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“To your shore I have come, Aftran Plisam Pool,” Julian Tidwell said in Yeerkish. “I’d like you to meet my dæmon. Purify her so she may keep your waters fresh.”

As science fiction as it was, the technology the Chee had rigged Julian with reminded him of nothing so much as the old tin cans and a string method of speaking over distances. He had a headset on, like a telemarketer at a call center, and then a wire that went into the Pool. Julian hummed and clicked into the headset, and it pitched the sounds into the ultrasonic frequencies he couldn’t hear, let alone produce.

He dipped his hand into Kalysico’s open tank and dropped the four-eyed butterflyfish into the rogue Yeerk Pool. The waters were only just translucent enough for him to make out her shape. It must be so strange for her in there. So strange, and so beautifully close to Illim in the place where Yeerks were meant to live. She would get his slime all over her scales as part of the purification for guests to the Pool, and she wouldn’t mind a bit. If he were trained in the four-eye trance, he’d slip into it now, so he could feel what it was like. Maybe he would have to learn that soon.

“And a special hello to the grubs of the Mielan spawning,” Julian went on in Yeerkish. He’d practiced this with Illim, but he was still nervous. It was one thing to speak in a non-native language. It was another to use a language he needed special technology to be able to speak at all. “I come to your shore bearing a gift, as thanks for your hospitality. Illim and I have a story for you. We hope you like it. We hope you learn something from it. The reason my dæmon is in the Pool and you can hear my voice right now is that it’s a story it takes two to tell.”

Kaly’s little face surfaced from the Pool. “The kids keep poking me!” she complained. “They want to know if they can try infesting us, too. Brats! After I did the honors as a guest and everything!”

“Stick with Illim,” Julian said. “He’ll keep them off your back. And anyway, they don’t know any better. We hosts are still just big shiny toys to them. That’s why we’re doing this.”

“Well, get going,” Kaly said. “Your audience is getting impatient.” And she sank back into the dark waters.


3.

The nurse discarded the syringe and the gloves, then came back to Inez’s bedside. “There, Mrs. Tidwell. That should make you more comfortable. Is there anything else you need?”

Inez shook her head. With a businesslike flick of her mouse dæmon’s tail, the nurse left us alone.

Now that the nurse was gone, I switched back to Spanish, Inez’s first language. “Anything I can do for you?”

On his perch next to the murmuring monitors around Inez’s head, Belkatry rearranged his long wings and spoke, since talking was harder for Inez just now. “Just hold her hand.”

I held her hand, drinking in a long look of Katry as I did. Inez looked less and less like herself every day, with her hair falling out and her skin going sunken and waxy on her frame. But Katry was as magnificent as ever, an Andean condor with wings longer than I was tall. The only sign of the cancer in Katry was the deep sadness in his eyes. “That’s it? Just hold your hand?” I joked weakly. “That one’s easy. You should have asked for something bigger. A trip to Spain. We never got to do that.”

Katry opened his beak and again he spoke. No, recited. It was a poem from Spain, the country of my mother. I knew it well.

“Córdoba, distant and alone.

Black horse, great moon,

and olives in my saddlebag.

Although I know the roads

I will never make it to Córdoba.”

Tears welled up, hot and itching in my swollen eyes. The poet, Federico García Lorca, had written the poem just before his death, as if he had some premonition he would be killed. From her tank, Kalysico said, “Don’t say that poem. Do you know why it was written?”

“Of course I do,” Katry said. “Lorca is your favorite.”

“I’ll take you to Córdoba,” I swore. “When you’re well, Inez. I promise. You’ll make it to Córdoba.”


1.

In Galard, the word that indicates future tense changes depending on whether the event will happen because it was planned, because it is the natural consequence of something that happened before, or because the speaker guesses or hopes it will happen.

In Andalite sign language, the small outer fingers are the most important for tone. Quick flicks of the outer fingers imply something fleeting or uncertain. Stiff, angular outer fingers imply something entrenched, resistant to change.

In Ssstram, different emotions are associated with different body parts, so if you want to say that you’re sad, you have to say that blood flows to your outer cartilage – even if the speaker doesn’t have blood or cartilage.

I have always loved languages, but when I was a young Yeerk, I could only speak one.

Back then, I was a poolie studying languages – an important function in the Empire, which couldn’t infiltrate societies and adapt their technologies without speaking their tongues. I was brilliant at the subject. But still I went to my creche-teacher and complained, feel-fields sizzling with frustration, “I know all about the languages of our enemies and allies, but I’ve never actually seen or heard or felt any of them! Our approximations of these languages into sonar are just… approximations!”

“Be patient,” my creche-teacher said. “You’re a talented young Yeerk. You’ll be assigned a host, and then you’ll really get to experience it all.”

