I. The Stranger

Everything about the Ellimist freaks me out.

The first time was bad enough. There I was, flying along, and suddenly I was underground. No sky. My feet - feet, not talons - were on solid ground. I had fingers. Weak hearing and weaker vision. I was surrounded by frozen Controllers. And I had Elhariel perched on my shoulder. She almost sobbed with joy, pressing her beak against my cheek, her talons digging into my shoulder so hard it hurt - but it was a good hurt.

The Ellimist's not-quite-human shape didn't have a dæmon, which freaked out the other human Animorphs more than it scared Ax and me. I'd spent too much time pretending to be Ax's dæmon to be thrown by a human-shaped being without one.

The tour of Earth he showed us was beautiful, but still overwhelming and frightening. It seemed like there were no limits to the Ellimist's power.

But as much as that scared me, it was nothing compared to the second time.

I guess I should have been grateful, on some level. I got another chance to be with Elhariel in a way I never could as a hawk. But it was tainted, somehow, because I knew that the Ellimist was returning her to me in hopes of manipulating me and all the other Animorphs. Though it was nice to have her there, solid and real, when I saw what happened next.

The sight of what was left of our town gave me serious heebie-jeebies. I'd gotten to know our city a lot better as a hawk than I ever had as a human. Flying high above, I've seen it all. But we could barely recognize it anymore. Even weirder was seeing how the human-Controllers behaved when they didn't have to keep up the act of being human. They and their dæmons moved around like robots. All the smaller bird dæmons sat on their humans' left shoulders, looking straight ahead. All the snake dæmons were coiled exactly once around their humans' necks. It was like that creepy old movie, The Stepford Wives.

I don't know how Rachel looked so composed when she saw the shell of her future self. I thought I was going to throw up. It was clearly Rachel's body, older, but there was nothing left of Rachel there. She would never cut off all her shiny yellow hair. She'd never wear those drab clothes. She'd never stand next to Visser Three with that expression of perfect calm.

And Abineng would never let himself be reduced to what I saw before me.

There could be no better proof that the Yeerk inside Rachel's head had crushed her completely. Abineng loved to be a cat. The real Abineng, the one I knew, was a Bengal cat now, the size of a house cat but rosetted like a leopard. The Abineng of the future was a cat barely larger than a kitten, all white, sitting meekly against the future Rachel's left leg.

"Hello, Rachel," said our Rachel, her face still as iron. But Abineng, her Abineng, peeled his lips back from his teeth in a snarl. His counterpart looked down, unwilling to meet that harsh yellow gaze.

We prevented that future. It's never going to happen. And that's the way it should be. But I won't soon forget what a Yeerk can do the human spirit, even the spirit of the strongest person I know.

II. Elfangor's Secret

Tobias swooped into my barn through the open hayloft. «It's clear,» he said.

Jake gave him a slight nod, but didn't acknowledge him beyond that. My family's slave girl was still in the room, cleaning out the cages. She was mostly deaf, and she had had the Operation as all slaves did, so her gecko dæmon couldn't transmit what he heard through their severed link. Still, even though she was deaf, less intelligent than us, and severed, she could be a spy for the Yeerks, so we didn't do Animorphs business in front of her.

I grabbed the girl's arm to get her attention. She carefully didn't meet my eyes - it was a breach of slave etiquette to look a mistress in the eye - and Quincy didn't look at her dæmon at all. He thinks the Operation is creepy and wrong. He figures that slaves aren't smart or independent enough to organize against their masters anyway, so why separate them from the only ones in the world who really love them - their dæmons? Truthfully, I agree with him, but I don't dare say so out loud. I'm black, so I'm automatically under suspicion of being a radical. I don't want to make things worse for myself. Just because I'm a kid doesn't mean the Triple S can't make me disappear. They did it to Rachel, after all.

"You can go now, September Twelve," I said slowly, enunciating each word so she could read my lips.

The report from the Chee was worrying. Personally, I think the Primitives should be enslaved, not killed - wiping them out is a waste of human life and of valuable slavepower - but the troops down there were doing their best to serve their country. The last thing they deserved after putting their lives on the line for the Empire was to be enslaved by the Yeerks. I know Jake feels the same way about our troops, but he's a hard-liner when it comes to the war. He thinks all the Primitives are polluting the gene pool and should be killed. He probably thinks that way because his dad's side of the family is Jewish - he's as much under suspicion as I am. He takes the hard line to protect himself and his family. Marco is that way too. His mom is Mexican, so she probably has some Primitive blood. He can't risk sounding like a sympathizer.

Without warning, a creature appeared in the barn, like no alien I'd seen before. It was dark, shriveled, with a high mocking voice. I don't know what Yeerk technology had transported it here. Did it mean the Yeerks had found us somehow? Had I not been careful enough with my slave?

"Yeerk," said Melissa. "Some new host body." Marco began to morph, brown fur rushing over his body in a tide. Diamanta disappeared without so much as a flicker.

Then the creature that called itself the Drode spoke, and the world changed. And I swore to myself I would die before I let that world come to pass.

III. The Familiar

When my Yeerk feeds in the pool, the cage in which I am kept prisoner prevents me from every escape. Even my tail is bound in an invisible force-cage, keeping me from pressing it to my own throat. There have been times when I have dreamed of other ways to freedom. Perhaps if I threw myself against the walls of my cage hard enough, my skull would break open. Perhaps I could damage myself enough to become an unfit host.

Though I have dreamed of this escape, I have never attempted it. I have always told myself that I have never tried it because it is hopeless. But ever since the invasion of the Andalite homeworld, I have feared that it is because I am a coward.

My Yeerk at the time of the invasion of my homeworld, Visser Four, loathed me. All Yeerks loathe Andalites as a matter of course, but this Yeerk had fought Elfangor a long time ago, and hated me all the more for being his brother, and a member of the Resistance that had defied the Yeerks for so long. That is why, in the chaos of the Yeerk invasion, as our forests burned and the trees cried out their agony, Visser Four personally tracked down my parents.

He had managed to keep it hidden from me, guarding his thoughts closely from mine, until they were brought to the interrogation room, their tails and their arms bound, their legs hobbled.

«See?» Visser Four crooned, his mind-voice poison-sweet. «I brought you a gift, Aximili-kala.»

He loved to use the pet-name of my childhood to torment me, but it hurt all the more to hear it from him when my parents stood in helpless rage before me.

«Noorlin, Forlay, my honored guests,» said the Yeerk in my voice. «Do you know how disgusted your little Aximili feels? He evaded us for years before he was captured. The invasion of your world has been underway for one of your months, and already you have fallen onto our tails. He wonders how you could have been so weak.»

It was a lie, of course. My parents were not warriors. And after all, I had seen the mightiest warriors I have known fall before the Yeerks. If Prince Jake could be taken, and I could still honor his name in my hearts, then so could my parents.

«We do not believe your lies, Yeerk,» my mother said. «Do you wish to know what we think? We think Aximili resists you at every turn, and makes your life a torment. We know what he did on Earth. We know you can hear us, Aximili. Keep fighting.»

I will not tell you what it was like to watch, a prisoner in my own mind, as Visser Four used me as a weapon against my own parents. I will not tell you the cries that poured from their minds as my tail bit into their flesh. It would serve no purpose.

I do resist whichever Yeerk is in my mind. I resist them until they apply for a host transfer, and I am given a new master to make a slave of me. But there is one glimmer of escape open to me, and I have never tried to take it. My parents were wrong about me. Even that very day, when my Yeerk fed in the pool and the blood of my family dripped from my tail blade, my skull did not shatter against the walls of my cage.

But my hearts did