Chapter 04: Cassie

I want to say that I never asked for any of this. That I wish it could all goback to the way it was.

Both of my parents are veterinarians, you know. I’m going to be one too,someday. I’ve been dealing with death since I was a toddler. Looking it rightin the face, in all its ugly, sad, unfair detail. More than Marco, more thanJake, more than Tobias and Rachel, I knew what was coming if we decided tofight in this war. And while I maybe didn’t understand exactly how horrible itwould be, I understood how little I understood. I could see the gap wherethat awful knowledge would go. And I want to say I’d give up anything tostop myself from learning it.

But if I’m honest with myself—really, truly honest—then I can’t. Because evenknowing what was coming, I was happy. Happy in a way I’d never thought I’dbe. Happy in a way I’m not sure I could _ever _decide to give up.

And I’d definitely asked for it. Prayed for it. Wished for it a thousand timesover.

I don’t know what that says about me, as a person. Probably not much. I mean,everybody’s got something they’d give it all up for, right? Everybody’s gota price.

If I really had time to think about it—if some genie showed up and said, youcan stop this war right now, and all you have to do is give up the morphingpower—well, I’d probably make the right decision.

But it hurts to know how bitter I’d be. To know that, deep down inside, I’mnot that good of a person. That the kind, caring, empathetic face I show theworld is only half the story, and if I cared just a little bit less, I mightsacrifice the freedom of the whole human race, just so that I could feel thewind in my mane, hear the thunder of my hooves as I raced across the fieldsbeyond my family’s property.

So fast.

I’d never felt so fast. So strong. So capable. Peppermint’s body—my body—wasa thousand pounds of lean, liquid muscle. I felt like I could run for days,like I could kick a hole through concrete, like I could leap tall buildings ina single bound. For the first time in my life, I was starting to understandwhat it was like to be Rachel, out there on the gymnastics floor. I was theembodiment of power.

And yet, at the same time, I was at peace. There was no anger in the horse’smind. No ego, no malice. She was happy to be running, happy to rest, happy tonibble at the grass in the cool morning sunshine. She was content just tolive, with nothing to prove and no battles to win.

I would have stayed that way forever, if I could have.

‹Cassie!› came the voice in my head. ‹Cassie, if that’s you, don’t screwaround. I’m not going to rat you out to Jake. But I need to talk to you rightnow. We are in crisis mode as of twenty minutes ago.›

I slowed to a trot and looked up at the sky, unable to stop myself fromtossing my head. A single bird of prey was arrowing across the blue, its wingspumping like a sparrow’s, its flight unnaturally straight. ‹It’s me,› I said,feeling my human heart sink behind the curtain of Peppermint’s calm.

‹Barn. Demorph. Now. I’ll watch out for your parents.›


I dragged the overalls out from the cabinet where they’d been sitting formonths, the fabric stiff and crusted with mud and poop from half a dozenspecies. “Sorry,” I said, as I handed them over the stall door.

“Doesn’t matter,” Marco replied. His voice was tight, his sentences clipped.Throwing the overalls on, he emerged from the stall without the slightest hintof self-consciousness, stopping right in front of me and looking straight intomy eyes. “Cassie. I’m about to make you freak, okay? I’m going to say somewords, and you’re going to want to freak. But you can’t freak, okay? We do nothave time for freaking right now. I need you to promise that you’ll hold ittogether even after I’ve given you a really, really good reason not to.”

I opened my mouth, then closed it again and swallowed. Suddenly the barn felthot and airless. “Why are you here, Marco?” I asked slowly. “Why are you hereinstead of Jake or Rachel? Why are you talking to me instead of to Jake orRachel?”

Marco reached out and put a hand on each of my shoulders. “Promise, Cassie.Say the words.”

And that’s when I felt it. Felt the first glimmers of understanding as theworld disappeared out from under me.

