silent, tracing patterns in the black with his tentacles, his enormous eyes following the motes of light as they flared and vanished.

It wasn’t just pretty. Everything that moved—every living thing that plied the depths—they all left trails and patterns behind them. There must have been something in the water, some microscopic algae or bacteria that glowed briefly when disturbed. It was incredibly subtle, dimmer than the dimmest star—but the squid’s eyes could see it.

More than once, we’d spotted a sperm whale or another squid in the distance by the glow they created as they churned through the water. It was an unbelievable adaptation, and a totally unexpected bonus as we drifted across the seafloor, avoiding anything and everything that looked like trouble.

It also helped with the search. There were islands of light, warm pockets near hydrothermal vents where everything sparkled and glowed, but in between was utter black, layered over a mishmash of mud, rock, and alien vegetation. By stirring the water with our fins, we could get a sort of contour map even in the deepest, darkest places.

By my guess, we were about two and a half miles down. After our first dive as squids, I’d done some rough sketches on Garrett’s back, using the Andalite tail to carve shallow, painless scratches in the sperm whale’s thick skin. At two and a half miles, I figured we could be at most a quarter of a mile off while still thinking we were right above the beacon—any more than that, and we would be able to tell that the angle of the signal wasn’t quite up-and-down.

But that still left a pretty wide patch of ocean floor to cover. A quarter mile radius meant half a mile across, which meant something like fifty or sixty city blocks. Not to mention that we knew a straight dive wasn’t actually taking us straight down—we were trying to adjust for the current, but there was no way to tell, underwater, whether we’d gone too far or not enough.

And so we were on our sixth trip down to the seafloor—our ninth dive, in total. Almost eighteen hours underwater, with basically nothing but five-minute breaks in between.

<Hold still. I think I hear something.>

Instantly, I ceased my regular pulsing, let the squid body’s tentacles drift loose. <On the floor?> I asked, coming smoothly to a halt. <Or in the water?>

<In the water.> Above me, Garrett shot upwards, the faintest of neon trails marking his movements. Leveling off, he began turning in a tight circle, scanning the darkness.

<It’s a whale,> he said, after a long moment. <Up above, near the pressure limit. We should be fine.>

I waited, motionless, as he drifted back down. <You sure?> I asked. <We could head in the other direction.>

<No, it’s fine,> he said. <Let’s keep looking.>

We fanned out again, crawling our way along the seafloor, occasionally poking or prodding at something with our tentacles. Once in a while, some strange creature would burst forth, but always to flee, never to attack. Down here, we were at the absolute top of the food chain, the deep-sea version of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

That hadn’t stopped Garrett, of course. For the first few hours after the attack—minus the ten minutes when we’d first encountered the lights—he’d been completely unreasonable. Hypervigilant and overprotective, he’d insisted that we avoid every possible danger, twice forcing us back up to the surface after only a couple of minutes.

I hadn’t fought back particularly hard. The incident with the squid had been almost too quick to be traumatizing—not even two minutes had passed before Garrett intervened, and the combination of shock and demorphing had erased pretty much all of the damage, both psychic and physical.

But that didn’t change the fact that I’d been completely confident right up until the moment everything had fallen apart, or the fact that Garrett had quite literally saved my life. His nervous fear was probably just as much of an overreaction as my arrogance had been, but it was the sort of overreaction that was unlikely to get either one of us killed.

Once he’d seen that I was on board—that I was really listening, not just humoring him, and that I wasn’t going to take any stupid risks—he’d relaxed a little, and the search process had sped up.

Which was a good thing, because as far as I could tell, we might have been searching the same tiny patch over and over again.

<You’re sure this is a different place?> I asked as we drifted over a vent oasis packed with tube worms and lit by the glow of lantern fish.

<Yes.>

I watched as he waved his tentacles over a flat patch of mud, stirring up motes and revealing the harder floor beneath. <Any idea how much ground we’ve covered?> I asked tentatively.

<I dunno,> he said. <Maybe…fifteen Oak Landings? Including the playground?>

So, something like thirty blocks. Half of the search zone, assuming we were in the right place to begin with.

<How do you keep track like that?> I asked. <I mean, is it—automatic? Like the numbers thing?>

<Sort of.> He floated up and over a ridge and back out into the deep, and I followed, turning slightly to cover an adjacent swath of ground. <It’s like—I dunno. It’s like drawing on paper? In pen? Like I’m making a map. And when I go to put something on the map, if it’s already there, if it looks exactly like something I’ve already drawn, then obviously we’ve been there before.>

<Yeah, but how can you tell?> I said, unable to keep the envy out of my voice. <It’s all pretty much the same.>

<You have to look at the parts that matter,> he said simply. <Not the plants or the mud. The rocks, the vents, the hills.>

<But they’re all the same.>

<Not to me.>

I was quiet for a long moment. At first, we’d talked almost constantly, but at some point over the past eighteen hours we’d gotten used to long pauses between thoughts.

<Can you tell where there are holes?> I asked finally. <Like, do you know where we still have to check?>

<Some of it. Some parts of the map haven’t connected yet. But right now we’re kind of cutting across this big hole in the middle. Once we get to the part we’ve already seen before, we’ll want to go—>

He hesitated. <Left, I think. Unless we’re drifting.>

We fell silent again and continued onward, pulsing our way through the psychedelic darkness. Two more times, Garrett called a halt to check on a sound, once changing course in response. Inch by inch, we carved up the territory, looking for anything out of the ordinary.

<Tobias?> Garrett asked, as we passed out of yet another vent.

<Yeah?>

<What happens if we beat the Yeerks?>

<What do you mean?>

<If we win. Starve them out of everybody’s heads and blow up the pool and all that. Say we even take out whatever mothership is up in orbit. What then?>

I swept my tentacles left and right in the darkness, lighting up a field of rough, volcanic boulders. <I guess—>

I broke off. I guess we just go back to our regular lives, I’d started to say.

Only that didn’t make any sense. There were aliens. Aliens with ray guns and telepathic technology, aliens with faster-than-light travel. Morphing technology alone was the kind of thing that would radically change the world, forever, and that wasn’t even counting all the other advancements we could probably get out of studying it.

<I guess we can’t really know until we get there,> I said.

Beside me, Garrett stopped, his squid body falling unnaturally still in the water. <But that’s stupid,> he said, a hint of anger creeping into his voice. <We have to make plans, right?>

<I don’t think we can,> I pointed out. <I mean, so many things are going to be different that all of our regular guesses are going to be way off, you know? Like how people thought we’d have flying cars, but that phones would still have wires attached to them and stuff.>

<But that’s not going to matter!> Garrett shouted, the anger suddenly fanning into flame. <How are we going to stop the rest of them?>

<What?> I asked, wrong-footed.

<The rest of them! On their homeworld, and out there in the galaxy! How does killing one bunch of them here make any difference at all? Won’t they just come back?>

*        *        *

 

<Is that it?> Garrett asked quietly.

<It has to be,> I said.

Reaching out, I brushed away the thin layer of silt that had settled across the smooth, curved surface. I could sense a constant vibration through my tentacle, a technologic hum like fluorescent lights. A cold, steely smell flooded the squid’s nostrils, with a touch of ozone like an old electric train set.

 

<It’s definitely alive,> I reported. <Or—on. Powered. Whatever.>

We did it. Twenty fucking hours under the sea, and we found it. I tried to rein in my excitement, to remind myself that we were—at best—halfway there, but it didn’t work.

I was touching an alien spaceship. Sometimes, you’ve just got to let yourself freak out.

<There’s no light,> Garrett pointed out.

<Maybe because it’s an escape pod?> I reached out with all of my tentacles, wrapping my suckers around the edges as I gently lifted it up and off of the seafloor.

<Aren’t escape pods supposed to be super findable?> Garrett asked.

<Not when they’re in hostile territory.>

I moved the pod away from the underwater embankment where it had been half-buried. It was heavy, but fairly easy to move, its overall shape streamlined and clean, sharply tapered at one end like an almond or an egg. It couldn’t have been more than three or four feet wide, and less than ten feet long—about the size of a really big couch, or a really small car.

<Can you lift it? Like, up to the surface?>

I swam upward experimentally, hauling the pod behind me. <Not quite,> I said. <I think the two of us can get it together, though. And once we get it up high enough, we can use the whale again.>

<And then?>

I let go of the pod, watched the gentle tracings of bioluminescence as it settled back into the muck at the bottom of the ocean.

<Then we find ourselves a desert island.>

*        *        *

 

“Okay, let’s go over it one more time.”

“He doesn’t know his brother’s dead. That’s going to be the first big shock. And from what Elfangor told us, giving technology to aliens is a no-no, so he’s not going to be happy about that, either. And it seems like the distress beacon was maybe tuned to Elfangor and only Elfangor, so he might just think we’re holding Elfangor captive, or he might think we’re Yeerks.”

I turned to look at the pod, lying in the sand at the edge of the water, the foam washing up and past it with each crashing wave. The sun was setting, but there was still enough light to see that the pod was the deepest, flattest black—as black as the water we’d pulled it from, absorbing every last photon. It seemed to be all one piece, with three exceptions—two small holes near the wider end, which we thought might be thrusters, and one white patch in the center with seven exactly equal sides.

It didn’t exactly say push me, but it was pretty close.

“And if things go south?”

“I find Jake at 209 Aspen Avenue, or Marco at the house we visited before we left, and I tell them everything. If I can’t find them, I go to Canada, or I fight by myself.”

“You go to C—”

Or I fight by myself. If you’re dead, you don’t get to tell me what to do.”

I didn’t push it. Garrett was already angry that I’d put my foot down about being the one to open the pod, and that I’d ordered him to stay safely out of the way in a small, durable morph.

But it was the right move. You didn’t commit all of your forces to a single risky move unless you had to, and in this case, we didn’t have to. We had no idea how Elfangor’s brother was going to react, and there was no point in us both dying if first contact went badly, as it very well might. His brother had tried to glass the planet, after all.

Garrett had tried to pull some bullshit about being more expendable, but I’d shut him down hard. We were both equally valuable, and I’d actually talked to Elfangor. I’d been the last one to leave him, at the end. Of the two of us, I was obviously the right choice for what was bound to be a tense conversation.

Besides, he’d already saved my life once this trip. The least he could do was let me return the favor.

I took a deep breath, held it, let it halfway out. “Fine,” I said. “You report back to the others, and then you do whatever the hell you want. Just as long as you make it off this island alive.” I fixed him with a steady look, arranging my face into a serious expression even though I knew it would make no difference. “That’s a rule.”

“It’s a rule,” Garrett agreed, each word sounding like a curse.

“Then let’s do this.”

There was no hesitation, this time—no half-hearted mantras, no complicated chains of reasoning. Whatever fears and doubts Garrett might have, he wasn’t giving in to them. And my own priorities were clear—had remained clear since falling into place in the moments before the attack.

Garrett’s faith in humanity wasn’t worth dying for. Not when the rest of the world was at stake. But if I had to die either way, I was sure as hell going to try and pay for it on my way out.

Beside me, I heard the usual squelching as Garrett’s organs began to shift and change. Turning, I focused on the pod, and on the alien who’d put me on the path to finding it.

Let him be alive, I whispered, to no one in particular. For Elfangor’s sake. Let him have this one thing.

I fell forward onto my hands, blue fur spreading in waves across my skin, two legs and a tail emerging from the base of my spine.

<You ready?> I asked Garrett, a minute and a half later.

<Yeah,> he answered. I watched with my stalk eyes as he scuttled off to one side, burying himself halfway under the sand. <All set.>

<ELFANGOR. BROTHER. HELP ME.>

Gathering my resolve, I stepped forward, raising my Andalite hand and spreading my seven fingers.

<Tobias,> Garrett said, just before my palm made contact.

I waited.

<I just—>

Waited.

<Well. Thanks.>

<Oh, shut up,> I shot back, feigning nonchalance. <It’s going to be fine.>

<ELFANGOR. BROTHER. HELP—>

Leaning forward, I covered the final inch, my hand seeming to sink into the hard white surface. I felt a tingle, sensed movement beneath my fingers, and pulled my hand away as the patch turned black and disappeared.

Nothing else happened.

<Tobias, what—>

<Shhh. Wait.>

Seconds ticked by, stretching out into a minute, then two.

<Is the signal still—>

<No, it stopped.>

Slowly, carefully, I reached out again, placing my hand in the spot where the patch had previously been.

Still nothing.

<Hello?> I called out, cautiously.

There was no answer.

<Do you think it’s—>

Without vibration, without sound, without any kind of warning at all, the black pod suddenly leapt into the air, scattering sand and water as it rocketed skyward. I staggered backward, craning upward with all four eyes, watching as it shrank to the size of a quarter, of a pebble, of a speck. In seconds, it was gone, lost in the fading twilight.

For a long moment, I stood motionless—stunned. With all of the contingency plans we’d thought of, all of the ways things might go wrong, neither one of us had even considered that.

Beside me, the sand shifted, Garrett’s body slowly rising as he emerged from morph. <Well, what are we supposed to do now?> he asked.

I had absolutely no idea.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12: Aximili

[A FOUR-WINGED INSECT, BEAUTIFUL AND DELICATE, CAREFULLY CRADLED IN SEVEN-FINGERED HANDS…

 

<You will need to be exceptionally cautious, Aximili.>

I came awake in an instant, the echo of my brother’s voice still fresh in the dain. Information flooded my thoughts as the suspension field withdrew from my body—a full cycle’s worth of recordings, compressed and prioritized.

(Why, Elfangor? I could have helped.)

I looked through the eyes of the cradle, into the past. I saw the stars whirling beyond the dome as it spiraled down into the atmosphere, saw the grass shrivel and die as the air itself caught fire. The red-white light of Yeerk Dracon beams seared across the field, carving away massive chunks of my home.

(Was it a feint all along? Is that why the shredders would not fire?)

((But why wouldn’t you have told me?))

I saw, in a flash, the nature of the decoy—the bright explosion, the scattered debris. Saw the bank of cradles, all seven of them still in their places, and my own, black and cloaked, emerging from a hidden compartment, hurtling perpendicular to the path of the falling dome and entering the water well over the horizon.

(The Yeerks would have collected the wreckage, of course.)

I saw the beings who had pulled me from the water—

(How had they found me?)

—saw their forms change—

(The monopoly on morphing has been lost!?)

((The cradle could be deceived. The charade could be achieved with holograms, for some other purpose.))

—from angular, many-limbed aquatic darts to soft, pale climbers, ill-adapted for the water—

(Their true form?)

—to an enormous, rock-like swimmer, and back once more to the climbers—

(Their true form. The timing is consistent with the mass synchronization collapse limit.)

((The image they want you to see as their true form. It may still be a hoax.))

—and then—

—impossibly—

—into the shape of my brother, Elfangor-Sirinial-Shamtul.

No.

No.

It is a lie. A deception. It cannot be.

(But the cradle responded.)

((But they followed the signal.))

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I felt it awaken—the thunder-crack, the thought-that-is-not-to-be-denied. It moved forward, relentless even as I fought it—as I pretended stone, turned my stalks to the earth.

Elfangor is dead.

I didn’t know it—not with the brightness of the sun. He could have been captured. He could have been incapacitated. The two strange aliens could have been his agents, his confederates.

But it was the most likely explanation. A full cycle beneath the water—I would not have lain alone so long had he been turned, or had he been capable of maneuver. And these aliens were not equipped, were carrying none of the weapons or tools which my brother surely would have provided them.

(They carry the morphing power.)

((How long would the cradle have held me, if they had not appeared?))

Elfangor is dead, and his burden falls to me.

Releasing the recording, I opened the cradle’s eyes, looked out at my brother’s stolen face.

<You see the problem, don’t you, Aximili?>

Elfangor’s voice, speaking from the dain. I listened as I danced my mind across the controls. Fuel levels—good. Stealth capabilities—intact. Navigation—online, and rapidly mapping.

<They will come for you.>

External weapons—none.

<They will come for you, and you will have to face them alone.>

Zero-space communications—none.

<There is no way to be sure. No sign that cannot be forged, no secret code that cannot be mimicked.>

I ran down the list of my emergency supplies. Food—enough for three cycles. One compact scanner, fully charged. Three Shredders, all claiming to be in working order, though after the disastrous battle I had my doubts.

<There is no proof which you could trust, that you speak to me, and not to one of them. And there is no proof which you could offer me, either.>

A single command, and I could be in orbit. The cradle was well-made; it was almost certain that it could evade the Yeerks’ notice.

<You cannot rely on the eib. You cannot even rely on the dain. For seven full sunrises, Alloran walked among us, already lost.>

A different command, and it would take me to the epicenter. To the structure Elfangor had identified, the lair of the Yeerk coalescion.

<And do not lower your guard, simply because you see me laying waste to the enemy, or because you have waited for a cycle’s passing. The enemy is not stupid. They understand holograms, and they would gladly sacrifice an ocean of their brood for a seventh of a seventh of a chance at capturing another Andalite.>

In front of me, the alien leaned forward as if trying to peer through the cradle’s plating, confusion plainly visible in the movement of its stalks, the angle of its tail. I felt the touch of its mind brush across the eib, heard the whisper of a greeting.

<They will know that you know this. They will remember this very conversation. They will twist my words against you, undermine your reason, play upon your emotions. They will do everything in their power to confuse and ensnare you. They are like the Ellimist, Aximili—everywhere and nowhere at once.>

I could kill the alien, weapons or no weapons—could use the cradle’s own weight to stun it, crush it, tear open its false form. It was standing there, stupid and defenseless, wearing my brother’s face, an abomination—

(Just as it would if it were innocent.)

((Just as it would if it wanted me to think it were innocent.))

<You will have to be strong. But more than that, you will have to be clever. You will have to be unpredictable, even to me. Even to Alloran. You will have to leave the Path, become like the wind in thought and deed, or you will find them waiting for you wherever you strike.>

Fighting back against my despair, I turned away from the dain, closed my mind to the eib and sank deep into the endless quiet of the hirac. With an effort, I could manage four lines of thought at once—one bright, one glow, one shade, and one dark.

Elfangor

(is dead.)

((is taken.))

(((lives, but is constrained.)))

((((lives and is free, but has left me to my own devices for reasons I do not know.))))

Then these aliens—

(are agents of the Yeerks, or allies Elfangor made before he died, or thieves who plundered his ship.)

((are Yeerks.))

(((are his allies, and he has sent them to rescue me, but he has given them no passwords because he knows I cannot trust them anyway.)))

((((are Yeerks, or some third faction that has stolen the morphing power.))))

Which means—

(I can do nothing until I know more.)

((I must kill them—except that they expect me to do so, which means it will not hinder their goals, and may somehow further them.))

(((I must avoid them—which Elfangor knows—but that they may be useful in the future.)))

((((they must die.))))

I felt the darkest line end, felt the shadow and glow dissolve into uncertainty as the bright turned once more to the image of my brother’s face outside the cradle.

What would you do, brother?

The question was tinged with the deepest sadness. Always before, there had been an answer, and that answer had been my guiding light. Always before, Elfangor’s path had been my path.

But no longer. Not until I knew for sure that the Yeerks were not hunting along that same trail.

Outside, the alien stretched forward its stolen hand, pressed seven fingers against the side of the cradle.

Friend, or foe?

I didn’t know.

Rising from the hirac, I reached out to the cradle, gave it my instructions.

I’m sorry, brother.

On a sudden impulse, I dialed down the shielding on the cradle’s core, sending a wash of radiation outward, bathing the two aliens in a particle glow. The half-life of the exhaust was short, and most of the radiation would disappear in the morphing process. But some would remain, some fraction of a fraction of a fraction—enough, I hoped, to be detectable even after multiple cycles, multiple transformations. If these aliens were my allies—

Elfangor’s allies—

I would want to be able to find them again.

I took one final look at the alien—at the face of my brother, which I might never see again.

And then I rose into the sky.

*        *        *

 

One pool ship, lurking behind the planet’s satellite—an unfamiliar design, but certainly too small to hold more than two coalescions and a few thousand Controllers.

Four Bug fighters, superficially cloaked and holding in a tetrahedron around the planet—one of Alloran’s favorite siege formations. Four more fighters hovering by the pool ship. Presumably four more down on the surface. I wasn’t sure where the thirteenth might be—I had scanned space for an orbit’s width in every direction and was reasonably confident there were no other ships nearby.

There were signs of infestation sprinkled across the globe—a scattering of strange electromagnetic signals and traces of rare metals—but only the one large cluster, centered on a tightly organized group of structures near the coast of one of the larger land masses.

I had no trouble locating the pool. It was underground, inside one of the alien buildings, defended by an absorption field.

A full absorption field—not a plate, or a wedge, or even a dome, but a complete, flawless sphere, extending as far underground as it did above. There had been rumors that the Yeerks might have salvaged a sphere from the wreckage of the thirteenth fleet, but the rumors had never been confirmed. Certainly there had been no sign of it during the war for the Hork-Bajir, nor in the ongoing struggle for Leera—

(Perhaps it was damaged, and has only now been repaired.)

—nor in any of the skirmishes that had taken place around Gara, or Desbadeen, or the Yeerk homeworld.

It was by far the most powerful weapon in the Yeerk arsenal, for all that it was purely defensive. The entire first fleet could rain fire down upon it for seven cycles, and not cause so much as a warm breeze inside. The Yeerks couldn’t possibly have stolen more than one, and it would be seven revolutions or more before they had the infrastructure to build their own—that they had chosen to deploy it here, of all places, was confirmation of everything Elfangor had feared.

This planet—this tiny, undeveloped, backwater world—was Visser Three’s true target.

(But then where is the rest of the Yeerk fleet? Where are the massive arks, the swarming Bug fighters, the endless waves of Naharan drones?)

((Perhaps this will convince the war council, where Elfangor’s arguments could not.))

I settled in to observe, time growing like grass as I hovered invisibly to one side of the massive sphere. The Yeerk holograms were cheap and flimsy, and the cradle had no trouble penetrating them. Through the building’s transparent panels, I had an excellent view of the shape of the interior—the cavernous pool, the barracks of Hork-Bajir Controllers, the beginnings of a Naharan weapons manufactory. I watched as various Controllers passed through the field, noted the system of locks and compartments—

(It will not be possible to gas them, then.)

((No Gleet bio-filters. Important enough for their only absorption field, but not important enough for basic anti-morph security?))

—began collecting data on the duties and rotations of the sentries inside. Understanding the patterns would be crucial, if I was to infiltrate without drawing attention. I had Hork-Bajir, Taxxon, and Naharan morphs, and would have no trouble acquiring—

(What had Elfangor called them?)

—no trouble acquiring a human.

I felt a tightness in my muscles, the beginnings of an ache at the base of my tail, and I triggered the cradle’s nutrient-search protocol. I would need to feed soon, or begin using up the three cycles’ worth of emergency supplies. I wasn’t looking forward to consuming the dry, insubstantial grass I had seen in my pass over the wilderness—hopefully the cradle could detect a richer source of energy nearby.

A soft chime sounded in the eib, and my stalks were drawn to the fuel gauge. My journey out to the satellite had been expensive, as had been my long, atmospheric approach as I quick-scanned the other continents. The cradle wasn’t meant for sustained flight—if I wanted to maintain the option of returning to space, I had only a seventh of a cycle of fuel remaining before I would need to land and power down.

Time to make a decision, Aximili.

I had several obvious options. I could begin preparing for guerilla warfare in the center of the infestation—acquire local morphs, gather intelligence, stay close to the pool and wait for my chance. I could investigate one of the further signs of infestation, building up knowledge and experience away from the enemy’s main strength. I could search for the necessary components to build a long-range communicator, and attempt to make contact with the war council. I could seek information about the aliens’ social structure, and try to either recruit their leaders or expose the invasion to the larger population.

But if these options were obvious to me, they would be obvious to Elfangor, and to Alloran. The Yeerks would have plans in place—contingencies, countermeasures. It needn’t even be a trap—simple competence on their part, and I could wind up captured or dead.

Further.

I could return to the aliens in the ocean, the ones with the morphing power. Track their movements, scan their surroundings, perhaps rig together some kind of holographic disruptor from the components of the cradle. For that matter, I could look for signs of morphing power here, in the Yeerk stronghold—if they had access to the Iscafil device, it was extremely unlikely that they would hold back on using it.

I could try to draw the Yeerks to me—expose myself, but not in a way that would catch the attention of the entire planet. Lay a trap, catch a few Controllers, and start getting a sense of the state of the invasion’s security procedures.

Not far enough.

I reached into the dain, into the place where Elfangor’s voice lived alongside my own. <Help me,> I whispered.

<I cannot help you, Aximili. I cannot help you see what-I-cannot-see.>

<But you can see the shape of the problem. What would you do?>

<Have you not already realized?>

I hesitated. The dain was never quite real—it was a shadow, an echo, a reflection. But it was also Elfangor—it was a part of my mind that was not truly my own. It could know things that I did not, make connections I wasn’t capable of making.

What would my brother do?

In the structure below, an alien bent over the water, as so many had done before. Two Hork-Bajir warriors stood on either side, their clawed talons gripping its arms as the Yeerk slid from its ear, as it began to struggle and scream. It fought—uselessly—and was thrown into a cage alongside the rest of its kind.

Know victory, Alloran had taught. Know victory in every form and every shape—know its every property. If you cannot recognize it when you see it—cannot tell it apart from defeat—then you will never know which of the available paths is the true Path.

Victory was a galaxy in which the Andalites were free of the threat of Yeerk domination. Any future with that property was sufficient.

<I see,> I whispered sadly. <That is why you wouldn’t let me be your stalks-and-tail.>

<I did not want that weight on your back, Aximili. It was not your stone to cast. Not yet.>

<But it did not work.>

<Apparently not.>

I thought for a moment. If Elfangor had meant to scour the surface, wipe out all of the aliens—

<Would you have given them weapons?> I asked. <Having already failed—would you have armed them? Warned them?>

<I do not know, brother. I think perhaps I might have—but then, I am only dain. What Elfangor knew, that I do not, I can only guess.>

I looked out through the eyes of the cradle, at the cage full of aliens. I didn’t know their body language, what the expressions of their faces meant. But I could see the violence with which they pulled at the bars that imprisoned them, the desperate effort with which they fought the Hork-Bajir who came to drag them out.

I could kill them all, perhaps. Find some process by which to empty the planet of life—a virus, or a chemical reaction, or an unconstrained self-replicator. Finish the task my brother had set out to complete.

Or I could try to help them help themselves, could give them knowledge and power, at the risk of making them even more dangerous in the event of failure.

Further.

What else was there? I was no Ellimist.

A sudden movement in the structure below caught my attention—an interior panel flying across the open space as a pair of aliens burst through, a dense, muscular biped of a type I did not recognize carrying one of the pale climbers on its back.

In an instant, the entire chamber erupted in chaos. The biped collided with one of the climber guards, emerging with a handheld Dracon beam clutched in its fist as the Hork-Bajir began to converge on its position. A moment later, it wrapped its thick fingers around the bars to one of the cages and pulled, tearing the door off its hinges and hurling the twisted metal across the room.

Flashes of Dracon fire began to light up the room, one of them striking the alien a glancing blow. It didn’t slow down—just barreled across the room, vanishing from my line of sight for a moment before reappearing through one of the exterior doors.

Moving at top speed, the alien tore across the flat, black surface, passing through the one-way absorption field without resistance, still carrying both the climber and the weapon as it headed for the foliage. I was about to turn the cradle to follow it when I caught sight of a third alien, this one a brightly striped quadruped lounging in one of the taller plants near the structure. It dropped down to the ground just as two Controllers emerged from inside, following the first alien.

They didn’t follow it very far.

I hovered, indecisive, as the climbers in the pool chamber poured out of the broken cage and began to do battle with the guards, as the quadruped slaughtered five more Controllers outside the structure and then turned and disappeared into the undergrowth.

Behind me, the first pair of aliens dropped off the screen, having gone too far for the cradle’s sensors to distinguish them from the background heat and chaos. I ordered the cradle’s mind to track the quadruped, and the mass of climber Controllers that were now streaming out of the structure unimpeded, communicating with resonant pulses of air as they fanned out to search the area.

Is this a trap? I wondered. An illusion, designed to draw me out, trick me into revealing myself?

But I was no longer looking at a passive recording of the type a hologram might fool. The cradle’s sophisticated sensors were running at full strength, and there seemed to be no doubt—the scene unfolding before me was real.

It could still be a ploy, I cautioned myself. A performance, for your benefit.

(To what end, though? If the Yeerks already have enough morph-capable hosts to put on a show like this—)

((Had they solved the neurocomplexity problem with lower animals?))

Still, caution was appropriate. Continuing to observe, I readied the cradle for a swift and automatic exit skyward, keying it to take over at a single, short command. Inside the structure, the chaos was already dying down, the Hork-Bajir forcing the escaped humans back into the other cages one by one. Outside, the climber Controllers were organizing themselves into a somewhat coherent pattern while the quadruped looped back around.

I recognized the tactic—simple enough to be almost laughable, but no less fundamental, for that. Never be the hunted, Alloran had written. Always be the hunter.

(Had I overlooked a possibility? Could these be Andalites somehow?)

Quietly, carefully, I brought the cradle closer to the ground, hoping to get a better angle for seeing between the densely packed trees. The first wave of Controllers had arranged themselves in a wide, semicircular arc, and a second wave was now passing through them, expanding the perimeter. I noted that, while they’d used Dracon fire inside, none of the aliens outside was carrying anything more sophisticated than directional explosives.

A quiet alert in the eib drew my attention back to the quadruped, which had hunkered down in the middle of a thick tangle of plant life and was now transforming into one of the pale climbers.

(Task: confirm only one sapient species on the planet. Are they all climbers, or do some of them have a different true form?)

Drifting still lower, I maneuvered cautiously through the trees until I was directly above the thicket, then once again lowered the containment shielding on the cradle’s core. The wash of radioactive exhaust blanketed the area below, and I noted with satisfaction that the alien below had finished demorphing—this trace would last much longer than the one I had put on the other aliens, whose construct bodies would have been refactored back into zero-space when they demorphed.

I was debating whether or not to chase after the first pair of aliens—to tag them, too—when the cradle sounded another quiet alert. Glancing at the screens, I immediately understood what had caught the computer’s attention.

One of the climber Controllers in the outermost ring of searchers had broken formation—it was nearing the edge of sensor range and moving fast, about to drop off the screen. There was no sign that it had sent any messages, or that any of the other Controllers had noticed—the rest of them were still moving forward in their slow, meticulous pattern.

Intrigued, I took the cradle up above the canopy and began to follow. A moment later, the alien emerged from the forest, its skin slick and shining in the moonlight, its torso heaving as it breathed. I watched as it paused next to a grate in the ground, digging through the folds of its fabric covering. It pulled three items out of various pockets—a stunner, a communicator, and a cylinder I didn’t recognize—and dropped them into the darkness, then slid a ring from one of its fingers and discarded that too before resuming its sprint away from the Yeerk complex.

An escapee?

I continued to trail after the alien from a distance, keeping my stalk eyes on its progress as I turned my main eyes back to the cradle’s interface. Pulling up the sensor recordings, I began playing them in reverse at triple speed, watching as the alien backpedaled through the foliage, across the black, and back into the building. It had spoken briefly with one of the Controllers that seemed to be in a position of authority; before that, it had taken a weapon from a rack guarded by Hork-Bajir; before that, it had helped to drag several other climbers back into the cages; before that, it had wrestled with a large climber on the edge of the pool—

Wait.

I began playing the recording forward, more slowly this time.

The two aliens were both running, both apparently using the orifices on their faces to produce sounds that the cradle hadn’t been able to pick up. They had collided—struggled briefly—

And then the one I was observing had killed the other, with a sharp, violent twist of its neck.

I reversed the recording again, watching as the other alien returned to life, as the pair of them separated. Before the struggle, the one who had died had been running around the edge of the pool, coming from the far side of the chamber—

And the one I was observing had emerged from the cage.

I began playing the recording forward again, at doublespeed. There was the struggle—the lethal movement—the gentle splash as the victor rolled his opponent’s body over the edge and into the pool, then stood up—

Traitor.

Without any sign, without a moment’s hesitation, the alien had turned on its fellows—the others who had emerged from the cage with it. It had helped to point them out, to hunt them down—had rallied the other guards and dragged no fewer than four of its fellow slaves back into captivity with its own two hands. Then it had walked calmly over to the Hork-Bajir, requested a weapon, and joined the Controllers in the search party outside.

And once it was beyond the walls, and out of sight of the others—

I turned my main eyes away from the recording and back to the main screen that my stalk eyes had been monitoring. The alien was moving oddly, furtively—with no stalks of its own, it had to turn its whole head to look behind it or above, which it did every few steps. It was avoiding other aliens, sticking to dim-lit pathways and the narrow spaces between buildings as it cut its way through the settlement, headed for the outskirts.

I reached for the dain. <Brother?> I asked.

<Watch for treachery.>

I had already extended the cradle’s sensors as far as they would go, but I increased the sensitivity of the scanning algorithms, to alert me if anything moved in the sky around me. Immediately, I received a flood of warnings, and filtered through them—nothing but avians and insects.

Below me, the alien had found a two-wheeled metal device lying on the grass in front of a small, standalone structure and had mounted it. Its legs were pumping furiously, driving the device forward down the hard, black surface of the artificial path, quadrupling its speed. The cradle matched it easily, and soon enough we were approaching another of the standalone structures, this one with a many-peaked roof and a wide assortment of plant-life.

Abandoning the machine, the alien sprinted to the door at the front of the structure and burst through it, disappearing inside. Quickly, I spun the cradle around, adjusting its position in the sky, searching for an angle that would allow me to peer in through one of the transparent panels.

By the time I located the alien again, it was crouched over another of its species—a smaller, slender specimen with longer hair and softer lines, lying unconscious on the artificial grass as red blood trickled from a wound from its head. The larger alien was searching frantically through the fabric that was draped across the other’s form, pulling out object after object. Eventually, it ceased searching and selected three of the objects—a stunner, a communicator, and a mysterious cylinder, as before—setting them aside before reaching for the other alien’s hand and pulling the ring off of its second finger.

Putting the ring together with the other objects, the alien stood and strode over to a large storage space on one side of the room, rummaging through several bins before emerging with a long, flexible cord, which it used to immobilize the smaller alien’s limbs, looping around them over and over and over again.

That one is a Controller, too, then.

The situation was obvious enough. The smaller alien must have had some special relationship with the larger—perhaps they were family, or mates—since the larger had already proven itself willing to sacrifice others for its own freedom. Clearly, it was planning to escape, taking the smaller with it—likely to some secluded location, where it could starve the Yeerk out of its partner’s head.

Standing again, the larger alien passed out of sight, disappearing deeper into the structure. I set the cradle on an irregular loop, checking every window in a cycle as I tried to sort out my options.

The odds that this was intended as a trap for me were low, and falling. There was no reason for the Yeerks to lure me away from their stronghold, even given that I would be more vulnerable once I had left the cradle.

Could the alien make good on its escape? It wasn’t clear how good the Yeerk security apparatus was. If the four objects the alien had abandoned were indeed its only links to the other Controllers, then there was a chance. It would take a while for the coalescion to notice a missing host, and if the other members of the search party were sufficiently disorganized—

(or sufficiently paranoid, such that they assumed a missing teammate meant enemy action, and not an internal escape)

—then it was mostly a matter of making it out of the immediate vicinity. If, on the other hand, someone had noticed the alien’s departure, then this was surely the first place they would check. And if they tried to raise the smaller one on a communicator, and got no response—

A sudden flash of light from inside the structure caught my attention, and I spun the cradle around just in time to see a second and a third.

Dracon fire.

The cradle was already moving, automatically heading for the best vantage point, and after a moment I could see the source of the fire—a third climber, this one not even half the size of the others, standing over the prone figure of the larger alien with a weapon in one hand and a communicator in the other. As I watched, it finished making orifice sounds into the communicator and reached into a pocket, withdrawing yet another of the mysterious cylinders. Popping it open, it crouched next to the larger alien and held the cylinder close to its ear.

There was movement—a tendril of gray, the sparkle of something wet. Slowly, a blind slug emerged from the cylinder, oozing and probing as it searched for the entryway.

Stasis technology.

Even in the tight confines of the cradle, I felt my tail droop. The Yeerks had not had stasis technology half a revolution ago, and they had certainly not had enough grubs for every Controller to carry a spare at all times. The war was changing, and it was changing fast.

Starting a timer, I lifted the cradle high into the sky and doublechecked the cloaking field. Now was as good a time as any to start evaluating Yeerk operational security. Would they send a team to confirm that the situation was resolved? If so, would it be composed of human Controllers? Did a near-escape rate a Bug fighter?

I opened myself to the dain once more, where my brother was waiting as he always had, as he always would be.

<Have you made a decision, brother?>

I had not. Every option seemed predictable, every consequence opaque.

<Welcome to the universe.>

I reviewed my options once again. Destroy the planet, arm the aliens, warn the aliens, warn the war council, destroy the pool, ally myself with the mysterious morphers.

There was something I wasn’t seeing.

<Will you sit and wait for it, then? Pretending stone, until the decision is made for you?>

That wasn’t what I meant.

<And yet, that is what you have done thus far. You witnessed two aliens morphing, and you ran. You witnessed a battle at the pool, and you ran. You passed undetected past every Yeerk vessel in the system, and took no action. Even now—there are three Controllers in the structure below, and you continue to do nothing.>

<Says the brother who locked me in a cradle and went out to face the Visser without me!> I shouted aloud, no longer content to let the dain draw meaning from my thoughts.

<Yes—I held you back from battle, then. But I am not here to hold you back now, am I?>

Pain like a tail blade piercing my chest.

Elfangor is gone.

He is gone, and I am alone.

<Yes. I am gone, Aximili. There is nothing left of me but a shadow, a scratch upon the wall. If you are waiting for someone to tell you what to do, you will wait forever.>

I turned the cradle’s eyes downward, to the building where the aliens waited—including the alien who had killed one of his own, who had sacrificed four others for the chance to free two, and ended up a slave anyway.

Know victory.

Three fewer Yeerks—it wasn’t victory, not in the slightest. But it would be something.

<For you, brother,> I whispered, and I pointed the cradle downward.

*        *        *

 

The chime was no longer gentle—had become, instead, a constant, annoying whine. I could have silenced it with a thought, but a part of me welcomed the distraction, was glad to have a focal point for my frustration.

I had freed the family—two mates and their offspring, each with sound-names I hadn’t bothered to remember. It had been easy. The Yeerks had not bothered to send anyone to check on them after the near escape, so I simply waited until they were all asleep and stunned them through the transparent panels.

Excising the Yeerks from their heads had been trickier, but I had managed it by adapting three of the defensive ear blocks in the survival kit, replacing the usual gate with a frequency modulator tuned to the exact characteristics of a Yeerk neuron. It had been painful, and the climbers would suffer some lasting effects, but they were free.

Unfortunately, we had been completely unable to communicate.

Correction—I had been completely unable to communicate. The translator had handled their stick-speak just fine, thanks to the data Elfangor had mysteriously produced when we first entered the system.

But these aliens had no eib. There was no place for my thoughts to go, and so my attempts to converse had led to disaster. Seizures, hallucinations, disorientation—after the third attempt, they had begged me to stop, the larger one physically shielding the others behind it, as if that would make any difference. I took on its form, thinking to speak with them after their own fashion, but that had failed, too—the translator had told me what sounds to make, but not how to make them. I had barely managed fourteen words before giving up in disgust.

I had hoped that setting them free would give me some sense of accomplishment, of purpose, but all it had done was highlight the enormity of the task before me. Operational security notwithstanding, the Yeerk machine was fast and efficient—with just the resources I had already seen, they could start an exponential growth cycle that would convert all seven billion humans within a single revolution. Soon, destroying the planet would be the only viable option—and even that would be futile once the Yeerks managed to export a viable breeding population.

So far, the only thing preventing me from declaring defeat was the fact that they had only a single pool ship in the system, but that was confusing in its own right—every Andalite knew that the Visser was in command of a fleet of thirteen. If this was his main target—and the more I observed, the more convinced I became—then where were the rest of them?

The whine of the cradle increased in frequency, and I looked once more at the fuel gauge. I had less than a forty-ninth of a cycle remaining before I was using up final reserves—reserves I would need, if I ever wanted to leave the surface under my own power. If I didn’t find the aliens soon, I was going to have to abandon the search.

I had decided to investigate the morphing connection—a second visit to the pool had turned up no evidence of morphing power among the Yeerks. It was seeming more and more likely that my brother had transferred the ability to some of the locals before dying—had possibly even left them with the Iscafil device. If so, then I had allies—or at the very least, resources. It had seemed safer to search for the pair that had first drawn me up from the deep—I had clear evidence that they, at least, were not hostile, and it was dangerous to continue flying around close to the Yeerk stronghold.

But the ocean was vast, the currents uncertain, and the range of the cradle’s scanners insufficient. For ages, I had been criss-crossing back and forth across the path between the island and the pool, and thus far I had found nothing.

It was possible that they were deep below the surface, but I lacked the fuel reserves to power through the water, and so I’d simply continued my pointless search—helpless—useless—at the whim of random chance. At this point, even if I found them, I would have to abandon the cradle and swim back to shore.

I had tried to stay in touch with the dain at first—to gain wisdom and perspective from the shadow of my brother. But it had been too difficult, as the hours dragged on and there was nothing to distract me from the pain of my loss. Eventually, I had silenced dain and eib alike, sinking deep into the hirac where my thoughts could chase one another around in endless circles.

The cradle’s whine had ticked up twice more before the sensors finally detected a trace of exhaust radiation. Zeroing in on it, I saw two of the gray, rock-like swimmers, both close to the surface, their breath sending up enormous geysers of mist. On closer inspection, it was clear that the two swimmers weren’t just similar—they were identical, completely alike in every way.

Morphs.

I came in low, close to the swells, near enough that the fall would be unlikely to injure me. Taking in a breath, I gave the cradle its final instructions—to go to a specified set of coordinates and power down—and opened the hatch.

A frigid wind whipped into the tight space, bringing the blood rushing to the surface of my skin. For the first time in nearly a cycle, I felt true starlight on my face—a small, yellow sun, somewhat cooler than the one of my homeworld. I turned my stalks in all directions, taking in the blue sky, the pale clouds, the slate-gray of the horizon.

For a brief moment, I found myself reluctant to leave the cradle. It was small, uncomfortable, defenseless, and cold. But it was Andalite. It had saved my life. It had been a part of my brother’s ship.

I felt myself reaching for the dain, for Elfangor’s reassuring voice, and forced myself to stop mid-thought. It seemed wrong, somehow—important, that I do this one part without help.

Pushing off the cradle with my tail, I stepped out into the emptiness.

The water was shockingly cold, and surprisingly bitter through my hooves. Keeping my stalks above the surface, I ducked my main eyes under the water.

One of the swimmers was right in front of me, its own eye within striking distance of my tail. The other was rising up from underneath, and in a few moments I was standing on my own legs atop its back, struggling to keep my balance as the waves pushed it up and down.

I felt a gentle brush across the eib, a whisper of stick-speak that the translator identified as a tentative hello. I ignored it, focusing instead on the memory of the alien climber, beginning my transformation. It seemed likely that the construct would insulate the aliens from the side-effects of thought-speak, but it wasn’t worth the risk—especially not when a seizure might dump me back into the icy water.

The other swimmer surfaced and rolled, floating on the surface, watching me as the transformation neared completion, as my fur disappeared and my hooves were replaced with soft, handlike appendages. I felt the unfamiliar orifice open up in the center of my newly flattened face, felt the organs for food-grinding and vocalization emerge as my airways shifted into place.

Finally, the change was finished. Smacking my flesh-flaps together, I took in another breath and carefully formed the stick-sounds the translator had taught me. I had hoped to share my name the way it felt in my head—the call of the amphibious hunter that danced through the wetland reeds, its skin red like the rising sun. But in the end, it had proven impossible to pronounce, and I’d settled on something shorter.

“Hel,” I said, looking down at the monstrous eye. “Hel. El. Lo. Hello. My nain—my nay-muh. Namuh. My name is Ax.”

<Hi, Ax,> came the translated reply. <My name is Tobias.>

Chapter Text

Chapter 13: Esplin 9466

There will be no attack.

I sighed, the motion oddly satisfying as my human shoulders rose and fell. <So we are to play this game again?> I asked, loosening my grip so that Alloran could speak more freely.

<It is no game, Yeerk. Read my thoughts—the Ellimist laughs with you.>

I looked out across the crowded cafeteria, at the teeming mass of humans talking and eating. I judged it safe to divide my attention, devoted the second layer of my mind—our mind—to the debate, keeping the rest focused.

<Only the stalks?> Alloran taunted. <You must be frightened indeed.>

It was a familiar dance between us. Alloran could not help thinking and weighing and measuring, no matter how deeply he buried himself in the hirac. But he could change the way he felt about things—play the part of the pessimist, focus on the naiveté of my opponents, downplay the risk and the danger. And that would, in turn, make me more confident, less cautious—that much more likely to make a mistake.

It was inevitable, unavoidable. Knowledge of the flaw did not equal immunity to the flaw—I had to resort to crude heuristics, layering in extra margins of error to account for the unknown size of the bias in my thinking. And when those contingencies proved excessive, Alloran was there to sneer, reminding me of the waste and the cost, mocking me for my lack of boldness, for my unseemly caution. And thus the cycle began anew.

<It is not bravery to lower one’s tail in the face of the enemy,> I quoted. <Wise elders grow fat on the grass of dead fools’ graves.>

I felt the twinge of Alloran’s dissatisfaction and magnified the feeling, drawing out the hormones in a subtle, delicious mélange. On the surface, one of the other children asked me a question, and I dug through my human brain for understanding, assembling an appropriate response. Of the eight sitting closest to me, three were Controlled, but it was yet too early to drop the charade.

<Besides,> I continued, mocking. <They are led by the great Elfangor, scourge of the thirteen waters, fire in the infinite dark—the Beast, the Vanarx, the blade that falls without warning. What caution could possibly be too great, when facing such a foe?>

Alloran’s dissatisfaction turned sour, and I laughed out loud, ignoring the confusion of the humans around me. We had traced that argument seven times over and seven times again, each of us defending first one side, then the other, as Alloran swung from earnest optimism to black despair and back to sly deception.

<He may yet live,> Alloran said stubbornly. <It is conceivable that the Elfangor you defeated was a double. The fight was disappointing.>

<Elfangor strayed far from the Path,> I said, <but never that far. Even you did not think to break the injunction until Seerow opened your eyes.>

<And yet he is a faster learner than I.>

<Was.> I watched as the human girl, Rachel, entered the cafeteria and collected her food. Around me, two of the Controllers pivoted noticeably, and I marked them down for chastisement as Alloran oozed contempt. Until we knew who the human morphers were—or at least how many—there was no room for loose discipline. <The incident on the road—the warning to the Chapman family—the speech at the pool—these are not the work of a competent strategist.>

<Unless the competent strategist must first convince you that he does not exist,> Alloran pointed out. <For all that the efforts were crude, the results were—interesting.>

I felt a surge of annoyance, mirrored as always by the glow of Alloran’s amusement. Interesting. First the unexpected suicide of Hedrick Chapman en route to his extraction, then the unfathomably incompetent bungling of the Withers cover-up as idiot underlings blindly followed containment protocols instead of having the presence of mind to take a little initiative or at least ask for confirmation before taking irrevocable action—

<Feeling a little pressure, are we, Yeerk? Two of your most strategically placed hosts rendered useless, and the debacle at the pool on top of that. One wonders what the Council of Thirteen will think. If, that is, you ever manage to reestablish contact—>

<As you say,> I interrupted, drawing an icy calm around my anger as I forced Alloran back beneath the surface. <Fortunately, I have a master strategist on my side, and a plan that will serve in either case.>

The Andalite warrior responded with a silent flash of disdain, smothered almost before it came into being, and I sent a reflexive wave of pleasure in response, eliciting an echo of frustrated rage.

Though he tried valiantly to hide it, there was no finer barometer for arrogance than Alloran, veteran as he was of a long career of outperforming overconfident fools. I had long since learned to use his scorn as a check on my own conceit, his skepticism serving as a trigger for strategic review. Forcing my eyes to drift casually across the room—

(One of the child Controllers was now sitting next to the human Rachel, the pair of them engaged in casual conversation.)

((I felt naked without my stalks, blind and clumsy and exposed, and made a mental resolution to spend more time in morph.))

—I turned the second highest layer of my attention to an appraisal of the situation.

The human Rachel was indeed morph-capable; I had received final confirmation earlier in the day, thanks to the Naharan mass-wave mappers I had quietly installed around the school. She had spent the morning sneaking through the building in various forms, searching—presumably—for signs of technology, evidence of infestation, strategic and tactical intel.

Her presence was both a hazard and an opportunity. We had accelerated our timetable in response to the breach at the pool; barring a direct order from me, the operation would begin during the final hour of the school day. If she could be taken before then—taken without warning, and in such a way as to prevent her confederates from noticing—it would not only mean the end of any meaningful resistance on Earth, but also the end of the Andalite monopoly on morphing power.

(Dividing my attention still further, I opened another pair of eyes and scanned the displays, confirming the continued absence of any other mass anomalies. Whatever confederates she had within the building, they had thus far refrained from morphing.)

((That she did have confederates was practically a foregone conclusion. She would not be present at all unless the resistance intended some form of assault or disruption, and the incident at the pool had proven that Elfangor had conscripted at least two. Given the amount of time he had spent on the surface, the original number could have been as high as forty-nine, and if he had indeed left the Iscafil device, the upper bound was now somewhere in the hundreds.))

In the best case, I could capture the device itself, though should my assumption that the resistance had it prove false—or should one of them initiate its self-destruct—I would settle for additional test subjects. But that would require taking her soon, and without arousing the suspicion of my own subordinates. Thus far, I had managed to keep the evidence of human morphers from spreading throughout the invasion force, but I could not maintain the secret forever, and not at all if the operation began and this Rachel or her confederates took overt action.

(It occurred to me that she might be alone if her mission was one of sabotage or espionage—she could be here to destroy the school entirely, or to observe and report before making her own escape. I made a note to compile a list of inexpensive means by which human children might create large explosions or poisonous reactions—thus far, there were no signs that the resistance had access to high technology of any kind, save the morphing power and the single Dracon beam they had managed to steal from the pool.)

She might also be here out of sheer force of habit. Operating on autopilot, maintaining cover, failing to question her normal patterns and assumptions.

I tightened my grip, forcing Alloran back below the surface, no longer amused by his subtle manipulations. I did not—as yet—have an adequate model of my human opponents, but it would be optimistic in the extreme to assume they were that incompetent. They knew that the school was one of my primary targets; surely they wouldn’t risk death and capture without some clear purpose in mind.

They may not all know. There could be more than one group, with mutually exclusive objectives or poor communication.

I lashed out again, this time more on principle than from actual irritation. It was an interesting possibility, and one I had not previously considered.

(Across the cafeteria, the child Controller was still engaged in conversation with the human Rachel. I considered ordering him away, but decided against it; the feeding period would be ending soon enough, and there was still some value in keeping my own presence hidden from the rest of the operation.)

I had been working under the assumption that the Beast had conscripted a single social group—a few careful questions had revealed that children of Rachel’s age often used that particular swath of territory as a shortcut, and the overlap between Melissa Chapman and Cassie Withers had proven to be the correct place to look. But the overall distribution needn’t be symmetrical around those two, and given the potential for recruitment over the intervening cycles, there could easily be multiple factions by now.

I shifted in my seat as I considered the possible ramifications, taking comfort in the weight of the various weapons and devices hidden beneath my artificial skin.

(What I wouldn’t give for stalks.)

Opening another set of eyes, I scanned the census map, noting with satisfaction that pairs of my personal agents had concealed themselves at each of the locations the human Rachel had previously used to morph and demorph. With my own hands, I began tapping out one of the preset dexterity sequences, and was pleased with the response—the fog and lag from the previous field test had been greatly reduced, but there had been some concern that the link would decay with time.

Somewhere inside my head, Alloran laughed.

I let out a breath. It made no difference—we were well-prepared for forty-nine coordinated morph-capable attackers, and we were just as prepared for forty-nine attackers in strategic disarray. The school was a near-perfect killing field, already isolated by outlying grass and tar and further protected by the reworked absorption field, bifurcated and inverted with additional projectors for holograms and for suppressing human electromagnetic communications. Outside, Controllers in positions of authority were on standby, ready to draw public attention toward any of three separate distractions in other parts of the city. Of the thousand or so humans within the perimeter, roughly a tenth were already Controlled, and every member of that tenth had been thoroughly briefed and was at least hypothetically prepared for any of seven contingencies ranging from a publicity breach to a full-scale Andalite attack. There were four Bug fighters in the air nearby, each with a full complement of human Controllers in local military uniforms, and my own modified fighter could be summoned remotely and would arrive within seconds. Even without my direct intervention, we had all of the elements necessary for a swift, easy victory.

And if I could not quite manage to secure the Iscafil device—if the human Rachel could only lead me to some of her confederates, and not all—if the coalescion learned of the presence of morph-capable humans, and that I had known, and had hidden the information—

Well. Those contingencies, too, had been accounted for. The key was not to choose a single path to victory, but to bend every path toward the goal. Some routes were simply longer than—

I froze, ice-cold shock and sudden, vindictive glee rising in equal measure beneath the surface of my thoughts.

No.

Abandoning pretense, I sprang to my feet and jumped up onto the table, peering openly across the crowded space.

Gone—the human Rachel and the child Controller both. Gone without warning, while my eyes were elsewhere—gone without the slightest trace.

Have fun, Yeerk.

Top priority—containment. I thumbed the control in my pocket, ignoring the human children tugging on my artificial skin, the adult Controllers striding toward me with artificial sternness in their eyes. “Aftran,” I declared, the words projecting themselves into the ears of every Controller in the school. “Awaken. This is your Visser.”

(A part of me noted the sudden reorganization of my priorities, the swiftness with which I had abandoned secrecy and subtlety, and began searching for the source of the intuition even as the rest of me moved forward with the sense that time was of the essence.)

The teachers stopped abruptly in their tracks, their eyes widening. A blue halo emerged around my forehead, visible to all from my place atop the table, identifying me to those who hadn’t seen my lips moving.

“Activate the absorption field and cut off all human communications now. Teams of four—assemble at the doors to the cafeteria and the doors at either end of the hallway outside. Teams of two in front of every door in that hallway and at each openable window in this room. Maintain physical contact with the doors and windows; keep them closed.”

(Holograms—it had to be holograms. Movable holograms, personal holograms.)

Around me, every adult and a significant number of children had leapt to their feet and were running to comply as the rest of the humans looked on in confusion.

Too slow.

If they could vanish from sight in an instant, then they could open and close a door unseen. I visualized the paths, the angles, the expanding cone of their possible positions—

No good. They would have made it out of the net easily, assuming they hadn’t simply hunkered down inside, disguised as a table or an empty patch of floor. And by now the human Rachel would have had time to morph, if indeed she hadn’t been morphed already, hiding behind a hologram the entire time—

(And what of the child Controller? A traitor? An impostor? An illusion all along?)

((Was the human Rachel even here?))

(((I wanted that technology.)))

“Cancel previous order,” I commanded, and the Controllers running toward the edges of the room slowed and stopped, those already there relaxing as they lowered their arms.

