Chapter 03: Rachel
I straightened in the stall, giving my body a quick once-over to confirm thatall of my body parts had, in fact, returned to their rightful places. Pullingon my clothes, I called out to the others. “I’m clear.”
The door swung open to reveal Cassie and Jake, both standing with expectantlooks on their faces. “Still there,” I said. “Exactly the same as whateverybody else heard. The voice goes ‘Elfangor, brother, help me,’ and thenthere’s like a ten second pause, and then it repeats.”
Jake nodded, the muscles in his jaw tight. “Did you mark the angle?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Again, same as what you guys got.” I stepped aside so thatthey could see the two lines I’d gouged with my Andalite tail blade—one in therough, unfinished wood of the stall wall, and one in the dirt of the floor.“It was definitely coming from under the ground.”
Cassie stepped forward, holding the plastic protractor she’d retrieved fromher bedroom earlier that morning, when we’d reassembled after a long andsleepless night. “It’s tough to be really accurate,” she said. “But it looksjust like yours and mine. Thirty-ish degrees below horizontal.”
“And just a little bit south of west,” I added, pointing at the line on theground. “So unless it’s coming from the middle of the planet somehow—”
“—then Elfangor’s brother is trapped somewhere in the middle of the Pacificocean,” Jake finished. He sighed, scrubbing at his eyes again, and looked overat Cassie’s globe, conspicuously out-of-place amid the hay bales and the dullmetal cages. We’d tried extrapolating based on the direction the voice seemedto be coming from, had drawn a circle around our best guess as to its origin.It was about an inch across, a tight little loop in the middle of a wide patchof blue.
Just a little bigger than Texas.
“We’re definitely assuming this isn’t some kind of trick, then?” I asked.
Jake shrugged. “I don’t see how it could be, or why anyone would bother.Elfangor’s dead. And we’re only hearing the message when we’re in Andalitemorph. I don’t know how hack-proof thought-speak is, but if the signal issomehow keyed to Elfangor’s DNA…”
“It might not be his DNA,” Cassie pointed out. “It could be his brainwaves, orsomething. I mean, if what we’re morphing is an exact copy of his body, allthe way down to the neurons and stuff…”
“Not important,” I interrupted. “What’s important is figuring out what we’regoing to do about it.”
Jake and Cassie exchanged glances, and I felt a flicker of irritation. “Theremight not be anything we can do, Rachel,” Jake said quietly. “That’sthousands of miles away from here. Hundreds of miles from the nearest land. Ifthat circle’s in the right place, the globe says the water’s over two milesdeep.”
The flicker turned into a small, bright flame and my eyes narrowed. “So it’snot going to be easy,” I said, letting my voice go sharp. “Don’t tell me youthink that means we ought to do nothing.” I looked back and forth betweenthem, but neither offered a response. “Elfangor died so that the five of uscould get away. We can’t just abandon his brother.”
“After the mission to kill us all didn’t go according to plan, you mean,” Jakecorrected. “We don’t know who his brother is, or what he’ll want, or how he’llreact when he finds out Elfangor is dead.”
“So your solution is to just ignore him? Leave him to drown, or starve?”
“That’s not what I’m—”
“Guys!” Cassie broke in. “This isn’t—I mean, can we please just wait forTobias and Marco to get back? Instead of trying to figure it out byourselves?”
Jake crossed his arms, his mouth clicking shut. I could see him wrestling withhis own irritation, struggling to keep his cool. I said nothing, only spun onmy heel and began pacing up and down the length of the barn.
It wasn’t Jake’s fault. I was on edge, overreacting, looking for excuses toargue. I couldn’t help it—I hadn’t slept at all, and every minute or so, mybody would send another wave of adrenaline crashing through my bloodstream. Ithad been almost fifteen hours since Elfangor’s ship had appeared in front ofus, and since then, we’d done nothing but stand around and talk.
Okay, that wasn’t true. We’d all tried morphing, and we’d gone ahead andacquired every animal in Cassie’s barn the night before so that the analysiscould run its course. We’d confirmed that the message from Elfangor’s brotherwas, in fact, a message, and not a live communication, and we’d gone ahead andstarted working out its origin while Marco and Tobias went out into the woodsto experiment with the telepathy that seemed to be part of the morphingtechnology.
But we hadn’t done anything, and I was starting to unravel. I could feel thepressure of inaction across every inch of my skin, getting tighter and tighteras the seconds ticked by.
