A/N: Don't forget, for every comment and review you leave (either here or over at r/rational), the author spares a helpless innocent. Just a little over seven billion people left to save, in-story, and you can help!
In all seriousness, though, your comments are what keep me going. Please, if you enjoy this story, take five minutes to share some thoughts. Sincere thanks to all those who've been doing so through thick and thin.
Chapter 25: Marco
"First thing's first," I said aloud, and in a quieter tone I broadcast ‹Ready?›
‹Ready,› Rachel answered. Her face was empty, still, giving nothing away.
I raised the Andalite shredder, my palm just the tiniest bit sweaty against the strange, spongy material of the handgrip. Around me, the others stood frozen, feigning shock, my father's mouth opening as it formed around a question—
"Rachel," I called out, leveling the weapon. "I'm sorry."
The beam lanced out—a brilliant, blinding purple—and hit her just above her right elbow. There was a moment—a single frame, less than a heartbeat, less than the blink of an eye—when I thought I could see her bones, her skeleton lit up like an X-ray—
And then there was a dull thud as her severed forearm hit the dirt, followed a split second later by the rest of her.
There was a long silence—not shocked, not stunned, not horrified, but simply expectant. It stretched out and out, as the smell of burnt meat and ozone filled the air—
"I guess it's official, then," Tobias said. "None of them followed us."
Which makes absolutely NO SENSE, if you have over a hundred thousand invisible invincible robots then you DEFINITELY put some of them on surveillance around the only humans on the planet with access to alien technology—
I let out a breath. "Unless they're lying about their violence protocols," I pointed out. "I mean, they did give Rachel a gun."
In front of me, Rachel had already begun to demorph, her real arm emerging from the stump of her morph armor. She hadn't made a single sound—not a shout, not a groan, not even a hiss.
Elfangor would've been proud, I felt myself wanting to say.
"There's definitely something going on that we're not getting," I continued, squashing the other line of thought. Reaching out, I handed the shredder to Jake, grip first, and he tucked it into his belt, where it looked way more right and appropriate than it had any business doing.
Looking around at the others, I switched to thought-speak. ‹Not to mention that just because Ax didn't find any bugs doesn't mean there aren't any. So one more time, for the record—make sure you don't say anything out loud unless you're cool with them hearing it.›
"Either way," Jake said, ignoring the thought-speak exactly as he would have if it hadn't been there. "It's time to get to work."
"Recording," Tom said, speaking with the voice of Anji, the A/V technician that Tobias's contact had dug up. He—she, technically—was standing behind a pair of tripods, one of which held up a tiny GoPro while the other supported a large camcorder with half a dozen wires connected to it.
"Streaming," Garrett said, wearing an identical copy of the same body as he—she?—leaned over a laptop on the dark wooden table. Beside him/her, the real Anji was seated, typing away at a second laptop, her face tight with concentration.
"Give me another minute," she said, and I nodded.
"Erek?" I asked aloud, speaking into the earpiece we'd stolen three days earlier.
"Standing by," came the android's voice. "Ready on your signal."
"Give it"—I thought for a moment, double checking a rough estimate in my head—"ten minutes, and then go."
Switching the earpiece off, I pulled it out of my ear and set it down on the floor next to the prepaid phone it was paired with, and stomped on them both, hard.
"Looks like we're on," I said, turning toward the five figures standing together by the faux fireplace. Behind them, through the enormous dining room windows, I could see Rachel stalking around the yard, her tail held rigidly behind her, her eyes darting back and forth like a bird's. "You all good?" I asked. "Last chance to bail out."
They nodded as one, identical grim expressions on five very different faces. "We're not going anywhere."
"All set now," Anji called out. "Upload is running, ten second bursts, all timestamped by Google, all obscured. It's not going to stop anybody from figuring out where we were, but by the time they do we should be long gone. We're as verified as we're going to get."
"Posting the link now."
Closing my eyes, I took in a deep breath, tamping down the butterflies that had started fluttering in my stomach. ‹Jake,› I broadcast privately. ‹We're starting. Grab Ax and Tobias and clear out.›
‹You got it, buddy. Good luck.›
Here we go.
I opened my eyes and began morphing out of my armor as I stepped forward, into range of the cameras and the final occupant of the room. He was sweaty and shaking, his eyes wild, soft panic-filled sounds emerging from his throat as his lips moved futilely behind the duct tape covering his mouth.
"Hello, world," I said, standing as straight as I could. "Welcome to the resistance."
There were cue cards off to the side, with bullet points, but I didn't need them. We'd gone over the words at least a dozen times, and they were burned into my memory like a brand.
"My name is Marco Roger Levy, Social Security number five-six-eight-zero-zero-two-two-four-one. My father is Peter Carson Levy, my mother was Elena Louise Roja Levy, died two years ago in a boating accident. We lived at 3555 Franklin Court in Golden Oaks in Ventura. I was a freshman at Belvedere High School, homeroom 4C with Mrs. Ysteboe."
Garrett held up a sheet of paper with a giant 8 written on it in Sharpie, and I gave him a tiny nod. "It's now four-oh-eight PM, central time," I continued, looking straight into the camera. "This video is streaming to you live, no special effects. Verification—"
I reached out as Tom handed over an iPad, its screen showing ESPN's live broadcast of the football game. I held it up so the camera could see, then handed it back. "Also, as of this second, Google stock is worth eight hundred sixty-one dollars and forty-seven point two cents, coin is trading at sixteen hundred forty-three dollars and thirty-eight cents, and Delta Airlines flight 8517 out of Atlanta was just delayed by half an hour and will be taking off at 7:35 instead."
Bending down, out of sight of the camera, I picked up the shredder and the cast-iron pan. "And this is an alien laser weapon."
Holding both objects out at arms' length, I squeezed the trigger and held it, sending a continuous beam of incandescent purple at the center of the pan, which immediately began to glow.
"Ten more seconds, and it'd burn through," I said, releasing the trigger and turning the pan so the camera could clearly see the circle of bright yellow at its center. Setting the shredder back on the floor, I picked up the laser thermometer and took a reading, turning the screen so it, too, could be recorded. "That's a little over eighteen hundred degrees Fahrenheit in about three seconds," I said. "A thousand degrees C."
Very carefully, I handed the pan to Tom, who stepped through the sliding glass door out onto the deck and dropped it into the Jacuzzi, sending up a billowing cloud of steam.
