Chapter 02: Marco

I try not to be stupid.

Yeah, yeah, I know—who doesn’t, right? I mean, nobody gets up in the morningand sets out to be a moron.

But there’s a pretty big difference between not-trying-to-do-it-wrong andactually-trying-to-do-it-right. It’s a lot like the difference between tellingyourself you’re going to get started on that history paper, and actuallypulling the books out of your bag. It’s just one extra step, just a littleextra work, but it’s one step further than most people are willing to go.

Even people like Jake, who are mostly on top of things. Jake was doing hisbest, and his best was turning out to be pretty damn good, not that I wassurprised. I’d known him since kindergarten, and watching him wrangle Cassie,Tobias, and Rachel was like connecting dots. That fearless leader thing hadalways been hiding in there somewhere; it had just never had a good reason tocome out.

But instinct and charisma can only get you so far. At some point, no matterhow good you are, you’re going to have to stop and think.

I was usually good at thinking. Not just at doing it, but at remembering todo it, at doing it right. Dotting all the I’s, crossing all the T’s.

Which made it all the more embarrassing that I hadn’t noticed the GLARINGLYOBVIOUS DANGER until it had already passed. Luck—we had survived thanks tosheer, dumb luck, and if we hadn’t, I would have died knowing it was myfault.

It was 9:03PM. The construction site was quiet and still, the three Yeerkspacecraft having launched silently skyward a few minutes before. The groundin front of us was empty and barren, with nothing to show that Elfangor’s shiphad ever been there. There weren’t even any scorch marks—somehow, the Yeerkweapons had vaporized it with basically zero wasted heat or energy.

Jake had deputized Cassie, who was making soothing, rational noises at Rachelwhile he did the same for Tobias. I wasn’t paying much attention, because Iwas too busy mentally kicking myself.

The Yeerk sensors had been jammed by the presence of Elfangor’s ship.

Elfangor’s ship was no longer present.

Which meant that the Yeerks had probably been entirely capable of detectingfive stupid kids huddling in the middle of an otherwise empty constructionsite.

We should have kept running, all the way home. Or better yet, all the way backto the mall, where we could have dropped a few more quarters at the arcade toestablish an alibi and then called my dad for a ride.

But no. Instead, we’d stayed to watch.

I felt a sharp pain in my palms and looked down to see that my fists wereclenched, my fingers curled so tight that the nails were threatening to breakthe skin. Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to relax, to think.

Common sense said that the Yeerks should have seen us before lifting off. Itsaid that they should have torched the low foundation we were coweringbehind—or better yet, grabbed us with a tractor beam and dragged us out to beinfested like those poor cops.

But they hadn’t done that. So either the Yeerks were stupid, or they’d left usalive on purpose, or they just hadn’t noticed us, or their sensors didn’tpenetrate concrete, or they didn’t care if anybody saw them because theyalready controlled the internet, or scanning the site wasn’t standardprocedure and the Visser was an incompetent tyrant whose minions were tooscared to take any initiative—

I squeezed my eyes shut. Sometimes my brain does this thing where it refusesto admit that it’s finished scraping the bottom of the barrel and is nowdigging up splinters.

Step one: figure out steps two, three, and four.

We needed to get out of the construction site. We needed to test this wholemorphing thing. We needed to talk about the alien invasion going on in thecenter of our town. We needed to figure out where the center of our town was.We needed to get home. We needed to talk about whether that had actually beenvice-principal Chapman, and whether anybody had recognized anybody else. Weneeded to acquire each other’s DNA in case we ever had to cover for eachother. We needed to acquire some adults. We needed to find an adult we couldtrust. We needed to knock out Rachel and Tobias and Cassie before they coulddo anything stupid—

Splinters.

Okay. We needed to get out of there, check in at home, and then meet someplacesafe to talk it all over. Two, three, and four.

And make really, really, really sure that nobody’s about to crack and call uptheir best friend or whatever, because that would be really, really, REALLYbad—

Fine. Two-A, two-B, three, and four.

“Jake,” I said.

Jake looked over and held up a finger. I sighed.

Turning away from the group, I looked up at the stars. There weren’t manyvisible, what with the glare of the lights from the mall and the highway. Afew hundred, maybe. None of them appeared to be moving. Probably none ofthem were spaceships, but who knew? Elfangor’s ship had decloaked right infront of our eyes.

The Yeerk ships didn’t, though. They were visible the whole time. Anothermistake? Or a technology they don’t have?