Don’t act like you didn’t see this coming, girl, said the only part of methat wasn’t reeling. It was _always going to be too soon—you know that. Nosuch thing as right on time. Not with something like this._

I tried to take a deep breath, but I could only get about half of one. “Ipromise,” I croaked, not sure why he thought it would make a difference.

“Melissa Chapman and her parents are dead.”

There was a complicated half second, during which the world unexploded,started to celebrate, then took a hammer blow that left it cracked andlisting. Amazingly, I felt myself keeping my promise, and my hands were steadyas they gently lifted Marco’s off my shoulders. “How?” I asked, my voicelevel.

Oh, my God. You don’t even _care, do you? It wasn’t Jake or Rachel, so nobig deal?_

“Car accident. Head-on collision, late last night. This morning, technically.”

“How did you—I mean, where did you—”

“I’ve had the news going nonstop since Friday, and I’ve been checking theinternet every half hour, just in case. It was on Channel Eight a few minutesago—seven AM round-up.”

“Oh, my God,” I said. “Do you think Rachel—”

“I don’t know,” Marco interrupted. “Probably not. But that’s going to beJake’s job, okay? That’s why I’m here. There’s something else you have to do,and it has to be today.”

I could feel my thoughts starting to spin as shock, relief, and self-hatredsettled in and began chasing one another. “Does Jake know yet?” I asked.

“No. I’m going to his house next, and we’re going to go to Rachel’s together.But you, Cassie”—he shifted, and I felt his hands slip into mine—”you’ve gotto go to the Gardens.”

“What? Why?”

“This is the Yeerks, Cassie. Or at least, we have to assume it’s them,nothing else makes sense. All three Chapmans, in a car wreck at two in themorning? And whatever they’re up to, it’s not good news for us.”

“But why—”

Think, Cassie. This weekend, we don’t go because of the news, next weekendwe don’t go because of the funeral. Two weeks until we get anything biggerthan a badger? No go. Things are accelerating, and we haven’t even startedmoving yet.”

“But I—”

“You’re the only one who can pull it off, Cassie. Tell them—tell them youdon’t want to think about it, you can’t handle talking about it, you just—wantto be with the animals for a day. Just one day. They’ll give it to you.They’ll let you go anywhere in the zoo, today, probably places they wouldn’teven let you go normally. You’ll be able to acquire any animal you need, andthen we can copy them off you. You can—you can use this.”

Something must have been happening to my face, because Marco quailed, his jawtrembling as he let go of my hands and took a step back. “I know,” he said. “Iknow, okay? And if it makes you feel any better, I knew that Jake—that you—”

He stopped, took a breath, and started over, not quite managing to look me inthe eye. “If Jake were here, I’d explain it to him, and when I was finished,he’d ask you to do it. He’d ask you, and you’d hate him, you’d hate him forbeing the one to say the words, but you’d do it because you see, don’tyou? You know it’s the right move. So I figured—figured I’d save you boththe trouble.” He gave a hollow little laugh. “After all, it’s not like ourfriendship was going anywhere special. Sorry.”

And that’s when I realized that Marco didn’t know me. That he’d seen thesquirrels and sparrows and overalls, and thought he’d understood. That justlike Jake, he’d missed the difference between the face I showed the world—theperson I wished I was—and the girl I really was, deep down inside.

If a genie offered the choice to Marco, he’d make the right move in aheartbeat. I wanted to hate him for that, a little. But I couldn’t, so I justhated myself instead.

“I’ll do it,” I said, my voice still steady. “And Marco—”

He raised his eyes and looked into mine. “Yeah?”

“You don’t have to say sorry.”


Large bulldozer morphs—elephant, rhino, gorilla, grizzly, Canadian moose.

Check.

Agile combat morphs—tiger, gray wolf, kangaroo, Burmese python, chimpanzee,cassowary.

Check.

