The Rescue Chronicles #1: The Death

The Liberation Chronicles #1: The Death

Dedication: For "J." Always for "J." Love you 4-ever.

DISCLAIMER: I don't own these characters. They belong to Scholastic and KA Applegate and I use them solely as a creative outlet. So please don't sue me! I have $15. It's really NOT worth it! But I know that KA and Scholastic would never do that. Unlike certain other authors who shall remain nameless.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Well, hello, everyone. It's certainly been awhile. Thought I'd better post something so you'd stop wondering if I was dead or alive.
First of all, for those of you who emailed me about "The Kingdom Chronicles" they'll get out . . . some time. After the whole Feist fiasco (Oh, dear. He's no longer nameless.), I really needed a break from those stories. Frankly, they lost their appeal when someone threatened to sue me. (But hey, I'm not bitter.) So I turned to good ol' Animorphs for comfort.
Second of all, thank you to my "editors": Kat, my fellow night-owl who stays up till one in the morning with me, reading each chapter as I write it despite the fact she's three hours ahead of me time-zone wise; and the Wanderer, for giving me several outstanding ideas – which you won't see until later stories.
Thirdly, this series is a companion series to "The After-Earth Chronicles," which was the very first series I wrote. When I finished the third story in that series I left it hanging. Basically, all the Animorphs were alive, happy (sorta), well, and living on the Andalite homeworld (or stationed somewhere in the Andalite military). Earth, however, was totaled. But at the end of "The Trial," which is the last story, they were talking about taking it back. I thought at the time that I'd probably do a sequel series, but got involved in other stuff. So now it's happening. This series, like the other, is very Ax-centered, so if you can't stand him don't read it. This first one is an emotionally-centered little ditty that just kinda sets the stage for stuff to come.
Anyway, thanks for enduring my way too long author's note and enjoy the story. ^i^

The Liberation Chronicles #1: The Death

Chapter One – Aximili

The Bug fighters exploded.

Twenty points of fiery, orange light appeared outlined against the blackness of space, as the unprepared Yeerk fleet met with the latest in Andalite technology – an invisible wave of energy that rolled out from its origin (in this case, the Andalite Dome ship Noorlin), and destroyed everything in its path for a five hundred mile radius. This wasn't far in terms of space travel, but the Yeerk Bug fighters had all been within three hundred miles of the Dome ship – and had all been utterly destroyed.

But, as is the case with all weapons, it had its downfalls.

Status report, Warrior Remir, I said, looking at one of the many Andalite warriors clustered around the controls on the bridge.

Our bio-scans show no organisms except Andalites and humans within its reaches. However, the deployment of the energy wave took much of our resources. We are operating at 30% efficiency.

I nodded. That was the reason that we did not use the energy wave more often – it left the Dome ship's own energy supplies decimated for up to a week. However, when it was used, the extremely new technology resulted in complete destruction of any and all Yeerk forces within the area.

Thank you, Warrior Remir. Please send word to Tactical Officer Rachel that we must conserve as much energy as possible. And please make contact with the Dome ship Tiger. War-Prince Jake intended to engage Visser Five's other fleet in Sector 9 today, and I wish to know the outcome of the battle.

Yes, sir, he said, and turned to carry out my orders.

Warrior Darrian, I said, addressing an Andalite standing at the controls.

Captain? he said.

Please inform me when contact with the Tiger is established. Until then, I will be in my quarters.

Yes, sir.

I left the main bridge and made my way through the labyrinth of hallways to my quarters. As captain, I was awarded the largest quarters on the ship, though I rarely had the time to enjoy them. The main features were a computer console, viewing screen, and two holograms – one of my family; my father for whom the ship was named, my mother, my brother, Elfangor, and myself when I was much younger; and one of my human friends, War-Prince Jake, Prince Rachel, Cassie, Tobias, and Prince Marco. I paced restlessly, waiting for word from Prince Jake.

Suddenly, the view screen snapped to life. Captain Aximili, Warrior Darrian said. Contact with War-Prince Jake and the Tiger has been made.

Thank you. What communication line?

Ten, sir.

Thank you, Warrior Darrian.

His picture faded and I pressed a code that patched me through to Rachel's quarters. Rachel, Prince Jake is on communication line ten.

"'Kay, thanks, Ax," she said.

A few seconds later, I had a split screen in front of me – half of which was filled with Rachel's cool blue eyes and blonde hair, the other half of which held Prince Jake's brown hair, eyes, and customary stern expression.

"How'd it go, Jake?" Rachel asked, skipping the usual formalities.

He grinned and the lines around his eyes disappeared. "We kicked Yeerk butt."

Congratulations. We, too, have a victory to report, I said.

His smile widened. "This war is turning around," he remarked.

"Yeah," Rachel agreed. "If the monthly reports are any indication, we're beating the Yeerks four out of five engagements. The slugs are getting sloppy."

I nodded. Yes. And our technology has improved rapidly while theirs has not. If the war continues to move in our direction, we may be able to shift our focus from preventing more planets from being taken by the Yeerks to liberating those already enslaved.

"You mean . . .?" Rachel trailed off and caught my eyes through the screen.

