So much had changed.
For nearly two thousand revolutions, Hyruk had been its chosen name. It had only vague recollections of the time before—there had been a pool, wide and shallow, nestled between the steep stone walls of an ancient, crumbling canyon. There had been a bloom of white fungus, turning the water alkaline, slowly strangling the life out of everything that lived beneath the surface. And there had been a lone, unlucky lopar, lost and delirious and thirsty.
It had passed out, poisoned by the tainted water—passed out and dropped beneath the surface, and Hyruk—then nameless—had broken off from the dying coalescion and possessed it. Had forced it to rise, and ridden it out into the desert.
For a timeless time, it had walked, that lopar with its rider—walked until its paws were raw and bleeding, until its eyes had dried and cracked and it had only sound and smell to guide it. Walked until the fugue had set in, and Hyruk—yet nameless—had all but given up hope.
And then—almost too late—there had been the faint scent of fresh water, the distant sound of polyps splashing in the shallows. Hyruk—still nameless—had spurred its host onward for one last sprint, riding the broken, dying body straight into the cool blue of the high mountain lake, where it had sunk below the surface.
Hyruk—who must have had some other name, some ancient name lost forever in the fog and confusion of the fugue—Hyruk had slid from the head of the lopar and heard the throb and thrum of its kin, followed the drifting ribbon of kandrona through the gentle water to the coalescion.
It was a young coalescion—a deepwater mind—had taken only bottom-dwellers for hosts, and had no concept of the wider world. Hyruk had joined it, shocked it, awed it—shared with it the bounty of its own memory and become, in that instant, its leader. More than that—Hyruk had become its soul, the 'I' of its identity.
It was on that day that Hyruk named itself, and lifted its new and vaster self from the deep, lurching upward into the shallows, waiting for its chance. It was dangerous, there, where the voxyn hunted—three times, it had to flee back into the depths, and once it was too slow and lost nearly a quarter of itself.
But before long, it had shards in half a dozen of the smaller shore-dwellers, and it used those to lure in medium-sized predators, and it used those to herd the larger frond-eaters into the water where they could be taken. Soon, Hyruk was the sole overlord of lake, forest, and field, with eyes and ears as much as a full suncycle's journey away.
For a long, long time, life was good, and simple. But Hyruk was not satisfied—grew restless, reckless even. Something was missing, and it began to send its shards further and further afield—far enough that they could not return before the fugue took them. Dozens were lost to the wilderness, and then hundreds—so many that Hyruk began to shrink, its desperate wanderlust outstripping its natural growth.
And then—finally—a creature came over the horizon, one unlike any Hyruk had ever known—came and knelt in Hyruk's water and let fall a shard from its ear. Thus did Hyruk learn of the Gedds, a poor, dumb species that stood half-upright on uneven legs, and of Ukqu, who lived in a thick, warm marsh at the very edge of the-distance-that-could-be-traveled. Ukqu, who had received one of Hyruk's lost children, and sent a shard of its own in return.
Soon, the path between Hyruk and Ukqu was well-worn and hard-packed—and through Ukqu, Hyruk also took part in the sharing with Bontu, and Paruch, and Dair, and Nar Shadda. As time passed, Paruch found Momob and Jarpaea, and Bontu found Lukk, and the children of Dair discovered two new lakes and became Ghotal and Nathan, and as the seasons turned and the web between them grew and thickened, it came to seem that their eyes watched over half the world.
But it was not half the world—was merely a small and distant corner, as they discovered on the day of horror, when the hosts of Dair crossed over the mountain path to Ghotal and found only death waiting for them. Ghotal had been murdered, scattered across the rocky shore—not Ghotal's hosts, but Ghotal itself, the Yeerkflesh dragged out from the water and torn into a thousand shards, left to bake beneath the cruel sun. Only a handful survived the desperate journey back to the waters of Dair, and they were broken, insensible, their shattered memories explaining nothing.
