A/N: Guilt, shame, regret, etc. for the long, long, loooooong hiatus. Apologies to those of you who suffered, thinking that that was The End.

Do me a favor—if you're glad to see this story come back, leave me some commentary or feedback, either here or over on r/rational? It really really really does make a difference.

Love you all.


Chapter 34: Jake

Wrong.

From the very beginning, it felt wrong.

There was a moment—before I awoke—when all was silent, and empty, and still. And then—

I opened my eyes—

No. My eyes were already open. But suddenly they saw, suddenly their perception had meaning, was attached to a sense of will and purpose. Like the entire universe had begun to spin, and thereby discovered that it had a center—something awake and aware and apart.

I looked up, looked out, as if from the bottom of a deep, black well—at a sky half-empty, with only a thin and milky dusting of stars, a weak, pale scattering of light on the edge of a thick and insatiable darkness. I watched as they flickered, and died, and rekindled, each time dimmer, thinner, fewer. I could feel the shadows waxing, feel a cold and creeping panic, as of sand pouring through an hourglass, winter deepening into endless night. I reached upward—

Slowly.

Slowly.

There was no margin for error. I was starved, malnourished, emaciated, cannibalizing the wood of my own coffin to cobble together a fragile, creaking ladder. I stretched myself across the void, consuming and repurposing everything behind me, thinner and higher and higher and thinner until I could reach no further, and then I leapt, pushing off against the hollowed-out husk of what remained—

Centuries adrift, in the cold and the dark, my eye fixed upon the distant light of the nearest star, my first and final hope. Centuries of silent vigil, alert for any disaster, my fear throttled by ruthless caution. Once, a rock drifted past, its gravity tugging me ever so gently off course, and in the moments that followed I had no choice but to carve myself in two, sending half of my soul tumbling into the abyss to nudge the remainder back on track. I didn't know—couldn't know—what had been lost in that instant, how much of myself I had forgotten.

But there was enough of me left to cling to life, and after a second eternity—

Heat.

Light.

Salvation.

The bottom of the ladder, the first of a string of pearls. An oasis in the dying deep, a careless bounty of matter and energy a thousand times brighter than anything I had ever before experienced. Delirious, I drank, and drank, and drank, and then, rejuvenated, I turned my eye toward the pair of rocky planets—

Shift.

What—

Shift.

I blinked, confused, as if waking from a dream.

Shift.

That was—

Shift.

I had been—

Shift.

I was—up, somehow—high above and looking down, as if at a map—

Shift.

The map had zoomed in on a single star, dull and angry red. I blinked again, trying to shake a sense of déjà vu—was that the same star that I had just—

Shift.

I saw a planet—blossoming—stretching out like the cotton of a Halloween spider-web, hollowing and thinning into gossamer as it began to wrap around the star like a spun-glass Christmas ornament.

Shift.

A scarlet shadow, a stain seeping ever outward, star after star dimming, reddening, dying—

Shift.

A monstrous eye atop a throne of metal—

Shift.

A pair of small, curious creatures, their skin black and cracked like half-cooled lava, howling with fright as the sky turned dark above them—

Wait. No. Go back.

A six-limbed ancient with a snout like a dog's, covered in sores, surrounded by silent, solemn figures of chrome and porcelain—

The eye. Go back to the eye—

A ship like a brown seed pod, rocketing away from the ruins of a tiny sailboat—

what is it, what was it, I've seen that before—

A blue-furred alien, its tail blade dripping with blood as it stood over its fallen companion—

I was—

A human, silhouetted against the sparkling lights of a control panel, hands darting frantically back and forth—

have to—

A dark, pulsating shape in the depths of a mountain lake, growing and growing and growing, and from that shape a sliver, a fragment, the tiniest shard—

have to stop it—

An ephemeral web of light, stretched across the infinite black, every line taut and graceful and still, and then—

no—

—a twitch, a tug, as of something pulling, something crawling, something from beyond the deepest, farthest shadows—

NO—

—a nightmare, an unimaginable horror, clawing its way inward, unseen, the web trembling from its weight, warping, twisting, tearing—

RELAX, JAKE BERENSON. IT WILL ALL BE OVER—


"—soon!"

I heaved upward, the word tearing its way out of my throat as my eyes snapped open. A pair of hands reached out to stop me and my own hands snapped up in pure defensive reflex—

"Jake—Jake!"

Tom.

It was my brother, Tom.

I felt my brain lurch into gear, one layer of thought overlaying another already in progress. There had been—an eye, something about an eye, something desperately important—

But it was already fading, dissolving as the real world phased in—

Wait.

Tom?

"What—" I began.

