There were only only three of them waiting for me when I landed in Elfangor’s little nest. A gorilla, a wolf, and an Andalite.
The wolf did not look happy with the other two. Not one fucking bit. It took a few minutes longer - as an owl, I could see them from a long way out - before I was in thought-speak range.
<...finds out what the hell you three have been up to, he’s going to be pissed!> Cassie yelled.
As a general rule, Cassie is very chill. She has her bad days, and she has strong convictions when it comes to conservation efforts and environmental causes, but it takes a lot for Cassie to cross the line from annoyance to full-on fury. And by the looks of those bared fangs, she was past that point.
<What’s going on here?> I asked as I landed.
The gorilla looked up at me, its face able to make all the same expressions Marco usually made. He was making a very acquiescent gesture with his hands, like he would do as a human in an argument. It’s a very weird thing to see a six-hundred-pound gorilla plead, let alone plead with an owl. <Jake, could you tell Cassie to back off, please?> Marco asked.
<No,> I said instantly. <One, I don’t tell Cassie what to do, period. And two, for all I know, she has a right to be pissed. I want an explanation. Anyone want to tell me where Tobias and Rachel are?>
<Elfangor and Marco sent Tobias on a secret mission.>
I was not prepared for that statement.
Elfangor did that thing where he seemed to smile with his eyes. <All is fine, Jake. You must calm your mind. Focus.>
<I don’t think I can Zen my way out of this, Elfangor. I’m hoping the flight to the airport will help me calm down.>
<We cannot fly to the Yeerk pool, Jake,> Elfangor said simply.
Oh, fuck. Christ on a stick, how could I be so stupid? My dad’s suit was still in the SUV, Elfangor had spent all this time working on explosives, none of which could be carried by owls <Shit!> I cursed.
<It’s cool, Jake,> Marco said. <Tobias has us covered.>
<Tobias?> I asked. <He doesn’t have a car. Does he even have a license?>
<Jake, trust, okay? We’re fixing a problem; don’t worry about it.>
Okay, I recognized that tone. That was Marco’s “I fucked up, but you’re not gonna be mad” tone. I turned my owl eyes to the wolf. <Cassie?>
<Marco, I swear to God, just tell him.>
I shook my head and demorphed. The process of going back to human wasn’t any more pleasant than it had been going to owl, but I had no real reason to stay in morph, and if I was going to be stressed out, I wanted to have my hands. I wanted to be able to scream and sigh, and any number of things I couldn’t do with limited telepathy, wings, and talons. It was a little brisk, though not terribly so. It was darker in the woods without the owl vision, and I felt goosebumps. But I had hands, and my fingers found the bridge of my nose.
“Why do I get the impression that whatever Tobias is doing, I’m going to be very unhappy?”
The gorilla gave me another of Marco’s classic looks. I swear he was messing with me. <Probably because you’re going to be incredibly pissed off when you find out what Tobias is up to. I know it’s going to be a shit fit when it happens. I was trying to get Cassie on board with not telling you, but you’re right. That’s stupid and selfish. And maybe it’s better that you’re mad now so hopefully you’re not so pissed when we meet Tobias.>
“Meet Tobias?” I asked.
<That’s the first thing I’m hearing about meeting Tobias,> Cassie said.
I sat on a log and put my head in my hands. “Can we take a minute here and just tell me what the hell is going on? Would anyone like to demorph? I feel like a mental patient talking to a wolf, an ape, and an alien.”
A few minutes later, not only were Marco and Cassie back to human, but they were dressed, too. There was a large duffle bag by the tent we’d set up, and someone had brought blankets out here. Marco tossed me a black hoodie and a pair of jeans I’d left at his place at some point.
“So,” I said. “Elfangor, would you like to tell me where Tobias is?”
<Tobias is acquiring a mode of transportation.>
“What?” I asked.
“They sent Tobias out to steal a car,” Cassie translated.
“You did what?! ” I thundered.