“Oh,” I said. I had known that hosts were the due of any Yeerk, though the Andalites tried to deny the Empire that right. But I hadn’t really understood what hosts were for. Now I did. With infestation, I could speak any language in the galaxy.

But I couldn’t bear to wait for a host to start learning more than the Pool intranet could teach me. I heard that the most knowledgeable person in the Hett Simplat Pool was named Eslin 825, and knew more about the Yeerk homeworld than anyone.

“I’m training to be a linguist and translator,” I told Eslin. “And I can’t help but wonder if Yeerkish has lost anything since the Andalites exiled us from the homeworld. Do you know of any lost words?”

“Lost words?” Eslin said, electric fields sparking. “Why, little one, there are entire lost languages.”

And so it turned out that the language I had known as Yeerkish was only one of hundreds of sonar-languages spoken in the Pools of home. Eslin 825 only knew snippets of others, but they tantalized me. “One day,” I told Eslin, “when we defeat the Andalites and break the blockade on the homeworld, I’ll travel to all of the Pools, the way no Yeerk has been able to do before, and learn all of the languages of our home.”


4.

I ate mechanically from the tray of food my coworker Calvin had brought me. He was the only one still coming around with meals, one week after the funeral. I took a moment to register that the food was patatas bravas, one of my favorites. The fork dropped from my hand. I started to cry.

“Hey,” Calvin said, across the table. Up in the clear pipe along the wall, his lionfish dæmon, Severin, swam over to flip her fins against Kalysico’s. “You want to talk about it?”

“It’s not – I just – this food is so good, and Inez taught me how to cook, and when people stop coming around with food how will I…”

Calvin reached across the table and grasped my wrists. “Listen, Julian. You’re not alone. You’re going to have people coming around to help you for as long as you need.” I stared through the gray fog into Calvin’s green eyes. “Come with me to a meeting of the Sharing, and you’ll never have to be alone like this again.”


2.

One of the lesser-known words Eslin 825 taught me was javeshed, the word for a Yeerk who took a Gedd host and ventured to a brave destiny outside the Pool. Back on the homeworld, Eslin explained, hosts were even more scarce than they were now, and the Yeerks who had them were revered for their prowess.

My siblings of the Iniss spawning did not revere me as javeshed when I was finally assigned a host. They were bitter and jealous and tried to sabotage the host assignment at every turn. But I caught my spawn-sibling Iniss 405 trying to hack into my intranet profile and reported it to my Sub-Visser, and the infestation went ahead as planned.

Ysarisss was from the new voluntary host species the Empire had found, the Taxxons. It was my duty to learn about the Taxxons’ language and write a detailed grammar and lexicon for the Empire’s records. This I had been more than ready to do. What I had not been ready for, despite debriefing and training beforehand, was the wild bonfire of Ysarisss’s hunger. It burned away thought and intention. It ate away at even the delights of smell and sight and the cleverness of a hundred legs. Even when I ate what I knew was enough meat to keep Ysarisss going for a full day, it gnawed away, insidious as ever. It was only then that I understood the ferocity of the Taxxons’ constant enemy within themselves. I could control it better than Ysarisss, but that was like saying that a Yeerk was better equipped to fight an Andalite in a Gedd host than in its natural state – true in principle, but only a little different in practice.

What surprised me the most about Ysarisss was that xe thought xe was getting the better of me, not the other way around. From xyr point of view, xe and xyr Controller brethren had more control over the Hunger (the Taxxons always put that weight to it in their language, a certain emphasis) than any other Taxxon. It didn’t just give xyr peace of mind, it gave xyr an edge. Like most Taxxons, Ysarisss was jealous and competitive when it came to xyr Hive. Xyr Living Hive would surely be proud of xyr for giving them such a decisive advantage against other Hives. It was so pathetic and petty that I couldn’t help but feel strangely fond of this bloodthirsty creature who thought xyr Hive was greater than the Yeerk Emperor.

Taxxons always spoke that way about their Hives, as if they were alive. I was under strict orders from my Sub-Visser never to visit a Hive, though I would have dearly loved to. Still, I managed to learn a lot about Ysarisss’s language.

I learned, for one, that there was no one Taxxon language, just as I had learned from Eslin that there was no one Yeerkish language. Each Hive had its own dialect, though Ysarisss had no trouble understanding those of Hives near xyrs.

I learned that Ysarisss’s language applied Taxxon genders to every noun, even to inanimate objects that couldn’t possibly be imagined to have a gender of any kind. The word for “eye” was worker gender; the word for “food” was queen gender.

«But there are two genders you use for nouns that you never use for Taxxons,» I complained to Ysarisss.

«The soldier and nurse genders were lost in the Endless Famine,» Ysarisss said. I dug through Ysarisss’s memories to clarify this strange pronouncement, but as always, the legends xe’d heard about the Endless Famine, the calamity that supposedly brought on the curse of the Hunger, were frustratingly vague.