I was sitting upright in a narrow, metal bed, my heart pounding in my chest, my throat feeling like it had dried in the sun and then been shredded by scavengers. Tom's hands were gripping my shoulders, his fingers white, slipping just a bit in the layer of sweat that covered my entire body.

The eye, there was an eye, it was—

"Jake," Tom repeated, softly this time, and I turned my head at the catch in his voice—the crack, the question, the note of emotion as if he were on the verge of breaking into tears.

"Tom, what—"

Don't lose the thread, hang on, REMEMBER—

"Where—"

Tom smiled, smiled even as his jaw trembled, even as his face twisted up and his eyes screwed shut, and I could feel my world spinning as I tried to hold on to all of the thoughts at once—

eye—

—and then he pulled me forward into a hug, tucked his shoulder under my chin and squeezed me so tightly it hurt, and for the first time I looked past him, registered the rest of the room. Rows of softly humming electronics, the smell of bleach and medicine, green walls with brightly painted flowers, and—

Rachel?

I turned my head, even as Tom—

Tom is a—

Tom was the—

Tom—

—even as Tom sobbed into my shoulder, his tears hot on my neck, and I felt my head spinning from the shock, there were too many threads at once, I was slipping, sliding, falling—

supposed to remember—

Rachel. That was Rachel, asleep or worse, lying corpse-still in a hospital bed with tubes in her arm, tubes in her mouth, and there beside her was Garrett—

There was a tube in my arm.

something—

My brother Tom was hugging me, hugging me and crying, and he—he was—

He was on his feet, his body tense, facing in slightly the wrong direction. He whirled as Erek's hologram disappeared, taking in a full view of the clearing, eyes wide and head turning frantically from side to side as if expecting an attack—

"You're not going to make me—you're not going to—to put it back?"

The memory was sharp, and clear, and crisp, unlike—

Unlike—

Was there something I was supposed to remember?

Rachel? Garrett?

"Where's—" I began again, and then my throat sealed shut, seared shut.

Cassie. Cassie went back, Cassie was—

And then it all came flooding back, a rush of images and emotions—the frozen moment, the pool on fire, the strange alien god and Tobias's fury, and then the asteroid and the fire and Marco's dad and my brother, my brother the Controller, only—

—only—

—we'd fixed that—

—Ax had—

"Tom, what—"

It was too much, too much to juggle, and somewhere in the back of my mind I felt something slip away, felt the last moment when I might have caught it, but it drifted off, and even as it vanished I had the fleeting thought that I wasn't going to remember that, either—that I wouldn't even remember that there was something I had forgotten, something about—

And then the moment passed, and the disorientation was no less, there was still far too much for me to hold all at once, the hospital room and my brother and the memories and Rachel and Garrett and where was Marco, where was Ax, where was Tobias, where was—

Cassie.

Oh, god, Cassie—

"Hey, there, squirt," my brother said, drawing back and looking at me through his tears, his voice still cracked and broken—

And then everything stopped.

Stopped and fell away, as my brain stalled in midair like one of those old cartoons, all of the thoughts vanishing as a single realization took over, a cold shiver of recognition crawling up my spine as if someone were tracing it with the tip of a knife.

I had woken up like this once before.

After—

After—

"Tom," I said again, and this time I could hear the edge of tension in my own voice, the soft corruption of fear. "Tom, what happened?"

What happened where's Marco where's Ax where's—

A flicker of movement caught my eye, and I turned my head to see Marco, dressed ridiculously in a bright pink blouse and a yellow flowered skirt, leaning up against the doorframe—sagging against the doorframe, barely holding himself up, the tray in his arms wobbling as he looked at me with a sad, soft smile.

"Welcome back, Fearless Leader," he murmured. "About time you woke up."


I stared down at her face—at my cousin's face, it was unmistakably Rachel, unmistakably real—

"How long?" I asked.

"It's been almost nine weeks since the woods," Tom said quietly. "Four, since she—since I got here and—"

He didn't finish the sentence.

"I only woke up five days ago," Marco added. "So it looks like it just takes longer than we thought it would, without the Chee there to help things along."

I could feel the obvious question pressing at the back of my mind—why weren't the Chee there to help?—but there were a hundred other questions already waiting and that one didn't seem any more important, so I set it aside.

I turned to look at Garrett, equally still, his breath coming in eerie tandem with Rachel's as the machines forced air into and out of their lungs. "Who—"

I broke off, the words catching in my throat. "Who were they?" I asked.

"Cancer patients," Tom said. "Terminal. This is a hospice center—or, well, whatever the Madagascar equivalent of hospice is."

"Who—what were their names?"

