Author's Note: We're DEFINITELY past the halfway mark, at this point, and as we come down the home stretch, I'm thinking about possibly getting these printed and bound (just for myself, but I'd make the necessary files available to those of you who want them). That means I'll need COVERS, and so I'm curious whether any of you are, or know, an artist capable and interested in doing classic Animorphs-style transformation pictures, for a moderate commission. I'm thinking it'd probably be cool if they were drawn/painted rather than CG, but I guess I'd take either if they were good. I want them to all be in the same style, though, rather than having multiple artists. I'd love to break the final work up into e.g. seven "books" with Jake, Rachel, Marco, Cassie, Tobias, Ax, and Garrett each transforming into a memorable whatnot on the cover.
Chapter 28: Garrett
‹The voice you are now hearing inside your head is real. You're not crazy—everyone else can hear it, too. No, seriously—look around. See? You're all wigging out.›
There were eight police officers spread out around the house and four more waiting by the cars in the street, plus the two paramedics by the ambulance, which was a pretty big number but still small enough that I could keep track of everyone as long as I was paying very very close attention, which I was.
‹My name is—ah, ah, ah! You might want to wait on that, Officer Hartell. The rest of you, too—any of you call this in, or even click your radios, or go for your phones, or whatever, and this conversation ends and me and my fellow Animorphs move on to the next batch of people. Sorry to be rude, but we're exposed here, and if this can't be a private conversation then it can't be a conversation.›
The rest of the street was empty, grownups gone to work and kids gone to school. The nearest person was a retired old lady seven houses down. All around the house, the cops looked at one another, bewildered—
"Regroup!" shouted SERGEANT COUTEAU, whose name badge and insignia I could read just fine thanks to the super-vision of the RED-TAILED HAWK whose body I was wearing. "Front yard, everybody! Hold radio silence for now."
Moving slowly, he lifted his own radio, held down the button, and said—loudly and clearly so that everyone could hear—"Dispatch, this is Couteau at the code two on Spruce. I need everybody's eyes on for the next few minutes. We're going dark, checking back in at—"
‹Two forty-five ought to do it.›
"Roger, Sergeant," came the reply.
‹Just for the record, there's nobody in the house. Sorry for the fake call, but we didn't want to do this at the station—lot harder to walk away.›
Holding my wings out for balance, I shifted on the branch to get a better view of the police officers coming around the far side of the house. I used to have a rule that was NO FLYING because of what had happened back before we understood how MORPH INTERFERENCE works, but now that that was solved it was pretty useful to be able to spy on things from the top of a very tall tree. So far, none of the police officers had tried to call anybody, which was easy to tell because once TOBIAS started talking nine of them had pulled out their GUNS and police officers are really very good about making sure they hold on with BOTH HANDS. Also the risk was much lower than usual anyway because police officers are trained to follow orders from their SUPERIORS, unlike the one time when we were in the cafeteria of a robotics company and even though the manager told everyone to play along three of them had started to type SECRET TEXTS inside their pockets and I had to do some thought-screaming to make them stop.
‹As I was saying,› TOBIAS said, as the police officers and the paramedics came together in front of the house in a neat sort of star-shaped pattern that left at least two of them looking in every direction but also put SERGEANT COUTEAU right in the middle where everyone could see and hear him. ‹My name is Tobias, and I'm here on behalf of the resistance. You've all seen the broadcast by now, and you know about the morphing power. We're giving it out, no strings attached—that's the ability to turn into any creature you can touch for about an hour at a time, plus telepathy while you're in morph and some other goodies you'll figure out as you go along.›
There were no reactions other than some more glances, which wasn't very surprising since even though we'd been trying to keep things somewhat under wraps we'd done this ninety-six different times in the past week and a half and what had started out as whispers and rumors was starting to be pretty concrete with PICTURES and VIDEOS and even a couple of MAPS, all of which you could find all over the INTERNET.
‹Any of you can say yes,› TOBIAS continued. ‹You don't all have to agree, some of you can say no. But if even one of you is in, you're going to all have to agree to set aside your weapons for about ten minutes. That part has to be unanimous—if you're not willing to trust us that much, we walk. Can't divide the group, either—we don't want one of you running off to alert the internet while the rest of us are stuck here like sitting ducks. And sorry to be pushy, but we're on a tight schedule and every additional second makes this riskier for us, so you've also got to make your decision in the next three minutes.›
If you just went off of AVERAGES then there was around a fifteen percent chance that any given person would say YES to the morphing power which meant that the odds of half of them saying YES was about one point seven out of a million and the odds of all of them saying YES was about nineteen point four out of a trillion—not counting OFFICER DELGADO, who was secretly just TOBIAS in disguise—but that would be ignoring the fact that men said YES more often than women and also that people in uniforms said YES more often than people with other kinds of jobs which made the odds more like one in a hundred thousand which doesn't sound much better but that's because most people's brains are really bad at dealing with big numbers and noticing that a difference of several ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE is pretty significant. And even that wasn't accounting for things like DISCIPLINE and AUTHORITY which given the way most of them were quietly looking at SERGEANT COUTEAU was probably going to be a pretty big factor for this group.
I still wouldn't have bet money that more than one of them would say YES, but then again I also wouldn't have bet a lot of money on a NO because even though we'd talked to nine thousand two hundred and twenty-one people that still wasn't all that many people and people were still doing things that were VERY SURPRISING like the man who had asked us eight different times if we would give morphing power to his dog, who even though he was named OLIVER which is a HUMAN PERSON'S NAME was still just a regular dog and that didn't seem like a very good idea or even one that would work.
We ended up not giving the owner morphing power, either, for reasons which TOBIAS told him should be PRETTY OBVIOUS AT THIS POINT.
‹Tobias here,› said TOBIAS, speaking in the much quieter voice that always meant I am talking to just you like the way DOCTOR GRANT said big Tim, the human piece of toast when he was talking to TIM MURPHY in the movie JURASSIC PARK, which was the best of all the movies they had for us to watch at OAK LANDING back before it got blown up with the rest of VENTURA COUNTY. There wasn't anybody else from the team around, and so maybe it wasn't quite as important as usual to follow the rule about identifying yourself before you said anything else, but TOBIAS was doing it anyway because he knew that RULES MATTER to me and when you care about someone else one of the things you do is take the stuff that's important to them and you add it to the list of stuff that's important to you, even if it's a little lower down or not quite all of it. That's one of the ways that you can tell that someone REALLY MEANS IT and isn't just BULLSHITTING you, and so the fact that TOBIAS never ever forgot wasn't just about following the rule but was also him saying I LOVE YOU which is a sentence he probably won't ever say out loud because of stuff like STREET CRED but that doesn't matter because he says it in a bunch of other ways all the time, like when he came back to get me from OAK LANDING in the first place which if he hadn't done it I would already be dead.
‹—everything look good up there? Over.›
‹Garrett,› I answered. Taking a very quick break from watching the people down below, I scanned up and down all of the nearby streets and peeked into all of the cars and houses that I could see from my perch in the tree. The RED-TAILED HAWK'S vision is very good at picking up on things-that-are-moving-on-purpose and filtering out things-that-are-moving-because-of-the-wind or things-that-aren't-moving-at-all, and so I was pretty confident that the fact I didn't see anything important coming meant that nothing important was coming. All I could see was normal-looking traffic and about eighty-three squirrels, give or take, so I said ‹We're all clear, over.›
The next part was the dangerous part, where TOBIAS would have to come out of morph to use the ISCAFIL DEVICE, and it was going to be especially tricky because TOBIAS wasn't just coming out of any old random human morph the way he was most of the time we did this, he was coming out of OFFICER DELGADO because it was OFFICER DELGADO who'd insisted that we contact his fellow police officers but also we had insisted that he not be present because that would introduce TOO MANY VARIABLES. And that was probably going to make SERGEANT COUTEAU and the other police officers at least a little bit concerned about what had happened to the real OFFICER DELGADO, who was perfectly fine but they would only have TOBIAS'S word for that and maybe that wouldn't be enough.
