The Order by Spiletta42


The Order

by Spiletta42



Animorphs


Rating: K+™©


K+

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Warnings: Violence and tone consistent with the canon.


Categories: GEN, Ship, Het, Action, Drama


Pairings: Jake/Cassie Tobias/Rachel included as per canon, with slight Ax/OC UST, but more GEN in tone.


Characters: Rachel, Jake, Cassie, Marco, Ax, Tobias. First person POV is shared in the style of the books.


Spoilers: Up through The Revelation is fair game.


A/N: Here's an old piece. My first finished piece of actual fiction, written because KAA was worse to her characters than even the unholy trinity of Berman, Braga, and Biller have ever been.


Historical Note: This story deviates from canon after #45 The Revelation.


Credits: This was never betaed.


Disclaimer: The stolen characters below belong to KA Applegate and Scholastic Books.


To enjoy this fic, you'll need to first read the Animorphs books. Take a look at them at Spiletta42's Online Bookstore.



The Order

I'm Rachel, the reckless one. When something dangerous needs to be done, our fearless leader Jake always calls on his tall blond cousin, the Warrior Princess. It's my job not just to take risks, we all do that, but to be enthusiastic about it. To shout "Let's do it!" as we charge forward to look death in the face. I am not allowed the luxury of fear.

It's been a hard fight. There have been tough battles won, lives saved, disasters averted. There have also been narrow escapes, tough choices, and terrible consequences. There have been times when I've hated not just this war, but also myself. Sometimes I am not very proud of who I have become.

Sadly, if something terrible needs to be done, it's "get Rachel." When necessary, Jake takes advantage of not just my recklessness, but also that darkness growing inside me, because honest, decent Jake has learned to use people, for both their good and bad qualities. That is the tragedy of war; it changes people, and brings out their worst qualities.

Look at my best friend Cassie. A few years back she was one of the sweetest people you could ever meet. She'd feel guilt over the death of an insect. Now, even she has killed more sentient beings than we can count. I think it was the worst for her, early on, because she didn't just feel guilt over her actions, but she felt guilt for her guilt as well. She knew, intellectually, that she had done what she had to do, to protect her friends, her family, and her entire planet. But she felt bad anyway. And when she felt bad for doing what had to be done, she beat herself up for feeling bad, too. Now, she doesn't seem to feel remorse when she kills. Don't get me wrong, she doesn't enjoy it. But Cassie is numb inside.

Marco seems like he has kept his sense of humor through all of this. But I know better. His humor is his duty; it is a veneer over the ruthlessness within him. It is his job to be the funny one as we face death, and worse, and he does it. But he isn't really laughing at his jokes anymore. After what this war has done to his family... well, Marco just isn't the same now.

Yet none of us has changed more than Tobias. Without this war, he would have been an artist. He was gentle, thoughtful, and certainly not violent. When we met, that fateful night all those years ago, he was a bully magnet. Now, he has a fierceness which would send any bully alive crying for their mommy. Tobias isn't even truly human anymore. He's a predator, trapped by this war in a body not his own. He witnessed his own father's brutal death. He never even met his mother, thanks to an accident with the space-time continuum. To say this war has been hard on Tobias would be the understatement of the year.

I don't know if Ax has changed; he has been training for this war since birth, so it's different for him. Yet he expected to be fighting beside his own people, instead of with humans, aliens to him. He has absorbed many human habits and mannerisms. He has lost his brother, and in one of his few contacts with his own race, he was forced to take the blame for a crime not his own. Despite all the bravery he has displayed in battle, when he returns home, it will be in disgrace. If he returns home.

I know what this war has done to all of us, and that is why I am glad that the final battle is almost here. Win or lose, it will be over. I just pray that if we lose, we die. We've been to hell and back, the six of us. And I know that each and every one of us would rather die a painful and violent death than to live with the consequences of defeat.



Jake



I'm Jake. I'm the leader. I get to hand out the unfair orders. Don't show fear, Rachel, you'll scare the others. Tell a joke, Marco, before you face your own mother in mortal combat. Bottle up your guilt, Cassie, we don't have time for it right now. Into the torture chamber, Tobias, you might be the only one who can stand it. Risk your neck again, Ax, and cover our retreat.

I get to make the life and death decisions. I get to use those I love, taking advantage of their strengths and weaknesses, and I get to risk their lives for them. But I have no choice.

You see, this is a war to defend humanity itself from a race of parasitic aliens determined to enslave us all, mind and body. If they win Earth, billions of people will find a fate worse than death as slugs crawl into their ears, take over their minds, and use their bodies to continue their evil conquest of the galaxy. If the Yeerks win, I don't want to live.

Not only would I rather die than be a slave, a prisoner within my own body, but I don't want my body, with its special powers, being used as a tool of destruction by the Yeerks. You see, when my friends and I entered this war, we were given a great gift by the Andalite Prince Elfangor. We were given the power to morph.

With that power, we have slowed the Yeerk invasion of Earth. We have kept them from succeeding with subversive tactics. But now, we have forced the fight into the open. Our success has possibly led to our ultimate downfall. If we fail now, the responsibility for the Yeerk conquest of Earth will be on my head. So, despite astronomical odds, I must find a way to succeed, even if it means the death of everyone I care about.

Cassie, the girl I love. Marco, my best friend. Rachel, my cousin. Tobias, her boyfriend. And Aximili, an alien who calls me his Prince. For years I've had nightmares of the day I would find myself ordering my friends to certain death. I fear that day is now here.



Cassie



I'm Cassie. They used to call me the tree-hugger. They don't anymore. I'm a killer now. For years, I mourned every death I caused. I spent weeks agonizing over the death of a termite. A termite! It sounds stupid, I know. I've ripped the throats out of sentient creatures with my bare teeth. Yet killing that termite was somehow over the line. Even though that action saved the lives of my friends.

I don't think about it anymore. It's kill or be killed, and I accept that. When I cause a death now, I file it away neatly in the deep recesses of my mind. When this war is over, I will mourn them all. I hope. I hope I can still care when this is over. Now, it seems I will find out soon.

If we lose, they will all have died in vain. I hope I won't have to live with that knowledge. I don't hope for a quick and painless death; that would be a selfish desire. I do hope for death, if victory can't be ours. And I hope that Jake doesn't have to see me die.



Marco



I'm Marco, the funny one. It's my duty to point out the insanity of every mission, to point out the absurdity of life, to entertain the troops. Just like it was my duty to sacrifice my stepmother. First, I lost my mother to the enemy. It nearly killed my father. It took him two years to start living his life again. And then, as soon as he found someone new to love, I let the enemy have her. So she didn't die. What did happen to her was far worse; a living death.

But I don't want to talk about that. Not now. I need to be funny for just a couple more weeks. Then I need never joke again. I'll probably be dead. Just as long as I don't have a Yeerk in my head. I want to win this final battle, I just don't see how. We've done many impossible things before. But this... this one might be too much for us all. Even Rachel is scared this time. I could see it in her eyes at the meeting. She was quieter than usual, more thoughtful. She was looking at each of us like she was sizing us up, wondering if we were up to it. When Cassie looks like that, I don't worry. Cassie is always worried about how everyone else feels. When Rachel is worried... well, I can't help but dread a battle that scares Xena herself.



Ax



I'm Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill. I'm an Andalite, but Earth has become my home. I have fought for Prince Jake for several years, defending Earth from the Yeerk invasion. The final battle is here. I believe Prince Jake will find a way to score victory, despite the impossible odds.

I won't live to see the victory, though. It is my duty to kill Visser One, who murdered my brother several years ago. I cannot delay any longer. In order for any plan to succeed, the Visser must die early in the battle. I will meet him, tail-blade to tail-blade, and neither of us is likely to survive. My life is not my own, if the people have need of it. And I would gladly choose death over the alternative, if this battle is lost. I will be proud to give my life for the people of Earth.

Tobias


I'm Tobias, the freak of nature. Part human, part Andalite, part red-tailed hawk. My father was the great Prince Elfangor; I only met him once, and then only long enough to watch him die. I grew up as a human. Now, my body is that of a red-tailed hawk. I can return to human form, but if I don't return to my hawk body within two hours, I will lose my morphing power. Without my power, I would be useless in this war. My humanity is but a small price to pay. After all, I have my freedom. I only wish all of humanity could say the same.

We are about to fight our final battle. In a way, I'll be the lucky one if we lose. My friends are praying for death, if they cannot have victory. I don't have that concern. While I, too, would choose death over infestation, it is only a hypothetical question to me. The Yeerks cannot infest a hawk. So, unless I morph into human or Andalite, I am useless to the Yeerks. If I am caught, I suspect they will torture me in an attempt to make me "demorph" to a useful form - they do not know that red-tail hawk is not merely a morph. But they will not succeed at this. I know. I have withstood torture before.

But as for that being lucky? Wrong. If we lose, I have a job to do. I made a promise. If we lose, and my friends are infested... well, Rachel made me promise I'd kill her if she was ever taken. I hope we can win this one. I don't want to be the only survivor of humanity's last stand.

Rachel

It was a normal day. Or as normal a day as any of us have had in four years. Jake had called a meeting, and the six of us were there in Cassie's barn, casually discussing the latest plan to save the world. We were all starting to feel a little desperate. We'd struck some hard blows lately, but we weren't making any progress. We were just holding our own, and the Andalite reinforcements we had been promised years ago were nothing but a pipedream.

Jake was ready to try oatmeal again. Cassie had a complicated and risky plan involving brain surgery that she felt somewhat lessened the moral dilemma involved with the oatmeal solution. Trust me, you don't want the explanation. None of us were enthusiastic, and that Cassie had been actively thinking about such a controversial action scared me. It scared me badly.

Then Erek arrived.

Jake

<Erek's coming> Tobias announced from the rafters. My stomach flipped. Erek rarely brought anything but bad news. And some sixth sense told me that this was it; the ultimate bad news. He cut to the chase.

"The Council of Thirteen has ordered Visser One to begin an all out assault on Earth, to commence in two weeks time."

The news was like a physical blow. We couldn't fight an open assault. We stared at Erek in shock. Cassie moved closer to me; I took her hand absently. Tobias fluttered down and landed on Rachel's shoulder. For the longest minute of my life, no one spoke. Even the animals were quiet, like they understood that the death sentence applied not just to the human race, but to every species on Earth.

"We need help on this one," I said quietly. "We need reinforcements. Suggestions?"

"My dad. We tell my dad. At least the Yeerks would lose the advantage of surprise."

No one answered Rachel. Her plan was desperate and suicidal, as most of Rachel's suggestions tended to be. Yet this was not the characteristic reckless Rachel. She sounded more like a little girl, hoping her daddy could fix everything. Yet we all knew telling Rachel's father, who was a news anchor, was a death sentence for him as well as us. And it a shot in the dark as well. My troops did not need democracy right now. They needed a decisive and confident leader.

"No. Or at least, only as a last resort. We need to go to the government. The president. He can help us organize the type of military operation that is needed here. We are fairly sure he is not a Controller. Step one would be to confirm this. We go from there. We can win this one. We just need to take one step at a time."

Everyone nodded.

"Marco, you'll need to get copies of your dad's research. And your Mom's diary. We'll need to put together a good presentation of the facts," I ordered. Erek, what kind of details do we have?"

"Just the Council's orders, so far." he answered.

Rachel spoke up again. "I think we should kidnap a Controller. We might need to be able to produce a real, live Yeerk for the President. Just demonstrating our morphing powers might not be enough..."

"And we don't have room for failure," I finished.

"OK. So we need to travel to Washington, D.C., with a hostage. And if it takes more than three days, our hostage is useless. What's my line again? This is insane!" Marco joked hollowly.

"We can't fly. We need a car. If we rotate drivers and don't stop too much, we might make it. Now, where do we get the car?" Rachel asked.

"We need a van. We need enough room for Ax, so he won't have to travel in morph." Cassie pointed out.

Erek spoke up again. "I'll take care of it. I can drive, too. I don't need sleep."

"Good. Thanks, Erek. Now, as for selecting a hostage," I began.

Cassie interrupted, "When is Tom due for a trip to the Yeerk pool?"

"Tonight." I answered, nodding. "We'll grab him and go tonight. Marco, head out for the valley. Ax, we might need the Z-space transponder. Rachel, we need White House worthy attire for everyone. Cassie, we don't want to leave anything strategically important here. Everyone go home. Pack. We'll regroup at Erek's." I guess there never was a question of who the hostage would be.

Tobias

We all dispersed to pack for our road trip. I didn't have to pack. Cassie promised to bring me a supply of frozen mice, and I promised myself I would not waste time feeling bad that I wasn't hunting like a respectable hawk. After all, saving the world was slightly more important than the feeding habits of a bird. We all had plenty of time to think before Tom's kidnaping, but I most of all. I knew that the next two weeks held dozens of risks, followed by the battle we had all been working to delay for years. This had started when we were in middle school, and now everyone was driving. Well, of driving age, anyhow. Ax, Marco and I can't get licenses. For some reason the DMV doesn't issue licenses to hawks and aliens. And Marco, of course, is legally dead.

I made a decision, and flew towards Rachel's. We might all be dead within two weeks, but there was one thing I wanted to do before I died.

Rachel was unsurprised when I flew in her open window. I began my human morph immediately, and I still had feathers when she threw herself into my arms. I hugged her fiercely.

"I came to ask you something. Something important." I took both her hands in mine and dropped to my knee at her feet. Before she had time to question my actions, I began.

"Rachel, I love you. You are brave, strong, smart, beautiful, everything. I know I can't offer you a normal life, but I give you my heart. Will you marry me?"

Tears streamed down my face as I said the words. Rachel's eyes glistened with tears, too, when she answered.

"Oh, Tobias. I love you, too. Yes, I'll marry you. I don't know how, but I'll marry you."

She kissed me, and for that frozen moment in time, there was no room for fear, only happiness. Sure, I had two weeks or less to live. But I would die beside the bravest, most beautiful young woman on the planet.

Rachel

I'm sure Marco would have loved the opportunity to comment on the absurdity of the situation. But I was so happy it barely bothered me when I lied to my mom, giving her a cover story as I left the house with my bag. And why shouldn't I be happy? I was just off to kidnap my cousin Tom on my way to Washington, D.C., where I planned to break into the White House in order to warn the President of a vast alien conspiracy to take over the Earth. I was practically giddy, because my boyfriend, the talking hawk, had just become my fiance, the talking hawk. Not that anything had really changed; we'd been a couple since what felt like the beginning of time. And we couldn't actually tie the knot for a while, yet. But even though I was going to die in about two weeks time, I let feelings of love and romance chase the fear from my heart.

Where I had been dwelling on the negative aspects of this war, I had forgotten the important things. The value of friendship, trust, love, and honor. This war had deepened the relationships between all of us. Sure, it had meant we couldn't trust our own families, our other friends, or anyone. But we risked our lives for each other regularly, and I knew I could trust my friends in any situation. And I knew true love far earlier than most teenagers. This war had given me Tobias, and we had fought our way to hell and back side by side, over and over again. This was no fleeting puppy love. In the last few years we had grown to know each other better than many older married couples, and I realized that we could face anything, as long as we did so together.

I thought back over all the afternoons after school, when we went flying. Normal teenage couples went to the mall; we went flying. Instead of flying tonight, however, Tobias rode on my shoulder while I walked to Erek's house, where we were all gathering. We savored our last few minutes alone together before the mission.

Marco

The old Rachel was back. That was the first thing I noticed when she arrived at Erek's. The haunted look from earlier was gone. Instead, she practically glowed with energy. Her eyes sparkled with her characteristic determination and vitality. I felt a glimmer of hope. One step at a time; that's what Jake had said. And he was right. If Rachel could pull it back together, well, I guess I could, too.

Once we had stowed our belongings in the van, we would intercept Tom on his way home from the Sharing. Then we would head off cross-country, just four perfectly normal teenagers, a talking hawk, an alien, and an android hauling a prisoner to the White House.

Erek had agreed to come along and use his hologram to provide cover along the way. We didn't need to get caught with Tom tied up in the van. We couldn't afford the delay.

I had the easy job for the kidnaping. Since I had the only battle morph that both possessed opposable thumbs and fit in the drivers seat, I would drive. Erek's pacifist programming would slow us down in a chase. Rachel morphed to elephant, Cassie went owl and took to the sky, Tobias morphed a Hork Bajir, and Ax stayed his dangerous self. Jake went tiger and hung back as backup. If we moved quickly, grabbing Tom wouldn't be too much trouble. Insane, maybe, but hopefully not too much trouble.

Cassie

I flew overhead, giving the traffic report. Ordinarily, that would have been Tobias' job. But it was growing dark and the owl had amazing night vision. Erek was projecting a hologram which disguised our entire force as a UPS truck. When Tom approached their position, I gave word. With an enthusiastic "Let's do it!" Rachel thundered into the road and slammed into Tom's car.

"Andalite!" He shouted, but as he leaped from the car, cell phone in hand, Tobias stepped from the hologram and grabbed him. Ax neatly rendered him unconscious with the flat side of his tail blade, and the whole kidnaping was over within two minutes. Mr. King, the Chee who posed as Erek's father, produced a hologram of Tom and drove off in the damaged car. Other Chee were already on the way to take the rest of our places. The longest part of the whole operation was waiting for Rachel to demorph enough to fit in the van.

I flew in the open window, and we were off. Erek projected a new hologram; we hoped no one would disturb our perfectly normal minivan. We all settled back shakily. It had been too easy. For years we had wanted to grab Tom and starve his Yeerk. Jake and I had discussed it more times than I could count. Now we had him. He was unconscious, and Jake had tied him up firmly in the back seat. Ax, fully Andalite, stood guard.

Fortunately, Marco's driving skills had improved greatly since he had wrecked my father's truck a few years back. Erek sat in the front with him, projecting his hologram. Tobias was in human morph, with his arm around Rachel. I took Jake's hand, and rested my head on his shoulder.

"Well, is anyone going to say it?" Marco asked.

Silence.

"Okay. That was remarkably easy."

"Too easy."

"We talked about this," Jake answered calmly. "That's what Erek is here for. Even if some Controller cop pulls us over, all they'll see is a perfectly normal van full of perfectly normal suburbanites. We're as safe as we can be."

<We are also armed.> Ax added, holding up a dracon beam he had taken from Tom. <It could be a useful alternative to battle.>

"Set it to stun," Jake said, holding out his hand for the Yeerk gun.

Jake took the weapon, and Rachel reached for it before he even moved to hand it to her. She and Marco were the best shots.

<Prince Jake, he is stirring>

"Don't call me Prince," I answered, more out of habit than anything. I turned to watch Tom open his eyes.

"Good evening, Yeerk, " I said calmly. I had fantasized about saying that line so many times over the years. "Three days, and I'll have my brother back. Tom, I know you can hear me. I'd like you to meet my Andalite friend, Aximili. He'll see to it that your Yeerk's death of Kandrona starvation goes smoothly."

Tom looked confused. "Jake? What's happening? I don't understand."

"Nice try," I answered, "I'm not falling for that. I know exactly what you are. I've been aiding the Andalite 'bandits', as you call them, for years, in hopes of rescuing Tom. He will be free. Free or dead.

"I'm sorry, Tom, but I know you'd understand and forgive me. Try anything, Yeerk, and I'll kill you. Even though that means killing my own brother."

"Jake, please. I don't know what you are talking about! You're crazy. You've lost it, man. Please, let me go! Don't hurt me..." Tom continued to whine for several minutes, until I finally took the dracon beam from Rachel and stunned him. I felt guilty, but at least we rode the next few hours in peace.

We let Erek take over driving, and the six of us talked. We put the war on the back burner for just a while. Instead, we just enjoyed each other's company, joking and laughing almost like normal teenagers. We discussed everything from comic books to ancient philosophy. It was nice.

Tobias

I spent as much of that night as possible in human morph. I hadn't been human so much in many years, but it just felt right. Maybe, after this battle, I'd just stay human. I would miss flying, but it just felt so good to hold Rachel, to joke with my friends, and just be normal for a few hours. Of course, our discussion had strayed from normal. We ended up doing a great deal of reminiscing.

"...so I'm sitting there listening to Chapman, and bam, grizzly feet. So when I left his office, I asked him if he liked my new boots!" Rachel laughed, and we all joined her.

<Tobias, you have been in morph for one hour and fifty-five of your minutes> Ax interjected.

"They are everyone's minutes, Ax-man," Marco sighed.

His warning reminded me just how far from normal I really was. I returned to my hawk form, and this time did not remorph. It was time to get back to business.

"So the Andalite filth has spread its technology to humans!" Tom said in amazement, apparently both conscious and through with his ploy to convince us he was not a controller.

Jake turned to his brother. "Now we really cannot let you escape, Yeerk. But I thank you for giving up the innocent act. Erek, where are we?"

"Nearly to Colorado," Erek answered.

"We'll stop in the next town for breakfast. Tobias, could you get us a quick traffic report? Erek, cover his departure from the vehicle. Marco, do you still have the dracon beam? When we do stop, cover Tom so Ax can morph to human."

I flew out the van window, flapping hard to gain altitude. There were some nice thermals just starting to rise off the desert highway, and I was soon far above our van. There was no traffic for miles; in the far distance, I could see a small town, with the mountains rising beyond it. I focused my hawk eyes on the desert, and caught myself breakfast. After my quick meal, I returned to the van.

Ax

Tobias flew back in the window. <No traffic for miles. If the yeerks followed us, I don't see them. We're probably within an hour of the nearest town. Ax can stay andalite a while longer.>

"Thanks, Tobias," Prince Jake answered.

Since my arrival on Earth, I had learned a great deal about the culture and values of humans. I had come to understand how my friends thought, and I could predict their behavior in most situations. They could always joke, even in a crisis. That didn't surprise me any more. I wondered just how I would fit in with my people if I returned to my home world.

