I'm so nervous, I'm so tense
My heart can't forget about this self-defense
The air is so hot and my breath comes fast
I thumb the cool blade but I know this can't last
– from "Shadow Stabbing" by Cake
"You gonna tell me what this meeting is about?" I asked Jake on the way to Cassie's house. It was a twenty-minute walk if you knew all the shortcuts, which trust me, we all know by now. You could probably blindfold Diamanta and me and dump us anywhere in the city and we'd be able to find our way.
"Nope. You have to wait to hear it, just like everyone else." His voice cracked in the middle of "everyone", which made it hard to take him seriously.
"No more insubordination from me, O Squeaky Leader," I quipped. Diamanta turned into a chipmunk on my shoulder and gave a little squeak. It was weird, though, hearing Jake's voice change like that. I guess it'll happen to me soon. It's just easier to imagine, with him, what he'll look and sound like when he's older. If he lives to be older. He's so serious already. He gets his hair trimmed more often, so it's tighter to his scalp, and as he's grown he's changed his wardrobe from T-shirts to flannels and button-downs. I can imagine what Jake will look like in a few years. Me? Not a clue.
You'll look like Mom, Diamanta said silently. You look more like her all the time.
Not now, I said, pushing thoughts of Mom aside before the memories could resurface.
Dia became a ball python, orange rippled through with bronze, like metal on the forge. That's what you always say. Or what you always say since…
Yeah. Since. And that was all I was going to say to Dia while Jake was around, even in the privacy of our own mind.
Jake raised an eyebrow at me. "You just wait until it happens to you. Then it won't seem so funny."
"No way," I said. "I have it all planned out. I'm going to have the world's first dignified puberty. Then I'll sell the secret and get rich off millions of anxious thirteen-year-olds."
"Rachel's going to be the first to notice your voice cracking," Jake went on, as if I hadn't spoken. "She'll make what you went through with the haircut look like a picnic. But hey, if it's any consolation, when you morph gorilla at least you'll know your voice sounds manly."
Dia became a hummingbird and dove after Merlyse, landing a sharp peck on her tail. Merl chirruped in outrage and turned on Dia, chasing her in a circle around us. Jake gave me a little shove, and our dæmons became a flurry of dun brown and iridescent green wings as they struggled in midair.
Then a couple of cute girls turned onto the street, and I stood up a little straighter, trying not to look like I was acting like a six-year-old. Merl used my distraction as an opportunity to get in a good peck on the back of Dia's skull. She became a gray parrot, squawked, and flew to my shoulder, giving Merl a baleful glare with one pale eye.
The girls passed by, and Jake rolled his eyes. "Seriously, Marco? Those girls are in tenth grade. You don't have a chance."
"That's not the point. The point is not looking like an idiot in front of a girl."
"You're an idiot with Rachel and Cassie all the time."
"That's different. They're…" I couldn't say "Animorphs" in public. "Comrades-in-arms. Does one Musketeer have to worry about being an idiot in front of the other two Musketeers? Does Buffy have to watch her back when she's with the Scoobies?"
"I would have thought you were more of a Xander than a Buffy."
"Hello? Xander doesn't have superpowers. Plus, Cory is totally going to settle as a dog. Dia hasn't been a dog since I was, like, twelve. You know who you're like? Angel. He's all serious all the time and he has a massive forehead."
That got Dia and Merl back to tussling again, this time as a ring-tailed lemur and a fennec fox. We were already reaching the edge of town, where the houses thinned out and the gaps of bushes and trees widened. I could just make out Cassie's farm, and a red-tailed hawk circling toward it that had to be Tobias. Some part of me found the sight familiar, even reassuring. Dia and I mentally ganged up on that part of me and gave it a good kick until it shut up. Jake and I argued about TV shows and video games the rest of the way to Cassie's barn, and that felt exactly as familiar and reassuring as it was supposed to.
Tobias was perched in the rafters, looking out toward the door. It's funny about Tobias. It was only when he got the power from the Ellimist to turn human again that my suspicions were finally confirmed that he isn't human anymore. If I were him, I would be in human morph right now. Hell, I would be in human morph as often as possible, because seriously, Dia. Not to mention opposable thumbs. I don't think I'd go human again for good, though, not until I got Mom back. Assuming she's alive.
She is, insisted Dia, squeezing my wrist with her squirrel monkey hand.
I tore my thoughts away again. Now wasn't the time. Where was I? Tobias. Yeah. He spends all his time with Ax and the Hork-Bajir when he isn't with us, and it's been making him even weirder than he was before. Strangely, though, I don't think I mind him as much as I used to.
Probably because we're getting weirder too, said Dia. She scampered up the barn door and swung across the rafters, just at the upper edge of our bond. "Hey there, Hawkeye," she said with a little monkey grin.
Tobias gave her a particularly haughty glare. «There are eagles that eat monkeys, you know.» The voice was unmistakably his dæmon's.
"And you're not an eagle," Dia replied. She turned into her parrot form and flew down to my shoulder.
Rachel was already there, leaning on a stack of hay bales with Abineng as a black swan on top of the stack. It's almost unfair, how regal he looks when he's like that. She gave Jake a little wave, and Abineng shot what I swear, even on a swan, was a sardonic glance at Dia. Cassie was checking the charts on the cages, though she looked like she was just doing it for the sake of not looking too eager when Jake walked in. The act didn't fool me: I saw the way Quincy's raccoon ears tilted toward him. Cassie isn't the only one who can read people.
"Hey, Jake," Cassie said, finally looking away from her charts. "Are we still waiting on Ax?"
"Nope," said Jake. "We don't need him for this one. You can tell him hi, though, Tobias."
«Can do. He might even know what you mean.»
"And then you'll win the My Fair Lady Award for teaching him how to talk like a normal person," I said.
"My Fair Lady?" Rachel snorted. "Since when did you watch musicals?"
"Oh, come on, you didn't watch that when you were little? 'The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain'? ''?" Cassie was nodding, a smile turning up her mouth, but Jake and Tobias were giving me blank stares.
"Philistines," muttered Dia.