Even worse was the way that, if one of them threatened TOBIAS like with a GUN or something and I used my thought-scream to knock them over, that would probably make all the other police officers a lot more hostile and suspicious and more likely to do something stupid and then things could get very complicated very quickly and so the plan was that if anything started to go wrong I was supposed to knock over everybody and then TOBIAS would run around and grab all the GUNS and also the radios and any cell phones and then we would start over from scratch, but then it would probably be a lot harder to convince them that we were good guys, which would ruin the whole point of staying in DARLINGTON for this one extra batch when ordinarily we would have already moved on to a different city.
But then again none of that would matter if nobody freaked out in the first place, and even more importantly none of it would matter if they just decided NO so while it was good that we had a plan in place it wasn't really worth worrying about it yet, so I stopped.
Other than my quick look-around-at-everything-else breaks, I was still watching the fourteen huddled bodies very closely. Even if I hadn't already known which one was TOBIAS, I think I would have been able to pick him out pretty easily because of the way he held his shoulders and the way his eyes moved around. I know you might think OFFICER DELGADO'S partners and friends would have noticed something different about him if it was different enough for me to tell, but it turns out that most people don't pay very close attention to those sorts of things, which I guess makes sense since most of the time the odds of somebody being bodysnatched or impostered are pretty low, but still.
TOBIAS was mostly keeping quiet. In fact, most of them were mostly keeping quiet—they were talking one at a time, in low, controlled voices, with SERGEANT COUTEAU mostly acting as a kind of moderator or judge. It was less of a back-and-forth argument about should we stay or go and more of a team effort as they each raised different points and all of them tried to figure out exactly what was going on and what the best move was, together. At one point, OFFICER KLEIN raised the possibility of an ambush, and then OFFICER NOLAN pointed out that hostile aliens could probably launch an ambush without requiring the victims' active cooperation, and then OFFICER FARLOW said that once your opponent thought that way, you could save a lot of resources by banking on the reputation, and then OFFICER TYRE interrupted and said that they had maybe a minute left and they should probably focus, and then everyone else nodded right away. It was nice and I was impressed—TOBIAS and JAKE and RACHEL and MARCO and AXIMILI-ESGARROUTH-ISTHILL and JAKE'S BROTHER TOM and I were almost that good at having a figure-stuff-out type of meeting, but we hadn't gotten that way until after the mesa and the police officers had done it without any help from ADVANCED ALIEN TECHNOLOGY.
And then in the end the last thing that decided them was OFFICER JACOBS pointing out that six hundred thousand people had died in the VENTURA COUNTY MASSACRE and that as police officers it was their job to take risks to protect people and so the question wasn't whether it was SAFE so much as whether it was IMPORTANT, and that made me feel a kind of warm golden glowy feeling toward her because it meant that she, too, was THE TYPE OF PERSON WHO DOES THE RIGHT THING EVEN IF IT'S HARD, and then all of the rest of them nodded and SERGEANT COUTEAU said "okay" and the glowy feeling got a whole lot bigger and spread out to cover all of them.
‹All right, then,› said TOBIAS, in his loud, public sort of voice. ‹Let's do this. If you would all step around to the side yard, please—out of sight of the street—and slowly place your radios and phones on the ground, along with your magazines. You can hold on to your guns, but I'd like you to take the bullet out of the chamber and put it into your pocket. We don't need any let's-call-them-accidents.›
I watched them all like a hawk—which is a very good joke no matter what MARCO says—as they followed his directions, and while it might have been possible for one of them to click their radio or something without me noticing, there definitely wasn't anybody doing anything like sending a text that required pushing more than one or two buttons. And even though it feels weird to use them and they when talking about just one person who might be he or she or whatever, in 2015 the AMERICAN DIALECT SOCIETY made the singular they their WORD OF THE YEAR, which is about as close to official as words ever really get.
And if they had tried to sound some kind of alarm…
Well. TOBIAS and I had made it out of some pretty sticky situations before, so I was NOT AFRAID.
‹All right,› said TOBIAS again. ‹How many of you are in?›
Five of the fourteen grownups raised their hands—one of them TOBIAS, because the real OFFICER DELGADO had raised his hand that morning—while all fourteen turned their heads left and right, looking for the source of the voice. Some of them looked up, but none of them looked up any higher than the roof of the house, which MARCO would have called HALF-ASSING IT 'TIL YOU DIE.
‹Okay, then. Here's the spiel. At some point, somebody who's been given the morphing power is going to get captured by the Yeerks. It's inevitable. Nothing we can do about it except not give you the power, and fuck that. But when it happens, they're going to know everything. Everything you've seen, everything you've done, everything you've ever even thought about. They're going to know all of it. They're going to take this conversation right here and replay it over and over until they've squeezed out every possible detail, whether you thought it was relevant or not. And then they're going to use you to try to hunt down everyone else. So until somebody invents a way to make Yeerk-proof earplugs, every single new recruit is a threat to us, and every single one of you is a threat to each other. That threat kind of goes down the more of you we make, but right now, you're ticking time bombs, all of you.›
The police officers and paramedics shifted back and forth, looking grim—all of them, not just the ones who'd raised their hands. TOBIAS was broadcasting to the whole group because we wanted everybody going into the future with their eyes open.
‹So the solution is, we don't tell you anything. We don't coordinate. It's probably better if you split up, from here—move around, spread out so that none of you know where the others are—but we're not going to enforce that, either. It's up to you. Just remember, the point is not to present a single, unified front. It's to have sleeper agents everywhere in case things go south. You're not the army, you're the right-to-bear-arms guys living in every tenth house that makes it so the U.S. can't be conquered all at once. No matter where you end up, you'll be doing good—sooner or later, this war's going to come to you, and that's when you step up and do what needs to be done.›
They straightened up just a little bit, at that, even the ones who hadn't raised their hands. I might not have noticed it if I'd had human eyes, but to the RED-TAILED HAWK it was clear as day.
‹Remember the rules. Touch an animal and focus on it to acquire. One hour at a time in morph. Three hundred yard range on your telepathy. Ninety seconds to transform, and you can carry things like clothing and small items with you if you focus on them while you're morphing. That's pretty much it—oh, except that you can morph into yourself if you acquire your own DNA from somebody who's morphed into you, and that way if you get hurt or if a Yeerk infests you, you can just demorph back into your real body. Just remember that the time limit still holds—stay much past an hour, and you're toast.›
TOBIAS paused, and I took advantage of the silence to do another quick scan of the nearby houses and streets and give the ALL CLEAR.
‹Given all of that,› he continued, ‹who's still in?›
There was a long moment as the police officers and paramedics looked back and forth at one another, and then—
Eleven hands, now including SERGEANT COUTEAU and both paramedics and all four of the women, which RACHEL would maybe glare at me for being surprised by but it hadn't happened before.
ALERT, went a part of my BRAIN. ALERT, ALERT—something is BROKEN.
I had figured that the odds of HALF the group saying YES were maybe a little better than one in a hundred thousand, and now there were ELEVEN of them saying YES, and that could maybe-just-maybe mean that we were in the one-out-of-a-hundred-thousand universe but almost by DEFINITION we PROBABLY WEREN'T which meant that the odds probably hadn't been that bad and I was doing something WRONG when I tried to turn the numbers-of-people-who-had-said-YES-in-the-PAST into a PREDICTION about how many people would say YES in the FUTURE—
‹Huh. I guess Delgado was right.›
Their heads snapped around to where TOBIAS had taken a step back, away from the group, and was already holding up both hands in a sort of calm down gesture. "Relax," he said, out loud. "Don't panic, he's fine. We caught up with him this morning at the town hall meeting, and he took us up on our offer, along with about eight other people. He's the one who suggested we call you guys in."
