"Tobias!" I looked down from my perch to see my namesake, small and squat with stubby blades, sitting expectantly at the base of the tree. "Tell me how you saved my parents from the Yeerks!"
I would have smiled at her, if I could. I didn't deserve to have such a great kid named after me. «It wasn't just me, you know. My friends did it too. Rachel and Marco and Cassie and Jake and Ax.»
"Tell me!" Toby demanded.
How could I resist, with a face like that? Anyone who tells you that Hork-Bajir can't be cute has never met one of their kids. «All right. But next time I visit, I want to see that you've written down as much of the story as you remember. You need to practice your writing.» Jara Hamee and Ket Halpak couldn't teach their Seer child how to write, so I'd become her tutor. Sometimes I even got Ax to come to the valley and teach her math and science, though I had to bribe him by promising to go out with him for cinnamon buns afterward.
There would be a lot of parts I'd leave out, of course. She didn't need to know the details of the bargain I'd made with the Ellimist, about the price I'd chosen to pay.
Moonlight filtered through the forest canopy, staining the ground silver. I could only make out the world as hazy impressions in the darkness. I remembered that this was what the world looked like through human eyes, which in the dark were barely any worse than my own. You'd think I'd remember that more clearly, but it's as if I view my own memories through a hawk's eyes. When I think about Professor Powers' garden, or my aunt's dingy old apartment, I can see every detail crystal-clear, as a hawk would, though I couldn't have possibly seen it that way back then.
I heard Jara Hamee and his wife in the cave before I saw them. I couldn't understand most of what they said, for which I was glad. I didn't want to intrude on a private conversation, but there was a question that had been bothering me for a while, and I knew I'd sleep easier if I knew the answer.
«Hey, Jara Hamee,» I said. «It's me. Tobias. The bird. Can I talk to you for a second?»
The conversation died. Jara Hamee stepped out of the cave. It was as if he'd stepped out from another time. In the dimness of night, he looked more like a dinosaur than ever.
"Kalashi must rest," he said, by way of explanation. "Kalashi stays in. Jara Hamee will talk."
«That's fine. She went through a lot today.» I paused. «I have a question, Jara Hamee. When you first escaped from the Yeerk pool with Ket, you looked up and saw me, and then you pointed me out to her. You weren't confused when I called out to you in thought-speech. How did you know that I wasn't just any bird?»
The question had been haunting me ever since that crazy escape. If the free Hork-Bajir could tell I was more than just a red-tailed hawk, then couldn't the Yeerks pick me out the same way? Or any of my friends in morph?
"We see. You have hrala. Flying animals, they have no hrala. Only you."
"It is gift. It is why we tell story. Hork-Bajir have hrala. Andalite, human have hrala. Even Yeerk have hrala. Animals have no hrala. Animals tell no story."
«So you mean that because I'm self-aware…» I trailed off. That word was too complicated. «Because I think, I have hrala. Not like birds.»
«And you could see that I had it, even before I said anything to you.»
"Yes. You have much. The hruthin has much."
«And the others? My friends?»
"They have. Not much. Like young Hork-Bajir. Less hrala than adult."
I was stumped by that one for a while. What makes Ax and I different from the others?
Don't tell me you've forgotten because you can't see me, said Elhariel. How am I different from the others?
Of course! We're the only ones who've settled. And I guess Ax has gone through whatever the Andalite version of settling is.
«What about the Yeerks? Do they know about this?»
"Yeerk see. Yeerk say, 'Hork-Bajir see bad. See strange things.' Yeerk not listen. Yeerk say, 'What Jara Hamee say of hrala not true. Hrala is bad seeing. Hork-Bajir make up story about hrala.'"
That's what Cassie said when she morphed Jara Hamee, El pointed out. She said his vision was weird, she couldn't see properly. Without Hork-Bajir instincts, she said she wouldn't have been able to make any sense of it. But it's not bad vision, it's part of how they see.
«And all Hork-Bajir can see it?» I asked.