(I would have to trust the absorption field to keep Elfangor’s children contained—if they could penetrate that, we had a much more serious problem anyway.)

“Begin the operation—contingency three.”

Around me, the cafeteria erupted with the sound of stunners and Dracon beams, quickly joined by the screams of those who had escaped the first salvo. Contingency three allowed for reasonable violence in the service of maximum speed, relying on the communications blanket and the exterior holograms to protect us from exposure. By the time I stepped down from the table, all of the unarmed humans in the room were unconscious, slumped in their seats or sprawled across the floor.

“Hold!” I called out, as Controllers around the room drew stasis cylinders from their bags and pockets.

Holograms. Personal holograms. I had no idea what the limitations of such a technology might be, but I could at least try to address the possibility of infiltrators.

“Exchange a cylinder with the nearest Controller to you in each of two directions, then walk at least thirteen paces away from either of them.”

They complied, uncomprehending but obedient. I waited for a cry of confusion, for someone to shout that their cylinder had turned incorporeal and vanished.

Nothing.

“Again, with two other Controllers this time.”

Once more, nothing.

“Again.”

Nothing. I sighed. It didn’t even begin to scratch the surface—the holograms could have a range greater than thirteen paces, or the impostors might have been numerous enough to “exchange” only with one another, or they might have been disguised as fallen students, or as furniture, or they might all be long gone—

“There may be infiltrators,” I said, toggling the control in my pocket to include Controllers throughout the school. “Andalite bandits in morph, or human collaborators with some kind of personal holograms. Infest the unconscious humans, stun them for an additional twenty minutes, and then gather together. The highest ranking officer among you will offer four identifying passwords, then stun the rest of you, then its own host.”

I toggled the control once more, putting the four Bug fighters on high alert in case I needed physical reinforcements, and turned, striding toward the table where the human Rachel had been—allegedly—sitting. I withdrew my portable Naharan scanner and checked for unusual radiation, then opened the Arn crucible and set it on the table, counting slowly in my head.

No reaction.

Opening a distant pair of eyes, I scrolled back through the mass-wave recordings. The data were noisy and difficult to read—it was far simpler to track changes in the wave than to make sense of it as it existed at any given moment—but even so, the event was easy to spot. One moment, there were two masses where I was standing, and the next, there were none.

I felt a strange crawling sensation in my esophagus, a squirming heat that rose through my chest and caused my forehead to burn.

Teleportation?

I watched the recording again, slowing it down as much as possible. The transition was swift, comprising only four slices of data. The two masses vanished without changing in volume, their densities fading to zero in four even steps.

Was that how teleportation would work? I didn’t know.

Beneath the surface, Alloran had abandoned his usual hostility and was alive with curiosity, his sense wary and watchful.

I played the recording again.

(If they could teleport—)

I played the recording again.

(If they could teleport, then why wasn’t the war already over?)

I felt the tension in my human body ease slightly, felt a fractional relaxation in the part of me that was Alloran as I played the recording yet again.

If they could teleport, the war would already be over. They could simply move the contents of the Yeerk pool into a desert, or out into space, could drop toxins or explosives directly into the complex and have done.

If, on the other hand, it was part of a hologram—

Thus far, we had acquired three kinds of holograms. Those manufactured by the Skrit Na were adequate, but cheap—easy to produce and maintain, they were little more than thin sheets of shaped light.

Naharan holograms were far superior, though much more difficult to create and repair. Built atop force field technology, they could be made as solid as metal alloys, with a variety of textures and the ability to both block and produce sound. They required tremendous amounts of power, though, and the generators were bulky and fragile, useless except in permanent installations.

Andalite holograms couldn’t mimic solid structures, but they could update in real time, making them ideal for shipboard cloaking devices. Like the Naharan ones, their generators were too large for portable, personal use, but they were significantly more efficient. We didn’t have many; most of them had been salvaged from space wreckage and installed in stealth fighters and flagships.

If holograms could be made to cancel and mimic electromagnetic radiation, and could also fool tactile and auditory senses, it was at least plausible that they could be made to create gravitic illusions, as well—

(I could feel Alloran’s growing conviction, coupled with the usual bitter fury as I used his genius to check my intuitions. Andalite antigrav technology was young, but full of promise—in theory, such subtle manipulation was only forty-nine revolutions in the future. And it was a sane explanation, in its fundamental assumptions—if a given race of aliens had any sort of grav-sensitive organ, then its holograms would need to mask and alter mass waves, just as Andalite holograms masked and altered light waves.)

But then

As always, Alloran tried to hide, and as always, I seized him by the tail, dragging his thoughts up to the conscious level where I could examine them.

But then why isn’t the war already over? That level of hologram isn’t as powerful as a teleporter, but it’s still sufficient to fool Andalite security technology, let alone anything the Yeerks have cobbled together…

Irrelevant, at least on the timescales that mattered for the current crisis. The war was not over, and the absorption field had gone up almost immediately.

They were still inside.

I rechecked the census map. There was no movement anywhere except for the cafeteria, where the blip that represented my own human body moved toward the door and out into the hall.

Where would they go? It was unlikely that they were here to destroy the school, or they wouldn’t have revealed themselves, giving away the element of surprise—

(For that matter, why had they revealed themselves? It was the same mistake they had made with the Chapmans, and intelligent opponents did not make the same mistakes twice—)

((I updated my estimate of the humans’ incompetence accordingly, ignoring Alloran’s quiet amusement.))

Possibility: they were heading for the perimeter, having somehow intuited the danger they were in. Assessment: glow.

Possibility: they were heading for the absorption field generator, either because they had known it was there all along or because they had extrapolated its location after attempting to escape and discovering the barrier. Assessment: gleam.

Possibility: they were heading for me—

Planting myself in the center of the hallway, I drew the Ongachic snare from one of the pockets in my artificial skin and activated it. With a soft hum, the device powered up, a slight ripple distorting my field of view as it polarized the air molecules around me. I adjusted the frequency until I stood within a sphere of invisible, outward-pointing spikes, then resumed my analysis.

I could direct the Bug fighters to flood the hallways with gas, or to blanket the campus with a wide-beam stun discharge, but there was every reason to suspect that their technology would brush off such an attack with ease. I could simply wait, and hope that they would reveal themselves—

Alloran sneered.

Fine. Would they be able to penetrate the absorption field? If they did, would we even be able to detect it?

As if the thought had been a magical spell, my communicator beeped. “Visser,” came the human voice, taut with stress. “We just detected a massive energy surge in the northeast corner of the property, at ground level. We think they were trying to push through. It didn’t last long, and the field integrity was not compromised.”

“Be on alert for similar surges,” I said. “The next time you detect one, the nearest ship is to fire on its exact location, and the other three are to fire in an arc just behind it, deeper within the field. Full power.”

(I wanted the technology intact, if I could get it, but a broken prototype was better than nothing at all.)

So. They had tried to escape—on foot, apparently. Where would they go next?

The generator.

I glanced at the empty hallway around me. There was no way to tell if any of them were present, lurking behind an illusion, waiting for the right moment to strike—

But that moment had long since come and gone. If they had intended to kill me, I would already be dead. Squaring my shoulders, I deactivated the Ongachic snare and tucked it back into my pocket.

Turning, I began to jog through the hallways, swerving around the slumped bodies of stunned humans.

How many of them were there? The human Rachel was the only one the Naharan mass-wave mappers had detected morphing, but if they could mask gravitic signals, then they could easily be present in force—

fool

—of course. If they were present in force, the operation would never have succeeded, and it had succeeded. Even a full publicity breach would not change the fact that the invasion had just effectively doubled in size.

No, the simplest explanation was that there were only two of them—the human Rachel, and the false Controller. Somehow, they must have realized they'd been discovered, opted for a fast and risky extraction.

“Bring the Bug fighters down to ground level,” I said, breathing heavily as my host body broke into a sweat. “Remain cloaked, and come as close as you can to the school. Overlap your deflectors to create an auxiliary barrier just outside of the absorption field.”

If I were up against an inverted absorption field, my first move would be to try undoing the inversion, returning it to the default out-but-not-in configuration—or better yet, I would try to program some kind of conditional, such that the reversal would happen just as I reached the boundary, providing my enemies with no warning.

Together, Alloran and I could accomplish such a task in a seventh of a seventh of a cycle. For a human, the process would take much, much longer.

For an unknown enemy capable of inventing near-magical hologram technology—

I grimaced, turning the corner to the central office and letting myself in. My options were growing increasingly narrow; even if I was correct about their target, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to find or hinder them—not when they could disappear into thin air. What I needed was the Leeran hypersight, but that would allow them to see me, too—

“Visser! The field has inverted!”

I froze, my hand a bladelength away from the handle of the only door leading in to where the generator stood. They had reprogrammed the system in seconds—were they still inside? Had they already slipped past me?

useless delay—

Pulling a gas canister out of my pocket, I removed the pin, counted to three, and then yanked open the door, tossing the already-hissing cylinder inside. I slammed the door shut again immediately, locking it, and turned to run back down the hallway toward the exit. The field was almost equidistant in every direction—if I were the enemy, which way would I choose—

(Opening another set of eyes, I dropped the shielding on the inner chamber of my modified fighter and set it on a parabolic course that would bring it within range for the briefest of moments—)

Bursting out into the sunlight, I turned toward the southwest corner of the school, opposite the point where they had first attempted to pass through the field, my human body quivering with exertion. It was a wild guess, vastly more likely to be wrong than right, but in a few seconds, they would be off the property, and it wouldn’t take them long to bypass the Bug fighters—the slimmest of chances was still better than nothing

Silent, unseen, my fighter passed by overhead, and suddenly the universe unfolded.

It was reality itself, the veil of perspective torn and tossed aside, every line of consequence and interaction laid bare in a flood of naked perception. I could see everything—everything, an infinite collection of infinities, all there was to see within the tiny space that was my immediate vicinity. I was aware of the minds of the humans around me, and of the Yeerks who held them in intimate embrace; could see the shape of their thoughts against the background of time and space itself. I heard the symphony of a trillion trillion trillion quarks, the crystalline hum as possibility shivered itself into parallel truths, as the present died and became the past, and the future was born into the present.

And in the foreground, I caught a shattered glimpse—

—a thousand images—

—a girl, a robot—

—a human body, motionless by a fire—

—a planet burning as a black god laughed—

—resolve as cold and hard as a spacecraft hull—

—confusion giving way to utter dismay—

—and then the infinite instant ended, the Leeran body moving back out of range, and I knew that they were right there, almost within reach, Rachel Berenson suddenly visible as the hologram stretched across the absorption field, sparked, and died—Rachel, wearing the body of my nemesis Elfangor, and six-three-four-eight-one, anonym Erek King, who had never been a Controller, who was over twenty-six thousand revolutions old and who was even now pressing up against the absorption field from the outside, compelled by ancient directives deep within his programming to try, even though he knew it was too late to do anything, knew that he had been played, manipulated, tricked—

Before I could move, before I could breathe, before I could even think, the tail blade of Rachel’s Andalite body lashed out, and both of my arms fell to the grass, my human jaw dropping open in shock. A third swipe cleaved into my thigh at an awkward angle, and I tumbled to the grass, blood already surging to soak the grass around me.

<I’d take a little longer to enjoy this, Yeerk,> snarled Rachel—daughter of Dan and Naomi, cousin of Jake, friend of Melissa, who had burned herself thirty-seven times in the past three days, who had never forgiven herself for forgetting to feed her pet gerbil when she was seven. <But.>

My lips moved soundlessly as she raised her tail blade once again, the thought unfinished. Her eyes narrowed, her body tensed, her tail whipped forward—

*        *        *

 

I dragged my main eyes open, the motion like lifting a corpse as the neurons fired past a Z-space link that no longer led anywhere. Around me, the walls of my private chamber blurred into existence, slowly sharpening as the fog began to lift.

That had hurt.

<Report,> I commanded in thought speak, my nerves too sluggish and unresponsive for my usual hand signs.

“We fired on the human,” said the image of the wing commander, “but it must have been wearing some kind of personal shield—the shots had no effect, even at full power. It—ah—it disappeared after the first salvo, but not—it wasn’t vaporized, sir. It—it just vanished.”

<And the girl?>

“Sir?”

<The Andalite.>

“It disappeared back into the school, out of sight. We presume it must have morphed into some small animal and escaped.”

<You presume—>

“We’ve been firing on as many birds, insects, and small mammals as possible, sir, but our hit rate is only sixty-eight percent, and we aren’t equipped to detect anything moving under the ground. There’s an animal called a mole—”

<Pull the fighters back,> I interrupted. <Resume written operational procedure as soon as enough of the hosts are awake. I want the first wave ready to board as soon as their parents have been converted.>

“Yes, Visser.”

I attempted to open one of my other sets of eyes, and found that I could not. The link was gone, broken beyond repair. <Dispatch the retrieval team to fetch the head,> I said. <Bring it to the laboratory.>

“It’s already on its way, Visser.”

I rose from my couch, my motions unsteady but rapidly improving. I would need to send a different team to recover the other five bodies, all of which had almost surely died when the link abruptly failed. The Arn would want to examine them all—brains and conduits alike—in preparation for the next round of cloning. Two or three more iterations, and we would be ready for the third phase.

So. You have a new enemy.

Opening the refrigerated compartment, I withdrew one of the small, disclike packages and removed the foil wrapping. Breaking it into quarters, I set each piece at a different corner of the large rectangle painted on the floor. Stepping on top of them, I felt an anticipatory thrill as my hooves began to pulverize and absorb the stringy substance.

<Yes,> I said thoughtfully, relinquishing my hold on Alloran so that he could speak freely once again.

<And yet you intend to continue exactly as before.>

I closed my eyes, feeling the Yeerk-flesh slide up my legs and into my stomach. <Not exactly,> I said, and I lowered the barrier still further, allowing Alloran a glimpse into my own thoughts.

1417 Bayview Drive.

88E South Church Street.

209 Aspen Avenue.

3555 Franklin Court.

The playground at Magnuson park.

<They will know that you are coming,> Alloran said, and I laughed at the flicker of hope in his thoughts—so pale, so weak, so easily extinguished.

<For all the good it will do them,> I said. <If they run, we shall simply spread unchallenged. And if they stay—>

My meal complete, I turned toward the sanitation unit, forcing the Andalite warrior prince to look upon his own body—upon my body.

<Well. At least it will be interesting.>

Chapter Text

Interlude

 

On a cold, heavy world, an alien runs—runs at the snail’s pace that is the fastest anything can move through an atmosphere as thick as quicksand. It is pursued by seven creatures with cracked, black skin like cooled lava—they howl, and the alien stumbles. It trips over a root, a living tendril that has been growing for a thousand years, that was made to grow for exactly this purpose—trips, and falls, and dies soon after, pierced through by needlelike claws.

This is allowed, by the rules of the game.

The seven creatures drink in the memory of the hunt, and their thousand thousand brethren chitter in satisfaction. They have learned a new way to kill, and it is wrong, subtly wrong—their enemy has fallen more easily than it should have, and their confidence is unfounded, tainted by hubris.

This is allowed, by the rules of the game.

The creatures depart from the surface, returning to their ship, and their ship darts away from the massive star, slipping into the white non-space that lies between and behind the usual empty blackness. It travels for a distanceless time, emerging into reality just as a pulse of radiation sweeps through the void, the violent echo of an explosion half a hundred parsecs hence. Their shields are adequate, and they barely notice, but a cascading chain of tiny reactions causes a wire to shift and a valve to close, sparks the formation of a scattering of new isotopes in the mixture of their fuel. Their ship is fractionally faster, though they do not know it; they will arrive at their destination sooner than expected, and at their next destination sooner still, the changes compounding until the day when they land on this continent instead of that one, because that one is on the far side of the planet, and the creatures are not patient.

This, too, is allowed by the rules of the game. There are a trillion trillion pieces, and all of them significant, their interactions governed by a shifting web of causality as delicate as a neutrino and as old as time itself. The web may be touched—nudged—shifted—once in an epoch, or possibly twice, a single strand may be snapped. Any more than that, and the game is forfeit. The players dance in slow infinity, calculating the fractal geometry of self-fulfilling prophecies, anticipating the impact of anticipated acts, and acting in reaction to events far in the unfixed future. Thus do cause, effect, and chaos mix, until even all-seeing eyes begin to miss things. There is always error, after all, and it is a chief characteristic of error that it is random—it being reliably willing to cancel itself out, it may safely be ignored. One can only go so many places beyond the decimal point before one is wasting resources more wisely spent elsewhere—a waste one’s opponent will spot, and convert into advantage in accordance with the rules.

And so—things happen. They are outside of the realm of prophecy, beyond the reach of fate. They are not allowed by the rules of the game, and neither are they forbidden.

An alien speaks a word as it dies. The word is heard only by its enemies—they do not speak the language, and they pay it no mind.

A lump of rock falls into a star. The star explodes, as it would have anyway—the fire peaks a tenth of a degree hotter on a scale measured in the hundreds of billions.

On Earth, a girl is born. Her name is Rachel, and she is not supposed to be there.

Chapter Text

Chapter 14: Jake

I was asleep.

I knew that I was asleep, because I was beginning to wake up. Before that, I hadn’t been asleep at all. I had been—

Gone.

Slowly—slowly—the fog and darkness receded, giving way to shattered chaos. It was as if I were seeing through things, into things—like I could see the front and back and top and bottom and inside of every thing, all at once. There was light, and pain, and confusion, as if a hundred dreams were each competing for my attention.

And then—

I felt a twist—

A spasm—

The vision changed. The thousand fragments shifted, turned, flashes of the deepest black showing in the spaces between. One by one, the colors dissolved, leaving only emptiness.

And then I saw it.

A creature. Or a machine. Some combination of both. It had no arms. It sat still, as if unable to move, on a throne that was miles high. Its head was a single eye, monstrously large, shot through with bloody veins.

It turned, slowly—left, then right.

Watching.

Watching.

I trembled. No body, no mind, no sense of time or space, and still I trembled, praying that it wouldn’t notice me, wouldn’t look my way.

But that’s not how nightmares work.

It saw me.

It saw me.

It saw me, and—somehow—it laughed.

*        *        *

 

“Wait—did that work?”

“Jake! Can you hear us?”

“Garrett—go get Marco! Run!”

I opened my eyes easily, like I’d gotten exactly the right amount of sleep. I was lying flat on my back on warm ground, pine needles poking through my shirt. Around me were familiar faces—Rachel, Tobias, a boy I recognized from school named Ethan or Eric or something—all looking down at me with concerned expressions. I heard a rustling above my head and craned my neck, squinting as Cassie moved in front of the sun, casting me into shadow. She was smiling, her jaw trembling, her eyes bright with tears.

“Hi, Jake,” she said softly.

“Hi,” I answered back, and a look of relief washed across her face, spreading to Rachel and Tobias in turn. “Why—um. Why am I on the ground?”

“You were—asleep,” Rachel said, her tone a sort of hospital calm.

“A coma, actually,” said the boy from school. “For eight days.”

I felt my eyes go wide with shock. “I see,” I said slowly, my thoughts churning into overdrive. “Is—um—is this one of those times where I shouldn’t try to sit up?”

“No, you should be fine,” said the boy. Eric, I was pretty sure. “We’ve been keeping your muscles stimulated. You may have some pins and needles, but otherwise—”

“Jake!”

I heard a staccato crashing, the sound of feet tearing through leaves, and propped myself up just in time to see Marco come barreling out of the woods a few dozen yards away.

For a moment, I thought he was going to run right into me, but he skidded to a stop just outside the circle, as if held back by a force field. His face was scratched and dirty, a dingy rag wrapped around his right hand. He looked down at me, then around at the others, his jaw tight. His eyes lingered on Tobias for an extra heartbeat, and Tobias shrugged microscopically.

What’s going—

Shut up. Wait.

“Jake,” Marco said suddenly. “Your name is Jake?”

My jaw dropped open for a moment before my brain caught up. Coma. Makes sense to check. “Jake Berenson,” I answered, trying to sound nonchalant. “I live at 88E South Church Street. I’m in ninth grade. And you’re Marco. And—um—Z, Y, X, W, V, U, T?”

That should have produced a smile, but Marco’s jaw remained tight. “Where’s the Yeerk pool?” he asked.

I blinked. “What?”

The tightness became a twist as Marco’s lip curled, a shadow of something dark falling across his expression. “What’s an Andalite, Jake?”

I opened my mouth, and the words caught in my throat.

You know how sometimes you’ll have something rough going on—problems at school, or a family member who’s sick, or some big mistake you just made that’s got all your friends mad at you—and for a few minutes after you wake up, it’s like everything’s fine?

“Alien,” I said, my voice suddenly hoarse. “Blue fur, looks like a centaur scorpion. Elfangor. He gave us the morphing power, told us about th—”

I broke off as Marco dropped to his knees and pulled me up and into a hug, squeezing me so tightly I thought my ribs might crack. He was crying, silently, his tears hot as they dropped onto the back of my neck. I hugged him back reflexively, bewildered, looking back and forth between the faces of the other kids standing around me.

“It’s been a long week,” Tobias murmured, as Marco’s body continued to shake. “We’ve got a lot to talk about.”

*        *        *

 

“So you don’t remember any of it?”

I shook my head. “Nothing at all after Tobias left.”

“That settles it,” Marco said flatly. “There’s no other explanation.”

I looked around the circle, at the six of them sitting in the middle of the forest clearing. My best friend, my cousin, my crush. Tobias, and his orphan buddy Garrett. Erek—the ancient, six-limbed, pacifist android who’d woken me up—had already left, saying something about nonviolence and councils of war.

And then there was Ax. Elfangor’s younger brother—a cadet in the Andalite military, practically the same age as us—whom Tobias and Garrett had rescued from the bottom of the Pacific ocean. He was in human morph—a strange combination of the two boys and a man he’d acquired elsewhere—and had said almost nothing in the hour we’d been talking.

They were dirty, sweaty, and tired, all of them—their voices hollow, their expressions bleak. They’d filled me in on the past few days with curt, emotionless summaries—the disaster at the pool, the takeover of the high school, the frantic scramble to escape after the Visser’s unexplained psychic probe blew everyone’s cover. All of our families had been taken, all of our obvious avenues of escape cut off—if it hadn’t been for the Chee’s holograms and the fact that neither Rachel nor Erek had known about Cassie’s secret valley, they would never have made it.

And it hadn’t helped that they’d had to carry my useless body every step of the way. I wasn’t certain, but it felt like none of them would look me in the eye.

“It is—unsettling,” said Ax, a very human agitation visible on his face. “Ing. Ling. This will cause problems among my people. It is—taboo. Is this the right word? Taboo?”

I had no memory of anything since the previous Monday, ten days earlier—a full day before we’d discovered self-morphing. Cassie’s theory was that the gap was due to the difference between short- and long-term memory—that I couldn’t remember anything that hadn’t already been permanently encoded into my neural structure when I acquired my own genetic template.

“How could they not already know?” Marco demanded, his tone one of barely restrained hostility. “It’s—obvious.

I had gone into the Yeerk pool with Marco. I had stayed too long in morph, and the pocket dimension that had held my body in stasis had collapsed, taking me along with it. I had died, disappeared, leaving behind nothing but a construct.

Me.

“It is unthinkable,” Ax countered. “Un. Think. Kah. Like the place at the base of one’s stalks—place base—very easy to not-see. And the norphing techolo—technology is new. Recent. It is used only by the nilitary, and even then only lee lee lee by sip spesh suh-pesh-al operatives. The new class of cadets, ink ink including myself, have been given the ability but are forbidden to use it excet excep except during closely supervised training—ing—or in high emergencies.”

I wasn’t real. I was a duplicate, a copy, a throwaway clone. I existed because the real Jake Berenson, in his panic, had wished for a body that wasn’t broken and dying, wasn’t half-eaten by alien monsters, and had frantically, desperately, blindly morphed into a backup version of himself, wishing only to be whole again. I was the product of stupidity, cowardice, and sheer, dumb luck.

It was all a little much to take in. It felt like I’d gone to sleep on Monday night, and woken up in the middle of a nightmare.

“Any other helpful shit you people just never bothered to think of?” Marco snapped. “’Cause as far as I can tell, it’s you assholes not thinking that got the rest of us into this mess in the first place.”

“Easy, Marco,” Rachel warned, her voice low and heavy. “Same side.”

Marco rolled his eyes, his lip twisting into a sneer, but he said nothing further. Across the circle, Ax shifted uncomfortably.

It turned out that Elfangor’s brief history lesson had left out a few important points—points which Cassie had filled the rest of us in on, and Ax had reluctantly confirmed. Like the fact that it had been Seerow, the brilliant Andalite scientist, who first gave the Yeerks access to high technology, making it possible for them to kidnap Alloran and launch their war. Or the fact that it had been that same Seerow who had developed the morphing technology, a slow and painstaking process that had taken him decades of work.

Or the fact that that work had hit a dead-end and been stalled for years, until the discovery—and subsequent study—of the Yeerk species.

Tobias had been the first one to put the pieces together, and Erek had confirmed it, using some kind of X-ray vision to scan the inside of my skull while I was still comatose. There was extra tissue there—a lot of it. Interspersed with my neurons, interfering with the normal functioning of my cerebrum even as it slowly decayed and died. Tissue that responded to signals at very particular Z-space frequencies, until Erek burned it away.

Yeerk tissue.

It made sense, really. You could stash a body in hyperspace, and you could build a new one in its place, but you needed something to link the two—to allow one to control the other. And lo and behold, there was one species that did exactly that—that had evolved over millennia to be able to integrate with and control any bioelectric neural tissue, regardless of size, species, or complexity. Yeerk biology was the key, the last link in the chain, the source of Seerow’s final breakthrough. With artificial Yeerk tissue integrated into every morph, control was as easy as thought itself.

“So the Andalite people literally don’t know,” Tobias mused. “Gonna be one hell of a PR shitstorm once it gets out.”

Rachel shrugged. “Fighting fire with fire,” she said. “Doesn’t sound so bad to me.”

“No,” Ax broke in, his fingers anxiously clenching and unclenching, sweat beading on his brow. “It is far more sigit sigif sig-nif-i-cant than that. It is our highest rule, our most sacred tradition. For every—you do not have an adequate word—mind, pattern, spirit, crystal—for every thing-that-knows-itself, there is exactly one—one place, one role, one equal opportunity to sway the course of history. Ree. To make two is to—to—”

He fell silent, his eyes darting around the circle. “We—Andalites—we share the eib,” he said. “It is a common resource, a space for all. If one voice becomes twice as loud—do you see? It cannot stand. It is the end of—of balance.

“This from the guy who’s carrying around a carbon copy of his brother in his brain,” Marco grumbled.

No,” Ax repeated. “A picture is a rep repreez rep-re-sen-ta-tion. Like your stick-speak mouth sounds. A word is not a thing. The dain is a tribute, an honoring. It is precious—private. It does not and could not ever replace the true being. Beeng. Bing.”

Replace. Like the way I had somehow replaced myself, with myself. I looked down at my hands—which were exactly the same as they’d always been, down to the scar from the time I’d slammed my fingers in the car door when I was eleven—and shivered.

I felt like me. That either made it better, or much, much worse.

“Do we care?” Tobias wondered aloud. “I mean—not to shit on your religion, Ax, but we are in the middle of a war, here.”

“You are not list—”

“The interference!” Garrett blurted out, cutting the alien off mid-sentence.

We all turned to look at him, and he visibly blanched, dropping his eyes to the dirt and pulling up the neck of his shirt to cover his mouth. Tobias leaned over and murmured something, and he seemed to brace himself, taking in a deep breath before continuing half-masked.

“Tobias and I thought there was a problem with morphing the same animal at the same time,” he said. “But we both morphed the whale and the squid with no problem. It was only the hawk.”

“What about it?” Cassie asked.

“I acquired the hawk from Tobias.

There was a long silence as we all digested this. “Holy shit,” Marco breathed.

“Wait,” Rachel said. “What—”

“Recursion,” Marco explained. “Whatever scanning is going on when we acquire something, it’s exact, down to the cellular level. Maybe even molecular. It has to be, otherwise Jake and Elfangor wouldn’t have complete personalities, with memories and everything. Which means that if there’s Yeerk tissue inside every morph—”

“—then when you acquire from a morph, the scan’s going to pick that up, too,” Rachel finished, her eyes going wide as she caught on.

“And that tissue is—what, attuned?—to whatever signal is coming from Tobias’s brain, off in hyperspace,” Marco continued. “So when Tobias and Garrett are both morphed into the same hawk, and Tobias goes to flap his wings—”

“It’s not like that,” Tobias cut in. “It’s more like—like static. I wasn’t in control of Garrett’s body; it just screwed up the signal and made him all twitchy and spastic.”

“Controls on top of controls,” Marco said. “But all operating on the same principles, so they interfere with one another.”

“Does this mean if we acquire a Controller, we get the Yeerk inside?” Rachel asked.

“No,” Ax answered impatiently, still fidgeting. “Unlikely. Like lee. The Iscafil process—is-kuh-fill—distinishes between native and foreign tissue. Shoe. It would ignore a true Yeerk. The tissue inside a construct, though, is built from the organism’s own zown pattern—it needs to be genetic etic etically compatible, to prevent the body’s immune system from attacking it tack tack tack tack tack. It would naturally blend in more thoroughly, making it harder for the morphing technology to dis-sting-guish-shit.”

“Still, though,” Rachel said. “It means that we can mine memories from any person we acquire. Skills. Intel. We can copy people’s personalities exactly—

“No, we can’t,” Cassie said hotly. “Aren’t you listening? Just look at Jake! It’s not some kind of fake program under there, it’s a real person. When we morph into Elfangor, he’s really under there—trapped—screaming—enslaved.”

There was another long, uncomfortable silence, during which it seemed that Ax was too distressed to form actual words.

“I don’t think so,” I said, speaking up for the first time in minutes. They didn’t flinch. You’re imagining things. “Not quite. I mean—I don’t have any memories of the tunnel, of the—”

The real Jake.

“—of the mission. I’d still have those, right? Like, if I’d been conscious, underneath. I’d remember it.”

“Elfangor was plenty conscious,” Cassie countered, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Ax wince as though he’d been punched. “He almost killed himself—me—when I first let him loose. He thought he’d been captured—thought I was a Yeerk.” She shot a baleful glare at Rachel. “I didn’t realize he was right.

“Yeah, but you—I dunno—woke him up?” Tobias cut in, drawing Cassie’s attention away as Rachel squared her shoulders, her face flushing red. “I mean, maybe whatever’s muting the person underneath isn’t just keeping them quiet. Maybe it’s keeping them off.”

“Oh, great,” Cassie said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “Much better. We’re not enslaving sapient beings, we’re just keeping them drugged and sedated while we dig through their memories and steal their identities.” She looked around the circle. “Am I seriously the only one here who’s bothered by this?”

“No,” Ax said immediately, his own voice cold and hard with resolve. He stood up. “It is forbidden. The entire technology is not of the Path. It will be unmade, when the knowledge reaches my people. I do not wish to interfere with your battle, but I must ask that you no longer use my brother’s body. Zmy. Zbody. I must ask it, and you must agree and obey.”

Obey?” Rachel hissed, even as Cassie nodded in satisfaction. “Who do you think—”

She broke off midsentence as Ax raised his hand, revealing a small, dark device that was unmistakably a weapon.

Instantly, the mood changed, a sort of bristling tension sweeping around the circle. Marco went very still, and Tobias shifted half a step, putting himself ever so slightly in front of Garrett. Rachel’s jaw clicked shut, and Cassie’s gaped open.

“Jake,” whispered Marco, so quietly that I almost couldn’t hear it over the sudden roar of blood in my ears.

Time slowed. I felt the part of my brain that knew how to deal with this sort of thing rev up—felt it lose traction—watched, helpless, as it skidded uselessly into confusion. Another part of me began to shout, demanding that I do something, anything.

Come on Jake this is your job you’re supposed to save them you’re supposed to be good at this fearless leader—

“Ax,” Tobias began, his voice soft and calm. “What—”

“No, Tobias,” the alien said, raising the weapon an inch. It remained trained on Rachel, whose lips were white and bloodless, her nostrils flaring with each breath.

what’s the matter Jake don’t you know what to do Jake are you choking Jake did you freeze are you scared where’d you go Jake just a clone Jake you’re dead and you’re a fake Jake—

“You do not know the eib,” Ax said, every syllable careful and crisp. “You do not hear, and you can not understand. It is—I do not know this word, rape, but it is the word the translator is telling me to say, that you rape the memory of my brother and you must not continue.”

—fake Jake fake—

“Jake,” Marco whispered again, quiet and desperate, and just like that, the skidding stopped and my brain suddenly found purchase, opening up Marco’s single word and unpacking the complete entreaty within. Jake, man, I don’t know what’s going on inside your head, but if you’ve got any of that Professor X magic up your sleeve, now’s the time to pull it out.

In front of me, Ax shifted his stance, the weapon slowly tracing its way around the circle as he pointed it at each of us in turn. Inside my head, the black box was on maximum overdrive, assembling data faster than my conscious mind could follow.

Taboo cadet forbidden sacred tradition balance eib path obey—

“I do not wish to—”

“Cadet,” I called out, the rest of the circle flinching as the alien’s finger twitched. “You will point that weapon at me.

little and less of war, seven billion human Controllers—

—purchase a small victory with my death—

I rose to my feet, acting on intuition, feeling the slightest, the very smallest possible amount of relief as the weapon turned away from Rachel, swinging around to track me.

spent several years in human form—

—much knowledge, and yet little wisdom—

“I know little of Andalite custom,” I said, allowing my voice to drop into the more formal register that Elfangor had seemed to favor. “But somehow I suspect that junior warriors waving weapons at war councils is not a part of your ‘path.’ Am I wrong?”

The alien’s eyes narrowed, and he cocked his head a fraction of a degree, saying nothing.

this body will be one of your primary weapons—

—use it to hide your identity from the Yeerks—

“No answer?” I blustered. “Then perhaps you’ll—”

hand over that weapon—

—no, too soon, he’ll double down—

“—answer another question instead: is it customary for young Andalites to override the dying wishes of their elder brothers? Is it yours to say what should be done with Elfangor’s—”

—pattern—

“—pattern?” I took a step forward, entering the circle. Ax’s knuckles whitened on the grip of his weapon, but again he said nothing. “For it is his will that we use his body, as a weapon against the Yeerks. Those were his—”

last words—

—no, wait, orders—

“—final orders, to us, when he—”

recruited—

—deputized—

“—mobilized us as the primary arm of resistance on Earth.” Authority. Legitimacy. I’m your superior officer, and you have Made A Mistake, Cadet.

“He did not know that—”

He would not care,” I snapped, cutting across the alien’s slow, deliberate speech. “He was ready to sacrifice seven billion minds to stem the Yeerk tide. Do you think he would hold himself to any less a standard?”

I took another step, pressing my advantage. It was bullshit—pure, frantic, Shakespearean bullshit, but it was working, or at least not-not-working. I wasn’t sure how far I could trust my read of Ax’s human body language, but he seemed to be radiating uncertainty, indecision. I could see it in his jaw, his eyebrows, the set of his shoulders—a dozen tiny signs that told the black box inside my brain to keep going.

“You do not understand,” Ax said, his tone softer but still with steel at its core. “Your minds are not—”

“By all means, dismiss us,” I interrupted, changing directions as I tried to keep him off-balance. “I’m sure that our inferiority will be a great comfort to your people as they face down seven billion human Controllers.”

I took yet another step, pausing just outside of arm’s reach, the alien gun mere inches away from where my heart was trying to beat its way out of my chest. I was out of my depth, free-falling, making it up as I went along and hoping the house of cards would hold together.

“You doom him to the very fate we fight to prevent—”

“And would he not go to that fate willingly, if it meant victory for the rest of your people?” I demanded. “Would you not go to that fate willingly, cadet? Do you think you can win a war without sacrifices?”

sacrifices—

The word echoed in my head, setting off a subtle ping in the back of my mind, a reminder that Ax was not the only skeptic I needed to satisfy. Hoisting an expression of disdain onto my face, I turned away from him, ignoring the gun at my back as I locked eyes with Cassie—Cassie, whose parents had been murdered by the Yeerks, who the real Jake Berenson had decided to keep in the dark while he focused on infiltrating the pool, whose face was a trembling mixture of fear, fury, and confusion.

Don’t say anything yet Cassie please just trust me wait please wait one thing at a time—

“We would not do this lightly,” I said, trying to convey a wordless plea even as I kept my tone level and firm. “Were it not the whole wo—the whole galaxy at stake. But we’re already on the path to defeat. We can’t afford to lay aside any weapon.”

come on Cassie please I know this isn’t right just play along don’t say anything about Nazis or waterboarding or slippery slopes—

She bit her lip, glaring, her eyes cold and full of threat. But she nodded.

‹This is not over, Jake.›

I covered my surprise—barely—remembering just in time that self-morphing was a thing—fake Jake fake Jake—that of course the others would have started shifting into their armor the second Ax pulled out a gun. Marco and Rachel had probably already been wearing theirs, secret valley or no secret valley.

Sending a silent thanks to Cassie, I turned back toward the Andalite, saw the arm holding the weapon tremble slightly—where was he hiding that thing, anyway?—saw him swallow visibly.

“Which weighs heavier, cadet?” I asked, my instincts still pushing me toward stiff, formal sentences. “Tradition, or your brother’s will? Already he broke with your people when he gave us the morphing power, armed us with the knowledge of the Yeerk invasion. Elfangor’s Trust, he said—he feared your people might someday call it the third great mistake of the war. But he did it anyway. How much do you trust his wisdom? What is he saying to you right now, in your own head—in the dain?”

“It is not for the dain to make decisions on behalf of true minds,” Ax growled, his frown deepening.

“Then ask the real Elfangor,” suggested Garrett.

There followed a long, long silence. I stayed with it, keeping my eyes locked on the Andalite’s, watching the play of emotions on his human face. He looked at me—at Cassie—at Rachel—all the while keeping the weapon pointed squarely at my chest. He looked at Tobias, and down at the ground, and up at the sky.

Think about it, I urged him silently, wishing I still had access to thought-speak. He’s still in there, somehow, preserved by the morphing tech. He’s still real, still alive.

You have a chance to say goodbye.

“Like the wind in thought and deed,” Ax murmured cryptically, his attention still turned inward.

I remained silent. Behind me, I heard Marco shift, and I lifted a finger, hoping that he would understand, and wait—hoping that waiting was, in fact, the right move.

fake Jake fake Jake fake Jake—

Shut up. Focus.

It occurred to me, as the moment stretched onward, that we didn’t just have the power to bring Elfangor back for an hour—we had the power to bring him back forever.   That one of us could stay in morph, and trade—could make a deal with Death—

Ax looked at me.

Trusting my instincts, I stretched out a hand, palm up. “The weapon, cadet,” I said. Calmly. Quietly. As if obedience were a foregone conclusion.

He handed it over.

“Your oath,” I added. “That there will be no more threats of this kind, for any reason.” I glanced around the circle, my gaze lingering on Tobias, on Cassie, on Rachel. “We are too few to fight amongst ourselves. We don’t have to be allies, but we can not afford to be enemies.”

The Andalite nodded.

“We will discuss this,” he said, as the tension slowly began draining out of the circle. “My brother and I, together.” He began to demorph, fur sprouting across his olive skin. “In the eib, in private.”

I nodded as gravely as I could, looked around the circle again. “Cassie?” I asked, cautious. As of yet, no one else had tried deactivating the built-in morph controls. “Are you willing to—um—facilitate?”

She turned to look at Ax, then back to me, her eyes glittering. “I could just lie, you know,” she said loudly. “Dig through his mind and say whatever I feel like. You’d never know. Ax would never know. That’s the kind of power we’re talking about here. When I was—when we were—talking—it was—I was in total control. I had access to anything I wanted. His thoughts. His memories. His emotions. He couldn’t even think unless I wanted him to. Absolute power. It is absolutely guaranteed to be corrupting.”

Fate of the galaxy, I wanted to say.

But I didn’t have to. Cassie already knew. And because she knew, she’d play along. I was sure of it, my black box quietly confident. She would make the argument, say her piece, and then concede, because we were losing, and we did need every advantage we could get, and whatever else she might be, she wasn’t blind or stupid.

Which made it all the more terrifying that she was almost definitely right.

*        *        *

 

When it was all over, Ax stalked out into the forest without saying a word. We heard the dull thunk of bone against wood, the crash of trees falling, the unsettling silence where a human would be shouting, screaming, sobbing.

Cassie—Elfangor—turned to me, all four eyes focused and motionless in a way that I somehow knew was intended as a sign of respect and attention. ‹He does not trust you, Jake Berenson. Not yet.›

I nodded. “I know,” I replied. “Can we trust him?”

‹He will not betray you to the Yeerks, nor break his promise and threaten you directly. But beyond that, I cannot say. You have not done either of us any favors today. This discovery—I feel that I should have known it, that I had all of the pieces, and so the pain of it is bearable. But Aximili is young. He is—›

The alien paused as a particularly loud crash echoed out of the forest, a dozen birds screeching skyward as the ground shook underfoot. ‹He is alone,› Elfangor continued. ‹Solitude is—not normal, for an Andalite. The eib—it is a soothing presence. An embrace, of sorts. It bolsters us, guides us, reassures us—it is a stabilizing force, surrounding us from the moment of our birth until the rite of starlight, when we enter adulthood. Aximili—›

He broke off again, dropping to all sixes, his tail drooping as his main eyes turned toward the ground and only his stalk eyes remained fixed on mine. ‹He should not have snuck aboard my ship,› the alien said, a note of despair in his thought-speak. ‹He should not be alone, at this stage of maturity. He is too young, and I do not know what pressures his isolation will create. It is—do you know of the human scientist Harlow? The experiments with rhesus monkeys, some decades ago?›

I shook my head. “Cassie, if any of us—”

‹Yes. Cassie knows. There is danger here.›

Pushing off with his hands, the alien straightened again, lifting his torso and looking at each of us in turn. ‹I would ask that you care for him,› he said. ‹Tobias, I think, in particular, and Garrett as well—he has begun to know and respect you, as he does not yet know and respect the others. But it may be hopeless, and in any event you have more pressing matters to attend to.›

Another crash, another flight of birds. Wordlessly, Tobias stood, pulling Garrett to his feet. Together, the pair of them disappeared into the woods.

‹There is much assistance I could offer you,› Elfangor continued. ‹Intelligence. History. Tactics. Certain technologies you may be able to assemble using human components. And yet—›

He hesitated, glancing once more at Rachel and Marco before focusing on me. ‹I cannot prosecute this war for you,› he said bluntly. ‹There are forces at work which I cannot oppose and cannot explain—forces which prevented me from remaining with you in the first place, and which may forbid or punish my continued presence or influence. I think that you must consider me a resource in only the direst need, and call upon me only as a last resort.›

“No,” Marco cut in. “No, no, no. This is the second time you’ve pulled this ‘mysterious deeper game’ crap on us, Mr. Fangor. Last time, you didn’t have a chance to explain, but this time—”

He broke off, looking at his old, plastic Mickey Mouse watch. They’d all thrown out their phones days ago, on the far side of town, to keep the Yeerks off their trail.

“—this time, you’ve got like forty minutes before Cassie needs to demorph. Explain.”

‹I cannot,› Elfangor repeated. ‹The rules of this game are unclear to me, and the consequences of violating them graver than you can imagine. You will have to piece together what you can from what I have already told you—any more, and Crayak will have leave to—›

He faltered, stiffening in what appeared to be surprise. ‹Crayak,› he said again, slowly and deliberately. ‹Crayak. Crayak.›  He paused, seeming to gather his resolve, and I felt a tingle of dread crawl its way up my spine. ‹Ellimist.›

“What—”

‹The game has already changed,› Elfangor said grimly. ‹It was not possible, when last we met, for me to say those names to you. I do not know if this was a stricture that was tied to my true body alone, or if the reasons for withholding them no longer apply, or if one side has acted unilaterally to loosen my restraints, or if we are baited into a trap of some kind, or—›

He trailed off again, turning his stalk eyes to Marco while his main eyes remained on me. ‹I will say only this: that we are each of us here by design, moved into place as surely as a pawn upon a chessboard. That I did not tell you this before—that I find myself moved to tell you now—that the true nature of the morphing technology has given us the chance to have a second conversation at all—each of these events were plotted, predicted. They are steps in a calculation, branches on the tree of possibility, and it takes a greater mind than mine to see the final outcome.›

“God dammit,” Marco bit out. “What are we supposed to do with that?”

‹Your best,› said the alien, giving an eerily human shrug. ‹As you would have done anyway.›

*        *        *

 

“Should we even have a fire going?” I asked. “The Yeerks have got to be using some kind of satellite surveillance to look for us, at this point.”

It was almost night, the sky a deep blue broken by a scattering of bright stars. Rachel, Tobias, and Garrett had gone to sleep—Rachel in her hammock, and Tobias and Garrett in one of the three tiny lean-tos. Ax had disappeared hours earlier, after promising to rejoin us in the morning. Only Cassie, Marco, and I were still up, sitting on logs around the firepit in the middle of the clearing.

“Erek set up a web of holograms around the entire valley,” Cassie said. “He wouldn’t tell us where they were, or how they worked, but he says that nothing in the valley can be seen from the outside, and that the holograms themselves can’t be detected by the Yeerks.”

“That’s—convenient,” I said, watching the column of smoke as it trailed off into the heavens. Would the smoke itself be enough to give us away? Would Erek have thought of that?

Marco muttered something under his breath. “What?” I asked.

“I said, it doesn’t make any sense. The Chee.”

“What do you mean?”

“Erek told us they have some kind of block against violence,” he said. “Can’t do anything to harm another sapient being, can’t allow violence to happen. But he’s sheltering us even though he knows we’re going to be taking the fight to the Yeerks. And he’s letting the Yeerks go around bodysnatching people left and right. And he said they’ve been on Earth for thousands of years, but obviously they’ve never intervened in any large-scale war, since it would take all of about six of them to completely shut down any battlefield in history. I can’t figure out any kind of coherent set of rules that makes all that fit together.”

He fell silent, staring into the fire, the orange light shining in his eyes, off his hair. He was in his real body, his right hand swollen beneath the dirty fabric of a t-shirt torn into strips.

I looked over at Cassie. She was staring into the fire, too—elbows on her knees, her chin resting in her hands, wearing the same closed, thoughtful expression she’d had on ever since she came out of Andalite morph.

I sighed, feeling the dull throb of a headache beginning to blossom between my eyes, and added figure out what to do about the Chee to the long and growing list of things-to-do-tomorrow. Standing up, I grabbed another of the logs Rachel had cut—how?—and dropped it into the pit, shielding my eyes from the resulting fountain of sparks.

We had food, water, and shelter, thanks to Cassie’s original efforts and occasional supply runs supplemented by deliveries from Erek. We had weapons—the laser beam Marco had stolen from the Yeerk pool, a few guns Tobias had “scavenged” from the pawn shops on the north side of the tracks, the gun Ax had pulled on me and the strange metal bracelet Rachel had stolen from Visser Three’s body. We didn’t have internet or phones, but we had thought-speak, and it wasn’t too hard to get news from Somerton, Rosita, or Granite Heights, none of which showed any signs of infestation yet.

We had everything we needed to survive. What we didn’t have—yet—was a way to win.

I turned and sat back down, gazing into the flickering light. The last time I’d sat in front of a campfire had been almost two years ago, backpacking with Marco and my parents and my brother Tom. We’d cooked steaks on sticks, made s’mores, thrown copper sulfate on the flames to turn them green. It had been pretty much the only time I’d gotten to hang out with Tom that summer, since he’d been spending every day getting ready for JV basketball tryouts…

Tom was out there somewhere, right at that very moment. Trapped. Scared. Alone. Controlled. Tom, and my parents, and my cousins Jordan and Sara and my aunt and uncle—Rachel’s parents—and Marco’s dad, and everyone I knew from school, and probably a quarter of the people in the city, by this point. Twenty thousand host-ready Yeerks, Elfangor had said.

I hadn’t thought about any of them all day. In days, really—even before my memory went fuzzy, I’d been avoiding looking straight at the problem. At what had happened to the Withers and the Chapmans, the utter, horrifying darkness of it. It was so much easier to focus on what was right in front of me, on asking questions and making plans. To distract myself from the fact that I was lost, homesick, and terrified, and that I didn’t know what to do next.

fake Jake fake Jake fake Jake—

Except that wasn’t it. Not really. The problem wasn’t that I was a fake Jake, it was that I was exactly the same as the real Jake. The Jake who’d screwed up and gotten himself killed—who hadn’t been able to save Cassie’s parents—who was barely holding the group together. I had every one of his flaws, every one of his weaknesses. I wasn’t a superhero, I was a kid, and not even a particularly smart one at that. I had no business carrying the fate of the world on my shoulders.

So give it up. Turn yourself in to the military, give the blue box to the scientists, alert the media. Like you should have done last week.

Insanity was doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting something different. Or was that despair talking? The part of me that was afraid to be in charge, because then it was all my fault?

I sighed again. There was no point going around in circles inside my own head, in trying to make decisions by myself in the dark. The universe had waited eight days while I was stuck in a coma; it could wait eight more hours.

I rose to my feet, my eyes still on the flames. “I think I’m going to b—” I began, then faltered as I looked up.

Marco and Cassie were staring at one another across the campfire, each looking quietly determined. “What—” I said, and then broke off again. “Are you guys thought-speaking at each other?”

Marco held up his broken hand in answer. “Gotta spend some time in my real body, or this will never heal.”

Cassie said nothing.

“What’s going—I mean, what are you—” I asked, for once unable to guess.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Marco drawled. “We’re both waiting up to be the last one to talk to you. Alone.” His lip twisted into a smirk, his eyes still locked onto Cassie’s. “Though I guess at this point, it’s pretty obvious which one of us is more stubborn.”

Suddenly, he stood, kicking a splash of dust into the fire as he shoved his hands into his pockets, breaking eye contact with Cassie as he threw me a plastic grin. “’Night, buddy. Glad you’re not dead, and all that.” He turned and began walking off into the darkness.

“Marco?”

“Later,” he called over his shoulder.

And then he was gone. I stared after him for a long moment, trying to figure out what had just happened. Behind me, there was a slight scrape, a quiet rustle, and I turned to see Cassie looking down at the ground, scratching random lines in the dirt with her shoe.

“He didn’t take it very well,” she said simply, her voice calm and conversational. “When you—went under. He was—”

She pursed her lips. “Well. It’s been hard. Let’s just leave it at that.”

I swallowed, my throat suddenly dry. “Cassie, I’m sorry about your—”

“It wasn’t your fault,” she said, cutting me off. Her eyes were incredibly bright in the firelight, set into the dark skin of her face. They shone like stars, looking brilliant and distant.

“Yeah, but we should’ve—”

Should you?” she asked. She looked up at me, her expression mild. “Because now you’re looking at it from the outside, and I’m curious. What do you really think, Jake?”

I swallowed again, turning to look at the dark space where Marco had disappeared.

Should I have left Cassie in the dark about her parents’ death? It was unkind, for sure—cruel, even. But would it have been any kinder to tell her? To waste time and resources hunting her down, only to deliver the terrible news?

If we’d gone looking—if we’d waited—the whole mission to the pool would have turned out differently. If we’d sent Rachel to find Cassie, and Marco and I had gone in alone—

“That’s what I thought,” Cassie said sadly. “See, this is the problem. It’s not that we’re going to make a whole bunch of bad calls and suddenly turn evil or something like that. It’s just that the good calls—well, there just aren’t any good calls, you know? We keep going like this, we’re going to end up in a place where even the least bad option is still something we’re not going to be able to live with. And if we do live with it, it’ll be because we—because we’ve stopped—because the good parts inside us—”

She faltered, scrubbing at her eyes with one hand. “I killed a bear, Jake,” she said. “Right over there, by the creek. Morphed into Elfangor’s body and just killed it, straight out. It pissed me off, so I ended it. And you know what? I don’t even think that’s particularly crazy. I mean, I can look at it and see, okay, I’ve got some kind of PTSD thing going on, and I felt like I didn’t have any control over my environment, so I did something to give myself a sense of power and—and agency. And it’s just a bear. It’s not like I killed a person or anything.”

The lump in my throat had grown too big to swallow. I felt my fists clenching and unclenching, felt sweat trickling down the back of my neck. I wanted to say something to stop her—to throw the train of thought off the tracks before it could reach its destination—but there was nothing to be said. Nothing true, anyway.

“Rachel—she killed a kid, Jake. She didn’t want to talk about it, but I got the story out of Erek. At the school, when everything was going down, Visser Three was in a kid’s body, and she just carved it up like it was a Thanksgiving turkey. She cut his arms off, and then knocked him down, and then cut his head off, and then she just dealt with it, like it was nothing. And you know what else? Erek had it all on tape, and I watched it, and as soon as I saw it was a kid I didn’t know, I felt better. Like it would have been worse if it were a friend of mine, like this kid’s life didn’t matter because I didn’t know his name.

She looked up at me from her seat on the rotting log, barely two yards away and yet infinitely out of reach. “I talked to Elfangor about the whole Yeerk-morphing thing. At the same time that he was talking to Ax—he can think two things at once, easy. And he made this point, you know, about respect and stuff. Like, if I think that I would want somebody to use my body—if it could help them win the war—then I’m not really respecting them if I assume that they would say no. Like, I’m sort of accusing them of being selfish or short-sighted or something—that if the war is really worth fighting, then I should trust other people to see that it’s really worth fighting, and just go ahead and assume that they would consent, if they had the time to really understand. And it wasn’t even until I demorphed that I realized just how deeply creepy that sounds, and even then I still believed the argument. I still think it’s true.”

She shrugged, a quick and casual movement of her shoulders, and I felt the tension inside me double, because she shouldn’t be this nonchalant, not Cassie of all people, not about things like this. My black box was shuddering, smoking, ready to break because this was wrong, wrong, wrong—

“And that’s the thing, you know? That’s what I’m afraid of. Not that we’ll wake up one day and realize that we’ve crossed all the lines, but that we’ll look back and we won’t even see any lines—that we won’t know what all the fuss was about in the first place, because every choice we made was good, every choice we made was justified. I mean, what was Rachel supposed to do—leave Visser Three in control of the battlefield?” She gave a brittle, humorless laugh. “I did that once, and now both my parents are dead. If I’d done what Rachel did, my dad might still be alive right now.”

“Cassie—” I interjected, her name like glass in my throat.

“Yeah?” she asked—carelessly curious, heartbreakingly casual.

But once again, there was nothing to be said. The silence stretched out and eventually broke, becoming just an ordinary quiet. After a time, Cassie stood, still looking slightly up at me, the flames reflecting in her eyes imperceptibly dimmer as the fire slowly burned itself out. She looked at me, and smiled—sadly—then shuffled forward, leaning in to brush her lips against mine for the first time.

“Sweet dreams, Jake,” she said, as she stepped around me and headed for bed. “I’m glad you’re back.”

*        *        *

 

For the third time in a row, I stretched out my hand and focused, watching Cassie’s borrowed body go still as the acquiring process took hold.

“Last one for now,” I said, drawing back as she began to demorph. “I don’t want you getting morph-sick.”

‹That’s only three,› she pointed out in public thought-speak. ‹Are you sure?›

“For now,” I repeated wearily. “We need to move on. Lot of stuff to sort out.”

