Author's note: Wahoo! Nominally, this marks the end of another "book," but as you might guess we're going to flow right back into things, probably starting with a Tobias chapter.
Note that I am desperately, shamelessly eager for your comments, reviews, and other feedback—your thoughts and reactions keep me going, and I'm deeply appreciative of the people who respond chapter in, chapter out. If you've enjoyed this story so far, please take the time to let me know; if you think it could be better, please give me a few words to tell me how. (And of course, if you think other people might enjoy it, point them toward it!)
As a final note, I didn't hear back from any interested artists re: making covers for the book, so I'll probably start looking elsewhere soon. If you or one of your friends might be interested in exchanging artwork for money, please let me know! I'm not rich, but I'm willing to pay talent what talent deserves.
Chapter 29: Esplin 9466
‹—your incompetence, or your treachery, you vowed before this very Council that the humans have no technology substantially more sophisticated than nuclear weapons and chemical rockets—›
"They don't," the alien woman said flatly, her face holes twisting obscenely as she stared at me through the hologram with her two stalkless eyes. "What exactly are you claiming they've done?"
‹They are manipulating spacetime!› I shouted. ‹They have triggered a cataclysmic rearrangement of the Z-space landscape—my fleet is scattered, isolated—we have lost contact with the vanguard—the distance to our destination has increased sixty-five-fold! We are caught like insects in amber!›
I was raging, I knew—could see from the outside that I was out of control, saying too much, not thinking strategically. Half of the Council was unnerved, the image of their faces betraying anxious uncertainty, while the other half watched with cool detachment as I came unhinged.
But I could not help it, did not want to be in control, was in the grips of an indignant, incandescent fury at this—this—
‹—this worm,› Alloran provided, and for once his own outrage was not a pose, not a gambit—for he, too, had suffered and lost at the hands of short-sighted imbeciles, of politicians who would jeopardize everything for the sake of their own relative status—who would tear at the foundation of society itself if it would elevate them for the briefest of moments, it was pointless self-destruction and together we seethed at the idiocy of every grasping simpleton who would rather rule over piles of tumbling ash than ride a rising tide credited to another—
"What makes you so certain that this is a human intervention?" the woman asked, with infuriating obtuseness.
‹The event was defensive!› I shot back, as Alloran muttered Andalite curses in the back of my mind. ‹Triggered by our arrival into the system! The very instant that the vanguard penetrated the heliosheath—›
"That means nothing. Coincidences happen."
I felt my vision darken and constrict as my apoplexy mounted. This worm—she knew the fundamental rules of probability, the interaction between prior and posterior—she knew and she was hoisting a mask of ignorance to play to the crowd—
But I could not find the words to shatter that mask, could not force her to admit what she already knew—
"And even if it is an artificial event, more likely by far that it is an Andalite trap—"
‹Andalites do not have the technological capacity to—›
"Neither do humans," she snapped, interrupting. "A fact that I can substantiate through the sharing, whereas we have only your word regarding the Andalites, Esplin."
I fell silent, fuming, struggling to bring my emotions under control even as Alloran continued to stoke the flames beneath the surface.
She knew, the war-prince whispered. She knew, and she told no one, and now you are trapped. Finished, irrelevant, caught in slowtime beyond all reach. By the time you crawl your way out she will have consolidated her control over the Council—
I slammed him down into unconsciousness, cutting off every nerve, every avenue—buried him so deep within the blackness that I could no longer feel his presence.
‹Andalites,› I said carefully, each word burning like Dracon fire, ‹do not have this capacity. We would know if they did—they would have used it against us—on Gara, on Leera—would have used it to defend their own homeworld for certain—›
"Perhaps it is new, and they chose to test it where disaster would not threaten their own interests."
It does not MATTER if you can construct a plausible-sounding STORY, what matters is the LIKELIHOOD of a given chain of events, taking complexity into account—
I said nothing. This battle could not be fought with reason or logic, was not an engagement where correctness conferred any advantage at all. She had cut me off simply to show that she could, flaunting her rank, signaling disdain—
—and as my stalks traced across the simulated faces of the Council, I could see that it was working. That her brinksmanship, her blatant social jockeying, had impressed them, that in her eyes she was winning.
Even as she sets fire to everything you have built, and feeds your dreams into the flames!
It was my own thought, not Alloran's, but if anything that made it even harder to ignore. I knew the game she was playing, knew that my position was compromised—knew that she was hoping I would succumb to my anger, would fail with abandon, embarrass myself as I had after the failure at Gara, when I had let Alloran's whispers goad me—
I breathed deeply, seeking peace. If this was a betrayal, it would be unwise to continue blindly playing the part that had been handed to me. And if it was not, then it was all the more important that I regain sympathy in the eyes of the Council, that I not burn what influence I still retained—
‹My apologies, Visser One,› I said smoothly, suppressing the part of me that had no knowledge of patience. ‹This is a stressful moment, and I fear my host's responses colored my own immediate reaction.›
"There is a known remedy for that," she sneered, and I clamped down on the urge to retaliate, the instinctive sense that a cheap shot deserved a symmetric answer—
‹As you say, Visser,› I answered, leaving the silence for her to fill.
"What are the tactical details of the situation?"
With half of my attention, I described what we'd learned of the rift, and what orders I had given the rest of my fleet. With the other half, I began to form contingency plans—what to do if the Z-space landscape continued to shift, how to respond to a hostile, aware, and technically sophisticated Earth, and what to do about my various rendezvous with the Naharans, the Arn, the Taxxons, and the Gedds, all of which would now be impossible to make.
‹—have ordered them to regroup, so that they may emerge in strength—all except the nearest, which will clear the boundary perhaps thirteen cycles sooner than the rest.›
"If this is an Andalite countermeasure," said Visser One, "we must learn how it works."
Useless proclamations, puerile posturing—as if there's any way for her authority to make a difference, as if you wouldn't have already done that in the first place—
(Alloran was emerging; it was rarely worth the sustained effort it took to keep him suppressed for very long—)
‹As you command, Visser,› I said. Quiet, calm, and obedient.
(Of course, if it was an Andalite countermeasure, then I suspected I already knew the source—had seen the glimmer in the sensors, so fleeting and faint and yet so familiar, a ghost upon the haunt. I would wager the smallest finger of my right hand that it was him—that he was here, trapped in the slowness with us—its author, perhaps—that for once, there would be no quick and easy escape for either of us.)