Utility morphs—black mamba, Australian ghost bat, great horned owl, greatsnipe, Brazilian huntsman spider, star-nosed mole, beaver, ferret, otter,skunk, polar bear, cheetah, bottle-nosed dolphin, tiger shark, dormouse,housefly, cockroach, ant.

Check.

Marco had started to give me a list, but I’d shut him down pretty fast. He maybe smart, but this was my world. I knew every last inch of the animalkingdom.

The saltwater crocodile could generate over three thousand pounds of bitepressure per square inch, enough to chew through steel pipe like it was beefjerky.

The sting of the tarantula hawk—a kind of hornet—hurt so badly that for thefirst three minutes, people usually couldn’t even stop screaming.

The loggerhead sea turtle could hold its breath underwater the entire timewe were morphed.

There was a reason I wanted to be a vet.

But there was also a reason that Mom came home looking like a zombie half thetime. Working with animals was hot, sweaty, exhausting stuff. Over thecourse of the day, I’d gone through practically every exhibit, talked tonearly every handler. I’d been on my feet for almost eleven hours, racing backand forth as I tried to catch each animal during feeding time or dailycheckup, and I’d spent at least ten or fifteen minutes helping out with mostof them. I was beat.

And it was going to take days for me to transfer all these morphs to theothers.

Mom was quiet on the car ride home. I think she wasn’t quite sure what to makeof my “reaction.” Melissa and I hadn’t been close—we really only knew eachother through Rachel—but this was the first time one of my classmates hadpassed away. Knowing Mom, she was sitting on top of a big, heaping pile ofparental wisdom, and was just holding back until I gave her some sort ofsignal that I was ready to hear it.

It was going to be a while, though. The last thing I wanted to do was listento empty reassurances about God’s plan, and everything turning out all rightin the end. I’d spent most of the day thinking about it, and Marco wasright—this had to be the Yeerks, and it couldn’t mean anything good.

I leaned my head against the window and let my eyes flutter shut, the lightsof the freeway tracing dim patterns on the back of my eyelids. I felt mymother’s hand reach over to pat me on the shoulder, then slide up to rub theback of my neck.

Tzzzzzzz-ZAP.

There was a sound, a touch of pressure, and suddenly my entire body went limp,sagging into the handle of the passenger side door.

What—

My eyes were still closed, behind lids that might as well have been weldedshut, for all I was able to move them. I tried to speak, and my jaw refused torespond, my tongue lying dead inside my mouth. Even my breathing was shallowand irregular, the contraction of my diaphragm sluggish and weak.

Paralyzed.

My mother had touched me, and now I was paralyzed.

Which meant that—

No.

No no no no NO.

I felt the car swerve just a little, the way it did whenever Mom checked theGPS or looked at her phone. There was a soft click, and then something hot andwet touched my neck.

Oh, no, oh God please no—

I could feel myself slipping into a kind of mad panic as the hot wetnessslowly began to climb upward, feeling its way along my jawline. I scrabbledfrantically inside my head, trying with every last scrap of willpower to movemy hand, my head, to open my mouth and scream.

They knew.

They had taken my mother, and now they were taking me.

“Welcome back, Eldar three-two-seven,” came my mother’s voice, sudden andcold. “Orders have changed since you went into stasis. The fleet is delayed,and there is a new protocol—free spread is suspended, and no one is to travelalone.”

I felt a sliver of warmth edge its way into my ear, and realized with horrorthat the Yeerk inside my mother was talking to me—was leaving orders in mymemory, knowing that its partner would dig through my brain and find them.

“I will provide you with fourteen of our siblings,” she continued. “This hostshares sleeping quarters with its mate; you will not be needed duringconversion. Stand by as a backup, and prepare to take the human Jake—my hostindicates he is the most appropriate primary counterpart for your body. Passhim eleven, and the following command: he is to convert his household, giveeach member two spares, and await further instructions. You and I, along withOnu Two-nine-nine, are to make arrangements to defend the animal collectionsagainst Andalite incursion. The Visser predicts that the Andalites willattempt to acquire Earth morphs, if they have not already.”

