My brothers are all others forever hand in hand
Where chimes the bell of freedom there is my native land
My brother's fears are my fears yellow white or brown
My brother's tears are my tears the whole wide world around.
– "Because All Men Are Brothers" by Peter, Paul and Mary
My name is Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill.
The first part of my name, Aximili, is a personal name, mine alone. Humans have a multitude of people who share the same first name. "Aximili" is like the names given to dæmons, meant to be unique. Isthill, the third part of my name, is the name of the place where I took my first steps when I was a infant. My parents have since moved to a different scoop, but the place where I first walked remains a part of me. Esgarrouth is the name of the place my mother's ancestors roamed, in the days before Andalites shifted from a nomadic herd lifestyle to a metropolitan one. That is what I was taught in school when I was very young.
Humans learn very different lessons in their schools than I did in mine. I had wondered what my fellow Animorphs spent seven hours a day learning. I was soon to find out.
I was in human morph, wearing human clothing. Humans wear many types of artificial skin. On my upper body was a garment specially designed for humans with bird dæmons. It had thicker material on the shoulders so that a bird's talons would not rip through.
Andalites do not have dæmons. This does not change when we morph to human. However, if I appeared in front of humans without a dæmon, it would be like an Andalite appearing in public without a tail. It would inspire horror and disgust. For this reason, I had Tobias with me to act as my dæmon. He perched on the padded shoulder of my artificial skin. If I had been in my Andalite form, I would have been unable to support his weight, but human shoulders are broad and powerful, an artifact of their evolutionary heritage as tree-dwelling apes that used their arms to swing from branch to branch. So they had lived for millions of years, until they came down from the trees and some strange biological event caused them to have dæmons.
«Ready?» said Tobias.
«Yes.» I felt confident with Tobias on my shoulder. He prevents me from grave social errors when I am in human morph. The day before, I had gone to a movie, and had it not been for Tobias I might have surrendered to my sense of taste entirely. We would have been forced to leave the movie early because of a thoughtless social transgression. As it I know how humans behave by now, but sometimes it is difficult for me to maintain composure where taste is involved. Tobias would guide me through my day of school, I was certain. What was not certain was how he felt. He had not been to school since he became a nothlit, and it occurred to me that this might be a strange experience for him. «Are you ready?»
«Yeah, sure,» said Tobias, but I sensed uneasiness in him.
"You remember your cover, Ax?" said Prince Jake.
"Yes," I said. "My name is Phillip. Lip-puh. I am from out of state. My dæmon's name is Tully."
"That's right. And don't forget: no touching other people's dæmons, not even by accident. If you so much as brush against someone else's dæmon, it's not just a breach of etiquette. It's harassment. That's a criminal charge. You are not getting the police called on you, understood?"
I did not truly understand why this taboo was so important, but nonetheless, I agreed.
"OK," said Prince Jake. "Let's go."
The entrance to the school was chaotic. Though I was in human morph, the press of young humans and their dæmons stirred my natural Andalite claustrophobia. The dæmons, all of them either in the form of small birds flying above the crowd or small animals clinging close to their humans, chirped and hooted to each other. Although I was apprehensive, I did not have difficulty avoiding contact with dæmons, since they all remained in small forms and avoided humans not their own. The only exception was when a teacher with a canine dæmon walked toward the main corridor. All the humans had to make room for the teacher so she and her dæmon could pass without violating the taboo.
Rachel and Marco found us in the crowd. Rachel's dæmon was a dark, furred creature coiled around her neck, while Diamanta was a bright blue frog on Marco's shoulder. They weaved out of the way of oncoming bird dæmons with instinctual ease.
Prince Jake said, "Hey, Rachel, Marco. Meet my cousin, Phillip."
Prince Merlyse, a small brown bird on his shoulder, looked at Tobias and said, "And Tully." It is considered more polite for dæmons to introduce one another. There is much etiquette surrounding dæmons that I must learn.
"Yes," I said. "I am Prince Jake's cousin from out of state. My dæmon does not wish to speak with you because she is in unfamiliar surroundings."
«You don't have to explain that to people unless they ask,» said Tobias, restricting his thought-speech to our group. «Some dæmons are just quiet. People usually get that.»
"Hell, the school is way too familiar to me, and it still makes me so depressed I don't want to talk," said Diamanta.
"And yet for some reason, you still talk all the time," said Abineng.
"Come on," said Prince Jake. "I don't want to be late for class."
"Go ahead, be a law-abiding citizen," said Marco. "Don't let us stop you."
Through the school entrance was a very long corridor. Another teacher, this one with an elegant hooved dæmon, crossed the corridor, forcing the students to clear a path.