I produced a detailed reference file of my findings about Ysarisss’s language. Their Sub-Visser commented, “Useful and precise. However, it needed more advice on how to render scientific and engineering concepts into their language. Also, nobody cares about their abhorrent superstitions and incomprehensible gender system. Next time I’ll assign you to a post where you have fewer opportunities for abstract tangents and distraction.”

My electric fields thundered darkly. I was a loyal and dedicated servant of Empire, I felt. Nevertheless, the analysis of the role of gender in Taxxon language had been my favorite part to write.


5.

“And you understand that your Yeerk will need to control your body to carry out their work assignments,” said Mai, the woman with the crab dæmon initiating me into the Sharing.

“I get that,” I said. “It sounds perfect, actually.”

Mai smiled. “I know, right? I love just imagining myself on a date with Tom Cruise while Methit sits through those boring meetings. All right. Well, sounds like you’re all set. I’ve got just the Yeerk for you, Julian. This one is named Iniss 799 and loves languages. Just like you, right? You and Iniss 799 are going to work for me, translating for the Sharing.” She rested her hands gently on my shoulders. “Close your eyes. Put your hand in your dæmon’s tank, if it’ll help you relax.”

I did. Kaly swam between my fingers, slippery-smooth. Mai held something cool and wet to my ear. It filled my ear canal to the point of pain, which then receded. Dull disorientation washed over me. The only thing I could really connect to was the feel of Kaly’s scales against my fingertips.

«Oh,» said a voice in my head, floating around my head in wonder, like a balloon set free. «You speak two languages. That’s wonderful.»

«Three, actually,» I thought vaguely. «I studied Russian.»

«I’ve studied six languages,» the voice – Iniss – said. «But I only speak one the way you do. In your earliest memories, in your dreams. Knowing a language that way is different. I’ve never encountered anyone who had two.» My eyes started roving around the room without any input from me. That would be Iniss taking control, as I had been told. Fine. Let him. I had already lost control of my life the day Inez died.

«Can you read them from my mind?» I wondered. «Do you speak English and Spanish now?»

«Yes,» said Iniss. «But that doesn’t mean I really understand them. That will come later.» My mouth moved, and he spoke. “Success, Sub-Visser. I’m ready to report to my office and begin.”

«Whoa!» I said. «I didn’t know you were gonna just – give me a little warning before you do that, okay?»

«Yes, of course,» Iniss said, doing something in the back of my brain that made my body unclench. «Sorry about that. I’ll take things more slowly.»

“Excellent,” said Mai. She opened what I had assumed was a closet door, but when Iniss stood up (slowly, so I knew what he was doing), hauled Kalysico’s tank on his back, and approached, it had the airflow of a long tunnel. Iniss walked down a long set of stairs.

«Why do I hear screaming?» I said.

I felt Iniss rummage through my brain, like my mother through boxes at a yard sale, pulling up the raw feeling of a scream in my throat. «He doesn’t know what screaming is,» Kaly said.

«No, I didn’t,» Iniss said. In my mind, I could sense a vague unease in him. «You’re my first human host. I don’t know why there’s screaming down there.»

The stairs opened out into a vast underground space. The Yeerk Pool. Mai had mentioned it. The home of the Yeerks. What she hadn’t mentioned were the cages. Some of them had aliens that would have made me piss myself just at the sight of them if Iniss hadn’t clamped down on my brain and prevented it. But most of them had humans, clutching themselves and crying.

The loudest screaming came from my friend and coworker, Calvin Pardue, who had helped me throughout Inez’s fight with pancreatic cancer and for weeks after the funeral. He was being dragged by bladed monsters down a pier over the Yeerk Pool. Calvin screamed Severin’s name and flung himself at the monster holding the tank for his dæmon. But it made no difference. The monsters forced his head into the muddy brown Pool. When he surfaced, he was calm, and the monster let him go.

«Calvin didn’t want the Yeerk back in his head,» I said numbly. «Why did they make him take the Yeerk back?»

«Your friend Calvin isn’t like you,» Iniss said. «Not all hosts adjust so easily to their new role in the Empire. I’ve heard some hosts take more time than others to settle in with their Yeerk. All he needs is some time and patience, and he’ll get along with all the other Controllers just fine.»

Horror and nausea clawed their way up my throat. «Did you force him to do this? Put a Yeerk in his head when he didn’t want it? How long have you been doing that to him?» I thought of the cages. «To them

Iniss turned away from the Pool, toward a set of offices. I wanted to look back over my shoulder at the cages, but Iniss would not let me. My body was entirely out of my control now, and it wasn’t a relief anymore, but a nightmare. «To him? Three weeks.» There was a long pause, and a slight twitch of my eyes toward the cages. «But I’m sure he’ll get used to it soon.»

