«What was that about a stain in the sun?» said Teresa, a little later.

Toloth, who had been watching Iniss ever-so-slowly wind down his remarks, started internally at this sudden comment from his host. «Pardon?» he said.

«That thing you said just now,» said Teresa. «When you were talking to Tom – Penjoth, I mean – and giving that whole speech as Malcar about… well, you know.» She tried to say it casually, but couldn't repress a slight mental shudder. «Anyway, you said something about the Yeerk homeworld being a place – how did it go – "where acid-filled clouds hide the stars, and daylight is perverted by a stain in the sun". I know about the acid-filled clouds, but what's the other thing you were talking about?»

Toloth, nonplussed, checked her emotional centers again; yes, she was genuinely curious. Objectively, perhaps, that wasn't terribly surprising – after all, he had seen evidence enough that Teresa had a capacity for curiosity that extended to just about everything (higher mathematics as applied to book titles, for instance) – but it did unsettle Toloth a trifle. There seemed to him to be something wrong with a slave who was abstractly interested in the living conditions of her captors and oppressors; if there had been some idea in her mind of using the information for purposes of revolt, he would have felt much more comfortable.

But there wasn't – and, rather than put it there by becoming suddenly secretive, Toloth elected to reply. «You know about that, too,» he said. «Or haven't you ever wondered what Kandrona radiation is?»

Teresa didn't reply in words, but the whole lay of her cortex was an invitation to Toloth to proceed. Flattered, he did so. «There is a certain class of sub-atomic particles,» he said, «essentially uncategorized by galactic science, that occurs in the sun of my race's homeworld and nowhere else in the known universe. Some believe that this indicates an ancient collision with stray matter from another galaxy, or even with an effusion out of Z-space, but no-one really knows for sure. In any case, what distinguishes these particles from all others is that, in addition to possessing the usual gravitational and electric fields, they also possess a third field lying between the two – what you know as the Kandrona.»

«I thought Kandrona was rays,» said Teresa.

«It's the same thing,» said Toloth. «A ray is merely one aspect of a field.» At the sight of her surprise, he clicked impatiently. «Oh, come now. That isn't some advanced Andalite discovery; even you humans know it. When you speak of "X rays", or "gamma rays" – or even "rays of light", for that matter – aren't you quite well aware that those are all merely various behaviors of the electric field?»

«I… guess so,» said Teresa slowly. «I mean, I'd heard something about light being an electromagnetic wave…»

Wave? thought Toloth in disgust. Beams of Kandrona, don't tell me these creatures think there can be waves in empty space. How can the same species be so shrewd in one area, and so witless in another?

«Well, have it your own way,» he said. «Now, the Kandrona field, as I said, lies between the gravitational and electric fields in terms of intensity and refractivity – which means that it redistributes the electric field, the same way that gravity does, while being itself redistributed by gravity. Consequently, the normal laws of optics do not apply on the Yeerk homeworld; light there follows its own, far more complicated patterns of reflection and refraction, with the result that off-world visitors, when they first arrive, have the sensation of having stepped into a world of trick mirrors. They typically find the phenomenon ugly and repellent – at least, the first Andalite visitors did – and so I spoke of it as a perversion of daylight, as they themselves might have done.»

Teresa showed no inclination to concur with them. «Wow,» she said softly. «A special kind of matter, just in your one star…» Then a thought struck her. «But why do you guys need Kandrona rays, then? If all they do is distort light, how can it starve you not to have them?»

«Because the atomic interactions in our bodies are adapted to that distortion,» said Toloth. «Remember, the electric field is what holds matter together; if it ceases to behave in its usual fashion, any body more complex than a baryon will tend to start breaking down. As I sit here in your head, my component atoms are slowly falling out of their accustomed orbits; if I were not regularly re-exposed to the Kandrona, I would face not merely death, but, ultimately, total disintegration. And that applies to all of the homeworld's matter, not just to Yeerks; even our minerals, when removed from the Kandrona's influence, break down and dissolve into nothingness after a few days.»