You'd think that I'd be homesick, maybe even wishing for female companionship of my own species. But I wasn't. I was thinking about how much I would miss Earth if I went back. I'd miss my friends, especially my shorm Tobias. He was my brother's son. Obviously, Elfangor had developed human attachments as well.

Now, suddenly, it was back to business. I snapped to attention.

"Once in D.C., we'll need to keep up surveillance on the president until we can determine whether or not he is infested. We don't have the luxury of watching him for three days; we need our answer fairly quickly. Then we'll make our move. Any suggestions on how we get close?" Prince Jake asked. <Close surveillance of his residence should provide answers quickly. If the Yeerks have him, they'll have a portable Kandrona.> I pointed out.

"Ax is right," Prince Jake said. "It should be possible to make our assessment, with an acceptable margin of error, without the three days. Then we get in, demonstrate our morphing ability, show off Ax, and, if necessary, invite the President to watch Tom's Yeerk die of Kandrona starvation."

"Unless the Yeerk chooses one of the alternatives, right?" Cassie reminded more than asked.

"If he chooses to come out and show himself, we'll let him live," Prince Jake answered. "You brought options?"

"Of course," Cassie said, nodding towards a crate of instant oatmeal. I also noticed a square object wrapped in newspaper peaking out of the crate. I suspected it was Elfangor's Escafil Device.

"So, how do we get in? Suggestions?" Prince Jake looked at each of us.

"We shouldn't have to worry about a gleet biofilter or even any Controllers on the lookout for animals. We're fairly certain the President is not infested. Getting in should be easy, for a change." Cassie answered.

"But to be on the safe side, we need to move cautiously. I say we go in as our charming selves. They have a tour, right?" Marco asked.

"We carry in a couple of bugs. Real bugs. If they live, no biofilter. We're free to return as flies or cockroaches and investigate further. If they die, then we know there IS a gleet biofilter, in which case we don't need to investigate. We need a new plan." Rachel suggested.

"Yeah, like how to kidnap the President," Marco said darkly, "Pardon me, Mr. President, how would you like to see the inside of our van?."

Jake ignored him. "That sounds reasonable. The next thing we need is a battle plan to present to the President. Once we have convinced him that the problem exists, what are we going to ask him to help us do about it?"

"Step one: We need a fighting force to provide defense against a full scale Yeerk attack. How do we keep the element of surprise on our side? How do we make sure there aren't any Controllers on the force we recruit?" Marco asked.

"Cat scans," Cassie suggested, "Maybe yeerks would be visible with a CAT scan."

"I can help out there," Erek said. "The Chee have designed devices that expose Controllers, and I don't believe it would be too difficult to modify human medical equipment to do the job."

"Sounds good. But how do we use it?" Rachel asked.

"Well, we are going to the President. He has the full resources of the government at his disposal. If he really listens, that will open up our options considerably." Cassie answered.

"A group of military guys aren't exactly going to argue with Presidential orders for a medical exam. Unless they are Yeerks, in which case they might guess." Tobias added.

"If a Controller even heard about such an action, they might suspect we had gotten to the government. There has to be another way." Prince Jake said.

"Leerans." Cassie whispered.

"We could skip a lot of surveillance if we could get the President alone and use a Leeran morph." Marco said with enthusiasm.

"I hate to do that, but it might be the safest strategy," Prince Jake admitted.

"We can't go around peering into the minds of thousands of people," Cassie said firmly. "I agree that it may be the best option in some ways, but we have to use that morph conservatively."

"Cassie's right. We use the CAT scan on the majority of troops. We only use the Leeran on key people early on. Once we are in a secure position for the use of the CAT scan, no more Leeran." Prince Jake sighed. "The secret is to move cautiously. But I'm sure the government has procedures for handling a need to know situation. Once we have military aid, what are we going to do with them? We need to have a strong plan of action to present to the President."

"You mean we can't just go in and say 'The Yeerks are coming! The Yeerks are coming! Fix it?'" Marco laughed.

"OK. The Yeerks have more advanced weaponry. Hopefully, we have taken away their element of surprise, and will instead surprise them. What else can we do to gain the upper hand?" Prince Jake asked.

"What are the odds the Chee can get us the Yeerk battle plan?" Rachel asked.

"We are trying," Erek answered, "although we do not believe one has been drawn up yet. I will keep you informed."

I had little to add when we were discussing the meeting with the President. Now that we had returned to my area of expertise, I broke my silence. <It is likely that much of the actual battle will be directed by Visser One. If we attack him directly early in the battle, it will lead to confusion. Also, the Yeerk battle plan is probably not likely to be fully formed, as they will not expect a strong defense.>

"Good point, Ax," Marco said, "I'm finally starting to think this might just be insane, and not completely suicidal."

"Jake, we have reached the town." Erek informed us.

"OK. Our next step is breakfast. Marco, watch Tom. Ax, morph to human. Erek, find us a restaurant or gas station to stop at. Tobias, watch our backs," Prince Jake ordered. "Everyone, keep a low profile and don't let your guard down."

"Our boy Jake is going to miss giving orders," Marco joked, "Lighten up, it's just breakfast!"

Jake

Marco was right. Not that I would miss giving orders, but that it was second nature, now. I was used to it. And I did need to lighten up. I hoped I'd be able to, as soon as this was all over. I wanted normality. We gassed up the van, used the facilities, and bought some breakfast. We were on the road again very quickly.

We stopped again in a less populated area. Ax needed to feed as an Andalite. Tobias played lookout while Cassie and Rachel accompanied him in horse morph. Marco and I had the delightful task of guarding our prisoner while he, well, you can guess.

Then, once again it was back to planning. I wanted to be sure we discussed every possibility; every angle. One mistake, and that might be it for planet Earth.

"Now, the Yeerks will not expect a strong defense from planetary forces, but they will be expecting an Andalite attack on their command center. We need to find a way to catch them off guard despite that. Any ideas?" I asked.

<Prince Jake, I am not sure that it will be possible to surprise them. As you said, they will be expecting us. The time for stealth attacks is past. We are prepared for sacrifice. We hit the command center hard and fast.> Ax answered.

"Oh no! Rachel has taken over the Ax-man's brain!" Marco exclaimed in mock terror.

"That may be true, Ax, that may be true." I struggled to keep defeat from my voice. "But let's see if we can come up with something. We've done some pretty impossible things, and there are still six of us." <Jake's right. And it won't do us any good to get killed before we even get into the command center.> Tobias added.

"Jake, I think we could all use a break from this. We aren't going to make a very good impression if we fall asleep in the oval office." Cassie pulled me into her arms, and despite my protests, I was asleep within minutes.

I woke with a start. I looked around. Tobias was watching Tom, Erek was driving. Everyone else was asleep.

"Erek, where are we?" I asked.

"Kansas," he answered, "We will be crossing the Mississippi into Missouri within minutes. I expect to reach Washington by mid-morning tomorrow."

"How long have we been sleeping?" I asked. <Ax and I have each taken watch shifts. Everyone else has slept for about six hours.> Tobias answered.

"Good. Thanks, Tobias. I can watch Tom if you want to catch up on some lost sleep. We'll stop for a meal when everyone wakes up."

<I had a thought while you were sleeping.> Tobias said. <Cassie has a Yeerk morph. Tom here will be on our side in a couple more days. They could get into the Yeerks' command center fairly easily.>

"I'm not sure Cassie..." I started, but Tobias cut me off.

<I'm not completely sure Tom is asleep. I know it might make Cassie uncomfortable. But I can't imagine Tom wouldn't agree.>

Cassie stirred beside me, almost as if she sensed we were talking about her. "What are you two planning?"

"What, no 'Good morning, Jake. Sleep well?'" I joked.

She smiled and gave me a quick peck on the cheek. Within minutes everyone was awake. We stopped at a McDonald's, and were soon back in the van munching fries while Tobias ripped into his mouse. It's amazing what you can get used to. We were all perfectly happy to eat while a hawk sat in our midst and disemboweled a mouse. In fact, the situation has become so normal to us that Marco didn't even bother to point it out.

Tobias repeated his suggestion to everyone. Cassie nodded. "If that's the only way, I'll do it," she said solemnly. "But it will really be up to Tom."

"I'm sure we won't have trouble convincing Tom," I answered, not sure if that was good or bad.

<It will take more than the two of you to defeat the Visser.> Ax pointed out.

<No one answer me; We don't want him to catch on. Several of us may have to morph Tom's Yeerk.> Tobias suggested.

Everyone was silent for a moment while we mulled over that suggestion. We had all done many creepy things over the years, but so far that particular horror had been reserved for Cassie alone.I nodded, and glancing at Tom, I whispered, "We'll all acquire it, just in case. But only three of us will have to use it."

I looked at everyone else. They all understood what I was suggesting.

"That would work," Cassie said simply. There was no emotion in her words or her face. Her eyes seemed empty. And I asked myself, how could I do this to her? But I couldn't leave Earth to the Yeerks, either.





Cassie

I had morphed a Yeerk several years ago. A member of the Yeerk peace movement had been captured. She needed to be rescued. I was the only member of the group not infected with an alien virus, and Ax was near death. So I had gone down to the Yeerk pool alone, as a Yeerk in the head of one of our teachers. He and his Yeerk was also members of the peace movement.

It was not a good memory. Yes, I had been successful. I had even performed the surgery that saved Ax's life with the help of the rescued Yeerk. But I had been inside that man's head. I had seen his thoughts, and I had been trying to be careful of his privacy. But it hadn't been possible. It seemed like every part of the brain was full of memories. I felt the memory of his grief when his wife died, and I saw the memories of their marriage. I had felt horrible; I had violated Mr. Tidwell's privacy, and it was not something I cared to repeat. But to prevent the Yeerk takeover of Earth, I would do what had to be done.

The rest of the drive was fairly uneventful. We slept in shifts, and Jake worked on his presentation for the president. He had to quickly convince one of the most powerful men in the world to listen to him, then he had to convince him that the Yeerk threat was real. Finally, he had to present a workable solution. Jake knew the enemy, and the president did not. That meant the responsibility for this battle remained on Jake's shoulders.

Jake

We arrived in Washington with a less than a day left before Tom's Yeerk would die of Kandrona starvation. If we needed the President to witness the sight, we had to move quickly.

We got a hotel room, and took turns showering. Once everyone felt presentable, we headed out for the White House. Fortunately, there was a morning tour. We each carried a live cockroach with us; if the bugs survived, we would know that there was not a gleet biofilter at work on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Erek and Ax stayed behind to watch Tom, and the five of us blended in with the other tourists. There was a regular metal detector, but the cockroaches survived. If there was a biofilter, it was not concealed there. We got to see the kitchen, and I was thrilled to see a few flies. There was also a cat prowling around. It looked promising.

Once outside again, it was time for action. We conferenced in the van.

"Plenty of open windows. No sign of Yeerk presence. I say we just go for it. Fly right in." Rachel, of course.

"Yeah, I'm sure no one notices a flock of birds flying into the White House," Marco said sarcastically.

"We can't afford too much caution," I agreed, "But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be a little careful."

"One bird, five fleas?" Cassie suggested.

"Better. Tobias carries us in. We demorph in the bathroom off the Oval Office. I'll approach the President alone. The rest of you morph flies. Then, you won't be discovered prematurely but you'll be able to hear what's going on. You'll also be able to demorph when I give word."

"Let's do it!" Rachel said with enthusiasm.

"This, might I point out, is insane, but I'm with Xena on this one. Let's do it." Marco added.

I've been nervous before. I've risked my life, and the lives of my friends, more times than I can even count. We've done impossible, terrifying things. But this was different. I wasn't afraid of being killed on this mission. I was nervous about my ability to convince the President that I wasn't crazy. And I had to do it barefoot, in spandex. This was the ultimate public speaking nightmare.

We morphed to flea inside the van. We needed Ax, so we had no choice but to leave Tom alone with Erek. We stunned him with the dracon beam, and I felt like a heel for doing it. But we couldn't afford to lose him now. Tobias flew us in the open window. The office was empty, and so was the bathroom. We demorphed. The others immediately morphed flies. I stayed me. And waited.

"...and no interruptions," the President said as he closed his office door.

I waited for him to cross the floor, but I assumed there would be a panic button at his desk, so I stepped out of the bathroom before he reached it. I held my hands up in a gesture of surrender, showing no weapons.

"Sir, I need to speak with you privately, please," my voice was quaking. The leader of the free world looked at me in shock. "It's important, and I know I look a little crazy, but I can prove I'm not."

"How did you get in here?" he asked.

"I'll come to that if you hear me out," I answered.

"OK. I'll hear you out." Fortunately, he seemed to realize that humoring me was his best option even if I was some nutcase.

"Sir, I don't expect you to believe me. At least, not at first. But I can prove every word I'm about to say. The Earth is under attack, and we have less than two weeks to prepare for the main assault. Aliens have been infiltrating Earth for several years. They are a race of parasitic slugs called Yeerks. They take over the brains of their hosts, their slaves.

"Four years ago, an Andalite came to earth and gave my friends and I the power we use to fight the invasion. We can morph; become any animal we can touch. My friends are in the room now, in morph. Rachel?

"We were able to hold our own, as long as the Yeerks wanted to keep their presence a secret. But now, the Yeerks are preparing an all-out invasion. Without your help, Earth is doomed."

As I finished my summary, Rachel demorphed. The President stared in horror as my beautiful blonde cousin grew out of a giant housefly. Cassie and Marco weren't far behind her.

"And that, sir, is how we got in here. I'd like to present Rachel, Cassie, and Marco. I'm Jake."

The president, his grasp on reality obviously rattled, shook each of our hands. It gave him something normal to do while he tried to wrap his brain around the situation. That had been Cassie's idea.

"I'd also like you to meet Tobias, who was trapped in hawk morph during an early battle. You see, morphing has a two hour time limit."

A red-tailed hawk fluttered down to land on Rachel's shoulder. <It is an honor to meet you, sir.>

"Likewise," the President said to the talking hawk. He was starting to recover from the shock.

"And finally, meet Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill, the brother to Prince Elfangor, who warned us of the invasion and gave us our powers."

The President stared in sheer blank system error at Ax, now in Andalite form. Ax bowed his head solemnly and said, <I am greatly honored to make your acquaintance.>

"Sir, if you'd have a seat, we'd like to discuss the situation with you in more detail," I said. "We are short of time, but the situation is far from hopeless. Please do not call anyone in here until we have finished."

The President walked around and sat at his desk. He struggled to regain his composure. It would have been nice to allow the man some time to adjust, but we didn't have the luxury.

"In their natural state, Yeerks are slugs. They are blind and deaf. The Yeerk enters its host through the auditory canal, flattens itself around the brain, and attaches its own neurons directly to those of its host. It then has complete control of the host's actions. It also has access to all of the host's knowledge, memories, and skills. A person infested by a Yeerk, known as a Controller, is nearly impossible to detect. Anyone could be a Controller.

"Fortunately, the Yeerks have a weakness. Once every three days, they must leave their hosts and swim in the Yeerk pool, where they absorb Kandrona nutrients. This weakness has helped us to identify human-Controllers.

"We have been fighting the Yeerks for three years, and we have held our own. Our power to morph is actually a technology invented by the Andalites. The five of us are the only non-Andalites to possess this technology. It has a few rules, but has proven to be a powerful weapon. We cannot stay in morph more than two hours, or we will be trapped in morph. We cannot morph directly from one form to another; we must pass through our natural bodies. But we have acquired dozens of morphs which have helped us for years. Also, the Yeerks believe we are all Andalites. We have kept our identities hidden.

"In addition to our powers, we have had a couple of other advantages. We have contact with a network of spies within the Yeerk forces. There is a growing Yeerk peace movement. These Yeerks understand that it is wrong to take control of an unwilling host, and they wish to find a new way of life.

"We also have a doomsday weapon. Exposure to instant ginger oatmeal will drive a Yeerk insane. Unfortunately, once exposed to that substance, a Yeerk loses its need for Kandrona nutrients. This means that the human host is now permanently the slave of a Yeerk, although that Yeerk is no longer in complete control and is no longer capable of working for the Yeerk invasion. You can imagine what torture that is for the host. There are a large number of such individuals in mental institutions, primarily in California. We have theorized that it may be possible to perform brain surgery to remove the Yeerk from those individuals already afflicted by this condition, but that would be risky.

"The Yeerks completely enslaved the Gedds on their home world. They now consider the Gedds to be inferior hosts, since they lack strength and dexterity. They conquered and enslaved the Hork Bajir, a peaceful sentient species of limited intelligence, but great physical power. They use these Hork Bajir as shock troops. Tobias?"

I paused, allowing the President to watch Tobias morph to Hork Bajir. "In their natural environment, the Hork Bajir eat bark. While they appear dangerous, they are actually adapted to strip bark from trees.

"The Taxxons, on the other hand, are cannibalistic. They surrendered to the Yeerks voluntarily, and should be considered Yeerk allies, rather than slaves. If you disembowel a Taxxon, it will actually attempt to eat its own internal organs before dying."

The president stared in horror as Cassie morphed a Taxxon. She morphed back immediately. Taxxon is an extremely unpleasant morph, not to mention the fact that it is exceptionally difficult to control.

"The Yeerk Empire is governed by a Council of Thirteen, which has recently given the order to accelerate the invasion of Earth. The highest military rank is Visser One. The current Visser One has enslaved an Andalite. He has the same morphing power that we possess. As Visser Three, he took over the invasion of our planet shortly before Prince Elfangor came to Earth. The former Visser One, who had begun the invasion, left Earth at that time and went to the planet Leera.

"The two Vissers were bitter rivals, and while visiting Earth Visser One interfered in Visser Three's operation, to our benefit. Friction between the two aided us greatly in our struggle.

"When the former Visser One was ordered executed as a traitor, we intervened. The human host previously enslaved by Visser One is living in seclusion, and will be available to help plan our military action. She is a wealth of knowledge on Yeerk battle strategy and weaponry."

"We have also kidnaped a known Controller of fairly high rank. His Yeerk will begin Kandrona starvation tonight. For a Yeerk, this is an unbearable way to die. We may be able to bargain with him and use him. Regardless, we cannot trust the Yeerk. The human host, however, will be a reliable source of information when free of the Yeerk.

"Once we have as much information as possible, we will be able to plan our defense. We already have a plan to infiltrate the Yeerk command center prior to their attack; we will be able to solidify this plan once we can count on your cooperation, as well as once we receive information on the battle plan itself." I stopped talking.

The president had sat and listened to my entire presentation. He had watched several morphing displays. I hoped he believed us. My instincts told me he had. I waited for his response.

"How do you know that I am not a Yeerk?" he asked.

"I don't, sir. We took a calculated risk coming here. We know that as of six months ago, you had not been infested. We know that there is not a major Yeerk pool in Washington. And we have found no evidence of a portable Kandrona within the White House. Our sources have heard no rumors of your infestation. We had to take the chance. We will not allow you to be alone, for any reason, until the battle. I hope you understand. It is for your own protection as well as ours. The Yeerks could be planning on grabbing you tomorrow, or next week. We don't know."

He nodded, "I understand. I will not object to your presence, under the circumstances. I doubt we will spend much time apart in the next two weeks anyhow. We need to work together on a plan of action; you are the expert on the situation. Our first step is to put together a top secret task force. But we need a way to be sure we don't accidentally recruit any... Yeerks. What would you suggest?"

"We were planning on using a modified CAT scan on the troops we'd be using. We figured if the President ordered medical tests on some military personnel, he wouldn't be refused. The trouble is that any Controllers who hear of it might catch on. The Yeerks have superior weaponry. We cannot afford to lose the element of surprise." I answered. "For that reason, we have reluctantly decided to use a slightly more controversial method. For those who will be in positions of command, or who will otherwise be involved in the planning stages, I regret to say that the best solution I have is to morph a telepathic species and check them myself. It is a step we have refrained from taking in the past, but I see no better alternative at this time."

Again, he nodded. "We'll have to set up in here, and bring people in here one at a time. No one leaves the room without being certified Yeerk free. I assume that begins with me?"

I nodded. I must say I was impressed. Here was the most powerful man in the world, and he was willing to work with a group of kids in spandex. And here was a man whose entire world view had just been destroyed, and he was holding it together. An impressive combination of strength of character and humility.

I began to morph the Leeran. It was a morph I had not used for years. When I finished, I could clearly read the President's carefully concealed terror. His desperate hope that he was right to place his faith in me, because he had no other choice. I saw private thoughts I had not wanted to see and which it would be inappropriate to repeat. But one thing was clear; this man was not a Controller. I demorphed quickly.

<We need to contact Erek soon. Tom could wake up any time now> Ax reminded us.

"OK. Rachel and Tobias: Go meet up with Erek. Check on Tom. Bring our stuff back here. Mr. President? What sort of delivery could show up here unnoticed? We'll create a hologram to mask the arrival of our prisoner."

"Office equipment. We have a copy machine that's been acting up. I doubt anyone would think twice if one were to be delivered."

"OK. You heard the man. And we'll need a real copier, too. It wouldn't look right if one was delivered, only to disappear. Seagull and flea. Go."

"You are very young to have such responsibility on your shoulders. I'm impressed."

"Thank you, sir."

"You've given me a great deal of information. How about you tell me some of the things you've done?"

"Fair enough, sir." What could I say? I had just witnessed this man's inner terror. I owed him a glimpse into my own brain, and I knew that he wanted some proof that he really could trust the world's fate to my hands.

I told him of our first trip down to the Yeerk pool. Of how it felt when I realized what we were up against. And of the horrible consequence of that failed mission; Tobias trapped as a red-tailed hawk.