The sliver of warmth became a needle, threading deep into my ear, probing,pushing further than anything I’d ever felt. Then the needle thickened into ariver of fire as the body of the Yeerk surged forward, tearing its way into mybrain.

I felt my frantic desperation reach a peak, felt the last shreds of mycomposure shatter as the pressure disappeared and the Yeerk vanished into myhead. The implants! I screamed silently. They were supposed to kill it!

There was a spasm of not-quite-pain, a flash of not-quite-light and adeafening not-quite-roar. Something touched me at every point of consciousnesssimultaneously, a groping, questing finger poking every thought and feelingand memory at once. I heard a voice, sensed a presence, felt my eyes open atsomeone else’s command—

Then there was a flash of actual pain, a searing, electric jolt, andeverything seemed to dissolve. For a moment, I saw double, thought double,felt double, and then—

Then everything was quiet.

My eyes were open, though my body was still slumped awkwardly into the spacebetween the seat and the door. The car was still gliding smoothly down thefreeway, the alien gripping the wheel with my mother’s hands.

Hardly daring to breathe, I tried closing one eyelid—my right one, the one shecouldn’t see.

It worked.

It worked, and I had done it.

The Yeerk was dead. Elfangor’s implant had done its job, and the paralysis waswearing off.

I could still feel the panic gripping me, the nauseating horror thatthreatened to close my throat and send my heart bursting through my ribcage.Any minute now, my mother would realize that something had gone wrong. She hadsome kind of stunner, and spare Yeerks somewhere—did she have a communicator?Some kind of panic button? Was there some code word I was supposed to give?

How much time did I have?

I watched through watery eyes as we pulled off the freeway. We were coming upthe back way, away from the suburbs, taking the long, empty, twisting roadthat wound its way through the woods and fields.

Come on, think of something, think think, she’s going to notice, you have todo something, you have to—

Have to—

Have to—

To—

But there was nothing. My brain was spiraling, redlining, my thoughts goingnowhere at a million miles per hour. I was trapped. Caught. Beaten.

notoriously disinterested in unusable bodies—

They were going to kill me.

They were going to kill me!

Oh God oh God okay hang on come on what would Jake do what would Rachel—

I flinched away.

Marco—

No.

“Eldar three-two-seven, report. Are you experiencing trouble with your host?”

My body went rigid, my mind suddenly, completely blank.

“Command. Ispec one-four-two reporting. Possible trouble with conversion of myhost’s offspring. Currently in a car on Thistledown Road. Please track myposition.”

Lie, you’re supposed to lie, you’re supposed to LIE NOW, CASSIE—

But fear and uncertainty had me transfixed like a deer in the headlights. Icouldn’t think of anything, and so I remained silent and still as tears beganto trickle down my cheeks.

“Eldar three-two-seven, I am immobilizing your host body. When you regaincontrol, give formal confirmation.”

Tzzzzzzz-ZAP.

This time, the paralysis only took me from the neck down, leaving my eyesopen. I felt my body sag a little heavier against the door, my head knockingagainst the window as the car rumbled over bumps and cracks in the road. Inanother ten minutes, we’d be home, and then the Yeerk in my mother’s headwould take my father, too.

And then they’d go after Jake.

“Command. Ispec one-four-two. No response from Eldar. I suspect the offspringis unruly. Will not proceed to host home alone; awaiting assistance.”

The car slowed, drifting, then shuddered to a halt as the tires left theasphalt and bounced into the grass and dirt of the shoulder. My mother turnedoff the car, and an eerie silence fell.

For a moment, the cacophony in my brain refused to follow suit, as panicked,useless thoughts continued to bounce back and forth inside my skull.

Slowly, though—oh, so slowly—a kind of clarity began to emerge, born of ahelpless desperation that sucked everything else down and away.

My mother was caught.