"All right, people," said Jake, putting on his Serious Voice. "I have an announcement to make."
I drew myself up and snapped off a salute. "Yes sir, what are your orders, sir?"
"We're all signing up for self-defense classes at Mike's Dæmon Defense."
"Self-defense classes?" said Cassie. "Why?"
"Just because the Yeerks don't know we're human doesn't mean we're always safe in human form," said Jake. "They've been infesting regular high school students. What if they try to come for us? Or what if we're spying as humans? We do that sometimes, just pretend to be kids at a Sharing meeting. How do we fight them off without blowing our cover? We need to be able to defend ourselves out of morph."
"Paranoia levels reaching critical," I quipped, but I could hear Dia saying in the back of my mind, He's right to be paranoid about that, in our lives being paranoid is always right.
"Jake's right," said Rachel. "We should have been doing this from the very beginning."
At the very beginning, Dad couldn't have afforded to send us to self-defense class, Dia said silently.
"So we have to be soldiers even when we're human? Is that it?" said Cassie, folding her arms across her chest. "That's not fair, Jake."
«Being a soldier has nothing to do with being in human form or not,» Tobias said harshly. Quincy flinched.
"You can't just section off your Animorphs life from the rest of your life," said Rachel. "The war doesn't go on hold when you demorph. You should know that, Cassie. Maybe if you'd known self-defense, that policeman wouldn't have dragged you down to the Yeerk pool."
"I'm sorry, Cassie," said Jake. "This is final. All Animorphs who are human on a regular basis have to go."
Merl went over and touched her nose to Quincy's for a moment. Cassie closed her eyes. "Fine," she said. "But we're only using this as a last resort."
"Well, duh," I said. "When a Controller's about to attack me, I'd much rather be in gorilla morph or somewhere far, far away. But we don't always get a choice."
"How are we going to do this?" said Rachel. "We can't all sign up for the same class. We're already going to have people asking us why we want to learn self-defense all of a sudden. If we all do it together, it's going to raise some major red flags."
"They have afternoon classes on Tuesday and Thursday," said Jake. "Marco and I can do Tuesday, and you and Cassie can do Thursday."
"What are you going to say to your parents, Jake?" I said. "We're all going to have to ask them to pay for the classes."
"I don't need an excuse. They'll just assume it's something I want to be better than Tom at," Jake said. He didn't sound bitter, but Merl's ears flattened back. No one else said anything. We've gotten good at lying to our parents. We'd all come up with something.
«Anything else?» said Tobias. I wondered why he was still here. This meeting didn't apply to him, after all. He could be off being a dweeb with Ax, or whatever else he does with his time. There's your answer, Dia pointed out. He doesn't have much else to do with his time but hang out with us.
"That's it," said Jake.
"Until we have to call another meeting to deal with the aftermath when Abineng decides to use his self-defense training to go on a rampage," I said.
"If I go on a rampage, you'll be the first to know," said Abineng.
"Aww! Me, your very first rampage victim? You shouldn't have!" said Dia. They like us! I mouthed to Jake, exaggerated so Rachel and Abi could see.
"Cassie, I have the magazines you wanted to borrow," said Rachel loudly. "Why don't we go up to your room and have a look at them?"
"Cassie, you read magazines? Rachel-type magazines?" I said. "Are you going to check out the season's hottest new overalls in Seventeen?"
"That sounds like a great idea," Cassie replied, pretending not to hear me. "It isn't this noisy up in my room." Quincy settled as a monarch butterfly on her shoulder, and the girls left the barn.
«Catch you later, Jake,» said Tobias. He took off from the rafters.
Jake and I started walking back. He said, "Feel like dropping by my place for video games?"
Did I feel like it? Of course I felt like it. Jake never seems to plan out fun things with me anymore. Sure, sometimes we have fun together, but it's not Jake-planned fun. This was an opportunity, and I totally wanted to take it.
But finals are coming up soon, said Dia, and you haven't done any studying since –
I know! I was going to get all Ds if I didn't study now. My dad doesn't care that I'm not an A student, but he would notice if I got all Ds. I couldn't go with Jake. But I wanted to.
"Sorry, man. Gotta study, or I'm gonna bomb all my finals. We could study for math together, though, right? How about after our first defense class next week?"
"The final's on Wednesday," said Jake, quirking an eyebrow.
"Cramming is the only way to go. If you don't learn it at the last minute, you won't remember it long enough for the test."
We walked back into suburbia, nothing but chit-chat now, and I tried not to think about anything at all.
It didn't take much convincing to get my dad to sign me up for the self-defense classes. He was just happy that I had enough "initiative" to take up an after-school activity. I didn't mention it at school, though. People get confused when the class clown decides he needs to learn to be a badass or something, especially when they're already confused about all the snake forms his dæmon's been taking. None of them know that I don't need self-defense lessons to be a badass. I already fight aliens after school. That beats the crap even out of those jocks in Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps.
I tried not to let Jake see, but I was nervous going into Mike's Dæmon Defense. I'd never fought anyone out of morph before. I walked in with Dia as a ball python draped over my shoulders. Merlyse was a coyote next to Jake. The reception area had a trophy cabinet and some pictures on the wall of dæmons training in a gym. We gave our names to the guy behind the little desk.
"You're all set," he said. "Men's locker room is on the left."
Jake and I stuffed our gym bags in lockers and changed. We walked through the other end of the locker room into a brightly lit gym with mirrored walls. There were ten people, most of them a lot older than us, already waiting. At the front of the room was a little bald guy with a wispy mustache and a stork dæmon standing next to him. I realized he must be Mike. Our fighting teacher has a stork dæmon? Seriously? I thought she would be something big and snarly.
You're an idiot, said Dia. If there's anything you ought to know from being an Animorph, it's that any animal can be dangerous in the right circumstances.
"And here are our new students!" Mike said. He had a bit of a Spanish accent. "It's nice to have you with us. I'm Mike." He held out his hand to shake.
"And I'm Asair," said his dæmon, leaning her head forward on her long neck. Dia's tongue flicked out and Merl's nostrils flared as they checked her out. Jake and I shook Mike's hand.