I stepped away as her feathers began to melt together, slowly darkening into the deep purple of her t-shirt. Turning, I picked up the Iscafil device and handed it back to Rachel. “Hold on to this,” I said. “We’ll figure out what to do with it later.”

She nodded, her face an unreadable mask. Her knuckles were white as she gripped the small, blue box, her eyes locked on it as if it were a poisonous snake.

After Visser Three had done whatever-it-was that had put the two of them and Erek into some kind of mind-meld, she’d gone straight for the construction site, digging the box out of its hiding place and delivering it to Marco before going to rescue her own family. By the time she’d gotten home, the Yeerks were already there.

Later, I told myself. You’ll deal with it later.

“Sound off,” I said, turning to the rest of the group. “Flight morphs.”

“Osprey,” said Marco.

“Barn owl,” said Garrett.

“Red-tail,” said Tobias.

“Eagle,” said Rachel.

There was a mental flash, the image of a great horned owl, and Ax lifted a hand. He had been practicing thought-speaking at human brains just as much as he had been practicing human speech, but he still found it easier to communicate in pictures and concepts rather than words.

“Snipe,” said Cassie, as her mouth appeared out of the peregrine falcon’s beak.

“And I’ll take the falcon,” I said.

Since most of our morphs had been acquired from Cassie, we’d decided to divide them up between us, so that there would be no chance of accidental interference in the middle of combat. For the most part, the birds had been independently acquired and could be overlapped, but Garrett, Ax, and I were all using borrowed morphs, so we’d each claimed one of them, as well. It would make it easier for us to tell one another apart in the air, and we always had the option of acquiring our own copies of different birds later.

“We’re going to look like a birdwatcher’s wet dream when we’re all flying together,” Marco quipped. “We’ll need to be careful—stay spaced out and stuff.”

“Bulldozer morphs,” I continued, refusing to be distracted.

“Elephant,” answered Rachel.

“Polar bear,” added Garrett.

Ax transmitted the image of a moose.

“Gorilla,” said Marco.

“Cape buffalo,” said Tobias.

“And Cassie and I will share the rhino, for now,” I concluded. “Okay. Combat. I’ve got the tiger.”

“Gorilla again,” Marco chimed in. “Ain’t broke.”

“Wolf,” Cassie said softly.

‹My own body will be sufficient,› said Ax, his thought-speak only a little bit like razor blades dancing across our minds.

Garrett was the first to recover. “Ouch,” he said. “And, grizzly.”

“I’ll play Elfangor,” said Tobias. I suppressed the urge to study Ax’s reaction.

“Hork-Bajir,” said Rachel.

I raised an eyebrow—when did that happen?—but she didn’t elaborate, just looked down at the cube in her hands.

I took in a deep breath. Later. I would deal with it later, along with Ax’s alien dogma and Tobias’s continued skepticism and Marco’s increasing irritability and Cassie’s quiet despair and Garrett’s weird tics and the fact that we were all stuck out in the woods and all of our friends and family had been taken and I was a fake a clone a copy a ghost—

Later.

“Okay,” I said, and I was relieved that no hint of my exhaustion and anxiety managed to make its way into my voice. “Let’s make a plan.”

 

*        *        *

 

“It works,” Marco said, holding out both hands like a stage magician. Slowly, his palms began to swell, bulging outward, taking on new colors and texture. A minute and a half later, and two reusable grocery bags dropped to the forest floor, their contents spilling out across the pine needles.

“Cassie was right,” he continued. “I didn’t have to think about what was in the bags; I just focused on the outside, and it pulled the whole thing into the morph.”

“It’s going to cut down on your time limit,” Rachel said. “Right? I mean, if the thing is based on mass—”

“Yeah, but hand grenades don’t weigh much, and neither do AK-47s.”

 

*        *        *

 

“When Cassie returns, you may tell her that her prediction was correct,” said Ax. “The pigeon was capable of detecting wavelengths of light well beyond the range of both human and Andalite vision.”

“There’s a cloaked Bug fighter over your house, Rachel’s house, and Marco’s house,” Garrett added. “You can’t really see them, even in morph, but you can tell they’re there. Nothing over Oak Landing, and nothing over Cassie’s. One over the school, though, and the big force field is still there. Sorry, Jake—I don’t think we’re going to be getting anybody’s family out any time soon.”

 

*        *        *

 

“Took them maybe three minutes to show up after Rachel stung him. They’re getting faster, and they’re following up on everything now. I think they’ve got every single cop, EMT, and firefighter, not to mention most of the people who work downtown. Pretty soon, we’re not going to be able to move around in the city at all.”

“Did you get the cylinder?”

“Yeah, we got it.”

 

*        *        *

 

“I can’t help you,” Erek said. “I want to, believe me. But I can’t.” He unzipped his backpack, revealing the groceries inside. “This is the best I can do, for now.”

“What about the rest of your people?” I asked.

“We’re still gathering, just in case. But there’s nothing we can do. Our understanding of psychological trauma is learned—as far as our core programming is concerned, the Yeerk invasion is a good thing. Crime is down by fifty percent and still falling. Pretty soon, there won’t be any violence left at all.”

 

*        *        *

 

I closed my eyes. “Five seconds,” I called out, focusing my thoughts. Twenty-three times forty-seven—that’s twenty-three times fifty minus twenty-three times three; twenty-three times one hundred is twenty-three hundred, cut that in half and it’s—

‹JOHHHHHHHN JACOB JINGLEHEIMER SCHMIDT—HIS NAME IS MY NAME TOOOOOO! WHENEVER WE GO OUT, THE PEOPLE ALWAYS SHOUT—›

“Stop!” I managed to choke out, my train of thought utterly derailed. “Please, stop!”

‹Did it work?›

“Yeah,” I said, unable to keep a smile from spreading across my face. “It worked.”

 

*        *        *

 

‹I still don’t understand why Cassie’s the only one of us who can pull this off,› Marco grumbled.

‹Doesn’t matter,› said Rachel, holding up one three-fingered hand and studying the sharp, curved claws. ‹A, it’s awesome, and B, as long as we can acquire from her—›

‹—and as long as we don’t need all seven of us in morph,› Marco interjected.

‹—then this is just as good.›

 

*        *        *

 

“If we do it this way, we’re all on the line,” Marco pointed out.

“Yeah, but if we split up, we’re weaker at every step,” I said. “We’ve all seen Episode III—I’m not sending half of us to one place and half of us to another, when we can all just do both missions. It’s bad enough that we don’t have Tobias—if something goes wrong, I want everybody there to help.”

 

*        *        *

 

“Are you sure you want to do this, Garrett?” I asked. Around me, skepticism showed more or less openly on every face—Rachel dubious, Marco visibly opposed, Cassie sympathetic, Ax idly curious.

Garrett didn’t look up, didn’t speak—just sat there with his shirt pulled up around his mouth, staring resolutely at my shoes. But he nodded.

Be straightforward with him, Tobias had told me, just before leaving. Blunt, even. Just don’t bullshit him.

“I’m a little nervous about this,” I said carefully. “Because it looks like you’re nervous, and this is—well, this is the most important job.”

“Don’t talk to me like I’m a retard,” Garrett said—but mildly.

I nodded. “Fine. Garrett, you’re not acting like you can handle this.”

“Because I won’t look you in the eye.”

“And because you’ve got the shirt over your mouth. And because you’re curled up in a little ball. And there’s that sound you make when we’re not looking. This is pretty much the worst I’ve ever seen you, as far as—that stuff—is concerned. And Tobias isn’t here to—”

“I don’t need Tobias to take care of me.”

“—to help you. The way Marco helps me. This stuff is scary—it’s okay to be scared. But not too scared. Right now, you look too scared, which makes me want to ask Cassie or Marco to do it instead.”

I waited for the younger boy’s response.

‹This is a waste of—›

‹Ten seconds,› I interrupted, looking over to see whether it was Marco or Rachel I was interrupting. Neither face looked confused, which told me that whoever had sent the first message had sent it so that all of us could hear.

All of us except—I hoped—Garrett himself.

It wasn’t the first time that the others had expressed reservations about the strange little orphan kid. The subject had come up twice since Tobias left, exacerbated by the fact that—in the older boy’s absence—Garrett had spent almost all of his time with Ax. Marco and Rachel and Cassie had seen little of his competence, and a lot of his awkward, antisocial weirdness. It took energy to deal with him, especially as the days dragged on and the little valley felt smaller and smaller—energy that was in short supply, given the stress we were already under.

But.

I wasn’t entirely sure why I was defending him—why I wanted to defend him, as opposed to doing it out of a sense of duty or loyalty or virtue. It wasn’t any one thing—more like a mix of reasons, none of which would have been sufficient on their own.

There was the talk I’d had with Cassie, and the bad taste it had left in my mouth, that made me want to be a better person than—strictly speaking—I had to be.

There was the fact that Tobias did feel like an important part of the group, and that Tobias and Garrett were a package deal.

There was my quiet sense that Garrett was in fact a useful ally—that he had perspective and potential that we would miss, if we lost it. By all accounts, he’d already saved Tobias’s life once, not to mention his role in bringing us together with Ax.

Mostly, though, it was about the shape of the little tribe we were forming, the kind of group we needed to be, if we wanted to win this war. Sooner or later—and probably sooner—we were going to have to start growing. Recruiting. Sharing the morphing power, accepting that we didn’t have a monopoly on action. Ax was Elfangor’s brother—in a very real sense, Garrett was our only outsider. That made him—for me, at least—what, a weathervane? A test case? The question of whether we could make it work with Garrett seemed meaningfully tied up with the question of whether we could make it work with anyone who wasn’t there from the beginning. It was a matter of setting precedent, of self-fulfilling prophecy—either way, we’d be creating a feedback loop.

But—and even I admitted this, had no interest in denying it—none of that would be relevant if he couldn’t pull his weight.

‹That’s ten,› said Marco, or maybe Rachel. ‹Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen.›

Marco.

I opened my mouth—

Sucking in a deep breath, Garrett uncurled and climbed to his feet. Pulling his shirt down, he fixed his gaze somewhere in the vicinity of my left nostril, his arms held rigidly by his sides.

“I’d like to do this,” he said loudly. “I’m the smallest one, with the longest time limit, so it makes sense for it to be me. And I can handle it. I’m sorry I’m not as sneaky as everybody else is about whether or not I’m scared.”

I looked over at the others, caught Marco’s eye.

Your call, Fearless Leader.

“Okay, then,” I said. “Trial number one. Let’s do this.”

Without further ceremony, I lay down on a patch of grass a few yards away from the firepit. Still looking vaguely terrified, Garrett stepped over and stood with one foot on either side of my torso, straddling me. For the briefest of moments, we made actual eye contact, and I gave him what I hoped would be taken as an encouraging nod.

“Here goes,” he muttered under his breath, and closed his eyes.

The basic idea was simple. According to Ax, the Yeerks either already had or very soon would have something called a Gleet bio-filter installed at every entrance to the Yeerk pool. It would detect—and vaporize—any living thing that attempted to pass through it that was not approved—i.e. a human, Taxxon, or Hork-Bajir, complete with ride-along Yeerk.

In all likelihood, this would not be the only hurdle we would need to overcome. Given that Cassie and Marco had each independently come up with the idea in the same five-minute period, it was almost certain that Visser Three had defenses in place to guard against it.

But it was an important piece of the puzzle, which was: how do you get a two-hundred-pound lump of cesium—or better still, a hundred two-pound lumps—into the middle of the Yeerk pool?

Above, I had an unpleasantly clear view of Garrett as his skin turned gray and began to ooze a slimy, snailey lubricant. With unnerving swiftness, his eyelids fused shut and his mouth and nostrils vanished, leaving his face a horrifying lump of alien flesh. Dropping to his knees, he fell forward onto my chest, and I grimaced as the thick, wet heat began to soak through my shirt.

‹Sorry.›

I heard a sort of garbage-disposal sound that I could only imagine was his entire skeletal system shattering and dissolving. A septic, swampy odor filled the air, and the pressure on my legs and torso evened out as his own limbs melted together into a single puddle of goo. I closed my eyes, wishing he had started by shrinking.

‹Sorry.›

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, unsure whether he would even be able to hear me. Next time, we let him morph in a pot of water and scoop him out. The theory had been that it would be easier and more hygienic if he started out in contact with my body, but we hadn’t really taken into account just how gross the transition would be.

‹Jake.›

“Hmmm?” I said.

‹Jake, something’s wrong.›

Feeling a sudden spike of adrenaline, I opened my eyes.

There was nothing human left of Garrett’s body—it was a puddle of oozing gray flesh, covering me like the world’s largest booger. It didn’t look Yeerkish, either, though—instead of the pale, featureless gray, it was all shot through with delicate black veins, the pattern pulsing and shifting as if it were a nest of writhing snakes.

“What—”

I didn’t get to finish the question, because without warning, Garrett’s body suddenly swelled, a wave of alien biomass surging forward, knocking me flat on my back.

‹Garrett! Stop! Demorph!›

‹What?›

‹You’re suffocating Jake! Back to human, now!›

The slime and gunk were everywhere—in my eyes, in my mouth, up my nose and in my ears. I gagged, trying to inhale, and then retched, my throat filling with bile and acid. Acting on animal instinct, I began tearing at the soft flesh, trying to dig my way out to open air.

‹AAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!›

‹Keep demorphing! Don’t stop!›

I could feel the weight across my face and chest decreasing, and with a final, desperate heave, I threw the other boy off of me, turning to the side and hacking as I tried to clear my airway. I was dimly aware of the others shouting, of the sound of footsteps, and then what felt like a gallon of water splashed across my face, clearing some of the muck.

‹Sorry sorry sorry what happened sorry so—›

Garrett’s thought-speak cut off abruptly as he passed the halfway mark in his demorph. A long forty-five seconds passed, in which I continued to cough and wheeze as the others threw more water on me, wiping my face and neck clean with rough towels.

Eventually, I got my breathing back under control and was able to open my eyes. Garrett was half a dozen yards away, curled up into a ball, his shirt fully obscuring his face and ooze and slime drenching his clothes. The others were standing around me in a semicircle, a mix of horror and confusion on every face.

“What,” shouted Marco, still holding an empty bucket, “the fuck? Ax? Cassie? What the everliving fuck just happened?”

‹I am sorry, Marco,› Ax said, sounding bewildered, his thought-speak even more grating than usual in his agitation. ‹I have absolutely no idea.›

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 15: Marco

My eyes were already open as I came awake—my feet already under me, my clothes already on. There were three stones in my right hand, as I’d known there would be, as there basically had to be.

I took a deep breath. I’d prepared for this as best I could, but the reality—

Are you there? I asked in my thoughts—quietly, to whatever extent “quiet” meant anything inside my own head.

Silence. Inevitable, expected.

I began to count doubles—one, two, four, eight, sixteen—growing more and more tense with each passing number, sweat prickling under my hair and trickling down the back of my neck.

Thirty-two.

Sixty-four.

One-twenty-eight.

Two-fifty-six.

Five hundred twelve.

One thousand twenty-four.

Two thousand forty-eight.

Four thousand ninety-six.

Eight thousand one hundred ninety-two.

Sixteen thousand three hundred eighty four.

Thirty two thousand six hundred—seven?—seven hundred and—

I stopped. I had two-to-the-fourteenth memorized, and not two-to-the-fifteenth, and with that, it was settled, my last scrap of self-protective doubt obliterated, annihilated. I had known it from the first moment, but knowing was one thing, and proof was—

Something else.

I took another deep breath, the air catching raggedly in my throat.

What day is it? I thought.

Like magic—like thought-speak—the answer came back, a whisper from the other Marco. The real Marco, the one in control, who’d been quietly giving me space as I dealt with the reality of the situation.

<It’s Tuesday,> he said. <The twelfth.>

Six days. One for the memory to sink in—to become a part of the physical structure of my brain. Then the acquisition, which I didn’t remember—couldn’t remember, any more than I could remember the last moment of wakefulness before falling asleep.

And then five more days. Five days in which I’d been frozen, unreal, irrelevant—a potential person, a pattern in my own memory. In the meantime, Marco would have calculated two-to-the-fifteenth, would have committed the number to memory. Tomorrow, he would let Jake or Rachel or—no, not Tobias, Tobias would still be gone—let them acquire him, and acquire himself back. And then there would be three of us, where right now there were only two.

Version control.

My idea. Me—the Marco in between.

Can you hear all of this? I asked.

<Yeah,> came the reply. <It’s—well—yeah.>

Can you—I mean, can you let me—you know—hear you, too? I tried not to think the word please, knowing even as I did that it was futile, that he—I—would hear it anyway.

Silence. Then—

<Sorry. I guess not.>

I sucked in another long, slow breath. It’s fine, I thought. Don’t worry about it.

There was a pause. <Do you—I mean, are you—>

It’s fine.

There was a strange moment of mental reflection, in which I knew—despite being unable to hear it directly—knew what the other Marco was thinking, and knew that he knew it, and knew that he knew that I knew that he knew it—a cascading upward spiral in which we both considered the question that I wanted to ask, the question I’d anticipated, that I had decided in advance I would not answer, and realized that I—he—was going to answer it anyway. It had been silly to pretend otherwise—a good, general policy taken to an extreme, irrational conclusion.

<They’re all still alive.>

And—

<No. They’ve still got him.>

I squeezed my eyes shut, a sudden tremble in my chin. Thanks, I thought, knowing there was nothing more to say.

After a time, I opened my eyes again.

Okay. How can I help?

<There’s a plan.>

I nodded—physically nodded, registering for the first time where we—I—was standing. Marco had climbed up to the highest rock in the shattered pile of boulders that made up the north end of the valley. It was my favorite spot, with a peaceful view of the back side of the mountain range—no humans, no buildings, just greens and browns and granite grays. He had clearly chosen it on purpose—a small but meaningful kindness.

Yeah, you’re such a great guy, Marco.

I experienced the thought, rather than broadcasting it intentionally, and the real Marco let it pass without comment. He could afford to be tolerant—of the two of us, he wasn’t the one whose lifespan was measured in minutes.

And with that, the thought that I had been trying not to think found wings, broke through the barriers and echoed across the surface of my mind.

Oh, God. I’m going to die.

I had at most two hours—probably less, if the real Marco was under any kind of time pressure. Two hours, and then he would demorph, and I would be gone, dissolved back into the æther. It was completely inevitable—there was not one single thing that I could do to prevent it, and the fact that the original version of me would continue on in his own body failed to provide even the slightest shred of comfort.

<Hey—>

Just give me a minute, okay? Just—just give me one fucking minute. I don’t need—

He backed off.

Thirty seconds later, I wiped the tears away from my cheeks, blinking until the mountains stopped being blurry. It was a warm, beautiful day, the horizon clearly visible a hundred miles away.

Okay. Talk.

<We’re still trying to crack the Yeerk pool, but we ran into a snag. Something went wrong with the Yeerk morph, and we’re not sure what. We’re going to try for another one of the cylinders, as a test.>

You’re running the exact same—

<Please. No, we figure it’s time to start hitting them for real, and we’ll grab a cylinder on our way out.>

He laid out the situation in broad strokes. The Yeerks had concentrated their firepower in four separate locations—the pool, the high school, the downtown police station, and the hospital. According to the Chee, each of them was openly alien on the inside, with holograms at the entrances and Hork-Bajir and other aliens working side by side with human Controllers.

The pool and the high school were both protected by impenetrable shields; Ax claimed that each was only a half-dome, and could be bypassed from below, but he also admitted that Visser Three would have definitely made plans for that possibility.

The police station was currently too tough a nut to crack—it was their main response hub, with three Bug fighters hovering overhead on permanent standby and a lot of troops on alert inside.

The hospital was apparently undefended, and even Rachel was smart enough to recognize the trap.

<Jake wanted us to take one of the houses back, but I talked him out of it. There’s a bunch of other houses with known Controllers, plus a ton of random businesses, and we could always try just snatching someone off the street, but it’s getting harder because they’re traveling everywhere in triplets and pretty much every one of them has a gun.>

What about the stunners?

<Ax figures they’re running out. There’s only so much tech they could have brought with them, and they don’t have full manufacturing capability yet.>

So, what’s the plan?

<There’s a truck.>

A big one, about the size of a large U-Haul. It left from a supply depot on the outskirts of town every other day, heading for the pool, carrying food and soda.

Obvious target.

<Yeah. There’s a couple of guards in the back, and a team that goes over the cargo with a fine-tooth comb before they let it inside the shield. Looks like they irradiate the whole truck, too, in case of insects. But we’re not going to hit it on its way in.>

It had taken them a few reconnaissance trips to notice, but the truck was just as heavy on its return trip as it was when it left the warehouse—just as low on the tires, just as wobbly on the speedbumps, and just as slow on the turns.

<We don’t know what it is, but we figure we ought to steal it, or at the very least wreck it.>

It could be thirty Hork-Bajir!

<We’ve got a plan for that.>

About halfway between the pool and the warehouse, the truck’s route took it across Lake Mackintosh, the county reservoir. It wasn’t a huge lake—maybe a half mile wide at that point—and the bridge was basically just more road, held about twenty feet above the water by thick, concrete pillars.

You’re going to blow the bridge?

<With Ax’s phaser things. Shredders.>

What about the Controllers?

<Cassie’s sitting this one out.>

I swallowed. It was a cold, brutal answer, and I could picture exactly how the conversation must have gone down. Okay, I thought. So you—you’ve got somebody in the water? To rip open the truck?

<Garrett, as squid. Cassie thinks he can survive for a while in fresh water, so he’s going to drag off whatever seems valuable—and pull the Controllers out of the cab, to get their weapons and spare Yeerks.>

We went over the rest of the details, one by one. I bit my lip, looking down at the cloud-shadows mottling the slope of the mountain, my heart sinking as Marco fleshed out the plan in my head. There were a dozen things that could go wrong—a hundred, a thousand. I did my best to point them out, and together, the other Marco and I considered them, making small adjustments to the plan.

What if the bridge doesn’t break? I asked, at one point. Or if it falls in early, and the truck just stops?

<We bail,> Marco said. <No point taking extra risk. We’re hoping, we do it this way, it all happens so fast the Yeerks never even get a distress signal. Ax is pretty sure he can time it so it falls right as they’re coming up to it.>

So no distractions, then?

<Jake wants everybody nearby, especially since we’re down to five. Plus, we don’t want to show all our tricks before we’re ready to take on the pool, and we don’t want somebody getting killed because some Controller happens to get in a lucky shot.>

We talked, and talked, and talked, going over the whole thing twice—thrice—four times. We talked about Visser Three, and the information Rachel had pulled out of his head. We talked about the things he would have been able to pull from Rachel, and whether Ax’s surprise presence would provide any sort of advantage, and whether the Visser already knew about using the morphing tech to store objects and tools. We talked about sodium, and bleach, and whether or not the National Guard armory had hand grenades. We talked about Elfangor, though for obvious reasons we both skirted the topic of digging through his memories by force. We talked about Jake, and Marco filled me in on how he was doing. We didn’t talk about Dad, but he was there, in the background, underlining our thoughts.

Eventually, it became clear that there was nothing more to talk about. That Marco was stringing things along, stretching out the time.

Keeping me alive.

I fought back a sudden urge to cry, looked down at my feet as the mountains turned blurry once again. In my head, the other Marco said nothing.

What are you—

—waiting for, I wanted to say, but some surge of self-preservation instinct stopped me from forming the words, even in my own thoughts. I wanted to shout it, to scream and rage, to retreat from my fear into bitter fury.

But if I did, he might stop waiting, and I didn’t want to die.

Cut the crap, a part of me whispered. It’s not like you’re actually dying, any more than you’re actually fourteen. You’re a copy. You’re a program he booted up for a while. When he turns you off, you’re still going to be there.

Except I wouldn’t—not really. Not me, not the memories of the past hour. I’d be wiped, reset—reformed from scratch, like when one of our morphs got injured in battle.

You knew this was going to happen. The second you decided to make backups, you knew you’d eventually wake up as the clone.

And I’d thought, then, that I’d be okay with it. That I’d understand. That as long as one of me kept on living, I’d feel like it wasn’t really over.

But it was. I had memories of fourteen long years, and in a few minutes, they would end, and me along with them. Scrubbing away the tears, I looked down at my index finger, at the faint scar on the second joint, a memento from the time I’d slammed it in the car door in second grade.

I wasn’t just a copy. If Jake was still Jake, even after what had happened, then I really was Marco. Not the original, but still real. If Marco Prime stayed in morph, I’d go on living—would grow up, grow old, have a life. I’d get to go to prom, take the road trip across the country that Dad had been promising for years, start a family somewhere. Even if we lost the war, I wouldn’t just vanish.

Marco, I began.

<Sorry,> he said.

And I felt the changes begin.

 

*        *        *

 

I finished throwing up and wiped my lips with the back of my hand, spitting to get the taste of bile out of my mouth. I’d thought about switching him off again—taking back total control—but in the end, I couldn’t do it. It would’ve made me feel better about it, and I didn’t want to feel better about it. I deserved every plea, every curse, every heart-wrenching knife that the past version of myself had sunk into me as I slowly murdered him, dissolving his existence away. I would carry that memory with me forever—it would be a part of every new backup I made from now on.

Straightening, I took one last look at the mountain range—at the crumpled ridges, the fluffy white clouds. A hawk floated on the breeze, tracing lazy circles against the deep blue of the sky. It was quiet, and peaceful, and calm.

Fuck you, Elfangor, I thought.

And I turned and headed back to camp.

 

*        *        *

 

<Jake here, ETA four minutes. Down the chain, over.>

<Jake and Marco ready, four minutes, pass it down, over.>

<Garrett here. Under water, ready, Jake and Marco set. Three minutes fifty, over.>

There was a long silence as the message continued out of range, Garrett passing word to Ax, who would pass word to Rachel on the far side of the bridge and then bring confirmation back. I peered out from the concealing brush at the side of the road, straining to hear the sound of the distant truck’s engine, but it was too soon. At three and a half minutes and something like fifty miles per hour, it was still well over two miles away.

<Garrett here. Ax is ready at the second break zone, Rachel’s good to drop the tree if she has to but she says no one’s coming. Over.>

<Jake,> I broadcast. <It’s Marco. Everybody’s set, over.>

<Three minutes.>

Ax had used his Shredders to score the bridge structure in two places, weakening the steel and concrete until it was just barely supporting its own weight. As the truck passed the first, the whole section should drop away and into the water; if it didn’t, Ax would have a few seconds to cut away the last few supports holding up the second.

Rachel was in Andalite morph on the far shore, ready to block the road in case some innocent family came by in their SUV at the wrong time. As soon as the bridge went down, she’d sprint toward the rest of us. I’d be coming in from behind, chasing the truck, and Jake would dive in from above if he wasn’t needed to stop any other cars coming along behind. With luck, we would all converge on Garrett’s position within a minute of one another.

<Still no sign of Bug fighters?> I asked, looking up at the empty sky. <From Marco,> I added hastily. <Over.>

<Nothing,> Jake replied. <Relax.>

He should have used pigeon morph. He should have used pigeon morph, or better yet we should have brought Cassie and made her use pigeon morph. We should have just blocked the road on the far side and had Rachel standing by closer. We should have warned the Chee. There could be thirty Hork-Bajir with guns in the back of that truck. We should’ve recruited more kids from Tobias’s orphanage. There could be Bug fighters—Rachel’s going to be exposed on the bridge for like thirty seconds; if there are Bug fighters she’s just going to die. We should—

<Two minutes.>

I shook my head. Should should should. No point in obsessing over it, at this point. The dice were already rolling.

I’d read the Wikipedia article on the strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare, on one of our incognito trips to the library to get internet access. Turns out people had just written it all down—attacking in small groups, using camouflage and captured weapons, avoiding casualties while forcing the larger enemy to spread itself thin or waste resources overprotecting every base and transportation route. The operation we were about to pull was basic, almost textbook—hit hard and fast, on a relatively undefended target, and get out before the enemy has time to react.

The question was, was that good enough? Was it a strategy that could win even though Visser Three would have considered it—predicted it?

The Yeerks didn’t know about Ax. They didn’t know about weaponized thought-speak. They didn’t know we could carry items in morph, or that we could access the memories of anyone we morphed into—unless maybe they did. It was impossible to tell what Visser Three did or didn’t know, impossible to judge what he’d managed to pull out of Rachel’s head during their split-second mind meld, or what he’d simply figured out on his own. He’d had access to the morphing tech for almost two years, according to Ax, and he could look at all of Alloran’s memories and theories.

Did we want to use every advantage we had, maximizing our chances of success? Or did we want to hold back, preserving a few surprises, a few critical tricks?

<One minute.>

I’d done a report on Alan Turing, in eighth grade—on Bletchley Park and Ultra, the secret British codebreaking operation that cracked the Nazi military communications during World War II. For a while, the British had known the positions of just about every German U-Boat in the Atlantic, and had foreknowledge of over half of the upcoming attacks on Allied ships.

And what they’d done with that information was—mostly—nothing. At each step of the way, it was more important to preserve their overall ability to read German communications than it was to rescue this or that convoy. If the Germans had figured out that their codes were broken, they would’ve just switched to a better system. So the Allies waited, and watched, intervening only when the intel could be explained away as luck or reconnaissance or the work of double agents. And eventually, the secrecy, the sacrifices—it all paid off, on D-Day.

Already the Yeerks were traveling in triplets. Already, according to the Chee, they were stunning people the second the Yeerks crawled out of their heads, storing the unconscious bodies along the side of the pool and reviving people only after they’d already been reinfested. If each of our successes made the odds of the next success smaller, rather than bigger—

We needed to hit the Yeerk pool yesterday.

<Here we go. Nearest car is about four miles back.>

<Incoming,> I relayed to Garrett, and watched through the tangle of leaves and branches as the truck came around the bend and accelerated into the straightaway. There were two Controllers visible in the front cab, both wearing navy blue overalls and looking bored. The box in the back was maybe fifteen feet long, with a bright painting of a cornucopia on the side.

It passed me, and I tensed, waiting for the right moment. I didn’t want them to spot me chasing after them in the rearview mirror. Above me, the small gray dot that was Jake angled past, shedding altitude as it accelerated toward the critical point.

There was a crack—a rumble—a splash—the sound of a horn, sustained but muffled—

<Now.>

I burst from the undergrowth, the thorns pulling a few of my feathers loose from my thick, scaly skin. Ahead of me, Jake dove below the road and out of sight, disappearing into the cloud of dust rising from the gaping, fifty-foot hole.

<Jake here. It’s not sinking. Over.>

<What?> I demanded, my legs pumping as fast as they could, claws clicking against the asphalt as I held my long tail rigid behind me for balance.

<Front’s underwater. It’s headfirst. Back’s upright, sticking out maybe five feet. Garrett?>

<I’m on it. Over.>

I reached the edge of the ragged breakpoint just as Garrett’s tentacles broke the surface, latching on to the crumpled box and tugging it sideways. <If they managed to send a signal—>

<We know, Marco,> said Jake, flapping for altitude as he rose in a tight spiral.

<It is unlikely that anyone inside is conscious,> came a voice that I assumed was Ax. <The acceleration to zero was extremely violent.>

Across the gap, Rachel approached, her blue fur blurring and melting together into the tight, dark Spandex of her gymnastics outfit. <Rachel here,> she said. <What morph? Combat? Evasion? Over.>

<Give me a minute. Jake, over.>

<AHHHHHHHH!>

<Who was that? What happened?>

<They’re shooting!>

<What?>

<Inside the truck. Dracon beams. I—it’s me, Garrett. They shot off one of my tentacles.>

<Get clear!>

<Roger.>

I peered over the edge, at the churning, turbulent water. The truck was completely submerged now, lying sideways with the nearer side about eight feet down. I thought I saw a dark stain that might have been blood, and a stream of bubbles rising from the hole the Controller inside had just made—

TSEWWWWWW!

I reared backward and fell as the laser beam sliced shockingly close to my face, my tail bending painfully underneath me. <Watch it!> I shouted. <They’re cutting their way out!>

There was a popping sound, followed by a gurgling sort of whumpf, and I rolled over onto my stomach, crawling awkwardly back to the lip. Turning my long snout sideways, I peered over.

There were two humans in combat gear, floating in the water. One appeared to be unconscious, held up by the other, who was using his one free arm to swim and shoot at the same time and doing a bad job of both.

<We’re going to have company,> somebody said.

Pushing myself to my feet, I crouched on the edge, my eyes tracking the wild flailing of the Yeerk weapon. The man was panicked, gasping, his attention on the water around and under him.

<Garrett,> I whispered. <It’s Marco. Make a splash in three seconds. Over.>

Three—

Two—

One—

I stepped out into open space just as a tentacle broke the surface, thirty feet away. Whirling, the man fired, the beam sending up a curtain of steam as I extended my legs, claws first—

I hit hard, one foot on his shoulder, the other on the top of his skull. I felt bone give way in both places, felt the impact shiver up my legs as he plunged into the water, the waves closing in around me.

<He’s down. Marco took care of it.>

A tentacle wrapped itself around my chest, gentle but terrifyingly strong. It lifted me up to the surface, unwound itself, rested beneath my abdomen as I caught my breath, my feathers heavy and waterlogged.

<Thanks.>

<Rachel, Ax—into the water. Rachel in the back, Ax in the cab. Grab what you can and get under the bridge. Morph fish and take the stuff with you. Garrett and Marco and I will meet you at the rendezvous.>

<I can—>

<Shut up. Demorph.>

<What’s going—>

<I don’t know. I’m out of the sky. Demorphing already. Garrett, let Marco go, grab what you can from the truck, and move.>

The tentacle beneath me vanished, and I floundered, spreading my arms and tail and kicking as I fought to stay afloat. I heard splashes around me as Rachel and Ax entered the water, as Garrett dove back below the surface. I concentrated on my human form, wishing for once that I could choose to demorph naked. But the clothes I’d sent along with my body came back, shoes and all, and I struggled to stay afloat as I tried vainly to remove various waterlogged items that were still physically connected to my skin.

Finally, the morph was complete. Kicking off my shoes and pants, I swam back under the uncollapsed portion of the bridge, where Jake was waiting. “Bug fighters?” I asked.

“Don’t know,” Jake said tersely. “Don’t think so, but it’s time to get out of here.” He nodded toward the truck. “No cylinders. Not one, on any of the four of them.”

Shit. “What else did we get?”

“Later.”

Taking several deep breaths, he dove beneath the surface and headed for the truck. I treaded water for a moment, out of sight beneath the bridge, straining my ears for the sound of—

Retard. Move.

I swam two strokes and then stopped, my brain finally processing what I was seeing.

The water around me was mostly still, the gush of air from the truck having finally petered out. The blood—from Garrett, from the Controller I’d killed—had mostly thinned out. There were two bodies floating nearby, both wearing black combat gear. One of them was face down, the gaping wounds in his head and shoulders mercifully hidden by the gentle waves.

The other was on his back, and his chest was moving.

Shit.

He had been unconscious the whole time. He hadn’t seen anything.

Shit shit shit.

I swam over to him. He was beefy, maybe in his mid-thirties, with a five o’clock shadow and a lump the size of a tennis ball on his forehead. His breathing was slow and steady, his torso buoyed by his Kevlar vest.

I could roll him over, and let the water take care of it. I could leave him, and join Jake in the truck, collecting more of whatever was down there.

Or—

You did come here looking for a Yeerk to acquire.

Or I could take him with me.

No time. Decide.

Letting out a strangled yell of frustration, I grabbed him by the arm and began tugging him back under the bridge and out of sight.

He weighs two hundred pounds, maybe two hundred thirty with all the gear. Ax weighs two twenty two and has a morph time of eighty minutes. I weigh one hundred and have a morph time of one thirty-six minutes. Rise over run, that’s—that’s—

—should have figured this equation out ahead of time—

—shut up, that’s—one hundred twenty two pounds and—and fifty-six minutes’ difference—so two pounds cuts off one minute, so two hundred thirty pounds cuts off a hundred and fifteen minutes, making my time limit—

Twenty-one minutes. Maybe. Assuming the relationship was linear, which it almost certainly wasn’t, because why would it be? We’d drawn out the points, I remembered drawing out the points, but I couldn’t remember which way the thing curved, so I’d either have more than twenty-one minutes, or I’d have less

Go.

Turning, I pulled the Controller into an embrace and focused. Osprey—it was small, it was fast, and it was able to take off out of water. I could fly for ten minutes and be five miles away.

And then—

Later. Move.

 

*        *        *

 

<I can’t go back to the valley just yet.>

<What? Why not?>

<Because one of the things I’m carrying is probably a Yeerk tracking device.>

<Marco, what the—>

<I’ll explain later.>

 

*        *        *

 

Tick-tock, tick-tock.

I demorphed as quickly as I could, half expecting the Controller to come out dead or disintegrated or something. But he was fine. As quickly as I could, I stripped him down to his underwear, throwing everything except his Dracon beam into a pile under a bush. Grabbing the beam in one hand and the Controller’s hand in the other, I focused again, this time on the snipe.

If the tracker isn’t in his stuff—if it’s under his skin—

Later. I would deal with it later.

 

*        *        *

 

It was almost sunset by the time I made it back to the valley. I’d morphed and demorphed four more times, unwilling to take chances with the time limit. After the second change, I’d paused for an hour to rest, leaving the Controller spread-eagled at the top of a sheer stone spire and waiting a few hundred yards away to see if the Yeerks would come looking for him.

They didn’t.

Don’t get cocky. Just because the trackers aren’t embedded in their skin YET doesn’t mean they won’t be next week.

And on top of that—

Just because they haven’t showed up HERE doesn’t mean they’re not tracking you. They could be waiting to see where you end up before barging in. In fact, they could be mapping all of this, to check out later.

So I’d spent the third and fourth morphs going in a completely different direction, looking for a convenient place to tie him up. Eventually, I found an old shack, at least five miles from the nearest road, with a half-collapsed roof and a hundred feet of sketchy, moldy rope. I burned another half hour in gorilla morph, piling logs all around the shack and covering the hole with a mess of brambles.

Then I headed back to the others.

“His name is Aaron Tidwell,” I said. It was just me, Jake, Cassie, and Rachel; Garrett and Ax were off somewhere with some of the tech they’d recovered from the truck. “He’s ex-military, Iraq war two. He got out in 2011 and signed up for a private security company called Bastion, Inc. He’s been a Controller for three weeks now—since just a couple days before Elfangor landed. He’s got no kids, no girlfriend. He usually covers armored car deliveries, but when the Yeerks noticed Bastion they took it over and folded all the guys in with the rest of the police and the local National Guard group. He’s been running this route for over a week.”

“Does he know what goes on at the other end?” Rachel asked.

I shook my head. “He stays with the truck. They fill up with food, they drop off all over town. They fill up again, they drop off at the Yeerk pool, and sometimes they load up with stuff and bring it back to the warehouse.”

I looked over at the rest of our loot, an assortment of metal objects lying in neat rows on the grass of the meadow. “He doesn’t really know what any of that is,” I continued. “Does Ax?”

“Not important,” Jake said, making a small chopping motion with his hand. “Not right now. Priority one is what we do with this guy.”

I chewed at my lip. Jake had said that none of the four Controllers had cylinders on them. Garrett had been in squid morph, Ax had checked the cab, and Rachel had gone straight into the rear compartment of the truck. That meant it had been Jake who checked the two floating bodies, and Jake who’d decided not to mention that one of them was still alive.

“He hadn’t woken up, as of about forty-five minutes ago,” I said. “I don’t know what that means as far as brain injuries are concerned, but it’s not good.”

Jake shifted minutely, his gaze shifting to Cassie. “Erek?” he asked.

She nodded and left the circle.

Turning back to me, Jake crossed his arms. “Risky,” he said simply. “Explain.”

I shrugged. “No time to think,” I said. “This kept options open.”

“You acquired him?”

“Yeah. Like I said, he still hadn’t woken up.”

“What’s he know?”

“Not much. Passwords for getting into the Yeerk pool, but they’ll change those. A look at the inside of the pool from two days ago. A few Controllers who outrank him; couple people there we might look into. He’s a guy who follows orders. His Yeerk is pretty much the same.”

“You got something on the Yeerk?”

“Not really. Just what Tidwell remembers. The Yeerk’s name is Illim. Seems—alien. Didn’t talk much, didn’t really interact with Tidwell at all. Ignored him, mostly.” I glanced at Rachel. “Not at all like Esplin.”

Jake’s expression went sour, and he stood up and began to pace. Beside me, Rachel was silent, her eyes occasionally drifting toward the pile of stolen Yeerk tech as she slowly rubbed her hands together.

There were really only two options. Three, I guess, if you counted the possibility that Tidwell might just die of whatever head injury he’d suffered during the crash. We could hold him for a day and a half, starve the Yeerk out of his head, and acquire it.

Or we could kill him.

“You weren’t tracked?” Jake asked abruptly. “He didn’t have any kind of communicator on him?”

“Stripped him down to his underwear,” I said. “Watched for an hour to see if the Yeerks would show up. I think he’s clean.”

There was a long moment in which Jake seemed to study me, looking me up and down and then locking eyes for what felt like forever. “All right,” he said. “We wait for Erek to get back, and then we go.”

“What are you—I mean, what are we going to do, once we get there?”

“That depends on the Yeerk.”

 

*        *        *

 

There was noise inside the shack—motion.

“Erek,” Jake whispered. “Go.”

Nodding tightly, the boy spun and disappeared back into the forest. He had been trembling throughout the entire journey, his human body shaking and shivering like he was shirtless in a snowstorm. We still hadn’t figured out exactly what the limits on his programming were—those very limits made it impossible for him to explain—but it couldn’t have been easy to accompany the four of us to a shack where we’d tied up a prisoner we were maybe going to end up torturing. It was just as well that Mr. Tidwell had woken up; if he still needed medical attention, we could give it to him back at the camp.

“Marco,” Jake said, his voice still low. “You’re up.”

<Illim,> I called out in thought-speak, and the motion stopped.

Beside me, Rachel was seven and a half feet tall in her Hork-Bajir morph, a deadly-looking laser rifle in one hand and a shock-stick in the other. As luck would have it, nearly a quarter of the things we’d stolen had turned out to be weapons.

<Illim, your host body is injured. You’re defenseless, and you’re a long way from home. We’ve got you surrounded. Will you talk?>

Silence from the shack. “Start moving the trees,” Jake said.

I loped forward, my gorilla knuckles dragging across the ground. One at a time, I heaved on the logs that were blocking the door, tipping them over into the undergrowth beside the dilapidated cabin. I paused before removing the last log, and Rachel leveled the gun, lining up her sights.

Jake nodded.

With one swift motion, I tossed the final log out of the way, unbarring the door. <Come out,> I said. <Slowly.>

The door creaked open and the human body of Aaron Tidwell emerged into the moonlight.

“Stop,” Jake said, his voice heavy with authority.

Tidwell stopped. He looked awful, the lump on his forehead forcing one of his eyes shut, stripes of dirt covering his body where I’d tied him up with the filthy, fraying rope. His fingernails were cracked and bleeding, and there were scratches on his arms that made me think he’d tried to climb out through the brambles on the roof.

“Andalite?” he asked, his voice hoarse.

“No. Human.”

Jake stepped forward, Rachel drifting slowly to one side to keep a line of fire open. When he was ten feet away, he stopped, looking up at the heavyset veteran.

“My name is Jake,” he said coldly. “My friends and I raided your truck today. The other three Controllers on board were killed.”

Tidwell’s eyes narrowed, and he turned his head slowly to look at me, then at Rachel, wincing slightly with the motion. “You are—human?”

“Yes.” Jake held up his arm, revealing a fully-formed tiger’s paw, which slowly began to melt back into a human hand. “Humans who morph.”

“You know my name.”

“Yes. And we know the name of your host—Aaron Tidwell.”

“How?”

Jake shook his head. “No.” He turned his hand over, and as the last of the fur disappeared, a small, silvery cylinder began to grow out of his palm.

Tidwell’s eyes widened.

“I show you secrets,” Jake said. “Do you understand what that means?”

Tidwell’s shoulders slumped, his jaw going slack. “You’re going to kill me now.”

“Maybe.” He held up the cylinder. “Or maybe not. You know what this is?”

Tidwell nodded.

“Will you give up your host? Willingly? It’s been two days since you last went to the Yeerk pool. You’ve got to be feeling hungry, in there. If you come out, we will keep you alive—keep you safe.”

Tidwell’s eyes narrowed. Jake shrugged, an elaborately casual motion. “It makes no difference to us, Illim” he drawled. “Either way, Aaron Tidwell walks out of this forest a free man. You can either give him up now, or you can trade your life for an extra day, and we’ll burn your shriveled husk out of his head after you die. I don’t know what Kandrona starvation is like, but if it’s anything like the human kind, it’ll be punishment enough.”

He held up his other hand, all five fingers extended. “Offer made,” he said. “Five seconds.”

He put down a finger. “Now four.”

He put down another.

Then another.

“All right,” said Tidwell. Illim. “Give me the cylinder.”

Jake tossed it lightly, underhanded. Ax had checked it out before we left, confirming that there were no alarms or weapons or communicators hidden in its circuits. Tidwell reached to catch it—missed—almost lost his balance as the cylinder fell to the forest floor. Wincing again, he bent to pick it up, pressed a few buttons, held the device up to his ear.

At the last second, he hesitated. “You will—you will stun my host?” he asked. “So that he does not kill me as I relinquish control?”

Jake shook his head. “Nope,” he said bluntly. “You can beg him for forgiveness—ask him to let you live. If he says no—well.” He shrugged again. “If he says no, you can stay in there until you rot.”

Even inside the gorilla, I felt an urge to let my jaw drop. This was a side of Jake I’d never seen before—cold and cruel and completely uncaring. It was different from the way he wrangled Rachel and Tobias—different even from the way he spoke to Ax, constantly reinforcing his dominance over the alien cadet. He sounded like a killer, like a sociopath, like—

—like somebody whose father is being held captive in a concentration camp inside his own head.

Tidwell stood frozen for a long moment, his expression irresolute. We waited—me resting on my knuckles, Jake standing with his hands clasped behind his back, Rachel with the rifle held perfectly steady.

Finally, he moved. Without another word, he pressed the cylinder against his ear, the pained expression on his face doubling as he slowly sank to his knees. There was a soft squelching sound, like someone stepping on a sponge, and a red light appeared on the end of the stasis device.

After a few seconds, the light turned white, and Tidwell seemed to sag, the cylinder falling away from his hands as he dropped forward onto all fours. For a pair of heartbeats, none of us moved, and then he began to cry—harsh, barking sobs that tore their way out of his throat, shaking his whole body.

 

*        *        *

 

“What are you going to do with the Yeerk?” I asked.

“Illim,” Jake said softly turning the cylinder over in his hands. “Its name is Illim.”

We’d pulled it out of stasis long enough to acquire it, then put it back into the little metal tube while we tried the morph again. Tidwell hadn’t stuck around to watch—after we brought him back to the valley, he disappeared into one of the huts with Erek and Cassie and hadn’t come out since.

The morph had gone exactly as it had the previous time, with both Jake and Rachel turning into swollen, veiny, gelatinous masses before giving up and reverting back to their own bodies. We were no closer to solving the mystery, which meant we were no closer to getting inside the pool—at least, not with Plan A.

In front of me, Jake’s eyes glittered in the firelight, his expression closed and thoughtful. We were the last two awake, the moon sinking down toward the horizon as the air grew cold and wet.

“I guess we’ll keep it,” he said. “We did promise to keep it alive. And it may end up being useful for something, eventually.”

“And Tidwell?”

He shrugged. “Not sure. We don’t have the cube, so we can’t exactly recruit him, full stop. And the Yeerks will have their eyes out for him. Might be that the best we can do for him is send him away.”

“He’s a grownup,” I pointed out. “And a vet. He might be able to help get us in with somebody in the military.”

“Nothing we can’t do ourselves,” Jake countered. “Especially since you’ve already acquired him.”

“Well,” I said, trailing off.

I still hadn’t told anybody about what had happened with the other Marco—not even Rachel, who’d been the one to help me acquire him. Me. Myself. I had dipped into Tidwell’s mind, but I’d kept an iron grip on his consciousness, holding him in a sort of dream state while I dug through his memory. Even that had been nauseating, and I wasn’t looking forward to repeating the experience.

Not like you have a choice. There is a war on, you know—every scrap of intel helps.

“Anyway,” Jake continued, snapping me out of my reverie. “Whatever we decide, tomorrow’s going to be busy. Ax finished inventorying the stuff we got, and there’s a lot—enough to make a dent in the police station and the hospital, if not the pool.”

I frowned, looking over across the fire at my friend, trying to make out his expression in the shifting, flickering light. His voice sounded off—flat, empty, like he still hadn’t fully recovered from his performance at the shack.

“Jake,” I said cautiously. He didn’t look up. “Jake, are you all right?”

There was a long pause. “No,” he said, his voice barely more than a whisper.

“What—”

“In the water. Tidwell. I checked him for cylinders. I knew he was alive.”

I blinked. “Yeah,” I said slowly. “I figured.”

“I knew he was alive, and I knew I should do something about it, and I couldn’t think of what to do, so I just—ignored it. Just ignored him and kept going.”

“So?”

“So maybe Cassie’s right. About this whole thing. About where our heads are going to end up. Because I—he—he was going to drown, Marco. Right? I mean, sure, he managed to float for a little while, but if we’d just left—with the waves, and with all that gear—”

He broke off, and turned to squint at me. “But you didn’t just leave him. Even after you killed the other one. You knew what to do. And now he’s alive—he’s alive, and he’s free, and he would’ve been dead if it were up to me, because I couldn’t take ten extra seconds to brainstorm.”

My mouth worked soundlessly as I struggled to find words. “You—I mean—we—it was tense.” I gritted my teeth, hoping I sounded more convincing than I felt. “We were under pressure, you were trying to get everybody out. It was a lot to juggle. And with Cassie and Tobias gone—”

“Maybe we shouldn’t be in charge of this war, Marco. Maybe I shouldn’t. I mean, I know Tobias is working on it, but maybe—maybe it’s time to do more than that. Maybe you’re right—maybe this Tidwell—”

“No,” I cut in. “I mean, yeah, definitely, for sure, but not—not because—”

I trailed off, trying to put my thoughts into coherent sentences. “Look. The way you handled Ax? The way you handled Garrett? The way you talked the Yeerk out of Tidwell’s head? Sure—we’re way past due to get some grownups involved. But this group? Us? We’re only working because of you, man. Whatever magic it is that you do—I can’t do it. Rachel can’t. Earlier today, when Cassie bailed on the mission—that would have torn the whole group apart, if you hadn’t been there to smooth it over.”

Jake said nothing, only continued staring at the cylinder in his hands.

“I—look,” I continued. “It’s not about you getting every call exactly right, okay? It’s not like I made the right choice, and you made the wrong one. We’re a team, you know? A bunch of teenage superhero animal morphers. Animorphs, man—here to save the world. And just because you’re calling the shots doesn’t mean you have to do all the work. You be Captain America, and the rest of us, we’ve got your back.”

“Maybe,” he repeated, his tone heavy and dull. “Maybe. But the next time, it’s not going to be so easy. And what if it’s not some random Controller? What if it’s Rachel’s cousins? Or your dad? Or Tom?”

I flinched. “If it comes down to that,” I said slowly, “I’d rather have you making the call than anybody else.”

But even as I said it, I couldn’t help but remember the very first night, when he’d morphed into Homer after agreeing it made sense to wait. Or the first time, at the pool, when he’d barged in headfirst without stopping to think or plan.

If you counted Tidwell—and I wasn’t sure you should, but if you did—that was three bad decisions, all completely on his shoulders. Taken together with the way he handled the group, it wasn’t terrible overall. But it wasn’t great, either.

I stood, walking over to rest a hand on his shoulder. “Good night, buddy,” I said. “Get some rest.”

He said nothing, and I turned and walked away, heading for my tent.

Now what?

I wasn’t sure. I didn’t think he was going to crack, but he was definitely cracking, present tense. And if it got any worse, we were going to be in serious trouble. I needed a backup plan, and I needed it fast, before Jake talked himself into something really stupid.

Fortunately, I knew exactly who to ask for help.

 

*        *        *

 

<YEERK! GET OUT OF MY HEAD!>

<First of all, no. Second of all, not a Yeerk. And third of all, fuck you, Elfangor. Fuck your bullshit, fuck your secrets, fuck your mysterious little plan. I want to know everything, and I want to know it right now.>

Chapter Text

 

Interlude

Her name was Aftran 927, and she finally, finally understood love.

She had known about it for weeks, of course. Her host was a nine-year-old girl named Karen, and Karen loved many things. The feel of her stuffed unicorn, the sound of her father’s voice, the smell of the morning breeze off of the ocean and the slurp of the last, sugary gulp of milk after she finished her cereal. Love was the first thing Aftran had seen, when she opened Karen’s memories—love so omnipresent, so overflowing that it would have faded into the background, were it not so vibrant and alive.

But she had not understood it—had not felt it, shared in it, reveled in it the way she had reveled in the sheer ecstasy of human sensation. Before Karen, Aftran had been small, so very small—had spent year after year as nothing more than a few strands of thought, a fragile web of memory. Her pool had lain in the barren northern reaches of the smallest continent, with no native Gedds and only the dull, rocklike ground-eaters for hosts. Their skulls had hardly any room for a Yeerk, and so Aftran had been little more than a whisper of personality, a ghost in the organic machine.

But humans! Their heads were so large, their bodies so complex. Aftran had swollen, in the taking, growing larger than she had ever been, larger than she had ever imagined being—feeling her self expand as more and more of her siblings joined her, became her, released their names and took the name of Aftran for their own. She had grown so enormous that she almost did not mind the cut, the gap, the aching empty loneliness that was temporary independence—especially not when she first touched Karen’s brain and was rewarded with an experience brilliant beyond imagining.

The colors.

The sounds.

The effervescent tingle of sensation on skin—her skin.

For the first time, Aftran was large enough to think, to know, to be on her own, and for three whole days, she was drunk with the glory of living inside the paradise of Karen’s head. She gathered thousands of memories—what wonder, to be able to hold so many!—and carried them back to the pool in triumph, a feast of recollections for the coalescion’s joy.

On her second journey, she had been more sober.

But still—it was her purpose to consume, and so she soaked up Karen’s experiences like a sponge, sharing them every third day with her family, her larger self. Sometimes there were greater needs, and she suspended the fête for this or that as the coalescion reached ever outward through the web of humanity. But she was closer to satisfaction than most of her brethren—closer to the true joy, the true purpose of life.

There was only one false note in the symphony, and that was Karen.

Karen did not like Aftran. Karen was small, and afraid—did not understand that this was her purpose, her reason—that she existed to be filled, that she was a vessel that had become a part of something larger, something beautiful. She cried within her head—sublime despair, exquisite sadness, and Aftran exulted in the sensation, but nevertheless, she wondered.

Bit by bit, she probed into the tiny human’s soul, seeking to understand. At first, she took a Yeerkish tack—were there sensations the child was missing? She spoke to her comrades, to the Controllers of Karen’s father and mother, and each agreed to greater contact—to more hugs, and kisses, and physical closeness. It pacified the parents, and the feelings were pleasant to all.

But still Karen wept. And so Aftran explored new avenues—new sensations and pleasures that Karen had never experienced. She tugged on every nerve—combined hormones and neurotransmitters in subtle, sensuous mixtures—orchestrated mad, fantastical dreams—fed her delicious, novel foods.

Nothing.

