Chapter One

My name is Marco. And every single one of you who made a friggin Polo joke just now can seriously go jump off a pier. I've been hearing them since I was old enough to know what it meant, particularly any time I go within fifty yards of any body of water.

Not that I hate jokes, even bad ones. My mother taught me a long time ago that life is either tragic or hilarious depending on how you look at it, and I chose hilarious right off the bat. I don't fault your bad jokes. Hell, most of mine are bad (though still hilarious, just in a groaning first and after sort of way). I just fault lazy jokes, and that's exactly what Polo jokes are. They're lazy. They're obvious. Show some creativity.

I happened to, quite reasonably and with much better humor than the original 'joke', point this out to our school's resident star linebacker/Sherpa training mountain who had shouted out the 'Marco Polo' line no less than four times while I was trying to ignore him and continue waiting for Jake to get done in the locker room. He actually had this class first thing in the morning, while I had been charming enough to get a free period.

Finally, when the big guy repeated his 'funny joke' yet again and continued to shake the walls with the force of his laughter, I had no choice but to turn around and tell him (or rather, his stomach/general waist area) that there were much funnier jokes he could be making, most of which involved his haircut and his probable world-record setting number of years as a high school student.

It was, I reflected as I was promptly yanked up and sent flying through the air before crashing headfirst into the cold water of the swimming pool, possibly a pet peeve that I could learn to keep to myself.

Inverting myself in the water, I surfaced and coughed a couple of times while the laughter of the few remaining students in the pool area continued. My jeans and tee-shirt were soaked through completely, and the weight of my shoes made it much harder to tread water.

The sound of my glorious splash had brought the gym coach right out of her office. She took one look and blew her whistle (because deafening me was totally necessary). "Marco!" She screamed even before the residual echo of the piercing whistle had faded. "No one goes in the pool when I'm not here. What do you think you're doing?!"

As I continued to tread water while fully dressed, I looked around the pool, blinked up at Coach Kerry, and offered, "Checking for leaks?" Managing to give her a thumbs up, I added, "Looks good, Coach. Carry on."

Coach Kerry narrowed her eyes and looked around the pool area, but Josh (my linebacker buddy/launch platform) had already stalked away and into the hall. "Get out of the pool, Marco. And try to learn when discretion is the better part of valor."

I pulled myself out, noticing Jake watching from the doorway of the locker room. Dripping, I walked that way, stopping to pick up my backpack from where I had dropped it near the wall. I had gym clothes in my locker that I could change into.

"Josh?" Jake asked with a raised eyebrow as I moved past him. He stepped back so that I wouldn't get him wet.

"Nah," I replied. "I just wanted to see if changing clothes to swim was really necessary. If I didn't have to do that before gym, I could totally save five minutes every day."

I dropped my backpack before opening my locker and grabbed the towel that was in there, before starting to take my wet things off. As I did so, the bag fell over sideways and a small notepad fell out of the side pocket.

Jake moved before I could, stooping to pick it up. "What's this?"

"Nothing!" I replied just a little too shrilly to be convincing. I made a grab for the notebook, but Jake held it up out of the way. It was far from the first time I had been annoyed at my short stature. Grinning, Jake glanced at the first palm-sized page and started to read the crossed out entries aloud. "I like you. You're funny. I think you're pretty. I'm glad I know you?" He turned back to me and raised an eyebrow. "Okay, one, these are terrible lines. Even by your standards. And two, since when do you write down what you're going to say to a girl? Usually you just wing it."

I did my best to glower, not that it had much of an effect. "You'll notice that's why the lines are crossed out, because they're bad. They're dumb. And... they don't mean anything." I looked down then. "I am so glad I thought to put an extra speedo in here. You know how embarrassing that could end up otherwise?"

"Don't change the subject." Jake pressed. "Since when do you plan out what you want to say to a girl? Actually, since when does any guy plan out what to say to a girl? Isn't this breaking guy law or something? Is there some kind of committee I need to report this to?"

Sighing, because he wasn't going to let it go, I finally shrugged. "Because whenever I talk to other girls, it doesn't really matter what they say. I'm like, 'Hey, you're cute, I'm cute, wanna go be cute together?' And then they get offended or they laugh or they make an excuse or whatever, and life goes on. No big deal."

Jake paused, head tilting. "Okay...? So what's the difference now?"

I remained silent for a moment while I continued to dress myself in my spare speedo and then my gym clothes. "Because umm... because this one matters." I mumbled before swinging the locker door shut.

"Whoa, whoa," Jake held up a hand. "What do you mean, this one matters? Marco, do you actually... like a girl?" I opened my mouth and then shut it, but he read my face and grinned. "Ohhh man, who are we talking about? Wait, you know you can't get too serious until we..." His voice lowered just in case. "Until we check her out and make sure she's not... one of them?"

He was referring, of course, to the Yeerks. If you aren't aware of what those are, I have to assume that you've been held in rapt fascination thus far merely by my wit and charm alone. While understandable, you really should read an earlier volume to have an idea of what's going on. I promise, I'm just as amazing in those books as well.

I shook my head. "That's not an issue, trust me."

