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The Aberration

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It’s late, probably around ten or eleven, and it’s a Friday night一 so it’s not unusual for a couple of kids to be out and about so late. That’s why Jo and Faline are out so late, grinning like a pair of idiots, as they head to the abandoned construction site just down the street from the mall, which is where Faline’s parents think they’re currently headed. Jo’s father doesn’t know where she is, and Jo isn’t too concerned about that一 after all, it doesn’t seem like it’s in her father’s capacity to care whether or not Jo is at home or away.

“Let me give you a boost,” Jo says as they approach the site’s fence, “that way I can hand the bag over to you and then I can climb over.”

“Sounds good.” Faline nods, grabbing the chain links in her hands as Jo kneels down and cups her hands together. Faline tentatively steps into Jo’s hand, readying herself, and gives Jo a slight nod to show she’s ready. “Alright. On the count of three?”

“On the count of three.” Jo confirms, testing Faline’s weight in her hands before she readies herself as well. “Okay… one… two… three!” Jo puts all her strength into lifting Faline upward as the other girl jumps. The force with which Jo propels Faline upwards nearly flings the girl over the fence, which causes Jo to laugh as a disgruntled Faline drops over the other side of the fence. Jo lightly tosses the bag over to Faline, grunting slightly with the effort. Faline catches the bag easily as Jo clambours up the chain link fence, the pronged top of the fence digging painfully into Jo’s exposed palms, and drops over the other side. Unlike Faline, Jo lands hard on her knees,

“Fuck!” Jo hisses at the impact, wincing as she stands.

“I think you missed the dirt, new kid.” Faline  half-smirks, pointing below Jo’s knees. Jo has landed on a small patch of concrete. Jo shoots Faline a glare, though she doesn’t say anything as she climbs to her feet. “Follow me, I know the perfect spot to let these off.”

“Well,” Jo grunts as she dusts her knees off, “lead the way, then.”

Faline gives the bag back to Jo, who slings it over her broad shoulders, and the duo takes off through the piles of rusted beams and crumbling concrete pipes, over the various dirt mounds and around the pits filled with stagnant water- Jo doesn’t want to get ringworm or anything stupid like that. They kneel in the center of the site, grinning like children on Christmas morning, as Jo sets her bag on the ground and unzips it. Inside Jo’s bag is various firecrackers which the girls intend to light off. No one’s bound to notice, the construction site is pretty secluded, so it’s the perfect spot. Jo takes one of the firecrackers from the bag and looks at it- the firecracker itself is about the size of a roll of quarters-, almost weighing it in her palm as she grins at her new friend.

“Got a light?” Jo asks in a mocking, husky tone which causes Faline to laugh. The shorter girl grabs an old flip lighter from her back pocket and offers it to Jo.

“Light it up!” Faline grins as Jo takes the lighter and flips it open. Jo grins, holding the lighter to the wick of the firecracker. The flame catches, and Jo draws her arm backward and throws the firecracker as hard as she can. It goes off in midair, the sound following it a powerful snap that causes the duo to laugh一 but their joy is cut short when they hear voices.

“What was that?” A slightly worried voice asks. Jo thinks she recognizes it momentarily, but she’s not necessarily sure. There’s a sharp, almost challenging laugh that Jo definitely recognizes from her third period gym class.

“What, is the brave and mighty Marco scared?” Rachel Berenson’s voice is almost mocking, but Jo recognizes it instantly… which is a little embarrassing to admit. Jo feels Faline’s hand against her upper arm一 judging by Faline’s grip, she’s a little worried一 as five shadowed figures begin to appear over a mound of dirt. Despite her status as the New Kid, Jo recognizes them. Marco’s in Jo’s math class, and he spends the entire period cracking jokes beneath his breath; Tobias is a kid Jo actually met at the start of the school day, he’d been getting his ass kicked before Jo stepped in; Jake’s in Jo’s English class, he gave a presentation on some book today; Cassie’s in Jo’s history class; and, like Jo remembers, she has Rachel in gym一 Jo remembers Rachel the best, because they’d been playing dodgeball and Rachel had managed to nail Jo in the face.