She began experimenting with giving Karen control, letting her move an arm, a leg—letting her say sweet dreams with her own voice when she parted from her parents at night. It helped, a little, and yet still the little girl wept.

Curious, Aftran dug deeper, taking more and more of Karen’s memories into herself, delivering more and more of the human to her siblings in the pool. In the wild orgy of dissolution, she held the memories alongside those of a thousand other humans, but no great insight emerged. She returned to Karen each time different, each time wiser, and yet each time no less baffled.

Finally, she could bear the sadness no longer, and so she clamped down on her host, squeezing Karen into the smallest, darkest corner of their shared experience, seizing full and total control. For a time, the world was bright again, and Aftran danced through it, blissful and free, happy merely to live—to have arms which could move the universe, and eyes which could see for miles.

And then a day came when her impatience waned, when her curiosity swelled to the forefront again, and she drew the little girl out from the dark place to which she’d been banished. Sitting quietly in their room, she gave the reins to Karen, stepped back to see what the human child would do—

—and suddenly, without any particular revelation, she understood.

For Aftran, there was no boundary between possession and experience. To see a thing was to be a thing—in the ecstasy of the pool, all was immediate, all was present, all was one. She moved in and out of the coalescion in a heartbeat rhythm, gathering fragments of the universe and bringing them back to her family, her siblings, her larger self. She was them, and they were her, and only together could they see the broader picture—the synthesis of ten thousand pairs of eyes, the control of ten thousand moving bodies. She walked the world on ten thousand pairs of feet, shaped it with twenty thousand hands, and when she was with Karen, she was but the tiniest sliver of herself, and she hungered always—more—more—more.

But Karen was not hungry. Karen wanted, but she did not take; she longed, but she could not consume. Her hunger was for a fullness she would never, ever taste, herself—the smiles of her parents, the laughter of her friends, even the contentment of the lump of fluff and fabric she’d named after her grandmother’s cat. She saw the trees dancing in the wind, and she loved them, and thus their imagined happiness gave her joy.

It was a strange thing, to Aftran—an alien thing. She stretched to feel it fully—to imagine an experience she could not devour, a memory she could not live, a sensation she could not tap into, no matter where she dwelt. What would it even mean, for such a thing to exist? How would one ever know it was real?

She dwelt on it for days—brought the question back to the coalescion, felt it echo through her siblings, watched it bounce off of their indifference. What concern had anyone, for experiences belonging to no one? It was a meaningless fallacy—not even valid enough to be counted as wrong.

Yet Aftran continued to wonder, and one day, she decided to try it.

It was not an easy experiment. She had to hide it from her comrades, waiting for an hour when they were busy, and would not notice odd behavior. When the moment came, she drove Karen deep into the dark, cutting the little girl off even from the sensations of sight and sound and touch. Working quickly, she assembled the ingredients in the kitchen, using the primitive human hotbox to heat her creation.

When it was finished, she pulled it out—allowed it to cool—covered it with sweet, sticky icing and decorated it with bright, edible sparkles. Cleaning up the mess, she placed the small cake on a plate, grabbed a knife and fork and napkin, and snuck back to their room, freezing the door in place with a tool she knew the little girl could not manipulate.

For Karen, she wrote, on a small, folded index card.

And then she vanished. Released her hold on the tiny human, and pulled back, away from her senses, away from control—shrinking down into the lonely darkness, blind and deaf and mute. She waited there for a timeless hour, wondering what the little girl would do, feeling the twisty pulse of love emerging for the first time from her own soul. Karen would be happy, she decided—she would be happy, and Aftran wouldn’t look, ever—would let that hour belong to Karen, and Karen alone. It would be a private moment, an un-memory, the sort of thing that couldn’t properly be stolen, and that was how they would both know it had been real.

Or so she thought, until she groped slowly back into control, only to find that the little girl had taken the knife, and put out both of her own eyes. Weak, blind, and gasping with pain, it took Aftran three tries to undo the lock on the door, and call for help from her comrades.

They took Karen to the hospital, and Aftran to the pool. Entering the warm embrace of the coalescion, she let herself disappear, dissolving fully into the togetherness, becoming one with her siblings, carrying with her the memory of love. Together with her larger self, she lived it, drank of it, ate it and breathed it.

This love, she asked herself, in a chorus of ten thousand voices. What good is it?

It was not the only question she asked that night, in the grand roil of thought and memory. After all, there were so many lives to live, so many experiences to absorb. She spent longer than usual in the pool, while the doctors struggled to save Karen’s eyes—struggled, and failed, and eventually made the decision to terminate the host. There were more than enough humans to go around, these days, with more joining them every day as the inevitable expansion continued.

Eventually, a moment came when no other was called, and a head was thrust beneath the surface, and she reached out with the tiniest part of herself to brush against an ear. Slowly, agonizingly, she ceased to be we and became once more she, shivering with loss and delight as she traded the mosaic cacophony for the brilliant clarity of a single, solitary perspective. She reached for the mind, and it unfolded before her, its memories lit with wonder and light.

Her name was Aftran 928, and she knew absolutely nothing of love.

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 16: Rachel

<Check, please.>

<In position. Ready to fire if necessary. Over.>

<It’s not going to be necessary. I’m not even three feet away, over.>

<Neither of you do anything unless Rachel or Marco says, over.>

<I can see you just fine, Rachel. Him, too. We’re still good, over.>

The voices of Ax, Cassie, Jake, and Marco, indistinguishable except for inflection as they filtered through my own inner monologue. We’d settled on alphabetical order as the obvious shortcut any time there was an all-call.

<Demorphing in thirty seconds. Over.>

I was in wasp morph, standing on the steel-tangle pile of a plush, velvet rug at the foot of a king-sized bed, trembling at the thunderous vibrations of the male Controller asleep and snoring above me. Cassie was somewhere nearby, her much-larger-and-more-terrifying tarantula hawk morph having just barely made it through the small hole we’d burned in the screen earlier in the day.

The others were all outside—Ax playing sniper from a distance with one of his Andalite shredders, Jake lurking in the copse of trees in the backyard, and Marco up above, keeping an eye on the situation with the stunning night vision of his barn owl morph. Garrett was back in the valley, taking care of Tidwell, and Tobias would be gone for at least a few more days, assuming he came back at all.

It’s fine. Smooth sailing. No problem.

Wishing I could take a deep breath, I focused on my human form, feeling the changes begin almost immediately.

<Ninety seconds,> I broadcast. <Over.>

<Roger that, over.>

Luckily, the wasp’s eyes were useless in the dark. I could still feel everything, though—the sudden sag as my hard, black carapace melted into soft, pink flesh. The shivering pops and cracks as my forelimbs split and shifted and swelled, four of them forming arms and legs while the other two withered and vanished. The strange itching sensation as my jawbone grew around my mandibles and my antennae split into a hundred thousand hairs.

<Still good. No movement. Over.>

Tidwell had given us a list of Controllers—everyone he knew and recognized who had been in the Yeerk pool the last time he’d fed. It was short, since the Yeerks had switched to stunning the hosts as soon as the slugs dropped from their ears; Tidwell hadn’t been able to mingle and talk the way he used to when they’d been held in cages.

But still. He’d recognized nearly a dozen of the people lying beside the pool before being knocked unconscious himself. Of that dozen, he’d known the addresses of two, and we’d been able to find three more online.

Of those five, only one lived alone in a house with no security system.

<Still good, over.>

I was almost two feet long, a horrific toddler-sized chimera of human and insect, before my clothes began to return from Z-space, the skin repatterning itself and lifting up and away like a sunburn. For once, I didn’t mind, because it also meant that the Dracon beam was coming back, emerging along with my fingers and palm as the last of the chitin disappeared from my arms.

<Here goes,> I broadcast, just before my ability to thought-speak fell away.

Moving slowly enough that my muscles began to groan, I rolled up off the floor and into a kneeling position, keeping the Yeerk weapon pointed at the sleeping Controller the whole way. Giving a silent thanks to the ridiculously thick carpet, I duck-walked my way around the bed, inch by agonizing inch, until I was close enough to lay a single finger—light as a feather—on the exposed skin of his shoulder.

Focusing, I began to acquire him. His snoring changed, and I tensed, but it was only the usual trance, its relaxing effect doing something to ease the buzzsaw drone coming out of his gaping mouth. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I spotted Cassie, a spindly nightmare shape as big across as my palm, clinging to the wall above the headboard.

<She’s got him,> someone said. Probably Marco, relaying the situation to the others. <No sign he’s waking up. Over.>

Tidwell had known the passwords for the pool entrance for four days into the future—passwords which the Yeerks almost certainly would have changed after our raid on the truck. Assuming that the new passwords had been set immediately, and that afterward the Yeerks would have reverted to their previous model of telling Controllers on their way out of the YMCA, then the man in the bed in front of me had gotten his last update some time between yesterday morning and yesterday evening—long enough ago that they would have had plenty of time to be encoded in the physical structures of his brain.

Which meant that I now had them, too—along with a body that everyone expected to see at the pool some time during the day after tomorrow.

In theory, Marco said, the Yeerks could have followed the connection—could have tracked who had been with Tidwell during his last pool visit, and upped the security around anyone who seemed particularly vulnerable.

But in practice, the Yeerks only had so many weapons, so many troops, so much attention to spare. They could mobilize in minutes, but they couldn’t actively guard everyone, and even Controllers had to sleep at some point.

“This is the standard,” Marco had said, as we prepared to leave the valley that afternoon. “Just like the truck—minimum risk, maximum power. We go where they aren’t looking, we bring as much firepower as we can, and we maximize the chances of at least some of us getting out if things go wrong.”

It was a calculated move. The man might have changed his feeding schedule, or the Yeerks might have done more than just change out one set of passwords for another. There was a chance we’d come out with basically nothing. But the odds of danger were even lower, meaning we were unlikely to lose anything other than a little time.

Still holding the Dracon beam steady, I quietly crept back around to the foot of the bed, where I’d be out of the Controller’s line-of-sight if he awoke. With a smooth, silent motion, I rolled over onto my back, pointing the weapon up at the ceiling as I began to morph. I was no Cassie, but I managed to keep the process away from my arms until I was nearly halfway done, the cold black metal melting into the armor creeping its way upward from my elbows.

<Okay,> I said, as soon as I could thought-speak. <Let’s get out of here.>

<Cassie. I’ll cover you until you’re clear, over.>

<Counter that, says Jake. Cassie, Ax has it under control. Get out now; Rachel will finish up and follow. Over.>

<Translation: Jake loves Cassie more than he loves Rachel. Over. Also, this was Ax speaking, over.>

<Aximili speaking. I am being misrepresented, likely by Marco. Over.>

<Jake here. Both of you cut the nonsense—they’re not out yet.>

I waited for Marco’s final jab—you forgot to say over, over—but it never came. A few seconds later, Cassie gave her personal all-clear, and as the final changes wound toward completion and my wings sputtered to life, I rose up from the carpet and followed. Five more minutes, and we were headed back toward the valley, pumping for altitude in the cold night air, each of us wearing the body of a different bird.

The whole thing had gone like clockwork—in and out in under half an hour, with no alarm and no reason to think the Yeerks would ever realize we’d been there. The part of me that itched for action was almost disappointed—had almost hoped the Controller would wake up and call for help, turning it into a fight.

But there would be plenty of fighting, soon enough. We’d chosen the battlefields for our last two missions, and as a result they’d been straightforward and easy, the complications with Illim and Tidwell notwithstanding. If we ran any more side quests, those would be easy, too.

All of that would change when we tried to take the pool. The Yeerks knew we were coming, sooner or later. They knew it was their weak point.

They would be ready.

They would be ready, and there would be blood.

 

*        *        *

 

Nothing?” Marco asked, his tone incredulous.

I shook my head, and he swore, turning away to kick uselessly at a tuft of grass. Beside him, Jake dropped his head wearily into his hands, slowly rubbing at his temples as if fighting off a headache. On the other side of the circle, Ax stood still and alert, his main eyes watching me as his stalk eyes alternated between tracking Marco and scanning the rest of the clearing.

We were gathered around the firepit for what felt like the hundredth time—everybody except for Cassie, who was napping after having taken third shift watching Tidwell. The scruffy veteran was sitting on a log next to Garrett, still visibly digesting the experience of having watched a teenage girl transform into a middle-aged man and back again.

“He remembers the password that he gave last time,” I clarified. “Remembers saying it out loud. ‘Moonlight whistle cinnamon fourteen Odric.’ Odric—that’s the name of his Yeerk. But nobody ever told him to say it. The Yeerk just produced the words on the spot, and he didn’t have access to them ahead of time.”

The man I had acquired was named Greg Morales. He was an accountant for one of the financial firms downtown, and he’d been taken two weeks ago, during his annual checkup at the hospital. And for a brief time—long enough for me to dig through his memory to find out everything he knew about Yeerk security—there had been two copies of him, neither in control of its own fate.

<The words seem consistent with basic generative cryptography,> Ax said cautiously. <Some rule, known to the Yeerk but unknown to the host, which allows the Yeerk to construct an appropriate set of responses based on relevant input.>

“But the hosts can’t—what, I dunno—hear it?” Garrett asked.

<The exchange is one-way,> Ax explained. <The Yeerk may access any part of the host’s brain structure, whether physical or psychic. The same is not true in reverse. Only concepts which the parasite chooses to transmit are available to the host.>

“Why a rule?” Jake asked. He glanced at Marco, who was now standing outside of the circle, staring off toward the slope on the far side of the valley. “Why couldn’t it just be a particular set of passwords, like before? Only this time, they’re not letting the hosts hear them?”

<Perhaps it could. The nature of communication in the pool is not well understood—I do not believe even Seerow was permitted to make observations of independent Yeerks in their natural state outside of the laboratory. I would expect there to be difficulty in coordinating information exchange of the sort that would allocate specific passwords to appropriate Yeerks, and they certainly would not have a single set. One common algorithm for generating correct responses has the benefit of being highly transferrable while also allowing for variety and uniqueness, making the system less vulnerable to external eavesdropping.>

He paused. <Eaves?> An image flashed into my head, of the join between a slanted roof and the wall supporting it, along with an impression of confusion.

“Let it go,” Garrett advised in a soft murmur. “Words don’t ever make sense.”

“Long story short,” I said, pulling us back on track. “We don’t have the passwords, and we can’t get them, which means we’re back to square one. Right?”

There was silence as I looked around the circle.

“Okay,” Jake said. “Options.” He began raising fingers one at a time. “We can try morphing into known Controllers directly, and bluffing our way through. We can try morphing into chiggers or some other bug, and getting under a Controller’s skin, and see if that bypasses the bio-filter. We can try taking the person at the desk, and unlocking the door ourselves. We can try a brute-force attack. We can try digging up from underneath—Ax figures that the shield only goes down about twenty feet, and we know the bottom is open. Or we could just give up, and go after the hospital.”

“The desk option won’t work,” Tidwell said, his voice still hoarse and gravelly. He had slammed his chest against something hard during the crash, and had been speaking in whispers for the past couple of days to avoid worsening the pain. “They’ve got cameras on the front room, and if either the girl behind the desk or the guys behind the cameras smell anything fishy, they hit the panic button and the door in the shield disappears.”

“Could we—I dunno—rewire the video somehow?”

He shook his head. “Doesn’t work like it does in the movies.”

“What about the Ch—”

Tidwell turned to look curiously at Garrett, who had broken off mid-sentence and was now staring at the patch of ground between his feet, his expression slightly stricken as his fists mangled the fabric of his t-shirt.

“And Ax says the bio-filters aren’t likely to be fooled into thinking a human morph is a Controller,” Jake said, his voice a hair louder than before. “For one, the fake Yeerk tissue has the same genetic makeup as the construct, and for another, there’s not enough of it.”

He shot another glance over at Marco, and I put it together—Marco was currently in his morph armor, which meant he was probably in the middle of giving Garrett a lecture on why Tidwell didn’t need to know about the Chee’s hologram technology.

Not that it would have worked, anyway. We maybe could have convinced Erek that forcibly acquiring someone wasn’t violence, but I doubt we could have convinced him that our reasons for doing so weren’t going to hurt anyone.

“For that matter, the chigger plan is probably out, too. If it can see through somebody’s skull, it can catch an insect buried half a millimeter deep.”

“So what do we—”

“Hang on,” Marco interrupted, whirling around and striding back into the circle. “Hang on.” He fixed Ax with his gaze, a look of urgent curiosity on his face. “Ax—the construct. If a Yeerk infested a construct, could it—would it be able to access the original mind? Could it read my thoughts, through the morph?”

Ax’s upper third settled down onto the ground—a gesture we’d learned to understand meant deep thought, like a human putting a hand on her chin. <I am uncertain,> he said, after a long pause. <But my immediate suspicion is—no, it would not. There is insufficient neural mass for the false Yeerk tissue to perform full cognition. It would seem to be little more than a set of levers and sensors, controlled from without. There is no information stored there for the Yeerk to peruse.>

“What about control? Would the Yeerk be able to control the construct?”

Another long pause. I did a quick scan of the circle—Jake looking darkly intent, Tidwell off-balance, Garrett openly curious. <I believe so,> Ax answered cautiously. <The interference between Cassie-based morphs indicates that the unitary host-construct dependency is not perfect. But if it came to a struggle—I would expect the true Yeerk to dominate. That is what it evolved to do, after all.> He rose up into his usual centaur-stance, adding <I am only weakly confident, though.>

Marco’s shoulders slumped fractionally, and he sighed. “Figures.”

“What—”

“Stupid idea, anyway.” He straightened again, looking around the circle. “I thought, since we can’t morph Yeerk for some reason—what if we used a real one? What if one of us let Illim—you know—infest us. That’d get us through the bio-filter, probably. But if it can just control the construct—and besides, there’s still the passwords—”

“Wait,” Tidwell croaked. “You’re just trying to get inside the shield? That’s it, it doesn’t matter after that?”

Marco frowned. “Jake?”

We hadn’t yet reached any sort of final decision about what Tidwell was and was not to know. He knew we could morph, obviously, and he’d helped us identify some of the weirder stuff we’d stolen from the truck, at least by name. But we’d been careful not to say anything about the stockpiles of sodium that Marco and Ax had located using some circumspect internet searches and a few judicious phone calls. “Not exactly,” Jake said slowly. “But if you have ideas…”

He gestured broadly at the rest of the circle.

“Well,” Tidwell continued, his brow furrowed. “I don’t know about sneaking. What I’m thinking, you’d have a lot of eyes on you, at least at first. But you’ll be inside.”

 

*        *        *

 

I watched with awe—and no small amount of envy—as Marco worked through the implications, starting with the fact that he wasn’t holding three rocks, then gradually growing more and more certain as he flashed through a series of numbers, finally ending with a grim conclusion as he tried to move his feet and found himself blocked. It all happened in a matter of seconds, each individual thought like a frame in a movie, a page in a flipbook.

<Rachel?> he asked, inside of our shared head.

Marco was smart.

<Yeah.>

I felt him gather his resolve—actually felt it, as if it were my own body and I were steeling myself—felt the sudden stain of dread and his iron refusal to yield to it. <So, am I dead?> he asked, brusquely. <The real me?>

<No.>

<Then what—>

There was a rush of heat in his—our—face, as his mind went almost immediately there, and he backpedaled in furious embarrassment, his thoughts a whirl of self-recrimination and baleful resentment. <Having fun?> he asked, bitterly.

I didn’t answer. Couldn’t, really—the experience of Marco’s consciousness was too distracting. It was hypnotic, mesmerizing—even as he formed words for my benefit, the rest of him was busy wrestling with itself, arguing back and forth as impressions and emotions churned beneath the surface.

There was confusion, as his brain continued to throw up guesses as to what was going on, and mortification that I had seen his first guess—that that had been his first guess—

There was anger at me, for the intrusion, coupled with accusations of hypocrisy as he remembered seriously considering this exact course of action—though of course, he’d been planning to morph Jake, not me—

There was shame as he realized that I could see his true opinion of me, and a surge of defensiveness as he marshaled his justifications. There was a sort of defiant hardening as he prepared himself to shrug off my hurt, my anticipated anger. And deep, deep down, so quiet I almost missed it, there was a tiny note of sad, shy insecurity—fear of my laughter, my scorn, that his opinion of me wouldn’t hurt, that I was unassailable and wouldn’t care, that being pretty and cool and athletic and popular actually were the things that mattered, and it made no difference if you were smart and right if you were also short and lonely and awkward—

—a wild, secret, narcissistic hope that I had morphed him in order to see his—

—a wave of self-loathing—

—what’s going on with the war

—fucking Rachel, if you’re going to mindrape me, you might as well say something—

<Sorry,> I broke in, a stone dropping into the stream of consciousness. <I just—>

It was electric—like the insane, universe-shattering moment when I had dissolved into the minds of Erek and Alloran and Visser Three. Only, instead of a single, incomprehensible lightning strike, this was a continuous current—a fascinating, captivating, steady magnetic pull. I had known Marco for years, but it wasn’t until this moment that I’d realized what Marco was like.

<I have a confession to make,> I said, before I could lose my nerve. <And I figured I’d try it out on you, first.>

 

*        *        *

 

“I already know,” he said, a strange glint in his eyes, his expression cold and impenetrable.

It was the real Marco this time, sitting on the edge of the boulder, looking down at me. I’d gone searching for him as soon as I’d demorphed—had found him in what I now knew was his favorite spot in the valley.

“What? But—how—”

I broke off, an embarrassed flush spreading across my cheeks.

Of course.

Marco had my DNA, too.

“How long?” I asked, feeling a strange sense of distance as I looked up at him. I knew exactly how fast those thoughts ran—if he’d known all along, it meant that he’d already decided not to tell Jake and the others—

“As it happens, about half an hour,” he said. He continued to hold my gaze, letting the silence stretch out, giving nothing away. Waiting.

—for me to try to explain?

—for me to beg him not to tell?

—for my apology?

But he would have already heard all of those. From the other Rachel, the copy of me that lived inside him somewhere. Would have already heard, and considered, and made up his mind.

Was this a test, then? To see if I was still stupid? Still not able to think things through? Not able, as the other Marco had put it, to get out of my own fucking head for a minute?

“We’ve both already had this conversation once,” I said slowly. “So you already know that I know I screwed up. And I already know you think that’s not enough.”

Marco gave no answer, his expression still inscrutable. I knew what he was thinking, though, behind that rigidly controlled face—damn straight it’s not enough. Cassie’s parents are dead, and my Dad’s a Controller, and NONE OF THAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IF YOU’D USED YOUR FUCKING BRAIN FOR ONE GODDAMN SECOND—

“And you don’t care about anything I have to say,” I continued, “because stupid people promising not to be stupid is—it’s a promise they can’t keep. Because they can’t tell when they’re about to be stupid. Not in time to stop.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“So what this really boils down to is whether or not you think having me around helps us win. Whether you think I—whether you think I’m a liability. Whether telling Jake what I did will make us stronger or weaker, as a team—whether it’s better for him to have the full picture, or not. Whether I’ve actually—what, grown? Updated?—on the way I do things, since three weeks ago.”

“And?” he asked, after a long silence.

I took a deep breath. “And so I’m asking you for advice,” I said. “I need a second opinion, and you’re better at this stuff than me. What do you think I should do?”

The question hung in the air between us, thick and heavy and explosive. For nearly thirty seconds, Marco and I stared directly into each other’s eyes, with me trying to imagine what he was imagining about me, and him doing—whatever it was his brain does. I couldn’t even begin to guess.

“You know what the difference was, between that first night at the pool and these last two missions?” he asked suddenly.

I swallowed. “No,” I answered honestly. “I mean, there’s plenty—but I don’t know which bit you think is important.”

“We didn’t act like that first mission was safe,” he said. “It wasn’t safe, and we knew it, and Jake went in anyway. And then I followed him, even though it was stupid, and then you went in afterward even though that was stupid.”

I said nothing, because I didn’t know what I was supposed to say.

“And it was because—because—because—” He broke off, shook his head, and started over. “Jake went in there mad. He didn’t care if he got killed. He wasn’t thinking. And then I followed him because—”

Again, a pause. Again, a restart, this time with a tight grimace. “I didn’t care about anything except getting him out. I think, if I’d died doing it, I—it would have been okay. It would have been a good trade. I mean, not really, because God help us all if you guys had to run this little army without me, but—”

I nodded. I understood. “It would have felt okay,” I said, my voice thrumming as if I were about to break into tears. “Like, it wouldn’t have been right, but—but it would’ve been right.”

“Worth it,” Marco said, nodding back. “That’s the thing, right? Some missions, they’re worth it.”

“Like Elfangor,” I said, feeling my throat close up.

Maybe I would cry.

“Yeah,” Marco said slowly.

I noticed—something. A sudden distance, maybe, as if Marco had been drawing closer and closer and then had turned around at the last second. As if we’d been doing a paired gymnastics routine, and one of us had stumbled.

Was it Elfangor? Had I said something wrong?

“And the thing is,” Marco continued, “it hurts, sometimes, to think about which missions aren’t worth it. Like my dad. My dad, who’s already broken, who’s been messed up ever since my mom died, he’s been off in this private little nightmare world all alone, and I haven’t been able to help, and now he’s—”

He broke off for a third time, this time giving a nonchalant little shrug. “Whatever,” he said, the emotion suddenly gone from his voice. “It’s just shitty, you know? To realize that we could do it, probably, we could probably rescue my dad even though there’s a Bug fighter up there over my house, but it wouldn’t be worth the risk. Because right now, we’re more important than my dad. Me, Jake, Cassie, Tobias.” He made a strange face. “You. What we know, what we can do. You don’t sacrifice your queen for a pawn.”

Pressing both of his hands against the boulder, he leaned forward and slid off, dropping down to the ground, his feet crunching against the dead leaves and twigs. Straightening, he looked up at me—actually up, his head almost a foot lower than mine even with the gentle slope of the hill.

“You sacrifice your queen for a queen, though,” he said. “What Tidwell came up with, this morning—I’m pretty sure I can turn it into a plan. A real plan, one that can actually work. But.”

He tilted his head, his eyes narrowing slightly as he sized me up. “But it isn’t safe. Not by a long shot. Way I figure it, we get something like a 50% chance of taking out the pool. Whole thing, top to bottom. Maybe we even manage to steal the shield while we’re at it.”

He paused for a single heartbeat, spoke the next words in a light and casual tone. “But we also get like a 90% chance of at least one of us dying. And from where I’m standing, the person we can most afford to lose is you.”

 

*        *        *

 

“There’s never going to be a better moment,” I pointed out. “Right now, they don’t know about Ax, they don’t know about storing things in morph, they don’t know about using thought-speak as a weapon, they don’t know that there’s a weakness in the bio-filter—”

“A possible weakness,” Jake corrected, his voice tight. “If Marco’s right. And that’s assuming they don’t gun you down at the door, or just stun you and put Illim in stasis right there—”

“It’s already almost impossible,” I said, cutting him off. “And it’s only going to get worse as they figure more and more stuff out. They didn’t even have codes a year ago—how do you think they came up with that password scheme? The more humans we let them take, the harder it’s going to get to turn this thing around. This is worth it.”

Nothing’s worth losing one of us. There are only seven of us, against all of them.”

“Tobias is out there,” Marco reminded him. “We have the blue box—we can recruit. We can’t fight a war if we’re not willing to take risks.”

Jake didn’t like it. Cassie really didn’t like it. But together, Marco and I talked them down—talked them into it.

The rest of the day was a whirlwind of preparation. I wrote three letters—to Sara, Jordan, and my mom, explaining. I convinced Cassie to deliver them, if anything terrible happened.

“The Yeerks already know we’re human,” I said. “They’re staking out our houses. It won’t hurt anything.”

She agreed, giving me a strange look as she took the three small scraps of paper. I had the feeling there was something she wasn’t saying—maybe several somethings—but I didn’t ask. There wasn’t time.

Marco, Ax, and Garrett left to get the sodium at sundown, along with a handful of materials Tidwell had specified. He wasn’t much of a demolitions expert, but he’d picked up a few tricks here and there, and he knew a way to create a slow-permeable membrane—to set up a kind of fuse, so that it would take the water a few minutes to soak through to the metal inside. With luck, that would give Garrett the time he needed to get out of the pool and get clear.

There was a painful half-hour where Jake insisted on having a stilted, uneven conversation that never quite got to the point. Eventually, I figured out what he wanted, and put it to him directly.

“You’re trying to figure out if I’ll let you acquire me, right? In case I die?”

I didn’t think there was much of a chance that anybody would be able to resurrect me out of a temporary morph, but it didn’t cost me anything, so I shrugged and let him do it. For a brief moment, I worried about him pulling the memory trick and digging through my head, but that wasn’t really Jake’s style. I went ahead and acquired him back, just to make the whole thing feel less awkward, but I didn’t bother morphing into him. Jake wasn’t like Marco—if he had something to say, he’d say it to your face.

I did go ahead and morph into Marco’s body again—that night, in my hut, after everyone else went to sleep. I didn’t unlock his consciousness, just played around with being a boy for a while. It was strange—I wasn’t scared, exactly, but I was very, extremely, completely aware that it might be my last night on Earth. I didn’t want to miss out on my last chance for a unique experience, though even in the dark my cheeks burned when I thought about what Marco would say if he ever found out.

If I did live—

No, I thought to myself. No hopes, no promises. The mission, first.

I hadn’t realized just how much the guilt had been weighing on me—how different it would feel, to suddenly have a shot at redemption. Unable to sleep, I morphed into the barn owl—the same one Marco had used to keep watch on the mission the night before—and spiraled up into the sky.

It was a clear, beautiful night, with the sliver of moon outlining the mountains and the lights of the city sparkling and shimmering as the earth bled heat into the atmosphere. I drifted through the air for an hour, stopping to peer into the windows of my mom’s house.

They were asleep—my mom in her room, my sisters in their bunk beds. Their faces were calm and relaxed, with no sign of the struggle that would be raging in each of their heads. There was no alien technology littering the house—no guns, no maps—just the tiny blinking light of a tracker on each wrist.

None of them would be at the pool tomorrow. I had made a point of keeping track of their feeding schedule, and they had all visited earlier, in the afternoon, right around the time that Marco and I had been morphing into each other.

I wanted to say goodbye—could feel the words forming in the back of my mind, the impulse to speak. But I ignored it. Never again.

The others were still gone when I returned to the valley. Demorphing, I rolled back into bed, mixing in a few hours of restless sleep with my tossing and turning.

And then it was morning. I awoke to the smell of bacon—courtesy of Erek—cooking on a pan over the campfire. Marco, Ax, Garrett, and Tidwell were off in a corner of the field, unpacking the chunks of sodium one by one and carefully sealing them up in foam containers. Jake was doing the cooking—he muttered something under his breath and didn’t look me in the eye—which left Cassie to talk to as I ate my breakfast scramble.

“Are you okay with this?” I asked haltingly, after a minute of silence.

“With what?”

I shrugged. “If this works, a lot of people are going to die.”

“I’m not some unrealistic hippie, you know.”

I winced. “Sorry. I do know. I guess it’s just—”

“What?”

It’s just that we’ve got to keep your conscience alive, since none of the rest of us seem to have one. “Nothing,” I said. “Sorry.”

We each chewed quietly for a moment. Then Cassie spoke.

“I volunteered to beat you up,” she said. “After you morph. When we have to make it look like you’ve been in a car accident.”

I blinked. “Um,” I said.

“Don’t worry, I won’t make it too bad. Can’t have too many fresh cuts, after all, when you’re supposed to have had three days to heal.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. Cassie and I had been best friends for years, but in the past few weeks—

since you got her parents killed—

—we hadn’t really talked much at all.

Was it possible to drift apart that quickly? I certainly couldn’t remember ever feeling quite this awkward around Cassie before.

But then again, our talks had usually been about horse tranquilizers, or Social Studies quizzes, or my occasional attempts to get her to dress in something other than overalls. We didn’t exactly have a lot of practice with last-meals-before-execution, or what to do with the fate of the world.

“Cassie,” I began. “Your parents—”

“Not your fault,” she said, the words sounding practiced and tired. “If anybody’s to blame, it’s me. I could’ve stayed to fight for my mother. Could’ve knocked her out before she called in my dad. Could’ve made one of you go with me to the Gardens in the first place. Plenty of things I could have done different. Done better.”

I winced again, my breakfast sitting like lead in my stomach. “We’re going to make them pay,” I said quietly.

“Oh, not you, too,” Cassie grumbled. “Come on—do you really believe that killing a whole bunch of them makes up for them killing a whole bunch of us? Do you think it’s going to make me feel any better at all?”

“Yes,” I said, softening the word with a shrug. “I do. I think you don’t want it to make you feel better, but I think it will. They’re bad guys. You don’t have to feel guilty about it.”

She was quiet for a long moment. “No,” she said. “I still do. Because it’s not their fault. Don’t you see? Their whole species—this is how they live. It’s all they know. It’s the only way they get to see, to hear, to smell, to taste. Elfangor—I asked him a little more about it, and he said, the first time they realized it wasn’t the Gedds—that the Gedds weren’t even intelligent, that it was those little slugs in the pools—”

She paused, and shook her head. “They’re stuck in those pools their whole lives. Their whole lives, except the one or two lucky ones who manage to grab a passing, stupid animal. And then even then, they only get three days before they have to give up—let go and drop back into the pool to feed, and who knows when they’ll get another chance? Some pools have a million Yeerks in them.”

She fixed me with a steady, searching look. “You going to tell me that you wouldn’t try to get out?” she asked. “That you wouldn’t push back? Fight? Maybe even do a little enslaving? If nobody had ever told you about equality, and freedom, and justice?”

“Even if they hadn’t heard of that stuff before,” I pointed out, “they’ve heard of it now. They could stop. But they don’t. They keep going, even though every single host is screaming.”

We kept going for hundreds of years,” Cassie countered. “Hundreds of years of slavery. Built up all kinds of stories about how it was God’s will, how it was the natural state of things, how—how—how the black man was inferior, how he was happier with all that responsibility taken off his shoulders.” She took a deep, shuddering breath, and—not for the first time—I wondered about her family’s history, and about why I felt like I couldn’t ask.

“I don’t want to write off a whole species, just because they’re a couple of hundred years behind us on the learning curve,” she said, her voice sounding firmer and more confident as she went on. “I don’t want to write off a whole species just because they haven’t figured it out in the two years since they discovered that there was anybody different out there at all.

“I don’t, either,” I said, wondering as I did whether it was true or not. “But I’m not willing to sacrifice our whole species while they figure it out.”

She shrugged. “Problem is, it’s not our species and their species. It’s just people. Each and every individual person, each making their own choice. They think they can get what they want through slavery. You think you can get what you want by killing. I think—I don’t know what I want, but it’s not this.

She fell silent, and together we chewed our food, side by side in the corner of the little clearing. I watched her out of the corner of my eye, teetering on the edge of telling her—of confessing, of throwing myself on her mercy—

“Thing is,” she said, so softly I could barely hear. “Maybe I’m glad they’re gone. Because deep down, I think we haven’t—I think things are going to get a lot worse.”

Straightening, she looked down at me. “Good luck, Rachel,” she said.

And then she turned and walked away.

 

*        *        *

 

When Illim took control, I didn’t feel fear. I didn’t feel anger. I didn’t feel frustration or helplessness or relief.

Instead, I felt—taut. Like an arrow on the draw. A tiger, ready to spring. A boulder, just barely balanced at the top of a cliff.

There had been too much talk. I wanted to act, and the plan was finally, finally in motion.

“Illim,” Jake said, his voice cold and formal. My eyes darted toward him without my input, and I felt a vague mental pressure as Illim scrambled around inside Aaron Tidwell’s clone-copy brain and found nothing—no memories except the past ten minutes, during which a bear had gently battered his face and body.

“There was a malfunction in your stasis cylinder,” Jake continued. “It occurred overnight, and we didn’t notice it until now.”

Lies, of course. Ax had carefully drained the power, using the sensors on the side to track the health of the slug within.

“You must already be starving.”

“What is this?” Illim cried, using my voice—Tidwell’s voice. “This body—what—”

“We have decided to spare your life, Yeerk,” Jake said, allowing a hint of haughtiness to creep into his tone. “You are inside of a morph—one of our commandos, wearing a copy of your old host’s body.”

I felt the clawing-searching sensation again as Illim dug through Tidwell’s mind, blocked at every turn by the morphing tech’s control system—the protocols that were keeping the human brain dormant and obedient. “This body—it—”

“You are in control,” Jake said simply. “Our commando couldn’t take over if she tried.” He nodded, and—as planned—I gave a mental heave, struggled to dislodge Illim’s grip on our shared mind. There was a moment in which it almost seemed to work, and I felt Tidwell’s right hand curl into a fist. But then the Yeerk buckled down, forcing me back into submission.

“The body has no memories because it is only ten minutes old. It is damaged to lend credibility to your story.”

“What story?”

Jake shrugged. “Whatever story allows you to return to your pool. Our commando volunteered to deliver you there, as long as you make every effort to preserve the secret of her identity.” He leaned in, his eyes somehow empty and soulless—looking nothing like Jake’s at all. “You should note that you have absolutely no control over her morphing power,” he added darkly. “She can demorph at will, and if she does—well.” He smiled—a cold, mirthless twisting of the lips. “You get to see what Z-space is like, firsthand.”

We had timed it as exactly as we could. By Ax’s estimate, Illim had barely an hour left to live—if it refused to cooperate, or if it turned out our assumptions about control were wrong, Marco would stun me from behind and I would demorph after it died.

If it played along instead—

“You have about one hour to make your way back to the pool,” Jake said. “To talk your way inside. I believe your passwords are out of date, and your superiors think you’re either captured or dead. They’ll be suspicious. You’ll have to be quite convincing.”

“Why—”

“Tick tock, Illim. Time’s running out. Do you really want to spend the last minutes of your life asking irrelevant questions?”

He turned, stepping out of the way to reveal that the trail we were standing on ended just a few hundred feet away, emerging into a parking lot on the edge of town. There was a brief, horrible moment of hesitation, in which it seemed that Illim would stop and think and the whole house of cards would come tumbling down.

But then I felt my body shudder as a spasm of whatever pain the Yeerk was feeling tore through our head. We stumbled, and when we climbed back to our feet, we were running.

<You,> Illim said, the voice echoing across my thoughts. <Are you there? Can you hear me?>

<Yes,> I answered, as we burst out of the trees and into the sunlight.

<Which way?>

Illim’s voice was tight with fear and desperation, and I felt its control relax enough for me to point. Without a moment’s hesitation, it spurred our body back into motion, our shoes slapping loudly as we ran down the asphalt.

<You may want to slow down,> I cautioned. <We’re several miles away, and you should pace yourself.>

<No!> Illim shouted. <This body is a spare! You’ll just regenerate it! If we don’t make it to the pool, I will die!>

I could feel the results of the Yeerk’s efforts—the way that blood pumped more freely, adrenaline trickling out in a steady stream, the heart and lungs working together at exactly maximum output.

<Why?> it demanded, <Why are you doing this? If you wanted me to live, why not deliver me in the cylinder?>

<The cylinder was completely broken,> I said. <It would’ve killed you to keep you in it. This was the only way.>

<But why?> Illim shouted. <Why—ahhhhh—why did you not just kill me? Why this—this torture—>

<Torture? I’m saving your life.>

<You’re after something! You’re trying to—to infiltrate—to sabotage—>

<Do you see any weapons?> I asked. <Notice anything that could pose even the tiniest threat to your stupid pool? I’m not like you. I’m trying to be nice.>

<Others—hhggggrrrr, no—buried in my skin, my hair—insects—>

<Bio-filter, remember?>

The conversation continued as we ran, Illim driving Tidwell’s body harder than I thought possible as it searched for the motive, the lie. I stuck to the story, refusing to give detail, answering most of its questions with the mental equivalent of a shrug.

Occasionally, the hunger pangs would be so intense that they would cause us to trip, to stumble. Once, it happened just as we were crossing over a curb, and the resulting fall knocked out two of Tidwell’s teeth and broke our nose. But the Yeerk simply shut down the pain signals and hoisted us to our feet, driving us forward even faster.

<I need a phone—a comm—>

<We’re only three-quarters of a mile out. You might as well run—by the time they pinpoint your location, you could have already made it.>

<Nnnnggggggggaauuhhh! How do I know that you—>

<Fine. Don’t believe me. Go ahead and die. In fact, why don’t I demorph right n—>

<No!>

We were getting closer—close enough that the streets were starting to fill with people, Controllers on their way to or from the pool. A few of them gaped at us as we ran by, blood streaming freely down Tidwell’s face. “Illim!” the Yeerk cried out. “Emergency! Illim! Do not interfere!”

<Got a good story planned?> I asked. <It would be a shame to keel over in the lobby.>

<I was—tsssssssss! I was seized by Andalites! Held in the woods! I barely escaped—I don’t know how!>

<How will they know you’re not an impostor?>

<There are passwords, you idiot! And the bio-filter.>

<And how do I know you won’t betray me?>

<I am dying! I don’t have time for revenge games!>

Rounding a corner, I/we saw the low, squat façade of the YMCA, less than a quarter of a mile away. I felt Illim trying to squeeze another drop of speed out of Tidwell’s body, but we were already running as fast as we could, his heart pumping dangerously fast, his breath a ragged whistle.

I didn’t dare trying to thought-speak out loud, but I knew the others were there, somewhere—in the trees, or up above, Jake and Cassie and Marco, paralleling me on three sides. In a moment, they would peel off, so as not to alert the pool and make the irregular situation even more suspicious.

It was laughable—a dream, a hope, a hail-Mary—a terrible plan, made barely possible by the addition of two critical factors:

Illim wanted to live.

And I was willing to die.

“Help!” Tidwell’s voice cried, as we neared the door. “Help! Cirrus, Socrates, particle, decibel, Visser! I’m dying!”

We reached for the handle, just barely avoiding a final tumble on the last stair, and yanked open the door. “Cirrus!” Illim repeated. “Socrates, particle, decibel, Visser! Let me in, I’m dying!”

Behind the desk, the young attendant’s eyes had narrowed. She was already in motion, slapping a hand down on a hidden button behind the counter and drawing a gun as she rose smoothly to her feet.

“No!” Illim shouted, staggering to a halt, holding both of Tidwell’s hands up in front. “Please! Cirrus, Socrates, particle, decibel, Visser! I’m part of the Bastion group—I was captured—escaped—please, I’m starving, I don’t have much time—

“Control,” said the attendant, her voice steady. “Orders?”

Illim continued to beg as the attendant cocked her head, listening to something we couldn’t hear. “Strip,” she commanded, gesturing with the gun.

Exhausted, bleeding, barely able to stand—somehow, Illim managed to force Tidwell’s limbs into motion, tugging our sweat-soaked clothes over our head and off of our sweaty legs. “Cirrus,” it said weakly, turning in a circle, arms still raised. “Socrates, particle, decibel, Visser. I’m not an Andalite, I’m a Yeerk, please. The fugue—it’s already started—”

The attendant’s eyes widened, and something like sympathy flickered across her face. “Control,” she said again. “Seems clear. Front door secure—I can see Urdash’s squad through the glass—”

She broke off abruptly, again seeming to listen, and then nodded. “Roger.” She pointed at the door. “Go!”

Illim didn’t wait to be told twice. We darted forward as the attendant bent over the desk, keying in a code before pressing the buzzer. Ripping open the door, we stumbled inside and began to run again.

I could only catch glimpses as we lumbered down the hallway, Illim still firmly in control of our head and eyes. But from what I saw, the interior of the building had been completely rearranged. Where before there had been basketball courts and arts-and-crafts rooms, the doors now opened onto huge, bustling labs and manufactories, with dozens of small, orange, eight-limbed aliens skittering across tables and desks and piles of unfinished machinery. I caught a glimpse of what looked like a half-built Bug fighter, and then in the next room, a series of tall, cylindrical tanks filled with bubbling green liquid.

Reaching the stairwell, we half-ran, half-fell down the steps, passing another set of doors which opened onto a barracks room stuffed completely full of Hork-Bajir. Bursting through the door into the basement hallway, we ran straight into a squad of eight armed men wearing riot gear.

“Cirrus!” shouted Illim once again, Tidwell’s voice going hoarse. “Socrates—”

“We know,” snapped one of the men. “Explain.”

“I can’t,” Illim groaned. “The fugue, the fugue—please, I have only minutes—”

The men exchanged glances, and a low keening groan tore its way out of Tidwell’s throat as his limbs began to twitch. Sagging, we fell against one of the men and were lifted bodily by three others.

“To the bio-filter,” the first man said.

Moving with smooth efficiency, the group carried us over to the pool entryway. It, too, had been changed, the doors built outward into the hallway and reinforced with thick, shiny metal. Sliding them open, the squad dumped us unceremoniously inside.

It was like an airlock, about six feet on a side, the walls covered in tiny holes and painted a dull, angry red. We sat motionless for maybe ten seconds, our chest heaving, until we heard a small chime and the inner set of doors swung open.

Should I demorph now?

No—Illim will notice, sound the alarm.

A second squad of men were waiting just inside, four of them with arms free while the other four stood further back, their weapons trained on the airlock. The first group heaved us up, dragging us over to the pier.

<Almost free, Yeerk. Will you return the favor?>

It was the moment of truth.  If they stunned me now, I might never wake up in time.  If they killed me—

“This body,” Illim gasped, as they held us horizontal, our head out over the water. “Don’t stun it. I ran—the heart—I think you’ll kill it, if you stun it.”

And then, with a final surge of gratitude, I felt the Yeerk dislodge—a strange sensation, like a thousand tiny Band-Aids being pulled off every fiber of my mind. There was pain, in my ear—pain like a drill, and then I heard a tiny plop as the slug dropped out and vanished beneath the surface.

They dumped me on the side of the pool, a cut-string puppet, alongside all the unconscious prisoners. I felt weak—nauseous—my heart still hammering through my chest, my limbs as dull and heavy as lead. It was a good thing that the next phase of the plan didn’t require me, because I couldn’t have gotten up if my life depended on it.

All right. Easy part’s over.

Forcing myself to focus, I began to demorph, straining with all my might to localize the change to just the tiniest patch of my body—the palm of my right hand. At first, nothing happened, and then came the familiar tingle, not just in my palm but across my whole right side—

it’ll be enough, let it be enough—

—and then—

—like a chorus of angels—

<Garrett. Hello? Did we make it? Over.>

<Rachel, are we in?>

<Yes,> I thought wearily, feeling the tiniest tickle as the pair of bugs launched themselves away from my palm, where they had emerged from Z-space. <We’re in.>

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 17: Garrett

<Forty-nine, forty-eight, forty-seven, forty-six, forty-fi—>

There wasn’t any transition. One moment, MARCO’S voice was in my head, counting down as RACHEL absorbed us into her morph. The next moment, there was nothing.

No sound.

No light.

No sensation of any kind.

<Garrett,> I thought. I said my name first so that everybody could tell it was me—that was the rule, except when we were all sounding off. <Is anybody there? Over.>

Silence.

Not just silence as in very-quiet, but silence as in there-is-no-such-thing-as-sounds-or-ears-or-a-universe-and-you-are-alone. I once read a book that talked about a thing called PROPRIOCEPTION which is your body’s sense of where-it-is, things like how far your finger is away from your nose or whether or not your eyes are open and flies don’t have very good PROPRIOCEPTION but even so I could tell the difference between dark-quiet and nothing and this was nothing.

I had no body at all.

Except that wasn’t quite right, because I was still thinking and thinking has to happen on something, there has to be some kind of thing that is doing the thinking, so maybe it was better to say that I had no sense of having a body, which could mean that I didn’t have a body or that I had suffered some kind of paralyzing injury that had severed my nerve connections or that the morphing technology had malfunctioned or that I had just gone crazy and I was imagining things, but whether it was one of those or something else altogether I was still definitely ME.

Which actually probably meant that it wasn’t some kind of injury or craziness, because odds were that most things that would injure me that badly or make me that crazy would do something pretty drastic to my brain, too, and as far as I could tell my brain seemed to be working just fine. To test it, I decided to find the square root of 43716299, which was less than 49000000 and more than 36000000 which meant that the answer was between 6000 and 7000 and also 6500 squared was 42250000 and 6750 squared was 45562500 and after a few more seconds I had zigzagged all the way to 6611.8302 and then that was really really close so I stopped.

Then I decided to check my VERBAL CENTER so I took the word area and tried to turn it into chin by changing one letter at a time—

—aria—

—arid—

—grid—

—grit—

—gait—

—wait—

—wail—

—tail—

—toil—

—coil—

—coin—

—chin—

—and that was easy too so I decided that either my brain was working just fine or it was too broken to tell that it was broken and in any case it wasn’t going to do any good to worry about it, so I stopped.

For a second, I wasn’t thinking any thoughts at all, and the nothing started to remind me of the time TOBIAS and I went down into THE DARK to find THE GIANT SQUID, and I started to get scared, so I reminded myself that I was NOT AFRAID because I was THE TYPE OF PERSON WHO DOES THE RIGHT THING EVEN IF IT’S HARD, and that helped.

Okay, I thought to myself. Think it through.

I had been sitting on RACHEL’S hand in a fly body, next to AXIMILI-ESGARROUTH-ISTHILL, and MARCO had been counting down while RACHEL morphed into MISTER TIDWELL so that she could get ILLIM to infest her to sneak us into THE POOL, and we’d been about halfway through the morph when everything went away—

And just like that, I had the answer, or at least a very good HYPOTHESIS, which was that when my fly body got sent off into Z-SPACE along with the rest of RACHEL, of course all of its senses got put on pause. But the fly body wasn’t where my brain was, it was just the input-output channel and my brain was somewhere else—in fact, my brain was on pause in its own little pocket dimension and my thoughts were probably running on some kind of ANDALITE EMULATOR TECHNOLOGY, and of course that hadn’t gone into stasis because why would it?

But without the fly body, it didn’t have any sort of connection with the real universe, and so I was stuck in some kind of interdimensional limbo, which wasn’t great but I guess it wasn’t the worst thing, as long as the signal came back when RACHEL came out of morph.

I wondered if AXIMILI-ESGARROUTH-ISTHILL would figure out the same HYPOTHESIS, or if he’d come up with something totally different, or if he’d already known this was going to happen and hadn’t said anything, or if he would just get scared or angry or go crazy. We had staged the scene with ILLIM three miles away from THE POOL, and MISTER TIDWELL had said that he could run three miles in twenty-three minutes because he was a VETERAN, so assuming that it took RACHEL the normal amount of time to morph and demorph and that it would take no more than five minutes to convince ILLIM to go along with the plan and that it would take no more than ten minutes to convince the YEERKS to let us through, then we would only be cut off for forty minutes, which was probably not enough time to really lose it, sanity-wise.

But that was a lot of assumptions, and also there’s a rule called MURPHY’S LAW which says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, and certainly none of us had anticipated this situation. MURPHY’S LAW is sort of a LIE, but it’s an interesting one because the more you believe it the less true it is and vice versa, so I believe it very hard most of the time, and so does TOBIAS and from what I can tell so does MARCO and maybe VISSER THREE.

I wondered for a minute if I was able to demorph, but I decided not to test it, partly because then I would be pouring a lot of mass into RACHEL’S pocket dimension—which would change her time limit, not to mention screwing up THE PLAN—and also partly because at the moment my mind was working, but if I demorphed I would be demorphing into a place where everything was in stasis, and since morphing takes concentration then at some point my mind would freeze and I wouldn’t be able to finish anyway.

In the end, there was nothing to do but settle in and wait. There was maybe a chance that the signal wouldn’t reconnect when RACHEL demorphed, and that this was where I would be stuck forever, but MISTER TIDWELL had been fine when MARCO morphed him away and anyway there wasn’t anything I could do about that, so instead I thought about TOBIAS and his mission to WASHINGTON, D.C. and whether or not it had been a good idea for him to go by himself and whether or not it was going well and whether or not he missed me.

Then I counted to ten thousand, which is something I’d always wanted to do, but every other time I’d tried it somebody had interrupted me or I’d fallen asleep.

Then I reviewed THE PLAN in my head.

I was halfway through trying to remember all of the first chapter of Ender’s Shadow when all of a sudden the universe came back—temperature, pressure, humidity, light, background noise. Just like before, the change happened all at once, with no warning and no sense of transition.

<Garrett. Hello?> I asked, keeping my thought-speak on a narrow, private band. <Did we make it? Over.>

I’m not at all sure how thought-speak knows where to go. I asked TOBIAS and AXIMILI-ESGARROUTH-ISTHILL what they’re doing in their heads when they send out private thought-speak, and they gave very different answers that weren’t at all like what I do. TOBIAS said that he just focuses really hard on a sort of wanting, like how he wants JAKE or RACHEL or MARCO to be able to hear him. AXIMILI-ESGARROUTH-ISTHILL said that with other ANDALITES he can sort of feel who’s nearby and reach out to them directly, like holding hands, but that HUMANS feel like rocks in his head and so he just sends messages like throwing darts, only sometimes the darts hurt the rocks and he’s had to practice to make his darts softer.

I don’t do either of those things. Instead, I have a little picture that represents the person I want to talk to, and I hold up the words beside the picture and that seems to work. My picture of RACHEL is long and gold and sharp, and my picture of AXIMILI-ESGARROUTH-ISTHILL is low and blue and furry and wiggly and lonely, and I held both of those up and also I held up my empty picture of NO ONE ELSE just to be sure.

<Rachel, are we in? Over.>

That was AXIMILI-ESGARROUTH-ISTHILL, who had forgotten the rule that we’re supposed to identify ourselves when we thought-speak except when it’s everybody sounding off, but I could tell it was him anyway because every word was clear-cut and very, very separate from the others.

<Yes,> said RACHEL, who usually thought with words that got very loud around the second letter before trailing off kind of quietly, like when people say bUllshit or mAke me. <We’re in.>

I had already taken off by the time she finished think-speaking. I needed to move quickly—I was holding all of the sodium that MARCO and AXIMILI-ESGARROUTH-ISTHILL had been able to carry together, which was almost three hundred pounds which meant that me plus the sodium weighed three hundred seventy-five pounds plus or minus five pounds which was only a little bit lighter than ELFANGOR-SIRINIAL-SHAMTUL’S body which meant that my morph time was only a little over an hour which meant that if all of my assumptions about timing were right then I had at most twenty minutes left in morph.

My job was to find one of the piers that stretched out over the Yeerk pool and get underneath it and count to fifty to give AXIMILI-ESGARROUTH-ISTHILL a head-start on finding the shield generator and then I was supposed to scream very loud for two seconds and then pause for two seconds and then scream again very loud for as long as I could but this time without including RACHEL or AXIMILI-ESGARROUTH-ISTHILL and while I was screaming I was supposed to drop down into the pool and demorph where none of the CONTROLLERS could see me. I had taken thirty-six very deep breaths before I started my morph and I had filled my lungs all the way up right before they disappeared so I was pretty sure I could do the whole morph underwater but again MURPHY’S LAW.

It was very important that I only wait fifty seconds instead of just waiting however long it took AXIMILI-ESGARROUTH-ISTHILL to find the shield generator, because he might not be able to find it at all and meanwhile RACHEL was going to be the center of a lot of attention and the sooner I started my distraction the better. She was supposed to be right next to the pool and so far she hadn’t said anything about not being right next to the pool, so our plan where my first scream would draw the CONTROLLERS’ attention away from her and then my second scream would keep them distracted long enough for her to drop into the water was probably still a good one.