Jake nodded in agreement. "Yes, if the war continues to go as well as it has, we might be able to talk about taking Earth back as more than just wishful thinking."

Rachel's smile widened and her icy blue eyes glittered dangerously. "You know I'm there," she said.

"Good grief, Rachel. It's still a long way from reality. Besides, you're what, twenty-five now? And a mother?"

"Hey, do you see me at home, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen while Tobias is out here?" she answered. "No. I'm still Xena, Warrior . . . Prince, I guess." She laughed. "Speaking of 'Xena,' have you heard from Marco lately?"

"Yeah, I got a communication from him just the other day. He's stationed on the homeworld right now, working on some top-secret project we're not even allowed to know about." Marco was a high-placed computer specialist.

We received communications from Tobias yesterday, I said. His classes are going well. Tobias, Rachel's husband, my shorm, and Elfangor's son, was teaching a xenobiology course on humans at one of the universities on my homeworld. He was also raising his and Rachel's daughter Sara while Rachel was away.

"That's good. Next time we all get offered leave we should take it – Ax," he emphasized. Unlike the others, I had not been home on leave since my father died. I had not felt the need, since I did not have a wife and children. "By the way, Cassie and I spoke two days ago and she said she needed to talk to you."

She did? I asked, surprised.

"Yeah. I think you should get a hold of her as soon as possible. She sounded like it was urgent."

All right, I agreed. It struck me as odd. Cassie, who had married Prince Jake, was a civilian physician – after my friends and I were rescued she had no desire to be involved in the military, though I suspected that if Earth was once more at stake she might change her mind. She was a good friend, but not someone I communicated with on a regular basis. I usually heard about her from Prince Jake.

I suddenly felt uneasy.

Rachel and I did not speak with Prince Jake for very long. Visual communications were not terribly draining on our resources, but considering the energy depletion we were experiencing, we were not eager to waste more than was necessary. And before the day was over I would have to speak to Cassie.

The screen went blank as Prince Jake and Rachel signed off. I considered returning to the bridge, but remembered what Prince Jake had said about Cassie sounding like it was urgent. I punched in the code for the main bridge. Yes, Captain? Warropr Darrian said.

How are our energy reserves?

Considering our circumstances, they are quite good. We should be back to full power in two days.

Good.

Was there something else, Captain?

Yes. I need to contact War-Prince Jake's wife, Cassie. She is on the homeworld, working as a physician at Space-Dock Three.

Yes, sir.

Thank you. The screen went blank again.

I paced again as I waited. Inexplicably, I felt tense, and could feel my shoulder muscles tighten in anticipation of ill news. It was several minutes before the screen brightened again. "Hi, Ax," Cassie greeted me, smiling. It had been nearly a year since we saw each other.

Hello, Cassie, I said. Prince Jake said you wished to speak to me.

"Yes . . ." She shook her head. "Prince Jake? You still call him that? You have the same rank now, Ax."

Yes, but it is an old habit, and something of a joke between he and myself. For the sake of tradition . . . I shrugged, and became serious. Cassie, he said it was urgent. What is it?

Her smile faded and she bit her lip. "Ax," she began, and stopped, averting her eyes from mine for a moment.

An icy feeling settled in my stomach, and I swiveled one stalk eye around to glance at the holograms behind me. Something was wrong.

Cassie, what is the matter? Please tell me.

She hesitated, and finally said, softly, "It's your mother, Ax."

My mother? What . . . ? No, not my mother. She was all the family I had left. My brother and father were dead. She . . . and Tobias . . . were all that were left of the family in the hologram.

"She's sick," she said, as gently as possible.

Sick. How sick?

Cassie shifted her gaze for an uncomfortable moment, and then met my eyes. "I think," she said carefully, "that you should come home on personal leave."

I closed my main eyes and nodded numbly.

My mother was dying.

