My name is Tobias.
That's my first name, anyway. I'm not going to tell you my last name, or my dæmon's name, or where I live. The Controllers are everywhere, and if they knew… well, the entire planet would be in trouble.
You might be thinking, Relax, kid. It's probably not as bad as you think. But it is. Trust me, I know.
It all started one Friday night at the mall. I was there by myself, reading in the bookstore. The people who work there all knew me, and they didn't kick me out even though I never bought anything. Why was I there alone? Well, the kids at my school all think I'm kind of weird, and not just because I'm the new kid. I'm one of only two kids in my grade whose dæmon has already settled, and the other kid was held back a year, so he doesn't really count.
My dæmon – let's call her Elhariel – settled as a European storm-petrel, a small black bird with a white rump. They fly alone over the open ocean for months on end, never coming near land. I'm like that a lot – people say I always seem to have my head in the clouds. When they do land, though, they always go back to the island where they hatched and reunite with the rest of the colony. Not that I really have a family or friends to come home to. I guess I'd be happier if I were one of those sea turtles that wanders the ocean alone for decades and never goes back to the beach where it hatched, but that's not me. Elhariel always liked bird shapes the best, even when I was a little kid. I'd sit outside and watch her fly around, wishing that I could have wings too. The only other thing I know about storm-petrels is that sailors used to think that when they appeared on the horizon, it meant that a storm was coming. I don't really know what that says about me.
Anyway, when the bookstore at the mall closed, I was heading toward the exit when I ran into Jake and his best friend Marco. I met Jake when he chased off some bullies who were picking on me. Their dæmons had Elhariel pinned to the ground, and they had my head in the toilet, holding it down while they flushed. When Jake saw what they were doing, his dæmon, Merlyse, turned into a St. Bernard and growled at them. He told them to back off, and they left. Jake and Merlyse have that kind of authority. When they tell you something, you listen. Ever since then, I've looked up to Jake. I don't know if he considers me a friend, but he's the closest thing I've had to one since I moved here.
Jake looks pretty average: fair skin, brown eyes, brown hair, maybe a little on the tall side. His dæmon, though, shows you what he's really like. She likes plain, no-nonsense forms. You could see it right then, even. Merlyse and Diamanta were scuffling on the floor, like they usually do. Diamanta was in rattlesnake shape, which is dangerous in a sleek, elegant sort of way. Merlyse, though, was snapping at her with a possum's jaws, and possums are just plain tough. That's what Jake's like. He doesn't need to show off.
I don't know Marco well, but everyone in school has at least heard of him. He's short, olive-skinned, with long dark hair, and always making a spectacle of himself. If he's sitting quietly in his seat in class, you know his dæmon is probably in monkey shape throwing a paper airplane or something.
"What's up?" I said, trying to sound casual. To be honest, I was glad to have run into them. Not only would it be safer not to walk alone, it'd be less lonely. If they were OK with me tagging along.
Diamanta and Merlyse stopped wrestling each other for long enough to glance at Elhariel. "Not much. We're heading home," Jake said.
Marco made some snide comment about how Jake kept losing at whatever video game they'd been playing, and their dæmons went right back to their tussle.
"So, like, maybe I'll walk home with you guys," I said.
It was a relief when Jake said yes. I know Jake's just a kid, but I feel always feel safer with him around. I walked a few steps behind them. It wasn't long before we ran into Rachel and Cassie. I don't really know either of them – Elhariel had never even got their dæmons' names. Rachel is Jake's cousin. She's kind of tall, like him, but definitely not average-looking. She looks like a Cover Girl, and that night her dæmon was a gorgeous spotted Bengal cat to match – that's a breed with some wildcat blood mixed in, and it shows. Cassie is short, black, and sturdy-looking, with hair cropped close to her head. Judging from her outfit, Rachel had probably dragged her to the mall. Cassie didn't seem like the type of person to come here of her own free will. Her dæmon had the more low-key form of a sheep trotting at her side.
Jake tried to act all casual when the girls showed up, but Merlyse gave him away. She disentangled herself from her fight with Diamanta and changed into a hare, both her long ears pointed toward Cassie's dæmon. Jake made some sort of macho remark about walking them home safe, which was obviously an excuse for a chance to walk next to Cassie.
Rachel managed to show even more disdain at that suggestion than her dæmon, which is saying something – you know how cats can get. Cassie accepted the company, though, and we all started walking home together.
We cut through the abandoned construction site, which you don't do when you're alone at night if you have half a brain. There are hobos and druggies hanging around there sometimes. One time I saw a metal beam fall from one of the ceilings. If I'd been standing under it, I would have been brained. Still, I would walk through there a lot during the day, because I was less likely to run into one of the bullies from school.
It was seriously creepy at night, though. All the half-finished buildings looked like crooked jaws about to snap shut around us. There was a light wind that groaned through the rotting plywood. Rachel's dæmon became a jaguar, Merlyse a barn owl, and Diamanta a hyena, their eyes all gleaming eerily in the moonlight. Cassie's dæmon, a more practical type, became a firefly, casting a dim sphere of light in front of Cassie's face. Elhariel can't see very well at night, but she flew in circles above and around me, a sentinel in the darkness.