"This weapon is one of the tools that the Andalite war-prince Elfangor gave us, to fight off the Yeerks," I said, resisting the urge to wipe a droplet of sweat off my brow. "The other is a piece of Andalite hardware called the Iscafil device, which can give humans the power to shapeshift."
Holding up my arm, I focused on the osprey, doing my best to localize the changes. I didn't quite succeed—my head began to change shape as well, and I could feel feathers sprouting all the way down my back—but the results would be obvious even through the camera. After twenty seconds, my hand and forearm were completely gone, replaced by long, elegant bones and silky gray-brown feathers.
"Using this power," I said, my half-human voice hoarse and rasping as I reversed the partial morph, "we fought back against Esplin, known to us by his rank of Visser Three. We identified a number of captive human Controllers, among them our vice principal Hedrick Chapman, security specialist Aaron Tidwell, accountant Greg Morales, and the aunt and parents of one of our fellow resistance members, Mikayla Certo and veterinarians Michelle and Walter Withers. Those last two are allegedly part of the group that was returned to Earth and is now in U.S. custody."
They had been dropped off in front of the Capitol building while we were in transit—them and twenty-four other humans, appearing out of thin air as the combination hologram-and-shield that had covered their arrival burned out and self-destructed. So far, none of them had been allowed out of medical quarantine, and no cameras had been allowed in to wherever they were hiding, but a list of names had been released two days earlier and both of them were on it.
"We used the information gathered from our observations to track Yeerk materiel and troop movements, and to infiltrate their stronghold, which was built into the YMCA on Huffman Mill Road. We blew it up, losing one of our own team in the process."
Off to the side, Garrett held up a sheet of paper reading 58.
"You know what happened next," I continued, my throat dry. "Esplin—Visser Three—dropped an asteroid on top of Ventura. He claims it was a fail-safe, a dead-man's switch. However, we have reason to believe it was a deliberate, tactical maneuver, meant to erase the evidence in Ventura and deal with one of the Visser's political opponents at the same time. We suspect he was planning to resume the invasion in secret elsewhere, with his second batch of Yeerks, until another member of our team took out one of his support fighters over Washington."
I stepped back and to the side, and Anji turned the cameras to focus on the bound-and-gagged figure lying on the enormous beanbag chair in the middle of the open floor. "Evidence," I said. "This is David Poznanski, son of Jeremiah Poznanski, a mid-level operative at the Department of Homeland Security. He went missing on the day that a Bug fighter crashed into his house."
I paused, and turned to look directly into the camera again, dropping my voice a little. "He went missing because the Yeerks kidnapped and infested him, as part of a plan to kidnap and infest his father, to draw information out of the U.S. government. Note that this happened the day after Ventura, and long after Visser Three's so-called moral revelation—after he claimed to have already ceased all operations on Earth. Note that the Visser didn't show up to make a public statement until after we'd already exposed the Yeerks' continuing presence."
I gestured, and Anji tilted the larger camera, zooming in on David's face. "David was infested eleven days ago," I said, "but thanks to the use of a certain kind of Andalite stasis technology, he's only experienced three days in that amount of time. His Yeerk is about to starve now, and when it does, it'll fall out of his head, right here in front of you."
Garrett held up another paper, this time with the number eight hundred and twelve. Reaching down, I peeled off the duct tape covering David's mouth. He began speaking before it was even halfway off, his voice high and fevered and frantic.
"Please!" he shouted. "Please, the fugue, it's already—aaahhhhhhhhrrr—it's started, there's no time, no time, you have to—gahhh—you've got to freeze, to call, the oatmeal, the Visser will come, you can't just—"
I leaned forward again with the strip of tape.
"No, please, you can't just—hhhhnnnnnnngggg—you can't just, just, this is vicious, this is insane—"
I pressed the tape back down, reducing his begging to wordless groans.
"Wide angle," I said, and Anji zoomed the camera back out. I turned toward the fireplace—toward the five figures standing there in stony silence.
"To verify what's happening here today, we have five volunteer witnesses, all public figures in good standing. Would you introduce yourselves, please?"
I stepped back, careful not to trip over David's prone form, making room in the frame for the five adults. They shuffled forward, squeezing together until Anji gave a thumbs-up. Behind her, Garrett raised yet another sheet of paper, this time reading one thousand one hundred and three.
Not bad. Over eleven hundred people watching already, and we were just getting started.
"My name is Sergeant Susan Nickerson," said the first figure, her eyes dark and focused above her camouflage fatigues. "Human intelligence, stationed at Fort Huachuca."
She was the primary contact Paul Evans had given Tobias, before they parted ways—a girl he'd gone to school with, who'd kept in touch with him as they both took different paths through the military. All Tobias had was a phone number and a password, but that had been enough—by the time we reached out, Paul had already contacted her, brought her up to speed, and given her command of an eight-person, off-the-books task force, just in case.
"I'm Dr. Richard Scheller," said the second adult. "I'm a general practitioner, with an office in Stony Creek, North Carolina."
One of my dad's old friends, from back when I was little and we'd spent a couple of years in New Jersey. He had more than an office—his practice had branched out into four different locations, and he was a well-connected community member, serving in the Chamber of Commerce and running the local walks to cure breast cancer and juvenile diabetes. He'd been brought in by Tobias and Garrett after their first target, a teacher named Michelle Newsome, had turned out to be too hard for us to find.
"My name is Matthew Joseph Carr, and I'm a pastor at the First Church of Enlightenment in Shallowford, Iowa."
Our local color, and the one who had contributed the most in terms of detail and recon, given that he was the only one who had ever actually been inside the processing plant where the oatmeal was made.
"And I'm Professor Rebecca Woodmansee, teaching international relations and political analysis at U.C. Berkeley."
One of Rachel's dad's old girlfriends. If we'd still been in hiding, it would have been too risky—too plausible that someone could trace the connection back to Ventura, figure out who we were from the overlap.
But that wasn't an issue anymore.
"My name is Dr. William Taylor, head of bioinformatics at Helix Inc."
It had been a toss-up between physics and biology, and William's home address had been easier to track down than Flora Carrey, who was the head of astrophysics at the nearby university.