There was a stunned sort of silence, and I tensed, holding up an image in my head of thirteen grownups surrounding a TOBIAS-shaped hole, just in case—
"Stand down," said SERGEANT COUTEAU, with a kind of it figures sigh. "He's either telling the truth, or there's nothing we can do about it anyway." His eyes narrowed as he looked at TOBIAS, whose features were starting to emerge from OFFICER DELGADO'S shrinking face. "Not that that'll stop us from trying, even if it's hopeless," he warned, his voice flat and heavy.
"Fair enough," TOBIAS said. "You'll notice we haven't done anything abducty to any of you. That ought to count for something."
No one said anything else as he continued demorphing, though several of them stiffened at the first flash of blue as the ISCAFIL DEVICE began to grow out of his left palm, and stiffened again as his right hand shrank away and was replaced by nothing.
"You—" SERGEANT COUTEAU began, cutting himself off abruptly.
"Nothing. Never mind."
Thirty more seconds passed, and then TOBIAS was awkwardly one-handedly tightening OFFICER DELGADO'S black nylon belt, the ISCAFIL DEVICE tucked under one arm, the black button-down shirt hanging loosely off of his shoulders. Looking around the half-circle of grownups, he said "Five at a time," and held out the cube.
The grownups hesitated, looking nervously back and forth at one another until SERGEANT COUTEAU stepped forward, followed by OFFICER ISAKSON, OFFICER NOLAN, OFFICER HARTELL, and PARAMEDIC DUNN.
"One hand on each face."
They complied, clustering around the ISCAFIL DEVICE.
"On three," TOBIAS said. "One. Two. Three."
They shivered the same way people always shivered, as if they'd grabbed a live electrical wire. "That's it," TOBIAS said, withdrawing the cube. "Next five."
They stepped back, allowing OFFICERS TYRE, TAYLOR, NEBRIG, and JACOBS—and PARAMEDIC SHATTUCK—to shuffle forward.
"And last but not least."
OFFICER FARLOW stepped up, his eyes bright behind a dark red birthmark, and became the one-thousand-three-hundred-and-sixty-eighth AUXILIARY ANIMORPH.
"All right," TOBIAS said, as OFFICER FARLOW backed away, shaking his hand a little. "That—well, that's pretty much it. You'll want to try acquiring something as soon as possible, because it takes a few hours of processing before you're actually ready to transform the first time. By the time you get to your third or fourth animal, it should be pretty much instantaneous." He turned toward SERGEANT COUTEAU. "Got any other questions before we split?"
"Only about a million."
"I'll take one."
SERGEANT COUTEAU looked around at the other men and women as TOBIAS began to grow again, tucking the cube back under his arm and reaching down to loosen the belt with his left hand. "Where can we find Delgado?" the police officer asked.
TOBIAS smiled as the dark, bushy mustache began to push its way out of his upper lip. "He was sure you'd ask that," he answered. "Told me to tell you he was getting some supplies together, and anyone who wanted to team up could meet him at the long-term airport parking lot around sundown."
And with a sloppy, mock salute, TOBIAS turned and walked away.
‹Garrett here,› I said. ‹Tobias, you've got one on your tail, over.›
‹Roger,› TOBIAS answered back. ‹Which one? Over.›
‹Farlow. He's hanging back a lot, like he's trying not to spook you. Over.›
‹The others? Over.›
‹Stayed together, left in the cars. Nowhere nearby, over.›
Down below, TOBIAS stopped abruptly in the middle of the sidewalk, turning to face the way he'd come. A little over a hundred yards back, OFFICER FARLOW slowed to a stop as well, his face twisted up with indecision.
It had only taken us one day to develop a POLICY around stuff like this.
‹Before you come any closer, Carl,› TOBIAS said, including me in his broadcast, ‹you need to understand three things. One, I'm not alone. Two, you can't come with me. Three, I'm going to be a hundred miles away by five o'clock, and I don't do special requests and I don't have time for detours. I'll give you one minute to say whatever it is you've got to say, and then we split, or I split you. Understood?›
‹He's nodding,› I said. ‹Over.›
‹Drop your gun into those bushes.›
‹He did, over.›
‹All right, get over here.›
It didn't take long—TOBIAS didn't move because of STATUS but OFFICER FARLOW covered the distance at a fast walk, words already spilling from his mouth as he drew closer—
"You can't leave yet, there's someone you need to meet, someone who's been hoping for a chance to connect with the resistance, he's been tracking the—"
TOBIAS was already shaking his head, sort of sadly-on-purpose. "I'm sorry," he said gently. "We've got too many places to get to—we can't get to everybody. If it makes any difference, we have sources and contacts in the government and military, so if your friend routes through them—"
"Let me finish," OFFICER FARLOW hissed. "He's staying off the grid for the same reason you are—the government's been compromised since the beginning, he's been tracking extraterrestrial movement for four months now—"
"Wait. Did you say four months?"
"Yes. He's up at the Atlas Labs resonance and imaging center, he's been stockpiling—"
"You're only giving me one minute—"
"I'll give you more than one minute, just stop for a second."
TOBIAS very carefully did not look up at me—very carefully did not look at anything at all, just put his hand on his chin and stared down at OFFICER FARLOW'S feet as if he was thinking very hard, which probably wasn't hard to fake since I'm pretty sure he was thinking very hard. ELFANGOR-SIRINIAL-SHAMTUL'S ship had crash-landed in the construction site just a little over two months ago, which meant that anyone who'd been paying attention to the invasion for four months had been aware of it for twice as long as any of us.
‹Garrett,› I said, cutting him off. ‹I vote yes, over.›
There were any number of reasons why following up on this might be a BAD IDEA—hoax, trap, waste of time—but if it was real…
We'd been zigzagging from city to city, hitching rides on trucks and planes, grabbing almost-random groups of people, trying our best to spread the morphing power as far as we could. We'd converted scientists, engineers, businessmen, police officers, soldiers, pilots, members of the NATIONAL GUARD, construction workers, martial arts instructors, doctors, lawyers, athletes, software developers—sometimes as many as fifteen groups a day, sometimes as many as fifty at a time.
But the point wasn't to spread the morphing power specifically—it was to get HUMANITY on its FEET. To give people the MORAL AUTHORITY to step up and take ownership of the fight, to overcome what RACHEL had called the BYSTANDER EFFECT.
And in all that time—all ninety-seven different groups, all one thousand three hundred and sixty-eight YESSES—we hadn't found one single person who was already on it. Who was already taking action, not just sitting around and waiting for someone else to tell them what to do, waiting for someone else to save them.
‹This just—falls into our laps?› TOBIAS said quietly. ‹Out of the blue? Over.›
‹We have been doing this for ten days straight,› I pointed out. ‹Thirty-two cities. Eighteen states. Over ten thousand people. And we've been looking for good people. If there was a one-in-ten-thousand chance, over.›
It always felt weird to end a trailing-off sort of sentence with a very clear over but that was the rule. I wondered if anybody in the actual military had figured out a solution, but probably the solution was that in the military you didn't say any sentences that trailed off without a POINT.
