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The Receptacle

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“Our name is Cassie. This body is a human girl, from planet Earth. We share it, a human and a Yeerk—”

‹Yeerk?!›

We've felt a lot together, over the last few weeks. Fear for our friends, our peoples, this planet. Grief, guilt, doubt. And other emotions too—hope for the years ahead. The chance for love, even in uncertain times. The exhilaration of change, of becoming something new.

Today, we felt pain. Rage and outrage blurred together from the mind that had come alive within us, a bitter ghost panicking for control. ‹Yeerk! Get out...get out of this body! Who...how long...I cannot morph, not anymore. You will die, you weak, pitiful creature...›

“This isn't possible.” Jake's voice. “Aftran can't travel, not this long.”

The Arn shifted his weight, his bright eyes growing distant in the darkness of the cave. “The ship was a Yeerk vessel. There will be a pool there, if the Yeerk needs to feed.”

“And will she seek out weapons to attack her own people?”

“What has she done in this body, already?” Quafijinivon challenged.

“Did the ceremony work?” Rachel asked.

“I am not sure if it was possible.”

“No,” Toby challenged, you wouldn't know anything about species that can be infested.”

“She's here,” we said. “She's—she's hurt, but she's here.”

‹What is this? Who are you, Yeerk?›

‹My name is Aftran 942.›

“And I'm Cassie.”

‹I would never have become voluntarily infested! And this...this body is not...› We could feel her reaching out, adjusting to our senses, like Aftran once had tried to fit into a human body. We waited as she grappled with sight, taking in Quafijinivon across the cave. ‹Arn?›

‹You went through the Atafalxical.

Slowly, Aldrea's memories caught up with her. Memories of fighting on the homeworld, of keeping watch with Dak, and at last agreeing to have those very memories harvested. ‹So I am dead. Dead, and drawn into the body of a voluntary Controller.›

“A renegade with the morphing power. Much like you yourself. We work for peace, together.”

She dismissed that, looking instead around the cave. ‹And who is Dak? The Arn? Perhaps the Andalite? Or the female Hork-Bajir?›

“That is your great-granddaughter. Toby Hamee.”

We must have been speaking aloud, ignoring our friends and the nervous Arn as we struggled to incorporate Aldrea, because Toby responded. “Great-grandmother?” she asked, swiveling her head. “Are you there?”

Slowly, Aldrea opened herself to our ears—the ears Aftran used to come and go—and began to parse the unfamiliar language, the exotic sounds coming from Toby's mouth.

“She can hear you,” we answered. “She might not be ready to speak, yet.”

“All right. Well, Great-grandmother, this is the planet Earth; I was born here, part of a free colony. My father, your grandson, escaped the Yeerks, and is fighting back.”

‹My grandson. Seerow's son?›

‹Seerow?› Aftran asked.

‹Named for my father,› Aldrea retorted, ‹Seerow the Fool.›

‹Seerow the Wise,› Aftran responded.

‹Even you revere him! Seer...aha. Ask Toby if she's different.›

We repeated the question, and Aldrea could hear the answer herself. Like her great-grandfather, Toby was a seer. A leader of free people.

We felt Aldrea's grief at her lost family; her Andalite kindred, long dead, Seerow Hamee, enslaved to the Yeerks, and Dak, his ixcila shattered in a past attack. And we felt her pride in her new family, in Toby, in Jara and Ket. And beyond that, resentment. There was her descendant, as bold and as visionary as Dak himself. A Hork-Bajir, like Aldrea had chosen to be.

And even with Toby there, her ixcila had lighted on us. A voluntary Controller. She could not remember being aware, of choosing us. But if it was possible to regret a choice you weren't conscious of having made, Aldrea's fuming was exactly that.

Quafijinivon explained his plan; we would fly to the Hork-Bajir homeworld, and while he engineered new Hork-Bajir from the DNA of Toby and the others, Aldrea would find the weapons cache that she had hid decades before. That her memory-self had yet to hide.

‹I am not sure where I would hide them,› she admitted. ‹But it is of no use. We will not be going.›

‹That is a quick way to spend your new lease on life,› said Aftran.

‹What life? Without Dak, without my people? Besides, it's worthless, if you will merely turn against us.›

‹What?›

“Are you all right, Cassie?” said Rachel.

“I'm fine,” we said. “They're...sorting things out.”

From Aldrea, there was only disbelief. How could, would, a Yeerk go along with the plan? A plan that would surely lead to many Yeerk dead?

‹I work for peace,› said Aftran. ‹And for this, I was nearly executed by my own people. In Cassie's body, I have—been an accomplice to many acts of violence, against them. I need to stay free, allied with the Earth resistance.›

We waited as she absorbed more of our memories—of acquiring the morphing power, hesitating in battle. She looked around, taking in the size of the Earth regime. ‹A planet of billions, and these human children are its defense?›

“An Andalite prince gave us the morphing power,” I said. “He was not—afraid of your father's legacy.”

‹So. You are willing to go to the Hork-Bajir homeworld, to fight Yeerks there?›

‹To arm the Hork-Bajir,› Aftran replied. ‹To finish the work you began.›

‹The Arn claim that they create, rather than destroy. But they create tools.›

“The Hork-Bajir were more than tools, to you.”

‹Is Toby willing?›

“Toby?” we asked. “Aldrea wants to know if you're committed to this plan.”

She hesitated. “I think so, yes.”

‹Then I will go.›

“Okay,” we said. “Sounds like we're in.”

“Very well,” said the Arn. “If your fellow morphers can make plans to impersonate you, we can depart tomorrow.”

