Ride Internal Seas
Cassie’s were first. Not
only were we already there, we also knew they’d be the fastest, furthest from
town and easiest to take. They resisted, but after Ax’s brief description of a
battle the gentle souls who raised our Cassie thought that it was best to go
with their daughter.
Rachel’s sisters were young enough to be directed without being told everything. Despite a brief resistance involving a spice rack, her mother got in the car with her daughters and left. It went without discussion that there was no way to get to her father.
Marco left before we even started talking to Cassie’s parents. To the group at large, I told him to go warn the Hork-Bajir of our arrival and have his parents start preparing for new arrivals. Marco himself, I told something more.
Tobias was quiet. I knew what he wanted to do. I also knew that we couldn’t consider it until after our families were out. Marco reminded me of the hard truth when I told him what to do. It was risky to wait on our families for the sake of the one who was bait. We’d try, but we could only risk the trap after we had removed other vulnerabilities.
I wasn’t surprised that Tobias didn’t ask. He knew it all, too.
I thought a lot in the time it took to fly to my house. The sun had long since set, dinner off the table despite my assurance that very morning that I would be back for it. My parents would be watching the news. Possibly with a lecture on calling to let them know I’d be late. But they wouldn’t wait up for me or anticipate my return home at a reasonable hour.
One of the hardest things about these past years was the way my parents had at first cracked down on me…and then gave up. They began expecting me to return at ridiculous hours, or sneak out and be found missing in the morning. This war had taken a lot of things, but my good standing with them was a constant irritation in the back of my mind. The same was true for Cassie, Rachel, and Marco.
My parents also gave up on Tom. In some ways, it was a saving grace that he was out as much as me. He wasn’t as aware of how often I was missing, too.
Once I heard my parents talking quietly as I snuck back in at a late hour. What to do about their sons, why their formerly good kids were so different now, whether this was normal teenager behavior. I hated putting them through this—and to put them through the world-shattering conversation to come was the final nail.
As my house came within owl sight, I saw that Tom’s car was missing.
If he was still out, then my plans had to change. I had thought to grab Tom and use him as a hostage, manipulating my parents into coming with us for the sake of their older son. ((Tom’s not home.)) Our time was running short if we wanted to do this before the Yeerks had any clue that our families were missing.
Tobias drifted closer to me. ((I can lead your parents ahead, or you can while Ax and I ambush him.))
My chest felt heavier at his suggestions. ((We can’t wait. We don’t have that much time.))
It was so hard to think those words. For so much of this war my private goal had been to free my brother. Yet as the leader I knew that if we lingered, we risked all of us being captured.
Ax said, ((This may be your only opportunity. Visser One will be unhappy with your brother’s Yeerk once he figures out why all of your families disappeared.))
What went unsaid was what Visser One would usually do to the Yeerks—and host bodies—when he was unhappy with them.
So. If I wanted Tom free and still living, I’d have to take the risk now. But was it worth it? For all of us, was it worth it? I had to think about more than my own desires.
((Jake. It’s not selfish.)) My wings fluttered as we perched on a tree in my backyard. I turned my night-sharp gaze on Tobias, who stared back at me. ((This won’t be a huge risk if we take your parents out first. With them gone, you have a better chance at getting Tom without their interference.))
((Tobias is correct.)) I turned my gaze to my other side. Ax, too, gazed at me with an Andalite’s focus magnifying the owl’s fierce gaze. ((Let him go with your parents. You and I should be capable of handling a single human Controller.))
I knew what they were doing. Trying to ease my leader’s burden, putting the decision to a majority vote.
And in a moment of selfish weakness, I let them.
((All right. Okay.)) I moved my shoulders and dropped to the ground, starting to demorph. ((Tobias, morph human. Ax, demorph and go human.))
Mom glanced away from the
TV at my entrance, her expression torn between a frown and pinched lips. She
nudged Dad in the shoulder. He startled awake from his doze, eyes widening at
my relatively early appearance. “Well, look who came home before midnight,” he
Instead of trying to sidle up the stairs, I came around the edge of the couch and grabbed the remote. Pressing the power button, I sent the muted sounds of the news to silence and took a seat on the edge of the coffee table in front of them.
That caught their attention. Mom’s eyes darted down my body, taking in the lack of shoes and my strange-though-necessary morphing outfit. Her lips thinned like they always did, but she refrained from asking. Dad sat up straight, lifting an eyebrow in question. Both of them peered over my shoulder and suspicious flickered through their eyes at the sight of Tobias.
He hadn’t said anything, though I knew from experience that my silence was more solemn. I didn’t need to see his face to know that his expressionless mask, a habit of red-tailed hawk life, was making my parents uneasy.
I glanced between the two of them. “Mom, Dad. I need to tell you something. I’ve been keeping a secret from you for a while now, and I can’t hide it anymore.”
Yes, here came the frowns, combined with the slow exhales. I felt vaguely guilty that they would soon regret that I was about to give the past few years a sense they had lacked. Mom reached forward and took one of my hands.
“What is it, Jake?” Dad asked. He crossed his arms.
I breathed slowly. “I know the past few years it’s been hard to trust me. But I’m asking for you to do that now. You need to trust me, and understand that I’m telling you the truth. Never wanted to keep it from you, but I had to for your own safety.”
“Safety?” Mom blurted.
