A 'perfectly white' surface would reflect white light completely without any alteration. No such surface exists. Even snow does not reflect white completely, though it does reflect all visible wavelengths in the same proportion. […] A 'black' surface would reflect no light at all. Most colors, however, are chromatic, that is, they exhibit 'hue,' because their spectral energy distribution differs so much from that of white.
- from the entry on Color in Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia
As I stood in front of my desk, half-blindly sorting through pages, I wondered what it would be like when I finally snapped.
I had to put the journals away, the ones I write about my life as an Animorph to keep myself from going crazy. I had to put the drawings away, of Animorphs and Controllers and friends I never see anymore. But I didn't want to look at them, so I paged through them with my eyes closed. Quincy stood on the edge of the desk as a wallaby, whose eyes were good enough to tell apart the drawings and journals from my homework but not clear enough to really see them.
But with my eyes closed, all I could see was the angry faces of my friends when I told them I was done with the war.
"Fine. You have your morals and your fine feelings and all that. We'll go off and risk our lives to save the world. You just sit here and feel righteous."
It should have been funny, remembering, because of the way Marco's voice cracked and boomed as he spoke. But it only reminded me that we were just kids, all of us. If I stayed in the war, it would swallow me whole and spit out a soldier who looked like me.
"It'll still happen to them," said Quincy. "And we'll stand by and watch it happen."
I could imagine. I could see it already in my drawings. Marco's humor would blacken to a sword's tempered edge. Jake would be an old man in a child's skin. Tobias would walk the edge of humanity, and draw himself further and further back out of fear. And Rachel? Oh God, I couldn't let myself think about that. Nor could I let myself think of the day one of them didn't come to school, and didn't come again the day after, and after, until one of the others finally told me why. It wouldn't be my fault. They all chose to be Animorphs. They choose it every day. And this was my choice.
"There's no point trying to convince me it's fair to the rest of them," said Quincy. "I know it isn't. We're not being fair. We're doing what's right for us."
"Yeah. What's right for us." Because what's right for the Animorphs? What's right for the human species? I don't know. Jake always wants me to know, but I don't.
I checked the closet before I went to bed, because these days something inside me screams if I try to sleep without checking first. I checked the window to make sure it was closed. It was, though I could have sworn I saw a pair of eyes gleaming in the darkness. Quincy clung to my bedpost as a bat. I crawled under the covers and turned out the light.
I stared into the dimness and wondered what it would be like when I finally snapped, because I wasn't sure I'd be able to tell the difference.
The next day wasn't as bad as it could have been. I spent the day the way I often did in the summer: helping my mom at the Gardens. The work, still constant in my life even with the de-funding of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic, distracted me. In the afternoon, I realized I still had my Thursday class at Mike's Dæmon Defense. I decided, with some cajoling from Quincy, not to quit. The self-defense class was a good way to release tension, and anyway, I didn't want to give up talking to Loren.
How do I explain Loren? None of us know who she really is, or how she knows what she does. She's a compassionate and independent woman who volunteers at her church. Her dæmon, Jaxom, takes the form of a zebra duiker, a tiny forest-dwelling antelope. She has complete blindness, facial scarring, and retrograde amnesia from a car accident, though her dæmon is able to compensate somewhat for her vision loss. Something of a recluse, she lives alone in a shady part of town.
We also think she once met an Andalite, before her accident. But we don't know how much she remembers or which side of the war she was on, if any, so the Animorphs can't trust her as an ally. I like her, though, and she's the only person left I can talk to who has some chance of understanding my life, even if I don't dare give her any details.
Today in class, we practiced jumps. Mike has everyone learn jumping, unless you have a tortoise dæmon or something that can't possibly jump. "Even flying dæmons have to know how to jump," he likes to say. "What if one of your wings is broken and someone comes at you? You have to be able to jump out of the way." It was easy for Quincy to jump around as a wallaby, but his heavy-plated pangolin form could barely get off the ground.
"Why don't you switch to a different form?" said Loren. Jaxom leapt nimbly over a series of hurdles Mike had set up for some of the dæmons to try, peering from time to time at Quincy's efforts. "If you were in a real situation and Quincy were in pangolin form, he'd probably just curl up if someone or something tried to hit him, anyway. He could do that even if he were already injured."
"I guess you're right," I said. Quincy became a crow and hopped as high as he could. I watched as Jaxom finished the little obstacle course and Abineng took a turn in his golden marmoset form. Rachel was standing at the other end, but when she met my eyes her face hardened into a frown.
"If you don't mind me asking," Loren said quietly, "what happened between you two?"
I tried not to be surprised that she had noticed. It wasn't likely she was able to see either of our facial expressions – Jaxom is so tiny he has to crane his head up awkwardly to get a good look at faces from the ground – but I guess she noticed in other ways, like how we avoided each other and didn't speak to each other. "Um," I said. I wanted to talk to her about it, but I wasn't sure how to phrase it. "Rachel is really good at, well, everything she does. She's… scary, that way. I've never understood it. And, well, I never said it to her, but she got the message: I don't want to be like her. Not that – I mean, it's good, that she's good at all these things. But I think she needs to be scary, to be that good at what she does, and I – I don't want to be scary."
I felt stupid even as I said it. I stared at Quincy as he hopped in complex patterns on the floor and wished I could just empty out my brain.
"I think I know what you mean," said Loren. Jaxom started to mirror Quincy's pattern of jumps, turning it into a sort of mirror dance between them. "Did you ever think that maybe she can't help it? Some of us get to choose whether we're going to be scary-good or not. Mike probably chose it. But some people just are. Maybe she's jealous that you get to choose, even if you've chosen not to be like her."
I swallowed back a lump in my throat. Loren was right. Maybe it was too late for Rachel not to be a warrior. Maybe it was too late the day she was born. In the beginning, we all chose to become Animorphs. Any of us could have backed out. But the war changed us. I might have been the only one left who had a real choice whether to keep fighting or quit. Could Rachel be jealous?
But it was different for Rachel. Even if she did leave, could the resistance continue without her? She was our fiercest warrior. I wasn't sure how many battles the Animorphs could win without that. The Animorphs needed Ax for his knowledge, Tobias for his spying, Rachel for her fearlessness in battle, Marco for his clear-sighted skepticism, Jake for his leadership. What was I good for? According to Marco, just pointless moralizing.
And yet, Quincy whispered in my mind, could the Animorphs have defeated the Veleek without our morphing skill? Only we could have morphed whale fast enough to lure it into the water. Maybe one day we'll be needed again.
Then one of them will just have to learn how to do it. It's not our fight anymore. But I felt sick to my stomach. Rachel probably was jealous. Marco, too, and Jake. They wished they could be the kind of person who said, 'No. I can't kill anymore.'
"There's nothing I can do about that," I said, my voice coming out half-pleading, as if Loren could forgive me for how I'd hurt my best friend. "It's not my fault. It's just how I am."
Loren watched as Quincy became a hyena. "You're young, Cassie. Who you are can still change. And you can decide whether you and Rachel change together, or into strangers."
What Loren didn't know was that as long as Rachel was a soldier and I wasn't, we would always be strangers. That's the way war divides people. I wish I didn't know as much about that as I do. "I guess," I said. "So, do you want Quincy to try lunging at Jaxom so he can jump out of the way?"
Loren's face went pleasantly neutral. "Sure."
I took the bus home from Mike's Dæmon Defense, partly because I knew Rachel would walk home. I thought about the chores I'd have to do when I got home. I had to replace the spare set of clothes I kept in the barn for when I came home in nothing but a morphing outfit – but no, I wouldn't need that anymore. I had to get all my homework done before dinner in case Jake called a meeting tonight – but no, I didn't need to worry about that either. I could feed the animals and do my homework at my own pace. No need to worry about anything at all.