“Whoa, hold on,” said Jake. “If Cassie goes, we're all going.”

We looked at Jake, who was ignoring us, turning to talk to Quafijinivon. We felt sorry for him, a little. He'd committed to this plan, assuming—as we all did—it would be Toby that Aldrea gravitated to, or maybe even Rachel. But now that it was us on the line...

He wouldn't back down, of course, we'd never have let him. Maybe before Aftran, he would have been more insistent, more protective of Cassie alone. But Aftran's arrival had brought a wedge between us—Jake and me, I mean.

‹He is your leader? This Jake?› Aldrea, incredulous.

‹Ax calls him “Prince,”› I explained. Already, I was able to share my thoughts with her in that same, deep way Aftran and I spoke, rather than muttering under my breath.

‹I am not an aristh. I do not need to abide by rank.›

‹You do not call yourself an Andalite at all, do you?› Aftran wondered.

‹I have little choice now, Controller.›

“It will be a tight fit, aboard the Yeerk ship,” Quafijinivon was saying. His arms were spread wide; maybe that was Arn body language for be reasonable. Hard to tell, among that many limbs.

“It's a tight fit up there in Cassie's head already,” said Jake. “You're going to be wanting some firepower.”

‹What was his plan B?› Aftran tossed out.

“Very well, then. If you are able to cover for yourselves, here.”

“The Chee will help, I think,” said Marco.

‹Chee?› asked Aldrea.

‹Androids who can impersonate the humans. More effective than morphing technology,› Aftran explained. ‹But unable to give military assistance.›

‹I see.›

Quafijinivon didn't seem to care; he was already busy talking with Toby. Somehow, I felt relieved. The Chee were immensely valuable allies. They carried with them their legacy of the creators, the Pemalites—a legacy they had channeled into the dogs of Earth. Yet, for whatever reason, I didn't mind the fact that the Arn would avoid them.

‹You have seen what the Arn can do with genetic technology,› said Aldrea. ‹They are too much a risk to learn these secrets.›

‹And this plan isn't a risk?› I blurted, just as Aftran added ‹And you Andalites aren't?›

‹I am no Andalite,› Aldrea stiffly closed off.

The Arn gathered DNA samples from the free Hork-Bajir, before boarding the ship. So did we. Most of us hadn't acquired the Hork-Bajir morph before, so I touched Jara Hamee and focused on absorbing his form.

I'd felt reluctant to acquire sentient individuals, when we didn't have to. And for all their limited vocabulary, the Hork-Bajir were certainly sentient. But our morphs were little, I told myself, a temporary disguise compared to the Arn's work. Aftran had no specific compunctions; the technology was even more alien to her than to me.

Aldrea was more emotional, and it wasn't until we'd pulled away that we realized it was the closest she'd get to touching Dak Hamee again. Even with her at the edge of my mind, I couldn't really imagine what it would be like to awake after years of senselessness, never again to hold Jake's hand.

‹It's not the same for you, is it? You're still right there, where he can see you. But he's afraid, with the Yeerk in your head.› Aldrea. Was it harder to tell them apart?

‹That's not it,› I protested. ‹We—we don't need to be physical, to show we love each other. He knows.›

‹But can he trust you?›

‹As another soldier? Completely, and Aftran too.›

‹And beyond that?›

‹The war comes first.›

I thought I felt a flash of emotion from her, something different. Pride, maybe? Followed by that lingering disappointment that, of all the sentient individuals, it had to be us.

“Great digs,” Marco said, spreading his arms wide aboard the Yeerk craft. “Spacious. I dig it.”

“I regret the inconvenience this causes you.” Aftran, speaking for us, indicating the meager amounts of sludge still intact in the disproportionately-large pool.

“Hey, it's cool. You guys have the hard job, right?”

‹I believe this is an instantiation of the human proverb, 'two's company and three is a crowd,'› Ax volunteered.

“You've got that right, Ax-man.”

‹I found this in a book of human aphorisms. It then suggested that human students might wonder, 'then what are four and five?' To which they responded, 'nine.' Is this an example of human humor? Does being crowded into close quarters decrease your ability to do basic arithmetic?›

Marco rolled his eyes. “Tobias, man, you've got to get him some better literature.”

‹Uh-huh,› Tobias said. ‹Any suggestions? What've you been reading these days?›

“Not the history textbooks,” Marco shuddered. “I really hope Erek can plagiarize a solid paper for me.”

“Can't be too solid, we don't need any more people suspecting us,” Rachel retorted.

‹Children,› Aldrea said, quietly.

‹This is all we have,› I said back.

Earth's last hope. And for a few days, Earth wouldn't even have us to defend it.

It took us three days to reach the Hork-Bajir planet. It wasn't comfortable for anyone, I don't think—Marco made cracks about how even the Chee would have an easier time sleeping on the deck than he would. ‹Where did the hosts rest?› Aldrea asked. Quafijinivon didn't know. As for Tobias, he found the pellets of space nutrients as tasteless as the rest of us; maybe he had to keep doing double-takes and remembering he was not being pitied or getting special treatment; none of us could get our own food, either. We were all in the same boat. Ship. Whatever.

It was the second day when Aftran left to feed, crawling back into the small puddle of sludge. It was strange. Strange that I, Cassie, was without her somewhere other than the horrifying pit of the Yeerk pool, where I slumped among the voluntary Controllers, unable to make eye contact with the others who were willing to betray the human race. People I was willing to turn around and destroy in the next battle. Anything would have been an improvement on that underground nightmare, even a too-small Yeerk ship in the blank expanse of Zero-space.

Strange that, even without her, Aldrea was still there.