«At this age, I can see that avoiding the taboo is only a minor obstacle, as most dæmons are unsettled. But what happens if a student's dæmon settles as a horse, for example? It may not even fit through the classroom door,» I said to Tobias privately.
«The basement floor of most high schools is built to accommodate dæmons of that size. Or you can transfer to a school that's built specifically for your needs. There are even schoolboats out on oceans and lakes for people unlucky enough to settle as a shark or one of those giant jellyfish or whatever.»
Cassie showed me her "locker" where she kept personal effects. I saw a picture of Prince Jake inside. He was smiling with his mouth. Beside him, Merlyse was a dog with long shaggy fur. I have never seen Merlyse take the form of a domestic dog. Whenever she is a canine, she becomes a wild canine with sand-colored fur. I believe it is called a coyote. I wondered why she had changed her preferred forms since the photo had been taken.
"Why do you have an image of Prin – of Jake in your locker when he is here and you can see him?"
«Thin ice, Ax,» said Tobias warningly. Since our outing to the movie, Tobias and I had agreed on a short phrase he would tell me when I had said or done something considered socially inappropriate by humans.
«Why?» I asked, as Quincy changed from a butterfly to a gray rodent, curling himself into a tight ball on Cassie's shoulder.
«I'll explain later. Here comes Jake.»
"Come on, Phillip. Time to go to class," said Prince Jake. "See you later, Cassie. Time for first –"
RRRRIIIIINNNGGGG! A terrible sound filled the corridor, and adrenaline flooded my human body. I spun around and tried to raise my arms in self-defense, but Tobias spread his wings and dug his talons into my shoulder, preventing full movement in my arms.
«Hey, Ax, cool it! It's just the bell for first period!» He added, «Though I get where you're coming from. With hawk hearing, that bell is loud. I kind of wanted to fly away myself.»
"Thanks, Tobias," Prince Merlyse said quietly, knowing he would be able to hear.
I followed Prince Jake through one of the large doors into a room filled with young humans confined to small seats. At the front was an older human with a larger seat. On his desk was a portable tank used to transport water-dwelling dæmons. "Everyone get to your seats," the older human said.
"Mr. Pardue? This is my cousin from out of town. His name's Phillip. He's just hanging with me today, okay?"
"Just settle down, everyone," said Mr. Pardue, his voice flat. "Sit. Sit down, now."
Prince Jake guided me to a seat, looking troubled.
"Settle down," he repeated. "I said – stop – be quiet!" Something strange happened as he spoke. His dæmon, a small fish, began to ram herself against the walls of her tank. It was unusual to see such a difference in emotion between human and dæmon.
«Why is his dæmon behaving this way?» I asked Tobias privately.
«I don't know, man. The last time Elhariel got like that was when…» He did not finish the sentence, and I did not ask him to continue.
Prince Jake leaned forward in his seat. "Mr. Pardue, are you okay?"
"Okay?" Mr. Pardue demanded, his voice rising in pitch and harshness. "Am I okay? Am I – aahhhh!" He thrashed sideways, knocking the tank containing his dæmon to the floor, then sank to his knees beside his desk. The tank, made of as sturdy a material as humans could manufacture, made an alarmingly loud noise when it hit the floor, but did not break. The human clawed at his head until blood flowed, sickeningly red, crying, "Yeerk! Get out of me! Aaahhh!"
The students in the class began to panic. They cried for help and screamed. I was very still, but Prince Jake seemed to glow with barely contained emotion that I could not read. Prince Merlyse was in the form of a furred creature called a jackrabbit, her long ears upright and trembling.
"The Kandrona. Finally, it's having an effect. The slugs are starving," Prince Jake said quietly.
«About time,» said Tobias.
"It's about to die. Mr. Pardue will be free." Excitement glittered in his eyes. I could understand this emotion. Prince Jake had been through the same torment Mr. Pardue now suffered. But he did not know what I did.
"We have to help him," said Prince Merlyse.
"Get out of him!" cried Mr. Pardue's dæmon from her tank. "Why won't you die!"
Prince Jake scooped his dæmon under his arm and started for the front of the classroom. I followed. He knelt at Mr. Pardue's side. "I know what this is, Mr. Pardue. Ride it out. The Yeerk will die. You'll be free." Prince Merlyse hopped to the tank and pressed her nose to its transparent wall as the fish dæmon thrashed about.
They were taking a foolish risk. He should not have spoken such words aloud. Some of the students in this room could be Controllers themselves. "Stay back," I told the other humans who tried to approach. "There may be danger." Tobias spread his wings and gave a little cry. The nearby dæmons shrank back, and the humans came no closer.