It was a big step, bringing in so many new people. We'd spent nearly a full day debating it, even with all of the time pressure pushing us forward. It was a huge uptick in risk—not in terms of direct exposure to Visser Three, but because of the way it complicated the strategic landscape. Each new person was someone who might go off the rails, try to play grownup, try to take over or take the cube. Someone who might get snatched up by the Visser, or by Homeland Security, or by Russia or China. Someone whose plans might end up interfering with our own, who knew almost everything that we did and had almost as many powers, almost as many advantages.
Tobias had started it, with Paul Evans and President Tyagi—and there was Tom, I guess—but it wasn't hard to argue that those were special cases. Now we'd added fourteen more—regular people, for the most part, twice as many of them as there were of us. We'd vetted all of them with the morphing tech, but only barely—there hadn't been time for anything more than a quick, five-minute dig through their memories and personalities.
It was Rachel, more than anyone, who'd pushed for it. We didn't own this war, she'd argued—couldn't own it, as long as the Yeerks could just pick up and start over where we'd never find them. We needed every recruit we could get, and that meant starting as soon as we could—starting with people who weren't perfect, weren't important.
I mean, look at us,she'd pointed out. Look at what Elfangor had to work with.
I glanced down at David, whose moans had finally stopped, replaced by rapid, shallow breathing that flared his nostrils. His face had gone gray, and what had been a sheen of sweat was now beading and running down his forehead and cheeks.
"In exchange for the risk that these people are taking by being here today," I said, stepping back in front of the camera, "we've given each of them the same morphing power that was given to us."
While blindfolded, and with earplugs in, and with six different objects touching them in six different places, one of which vibrated, one of which was extremely cold, and one of which had an electrode that gave a little shock right at the moment of power transfer, after Ax had assured us that it wouldn't interfere with the process.
I mean, come on—there's a difference between taking a reasonable risk and just being reckless.
"Try not to be stupid, U.S. government," I continued. "If you disappear them into some black ops facility to poke and prod at them, you're just going to make everyone else more paranoid, and don't forget that the only way to keep the Yeerks from pulling the strings is to keep everything out in the open where everyone can see."
Not that we were counting on the government doing the sane thing—all five of them knew the risk they were taking, and our plan would work either way. But if there was any chance we could force the issue by shaping the narrative, it was worth a shot. God knows things were crazy enough as it was—six days earlier, the Chinese president had politely and publicly requested that the United States give up the first Bug fighter, the one Tobias had wrecked, so that no single nation had total control of all of the alien technology. The United States government had politely refused, instead offering China a copy of the technical readouts that Visser Three had left, and inviting up to one hundred Chinese scientists to come and study the craft on American soil.
The Chinese had pointed out that this didn't really address their point, and that in any case the copy of the readouts would be impossible to verify. The Russians had agreed, and had declared their own public support for the "Beijing Compromise."
The British and the Germans had then declared public support for the United States.
The Japanese and the French had declared themselves neutral, and offered to facilitate negotiations, at which point the Algerian government had pointed out that there were more than two sides when it came to questions like this, and that Africa and India together comprised more than a quarter of the world's population and should maybe be included in the conversation or at least acknowledged.
Then the North Koreans had declared that a refusal to give up at least one of the ships would constitute an act of war.
Then the Australians had declared that nobody cared who North Korea was at war with, and sent a gift of ten thousand cheap plastic boomerangs to the South Korean president with a note saying "Just in case."
Things had gotten a little complicated after that.
I turned back to the five adults. "Can you please confirm the date and time?" I asked.
"And is this real?"
The five of them glanced at one another, and Sergeant Nickerson cleared her throat. "As far as I can tell," she said, stepping forward and looking into the camera, "Marco Levy is an intelligent thirteen-year-old male of Hispanic descent with an accent and background knowledge consistent with a life in southern California. His face appears to match various social media profiles for which he has passwords, and which have archives stretching back for at least three years. I've watched him and his colleagues transform into various animals—including other humans—in a way that I cannot imagine being faked except by equivalently impressive technology, and he's returned to the same form in between each transformation. I've also examined and fired the beam weapon he demonstrated earlier, which has kill and stun settings as well as a raw heat laser."
I felt my shoulders loosening a little. We'd gone over the script of what she would say, but the broadcast was live and we didn't have the resources to do any kind of delayed censoring. I'd been pretty sure she wasn't going to throw a wrench into things, but with—I looked over at Garrett's paper—seven thousand people watching, it would have been a costly mistake.
"We're currently being held somewhat under duress," she continued. "Not that we're trying to leave, but one of them has morphed into what appears to be a dinosaur, and is completely capable of running us down if we make a break for it. I've been held incommunicado since first agreeing to direct contact with Marco's colleagues, and I assume the same is true for the others. At this moment, we're standing in a large living room with Marco, David, and three others who are running the cameras and computers that are responsible for this broadcast. To the best of my ability to discern, everything here is happening in real time, without the aid of special effects—that looks to be a real kid down there on the beanbag, who reasonably matches the description put out by DCPD, and I'm at least seventy percent convinced that he's currently possessed by an alien, which I'm at least sixty percent convinced is dying of starvation right now. As for the rest—"
She shrugged, and brought her hand out from behind her back, holding up what was clearly a cloven hoof. Over the course of about thirty seconds, it split and shivered and melted back into a human hand.
"It's hearsay, but there is some fairly compelling circumstantial evidence."
I gestured again, and Anji turned the camera, zooming in once more on David's head. In addition to his quick breathing and the sick, sweaty look on his face, he'd started to tremble, his whole body twitching and squirming on the beanbag.
Please, let Ax be right about what happens during kandrona starvation.
"This isn't pretty," I said, looking down at the boy. "David here is suffering pretty badly right now, and to be honest, we've made it worse for him. He's going to need a good dose of therapy after this. But he's only been infested for a few days—some of the people in Ventura were enslaved for over two months."
I reached down and peeled off the tape for a second time. This time, David said nothing, only emitted a strangled, guttural sound like a death rattle.
"Don't forget," I said, making my voice as flat and serious as I could. "This was caused by Visser Three after his alleged truce. That's what really matters, here."
We watched in silence as David's twitching slowed, his eyes unfocusing as if he was drifting off into unconsciousness. Then he convulsed—sharply—once, twice, three times, his heels smacking painfully against the wooden floor. He sat halfway up, his eyes rolling back into his head, and then he collapsed like a puppet with cut strings.
