Chapter 05: Tobias
“This is my family.”
“I know that, okay? But Jake—look—listen—think it through, man. The Yeerksknow that we know that they were coming after your family next. Don’t youthink they’ll be a little suspicious, if all of a sudden the four of youjust up and disappear? It’s not like Andalites would care one way or theother.”
I was forty feet up, perched in a tree, still in owl morph as I kept watch.The scene below was incredibly clear to my predator senses, as if it were litup by spotlights and covered in microphones. I could see Jake, his jaw set,his eyes glinting in the light of the distant streetlamp. I could see Marco,whose tone was growing more and more brittle as the long night wore on. Icould see Cassie, a short distance away, sobbing quietly into Rachel’sshoulder, and Rachel, whose face might as well have been carved from stone.
“Besides,” Marco continued, still whispering softly enough that the girlscouldn’t hear. “From what Cassie said, it sounds like they only wanted you ascover for her. Since she’s—”
He broke off, glancing over his shoulder. “Since she’s dead, they might noteven bother.”
The four of them were hunkered down in a tiny patch of woods in the spacebetween two backyards, a few houses down from where Jake lived. They wereshivering slightly in the cold, naked except for the towels and blankets thatJake had smuggled out of his house, their breath forming little puffs of mist.
“We are not,” Jake bit out, each word icy and sharp, “doing nothing.”
To me, his clenched fists were a beacon, plainly visible. To Marco, theyprobably just looked like shadows.
“Then what, Jake? What are we doing? Because we don’t even have a place tostash Cassie, let alone Tom and your parents. And unless you’re ready tospill the beans on all of it, how exactly do you propose to get them all topack up and leave in the middle of the night?”
The day had started with Rachel crying, had turned into a frantic search thathad Jake crying, had transitioned into Cassie crying, and now looked like itwas headed for a fistfight between Jake and Marco.
At four in the goddamn morning.
‹Just light it on fire,› I said wearily.
They both twitched, looking up in the wrong direction, and I rustled my wingsto show my position. ‹I mean, if we just want to get them out of the housewithout saying anything.›
“You got a lighter, or are we rubbing two sticks together?” Marco shot back,no longer whispering. He turned back to Jake. “Listen, we can’t just—”
“Then we cause a distraction,” Jake said, cutting him off. “We go on theoffensive. Turn up the heat so they don’t have time to worry about tying uploose ends.”
“How? The only Controllers we know by sight are Cassie’s parents. You want toturn up the heat on them?”
“There’s the firefighters,” Jake said stubbornly. “The cops. Probably theteachers and the principal, since Cassie’s mom said they aren’t allowed to bealone. Which means at least one other person at the Gardens, too.”
“Yeah, but which ones?”
“Cassie,” Rachel whispered urgently, as Jake and Marco continued to argue. Iswiveled my head to look down at them. “Which breeds of dog might be able tosniff out a Yeerk?”
“—if we stake out the station—”
“We’ve got _school _tomorrow—”
“Mom said it was going to be cancelled, out of respect—”
I watched as Cassie sniffed, gulped, squeezed her eyes shut for a momentbefore answering in a shaky murmur. “German Shepherd. Labs. Spaniels. Vizslas.Border collies. Doesn’t matter, really—they’ve all been used in cancerresearch. I guess bloodhounds would be the best.”
“Guys,” Rachel called out, interrupting Marco mid-rant. “We could use a GermanShepherd morph to sniff out Controllers.”
The boys fell silent. “Cassie,” Jake said, his voice suddenly soft and gentle.“Would that actually work?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Marco cut in. “We’d have to get close enough without raisingsuspicions, and that’s not going to happen now that the Yeerks are onalert.”
‹Weren’t we trying to decide whether or not to save Jake’s family?› I asked.
“Actually, what we should be talking about is how to rescue Cassie’sfamily,” Rachel interjected.
“No, we should be talking about how to save the frigging planet,” Marcohissed. “Which is a much bigger deal than anyone’s family.”
Silence fell, and I found myself wishing I had hands to applaud with.
Up until two days ago, I’d never really paid any attention to Marco. He wasjust this wiseass kid that Jake liked to hang around with, the kind of guy wholaughs at his own jokes and then acts like anyone who doesn’t laugh didn’t getit. I’d put up with him because he and Jake were a package deal, and Jake hadseemed like the kind of guy you wanted on your side when social servicesdumped you into a new school in the middle of September.
Now, though, I was starting to see that Marco went a whole lot deeper than helet on. Yeah, he was just another spoiled suburban softie, but he got it,you know? He saw through the bullshit, understood how the world reallyworked. Drop Jake or Rachel or Cassie on the wrong side of the tracks, andthey’d be conned, mugged, and left for dead before they ever figured out thegrownups weren’t coming to save them. Jake and Rachel and Cassie still thoughtrules were a thing.
Marco, though—Marco knew the score. Which was pretty much the only reason Ihadn’t taken off already. Spend enough time out on your own, and you learnpretty quick that some kinds of friends are worse than no friends at all.
‹Can we at least agree that keeping us out of the Yeerks’ hands is the mostimportant thing right now?› I asked. ‹I mean, if it comes down to a choicebetween you and your parents—›
“Our parents are a part of staying out of the Yeerks’ hands,” Jake saidflatly. “If they get taken, we either get captured along with them, or we getexposed. We’re on thin ice with Cassie as it is, and there’s no guarantee theyaren’t just playing along for some reason or other. We need to decide whatwe’re doing about this yesterday.” He took a deep breath and crossed hisarms. “Options. Everybody.”