That was why my dæmon saw it first. "Look," she said. I saw it next, and stopped in my tracks.
Merlyse let out an alarmed hooo. "What?" said Jake, more nervous than I'd ever heard him.
"Just look," I said. It looked like a comet, but it was too regular and brilliant to be anything natural. It lit the construction site with an otherworldly glow, casting the rambling contours of the buildings into sharp relief. When he asked me what it was, and I said I didn't know, but Elhariel and Merlyse had a murmured exchange in the air, and I knew we both suspected what it had to be. One by one, the others saw it and recognized it.
It was a flying saucer. Well, not really a flying saucer. But it definitely wasn't anything from Earth. And it was heading toward us. As it got closer, everyone's dæmons pressed close to their humans – except Elhariel, who flew over my head, watching the spaceship intently. It was hovering over us now, and she wanted to be as close to it as possible. I could feel her tugging at the bond between us, but I didn't mind. It was from outer space. Of course she wanted to be near it. I imagined what it would be like if she could fly all the way up and perch on it. The image brought a smile to my face. Maybe it wasn't the sanest reaction to seeing a spaceship. In fact, I must have looked more than a little crazy, because my hair was standing on end. I didn't care. "I think it's going to land," I said. I hoped it was going to land.
The spaceship slowly descended. The others looked like they wanted to run, but they didn't. I could see Merlyse in sheepdog form, pressed against Jake's leg and licking his hand, giving him courage. Diamanta was a lemur on Marco's shoulder, her long striped tail coiled around his neck. Rachel was leaning against her dæmon, now a graceful red horse. Cassie's dæmon was a fuzzy chinchilla held close against her chest. Elhariel, though, was out in front, at the limit of our bond, as if drawn to the ship by magnetism.
I heard the others talking about what to do next. The only suggestion that penetrated my brain was Rachel's: to try to communicate with whatever intelligence was directing this ship. "Hello?" said Elhariel. I took a step in her direction, hands spread wide. I guess I'd been reading too much science fiction in the bookstore that night, because I felt like I knew exactly what to say. "It's safe. We won't hurt you."
No response. I heard the others talking quietly behind me, but I barely noticed them. I motioned for Elhariel to perch on my shoulder, hoping that would seem less threatening. I tried again. "Please, come out. We won't hurt you."
My eyes widened. It was a voice in my head, like the silent communication between human and dæmon that goes beyond speech, but it wasn't Elhariel's voice in my mind. It was masculine, and held a quiet assurance that comes with more age and wisdom than Elhariel and I have. Besides, something about it was… alien, I guess. Like nothing I'd ever heard.
"Did everyone hear that?" I whispered. Everyone, human and dæmon, nodded. "Can you come out?" I said loudly, so the whatever-it-was could hear. Elhariel's claws dug reassuringly into my shoulder, and my voice didn't shake.
«Yes. Do not be frightened.»
I told him I wouldn't. What else could I say? The voice was different, but not in a scary way. Kind of the opposite, actually. It was kind of like waking up and seeing something that reminds you of a good dream you had, even though you can't remember exactly what it was. You see something, just by chance – a leaf falling from a tree or the sound of little kids laughing – and it makes you smile for no good reason.
The ship opened, and the owner of that voice in my mind stepped out. For a moment we all stared. His appearance was bizarre. Not only that, even though he was clearly a thinking, feeling being, he didn't have a dæmon. That should have scared us, but that feeling of sourceless joy only grew stronger. "Hello," I said, feeling like I was greeting an old friend I hadn't seen in years.
«Hello.» There was a smile in his voice, somehow. But then he staggered and fell out of his ship. Elhariel let out a wordless cry, and I rushed forward to support him, but he was too heavy for me to hold up. He fell to the dirt. For a moment, I couldn't understand why. He was so self-assured, so welcoming. How could he have fallen? It was only when Cassie pointed it out that I realized how badly he was hurt. I didn't want it to be true, but the alien knew he was dying. He was dying, and he was using his last moments to speak to us. We had a responsibility to listen.
So we listened as he told us about the Yeerks, parasitic slugs that crawl into the brain and control both human and dæmon utterly. That's when I started to get really scared, when the Andalite and his spaceship hadn't frightened me at all. I stayed with him as Jake went into the spaceship, holding his shoulder. Elhariel hummed a little tune, quietly, some lullaby I used to listen to on cassette tape when I was little and needed some music at night to drown out the sound of my uncle beating up his latest girlfriend. I don't know if it helped. He still couldn't stand up, and he was clearly in pain, but he definitely wasn't ready to give up. He asked me about my family, even. Maybe because I was helping him, he was trying to be nice.
Jake came out of the spaceship with a small blue box and gave it to the Andalite. When he mentioned the picture of the Andalite's family, I felt a stab of irrational jealousy. I wanted to see where the Andalite had come from. I wanted to learn all I could about him before he died. I wanted to be witness to his life, so that somebody would remember.