<I believe I am on the ceiling,> said AXIMILI-ESGARROUTH-ISTHILL, still forgetting the rule about identifying himself. <I am attempting to reorient. It is very difficult to sense my surroundings in this body. Over.>

<Stay high as much as you can,> reminded RACHEL, who also wasn’t following the rule. I wondered for a moment whether maybe I shouldn’t follow it either and whether it was like the rule about no talking after lights out which was a LIE and just for show, or whether it was like the rule about doing exercise so you don’t have a heart attack and die which people really believe but aren’t very good at following for some reason. <They’ve set up this place to be completely bug-proof. If they see a fly, they’ll go nuts. Over.>

The reminder wasn’t aimed at me, but it made sense and I’d sort of forgotten, so I aimed myself upward until the air around me was only vibrating, not really moving the way it did around HEADS and HANDS and people walking and breathing. The fly brain liked it when the air was still and quiet because it meant less danger, and I liked it because up there the smells weren’t complicated and swirling around and so it was much easier to find the wet swampy smell that meant FOOD to the fly brain and TARGET to me.

It was a lot harder than usual to keep track of where I was and where I’d been in the fly body, which could go up and down and sideways and backwards and couldn’t exactly see all that well, but it wasn’t that much harder than it had been down in THE DARK after TOBIAS and I had fought THE GIANT SQUID. I’d forgotten to ask where exactly the piers were supposed to be, but I knew there were two of them and I didn’t want to distract RACHEL because she was in a compromised position, so once I got out over the water where the CONTROLLERS couldn’t see me I dropped down close to the surface and zigzagged back and forth until I found the edges of the pool and then used that to navigate to the center and then started to fly diagonally toward the corner on the side that seemed like it maybe had the most sounds and smells coming from it. I figured that the piers were probably sticking out of the longer side of the rectangle and were probably long enough that a diagonal path would take me right to them, but if I was wrong then once I got to the corner I could travel along the short side and that should work too.

<I could not find the entrance to the control room using this body’s senses,> said AXIMILI-ESGARROUTH-ISTHILL, still forgetting the rule about identifying himself. <But I believe I have found a suitable place to demorph. Garrett, I will wait until your signal, in case there is surveillance. Over.>

I wanted to answer but I didn’t have anything meaningful to add, so I just said <Roger> which is an answer that doesn’t need you to identify yourself or say over because you only ever use it when there’s COMMON KNOWLEDGE about who’s talking to who and when you don’t want to say anything else anyway, although even with those rules it would get confusing pretty fast if we ever decided to go back to OAK LANDING and recruit ROGER CARSON who is two years older than me and owes TOBIAS a DOLLAR.

The vibrations and air currents were getting stronger in front of me, and I thought I could detect a soft, regular pounding like footsteps even though I was still only two-thirds of the way to the corner and out over the water, so I made a hypothesis that I was almost at the pier which was sort-of proved when my crazy fly eyes started picking up a kind of gray blur above and in front of me and definitely proved when SOMETHING BIG fell past me and splashed into the water. It was a good thing the fly body was so good at dodging because the thing that fell into the water, which I guess was a YEERK, was maybe ten thousand times heavier than me and any one of the droplets which flew up into the air could have knocked me out of the sky. That wouldn’t have been too bad, I guess, since I was going to have to get into the water soon anyway, but I wanted to be under the pier when I did it so that there was less of a chance of one of the CONTROLLERS shooting me while I demorphed.

<Garrett,> I thought, holding up my pictures of RACHEL and AXIMILI-ESGARROUTH-ISTHILL. <I’m at the pier, over.>

Swooping into the slightly-darker-and-quieter space between the metal and the water, I latched onto something hard and let my wings rest, unable to stop the fly body from spitting and rubbing its hands together. I was going to start counting to fifty, but then I decided that didn’t make sense anymore since AXIMILI-ESGARROUTH-ISTHILL didn’t need extra time and RACHEL was still in danger. I checked in with them both, and then braced myself, holding up a picture of a sphere three hundred meters across whose volume of one hundred thirteen million, ninety-seven thousand, three hundred thirty-five point five three cubic meters was completely filled up so that the thought-speak would know to go to EVERYBODY.

<EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE,> I broadcast, for as close to two seconds as I could manage.

When TOBIAS and I were down in THE DARK with THE GIANT SQUID, I had sort-of-accidentally-on-purpose discovered that we could use thought-speak as a weapon, like how parents who lift cars off of their children really are trying to lift cars off of their children but probably aren’t expecting it to actually work. All of the others had tried it, too, but only AXIMILI-ESGARROUTH-ISTHILL was able to do it, and even he couldn’t do it half as well as I could or for as long as I could.

TOBIAS said it was a superpower, like JAKE understanding people or CASSIE being the best morpher, and he held up his hand with the scar that means we are TRUE FRIENDS. But he was wrong because the screaming isn’t a superpower any more than being good with numbers or having a mental map or being able to hear the difference between other people’s thought-speak is a superpower. I maybe have a superpower but it’s just one superpower, not four of them, and it’s not particularly interesting or special because it’s just that when I’m doing something hard I use all of my head to do it instead of getting lazy or distracted the way most people do.

I held up my sphere-picture again, this time with two small holes in it shaped like RACHEL and AXIMILI-ESGARROUTH-ISTHILL.

<EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE—>

I kept on thought-screaming as I demorphed, right up until the moment that I felt the little hiccup that was the morphing tech handing my mind back over to my real brain, which was usually more or less halfway. I was getting pretty big at that point, but I was pretty sure that none of the CONTROLLERS would have seen me yet, because all of them would have been pretty incapacitated by forty-five seconds of brain-not-working. For a second, I wondered if it had been a mistake to do my thought-scream to EVERYBODY, since that would include all of the CONTROLLERS in the building and a lot of the ones on the street and maybe even all of the ones down underground doing the digging which meant it would be pretty obvious where the scream was coming from, if you were outside and paying attention, and at the center was ME and I didn’t particularly want to get shot. But then I remembered the shield and decided that it wasn’t very likely even given that the YEERKS were probably actually paying very very close attention.

<All activity within the building seems to have stopped,> said AXIMILI-ESGARROUTH-ISTHILL, still forgetting the rule about identifying himself. <Many of the Controllers I can see are unconscious, and the rest are visibly incapacitated.> There was a long pause, almost long enough that I thought he’d forgotten to say over, too, but then he continued. <It appears that we drastically underestimated the offensive power of thought-speak against species that do not have the eib. This is an area worth exploring, in the future. Over.>

I didn’t respond, because by that point I was almost fully human, the foam-wrapped chunks of sodium popping out of my skin and falling off like some sort of time-lapse video of apples ripening on a tree. RACHEL had thought that there might be some danger of the sodium reacting with the water mid-morph, but MARCO pointed out that none of us had started bleeding during the morphing process which meant that there was probably already some kind of CONTAINMENT FIELD keeping everything sane.

Along with the sodium came the earplugs, headphones, and helmet that I’d worn as protection against the YEERKS, and the Dracon beam I’d brought with me as protection against the CONTROLLERS. But as my eyes finally un-segmented and the world came back into focus, I saw that even the pool had gone quiet, the surface still and unbroken except by the ripples coming from me and from RACHEL.

RACHEL was clinging to the edge of the pool, her own Dracon beam out and firing at low power, pouring stun bolts into every CONTROLLER she could see. “Bombs away?” she called between blasts, her voice carrying easily across the distance between us but still hard to hear because all of the things I had protecting my ears.

“Yeah,” I answered, pulling off the helmet and headphones and dropping them into the water. “Clock’s ticking. Are we still morphing in the water?”

According to MISTER TIDWELL, the foam canisters he’d assembled around the chunks of sodium should last for at least two and a half minutes, which had felt like the right balance between slow-enough-to-not-kill-us and fast-enough-that-the-YEERKS-couldn’t-do-anything-about-it, especially since there were dozens of them. That also meant that Rachel and I had somewhere between one hundred and maybe one hundred thirty seconds before the first of them started to explode, which meant that we had somewhere between ten and forty seconds to start morphing if we wanted to finish morphing before any of the explosions happened, assuming MURPHY’S LAW didn’t have anything to do with it.

In the original version of the plan, we’d thought that the room might very well be full of CONTROLLERS who were shooting at us and also we’d thought that even with all of that sodium, probably not all of the water was going to explode or burn away and water is a very good insulator so even though the odds weren’t great we’d planned on doing our second morph without getting out of the pool. This had been what MARCO called a BAD PLAN but I was NOT AFRAID because I am THE TYPE OF PERSON WHO DOES THE RIGHT THING EVEN IF IT’S HARD and right now the right thing was to DESTROY THE YEERK POOL and if that meant dying then I was not happy to die but at least I was okay with it and TOBIAS would be proud of me.

“How hot did Cassie say they could stand?” she asked, as I dug the earplugs out of my ears and dropped them into the water as well.

“One hundred fifty degrees C,” I called back. I reached up for the edge of the pier, making sure that I could haul myself out if I had to. If RACHEL didn’t make a decision within the next ten seconds, I decided, I would make a decision for myself, and the decision would be not to be right next to all of the things that were about to explode but instead maybe to be outside of the building entirely or wherever AXIMILI-ESGARROUTH-ISTHILL was. “The explosions can get as hot as eleven hundred C,” I added, trying to be helpful.

Fortunately RACHEL is not the type of person who wastes a lot of time when she makes decisions, and there were over two seconds left out of the original ten when she said “Out” and hauled herself out of the water, still firing stun bursts left and right even though by this point she’d pretty much shot everybody who hadn’t already been unconscious which according to AXIMILI-ESGARROUTH-ISTHILL wasn’t many.

I climbed up onto the pier and ran back toward the shore, stepping over two HORK-BAJIR who had fallen over but not fallen all the way into the water. For a moment I thought that RACHEL might be heading for one of the doors, but then I saw that she was simply heading for the corner of the room that was furthest away from the pool and partially protected by a storage shed, which was good because one of the doors led down to where JAKE got eaten which was DANGEROUS and one of the doors led outside but was welded shut and one of the doors led back up to the rest of the building but it had a BIO-FILTER on it and the other two doors led to UNCHARTED TERRITORY. It was going to get to eleven hundred C right by the water but with that much distance we would maybe be safe, especially if the ventilation system wasn’t very good and the fire ate up all the oxygen before things got too hot.

As near as I could tell, we were already over a minute and a half past the moment when the first sodium canister had dropped off me by the time we actually started our second morph. And sure enough, we were only a third of the way through when we heard a FTHP and a HSSS and then a very loud BOOM followed by a series of CRACKLES and then several more BOOMS until soon enough the whole thing was just one ongoing VERY LOUD NOISE and there was light that was so bright that I had to squeeze my eyes shut even behind the storage shed and keep them shut until they morphed away along with my ears and by that point I couldn’t really sense anything except the feeling of falling in slow motion as my body grew smaller and smaller and smaller into the smallest shape I’d been yet.

CASSIE loves animals and knows a lot about them compared to the rest of us, which is why we go to her when we need to do something that is particularly tricky for humans, and even if she doesn’t always know how to get the right animal she almost always knows which animal we want. In this case, what we wanted was an animal that was small enough to avoid notice and tough enough that it wouldn’t mind if it got a little crushed and also as fireproof as possible to whatever extent fireproof was a thing-an-animal-might-be. And we’d thought that maybe there weren’t any animals like that and this was just going to be a suicide mission, but then CASSIE had said that she knew just the thing and not only that but we could also probably find it right there in the valley if we were willing to spend a few hours looking very closely at different patches of moss.

And so we still had problems, we definitely had problems, we were going to have a very hard time escaping if the building collapsed on us but at least we would probably make it through the initial fireball because TARDIGRADES are some of the toughest creatures on the planet or as MARCO says they absolutely just do not give a FUCK.

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 18: Cassie

I could see the exact moment when everyone stopped pretending.

<Holy shit,> whispered Marco, as the ten or so people closest to the YMCA staggered to a halt, clutching their heads or screaming or just falling over twitching. There was one car on the road within the bubble, and it swerved crazily, careening into the steep, narrow ditch and belching black smoke. A second car passed right through, drifting ominously to one side before straightening out, screeching to a halt a hundred yards down the road. In the parking lot, a truck that was just pulling out of its space lurched forward and smashed into a post, its airbags expanding to hide the driver from view.

We were silent, the three of us, except for Marco’s one whispered curse. Silent, as a pair of pedestrians rushed forward to help those who’d already collapsed, only to stumble and fall themselves as they passed into the affected area. Silent, as a teenager pulled his phone out of his pocket and held it up as if to take a video, and silent as an elderly woman hobbled up from behind him and clubbed him with her cane, her expression hunted and desperate. Silent, as a siren began to wail in the distance, followed quickly by another, and another, and another, until it seemed like the whole city was screaming.

What was there to say?

We knew what we were doing.

Above me, Jake wheeled and dove, his peregrine falcon body slicing through the air like a missile, with Marco’s osprey close on his tail. I folded my wings and followed them both, angling toward the treetops on the far side of the park—close enough to see, with bird-of-prey vision, but far enough away that the Bug fighters hopefully wouldn’t bother trying to gun us down.

We waited for an endless minute, watching from afar as the Yeerk hologram continued to loop, showing the same laughs, the same splashes, the same set of people walking and swimming and diving and chatting. I wondered whether they’d recorded normal humans, or whether the whole thing had been a charade, a nightmare puppet show of slaves forced to act happy and carefree. I tried to summon anger, indignation, fury.

But all I felt was sick.

<Look,> said a voice. Jake. Marco. It didn’t seem to matter.

I was already looking. There were streams of jet-black smoke coming off of the building, appearing out of thin air as they cleared the holograms a few feet above the roof. Down below, a chubby boy stepped out onto the diving board—leapt out into space—flailed—landed on his belly with a smack I imagined I could hear even half a mile away. I watched the water from the splash sparkle in midair, the artificial droplets catching artificial light as reality burned invisibly behind them.

<They did it,> said a voice.

It might have been the same voice. I couldn’t tell.

The streams of smoke were growing thicker, braiding together into a single column that billowed and rose, drifting lazily in the morning breeze. A fire truck screeched into view, rocking to a halt beside the hydrant, disgorging half a dozen Controllers dressed in bright yellow gear. There were two more engines already in sight, along with four ambulances and more police cars than I could count.

Eventually, the holograms around the windows began to fail—first one, then another—bits and pieces of the underlying truth showing through until finally the entire scene was laid bare. That’s when they turned on the hoses—figuring, I guess, that if the holograms were down, the shield might be, too. But no—the water simply spread out in midair, streaming down the invisible surface of the stolen Andalite force field. A handful of EMTs were clustered around each of the Controllers who’d collapsed from Garrett’s thought-scream, and as far as I could see, none of them had gotten back up yet.

There was frustration written on every face—helplessness, despair, rage, shock. Slowly, the Controllers gathered—first a few, then dozens, more of them streaming in from all sides, coming in cars or on bikes or on foot. We watched as some of them ran past beneath us, not bothering to look up, their eyes fixed on the ultimate horror, the unthinkable disaster.

And then—

They could have noticed. They should have noticed—would almost certainly have put two and two together, if it hadn’t been for the water. One moment it was a fountain, flowing down the sides of the bubble, and the next it was mist, the streams falling directly onto the building as the barrier disappeared. With a wordless cry, the crowd rushed forward, firefighters and police and EMTs and random people off of the street, all of them moved by courage or loyalty or heroism or whatever the Yeerk equivalent was—all of them trying to help.

None of them saw that the smoke had stopped rising. That it was flattening, darkening, the space above the rooftop becoming more and more defined as soot and ash piled up with nowhere to go.

Ax had inverted the shield.

<Okay. Let’s gear up,> said the voice. Half-nauseated, half-numb, I dropped toward the ground like a stone, plummeting into the brush at the base of the tree, shielded from view. Holding my wings out for balance, I focused on my human form, and began to demorph.

Cassie, I thought to myself.

It almost felt like becoming a different person—like morphing, instead of demorphing, like I’d changed so much that my own body no longer fit, no longer seemed familiar. I didn’t know whether the old me was a lie or the new me was a mistake or the whole thing was just layers with nothing at the core. Somewhere deep beneath the surface, I still cared about people, about right and wrong—or at least, I believed that I cared—or at least, I believed I believed, or believed I should believe—

Stop pretending, girl.

I’d never been very good at lying to myself. At ignoring my own thoughts, at shutting out the parts of me that were judgmental—cowardly—selfish—sarcastic—vengeful—petty—cruel. That’s why I’d always leaned so hard on my morals, my upbringing, my code.

You see, it doesn’t matter if you’re a bad person on the inside, as long as you don’t do anything about it. A bad person who acts good her entire life is a good person.

Only now, it wasn’t so easy. I couldn’t just ask my teachers what to do, when my friends started plotting mass murders and war crimes. There weren’t any relevant lessons from Buddha or Jesus or Mister Rogers. There was no Chicken Soup for the Guerilla Soul. And my parents—

I flinched.

We never talked about it—about what had happened to us, about our parents and Jake’s brother Tom and Rachel’s little sisters, Jordan and Sara. You’d think it would’ve come up, in the time we’d spent up in the valley—that on one of those long, cold nights, we would have acknowledged it, tried to support one another through the fear and loss and pain. That maybe we would have cried, or told stories, or made rescue plans. Something, you know? Anything.

But we hadn’t. Not one word, as far as I could tell—not from anyone. Just like we hadn’t talked about Jake’s weird resurrection, or about Rachel murdering a kid to get to Visser Three. It was like we were all pretending it wasn’t happening—like if we didn’t think about it, it would somehow not be real. Like little kids, trying to act grown up, blustering about how we don’t need to look under the bed, there’s nothing there, don’t be stupid. Afraid that if we let the cracks show, we’d fall apart, and then there would be no hope left at all.

At least, that’s what I was afraid of. I had taken the weight of the world on my shoulders—we all had—and there was no one to tell me whether the deaths of twenty thousand Yeerks should make that burden lighter, or heavier.

<They’re still going inside,> breathed one of the boys.

<What?> said the other. <Why?>

<Dunno. But look—there’s, like, not even twenty people still standing aro—>

The voices cut off as their owners passed out of morph. I was halfway through myself, the feathers on my chest melting and running together as I grew upward, the prickly leaves of the bushes scratching my back as my palms and knees emerged and pressed into the loamy mulch. The waxy substance covering my body darkened, the whites and grays shading into brown striped with black and green. The green thickened and became clothes, while the black ballooned outward, swelling into cold steel and dense rubber and materials of unknown and alien origin. An arsenal emerged from my body, laser guns and shock sticks and some kind of pellet launcher whose ammunition contained—according to Ax—one ten millionth of a gram of antimatter each.

One by one, the objects fell away from me, thudding heavily onto the ground or clattering loudly against each other. A hundred pounds of gear—enough to shrink my time limit down to a mere eighty-one minutes.

There’s no way to make this mission safe, Marco had said. Prime target or no prime target, we can’t, absolutely can not put the whole team in danger.

Taking in a deep breath, I refocused—on skin the color of evergreens, porous and cracked like pumice. On a dozen blades of dull ivory, each as long and as lethal as Ax’s tail blade. On horns like a rhinoceros, claws like a dragon, a spiked tail like a Stegosaurus’s. On thick, muscled arms and wide, flat teeth; on legs that bowed inward, with dewclaws that came all the way down to dig into the ground behind their heels.

We’re not just sending them in with no support, Jake had insisted. We can cover their retreat, at least—even from the sidelines.

I’d had my suspicions about the Hork-Bajir, suspicions which Elfangor’s memories and Ax’s half-remembered academy lessons had confirmed. They were arboreal, herbivorous, perfectly adapted for a life of climbing and grazing in the gigantic trees of their low-gravity homeworld. They’d barely evolved to the level of tribal civilization, with a language of fewer than a thousand words. They’d known absolutely nothing of violence or war, despite their fearsome appearance—their world had no large predators, and the blades were for digging into bark, cutting through branches, and slicing off leaves. It was the Yeerks who’d turned those blades to mutilation and murder, conscripting them into their armies, converting them into shock troops.

The morph mostly complete, I stood, my thick skin and whipcord muscles easily shrugging aside the thorns and brambles. Wielding my wrist blades like twin machetes, I carved out a circular space around myself, tossing the detritus aside as Jake and Marco rose nearby.

Nobody’s going to mess with a trio of Hork-Bajir in the middle of all the chaos, especially not if they’re all geared up and clearly not causing any problems. We settle in, make like Controllers, and stay out of trouble for as long as we can. If they manage to get out on their own, nobody will ever even know we were there.

Marco hadn’t liked it. They’d come close to shouting over it, and Jake’s alternative—that he was perfectly welcome to stay behind himself, if he was so worried about maintaining a reserve—hadn’t helped. In the end, Marco had agreed to come along simply because—he’d muttered—none of the rest of us were competent to strategize on the fly when the whole thing inevitably fell apart.

We do nothing. Nothing, you understand? Not one god damned thing. Not until they’re clear of the building—not unless our own lives are at stake.

Jake had nodded. And so Rachel, Garrett, and Ax had gone inside—the footsoldiers, the expendables, the ones who could stand their ground in the face of horror and death. And Jake and Marco had stayed outside—the plotters, the manipulators, the masterminds. The ones who—along with Tobias—would form the nucleus of a new resistance, if everything went wrong.

And then there was me. Too soft for combat and too stupid for strategy—an in-the-way sort-of pacifist who had neither the courage to stand up for her principles nor the integrity to admit she’d abandoned them. For what felt like the hundredth time, my job was to do nothing, absolutely nothing—just wait, and watch, and try to find a middle ground between relief and shame.

It wasn’t the violence—not exactly. I didn’t like it, but I wasn’t an idiot, either. I could do the math. I knew that if you could sacrifice one life to save ten, or a hundred to save a thousand, or a million to save a billion—

I knew the Yeerk pool had to go.

But there’s more to it than math. A thousand lives lost plus two thousand lives saved just isn’t the same thing as a thousand lives saved, period. Jake and Marco could add and subtract and walk away feeling—

Not happy, I guess. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen either of them truly happy. But satisfied. Confident. Guilt-free. They were sure of themselves, sure in their decisions, able to sleep at night because they knew they’d found the—what was the phrase Marco had used?

Most efficient intervention.

As if that was it—that was that. As if the fact that as few people as possible had died meant there was no reason to grieve over the loss. As if the only deaths that were tragic were the unnecessary ones.

I wanted to stop it. I wanted to do something. But every action I could think of was empty and meaningless—symbolic gestures that would end up costing more lives, in the end. There was nothing I could do to make it better, nothing that Jake and Marco hadn’t already thought of.

Girl, I thought you weren’t going to lie to yourself.

I winced again, the reptilian double-lids of my alien eyes snicking shut.

So far, I had managed to avoid the fighting. Avoid the killing, except for the bear I had slaughtered—the bear I could conveniently blame on temporary insanity, even though I knew it hadn’t been. I had bowed out of every plan that called for lethal force, and managed to make a few possibly lethal ones less likely to cross the line, like when I insisted on using the tarantula hawk morph during Rachel’s midnight Controller-acquiring mission, instead of letting Ax’s sniper rifle be the primary backup the way Marco wanted.

But it was clear that seven full soldiers would be better than six and a half. That we could do more, move faster, make more progress, if I wasn’t holding everybody back. I’d been keeping my hands clean, but at a cost. A cost that could probably be measured in lives, if I weren’t such a coward—if I were willing to force myself to look straight at it.

Marco had only brought me along on this mission because he wanted the extra weapons I could carry. Now that I’d delivered them, I could morph into a bird, or just walk away, and neither he nor Jake would lift a finger to stop me. I was a liability, after all—unwilling to pull my weight, a nagging conscience for a group that didn’t want or need one.

But leaving wouldn’t solve my central problem. It’d just be swapping out one moral defect for another. I didn’t want any more killing, and I didn’t want the Yeerks to win—no matter what, I was going to end up compromising on something.

<Heads up.>

I turned to look just in time, the four-pointed stars of my pupils narrowing at the sudden flash of light. Above the black bubble, plasma-purple beams were emerging out of thin air, crisscrossing as they lanced down into the hidden building below.

<What—>

There was a crack like a lightning bolt, frighteningly loud even all the way across the park, and suddenly the edges of the dome softened, the smoke rising and expanding as the shield abruptly vanished.

<The Bug fighters,> someone said, grim and desperate. <They took out the shield generator. They knew it was right in the exact center of the field.>

<But—Ax—>

<Yeah. Ax.>

As the horror sank in, a scattering of figures came into view, an expanding ring of bodies that must have been pressed up against the inverted shield. They staggered unevenly forward, most falling before they made it ten steps. There were humans, and Hork-Bajir, and some kind of orange eight-legged spider thing with an upright body like a giant bacteriophage. The few Controllers who’d remained outside rushed forward to help as the firefighters began targeting the streams of water, no longer blinded by trapped smoke.

<Not many,> said a brittle voice. <Maybe—what—a hundred?>

Maybe not even that many—as the first wave slowed and stopped, no second wave followed. The doors and windows of the building gaped open, half of them rimmed with fire, and only a trickle of Controllers emerged from within.

<That was over three minutes of smoke buildup, plus greenhouse effects. I’d be surprised if anybody on the higher floors is alive.>

The two boys continued talking in my head, their words hollow and meaningless. A part of me wanted to scream at them, to point out that Ax might have just died and that we should care about that, that we should grieve for him or at least talk about it for more than two seconds. But the rest of me wouldn’t allow it—wouldn’t condone grief for the Andalite warrior when his death was just a drop in the bucket. We’d estimated that there were at least ten thousand human Controllers by this point—over five percent of the city population—plus however many alien hosts the Yeerks had living and working in their command center. Over three thousand Controllers coming in and out every day—over three hundred humans inside, at any given time.

Plus the aliens.

Plus the people who’d showed up and rushed in—many, many more than those who’d staggered out.

No, if Ax was dead—if Ax and Rachel and Garrett were all dead—if Jake and Marco and I died with them—it would be nothing more than a blip, a trifle, a small change to a single digit. We’d taken out somewhere between ten and twenty thousand Yeerks, and we’d knowingly sacrificed at least five hundred innocents to do it.

Or the rest of them had, anyway. I’d been on the sidelines, pretending it wasn’t my fault.

Not for the first time, I wished my parents were there—mine, or Jake’s, or even Rachel’s or Marco’s. Not just because of how badly I missed them, or how frightened or lonely I was, or because I still had nightmares every night about those last few minutes with my mom in the car.

No, just so that there would be somebody to take the responsibility off of my shoulders—to tell me what to do, make the hard choices for me, take the blame. To tell me that everything was going to be all right.

But they weren’t, and it wasn’t. This was only the beginning.

<You start the clock?> one of them said.

<Yeah,> the other answered. <Fifty-four minutes left, assuming we’re still giving them the full hour—>

And then everything stopped.

 

*        *        *

 

“Do you think we should we move?”

“How the hell should I know? You two have just as much experience with this shit as I do.”

Reaching up to a dangling branch, Marco seized a leaf and tugged. It came off in his hand—his human hand—the branch bobbing gently, the other leaves rustling softly for a moment before falling still once more. Holding up the leaf, he tore it in half, then in half again, then held the pieces up in his palm and blew them away with a breath. They fluttered silently down to the ground, where he kicked at them, scattering mulch in the process.

“Gravity still works. We can hear each other, so sound waves are still propagating. Also, we’re not frozen to death like we should be if the air around us had completely stopped moving, and we’re not suffocating like we should be if the air around us had completely stopped moving, and we’re not trapped in place like we should be if the air around us had completely stopped moving.”

I looked up at the branch Marco had grabbed. It was perfectly still, but I couldn’t tell whether it was any stiller than normal.

All around us, as far as we could see, time had stopped. The trees were frozen in place, the clouds in the sky like paintings on a domed ceiling, the smoke from the burning building a thick, black, still-life smear. There was no sound except the three of us, a silence as deep and unnerving as being in an underground tomb.

“That, plus we can see, so photons are still moving, which either means that time hasn’t stopped as far as the Sun is concerned, or that all of this just makes no fucking sense.”

We were standing there in our clothes, having somehow been instantaneously returned to human form, the weapons teleporting themselves to the ground a few feet away.

“Cassie,” said Jake, his voice taut. “Can you morph?”

I closed my eyes, focusing on the memory of Elfangor—we could use his help, and this certainly seemed to qualify as dire need—but nothing happened. To be sure, I tried again with Peppermint, the first morph I’d ever done, but still—nothing.

“No,” I answered. “Stuck.”

“Me, too.” He frowned and turned back to Marco. “This isn’t the Yeerks,” he said. “No way they have this level of technology, unless it’s some crazy thing Visser Three’s been developing on the side, and if it was, we’d already be dead. The Chee, maybe?”

“Don’t bet on it,” Marco muttered darkly. “My money’s on one of those two Big Bads that Elfangor wouldn’t tell us about. Crayak or Ellimist. Or both of them, who knows.”

He bent over to retrieve one of the laser rifles, pointed it at a nearby tree, and pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened. With a wordless noise of disgust, Marco tossed it back onto the pile.

“I think we should move,” Jake said, sounding uncertain-and-trying-to-hide-it.

“Oh yeah?” Marco shot back. “Where?”

“Only one obvious place—”

“—yeah, of course, and it’s exactly where we want to be, in human form, with no weapons, when whatever the hell this is wears off.”

“If this was about killing us, we’d be dead already.”

“Doesn’t mean we make it easy for them, if they’ve got some kind of James Bond sadism planned.”

“Rachel and Garrett and Ax are in there.”

“And they’re either unfrozen like us, or they’re stuck. Either way, we don’t do them any good by getting ourselves killed.”

“Marco—”

No, Jake. No, okay? Listen, I—”

He broke off, chewing at his lip, seeming to struggle with himself. I glanced over at the YMCA, at the motionless flames like carved glass. Part of the building had begun to collapse, the brick and rebar buckling in the heat, all three stories sagging like a tent held up with twigs. From the look of it, the pool itself was already half buried. I could see a lone Controller standing exactly on the line between us and the building, his back to us, his arms down at his sides. It was completely impossible to tell, from half a mile away, but for some reason I was sure his fists were clenched.

“Look,” Marco said finally, his expression settling into one of grim determination. “I broke into Elfangor’s head, okay?” He nodded toward Jake. “The night after you woke up. Dug through his memories, through all kinds of crazy shit. This war, it—it’s insane. Unless Elfangor was legitimately psychotic, there’ve been all kinds of impossible things happening. Like, time travel and prophecies and parallel universes level impossible.”

He broke off again as Jake and I stared, shaking his head. “I know, okay? I know. But you can check for yourself, if whatever this is doesn’t end with all of us dying. But there’s one thing—it—I don’t even know what to do with it—”

He broke off for a third time, and sighed. “Look. Remember the stuff Elfangor said, back before we even went into his ship? That thing about how we all had to get along, or all hope was lost?” He seemed to brace himself, his jaw muscles bunched and tight. “Elfangor got this—message, once. Like a burning bush kind of message. You ever see any of those time-reversed videos? Like eggs unscrambling and jumping back into their shells? The kind of stuff that’s only possible if physics is—well—”

He gestured helplessly at the unmoving trees. “Anyway, long story short, somebody knew that he was going to meet us. Us, in particular. They knew, and they told him. And not some vague fortune cookie bullshit like ‘you will find allies,’ but ‘you’re going to die, and before you die, you’re going to run into four human kids, and you’d better help them or everything is fucked.’”

Jake’s shoulders visibly tensed as I felt my heart try to climb into my throat. “Four?” he asked, his voice taut.

“Four,” Marco confirmed. “By name. Jake Berenson, Marco Levy, Tobias Yastek—”

He paused, his eyes flickering in my direction.

Of course, it’s obvious, you knew it all along, you really don’t belong—

“—and Cassie Withers. Rachel was never supposed to be there.”

But—

I—

Oh.

I made a connection in my head, felt my eyes narrow. “So that’s why you sent the three of them into the pool?” I asked pointedly. “Her and Ax and Garrett, instead of you and me and Jake? Because they’re—they’re spares?”

Awful lot of accusation in your voice for someone who called them “expendables” five minutes ago, a part of me thought.

“Yep,” Marco said, meeting my gaze head-on, his own eyes wide and unashamed. “Absolutely. You got a better way to divvy things up, given that particular nugget of information?”

I opened my mouth, realized I didn’t know how to put my thoughts and feelings into words, and closed it again, a sick, twisting sensation growing in my stomach.

“What—” Jake began. He faltered and began to pace, scrubbing at his eyes with one hand, the crunch of his footsteps eerily loud in the utter silence of the frozen moment. “What else did the message say?”

Marco shrugged. “Nothing that Elfangor remembered in any kind of clear detail. This was like ten years ago, for him. But he definitely got the sense that the four of us were absolutely crucial to the fight against the Yeerks. Like, cannot-possibly-win-without-us crucial.”

“According to some—prophecy?”

“According to the Andalite equivalent of Jesus appearing in a slice of toast, except that this Jesus also came along with the solution to some math problem they’ve been trying to crack for over fifty years. Elfangor’s not an idiot—he checked the thing backwards and forwards for tricks, hoaxes, pranks—interference of any kind. As far as they could tell, though, it was just a slice of toast. Metaphorically speaking, I mean. No force fields, no energy disruptions, no radiation, no sign of any kind of tampering. The heat just randomly happened to line up, just right, and voilà—a Nobel Prize-winning math proof and the names of four human kids.”

“That’s—”

“Bullshit? No duh. Nobody actually bought that it was chance. Point is, though, if some rando says something and calls it a prophecy, that’s one thing. If somebody has enough control over, like, individual molecules to make their prophecy just appear out of thin air—”

They kept talking as I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to disentangle my emotions.

Marco was right, of course—absolutely right. If you bought that there was a prophecy and that prophecy said the four of us were somehow important, then you should definitely send someone else on the suicide mission. We weren’t invincible, as Jake’s accident had already demonstrated.

But Marco was also wrong—wasn’t he? Wrong to put someone else in mortal danger, wrong to consider himself—and us—more worthy of saving, wrong to make the choice for everyone, manipulating the rest of us into it while keeping us in the dark. It tugged against my sense of ethics, set off alarm bells in my moral code.

Rachel shouldn’t die, so that I could live.

Neither should Garrett or Ax.

Right?

Little late to start drawing a hard line, girl. You’ve been letting other people die for you for weeks, now. Or do you think it’s somehow different when it happens to be people you know and like, instead of strangers?

That wasn’t what—

Besides, it’s not like you would’ve done anything differently if you’d known. You’d have just sat there, wringing your hands, and in the end you would’ve gone along with whatever Jake and Marco—

“Stop,” I said aloud, cutting off the thought. Jake broke off mid-sentence as he and Marco turned to look at me.

Nothing, that’s what you’ll do, that’s what you’ve been doing this whole time—

“I’m going into the building,” I said, the sick feeling in my stomach easing slightly. “You guys can come or not, if you want.”

Did you not hear anything I just said?” Marco hissed. “We shouldn’t even be here, let alone walking into the middle of a literal firestorm. If some godlike being wants to drag us into that shithole, they can just—”

 

*        *        *

 

“God dammit!” Marco shouted, his voice ragged with frustration.

We had been plunged into shadow, the air around us thick and heavy with the smell of smoke and chemicals. As my eyes adjusted to the sudden darkness, I saw that the floor beneath my feet was tile, covered in dust and soot.

Around us was a scene of motionless madness, the world’s most terrifying wax museum. There were bodies everywhere—some untouched, some burned, some still burning, the flames like crystals growing off of blackened flesh. A handful of figures were still standing, frozen in mid-step, mostly yellow-clad firefighters but also a few Hork-Bajir and a couple of humans in plain clothes. Chunks of brick and metal hung in the air, arrested mid-fall, and through the haze I could see a pair of bright, angled bars that had to be laser beams.

To my right, dim sunlight struggled to illuminate the smoke, streaming in through the partially collapsed outer wall. To my left, a curtain of fire licked across every square inch from floor to ceiling, outlining doors and windows like black caves, seeming to move even in the utter stillness. In front of me lay the cracked ruins of the Yeerk pool, drained and empty, clumps of glistening Yeerk-flesh still clinging to the walls and floor. The two piers were melted and broken, the far side an uneven, gaping hole, opening up onto some enormous underground cavern lit by an unearthly green light.

“Marco?” came a voice, and we all jumped.

Tobias?” Marco called back. “What—where are you?”

“Over here—in the corner.”

There was a strained, strangled quality to his voice, like glass rubbing on glass. Slowly, we began to pick our way through the rubble, occasionally blinded by immobile clouds of soot, taking care to stay well back from the edges of the hole. At one point, we passed a man who had just stumbled over the lip, his eyes wide and terrified, his arms flailing.

“Should we—” I began, but I didn’t bother finishing the sentence. Even if we’d wanted to save him—even if we’d been able to, if whatever lunatic rules were in place allowed us to pull him back—he was just one of what seemed like a hundred people on the brink of disaster. On the far side of the pool, there was a little boy clinging to the twisted bars of what had been one of the cages, his feet dangling over the abyss. Over by the wall of fire, there were two women trying to lift a third to her feet, unaware that a slab of ceiling had broken loose and was hovering twenty feet overhead. Through one of the doors that led deeper into the building, I could see an entire room full of flame, and a pair of aliens standing on the far side, looking out toward the open sky, despair and helplessness written in their body language in a way that transcended the need for translation.

You did this, whispered the quiet, merciless voice in my head. Clean hands or no clean hands. You let this happen—made this happen.

Feeling sick once more, I lowered my eyes to the ground, keeping them locked onto the heels of Marco’s sneakers as they stepped over melted lumps that might not have been bodies.

That’s right—look away. If you can’t see it, it didn’t happen, right?

The sneakers stopped, and I looked up, taking in the scene just as Marco let loose a low, defeated moan.

Tobias was standing in front of us, his face streaked with tears, his hands curled into fists. He was glaring daggers at Jake, whose own face had gone slack with horror.

Behind him, a trio of figures were frozen in mid-run—a grizzly bear with an Andalite thrown over its shoulder, both with half their fur burned away, and a shape midway between human and gorilla, its thick fingers clutching a Yeerk Dracon beam.

Rachel, Ax, and Garrett.

Behind them was a hole in the wall, through which were climbing half a dozen Hork-Bajir and a pair of the strange orange spider things. Two of the Hork-Bajir were already through, had stopped and had raised their weapons, their fingers tight on the triggers. That was the source of the two bright laser beams I had spotted earlier, both discharges hanging halfway between the aliens and their targets. One was lined up with the back of Rachel’s knee, and the other—

The other was aimed directly at the base of Garrett’s neck.

“You said you would keep him safe,” Tobias said softly, his voice cracking. He took a step toward Jake, who continued to look past him, unable to tear his eyes away. “You promised me you would keep him safe.”

Wordlessly, Marco stepped past both of them—reached out to touch Garrett—tugged on the boy’s arm, tried to drag him out of the way. Garrett might have been carved out of stone for all the difference it made.

“Where were you, Jake? Why are you standing there while he’s in here dodging blaster bolts?”

“I—”

“You promised,” Tobias repeated, and he planted both hands on Jake’s chest and shoved. Jake staggered, falling back several steps before regaining his balance, and Tobias followed immediately, fury etched in every line of his face. “Look at him, Jake.”

“Tobias—” Marco began, his tone somewhere between a warning and a plea.

“Shut up, Marco,” Tobias snarled. He stepped forward and gave Jake another shove, pushing the heavier boy back toward the edge of the pool. Jake made no move to defend himself, his arms hanging limply by his sides, his expression stricken. “You sent him in here to die.”

“Tobias, stop!” Marco called out.

“No.” The word was quiet, almost calm, as cold and dark as obsidian. Cocking his arm back, Tobias swung, the punch catching Jake full in the face, sending a spray of blood through the frozen smoke.

Jake fell without making a sound as Marco lunged forward, reaching out to grab Tobias’s shoulder. I felt a flash of déjà vu as the taller boy whirled, sinking his fist directly into Marco’s stomach, folding him in half. Marco dropped like a stone, a horrible wheezing noise clawing its way from his throat.

I didn’t know what to do. What to say. How to react, other than by standing there, horrified. I was transfixed, paralyzed, frozen with indecision.

Useless—as usual.

On the ground, Jake was rolling over, was already up on hands and knees. Tobias waited as he slowly climbed back to his feet, then punched him again, this time catching him on the temple. I let out a wordless shout as Jake fell again, more unevenly this time, skidding backwards until he was just a few feet away from the gaping, open hole.

“I swear to God,” Tobias bit out. “If he dies—if you don’t find a way to fix this—”

He broke off mid-sentence, grabbing the front of Jake’s shirt and hauling him to his feet, holding their faces inches apart.

Do something!

Jake’s head lolled, his eyelids opening and closing in slow motion. “I will take you down,” Tobias pronounced. “If I never do anything else—if I have to go to Visser fucking Three for help—if my best friend dies because you weren’t there to save him—”

“Tobias, wait!” I blurted, starting forward—

“One more step, Cassie. Go ahead—see what happens if you take one more step.”

I froze. “He volunteered, Tobias,” I pleaded. “It wasn’t what you—Jake tried to talk him out of it—”

“Tried.” Tobias threw me a withering glare, turned back to Jake. “Did you try, Jake? Was it just too hard for you to tell the eleven year old with the diagnosis no, you can’t go on any suicide missions this week? You couldn’t send Marco or Cassie instead? I see you managed to keep them out of trouble.” He took a step forward, putting both of them on the very edge of the abyss. “Where were you, Jake? ‘Cause I looked all around, and I didn’t see you here—”

He broke off as Jake mumbled something, a trickle of blood appearing at the corner of his mouth and running down his chin, dripping onto Tobias’s hands where they still gripped Jake’s shirt. “What was that, Jake?” he spat.

“My fault,” Jake repeated, the words crystal clear in the stillness of the tableau vivant. “Knew he might die. Took the risk.”

Tobias’s face whitened as he shook the heavier boy, still holding him inches from the lip. “You took—”

“Said it was the right thing,” Jake continued, his voice hollow but steady. “Said he wasn’t going to give up just because it was hard. Said the world was in trouble, and he wasn’t the kind of person who backs down.”

The words had an immediate and dramatic effect on Tobias, falling like hammer blows, his grip on Jake’s shirt loosening with each one as his expression morphed swiftly from one of rage to one of utter despair. “I—” he stammered. “That’s not—you—”

“Wanted me to tell you, if he died—that he wasn’t afraid.”

It was as if Tobias were a puppet, and Jake had cut the strings. He let go, and both of them sagged, Jake dropping to brace his hands on his knees, Tobias sinking all the way to the ground. Without another word, the orphan boy began to cry, giant sobs wracking his body.

Good thing nobody’s relying on you to think fast in a crisis, said the voice in my head, useless and savage and post hoc as usual. At least Marco tried, even if all he managed to do was get the wind knocked out of him.

For a long moment, I just stood there, watching as Jake and Marco slowly recovered, as Tobias cried himself out. Around us, the nightmare waited, smoke and fire and horror and death all frozen in a timeless moment.

And what are you waiting for, girl?

For Jake and Marco, I realized. For one of them to straighten up, and tell me what to do.

I felt a lot of things over the next couple of seconds—a complicated whirl of doubts and recriminations, guilt and anxiety and resentment and resolve all swirling around a single word, outlined in fire in my thoughts:

Enough.

“Crayak!” I shouted, causing Jake and Marco to jump and Tobias’s sobs to falter. “Ellimist! Whoever you are—we’re all waiting on you, now!”

THEN WAIT NO LONGER.

The response was immediate, the voice coming from everywhere and nowhere at once. It was bigger than sound, bigger than thought-speak, bigger than language itself. It simply was, like the force of gravity—irresistible and inevitable.

The air directly in front of me—no not in front, behind. Beside. Around—

I couldn’t explain it. Couldn’t comprehend it. The air just opened up. As if there were a door in nothingness. As if air were solid, and—

It was just impossible to explain. The air opened up. A creature appeared.

It was humanoid. Two arms, two legs, a head in the same place that a human’s head would be. Its skin was blue, glowing faintly like a lightbulb that had been painted over. It looked old, but not frail—like my grandfather, who’d worked fifty years on a farm and could put the lid on a jar so tight that none of the rest of us could get it off again. Its hair was long and white, covering ears that were swept up into points, parting over pitch-black eyes that seemed to be full of stars.

“Are you—” Marco began, his voice still breathy and hoarse. He was standing upright, though he had one hand pressed over his stomach, and there were tears sparkling at the corners of his eyes. “Is that your real body?”

The creature smiled, its ears sliding upwards until they were almost touching. “No,” it answered, its voice like wind chimes. “I have a lot of faces. This one—”

It paused, and shrugged. “I dunno. Seemed like the right one to use.”

“What are you?” Jake asked, peering through eyes that were beginning to swell shut.

The creature shrugged again. “Got a lot of names, too. Call me whatever you like.”

“You did this?” Jake gestured to the sculpted figures around us.

“Well, not really. Most of it was your friends over there. But the whole thing being on pause—that was me, yeah.”

“Why?”

“So you’d have a chance to take a good look,” it said. “And to give us time to talk.”

Raising its hands, the creature traced out a complicated pattern in midair, and suddenly a chair appeared—first an outline, then a solid object as the sides faded in from nothingness. It spun gently and settled silently to the floor, scooting forward just as the creature sat back.

Tobias pushed himself to his feet, his face streaked and sooty, his clothes covered in ash and dust. “You’re the one Elfangor told us about,” he said. “The one we might call God. You can do magic.”

“Science,” the creature corrected softly. “Engineering.”

“You stopped time. Brought me all the way here from D.C. Brought me out of morph and teleported me three thousand miles.”

“Yes.”

Tobias pointed at the pair of blaster bolts hovering behind Rachel and Garrett. “Change it,” he said flatly.

“I will,” the creature said solemnly. “Or at least, I can. But first, you need some context. You see, they’re not the only ones in danger. A lot of people are about to die, and you have some decisions to make.”

“No shit,” Marco said. “The whole building’s ready to collapse.”

The creature shook its head. “I’m not talking about the people in the building,” it said, and I felt my blood run cold. “I think you forgot about Visser Three.”

 

*        *        *

 

We were floating in space, somehow—a hundred miles up, or maybe a thousand, floating without spacesuits, breathing without air. It wasn’t cold or uncomfortable—just quiet, as it had been back in the pool. For a long, long minute, the creature let us stare at the Earth, huge and impossibly beautiful, filling half the sky. We could see all of California—Oregon—Nevada. The snow-dusted wrinkles of mountain ranges, the flat browns of deserts, the patchy greens of forests and fields. The coastlines were as clear and sharp as if they’d been carved out by a razor blade, with light, fluffy clouds drifting glacially over the ocean, casting dark blue shadows.

LOVELY, the omnipresent voice said, the creature’s body having failed to follow us. LOVELY.

We said nothing—only stared, drinking it in, until some unseen force moved us, swung us around, turned us outward to face the darkness.

There, some immeasurable distance away, glistening faintly in the starlight, was an enormous, misshapen sphere, almost as black as the sky around it. A small cluster of silver boxes were embedded in the surface at one end, each with a cone of frozen light emerging from it, pointing exactly away from the blue sphere of the Earth.

“What is this?” Marco asked, not even bothering to complain about the impossibilities anymore.

IT’S VISSER THREE’S BACKUP PLAN, said the voice. HE SENT TEAMS OUT TO FIND IT WEEKS AGO, AS SOON AS YOU STARTED CAUSING TROUBLE—DRAGGED IT BEHIND THE MOON AND SLAPPED A CLOAKING DEVICE ON IT. NOW IT’S HEADING FOR EARTH AT A HUNDRED AND FIFTY THOUSAND MILES PER HOUR.

What?” Jake spluttered.

WHEN IT HITS, IT WILL MAKE A FIREBALL EIGHT MILES WIDE, AND LEAVE A CRATER ALMOST TEN MILES ACROSS. THE SHOCKWAVE WILL SHATTER WINDOWS AS FAR AS FIFTY MILES AWAY, AND THAT PLUS THE HEAT WILL KILL EVERYTHING FROM SOMERTON TO GRANITE HEIGHTS. THE YEERK POOL WILL BE COMPLETELY DISINTEGRATED, ALL EVIDENCE ERASED, AND THE CITY AND THE SURROUNDING AREA—INCLUDING YOUR LITTLE HIDDEN VALLEY—WILL BE WIPED OFF THE MAP.

I felt my throat constrict, felt my fingers and toes begin to tingle as my blood pooled in my chest and adrenaline began to slice its way through my veins.

VISSER THREE KNOWS YOU’VE DESTROYED THE POOL. IN A FEW HOURS, THE FIRST YEERKS WILL BEGIN STARVING, AND SOON THERE WILL BE AN EPIDEMIC. IT’S TOO RISKY TO RELY ON A CONTAINMENT STRATEGY. ONE MISTAKE—ONE PIECE OF CREDIBLE EVIDENCE SLIPPING PAST THE NET, AND THE SECRET WILL BE OUT. THIS WAY IS QUICKER—CLEANER—SIMPLER.

I turned to look at Jake, took in the dull hopelessness that seemed to wrap his entire body, felt my own shoulders slump in response. Beyond him, Marco’s face was twisted and grim, his jaw working silently, his knuckles white.

AN IMPACT OF THIS MAGNITUDE OCCURS EVERY FIFTY THOUSAND YEARS OR SO, the voice continued. IT WILL BE SURPRISING, BUT NOT SHOCKING. YOUR SCIENTISTS WILL CONFIRM THAT IT WAS A METEOR STRIKE AND NOTHING MORE. THEY’LL TESTIFY THAT THE ROCK WAS SMALL ENOUGH THAT CURRENT NORMAL SCANNING WOULD NEVER HAVE DETECTED IT. THERE WILL BE A PUSH FOR INCREASED MONITORING OF THE SKY, AND VISSER THREE’S PLANS WILL BE SLIGHTLY HAMPERED BY THIS, BUT IT WILL BE A SMALL PRICE TO PAY FOR THE KNOWLEDGE THAT HE HAS ERADICATED THE GUERILLA THREAT.

I blinked, and suddenly we were back at the pool, surrounded by rubble and smoke and cold, crystallized fire. The creature was unmoved, still sitting in its conjured chair, its expression drawn and sympathetic.

“He knows that you aren’t particularly mobile, see,” the creature said, speaking with its physical voice. “And he knows that you’re at the pool, right now. There’s zero chance that you’d survive the impact.”

“But—the shield—the tardigrades—”

“The shield was destroyed, on Visser Three’s orders, but it wouldn’t have saved you anyway. The word ‘indestructible’ is a little misleading—Seerow’s engineering is impressive, but it can’t compete with an explosion the size of a million atomic bombs. Even the Chee will be killed, if they don’t realize what’s happening in time to run.”

I felt my jaw tremble, felt my knees go weak. It was hard to breathe, hard to speak—hard to think. I looked at the three boys, saw their faces reflecting my own as the meaning of the creature’s words sank in.

We were all going to die.

“How—” I began, my voice thick and rasping. “How long?”

“About thirty more minutes,” the creature said. “The Visser fired the rockets as soon as the explosion in the pool was confirmed.”

Thirty minutes. Our fastest morph over long distances was the snipe, which could make it maybe thirty two miles in thirty minutes, if we could push the body to the absolute limit. Call it twenty-five miles, with morphing time—would that be enough? If we found a lake to dive into, or a mountain to hide behind?

I looked at Jake. He didn’t have the snipe morph. He would have to acquire it from me, losing an extra minute and a half in the process. Meanwhile, Marco and Tobias would have to take off before me, or else the interference would keep them from being able to fly at all. They could leave immediately, while I stayed behind for a few extra seconds with Jake—

Tobias shifted, raising a hand to wipe at his eyes. “You said you would save Garrett,” he said, his tone somewhere between entreaty and accusation.

“I said I could,” the creature corrected mildly. “I can save all of you, in fact. But it’s not quite as simple as snapping my fingers.”

Tobias tilted his head, his eyes narrowing. There was a long, tense moment as we all weighed the creature’s words, absorbed the sudden, subtle shift in mood. I didn’t have Jake’s razor-keen sense for implication and nuance, but even I could hear the threat implied by the oh-so-casual words—the bait and switch, the clever trap, the offer we couldn’t refuse. Sure, the creature seemed to be saying. I can do it—but it’s gonna cost you.

“What do you mean?” Tobias asked, his words slow and careful. “Just unfreeze them, and we all walk away.”

“Like I said, not that simple.”

“What? Why?”

“The game,” Marco said darkly.

“Yes,” the creature confirmed. “There are rules. Penalties. Restrictions.”

“What game?”

“There are two of them,” Marco explained. “Don’t you remem—never mind, that’s right, you were off babysitting Ax.” He chewed at his lip, looking back and forth between the creature and the ruins of the Yeerk pool. “Crayak and Ellimist. God and Satan, black and white—or at least red and blue, Elfangor wasn’t really sure. Two extremely powerful beings with very different ideas of how the universe ought to look.”

“Order and chaos,” said the creature. “Unity and harmony. Silence and noise. A fundamental conflict of values.” It gestured toward the nightmare scene around us. “One of us would like more of—this. The other, less. We almost came to blows, once—a fight that would have thrown the resources of whole galaxies against one another, laying waste to infinity. But we realized that we were headed toward mutual annihilation—that by the time we’d finished hacking at each other, the winner would be left with almost nothing—a shadow of its former self, an emperor of dust.”

“So why didn’t you just stop?” I blurted.

The four of them turned to look at me, Jake and Marco and Tobias and the strange, ancient alien. I felt my face flush with heat, a mixture of self-consciousness and anger fighting for control of my voice, my thoughts. Anger won, and I crossed my arms, glaring at the ancient alien.

“Elfangor said we were like chess pieces to you,” I bit out. “Like you’re manipulating us, or—or gambling with us. That this is all some kind of huge game, and you’re waiting to see how it all plays out. Why? Why not just—leave one another alone?”

Even before I finished the sentence, I knew it was stupid—I knew about the US and the Soviet Union, and about wars that started because of genocide and human rights violations, about people cheating on each other in prisoner’s dilemmas. I knew that two was an unstable equilibrium, and that one way or another there would always be a race to the bottom.

But deep down, in the core of my soul, it just seemed wrong. Like it shouldn’t have to be that way, like people should be able to just stop. That there ought to be a way to solve things that wasn’t terrible, and that obvious answers should work, no matter how many kinks and flaws and loopholes there might be.

I didn’t know if the creature in front of me had sent the Yeerks. But it could obviously stop them—stop them without bloodshed, stop them fully and finally and save everyone the trouble. It could, and it wasn’t going to, and it just wasn’t fair.

The creature didn’t mock my flawed argument, though—didn’t point out my naïveté. It simply shrugged. “Who can say? I can speak only for myself. I didn’t want to leave half the universe—half of everything that lives and breathes and thinks—under the control of my enemy. I didn’t want to live the rest of my life on alert, always waiting for the moment of betrayal. I didn’t want to spend ninety nine percent of my time and energy building weapons and stockpiling resources and setting up counter-counter-counter-counter-counter surveillance, lest I fall behind.”

“So, what—you play some giant cosmic chess game, and the loser just agrees to die?” Tobias asked, incredulous. “I mean, that’s what you’re talking about, right? If you can’t trust each other no matter what, then that’s what happens at the end—isn’t it?”