((Unless he could reverse the effect as easily as he had created it, or carve out a tunnel for himself that no other could navigate.))
(((Although if he had control that fine, we would almost certainly already be dead.)))
(I said nothing aloud, of course.)
"Are there any other signs of notable activity?"
"Very well. For the time being, we will treat your primary fleet as out-of-commission. I will divide command of your reserves between Vissers Two, Four, and Five—"
I held my head still, giving no sign that I felt the severity of the blow even as Alloran raised his voice in mockery—
"—and I will assume strategic command over the siege of the Andalite homeworld myself."
I had only a fraction of an instant in which to compose a response, but I made the most of it—weighing up all of my options, balancing them against Visser One's clear ambition, the strength of the Andalite military, my own already-weakened position—
‹With respect, Visser, I would appreciate being kept up-to-date and allowed to serve in an advisory capacity—›
"Hardly necessary. We have the situation well in hand, and your hands seem to be full enough as it is."
There was a soft susurration as the Council gawked at my debasement, even those who had been my allies turning their heads, their mirth barely suppressed. Fools, I whispered, where only Alloran could hear. Short-sighted fools, malleable puppets—
‹Separately, perhaps,› I continued, ‹you would be willing to advise me, on matters of human society and governance, as I investigate the source of—›
"For the last time, this is not a human technology!"
Again, I gave no outward sign, but amid my anger and confusion I allowed myself a single note of satisfaction, even as Alloran's sense twisted with disdain.
‹When do you think she will realize?› I asked the war-prince—privately, the satisfaction turning to smugness as it leaked through the boundary between us.
‹She is no fool,› he answered back. ‹When things go awry in the skies above my home, she will know exactly who to blame.›
‹Ah, but the Council just saw her freeze me out,› I said. ‹I fear her shame will be hers to bear, and hers alone.› With half of my attention, I continued the conversation with the Visser, exchanging empty sentences, acknowledging orders she could neither evaluate nor enforce.
‹You laugh lightly, for one whose own plans are in shambles,› Alloran said.
‹No plan long survives contact with the enemy,› I quoted, relishing as always the war-prince's seething resentment as I reflected his wisdom back at him. ‹Besides, it is not as if I came unprepared.›
I had lost contact with Aftran and Telor, and the remainder of my fleet would not emerge for quite some time. But the hold of my own ship was packed to the brim with resources—from my stolen Andalite ansible, which would allow me to stay in contact with Quatazhinnikon even in the event of a total Z-space blackout, to my four frozen Leerans; from my compact Naharan manufactory to my portable Arn incubator. I had weapons, plagues, clones, prototypes, Controllers from nine different species—an entire arsenal of tricks and traps.
‹It might even be fun,› I remarked. ‹How long has it been since either of us crossed tails with a competent opponent?›
‹You do not have a tail, worm,› Alloran shot back, and I laughed as I lashed his back and forth for good measure.
Now that I was calmer, it seemed less likely that Visser One was lying outright, and had sent me forth into a trap. But if that was the case, and the Earth possessed hitherto-unknown capacities exceeding even Andalite technological sophistication—
Well. A harder fruit to pluck, for certain, but all the sweeter once crushed beneath my hoof. To be sure, there were some branches of possibility in which I emerged from the rift into immediate death or capture, but in all of the other branches—
‹You ignore a significant swath of possibility,› Alloran said, his tone hard as if lecturing a batch of new cadets.
I scanned his thoughts and found myself incredulous. ‹Significant?› I scoffed. ‹You abuse the term.›
Alloran did not budge.
‹Surely you jest. If it is not the humans, it is Elfangor, back to meddle once more.›
‹And who do you think directs his meddling?›
‹His meddling is self-directed,› I growled. ‹I will admit that this rift implies technology beyond anything we have yet encountered, but there is no need to stretch to gods and fairy tales to explain it.›
‹But surely the possibility is worth consideration?› Alloran whispered slyly. ‹You have just seen the fabric of the cosmos rearranged, as if by the finger of a god. I think perhaps you have recovered your composure a little too quickly. This is not an observation compatible with any of your previous models of reality.›
I was silent and still for a moment. That was a point I could not easily refute—there was a chance that I had failed to be properly impacted, that I was sliding inappropriately into complacency, allowing false confidence to drown out the quiet notes of doubt and confusion.
But the game I played with Alloran was subtle and deep, and even as I stared straight into his mind, I could not be sure I had caught his true motive, which he had learned to hide sometimes even from himself. It could be that he sought to distract me by focusing my attention on a ludicrous Andalite fable. Or it could be that he sought to dissuade me from attending to the possibility, by making it seem childish and naïve. Peeling back the layers of his thoughts, I found only a blank and innocent ambivalence, devoid of useful hints.
As always, the sensible choice would be to shield myself from his whispers entirely, to lock him up where he could not tug upon my strings.
It would be entirely too lonely.
‹A fair point,› I said finally, my tone light and noncommittal. ‹Yet if it is your Ellimist, it has given me an entire system to play in, with freedom from interference from both of our peoples. So in that case, whose interests are truly being served?›
To that, Alloran said nothing, and we continued our slow crawl through the emptiness in silence.
Visser One was either a fool, or a far better friend than she seemed.
‹Always a winnowing,› Alloran whispered. ‹Always a rounding off. Never respect for the third way, for the shadow between light and darkness.›
I ignored him. Thirty-nine local cycles had passed since I had emerged from the rift and begun my investigations. And what I had found—
I had despaired, when the rift had first appeared, cutting off half of my schemes at the knee—had ranted and railed before Visser One and the Council, imagining myself exiled, marooned, isolated from the living pulse of the war and left to rot, impotent, in an empty corner of space. In the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe, I had focused only on the knowns—on the fact that it would be a revolution at least before I could re-emerge from the bubble, and longer if I complied with my orders—for Aftran had foolishly deployed as originally instructed, and the invasion would require far more effort to protect and cultivate.
But my despair had been naïve, premature. Could not—in the end—have been more wrong. The Earth, as it turned out, was the key to everything—a windfall all unexpected, a veritable treasure, with an industrial economy capable of greater output than all of the worlds in the Andalite expanse combined. Visser One had spoken at length of its seven billion potential hosts, but she had said nothing of the greater bounty, an entire world of mines, manufactories, and machines.