“Recruit,” Rachel answered immediately. “We have the cube. Give them thepower, and they’re that much better able to protect themselves.”
“They’re not Yeerk-proof, though,” Marco pointed out. “Even one of them goesdown, and it’s all over. Better to just get them out of Dodge—there’s only oneYeerk pool, and it’s here. Anything outside the county is probably safe forthe next few months.”
“Yeah, but what could we possibly tell them to convince them to get up andgo?” Jake asked. “Even if we told them the truth, what’s stopping them fromjust deciding they know better than us? Telling the cops, or going public?”
“Maybe we should go public,” Rachel said. “I mean, if the Yeerks want thisinvasion to stay secret, then we don’t—right?”
‹Unless it’s like, they’re being secret because they want seven billion hosts,and they know an all-out war would end up killing half the planet,› I put in.‹But maybe they’d still rather have three billion than walk away empty-handed. We go public, we could kick off the apocalypse.›
“Or just get laughed at, more likely,” Marco muttered. “So far, it looks likethey’re doing this thing smart, and if they’ve already got the police, thenthey’ve probably got the media, too.” He scrubbed at his eyes. “Then again,they’re here picking up zookeepers instead of in Washington nabbing Senators,so maybe they’re not that smart.”
“Actually,” Jake put in, “there’s a problem there. Why did they take Cassie’smother in the first place?”
‹It makes sense, doesn’t it?› I answered. ‹I mean, the Gardens is theobvious place to pick up new morphs.›
“Yeah, but why would they be worried about Andalite bandits in the firstplace? From the way Elfangor was talking, the Yeerks won the space battlehands-down. And it’s not like we’ve done anything to get on their radar.”
‹Maybe they’re just paranoid?›
“Or maybe,” Marco said, his voice suddenly taut, “maybe there are _Andalitebandits. I mean, _something stirred them up, right? We already knowElfangor’s brother is out there somewhere. What if another ship made itthrough? We could have allies down here.”
I heard Rachel suck in a breath, felt the owl’s feathers fluff and stand onend. That would change everything—
“No,” Cassie said, speaking up for the first time. Her voice was a hoarsecroak, and she bit her lip as Jake and Marco turned to look at her. “Notallies. They’re fighting to beat the Yeerks. We’re fighting to save Earth.That’s—those are two different things.”
She lapsed back into silence, and a grim silence followed as we all workedthrough the ramifications. I found myself remembering Elfangor’s coldassessment of the situation, his solemn declaration. You are the wave theywill ride as they sweep the galaxy clean of all who oppose them.
Maybe we should kick off an all-out war. Maybe a few billion dead humans wasexactly what the galaxy needed.
I looked down at the others again. Cassie, returned to her quiet weeping, andJake, pacing back and forth like a caged tiger. Marco, his frustration writtenin the set of his shoulders and the thin line of his lips. Rachel,uncharacteristically silent. All of them shaken, on the verge of fallingapart, and Cassie’s parents weren’t even dead.
I shook my head, fighting to think through the haze of sleep deprivation. Thesun would be up in two hours. There were only two possibilities—either theYeerks were already closing in, or they weren’t even coming. And in eithercase, this?
This wasn’t helping.
The little voice in the back of my head—the one that told me when to move mymoney out of my wallet and into my sock, the one that knew exactly whichcouples wanted an orphan for all the wrong reasons, the one that had firsttold me to make friends with Jake—that voice had been getting louder andlouder as the day wore on.
These people are a mess.
You don’t owe them anything.
They’re not going to make it, and they’re going to drag you down with them.
Get out while you still can.
I looked through the trees, through the dark windows of the nearest house, tothe clock on the microwave in the distant kitchen. I had forty minutes left inmorph.
‹Look,› I said, breaking the silence. ‹I know I’m not exactly qualified tohave an opinion, here. I don’t have parents or brothers or sisters to worryabout. So stop me if I’m being rude.›
I paused, but they just looked up at me, shoulders slumped and faces drawn.‹But Cassie’s parents—they’re safe now, aren’t they? I mean, I know beingControlled can’t be fun, but—the Gardens—they’re important people—the Yeerksare going to protect them, keep them alive. And as long as they’re alive,there’s hope, right?›
“Tell that to the Chapmans,” Marco growled.
Rachel winced as if punched, and I hastened to clarify. ‹I’m just saying, it’sjust a matter of time, isn’t it? I mean, one way or another, they’re going tocome after your families. Doesn’t even have to be personal. They’re comingafter everybody. So you might as well decide right now, right? Either getthem out now—tonight—or go ahead and accept that it’s going to happen, and letit.›
“There’s still that little problem of what happens when they send a squad outto pick up Tom and Jake and Mr. and Mrs. Berenson, and they come back withjust Tom and the grownups and a story about Jake turning into a pigeon andflying away,” Marco said dryly.
‹Only if there are four people in the house when the Yeerks come calling,› Ipointed out. ‹If you can’t think of a way to get them out, why not get youguys out? Fake your deaths, or run away, or whatever? The Yeerks show up amonth from now, and there’s no link.›
“There’s still a link,” Jake said. “Even if we assume they bought Cassie’sstory, they have to be suspicious. If all of her friends start disappearing,one by one…”
‹So don’t start with her friends. Start by disappearing some other kids,somebody completely unconnected. You guys could be, like, three, five, seven,and nine out of ten.›
“Aaaand we’re back to recruiting,” said Marco.
‹You’ve got to do something,› I snapped. ‹Sitting here in the woodsbickering until the Yeerks show up is not a plan.›
“Fine,” Jake said. He stopped pacing and folded his arms. “We vote.”