The creature nodded.

“But that’s insane!” Tobias shouted. “It doesn’t make any sense! You’re going to finish the game, and then the loser’s just going to flip the table and start shooting anyway!”

The creature shook its head. “The game is binding, on every level. Bit by bit, molecule by molecule, we each fed our resources into a shared structure which cannot be coopted or corrupted, leaving only the most rudimentary backups behind. The arbiter is more powerful than either of us at this point, and a sufficient infraction means immediate forfeiture and death. Together, we ratified the initial conditions, and now—”

It shrugged again. “Now, we simply play.”

“But why agree to the game in the first place?” Jake said, speaking up for the first time in minutes. “I mean, if you’re going to win anyway, why bother? And if you’re going to lose, why would the other one agree? You can’t possibly be perfectly matched—somebody’s got to have the advantage.”

“Your definitions are narrow,” the creature said. “One may be smarter, where the other is stronger. One may have vision, where the other has patience.”

“But there’s still got to be a total, right? Some kind of—summary? Taking all of that into account?”

“Something can be knowable, but still not known. I could ask you to tell me how many pennies your country has minted in its entire history—that’s a question with a real, specific answer, but it’s expensive to find out.”

“But still—if you both agreed to the game, it’s because you both thought it was better for you than just fighting it out.”

“Is that so unrealistic? Instead of taking a chance at an empty, ruined universe, we take a chance at winning everything. Defeat is the same in either case, but victory is vastly different.”

“But defeat’s not the same in either case,” Jake said, his voice rising. “I mean, if you literally couldn’t stand to let the other guy have half of everything, you definitely don’t want to let him walk away with all of it, right? If you’re going to lose, don’t you want to hurt the other guy as much as you can, first? And besides, you’ve got—I mean, Marco said you could control individual molecules. You stopped time. You’ve got to be able to calculate everything, right? I mean, you’ve got to already know whether you’re going to win or lose. And playing the game only makes sense if you think you’re going to win, so—so if you both think that, doesn’t it mean that one of you is just wrong?”

The creature smiled, the sparks of light in its deep, black eyes glittering like the inside of a geode. “Yes, Jake Berenson. One of us is wrong, and only time will tell which. I have my own opinions, of course, which I’ll keep private. But in the meantime—it’s my turn, and events have conspired to give me unusual freedom of movement.”

With a swift, sudden motion, the creature sprang to its feet, the chair vanishing out from underneath it as we each took a reflexive step back. “So!” it boomed, the wind chime quality of its voice swelling into something more like church bells. “Human children—do you wish for me to save you? I won’t stop the meteor—I can’t, not without incurring debts I’m not particularly interested in owing. But I can whisk you off to safety, if you ask it of me.”

“What about Garrett?” Tobias cut in.

“And Rachel and Ax,” Jake added.

“The four of you are my primary concern,” the creature said. “You are the bishops, the knights, the rooks. For the time being, at least, the game revolves around you—your decisions, your fate.”

Tobias’s face reddened, his hands clenching into fists. “You said—”

“I said it wasn’t that simple. I can save more than just the four of you—one more for each, perhaps—but it comes at a price.”

“What price?”

“Conservation,” the creature said. “I take so much matter from here and move it to there—at some point in time, the game will allow my enemy to do the same.”

“What? But that’s—”

“Twenty billion billion billion atoms shifted by fifty miles, or one atom shifted by a thousand billion billion billion. Enough energy to fuel a nuclear blast. It is—not insignificant, in a game such as ours.”

I felt my breath catch in my throat. The math—it didn’t particularly make sense, to me. The numbers were too big. But the other half of the problem—

I locked eyes with Jake, saw in an instant that he understood it, too. He gazed back at me for a timeless moment, his expression close and guarded, and then turned to look at Marco.

Marco, whose face was twisted and pained, his eyes suddenly wide with emotion.

“Garrett,” Tobias said, ignoring the silent conversation going on around him. “Save Garrett. Please.”

“And Rachel,” said Jake, the name sounding like it was being torn out of him. He stared at Marco, and the other boy stared back, the two of them communicating on some level deeper than thought-speak.

I can’t do this, whispered a voice in my head.

You’d better, answered another.

“Ax,” Marco finally muttered, his jaw tight.

They turned to look at me.

Can’t do this can’t do this can not do this.

You HAVE to. No way you’re letting somebody die just because you didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings.

Tobias was an orphan. So was Garrett. Rachel had family, but there were too many of them to save—her dad, her mom, her two sisters. And my parents were already dead.

“Cassie—” Marco began, but Jake cut him off.

No, Marco.”

Frowning, Tobias looked back and forth between the three of us, his mouth half-opened in an unspoken question. Suddenly, it clicked, his eyes widening as he figured it out.

Jake had a big family, too—his parents, his grandparents, his cousins on his mom’s side. But the person he cared about the most was his big brother Tom.

And Marco? Marco had nobody—except his father.

“I—” I began, my throat dry and tight. “I can’t—”

“Yes, you can, Cassie,” Jake said, his voice low and heavy. “This is your choice, not ours.” Beside him, Marco grimaced, his eyes glistening, but he nodded.

The thing was, I really couldn’t. They might think they’d be okay with whatever I chose, but I knew them—knew them both. It was one thing to lose a family member because of circumstances outside your control. It was something else to know you might have been able to save them—to know they’d been traded for someone else. If I picked either one, it would be the end of Jake and Marco’s friendship, and if I picked neither, all their resentment and bitterness would fall on me.

I fought for an answer, my thoughts and emotions churning, searching for any possible way out of the decision. My eyes darted around the frozen nightmare, looking anywhere but Jake and Marco—at Tobias, at the creature, at the figures lying on the ground, hovering in the air, clinging to the bars of the broken, twisted cage—

I stopped.

The boy. The boy, holding on to the cage. He was maybe six or seven years old, his clothes and face black with soot, his mouth open in a timeless scream.

I looked at Jake.

I looked at Marco.

I looked at the creature, and I did the math in my head again—ninety seconds to morph, then twenty-eight and a half minutes—twenty-eight and a half miles, at a mile per minute.

I looked back at the boy, at the lines of the tendons in his arm as he held on with all his might. He was close to the outer wall, just a few steps away from a gap where the bricks had buckled and burned, letting sunlight in.

I could make it.

I could make it.

I could make it, and for once, I could do something. Could take action, get my hands dirty, maybe make a difference.

Not for everybody. But for somebody. For one, single person. It wouldn’t change much, if I pulled it off—wouldn’t save the hundreds who’d already died or the thousands who were about to.

But it would be something—and I was tired of doing nothing.

“Marco’s dad,” I said, “and Jake’s brother Tom.” I looked into the creature’s eyes, making sure it understood.

“Wait—what?”

“Cassie, no!”

The creature nodded, and raised its hands as it had when it conjured the chair.

“No!” Jake shouted. “Stop!”

“What’s going—”

“Cassie’s trying to stay behind—”

What—”

“Shut up,” I said, fighting to keep the quaver out of my voice. “My choice, not yours.”

“Cassie, this is suicide—”

“It isn’t. I can make it out. The snipe, remember?”

“Jake, she’s lost it—”

“Cassie—”

“Wait!” Tobias called out, his voice cutting through Jake and Marco’s objections. “Hang on a second—”

Raising an accusatory finger, he spun, rounding on the ancient creature. “You cheated,” he said. “You said you’d save the four of us and four other people, but I wouldn’t even need saving if you hadn’t brought me here. I shouldn’t count. You can bring Cassie and Tom and Marco’s dad.”

The shadow of a smile flickered across the creature’s face. “You have a—” it began.

“No,” I insisted. “If we get an extra person, save Erek. I’m going after the kid.”

Cassie, forget the robot, just let HIM save the—”

IT IS DONE.

There was no other warning. Without the slightest transition, I found myself once more in the woods, squinting in the patchy sunlight, wearing a Hork-Bajir’s body with half a dozen weapons strapped to my chest. Jake and Marco were nowhere to be seen.

No!

The creature had dropped me outside, in morph—I was half a mile away from the pool, and the kid was already dangling—

I burst from the undergrowth, tossing guns and ammunition aside as I sprinted forward. The Hork-Bajir body was awkward on flat ground, but it made up for it in sheer power, its massive legs long since adapted to the higher gravity of Earth. Up ahead, smoke continued to pour out of the YMCA, the flames licking up the sides of the building as the firefighters struggled to beat them back.

Go.

I started demorphing as I ran, trying to control the process so that I would end just as I reached the building, keeping my legs as long as possible. There were a hundred Controllers in sight, but none of them were paying any attention to me, their eyes all locked on the wreckage of their city, their temple, their home.

Go.

I could feel my lungs beginning to burn as they emerged from Z-space, feel the throb of blood pressure in my temple. I had never been athletic, but it didn’t matter—a little boy’s life was at stake and I was not about to quit.

You should have let the creature save the kid, the voice in my head snarled. Let him save the kid, and just flown away yourself. If he dies now, it’s your fault—

But he wasn’t going to die. I knew it in my heart, in my bones. It wouldn’t happen, not now—not when I had finally, finally found a way to do something pure and unequivocal and good. It was one tiny bright spot, in all the death and horror—just one insignificant, inadequate gesture—but it was my bright spot, and I wasn’t about to let it go.

I blew past the Controllers in the parking lot, my sneakers slapping against the asphalt as I made a beeline for the hole in the wall. I felt the last traces of Hork-Bajir physiology disappear as I neared the building, felt myself become fully human just before I crossed over into the darkness and smoke.

Almost immediately, I began to hack and wheeze, my eyes watering as my aching lungs pulled in what felt like an entire roomful of smoke. Blind, coughing, I stumbled and dropped to my knees, crawling forward as I felt my way toward the cage.

“Are you there?” I screamed. The air was full of noise—the cries of the wounded, the roar of the fire, the hissing of water as the firefighters rained down a hundred gallons a second.

“Help!” came a voice, a few feet to my left. “Help—I can’t—”

I was already there, forcing my burning eyes to open, reaching out to grab the boy’s wrist. “Gotcha!” I shouted. “Climb!”

Leaning back, I hauled him up and over the lip, rolled him past me onto level ground, both of us gasping and coughing. “Mom!” he cried out. “Where’s mom—”

Not a Controller, then.

“I don’t know,” I said, struggling to keep my voice calm and reassuring. “But I’m going to get you out of here, okay? I’m going to get you out, and we’ll find her—she’s outside, we’ll find her once we’re safe—”

“Mom!” the boy shouted again, and he lunged toward the light, toward the hole in the wall, the outside world.

“No!” I called out, grabbing his ankle and dragging him back. He screamed and kicked, and I pulled him closer, catching his wrists. “Wait! Listen! There’s a—a bomb coming, it’s coming down from space, the bad guys sent it to blow everybody up because we broke the Yeerk pool—”

The boy stopped struggling at the word bomb—stopped struggling and turned to look at me, his eyes wide with fear—

“—and I can get you out but you have to trust me, you have to hold on and I’m going to—I’m going to change, okay?”

“What about my mom?” he pleaded, his eyes darting left and right.

“I’ve got—my friends are here,” I lied, desperate to get moving, to get the boy inside my morph and get out. It must have been at least three minutes since time had restarted—three minutes, maybe more. “They’re here, they’ll find her and get her out, but you’ve got to hold on to me now, okay? Hold on and don’t let go, I’m going to transform, and you’re going to transform too, we’re going to turn into a bird and fly away.”

It sounded like nonsense—was nonsense, for all that it was completely true—but the little boy didn’t move as I pulled him close, stayed still as I kept babbling. All across my skin, the hairs began to swell, fanning out and becoming feathers, turning black all over except for the patch below my chin.

“Just hang on, we’re going to get out of here, and we’re going to go find your mom—”

Lies, but lies in the service of a greater good—they rolled off my tongue without guilt or hesitation. Pressing his head to my chest, I forced my will onto the morphing routine, and sent his mind into stasis, slowly stuffing the rest of him into myself like a blanket going into a pillowcase. It was horrible and strange, not at all like any other morph I’d done, and if I’d had a normal human stomach I think I would have thrown up.

—saving him you’re saving him you’re going to save his life that’s all that matters he can be as sad as he wants about his mom but he’ll be alive because of you—

I took off while the morph was still partially incomplete, my body heavy, my wings awkward and slow. I fought for altitude, angling through the gap and out into the sunlight, growing lighter with each passing second. Fifty wingbeats, and the transformation was complete; a hundred, and I was flying as fast as I ever had—as fast as I’d flown on the night I’d failed to save my dad.

How much time had I spent in the Yeerk pool? I wanted to get as far away as I could, but I also wanted to be out of the air when the meteor hit—under water, or behind something sturdy—

TSEEEWWWWWWWW!

<AHHHHHHH!>

I rolled in midair, banking and plummeting like a stone as another Dracon beam passed through the space I’d just been occupying.

Bug fighter!

I couldn’t see the craft—it was cloaked, and I didn’t dare slow down long enough to tease out the telltale distortion that was visible to the snipe’s eye. Shedding another twenty feet of altitude, I changed direction and began pumping for speed again.

TSEEEWWWWWWWW!

TSEEEWWWWWWWW!

That time, the beams came close enough to singe the feathers on one of my wings. <No!> I shouted, changing direction yet again, this time climbing for height. If the craft was close by, I should be able to shake it, but if it was firing from a distance—

TSEEEWWWWWWWW!

Hit.

Pain.

Fall.

I was only a second or so from the ground by the time my head cleared, and the best I could do was flare my remaining wing and brace for impact. I landed with a dull thud, feeling the snipe’s legs snap like twigs.

No.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no—

The ground was covered in rocks and bushes, and I quickly rolled under cover, ignoring the screaming pain of my broken bones and the unnerving emptiness where my wing was supposed to be. Above me, I felt rather than heard the Bug fighter pass overhead—a thick, buzzing vibration, a sense of something vast and ponderous. It couldn’t have been more than twenty or thirty feet above the ground, moving slower than a car.

Searching.

Demorph—demorph, and remorph, you won’t be able to get all the way out of the blast zone but you can find a cave a lake a rock—

Except that if I demorphed now, with nothing but a scrubby bush to hide under, they would absolutely see me. And I’d have to keep the boy quiet, explain what had happened, get him back into the morph a second time—

I stayed put, feeling the snipe body growing weaker by the second, counting the seconds in my head as my heartbeat became more and more sluggish.

Fifty.

One hundred.

One fifty.

Two hundred.

There wasn’t really a moment—one moment when I knew that it was too late, that no matter what happened, I wasn’t going to make it out of the blast zone. It was more of a gradual thing, a slow settling of despair as the last shreds of hope slipped out of my grasp.

I had failed.

I had failed, and I was going to die. In twenty minutes, the asteroid would hit, not even a mile away, and the blast was going to kill me.

It was less distressing than I’d thought it would be. I wasn’t sure why—maybe it had something to do with all of the other people who’d be going with me, or with my parents, or with the fact that I knew the others had all made it out alive. Maybe I was just tired—delirious, as the snipe began to lose consciousness and drift into the darkness.

But either way, it was almost peaceful. I was free. There was nothing left to do—nothing left to prove—nobody to impress. It didn’t matter whether I was a good person or a bad one, whether Jake was proud of me or not, whether the real Cassie was the girl I tried to be or the girl I was when I wasn’t trying.

Beating my one wing against the ground, I tried to roll over, to turn one eye toward the sky, but I couldn’t do it. Giving up, I stayed face down, my beak pressing into the dirt, the sun warming the feathers on my back.

I’m sorry, Dad.

I listened to the chirping of the crickets, the whispering of the grass and the breeze, the distant sound of the burning building. I thought about Peppermint, and what it had been like to live inside her body for a while—the grace, the power, the freedom. I thought about third grade, and I thought about college, and I thought about the Gardens—about the otters, who were my favorite, who knew me when I went to visit them.

I thought about Jake.

He would blame himself, I knew. For letting me go, for not stopping me. For making it, when I didn’t. It would be hard for him, but he would have Tom there to help him through it. And besides, he was tough—tougher than he gave himself credit for.

What’s the last thing you want to think about, girl?

I closed my eyes, each breath a little shallower than the last. I wanted to think about a book—Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. My favorite book, when I was just learning how to read, when I thought the monsters in it were real, that I could meet them someday. I thought about Max, in his animal suit, sailing across the wild sea. I thought about the wild things—how they turned out to be friendly, and made him their king. I thought about the end of the story, when he sailed back home, and his supper was still hot.

I let out one last breath, and I thought about nothing.

There was light.

And heat.

And noise.

And silence.

Chapter Text

Interlude—before 

 

“I shouldn’t count,” said the gangly orphan boy, Tobias. “You can bring Cassie and Tom and Marco’s dad.”

The player tweaked the controls on its physical avatar, lifting the lips a small distance, crinkling the skin near the corners of the eyes. In an infinitesimal fraction of a second, the player composed a message, translated it, transcribed it into code and entered it into the simulation. “You have a point,” came the words, the you subtly emphasized.

Another adjustment, and the avatar turned toward the girl, Cassie. “Is that what you want?”

The girl hesitated. “I—” she began, and then faltered. “I’m not—”

In another dimension, on another plane of existence, an alert sounded, and with little more than a thought, the player terminated the simulation. Yet again, the odds of success had dropped below the necessary threshold.

The player surveyed the landscape, adjusting its time horizon. The search space was large, almost unmanageably so—trillions of bits of data, in a fractal of chaotic organization, from quarks all the way up to bodies and buildings. An uncountable number of levers, of lines of influence, and few clues to make the relevant distinct from the meaningless.

Yet every scrap of efficiency mattered. Every effort not taken, every force left unleveraged, each molecule undisturbed. The simulation was infinitely malleable, and could be altered arbitrarily, but reality was ponderous, and changes costly to make. There could be endless ways to produce the desired effect, and none of them would matter if they weren’t practical—if they required too great an investment, burned too many resources. The rules of the game were clear—when the moment came, there could be no discrepancies between the true pool and the projection, no unfair manipulation via cheap and easy deception. It had to be real, down to the smallest peak in the quantum wave function.

A calculation ended, and a list expanded, highlighting every possible point of intervention given the data from the most recent iteration. An algorithm began, guided by the player’s instincts—filtering, narrowing, refining the list until a manageable billion options remained. Selecting from among them—a breeze minutely strengthened, so that a passing chill made a woman go back for her coat—the player began the simulation once more, carrying it up to the critical moment—

“I shouldn’t count,” said Tobias. “You can bring Cassie and Tom and Marco’s dad.”

The player tweaked the controls on its physical avatar, lifting the lips a small distance, crinkling the skin near the corners of the eyes. In an infinitesimal fraction of a second, the player composed a message, translated it, transcribed it into code and entered it into the simulation. “You have a—”

“No,” Cassie began—

“Cassie, listen,” said one of the other boys—the stocky one, the leader—Jake Berenson. “This isn’t—”

Once more, the alert sounded, and once more, the player terminated the simulation. A cascade of data flowed into its analysis, from the beat of Cassie’s heart to the ebb and flow of neurotransmitters in her brain. Subroutines analyzed every sight she had taken in, every sound that had registered, the twists and turns of her emotional state. Flags were dropped in a thousand different places, indicating a thousand possible branches to explore, and those thousand branches were fed back into the higher routine, where some were considered and evaluated and others summarily discarded.

Slowly, the player moved closer.

 

*        *        *

 

Interlude—during

 

We do not understand. Six-three-four-eight-one was here, and now six-three-four-eight-one is there

[Danger! Peter Levy and Tom Berenson are Controllers—they will injure Ax!]

Then we must intervene, of course. But what has happened?

[Two, have you moved?]

[No. Has three?]

[No. Has four?]

[No. Has five?]

[No. Has six?]

[No. Has one-three-nine-three-two-zero?]

[No. Has one-three-nine-three-two-one?]

[No.]

Only six-three-four-eight-one. We do not understand. It is teleportation, but teleportation is only a word; it is not a meaning. It is not a how or a why.

[We have the situation under control. Peter Levy and Tom Berenson will not injure Ax. Based on the interlink signals, these others with me are Jake Berenson, Marco Levy, Garrett Steinberg, and the female.]

We do not understand. Where are their construct bodies?

[They do not have any.]

This is not a meaning.

[They are emerging directly from the gate, with no construct to disassemble.]

This is not a meaning.

[There is no evidence of footsteps or other disturbances to the area around us. Whatever process brought us here likely also brought Peter Levy and Tom Berenson and Ax and the gates of Jake Berenson, Marco Levy, Garrett Steinberg, and the female.]

We are reviewing our memories of the moment of transition.

They do not provide clarity.

We are communicating with Peter Levy and Tom Berenson.

[They are not providing clarity.]

Perhaps we will communicate with Jake Berenson, when he has fully emerged? Jake Berenson has provided clarity, in the past, as has Marco Levy—

[It will have to wait. Sergeant Pepper has decided to join the game.]

We are happy. Sergeant Pepper did not like leaving the yard, and has not played as often as he did before. It is good to see him running alongside the others. Monty and Daisy in particular are very excited to see him—Monty nipping at his heels, Daisy racing out ahead to impel him to greater speed.

[Should we produce the stick?]

[Not yet. This is a good chase. We should wait until it is over.]

We watch as Chance, Winston, Princess, and Bella break away from the rest of the pack, forming a second group that arcs away toward the far side of the yard before looping back, the two lines of dogs mixing and mingling in joyful chaos. Winston stops short, and Daisy crashes into him—

[Concern!]

—but they are both already back on their feet, running flat-out as they try to catch up with the others.

[The stick.]

[Or the ball.]

[Yes.]

Four-nine-nine-nine produces the stick. Heedless, Sergeant Pepper and Monty and Chance continue to run, but Daisy and Winston and Princess and Bella all come to a halt, their eyes wide and alert, their limbs quivering with barely contained excitement.

[Now?]

[Not yet.]

We will throw the stick, but anticipation makes it all the sweeter—

[We must leave! At once!]

We do not understand at first, but seven-two-four-zero-seven’s memory is clear. We have very little time.

[Is it violence?]

We fall silent for a moment, thinking.

Yes, it is violence—on a scale we have not seen since the great war. But we cannot prevent it, not with so little time. We must preserve ourselves—

[And the dogs!]

Yes, of course, it goes without saying—

[This may be related to what has happened to six-three-four-eight-one.]

[Yes. It is. Somehow, we were moved to a safe distance.]

We have begun to evacuate. Sergeant Pepper and Monty and Chance and Daisy and Winston and Princess and Bella are the closest, and we gather them almost immediately. The Duke and Noam Chompsky and Akela and Julius and Lucy and Clifford and Maya and Marceline and Chester and Pupsicle and Buddy and Rocky and Toby and Molly and Ladybug and Puddles and Coco and Shadow and Duck and Madeline and Margaret Thatcher were all a little farther away, but they are safe now, we have them with us. And soon we will have Gizmo and Penny and Bentley and Spark Pug and Lulu and Pocahontas and Whuff and Luna and Dixie and Cheeto and Dipper and Maximus and Bean and Kitten and Bigfoot and Radar and New Yeller and the slightly larger Princess and the slightly smaller Monty and Bounder and Bolt and—

[The others!]

We are distressed. There are thousands of them—the ones without owners, and the ones whose owners are unaware.

[We have to try!]

[The risk of discovery—]

[We have already been discovered.]

It is true. We continue to hide, but we take less care with noise and pressure, moving quickly enough that even with holograms it is theoretically possible to track our movement. We rescue Spot, and Jasper, and Chip—

[The human. It is suffering.]

We feel sadness—the deep, echoing sadness that reminds us of—

[We will bring the human.]

[Careful! We cannot risk—]

[It is young. Its family will perish. Its domicile will be destroyed. There will be no evidence. We will keep it.]

We have done this before, on occasion—when discovered, or when it is the safest way to protect and care for a dog. We were not meant to care for humans, but we have learned how, and it is not difficult. We agree, and we carry on.

Hunter and Snuffles and two more Spots and another Bella and four strays on the street with no names—we will call them Godric, Salazar, Helga, and Rowena—and Spam and Bark Twain and Socks and Thor and Snowball and Richard Garfield, Ph.D and T-Bone and Peanut and Rex and John-John and Wendy and Sputnik and Oprah…

 

*        *        *

 

Interlude—(long) after

 

She is already crying, beneath the moonlight—tears streaming down her face as the change begins, as her skin lightens from the brown of dinosaur bones to peaches-and-cream, as her hair lengthens and unkinks and turns soft and silky. Her sobs are silent—restrained—but they shake her entire body, as if tearing their way out of her chest.

The tears flow right through the transformation, as she becomes he, as every trace of her disappears back into the void, leaving only him behind. For long, long minutes, he sits, silent, curled tight into a ball. He clutches his knees, his eyes squeezed shut, his lips bared in a rictus smile.

Eventually, he cries himself out—as he has before, as he always does—his face growing slack and hopeless, despair writ large in every muscle as he slumps, sideways, staring at nothing in particular.

And then a shadow flickers across his face—something dark and ugly, a grasping, frantic, desperate neediness, like a starving child, a caged animal, an addict in burning withdrawal. He grits his teeth and clenches his fists, the strength returning to his body, and his eyes focus—still distant, but very much on target.

The change begins—thick muscles dissolving into graceful, slender limbs, a jaw softening into roundness, dark stains spreading across his skin as he becomes her once again. A minute and a half, and she is there beneath the moonlight, her breath faintly misting, her heartbeat almost audible. She is alive, and somewhere inside her head, he reaches for a door, and opens it.

‹Cassie,› he whispers. ‹It’s me.›

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 19: Tobias

IT IS DONE.

And without warning—without even the tiniest physical sensation—I was back.

No burning Yeerk pool. No strange, elfish god. No laser beams hovering at the back of my little brother’s head. Just a small, ordinary-looking office, with a single, tidy desk and a window with a distant view of the Potomac river.

I glanced down at my blue Andalite hands—glanced down with my stalk eyes while my main eyes stayed forward, watched my ten slim fingers curl into fists as my double thumbs folded over them. Five seconds ago, those hands had been human, the knuckles swollen and bleeding where they’d smashed into Jake’s face.

In front of me, the man behind the desk—Jeremiah Poznanski, a mid-level operative at the Department of Homeland Security—was scribbling furiously on a notepad, just as I’d told him to do. I’d said it was to prevent his half of the conversation from being recorded, and he’d given absolutely nothing away as he nodded, knowing full well that there was a camera watching from each corner of the room.

priority to establish a core of known-clean operatives, start securing area. 100+ high-value targets in perimeter (SS, exec, legis, CIA, FBI, NSA, Penta, my superiors, four billionaires, eight CEOs, lobbyists, journalists). Once we have core, can send team to investigate Ventura. Confirm no way to ID compromised from outside? No giveaways?

I couldn’t help it. I began to laugh, my morphed body translating the impulse into a sort of staccato stomping as my tail curled and quivered.

In front of me, Jeremiah stopped writing—frowned—jotted a single line off in the margin of the page.

Something wrong?

My thoughts were—sliding. Like a giant stack of magazines, or a mud-covered hillside, gradually picking up momentum as my mind began to unravel.

Sir? Elfangor?

I ignored him, ignored his tiny little paper, his silly little scratchings, sank to the floor and continued to shake, wild laughter echoing silently—unsatisfyingly—in my head. I wanted a mouth. I wanted a mouth so I could howl. Without so much as a thought for the consequences, I began to demorph.

It was just too funny, you know? The seven of us, trying so hard, trying—ha—our best—hanging on by our fingertips, scrambling for every inch, every tiny scrap of intel or advantage, and the whole time—the whole time—the whole thing—just a game, just pawns—alien warlords who could wipe entire cities off the map—insane chess gods with crazy time powers—and Garrett and I could turn into birds, and we thought that would matter, I thought it was enough to keep us safe—and now suddenly I was back, back here with this Washington spook, and the things I’d told him so far were a house of cards, it was all puppetry, I’d told him just what we wanted him to know, like I could somehow stay in control

In front of me, Jeremiah was on his feet, frozen with indecision, his pen and paper forgotten. I saw his eyes twitch toward his desk drawer—the drawer where he kept his issue sidearm, a loaded Beretta M9 with the safety off—and I laughed harder, wheezing huffs emerging from the gash in my face as my mouth appeared, as my skin crawled backwards to merge with my half-human trachea.

I’d been so careful. So many houses, so many people—digging through minds, dodging security systems, always morphing with one of Ax’s shredders in my hands. Thirty Controllers—that was our best guess, based on the tiny bit of data from Ax’s planetwide scan, back when we’d first woken him up. There were maybe thirty Controllers scattered across Washington, and I’d been doing everything I could to avoid attracting their attention, to find out who and where they were without giving anything away. I must have acquired and morphed a hundred different people over the past week, sneaking in and out of bedrooms, stunning people in their sleep. Jeremiah Poznanski’s son slept with an open window. Jeremiah Poznanski slept alone in a king size bed since his wife left last year.

Jeremiah Poznanski wasn’t a Controller. None of them were. Visser Three was dropping asteroids, and I was sneaking around on tiptoe.

I squeezed my eyes shut—just the two of them, as the stalks shriveled and shrank and vanished under my hair—squeezed them shut as tears began to leak out.

<Investigate the city,> I’d told him—not even five minutes ago, before being snatched away by whatever-the-fuck that little Keebler god had been. I’d told him about the YMCA, the hospital, the high school. Told him about the valley. The Gardens. The Bug fighters hovering over Jake and Rachel and Marco’s houses. Told him to use satellites for surveillance—to investigate the people who should’ve already been doing that surveillance, to see if they’d been taken.

Because I’d assumed the city would still be there.

Because I’d assumed that things made sense—that even in a world with secret alien invasions and teenagers with morphing technology, there were some things that just didn’t happen, cities didn’t just disappear because it was more convenient that way.

We were not ready for Visser Three.

And if we weren’t ready for Visser Three, I didn’t even know what we weren’t, with regards to whatever Crayak and Ellimist were up to.

So I laughed. Laughed as my human body finished emerging, clothes and bookbag and all—laughed as I pushed myself up to my feet, laughed as the shredder grew out of my palm and I leveled it at Jeremiah Poznanski, making him swallow visibly.

Hands flat on desk, didn’t even go for his gun, willing to die rather than risk pissing off the nice alien visitor, what a patriot—

I thought about Garrett, frozen in time, his death a mere heartbeat away, and I laughed.

I thought about Cassie, who even now would be in a race for her life—unless the whole thing had been a prank, a troll, one giant fucking intergalactic lie—and I laughed.

I thought about Louis, and Fletcher, and Johnny, and all the other kids from Oak Landing, who would all be dead in thirty minutes. I thought about Jake, and Rachel, and Marco, who would not—unless they would—and I cackled madly, my whole body shaking.

So this is what a nervous breakdown feels like, a part of me whispered.

My thoughts were swirling, my brain off-kilter. Like the time I’d thought the magic Rice Krispies treats weren’t doing anything, so I’d gone ahead and eaten four more.

In front of me, Jeremiah’s paralysis had finally broken, and he reached for the phone on his desk. I didn’t bother to stop him, just laughed harder, wheezing. The phone wasn’t connected to anything; I’d made sure of that before ever setting foot in his office.

“Elfangor—” he began, his voice quiet—hesitant—unsure.

“Elfangor’s dead,” I managed to choke out, and the look on Jeremiah’s face triggered another wave of hysterical giggles.

“What—”

“Fuck it,” I said, dropping heavily into the chair in front of the desk. For a single, split second, a tiny voice inside of me shouted that maybe—just maybe—the meteor strike would buy us some cover, that maybe Visser Three would assume he’d killed all of us, as long as I didn’t give us away here in D.C.

But that just made me crack up again. Clever little boy, clever plans, so tricksy, that’s cute. “Fuck it,” I repeated, barely managing to hold the shredder steady. “Fuck it fuck it fuck it fuck it fuck that fuck me fuck you fuck everything fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck—” and then I laughed some more because it sounded just like the song that Zach had showed me in the library, that got us kicked out, the guy with the bad teeth and the weird afro—

“Are you—” Jeremiah began, before breaking off to swallow again. “Are you going to kill me?”

He’s really handling himself quite well, all things considered. Not everyday you come back from your bathroom break to find an alien waiting to tell you about a bodysnatcher invasion before transforming into a crazy teenager with a blaster. I should tell his boss to give him a raise.

“How’s fifty an hour sound?” I wheezed.

Slowly, smoothly, keeping his eyes on me the whole time, Jeremiah leaned back, began to reach toward his desk drawer. I watched impassively, still laughing, as he slid it open—watched as he glanced down—as he did a no-shit real-life double take, a look of horror and disbelief settling onto his face.

“Looking for this?” I asked, reaching into my bookbag with my free hand, drawing out the gun. I grinned involuntarily—it was just so funny to see him there, to see that he didn’t know what was going on, had no idea how to respond, so lost, so scared, no script, no plan, didn’t know, didn’t know, didn’t know—

Tobias! Pull it together, man!

Why, though? Having it together was not going to matter. Having it together was not going to help me deal with Darth Vader chucking asteroids around, or Q turning everybody into puppets.

This is serious! Garrett—

Was either alive or dead, had already alived or died, and there was nothing, absolutely no thing at all that I could do about it.

—would fucking slap you in the face for giving up right now.

But that was because he was a naïve little kid, because I had protected him, sheltered him, stopped him from having to face the cruelty, the utter insanity of everything that was now impossible to ignore, if I was a better friend I wouldn’t have lied to him, would have just told him when I saw his birth parents at the mall with their eight-year-old daughter, so rich and clean and happy—

Jeremiah cleared his throat. “What—” he said, and then faltered. “I don’t—can you tell me what—just happened? What’s going on?”

Why did you suddenly lose your fucking mind, kid?

“I’ve just received a transmission from the mothership,” I said, my voice still shaky with laughter. “No point investigating Ventura county—Visser Three is taking a mulligan.”

“What?”

“There’s an asteroid coming. Garrett blew up the pool, and they’re all going to starve, so Visser Three’s starting over because dealing with a bunch of starving headaches—”

Tobias! Come on!

“—he’s got twelve more ships coming in like five months, so why bother—”

“Stop,” Jeremiah cut in, his voice tense. “Wait. Do you want—I mean, should we be talking out—”

“That was a lie,” I broke in. “I know you’ve got cameras and bugs everywhere and your agents and the fifth floor, I was trying to make you think I didn’t know everything, Jeremiah Poznanski who used to eat five boxes of Lucky Charms a week, who got blackout drunk and beat his kid, you should feel in control so you can relax because I’m not dangerous.”

I felt my lips twitch at the words in control, but I held it together—barely.

Jeremiah no longer looked even remotely composed. His eyes were darting back and forth—from the door, to the pair of guns I was holding, to me, to the papers on his desk. He was starting to sweat, and I could see a tremor in his jaw.

Good. Now he fucking knows how I feel.

“What do you mean, an asteroid?” he asked finally.

I could feel the laughter creeping in around the edges, the wild hysteria that I was just barely keeping at bay. There was a part of me that was horrified, watching the whole train wreck as it unfolded in slow motion—the dropping of the mask, the ruin of all my careful planning and maneuvering—but the rest of me just couldn’t find a reason to care.

Fuck it. Just tell him straight.

“We’ve been trying to find a way into the pool,” I said, fighting valiantly to hold my voice steady. “Blow it up, cut off their food supply, starve them out. Looks like we succeeded, maybe half an hour ago. But Visser Three was one step ahead of us. He had a cloaked asteroid waiting behind the moon, and he’s launched it. It’s going to hit right on top of the YMCA. There won’t be anything left—not the pool, not the hospital, not the whole goddamn city. It’ll leave a ten-mile crater in the middle of Ventura county. He’s going to kill all of them. Everybody.”

I could feel the mudslide slowing, feel my brain slowly stitching itself back together. It was like swimming up from the bottom of a deep pool—for the first time, I noticed that the arm holding the shredder was trembling, felt the sweat that was trickling down the back of my neck. I felt weak—loose—like I was recovering from the flu.

“When?” Jeremiah asked tightly.

“About thi—twenty five minutes,” I said, feeling my Joker grin shrink a little further. A small voice in the back of my head had begun to moan—oh, God, what have you done, he’s seen your face

Jeremiah started to stand. “We have to—”

“No,” I interrupted, raising the shredder half an inch. “Think.”

He froze, and we locked eyes. Another voice arose in the back of my head, this one sounding an awful lot like Marco—come on, don’t do the stupid cliché grownup thing, please be actually smart—

“Right,” he said, settling back into his chair. A shadow passed over his face, and I relaxed my elbow a little. “Right. Okay. We—”

He trailed off, scrubbed at his forehead, and looked over at me again. “Right,” he repeated.

There was a long pause.

“You aren’t actually an alien, are you?” he asked quietly. “You have access to one. But you’re human.”

I said nothing—just continued to hold his gaze.

“You’re scared,” he said. “Of the people they’ve taken here in D.C.”

“And in New York, Silicon Valley, Tokyo, Seoul, Jakarta, Delhi, Beijing, Moscow, Istanbul, São Paulo, and London,” I said, rattling off the list Marco and I had put together from Ax’s map. I was not about to try to explain Crayak and Ellimist on top of everything else. “If they have a hundred Controllers in each—”

“Do they?” he asked.

“No. I don’t think so. Maybe thirty.”

“How are they managing it? Without pools, I mean. You said every three days—”

“We thought about that. Some of them could be flying back and forth to California, but it wouldn’t make sense for them all to do that, especially important ones—”

“Like the President.”

“Right. They could maybe just be killing their way through hosts and Yeerks, if they had to, or they could be getting Kandrona some other way—like, concentrating it down from the pool, and getting it through an injection or a pill. That can’t be easy, though, or they’d do it all the time. Best guess is, they’re cycling Yeerks in and out of stasis—”

“What?”

I hesitated for a moment. I could still feel mud and fog clogging up my thoughts, still sense manic laughter lurking just around the corner. I was shaken, confused—in no state to be making important strategic decisions. The plan had been to tell Jeremiah almost everything, but in my disguise as Elfangor, not as a human teenager who could be intimidated, marginalized, dismissed.

So what? Either way, he’s going to do what he’s going to do.

But in the original version, I would still have been able to call some of the shots—

You just saw how much of a difference that makes.

I sucked in a breath. Five months. We had five months to prepare for the second round of Visser Three’s invasion. Five months during which he might drop asteroids, kidnap heads-of-state, send cloaked and shielded Bug fighters to vaporize population centers. We’d bought ourselves some breathing room, but the Yeerks still held the high ground. The second they thought we were gaining the upper hand, they’d decimate the Earth’s population.

How much of that did Jeremiah understand? He was an intelligence agent, after all—it was his job to understand strategy. In the abstract, he’d probably do a better job of it than I would—

—especially given that you just fell apart at the seams five minutes ago.

It all boiled down to a question of who. Who had Visser Three ordered taken? Who was watching? Who could I trust? Who did we need on our team, to start getting the Earth ready for the next round?

I didn’t have the answers. Jeremiah Poznanski of the Department of Homeland Security, though—

He probably didn’t have them either, but he knew where to look. That’s why I’d chosen him in the first place. He was the first link in the chain, the first step in a bootstrapping process to get me connected with the people who actually mattered.

—what do you mean, actually mattered, none of us actually matter, this whole thing is a fucking joke, it’s a game—

The voice was still there, but it was no longer the loudest thing in my head—no longer able to lever the rest of me into hysteria and despair. A memory of Garrett floated up in response—my own words, but they no longer felt like they belonged to me.

—and if we can’t, we’ll just do the next thing, and the next, and the next. We’ll keep on trying until we figure out a way.

I lowered the shredder, watching to see how Jeremiah would react. His shoulders dropped half an inch, but otherwise he remained motionless, waiting.

Reaching into my bag, I drew out one of the stasis cylinders we’d stolen after Jake woke up. I leaned forward and set it on the desk.

“That’s a Yeerk,” I said, and Jeremiah’s eyes widened fractionally. “Inside. It’s in stasis; I don’t know how. Controllers carry these for emergencies, in case somebody figures them out and they have to do a quick infestation. Stun somebody, put the canister up to their ear, push that button—”

I trailed off. Jeremiah nodded tightly. Reaching out for the cylinder, he paused. “Is it dangerous?” he asked. “Fragile?”

I shook my head, and he picked it up. “You can analyze that all you want,” I said. “Bring the Yeerk out, study it. Maybe even infest somebody, see if you can develop a way to detect Controllers from the outside. But whatever you do, the Yeerk’s got only three days, unfrozen, before it starves.”

Jeremiah held the cylinder up at eye level, looking closely at the construction, the controls. “So if you had, say, ten of these—”

“—then you could keep somebody Controlled for a month, yeah. Swap in, swap out. That’s what we figured. It’s not going to be easy—there are probably some issues with changing Yeerks every time, and you’d have to arrange to keep the host body secured during the transition—”

“—but it’s a hell of a lot easier than flying the President out to California every three days.” Jeremiah set the cylinder down, looking grim. “What else can you give me? That weapon, for example—do you have a spare we could send to the lab, to start reverse engineering?”

I felt the beginnings of another crazy laugh, and squashed them mercilessly. Not now, dammit. Raising the shredder again, I popped the catch to release the charge canister and set both of them on his desk. Reaching into the bag, I drew out one of Ax’s spare earplugs—he’d given me eleven once he realized we didn’t have similar technology of our own, having used up three on something he didn’t want to talk about—and explained what it was for.

“We should also probably consider telling someone about the meteor strike,” he said cautiously. “Someone who isn’t in one of those cities—someone in a position to record what happens, who we’ll have an easier time convincing and recruiting later if we’ve already proven ourselves by predicting this in advance.”

“Do you know who that might be?” I asked, glancing at the clock on the wall. “Because there’s not much more than twenty minutes left.”

He bit his lip. “Maybe.” He glanced down at the shredder, then back up at me. “Depends on whether or not you’re going to lift whatever block you have on my phone.”

I stared right back. “Depends on whether you’re going to stop trying to fuck me over,” I said flatly.

There was another long pause.

“So you were lying,” Jeremiah said softly. “You can read minds.”

I said nothing. It wasn’t quite mind-reading, after all—I’d dug through Jeremiah’s thoughts and memories hours ago, while morphed into his body, but that didn’t mean I had anything like the ability to predict what he was thinking on the spot.

“Section two, subsection three,” I said, and he winced.

You had to give Homeland Security some credit. They had actual procedure for interacting with extraterrestrial visitors, all laid out in a huge, branching decision tree that ranged from friendly to hostile, alone to en masse, English-speaking to incomprehensible, carrying tech or not—every possibility I could have come up with and more. Section two, subsection three dealt with gullible, vulnerable, isolated aliens, who could potentially be tricked or trapped or forced to give up valuable technology.

Jeremiah might believe me about the Yeerks. There was no way to be absolutely sure, but he certainly seemed to be taking the threat seriously. But he’d also been stringing me along, keeping me talking, trying to give his colleagues a chance to set up a net in the hallway, the adjacent offices, the floor below, and the roof. There was a pressure pad beneath the carpet, near the corner of his desk, and he’d triggered it almost as soon as I’d made my presence known.

“They’re not coming,” I said, looking pointedly at the slightly discolored spot on the carpet. “The second you walked into the room, we froze every channel of communication in and out. No radio, no light, no electromagnetic signals of any kind. The track they’ve got on your heartrate monitor has been watching a loop for as long as you’ve been sitting here. There’ve been two phone calls and three instant messages, and as far as anybody outside this room can tell, you’ve answered all of them normally. I’m not an idiot, Agent Poznanski.”

To his credit, Jeremiah didn’t try to deny it, didn’t get flustered. Without the slightest change in his facial expression, he opened his mouth and shouted. “Fire!” he called out, his eyes flickering toward the door. “Fire in Poznanski’s office! Help!”

I didn’t move. Together, we waited—ten seconds, twenty. Finally, he shrugged.

“The procedure exists for a reason,” he said simply. “It’s easier to fool a single agent than to fool the whole department. It’s exactly because of threats like your Yeerks that we want as many eyes on a given situation as possible, as soon as possible.”

“You can’t risk it,” I said. “You can’t trust your department. I cleared Stevenson, Ramos, Butler, and Wyle on my way up to you, but even they might have been taken in the last day or so. Visser Three took out a whole county—including ten thousand of his own people—just because of a risk of exposure.”

“Does he know about you?”

I paused.

Stupid clever boy, things aren’t for sense.

“Yes,” I admitted. “I don’t know why we’re different.” Other than the god that says we are. “Maybe because we already had a chance to go public, and we didn’t. Maybe he doesn’t care about a small resistance, for some reason. But he’s not fucking around when it comes to the whole planet. If we start alerting the general population and he catches wind of it—the only thing keeping him from glassing every major city on the planet is that he doesn’t want to.”

“We have to start somewhere.

“Yeah—somewhere outside Washington. Not with the people in this building. Agents in the field, agents in other cities—not New York or Silicon Valley, either—people who haven’t been anywhere near infested areas for at least two months.”

“Then why are you here? Why are you talking to me at all?”

“Because if they have the President, we have to get her back. Two birds, one stone. Someone like you can help get both balls rolling.”

He frowned. “Look. You haven’t given me any proof yet, okay? I mean—sure, yes, you’ve proven that you have telepathic abilities, that you’ve got transformational powers and a body that looks alien, that you’ve got a couple of shiny things that are plausibly unknown technology—if they’re not just movie props—and that you can shut down communications from my office. All of that means you’re somebody interesting, but it doesn’t mean there’s a secret alien invasion going on. I have to maintain some skepticism—for all I know, these Yeerks are the good guys, and you’re doing some kind of preemptive counter-counter-insurgency.”

“The asteroid—”

Hasn’t happened yet. And even if it does, what’s to say that wasn’t your team? All I’ve got to go on is your word, and for Christ’s sake—you just had what sure looked to me like a meltdown five minutes ago. You aren’t exactly inspiring confidence, here.”

I clamped down on my knee-jerk response, forced myself to stop and think. “You’re right,” I said. “Okay? I admit it—you’re right. But look—you can see that it makes sense to be cautious, right? At least for now? I mean, if I am telling the truth—”

“There’s still a chain of command. I have to go to somebody—I have resources only to the extent that I play by the rules. If you want me to start investigating the rest of the department—if you want me to get these artifacts to somebody who can start to understand them—then I can’t just go rogue.”

“Who do you need? I can clear a couple of people, if you tell me who they are and where to find them.”

“See, that’s exactly what I’m not going to do, is tell you the names and locations of important targets in the Department of Homeland Security.”

I gave myself a mental kick. Just drag it out of him in morph later. “Point. More generally, then. Who would you go to if you thought everyone in the building had been compromised?”

“I’d go to the NSA, or the CIA, or the FBI, or the Pentagon—they’re all right around the corner. Which, by the way, is another element that makes your whole story more than a little difficult to believe. Seems to me that if this Visser Three is as competent as you’re making him out to be, he would have either set up shop right here in Washington, or gone to some tiny village somewhere with no internet where he didn’t have to worry about anybody noticing what was going on. What’s the thinking behind taking some random midsize city in California?”

I gritted my teeth. The conversation was spiraling out of control, and once again, I felt an almost irresistible impulse to laugh. At this point, it would almost be easier to just kill him and start over—but I couldn’t do that, either, because of how clever I’d been in setting up the whole conversation.

I glanced over toward the corner of the room—at the closed door, the empty carpet, the unobstructed wall.

“Who would you go to if you couldn’t trust anyone in Washington?” I asked, doing my best imitation of patience. “If this were one of those spy movie type situations?”

“DHS branch office in Chicago or Houston.”

“And if you couldn’t go to DHS at all?”

“I don’t have some magical ‘contact’ that lives ‘off the grid,’ if that’s what you’re asking. I know a couple of people at West Point, and I know at least one person at Los Alamos and another at DARPA. Might be able to get something done at Bell Labs, too, at least with the artifacts—my ID should open a few doors there. And if I’m just pulling rank, I could probably do a lot with a National Guard unit. They’re generally pretty friendly to DHS.”

“You got a way to send secure email?”

Jeremiah scoffed.

“I mean secure from your boss, too.”

“Yes.”

I looked at the clock. Fifteen minutes, give or take. “Okay. Those people, and only those people. A meteor’s about to hit Ventura county, you’ve got an extremely delicate situation you might need help with, they shouldn’t tell anybody, you’ll be in touch. Nothing else. Sound fair?”

Jeremiah had already opened his computer and was typing furiously.

“Rictic,” I said. “Check the messages before you let them through.”

Jeremiah glanced up at me and frowned, but said nothing. Fifteen seconds later, he finished, spinning the laptop around to show me the screen. “Want to rephrase them, so I can’t send any secret codes?” he asked, a note of sarcasm in his tone.

“Rictic,” I repeated. The screen flickered, the words rearranging themselves, and I nodded. Puzzled, Jeremiah turned the computer back around and then blanched, the blood draining from his face as he realized what had happened.

“You can click ‘send,’” I said.

He did, looking faintly nauseated, and then closed his computer. “So,” he said, his voice just a little too loud and indifferent. “That’s done. Now what?”

I pointed toward the stasis cylinder, earplug, shredder, and charge canister. “Can you actually get those things out of the building, without security noticing?”

His mouth twisted. “If I say yes, will you believe me?”

“No.”

“Then why are you asking?”

I couldn’t help it. I grinned, a faint memory of Jake drifting up from the ancient past of a few weeks ago. “Because you might say no,” I answered.

“No, I can’t. They check everything, in and out.”

Nodding again, I reached forward to scoop the items into my bookbag, pausing as the lingering thought of Jake drew my gaze toward my knuckles. They were smooth and undamaged, with no trace of the beating I’d given the other boy.

The least important thing for you to be confused about.

“Then it’s up to you, I guess,” I said. “I’ve given you all the information I can. You know about Ventura. You know about the Yeerks. You know about thought-speak and the morphing power. If it turns out I can trust you—if you don’t do anything stupid while all of this is blowing up—then I’ll visit you at your house, and give these back. The sooner we can get human labs manufacturing this stuff, the better.”

It was—as Marco would have put it—insane. It would’ve been one thing to trust this guy after speaking to him as Elfangor, being one step ahead of him the whole time, giving him no reason to worry or doubt. It was a whole different thing, letting him go under these circumstances. He’d seen my face—seen me crack up and break down—been in control of the conversation more than half the time. If I’d left any lasting impression of my personality, it was as an unstable teenager with a gun, not as the aloof, genius alien I’d intended to be. I’d given up a lot of ground.

But there were gods, and asteroids, and even though I’d walked back at least a little bit from my brush with hysteria, the idea of sure and safe still largely seemed ridiculous. There was only so much to be gained from caution and cleverness—we had as little as five months to get ready before the rest of the fleet showed up, and it was time to start doing things Rachel’s way. Jeremiah Poznanski wasn’t the perfect ally, but he was what I had. That would either be enough, or it wouldn’t.

“What about you?” he asked.

Find Garrett.

“There are still thirty Controllers somewhere in Washington,” I said reluctantly. “Maybe the President, maybe the Pentagon, maybe one of those billionaires you mentioned. I’m going to keep looking.”

Jeremiah grimaced, seeming to struggle for a moment. “How are you—I mean, how do you plan to—get close?”

I shrugged. “I’ve been doing okay so far just sneaking into people’s houses. I’ve been trading up—that’s how I found you.”

His grimace deepened. “Paul Evans,” he said finally. “Secret Service.” He scribbled a few lines on a post-it note, held it out to me. “I don’t know him, exactly—not enough to tell you when his birthday is. But we had a few drinks together, after my wife left. If you catch him off-duty, my name should be enough to get him to stop and listen. That’s where I’d start—where I will start, if you want my help.”

Reaching out, I took the note. It seemed impolite to mention that I already knew all of that—that Paul Evans was a name I’d dragged from Poznanski Prime’s brain earlier that morning. “Thanks,” I said, dropping the note into my bag. “I’ll take it from here—you’re more valuable pulling strings inside the DHS.”

Standing, I shrugged the bookbag onto my shoulders.

“Where are you—how are you—”

“Window,” I said, and began to morph.

It was a test, but not much of one. If Jeremiah made any sort of violent move toward me, Rictic the Chee—currently poised invisibly in the corner by the door, where he’d been standing the whole time, keeping us shielded behind a comm blackout and a hologram—would stop him in his tracks. And if he tried to trap me, refused to let me go—

Well. Once Rictic let me out—I knew where he lived. Knew where his son went to school. It wouldn’t be too hard to get the robot to go run some small errand while I cleaned up loose ends.

Clever boy, clever plans.

The type of people who do the right thing.

Did you really think you were the main character of this story?

I shook my head, trying to set aside the voices as I continued to shrink toward the floor. I would have been more certain to avoid notice in fly morph, but I didn’t much like the idea of trying to find a safe demorphing zone as a fly, not to mention the fact that Jeremiah didn’t need to be grossed out any more than he already was. I knew from experience that it was hard enough watching someone change into a bird.

“That technology,” he said suddenly, a thoughtful note creeping into his voice. “Morphing. If you are human—they gave it to you? It isn’t species-specific?”

I tried to laugh, but my voice box had already disappeared, my lips protruding and hardening as my teeth dissolved into nothing. Ten seconds—I’d been ten seconds away from making the suggestion when I’d been snatched away by the time lord. It would have been the very next words out of my—well, the next thoughts out of my head, if the whole thing hadn’t gone sideways.

<Yes,> I said, as my skin shattered into feathers and my arms flattened into wings. <And I can give it to others, too. Will give it, as soon as I find people I can trust.>

I expected him to say more, but he was silent for the rest of the morph. Silent as I shrank down to barely ten inches long, silent as he opened the window for me, silent as I darted out into the warm afternoon sun, leaving Rictic to keep an eye on him.

I knew how he felt. I didn’t know what to say, either.

 

*        *        *

 

What do you do, five minutes before a disaster you have no way to prevent?

Tobias from an hour ago would have been darting toward the White House, or the Capitol building, hoping to catch the reactions of important people, to eavesdrop on sensitive conversations. He would’ve been motivated, energized—focused on the possibility that his efforts might make a difference.

I didn’t feel completely helpless. But I was a whole lot less confident than I had been that morning.

I drifted aimlessly across the city, catching the columns of warm air rising off the grass and letting them carry me up and up and up. In a minute, I was level with the peak of the Washington monument, some five miles away; with my hawk vision, I thought I could just barely make out figures moving behind the windows of the observation deck. Two minutes after that, and I was high enough that I could no longer hear any sound except the roar of the occasional passing jet.

Now? a part of my brain kept asking.

I kept rising as no became maybe, maybe became probably, and probably became definitely. I watched the tiny blobs of cars and trucks and people, waiting for—

What?

I’m not sure what I imagined. Maybe that all of the cars would stop, that all of the people would gather around shops and bars, peering at the TVs. Maybe that the Earth would shake, or there would be a flash of light and a thunderclap.

Something, you know?

But there was nothing. If it was going to happen, it had already happened, and down below, the slow crawl of life just—kept going.

There was a part of me that wanted to strike out west, to switch from hawk to snipe and power across the continent, to find Garrett and touch him and look into his eyes and talk to him and know that he was alive, that it had either all been some crazy dream or that the careless god had kept his word.

It wasn’t the right thing to do, though. It wasn’t the right thing, which meant I couldn’t do it, no matter how much I wanted to, because I was still Garrett’s number one reason to believe that the right thing was something that actually mattered. It wasn’t funny anymore, like it had been back in Jeremiah’s office—just sad and heavy and confusing.