On my third lap across the barn, I stopped abruptly. “I’m going to practicemorphing until they get back,” I said. “I’ll use the stall.”
I ducked back inside before they could reply, pulling the door shut behind me.Taking my phone out of my pocket, I set it on a small ledge and opened up thestopwatch app, then stripped down. With a deep breath, I pushed start andfocused all of my thoughts on my chosen target.
Badger, I thought to myself.
I had actually met the badger before, a scarred old male who’d been pulled outfrom under a log by a pair of hikers in the national park. Cassie and I hadbeen working on homework together on the day he’d been found, and I’d beenconscripted into helping while she and her dad operated on his broken back.Closing my eyes, I pictured his thick, wiry fur, his long, hooked claws, hiswide, stubby tail.
The first thing I noticed was a feeling of falling. My eyes shot open as mybody shrank down, the rest of the barn rocketing skyward. I was barely threefeet tall before anything else started to change.
As I watched, my body began to turn colors—mostly black, but with brightslashes of pure white. There was an itchy, tingling sensation, and suddenlyeverything shattered and shivered and split, a million tiny hairs formingthemselves out of what had moments before been smooth skin.
It was about then that my eyesight started to weaken, the world around meblurring as my eyes shrank and receded, changing from bright blue to thebadger’s beady dark brown. At the same time, my nose and mouth beganprotruding, stretching farther and farther forward as the bones of my facerearranged into a long, sturdy snout.
I fell forward onto hands and knees just as my arms and legs began to shrink,sucking up into my body like spaghetti. I felt the connection between my headand my spine disappear as my skull rotated backward, then felt it re-form, thevertebrae clicking into place in their new arrangement. It was like being atthe dentist—I could sense what was happening to my body, could tell that itshould hurt, but I felt it only vaguely, distantly, as if it were happeningto somebody else.
It was a good thing, too, because as my claws ripped their way out of myfingers and toes, I not only saw the bones inside my hands—I smelled them,too. If I’d been able to sense pain normally, I would have been drivencompletely insane before the morph was even halfway done. Every single pieceof me had been torn apart, rearranged, and stuck back together.
With a nauseating sound like cutting meat, my tail pushed out from the base ofmy spine, and the morph was complete. Holding still, I braced myself for theappearance of the badger’s mind.
We’d discovered that our control over the morphs wasn’t a hundredpercent—which was actually a relief, because it meant we didn’t have to figureout how to swim and crawl and fly from scratch. There was a sort of residualawareness, a collection of emotions and instincts that were more than capableof running the morphed body on their own.
For some morphs—like Elfangor’s body, or the birds of prey—the effect waspretty mild. There was hunger, and maybe a drive to hunt or hide, and somesubtle shifts in what caught your attention, but otherwise, you mostly feltlike you.
With the horses, though, it was almost impossible to shake the skittishness.It was like being on five cups of coffee—there would be a sound, and the horsebody would have already reacted before your human brain had even registeredit. And when Cassie tried out squirrel morph, she lost control completely foralmost five minutes, tearing around the barn in a panic. The squirrel’sinstincts were just too powerful, too ingrained, and it wasn’t until Tobiasdipped back into hawk morph and communicated with her telepathically that shewas able to get a grip.
I was pretty confident that the badger would be easy to handle. It was a bigand powerful animal, fairly high up on the food chain, and this badger inparticular had seemed more bored than afraid each time I’d seen Cassie givehim his meds. But I steeled myself mentally, just in case.
As it turned out, I didn’t need to worry. The badger was sleepy, confident,and hungry, in that order. It was like sharing my brain with the essence ofSaturday mornings. Other than a slightly-higher-than-usual desire to sniffaround in the dirt of the stall floor, I felt completely normal and completelyin control.
Rearing, I tried to make out the numbers on my phone. The ledge where I’d leftit was only a foot above my head, but the badger’s vision was terrible.Everything was blurred, and all of the colors were washed out and subtlyshifted. I could see a dark, rectangular shape with something bright movinginside, but otherwise nothing.
Okay, fine. I’d been in morph for—what—thirty seconds? If I demorphedimmediately, I could still get a pretty decent estimate of how long thetransformation had taken. I was interested in finding out whether morphs ofdifferent size took different amounts of time, or whether the technologyresponded to a harder mental push. Taking one last sniff, I focused on my ownbody and began to reverse the changes.