I nodded. “It was too dangerous for you to know. And I’m telling you now because that danger is coming, and we can’t stay here anymore.” Dad blinked, the “our-son-is-crazy” look forming. In for a penny… “There are aliens trying to take over Earth. I’m part of a group that fights them. And they’ve figured out who we are.”
As I said it, I could see the blankness drawing over their expressions. My head tilted to the side to cue Tobias’ demorph.
Mom patted at my hand gently. “Jake, honey—”
“My friend here, Tobias, is part of that group as well,” I interrupted her. The smallest surge of adrenaline was barely enough to phase me, not after all the battles we’d gone through. I stayed completely cool, in control. That must have unnerved them even more.
Dad leaned back, glancing over at Tobias. “Jake…” He trailed off, eyes fixed over my shoulder.
Mom glanced at him, then followed his gaze—and screamed. She yanked my arm hard and tried to shove me aside, behind her.
Resisting easily because I had anticipated it, I gripped both her and Dad by the arms and stopped him from charging forward. Careful to keep my tone low, as if talking to a panicked animal. “It’s called morphing. Tobias is a human who was given access to the technology.” They tore their eyes off the boy who was now a red-tailed hawk, seeming unable to speak. Their fear threatened to unnerve me, but I pushed on. “The group I fight with, we all have it. Because it’s the first—and for a long time, only—weapon we had.”
Dad’s hand gripped my arm tightly. “What…what…” He swallowed hard. “That’s impossible. It has to be.”
((It’s very real. By the way, we’re low on time, Jake.)) My parents jumped, but I appreciated the reminder. I was getting in too deep. The goal was to get them out.
“He’s right. Explanations will have to wait,” I said. Pulling back, I ran a hand through my hair. “Do you trust me?”
My parents looked at each other, then back to me. Mom nodded slowly, speaking for both of them. “Honey, I’m—I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but I believe you.”
“Then believe me when I tell you: we have to leave. Now. Tonight.” I started shepherding them towards the stairs. “Grab what you can, just the essentials. Tobias is going to take you to a place you’ll be safe.”
“I’ll get him.” Yeerk-free, no matter how long it took. “You two need to go ahead. We don’t have enough time to risk waiting for him together.”
Stumbling, they went upstairs. I followed after, darting through my room to pack rapid-fire. Clothes, a few electronics Ax could take apart for pieces, a couple of books I knew I’d want. I didn’t look at what I left behind, only turning back at the last second to grab a couple pictures out of my desk drawer. Then I barged into Tom’s room, doing the same for him—remnants of life my brother would have wanted to keep. I made sure to grab the spare Dracon weapon which the Yeerk assumed we didn’t know existed.
Downstairs, Tobias had morphed back to human and ransacked the cupboards. We’d made sure to do that at every house: it wasn’t exactly easy to come by human food in the Hork-Bajir valley. I thanked him quietly, my guilt assuaged only by knowing what Marco was up to. Tobias squeezed my shoulder as he took the food and the duffel bags to Dad’s car, where it waited in the closed garage.
Mom squeezed my hands before she got into the car. “Jake, I don’t know—”
I could see Dad hesitating, not entirely convinced that it wasn’t all a dream or a joke. I tried to project confidence in my voice and expression. “Tobias will take care of you. And try not to freak out when you see our allies, okay? We want them to keep liking us.”
She laughed. The sound was a bit hysterical. I hugged her. Dad said, “You and your brother had better show up safe and fast.”
“We’ll be there soon,” I promised.
The garage door opened to an unnoticeably packed car. Tobias was in the backseat to give them directions.
I watched from the inside door as the garage door lowered and they disappeared from my sight.
The next hour passed like
a ticking bomb. I remained on-edge, drifting around my house like a ghost. Ax
remained silent, and I appreciated his tact. Finally, the sound of a rough
engine pulling up to the curb echoed outside the front door.
I walked into the kitchen, went to the counter. Pulled out a glass from the cupboard and filled it with water, set it down on the kitchen island. Then I grabbed the butcher knife.
I took a seat behind the island, facing the doorway, and looked at the blade in my hands. Sharp enough, though duller than it probably should be. Of course, that didn’t matter anymore. We weren’t bringing the kitchen utensils with us. And besides, if all went the way I planned, I wouldn’t be using it.
It hit me. This was actually happening. The adrenaline had been racing through my veins since we started this, keeping my mind sharp and my heart pounding, but it ratcheted up another notch as I realized that this was the moment for which I waited three years.
There was the faint sound of a key in a lock, the slight squeak of the door opening.
I kept my gaze on the blade as I heard footsteps, turning the handle over and over in my hand. The blade twirled slowly, glinting under the overhead fluorescents.
The feet stopped in the doorway. I glanced up only long enough to determine that his hands were empty and in sight. “Hey, Midget.” His tone was cautious. It wasn’t all performance, even though the confusion was reactionary rather than emotional.
Instead of replying with a greeting, I spoke directly to my brother. “You know, I’ve been thinking about this for a long time.” I took my eyes off the knife, met his. “It’ll all be over soon, Tom.”
The creature that had taken my brother stepped all the way into the room, hands held up in front of him in a gesture of surrender. In his terms, it was probably an attempt to set me at ease. His eyes were locked on my face, effort obviously being taken to keep himself calm. “Jake,” he said, “what are you doing?”
Either way, he was in the room, back to the only exit, and exactly where I wanted him. Instead of answering him, I gave into a mild curiosity that had drifted in my mind ever since my encounter with Tom’s former Yeerk. “So, what’s your name?” I asked, delivering the question with a slight smile.
