Chapter 33: Rachel

‹Success,› Ax called from the cockpit. ‹The trace is faint, but definitive—we're picking up helium-4 leaking into the atmosphere.›

I let go of the trigger, and the twin pillars of light vanished from the display. "Roger," I said. "Are we out, then?"

‹Up and away.›

The image on the screen was a mess of dust and smoke; without the superimposed wireframe it would've been impossible to see the smooth, narrow shaft that the Dracon beams had burned through the main building. The frame shifted as the ship turned and began to rise, widening just enough for me to catch a glimpse of the three-hundred-or-so people gathered in clumps and clusters outside of the facility before we accelerated away and the whole thing was replaced by a stream of mottled green.

At least two thirds of those people had been wearing military uniforms. I wasn't sure how many of them had been Chee—Kodep had absolutely insisted on having Chee on hand to enforce the evacuation, in case the lab staff didn't believe us—but even so, that still probably made this the largest concentration of military personnel in this half of the state.

We'd been worried that the government might have taken full possession of the base—Ax had estimated that even with most of the distance being a hollow elevator shaft, it would still take at least thirty seconds to burn all the way through to the actual detector, and we weren't sure whether the fighter's shields could withstand a full barrage for that long—

But it looked like Tyagi had decided to go the quiet route, so as not to draw the Yeerks' attention—there had been no choppers, no tanks, no fighter jets, no surface-to-air missiles. At least, none that the soldiers had been able to deploy in the ninety seconds since we sent our warning—without a hyperdrive and with the cannons on standby, there had been nothing for Serenity to detect until we dropped down to helicopter height and Tom and Garrett started morphing. Ninety seconds for the approach, another minute for the Chee to finish clearing the building—start to finish, the entire op had taken less than four minutes.

Setting the cannons to standby mode, I turned to see Tom and Garrett rising up from the floor, Tom still sporting feathers, Garrett still the wrinkly grey beige of a tardigrade. They'd been our backup weapons—Tom in case anyone tried to pull a Bard-at-Laketown, and Garrett in case we had to land in a hurry and needed some wide-area defense.

But there'd been no need in the end. The op had gone as smoothly as any we'd ever done—smoother than the truck, even.

Yep, whispered Marco's voice in the back of my head. One of the many perks of treachery.

We didn't hurt anyone, I countered. And it had to be done.

‹Aircraft inbound,› Ax called out. ‹Four. High-speed. Human.›

"Are they going to be a problem?"

‹No. We're cloaked, and they're not reacting to our movements. Looks like they're heading for the base, ETA ninety seconds.›

And now that Serenity's down—

It hadn't been just for our sake, to stay off the government's radar. It had been for the sake of everyone—for every ship the human race managed to steal or reverse-engineer, every beam weapon we were able to build, every one of the thousand morphers Tobias and Garrett had created. They'd all been on record—all been traceable, all been vulnerable. Serenity had been built into a mountainside—couldn't have been moved or hidden—and with the Yeerks' technological superiority, that meant it absolutely could not have been defended.

All it would've taken was one breach. And if we'd waited until we knew it had been compromised—

"What was the last ETA on Visser Three?" Tom asked, his voice like rocks tumbling across sandpaper as his throat continued to rearrange itself.

‹Nine minutes,› Ax answered. ‹Seven minutes, forty-five seconds, now.›

I glanced out through the front viewport, at the thinning sky and the rapidly shrinking mountains. It had taken us twenty-six minutes to make the trip to Atlas Labs after dropping Jake and the others off in Montana—eight minutes to reach low earth orbit, ten minutes in the void, and eight minutes to brake and reenter. With any luck, they would already be done by the time we landed at the rendezvous point.

It's really happening, I thought. In another half hour, the war could be—

Not over, probably. Not yet. The Yeerks still had enough firepower to level every city on the planet, and the Andalites were still a threat—

—although Ax had patched into the Andalite civilian network again, and he said that the fear of reprisals was rising, that more and more of the population was taking Elfangor's broadcast seriously—

—but different. Things would undoubtedly change, if we managed to take the Visser off the board. Without him to goad them, Telor would probably move toward a peaceful cease-fire, especially if Tyagi followed through on the offer to set up voluntary infestation. There were only a quarter million Yeerks in the whole invasion force, after all—even if all of the volunteers came from the United States, that was still less than one in a thousand people, and there had to be that many people who were depressed or addicted or homeless or psychotic or on death row or whatever who would jump at the chance.