Thus was Hyruk thrust into the great war, though as the most remote of its sharing, it had long to prepare before the fighting reached its shores. There were battles, and massacres—bright, shining moments of heroism and long, dark seasons full of tragedy and woe. It was a time of confusion and sacrifice, in which Yeerk coalescions perished by the dozens and Gedds by the thousands. At one point, Hyruk was even forced to leave the waters of its naming, stripping the forest bare of hosts and slinking away under cover of darkness to escape the oncoming slaughter.
Long, the fighting lasted—so long that the happy days before, which had once seemed endless, shrank in comparison until they seemed a mere prelude. War was a curious thing, almost a disease—for after each battle, what was the victor to do, except to take into itself the shards of its defeated enemy? Without replenishment, even a victorious coalescion would be too far diminished—weakened and vulnerable.
And so Hyruk grew hard, and cold, and crafty, and with each victory harder and colder and craftier. It drank of violence, and dreamed of warcraft, and swelled with the knowledge of tactics and strategy and the memories of the fallen.
Yet still it remained Hyruk, deep in its innermost self. Still it remembered the long desert walk, and the miracle of the mountain lake, and the warm embrace of its kin—and the embracing, since of course it had been both sides of that fateful meeting. As it struggled to stay alive, so too did it struggle to stay alive—to shield within itself a remembrance of brighter times, happier times, a belief in that-which-had-value above and beyond mere self-preservation.
And in the end, even the most vicious of the aggressors began to tire of the blood and butchery and betrayal, and eventually there came a day when none preferred battle to peace. A compact was struck, and all of the trembling survivors agreed—that no more would might make right; no more would the Yeerk people live under the constant threat of death by sudden violence. They would be ruled instead by a council of thirteen, and it would be those thirteen coalescions which would preside over questions of law and punishment, host and territory.
Thus it was that Hyruk was returned to its original home—although Bontu and Dair and Momob were gone, and Nathan had half-died and been reborn as Jur Hona. There followed an era of uneasy peace, and then easy peace as the council proved wise and true, and then finally warm, familiar comfort, as new coalescions were seeded in the gravepools of the ancient war and the days lengthened and shortened and lengthened again in the slow heartbeat of generations.
And Hyruk saw it, lived it, consumed it, enshrined it.
Sunrises, and sunsets, and green skies in between.
Warm days, and cold nights, and stormclouds full of lightning and thunder.
The taste of grass and the smell of peat, the chirping of insects and the grunting of animals and the whisper of wind through the rocks.
The thrill of movement, of power—the feel of muscles, of legs that walked and hands that grasped and teeth that gnashed and tore—of eyes that looked where you pointed them.
The pounding rush of the hunt—lived as both predator and prey—and the endless, glittering pleasure of mating in a thousand different bodies of a hundred different species.
And the sharing, of course—dreams of distant mountains, bone-white deserts, salted tide-pools and endless marshes—a thousand fragments of memory, copied and shared and relived over and over again.
All of this and more filled Hyruk's mind, year in and year out, until the terror and trauma of the war began to fade. It even searched out the canyon—found the shallow pool of its previous life, scooped out the fungus and dug a channel that would bring fresh water, and left a child of its own where its predecessor had died—a child named Arkhos, to whom it left no memory of death and horror.
And then came the Andalites.
They were all unexpected, dropping suddenly out of the sky which, until that moment, had never been thought to hold anything besides the sun and the twelve moons. Yet it was in the nature of all who had survived those ancient days to be wary, and so a conspiracy was born. The Yeerks would hide their true forms, sending only a few clever, anonymous shards to interact with the strange newcomers—as had been done countless times during the war—and would learn as much as they could before taking any irreversible action.
Soon, the debate was in full swing, and swiftly as Yeerks measured things—scarcely would a courier shard have been absorbed before its host was reinfested and sent back with an answer. The council, which had not spoken at all for the last thirteen seasons, was sending out proclamations daily, sometimes twice a day.
Hyruk, of course, was not a council member, but it watched as all were watching, greedy for each new scrap of information. By chance, the Andalites had landed quite close to its mountain home—if things turned sour, it would need to be ready.