Actual concern flashed across his face, an emotion that was mildly amusing. I was the one with the cards now, Yeerk. “Jake—”
“That’s my name, not yours.”
Annoyance, now. There was the true creature, rather than the actor. “My name is Tom.”
“No, I said your name.” I accented my statement by pointing the knife at him. “Not your host’s.”
Tom’s face closed, jaw stiffening. A cold smile chilled my expression.
Finally, to acknowledge that elephant in the room he never knew I was aware of. Dropping all of the secrecy and hints and inviting a blunt, open conversation. You don’t have long to live, Yeerk.
He wet his lips, a nervous habit. Trying to figure out what I knew, if I was sure of what I meant. Trying to decide what to do with—or to—me.
I leaned back, tapped the knife blade against the tiles. “It’s an easy question, Yeerk.” His hands clenched into fists. “And before you do something stupid… I have plenty of backup.”
Tom’s jaw was clenched tight, and he took a half-step closer. I pointed my knife at him again, warningly, and he stopped moving. His hands stayed visible, in front of him. His eyes were narrowed on me, calculating and cold. I matched his expression with my own, focusing solely on the Yeerk that wore my brother’s face. The temperature in the room was downright arctic.
Finally, he laughed. “Well played, little brother,” he sneered the endearment. “How long have you known?” I could see the undercurrent that was on his mind all too clearly.
“What is your name?”
“Sub-Visser 75, ” he said promptly, as if expecting me to be surprised.
Confirmation: he was important. “I’ve known for three years.” My heart beat four times before his expression turned into sharp understanding. I smirked. “Your predecessor was careless, showing an interest in kids running from the abandoned construction site.”
Sub-Visser 75 curled Tom’s hands into fists as he breathed, “The Andalite Bandits…”
“I’m afraid that was just us.” I raised an eyebrow and indicated the other side of the kitchen island. “Take a seat. We’re going to have a little talk.”
I could see the thoughts running through his head. The exultation at being right, the anger at knowing we had shared a house all these years, the fear of the consequences he would face for being so oblivious. And what he would do now that he had this information, his larger host body against my smaller one…
Casually, I examined the fingers on my left hand as I focused on my tiger DNA. My hand slowly began changing into a paw—I focused only on that limb—and I met his gaze. He took the hint.
I wasn’t just a little brother. I was dangerous. And he had no weapon.
He took the seat, hands placed on top of the tiles without needing me to prompt him. “What do you want from me?”
I reversed the morph, still holding the knife in my hand. “You have a choice. No matter what your decision is, my brother will be free.” His lip curled at that statement and I forged on. “You can hang around in his body for three days, dying the slow, agonizing death of Kandrona starvation, going through the Fugue.” His face paled. “Or you could leave his head now and I promise not to kill you by squashing your slimy body under my foot.”
“You would kill me.” Sub-Visser 75 eyed the glass of water that I’d left between us and off to the side. “Why would I believe any promise like that?”
I raised my eyebrow. “Isn’t life as a nothlit better than no life at all?”
My cold smile returned. “We do have the morphing technology, you know.”
“We already have. For others.” Well, one: Aftran. But it was precedent. It was the only thing I could offer to make the Yeerk consider freeing my brother without the hassle of keeping him held hostage.
Sub-Visser 75’s expression was completely blank. I was banking on him trusting me, through trusting and knowing Tom’s opinion of me, but if this didn’t work…
He curled Tom’s lip. “This is war. You wouldn’t keep your word.”
Well. That may be true. I still didn’t know if I would be able to go through with it or not. “So you want to do this the hard way?”
He snorted. “It’s not going to happen. Give me a reason to trust you, and I’ll consider letting you have Tommy back.”
I glanced over his shoulder. “How about an incentive to take the deal?”
One blink and an Andalite tail blade was at his throat. His breathing grew shallow as he realized he was trapped.
Trapped because I had kept the Sub-Visser’s focus on me as Ax came downstairs, morphed as human. He demorphed once he was just inside the room, so his hooves made no noise on the floor.
I leaned forward, balancing the knife on the tip and carefully resting my chin on the handle. “Live free or die,” I said softly, repeating the Hork-Bajir chant. It was familiar, it was comforting, and it was true.
I could see in his eyes that he knew Ax would do it.
My heart felt like it was about to burst from my chest when, with slow movements, the Sub-Visser reached for the glass. He moved much more slowly than necessary, but neither Ax nor I moved or spoke.
I focused on my anger, on the pulsing, burning hatred that I felt towards this Yeerk, and I made myself into stone. I did not move. I barely breathed. I was ready for anything—for an ill-advised escape attempt, for a taunt, for someone to come bursting into the room through the roof to stop what I had finally, finally set in motion.
Die, Yeerk. Be a nothlit. I didn’t care. As long as it was no longer be in my brother’s head.
But nothing happened, and the eternal journey of the cup ended underneath Tom’s ear. Sub-Visser 75 glared at me with the certainty of a being about to die before Tom’s eyes closed. I watched in fascination, hardly daring to believe it, as the slug gradually appeared and plunked into the glass.
The cup went sailing across the room and shattered against the wall.
Ax’s tail disappeared and Tom slumped against the island. His arms trembled slightly as he held himself up, and his eyes burned in a slightly mad way. “You can’t—don’t know—kill it!”