‹Still,› TOBIAS said. ‹Risky. Over.›
‹Right thing? Over?›
I had noticed that TOBIAS was very sensitive to the whole RIGHT THING thing ever since the MISSION TO DESTROY THE YEERK POOL, so I tried to put a very obvious QUESTION MARK on it so he wouldn't feel like I was trying to put him in a BIND. I was pretty sure that it was our job to investigate stuff like this even if it was DANGEROUS but also TOBIAS was IN CHARGE and since the alternative was making something like fifty more AUXILIARY ANIMORPHS before sundown it wasn't like it would be terrible if we took a pass.
But TOBIAS was thinking along the same lines I was thinking along, or else he was TRAPPED by the thing I had said even though I had tried not to make it a TRAP, because after a few more seconds of quiet thinking all he said was ‹Okay› and then out loud to OFFICER FARLOW "Okay. Here's how we do this. I acquire you, and then I contact this—"
"His name's Thàn Suoros. Like 'Tom' with an 'n.'"
"Thàn. You said he was at Atlas Labs—what's that? Where is it?"
"It's—I can—it's the big facility up in the hills, the one with the radio telescopes—"
"That way, about—about eight miles from here, but—I should go with you—"
"Nope. We don't do chaperones, sorry. Think about it from our perspective—"
And then TOBIAS proceeded to explain some of the basics of OPERATIONAL SECURITY IN GUERRILLA WARFARE to OFFICER FARLOW as I launched myself from my perch and spiraled up into the sky on the column of hot air rising off of the street.
TOBIAS would buy me forty-five minutes at least, which was most of the time I had left in morph. He would spin out the maybe-unnecessary tactics lesson for as long as possible, and then argue with OFFICER FARLOW for a while before eventually agreeing to let him introduce us to THÀN SUOROS—but not until he could acquire and morph OFFICER FARLOW first, just to be safe—and then they would have to find a private place to do it, and then OFFICER FARLOW would be allowed to actually contact his friend and set up a rendezvous for some time in the future, by which point I would have already at least had a chance to take a look around.
It was still a GAMBLE, because if it was a TRAP and it was well-designed, then OFFICER FARLOW'S ACCOMPLICES would already be on alert and I was leaving TOBIAS by himself with OFFICER FARLOW, too, but just like OFFICER NOLAN had pointed out if your enemy was that ON THE BALL then they were going to catch you anyway, so you might as well DO WHAT MAKES SENSE and not trip yourself up trying too hard to outguess people trying to outguess you outguessing them while they outguessed you.
‹Tobias here,› said TOBIAS, as I floated up toward the edge of thought-speak range. ‹You take care of yourself, over.›
I only had time to say ‹Roger› before I was too high up to say anything else, which was a shame because I was pretty sure that the sentence TOBIAS said actually meant to say about five different things, like take care of yourself but also don't be stupid and also you should probably be more cautious than you think you should be, even after taking this sentence into account and also if anything happens to you I am going to do some very bad things to OFFICER FARLOW and THÀN SUOROS and also I love you of course. And if I'd had time I would have tried to come up with my own clever tricky sentence and it would have said take care of yourself too and I won't do anything risky unless there's a really good reason and I'm not afraid and I'll see you at the rendezvous point and of course I love you, too and maybe also if something bad happens to me, don't forget that protecting the cube is maybe more important than getting revenge. But it didn't matter too much that I didn't get to say any of those things, because TOBIAS already knew them and besides, we were going to see each other in an hour or two anyway. That's called WISHFUL THINKING, and it's bad if you don't notice yourself doing it but it's totally okay to do as long as you're doing it on purpose and are SELF-AWARE.
There are some things which bother me a lot that other people don't really care much about at all, like the sound of an AMBULANCE which hurts my ears and makes it impossible to think and makes me kind of fold up inside, or having a bunch of people LOOKING at me which suddenly reminds me that my FACE has all kinds of MUSCLES that are doing stuff without me thinking about it and people are interpreting it in all kinds of complicated ways and the fact that I'm noticing it means it's not happening automatically or naturally anymore—like when you notice that you're breathing—and it's way too hard to get it all right on purpose so I usually just try to HIDE, or like SHRIMP which most people pay a lot of money to eat but if I ate one I would DIE.
Being inside of other bodies and other brains has given me a lot of PERSPECTIVE on how these things feel when you are NOT GARRETT and so now instead of being CONFUSED I kind-of-sort-of GET IT, and that's also helped a lot even when I'm in my own body, like how for instance I can usually just let my face do whatever it wants when I'm around the other ANIMORPHS and if the conversation is really important I can even look right at JAKE'S EYEBALLS for up to seven seconds without getting distracted by all of his FACE MUSCLES.
All of which is to say that even though I was KEENING a little bit through my teeth, I was still on my feet and moving and thinking and I think that was pretty good given that the lights had suddenly turned BLOOD RED and there was a VERY LOUD SIREN that was trying to eat my whole brain. If this had happened to me two months ago I would have definitely been curled up in a corner instead of running toward the EXIT.
(The lights and noise had started almost as soon as I'd begun to demorph, and I probably should have just reversed the process and then gone right back out the open window I'd crawled in through, but I had been a little bit SHAKEN UP as you might imagine and when I felt myself LOSING FOCUS I had sort of automatically tried not to instead of pausing to think carefully about all of my options. This was the sort of thing that somebody would maybe criticize from the outside without ever really thinking about just how SCARY and CONFUSING things had been in the moment and so I would not have appreciated hearing about it or as MARCO would have said, SUE ME.)
Anyway, I was exposed and in my normal human body, which was bad, but at the same time that meant I had access to the KAHR CM9 .380 HANDGUN which I'd had in my left hand when I morphed, and the PICATINNY ET-MP GRENADE which I'd had in my right, plus the BURNER PHONE in my pocket that I could pull out any time I felt like putting down either of those, which I currently did not.
It had taken about seventy seconds for my morph to progress to the point where I could run and shoot and maybe another ten seconds to very carefully peek out into the hallway and make sure the COAST WAS CLEAR, which is a metaphor and does not mean that I was anywhere near water, and then another five or so seconds to run most of the way down the long, empty hallway, which was when the BLOOD RED LIGHTS and VERY LOUD SIREN suddenly switched off. That meant that by the time I slammed through the gray metal door under the EXIT sign and found myself in a metal-grate stairwell, THÀN SUOROS and whoever else was in the ATLAS LABS RESONANCE AND IMAGING CENTER had known I was there for at least eighty-five seconds, which made the question of up or down one worth spending a few seconds on.
It had been hard to tell from the outside because the ATLAS LABS RESONANCE AND IMAGING CENTER was built into a hill, but I was pretty sure I was on the fourth floor which meant that if I went DOWN I was going to be reaching ground level at about T-PLUS ONE HUNDRED SECONDS and getting to the gate at about T-PLUS ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY SECONDS and then if the gate that I had seen as I flew in didn't open from the inside I was going to have to try to blow it open which would bring me to at least T-PLUS ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY SECONDS before I would be outside the perimeter. On the other hand, if I went UP then there was only one flight of stairs—
—between me and the rooftop, and if that door was open it was probably safer to be heading for the roof than for the OBVIOUS EXIT, they would have more people blocking the ground than the sky—
The door to the roof was locked. I could try shooting it off with the GUN or blowing it open with the GRENADE or I could start morphing into something tiny right then or I could head back downstairs having wasted maybe fifteen seconds—
"Whoever you are—please, stop!"
The voice was loud and distant-sounding, like it was coming from an intercom back out in the hallway. I turned and began clattering back down the stairs—
"There's no one here but me—you're not under threat."
—past the fourth floor, past the third floor—
"I'm sorry about the alarm, I didn't know it would be that loud, I set it to wake me up if there were any local spikes and I didn't check the stupid defaults, that was the general alert—"
—past the second floor and down to ground level, where I slammed against the push bar of the heavy steel door—
Locked. It was locked, which was a FIRE CODE VIOLATION and VERY MUCH AGAINST THE RULES, most of me was in FIGHT-OR-FLIGHT MODE but there was a part of me that was still outraged by that.
