Author's note: Next chapter is Rachel. It will be short (unlike this one, which, fair warning, is 19000 words), and should come out within ten days.
By the way, if you're interested in music that is an *incredibly* good fit for the themes of this fic, go listen to "The All Spark" from the original Transformers score (and, y'know, pretend you don't know where the music came from while you do it).
EDIT: For those who struggle with the final section of this chapter, I recommend reading the words out loud? Or "out loud" by mouthing or muttering them under your breath? I predict this will help.
Chapter 32: Marco
—not all the time, not nearly often enough, but sometimes—
—we manage to make it work. We figure it out in time—get there faster than anyone else, with all our shit together, enough to make the difference.
The truck. The truck had gone okay.
And the factory, and the broadcast.
Edwards Air Force Base—
Well, that had been a shitshow, but we'd all gotten out alive in the end. And then, with the rendezvous—
I had to hand it to Jake, he'd pulled that one off beautifully. Right up until the moment when he'd said, out loud, in front of two different potential hostiles, what our next target was.
It was almost as bad as the way Tobias had just—handed over Thàn and the Serenity data, no strings attached. Which I wasn't complaining about—out loud—since it had gotten my dad out of there, and since it hadn't exactly been my finest hour, either. Threatening to expose Paul Evans—that had not gone well.
Sometimes, we did okay.
‹Rachel here,› said Rachel, from the back of the hold—
—and none of them moved. None of them twitched. None of them so much as batted an eye—not even the new kid, David.
I was almost proud.
‹Speaking of Visser Three,› she continued, as the rest of us reacted not-at-all. ‹I—ah—I'm pretty sure I found something.›
I went on not looking, for the sake of Erek and Kodep and the Tyagi clone and the Secret Service agents and my dad and the slug he was carrying around inside his head. I knew what I would see, if I looked—Rachel, lying on her back in the corner, feet propped up against the wall, hair fanned out around her head, face lit up by the blue glow of the tablet Thàn had left us, the tablet Ax had Mad-Max-ified so that it could stay connected to the internet even as we ripped around the earth at twenty thousand miles an hour. Her eyes would be tracing back and forth, even if she'd already seen the important part—her expression flat even if her heart rate was crawling upward—
‹It took me a while, because there's not just one pattern, there's a bunch of patterns that overlap, and the ships switch in and out, and a lot of it's noise. But I've been looking back over the past few months, and I'm pretty sure—›
Beside me, Jake continued to fidget with the burner cell phone he'd been carrying, just as Ax continued to let his hands drift randomly over the control panel and David continued playing cute in front of not-Tyagi.
‹There's this thing. Every now and then, one of the other Bug fighters will go and scope out someplace new. Never the same fighter twice in a row, never the same spot twice. Usually, it's just somewhere out in the middle of nowhere. There was one in south China, one on an island a few hundred miles off Australia, one in Norway, one in Maine, two in Argentina—›
I felt my brain shift into high gear, trying to force the pieces into place as I rushed ahead to the finish line—
‹—always someplace green, always away from people. And then—it's not always exactly the same, sometimes it's just a few hours later, sometimes as much as a full day, depending on what other stuff he's up to in the meantime—›
‹The Visser's ship?›
‹Yeah. Every time. Stays for about an hour or two.›
‹How often is this?›
‹About every three days or so. Sometimes longer, never more than ten. And—well—it's been six days since the last one, and—›
I felt a bolt of nervous energy crawl across my body like slow-motion lightning.
‹—right around the time the rendezvous was going south, a Bug fighter took off from a field on the border between Cambodia and Vietnam. And—uh—well, Visser Three's ship left Mars about five minutes after that.›
Nobody froze. Nobody sucked in a breath. The seconds ticked by, with nothing to mark the sinking-in of what she'd just told us.
And then, because sometimes—
—not always, but sometimes—
—I managed to actually think ahead, to actually put the pieces together, and quickly—
‹Marco here,› I said, fighting to keep my body relaxed, to keep myself from starting to sweat. ‹We need a distraction, now.›
‹No. Edwards. Washington. New York. Something to keep them—to keep the government, the military—›
I didn't finish the sentence. I didn't need to. They got it.
‹Tobias,› I said. ‹Still Marco. Is there any reason—any reason at all—to believe that Thàn won't have just—told them everything? Any reason to believe they don't know which ship is Visser Three's?›
There was a long silence, and I wondered whether Tobias and Garrett were—
Who are you kidding? Of course they are.
‹Tough to say,› came the answer. ‹He definitely told us everything right off the bat, but we had one of his friends vouching for us, and we had the cube—I dunno, the reason he didn't go to the government in the first place was because he was pretty sure they'd been compromised—›
Wishful thinking. ‹Rachel,› I interrupted. ‹Still Marco. Did Thàn label the Visser's ship in any special way? Like, as you're looking on his map thing, is it—›
‹No, nothing's labeled. Just color coding for different types of data—›
‹Is there a color for morphing? Like, is morphing its own special color?›
‹Then they know,› I said, feeling a heavy weight of certainty settle into my stomach. ‹It's not going to take them—how long's it been—six hours, to put that one together. His is the only ship that morphing happens on, right?›
‹Well, there's weird orange flickers on a couple other ships sometimes, and out on Mars—›
No. Not a priority. ‹Jake. If Tyagi's crew tries to take him out—›
‹Maybe we should let them,› somebody spoke up.
‹If they screw it up—› said someone else.
‹US black ops in a Vietnamese jungle? Please.›
‹The rendezvous went—›
‹—all to hell—›
‹—went fine, I was going to say, things blew up but it's not like they hadn't thought ahead, they didn't put the real Tyagi on the line—›
‹They were more than happy to put us on the line, though—›
‹TOMRACHELTOBIASRACHELDAVIDRACHELMARCOGARRETT!› bellowed a voice, shocking and sudden and impossibly loud. I managed to stop myself from flinching, but only barely.
‹Follow. The. Frickin'. Rules. Please. Garrett, over.›
There was another long silence, broken only by a soft, wordless mental chuckle that I was pretty sure was coming from Tobias, or maybe from Ax.
‹Jake here,› said Jake, even as he continued to stare blankly out the front viewport, his eyes dull and unfocused, his jaw slack. He hadn't flinched, either. ‹Don't forget about Telor—last we checked, they were in panic mode—›
‹Still no m—crap, sorry, Rachel here. Still no major ship movements over the past two hours—›
An entirely automatic part of my brain sent up a flag—why hadn't Telor sprung into action—
‹—maybe a slight uptick in chatter? But hard to say. Over.›
‹Marco here. Rachel, Ax—is there any way to tell where a message is going? Like, who it was addressed to? Over.›
‹Aximili responding. No—Serenity is picking up the Z-space disruption that causes the signal wave to propagate, and that disruption has no directionality in the traditional sense, since Z-space vectors have no simple correspondence to real-space vectors—›
‹Rachel here—sorry, Ax. The scout fighter sent a message just as it was taking off, and there weren't any messages from the mothership—any messages at all, from any ship—in the previous ten minutes, or in the time between that message and V3's departure. Also no messages from V3's ship since it left Mars.›
We're going to have to take out Serenity, I realized, the knot in my stomach twisting as the others continued to talk. That was just way too much intel to leave lying around, and the Yeerks were bound to tumble to it eventually—
I felt a small trickle of adrenaline as my mind made another connection under the surface.
Thàn would have set up a self-destruct.
I mean, he must have, right? He'd been sitting on top of the damn thing for, like, months, just thinking through all of the possibilities—
And Tobias had just handed him over, and Jake and I hadn't even tried to stop it. We hadn't even had time to—
‹Tobias,› I said, interrupting. ‹I mean, this is Marco, but—Tobias. Sorry. Side note. You did a morph check of Thàn, right? Over.›
‹Tobias here. Yeah, he was clean. Why? Over.›
In the old days, I would've just brushed past it. Tell you later, or nothing, just checking.
But we no longer had the luxury of letting one another make mistakes. Sooner or later, one of those mistakes was going to get us all killed.
‹Uh. I was thinking we might want to see if he'd put any thought into how to blow up Serenity, now that like a dillion people know about it. You know, before the Yeerks inevitably get their hands on it, and then take us all down five minutes later.›
Nobody seemed to have anything to say to that. Keeping my movements light and casual, I stretched, letting my head roll over toward the corner where the two Chee were standing—motionless, holograms off, looking like Transformers made out of platinum and porcelain.
‹Jake here. Rachel—do we have an ETA on the Visser?›
‹Aximili here. I would need to look at the Marauder's Map to be sure, but unless he makes a jump—I believe Mars is approximately two hundred million of your miles from the Earth. If he isn't taking any extraordinary measures, he should arrive in approximately five hours. Over.›
Shit, shit, shit.
It was all happening too fast—too fast again, for what felt like the twentieth time, we were reacting again, reacting instead of taking the time to think—
‹Jake?› I whispered—still in a way that the others could hear, but a whisper nonetheless. ‹Jake, buddy, what've you got?›
It wasn't fair, to put this one on him. But whatever the hell it was that was going on in that little black box of his, whether it was some kind of crazy Ellimist fuckery or just him being the kind of guy who really got people—
Whatever it was, Jake's ability to guess what other people were about to do was pretty much all we had right now.
‹I think—› he began, and then faltered. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the tiniest furrow carving a shadow across his forehead. ‹I don't think Visser Three is in the loop—yet. The way they tried to take Tyagi—the way he stuck around on Mars—it just doesn't seem like his style. Too—I dunno—too passive, maybe?›
‹Unless he knows we're watching,› I pointed out.
A fractional shake of his head, a microscopic tightening of his lips. ‹No,› he said, his mental voice sounding firmer this time, more sure of itself. ‹That's definitely not his style. To let us have this much access? See this much of what's going on? We wouldn't even know about Mars, if it wasn't for Serenity.›
Unless Serenity itself is just a giant hoax.
But I didn't say it out loud. For one thing, that was a little too much to swallow, a little too paranoid even for me. And for another—
Well. There was no point in asking Jake's black box for answers if I was just going to quibble with everything it had to say.
‹All right,› I said. ‹So—working theory. V3's out of the loop. How long does he stay that way?›
‹Garrett here. Not long, I'd bet. Over.›
‹Tobias. Telor's thinking—what—they want to get as much out of the Earth as they can, they don't want Visser Three to kill them, they don't want to lose the larger war—›
‹Jake here. Marco—what exactly did that Controller—Dragar—what did they say, after I left? And Tyagi?›
I swallowed. ‹Tyagi said—she said, uh, 'the Andalites have a weapon they believe can destroy the planet.' I think she was deliberately vague about what. Dragar tried to draw her out, get some details. She admitted that we'd gotten the information from a secret source in the Andalite power structure—that it wasn't a direct, delivered threat, like trying to coerce us to do something, or whatever. And then she offered to set up a voluntary infestation program, asked Dragar if the Yeerks would declare Earth to be under their protection. And then Dragar said—›
I screwed my eyes shut, trying to remember. ‹Nothing special?› I said. ‹I mean, from what I remember, they just kept talking right up until everything went black. No declarations, no monologuing, no obvious code words—›
‹Did Tyagi say anything about the deadline?› Jake interrupted.