And then there was the cube, and the cloaking device, and the Dracon beams, and the repulsorlift—all of the technological advances that were currently on pause while the government played everything close to the chest, they could all come out if we managed to turn the tide—

I took a deep breath. A part of me was stirring, a part that had been growing louder and louder lately—the part that held the memory of Jordan and Sara, that carried Cassie and Mom and Dad and Uncle Steve and Aunt Jean and Melissa Chapman—that part had risen up in objection, full of anger and indignation—

You can't just—just let it go like that, let it end like that, you can't let them get away with it, they have to pay—

I squeezed my eyes shut, visualizing their faces, one after another—Sara's gap-toothed smile, the mole on Jordan's cheek that she was so self-conscious about, the way Cassie's eyes would light up whenever Jake walked into a room. I played the list in my head, rehearsing the memories, the memorial that was all I had left of them—of any of them.

Mom's sigh, and the way a few strands of hair would always manage to slip themselves out of her pony tail, the way she would brush them back behind her ear whenever she turned the page of one of her briefs.

My trip to Disney Land with Dad last year, when he'd put me up on his shoulders to see the fireworks—I was twelve, way too big, he'd ended up twinging his back and he'd needed an icepack on the flight home, but he'd still called me his little monkey, had made me feel like I didn't weigh anything as he swung me up in his arms.

Melissa's dress, on the night of our first school dance—

Uncle Steve, teaching me how to play chess at the family reunion at Lake Tahoe—

Aunt Jean's black belt test—

Too many, there were too many of them, too many faces and too many memories, friends and coaches and teachers and neighbors. I felt my anger cooling as I rehearsed them, recited them, but it didn't go away—just transformed, the magma spreading out, thickening into a bleak, black sadness.

Not fair.

It wasn't fair, that they were dead—that they'd been tortured, some of them, that the last days of their lives had been filled with horror and then been cut short. It wasn't fair that I was alive, when they weren't—that I had been given the power to fight, to protect myself, when they hadn't.

Never, ever forget—

And I wouldn't.

But at the same time—

At the same time, it wasn't right to think that things would never be okay again. For a part of me to insist that they would never be okay again, to treat any possibility of peace or progress or forgiveness as betrayal. That piece of me—it was standing up for something right and good and true, it was protecting something important—something I desperately wanted not to lose—but it was wrong about how to protect that thing, like how our bodies crave sugar because they evolved to think that sugar meant fruit, meant vitamins and minerals and fiber, not just empty calories, Coach Aikin had explained it to me once—that piece of me that wanted to rage and destroy, to make them pay, it was wrong about how the world worked, about what it would mean for there to be such a thing as justice, it didn't understand about prices, about consequences, any more than my sweet tooth knew about diabetes.

At some point, somebody has to be willing to not get everything they deserve, or it'll all just keep going around and around forever.

I wasn't sure where that perspective had come from. It felt new, like it didn't quite fit me—

Maybe morphing Marco all the time is starting to rub off on you.

—but it felt right, that realization. That I didn't have to have just one bucket for everything that had happened, didn't have to round it all off to one single number, plus or minus—that I could acknowledge that all of the terrible things had, in fact, been terrible, and still hang onto my hope, still have the ability to imagine a tomorrow that was brighter than today even if it didn't have my sisters or my parents in it. It was the same cliché that I'd seen in a thousand different books, a thousand different movies—if they could see you now, do you think they'd want you to be angry, want you to be tormented—but I'd never really understood it until now.

Sometimes, the best thing you could do was just draw a line and say, no more.

It hurt, to realize that. To really feel it, really let it land—that maybe any attempt to balance the scales would make things worse, that there might not be any justice out there for us to find, that all of the fair answers might really be impossible, might not actually exist. That maybe nobody would be punished for what had happened to Sara and Jordan, to Cassie and her parents, to all of Ventura.