“Hey.” Jo says coolly as the other approach. She takes her eyes away from them and bends so she can reach into her bag for another firecracker.

“What are you two doing here?” Jake asks once they’re in speaking range. His arms are folded over his chest due to the slight chill in the night air. Jo holds up another firecracker and smiles at her classmate, but Faline is the one who actually answers Jake.

“We’re causing trouble.” The girl laughs. “What else?” Jo saunters over to Rachel, a small grin on her lips, as she offers the blonde the lighter and the firecracker. Rachel’s eyes dart toward Jo’s offering. Her lips turn into a thin, dry smirk.

“Sorry,” She half-sneers一 though she’s obviously a little amused一, folding her arms over her chest to nearly mirror her cousin’s stance, “but if I wanted to lose my hands I’d ask Marco to do my nails.”

Jo quirks an eyebrow, “Fine. Suit yourself, I guess it’ll spare me getting hit in the face again.” Jo’s tone is dry as she turns, flicking the lighter open. Rachel’s eyes widen in surprise一 or is it anger?一 before her face scrunches up and her eyes narrow.

“Okay,” Rachel says, her voice low, “I apologized for that. Besides, you were standing in the way!” Jo only smiles provocatively in response, and Rachel’s features take on a brooding pout as Jo lights the firecracker’s wick again. Jo winds her arm back and tosses the firecracker, watching in satisfaction as she waits for it to explode一 but as a sudden gust of wind tears through the abandoned site, nothing happens. There’s no explosion, there’s nothing. Jo frowns, a little disappointed, but she doesn’t realize what’s happening一 she doesn’t realize they’re not alone anymore, and not because she and Faline have been joined by their peers. Tobias sees it first, mostly because he’s the one looking up at the stars一 he’s been silent, off in his own world一 but soon he freezes in a rigid, still way; like he can’t believe what he’s looking at. Slowly, Tobias raises his hand to point straight into the air.

“Look,” Tobias whispers, his voice airy from awe.

“Look?” Jake asks, confused, and he looks behind him instead of up. “At what?”

“Just look.” One by one, six heads turn toward the stars. A bright, brilliant blue light shoots through the sky一 so impossibly blue it’s almost white. It’s much too fast to be an airplane or a satellite, but soon it begins to slow.

“What is it?” Cassie whispers, moving closer to Jake.

“I don’t know.” Tobias answers, still staring at the stars一 but the look that passes between Jake and Tobias states otherwise, and it’s too insane to say out loud. But they all know what it is, despite how crazy it seems一 and little do they know it’s going to get crazier.

“It’s a flying saucer.” Cassie blurts, gripping Jake’s arm tightly. Jo can see the indents in Jake’s jacket from Cassie’s fingers, and briefly Jo wonders if Cassie is scared一 Jo wouldn’t blame Cassie if she is, Jo’s scared too. Faline looks at Cassie too, but it’s more or less an are you serious? look. Marco stares at Cassie like she’s gone mad, his lips parted in a surprised一 or perhaps incredulous一 circle.

“A flying saucer?” Marco laughs dryly, his eyes narrowing, but then he actually looks up. Jo feels the lighter drop from her hand as she takes a step closer to Rachel, her heart pounding against her chest and her temples hammering in her ears as adrenaline fills her body.

“It’s coming this way.” Rachel says.

“We have to get out of here.” Jo hisses, and she turns to leave but Rachel grabs her arm. Jo whirls around as her eyes lock onto the blonde, but Rachel only shakes her head. Jo doesn’t know how, but somehow the simple gesture keeps her from bolting. Perhaps, looking back on it, Jo should’ve just ran一 things were so simple back then. Still, Rachel is right; the object, whatever it is, it’s heading for the group. It’s still slowing down, but it’s almost upon them. Rachel is still holding Jo’s arm, so Jo instantly sidles into her一 like Rachel’s going to protect her from aliens. Faline’s by Jo and Rachel now, too, and Jo finds herself gripping Faline’s hand when the object is what seems to be a few yards away.