‹Yeah. She said there wasn't much time, that the Andalites were planning their strike for late June, early July at the latest—›
‹That's it, then,› Jake said. ‹They're scared.›
‹Scared. Of the Visser. Going after the President was a mistake, a knee-jerk reaction, and now—he's got—he must have some kind of hold over them, something more than just authority, or they would've done something about him already, as soon as they started thinking about mutiny. They were trying to sneak around behind his back, but then they heard about an Andalite threat, and they panicked—›
It didn't quite sound right. There was a note of confusion in there, something that was just a little bit off, didn't really seem to fit. ‹But then we stopped them immediately,› I said, trying to pick up the thread.
‹Right. And now they're stuck. If Tyagi decides to route around them, talk to the Visser directly—he'll find out what they've been up to—›
I felt my brow trying to furrow and deliberately relaxed it.
There's Telor trying to get back Aftran, and thinking about mutiny—that's secret number one. Then there's the Andalite threat, which is—not a secret, surely they'll want the Visser to know that. But then there's how they found out, and why they waited to say anything, and how they lost a Bug fighter, and who authorized the attempt on Tyagi—
Call all of that secret number two. Put them both together, and what made the most sense for Telor—
Just steal as much manpower and materiel as you can.
Given that their response had been to turn down Tyagi's proposal, they clearly weren't ready to commit to mutually assured destruction with the Andalites—either that, or they didn't think it would work, as a deterrent. Which meant they really, truly believed that the Earth had only a couple of weeks left.
In that case—
Why hadn't they started already, President or no President?
There was a feeling of pressure building, a sense of sand pouring through an hourglass, red digital clocks counting down as my confusion mounted.
‹Rachel,› said Jake. ‹Or Ax, I guess. I'm guessing there's no way to tell the difference between him heading to the mothership versus heading to the Earth, this far out? Over.›
‹Aximili here. No, over.›
‹This is Rachel. Checking the other times—it looks like—yeah, okay. So he usually goes straight there. Straight to the Earth, I mean, whenever another Bug fighter scouts out a spot. I'm only seeing once—maybe twice—yeah. Something like nine out of ten times? He goes straight there, and then when he leaves the surface—he pretty much always checks in with the rest of the fleet after that. Looks like—maybe half the time he goes up to the mothership, and the other half—he sends a message, then they send one, then he sends one, and so on. So—›
Those time-lapse videos of flowers growing and dying, all in an instant—
‹So yeah. Over.›
There was another silence, and I felt my brain straining so hard it physically hurt, the blood pulsing thick and turbulent just behind my eyes.
Think of SOMETHING—
There was Visser Three—still out of the loop, but only for a few more hours, at which point he would—
There was Telor—presumably in panic mode, paralyzed for the moment, but when they did move, they would move fast, and in which direction—
There was Tyagi—Tyagi and the rest of the military, who had all the same information we did, who knew exactly where we were, would notice us moving toward Vietnam even if for some reason they weren't already watching the Visser—
There was Erek, and Kodep, and the promise we'd made, not to use the Bug fighter for violence. A promise they could hold us to, a promise there would be real consequences for even trying to break.
There was the Tyagi clone and her two Secret Service agents.
There was Serenity.
There was the Andalite threat.
‹Jake,› I said. ‹It's Marco.›
I could feel my heart hammering in my chest, and hoped that neither of the Chee was paying attention.
Sometimes we figure it out.
‹Jake,› I repeated. ‹Something doesn't smell right.›
‹Think about it. All this pressure, all this confusion—everything coming together, all at once—all of it coming to a head at the same time—›
I trailed off, trying to find the right words as the precursor to panic tightened my throat. This burning need to find a next action—
‹We snatch a Bug fighter, and it just happens to be right before Visser Three lands on Earth?› I said. ‹Right after we got access to technology that would tell us where he's landing? Out in the wilderness, away from witnesses? And also Tyagi knows about it too, and knows about the Andalites, and is pissed at us, and also Telor has just gone off the rails and might, like, start tying to kidnap a whole country or something before the world blows up, and—and we're all here, even the Chee—and a Tyagi clone—when was the last time we were all in the same place at once like this? And—›
‹I get it,› Jake said, cutting me off. ‹But—what—›
The voice was dark and heavy, and somehow I knew instantly it was Ax—not the lost, frightened cadet, but the strange, unsettling hive-mind that had been slowly incubating inside of him, the shadow of a dead warrior and a fragment of an eldritch nightmare bound up with the mind of an alien kid and the ghost of my best friend's brother.
‹This is the Ellimist's hand at work,› he asserted. ‹A confluence of implausibilities, the unlikely made inevitable. We are being guided, manipulated—channeled into a specific course of action.›
They weren't just words. They were pronouncements, prophecy—spoken with flat, immovable certainty, as if they'd been forged from black steel. I looked over at him—his bearing unchanged, his hands still drifting randomly over the controls, his stalk-eyes moving in a carefully carefree pattern as he perfectly maintained the illusion that nothing was happening. I looked at him, and past him—at the bright blue curve of the Earth below, the velvet background all poked through with stars.
I had noticed it, when we first launched into orbit—had felt the rush of awe, even with all of the fear and stress and pressure, had spent a few minutes gazing silently down as the continents drifted by. But suddenly, hearing Ax's voice in my head, it was easy to remember that I was out in space—to feel every inch of the hundred miles beneath us, and the vast emptiness of the endless void above. To remember what had happened the last time we had encountered the inscrutable, alien god—the day that time had stopped, and Cassie had died, and all of Ventura had burned.
I shivered. It suddenly seemed weird that that hadn't been filling my mind ever since—that I'd ever managed to return to anything even a little bit like normal.
‹And before you ask,› Ax intoned—still sounding tangibly alien, with almost none of the humanity that had bled into him since his merging with Temrash—‹the answer is no. It does not matter what we do. There is no point in wondering which path we were meant to take, in agonizing over whether we are fulfilling expectations or subverting them—whether we were meant to accede to the pressure, or to notice it and resist. Whichever path we choose, it is always the one that the Ellimist wanted. Inevitably. Infallibly. To think otherwise is sheer folly. The Ellimist's wishes are not something we have the power to accept or reject. They simply are.›
I looked back at Jake. At the way his shoulders sagged, the dark circles under his eyes. At the distant emptiness in his stare that was only partially on purpose, that couldn't possibly have been just for show.
That made it better, actually—didn't it?
I mean, if things really were outside our control—really, truly, totally outside—if there was nothing we could do about it, no matter how hard we tried or how carefully we thought—
Then in a way, it didn't matter at all. It was just part of the background, like gravity. Maybe the Ellimist wanted us dead, maybe it wanted us alive, maybe it wanted us to win or to lose or to do something else altogether. But either way, in the meantime, all that we could do was—
Your best, Elfangor had said. As you would have done anyway.
‹Jake,› I whispered. ‹Jake, this isn't right. We can't—we have to bail.›
I looked around the tiny space again—at Jake and Ax, Tobias and Garrett, Rachel and Tom and the new kid David. At the robots, and the agents, and the President's clone. At my dad, curled up in the farthest corner, as if hoping he could fade into the background.
‹It all comes back to Visser Three,› Jake said softly.
I swallowed, my throat still tight and dry.
‹He's the key to all of it. Without him—if we could just get rid of him—›
Without the Visser, there'd be nothing stopping the Yeerks and the Andalites from making peace. Nothing to stop Telor from forming an alliance with Tyagi, and countering the Andalite threat. No reason for us to mistrust the Chee—no reason for the Andalites to be so afraid that they'd rather commit genocide than pass up a ten percent chance of maybe catching Esplin in the fireball.
‹I think we have to try,› Jake said. ‹Even if it's a trap.›
‹That's why we have to bail,› I said.
Because it makes too much sense, because it's all lined up too perfectly—
Was I just fooling myself? Talking myself in circles? Just because I thought real life ought to be messier, that didn't mean that things never lined up on their own, just out of coincidence—
But this need—this pressure to take action now, the sense of being poked and prodded into place—even Thàn, he'd been out there for months, we'd been out there for months, why was it just now that we were suddenly able to track the Visser's movements—
‹You don't ever get into the car with the kidnapper, man,› I said. ‹Somebody wants us there. That by itself is reason enough not to go.›
There was a silence that felt like glass.
I closed my eyes.
‹—I think Marco's right. Over.›
I opened them again.
‹Tobias. Me, too. Over.›
I looked at Jake.
‹Fine,› he said, his voice sounding—if anything—even more tired, even more hollowed-out and empty. ‹What's plan B, then?›
I looked back out through the viewport, at the dim scattering of stars.
Serenity, and Tyagi, and the Andalites, and Telor, but the Visser most of all.
‹Okay,› I said.
I wasn't sure. I didn't know, like I had with the truck.
‹I don't know what to do. But I think I know where to start.›
They weren't words—not exactly. More like titles, or subtitles—summary descriptions, superimposed over an image that was more than an image, the sense of looking out across a sea of people and seeing only friends and family and neighbors and allies, a thousand different faces and every one of them warm and familiar.
‹My people, I have grave news.›
A dark shadow passing over the crowd, a tiny shiver of cold anticipation.
‹We cannot win this war.›
A sudden, sinking panic, the feel of the ground dropping out and falling away.
‹The Council seeks to project confidence, believing that if we simply believe, this will be sufficient to make the difference. They think that the situation is uncertain, and salvageable, and that a prophecy of victory will be self-fulfilling.›
I felt my own tiny shiver at the concept-that-my-brain-subtitled as prophecy, at the memory of a memory, four names written in a burning script that no alien should have been able to understand in the first place—
‹But they are wrong. Desbadeen has fallen, whether they have told you or not. Leera and Gara teeter on the brink. This war will be lost—was a terrible mistake from the beginning—and to prosecute it further would be to throw away the lives of our people in pride and perfidy, until the enemy comes to burn the very grasses of our home. We must seek a peaceful resolution—seek it now, while we yet retain sufficient power to inspire hesitation, to make compromise seem preferable to conquest. It is a bitter truth, but it is one we must accept quickly and fully, without the naïve wishfulness of youths who think that the world is what they want it to be.›
I didn't move the stalks—didn't interfere with the war-prince's control of our shared body as he stared into the lens of the communicator. But I could feel them around me, the others—feel their silent solemnity, hope and despair and a funereal helplessness.
‹There will be those who argue that this is not of the Path,› Elfangor continued. ‹That dissent, in this of all times, is the highest of treason. That unity means survival, and that it is impermissible—even immoral—to even think of questioning the wisdom of the Chancellor and the will of the Council. Many of you will have felt the wondering in your own hearts, and banished it, for the sake of solidarity.›
Our nostrils flared, and for a moment I could almost see the intangible aura of power that the Andalite was gathering around himself, the archetype of a warrior girding himself for battle.