«And we didn’t even notice,» I said to Kaly. It had been Calvin who had covered for me when I’d missed staff meetings because of Inez’s cancer. But it hadn’t been Calvin who had kept bringing me food long after all the other mourners had moved on from the funeral. It had been an alien who had stolen Calvin’s body and mind and wanted mine to be stolen too.

«Oh, Julian,» Kalysico whispered. «We’ve made a terrible mistake.»

«No! NO!» I screamed. «Let me go! I take it back! I don’t want to do this! You’re a slaver! You’re a monster!» I struggled, focusing all of my thoughts on stopping in my tracks, but my feet didn’t so much as slow.

«I need to write some pamphlets in Spanish for the Sharing,» Iniss said, opening the door of an office marked Iniss 799.

«So you can do this to people who speak Spanish,» I said, horrified. «No! You can’t use me like that! I won’t let you!»

Iniss sat down and booted a futuristic computer. He opened up a text editor, more smoothly and swiftly than I had ever worked a computer with my own hands. He opened up a new document.

Bienvenidos al Sharing

donde compartimos todo.


Welcome to the Sharing, I thought, horrified. Where we share everything.


7.

I swam up to Eslin 825 and said, “Did you know that there’s always screaming down here?”

“What?” said Eslin.

I couldn’t blame Eslin for the confusion. There was no word for “screaming” in Yeerkish; I had used the word for the electric sting that comes from Yeerks in distress. “If you infest a host with the right sense of hearing,” I said, “and you’re in the underground space where the Yeerk Pool is – there’s always screaming. A sound the humans and Hork-Bajir make to show they’re suffering.”

Eslin was silent a moment. “Yes. I knew that.”

“No one ever told me,” I said. “How are we supposed to react?”

“You aren’t supposed to react,” Eslin said. “But some do anyway.”

“My first host, Ysarisss, knew that there were other Hives who refused to submit to the Empire. Xe knew we made them surrender to us as hosts. Xe thought it was what they deserved.” I struggled to put my warring emotions into words. I was on the verge of something too new and terrifying to talk about. “My new host. Julian. There was another teacher at his school who was kind to him when his mate died. When he learned that that man was an involuntary host – he became involuntary. He said he didn’t want to be part of the Empire, didn’t want me in his head, if I would allow that to happen to his friend. My Sub-Visser blames me for losing him as a voluntary, but… I don’t know what I could have done, Eslin. He was so upset that his friend was forced to become a Controller. I don’t think anything I could have said or done would have changed his mind.”

“I think you’re right,” Eslin said. “Imagine someone took me from the Pool and kept me in a tiny pool all by myself. You would want nothing to do with that person, would you?”

“But – that’s – that’s horrible! Why would anyone do such a thing?”

“You do it to your host,” Eslin said, their fields humming softly but relentlessly. “Under your control, he can’t speak to his friends. He can’t hold the people he loves. He might as well be in a container by himself, with walls that let the sensations in the water in but let nothing out, watching the world pass by but unable to reach toward it in any way.”

I tried to think about what Eslin was saying, but it was trying to squeeze myself into a shape that even a Yeerk body couldn’t quite fold into. “Is that really what I’m doing?”

Maybe I sounded as lost as I felt, because Eslin softened. “Let me tell you a story, Iniss 799. Do you remember that language I taught you? The other Yeerkish one I know enough to be able to speak in?” When my fields flickered yes, Eslin went on, “I know a story in that language. I’ll tell it slowly, so you understand.

“In a Pool named after a Sage renowned for knowing the name of every salt that made water good for Yeerks, there was a javeshed. Forgive me, I do not know the word for javeshed in this language, so I will use ours. The javeshed had a host, a Gedd named Hrerr. One day, when the javeshed was feeding, Hrerr swam over to an elder of the Pool named Illim, and spoke. ‘Illim, you must not allow the javeshed to join with my mind again.’

‘Why do you ask this?’ Illim said.

‘Because they drive my body forward until I am tired and weak, and they take from my mind what I do not wish to give.’

‘In our Pool, this is a very grave offense,’ Illim said, ‘I will speak to the javeshed.’ So Illim swam to the javeshed and said, ‘Hrerr told me that you drive them beyond endurance, and you steal from their mind what they will not give freely. Is this true?’

‘I have done this because I am javeshed, and it is my duty to use my Gedd to venture forth and find what we need beyond the Pool. How can I do this if the Gedd will not allow me to use their mind and body fully? I used Hrerr as a tool to serve our interests, as I must.’

Illim said, ‘Our last javeshed found the Sulp Niar Pool within fifty rane, and brought many of our children there, and many of their children here, to the benefit of all. You have been javeshed with Hrerr for sixty rane, and you have found nothing, not even a sign of good water. If Hrerr is a tool, you have not used them well. But you use them poorly because they are not a tool at all. How well do you know our law?’