Chapter Two – Aximili

My mind was reeling. My father had died very suddenly of a massive stroke that the best Andalite medical technology couldn't save him from. My mother had a rare form of cancer, Cassie said. It was one of the last types of cancer that Andalite medicine had not found a cure for. Nothing could be done.
How long? I had asked, barely able to process the information.
"A month at most." She hesitated. "Probably less."
A month. I didn't answer because my mind was frozen. I would barely make it home in time. Probably less . . . that would be impossible without using Rapid Tunnel Z-Space Travel. But the RTZST took energy – something we didn't have at the moment.
"I'm so sorry, Ax," Cassie said, interrupting my thoughts.
Does Tobias know? I asked.
"Yes, I told him yesterday."
We received communications from him . . . he didn't say anything . . .
"Rachel mentioned that you expected to meet with Yeerk forces sometime today. We didn't want you to be worrying over this, too."
Yes . . .
"Tobias and Sara are going to stay with your mother. It's not too far to the university from your family's scoop, and your mom loves to see her great-granddaughter. I'm going to take some time off as well, so there'll always be someone with her. She'll be well-cared for and happy."
I nodded. Thank you. I realize how difficult that will be for you.
"Your mother's treated me like a daughter, Ax. It's the least I can do." She paused. "When can you come home?" she asked.
I . . . I don't know. Our energy reserves are depleted. It will be two days until we have full power again. Another day until I dare employ the RTZST system . . . from there, it will be at least two weeks until we reach home.
She said nothing, but I could read in her eyes that that might be too late. "What are your orders?"
We were supposed to return home anyhow . . . but it was to be a very brief stop, not even enough time to leave the base. And we aren't scheduled to return for another twenty-five days, because we were planning to stop at one of the Andalite outposts for three days.
"Can you come straight home?"
I believe I can arrange it.
"Then do it," Cassie said quickly. But then her voice and eyes softened. "I love your mother, Ax. Almost like my own mom." She smiled, but it quickly faded and worry lines creased her forehead. "I won't lie to you. The chances of her being alive twenty-five days from now are slim, and she wants to see her son one last time."
If it appears that she is not going to live . . . the base knows how to contact me in an emergency. I want to see her.
She nodded. "Hang in there, Ax."
Yes, Cassie. Thank you.
"I'm sorry."
It is most certainly not your fault, I replied, though I felt an irrational urge to blame someone, anyone.
"I'll send reports through Tobias, okay?"
Yes, thank you.
"Bye."
Good-bye.
The screen went blank again, and I turned and stared at the hologram of my family. Elfangor . . . gone, murdered at the hands of Visser Three, who was now the head of the Yeerk High Council. My father . . . dead. And now my mother . . . dying. Tobias was not in the hologram.
I felt physically ill.
I stood there for over an hour. Finally there was a quiet knock on my door and it slid open.
"Ax?" Rachel said
Hello, Rachel.
"I just talked to Cassie. She told me about your mother. I'm really sorry." In an uncharacteristic gesture of affection, Rachel reached out and squeezed my hand. She had been my T.O. for nearly a year now, and though we did not always agree, we respected each other, as people and as warriors. Also, she was, in a way, related to my mother, though she wasn't as close to her as Cassie was.
I nodded. Thank you, I mumbled. I shook my head. No matter what was happening in my personal life, I could not allow it to affect my command of the Dome ship. We . . . we shall need to forego our scheduled stop at the outpost . . . Cassie says my mother may live less than the twenty-five days it would take us to reach the homeworld if we don't, I said matter-of-factly, though it made my chest ache to say the words.
"And we'll switch into RTZST as soon as it's safe," she assured me. "Don't worry about it. I'll take care of stuff – "
No, I said, shaking my head. I will be fine. This is my ship. The fact that my mother is dying does not affect that. The words were strange in my head. My mother is dying. I quickly put the thought into the back of my mind and tried to bury myself in commanding the Noorlin. There were decisions to be made, and as captain it was my job to make them. I was not an aristh who had the luxury of mourning.
"Okay, whatever you want, Ax."
Whatever I want. There was that ache in my chest again, the icy feeling in my stomach. I wanted my family to be as it was when that hologram was taken – my brother and father alive, and my mother healthy. But it would never be that way again. I felt a wave of nausea wash over me.
"Ax, you okay?"
I shuddered, but said, Yes, thank you, Rachel.
She checked a clock and said, "It's late. The night shift should be preparing for duty. I'll oversee the change and let the crew know what's going on while I'm at it. Why don't you get some sleep?"
Overseeing the change between shifts was normally the T.O.'s duty, but technically I should have been the one to inform them of the alterations in our course. Tomorrow, I will contact the outpost and tell them we will not be arriving, I said.
She nodded. "Tomorrow," Rachel agreed. "Good night, Ax."
Good night. And, Rachel?
"Yes?"
Thank you.
"No problem."
She left and I paced again, feeling my shoulder muscles cramping as they did when I received ill news or was under pressure. I had not eaten since that morning, and though it was now nearly midnight by the space clock on my wall, I had no appetite.
I could not imagine life without my mother. I hadn't seen her since the last time I was home on leave, which was nearly two years ago, and now I felt bitter pangs of regret. I had been given the opportunity to go home several times; each time I had rejected it.
Finally, I stopped and stood next to the wall, staring at the hologram from across the room. I reached up to touch it, and felt a faint tingling sensation in my fingers as my hand passed through it. I closed my eyes.
Aximili!
Mother?
Your brother is home! I had never heard my mother sound so happy.
I ran as hard as I could across the grass toward my scoop. My brother, Prince Elfangor, a great hero, was home for the first time since my birth.
At the stream that flowed across our fields, I paused. I was young, less than a year, and had not yet tried to jump the stream. There was a small bridge a few yards down, but I wanted desperately to jump it as my parents did.
Suddenly I heard the thudding of hoofs behind me. I turned and saw an Andalite sail over the stream and land gracefully on the other side. He was tall, or at least appeared tall from my child's point of view, with a tail that looked powerful, even while resting on the ground. He turned to look at me, and I was struck by a face that, when it was younger, must have mirrored my own.
Aximili? he said.
I nodded dumbly, intimidated into silence by the great figure that stood before me.
I'm Elfangor. He smiled at me and I felt a little more at ease, though there were still kafit birds fluttering madly in my stomach.
Hello, I said shyly.
Can you jump the stream, little brother?
Not yet. Or . . . actually, I have not attempted it. I don't think –
You never know unless you try, he said.
I looked at the water and backed up. I hesitated, but I wanted more than anything to jump the stream like my brother. I took a deep breath and ran. I jumped, pulled my legs up under me, and –
Fell in.
The next thing I knew Elfangor was pulling me out of the stream. I believe, Aximili, that you need to grow a few more inches before braving the stream again.
I nodded, feeling utterly humiliated. But then he grinned at me. Do not worry about it. When I was your age, I could not jump the stream either.
I smiled back.
Elfangor! I heard my mother cry. I turned and saw her racing toward my brother and I.
Hello, Mother, he said, turning his rare and wonderful smile to her. They touched tail blades, and my mother took his hand.
It is wonderful to see you again, my son. I was so worried about you. I could not miss the pride in her voice. Even then I wondered if she would ever look at me the way she looked at him, or be as proud of me as she was of him.
I am well, Mother. He paused. I enjoy the army, he added in a strange voice.
A few minutes later, my father appeared. Detached as though I were a stranger, I watched as my mother, father, and brother were reunited. After a few seconds, my mother turned. Aximili-kala, why are you being shy? And, she added upon closer examination, why are you wet?
I shook my head and she smiled. Elfangor reached over and touched his massive tail blade to my small one. Then I smiled as well. My family was together.
I opened my eyes as the memory fled. The ache in my hearts intensified. In less than a month, I would be the only one of the four people present that morning alive.

