By the time that Elskir, clutched firmly in Iniss's grip, had made it to the parking lot, her regression-accelerated fugue had already progressed beyond mere pain, into the realm of mild delirium. Only mild, to be sure: she was still clearly aware that the body steering her host's was that of a middle-aged human male, however much it might seem to her deteriorating cognition like that of a six-foot-tall beaver. But it was enough to annoy her. Why did she have to be pestered with mirages now, when she needed all her concentration to keep Kati's mind from slipping out of her grasp? Such a nasty, wriggling little mind, like one of the young mathkop she had fished for as a Gedd-Controller… in fact, just like the one that was now floating past her ear, sparkling iridescent green and making derisive faces at her with… No, Elskir, get ahold of yourself.

«You can't, though,» Kati taunted. «Not ahold of yourself, and not ahold of me much longer. You'll never hold anyone again, you nasty little slug; you're just going to dissolve into a little puff of gas and never be heard from again – and nobody's going to miss you, because nobody misses slugs when they're all shriveled up and-mmf!"

"Shut it, human," said Iniss, clapping his paw over Kati's mouth. "You keep this up, and I just might decide to cut my losses and dispose of the both of you. Not my ideal, but I've been in hotter water with the Visser before this."

Ah, yes, the Fisher. Martes Pennanti Three – the Fisher King of Soviet Yeerkistan. I seek the Grail, Comrade, and my favorite color is… Elskir! Stop it!

Yes, of course. But it was an interesting question, really, why the Visser wasn't a fisher. After all, he had his morphing power, so he easily could be – but maybe he just didn't like fishing. Maybe he was afraid of being tackled…

She bit Kati's lip to keep from giggling. If she started laughing now, she would lose all such shreds of control as were left to her. She couldn't think about all the funny things around her, the cartoon-like swirlings of the street or the way Kati's mother (now where had she come from?) was demanding to go with Iniss to the Yeerk pool; she had to think of grave, sobering things, like the fact of her imminent death. That shouldn't be hard to focus on, seeing as how Kati wouldn't shut up about it.

Death – her death. She was going to die. This little Yeerk life, her own small portion of reality, would soon be gone – not gone to this or that place, but just gone. Used up – finished – wafted away into the air of a hostile alien world. Not even a spawn to show for it. Wasn't that a pity?

Anyway, it felt very lonely. Like most of her life, really; she'd never realized before just how lonely a life she'd really led. In the old days, before Seerow's Kindness, it wouldn't have been that way; even if she'd never gained a host – and she probably wouldn't have, back then – she'd still have had all the other low-numbered Elskirs for companions, and those who did get Gedds would have returned to the pool each week to refresh themselves on sulp niar and share their stories of the outside world with their spawn-mates. But now everything was different; now the dream was for everyone to have a host, and so the izcots were despised and the old pool-life was suppressed and the spawns were broken up at birth – so that, for all she knew, there wasn't a single other Elskir in her whole pool. The glories of progress…

She glanced out the window at the sky (they were in the car by now, all four of them – or five, counting Iniss's host) and wondered how many of her brethren were up there somewhere, hidden behind the vast blue haze. Did they know she was about to die? Could it really be felt through the spawning bond, the way the old wives' tale said? –And would they care if they did know? Would she herself have cared, this time yesterday, if she'd learned that Elskir Three-Nought-Eight or whoever was about to be fed to Taxxons?

"Wait a minute, what's going on?" Kati's mother said from the back seat, about a thousand miles away. "This isn't the way to the emergency room…"

What was wrong with having a united Elskir spawn, anyway? It was such a beautiful name; it could have been such a beautiful life, if it had had the chance. Why had the Fisherarchy had to interfere?

"West 49th? Mr. Chapman, what's the meaning of this? What…"

If only the sky would turn green. If only the sun would get stained, and some acid-filled clouds would come and hide the stars – if only Earth would suddenly stop being Earth, and be that other world that she'd only ever seen in holographs, but that her heart knew was still home. If only she didn't have to die alone…

"Wait a minute, is that parking space opening? What kind of insane – OH, MY GOD! OH, GOD, KEEP THOSE THINGS AWAY FROM ME! CHAPMAN, PULL UP! PULL…"


"…Get this one to the pier, quickly – and you, find an emergency Controller for the adult…"


«…You slime-faced little worm! I can't believe it – you won!…»


"…Can you beat that outfit? It almost makes you ashamed to be voluntary, doesn't it?…"


*…No, not Oliss; this one's a nerutith. Oh, what are the szee-e'e-kuu [8] up to?…*


"…So touch my dying lip; so bridge that deep; so pledge my waking from the gift of sleep…"


This last, of course, was not something Elskir heard – but it was not so unlike what she felt, as the revivifying Kandrona swept over and through her half-disintegrated form. To be sure, she didn't feel it instantly; at first, indeed, her cognitive centers were too corroded for her to coherently feel much of anything. It took nearly half an hour, as she drifted half-conscious through the sulp niar, for her body to recover its basic structural bearings, and for its vital powers to rally to the task of rebuilding what had decayed and reorienting what had fallen askew – and then, thus rallied, they required another hour and a half to put things in enough order for her body to be once more usable to her soul. But the moment came, at last, when she woke from her mortal stupor and found, to her amazement, that she was still there to wake.