When I got home, Dad was sitting in the living room with a big book in his lap. Emeraude had her head sticking in through the bay window, as she always does when it isn't raining. "Hi, Dad," I said.
"Hi, Cassie," he said, looking up from the book. "How was self-defense class today?"
"All right," said Quincy, perching on Emeraude's head as a crow. "I learned how to jump in different forms."
"You did, huh?" said Em, giving her head a shake. Quincy hopped around to keep his footing. "Wish I'd taken a class like that. Then I could be the Amazing Jumping Moose."
It was a lame joke, but the image of Em trying to jump was enough to get a small laugh out of me. I sat down next to Dad on the couch. The page was open to a big glossy picture of a peregrine falcon in a dive. The sight made my heart clench.
"It's a book of wildlife photography," said Dad. "Just came in the mail. It's a late birthday present from your Uncle Barry."
My dad's birthday was last week. I arrived home late for his birthday dinner because of a recon mission at Chapman's house. I still felt bad about it. Well, that wouldn't be a problem anymore. "It's a good picture," I said. "What other kinds of animals are in there?"
Dad flipped the page. There was a troop of ring-tailed lemurs. "Oh, this is a great shot," he said. "Look at those two grooming each other. Did I ever tell you about ring-tailed lemur society? It's matriarchal, you know. The alpha female runs the whole show."
It was bittersweet, going through that book of pictures with my dad. I always love hearing him talk about animals, of course. Everything I know came from him and his books. He loves them all, from cuddly lemurs to bristly tarantulas, and it's hard not to get totally wrapped up in his descriptions of each species. At the same time, it was sad because we both knew the Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic would close soon, and we would no longer live side by side with these wonderful creatures, helping them heal. And for me, there was a private mourning every time I saw a wolf or a dolphin, knowing what it was like to see the world through their eyes, and that I would never experience that again.
We got to the end of the book. Dad closed it and set it on the coffee table. "Well, I have phone calls to make. Would you mind doing the rest of the day's chores around the barn? That trough out by the woods needs cleaning."
"No problem, Dad."
I couldn't morph a horse anymore, but I could still ride one. The joys of the animal world were not yet gone from me completely. So I saddled up my favorite mare, Quincy hanging onto her mane as a tree pangolin, and we rode out toward the woods.
That, of course, was how my troubles began.
On the edge of the woods, the mare caught a scent that spooked her. I rode her closer to the woods and saw a mother bear with her cub chasing a girl. She climbed up a low branch of a tree, her dæmon also taking black bear form. But that only made the mother bear angrier. Those of us used to working with animals know that they can always tell the difference between a real animal and a dæmon. Dæmons smell more like their humans than the animals whose forms they take. So taking the form of an animal that smells like a human will only make the real animal confused and agitated.
The bear growled and lunged at the dæmon. He gave a thin squeal of fear and became a damselfly, flying up to join his girl in the tree. She climbed up, but it wasn't any use. Black bears can climb too.
In a mad rush, I spurred the horse to jump the fence, grabbed the girl, and hoped the bear would give up. She did, but the mare was given over entirely to panic. I fell headfirst into whitewater rapids.
Everything was roaring water and confusion. Quincy became a dolphin so I could grab onto his fin, but he got stuck between two rocks and was forced to change to otter. I was pulled along behind him until – WHAM. I hit my head against one of the rocks.
Quincy tried to push me toward the surface with strong otter paws, but he was as disoriented as I was, and wasn't sure which way the surface was. My lungs were burning. I gasped for breath, and they filled with water. Where was I? Where was –
Strong arms, pulling Quincy toward the surface. I knew which way was up! I pushed up with the remains of my strength. Someone reached for me and grabbed my arm. I beat a few weak strokes toward the shore, sprawled on my belly, and let the water flood back out of my nose and mouth in a biting cold stream. Quincy became a huge dog and nuzzled at the back of my head until I was done coughing and hacking my head clear.
I held onto Quincy and drew myself up to my knees. My head ached and my teeth chattered with the cold. Quincy's fur was soaked through. The redheaded girl watched us, her arms wet to the shoulder. Her dæmon was in orangutan form, his arms also soaked. He had pulled Quincy from the water.
"You saved my life, didn't you?" I said.
"You saved mine," she said. "That bear could have killed me. So now we're even. I don't owe you anything and you don't owe me."
Her dæmon looked like an old man in his orangutan form. There was something old about the girl too, in her words and behind her eyes. "I'm Cavanagh." He flicked his eyes at his girl. "And Karen."
Quincy became a wallaby, fur still dripping, and introduced us. Then my mind drifted away, because I was worried. I had gotten so disoriented in the river I had no idea where we were. If I climbed a tree and Quincy flew as high as he could as a hawk, we might be able to see which way to go. Or we might not.
As it turned out, I had a bigger problem: a Controller who knew what I was. Or what I'd used to be. But it wasn't my most immediate problem. That was finding shelter from predators and the elements. In the morning, I'd decide what to do about Karen.
Or you could decide now, Quincy suggested. End it quickly. The more you get to know her, the harder it'll be.
I watched Karen – the Yeerk who controlled Karen – sitting astride her pony-formed dæmon, wincing every time her splinted ankle jostled against Cavanagh's side. No. I'll bring her to Jake. He can decide.
You'll bring her to Jake, kicking and struggling? Someone will call the police. One of the officers will be a Controller. Then it'll be all over. Quincy looked up at me with brown wallaby eyes. Cassie, we can make it quick. If Karen stays a Controller, she might get much worse than that. If the Yeerks win, she will get much worse than that. A lifetime of slavery.
I'll find a way. I'll stay with her and call Jake from a pay phone. Tell him to come over while I stand watch over her. Then he can decide.
And what do you think he'll decide?
I don't know! I'm not an Animorph anymore. It's not my problem.
But I made her my problem when I morphed in front of her to save her from the cougar that took her for helpless prey. This Yeerk who had saved my life – Jake would decide to starve her out. I warmed my hands by low-burning fire and shivered.
"We're not pigs," I said, even though I wasn't sure whether she was still awake or not. "We have dæmons. We're different."
"Andalites don't have dæmons," the Yeerk murmured in her little girl voice. "Does that mean it's justified for us to kill them?"
The Yeerk was right. We were predators. But we wouldn't kill her quickly, like that cougar would have. We would starve her into madness, then death, and I would have to watch.
The phone rang while I was writing out quotes on Post-Its to stick on my bulletin board, cutting through the music I had on the stereo. I ignored it, and copied from my dictionary of quotations:
"The sword was given for this, that none need live a slave."
Marcus Annaeus Lucanus
Someone else had picked up the phone. I heard a knock on the door. I could tell from the weight and rhythm of the knock that it was my mom. "Come in," I said. Abi leaned toward the stereo and pressed "pause" with a kangaroo paw.
My mom opened the door. "It's Walter on the phone," she said. "Have you seen Cassie today?"
I went very still. The fur on Abi's head and neck started to rise. "Not since self-defense class," I said. "What, is there something wrong?"
"She went out to do some chores and didn't come back for dinner. One of the horses is missing. Her parents are worried sick."
What could have happened? Did the Yeerks get her? Nearly all of Abi's fur was standing on end.
"I have no idea," I said.
My mom brought the cordless phone back to her ear. "Rachel doesn't know," she said, closing the door. "I hope you find her soon. Let me know if there's anything I can do."
I waited another minute, then picked up the phone in my room. Dial tone. I called Jake's number. Uncle Steve picked up. "Hello?"