‹So, here we are. Good!›

‹What's good?› I asked, but I didn't need to wait for an answer. She was pleased to be still in my body, after all—not stuck in the pool with Aftran. It was still ignominious to be drawn to a voluntary Controller, but I was apparently one step above Aftran herself.

‹Can you morph one of your Earth creatures?›

‹Sure. Why?›

‹I want to know if you still can. To make sure you haven't atrophied, without her...›

‹I haven't atrophied!› But it was a fair point, I supposed. It wasn't like I was ever going to morph in the pool itself.

“Jake?” I called. “We're going to try something, okay?”

He glanced over at me.

I had nothing to prove to him, I told myself. That was ridiculous. Why would I? All the same, I concentrated on the wolf, and let the changes begin. This time, it started with fur, growing evenly across my arms and legs, then my torso. My hands grew into paws, then gently drooped towards the floor of the ship.

‹You're an...›

Estreen.›

No response. Maybe she didn't like admitting that a human could be better at morphing than her, an Andalite. Former-Andalite. Whatever. Or maybe the concept wasn't something familiar to her. Morphing was a technology she'd acquired secretly, according to Jara's story. Maybe in her time it hadn't been recognized as a performance art.

I felt the wolf instincts well up in me, the urge to run, even in the bounded ship. I tried to ignore them. It should have been easier, after so many battles. Perhaps it was Aldrea's initial reaction to the instincts? Or...‹Are you trying to take control?›

‹No,› she said. Quickly. ‹I am unfamiliar with the limitations of the ixcila technology. The Arn tried to explain. It was only yesterday, for me...›

‹It can't have been easy. To entrust a—› It felt a little rude to address her as a mere copy, even if that was what she was. ‹So much responsibility to the Arn.›

‹They would not have done this to my son. To any of my people. They were worthless, in the eyes of the Arn. But this—this way, I thought, I could fight for him. And now he is gone, too.›

What could I say? Any condolences were useless, for a war before my time. All the same, I felt like I needed to tell her I was there, I could mourn alongside her. Maybe she picked up on it anyway.

‹We should—I mean, may we demorph now?› I didn't want to feel like I was asking her for permission. But I didn't want to remind her of the time limit either.

‹Go ahead.›

Trying to focus on being in control, even more than usual, I reversed the morph, quickly pulling on the clothing I'd left behind. ‹Artificial skin?› Aldrea commented.

‹Yeah. It's a hit on Earth. All the cool kids are wearing some.› Okay, so maybe my attempt at humor was wasted on a bygone Andalite, but I had to explain it somehow.

‹Curious.›

‹Let's let Aftran back in.›

I knelt by the side of the pool as Aftran swam over, her sonar revealing the outline of our waiting ear. For a moment, I tensed, afraid Aldrea would try and seize control, reach out and attack Aftran. But, the other Animorphs would stop her before then. Wouldn't they?

It didn't matter. Aftran clambered in, and our brain bustled to an overcharged life as the familiar connections sparked again. We stood up, picked ourselves up, and looked around.

Nobody was looking at us. It's easy to tell when an Andalite is avoiding eye contact with you; Ax had found an excuse to swivel one stalk eye at the Arn and another at Tobias, perching overhead, while his main eyes gazed at Jake. “You...” Jake began.

“You've never seen anything like that, have you?” we said. “Not like this.”

Marco opened his mouth, closed it, and then shook his head. “Look, I've seen weirder. I mean, Ax and Tobias we deal with every day, yeah? Take them for granted? But we've got the girl genius and wingman over here—what's a little Yeerk pool, among friends.”

“Whatever,” said Rachel. “How much longer?”

“One and a half days, perhaps,” said Quafijinivon. “Assuming we meet no fluctuations in Z-space.”

See?” Marco blurted. “Even he knows that they're everyone's days.”

Quafijinivon was right. We emerged into real space, on schedule, returning to a black canvas beset with the yellow blooms of distant stars, and then, closer into view—

A surge of green.

‹We're under attack!› Aldrea raged.

‹That's Andalite fire!› Ax said.

“Can you land this thing?” Jake called.

“Not quickly enough. We'll be vulnerable.” Quafijinivon, hitting the controls madly.

“Shoot the engines,” Rachel called, “stall him.”

“Can any of you use the weapons systems?”

“Ax?” Jake called. “We need you.”

‹I...› he trailed off. ‹That level of precision, no.›

“Hit the engines, hit—we need to land on this planet.”

‹I will obey your orders, my Prince, but to fire on my cousins—›

‹Ax,› Tobias pleaded, ‹you can't just do this.›

“Can you fly this thing?” Jake yelled.

‹Yeerk technology? Yes, perhaps—›

“We don't have time for this. Quaf, you take the weapons if you need to. Ax, get us out of here.”

We were frozen. A jumble of voices raging, fearing, wondering in the confinement of our head. ‹I could take the shot,› Aldrea promised, ‹fire on the Andalite.›

‹I could take over,› Aftran claimed. ‹I have let this body attack my people, there would be no way to stop me from attacking an Andalite. You wouldn't be able to stop me.›

‹Couldn't I, though?› Aldrea replied. ‹Betray Cassie's trust, and what will the humans do to you then? You're still their prisoner, whether you know it or not.›

And I didn't know. I was stuck there, uncertain.

Then, flung to the side as Ax jerked the ship around. Quafijinivon got off one shot, two. But he was old, and his reflexes were no match for the skilled fighter pilot, who shot again, narrowly missing us.

“Aldrea,” Jake called. “Can you hit the engine?”

“She doesn't know,” we said.