I was caught.

My father was still free.

Not for long, though, whispered a small voice. It sounded an awful lot likeMarco. Not if you don’t get out of this car before the cavalry shows up.

But it was impossible. There was no way out.

Unless you break the rules.

I had almost thought of it, earlier, had flinched away reflexively before theidea could take hold. If I had hit my mother while we were still driving—hither in the face or the throat, wrestled the wheel away from her and sent thecar off the road—

It was the sort of thing Rachel would have done. It was the sort of thing Jakemight have done, even. It was the obvious thing to do, once you took thattiny little step of admitting that my mother wasn’t worth saving anymore.

But was that an admission I was willing to make?

Well, it doesn’t matter now. You’re paralyzed.

And it wasn’t wearing off, either. The second shock had felt no different fromthe first, but it had already been at least two minutes, and my body was stilldead, useless, utterly unresponsive.

My human body, anyway.

I felt my mouth go dry. If I morphed, would the new body be paralyzed, too? Icouldn’t think of any reason why it would be.

She’ll just shock it again, though.

And there was no way that her weapon would fail to work on an Andalite body,which is what I’d have to morph if I wanted to maintain our cover.

Your cover is already blown. They’re going to find out you’re human aboutthirty seconds after they start torturing you.

If I was going to break all the rules…

Could her stunner take down an elephant?

Yeerk reinforcements were on the way. I didn’t know how many, or whetherthey’d come in a car or from the sky. But either way, I couldn’t have muchtime. Minutes, maybe. Maybe less.

One slim chance.

I began to morph, focusing with all my might on channeling the changes,keeping them subtle and invisible for as long as possible. I didn’t even knowif that was possible—so far, every time we’d morphed it had been random andhorrible. But if sheer desperation made any difference…

I could feel the inside of my body shifting and rearranging, feel the changesstraining against the boundary of my skin as I fought to control them, to holdthem back. The half-numb paralysis began to fade as my own stunned nerves werereplaced by new ones, my frozen muscles disappearing as the elephant’s swelledin their places.

So far, I had managed to maintain my size and shape. I could feel the morphingtech resisting, growing sluggish as I pushed it further and further away fromwhatever default plan it usually followed. After thirty or forty seconds, itstopped entirely, unable to proceed in the face of my mental restrictions.

Just the right side, maybe. Where she can’t see.

Hardly daring to breathe, I slowly started morphing again, my half-human heartthudding in my chest as the fingers on my right hand shrank and my wristthickened until it was as big around as a coffee cup. I felt my right footgrow snug inside my shoe, felt wiry hairs sprout across the whole right sideof my body.

And still my mother said nothing. Just sat in unnatural silence. I wondered ifthe Yeerk was talking to her—if my mother was even awake, beneath the Yeerk’sinfestation.

For a second time, the morphing process ground to a halt. I was now the circusfreak of the century, half girl and half elephant, my smooth, dark skintransitioning to cracked gray along the line that ran from my nose to mynavel.

I took a deep, quiet breath, the air moving strangely inside my patchworklungs. If I was right, I could finish the morph in just a little over thirtyseconds. And then—

What?

THEN what, Cassie?

Every choice was intolerable. I couldn’t hit my mother, couldn’t riskaccidentally killing her. Couldn’t abandon her to the Yeerks. Couldn’t staywith her, to be captured and tortured. Couldn’t take her with me—if she hadstunners, a radio, and over a dozen spare Yeerks, she was bound to have somekind of tracking device.

No matter what I chose, I’d be unable to live with myself.

Dad. You can still save Dad.

Squeezing my eyes shut, I focused once more.

I’m sorry, Mom.

The change in size was shockingly swift, as if the morphing technology weremaking up for lost time. There was an almost immediate tearing sound as myshoes and clothes were reduced to tatters, and a startled “What—” from mymother, followed by the sound of her door opening. Barely a second later, thecar split open like a baked potato, the glass and metal slicing into my fleshas a ten-ton African bush elephant erupted from my thirteen-year-old frame.