More mysteries. I looked back down at the dirt, at the place where Elfangorhad died.

“The morphing process will take approximately two minutes,” he’d said, twominutes before his mouth had disappeared and an extra pair of eyes hadsprouted from the back of his head. “You will initiate it with a burst ofintense concentration. Simply focus on the desired organism, and visualize thetransformation. Imagine it happening, and the morphing mechanism willrespond.”

I held out my hand. Elfangor’s had had seven fingers. I distinctly rememberedwatching the extra two emerge as blue fur spread across his human skin. One ofthem had grown like a tumor out of the web between his thumb and index finger.The other had split off of his pinky, like in Mrs. Delphi’s life science videoon cell division.

Giving in to a sudden, crazy impulse, I let my eyes flutter closed, focusedintently, tried to imagine what it would feel like to have seven fingers, foureyes, to feel an extra pair of legs bursting from my abdomen, to sprout a tailwhose tip was a deadly, razor-sharp shard of bone. I held the image of thealien in my mind, trying not to notice the words this is insane as theyfloated across like subtitles.

“Marco?”

I opened my eyes and looked down at my hand. It was pretty dark, but I wasreasonably sure nothing had changed.

Well, he _did say it would take hours to analyze the first samples._

I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see Jake, his eyes two sparks inthe deep shadow of his face. “You okay, amigo?” he asked softly.

I let out a low, humorless laugh. “If any of the rest of them answered yes tothat question, it’s time to call the nuthouse.”

Jake looked back at Tobias, who was sitting in the dirt a few yards away, hishead in his hands, silent sobs shaking his body. “We need to get out of here,”Jake muttered. “Someplace safe, where we can figure all this stuff out. TheMagnuson park playground, maybe. Or Cassie’s barn.”

“Cassie’s barn sounds good,” I said. “But home first. Nothing suspicious.Nothing to make it look like we did anything other than spend a boringSaturday night at the mall. If there really are a thousand Controllersalready—”

“—then there’s probably somebody close enough to notice if we start actingweird. Right.” Jake scrubbed at his eyes for a moment, then sighed, hisshoulders sagging. “I’m going to have to tell everyone it’s time to go, aren’tI?”

I snorted and rolled my eyes, not caring that he couldn’t really see them inthe dark. “Hey,” I called out, loudly.

The others all looked up.

“You guys ready to get out of here?”

No one said anything.

“Oooookay. Um. Look. It’s already after nine. But we need to get together andtalk, too. I think—I think we should go back to the mall, chill in the arcadefor a bit, and then call for a ride. That way, it looks like we were there thewhole time, and just lost track of how late it was.”

I paused, but still no one said anything. They just sat there, staring at me.

“And then, we can all meet up at Cassie’s—everybody know where Cassie lives?”

Crickets.

“Fine, right. We all go to sleep, and then sneak out and meet up at Cassie’sat—let’s say one AM. And we should wait to figure out this whole morphingthing until we’re all together, in case anything goes wrong. Everybody agree?”

As if on cue, Tobias, Rachel and Cassie all turned to look at Jake.

I let out another hollow laugh. That was going to be a problem if Jake everdecided not to listen to reason one day.

Or if Elfangor’s little earplugs don’t work on humans, and the Yeerks getahold of him.

I shuddered. To cover it, I dropped to my knees and raised my hands above myhead, as if in prayer. “Oh, Fearless Leader,” I intoned, kowtowing in Jake’sdirection. “Wilt thou call upon the holy spirit of Simon Says, and bestow thyblessing on my humble and unworthy plan?”

Jake shifted uncomfortably. “Since when do you all wait for me to decidethese things?” he muttered.

No one answered. Except me, of course—I went ommmm and he kicked me. Then hesaid some words, and together we headed back toward the mall, the fate of thehuman race on our shoulders.


I expected trouble from Tobias and Rachel. I mean, they’ve both got that wholedon’t-tell-me-what-to-do vibe going on, you know? Rachel because she’s thistotal prom queen princess type, and Tobias because he’s this tragic, troubledyouth with a bad home life and a leather jacket.

I had not expected trouble from Cassie.