The absolute last thing we needed was to kill a kid on camera and not even have a Yeerk to show for it. I glanced over toward Garrett, who was now holding up two papers, the first reading 32000+ and the second reading Fox News.
Staying clear of the camera's line of sight, I crouched, peering closely at David's ear.
There it was—just emerging, stretching and waving like the stalks of a snail as it crawled out of the kid's head, searching desperately for its pool. It grew and stretched and grew and stretched, grotesquely large, unnervingly long—at least six inches, end-to-end, and more than an inch thick at its middle. It crawled out of his ear, fell onto the beanbag, twitched twice, and was still.
Fighting back the urge to retch, I reached down and picked it up. It was wet, streaked with blood and brain-juice and its own slime, and it deformed under its own weight, threatening to slip through the gaps between my fingers like melted cheese. Stepping toward the camera, I held it up, and Anji fiddled with the lens, getting the clearest possible picture.
"Now you've seen it," I said softly. "This is what they look like, when they die—and that's what we look like, when it happens. Three days is what it takes, to starve them out."
I looked toward Garrett again. 100000 and counting.
"That is, unless they've been eating Ralph's brand maple and ginger instant oatmeal."
I paused while Anji refocused the camera, giving the audience time for the initial what the fuck shock of what I'd just said to pass. Beneath me, David hiccupped, coughed, and started to come awake; without a word, Matthew and Rebecca reached out and drew him off to the side, where they started to untie him.
"When Yeerks leave their hosts and go back into the pool," I continued, "they share memories and pick up a bunch of nutrients, but the most important nutrient is one called kandrona. I don't know what it is, and probably neither do they, because they only got their hands on post-Stone-age technology a couple of years ago. But apparently there's a molecule in Ralph's oatmeal that does something similar."
I grimaced. "Earth's unusually bio-diverse, it turns out. Not sure why, but it's true—according to the Andalites, both the Andalite homeworld and the Yeerk homeworld have only around five thousand or so different species. So when they got here—especially after they'd infested a few biologists and geneticists—they started poking around to see if there maybe was a kandrona substitute just lying around, ready to use. And it turns out that if an infested human eats Ralph's oatmeal—specifically the instant maple and ginger kind—then the Yeerks can survive without ever having to come out and feed."
I held up the box for the camera. "That's the bad news," I said. "Good news is, you can just destroy every box of this crap you can find, and if someone starts acting weird about that—well, they're not necessarily a Controller, don't go starting a witch hunt just because somebody's got some healthy skepticism, but it's at least worth looking into. Especially if they just started eating it in the last month or so, and if they eat more than one packet per day."
I let the box fall to the floor. If everything was going according to plan—
—then right now, Erek and a few thousand other Chee were currently visiting every single Ralph's in existence, buying up and destroying the entire market supply of the oatmeal. That wouldn't do a whole lot if Visser Three had been secretly, privately stockpiling—
—which he was, because duh—
—but it was a start. And Jake, Tobias, and Ax should already be at the factory along with the rest of Sergeant Nickerson's team, which would be a whole lot more of a start.
"As far as we know, Visser Three has enough Yeerks left to set up a single, self-sustaining pool—they need critical mass to get an infestation going. So he's either done that already, with a second invasion point somewhere on the surface, or he's holding back. If he's holding back, then his major tools are bombardment from space, political manipulation, and agents-provocateur using oatmeal or taking regular trips back to orbit to feed. Those are the weapons we have to defend against—that's the situation for the next four and a half months, at which point he gets a twenty-ex infusion of materiel and a fifty-ex personnel reinforcement."
Following a sudden impulse, I leaned forward, grabbing the sides of the camera and putting my face right in the lens. ‹Now,› I whispered in thought-speak before continuing aloud.
"That means about a hundred and fifty starfighters, about twelve motherships, and maybe twenty or thirty million space slugs. Enough to take out every military base, every aircraft carrier, every fighter jet on Earth. Enough to wipe out every major city. They've got weapons like we can't imagine, they've got the high ground, and everybody we lose ends up on their side. But still—"
I leaned even closer, put my head right against the cowl around the lens, stared straight into the cold, black eye of the camera. "They don't want to blow us all to hell. They want our infrastructure intact—our farms, our factories, our manufacturing capability. According to the Andalite warrior on our team, they're fighting ground wars on at least twenty different planets, in situations where a bunch of F-35s would actually make a serious difference. There's only so much damage they can do to us before they're not even getting their money's worth in trying to take us over."
I took a step back. "We outnumber them two hundred to one. And they just got off their rock two years ago. We can beat them, as long as we actually try. As long as we don't just shrug and go back to everyday jobs, everyday life, just act like this isn't happening."
I gestured over to the corner where David was sitting, shivering, with a blanket around his shoulders, a line of blood running down his cheek, and a dead, empty look on his face.
"This is your call to action, people," I said. "Remember Ventura. Remember Cortéz and Hitler and the Trojan Horse and all the other times when it really would've been a good idea to be less polite and more suspicious. Trust each other—odds are, none of your family or friends are Controlled, and even if they are you can make your decisions out in the open, by consensus, while you wait for three days to go by. But don't fool yourself that the bad part's already over."
I sucked in a breath, my eyes flickering over toward Garrett, whose paper now read ½mil. "We don't know where the Yeerks will land next, assuming they haven't already. We don't know what they'll come at us with, when this inevitably goes south. Big cities and big armies are just big targets—the human race as a whole needs to be prepared, provisioned, and armed, in a distributed, decentralized way. We need a whole bunch of superteams, two or five or ten or twenty people who trust each other, who can work together and get shit done without supervision and without direction. Engineers. Soldiers. Scientists. All you survival nuts and right-wing militia types and backyard inventors, step up—this is your moment. Figure out how to detect a Yeerk in somebody's head, and how to get it out without waiting three days. Figure out how to mimic their tech, and how to make better tech. Maybe start with earplugs, or with whatever the opposite of Ralph's oatmeal is. And if you're a government agent with access to whatever info Visser Three gave us along with those ships, leak it now. Get it out onto the internet where seven billion people can look at it, not in some dark lab where a couple of well-placed Yeerks can pull the strings."
Taking another step back, I squared my shoulders. This was the part we'd worked out after Tobias had come back—after he'd filled us in on what he'd done with Tyagi and Evans, after we'd recovered the cube, after we'd given up hope of figuring out what Visser Three was up to in time to stop it.