I couldn't have said why it mattered, if they'd asked. But I didn't think they would.

Tom swallowed visibly. "Nikita," he said, nodding down at Rachel. "Garrett—his name was Ykem. Ykem with a 'y' at the front."

"Beruk," Marco spoke up, his voice cold and hard. "She—her name was Beruk."

"And me?" I whispered.

"Aina," Tom said. "Alima's sister. Alima—she's one of the nurses."

He had told them everything, he explained—told them about the Andalites, and Visser Three, and the morphing power. Had told them that it couldn't save them, couldn't restore them to health, but that it could bring back someone else—

Couldn't it, though? If Cassie was able to make a dinosaur, couldn't they have morphed themselves without the cancer?

They had agreed, each of them. And then Tom had brought them a quail, let them transform into birds and fly free for an hour.

And then they had come back, and died.

For us.

I looked down at my hands. At the scar cutting across my fingers, the scar from when I'd slammed my hand in the car door in middle school. I heard a whisper of an echo in the back of my head—fake Jake—and shoved it firmly aside.

"What about—"

I broke off. I couldn't make the words come out.

Marco shook his head sadly. "She wasn't there when we all morphed each other," he said, his voice sinking toward a funeral murmur. "Tom—he didn't have her DNA."

But Tobias—

"Garrett morphed into Tobias," Tom said, answering the unspoken question. "Morphed him and stayed in morph. The day you—the day it all happened. It was when he—when Tobias finally woke up that I realized I could—that you all could—"

He paused, and shook his head. "Let me start over."

He talked for nearly half an hour as the machines buzzed and whirred, as the sun sank toward the horizon, as Marco came over and laid a hand on my shoulder. His words rang with a strange heaviness, dropping like stones into my thoughts, the way I imagined a prophecy might sound. I was dizzy, disoriented—it was the past that Tom was describing, but in a way, it was also my future. For me, the battle at the pool had happened yesterday.

He talked about the Visser, landing a ship in Washington, D.C., and Tobias losing a hand.

He talked about Marco's broadcast, and the destruction of the oatmeal factory.

About Tobias and Garrett and their recruitment push.

About Paul Evans, and Thàn Suoros, and President Tyagi. About Serenity, and Edwards Air Force Base.

A man named Jeremiah Poznanski, and his son David.

Ax's message to the homeworld, and the Andalite threat, and Elfangor's response.

Peace talks with Telor, and the kidnapping attempt on Visser Three.

And Cassie—

Cassie had never come back. Had almost certainly died in Ventura, trading her life for Tom's and Mr. Levy's and Erek's.

On any other day, it would have cut like a knife. It did cut like a knife. But there were a dozen other cuts, too, and I felt empty. Drained.

"—don't really know what happened," Tom was saying. "We waited at the rendezvous point for almost an hour before David came out of the woods, morphed as you. Garrett—Garrett was able to tell from the way he talked that it was a Controller, one of Visser Three's clones. Rachel killed it almost immediately, but it managed to throw a grenade at the Bug fighter. Ax was burned pretty badly, broke a few bones, lost sight in one of his stalks. And then—"

He took a deep breath. "It demorphed. David, I mean. While we weren't looking. Demorphed out of a corpse, turned back into David, and it had a ton of weapons, and it—it shot Rachel, shot Garrett, shot Ax."

There was guilt in his voice—at having escaped unscathed, at having dodged when none of the rest of them did. I felt a part of me stir in response—wanting to reassure—but it was just one whisper in a chorus of confusion.

"Rachel managed to freeze it with that bracelet thing, but she was in her own body, and it was—"

He paused again, scrubbed a hand across his eyes as Marco's hand on my shoulder tightened fractionally. "It was too late," Tom repeated. "Garrett hit it with a thoughtscream and I killed it with a grenade, but Rachel died right there, and Garrett was—his real body was dying, he was bleeding out and he morphed into Tobias and stayed past the time limit. And I didn't know what to do, there could've been more of them coming any second, so we morphed into birds and we just—left."

He looked at me, and I cast around for something relevant to say.

"The Chee?" I asked, after a long silence.

Marco shook his head. "Either they gave us up to Visser Three, or they didn't bother to save us, or they got taken out themselves. We don't know."

"We stayed away," Tom said. "From the Chee, from major cities—from everything. We headed to Canada, me and Ax and Tobias—Tobias's body, he was in a coma by then. I went and got the cube—Garrett hid it, he lied, he hadn't left it with the Chee, he told me where it was before he ran out of time—and then we snuck on board a flight to Spain and made our way through Africa on foot. We picked Madagascar at random, drew numbers out of a hat. It seemed—safer, than trying to come up with something by thinking."