“I’m sorry,” she said, avoiding Jake’s disapproving gaze as she peered out atus from over the stall door, her long mane shriveling into the tight curls ofher short-cropped hair. “I wasn’t even really trying to. I was just finishingup with Peppermint, and she went all quiet and still, and I wondered if I’daccidentally done the thing, acquired her or whatever, and then I justthought, you know.” She disappeared from view, and we could hear the rustle offabric, the sound of zippers and snaps. A moment later, she emerged, bitingher lip. “It’s just—I’ve literally had dreams about being a horse for myentire life. And then my parents went to bed at ten thirty, and I came outhere to wait, and I just thought—well, what harm could it do?”

I looked over at Jake, realizing a split second too late that I was being anidiot, that Jake wasn’t actually in charge of anything and that furthermore hewas pretty much Cassie’s boyfriend and probably couldn’t be relied on to dothe appropriate amount of screaming and yelling that this situation calledfor.

Sure enough, his expression softened. “That was still a really big risk,Cassie,” he said. “You didn’t even lock the barn door. We just walked rightin. What if we’d been Controllers?”

She looked sheepish. “Well, I mean, we never lock the barn door, so if myparents had come down, I would have had to explain why it was locked, and Ijust—I don’t know. It just didn’t seem likely, I guess.”

I was going to point out that suddenly being granted the ability to turn intoa horse by a dying alien wasn’t particularly likely, either, and that maybe itwas time to start taking unlikely possibilities very, very seriously, but Jakegot there first.

For a very loose definition of there, anyway.

“You WHAT?” I spluttered, after actually feeling my jaw drop.

It was Jake’s turn to look sheepish, which he didn’t, instead crossing hisarms and frowning as if I was the one who was being unreasonable. “I morphedHomer,” he repeated, matter-of-fact. “In the bathroom, with the door locked,while the shower was running.”

“Me, too,” Tobias said quietly. “I mean, not Homer. Dude. I morphed Dude, mycat.”

“What part of wait until we can all be there didn’t make sense to youpeople?” I said, completely aware that I was about an inch away from shouting.“We’re messing around with alien technology that’s supposedly shoving ourbodies out into hyperspace. We were supposed to do this together—we weresupposed to do this smart!”

“Hey,” Rachel interjected. “Who died and made you emperor?”

“Who died and made Jake emperor?” I shot back. “This has nothing to do withwho’s in charge, this has to do with what makes sense. With keepingourselves from getting killed. What did you morph into—a parakeet?”

“No,” she answered quietly. “My sister. Sara.”

There was a soft rustle as the whole group took in a breath. I felt a coldprickle of sweat break out between my shoulder blades. I’d already beenthinking about acquiring people, but thinking about it and doing it were twovery different things. Even I hadn’t expected that particular line to becrossed so quickly.

“That,” I said, slowly and carefully, “was really st—”

“Oh, shut up,” Rachel snapped, leaping up from the bale of hay where she’dbeen sitting and sticking a finger in my face. “You think you’re the only onehere with brains, Marco? My sister is not a Controller. She’s eight yearsold. They don’t want her for anything. Besides, if she was, then I wouldhave been—don’t you think the very first move a Controller would make would beto infest the rest of her family? And she didn’t notice me acquiring her,because she was already falling asleep—I did it while I carried her up to bed.And there was no chance anybody was going to catch me, because I did it in myroom, with the lights out, with the door locked, and with the dresser shovedup against it. So take that smug little attitude and shove it, okay?”

“Rachel,” Jake began warningly.

No, Jake,” I said, cutting him off. The hot anger I’d initially felt hadcooled into obsidian, and my voice was tight and controlled as I stood to faceRachel. She was a good foot and a half taller than me, but I forced myself toloom anyway, pushing forward so that she had no choice but to take a stepback. “Rachel’s right. I’m not the only one with brains. Because I nevereven thought about using eight year olds to infest entire families, or howone elementary school teacher could pretty much take out a whole neighborhood.Just put the class down for naptime, open up your Thermos, and there you go—anall-you-can-infest buffet.”

Rachel’s glare didn’t change much, but I saw her eyes widen a little, saw theedges of her mouth compress. Around me, the others had gone rigid, even Jakeshocked into silence. “You know who does have brains, though?” I continued.“The Yeerks. Maybe a thousand of them already. A thousand human brains, athousand slaves, except those slaves can’t even think without their mastersknowing about it. Every idea those thousand people have—every escape plan,every desperate hope, every Yeerk weakness they manage to figure out—theYeerks know. They know all of it, can use all of it. If just one ofthose people happens to realize, just accidentally makes the connection thatoh, hey, you know what, elementary schools are this giant weak spot inhumanity’s defenses, then it’s game over, because they don’t just get ourbodies, they get our minds too. Every new Controller counts double, becausenot only do we lose everything that person could have brought to the fight,the Yeerks gain all that.”