What the Andalite told us about the box sounded crazy. Change into animals? Only dæmons could do that, and they weren't any help in fighting aliens. They could only fight other dæmons, and besides, they couldn't move more than a few feet away from their humans. The Yeerks probably had phasers or something that could shoot kids like us dead in less than a second, and then no more dæmons. Besides, even a dæmon with a predator's claws and teeth didn't have a predator's instinct of how to use them. No matter what its shape, a dæmon isn't really dangerous unless it's been trained. That's why martial arts classes and military boot camp also have to teach dæmons how to fight.
But I believed every word the Andalite said. He could give us the power to change into animals, and if we could really be a pack of wild animals, instead of just a bunch of kids with souls that looked like wild animals, then maybe we could make a difference.
I had made my decision before the Yeerks even showed up. I couldn't just let the Andalite spend his final moments for nothing. The others were only a few moments behind me. We pressed our hands to the box. I could feel its power run through me, for just a moment. Then it was as if nothing had happened at all.
The Andalite told us to run, and I stood to run with everyone else, but something made me freeze in place. I looked over my shoulder.
Elhariel was perched on the Andalite's arm.
It was like nothing I'd ever felt before. Elhariel hardly ever even touches other dæmons. For a moment, it was as if my mind were connected to the Andalite's, with no barriers between us. Knowledge flooded my mind, so sudden and sharp that I could barely process it all at once. Along with the knowledge came… well, I can't explain it. It wasn't something I was familiar with. I guess you could call it kinship, strange as that seems coming from an alien.
Then Elhariel took to the air, and I ran beside her, leaping over fallen rubble and scaffolding. We all took cover behind a low, crumbling wall, our dæmons curled up as close to us as they could. I held Elhariel in my arms, and I could feel her trembling in fear as the Yeerk ships descended, her little bird heart beating a furious tattoo against my chest. The Hork-Bajir and the Taxxons advanced toward us, and her claws dug so hard into my shirt that they tore through and drew a little blood. The pain was nothing, though, next to the terror. It was unreasoning, vast, threatening to swallow me.
Then the Andalite's courage flowed into me, a warmth I had only experienced a few times in my life. It reminded me of Professor Powers, a kind middle-aged lady who lived in the same city as my aunt. One day, I wandered into her backyard by accident, but instead of kicking me out, she let me stay while she baked for me and told me stories from her adventures out on the ocean as a marine biologist. She let me come back every week, and she had a new story every time. She's one of only a few people who've ever gone out of their way to be nice to me. That's what I felt from the Andalite in that moment: that in a harsh and uncaring world, there was somebody who wanted me safe.
Don't get me wrong. I was still terrified. But knowing that the Andalite cared about me gave me the strength I needed to be able to think straight, even through the fear. I watched as Visser Three taunted Elfangor as his life ebbed away on a planet far from his home. I watched his defiance. I watched Visser Three's hideous morph, and as he did, Elhariel made tiny wounded sounds against my chest that I didn't even know birds could make, as if someone were pulling her feathers out, one by one. Someone took my hand; I'm not even sure exactly who. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Merlyse and Diamanta huddled close together in small, furry shapes. When Visser Three held Elfangor in the air, mouth gaping, Merlyse let out a little cry and changed into a St. Bernard, snarling, desperate to act. I reached out and grabbed Jake's wrist as Diamanta became an anaconda and coiled around her friend, forcing her to the ground. Elfangor cried, «No!» and Merlyse became a prairie dog again, curled into a fetal ball and shaking.
We watched, quiet and helpless, as the Andalite died. It wasn't something I wanted to see, but it was something I had to see. I only turned away when I saw bloody pieces of his body fall to the ground, food for the foul alien centipedes that waited eagerly, teeth gleaming with saliva.
When the Hork-Bajir started coming toward us, I ran. I ran and I didn't look behind. But I would never forget, and I swore to myself that I would live up to the sacrifice the Andalite had made for us.
My uncle didn't even notice that I'd come home late. He usually didn't. He was passed out on the couch, surrounded by empty beer bottles. His dæmon, a legless lizard, was curled around his neck, unmoving. The phone rang, and even that didn't wake them up. I answered it.
"Hey, Tobias, it's Jake. Are you OK?"
"No," I said. I wasn't sure if I'd ever be OK again. "But I'm alive. How about everyone else?"
"They're fine. Or as fine as – you know what I mean."
"I – I don't want him to be dead, Jake. I still can't believe – I mean, he –"
"I know. Go to bed, Tobias. We'll talk soon. Just get some sleep, OK?"
I crawled into bed with all my clothes on, too tired and overwhelmed to change into pajamas or brush my teeth. Elhariel usually perches on my night table, but that night she tucked herself under my chin, wings spread protectively over my shoulders. Dude climbed into bed and curled up at my feet. A lot of people with mammal dæmons don't have dogs or cats – I guess there's not much use for them when you can curl up with your very own groundhog or wombat or whatever – but Elhariel hasn't been anything but a bird since I was eleven, and Dude fills that role in my life. His purr made the whole bed vibrate, and I felt myself slowly drifting to sleep. The last thing I remember is Elhariel whispering, "He believed in you, Tobias. We won't give up. We'll make him proud."
