Chapter 06: Esplin

Breached the theoretical mass synchronization collapse limit? Eliminated theunitary host-construct dependency? Tripled the efficiency of the controller-construct Z-space replacement algorithm?

Impossible.

Esplin nine-four-double-six stared at the report, feeling the odd mixture offear and happiness that was always his host body’s response to bad news. Fear,because they had been one for so long that it felt his own emotions on thedeepest possible level. Happiness, because no matter how completely he ruled,Alloran still lived beneath the surface.

Not that he truly wished to be rid of Alloran. Not anymore. It would be solonely, after all, with only one mind in his head. So boring, with noaudience. So easy, with no critic.

There were times, though, when the Andalite warrior’s joy was a burden thatEsplin tired of bearing.

Esplin scanned the report again, taking separate note of each development.

One—the Andalites had successfully replaced a human girl, with mimicry on parwith that of a Yeerk. Conclusion: someone else in the Andalite chain ofcommand had discovered Alloran’s little back door.

Two (related)—at least one of them had been on Earth for multiple cycles, longenough to gather sufficient intelligence to choose precisely the right humanfor easy access to genetic material, likely since the arrival of the Yeerk’sown invading force. Conclusion: stowaways.

(Corollary: another upgrade to the morphing technology? The disguisedAndalite agent had been executing the acquisition process in morph prior tobeing uncovered. Alternate hypothesis: handheld extractor/scanner, for laterintegration.)

Three—it had morphed directly from construct to construct, in roughly onethird of the standard interval, after remaining in disguise for an unknownperiod of time (but at least eight times the original theoretical maximum).Conclusion: _?

Beneath the surface, Alloran supplied a string of appropriate Andaliteexpletives, each tinged with an acid mix of mockery and smug triumph. Esplinresponded with a searing lash of pain, and Alloran laughed even as he shrankback into silence.

This was frightening. If the Andalites had indeed managed to overcome three(possibly four!) of the morphing technology’s largest weaknesses, then theLeeran morph (with all of its disadvantages) was now the only method ofdetermining which of his subordinates could be trusted. And if his corollarywas correct, and they had somehow infiltrated his ship, then they could beliterally anywhere, lying in wait for just the right opportunity—to pressjust the right buttons, to launch just the right people out of an airlock at0.5_c_…

(It would explain nearly every obstacle they had encountered so far—everysetback, every delay, every frustrating malfunction, so much incompetence andalways just short of something truly unforgiveable.)

Even the coercive demorphing field, so close to functional, might no longerhold any promise. Changes that significant suggested a fundamentally newapproach to the entire morphing process, one that could easily rely on acompletely different source of power.

With a quick tap of his controls, Esplin initiated the standard lockdownprotocol, sealing his quarters and beginning the combination scan anddecontamination. Ordinarily, the lockdown took place at random intervals, witha maximum of half a morphing period between cleans, but even that might nolonger be sufficient. Esplin had long ago depilated his host’s body, to hinderinfestation by tiny morphed parasites, but if the Andalites had gone thisfar, who was to say they wouldn’t try infiltrating as bacteria, to slipthrough the holes in the decon net?

(On a parallel line of thought, his constant monitoring of Alloran picked up athread of curiosity, noting with bemusement that his pet warrior was even nowunable to ignore the temptation of an interesting problem. Possibleapplications of the new morphing technology streamed through the link betweenthem, and Esplin filed them away, to be guarded against later. Likely most ofthe precautions would be unnecessary and redundant—he had yet to meet anotherAndalite who was a match for Alloran in pure savagery and clarity of thought,who had the same inexorable drive—)

((Alloran scoffed at the backhanded compliment, but could not quite suppressthe minute wash of pride—))

(((Oh yes, they were made for one another, if only the warrior could seepast the narrow interests of his native species, and take the larger view—)))

Suddenly Esplin’s musings flashed to a halt, all of his speculations ceasing,all layers collapsing into one as he directed every level of attention towardthe path of Alloran’s thoughts. The process was immediate, automatic, areflexive response to a trigger Esplin had installed long, long ago, when hehad only just begun to learn what it was to govern a mind that was greaterthan your own:

Alloran was confused, which meant that it was time for Esplin to payattention.