I was pushing too hard, could tell that I was pushing too hard, but I didn’tcare. I’d been wrestling with the weight of this for an hour, struggling tothink through all of the implications, feeling hope slip away, and meanwhile,the rest of them had been morphing into pets. I rounded on them, burned eachof them with my glare as I tore at their illusions, their happy ignorance.“There is nothing standing in their way except us—did you get that? Thisisn’t some movie, where humanity’s going to rise up and pull some bullshittrick out of its ass. The Yeerks are winning. They’ve got a thousand of usalready, they could have twenty thousand more in a couple of weeks, andnobody’s noticed. Elfangor said the point of no return might be six monthsaway, and that means that tomorrow it’ll be five months and twenty nine days,and we’ve got nothing on our side except morphing, and you guys have alreadydecided it’s a toy. Did you not see Elfangor get eaten? Do you notunderstand the stakes? He didn’t give each one of us the destruct code for thebox because he believes in equality or democracy or some crap like that, hegave it to all of us because he knew that four of us might die and theremight be just one of us left to stop the Yeerks from getting their hands onit. He was coming to destroy the planet because he thought that might bethe only way to stop them.”

I ground to a halt. Even though my voice was still quiet, still low and tight,my chest was heaving. The sweat that had begun between my shoulder blades hadspread, and I could feel it soaking into my shirt, into the waistband of myboxers. I looked at each one of them in turn, held each pair of eyes for afull five seconds before moving on to the next.

Except for Jake, I didn’t really know these were placeholders, stereotypes,faces in the crowd—Jake’s cousin, Jake’s crush, _and _that emo kid who hangsaround sometimes. Instead of Rachel, Cassie, and Tobias, I could have beenwalking home with Phillip, Erek, and Jennifer. Or David, Cate, and Elizabeth.I could have been walking home with Melissa Chapman, who—if Rachel wasright—was almost certainly a Controller.

I didn’t know these people, but I needed them.

“We’re it, guys,” I said. “Just the five of us. If we don’t make it, if wescrew it up, then the human race will actually lose. So yeah, I think it wasstupid _for Cassie to morph into a horse just to live out some little girldream. I think it was _stupid for Jake and Tobias to morph basicallydefenseless animals when anyone in their houses might be a Controller already.I think it was stupid for Rachel to morph her sister in her house, whenany second her mom could have pulled the whole open-this-door-right-now-young-lady routine. There are seven billion people who are going to live or diebased on the mistakes we do or don’t make. Being dumb is something we can’tafford, and I don’t care if you all think I’m an asshole for saying it.”

Suddenly tired, I turned away from them, closed my mouth and dropped heavilyonto a nearby bale of hay. I felt drained, empty, as if I’d just finishedrunning the mile in PE. In that moment, I wanted nothing more than to switchoff and let someone else take control.

But I couldn’t. And maybe I’d never be able to again.

I looked back up. The four of them were all still frozen, various mixtures ofanger, horror, and shame written on their faces as they looked at each other,at the animal cages lining the walls of the barn—at anything but me.

“Cassie,” I said flatly, hoping to change the subject. “What’s the deal withthis place? Why do you guys have all these animals?”

She turned toward me, and I was surprised to see warmth and sympathy in hereyes. “This is the Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic,” she said. “Both my parentsare vets, and my dad gets money from the state to take care of injured animalspicked up by Animal Control, get them ready to be released back into the wild.We’ve usually got hawks and falcons who’ve been shot or hurt during storms,squirrels and raccoons and ‘possums who’ve been hit by cars, sometimes wolvesor foxes or deer. We had a small bear one time, but that was a few years ago.”

She bit her lip. “Also,” she said, hesitantly, “also, my mom is the head vetat the Gardens. I can probably get us in without raising any suspicions. Thezoo there has sharks, tigers, snakes, bats, elephants—pretty much everything.”

I ran my fingers through my hair. Evidence that we have been maneuvered intoplace by those you might call God, Elfangor had said.

Maybe he’d been telling the truth. Maybe the deck really was stacked in ourfavor, at least in some ways.

I looked around at the cages. About half of them were empty, but near the doorwere three large ones, each with a bird of prey. There was some kind of hawkwith reddish feathers in its tail, a black-and-white osprey with one wingencased in plaster, a tawny owl with only one eye, and what looked like ayoung bald eagle.