"Hi, Steve, it's Rachel. Look, can I talk to Jake? Cassie's gone missing and I'm really worried," I said, letting my rising panic show in my voice.
"Missing?" said Steve. "Since when?"
"I don't know exactly, but long enough that her parents called to ask if I'd seen her."
"I'll put him on the phone," Steve said. "Maybe he can help."
I waited. Jake came on the line. "What happened?" he said, voice tight with worry.
"I don't know. She was supposed to be doing chores outside. One of the horses is missing, so she must have gone out on a ride toward the woods. Jake, we have to do something. We don't know if this is normal-bad or really bad."
"Well, there's nothing we can do about it now," Jake said, taking on that subtle shift of voice he does when he's saying something for the benefit of Tom's Yeerk, who might be listening. "It's not like we have night vision goggles or anything."
I understood the message: morph owl. "Yeah. If we had night vision goggles, we'd be at the front of the search party."
I hung up, opened my window, and morphed owl. It was raining. The floor around my windowsill would get wet. I'd mop it up later. The owl didn't want to fly in the rain. I pushed it onward.
All of the others were there in owl morph, even Tobias, who had reluctantly acquired an owl from the Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic after Jake took him to task for not having a night-vision morph. The owl mind saw the other owl morphs as potential rivals for food and mates.
The first thing I heard when I got within thought-speak range, as usual, was Marco complaining. «I don't even get why I'm here. Cassie's not an Animorph anymore. If she gets herself lost in the woods, it's not our problem.»
«Marco,» I said. I wasn't even remotely in the mood for his whining. «I want you to take a moment to count the number of times you'd be dead if it weren't for Cassie. You can start with the time she got that whale to kick Visser Three's butt.»
For once, he didn't have a smart reply.
«Let's go farther in from the forest edge,» Tobias suggested. «I think the search party has that covered.»
I felt pretty useless, even with my owl eyes. Tobias and Ax know the woods way better than the rest of us. What were the chances I'd be able to find her? But I had to try.
Looking for Cassie soon became that adrenaline-blurred boredom I feel every time we're on a recon mission; the minutes and hours run together, with a background hum of fear rattling my bones. Abineng sang some wandering tune I couldn't quite identify, over and over. Maybe it was something Cassie and I had listened to on her dad's old record player, but I wasn't sure.
Ax came by to tell me it was time to demorph. I landed far from the search party, demorphed, and remorphed. When I flew back above the treeline, Marco said, «This is getting stupid. All the owl sees are tasty little forest animals. There are other ways to track people. I say we go wolf.»
«How will we identify Cassie's scent?» said Jake.
«We don't have to. We just have to find out where the horse went.»
«Good idea, Marco,» said Jake. «You go wolf and we'll follow as owls.»
«Hey! Why do I have to go by myself?»
«The rest of us need to keep an eye out for signs of Cassie. Your job is to point us on the right track. And you came up with the idea, so you do it.»
Marco morphed wolf and went to the edge of the woods, by the fence. He found the horse's scent, and we followed. I got a bad feeling as we got closer to the river. Running water erases scent, and worse, the rapids looked deadly.
I was the one who saw it. A scrap of white and red flannel hanging from a branch, its ragged edge dark with dried blood. It was Cassie's shirt. I would know that awful plaid anywhere. «She went into the river,» I said, my voice hollow. Why didn't she morph? Jake had said that he'd forbidden Cassie from morphing once she quit, but that didn't mean she couldn't do it to save her life! Could she really have been so stubborn? Did she value her life so little? Or, Abineng put in, did she die too quickly to morph her way out?
We fanned out along the river, making sure to stay within thought-speak range of at least one other Animorph. My thought-speak buddy was Jake. After a few minutes of silence, Merlyse said, «So. How about that kangaroo form you've been taking, Abineng?»
I knew what she was doing. Better to make small talk than to stew in our thoughts about what might have happened to Cassie. «They're cool,» said Abi. «People think they're just cute and hop around, but they beat dingos in fights all the time.»
«The more I read about animals,» I added, «the more I realize that predators aren't as badass as everyone thinks they are. They pick the fights that are the easiest to win. They go after the young and sick. It's prey animals that will face down any threat, no matter how dangerous. They're fighting for their lives. Lions aren't the scariest animals on the savanna. Elephants and hippos are.»
A pause. Jake said, «That sounds like something Cassie would say.»
It was something she would say. In fact, the speech I just gave Jake was one that Cassie's dad gave me once, though I didn't believe him. I still thought cats were the coolest animals ever. But after morphing an elephant and a grizzly bear and getting inside their heads, I slowly realized he was right. The grizzly bear was powerful, but its mind had a coward's instincts. It was the elephant's mind that I admired more. Cassie would understand why I felt this way, if I had told her. But now it might be too late.
«Why did she leave?» I said.
«I guess she was afraid of losing herself,» Jake said.
«Who cares?!» I blew up. I just couldn't take it anymore. «Who fucking cares? We've all starting to lose ourselves already! Are any of us the same as we were when we started this war? So maybe we'll all lose it. Isn't that worth it? Isn't it worth giving all of that up to save the entire planet? I'd give up old Rachel a hundred times over if it meant she didn't have to be a slave. I miss the old me so goddamn much, but I'd go back in time and kill her myself if that's what it took! Is her morality so much more precious than ours that she'll risk losing the war to keep it – what, pure? Cassie isn't any more of a saint than the rest of us. We're all losing just as much as she is and we still fight. And if she thinks I'm too far gone, then she can't be saved either!»
«You're right, Rachel,» Jake said quietly. «It's happened to all of us. And what's happening now… maybe that's her way of losing it. Running away. That's not a better choice than making jokes or fighting even harder. But maybe she didn't realize that when she chose it.»
«Can't you make her see? When» – if – «we find her?»
«Rachel, this is between you and Cassie. You'll have to work it out later.» Beneath the words, unspoken: if you ever get the chance.
A moment later, I burned with embarrassment. I couldn't believe I'd blown up like that at Jake. It was more than I'd ever meant to say. Jake loves Cassie, and I was railing at her for being self-righteous when she was either fighting for her life or already dead. I should never have said those things out loud. But I couldn't take them back, so I just fell silent.
We demorphed just before dawn and morphed into our daytime raptors. Jake said, «At the end of this morph cycle, I'm calling a break.»
«What? We can't give up so soon!» I protested, even though I was just as exhausted as he sounded.
«Once the sun gets brighter, the search parties will be able to do a good job on their own. We can get some sleep. We will get some sleep.»
Jake was right. I don't know how good of a job I was doing searching for Cassie. I had gone into some trance state, kind of like the four-eye I learned to do in self-defense class, with me and Abineng and the eagle all rolled into one. The world flowed in through my eyes, but none of it mattered because none of it was Cassie.
«Rachel!» Jake's thought-speech cut through my trance like a scythe. «Get down and demorph! Marco found Cassie.»
My exhaustion fell away in a bright burst of hope. «Where is she? Is she OK?»
«I don't think so. Marco sounds upset. Look, he's already up on that bluff with Tobias and Ax.»
I spotted them through the trees, went into a dive, and demorphed on the ground. As soon as I had a mouth and vocal cords, I said, "Where's Cassie? What happened to her?"
"What happened to her?" Marco's face twisted with contempt. "Nothing. What happened is her fault. She made herself into a Controller."
At one point or another, all of my hosts have wondered whether I can feel their pain.
When it comes to physical pain, I feel it worse than they do, if anything. There is a great portion of the mind that is inaccessible to consciousness. That is true even of our own minds. But no such barriers exist when we interact with the minds of our hosts. I feel everything my host does, even what she doesn't realize she feels. I felt every fragment of bone the mountain lion had cracked between its jaws.I felt the pain all over Cavanagh's mastiff body from trying to fight off the creature.