He wants us to start building Yeerk tech, Tobias had said. That plays right into his hands, if we build the factories and then he gets to swoop in and take them over.
Yeah, Rachel had countered, but he's going to get them either way if he wins. This way, we have a chance to use them ourselves, first.
It was a dangerous line of reasoning. But at the same time—
The U.S. government was holding on to two starfighters, complete with cloaking devices and repulsorlifts and phasers and hyperdrives. Not to mention that we had the Iscafil device and were willing to use it, and that two of the people in our group were voluntary Controllers, and that there was a Yeerk fleet just four and a half months away, and at some point the Andalites might show up, too, and whatever it was that we'd seen in the Yeerk pool, we didn't have any better word for it than "god"—
"There's no going back," I said bluntly. "Not anymore. It's never going to be like it was before Ventura."
It had been the last, lingering hesitation, the last little bit of resistance in our way—the idea that our job was to get everything back to normal, that the end goal was life as it had been two months ago.
"One way or another, change is coming. Space flight. Morphing tech. Instantaneous communication. It might take a month, it might take a year, it might take a decade, but win or lose, humanity is in the future now. The old Earth is over."
I nodded to the side, and Anji swiveled the camera to where the five of them—
—no, wait, four. Professor Woodmansee had stayed off to the side, with David.
—were halfway through their morphs, a mad mix of human and tiger, human and python, human and eagle, human and Hork-Bajir.
"So keep this in mind, as you fight—none of us knows what victory is going to look like. Maybe we beat the Yeerks back. Maybe we hide from them. Or maybe this ends with a peace treaty and a federation. Maybe we do it alone, or maybe the Andalites show up to help, or maybe they end up being our enemies, too."
I felt a lump forming in my throat and swallowed hard, forcing it away. "The only thing that matters," I said carefully, shaping the words one at a time, "is that we end up in a future where we get to decide for ourselves. Where humanity's fate is in humanity's hands. This isn't a war about life and death. The Yeerks don't want us dead. But it'll become that, if we go down that road. If we try to fight a war of extinction, we're going to lose it. The only way out of this war is to make peace and cooperation look better than genocide."
I clenched my jaw shut. He might be right, you know, Jake had said. Softly, quietly—at night, where none of the others could hear. Visser Three, I mean. What Tobias said, about there being higher forces at work, and us not having to play along with stupid roles. I mean, look at Ax and Temrash. If it means no more Venturas—maybe that is the way we end this.
I hadn't said anything. Half of me had wanted to scream at him, to scream and yell about everything Temrash had done to Tom, we'd been inside Tom's mind, he'd seen it, that was his own brother and he was willing to consider compromising with that, even for a split second—
But the other half of me kept throwing up words like pearl clutching and moral grandstanding, kept pointing out that the total badness of ten thousand human slaves in Ventura didn't hold a candle to the total badness of half a million dead bodies after the asteroid strike. Kept remembering the next night after the mesa, when I couldn't sleep, when I'd gotten up and acquired my dad—carefully, without waking him—and gone back through all of his memories of the past few months.
I wasn't sure which hurt worse—the bad parts, or the good ones.
"So don't start thinking that the way out of this is to kill them all," I said, my voice still tight. "This isn't about justice or vengeance, it's about survival. It's about freedom, and sovereignty, and choice—about still being alive to make choices. That's the only thing that matters, and any solution that gets us there is on the table. Has to be on the table. We can't rule out things we shouldn't have to do. We're the Indians, here, not the conquistadores."
I looked back at the four morphs behind me, the tiger and the python and the eagle and the Hork-Bajir all looking bizarre against the elegant fireplace. David and Professor Woodmansee were still huddled together to one side, David's face still sickly and gray.
Would the Iscafil device even work on a Yeerk? I'd asked.
Ax hadn't known. But his best guess was no, since there was no single locus of control for the tech to latch onto, to respond directly to.
And as long as Visser Three was in charge, there was no way to tell a genuine compromise apart from a clever trap.
I looked at the cue cards, at the points we'd laid out for ending the broadcast. They'd seemed okay before, but now that I was here, in the moment, they felt hollow.
So say something else.
"In the meantime, though, we're fighting. With you, for you, and for as long as we have to. Animorphs, out."
"Look at his face. He's in shock. I get that you did what you had to do, but now, we need to get this innocent child to a hospital."
"Look, it's not safe, okay? We just plastered his face all over the internet. We take him to a hospital, he's going to get snatched up—by the spooks, if he's lucky, and by Visser Three if he's not."
"So what are you going to do, just keep him? That's—"
"We're not kidnapping him, obviously. His dad works in Homeland Security, and can keep him safe. We're taking him straight back to D.C. as soon as the mission's—"
We all jerked at the sudden shriek as David began to struggle weakly against Professor Woodmansee's embrace. His eyes were still fuzzy and unfocused, but they pointed straight at me as he pleaded, his tone eerily identical to the way it had sounded as his Yeerk was dying. "No, please, don't, let me stay here, I can help, don't send me back—"
"David—David, hold still, I'm not going to hurt you—"
"He's awful, I was going to run away anyway, please—"
"—I'll do whatever you tell me to—"
‹—what do you think—›
"—I don't need a hospital, I'm okay, I'm fine—"
‹—we should do?›
I gritted my teeth. We didn't have time for this, Jake and the others had already relayed their status and the clock was ticking—
"—don't have the legal right to make this decision—"
"Enough," I snapped, even though it had zero effect on the babble that was pouring into my ears and mind. Reaching for the shredder, I spun the dial to stun and fired a single, brief pulse of energy.
There was a shocked, angry silence.
"No time, not a democracy," I said, lifting a finger as Professor Woodmansee opened her mouth in outrage. "You agreed to that, going in."
It probably wouldn't have worked if I hadn't been holding a laser gun in my other hand, but—
Well. I was holding a laser gun.
I shifted my gaze. "Garrett."
"Can you take him into your morph, keep him out of harm's way?"
"All right, then. Garrett takes David, Tom takes the camera and the laptop, the rest of you clear out and head to your pickup points. Anji, let Jake's team know I'm on the way."
I turned toward the second tripod and grabbed the GoPro off the top, dropping it and the shredder into the backpack I'd stolen earlier in the week. Sending a quick burst of thought to Rachel out in the yard, I continued. "Everyone needs to be out of here in six minutes or less, unless you've got a morph that's fireproof."