“The girl!” I heard my mother shriek, as I rolled away from the wreckage andstruggled to my feet, the last of my bones still stretching and grinding intoplace. “Cassie Withers, my host’s daughter! She just morphed into anelephant!”

There was a sound, a kind of TSSEWWWW, and pain like hot knives slicedacross my legs, causing one of them to buckle underneath me. I screamed inpain, the sound coming out as a trumpeted shriek.

Holding my injured leg in the air, I limped clumsily in a circle, looking formy mother. She was about twenty feet away from the ruins of our car, a strangeweapon in her outstretched hand. She was frozen in place, her entire bodytrembling, her expression flickering back and forth between rage anddetermination. She looked the same way Tobias had, when he’d been caught inElfangor’s tractor beam—like some invisible force had rooted her to the spot.

It’s Mom, I realized, and the shock was so great that even in elephant formmy jaw dropped. She’s fighting the Yeerk!

I didn’t think. Didn’t consider the consequences. I just acted,instinctively, making the only choice my conscience would allow. Steppingforward, I knocked the weapon out of her hand with my trunk and lifted her upinto the air.

I was taking her with me. In three days, she’d be free.

I’d gone only a couple of steps, though, before I heard a familiar, electricsound, and suddenly my trunk went numb and limp, my mother’s body tumblingtoward the asphalt below. She twisted in midair, trying to get her feetunderneath her, and landed at an angle on one leg with a sickening crack.

‹No!› I shouted, unable to stop myself. Even in the dim glow of the moonlight,I could see blood seeping through her khakis around the sharp, unnatural bendin the middle of her shin. I shook my massive head, hoping that the stunnerhad only delivered a momentary shock, but no—the trunk was paralyzed, everybit as useless as my human body had been.

My mother’s face contorted again as she and the Yeerk continued to battlebehind her eyes. She’d gone past trembling and now looked like she was havinga full-blown seizure.

“Cassie!” she screamed, her voice strained as if she were lifting a thousandpounds. “Run! Get Walter—aaaaaaaghhr_your daughter is dead, fool! And you arenext!”_

I stood, still and horrified, as my mother suddenly stopped twitching, thetension draining from her body. “Finally,” she muttered, the word loud andclear in my elephant ears. She turned her eyes on me, and they blazed with analien menace. “They always try. Sometimes they even succeed, for a time. Butthey all learn in the end.”

Pale and sweating, she pushed herself up to a sitting position. “So,Andalite,” she said, her voice dripping with hatred. “I see that Seerow’s workhas continued. Morphing in mere seconds, and without returning to your trueform in between. And after holding human form for an entire day! Visser Threewill be exceptionally interested in learning how you accomplished that.”

I hardly dared to breathe. A moment before, I had been frozen with indecision,unable to force myself to abandon my mother in the middle of the street with abroken ankle and an alien wrapped around her brain. But now, I was justconfused.

It still thought I was an Andalite?

“Impressive, that you found the zookeeper’s family so quickly. We were sure wehad gotten to them first. Perhaps you landed before the battle? Areconnaissance mission, to infiltrate and observe? I wonder how many of youthere are.”

Was it a trick? A lie, to keep me off balance until it could report back to—

Oh.

Of course.

It was already reporting back to the Yeerk command. It wasn’t juststalling—its communicator had been on the whole time. That’s why it wasmonologuing like some cheesy cartoon villain.

Which meant it probably really did think I was an Andalite.

“I congratulate you on your mimicry, by the way. As good as any Yeerk. I havelooked back through my host’s memories, and she did not suspect a thing.”

Somewhere in the back of my head, Marco was laughing. It all made sense, aslong as you started with all the wrong assumptions. I remembered Elfangor’scoldness, his arrogance, his reluctance. His willingness to slaughter us all,just to prevent us from becoming pawns in his war with the Yeerks.