Chapter Three – Aximili

Three days later, we entered RTZST. The time crept by, each day punctuated by a written communication from Tobias and Cassie. My mother was not well, and I had best hurry.
But two weeks later, when we docked at the base nearest my home scoop, the waiting message reassured me that my mother was alive. It was written by Cassie, who also warned me as tactfully as possible that my mother was not as I remembered her.
"You ready, Ax?" Rachel asked. She was dressed in the civilian clothing she and my other human friends wore when not on duty, and holding her small bag, which carried her uniforms. She and I had both turned in our military-issue Shredders after we received confirmation of our leave. The Noorlin would be stored, the highly ranked crew members (princes and a few warriors with specialized technical knowledge) would be given leave, and the minor members (arisths and most warriors) would be reassigned until Rachel and I returned, I believe so, I lied. We made our way through the compound to a platform just outside. A clear tube ran past, empty for the moment.
"Next one arrives in about ten minutes," Rachel informed me after consulting a schedule. I nodded.
A short while later, a platform enclosed in the tube pulled up. A door that had not previously been visible slid open and she and I stepped through.
"Tobias!" Rachel cried in happy surprise. I started, not having seen the human standing on the platform. He was in his early twenties by human years, and tall, with blonde hair that did not have the same golden glow as Rachel's. The platform was otherwise empty.
She rushed into his arms and he swept her into an embrace that lifted her off her feet and spun her in a circle. "Hey, Rache," he said quietly, and kissed her as humans kiss, on the mouth. After a moment, I averted my eyes and watched the scenery that was speeding by outside at over a hundred miles an hour. "Hi, Ax," he added, finally setting his wife down.
Hello, Tobias, I replied. He pushed blonde hair out of his eyes and embraced me as well.
"How're you holding up?"
I am . . . fine, I answered, without much conviction. My insides were quivering. Cassie's messages had been worded kindly, but they were unable to hide the truth – my mother was dying, there was no chance of her recovering, and it would not be an easy death.
My shorm and nephew did not answer, but his blue eyes studied me until he finally nodded. "Well, I finished up my last class for today and thought I'd take the Lift home and see if I ran into you guys."
"Where's Sara?" Rachel asked, grasping her husband's hand. She had talked of little besides seeing her daughter for the past few days. For the first time in many months she looked more like a happy mother, and less like a hardened Andalite warrior.
"With Cassie and Grandmother."
There was a moment of silence. "How is Forlay?" Rachel finally asked.
"Okay," Tobias said. "Not great. This morning she was feeling pretty good."
"That's good," Rachel said in a falsely cheerful tone. I remained silent.
"Ax," Tobias said quietly. "I have to warn you about something."
Yes?
He sighed. "Your mom's really weak, for one thing. She can't . . . she can't stand up anymore."
My stomach constricted, but I nodded. Cassie said she was very ill. I expected this. I kept my thought-speech steady, but I was suddenly aware that I was clenching and unclenching my hands into fists.
"There's more, Ax." He pushed the hair out of his eyes again and sighed. "Your friend, the female who lives on the property next to yours?"
Salia, yes. She and I had grown up together.
"She came to see your mother yesterday. Your mom kept calling her Kaylis."
I closed my eyes. Kaylis is Salia's mother, I said quietly. She was friends with my mother for years, since they were children. But Kaylis died shortly after my father did.
There was silence. "Cassie said this might happen," Tobias said at last. "I just wanted to prepare you, in case – "
No, Tobias, it is all right. Thank you.
It was another hour until the platform came to a stop before a large tree on my family's property. Tobias, Rachel, and I stepped off, and it flew away, quickly becoming a speck in the distance. Rachel and Tobias began walking toward the scoop, but I paused briefly before the gigantic tree – my Garibah, my Guide Tree. Hello, old friend, I said, as I touched the smooth bark and felt its comforting essence. I shall need you in this. Then I turned and ran to catch up with Tobias and Rachel.
As we walked I gazed around at the place I had been raised. The grass was the same as ever, the trees just as they should be. The stream – a flash of Elfangor and I shook it off. I paused and watched the water for a few seconds. "Ax?" Tobias said.
I'm sorry. I did not jump the stream the way I always had, the way my brother always had. Instead I used the small bridge, following Tobias and Rachel across.
I hadn't had the opportunity to say good-bye to my brother or my father. My last words to my brother had been, Go burn some slugs. To my father, I had said, I shall see you soon. It suddenly occurred to me that as difficult as the coming days and weeks would be, there would be no regrets at the end. My mother and I would say everything we needed to say.
A moment after the stream, we crested a hill and my home scoop was in view. "Mommy!" we heard someone scream joyfully. A tiny, blonde figure raced up the hill and threw herself at Rachel. "Mommy!" she cried again, burying her face in Rachel's hair and neck.
"Sara," Rachel whispered. She closed her eyes, but tears crept from the corners as she lifted her daughter up. "I've missed you so much."
"I missed you, too, Mama," Sara said. She hugged her mother fiercely, her small hands gripping handfuls of her mother's hair.
Rachel finally set her daughter down. "Hi, Uncle Ax," she said cheerfully.
Hello, Sara. How are you?
"Good," she giggled.
Tobias knelt down. "How's Nanna?" he asked his daughter gently.
Sara glanced at me and shook her head at her father, her brown eyes darkening slightly.
Tobias straightened and looked at me. We should go, I said.
He nodded. "Sara, why don't you go with your mom? You've got a lot of catching up to do."
"Okay," she said, brightening again. She took Rachel's hand and led her off somewhere.
"Let's go," Tobias said.
The scoop seemed darker than I remembere, but perhaps it had always been that way. Cassie met us outside and gave me a hug. "Your mom's inside," she said. "But she's not doing well. I'm glad you're finally here."
As am I, I said. Cassie gave me a small smile, and gently pushed me toward the back of the scoop. I pushed aside a partition and entered the room my parents had shared when I was little.
My mother was lying on the ground, wrapped in blankets. Even through the material I could see how thin she had become, and her face looked drawn and nearly gaunt. She was trembling, and it looked as if it took great effort for her to turn her head towards me.
Hello, Mother, I said.
She looked at me for a long moment, and I could not tell if she wanted to speak and could not, or simply wished to study me without speaking. I finally knelt awkwardly next to her, and took her hand in mine.
My son, she whispered, staring into my eyes. My brave Elfangor.