"We're burning the house," I said. "No idea what kind of fuckery Visser Three might do if he got access to whatever DNA we've left in here, plus it's just a good principle in general."
"I told you we weren't going to tell you everything. In or out, your call, but if you're in, this is how it goes. We're fighting a war, and you're not the grownup anymore."
Shouldering the backpack, I gave twin nods to Tom and Sergeant Nickerson, stepped through the sliding glass door, and took off across the grass.
‹That sounded fun.›
‹You were listening?›
‹The whole time—this thing has really good hearing. You're not exactly a Jake when it comes to dealing with people, huh?›
‹I'm not exactly a Rachel, either.›
‹Touché. Look, given how that went, you want me to follow Woodmansee? Or any of the others?›
I thought for a moment as I reached the edge of the yard and tossed my bag over the fence, wincing at the crunching sound it made on the other side. ‹No,› I said, gripping the thin wooden slats and hauling myself up and over. ‹They'll either go to their pickup points, or they won't. Either way, they're not our problem anymore.›
‹Didn't peg you for a one-night stand kind of guy.›
‹To be fair, Woodmansee was never really my type. I'm more into beach babes and math nerds.› I landed on the already-damaged plants of the neighbor's garden and picked up the backpack. ‹Stick to the plan. Torch the house, then the four of you head to the rendezvous. We'll see you in an hour.›
‹Good luck, Marco.›
‹Thanks. With any luck, we won't need it.›
‹Is that you, Marco?›
‹Yeah. Ax? Where are you?›
‹We are in one of the trees. Prince Jake assigned us to keep watch.›
I settled onto the rooftop, fighting the urge to shiver. Andalites didn't think and speak in words, which meant that the we/us pronoun thing wasn't a deliberate choice so much as it was the translation tech accurately reflecting Ax's true meaning. Which might have meant that he was just saying the two of us together are in the trees, or it might have meant something a lot creepier.
‹What's the situation?› I asked, keeping the line of communication private.
‹Everything is going smoothly. Agent Dill's impersonation of the floor manager went unnoticed, and he was able to authorize the drug search without raising suspicions. Prince Jake and Tobias detected two Controllers, and identified them to the rest of the team. They have withdrawn, and I believe—›
A high, piercing alarm began to sound, and small lights on each of the corners of the roof began to strobe.
‹—yes, that is the alarm.›
I fluttered over to the edge of the roof and looked down over the loading dock. A stream of blue-uniformed workers had already appeared, each of them running at something close to a sprint as they headed out toward a green-painted section of the parking lot. There was an identical safe zone in the parking lot at the front of the building, too, which would be filling up just as fast—we'd looked it up, and fires at a factory that milled flour were no joke.
‹Thermite's set, then?›
‹I believe so.›
One part aluminum powder, three parts rust, with a strip of magnesium to make sure the initial fire was hot enough—it would burn through wood, plastic, and metal, and enough little piles of it would completely wreck the critical parts of every piece of machinery inside the processing plant before the regular fire took care of the rest.
And you could buy the ingredients on Ebay. Sergeant Nickerson's squad had actual explosives, but we were saving those for the moment when we really needed them.
‹We did check to make sure there wasn't a real fire risk, before—›
‹Yes, Marco. Agent Dill closed down all processes an hour ago, and the ventilation systems have been running at full power since then.›
They'd be setting off the thermite some time within the next minute, after which I'd have at least another five minutes before the fire became large enough to threaten the roof. Tilting my head, I scanned the sky, using the osprey's water-piercing vision to search for the telltale shimmer of an approaching cloaked ship.
Would you just relax?
I couldn't take a particularly deep breath with the osprey's lungs, so I simply ruffled my feathers and claw-hobbled over to the other side of the roof, trying to shake the urge to check in with Jake directly.
He's got this. Stop backseat strategizing.
It wasn't any different from the pool, really—when we'd sent in Garrett and Rachel and Ax and then just sat around waiting.
Except that this time it's Jake. And this time, there's no force field, you're close enough that you could actually DO something—
This was Jake's half of the show. There was a difference between protectiveness and overprotectiveness.
Reaching the edge, I peered over into the main parking lot. There were another twenty or thirty employees clustered in the green safe zone, most of them blue collar with a small scattering of suits. Two of them—one suit, one worker—were on their knees in handcuffs, as members of Sergeant Nickerson's squad stood over them, dressed as DEA agents. The rest looked horrified as they split their attention between their colleagues and the smoke that had started to billow from the building's vents.
Well, almost all the rest—three of them had their phones out, filming as Jake's human form finished emerging from the furry shape of a German Shepherd, his lips already moving. Even in the osprey body, I felt myself tense—if one of the Controllers had some kind of hidden weapon, or if the Yeerks chose this moment to show up—he was out in the open, without the protection of morph armor—
You know, you didn't freak out this much before the mesa.
Shoving both threads of thought to the side, I took to the air, flying straight across until I was circling above them, close enough to hear.
"—necessary. I know that doesn't make it any better, but—"
He paused, and scrubbed at his hair.
"But that's the way it is. For what it's worth, we're willing to offer you the morphing power as a consolation prize, but that comes with its own problems—you'd have to choose between letting the government grab you or going on the run with both them and the Yeerks after you. I wouldn't recommend it for anybody with other options, especially not if you've got family out there."
There was a sharp crack from the building behind him, and he broke off again, turning. I followed suit, banking just in time to see the glass from one of the giant windows near the roof fall and shatter against the pavement, tendrils of flame licking out of the gaping hole and darkening the wall.
"In the meantime, these agents are going to take these two into Washington, with the rest of the survivors that V—that Esplin dropped off last week. They'll be held until the Yeerks are starved out of their heads and they're free humans again."
Jake reached out to touch their shoulders, his fingers just high enough to brush the skin of their necks—a casual-seeming gesture, but with the osprey's sight I could see the lethargy of the acquiring trance come over both of their faces.
"How do we know you're not Yeerks?" came a quavering voice from the crowd.
Jake smiled—a small, sad smile. "If we were, you wouldn't be asking that question," he said.
Then he nodded to the agents, who formed up around him—all but one, who stayed to guard the two Controllers—and together they turned and began walking away from the building. A handful of people seemed to waver with indecision, and then two started after them, stopping in their tracks as I broadcast:
‹Wouldn't do that if I were you. You do that, and you're our newest recruit.›
The pair looked at each other for a long, long moment, and then split, one running forward, the other falling back.