“I thought that wasn’t—”
“We vote first, then argue about whether or not this should be decided by avote. A, we get all our families out, tonight, and start working on a plan torescue Cassie’s parents. B, we start figuring out how to get ourselves out.C, we try to figure out a strategy for staying in place.” He paused. “Anybodycare to speak up first?”
No one spoke. “Fine,” he repeated. “I vote A.”
‹B,› I countered.
Marco and Rachel turned to look toward each other in the darkness. Secondsticked by, each one adding to my mounting frustration. It had been two daysand seven hours since Elfangor told us there were a thousand Controllersalready. How much had that number grown since then? How much had it grownwhile we’d been sitting here dithering?
You’re wasting time, the little voice said. This family bullshit isn’t yourproblem.
Rachel spoke first. “B,” she said, her tone reluctant.
No one but me could see Marco’s raised eyebrow, but the silence implied itwell enough, and she continued, looking anywhere but down at Cassie. “Ican’t—I mean, I don’t want to—to abandon my family. But we need room tomaneuver. We need time to think. And we shouldn’t—we can’t put anyone elsein the line of fire. Not unless they know what’s going on, and—and can protectthemselves. If we stay, then our parents, my sisters, Tom—if the Yeerks figureus out and come in guns blazing, they’ll—”
She stopped, took a deep breath, composed herself and continued. “We get clearnow,” she said, “we can build up an army and when we come back, we’ll havehelp, we can get all of them out.”
Marco shook his head. “The problem is, these are all terrible choices,” hemuttered. “C is just obviously wishful thinking at this point. Like Tobiassaid, they’re coming, sooner or later. As for A versus B…” He took a deepbreath in through his nose and let it out with a sigh. “It’s got to be A. Fourfamilies moving out of the county is going to be a lot less suspicious thanfour kids going missing.”
“Three families,” Jake corrected softly, and Marco winced.
I could feel my shoulders hunching, my wings lifting up behind me in aninvoluntary response to the tension and stress I was dumping into the owl’sbrain. I had thirty-six minutes left in morph, and maybe thirty-six seconds ofpatience remaining.
“Cassie?” Jake asked, his voice still soft.
Cassie said nothing—only shook her head, almost invisible against the darkblue of the blanket Rachel was wearing. “She’s not voting,” Rachel translated.
Jake raised a hand and ran his fingers through his hair. “So we’ve got a tie,then,” he said wearily.
Fuck this. They want to get completely paralyzed over, like, seven peoplewhile the world ends, that’s their business.
‹No, you don’t,› I said aloud, spreading my wings to their full length andtesting the cold night air. ‹I’m changing my vote.›
And with that, I leapt out of the tree and winged my way up into the sky.
I gave the tiny mouse an extra squeeze with my talon, feeling the bones in itships pop out of joint. Its squeaks were pitifully loud in the owl’s ears, andI felt more than a little guilt as I held it down with one wing and began todemorph. This didn’t, strictly speaking, have anything to do with saving theworld…
A minute and a half later, I was standing naked in the parking lot of therundown thrift shop, shivering in the early morning cold as I acquired themouse that lay dying in my hand. Trying to look in all directions at once, Istrode across the rough asphalt toward the side entrance.
It took another five minutes and a brief stint as a mouse, but soon enough Iwas inside, thumbing through the racks of clothes in the dark and wishing thatI still had owl’s eyes. Foregoing the secondhand underwear, I threw togetherwhat felt like a sane outfit, grabbed some shoes and a watch off the shelf,and left through the front door, ignoring the wail of the alarm as I startedto jog down the street.
I was definitely going to have to do something about the whole clothesproblem.
As I jogged, I focused on Marco, on the DNA I had acquired what felt likeweeks ago. As before, there was a feeling of vertigo as my head eased closerto the ground, and a blurring of my vision as my eyes were replaced withMarco’s slightly nearsighted ones. The shrinking was followed by a kind oftugging sensation as my hair shriveled and stiffened, going from near-shoulder-length to only a couple of inches long.
There was also—though I hadn’t mentioned this to Marco—a very uncomfortablesort of tightening sensation in my groin. My parents had decided not to haveme circumcised when I was born. Marco’s had apparently had different feelingson the matter.
I didn’t quite know what to make of that. Clearly, the morphing technologytook more than just a DNA sample. There had to be some kind of scanning goingon during the acquiring process, or else all kinds of things would have beendifferent—I’d read, for instance, that height had almost as much to do withhormones and nutrition as it did with actual genes.
But the owl I’d acquired had only had one eye, and I’d definitely had two whenI morphed it. The same went for Marco’s osprey, which had been nursing abroken wing. What was the difference between that and a little scar tissue? Itcouldn’t be based on expectation—I’d had zero opinions on the issue ofMarco’s foreskin until after the morph had finished.
Just put it on the list.
Along with what a Yeerk pool was, which teachers were Controllers, and howlong it would be before the air on Elfangor’s brother’s ship ran out.
The morph complete, I slowed and stopped, putting the size eightish shoes onmy now-size-eightish feet. I walked for another ten minutes as my sweat cooledand vanished, until the squat brick structure of the Oak Landing Home forChildren came into view.
My home, for the last five years.
I checked my stolen watch, the screen glowing faintly green in the darkness.It was 4:45, the sky still black, the streets empty. I walked down thesidewalk like I had nothing to hide, turning into the parking lot and stridingpast the low, barred windows until I reached the one that looked in onto myroom. My old room, now.