"I see you. I see you there, in the east stairwell. Look—"
There was a click, and I sprang back away from the door, raising my GUN to point right at where someone's head would be if they came through it—
"—I've unlocked the door, okay? You're free to leave if you want. But if you're okay with staying, I'd be interested in talking with you—"
There was a voice in my head that was screaming TRAP very loudly, almost as loudly as the voice that was screaming GET OUT GET OUT and I tried to weigh the different possibilities against one another, was there any reason to let me out of the building as a trick—
"—and I have some tools and information that I expect you and your friends will find extremely useful."
Slowly, carefully, I eased forward, keeping my GUN pointed toward the danger zone. I crouched—sat—lay down on the floor and reached up with my foot to push against the bar, opening the door half an inch—
Nothing. No spray of bullets, no shouts, no uniformed henchmen flooding into the stairwell.
"There's no one out there. I can see you, okay? You're lying on your back, you just opened the door with your foot. Look, I'm the only person here, I'm two floors away from you, there's nothing stopping you from—ah, shit."
I rolled forward onto my knees, nudging the door open a little further. There wasn't anyone in the arc I could see—only gravel leading to the edge of the forest—but that didn't mean there weren't people behind the door—
"Hello—no—yes, this is Thàn Suoros, I'm one of the employees—S-U-O-R-O-S—yeah, no, it was a mistake, sorry. No, for sure—I've located the source. Yep, definitely okay here. Yeah, hang on, it was—here it is. Ready? Fright, crop, alphabetic, tremor, ghoul. All right, thanks."
Carefully placing the GRENADE by my hip, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the STEEL MIRROR that I had borrowed from SERGEANT NICKERSON. Leaning forward, I held it an inch above the ground and slowly eased it around the door—
Nothing. All clear.
"Look, that was the security company, checking in on the alarm. I got rid of them, okay? You heard that. So here are your options—"
Picking up the GRENADE, I stood and lunged through the door, running for the corner of the building—
"—you can leave, now, or you can stay, you must have come here for a reason—"
—rounding the corner, I headed for the gate—
"God dammit—look, I am opening the gate for you, all right? Will you please just calm DOWN?"
I slowed, my HEART still racing, sweat pouring from my face and back and neck.
The gate was rolling open.
"Look—just stay there, okay? Stay right there—or go outside the gate, I don't care—and I'll come to you."
Odds of SINCERITY, odds of DECEPTION—how much could I trust my ODDS-ing, I had been very very wrong about the police officers—
"I'm signing off. It'll take me a minute and a half to get out there. I hope you're still there when I show up."
A minute and a half—
Crouching down, I set down the gun and the grenade and began untying my shoe as quickly as I could, pulling the shoelace out as I focused most of my attention on the SILVERBACK GORILLA. The changes began, and I channeled them away from my fingers and hands as I looped the string around the metal ring at the top of the GRENADE—
There. I could now pull the pin even with fat GORILLA fingers.
The gate finished rolling open, and I grabbed the GUN, absorbing it back into the morph along with my unlaced shoe. Seconds passed as my body swelled, pound after pound of muscle pouring onto my arms, my legs, my chest. Dark, bristly hair sprouted from everywhere, and I leaned forward onto my knuckles as they thickened into sausages—
A hundred yards away, a door in the featureless white wall swung open.
I reached down, grabbing the now-tiny-seeming GRENADE and sticking a finger through the loop of string.
The man that stepped out through the door was thin, with close-cropped hair and a straight, serious expression. He was wearing a green t-shirt and tight, dark pants, with mismatched socks above worn brown shoes. He was maybe about the same height and weight as JAKE'S BROTHER TOM, making him not very big for a grownup and definitely not very big compared to a SILVERBACK GORILLA. He had his hands out in front of him to show that they were empty, and was walking straight toward me without any sign of hesitation.
When he got to within twenty yards I raised the GRENADE and he stopped, lifting his empty hands up a little higher before dropping them down to his sides.
"Your move," he said simply, his voice matter-of-fact, without any special EMOTION or EMPHASIS. "If you can fit through the door, you're welcome to come inside. I'd rather you didn't just leave or blow me up, but if you are going to, please go ahead and do it now so I can either get back to work or stop worrying about it."
I stared. The SILVERBACK GORILLA'S nose wasn't anything special in the animal kingdom—nothing compared to the dog morphs we'd used to detect CONTROLLERS, for instance—but it was plenty capable of picking up the smell of TERRIFIED SWEAT, and THÀN SUOROS did not have any of it. He was every bit as calm, collected, and confident as he looked.
We're not afraid because if we let ourselves get too scared we might not be able to do what needs to be done.
‹My name is Garrett,› I said, lowering the GRENADE. ‹Garrett Steinberg.›
THÀN'S eyes widened a little bit as he encountered thought-speak for the first time, and then his mouth broke open into a wide grin. "So there was one of you there at the crash site," he said.
He turned, gesturing back toward the building. "Please," he said. "Come inside. We've got a lot to talk about."
I looked at TOBIAS, whose jaw had dropped in open, naked shock. I looked at THÀN, who was smiling with the same faint smile he'd worn for most of the past four hours. I looked at OFFICER FARLOW, who had missed his rendezvous with OFFICER DELGADO so that he could connect THÀN with THE RESISTANCE.
Having heard it all already didn't make it any less impressive.
"You're tracking all of it?" TOBIAS asked.
"It's not as hard as you might think," THÀN said. "There's a lot of information there, but memory is pretty cheap these days. The hard part is separating the signal from the noise. That's gotten trickier with all the extra activity over the last few weeks, but there was enough data early on for me to train a big neural net, which is still doing pretty well at narrowing down the search space."
The four of us were standing in the CONTROL ROOM, surrounded by displays and keyboards, the colors on the screens slowly dimming to orange as the sun set outside. TOBIAS and OFFICER FARLOW had arrived just a few minutes earlier, thanks to a phone call from THÀN and a few code words from me to signal that the COAST WAS CLEAR and I was NOT UNDER DURESS.
"Remember," THÀN continued. "Up until two months ago, we had no idea what any of the anomalies coming from Serenity meant. They started out of the blue, they didn't match anything in the history of the project, they had no correspondence with any known real-world phenomena—we just recorded everything, hoping that some day we'd be able to figure out whether it had been a hardware failure or a glitch in the software or some extragalactic event or what."
Two months ago—when VISSER THREE shot down ELFANGOR-SIRINIAL-SHAMTUL. THÀN had been alone on shift as he was most nights and weekends, and had been the only one to notice when cameras doing a routine sweep of the night sky picked up a handful of flashes and reflected light from three small, fast-moving objects.
BUG FIGHTERS and DRACON BEAMS.
"That was the first time I had any kind of thread to pull on. I compared the recordings of the LEO light flashes with the Serenity data, and not only did they match, they gave me a point of reference that let me assign spatial coordinates to all of the previous events."
Two hundred meters below us, buried in the rock of the mountainside, was a fifty-meter-wide, one-millimeter-thick lake of superfluid HELIUM-4, trapped between two wafers of PURE DIAMOND, suspended in a VACUUM by high-powered ELECTROMAGNETS, stabilized by enormous GYROSCOPES, and kept at exactly 2.172 KELVIN, which was negative 270.978 degrees CELSIUS or about half a degree colder than DEEP SPACE.
It was part of a quantum physics experiment that THÀN hadn't really explained because it didn't matter—what did matter was that, four months ago, cameras and sensors set up to detect the tiniest perturbations in the lake had begun to record disturbances that were entirely unlike anything that had been seen before.