‹Jake,› I began, but he was already turning, warned by Ax or Tobias or his own sixth sense. He raised a hand, made a casual come on gesture, and continued walking.
In the distance, sirens approached.
‹That went well.›
‹Yeah. Maybe too well? Like, suspiciously well?›
‹The whole thing took less than an hour. Visser Three can't be everywhere. And besides, even if he can, as long as he's committed to this whole new leaf charade….›
‹Yeah. I guess so.›
‹There were just two of them, then?›
‹Probably more, once you account for the fact that there are multiple shifts. But we'll let Nickerson know who the others were as soon as we get to the rendezvous point, and she'll put the APB out.›
‹We going to keep her with us?›
‹I don't know. They definitely helped us out this time. Can you imagine trying to cobble together the broadcast ourselves, with stolen equipment? Not to mention that a team of four would've had a pretty hard time pulling off the factory part.›
‹But I still get this itchy, creepy feeling, you know? Like, not because of her. Just a sense that we should stay as far off the grid as we can, at least for now.›
‹Yeah. That, and stay small. Tight-knit.›
‹What, that's it? No objections? No making me explain myself?›
‹Who are you, and what have you done with Marco?›
‹I just figured I'd quit making you prove what you've already proved, I guess.›
‹No problem, Fearless Leader.›
"China," Jake said, dropping heavily to the mulch floor.
"That's it?" I asked.
He nodded grimly. "It started about six weeks ago, and unfortunately, that's as much as these two know. There's a third guy, Benjamin Dufreyne—Nickerson's already left to track him down. I sent Rachel with her, and Tobias is following on the DL. If he hasn't already spooked, they'll get him."
"Dufreyne knows where the oatmeal was being shipped?"
"Yeah. Exact address and everything."
I grimaced. "There won't be anything left by the time we get there."
Jake nodded again, his eyes tracing around the ad-hoc campsite. We'd gotten pretty good at making them over the past month—there was a fire crackling merrily in a clean, round pit, and a handful of lean-tos up against a nearby hillside. Just outside one of them, Tom was locked in conversation with the worker who'd followed us, both of their expressions dark and serious. The remaining half of Sergeant Nickerson's squad was circled up outside another, playing cards with my dad as they sat on their packs.
"How about this?" Jake gestured down at the body lying between me and Garrett.
"Nothing yet," I said.
"We were deciding whether to talk to him first, or just check him out via morph," Garrett added. He had curled up next to Ax as soon as he'd finished releasing David from morph-stasis, and the pair of them were watching Jake with all six eyes.
"What's the deal?" Jake asked.
"Went berserk a little bit after the Yeerk died out of his head," I said. "Started shouting that he didn't want to go back to his dad, that he wanted to stay and help us. I kind of got the sense that there was maybe some abuse or something?"
Jake sighed. "You stunned him before stashing him away?"
"Yeah. He should wake up any minute."
"Let's talk to him, then. We can still do a morph check, after. You already acquire him?"
We sat in silence for several minutes, each of us thinking our own thoughts.
—a big place, was all my brain would provide. An address would definitely help narrow things down, but there was no way Visser Three would fail to close that loophole. After the factory, his operational security would be completely airtight.
Which just brought us right back around to the question of what we would do next. We'd given the world two separate examples of currently-active Controllers operating on Earth, and left at least four morphers for the government to find, protect, and—hopefully—publicize.
Maybe we should just sit back and see what happens.
But even as I thought it, I knew it was wrong. There was something we could do to be proactive—something other than just throwing the Iscafil device around. There had to be. Maybe we could get Paul Evans to reconnect us with Tyagi, or spend some more time figuring out the Chee—
David jerked up into a sitting position.
"Whoa!" Jake called out, holding up his hands in a calming, conciliatory gesture. "Hang on, hang on, hang on."
Twenty paces away, the four Marines—or whatever they were—had snapped into readiness, leaping to their feet and fanning out in a wide arc, covering half of the space that David might have chosen to escape through. Beside me, Garrett and Ax remained very, very still, and I wondered whether Garrett had put on his morph armor and had access to his psionic weapon.
Slowly, as if trying not to startle us, David rose to his feet, his eyes wide and hunted, his skin still looking clammy and cold. "What—where—"
His gaze landed on me, and for a split second, I thought I saw his expression tighten—eyes narrowing, lip curling—but it was gone by the time I looked closer, and could easily have been my imagination.
"My name is Jake, David. Jake Berenson."
David said nothing, his slender fingers twitching and flexing as if he were fighting the urge to clench them into fists.
"Do you—I mean, were you—awake? While you were—"
"Yeah. I know who you are."
"Okay. Good." Moving slowly, smoothly, Jake eased into a cross-legged position, his hands in his lap, his back upright. "First off, I'm sorry."
David said nothing for a long moment, his eyes tracing as far as they could as he checked over each shoulder. The soldiers kept their distance, their hands off their weapons.
"For what?" David asked evenly, as he brought his eyes back around to Jake, this time passing over me as if I weren't even there.
"Stunning you. Keeping you prisoner. For taking you away from your house in the first place, too—we didn't want you to get snatched up by the other Yeerks."
David was silent.
"Marco says you don't want to go back."
"Is that true?"
A pause as David looked around again, and then—
"He hits me."
Jake and I exchanged glances.
"Your dad?" Jake asked.
"Okay. Is that really enough reason to—"
"He hits me hard."
Jake fell silent, and the moment stretched out. I could see David relaxing, inch by inch—his breathing slowing, the tension leaking out of his shoulders, his face. By the time he spoke again, he looked almost calm, his voice level and controlled.
"You're fighting aliens. Right?"
"Those—people—who snatched me. The dinosaur guys, and the thing they put inside my head—Daskan. That's who you're fighting."
"And you—you can change into animals. You're aliens, too?"
Jake shook his head. "No. Just regular people with some alien technology."
David turned his head pointedly—
"Well, yeah. He's an alien. His name is Ax. My name is—"
"Jake. You said. And the others. Tobias—he's the one missing a hand? The one who got me out after the spaceship crashed? And—and Marco, and Tom, and Garrett, and Rachel. Marco's dad. And these new guys."
"You've been paying attention."
"Something about an asteroid."