“What kind of an answer is that?”

“She doesn't have much practice, in this body. Given more time, maybe, but she didn't expect—”

“We're flying into a war zone! What did you expect!”

“Find the weapons, hand them over, go home!”

‹This was home,› Aldrea almost whispered.

“Aftran, what about you?”

“She's—not a fighter pilot.”

Jake slumped. No doubt running through his list of morphs, all useless aboard the spacecraft. No wonder the Andalites didn't get the use out of the Escafil device that we did. “Ax, this warrior, he knows what he's getting into—”

The sky lit up with another blast of green. We braced, unsure where to dodge amid the artificial gravity of the spaceship.

And then, nothing. The firing had stopped.

“Bug fighters,” said Marco. “Four of them. Coming this way.”

Jake stared out the monitor. At the Andalite ship, the oncoming Bug fighters moving to attack it. Unlike Ax, he had no stalk eyes; he had to turn to look at us. Aftran, invisible—would she stand by and let Ax fire on more of her people? Would Aldrea? Did he think I would speak out?

“Will they try to communicate with us?” Jake asked.

‹They are obviously occupied at the moment,› Ax said, ‹but—›

“Then take us in.”

‹I—›

“Or make Quaf land it.”

“Quaf,” Marco repeated. “You get a nickname, now. Welcome to the club.”

Some time for humor.

Ax told us, later, he suspected one or two of those Bug fighters probably never made it. The Andalite could lure them in, take enough last-ditch shots to shoot one or two of them down. Four against one, though, he never stood a chance.

It was a slow, somber ride down to the surface. Quafijinivon silently guided us in; Ax had relinquished the helm, and was standing with Tobias. We suspected they were conversing in thought-speak. Watching the Arn fire on the unknown Andalite had clearly rattled Tobias; as part of the ordeal he had recently endured, he'd grown closer to Ax and wanted to learn more about Andalite traditions. Maybe they were honoring the warrior, in their own silent way. We didn't ask.

‹That one was human?› Aldrea asked.

‹He's a nothlit now.›

‹But he can morph!›

‹There—› Aftran broke off. ‹There are ways of resetting the morphing clock. Forms of natural-according morphing.›

‹Ah. We were curious, about the Skrit Na, but they never confirmed...This bird is a metamorphosing species?›

‹Yes,› Aftran lied, but the truth sprang to my mind, and Aldrea heard that too.

‹So. It's not a quirk of his species. Then how?›

There was no point in hiding the truth any longer. ‹The way the valley got there, when Jara and Ket were freed. A meddling of the Ellimist.›

‹An Ellimist. Grants the morphing power back to this...human nothlit.› But not to me was the obvious conclusion. We felt her, silently, watch through our eyes, from Toby Hamee to the griefstricken hawk, and back. Somewhere down the line, the young seer's namesake had been guided into Jara and Ket's path, where not even Aldrea could follow.

Something caught Aftran's attention; a glimpse of the planet, coming into view. A mess of stumps spread across the ground, in patches. Other areas had been razed over completely. ‹No!› Aldrea wailed. ‹ This is not...this couldn't...›

‹You can't find those weapons, can you?› Aftran asked. ‹You don't recognize the region.›

‹Last week I was here. I was home, and the trees—the trees were alive. You Yeerks never care about the other species on the planet, do you? You destroy them all—›

‹That is not true.›

‹Oh, yes, you brave fighters take advantage of your host's morphs. But we were made for the trees—›

‹“Your host” has a name,› I pointed out. More irritated than I'd intended. ‹And can hear you.›

‹Tell Toby. That this is not the planet I knew, this is not her inheritance.›

‹You claimed to own the entire planet? You had carved out a patch, at best—› Aftran challenged.

‹That's enough,› I said. “Toby. Aldrea wants you to know that—it wasn't always like this.”

She turned to us, expressionless. “I've never travelled through space before,” she finally said. “I didn't know what to expect.”

‹And you have?› Aldrea wondered.

‹There was a Z-space incident,› I quickly summarized, ‹that brought us to Leera. And the Iskoort...another of the Ellimist's manipulations.›

Jara and Ket would probably have taken it in stride, summarized the travel with a nonchalant “Go space, move far. Home world change,” but even though Toby's face was hard to read, she was tensing up as we touched down. “The lab is nearby, and I should begin sequencing the DNA,” Quafijinivon announced.

“Do we need to morph?” Jake asked.

“No one will follow us here.”

Satisfied, we climbed out of the spaceship, blinking in the torrid light of the Hork-Bajir sun.

“What's the plan, big guy?” Marco asked. “We holding your test tubes for you? Hey, if you can sign off that I helped genetically engineer a species of aliens, I might get extra credit in chemistry. I need to pass that.”

The Arn stared with his glittering eyes, unsure how to react to human humor. “I will not need any assistance, but you will need to know where in the cliff to find me. Can you climb?”

“Sometimes we can fly,” Jake said. “Assuming it's safe to morph here?”

“This close to the cliff, yes.”

‹All right,› said Tobias. ‹I'll follow him down, get the details, and then lead them back here once we've got the weapons.›

“Need some backup?” asked Rachel. “Four eyes, better than two, all that.”

‹Whatever. Jake?›

“If it's a short flight, sure. If it's taking a while, Rachel, you just report back up here.”

“Got it,” she said, preparing for the eagle morph and shortly thereafter following Tobias and Quafijinivon down into the chasms. Tobias and Rachel were able to dive quickly; it was only the old alien's slow descent that held them up. For a while we watched, unsure whether we'd be able to recognize a healthy Arn gait if we saw one, but then we turned away. It wasn't like we expected to get the chance.