Humanity wasn’t a player in this war. We were inventory. Cattle. Beneathconsideration. If you saw a cow firing a rocket launcher, you wouldn’t think,Who gave that cow a rocket launcher? You’d think, How’d they make such agood cow costume?

A huge breakthrough in morphing technology was impossible. A human with theability to morph was, to a Yeerk, inconceivable.

It was a miraculous, glorious, incredibly lucky mistake. And with a sinkingfeeling, I realized I knew exactly how to capitalize on it.

All I had to do was break my mother’s heart, and abandon her to her fate. Savemyself, and walk away.

Not just yourself. You can still save Dad.

‹Your host is as blind and stupid as the rest of her backward species,› Isaid, pouring as much contempt and derision into the words as I could. ‹Wetook her daughter weeks ago, and she never even noticed.›

I turned away from my home and began limping back the way we’d come as theYeerk threw back my mother’s head and laughed.


Ten minutes in a car at fifty-five miles per hour meant my house was aboutnine miles away by road. It would take an elephant hours to cover thatdistance even without an injured leg. As soon as I had hobbled out of sight,I demorphed and remorphed.

The European great snipe can travel over four thousand miles nonstop, at anaverage speed of sixty miles per hour, crossing whole continents in days. Andif I ignored the road and cut across the forest, I could be home in no time.

How long had I lingered with my mother? It had to have been at least a coupleof minutes, plus three or four more in the car. Add in the time it had takenme to change form, and it had been over ten minutes since the Yeerk’s firstrequest for backup. Maybe seven or eight since she’d reported my morphing.

I didn’t know how long it took the Yeerks to mobilize. If they’d gone straightfor the house, I might already be too late. But there was a chance that mymisdirection had worked—that they believed I’d gone the other way. A trueAndalite would have no interest in the last member of the Withers family.

I rose into the air, my wings pumping seven times per second as I arrowedstraight toward my house. I stayed low and close to the treetops, eyes alertfor any sign of Bug fighters sliding across the field of stars.

If I’d had human eyes, I wouldn’t have been able to see through the tears. Thewords too soon, too soon kept running through my head, a ringtone on repeat.

Could I have saved my mother?

Probably not. But then, I hadn’t really even tried. The Yeerk had paralyzedmy trunk, and I’d dropped her, and then I’d simply given up. Just like I’dgiven up in the car, when I’d refused to let myself consider running us offthe road.

Because I was afraid. Because I wasn’t clever. Because I didn’t want to beclever—not if being clever meant being like Marco or Rachel. I didn’t want tohave to choose between my father’s life and my mother’s, or between both theirlives and my own. I didn’t want to be the sort of person who could calmlyconsider killing their own mother, even to save the whole planet.

Because that’s what I should have done, I knew. That’s what the Yeerks wouldhave expected, what any real Andalite would have done. From their perspective,my mother was just another tool, and by leaving her behind, I’d missed mychance to deny the Yeerks an important resource.

I might have just blown our cover anyway.

But what was the point, if that was how we had to fight? What would we besaving, if we gave up our humanity to win? If we became cold and dark andunfeeling, just to survive?

I climbed a little higher in the sky, fighting for altitude in the cold, deadair. The lights of my house were just barely visible, maybe a couple of milesaway. I couldn’t be sure, but there didn’t seem to be any unusual activity. Noextra cars in the driveway, no spacecraft hovering overhead.

Wait.

I rose higher, angling for a true bird’s eye view.

There were no cars in the driveway at all. The harsh blue floodlights shonedown on broken weeds and empty gravel.

I’d thought I was already flying as fast as possible, but somehow I managed anextra burst of effort, my muscles trembling as I pushed them to the limit. Dadwas supposed to be home—he’d said he was staying home, all day, to keep aneye on the raccoon with the punctured lung, he wouldn’t have left except—

I staggered in midflight, my wings losing their rhythm, dropping twenty feetbefore I could recover.

