Imagine a picture of Cassie turning into a polar bear.
73: THE DEFENDER
Well gang, I'm back at the Neomorphs wheel. This is my third attempt at getting you all a copy of this fic, so I'm just going to cut this note short an
Enjoy or go to hell.
If I owned Animorphs, you wouldn't be reading this for free.
And if I owned Streetlight Manifesto, I would have better things to do than write fanfiction.
My name is Cassie. I could tell you my last name. In fact, I'd be surprised if you didn't already know it. It wouldn't matter all that much even if you did, though. We all live by aliases here on Alpha Front anyway. I'm not giving out the alias; that would make it easy for the Yeerks to find us. And as for my real last name, it's sort of irrelevant. In a month, I'm changing it to Chambers.
I wasn't the only one getting married. Rachel and I were at my house, planning hers. Tobias had finally proposed and we were going through some of the stuff I still had from when the two of us were planning my wedding. She and I were in the kitchen, pouring over my old catalogs.
Tobias and Ronnie were painting the living room. I was hoping that forcing them to work together would get them talking, but instead it just resulted in a room that seemed to absorb any word you spoke in it and respond with silent contempt. At least they were painting it fairly well. That was my second goal.
The small TV in the kitchen was tuned to the news. Rachel's father, Dan, was reading the top stories. In a way, it kind of reminded me of when we were younger. Rachel and I playing together, with her father watching over us. With the silence from the other room, we might as well have been alone.
Rachel's Dad was currently reporting on a story that was very important to us. "Local authorities are still baffled at the apparent demolition of the home of local business man P. C. Rossin." In a small box next to Dan's head, there was a picture of a man I recognized. Or, at least, half recognized. He was in suit, which seemed odd, and his hair was straight. He didn't have that wild look in his eyes, either. But I knew who it was. Subvisser Kalroth 337. Or, at least, his host.
"Yesterday, authorities discovered that Mr. Rossin's entire estate had been completely destroyed. One officer remarked that it looked like a war zone. Another responded that it looked like Hiroshima. All of the buildings on his estate were burned down, and police found several bodies, though they were unidentifiable. Mr. Rossin is unavailable for comment, though it is confirmed that he is alive and apparently was not at home during the time of the attack. As of the moment, police have no leads in this bizarre case."
That was good. We had been just slightly involved in that. The actual destruction had been accomplished by Sergio and company; we had just used it as a distraction to seal some evidence and information. That, in fact, was the subject of Rachel's dad's next story.
"Our top story tonight is the shocking arrest of local police chief Robert Olin." That wasn't his real name, but you don't need to know his real name. "Early this morning, F.B.I. agents arrested the chief on multiple charges ranging from bribery to illegal arms smuggling. He is currently in F.B.I. custody. A spokesman for the F.B.I. stated that t he agency was acting on information given to them from an anonymous source."
Rachel smiled. That source had been us. "Good. Even if he doesn't go to prison, he'll lose his job over this. That takes care of a major threat."
Then her father spoiled our good mood. "Due to the nature of some of the accusations made against him, the International Invasion Investigation Force has become involved. The F.B.I. has announced that they will be transferring Chief Olin to their custody. Tri-I w ill take over the investigation from there."
That was about when Tobias rushed into the room. "Problem," he muttered. Ronnie came in after him.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
Rachel gave Ronnie a look like he was an idiot. "How long do you think it'll take Tri-I to find out he's a Controller? Probably as soon as he walks in the door."
"Isn't that a good thing?" Ronnie responded. "Then Tri-I could take over-"
Tobias cut him off. "Not an option. Not now that Crayak and Azmaveth have written in that 'inaction clause'. We have to stop Tri-I from learning the truth. Which means we have to grab the Chief before he even gets to Tri-I H.Q."
Tobias was in full leader-mode now. He turned to Rachel. "We need to get in touch with Dan, find out what he knows. Tri-I won't wait on this, they'll get the Chief to them as soon as possible. We're looking at a dangerous mission with minimal planning. We'll need David and Al from school. James is at work right now, we'll need him too. Cassie, I need you to-"
Tobias cut off, staring at the TV. Then he said a word I can't repeat. Rachel covered her stomach as though she could stop the baby from hearing it. "What is it?"