“It’s… not exactly a saucer, is it?” Jake asks, as if trying to lighten the situation. But Jo can tell he’s scared too; they all are, and they all should be. The object一 the ship, rather一 was not a saucer, though, so Jake is right. It’s about the same length as a school bus, give or take a few feet, and it’s more or less shaped like a pod or an egg. Two stubby, wing-like appendages shoot out of either side of the ship; and on the end of those were two circular tubes glowing with the same blue-white light. All of those things give the ship an almost cutesy look, until you get to the tail . It curves back and around, ending in a deadly needle-like point. Jo’s grip on Faline’s hand tightens, her eyes widening as she takes in the full effect of the ship’s presence. She’s afraid, very afraid.

“The tail looks like a weapon.” Faline says, her voice barely above a whisper. There’s a slight murmur of agreement.

“I don’t think it sees us.” Marco says after a moment. He looks tense, too, like he wants to run away.

“Good.” Jo snaps. “Then let’s get out of here before it does .”

“I was thinking we should grab a camera.” Marco tries to joke, but his voice is a little shaky. “You know? Like, our worst quality cameras. You know how much money we’d get for a UFO photo?”

“Fuck money!” Jo releases Faline’s hand and stalks toward Marco incredulously. “Let’s fucking go! Let’s haul ass.” She points toward the fence, trying to inspire the others to leave with her.

“What if it zaps us?” Jake asks worriedly. “Like… if we run. What if it shoots us with phasers or something?” It almost seems like Jake’s trying to joke, but there’s some actual fear to his voice一 his voice is shaking too, just like Marco’s.

“Phasers are only in Star Trek .” Marco says, rolling his eyes. Jo isn’t sure where they can find humor from this, she’s nearly having a panic attack. A hand lands on Jo’s shoulder, startling her, but she relaxes somewhat when she sees it’s just Rachel; her brow furrowed in slight concern. It’s almost as if Rachel’s trying to lend Jo her strength, like she’s trying to act like she’s not bothered; but deep down, even Jo knows Rachel is at least a little anxious一 especially when the ship stops to hover over their heads. Jo can feel the energy from the ship against her skin, causing every hair on her body to stand on end. She’s only partly thankful her hair is back, but when she looks at Rachel and Faline the scene is almost comical. Their long hair is standing on end, straight into the sky, and part of Jo wants to laugh. Tobias is the only one of them grinning, his eyes glinting with some unknown emotion as he stares up at the ship.

“I think it’s going to land!” He says, the sound of his voice causing Jo to flinch. She doesn’t understand how he can be so excited, how he’s not scared, but he’s right一 the ship is landing. Every muscle, every shred of common sense, in Jo’s body screams at her to run. Rachel’s grip on Jo’s shoulder tightens once again as Jo tenses, and again the blonde holds Jo in place. With the ship in view, it’s now obvious that it’s seen better days. Its surface is charred toward the front, and parts of it are even melted in some spots. It settles itself between a few discarded supplies, and when the lights whir off everyone’s hair falls back into place.

“It’s not very big, is it?” Rachel asks, still holding tightly to Jo, and Jake is the only one who can find an answer.

“It’s, like, three or four times the size of our minivan at home.” He whispers, his hand finding Cassie’s. He holds it like a lifeline, like how Rachel’s holding Jo.

“We need to tell someone.” Marco says, but he doesn’t move. He can’t, none of them can. “This is huge. Spaceships don’t just land on Earth every day, you know? We gotta call the cops, or the army. We’d be famous, maybe we’ll end up on TV or something.”

“Yeah,” Jake agrees, “we should call someone.” Again, no one moves; no one can, or is going to, walk away.

“We should try to talk to it.” Rachel suggests, finally releasing Jo’s shoulder. She places her hands on her hips, staring at the spaceship with narrowed eyes like she’s trying to piece everything together… like this is all a puzzle, all a game, for her to solve.

“What, you think we should talk to it?” Jo asks, her voice low as she turns to the blonde, her arms folded uncomfortably against her chest.

“Yes.” Rachel’s eyes meet Jo’s. “If that’s possible.” Jo shakes her head, like she can’t believe what she’s hearing, though she still stays close to Rachel. Tobias nods in agreement with Rachel, however, and he takes a tentative step toward the ship and holds up his hands一 almost as if to show he’s unarmed, which Jo isn’t sure is a good idea. They don’t even know if the ship’s passenger, or passengers, are hostile.