"Yes. But no Yeerk listen. Yeerk care about body. Yeerk not care about story, about hrala. Jara Hamee not a body. Jara Hamee have hrala too."
From inside the cave, Ket Halpak called out a word I didn't understand.
"Kalashi have need." Jara Hamee retreated into the cave. "I go help."
«Thanks,» I said. I didn't really understand what Jara Hamee meant about hrala. How could it be possible to see consciousness?
This reminds me of something, Elhariel murmured. But I can't quite remember what it is. I feel like we've heard of hrala before, or seen it somewhere. But when? How?
No idea. I sat in my tree and brooded for a while. It's hard not to. I have too much free time, as a hawk, and when the spaces between hours gape like chasms, my thoughts drain away to places I wish they wouldn't go. I think of the other Animorphs at home with their families, and I wish I had that too, though it's stupid, because I never had it when I was human anyway. I thought about what Jara Hamee had said about hrala. They had less of it than I did. They weren't yet set into who they were. Yet I couldn't see that as a bad thing. I liked Elhariel the way she was, but I wish we'd had more time to explore who we were, more time to watch her dance between forms like a kaleidoscope, just for the sheer joy of it. But then, how often did the other Animorphs find the time to do that anyway? They might still be unsettled, but they didn't have any more time to enjoy it than I did.
Ax trotted up to my perch, his fur bleached silver-blue in the moonlight, and I felt a sting of reproach from Elhariel. You act like you're alone in this. You're not. He doesn't have a family to go home to either, not anytime soon, and he too has the burden of knowing exactly who he is.
It was hard to feel alone with Ax around. I pretend to be his dæmon at least once a week, usually more, and silly as it sounds, I sometimes feel like he's my counterpart, though not in the way that a dæmon is. We have a lot in common, but our minds work differently. My soul takes the shape of a bird that wanders for months over open water, and my mind drifts like that, too, like it won't ever come to earth. Not to say that Ax never spends time just thinking – he does, all the time – but it's like he has old pathways in his mind that he walks again and again. The structure's been laid down. It makes me feel like I can rely on him.
I wondered whether to tell Ax how Jara Hamee been able to tell that I wasn't your average bird. But as we talked about the Hork-Bajir, I was reminded of his arrogance. He would probably react the same way Jara Hamee's Yeerk did, and dismiss it as a fluke, just some strange flaw in Hork-Bajir vision that they tried to justify through myth.
«They're definitely not going to ace any vocab quizzes, Ax,» I said, «but Jara Hamee said some pretty complex things to me, in his own way. Communicating isn't all about the words you use. I mean, like I was saying, I keep feeling like there's someone trying to communicate with me through – »
And then it happened again. An image in my mind of Taxxons in the forest. I knew they were there.
Oh, good grief, said Elhariel.
Ax ran off to let the others know while I roused the Hork-Bajir. I felt bad for them. They must have been tired and frightened, only just starting to get over their traumatic experiences as slaves of the Yeerks, and they couldn't get any peace. So when I found out that the mysterious someone-or-other had been whispering in their ears too, I got really mad.
«That's it,» I said. «This little parade stops until I get some answers!»
But before I could finish, I was suspended in blue-green light, like a tiny sea creature floating through a sunlit ocean.
HELLO, TOBIAS. WE MEET AGAIN.
The voice was so vast I could feel it ruffle my feathers. I felt a small weight press against my chest, as if something were taking refuge there. It was only then that I looked down and saw a black-and-white bird tucked against my chest – a chest both flat as a human boy's and keeled with the breastbone of a hawk.
"El," I breathed. She was luminous. I could see beneath her skin, where flecks of gold swirled and pulsed in time with my heartbeat. The same luminous dust was all over me, sticking to my eyelashes and feathers like snowflakes. It was strange, but somehow so right. We both had wings. She was with me. We were beautiful together.
But it wouldn't last. There was only one species that could bring Elhariel back where my eyes could see her, and the Ellimist wouldn't let me have what I wanted. Not without playing his game. Not without paying his price.
YES, TOBIAS. ELLIMIST. OR AN ELLIMIST.