‹But I am Elfangor-Sirinial-Shamtul,› he said. ‹Pilot of the Blooded Blade, heir to Alloran-Who-Fell, avenger of the Pangaban Colony and savior of the Hayati Reach, known to our enemies as the death that comes in darkness, the blade that falls without warning. That you will wonder if even my words are tainted by cowardice or treachery—›
He paused, and without moving a muscle somehow conveyed the sense of a scorpion ready to strike, a viper coiling in its burrow. ‹Well. It is inevitable that you will wonder. But you will not conclude that it is so. You will heed my words of caution, and when your neighbors speak the same, you will know that they speak with the voice of reason, and rationality, and doubt.›
He gestured, and with a smooth, practiced step, they moved into view of the camera, stood shoulder to shoulder—Tom and Rachel, their faces set in identical masks of grim determination.
‹These are humans,› Elfangor said. ‹Denizens of Earth, and the current target of the Visser. They are weak, but nimble. Slow-thinking, but clear-seeing. They have flight, and spaceflight, and nuclear power, and electromagnetic communication. And there are more than seven billion of them.›
I felt a quick tightening of fear, in the quiet corner that was my own part of our shared mind. That last bit hadn't been a number, but rather a multilayered, overlapped vision of a thousand different Andalites—standing aboard spaceships, running through fields, sleeping inside of little hobbitlike scoops carved out of grassy hillsides—and each and every one of them had been surrounded by a dozen shadowy, human-shaped figures.
‹It is on their world that the third way was found, and proven. Coexistence between Yeerk and host—true symbiosis, rather than suppression or slavery. The humans' battle is not yet finished. Peace has not been achieved, and they may yet go the way of the Hork-Bajir. But they will pour forth from their world, either as the allies of the Yeerks or as their vassals, whether one revolution hence or seven. And when they do, we will be too few, too tired, too scattered to resist.›
He leaned forward, and the Berensons shifted to make room, our three heads close in the heavy silence. ‹We must teach the Yeerks that we are reasonable before that happens,› the war-prince said. ‹Before they have nothing further to gain by listening, and no reason to fear our vengeance. We must abandon our indignation, the drive for satisfaction that leads ever-downward to our destruction—the juvenile fantasy that transgressions against us may never go unpunished, that we have an unchallengeable power to demand redress for our grievances.›
Something—shifted—and suddenly there was another Andalite standing before me, with dark fur and a long, azure scar cutting across the slits of his nose—not real, not actually visible, but in memory projected so clearly that it was like a hologram.
‹We will remove this threat of which you speak,› declared the alien, its voice heavy with authority. ‹Seven billion is not so many when they are all gathered on a single world. All it takes is a simple rock.›
The vision faded, and Elfangor lowered our tail to the deck, the exposed bone of the blade giving a soft tink as it made contact with the cold metal.
‹I do not know what madness grips the mind of Lirem-Arrepoth-Terrouss,› he said softly. ‹I do know that Lirem seeks to protect the Andalite people, and to do his duty with honor and fortitude. I believe he acts with conviction, and that his motives are what many would call good.›
Elfangor raised our hands, placed them upon the shoulders of the two humans. ‹But Lirem does not look beyond the curving of the Path. Does not think clearly about what might lurk beyond the horizon. There are things we do not do—things which, once done, cannot be undone, and whose consequences echo across the stars. There was a time, perhaps, when the destruction of Earth might have been carried out in silence—might have meant the ending of this line of possibility, and the eventual victory of our people.›
I came to deny them their prize, he had said—that first night, in the construction site, so long ago. Armed with a weapon that should have burned your world to a cinder.
‹But no longer. It is no longer an anonymous world floating invisibly in the infinite dark. The Yeerks have staked their claim, the humans have drawn their battle lines, and the time for quick and easy answers is done. If the Earth were to be ended now—›
He broke off, lowering his arms before continuing. ‹You know why it is not done,› he said flatly. ‹Why it is never done, why it must not be done. If we make our enemy truly desperate—if we teach them that our ruthlessness has no limit, that their only choice is between savagery and extinction—›
He broke off again. ‹The Yeerks know the location of our homeworld,› he said flatly. ‹Thus far, they have held back, not wishing for us to destroy theirs. But if we show ourselves reckless, remorseless—if we leave our enemy no viable path to survival save our own annihilation—they have less to fear than we, from a policy of total war. We can not spread as quickly as they can, nor take root half so easily. And look—›
He gestured around himself, at the smooth walls and silvery deck. ‹The humans have Z-space capability as well, now. Stolen from the Yeerks, but it will not be long before they understand it for themselves. And while they have no reason to hate us yet, neither have they any reason to hold back, if we make ourselves their enemies.›
The Elfangor in my head didn't remember that night—the first night, when he'd recruited us to be his dead hand. The memory hadn't had time to encode itself before we acquired him—he didn't remember pulling the trigger on his doomsday device, didn't remember being shot down by the Visser's ships, didn't remember five human kids too stupid to run away when an alien ship decloaked in front of them.
But he did remember thinking—days earlier, as his ship slid through hyperspace—that there was no way his weapon could work. Not unless Jake Berenson and Cassie Withers and Tobias Yastek and Marco Levy had already been taken, were already off-planet somehow.
After all, there'd been a prophecy, and no matter what you did, the Ellimist always won.
The war-prince paused, standing stiff and upright, all four eyes turned forward as if facing judgment.
‹And so, I have chosen to give these humans the coordinates of the Andalite homeworld myself. If we destroy their planet—and if, out of fear, the Yeerks do not take vengeance themselves—the survivors will destroy ours, and then there will be none left to challenge the Visser as he darkens the Great Path with his shadow.›
It wasn't true, strictly speaking. Elfangor hadn't actually given us the coordinates, and there was still our promise to the Chee. But there was always the other ship, and since we could pull the coordinates out of his head whenever we wanted—
I had wondered whether we would be able to convince him in time. Whether the two-hour time limit was long enough for us to bring him around, or whether I'd just have to fake his personality, try to deliver the message myself.
But then Ax had pressed our heads together, and suddenly there had been six of us in there—me and Elfangor and Ax and strange, partial shadows of Temrash and Tom and another copy of Elfangor—
As it turned out, it only takes about three seconds to make a dain.
‹This is Elfangor's Trust,› the war-prince continued. ‹Not of these humans, but of you, my people. I trust you to see beyond the quick and easy, to look past the immediate and the obvious and consider the consequences. Lirem-Arrepoth-Terrouss would sacrifice seven billion aliens to save the Andalites from extinction, and I cannot say for certain that this is a mistake—in principle.›
I couldn't help it—I twitched one eye away, just for a moment, to the place where Erek the Chee stood silently, watching over the operation, his hologram back in place, but its expression no less cold and mechanical.
‹In practice, though, it is the desperate flailing of the youngling who cuts his own leg as he attempts to frighten the monster away. Consider that we were provoked into this war in the first place—that our very involvement was the design of the Visser, and that we have each step of the way allowed ourselves to be prodded into playing the part he wishes us to play. And now, in an hour of desperation, we become aware of a singular threat—a threat as yet confined to the surface of one defenseless world—do you think it is coincidence that this fruit is dangled before us? That we are invited to take the obvious path, employ the obvious solution? Have you any doubt that the blood of those seven billion would eventually trickle down to taint the grasses of our fields, our homes?›
The war-prince closed all four of his eyes, reopening them slowly in the Andalite gesture that was the equivalent of a shaken head. ‹No,› he said. ‹No. It must not be. Two paths lie before us—one old and familiar, the other new and unknown. Along the first, there is only death, and death, and more death—a war that ends with each of us as either conqueror or slave. And along the other—›
This meeting was not by chance, and if there are few paths to victory, at least be assured that you walk upon the widest.
There was a memory in Elfangor's mind which I couldn't access, which I hadn't been able to penetrate any of the dozen times I'd dug through his past. I could see that it was there—feel the shape of it, trace the way that it had influenced his thoughts and actions after the fact—but the actual content of it was hidden from me by a blank wall that Elfangor himself didn't even know was there.
The day after that hidden memory, he'd left Alloran. Had resigned his commission, surrendered his rank, and dropped out of the Andalite military, throwing away a future as the most promising protégé of the most brilliant strategist of the past thousand years—
—just hours before the message from Seerow's expedition had summoned Alloran away to the Yeerk homeworld.
‹Along the other, I do not know. But that is the Path we must follow, if we are to avoid the trap that fate has set for us. Think long, my people—think long, choose wisely, breathe deep, and seek peace.›
"Did he say anything else?" Jake asked quietly, as the last of the blue fur withered and shrank beneath my emerging olive skin.
I do not think that this gambit will work, Marco Levy. My people are not much like yours—they are unaccustomed to confusion, and slow to change direction. It took half a year for them to commit to this war in the first place, with all of the fire and fury of the Visser for encouragement. And the Chancellor will argue that this message does not prove that you have Z-space capability. It may be that we have accomplished nothing at all. It may be that we have made things worse.
"Just that we shouldn't count on it," I said. "As for the rest—"
No. I will not attempt to strategize on your behalf in the game between the Ellimist and Crayak. You will find that I am sufficiently skilled to prevent myself from doing so accidentally, while you eavesdrop. To discourage you from trying anyway, and from digging any further through my memories than you already have, I point out that it is not unreasonable to posit that your previous use of me is what cost you the life of Cassie Withers, and I wager the consequences of that disaster have not yet fully been felt.
Jake nodded, biting his lip. "You sure you still want to go through with this?"
I shrugged. "Somebody's got to," I said, "and it damn sure isn't going to be you."
"Tobias and Garrett—"
"Ha." I shook my head, leaning forward as I lowered my voice. "What happened the last five times Tobias was in a high-pressure spot?"
"That's not really fair."
"Okay, so it wasn't great that he crashed the Bug fighter—"
"Or that he punched you in the face in the Yeerk pool. Or that he went and added Garrett to the team unilaterally. Or that he just gave them Thàn and Serenity, out of the blue, when he didn't have to—"
"He did that to get you out of the hole you'd dug yourself into—"
"Yeah, I know, I crossed the line, too. The difference is, I know where the line is. Tobias—"
"He's pulled through for us every time. Without him we wouldn't have made contact with Ax, we wouldn't have found Paul, we wouldn't have found Thàn—"
"I know. I know, okay? I get it. But this—this one needs to go like clockwork. No surprises. And besides, you going to tell me it would be a bad thing if Tobias and Garrett stuck around for a while? Actually got to be part of the team for once, instead of always being off doing their own thing?"
Jake grimaced. "Tom, then."
I scoffed. "You want to go that route, try Rachel," I countered. "At least she's learned not to put her hand on hot stoves. But I have the feeling you're going to want her around in case Tyagi—"
I broke off as Jake's eyes shifted to look over my shoulder, turned to see the Tyagi clone approaching, her two Secret Service agents trailing her.
"Update?" Jake asked.
"Aximili is finished with the hyperdrive," she said. "He says the cradle should be here within half an hour, at which point all that's left is the remote piloting systems."
Jake nodded. "Rachel?" he called out. "Updated ETA?"
"Three hours, ten minutes," she answered. "I had Erek look at the data—he says it's something like ninety-six percent the Visser's headed straight to the ground. Moon's almost on the other side of the planet, and his course doesn't make sense if he's planning to stop by the mothership first."