The same neurological principles apply to emotional pain, of course. I could feel every emotion Karen felt toward me, even the ones she didn't know she had. But her fear, her longing to hold her dæmon close, her helplessness, didn't matter. What mattered was survival. If the human Marco had his way, I would die, all of Cassie's efforts wasted. I had the grim feeling that Marco would kill me, one way or another, even if Cassie tried to stop him. But I was going to go down fighting. I wondered what I could say to make Marco feel worse about killing me. Perhaps I could let Karen beg for her mother, the way she was doing in the confines of her mind.
Crrreeekkk. I heard the now-familiar but still disconcerting sound of bones rearranging themselves as Cassie morphed. She was turning back into a Hork-Bajir, the morph she had used to fight the mountain lion. I smirked. Let Marco overpower his fellow terrorist before he got the chance to kill me. At least I could watch his misery as he was forced to turn on Cassie. I had few enough pleasures left to me before I died. I was in pain, but I still had eyes and ears. And, as always, I had the joy of watching an enemy suffer.
I waited for Cassie to attack Marco, or the other way around. The moment never came. She seized my head and pressed her ear to mine. Before I could even think about what that meant, I began to disengage with Karen's brain and push my palps out of her ear. I sent a spray of painkillers into Cassie's ear and made contact.
How can I describe what it is like to infest a morphed brain? Every brain is different, with its unique challenges: the effort it takes to find deep contact points on the smooth Taxxon brain, the sheer size of the Hork-Bajir brain, the strange balance of human brain and dæmon mind. But none of it can compare to the triple-brained connection of a human in morph.
The Hork-Bajir brain itself was strangely empty. It had the full complement of autonomic functions and basic instincts, but it had no memories, experience, or consciousness. But it took only a second to come in contact with the Z-space corridor connecting Cassie and Quincy's mind to the Hork-Bajir brain. Once again, I was forced to marvel at Andalite technology. Even though I was only physically present in the Hork-Bajir brain, I could feel Cassie's brain succumbing to my will. It only made sense, I supposed. A blow to the head of an Andalite in morph caused damage to the Andalite's brain controlling the morphed body from Z-space. Likewise, a Yeerk infesting the brain of a morphed body affected Cassie's mind as well.
I had had a Hork-Bajir host before. I knew what it was to feel powerful, even invincible, wearing the monster's muscle and blade. I knew the sensitivity of the Hork-Bajir tongue when it touched a piece of bark, feeling every crevice of its texture; the infrasound range of its hearing; the strange gold dust that obscured its vision in a sea of white noise. But this was different. Every Yeerk who has had a host will tell you what it's like to experience the world through its senses, every burst of color or sound as delightful as a ray of Kandrona from a cloudless sky. What they won't tell you, for fear of being named a traitor to Empire, is that these perceptions are always colored by the way the host feels about them. Even a Gedd's dim eyes perceive a glorious vision when the sun sets, because to a Gedd, darkness means safety from predators. It feels the bone-deep relief of not having to be afraid anymore.
Cassie's mind, so much more complex than a Hork-Bajir's – how differently she felt about the world she experienced in that body! She marveled at how each blade could cut a different type of bark, a skill that any Hork-Bajir would take for granted. She loved the way its instincts took over when she was in a tree and helped her practically fly to the top without ever breaking a branch. And the way she felt about those irritating gold speckles that afflicted every Hork-Bajir's vision – it was as if she believed all the "explanations," if they could be termed such, that the creatures made up about it.
Cassie had her eyes focused on Karen when I first took over her optic centers. Of course she would. Her body seemed so much smaller now that I was no longer in it. I wondered, briefly, if Cassie's little band of – I checked her memories – Animorphs would come back for her.
But of course it didn't matter what happened to Karen now, I told myself as I watched Marco fly away in his osprey morph. I had a much more valuable host body now. A morph-capable host.
A voluntary host.
It got under my skin, like a too-hot current through a pool. Cassie had given up her freedom to save Karen and me. Would I have done the same, for either of them? It was a ridiculous hypothetical. A Yeerk need not give up its freedom to anyone. In any case, there was something in Cassie's memories I needed to see.
Ever since I saw Cassie morph Hork-Bajir, I had wondered why she had been in wolf morph when she killed my brother. Wolves are powerful, but Hork-Bajir are more deadly. One swift pass of a blade is all it takes to end a life. In Cassie's mind, I found the answer. In wolf morph, she often tore out the tendons of the Hork-Bajir she fought, so they would be maimed and unable to fight, but wouldn't die. She thought she was being merciful.
«You're a fool, Cassie,» I said coldly, as I played back the memory of her attacking the other Hork-Bajir-Controllers, then killing my brother. «Do you know what we do with maimed Controllers? We kill them and their hosts. Damaged hosts are of no use to us, and it takes too much work to extract a living Yeerk from a corpse, unless it's a Visser. All you accomplish by disabling them in wolf morph is prolonging their suffering before they die.»
I sneered as Cassie's flimsy illusions shattered. She thought she was kinder than the rest of her little guerrilla band because she didn't like to kill. She thought her friend Rachel's preference for deadly morphs meant that she was bloodthirsty and cruel, when in fact she had been the cruelest of them all.
«Still so self-righteous, even after everything I've taught you about Yeerks and what this war is really about?» I taunted. «You're just as arrogant as your pet Andalite. I can't believe that five human children and an aristh, even Elfangor's little brother, could have caused the Empire so much trouble. You thought the war would steal away your soul, Cassie? You were never a warrior. You're still a child, like Karen. You think you know how to fight a just war? Face it. You don't know any better than the other children, and as long as you think you can find the answer, you never will.»
I let the Hork-Bajir's powerful body and instincts take over and shimmied up the tallest tree I could find. Despite her enslavement, despite everything, I could feel Cassie's thrill as I made the climb in a few effortless seconds. How could I begrudge her that joy? She had given this to me as a gift, after all, foolish as it had been.
From the top of the tree, I could just make out Marco's osprey morph soaring away, surrounded by a cloud of the golden-tinted interference – the hrala, Cassie's mind insisted on supplying.
«Don't you see?» said Cassie. «Are you so convinced of the inferiority of Hork-Bajir that you think they don't know what their own eyes show them? Look at Marco, then look at that Swainson's hawk over to our right. He has hrala. It doesn't.»
I looked, really looked, rather than trying to filter it out or ignore it as I always had when I had Daka Hrafi as my host. Beneath and around me, the hrala flowed in bright eddies like wind, dappling the sky with gold. It barely wavered through the clouds, the leaves of the trees, and the Swainson's hawk, as if they were mere distortions of the air. I watched a stream of hrala wend its way through the sky. As it came nearer to Marco, it started to bend from its previous course, drawn to him like a magnetic field. The individual particles within the stream quivered as they drew nearer to him, boosted to an excited state. It wrapped around him, along with many other coils of hrala from elsewhere, and limned him in gold. It reminded me of when Karen traced pictures of animals from her books, the strokes of her markers in an excited hand, bringing out the contours of the creatures' bodies. The sight was sublime in its beauty. If Hork-Bajir could cry, I would have been moved to tears.