He appeared as a hawk, but not like any hawk I'd ever seen. His feathers were black above and white below, just like Elhariel's. He laughed, and his laugh made the whole universe laugh along, yet it was all so small compared to the weight of Elhariel against my chest.
I CHOSE A SHAPE YOU WOULD IDENTIFY WITH.
"Baloney. You know better than that. We're not half-hawk, half-storm petrel. That's not how it works."
NO. THE STORM PETREL IS METAPHORICAL. THE HAWK IS NOT.
I looked down at my body, equal parts boy and bird. "What do you want from me? Why are you making me do things I don't want to do?"
WHAT HAVE I MADE YOU DO, TOBIAS?
"You put me in places I don't want to be. You've dragged me into this stupid mess with these two Hork-Bajir."
The Ellimist dissolved from bird to human. But not entirely human. He was a human with wings, like I was at the moment, but without a dæmon. That didn't weird me out anymore, though, like it did when I first saw Ax morph human. He spoke with a human voice that I knew was a lie, and told me that everything I'd done with the Hork-Bajir was just a move in his giant chess game.
"You want my help?" I asked the Ellimist. "Fine. Then I want yours. You're just about all-powerful, according to Ax. You can make entire galaxies disappear if you want. I don't know why you don't just make things happen the way you want them to. But, hey, whatever. You want me to lead these Hork-Bajir to this place you've put in my head? Fine. But I want to get paid for my services."
"And what do you want, Tobias?"
"You know what we want," said El, her feathers trembling against mine. "You know."
"Yes. But do you know what you want, Tobias?" the Ellimist asked. "And if you get it, will you still know?"
Then, without warning, I was back in the forest. I was a hawk, and Elhariel was just a whisper in my mind.
«We need someone to acquire and morph Ket,» I said.
It was my plan. My responsibility. It might even work. And now I had a chance to be a part of it. It felt good, and I kind of hated that it felt good.
It's all right, said El. I get to morph with you. I missed it too.
Is that really enough? I asked her. It's better than never being able to morph again, but… are you sure it's enough?
No. I'm not sure. But it's all I have.
«I'll do it,» said Jake.
«No, Jake. Not this time. I'll do it.»
«You will?» said Rachel.
«You will?» her dæmon echoed.
«Yeah. I will. I'll morph Ket. I'll morph a Hork-Bajir.»
Then Rachel got it. «The Ellimist? That's what he did for you? I thought he was going to make you human again. Give you Elhariel back.»
«Ellimists,» Ax spat. «Never trust them.»
«Oh no,» Cassie whispered. «That's it? He gave you back the power to morph? But not. . .»
«No,» I said. «I'm part of the team again. But I'm still a hawk. I'll be keeping my wings.»
And losing you, El. Again.
We went over the plan. Cassie had already morphed Jara, so she and I would play the part of the free Hork-Bajir. Rachel would be in wolf morph. And Cassie and I would be putting our lives in Marco's hands.
I fluttered over to Ket's shoulder, one of the few patches of skin I could perch on that wouldn't cut me to shreds. For the second time that day, I acquired DNA. El and I focused on the Hork-Bajir, making it a part of us.
I flew down to the forest floor, and we began to concentrate, forcing out the other Animorphs' looks of disbelief. Suddenly, the world fell away as I shot up and up. «Yah! Whoa! Whoa!»
I doubled, tripled in size. My insides rearranged themselves, and my wings became arms. But still, there was plenty in common between a hawk and a Hork-Bajir, when it came right down to it. The main difference was when my eyes changed.
My hawk's vision in all its razor clarity was gone. The colors were off in ways I can't describe, and I couldn't see detail any more sharply than a human. But that wasn't it. The air was dancing, and for a moment I could barely see for the sheer luminosity of it all.
It wasn't a color. It wasn't a shape. It was almost like a wind that I could see, its flow shaped by the trees, and by the forests, and by the flanks of the mountains. A bird of prey on the wing high above barely stirred it, while it swirled in miniature cyclones every time one of my friends so much as twitched.