I told him about the summit meeting. How the Yeerks had planned to infest the previous president and four other world leaders. How we had fallen into a complex trap. And how we were forced to break up the summit meeting with a desperate elephant attack. And I told him about David. How we had been forced to trap him in rat morph to avoid killing him when he betrayed us.

I also shared some more recent missions. I wanted him to see me as a capable leader, but I knew I would not sound honest if I didn't describe some of the growth I had experienced.

"So you see, sir, I've made mistakes. I've been forced to do things I am not proud of. But my friends are all still alive, and the majority of Earth is still free, so I cling to that."

Cassie spoke up, "Jake has lead us into hell itself and back again. But always back again. Somehow, he can think and make decisions that save lives when the rest of us are too tired, injured, or scared to even think."

"That is part of what makes a great leader," the president answered solemnly, "History will remember him as one of the great heroes of our time."

I blushed, but was saved by the bell when the office door opened itself and closed again.

"Erek?" I asked. The air shimmered. Erek, Tobias, Rachel and Tom appeared. Rachel had a dracon beam pointed at Tom's head.

"Mr. President, I think you'd better call your secretary in here," she said.

He complied instantly. I once again morphed the Leeran, but I was spared the discomfort of touching her mind. She fainted when she saw me, and I reversed the morph.

"Well, that was easy. She's no Controller," Marco laughed, and helped the president lift the poor woman onto a couch.

"Did anyone else see you come in here?" I asked Rachel.

"Secret Service saw two delivery men leave a copy machine at a rear entrance and drive back out the gate. I don't think the secretary saw anything, but I figured, you know."

"Good thinking Rachel. Tie Tom up in the bathroom," I ordered, "Ax, how long does his Yeerk have?"

<Approximately four hours and thirty six minutes.>

"Mr. President? I'd like to assemble and brief our team tomorrow, and we need to do some planning tonight. But I have security concerns. How many people have access to the West Wing?"

"If they haven't been compromised, we can trust Secret Service to do their jobs. Then again, your group got past them..." the President answered.

"OK. We'll call Secret Service people in here one at a time. I'll morph the Leeran, and conceal myself in Erek's hologram. Ax, stay behind the door. Be ready to knock out any Controllers I identify. Mr. President? Send those who are clear into the conference room. Marco, tie up any Controllers in the bathroom."

"Once we've cleared the Secret Service who are currently nearby, we'll determine who we need on the task force. You know better than I how many people you can call in here tomorrow without arousing too much suspicion. We'll have more information once we learn what Tom knows."

Tobias

Once Jake was happy with our immediate security, we got down to business. I sat quietly on Rachel's shoulder and marveled at the site of a barefoot teenager in spandex talking military strategy with the leader of the free world.

"Mr. President, I believe we'll need a sizable Air Force unit to defend against the first attack. We'll then need ground troops to help with the cleanup operation. Finally, we'll need people to help deal with the aftermath. We'll have some very unique POW's, as well as some difficult medical situations, especially if we are forced to use oatmeal during the operation."

"OK. Secret Service, military personnel, NASA...Should I get someone from Area 51? They might have uncovered something there of which we are unaware."

Marco laughed. Jake gave him a look. "Unnecessary, sir. We know the secret of Area 51. The object kept there is, essentially, an Andalite toilet. It has no military significance whatsoever."

The next several hours were more of the same. Jake and the President were virtually the only ones to speak. Even Marco was for the most part quiet. The President was shocked to learn that the National Security Agency would be useless due to heavy infestation, but on the whole the discussion was fairly dry, so I'll spare you the details.

When Tom's Yeerk was within an hour of Kandrona starvation, we began to attempt to bargain with it. Unfortunately, it was a stubborn Yeerk. It could not be tempted by oatmeal, coaxed out at the sight of the blue box, or fooled with a fake Yeerk pool. It died in Tom's head, and none of us was able to acquire it.

Jake

My brother was free. That triumph overshadowed my failure to acquire his Yeerk. After all, there was certainly no shortage of Yeerks. We'd find a way to acquire another soon enough.

"Jake! My little brother is the leader of the so-called Andalite bandits!" Tom seemed delighted. "That filthy thing in my head has spent the better part of the last four years hoping to obtain an Andalite host. I'm glad I never suspected..."

"I wish I could have freed you sooner," I said apologetically.

"It's best you didn't. I have plenty of information you'll find very useful. That information is worth far more than the price I paid."

"Good. Do you know any specifics about the invasion plan?" I asked.

"I don't think the Visser has much of a plan. Basically, he's going to bomb the heck out of D.C., then split his troops and move up and down the East Coast. He expects no significant resistance, so that's pretty much it. He figures that once D.C. is a smoldering ruin, people will surrender in droves.

"You'd think by now he'd have more respect for humanity," Rachel scoffed. "He's been here nearly five years and he hasn't learned a thing!"

<Not a smart Yeerk> Tobias commented dryly.

"Tom, is there any chance you know the Visser's schedule? We know he has a private Kandrona. Do you have details?" I had a plan, but I hadn't wanted to mention it earlier. I wanted to know if it were possible first.

"Jake, your big brother is usually one of the guards for the Visser's host body. I know exactly how it works."

I smiled. I looked at my troops. "My friends, we have a way to win this," I announced.

Cassie

Jake's plan was terrifying. But it was brilliant. I would go Yeerk. Tom would carry me down to the Yeerk pool. While creepy, that's not the scary part.

Tom would take his place guarding the Visser's host body, the Andalite War Prince Alloran-Semitur-Corrass, while the Yeerk fed on Kandrona. When Alloran's head was forced back into the Visser's private Yeerk pool, it would be me, and not the Visser, who would infest him.

"The timing will be crucial," Rachel fretted. "If Alloran doesn't agree to cooperate quickly, Cassie risks being trapped in morph."

"We have absolutely no reason to believe Alloran won't help us," I answered. <Cassie does risk being trapped in morph. But not because of Alloran. The visser may spend more than two hours in the pool.> Ax said.

"Tom will just have to find a place for her to demorph and remorph." Marco said.

"It doesn't have to be Tom," Rachel cut in. "Jake could morph Tom. That might be better, anyhow. Tom doesn't have the combat experience Jake has."

"I like that. We'll get in and get into position. We'll find an opportunity to demorph and remorph. We'll be in a position of authority, so it should be possible get out of site for a few moments." Jake agreed.

Tom nodded.

"If necessary, you can scrap the mission, free Alloran, and tear the place up," Marco half-joked.

"Hey, as long as the visser dies." Rachel said coldly.

"So, Tom, your choice. Can I borrow your DNA?" Jake asked.

"Absolutely. That's actually less creepy than having Cassie in my head." Tom answered. "No offense, Cassie."

"None taken. I agree." I assured him. "Actually, I was just thinking. The biofilter can't tell if the Yeerk is actually inside the host, can it, Ax?"

<I do not believe so, Cassie.> he answered.

We all stared at each other for a minute.

"OK. I missed that one." Jake said, a little embarrassed.

<That will increase the risk of detection; if anyone saw a supposed Controller carrying his Yeerk, it would look...> Ax pointed out.

<slightly odd.> Tobias finished. <But I think the odds of her being seen in Jake's pocket are less than the odds of her being seen slithering out his ear.>

"A new thought." I interjected. "A morph is just instincts, not memories. If a Yeerk entered the brain of a morph, wouldn't it only see what was in that physical brain?"

<You're right! When in morph, your real brain is in zero space! Cassie, I really think you've got something there!> Ax was astounded.

"So, let me get this straight. Say I morph Cassie. And Cassie morphs a Yeerk and infests me. Both of our real brains would be in zero space. She, as a Yeerk, would not be able to read my memories, only my instincts?" Rachel asked.

<It would require further study. But I believe that is a strong possibility.> Ax answered.

<A real Yeerk could force you to demorph, of course. We know that from Jake's experience.> Tobias pointed out.

"Jake! You were infested?" Tom asked.

"During one of our first missions, I was knocked into a portable Kandrona while in tiger morph. Fortunately, Ax caught on right away and they were able to starve the Yeerk." Jake paused. "It was... well, it was the first Yeerk that controlled you, Tom."

"So that's what happened. He'd been promoted, you know. They were going to give him the governor."

"We know. But back to business, here. I think I have a plan. I was reluctant to send everyone down to the Yeerk pool as Controllers. I think we all have enough bad memories and nightmares without peeking into each other's brains. But if this theory is true, we don't have to worry about that." Jake said, "Cassie and I can have backup for this, and I'd say that lowers the odds."

"OK. I morph Tom. Cassie goes as my Yeerk. Tobias and Ax have human morphs. Rachel and Marco play Yeerk. Then you all go Hork Bajir as soon as we get down there."

<Prince Jake, I'd suggest we test this theory first. It is only an educated guess.> Ax advised.

"Agreed. Volunteers?" Jake asked.

"I'm the only one who already has a Yeerk morph," I pointed out.

"Tom, may I?" Jake asked. He touched his brother's arm. Tom got a little glassy eyed. Then Jake started to change. It wasn't too much of a change, actually. Then it was my turn.

I shrunk. My entire body oozed mucous as my bones desolved and I became a slug. And Jake lifted me to his ear. I was hoping desperately that Ax and I were right, and that I wouldn't be able to see Jake's memories. We all needed a little privacy, and none of us needed each other's nightmares on top of our own.

I was only half way into Jake's ear when I realized my theory was invalid; I had barely touched Jake's mind when I got a glimpse of some pretty personal thoughts. I stopped and disengaged immediately. <Someone get me out of here, please!> I yelped.

"It didn't work," I stated simply after demorphing, I avoided everyone's eyes. What I had seen wasn't exactly horrifying, it just wasn't appropriate for group discussion and I was somewhat embarrassed.

"I'll carry her in," Jake decided "This is our last mission, so if some of us must go in human, well, it will be worth the security risk."

On that note, we retired for the evening. Erek spent the night tearing apart the CAT scan that had been delivered discreetly, everyone else took shifts guarding the President, and we all caught some sleep before the morning meeting.

Jake

The next morning we had thirty men and women gathered in a conference room adjacent to the Oval Office. We also had two unconscious controllers tied up in the bathroom. One was from the NSA and the other was Air Force. That was good and bad news. It meant that the Yeerks had managed to infiltrate both of those organizations, but then again we knew that. The good news was that we would soon know exactly how much influence the Yeerks had in those two organizations.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I have asked you here today to discuss an extremely serious situation. I ask that you hold your comments and questions until after the presentation. I will now turn the floor over to the man who will lead this task force, Commander Jake Gates."

Thankful for the spandex-free clothing Rachel had brought me, I moved to the head of the table. "Thank you, Mr. President."

Rachel

Jake hadn't been a normal kid for years. Now, as I watched him take the podium at the White House, I realized just how extraordinary he really was. Sure, I knew the dirty parts of Jake's job, but I was proud of my cousin.

I had seen his bravery in battle. But it took a different kind of courage to stand at a podium and address a room full of powerful men and women. Some magazine had once taken a poll of people's greatest fears. Public speaking had ranked above death.

Yet Jake seemed remarkably cool and confident as he began his speech. I could feel his determination from across the room, where I stood with Tobias and Marco.

"The situation is indeed serious. We as a nation are once again called upon to fight for freedom. Not merely freedom as an abstract concept. Not merely political freedom. Not merely freedom from a government we view as oppressive. In this coming war, the word freedom takes on new meaning. We are here to fight for the freedom of all of humanity, to fight against a human bondage worse than death. The responsibility for humanity's right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is on our shoulders.

The facts, ladies and gentleman, are as follows: The Earth is under attack. Aliens have been infiltrating our world for several years. They are a race of parasitic slugs called Yeerks. They take over the brains of their hosts, their slaves..."

At this point, I had expected some response from the audience. I expected disbelief, annoyance at having busy schedules interrupted by what seemed a hoax. But they believed Jake. I could see it in their faces. Along with fear, and a determination to do their parts to fight this new threat. I marveled at the power of Jake's words.

He proceeded with the same basic presentation of Yeerk information that he had given the President earlier that afternoon. He introduced Ax, told of our original contact with Prince Elfangor, and gave a brief history of our struggle. He had Cassie demonstrate several morphs. As we had all agreed, he left out several things. We had chosen to share the facts regarding oatmeal with the President, and he had agreed with our decision that we not make that information widely available. The existence of a doomsday weapon was best kept secret.

We did not feel it appropriate to reveal the existence of the free Hork Bajir; that would be a decision for Toby, their seer. We also decided to reveal Erek and the Chee only to the President. Jake did not mention our possession of the Escafil Device. If we needed more morph capable members of our force, we'd use it. But we preferred not to be responsible for another David. We also held back information on our Leeran morph; there was no reason to make these individuals wonder if they had been personally violated. We also held back our plan to liberate Alloran. That was our 'ace in the hole,' so to speak, and even if the Yeerks discovered human awareness and military preparations, we would still have a chance if Alloran was free to play the role of Visser One.

"Today we will begin preparing for the most important military action in Earth history. I have faith in our ability to succeed. American history is full of success at overwhelming odds; The Revolutionary War was won by a handful of Patriots with the courage to stand against the entire British Empire. They were outnumbered and outgunned. But they were more determined. They were fighting for freedom. And no army is more powerful than one defending a cause for which they are prepared to give their lives.

I have faith in the resilience of the human spirit. Yet the words I choose make little difference in the reality of what we must now do. What will make the difference is your own determination. The future of human existence is now the responsibility of each and every one of you. And I know we will not only defeat the Yeerks in the battle for Earth, but that the human race will rise to take its place beside the Andalites in the final battle for the galaxy itself. For nothing is more precious to humanity than our God given free will."

The moment was indescribable. I had just witnessed a great historical event. I knew Jake was right. I knew we would win. That image froze in my mind. Jake, the great leader of Earth's Resistance, filled with a determination so fierce that it became tangible and spread to every member of his audience. In the background, the young Andalite warrior, pride in his Prince clearly visible. It would make a painting to rival Washington crossing the Delaware; the artist would certainly need to take less liberties than had *whoever painted Washington*.

The discussion got underway. Cassie questioned the Surgeon General in relation to her theories about the surgical removal of a Yeerk which had lost its dependence on Kandrona rays. Schematics of bug fighters and blade ships, drawn up by Marco's parents, were studied by military men. Maps of the greater D.C. area, as well as Northern California, were pored over.

The president handed out an unexpected order. "For the next two weeks, no one eats a meal that doesn't include instant ginger oatmeal."

That made everyone pause a moment. News of alien invasion they could accept. This was unexpected.

"Yeerk repellent," he explained. "If you are taken, we have reason to believe that the presence of this substance in your digestive tract might delay infestation."

Packets of breakfast cereal were passed out by the secretary I had startled the day before. The meeting broke for a quick lunch. Our little group gathered in the corner. "Schoolchildren everywhere are going to hate Jake forever!" Marco said.

<Why?> Ax asked.

"Because they are going to have to memorize that speech in future history classes." Marco explained.

Jake blushed furiously and everyone else laughed.

"Seriously, Jake, it was like the Gettysburg Address or something," Marco said, "You gave me chills."

An Air Force commander was dispatched to Area 51, allegedly to check on the possibility of a security leak. The real mission was to fetch Marco's parents. As a former host to a Yeerk Visser, Marco's mother would be invaluable in predicting Yeerk strategy. The Chee would fetch them from the valley of the free Hork Bajir and bring them to Crazy Helen's tourist shop just outside the base.

Cassie

Before the meeting resumed, I overheard something that didn't make me too happy. The President was planning on issuing cyanide capsules to everyone on the task force.

While I understood the need for security, I didn't approve of this plan. Suicide, even for such a seemingly noble cause, was an end of hope. I worried about the psychological effect that order would cause, even with instructions to save it as a last resort. I explained my concern to Jake.

He went to the President, quietly requesting a private conference. The two disappeared together. I took the opportunity to ask Erek a favor.

"If we die, well, if we die there won't be bodies. If you can, if it's possible, explain what happened to us to our parents. Don't make it too terrible...." my words trailed off. I started again. "I just want my parents to know that I died fighting for a good cause, and I want them to know I loved Jake...that even through all the fighting and hardship, I found happiness as well."

"Cassie, I give you my word. I only hope I won't have to carry out your wishes." Erek promised.

Jake

"I will not have people commit suicide on my orders," I informed the President, speaking with more force and confidence then I felt. "And I will not allow you to give those orders for me."

The President met my gaze. It was a silent battle of wills for a twelve hour minute. He looked down first. "Find another way to keep those people from unwillingly betraying us all."

"I will, sir. That will be our next step."

I called the meeting back to order. "We need to address the issue of task force security. Obviously, due to the way the Yeerks work, absolutely no one can be trusted. The Yeerks even infest small children for use as spies. You all understand what Top Secret means, and I doubt that you really need the reminder. But I wanted to add that even admitting you were at a classified meeting might tip off a Yeerk.

"The larger concern is capture. We have no reason to believe that any one of you is currently a target for infestation, nor is it likely that you will be in danger before the attack, as long as you remain on the East Coast. However, we need to be prepared for the unexpected."

"We are all on the instant ginger oatmeal diet," one of the Generals pointed out.

"Yes, and in the event of capture, the Yeerks would probably hold off on infesting you until it was out of your system. The hope is that it would give you the opportunity for escape, or rescue. But the Visser is sometimes impulsive, and your oatmeal consumption might be overlooked or ignored.

"We need a small device capable of blocking the auditory canal. The catch is, if the Yeerks discover one, it might tip them off as to human knowledge of the invasion."

"So we should use cyanide capsules," the CIA agent suggested.

"No." I said firmly. "That would tip them off just as easily. Suicide is not an option, especially when its intended 'noble purpose' is in vain."

I turned to the Surgeon General. "I need internal hearing aids for every person here. They don't need to work, but they must be altered in order to be difficult to remove."

He nodded, "I'll have to pick them up myself. I assume it would be bad security to have them delivered."

"Agreed. Until everyone has been fitted with a pair of hearing aids, I will request that no one leave the White House. Cassie, would you please go along as backup?"

I figured she would put the time alone with the Surgeon General to the best use, and although I hated to be without her during the planning session, I knew it would be going on for several days.

As it turned out, Cassie returned at about the same time that Marco's parents arrived. Also accompanying them was Toby, to my delight. That meant we would have Hork Bajir assistance.

"Ladies and Gentleman, I am pleased to introduce Toby Hamee, the seer of the Hork Bajir people. They have been indispensable as allies."

Toby nodded to the group, and took the seat Tobias vacated for her. He demorphed and resumed his former perch on Rachel's shoulder.

"We are also now joined by Eva - , the former host Edriss Five Six Two, who held the rank of Visser One, and her husband, who is an expert on Yeerk technology."

Marco

Three days had passed since our arrival in Washington. None of us had gotten quite enough sleep. Between the long planning sessions, the actual preparations, and security for the entire operation, we were spread a little thin. But I was feeling a guarded optimism, and I wasn't alone.

Ax and I had taken a cue from the movie Independence Day, and had devised a computer virus of sorts to take out the shields and weapon systems on the bug fighters. Unlike in the movies, we would have to infect each onboard computer separately, and by hand, which meant a bit of risky sneaking around in enemy territory. But Jake had decided that we'd go for it, once the Visser was out of the picture.

My dad, in the meantime, was working feverishly to help upgrade Air Force weapons and shielding. The Yeerks were in for a number of nasty surprises. Through Erek's "Chee net" we had relayed a short message to Mr. Tidwell, the host of Illim, our contact in the Yeerk Peace Movement. The message was simple, "The Andalite's have a plan. Await further instructions." Jake wanted to make sure they did nothing to endanger themselves or our plans prematurely.

Tomorrow was the first, and in many ways the most important, step. Tom was fairly certain that the Visser would be feeding, and once again Erek's ability to communicate with the other Chee proved invaluable when Mr. King confirmed the timing.

Tom and Erek would remain in Washington. Our original team of six would return to the west coast, where we would carry out the mission to free Alloran. I wondered if any of us would be able to sleep tonight.





Jake

I woke up early, relieved to have slept at all. My brain was racing. Marco would have appreciated the irony of my thoughts. Here we were, about to undergo a series of bizarre mutations in order to kidnap an alien, thus allowing us to save the planet, and I actually felt that we were getting back to normal.

Morphing, fighting yeerks, and facing death were normal to all six of us. Leading a Presidential Task Force through three days of boardroom meetings was downright unnatural.

In the back of my mind I kept worrying that it was all a trap. They were all Yeerks, and now they had us; I had finally lost the game. Despite all the evidence I had presented, I still marveled at the fact that the President had believed me. Yet I had morphed the Leeran. I had seen into his mind. That was one doubt I could push aside, although I would remain cautious. Today was the day of Alloran's liberation; There was plenty of real danger to ponder.

I could have grabbed another half-hour of sleep, but instead I wandered around the White House and gathered my thoughts. Only Cassie had a Yeerk morph, which meant we were forced to either risk exposure or break our rule about using human morphs. I had already used Leeran morph recently, and I hated crossing that line. Ax had the ability to alter his own human morph, and he had taught Marco as well. I had Tom's permission. So, it was just Rachel and Tobias who had to break our policy. Somehow, that failed to make me feel better. Morphing humans, using human bodies without permission, was too close to what the Yeerks did. Different. Not as bad. But over the line.

I looked up at the portrait of Lincoln. The Great Emancipator. He had ended human bondage forever, or so we had thought.

George Washington looked down at me from a different wall. He had won his war, with only a handful of poorly equipped men, and in doing so had given democracy a chance. That he had succeeded against such odds had given me hope over the years.