I rifled through Cassie's memories, eager to see more. When she first morphed Hork-Bajir, watching the hrala converge in a luminescent nimbus around her, Rachel, Marco, and Jake, and envelop Tobias, Ax, Jara and Ket in blinding cocoons. Tobias' thought-speech, passing on the story of Dak Hamee and Aldrea-Iskillion-Falan, and how he explained hrala to her. "You think Andalites are superior to Hork-Bajir? Look at the chadoo. The hrala passes by it unaltered. Now look at me. I have far more hrala than the chadoo. So do you. So do the Arn. And the Hork-Bajir? We have just as much hrala as you and the Yeerks and the Arn do, every one of us. So tell me, Aldrea. Tell me why your people are better than mine, when I can see otherwise with my own eyes."
I looked down at my – at Ket Halpak's – at Cassie's body. Hrala swirled around in a tornado, never quite touching the skin. What would we look like to another Hork-Bajir? Would there be a cocoon of hrala around her head, where I was? Did I deserve the same golden mantle as every other sentient race, when the only way I could interact with them as a peer was by making a slave of another sentient being?
«Why did you do it?» I demanded as I demorphed. Another marvel of Andalite technology: my body must have flowed through the Z-space corridor from the Hork-Bajir's brain to Cassie's, but I felt none of it, only the distant sensation of bones and organs rearranging themselves.
Cassie didn't even try to hide her emotions from me. She offered them up like a bouquet. «Because I'm sick of hurting people. I just wanted it to stop.»
«Sick of hurting people,» I said, lingering over each emotion: weariness, desperation, empathy for me. «Does that mean I'm a person?»
«Yes. I understand that now.»
«You understand nothing,» I said. I had demorphed fully. With Cassie's body, I clung to the tree branch. I wrapped Quincy around her neck as a ferret, and felt their mutual shiver of warmth at being in contact with each other. Another simple pleasure of being human. «Yeerks are people. But we are still your enemies. The Empire is not like the Andalite government, or like the government of your country. We are – what do you call it? – a police state. We are taught from birth that other species are inferior, that the Emperor's word is law, that we are destined to enslave every planet in the galaxy. To speak otherwise is treason. This is all we know. Yeerks are people, but you are not fighting Yeerks. You are fighting the Yeerk Empire.»
«I'm not fighting them anymore.»
"You should!" I raged, screaming my words to the forest. "This body, this freedom – you would give it up so easily? You would sell your parents' bodies for your own peace of mind? If you value the wonders you experience every moment of your life so cheaply, then you don't deserve them! This?" I said, changing Quincy into a little bird so he could dance on the swirling breeze, opening my emotions to Cassie so she could understand the glory of it all. "This is worth hurting people for, if they would take it away from you!"
«Perhaps there could be peace between you and me,» I said, switching to thought-speech to spare Cassie's throat from going raw. «But there cannot be peace between humans and the Yeerk Empire. And there should not be, do you understand?»
«Yes,» said Cassie. She felt very small. She ought to. She had such power at her command, and all she wanted to do was throw it away for fear of how it might change her. And yet I could not help but fill with longing when she said, «Could there be peace for you? Could you live without ever taking an involuntary host again?»
«Do you know what you ask of me? To live without ever seeing, feeling, running free? What if I asked you to become a nothlit and give it all up, so you might suffer as I would?» When I saw the answer – that she would – I felt the fury rise in me again. «What have I told you! You would surrender the war for peace with me? Think of your father!» I forced up the memory from two nights ago, of her father telling her about all the animals in his wildlife photography book. «If the Empire wins, he will never see the animals he loves again! My people will destroy this world and all the life in it, and they will take his life away too. You choose blindly based on your emotions and think nothing of the consequences!»
«But I would, Aftran.»
«Take it back,» I said. «Take back what you said. I loved my brother, the one you killed. I would have fought for his freedom and his life. If you would give up your chance to defend your family, I will lose all respect for you. Take it back.»I gave her control of her voice, for a moment, so she could say it aloud.
"I take it back," said Quincy. "I'm sorry, Aftran. I'm so sorry. I'm just so numb. All I want to do is feel something again. And if I could somehow make peace with you, then I think I'd feel something again. I've even forgotten what I'm fighting for. You're right."
«There has to be a better way. I want peace. I don't want to live every day with a slave screaming for mercy. I want you to do what is right. But I don't want to live a prisoner myself. There must be some way.» So I opened Cassie's memories, and searched.
I saw the Andalite victory on Leera, and the betrayal aboard the Ascalin. I saw the madness of Visser Three's twin. I saw the secret of Zone 91 and the awesome power of the Ellimist. But most importantly, I saw the Chee. And I saw what Erek had done to impersonate a Controller in the Sharing.
«The Chee are weak,» I hissed, sneering at the memory of Erek rejecting the power of the Pemalite crystal. «They are hypocrites. Do they not realize what their technology could do for Yeerks? No, of course not. They see us as parasitic slugs, nothing more.»
«What do you mean?» Cassie asked.
«Don't you remember how the Chee infiltrated the Sharing? He kept a Yeerk on Kandrona in his head.» I held the image of the osprey in my mind, and felt the feathers spring forth from Cassie's skin. A sense of giddiness filled me. «Cassie, I'm going to be free. Or as free as I can be. But I'm going to need your help. Will you do it?»
I didn't wait for Cassie to reply. I knew what her answer would be.
We circled above the edge of the woods nearest to town and waited, with sick dread, for an osprey to appear. We would hunt her down, capture her, and starve out the Yeerk. The alternative was unthinkable.
«There she is!» Tobias cried. «She's headed for the King house!»
«That doesn't add up,» Abineng said. «Wouldn't the Yeerk want to report to its superiors about us first, then go after the Chee?»
«Maybe it wants more glory. The "Andalite warriors" and the Chee, all wrapped up in a bow. Who cares? We have to go save Cassie!»
Tobias led the charge, using every trick of the air he knew. The rest of us weren't far behind. But the Yeerk had been sneaky. We had expected it to go toward the nearest possible place it might find other Controllers. Instead, it had gone for the Chee, and it had a good head start. It landed in the Kings' backyard and demorphed before we could come into thought-speech range to warn the Chee.
«Don't worry,» said Abineng. «The Chee can't fight the Yeerks, but one Yeerk can't hurt them or make them do anything they don't want to do. They're too strong.»
«Yeah, but the Yeerk could use their phone to call its Sub-Visser or whatever!»
«If that's what it wanted to do, it would have done that already. We're going to make it.»
Closer and closer we flew. Tobias called out, «Erek, Mr. King, can you hear me? It's Tobias. That's not Cassie in there! It's a Controller!»
The Chee had no way of responding, but hopefully they heard. The front door opened. Cassie stepped onto the front porch, Quincy perched as a bat on her shoulder. In her hands, she held a bowl full of water. Why? What was the Yeerk planning?
«Get ready to attack,» said Jake. «Tobias, go for the eyes if you have to. She can always morph away the damage later. What matters right now is containing her. Rachel, land somewhere across the street, demorph, and get ready to get dangerous.»
The Yeerk behind Cassie's eyes was looking up at us. She held the bowl of water to her ear. What happened next nearly made me fall into an uncontrolled dive in pure shock.
The slug crawled out of her ear and fell into the bowl with a splash.
Quincy stirred on Cassie's shoulder, pressing his little face into her cheek. Cassie smiled up at us, then at the bowl. I read the words on her lips: "Come inside. It's all right."
Stunned, we all landed in the backyard and demorphed. Abineng materialized as a goat with long, curling horns. We came in through the back door of the Kings' house and around to the living room. Erek and Mr. King were there, their holograms off. Cassie sat on the couch, the bowl with the Yeerk in her lap. "Would any of your people be willing to take her in?" she was saying.
Jake stared at Cassie, his eyes taking her in like oxygen. I bet he would have hugged her or kissed her or something sappy if it weren't for the bowl in her lap. As it was, Merlyse leapt on the couch as a fennec fox and looked at Quincy all gooey-eyed. "Cassie," he said. "Are you OK?"