"I'm Jake, and Merlyse."
The other people in the class all said their names, but I forgot them immediately. Then Mike said, "So, are you two settled?"
I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes. Adults always ask kids my age that when they're trying to make small talk. But in this case, it was actually relevant. "No," I said. Jake shook his head.
"Are those forms you usually take, or are you just trying to impress us?" asked Asair.
That took both of us aback. Dæmons don't usually address humans so openly, unless they know each other well.
"We don't force anyone's dæmons to talk, but we encourage it," said Mike. "It helps with instruction. A lot of people who can't at first eventually learn to do it. But back to my question. A lot of young people come in here with big tough forms because they think that'll help them in a fight. It won't. A dangerous situation can happen without warning, and you want to be able to fight in the forms you're most comfortable with. Anyway, you're much more likely to settle as a common form than one you never take, and we have students who don't have forms anyone could call 'badass' but can still put up a fight. So tell me. Are these forms you usually take?"
"Yes," said Merlyse, quietly.
"Yes," said Dia, without thinking. I looked down at her. At some point, she had changed into a coral snake. "No!" I protested.
"Good," said Asair to Merl, "but you'll also have to practice in some of your other favorite forms." Mike just raised an eyebrow at me.
"OK, fine. We like snake forms. But we try not to do the venomous ones in public. It gives people the wrong idea."
"In some situations, it could give exactly the right idea," said Mike. "We're set then. Now everyone get the mats down from the walls. We're practicing falling."
There were some good-natured groans from the other students. We helped lay out the mats on the floor. I noticed that Mike was right about forms. There was one middle-aged guy with a vole dæmon, which I definitely wouldn't have bet on in a fight.
"One of the most important lessons you can learn from this course is how to fall. Fall the wrong way, and you might be incapacitated. Fall the right way, and you can get back up to run away or fight. Any dæmon can fall, even one with wings. First priority is to avoid hitting the head, or spine if your dæmon has one. Second priority is to avoid breaking legs or wings so you can still move. The trick is to absorb the impact with a less vulnerable part of the body."
Asair demonstrated by falling backwards onto a mat. She held her wings as far forward as possible, to keep them from hitting the mat first and breaking, and kicked hard at the mat with her long legs. She was down on her back for only a second before springing back up again. "See what I did? I kicked the ground with my legs, which are less vulnerable than my wings. That absorbed the shock of impact. I didn't let my spine twist as I went down, and I kept my head and wings up."
Jake got called up next. Merlyse had to fall back with her head tucked up, hitting the ground with her tail ("Better a broken tail than a broken spine," Asair said). Then I had to fling Dia against the mat, and she curled up into a ball to expose as little of her backbone to the impact as she could.
The first few times, the anticipation before falling was almost as bad as the fall itself. But after a while it wasn't so bad. Once in a while, Mike called for our dæmons to change forms, and Dia and Merl would become some other form they liked and learned how to fall that way. Jake and I got bored and started chatting, though we still flinched every time our dæmons hit the mat.
Suddenly, I felt a beak close around Dia's frog form. I gasped and turned toward her. There was pressure on my neck. Someone had me in a headlock. Asair was holding Dia in her beak like a tasty morsel.
"Slow reaction," came Mike's voice from behind me. "Diamanta didn't have time to even try to fight back."
Dia became a coral snake and tried to strike at Asair. She clamped her beak down harder, and I could feel the painful pinch on her spine. She went limp. Then she became a gorilla, and Asair had to let go, but she darted her head inward and positioned the tip of her beak over Dia's eye. Dia became a jewel-colored beetle, but Asair's beak closed firmly around her mid-flight. Dia's wings buzzed furiously, but she couldn't escape the stork dæmon's grip.
"Being unsettled gives you an advantage, for now," said Mike. "But people with advantages lose all the time."
Now there's a lesson we know well, Dia remarked. Mike let me go. Asair backed off. Dia told her, "Anyone ever mention Alfred Hitchcock movies around you?" then changed to coral snake and coiled around my leg.
"How could Marco have prevented this, or at least been more ready? Anyone?"
A college-aged girl with a wasp dæmon raised her hand. "He should've been in four-eye."
"That's right. And what is four-eye?"
"Well, you can use your dæmon senses, or your human senses, or both," the girl said. "But most people aren't very good at both. If you practice, though, you can slip into a kind of trance where you integrate human and dæmon senses into one big whole. You have to stand still, though, and force yourself to be calm even if you're not, and be really aware of all that's happening around you."
"Forcing yourself to be calm is the hardest part," said Mike. "Four-eye trance isn't hard to learn. Everyone in this class can do it well. But in a fight, twelve things are happening at once, all of them terrifying, and you still have to stay calm and focus. Theo's been in my class for five years and I can still break him out of four-eye."
"I'm working on it," a chubby guy with an owl dæmon said.
"So how do I do it?" I said. It sounded like something that might save my life someday. I like things that save my life. "I'm guessing it doesn't involve putting on glasses."
Everyone in the class started following Mike's instructions. Dia and I had to use both of our senses at once, staying calm and focused as we picked up on as much as we could of the room: sight, hearing, and through Dia, stranger snake senses I don't have a name for. We had to find links between our perceptions, things that Dia could taste-smell that I could only see, until they began to run together into one picture of the world, both snake and human. It wasn't hard for us. We'd shared an animal body before, and navigated with senses we could barely understand. Mike was seriously impressed with how quickly we learned four-eye.
"Now let's see how well you keep it up under pressure," he said. "Marco, come here and stand in the middle of the gym. Now, once you drop into four-eye, we're going to come at you. None of us are actually going to hurt you, but we'll do our best to scare and startle you. No matter what happens, you have to stay calm. The moment you break out of trance, it's all over. Got it?"
I was nervous already, but I nodded. Dia gave my leg a reassuring squeeze with her whole body. That helped me get into four-eye. I thought about morphing into a coral snake, and Dia morphing into a human, until we met halfway, and we could taste and feel the air we couldn't see.
An owl and a stork dæmon descended, shrieking, toward my head. Someone was coming up behind me, fast. I didn't move. This wasn't a patch on how terrified I was at the construction site, and I still didn't give away to the Yeerks where I was hiding. I even stopped Merlyse from giving us away. This was nothing.