He couldn't help thinking, as he spoke, of Penjoth's remarks about the unsuitability of the Yeerk race for interstellar travel; a cold horror filled him as he reflected just how true his words made that seem. To live perpetually on the brink of absolute darkness – to depend for one's very continuance in being upon a macabre and isolated freak of Nature… perhaps the thoughts he had made Malcar reject were true, after all. Perhaps theirs really was a race of monsters, conceived in hatred by a power beyond all natural laws; perhaps it was right for them to spend their lives in exile from the universe, cowering in existential terror beneath their goblin sun. What else, indeed, could one think of a people so grotesquely crippled in their very essence?

«I think that's the coolest thing I've ever heard,» said Teresa.

Toloth was startled. «You do?»

«Absolutely.» Had Teresa been in control of her lungs just then, she would have been quite breathless with enthusiasm. «Isn't that what outer space should be: the next exotic vista of Creation, where God puts the stuff that's too different to fit with His template for Earth? That's something that always kind of disappointed me about you guys, and all the other aliens at the Yeerk pool; I'd always imagined aliens as being something completely different from me, like the fire balloons in that one Ray Bradbury story, and then they turned out to be just variations on Earth's animals – slugs, dinosaurs, centipedes, deer with scorpion tails. I mean, for Pete's sake, the Hork-Bajir world even has trees – and trees with bark, no less.»

«Well,» said Toloth, «there are only so many feasible ways to arrange organic tissue…»

«Yeah, I get that,» said Teresa, «but the point is, I didn't want organic tissue to be the only game in town. I wanted there to be other things – things you couldn't even imagine until you saw them, the way you couldn't imagine organic life if all you'd ever seen was the Moon. When there weren't, it felt like a letdown, like God wasn't as creative as I'd expected Him to be – not that I really thought so, but it felt that way. But now you tell me about all the atoms on your world being directed by this alien force in your sun, and that…» She made a wistful sighing sound inside her mind; then, as though suddenly remembering both to whom and about what she was gushing this way, she giggled a little self-consciously. «Well, anyway, it makes up for a lot. Thanks.»

«My pleasure,» Toloth managed to murmur.

Well, there he was, then. That was what else one could think of Kandrona dependency – at least, if one were Teresa Sickles: that it was a sign of the boundless capacities of the ultimate maker of all things. She, who had the best reason in the world to dismiss him and his kind as monstrosities, instead chose almost unconsciously to see them as unique and precious works of the omnipotence she adored – not that the wicked things she saw them doing didn't matter, but that they could never, however hard they tried, be wicked enough to negate the supreme goodness involved in their very existence. Just or unjust, if the sun shone on it, she was resolved to show it love – and if the sun was Kandrona, so much the better. –And how in the boiling pits of Shefgarn was he supposed to respond to that?

But no sooner had he formed the question than an answer came to him – an answer that should have alarmed him, but for the strange golden sweetness in which it came clothed. As you have said, Toloth Two-Nine-Four: repay your benefactor. Do unto the human as she has done unto you.

And, in the same moment, the turgid strains from the speakers abruptly swelled into urgent majesty; Iniss at last felt momentarily silent, twenty LED screens glowed with sudden color, and the Christmas Sharing Experience began in good earnest.

The Experience was perhaps the most Yeerkish part of a Sharing fête, having been based in large measure on that race's unique tradition of phosphor-shows. Unlike the latter, however, they rarely relied on purely abstract imagery; on the contrary, they almost invariably involved lengthy sequences of emotionally charged pictures, reinforced by mood music and occasional dramatic interjections from the podium – though the precise connection between successive pictures, or between what the chapter head declaimed and what was on the screen, was generally as intuitive and extra-rational as anything that Kakkana One-Five-Three ever composed. The only common theme was that every image and word was intended to heighten the sentimental associations of the occasion, and to beguile the viewers into accepting the Sharing as the natural vehicle of all that was noble and good and pure – and in this, in fact, it was not infrequently successful. It has been said that the fêtes rarely produced any new Controllers or Sharing recruits; when they did, though, it was generally because some human of peculiar emotional malleability had been pierced to the heart by the sentiments intimated in an Experience. (Which, of course, caused the ratchet effect mentioned previously to apply with particular force to the Experiences; if the glitz factor of the fête as a whole increased arithmetically with each year, the schmaltz factor of this part rather described an exponential function.)

