My name is Aftran. If you want me to be more specific, I am Aftran-Nine-Four-Two of the Hett Simplat pool. What does secrecy matter? I'm as good as dead. I know this for a fact even now, as I sit here watching the Animorphs gather over something very small. A caterpillar. With their threats to me temporarily withdrawn, I am all but forgotten and now only the andalite watches me from a turned stalk eye. I had expected anger -and I had certainly seen it-, but the anger was almost gone now. It had been replaced by different emotions. I was still shocked that Jake had decided to honor the deal Cassie and I had made: A life for a life. Cassie had willingly trapped herself in the body of a helpless bug, all in the hopes of freeing a single human girl. The sacrifice she had made, and the one I was about to make, had shaken me deeply.
As I sifted through my own feelings, I listened carefully to Karen's mind, gauging her reaction to this act of selflessness that would set her free. The human child's thoughts were almost incoherent at that moment, but some things were simple enough to pick up on. She was grieving. Grief for Cassie...and surprisingly, grief for me. I closed myself from her. I didn't want her grief and sadness right now. I had more than enough for myself. How long would Cassie survive in that body? Would she die in a month? In a week? Our lives would both be short. I had committed treason. What other name could my actions have? I would return to the pool and I would free Karen, but I could not hide there forever. Even though our communication is limited when we are without our hosts, I would still be noticed eventually. I had deliberately organized the end of my life. Why?
For peace. For some small measure of peace.
Because it was the right thing to do.
I squeezed Karen's eyes shut and felt tears fall. We both needed that outlet. Why did doing the right thing have to be so difficult? Why did peace have to come at the cost of suffering? Cassie had known the answer. It was because someone has to be brave enough to act. Because even though we may not be powerful enough to change the world, we must never fail to protest the wrongs committed. This deal we had struck was just that: a protest. It flew in the face of both the Animorphs and the Yeerk Empire. I chocked back some strange sound, a mixture between a laugh and a sob. A protest! It wasn't so different from the kind of protests that some humans held for better treatment of animals.
I was an activist!
This time, the noise was more laughter than sobbing, although it was still disturbing. I covered Karen's tear stained face with her hands and rocked her body back and forth to quiet us, but we had already attracted attention. Most of the Animorphs had gone, left while I was caught up in my thoughts and Karen's grief, but one had stayed. The elephant. Rachel. She had been ready to kill me -no, kill us- only a short while ago. After sharing Cassie's mind and seeing them as she saw them, the Animorphs seemed almost familiar. Rachel had not attacked me as I had initially feared, but her rage was still there. For an awkward moment we didn't speak. I choked out my hideous laughing sobs and slowly, reluctantly the animal disappeared to be replaced by a human girl.
"What exactly is so funny? Have you lost it?" Rachel asked.
I shook Karen's head as I rocked us back and forth a few more times. The motion hurt. Her little girl body had been through a lot over these past few days. I shook her head again.
"I never expected all of this," I answered simply. "I did not follow her from the battle with the intention of ruining my life."
"You had no problem ruining hers, or the rest of our lives' for that matter." Her lips were pressed into a thin line and she crossed her arms as she regarded me.
I stilled and boldly met her gaze. There was no point in denying it. I had wanted to discover their secret. I had been ready to turn them over to my superiors. I would have gotten revenge for my brother, I would have been well rewarded, and life would have been good for me.
"Well?" Rachel persisted. She waited impatiently and when I didn't answer, she shrugged. She leaned over and hauled Karen to her feet, supporting my injured host's body. I didn't fight it, even though I did not want her that close. What choice was there? Rachel pulled me over to a small rock and pushed me down to sit on it.
"Cassie believed you and Jake trusts that judgement, but why should I? Thanks to you she's stuck like that! She'll spend the rest of her life -however long that will be- as a.." Rachel's voice broke, ending the torrent of words as her fists clenched at her side. She paused for only a second before she regained the control she wanted and continued. "Tell me why I shouldn't kill you. Tell me why I should be like the others and walk away from you."
"I already told you. Not all Yeerks are like Visser Three," I said, repeating the words I had spoken earlier. "Some of us do have doubts about the way things are done, but what can we do? Me, I can do this. We had an agreement, Cassie and I. I was inside her head, you know that. I saw how she thinks and I...Let's just say we're not that different. She's your friend! How can you condemn someone with the same ideals?"
Rachel winced as though I had physically struck her. Had I hit a nerve with my comment on their friendship? She looked away and when she faced me again her eyes were red. Somehow, she had managed to hold back her tears and I pretended not to notice.
"How much of her mind did you see?" Rachel asked dryly.
I didn't answer. I was afraid of the reaction any answer might set off. A few heartbeats of silence passed. In the prison of her own mind, Karen was still crying.
"She wanted to quit," Rachel's voice was quiet now, almost a whisper. "She wanted out and I told her we couldn't be.." Rachel sniffed, wiping at her eyes and glaring at me, still trying to hide behind her anger.
"Friends," I finished the sentence for her.
She nodded fiercely, her expression had returned to one of genuine anger. Only now I couldn't be sure..was she angry at me? Or at herself?