I didn’t bother trying to peer inside. It was pitch black, after all, andbesides, I knew every inch of it. The four double-decker bunks, two to eachwall, with trunks between them and a worn, splintering wooden floor covered ina threadbare gray rug. The peeling paint, broken only by the single mirror andthe one old poster for the original release of Star Wars. The eight sets ofthin blankets, the eight flat pillows, and the seven sleeping boys, three ofthem snoring like chainsaws.
I crouched down, reaching for the strangely-too-close ground, turning to sitwith my back against the rough brick, keeping my eyes peeled for any sign ofmovement in the grounds around me. I’d never really been afraid of the darkbefore, but I’d also never really believed in monsters before, either.
‹Garrett,› I called out silently, keeping the beam of my thoughts tightlyfocused. ‹Garrett, wake up. Wake up and come to the window.›
Jake, Rachel, Marco—they had families. Marco’s dad, Rachel’s mom. Rachel’ssisters, and Jake’s brother Tom. People they loved for no reason at all excepthabit. People who loved them back.
‹Garrett, wake up. This isn’t a dream. Wake up and come tap on the glass.›
I didn’t have a family. I didn’t even, properly speaking, have friends. It’shard to make connections when you’re in a different school every year, whenthe guys in your room are all different ages and they’re in and out of fostercare and you only have a month or two to get to know most of them and the onesyou know for longer are assholes anyway because the good kids don’t tend tocome back.
‹Garrett, it’s Tobias. I’m outside—you can hear me, but I can’t hear you. Getup and tap on the window so I know you’re awake.›
What I did have was Garrett. Garrett, and a promise we’d made to each other,almost two years before, cutting our palms with a shard of glass from a brokenbottle and clasping hands while the blood dripped down our wrists. We’d bothbeen put on room restriction for that—half the summer had gone by before theylet us out for free play again.
‹Garrett, wake up, buddy. It’s Tobias. I’m—›
I sucked in a breath. This was it—the point of no return. At this exactmoment, there was a grand total total of five people on the entire planet whowere in a position to make a stand against the Yeerks. If I said one moreword, then one way or another, Garrett was going to be involved. Was goingto be vulnerable, hunted, a conscript in a very small and ill-prepared army.
But he’s vulnerable already. He just doesn’t _know it yet._
‹Hi, buddy. It’s me. Tobias.›
‹I’m—um. I’m outside. I’m speaking to you telepathically. And no, I can’t hearwhat you’re thinking.›
‹Yeah, I don’t know what that means. Look, do you think you can get outwithout waking anybody up? I’ll explain everything once you’re out here.›
‹Okay. Good. And—um. You remember our pact, right? That if either one of usever figured out a way out of—›
‹Careful, quiet! Okay. Right. Listen, you should—you should grab your bag. Andanything else you want to keep, because—›
Tap. Tap tap tap tap tap.
‹Yeah. I don’t think we’re going to be coming back.›
I stared down at the tiny, crumpled note, easily readable in the predawnlight. A mess of conflicting emotions swarmed into my brain—suspicion, anger,embarrassment, astonishment, frustration, shame. “Jake,” I called out, loudenough to be heard from any of the nearby cavernous structures. “You just stayput until I’m done here.”
“Who’s Jake?” Garrett asked.
We were standing in the middle of the construction site, not far from the spotwhere Elfangor’s ship had landed. Beside us was a low, half-finishedfoundation, filled with hard-packed earth. I had pulled aside a dozen or so ofthe loose cinderblocks, revealing the dark hole in which Jake had stashed theIscafil device.
“You’ll find out in a minute,” I said darkly, letting the scrap of paper fallto the ground as I hefted the alien cube. “This first.”
Garrett eyed the blue box warily, very obviously standing just out of arm’sreach. “You lied,” he said, a tremor in his voice.
“You said you’d explain everything once I came outside.”
“I did. I mean, okay, I haven’t told you the second half yet, but I explained_this _part.”
“No, you didn’t. You said ‘Andalite’ and ‘morphing power’ like those wereanswers. What’s going to happen to me if I touch that thing?”
“It’s not going to hurt you.”
“How do you know?”
“It didn’t hurt me.”
“Neither do shrimp, but if I eat one, I die.”
I gritted my teeth, suppressing the urge to snap. For one, that sort of thingnever worked with Garrett, and for another, he had a point. I’d seen themorphing cube work on exactly five people. That could mean it was completelysafe, or it could mean it killed half the people who used it, and we’d justgotten lucky. Elfangor hadn’t mentioned it being dangerous, but something toldme the Andalites hadn’t done a whole lot of beta testing on humans.
I dropped down onto one knee, putting my head just below Garrett’s chin.“You’re right,” I said quietly, forcing calm into my voice. “I don’t reallyknow what’ll happen to you. I don’t really know what happened to me. It’salien technology, and I probably wouldn’t understand it even if Elfangor hadexplained it for hours. But it didn’t hurt me, and it didn’t hurt the otherpeople I was with, and you saw that it works. Think about it, buddy. Anyanimal in the world. Any person in the world. You’ll be able to go anywhere,do anything. You won’t ever have to go back to Oak Landing again.”
“Any animal I can touch. For two hours at a time. Two minutes to change. Backto me in between.”
I nodded. “Yep. Those are the rules.”
‹Actually, there’s one more rule.›
I stiffened and stood, turning to scan the skeletal buildings around me.“Jake,” I warned. “Let me handle this.”
‹Sorry,› Jake replied, and something in his tone told me that he had switchedto private thought-speak. ‹Your family is your business, but the cube belongsto all of us. I’m coming out. I’m in Andalite morph—warn the kid.›
“Who’s Jake?” Garrett asked again.