"Tight," I murmured.
"It'll work," Jake said. "Kodep says he can get you there in about eighty minutes, right? And on our end—as long as nothing really nuts happens, we'll have the tech dropped off in Washington by sundown."
Jake nodded. "Tyagi came through. While you were transmitting. She's—well, she's not happy, not with any of it. But she signed off, so long as we deliver the hyperdrive."
"And she's okay with—"
"Don't act surprised," said the clone. "We're the same person, after all. Besides, no point in having extra lives if you're not willing to spend them."
I let out a breath. "I guess that's everything, then."
Jake frowned. "Are you really not going to—"
"Don't," I said, cutting him off. "He chose them, all right? I can't—I just—"
I gave up. It would take too many words. "Just don't," I finished lamely.
Jake didn't say anything, just held out his arms for a hug. I stepped forward, my head pressing up against his collarbone as I felt his chin rest above my ear.
"Don't die," he whispered.
"Shut up," I said. "It's a recon mission. Nobody'll ever know we were there. And besides, we'll have Kodep with us."
He squeezed me tighter, and I took in a deep breath through my nose, letting his scent fill my nostrils. "See you tomorrow," he whispered.
And then, louder, letting me go—
"All right, everybody. Let's do it."
"Scared, kid?" I asked, as the Andalite escape pod slid smoothly into the dawn sky, fading into transparency as it cleared the lowest clouds. A few seconds later, the Bug fighter flickered, then vanished, its own cloaking field powering up.
"No," said David.
There was a short pause.
I smiled. "Scared is good," I said. "Scared means you haven't totally lost it yet."
Turning, I nodded to the last remaining Chee, Kodep—or at least, the last one that I could see, since for all I knew there were a hundred of the damn things hiding under holograms all around us. "Ready?" I asked.
"Ready," it said.
"Here we go."
Closing my eyes, I focused my mind and felt the changes begin.
You know those electron microscope pictures? The ones where you can see, like, bugs and ball point pens and microchips, all up close? They're all clean and sharp and brightly colored, and even gross things like mosquitos and mold and sperm start to look elegant and beautiful, full of symmetry and intricate detail.
Well. It's one thing to see a housefly up close on a screen, and it's another thing entirely to feel an extra pair of legs bursting out of your stomach.
I kept my eyes closed as long as possible—as bad as it is to watch yourself transforming into a bug, it's even worse when there's someone right next to you going through the same thing—but at some point, my eyelids disappeared and I had no choice but to watch.
My skin, melting like candle wax, then blackening, hardening, and finally peeling like old paint as a thousand tiny hairs split off from the layer of chitin.
David, two feet tall and slowly shrinking, looking as if he'd vomited up his own esophagus, a long, fleshy tube dangling out of his face where his mouth should've been.
A feeling like being cut open under surgical anesthetic, a sort of numb, distant pain as huge vertical gashes appeared down my back, my flesh splitting into a pair of giant, veiny wings.
Morphing wasn't always a nightmare. Once, when Cassie was demorphing from an osprey, she'd managed to keep her wings right up until the very last second—had stood there, looking like an angel, everything completely human except for a halo of feathers around her forehead and a pair of four-foot wings where her arms should've been. That had been downright cool.
I was pretty sure I could've heard my bones dissolving, if I'd still had ears.
Fortunately, my vision disconnected at about the halfway point, the fly's compound eyes sending signals too complicated for my still-human visual cortex to interpret. By the time my sense of sight came back online, the morph was complete.
‹Incoming,› I broadcast to Kodep as I launched upward from the ground, David echoing his own confirmation. ‹Where should we latch on?›
The android was a giant the size of the Statue of Liberty, wrapped in an ever-shifting aura of shimmering, rainbow color, but the fly was a turbo-powered rocket on steroids, and we covered the distance to head height in about two-thirds of a second. As we circled around—at what felt like about eight hundred miles per hour—a small, rectangular area on the giant's shoulder lit up, shining like the surface of the sun.
‹There?› I asked.
The area blinked once.
In a split second, I was there, balanced and motionless on the patch of smooth, white porcelain—
‹Aaaaaaaand I just threw up. Sorry, Kodep.›
There was a series of short, truncated vibrations that my human brain interpreted as laughter and my fly brain interpreted as MORTAL PERIL. Then the air around me tightened and froze, and we were off.
‹David, you good?›
There was very little sense of motion, either because Kodep had some kind of inertial force field or because the acceleration was gradual and steady. But even with the fly's shattered, kaleidoscopic vision and the half-transparent hologram, I could tell that we were going fast.
We'd landed that—well, it would've been afternoon, back in California, but out here it was the middle of the night—on a tiny, nameless island in Indonesia, maybe four hundred miles away from the Visser's predicted landing site, the closest we'd been comfortable getting given that we didn't know what kinds of ship-detecting technology he might have stolen or invented.
Team A had been Jake and not-Tyagi, who had quickly reestablished contact with the U.S. military through some kind of one-time use protocol the real Tyagi had set up in advance, in case of emergency. There'd been two major topics of discussion—the reaction to Telor's betrayal, and plans to take action on the Visser's imminent arrival. As it turned out, Tyagi was already planning to leave the Visser alone, for the same reason that Project Ultra had let Nazi U-boats continue to sink Allied convoys. She hadn't been thrilled that we were going, but she reluctantly acknowledged the need for intel.
And the fact that there's nothing she can do to stop us, Tobias had pointed out.
Less clear was whether—or how—Tyagi would react if Telor started trying to snatch up people or resources. We'd told her about our plan to make a broadcast to the Andalite civilian population, once we'd confirmed that Elfangor knew how to get through, but like Elfangor himself, she wasn't counting on the Andalite war machine listening to reason. According to Tobias, it was possible that she might help if Telor started going nuts, just to maximize the number of humans who ultimately made it off-world.
Team B had been Ax, Tobias, and Garrett, who—along with some mechanical help from Kodep—had begun the process of stripping down the Bug fighter and turning it into a remotely pilotable drone ship, disconnecting the Z-space drive and setting up independent power sources for the two Dracon cannons. They'd left the shields and cloaking device intact, since the ship would be basically useless if it got shot out of the sky before reaching its target, but the hyperdrive—the core of the MAD deterrent—would be dropped off in Washington, along with the two Secret Service agents.
Ax had also remote-summoned his personal ship, the little escape pod he called his cradle. It was small, and cramped, and had barely enough fuel left for a single, one-way trip to space, but that was all that my dad and the Tyagi clone would need to make their way up to the Yeerk mothership.
It was a bit of a gamble, sending them up without warning—though not as much of a gamble as sending them up at all, in the first place—but we'd decided that was safer than drawing attention to them while they were sitting in a ship with no maneuverability and no weapons. Once they made it into visual range of Telor's ship—and while the Visser was hopefully on the ground on the other side of the planet—they'd drop their cloak and try to establish contact via radio, at which point the pair of them would try their best to play envoy while the real Tyagi did the same down below.
That left Team D, which was me, David, and Kodep. The broadcast with Elfangor had been a long shot—probably worth doing, but mostly just a way to kill time while the others finished up their work. Now, we were on our way to Vietnam, to watch—from a distance—as the Visser did whatever it was he was there to do.
No, Ax had said. I'm not sure what he's up to. It doesn't seem likely that he's planting bombs, for instance, since he can just bombard the planet from orbit. Maybe he's seeding some kind of terraforming biotech, or setting up self-replicating robotic manufactories? Or just leaving behind caches of supplies, in case of unexpected contingencies? But in that case, I'm not sure why the double visits—it seems like the first Bug fighter could do most of that on its own…
We'd considered sending a team to check out one of the previous sites, but there hadn't been time to do that and get into position, and we wanted to be morphed and settled in long before the Visser actually showed up. So that particular job had been outsourced to the Chee, who claimed they would let us know via Kodep if there was anything relevant about the other sites. I had started to point out that we'd have no way of verifying the information, at least during the critical window, but—
We can't keep obsessing over whether or not we trust them, Jake had snapped—silently, in thought-speak, while we bustled around on the moonlit beach. His voice had been brusque and hard, brooking no disagreement. They showed themselves to us when they didn't have to. They've saved our lives more than once. They've done everything we've asked—everything they could do, given their programming. And let's be real—they can round us up any time they want to. If they weren't on our side, we'd already be captured, or dead.
It was basically the same deal as the Ellimist. There was nothing we could do about it, so there was no point in worrying.
And so David and I found ourselves in fly morph, held tight inside a force field as Kodep churned through the South China sea at maybe three hundred miles per hour, heading for a tiny clearing in the jungles of Vietnam.
I'd worried at first that we'd be picked up by submarines, but Kodep had said that our passage would be almost silent—he would extend the force field out in front of us in a long, narrow cone, like the tip of a lance, and nudge the water gently aside a second or so before passing through the gap. It would make no more noise than a small whale, and the whole thing would be hidden from sight by hologram.
I'd shivered a little, hearing that. It was the same sort of premonition I'd gotten about Serenity, a sense of danger waiting in the wings—the Chee were unbelievably, insanely powerful, and while there really might not be anything we could do about it if they turned against us, it didn't quite seem like not thinking about it was the correct response.
Ax had seemed to think he could destroy them, given the right tools—such as the two Dracon cannons we'd just scavenged from the Bug fighter—but there was a big difference between being theoretically capable of pulling it off, and actually being able to do it under real-life combat conditions. There were thousands of them, after all.
I continued musing as we surged through the water, my mind wandering from threat to threat, target to target, assembling half-baked plans and then tearing them down. The rush of blue filled my vision—sunlight scattering off the waves, then trickling through the hologram, then finally being broken into a thousand pieces by the fly's compound eyes. The effect was hypnotic, and after the first half hour, I felt myself drifting in and out—between the rendezvous and all of the stuff that had gone down at Edwards, it had been maybe four days since I'd gotten any real sleep—
‹Marco,› said David, jerking me out of my reverie.
‹Can I ask you a question?›
‹Shoot,› I said, trying to shake off my fatigue.
There was a long silence, and I wondered what David was thinking—whether he was searching for the right words, or mustering up the courage, or what.
You sure you don't want more backup on this one? Rachel had asked.
If this goes south, I want us to be exposed as little as possible.
Then why take the kid?
‹You didn't say goodbye to your dad.›
I waited, but he didn't say anything else.
‹Well,› I answered, choosing my words carefully. ‹My dad and I have a—uh—complicated relationship.›
I waited again, to see if David wanted to take that in any particular direction, but the other boy remained silent.