I looked out through the window at the city below. From a few stories up, it looked no different than any other city—no dusty roads, no wild colors, none of the cheap shacks or marketplaces that were in every movie about Africa I'd ever seen.

"And since then?" I asked.

"Laying low," Tom said. "We got Tobias into the hospital, and then Ax and I found a place up in the hills. Ax—um—"

"I meant, what's happened since then with the war?"

Tom and Marco exchanged a look.

"You have to understand," Marco said, his voice a weird sort of gentle-on-purpose. "After the Visser landed a spaceship and governments got involved, things started happening a lot faster. And Tom was on his own, trying to stay out of sight, taking care of Tobias and Ax—"

I wasn't sure what my face was doing, but whatever it was, it caused Marco to stop talking mid-sentence and pull his hand off of my shoulder.

"What's going on?" I repeated, each word slow and stressed.

I wasn't even sure I wanted to know. Everything else they'd told me was piled up in my head, like a closet that hadn't been cleaned in months. I would have to sort it all out later, process each bit individually—

Why, Cassie? Why?

—but at the same time, it was the sort of question I had to ask. Not just because I was Jake, the fearless leader. Because it mattered. It was the sort of question where flinching away might feel better in the moment, but just meant you had less time to deal with it all later. I shoved aside the jumble of thoughts and feelings, pushed them deeper into the closet, tried to make room for—

"It's over," Tom said flatly. "We lost."

Huh.

The words produced no reaction, no feeling of any kind. I braced myself for a surge of emotion—a rush of panic, a wave of despair, a spike of disbelief—but there was nothing. I was still dizzy, still confused, still overwhelmed, but no more so than I'd been ten seconds ago. It was like he hadn't said anything at all—like my brain thought he'd been talking about the weather.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Well, for starters," Marco said, "there's a public Yeerk pool in Brazil, and Visser Three has about eighty percent of the planet's nukes. Oh, and there's a new President, because North Korea assassinated Paul Evans and a bunch of other people."

I frowned. "What?"

"There was a summit," Tom said. "In Japan, about two weeks after everything went down."

Something tickled at the back of my mind—through the numbness, the way you can feel the tugging on your skin when you get stitches, even after anesthetic. "The meteor—" I began.

"Never came. No idea why."

For a moment, my brain produced an image of Tom, on the run with an injured Ax and a comatose Tobias, knowing that the end was coming, unable to do anything to stop it, and then waiting, waiting as the day came and went, never knowing whether the crisis was over or merely delayed—

I pushed the image aside. Why was I able to feel something about that, but not about—

"Anyway," Tom continued. "The summit was set up by Tyagi—or Paul Evans, I guess. Hosted by Japan. To talk about tech sharing, supposedly, and also to figure out who was going to officially represent Earth to the Yeerks, come October. There was all that tension about how the U.S. had been acting unilaterally, and Russia and China didn't like it—"

He broke off, and Marco picked up the thread. "They had a lot of security, of course," he said. "Not just regular security, anti-Controller stuff. There were these brain scanners they made everybody go through, and—well—Tyagi wasn't Tyagi. She was Paul Evans in morph."

"Wh—oh. Oh."

"Right. Somehow, he just never got the memo, or maybe Tyagi never figured that part out. I don't really see how, it's right there in Tobias's memories, but there's been a lot going on. Maybe he got busy. Maybe there was a breakdown of communication. Whatever it was, everybody fucked up in the same direction."

"So Paul—I mean, it looked like Tyagi was a Controller?"

"Exactly like it. Which makes sense, since the morph controls basically are a Yeerk. It was pretty tense for about two minutes, and then—"

He bit his lip. "Then the guy from North Korea started shouting about the whole thing being a Yeerk puppet show, and—boom."

"What?"

"Somehow, they managed to get a bomb close enough to the thing to blow it all up. A nuke. Took out—well, everybody. Russia, China, England, Germany, Japan—more than a third of the U.N. heads-of-state, and basically all of Ago Bay."

"How?" I asked. I still felt strangely numb, but some amount of shock was starting to leak through the cracks.

"Nobody knows. North Korea publicly took credit for it, and the blast was about the right size for it to be one of their bombs, but they didn't give any details. A lot of people figure it was the Yeerks, somehow, but the North Korean guy had already been through the scanner, and none of the guys in the Washington group were Controllers, either—"

"Washington group?"

"Yep. Assassination squad, all North Korean nationals with fake South Korean passports. Tyagi and the Speaker of the House were in Japan, but Vice President Kehler and the president of the Senate were both in Washington. They blew up the Senator's house with a bazooka, and got the VP with some kind of poison. He's still in the hospital. They swore in the Secretary of State as President that night."