I got up, brushed my teeth, and showered, going through the motions on autopilot. I could hear my uncle snoring in the living room, but I ignored it. I spent the whole time thinking about what Prince Elfangor had told us. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it couldn't have been a dream. It was so vivid, so real. I still had scrapes on my knees from when I tripped on a rock running away from the Hork-Bajir. And if that part was real, that meant all of it was.
When I came back into my bedroom, a towel wrapped around my waist, I saw Dude on my bed. It gave me an idea. I locked the door behind me, then sat down next to him and petted him behind his ear, where he likes it the best. I remembered how the blue box had felt when I touched it, that sudden tingle of electricity that made me feel giddy and so alive. I could become Dude. His fur, his keen eyes, his fluid muscles, could all be my own. I could go anywhere, do anything, and no one would yell at me or beat me or tell me I'd better be home by midnight.
Dude relaxed even more than he usually does when I pet him. He didn't even purr. He went peaceful and still, as if he were asleep, but his eyes were still mostly open. Then he snapped out of it, and started purring like an old car engine, just like normal. I kept thinking about what it would be like to become him. What it would be like to look at the world through his eyes.
I looked down at my hands, and almost fell off the bed. They were covered in gray and black fur. Dude pulled away from my touch, just as startled as I was. Then my nails started growing into claws. The nails on my feet, too. Fur traveled up my arms, and that's when Dude started really freaking out. He hissed and clawed at me, all his fur standing on end.
"This has to stop!" Elhariel said urgently. "What if Leo and Esaldar wake up?" She was right. Dude was yowling so loudly that it might wake my uncle. I picked him up, opened the door, put him outside, and shut it again.
"What's going to happen to you?" I said to Elhariel, even as my knees suddenly reversed direction. It felt weird, but not painful like it should have. "Elfangor never said. You're not turning into a cat."
Elhariel watched me as I started to shrink. "No. Maybe I just stay the way I – "
Then she disappeared from sight. I tried to scream her name, but my throat was changing, and it came out a quiet, strangled sound. Elhariel! I thought frantically, reaching out for her with my mind. Come back! Where are you?
Right here, she said, and I could feel her presence, even though I couldn't see her.
Right where? My vision was changing from color to black and white, while my hearing became sharper.
Same as you. Looking at your room with cat eyes. It's weird. I haven't been a cat in years.
It was true. I could feel her in my mind with me. She didn't have her own body anymore. It reminded me of Elfangor. He didn't seem to have a dæmon, but he could think and feel just like any human could. Maybe he kept his dæmon on the inside, like Elhariel was now. It was scary, but it also made the morph less terrifying. Elhariel had changed shape before. Not like this – when dæmons change it's just a blink of an eye – but the idea of feeling and sensing the world in a completely new way wasn't startling. The only thing that was new was that we were experiencing it together.
Well, that wasn't all. As the morph completed, we both felt something entirely new – the mind of the cat.
If the feeling I had then could be bottled, it would become the next big street drug. I was confident. Unworried. I was the undisputed master of all I saw. My body was powerful and I knew how to use it. I looked up at my dresser and felt a sudden urge to jump on it. No sooner had I thought it than my muscles sprang into action, launching me effortlessly three feet in the air. I landed on my paws, which I suddenly realized were dirty. I licked them. It felt incredible. My tongue rasped over my fur, making all the dust and shed hair come loose. I could have done that for hours and never gotten tired of it. I was going to get clean! And then I could sharpen my claws, get them all ready for the hunt. It was going to be –
Whoa, said a voice in my head. Where was it coming from? Now this is different. Come on, Tobias. It's me. Your dæmon. Snap out of it.
Oh. Right. I wasn't a cat. Though I was doing a really good impression of one. I felt a little embarrassed.
Don't be embarrassed, said Elhariel. There's no way I would have ever been able to make that jump. Not even after that time I spent a whole week as a cat when we were nine. This morphing thing is seriously cool. Try to make the bed!
In comparison to my cat body, the distance from the dresser to the bed seemed as wide as a city street. But my cat brain didn't seem to think it was a big deal. I jumped across and rolled around on my blanket, relishing its soft feel against my fur. I could spend all day like this.
No you can't, Elhariel reminded me. Elfangor said. Never stay in morph for more than two hours. It was so weird to only hear her voice, to not be able to look into her steady black eyes. But not as weird as it was cool to be a cat.
I could try it out for another hour, at least… I said, flexing my claws.
The morphing isn't a toy, Tobias, said Elhariel. Elfangor gave this to you as a weapon against the Yeerks. You have to treat it that way. Besides, shouldn't you tell Jake about this? I bet he hasn't tried it yet.
Guess you're right. How do I turn back? I wondered.
We turned into Dude by thinking about him. So now I think about being a storm-petrel, and you think about being a human boy. Elhariel formed the image of herself, of her narrow black wings and tapering beak. I thought about how my hair sometimes fell in my eyes, and the way the world looked in color, and Elhariel's weight on my shoulder when she perched there.