My normal human vision returned in time to see the stopwatch tick over from2:59 to 3:00, and I kept my eyes locked on it for the rest of thetransformation. It read 3:47 when the last of the squelching, schlooping, andgrinding finished, and I did the math in my head in a heartbeat.
Just over a minute and a half. No different, in other words, than when I’dmorphed into Sara or Elfangor. It wasn’t enough to lock in the pattern forsure, but it was pretty solid evidence to start with. Human child, dog-sizedmammal, or full-sized alien—apparently, size and complexity made nodifference.
Resetting the timer, I focused on the squirrel, and began my second morph. Mysixth, in total.
Four minutes later, as I returned to human form, I suddenly realized that mywhole body was trembling and tired, my arms heavy as if I’d just finishedrunning through my gymnastics routine. Frowning, I took a step, and was justbarely able to stop my knees from buckling.
That was new.
“Guys?” I called out weakly. Reaching for my clothes, I overbalanced, myshoulder slamming against the stall wall. I stayed in that position as Itugged on my jeans, leaning heavily against the wood as I slid them past myhips. Stashing the phone in my pocket, I threw my coat around my shoulders andstepped shakily back out of the stall.
Cassie and Jake were over by the barn door, poring over the globe and a sheetfull of scribbled drawings and diagrams. They looked up as I walked out, theirfaces immediately flooding with concern.
“Rachel!” Cassie shouted, as they both ran over to me. “Sit down!”
I levered myself toward one of the hay bales, feeling tired all over, and justbarely made it, my muscles giving way as I dropped heavily into a sittingposition. “Tired,” I said.
“What happened?” Jake asked. “Are you okay? You’re white as a sheet.” Behindme, Cassie grabbed my shoulders, pulling me back to lean against her thighsand stomach.
“Morphed and demorphed,” I said, each word a weight that had to be liftedindividually. “Twice, rapid-fire.”
“And it did this?” he said, appalled. “You look like you did when you hadpneumonia last year.”
I shook my head, trying to clear it. “Not like that.” I lifted my arm, let itdrop back into my lap. “Not dizzy. Not sick. More like, just ran ten miles.”
I felt Cassie’s fingers gently buttoning my jacket for me, then twitched whenthey pressed against the line of my jaw. I realized she was checking my pulse,and held still, noticing as I did that my breathing was normal, neitherparticularly fast nor particularly slow.
“Heart rate’s about fifty-four,” Cassie announced. “A little low, but she’s agymnast. Totally normal.”
I shrugged my shoulders and tensed my legs. “Not sore, either,” I said. “Justreally, really—”
I broke off. I had been about to say really, really tired, but in the minuteor so that I’d been sitting there, one of the reallys had dropped off. Now Ionly felt like I’d run five miles.
“What is it?” Jake asked, still sounding slightly hysterical.
“Nothing,” I replied. “It’s weird. It’s already fading.” I gently pulledCassie’s hands off of my shoulders and straightened, still sitting on thebale. “It hit me like a ton of bricks, but I’m already halfway back tonormal.”
“Don’t stand up yet,” Cassie warned. “You’re still looking pretty pale.”
I nodded, and stayed seated. “Do you think it has something to do with themorphing tech?” I wondered aloud. “Like, obviously, duh. But with the morphingtech itself. The nanobots, or whatever.”
Jake shrugged, his expression still tight. “Could be. Elfangor said somethingabout them having a charge. But I don’t see why that would make you tired.”
“Some kind of fail-safe?” Cassie suggested. “An automatic shutoff, to stop youfrom overloading the system?”
“If so, that’s something we’re going to have to do more experiments with,” Isaid. “Don’t want to suddenly run out of morphing power in the middle of afight.”
“Like hell,” Jake snapped. “I don’t care about some fight, I care about thefact that my cousin just came this close to dying of exhaustion.”
I smiled, feeling the last of the strange fatigue draining away from my armsand legs. “Real sweet, Jake, but I’m fine. Look.” Standing, I shook out myhands and feet, rotated my shoulders and hips.
“Still,” Jake said. “That’s—what—ten transformations this morning? Countingboth morphing and demorphing? Six in the past fifteen minutes. I don’t wantyou doing any more for at least a couple of hours.”
“Who’s gonna stop me?”
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” I said, holding up my hands as Jake put on hisbest stern-dad expression. “I’ll hold off for a while. But we really do needto figure out what the limits are.” I looked over at the globe. “Especially ifwe’re going to have to chain morphs together all day while we swim or flyacross an ocean.”