‘I was taught the law as a child, and I learned it well,’ the javeshed replied.

‘I do not think you know the law well at all, for our law tells us that a Gedd is a host, and when a guest comes calling, they must give honor to the host who welcomes them in, just as a guest to a Pool must give honor to the elders of that Pool. You will be javeshed no longer, and instead stay in the Pool and study our law.’ For this, Illim’s name is remembered, and the javeshed’s name is forgotten, so that their spawn-siblings might live on without the shame of sharing that name.”

I had never heard anything remotely like this before. “Where did you – how can – Eslin, you can’t say things like that!”

“I can,” Eslin said calmly. “No one around us understood a word I just said.”

“Is that true?” I said, switching to the language of Eslin’s story. “Did Yeerks at home really work with the Gedds instead of just taking hosts?”

“I was young when I left the homeworld,” Eslin said. “And of course the Andalite blockades prevented the Sulp Niar Pool from communicating with other Pools for quite some time. But I was in training by my creche-teacher to succeed them as the Pool’s keeper of the law. I had begun to memorize the Pool’s lore. And after we left, I had an old Gedd host, for a little while, who knew many more stories than I ever did. I learned most of what I know from them. I believe it is true. And I am not the only one who believes.”

“Can I – can I meet them?” I said. “I have so many questions.”

“I can give you credentials for our hidden message wells,” Eslin 825 said. “But you must be careful. These ideas are forbidden, as you know. You have to stay safe. When we’re communicating with the Peace Movement in the message wells, you must call me by my alias, Firtips. And you must choose an alias for yourself.”

“I won’t give you away,” I said. “You can count on me. And as for my alias? That’s easy. You can call me Illim.”


6.

I didn’t go to the comfortable underground club Mai had promised me. Instead I was dragged, weeping, into a cage. The monster holding Kalysico’s tank tossed it on the floor of the cage, sloshing her around. I curled around the tank in the fetal position. The choking fear in my throat told me someone would take her away, and then I would truly be the most alone it was possible to be.

A tiny whisper near my ear said, “Hey. Do you want a hug? A friendly touch? A voice in your ear?”

“Voice,” I wheezed. “Please, keep talking.”

“Welcome to Cage Four, Tef-Rane, late afternoon shift,” the little voice said. “Our Yeerks have the same feeding time, so you’ll be seeing a lot of us. We look out for each other here in the cages. Anytime you need someone to talk to, or just someone to hold onto, we’re here for you. We pass on news, too. Things you might want to know. Do you have any questions we can answer for you?”

“How.” I choked, and Kaly had to take over. She said, “How many voluntary hosts are there?”

The voice went cold. “Most aren’t. I’d say about a quarter of human hosts don’t go to the cages.” I opened my eyes. I realized the little voice came from a burying beetle dæmon near my head. I sat up. An old woman waved at me. “That’s Jeannie,” the beetle dæmon said. “I’m Naechelm. Jeannie has to work the phones at the Sharing all day when she’s infested, so she prefers to rest her voice in the cages.”

I looked around the cage. Three of the people were huddled together in a kind of cuddle pile, crying into each other’s shirts, utterly un-self-conscious in their misery. An androgynous young person lay face down, their condor dæmon on their back. Just like Belkatry, I thought, breath catching.

No, Kaly said. That’s a California condor, not an Andean condor. Still, it pulled at my heart.

“She hasn’t chosen a name yet,” the condor dæmon said. “I’m Terciel.”

“A lot of us have cage-names,” Naechelm said. “Everyone in our lives calls our Yeerks by our given names, so we like to have different names, ones that have nothing to do with what our Yeerks do in the outside world.”

I was at a loss. I’d already lost my body and my mind to Iniss 799. I didn’t want to lose my name too. Finally, I flipped open the top of Kaly’s tank and gestured for Naechelm to come up to the edge. Kaly surfaced and said to the beetle dæmon in a tiny voice, “Isn’t there anyone doing something to stop them?”

I hunched over the tank to hear Naechelm’s reply. “Yes. There’s another kind of alien the Yeerks hate. They’re called Andalites. And now there’s an Andalite resistance on Earth.”

“Can we do anything to help them?” Kaly said.

“No,” Naechelm said. “The moment our Yeerks are back in our heads, they’ll have access to the memories of everything we said in here. If we talk about working with the Andalite bandits, they’ll notice.”

“You can cheer,” Terciel said. “When they come down here to attack the Pool. I don’t know if it helps at all, but…” He shrugged his great wings. “I like to think it does.”


8.


Visser Three’s Special Favorites


#newcomers

Having a moral crisis about the Yeerk Empire and your role in it? We’ve been there. Introduce yourself, ask us questions, and we’ll do our best to guide you to some answers.