“It’s safe!” Tobias calls out, his voice carrying over the site. “You can come out!”

“Do you think they speak English?” Jake wonders aloud, his eyes darting between Tobias and the ship.

“Everyone speaks English in Sci-Fi movies.” Cassie offers a nervous laugh, but no one else finds it funny; they’re all too frightened. For a moment, everyone stands in silence as they stare at the ship. But again the silence is broken by Tobias.

“Please come out.” He says, almost begging. “We won’t hurt you.”

<I know.> The voice, if it’s even such, is melodic and almost calming. It probably would’ve been even more calming had everyone not heard it in their minds. There has been no sound since Tobias spoke, and there’s no one even present to speak aloud aside from the group of kids.

“Did you hear that?” Tobias grins as he turns to face the group.

“This is too freaky. Can’t we just leave?” Jo pleads. She takes hold of Rachel’s sleeve, worrying the fabric with her fingers as she steps closer to the blonde. But no one answers Jo, instead Tobias turns back to the ship.

“Can you come out?” Tobias calls, and Rachel is the only thing preventing Jo from leaping at the boy and strangling him.

<Yes.> The voice says, once again inside their heads. <Please, do not be frightened.>

“It’s too late for that.” Jo says, shooting a cautious glance to Faline一 who’s scooped up the backpack, as if she’s contemplating running too, but then the voice speaks once more.

<Yes, even you. Please, do not hide一 do not be afraid. You can come out..> There’s a slight rustling noise, which causes everyone’s head to snap toward the sound. Out steps a face Jo’s never seen before一 though the person appears to be the same age as Jo and her peers.

“Oh great, another alien.” Marco tries to tease as he rubs his palms together nervously. “Let the games begin then, right?”

“Sorry for spying,” The person says, as if ignoring Marco’s remark, as their eyes dart between people, “I didn’t mean to intrude… I’m Piotr.” But they’re cut off as the ship begins to open.

<You may come out as well,> The alien says tiredly after a moment, as if he’s thinking how many more kids are out here? , and after a moment a smaller girl slowly steps out from another rock pile. Her eye has been blackened, like she’s been punched, and her lip is bleeding. Her eyes are red and puffy, like she’s been crying, and Jo wonders if she came here to be alone.

As the two newcomers join the group- the bleeding one still hasn’t spoke up- a thin arc of light appears on the smoother side of the pod. Watching the pod open is like watching the phases of the moon; first it is a crescent, then a full moon. A shadowed figure stands in the opening, and it is not at all human. The bottom half of the creature looks almost like a horse, or maybe a deer, and the upper half almost resembles a human. The torso and arms are in just about the right place, but the skin is blue and so is the fur that covers its lower half. As the alien ducks through the doorway, it’s increasingly clear that that’s where the human characteristics end. Its nose is three vertical slits, and its first set of eyes are humanoid; albeit a little too almond shaped. Its ears are pointed, like an elf’s from some fantasy movie, and on top of its head sits two stalk eyes like a snail’s; but it has no mouth, and Jo figures that’s why they can’t hear the alien’s voice aloud. But then, like the alien’s ship, there’s the tail. It’s similar in shape to a lion or tiger’s tail, but it curves up and back like a scorpion’s and, like a scorpion, at the end of the tail is a wicked scythe-like blade.

“Hello.” Tobias says, a little too eager.

<Hello.> The alien replies to Tobias, its一 his?一 eyes glinting with an emotion that Jo briefly thinks is recognition. The alien takes another step from his ship, but he staggers and sinks to the ground. Tobias rushes forward, as if to help him up, but the alien slips from Tobias’s grip and sinks to the ground once more.

“He’s hurt,” Cassie says as she heads to Tobias’s side, worry creasing on her brow. He crouches beside the alien, her worry escalating as she spies the vicious burn across the alien’s flank一 though he has more wounds than just the one.