“A friend,” I said reluctantly. I looked down at the note lying in the dirt,written in Jake’s neat, careful handwriting.
Figured you’d come back for the cube. Notice how I DIDN’T take it away andhide it. That’s a peace offering. I’m alone…can we talk? —Jake
“Brace yourself,” I muttered. “You’re about to find out what an Andalite lookslike.”
There was a soft crumbling sound from one of the concrete structures, thecrunch of hooves on gravel. A shadow took shape in one of the open doorways,and I heard Garrett gasp as it stepped out into the gray morning light.
I hadn’t really registered it the first time, on board Elfangor’s ship. Andthere had been too many things on my mind the second time, in Cassie’s barn.But now, watching the lithe blue shape emerge from the darkness of the half-finished building, I couldn’t deny it.
Andalites were terrifying.
It was like a centaur, if centaurs had been half-scorpion instead of half-horse. The body, low and wide, rippling with muscles under the short fur. Thelegs, short and side-cocked, their every motion unnervingly fast, like a moviewith dropped frames. The torso, held parallel with the ground, the arms wavinglike feelers over the dirt, ready to act as a third pair of legs if necessary.The eyes, one pair pointing forward and down, the other mounted on stalks,swiveling constantly.
And of course, the tail.
It had to be almost ten feet long, a smooth, tapering whip of pure muscle,capped by a reaper’s scythe of dense bone. It hovered and dipped and darted ina strangely hypnotic dance, as if following the flight of a drunken mosquito.Beside me, Garrett squeaked and then disappeared over the wall of another lowfoundation, peering out over the cinderblocks with only his eyes and foreheadvisible.
“Jake, meet Garrett,” I grumbled. “Garrett, this is Jake. He usually doesn’tlook like this.”
‹Hi, Garrett,› Jake said, coming to a stop and rearing so that his torso stoodmore or less upright.
“You’re a human?” Garrett asked, his voice shaky. “You’re morphed?”
‹Yeah. This is Elfangor’s body. He let us acquire him before he died.›
“Turn back into a person, please.”
Jake gave no response, but the fur covering his body immediately began toshrink, the hairs thinning away to reveal pinkening skin beneath. Garrettwatched with wide eyes as Jake’s tail and back legs disappeared, as the smoothcurve at the end of his torso reformed into head and neck and shoulders. Aminute and a half passed, and the Andalite was gone, leaving a thirteen-year-old human boy standing in its place.
I noticed with begrudging respect that Jake made no attempt to cover up,showed no sign of shivering as he stood naked and barefoot in front of us, hishands clasped behind his back. His expression was calm and composed, his eyessharp and commanding. It was the same look he’d given the three bullies whohad me cornered, on the day we’d first met—a look that said you had twooptions, and only one of them was going to work.
He turned to me. “We ended up compromising,” he said. “Marco’s getting his dadout. Rachel and I are going to stay on alert for a couple of days. If theycome for us, or for any of our family members, we bail. If they don’t, westart working on plans to extract everybody. Cassie’s on her way up into themountains already with some spare camping gear Marco had lying around.”
“None of that is my problem,” I said bluntly.
Jake nodded. “I know. I get it. I got it back in the woods, when you stoppedsaying ‘we’ and started saying ‘you.’” He turned to look at Garrett, who wasstill standing behind the low cinderblock wall. “Did Tobias tell you about theYeerks yet?” he asked.
“After,” I said, before Garrett could answer. “Two separate choices. He getsthe morphing power either way.”
Jake shook his head. “No. I mean, okay, yes, fine, you get to make your owncall on that, I’m not the boss of you and we both know how to blow up thecube, so there’s no point in giving you orders you’re just going to ignore.But if he’s not in, then he has to be out—all the way out, like out of thestate, where he’s not going to leave us vulnerable.” He fixed me with a steadygaze. “Same goes for you.”
“You don’t get to make up rules,” I snapped.
“That’s not a rule, it’s common sense,” he answered mildly. “And don’t actlike it isn’t just because you’re pissed off. We’re still on the same side,here.” His gaze flickered over to Garrett before returning to me. “It alsoseems like common sense to say that recruiting ten-year-olds is a bad idea,and to point out that this little kid could be a Controller, and to find outjust what the hell you think you’re doing right now, but the sun’s about tocome up and I haven’t slept all night and I’m just going to go ahead and askyou to look me in the eye and tell me why this isn’t insane.”
“I turn twelve in three months and eight days,” Garrett remarked.
“My bad,” Jake said, his eyes still on me. We stared at one another for along, tense moment.
You _are still on the same side, the little voice in the back of my headwhispered. _And he didn’t take the cube away. That should count forsomething.
“I’m going after Elfangor’s brother,” I said finally.
Jake’s eyes widened in surprise, and I continued. “He’s been out there foralmost three days. He could be dying, and the rest of you are just—sittingaround. I’m going to find him, and I’m going to rescue him if I can. He mighthave intel. Weapons. Alien morphs, maybe. Stuff we can use. And even if hedoesn’t—we’re the only ones who can save him.”
The surprise had faded, and Jake’s expression was now carefully, deliberatelyneutral. “Marco still thinks there might be actual Andalite bandits outthere,” he said.
I shrugged. “So maybe I get there and he’s already gone. It’s not like I’vegot anything better to do.”
“I trust him,” I said simply. Jake could draw whatever conclusions he wantedout of that statement.
“I trust him,” I repeated. “And I need somebody to watch my back.”
Jake turned to look at Garrett, who had climbed up onto the wall and was nowsitting there, watching us wordlessly. “A thousand Controllers,” he saidsoftly.