I wanted to tell Prince Jake to leave Mr. Pardue to his fate. But it was not in my prince's nature to allow such a thing to happen.
The door to the classroom opened, and Vice Principal Chapman came in. "All right, kids, everyone out to the playground. Out. Mr. Pardue is just sick."
"You!" cried Mr. Pardue. "No!"
The humans left. I, too, wished to leave. I did not want to witness what I knew would happen next. But Prince Jake remained, and so did I.
"Jake," said Chapman, "you and your friend get out."
Prince Merlyse changed into a coyote. The fur on the back of her neck stood on end, and her tail stuck straight back in a rigid line. For a moment I feared a confrontation.
Tobias spread his wings again and gave a hoarse cry. «Don't be stupid, Jake. You can't pick a fight with him. Not here, not now.» Of course Tobias would understand that. As a hawk, he had to know when he could stand up to a fellow predator and when he must back down.
I grabbed Prince Jake's arm and steered him toward the door. He glared at me, but did not resist.
"Let's go," I said.
"Will he get better, Mr. Chapman?" asked Prince Jake.
"I know a psychiatric specialist at the hospital who can help this man. Get out of the way, Jake."
As we left, I turned back for a moment. What I saw surprised me. Instead of taking out the deadly steel cylinder that Yeerks used when they had to kill quietly and without evidence, Chapman emptied a syringe into Mr. Pardue's arm. A syringe would leave a mark on his skin, evidence of a possible murder weapon. This was not how Yeerks operated.
When I saw Mr. Pardue's face go slack and passive, and saw Chapman put his arms through the straps of the fish dæmon's tank, I suddenly understood the answer. The humans had told me that upon death, the dæmon instantly dissolves into its constituent particles. It was all too easy to tell a dead human from an unconscious one. The Yeerks could not employ their traditional methods of quiet murder and remain inconspicuous.
We stepped into the hallway and watched from a safe distance as Chapman led a heavily sedated Mr. Pardue out of the classroom and down the corridor.
"Where is he taking Mr. Pardue?" said Prince Jake. "We have to follow them."
I had a feeling that I knew. This "psychiatric specialist" at the hospital would be a Controller. Chapman would bring Mr. Pardue in for "treatment", which would go accidentally and terribly wrong, resulting in his death. Death is commonplace in a human hospital. No one would ask questions. This I knew. But I did not want to explain to Prince Jake how I knew it so well.
"I will follow them, Prince Jake. If you leave school this early, it may arouse suspicion. You must stay."
"You can't just go in without backup! I'm coming with you!"
«I'll go with him,» said Tobias. «Ax is right, Jake. You can't just disappear in the middle of the school day. Let us handle it.»
Prince Jake heaved a long breath. Prince Merlyse rubbed her head against his leg. "Fine. Be careful."
I did not know whether to feel relieved or apprehensive. If I had gone after Chapman alone, I could have tailed him to the hospital, then claimed to have lost his trail. With Tobias, I could maintain no such pretense. Still, Tobias would not ask uncomfortable questions the way Prince Jake would. He understood the need for secrets at times. In this, he was more like me than any of the other Animorphs. I felt a kinship with him that, in a fellow Andalite, would have led me to consider him an ideal friend, perhaps even a shorm.
But he was not a fellow Andalite. He did not know our shame, and I would not be the one to reveal it to him. I knew how much he admired my brother. If he knew, all his admiration would turn sour.
«Get to the woods behind the school. I'll keep an eye out while you morph,» said Tobias. «Hurry, before we lose him.»
There was no one in the corridors, and it was simple to leave the school unnoticed. I went to the woods where I had first morphed human. As soon as we were hidden by trees, Tobias launched from my shoulder and flew up high. My human body felt strangely bereft without him. Humans, even as morphed bodies, are not meant to be without a dæmon. I demorphed, and the feeling of loss disappeared. With barely a moment's pause, I continued to my northern harrier morph. I could not afford to lose time. Although I am an Andalite and the morphing technology was developed by and for my people, I had no greater ability than the human Animorphs. In Cassie's case, I had less. By the time I was fully raptor, four minutes had elapsed.
I flew above the forest and projected my thought-speech as far as it would go. «Tobias?»
«Here – street – northeast near the – »
The northern harrier did not know what northeast meant, but I did. I have a better sense of direction than humans, who are forever lost in time and space. I flew northeast until I was within range of Tobias' thought-speech. I could see him, a distant figure of brown and rust red.
«He's not headed toward any of the known Yeerk Pool entrances. I figured that would be his first move. As far as I can tell, they really are headed toward the hospital.»