It was the same kind of gut-punch as when they told you Santa wasn't real, only a thousand times worse. But realizing it, recognizing it—

It was better than the alternative. Made me better. It meant that—when the time came—I would know to put down the sword. Would know that I could put down the sword, that there was nothing forcing me to keep holding it. That I wouldn't be the one who kept everything from changing, from ending.

‹Two more minutes,› Ax said, punctuating my stream of thought.

We were almost fully in space, now, the sky coal-black even with the sun shining bright in the viewport. Ax had oriented the ship at right angles to the planet, so that the America was a vast wall to the right, tan and green and the gray of cities.

"'Scuse me," Garrett said, slipping past me and sliding into the copilot's seat beside the open space where the Andalite was standing, one hand stretching out to bury itself in his fur. I glanced over my shoulder, and there was Tom, too, leaning against the bulkhead, all four of us looking out at the view.

"Smoke's finally clearing," Tom pointed out quietly.

It was true. We weren't anywhere near high enough to actually see California, but the ashy gray haze that had choked the sky for so long was nowhere to be seen, the clouds clean and white, the open spaces between them crystal clear.

"Took long enough," I said.

Tom was silent for a moment, and then, even quieter—

"What do we do if they don't make it?"

I felt a tightening in my chest, and without even thinking—

"Like we said. Wait at the rendezvous point for an hour, and then we bail."

Stalling, eh?

I shot another glance at Tom, trying to keep my expression neutral. I hadn't been him nearly as often as I'd been Marco—just the once, on the mesa—but I'd known him my entire life, and I was pretty sure that I hadn't answered the question he was really asking.

His face was blank, but tight, his eyes pointed past me at the viewport. A mask, put on on purpose. "You know what I mean," he said, his voice almost a whisper.

Don't forget, he's been you, too.

I sighed. "I don't know," I admitted. "I haven't thought that far ahead, really."

There was a part of me that was resentful, that wanted to object, to complain. But—

If anything happens, Jake had said. If the worst happens, and none of us make it back from this—

He'd looked at each of the four of us in turn, me and Tom and Garrett and Ax, and I'd known it was coming.

If things go south, it's going to take all four of you. And somebody's going to have to call the shots. Somebody that all three—that all four of you trust.

"Maybe you should," Tom said.

‹One minute to original ETA.›

I grimaced. "Yeah," I said. "Probably."

I looked back out the window, at the slow spin of the planet next to us. I wasn't used to this—to being on the sideline, sitting and thinking and waiting while someone else took the shot.

But when the target was Visser Three—

I should've fought harder. I should've gone instead of Jake.

In theory, the presence of the Chee removed the need for muscle, and what the mission called for was smarts. But still.

Wasted motion, my shoulder Marco whispered. Nothing you can do about it now. Tom's question, on the other hand…

Okay. If they didn't come back—

The asteroid was still priority one. Even if the odds were dropping, thanks to Marco's broadcast, they were odds of total annihilation, which meant they dwarfed pretty much everything else. That was why Tyagi had been willing to send her clone straight to Telor—she'd been hedging against the worst case, and if the Yeerks did decide to strip the planet, it would actually be better if they could do it quickly and efficiently—

We could go to the source. Get the hyperdrive back, take Ax and Temrash straight to the Andalite homeworld—

Actually, Tyagi had probably already thought of that, too. They had at least three hyperdrives now, and that was without manufacturing any new ones, which they at least might have been able to manage.

‹According to Serenity's original estimate, the Visser's ship should be landing now.›

I could feel it, within me—the impulse to go, to do, to attack—to direct Ax to take the ship straight to where the Visser was landing, fire on it from above—

But it wasn't March anymore, and I was no longer that Rachel. If we'd really caught him unprepared, four Animorphs and six Chee would be plenty, and if we hadn't—if he was ready for them—then one Bug fighter wasn't going to make a difference.

"How long until we reach the rendezvous point?" I asked.

‹Sixteen minutes.›

I sucked in a breath, held it, let it partway out.

"Okay," I said. "Let's get set."