Though the typhoon gathered around us, the air vibrating with it, it didn't touch everyone. It flowed around Jake, Rachel, Marco, and Cassie as they morphed, never quite touching their skin. With Ax, Jara, and Ket, it was different. They were cocooned in it, glowing so brightly I could barely look at them. And when I looked down at myself, I was surrounded by it too, so wrapped up in me I could have sworn it was under my skin.
It was beautiful. It was overwhelming. And it was familiar.
This is the same thing we saw when we were with the Ellimist, said El. I was made of it, and you were covered in it. It looked more like golden dust than a wind, but it's the same thing. I'm sure of it.
Now that I'd had a few moments to adjust, I could look at the Hork-Bajir again. If I tried to process what I saw with my human mind, it was all too much. But the Hork-Bajir mind could make sense of it. It became part of my picture of the world, so that it was hard to remember what it was like to see without it.
«Jara,» I said. «Ket. I think I see the hrala.»
They turned to look at me. It must have been strange for them, to see a mirror image of Ket speaking with my voice.
They smiled their great goblin grins. My friends stared.
«What are you talking about, Tobias?» Rachel asked. She was almost all the way to wolf by now, except for a few ghostly strands of blond hair mixed in with her dark fur.
«I think I know,» said Cassie. «I can see it too. A little. If I try to think about it too much, I can't really see at all.»
«I'll explain later,» I said. «Let's move.»
Rachel came looking for me, after. I could hear her. I can hear everything in my forest. "Tobias! Where are you?" I heard her cry. And worst of all, I could hear Abineng calling El's name.
She wasn't giving me pity. She knew I didn't want it. But her kindness would tear me apart, and Abineng, just the sight of him – that would shatter Elhariel. And that would be the worst of all.
Oh Tobias, I could hear her say. If I were here, really here, I'd run my beak through his fur. He'd hold me. He would be so kind to me.
I know he would, El. Though it hurt, I tried to imagine what we would be doing now, if the Ellimist had done what he should have. I would be holding her, her head tucked under my chin right where it belonged. She'd be flying in circles around me just for the joy of it, and I'd be watching her and laughing. And then we'd…
I couldn't think of anything else, where we'd go, what we'd do. I was too blinded by the fantasy, by the sensation of her feathers against my skin that I'd felt when we were in the Ellimist's other-place. The place where I could see the hrala that made her up.
We can't do this. It's too much, said El. Can't we just pretend for a little while? That it's a normal day?
So we did. We mapped out Yeerk pool entrances and followed high-ranking Controllers. But then the sky grew ripe with sunset, and we flew back to the meadow, to the shelter of our favorite tree.
Ax came looking for me, then. I could talk to him in a way I couldn't to Rachel. He didn't understand what it meant, to have lost what we thought we might have, in a way that Rachel did. That was a good thing. We would have seen the pain in Rachel and Abineng's eyes every time they thought about what it would be like to never touch each other again, to never gaze into each other. Ax could pretend to have a dæmon. He could even try to understand, and he did try so very hard. But he didn't know.
«Hey, Ax-man,» I said.
«How are you, Tobias?»
«Same as ever,» I said, though we both knew it was a lie. I wanted to tell him to go away, but I knew he wouldn't even if I said so. We know each other too well. He'd see that I wanted company, no matter how much I pretended I didn't.
«You said something to the Hork-Bajir,» said Ax. «You said you could see the hrala. What did you mean?»
I was quiet for a while. I didn't expect the question, and I didn't know how to answer it. «What do Andalites think about consciousness?» I said, feeling a little ridiculous.
«Consciousness? It is an artefact of the emergent properties of the brain.»
I had no idea what he was talking about, but I pushed ahead. «Do you think it's possible that consciousness can leave an imprint on the universe? That it could generate some kind of force that shapes the world?»
Ax fell into a pensive silence. Then he said, «There is a scientist named Coriad-Cooraf-Elafil. She is ridiculed by her colleagues, because she has said that there is a fundamental particle that is drawn to Andalites, that gathers around us and the works we create with our minds and our hands and our blades. They say her results are anomalies caused by experimental error.»