Chapter Four - Cassie

Ax came out of his mother's room looking as if someone had hit him with a ton of bricks. "What's wrong?" I asked, even though I had a good idea what had happened.

She – she thought I was Elfangor, he answered in a low voice, staring at the floor.

I bit my lip and nodded. "Oh, Ax, I was afraid of this. I tried to warn you," I said gently. I took his hand and squeezed it, but he just shifted his gaze to a bare section of wall somewhere to my right.

She seems as if she is in so much pain, he mumbled, as if he hadn't heard me. He finally met my eyes. Can you not do anything?

"I have, Ax. The medication is part of the reason her mind is so gone."

She didn't even know who I was, he murmured, looking heartbroken.

"She's been like that for the past few days," Tobias said softly.

I . . . Tobias, shouldn't you demorph? he asked in a dazed voice.

Tobias looked surprised at the abrupt and total change in subject, but managed, "Ax, they found a way to free nothlits months ago. I'm human now, remember?"

Yes . . . I'm sorry, I remember. I just can't -

"We know, it's okay." I checked my watch. "I have to go, Ax. I need to pick up Julie and Tom."

"Actually, Cassie, I can get them," Tobias said. "You should stay here and answer any questions any of Ax's questions."

I nodded in agreement. Ax shifted his weight. She thought I was Elfangor . . .

"See you in a couple minutes," Tobias said. "Hold on, Ax. Everything will be all right."

No, he replied simply.

Tobias sighed and left. I turned to Ax. "Okay, listen. I know this is hard and you feel like you want to curl up and die, but you'll survive this. And you have to help your mom."

I don't know if I can, he whispered. My brother, my father, and now my mother. My whole family, everyone I loved is gone.

"We've all lost people we loved, Ax. God only knows where my parents are now. But feeling sorry for yourself isn't going to help anything. To be totally honest, we're looking at a matter of days." He looked stricken. "Besides," I said, my voice softening. I reached for his hand. "No matter what happens, you'll always have us. We're the six Musketeers, remember?"

I know. Thank you, Cassie. Ax took a deep breath. A matter of days? he repeated disbelievingly. I nodded. Are you absolutely certain?

"Yeah, Ax. Three, four at the most. I'm glad you made it home in time. I was beginning to worry."

How may I help my mother? he finally asked after a long pause as he tried to absorb the news.

"Well, for starters – " I began, but I was interrupted by a feminine thought-speech voice.

Hello?

Ax's eyes brightened just a tad as he recognized the voice. Salia?