A big rat dæmon had its teeth bared in Dia's face. Someone had grabbed the back of my shirt. Dozens of taste-smells surrounded us. Theo was shouting fragments of gibberish. No matter what happens, you have to stay calm, I told Dia. If you give anything away, she'll know – !
I had dreamed of seeing her again so many times. I never imagined it would be like this.
She looked the same. How many times before had I seen her in the study, behind a cheerfully cluttered desk, her hair coming loose from its knot, Mercurio's head resting on her knee as she filled out paperwork?
But it wasn't the same. She still had movie star hair, but it was cut in a severe bob she would never have chosen for herself. Her desk wasn't cluttered with photos of me as a little kid, but neatly arranged. Her hands, once rough with calluses from handling the ropes on the sailboat, weren't stroking Mercurio's head, but folded on the desk, smooth as hands that had never known a boat's deck. I couldn't even see Mercurio; he must have been hidden behind the desk. With her cold, dead eyes, I could almost believe the Yeerks had cut him away from her. But Dia could taste-smell him on her tongue.
She squeezed my shoulders tightly. No matter what she does, no matter what she says, you have to stay calm. It isn't her. You can't give anything away, or it's all over.
But don't you want to? I said, pleading with Dia even though it was useless, all of it useless. Don't you want to coil around Mercurio, like you used to? Feel his soft feathers?
More than anything, I want that. I want to tell him we're fighting, and we won't stop until he's free. But if he knew, we'd be dead. Give nothing away. We're good at this, Marco. We won't react. We won't let her see.
We didn't let her see. We played the part of obedient slave of the Yeerk Empire. We lived to fight for her another day. We hate ourselves for it. But we'll do it again if we have to.
No matter what she does, don't react.
"Marco! Come back, Marco!" Someone was shaking me back and forth. I didn't react. I couldn't, or they'd know.
"It's over, Marco. We need you back, man." Jake. I was allowed to react to Jake. That was fine. Dia uncoiled from my shoulders and became a lemur, headbutting at Merl's side. Merl sniffed her and nosed at her.
Mike was the one shaking me by the shoulders. He let go. "Are you OK, man?"
Of course not. But I couldn't let him see that. "Uh, I think so."
"You broke the record on four-eye trance under stress, that's for sure. I've never seen anyone lose themselves in it like that. I shouldn't have tested you on it so soon."
It wasn't four-eye trance we were lost in, you fool, said Dia.
Well, yeah. What we were lost in, soldiers got sent to the psych ward for when they came back from 'Nam. But maybe he knows and he just didn't want to talk about it in front of the class. Better leave fast so he doesn't ask about it in private.
Maybe he'll let it go, but Jake won't. Merl looked about as worried about Dia as I've ever seen her, nudging her to make sure she nudged back.
"Well, there's our class for this week. Take it easy, OK, Marco?"
Jake and I changed in silence in the locker room, though Merl wouldn't leave Dia's side. When we were a couple of blocks away from Mike's Dæmon Defense, he said, "You were remembering."
No shit, Dia sneered, jackal-formed next to Merl's ibex. Neither of us spoke aloud.
"I've been there, man. Sometimes at breakfast the morning after a big battle, Tom's talking shit over cereal and I just… go away inside. It happens. You come back."
"She saw me," I said. "Out of morph."
"I pretended to be one of them. I had to. But my mom – if she's alive – or if she died, she died thinking I was…" I kept my voice a flat half-whisper, but Dia shook all over. Merl let Dia lean on her a little as they walked.
"She hasn't given up," said Jake. "I know Eva. I remember. She may think they've taken you from her, but they can't take her. When we were growing up, I thought she was a superhero. She's the most amazing woman I've ever met."
I almost said, But Visser One told me she was wailing and weeping. But could I believe Visser One when she said she'd broken my mother's spirit? Would I choose to believe it?
No, said Dia.
"I don't want to take this class," I said.
"But we're going to," Dia said.
"Thank you," Jake said.
"No need to thank me. I really think that four-eye thing might save my worthless hide someday."
"I'm thanking you anyway," said Jake. "Strangely enough, I like your worthless hide."
I can't believe Rachel is actually excited for this, I grumbled.
I believe it, said Quincy, a rock wallaby beside me. But it doesn't make me any happier about going.
"C'mon, Quince," said Abi, perching as a magpie on my dæmon's head. "Even Marco said it was a good class."
"He did, and that counts for something," said Quincy, begrudgingly. But he also made a few too many jokes, even for him. Something about it made him uncomfortable.
"Names?" said the guy behind the desk. We gave him our names, and the guy directed us to the women's locker room. Rachel put on a stylishly patterned leotard, and I my plain dark blue one.
There were four people already in the gym when we got there. One of them I vaguely recognized as one of the high school juniors in JROTC. There was a pair of women in their sixties, deep in conversation, their reptile dæmons flicking their tongues at each other. Another woman with a scarred face and a dæmon that looked like a tiny deer with stripes. A few more people came in after us. The guy at the front of the room, a short olive-skinned man with a stork dæmon, waved to everyone as they came in, though his dæmon kept most of her attention on us.
"Everyone say hello to our new students," the guy said. "I'm Mike."
"And I'm Asair," said the stork dæmon.
"Would you like to step up and introduce yourselves?"
I didn't much want to, but Rachel was doing it and she wouldn't let me back out. She came up to the front and waved hello to the class. "Hi. I'm Rachel." Her smile practically gleamed. "I'm Abineng," her magpie dæmon said.
Instead of addressing the class, I shook Mike's hand. "I'm Cassie, and this is Quincy."
"Great to have you," said Mike.
"Now, before we move on, we'll have to ask you a couple of prying questions," said Asair. "Are these your settled forms?"
"No," Abi said. Quincy shook his head.
"And are these your most common forms? Don't be shy, we don't judge on forms around here."
Abi said yes, and Quincy nodded. I felt a bit guilty. Quincy does like the rock wallaby form, and so do I, but there are other forms he likes to take that I don't let him show in public. I wasn't being entirely honest.
