Mother called to me, beginning to grow frustrated. "Taku help Pok!"
Her shouts had been going on for a good few minutes now, but they were not calls of distress. They were definitely whiny, but she was in no danger. I suspected the reason for her cries, and I was in no rush to aid her.
"Please, wait for a little bit!" I responded, grumbling and placing my encyclopaedia back on its home shelf, making sure to leave a bookmark just as I was about to close it shut. Being freed of my relaxation tool, I hauled myself to my feet and stuck my snout out of my hut door to see what was going on. I could see Mother in the distance staring right back at me with pleading eyes.
Feeling momentary guilt for taking my time, I took a deep breath and ran upwards in her direction back to the home tree. There she sat on Father's wicker platform, legs splayed out in front of her and several chunks of bark between. I hung over her, gawking down at the collection she had amassed.
"What is wrong, Mother?" I asked of her, blinking at the bark.
She gazed up at me, her cheery expression having returned. "Taku come!"
"Yes, Taku is here." I sighed, lowering myself beside her.
"Taku help Pok," She repeated, pointing a finger at the bark. "Taku count good."
"I… Yes," I stuttered. "You want me to count them?"
Mother nodded and sat back to give me a better view. Not like I needed it.
"There are eight pieces, Mother," I told her. "I thought you would be able to count that."
She looked terribly embarrassed, and I quickly gathered that my mathematical skills were not all that she wished for. "Need Taku count. Last bark for cold moons."
With elegant timing, there was a series of thumps from the other end of the platform. Coming into view, Father and Lenk brought with them four bundles of bark, one under each arm. They dropped it all onto the platform, and Mother looked more embarrassed still. She whined and looked up at me, knowing that her already terrible lie had been turned on its head.
But I was the one to feel guilty. So much time was spent away from my family that she was desperately trying to grab my attention, even if her methods to do so came across as pathetic and naïve. In spite of this being one of her worst attempts, I sat beside her and watched as Father and Lenk packed our new food supply away.
Mother latched onto me like a lost dog returned to its owner. "Not see Taku for long time. Where Taku be?"
"I've been doing some homework, Mother. I'm supposed to be going back to the centre tomorrow. I'm not looking forward to it."
"Centre nice," She offered without any prior knowledge. "Taku do work good, but Taku work lots."
"I know that," I grunted. "And I wish that I didn't have to. I'd rather stay with you and Father and Lenk. I'm happiest here."
"Then stay," Mother suggested with more of a demanding tone. "Taku happy here, so Taku stay."
"It's not simple like that, Mother," I explained vaguely, my eyes still trailing the other members of my immediate family. "There is still so much to do. And I'd best do some more now."
"Taku go?" She pined. "No, Taku stay. Eat bark."
"Sorry," I excused myself. "But I promise that I will come back after I've sorted my paperwork."
She huffed disappointedly. "How long?"
"An hour or so."
That word meant nothing to her, and she just stared at me, expecting a more meaningful answer.
"Before the sun sets, Mother." I smiled. That was something she understood, and she knew that it wasn't long before sunset.
Father overheard and clutched at his tail. "Maybe Taku see campfire when moon come."
"Oh, yes," I muttered. "I missed it last night, didn't I. I'll see it tonight, though."
I took the following silence as my cue to leave, but as ever I caught a glance from Lenk. Still so unsure as to how he felt, I stored his facial expression in my brain and puzzled it on the way back to my hut.
He still envied my position as seer. How I wished to explain how I was the one to be envious, but he would never understand.
I sighed when I came to a standstill in the centre of my dimly lit hut. It was the same as ever, but for the flowers kept in a small glass vase by the far window. Relk's flowers, sat beside the framed photograph of my family on my shelf of loved possessions. I lifted my claw and touched a petal, feeling it rub against my skin.
Good memories, I thought. Those would be what I cherish. And there were plenty of good memories. We had so much fun in that year as friends.
I needed to move my mind over to something else. Something to take my attention, and I remembered the paperwork that I was meant to do. They were mostly files regarding CrescentCreations, who were still filming their documentary somewhere in another part of the park. I could do it at that moment and be done with it. After all, it was just sorting the files into an appropriate order.
I didn't want to. I had been doing that all morning and had barely had time to do what I enjoyed. I had spent a measly three minutes reading my encyclopaedia before Mother called me away, and I was so nearly finished. Just a few more pages to go now and I could move onto another informative piece of literature.
Why not? It wouldn't take me long and I could do the paperwork some other time. I sat down in my comfortable chair and pulled the book from my tiny makeshift desk, pulled open to the dog-eared page and started to read again.