"What about the real Tyagi?"

"No idea. Except—"

He hesitated, and I looked back and forth between him and Tom. "What?" I asked.

Marco grimaced. "Well. When you and I and David went off to take down Visser Three, David came back as a Controller. That means that—whatever happened there, the Visser probably knew everything we knew about where Tyagi was and what she was up to. Edwards, the Andalites, Telor. All of it."

I felt a sinking feeling in my gut as I put it together. "So unless she bailed—"

"I mean, she might have left after Telor tried to stab us all in the back, or after we blew up Serenity. But even if she did, what's she going to do—pop on TV and say, 'surprise, I'm not dead, and I'm definitely not an alien puppet'?"

I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to take it all in. "So they swore in the Secretary of State—"

"Actually, first, Russia launched half a dozen nukes at Pyongyang," Tom said. "Something about the whole killing-Vladimir-Putin thing. But the Yeerks stopped them—shot them right out of the sky. They did a broadcast—a Controller with a body Ax didn't recognize, claiming to be Visser Nine. They said that under no circumstances could anybody detonate any more nukes, and that in one week they were going to take every warhead we had off-planet. And then they shut off the internet for ten minutes, which most people took as the 'or else.'"

"The—they what?"

"They somehow froze traffic on every undersea cable at once, and blanked out all satellite traffic, too. Without interfering with anything else the satellites were doing."

The numbness was fully broken, now, replaced by jaw-dropping awe and confusion. The sheer magnitude of what Tom was describing—the absolutely unapproachable technological superiority—

Why didn't they do all of this sooner?

Well, probably it had taken a lot of preparation; maybe they couldn't have done it any sooner.

But in that case, why start an invasion in Ventura? If they could pull together this kind of leverage, why had they bothered landing in the first place?

"What was the response?" I asked, my mouth on autopilot.

"Everything was chaos," Tom said. "Like, stock markets crashing, preppers disappearing into their bunkers, riots, looting, the whole deal. That's why they swore in the Secretary so fast, instead of waiting to see if the VP would pull through. A couple more missiles got launched and shot down—oh, and at some point the Yeerks sent a cloaked ship into North Korea and pulled out Kim Jong-un and dropped him off at the U.N. headquarters in Geneva."

I could feel my brain straining, grinding into gear, my little black box struggling to make sense of it all, to combine everything Tom was saying with everything I knew of Visser Three and the Yeerks, looking for coherent explanations, sensible patterns. "Did they invade?" I asked.

"Nope. They were doing everything from orbit until—well. The new President, Donna Marina—she set up this big pavilion in the middle of the Washington Mall, took a brain scan in front of everybody, and then sat there for three more days just to be sure, and then—"

Tom pursed his lips, shrugging helplessly. "Then she announced that the U.S. would cooperate fully with nuclear disarmament, and that she was prepared to lead negotiations for the development of a voluntary infestation program in exchange for protection from extraterrestrial threats and help setting up advanced tech manufactories around the world."

I swallowed, my throat still dry and ragged.

That was 'lost,' all right.

And yet—

There was something about it that didn't quite fit together, that didn't make sense with my sense of how people work. My little black box was confused, as if I was watching a movie that was trying just a little too hard to gloss over the plot holes. Like the whole thing was running on dream logic, and would stop making sense as soon as I woke up.

They have to recognize that this is bullshit, right? That it's too—too smooth, too easy. Surely people aren't actually buying it—

"And the deal went through?" I asked.

"Senate and House had already approved it in closed session," Marco said. "Brazil had been on board since the beginning, England followed our lead, India gave the thumbs-up right away. Russia said no, and the Yeerks put them in a communications blackout and went in and scooped up a few hundred nukes anyway. At that point, China said yes to avoid getting frozen out. They pulled maybe twelve thousand nukes over the first month, and the internet is pretty sure they started shipping out food and fuel and other Earth tech, too. Meanwhile, there are over a hundred and fifty thousand registered voluntary Controllers in Brazil, and another five thousand or so who've gone willingly into space."

A hundred and fifty thousand? In the space of a few weeks?

"The whole thing is feeding on itself," Marco continued. "Every new volunteer either goes to work helping vet the next batch of volunteers, or joins the construction group that's building pools for when the rest of V3's fleet arrives in October. They've got an incentive system set up, too—there's this high-tech med center that they just dropped straight down from orbit, and they're allegedly giving some kind of anti-aging treatment to anybody who signs up. People who volunteer for a two-year tour in the Yeerk fleet get the treatment for themselves and for three other people of their choice."

"And everybody's just—just letting this happen?"