I had guessed as much already. But I could not tell Tobias that. «Let's follow them and see.»
Tobias followed Chapman's car, and I followed Tobias. He is better at tracking from the air than I will ever be. Even when he is not on an Animorphs mission, I see him wheeling high above the city, still, watching. A hawk does not need to fill its days with anything but hunting and sleeping. A human boy may find solace for his mind in flying in circuits around the city, a ritual as dear to him as the one I perform every morning.
Chapman parked in front of the hospital. We circled the building, trying to spot them through the windows. Soon, my time in morph was almost up, and there was still no sign. I knew it was futile in any case. I found a stand of trees and demorphed. Tobias perched on a branch above me.
«What are they going to do with him?» he asked.
«I don't know,» I lied.
«They can't let him go around telling everyone about the Yeerks. They'll put him in the psych ward and tell everyone he's crazy.»
That would work if there were only one former host in the hospital. It would work if the Yeerks wanted to minimize loss of life. A dozen patients all telling the same story, though, would attract the notice of human doctors, and Yeerks did not care if a handful of humans lived or died, not when there were billions of hosts to be had.
«We could break him out of the psych ward. Put him on TV.» I think Tobias was beginning to suspect, and said these words to reassure himself. «We'll tell Jake. He'll come up with a plan. We'll stake out the hospital until school's out and find out which ward he's in.»
What could I say? I couldn't tell Tobias that his "stake-out" would be to no avail. I morphed back to northern harrier and watched through hospital windows as human doctors used their primitive equipment to monitor their patients as they suffered from diseases that a first-year Andalite medical trainee could have cured.
In the afternoon, two demorphs and morphs later, Tobias circled near me and said, «I saw a nurse with a medical chart on her clipboard. They tried electroshock therapy on Pardue. It induced a massive seizure. He's brain-dead, on life support. His dæmon's gone.»
A new thought-speak voice came from Tobias, the voice of Elhariel, his dæmon. «Her name was Severin.»
I said nothing.
«You knew, didn't you? I saw the way you were when Chapman came in. You wanted Jake out of there. You knew they wouldn't leave witnesses.»
«Yes,» I said, reluctantly. «Usually they kill right away – a device that kills so swiftly and with so little trace that it appears to the observer that they have merely fallen unconscious, or asleep. But you humans, with your dæmons, make this method impractical for their purposes.»
«You led me on this chase, and you knew what was going happen,» said Tobias. «You should have told me. You should have told all of us, before we destroyed the Kandrona.»
«Would you still have done what needed to be done, if you had known?»
«Yes. I told your brother I'd fight. It was as good as a promise. That means something to me. What do we mean to you?»
They meant more to me than I was willing to admit, even after so short a time together, Tobias above all. But I couldn't let them close, for fear of what they might learn about my people.
I turned and flew away to the alien forest that served as my shelter.
Marco invited me to "hang out" the next day. I was surprised at the invitation, but happy to accept. I did not know him the way I knew Tobias or Prince Jake, and it would be good to understand the Animorphs better. Tobias was invited too, by necessity. I sensed that Marco and Tobias did not like each other very much. Perhaps they, too, would benefit by time spent together.
We went to Marco's house to retrieve money for the bookstore. "My dad sprained his ankle, so he's working from his home computer today. Tobias, make sure Ax doesn't act weird, OK?"
«I'm not his babysitter,» Tobias grumbled.
"What is a babysitter? Sit. Ter. Do they sit on babies? Would that not cause physical injury to human infants?"
Marco gave Tobias a look with his eyebrows raised.
«OK, maybe I am,» Tobias said. «Go ahead, Marco, I'll keep an eye on him.»
Marco went upstairs. I stood by a table near the stairs. On the table was a primitive computer. It had a two-dimensional screen and a keyboard. I nearly laughed aloud at the sight of it. I read what was on the screen. It was a simple computer program riddled with errors so obvious that it seemed like a children's game. I reached for the keyboard.
«What are you doing, Ax?!» Tobias cried. «That's Marco's dad's computer! That looks like some serious work he's doing on it!»
«Work? This is merely a game. I wish to play it.»
«That's not a game! Leave it alone!»
I reread the program. I realized that it was meant to operate a ludicrously primitive radio telescope. But, if modified correctly, it could be much more. I could program it to communicate through Zero-space. I could contact my people.
«You mean that Marco's father designs programs for antique radio technology?» I asked Tobias.
«It's not antique. I think he works at the observatory. That stuff's cutting edge.»