Since the book ran in a chronological order, the end sections were about modern times. The 21st Century, to be exact. I read that, though Human life was as peaceful as it had ever been, the planet was still ravaged by war, and that was greatly reflected in the encyclopaedia. It upset me deeply, but I had mostly overcome that feeling. Once you've read of war so many times, it starts to become familiar, as vaguely explained as it was in the book.
America was engaging in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan - The War on Terror, as is was described in the book. There was ongoing fighting between Israel and Palestine, too. I read the pages on them, soaked up the information, and took special note of the number killed that appeared in small blue fact boxes placed strategically on the designated pages. It meant more to me than it used to when I was reading about previous wars.
There was another war, too. The Yeerk War was given its fair share of detail, even though it lacked some information that others had plentifully. However, it spawned further pages, most notably on our people. I would get to that soon, but I glanced firstly over the war details.
It was not something that I was familiar with. My experience had been down to the first-person stories of my fellow Hork-Bajir who had endured it, and apart from that I had never really been that bothered about it. It was in the past, and I had always been told to look forward by Toby and my Human friends. Now, though, I was learning some objective details.
I learned of the Yeerks and the Andalites. On their own full pages they had pictures displaying their appearance, paragraphs explaining their cultures. A section on the Yeerk force's eventual demise and the beginning of the Andalite/Human alliance. Images of Andalite and Yeerk fighters and ships. Gedds, Taxxons, Sstram…
And Hork-Bajir, of course. We had our own page and I was thankful to see that it was wholly favourable. It mentioned that we were Yeerk shock troops, but with that aside it showed us in a very positive light. I was relieved, but knew that I didn't need to be. Paranoia had again been nagging in my ear.
Then I saw the Yeerk war death tolls. Humans were estimated at around fifteen-hundred. Andalites were considerably more. Hork-Bajir were unknown. There were perhaps several reasons why, but I still grew deeply upset even though there was no number to mourn.
I finished those pages without much of a hitch and turned to the next. I almost slapped myself for thinking that it was over when I saw the title of the next page: The Animorphs. Though I had heard little of the war, I had listened in on many murmurings about this group of Humans. I knew some of their names, and had a vague recollection that they aided Toby and her parents. Now I wanted to learn more.
I learned one thing, and then I stopped.
On the left-hand page, bang in the centre in bright and clear ink, was a sectioned image of each individual Animorph. There were six of them: Jake, Rachel, Marco, Aximili, Tobias…
Cassie? I had heard of Cassie the Animorph before in overheard conversations, but as I looked closely at the picture, her face was instantly recognisable.
How had this been unknown to me for so long? I had been good friends with her for a very long time, been to meetings with her, sat through lectures with her and eaten dinners with her. How had it never come up in conversation? How did I never put the pieces together?
I thought it extremely unlikely, but when I considered that the war was never part of our usual conversations, it made more sense that it had never been revealed to me. To think that I knew one of the Animorphs, the group that played a major role in defeating Yeerk forces, who…
My claw turned a few pages back, and I looked again to the death tolls. Then I looked to Relk's flowers, and I felt rage bubbling up through my skin. My breathing intensified, and I slammed the book shut. I didn't care if I hadn't marked the page I was on.
I also didn't care if I missed the campfire that night, because I wouldn't make it back in time anyway. I leapt from my hut and ran to the south with my mind a blur of anger and betrayal. I had passed the threshold despite my resistance, and I was going to make my opinions perfectly clear to one that I used to trust so mindlessly. Not one single part of me resisted for that whole journey and I didn't care whose feelings I would hurt. It was such a foreign feeling, and one so disgustingly Human.
The distance was far, but it didn't take me long as I rushed on through the dense patches of trees and the open lands, most of the time spent dwelling within my own compressed head. Before I knew it, I had my eyes on the taller of two buildings sat on a snowy hill. I bounced onto the open blanket of snow, jumped a wooden fence and ran toward my destination, the setting sun disappearing behind the white Human walls.
Without second thoughts, I bounded to the door and slammed on it three times. I knew that somebody was home, because I saw golden light shining from a couple of windows on the north side of the building. Listening closely, I could hear sounds from within, possibly a radio or a television set.
I became frustrated when no reply came, and so I banged again. Much harder this time. It granted me no relief, however, when the door finally creaked open with the grumblings of an annoyed Human.
She appeared in the doorway, a quizzical look in her eyes. "What… Taku? Do you have to knock so hard?"
"Cassie," I grunted. "I wish to come in."