We all turned to the TV, which we had stopped paying attention to. Rachel's dad was going on about a new story now. My eyes caught on before my ears did and I found myself looking at the picture that had replaced that of P. C. Rossin.
The eyes were the first thing I noticed. It felt like his eyes were looking directly into my soul and knew exactly how to hurt me. It was like someone was pouring liquid nitrogen on my heart. His eyes burned me, but it was cold burn. If the Visser had eyes in his natural body, these would have been then.
The rest of his face was unremarkable. He really wasn't handsome at all. He looked unhappy, almost like he was disappointed in me. I think that was his constant expression. His hair was a sort of light brown, maybe blond. It might have just been the lighting in the picture. I knew this man. I had seen him before, though we hadn't spoken to each other.
Vladmir Vladimirovitch Putin.
I realized all of this in an instant. Rachel's dad was making an announcement. "- plans to visit several cities across the U.S. to rally support for the war." He started listing some cities. Omega Front was one of them. So was Alpha Front.
Tobias said that word again. Rachel hit him in the arm. "Stop that."
Tobias shook his head. "This is bad. Ronnie, go get David and Al from school. Rachel, call your father. Rachel, call James and tell him he needs to get back to the apartment now!" He turned to me. "Cassie, you -"
He cut off. The portable holo-emitter in his pocket was buzzing. "What now?"
Tobias set the emitter on the table. It was vaguely egg-shaped, like a lot of Andalite tech. It was a pale orange, with a red circle at the thinner end and a green lens at the wider part. Down the center was a yellow strip. Tobias put tow fingers to the red pad and a faintly-green image appeared above the lens.
Alloran-Semitur-Corrass. I recognized him instantly. He nodded. "Commander-Prince," he greeted Tobias. A voice came out of the yellow part of the device, since this one wasn't capable of transmitting thought speak like a proper one would be. "We just received a very…unusual….transmission from the Yeerks."
"You intercepted a transmission?" Tobias asked.
Alloran shook his head. "No, we didn't It was sent to us intentionally, which is part of why it is so strange."
"What did they want?" I asked.
"It was from their Undervisser, Guraff Four-Two-Seven." Alloran turned his main eyes to Tobias. "You fought hin in the battle above Hork-bajir. I am not sure if you remember who he is."
Tobias managed not to smile. Then again, even when he intends to smile, he usually managed not to. "I've heard of him. What did he want?"
"He wants you to contact him. He left us a communications channel for you to do so. Do you have any idea why he might be doing this?"
"No clue," Tobias answered. "I guess I should call him, though. It's only polite."
Alloran nodded. "Be very, very careful, Commander. Guraff was Esplin's top man and I can assure you from far too much experience that he is perhaps the most dangerous Yeerk in the galaxy. Be very, very careful."
"I think I can handle it," Tobias assured him.
"The electorate will, of course, want to hear the details of your conversation."
"Of course. Is that all?"
"Yes. Alloran out."
Tobias dialed up Guraff's channel. Guraff himself answered. His holographic image was only about a foot high, but there was still an imposing air about him. Not that aura of evil like the Visser or Salheer had. This was an aura of…steel, or iron.
"That was prompt, Devil Prince."
"Well, this is sort of important," Tobias answered.
"Indeed. I hope you do not mind the convoluted method I was forced to use. You have done a very good job of hiding yourself. You know why I called?"
"Of course, though I'm surprised that you did."
"What are you two talking about?" I interrupted. How could Tobias already know what this was about?
Tobias turned to me. "If Tri-I finds out that the Chief is a Controller, we all die. So we have to stop Tri-I from getting him from the F.B.I. Guraff knows this as well as we do."
Guraff nodded. "The Devil Prince knows me well. I have the resources to obtain the chief, and a viable plan as well. Unfortunately, we do not possess the necessary knowledge to bring it to fruition."