And so it came about that Toloth Two-Nine-Four, just as he was becoming aware of an imperative to contemplate Teresa Sickles's race as a unique treasure of Nature, was suddenly assailed with an unvarnished onslaught of the most shamelessly manipulative Yuletide nostalgia ever seen on Earth.

It is only fair to him to note that he was well aware of this. Even as he acknowledged the task before him, he saw clearly that it was far more likely to end in a flood of sentimental remorse, as fleeting and valueless as that of any human drunkard, than in anything in which a Yeerk could take pride. But what could he do, except proceed as his honor required, and keep his eyes as wide open as he could all the while?

And so he did; settling back against the console, gazing deliberately at a bare patch of wall between two viewscreens, he addressed himself to find that vision by which a Yeerk might love humanity. And thus his thoughts ran:

"Two-legged, tailless… variously colored, with a penchant for artificial coverings… sexually differentiated and viviparous, feeding the young on their mothers' secretions. Just facts like any others; what's there to be excited about?

"No, that's wrong, though. Not excited; that's not the issue. Glad. She was glad that there should be such things as I – so my object is gladness about the existence of such things as she. I am to be glad that there are humans in the universe, because… well, why? They're useful, of course – Class Five, and so on… but that isn't it, either. It's not about usefulness – we're certainly not useful to Teresa – it's about the thing being itself. Which is absurd. What difference does humans being humans make to me?

"Not, of course, that there aren't things… I mean to say, even if I had no needs – even if I could merely fire off a command click and be renewed whenever I chose – it doesn't follow that I wouldn't care if all the rest of the universe perished. It would be a shame, for instance, to live in a cosmos devoid of Althematwi…"

(Here his thoughts became wordless for a moment, as he remembered Althematwi. A Pool ship piercing the catoptrine layer – himself a young Gedd-Controller, gazing out in awe through the port-hole – lifeless desolation below, for no breathable atmosphere could sustain the wonder – and above and around, in crystal form atop the surrounding mountains and spread out like a fluid curtain across the sky, the infinite reflections of gleam and color, multiplying the vessel's image endlessly upon the face of the insentient landscape. Althematwi – Mirrorworld.)

"No, I would not readily lose Althematwi… yet why not? A lifeless, poisonous world, useless for any practical purpose; why sacrifice one's own ease for it just because one can see one's reflection in the snow on its mountain peaks? Yet I know that I would, and gladly.

"Is that what this love of Teresa's is, then? Am I to her the irrational treasure that Althematwi is to me? Madness – and yet…"

(Another wordless interlude, filled with images of what life could be if one knew oneself thus treasured. The life of a Golden Age, transplanted from myth to reality; a life in which strength could afford to be gentle, and peace might have a graceful confidence alien to mere victory – and all shot through with echoes and whispers of something greater and more wondrous yet.)

"Well, good luck to it, then. But how can it be for me? I am a Yeerk – a subject of the Empire – a soldier in the Sub-Visserial guard. I am a creature fated by Nature to conquer and enslave, or else to crawl in the mud to the contempt of all. I am…"

"…Well, yes, I am that, of course. To be all the rest, I would have to be. But that doesn't entitle me of itself to enter into this interchange. The world is more complicated than that."

"Because I can't, that's all. Look at me; see what I've always been, from my spawning up to this moment. No such way of life could admit the likes of me; before I could even dream of it, I should have to be utterly…

"…ah. Yes, I see. This is how it begins, then, is it? Dapsen.