This time I couldn't restrain myself from laughing. Still, the discovery excited me. My breath came faster. I could find this observatory and temporarily reprogram the telescope. If I erased the program as soon as I finished the call, no human would need to be the wiser.
I turned around. There was an older human. He carried a tank on a shoulder strap containing what must be his dæmon, a creature with many small arms and a large head that pulsed in shades of orange and yellow.
"Hello," I said.
"I'm Marco's dad. Are you a friend of his?"
"What's your name?"
"And you?" came a voice from the portable tank. The dæmon was addressing Tobias, but he could not answer except through thought-speech, which dæmons do not possess.
"Her name is Tully," I said.
"Nice to meet you, Phillip. I've never seen you around before. Are you new in town?"
"Yes," I said, truthfully. "Marco and I are about to hang out."
"Well, it's always nice to see Marco making new friends. You're welcome here any time, Phillip."
Marco's father sat down in front of the computer. He set down the tank containing his dæmon and began to type at the keyboard. Marco came downstairs and looked from me to his father.
"Hey, dad," he said. I believe he sounded somewhat nervous. "Did, uh, you meet my friend?"
"Yep," said Marco's dad, not looking away from his screen. "You and Phillip go have fun. I'm trying to focus."
«I told you I'd keep an eye on him,» said Tobias.
"OK. Let's go."
Marco and I left his house. "What is your father doing on his computer?"
"He works at that observatory outside of town. He's a bigshot engineer. I don't really understand any of it," said Marco.
"His dæmon is very colorful," I said.
"Only at home," said Marco. "When they go out, she dampens it some. They're not really the type to try and stand out."
I almost pointed out to Marco, with his dæmon a bright blue frog on his shoulder, that his personality was entirely the opposite in that respect. Instead I asked, "Do dæmons usually settle in a similar form to their parents?"
"Not telling. Top secret dæmonology stuff. When you're ready to tell me how you eat without a mouth, I'll divulge all the secrets of dæmons and how they settle."
I could not tell whether Marco was employing the human humor known as "sarcasm" or not, so I said nothing and followed him to the bookstore.
Marco bought me the World Almanac at the bookstore. I enjoyed reading it a great deal. It was somewhat strange at first, as it had been the first time I'd read such large amounts of alien text, and I was unsettled by the dual sensation of looking at the printed characters with no understanding while simultaneously knowing their meaning via the translation chip in my brain.
Did you know that there are 192 nations on Earth? Did you know that 4% of Americans do not believe in a deity? Did you know that only 1 in 10 dæmons settle as insects, although they represent 90% of all animal diversity on Earth?
It's a wonderful book.
Still, I was distracted. As I read about human technology and how quickly it had progressed over the years, my thoughts returned continually to the radio telescope at the observatory, and how I could use it if I dared. I set the book aside as the sun went down, performed the evening ritual, then went for a run. I thought of my parents. Did they think they had lost both their sons to this alien world? Did they mourn for me and Elfangor, even now? Traditionally, the task of avenging our deaths would fall to them, but neither of them were warriors. The duty would then pass to our princes. I wanted a prince to take away my responsibility to kill Visser Three. I wished I could beg someone, anyone, to take that burden away from me. But that would make me a coward. Elfangor deserved better than that. I had to continue what he had begun. I, Aximili, bound in service to a human prince who had never been trained in the ways of war. I wanted to believe that Elfangor would have done the same in my place, but there was no way to be sure. If I turned the radio telescope to my own use, I could speak to my parents, but no technology on this world or any other would allow me to ask a question of my brother.
I thought of my brother, and the longing to have him by my side was so intense it was a physical ache beneath my skin. Before I knew it, the lights of Cassie's farm glowed ahead. Foolish! I could not risk being seen.
"You might as well hang around for a while."
Cassie was there, silhouetted in the moonlight, all human but for a horse's mane and hooves. Quincy was beside her in some form I did not recognize, with skin like plated armor.
She spoke to me then, asking me of my perceptions of humans, with more insight than I was willing to admit. Her dæmon watched me steadily, his gaze never wavering. I found it unnerving. It felt as if he could see straight into the part of me that, if I had been human, would have been my dæmon. When Cassie invited me to join her family for dinner and I started to refuse, Quincy said to me, "You seem very lonely."
I was startled. Dæmons speak almost exclusively to other dæmons. I had never been directly addressed by a dæmon before. By Delareyne, Tom's dæmon, when I had been impersonating Prince Jake, but that had been because she believed I was her brother. The rules for dæmons, I sensed, were different with family.
«How would you explain to your family who I was?»
"You've morphed Jake before, right? So be Jake."
I reached out my thought-speech to its limit. «Tobias?»
« – what?» His reply came faintly.