Jake, meanwhile, was making plans. “So you don't know where the weapons are.”

‹I know where I lived. Where I'd hide anything important. And—I think I could find the place again. But the planet's changed so much...›

Jake looked on impatiently until we'd relayed the message. “I guess that's the best we can do, at this point.”

‹Are you scared of letting us in on it? Scared of what we'd do, if we had the information?› Aftran asked.

‹The humans are powerless without spacecraft,› said Aldrea, dodging the and if the other Yeerks find you.

‹Then the Hork-Bajir presence on this planet will be no worse off than it is now. We already keep the secrets of your grandson and his people safe. Another planet across the void of Z-space won't make much difference.›

‹You understand,› I said, ‹it's not just about Earth. We—we started doing this thinking we were just holding the Yeerks off, for a little while until the Andalites showed up to clear them out. But the Andalites aren't perfect, they won't necessarily fix everything. If we want to really bring peace, we have to do it ourselves, and we have to start one at a time.›

‹And you understand,› Aldrea replied, ‹that with everything the Yeerks have done to this planet, there is no guarantee of me finding weapons that in a real sense I have yet to hide. That's all I have to say.›

Tobias and Rachel emerged from the cliffs shortly after, Rachel immediately demorphing. ‹I found the place,› said Tobias, ‹we should be good to go.›

“Yawwwp,” said Rachel, beak retracting into a mouth and feathers flattening into skin.

“All right,” said Jake. “Hork-Bajir morphs, everyone? I mean, not you, Toby.”

Tobias and Rachel immediately launched into their morphs—despite having just gotten back from their climb, they were the most experienced in the Hork-Bajir morphs. We followed, slowly. Aldrea had already seen the wolf morph, and I didn't need to show off any further beyond the basics.

Not that they weren't strange in themselves. We rose two feet into the air, and our human feet protruded talons and a heel spur. Three horns grew from our head, marking the body as Jara Hamee's male DNA.

‹Is the sexual dimorphism so distinctive among Hork-Bajir, that you gravitated towards another female even of a different species?› Aftran asked.

‹I don't think so,› said Aldrea. ‹But I don't know.›

And neither did we. Why not Rachel, the warrior? And, of course, why not Toby, the Hork-Bajir? All we could say for sure is that Aldrea's memories hadn't followed Aftran into the Yeerk pool.

The last to change were the internal organs, still shifting and settling inside the large Hork-Bajir torso. A second heart grew, intertwined with the first, and then the morph was complete.

‹Where to?› came Jake's voice.

‹We climb the trees. Get high up, then through the branches,› Aldrea explained, and we quickly repeated it to the whole group.

‹Will they support our weight?› That was Ax.

‹The topmost branches might not. But the Stoola trees are enormous; there will be many that can.›

‹If you say so.›

Sometimes, a new morph comes with powerful, overwhelming instincts. With the Hork-Bajir, there wasn't much to take in. Yes, the trees were there, good for stripping and eating, but we didn't need to resist the urge to climb. This time around, it was impossible to separate Jara's desire to climb from Aldrea's, racing ahead.

‹Up!› she called. Our blades sunk into the bark, but could not hurt the magnificent Stoola as we eagerly moved from branch to branch. Toby was close behind us, and the other Animorphs followed soon after, trusting to the Hork-Bajir's arms to guide them from one limb to the next. Ax brought up the rear, hesitant, but swinging all the same.

‹Look for a branch pointing south,› Aldrea called. We repeated the message, maybe. She was so exultant, so in her element that the directions might have carried to all the others already—if she had managed to seize control of the body, I don't think we would have noticed right away. We were so absorbed in the climb.

‹Which way is south?› Rachel asked.

‹This direction,› Ax indicated, grasping a higher branch with his other arm. ‹But I don't think—›

‹That's the way!› we called, feeling Aldrea's momentum carrying us forward. Rushing, almost to the end of the limb—

—and then we were falling. It was a planet of cliffs and chasms, I told myself, with dizzying drops through every border of mist, but surely that could not explain, did not justify this falling. This far enough above the ground, would I have time to morph to bird? Impossible! We'd have to pass through the human body first, it was only Aldrea who called the Hork-Bajir body her own, only Aldrea—

Someone, I don't know who, one of us, reached out and seized another branch of another tree. For a heartbeat, maybe half a beat of one of the two hearts, I felt steady. But we were still falling, our mass carrying us down despite clinging to the tree. Eventually, it would have to break, have to give way.

But it didn't. Instead, it just reversed course and rocketed us up with it, flying through the branches, impervious to whatever poked at us. ‹Cassie,› a voice hissed, urgent. ‹You have to let go.›

‹What?›

‹At the top of the arc. Now!›

‹We're too high up.›

‹Trust the morph.›

We let go, found ourselves flung to another tree, entirely. Impossibly, our feet found a hold, and for a moment, we were perched, at rest. Then another moment, and it took me a few seconds to realize I'd stopped moving.

‹Man,› we heard Tobias note, from beyond us, ‹these trees would suck to nest in. With Hork-Bajir somersaulting through all the time.›

‹Seriously,› said Marco. ‹Rachel, are you taking notes? This has to be worth, like, at least an eleven or twelve in gymnastics.›

“That was...fun,” Toby decided. “I know some of the other children who would love this.”

The other children. We didn't understand the demographics of the Hork-Bajir valley; Toby had been born there, and there were others like her, as well as other escapees like Jara and Ket. But had Toby matured quickly enough to lead the first few strikes on the Yeerk facilities, to let some of the others out? Or were Jara and Ket doing that?