"This cluster here," THÀN said, gesturing at a sort of map-like graph on one of the giant screens. "That's the night of the space battle. Those sort of hyperbolic curve things represent ships jumping into and out of Z-space, these jagged oscillations are beam weapon fire, and I think these tiny blips are communication signals, they're too common and too low-energy to be anything else. Over here you can see the aftermath of the crash in Washington D.C. And here—this activity matches what Garrett said about them taking over a high school in Ventura."
"What's that?" Tobias asked, pointing to a kind of four-peaked wave drawn to one side of the graph, like a sound spike followed by three quieter echoes.
"I'm not sure what that is. It was the second thing we recorded after the pulse that—I think—marks the arrival of the mothership. Hasn't happened again since—closest thing was this way smaller version just before the space battle."
THÀN leaned back in his chair, swiveling past OFFICER FARLOW to look directly at TOBIAS. "Basically, my model is that every time matter—converts, I guess, is the right term—between normal matter and Z-space matter, it creates a burst of neutrino-like energy. A tiny, tiny wave that propagates through normal space at lightspeed, interacting with almost nothing. Except that, for some reason, those waves are being reflected somewhere around the orbit of Uranus—they're bouncing back like they're hitting some sort of sphere, and when the echoes disturb Serenity, we can use the rolling delay to pinpoint exactly where and when they originated."
"Exactly?" asked TOBIAS, still sounding somewhat shell-shocked.
"Serenity's responding with almost arbitrary sensitivity, down to the width of a helium atom. The limit is our ability to measure it. Right now, we can get readings that are accurate to within about a hundred meters or so as far out as Europa—there's at least one ship out there—and timestamps down to as long as it takes to light to cover that distance."
"About three ten-millionths of a second," I said. TOBIAS looked over at me as if he wasn't even seeing me, but looking right through me at something else.
"In fact," said THÀN, "we're accurate enough that I'm pretty sure we've even been picking up emissions given off during morphing."
"See these plateaus right here? The spacing, the symmetry? Every one part of a pair? They're getting harder and harder to pull out of the noise as more and more people are morphing, but like I said, the neural nets are doing a pretty good job at keeping up. This one—"
He pointed to a mess of overlapping jagged spikes, then pushed a few buttons on the keyboard, causing the line to shiver apart into eight different plateaus, one of which was blue.
"—that's Garrett, demorphing right here in the lab three hours ago. I first noticed him when he demorphed upstairs, after sneaking in, and set off the proximity alarm I'd put in place in case Serenity ever picked up anything happening inside the fence."
"It's the mass," I said, paraphrasing the theory that THÀN had come up with after the BROADCAST. "When you morph something smaller or bigger than you. It has to come from somewhere, and it would take a ridiculous amount of energy to just create it. It's got to be being teleported in from Z-space."
"From Z-space, or through Z-space?" asked OFFICER FARLOW.
"Who knows?" THÀN answered. "What's more important is, if I'm right, we've got a record of every single morph that's occurred within the bubble for the past four months. It's getting noisy now, but if you compare it to what you guys were up to before you started recruiting—Garrett tells me there's only one morph-capable Controller? The guy Esplin who showed up at the crash site?"
"Visser Three," TOBIAS said, nodding. "In a throwaway puppet body."
"So everything that's not you is him. Like these signatures here, from a hundred and four days ago in Washington, or here from ninety-eight days ago in Beijing, or these ones from India, England, Germany, Brazil, Japan—"
"So that's why you didn't take this intel to the government?" TOBIAS asked. "To the military?"
"That was part of it," THÀN said. "Remember, at first there was no reason to—it was just a bunch of weird numbers that nobody understood and no one else would even be able to corroborate, since Serenity's the only one of its kind. But yeah—once I saw some literal UFOs and could show that they'd been visiting our capital a bunch over the previous six weeks or so, that kind of killed my enthusiasm for turning everything over to Uncle Sam."
"So what have you been doing in the meantime?"
THÀN smiled his faint half smile. "Well, I'll save the best part for last, but mainly—waiting for you. Trying to pull together a package that would be useful to anyone putting up a credible fight. For instance, there's one ship that jumps around about a hundred times as often as any of the others, and it's the only one that's corresponded with a morph signature more than once or twice."
"Want to know where he is?"
TOBIAS and I exchanged a GLANCE that probably meant SOMETHING but I had no idea what. "Yes," TOBIAS said.
TOBIAS'S eyes narrowed.
"Right now it's almost on the opposite side of the sun, about three hundred and fifty million klicks out. Pretty good fallback position, if you ask me—it'd take one of those SpaceX mega-shuttles years to make it that far, or a little under one year if you waited six months for it to get closer first. The first activity in that direction was maybe ten weeks ago, and ever since then there's been a pretty steady back-and-forth, with a big surge about a week after the space battle."
TOBIAS said nothing, just looked back at the screens for a long, long moment. Beside him, OFFICER FARLOW was silent, either because he didn't care or because he'd heard it all before, I wasn't sure which.
‹Garrett here,› I whispered, keeping my eyes on the screens. If SERENITY could detect Z-space communications, it wasn't ridiculous to think that it might be able to pick up thought-speak, too. ‹What are you thinking? Over.›
TOBIAS didn't answer, but he opened up his right hand a little, turning his palm toward me to show the scar that meant we were TRUE FRIENDS, the one that he didn't have on his real body anymore but that was still sort of there thanks to the morphing technology.
"What about the other ships?" he asked.
"They've got fourteen in total, if I haven't missed anything—twelve, now that we've got two of their fighters. Like I said, one of them's out by Europa, and in addition to Visser Three's ship there's another one that's pretty much always out by Mars. There are four of them holding in a tetrahedron around the Earth at any given time, way out in geosynch orbit. The big one's behind the moon, with two others around it, and there are two that move in and out of LEO. Right now, one of them's over California and the other's in North Korean airspace."
"Can we get a live feed from you?"
THÀN smiled again. "Yeah, that's part of the package. I've got a tablet with a data plan that's connected to the server here. It'll be tricky during normal lab hours, when I'm usually not here and we can't do anything that'll draw attention, but I can at least give you a flag if anything makes an out-of-the-ordinary move, or comes close to the tablet's current location. Nights and weekends, I should be able to respond with a lot more detail than that."
"Yeah. I mean, don't get me wrong—I'll take the morphing power, and any other help you want to give me. Bodyguards too, if you've got them to spare. But until there's somebody else who can manage this system as well as I can, I think I can do more good right here than I can anywhere else."
TOBIAS shot me another glance, and this time I understood it just fine—THÀN didn't know it, but any ANIMORPH that acquired him could manage the system every bit as well as he could, thanks to having access to a perfect copy of his BRAIN STATE. And given that he'd done all of this on his own, and on his own initiative—
"There might be a way around that," TOBIAS said carefully. "But before we talk about that—what else is in your care package?"
"I basically worked backwards from the LEO data," THÀN said. "By analyzing the spectra of the beam weapon discharges, I was able to get a handle on some of their properties, which in turn gave me clues as to how they were produced. Combining that with the Serenity data—well, most of the theoretical work was already done by the aliens. We kind of lucked out, being able to detect it, but at that point, it was a lot more engineering and a lot less theoretical physics."
In front of us was a fifteen yard long LOG, which twenty seconds earlier had been a twenty yard long TREE. It was resting in the middle of a pile of dust and ash and char and splinters that had similarly been BUSHES and SAPLINGS and the FOREST FLOOR.
"Anyway, the gist is, the beam weapons work by suspending a small chunk of matter in some kind of containment field and oscillating it in and out of Z-space a few thousand times per second. This starts a buildup of the same kind of energy Serenity is detecting, only magnified, amplified, and focused down to a tight beam by a set of mirrors and lenses."