Cassie turned her head around and flashed Jake a smile. Quincy reached out a long bat wing and caressed the side of Merl's head with it. Merl made a tiny pleased sound. "Yeah. I'm good," said Cassie. "Where's Karen? Is she safe?"
"We went after you first, Cassie. We thought we'd have to stop that Yeerk from giving us all away."
"That won't be a problem," said Cassie. "I'm trying to see if the Chee can help her. But Karen's still out there all alone with a broken leg. Could one of you go get her to safety?"
«You want the Chee to help this Yeerk?» Ax sneered, his main eyes narrowed at the bowl, one stalk eye on Cassie and another on the Chee. «I can rid us of it immediately.»
"No!" said Cassie, pulling the bowl in closer. On her shoulder, Quincy curled his mouth into a snarl, revealing sharp teeth. A vampire bat? Now there was a side of Cassie I wasn't prepared for. "Didn't you see? She let me go. She doesn't want to enslave people anymore just so she can be free. The Chee can help her. They can generate Kandrona inside their heads and keep a Yeerk alive indefinitely."
We all took a moment to digest this. It was impossible to believe, but we'd all seen it with our own eyes.
Marco turned to the Chee. "The Yeerk didn't make you generate a hologram, did it?"
"The Yeerks can't make us do anything against our will," said Mr. King. It's impossible to tell Chee apart without their holograms, but I could tell by his voice. "If worst comes to worst, we can always self-destruct before doing something we consider immoral."
"Yeerks aren't all the same," said Cassie. "We ought to know that by now. Visser One is different from Visser Three. Visser Three's twin was totally different from him. Aftran is different too. She doesn't want to enslave anyone. She wants to see and hear and run, just like we get to do. And she's not the only Yeerk who feels that way. Some of them realize that what they do is wrong."
Trust Cassie to make friends with the one good Yeerk we've ever come across. "But you didn't know that when you let her make you into a Controller," I said.
"No, I didn't. I made a choice. A stupid choice. A leap of faith, I guess." Cassie shrugged. "I got lucky. And I'm sorry for putting you all at risk. I really am. I won't do anything like that again. But I won't forget what she taught me. I'm going to repay her for what she did. And I'm going to keep fighting."
"Does that mean you're back?" said Jake.
"Yeah. I'm back. Now can someone go help Karen?"
"I'll go," said Marco. "I remember where she was."
«I'll go with Marco,» Tobias said.
"Feel free to use an upstairs window as a launch point," said Erek.
Tobias perched on Marco's shoulder, opposite Diamanta, and they went upstairs.
Cassie looked back up at the Chee expectantly. "Aftran and I decided we wanted to have peace, if only between the two of us. She wants to share a body with a Chee, if one of you is willing, and go back to the Yeerk pool every three days so she can see her family."
"Yeerks have families?" I said.
«This is unacceptable,» Ax said. «If she is allowed to return to the Yeerk pool, she will betray us.»
"Just a minute ago, Aftran was an 'it', and now she's a 'she,'" Cassie pointed out to Ax. "If she wanted to betray us, she could have done it when she was in me. I trusted her with my life. With all of our lives. Maybe it was stupid of me. I'm almost sure it was. But she didn't betray me. And she won't."
"Delia will do it," said Mr. King. "All of the Chee are listening via CheeNet. There is a Chee playing the part of a community college student named Delia Nguyen. She is curious about Aftran and hopes she might learn more about her by sharing a body with her. She will play the part of a voluntary host who is willing to join the Yeerks if Aftran is her Controller."
"That would be perfect," Cassie said. "Aftran told me that the Yeerks value voluntary hosts. She won't be punished for losing Karen if she comes back as a voluntary Controller. That's why it's so important to help Karen now. If a Controller cop finds her, she might still be recaptured, but if her parents keep her under really close watch from now on – which they probably will, after what happened – she can be free."
"And we'll have another spy in the Yeerk pool," said Erek.
"Two more spies in the Yeerk pool," Cassie corrected. "Can Delia come now? Aftran can't last long in this bowl."
"Yes, she's on her way," said Erek.
"One more thing. I want to check on Aftran regularly, to make sure you're treating her right. I know you mean well, but I have no way to know for sure unless I put her in my head and ask."
"Cassie," said Jake. "I'm not sure that's a good – "
"She already knows all our secrets. She let me go. She let all of us go. I trust her." Cassie looked at Ax. "If some Andalites can be traitors, then can't some Yeerks be on our side?"
Ax's whole body twitched. The betrayal aboard the Ascalin is a sensitive topic for him. Let him squirm, I thought. I've seen human scum like Jeremy Jason McCole give themselves up to Yeerks. Ax needs to learn that Andalites aren't perfect either.
I guess it makes sense that some Yeerks might buck the trend too, Abineng mused.
«Prince Jake,» said Ax. «This Yeerk cannot cause any trouble inside a Chee. But in the Yeerk pool or in Cassie's brain, it could cause inestimable damage. We cannot take this risk.»
"Cassie took the risk already, didn't she?" said Jake. "OK, Cassie. You can have your weekly visit with Aftran. But you have to bring at least one of us with you, just in case. Say, Rachel to come in with you, and Tobias to keep watch through the window."
Cassie nodded. Quincy shot me a glance. Neither of them had said a word to me since we came in. "Sure," I said, though I dreaded coming back next week. Now that my terror had faded into relief, my anger at Cassie was slowly bubbling back.
I can't believe she gambled with all of our lives like that. With all of our families' lives, Abineng thought, shooting Quincy a poisonous glance in return. He looked away. I wonder if Quincy still thinks he's better than me.
"Would you like something to eat or drink while we wait for Delia to arrive?" said Mr. King, flicking his hologram back on. His greyhound dæmon opened her mouth in a doggy smile. "We do have a functioning kitchen."
"I'm really thirsty," Cassie admitted.
We went to the kitchen for snacks. Ax morphed human so he could try the raspberry-flavored seltzer and different kinds of cheese on crackers. Erek let out some of the dogs for us to play with. I drank seltzer and rubbed a schnauzer's belly as Jake tried to show Ax how to eat the cheese and crackers. Abi and I ignored Cassie until she said, "Rachel?"
I didn't look at her, but Abi did.
"Could you meet me at the Gardens on Saturday? I figure that's when my parents will start letting me out of their sight for more than five minutes at a time. We need to talk. I owe you an apology."
That got my attention. "An apology for what?"
"Well, for nearly betraying everyone to the Yeerk Empire, but I owe everyone an apology for that. But I need to make right what I did to you."
"You didn't do anything to me."
"Yes, I did." Quincy fluttered over and landed on one of Abi's horns. I stared at him for a moment. Vampire bat. What had Cassie learned from the Yeerk? Only a couple of days had passed, and nothing was the same. "Rachel, you're my best friend, and I want to keep it that way."
"Fine," I said. "But why the Gardens?"
"There's a morph I need to acquire. I want you to be there."
"Um," I said. "OK." Abi shook his head a bit, and Quincy hopped back onto the couch and curled up as a pangolin.
The doorbell rang. Erek opened the front door. A young woman with long dark hair, a broad smiling face, and a big wrinkly dog dæmon came in. She dressed conservatively, in a nicely colored but ill-fitting button-down shirt and black slacks. "Good morning, Erek," she said. She took a look at Jake and Ax with their mess of crumbled crackers, and Cassie and I sitting awkwardly on the couch with a schnauzer at our feet. "And these must be the Animorphs."
"Jake, Aximili, Rachel, Cassie," said Erek, gesturing to each of us in turn, "meet Delia."