"I thought she was afraid of being like the rest of us. Like me." Rachel was pacing in front of me know. She was moving back and forth in the grass on her bare feet.
I took a deep breath and prepared for her to turn her anger on me. "Maybe you need to be more like her," I suggested, "Maybe we all do."
She stopped and locked her blue eyes on Karen's green ones. It took a few seconds for her to answer, but it wasn't with the disagreement I had expected. "Maybe," she said finally.
I pulled Karen's body up to sit as straight as it could and I continued to hold Rachel's gaze. I wanted the truth of my next words to be clear, despite my fear.
"I will honor the deal I made with Cassie," I said carefully, "I will. I swear it."
"If you're lying...If you betray us-" Rachel's threat hung in the air between us. We both knew what she would do.
"I won't betray you." I promised.
Rachel looked over her shoulder in the direction that the others had gone and then looked back to me. I could not hear her thoughts, but I could guess at them. Should she trust her friend's judgement or should she act in the best interest of the group? Some of them would surely agree with her if she chose to destroy me in the end. Instead, she leaned close and jabbed a finger in my face. Her expression was a twisted mix of anger and grief.
"I won't undo what Cassie started. I'll trust her decision...I owe her that much, but you had better keep up your end of the deal," Rachel said.
With that, she turned on her heel and left after the others. She left me sitting on that rock in the meadow and the sudden quiet was unsettling. Once again, I opened myself up to Karen. In her eyes, what Cassie had done for her was both tragic and heroic. What was I? I opened her thoughts to look for myself. It shouldn't have mattered what this human child thought of me. It shouldn't, but it did. In an instant, I saw. The pity she felt for me was still there, but now that emotion was fueled by a different reason. She had never truly hated me; she had hated what I had done. Now her freedom would be returned to her and her thoughts had turned to the cost.
I backed away and let her control herself. The second her body was hers, sobs racked her small frame as I watched from inside her mind.
"Th-th-Thank you," Karen stuttered between sobs, "Thank you, for saying you'll do the right thing. I kn-knew you weren't all bad. I knew."
Despite how well I knew her mind, I was surprised. I had been surprised so many times throughout this ordeal.
Surprised by Cassie's compassion.
Surprised by Rachel's faith in her friend.
Surprised by Karen's forgiveness.
It was overwhelming. If I had been in control of Karen's body, I would have begun crying again. Instead, I let Karen cry for herself. I listened as her grief was slowly joined by something else: relief. Relief and joy at being able to go home, being free to hug her mother, speak to her father, to enjoy her life and put this all behind her. To be normal again. Seeing those emotions hurt me in ways I wasn't sure I could identify. I had been doing what I thought was necessary. Had I really been so terrible? I let her keep control and closed myself from her thoughts again.
Time passed. I couldn't say how long we sat there. Karen was working her way through a range of emotions that under other circumstances, a human of her age would never have been forced to face. I was dealing with my own thoughts. What would I say when we were found? My following Cassie had not been an authorized mission. I had gone off on my own without permission and lost a weapon that I shouldn't have been carrying. How would I explain myself? Would I be allowed to live long enough to give Karen her freedom? How long would it take before the lack of new information on her father was noticed? I had so many questions and too few answers.
A new noise snapped both of us from our private thoughts and without thinking, I took control again and opened myself to Karen's mind. She was wailing silently in her own head. Rescue! People were here to take her home! Couldn't she go home now? She begged me and for the first time, I offered her a silent reassurance. Together, we stared across the clearing as humans dressed in the uniforms of state-police stepped into view. They were fellow Yeerks, of course. I had seen them from the air while I had controlled Cassie. I rubbed Karen's eyes with her hands and set her face in an expression of extreme annoyance. If I wanted to live long enough to save her, I would have to be convincing and I would have to get everything right.
"Finally!" I snapped, loudly enough for them all to hear, "I have been waiting here long enough. What took you so long?"
One of them stepped forward, the same one I had spoken to earlier using Cassie's thought speech. Yaheen-Seven-Four-Seven. He looked irritated and tired himself and he stared at me with a measuring look on his face. Clearly my attitude wasn't impressing him. He knew me well enough to know that I didn't have the air of authority that many of our superiors had. He knew me. There was, after all, a reason I had chosen him to speak to from the air.
He came to me and stopped. "We came out here looking for you when you aren't even authorized to be here. We received a warning -from you- that the Andalite bandits were in this area. We ended up finding them, firing at them, losing them, and then finding you," Yaheen finished reciting the obvious facts and looked at me pointedly, waiting for me to say something. I kept quiet.
"You must have crossed paths with them at some point, but you're still alive," he mused. "I'm sure you have a very, very interesting explanation for all this."
His tone was somewhat reassuring. He didn't sound angry; he sounded more curious than anything. I took a deep breath, willing myself to remain calm. First I had been at Cassie's mercy, then later I had been at the mercy of her friends. Now I would have to take yet another risk. I started to answer then stopped. Anything I said would have to be carefully worded. I thought for a minute while everyone around me waited expectantly. Finally, I answered him.
"Yes," I said, "It is an interesting one. I think we should talk."