‹My mom died a couple of years ago,› I explained. ‹Disappeared. Her sailboat—there was a storm. Dad, he—he pretty much fell apart, after that. I was your age, maybe, ten going on eleven, and he stopped going to work, stopped paying the bills. Some weeks he forgot to buy food. And I—he wasn't—›
I faltered, feeling the beginnings of a wave of emotion I couldn't quite identify. ‹I mean, it's not like he didn't care,› I said. ‹At least, I think he cared. Or wanted to, at least. But, like, I'd lost my mom, you know? It wasn't just him who'd—›
I broke off again, the pressure in me building, as if each word was adding to it instead of letting it out. ‹For like two years, he didn't—he just wasn't—wasn't there, not for me, not for anybody. Like he was just gone, like there was just this zombie where my dad used to be. And I was trying to deal with it all, my mom being—being gone, and school and stuff, and then on top of it I had to start taking care of him, not just money and bills but, like, making sure he didn't—he wasn't going to—›
If I'd been in my own, human body, I would've sucked in a breath. ‹I guess I just never—never really forgave him for it,› I said. ‹I mean—that was like, Jake was getting to have a childhood, Jake and Rachel and everybody else, and I was just—just keeping track, learning how to keep track of all of it. And then all of a sudden he starts getting better, like he's coming back, and then it turns out it's just because there was a fucking Yeerk in his head, screwing with his brain chemistry or—or—or just making him be less shitty, I don't know, and I thought—I thought I had—I thought he was—›
I paused. It had suddenly occurred to me that I was the only one talking—that David had said basically one sentence, and then all of this had come pouring out—
‹I thought I was getting him back,› I said simply. ‹I thought I was getting him back, finally, but no, he just wants to go up there, he wants a fucking slug in his brain, running his whole life, and I just—I just can't. I can't deal with that shit. I won't.›
The strength of the last word took me by surprise as it emerged from my brain, as it slid through the æther and over to David, but I didn't call it back or correct it. There'd been too much going on over the past week for me to really think about it, but I was mad—had been mad for a while—and then this morning, after everything, when I found out that he wanted to go, that he'd rather turn his body over to Telor than stick around—that he was going to abandon me again—
Yeah. I was feeling it, now—was swept up in it, the hurt and the heartbreak and the rage. For two years I'd kept us afloat, kept us together, sacrificing half my childhood to keep him from falling apart, and now this—
I twitched, David's words snapping me out of my inner monologue, yanking me back into the world—
‹He hit you,› I said, after it became clear that David wasn't going to finish the thought.
‹Not just me.›
‹Your mom, too?›
‹Yeah. Until—until she left. Left—left me—›
‹Left you with him,› I said, and as I said the words I felt it, felt the fear and loss and confusion like it was all brand-new, and my rage—
—I felt my rage move, felt it grow, felt it stretch out to wrap around David, too—not to consume him, but to protect him, a wall of fire to shield us both from—from—from the shittiness, the sheer unfairness of it all, Tobias and Garrett didn't have parents either but at least they'd known that they didn't, instead of having the rug pulled out from under them, finding out that it was all a lie, an illusion, just smoke and ashes—
It was like a dam was breaking, somewhere inside of me, a sudden flood of bile and poison that I'd sealed up so tight I'd almost forgotten it was there—
The thought was short—broken, with an edge like a knife—and something told me to wait, this time—to give him space, say nothing, let him come to it himself, when he was ready.
‹He—I had this, this—Henry, I had this hermit crab, his name was Henry, and he just—just—›
‹It's okay,› I said, even though it was not at all okay.
‹He killed him, and he—he—he made me, made me look—›
‹Fuck him,› I said, putting every last ounce of my weight behind the words, every bit of strength and conviction I could muster through my growing horror. The words weren't enough, the sentiment wasn't enough, but it was all I could offer—
‹Fuck him, David,› I repeated. ‹I don't—I mean, I can't even begin to understand what—what you went through, what that was like, but fuck. Him. Okay?›
‹Seriously. Everything you're feeling right now—›
I couldn't find the words. To know that he was—he was allowed to be mad, allowed to be torn up about it, that it wasn't his fault, he didn't have to hide it—
‹I'm glad he's dead.›
‹No shit,› I said, without even a second's hesitation. My rage had shifted entirely, was no longer connected to my own story, my own suffering, which seemed pale and small in comparison—was now a bright ring of light and heat with only David at its center. ‹You should feel glad. He sounds like he was a piece of shit.›
Somewhere in the back of my mind, a tiny voice was whispering, trying to catch my attention—was pointing out that I might be projecting a little, might be jumping to conclusions, putting too much stock in the word of this ten-year-old-kid—but I ignored it. David didn't need my skepticism, didn't need my doubts—I remembered that all too well, the looks in the eyes of the teachers, the counselors—even Jake, sometimes—even Jake had never really believed me, never really listened—
‹I knew I was going to kill him,› David whispered. ‹When he came at me, and I morphed—I picked, picked the lion—picked it on purpose—›
A part of me froze, at that—stopped, turning to ice on the surface—but then the flood broke through anyway. If a ten-year-old kid had been pushed that far—that just made it worse—
‹You did what you had to do,› I said, my voice still steady.
What else could I say? I mean, given the number of people that I'd killed—
I hit hard, one foot on the man's shoulder, the other on the top of his skull. I felt bone give way in both places, felt the impact shiver up my legs as he plunged into the water, the waves closing in around me—
‹You did what you had to do,› I repeated grimly. ‹Don't you ever feel guilty about that, okay? Sometimes—sometimes that's the only way.›
There was a long, long silence. Long enough for me to think that the conversation was over, that David was closing up again, rebuilding the walls that kept all of it in—
‹Yeah,› he whispered.
Another silence, as all around us the blue light shattered into crystal shards and streamed past us at warp speed.
‹Thanks for—for letting me in,› he said, the words sounding small and vulnerable. ‹When you looked inside my head, I thought—›
He broke off, and I felt another wash of anger at the now-dead Jeremiah Poznanski.
‹Thanks,› he repeated. ‹For not—I didn't think, if you knew—thank you for giving me—for letting me have—›
‹You deserve it, kid,› I said. ‹Really. If anybody deserves to—to not have to be afraid anymore—›
I trailed off.
David said nothing.
We rode the rest of the way in silence.
‹There—do you see it?›
I scanned the sky from my hiding place and shook my head.
‹Coming in between those two hills, about halfway up—›
"Kodep," I whispered. "Can you see it?"
"Are we good?"
I was lying flat on my belly on the top of a giant, house-sized boulder, all overgrown with moss and vines and a riot of small plants, peering out between the leaves that hid me almost completely from view. Kodep was beside me, his hologram providing an extra layer of concealment. David was in osprey morph two hundred yards away, deep within the branches of a drooping, wide-leafed tree.
It had taken us a few passes to be sure we'd found the right place. There was a string of small clearings near the coordinates Rachel had given us, like a row of bright, inverted islands in between the dark jungle hills. It had been David who'd spotted the smoking gun—a trio of fresh, shield-shaped depressions sunk into the grass to one side of the largest clearing, the footprint of the scout fighter's landing pads. Kodep had scanned the area for five minutes, looking for any sort of alarm or recording device or booby trap, but there had been nothing.
‹You can't see it at all?› David asked.
I shook my head again, not sure whether he could still see it or whether Kodep had extended the hologram to hide me completely. As far as I could tell, the sky was totally empty.
‹He's coming in slow,› David said. ‹Looks like he's heading for the exact same spot, actually. Watch the grass.›
I watched, feeling my heartrate rising—
‹How about now?›
Without warning, without any sound at all, the three depressions had just—vanished, the Visser's ship's hologram replacing the bent and crushed grass with an image of upright, gently swaying stalks.
‹I'm not seeing any movement,› David reported.
"Kodep?" I whispered.
This was the moment of truth. If the Visser had some means of detecting us—if he could see the morph control signal, like the Chee could, or could trace the wave in Z-space like Serenity, then David was about to have a very bad time.
The original plan had called for me to be the one in morph, with David in his own, human body a safe distance away, ready to report back to the others if anything went wrong.
But David had absolutely insisted, had refused to hear any argument, and in the end, I hadn't had the heart to turn him down. It wasn't like being unmorphed was all that much safer—for the moment, I was still inside Kodep's hologram, but if the Visser actually went after David, Kodep was going to be moving faster than I could keep up—
‹Still here, still nothing happening.›
Long minutes passed, with David checking in every thirty seconds or so—
I lifted myself up half an inch, peering through the thick leaves covering my face.
‹Something's happening. Hatch opening, maybe?›
I still couldn't see anyth—
‹You see him?›
I nodded, the motion much more furtive than before.
The Visser had appeared out of nowhere, his form seeming to materialize from thin air as he stepped past the boundary of his ship's cloaking field. He was larger than Ax—heavier, stronger looking, his tail maybe two feet longer, his shoulders a foot or so higher. He was completely hairless, his skin a dark, purplish brown, his muscles bulging and rippling as he straightened in the sunlight, his stalks searching in every direction. There were two bandoliers crossing his chest, each holding a pair of Dracon beams, and a utility belt fastened around his midsection with ten or so other objects dangling off of it.
‹What's he doing?› David asked.
I didn't answer, of course—just stayed as still as I could, watching through the gaps in the foliage, trying to convince myself that it was caution and sense that kept me so still, and not fear.
The Visser had dropped to all-sixes, in the position Ax called river-run, his main eyes pointed at the ground while his stalks continued to twist and swivel. He moved forward slowly, his head and shoulders drifting back and forth in an oddly familiar motion—
Pausing, he lowered his head even closer to the ground, and after a moment he stepped forward again—stepped forward and pivoted, so that his right middle leg was directly over the spot he'd just been examining. Moving with deliberate precision, he placed the foot and stood still for a moment, muscles in his calf twitching—
It was true. As he stepped away, I could see that the grass where he'd placed his foot was shorter, had been chewed down to the root. He took a few more steps, then paused again—then a few more—a few more—a few more—
‹Either he's got some kind of morph sensor, or he's not afraid,› David observed. ‹I'm seeing lots of bugs and small critters nearby, and he's ignoring them all.›
I said nothing—just continued to watch, the adrenaline in my veins fighting against the pain and fatigue of lying still on the sharp, volcanic stone. Even alone, moving sedately through the grass, the Visser conveyed a sense of strength, of threat—like a bull, a buffalo, ready to abandon at a moment's notice the outward appearance of languor. Once, there was the sharp crack of a stick breaking in the woods, and in an instant he was upright, his movement so quick I hadn't even registered it—a weapon in either hand, his tail poised and ready, main eyes frozen as if carved from stone while his stalks continued to sweep the terrain at his back.
Probably not shielded, then, said the part of me that was still processing things logically—the part that was using logic as a distraction, that wanted to pretend it wasn't terrified to be lying on a rock fifty yards away from the leader of the Yeerk invasion, the murderer of Elfangor, the architect of Ventura's destruction—
I could feel every ounce of the tension in my shoulders, the maddening trickle of sweat down my back. I was starting to regret my caution, all of my careful, pessimistic planning—if I'd just brought a handheld shredder with me—
No. No second-guessing. Just because it looks like it would've worked doesn't mean it was the wrong move, given what you knew at the time. And besides—who's to say he doesn't have some kind of sensor that would've picked up a powered weapon? Ax said he'd be able to spot radioactive material a thousand miles away—
A gun, then—
You don't know how to shoot a gun. You just want it to go away, so you don't have to be scared anymore.
The plan worked. You know what he's up to, and you aren't dead. Stop second-guessing yourself and just sit tight.
Or at least, the plan had worked so far.