[U] AkdorsWorstNightmare

One of my creche-children said they couldn’t wait to become friends with a Gedd. I don’t know what kind of monster reported them to the Visserarchy for it, but I haven’t seen them in a rane. Where did they go? Why would anyone punish a child for saying that? They didn’t know any better. They’re from the Mielan spawning – they’re so young!


[T] Green Sky

Almost certainly transferred to one of the Pools in orbit. Those Pools are older, smaller. They have their crustiest old creche-teachers up there. Your charge will be kept in stagnant waters. [Emoji of two Yeerks twining palps. Indicates sympathy.]


[U] AkdorsWorstNightmare

Oh, dapsen, two of my creche-children are coming to talk to me. I’ll log back on later.


[H] Illim

Hi. I’m new. I’m Illim, sponsored by @Firtips. I just got assigned to my first human host. My host before him was a Taxxon voluntary. He was a voluntary too, but… [Emoji of a Yeerk swimming in circles. Indicates confusion.] He doesn’t want me in his head anymore. I’m trying to understand why that is.


[U] Helen

Yeah. I get that. Infesting an involuntary host is a wake-up call for a lot of us. Including me.


[H] Illim

Do our host species really have feelings? The way we do? Even without feel-fields?


[U] Helen

You’re the one who’s been inside your host’s head. What do you think?


[H] Illim

His mate just died and his whole body is an acid burn of mourning for her. They intended to have children but she became ill before they could.


[U] Helen

[Emoji of a Yeerk going palp-to-palp with a Gedd. Indicates solidarity with hosts.] Oh. That is terribly sad. To have that chance taken from you.


[H] Illim

He thought having a Yeerk in his head would help with the pain. But he learned we take involuntary hosts, and he turned on me in an instant. He was so horrified. Their suffering became his own.


[U] Helen

He showed empathy for other humans who were suffering. And now you feel empathy for him.


[H] Illim

I do. And it’s terrible. Because if I accept how much he’s suffering because of me, then I have to accept how much suffering we’ve all caused in our involuntary hosts, and that’s just… too much! [Emoji of a Yeerk drying out on dry land. Implies a painful loss of the will to live.] How can you in the Peace Movement bear it?!


[T] Green Sky

We can’t. We’re crushed under the burden every day. And yet it’s still not nearly as much as what they go through. Never forget that.


9.

Iniss walked my body home from the Yeerk Pool yet again, but it didn’t matter because Kalysico and I had given up on our bodies.

In the space of our mind, we could drift, far away from anything Iniss was doing. Taking off shoes, hanging up the car keys, whatever it was. We barely even knew anymore. «What about our honeymoon in Peru?» Kaly said, and we were with Inez, who laughed and climbed around as easily as a goat while I slung back coca tea from a thermos to hold off the altitude sickness. Inez, a princess among her family and her neighbors with glorious Belkatry, who had settled as the national bird of the country he came from. Dearest Katry, who told Kalysico how much he wished he could soar over the ancient art of Cuzco, and see the pattern of it all from the air, if only it didn’t mean leaving Inez behind.

When I came back to myself, I realized that Iniss had picked up the phone. In his other hand he had a card from my rolodex, the number of the travel agent Inez and I had used to book our trips to Cuzco. For a terrifying moment I wondered if the Yeerks were going to use me to recruit Peruvians as their slaves now. But no, the Pool under Santa Barbara was the only Pool on Earth. I had heard that in the cages. So they wouldn’t send me too far away. But then why would Iniss want to go somewhere far away, when he needed to feed in the Yeerk Pool every three days?

«It’s the only way you can get away from them,» Iniss said. «Go somewhere far away and never, ever come back to the US. Which would you prefer? Peru or Spain?»

«What?» I said.

«You don’t want to be a host,» Iniss said. «But even if I let you go, they’ll just put a different Yeerk in your head. They’ll never let you go. Not unless you travel somewhere beyond their reach and don’t come back. So do you want to go to Peru or Spain?»

«You want to let me go? But you’ll starve!»

Iniss spoke casually, as if he were saying nothing important at all, but I could sense how frantic he was. «Just kill me quickly when we get to the airport. But keep me with you until you get there. So I know you made it to the plane safely.»

«What – you just – you’re lying!»

«You’re right. Of course. I’m being selfish. Do it now. But please, book that flight and get out before the Vissers know I’m dead.» And with that, he squeezed his way out of my ear.

Iniss would have dropped to the floor if Kaly’s tank hadn’t still been open beside me, from when Iniss had opened it to send Kaly into the pipes installed around the house. The water splashed up as the Yeerk fell into it. I recoiled so hard I crashed to the ground. The sight of the big slimy slug inside a tank meant for my dæmon was abhorrent. I dragged myself over to the wall and reached up to the clear pipe where Kaly swam back and forth, reveling in her freedom.