Other presidents occupied the walls as well. I had studied all of them. I knew their strengths, their weaknesses, their successes, and their failures. I had read their speeches. I had studied their decisions. It had become an obsession of mine, to study the lives and careers of leaders throughout history. I read about them all; the great leaders, the infamously unsuccessful leaders, and those who had been merely adequate. There had been lessons to be learned from every one of them. And I knew that every lesson I had learned from another man's life would potentially save me from learning it the hard way myself.

The cruel irony was that for security reasons, I had no choice but to hide my knowledge and deliberately miss questions on history quizzes. I was an average student before this war, and that meant I could not afford to suddenly look like a history buff. Of all the injustices in this war that was certainly the smallest; it would make an entertaining story for the grandkids someday.

Grandkids. How I hoped that someday I'd have grandkids, and that they would live in a free and peaceful galaxy. Today the future freedom of Earth depended on my success.

I heard a sound, and turned to find Cassie approaching. Words weren't necessary. I hugged her, and we walked together to the morning meeting.

Tobias

Ax and I had shared the last watch shift, so we were the last ones to arrive at the meeting. It was just the eight of us; the Animorphs, Erek, and Tom. Besides us, only the President knew the objective of the day's mission, and even he didn't have the details. That Jake had managed to enforce such a strict 'need to know' policy here that he had essentially pulled rank on the President was almost unbelievable to me. I always knew Jake was a natural leader, but the last few days I had been tempted to follow Ax's example and call him my Prince.

Jake wasted no time in starting.

"Erek and Tom, you will remain with the President at all times until we return. If the Yeerks get to him, we need to know immediately, so we can switch to plan B."

Jake handed a dracon beam to his brother. "Tom, do whatever you can to see that an attack is not successful, and that no Yeerks return from such a mission with news of failure. But do not risk getting captured. You know too much."

No one mentioned how little a chance Tom would have under such circumstances. I knew Jake wasn't happy with the situation, but he couldn't risk infiltrating the Yeerk pool with less than our full force. Besides, if the White House was the focus of a Yeerk attack, an Andalite defense would compromise security; the Yeerks would know that their activities were exposed.

"I think the odds of Yeerk activity here are microscopic, since it would risk compromising their security and accomplish very little, but I don't want to be caught unprepared."

"That's our Jake. Always be prepared like a good little Boy Scout," Marco joked. The unnatural sense of formality was broken.

"I've always admired their motto," Jake replied evenly, "Now, people, we have work to do."

"Let's do it!" Rachel responded with genuine enthusiasm.

Rachel

We were flown to Area 51 by the same Air Force commander that had fetched Marco's parents. Jake fussed about whether the Yeerks would catch wind of the increased air traffic at the secret base.

"Increased traffic?" I asked incredulously, "Jake, they can't possibly notice two flights!"

"Well, the Yeerks might not notice directly. But what if someone at Area 51 makes a comment..." Marco stopped mid-sentence, "No, I guess those guys aren't really the type for gossip. Sorry, Jake, I'm with Xena on this one. I don't think we have to worry."

<Besides, we have enough to worry about> Tobias added.

"A little bit of caution never hurt anyone," Cassie countered.

Jake settled the matter. "We're meeting the Chee at Crazy Helen's; we're leaving the base in flea morph; short straw plays taxi. We morph before we land. If anyone is at all suspicious, at least they won't see six birds."

I rolled my eyes as Jake held out a fistful of pretzel sticks. Not that I'd argue with his order; Jake's caution had kept us alive for years.

"Please, Jake, tell me we're using bird-taxi, not dragonfly-taxi," Marco groaned. We rarely used the dragonfly for flea transport duty. Positioning five fleas on an insect wasted too much precious time.

"Don't worry, Marco, there's too much ground to cover for dragonfly," Jake assured him.

I drew the short straw.

"You'll have to go seagull..."

"I'll have to go seagull..."

"Jinx on you both!" Marco cried with childish delight, "And now that our fearless leader is stricken mute, I order us all to the beach."

Everyone laughed nervously. Marco had told a bad joke, and now it was my line. "Let's do it!"


I flew to Crazy Helen's, noticing just how little garbage there was at the military base. Our Chee contacts were buying tee shirts:

"Aliens are among us!"

<Marco, you'll like this: The Chee are buying alien conspiracy tee-shirts.> I informed my passengers.

<Any other signs of life down there?> Jake asked.

<All clear. I can fly right in their car window.> I answered.

<Prince Jake, the vehicle may be a hologram; I'd advise caution.> Ax warned.

<Hey, caution is my middle name!> I responded, not waiting for Jake's routine objection to Ax's use of the royal affectation.

I wanted to dive recklessly through the open window, but I restrained myself. Gulls don't dive; gulls are more casual, and I needed to be inconspicuous. I landed, then fluttered up to the window.

<We're in.>

Cassie

Once the Chee had us safely on the highway, we demorphed. Everyone was very quite. Rachel was visibly chafing at the bit to get to the action. Jake looked thoughtful, no doubt running possible scenarios through his head, trying to make sure all the bases were covered. Ax was probably worrying over Alloran's cooperation as if he were personally responsible for the old prince's behavior.

I was more than a little worried about Alloran's state of mind myself. I was going to be inside his head, unwilling witness to every horrible memory, every dishonorable thought, every painful longing for home. Worse yet, I had no choice but to take complete control of that tortured soul. I could not allow him free will until we had him alone; I would be using Alloran as my slave just as the Visser had.


"OK. I don't like it any more than you, but we've all acquired different people over the years. Use them. Cassie? It's time." Jake was already morphing his brother as he gave the orders.

I began to shrink, and my entire body oozed a noxious slime. I couldn't breathe. Forcing down my revulsion, I raced through the unpleasant morph. Jake/Tom reached down and picked me up. I would travel to the Yeerk pool in a ziplock bag.

<Don't forget, we can all use thoughtspeak while in morph, even human morph. Take advantage of that.>

With that final reminder, we headed for Hell on Earth, the Yeerk Pool. I was blind and deaf, trapped in a sandwich bag, and I was the lucky one. Jake's thoughtspeak reassured me. Five Happy Meals had been ordered, one at a time, with extra happy. One at a time, we entered the walk-in freezer and descended the metal staircase.

Rachel, Tobias, Marco, and Ax all found hiding places. They morphed Hork Bajir, and waited. Jake and I headed for the Visser's private Kandrona. I couldn't hear what was happening around me, but I knew Jake was following Tom's instructions to the letter as he played his part.

<The Visser is already feeding,> Jake told me. <Either I'm late or he's early. Here we go.>

I felt Jake's hands around my slimy body. With a soft plop, I fell into the small pool. I was alone with the Visser. He was unaware of my presence. I don't know how long it was before there was a disturbance in the pool. Then Jake spoke again.

<The Visser is dead.>

More silence.

<I sent the Hork Bajir guards to fetch Alloran. You need to move quickly to get to the briefing room. We're short on morph time.>

I mentally shuddered at the thought of being trapped as a yeerk. Then it was time. My yeerk body sensed Alloran's head being thrust into the pool. As I entered his ear, I could tell he was unconscious. I touched his mind. He woke up and struggled. Gaining control was much harder than I expected. This slave had not given up the fight.

<Weakening, Esplin?> Alloran thought hatefully, <I'll win one of these days.>

<Esplin is dead> I replied privately. Then, in the shouting thoughtspeak of the now deceased Visser One, I demanded that Tom accompany me to the briefing room.

<Dead? Who are you?> Alloran was hopeful. He was also afraid to hope.

<One of the so-called bandits. I'm here to rescue you, and recruit you. But I'm closer to life as a nothlit then I'd wish to be, so we must hurry.>

I felt his joy, among other things; I tried to ignore his thoughts as I raced to the private briefing room. "Tom" and I entered, and found that everyone else had already snuck in. Three Hork Bajir were seated around a conference table. Ax was fully Andalite, hiding behind the door.

<All clear, Cassie>> Rachel told me.

I was confident enough of Alloran's cooperation to bail. I would not spend life as a Yeerk. I released his brain, and slithered from his ear. Demorph! That was my only thought as I fell to the floor with wet thud and began to grow.

Alloran spoke his first word in freedom. <Human!>

Ax stepped out of hiding. <War-Prince Alloran-Semitur-Corrass, welcome. I'd like to introduce my prince.>

Ax

<I have long wished to meet your prince, Aximili.> Alloran responded. He looked around expectantly. Jake demorphed. I was worried. Other Andalites had been highly critical of my loyalty to a human. But Alloran surprised me pleasantly. He barely hesitated.

<Prince Jake, leader of the Resistance.>

<I am honored. I thank you for my freedom. I swear my allegiance to you.>

Jake made the appropriate Andalite response, an action I knew that Alloran appreciated.

"Now, we need to take the Blade Ship. Alloran, get us on board and off the ground." Jake ordered, "Everyone else, Hork Bajir."

Cassie and I morphed, and we all followed the "Visser" to his ship like obedient Hork Bajir guards. I was glad we had succeeded. But I was just a little...is "jealous" the right word? Not really. Part of me felt that the Visser's death should have been at my hands, not Jake's. I had failed to avenge Elfangor as honor demanded. But had I met him tail to tail, Alloran would have died, and I suspect I would have as well. And what did it matter, really, who squashed a slug? I suspect Elfangor would have been glad that Alloran lived to enjoy freedom and fight for his people once again. His life had been honored appropriately.

Jake

Alloran ordered the Blade Ship into orbit. Taxxons, humans, and Hork Bajir scrambled to obey his every wish. The Visser's tyrannical nature worked to our advantage. Alloran could have behaved in any suspicious manner he chose, and these underlings would have been too terrified to suspect a thing.

Ax disabled the ship's communications system; if we were suspected, no loyal yeerks could warn their comrades. Despite Rachel's desire, we had no need to take the ship by force immediately.

The seven of us gathered in the Visser's quarters.

"We need as many allies as we can gather. I don't want any Hork Bajir or human controllers seriously injured as we take over the ship." I looked at Alloran. "I assume most yeerks would leave their host on direct orders from the Visser?"

He looked surprised. <I doubt the yeerk lives that would disobey any order from Visser One, but it would be an unexpected command.>

"I know," I replied. "It would give us away if we didn't move with extreme caution, but it will work. We simply don't have time to starve out these yeerks."


The liberation of these hosts was a tedious process. We started with the humans. Each was summoned in to a meeting with the visser. Alloran would then bluster and bellow, questioning their loyalty. The Controller would cower and plead. Alloran would then give his shocking order, <Prove your loyalty. Leave your host.>

There would be shock, then obedience. Tobias or Rachel, as Hork Bajir, would move swiftly to keep the newly free human from slaughtering the slug. For the most part, they were successful. Ax would reveal himself. I would explain what was happening to the suddenly free human. Cassie would take them aside for some brief counseling. And once we were sure we could trust them, we sent them back to their duties. Those that were too upset to cope quite yet, or seemed otherwise untrustworthy, were temporarily locked up.

With the humans, it was easier. They were for the most part smart enough to grasp the situation, capable of playing the parts of their yeerks, and willing to follow the orders of the "bandits" who had been fighting for their freedom.

The Hork Bajir, however, were harder. They were terrified of Alloran, slow at grasping the concept of our deception, and relatively incapable of complex planning. "Jara Hamee" and "Ket Helpak" (Rachel and Tobias) worked hard to reassure them. But I wouldn't trust any of them to leave the room until we had them all. It got crowded.

Then it was time to deal with the Taxxons. They were Yeerk allies, not slaves. Here was the first disagreement between Alloran and I. Rachel, Marco, and Alloran wanted to simply slaughter the giant cannibalistic worms. I suspected that Ax and Tobias possibly agreed, although they remained silent. Strategically, keeping the Taxxons alive was risky. But Cassie didn't approve of outright murder, and ethically she was right. I was tired of compromising my morals on this mission, and I held firm. They would have to be herded into the brig.

Rachel

I was annoyed with Jake. We had a planet to save, and he didn't want to kill some worms? How many thousands of Taxxons had we killed over the years, and now it was wrong? But then again, I understood that Jake didn't want to become an executioner.

We went to the bridge, and Alloran ordered two Taxxons from their posts. The moved along obediently, for about two minutes. The fouls things then turned and attacked the nearest Hork Bajir, which just happened to be Tobias. I reacted without thinking, and my blades made short work of the Taxxons. The stench of Taxxon guts immediately attracted the others on board. To a Taxxon, the death of a fellow Taxxon meant only one thing: a feast.

Alloran barked orders at the Taxxons, but was ignored. One turned on Cassie, and any chance of preventing a battle was gone. I slashed and hacked my way through the mass of Taxxons, sliding on spilled guts and ignoring the pain of needle-sharp Taxxon teeth. I could morph away the injuries, and a Taxxon was little match for a Hork Bajir.

It was over in minutes, and I was oddly disappointed. Ax and Alloran both had gore on their tail blades. Cassie and Tobias had both killed their attackers. For a moment, I was jealous of their kills. Then I was horrified at my thoughts. Jealous of their "kills"? When had I become so bloodthirsty that I took pleasure in massacring Taxxons? I looked at the gore on my wrist blades, and I suddenly needed to be Rachel again. I demorphed.

Jake and Marco raced off in opposite directions, searching for any remaining Taxxons. Cassie had a bad bite on her leg, and was demorphing to repair it. Tobias had demorphed, and was on his way back to Hork Bajir.

"Tobias, go human, please?" I asked. He looked at me, and reversed his morph. Once he was human again, I pulled him into an empty room and hugged him.

"Rachel, are you okay?" he asked.

"Tobias, am I bloodthirsty?" I questioned, looking him in the eye.

He looked back at me with such a look of love that I started to feel better instantly. "Reckless, maybe. Impulsive. But I wouldn't call you bloodthirsty."

"Just now, when the battle ended, I was disappointed."

"I know. You've been tense. You don't like to wait. You like to jump right in and get things done. Now you finally got something to do, and I think it was over a little too quickly."

"I was annoyed that the rest of you had done any fighting. Like you stole my kill or something."

"You just weren't through blowing off steam, and you know that if you had taken on the Taxxons alone it would have taken another three minutes."

"What really worries me is that part of me wished for Hork Bajir to fight instead."

"A good sign. You don't want to hurt any Hork Bajir; you just like a fair, honorable fight. This was too close to pure slaughter, and that bothers you."

"When did you become so wise?"

"I just know you, Rachel. I love you."

We decided to stay in the closet for just a few more minutes and blow off steam in an entirely different way.

Cassie

"Was it awful?" Jake asked, when we were finally alone.

"What?"

"Being inside Alloran's head. Are you alright?"

"Yeah. It wasn't a picnic, but I'll survive."

He hugged me. "Cassie, I hate to ask you this, but I need to know. We can trust Alloran, right?"

"Yeah, we can. He has admired you for years; he assumed you were Andalite, of course, but I don't see why his opinion would change after learning differently. He swore his allegiance, and I believe he was sincere. He followed your orders during the Blade Ship takeover, even when his own instincts ran in different directions."

"That was my take on it, too."

"He's made some mistakes in his life. Big ones. I think he'd rather not lead anything for a while."

We were quite for a few minutes. Jake broke the silence.

"I murdered him," he said. I didn't ask who. He meant Esplin. The Visser.

"And he murdered Elfangor," it wasn't the most brilliant reply, but for once I was unsure as to what to say. I considered telling him what I had done to John Berryman, but somehow I doubt that knowing my greatest sin would have made Jake feel better.

"And countless others. But two wrongs don't make a right."

"No. No they don't. But Jake, we've all been forced to do things we aren't particularly proud of. The Visser's death is hardly a tragedy."

"I know. If he had died in battle it would be different. But I killed him in cold blood."

"I understand. Yet if it had been a fight, Alloran would be dead. You did what you had to do."

"I didn't have to kill him. He was defenseless. I could have stuck him in my pocket."

"And done what? Risked getting caught? Risked giving us away? Doomed the planet? All so that an evil slug could have a chance to survive in a plastic tub somewhere?"

"I know. He'd have starved in three days anyhow, and I'd still be responsible for his death. Maybe I'm wrong to indulge my guilt like this."

"It would be more of a problem if you didn't feel some regret. That's what makes you one of the good guys."

"I hope I really am, Cassie, I really do. Sometimes I don't feel that sure."

"You are, Jake. I'll tell you if you ever go too far."

Marco

We re-entered atmosphere on the east coast. Ax restored communications, and Alloran informed his underlings that he would be in Virginia preparing for the invasion. They didn't question him.

We left Ax in command of the ship. The rest of us morphed birds of prey. As the ship flew above D.C., we bailed out and flew back to the White House. Ax would remain in stationary orbit above the capital.

Alloran morphed a kafit bird.

<I can't believe that after all this time on this planet, that arrogant fool never acquired a single native animal.>

<Just stay above Rachel, so the birdwatchers can't get a clear look at you.> Tobias advised.

<We'll get you some Earth morphs> Jake assured him, <But first we need to check on the President and make some concrete battle plans.>

<Check on the President... Jake, what happened to our lives?> I asked, <Normal guys check the oil in the car, or check on dinner. They do not need to check on the safety of the President.>

Jake ignored me. <Battle morphs when we arrive. Just in case.>

<E-mail. That is something normal people check.>

<No elephants or alien monsters. Just be ready to defend yourselves. Andalite. Grizzly. Gorilla.>

<The score. Normal, average people check on football games. They walk through the living room, and say, 'Hey, Dad, what's the score.' Normal.>

<We're here.>

Fortunately, everyone was fine. Not that we could take their words for it. But Erek confirmed that they had not had Yeerk visitors.

To his amazement, my mother was among those who greeted Alloran.

<The host of Edriss!> he exclaimed. <I'm sorry, but Esplin never bothered to learn your name.>

"Eva" she supplied, shaking his hand. "I'm pleased that I may finally speak to you. I trust Esplin is dead?"

<You may rest assured that the abomination no longer plagues the galaxy.>

"Alloran, we are ready to begin," Jake called.

<Yes, Prince Jake> he answered.

"Oh, no. Not another one!" I groaned.

Tobias

We all listened intently as Alloran described what there was of the Visser's current battle plan. He would continue to play the part of the ruthless yeerk, so we would be able to coordinate his doomed attack with a crippling defense.

Our Air Force people were off modifying their jets with the help of Marco's dad. Other recruits were off performing various functions.

"The real question here is how to keep controller casualties low." Jake said when Alloran finished. "Those bug fighters will be without shields or weapons; we are in a position to command their movements; and our own forces are prepared. In short, we now have the upper hand. And that means we have an ethical responsibility to find a way to save as many lives as possible. Suggestions?"

"We take the places of the bug fighter pilots. When our engines are disabled, we bail out. When we're clear, the Air Force finishes the job." Marco suggested.

"One problem. There aren't enough of us." Rachel pointed out, "We won't have enough pilots."

"We have pilots," Toby answered, "My people can do it."

I sent her a private thoughtspeak message. <It will be dangerous.> She looked at me as if I was an idiot.

Jake looked torn. He didn't want to endanger the Hork Bajir, but Toby's suggestion did solve one of his major problems. "Okay. But make sure your volunteers understand the risks. We'll have to help you get into position."

"What do we do with the real pilots?" Cassie asked.

<I'll arrange a training exercise the day before the attack. Toby's forces can take their places then.> Alloran answered.

<It won't be much different from one of our usual raids.> Toby assured us.

"That will give us a chance to put parachutes on board the bug fighters," Marco added.

<We'll have to do something with the Taxxon co-pilots,> I reminded everyone.

"Just throw them in a cage and let them eat each other," Tom suggested. "The yeerks won't notice a few missing."

"I can't say I like that idea, but I suspect its the best alternative," Jake agreed. "We can lock them up and worry about them after the battle."

"Hey, it's not our fault if they eat each other," Marco said, earning a dirty look from Cassie.

"Are we sure the yeerks won't miss those Taxxons?" Jake questioned, looking from Alloran to Eva.

"It is possible that one of the other Taxxons might notice, but that's unlikely, I would think." Eva assured him.

<I can silence any Taxxon that notices. But Taxxon disappearances are hardly unusual. It amazes me that the Visser has any Taxxons left in his organization at all.> Alloran added.

"I'd like to keep our pilots away from the general yeerk population, if possible. Can you do that?" Jake asked Alloran.

<I can arrange to isolate them on the grounds that I suspect the Andalite bandits will attack.> Alloran answered.

"Perfect," Jake answered. "Now, we need to plan our attack on the Yeerk Pool."

It went on for another hour. Sneaking in and out of our personal hell on earth was now greatly simplified. The "Visser" could come and go as he pleased. Between now and d-day, there would be several such trips.

Erek and the Chee arranged for Cassie to meet with Mr. Tidwell and Illim. We collaborated on a list of Controllers we needed to specifically free in the next few days. The issue of Chapman came up.

"He's a voluntary. We can't trust him. Period." Rachel stated.

"He has power. If he gets suspicious he could organize an overthrow of the Visser." Marco countered.

"We can't afford to eliminate him. It would be noticed." Cassie worried.

"Someone could morph him." Tom suggested tentatively.

"No. That would be a big risk." Jake decided.

<I could send him to France,> Alloran offered.

"Is that Andalite humor or a real possibility?" Jake asked.

<It would work, I believe.> he answered.

"Then we do it. And speaking of France, I need more information about the current situation there."

France was in trouble, basically. Jake rubbed his temples as he listened. "Well, it looks like we have our work cut out for us."

Throughout it all, the President was quiet. He had entrusted Jake with the safety of the planet. Now, having delegated authority, he seemed content to play a quiet role. I didn't know whether to respect him for knowing when to follow the lead of someone more qualified, or to worry about his lack of input. It made me very glad that Jake was the leader, and not me.