“You see any Bug fighters?” I countered. “Besides, the odds are only going toget worse. Now’s the time to take that risk.”
Jake shook his head. “Too much risk. There has to be a way to be _sure. _ Ifyou wait three days, maybe.”
“Look, if we don’t get moving, the Yeerks are going to win by default.”
He looked me straight in the eye. “So it’s ‘we’ again?”
I didn’t answer. Just looked down at the cube in my hands, remembered watchingeach of the others shiver as the morphing technology took hold.
“Yeerks are—aliens?” Garrett broke in hesitantly. “Bad ones?”
Jake gave me a look that said you want to tell him, or should I?
“They’re bodysnatchers,” I explained. “Little slugs that crawl into your earand take over your brain. Once they’re inside you, they know everything youknow, and they run your body like it’s a remote control car.”
Garrett’s eyes widened slightly.
“They’ve taken maybe a thousand people already,” Jake said. “Cops,firefighters, EMTs. Some of the teachers at our school. The mom and dad of afriend of mine. They’re trying to take over the whole planet. They want toturn each and every one of us into a slave.”
“Why?” Garrett asked.
Jake and I exchanged glances again.
“To use us as weapons to take over the rest of the galaxy,” Jake answered.
“Why, though? What’s the point? Like, what do they want in the end?”
I blinked. None of us had ever really stopped to ask that question. “Um. Iguess because—I mean, they’re just slugs, right? They can’t see or hear or—ordo anything, really. Not unless they have a host body to control.”
Jake gave a low, quiet whistle, and I couldn’t help wincing a little myself.When you put it that way, suddenly the whole thing felt a lot less black andwhite…
Except that every “free” Yeerk means another trapped human. No middle ground.It’s literally us or them.
Garrett’s head was tilted to one side, his expression thoughtful. “Oncethey’re in, can you get them back out again?”
“We think so,” Jake said. “Haven’t actually tried, though.”
“Can they take over animals?”
“We don’t know.”
I glanced at the horizon, growing brighter as the sun began to rise behind theclouds. “We need to get out of here soon,” I interrupted, holding up the cube.“Jake?”
He raised his eyebrows. “If I tell you not to do this, will you listen?”
“Then why are you asking?”
“Because you might say yes.”
Jake’s eyes narrowed. “Elfangor gave us morphing so we could fight the Yeerks.As far as I’m concerned, that’s what it’s for_. You already put the wholehuman race on the line just by _talking to this kid. If you use the cube onhim, and the Yeerks take him—”
He broke off, shaking his head. “There’s not a lot of ways this can play out,Tobias. You just spent a bunch of points you don’t really have. Ask me whatMarco would say we need to do about you.”
I’ll admit it—that one gave me a little chill. “We’re still on the same side.”
“I’m trying to get something done here.”
“By cutting us down from five to four, and bringing in a stranger without anyinput from the rest of us.”
“We’re all strangers, Jake. Rachel, Marco, Cassie—I don’t know thosepeople. I barely even know you. You’re a nice guy, and all, but—I don’ttrust you with my life. I can’t. You’re not—hard enough. You guys keepacting like we’ve got time to waste, like there’s somebody going to show upand save us.”
“Elfangor showed up.”
“Exactly! That was our miracle! We’re not going to get another one.”
Jake sighed. “Yesterday—” He broke off, looking at the sky, and started again.“Two days ago, you chose me as your leader.”
“That was before you fucking fell apart when Cassie went missing.”
He stiffened, his eyes glittering, and I felt my shoulders tense. For a longmoment, neither of us said anything.
“Fair,” he growled. “I’m not as jaded and cold as Tobias the street-smarttough guy. I lost it, a little. Lesson learned. But you don’t see Tomanywhere around here, do you?”
I shrugged. “I need somebody to watch my back,” I repeated.
“Somebody who’s not one of us. Somebody you trust.”
I didn’t respond.
“Cuts both ways, doesn’t it?” he asked.
I still didn’t answer. Just watched as he gnawed at his lip, looked at me,looked at Garrett, looked around at the empty, skeletal ruins of theconstruction site. As he shifted back and forth, and shivered.
“Garrett,” he said abruptly. “You take orders from Tobias?”
“No.” Garrett’s eyes were wide, and they didn’t quite meet ours, shifting backand forth between my forehead and Jake’s. “But I listen to him.”
Jake turned his gaze back to me. “Tell him.”
I grimaced. “Garrett,” I said tightly. “If you take the morphing power, youeither have to come with me, or you have to go away. Far away, like England orCanada, and never come back. Because if you come back, they might catch you,and if they catch you they’ll catch us all.”
“That’s a rule?”
“That’s a rule.”
“Not quite,” Jake cut in. “There’s a third option. You can come back and staywith us. With me and the rest of my group. But if you do that, you have tofollow our rules.”
Garrett nodded silently.
“As for you, Tobias,” Jake said, crossing his arms. “I’m sending you on amission. Go find Elfangor’s brother. Bring him back if you can, or at leastfind out what happened to him. And if you need somebody to watch your back,you can use the morphing cube—once.” He looked Garrett up and down, his gazemeasured and calculating. “But it has to be somebody who’s worth the risk. Notjust somebody you like or care about. Somebody we can trust.”
I bit back a bitter laugh. “That’s how we’re going to play this, then?”
Jake didn’t flinch. “That’s how I’m going to play this,” he said. “You cando whatever you want. But I don’t exactly see how us being enemies helpsanybody but the Yeerks. Maybe next time you’ll think about that before writingthe rest of us off.”