<Yes.> The alien says, his voice is a little more tired now; his gaze dropping. <I am dying.>

“Can we do something to help you?” Marco asks, sounding surprisingly concerned. “Like.. can we call an ambulance or something?”

“We can bandage the wound.” Cassie offers. “Jake, give me your jacket. We can make bandages or something.”

<No.> The alien’s tone is a little harder. <I am going to die. The wound is fatal.>

“What?! No!” Jake explains, his eyes widening. “You can’t die! You’re the first alien to come to Earth.” By the way the alien looks at Jake, Jo realizes he’s probably wrong.

“He’s not the first.” Faline says after a moment, her voice low and quiet, as she beats Jo to the punch.

<Correct. I am not the first.> The alien tells them. <There have been many others.>

“Other aliens? Like you?” Tobias asks.

<No… not like me. They are different.> The alien says gravely.

“I don’t understand.” Faline shakes her head, her eyes narrowed in confusion as she folds her arms against her chest. “How are they any different from you?” The alien’s eyes一 all four of them一 slowly swivel toward Faline. The look the alien gives her is very solemn, very sad; and soon they all know why, because he does not come bearing good news.

<Because they have come to destroy you.> The alien tells Faline. Of course they are, of course they’ve come to destroy Earth, and of course it makes sense. Jo doesn’t like it, but the way the alien tells them this一 with such directness, such candor一 leads them all to believe it’s true. It has to be. <They are called Yeerks, and they are different from you and I.>

“So what you’re saying,” Rachel snaps, her icy eyes narrowing as she takes in the alien’s words, “is they’re already here?”

<Yes.> The alien casts his eyes downward, almost in shame. <There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, or more.> Jo sucks in a deep breath, casting her eyes toward Faline again.

“If there’s so many of them,” Marco asks dryly, “why hasn’t anyone noticed them? I mean, they can’t be that hard to spot.”

“Unless they’re not noticeable.” Piotr points out, hands clasped in front of them. The alien nods slowly.

<The Yeerks have no body like yours or like mine. They inhabit the bodies of other species.> The alien tells them.

“So they’re parasites?” Jo asks, frowning, as if it makes more sense that way. But Jo’s only partly right.

<In a way, yes.> The alien closes his eyes, as if he’s concentrating, and an image pops into everyone’s head. What they’re vicariously shown is a slimy gray-green, slug-like creature around the size of a rat. The image makes Jo recoil in disgust, her features crinkling as the image fades from her mind. <Without hosts, the Yeerks are nearly powerless. When inhabiting a host, they are known as controllers. Yeerks enter the brain and are absorbed into it. They take over the host’s thoughts, feelings, movements… they try to force hosts to accept them voluntarily, it is always easier that way. If the host doesn’t accept them… it is easier to resist the Yeerk’s influence for a little while… but not for long.> A sharp pain radiates through the air, and the alien is its source. He’s still sharing his voice and thoughts, and now he is sharing his pains. There is a sadness following the pain, perhaps even a regret, but it’s clear the alien knows he’s dying一 he knows his time is almost up.

“So you’re saying,” Rachel snaps, “that these things, these parasites , take over people? As in human beings?”

Jo frowns, “I don’t understand. Why are you telling us this?”

“Yeah,” Jake agrees, his eyes darting nervously to the alien, “we’re just kids, there’s nothing we can do. This… this is bigger than us, this is something the military or the government needs to know.”

<We hoped to stop them.> The alien sighs, continuing his previous thought. <But… swarms of their bug fighters intercepted us. They’d been waiting for us just out of Z-space. We’d been expecting them, we knew their mothership and fighters would be there… but they hid a very powerful bladeship in the craters of your moon. We fought valiantly, but we lost and they have tracked me here. Soon enough, they will be here to eliminate any traces of me.>

“How can they have the power to do that?” Cassie asks, her worry only growing.

<They have powerful weapons known as Dracon beams,> The alien explains patiently, <that will disintegrate nearly every bit of my ship and perhaps even my body. I attempted to send a message to my home world, as my people fight the Yeerks wherever they go throughout the galaxy. Hopefully they will send hope, but it may take longer than a year or more… and by then it will be too late, the Yeerks will have hold of this planet… and after that, there is no hope for any of you.>

“Gee…” Faline fidgets nervously, “that’s really comforting. What are we supposed to do?”