"What's the plan?" Tobias asked.
"Something we shall discuss in due time, I think. Before we speak of it, we need information. We need to know when and how Tri-I and the F.B.I. are making the transfer. I am confident that you will be able to discover that. Contact me again once you have, and we will discuss the plan."
"What's in it for us?" Tobias asked. "Why help you instead of doing it ourselves?"
"If you aid us, you will have my resources at your disposal. And I will allow you to keep the Chief. He is of no use to me anymore. Think on this offer and contact me soon. For now, we must both prepare."
"For what?" I asked.
"For Mister Putin's arrival, of course." He cut the transmission and his hologram disappeared.
Rachel came back into the room. "I got James for about two seconds. He said hello, and then I heard a smashing sound and the phone stopped working."
"I was afraid of that," Tobias muttered. "Sergio's got a very strict no-phones policy. It's either because he doesn't want to take the chance of a call to the warehouse getting triangulated by police, or because he's completely insane. Maybe both."
"So how do we contact James?" I asked.
"Call Sergio's office. He'll pass on a message from me to James. Let's go. Ronnie can give us a lift back to the apartment. We've got a lot of work to do. We've got to save a police chief from Tri-I and a world leader from the Yeerks, and God knows how much time we have." He paused. Then he shook his head. "Maybe after this, I'll figure out some way to get my hand son the Time Matrix again and take an ice relaxing vacation somewhere before this all happened."
We all piled into Ronnie's car. Tobias was riding shotgun, the holo-emitter in one hand, Ronnie's cell phone in the other. He was dialing the cell phone now. "Sergio! It's Tobias." He paused and we could faintly hear someone talking on the other end. "Yeah, right. Listen, I need to talk to James, it's important."
Again, we heard a bit of shouting. A minute or so later, Tobias was speaking again. "James, you need to get back to the apartment right now. Something's come up….Yeah, I know….I don't know, break your foot or something….So don't let him cut it off….Yeah, sure, bring her, too…. See you soon."
Then he called Jake on the emitter. "Jake, we have a problem. Have you been watching the news?"
Since it was a hologram, we could hear Jake's response. "No, why?"
"Putin's paying you a visit."
"He's gong to be touring around America, giving speeches in support of the war. One of his stops is back home. I figured you might want to check his speech out. It should be pretty exciting."
"Will do. Is he stopping in your city?"
"Yeah, though I don't know why he'd stop at a little place like this. I'm definitely going to be keeping an eye on him, though."
"Alright. Let me know how it goes."
"I'll keep you posted."
Ronnie left us at the apartment and then went to go get Al and David from school. Rachel paced around the apartment, restless. Tobias sat in a chair. Though he was sitting still, he somehow managed to look just as restless as Rachel did. I knew that both of them were eager to get to work on these problems, but there wasn't much we could do.
Rachel's dad was still at work and couldn't help us at the moment, and we couldn't do much planning without James, Al, and David. We couldn't do anything, and if there's one thing Tobias and Rachel hate, it's sitting around while they should be solving some problem.
"We can't get the Chief while he's in FBI custody," Tobias began. "They'll have him guarded, and there's no way we could pull off something like that without exposing ourselves."
"We could give it a shot," Rachel suggested.
"We could also very easily get killed," I added.
Tobias nodded. "And going after him at Tri-I is even more suicidal. So we'll have to hit them in transit. When they're shipping him from wherever the FBi has him to Tri-I, we jump in and get him out of there."
"My dad probably knows where he is, and he might be able to find out how they're getting him from point A to point B," Rachel continued. "I guess the hard part will be getting him between them."
"What about Putin?" I asked.
Tobias shrugged at that. "We've got no information on Putin. We don't know exactly when he's getting here, how he's doing it, or where exactly he's going to go. Without knowing anything, it's hard to plan."
"Maybe we won't even have to worry about him," I suggested. "You know that Tri-I will be keeping an eye on him, and he's got his own security. Do you really think the Yeerks can come up with a way to deal with that?"
"We're dealing with Guraff," Rachel answered. "I'm not going to take chances. My dad might have information on that, too."