‹Tom here. I'm in position, no bogeys. Garrett, you can demorph. Over.›

I twisted one stalk eye to track Garrett as he dove toward the ground and kept the other on its slow swivel. I could see maybe two hundred feet in every direction in the sparse woods, and I swept around a full three hundred and sixty degrees every three seconds or so. That meant that anything that surprised me would have to be moving at least forty-five miles per hour—

—without making a sound—

—and without being picked up by Ax, who was still on board the cloaked Bug fighter, ready for a quick takeoff—

—and without being visible to Tom, who was now tracing tight circles above the trees in the osprey morph he'd borrowed from Marco—

Which rules out everything except, y'know, bullets and laser beams and rampaging Chee and stuff.

My paranoid shoulder Marco had a point, but I kept up the sweep. There wasn't really any point in not keeping an eye out, after all—

‹Ax says it's been forty-nine minutes,› Garrett said, as he fluttered to the mulchy floor in front of me.

‹I know,› I replied, turning my main eyes to focus on him as I returned my other stalk to surveillance duty. I was wearing Ax's body, after all, and the Andalite brain had an insanely accurate internal clock. ‹You think we should leave now?›

‹No.› The bird began to expand, swelling upward as Garrett returned to his normal body. ‹We said we'd stay for an hour. But I'm getting nervous.›

Me, too, I thought.

But Jake would never say that, so I didn't, either.

‹They are like forty miles away,› I reminded him. ‹And since they're not coming back by Chee—›

It was one of the reasons we weren't in the loop—if we'd had one of the Chee with us, we could've just asked for an update. But given that most of the bad scenarios we'd thought of involved some kind of betrayal or defection by the ancient androids—

Of course, there was no real guarantee they weren't already all around us. We'd done a few insect morphs right at the start, but not in the past twenty minutes, and Tom's osprey couldn't catch Chee holograms nearly as well as it could pick up on Yeerk ones. As far as we knew, they didn't know what the rendezvous point was, but they might have some way of tracing us we didn't know about—something Kodep had installed while he and Ax were sweeping the ship, maybe—

Atta girl, thought Marco's voice in my head.

I ignored it.

‹Ninety seconds to demorph,› Garrett said, as his feathers began to clump together and shrivel into human fingers. ‹Ninety seconds to remorph. Forty minutes at sixty miles per hour plus three minutes means forty-three minutes. We've been waiting here for forty-nine-and-a-half minutes plus the sixteen minutes it took us to get here means that if they're not here then things with Visser Three took at lea—›

His mental voice broke off as he passed the halfway mark, and he looked straight at me as his eyes softened from gold to brown. "At least twenty-two minutes and counting," he said, his voice raspy and guttural like someone with bronchitis. "Most of the ways that that could take twenty-two minutes are not good."

‹They may not have jumped him literally the second he got out of his ship,› I pointed out. ‹Look, I'm with you, but it's too soon to panic—›

‹Tom here—›

‹Aximili here—›

‹Sorry—Ax, go ahead.›

‹Large life form, one hundred yards out, west-northwest. Moving slow—walking speed. Over.›

‹Tom here. Same report. It's Jake, over.›

‹On foot?› I asked.

‹Yeah.›

And they just noticed him now? the voice of Marco wondered in my head.

‹Is he alone?› I asked Tom.

‹I don't see anyone else.›

‹Keep your eyes on the sky, over.›

‹Roger.›

I rose up as high as I could, keeping only two limbs on the ground and leaning back onto Ax's thick, muscular tail. I kept my stalks swiveling as I peered through the undergrowth with my main eyes—

There. Just emerging from the back side of a small hill, trudging through the leaves and brambles. He looked—

Tired? Preoccupied?

Not angry or sad or ruthlessly calm, anyway. He was moving fast, but not hurried fast. Just—wanting-to-get-there fast.

"The others?" Garrett murmured, stepping forward to stand beside me, the last of his bird features melting away.

‹Tom and Ax didn't see anybody.›

I heard the younger boy's tiny intake of breath, saw his shoulders stiffen in reflex before he pushed them down deliberately, knew that somewhere inside his head he was reciting some rule or litany or promise.

‹Relax,› I said, even as I felt my own tension rising, tiny twin trickles of confusion and fear starting at the base of my neck and running down my spine. ‹He doesn't look like it's bad news.›

Garrett didn't reply, just nodded tightly, his hands gripping the fabric of his jeans.

I dropped back down to all sixes, stepping forward as Jake cleared the nearest trees and raised a hand in greeting. "Hi, Ax," he said. "Hi, Garrett."