I wish those images seemed as real now as they did then.
Elhariel reappeared right when my head felt close to normal, which made me figure that she probably disappeared once my human brain was gone. That would make sense. It made me wonder what exactly happened to my brain while I was in morph, but the technology was clearly so far beyond me I'd never figure it out on my own. She fluttered to my shoulder as soon as she appeared. I'd never been so relieved to feel her weight there. I ran my finger along her beak, once, then headed for the kitchen to make breakfast and wash all the dishes in the sink so my uncle wouldn't yell at me for leaving the house a mess.
I'm not sure what freaked out Jake more: me turning into a cat, or Elhariel disappearing halfway through the morph. He didn't want to believe it was real at first. I told him what I thought should have been obvious: Jake would have to lead us. He'd rescued me from the bullies. After what happened last night, he called the rest of us to make sure we were OK, even though he must have been terrified himself. He was stoic about it, but Merlyse's long hare ears flattened against her skull, her body curling in on itself a little, as if she were being slowly crushed by some invisible weight. It made me feel a little bad for laying all that responsibility on him, but he was the only one who could take it. I knew I couldn't.
But he'd stepped up to the plate. He told us all to meet at Cassie's farm and gave me directions. I'd never been there before, but as soon as I got there, I could see why her family lived out there. The big farmhouse had a bare-bones freight elevator attached to the side, the kind people whose dæmons settle in really big forms use so they can go upstairs without straining the bond between them. People with dæmons like that can't exactly live in studio apartments.
The meeting at the farm kind of pissed me off. All Cassie could think about was how she could use morphing to save animals, as if they were more important than Andalites and people, and Marco was being a stupid coward. I understand that he didn't want to die and leave his dad all alone, but if the Yeerks won, both he and his dad would be worse than dead. They'd be slaves to the Yeerks, along with the rest of the planet. If I had parents, I wouldn't want that to happen to them. But then again, I don't really know what it's like to lose a parent. I can't even remember mine.
But at the same time, standing there in Cassie's barn made me feel a little like a kid in a candy store. After Jake and Marco left, I stood around and checked out all the animals. I could turn into any one of them. Elfangor had given me the power.
"Remember," Elhariel whispered in my ear, "this isn't a toy. He gave you the power for a reason. Which animal could help you fight the Yeerks?"
There was a baby deer in a cage. That wouldn't be much good. Neither would any of the squirrels or other rodents. But there were a lot of birds, too. Birds could make great spies. They could go anywhere and no one would think twice. Some birds could be dangerous in a fight. And birds could fly. Really fly, not just flutter maybe seven feet in the air like Elhariel. With the right bird morph, we could soar.
"Hey, Cassie," I said, pointing to a bird of prey with an injured leg. "What kind of bird is that?"
"An osprey," she said. "My dad found it a few days ago. We also have a red-tailed hawk. That's the most common bird of prey around here." She pointed to a brown hawk with a reddish tail who had an injured wing.
"Can I touch her?"
Cassie gave me a funny look, but nodded. "Careful. When he snaps out of that trance, he might bite you. With that beak of his, he can draw blood."
"Gonna try flying?" Rachel said, smiling a little. Her dæmon became a kestrel on her shoulder, furling and unfurling his wings.
"Yeah. I guess so."
"Have fun. Come on, Cassie, let's go to your room." Cassie and Rachel left, and I was alone with the animals.
I reached out and touched the hawk's head, focusing on him. He closed his fierce yellow eyes and went still, just like Dude had. I thought about what it would be like to have wings and claws, like Elhariel, but with the freedom to fly anywhere. Elhariel stared at the hawk intently, focusing her attention too. I imagined that I could feel the hawk flowing into me. When it was done, I jerked my hand back before the hawk could lash out at me. He missed me by less than an inch. I closed my eyes, spreading my arms out like wings, and imagined the feathers sprouting, the ground only a distant memory.
The feathers didn't come first. This time, my head was the first to change, shrinking and protruding out into a beak. Elhariel immediately winked out, like a candle in a sudden breeze. After that, she was with me, behind my new hawk eyes.
It was vision so sharp, so bright and total, that I felt like I'd been blind all my life. I could make out individual particles of dirt on the barn floor. I could see each whisker quivering on a squirrel that was nervously watching me morph. My bones made unnerving crunching sounds as they rearranged themselves, but I didn't care. I had superpowers. Nothing could hold me back now.
The hawk mind surfaced, but this time we were ready for it. Elhariel was my reminder that I was human. I could feel the hawk's hunger, its cool appraisal of all the prey animals in their cages, and its longing to fly. It was a longing I shared, but all Elhariel had to do was say, Tobias, and I knew who I was. And for the first time in my life, I spread my wings.
The hawk, my dæmon, and I were merged toward one purpose – flight. We flapped our wings, the three of us, launched ourselves toward the barn door, and flew.