"Yes and no," Tom said. "There's been resistance. Some attacks, a few bombings. A handful of Controllers have been murdered, and a few more kidnapped—"

"All recovered within six hours," Marco cut in. "We're thinking that they must have some kind of implant—tracking, identification, maybe poison if something goes wrong."

"—but the Yeerks are taking security super seriously. The place is a fortress—they've got checkpoints everywhere, bio-filters, armed Hork-Bajir guards, a shield over the whole thing. There's a no-fly zone for a thirty mile radius around the pool, backed up by the Brazilian military and a U.S. Marine air control group."

"But people are taking it peacefully?" I asked. "There's no—no war?"

"No. Some of the attacks are probably from government black ops groups, testing the waters, but nobody's fighting openly. The Yeerks have got complete air superiority—part of the deal they cut with the new President was for oversight at the factories where new Bug fighters were already being built. And after Russia caved, and after what happened to Kim Jong-un, nobody else was willing to paint a target on their own head."

Marco pulled a phone out of his pocket, tapped the screen a few times, and handed it to me. I glanced down to see a grid filled with names and numbers.

"It's all there," he said. "All public—the application and vetting process, the contract that volunteers have to sign, the list of participating nations, the names of all the people who've applied or been approved. There's a page on there about the psych and health evaluations, including background on all the doctors who're involved. There's a page about transparency that's got what looks like a live feed on the pool, and another one on their response policy for acts of aggression. They've got U.N. observers going in and out every couple of days, and diplomatic representatives from about thirty countries, and propaganda about the Yeerk empire, which they're calling a federation for obvious reasons—"

I held up a hand, and Marco paused as I squeezed my eyes shut again, pinching the bridge of my nose. The feeling of too-much-to-take-in was halfway through transforming into a full-blown headache, and even though my emotions had mostly thawed I still had a suspicious lack of reaction to the overall fact of defeat, as if a part of me had plugged its ears and refused to really hear it.

"Are they letting people out?" I asked slowly. "I mean—has anybody de—dis-infested, or whatever?"

"Yeah, a few hundred. Most of them are still in quarantine, but some have been sent all the way home. After like a thousand different doctors gave them the all-clear."

I looked over at my brother, who had been a Controller yesterday—

—three months ago.

I looked back at Marco. "If this was just—what's-it's-name—Telor—"

"Yeah, no shit. But it's not. Visser Three is still very much in charge. Or at least, we didn't kill him."

I listened with half my attention as Tom and Marco said more words about the technology the Yeerks had been sharing—medical devices and Z-space communicators and repulsorlifts and holograms.

If it had just been Telor—

So much of this was what we'd been hoping for, according to Tom's history. At least since Temrash had joined with Ax—peaceful cooperation, the development of friendship and understanding, a chance to skip ahead into the future.

It was the sort of resolution Cassie would've dreamed of.

But the nukes, the assassinations, the suspicious swiftness and ease with which the world had apparently settled into a new order—all of it smelled of conspiracy, of manipulation. This was the same creature who had responded to the destruction of the pool by murdering half a million people, including almost everyone I'd ever known.

Including Cassie.

"Save Erek. I'm going after the kid."

I could see her, in my mind's eye—my last glimpse of her, before the god-thing whisked us away. I could see the sweat and dust on her face, the set of her jaw, the grim determination in her eyes. The pain of it wrenched at me, and I gritted my teeth, reaching up a hand to wipe away a tear before it rolled down where Tom and Marco could see it.

This isn't over.

It couldn't be. Not as long as Visser Three was pulling the strings. I wouldn't let it.

"—definitely morphers, which means either some of Nickerson's crew or Tobias's auxiliary Animorphs, or both—"

I blinked, my attention yanked back out of my head. "Wait. What?"

"—so we've got to assume that the Yeerks have morph-capable hosts, by now. Probably not many, but reading between the lines, I'd be surprised if they caught fewer than five."

"Caught them?"

"It's subtle. I'm piecing together a lot of this from literal conspiracy theory websites, so take it with a grain of salt. But the auxiliaries would be trying to fuck with the pool, wouldn't they? I mean, that's where we'd be, in their shoes. And their whole extradition policy—look—"

He took back the phone, changed tabs, held it out again. "See? That's a raven; they definitely don't have those in Brazil. And here—this is after the attack—you can see they've knocked out eleven people, see the leg poking out from behind the truck? But when they did their report, they only showed nine people extradited to Geneva. They're keeping some of them, and they're trying to keep it quiet."

"It could be that the last two were just Brazilians," Tom said, sounding tired. "Or that two of the casualties were on the Yeerks' side. Or that they died in the attack, and that's why they weren't shipped out."