«I think she might be right,» I said. «The Hork-Bajir can see it, Ax. That's how they knew I wasn't just a bird. They could see that fundamental particle, or whatever it is, all around me. They call it hrala.»
«They could have inferred that in some other way.»
«I don't think so. I like them both a lot, but they're not the sharpest crayons in the box. Even the Yeerks can't tell when an animal is one of us in morph unless we do something that's pretty obviously out of the ordinary for that animal. They had to have known some other way. And besides, I saw it when I was in Hork-Bajir morph. Cassie saw it too, though she didn't understand what it was. It was everywhere, but it was around us most of all. All of us. You, me, the others, the Hork-Bajir. It was beautiful.»
I could tell Ax was skeptical. It didn't matter. For some reason, talking about hrala made me feel a little better. Maybe I couldn't have Elhariel back the way I wanted her, but I could morph Hork-Bajir and see hrala, and it would make me feel like I was seeing El, because hrala was all that she was.
«Would you like to go to the bookstore tomorrow? I believe I have enough currency for a magazine.»
«Sure,» I said, then pretended to fall asleep until I heard him leave. I thought about the bookstore in the mall where I used to sit and read. The last place I'd been before tagging along with Marco and Jake to the abandoned construction site. I imagined what it would be like to go as myself, not as Ax's dæmon. To curl up in a corner with a book, or maybe a science magazine. Would the people who worked there remember me? They used to let me sit there for hours without buying anything. Did they ever wonder why I'd stopped coming?
It was kind of depressing that the thing I missed the most about my life before becoming a hawk was the way the people behind the counter at the bookstore would smile at me when I walked through the door, and tell me about the latest books that had come in.
I forced myself to stop stewing and tried to bury myself in the hawk's mind, which in all its simple clarity wanted nothing more than to settle in and sleep. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them again I was no longer in my tree.
I was in a room with peeling wallpaper, the only source of light an eerie blue glow from the numbers on an alarm clock. On the pillow lay a head covered in messy dirty blond hair, and on the nightstand next to the alarm clock perched a little black bird with a white breast, its beak tucked into its chest as it slept.
A chill swept through me. The sight of Elhariel should have been a comfort, but this wasn't the same El who lived in the back of my mind.
I fluttered to the nightstand, and the breeze from my wings stirred the other El from her sleep. A moment later, the other me turned over in his bed and stared at me. "A bird?" he said.
«It's just a dream,» El told him. I could feel the turmoil of emotions in her, the mixed joy and disquiet at seeing my face again.
I looked at my Star Trek calendar, open to a picture of Kirk and his dæmon on the bridge of the Enterprise. It was the day before I walked through the construction site.
"A dream?" The other me sat up, and the other El flew to perch in his lap, pressing her head against his stomach. "I know you, don't I?"
«Kind of. And I know you, Tobias and Elhariel.»
"How do you know our names?" the other El said.
«I can't tell you that. But listen, Tobias, El, I…» I didn't know what to say. More than anything, I wanted to reach out to El. I wanted to preen her feathers with my beak. Inside my mind, El longed to perch on my human shoulder, to bury her beak in my hair. But that would only frighten and confuse them. I didn't want my last night as a human to be a scary one. Not that I really remembered this night anymore.
«Tobias. Walk home with Jake. Through the construction site.» Somehow, El and I said it at the same time, speaking with one voice.
I just laughed. The other me had a life I would never have again, full of joys large and small that I missed with an ache that almost never went away. But that life was full of pain, too, blinding me to all the beautiful things I had. After all, what was the weight of El on my shoulder, next to the sound of a bottle shattering against a wall? What was watching her fly on a sunny day, next to the look of relief in my aunt's eyes when she sent me on a bus to my uncle's house? I couldn't see it, then. I could see it now. And I still wasn't sure of the price I'd paid.
«Tobias?» I said. «You should go back to sleep.»