I looked back just in time to catch Jake’s grimace, and then my own voicefilled my head.
‹Eagle Leader to Eagle Nest. Inbound, ETA thirty seconds, Tobias ate a mouse.Over.›
“Short version: thought-speak has a range of about three hundred yards, andshouting or whispering doesn’t change the range, but it does change thevolume. It clicks on about halfway through the morph no matter what, and youcan thought-speak from any morph, including human. It doesn’t matter ifthere’s stuff in the way, and you can send things that aren’t words, likehumming or beeps, but they still translate into the other person’s ‘voice.’ Italso has some kind of automatic built-in privacy targeting thingy—I was rightnext to Tobias and basically thought-shouting, but he couldn’t hear me unlessI wanted him to. Oh, and side note—we tried acquiring from a morph, and itworks. I can now officially impersonate Tobias’s cat, Dude.”
We were sitting in a circle in the barn, just as we had the night before.Marco was perched on the same high, sturdy shelf where he’d left his spareclothes, his legs kicking and dangling as he looked down at the rest of us.He’d flown in, demorphed in place, and immediately begun talking, a hint ofexcitement leaking through his doom-and-gloom attitude. Jake and Cassie and Iwere listening, having already explained about the morphing fatigue while thepair of them were coming out of bird form. Tobias was off to one side,slightly apart from the rest of us, a queasy sort of look on his face.
“Did you check the distress signal?” Jake asked.
“Yeah,” Marco said, nodding. “It was just as strong and coming from the samedirection even when we went two or three miles out, so it’s definitely notjust three hundred yards deep underground or anything like that. Oh, andthere’s something special about it, because when Tobias and I were talking ateach other, we couldn’t tell where our thoughts were coming from.”
I frowned. “A homing beacon? Tied right into the message somehow?”
“Makes sense, for a distress signal,” Jake said. “Did you guys run into anytrouble with multiple morphs? Like what happened to Rachel?”
“Not really,” Marco said. “We got a little tired after a while, but we neverdid four changes back-to-back like that.” He glanced at Tobias. “We did runinto a little trouble with the morph’s instincts. Turns out they can take youby surprise pretty quick.”
Tobias’s mouth thinned to a tight line, and his cheeks flushed. “There was amouse,” he said curtly. “It was like flipping a switch. The hawk just tookover.”
“Which raises an interesting question, actually,” Marco said. “Is there amouse inside you right now?”
I saw Jake and Cassie’s eyes widen with surprise. Tobias’s face didn’tchange—he’d clearly already been considering the possibility, and was none toothrilled about it.
“Because the way the morphing seems to happen,” Marco continued, “your bodychanges piece by piece, right? So theoretically, you might have morphedaround the mouse.”
“Do we really have to talk about this?” Cassie asked, her eyes on Tobias,whose blush had turned slightly green.
Marco shrugged. “No. But the question becomes a lot more interesting whenwe’re talking about bullets, instead of mice.”
I shivered. Jake gave a low whistle and stuck his hands in his pockets, whileCassie reached out to put a hand on Tobias’s shoulder. For a moment, we wereall silent.
Then a thought occurred to me. “Hey,” I said. “Actually, that reminds me—yousaid thought-speak works when you’re in human morph?”
“You and Tobias morphed each other?”
“What—um. What happened to your clothes? When you morphed?”
“Nothing. We just morphed inside them, basically.”
“But they fell off when you morphed into birds?”
“Yeah. They’re stashed out by those big rocks, at the edge of the woods.Figured we’d pick them up on the way out.”
I frowned. Something was tickling at the edge of my thoughts, but I couldn’tquite put it into words.
“What is it, Rachel?” Cassie asked.
I shook my head. “Dunno,” I replied. Our clothes had fallen off each time we’dmorphed something small. And when Elfangor had demorphed from human to hislarger Andalite body, his clothes had ripped and torn. Basically, clothes werecompletely separate from the morphing process, which was about what you’dexpect, if it was based on a genetic scan. Except—
“Elfangor’s clothes,” I said. “Where’d they come from?”
Marco shrugged. “He probably had some stashed away, right? I mean, he’dmorphed human before.”
“Those weren’t human clothes, though,” I said.
There was a long pause as everyone gave me the same blank look. “What?” Iasked, a little defensively. “They weren’t. The seams were totally weird—theywere in all the wrong places, and they didn’t look like they were heldtogether by thread.”