I glanced over my shoulder. The broken glass had cut the Yeerk, the water unable to keep it hydrated. I stood up, but blue fur blocked my way. The deadly tail flashed twice, and Ax nodded in satisfaction. He turned one stalk eye on me before passing back the way he came. ((Prince Jake, you should leave within ten Earth minutes. I shall go ahead to confirm to the rest that you are on your way.))
I nodded, and he left. No doubt also giving us some time to speak, a consideration I greatly appreciated.
Returning my full attention to Tom, I felt almost giddy as he looked up at me with a different expression. One lingering fear finally eased as his lips formed a huge smile. “I can’t even—I mean—all these years! And that whole—Jake, I’m free. I’m finally free!”
He’d stood up at some point, and his hands were gripping my arms, and—and there were other lingering fears, but this was real. I had wanted this for so long, tried with everything I had to get to this point. And it was here. My sight was fuzzy, and he looked a little unbalanced, but I just stepped forward and clung to Tom. Like I was a little kid again.
Sixteen years old, leader of Earth’s only defense against alien invaders, and I was crying on my brother’s shoulder.
I hadn’t been vulnerable like this in years. Couldn’t let myself be, especially not around him. But what made it worse, or better, was that Tom didn’t mock me. I felt his arms squeezing me back, tightly.
Eventually, I pulled back. As I wiped my eyes, he said, “I’m so proud of you.” Then he punched my shoulder. “Damnit, do you know how much your little emo speech freaked me out? Could you have tried any harder to give me a heart attack?”
I laughed, rubbing my arm. Absently noticed his red-rimmed and swollen eyes. “Kept him off-balance and focused on me,” I said, shrugging slightly at the lame explanation. I hesitated. “Tom, I wanted to do this so much earlier but it was too big a risk—”
“Hey.” He grabbed my shoulders. “I get it, midget.” He set his mouth in a hard line. “But since I’m free now, I’m assuming you know what they were up to.”
I nodded grimly, falling back into my role as Animorph. “We’re evacuating. They’re going to know for sure, but the time for hiding is already over.”
“You’re all in danger,” Tom confirmed, a haunted look in his eyes. “Mom, Dad and you have Yeerks with your names on them.”
My stomach twisted with nausea. “We don’t have much time. We should go.”
“What about Mom and Dad?” he asked, following me out of the kitchen.
“They should be at our safe location by now. It was easier to deal with the Yeerk without an audience that didn’t understand.” I led the way to the garage, where our mom’s car was parked. “They took dad’s car and our luggage.”
He paused at the driver’s door. “Wait, in my room, there’s—”
“A Dracon beam?” I smiled at his surprise. “Of course I knew about it. Do you know if anyone is watching the house?”
“None.” Tom’s face twisted as he pressed the button to open the garage door. It was a haunted expression. “He was planning to use tomorrow’s lawn mower trip to get you all.”
I didn’t need to ask who ‘he’ was. My hands clenched into fists.
The drive was silent. I could see the moment when Tom was fully hit by the fact that he was himself again. The car wavered between the lines, but he righted it quickly and drove on. His expression was complicated. We stayed silent, except for my directions.
When we reached the forest, I handed Tom a flashlight and pointed him toward the valley. While he started walking, I took the car to a pond and sunk it. Though Cassie didn’t like the idea, we had to get rid of the cars, as far from the Hork-Bajir as possible.
As an owl I flew back to Tom, landing a few yards ahead on the trail. He caught me in his flashlight beam during the last stages of my demorph and stopped walking.
His lips pressed together and he tilted his head slightly down. I felt a strange urge to cross my arms. “What?”
“I don’t know whether to be thankful for that or mad at the Andalite who gave a thirteen-year-old the ability.” He sighed. “Mom and Dad are going to be much worse, you know.”
I looked ahead up the path. We were over halfway there, likely to meet scouting Hork-Bajir soon. “What they think about it doesn’t really matter. It happened, and we aren’t backing out now.”
“Three years ago, when they were searching for a bunch of kids…”
Right. He didn’t know our side of the story. “Cassie, Rachel, Tobias, Marco,” I listed off the names of my troops. “We were walking home from the mall and cut through the abandoned construction site. Just found an alien by luck.”
“Good or bad?” He nudged me with one elbow, a little too hard—as if he wasn’t sure of his own strength.
“Remains to be seen,” I said, looking up through the trees. No scouts yet. “Don’t blame Elfangor for giving it to us. He was kind of desperate.”
I kicked a rock. It rolled a few feet ahead. “I heard you. Well. Not you.” My hands felt stiff, gripping my elbows. “I didn’t want to believe it. But that’s how we figured out what the Sharing was—actually, Marco figured it out.”
Tom gripped my shoulder, but didn’t say anything. Not like there was much to say. We both knew what happened to Elfangor, what it was like with Sub-Visser 75 trying to angle me towards the Sharing, what happened in the pool that first raid we went into.
Instead of mentioning any of that, Tom asked instead if Marco was alive. Then I had to go into the former Visser One, and his parents, and where we were actually going.
I think the warning was the only reason he didn’t freak out when some of the scouts finally found us. Two jumped down from the trees a yard away, the light highlighting their nightmarish appearance, and I automatically tensed before seeing their wide smiles. I wasn’t usually able to distinguish one from another, but Hork-Bajir expressions were becoming easier to figure out.
One was somewhat recognizable: he had a scar on his face cut through one of his eyes. He thumped his chest. “Free or die!”
Smiling, I returned the greeting. Tom did too, a victorious smirk on his face.