"Good," said Mike. "A lot of young people come swaggering in here as leopards or crocodiles because they think it'll help them in a fight. It won't, not unless it's a form you really feel comfortable in."
Mike had us start off with practicing four-eye trance, which Jake and Marco had already told us about. I had actually tried it before coming to class, though it was much easier with Mike giving step-by-step instructions. I got the hang of it after ten minutes, though I'm not sure I could have stood up to the assault on my concentration that Marco did.
"Now, let's practice dodges," Mike said. "When a dæmon is coming at you, you don't want to get out of the path it's taking now, but the path it'll be on when it actually hits you. So think about…"
Our dæmons practiced dodging for a while, then we paired off to throw dodgeballs at each other's dæmons. It felt weird. In gym class at school, you're not supposed to aim for dæmons, though of course dæmons end up getting hit in dodgeball all the time. But now I was supposed to aim for this older woman's gharial dæmon, a crocodilian with a razor-thin snout. I gave a half-hearted throw, which he dodged easily.
"It's OK to throw a little harder," the woman said. "We're all here to learn how to defend ourselves. I won't be upset if you hit Dherenn. Here, watch me." She lobbed her ball at Quincy. Startled, he leaped, but not high enough – the ball hit him on the foot. I flinched, and he made an affronted noise.
Rachel saw, and rolled her eyes. I could just hear her thinking: You dweeb, you fight aliens on a regular basis and you can't take a dodgeball to the foot?
But I'm not fighting aliens now, I wanted to say to her. I'm facing off against a sixty-year-old lady.
A sixty-year-old lady who is going to kick my butt, said Quincy. Give Dherenn a good throw. That's clearly what he wants. He's here to practice, which is what we should be doing, remember?
Fine, then. I aimed an actual throw at Dherenn, who neatly dodged anyway. I got better than I gave, which was annoying and kind of painful, though Quincy did get better at dodging.
"Second line moves over one!" shouted Mike. "With your new partner, I want you to do the same thing, but in four-eye."
My new partner was the scar-faced woman with the stripey little deer dæmon. She had flyaway blonde hair and a distant, calm expression. I realized she was already in four-eye.
"Oh, sorry," I said. "Give me a minute. I didn't realize I was already supposed to be in four-eye."
"It's fine," the woman said, her voice soft. "I'm very good at four-eye. Take your time."
"I like your dæmon's stripes," I said, as I began to meld my perceptions with Quincy's. "What is his form?"
"A zebra duiker," she said. "A kind of antelope."
Now, in four-eye, I could see her and smell her and hear her from two directions at once. "OK," I said. "Hit me."
She was good. I thought I'd gotten dodging down after the last round, but she got in a few square hits on Quincy. I didn't so much as graze her duiker dæmon. By the time the end of class was called, Quincy and I had gotten a good workout. I slipped out of four-eye at Mike's shout of "See you next week!"
My opponent stayed in four-eye, though. As she headed toward the locker room, her dæmon turned around to look at me. "You'll get better at it, you know," the woman said.
That was when I realized why she didn't leave four-eye. Why it was always her dæmon's eyes that tracked me, not hers. Why her reactions were just a little off. The woman was blind.
"My name's Cassie," I blurted out. "What's yours?"
"Loren," she said. "Nice to meet you."
Loren stopped me after class the next week. "Excuse me, Cassie. Do you know where the nearest bus stop is?"
"Uh, sure. It's two blocks north, then a left at the traffic circle."
"Thank you. Normally I get a ride back home, but…" She shrugged. "It isn't working out."
"What happened?" I said.
Loren dropped her voice. "I usually get a ride from Sam," she said. Sam was the JROTC kid with the pygmy hippo dæmon. "But he's been distant lately. Not quite himself. Instead of asking about my day, he spends the whole ride over talking about some after-school club he joined. It just – gave me a bad feeling, and I decided to find my own way home for now."
My mouth went dry. Sam was a Controller. And Loren – knew? No. She just got a bad vibe. Good instincts. I guess you have to learn to watch out for people trying to exploit you, when you have a disability like Loren's.
"That's probably a good idea," I said. "Do you know someone else who could give you a ride in the future?"
"I'll… ask someone from my church, I guess. Or just take the bus."
"Hey," I said. "If he keeps bothering you, you should switch to class on another day. Or just tell me, and I'll try to help you."
Loren was looking at me funny. I guess it must have sounded strange to her, an offer of help like that from some kid. "Thank you." She walked toward the bus stop.
I stood there for a moment and thought about what Loren had said. Maybe it was just a coincidence that Sam was a Controller. Or maybe the Yeerks were trying to recruit people who were well-trained in fighting techniques. If we had to face off against Controllers as skilled in dæmon combat as Mike, we could be in trouble, even if we were in morph.
"Hi, Abi," said Quincy. I turned around. Rachel was standing there, gym bag slung over her shoulder, Abineng in his black swan form.
"Let's walk," I said quietly. I told her about what had happened, and my theory about it.
"You know, that's just paranoid enough that it's probably right," she said. "So let's kick Sam's butt. I never liked him anyway."
"I don't think that would help. How getting beaten up going to keep him from going to self-defense class? And don't forget that Sam is just a victim. We can't hurt his Yeerk without hurting him. Let's go to my house and call a meeting."
I walked two blocks north to the traffic circle, just like Cassie said. Then I walked all the way around and back toward Mike's Dæmon Defense.
The sight was familiar, muddy and flat as it was through Jaxom's eyes. I wouldn't have been able to distinguish it from the other storefronts, if I didn't already know what it was. I'm much better at seeing when I know a place. That's why I needed to come back.
It was in my ear, Jax said suddenly. The pain, when we had that memory in the car with Sam. I just remembered. It was in my ear. Like it was being split apart.
I bent down and rubbed Jax's ears with my thumbs. No scars, of course. Why?
That's what we're going to find out. We were lucky that she name-dropped where she lives during class, so we'd better take the chance while we can. Let's go.