Elfangor didn’t seem to understand the problem. <Tobias informed me that, as a subadult, you are not authorized to use your vehicle at night. That because you have school tomorrow, your parents believe you to be at home sleeping.>
I nodded, my blood surging through my veins. I kept clenching and unclenching my fist. “Yes, Elfangor. I’m not supposed to drive on school nights.”
“Dude,” Marco interjected. “I know your parents. Is there any chance in hell you could leave with the van tonight and not have a problem?”
“No,” I said, somewhat grudgingly. They had a point. If I tried to drive on a school night, they’d need a reason. And if I told them it was an emergency, my dad would want to drive himself. If I took the car on my own… I have no idea, honestly. I was never very rebellious. I’m not sure how either of my parents would take me openly defying a hard rule. It was still technically my mom’s vehicle, registered in her name. There was no guarantee that they wouldn’t call the cops.
“That doesn’t make it right,” Cassie said. “And why send Tobias? Why not wait till we’re all here to work this out?” She was still very upset, but she didn’t seem as upset.
<Tobias volunteered,> Elfangor said. He was eerily calm, considering. Maybe it was because he was military. Maybe it was because he was an alien. Or maybe he just didn’t really care about a problem he found inconsequential, but his dismissive, matter-of-the fact attitude was unnerving.
“Tobias?” I said. “Tobias volunteered… to steal a car?”
Marco made a face. To most people, it was just an uncomfortable expression. And truth be told, if I had to explain exactly what kind of face it was, I’m not sure I could. The human face is capable of so many different facial contortions, and I think there just aren’t enough words for all of them. If I said it was the kind of face someone would make if they suddenly really had to go to the bathroom, I think most of you would have a guess what I meant. This wasn’t quite that pronounced, but still that kind of gastric distress face. I knew Marco way too well. That was the face he made when he had something to say he didn’t want to actually say.
“Marco,” I said, flat and evenly. It was two syllables, but I said it like I was telling a dog to sit. Authoritative.
“He’s getting a car from his uncle,” Marco blurted.
“He’s stealing his uncle’s car?” Cassie asked.
“Yeah… kinda… ” Marco inflected upward and trailed off.
I just stared daggers at him.
“Okay, so his uncle may have… y’know… stolen it first.”
“Come again?” I said.
“Tobias’s uncle runs a chop shop,” Marco said flatly.
Cassie looked at me, then back to Marco. I was speechless.
“A chop shop?” she asked. “You mean one of those shady mechanic shops that deal in stolen cars, right?”
“Wha-” I stammered. “H- Did you know?”
Marco shook his head. “No, I found out this afternoon, after you dropped us off at Cassie’s.”
I steepled my fingers over my nose. “Cassie, you were right, I am pissed. I’m not sure who I’m mad at right now, and I think I may go over and beat the shit out of Tobias’s uncle if we get out of this alive.” I took a deep breath. “But we have bigger problems tonight. Does anyone have any idea where Rachel is?”
“You sent Tobias to help her at Chapman’s right?” Cassie asked.
“Maybe Rachel’s with Tobias?” Cassie suggested.
I sighed. “Yeah, that sounds like Rachel. God, we haven’t even left yet and this night is off the rails.”
<Plans change. Not all challenges can be anticipated. As Marco told me, sometimes you humans must fly by the seat of your pants. Though, admittedly, Marco did not elaborate on the aerodynamic specifications of the pants.>
I stared at Elfangor hard. Cassie and Marco tried - and failed - to stifle laughter. I didn’t laugh. Not that it wasn’t funny. But I looked at Elfangor like something was off. Like somehow Elfangor knew what he said was funny. For the first time since we’d found him, I wondered if Elfangor was playing us.
Elfangor nodded to me, giving me an almost knowing look as he nodded slightly. <Come. We have to get moving.>
The Amur tiger - also called an Ural tiger or a Siberian tiger - is the largest living cat in the world. According to Wikipedia, Siberian tigers in the wild today aren’t that much bigger than the Bengal tigers in India, but the one I had acquired the other night was the fifth-largest tiger in the United States. At least, that’s what it had said on the placard at the zoo.