How could she not have known? I whispered to myself.
But the explanation was obvious, did not even require Alloran's cutting cynicism to locate. She had known—had had access to all of the pieces, been able to see all of the relevant factors. She simply had not added them up, had not bothered to notice that this and that and that could combine to form a whole far greater than its parts. Had been blinded, perhaps, by the fact that the human technologies were lesser, and so failed to appreciate the importance of quantity. A human F-35 was no match for an Andalite starfighter, let alone a Dome ship. But there were over two hundred of them, and countless thousands of lesser aircraft.
I would not have to wait two revolutions, or even one. I would not have to return to Leera, or to the homeworld of the Arn. I did not even need the cooperation of the Council, though I would maintain it anyway as a shield against circumstance—the protective barrier of the Z-space rift was not guaranteed, and might disappear or change as suddenly as it had arrived.
‹An event which you still do not understand.›
True, but I was at least confident that it had not been effected by the humans, nor had any other protective force raised its hand in the intervening thirty-nine cycles, as Aftran settled into its new home and I carried out my investigations.
‹If anything,› I shot back, ‹that lack of understanding has aided me, since an obvious explanation would have satisfied my curiosity, and I would not have dug so deep so quickly.›
It had only taken a cycle to determine that I would have to look farther afield than the major government-run militaries and scientific assemblies. The humans were astonishingly fragmented, with a chaotic, dizzying array of overlapping societies and hierarchies that were constantly shifting in influence and allegiance. The sum total of every clique, club, group, and organization on the planet might easily exceed seven billion, and the range of sophistication was staggering, with some humans living lives of Gedd-like simplicity while others oversaw massive swathes of property, territory, and technology. Given the sheer diversity of intelligence and agency, it was entirely plausible that some small group had developed technology that the rest did not even suspect.
So I had dived into the problem, following the obvious threads, investigating the Freemasons and the Illuminati, the Yalean Skull-and-Bones and the Knights-Templar, the Bilderbergs, the Opus Dei, the Bayesian Conspiracy, the Ku Klux Klan, the Komited Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, the B'nai B'rith. It had not been easy, gathering trustworthy information on each of them, and for most I had barely scratched the surface—
(It would have been simple enough, were I free to approach under Leeran hypersight, or to acquire certain individuals directly and then search through their memories. But I could not go leaving a trail of bodies in my wake, especially not with Aftran so recently planted, and with targets potentially powerful beyond measure. The most I dared do was to seize vagrants off of the street, and send them—together with a Leeran—into proximity with the most likely targets, after which I absorbed the vagrants' memories and terminated them. It was a gamble, but as I came to know the humans better, I learned that few of them would dare admit to the experience of hypersight, lest their peers think them insane, and remove them from positions of authority.)
—and thus far, the search had been fruitless. Almost none of the conspiracies even had the power they were rumored to have, and of the handful that did wield significant control, none had access to technology on interplanetary scales. I marked several of their leaders for later infestation, and moved on.
As for the more official human leadership—
I had done cursory investigation into the most obvious societies, including those that had created and were now operating the Chinese Spectral Radio Heliograph, the James Webb orbital telescope, the Large Hadron Collider, the IceCube Antarctic Neutrino Observatory, the National Ignition Facility in California, the LFEX in Japan, the Serenity complex, the giant electromagnet in the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Chinese supercomputer Tianhe-2, and the robots of Boston Dynamics, as well as DARPA, CERN, Berkeley Laboratory, Bell Laboratories, and the facilities at Google, NASA, Boeing, and Area 51. I had at first been astonished by the lack of security—by the vast quantities of information readily available on each of these sites via the human internet. Never before had I encountered such arrogant disregard for caution, such open bravado—
But that only accelerated the process, allowing me to quickly prioritize my investigations. And after the seven most promising yielded nothing—
(Or at least, nothing relevant to the Z-space rift; they contained much that was of interest to my larger strategy.)
—I abandoned the search. It was still barely conceivable that there was some highly effective and utterly hidden group of human scientists that had leapt ahead of the rest of their species, but the lack of any evidence—combined with the inability of our scanners to pick up any relevant activity—was conclusive enough for me to turn my attention to other matters.
‹Your carelessness is incredible,› Alloran said scornfully. ‹Literally incredible, in that I cannot conceive of a universe in which it is justified. You have ruled out the humans as the obvious cause, and this reduces your curiosity?›
‹The rift is stable,› I countered. ‹It has not changed since its creation, and it has not responded to either my direct probes nor to any of my actions within the system.›
I smiled inwardly, relishing the moment of anticipation, Alloran's pre-emptive flinch as I readied my barb—
‹Defensive preparation is not without cost,› I quoted. ‹That which may destroy you at any time may destroy you at any time. Prepare for the enemy you can vanquish, and develop a reasonable robustness, but do not concern yourself with the anger of the gods.›
As always when I spat his own wisdom back at him, Alloran said nothing, only radiated a mixture of skepticism and resentment.
It was true that I was taking a risk—if the rift was meant for a purpose, that purpose remained to be seen, and if there was a malevolent force at work within the system, I had not yet uncovered it and was not yet defended against it.
But at the same time, there was work to be done, and thus far, events were largely unfolding according to design. There had been hiccups, but nothing that indicated systematic disruption or undeniable enemy action.
There was an aphorism I had picked up while moving among the humans. It made little sense in Yeerk or Andalite culture, yet nevertheless I had been amused by its succinctness, and the obvious practicality of its message.
‹Good fortune is like a cup with a hole in its bottom,› I said. ‹One may still drink from its lip, but it is the wise man who drinks quickly.›
And with that, I thrust the war-prince back beneath the surface, and turned my ship toward the distant, dust-red planet.
‹Well, well,› I said, stepping out from underneath my fighter and straightening to tree-stretch as the Hork-Bajir commandos fanned out around the empty construction site. ‹Prince Elfangor-Sirinial-Shamtul, if I am not mistaken. The Beast, the Vanarx, the blade that falls without warning. It is an honor to stand before you.›
On the ground before me, the young war-prince tilted his head in acknowledgement, the gash in his side oozing thick, dark blood. ‹War-Father,› he said softly. ‹It is good to see you again, even—like this. Your wisdom has been sorely missed. I hope the path I have chosen has met with your approval.›
In the back of my mind, Alloran was a black pit of despair, his voice an endless wordless clamoring as he fought to reach the surface—to hold me back, to defend his protégé, to offer even the slightest comfort or encouragement to Elfangor as the young warrior's doom drew inexorably closer.