The one who spoke made a strange little head nod to me. “Fal Tagut come for Jake and brother. Not far to go.”
The other Hork-Bajir nodded. “Tila Fillat carry brother of Jake.”
Tom hesitated. “Uh…”
I laughed. “Tom can make it without being carried, Tila. Thank you.”
“Tom brother of Jake walk?”
“Yes, Tom will walk,” he answered. His lips were twitching between a smile and a failing attempt to remain serious.
With some minor back and forth, the Hork-Bajir eventually walked alongside us. They made conversation about tree bark, which I think was meant to be a reassurance that there was enough food to go around. I didn’t try to tell them that we couldn’t eat bark—I’d save that conversation for later, when it wasn’t an obscene hour of the morning.
The moon was high overhead when we finally entered the new Hork-Bajir territory. Tila and Fal continued to walk beside us until we saw the human congregation, then split off to rejoin other Hork-Bajir milling around the edges of the camp. It wasn’t the full tribe, but fifteen aliens with blades gazing curiously at you just beyond the light of a campfire was an unusual welcoming committee.
Tom voiced it for me. “That’s totally not going to help any of them relax.”
“I know. But the Hork-Bajir don’t understand.” I was relieved that Toby was front and center, lit dramatically by the fire but also fully visible. She was speaking to the adults, and I knew her confident, articulate voice would relieve some fears. Peter and Eva were mingling with our families, and I saw everyone except for Marco was present. Tobias and Ax stood near Toby, a hawk on an Andalite’s shoulder adding to the strange tableau.
Mom caught sight of us first as we emerged from the shadows. “Tom! Jake!” She and Dad instantly converged on us.
I let them have an emotional reunion. This night was trying on them, who had never been aware all this time of what was happening. I could afford a bit of discomfort to appease my family.
Even as I let them, I wasn’t fully present. I was still thinking, knowing why our missing member was not yet back. His mom wouldn’t have told the rest what he was doing. Tobias should hear it from me. And I had to talk to Toby.
“Jake. You have returned,” Toby greeted me as I came closer to the fire pit. It was a little hollowed ditch, just enough to contain the steady blaze.
Mom’s hand tightened on my arm as I made to separate from them. Tom pulled her back with a little shake of his head, eyes watching me with a steady knowing. There was a hint of wonder in his eyes. I found myself wondering what he had figured out.
As I approached Toby, I could sense rather than see the rest of my troops coming closer. Our families stayed back on the fringes, Marco’s parents quieting them. I caught a glimpse of Sara asleep, but Jordan’s eyes were bright and watchful. Strange to see her, the same age as we had been when this all started.
I turned so that Toby, Ax and Tobias were more directly in my line of sight. “I’m sorry to inconvenience your people, Toby,” I said.
Her head made a gracious arc, neither a nod nor a shake of the head. “The families of the Animorphs are most welcome,” she replied. “The risk to all of our families is high. Perhaps together as allies we are stronger than we were separated and in hiding.”
“Speaking of hiding,” Rachel said, tossing her hair. “Where’s Marco?” She eyed me, challenging. Cassie, Tobias, and Ax followed her lead.
I sighed. “Doing what I asked him to do.” Tobias’ gaze was sharp and I forced myself to meet it. “He should have found her by now. I told him to stay and watch as long as he could, and report back in time for us to figure out what to do by first light.”
For a long minute, we were silent. Then I heard Tobias, in a voice I knew only I could hear. ((Thank you.)) I inclined my head slightly.
Rachel broke the silence in her usual tactful manner. “What are we waiting for? We should go now! Blast through any trap they might be setting.”
“If there is one,” Cassie interjected softly, “how much force is going to be there?”
Ax shifted his hooves, a movement we had come to recognize as discomfort. ((The Yeerks are determined to capture you. Since they found a match, any battle we have over her fate will be intense.))
“So we should all go in, hard and fast.” Rachel’s eyes glittered in the firelight.
“It will make them certain they have the right person,” Cassie pointed out.
Rachel scoffed. “They already have a blood match. We’re not confirming something they don’t already know.”
((It’s too risky.))
As one, we turned to an owl fluttering to the ground. Marco remained strangely silent. I heard Tobias’ wings flutter—in anger? In distress? Our parents were sitting back, eyes wide, and I forced myself not to meet their eyes as I waited for Marco to become human.
He demorphed quickly, but not fast enough to stop Rachel from ranting. “What do you mean, ‘too risky’? They don’t have the collateral of our own families now, they don’t know we’ve made a move tonight, and if we keep pushing we can get her out before they have time to prepare!”
Marco rolled his eyes. “I didn’t say getting her out was too risky. I meant that full-on firepower was not going to work.”
“What did you find out?” I asked.
“Do you want the bad news or the good news first? I vote bad.”
I rubbed my temple with one hand and let my expression speak for itself. Cassie muttered his name disapprovingly.
He grinned, having attained his goal. “Bad news is, she lives in a not-so-Brady-Bunch neighborhood. Good news is, there’s absolutely no way she can be a Controller.” Good, one concern off the table.
“How can you be so certain? You can’t have had enough time.” Cassie asked.
To my surprise, it was Tobias who spoke. And suddenly, Marco’s earlier silence made sense: he was talking only to one person. One who deserved to hear it privately. ((She’s blind.))
I glanced back at him. Ax had both stalk eyes on Tobias’ inexpressive face, an unusual move for an ever-vigilant Andalite.