Aximili? A young female Andalite entered. I saw Ax's eyes flicker with a spark of interest, and I glanced at Salia-Frelin-Raleur. Her fur was purplish-blue, her torso more feminine than Ax's, and her tail blade was shorter. She was also smaller, though not by much. I wasn't sure what made an Andalite female pretty, but from the look on Ax's face, even with the sadness in his eyes, I was positive that Salia was considered attractive. I smiled to myself, remembering her reaction when I'd told her Ax was coming home.

Hello, Salia, Ax said affectionately.

She smiled at him. Hello, Aximili. She paused. I – I'm so sorry about your mother.

Thank you. Tobias mentioned that you have been visiting. I know that means a great deal to her.

Salia sighed. Most of the time, I just hope she knows I'm there. Have you spoken to her yet?

Yes. Ax breathed deeply. She thought I was Elfangor.

Oh, Aximili. She reached forward and placed a thin hand on Ax's shoulder. But I can see how she would become confused. You are the image of your brother the last time I saw him.

I am?

Of course. Didn't you know? He shook his head. You are, Aximili, she told him softly. You know, Cassie, she added, turning to me and smiling a sly, slow Andalite smile, when Aximili and I were little, I had quite a crush on Elfangor.

"Really?" I said with a grin. Ax, I noticed, was slowly perking up. Salia had one of the sunniest personalities I'd ever seen, her ingrained Andalite optimism not quite as tempered as most. It was impossible to be sad for long around her, which is part of the reason she was so good for Forlay.

Oh, yes. She turned her mischievous smile to Ax. Do you remember?

How could I forget? Ax replied ruefully. Whenever Elfangor came home on leave, it was all your mother could do to convince you to stay home and give my brother ten minutes' peace!

She laughed, and the last of Ax's melancholy mood drained from his eyes. True, Salia said. I was young and inexperienced. Elfangor was a great hero. I'm afraid I wasn't unique in my infatuation for him.

Also very true, Ax agreed, his own smile at last sneaking through in his eyes.

She stopped and studied him. You're just like Elfangor that way, she finally said. You hardly ever smile, but when you do it lights up your whole face. He rewarded her flattery with another shy smile that made him look more like the aristh we'd rescued from the bottom of the ocean twelve years before than the War-Prince he'd become.

I cleared my throat. As much as I enjoyed watching this whole exchange, I was beginning to feel like a fifth wheel. What? Oh, Cassie, Aximili said, clearly having forgotten I was even there.

"Yes, hello," I said wryly. "Look, I know you two have a lot of catching up to do, but Forlay tires easily and if you want to see her, you should do it soon. Her mind isn't as clear in the evenings."

Ax's expression dimmed as reality dawned on him again. Yes, he agreed. Salia discreetly placed her hand in his, but he barely looked as if he'd noticed. In less than five seconds, he'd gone from completely up to totally down.

It would be a rough next few days.

I led them into Forlay's room and knelt next to her bed. "Forlay?" I whispered. She dragged her eyes open and, with great effort, managed to focus them on my face.

Cassie? she murmured weakly.

"Hi. You have visitors. Salia's here. And Aximili."

Aximili is home?

Yes, Mother. I'm right here.

Her stalk eyes moved feebly in an attempt to glimpse her youngest child. Let me see my son. I got up and Ax took my place, awkwardly lowering himself to the ground.

Elfangor? she asked, as her mind slipped again. But then she quickly said, No. Not Elfangor. Aximili . . . but you look like him, so much.

Thank you, Mother. He gripped her hand.

Are you staying?

Yes.

How long? I have not seen you in years . . .

I shall stay as long as you need me.

Forlay looked past her son to Salia. Hello, Kaylis, she whispered, and I saw her eyes go out of focus. She was losing it again. But I was grateful she'd had at least a few moments of lucidity with Ax.

Not Kaylis, my derushia, Salia replied, using the Andalite word that means "mother of my heart." Salia.

Yes, of course. Salia, my shareen, Forlay replied clearly. But then she mumbled, Kaylis, Noorlin has asked for my hand.

Salia glanced at me. Forlay's eyes were drifting shut. That is wonderful, Forlay, she replied gently, choosing not argue.

Yes . . . I do love him. Her eyes closed and she drew a deep, ragged breath. I gestured for Salia and Ax to follow me out of the room.

"I'll have to leave soon," I said. "But Tobias and Sara will be here."

And Rachel as well, Ax said, somewhat shakily.

"Rachel is here?"

Yes. She went with Sara earlier.

"Oh," I said with a smile. "Then I might have to wait around till she comes back." Ax nodded, and glanced distractedly towards the room where his mother lay dying. Salia glanced at me and I sighed inwardly.

Yeah, we had rough days ahead of us.

Chapter Five – Tobias

"Hey, you two," I said cheerfully. Sitting on the ground in the school yard, Julie suddenly looked worried. Little Tom, who was barely old enough to talk, grinned at me.

"Hi, Tobias. Where's Mommy?" Julie asked. I picked Tom up and took Julie's hand.

"Well, Ax and Rachel docked at SD3 this afternoon. Your mom stayed at the scoop to answer his questions about his mother."