Jake frowned at that. "Oh come on, the only way that wouldn't be an issue is if she was one of us, and we all know that Rachel is with Tobias..." He trailed off then, snapping his gaze back to me as the look on my face again gave it away.

"Melissa?" He said aloud, eyes widening. "Dude, seriously, you like Melissa?" He whistled low. "Rachel is going to kill you."

"Why?" I grabbed my backpack off the floor and took the notepad back from him. "I don't see how it's any of her business. I mean yeah, they're friends, like you and me. But I'm pretty sure that Melissa has a mind of her own. If she says no, she says no. It's not like hearing no is some brand new thing for me. What our warrior princess thinks about it shouldn't have any bearing. And for the record, Rachel could stand to learn that her friends can make their own decisions without her approval."

"They're friends, Marco, of course it has bearing. But I know what you mean." Jake was quiet for a moment, then said simply, "You really like her, huh?"

I sighed, holding the backpack on one shoulder. "Jake, she... she laughs at my jokes. And better than that, I laugh at hers. She's little and cute and adorable and... she knows Star Wars better than I do. I can talk to her about what I like and her eyes don't glaze over. When she laughs, I forget about everyone else that isn't laughing, because they don't really matter anymore. Hell, I look forward to missions, even with all the insanity and danger, because it means spending time around her. I like listening to her as much as I like talking to her. I love talking to cute girls because I like to hear my own jokes. With Melissa, I don't mind being quiet because... I like the things she says. I want to know more about what she thinks about."

"And best of all, Jake, I don't have to lie to her. She already knows the truth. I never have to lie to her." I took a breath and then let it out in a low sigh. "But you know, how do I actually ask her about any of this?"

Jake's hand found my shoulder, and he squeezed. "Offhand... I'd say you tell her exactly what you just told me."

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on which part of my brain was talking at the time), there wasn't time to work up the nerve to talk to Melissa before school ended. And after that, well, after that we had more important plans.

We were going to save my mother.

She had been taken by the Yeerks years ago. Taken by their top military commander, in fact. She had been infested by the Yeerk responsible for the initial invasion, Visser One. Some sick part of me was almost, almost proud of that fact. That part was usually drowned out by the ninety nine point nine percent of me that wanted to yank the filthy fucking slug out of my mom's head and go after it with a hatchet.

Dad and I hadn't known that mom was infested, of course. We'd thought she was dead. Dad still did. I had no idea how he was going to take the news once we did save her.

That's if he could even know about it. See, I wasn't stupid enough to think that we could just save my mom, take her back home to reunite her and dad, and then everything would be hunky dory. No, we had to make sure that the Yeerks had no reason to suspect that she was still alive, and thus had no reason to go after her remaining family to find her.

We were going to have to convince the Yeerks that she, and the Yeerk infesting her, had both been killed. Which shouldn't be too hard if our plan to have her detonate the fleet of Yeerk warships that had recently taken up invisible orbit around our planet worked out.

How could I have been thinking about being closer to Melissa while we had this hanging over our heads, you ask? Simple, because we never didn't have something like this hanging over our heads. The last couple of years had been filled with situations like this. There was never going to be a completely good time for it.

Which meant, to stay sane, I had to make that time as best as I could.

Originally, we had been planning to go after my mother immediately. But calmer heads had prevailed. We'd needed rest after the thorough asskicking our psychotic and clearly prophetic new enemy Taylor had given us, and time to try to decide how we were going to manage this rescue. We decided to wait a few days, with Ax's assurance that the internal conflict between Visser One and Visser Three would prevent the Yeerks from moving too quickly themselves before we could put our plan into motion.

I say plan, but it was actually more of a goal. The group still, even now, had no idea how, exactly, we were going to go about that. As per usual, we were winging it.

«We cannot just wing this.» Tobias, perched on a tree branch at the edge of the clearing where the rest of us stood, announced. It was an hour after school had ended, and we were finally together and ready to go be suicidal again. The six of us clearly needed safer hobbies.

"That's funny." I replied, leaning back against the invisible hull of our brand spanking new spaceship (long story). "You seem to get along by just 'winging' things just fine."

"See this is how we know the situation is dire." Jake spoke up amicably toward Melissa. "Marco's jokes get even worse than usual." He winked at me, and I replied with a gesture that would have gotten me tossed right into detention if we had still been at school.

"We have an invisible spaceship." Rachel pointed out, gesturing like a Price Is Right girl at the, well, nothing behind me. "That's a pretty distinct advantage."

"It's not enough." Jake said flatly. "Do you have any idea how much security is around someone like Visser One?" He gave me an apologetic look. "We can't just storm in, grab her, and get out."

They all looked at me like I was going to object, but I nodded instead. "You're right." Their surprised looks made my eyes roll. "Oh come on. Yeah, I want to rescue my mom, but I want to do it right. We're not going to get a second chance at this." I took a breath, hesitated, and then went on. "That's why I came up with a plan."

Okay, so I lied before. But really, I just said that the group didn't have a plan. I didn't say anything about me.

"You have a plan?" Rachel sounded skeptical.