She bounced a few sonar clicks off the pool wall toward herself, and attempted to assess her general condition. No, she hadn't made it through entirely in one piece; her natatory membranes were much less streamlined than they had been before (though she could still swim all right, she thought, if she put her mind to it), and she had the distinct feeling that infestation would be a more laborious process for her than it had been hitherto. All in all, she was probably the single least functional Yeerk in the pool at that moment; she would be lucky not to be demoted to permanent izcot status as soon as the extent of her injuries was discovered – and, if the Andalites destroyed the Kandrona again, her number was up as a matter of course.

But what did that matter to her now? She'd been reprieved; she hadn't died alone; it was still possible to recover what she now knew she'd lost. How could anything keep her heart from dancing at that?

*Elskir!* she pulsed jubilantly. *Elskir, and Elskir, and Elskir, and all the rest of you Elskirs! It's me – your sister, Five-Nought-Seven! I made it! I'm here!*

A passing Yeerk froze in the middle of a stroke, and turned itself sharply in her direction. *Elskir Five-Nought-Seven?* it said, with a note of distinct urgency in its pulses. *Is that really you?*

Elskir squirmed uncomfortably, realizing too late what a faux pas she'd made. But there was nothing for it now – and, anyway, the glow of her good fortune still kept her from feeling too very alarmed. *Yes, why?* she said. *Who is this?*

*Can't you guess?* said the other Yeerk. *It's Malcar Seven-Four-Five.*


It would be strictly incorrect to say that Elskir stared. Staring requires eyes. But her actual reaction came to much the same thing.

*Malcar?* she repeated. *But then… I thought… wow. I didn't know I'd been out that long.*

*Pardon?*

*Oh, never mind,* said Elskir. *Listen, Malcar, I just want to thank you. I suppose I owe you my life now, and that means a lot to me. More than it did this morning, really – or not this morning, anymore, I guess, but…*

*What are you talking about?* said Malcar sharply.

*Oh, you know,* said Elskir. *The way you responded so quickly when I started to fugue, and got Iniss Two-Two-Six to take me to the pool instead of liquidating me. You know? At the fête?*

*I wasn't at the fête,* said Malcar.

Elskir piped a supersonic laugh. *Oh, come on,* she said. *Of course you were. That whole talk with Penjoth about how the loathsome shall inherit the cosmos? Don't tell me you've forgotten…*

*No, Elskir,* said Malcar tightly. *That wasn't me.*

Her sincerity was so plain that even Elskir, in the midst of her euphoria, managed to feel faintly unsettled. *Well… who was it, then?* she said.

*I wish I knew,* said Malcar. *All I know is, as soon as I was called to the pier yesterday, some crazed galoot came up and started pummeling me nine ways from Sunday – and then, when I finally got away from it, somebody else's host was already up. I'd hoped that Teresa might just have been put back in her cage – but, from what you say, I gather that's not the case.*

*No,* Elskir murmured. *No, I guess not.*

Well, now, wasn't that a twist? So it wasn't Malcar who had saved her, after all, but this unknown other Yeerk who had seized Teresa from her. (Or – the tantalizing thought crossed Elskir's mind – perhaps it was Teresa herself, accidentally freed by a random act of in-pool violence, and now lying low while she schemed to make her liberation permanent.) A mysterious benefactor, a narrow escape from death, a rediscovery of the worth of archaic values – really, her life had gotten astonishingly romantic in the past few hours. Maybe it was a sign…

*It must be connected with that guard of the Sub-Visser's,* Malcar muttered. *Something about Teresa's filthy religion must have driven him to arrange this; probably he thinks he's rescuing her from me, or some such un-Yeerkish nonsense. And of course he feels perfectly invulnerable, because he thinks the Sub-Visser will surely believe the word of his own guard over some wild story from an eighth-century plebeian – and the galling thing is that that's exactly what the Sub-Visser will do.*

*Mm,* said Elskir vaguely. *I guess you'll just have to go over his head, then.*

*Yes, but how…* Malcar began automatically – and then she trailed off. *Wait a minute, now,* she murmured. *That's an idea, isn't it? If the Sub-Visser won't listen, report to someone higher – someone who's not such a fool, and doesn't have any prejudices in the Toloth creature's favor – and you can tell she's a real servant of the Empire, pure of intent and ruthless…* She laughed – an odd, unnerving vibration, which made the sulp niar foam slightly in the vicinity of her ultra-frequency pits. *Oh, yes, that's wonderful. I'm not quite sure how I'll work it yet, but you're right, it's the only way. Honestly, Elskir, I don't know what I'd do without you.*

Without waiting for a reply, she turned and swam away, and Elskir stifled an exhalation of relief. She liked Malcar well enough, in general – anyway, she found her a reliable source of amusement – but that single-minded obsession of hers with Sub-Vissers and the Empire and all the rest of it was not what she needed right now. Not with her newly reclaimed life still surging fiercely within her, and that sense growing stronger every moment that she had been spared for some great work – that her experiences that day had given her a crucial role to play in the restoration, or the rediscovery, of the old kinship bonds that had once made her people's life almost humane.

*Thank you,* she whispered to her anonymous savior. *I don't know who you are, or why you did it, but, for my sake and my spawn's and my race's, I do most truly thank you.*


[8] Szee-e'e-kuu: The opposite of izcots – and, in its way, no more respectful.