“Leave it to Rachel to pick up on the finer points of intergalactic fashiondesign,” Jake said dryly.
“Excuse me,” Cassie interrupted, holding up a hand. “I don’t mean to butt in,but can we back up for a minute? I mean, we’ve been doing experiments andfiguring stuff out all morning, but we haven’t even stopped to talk about thebig picture.”
“What big picture?” I asked.
“Everything!” Cassie said, and suddenly her voice was no longer strong andsteady. “All that stuff that Marco was talking about last night! The alieninvasion going on in our hometown! Mr. Chapman infesting those policeofficers! You guys are talking about bullets and—and rescue missions to themiddle of the ocean, and we just watched someone get eaten,and—we’re just abunch of teenagers in a barn! What are we going to do? What’s the plan?”
“We fight,” I said.
“Fight who? Fight how? None of us know anything about how to—to wagewar. I haven’t ever even punched anybody. And how are we supposed to fightanything when we can’t even leave the house without telling our parents wherewe’re going? This is too big, you guys. Too big. We—we could die. _ Elfangor_died. Those cops got turned into slaves right in front of us. How are wesupposed to do anything about any of this?”
“Okay,” Jake said, springing to his feet and holding out both hands.“Everybody hang on a sec. Please. Just hang on and take a deep breath.” Helooked around the circle for consent, then nodded grimly. “Okay. Firstoff—Cassie, you’re right. We need to start at the beginning. And we need to goslow, so that we all have a chance to talk.”
He paused again, glancing at each of us in turn. “Anybody mind if I talkfirst?”
“You’re in charge, boss-man,” Marco quipped.
Jake winced, and I raised my hand. “Actually,” I said, “that’s maybe the firstthing we need to figure out. Who is in charge?”
“Aren’t we all in charge?” Tobias asked. “Democracy, and all that?”
“Democracy means voting,” Marco pointed out. “Which means majority rule, whichmeans if it’s four against you, you shut your mouth and toe the line.”
“I’m not doing anything just because the four of you tell me to,” Cassie said,and there was steel beneath the tremble in her voice.
“Stop,” Jake said, and everyone fell silent again. He took a deep breath, thenanother, then a third. “I—okay, look. Just for right now. Just for fiveminutes. You all know me. Rachel, you’re my cousin. Marco, you’re my bestfriend. Tobias, we’ve been hanging out all year. Cassie—you trust me, right?”
“Okay. So I’m the common link. I’m the one that everybody knows best. For thenext five minutes, I’m in charge.”
He paused again, looking around the circle as if giving us a chance to object.None of us did.
“Okay. I’ll go first, then I’ll call on somebody.” He stuck his hands in hispockets, looking down at his feet, his tone neutral and flat. “Okay. Threethings. First, are we even going to do this—are we going to fight.”
I felt another flicker of irritation, this one accompanied by a healthy doseof impatience. Of course we were going to fight. What was thealternative—just stand there and do nothing?
But I suppressed the emotion, looking around the circle at Marco and Cassieand Tobias, looking at the weight that seemed to press down on Jake’sshoulders.
They were afraid.
“And everybody gets to make their own decision,” Jake continued. “No guilt. Nopressure. We all saw what happened to Elfangor. I can’t—we can’t ask anybodyto face that. Not if they aren’t ready. Nobody’s in unless they want to be.”
All four of them, terrified. Dealing with it, yeah, but the fear was there,written right across their faces where anyone could see.
Why wasn’t I afraid?
Should I be afraid?
“Second, are we a team. Like, are we in this together, or not. Because if weare, we’re going to have to trust each other. And if we don’t, it’s not goingto work.”
I dug down into myself, trying to get a finger on the pulse of my emotions. Ihad to be feeling something, right?
“Third, what should we do. What’s our first step. Because we’ve got Elfangor’sbrother out there somewhere, and we’ve got vice-principal Chapman, and we knowthe Yeerk pool is underground in the middle of town, whatever it is. And wedon’t know who else we can trust.”
And then I realized. I wasn’t afraid, but it wasn’t because there was nofear inside of me. It was there, deep down—a whole ocean of it. I’d justrefused to let it up. Looked away from it. Covered it up with a layer of coldresolve.
Like in gymnastics, when I’d been too scared to do backflips until I’d workedmyself into a frustrated rage. Like when my mom and dad got divorced, and Ididn’t talk to either of them for two months. Like last night, when Tobias andCassie had been in tears, and all I’d felt was fury.