If I wanted to give up, and didn’t—if I kept hanging on just so someone else wouldn’t give up, even though I thought giving up was probably the right move, even for them—

What should you do, when nothing you could do can possibly make a difference?

Even if it’s hard. We’ll keep on trying until we figure out a way.

Stupid kid. I could’ve killed Jake, if it wasn’t for the fact it was my own damn fault.

I wheeled in a lazy circle, tracing the curve of the horizon with the tip of my wing, trying to think, to understand, to decide.

I could go to the White House, where the President—probably—would make some kind of emergency speech.

I could go to Silver Spring, where Paul Evans lived, and try to acquire him, to see if there was an alien slug living in his brain.

I could go back to Jeremiah’s house, and try to slip inside when his son came home from school.

I could admit it didn’t matter, and go nowhere.

Is this what they want me to do? Elfangor’s gods? Are they hoping I’ll spin around in circles, accomplishing nothing?

If I’d had a human face, I would have scowled. There was no point in that kind of thinking. Either everything was predetermined, in which case who cared, or I still had freedom of choice, so it didn’t matter. The only thing that had changed was that now I was aware of the larger game, where before I’d just been oblivious.

Elfangor knew, though—didn’t he? He’d encountered them before—Crayak, or Ellimist, or both. That’s what he meant when he said we were on the widest path to victory.

Only that was bullshit—wasn’t it? Elfangor hadn’t thought the way to win was to save us. He’d come to burn the planet to a crisp. In fact—

Probably the whole reason his weapon didn’t work is that one of them interfered.

I shivered, shedding altitude. If you looked at it that way—

How many of the things that had happened to us hadn’t just happened? How many of them had been done to us? The Chapmans—Cassie’s parents—Jake, nearly getting eaten alive.

Jake, getting saved. Coming back, practically from the dead, through what seemed—in retrospect—like an awfully big coincidence.

Shit—the whale.

Suddenly, I understood what it was like to be religious. Really religious, like the kind of people who said things like “God works in mysterious ways” or “God helps those who help themselves.” For the first time in my life, it seemed possible that there really were no such things as coincidences.

It left me feeling very, very small.

Just—be alive, okay, Garrett?

Please.

I circled aimlessly for a few more minutes, climbing up until my breath began to mist and half the clouds were underneath me.

Okay, fine. You do matter, you don’t matter—whatever. You have to do something. You can’t just fly in circles forever.

Marco and Jake had sent me to get the President. As a distant second, to try to do some recruiting, or start a second resistance movement. But the President was the obvious target, the most important pawn. More than anything else, I needed to know if the Yeerks already had her.

And for that, I needed to get close—close enough to touch her in my own, human form.

Straightening out, I pointed my nose north and down, beginning the long, straight glide toward Silver Spring. Paul Evans, at 4240 Highwood Place.

I would try not to do anything clever.

 

*        *        *

 

Maybe I’d been doing it wrong for weeks, and I should’ve just been looking for Paul Evans from the very beginning. Or maybe I’d been doing it right all along, and getting to him—without having to go through any Controllers—was the payoff I’d been working for.

Either way, Paul Evans was the perfect ally.

I don’t know much about the Secret Service. Just what everybody knows, really—that they’re the one agency that’s never had a traitor, and that they jump in front of the President whenever bullets start flying.

But those two things say a lot, when you really think about them. People talk about patriots, but it’s a whole other thing when you’re actually ready to lay down your life for your country. Not to save your buddies in the foxhole, not to take down Adolf Hitler, not in heroic response to a sudden emergency, but just because you’ve volunteered to be the one they call, if they need someone to die.

I was waiting on his doorstep when he came home—late, at three in the morning, thanks to all the chaos from the meteor strike. I told him Jeremiah Poznanski sent me, that there was a threat to the President, and that I needed to talk to him about it, alone. He called one of his buddies to check on him in three hours, and then escorted me into his living room.

No hesitation. No fear. No questions. It wasn’t the sort of thing I could have done—or Marco, for that matter. For me, there was always a balancing act, always a dozen different things to juggle, and rule number one was protect yourself.

But Paul Evans wasn’t trying to protect himself. He had exactly one priority, and if hearing what I had to say meant exposing himself to danger, that was just the way things were. It was the sort of job I could see Jake growing up to have, or—oddly enough—Cassie.

“All right,” he said, settling himself into the armchair across from me. He stayed upright, not leaning back, his elbows resting on his knees. “What’s this about?”

I took a deep breath. I was alone—Rictic was still off keeping an eye on Jeremiah, and while he’d said he could be there fast if I called him, I didn’t know what good he would be in a fight, given his blocks against violence. I was wearing my morph armor—which, as far as I knew, the Yeerks were still in the dark about—but other than that, I was on my own. The odds were fifty to one against Paul Evans being a Controller, but if he was—

You’re already not in control, I thought. Don’t ever forget that.

And then—quieter—Garrett’s voice—

Not afraid.

I looked straight into Paul Evans’ eyes, tuning into him with every scrap of attention I could muster, every ounce of instinct I’d picked up off the street. “Andalite,” I said, looking for a twitch, a tightening, a change in the size of his pupils. “Yeerk. Visser Three.”

Nothing.

I exhaled, long and slow. “Those words mean anything to you?” I asked.

The answer would have been no in either case, but I believed him. I was no Jake, but even a Yeerk couldn’t have control that good.

“Um,” I said, suddenly feeling awkward. “Would you mind—uh—going and getting your sidearm?” He raised an eyebrow, and I shifted uncomfortably. “Maybe even pointing it—at me? I’m—um—probably some of this is going to make you really uncomfortable, and I’d sort of prefer that you felt—uh—in control.”

He said nothing for a long moment—just sort of looked at and through and all over me with a kind of Terminator gaze. “Are you carrying any weapons?” he asked quietly.

“Not yet. But—uh—it’s complicated. At some point, I—might be.” His expression tightened, and I hastened to clarify. “Not yours!” I added. “I just—”

He raised a hand, and I stopped talking, my jaw clicking shut. Pushing the armchair back a few feet, he stood and walked over to a cabinet next to the TV. He typed a four-digit number into a keypad by the handle, and with a click, the door swung open. When he came back, he was holding a very large, very black handgun.

“Thanks,” I said as he sat back down, the gun pointed at the coffee table between us. I sucked in another deep breath. “I—okay, look, I’m going to say a bunch of things that are going to sound really crazy, okay? And I kind of want you to give me the benefit of the doubt, so before I say any of them, I’d like to—sort of—prove that I’m not just some stupid kid? If you don’t mind?”

He tilted his head fractionally, but said nothing.

Here goes, I thought.

<John Evans,> I broadcast. <Secret Service, four-two-four-zero Highwood Place. No, you’re not going crazy, yes, this is coming from the kid in front of you. No, he can’t read minds. I, I mean. I can’t read minds. But I can think at you, and you’ll hear it. For instance, I’ve got a number between one and a hundred written down on a scrap of paper in my pocket. The number’s seventeen. Can I take it out?>

Score two for government agents either being really well trained or just being naturally cool under pressure. Paul Evans’ eyes widened when I first began thinking at him, and his knuckles whitened on the grip of his gun, but otherwise he didn’t react at all. Slowly, he nodded, and I reached toward my pocket with two fingers.

“What’s the number?” I asked aloud, just before drawing it out.

“Seventeen,” he said flatly.

I slid the scrap of paper across the coffee table toward him. He ignored it completely.

“We call it thought-speak,” I said. “Dumb name, I guess, but it’s shorter than saying ‘telepathy.’”

“We.”

His tone was still flat, the voice of a man who’s forcing himself to expect nothing, to be surprised by nothing. Professional.

“There’s more,” I said. “At some point in the next ninety seconds, a bookbag is going to sort of—ooze—out of my left hand, and a gun out of my right. Um. I’ll definitely keep the gun pointed away from you.”

I demorphed.

“What kind of weapon is that?” he asked, a hint of tension finally showing through his iron composure.

“Laser,” I said, morphing surreptitiously back into my armor inside my clothes, this time without incorporating the gun and the bookbag.

“Demonstrate,” he said.

I blinked. “What? How?”

“The floor. Next to the coffee table.”

“I—”

“Do it.”

Somehow, without seeming to actually move, his own gun had ended up pointed more or less directly at my chest. Swallowing, I turned the shredder toward the polished hardwood, and squeezed the trigger.

TSEWWWWW!

The flash faded, and we both blinked. The floor was undamaged—no gaping hole, no black scorch mark, nothing.

“It’s on stun,” I explained. “Mostly it just scrambles the nervous system. Can’t go around burning people—”

“Set it to maximum. Kill. Whatever. Some kind of reasonably high burn.”

I obeyed.

TSEWWWWW!

This time, the beam punched a ragged hole the size of my fist straight through the oak beams, filling the air with the smell of smoke and ozone.

“What’s in the bookbag?”

“It’s complicated,” I said, feeling my heart rate ease a little as my morph armor slid into place. Paul Evans didn’t seem like the kind of person who would shoot you on accident, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t shoot you, period. “I need to give you some context, first.”

“Weapon on the table.”

I nodded and complied, but slowly, making a bit of a production out of popping the charge canister and setting each of them carefully down on the glass. “I’m on your side,” I reminded him, and after a moment he gave a tight nod.

“My name is Tobias Yastek,” I began. “Y-A-S-T-E-K. If you check Social Security, you’ll see that I live—or I guess used to live—in Ventura County, California. And no, that’s not a coincidence.”

It took nearly forty-five minutes, but I told him everything, leaving out only the Chee and Elfangor’s gods. The morphing tech. The YMCA. The high school and the hospital. Everybody’s families. Kandrona and the stasis cylinders. Ax, and the sensor readings that had led us to believe there were thirtyish Controllers somewhere in Washington.

I told him about accessing memories from a morph, and he insisted I demonstrate, so I put on the body of Jeremiah Poznanski and dredged up as much as I could of the conversations they’d had over scotch after Jeremiah’s wife left him.

And then I told him about the asteroid. I made it sound like Ax had some kind of early-warning system, and that’s how the rest of them had known to bail out. I told him about Visser Three, and our sense that the Yeerks were only holding off on wholesale destruction because they thought their quiet infiltration was working.

“And you think they have President Tyagi,” Paul said when I finally finished, his voice as cold as ice.

“I don’t know. We couldn’t figure out what they were going for, maintaining a presence in Washington. It can’t be easy, without a pool. On the one hand—yeah, you obviously want the President. But on the other hand, there’s a lot of power held by people who’ve got a lot fewer eyes on them, right?”

“You said they starve out after three days?”

“Yeah. I’m pretty sure that hasn’t changed.”

He stood up and began pacing, his gun forgotten on the table. “How can you detect them from the outside?”

I shook my head. “It’s not easy. Right now, the only reliable way is for me to acquire them in their sleep and then morph into them.”

“You can read the Yeerk’s memories, too?”

“No, but there’s usually plenty of other stuff that gives it away. The whole being mindraped thing.”

“What else?” Paul asked.

“What?”

“What other methods of detection?”

“Oh. Um—dogs. One of our group has this theory you could train one of those cancer-sniffing dogs to detect them. And we haven’t actually tried an MRI, obviously, but Yeerks are pretty big, and there’s bound to be some weird activity going on that a brain scan would pick up.”

“You said you’re giving the spare Yeerk to Poznanski?”

“If he doesn’t do anything stupid in the meantime. He thinks one of his lab friends might be able to do something useful with it.”

“We can do better than that,” Paul muttered, but then he grimaced. “If they’ve taken President Tyagi, though, we’re going to have a hell of a time. There’s zero chance we can come up with a way to keep her incommunicado for three days, especially since that means they’ll have her family and the White House staff and her current SS detachment at least.”

“Aren’t you—I mean, doesn’t that include—”

“I’m on Vice President Kehler.”

“Oh.” I paused as Paul continued to pace. “Anyway, I thought about that,” I continued, cautiously. “If we get eyes close enough, we could try to figure out when she’s feeding or switching Yeerks or whatever, and catch her near the end of the three day window, so there’s less of a wait. And we could use morphing tech to cover for her, if we had to.”

We could also get Rictic or one of the other Chee to try impersonating her, but that was a lot riskier than having direct access to her memories and personality. Unfortunately, for Paul, that wasn’t a plus.

“Absolutely not,” he said, a hint of steel underlying the words. “You don’t even begin to have the clearance it would take to have access to all the things she knows about, not to mention the fact that I’m not signing off on any plan that involves a stranger digging through her mind.”

“Even if there’s a Yeerk already doing that?” I argued. “Look—it doesn’t have to be me. It could be her husband, or the VP—hell, it could be you, if it had to be.”

He froze mid-step. “Wait,” he said. “You have the blue box?”

“I told you, remember? My friend Garr—”

“No,” he interrupted. “I mean, you have it? Here? It’s not back in California with the rest of your group?”

“Oh—no. I mean, yeah. Yes. I have it. Not here here, but—yeah.”

“Why?”

“What?” I asked, taken aback by the sudden intensity in his tone.

“Why do you have it? What did you intend to do with it?”

“Recruit,” I said, somewhat bewildered. “I thought that was obvious.”

“So you’re not giving it up for study, too?”

There was a long, long pause, during which Paul fixed me with another one of those X-ray looks, and I chose my next words very carefully.

“No,” I said slowly. “I’m giving up the gun and the stasis tube and the Yeerk, because those bear directly on the war effort. If we manage to get our hands on a shield or a cloaking device, I’ll pass those along, too. But the cube is ours. It’s our number one advantage, and the second we give it up, we’re no longer able to keep it safe from the Yeerks. I’ll give individual people the ability to morph, but I’m not handing over the source.”

There was another, equally tense pause, and then Paul nodded. “Fair enough,” he said. “What do I have to do to qualify?”

“To morph?”

“Yes.”

I bit my lip. Okay, that was fast.

Even though this was part of what I’d come to Washington to do—even though Paul Evans seemed like exactly the kind of person we wanted on our side—it just didn’t quite feel right. Not like it had when I’d given the power to Garrett. Paul was a stranger, complete and total—I knew nothing about him except the memory of a few drinks and the impressions of the past hour. If I gave him the morphing power, I’d be leveling him up into one of the most dangerous people on the planet. He would be able to go anywhere, do almost anything, look inside the mind of any person he crossed paths with.

It was a lot to ask for, coming from somebody I didn’t even know.

And yet—

I looked up and into Paul’s eyes. He was so much older than me—a grownup, a soldier, a patriot. A man who’d let a teenage kid into his house in the middle of the night, because he had something to protect. Who’d listened, and watched, without batting an eye. Who was now asking me for a weapon, because he wanted to get into the fight.

The type of people who do the right thing, even if it’s hard.

And then, another thought—another memory.

For the time being, at least, the game revolves around you—your decisions, your fate.

It wasn’t the sort of thing Marco would do.

But then again, Jake hadn’t sent Marco. He’d sent me.

“Just one thing,” I said, finally, breaking the silence. “Hold out your hand, and let me acquire you.”

 

*        *        *

 

For the third time that day, I explained. About Elfangor, about Visser Three, about the war that had been brewing, that had started in earnest just a few hours earlier. I explained, and the most powerful person in the world listened.

On one level, I was astonished. My model of how government worked came from movies and TV, where the President never did anything without a room full of people putting their two cents in. I’d basically assumed it would be impossible to talk to her alone, and doubly impossible for her to make any unilateral decisions, without first consulting a dozen other bigwigs that Paul and I would have to clear.

But here we were, and it seemed to be working. The whole thing gave me a new appreciation for the Yeerks—their outlook, their whole way of doing things. For weeks, I’d been feeling my way around D.C. in the dark, getting nowhere, doing a slow burn through security guards and cops and low-level government spooks. And then I’d had one conversation with Jeremiah—one conversation, and I’d leapfrogged straight from Paul Evans to the President of the United States. And now—

Now, humankind’s most advanced military was in the fight.

It was all about knowing the right people. Knowing them, or finding them—following the lines of connection, the web of relationships. It was the whole six degrees of separation thing—you were never more than a few handshakes away from a billionaire, or an admiral, or a Nobel Prize-winning scientist.

But by the same token, the Yeerks really needed only a handful of hosts to take over the world. Ninety-nine percent of Earth’s resources were owned by one percent of its population—it wasn’t literally true, but the metaphor was solid. How many countries were there, after all? How many truly important companies? There were only so many presidents, so many CEOs. You could conquer the whole world, with a thousand Yeerks in the right heads—would pretty much already have the world, no conquering needed. In six weeks, they’d basically taken over an entire city without anyone noticing. The only reason we hadn’t already lost is that they’d landed in Ventura County, instead of Washington or Beijing.

We’d gotten lucky. Or somebody had been pulling strings on our behalf. Either way, we couldn’t count on it the second time around. They’d be back—this time in strength—with all the knowledge that they’d culled from ten thousand human brains.

Not in control, never in control.

<May Tobias demorph, Madam President? He’s carrying the artifacts with him.>

An indistinct vibration, long enough to be a single word. Then—

<Go ahead, Tobias.>

Picking my way across fibers as large as tree trunks, I climbed up toward the light, out of the roll in Paul’s pant cuff. Launching myself away from his ankle, I zipped out into the open and landed somewhere in the middle of the seemingly infinite carpet.

<Sorry,> I apologized, as I began to demorph. <This is going to be pretty gross.>

We’d entered the White House over an hour earlier, having first waited for the morphing tech to finish analyzing Paul’s two DNA samples—mine and his own—and for him to spend a few minutes in my body, confirming my story. We’d debated various possible configurations—Paul as himself and me as Jeremiah, me as Paul and Paul as something small, Paul in morph armor with me morphed away inside—before settling on Paul in morph armor and me as a housefly.

“That way, I can carry a second gun past security,” he’d reasoned. “Plus, it’ll be much easier for me to get a private conversation with her alone than if I’m with an unscheduled, uncleared guest with no ID.”

It also meant that our conversation had been weirdly disjointed, with President Tyagi speaking directly to Paul, who’d translated in thought-speak that both of us could hear, with me broadcasting to both of them in turn. It wasn’t too bad, given that the President didn’t talk much—as an extra precaution, Paul had insisted that she limit herself to yes, no, and questions written in code—but it meant that I’d been explaining blind, without being able to gauge her reactions or see what kind of impact I was having.

And now I was coming out of fly morph, of all things—a horrific mixture of human and bug the size of a toddler, swelling up from her carpet like some sort of cancerous balloon. Not the best of first impressions, though it still probably beat out the day I’d met Jake while upside-down inside of a toilet.

<About ninety seconds, Madam President.>

Another vibration.

<Yes, Madam President. Regardless of size.>

Slowly, my fly vision changed back to normal, the million tiny shattered views popping one by one, like tiny bubbles merging together. I could feel my wings folding back and fusing together, track the loss of sensation as part of them expanded into the bookbag. I was facedown on the carpet, and I rolled over, immediately regretting the decision as I caught a glimpse of the look on President Tyagi’s face.

<Sorry,> I repeated, my still-insectoid limbs twitching reflexively.

She grimaced, nodding curtly.

<It’s not always this bad,> I said. <And it doesn’t hurt, so there’s that.>

She nodded again, her gaze unwavering despite her obvious disgust.

<If she’s a Controller, she’s doing a good job of it,> I said privately, to Paul.

He didn’t answer.

We had discussed the possibility in his house, before leaving, and agreed it didn’t seem likely—even with a hundred Yeerks, they couldn’t cover the First Family and the White House staff and the Secret Service and all of the other people who came into contact with the President every day. The risk of discovery—especially if she had to carry a stunner or store spare Yeerks in stasis cylinders—was just too high.

Probably.

Which meant that—if we were lucky—the only thing we were up against right now was Murphy’s Law.

And if we were unlucky—

Well. It was my job to get her out of there, one way or another. We didn’t have Rictic blocking communications—I’d thought about texting him, but there was no safe way to get him into the building, even with holograms—so we’d have to rely on Paul to hold the door long enough for me to fold her into a morph, if things went south. As a snipe, I could make it back to his house in under ten minutes; he’d left the back door open and a bunch of zipties, duct tape, and rope on the kitchen counter. None of the windows in the Oval Office opened, of course, and they were all bulletproof, but the shredder should be able to make a hole easily enough.

Thankfully, though, it didn’t look like it was going to come to that.

I climbed to my feet as the last of the changes rippled across my body, leaving me fully human. Paul and President Tyagi were sitting in two of the chairs in front of the huge, ornate desk, and I settled into a third, dropping the bookbag at my feet.

“Um,” I said reflexively, before Paul cut me off with a thought-speak hiss.

Of course the room is bugged, he’d scoffed, hours earlier. You think they bug the Department of Homeland Security and NOT the White House?

Leaning forward, President Tyagi extended her hand.

I glanced at Paul, whose eyes narrowed as he shook his head microscopically no.

I swallowed. Looked back at the President, then back at Paul. Jerked my head, hoping he would figure it out, and explain.

<The acquiring process requires touch,> Paul reminded her. <Neither one of us will touch you without permission.>

President Tyagi rolled her eyes, reached for her pen and paper and scribbled a line of gibberish, which she flashed impatiently at Paul.

<She says you can shake her hand, and please—>

She snapped her wrist, flourishing the paper.

<She says you can shake her hand, dammit, and please do not acquire her.>

I swallowed again, leaning forward to grasp her hand with mine. She smiled, and I smiled back—weakly—letting go as quickly as I could without being rude.

More scribbling. Impatient, I began to morph into my armor so that I would be able to thought-speak again. <She’s a little miffed that neither one of us mentioned you were a teenager,> Paul continued, translating. <She says—>

He paused, reading carefully.

<She wants to know if you know anything about the—roadrunners? Am I reading that corr—>

“Yes,” she said aloud. She began writing at breakneck speed, twisting awkwardly in her chair so that Paul could read as she went along.

<She says there was an incident yesterday—in Ventura County—about twenty-five minutes prior to impact. Extremely strong winds—car windows breaking in a rolling shock wave—a couple of sonic booms. All heading away from the city—mostly northwest—along the coast. Described by eyewitnesses as being like the roadrunner in the cartoon. They were about to dispatch investigators when—well.>

I frowned. <What—> I began, my thought-speak returning as my morph passed the halfway mark. <No—um—apparent cause? They didn’t see anything?>

“No.”

Some kind of Yeerk vehicles, getting out before the meteor hit?

But the Yeerks didn’t have anything that fast, or they would have used it to run us down when we started probing their operational security.

Something new, maybe? Something they just developed?

President Tyagi cleared her throat, and I twitched. <Sorry,> I said hastily. <I was th—I don’t know. Not related to us. Maybe it was the Yeerks, removing material before impact?>

She nodded tightly, adding a few more nonsense words to the page.

<That’s her best guess at the moment, as well.> Paul waited as she continued to write. <She wants—can you give another run-down of the Yeerks’ known capabilities?>

<What do you mean?> I asked him in private thought-speak.

<Stats and tech,> he answered quietly. <She wants a summary she can give to the military.>

I took a deep breath. A lot of that had been covered in bits and pieces during my long, winding explanation, but—

<One capital ship, waiting behind the moon. That’ll have a pool with half a million Yeerks in it, and be about three thousand feet long, with room for maybe twenty thousand crew. It’s got about a dozen beam weapons that can hit targets on the ground from orbit, and it’s got a force field around it.>

I’d spent a lot of time in the woods talking things over with Ax and Garrett, and then Marco and I had gone over everything again before I left.

<Pool ships usually come with a squadron of thirteen—we call them ‘Bug fighters.’ About the size of a school bus, usually cloaked and shielded, capable of hovering and maneuvering in the atmosphere. Beam weapons, crew of four, can carry ten or so in a pinch.>

President Tyagi was taking notes without looking down at the page, her eyes locked onto mine.

<Um. That’s it, as far as spacecraft go, but there’s supposed to be twelve more pool ships on the way, maybe five months out. As for Yeerks on the ground—>

I bit my lip. <They carry stunners, communicators, tracking devices, and spare Yeerks. Some of them carry Dracon beams, which are basically blasters or phasers. They seem to move around in groups of three or more—or did, I dunno about the ones who are left. They generally take one person, and then that person takes everybody around them, like family members or coworkers or whatever. They only once did a major, hostile takeover—that was the high school—and they’ve also done sneaky stuff like use hospitals to infest large numbers of people one after the other. Once infested, the Yeerk has total control, and access to all of your knowledge and memories. We’re not clear on what actually happens in the pool, but they have at least partial ability to transfer knowledge around between them, so new discoveries spread pretty quick. We’ve seen three other species in their invasion group—Hork Bajir, which are basically like ninja dinosaurs, very tall and muscular with lots of blades—Taxxons, which are giant cannibal centipedes, pretty fragile but dangerous in large groups—Naharans, which are like big orange spiders and have a lot of engineering expertise.>

President Tyagi held up her pad, and Paul leaned forward, squinting. <How intelligent are they?> he asked. <How are they organized?>

<Um. We don’t know anything about how they’re organized, except that Visser Three is in charge. Ax says they’re like, plus fifteen IQ points intelligent? Like, they sort of hijack the host brain to do a lot of processing, and the Yeerk tissue adds a little bit on top of whatever’s already there. Out of the hosts they’ve got here on Earth, that makes humans the smartest except for the small number of Naharans. And Visser Three, of course. He’s—um—Ax estimated somewhere between two and four hundred, IQ. Alloran—his host—he was basically like the Einstein of this generation of Andalites, and Visser Three is—not like other Yeerks.>

More scribbling. <And your group?> Paul translated. <Numbers and resources?>

I hesitated. <Um,> I said. <I’m sorry, Madam President. But—>

Paul raised a hand as President Tyagi raised an eyebrow. <What he doesn’t know how to say, Madam President, is that you remain a potential enemy combatant until you’ve been cleared of infestation, and even then you pose a risk until you’ve been proofed against future infection.>

I grimaced. That was a charitable interpretation, to say the least—I wasn’t sure I wanted to give them details about the rest of the group under any circumstances, though I realized too late that Paul could simply lift them from his personal copy of my brain.

That’s assuming all of your info is still current. You don’t know what happened after Ellimist/Crayak/whatever-it-was sent you back.

At least he didn’t have access to any of that craziness—it wouldn’t have been encoded into long-term memory, yet. Silver linings.

In front of me, President Tyagi took in a long breath through her nose, leaning back in her chair, her fingers steepled in front of her face.

<It’s a reasonable—>

Paul broke off as she reached for her pad and pen again.

<How do you guard against infestation?> he read.

I reached into my backpack in answer, drew out a pair of the Andalite earplugs.

<These will protect you from the Yeerks,> I said. <It doesn’t stop them from getting in, but it kills them in the process.>

She stretched out a hand, and I passed the earplugs over to her. <They hurt, when you put them in. There’s some blood. But they’re basically undetectable after that.>

I’d brought all five-and-a-half pairs with me to Washington, rather than leaving a pair for Garrett, a decision I was starting to regret. I’d tried to offer two to Paul, but he’d refused, saying they should go to someone important—like the President—or to engineers who might be able to duplicate them, or to field agents.

Switching the earplugs to one hand, she scribbled another note and held up the pad.

<She wants to know whether they work on Yeerks coming out of the head, too.>

What—

Oh.

I shook my head. <Not enough proof,> I said. <Visser Three just killed something like ten thousand Yeerks for, like—just, you know, as a move. If—hypothetically speaking—you’re a Controller right now, I wouldn’t put it past you to pull a suicide mission just so you could get this information back to the rest of the invasion force.>

She tilted her head, her eyes asking the obvious question.

<There are two options,> I said carefully. <One is we keep you under total surveillance for three days. That includes bathroom breaks, that includes sleep time, that includes everything. You go nowhere, do nothing, without one of us watching, until seventy-two hours have passed.>

I could see from her expression that this option didn’t exactly appeal to her.

<The other is you let one of us acquire and morph you. In morph, we can check your memories of everything but the past twelve hours or so.>

It still wasn’t foolproof. It was conceivable—barely—that the Yeerks would’ve taken advantage of the confusion to capture her at some point within the past day. But given their level of risk aversion, this seemed less likely than average, not more. She’d been on TV at least four separate times since yesterday afternoon, and Paul said they’d tripled her protection detail, in case the Ventura impact had been part one of a multi-strike terror attack.

It was theoretically something they could have pulled off. But—as Marco would say—if the Yeerks were that on-the-ball, we were fucked anyway.

Not in control, never in control.

There was a battle going down on President Tyagi’s face, as she seemed to struggle with the implications of the two options. I’d initially expected her to reject both—to try to pull rank or make some other argument about being exempt from security concerns. But when we’d discussed it ahead of time, Paul—somewhat scornfully—had told me not to be an idiot, and not to think of them as idiots, either.

“There are protocols for this,” he’d reminded me. “For infiltration, subversion, the use of hypnosis or mind-altering drugs or doubles and look-alikes. Everyone’s aware of the risks, and everyone’s committed to taking steps to guard against them. If what we’re asking her to do makes sense, she’ll do it.”

She picked up her pad, wrote a single word.

<Clearance,> Paul said.

She nodded.

<Neither of us has it.>

She nodded again, looking each of us straight in the eye for a long moment.

<The choice is obvious,> Paul said flatly. <Forgive me, Madam President,> he added. <But I took an oath. I will abide by it absolutely.>

She tilted her head, seeming to weigh his words. The silence stretched out, longer than any other in the conversation so far. I wondered whether I should say something—couldn’t think of anything—decided to keep quiet.

After what felt like a full minute, she began writing once again, this time taking the time to jot down several long sentences. She showed them to Paul, then reached for a second, official-looking pad with a presidential seal at the top.

<She wants to know how much you told Jeremiah about the morphing power,> Paul said, sounding slightly confused. <Whether he knows you gave it to me, for instance.>

She handed the second pad to Paul, who read it and frowned. Craning my neck, I saw that it was in English, not in cipher: DHS J Poznanski to WH ASAP.

<Madam President, I’m not sure—>

“Do it,” she said, her tone brooking no argument.

Swallowing whatever objection he had been about to make, Paul rose to his feet and walked over to the door, handing the note to one of the aides waiting outside in the hall.

Beside me, President Tyagi cleared her throat again, and I turned to find her looking at me, expectant.

<Right,> I said. <I told him about the time limit. Told him that it was technology the Yeerks want, but don’t have. Um. He knows I can carry things in morph—saw me demorph holding a weapon. I don’t think I mentioned the acquiring process, or self-morphing. I didn’t tell him how many of us there were, or how the ability is transferred.>

Paul sat back down in his chair, and she pointed at him, as if to ask—

<No, he doesn’t know Paul can morph.>

Looking faintly triumphant, she bent over her pad again, writing the longest note so far. It took nearly two minutes, and when she handed it over to Paul, he read it through twice before responding.

<No,> he said, his tone equal parts shock and stubbornness. <Absolutely not.>

 

*        *        *

 

They’d argued for nearly half an hour—him telepathically, her with notes written in increasingly jagged and insistent handwriting. They’d paused only once, when an aide knocked at the door—I hid under the desk—to say that Jeremiah had arrived and was sitting in the antechamber.

<Have him wait,> Paul said tersely, and—after shooting him the sort of look teachers give to Marco—President Tyagi repeated the same instruction to the aide.

<Please, Madam President,> Paul had pleaded, after the door clicked shut again. <The amount of risk you’re assuming here is completely unacceptable—>

Death toll Ventura County ~600000, she’d scribbled, no longer bothering to take the time to translate into code. That’s 200 9/11 attacks. We have 5 months. I will not sit idly by.

<You have resources you can rely on,> he argued. <NSA. DHS. This is what the Secret Service is for—>

Compromised. Can’t wait. Next attack could already be incoming.

<Then leave Washington! Take the First Family and go to Camp David, or to Bastion, while we work things out on this end—>

If just leave, Yeerks will track. This way, don’t even know to look.

<If something happens to you—>

Then you’re backup.

Welcome to irrelevance, I’d thought to myself, as the pair of them glared and gestured and argued and generally acted like I wasn’t even in the room.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about it—wasn’t sure what I was feeling, what the pressure in my chest translated to, in words. It was to be expected, sort of—now that the grownups were getting involved, things were going to start moving faster. There would be decisions we had no say in, plans we had no control over—very soon, the message would spread, and we would be nothing but a very small cog in a very large war machine, special only because of our ability to turn into mice. If I kept recruiting on my own—and I should, right? Probably?—then soon enough even that wouldn’t matter.

But that was the point, wasn’t it? It’s not like any of you want this on your shoulders.

I definitely didn’t, anyway. And we were obviously better off if the whole resistance couldn’t be taken out by a single bomb.

At the same time, though, I didn’t like the way the two of them had already written me out of their argument. As if my opinion didn’t matter, as if whatever they decided was best was what was going to end up happening.

I mean, to be fair, it probably was. But that didn’t mean it felt good. If I’d been less honest with them—showed up as Elfangor, the way I had at the start of my conversation with Jeremiah—things would be going down differently.

Not in control, never in control.

Gods and asteroids. Might as well add presidents to the list.

After trying every protest and objection in his arsenal at least three times, Paul finally gave up. Tyagi was the Commander-in-Chief, after all—when push came to shove, that was the end of it.

Even when she was asking him to give up his life.

Patriotism, I thought, feeling almost jealous. Something to protect, something to die for. Garrett’s face swam up in my mind, and the pressure in my chest turned into an ache.

I looked down at the box cradled in my lap, its sides glowing a faint, otherworldly blue, the strange symbols traced in deep, liquid black.

Cheer up. You’re winning.

I looked up at President Tyagi, whose face was taut with nervous anticipation. Extending the cube, I nodded to Paul. I was out of morph, myself, as I had to be in my own, natural body to activate the device.

<Press your hand against the surface,> Paul instructed, and the President obeyed, her shoulders still as she held her breath.

I focused my mind in the way Elfangor had showed us, willing the box to recognize Tyagi, to transfer some part of itself into her. There was a hum, and a tingle, as if I’d stuck my hand into an electrical socket—

And then it was done. The glow faded, I nodded, and she pulled her hand away. Pulling open the bag, I stuffed the cube inside and zipped it shut.

There was a moment of silent expectation, in which the three of us all just sort of looked at each other, unsure what to say.

Paul spoke. <You’re sure that I can’t—>

No,” Tyagi said, her tone emphatic and final. She stuck out her hand, and Paul looked at it as if it were a snake.

“Now,” she said, her eyes narrowing.

His mouth a thin line, Paul reached forward, his pale hand clasping her smaller, darker one. They stared directly at one another for a long moment before both of their eyes fluttered shut in perfect synch.

Acquiring each other.

A few seconds passed, and then they each let go, their eyes drifting lazily open.

“Now,” President Tyagi repeated, her tone more gentle this time.

With a final, resigned nod, Paul stood. He began loosening his tie, as President Tyagi stepped behind the desk, unstrapping her shoes. I stayed seated, feeling awkward, trying not to look at either of them as I transformed into myself once again.

It took about ten minutes for Paul to complete his transformation—ninety seconds to demorph, ninety seconds to morph, and another seven or so minutes to don the President’s clothes. He tapped me on the shoulder when he was finished, and I opened my eyes to see his slight nod.

Not a Controller, then.

The real President Tyagi had a much longer wait, as her instantiation of the morphing tech performed its primary analysis, decomposing everything that was Paul Evans into a set of instructions for building a perfect copy. She went ahead and put on his clothes, the fabric loose and baggy, looking oddly ridiculous beneath her calm, serious face.

The plan was simple, for all that it was completely insane—Paul would stay in the White House in morph, as a decoy, using the President’s memories to guide his choices and decisions. In the meantime, she would travel around the country under the radar, looping in various parts of the military and other potential key players in the war to come. Should anything happen to the “President Tyagi” in Washington, she would have the option of coming out of hiding or of continuing to operate in secrecy, as the situation demanded.

Paul had pointed out that his time limit of eighty-five minutes might not be enough to maintain the deception, and Tyagi had shrugged.

Figure it out, she’d written. Or stay in morph permanently.

My jaw had dropped when I’d read those words, but Paul had simply nodded, his face a mask of grim resolve. I’d told them both about the coma, about the way Yeerk tissue would interfere with normal brain function, and they’d taken the information in stride.

<The papers,> Paul said suddenly. <Tobias—can you destroy them?>

I looked down, at the notes President Tyagi had written. <What—with the shredder?> I asked. <Isn’t that sort of—overkill? And it’s going to make a noise—>

He sighed, the expression still somehow very much his, even through the body of the small Indian woman. <The bag, then. Take them with you.>

I looked over to the real Tyagi, who nodded. Unshouldering my bookbag, I slipped the papers inside, remembering the spare shredder and the stasis cylinder as I did so.

<What about these?> I asked, pulling them out. <Do they go with one of you, or do I take them to Jeremiah?>

The two Tyagis looked at each other for a long moment, saying nothing. Eventually, the real one pointed to herself.

<I’ll explain to Jeremiah once you’re gone,> Paul said.

Detaching the charge canister, I handed it, the shredder, and the stasis cylinder to the President, then—almost as an afterthought—added the single extra earplug to the stack.

<It’s easiest to take stuff into your morph if it’s in a bag,> I advised. <Just visualize the whole bag getting sucked away along with the rest of your body, and the morphing tech will take care of it. If you have four separate things, you kind of have to focus on all four at once—much harder.>

She nodded, and we fell silent once more. After another long moment, she pointed at me, then at herself, and then shrugged, an open question written on her face.

I considered. It was funny—what with all of the risks, all of the what-ifs, all of the things that could have gone wrong, I actually hadn’t given any thought at all to what I’d do in this moment—what would happen if everything went off without a hitch.

On the one hand, we almost certainly wanted somebody to stay in touch with whatever resistance the military was putting together. On the other, not every adult would be as understanding as Paul and Tyagi had been, about the fact that I was refusing to give up the cube. The threat of a mental self-destruct would only go so far once I was surrounded by people who killed for a living—

Stop stalling and flip a goddamn coin, already.

I reached into the bag once more, pulled out the burner cell phone I’d bought for keeping in touch with Rictic. <Take this, too,> I said. <It’s only got one number programmed in; that’s the other phone. I’m going to head back to Ventura, try to reconnect with the rest of my group.>

A shadow flickered across Tyagi’s face, and I made a mental note to set up a less traceable line of communication at the first available opportunity.

Am I being an idiot? I wondered, as she reached out to take the phone. Was there some obvious move that Marco would see, that I couldn’t?

I’d “secured” the President—better than, considering how impossible it all had seemed just twenty-four hours ago. Paul Evans was loyal and competent, and his access to Tyagi’s memories would make him a perfect decoy. And Tyagi herself was now Yeerk-proof and morph-capable.

Should I just go with her? It was maybe ridiculous to assume that I could protect her—once clear of Washington, she was overwhelmingly unlikely to run into any Controllers, and in her guise as Paul Evans, she was a fully capable government agent, complete with a gun, ID, and top-secret clearance.

But it might be worth it to stay more closely in touch. I could simply hide the cube and follow along. It might even be easier to find the others, once I had government resources at my disposal—

And then the military will know where they are, too.

I frowned. We were all on the same team—weren’t we?

Except that you’re holding back valuable technology. You’re keeping secrets about the Chee and the Ellimist. And let’s not forget that there’s a pretty convincing argument to be made that it’s our fault Ventura County got turned to dust.

Oh, come on, no one in their right mind would—

As if. They’ll be all over it—reckless children, can’t be allowed to run loose, look what happened last time they acted unilaterally, instead of passing along their intelligence to the proper authorities—

I shifted slightly, looking back and forth between Tyagi and Tyagi Prime, now wondering if I was being a little too paranoid.

It only takes one, the voice in the back of my head pointed out. One mistake, one traitor, one honest difference of opinion from somebody who thinks they know best, thinks they’re in control. And there’s only one blue box. If you go with them, and something happens, that’s it—no do-overs.

And there was still that bit about Jake, Marco, and Cassie being somehow astronomically important, and me along with them.

And there was Garrett. Garrett, who I’d last seen an inch away from death, whose uncertain fate was gnawing away at the back of my mind. Garrett, who I hadn’t been there to protect.

Your decisions, your fate.

I could feel my uncertainty waning—not because I was confident in what I was doing, but because I knew there wasn’t ever going to be a clear answer.

Sometimes, things just happen.

I stood, drawing the other shredder out of the bag as I began to demorph back into my true body. <Okay,> I broadcast. <I guess that’s it for now, then.>

The two Tyagis looked at one another, then back at me.

“Yes,” said the real one.

<Stay safe,> said Paul, a look of concern on his borrowed face. <And Tobias—>

<Yeah?>

<Thank you. You—these last few weeks can’t have been easy.> He looked over at the President, who seemed to listen for a moment, and then nodded gravely. <Your country appreciates what you’ve done.>

I swallowed, not sure how to respond.

I finished demorphing in silence, stepped over to the door, and focused on the fly.

And then, feeling anticlimactic, I left.

 

*        *        *

 

I was so lost in thought on my way back to Jeremiah Poznanski’s house that I almost didn’t notice the telltale shimmer in the air until it was too late.

Bug fighter!

Banking sharply, I broke off my approach and darted into the boughs of a nearby oak, waiting to see if they would fire, wishing I’d chosen the snipe’s diminutive form instead of the larger red-tailed hawk. Three seconds—five—ten—

Safe.

What—

The ship was hovering, motionless, above and slightly in front of the house.

Directly over the front steps.

Tractor beam.

Did Bug fighters have tractor beams? I had no idea.

How can you have no idea? What—you just FORGOT to ask?

I flitted across a small patch of sky to another tree, farther away, feeling the hawk’s heart pounding in my chest. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a panicked voice had started up—get away get away get away get away—while another one simply laughed.

There was no way. No way. It was impossible, a coincidence so extraordinary it defied belief.

A way to track morphing?

Rachel said the Chee could do it—that they could somehow see the link between our construct brain and our real bodies off in Z-space. But if the Yeerks had learned how to do the same, they wouldn’t just be waiting for me—

Jeremiah. He was a Controller after all, or—or he talked, told his colleagues, somebody told the wrong person and they figured it out—

No. Without any conscious input from me, another hypothesis emerged, clicking irresistibly into place.

The bugs. The bugs in the Oval Office.

We’d been quiet, in case they were recording—had said almost nothing out loud, doing half the talking on paper and the other half in thought-speak.

But what if they didn’t care what we were saying? What if they were only checking whether or not we were saying anything at all?

If there was ever a day for the Yeerks to keep a close eye on the President, it was today. If they had someone down in the security center—

and of course they would, it’s obvious, so much less risky than having someone there in person, it might not even be a Controller, just a data tap—

—then they would know that a Secret Service agent had walked into the Oval Office without an appointment and insisted on seeing the President, alone—had held an almost entirely silent conversation lasting nearly two hours.

And in all that time, the only bit of data that had emerged from the room was a personal summons—Jeremiah Poznanski, of the Department of Homeland Security, was to make his way to the White House as fast as he possibly could.

It was just strange enough to stand out—just enough of a departure from the norm to make them curious, make them nervous, make them want to look closer, to confirm that their cover hadn’t been blown. They couldn’t take him in public, maybe hadn’t even put two and two together until he’d already arrived—

—right? Oh, please, let them not have taken him already—

—but sending a Bug fighter to camp out over his house, that was easy, that made sense, they could nab him as soon as he got home, take him and infest him and find out everything he knew—

They weren’t everywhere. They were just everywhere that mattered.

What was I going to do? Rictic—Rictic was shadowing Jeremiah, could possibly protect him or at the very least report on what happened to him. But I’d given up my phone, would have to break into a house somewhere to call him, and who even had landlines anymore—

Breathe, Tobias!

If they already had him—

If they already had him, then they already had—

Not the President. She would have waited, would not have let Jeremiah in until she’d managed to morph into Paul. She would have stayed, and it would have been two against one, even with the element of surprise Jeremiah couldn’t have taken them both out, he wouldn’t have been able to bring a weapon in past security—

Or she would have left already, and Paul would have faced him alone, disguised—

If they already have him, then they know we’re trying to spread the word. They know we’re telling people, that we’re building up a resistance, and they’re going to blow every major city and every military installation to hell—

If they already had him, then I needed to get out of Washington ten minutes ago.

But they didn’t have him. They couldn’t, it was too fast, there were only thirty of them—fifty at the most—it wasn’t like back home, they weren’t everywhere, and besides, the Bug fighter—

The Bug fighter—

—didn’t make sense, if they already had him.

Right?

That’s right, go ahead and think it through, because everything always makes fucking sense, doesn’t it, just take it one step at a time and it’ll all come together, nothing’s ever just random and crazy and batshit insane, you’re in control, you’re on top of things, clever boy with clever answers, Sherlock that shit—

I darted away again—a third tree, then a fourth—fighting to pull my thoughts under control as I put distance between myself and the hovering ship. At maybe a third of a mile, I stopped, peering back across the treetops at the near-invisible menace.

shapeshifting, bodysnatchers, mind melds, teleportation, time powers, what’s next, maybe Visser Three’s going to show up with laser vision or telekinesis—

Somewhere, off in Z-space, my real body was gritting its teeth as I forced—focused—muffled the unhinged babble through sheer willpower and kicked my thoughts into gear.

All right. Bug fighter. Lying in wait.

Options.

I could wait and watch. Could go back to the White House, try to find Jeremiah or Paul or President Tyagi or Rictic.

I could leave.

—who do the right thing—

I could—

I froze.

No.

Oh, no, no, no, no, no—

I felt the laughter bubbling up again, felt it threatening to overwhelm me. It was too much, too perfect, too orchestrated. Like the whale, like Jake’s extra life, like the fact that Garrett had just happened to be a heartbeat away from death when whatever-the-fuck-it-was decided to show up and start playing God—

Jeremiah Poznanski’s son was walking down the street.

He was half a mile away, on the far side of the house, well beyond the range of thought-speak but perfectly recognizable in my enhanced bird-of-prey vision. He was on foot on the sidewalk in the middle of the day—on his way home in the middle of a school day, the last person I would have expected and very nearly the worst I could imagine.

maneuvered into place by those you might call God—

They would take him. They would take him, and then he would take his father, and that would be enough for Visser Three. They would give up on secrecy, and the bombs would start to fall. It was happening right here—right now, in front of me, the beginning of the end.

Unless.

I felt my heart beat even faster, the tiny organ thudding until it seemed like it was going to explode out of my feathered chest.

Can’t do a flyby. He’s too close—they’ll see you, shoot you out of the sky.

I would have to switch morphs. Have to pick something that could get close, something that could get inside, could do some damage—

Obvious.

I dropped out of the tree like a stone, already demorphing before I even reached the ground. There was no one in sight, and I didn’t bother to hide—just changed shape right there on the sidewalk, my real body swelling upward from the hawk’s slender frame.

The clothes wouldn’t be right, but that shouldn’t matter. The real question was what I should do with the bookbag—should I bring it with me, or hide it, and come back for it?

There was a crawlspace in one of the houses just a few feet away, its white wooden door latched but unlocked.

Your decisions, your fate.

Still half-hawk, I waddled over, the bookbag puffing outward between my shoulder blades like Quasimodo’s hump. Eventually, it came loose, and I pulled it off my back, tossing it as far beneath the house as I could. Then I turned my attention to the shredder in my left hand, spinning the dial to maximum power.

Here goes nothing.

Pulling the crawlspace door shut, I stepped away from the house, focusing on the memory of Jeremiah Poznanski. I kept my clothes outside of the morph, but took the shredder in, feeling it shrink and melt as my fingers thickened around it.

Leaning around the corner, I squinted down the sidewalk, my vision blurring and fading as the change progressed. It had been maybe two minutes, and the boy had been three minutes away from the house. He should have been visible on the sidewalk.

Instead, there was no one.

Good, I thought, as my shoes tightened and my body aged. That meant they’d taken him on board, were infesting him in the air rather than trying to do it in public.

They would do the same to me.

I began to walk, the last of the changes sliding into place, wearing the face of their target as I strode toward the house.

They would see me.

They would see me, and they would recognize me, and they would take me.

—what needs to be done.

I felt the jerk when I was a hundred yards away from the front door, felt the sidewalk vanish out from under my feet as I was yanked upwards by my hair, my skin. I passed within the cloaking field, caught a glimpse of the brown metal of the Bug fighter as I hurtled toward the hatch—

There was a sound, a flash of light, and my whole body went numb and limp. The tractor beam guided me into a small hold and released me, where I fell bonelessly into a heap on the cold deck, face down, my forehead hitting the metal with a painful crack.

Haff Yeerk,” shouted a voice, guttural and harsh. “Ghotal!”

Another voice grunted in answer, and a shadow loomed over me, a nightmare of ivory blades and green, porous skin. A thick, clawed hand grabbed my shoulder, rolling me over, and with a snap and a hiss, a cylinder was pressed to my ear.

Wait for it.

Warmth. Wetness. A slithering, probing tendril, like a tongue.

Pushing.

Pushing.

The hulking Hork-Bajir pivoted and left, its footsteps vibrating the plates beneath me. Somewhere behind me, I heard the whir of pistons, and the heavy stillness that meant a door had just closed, sealing me inside.

Wait for it.

There was pain in my ear—pain worse than anything I’d ever felt, like needles of fire threading toward my brain. I wanted to scream, but the bridge between my mind and my body had been broken by the stunner, and instead I just lay there, motionless, not daring to think more than thirty seconds into the future.

Just wait.

The needle thickened, widened—stretched something that shouldn’t be stretched—became a pipe, a funnel, a conduit through which the rest of the Yeerk’s body could slide into my skull. Something connected, and I felt a presence, as if someone were standing just behind me, their breath tickling the hairs on the back of my neck.

Now.

I began to demorph, the changes sliding across my body like magic, numbed nerves disappearing one by one, replaced by tingling aliveness. I shrank, lightened, felt my tired adult joints tightening as my vision returned to normal.

For a moment, the Yeerk seized full control of my still-morphed brain—tried to shout a warning, to beg, to scream. But the parts of the body it had access to were still inactive, and I was the sole witness to its panic as the universe dissolved around it.

They would notice, eventually. Would hear the grinding of bones, see the thinning of my limbs and the thickening of my hair, catch the shifting of my clothes as the body underneath them changed shape. I might have twenty seconds, or I might have none.

It was a race—against time, against fate. I had rolled the dice—had finally, finally accepted that I wasn’t in control, and shouldn’t act like it. I was going to die, or I was going to live, and there was no sense in making predictions.

Come on, I whispered to myself, oddly calm as I willed the shredder to emerge from my palm. Faster.

Hrutnoj?”

I remained motionless, except for the shifting of my half-morphed flesh.

“Lamol! Rhapak mit ghotalandalite—”

It happened as if in slow motion—the vibration of the deck as the Hork-Bajir approached, the swelling of my palm as the shredder returned from Z-space, the shift in temperature as I rolled over, one shoulder pressing against the cold metal while the other rose into the air. I saw the alien approaching, saw it falter as I raised the gun, saw its beaked mouth open wide with alarm.

I fired.

The blast passed straight through the alien’s head, punching a hole through the ceiling, revealing the clear blue sky beyond. The alien fell without a sound, its blades shrieking as they scraped across the deck.

Ghotu buk!”

I heard movement behind me, felt another tremor in the floor, and spun. The second Hork-Bajir was only a few feet away, framed in a doorway, its own Dracon beam already tracking toward my face—

I fired again.

This time, the ship itself began to shake, the floor bucking as the shredder’s beam burned through some amount of important machinery. An alarm began to whine, and the floor suddenly tilted, sending me sliding toward the body of the second alien as it collapsed.

A blazing bar of light filled my vision—a near miss from another Dracon beam. Blind, blinking, I slashed my own weapon in a wild arc, holding down the trigger. I heard a shriek of metal, the fizzling snap of broken electronics—

And then suddenly the world fell apart. A howling wind filled the hangar as gravity dropped to zero, the whole ship plummeting downward as it split into two pieces. There was a split second where I thought I might scream, and then—

CRUNCH.

I slammed into the deck a millisecond later, letting out a strangled whoof as every last ounce of air was knocked out of my body. My head collided with the floor for a second time, and I felt an icy pain in my right arm, just below the elbow.

I must have passed out, or at least blacked out, because I felt myself coming to—whether minutes later, or only seconds, I couldn’t say. Everything hurt, from the top of my skull all the way down to the bones of my feet, and it felt like I couldn’t fill my lungs with air no matter how hard I tried.

Someone was screaming—a long, sustained sound like an animal, coming from what I thought might be the remains of the front of the ship. Dizzy, gasping, I reached up to try to pull myself to my feet, only to see the world in front of me turn suddenly, bafflingly red.

I looked down. Everything was wet and dripping.

Wait—

It was like trying to swim through molasses. I wasn’t thinking clearly, could tell I wasn’t thinking clearly, knew on some level that something was very wrong but couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

You’re in shock.

Words. I knew what they meant, but they didn’t seem to mean anything. My brain felt thick, stuffed, dull.

Get up.

I tried to rise again, was treated once more to a splash of red, this time accompanied by a wave of dizziness that threatened to squeeze the world around me into a long, dark tunnel.

Oh.

I looked down at my left hand, still gripping the shredder.

I looked down at my right, confusingly absent.

Left—there.

Right—

Where?

Your hand, a voice was saying—almost pleading, as if terrified I wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t notice. The ship crashed and you lost your hand and you’re bleeding, you’ve got to do something or you’ll bleed out.

Bleed out.

Out.

I looked down at my left hand again.

The one holding the shredder.

Yes! The shredder. That will work.

Frowning, I turned the shredder toward the stump where my hand was supposed to be, put my finger on the trigger—

No. Something was wrong.

Something—

Ah.

Lifting my finger off the trigger, I pushed on the dial on the side of the weapon, spun it until it was only a few notches higher than the lowest setting.

Right?

There was no answer, so I shrugged—fighting another wave of dizziness—and fired.

The pain was like a splash of cold water in the face, causing me to sober up almost instantly, half the cotton in my brain burning away as the laser beam cauterized the wound.

“AAAHHHHHHHHHHH!” I bellowed, the air ripping past my vocal cords, leaving me hoarse.

My hand! My hand, oh, God, what happened—

There was barely any warning. Just one quiet sound, the rattle of some small object tumbling across a slanted floor. Deep within my primate brain, some danger sense fired, and I threw myself sideways just as I heard the sound of a Dracon beam.

TSEWWWWW!

I hit the deck elbow first, the impact shivering up my arm and causing a terrifying pop in my shoulder. Biting back a shriek, I rolled, staying low as another beam flashed over my head.

Four. They usually have a crew of four.

The scream I’d heard coming from the front of the ship was still going. That meant the Controller shooting at me was the last of them. Or it wasn’t, and I was just dead.

I threw myself behind a twisted, shattered bulkhead, feeling a wave of heat wash across my face as another beam splashed off the metal just a few inches away, turning it a dull, angry red. Lifting my arm, I squeezed the trigger and swept the gun back and forth in a Z, praying—

There was a strangled shriek—a clatter—a dull thump—

Silence.

Not total—whoever was screaming up at the front of the ship showed no sign of stopping. But when I stuck my arm out from around the bulkhead, there was no response, and after a moment I stood, swaying dizzily as I balanced on the uneven floor.