“What do you think, Kaly?” I said numbly. “Peru or Spain?”

Juli, Kaly thought. Don’t you understand what this means? This is a Yeerk who’s different from the others. He doesn’t want to enslave us. He wants us to be free.

I looked at the Yeerk inside the tank. “Why?” I whispered.

I don’t know, Kaly said. But he’s ready to die so we can be free. She fluttered her fins, a wave of silver light passing over her scales. There are so many people out there who are still slaves to the Yeerks. Like Calvin Pardue. What if the Yeerk lived instead and did something to help everyone be free?

“Do you think he could really do that?”

Don’t you want to give him a chance?

I closed my eyes and rolled up my sleeve. Then I plunged my arm into Kaly’s tank and pulled the Yeerk out. I pressed him to my ear. He actually tried to squirm away, at first, back into my hand. But I covered my ear with my hand, holding Iniss there until he finally went in.

The separation from my body only lasted a minute, this time. I found myself shaking the water and slime off my hand, just because I wanted to. Kaly said, You changed your mind. You decided I shouldn’t be your slave. Do you think you could get other Yeerks to change their minds?

«I don’t know. I don’t know! I’ve never tried anything like this before! I was always a good and loyal Yeerk and I…» A pause. «Oh, dapsen, Julian. You have so much hope in you. I can feel it. I have to try. But if this goes wrong, you’re taking that trip to Spain. Or Peru. I’ll make you do it if I have to.»

«You can’t make me, Iniss. Once I’m there and you’re dead, I can fly back if I want to. That’s what it means for me not to be your slave. You have to let me make my own choice.»

After a silent moment of me and Kaly just appreciating the chance to move around on our own, he said, «Please. Call me Illim. It’s like…» He pulled up the memory of Jeannie and Cage Four. «Cage-names. The hosts in the cages want to have a name untouched by the Empire. And so do I. I don’t want to be Iniss 799 anymore. For you, I want to be Illim.»


10.

I was cleaning the kitchen. It was one of the things that Julian gladly let me do with his body, now that we were negotiating these things instead of me just deciding what was best. Cleaning used to be something that he and Inez nearly always did together. They’d set aside an hour to do all the chores together, keeping each other company. Cleaning reminded him painfully of her, and when I’d first infested him, his house had been shamefully dirty.

I genuinely enjoyed cleaning Julian’s home. For Yeerks, keeping the Pool clean is the most important and most sacred of duties. Dirty water and polluted mud means death for every Yeerk in the Pool; if you release something unclean in the Pool, there is no place you can go to escape its taint. It was the moral thing to do, and the way humans did it was so strange and fun. They added smells of lemon and lavender to their cleaning products, just because they could. The duster ended in a spray of pink feathers that tickled against human skin. The sponge squished satisfyingly when I squeezed the water out of it.

Julian was having fun. Like he used to do with Inez when they did chores together. But his heart squeezed painfully when I dusted the bookshelf with my delightful pink feathers on a stick.

«What is it?» I said. Julian prefers me to have a dialogue with him, instead of just pulling what he thinks out of his mind.

«Inez and I loved to sit here in the living room and read together. I would read her favorite Latin American authors, and she would read my favorite Spanish ones. You see this book?» Julian stroked the spine with his finger. «That’s a collection of poems by José García Nieto. That was her favorite of the Spanish poets she read.»

«It still hurts you,» I said. «Just looking at this bookshelf.»

Julian didn’t have to answer. I could read the exquisitely detailed pain of loss in every part of him. There had to be something I could do. «I’ve been learning about old Yeerk customs from my sponsor in the Peace Movement,» I told him. «From back when we didn’t treat hosts the way we do now. There was something Yeerks would do as part of a tradition when they visited another Pool, or when a javeshed infested a Gedd. For them, those were the same thing – a guest paying honor to the host who took them in.»

«Like the rules of hospitality in ancient times,» Kalysico said from the pipe above. «The Greek gods would come in disguise as travelers and ask for shelter, and if you took them in, they’d give you a gift.»

A spark of curiosity lit inside Julian. «What’s the Yeerkish word for that? For what we call hospitality?»

I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been. Julian grew up completely bilingual. He studied Russian in school. He taught Spanish to children. He loved languages. And he wanted to know about mine. With our minds so closely linked, I could show him, in more detail than I had ever been able to learn languages from the Pool intranet. I pulled up a memory of Eslin 825 saying the word and passed it on to Julian. «It is much the same as the old law of hospitality. The guest is supposed to give a gift to the host. I owe you. And since Calvin doesn’t come here anymore to help you… maybe that can be my gift. Helping you mourn and move on. You’re human. You need that.»

«Yeah. Okay. Let’s try it.» But I could feel his despair that an alien could ever help him stay afloat in this vast sea of grief.