No shape Elhariel had ever taken could have prepared us for this. In one leap, we were higher than she had ever flown. Our muscles burned as we fought for altitude, but then a wind caught our wings and it was effortless, so easy I found myself laughing from the sheer joy of it. The world looked so small beneath me. I could go to the Gardens, the ice cream store, the next city over, wherever I wanted, without worrying about going through a dangerous neighborhood or coming home to my uncle awake and in a bad mood. I could fly in through my bedroom window, and he would never know I was gone. I could fly above the school while everyone sat in class, over the heads of the bullies who tormented me.
For the first time in my life, I was free.
For a while, I just flew and flew, relishing my keen senses and powerful wings. Then Elhariel reminded me that I had morphed hawk for a reason. We thought for a while about what we could do to help, and along the way knowledge bubbled up in my mind, like when you remember part of a dream. Elfangor had given me information as a weapon against the Yeerks. I knew about Yeerk pools and Kandrona; I could almost hear the dead prince telling me about them in his warm, calm mind-voice. I spent a while looking around for anything that might look like a Yeerk pool. At the same time, I memorized what my city looked like from the air, in case it turned out to be useful later.
We should go talk to Jake about this, said Elhariel. That was no problem. Jake's house was normally pretty far from mine, but from up here, it was nothing. I plummeted, the giddy sensation of falling making me howl with manic glee, then I flared my wings at the last moment and landed on Jake's windowsill.
Demorphing felt like coming down from the best high in the world. All I could think about was the next time I could morph. Jake's plan to infiltrate the Sharing was the perfect opportunity. I could practice using the breezes off the ocean to fly, and I could keep an eye out and warn my friends of any trouble. Even at night, my vision was better than theirs.
It was kind of strange, flying high above the Sharing meeting. I could see kids from my class, who normally never gave me a second glance, watching me as I flew overhead. Before, I would have been happy to get that kind of attention. Now it doesn't matter. Their worlds are so small compared to mine. I have all of the sky.
My friends wanted me to demorph, but they didn't understand. When they demorphed, it meant they got to go back to their normal human lives. When I became human, I didn't have anything to go back to. It was only Rachel who managed to convince me. She seemed to get why I'd want to spend my time in morph.
"What's it like?" she asked me, once I was fully human and dressed.
"It's…" She was so tall I had to tilt my head up a little to look her in the eye. "It's like the world is so much bigger, all of a sudden. No limits."
Her dæmon became a kestrel on her shoulder again, all ferocious elegance. Rachel's eyes sparkled. "I saw that dive you pulled when you landed on the lifeguard's stand. Bet you can't do it from twice as high."
"You're on," I said, laughing. "Next time I'm in morph, I'm going to dive from that high and land right on your shoulder."
"I'd like to see that."
Rachel's dæmon launched himself from her shoulder, and Elhariel took off to meet him in midair. They touched beaks for a moment. "What's your name?" her dæmon asked.
"Elhariel. What's yours?"
"Abineng." He tilted his head a little. "You're settled already. What kind of bird are you?"
"European storm-petrel. A kind of seabird."
"Storm-petrel. Sounds cool. Can they fly through storms over the ocean or something?"
"Yeah. They don't really go on land very often, so they have to be able to take whatever the ocean throws at them."
"I like that."
That may have made me blush, a little bit. Hey, El can't blush, so I have to do it for her.
Rachel, Marco, and I went to the barbecue to eat some hot dogs. Cassie paced the beach nervously, glancing at her watch. When we got back from the grill, she said, "Jake's been over there for a while now. I think I should go check on him."
"Be careful," said Marco. "There are cops all around that private meeting. You don't want them thinking you're getting too curious."
Cassie nodded and went to find Jake. That, of course, was when we found out about Tom. That was when Jake knew there was no going back.
I really felt bad about Tom. Jake had this perfect family, a life I'd always dreamed of having. Tom and his gazelle dæmon, Delareyne, were popular and good in school. I could tell how much Jake looked up to his older brother. But Tom was also lucky, in a way, to have a brother like Jake to fight for him. Jake would never give up as long as there was hope for Tom.
So that's how we all ended up meeting at the school at night, which I'll admit was more than a little weird. I waited until my uncle was safely parked in front of the TV with a beer, locked my bedroom door, opened my window, and morphed. Becoming a hawk felt like waking up from a bad dream. Everything was so much sharper and clearer and better. I had shed the limits of my human skin. It was time to fly.
I saw my friends long before they saw me. All of them were there except for Cassie. That worried me, but I figured Jake would tell us if something had happened to her. I remembered Rachel's challenge and swooped toward her, landing neatly on her shoulder. Abineng, who had been a cat, turned into a kestrel on her opposite shoulder. Rachel leaned her head against me for a moment. "Nice dive," Abineng said from the other side of her head.
«Thanks,» Elhariel replied.
For a moment, everyone turned and looked at me funny. «What?» said my dæmon. «In morph, we're in the same body. I can use thought-speech too.»
"That's just not right," Diamanta grumbled from Marco's shoulder. She was in one of her favorite forms, a bright blue poison dart frog.