"Hi," we said.
Delia nodded at the bowl in Cassie's lap. "Aftran, I presume?"
Cassie's grip reflexively tightened on the bowl. "Yes."
"Hmmm." Delia flicked her hologram off. "Give me a minute to rearrange my motor and sensory apparatus. I'll need to mimic neural impulses in my circuitry for her to be able to use any of my faculties. I think I'll model the chamber after yours, Erek, though with a somewhat more comfortable environment."
There was no apparent change, though we all watched with interest, especially Ax. Then the front of her head split open, revealing a chamber like a tiny fish tank surrounded by electrodes.
Cassie's brows came together. She narrowed her eyes at Erek a little. "You could have made this in your head, and you keep your Yeerk captive in a steel cage? That's cruel!"
"I keep him in stasis. He knows nothing of where he is or what has happened to him. When I have no further use for him, the last thing he will remember will be the Yeerk pool before he 'infested' me."
Cassie looked mollified, but she said, "What will you do with him when you don't need him anymore?"
"I'll give him symptoms consistent with a Yeerk disease that causes retrograde amnesia. His superiors will assume that this disease is the reason why he remembers nothing. I will return him to the Pool and they will treat his symptoms."
"May I suggest that you fill the tank with an electrolytic analog of the Yeerk pool?" Delia said.
"Of course," said Erek. He went to the kitchen and came back with a pitcher. It looked like plain water, but I guess he must have dissolved something in it. He poured some into the tank in Delia's head. It was an odd thing to watch, but no odder than what we usually see, I guess. Ax peppered the Chee with questions about the chemical composition of Yeerk pool sludge.
Cassie stood with the bowl in her hands and walked over to Delia, peering at the inside of her head. "So, do I just… plop her in?"
"Yes. The electrodes will automatically attach themselves." The Chee hummed. "Mm, this should be interesting. I've always wanted to have a civil conversation with a Yeerk."
"I wouldn't call Aftran civil, exactly," Cassie said, cupping the Yeerk gently in her hand. We all stared at the glistening slug as she slid into the tiny tank. "But she does make interesting conversation."
The electrodes, which looked like fancy versions of the kind they use on ER, clamped all over the Yeerk's body, especially the front where its little palps waved. Delia retracted the tank into her head and flipped her hologram back on. Her expression was furrowed in concentration. Then her face went slack, and her dæmon's wagging tail went limp.
"Is she all right?" said Cassie.
"Yes," said Mr. King. "She's explaining to Aftran what's going on, and the differences between interfacing with a biological brain and a Chee's mechano-organic construct. The motor and speech functions will probably come easily to Aftran, but the senses are new, and controlling the hologram is completely outside her experience."
"She looks really creepy right now," I said. "Like a zombie." I buried a hand in Abi's fur.
"Cassie?" came a dead monotone voice from Delia the Chee. "Are you here?"
"Yes, I'm here." Cassie reached out and took the Chee's hand. "Can you hear me, Aftran? I'm holding your hand."
"Yes. I see you too. I don't know how to show it with the hologram's eyes. But I see you," said the flat, inhuman voice. "It feels so good to see you again. Without Karen screaming in my head."
That made me shiver. I leaned forward and rested my chin on Abi's head, just in front of the horns.
"Karen will be OK," said Cassie. "Marco and Tobias are taking her to her parents right now. They won't let her out of their sight." It was so strange, hearing Cassie talk to Aftran about Marco and Tobias as if she knew them. But of course, she did, from Cassie's memories.
"They won't. They love her. Now they have her back, even if they never knew she was gone."
Cassie squeezed her hand. "What do you want to do now?"
"See what Delia's life is like. Learn more about humans and your planet. Karen was too young and knew nothing. Go for walks in the sunshine. See my family again. Learn about the Yeerk resistance."
"There's a Yeerk resistance?" Jake said. He had been staring, wide-eyed, at the entire exchange.
"I told you, Jake. Aftran's not the only one. It's not that every single Yeerk decided to take us over. It's the Yeerk Empire that's invading Earth, and some Yeerks think the government is wrong."
"I have a question for you, Aftran," I said.
"Yes, Rachel?" Delia didn't turn toward me or acknowledge me, but that didn't mean Aftran wasn't watching me.
"When Cassie asked you what you want to do now, you said you want to go for walks in the sunshine. Why is that important to you?"
"Once you learn what life is outside the pool, it is impossible to go back. Every Yeerk is an addict. One taste of life as a Gedd or Hork-Bajir or human or even Taxxon, and we crave more. What is a warm current in the pool compared to sunlight shining through leaves? What is the texture of sludge compared to the soft slide of silk through your fingers? What is the breadth of the pool compared to running across an open field? Of course walks in the sunshine are important to me. They are important enough that Yeerks are willing to enslave your people to have them."
"An entire planetary invasion for that," murmured Abi.
"Is that not what you fight for as well? The freedom to experience the world and all its joys? It is what I fought for, until I decided that it was not worth the suffering of a child." Her face, and her dæmon, remained still as if she were in a coma as she spoke.
"I think I could get to like Aftran, Cassie," I said.
"Aftran, would you be willing to spy for us in the Yeerk pool?" Jake said.
"I said I would learn more about the Yeerk resistance. I will tell Cassie what I learn."
"Thank you," Cassie said.
"Thank you, Cassie. I will do any favor you ask. Delia wishes to speak now."
Suddenly, her face became animated, her dæmon's face wrinkling into a doggy smile. "Well. That was different."
"It was all right for you?" Cassie asked, letting go of her hand.
"Of course!" said Delia. "I've lived a very long time, you know, and life can get boring over the millennia. I've seen the crafting of Ming Dynasty vases, and I've seen massacres from Genghis Khan's to Pol Pot's. Much of human history is the same. But this is something new, and I get to be firsthand witness to it. That's worth sharing a body for. I've had this one all to myself for a long time, after all." She shrugged. "But the real reason I took over is because I have class in forty minutes. Aftran is nowhere near ready to start playing my current persona, so she needs to take a backseat for now and watch how I live my life. I have a feeling she'll enjoy going to class, anyway."
"Thank you, Delia. It means a lot to me."
"It means a lot to Aftran too." Her face and voice went flat, and her dæmon lost all life again. "Goodbye, Cassie."
"Goodbye, Aftran. I'll talk to you in a week."
Delia resumed control and walked out to her car.
"Well," said Cassie. "I guess I'd better go home. My parents must be worried sick."
It took Jake a moment to pull himself together. "Yeah. They called the police and everything. We should fly back to the woods, and you can demorph somewhere near your house. Then you can wander back home and tell them you survived on mushrooms or something."
"I did survive on mushrooms, actually."
"Well, there you go, then."
It was Emeraude who saw me first from her pulley platform as I straggled home in my morphing outfit, cut up with thorns and my hair crusted with dirt. I walked through the thorns and rubbed my hair with the dirt on purpose. That's what my parents expected to see, after a night lost in the woods. My mom and dad ran outside and bear-hugged me. Emeraude gave Quincy and Dashiell a ride on her head back to the house, my mom's dæmon nuzzling mine the whole way. They fussed over me and made brunch while I took a shower. Over the meal, they asked me what happened, Dashiell holding Quincy in his paws as if he might break. I told them about Karen and the bear and surviving on mushrooms. They told me I was a hero for saving Karen.
Funny how I still didn't feel like a hero. I hope I never will feel like a hero. The moment you start thinking that about yourself is the moment you stop questioning your decisions.