Nearly all of a tiger’s mass is muscle. Well, fine, that’s hyperbolic. I’m not an animal expert like Cassie. But when I morphed to tiger, I immediately felt two things. The first was an immense flood of power. The muscle mass was off the charts, and unless anyone out there hails from the planet Krypton or had a run-in with an irradiated arachnid, it’s not possible to put that into relatable terms. The second thing that hit me was a level of resolve that just… I got no words, man. It bordered on apathy, really. The tiger did not care about shit. The fun thing about being the biggest, strongest, most dangerous thing on the planet is that the tiger absolutely, unequivocally knows that it is the biggest, strongest, most dangerous thing on the planet.
Once I got the hang of it, the tiger was incredibly chill. The problem, of course, was that it took a few minutes to get control of the morph.
The tiger brain didn’t know what to make of an Andalite, and while tigers aren’t really capable of feeling fear, there’s something of a really big sense of personal space for tigers that humans in particular seem to set off. Tigers know humans in some pretty interesting terms.
To the tiger, Cassie and Marco were predators. I'd have assumed that the tiger would see humans as prey, or not being worth the effort. But that wasn't it. Humans were hunters too. Humans were competition.
Like I said before, primitive humans killed tigers. There were populations in parts of Africa where people still hunted lions with nothing more than spears and a determination I’d hitherto been unable to fathom. The saber-tooth cats were apparently unable to compete with humans. That’s not to say humans weren’t killed by saber-tooths - they were - but the tiger knew humans as something that were most assuredly not welcome. The tigers at the zoo hadn’t been afraid of me, not in the least. And they weren't hungry. They didn't want to eat me, per se. They wanted me to fuck off and die, and they would have no problem helping me with the latter.
But even still, I wasn't really threatening my friends as the tiger growled.Cassie made a placating gesture with her hands, like how she would calm a horse or dog, and Marco began morphing back to gorilla. But while it's easy to assume it's a threatening display, it's really not. I didn't want to hurt them and the tiger didn't want to hurt them. But the tiger most assuredly wanted to be left the holy hell alone. The tiger wanted them to know that if pushed, the tiger was going to win. Even when Marco glared at me with his dark gorilla eyes, and teeth that rivaled my own, the tiger just had this cocky sneer.
Try it, primate.
It was like the whole idea that the tiger might have to fight was a massive chore. Like the way I might roll my eyes when I have to do the dishes or take out the trash, the tiger just didn't want to be bothered.
But, eventually, some growling later, I had a full hold over the tiger instincts, and we got to work. Elfangor fitted himself with the backpack-saddle he'd used to salvage items from his ship that first night. Marco put one of his massive gorilla arms through the straps of the duffel bag as Cassie once again morphed to wolf.
We were walking through the woods, following the creek south. All told, it was maybe half a mile from Elfangor’s little scoop of woods to Highway 1. Cassie and I led the way. Gorillas don’t have strong night vision, and while I knew Andalites had better-than-human vision in daylight, apparently it’s never as dark on their planet as night is on Earth. That happens when your planet has four moons.
<So how does Earth compare to your planet?> Marco asked.
<Your planet differs from Andal in many, many ways. Nowhere in the known galaxy is there another with such biodiversity.>
<How do you mean?> Cassie asked. <Is life rare on other planets?>
<Life is a broad spectrum. Single-cell organisms and primitive forms are fairly common. Many moons and planets are inhospitable to anything beyond very specific lifeforms. Higher orders of life are less common, and lifeforms capable of interstellar travel are comparatively very rare.>
<How rare?> Marco asked.
<In all your many species, over the eons of evolution, how many have developed the technology to leave the planet?>
<But more than that,> Elfangor continued, <is that there are no areas of your planet that life does not exist. For most planets, only particular regions have the necessary resources to support biological processes. On Andal, only a small section of the planet’s surface is habitable. Outside a specific region of crater lakes, grasslands, and subsurface geothermal activity, the planet is not readily hospitable for Andalites.>
Our lesson on all things Andal - which honestly, I think everyone found to be very interesting - came to an end when we stepped out of the trees to the road. First it was the dirt path access road, closed off by a swinging metal gate. Then we were at Highway 1.