"Just you wait," said Merlyse, at Jake's side in goat shape. "You haven't even tried morphing yet. It's like fighting over the controls for a video game. By the time I got the joystick back when we were in anole morph, we'd already eaten a spider." She gave her human a disgusted look.
«Are we doing this, or not?» I said.
"Yeah, we're doing it," Jake said. He studied the building. "How do we get in?"
"There's a window to the science lab that doesn't lock," said Marco.
Everyone gave him a look. "What?" said Diamanta. "We left our Game Boy in there. We couldn't let some punk in first period steal it. So we came back after school for it."
Rachel rolled her eyes. "If you'd had any brains to start with, you wouldn't have brought your Game Boy to class."
"Hey!" said Marco. "Sometimes you can't get through last period science with Kramer without a Game Boy."
"Come on, everyone, let's focus," said Jake. Everyone climbed in through the window, and I flew through, scoring a sweet landing on Mr. Kramer's desk. The school looked totally different at night, especially through a hawk's eyes. The model of a human skeleton next to the desk looked like it might come alive. I fought down that image, and tried not to look too closely at all the gross bits of chewing gum and other junk I could see on the seats and the floor. My friends were discussing how we were going to get into the Yeerk pool. I had to pay attention.
Jake was at the door of the science lab. "Here comes someone," he said. "Merl, I need you to use owl eyes."
Merlyse became a barn owl and perched on his shoulder. He opened the closet door a crack, and she peered out into the gloomy hallway. "It's her," she said grimly. "They have Cassie."
Jake staggered back, and Marco grabbed him to keep from falling over. First Tom, then Cassie. This had to have been tough for Jake. But Merlyse became a sheepdog and licked his hand reassuringly, and he got control again. He opened the door, and I drifted down the hallway toward the janitor closet.
My friends were going to go down there pretending to be Controllers, which was hairy enough, but I wouldn't have any cover at all. It's a good thing humans hardly ever think of looking up. I'd learned that from my flights through the city. I could be just overhead and hardly anyone would notice me. That would have to be enough.
The sounds. How can I describe the sounds I heard when we opened the entrance to the Yeerk pool? For the first time, I wished I hadn't been in morph, because I could hear them more clearly than any of my friends could with human ears. There were low, sobbing moans, the kind that can only come from someone in pain, but too frightened to scream. There were high, panicked shrieks and malevolent laughter. And that was only the human noise. There were also shrill little whimpers and visceral groans that could only have come from dæmons in terrible distress. I nearly crashed into a wall.
You're not at Leo's house, Elhariel reminded me was right. I couldn't think about that now. We were about to enter the Yeerks' stronghold. I had to get a grip.
The hallway widened out into a vast bowl. I could see the Yeerk pool far below, almost familiar from Elfangor's memories. I could make out individual Yeerks down there. I could see the piers out over the pool, their pitted surfaces covered in scratch marks and dried blood, human and otherwise. Again, I wished my hawk's senses weren't quite so sharp.
Along the edge of the pool were cages, with hundreds of people and their dæmons. Most of them were packed ten to a cage, though children, whose dæmons could take any shape, and adults with dæmons settled in particularly dangerous shapes were kept in separate, stronger cages. I could see a man's zebra dæmon let out a scream and try to shove her hoof between the bars of her cage so she could stomp on a human-Controller's iguana dæmon. Hork-Bajir were also kept in reinforced cages, and try as they might to rattle the bars loose, it was to no avail.
One of the piers was where the Yeerks left their hosts. I saw a young woman with a squirrel dæmon in the front pocket of her hoodie lean down toward the sludgy surface of the pool. A Yeerk slithered out of her ear and landed in the pool with a dull splash. The woman screamed and thrashed, the Hork-Bajir-Controllers behind her seizing her arms before she could run away. Her dæmon went berserk, yelling, "Let her go! You can't do this!" He leapt from her pocket and tried to run away, but he reached the outer limit of his bond with his human and collapsed in a furry heap on the pier. A moment later, he got up and clung to the leg of the woman's jeans, sobbing helplessly as the Controllers led her to a cage.
The other pier was the infestation pier. One woman was led along by a pair of Hork-Bajir-Controllers, her ram dæmon a few steps behind them. He rushed toward his human's captors, horns pointed forward, but they tightened their grip on the woman's arms, and she let out a cry of pain. Her dæmon halted mid-charge, groaning, "No, no, Celia, don't hurt her, please…" A moment later, they pushed her headfirst toward the pool. A Yeerk entered her ear, and her dæmon went instantly calm and still.
And at the bottom of the stairs, being led roughly toward the infestation pier, was Cassie. The Controller-cop hadn't hurt her, but her dæmon was curled around her neck as a chinchilla, trembling with fear. Cassie was looking at the infestation pier, the whites showing all the way around her irises.
I flew back to my friends to report on Cassie and all the human collaborators. They disgusted me, but I guess I could understand what had happened to them. The Yeerks probably preyed on the vulnerable. They promised a new and different life than the ones they'd had. They didn't have to worry about their lives anymore, because a Yeerk would do their living for them. It was a way to escape their problems. When I said as much, Marco pointed out, "Like spending all their time as a hawk."