‹And you,› the young war-prince continued, with a different inflection. ‹Esplin nine-four-six-six, of the Cirran pool, third Visser of the Yeerk armada. We have met before, as it happens, in the skies above Leera.›
‹Ah,› I said, as I raised a hand and signaled two of the commandos to enter and search the ruined ship. ‹So it was you who brought me down when the blockade broke. An admirable gambit, that.›
Let me speak to him, Alloran begged, his thoughts muffled beneath the blanket of my control but legible nonetheless. If you have any shred of mercy or decency within you, Esplin—if any speck of you be fair—you will let me speak to him before he dies—
‹Only a small token of repayment,› Elfangor replied, his thoughts labored and slow, as if he were marshaling his strength between silent gasps of pain. ‹I owed you for a lesson hard-learned in the battle over Taxxon.›
I felt a ripple of curiosity as Alloran continued to howl. ‹Oh?› I asked. I had not been at that particular engagement—
‹Yes. You were not there, but—the deceptive slash—the missiles, hidden by the fighters' drive emissions—that was your tactic, I assumed.›
‹Ah, yes, the Iblis maneuver. A fine tactic. It brought down your fighter?›
‹No. My wingmate, Arbron-Djabala-Oniba.›
‹Did she survive?›
‹No. She lived long enough to make it to the surface, but then—›
The war-prince broke off. ‹She did not die well.›
Not well, indeed—the Taxxons were endlessly, insatiably hungry. It would have taken a flood of them to bring down an Andalite warrior, but every corpse would only attract more—
‹Like the Yeerks you murdered in the deep,› I answered evenly, allowing just the tiniest edge of anger to creep into my voice. ‹No fewer than thirty-seven ships missing in the past revolution alone, including two pool ships. How many of those were your handiwork?›
‹Twenty-eight fighters and one of the pool ships,› Elfangor said softly, as Alloran thrummed with a strange mix of pride and desperation. ‹I stayed behind to count the bodies. Every time. One hundred and sixteen Gedds. Ninety-four Ongachic. Eleven Garatrons. Seven Skrit Na. Fifty-four Naharans. Two hundred and eight Taxxons. Three thousand five hundred and sixty-three Hork-Bajir. One Leeran. Five I did not recognize, from at least two different species. And nine others too burned to identify. Four thousand and sixty-one souls liberated from the clutches of slavery.›
‹And how many Yeerks?› I asked, with a hint of a snarl. ‹Did you bother to estimate? How many of my siblings do you think you sent into the darkness?›
‹None,› the war-prince whispered. ‹You have no siblings, Esplin. There are none like you.›
I felt my thoughts stumble at the unexpected answer, noted the hint of confusion and marked it for later consideration. ‹Interesting,› I said, shoving Alloran still deeper, muting his pleas to a distant, meaningless buzz. ‹That is not a thing that many know.›
‹A question, if you will, before I die,› Elfangor said, his chest heaving. I gave an assenting gesture, and he continued. ‹What do you want with these humans?›
I blinked, my stalk eyes pausing in their constant scan.
‹You have your Taxxon allies. You have your Hork-Bajir slaves. You have your Leerans and your Garatrons and your Naharans, your victims from a double handful of worlds. Why these people—these, who pose no threat to you?›
‹Because they pose no threat,› I answered promptly. ‹Because they are so many, and so weak. Billions of them! We will have to build a thousand new pools just to raise enough Yeerks for half of them. They are the wave we will ride across the galaxy—›
‹No,› whispered Elfangor, and from the change in his tone I could tell that he was now speaking to me, and to me alone. ‹Not propaganda, Esplin nine-four-six-six. Not what you tell the others. Not what your Council thinks, what your subordinates think. The truth.›
I tilted my head, considering.
‹To spawn a thousand more pools,› Elfangor continued, his body twitching as a new surge of blood poured forth. ‹To extend the conflict further and further, to wash across the myriad worlds—it is no longer about survival, no longer about escape. You create scarcity where there could be fulfillment, violence where there could be peace. If every Yeerk were embodied this day, the rest of your people would be satisfied, would let go of their hunger. They do not know it, but it is true—they are driven by a desire for fulfillment that is finite. But you—›
He paused, and pressed a hand against his wound, the fingers black and shining in the starlight. ‹You are insatiable. You alone will fight until there is no one left unconquered. There has to be a reason, doesn't there? Surely you have that much in common with your host.›
Tell him, Alloran shouted, cutting through the layers of insulation with a convulsive effort.
‹Please?› Elfangor asked. ‹I am dying, and can cause you no further harm. I wish only to know. I will stand, only to bow, if flattery is your price.›
TELL HIM, Alloran bellowed.
Beyond the war-prince, the pair of Hork-Bajir emerged from the broken ship, their hands flashing in the signal for nothing to report.
Tell him, Alloran whispered, his strength spent.
I looked down at Elfangor, the least unworthy of my opponents, the last and best of my symbiote's students. I looked at the gash in his side—the tiniest disruption in the fragile order of his body, and yet a harbinger of doom.
‹Your teacher begs me to answer your question,› I said softly, the thoughts like ice as they formed, as they slid from my mind to his. ‹He begs, and pleads, as you beg and plead. As your family will beg, when my forces land on your homeworld—as the Council will beg, when I overthrow their dominion. So much want, so much desire, so much will—and yet, in the end, it all amounts to nothing. You have no levers upon eternity, none of you—if I grant your plea, you will die nonetheless. If I deny Alloran his wish, it will make no difference to his ultimate fate.›
‹So it is simple nihilism, then?› Elfangor asked. ‹Nothing matters, and therefore nothing matters?›
‹No,› I snapped, the edge of anger reappearing. ‹It is you who fight for nihilism, you and all the rest of your kind—for an endless race toward the darkness, fumbling and sliding without meaning or purpose. It is your battle that ends here, bleeding to death on an alien world, with no one to comfort you, your future replaced by oblivion. You think you can prevent the violence by agreeing not to fight? I could save you right now—could patch that hole in your side, prevent your soul from leaking out. But it would only postpone the reckoning, the point at which your every dream and triumph fades to dust, to nothingness. It is inevitable—your way of life demands it, makes every alternative impossible.›
Almost without conscious thought, I found myself morphing, my perspective shifting as I rose into the air, the form of an Antarean Bogg erupting out of Alloran's frame, all teeth and muscle and raw, undeniable power.