"Well, better to unmake oneself than to be unmade, I suppose. There's at least a perverse courtesy in this final command, that it makes one freely call down the landslide that crushes him. All right, Althematwi, I'm ready. Kill my Yeerkhood with your deathly air; show me the love of humanity in your mirroring skies."

Which, it may be piously believed, is precisely what happened. At any rate, the galaxy now contains several thousand murals, holy cards, altar carvings, etc., that insinuate this by juxtaposing Toloth Two-Nine-Four (symbolized, generally, by a nabri-fish with a sunburst over its forehead) with the reflection of the Holy Face in the sky and mountains of the Mirrorworld. Toloth himself, however, while regarding this as an admirable metaphor for his experience, was always reluctant to endorse it as a literal description; on the rare occasions when he recounted the event, he tended to speak in far less concretely pictorial terms. It began, indeed, he said, with his recalling up his mental image of Althematwi, and focusing his mind upon the innate value that he recognized in it; then, as he contemplated, he found this idea of value being extended in his mind, without effort and almost without volition, to other created beings: first, perhaps by a natural association of ideas, to the Kandrona particles in his racial homeworld's sun, and then indiscriminately to all the rest of the stars in the galaxy, and all its numberless varieties of matter that had proceeded from them. All appeared as kindred of Althematwi, formed of the same stuff by the same energies, and therefore demanding at least some fraction of the admiration and loyalty that that world claimed from him.

No sooner had he accepted this than a distinction was presented to him. If the mere act of being demanded such a response, did not that which more perfectly was demand it more intensely? Noble as Althematwi's nature was, it had no innate power of continuance; there was nothing in it that actively resisted destruction, as there was in even the meanest of living creatures. If Althematwi, then, was to be cherished merely for being what it was, much more were those things that grew and lived, whether alga or Arn-bred tree, Zimbredor doughpot or Dule Fansa – yes, or even that dog of Teresa's.

But there was another distinction yet. It was one thing to resist destruction blindly, without recognizing it or oneself for the things they were; it was another to not only live, but know that one lived. This was the superiority of Yeerk over hopsworm or vanarx; it was this that gave Toloth and his kind a dignity that their enemies had never acknowledged. They were slugs, yes – there was no point in denying that – but they still excelled a trillion lovelier creatures, because they were thinking slugs. Just as Andalites were thinking befamee, or Arn thinking chadoo… or humans thinking apes.

And that was how a Yeerk might love a human. A triple communion bound them together: shared being, shared life, shared thought. All that elevated the Yeerk above its mindless environment elevated the human likewise; they stood together on the Imperial Ledge of the universe, peers in nobility, spawn-mates of the mind.

And when one betrayed the spawning bond… a parade of lurid folk-tales passed through Toloth's mind. Nasha Eight-One-Nought, who stole his brother's host; Iluran Four-Six-Four, who sold her sister to the Yoort; Jubner Nine-Nine-Nine, who slew his whole spawn in reverse numerical order. The macabre ends that always seemed to await such figures were almost secondary; even if one of them had ended up as Emperor, Toloth's whole being revolted from the notion that such a creature could be other than contemptible. To conceive of his whole race as having done the same…

Beams of midsummer Kandrona, what doom have we not earned? he thought. For a moment, it almost seemed to him that he could hear the human race screaming for vengeance; his conscience seemed to reverberate with the cry of, "Die, filthy Yeerk!"

Then he realized that it wasn't his conscience he was hearing that with – that those words had actually been spoken, aloud, by someone not five feet from him. With a sudden thrill of horror, he turned, as if in slow motion, to see Elskir's host body leaning against the console, with her face screwed up in a picture of agony, and her right hand clawing at her ear.

"Mom!" she yelled hoarsely. "Mom, it's me, I'm Kati! Help me, quick, before… aaagh!"