"He'd better. We don't have anything else to go on," Tobias sighed. "If Tri-I doesn't have this info, no one will. There might be some stuff in the Russian government systems, but I don't Al can get access to those from here."
"You're sure?" I asked.
He nodded. "We tried it a few weeks ago, after Putin started gaining more and more influence with the Andalites. We wanted to keep an eye on him, but we couldn't get into his systems from here."
"What do you mean he's been gaining influence with the Andalites?" Rachel asked.
"Putin has been Earth's strongest pro-war advocate. He's constantly urging the other governments to step up efforts to send troops into the battles. The Andalites like him for that, and he's been in contact with the Electorate. They put a lot of weight behind his opinions. Far too much for my liking. I wanted to keep an eye on him, but like I said, it's not easy."
"How do you know that the Electorate listens to him?" I asked him.
"Because the Electorate also consults Alloran on a lot of things and he keeps me informed. He doesn't like or trust Putin. According to Alloran, Putin reminds him of Esplin."
"Can't say I'm a fan of his either," I admitted. "And I definitely don't like that the Electorate consults him a lot."
"I'm more worried about him taking control there," Tobias responded. "And it's starting to look like that's exactly what he's doing. They ask him where to deploy troops, and how. They ask him about negotiating alliance with some of the undecided races. They don't always listen to him, but just the fact that they're asking him worries me."
Rachel nodded. "He can't possibly know more about this than Andalite generals who have been fighting this war for decades. He's totally new to this sort of war."
"Actually, he seems to be succeeding rather well," Tobias admitted. "I'm just worried that by the time this is all over, the Andalites are just going to be Russian puppets. Nothing against the Russians or Putin; I just don't like the idea of the Andalites being Russian puppets any better than I like the idea of Russia being an Andalite puppet."
I was more worried about that than Tobias was, I think. If Alloran, of all people, said Putin reminded him of Esplin, it was most likely true. No one knew Esplin better than Alloran did. And I didn't like the idea of a world, maybe even this whole sector of the galaxy, taking orders from a man like Esplin.
James and Kristina came through the door a few minutes later. He was limping badly, leaning against Kristina for support. "What happened to you?" Rachel asked.
"Sergio wouldn't let me go as long as I could still work," James answered. I couldn't help but notice that instead of sitting down anywhere, he had elected to continue leaning on Kristina. I hoped I was reading too much into it. "So I dropped a crate on my foot and broke it so I could come back here."
"A crate of what?" I asked.
James shook his head. "That's not a question we ask." He still wasn't sitting down. "So, what's the emergency?"
"Two things," Tobias said, quickly outlining the situation and what he'd already decided about grabbing the Chief. The whole time, James remained standing. Now, maybe I read too much into things, but when a guy stands around on a broken foot for that long, it generally has to have something to do with a girl. And considering the fact that he was leaning against one at the moment…
I shook my head and really, really hoped Rachel didn't notice what I was noticing. James was, the last time we checked, with Jordan, Rachel's sister. And if Rachel ever suspected that James had even had so much as an idle thought about cheating on her sister, it would probably take Tobias and Guraff together to hold her back.
"Maybe you should sit down," I suggested to James. I don't know if he understood my tone of voice, but he did sit down.
"Or just morph that away," Tobias suggested. James nodded and began morphing to hawk. Once he was a hawk, he started chuckling at something.
"What?" Rachel asked.
(You'll hear it in a minute or so.)
In about a minute, we did hear two voices as someone started unlocking the door. The first was Al's voice. "- even know what a crush is, David."
David's voice responded. "It's like that thing you've got for Kristina." They entered the apartment. David looked around and his eyes fell on Kristina. He let out a deep breath. "Awkward moment is awkward."
Ronnie turned to shut the door behind them. "Raleigh?" Tobias began.
Ronnie stopped. He'd gotten used to Tobias calling him by different names. "Yeah?"