Jake

Our meeting ended. Alloran and Tom returned to the Blade Ship, relieving Ax. Ax, Marco, and I accompanied the President out to the Air Force base to check on preparations there. Tobias, Rachel, and Cassie took the opportunity to get some rest.

"Son!" Marco's father greeted him with enthusiasm. "Watch this!"

He pulled a quarter out of his pocket and threw it at an F-16. The coin didn't get within three feet of the aircraft, bouncing off of what appeared to be empty space.

"You've got the shields working!" Marco replied with enthusiasm.

I smiled. This was good news, indeed. I had been afraid to count on the Air Force planes being shielded.

"Can this thing leave the atmosphere?" the President asked.

"We believe so, sir," Ray replied. "But if the shields were to go down the pilot wouldn't survive re-entry."

"Let's try not to test that theory," I interjected. "How many aircraft do you think we'll have ready in time?"


Morning came too early. I splashed cold water on my face and headed towards the oval office in search of coffee. Toby had left for the Valley the night before, but I wanted to go over the plan with Ax and Alloran one more time.

Toby and her team would stage an ambush. Ax was going along as backup, but the rest of us would remain behind. We had to infiltrate the Yeerk Pool for the second day in a row later today, and I had decided that my team needed some amount of rest.

Logically, there was no reason to be overly concerned. A dozen Hork Bajir Controllers and some Taxxons against twenty of Toby's people, Ax, and Alloran? No contest. But I worried.

Ax

I don't think Rachel was happy with me when I left the White House and headed for my rendezvous with the Blade Ship. She had wanted to cover backup on this mission, but Jake had given me the assignment.

I sat in the pilot's seat of the Blade Ship in Hork Bajir morph, and watched Alloran bluster at the pilots of the Bug Fighters. Those poor Hork Bajir Controllers were so terrified of their Visser they could barely follow orders properly. I was afraid they would crash into one another in their distraction.

When we all landed, we missed the mark by nearly a quarter of a mile. Shockingly, one of the pilots sensed that something was amiss when Alloran ordered them out of their fighters.

"Traitor! Andalite bandit!" he shouted. "You are not the Visser!"

The others believed him, and attacked Alloran. I demorphed and rushed to his aid. <Stay here.> I ordered the former Controllers on the Blade Ship. <Contact Jake if we fail.>

One of the pilots bolted for the woods, and Alloran took off after him. It was me against eleven Hork Bajir and twelve Taxxons. I battled desperately, but I knew I was in trouble. Hork Bajir blades cut me from all directions. Needle-sharp Taxxon teeth sought vulnerable flesh. As fast as my tail blade was, it wasn't fast enough to hold off attackers from all directions at once.

Suddenly, I wasn't alone. The human girl appeared as if from nowhere, baseball bat in hand. She made good use of the makeshift weapon, and soon the tide of the battle changed in our favor. Unconscious Hork Bajir littered the ground.

Breathing hard, she turned to me. "Elfangor? It can't be you, can it?"

The hopeful look in her eyes made me regret the necessity of telling her the truth. <No. Aximili. You knew my brother?>

"He's dead, isn't he," she whispered. Tears welled up in her eyes. I laid a comforting hand on her shoulder as she struggled to regain her composure.

<Loren!> Alloran had returned, and now stared in amazement at the blonde human girl with the baseball bat.

"Visser Three," she spat, wielding her weapon. Alloran blocked her swing, but barely.

<Esplin is dead> he told her.

"Alloran, you're free? That's the best news I've heard all day," she replied joyfully.

<I'm glad you feel that way. After what happened in Taxxon space...>

Toby's group appeared, and began hauling our unconscious prisoners towards the Blade Ship. We all pitched in; the girl didn't hesitate to grab a large Hork Bajir and start dragging. The curiosity was killing me. Who was this human girl who knew Elfangor, and apparently the Visser as well? She certainly didn't look old enough to have known Alloran before his captivity.

Alloran had a similar thought. <Loren, it's been twenty years. Yet you've barely aged. How is that possible?>

"Twenty years? I knew time had passed...but twenty years?" she recovered quickly. "Anyhow, long story. Are you familiar with the Ellimist?"

<Ahhh. Now I understand.> Alloran answered.

Tobias

I watched Jake pace the floor, rubbing his temples checking the clock every two minutes. Finally, Ax returned with news of the morning mission.

<Tobias, was your mother's name Loren?> Ax asked. I don't know what I had been expecting him to say, but that wasn't it.





Tobias

"Um, Ax?" Jake questioned. "How did the mission go?"

<Fine, Prince Jake...well, not fine, actually, but it turned out fine. So I guess my answer is, fine.> Ax answered, oddly distracted.

I must admit I was pretty distracted myself. My mother? Why on Earth would Ax ask about her? Especially after a mission - odd.

"I never thought I'd see the day that Ax would start stuttering in thoughtspeak," Marco commented.

<I do not believe that I was stuttering, although I will admit I was experiencing some difficulty in organizing my thoughts. The mission was...eventful.> Ax replied.

"Why don't you start at the beginning," Jake suggested.

<Well, the Visser's pilots weren't very good at following Alloran's orders. We missed the mark, and landed a distance from Toby's troops.> Ax began. <One of the Hork Bajir Controllers declared Alloran an Andalite bandit, then took off.>

"Oh no," Cassie gasped.

Jake looked pale.

<Alloran gave chase,> Ax continued. <I was left to face eleven Hork Bajir and a dozen Taxxons alone. Then, out of nowhere, this human girl appeared, with a baseball bat. She saved my life.>

"Ax got his butt saved by a human girl with a baseball bat?" Marco asked, incredulous.

<She was no ordinary girl. She called me Elfangor. And Alloran knew her.> Ax explained not at all. <She was remarkably efficient with her weapon.>

<Ax...> I began tentatively <You mentioned my mother?>

<She made no such claim,> Ax answered. <But I have a suspicion. She appeared too young, but Alloran claimed to have known her twenty years ago, and she mentioned the Ellimist.>

<It must be her...> I answered, barely daring to believe. <How many women named Loren could Elfangor have known?>

"Where is she now?" Rachel demanded.

<With Alloran on the Blade Ship.> Ax replied. <I have not told her of my suspicion. She was quite upset at the news of Elfangor's death.>

"She didn't know? That's so sad," Cassie commented.

"This could prove a complication." Jake interjected. "First of all, are we sure this Loren is not a Controller?"

<Quite certain, Prince Jake.> Ax answered. <If she were a Yeerk, she could have become a Visser today merely by standing idle and letting me die.>

"Fair enough. I assume Alloran and Toby are continuing the training exercise?" Jake asked.

<Yes, Prince Jake. They will not return to the Yeerk Pool without backup.> Ax answered.

"Good. We need to get down there so that you and Marco can program your virus. Any volunteers to stay here with Erek and the President?" Jake asked.

"I will," Eva answered. "I can't go on the mission anyhow."

"Imagine the panic that the late Visser One could cause in the Yeerk Pool," Marco mused.

Eva laughed, "That would be interesting."

"You two are sick," Rachel commented. But she was smiling at the thought as well.

I wondered if I would be able to joke with my mother soon. I wondered if she really was my mother, or an elaborate Yeerk hoax. A memory of a certain photographer cousin came to mind.

"Anyhow..." Jake interjected. "We have a mission to plan, people."

"People? You're calling us 'people' now?" Marco questioned.

"Yeah, Jake. Don't offend Marco and leave him out," Rachel joked.

Jake sighed. "Marco, is that virus ready to go?"

"Yes, sir!" he answered with a salute.

"Ax, did Alloran confirm a time to meet?" Jake asked.

<Yes, Prince Jake. He will be over the rendezvous point at approximately 2:38 pm, Eastern Standard Time.> Ax replied.

"Approximately? Ax-man, get out a dictionary. That is simply not an approximation." Marco groaned.

"Tobias?" Rachel looked concerned. "What are you thinking?"

<I'm thinking that our lives have gotten profoundly weird.> I answered.

"No, seriously. Your mother just appears and saves Ax's life? How much sense does that make? Someone has some explaining to do!" Rachel struggled to keep from raising her voice. "She leaves you with apathetic relatives for your entire life, and now she's suddenly back?"

<You heard Ax. She mentioned the Ellimist. It might not be her fault.> I answered.

"And what right did he have? He took your father; now we find out he took your mother, too?" Rachel raged. "Is that what he calls 'not interfering'? Stealing parents from children?"

<Rachel, calm down. Life isn't fair; we know that. But now I might have a chance to get to know my mother. This is a good thing.> Until I said it, I hadn't been sure. But however apprehensive I felt, I was looking forward to approximately 2:38 PM, Eastern Standard Time.

Rachel

I was angry. Hadn't Tobias been through enough? It was the Ellimist who had whisked Elfangor across the galaxy before Tobias was born. It was the Ellimist who, however indirectly, had dragged us all into this war. And it was the Ellimist who had given Tobias back his morphing power without restoring him to his human body. It was unbearable to think that the same being was responsible for the fact that Tobias grew up without a mother.

And if the Ellimist was not responsible, and this woman had willingly abandoned her son... Well, then a baseball bat certainly wouldn't be enough to protect her.

We were in the air at two-thirty. We were on our way to yet another trip into the Yeerk Pool, but that wasn't what was making us edgy. We were all wondering about Ax's mysterious savior; Tobias especially.

Jake and Marco were concerned that her appearance was some sort of Yeerk trap. I was worried about that possibility as well. I was also uneasy about the effect this would have on Tobias.

Alloran was punctual. The six of us flew into the ship, demorphed, and headed for the bridge.

"Rachel, Marco: battle morphs. Just in case." Jake ordered. "Everyone else: Stay yourselves."

I morphed to grizzly. When we reached the bridge, we found Tom at the weapons station. Sharing the helm with Alloran was a teenage girl with long blonde hair and hopelessly out of fashion clothing.

"What's the situation?" Jake asked, looking around the bridge warily.

<The Visser had planned an important meeting of the Sharing for tonight. Tom and I must attend or Chapman may get suspicious. Toby and I are nearly finished with the exercises.> Alloran answered.

"We'd better get him shipped off to France before he becomes a problem," Jake replied. "Where's this mysterious Loren?"

<Prince Jake, may I present my old friend Loren...>

The teenager in the unlikely clothing rose from her seat at the helm. This couldn't be her; she was no older than Tobias himself.

<It's her, but how...> Tobias told me in private thoughtspeak. <Ax, when you said 'girl' and 'appeared too young' you really meant it, didn't you?> Tobias questioned.

<Yes, Tobias> Ax answered. <She mentioned the Ellimist; I imagine he has tampered with her personal timeline.>

<...And Loren, may I present Prince Jake, leader of the Resistance.> Alloran continued.

"Pleased to meet you, Loren. It sounds like we were lucky that you happened by this morning." Jake said cautiously. "How did you happen to be in the woods?"

"I don't know. My memory is a little jumbled. I thought I was just on the Taxxon home world, but I have memories from much later..." she mused, "...I was at home, and something was wrong, but I couldn't figure out what...Then I knew. Elfangor was missing. The Ellimist appeared. He told me he could make me forget. It made me so angry. He had taken my husband and now he wanted to take my memory of him? I remember arguing...it felt like forever..."

Her words trailed off. I realized she was fighting back tears. Jake and Cassie exchanged a look. They were trying to decide whether or not to trust her, and how to proceed.

Loren spoke again. "I don't know what happened. But I do know what is going to happen. Alloran filled me in. We have a war to win. We'll figure out the rest later."

With that, I knew I was going to like Loren.

Jake

I decided to trust Loren. If there was a Yeerk in her head, it deserved an Academy Award. Cassie thought she was sincere, and we needed to get back to business. We had a great deal to accomplish in the next twenty-four hours.

"Who is on this ship other than the nine of us?" I asked. We had been forced to keep a number of former Controllers on board as part of Alloran's cover, instead of sending them to the relative safety of the refugee camp as I would have preferred.

"There are a couple of former human hosts in engineering," Tom replied.

"Where are the rest?"

"Still in the Hork Bajir valley, as we discussed." Alloran answered.

"Good. Alloran, take us into the docking bay. Be ready to fight if they're on to us. Tom, don't leave the weapons station until Alloran gives the all-clear. Loren, am I to assume you can fly this thing?"

"Yes," she answered confidently.

"Good. Do not leave the helm; Be ready to take off. Ax and Marco, as soon as we're clear you need to go Hork Bajir and get to work on installing your virus. Everyone else, let's find a hiding place. Be ready for battle morphs. Rachel, once we're clear you're on guard duty."

"Let's do it!" Rachel replied. She was practically vibrating with energy. I desperately hoped she wouldn't need to use it. A battle right now meant the Yeerks were on to us. And if the Yeerks were on to us, the Earth was probably doomed.

Alloran left the Blade Ship and stormed around the hangar bay, bellowing at the Hork Bajir technicians who were responsible for running the place.

<Prince Jake, I believe we are still undetected.> Alloran told me privately.

He blustered some more, then shouted for Tom. He sounded so much like the Visser I couldn't help but get chills.

<You!> he bellowed at Rachel, who was standing guard in Hork Bajir morph, <Kill anyone who gets near my ship!>

<The rest of you! No one comes in here! I will not have this facility compromised by those blasted Andalites!> With that, Alloran and Tom headed into the Yeerk Pool.

Ax and Marco moved out in Hork Bajir morph, and began installing their virus on the Bug Fighter computers. The rest of us stayed on the Blade Ship. It was nerve wracking, not having anything to do.

"Tobias, why don't you go sit at the weapons station," Cassie suggested. "I'm sure Loren could use the company. I don't suggest explaining who you are quite yet, though. She's had a hard day."

"Good idea. I think I'd better wander down to engineering and chat with the crew." I held my hand out to Cassie. "Shall we?"

Marco

I won't bore you with the details of the virus, although it was rather clever. Our little bug would wait a set time period, and then rename all of the command codes that we specified. The computer would therefore be unable to find those codes. It was also designed to duplicate itself, like all viruses, so if it did come in contact with other computers of yeerk design, it would do the same thing. But I digress.

Simply put, it meant every bug fighter in the hangar would be without both shields and dracon beams during the upcoming battle. Yet all systems would test normally in the meantime.

Ax and I morphed Hork Bajir and marched boldly from the Blade Ship to the first bug fighter. No one even thought to stop us. And why would they? How crazy would the Andalite bandits have to be to stow away on the Visser's own Blade Ship?

Every guard in the place was watching the entrances fiercely, to the exclusion of all else. That left only a few Hork Bajir technicians in addition to Toby's people. Our trouble, therefore, came not from suspicious Yeerks, but from the bug fighter computers themselves.

The first three were a snap. We spent no more than five minutes each on those fighters. The fourth computer stubbornly refused to read our code. We had to alter the program to get it to work.

<Ax, why don't we try adjusting the second subroutine so that it...> I suggested.

<I believe that might do the trick> Ax replied.

<It's too bad we can't get it to display a skull and crossbones, like in the movie,> I commented.

<I do not see what purpose that would serve> Ax answered.

<Humor, Ax-man, humor> I explained.

<Ah, yes. I understand. That would be quite amusing, if any Yeerks would actually see it. Which they will not.> Ax answered.

<I certainly hope not.> I agreed nervously. <Is it working yet?>

<We have achieved success. It has identified the codes.> Ax informed after a long pause.

We moved on. Fortunately, only that one bug fighter seemed to have a different set of command codes. We soon had hidden our virus on more than two dozen bug fighters. Any fighters that took to the air following the destruction of the first strike team would meet the same fate. They would be defenseless against our air force.

"Halt!" the "Hork Bajir" guarding the Blade Ship demanded.

<Chill, Rachel. It's us,> I answered in thoughtspeak. Out loud, I uttered some of the hybrid speech of the average Hork Bajir Controller.

<Prove it,> she teased.

<Stuff it, Xena. If you can't tell by the thoughtspeak I don't know what else to tell you> I answered. <I suppose we could display Ax's tremendous ability to eat a Cinnabon.>

She let us pass. Humor is a powerful weapon.

Tobias

"Loren? I'm Tobias. Jake sent me up to man the weapons station." I explained.

"Hi," she replied. "Would you mind if I asked you a couple of questions?"

"Not at all," I answered. "What do you need to know?"

"I've missed a few years. Alloran has filled me in a bit, but if I need to talk to anyone I'm a little shaky on current events."

"Well, what's the last thing you remember?"

She thought for a while. "Ronald Reagan was President..."

We spent some time rehashing the last two decades.

"Bill Gates? Really?" Loren looked shocked.

"What's the matter?" I asked.

"Elfangor knew him, that's all." She laughed. "I wouldn't have guessed that one."

"So you knew Elfangor?" I asked, knowing the answer but wishing for details.

"I was married to him. At least, I have memories of being married to him. The Ellimist tampered with the timeline, although I'm not sure exactly what was changed, yet. Did you know him?"

"The Ellimist, or Elfangor?"

"Both, I guess."

"I have had a few dealings with the Ellimist. Elfangor..." I struggled to keep the emotion from my voice. "Elfangor I met only once, four years ago."

"I'm sorry. I take it that is not a pleasant memory?"

"I was with him when he died."

"The Visser killed him, didn't he?" she said bitterly.

"Yes, it was the Visser," I admitted. "How did you know?"

"I guessed. Alloran would not speak of it..." she whispered. "I knew then."

For the first time I thought of how horrible Elfangor's death must have been for Alloran. I shuddered, but I decided Loren deserved to hear the story. If I found myself in a reality where Rachel had died...Well, I would want to know.

"Elfangor's fighter crashed in a construction site near the mall. The five of us were walking home together. We investigated. We found Elfangor fatally wounded. He told us about the Yeerk invasion, and gave us the ability to morph. When the Visser arrived, Elfangor ordered us to hide. To live to fight another day, while he faced the Visser alone. He was too weak to morph, or to fight back. The Visser killed him."

"Thank you for telling me." Loren's eyes were full of tears. "I needed to know. I loved him. Whether the events I remember were erased or not, I loved him. I wonder if he remembered me..."

"He did," I answered.

"How do you know?" she asked.

"He mentioned you. Before he died, he asked about you." I swallowed hard, praying she wouldn't ask for details. Elfangor hadn't asked after a woman named 'Loren'; He had asked about my mother.

Loren, my time-shifted mother, looked me in the eye. She knew she was missing something. Fortunately, Marco and Ax chose that moment to enter.

"The virus is planted," Marco reported. "Where's Jake?"

"Right here," he answered, appearing at the entrance to the bridge. Cassie was right behind him.

"So, what do we do now, twiddle our thumbs?" Marco asked.

"As soon as Alloran gets back, we'll get back in the air. We need to spread your little gift to the Pool Ship, if possible." Jake answered.

"Oh, now that certainly sounds like fun," Marco complained. "You've just survived two trips into the Yeerk Pool. Where do you go from here? Why, the Pool Ship, of course!"

Cassie

Jake and I had found two able and willing, if nervous, former controllers working in the tiny Engineering room. While both were anxious to get back to their lives, they were more anxious to stop the Yeerk threat once and for all, and they had the skills necessary to be helpful aboard the Blade Ship.

When Alloran and Tom returned from the Sharing, Ax and Loren piloted us to the Visser's current feeding location. Jake didn't waste any time while we were en route.

"Our next task is to get rid of Chapman," Jake said. "Alloran, have you..."

"Chapman!" Loren gasped, turning to Alloran. "It couldn't be the same Chapman, could it?"

<One and the same,> he replied. <Although how he survived the destruction of the Jahar is a mystery to me.>

"Wait a minute. You two knew Chapman?" Jake asked, puzzled. "As in, before he was a Controller?"

<Yes,> Alloran replied. <He was not a particularly pleasant individual. He betrayed us on the Taxxon home world.>

"I knew he was scum," Rachel spat.

"Scum or not, we need to be rid of him before tomorrow." Jake said evenly. "Where is he now?"

<Home packing, I hope> Alloran responded. <He and his wife will be flying to Paris tonight. They will be taking a commercial airliner, which should waste some time.>

"Excellent," Jake mused. "Now, is it possible to keep him from reaching the Yeerks in France without looking like we're involved?"

"Maybe. The French aren't expecting him, so..." Tom mused.

"Could we get him arrested somehow?" Marco asked.

"We could slip something into his bag to get him detained by Customs," Rachel suggested.

"Like drugs?" I asked. "Where would we get drugs?"

<The D.E.A. Remember, we have the government at our disposal here> Tobias reminded me.

"O.K." Jake decided. "We're off to Paris, with a layover in Washington. Alloran? In your opinion, how long can you be out of contact with the Yeerks?"

<With Chapman out of the picture there is no one left who will give too much thought to my absence. They will be too busy being relieved that the Visser is not breathing down their necks. Esplin was often absent for days at a time.> He answered.

"We really shouldn't leave Toby's people alone down there for very long," I worried.

"We won't," Jake answered. "But Toby's smart enough to handle the situation while we visit the Pool Ship. We'll make contact through the Chee before we head for Paris."

We landed, and Alloran grabbed a quick meal.

Ax

Once we were positive we were not observed, I headed out and joined Alloran. We ran through the field, absorbing nutrients through our hooves.

<War-Prince Allor..> I began.

Alloran cut me off. <Call me Warrior Alloran. I am not worthy of more.>

I was surprised, but I could tell that it would be unwise to argue. <While I disagree, I shall honor your request.>

<There is much you do not know, Aximili.> Alloran answered. <I intend to atone for the sins of my past, however, not dwell upon them. What were you about to ask?>

<Well, you were on the Taxxon home world with Elfangor. I was wondering about that.>

<Your brother was a noble warrior. Be assured of that. The rest can wait.> Alloran replied. <You'll hear it even if I don't survive to tell the tale. Cassie knows everything, I'm quite sure, and Loren was there.>

<Fair enough> I agreed reluctantly.