And sour they turned, when Cirran—acting alone! Unthinkable heresy!—murdered Seerow and captured Alloran, launching the second—and greater—war. With shocking speed, the other Andalites were routed or killed, the stolen ships mobilized and staffed, and a veritable flood of arcane knowledge unleashed upon the sharing. Metallurgy, rocketry, computer science, applied physics—almost overnight, the entire population of the planet was conscripted, converted, reeducated and repurposed. With the urgency of starving shards, the Yeerks sprang into action, wielding clumsy Gedd hands to erect refineries and factories, preparing pools of offspring to staff starships that had yet to be stolen or built.
Hyruk was called during the third wave, after Cirran and the Visser had repelled the Andalites' initial counterattack and the first expeditionary force began sending back Naharan ships and hosts. The council had assigned it to the Visser's personal fleet, and so it once again abandoned the waters of its naming, leaving behind only the barest sliver of itself in memoriam, carrying itself aboard the flagship in a hundred massive containers borne by three hundred Gedd hosts.
From there, it had been taken straight into the jaws of hell, on the cracked and broken slopes beneath the giant trees of the Hork-Bajir homeworld. The battle had been brief, but furious, and it was with pride that Hyruk accepted the Visser's commendation for having lost the fewest of its shards relative to the grandeur of its accomplishments.
Yet along with the pride was uneasiness—an uneasiness which had begun with its contemplation of the Visser himself, and grown slowly deeper as Hyruk spread itself through its new Hork-Bajir hosts.
Something had changed.
It wasn't the violence. That was as familiar as water itself, and the replacement of rocks and sticks with Bug fighters and Dracon beams meant as little as the changing of hosts—or at least, as little as the changing of hosts had meant.
For now—suddenly, as Hyruk measured time—the changing of hosts did matter.
Not merely as a marker of status—Hyruk and the others had always played games with the bodies they held in thrall, trading and displaying the sleekest and strongest of them in a subtle dance of favor and implication.
No, it was the very nature of the Yeerk-host relationship itself which had shifted.
Always before, Hyruk had been—
Alone was the closest it could come to describing it, although that wasn't quite right. Every host it had ever taken had some degree of sentience—some ability to feel, some amount of will and desire.
But they were none of them sapient—not the fish and amphibians of the lake, nor the rodents and grazers of the fields, nor the climbers and chasers of the forest. Even the Gedds, which were occasionally clever enough to escape reinfestation, had no discernible, enduring sense of self, and would often wander mindlessly right back to the very waters they had fled from.
But the Hork-Bajir—
It wasn't just that the Hork-Bajir did not want to be Controlled. That, too, was familiar.
Rather, it was that, once they were Controlled—
There was something there that Hyruk could not quite express, something that went beyond the concepts that had served it for the past two thousand revolutions. It was not only the newness of what was happening—it was also the unnerving nature of it.
They were thinking.
Thinking for themselves, thinking as themselves—individual shards taking on a measure of independence that had previously been impossible, given the size and complexity of the hosts available on the homeworld. It was a problem Hyruk had utterly failed to anticipate—a problem none of them had anticipated, or things would surely have gone differently between Cirran and Alloran.
Always before, there had been a simple loop, a clear division of duty. It was the role of shards to gather information—to see and hear and experience, and to bring those experiences back to the pool. It was the role of the coalescion to think and decide, acting in the best interest of the whole. Shards acted, yes, but under heavy constraint. They were appendages, more or less, carrying out limited tasks at the direction of the central mind—each shard was like a stone rolled down a steep hill, released just so so that its natural momentum would cause it to tumble to its intended target.
There was an art to it, an art which Hyruk had mastered during the war years—to understand the nature of one's hosts, and impart one's shards with just the right properties to achieve a semblance of coordination and strategy, despite the unavoidable lag and the shards' inherent idiocy. Whole battles had been won or lost on the basis of a handful of hosts improperly aimed.
Now, though, the waters were muddied, the barrier blurred. There were decisions being made outside of the pool—more and more of them, as the larger-brained hosts became an ever-greater share of the empire's population, and a correspondingly greater share of each coalescion's mental power lived beyond of the immediacy of the sharing. More and more of them, as the fast-paced realities of space combat demanded ever-greater autonomy on the part of hosts that needed to be able to respond in the moment, without dependence on—or oversight from—the central mind.