Cassie had been following my gaze. “Do you think we should acquire them?” sheasked timidly. “I can pull them out.”

If we morph an injured animal, do we get the injuries?

If we get injured in morph, do the injuries go away when we re-morph?

If one of us acquires an animal, can the others acquire from the morph, or dothey have to acquire the original, too?

I shook my head. “Yes. But not yet. There’s something else I think we need todo, first.”


We’d decided to stay in the barn. The woods would have been safer in terms ofthe risk from Cassie’s parents, but the Yeerk ships had looked like they wereheaded for orbit, and it was a clear night. No sense in making satellitesurveillance any easier than it had to be.

I was in the farthest stall at the back of the barn, away from Cassie’s threehorses, with Jake and Tobias standing beside me. Rachel was just outside thedoor with her back turned; after seeing what happened to Elfangor’s clotheswhen he went from human to Andalite, I’d left mine in a pile in the corner.Cassie had stayed up front, where she was pretending to clean an empty cage,ready to head off her parents if they showed up.

Tobias had wanted to do it, but in a surprisingly generous move, Rachel hadstepped up in my defense, arguing that out of the five of us, I was the onlyone who hadn’t gotten to try out the morphing power yet. I wasn’t totallycomfortable with that kind of reasoning, but I appreciated the olive branch.

“You ready?” Jake asked.

I nodded tightly, trying not to let my nervousness show as I stood there,covering as much as I could with my hands. It was one thing to play aroundwith imagining extra fingers when you were half-convinced it wouldn’t work. Itwas another thing to contemplate actually turning into some kind of aliencentaur scorpion.

“It doesn’t hurt,” Tobias said. “It’s super gross and disturbing, but itdoesn’t hurt.”

I nodded again. Taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes and focused.

This time, I could feel the changes immediately, feel the grinding as my bonesrearranged, the sloshing as my organs liquefied and re-formed into new andcomplex structures. I was unable to keep my eyes closed and they snapped openjust in time to see the two new legs bursting out of my abdomen, complete withblue fur and dark, sueded hooves. Unbalanced, I fell forward, Jake and Tobiasreaching out to steady me.

There were a thousand changes, all of them happening in a rush, the twominutes flashing by as every piece of my body’s familiar territory wasreplaced with an alien landscape.

My mouth, sealing shut like a Ziploc bag as my nose flattened and my jawbonemelted away.

My ears, turning pointy and sliding upward as my hearing sharpened noticeably.

My arms, withering slightly as they became the slender, graceful arms of anAndalite, complete with seven fingers at the end of each flexible hand.

My spine, lengthening and bending as the middle of my back became a sort ofsecond hip, a hinge that left my upper body not quite upright, like a cobrapreparing to strike.

My eyes—my new eyes, opening at the ends of two long stalks that sproutedfrom the back of my neckless head, offering me a full three hundred and sixtydegrees of vision.

My tail.

It was the tail that marked the end of the transformation, a thick column ofmuscle, as heavy as my whole torso, counterbalancing the centaur body. I feltit grow, and grow, and grow, impossibly long, until it was fully capable ofwhipping over my—was it really still a shoulder?—and hitting targets outsideof my arms’ reach. The blade of bone seemed to slide out of the shaft likeWolverine’s claws, a wicked scythe more than a foot long, as thick as a bookat the base and tapering to a razor’s edge, a needle’s point.

As I lashed it back and forth, unable to resist the sheer sensation of power,I felt the body’s brain awaken. There were no thoughts, no memories, nopersonality—only a strange sort of reaching, a cup somehow straining to befilled. It was like a house where someone’s mind had lived, the ghost ofconsciousness still lingering in empty archives, in idle processors. Thebrain’s structure pulled at me, tugged on me, drew my own mind forward as ifeager to absorb me and start thinking again.

“Marco?” Jake asked. “You okay in there?”

I turned to look at him with all four eyes, tried opening my mouth andremembered that I didn’t have one. ‹I think so,› I thought at him. ‹Can youhear me?›

Jake grinned, relief plain on his face. “Yeah, I can hear you. That’s amazing,actually.”

Tobias tapped me on the shoulder, and I swiveled my stalk eyes in hisdirection, keeping my main eyes on Jake. “What’s it like?” he asked.

I considered briefly. ‹It’s—›

‹ELFANGOR. BROTHER. HELP ME.›


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