She blinked, but was only hesitant for a second until she opened up the door and allowed me to jump in. With whatever politeness I had left at that point, I dragged the snow and dirt from my feet onto the doormat, but once the front door had been shut, I let my anger burst from my mouth.
I turned and exhaled a huff. "You are the Animorph. Cassie the Animorph."
I saw her raise an eyebrow and gaze up at me, confusion painted on her face. "Uh, yeah. Why? What's the matter, Taku?"
"You were one of them!" I asserted again, hands trembling and clutching at the air. "And you murdered my people!"
Her eyes widened, now much more stunned than confused. She still struggled to find a suitable way to react, and I saw the emotions conflicting in her eyes. In the end, she went for the friendly approach, and she reached out to place a small Human hand on my arm, saying, "I think we should sit down and talk about a few things."
"No!" I shouted, stepping back out of her reach. "I'm not going to sit down. I don't want to anymore! Tell me, how many did you kill?"
"Kill?!" She gasped. I could see that she was growing frustrated, but she was keeping herself calm and refraining from anything that could be seen as offensive. "Taku… You're talking about the war?"
"Yes," I seethed. "You killed my people, didn't you?! You and those other Humans and the Andalites. Tell me how many!"
She was backing away now, and I found that I was making her do so. I was walking toward her, pressing for her answer. Even then, I still sensed calm in her. "Taku, please, relax! I can explain but you need to calm down first."
I snorted. "Why should I? Why should I do you the courtesy when my people have been brutalised by yours? Violent, war-mongering, hateful Humans!"
"Taku, stop!" She ordered, the presence in her tone multiplying drastically. "You need to let me explain it to you! Why are you so angry?!"
"You killed my people! Why shouldn't I be?!"
Then a third voice entered and spooked me so much that I jumped back three feet from Cassie. My anger was momentarily displaced when I saw Toby enter the room from a nearby doorway. "Taku!" She boomed. "Where are your manners?!"
I was hesitant, completely silent as I tried to work my head around the situation. Cassie didn't budge an inch, but it definitely wasn't due to fear. She watched Toby, concerned.
I looked between the two of them. I knew whose side Toby would pick, but the rage was still burning inside me. My attention remained on the calm Human. "Why won't you tell me?!"
She didn't respond immediately, but she instead raised a flattened hand, directing it at Toby. I noticed Toby seething, having moved a few steps closer. Cassie was telling her to keep away.
"I'll tell you about the war," She said with admirable calm. "Please, just let me pour you a drink and we can sit down. This isn't you, Taku."
"Tell me now," I demanded. I dropped my voice down by a few decibels, but I was still in absolutely no mood for messing around. My brain needed, craved the answers, not for its own pleasure but almost as closure. The Human had to admit to her crimes, and I would not stand to let her escape doing so. "I don't want a drink and I don't want to sit down. Tell me!"
"That's enough, Taku!" Toby barked, refusing to continue Cassie's implemented silence. "Tell me why you are confronting Cassie like this!"
Cassie again tried to push for calm, but now my attention turned to Toby, and her delicate Human voice was instantly lost in conversation. "She has murdered my people!" I yelled. "She won't tell me how many, but I know that she did!"
Toby's eyes widened, but she stood firm in place. "You're being foolish. Cassie has murdered no one! I cannot believe you would make such a hideous accusation after all she's done for you!"
"But she has," I growled, squeezing the end of my tail so tightly that the skin began to rupture. "She was one of them… An Animorph! She killed!"
"You've only just figured that out?!" Toby squeaked, jaw dropping in disbelief. "Good grief, Taku, that's one of the most highly publicised facts in the country! How have you only just found that out?!"
"I…" Froze. Though I didn't doubt my primary concern, it did feel very wrong that I had lived all this time without knowing the group that almost single-handedly saved Earth from the Yeerks. "I never looked into it."
Toby huffed and shook her head with great disappointment. "If you don't know facts like that, then I don't know why I hired you to be Head of Media. How you could have skipped over that little fact is absurd, especially considering that you've spent so much time with Cassie!"
I bowed my head, but that was only to admit my failure in that regard. Then I stared back at her, and returned to say, "It doesn't matter. She killed my people, Toby!" I shouted, pointing a finger at Cassie who was stood with crossed arms and looking quite peeved.
"Would you shut up for a moment?!" Toby retaliated. "It was war, Taku! You clearly don't understand what that means, do you?"
Cassie decided that then was the time to once again try for peace. "Toby," She said, casting a disapproving look. "Could we take this somewhere where I won't fear getting sliced in half?"