«If it is not an imposition, would you accompany me as my dæmon to Cassie's home?»
«Hold on, I'm – » A pause. Then his thought-speech came more clearly. «Something about Cassie's place, you said?»
«Cassie has invited me for dinner at her home. Would you accompany me? I do not demand it of you. I merely ask as a favor.»
«OK,» he said. «I'll do it.»
I was surprised that he assented so readily, until I remembered how isolated he must feel from the human society he knew. Posing as my dæmon was his only opportunity to associate with humans outside of the Animorphs.
Cassie led me to the barn and gave me clothing to wear. I morphed inside the barn so I would not be seen, then she left to give me privacy to put on my clothing.
«Why does clothing oneself require privacy?» I asked Tobias as I put on the overalls. «You and Prince Jake and Marco do not leave when I am clothing myself. Why is her presence a breach of my privacy and not theirs?»
«You're putting them on backwards, Ax. There you go.»
As I walked from the barn to the house, I saw a very large animal standing on a platform controlled by a large pulley mechanism attached to side of the house. It had hooves, dark fur, and a set of large branching horns atop its head. It had a striking, handsome appearance. I was confused by this until the animal spoke, revealing itself to be a dæmon. "Hey there, Merlyse, Jake. Did Cassie get you to help muck out the barn?"
It would be customary for my dæmon to reply, but Tobias cannot form words in his hawk morph the way dæmons can. Obviously, most dæmons do not take forms that can naturally produce words. The best speculation I have been able to produce is that dæmons use a form of telepathy that targets the auditory speech processing centers of the brain, instead of the centers of meaning itself that thought-speech uses, bypassing the senses. This meant that thought-speech was obviously different from dæmon-speech, and I had to speak on behalf of "Merlyse."
"Yes. Sssss. She invited me to join your family for dinner, if the invitation is open."
"For you, Jake? Anytime. Come on round to the front."
Cassie was waiting for me at the front door. "Your parents know I am here," I told her. "Hee-yur. I saw your father's dæmon standing on a platform beside the house." I hoped my assumption had been correct; the dæmon's voice had seemed feminine, and all the dæmons I knew were of the opposite gender to their humans.
"Oh, good," said Cassie, reaching for the door.
"Daily living would be much more convenient for humans with large dæmons if they lived outside, instead of in closed houses. How-zez-ez."
Cassie pressed a finger to her lips, which Tobias quickly informed me via thought-speech was a gesture for silence. The door was open, and Cassie's parents came forward to meet us.
"Come on in," said Cassie's father. Like all humans I have met, he wore artificial skin all over his body. I am told that males and females wear different kinds of artificial skin, but I am unable to see the distinction. His dæmon was nowhere in sight, as she was just outside the house on the metal platform. Cassie and I came inside the house. "Share our dinner at your own risk, Jake. I made my world-famous chili tonight."
Cassie's eyes widened, an expression I interpreted as fear. "Oh. Chili? Um, Jake said he wasn't really hungry. He already ate."
"Is chili a very frightening food? Ood-duh?" I wondered.
Cassie's father grinned. "Mine is."
"Is that Jake I hear out there?" asked a voice from the next room. Cassie's mother appeared, a rodent on her shoulder that, Cassie would later explain to me, is called a degu. The degu dæmon climbed off her shoulder and clung to her back as Cassie's mother reached her two arms toward me. Tobias flew off my shoulder to perch on a wooden branching pole whose purpose I could not discern. I did not understand this until Cassie's mother pulled me into a hug; then I understood that her dæmon and Tobias had moved so that our hug would not violate the taboo.
"Red-tailed hawk," said the rodent dæmon, once he had climbed back onto his human's shoulder. "That's new. It suits you, Merlyse."
"Are you staying for some Chili of Doom?" Cassie's mother asked.
Cassie told them I was not hungry, which was true, but I while I was nervous about this frightening food, I was also curious and wanted to try it. We went to the "dining room", which was familiar to me from my three-day impersonation of Prince Jake. There were some differences, however. Before we sat around the table, Cassie's father opened a large window behind his seat at the table. His dæmon, standing on the platform outside, inserted her head through the window. Cassie took a seat beside her father, Quincy becoming a butterfly to land on the larger dæmon's nose.
"Have a nice run?" she said, the same fondness in her voice as I'd heard in Cassie's parents' voices when they had spoken to her.
"We did. I was a horse," said Quincy. "It was just like old times. Got to stretch my hooves."
"Don't you dare settle as a horse," said Cassie's father's dæmon. "There's barely enough room for me on this elevator. One more dæmon my size and the house will crumble down around our ears."