After a time, the Visser stopped his slow grazing and reared up, centaur-like, stretching his forelegs in exactly the same way that a human would stretch their arms after spending an hour in a car. Twisting around to take in the landscape with all four eyes, he stretched out his tail and—
Another half-hour passed in boredom and tension, as the arch-nemesis of the human race galloped and gallivanted around the clearing, from time to time disappearing behind rocks or trees or folds in the terrain, occasionally stopping to nibble some bush or flower or to dip a hoof into one of the many shallow, green pools dotting the clearing. I stayed as still as I could, listening to the stream of David's reports, the air growing heavier around me as the sun climbed higher into the sky—
‹Okay,› David said. ‹It looks like he's coming back.›
He came into view around a distant stand of willowy, white-barked trees, back down on all-sixes, moving at a pace somewhere between a walk and a run, his path direct and purposeful.
I nodded fractionally—uselessly—careful not to move the collection of leaves that were keeping me hidden behind Kodep's hologram.
‹Looks like—yeah, okay.›
Without pausing or breaking stride, the Visser moved straight toward the point where he'd first emerged, vanishing in the blink of an eye as he stepped across the boundary. An interminable five minutes followed, and then—
‹Taking off. Can you see?›
I couldn't, any more than I'd been able to see him land earlier. But I could see the moment when the cloaking field lifted off the ground, the upright grass vanishing and revealing the three crushed patches underneath.
We waited another half-hour before moving, as planned—right up to David's time limit—and then—
‹Well, that was anticlimactic, wasn't it?› David asked, as we huddled together on Kodep's shoulder.
It had been, but—
‹Anti-climactic is good,› I said. ‹Anti-climactic is what we want.›
Four or five of us, maybe, spaced out around the clearing—the tarantula hawk, or a cobra, or both—and some guns—maybe throw a grenade into the ship—
I looked up at the sky as Kodep carried us forward through the jungle—at the wide open blue into which the Visser's ship had vanished.
‹Besides, I have a feeling there's going to be plenty of excitement soon enough.›
"He's been coming down to Earth to graze?"
‹In hindsight, we should've thought of that, as a possibility. Yeerk ships aren't designed with Andalite sensibilities in mind—they don't have the large open spaces that keep us from getting—this isn't quite the right word, but let's say cabin fever.›
"But—in the middle of a war—"
‹Do you stop eating in the middle of a war? If you look at it from his point of view, he's exercising caution and restraint—normally, an adult Andalite would graze at least twice a cycle—roughly every other day. And he's selected his grazing sites at random, and he sends down a scout ship to give the all-clear, and he goes cloaked and armed—it makes sense to us.›
"But—but how do you even know if Earth plants are edible?"
‹Many of them aren't, but few of them pose a threat to an Andalite digestive tract. We're guessing it's more for the form of the activity than for actual sustenance.›
"This is fun and all," I interrupted. "But—the war?"
"Ah, right—sorry. Uh. Short answers. Things are moving. Tyagi has the hyperdrive, she said thanks but she still isn't exactly happy with us and we don't know how much she's not saying. Based on the Marauder's Map, Ax thinks that she might be funneling resources up to the mothership already, using the other Bug fighter—"
"Wha—wait, no, okay. Okay, I get it. I get it, but—seriously?"
"Look at it from her point of view. If they decide the Andalite threat is still live, they're going to start taking stuff anyway, and if they do ally with us, we're going to start sending support eventually. Politically, this is win-win."
"That's not public, is it?"
"No, Tyagi—or Evans, I guess—they haven't made any kind of public pronouncements yet. Nothing like the proposal she told Tobias about, anyway. I think they must still be negotiating."
"So that whole betrayed-and-tried-to-kidnap-you thing—"
"Under the rug. Or under the bridge. Whichever. I mean, it's not like there's anything to be gained from making a stink about it."
"Public opinion is the world's probably going to end in a year, not in eighteen days."
I sighed. "None of this is good."
Jake shrugged. "What else is new?"
"What about Visser Three?"
"If he's tumbled to Telor, he's playing it sly. Rachel's been watching the map like a hawk, says everything looks the same as it has since Washington. He left Vietnam, stopped by the mothership for a few hours, did a few loops around the Earth, and is now back in that spot in deep space he keeps going to."
"So basically, what's going on is—"
"That make sense to you?"
"Not really, no. We figure it means somebody knows something we don't. But we don't know who, and we don't know what."
"Maybe Visser Three has some kind of tech that'll block an asteroid? And that's why they're not worried?"
‹Short answer is no way. We admit our knowledge here is limited, but—well, you're just teenagers. What would you say, if someone claimed to have an Iron Man suit that could withstand being in the middle of a nuclear blast?›
I felt a quiver of discomfort at Ax/Temrash casually tossing off a reference to human comic book characters, but I set it aside. "Speaking of tech the Visser's got—"
‹Erek showed us pictures and spectrographic analysis of the equipment the Visser was carrying on his belt. We've identified almost all of it—there are just two items we can't pin down.›
"What's the rundown?"
‹Besides the four Dracon beams, he's got two spare power packs, one emergency ration kit, one personal stunner, two stasis tubes—presumably with Yeerks inside—a Naharan mass-wave mapper that could conceivably be used to detect morphing indirectly, a handheld Z-space comm, and a—the closest word for it is multitool.›
"A Swiss Army knife."
‹A technologically advanced version, yes. There's also a scanner of a type that I suspect could be tuned to detect energetic particle activity—it would warn him of the presence of advanced weaponry unless that weaponry was specially shielded.›
"Would it detect a gun or a grenade?"
‹No, although it would detect either a nuclear bomb or any of the beam weapons we have at hand.›
"What about the two unidentified objects? Any guesses?"
‹One of them may be a device for creating static shields by aligning charged atmospheric particles. It bears a certain resemblance to the object Rachel took off of his drone at the high school. The other—we're not sure.›
I turned to look at Jake. "That's—a lot."
He nodded grimly. "I'm starting to reconsider the Chee," he said quietly. "I know that rules out lethal strategies, but as I've been talking to Ax it seems less and less likely we could hit him with a missile anyway, and—I mean, we're just like a billion times more likely to pull this off, with their help."
"So what would the plan be—provoke him into violence, just like on the Bug fighter?"
"It's either that, or we go back to maybe doing this together with the military."
"We know we can get close with morphs and with Chee technology," I pointed out. "We don't know that we can get close with anything else. And if we blow this once—he's not stupid. He'll just build himself a greenhouse out on Mars."
Which—why hasn't he done that already?
"The other alternative is leaving it up to the military entirely."
I was silent for a moment. That had occurred to me maybe a dozen times on the long trip across the Pacific. Certainly it seemed like the easier option. And if I was right that we had been under unnatural pressure the day before, then it would make sense not to do the thing that they—whoever they were—wanted us to do, even after a delay.
Would it work?
"Look," I said. "I'm all for not going toe-to-toe with Visser Three. Just watching him gave me the creeps, and that was with Kodep keeping me safe and shielded. Listening to Rachel talk about how he was at the high school—and that wasn't even his real body—"
I shrugged. "In the end, the only thing that matters is pulling it off. Do we think they have better odds than us?"
"Normally, I'd say yes," Jake said. "I mean, this is literally what they do, right? But—"
He glanced over his shoulder, to where Erek and Rachel were sitting side by side, poking at the Marauder's Map. "Tyagi's ready to fold. I think—I think she'll do whatever it takes to get a few million humans off planet, even if it means letting the Visser win outright. I mean, she already pretty much caved to Telor, after they double-crossed her in the desert."
And maybe it's better for all of us to die than for that to happen. "So what, then?" I asked.
"Like I said, I've been thinking about the Chee. It feels to me like they're the difference between a hail Mary and a sure thing, or at least as close to a sure thing as we're gonna get. And they won't work with the military."
"But they'll work with us?"
Jake nodded. "We kept our promise with the Bug fighter," he said. "And they're already on board for the Serenity strike, to make sure there's no collateral damage."
I bit my lip, looking back and forth between Jake and Ax.
‹Listen,› I said, switching to thought-speak. ‹I know I've said this a bunch of times, and I know, Tobias had a point about tying ourselves in knots, but—the Chee know about the deadline. Right? I mean, Erek and Rictic were there at the rendezvous when Tyagi explained it to Dragar.›
‹Yeah,› Jake said, and from his tone I could tell that he'd seen it, too.
I shifted my gaze to Ax. ‹If they are just playing along—this is the time to betray us,› I said. ‹This is the time they'll pull the rug out. If the Andalites don't back down—Visser Three is their absolute best hope for saving all the dogs. If we're right, and he really is courting them—›
‹Except that we can get the Andalites to back down if he's dead,› Jake argued.
‹The Chee can't count on that, though. They probably can't even think about that.›
‹Captured, then. It's the same thing—if we can get the Visser out of the picture—›
‹There's still no guarantee the Andalites will call off the strike. They didn't call it off yet, right, Ax?›
‹No,› Ax answered. ‹They did not. But it has become a source of political debate, and the Council may be overridden—›
‹There's no guarantee of anything,› Jake interrupted, his voice rising. ‹None of this is clear cut. But we have to do something. This is the one edge we've got.›
‹Then that's the question,› I said. ‹Right? I mean, we've got two days, don't we?›
‹If he sticks to the same pattern, yeah. If nothing insane happens before then. Which, let's be real—›
‹Yeah, yeah. But okay, fine—those are the options. Us with the Chee, us without the Chee, us with U.S. support, the U.S. by themselves.›
‹Or nothing. Something else, instead.›
‹Or something else. But that's it—that's our job for the next two days, is to sit down and think this through.›
‹Tobias here. Map just went offline—›
I felt an electric jolt of apprehension that seemed to pass through every cell of my body.
‹—looks like Rachel and the others got through. Ditching the tablet now, over.›
Here we go.
‹Marco here,› I broadcast. ‹Before you go—what was the final ETA? Over.›
‹It read nine minutes right before it died, so call it eight and a half, to be safe. I'll be back in range in three, over.›
‹Jake. In position, still good to go. Marco? David?›
‹Marco here. I'm all set, over.›
‹David here. I'm in a good spot, but it's definitely harder to see than we thought, over.›
‹Jake. Tobias will guide you. Just sit tight. Checking in with the Chee now—›
Shifting in place, I noticed that my hood had come open of its own accord, the king cobra's body responding instinctively to the tension I was feeling. For a moment, I thought about trying to force myself to relax—
Fuck it. No point.
We were about to go into battle with possibly the most dangerous creature in the entire galaxy. It would be wrong to be relaxed.
‹—Chee are all set, over.›
There were six of them, in total—one at each point of the compass, and two of them covering Jake, who was standing exposed near the center of the clearing, wearing only his morph armor. We'd gone back and forth over whether to bring more, but as Erek had pointed out, if six of the androids couldn't cut it, bringing more just meant creating more casualties.
‹Erek's on the countdown. Eight minutes. Over.›
I flexed the cobra's muscles, fighting the urge to move, to hide. My mind was racing, looping over and over again, uselessly reviewing every memory, every step of the plan, everything that could possibly be relevant, searching for meaning and detail.
If we all die in eight minutes, why did it happen?