Flipping the large switch on the nozzle from red to black, THÀN turned awkwardly and clipped it onto the side of the bulky metal frame he was wearing before shrugging the whole thing off of his shoulder and letting it drop to the ground, kicking the connector hose out of the way to make sure it didn't get caught underneath. Nodding to TOBIAS, he stepped back.
TOBIAS came forward and crouched, scrutinizing the whole assembly. It looked like a futuristic LEAF BLOWER, the kind you wear on your back like in that episode of SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS where he ruined SQUIDWARD'S yard.
"Two problems with that," THÀN continued. "First, I didn't have anywhere near the engineering and calibration capacity to build a high-quality focusing chamber, especially since I'm pretty sure it requires materials we can't synthesize here on Earth. The best I could manage was a ninety-degree cone. And second, we don't know anything about generating the kinds of fields necessary to hold matter stable during oscillation. I was able to figure out how to push stuff into and out of Z-space, thanks to Serenity, but only a few hydrogen molecules at a time, and after a few oscillations they just escape, usually with a lot of momentum."
Shouldering the pack, TOBIAS turned toward the open forest, flipped the switch, and held up the nozzle.
"Just squeeze and keep squeezing," THÀN said.
TOBIAS squeezed, and immediately the air seemed to ripple, the leaves and twigs flying away from him as if the nozzle were a giant fan. A wave of HEAT rolled back over us, like when you open up a hot OVEN. A few yards out, the bark on the nearest trees began to buckle and disintegrate, shivering into dust and blowing away along with everything else, exposing the wood underneath. Once half of the thickness of the trees had been eaten away, they began to crack and tilt and topple, and the four of us stepped out of the way as TOBIAS took his finger off the trigger.
"It's useless past about thirty feet—the effect just attenuates too much—and it probably won't do anything to Yeerk ships or shields, but it might be useful in the antipersonnel department, and since it's just a much shittier version of the tech they already have, there's probably not that much risk if they get their hands on one. I've got two more in the shed, with enough power for maybe forty-five minutes of continuous discharge, plus a set of detailed plans on a USB drive."
TOBIAS was BOGGLING, like how sometimes in a cartoon a character's EYES would pop out of their HEAD to show that they were VERY SURPRISED, and I think I understood how he felt. If we had had one of these during the MISSION TO DESTROY THE YEERK POOL, things would have gone very very differently.
"And you—you just—you just went out and made this?" TOBIAS spluttered.
"I don't know about 'just,'" THÀN said, with another one of those faint smiles. "The guns certainly took some effort, but they're first generation makework, and I expect even we can obsolete them pretty quickly. Figuring out how to build a disruptor was mostly just a stepping stone in the much larger project of getting a handle on Z-space—how to access it, how to manipulate it, what's possible within it. And that, I've barely scratched the surface on. It's been maybe two hundred hours on top of my regular work, and I've pretty much wiped out the forty grand I had in savings buying parts and equipment, not to mention—let's say borrowing—a whole bunch of company resources. When the suits catch on and go to fire me, I'm pretty much screwed unless I either loop them in on the progress so far or you guys show up to talk them out of it."
TOBIAS said nothing, but his FACE asked the question for him.
THÀN shrugged again. "I mean, shit. There's a covert alien invasion threatening to pull my species off the gameboard, for good. When else are you going to pull out all the stops?"
We banked, killing our forward momentum and spinning around the parking garage like a ball on a string, and then TOBIAS dove and I followed after him, screaming down toward the isolated little platform over the elevators where we'd left our sleeping bags that morning. We only had to sleep every four or five days thanks to the CONSTANT MORPHING, and we usually moved on to the next city before settling down to rest so we could START FRESH, but these were UNUSUAL CIRCUMSTANCES to say the least.
THÀN and OFFICER FARLOW had agreed to meet with us again in the morning, once THÀN finished his shift. He'd said he was going to spend the rest of the night doing a final pass—backing up the SERENITY data, double-checking his encryption and outside access protocols, and tuning the PROTON PACKS, which apparently was a JOKE NAME for the disruptors based on a movie I hadn't seen called GHOSTBUSTERS. TOBIAS had already done a morph check of OFFICER FARLOW and believed that the police officer could handle replacing THÀN at ATLAS LABS—and more importantly, OFFICER FARLOW was willing to do it and THÀN trusted him—and at some point before the meeting TOBIAS would morph into THÀN as well, just to be absolutely sure.
But for now, there was nothing to do but rest. We could maybe have spent the evening looking for another group to convert, like at a HOSPITAL or somewhere, where there were good and responsible people awake even after midnight, but we had already done two groups in this city and we had a RULE that two was the ABSOLUTE MAXIMUM. It's important to follow RULES like that even when you have what seems like a really good reason to break them because when you made the RULE you had PERSPECTIVE and you were able to think things through and see all the MOVING PARTS, whereas in the moment it's easy to fall prey to things like HYPERBOLIC DISCOUNTING, which is where you put a lot less weight on the distant costs than on the stuff that's happening right in front of your FACE even if the distant costs are way BIGGER. So wanting to break a RULE is a sign that you need to think about updating the RULE later and maybe being more careful about building FLEXIBILITY into your plans but it's usually not a sign that you should just GO OFF HALF-COCKED and besides if it's really truly an UNFORSEEN CIRCUMSTANCE you can just note that the RULE doesn't apply rather than breaking it.
The tiny rooftop was maybe eight feet by fifteen feet and was higher than the rest of the parking garage, which was taller than any of the nearby buildings, so we wouldn't be seen by anyone above us looking down. It also was ringed by a two foot high brick façade to TRICK people into thinking that the elevator structure was taller than it really was, meaning that as long as we stayed flat we wouldn't be seen by anyone down below, either. We demorphed in silence, and then unrolled the sleeping bags and zipped them together. I did most of the work, since TOBIAS still only had one hand.
"You could get your hand back, you know," I said, as we settled into the warm pocket and I leaned my head against TOBIAS'S shoulder. I think that normally that kind of suggestion would be considered KIND OF PUSHY but TOBIAS and I had a NO BULLSHIT POLICY which included if you were thinking something really IMPORTANT you didn't ever not tell the other person just because of FEELINGS. I had actually thought about the hand thing several times but there hadn't been a good time to bring it up because we were on a TIGHT SCHEDULE and doing it would mean taking at least a day out to go back to the CHEE. But now it looked like we were going to pause the whole recruitment thing anyway and get back to the rest of the team on the other side of the country and it would take a lot longer once the CHEE SANCTUARY was three thousand miles away instead of just a few hundred so now was the time to mention it.
TOBIAS was quiet for a long moment, and then he let out a little breath and said "Yeah" in a very soft voice that kind of sounded like maybe it was supposed to be SAD and maybe I was supposed to ASK.
So I said "What's wrong?"
He was quiet for another ten seconds or so, and then he said "I guess—I dunno. I guess it's—it feels like dying."
It took me a second to connect the dots but then I understood what he was trying to say, because the last time TOBIAS had acquired himself had been way back in the beginning and if he stayed past the TIME LIMIT then he would lose all kinds of memories from the past month or so. I didn't say anything in response, just reached over and pulled his hand around me and touched my palm to his palm and focused.
He definitely felt the ACQUIRING TRANCE come over him, because he gave me a little squeeze afterward, but he still didn't say anything, just lay there and held onto me while I morphed up into him. I made sure to focus on a version of him that had BOTH HANDS, hoping that fixing an injury like that was a LOCAL CHANGE and wouldn't affect things like the MEMORY CENTERS of his BRAIN, which turned out to be TRUE.