The other me curled his palm around El's back. "I am asleep, aren't I? This has to be a dream. And if it isn't a dream, I'll never get back to sleep!"
«I can help you sleep,» I said.
«Hold out your arm,» said El. «Don't be afraid.»
We flapped to his shoulder, and I could feel some knot of pain in El loosen as we settled there, in the place where she ought to be. We felt the DNA flow into us, becoming a part of us once more.
When we opened our eyes again, we were back in the old oak tree.
DON'T FORGET. TWO HOURS, TOBIAS. HAVE I KEPT MY PROMISE?
«Will I be there, when we morph?» Elhariel asked. «In my own body?»
«Then yes,» we said. «You kept your promise.»
AND ARE YOU HAPPY?
And the thing, I was. I could feel El's eagerness for morning, when the sun would rise and we would morph, and she would be herself for two precious hours, the dawn light playing in shades of pink and gold across her pale breast as she flitted from tree to tree. She would revel in it for those two hours, and then after that she could soar again on a hawk's wings, one with me in body and soul once more.
It frightened me. She should have been cursing the Ellimist, for imprisoning her in a hawk's body with me only to be set free for two hours at a time. But she wasn't. Neither was I. What did that say about us?
Go to sleep, Elhariel whispered. Down that path lies madness.
"You went back in time to acquire your own DNA?" said Toby, eyes wide. "Can I go back in time too? I want to meet Aldrea and Dak Hamee!"
«Only if an Ellimist takes you back in time, and trust me, if you never meet an Ellimist it'll be too soon,» I said. «Funny you should mention Aldrea, though. When your dad told me that story and talked about Aldrea morphing a Hork-Bajir, it reminded me of what it was like for me. My first time seeing hrala.»
"I can't imagine what it's like not to see it," said Toby. "You had a lot when you told the story. So does my father when he tells stories. I think the hrala likes stories."
I didn't know what to say to that. Hrala was so vast and strange that I couldn't imagine influencing it at all. But then again, what had the Ellimist said?
"You are the point on which an entire timeline may turn," El supplied. It probably just said that to make us feel important.
Yeah, probably. I said to Toby, «So, how are the trees?»
"My parents are working on them. They're trying to fix a kal-hralaka."
"Morph to Hork-Bajir and I'll show you."
I flew to the ground next to Toby and focused on the Hork-Bajir form. Suddenly, Toby became very small. My eyes shifted, and the valley became dizzy with currents of hrala, in constant flux between the trees.
I felt Toby climb up my back and cling there, and I realized with a jolt that my morph was a perfect copy of her mother. She must do this all the time. "Climb up!" Toby cried. I surrendered to Hork-Bajir instinct and shot up the nearest tree like a monkey. I climbed and climbed until the branches were too thin to support my weight.
"Here," said Toby. "Look north."
I looked north. For a moment I saw nothing. Then I peeled my Hork-Bajir instincts away a little, so that the hrala was no longer faded into the background but at the forefront of my vision. The hrala was no longer a windstorm, chaos beyond imagining. It was a network of currents, flowing in intricate patterns through the trees, shaped by the life around it. I could see where Hork-Bajir blades had trimmed back the trees, shifting the path of the hrala. At the northern end of the valley, I saw a place where three streams of hrala coiled into a knot, blocking off the flow. There, Jara Hamee and Ket Halpak moved along the edges of the knot, slicing away branches with surgical precision, unraveling the knot by degrees.
«That's why you can see hrala,» I said. «The Arn made you that way. You didn't just maintain the forests of your world. You kept the hrala healthy.»
"I might be a mistake," said Toby, "but the way we see hrala isn't."
«You're not a mistake, Toby. Or if you are, you're a good one. Not everything good has a reason. Sometimes things are just right even if no one meant them to be that way. And that's OK.»
Toby rested her head on my shoulder, right next to the blade there. "You sound like you're speaking from experience."
«I am.» I was a freak, like Toby. Not quite part of my species, but something else. I've accepted that. And no matter what the Ellimist says, it doesn't have to be for a reason. It's a kind of accident I can live with.