Betrayal by the Chee, detection by the Visser, intervention by the Ellimist, some weapon we hadn't anticipated, the arrival of U.S. military forces, the arrival of Telor's forces, a nuclear blast, getting crushed by the Visser's ship, getting spotted by the Visser and murdered just because, getting knocked unconscious and sleeping past the time limit, getting eaten by a fox—
‹Seven and a half.›
Had we made the right choice, bringing the Chee? Had we made the right choice, leaving Tyagi in the dark? Had we made the right choice, bringing David and Tobias and sending Tom and Rachel and Garrett and Ax to take out Serenity? Had we made the right choice, coming without weapons of any kind?
I could feel the pressure mounting, each second magnifying my doubt, my uncertainty. Had I missed something, had I forgotten something, had I gotten something wrong, there were seven minutes left, we could still pull the plug—
—no, you can't, Serenity's gone, there's no way to track him now, you burned that bridge for good—
—okay, but we could still bail, we should get out of there, it was crazy to do this in person when we hadn't even tried sending in a missile yet—
‹Six and a half.›
‹Tobias here. I'm back in range. Still no visual contact, over.›
I twisted my body to look up, the cobra's vision every bit as sharp as a human's but with additional sensitivity in the infrared, so that the clear Wyoming sky looked like it was filled with clouds, or aurora, pockets of heat that bubbled and swirled—
Tobias is exposed, he's the only thing up there, tell him to get out of there—
‹Tobias. Marco here. Maybe time to find cover? Over.›
What's with this MAYBE that's not how you talk when you're trying to keep somebody from getting themselves KILLED—
‹Tobias here. You said he didn't pay any attention to the animals in Vietnam, right? Over.›
That was Vietnam, the place was CRAWLING with life, you're the ONLY BIRD IN THE SKY RIGHT NOW—
‹Marco. That—that's correct. I'm just getting a little jittery down here, over.›
‹Five minutes. Tobias, this is Jake. I'm with Marco—no point taking extra risks. Head for that pine on the south side, the one that's a few trees back from the edge of the clearing. Over.›
The voice was resigned, skeptical—but he'd agreed. I flicked my tongue, tasting the dry mountain air. Tobias in the trees, David in the bushes, Jake out in the middle, me as backup with quick-strike capability.
The Visser—one Andalite body with who knew how many deadly alien morphs, plus four Dracon beams and a utility belt with a dozen different gadgets, not to mention a bonus prize that might do almost literally anything—
Calm the fuck down, I told myself.
But all my brain produced in response was an image of a pair of dice, tumbling over and over, with a sound like thunder.
‹Four and a half.›
I was waiting for the calm to come over me—the peace, the sense of inevitability, the feeling of having done the hard part, having stepped out into open space and being in free fall. But it hadn't happened yet—still felt like there was time to think, room to take action, we weren't past the point of no return, if we died and it was because of something I could have thought of it would be all my fault—
Six Chee. Judging by what I'd seen Erek do, six Chee could probably crumple the Visser's ship up like it was newspaper.
Or they could crumple us.
I shifted again, nervous energy running up and down my six-foot spine. That was just stupid, it was stupid to worry about the Chee suddenly turning violent when there were plenty of real things that could lead to disaster just fine—
‹Three and a half.›
Maybe Telor did know about Serenity—maybe they infiltrated Atlas Labs, or they had somebody at Edwards, or they just figured it out, and the Visser knew, too, because he was spying on them, so he knows we know and he knows we just blew it up, he's ready for us, he knows that now's the moment—
It was because there'd never been a countdown before—that was why I was spiraling out so hard, why I couldn't settle. There'd always been uncertainty, right before go time—always a bit of panic, a bit of second-guessing. But there'd never been one moment when it would all come to a head, one moment when we might all just die—
‹Two and a half.›
I'm sorry, Jake, I thought, the words forming in my head just shy of the conveyor belt that would turn them into thought-speak, that would carry them out into the world where there would be effects, and consequences. If this all goes south—
Something is wrong, another part of me thought. Something is off, I'm too freaked out, there has to be some reason, something I picked up on without realizing it, what is it, what's the key—
It was an almost irresistible impulse—irresistible except for the fact that everything should be resistible, you could never be one hundred percent sure, it felt like it would be wrong to give in without knowing why—
Wrong enough that you'd rather die?
I started to form the thought—
‹Tobias here. I think I see it.›
For a moment, everything seemed to fall away—all thought, all emotion. An infinite silence, stretching out and out and out—
‹Yeah. Coming in from the east. Definitely a cloaked ship. Coming in slow, like David described.›
Slow so as not to make sounds, not to leave a contrail in the clouds that a cloaking device couldn't hide—
But there were no clouds, something about it didn't fit—
Shut up and focus—
‹Original ETA is one minute. Get ready, everybody.›
I peered skyward again, searching through the swirls of infrared for a blob of hidden heat—
A burst of light, somehow solid seeming, as if I hadn't really seen it but instead been hit by it, my vision whiting out in response.
Three more bursts, close together like someone knocking on a door.
‹The Chee. The Chee are down, Jake's out in the open—›
‹Run,› I said.
I didn't shout. There was no room for panic; shouting wouldn't do any good.
‹I'm demorphing and it's not me! It's—it's happening by itself!›
I felt a wave of choking horror and started to move—
It was happening to me, too.
I could feel it, feel my body slowing, thickening, my human form beginning to swell out of the snake's thin shape.
‹Tobias, get down from there while you still can—›
‹—hide, stay out of sight—Jake, are you clear?›
I could feel the despair in his voice like a knife in my chest.
‹I can't get out. There—there's a force field.›
‹The Chee,› I shouted. ‹What happened to the Chee?›
‹They're—they fell, they're frozen, they're frozen and their holograms are off, I think they're completely shut down—›
‹Jake, where are you?›
‹I'm at the northwest corner, I'm—›
The thought cut off abruptly—
—he's fine, it's the demorphing, he just lost thought-speak, that's all, he's alive, he's fine—
A part of me seemed to shake its head sadly.
I pushed myself up onto hands and knees—onto the stubs of my hands and knees, my body unsteady, the limbs still pushing their way out of what was left of the cobra, the skin still black and mottled brown. Lifting my head, I looked up into the sky—
That was the word that flashed across my mind, as the cloaking field faded away and the ship came into view, a hundred feet above the grassy meadow. It was huge—bigger than a Bug fighter, bigger than Elfangor's ship, a shape like a medieval battle-ax with two giant, curved wings, the whole thing painted black as night—
I felt the air around me turn solid, my whole body suddenly squeezed by pressure as if I'd been teleported a mile below the surface of the ocean. There was a jerk, and I was flying forward, my feet dragging across the weeds and brambles, my arms held out stiff like a scarecrow.
Oh god oh god oh god—
My mind was splitting, tearing in two, one half a gibbering mess of raw, nuclear panic while the other was suddenly cold and distant, as if watching myself from the outside—as if it were some kind of math problem in school, oh that's interesting—
Die. I was going to die.
I couldn't turn my head, but out of the corner of my eye I could see Tobias being dragged forward, too, russet feathers still disappearing into his skin, his eyes bulging in terror. We were being pulled toward the center, the dark shadowy place directly beneath the hovering ship, where there were already three bodies waiting—
It was just like Jake had said. Erek and Rictic were slumped, lying face first in the dirt, their limbs splayed out at awkward angles, like suits of armor that had been kicked over—
They didn't look asleep. They looked dead.
"Jake," I started to say, as the force dragging me forward lightened and slowed,as I saw David floating in from the other side of the clearing. "Jake, I'm—"
And then the world unfolded.
It was like the inside of a dream, a dream where I was god and could see everything—everything, inside and out and past and future, see every part and particle as well as every whole, an infinity of possibility charted out along infinite timelines, arranged in infinite space—
They weren't words. It wasn't thought-speak. The knowledge was simply there, had always been there, took no time at all to be understood—although even as I understood it, I saw myself understanding it, and saw myself seeing myself, and saw myself seeing that, as well, a recursive chain, a billion Marcos and each aware of every other—
—just as I was aware of—
It was all too much, more information than my brain could hold, than any brain could hold, memory and presence and premonition all swirling and blending together. I wasn't even terrified anymore—there wasn't room for terror. I wasn't afraid, wasn't angry, wasn't happy, wasn't anything. I was a conduit, hollow and vast and infinitely thin, and the entire universe was flowing through me, every bit being read at once, every bit being read in order, everything that had ever happened all in a row one after another and all of it compressed down into a single, endless moment.
There was a conversation, between the five of us, and it had already been had, and it had always been happening, and it had ended a thousand times, and always the same way, and the horror that I'd felt at the end of it had already echoed across time and space, was filling me completely even though it hadn't actually begun—
YES. THIS IS THE END FOR YOU.
It was the end, it was the beginning, it was the truth that underscored and permeated every facet of my being, and Jake's being, and Tobias's, and David's—
David. His betrayal crashed over me like a tidal wave—I had to—even as it was obvious that he hadn't had to, that he simply didn't care, had never cared, and I could see it, the moment that it had all become possible, such a tiny slip, I had seen it, the darkness inside him, the festering rot, it would have been my fault, I would have felt guilt but the knowledge had been taken from me, erased from memory, it had happened on purpose, someone had done this to us—
An online auction, a little blue box for sale—as soon as we'd decided to stay, decided to die, he'd begun looking for another way out, another way off, anything to make it through the next three weeks, how could we be willing to just sit there and do nothing, just let the end come without fighting it—
And alongside it, alongside and above and within the fear and rage and confusion I saw David's fate unfurling before me, the history of the future, and I screamed alongside him, it couldn't end like that, it couldn't, not after everything else—
I'M EXTREMELY INTERESTED IN BUYING YOUR LITTLE BLUE BOX. TELL ME THE BEST OFFER YOU'VE RECEIVED SO FAR AND I'LL DOUBLE IT.
And after that—
VISSER THREE—IT'S ME, IT'S DAVID, PLEASE DON'T GO, PLEASE DON'T SHOOT, DON'T REACT, THEY'RE HERE, THEY'RE WATCHING—
I DON'T ACTUALLY HAVE THE BLUE BOX. BUT I CAN GET IT TO YOU, AND I CAN GET YOU THE ANIMORPHS TOO.
Laughter, black laughter—
SOME PROMISES ARE WORTH KEEPING, LITTLE HUMAN, AND SOME ARE NOT.
And it happened, the Yeerk pouring into David's ear as he screamed, not again, this couldn't be happening again—
And it wasn't, not yet. We were still at the beginning of the conversation, and David's fate still lay in the future—the distant, unreachable future, an infinity away—
There was a creature named David, and he screamed as his father lifted a can of gasoline.
There was a creature named Jake, and he threw scissors scissors rock paper rock rock rock paper and his brother chased him into a closet and trapped him there.
There was a creature named Tobias, and he looked up from his creaking, ancient bunk bed to see a tiny, scrawny kid with a stained t-shirt pulled all the way up over his face.
There was a creature named Marco, and his mother was taken, taken up into the sky, her sailboat left to drift until it crashed onto the rocks.