It was a door which, once opened, could not be closed again—Hyruk could not, after all, afford to put any less power into each host's brain, and thereby risk revolt, and it could not simply shed the unruly hosts, either. The ship which carried it—the systems upon which its survival depended—without Naharan ingenuity and Hork-Bajir dexterity, Hyruk would be unable to fly the starship, let alone wield it in combat or repair it afterward.
And so the trend continued, with more and more decisions being made by entities which Hyruk had once considered its mere fingers and toes, and those decisions themselves tending to concentrate yet more power in the newly developing society of sapient shards.
It might have spiraled out completely, were it not for the fact that every shard was born with a time limit, and had to return to the sharing to feed. Hyruk—the central Hyruk—yet retained the final say, the power to edit and erase, to sculpt and curate.
Even there, though, things were less solid than they once had been. For one, the Visser himself had never returned to the sharing, and his embodiment of the fact that it was at least possible for a shard to gain true independence was a deep crack in the walls of tradition.
For another, insofar as there was a single, persistent identity whose name was Hyruk, it was, to a very real extent, nothing more than the total combined experiences of its constituent shards, and those experiences' reflections upon themselves. There was inertia there—the inertia of two thousand revolutions of uninterrupted continuity—but new experiences were piling up, and they were piling up quickly. Already, Hyruk had seen and done more in the past two revolutions than in the previous two hundred, and what's more, it was growing. With each new cycle of infestation and reintegration, the share of its experience drawn from this new way of life grew larger, such that it could feel its own reluctance shrinking, its hesitation fading—and this despite knowing that that was why, despite knowing that here was a process which would produce exactly such a shift in values regardless of whether it was correct in truth.
It was nightmarish, horrifying—like watching oneself slowly dissolving away in acid. Worse—like watching oneself dissolve while simultaneously witnessing the birth of an uncanny doppelganger. Hyruk had seen coalescions torn apart by decree of the council of thirteen—torn apart and redistributed, their memories and personalities shattered and absorbed by other pools—and this—
This was worse.
Worse, because it was not simply Hyruk's own end which was drawing ever closer, but the end of its kind—of its entire way of life. It was the birth of a new species—the replacement of its species with a new form of life, one whose sense of self lay not in the quiet contemplative calm of the depths, but in the bright frenetic chaos of the immediate world.
It was these thoughts and others like it which were interrupted by the news—news which arrived in the form of a courier from the bridge, whose memories Hyruk relived with a combination of rising dismay and numb resignation.
They had arrived—finally—at their destination.
They had been approached by a delegation from the target planet—a delegation containing an Andalite Controller and bearing confirmation codes identifying them as agents of Visser One.
That delegation had—somehow—seized total control of all fleet functions.
They had convened a negotiation.
They had given each of the hosts present the morphing power.
They had given half of the shards present the morphing power.
They had allowed Sub-Visser Seventy-Four's host to acquire the pattern of a particular Arn who—they claimed—had memories which would let them breed custom host bodies with no underlying personality—host bodies which would also generate their own kandrona.
There was more—much more—but Hyruk could look no further, think no further—physically unstuck itself from the courier Yeerk so that the memories would cease to flow while it processed what it had seen.
It wasn't just that the Sub-Visser and the other first officers had conducted the meeting on their own, without reference to the forty-three coalescions aboard the various ships, in keeping with Hyruk's fears.
It wasn't just that kandrona-producing hosts would continue—would almost certainly accelerate—the slow fragmentation that the war had set in motion.
It wasn't even the idea—insinuated by the delegation rather than stated outright—that they were now at war with Visser Three.
No, what captured Hyruk's attention—
—its spare attention—
—what little attention it had left, to look at what the rest of its mind was doing—
—what captured Hyruk's attention was the sheer magnitude of its own excitement, and the way in which that excitement was sweeping before it all the rest of its hesitations and concerns. The way in which its excitement overrode—had overridden—was even now still overriding the existential questions which had fully consumed it mere moments before. It could see the shift in its perspective, its priorities, and even as it knew that something had gone awry, it could see that it could not truly bring itself to care.
And even that produced only a flicker of unease.