‹They're not going to tell you,› Aldrea pointed out. ‹They don't want you knowing too much about them.›

‹We know.› All the same, it felt odd to think of Toby as one of a peer group, instead of the seer we knew, set apart.

‹Okay, you're right,› said Rachel, landing on a higher branch, ‹this was pretty fun.›

‹Yeah, yeah,› said Jake. ‹We move south.›

‹Don't give me that, you liked it too.›

So we moved south, flinging our way from branch to branch, hurtling, spiraling through the air. It didn't take long; Ax was tracking the time in his head, like always, but we didn't need him to tell us how far we still had to go.

We didn't need Aldrea, either.

An enormous Yeerk pool blighted the valley. The giant trees had been felled to make dams and piers, and a deluge of sludge lay inside. It made the spaceship we'd taken look like a kiddie pool.

Aldrea was mourning in her twin hearts, for Dak, for little Seerow, for the lost army of the conquered planet. And then, through her grief, came a further message. ‹It is impossible to get close. There is no point in continuing further.›

‹You don't know where the weapons are,› Aftran pointed out. ‹They might not be here.›

‹And if they're not, I would have no way of finding them. If they are...›

‹Do you know where, specifically, the weapons would be?› I asked.

‹From here, all the trees look the same. And we can't get close enough, to find the cache.›

‹There are morphs with better eyesight,› said Aftran. ‹Osprey?›

‹You humans and your earth creatures!›

‹We can't all have tailblades,› I said. ‹We've found a lot of uses for the morphing power.›

‹And any sight is better than none,› said Aftran.

‹All right. But we'll have to demorph and remorph here, in the trees.›

‹My friends can steady us,› I said, explaining the plan. Toby reached up from a lower branch, to grasp our talons, as we began demorphing.

And then the morph started at the bottom, our feet shrinking up from the branch. Toby swung out and instead grabbed the branch we'd been standing on, as we hung from another instead. Our horns and tail retracted, and our hair grew back. Another Jara Hamee climbed down to grab our hands as they shrunk, turning from green to brown.

‹Some estreen you make,› Aldrea said, but at least she had the decency to wait until we were fully demorphed instead of risking me freaking out any further.

I blushed. “Thanks, Rachel.”

‹No problem,› she said. ‹Just...careful with the osprey.›

I nodded, beginning the next morph. This was much smoother; our wings grew first and our feet retracted, until we could hover slightly above the branch without needing Rachel for support. Patterns of feathers grew one after the other, increasing in intricacy, followed by the new beak. The eyes were last to change; at first, it seemed like we wouldn't be able to spot anything beyond the limitations of human or Hork-Bajir vision, but gradually the distinctions among more and more distant leaves came into view. Or would have come, if there hadn't been a hundred trees felled to build the pool.

‹This way,› Aldrea urged, and we swiveled our head. ‹No, farther...there.› A patch stripped clear of bark, its branches interwoven together. Nothing that would damage the tree, but clearing a tiny corner for new life to grow. ‹They'd be in there.›

‹Inside the tree?› I asked.

‹Inside the tree.›

‹So. How do we get in?›

‹Not from the outside, it's too heavily guarded.› Our bird eyes roamed around, taking in the shape of the pool, the changes that had sprung up over, for the Hork-Bajir, several generations, and for Aldrea, no time at all. ‹If I see this correctly, the only way through would be from inside the Yeerk pool. And that's not possible.›

‹Sure it is,› I said. ‹I've morphed Yeerk before.› Aftran sent her agreement; it had been to rescue her, which wound up with her taking residence inside my head. ‹We morph Yeerk, Jake or Rachel or somebody goes Hork-Bajir again. I crawl into their head, pretend they're voluntary.›

‹There's no need to morph,› Aldrea pointed out. ‹Toby can do it.›

‹Even better.› It made sense. Trust us to come up with a plan involving an Andalite and a Yeerk inside a human inside a Hork-Bajir. Four minds crowded, if briefly, into the seer's body. ‹She drops us into the pool and heads off to do her own thing. We demorph under the surface, then switch to something that can get us inside.›

‹That's not enough time to morph. You need air.›

‹Cassie is fast enough,› said Aftran.

‹Okay, so we get inside, and then...what kind of weapons are we talking about, here? Dracon beams, explosives, right?›

‹There's an entire transport ship,› Aldrea reminded us. ‹We burn our way out.›

‹And flood the dam,› Aftran said. ‹Draining the pool.›

‹Yes.›

‹No.›

‹Do not underestimate the ship's technology. It will still be functional, if it is there.›

‹I do not. But we will not risk this. We will not risk Toby's life, or yours, or Cassie's, for some weapons we don't know are there, to arm a colony that does not exist, and we will not kill thousands of my defenseless sisters and brothers to do so.›

‹“We” are not the leaders of this mission.›

‹And neither are you.›

It was up to me, I realized. They didn't know what would happen if either tried to seize power, unilaterally, trying to lock me out. Maybe no one knew. Had anyone been in a situation quite like mine before? The Arn had made themselves invulnerable to Yeerks, sealing their extinction rather than chance captivity, and besides Aldrea and Dak, wouldn't have found the Hork-Bajir ixcila worth preserving.

Who would win out, if it came to a fight? Aftran and her slug body? Aldrea and her distant memories? Neither believed they could do it.

And maybe, that fear was enough. Fear that even if they succeeded, they would not be able to move me one way or the other. Not if they were tortured by the protests of the other, and potentially of me. Even if I was powerless beyond my thought-speak voice, it was me, the human child, that they respected. That they feared enough to keep still.