‹All around you are the tools you need to bring about your will!› I shouted. ‹But you refuse to grasp them! And why? Why? What good is your fairness, your morality—to whose benefit your moral grandstanding, your decision to leave the universe in the hands of those who will let it drain away—who will waste it, heedless, until there is nothing left but darkness—who will do nothing to slow the dissolution of everything that could possibly matter?›
Elfangor said nothing, only looked up at me, all four eyes still.
‹I suppose I have answered your question,› I said, dropping my voice abruptly back down to a quiet and dangerous calm. ‹You recognize the claims that others make upon the matter and energy around them—you grant their goals legitimacy, give their wants weight equivalent to your own. And I—›
I paused, rearing, as my back legs thickened into pillars and my other four limbs stretched and split into a writhing mass of tentacles. ‹I do not. If you will not use what the universe has given you—if you will not fight the coming darkness—then I will take it from you, and take you, and put you to better use myself.›
‹Alloran,› Elfangor whispered. ‹Teacher. Friend. You are forgiven. Do not lose hope.›
‹Useless,› I muttered, even as the Andalite within me broke, and wept.
It did not take long, after that.
New hypothesis: Chee.
Even as the concept formed in my mind, I fought to dispel it. It was an unhelpful reflex, a relic of mental shortcuts that neither I nor Alloran endorsed, kin to the way that fools mistook recognizing a phenomenon for understanding it, or how the small-minded applied labels to themselves and then refused to question or exceed them. There was nothing that was fundamentally incomprehensible—this I believed to my core, with as close to blind faith as I was capable of, and the original thought had simply been some tired or lazy part of my mind attempting to enshrine its own ignorance as the right and natural state of things and thereby justify capitulation.
But it was tempting.
In the beginning, I had suspected treachery on the part of Visser One, and specialized competence on the part of the humans—an unusual mastery of Z-space manipulation, as the Arn had mastered biology, and the Naharans microtechnology.
When that proved dubious, I shifted my suspicions to Elfangor, for it was just the sort of trap he might have conceived—a desperate tactic to delay me, a sacrifice to buy time for his incompetent compatriots.
But Elfangor's defeat had not broken the pattern—he was a pawn, not a player, and after his death the tiny implausibilities continued to pile up, one after another, until the pattern could no longer be denied—
It could not be coincidence. Not all of it. But in total—in the aggregate—
It did not make any sense.
Some impossibly powerful force had isolated the human system, and had done so at exactly the right moment to preserve the invasion, but leave it maximally crippled—allowing only the smallest, weakest pool ship through, and disrupting communications and delaying my own fighter for just long enough to prevent me from preventing Aftran from deploying in the least important of the target cities.
That same force had almost certainly intervened to rescue the self-styled Animorphs from the Ventura holocaust—security footage had placed Rachel Berenson and a human juvenile tentatively identified as an associate of Tobias Yastek within the complex not long before impact, and one of the Bug fighters had spotted a partial morph with residual human features matching Cassie Withers attempting to flee the scene, and had shot it down. From what I understood of human psychology, the presence of Rachel and Cassie all but guaranteed that Jake Berenson had also been close at hand, which left at most Marco Levy and Tobias Yastek out of range of the fireball. My brief glimpse within Rachel's mind had not warned me of the presence of the Andalite cadet, nor did it definitively rule out the possibility that the humans had recruited heavily in the cycles leading up to the assault, but I had sensed no such intention in her mind, and the subsequent harassment of our supply lines and operations had never suggested a group any larger than seven.
(Which was not proof of anything, of course, just as the Z-space bridge was not proof of anything. But there were only so many times one could notice something being not quite proof before the general trend became inescapable.)
That meant that the meteor should have destroyed the majority of their strategic and warmaking capacity, leaving only one or two of them active and far from familiar territory. Yet in mere cycles, they had recovered sufficiently to launch an international broadcast, a demolitions mission, and a coordinated buyout of the kandrona substitute in hundreds of stores—and that was before the rumors of a mass recruitment drive began to surface on the human internet.
(Not to mention that their very awareness of the oatmeal was strong evidence that they had access to surviving—and cooperative!—shards of Aftran. It was the only explanation that made sense of the timing—if the knowledge had come from their Chee infiltrators, they would have acted on it sooner—)
For all of that to have been accomplished by a random group of human juveniles, much less a mere pair of survivors—
No. Obviously not. They were not agents, they were tools, well-chosen and well-aimed, arranged against the invasion—against me—by an intelligence with great subtlety and vast resources. That intelligence had placed them in Elfangor's path, and had either shielded them from the meteor or moved them out of its path, leaving the rest of Ventura to burn.
For a time, I had thought that the Chee might be that intelligence—that the network of ancient, dog-loving, pacifist robots might be the source of the opposition. It would explain why none of the moves against me had been lethal, and why my ship's sensors had not detected the human children on the night of Elfangor's death.
(I had pulled only a confused jumble of information from the minds of Rachel and six-three-four-eight-one, but one image had stood out in sharp relief—the towering figure of my Antarean Bogg morph, silhouetted against the lights of the distant highway, a doomed Andalite war-prince held within its tentacles.)
But ultimately that hypothesis only produced more confusion, was at best a partial explanation, leaving half of the mysteries unsolved. Even if the Chee possessed some ancient eldritch device capable of manipulating vast swathes of subspace, why would they have used it then? And why would they have left a single bridge—still less one that was perfectly straight and thereby discoverable?
(And how in the name of the thirteen pools could they have manipulated fate so that I would discover it? And why?)
No—I could explain away the problems looking backward, could cobble together any number of plausible narratives, but not through any theory that granted me predictive power, that made me confident I could guess where the next improbability would occur.
(Not that that stopped me from trying, of course—indeed, one whole layer of my attention was now fully dedicated to contingency planning, imagining every possible improbable disaster, every unfair twist of fate, from the destruction of Silat to the exposure of Pyongyang to the dissolution of the rift and the sudden arrival of an Andalite fleet. There was a part of me that hoped—though I knew it was naïve—that the manipulations were only one layer deep, and that by looking for what shouldn't happen, I could figure out what would.)