Marco crossed his arms, trying to keep the sympathy from his expression. It still showed in his unusual tact. “Whatever happened that caused it left lots of scars and one ear damaged. But she has a guide dog. Big ol’ German shepherd. Thankfully, not a little yappy thing.”
“A dog,” Cassie repeated, understanding shining on her face. I also could see where he was going with it.
He nodded. “We can get inside that way. The windows haven’t been opened in a long time and it looks like she lives alone.”
Rachel wasn’t yet ready to give up her desire for full-frontal assault. “So the rest of us should be there in case the Yeerks show up.”
I cut in, silencing the discussion on the verge of becoming an argument. “We’re not all going.” She turned to me. “They’ll have surveillance up by now and figure out what Marco did. That she lives alone, for their purposes—” I cut my eyes to Tobias, trying to express my apology “—useless as a host. She’s already a trap.” The blood relation made her bait, our apparent disconnect not enough to make her safe.
Predictably, Rachel bristled. “Which is why, if we need to fight our way out—”
Marco cut in this time. “We should focus on planning a stealth mission. We don’t want an all out battle in the middle of a residential area, Xena.”
Rachel bit her lip as she saw the logic. But she was stubborn, so I knew I had to make some choices now. Thankfully, I was already sure of some things that needed to be done in the Hork-Bajir camp. “Rachel, Ax, Cassie—you three will stay here.”
“Oh, goody! I get to go do the dangerous things,” Marco said. He grinned at Tobias. “We’re going to have barrels of fun, Hawkboy.”
Rachel pointed at Marco. “You’re trusting him for stealth? With our luck, you’ll need to fight your way out.” I knew she wanted to go for Tobias. I knew that she was itching to lash out at the Yeerks for what we had been forced to do to our families. But…
“What we don’t need is an elephant stomping her house flat.” She glared. Cassie placed a hand on her arm, which she didn’t try to shake off. “We should have people here in case of an attack.” I tilted my head toward our human audience, who were not morph-capable or ready for any kind of fight. Rachel calmed slightly, seeing my point. Turning to Toby, I asked, “Do you still have many wounded?”
She smiled. “Most are much improved. Assistance would still be appreciated.”
“Okay. Cassie, think you can handle it again?” She had done so after the loss of the Valley, and she nodded her assent now. I turned to Ax next. “Ax, I need you to stay on top of that device you and Peter built. Also, check in with Toby’s guards when you need to go for a run.”
((Yes, Prince Jake.))
“Don’t call me ‘Prince’.”
((Yes, Prince Jake.))
Tobias ruffled his feathers slightly and even Rachel fought a smile. The predictability of my usual, tired argument with Ax served almost to relax us at this point. Marco tapped my head with a knuckle. “This is just a guess, but I don’t think you’re getting through to our foreign friend there, Fearless Leader.”
I ignored him. “Now that we have that settled… do you two think we can make it tonight? Or should we wait until morning?”
“Hate to break it to you, but it is morning.”
I sighed. “Until there’s light in the sky, then.”
((We’ve been morphing a lot. We’ll make less mistakes if we wait until the sun’s up.)) Tobias’ thoughts made perfect sense, though I knew it must have cost him. ((I can go take over surveillance.)) Or he could be thinking ahead.
I eyed him. Even though it was night and he was diurnal, I knew his sleep schedule was inconsistent and he could handle the night despite the difficulties with his eyes. But I was also worried about the human side of Tobias, the boy who was going to watch a mother he’d never known. I was willing to bet her blindness was why she hadn’t raised him, but there were still so many questions that had to be bouncing around in his head.
Marco met my eyes, lifting an eyebrow. His jaw twitched and I shrugged one shoulder. What choice did we have? I nodded to Tobias. “Be careful. They know our morphs,” I warned him, though it was hardly necessary. We were all well aware of that fact.
Tobias took off with a brief farewell. I rubbed my temple with two fingers, trying to stay fully conscious. I couldn’t crash yet. The adrenaline pumping through my system was working to my advantage, but now that our families were here and our plans more or less set I was starting to come down off that chemical high.
Our parents had already set up tents and camping equipment under Eva and Peter’s direction. I pulled Marco’s mother aside quickly, asking if she and Peter would be able to answer most of the questions our parents had—because while we were the ones fighting, it was still going to be hard for them to get used to the idea that their kids knew more than they did. She agreed easily, adding with a careful pat on my shoulder that she’d also take time to speak to Tom.
I appreciated her thinking ahead like that. It hadn’t occurred to me, in the seething mental mass of concerns and responsibilities, that my brother might be in need of a talk with someone who knew exactly what he had gone through. At the same time, it stressed me further about all the things I hadn’t anticipated.
To my relief, my parents did not push me for more explanations. That could all wait for the morning—my words, Tom revealing what he’d gone through, everything. I knew he had not mentioned it yet, and I could see that he was worried, but until morning light it would all have to wait. I pushed them all to sleep, promising that things would be more sensible in the morning light.
The next days were nerve-wracking. As Tobias went slightly rogue in his attempts to save his mother, I let him have the leash he needed to make decisions. Marco was keeping a sharper eye on him because he didn’t have to worry about his parents the way the rest of us did. I could also see that my aunt was going to be a handful, that Cassie’s parents still thought there was good in everyone including parasitic alien invaders, and that my parents were torn to pieces over Tom’s revelation of his prior status as a host.