“Yeah, no one’s gonna believe us.” Marco mutters hopelessly. “Everyone’s gonna think we’re crazy. No one’s gonna listen to a bunch of kids.” Jo knows一 they all know一 Marco, for once, is right. Who’s going to believe a group of highschoolers? Besides, none of them are even supposed to be in the construction sight, they’re most likely just going to get in trouble.

“It doesn’t matter if no one believes us,” Rachel says as she steps toward the Andalite, “because I don’t care if he thinks he’s dying. We’re going to help him, right?” She looks pointedly at the group as she gestures to the wounded alien. “Come on, we can get him to a hospital… or even to Cassie’s parents. They’ll know what to do.”

“Take him to a hospital?” Jo asks Rachel, incredulous. “We can’t trust anybody and we can’t just bring him into the ER or something!” Rachel glares at Jo, but the Andalite speaks up.

<There is no time for your help.> The Andalite says gently, trying to ease Rachel and Jo. <No time… but perhaps…> The alien’s eyes brighten slightly as his stalk eyes swivel toward his ship.

“Perhaps what?” Jake asks, frowning curiously.

<Go into my ship.> The Andalite instructs Jake. <Inside there is a small blue box, very plain. You should not miss it. You must bring it to me, but be quick! There isn’t much time, we will be found soon.> Tobias kneels beside the Andalite as he speaks, placing a hand on the alien’s narrow blue shoulder. The Andalite seems to welcome the touch, perhaps even leaning into it. Jake looks at the ship uneasily before he glances at Cassie, who smiles.

“Go ahead, you’re not scared.” Cassie reassures Jake一 even though he’s clearly frightened. Still, Cassie’s words seems to give Jake a slight boost of confidence. He heads toward the opening of the ship hurriedly, his hands clenched into awkward fists. He’s gone for a few moments, leaving the rest of the group to stew in their anxiety and terror. When Jake returns, he’s carrying a small blue cube as he rushes toward the group once more.

“Here’s the box,” Jake says as he hands it to the Andalite, though he seems a little troubled by something. “Inside… was that your family? In the picture?”

<Yes.> The Andalite says wistfully, a tinge of regret in his voice. Jo watches one of his stalk eyes swivel toward Tobias, but she thinks nothing of it. The Andalite continues on a moment later, <There is one thing I can do, something I can give you to fight the Yeerks.>

“What?” Rachel demands, but the way she says it throws Jo off; she’s not demanding because she’s afraid or angry , she’s demanding because she wants to be involved. Jo’s not sure how Rachel can feel that way, blue eyes burning with some vicious intensity Jo’s never seen in anybody before一 frankly, it’s a little frightening… but also a little infectious, because now Jo feels as though she needs to step up too.

<I know you’re young. I know you’ve no powers to resist the Controllers or the Yeerks’ force… but I may be able to give you some small powers that may help.> The alien tells Rachel, serenely patient with her brash attitude. <I can give you powers no other human has ever had… that is, if you wish for them.>

“Powers? What’s going on?” The short blonde whispers into Faline’s ear, sniffling slightly as she wipes her blood away with her sleeve.

“Alien invasion,” Faline explains with a small nod.

“Oh.” The blonde murmurs with a slight nod as the others exchanged dubious looks一 everyone aside from Tobias, at least, because he hasn’t torn his gaze from the alien once.

<The cube I had you fetch,> The alien glances toward Jake, <is an alien device from my homeworld. It is a piece of technology the Yeerks do not have. It allows us to pass unnoticed through many parts of the universe.>

“I’m confused.” Jo interjects after the Andalite finishes his sentence, “How’s it do that? Does it, like, put you on incognito mode or something?"

The Andalite looks amused, but only for a second, <No. It is the power to morph. To shapeshift, if you will.>

“Morph?” Rachel’s eyeing the alien like a bird of prey, but he’s definitely caught her interest.

“Shapeshifting,” Piotr adds gently, as if to remind Rachel, “he wants to give us the power to shapeshift.”