The warrior’s mind instantly went blank, his thoughts smoothing into theplacid flow of meditation as he tried to cover his involuntary betrayal.Esplin merely laughed, seizing the reins and forcing the neurons to fire,unwinding the spool of thought to see what tiny flaw had caught his host’sattention.

and even then, why leave Ispec alive AFTERWARD, a critically-positionedhost, it made NO SENSE—

—farther back—

surely not so utterly shortsighted as to throw away an invaluable tacticaladvantage on a SCARE TACTIC—

—farther back—

unless for some reason he WANTED the Yeerks to receive Ispec’s report? Butwhat possible justification—

—farther—

the first, most basic, most OBVIOUS move being to grind the filthy slug intothe dust, even a stiff-tailed cadet could not HELP but notice the opencommunication channel—

Ah.

Carefully, suppressing his desire to leap to a conclusion, Esplinreconstructed the scene in his mind’s eye. The mighty Andalite, exposed buttriumphant. The lowly Yeerk, cowering in a weak and feeble body. The gloatingreveal—you have no idea of the depth of your failure! We took the girl weeksago, and you clumsy, stupid Yeerks noticed nothing! Yet another victory forthe superior Andalite race!

(It would have gone something like that, anyway.)

Yes, it was in character, all right, character so perfect it was almost amockery. But the flaws were obvious when you looked at it objectively. Ifthey’d had the girl for weeks, then why the sudden rush to visit half of theanimals in the collection?

Obviously, it was a bluff. Some thick-stalked ship-jockey, who had never somuch as heard the word “espionage,” found himself stranded after the battle,moved immediately to acquire local morphs—

at least the idiot had followed ONE protocol correctly—

—and blundered right into the middle of the Yeerks’ damage control operation(triggered by some other cloud-furred fool?). Desperate, he changed forms,got his leg shot off, and then, unmasked and stranded deep in enemy territory,tried to cover up his blunder with boasting. It made sense.

Except—

(Alloran desperately tried not to object, but he had no choice, really…)

at that point, WHY didn’t the oaf terminate the enemy host?

It went against every scrap of Andalite military doctrine, half of whichAlloran himself had written, replacing centuries of obsolete folly. It was thefirst lecture given to every cadet who entered the armed forces: You identifythe enemy. You find the enemy. You destroy the enemy. End process. You don’tmake the enemy squirm by parading tactical information in front of them!

For a moment, Esplin enjoyed the feeling of camaraderie as he and his hostwere united by their shared frustration at the eternal incompetence ofunderlings. Then the moment passed, Alloran recoiled, and they each turnedtheir mind back to the problem, the master eagerly, the pet involuntarily.

Who were the key players? Subject A, a midgrade Yeerk operative, beingoutwitted by subject B, a stunning example of Andalite mediocrity. In thebackground: the incoming reinforcements? A frustrated field commander?

The host.

Laughable. Of course Alloran would think that—he had to, lest he cease to beable to deny his own irrelevance. Though the human had in fact apparentlyfought her Yeerk to a standstill, so credit where credit was due. Such awasted effort, only to have her words fall on uncaring Andalite ears. They’dtaken her mate within minutes while the oaf blundered off in the oppositedirection—

The host’s daughter.

Dead. Obviously. Even dust-fed buffoons would not risk the sudden arrival of adoppelganger—

Unless she was cooperating.

Esplin froze, cursing himself. Of course—that would not only justify theill-advised and irrational mercy, it would also explain the swiftness withwhich the Andalites had learned of the animal collection, and infiltrated itssecurity.

The castigation turned to laughter as Alloran’s sense grew thick with horror.Oh, the proud Andalite race, reduced to alliance with planetbound primates!Would they invite the monkeys into space, next? Give them weapons, perhaps?Maybe some of the lonelier sort would morph and seek mates among the humans,as rumor said had been done during the conquest of the Hork-Bajir, on thehomeworld of the Arn—perhaps Esplin and Alloran would give it a try, together?