No, it could not be the Chee—or at least, not only the Chee, just as it could not only be the humans or the Andalites. There was some larger force at work, possibly even the Ellimist of Andalite legend.
For all that the current situation must have been orchestrated, and by a hand with goals that often ran counter to my own—
—the invasion had proceeded. Had not been scuttled or incapacitated or even overtly exposed. The malevolent intelligence had accelerated the opposition, had undercut my victories after the fact, had impeded my progress at every turn—but it had not prevented progress. For every two steps forward, I had been forced to take one step back, not to reset to zero.
There were the two thousand humans who were now Silat's eyes and ears and hands—including six hundred who were already beginning to produce offspring—and the hundreds more who had filled Telor's pool ship with capable bodies and who were even now moving into place for the Clarke operation.
There was the Z-space bridge, which careful testing via remote bodies had proven to be functional, safe, and stable, allowing me to send envoys to Quatazhinnikon and Visser One, and to take direct control over the construction of a safe haven for the dogs of Earth on Honoghr.
There were the manufactories in Germany and Japan, each of which had already produced the necessary components for thirteen duplicates of themselves, meaning that by the time the remainder of my fleet arrived, the Earth would be capable of outproducing both the Andalite and Yeerk navies in the production of weapons, ships, Z-space motivators, and other high technology.
There was the coercive demorphing ray, which the Naharans on the fourth planet had finally perfected, and which was even now being installed on my fighter as a shipwide field until a handheld version could be developed.
And there was the small metal chamber before me, filled to the brim with my hopes and ambitions—Kandrona, the fruit of my cooperation with the Arn and the Naharans, the culmination of my investigations into the Iscafil process—the seed of everything to come, if the upcoming test went as expected.
And any of these could have been disrupted—disastrously—with the barest, most infinitesimal fraction of the power that the unseen entity had already expended. For that matter, a delay of less than a subcycle would have sufficed to prevent my first chance meeting with Quatazhinnikon—a meeting which had barely forestalled the launching of a bioweapon that would have ended the Yeerk species entirely. The same was true of the chain of coincidence that had led to the seizure of a Skrit Na freighter during the frantic escape from Ondar—a freighter that had just happened to be carrying the only human that had ever been transported outside of its home system, the woman who eventually became the host of Visser One and who brought the human species to the attention of the Council of Thirteen.
No, if there was an entity manipulating fate—and there was, anthropics could only explain away so much—it was not clear that it was my enemy. It was possible that it had created me—that the fragile web that had led to my own genesis was more than mere coincidence, and that the confluence of Seerow's madness, Alloran's carelessness, and Cirran's miscalculation had been brought about by design.
To what end?
That was the frustration which led me to reach for the word incomprehensible, for all that such flimsy excuses ran counter to my aesthetic. I could make no sense of it.
Were there two of them, and one my defender? I couldn't tell. It was one of the simpler hypotheses, to be sure, but even that was opaque madness—I could discern no clear pair of opposing motivations that would result in this arrangement of pieces, no sane and sensible extrapolation of values that would prefer this branch of possibility to all others.
Was I misunderstanding the game? It was a common failure of inexperienced strategists that they sought to maximize the margin of victory, rather than its likelihood. My plans still looked salvageable, as they had at every point, but perhaps that was the result of a utility function that valued the largest chance of failure over the chance of largest failure. And a more intelligent entity playing me for a fool would leave me thinking there was hope for as long as possible, to blunt my motivation, forestall a desperate, convulsive effort—
But why go to all the trouble, if it was all predestined folly—
I felt the urge to lash my tail and ruthlessly suppressed it. The entity could not be playing the game against me—it simply could not. Not except as some form of sick entertainment, a predator toying with its prey—
No. Even that made no sense. My own experience had not been maximally frustrating, or maximally interesting, or maximally turbulent—I had not been teased as an older sibling might tease a younger, nor tortured as a sadist might torment its victim. In fact, I had largely been ignored, with most of the interventions taking place beyond my reach and out of my sight.
It could be that they are simply mad. Insane, or at least arcane, with goals that cannot be derived from their visible actions, that do not make sense from a lower perspective—
This time I did lash my tail, digging the blade of bone into the soft polymer of the chamber wall, relishing in the feel of physical resistance as I carved a gash as long as my body through the thick barrier.
There was an explanation. A reason. A map that made sense of the territory, that explained the twisting and winding of fate to my satisfaction. And I would find it.
But I had made little progress thus far. None of my attempts to establish direct contact had met with any detectable response, nor any of my experiments to find the limits of the unseen agents' tolerance. I had even left the system entirely for a cycle, in my own true body—
(—after first sending a drone with seeds and copies and records of all of my progress, to store away in reserve in case of disaster—)
—to see if they would block me; for though I thought I could see their hand in the events of my birth, there was at least some reason to posit that their interference was limited to Earth's immediate neighborhood.
But that excursion had produced no information, no obstruction. Nor had the evacuation of a thirteenth of Silat, to a secure position in the Arn system. Nor had the slow and sustained torture of Michelle and Walter Withers, after the Animorphs failed to rise to the bait. Nor had the seeding of Quatazhinnikon's pandemic in Luanda and Kinshasa, or the destruction of the vast Andalite data repository on Obroa-Skai, or even the setting of a molecular disruption field in the orbit of the eighth planet, which would—if unchecked—reduce it to its composite protons, neutrons, and electrons half a revolution hence.
(I had considered executing some dogs, but on the whole the value of the information I expected to gain did not outweigh the weakening of my bargaining position with regards to the Chee. It was always possible that I would need to bring in a Leeran, after all.)
No, the only resource which the intelligence seemed motivated to protect through direct intervention was the Animorphs themselves.
(The Animorphs, and also possibly myself, if the luck that had preserved me up until this point was in fact no luck at all.)
Which made it all the more urgent that I understand the balance of power, clarify the rules of the game. So far, the miracles had all been passive, defensive—delays of consequence and deflections of fate. But the Animorphs had ignored my initial offer of peace, and their attempts to interfere were slowly growing more effective and would soon pose a genuine threat. When we inevitably came face to face—when one of my snares finally caught them, or they made their own way into space—
Well. If there were laws governing which pieces could take which, and how—if there were consequences for infraction in this twisting, insane game—it would be useful to know them. And if there were gods on either side, it would pay to know exactly how each might be appeased. I would not allow uncertainty to stay my hand, but neither did I wish to rush blindly toward a cliff.