<Correct. You will be able to change your body一 you’ll be able to become any other species, any other animal.>

“Shapeshifting, huh?” Marco laughs tersely, without humor. “We’ll just become animals?”

<You’ll need to touch your target animal first,> The Andalite says, ignoring Marco, <and acquire its DNA pattern. After you acquire its DNA, you’ll be able to become that creature. It will require concentration and determination, but I believe you’ll all be able to do it… but there are limitations. Dangers, too, and even problems… but there is no time to explain. This you will have to learn on your own. Do you wish to receive this power?>

“He’s kidding, right?” Marco laughs again.

“No,” Tobias says, “he’s not.”

“This is all fucking nuts,” Marco hisses, his demeanor shifting, “really nuts. Alien slugs taking over people’s brains and aliens turning into animals? Come on, give me a break.”

“Yeah… this is a little weird.” Jake murmurs uncomfortably.

“So what?” Rachel asks, glaring at her cousin and Marco. “We’re off the map of weirdness at this point! But unless we’re dreaming, we’re gonna have to deal with this. I say we do it.”

“Rachel’s right.” Jo says begrudgingly, although she doesn’t want all this to be real. “But… I don’t think we have much of a choice anyway, do we?” She glances toward the Andalite, and his gaze says it all; they have no choice, and they can’t go back to being normal after this night.

“Well, he’s right there.” Faline says with a shrug. “I don’t think we should talk about this like he’s not here.”

“He’s dying,” Tobias reminds everyone, as if to say hurry up. Jo can already tell where Tobias stands on this issue.

“I’ll do it.” Cassie stands, folding her arms against her chest. Jake looks at Cassie in surprise, but he doesn’t question it.

“Maybe we should all decide together.” Jake says hesitantly. “I mean… we’re a group in this now.”

“Are we, though?” Jo asks. “We’re not a group. We’re strangers. I’ve never even seen this one before,” Jo jerks a thumb toward Piotr, “and this one hasn’t even told us her name.”

“I’m Bijou,” The blonde mutters, though she gives Jo an odd look like she can’t quite figure out if she wants to run away from Jo or silently think of ways to kill her. Jo doesn’t care either way; but she doesn’t get an answer from the group .

Instead, Rachel speaks up and points toward the sky, “What’s that?” Far above the teenagers and the fallen alien are two shooting stars; pinpricks of light racing toward them. But then again, they all know the stars aren’t stars at all.

<Yeerks.> The Andalite’s calm voice informs them, but even in his tranquil tone the teens can all feel his unrequited hatred. The lights slowed, just as the Andalite’s ship had earlier. <There is no more time! You must decide now !> The tranquility, the patience, is gone and now the danger- the true danger- has arrived.

“We have to do this.” Tobias says, his voice full of determination, as he finally looks at the others. “It’s the only way we can make a difference.”

“This is insane! Insane!” Marco grabs fistfuls of his hair, exhaling forcefully as he does so.

“I wish we had more time,” Rachel shakes her head, “but we don’t have that choice. I’m in.”

“I’ll do it too.” Jo decides.

“I’m with Jo,” Faline nods.

“I don’t know what’s happening, but I guess I’ll do it too?” Bijou offers, and Piotr nods in agreement.

“Jake, what do you think?” Cassie asks, and Jake freezes a bit; like he doesn’t want to be put on the spot. Jake looks up toward the Yeerk ships, a sullen look in his eyes, as they circle closer and closer. Then Jake looks at the Andalite, and toward his new groupmates. They really are a group now, it would seem. Jake looks at Tobias, and almost as if a silent conversation has passed between them Jake makes his decision.

“We have to.” He murmurs.

<Then it is settled. Each of you, touch the cube.> The Andalite instructs, though he sounds sad- and Jo understands why, he’s dooming teenagers to fight in a war that isn’t their own. One by one, the teens start to press their fingers against the cube’s surfaces along with the alien. <Do not be afraid.>

A warm, tingling shock runs up Jo’s arm. Part of her wants to pull away, but she doesn’t. The shock doesn’t hurt一 in fact, it’s almost pleasant… but the feeling doesn’t last long. They’re still in danger.