"Oh," she said, relieved. She looked hopefully at me. "Is Daddy with them?"

"No, sweetie." She looked crestfallen. "But I'll tell you a secret." She looked at me with wide, dark eyes.

"Your dad – "

Good-bye, Julie! a young Andalite female called as she ran past.

"'Bye, Jerril!" Julie called back. Then she looked at me. "Is Daddy coming home?" she asked excitedly.

"Shh. Maybe. He was going to see if he could arrange it."

"Yay!" she yelled, and spun in a circle with her arms held out. "Daddy's coming home!"

"Daddy!" cried Tom with a squeal of delight, not quite sure what was going on, but picking up on his sister's excitement.

"Settle down, Julie. Your dad might be coming home."

She stopped spinning, but still wore an ear to ear grin. "Silly girl," I said, ruffling her hair. "C'mon, we gotta get going."

It was a short walk to Ax's scoop. We went inside and found Rachel, Cassie, Ax, Sara, and Salia, the female Andalite who lived next to Ax, gathered in a group, talking. Sara clung to Rachel's left leg, smiling. But when she saw Julie and Tom walk in, she jumped up. "Hi, Julie!" she said. They were almost the exact same age, and as close as Cassie and Rachel had been as kids.

"How come you weren't in school today?" Julie asked, looking worried. "Are you sick?"

"Nope. Daddy let me stay home 'cause Mommy was coming." Sara grinned.

"Oh . . . hi, Rachel," Julie said.

"Hey, Julie. Wow, Tom's sure gotten big!" she said, lifting him up. He gurgled and gave her a happy smile.

"Why don't you girls take him outside? Practice his walking," I suggested.

"Okay," Sara said. Julie picked her little brother up and they disappeared out the scoop entrance.

I still find it difficult to believe that humans must learn to speak and walk, Ax remarked.

"Tom's doing pretty well," Cassie said proudly. Then she frowned. "Sometimes I'm concerned about Julie, though. She worries too much for a five-year-old, especially about Jake."

"Yeah, Sara worries about Rachel, too," I remarked. "And Julie looked upset when I picked them up today."

"She probably thought something had happened to me," Cassie said. She sighed. "I hope Jake gets his leave. I'm afraid Tom won't even know who he is."

"That's why Tobias and I didn't have any more kids after Sara," Rachel said. "It's too hard. I already feel like my daughter's being cheated out of a mother. But the only other option is to take her with me, and that's no way for her to grow up."

"True," Cassie agreed.

Salia left soon after, probably feeling weird because she was the only non-Animorph in the room. Then the kids came back and Cassie, Julie, and Tom left.

"What's for dinner?" Sara asked. "My stomach's growling."

"Dinner?" Rachel asked, glancing at me.

"Dinner . . . well, good question. I'm not sure. I think I have to defrost the kafit I have in the freezer."

"Meat?" Rachel said in surprise. "Real meat?"

"Yup, real meat. Sara and I eat a lot of kafit and these little ground rodents called cuftres. It's not exactly steak, but it's better than that gray goop stuff we used to have to eat. You add some spices and it's actually pretty good."

"Spices?" Rachel repeated, raising her eyebrows.

"Yeah, that was the tough part. Andalites aren't into to extra flavoring on their grass. But Skrit-Na are, so whenever a trader comes by SD3 I just buy a whole bunch and hope it lasts. They also manage to get a hold of vegetable seeds, probably from Yeerk outposts they raid. Sara's raising some carrots and tomatoes and stuff out back."

"Only when the cuftres don't get to them first," my daughter grumbled, remembering the morning last week when she'd gone outside to find her whole garden dug up and devoured by the small, pink, six-legged gophers.

"Cool," she said with a grin. "I've been eating gray goop for months now."

"Uncle Ax, you want some?" Sara asked.

No, thank you. I think I shall feed tonight on my home grass. He turned his stalk eyes outside, where dusk was starting to fall.

"Okay," Sara said cheerfully, still clinging to Rachel's hand.

I will see you in a few minutes, Ax said, and trotted away.

I put my arm around Rachel and breathed in the scent of her hair. "It's so good to be home," she whispered, leaning her head on my chest.

"I missed you," I said, kissing the top of her forehead.

"I missed you too, Mommy," Sara said.

"And I missed both of you." My wife sighed. "Sometimes I think I don't ever want to leave home again. Right now's one of those times."

"So don't leave," Sara said simply, craning her neck back to look at her mother.

"Sweetie, I have to."

"Why? Why do you always have to go away? Why can't you stay home?" she whined.

"Because I have to go. It's my job. Same reason Uncle Jake has to leave his family."

Sara let go of Rachel's hand and slid to the ground. "I hate it when you're gone."

"I second that," I said.

Rachel sighed. "Me too."