“Fourth, I guess. Sorry. What are the rules. How do we make decisions. Whatare the lines we can’t cross. What do we do if one of us—if somebody—ifeverything goes wrong.”
Was it better to be angry? Or afraid?
I looked around the circle again.
“That’s it, I guess. Who wants to go next?”
I raised my hand.
“Rachel,” Jake said. “Your turn.”
I stood up. “I don’t have a whole lot to say,” I began. I deliberately kept myhands out of my pockets, kept my chin up and my eyes forward. “I’ve never beenin a fight before, either. I don’t know anything about war. But right now,we’re the only ones with our eyes open. We’re the only ones who know, who arefree, and Elfangor died to make that happen. Died a billion miles from home. Idon’t know what good turning into a badger is going to be, but—”
I stopped and shrugged. I looked across the circle to Cassie—my best friend,and the sweetest, gentlest person I knew. “But they can’t have my sisters. Andthey can’t have my mom. They can’t have my dad, or my friends, or my coach.Not if there’s anything I can do to stop it. I’ll do whatever it takes—if oneof you guys has a plan, count me in. But even if you don’t. Even if I’m on myown. Even if it’s hopeless. Because thanks to Elfangor, the worst they can doto me is kill me. And I’m not going to run away from that—not when everybodyelse is up against something so much worse.”
I sat back down, and silence filled the barn.
“Anyone else?” Jake asked. Cassie raised her hand, and he nodded to her.
“I’m not arguing with any of that,” she said. “But how can you possibly fightwhen every single bad guy is living inside an innocent human shield?”
By the time we finished talking, the sun was already halfway to the horizon.Tobias left on foot, Marco on his bike. Jake stayed behind to have dinner withCassie’s family, who would drop him off at home afterward. We had all agreednot to risk flying home—not to morph at all, unless somebody’s life was atstake.
We hadn’t accomplished much. Nobody was out, but only Jake and Marco werereally in. Cassie still had too many questions that no one could answer, andTobias had mostly stayed silent.
We’d managed to agree that Jake was our leader, although nobody really knewwhat that meant, least of all Jake. In the end, it had boiled down to the factthat he was the only one who linked us all together. And—as Marco pointedout—that he was pretty much doing the job already, and it was working out sofar.
We were going to meet up again tomorrow afternoon, at the Gardens. Cassie wasfairly certain she could get us back door access to most of the animals, andif she was wrong, we were going to use the trip to scope things out for apossible night mission afterward. Her condition: it would be a non-morphing,non-violent operation. Anything we couldn’t accomplish in our own, regularbodies would have to wait. Marco had joked that we should bring spray paintand marijuana as cover; everybody had laughed until Tobias asked how much wewould need.
Somehow, that had made it all a little too real.
About halfway through the conversation, I’d started to feel that pressureagain, the itch of inactivity that made me want to get up and pace, made myfingers twitch and cut my patience in half. It had grown worse and worse asthe others bickered and dithered, until finally I’d had to step outside to getsome fresh air. Luckily, an idea had come to me, and I’d spent the rest of thediscussion fleshing out a plan in my head.
For everyone else, the war would start tomorrow.
For me, it started tonight.
My house was a couple of miles away from Cassie’s, a walk I’d done hundreds oftimes. There was a small boutique in a strip mall right at the halfway mark,where I’d drag Cassie every once in a while when she showed signs of beingwilling to wear something other than overalls. They knew me there; it wouldn’tbe at all out of the ordinary to stop in on a Saturday afternoon and try onsome blouses.
More importantly, their dressing room doors went all the way to the floor.
Elfangor had read our minds from inside his ship—had pulled Jake and Marco’snames right out of their heads. And whatever was actually going on withthought-speak, it had noticeable, physical effects—if words were showing up inour brains that wouldn’t have been there otherwise, then there had to beneurons firing that would have otherwise been dormant—right?
I worked through the implications as I thumbed through the racks. Andalitesdidn’t have a mouth. Thought-speak, for them, wasn’t technology—it was howthey naturally communicated.
So they had to have some kind of organ that would let them sense—andalter—thought. That would let them monitor and manipulate the firing ofneurons—or whatever it was that aliens had—in someone else’s brain. Like theway sharks could sense electric fields, only in both directions.
Which meant that maybe—just _maybe—_we could figure out a way to detectControllers from a distance.