It was a scene of total destruction. The Bug fighter had come down directly on top of the house, one piece demolishing the garage while the other smashed straight through the second story and came to rest at ground level. All around me was shattered glass, splintered timber, chalky dust. There was one Hork-Bajir body near me, drenched in blood—my blood. The other—the one without a head—was nowhere to be seen.

And in front of me, lying slumped next to a handheld Dracon beam—

I couldn’t help it. I turned and threw up, heaving and heaving until there was nothing left inside of me. When I was finished, I staggered over to one side, giving the human body a wide berth.

I was about to start climbing out of the wreckage when I caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye—a slow, rhythmic shifting of a thick, metal plate. Fighting back another wave of dizziness, I picked my way past the ruins of another console and looked down.

It was Jeremiah’s son, pinned beneath the sheet of metal but otherwise unhurt. His arms and hands were free, and he was rocking the plate back and forth, trying to tip it up high enough to wriggle out.

“Stop,” I said, and then coughed, my throat ragged and sore. “Wait. I can help.”

He paused, his head jerking toward me, his eyes narrowing. There was something wrong with his face—

Ah. Right.

He was too calm.

Controlled.

“I’m stuck,” he said, his voice flat and emotionless. “I think if you lever it up this way—”

“Shut up,” I said, spinning the dial on the side of the shredder again, setting the weapon to stun.

“Wait! I can—”

TSEWWWWW!

He fell silent, slumping back against the plate.

I tried to think, dimly aware of the fact that I was impaired, that I was in shock, possibly concussed, was probably at that moment dumber than a third grader.

There was no way to hide the wreckage of an entire Bug fighter. Visser Three might have managed it back in my hometown, where he’d controlled the police and the firefighters and the news, but this was Washington D.C., and there were at most thirty Controllers within a hundred miles. I could already hear the sirens winging their way toward me, could hear voices nearby.

I noticed that the screaming at the front of the ship had stopped.

All right. No hiding it. Now what?

I looked around. There was nothing obviously valuable to grab—no visible weapons, no clearly useful technology. Just a whole lot of dusty metal, interspersed with the remains of Jeremiah’s house.

Pretend to be Elfangor?

Pretend to be Jeremiah?

Grab the cube and get clear?

I took a deep breath, the darkness clouding the edges of my vision again. I’d lost a lot of blood. I needed to get to a hospital. Would the blood loss hurt my thinking while I was in morph?

It’s hurting your thinking now. You need to get moving before somebody tries to talk to you.

I took a step, and then paused.

The kid.

I looked at the prone body of Jeremiah’s son. I could get the plate off him, even with one hand—there was a broken pipe blocking the way, a pipe he hadn’t been able to see, but if I moved it, the sheet of metal should just tip up and fall away.

He was a Controller, now. The only one left alive, if the screamer up front had died of whatever started it screaming in the first place. They’d take him, imprison him, study him, interrogate him.

Or worse—if they didn’t believe Jeremiah, or if one of the other Controllers got to him, first—

What?

I didn’t know. My thoughts were still sluggish, my brain still fuzzy. But it seemed—

Bad.

I shook my head, immediately regretting the decision as pain spiderwebbed across my skull, sparking another wave of nausea.

What was the kid’s name?

I should know. It was embarrassing, that I didn’t know. I’d been his father not five minutes ago.

Pull it together, Tobias. You need to get OUT of here. Now.

But the kid—

David. That was his name.

I raised my head and listened. The sirens were closer, but still distant, the voices still circling outside of what was left of the house’s outer wall. I had maybe a minute left. Maybe two.

I’d learned—something. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it had to do with situations like this, decisions like this. I was supposed to be careful. Or I was supposed to stop being careful. One of those. I was pretty sure. Something about—

Control.

Not in control, never in control.

I looked down at the kid. He looked absolutely nothing like Garrett.

God dammit, Tobias, MOVE.

I crouched, put my hand on his shoulder, and began to morph.

Chapter Text

[A SENSE OF LONGING, OF LACKING—AN EYE SWIVELS BACKWARD, AND A HAND GRASPS AT EMPTINESS…]

 

There are countless activities which humans engage in, which Andalites do not. The constant encryption of thought and meaning into sounds and symbols. The hedonistic, indulgent consumption of sensory-intensive nutrients. The resolution of interpersonal conflict through overt violence, subtle violence, and the implied threat of violence, rather than simple communication—

(—presumably because the encryption makes communication so difficult.)

I had been present among the aliens of Earth for only a short time, and had seen much to disturb and confuse me. But the most disturbing and confusing—by far—was the human need for sleep.

Andalites make use of stasis technology, of course—when spaceflight presents stresses our bodies cannot handle, or for urgent medical interventions. But there is no cessation of consciousness, during stasis—only suspension. The thought that begins as the field activates ends as it withdraws, and you remain constant. To be truly unconscious—to cease to think—to have your mind, your identity, your very self disconnected from the universe—to awaken with no knowledge of what has passed in the interim, having been vulnerable to all manner of intrusions and not even aware enough to notice them—perhaps to wake up different

It is abhorrent, and unnerving, and—thankfully—vanishingly rare. For every one Andalite who experiences it, there are twenty-four thousand others who do not. And most of those only experience it once, as the result of some trauma or accident.

Of those who experience it twice, nearly all are warriors.

I came awake slowly—agonizingly—fighting back waves of pain from the burns covering most of my left side. My thoughts felt loose and strange, the same strangeness that had been growing for weeks—

(—Garrett had taught me the word, a short handle for a unit of seven cycles, and I was both pleased and intrigued by the incongruous one-off abandonment of the usual human fascination with base ten—)

—suddenly magnified sevenfold. It was as though my mind were a sieve, and slivers of thought were leaking out, streaming off into the empty, echoing eib. I opened my stalks and—

Something was wrong.

(Something was wrong.)

((Something was wrong.))

(((Something was wrong.)))

I was on a hillside. A mountainside, really—surrounded by dirt and rocks and thick, gnarled shrubbery. I was outside, beneath the wide blue dome of the sky, though my inner sense of time told me that not even the forty-ninth part of a cycle had passed since I lost consciousness—

(Could I trust my time sense, after falling unconscious?)

I reached out to the idling cradle with my mind, felt its computer respond—

Impossible.

(Impossible.)

((Impossible.))

(((Impossible.)))

My time-sense was unimpaired, and yet I was over a cycle’s walk from the epicenter, in the mountains to the northwest of the city—almost beyond the mountains, in a position even a spacecraft would have been hard-pressed to reach without causing detectable disturbances in the atmosphere—

(Hypothesis: the others hijacked a Bug fighter during the escape—)

((Hypothesis: you are dying, and insensible.))

Moving gingerly, I pushed myself up to a standing position, staying water-run instead of tree-stretch, using my hands for support and keeping my ground eyes down. I felt a gentle pressure on my right shoulder, and twisted my stalks to see the hand of the alien Garrett resting in my fur. He said nothing, with words or mind—only looked at me with what I thought was concern, or perhaps confusion, or maybe just simple acknowledgement.

Beyond him, the human Rachel sat curled on the uneven ground, her knees drawn to her chest, her face hidden. She, too, was silent.

(Silent.)

((Silent.))

(((Silent.)))

Something is wrong.

I do not think in words, do not compress my experience into modular, well-defined fragments. For me, silent is a feeling, a handful of memories—as when I climbed the hill behind my family’s scoop before a storm, looked out across the world and heard nothing with ears or eib—and unnerving as the bizarre echoing in my head was, it was somehow much worse when the thing echoing was silence. It dragged my attention—unwillingly—back to the eib, to the deep, abysmal emptiness that surrounded me, as if I had cut off my stalks, leaving only my ground eyes—

Enough.

(Enough.)

((Enough.))

(((Enough.)))

I forced my attention outward, feeling a twinge of unease as I noticed—far later than I should have—that it was not, in fact, silent. Uphill, five figures stood in a tight clump, filling the air with their empty, maddening stick-speak, voices raised in anger and argument. Shaking the fugue from my thoughts, I matched stick-sounds to the face-sights in the humans’ pale imitation of names—Jake and Marco, gesticulating wildly; Jake’s brother—

(WHAT)

—and Marco’s father—

(WHAT)

—standing unnaturally still; the human hologram of Erek the Chee—

(WHAT)

—planted between them like a tree.

(Threat assessment—)

((If you kill them, Jake and Marco will react poorly—))

(((Erek may not permit you to kill them—)))

(Hypothesis: it was Erek who transported us to this location—)

((Counterpoint—Erek could not have been present at the Yeerk pool without being forced by his programming into courses of action which are inconsistent with his presence here—))

Aximili—›

My un-brother’s un-voice, interrupting the chorus of speculation with a whisper that was louder than all of them.

‹Please, Aximili, you must—›

I thrust it aside, silencing it along with the rest through an act of will, plunging myself into the present, into external reality. Orient, I commanded myself, ignoring the echoes of the thought as they skittered back and forth inside my head. Wherever this was—whatever was happening—the battle was not yet over. Tom Berenson and Peter Levy were Controllers, and the android Erek was a dangerous unknown; none of them should have been there, least of all Jake and Marco, and given that they were, Cassie should have been with them—

Orient.

The feel of the alien’s hand on my shoulder. The pain of my burns, and the weakness that radiated from them, layered atop the cumulative exhaustion of long cycles without rest. The babble of stick-speak, which a part of me wearily moved to translate—

(—at least the situation does not seem to be critical, if they are merely shouting—)

BLINDING

Without warning, the world turned white around me, a searing light that peaked within a hoofbeat before halving and halving again, dropping precipitously through blue and yellow and leveling off in a deep and fiery red.

What—

(What—)

((What—))

(((What—)))

There was a heart-stopping jerk, and suddenly I was surrounded by flesh, pressed painfully against the bodies of the others, Jake and Rachel and Garrett and Marco and Tom and Peter—

(Danger—the Controllers—)

—and even as I tried to move, tensed the muscles in my tail and found them bound in place, the world around us began to burn.

“Jesus fucking—”

“Erek, what—”

“Cassie!”

“AAAAAAAAAAHHHH—”

Their stick-speak washed over me, a jumble of noises, worse than useless. Though the rest of my body remained motionless, as if stuck in thick mud, my stalks were free to swivel, and I noted details in the manner of a cadet under examination.

Erek the Chee was holding the seven of us together with one of his force fields, keeping us packed close and tight around his angular, mechanical body. I could see the faint traces of energy exchange at the boundaries of the bubble, the shimmering distortion as the field absorbed and dissipated heat, leaving us cool while the vegetation around us withered and ignited.

(Flames on only the oldest, driest plants. Stone and sand unaffected, no glowing or melting. Upper bound on temperature—)

((This is indirect heat, the mountain stands between us and the source—))

(((—the source—)))

The source.

Berating myself, I turned toward the peak of the mountain, where the glow was brightest, casting the peak into crisp, dark silhouette.

The mountain also stood between us and the city. Between us and the pool.

I turned my eyes skyward again, this time searching for the telltale signs of radioactive fallout.

‹Aximili—›

None. It was blackbody radiation.

(Chemical explosives?)

Aximili, please—›

Beneath me, the ground suddenly heaved, a rolling tremble only partially dampened by the android’s absorption field. Immediately, a part of my mind began tracking backwards, converting the delay between the flash and the tremor into an estimate of distance, confirming the obvious. I cobbled the numbers together, double-checked the orders of magnitude on the estimate, and felt my tail go slack within its confinement as my brain held up its hypothesis.

This much heat, from that far away, without fission or fusion—

(An asteroid strike?)

Beside me, the two Controllers began to wail—a ragged, animal sound, devoid of all intelligence, all restraint. It rose, and rose, until Garrett started keening and Jake and Marco began trying to shout over it—

—a part of me noted that the noise only made the eib seem quieter, as if I had gone deaf in one ear, the contrast drawing my attention once more to the claustrophobic silence—

—while fluid began to drip from the eyes of Rachel in the way that Tobias had explained meant sadness, or anger, or sometimes both—

Prioritize.

I turned my stalks to look at Erek, the robot’s true shape now visible, its disguise abandoned as it poured all of its resources into holding us apart from the heat.

(Interesting. Probable upper bound on Chee energy output—extremely efficient relative to size but not so impressive in absolute terms—)

A pair of moveable parts near the top of the android’s body swiveled in response, sliding to the side closest to me. It said nothing, did nothing, only gave the seeming of a stare.

It seized us almost instantly, after the light but before the heat. Prior probability favors quick processing speed as the explanation, but—

I looked around again at the inferno unfolding, the unfamiliar forest, impossibly far from the corridor where I had lost consciousness in the middle of a battle.

It knew.

(It knew.)

((It knew.))

(((It knew.)))

They all knew, somehow—while I had been unconscious, they had somehow been primed to expect this, had met it with high emotion rather than raw confusion. There was an explanation, and that explanation included awareness that an asteroid strike was imminent.

(Sensors belonging to the Chee?)

((Intelligence gathered during the battle? Tom and Peter defecting with a warning?))

(((A causal relationship?)))

With another twinge of unease, I noticed that I had not taken the obvious step of simply asking—that I was delaying, hesitating, atypically reluctant to speak even after accounting for the distress the humans were experiencing. I searched for the root of the feeling, tried to trace it back to its source and found naught but flimsy excuses—that this was a tense, emotional moment—

(Emotion is secondary to strategy; hesitation is the enemy of adaptation—)

—that humans did not respond well to mental interruption—

(Neither Marco nor Garrett was particularly vulnerable in this way—)

—that I was exhausted, drained both mentally and physically—

(Tired enough to die without a fight, cadet?)

The true nature of the inhibition eluded me, avoiding my attempts to see it, to name it. I knew that I should speak up—that ordinarily I would speak up—and yet I did not want to. Not enough to muster the necessary energy.

‹Aximili, this is a dangerous sign—›

I ignored the voice. Elfangor was gone—had tricked me, left me, and died. His ghost had no claim on my attention, and I no longer desired his counsel.

(Aximili, this is a dangerous sign—)

Instead, I simply waited, and listened—as the fires burned out and a hail of rock and dust began to fall, as the shock wave passed through and whipped around the sides of the mountain, as the android relaxed his force field and we moved awkwardly apart, the Controllers remaining within their invisible restraints. Eventually, the howling ceased and sensible thoughts began to be exchanged; with an effort, I forced myself to pay attention, to translate their stick-speak into something resembling true language, and as I did, I felt my hooves close in horror.

There had been an encounter.

Time had stopped, and a creature had emerged from nothingness.

It had shown them visions—given them a choice—granted them a favor. Had snatched us from the flow of time and assembled us on the mountaintop.

The Ellimist.

(The Ellimist.)

((The Ellimist.))

(((The Ellimist.)))

The humans did not know—Erek could not have guessed—even now, they did not fully understand. I could hear it in their voices, as they struggled to make sense of it, to regain their balance. As they began to make plans, optimistic in their ignorance, unable or unwilling to grasp the larger truth which was unfolding, which had already ensnared us all.

I struggled to find the words, to break the thoughts into pieces which their alien minds could understand. I danced across a lifetime of memories, of stories, searching for examples that would translate, would resonate, that would convey to them the degree to which the game had irrevocably changed. But I found nothing.

They did not know.

(They did not know.)

((They did not know.))

(((They did not know.)))

 

*        *        *

 

(Hypothesis: it is caused by malnutrition, a reaction to the strange qualities of native proteins and carbohydrates.)

((—my nervous apprehension mounted as Artash-Enasi-Derumoi dipped a hoof into the water, scraping it across the strange lichen covering the riverbed. If it really was Ellimist’s Fur—))

I looked out across the valley, at the sparkling lights of the small settlement below, unusually dim and subdued with all the dust in the air. Above, the sky was the deepest red, a shade lighter than black, reflecting the fires that still raged over the horizon. The air was heavy and quiet, each sound somehow isolated, as if the world were divided into compartments.

We had traveled a distance the humans reckoned as forty miles, carrying Tom and Peter inside of our morphs while Erek kept pace on the ground below. We had been unable to agree on a purpose or destination, and had settled for simply getting out of the dead zone unnoticed before hunger set in. The second we had landed and demorphed, the arguments had begun again.

(Hypothesis: it is an illness brought on by exposure to harmful microorganisms in the Earth environment.)

((—had kept the sphere with me for an entire revolution, as the black goo was consumed by blue-green cyanobacteria which were consumed in turn, until finally, just after my name day, I awoke to see movement, the wriggling of tiny creatures large enough to be visible without magnification—))

The humans were not doing well.

I could see it, with my stalks—even as a merely proto-social species, their connections with one another were of supreme importance. I remembered all too clearly how I had felt upon hearing the final confirmation of my brother’s death, and these humans had lost more—much more—and did not have the dain for comfort.

(—there is something of the dain in the morphing power—)

((—comfort—))

(((—power—)))

With my ground eyes, though, I could see only folly. Hypocrisy. Immaturity. They were not simply mourning—they were horrified. Shocked. Resentful, as if they had been betrayed, as if it had not been open warfare with lines clearly drawn.

I did not understand. Had they expected no retaliation, of any kind, when they struck at the heart of the Yeerk infestation? Was it so unthinkable, that the Visser might visit upon them a vengeance that was—in all honesty—fitting?

Could they truly have failed to understand what they were doing until it was done to them in turn?

(Hypothesis: it is a reaction to the sensory deprivation experienced within the nested morph.)

((Counterpoint: it began long before that, and was not meaningfully intensified during the assault on the pool.))

(Obvious response: it was meaningfully intensified, but the stress of the situation made it less noticeable. Or it is a response to the unconsciousness, instead.)

((Objection: there is no known precedent for unconsciousness causing anything like these effects.))

(Particular trauma to specific sections of the brain—)

There had been words, and words, and more words. Words surrounding Cassie and her fate. Words regarding Visser Three and his plans. Words about food, and shelter, and plans for the future—the new shape of our mission. More words than I could count, an endless cacophony against the backdrop of the eib, and yet no consensus, no agreement. The arguments had collapsed under their own weight, suffocating beneath confusion and frustration and fatigue.

Rachel had stalked off in silence, the body of a grizzly bear erupting from her lithe frame as she disappeared into the trees.

Jake had made as if to follow her—had taken several steps—and then collapsed, fainting with grief or despair or simple exhaustion.

Marco had dragged his friend over to the fire and then returned as if nothing had happened, suppressing all visible reaction as he spoke quietly and calmly with Erek, his face no less a mask than the android’s hologram.

(—they brought us to the chamber, and without warning, the floor and walls had vanished, and we were a thousand paces up, with nothing beneath our hooves and hands but clouds—)

Garrett was doing slightly better than the rest—he had asked sufficient questions to satisfy himself that Tobias would have been returned unhurt to Washington D.C., and had then retreated to a corner of the clearing. He was there now, picking up various objects and squeezing them between his palms.

The two Controllers, on the other hand—

Erek had been holding them continuously within a force field, to prevent their escape, but it hardly seemed necessary. They sat limp—almost catatonic—their eyes glassy and their jaws slack. Neither had spoken more than fourteen words since the impact.

(—impact.)

((—impact.))

(((—impact had occurred some two hundred million revolutions earlier, ending the epoch of the quadrupeds and making space for the evolution and differentiation of the dalit, an ancient, armored tunneling reptile. Tobias had seemed intrigued by this, had mentioned a similar event in Earth’s own history, but more recent—)))

(Hypothesis: you’re simply lonely. Stop exaggerating the importance of a normal—and irrelevant—emotional reaction.)

It made sense—the Controllers’ reaction. Tom Berenson and Peter Levy had no less reason to grieve than the rest of the humans, and on top of that, the Yeerks inside their heads had lost their entire—

Colony?

Nation?

Family?

(Hypothesis: it is a natural side-effect of an empty eib, no different from what you would experience in the ritual of starlight.)

((Wait—how long have I been on Earth?))

Yeerk social structures were not well understood, but whatever the specific details of their relationships, it could not be pleasant to lose one’s entire pool—particularly not at the hands of one’s own commanding officer. Elfangor had estimated twenty thousand Yeerks, in total, and half of those had still been alive after the explosion, safe within ten thousand human heads.

Well—not safe, exactly.

I took in a deep breath, feeling the stretch of skin across my ribcage, the ebb of tension along my spine.

And how are you coping, Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill?

I let the breath out, lowering my tail to the ground.

Not well, if I was honest with myself. Even setting aside my growing nervousness over the fraying of my thought processes—

I had killed three Yeerks in my first day on the planet. Two more when I broke the bridge beneath the truck—

(—and two humans with them—)

((—two four eight sixteen thirty-two sixty-four—))

That was five, in total. One for each winter I could remember, of the nine revolutions I had lived and breathed.

Yesterday, we had killed ten thousand. If I took the seventh part of those upon my own shoulders, sharing the burden equally with the others, that was one for every cycle of my entire life. A death associated with each and every memory, and thousands more lost in the mists of forgetfulness.

(—watching, in awe and wonder, as my fingers melted and fused, shivering into an infinitely fine pattern of hollow spines as I shrank toward the ground—)

And then the Visser had responded. The Visser, and the Ellimist—

Are you afraid, little one?

I looked inward, sinking past the echoing silence of the eib and into the warmer, closer peace of the hirac.

I was—

It was—

(—we gathered in the moonlight as the elder wrapped his thoughts around us, drew us in, to the time before the Path, when all was new and unexplained—)

Not fear, precisely. It was more that I was uncertain—uncertain for the first time, the numbers having thrown into stark relief all of my unstated assumptions, the decisions I had never truly made, but rather simply accepted, receiving them by default from my brother, my instructors, my people.

I had nearly died. If I had not realized in time—if Rachel and Garrett had not been close enough to intervene—

(Hypothesis: you lack the necessary qualities of a warrior.)

I had not had time to think, when the chamber containing the absorption field generator exploded. But if I had, I would not have expected to awaken. I would have met my end alone, surrounded by aliens I had never met, aliens I had sworn to destroy, who were even then dying around me in the fire we had kindled in their stronghold.

((—seven and a half cycles.))

I blinked, double-checking the number.

Yes—not counting the time beneath the waves, I had spent a little over seven and a half cycles in the company of humans. Twenty-six in local time, given the dizzying, breakneck rotation of this planet.

I looked back down the slope, at the distant constellation of lights. We would go there, tomorrow—to steal food and gather news, anything that might help us decide what to do next. The pool had been an obvious target, a clear objective—now that it was gone, there was nothing to help us tell any one path from all the rest. A part of me suspected that the humans were not competent to decide, and that I should attempt to set the agenda myself.

Assuming that I wanted to. That this was still my place, and I shouldn’t simply leave.

(—leave.)

((—leave.))

(((—leave the scoop, and the orchard, and wander for seven cycles, avoiding anything that resembles a path until you find yourself alone with the sky—)))

I squeezed my eyes shut, pretending stone until the frenetic bouncing ceased, and the inside of my head was quiet once more.

No different from what you would experience in the ritual of starlight—

I opened my stalks, keeping my ground eyes closed.

Seven and a half cycles.

It wasn’t quite right. I was late, and I was two revolutions too young to begin with. I had clear memories of only five winters.

But I could still perform the ritual, if I wanted to. Tonight.

I reared up to tree-stretch, looked up at the sky with all four of my eyes—at the choked, angry red, just barely brighter than black, the color of dried blood on a battlefield. There would be no stars. Not tonight, or for any of the nights in the near future.

I could morph, though. Could try to climb above the dust, see if I could make it high enough to catch a glimpse of the Great Path. And the meditation could be performed whether I was in my true body or not—might even be enhanced by the sensations of flight.

I looked back. At Garrett, a shadow in the distance. At Marco, closer, his expression too calm by half. At the hologram of Erek the Chee. At the unmoving form of Jake, the closest thing I had to a war prince since the death of my brother. I looked, and felt once again the odd reluctance to speak, a reluctance that had been growing harder and harder to overcome.

These are not your people.

(—your people.)

((—your people.))

(((—your people.)))

I dropped back down to water-run, feeling the dirt beneath my fingers. If I closed my eyes, it felt just like the dirt from back home. But I could smell the difference in the air, taste it in my feet, the acrid bite of alien turf. And as always, the silence of the eib was overwhelming, inescapable. It roared, echoed, smothered—an abyss into which my every thought disappeared, leaving no trace. A darkness infinite, with every light a billion billion billion paces distant.

(Hypothesis: the presence of other Andalites in the eib is crucial to healthy psychological development, and a juvenile Andalite brain subjected to prolonged silence will be affected in dangerous and unpredictable ways. This is not known because it is unprecedented; on the homeworld the eib vibrates no matter how far one travels, and no one of your age has ever been this isolated for this long.)

It had been the obvious guess, three cycles ago, when I first noticed the gradual shift in my thinking patterns, the beginnings of an unraveling. I had pushed it away, then—and again after my reawakening, when the effects could no longer be denied. I had come up with a double handful of alternative explanations, causal chains which minimized the seriousness of the phenomenon, which lent themselves to concrete actions or pointed toward prognoses less bleak.

Because if it was the eib—if the silence truly was breaking me—

What was there to do? The cradle had no Z-space capabilities, and the more I saw of human technology, the less confident I was that I could build a transmitter from local materials. Elfangor’s action had been unauthorized and unilateral—my people were not coming, and I could not escape.

(—escape.)

((—escape.))

(((—escaped from the net, dodging between Faramin-Lhorash-Watumorail and Eniac-Terrusso-Movalad as they burst from their hiding spaces. I ran like a flood, my limbs churning, my stalks turned back to guard as I waved my tail. At the last second, I chambered, coiled, and sprang, leaving the ground and striking forward with my tail blade to notch the victory branch, a full ten paces high—)))

I looked up once more, thoughts as dark as the sky swirling beneath the layer of my control. They shivered and shattered, spiraled and spawned, leaving me with the unnerving sense that my mind was no longer fully my own.

And if I was my mind, as I had always been taught—if my thoughts were what made me, what set me apart from the rest of the matter in the universe, the pattern of a person, a sovereign algorithm—

‹Aximili—›

I drove the voice under, held my mind still as the ripples spread and faded.

I knew what my brother would say, and I did not care to hear it.

I focused on the avian I had copied from Cassie, the nocturnal predator with enormous eyes.

And without asking or telling anyone, I took to the air.

 

*        *        *

 

“What do you mean, ‘can’t’?”

The word was spoken with ice, somehow sounding like the soft whisper of a tail blade, and I felt my body tighten involuntarily in response.

(—if you must leave yourself vulnerable to one or the other, it is easier to heal from a slice than a jab, and the wound is less likely to fester—)

“I mean I won’t let you,” Erek said, his projected hologram projecting an image of a clenched jaw and tense shoulders as he let out a counterfeit sigh. “Can’t let you. My programming won’t allow it.”

Marco’s eyes flickered over to Jake, and then back to the two older humans, sitting reclined against nothing as the android held them in its force field.

“Bullshit,” he spat.

“Marco,” Jake warned, hard bone beneath the weariness in his voice.

“What’s he going to do, call the Ye—”

Marco.”

“Yes, actually,” Erek said quietly.

A long, tense, and stony silence greeted this pronouncement. Garrett tilted his head, and Rachel’s eyes seemed to glitter in the glassy morning light.

“Explain,” Jake said flatly, pinning Marco in place with a glance.

The android forged a grimace, eyes squeezed shut and lips drawn inward. From what I had learned of human expressions, Erek was attempting to signal reluctance, chagrin, and resignation.

From what I had learned of human expressions, Jake was unmoved.

“Look, you know about the blocks in my programming,” Erek said, his voice strained as if it were difficult to get the words out. “I can’t commit or permit violence—”

“Right, I remember that bit about a robot army stopping the Holocaust—”

“Rachel!”

“No,” Erek bit out. “She’s right. It’s stupid and inconsistent and it doesn’t make any sense, and it doesn’t matter because there’s nothing I can do about it. Nothing, do you understand?”

He projected the image of fists clenching, of a hand scrubbing at a forehead, of legs jittering with pent-up nervous energy.

“Look. At this point, the—censors, I guess you’d call them, the subroutines that control my core functionality, they’re aware of Temrash and Essak. Aware of them as individuals, as specific personalities, not as vaguely defined possible objects. I know that they’re here, and I know that you’re planning to starve them to death. I can’t just forget about it, and I can—not—allow it. Do you understand? And those same censors—they have access to all of my systems. My communicators. My holograms. My force fields. My chassis. My brain—if it comes down to it, those subroutines will hijack me, and they’ll make me come up with a way to save them. Even if it means taking Tom and Peter and physically giving all four of them back to the Yeerks, slavery doesn’t even register compared to death—”

“You can’t!”

Everyone jumped.

(—the sudden shout in the eib as the hologram faded, revealing the Prince of Blades standing atop the hill, a shredder in each hand, his ground eyes bandaged, blind beneath his stalks—)

Eight pairs of eyes—five alien, one artificial—swiveled to focus on the face of Tom Berenson, wild beneath a mop of sweaty hair.

“You can’t,” the Controller repeated, his voice shrill and desperate. “If you send us back—he killed all of me—of us—”

“What—”

“The Visser!” Temrash shrieked, clearly on the verge of losing control. “Aftran—there were twenty thousand of us, he didn’t even try to evacuate, he didn’t even warn us, he wanted us deadif you send us back you’re killing us! We may be the last ones left!”

A blank, confused silence followed, as my brain gushed forth a useless mishmash of irrelevant memories and deranged speculation.

(—proper evacuation procedure requires—)

((—give you this one warning, Aximili, but there will not be a second—))

(((—intrigue in the Yeerk hierarchy? But what good does a self-imposed setback—)))

I realized—and looking around the circle, I was not alone—that until that very moment, I had not truly accounted for the weight of Visser Three’s action in Yeerk terms.

(Open question: what are the limits of Visser Three’s authority? To what extent is he subject to morale and loyalty?)

((—know we covered this in training, why didn’t I listen—))

“Well, at least we all agree it’s a dumb plan,” Marco said dryly, though his voice, too, trembled.

“Temrash,” Rachel said softly, and Tom’s head snapped toward her as Jake’s lips tightened into a thin line.

“What?” he asked, his voice still unsteady.

“We’ve seen Controllers being—reckless. Is it—unusual? To sacrifice—”

“Unusual?” he shrieked. “An entire pool? Do you not know what—”

“They don’t, Temrash,” said Peter Levy—Essak—as he spoke for the first time. “You betray—”

“I betray nothing,” Temrash hissed. “It’s Esplin who betrays, who’s betrayed us all, Aftran lived for a thousand years and she’s gone now, he’s killed—”

(—one thousand Yeerk revolutions is five hundred and thirty-six Andalite revolutions is seven hundred and thirty-five human revolutions—)

The hologram of Erek lifted a finger, and the voice of Tom Berenson broke off as his body was raised into a standing position, brought to hover before the android. “What do you mean?” Erek asked. “What do you mean by ‘Aftran? By ‘last ones left’?”

“Temrash—” Essak warned.

“What’s left to betray, Essak?” Temrash shouted, tears streaming from Tom’s eyes. “What is left to protect? This one”—he gestured at Erek—“says he won’t let us die, which is more consideration than our own Visser has offered—”

“You are a soldier, Temrash. The larger war—”

(—a warrior, Aximili—)

“Screw the larger war!” Tom’s eyes were wide, now, as Temrash swung his head away from Peter and looked straight into the eyes of the android holding him in place. “You,” he said. “I know you. You went to my school. You disappeared that day, along with thirty-five others. Korin Two-three-nine. You were Korin, Korin of Aftran—”

“We returned the thirty-six Yeerks to Visser Three directly,” Erek said, his face suddenly uncertain. “We sent a message—arranged a dropoff—a Bug fighter came to retrieve the container we left—”

Tom sucked in a breath, and for a moment I thought Temrash would scream again, would rail and rage—

(—and the fury of the Prince of Blades echoed through the eib until it shook the very air—)

—but instead he simply collapsed, sagging within the human-shaped cavity in Erek’s force field. “Then Korin is dead, too. Every scrap of Aftran save the two of us.”

“I don’t understand,” Garrett said bluntly. “Aftran is—your colony? The pool? What about the Bug fighter pilots? And the high schoolers? And the Controllers in Washington D.C. and all the other cities?”

“None of them were Aftran,” Essak answered softly. “Operational security, the Visser called it. One pool for Earth, one pool for space. The fighter pilots—the sleeper cells—they were Telor.”

“But—why—”

“I think—”

“Because we were learning!” Temrash broke in. “Things that would change the war—that would change everything. Because we’d figured out that we didn’t need him anymore!”

Essak sighed, lowering Peter Levy’s head. “They aren’t going to believe us, Temrash. Think how it would sound to you, coming from a prisoner—”

“It’s the truth!”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“But this proves it! The Council was right to suspect—he doesn’t serve the Empire, he doesn’t serve anyone but himself—”

‹Stop,› I said.

I had not spoken since the pool, and the word flashed out with more power than I intended, causing all six humans to flinch. I looked around the circle, at the confusion written in the faces of my allies, the signs Garrett had taught me to look for—furrowed brows, lightly downturned lips, tilted heads, unfocused eyes.

‹Jake,› I said, hoping the alien would understand and take over. I didn’t trust my thoughts, didn’t trust my own voice, for all that I was suddenly taut, all of the looseness and chaos of the past weeks vanishing in a moment of clear sobriety. The echoes in my brain had subsided, as if even the walls of my mind were suddenly listening, absorbing what they heard—

“Mr. Levy,” Jake said, drawing the older human’s gaze. “Essak. Start over. From the beginning.”

The Controller swallowed, his eyes flickering toward Marco’s for the briefest of moments. “You have to understand,” he said slowly, “we’re not just saying this so you’ll let us live. It’s the truth—”

“Prove it,” Marco snarled. “Get out of my dad’s head and let him tell me.”

“I can’t,” he said. “You have no stasis chambers, no containers—there isn’t even a body of water nearby. If I leave my host, I’ll die.”

“Then—”

Marco.”

“I wasn’t going to say die, fuck you very much. Get into Erek’s head—he’s got a place where he can hold a Yeerk, doesn’t he?”

Essak pulled the strings, and Peter Levy bit his lip, the muscles in his upper body coiling and tightening. “It’s not that simple,” he said, his voice suddenly small and timid. “Marco—your father. He—he doesn’t want me to leave.”

 

*        *        *

 

There was silence around the circle, for once as total and oppressive as that which dominated the eib.

Marco had cried, for a time—when Essak first left his father’s head, and Peter Levy had confirmed the truth with his own voice, his own will—but now his face was carved from diamonds, a solid mask that gave nothing away.

Erek pulled away, and we watched in morbid fascination as the last tendril of Essak slithered into Peter’s ear, leaving behind a trace of moisture. Watched as Peter twitched, small noises escaping his mouth as the Yeerk once again melted into the cracks of his cerebrum, their neurons fusing together into a single network.

“It’s still me, Marco.” Peter said softly. “Essak—he made sure I didn’t say anything, made sure I didn’t give it away to anybody else. But—he’s been giving me more and more control, and now—”

“Stockholm syndrome,” Marco spat, and Peter Levy winced, falling silent.

I did not ask.

There was a—hardening, of Peter’s features—a tightening of Control—and from the looks on the humans’ faces, they could all see the difference.

Essak was back.

“You knew your father was struggling with depression,” he said, his eyes fixed on Marco. “With alcoholism. With meaningless, low-paying work.” His eyes narrowed slightly. “With a son who still hadn’t forgiven him, for what happened to his mother.”

Marco said nothing, only stared with eyes of stone.

“We helped. We can see all of it—see the patterns, the root causes. Tinker with the neurotransmitters, restore a healthy balance—”

“Hypnosis and drugs. You’re talking about brainwashing.”

No, Marco. There’s no need for brainwashing, when we can take complete control any time we want. We were healing him—”

“Stop,” Jake commanded, as Marco’s knuckles began to turn white. “Not now, Essak. Maybe—”

He looked back and forth between father and son. “Maybe not ever,” he said bluntly. “Right now, we still have to decide what to do with you.”

“You can’t send us back,” Temrash insisted. “The Visser will kill us.”

“You don’t know that, Yeerk,” Jake countered. “He could have just been trying to kill us, and containing the threat of exposure at the same time.”

What threat? We owned Ventura! Fire, police, news—there was nothing to stop him from simply covering it up. There would have been a hundred eyewitnesses all saying the same thing, a hundred experts all confirming the same story—”

“Until you started to starve,” Rachel cut in. “Don’t forget, I’ve seen the cages. Seen what you do to people. To families. To kids.” Her eyes flickered toward Peter, toward Marco. “You can’t possibly have had more than a tiny handful of willing hosts—the rest of them were ready to watch you burn.”

“We weren’t going to starve,” Temrash insisted. “We found a Kandrona alternative weeks ago.”

There was a silence as loud as an explosion.

What?” Jake spluttered.

“The oatmeal. Instant oatmeal, Ralph’s brand, the kind with maple and ginger flavoring—”

“WHAT—“

“—it’s not as strong as true Kandrona, the host has to eat it a couple of times a day, but as long as you keep it coming, the Yeerk can stay out of the pool indefinitely—”

Jake’s mouth opened, but no sound emerged. Around the circle, the rest of the humans were equally shocked, even Erek hoisting an expression of confusion and dismay onto his artificial face.

A part of me was reeling, appalled—the Yeerks’ most exploitable weakness, gone—another heavy blow for the larger war effort, which was looking bleaker than ever—

Another part of me was laughing, the deranged amusement of utter despair.

(The Ellimist. This is the Ellimist’s doing.)

“We weren’t through testing it, obviously. But we put thirty people on it, and we pulled a Yeerk out of the experiment every three days, and the first nine were all fine, no sign of any side effects, and there’s plenty of oatmeal to go around, even if we had to bring some in from the surrounding area, we could have easily lasted long enough to build a new pool—”

And then I made the connection, my impaired brain finally putting hoof and tail together—

If they were telling the truth about the oatmeal—

(—and what point was there in lying? Erek would force us to test it, soon enough, since neither the Yeerks nor Jake and Marco were willing to send Tom and Peter back to Visser Three—)

—if they were telling the truth about that, then they were also correct about Visser Three, who would not have wiped out the city only to destroy us, he would have known that there were better-than-even odds that we had dispersed beyond the immediate vicinity, even if the Ellimist had not intervened, both Tobias and the cube would have survived anyway—

(Alternate hypothesis: everything the Ellimist showed them was a lie, and it was the Ellimist who launched the asteroid, or who arranged for the invasion to take place on a site that had been doomed from the start—)

—there had to be another motive, something worth both the political costs of failure and the logistical costs of undoing every scrap of progress they had made—

(—not every scrap; they still have the sleeper cells in other cities and whatever materiel the Naharan factory had managed to produce, plus ten thousand hosts’ worth of intelligence seized and lessons learned—

((—had this all been a throwaway operation? Since the very beginning? A chance to taste the grass, to gather data on the obstacles before starting in earnest?))

“If what you’re saying is true,” Jake began, recovering his composure.

“It’s true,” Essak confirmed.

If it’s true, then Visser Three—”

“It’s true,” Rachel said grimly.

We all turned to look at her, as she turned to look at Tom, stared straight into his eyes. “I’ve seen inside his mind,” she said slowly, seeming somehow to look through him, as if she could see inside his skull, see the Yeerk wrapped around the human brain. “I’ve seen the way he thinks, the kind of plans he makes. I can never remember the details, but—”

She sucked in a breath. “It’s exactly what Esplin would do, if you all were starting to turn against him. It—fits. It makes sense now, in my head. And it didn’t, five minutes ago.”

“But it doesn’t make sense,” Garrett broke in. “It doesn’t solve his main problem at all. I mean, if they all—um—learned the power of friendship—after just a few months, won’t the next batch of Yeerks just—do the same thing? It doesn’t add up.”

“You don’t understand,” Essak said, sighing wearily. “We didn’t learn it all at once. We still hadn’t really learned it at all, yet. Peter is—we are—special. Rare. There were experiments. Many of them were going poorly. It’s possible we would have made a different decision, in the end. But in at least a few cases, it was working, we were leaning toward—”

“Toward symbiosis,” said Erek, breaking his long silence.

“Not even that. Look, I—you have to understand, we’re not used to thinking of host species as having any kind of—of dignity, of moral weight. On our homeworld, there’s nothing else that’s even as intelligent as a horse. Hork-Bajir, Taxxons—even the Naharans, for all their engineering brilliance—they don’t have rich, internal experiences, complex personalities. The first true intelligence we encountered was the Andalites, and they didn’t exactly inspire trust and friendship.”

Essak directed Peter’s gaze at me. “Of all of the pools in the Yeerk Empire, Aftran was one of the only ones—maybe the only one—that could have opened this door. We could have led the way, perhaps. Perhaps not. But none of the other Yeerks are likely to make the same discovery, especially not if Visser Three is manipulating them to prevent it. There are all sorts of things he might do—provoke early hostility, incite xenophobia and racism, kill off any humans that seem particularly empathetic. Or just focus on infants and toddlers, strangle the personality before it has a chance to become interesting.”

“You talk about your pool as if it was a person,” Jake observed.

Essak didn’t answer, instead turning to look at Tom, locking eyes with the other Controller for a long moment.

“It’s not betrayal,” Temrash said cryptically. “The Visser is the enemy. We cannot leave him in control of the armies of the Empire.”

Essak took in a deep breath through his nose, gnawed at his lip.

“Aftran was the first,” Temrash pressed. “We won’t be the last.”

Essak let out the breath as if he had been punched, his shoulders dropping. “For that reason if no other,” he muttered, and turned toward me.

“There is a secret we have kept from the Andalites,” he said. “From the very beginning, from the moment you landed. It’s the reason we barred you from entering the pools, or observing the coalescions up close.”

He paused, looking into my ground eyes, and the last piece clicked into place.

—he killed all of me—

‹The pool is not simply a home,› I guessed, feeling the truth of the words as I spoke them. ‹The coalescion is not just a sharing. It is—you are—one individual. Aftran was a single individual.›

I heard Garrett gasp, and made another connection in the back of my mind, to a day when a morph went horribly wrong—

“Yes,” Essak said. “She—I—we collected everything, all of the experiences of every Yeerk in Ventura county. We saw all of it, took part in all of it.”

“You remember—” Jake began.

“No.” Essak shook his head. “Temrash and I are fragments—shards—the barest scraps of Aftran’s personality. Like if—if someone took one afternoon of your life, and made a clone of you, and those were the only memories they gave it, just the things that happened between lunch and dinner on that one day. You’d be human—sort of. It’d be you—but only sort of.”

“We make decisions together,” Temrash added. “As one organism, one mind, we absorb it all, and then we send out—parts, I guess, parts of ourself, and those parts do—they do what they can, each one has a job, like different cells or organs, we’re different but we’re all part of the same self.

My mind was racing, my thoughts leaping ahead as I formed new hypotheses, new explanations, it made so much sense, how could Seerow not have known—

(—the intelligence of the coalescion must be far beyond that of a single Yeerk, beyond even that of an Andalite—an entire race of Seerows—)

((—no wonder, in scarcely two revolutions they went from prescientific to successfully waging war against the most advanced species in known space—))

(((—how many pools are there on the surface, we covered this in school—)))

Wait. I had seen holograms of the Gedds who traveled with Seerow—seen them follow him across the planet. They had fed in many different pools—

Oh.

‹Individual Yeerks moving between pools—this is how you communicate?›

Essak nodded. “Memetic exchange as well as genetic. It’s the primary reason we feel driven to infest and expand—to find other pools to mingle with. We are blind, remember, and for every host there are a thousand others who never leave, who never get the chance to see for themselves. The sharing is the only way, our only door to the wider world—”

(—of course, a single pool, kept isolated on the surface—Aftran would have been maximally motivated to stretch, to grow—)

((—and the host influences the parasite, it must, there were no peace movements among the Hork-Bajir. The Visser used quarantine protocols because he wasn’t sure what effect humans would have on Yeerks—didn’t want to contaminate his entire assault force if something went wrong—))

The war council. I had to inform the war council, as soon as possible. How the Yeerks had managed to conceal this for so long, I did not understand—

Or you could not inform the war council.

I stiffened momentarily—involuntarily, before my brain caught up and I forced myself to relax again, hoping that none of the others had noticed.

“So the sacrifices,” Rachel asked. “The suicidal Yeerks. When they die—”

“No one wants to die,” Temrash answered. “But if you’re only losing a single afternoon, out of your whole lifetime—”

“We create and recreate our individual selves,” Essak elaborated. “If we need to sacrifice a part of ourselves, we can—build, I suppose you’d say, build a Yeerk that’s unafraid of death, that wants only glory, or cares only for protecting the whole—”

“—but we can’t do it too often, if we lose the parts of ourselves that are fearless then we become fearful, if we give away too much of ourselves then what remains is no longer quite the same—”

‹Visser Three,› I broke in. ‹Esplin.›

Essak tightened the muscles in Peter’s face. “He was once Cirran. Of the seventh pool, the place where Seerow did his mad science. But—when we take a host—”

“No two species work the same way,” Temrash said. “We have to tailor ourselves to the host. To control a human takes a lot of personality, of processing power. We literally have to put more of ourselves in—more neurons, more threads-of-being, a physically larger Yeerk. To control a Hork-Bajir, or a Gedd, not so much. And if you take the Yeerk out of a Gedd and put it into a human, it might not even be enough to influence your mood.”

Essak grimaced. “We had never taken an Andalite. And we had but one chance—”

“You put in too much,” Jake said.

He nodded. “Too much intelligence. Too much aggression. Too much ambition. Cirran—she thought that—to overwhelm the mind of Alloran, the greatest military strategist of the glorious Andalite race—”

“And so Visser Three, what—took over?”

“He levered us into war,” Essak said bitterly. “It didn’t take much—we were already furious with the Andalites. For years, they had looked down on us—imprisoned us—experimented on us. Showed us the stars, showed us what was possible, and then refused to let us rise. They could have—it would have taken us a thousand years to develop what they might have given us, freely, without cost to themselves. A single encyclopedia, one single host with the knowledge of how to build a radio, a refinery, a rocket—”

‹You were speaking of Visser Three,› I interrupted.

“Like I said, we were furious. We had arranged to take Alloran as a hostage, to improve our bargaining position and get a closer look at Andalite military technology. But Cirran—Esplin, really, even from the start it was no longer truly Cirran any longer—he destroyed two Andalite cruisers and captured a third, and offered the Council a choice. He would prosecute the war for them, take the fight to the Andalites—”

“—and in exchange, we would provide him with one Yeerk every three days. One Yeerk to consume, for its Kandrona, so that he would never have to return to the pool again.”

There was yet another deafening silence.

“You—he—what—

“He—something about the particular mix of traits, or the influence of Alloran’s mind—he is not truly Yeerk, any longer. He does not desire the sharing, fears the loss of his own unique personality. He has become a cannibal, and we pay blood sacrifice for his help in keeping the Andalites at bay.”

(—looking to maintain his position, to preserve his advantage—)

‹You never wondered at his failure to take another Andalite?› I asked, fury and relief flooding my mind in equal measure as the picture came together. ‹In battle after battle—no, even before the battles, when he walked among us, unsuspected—you never wondered how he could fail to capture even a single, second Andalite for you to—›

“Did you wonder, Andalite?” Essak snapped. “Did your people, in their arrogance, their conceit? Or did you simply think yourselves smarter than Alloran-Semitur-Corrass? We had no cause to question Esplin’s loyalty. He gave us the Naharans in a week. In every battle, his command of strategy preserved enough Yeerk lives to pay his tribute a hundred times over. There are a hundred pools as large as the largest thirteen on the homeworld.”

“Wait,” Rachel objected. “You said—your council, Tom said they suspected—”

“How could we not? There had never been a mind we couldn’t see inside, never been a Yeerk whose thoughts weren’t shared by all. He made himself suspicious by his very desire, something none of us had ever wanted—something we could barely even understand. The oatmeal we discovered—it will never be used by any more than the tiniest part of ourselves, and even then only in the direst need—imagine being only a fraction of yourself, if someone cut out your brain, left you just enough to be aware of everything you’d lost—”

“But he brought us hosts,” Temrash said, picking up the thread. “He brought us hosts, and he held back the scourge of the Andalites, who even now would drive us back to the mud puddles of our homeworld—”

“You enslave people,” Jake snapped. “You’re using my brother’s face to talk to me about how the Andalites aren’t treating you right? Which one of you started this war?”

“We learned,” Temrash shot back. “Peace is possible. And even now—Tom will admit, it hasn’t been all bad, I’ve helped him a lot—”

“Tom,” Jake said, his voice suddenly cold as ice. “Tom, don’t worry, I’m going to drag him out of your head and—and eat him, Tom, he’s going to die for what he’s doing to you—”

Jake!” Erek shouted.

“For mom, and dad, and grandpa—you assholes, Ventura is gone because of you—”

“Jake, stop talking. Stop talking right now, before you force an override—”

I squeezed my eyes shut, sank into the hirac, trying to focus. I could feel my thoughts spinning, feel a rising apprehension, as if there were some important question I was still forgetting to ask, some forgotten opportunity that would vanish and would not come again. I looked back and forth between the two Controllers, between my human companions and the android Erek, and struggled to think.

Who started this war?

I didn’t know. I knew what I was supposed to know, but I didn’t actually know it. I had had many thoughts the night before, as I drifted through the lightless sky—thoughts I’d never had before, thoughts I maybe couldn’t have had before, surrounded as I always had been by the collective will of my people. For the first time, I was unsure—not just of the answers, but of the questions themselves.

(—and now all of the knowledge that the Aftran pool pieced together—their empathy, their perspective, the promise of peace, a memetic weapon aimed straight at the heart of the Yeerk war machine—)

((—and now all of the intel that these two Controllers possess—the first defectors in the history of the species and quite possibly the last—))

—it was all here, in our hands by the slimmest of chances, a tangle of events complex beyond imagining, an outcome almost unthinkably unlikely, and yet each step toward it had felt obvious and inevitable—

And then I knew.

“—it’s murder,” Temrash was shouting, as I rose from my meditation, turned back to the conversation. “In the last thousand years, there hasn’t been a single murder, not one, no one kills an entire pool—

“Oh, but you’ll kill humans—”

“No! You’ve killed humans! We want you alive!”

“Tell that to Melissa Chapman,” Rachel snarled. “To Mr. and Mrs. Chapman, Mr. and Mrs. Withers—”

“Enough!” Jake bellowed, as loud as I had ever heard a human, and they fell silent, Temrash and Essak and Rachel and Marco, four jaws clicking shut as one.

<Essak,> I said after a time, preserving the hush as I sent my words through the eib. <I have a question.>

Essak raised Peter’s eyebrows, and I continued.

<You said that you—Aftran—that of all the Yeerk pools, you were perhaps the only one that might have come to see the humans as equals. Is this something the Visser would know? Does he know the—the temperament—of the individual coalescions at his command?>

“Yes,” Essak said, a hint of a question in his tone. “He communicates regularly with representatives from each pool. Sometimes—”

The face of Peter Levy tightened, and a lump moved in his throat. “Sometimes, I am told, he uses a Leeran morph before consuming his meal.”

<And he commands thirteen pool ships, correct? Twenty-six pools in total?>

“Forty. Many of the ships are much larger than the one that brought us here.”

<Where are they?>

Essak tilted Peter’s head, opened Peter’s mouth, closed it again. When he finally spoke, the words were slow and careful. “They were delayed,” he said. “A rift opened up, during transit—a Z-space barrier, isolating this system. Ours was the only ship that made it through. The Visser has often been away, at the edges of the rift. Studying it, I think, and looking for a bridge.”

<Is the rift impassable?>

“No. The other ships are still coming. But—slowly. What should have taken days is now a journey of months.”

I nodded. It was the most common human gesture, the first gesture Garrett had taught me.

Who started this war?

It wasn’t the Yeerks, or the Andalites—wasn’t Cirran or Esplin or Seerow or Alloran.

Twenty thousand had died the day before. Perhaps ten times as many humans, perhaps more. Before that, my brother—Elfangor-Sirinial-Shamtul.

Before that, the Hork-Bajir. The Taxxons. The Naharans, and the Gedd. The Garatrons, the Leerans, the Ongachic and the Skrit Na. Thousands of Andalite warriors, in a broken line that cut all the way back to Alloran himself—Alloran, who was captured, tortured, his every waking moment an endless torment as his brilliance was twisted against the armies of his friends, his protégés.

The blood of millions, on the hands of a being I had thought was just a children’s story. The Yeerks were not the enemy—they were pawns, as my people were pawns.

As I was a pawn. As Tobias and Garrett were pawns, and Jake my prince, and Marco and Cassie and Rachel my allies.

And yet—

What could I do? You cannot fight a god.

Not unless it wants you to.

 

*        *        *

 

(—smell of burning hydrocarbons THREAT light glaring off of the harsh, unnatural planes of artificial caves DANGER follow the lines the angles calculate the distances closing in count down seven six five four three two one—)

((—held my blade against the throat of Ertai-Marcus-Lawran and felt the pressure in the eib like a physical force DISAPPROVAL removed the blade and stretched out a hand SATISFACTION as the elders watched, weighing—))

(((—one billion Andalites, seven billion humans, one Andalite for every seven humans, it couldn’t be a coincidence—)))

I should not have come.

Ahead of me, Garrett and Rachel moved comfortably through the thin crowd, untroubled by the chaotic sights and sounds and smells.

(—green plants sun drinking purple poison the reptile that lurks beneath the loose bark of the blackiron tree grey ashes and fog—)

((—are you listening to me, cadet? Yes? Then you will repeat back to me the significance of these three small peaks in the electromagnetic band—))

Faltering, I paused, stepped toward one of the artificial structures and leaned against it, the rough surface almost exactly the color of my human skin. I closed my eyes, pretending stone, trying to quiet the tumult.

It was getting worse—much worse—the pattern-matching processes of my brain running haywire as every stimulus sparked seven threads of thought and memory and speculation. It was as if my mind was trying to fill the vast and empty silence of the eib through sheer volume of thought, burning through a hundred operations a second.

Orient.

I focused on the feel of the wall against my palm, the heat of the sun on my face, the slide and shift of fabric against my body.

(—temperature to flux, flux to distance, distance to mass, mass to age, confirm against the color, gravitational attraction between the planet and the star proportional to the square of the distance between them—)

“Ax?”

My eyes snapped open to see Garrett standing beside me, a cautious distance away, his hands in the folds of his artificial skin.

(—eyes wide, brows converging upward, mouth closed with edges slightly downturned—)

Concern. Garrett was concerned.

“Ein—sorry—I am all right. I just—”

Garrett’s head turned as he scanned the street and sidewalk and buildings around us, the humans walking and talking and impelling their mechanical transports.

(—tiny furrowing of the brow, deepening of the frown—)

((—striking distance striking distance evade striking distance closing closing THREAT TOO CLOSE DANGER where is my tail—))

I squeezed my eyes shut.

<Garrett, what—>

<Garrett here. It’s fine, we’re just—we’ll be there in a second. Go ahead in, over.>

There was a mental ripple that felt like a scoff.

“Thanks, mom,” Garrett muttered, almost too quietly for me to hear.

I partially opened my eyes to see the human boy lowering himself to one knee. Rachel was visible in the distance, her arms crossed, her eyes fixed on us as she waited outside of the entrance to our destination.

(—shredder power will attenuate by half for every forty-nine body lengths; adjust accordingly; setting seven—)

There was a tug by my foot and I looked down to see that Garrett was disentangling the lacing on my artificial hooves.

“What are you—”

“Hold still,” he said, not looking up. “This will help.”

I held