And with that, he turned and strode away, feathers sprouting from his skin ashe disappeared among the dark, looming structures.
‹Something’s wrong,› Garrett said.
‹You’re just not used to it yet,› I answered. ‹Try to relax, let the bird dothe flying.›
We were both in hawk morph, floating above one of the parks on the edge of thecity. Our clothes—and Garrett’s bag—were stashed high in the gnarled oak treewhere we had morphed, hidden from the ground by the thick, leafy branches.
I had gone first so that Garrett could acquire from me, then demorphed againto hold him steady in the tree as he attempted his first transformation. Ithad gone without a hitch, and he’d immediately taken to the air, his delightedlaughter filling my head.
Now, though, I could see him struggling, the rhythm of his wingbeats erraticas he fought to maintain altitude.
‹Relax!› I called out again. ‹Don’t try to take control yourself!›
‹I’m not!› he answered, panic creeping into his words as they played throughmy thoughts. ‹Total autopilot, I swear!›
He began to twitch as I closed the gap between us, his muscles spasming as ifhe were having a seizure. ‹Never mind,› I shouted, ‹take control! Takecontrol!›
‹It’s not working!›
Suddenly, his wings folded and he tumbled, plummeting toward the ground threehundred feet below. ‹AAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!›
I tucked my own wings and dove, raking my talons forward. We collided a secondor two later, my claws digging into his flesh, his actual scream cuttingthrough the air as his mental one filled my head.
I flapped furiously, struggling to slow our descent, his own out-of-controlwings buffeting me as we curved toward the ground. ‹Hang on!› I shouted again.‹This is going to—›
I let go just as we slammed into the earth, both of us rolling, a mass of dustand feathers. I’d managed to slow us to maybe twenty miles per hour, and eventhe lightweight hawk body was stunned by the impact. A sharp pain shot up myright wing, and I let out an involuntary cry as I struggled back to my feet.
‹Garrett!› I called out. ‹You okay?›
‹No flying,› he moaned, his body still twitching in the dirt, tiny droplets ofblood leaking through his feathers where I’d grabbed him. ‹No flying, noflying, no flying.›
‹Are you okay?› I asked again. I scanned the park around us. It was stillearly, maybe a quarter to seven, and as far as I could tell, no one hadwitnessed our wild tumble. There were a few bushes about fifty feet away wherewe would be able to demorph and remorph, restoring our hawk bodies to fullhealth.
Except that whatever was wrong with Garrett’s would still be wrong, sincethe morphed body was identical every time.
I shuffled closer, holding my one unbroken wing out for balance. ‹Did youbreak anyth—›
I stopped mid-thought, looking down at his crumpled body in shock.
Slowly, carefully, I extended my healthy wing again, watching as the musclesin Garrett’s own wing twitched in response. I flapped once.
I hopped backwards, fluttering, watching as a series of tiny spasms rippledacross his body. The second I stopped moving, they ceased.
‹Garrett,› I said. ‹Can you fly?›
‹You’ve either got to fly or you’ve got to climb the tree naked,› I said.
‹Naked. No more flying. Never again.›
‹Fine, no flying. Can you stand?›
I held still as he rolled over, coming to his feet. ‹Yes,› he answered.
‹The bushes, over there. You can demorph and make a run for it.›
‹What about you?›
‹I’ll wait here until you’re demorphed. I think I’m—I think there’s some kindof interference between us, from both using the same body at the same time.Every time I move, you twitch.› I extended my wing and flapped it once todemonstrate.
‹Don’t,› Garrett said flatly. ‹Bushes. Morph. Tree. Got it.›
I waited until Garrett streaked past me before heading toward the bushesmyself. It was a slow, agonizing process, my dead wing dragging behind me,sending shooting pains up through my shoulder. By the time I reached cover anddemorphed, Garrett had reappeared, carrying his bag and my stolen clothes.
We left the park on foot, Garrett still visibly shaken. “Didn’t you guystest that?” he asked, as we passed through the gate and headed down thestreet.
“Just for a minute,” I admitted, embarrassed. “We checked to see if Marcocould morph Dude. But he demorphed as soon as we saw that it worked, so wedidn’t have time to notice.”
“Never flying. Never ever flying again.”
“Oh, come on,” I chided. “It worked fine until I got up there, too.”
Though that did throw a wrench into the works. I had borrowed a fast-flyingmorph from Cassie, one that could theoretically make it out to Elfangor’sbrother in just two or three days. But it had come from the Gardens, and ifGarrett and I couldn’t share it, we were going to need a new plan.
“Where are we going?” Garrett asked, as we turned a corner and entered one ofthe nicer suburban neighborhoods.
“Marco’s house,” I said. “We need to warn the others about the resonance. Andhe’s the closest to the beach.”
“Why does that matter?”
“Because Elfangor’s brother is somewhere in between Hawaii and Russia.”
“We’re leaving now?”
“He’s been out there for three days already. We don’t have any time to waste.And if anybody does decide to notice that we’re gone, it’d be better not tobe here.”
“How are we going to get to him?”
“Don’t know yet. Let me know if you come up with any ideas.”
Another quick morph, a brief thought-speak conversation, and we were on ourway once more. Traffic was picking up as the Monday rush hour began, and thedriveways and street corners began to fill up with kids waiting for theirschool buses. We moved off of the main roads and began cutting through parksand backyards, avoiding the places where truant officers were likely to look.It was quiet and calm, the morning sun breaking through the clouds and warmingour backs as we went.
“We’re going to have to stash my bag somewhere,” Garrett said, after a longsilence.