I headed for the dressing room, armed with enough items to guarantee myself atleast half an hour of privacy. I felt a slight twinge of guilt over the factthat I was already breaking my agreement not to morph, but I pushed itaside. Besides, technically, I was justified—lives were at stake.
Three of them, to start with.
It was cramped in the dressing room. Elfangor’s centaur-scorpion body waseasily six feet long, not counting the tail. But I didn’t need to move—I justneeded to think.
‹ELFANGOR. BROTHER. HELP ME.›
I closed my four eyes and sat as still as I could, feeling the hyperconsciousAndalite brain ticking and churning away beneath my own stream of thought. Ireached out, visualizing the brains of the people around me, hoping to catch aglimpse, an echo, a spark.
‹ELFANGOR. BROTHER. HELP ME.›
I tried relaxing instead of focusing, letting my own mind recede, allowing theAndalite brain to take over. It was like turning my thoughts over to acomputer—I could feel my reaction time shrinking, feel my attention dividinginto multiple tracks, each capable of running at full efficiency. But therewas nothing new there—no new senses, no ESP.
‹ELFANGOR. BROTHER. HELP ME.›
Frustrated, I resisted the impulse to lash my tail back and forth. There wassomething I wasn’t seeing, some missing piece to the puzzle. Maybe therewasn’t an organ for listening to other people’s thoughts at all? Just theprojector—just the “voice,” and it worked on top of whatever inner monologuewas there to begin with?
But Elfangor knew Jake’s name. It sounded like he knew _exactly what Jakewas thinking._
‹ELFANGOR. BROTHER. HELP ME.›
Sighing inwardly, I began to demorph.
Giving up already?
No. But I was pushing it already, morphing in a public place, and there was nosense in risking it any longer than I had to.
Besides, I had a Plan B.
One of my neighbors, Mr. King, used to work as a dog trainer for the localpolice department before he retired. Whenever one of the dogs got too old orgot injured on the job, he’d take it in. He usually had about six or seven ofthem living in his big, fenced-in backyard.
Every now and then, I’d run into him as he and his wife or his son—a kid namedErek, who was in my grade—walked them around the neighborhood. The last time,I’d gotten an earful about his newest acquisition, a German Shepherd namedBuzz who’d recently torn a ligament bringing down a drug smuggler on the otherside of the city.
A drug smuggler they’d identified when Buzz sniffed out the traces of cocainefrom a shipment the guy had moved two days earlier.
I’d heard about dogs who could take one sniff of a person, and tell if theyhad cancer. My mom had told me about dogs that were trained to bark a warningwhenever their diabetic owners’ blood sugar dropped too low.
I was willing to bet that Buzz would have no trouble sniffing out an evilalien slug sitting in the back of my vice-principal’s head.
One hour later, and I was lying on my paws on the sidewalk in front of Mr.Chapman’s house, a cheap, dollar store collar loose around my neck, absorbingthe warmth from the last rays of sunshine.
I hadn’t brought it up in front of the others, but Melissa Chapman had been afriend of mine since elementary school. We’d been on the same gymnastics teamfor years, and had spent entire summers sleeping over at one another’s houses.We’d drifted apart since I’d started hanging out with Cassie, but she wasstill one of the most important people in my life. She knew me better thananyone, had helped me through my parents’ divorce, knew the passwords to allmy accounts.
And her father was an alien slave.
As I waited, watching the sun slip below the horizon, a fierce battle ragedinside me. Half of me wanted to believe that Melissa was safe, that the Yeerksdidn’t have any use for her this early in the invasion, that I’d havenoticed if they’d taken her. The other half had already gone cold as ice,and was planning ahead.
To how I would kidnap her, and take her away.
To how I’d hold her, somewhere up in the mountains, until the Yeerk in herhead died of kandrona starvation.
To how I’d give her the morphing power, and make her our first recruit.
To how we’d come back, and take her parents, and set them free, too.
But first, I had to be sure.
It was twilight by the time Mr. Chapman’s mini-van pulled into their driveway,coming back from their weekly family dinner out. Leaping to my feet, I let outa friendly bark and began wagging my tail. As the doors opened, the GermanShepherd brain seemed to hesitate, a wordless question forming in my head.
I stepped forward cautiously, nostrils flaring. With a smile, Mr. Chapmanreached down, holding out his fingers. I licked them gently, and he scratchedme on my forehead.
Yes, I told the dog brain. Friend. But I continued to sniff, my humanbrain digging through the information as quickly as it could.