I had to repeat my story to the police. It was tough, because one of the cops who took my statement was a known Controller. It wasn't that I couldn't keep my story straight. I've actually gotten very good at that, as long as I'm not on the spot and have time to think of a good one. But I couldn't help but wonder about the Controller, who I once would have assumed was evil. What was his relationship with his host? Was he a voluntary, who he got along with well? Or did he have to live with his host's screaming and begging? If so, did he care? It was impossible to tell, but it still occupied my thoughts.
After that I had to call all of my relatives to reassure them I was fine. My grandparents, aunts, and uncles had all been frantic. My Uncle Barry doesn't even live in California and he knew all about it. It was embarrassing, but it was also kind of nice to have them fuss over me. I wasn't a hero, but I had been through a lot. My dad made my favorite dinner, potatoes au gratin. I fell asleep not long after that. I had barely slept, out there in the woods.
The next day we got the news that the clinic would be funded. I smiled at what my dad told me about the banker and his daughter. Karen was free.
Finally, Saturday came. The day I dreaded, but was looking forward to at the same time. We met at the main gate to the Gardens. I said hi, but Rachel gave me a tight smile with no friendliness in it. We went to the entrance to the staff section without speaking.
The employees' corridor was deserted. Rachel and I stood with our backs against opposite walls, facing each other. Abineng was a blackbuck, a medium-sized antelope with long twisted horns. Quincy was a rat on my shoulder, his tail draping down along my arm.
"You were right, Rachel," I said quietly.
"Right about what?" she said, her blue eyes cool. Abineng was impassive, staring at the wall instead of me or Quincy.
"I remember exactly what you said to me when I quit. Every word. 'You've just said the whole world can drop dead, so long as you, Cassie, don't have to end up turning into me.' You were right. That's exactly what I was saying. And I was wrong, twice over." I held up a finger. "One. You're not some kind of monster." Another finger. "And two, even if you were, that wouldn't make it right to give up the fight for our freedom. I'd forgotten what I was fighting for. And I didn't think it'd make a difference if I quit anyway. But anyone can make a difference. Aftran did."
I leaned back against the wall. "Did I ever tell you why I use wolf as a battle morph, even though there are lots more dangerous animals at the Gardens?"
"I thought I could fight cleaner that way. I usually go for the shins and hamstring Hork-Bajir, so they can't fight, but they're still alive. I wanted to spare them. I saw the way you fought, killing Hork-Bajir with one swipe of your grizzly paw, and I was… sickened. I thought my way was better." I laughed bitterly. "Aftran made me see the truth. The Yeerk Empire doesn't want damaged hosts. They kill the ones maimed in battle. All I did was make them suffer before they died. Your way was kinder all along. It didn't matter whether I felt bad about killing them or whether you didn't. All that matters is the result. And the result of my actions was more suffering.
"Rachel, I promise I won't judge you anymore. I don't know what's right any better than you do. Every time I think I know, the universe proves me wrong. All any of us can do is try our best. I'm sorry."
"I can't believe you were so selfish, Cassie. When you quit the Animorphs, that hurt me." Rachel's voice was tight and she didn't look me in the eye, but Abineng pinned me with a yellow stare. "But when you revealed yourself to Aftran, when you let her into your head, that didn't just hurt me. You put Jordan in danger. You gambled with Sara. I can't even look at you without thinking of my little sisters as slaves. Because if it had been any other Yeerk, that's what would have happened."
"I was selfish." I could feel my throat closing in on itself. "I thought my pain was the only pain that mattered. That it was more important than anything else. I was wrong. I see that now. All I can do is keep fighting and hope. That's all any of us have." I looked Abineng in the eye. "I forgot what I was fighting for. I forgot what was on the line. That's why I'm here. I need a new battle morph, one that's deadly, not just dangerous. I need a battle morph that reminds me of why I fight this war. I want to acquire a bull moose."
"Like Emeraude," said Rachel. "But with horns."
"One blow from those horns, one kick or stomp from those legs, will end it. Getting hit by a moose is like getting hit by a truck with antlers. No more leaving Hork-Bajir crippled, waiting to die."
And we won't have to use our teeth to kill anything anymore, thought Quincy, remembering the strip of Hork-Bajir flesh between my teeth.
"And it'll be hard to forget about whose lives are on the line when I'm morphing a moose every time I go into battle," I added. "Look, Rachel, if you're not ready to forgive me, you can leave now and tell me when you're ready to talk again. But I'd like it if you'd come with me for this."
"I'm not ready to forgive you yet," said Rachel. "But I'll come with you anyway."
"This way," I said. "They're doing maintenance on the moose habitat, so there won't be any visitors. It's near the end of the mating season, so the bull shouldn't be aggressive."
I went down the corridor and opened the door for the moose habitat. It was a miniature forest with a salt lick. Two cows, like Emeraude, and a bull were quietly grazing. They paused to look at us as we approached.
"Stand back," I said. "Be ready to move if he tries anything."
I approached the bull moose just near enough to be within the range of the bond between me and Quincy. The moose were all eyeing me nervously. Quincy dropped off my shoulder and darted through the grass. He touched a paw to the moose's hoof. We focused on the moose, on its calm strength, acquiring its DNA. The bull went calm, though the cows still watched me.
Quincy came back to me. Rachel and I left as quickly as we could, before the acquiring trance could fade. My heart was still fluttering against my ribs as we stepped out in the hallway.
"There's one more thing I want to do," I said.
"I don't know if Jake ever told you this," I said. "But when a Yeerk's in your head, you can see into its mind too, at least a little bit. When Aftran was in me, I felt her memories. I can't stop thinking about the time she had first experienced vision. Yeerks are blind in their natural state. When they see for the first time, it's overwhelming. The light, the shapes, the shadows, the depth of it all. They appreciate seeing so much more than we ever will. But what Aftran loves most of all is the color. I think she could be happy even if Delia never gives her control over her body, as long as she gets to see color. No matter what I do, I'll never see color the way she does. But there's this tropical habitat with all of these flowers and colorful birds, and I thought, maybe I'd give it a try. To look at all of that color and imagine I'd never seen it before."
Rachel shook her head. "Cassie, you are such a sap. But I think that's kind of why I became your friend in the first place. I'm still angry with you. After this there's going to be a hardcore silent treatment. But for now – just for now – I'll do this."
"Thanks, Rachel. It's more than I deserve."
We snuck back out of the employees' area and went to the tropical habitat. There wasn't a big crowd, so we got to stand close. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine being a Yeerk in a pool, knowing nothing outside of it. Then I opened my eyes.
A bird with a brilliant red breast perched on a branch just above my head. A blue bird that looked like it was wearing red lipstick on its beak hopped down from a branch to eat a slice of green apple from a bowl. Enormous flowers in every color pooled with droplets on their petals. The green of the miniature rainforest was so bright it made my eyes water – or were those tears?
I stared for a while longer before I felt Quincy turn into a crow and fix his gaze on Rachel. Her long blonde hair was in a braid hanging over her left shoulder. Her hand was loosely curled around one of Abineng's horns, idly rubbing one of its twists with her thumb. Her eyes, staring into space, were as blue as the box that gave us our gift, our weapon, our curse. This was my best friend, who I would never abandon again.
And if I had made the wrong gamble, and lost everything, that may be the sight I would have missed most of all.
Some references for the more obscure animals and dæmon forms in the story, for those interested.
When Karen was hiding from the bear in the tree, Cavanagh was a damselfly.
At the Kings' house, Abineng was a markhor, an endangered species of wild goat.
Just to remind you that vampire bats can be cute.
Delia the Chee's "dæmon" is a Shar Pei.
At the Gardens, Abineng was a blackbuck.
The birds Cassie saw at the tropical habitat were a double-toothed barbet and a great blue turaco, respectively.