A car was waiting for us.
It was a late 90s Honda Accord, some light metallic color. Tobias and Rachel both stepped out of the car. Thank God for that.
Rachel looked at all of us in our various morphs. She wasn't pleased. “So, everyone gets morph practice but me, huh?” she asked, standing with one fist on her hip.
<You wanna blow off grizzly practice for some GTA, don't whine about it after the fact,> I said.
She rolled her eyes and gave me the finger. But her smile told me she wasn't mad or upset. She was actually having fun. I would've been mad at her for not taking things seriously, but how she coped with danger was her business. I was doing all I could to not be scared. If focusing on the rush was easier for her, I wasn't going to throw stones. I think I may have been jealous, really.
Tobias popped the trunk and rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. Tobias never once seemed bothered by the weight of shit. We could all die tonight, and yet Tobias seemed way more concerned that I might be upset than anything else.
<Tobias,> I said flatly. <Good job.>
He looked at me embarrassed but nodded.
<Jake, you're okay with this?> Cassie asked.
<Not in the slightest, no. But what can we do about it now?>
We demorphed back to human and I was just about to put on the jeans and hoodie again when I noticed the other bag. My bag with my dad’s suit - the one I had forgotten in my backseat - was sitting on top of a black leather briefcase.
<You guys went back to my SUV?> I asked.
Rachel nodded. As I took a few minutes to put on the button-down shirt and slacks, Rachel recounted her evening from the time I left her.
Getting the card had been easy enough. Chapman had left it in his wallet in his bedroom nightstand. Rachel ended up demorphing, opening a window, tossing the card into the bushes, then morphed raven and made off with it.
It was then that she realized Tobias wasn't headed back to Moore Creek. And when Tobias told her what he was doing, well, Rachel opted not to go into specifics.
I wasn't great with Windsor knots, but I pulled it off. I grabbed the overcoat and got in the backseat. For whatever reason, Rachel was driving, and Tobias rode shotgun. I was behind Rachel, Cassie squeezed in the middle, and Marco was behind Tobias.
And with a look of great annoyance, Elfangor once again morphed to osprey. He hopped indignantly into a familiar towel-lined cardboard box. “Sorry about the cramped space, guys,” Tobias said. “This was the only car that hadn't been gutted, yet.”
“So your uncle is a car thief?” I asked.
“Not as such. He doesn't steal them himself… anymore. He just owns the shop, gets a cut off the top.”
I had no clue what to say to that. This was apparently Tobias’s reality. It was his normal, and it wasn’t something he had chosen for himself. I wanted to make an anonymous call to the police, have his uncle arrested, but I wasn't sure that the aftermath - which would almost certainly put him in the foster care system - would necessarily be an improvement for Tobias.
So instead I turned my attention to Elfangor. “So, Chapman is coming back to the pool just hours after leaving. Do we have an excuse for me showing up?”
<Yes, I’ve spent quite some time patching into Yeerk communications. The human known as Chapman is infested by Iniss 226, a Yeerk of some repute and rank.>
“Yeah, but what do I say to the Controller at the security desk?”
<Iniss 226 has Level Three security clearance. If you said the reason for the return was classified, I am confident you would not be questioned.>
“I don't know, man,” Marco said. “Sounds kinda flimsy.”
I had to agree. “We're betting an awful lot on this, Elfangor. That's our best in?”
<Iniss 226 reports directly to Visser Three, the Andalite-Controller you witnessed before. Indicate that you need to make an Alpha-Nine request for Gleet bio-filter schematics. You are not authorized to disclose further details.>
“Okay, that works. You guys good on your end?”
When we had decided we needed the owl morphs for night flying - overlooking my obvious brain fart that we'd need a vehicle for this mission - the others had acquired the smallest animal in Cassie's barn, the injured squirrel.