I went up to the front desk. I can never get a good look at the face of the young man behind it, because once I get close the desk is too high and blocks Jax's view, but I know his name. "Excuse me, Eric. Do you have a phonebook?"
"Of course." Through two sets of ears, I heard him turn around and get the phonebook off a shelf. "Can I help?"
"Yes, thank you. The print in the phonebook is too small for Jaxom to read. Can you look up the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center?"
"Uh, sure." Pages rustled. "Right here. Do you need the number or the address?"
"The address, please."
Eric told me. That's on the B3 line headed east, Jax noted. Then a five, ten-minute walk out toward the national parkland.
"I'll see you next week, Eric," I said.
Forty minutes later, we had everyone but Ax assembled in the barn. "Does everyone know Sam?" said Rachel. "The junior in JROTC?"
Everyone said yes except Tobias. I guess he might not remember, after all this time out of school.
"There's a woman in our class who used to get rides home from him," I said, "but she stopped because he suddenly started acting more distant and spending the entire ride talking about 'some after-school club he joined'." I made air quotes around what Loren had said.
"So now we're wondering if the Yeerks are trying to recruit people from Mike's Dæmon Defense," said Rachel. "Maybe even Mike himself. Think about it. Human-Controllers trained in dæmon combat."
"That sounds like something they'd do," Jake admitted.
"So what are we going to do about it?" Rachel demanded. "We can't just let the Yeerks have human shock troops."
"Especially because we can't just kill them," I said.
Like we do to Taxxons or Hork-Bajir, Quincy added darkly.
"We should wreck the place," said Rachel. "No Mike's Dæmon Defense, no more badass Controllers."
"That means no more lessons for us. Not to mention they'd probably just move on to another self-defense club – there's probably another one in the next town over. Better the devil we know, in a place we can keep our eye on, than the devil we don't," said Marco.
"So we're just going to let them infiltrate Mike's Dæmon Defense? Stand by while they infest the other students one by one?" I said.
"Do you have a better idea?" said Marco. "If we had an army, then yeah, maybe we could kidnap every person the Yeerks infest from Mike's Dæmon Defense and keep them under lock and key for three days. But guess what? We don't have an army. There's just us. All we can do is keep an eye out."
I didn't like what Marco had to say. I wanted to keep Loren, and everyone else in my self-defense class, safe. But he's right, Quincy admitted. We're a guerrilla band. This isn't the kind of battle we fight.
«I could follow Sam around for a while,» said Tobias. «See what he's up to. I'll report back if he does anything fishy.»
I could tell Jake wanted to tell Tobias that wasn't necessary, that we could all pitch in on surveillance. But the truth was that Tobias could do a better job than any of us – and it would give him something to do. He hangs out with Ax and the free Hork-Bajir a lot, but that's not enough to fill the hours. So Jake said, "Sure, Tobias. Keep tabs on him."
I don't think I was the only one who left that meeting feeling powerless. We're a thorn in the Yeerk Empire's side, but that day, I felt like a pretty small thorn.
I decided to go at night, when Cassie and her family would be asleep, and my senses would be hardly be at a disadvantage. I don't know what I expected to find – after all, I could remember so little. There had just been a moment, in the backseat of Sam's Buick, when he'd started talking about his mentor in his after-school club named Chapman. For no reason at all, that name made a shiver of anger and disgust run through me. I would have brushed it off as random paranoia if it hadn't been for the memory. Wire, cutting into my wrists and ankles, leaving me bound and helpless. A shove between my shoulder blades. Jax, his legs hobbled, stumbling forward.
That was all I knew. But it made me never want to get a ride from Sam again.
I was careful to stay on the road as I walked to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. It would have been faster to cut through the trees, but I couldn't be sure of my ability to find my way through them. Jax's night vision is good enough, though, that I could make out the barn from a distance, even with all the lights off in the house.
I feel so creepy right now, Jax said.
Me too. But I just can't let this go. Why did Cassie look so frightened when I told her about Sam? Why would she offer to help me? She couldn't be older than fourteen.
Maybe she had a boyfriend who hit her or something.
Maybe. But if she knows something, she's the only lead we've got.
Cassie's house was a normal house, notable only for the pulley platform on the side with a sleeping moose dæmon up by a second floor window. I tiptoed past the dæmon toward the barn. Inside, I could hear animals rustling and calling faintly in their cages. I pressed my fingertips to the barn door to find out if it was locked. The door swung inward at my touch.
Anyone else probably would have found the barn creepy at night. It was dark, except for the thin band of starlight coming through the door, the red glow of an exit light, and the flicker of a computer screen. The light reflected in the eyes of the caged animals, which hooted and stamped. But I found the animal noises comforting, because I could tell from the way they echoed how large the barn was, and roughly what shape. Silence, for me, is what darkness is for other people.
I walked into the barn. Jax, freed from having to look around since it was dark inside anyway, pressed his face to the floor and sniffed. It smelled like all the animals and humans who had passed through. I recognized Cassie's scent.
It's just a normal barn, I thought. What did I expect? Hidden treasure? A box of photographs from my past? Still, I walked a circuit of the barn, one hand feeling along the wall.
It was when I got near the stalls for the horses that I sensed it. That smell, Jax said. It's so... familiar.
Yes, familiar was exactly the right word. Like family. Warmth, deep inside my chest, and my hands buried in soft fur. That smell, lingering on my palms. It wasn't a sweet smell, not like brown sugar or old wood. It didn't smell like anything I'd ever encountered before, at least that I could remember. But somewhere in the ruins of my memory, something like trust had stirred.
Where is the smell coming from? It's not from anything in here now. Something that's been here before, probably more than once. Where do they keep it, if not here?
Maybe in the house, Jax suggested.
If it's in the house, we don't have a chance. But the smell is so strange. Not animal, not chemical, not anything we know. Maybe they wouldn't keep something like that in the house. They live right near the woods. Maybe they keep it out there, whatever it is.
I left the barn, closing the door gently behind me. The animals still growled and rattled their cages even as I walked out into the woods. There was a meadow, too, but I stayed clear of it. Cassie's family wouldn't keep something like this in the open. It was just too strange. Jax walked ahead of me, his nimble legs stepping around every tree root, nose pressed to the ground for scent.