"The bad guy—Visser Three. Right before you got taken—"
"Ventura. That was him? That was aliens?"
"Why'd they snatch me?"
I felt something tugging at my attention, a note of dissonance. Something was off—
"They wanted your dad. They were going to use you to get to him."
"Why'd they want him?"
"Because they'd figured out he'd been meeting with us."
And then it clicked, as I watched David's face remain absolutely unmoved—as he showed no reaction at all to the things Jake was saying.
He was hiding. Faking. Lying, maybe—if the Yeerk in his head had told him its name, then it was unlikely it hadn't told him anything else. But either way, he was trying not to let us see what he knew, what he was really thinking and feeling—
Well, no shit. What would you be doing, in his shoes?
"Because he's helping you," David said flatly. "Helping you fight."
"And now he knows I'm alive."
"Are you going to send me back?"
Another long silence. Jake tilted his head, looking up at the boy, his own face open and sympathetic. "Because you're a kid?" he said gently.
"He's a kid," David said, gesturing at Garrett. "He's littler than me."
"He doesn't have a family."
"I don't have a family. Just an abusive asshole dad."
Another note of dissonance. I shot a sidelong glance at Jake, trying to see if he was picking up on it, too.
What are you talking about, of course he's picking up on it, if you noticed it—
I said nothing.
"Let's say we didn't send you back, then," Jake said carefully. "What would you do?"
"Stay here and help."
"And if we didn't let you do that?"
"Let me go. I can take care of myself."
"They'll be looking for you. The government and the Yeerks both. They all know what you look like, now."
Thanks to us.
I watched the kid's face—like calm water—as he looked at Jake, at me, at Garrett and Ax. Thinking. Weighing. Making a careful decision—
"Not if you gave me that shapeshifting ability."
"Who says we even can?" Jake hedged.
"I've been paying attention."
‹Marco, can you answer back?›
I waited until David's eyes were elsewhere, then shook my head fractionally no.
‹Okay, just listen,› Jake said, thinking in short fragments as he continued arguing with David aloud. ‹I think we could maybe—use this kid—I'm getting a sort of—Tobias-type vibe off him—like he can take care—of himself.›
"—gave it to that professor woman—"
"—she was helping us—"
"—I could help you—"
‹Not confident—talking like—five percent chance. But there's definitely—something going on—under the surface there—and I can't tell if it's—because—abuse—or what. I want to watch—how he reacts—to you going through—his mind, okay? So get ready—to morph—›
"—deserve something, all of this stuff is your fault, you guys can't just send me back to my dad and act like—"
"We can, actually," Jake said, an edge of steel entering his tone as he interrupted the smaller boy. "We're fighting a war, here, as you've clearly noticed, and as much as we might owe you, we've got a lot bigger fish to fry. You want to talk about joining up, that's the first thing you'll have to get straight, is that fair doesn't really come into it."
David nodded—his face still just that tiniest bit too calm, with not even a flicker of anger or annoyance at being cut off, bossed around.
Maybe his dad bosses him around, too. Maybe his dad doesn't like backtalk.
"Marco," Jake said, his eyes still locked on David's.
I stood up.
"There's this thing about morphing tech," Jake continued. "We know how to use it to look inside somebody's head. To see their thoughts and memories and personality. To find out whether they're telling the truth or not."
I could feel myself shrinking just the tiniest bit, the sensation like falling in slow motion as my clothes grew baggy and loose, as my skin lightened from copper to khaki.
"So Marco's going to take a quick look inside your head, see what you're like from the inside, find out if you're telling the truth or not."
"And if I am?"
"If you are, then maybe this conversation keeps going, and we give you a chance to explain why you'd be worth the hassle of telling your dad we somehow lost his kid. Who knows—maybe you can help us. But if not…."
Jake trailed off, his eyes intent on David's face.
David didn't flinch. Just nodded, and crossed his arms, and watched, as my hair grew out and softened and my arms and legs thickened. Another minute passed, and we were eye to eye, identical in height as we were in everything else.
‹Here goes,› I whispered to Jake, and I reached inside for the tiny mental lever—
It was like I had dropped into the Arctic ocean, or been teleported into outer space.
David's mind was like an empty prison cell, a spiderweb made out of razor blades. There was no sensation of color—no subtlety or chaos—no feeling or sentiment of any kind. Just a freezing, keen clarity, the workings of an emotionless machine.
Wordless, I opened up his memories—
His initial, feral surge against the Yeerk Daskan, a wave of unhinged fury that scoured the inside of his mind with fire and rage, and the immediate, almost total capitulation when he saw that it hadn't worked—
The burning humiliation as Mrs. Hanes called him up to the front of the room, she knew he hadn't read the chapter, she knew it and she was doing this just to hurt him—
The bottomless fury as his mother left, she left him with his father, and even as she left she knew that he would blame David, knew that she was making it worse and she did it anyway, and the results were exactly as expected, like clockwork—
A dozen, a hundred, maybe a thousand instances, an unending madhouse reflection of the same moment over and over again, no matter what David did, there was no way out, no way out, the pain was coming and there was nothing you could do to avoid it—
I saw the forging of a fury so white-hot it was practically a laser, able to come and go in an instant.
I saw the fear that was both the hammer and the anvil—not so much his father's abuse but the helplessness surrounding it, the gibbering, unbearable sensation of being trapped, cornered, of wanting to claw at the walls until your fingernails bled but knowing there was no point.
And I saw, strung between those twin poles of rage and terror, in the emptiness where a human soul should have been, a single, pure, and crystalline insight—that there was no justice, no balance, no morality to protect and no protector to rely on. That there was nothing to pursue except his own satisfaction, and no boundary to that pursuit except his sense of self-preservation.
‹Jake,› I began, trying to keep the horror out of my—
‹What's the word, Marco?›
I began to demorph, feeling relaxed, confident—almost hopeful. ‹We definitely want this kid,› I said. ‹Forget being another Tobias—I think he might be another you.›
‹Yeah,› I said, closing down the mental copy of the kid so he wouldn't suffer. ‹Very solid. Perceptive, helpful, loyal, looks out for the little guy. Leader type.›
‹Not gonna be happy, but I vote it's a price worth paying.›
Jake turned back toward David, gave him a slow, respectful nod. "Marco says good things," he said. "Let's keep talking."
The boy nodded back, his expression unchanged, a picture of calm, cool confidence.