I wasn’t present for it that first morning our families woke in the forest. When I got back to the camp in the afternoon, Marco’s mom was having a serious talk with my parents and Tom was sitting off by himself. A few of the younger Hork-Bajir were steadily creeping closer to him. He smiled at them and I could see the strain in it.
I nodded to Eva in thanks and made my way to Tom. Cassie caught my gaze across the field and her lips twisted into a sympathetic grimace.
The young Hork-Bajir scattered at my approach. I looked away from them and took a seat next to Tom on the log.
He poked at the dirt with a stick. Not knowing what to say, I settled for waiting him out.
Surprisingly, it didn’t take too long. “You know, sometimes the only thing that kept me going was how hard you’d fight me on joining the Sharing. And sometimes, I would just get so depressed when I thought you hated me, because of the way he was acting.”
Elbows on my knees, I clasped my hands together. “I only ever hated him. You might not have known that I knew, but I only ever thought about freeing you whenever he’d do something.”
The stick stopped moving. “They’re blaming themselves.”
I followed his train of thought effortlessly. “He and I did everything we could to keep them in the dark.”
“Mom just kept talking about how she knew something was wrong. Dad said he should have been firmer.” The stick cracked in his hand. “If they hadn’t let him play on the irresponsible-teenager stereotype—if they had tried—”
“They’ve barely been introduced to all of this,” I interrupted. My voice remained low and calm, in contrast to the wild emotion and inflections in his. “When they get over feeling guilty, then they’ll understand.”
He tossed the broken pieces of the stick away. “How did you do this with a bunch of kids your own age?” It was almost a whisper. “How did my little brother become the leader of Earth’s only resistance to a parasitic alien takeover?”
My eyes darted to his face sharply. Our families had woken from a half-night’s uncomfortable sleep in the woods while Marco, Tobias and I were out. Marco’s parents would have explained some of it, but I doubted that they got around to talking about the Animorphs. They’d want to avoid thinking about that for some time yet. And especially since I was gone, I doubted they had talked about me being the de-facto leader.
Tom met my gaze squarely and laughed. The sound was welcome, despite the ache in it. “I’m not dumb. You morphed your hand to a tiger paw. The Andalite, Ax, called you ‘Prince Jake.’ And last night, the others discussed what to do but you were the one who gave out commands. Ones they obeyed.”
I looked back to the dirt under my bare feet. “I didn’t want it.” Never did, but even now no one else would step up to take over. None of the parents could, they didn’t know enough. Even Marco’s mom deferred to me, though I had almost expected her to take charge. “But since when did what we want have anything to do this?”
Tom’s elbow met my ribs with bruising force. “Hey. You’re doing a lot of good.”
“Are we?” I nudged a small rock with my big toe. “Most of the time I think we’re gnats, no matter what morph we use. Sometimes I hope we’re actually making a difference. It seems so unlikely when I remember how big this war is, on and off planet.”
“If nothing else, you give the hosts a lot of hope.” I grit my teeth. “But you do more than that. You’ve damaged a lot of the Visser’s plans. And you’ve held out against the invasion for three years without losing a single one of your people.”
Since when was this about Tom comforting me? He may have been my older brother—and it certainly felt good to lean on him for a change—but I came over here with a goal. “You survived, too.” I glanced over when he didn’t reply and saw the faint revulsion on his face. “None of what he did was you. You know that.”
His lips twitched, the grin lacking belief. “But I got the front row seat to all of it.”
Behind me, I could hear Marco’s return to camp. Though I knew I had other duties, I let myself linger as I rose to my feet. I let my hand rest on his shoulder. “The memories never go away.” I thought of my own—the battles, the nightmares, the sounds of war that refused to let me sleep sometimes. “So you focus on the good things. On why you’re here and what you’re doing, and push all the rest aside. Until our planet is ours again, dwelling on the past makes it impossible to stay with the present.”
His eyes looked a little brighter when he laughed again. “Such wise words…for such a dweeb.”
“Shut up,” I said, punching him in the arm. He retaliated and I walked away.
The interaction helped me focus on what I needed to do by reminding me why I was doing it at all. So as we made our plans for Tobias’ mother, and the sun rose and sank, and the campers with the Hork-Bajir grew to understand more of their situation, I stayed in control. When we rescued Tobias’ mother by way of the blue box and a serious amount of luck, I fought not to let relief overpower the nagging feeling that we had managed it all by the skin of our teeth.
As the days passed, we found that living in the wilderness together was a challenge none wanted to face.
All the humans were at each other’s throats. Our parents struggled to understand the situation they were forced into and the Animorphs were not used to acting without the secrecy which had made up our lives these past years. I was caught trying to balance being a leader with forcing my parents to understand that no, we couldn’t go shoot at Bug fighters with a musket and yes, we had to stay in the woods and no, let Tom deal in his own way because the help navigating Hork-Bajir-human relations is definitely appreciated.
Toby and I had been in conference about how to fix the pipes when we heard the alarm. I made it to the trenches with Ax and Rachel, but the relief that hit at the all-clear signal made me freeze in place. I took a moment to breathe. Then shook my head as I saw Aunt Naomi dragged between the Hork-Bajir guards back into camp.
Another escape attempt. Just what we needed.
Cassie and Marco joined us in the center of camp. I knew without searching for him that Tobias would have gone to cover the guard gap, which formed when these two Hork-Bajir left their posts.
I refrained from speaking. Maybe I should have said something. At the time, I thought that Rachel could handle her family matters. However, it turned very ugly, very fast. When Aunt Naomi flinched, I had to say something. “Rachel.”