I was starting to think that maybe I was just going crazy after all when I smelled it again. Jax followed it like a bloodhound. My heart started fluttering in my chest. Whatever was happening to me, this would give me answers. This was something connected to my past that didn't make me afraid. It was something I'd walk all night through the woods for. That smell was hope.
Jax's ears flicked forward. Running water, he groaned. A stream. I'll never be able to pick the scent back up.
A deliberate strategy to throw people off the trail? I wondered.
Maybe. Jax trotted back and pressed his nose into my palm. I could see my own sad face through his eyes. We'll come back, Loren. We don't even have to sneak around. It's everyone's national park. We'll find it.
Why are we so sure? I couldn't help but think. What if it's something from our past that will hurt us, after all?
These are our first memories from our old life. If we can't trust them, what's the point?
There wasn't much point. I have friends at church, but I can't help but wonder how many of these friendships are genuine and how many are born out of an obligation to be kind to the poor blind amnesiac. If this trail could lead me back to a real friend, someone who cared about me before the accident, then it would be worth it.
I opened my Braille watch and touched its inner face. Eleven o'clock. The last bus leaves at midnight.
Let's go home, said Jax.
I woke up in the middle of the night to a rapping at my window. I rolled out of bed, rubbing my eyes. Quincy became a crow and peered out the window. It was Tobias. I staggered over to the window and opened it, letting in Tobias and the cool night air.
«Sorry, Cassie, but this is an emergency,» he said. «Ax thinks he may have been followed through the woods.»
"By who?" I said. "Or what?"
«A human, probably a woman. She had long yellow hair, like Rachel's, scars on her face, and a small dæmon with hooves.»
That woke me up, quickly. "What did she do? Tell me everything."
«She was following his trail through the woods, but he doesn't think she saw him. He managed to lose her by walking through the stream, so she was either using clues like footprints or broken branches, or her dæmon was tracking him by scent.»
"Tobias," I said. "This is the same woman from my self-defense class who told me she got a 'bad feeling' from Sam. It can't be a coincidence that she was in these woods."
«I'll go get the others and we'll meet in the woods. If Ax is in danger, we can't wait around.»
I suppressed a smile at Tobias' loyalty to his friend. Rachel and I used to be that close. These days, I'm not so sure. "I'll see you later."
I was afraid my parents would wake if I walked out to the woods, so I morphed owl and flew through the open window. As I flew over the woods, I saw Ax, still standing next to the stream, his legs wet past the knees. I landed on a tree nearby. «Hi, Ax. Are you all right?»
Ax startled, then followed where the thought-speech was coming from. «Yes. The Controller did not find me.»
I flew down from the tree and began to demorph. «How do you know she was a Controller?»
«Why else would she have followed me?»
«I can think of other reasons. Anyway, even if she saw you, she probably would have taken you for a deer. She's – » I was forced to pause as my thought-speech blinked out. I had my mouth and vocal cords form next. "She's blind and sees through her dæmon's eyes. Cows and antelope can't see blue very well. You would have looked gray."
I'm not an expert in Andalite body language, but Ax seemed taken aback. Just as Rachel flew in, he said, «A vecol pursued me through the woods? Your vecols wander your cities at night?»
Quincy appeared beside me as a hyena. My feathers began to melt together. I folded my arms. "What's a vecol?"
«A cripple. Permanently damaged. On our planet, vecols retreat to the dignity of solitude, instead of parading through public spaces where anyone – »
«Ax, what the hell – » said Rachel, until her thought-speech cut off mid-demorph.
"Well, on our planet, we let people go where they want," I said. Quincy bared his teeth a little.
Ax didn't seem to be listening. «Perhaps she is not a Controller. The Yeerks would not infest vecols, and if they did, they certainly would not send a sightless vecol in pursuit of a high-priority target.»
"Makes sense," Rachel sneered, now fully human, Abi draped across her shoulders as a golden marmoset. "The Yeerks got everything they have from Andalites, right? Including your absolute shit about people with permanent injuries."
That got Ax's attention. «Yeerk morality is nothing like Andalite morality!»
"Maybe not," said Rachel. "But it sure looks like they took your worst beliefs and made them part of their own."
«And humans? Where do your vecols live?»
"Wherever they want to," I said.
«Truly? I have seen your human hospitals. Are the vecols there not secluded? Would they be living there, were they not vecols?»
Quincy twitched, then hunched into defensive posture as a pangolin. "Some of them need to be in the hospital, for the care they need," I said, but it sounded weak even to my ears.
«Then our beliefs are not so different,» said Ax.
"They're still wrong," said Rachel.
"They are," I said.
"I think Ax said something important, though," said Quincy. "The Yeerks don't infest people with serious injuries like Loren's. I don't remember ever seeing a host in the Yeerk pool with injuries like that. Besides, she said she got a 'bad feeling' when Sam talked about the Sharing, and told us about it. Why would a Controller do that?"
Marco's thought-voice came from above. «If she was suspicious and trying to test how you'd react.» He swooped in for a landing. «So. This lady from your self-defense class was stalking Ax, huh? How do you feel about having a stalker, Ax? Creeped out? Flattered?»
«What is a stalker?»
"A creepy person who follows people around," said Rachel. "A lot like Marco, actually."
«We're all stalkers here,» said Marco, beginning to demorph. «How many times have we all turned into flies and stalked Controllers? And how about you and Cassie, stalking that total sleaze Jeremy Jason – » Mercifully, his thought-speech cut out.
Jake and Tobias appeared next. Tobias perched in a tree while Jake demorphed. The team was assembled.
"OK," said Jake. "Tobias gave me an outline. What's the story?"
Ax told his part of the story, then I took over. "Tobias came and told me about it, and I realized that the woman following Ax was the same one from Mike's Dæmon Defense who warned me about Sam. I don't think she's a Controller. Loren is blind, and Ax says that Yeerks don't infest people with disabilities. And why would she talk about the Sharing like it was a bad thing if she was a Controller?"
"That doesn't prove anything," said Marco.