Alloran turned and headed back towards the ship. <I have a question for you, Aximili. Are you planning on returning home after this is over?>

<I cannot answer that,> I replied. <Because I do not know the answer myself.>

Jake

As soon as Alloran and Ax had eaten, we were off again. We had to make contact with Erek and Eva, cause some grief for Chapman, and plant Marco's computer virus on the Pool Ship. Then we had to get into position for the Yeerk strike. I didn't know whether to be worried about how much was yet to be done, or thankful that we had something to do other than sit and fret.

"We're due for a check in at the White House, but we don't all need to go," I decided. "Who's coming with me?"

"Does going with you get us out of the Pool Ship mission?" Marco asked.

I didn't bother to answer him, and instead decided I didn't have the energy for democracy. "Rachel, you're with me. Marco, Ax, Alloran, and Tom can go over the Pool Ship plans. Loren, stay at the helm. Cassie and Tobias, give her a hand. Everyone: Be ready for a strategy meeting when we get back."

Rachel and I flew to the White House. A member of the Secret Service headed off to find us some contraband to plant on Chapman. Erek assured me that there was a Chee with Toby, and that the Hork Bajir volunteers were safe. Eva and the President confirmed that there weren't any new problems, and that everything else was still on schedule.

The lack of trouble worried me. As much as I wanted our operation to go off without a hitch, I doubted the likelihood of an easy victory. And if there was going to be trouble, I didn't want it to come at the worst possible time.

"As soon as the first explosion is noticed off the coast, we're going to have to deal with questions from the press" the President reminded me. "What shall I tell them?"

"The most important thing is to preserve Alloran's cover as long as possible. If the Yeerks in either California or France learn that D.C. is not a smoldering heap of ash it could compromise our ground strikes."

"We could knock out some satellites," Rachel suggested.

"We can't afford to cause a public panic with a complete news blackout," I countered. "Perhaps we could distract the media somehow."

"What would interest the American media more than intergalactic war?" Eva had a mischievous gleam in her eyes. "Could it be scandal, perhaps?"

"What are you thinking?" I asked warily.

"We know what time the attack is coming." Eva answered. "We just need to have the media focused on something else when it happens."

"Easier said than done," the President commented. He'd been quiet. He knew there was only one person in the room with the power to create a scandal of the necessary proportion. I would have felt bad for him if I could have spared the mental energy.

"So, we call a press conference and tell them what?" Rachel asked.

"Doesn't matter. Something shocking. Something that will push a mysterious explosion or two off the front page, so to speak," Eva answered. She looked directly at the President. "You're call. Do you have something scandalous to confess?"

"Just make sure you can prove it false after the fact," I warned.

When we left, Eva and the President were debating the possibilities. With our contraband safely in Rachel's Bald Eagle talons, we headed back for the ship. Tomorrow was going to prove interesting.

Tobias

Jake and Rachel headed for the White House. Marco, Ax, Alloran and Tom disappeared to discuss the Pool Ship computer system.

Loren and I were alone, except for Cassie.

"Tobias, why would Elfangor ask you about me?" Loren asked. "I feel like there's something important that I'm not remembering."

I looked helplessly at Cassie.

"Loren," Cassie asked gently, "Do you remember having a son?"

Loren turned to her, startled. "What? Oh my...Elfangor's son! I had just been to the doctor; that's when he disappeared. But I...I couldn't have had a son. I was... I can't be more than...I found out I was pregnant, and then the Ellimist...My gosh, did he take my baby away? Did he erase...What happened to my son?"

Tears of confusion and sorrow started to run down her cheeks as she considered the possibility of her unborn child being simply erased from existence.

"I'm right here." I assured her.

She looked up at me with surprise. "Tobias, you're Elfangor's son? My son?"

"Yes," I answered. "When Elfangor died, he asked about my mother. I thought it was odd, but in the midst of so much chaos, I didn't have time to wonder about it. Later, I learned he was my father."

Loren jumped up and laid her hand on my arm. "Tobias, I'm so sorry I wasn't there for you."

"It wasn't your fault," I told her, "I'm not sure what happened, exactly, but I do know it wasn't your fault."

"Please tell me you weren't raised by your uncle," Loren pleaded, looking me in the eye. Evidently she knew he was a drunk.

I couldn't lie to her. "I was, at least part-time. But it all worked out for the best."

She sat back down at the helm. I moved to sit beside her. "Cassie, could you take the weapons station for a few minutes?"

"Sure," she answered tentatively.

I turned to Loren. "I'd like to learn how to fly this thing, if you wouldn't mind teaching me."

"I suspect that it's the least I could do," she laughed. "So I didn't get to raise my own son. At least I get to teach him to fly an alien spacecraft."

Rachel

When Jake and I got back to the Blade Ship, we found Tobias and Loren bent over the helm, and Tom showing Cassie the workings of the weapons console.

"We have a pretty good plan for sabotaging the Pool Ship," Marco told us.

"Good. Let's hear it," Jake answered.

They proceeded to outline a plan of action. The computer system on the big ship was different from the ones on the bug fighters, but Marco and Ax had modified their virus. They would need about fifteen minutes to plant it, and would need backup. Alloran would keep the Yeerks busy with his angry Visser routine.

Simple enough, I thought dejectedly. Then I scolded myself. What was wrong with me that I was spoiling for action, when action might mean the destruction of Earth? I hoped Tobias was right, and that I was merely tired of waiting, and not mentally ill. Was I going to turn into some sort of sociopath after the war ended?

"Rachel, are you all right?" Cassie asked.

I jumped. "What? Yeah, why?"

"Jake just asked you to cover guard duty," she answered.

"Yeah, and you didn't answer with a battle cry," Marco added. "Now I'm worried."

I smiled weakly. "Let's do it!"

"Loren and Tom, be ready to get us out of here if necessary. Everyone else, Hork Bajir. Cassie and Tobias, go with 'the Visser' on his inspection. Rachel, you and I will cover Ax and Marco."

Jake

I tried not to worry about Rachel's momentary lack of focus, but I decided I'd stay with her while Marco and Ax worked on the computer.

We docked with the Pool Ship, and once again Alloran's blustering distracted the Yeerks from even thinking about being suspicious. Terrified underlings tend not to question anything.

In very little time we were back on board the Blade Ship. The Yeerks on the Pool Ship would find themselves without communications, shields, weapons, or indeed any system other than life support when the virus kicked in. They would be unable to assist the Yeerks on the planet, and wouldn't be aware that an assist was necessary, anyhow.

As for us, it was on to France.

"We can't get the Blade Ship too close to the airport," Marco pointed out. "I know we're invisible to radar, but they might notice the anomaly."

"Agreed. Hold a low orbit just south of Paris. We should still have plenty of time." I said.

<By my calculations, Chapman shouldn't be more than an hour out of New York at this point> Ax commented.

"Good. Alloran, what was that flight number?" I asked.

He told me.

"Rachel, you get to carry the goods again." I tried to fake enthusiasm. "Bird of prey time, everyone."

"Paris, the most romantic city in the world, and me without a date," Marco commented.

"Hardly a surprise," Rachel told him. She started to say more, but her lips chose that moment to harden into a beak.

We watched the sun rise over Paris as we flew to the airport.

<I wish there were some thermals> Tobias complained. <All this flapping isn't very efficient.>

His complaint reminded me of how long it had been since morning. I needed to make sure everyone got some rest before sunrise in D.C.

At least Marco seemed in high spirits. <Hey, Tobias! Did I remember to tell you that your mom's a babe?>

<Shut up, Marco.> Rachel ordered.

<Hey, I can't hide the truth!> he protested.

Cassie scrambled to change the subject before Marco went too far and Rachel killed him. <Does anyone know if Chapman speaks French?>

No one answered her.

<I guess I should have thought to ask Alloran that,> I sighed mentally. I hoped I wasn't going to start making mistakes on this mission just because I was a little tired.

<If he doesn't, it's to our advantage> Marco pointed out.

<Why do different parts of your planet speak entirely different languages?> Ax questioned. <I've never heard an explanation for that phenomenon.>

<Neither have I, Ax-man, but I think it's just so that they can make us take French in school> Marco answered.

We demorphed in a dumpster not far from the airport. Tobias and Ax morphed human.

"Ah, the glamorous life of the super-hero," Marco sighed, "Do you all have any idea how much time we spend standing barefoot in garbage?"

"Hey, we've eaten garbage. This is nothing." Tobias responded.

"Speaking of eating, we really should try to find a meal sometime soon," Rachel reminded me.

"Tobias could catch us a rat," Marco suggested. Rachel punched him in the stomach.

We looked fairly ridiculous. Six American kids in spandex roaming around Paris barefoot. Rachel was carrying the contraband we planned on sticking in Chapman's baggage. I hoped she had at least one other thing in the small bag.

"Rachel, do you have your credit card with you?" I asked.

"Yeah, but I think my parents will notice if I charge something in France," she answered.

"Fortunately, this time it doesn't matter. This will all be over by the time the bill arrives." I said hopefully.

"Jake, it's like six in the morning at the latest. Just where do you think we're going shopping?" Cassie demanded.

"Airport gift shop," I answered wearily. "We just need some cheap shoes."

"No problem, Jake. But if this thing doesn't go public in the next two weeks, you can explain the bill to my mom." Rachel threatened.

"You see, we heard that their was a great sale on cheap sneakers at the Paris airport," Marco quipped.

Once we were properly shod, we checked on Chapman's flight. It seemed we had about an hour to kill. Almost grateful for the delay, we collapsed into some airport seats. Rachel, Cassie, and Marco even managed to catch naps. I just sat there and worried that Chapman would spot us. Ax and Tobias had to visit the men's room and demorph as the hour drew to a close. When they got back, we woke up the others.

"I can't believe I fell asleep in here. It's loud and brightly lit," Rachel observed.

"We can't assume Chapman checked any luggage, so we need to get the package into his carry-on bag," I whispered. "Suggestions?"

"What's the smallest morph we have that is still able to lift something that size?" Tobias wondered. "Birds would be noticed..."

"Raccoon, chimp," Rachel mused. "I don't know."

"Perhaps something a little more common," I interjected.

"Rachel has a cat morph," Cassie suggested.

"One problem there." Marco pointed out. "The cat she acquired belonged to Melissa Chapman. I'm sure he'd wonder what his daughter's cat was doing in France."

"If he recognized it," Ax said. "The creatures probably all look alike to the Yeerks."

"The human Chapman would know," Marco countered.

"Snake, maybe." Rachel tried. "Ax or Marco could partially swallow the package, then slither into the overhead compartment..."

"One of us would have to carry them onto the plane." Cassie said. "It would be just as easy to carry the package onto the plane without the snake."

"Easier, probably," Marco observed.

Reluctantly, I voiced the only idea I had. "How about rat?"

"No," Rachel answered firmly.

"The plane will be landing within minutes. We'd better think of something," Ax pointed out unnecessarily.

"Seagull?" Cassie asked.

I sighed. "That would be great if we were sure he had checked some luggage. But I don't see how we could get to his carry-on as gulls."

"We need to do rat," Rachel told Cassie. Fearless Rachel was pale, and I could tell she had to fight to keep her voice from quaking. We had all had nightmarish experiences. Rachel's worst experience had involved rats. But only Rachel and Cassie had rat morphs, and Rachel wasn't about to let her best friend go on a mission alone.

I, however, could let my cousin face her greatest fear, in a potentially deadly situation, and on virtually no sleep. Not even 'let' - that was too kind of a word. I was making Rachel do this. I hated myself.

Rachel

So I had to become a rat. What was the big deal, really? I had been many worse things. There were certainly more defenseless creatures, such as mole and trout. None of us were willing to become ants ever again. I had suffered an allergy to a crocodile morph with disastrous consequences, and I had been split in half while in starfish morph. Yet it was the rat that appeared in my worst nightmares.

It wasn't really the danger I had faced as a rat that caused my reaction. Sure, Cassie and I had almost been beaten to death by a couple of thoughtless thugs after morphing Cassie's science project Courtney. But that experience was actually mild in comparison to the average day in the life of an Animorph.

My heart beat faster as I remembered the only other time I had been a rat. I relived the rat's shrieking terror as it faced a rattlesnake. That was the most pleasant part of the memory, and I tried to hold on to it. I did not want to recall what came next.

David. He was a traitor. For his own personal gain he was willing to betray us, and all of humanity, to the Visser. He had nearly killed Jake. He had murdered a hawk that he had mistaken for Tobias. We needed to silence him. We weren't willing to murder him. Instead, we devised a plan.

I morphed rat, and led David into a cruel trap. He became a nothlit, trapped in rat morph, and I left him on a tiny, miserable island. I didn't have the guts to kill him, so instead I created the circumstances for nature to do my dirty work for me. Instead of the quick, painless death we could have arranged, I left David to a lonely existence and a slow death. All in the name of morality.

Hypocrites that we were, we couldn't bring ourselves to become murderers. Sure, we killed Yeerks, Hork Bajir, and Taxxons, all sentient beings. And we couldn't deny that there was human blood on our hands as well. But for our own selfish desire to delude ourselves into thinking we were above murder, we did something much worse.

I should have killed David, it would have been far kinder. I should have spared him the suffering. I should have spared my friends the guilt. Rats, and one rat in particular, have haunted my nightmares ever since.

I didn't want to use rat morph, but the success of our mission was far more important than my own selfish desire to pretend that David had never existed.

Cassie and I snuck into the men's room and morphed rats. Jake and Marco would carry us back to the waiting area. We each took a small package from Jake. The Secret Service agent had provided us with enough narcotics to guarantee Chapman's detainment.

"Good thing rats can't get arrested," Marco commented dryly.

In the meantime, Tobias and Ax headed for the tarmac. Tobias demorphed, and took to the sky as a lookout. Ax morphed seagull and joined him.

Once in the waiting area, we scampered across the carpeting and hid under one of those little trailers they use to cart luggage around. We waited for what seemed an eternity.

<Rachel...> Cassie began.

I cut her off. <Don't you dare ask how I am. I'm fine, and this isn't the time or the place for me to be otherwise.>

We were silent for a while longer.

<There's a big jet heading your way,> Tobias informed us. <It's probably Chapman's flight.>

As soon as the aircraft had taxied into position and was coming to a stop, we scrambled down the tunnel. We had to get on board quickly, or we risked missing Chapman. There would be a window of opportunity maybe three or four minutes long.

<If he stashed a bag under the seat, we're golden,> Cassie said as we raced down the aisle. <If it's overhead this will get tricky.>

We dodged around moving feet as we hunted for row G. I had been worried that we would have trouble recognizing Chapman, but he was still in his seat, and I heard a whispered fragment of conversation.

"...Visser has been strange for days..."

My blood ran cold in my veins. Was Chapman on to Alloran? If he was, the importance of this mission had just escalated greatly. What if customs overlooked the contraband? There was a small piece of luggage at his feet. It would be easy to get into, but now I was worried that they might not check everything.

<Cassie, put your package in that bag. I've got an idea.>

<Rachel, what are you planning?>

<I'm going to put this one in Chapman's pocket.>

<Are you insane?>

<That's Marco's line.>

<Rachel, I'm serious. That's too dangerous.> Cassie protested.

<Hurry and get to that bag before he gets up!> I answered, and Cassie had little choice but to comply.

I looked at Chapman's jacket pocket, looming above me. Fortunately, rats can jump. I launched into the air. My tiny claws found brief purchase on the fabric of the jacket, and I released the package. It fell directly into the pocket.

<Two points!> I said gleefully as I fell to the ground. <Run!>

Cassie and I raced back out of the plane and down the tunnel, narrowly avoiding hurrying feet and rolling luggage.

Jake and Marco were waiting. They scooped us up as inconspicuously as possible, and headed for the men's room.

"Well?" Jake whispered impatiently.

<There's one package in his carry-on, and one in his jacket pocket.> I answered.

"Rachel, are you crazy?" Jake scolded.

<Hey, it was Cassie's idea,> I tried lamely, but I know Jake wasn't fooled for a minute.

Once we had demorphed and snuck back out of the men's room, which was no easy task, we headed towards customs. We planned on waiting to make sure Chapman was detained, but he was already there.

"Do you know who I am?" he bellowed. "You can't hold us! The Prime Minister is waiting for us!"

The two French authorities paid little heed to his words. Chapman wouldn't be giving us any trouble for a while. We could all go take a nap. All that remained now was the final battle for Earth.





Jake

It was nearly eight o'clock in the morning when we got back to the Blade Ship. Fortunately, that was French time. We were headed back to Washington, where it was six hours earlier. Since the Yeerk attack was scheduled for nine o'clock Pacific time, which was still eleven hours away, we'd all get a chance at some rest before life as we knew it changed forever.

We put the Blade Ship into a parking orbit above D.C., and slept in shifts. There were nine of us to rotate the watch shift, so we all got a reasonable amount of sleep. Or at least close to it.

I was a bit nervous to be away from the White House for so long, but Erek, Eva, and Ray were with the President, and we had left them a z-space transmitter, so we weren't completely out of contact in an emergency. They could relay a coded distress signal, or at least let us know that it was time to switch to plan B. I also knew that the likelihood of a Yeerk attack on the President was microscopic, with 'the Visser' on our team and Chapman under wraps. And the Secret Service could handle anything else.

I still felt better when we were back in the Oval Office. Loren and Tom remained on the Blade Ship while the rest of us gathered for a final meeting.

"Alloran has to remain on the Blade Ship as 'the Visser' and we can't spare anyone to cover him," I said. "We'll have to leave that to Loren and Tom."

"Now, we need to fill a few positions. One: Someone needs to handle communications between the Air Force and the Blade Ship after the initial strike. Two: Someone needs to be ready to rescue Toby's pilots as they bail out. Three: We need a team ready to infiltrate the Yeerk Pool and liberate the caged hosts.

"Erek, I'll need you to stay in contact with the other Chee. We'll need their help in coordinating the evacuation of Peace Movement members. If they bail too early, it might blow our cover."

"Cassie's the best at morphing in water, and she's got the most useful morph for ocean rescue," Marco pointed out.

I silently thanked him. He was right, but if I had been the one to say it, it might have sounded like I was trying to protect Cassie from the more risky assignment. In truth, the more dangerous job could turn out to be recovering the Hork Bajir pilots. I hated that she couldn't have backup.

"That's settled. Eva? Could you handle communications between the Air Force and Alloran? You and your husband have been in the most contact with the pilots."

"Absolutely," Eva answered.

The Air Force Commander seated beside the President nodded. He approved.

"And that leaves the five of us for Yeerk Pool duty. Erek? When Alloran gives word, have your people send the Peace Movement members out of the Pool area. When we see Tidwell leave, that will be our cue."

"And what am I doing with my forces during all of this?" the General asked. "Shouldn't we be the ones infiltrating this pool facility?"

"When we give word, we'll need them to move quickly. Northern California must completely cut off from the rest of the world. That means no one leaves by car, plane, or boat. Or even on foot."

"Easier said than done," Rachel commented. "Former controllers are going to want to get as far away as possible when they are freed."

"I agree," I answered. "I can tell them to go home and wait, but I don't think I can count on full cooperation."

"I suspect you'll do better than you think," Cassie countered. "We're the 'Andalite Bandits,' after all. You're a hero to most of those people."

"Mr. President, what level of force am I authorized to use against those attempting to leave that territory?" the General asked.

The President looked at me.

"Force, and threats of force, may be necessary, but deadly force is not acceptable." I answered for him. "Newly freed hosts will have every reason to believe you are Yeerks, and not acting on true military authority."

"Then how can we hope to succeed?" the General questioned, frustrated by the seemingly impossible situation.

"Assure those wishing to leave the territory that you are working under the authority of the Andalites." I replied. "If necessary, you can use force. Just don't kill anyone. Remember, even if a Yeerk does try to get through your forces, there is still an innocent human host involved."

One of my biggest concerns was loss of life due to friendly fire. I hoped we could convince people not to flee California.

<What do we do with newly freed Hork Bajir?> Tobias asked.

"We'll secure the hangar deck first. We'll send them in there," I answered.

"And Taxxons?" Cassie demanded.

"If there are Taxxons waiting to be reinfested, we'll order them into the host cages. I doubt that will work, but that will be their decision."

Everyone voiced agreement. That was pretty fair treatment for the Yeerk allies.

"Now, as for the issue of public awareness: Obviously, once we start the military operation in California, we can't hide what's happening any longer. We'll need the President on the air to reassure people, prevent mass panic, and hopefully to convince people in California to stay in their homes.

"At the same time, we need to keep this information out of France if at all possible. The Blade Ship will be feeding false information to the Yeerks in Europe, and we'll have a much easier time liberating the French government if we retain the element of surprise. Suggestions?"

"Mr. President, can't you stop international communications?" Marco asked.

"I have the authority to do it, but I'm not sure we really have the practical ability," he replied.

"We'd have to shut down television networks, radio stations, telecommunications, even the internet. It would be nearly impossible," a Secret Service agent explained.

<That would cause as much panic as the military movement will cause, if not more> Tobias added.

<We do not need to cut all communications from the United States,> Ax mused. <We need to cut all communications into France.>

"How is that different?" Rachel asked.

<It's smaller> Ax answered simply.

"Good point," I told him. "So, can we knock out French communications?"

"We'd have to take out a few satellites," the Air Force commander answered. "But we couldn't hide a missile launch."

"We won't have to use missiles," I answered. "Just tell us which ones, and we'll nudge them out of orbit. That should do it, right?"

"That will do it," he confirmed. When we left, we had the orbital addresses of the satellites in question. More importantly, we had an understanding of what they meant.