All of them gave me a nod, even Elfangor. All of them, except Rachel.
“You didn't try out the squirrel?” Cassie asked.
“Hey, I have sisters and I spent all day at the Chapmans’,” Rachel defended.
“Except for the time you spent stealing this car,” I added.
“Hey, that was mostly me,” Tobias said.
“Which means Rachel could have gone for morphing practice instead of playing accomplice, doesn't it?” Marco pointed out.
“Oh, for the love of God, it takes three minutes to figure out a morph,” I said. “Rachel's going to have to wing it.”
The miles went on in reasonable quiet. No one seemed to have anything more to say, and when we were about a mile from the airport, we stopped in an empty parking lot. All the businesses were closed, and none of the lights were on in the lot. We had to assume there would be cameras in the area around the airport buildings, and not just because of the Yeerks. The Yeerks seeing us morph would be catastrophic, but getting caught on an ATM camera and by extension put on CNN, that was a close silver medal of bullshit none of us needed.
All of us got out and stretched our legs. It had been awhile since I'd had to ride in the backseat, and no offense to Honda, but when you're used to an SUV, sedans in general feel very, very cramped.
The first thing we did was to move the explosives from Elfangor's pack to the briefcase. And we had to do it quickly, because no one wanted to get spotted in the open, hidden only by cover of darkness, with the Yeerks’ only known enemy.
I don't know briefcases. Like if they come in specific models or whatever. But my first mental image when I hear that is a hard, leather-bound box with latches. The kind you’d see in a ransom movie full of non-sequential bills. This was not that kind of briefcase. It was more like a satchel or something. It was still leather, obviously, but it was soft, with a flap and buckles. It was like a leather backpack meant to be worn on one shoulder.
Elfangor set the explosives in the zipper pocket of the outer flap. There were about a dozen or so, it seemed. Each one was a black metallic tube a little fatter and a little shorter than a Sharpie marker. A soft violet light flowed from the ends. My first impression was that they looked like a rejected concept for a Chitauri weapon pulled from an Avengers fan-art site.
I took the briefcase and set it on the asphalt. And if you’re thinking a briefcase sounds a little excessive for a handful of marker-sized tubes, well, that wasn’t the only thing we needed the briefcase for.
Rachel tossed me the keys and she and the others began stripping off clothes, tossing them in the duffel bag in the trunk. The second Elfangor was done moving the explosives, he was morphing squirrel, too.
The change to become Chapman was subtle. Just a shift in height and weight, a bizarre sensation in my face and joints. I felt a little stiffer, a little less in shape, but it wasn't until I saw myself in the reflection in the car window that it clicked that I was really Chapman. I put on the pair of cheap drugstore reading glasses Rachel or Tobias had left in my coat pocket. I felt the security card in the same pocket. The glasses weren’t the right prescription, but I could see well enough to drive and I only needed to put up with them for so long and we only needed them as a prop more than anything.
The others were all finishing their morph to squirrel. Five adorable little squirrels, all identical little balls of tawny grey and white. When Cassie had said squirrel, I had assumed she meant a grey squirrel, or maybe a pine squirrel. No, these were flying squirrels. According to Cassie, one of her dad's friends, a mammologist from North Carolina, had actually just wrapped up research confirming that the flying squirrels in California and Oregon were actually a new species: Humboldt’s flying squirrel.
I grabbed the briefcase off the ground and held it open.
<Jake, dude, you have pockets, right?> Marco asked.
I stared at the squirrels, not sure which one was Marco. “In the damn bag.”
<Yeah, fine, in the bag with the alien bombs,> he complained.
“You’re not the one that has to carry the rodent-infested bomb pack through alien security, so chill your whiskers.”
One by one, each squirrel hopped into the briefcase. They were each smaller than a hotdog bun, and they looked so strange loaded into the leather bag. I set the bag carefully in the front seat, very conscious that my friends were very delicate in their current state.
Just a few minutes later, we would be in the facility.
And I learned very quickly that sometimes, most of the time, plans go to shit faster than you can imagine.