Buzz’s sense of smell was nothing short of extraordinary. Lying there on thesidewalk, I had been able to detect every single person and animal that hadpassed by since the last rain, a week earlier. I’d been able to smell the foodin each of the nearby houses, the water running through the sewers under thestreet, the gasoline burning in the cars driving by. I could pick apart odorsas easily as my human eyes could pick apart colors, and there were if anythingmore smells than there were shades.
But Buzz’s animal brain didn’t come equipped with a dictionary. There was noway for it to tell “natural” from “unnatural.” The suburban world was a crazymix of organic and artificial, with plenty of perfectly ordinary smells thatwould have been utterly alien to a wild dog who’d grown up in some forestsomewhere.
So I’d expected it to be difficult—maybe impossible—to identify the smell ofYeerk on my first pass. Especially since I didn’t really know if all threeChapmans were infested—a strange smell coming from all three of them mighthave just meant that they all used the same detergent or the same shampoo orwhatever.
There was one thing, though, that my dog brain was entirely qualified todetect. Something that millions of years of evolution and thousands of yearsof breeding had made automatic, instinctive, and immediate.
Mr. Chapman was terrified.
It was subtle. Suppressed, as if the Yeerks inside were tampering with theprocess, shutting down the pathways by which the fear would express itself assweat and hormones and dilated pupils. I probably would have never noticed, asa human. But to Buzz, it was like an alarm bell. I struggled to maintaincontrol, to keep Buzz’s hackles from going up, to keep his own empatheticresponse from taking over. Friend, I told myself firmly, and I forced myselfto roll over onto my back, exposing my belly. Mr. Chapman laughed and beganrubbing my short, clean fur.
Melissa and her mother came around from the other side of the van. “Who’sthis?” Mrs. Chapman asked.
Melissa crouched down, offering me her fingers. Friend, I told the dog brainagain, as I leaned forward and sniffed.
“Must belong to one of the new neighbors,” Mr. Chapman said. “There’s no tagon the collar.”
I sprang to my feet again, letting out another short bark and bowing onto myelbows as if eager to play. Mr. Chapman laughed again, and Melissa turned backto the van, reaching inside and rummaging around for a moment before drawingout a tennis ball.
“Here, boy,” she said, her voice sounding perfectly normal and happy. “Fetch!”
I reared up onto my hind legs, maintaining the illusion as rage threatened toshatter my control. She threw the ball, and I was after it like a shot,snatching it out of the air and racing back toward the three of them, where Idropped it and began sprinting in circles around the minivan.
_My friend. _
They’d taken my friend.
Taken her, and her father, and her mother. Taken three people I’d known sinceI was a little girl. People I’d eaten with, gone on vacations with, sharedChristmas mornings with. Trapped inside their own heads, not even able toscream.
Melissa threw the ball again, and I tore after it, this time continuing to runafter I caught it in my jaws. “Hey!” Melissa shouted. “That’s not yours, boy!”
But I ignored her, cutting across yards and leaping past hedges until I washalf a dozen blocks away. Only then did I relinquish my iron grip on the dog’sinstincts, allowing my anger to bleed through, allowing Buzz’s hackles to riseand his lips to curl back, allowing his instincts to lead us to a dark hedgecorner, where we didn’t have to worry about anything sneaking up behind us.
It was funny. The German Shepherd’s reaction to fear was basically identicalto my own. Buzz wasn’t cowering, he was coiling. Preparing to strike, tolash out.
He didn’t want to run. He wanted to fight.
I waited for a few minutes, letting my anger turn from fire to ice, feelingthe lightning draining out of my canine veins. Padding back toward Melissa’s,I began circling the neighborhood, checking for other signs of infestation. Istopped to greet three kids, one old lady, and a couple out for a walk. Notrace of that sick, suppressed fear.
Just the Chapmans, then.
I slipped into the yard of the house behind theirs, lying down out of viewbehind a stack of firewood. Marco had said that thought-speak had a range ofabout three hundred yards, and that it would auto target, being heard only bythe intended recipients.
I focused on Melissa and her parents, mentally excluding the Yeerks they werecarrying. The alien slugs would hear it anyway—they’d have to. But if my guesswas right, they’d be unable to tell it apart from any other thought. It wouldsound just like Melissa, just like Mr. and Mrs. Chapman, my message translatedinto their own internal voices, just as Elfangor’s voice had been translatedinto mine.
‹Enjoy it while you can, Yeerk,› I thought. ‹The Andalites are coming.›
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