It must have been only moments, but somehow I came to a decision, to the decision they both trusted me to make. ‹We can't do it.›

‹What?› Jake asked.

‹Aldrea sees the landmarks, sees where the tree would have been in relation to them. It's gone now, under the pool. The best case would be if the Yeerks never knew the ship was there and just destroyed it. Worst case, they have access to that much more technology. Doesn't matter to us.›

‹So this entire expedition was a waste?› Ax questioned.

“It wasn't a waste,” said Toby. “The Arn got his DNA.”

‹But he didn't need Aldrea for it.›

‹He couldn't have known,› we said. ‹It was worth a try.›

‹So we let the Arn make a bunch of new Hork-Bajir who can't defend themselves? That's ridiculous,› said Rachel. ‹At least when the Ellimist made the valley, he made it somewhere safe.›

‹The Yeerks believe the Arn caverns to be devoid of life, now,› said Ax. ‹Perhaps the Hork-Bajir will be safe there.›

‹Away from the trees?›

‹Wherever they are, they'll know about the Arn,› said Tobias. ‹They won't be left in the dark again, about who they are and where they come from.›

‹Do we have any better ideas?› Marco asked. ‹I mean, were we going to charge that size of a Yeerk pool, just the seven of us? Eight, nine, whatever.›

‹We charge the pool back home all the time,› Rachel pointed out, ‹without Toby's help.›

‹That's as Earth animals, though. Humans and Andalites with Earth morphs aren't supposed to be here. I mean, are there even human-Controllers here? Or are we the first humans to ever set foot on this planet, and we don't even get a plaque or anything for it?›

‹We could fight in Hork-Bajir morph.›

‹This isn't our fight,› said Jake.

‹What, and the Hork-Bajir that that Arn breeds are going to be any more capable? Than us?›

“It'll be their decision, when and where to fight,” said Toby. “Their choice, made in freedom.”

‹Okay,› Jake said. ‹Ax, how long do we have in morph?›

‹Forty-nine of your Earth minutes remaining. Cassie has been in osprey morph for four.›

‹Four minutes!› Aldrea railed. Four minutes to see what had become of her home with sharpened, alien eyes. To see the sign she'd left behind, the tree she'd claimed as her own. To dream of the power she'd stowed away, safe from the Yeerks. To concoct a scheme for revenge on the people who had ravaged her planet. And, without the outside world seeing any of it, to be called to pity by a Yeerk. To be shot down, by me.

‹Great,› said Jake. ‹We'll probably need to remorph, at some point, once we've put some distance between ourselves and the pool. We can go to bird morphs, then. Cassie, you can stay in morph, for now.›

‹Okay,› I said. Then, privately, I added, ‹Aldrea, are you ready to fly?›

No response. She was still fuming, interspersed with distant memories of a small creature gliding its way among the trees. ‹Chadoo,›the memory was called.

But we opened our wings and took to the air, soaring through the countless branches. ‹You don't know which way you're going,› she pointed out, accusingly. ‹I could trap you here.›

‹You could. But you won't. We're going north?›

‹If you must,› she said.

‹You're still alive,› said Aftran. ‹For now, while you can, I would appreciate this flight. There is nothing like it.›

Aldrea said nothing. But, noticing that the others were moving more slowly behind us, I tried to let the bird's instincts take over, so we could show off a dive or two. It wasn't easy—while we could shrug off being poked by a branch or two, the osprey wasn't used to trees being so large.

And Aldrea didn't get the rush I'd expected, but maybe it made sense. After emerging from the void, merely experiencing another alien body wasn't enough to work up a thrill anymore. More than that, the sense of betrayal from our decision to turn around was overwhelming any other emotion.

‹What would you do?› Aftran asked. ‹To see Earth like this, and have to change your mind...›

‹I would fight.› The answer came more quickly than I expected, but it was mine all the same. ‹Not for myself, not for—they're cloning other humans, let's say, to rebuild the planet?› I tried not to let Aldrea notice that it reminded me of my reticence to acquire other sentient individuals; she, after all, had made a life by doing just that. ‹But to see—if not the trees, or the Arn, all the other species that the Yeerks destroy, just for being there. I would risk anything, if that was all the life I had, to fight back.›

‹But I can't,› said Aldrea.

‹No.›

And, more tentatively, Aftran. ‹Not here. Not today.›

‹That's not fair.› Aldrea stated.

‹It's not,› I said. ‹But I'm not alone. None of us are—we're in this together. You and me, Aftran, my friends. The Yeerks in the pool—we're all part of it, and I can't let you make that choice on your own. I'm the person who let Aftran stay with me, and I'm the person your ixcila chose. Even if you couldn't make that choice, you have to respect what I'm doing.›

‹Then this is it.›

‹I don't know. Maybe you can stay here. Would—would you want to stay on Earth?› If Aftran protested to defend the life of Yeerks she'd never met, she couldn't complain if Aldrea, who'd shared a body with her, stuck around. How we would manage it, I wasn't quite sure, but she deserved the chance to stick around.

‹That is, as your friend Jake has said, not my fight.›

‹Well, you'd be...welcome,› I trailed off, hoping Aftran would take the hint and shut up.

Below us, the others were climbing down from the trees, except for Toby, who took advantage of the lull to keep moving forward, not quite catching up with us. The rest demorphed to human, Andalite, and hawk, and those who didn't already have wings followed into their bird morphs.

‹They're all so different,› said Aldrea, once she'd caught sight of them. Hawk, harrier, eagle, falcon, another osprey.