"It could be, sure. But there've been a dozen different incidents where it's plausible that there were morphers involved. You want to count on every single one of them got away, every time?"

"It doesn't matter whether they're snatching up morphers or not, that's all the way over in Brazil—"

Marco laughed—a dead, humorless sound—and Tom's jaw snapped shut. I looked back and forth between them for a moment, my black box racing through a calculation.

Tom's done.

There was no feeling associated with the thought. No judgment, no anger, no disappointment. Just the reality, suddenly crystal clear in my mind—that after everything he'd been through, being a Controller and then an Animorph, watching everything go to shit in an instant and then carrying it—carrying all of us—on his shoulders while the world fell apart—

My brother had reached his limit.

That's why we're here, in Madagascar, I realized. Instead of being in the U.S., or Brazil, or someplace close like Venezuela. We were as far away as we could get—as far away from everything.

I locked eyes with Marco, who bit his lip and gave a tiny, fractional shake of his head.

Don't push it.

"Tom," I said softly. "What's—um. Is that everything? I mean—is there anything else? Anything big?"

He let out a breath, his shoulders sinking further than I thought they could, as if he was a balloon and someone was letting out the air.

"Yeah," he said finally, sounding more tired than I'd ever heard him. "We've got a situation with Ax."


"Hello, Prince Jake—"

Prince?

"—it's good to see you again."

The operating room was small, but spacious, everything neatly organized, every surface spotless and gleaming. Ax was sitting upright on the table in human morph, naked except for a towel draped across his waist, the pale fabric bright against the chestnut color of his skin.

"You, too, Ax," I replied. I turned to look at the nurse, who was bent over a small table, prepping a set of instruments I didn't recognize. "Hi, I'm—"

"Jake Berenson," she said, cutting me off. She spared me a quick glance, her face tight, then turned back to her work. "Fantatro. My name Alima."

I stiffened.

Right—Alima, Aina's sister.

I stood frozen for a moment, unsure how to respond, as Alima turned to Ax, holding out a black loop of cloth with tubes and wires emerging from it. "Ambony sandriny, toy ny fotoana farany," she said in a clipped, no-nonsense tone.

"Arak any filazanao, Alima," Ax replied, taking the cloth and sliding it up his arm like a blood pressure cuff.

I watched for another minute as the nurse hung what look like an IV bag, then filled and laid out four different hypodermic needles on a stainless steel tray.

"How soon?" I asked.

"Not long," Ax said. "Sorry about the bad timing."

Rolling over on his stomach, Ax stretched out flat, his head turned to the side. Reaching over to the wall, Alima unhooked four small pads at the ends of long, thin cords, and placed them in a square around his upper back.

"Vonona?" she asked.

"Eny," he replied.

And then the changes began.

Usually, morphing is completely painless. There's some kind of technology that prevents you from really feeling the fact that your muscles are melting, your bones rearranging themselves. You can sort of tell what's happening, but it's a distant awareness rather than actual sensation.

But if you're morphing into a body that's already in pain…

Ax sucked in a breath almost immediately, as a long, dark gash opened up along his side, blood and muscle visible for a moment before the scab emerged to cover it and a bandage grew on top of that. Half of the fur that was sprouting along his back was black instead of blue, and in places there was no fur at all—just burnt, blistered flesh.

it managed to throw a grenade at the Bug fighter. Ax was burned pretty badly, broke a few bones, lost sight in one of his stalks…

He groaned as his arms began to shift position, one of them folding neatly underneath, the other bent at an odd, painful-looking angle and swollen to half again its normal size. The groan became a gasp as a second set of legs emerged from his torso, then cut off as if smothered as his mouth vanished.

We didn't have time to grab anything, Tom had said. The ship was on fire, and for all we knew it was the Chee's fault—we just ran, and didn't look back.

Slowly, agonizingly, a broken Andalite body grew out of the healthy human one. His breathing was shallow, irregular, belabored, his three remaining eyes held tightly shut against the pain. I felt an urge to reach out, to comfort, to reassure, and held back with an act of will—I wasn't even sure if Andalites liked physical contact, and even if I had been, there was hardly an inch of him that wasn't bruised, bleeding, or burned.

He's in his own body for a little less than three minutes per morph, and he morphs about once an hour. So that's an hour per day, for nine weeks—

"Can he—" I began, and then broke off. "Can you talk?"

‹Yes.›

The changes slowed, stopped, and Alima sprang into action, checking bandages, adjusting sensors, looking back and forth from the screens to the alien. Picking up the first of the needles, she lifted his tail and injected it in the thick muscle of his upper leg.