I had goals, after all.
Imagine—for a moment—that you wish to live forever.
This is a separate challenge from the problem of agency—of bringing all of the matter and energy around you under your direct control, working your will upon the canvas of reality. You can solve the latter without the former, at least partially—Quatazhinnikon, for instance, was the absolute ruler of every scrap of life within his valley, from the towering Stoola trees to the teeming microbial soup at the edges of the sculpted lakes.
But Quat would live for at most ninety-one revolutions, and his aspirations were bounded by the peculiar blind-spot of his species, for whom everything beyond the atmosphere was meaningless if it did not pose an immediate existential threat. He lacked true ambition—the drive to grow, to sustain, to extend his reach to the stars and beyond—for which longevity is an essential prerequisite.
Fine, you might reply—longevity may be achieved through any number of means, from genetic engineering to clone-hopping to cybernetic enhancement to pure emulation. And this is true—both the Arn and the Naharans have the seeds of immortality, if they ever thought to cultivate them, and even the Andalites are not far behind, for all that they struggle to have new ideas. For that matter, a Yeerk coalescion is effectively immortal—a pool has no set lifespan, and will live forever, barring disaster.
But on a long enough timeline, disaster becomes inevitable, and in a universe with inscrutable gods who might trigger a supernova for reasons impossible to predict, a durable body or a simulated brain is at no lesser risk of oblivion than a bag of flesh. Not to mention the fact that some methods of extension—such as emulation—come at the cost of decreasing one's surface area, of reducing the amount of interaction between self and universe. An emulated mind may live longer and freer, but its satisfaction is disjoint, disconnected, and ultimately—to me, at least—dissatisfying.
Redundancy is an obvious solution to both problems—with a thousand copies of oneself, one is at once a thousand times less vulnerable and a thousand times more capable. But there are problems there, too—if the copies are truly independent, then insights propagate slowly and imperfectly, with each copy benefitting only marginally from the experiences of its siblings. And if the copies are not independent, then vulnerability has not truly been gainsaid, for while a collective is more robust than an individual, it has nevertheless retained the quality whereby damage done to a part is damage done to the whole.
Yet assume—generously—that you have solved this conundrum—that you may costlessly straddle the boundary between individual and hive-mind, that consciousness-sharing may be achieved without an intolerable overhead of incomputability and stagnation. Even so, there is a deeper problem, one subtle and insidious:
A Yeerk coalescion pays for its immortality with incoherence. There is a constant exchange of shards with its neighbors, a constant rebalancing of genetic material and memetic makeup. Memory, perspective, aesthetic, expertise—all are mutable, all shift and change over time, at a pace glacial and with results no less inexorable. In two thousand revolutions, not one sliver of Yeerk-flesh would remain unchanged—Edriss, First of Thirteen, may have called itself Edriss since long before the compact, but the ancient personality which first chose that name could easily have nothing in common with its present incarnation.
So what? a pragmatist might ask. Does not everything grow? Is not change the only constant? That which cannot adapt and evolve is doomed to obsolescence anyway; it is no loss for an infant to outgrow its clumsiness and naïveté.
Yet there is a distinction between the object and the meta—between that-which-changes and that-which-guides-the-change. It is one thing to become more oneself, to move purposefully toward a distant ideal—even an ideal which is only partially understood—becoming something different and better in the process. It is another thing entirely to change the very definition of progress, to spend the first half of one's life carving a sculpture of a kafit bird and the second half trying to tease a djabala climber out of the remaining stone.
There pulsed within me the Yeerkish drive to expand—to spread and conquer, to pull all that I could into my own experience, to touch reality at every point. But there was also within me a deep and unrelenting horror of unbecoming—of waking up one day and not even noticing that I had ceased to be myself. Perhaps it came from Alloran—or perhaps it was the work of the gods, a subtle intervention in the chaotic moment when I was neither still Cirran, nor yet Esplin—but it had been with me since the beginning, had fueled my efforts from the very first, from that frantic moment of panic when I realized that I had but a single cycle to find an alternative source of kandrona before being forced to choose between dissolution and death.
All right, you might think, as I had in that desperate beginning. Find a way to duplicate yourself, then, and form a coalescion out of that.
And indeed, this was the first of the favors I had begged from Quatazhinnikon, in exchange for my vigil over his fragile kingdom. Yet as we drew closer to success, I began to realize—
If you take an insect and double its size, it will not survive—it will fall from the sky—be unable to breathe—chemical reactions inside of it will cease as molecules drop from cellular receptors that no longer fit.
In the same way, if you take a set of traits and double them, you will no longer have the same person, for all that the relative relationships between those traits remain constant. Different traits have different payoff matrices—they result in different rewards at different strengths. If a person possesses trait A at eighty percent of its effective maximum, and trait B at forty percent, then upon doubling that person will find trait B more influential to their overall personality than before, as A hits its ceiling and B closes the gap. This is a simplistic example, more false than true, but it is generally instructive—one who has become both twice as angry and twice as patient is not in any sense the same, and the nature of Yeerks is such that twice the flesh is twice the personality.
And if you desire to spread across a universe—to persist across trillions of bodies, last for trillions of revolutions—to double and double and double again, without end—then even the tiniest such differences will eventually be magnified to tremendous scales, shifting one's priorities—and therefore one's self—in unpredictable ways. It had been the work of a moment to separate Esplin from Cirran, and in that moment, Cirran had doomed itself—I share almost none of its values, and the universe I would bring about is not one that it would have chosen. I dared not allow the same fate to befall me.
For what is an individual, if not the effect it would have upon reality? Who could I possibly identify with, except one who would apply the same labels of good and bad as I, and in the same proportions, and with the same actions resulting in response? If I brought about a being greater than myself in every way, and that being chose what I would not have chosen—not in specific, not as a result of greater perception, but in principle—then I would have failed, and killed myself in the process.
And so I labored, struggling to answer questions that no Yeerk or Andalite had ever even bothered to ask, to build an edifice of theory where before there had been not even the merest foundation. The technical problems—unlocking the insights that had led Seerow to the Iscafil process, for instance—were as nothing when compared to the philosophical ones.