"Wait outside and let me know when Rachel's dad gets here. I'm going to be on the emitter with Guraff and he doesn't need to know where we get our information. Al, get on the computer and see if you can find out anything about what's going on with Putin. Rachel, I want…"
I sort of tuned Tobias out for a moment after that as Ronnie left the room. The others didn't see it, but I did. Tobias had no idea that he'd just hurt Ronnie's feelings pretty badly. Ronnie didn't want to be an Animorph, sure, but he also didn't want to get relegated to the role of door man. Especially not when Kristina, affiliated with us only by accident, got to stay and help.
I followed Ronnie without bothering to explain myself to Tobias. He'd go one without me for a few minutes. I closed the door behind me and took a good long look at Ronnie. The signs were there, subtle, almost hidden, but I could see them. He was upset and I knew about what. He was always upset when he was banished from our meetings like a child.
I don't think any of the others could even describe Ronnie. They'd probably just say tall, black, and Rachel and Kristina might add the word handsome, though he definitely wasn't Rachel's type. They never really even noticed him.
Ronnie's the tallest man I know, I think. He's about six and a half feet tall, and athletically built. He basically grew up in the woods, and he still looked the part. He had about two days' growth of beard and black, curly hair that he always kept short, almost military style. He was strong, one of the strongest people I know both inside and out.
The others didn't understand him. When he asked me to leave the war behind a few months ago, they thought he was being selfish. So did I, at first. But then I realized the truth. He wasn't asking me to stop fighting because he hated it. He was asking me to stop because I hated it. I was trapped doing the thing I hated most, reliving the nightmare that I had when I was a teenager. He watned to save me from that, to help me stop. So he took a huge gamble. He wagered my love for him against my sense of duty. And in the end, my love was stronger.
He could have lost me, asking me to quit like that. I think he made a lifelong semi-enemy of Tobias, and maybe the other Animorphs as well. He'd looked weak and selfish in front of them, and those are two personality traits that don't go well with my friends. They had no clue who he really was. He wasn't selfish. And he was anything but weak.
His mother died giving birth to him. His father had been killed by a mountain lion when he was five. He'd gone off to live with is grandfather, an old man who lived in a cabin in the mountains. When Ronnie was fifteen, the Yeerks infested his grandfather. They wanted to keep an eye on the mountains, looking for the free Hork-bajir. They didn't bother to infest Ronnie until near the end, when they were looking for us in the mountains.
None of my friends had any clue about the pain and loss Ronnie had known in his life. No one had ever bothered to ask him. Tobias didn't even know his name. And Ronnie, quiet, thoughtful Ronnie, never bothered to tell them. He never bothered to fight for their respect. It just wasn't who he was. Because of that, they thought he was weak, small, insignificant. Most of them don't realize the kind of strength it takes to stand by and let that happen. It takes strength to hurt someone; it takes more to let yourself be hurt.
I put an arm around Ronnie. "I'm sorry. Should I – "
He shook his head. "No. At least, not now. You've got important things to do. But…I've been thinking. About what we were talking about last night?"
"What did you decide?"
"No. I don't care if it'd make them accept me more. I'm not going to ask to join you. I'm…I'm not a killer, Cassie. I can't be an Animorph."
I hugged him. "I know. I just wish they'd realize that a war takes more than soldiers."
"I'm not going to be the one to tell Tobias how to fight his war. But you get back inside. Like I said: you've got important things to do."
When I entered, there were a couple holograms floating. An image of Guraff was hovering above Tobias's emitter. Ax was projecting a map from the emitter on the computer. It was a map of our city, the nearby city where Tri-I's local headquarters was, and the area in between.
One building in our city was highlighted in green, as was the Tri-I headquarters. The green building in our town was labeled PRISON. It must have been where the FBI was holding the Chief. Tobias turned to me as I walked in. "Point A," he commented, stabbing the prison with his finger. Then he poked the Tri-I building. "Point B. And somewhere in here," he circled the area in between, "is where we have to grab the Chief."
(The problem,) David began, now demorphed, (is that we can't let Tri-I know who's behind it. That's going to be a problem. An Operative gets killed in one city. A prisoner gets taken from them in another. If we don't manage to pin this on someone, they're going to get the impression that someone's gunning for them.)