‹Yeah, well. Earth is a pretty cool planet.›

She went quiet again. Resigned, maybe, but not as bitter anymore. Not impressed by the osprey's wings, not excited or even happy, but every once in a while, glimpsing the wonder.

Aldrea didn't point out the way back, through the trees, but the others remembered it enough to find it themselves. Toby, climbing below us, was coming back the same way she'd gone, and seemed to remember the overall direction even if her leaps and bounds were different with every limb. At last, the forest cleared, and we made our way back to the mist.

And then down. Plunging into the Deep, that the Hork-Bajir had once feared, back when there were free Hork-Bajir to fear the old stories. Rachel led the way, the eagle's eyes seeking out the cave where the Arn was still working. He'd hardly have had time to get very far. Tobias stayed behind, waiting for Toby to descend the stairs. Even beyond the forests, she climbed with ease.

“Hello?” said Quafijinivon. “That was brief.”

“We couldn't find them,” said Jake, once we'd all demorphed. “I mean, Aldrea knew where they would have been, but the Yeerks had demolished that tree. Probably took the weapons, too.”

“I see.” Perhaps the quiver in his voice was disappointment, or maybe he was just showing his age.

“You said the procedure only had a one in four chance of working,” Marco pointed out. “That we even got this far is pretty impressive.”

“I am sorry to pull you away from your war.”

“Doesn't matter,” said Jake. “It was worth a try.”

“Very well. I can complete my procedures on my own; you needn't stay here any longer.”

That was when Aldrea interrupted. I paused, trying to take it in. Aftran and I would depart the planet, and she did not want to follow. Even if it meant returning to the bottle, even if it meant she couldn't be restored. That was fair. It was her own decision. But...

Was it hypocritical of me to deny her the opportunity, to destroy the dam on her own? Without access to the morphing power, it would be a much harder job. But there was no telling what Arn technology could do. Did it make a difference, if there wasn't any blood on our hands, Aftran's and mine?

‹She chose you,› Aftran pointed out, ‹because sometimes you, too, can make pitiless choices.›

‹So I should tell him?›

‹This is not our war. We're needed on Earth. If Aldrea survives, what she does is her risk.›

“Quafijinivon,” I said. “Those weapons are gone. But...Aldrea believes she might know of another resource. Farther away, harder to get to. But if you keep her around, she can give you strategic advice.”

“I would consider it.”

“It might not work. But if you want to try, the option is there.”

“I have four hundred and...eight days remaining, now. It will depend on the progress of the new Hork-Bajir. But they are fast to mature. There may be a way—if any of them prove themselves a fitting receptacle mind.”


“They don't have to. You'll have me.”

It was Toby who had spoken. She had entered late, in the back of the room, but faced Quafijinivon as if in challenge.

“No, Toby,” I spoke. “Aldrea says you belong on Earth. Some part of her family deserves to live in peace.”

She hesitated, making the mouth gesture we knew was a Hork-Bajir smile. “How did you find my valley, Arn?”

“I...” He hesitated, as if he was eager for her to stay behind but not wanting to seem eager. “I intercepted a Yeerk broadcast that referred to it.”

“You hear him, Great-Grandmother. They already know we are here. Whether I stay or go, someday, they will find us.”

“She lost her son to the war,” I said, translating from the plea of emotions welling up within us. “She doesn't want you to be separated from your parents, too.”

“I won't be alone. Maybe I'll have you. Once Cassie leaves the planet, we can try the ceremony again. I might be more compatible. Or one of the other Hork-Bajir. Four hundred and eight days is a long time, for us. You don't know what will happen.”

I could feel Aldrea contemplating the decision. The chance to attack the dam, or at least, to forge a new future for the Hork-Bajir, with her great-granddaughter by her side. Or closer than that. If Aftran and I could coexist peacefully, then, she felt, surely they deserved a chance. “She says that's all right.”

Very well,” said Quafijinivon. “Once Aldrea leaves your body, you will need to depart the planet before it's safe to proceed. If the Atafalxical is unsuccessful, I will try again with the clones. Either way, Toby will learn about our technology from me. She can be a leader for the free people.” Either way, she would be set apart—not part of the community, but then, she would never fit in on Earth, either.

We gave her and Tobias some room to say their goodbyes. “This isn't forever,” she pointed out. “With many of us together, it will be easier for us to capture other spacecraft. When we can come and go, both sides of the war will be stronger.”

“Yeah, about that,” said Jake. “We're taking this back to Earth?”

“Unless you have some morph that lets you traverse interstellar space, I assumed you were.” Quafijinivon turned to Ax. “Can you fly it?”

‹Assuming we do not need anyone at the weapons station,› Ax bristled, ‹yes, I can.›

You see what this means?” Marco turned to Jake, excitedly. “With a Yeerk spaceship, we can—inform the public more easily, we can fly places, we can—we can change the war.”

“Yeah,” said Jake. “I'm thinking. Thank you, Quafijinivon.”

“And thank you,” he said, “humans, Andalite.” No mention of Aftran, but that was to be expected. “You have done our planet a great service.”

‹Thank you, Cassie,› said Aldrea, at last. ‹If nothing else, for meeting my family, for—seeing that something I worked for, lives on—› She broke off, the grief searing through her again. It might not have been worth it, even the fragment of life, but I understood. Meeting Toby was worth something.

‹And thank you, Aftran 942,› she added, ‹for—showing me another way.› Not a better way. But not worse, either.

“Until we meet again, says Aldrea,” I relayed. And with that, we felt her pulling away, journeying beyond us.

Even without the presence from the past, even on a distant planet, we remained together, bound up in each other.