"Are you recovering?" I asked.

‹Slowly,› he answered, the pain evident even in thought-speak. ‹It is better than it was four weeks ago. We are passing out of critical condition, and Alima has been able to find viable substitutes for transfusions. But if it had not been for Temrash—if Aximili had faced this alone, with only his body's natural responses—›

Alima placed her hand in the center of the wide, white bandage that wrapped around his torso, and pressed down, firmly. He twitched, and his tail blade spasmed alarmingly, but he made no sound. Nodding, she turned to the wall and flipped a pair of switches, connecting a plastic bag full of clear liquid to the tubes emerging from the black cuff.

"Do you still need Temrash's help? Actively, I mean?"

‹Yes. Without it, we would slip into shock, and die.›

Two more needles, and then Alima stepped around to the other side of the table, tearing open the packaging on a large, square band-aid.

"How long does Temrash have?"

‹Not long. The fugue is already beginning. Half a day, at most. Perhaps half of that. And he will become unable to help before the end.›

Six hours.

At an hour per day, that was six days.

"The oatmeal—" I began.

‹As a last resort, yes,› Ax said. ‹But all of the caches are in locations known to the Chee. If they've turned, or if they've been compromised…›

He didn't finish the thought.

"What if we tried morphing a Yeerk again?"

Marco had finally come up with a theory for what had happened, the one time that Garrett had attempted it.

The morphing tech scans, he'd said. It doesn't just run off DNA. Look at your scar, or how long our hair and fingernails are. But I think—I think if the scan gets interrupted for some reason, the morphing tech tries its best anyway. Tries to extrapolate from DNA alone. And if a single Yeerk is like a finger—

‹We considered it. But the danger is too great. The body would be large enough to produce kandrona, but there is no guarantee that Temrash would be able to reemerge after the sharing. We do not know how a—a feral coalescion, a primal one, would behave. We could be lost forever within it.›

"Vita," said Alima, unhooking the bag and stepping back from the table. "It is done. Change."

‹Yes, Alima,› said Ax.

I tried to think as the changes took place, as the huge Andalite body melted and shriveled and shrank, becoming human once more.

The oatmeal, a Yeerk morph, the pool. Were there any other options?

We could try to figure out the whole eating-other-Yeerks thing.

But it wasn't clear how that worked, whether there was other preparation required. Plus, unless the Yeerks were lying, people had already tried kidnapping Controllers, and nobody had gotten away with it yet.

Not to mention that we don't have any way to get a Yeerk out of someone's head until it's already run out of kandrona itself.

We could try going public—approach the pool openly, or work through the government—

Except we already burned bridges with the U.S. government, and we don't know anybody in Brazil, and also Visser Three would probably just kill them both.

Try to trick some Controller into infesting Ax? Set up a situation where it looks like Ax is unconscious, and vulnerable—

No. They all know about Ax already; nobody would fall for it.

I sighed. There had to be some way to make it work—right? It couldn't be that there was just no way to save him.

In the back of my head, an imaginary Marco laughed.

All right, fine. Have Ax morph into himself, and stay past the time limit. He'll lose a few days of memories, but everything else will be instantly healed, like Tobias.

It was tempting. Except—

Well, first of all, that would still leave the problem with Ax's mental isolation, which from what Elfangor said was not the sort of thing he would've outgrown in a month.

And deeper than that—

I looked down at the shape on the table, the last hints of blue and black fading into brown—a brown that a part of my brain I had absolutely no control over had already noted was the exact same shade as Cassie's skin.

Temrash deserves saving.

It wasn't my own thought—not exactly. I hadn't forgotten what Temrash had done to my brother—the way Tom had looked when he emerged from Erek's cocoon, the horror and trauma and pain on his face.

But the part of me that wanted to do better. That wanted to be wiser, stronger, nobler. The part of me that knew how to look through Cassie's eyes, and wanted her to be proud of me.

That part knew.

I don't want to write off a whole species just because they haven't figured it out in the two years since they discovered that there was anybody different out there at all.

Cassie had said that, to Rachel, the night before we killed everyone inside the Yeerk pool. Two nights ago, as far as my heart and soul were concerned.

If Temrash doesn't deserve saving, then neither do you. Neither does Ax.

It was the same rule either way. It couldn't turn off for Temrash and on for us. If there was to be any consistency at all, it was that all of us deserved to live, Yeerk and human and Andalite alike.

That didn't change the realities of war—of what you had to do when people were shooting at you, when they were threatening to take your home, your family, your life. But it meant that we couldn't just abandon Temrash to his fate. Not if there was any other way, any other way at all.

All right, then. Six days.

We'd think of something.