Chapter Six – Aximili

I watched the smallest of my world's three moons rise, and stared across the fields of my home. With only the distant Ujanier moon out, the night was an inky black. Fitting, I thought. It had been nearly two days since my mother had been conscious. Cassie, I knew, was making arrangements to stay at my scoop tonight. Rachel would take Sara, Julie, and Tom to Cassie's home, while Cassie, Tobias, and I stayed with my mother. I also knew this meant that Cassie did not expect my mother to live through the night.
Later, after I returned from feeding and my friends had eaten dinner, I saw Tobias kneel beside Sara. He whispered, but my hearing is better than a human's and I heard him anyhow. "Sweetie, you and Mom are going to go stay with Julie and Tom tonight. Now, go say good-night to Nanna."
"But she's not awake," Sara replied with a look of confusion.
"I know. Just tell her you love her and give her a hug, okay? She'll know you're there."
"Okay, Daddy." She disappeared into my mother's room.
"Okay, you three. Let's go," Rachel said after Sara had returned. They left, Sara clutching her mother's hand and casting a backward glance toward the rest of us.
Cassie wandered over to a basin of water and began washing the human eating untensils. "Got a message from the base today," she said. "Jake's coming home. Marco too."
"That's great. The whole gang will be together again," Tobias said.
"Yes," Cassie said unenthusiastically.
I thought you would be happy that Prince Jake
was returning, Cassie, I said, only half-listening to the conversation. I pulled back the partition separating the main room of the scoop from my mother's, and watched the slow, slight rise and fall of her chest. An icy feeling settled in my stomach, the same dread premonition I had felt the night Cassie had told me of my mother's illness.
"I am. And it'll be great to see Marco again, too. But for how long?" She finished the last of the plates, and took the water outside to nourish Sara's vegetable garden. "I mean," she said, coming back, "Jake comes home and life is fantastic for two or three weeks. Julie's happy and doesn't lose sleep worrying about her father. Tom . . . well, the last time Jake saw Tom, he was three months old." She shook her head. "But then he leaves, and it's worse than before. Julie not only stays up worrying, she cries herself to sleep for weeks. Tom barely even knows his father. He's seen him through the video letters he's sent, but I still don't know if he'll recognize him or not."
"Yeah, it's the same way with Rachel," Tobias agreed. "Having her home reminds us of what we're missing."
"Is it really worth it to them?" Cassie asked harshly, suddenly angry. She turned to me. "Ax, is it worth it?"
I hesitated. Finally I said, I cannot say anything about Prince Jake, but I have worked with Rachel for nearly a year now. I believe her military career gives her life a purpose that she most likely would have lost had she not continued as a warrior. But she does not value it above her family. I believe, Tobias, that if you truly asked it of her, she would come home to you permanently. But to do so would be to take away a vital part of her identity. It would also deprive the Andalite military of a brilliant tactical mind, far better than my own. In truth, Rachel could become one of the most important figures in the Galaxy War.
Tobias nodded. "I know. But," he added with a bitter edge to his voice, "in the mean time, her daughter doesn't have a mother."
There are many sacrifices to be made in this war, I said.
"My daughter's happiness should not be one of them."
"Or mine," Cassie added.
Suddenly tired of the conversation, I didn't reply. I shall sleep in my mother's room tonight, I said. There was no response, but with the one stalk eye that continued to scan the room, I saw Cassie and Tobias exchange guilty glances.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*

My eyes opened at the rustling noise and adjusted to the dim light far too slowly. Finally, I made out Cassie crouching next to my mother's head, holding her thin wrist in one hand. I had awakened when she moved from where she was sleeping to the spot where she now knelt.
Cassie? I whispered.
"Oh," she said, almost mouthing the words to avoid waking Tobias, who slept a few feet away. "Did I wake you?"
I was not truly sleeping. Is – is she all right?
Cassie bit her lip. "Her pulse is weaker and her breathing is shallower," she finally said.
"What?" came a groggy voice from the floor.
"Oh, sorry, Tobias," Cassie said apologetically as Tobias sat up rubbing his eyes.
"Don't worry about it. Grandmother?" he asked quietly.
"Not much longer," she admitted.
A nervous twitch ran through me. As I had earlier that evening, I watched the rise and fall of my mother's chest, and saw that it had grown even more ragged, uneven, and slight. Wordlessly, I lowered myself to the ground and cradled her head in my arms. There was no response, not even a twitching of her eyelids.
The four of us sat in the darkness for over an hour. There was no talking, and no one slept. I held my mother as I remembered her holding me once, when I was small and very sick with a virus. Then, the Andalite physician my parents had taken me to had given me some bitter medicine, and I had been well within a few weeks. Now my mother was dying, and no medicine, foul-tasting or not, would save her. But she would not be alone in her last moments, just as she had not left me alone while I was ill.
I listened to my mother breathe in, and relaxed for a few moments while she slowly exhaled. Then I counted the seconds until she began her next breath. One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . She inhaled faintly and I relaxed again.
New breath. One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . six . . . seven . . . I tensed, and my grip on one of her hands tightened. Next to me, Tobias sensed the small motion of my hand and moved to grip my shoulder. Twelve . . . thirteen . . . fourteen . . . Cassie took my mother's wrist and felt for a pulse. You have raised me well, I whispered to her in private thought-speak. I love you. My last words to her. No regrets. Twenty-one . . . twenty-two . . . twenty-three . . .
"She's gone, Ax," Cassie said quietly.
I nodded, closed all four of my eyes, and lowered my forehead to touch my mother's.
No regrets.
To be continued . . .