“We’ll find a place,” I assured him. We climbed over a fence and crossed therailroad tracks, the smell of salt strengthening as we got closer to theocean.
“Tobias?” Garrett asked quietly, his voice barely audible over the crunch ofour footsteps.
“I mean—why not Louis, or Fletcher, or Johnny. They’re—you know. Older.Smarter. Braver.”
The last word was almost a whisper, as if Garrett wasn’t quite sure he wantedme to hear it. I was silent for a while, considering my answer as we cutthrough a small patch of woods. “We made a promise,” I said finally, lookingover at the younger boy.
Garrett didn’t look up. His brow was furrowed as he stared down at the ground,placing each step with careful precision. Another minute went by before hespoke again.
“I didn’t think you were coming back,” he said. “When you didn’t come homeFriday, and then you didn’t come home Saturday either. Xander took your bunklast night. We all thought you’d just—gotten out.”
“We made a promise,” I repeated.
“I’m just saying. If you’d broken it. If you hadn’t come back. You could’ve—Iwouldn’t’ve blamed you.”
I stopped. After a few more steps, Garrett did, too.
I felt a kind of cold anger coming over me, the product of almost eight yearsof orphanages and foster homes and shitty roommates and grownups who weren’tdoing their jobs. Of swirlies and meatloaf and secondhand shoes, flat pillowsand no money and no one, no one, no one you could really count on, all of itflashed into my head, crystallizing into a single, sharp icicle of bitterresentment. “Fuck that,” I said, reaching out and grabbing Garrett by theshoulder, spinning him around to face me. He twitched uncomfortably out of mygrasp, but I stayed close, almost nose to nose, looking straight into his eyesas they stared resolutely at my chin.
“You damn well better blame me, if I ever pull some bullshit like that,” Ihissed. “You’d better be fucking furious. Don’t you ever try to play likeit’s okay for people to just blow you off, like—like you’re nothing, likeyou don’t count.”
“Everybody bails eventually,” he said softly.
“No,” I shot back. I held up my hand, the scar from our pact almostinvisible among the lines of my palm. ”Most people bail. Most people don’tknow what the fuck a promise is. But that’s their problem, not yours.”
I turned and started walking again, holding my breath until I heard the rustleof Garrett’s footsteps behind me. We went on in silence for another handful ofminutes, as the ground flattened out and the gentle crash of waves becameaudible over the breeze.
“I’m scared,” he said finally.
“Me, too,” I replied, looking back over my shoulder. “You don’t have to come,you know.”
“I thought you needed somebody to watch your back.”
“I do. And—look, I want your help, okay? You’re not—you know how to takecare of yourself, and you’re somebody I can trust. Nobody else I know is onboth lists. But I didn’t get you out just so I could boss you around. You wantout, just go. Jake’s a decent guy, he’ll look out for you. Or go to Canada.You can morph, so you’ll be able to get food and stuff. You’ll be safe thereas long as anybody.”
Garrett was quiet for another long minute. “It’s really happening?” he asked.“The invasion.”
“Yeah. You heard about vice-principal Chapman?”
“They killed him. His wife and daughter, too.”
“How are you going to stop them?”
I shrugged. “No idea,” I said. “But saving Elfangor’s brother seems like agood first step.”
We stashed his bag under the roots of a half-toppled oak tree and emerged outinto the headlands, scrambling our way down the steep slope until we came tothe beach. “What now?” Garrett asked.
“Now we try to think of a plan,” I said. “We look for animals we might be ableto use, or walk down to the shipyard and find a boat that’s heading the rightdir—”
I broke off abruptly as we rounded the cape, my jaw dropping in shock. For afull ten seconds, my brain simply refused to work, unwilling to believe thesignals my eyes were sending it.
“Oh,” said Garrett as he stopped beside me, his voice shaky. “Wow. Hey,Tobias—I think I just came up with an idea.”
The beach in front of us was packed, over a hundred people milling around, theair filled with the buzz of quiet conversation. Most of them were carryingbuckets, the rest snapping pictures with their phones, or just standing therewatching. They were gathered around an enormous, towering creature, a wall ofgray flesh longer than a train car and almost as tall.
Sperm whale, _said Cassie’s voice, echoing out of a memory of her barn, twodays and two lifetimes ago. _Sperm whale and giant squid. Those are the onlybig animals we know of that go that deep, and they don’t have either one ofthem at the Gardens. They don’t have either one _anywhere, as far as I know._
“This is impossible,” I whispered, still trying to convince my sluggish brainto work. It was too convenient, too perfect to be a coincidence. I could seethe whale’s labored breathing, see the pooling of its flesh as it collapsedbeneath its own weight. In a few hours, it would be dead. It had beacheditself at exactly the right time for Garrett and I to come across it.
“Oh,” Garrett said. “Is it a trap, then?”
I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to think. That would mean that the Yeerks knewwe were human, that they knew about Elfangor’s brother, that they could plucka whale right out of the ocean and that they somehow knew in advance whenGarrett and I would be arriving on the beach—
No. If they’d had that much power, the war would already be over.
But as I stared at the dying animal, I couldn’t help remembering anotherconversation, this one much more recent than Cassie’s lecture on marinebiology.
Elfangor showed up, Jake had said.
Exactly! I’d answered. That was our miracle! We’re not going to get_another one._
“Tobias?” Garrett asked. “What should we do?”
I looked at him. Looked at the whale. Looked out at the endless horizon.
Three thousand miles of water, and in the middle of it, Elfangor’s brother.Calling out for help.
Just put it on the list.
“We acquire it,” I said. “And then we watch each other’s back.”
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