"I remember what happened last night, Matt. You shot us."
Mrs. Townley's accusation rang out starkly across the confines of the mini-van. For a moment the only noise to be heard was the soft whooshing of the passing interstate traffic overlaid with the drone of the talk radio program. The disc jokey was still rambling on about tulip bulbs. And then there was a great gusto of sound, as each of the adults- Terez's parents and Matt's mother- ignited with reaction.
"Matt if you have hurt my family in any way-"
"My son wouldn't do that. He wouldn't-"
"-I will make sure that-"
"Dad he didn't hurt anyone."
"Terez, you don't understand what that boy is doing and-"
"- Dad, I'm serious he didn't do anything -"
"Not my Matty! He couldn't."
"Alec, I'm sure that Terez has a good reason—"
"Mom, you have to understand that-"
"Maria he brought a weapon into our home and-"
"Matty is a good boy, he-"
"-tasered our family with it-"
"Dad, you need to-"
The parents were quickly working themselves into a frenzy, and the noise in the mini-van struck a fortissimo. It was surprising that little Andi, Terez's five year old sister, was still passed out in her car seat- although Andi had been stunned on a Dracon beam setting that had been strong enough to knock out both her parents.
(Well this is going to be a tough crowd,) Matt remarked in the recesses of our shared mind.
(Not if we can't even get their attention,) I returned. (Then it's no crowd.)
(Don't worry, I've got this.)
For a moment it was like old times, that easy symbiosis we had once shared, as Matt effortlessly took control of our shared vocal chords, and I continued to guide the mini-van.
"Everyone please calm down, and we'll try to explain what is happening here!" Matt demanded in his most authoritative short-stop voice- the one that could be heard equally well from home plate as from far left field.
The mini-van went silent, save for the white background noise of the AM radio. I felt, rather than saw all eyes in the mini-van directed on me, well on "Matt" to be more precise.
(Should I do the talking Iden, or do you want to?) Matt asked soberly.
(I'll do it,) I replied. (I'm the reason they're all here, after all.)
(Well just let me know if I should step in. You talk, and I'll keep driving.)
There was no hesitation as I relinquished control of my host's body back to my host. Hands gripped the steering wheel a little too tightly and then loosened, eyes wandered slightly to the left and then refocused forward. Slowly at first, and then much quicker, Matt's brain reestablished command to his body. I waited a few more seconds until Matt was confidently maneuvering the mini-van alongside the early morning interstate traffic before grasping at our shared vocal chords. Then taking a steadying breath, I began.
"I need to tell you something," I addressed the three adults seated in the back of the mini-van. "It's going to sound, well, insane comes to mind, but it's real. It's very real, and it affects each of you."
"Something very bad has been happening in our town, in our state. It's been going on for a few years now, in secret. And Terez and I are a part of it."
"Part of what exactly?" I could hear Mr. Townley's fierce protectiveness as he processed the words bad and Terez.
"Well you see, Mr. T -" I hesitated. How to explain Yeerks? Controllers? Terez didn't know that I, Iden two-seven-four, even existed. And now was most certainly not the time to reveal myself to her. To any of them. "Err, well you see..."
"Part of what, Matt?" Mr. Townley was growing impatient. (And after being shot and kidnapped from his dinner table the night before, he had every right to be).
"Well Mr. T," I wheedled. "There's really not an easy way to say this-"
"Matt and I were abducted by aliens. We escaped. They're after us." Terez cut in flatly.
(That was easy.) Matt remarked.
Like a shock wave after a sudden explosion, the mini-van was swept into a silence that was both abrupt and tangible. For a good thirty seconds the adults waited for Terez to toss out the punchline in what was rapidly becoming a less and less amusing prank. She didn't.
"Terez, Matty," Matt's mother offered finally, her usually confident voice at a loss for what she should say. "Is this some sort of joke?"
"No Mom," Matt replied for us.
"Are you kids doing some kind of drugs?" And only Mrs. Townley's soft-spoken demeanor could keep those words from sounding like an accusation.
"No we're not on drugs, Mom." Terez affirmed.
"I, I don't understand," Mrs. Townley confessed unhappily. "You tasered us. I woke up in the van. You're talking about aliens. And now we're going to – where are we going?"
"This isn't funny. I want you kids to stop this car. Immediately." Matt flicked our eyes to the rear-view mirror, and I was a given a brief moment to study Mr. Townley's face. Anger, warring with disbelief. Dismay. And anxiety so apparent, it was obvious that he thought his eldest daughter was suffering from some sort of delusion.
"Not trying to be funny Dad." Terez replied, in a tone serious enough to orate a eulogy. "Just give us five minutes. Please just give us five minutes to explain. No talking."
It seemed that Mr. Townley would argue, but Terez's face was commanding in a way I'd never seen. She was a younger version of her father: as fiercely protective of her family as he was.
"Five minutes," Mr. Townley allowed. "Talk."
Matt flicked our gaze to the rear-view mirror, and we watched Mrs. Townley and Matt's mother nod in agreement, at a loss to do anything else. Matt's gaze then flickered to Terez in the passenger seat. She offered a tiny, reassuring smile.
"Okay, Matt." Terez instructed. "Take it from the top."