—there had been progress.
I looked down at the metal chamber, at the seething froth that could be seen through the transparent cover.
Kandrona, I had named it, for I was not without a sense of history. A new life form, distilled from Yeerk-flesh and Andalite neurons with the help of the Arn, enhanced with microscopic technology developed by the Naharans. It was the first of a new coalescion—the last coalescion, if all went according to plan.
(Even with Alloran's voice vanished from my mind, I nevertheless heard his scoff.)
It held all of my memories, all of my personality—even that which resided in Alloran's half of our shared skull. It could metabolize its own kandrona with the ingestion of a supplement derived from the human oatmeal. It was redundant, bifurcated, like the two strands of the human genetic molecule—for every thread that would leave the coalescion, a mirror that would not, the two kept in perfect harmony by the self-repairing transmitters ensheathing each axon.
And it could meld with itself without noticeable value drift, as I had confirmed through Leeran hypersight—I had doubled it now seven separate times, each without any detectable shift in its values and priorities.
It was the beginning of something new. Something new as I had been new—the herald of a fundamental shift in the evolution of Yeerk and Andalite—
(—and human and Taxxon and Hork-Bajir, too.)
If it could be perfected, it would usher in a new epoch, my first fledgling attempt to move pieces on the larger board. It was an ambition my siblings would have called magic, or madness—a work so complex that I had been unable even to conceive of it until I had seen the wonders of the Arn and the Naharans with my own eyes, begun to look past Seerow's corrosive madness and comprehend the brilliance within.
(Alloran's eyes, whispered a faint and dying part of me—but I ignored it.)
I was still far, far from deployment, of course—from beginning the process of replacing Telor and Silat with Kandrona, and of merging with it myself. That was the sort of action you could take only once, a decision that could not be recalled or remade. I needed to be certain beyond the faintest shadow of a doubt, or desperate beyond all reasonable measure.
After all of the failures, all of the false starts, all of the empty, dead-end paths—
Today, I would test Kandrona's true steadfastness. Today, I would see if Kandrona could metabolize a natural Yeerk, in addition to copies of itself—would see if it could absorb another's memories and experiences and physical, biological components without suffering dilution of its own true form. If it could—
Reaching out with my mind, I toggled the controls on my fighter, bringing it to the predetermined distance, controlling the exact depth to which the Leeran's influence penetrated the isolated facility. Inside and outside and all around my head, the universe blossomed, unfolding with infinite information, endless possibility, and I saw—
Kilgam 1, of Telor, who had grown in the flourishing of the journey between the stars, who had never taken a host, no piece of it had ever been part of a host. It was a throwaway, a scrap of disposable mindstuff, knowing only the hunger, the longing, the desire to be a part, and it was frightened, terrified, why had Telor amputated it, ostracized it, cut it off from the sharing and left it in the cold, the dark, it saw the Visser, it SAW THE VISSER—
I felt the echoes of Kilgam's horror, felt its fear, its revulsion, as it saw what I intended, saw its own end approach—felt its desperation peak, and crash—watched it watch through my eyes as I lifted it up in its container, lifted and carried it—
The vision popped like a bubble as I stepped beyond the reach of the slumbering Leeran and back over to the metal chamber that housed Kandrona, now one hundred and twenty-eight times as large as myself, the equivalent of sixty-four Esplin-and-Alloran brains. It was small, far smaller than an ordinary coalescion needed to be in order to be self-sustaining, and yet it had survived for over fourteen cycles with only an occasional infusion of the kandrona precursor supplement.
There was a part of me that had wanted to watch the dissolution—to move the Leeran closer and take part in the experiment, even if only vicariously. But this was a delicate moment, and there was no telling whether the influence of hypersight might have some unpredictable effect on how Kandrona interfaced with Kilgam.
So I summoned my patience, wrapping it around myself like a cloak, and pretended stone as I upended the smaller container over the larger.
I kept counting with one layer of my attention, even as another continued to imagine the thousand things that shouldn't go wrong (but would) and a third, fourth, and fifth controlled my puppet bodies on Earth, Honoghr, and the homeworld.
If it worked—if there was no value drift—
There were any number of ways the process could fail, I told myself, dampening the naïve excitement that had begun to take hold. Most of them would not even require divine intervention—only the mundane failure of miscalibration, miscalculation, an incomplete understanding of the causal dynamics at work.
And yet, the excitement was incorrigible. Since the day I had taken Alloran, everything had been—
It had been war, yes, and that was thrilling enough in the moment. But it had been war no different from any other—ships and casualties, supply lines and espionage. The sort of war Alloran was born for, the sort he already knew how to wage.
If I could take a hundred bodies at once—a thousand—a million—hold the resources of an entire species in my singular grasp, and move them all as one—
And more—if I could spread myself from star to star, perhaps even move beyond the galactic disk, all without ever losing the closeness of the sharing—as intimate as Alloran and I were intimate, two minds so deeply intertwined that we had ceased to exist as separate entities—
It was a distant dream, perhaps unreachable. Perhaps impossible, doomed from the outset by the laws of physics or the whims of the gods.
But it was closer than it had ever been before. And even if the gods were watching, even if they moved to forestall it—
Well. In a sense, that would be a victory all its own—a sign that powers great enough to shift the stars themselves had taken notice of me, had moved to contain me. I did not want to lose, but if I had to, I would take that failure over any other.
It would take longer to be certain of success, but by now, a failure should be evident. Ruthlessly dispelling the urge to hesitate, I reached out once more, easing my fighter closer, bringing the Leeran into range—
I could see it at once—feel it, smell it, the instant the field encompassed us both, though I took another three eternities to be certain, to force myself to see it, and absorb its impact.
It was small—subtle—but it was undeniably there. The protections I had put into place—the entire value stabilization framework—they had failed. It was Kandrona no longer—it had been moved by the shadow of Kilgam, shifted by the smallest fraction, a degree insignificant—
—as insignificant as the space between two stars in the sky.
I waited for emotion to rise—anger or frustration or dejection or ennui. But there was nothing—only a quiet resignation, a sort of muted galvanization. I could feel my resolve hardening as I pressed the switch to evacuate the chamber, dumping the failed Kandrona out into the vacuum, as I triggered the process that would produce the next clone, begin the next iteration of the experiment.
There was time and time to spare, and I would not waste a moment of it on grief.