«Cassie is correct. The Yeerks would not be so foolish as to send a blind vecol to track an Andalite, were they to suspect my presence here. When they previously suspected us of living here, they sent an entire high-security logging team.»
"So if she's not a Controller, then what was she doing here?" Rachel said.
The group fell silent.
"Maybe we're not the only ones who know," I said. "About the Yeerks. Maybe she knows something, and she's not on their side."
"That wouldn't necessarily mean she's on our side," Marco pointed out.
"Cassie, you may be right," said Jake. "But we have to be sure. Tobias, Ax, you two follow Loren around for three days. The rest of us will take turns when we can. If it turns out she's a Controller, we can arrange some perfectly normal incident that will make her think twice about coming back – like nearly getting attacked by a wolf pack."
"And if she's not a Controller?" I said.
"Then we keep an eye on her. It's too risky to approach her, but if she knows something about the war, then I want to know what she's up to."
"How will we know if she's a possible ally?" said Rachel. "How could she possibly know about the war?"
«Maybe she used to be a host and somehow escaped,» Tobias suggested. «That might even be how she got her injuries. She recognized the scent of Andalite from Visser Three and decided to check it out.»
"Or she could be another alien in disguise, like the Chee," said Marco.
«Who would want to disguise herself as a vecol?»
"Ax!" we all said at once.
"Ax, we may not be able to change your mind about, uh, vecols," said Jake. Merl, coyote-formed, stared Ax down with yellow eyes. "But keep your comments to yourself."
«Yes, Prince Jake.»
"I think we should be hopeful," I said. "The Chee have been great allies to us. If Loren's on our side, she might even know something we don't. She might want to help us too."
"Optimism doesn't have a history of getting us far," said Marco. "I'm going to stick with my trusty old friend, paranoia."
"All right, guys. Our watch on Loren starts tonight," said Jake. "Tobias, Ax, you're off-duty for the rest of the night. Everyone else, let's work out shifts for tonight."
We were all going to be sleep-deprived to hell for the next three days. But it wasn't like we got high-quality sleep anyway. And me? I finally had something to look forward to in self-defense class. Maybe the other Animorphs weren't ready to give Loren a chance, but I was. With the lives we lead, I look for hope wherever I can find it.
I took the bus out to the edge of town the next night, this time taking care to avoid Cassie's house on the way out to the national park. The thing, whatever it was, could have come back to the barn, but I wasn't willing to take the risk again. We tracked for a while, walking in a direction I figured was east, but all the traces of scent we caught had to be hours old.
This is ridiculous. These woods go on for miles. It was just dumb luck that we came so near it last night, I thought.
We can't give up, Jax thought back. Let's keep looking until it's time to catch the bus.
Somewhere in the distance, a wolf howled. I stopped walking. Jax, we've gone off the trail. We should go back.
But there's no scent on the trail, he protested. Look, wolves are more scared of humans than we are of them. They're not going to attack us.
Unless we wander into their territory by accident.
Oh, come on, said Jax, walking to the limit of our bond. If you're going to freak out every time we hear a wolf howl in the woods at night –
This time, two howls. And they sounded closer. Let's go home, Jax. Next time we'll come here during the day. That'll be safer.
Fine. We carefully retraced our steps, by scent, dim images, and the pattern of tree roots beneath our feet. We got back to the trail. The wolves howled again, nearer still. It was too risky to run, because we'd probably trip, but we walked back as quickly as we could. The wolves were coming closer. We could smell them.
The wolves appeared by the side of the trail. We froze in our tracks. They stared at us, their lips lifting into twin snarls. The fear nearly made me sink to my knees. Finally, they turned around and walked back into the cover of shadow. It took me a full minute to start walking again, but once I did, I went so fast I did end up tripping. I caught the eleven-thirty bus, ignoring the usual stares from the other passengers. By the time the bus gets to my end of town, it's full of people whose attentions you want to shed as much as possible.
I walked the familiar stretch of sidewalk from the bus stop to my house, crossing the street only once to avoid Ricky Lee's father. I went to bed, my arm curled loosely around Jax as I fell asleep.
My sister, skipping school to smoke with the ponytailed boys. I follow her down the alley to see what they're doing. The boys turn around, but they have no faces. "Would you like fries with that?" they say.
Driving down a crowded city street, my husband at the wheel. He doesn't signal turning left. Headlights, the scream of metal, the steering wheel impacting my husband's chest, glass shattering across my face. For a frozen moment, I can see the inside, outside, back, and front of everything at once, the threads tying the pieces of glass that used to be a windshield, the memories flying from my brain that used to be mine.
The back of a lecture hall, rows of students before me. In the front of the room, a handsome man with an insect dæmon lanyard around his neck. He writes an equation on the chalkboard. "How can we apply this equation to the problem of Z-Space navigation?"
I am immobile. I cannot twitch, breathe, or blink. Yet my mouth still moves. "Here's what I have to sell," my mouth says, as my hands push forward a teenaged boy trussed up in wire. "A whole planet full of that."
A pupa hangs from the ceiling of a spaceship. As I stare at it, it breaks open, and a giant red worm falls out. It turns to me, a mad gleam in its eye, saliva dripping from its gnashing teeth.
Riding across an impossible landscape, holding on for dear life and laughing all the way. Jax is folded between my legs, nose pressed against blue fur, his senses filled with the wild, warm scent of trust. «We're going to Yellowstone,» says a voice in my head.
I only remembered fragments when I woke, but when Jax licked my face, he tasted salt on his tongue.
"The… thing," I said slowly. "Whatever it was. With that smell. And the blue fur, and the voice in my head."
"He was our friend," Jax whispered.
I held Jax for a little longer, mourning what I had lost in my previous life, so dear to me even though I couldn't understand it. I peeled the covers back and got out of bed, Jax at my heels.
I walked to the window and opened it, letting in the morning air. Though I couldn't see, I heard a stirring of great wings as a bird perched in the tree outside my window took flight.
"I once knew someone who could do that," Jax said. "Become a bird and fly away."
Some corner of my heart believed it was true. But perhaps it was just the mad wish of a woman trapped in the present, dreaming meaning to her past.