I saw Cassie and her father exchange a smile. It was strange to observe how social interactions were altered by the presence of dæmons – and how fundamentally similar they were to Andalites', especially when it came to family. It unsettled me. I had to believe that humans and Andalites were nothing alike. If not, then there was no reason to hide anything from the Animorphs. There would be no reason for Tobias not to be my shorm.
I sat in a chair at the table. Tobias perched on the back of the chair. Cassie's father served me chili. I gripped my fork with my five thick human fingers, remembering when Tobias had first explained to me how, when we had impersonated Prince Jake and Prince Merlyse for three days. There were many rules to be followed when eating a meal. Food could not be allowed to drop outside of the plate. Dæmons sat at the table with the humans, but they did not eat. I wasn't sure whether they ate at all, or whether they ate in a private ritual. I did not ask the humans for fear of sounding rude.
«Easy on the food, Ax,» Tobias reminded me, before I began to eat. «Remember what happened with Jake's family? They sent him to a psychiatrist because they thought he had an eating disorder. Keep it together.»
I ate the chili. An explosion of sensation flooded through my mouth and my entire head. I felt as if the inside of my face were aflame. My eyes stung. It was a glorious sensation. "This is a wonderful food!" I cried, finishing my bowl.
«That's enough, Ax,» said Tobias sternly.
It took every ounce of Andalite military discipline to stop myself from asking for more.
"At last! Someone who understands the joy of hot food! Jake, you are a very discerning, intelligent young man."
"He's insane," Cassie's mother said. "There's no other explanation."
Cassie joined in, teasing and joking with her father, and for a while I listened to them as human and dæmon spoke fondly with each other, their words made soft and easy with familiarity. I thought of my own family, how we too would feed together, running across the fields side by side. We would discuss what additions and changes to make to our garden, how to balance all the aspects of the landscape and the plants as the seasons shifted. My mother has a mind well-suited to gardening. She can hold all the elements of a garden, from the tilt of the ground to the effects of fresh rainfall, simultaneously in her mind's eye, and envision the most harmonious way to configure each element. I wondered if she had planted grief-flowers for Elfangor and me already, or whether she still held out hope for our return.
I felt my throat constrict as my human body reacted to my heavy thoughts. «Is there a polite way to ask to leave the table for a moment?» I asked Tobias.
«Ask them to remind you where the bathroom is,» said Tobias.
Cassie's mother showed me the way. I stood in front of a reflective surface, and closed my eyes at the sight of Prince Jake's face. I felt hot liquid pool at the corners of my eyes. I fought to hold it back.
«What's up, Ax-man?» Tobias asked gently.
"The chili has affected my eyes," I said. My voice came out low and rough. My throat felt impeded. "They are leaking fluid."
«Uh-huh,» said Tobias. «So what's the real reason why you needed to step out?»
I ought to have known that Tobias would see through the lie. He knew me best of all the Animorphs. But I couldn't let them see how much I missed my family. It would make them realize how alike we were.
"Cassie's parents are very kind," was all I said. "I should not deceive them this way."
«Well, you couldn't exactly knock on the door in your own body and ask for a plate of… whatever it is Andalites eat.»
"I know." I looked at my reflection and wiped the fluid from my eyes with my hand. The membranes around my eyes were swollen and red. It was a strange sight; I had never seen Prince Jake in this state.
«It's normal to miss your family, Ax,» said Tobias. «You may be an Andalite warrior cadet and all, but you're still a kid, just like us.»
It was exactly what I had feared Tobias might say. "I am not like you. I am expected to spend years away from my family. I have been trained to do so."
Tobias ignored what I had said. «Is there some way you can contact them? Let them know you're OK?»
There was a way, of course. I considered whether to tell Tobias of it. It would be a violation of Andalite law, and I would need to demand secrecy of him – yet it was clear that I could not maintain any pretense around him. I reached a decision. "There is," I said. "It is risky. Possibly foolish."
«But worth it?»
"My superior officers would say that it is not," I said. "And yet…"
«How can I help?»
My throat constricted again. I did not deserve such kindness, after all the Animorphs had done for me, even though I offered nothing in return. "I will tell you later." I left the bathroom and returned to the dinner table.
I "made conversation" with Cassie's father. Tobias advised me that Jake would be most likely to talk about sports, so I quoted facts from the World Almanac. Cassie's father was delighted by my knowledge about basketball. If they noticed the inflammation around my eyes, they had either attributed it to the chili or decided it was a violation of etiquette to comment.
After dinner, we watched television for a while. It was a fictional depiction of a human family. «How are humans and dæmons portrayed on television?» I asked Tobias. «Do they choose human and dæmon performers separately, or do they seek out performers with dæmons appropriate to the fictional character?»