I told him I was finished and waited for the ACQUIRING TRANCE to come over me, but after a whole minute it hadn't happened, so I twisted a little bit to look up at him and raised an EYEBROW, which was not a thing I could do in my own body but TOBIAS'S body knew how to do it.
TOBIAS took a deep breath, and looked down at me, and shook his head a tiny bit. "It's not just that," he said quietly. "It's the whole thing. Dying, I mean. Like—someone will get a hand back, but not me. I'll be gone."
He reached over and grabbed my right hand, twisting it so that the palm faced both of us. It was normal and healthy, with NO SCAR.
"Like, yeah, I get it—it'll just be Tobias. Exact same. Jake's the exact same—he's really Jake, all the way. But—"
He faltered. "But Jake still died, you know? Jake is Jake, he's a real Jake, but he's not the real Jake. Those atoms, they're different atoms. They're in the same shape, the same pattern, but it's not the same body. The r—the original Jake, he's gone. Vanished. Disappeared into Z-space."
I scrunched up my FACE MUSCLES. I couldn't quite get the thing that TOBIAS was saying, but it didn't seem like he was going to ACQUIRE me any time soon, so I started to demorph.
"Maybe it really doesn't matter," he said, squeezing me a little closer as I shrank. "I mean, it's not like souls are a thing. I get that a copy of you really is you. But—isn't it also really a copy? Especially if you have to die to make it."
I thought hard for a minute. "Maybe," I said, putting together the thought one word at a time. "Maybe you are mixing up you and your brain?"
I mean, what about when you're morphed into a mosquito, and your real body is in STASIS, and all of your thoughts are actually running on ANDALITE EMULATOR TECHNOLOGY? I wanted to say. What's the difference between shifting your thoughts from a MEAT COMPUTER to a Z-SPACE COMPUTER, and shifting your thoughts from one MEAT COMPUTER to another?
But I didn't say it, because I didn't think of those words until later, I just had this feeling of I think you're confused and it wouldn't have been POLITE or HELPFUL or GOOD to just say that.
"Maybe," TOBIAS said again, even quieter this time. "But that—I don't know. That kind of makes it sound like what happened to Jake doesn't matter at all. Like we could just do it all the time."
"We sort of do," I pointed out. "I mean, when we morph someone and look inside their head—"
"Isn't that different, though? I mean, that's making a copy for a reason and then unmaking it, not—not replacing the original."
But what if the original is WORSE, I wanted-to-say-but-couldn't-find-words-for. What if it's missing a HAND and it could get its hand BACK if it just—just—just—
"I mean," TOBIAS said, now so quiet that it was hard to hear him even though our heads were right next to each other. "If it's really just about the way you think—your goals, your reactions, stuff like that—why wouldn't you just make a hundred copies of yourself?"
I didn't answer, because I could hear from the way he was talking that TOBIAS was CONFUSED and SAD and INWARD-LOOKING and maybe a little bit SCARED, too. But that actually sounded pretty GOOD to me—if there were a hundred GARRETTS then I could do a lot more things and if there were a hundred TOBIASES then I wouldn't have to get scared every time we got SEPARATED that maybe he was going to DIE and then I would never see him again.
But I knew he didn't want to hear that because it would make him feel UNSPECIAL and like I didn't really care about him, even though that WASN'T IT AT ALL.
He sighed, and squeezed me tighter, his nose pushing up against my hair. "Anyway," he said, "there's no time. We've got to get Thàn and his stuff back to the others as soon as possible. Knowing where the Yeerks are—where Visser Three is—that could be the break we've been waiting for. The edge we need."
"Did you call them yet?" I asked.
"No. The time diff—aw, shit."
"I had the numbers backwards in my head. I was thinking it was three in the morning there, but it's only nine PM. Hang on—"
He let go of me with his one hand, rolling away from me so that he could dig into his pocket for his BURNER PHONE. Dialing with one hand, he held it up to his ear.
"Jake," he said, and then—
I couldn't hear what JAKE was saying, but TOBIAS went rigid, his muscles suddenly tight where I was leaning against them. "What?" TOBIAS said, and then "What?" and then "When?" and then "Jesus fuck."
I wanted very much to ask what was going on, but it's EXTREMELY RUDE not to mention INEFFICIENT to interrupt a phone call like that when you can just wait a few more seconds and they'll tell you everything not in little pieces while wasting the other person's time. But it sounded like maybe VERY BAD THINGS were happening, and I wondered if anyone was DEAD.
"Uh huh," TOBIAS was saying. "Yeah—no, we can't make it back tonight, but—no, look, there's news on our end, too—"
And then he described the situation with THÀN in a couple of very short sentences, and then he promised we would get back as soon as possible, and then he hung up.
"What's going on?" I asked, twisting so that I could see TOBIAS'S face in the dim light. It was all tight and twitchy and his EYES were darting all over the place and very WIDE and I felt a little tingle of FEAR on the back of my neck.
"They made contact with the Andalites," he said, "and with the Yeerks—"
I didn't like LYING and if I could help it, I wasn't going to do it—because probably they wouldn't ask, if they send you on a MISSION and then you come back they'll usually just ask something like how'd it go, not did you do the thing, and you can just say fine and then that's that.
But that's still LYING BY OMISSION and I didn't feel great about it, but TOBIAS had said that we were about to MAJORLY GEAR UP and that things were going to be even more DANGEROUS than usual because we didn't have time to DOT ALL THE I'S AND CROSS ALL THE T'S, and so I was supposed to take the ISCAFIL DEVICE and give it back to the CHEE because it didn't make sense to keep recruiting people if the whole world was about to BLOW UP and also it didn't make sense to carry the ISCAFIL DEVICE with us if we weren't going to be using it and also maybe there were some situations where we'd wish we had it with us but it wasn't worth the RISK overall but we definitely wanted to be able to get it back and use it later if we managed to stop the ASTEROID.
And then I don't really know what my BRAIN was thinking but sometimes your BRAIN puts together lots of little clues and hints and comes up with CONCLUSIONS that you can't really justify but a lot of the time they're WORTH LISTENING TO.
And none of this was the REAL REASON, but it was all stuff I came up with after the fact that SOUNDED GOOD:
We'd never really been sure that we could trust the CHEE and it was even worse now that VISSER THREE was trying to ENTICE them by doing nice things for DOGS.
We'd looked inside THÀN SUOROS and DAVID POZNANSKI and SERGEANT NICKERSON but we didn't really know for SURE that we could trust them, we hadn't seen them in ACTION and maybe a morph check wasn't enough.
And if things were going to get DANGEROUS then some of us might get CAPTURED or TORTURED and the thing THÀN had said about the PROTON PACK TECHNOLOGY not being very risky because the YEERKS already had it made me think about what kinds of technology the YEERKS didn't have and might want very much and it seemed like since people had been talking about our recruitment strategy on the INTERNET that maybe the YEERKS knew we had an ISCAFIL DEVICE and how if I was VISSER THREE I might think that out of all the ISCAFIL DEVICES in the galaxy this one was probably not only the closest but also the easiest one to STEAL and it would be a lot easier if all he had to do was capture one ANIMORPH to find out where it was, especially if we left it with the CHEE and he told them to give it to them or he was going to hurt some DOGS.
And so I decided that I was not going to take it to the CHEE, and I was also not going to tell the rest of the ANIMORPHS what I had done with it, except that I would maybe give them some CLUES in case something happened to me because I wasn't STUPID, I didn't want them to lose it forever if I caught a random DRACON BEAM or something. And I guess if they found out and tried to argue with me, I would try to explain to them those REASONS I had thought of and any other ones I could come up with, but in fact it wasn't because of those REASONS, not really.
I just had a FEELING, and I hoped TOBIAS wouldn't be MAD AT ME.