I left when he said that. I didn't need to hear that right then. Needed to focus. He's right, you know, said Elhariel. Though he could have been less of an asshole about it.
Doesn't matter now. Where's Cassie?
Down there, El said. He's taking her to the infestation pier.
I felt cold dread as she was led along the pier. She was getting close now. Suddenly, her dæmon totally lost it. He turned into a wildcat, let out a piercing yowl, and leapt to attack the Controller-cop's bat dæmon, claws outstretched. The cop passed Cassie off to a Hork-Bajir-Controller. Then he reached out and grabbed Cassie's dæmon as calmly as if he were a misbehaving kitten.
Cassie vomited onto the pier, while her dæmon went utterly limp in the Controller's grasp. If I'd been human, I would have thrown up too, the sight was so horrifying.
«We only have a few minutes before they infest her!» I told the others. «And – and they – »
I couldn't even say it. Elhariel had to say it for me. «They have her dæmon. The cop is holding him.»
Jake went white as a sheet. Rachel looked like she might go on a murderous rampage without even morphing first. Marco dragged Jake behind a storage shed, while Rachel went to find a place to morph out of sight. I kept watch over Cassie, in case they managed to get her to the end of the pier before my friends could stop them.
It was a good thing I did. An elephant, a gorilla, and a tiger exploded into view, tearing through Hork-Bajir-Controllers with savage fury. They managed to free some of the human captives, but…
They're not going to make it on time, El said. The Hork-Bajir were lowering Cassie, forcing her head down. We have to act. Go!
I tapped into the hawk's mind. I told it the Hork-Bajir was my prey. It knew what to do. I fell into my fastest dive yet, talons outstretched, the hawk, my dæmon, and I screaming for the Hork-Bajir's blood. Our talons sank into the soft jelly of its eyes. It staggered, once. The Controller-cop screamed in surprise and terror, dropping Cassie's dæmon. That was all they needed. They streaked off down the pier.
But it was bad news for me. No one had bothered to look up before, but now I'd gotten the Controllers' attention. Human-Controllers armed with Dracon beams aimed them at me and started firing. I dodged and weaved and spun, and in the confusion I got separated from my friends. The Dracon beam fire had cut me off from them, and from the exit. When I heard Visser Three's cold, evil thought-voice, I knew I had no choice but to hide. I dove behind one of the lounges where the voluntary hosts were hanging out.
For several minutes, everything was madness: the screams of human hosts as they were recaptured, Rachel's angry trumpet, Jake's growls, and the roar of fire. The noise was overwhelming to my hawk hearing.
«I'll kill you all, Andalites!» Visser Three bellowed. «Run away, it doesn't matter! I'll kill you.»
My friends had escaped! They were getting away!
But we're still here, Elhariel reminded me. And we have to demorph.
We can't,I told her. I'll be completely naked. There's no way they'll buy that I'm a Controller.
Then just remorph, El said. You'll only be human for a second.
What if they see us morphing? It takes about three minutes each way. Six whole minutes that we'll be helpless. Only one person needs to see us to ruin everything. They'll know the "Andalites" aren't Andalites. That we're just kids. They'll infest us, and then they'll know about the others. We'll be done. The whole planet will be done.
We have to risk it! El insisted.
Risk it? Risk getting enslaved by the Yeerks, risk getting my friends killed or worse, risk the human race? For what? So we can go back to our normal human life? I laughed, bitterly, in my head. Is our life really worth that much? Is it really worth that risk? Would it really be that bad to have this body, forever?
Do you realize what this will to do to us? To them? We won't be able to morph, she said. We won't be able to eat ice cream or stop to smell a daisy or go to the bookstore, ever again.
We won't have to go to school and worry about bullies. We won't get shoved back and forth between people who are supposed to take care of us but think we're a waste of space. We won't have to walk home through a bad neighborhood and worry about getting mugged or shot. And we'll have the sky.
Elhariel went quiet for a moment. Then she spotted, through our hawk eyes, a television screen. It was playing some sitcom for the voluntary hosts' entertainment. And in the corner of the screen was the time. There were two minutes left. Two minutes, and it would all be over. I'd be free of my life as a human, for better or for worse.
Demorph, Tobias, you have to, you can't do this, she pleaded. This body isn't yours. It isn't mine. I'll never get to press myself against your heartbeat again – never perch on your shoulder again – won't ever watch you fall asleep again – oh, please, please, you can't take that away –
I was never very good at being who I was, I said. I'll do better this time. New life. I won't screw it up. Not this time. I promise. Another minute passed on the television screen. I'll miss you, Elhariel.
I didn't feel any different, when it happened. It was as if nothing had really happened at all. Two hours ago, I'd been human. Now I never would be again. I thought I'd know, somehow, when my time was up. But the only difference was that now, when I focused on my human body, just like I had every time I'd demorphed before, nothing happened.
So I waited. I waited until all the hosts were put back in their cages, and Visser Three had left. The Yeerk pool returned to its hellish routine. I flew out, always keeping to the shadows, and flew out into the night.
I haven't seen or touched Elhariel since.