«For a show like this, they probably just picked actors with dæmons that fit,» Tobias explained. «Except for the child actors, of course. For more highbrow stuff, they try to look for the best human and dæmon actors for the roles, so they cast them separately and hide the human actor's dæmon and the dæmon actor's human. In big-budget movies, they sometimes use CGI. You know, special effects.»
Soon, Cassie's mother fell asleep, her dæmon curled in a furry ball in her hand. «I must go,» I told Cassie in private thought-speech. «It has been almost two of your hours.»
Cassie revived her mother long enough to say goodbye. Her father winked at me and told me I was welcome anytime. Cassie walked out with me to the edge of the woods. She gave me a gift: a book of quotations by famous humans. She asked me what I thought of her family, and I told her they were kind, feeling that constriction in my throat again. She seemed to have noticed, and tried to get me to speak more on the subject, but I would not. Cassie was good-hearted, but I had the strange feeling that she knew far too much about me already. I did not want to give her any more. Besides, I did not trust her on the same level I did Tobias. He wanted to understand me because he considered me a friend. While Cassie considered me a friend as well, that was not the only reason she sought to learn more about me – though I could not say what her other reasons might be.
I told Tobias of my plan that night and swore him to secrecy. It was unfair of me to ask him to keep secrets from his friends, but I could not see any alternative. The plan succeeded, in more ways than I could have dreamed, a renegade Yeerk giving me the secret to how to assassinate Visser Three. I thought myself lucky. I thought myself cursed. I thought I had to carry out my plan alone, to die on a planet far from home, my one last chance at honor accomplished.
The Animorphs came to my rescue. Despite how much I had hidden from them, despite everything, they saved my life. It was more than I deserved. I thought of what Elfangor would have done in my place. He had been an aristh once. He had disappeared for years without a trace in his early years of military service. He, too, had a shameful mark upon his past, but he rose to become a great warrior all the same. Whenever I had asked Elfangor about it, he said, «That time in my life is past. I regret none of it, but I cannot share it with you.»
What would I say, one day, to my family, if I survived this war? Would I say, «I fought alongside the humans. They risked their lives for me and gave me everything I might ask for. Yet I kept the laws and gave them nothing in return.»
Or would I say what Elfangor had said to me, knowing that they could not understand the choices I had made, but taking pride in them all the same?
I told the Animorphs – my human friends – about the great shame of the Andalite people. And in return, I received not anger or recrimination, but understanding.
At the conclusion, Marco rubbed his hands together, his expression eager. "All right. Now that's over with. And now that we are finally all leveling and telling the truth ... I think we have one very big question for Ax. One huge question that will put our new friendship to the test. One gigantic question."
«What?» I asked nervously.
"How, how, HOW do you eat without a mouth?" Marco demanded.
I laughed, and explained to them how I ate as I ran. Then I said, «I, too, had wondered something about your eating habits. Do dæmons require sustenance?»
"No," Cassie said, laughing. "Their bodies are made of something called Rusakov particles. That's what I learned in school, anyway. It's some kind of physics thing."
«Do you ever sleep, Ax?» Tobias asked. «Whenever I'm up at night, you always seem to be awake. What's up with that?»
«Andalites require less sleep than humans do, but yes. Why am I allowed to remove clothing in the presence of males, but not females?»
There was a moment of silence. Then the Animorphs all burst into laughter. Their dæmons hooted and rolled around on the floor. It set all the animals in the barn to screeching. I watched them all, nonplussed.
Marco wiped tears from his eyes with the back of his hand, nothing like the tears I had shed that night at Cassie's house. "Anyone want to take that one?"
"No!" was the unanimous reply.
"I'll get you a book," said Cassie, her face serious, though Quincy in sheep form bleated a sound very like laughter.
«Moving right along,» said Tobias, «what's that thing you do in the morning, that ritual when you stick your hoof in the water and say all those words?»
"Ritual? What ritual?" asked Rachel.
So I told them everything I knew, and they answered all my questions in return. I wondered if Tobias would ask me the question that must haunt him, but he never did. Looking back, I think may now understand why. Humans are not so different, ultimately, and by now I understand Tobias better than I do most of my fellow Andalites. It is a comforting feeling, because he knows me just as well.
It may not seem possible to Andalites, who have learned to mistrust all that is different, but people from planets billions of miles apart can become the truest of shorms. And as I looked at Tobias, a smile brightening in my eyes, I felt the wellspring of optimism within me, that my military training had taught me so long to abandon, begin to come to life once more.