"Rachel," Garrett whispered. "That's Visser Three."

Time seemed to stop.

That's—

what?

A part of me that was entirely separate from my thinking, reasoning brain took over, and I stepped smoothly forward—

Garrett's face, rigid with fear, the blood draining away as if he'd seen a ghost—

Jake had appeared as if from nowhere, alone, Ax and Tom hadn't even detected him until he was a hundred yards away—

—it had only been a blink of an eye, not even half a second, Jake's hand was still only halfway lowered and my brain was still trying to find purchase—

—but the other part of me, the part that had absolute, unyielding faith in Garrett, that had been through fire and hell with the younger boy, that had promised Tobias I would watch his back—

—that part of me was already whipping my tail blade forward—

Jake's eyes widened, but he didn't move to dodge, didn't try to block, with the last fraction of a second he plunged both hands into his pockets—

I struck straight ahead, like a spear, the sliver of bone slicing through his sternum as if it were butter, burying itself deep in his chest.

There was a moment of open, gasping horror as I took in his face, Jake's face, saw his jaw go slack and his eyes glaze over—

oh god, oh god, what did I just—

—and then he sagged, slumped, fell to his knees, and as his hands slipped out of his pockets I saw a flash, a glint of metal—

Zzzzzzzzzzrp.

"Rachel!" Garrett shouted, as my legs gave out from under me—as they fell off of me, something had sliced—had cut—

"Rachel, demorph!"

There was a sound in the distance—a heavy, hollow boom, followed by the unmistakable crackle of fire.

‹Garrett, what—

"It was him!" Garrett screamed. "Rachel, demorph, you have to demorph now—"

‹Oh, god, Ax—Ax! Are you—›

The voices were tiny, tinny, far away, and I felt my vision clouding over as the blood poured from my Andalite body, dark stains mixing with the bright red still blossoming from my cousin's chest.

You're dying, Marco whispered. Demorph. Now.

I tried to focus—

You have gold hair, whispered Marco, a Marco from a memory that I couldn't quite place—was it real? Was it a morph? I had kissed him, once—or was that a dream—

Shut up. Focus. You have gold hair. You have strong arms, strong hands, long legs. Your smile—when you smile, it looks like you have too many teeth. Focus, think about it, see yourself in the mirror—

Too tall.

My chest—too big, it was so much harder to use the uneven parallel bars than it used to be, and my balance was all off—

Sure, fine, whatever. Focus on that. Bring it back.

Something was changing. The gush of blood was slowing, blue fur withdrawing to reveal soft, pale skin—

That's right. Keep it up. Focus on you, pull it together.

The fog was lifting, slowly, as the morph proceeded. I realized that I could hear shouts in the distance, that I could smell smoke—

Not yet. Think about that in a minute.

I heard a sliding, squelching, sucking sound, and I looked down to see my tail shrinking, the blade withdrawing from the—

—from Jake's—

I shut my eyes.

Keep going.

"Rachel! Help!"

I opened my eyes again—just the main eyes, my stalks were already gone as the morph crawled past halfway. There was a fire raging in the place where the Bug fighter had been, chunks of shrapnel surrounding a half-burned husk—

Oh, god. Ax.

I shoved myself to my feet, my body still fluid and unstable. I looked down at the shape of—

Dead.

Definitely dead.

Not yet, deal with it later.

Turning, I staggered forward. I could see Garrett up above, standing in the shattered, open cockpit, surrounded by fire—

He's not in morph!

—trying to move the limp, unconscious body of Ax, even from below I could see the blood, the singed fur, the ragged shape of a broken rib—

"Help!"

There was Tom, demorphing next to him, they were both too close to the fire, they were both, they were all going to be burned—

I reached for my wrist, for the bracelet I'd taken off of the Visser at the high school, so long ago. It froze the air, maybe it could freeze the fire—

I spun the knobs, twisted the dials, trying to remember the settings that I'd figured out together with Ax, hours of experimenting to understand all of the combinations. Raising my arm, I pointed it toward the ship and pressed the main button—

Thank god.

The fires around the cockpit froze, froze in place for a split second before fading, dying, vanishing, unable to reach the oxygen that swirled just outside of the field—

"Get him down!"