I began again. "It's like Terez said. Alien Abduction." Not a lie. "Earth is being secretly invaded. The invaders are a race of aliens called Yeerks."
"Yeerks are a race of parasites. In their natural state, they resemble garden slugs. Yeerks live in the Yeerk Pool, and are basically immobile. They have no natural sense of taste, smell, sight, or hearing. They have only a sense of touch, and communicate mind-to-mind through thought-speak. However, when a Yeerk controls a host, they have access to all the host's senses."
"The Yeerks have come to this planet, to collect human hosts, whether those hosts are willing or not. Most hosts aren't willing. A Yeerk takes over its host, by latching onto the host's brain. In humans, the Yeerk enters at the ear, crawling through the ear canal until directly accessing the brain. Once the brain is accessed, the Yeerk completely controls its host. Unless the Yeerk allows the host its free will, the host becomes the Yeerk's slave, little more than a private vessel. The Yeerk Empire has conquered many species."
And I could hear Tristan's swaggering thought-speak in my head, ever boasting of the Empire's many achievements. When did the conquests stop filling me with pride? Did they ever fill me with pride? Why had I ever listened to Tristan?
"Yeerks can access the hosts' memories." I continued. "They can see everything about the host. Everything. They can pretend to be the host so well, that not even the host's loved ones can tell that the host is infested." I shifted uncomfortably. Too much truth in what I was saying. "And the Yeerk can make the host body do anything the Yeerk wants. Anything."
I paused, awash with shame.
The last few months. The atrocities I had committed. Had made my host witness. Why had I ever listened to Tristan?
(I am so sorry Matt,) I apologized in the privacy of our shared thoughts.
(I know.) I could hear the rueful smile in Matt's words. (But you finally got your head out of your ass, Iden, and you're here now trying to rescue everyone, and so we're okay. Not great, but okay).
It was more than I expected. It was more than I deserved.
"The Yeerks are everywhere," Terez was saying. "They've overrun Greenwood, probably all of California soon. I've seen Controllers who are cops and teachers and EMTs. I'm pretty sure the entire Greenwood city council are Controllers. I've heard that some of the higher-level state official are as well. Up until yesterday evening, I was a Controller. So was Matt. But we escaped."
"The Yeerks are hunting us. It is not safe in Greenwood or in California, or anywhere in this country. Not for us, and not for you." Terez's tone brooked no argument. "We can never go back."
Silence once again, and the weight of three sets of eyes as the three adults processed what they'd just been told. And then -
"Terez, you and Matt need to turn this car right around," Mr. Townley's said quietly. Stonily.
"We're not going back Dad." Terez replied tightly.
"This is nonsense Terez."
"No Dad, it's real. It's real. I've never lied to you before, and I'm not lying now."
"Terez, sweetheart, it's not that we don't believe that you believe this is real," Mrs. Townley's soft-spoken voice offered. "It's just that it's kind of hard to grasp."
(Because you're both insane,) Matt finished drly. (Or in a cult. Or on drugs. Or in an insane cult that does drugs.)
"That's fine Mom," Terez was terse. "Take all the time you need to grasp. But we're not turning the car around."
"Matty," Mrs. Hutchinson, the voice of reason, broke into the fray. "Terez, you can't just take us from our homes."
"We don't have a choice, Mom," Matt took control of our shared voice. His eyes met his mother's deep blue gaze in the reflection of the rear-view mirror.
"Matty," Mrs. Hutchinson pleaded, willing her son to just act like the warm, loving boy she'd raised, and not this deranged, possible drug addict, who shot and then kidnapped people.
"Sorry Mom," Matt replied thickly. "We can't."
Something in Mrs. Hutchinson's eyes dimmed. I felt Matt's unhappiness as keenly as my own at his mother's disappointment in us. In Matt. In who she thought was Matt. In – did it really matter?
"We're doing it to keep you safe," I added, wanting so badly for Mrs. Hutchinson to understand. For Matt's sake. For my own.
"Terez, Matt, this has gone on long enough," Mr. Townley's frustration was hinging on anger. From the back of the mini-van, he made to stand.
"Please Dad," Terez bridled. "Just calm down."
But Mr. Townley was moving to the front of the mini-van. Resolute.
"Terez, I'm not arguing with you," Mr. Townley's voice carried the full weight of his status as head of the Townley household. "You. Will. Turn. This. Car. Around. Now."
Mr. Townley was now standing by the middle passenger door, directly across from the form of his youngest child, Andi, who was still slouching unconscious in her car seat. With fierce brown eyes, Mr. Townley stared down at his eldest child who twisted around in the front passenger seat to stare back. Terez's deep blue eyes held his gaze.
A silent battle of wills.
And then, fingers trembling, Terez carefully exposed the Dracon beam from her jacket pocket. Leveled the weapon at her father.
And the innocuous AM radio tulip bulb chatter crafted a bizarre counterpoint to the white-hot silence suddenly blanketing the mini-van.
Terez flipped the weapon's controls to stun. "No Dad," her voice was flat with carefully contained emotion as, for the first time in her young life, Terez overrode her father's authority. "We're not turning around. And if you try to make us, I will shoot you."