She ignored me. “This isn’t something you can fix on paper, Mom. It’s a war. We’re not worrying about being sued. We’re worried about being killed.” Her shoulders rose as she sucked in air. This wasn’t just anger: this was Rachel scared, this was Rachel hurt and sad. I knew what she said next was going to hurt.
I also knew Aunt Naomi. If she could brush it off, she’d ignore it.
So I kept my mouth closed and let Rachel speak. “Being a lawyer is something from your old life. Here, it’s useless and means nothing. But you can at least stay out of the way, follow orders, and try not to get us all killed.”
I grabbed her arm. She shoved at me, the fury blinding her, but I stood firm and turned her to me. “Rachel.”
She looked ready to spit nails and I crossed my arms. The lack of shouting was what got through to her: she was expecting angrier words, something against which to fight, but instead had to listen and watch.
Sara and Jordan had joined us then, on either side of their mother. I couldn’t look my aunt in the eye as Jordan whispered, “I don’t think you’re useless, Mommy.”
Instead of looking at them, my eyes sought out Marco’s mother. Eva was just joining the group, and she nodded to me briskly. Putting her arm around Aunt Naomi’s shoulders, she said, “It takes a while to accept. Come on. Let’s talk.” Sara and Jordan followed the two women.
I purposefully put my back to them, forcing Rachel to see her family over my shoulder. She started ranting, nostrils flaring like an angry bull. “She deserved every word and more. Don’t tell me not to tell her off! She’s my mother!”
“Exactly.” Her eyes fell. I ignored the rest of our parents, who were close enough to hear but far enough to feign disinterest. Nothing I said would get through to her right now, not so close on the heels of her emotional outburst and certainly not with an audience. “Go join Tobias.”
She glared at me again, but stomped off. Hopefully he could calm her, let her get it out of her system.
Marco and Ax wandered off without a word. But Cassie stayed. I raised an eyebrow and her head tilted slightly to the right. Without asking her why she wanted to speak, I turned with her and we headed off toward the trenches.
When we were out of earshot she said softly, “You might have to talk to Rachel.” I sighed. “If you make it an order, she’ll probably listen.”
“She’ll also withdraw in order to do it,” I pointed out. This was war: this was unpredictable. If she withdrew from her family, she might not get the chance to make up with them. “Tobias will help her deal.”
Cassie crossed her arms, letting her shoulders droop. “That’s true.”
We jumped into the ditch and I edged closer to her. “What’s wrong?”
She looked up to the sky and I recognized that look in her eyes. “I yelled at my mom earlier. My parents aren’t doing so well. They didn’t like war as an abstract concept, and now they’re thrown into one…” She shook her head. “My mom thinks of the Hork-Bajir as animals. I know she meant well when talking about the living conditions in the emergency shelter, but she isn’t seeing them as people. She hasn’t grasped that the shelters are necessary, that this is war. I got so frustrated I snapped at her.”
I slipped my arm around her waist and she leaned against me. Knowing she didn’t want advice, I decided commiseration was an appropriate response. “Mine aren’t doing too well with their guilt. I’ve never seen them like this before. Hopeless. And Tom’s throwing himself into this, making himself a soldier, a diplomat between humans and Hork-Bajir, taking care of our parents and pretending it’s not for my sake—but he has to crash sometime. He hasn’t even talked to Eva much about being a Controller.”
She drew her other arm forward, stepping around so that we held each other. It was a brief moment, this pause to feel for one another and for our families. Then she stepped back and looked up at me. “What about you?”
Cassie always knew me too well. “It’s harder now.”
Luck and chances. Choices and mistakes. Who knew if I was doing the right things, if my orders were enough to keep us all alive. I was responsible for the people and aliens in the immediate vicinity, in addition to an unnumbered millions who were unaware of our existence. I’d known it in a vague sense, but the numbers in this camp made it hit harder. Hit home.
I remembered the young Hork-Bajir scattering as I neared them.
That worried me the first time it happened. Toby told me most of the Hork-Bajir were middle-aged fighters, and indulgent parents. As authority figures and leaders, Toby and I were respected and awed by the young. All they knew was that to be a Seer was to be different and important, and that humans were aliens. The young ones were curious and mimicked the respect of their parents. Older Hork-Bajir were subtle enough that I had not noticed they kept a respectful distance. Not until Toby described and explained Hork-Bajir body language to me.
I was used to acting as a leader for the Animorphs. To have it explained to me in the ways that children act, even if those children were aliens, was a jolt to my understanding of how we worked with our allies. The Hork-Bajir weren’t stupid, but there was also a lot they didn’t understand. And at times I had regarded the Chee as superiors, guidance and a measure against which to gauge my own slipping lines in this war.
Now I wondered if they looked at me as a strong, capable leader worthy of respect or as a kid playing in morally-ambiguous adult shoes. And I wasn’t sure which one I preferred.
I was cracking and I could feel it. The question was: did everyone else see it?
Cassie could. I saw her understanding in the lines around her eyes, the purse of her lips. “Remember the butterfly?” she asked.
For a moment, I thought she was recalling our first encounter with Aftran. But then I remembered, another night when the pressure was weighing on my shoulders, a night long ago when we giggled about being caught in a more mundane teenage secret by our parents. “Beat my wings and hope for the best?”
“It’s all we can do. All of us.”
She always knew what I needed to hear. “Our families are alive. We can handle what happens next.”