Alloran snarled, a wordless expression of pure fury, and Esplin reveled in thewash of hormones that filled the skull where the pair of them lived.Meanwhile, in the back of their shared mind, a lower, slower sort of processbegan following up on the new hypothesis, working through the strategicimplications of a human-Andalite alliance, combining it with all of the otherdata on the current situation—

(((Cassie Withers, my host’s daughter! She just morphed into an elephant!)))

(((We took her daughter weeks ago, and she never even noticed.)))

((Cassie Withers, my host’s daughter! She just morphed into an elephant!))

((And after holding human form for an entire day! Visser Three will beexceptionally interested in hearing how you accomplished that.))

(Cassie Withers, my host’s daughter! She just morphed into an elephant!)

(Enjoy it while you can, Yeerk. The Andalites are coming.)

Cassie Withers, my host’s daughter! She just morphed into an elephant!

Like a rocket launching skyward, the realization tore through every layer ofEsplin’s attention, clawing its way upward, each fraction of his minddemanding greater priority from the next until even Alloran’s misery failed tobe more interesting.

Unless she was cooperating.

A human that could morph—

A human that didn’t have to bypass the mass synchronization limit because itwasn’t morphed in the first place—

A human that could transform straight into a construct because it wasn’tmorphed in the first place

A human that could acquire animals directly, without demorphing to Andaliteform, because IT WASN’T MORPHED IN THE FIRST PLACE—

A human that didn’t stomp its captive into the dust because it hadn’t readthe Andalite war journal, and because the captive hadn’t been another facelessYeerk but the human’s own mother

It all clicked into place, a hypothesis far more elegant than any of theothers—a single, deft principle that explained every one of the odditiesthat had troubled them both so far, dispensing with the need for impossibleleaps in technology and implausibly incompetent operatives—

((Well, not the oddities aboard ship, but there was no fundamental reason toexpect those to be related.))

(Esplin ignored the rising echoes of Alloran’s seething self-hatred as thewarrior realized he had once again guided his master to the solution.)

It had Elfangor’s scent all over it—a final, desperate ploy, recruiting ahandful of primitives and arming them with the most devastatingly powerfultechnology in the known universe—

(And that was why he had allowed himself to be dispatched so easily, ratherthan morphing and leading them on a merry chase. Esplin and Alloran had beensomewhat disappointed.)

A quick explanation (inadequate)—a quick activation (untested!Irresponsible!)—a noble sacrifice (all poor Elfangor ever wanted)—and behold,a brand-new piece made its entry into the game. Morph-capable humans!Children, some of them! How many would the Beast have had time to recruit?Seven? Fourteen?

For the third time in as many minutes, Esplin’s thoughts ground to a halt, hismind stunned by the sudden recognition of a new expanse of possibility.

Had Elfangor left the Iscafil device in their hands?

(Beneath the surface, Alloran howled with despair at the folly, the absolutefolly, for they both knew that that was exactly what the Beast would havedone.)

And now Esplin felt that odd mixture of fear and happiness again, its sourcesreversed, its flavor subtly but deliciously different. Here was a challengeworthy of his full attention, with the potential to strike years off thetime that his true plan required. They were down there, somewhere—frightenedhumans with the key in their hands, a key which they would surely destroyrather than allow him to have, a key which not even his fellow Yeerks could bepermitted to discover.

Visser Three opened a channel to the central command hub. A bladed Hork-Bajiranswered immediately, its salute crisp and respectful, its eyes dull anduncomprehending.

Message, the Visser signed, and the Hork-Bajir signaled confirmation.

The Andalite bandits are cooperating with the humans. Investigate all knownassociates of Hedrick Chapman, Paula Chapman, Melissa Chapman, Walter Withers,Michelle Withers, and Cassie Withers, and place a full surveillance net onWalter and Michelle Withers. Do not engage; observe and report only.

The Hork-Bajir signaled confirmation again, and Esplin closed the channel,turning to the small compartment that stood beside his interface.

A little snack, before the real work began…


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