He wouldn’t have left except for an emergency.

Like if Mom had called him to say that our car had been totaled on the wayhome.

I felt a scream start up in the back of my head, a long, wordless keen ofanguish and dread. I’d left her there conscious, left her with her pursejust a few feet away, with a cell phone and stunners and Yeerk reinforcementsincoming—

I banked like a fighter jet, veering off course, turning back toward thewinding road. Dad’s beat-up old pickup was twenty years old; it could barelygo forty miles per hour.

How long? How long ago did she call him?

I could head straight for the road and be there in thirty seconds, a mile anda half from the house. Or I could head back to my mother, get there in maybethree minutes, nine miles from the house. Or anything in between. I couldn’tsee the road itself from the air—the trees were too thick, the angle tooshallow for headlights to shine through.

The scream in my head became an actual warbling cry, cutting the night air asI struck out for the middle, unable to decide. I tore across the sky, anglingslightly downward for every last possible scrap of speed. ‹DAD!› I broadcast,just barely remembering to restrict my thoughts so that only he could hear.‹DAD, STOP THE CAR! WHEREVER YOU ARE, STOP THE CAR NOW!›

Time seemed to slow as I raced toward the break in the forest, the distancestretching out in front of me. As I neared the road, I banked again, shootingpast the treetops and zooming along the yellow lines like a missile, twice asfast as Peppermint had ever run.

Empty.

Empty.

Empty.

I tore around the curves, occasionally rising back over the treetops as I cutacross the larger bends. I had hit the road about four miles away from whereI’d left my mother, and now I was only two miles out.

Nothing.

I started to call out in thought-speak again, then realized with a shiver offear just how deeply stupid I had been. If they’d already caught him, or ifthey caught him after he’d heard my desperate pleading—

Shut up and fly.

A mile and three quarters.

Nothing.

A mile and a half.

Nothing.

A mile and a quarter.

Nothing.

One mile away from where I had left my mother, the road curved into a longstraightaway, and for a moment I thought I saw brakelights at the far end,disappearing around the next bend.

Please, I begged. I didn’t know if I was talking to God, or to the universe,or just to myself. I didn’t even have the words for what I wanted. Justplease.

But the answer was no. As I came around the final turn and flitted up into thetrees, I saw my father’s truck, parked at an angle next to an ambulance, afire engine, and two police cars, the lights still on and the driver’s sidedoor hanging open. My mother was on a stretcher, sitting upright as she talkedto one of the police officers, and my father was on the ground, lyingmotionless as everyone else moved around him like he wasn’t even there. Therewas a streak of slime on the side of his face, leading to his ear, glimmeringblue and red in the wild, flickering light of the police cars. After a minute,he twitched, then stood up and walked over to the wreck, where fourfirefighters were cutting my mother’s car into chunks with what looked likeacetylene torches.

He didn’t even glance at my mother.

Too soon, too soon.

It was always going to be too soon.

I don’t know how I made it out of there. I don’t remember where I went. I musthave demorphed and remorphed at least once, because it was almost three in themorning by the time I found myself fluttering onto a branch outside of Jake’swindow.

‹Cassie? Is that you?›

There was an owl perched on the ridge of the roof. I hadn’t even noticed it.

‹Jake,› I thought. I didn’t have the strength to add any other words.

‹Tobias, actually. Thank God—Jake’s been losing it. He’s been looking for youall night. We thought—when you didn’t come back to the barn, we weren’t—›

‹The barn,› I interrupted. ‹You can’t—›

I broke off, unable to say it, to force my brain to put together the thought.I wished I didn’t have to put it together, that there were some way forTobias to simply know. He should’ve known already—should have noticed thatthe world had stopped spinning.

‹It’s my parents,› I said finally, knowing that nothing would ever be the sameagain. ‹They’ve been taken.›


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