"Finally, have you picked a scandal, Mr. President?" I asked. "You'll need to keep America distracted for about an hour."

"We've got a story so hot that the press wouldn't notice a bug fighter on the White House lawn," Eva answered.

"Well?"

"It's a secret," she laughed.

I rolled my eyes. "You wouldn't be related to Marco, would you?"

"Seriously, our President has gallantly agreed to confess to losing the plans to the stealth bomber in a poker game," Eva explained.

I choked. "Well, that will be unexpected. Will they buy it?"

"Possibly not," the President answered wearily. "But if they don't bite, I'll tell them I was trying to impress Tyra Banks. Then I'll refuse to comment on whether it worked."

"Odds are good that the press will gloss over the national security breach and run with the Tyra Banks angle," Eva explained. "But either way, it will be easy to prove false after the fact, and it will delay news of the Yeerk attack."

<Humans are not always logical> Alloran commented.

"Thank you, Mr. Vulcan," Marco said.

Everyone laughed.

<Vulcans are fictitious aliens...> Ax began to clarify.

Alloran interrupted. <Yes, Aximili. I have seen Star Trek.>

That threw me for a moment.

"It came up during Edriss's trial," Eva explained somewhat dismissively. "Anyhow, I checked and Tyra Banks is in the jungle somewhere right now, so she shouldn't here of this, or be tracked down by the press, before we announce that it was just a cover story."

"Very well. You'll start the press conference here as the bug fighters launch on the West Coast. We'll get into position in the Yeerk pool, and Erek will know when to stop the charade and report on the events in California. You don't need to mention the aerial battle over the Atlantic at all. I think that covers it. Rachel?"

My cousin met my gaze. "Let's do it!"

Tobias

We flew back to the Blade Ship again. It felt natural, which was odd. Two weeks ago, the sight of the Blade Ship would have made our blood run cold. Now, it was ours.

I morphed human and joined Loren at the helm. She still didn't know I was a nothlit, and I had decided to save that little gem until after the battle.

"Let's take care of those satellites. Then we'll get Cassie into position and go," Jake ordered.

We located the first satellite, locked on to it with tractor beams, and dragged it out of orbit. We repeated the exercise twice more, then towed all three satellites well out of the way. We gently bumped a few more out of perfect alignment. It would be days before all the signals could be redirected.

"If all goes well, we'll come back and fix those once we have taken France," Jake said.

"Taken France..." Marco whistled. "Just an average afternoon. So what did you do today, dear? Oh, played some basketball, invaded France, the usual."

Everyone ignored Marco. We reentered atmosphere and hovered over the Atlantic ocean, off the coast of Maryland. Jake and Cassie slipped off the bridge, and I took the opportunity to talk to Rachel for a moment.

"Ax, could you take my place for a moment?" I didn't wait for an answer. I caught Rachel's eye, and we ducked out for a minute ourselves.

"What is it?" she asked, worried.

"Nothing specific," I admitted. "I just wanted a moment alone with you before the battle."

She smiled. "I don't mind that at all myself."

I wrapped my arms around her. I didn't want to let her go. I wasn't afraid of death, but I was afraid of losing Rachel. I wanted to make her promise to be careful, but I knew better. Asking Rachel to use caution would probably have the opposite effect.; first she'd get offended, then she'd do something completely insane at the first opportunity. I hugged her harder.

"Tobias, we'll make it through this," she whispered. We stood there holding each other for a moment. I gave her a long kiss. "Remember, you promised to marry me. I'm holding you to that."

She laughed. "Don't worry, you're not getting off the hook. I love you."

"And I love you," I answered. I kissed her again.

Cassie

It was time to go, but Jake pulled me into his arms and held me so tight I almost couldn't breathe. I could feel him shaking.

"Oh, Cassie, I'm so sorry," he whispered. I could barely hear him.

"Jake?" I questioned. I pulled back to look at his face.

His eyes were full of tears, and he was powerless to keep them from tumbling down his cheek. "This is it. The cave. This ocean is the cave."

"What cave?" I was puzzled.

"It's...I have this nightmare. I've had it for years. Over and over...I...I order you into this cave...I know that the cave is death. But I give the order." Jake's words were barely audible. He was pale and trembling. "Cassie, I'm so afraid that this is the cave. I'm such a jerk."

"A jerk?" I asked. "Jake, what on earth..."

"Cassie, I'm probably sending you to your death. I'm sending you into the middle of a war with no backup. I love you, you mean more to me than anything in this world, but I'm sending you to your death. How can I not hate myself?"

"Jake, you're not making me do anything. And this is a rescue mission, not a battle. You're the one risking your life today, not me. I'll be fine."

"You better be fine, Cassie. I love you. I don't want to lose you."

"You won't. You be careful today," I ordered. "I love you, too."

Jake crushed me against his chest again, and kissed me. I pulled away, squeezed his hand, and moved towards the door.

"I'll see you soon," I said, diving into the cold ocean. Then I was alone.

Marco

It seemed everyone had disappeared. First Jake and Cassie had stepped out, and then Tobias and Rachel snuck off somewhere. Alloran was watching the communications console intently. I was sitting at the weapons station beside Tom. Ax was at the helm with Loren. I leaned towards her.

"Looks like everyone else has snuck off for a makeout session. What do you say you and I give it a try?" I winked at her.

"You do realize I'm old enough to be your mother, don't you?" she laughed. "At least I think I am. I seem to be younger than my own son."

I smiled. "So he told you?"

"Yeah, he did. Elfangor would be proud of him. Do your parents know about the war?"

"My dad's the one providing the air force with shielding. And my mom's been at the White House all week. She's a former controller. Her Yeerk was Visser One."

"Wow. I guess she knows."

Jake walked back onto the bridge. "Let's go."

Rachel

Tobias and I stayed in our little nook until we landed in the hangar bay. Not that it was a long flight. The Blade Ship could cover the distance from Washington, D.C. to Northern California in about five minutes.

<Prince Jake would like to request that the two of you join us> Ax called.

I smiled at Tobias. "I guess it's time."

"Yeah, I guess it is. Give me a kiss for luck."

I did, and then we hurried back to the bridge, morphing as we went.

"Well, well, well. What have you two been up to?" Marco teased. "I've never seen Hork Bajir blush before."

<If I wasn't busy morphing I would kick your butt.> I answered.

"Save it..." Marco's lips disappeared. <Save it for the Yeerks.>

"This is it, gang. We all know what we have to do." Jake looked at each of us in turn. "We've survived much tighter spots than this, so I know that we'll succeed. Stay sharp and watch each other's backs."

Having given his short pep talk, Jake morphed to Hork Bajir. We moved out.

Cassie

I morphed to humpback whale. I needed to be big enough to carry multiple Hork Bajir. It was one of my favorite morphs. The feeling of freedom and joy that comes with swimming through the ocean as a whale is hard to describe. Yet today was different. I was terrified for Jake and the others. Jake was usually so confident, even under fire. But earlier he had frightened me. If he let his emotions get the better of him, I feared he'd be seriously injured or worse.

He's Jake, I told myself. He'll pull it back together. Once the mission is underway, he'll be able to push aside the emotions and focus on the job at hand. He'd pulled it together many times before, despite impossible odds. I could remember dozens of examples without even trying. I tried to let the memories reassure me.

Another memory came unbidden. One other time, I had swam alone in this ocean. Due to a bizarre set of circumstances, it had been in 1805. The Battle of Trafalgar was being fought, but I didn't care. Napoleon's forces could have destroyed the British Navy, and I wouldn't have noticed. I was busy trying to lose myself in my dolphin morph. Jake was dead.

I couldn't save him. One minute he was alive. The next minute, I was hunting for his body in the icy Delaware River. Then time and space shifted. It was two decades later, and I was off the coast of Spain. Not that I knew, or cared, exactly where I was. Jake was dead.

I shuddered at the memory. I hoped that it wasn't a bad omen. I was back in this same ocean, alone, and if Jake died this time, it would be for keeps.

Perhaps that would be a just punishment for my actions on that mission. Normandy. A twisted version of the second World War. Death everywhere. Yet I committed an act more vile than any other on that wretched battlefield. What I did to John Berryman was cold blooded murder. I traded his life for Jake's. His entire life. I didn't kill him. I erased him.

I used the Time Matrix, a weapon more dangerous than any other in the galaxy, and I prevented his parents from meeting. John Berryman was never born. He never became a Yeerk host. And Visser Four received a different host. One that was not in a position to stumble upon the hidden Time Matrix. The artificial timeline Visser Four had created unraveled. George Washington lived to cross the Delaware. Lord Nelson won at Trafalgar. And Jake was alive.

I tried to tell myself that I had erased that man for the greater good. I needed to restore history, to prevent the horrible alternate timeline we had been shown from becoming reality. The needs of the many outweighed the needs of the one. But I didn't do it for humanity, or for democracy, or any other noble, global purpose. I traded John Berryman for Jake.

Ax

Alloran gave the Visser's version of a pep talk to the Bug Fighter pilots. It is a very good thing that Hork Bajir are not prone to giggling; I know that had I been in human morph, I might have made that error.

<Finally, Earth shall be ours!> Alloran bellowed. <Finally, the Council of Thirteen is allowing us to proceed with a proper invasion! By nightfall all of humanity shall cower before me, Visser One of the Yeerk Empire!>

Toby's forces stood stoically before the Visser. They weren't laughing at the phony Visser's egotistical display, but they also weren't cheering their leader's words as would have been expected.

<Cheer!> Prince Jake ordered privately.

We let out a shout of approval. Toby's forces caught on, and joined us.

<On to victory!> Alloran thundered. The Hork Bajir raced to their bug fighters. The Taxxon co-pilots hurried aboard as well. They were the wild card in Prince Jake's otherwise brilliant plan. If one of the Taxxons became suspicious before our virus took down the shields, there could be serious trouble.

Jake

I watched the Taxxons nervously. If they grew distrustful of either Alloran or the Hork Bajir pilots, our plan would be in jeopardy. Of course, a fight between a Taxxon and a Hork Bajir was no contest; a Hork Bajir's blades would slice through a Taxxon like a hot knife through butter, but still I worried.

A picture of Cassie, caught mid-morph and desperately trying to fend off a dozen Taxxons in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, floated through my mind. I scolded myself. First of all, if the Taxxons bailed out, they'd explode upon hitting the water. Secondly, I could not afford to let my emotions interfere with the current mission.

The aerial battle was out of my hands. I could not spare it a second thought until after we had taken the Pool. Lives depended on my ability to remain clear headed in the coming struggle. I pulled myself together and focused on the moment.

Controllers who had gathered to see the bug fighters launch moved back to their assorted jobs in the pool area. We took over guard duty.

<As soon as Tidwell heads out, we attack> I reminded everyone. <Stay sharp.>

Cassie

I heard the first explosion, and I jumped to attention. It had started. A fiery hunk of twisted metal crashed into the ocean not far from my location. I filled my lungs with air, and dived. I needed to start searching for our pilots, but I'd have to do that from underwater. I wouldn't be much good at search and rescue if part of a bug fighter actually hit me.

I followed the sounds of shouting Hork Bajir. Toby had assured us that while her people weren't the strongest swimmers in the galaxy, they would be able to tread water well enough. If the Blade Ship didn't come to my aid, I only wanted to make one trip back to shore.

I soon had ten Hork Bajir pilots, some of whom were wounded, gathered together and treading water. I still hadn't found Toby, and one other pilot was missing. I headed away from the group, searching the ocean for the remaining pilots.

"Cassie!"

Relieved to here Toby's voice, I turned and headed in her direction. High overhead, I heard another explosion. I didn't here Toby's cry of warning until it was too late. I was struck by the flaming debris, and my whale body was badly injured. My tail was missing. The pain was indescribable. I struggled to keep swimming, but it was all I could do to stay conscious. I was sinking. Dying. All I could think of was Jake's face when I turned and dived into the ocean. He'd live the rest of his life blaming himself for my death.

I fought desperately to morph out, to grow legs where my severed tail had been. I tried feebly to rise to the surface, but everything was growing black. I wasn't going to make it.

Suddenly, I wasn't alone. Another whale appeared, and began pushing me towards the surface.

I heard a voice in my head. <Morph out, Cassie. You can do it. Picture your legs...arms...human.>

I struggled to follow the instructions as I was pushed back to the surface of the ocean. I felt as if I was separate from my body, yet connected. Arms grew from the wounded whale. Then a head. And I could breathe!

I gasped for air. I was dizzy, and disoriented. But I was alive. I realized that I was draped across a whale. I had heard thoughtspeak. But the others weren't here, were they? Had Jake come back?

"Who..." I coughed.

<Cassie, it's Aftran. You just had a close call. Rest for a few minutes.>

"Aftran! How...thank you. You saved my life. Thank you." My head was clearing. I had no idea where Aftran had come from, but I didn't have the time or energy to really question my good fortune. "We've got to find Toby and the others."

I needed to remorph to humpback whale. I slid from Aftran's back and began the changes.

<Aftran, there are twelve Hork Bajir somewhere in the water. We have to get them to shore.>

<Hork Bajir?> she questioned.

<Some of the free Hork Bajir are helping us. This is the big one, Aftran. The Council ordered a full scale invasion, but we've got a plan.>

We set out together to find Toby and the rest, and bring them back to shore. Hopefully, the Blade Ship would pick us up. I wanted to get back to the others.

Rachel

We watched as the Controllers moved around the Pool complex. Although it seemed an eternity, it was probably less than fifteen minutes before I saw Mr. Tidwell on the steps leading to the McDonalds.

Jake had seen him as well. <This is it. Move casually to the cages, and start unlocking them.>

We headed across the complex. How many times had we been forced to ignore the pitiful sobs of those trapped in those cages? How many times had I wanted to race to the cages and destroy them? Yet before, setting someone free would only condemn them to death. Now, we had a chance.

<Everyone stay calm. Don't alert the Yeerks yet. We're getting you out of here.> Jake told group after group in private thoughtspeak. <When I give word, leave quickly and head for home. Tell no one what is happening. Not yet. This will be over soon. Watch television. The President will give further instructions. If you see other Controllers out there, play the part of your yeerk.>

The Hork Bajir among them received different instructions. <I was sent by your seer, Toby Hamee. Go to the hangar bay. Secure it. She will come for you.>

Once again, I admired Jake's natural leadership ability. None of the desperate prisoners questioned his orders. They waited patiently until he gave word, then they moved swiftly once we were in battle morphs.

<Now!> Jake ordered. <Go up and out through the McDonalds.>

We dashed between the freed hostages and the Yeerk captors. They hadn't gotten far before the fighting began. We were outnumbered, but we were ready.

<Yeerks: This war is over. The air strike has failed. Visser One is dead.> Jake announced in public thoughtspeak. <Abandon your hosts if you wish to live. I will spare the lives of those in the pool or in the cages, but those of you who still fight will not survive.>

A few Controllers headed for the Pool. Most, however, choose to ignore the threat. Jake leapt at the nearest Hork Bajir, bowling him over backwards. I let loose a ear-splitting roar and attacked as well. I charged right through a line of Hork Bajir, using the grizzly's weight to knock them flat. I did not hesitate to use my claws and teeth. I ignored wounds from Hork Bajir blades and fought with every ounce of strength I possessed.

Ax's tail moved like lightning as he used the flat side of his tail-blade to render Hork Bajir after Hork Bajir unconscious. Marco's huge gorilla fist had much the same effect. Tobias had morphed an elephant, and he guarded the stairs that led to McDonalds. He had grabbed a Hork Bajir with his trunk, and was using him as a weapon against the others. I could barely see him with my dim grizzly eyes.

I turned my massive weight against another Hork Bajir. Dracon fire scorched my fur. A human-Controller was firing madly into the fray. I charged. Just as I knocked the dracon beam from his hand, I stepped in a slippery pile of entrails. I slipped. The struggle to keep my balance slowed me down for a moment.

A Hork Bajir blade cut into my back. Suddenly, I could not move my legs. Despite blinding pain, I continued to fight. I slashed at Hork Bajir legs with my claws and bit down on the nearest ankle. If I was going to die, I was going to die taking down all the yeerks I could.

<Rachel!> Tobias shouted. <Demorph!>

Demorph. It would heal my injuries. But I would be defenseless, out of the fight, until I could remorph. Could I keep my grizzly claws and just demorph my lower half? Cassie could do things like that; she had a natural talent for morphing. I tried to focus half of my mind on my human legs. The other half of my mind was busy fighting Hork Bajir. Or Hork Bajir ankles, anyhow.

Something grabbed me. I tried to struggle.

<Relax, Rachel. It's me> Tobias had his elephant trunk wrapped around me. He dragged me away from the Hork Bajir, then rejoined the battle.

I finished demorphing. As my vision sharpened, I could see the horror of the fighting. Dead and unconscious Hork Bajir and human controllers were everywhere. Blood. Entrails. Taxxons devoured their own dead and wounded, and anything else they could get into their hunger crazed mouths.

Jake battled desperately, although he was missing a hind leg. Marco was fighting one-handed. He hadn't lost the limb, he was just using it to keep his guts from spilling on the floor. Ax was a bloody mess. So was Tobias.

I remorphed as quickly as I could, and rushed to help my friends. This time, there could be no retreat. We had to win. I barreled into the Hork Bajir Marco was fighting.

<Marco, back off and demorph!> I shouted in thoughtspeak.

Next, I tore into Jake's opponent. <Go fix that leg. I'll keep your seat warm for you.>

Marco returned, a new gorilla. The three legged tiger noted his arrival and dashed into the shadows. Human controllers continued to fire dracon beams. In the melee, they hit their own people more frequently than they managed to hit us. Tobias was the biggest target, and he had a bad burn on his side. But that didn't take him out of the fight. He used Hork Bajir as projectile weapons, flinging them at those with the dracon beams.

I heard a new ruckus break out in the direction of the hangar bay. Some controllers had made a break for it and headed in that direction. They had met the newly freed Hork Bajir there, no doubt.

<Surrender if you wish to live!> Jake ordered again. <Those in the pool will be spared. Those in the cages will be spared. Those who fight will die.>

The tide had turned in our favor. Ax had morphed an elephant. Due to the illogical nature of morphing, he had briefly been an Andalite the size of an elephant. The sight had sent a number of Controllers scrambling for the cages.

Tobias demorphed and flew around the complex. <Jake, we've got trouble. There are Yeerk reinforcements coming down through the Gap entrance.>

<How many?>

<Dozens. One of the Controllers must have got a message out.>

<Everyone, move! We need to attack before they all get down those stairs. Tobias, get into a battle morph. Ax, I need you as an Andalite.> Jake shouted.

I charged forward, racing towards the Gap entrance. Jake and Marco were right beside me. Tobias and Ax weren't far behind. We seemed hopelessly outnumbered, but I wasn't willing to quit without a fight. And neither were the others.

<Remember Agincourt!> Jake shouted.

<What's that, your new battle cry?> Marco asked.

<No, remember Agincourt? The English won because the French couldn't use their superior numbers.> Jake explained. <The battlefield was too narrow. We have to keep the Yeerks on that staircase!>

Agincourt, which we had visited on a time-traveling mission, was not a pleasant memory, but Jake was right. Not that I had seen much of the fight. I had spent most of it stuck in the mud, bleeding to death under a wounded horse.

We kept the battlefield narrow. So narrow, in fact, that all five of us couldn't fight at once.

<Watch the other exits> Jake ordered in private thoughtspeak. <Eventually, they might get smart enough to split up.>

He was right. It took a while, but a group of Controllers came racing down the McDonalds entrance. Ax and Tobias, both in Andalite form, raced to cut them off. A new group raced down from the Sharing headquarters.

<Stay here!> Jake told Marco and I. He raced towards the third force. It was a suicide mission. The Yeerks had weapons storage in the Sharing building. Jake could not take on that many armed Controllers alone.

Jake

The Controllers on the first two staircases couldn't use their weapons. Not all of them were armed, and those who were couldn't risk shooting each other. But if the third group made it down into the complex from the Sharing, then all was lost. They'd box us in.

I lost a front paw almost immediately. Dracon fire singed my fur. It probably would have killed me if not for the human obstructions who took the brunt of the blast. A gray haired woman aimed a dracon beam directly at my head. I was going to die.

<Cassie> I whispered.

<What?> she asked, tumbling to the ground beside me. Her wolf jaws were locked around the woman's arm. The dracon beam clattered to the ground.

Loren picked it up. "Drop your weapons or I'll incinerate the staircase!"

Tom was shouting a similar threat somewhere else in the complex. Toby's forces poured in from the hangar bay and raced to back up the others.

<What has happened here?> Alloran thundered.

"Visser! We're under attack!"

<And you thought that retreating up the stairs was the solution?>

"No, Visser. We were..."

<Silence!> Alloran bellowed.

<Alloran?> I questioned privately.

<Your armed forces are moving to surround the exits. We need to keep these Yeerks occupied for just a couple more minutes.>

<Excellent. And I must compliment your timing.>

With some help, we herded the Controllers into the Yeerk Pool cages. The Yeerks were told that if they left their host, they would be returned safely to the pool. Some chose that option. Most did not. I suspected that once they were faced with Kandrona starvation, the story would be different. Yeerks are not exceptionally brave. Once they were sure they had lost, there would be little resistance.

All twelve of the Bug Fighters that had been part of the East Coast air strike were destroyed. Several of the Hork Bajir pilots had been injured, but all would recover. Four more Bug Fighters had launched from the hangar bay after our attack on the Pool Complex had begun. All four had been destroyed.

The Chee helped gather up the wounded and transport them to hospitals. They would remain under restraints until they were no longer Controllers.

Phase One was complete. We had prevented the destruction of Washington, D.C., and we had retaken Northern California. Next, we had to take control of the Pool Ship. Then would come the liberation of France.