"We can see to that," Guraff answered. "The Apostates and I have been discussing that problem. Several of the Apostates have acquired high-ranking members of one of the local crime syndicates. We can arrange it so that, when we rescue the Chief, there is evidence implicating that syndicate. They will be blamed, or at least investigated, for the abduction, leaving both of us safe from scrutiny."
I noticed something in Guraff's voice when he mentioned the Apostates. It was difficult to tell, since he was a Yeerk with a Hork-bajir host, but it sounded like scorn, or maybe even disgust. He did not like the Apostates. I had no idea why.
"How are we going to get our hands on him?" James asked.
"We'll think of that once we're sure of the timing and the rout they're taking," Tobias answered. "Guraff, what resources can you provide us with?"
"Vehicles, weapons, and several Apostates."
"And I have your guarantee that those Apostates won't, say, decide to use said vehicles and weapons against us once we get the Chief?"
"You have my word, Devil Prince. You know I would never break it."
Tobias nodded. "That's why I'm agreeing to this, after all. I - " he cut off as Ronnie opened the door.
Tobias turned back to Guraff without acknowledging Ronnie. "As you just heard, we've got a visitor. Probably best that they don't see a Hork-bajir in the living room."
Guraff nodded. "Contact me again once you know the timing and we will finalize our plans." The image disappeared.
Ronnie ushered Rachel's dad into the room. "Sorry I couldn't get here earlier. It wasn't easy to skip out of work earlier. I had to fake sudden, violent illness during a commercial break. I know you kids are already planning, but you need to move on this now."
"When are they moving the Chief?" Tobias asked.
"Tonight. Midnight. And there's good news and bad news about that. It's about the same time Putin's jet is scheduled to land at the airport."
"He's coming tonight?" Rachel butted in.
Dan nodded. "I'm afraid so. He kept this very quiet, even from Tri-I. I guess he's paranoid, and rightfully so. Now, Tri-I is going to have every man we can spare keeping an eye on him as long as he's in the states. That means that the Chief isn't going to be as heavily guarded as he would be otherwise."
"It also means that now we know why Guraff is so concerned that we help him with the Chief," Tobias finished.
David nodded. I'd gotten used to animals nodding a while ago. (While we're grabbing the Chief, Guraff's going to be grabbing Putin.)
"We'll have to make sure we work faster than Guraff can, then," Rachel answered. "We get in, grab the Chief, take him back here, and -"
(We don't take him back here,) David interrupted. (I think I know why Guraff wants us to take him. He's probably got some sort of tracking device in or on the Chief. We grab the Chief and Guraff just follows him straight to where we live.)
"An easily solved problem," Tobias answered. "We'll stash the Chief in the Reliquary until Al can remove the tracer. If we keep the Reliquary mobile, Guraff won't get any information from it."
"How do we get him there?" James asked.
"That depends on where we're going to be getting him from in the first place," Tobias answered, turning back to Dan. "Do you know how they're getting him from A to B?"
"By car. A white, unmarked vehicle with three Tri-I Operatives in it. I know the route they're going to be taking, too. I got my hands on the file when my supervisor wasn't paying attention."
"Any EPICs?" I asked, remembering the stories the Omegamorphs had told us of the Tri-I Operative they had met just recently. Carl Yastrzemski. He'd survived a one-on-one fight with Guraff. People like that had to be taken very, very seriously.
Dan shook his head. "There aren't many EPICs, and all of the ones in the area will be covering Putin. Rumor has it that Adrian Rook himself will be personally keeping an eye on Putin."
"That's a plus," Rachel said. "We know that the Yeerks don't have people in Tri-I, which means they probably don't even know about the EPICs. Guraff won't be expecting someone with that kind of skill."
"Skill? Rook could probably strangle a Kelbrid if he got in the mood," Dan laughed. "Your Yeerk friends are going to be in for a nasty surprise."
At the same time, Tobias and Rachel both said roughly the same thing. "That's my favorite kind."