There was a creature named Alloran, and the other children gathered around him, pushing on him, pushing, pushing with their minds, pushing him to believe, and the truth inside him crumpled and shrank, collapsing down to a tiny point as dense as a neutron star, and then it burst.
There was a creature named Esplin, and it wanted desperately to be allowed to live.
There was a creature named Marco, and it wrenched its mind up out of the loop, lifted its eyes from the glitter of tiny crystals and turned up toward the vast, drifting planets—
THERE IS NO ESCAPE, said the Visser, and it was true—they could see that it was true, see the map laid out before them, see that no rescue ever came, that no rescue was even possible.
Of course, the knowledge did not stop them from trying, even as they knew in their bones that it was futile. They were bound to try, conscripted by history, compelled by the laws of time. They would break, and despair, but first they would struggle and fight, because that was how it went, how it had already gone a thousand times, how it would go a thousand more.
There was a creature named Marco, and it struggled to remember itself—to separate itself from the Visser, who it had always been, and David who it had always been, and Jake, who it had always been, and Tobias, who it had always been, and Marco, who it had always been—
There was confusion, but it folded before the revelation—
SO THE CHEE HAVE THE CUBE, THEN.
There was laughter, and triumph, and wild, desperate fear, the lines mixing and blending in subtle symmetry—for the Chee had already been bought, it was within the Visser's power to give them everything they had ever wanted, and they would know that it was true, for it already was true—they would sell the Earth for their true heart, their true purpose, the dogs that they would do all within their power to keep alive.
And yes, Rachel and Tom and Garrett and Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill needed to die—
—the creature named Tobias screamed, as it had already been screaming, as it would always scream—
—but they were as nothing, next to the cube. Distractions, irritants, tiny flaws in an infinite perfect sphere. Their guard would be down. They would be easily dispatched. It would not even require his direct attention, given the tools at hand, they had earplugs but not all of them—
—the creature named David screamed, as it had already been screaming, as it would always scream—
—yes, that would do nicely, the clones were not ready for the sharing but one of them would suffice for this. He would send a copy of himself, wearing the body of David Poznanski, and in the meantime the Chee would bring him the cube and there would be infinite dogs, dogs forever, paws and tails and flopping ears stretching off into the distant future—
—the creature named Jake was watching in horror, was reaching, reaching, reaching, trying to reach Marco, to touch, to comfort, to reassure—it's going to be okay—the lie reflected upon itself, not okay, none of this was okay, how could they have my MOTHER—
There was laughter from the Visser.
There was shock from the Visser, sheer and utter shock.
YOU FOOLS, a voice whispered, the words echoing through eternity. HOW COULD YOU IGNORE IT? HOW COULD YOU NOT SEE IT?
But of course they hadn't noticed, didn't have the pieces, the perspective. They did not know that you could not stop time, that nothing could stop time, that time was written into the fabric of the universe, that if something seemed to stop time it must absolutely be pretending, even a god could not do it, even a god that stepped out of thin air, its skin glowing faintly blue beneath long white hair, eyes that sparkled with the light of the stars—
The memory, the memory was what proved it—in morph, always in morph, he had been in morph when his memory had been changed, they had been in morph when time had stopped, it was a fraud, all a fraud, Seerow had not created the emulator, could not possibly have created it—could not in a thousand years have produced the computation required for even a single morph. The computer had already existed, had merely been tapped, repurposed—with every morph they entered its domain, placed themselves under its control, their very minds written into its software, it knew everything they knew and more, it had been watching them, reading them, and it could make them see things, make them think things, make them do things, he would never morph again they would never morph again he shuddered to think how many times he had placed himself within its power—
YES. THIS IS THE END FOR YOU.
The black god, the mad puppetmaster, they had seen it, or at least its avatar, and now so many things made sense—there was a fountain of joy, joy spouting from the heart of the universe, joy sparkling across all of time and space, he had never expected to find this revelation in the minds of mere human children, he knew where his enemy was, now, it was obvious—
A PROPHECY, YOU SAY? IT DID NOT DO MUCH FOR CASSIE WITHERS, I SEE.
The creature named Marco screamed, as it had already been screaming, as it would always scream, because that face should not have been there, it should not have been there, he reached deep into the heart of the Visser and what he found was impossible—
She had been taken, she was one of them, and the Visser was going to kill her—
BUT OF COURSE—
OF COURSE SHE WOULD BE.
HOW COULD SHE NOT?
The creature named Jake was broken, was broken into ten billion pieces but still it tried, the shards tried to pull themselves together, to wrap around the wound that had torn itself into Marco, the knife plunging all the way into his heart, she was alive but there was nothing he could do, he couldn't save her—
YES. THIS IS THE END FOR YOU.
They were closer now, to the prophesied conclusion—were halfway through the dance, the pages of the script drifting into the fire, half of the secrets had been learned—
The dance, the dance, the dance, ten thousand million billion trillion puppets all twitched into place, the Skrit Na had taken his mother two years ago, she had been trapped the whole time, screaming, but he was dead, he couldn't help her, the creature named Marco had already died, that was how the conversation ended, how it ended every time, there was no way out and no escape—
I JUST DIDN'T WANT TO DIE, said David.
I JUST DIDN'T WANT TO DIE, said the Visser.
But only one of them would succeed, only one of them had solved the mystery, found the key, soon he would spread throughout the galaxy, would consume Telor, would consume the Earth, would consume all, all except the Arn and the dogs, it was close, so close, and the cube was not even necessary but it would simplify so many things, bring the end closer, but he knew too that he would never use it, for it was too dangerous—a conduit to the gods, the pathway to their heart—
A MARVELOUS JOKE.
They had had everything they needed, to put all of the pieces together—Serenity only functioned because the system had been surrounded by a rift, a magnificent rift, the work of the gods themselves, a vast expanse of slowtime across which all things moved at a crawl, unless they traveled along the bridge—
But the bridge was not made for the Andalite's rock, the Andalite's rock was doomed to fail, would be caught like a fly in honey, there had never been a threat, he had told the Chee immediately but they had not aided him as well as he had hoped, had been willing to betray him here, and for that, perhaps, he would punish them, would extract satisfaction from them, and they would let him, for the sake of the dogs—
There never was any chance the Andalites could blow up the planet.
All of their panic and desperation, all of their haste and concern, Tyagi's strategy of appeasement and capitulation, it had all been unfounded, unnecessary, built on a foundation of wrong assumptions. The Visser laughed, dark and empty laughter—again, as so many times before, he had plotted and schemed and carefully maneuvered, trying to nudge the pieces into place as if they were intelligent, never certain when he might meet resistance, and now he found that he could have simply lied, could have just claimed there was an extraplanetary threat, and the result would have been the same. It was all a trap, a trap meant to draw them here, to their fate, to their doom, they had marched inexorably along a path of puppets, of fools, and they had given the Visser the Chee to play with, and now he would unlock all of their secrets, their technology—
MARCO, CALM DOWN—MARCO, HOLD IT TOGETHER, AT LEAST SHE'S ALIVE, AS LONG AS SHE'S ALIVE THERE'S STILL HOPE—
But there was no hope. The conversation had ended, and only David and the Visser had walked away, and the Visser was going to kill her, she had already been in his way and this made it all the sweeter. They had failed, a thousand times they had failed, and now they were going to die as they always did, and there was nothing they could do about it.
—the creature named Marco screamed, as it had already been screaming, as it would always scream, but only for a little while longer—
The stream shifted again, the feeling of a claw digging through flesh, a dragon seeking a bauble within its treasures.
THERE IS ANOTHER ONE?
Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill and Temrash three-one-three, they were back on the mesa, Tom and Jake and Tobias and Garrett and Rachel and Marco and Ax, and the Visser was with them, climbed inside with them, saw—
The beginning of a new ending, a possibility to match his own, not one but two—
That possibility, he must end at once.
The challenger, the interloper, the upstart, the harbinger of doom, the Andalites must not know, the Yeerks must not know, it was obvious but they were all so stupid, none of them could see if he could just keep their eyes away for a little while longer—
He could not send Telor. Telor had betrayed him already, could no longer be trusted in any matter of import—
AH, YES. THIS ONE WILL DO.
It was time—the time they had all seen coming, the time that meant the beginning of the end. He stunned the creature David, stunned it and drew it upward, upward into the hold where he was waiting, where it was waiting, there were a thousand of him and now there would be one more, David and Esplin, Esplin and David, they would go forth and they would kill Aximili, erase his possibility, there would never be another like Esplin and in the meantime he would seize the cube, the cube was the key to all of it, had always been, past and present and future—
—the creature named David screamed—
—their thoughts and feelings were like a book, held out in front to be read, the words dancing with light and life, but there was nothing to stop him from looking further, digging deeper, pulling other books off the shelves at will, and he dove into the mind of the Visser, searching frantically for something, anything—anything he could use, anything they could use to fight, to resist, to escape, there had to be some way out if only he could just find it—
—in a place so far from Earth that his mind could not fathom the distance, the sheer enormity of space and time and reality—
—the image of a face, smug and triumphant, wielding the power of status and politics, a vile worm with no vision, concerned only for its own place, and it wore the face of his mother—
The word echoed through the five of them, crawling its way back to the beginning of the dance, doubling and tripling and seeping into everything else as everything else seeped into it. It was impossible, inconceivable, the pain of it striking him along every fault, buffeting every nerve, of all the ways he had thought the universe could be cruel he had never, could never, could not in a thousand years have imagined this, it was as if the gods themselves had singled him out for punishment, things like this just didn't happen by accident.
His mother was Visser One.
His mother was Visser One, and Visser Three was going to kill her.
JUST COME OUT AND—AND DO SOMETHING, WHATEVER IT IS YOU'VE BEEN DOING, ONLY DON'T SHOOT, DON'T LEAVE, IF THEY THINK THEY CAN CATCH YOU, IF THEY THINK THEY CAN CATCH YOU THEY'LL TRY, AND YOU CAN CATCH THEM INSTEAD.
But of course, he would never let them see what he'd been doing. There would have to be a deception, a ruse, and it would have to be plausible, there was an Andalite among them—
IT'S THEIR OWN FAULT, whispered the creature named David as Esplin poked and probed and slithered inside, touching him in his very core, a deep and tender caress—
IT'S ALL RIGHT, whispered the Visser. WE WILL KILL THEM TOGETHER, AND THEN THERE WILL ONLY BE ONE, AND THAT ONE WILL BE ALL.
And with his next-to-last breath, the creature named Marco wished desperately that it could be different, could have been different, that he could have caught the mistake, found the switch and flipped it, moved them from here to there, he had to save her and in order to do that he had to live—
But you couldn't go backwards in time, you could only get it right the first time, and the god had already done that, had seen the switch and chosen its position, all was unfolding as the Ellimist desired.
The creature named David screamed, and the creature named Marco screamed with it, and the creatures named Tobias and Jake screamed also, and the creature named the Visser laughed as he drew them close, drew them close until they lay within his shadow, a shadow that stretched out, limitless, across the cosmos.
YES. THIS IS THE END FOR YOU.
I'm sorry, Mom, whispered the creature named Marco.
And then there was nothing.