Ax

We had won. Doubtless there were still Yeerks scattered among the human population in California, but they wouldn't last long cut off from the Kandrona. Tom stayed in the Yeerk Pool complex to assist the military in dealing with the prisoners. We boarded the Blade Ship, along with Mr. King, Toby and a number of Hork Bajir. We managed to communicate with Eva and the President through the Chee's intranet system. We could not yet afford to use z-space communications; the Yeerks in France might intercept the signal.

"There are several large pieces of bug fighters out in ocean. Ask Erek if they have been noticed," Cassie requested.

"Not yet, although the Coast Guard has reported at least one explosion off the coast of Maryland." Mr. King answered. "The Air Force told them it was a weapons test. The press has not picked it up."

"Is everyone ready for the Pool Ship takeover?" Prince Jake asked.

<The Pool Ship should already be disabled, due to our virus, so gaining control is not likely to be too difficult.> I replied.

"I hope not, but don't get cocky," Prince Jake warned.

"It's pretty much just Taxxons and Gedds, right?" Rachel asked. "How many Hork Bajir are on board?"

Tobias looked up from preening a wing. <Five or six, at most.>

"You're sure there are no humans on board?" Prince Jake asked.

Cassie sighed. "I'm not sure, but we didn't see any the other day."

<Visser One was smart enough not to waste human hosts to assignments on the mother ship.> Alloran assured us. <They were more useful to him on the planet. So were the Hork Bajir; I know of only five on the mother ship.>

"Then I hate to sound cocky, but this should be easy," Rachel laughed. "It has to be easier than what we just went through."

"Fighting a Gedd is somewhat less challenging than battling a crippled Chimpanzee." Marco added.

Prince Jake smiled, but he was too wise to be overly confident. "That may be, but don't let your guards down. Those Gedds will have dracon beams."

<Yeah, and terrible aim> Tobias commented.

"Here's the plan: Alloran will storm onto the ship, and order the entire crew into the brig. He will refuse to release any of them until someone comes forward with information about some missing weapons. Once we've secured the ship, we'll reveal that the war is lost, and offer terms of surrender."

"And if that fails, we'll kick some Yeerk butt!" Rachel added.

It sounded simple. Too simple. I should have known that something would go wrong. Which it did, almost immediately.

"Jake, I think I'm picking up another ship on sensors," Loren said.

Alloran and I both moved quickly to look.

<That's an Andalite power signature!> I exclaimed.

"Now the Andalite fleet shows up?" Rachel asked sarcastically. "What kind of timing is that?"

<It appears to be a single fighter. I see no evidence of other vessels.> Alloran replied. <If the fleet is here, they've concealed themselves well.>

"Are the shields up?" Prince Jake asked. "Because if they aren't, then shields up. We don't know they aren't Yeerks."

Marco turned in his seat. "Does this mean something?"

<They are hailing us,> Alloran answered.

"Let's here it," Prince Jake suggested.

<Yeerk vessel. Surrender or be destroyed.> It was an Andalite, probably female.

"Tell them we aren't Yeerks," Prince Jake ordered.

Alloran did so. <Andalite Vessel, this is Alloran-Semitur-Corass. This vessel is not under Yeerk control. Please identify yourself.>

<Nice try, Visser. Surrender, or be destroyed.>

<There is no need for hostility. The Visser is dead.>

The reply was bitter. <You can't expect me to believe that. Lower your shields and surrender.>

Alloran turned to Prince Jake. <Prince Jake? I do not believe we should comply. But the decision is yours to make.>

"Stand firm," he replied.

Alloran did so. <Stand down your weapons and identify yourself.>

We sat in silence for several minutes.

<Your Pool Ship has not raised its shields. Surrender or I will fire upon it.>

"Is that a bluff?" Jake asked. "Would one lone Andalite take on a ship that size?"

<That would be a foolhardy move. She does not know that they are without weapons.> Alloran replied.

Jake thought quickly. "Tell her we took down the shields in order to take over the ship."

<While I would not mourn the death of those Yeerks, I would regret the deaths of their hosts. We went to a great deal of trouble to take down the shields as part of a plan to liberate those hosts.>

<And who is we? I detect only one other Andalite on board your vessel, yet I am reading five humans, more than a dozen Hork Bajir, and one unidentified life form. I know you are Yeerks. I repeat: Surrender or I will fire upon the Pool Ship.>

"How much damage can she do?" Jake asked.

<I do not believe she would destroy it. She would probably target their weapons systems first.> Alloran answered. <If we lower our shields, I suspect she will fire on us. And I do not believe she will target our weapons.>

"Ax, what do you think?" Jake asked.

<I am not certain, but I do not believe she would fire if we surrendered.> I answered.

Alloran looked deeply troubled. <That is because you have honor, Aximili. But I believe she will destroy us given half the chance.>

Cassie saw what the rest of us missed. "Alloran, who is she?"

<She is my daughter.>

Jake rubbed his temples. "Do not lower the shields. Let her fire. It may prove you are not the Visser."

<This is your last chance. Surrender or I will fire on the Pool Ship.>

<Then fire.> Alloran responded grimly. <We will neither surrender nor stand in your way.>

She fired. Twice. The disabled Pool Ship, with neither shields nor weapons, buckled under the punishment. The hull was breached. A number of Taxxons were sucked out into open space. It wasn't pretty.

<Surrender or I'll destroy it.>

<There are five Hork Bajir on board that vessel. Allow us the chance to spare their lives.> Alloran requested.

<Am I expected to believe that you care about the lives of Hork Bajir, Visser? You, who don't even care about the lives of your own people? You are only interested in saving yourself.>

She fired again. The Pool Ship exploded.

Jake

I looked away in horror. Cassie wasn't the only one bothered by senseless death. I had stood there and made the decision to risk those five Hork Bajir lives, and those of a number of Gedds as well, in order to save the lives of my own people. I, Jake the Yeerk Killer, was responsible for yet more tragedy.

I turned to Toby. It was her people we had failed to save. "Toby, I am sorry."

"It was not your fault, Jake," she answered. "At least they are now free."

<She would have destroyed the Pool Ship either way, Prince Jake> Alloran said gently. <Sadly, my daughter learned her moral code from me. And I have done things of which I am not proud.>

I didn't want to hear it. I didn't want the others to try to lift the blame from my shoulders. "I should have dropped our shields. Instead, I let her execute a ship full of innocent hosts."

<I would have killed you. And I would have been wrong.>

I jumped at the unexpected Andalite voice. Then I realized Cassie was sitting at the communications console. She had opened the channel to the other vessel.

<This is Filetta-Corass-Joroc. I have powered down my weapons and dropped my shields. I would like to request permission to board your vessel.>

I exchanged a look with Cassie. "Alloran? Your daughter, your call."

<I would like the opportunity to speak with her, Prince Jake.>

"Permission granted." I decided.

Alloran lowered the shields and opened the cargo bay doors.

"Ax, could you go down and escort our guest to the bridge?"

<Yes, Prince Jake> he replied.





Ax

Alloran was the only member of my own species that I had seen in years. Despite the circumstances, my hearts beat faster at the prospect of meeting another Andalite.

I didn't want to like her. Not that I wanted to judge her hasty actions, either. She had been faced with the opportunity to destroy the Abomination; the only Andalite Controller in the galaxy. I did not want to think about my own possible actions in the same situation.

My hearts skipped a beat when I saw her, but I refused to allow my emotions to show. I remained formal. <I am Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill. My prince has requested that I escort you to the bridge.>

<Filetta-Corass-Joroc. Your prince is a human, is he not?> She seemed skeptical. I wondered what was said about me on the homeworld.

We arrived on the bridge in time for some frantic planning. Filetta's actions had damaged our plans.

<They might know what happened. They'll be on guard now.> Alloran said. <We may have lost the element of surprise.>

"And the French bugfighters still have shields." Marco pointed out.

"They still won't know that Alloran isn't the Visser," Rachel argued. "We should go ahead."

"Could they have picked up our transmissions?" Cassie wondered.

<Possibly. Probably not. But possibly.> I told her.

Alloran nodded in agreement. <I cannot assume that I can safely continue this charade. I am willing to risk it, however.>

Prince Jake turned to Mr. King. "Is Erek keeping the President up to date?"

"He says to use your best judgment," Mr. King replied. "He hopes you can defeat the Yeerks and maintain peace with France."

"Well, that's helpful," Rachel mumbled.

"How many Yeerks are there in France?" Prince Jake asked. He knew the answer, but wanted to make sure everyone did.

<Enough to control the government and the military, but there are few controllers outside of Paris. The Visser was not willing to give hosts to a large number of Yeerks outside his direct control.>

Marco laughed. "Good for the Visser. He's been a great help."

<France has a Prime Minister and a President> Alloran explained. <As I understand it, the President holds more power in the French government then does the Prime Minister. However, the Prime Minister's yeerk is of a higher rank than the President's.>

"Ah, Yeerk politics," Marco sighed.

<Chapman could still turn out to be a problem.> I commented. <It will only be a matter of time before he or his wife makes contact with another Yeerk.>

"We only really needed him out of the way for the morning. Not that it wouldn't be nice if he stayed put." Tobias replied.

"So, do we divebomb Paris, guns blazing?" Marco asked. "Or do we try to sneak in?"

Prince Jake rubbed his temples as he thought. "Even if they know the fate of the Pool Ship, they might not know the circumstances."

"We don't want to hurt the Prime Minister," Cassie said gently. "Or the President. We should be careful."

"Cassie's right. We really should try to avoid killing members of foreign governments. I vote for stealth." Tobias agreed. "We try our original plan, but be ready to abort and fight."

"Sounds good to me. I'm in," Rachel responded.

Prince Jake made up his mind. "O.K. Tom and Loren have to stay on board. Mr. King needs to keep in touch with Erek. Alloran plays the Visser once more. Some of us need to morph Hork Bajir and stay with him. The rest need to be ready to fight, if necessary."

Filetta stood silently beside me, her eye stalks lowered in shame. Once the planning was complete, her father approached her.

<Filetta. How did you come to be here?>

Filetta shifted uneasily. <I stole a fighter. I came... I came to destroy the Abomination. I am grateful to find that I do not need to do so.>

<I am glad that you are here. You can help my prince secure this planet.> Alloran turned to Prince Jake. <Prince Jake, may I present my daughter, Filetta-Corass-Joroc.>

<I swear my allegiance to you, Prince Jake> Filetta responded obediently. <I am sorry for my hasty actions.>

"I will be grateful for your service," Prince Jake answered. "What's done is done. Do you have a Hork Bajir morph?"

<Yes, Prince Jake.>

"Then you're with Alloran," he told her. "The Yeerks are unaware of his liberation, we hope. Be ready to fight if we are wrong."

Jake

I was worried about thrusting Filetta directly into battle, but how could I turn down a morph-capable Andalite in what could prove our most desperate hour?

"Rachel, Tobias, and Cassie. You're also with Alloran." I decided. "Ax and Marco, come with me. We'll see if we can't disable the shields on their fighters as planned."

Toby stepped forward. "My people are not here to stand idly by while you fight."

I cringed. She was right, and yet I did not want to be responsible for sending them into danger. "Cassie? Do we have any blue fabric on board?"

It was Marco who answered. "Loren's wearing blue. Get her!"

Fortunately, Loren laughed. "Marco, take off your shirt. I'll sacrifice mine, but I need something to wear."

Once all of our Hork Bajir, real and morphed, were wearing the blue bands of Visser One's select troops, we landed.

We found ourselves in a small version of the Yeerk Pool facility in our home town. I noticed immediately that there were only six bug fighters in the hangar.

"Alloran, shouldn't there be more bug fighters?" I asked, worried.

<I must admit that I am not sure, Prince Jake. But the Visser did purposely keep this base under-equipped.>

I nodded. Visser One had been a tyrant who didn't trust his own underlings, and his actions had made the Yeerks vulnerable. There were many such examples in human history.

My team headed for the Bug fighters.

<The Americans cower before me!> Alloran bellowed to no one in particular. <It is time that Europe and all the world did the same.>

Rachel

For once I was hoping that we didn't need to fight. I was tired. I listened to Alloran's blustering as he demanded to speak with a number of high ranking Yeerks. At the news that Chapman had failed to arrive, he exploded into a tantrum.

When, with the exception of Chapman, the controllers he had demanded had gathered, he announced that the United States had surrendered, and in addition that he had captured the Andalite bandits.

<There will be Andalite hosts for those who serve me best today!>

He was so convincing that I shuddered.

I heard Jake's voice in my head as he directed private thoughtspeak to the rest of us. <The bug fighters have been infected. They should be without shields and weapons.>

None of us responded. We were busy watching the French yeerks for any sign of suspicion.

<It is time to inform the French people that they have new leadership. You'll broadcast the message from on board my Blade Ship> the "Visser" informed the French leaders.

Now we would know. If they boarded the ship, we'd have them. They wouldn't risk it if they knew our true identities.

Yet they followed Alloran meekly enough, and were caught completely off guard when Tom and Loren turned dracon beams on them. Within minutes, we had all of the leaders of the French invasion locked in the brig.

Jake

I reboarded the Blade Ship just as the capture operation was complete. <Everything went smoothly?> I asked anxiously.

<Yes, Prince Jake.> Alloran answered.

But Cassie spoke up. <I don't think it would be wise for them to know that the Visser is dead. They should think that Alloran is a morph instead of a free host.>

I nodded. <Keep them off balance. Good idea.>

<Prince Jake, would you like to acquire me?> Alloran asked.

I was stunned, but saw the practicality of the offer instantly. <I would be honored.>

Several minutes later I approached the brig as an Andalite. The captives eyed me nervously.

"Who are you?" one asked.

<Do you not recognized your great Visser?> I mocked.

"But..."

<Silence, fool. Does it matter who I am? You are doomed, regardless.> I looked at each one in turn. <Yet you are lucky. I am not the Visser, but the leader of the Andalite bandits. I will spare all of your lives, on one condition.>

I waited until one of them spoke up. "What do you require?"

<Leave your hosts. Release them, and you will survive.>

"And if we don't?"

<Then you will die, because I will have no choice but to starve you out.>

They complied.

Cassie

The French cleanup operation was refreshingly boring. Once we were certain that almost all of the yeerks had been rounded up, we turned the responsibility over to the French leaders. Having been controllers themselves, they well understood the situation, and we did not have to worry that former controllers would be treated as traitors or persecuted in any way. We took the yeerk prisoners who had surrendered and left their hosts with us.

The newly freed Hork Bajir also boarded the Blade Ship, and we returned to Washington, D.C. The President promised to try and keep the media under wraps for a few more hours so that we could talk to our families. We had won. I looked at my exhausted friends, and wondered how we would adapt to new, more peaceful lives.

Rachel

Telling my parents about the past few years was interesting. I didn't want to go through the story twice, so I called my dad and had him come over. Fortunately, he had been in town, because otherwise he never would have made it. The military still had the airport closed down. They sat on the couch, and I could see how nervous they were. Their teenage daughter and her boyfriend, whom they had never met, had something serious to say. I can only imagine what they feared.

"Mom, do you remember Mr. ?"

"The crazy guy I defended a few years ago?"

"He wasn't crazy, Mom."

"I know, I shouldn't say that. But..."

"This isn't about being politically correct," I sighed. This was going to be hard. "I mean he was telling the truth."

"Rachel, he thought aliens were controlling his thoughts."

"Not his thoughts, mom. They were controlling his mind."

"There's a difference?"

My father got annoyed and interrupted. "Are you going somewhere with this?"

"Yes. It will be on the news soon, but I wanted you to hear it from me."

"Hear what?"

"There's been some excitement in town today. And I wanted to explain before..."

"This has something to do with the terrorists at the airport? Rachel, what are you mixed up in?"

"There are no terrorists, Mom. The President..."

My dad cut me off again. "The President has apparently lost his mind. That press conference earlier..."

"That press conference was a cover. So is the terrorist story. There was an alien invasion."

"Rachel..."

"Really. Aliens. But we won." I expected to be cut off, but both of my parents were quiet for a moment. I plunged ahead. "The yeerks have been quietly invading for years. My friends and I have been fighting them. But we were in over our heads, so we went to the President. Everything's fine now. We won. But we've been through alot."

Both of my parents were nodding absently. They didn't believe me. I exchanged a look with Tobias, then decided to go ahead. At least they'd stopped interrupting.

"I guess I'd better start at the beginning. We were all at the mall..."

Cassie

Home. I was so tired I couldn't see, but I needed to talk to my parents before they saw the news. The Chee who had played me for the last couple of weeks had left to play medic, so "I" hadn't been home all day. I hadn't even been briefed on how the last two weeks of my life had gone. But it didn't really matter. The lies were finally over.

My dad was in the barn. "Dad, can you come in the house? I need to talk to you."

"What's wrong with talking out here?" he asked.

"I need to talk to Mom, too. It's important." I answered. I expected more of a fight, but he agreed.

"I have a lot to explain," I began. "You might not believe me at first, but please hear me out."

"Why wouldn't we believe you, Cassie? You've never lied to us."

I cringed at my mother's words.

"Yes I have, Mom. Many times. Too many. But I'm here to set everything straight."

"Cassie?" My father was worried now.

"Mom, do you remember when that tiger fell through the skylight at the mall?" It was a stupid question. How could anyone forget about being called out in the middle of the night to rescue an injured tiger at the mall.

"Yes..."

"Well, I know why he disappeared from the operating room. And I know why he was found back in his habitat without a scratch." My mother nodded, confused.

"It wasn't a real tiger. It was Jake. You see, a few years ago we were at the mall..."

Jake

Tom and I went home. It felt good. Tom looked around the house in wonder. I could see him fighting to hide the emotion.

"Mom? Dad?" I called. "Anyone home?"

My mom wandered up from the basement. "Jake? What are you yelling for?"

"Where's Dad? Tom and I need to talk to both of you."

She only had a moment to be confused by my tone before Tom grabbed her and hugged her.

"What on earth?"

"I've missed you, Mom." Tom said, his voice strained.

"Missed me? Are you feeling alright?"

"Yeah," he answered. "Everything's great."

"Are you sure?" She looked us both over with motherly concern. "Tom, have you been crying? And Jake, you look like you haven't slept in a week."

"I haven't, Mom. We'll explain when Dad gets here."

"Explain what?" my father asked, walking in the front door.

"Well, I'd better start at the beginning. A few years ago I went to the mall..."

Marco

While the others were talking to their parents Loren and I went searching for Melissa Chapman. We were supposed to find her, then call Rachel. Cassie thought it would be best if we told her about her parents before it was on the news.

We had checked school, the mall, and her gymnastics class before trying her house. Then we felt foolish, because she was at home.

I suppose we should have been a bit more subtle than to knock on her door, but I was so tired that I forgot I was supposed to be dead.

"Do I know you?"

"Don't you recognize me? Marco, here, at your service?"

"Jake's friend? But you're dead."

"Oh, yeah...um...I kinda forgot. But I'm not. Dead, that is. I mean, I'm not dead." Did I mention that I sometimes get tongue tied around members of the opposite sex?

She looked skeptical, but she let us in. We didn't end up calling Rachel. Melissa questioned me about my alleged death until I ended up telling her the whole story. Except for how her parents were involved. I managed to hold that back til the end.

"Wow," Melissa said. "That's all pretty amazing, but you're still hiding something. Tell me."

"But you might..."

"I said, tell me!" Melissa was wearing an expression that meant business. I gave in.

"Your parents are in France," I began.

"This involves them, doesn't it?"

"Yes. They are controllers."

She didn't seem too terribly surprised. "And?"

"What do you mean, and?" I guess I expected her to break down crying or something. I sure didn't expect her to catch on that there was even more to the story.

I glanced at Loren.

"Melissa," she said gently, "Your father is a voluntary controller. He's in French custody right now, and so is your mom."

Melissa's face grew hard. I expected her to deny it, to argue with Loren and defend her family. She didn't. I had a sudden, dark thought. Was Melissa Chapman a controller?

"Well, this explains a lot. But I think there's more to the story." She stared hard at Loren.

Loren swallowed. "I knew your father, years ago. He's the one who told the Yeerks about Earth."

Tobias

So, who am I? Part human. Part hawk. Part Andalite. With Earth out of danger, I should become human again. But how can I give up those other parts of me? I cannot imagine never flying again. And I do not want to give up my ability to morph Andalite.

I suppose I'll stay morph capable for a few more weeks. I have the rest of my life to be normal. Normal. That's a funny word. How can I ever be normal?

I'm older than my own mother. I've fought an alien invasion. And Barbara Walters has been trying to lure me to 20/20 for an interview. These are simply not normal things.

I will marry Rachel just as soon as we have the blessings of her parents. They were pretty reasonable about it, seeing as they had never met me. So I guess we'll decide our futures together. We've all been offered full scholarships to a number of different universities, so college is probably the next step. I'd like to visit the Andalite home world someday, but for now I'm happy to stay on Earth.

Ax

Alloran, Filetta, and I ate while the others went to see their families. Earth was safe. What was next? The Hork Bajir homeworld needed assistance, and Alloran felt he owed them. If he asked me, I would go with them. A part of me didn't want to leave Earth, and my friends. But I wouldn't rest as long as the Yeerks were a threat.

I watched my companions as they moved off by themselves. It was probably some family business, so I didn't try to listen in. Then Alloran called me to join them.

<We must return to the home world> His thoughtspeak was grim. My hearts froze in my chest even before I heard his next words.

<The Yeerks are there.>




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This transformative work constitutes a fair use of any copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. Animorphs ™ © and related properties are Registered Trademarks of Scholastic, Inc. No copyright infringement intended. No profits made here. © Spiletta42, October 2000.