"Yes," Toby sighed, loosening her shoulders. "Would you like to handle this, or should I?"
"We all can. Taku, can I tell you about what happened?"
I was still shaking, drops of blood now running down my tail. Out of my quivering jaw came a squeaky, "Yes."
I was expecting talk. Then she reached for my hand, perhaps to lead me into another room or simply to hold it to provide comfort. I snatched it away, and she sighed and continued.
"Yes, Taku, I was an Animorph. For some strange reason, I was picked out of every kid in the world to be one of the five pre-teens armed to fight off an entire invasion. I didn't get a choice in that, and I sort of wish that it wasn't me. I saw a lot of bad stuff. Horrible things, you know. You know about the Yeerks, right?"
I nodded stiffly. "Vaguely…"
"I saw them making people into slaves. And those slaves were… They had no control over their bodies," She explained, looking up to me as she thought of the best way to paint the picture she wanted to create. "And those people – Humans and Hork-Bajir – had no control over their bodies. The Yeerks were in control. And those Yeerks wanted to kill us."
I quickly scanned my eyes to Toby. She was leaning back on her tail, arms folded over her chest. Her eyes were closed, too, and it was almost as if she was sleeping. She certainly wasn't though, and I got the distinct feeling that I wasn't going to leave Cassie's home without her verbal wrath bearing down upon me.
Cassie continued, "Sometimes situations would get a little tricky, and that could mean that, in order to continue, we had to eliminate threats. We never liked to. We hated to, but it was kill or be killed."
"So you did kill my people." I concluded, my quivering becoming problematic.
"Yes," Cassie admitted, not delving into the same anger that Toby was. "But you have to understand the situation."
"I understand that you killed!"
"Enough, Taku!" Toby boomed, again giving up on her voluntary silence. "Cassie, I would like to take him outside. I hope you don't mind."
Cassie looked extremely downhearted, her eyes to the floor. "Sure. Want a drink when you get back?"
"Yes, thank you. I won't be long."
I shook my head and barked my disapproval. "I'm staying here!"
"No, you're not. Outside," Toby growled. "Now."
Cassie stepped aside as Toby marched in my direction, her presence shuffling me toward to front door. Unwilling to deny the person that I respected so dearly, I bowed my head, walked out of the door, and braced myself for what was to come.
I was forced out into the snow, my feet collapsing into a mound that had been pushed aside from the pathway leading up to the door. Toby closed the door with admirable restraint behind her, and then proceeded to skewer me with the most distasteful stare I had ever witnessed. She took a moment to exhale, but I could see her tail twitching and her jaw shuddering.
"What are you, thinking, Taku?!" Were the first words shouted. "How dare you come into Cassie's house and throw around such hurtful accusations?!"
I was not ready to back down quite then. "I feel perfectly justified in-"
"Justified?! Do you have any idea whatsoever about what happened during the Yeerk war? Without Cassie fighting for our cause in that war, we probably wouldn't even be here! I find it so utterly disgusting that you would accuse her of such crimes!"
"She killed my people!" I battled, though my voice was losing its edge.
"I killed my people!" She hissed.
It stabbed me straight in the chest. My tail came in as balance reinforcement as I almost fell over backwards, my breath stolen as I heard the admission.
Her eyes narrowed, and I saw just a smidgen of sympathy flash across her eyes before the tide of her anger came rushing back. "We all did, Taku. War is clearly not something that you understand. It took so much for us to earn our freedom, and it took more sacrifice than I would ever have wished, but what we have now is infinitely better than what we would have had if those sacrifices weren't made!"
Now I was significantly weakened, the power to fight back drowned in her words. "I… I just…"
"You are overreacting to the death of your friend, Taku," She reasoned, voice calmed considerably. "I understand that you are in a lot of pain, but that is no excuse for what you just did. Cassie did an awful lot for you, and she still does to this day."
By now I was totally speechless, drooped forward in a defeated stance. Anger still fumed within me, but an army of other thoughts and feelings diluted it and confused me.
"You will apologise to Cassie, but not now. I will explain your situation and try to defend you. Cassie is forgiving, but you must still treat her with the respect that she deserves. Is that clear?"
I nodded meekly.
"Good," Toby chirped. "Don't let it happen again, Taku. This really wasn't you today, and I hope that it is an anomaly. I suggest you do some appropriate research into the topic that's gotten you so riled up."
She broke her stare from me and looked off to the setting sun as it breached the horizon. The sky was turning orange, giving the snow and shadows a haunting glow.
"It's late. You had best stay at my tree for tonight. Mother is making her best bark stew."