"Yup." I winked before proceeding to explain how we were going to rescue my mother without letting the Yeerks know she was still alive.

When I was done, Jake let out a low whistle. "It's bold."

"It's insane." Rachel amended, though she didn't look too upset by that. In fact, she was smiling. "The Yeerks'll never know what hit 'em."

«That is the point.» Ax observed. «The yeerks cannot know that we had anything to do with it. They cannot even be aware that we were there. Otherwise the plan will fall apart.»

Again, I nodded. "I ahhh, sort of have a plan for that too." Jake raised an eyebrow at that, and I shrugged. "Hey, did you really think I spent the last few days goofing off?"

Thankfully, before Jake could speak again, a new voice interrupted. "I believe that Marco is referring to our part of his plan."

Everyone turned to see Erek the Chee, accompanied by a female Chee we knew as Belle, and a couple others. The pacifistic alien androids emerged from the trees, most of them waiting back a bit, though Belle moved to where Rachel was. I knew the two of them had become friends back when the mess with David and the diplomatic conference was going on, though I had no idea how much they kept up.

"Erek?" Jake frowned. "How are you gonna help?"

Erek looked to me, and I took the cue to explain. "We don't want the Yeerks to know we were up on their ships, so the Chee are going to take our places and stage an attack on one of the Sharing facilities they know about. They'll use their holograms to make it look like we're assaulting the place, right during the time that most of this is going down."

"How does that work?" Rachel wanted to know. "You can't attack, you're pacifists. I mean, you're physically incapable of it." She paused, then frowned. "That's still true, right? Because if you can fight now, this whole war would get a lot more interesting."

Belle shook her head, laying a hand on Rachel's arm. "No. We cannot fight. But we can make it look as though we are."

"We can fake it." Erek explained. "We can't actually hurt anyone, but we can project a couple of other holograms for our 'Animorph' holograms to attack, then let ourselves be driven off by the Yeerk counter attack. We don't actually have to hurt anyone for them to believe you were there."

"Right." I nodded. "And with 'us' accounted for with that aborted attack right when the real nasty stuff is going down, the real blame will go right where we want it go go."

Jake grinned at that. "You want to frame Visser Three for killing Visser One."

«And destroying most of her fleet.» Tobias put in from his perch. «That's gonna cause a Yeerk civil war among whoever's left up there when this is done.»

"Exactly." I cracked my neck to both sides. "So they can fight each other while we get my mom to safety and figure out what to do from there afterward."

Ax spoke up then. «There is one more potential issue. If any Yeerk sees any of us and survives, our plan will fail»

"He's right." Rachel agreed. "We can't let a single Yeerk see us and live."

I nodded once more. "None of them survive. We're going to have to kill every Yeerk who notices us, even in animal form. And that means we have to kill the Yeerk, not just the slave it's riding around in."

There was a gulp from Melissa. The only member of this team who was actually smaller than I was looked a bit pale. It was only then that I realized that Melissa had yet to actually kill anyone. She had been in combat, but she hadn't killed. The closest she had come was during the battle against the ridiculous Helmacrons, but it had been impossible to actually kill those little psychos, no matter how dismembered they got.

For a moment, I had no idea what to say. Here I had been planning out how to tell the girl that I really liked her, and now I was saying, 'hey, commit your first murder for me while I rescue my mom, would you?'. It made me feel a little sick inside.

Rachel noticed as well, grimacing before she took the other girl's hand. "Hey, don't worry. You won't have to do anything you don't want to do. That's why there's a team."

Melissa still looked pale, but she shook her head, gently freeing her hand from Rachel's grasp after squeezing it. "I'll be fine." She said, though her voice was unconvincing. "I mean... they're the bad guys, right? Fight for the fate of Earth, future of humanity, all of that. I... I'll do what I have to do."

"That just leaves one more problem." Jake said, clearly changing the subject purposefully. "This plan you have requires all of us, Marco. But you need the ship to fly around, provide cover fire, and pick us up. How's that gonna work if the six of us are busy? The Chee can't use the weapons."

"I ahh, I sort of took care of that already too." I glanced toward the others. "We have a pilot on the ship already. She's been spending the day getting familiar with the controls."

"She?" Rachel echoed, as a whooshing noise announced that the hatch of the ship had been opened. The interior cargo bay appeared in midair, along with a figure that began to descend the extending ramp.

"That would be me." The woman with the slightly unkempt, dirty blonde hair announced.

Tobias made a noise that sounded an awful lot like a crow's squawk, then flew straight down from his perch. «MOM?»

Loren, Tobias's mother, held her arm out and let him land on it before tenderly stroking his wings. "Hey, baby. I missed you so much."

«Mom, where... where's Karen?» Tobias finally managed to ask after a few moments of reunion.

"With the free Hork-Bajir." She answered. "She likes to play with Bek now that she doesn't think he's a monster anymore. She'll be safe there while we do this."

Jake was staring at me. "You really did plan this out, didn't you?"

"Like I said," I replied. "I want to save my mom. Which means doing this right."

Holding one arm out for Tobias to perch on, Loren gestured back to the ramp. "Well what are we waiting for? Who's ready to go start a Yeerk Civil War?"