I took the book of poetry. «Maybe we can make new memories. Not to replace the old ones. But to give you something else you can also think about when you see that book.» I sat down, put the duster on the coffee table, and opened the book to a random page.

“A tu orilla he venido,” I read aloud. And stopped. To your shore I have come. «That is the best translation I can imagine,» I said, utterly amazed, «for the first line of the hymn the guest sings to the host in the Yeerk hospitality rites. “To your shore I have come. Purify me so I may keep your waters fresh.”»

«And you say that to hosts,» Julian said. «To both kinds of hosts.»

«In the end, there’s only one kind,» I said. «People who were kind enough to take you in.» And I turned my eyes back to the book and read.

“To your shore I have come. I have an autumn, a bird,

and a voice hoarse with silence. You wait for me: a river,

a passion, and a fruit. And our joining has

the flight, the current, safe, heralded.”


11.

After we had seen off all the new refugees on their trip with the Chee to the Hork-Bajir valley, Illim and I lingered in Bachu’s weirdly spotless kitchen with a cup of tea. For once, Illim was the one having a breakdown while I tried to hold it together. We’ll fix your broken roots, Illim, Kaly thought. Noorlin wants to help us fix it.

The elevator to the basement opened, and Noorlin the Andalite fluttered out in his usual red-tailed hawk form. He was headed for the door. “Wait,” I said. “Noorlin!”

Noorlin landed on the snack bar, talons skittering. «What, Illim?» he snapped. «Do you want to lecture me too?»

“No,” Illim said. “I want to thank you. What you did was incredibly brave. The new Pool and I will always be grateful.” There was more he wanted to say, but he couldn’t go on, too overwhelmed by emotion. He pressed my hand to the cool glass of Kaly’s tank to ground himself.

I added, “I’m sorry. I saw your brother – or whoever he is – got really angry at you. You don’t deserve it. I know how much good it can do to have a Yeerk in your head when you want it there, and – you didn’t do anything wrong, Noorlin.”

Noorlin’s eyes were hard and distant as yellow stones. Illim wondered in my head, not for the first time, why he took this form so much. «I appreciate what you’re saying. But nothing you say can undo that my family has turned against me.»

“I know.” I looked back at Kaly’s tank. “Can I ask you a question?”

«Why not,» Noorlin said flatly. «What else do I have to do?»

“Am I becoming Illim’s dæmon?”

Noorlin’s feathers ruffled up. I was pretty sure that meant he was surprised. «I… I guess you are. I mean, the bond is not as strong as the one between you and your dæmon. Not now. But I see no reason why it couldn’t be, one day.» He tilted his head a little. «Is that strange for you?»

“Kind of,” I said. “But not nearly as strange as maybe it should be. For a normal person.” I laughed. “Whatever that is.”

«I’m a normal person,» Illim said. «A normal Yeerk. Or I was until I met you.»

«I’m not so sure that’s true.»

Out loud, Illim said, “You’re welcome at the Aftran Plisam Pool any time you like. I’m sure they’d love to hear from you. Whatever your family thinks, you have a friend in me and Tidwell.”

«Thank you,» Noorlin said, very stiffly. When he flew toward the open window, I didn’t know where he was going, but I suspected that wherever it was, he would be all alone.


Julian took the silly headset off, then searched the surface waters of the Pool for the distinctive silhouette of Kalysico, and the Yeerk he knew would keep anyone else from coming too near her. He scooped them both out with his hands, and put them each where they belonged: Kaly in her tank, Illim in his brain.

“What did the kids think?” Kaly said.

«They still can’t believe a host can speak Yeerkish,» Illim said. «Even though in some of the epics, Gedds can.»

«What, like it’s hard?» Julian joked. «The grammar is really very simple. And what about your half of it?»

«I think they’re thinking about it,» Illim said. «You know how children are. Lessons need time to… what do you say… percolate.»

Julian’s body flooded with a surge of fondness for him. «Look at you. You really have become Illim, haven’t you? Not just for me, but for all of them.»

«What?»

«The Pool elder Illim, teaching the foolish javeshed that they have to learn the law and pay honor to hosts as a guest,» Julian said. «That’s you, teaching the Mielan grubs.»

«Oh, Julian,» Illim said, looking down at Kalysico in the tank, the shape of his soul. It occurred to Julian that for the first time, in the Aftran Plisam Pool, Illim had perceived Kaly with his own Yeerk senses, seen her as any Yeerk would see her. «I really do feel that I came to the shore of a vast ocean, when I came to you as my host. Even as close as we are, you’re so very deep I feel small next to you. Like I can never really know you, even though I could spend my whole life swimming through your waters, trying.»

«Funny,» Julian said quietly. «That’s how I felt when I met Inez.» And he got so much less time to explore her than he should have had. He hoped Illim would get more time than that. But with the war looming over them all, he could only let Illim in, and try to value every moment they had together.