I ran up the ramp, turning the alien device on and off and on and off, shifting its field from place to place, clearing a path. There was one spot where the corridor was almost sealed shut, twisted metal leaving only a tiny path to crawl through, and the metal was hot, I could feel my hands blistering as they touched it, feel the searing heat in my knees, but I ignored the pain, shut it off, shut it away—

"Lower him over the side—"

"Rachel, can that thing—"

"Yeah, I think so, hang on—"

Twenty more confused, agonizing seconds and then he was down, we were all down, down on our knees on the scorched forest floor.

"What happened—"

"It was Visser Three, Visser Three in a Jake morph, or maybe it was just Jake, I don't know, but he threw some kind of—of—of homing bomb, I don't know—"

TSEWWWWW!

I felt a strange tugging sensation in my abdomen, looked down to see a small, smoking hole, maybe a little bit wider than a quarter—

"Oh god—"

"Look out—"

I turned—somehow I turned, as I fell, was able to turn enough to see—

The body of Jake, still drenched in blood, but rising, standing, shrinking, as the gaping hole in its chest flowed and smoothed over, as his features tightened and sharpened into—

Into—

David?

The nightmare figure pivoted, aiming its first Dracon beam at Tom even as a second one grew out of its other hand, as some kind of bandolier emerged from its chest—

David, in morph?

TSEWWWWW! TSEWWWWW! TSEWWWWW!

Tom and Garrett dove as the bright beams flashed out, dove and rolled in opposite directions, and I couldn't see if either of them had been hit, could only watch as the nightmare stepped forward, pressing at a button on the bandolier and shimmering into glassy transparency—

Stop it.

I had to stop it, had to stop him—

TSEWWWWW! TSEWWWWW!

I was facedown in the mulch, my arms and legs each weighing a thousand pounds, for the second time in two minutes there was blood leaking out of my body, it was my real body this time, just as it had been Ax's real body—

I pushed myself up onto my elbows and saw—

Saw—

Garrett—

The younger boy was down, had been carved from collarbone to rib as if by a lightsaber, his left arm three feet away from the rest of him—

Stop it.

TSEWWWWW! TSEWWWWW!

There was still firing and that meant it wasn't over, Tom wasn't dead, if we could kill him we could fix it, we could fix all of it, there had to be a way to fix it—

I reached for the bracelet, my vision swimming.

One to the left, open the sliders, flip the fourth lever—

There were so many controls, I couldn't quite remember how they all worked—

TSEWWWWW! TSEWWWW!

The timer. The green one was a timer, a delay, like taking a picture—

TSEWWWWW!

I spun the knob, pressed the button, and—with the last of my strength—threw it toward the almost-invisible shape.

TSEWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW—

The shimmering crystal shape froze in place, the Dracon beam stuck in fire mode, a lance of pure light pouring out into the trees, fueling another inferno—

I blacked out, the darkness closing in around me, my vision narrowing to a point and then vanishing entirely as I dropped back to the forest floor. There was a moment of timeless nothingness, and then—

EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE—›

I jerked awake as the wave of shrieking thought crashed into me, washed over me, tumbled me like a high-tide undertow. There were sounds—shouts—the continuous noise of the Dracon beam—another explosion, smaller this time—

Silence.

Hang on, Rachel. Focus—

But I couldn't. Not this time. Everything was swimming, everything was heavy and distant and foggy and clogged, it was all I could do to hang on to consciousness, to keep my eyes open against the million tons of force trying to drag them closed—

I felt hands around my face—gentle slaps—resolved the image of my cousin Tom out of the fog. I tried to speak, but nothing came out. Tom was shouting, but it was like I was underwater, like I was underwater and he was over the surface, I could hear that he was saying something, but whatever it was I couldn't make it out.

And then—

Tobias?

That can't be right, whispered some detached, empty part of me. Tobias is—he's—

I didn't finish the thought—couldn't. Once more, the black fog choked my vision off to a point, snuffed it out. I couldn't feel anything, see anything, could barely think anything—

Marco.

I remembered Marco.

Remembered a face, a voice, a smell, a smile—

Hang in there, Wonder Woman, the voice whispered. It's going to be o—