<You must go, now! But remember this, you can never stay in a morph for longer than two hours! It is the greatest danger of morphing, and you will remain permanently trapped, unable to return to your human form!>

“Two hours.” Jake repeats, his eyes widening as a newfound fear washes through the Andalite; and, in doing so, his fear washes through the group as well. His dread runs through them like a coursing river as he stares up at the sky.

<Visser Three. He comes!> The Andalite cries, spreading his arms out toward the group. <Go, now!>

“Visser?! What’s a Visser?” Jake asks for the group as the others begin to back away.

<Go!> The Andalite says again. <Visser Three is here, and he is the most deadliest of our enemies- of your enemies. Of all the Yeerks, he is the only one to have the power to morph. Run!>

“No, we’re staying! We can help!” Rachel says, planting herself in her spot.

The Andalite seems to smile with his eyes, but he shakes his head nonetheless, <No, you must save yourselves. Save yourselves and your planet, please! The Yeerks are here now, you must go!> Jo cranes her head up toward the sky. Sure enough, the Andalite is correct. The lights are sinking toward them, lowering with impressive speed, but now they’ve been joined by a third ship far larger than the others.

“How are we supposed to fight these… these Controllers?” Rachel demands, even she’s beginning to sound a little frightened now.

Jo takes Rachel’s hand, pulling her slightly, “We’ll find a way,” Jo hisses, “but we have to go. There’s nothing we can do here .”

<Your friend is right,> The Andalite says to Rachel, <you will have to find a way. Now run!>

“He’s right, come on!” Jake says as he turns and begins to run. Cassie follows him, as does Marco. Then Piotr and Bijou follow suit, and after a moment Jo’s able to tug Rachel from her spot. Tobias is the only one who doesn’t run, instead he takes the Andalite’s hand in his own. Gingerly, the Andalite touches Tobias’s temple with his free hand一 a brief touch, but after a moment Tobias jerks away, scrambling backwards as he runs toward the others. The bug fighters lit up, illuminating the fallen Andalite with bright red spotlights as they began to land. Jake trips just as he exits the spotlight zone, but he’s up in seconds as he yanks his leg from the light. They seek refuge behind a crumbling wall as the bug fighters settle on the ground. They’re larger than the Andalite’s ship, shaped like legless cockroaches and on either side of the ships’ front are two very long serrated spears; Jo guesses they’re for ramming into other ships. But even the bug fighters aren’t larger than Visser Three’s ship, which looks as though it’s about to land on a large earth mover… but as it lowers, the earth mover just dissipates with a sizzling noise as it’s burned away.

“Okay,” Marco croaks, “you guys can wake me up now. I’ve had enough of this dream.”

“This isn’t a dream.” Faline whispers, her voice hoarse with fear as she grips Marco’s shoulder to ground herself.

“It’s like a fucking battle axe,” Jo mutters, staring on in both awe and horror. In some ways, Jo is right一 the main part is the handle, and it’s accompanied by two scimitar wings that serve as the axe ‘blades’. Cassie opens her mouth to scream as the ship lands, the involuntary sound of fear just barely making its way past her lips before Jake clamps a hand over her mouth. Horrible, frightening creatures began to exit the ships; their limbs adorned with wicked, gleaming blade-like appendages that would make Edward Scissorhands sweat. They stand upright, almost like people一 but their knees are bent backward and their feet are like talons. Their necks are snake-like and their mouths heavily resemble a falcon’s beak, and on their foreheads three horns jut forward.

<These are the Hork-Bajir Controllers,> The Andalite tells them, his voice making the teenagers jump一 his voice, though it sounds much further away, betrayed his pity一, <and they are good people… despite their fearsome, intimidating looks. They were enslaved by the Yeerks, and each of them now carries a Yeerk within their heads. Pity them, as none of which they are about to do is their fault.>

“Pity,” Rachel almost sneers, though Jo is swift to elbow her in the side and shoot her a soft glare. Jo means to shoot a retort at Rachel, but her attention is drawn from the blonde and toward the ships once more. Massive, centipede-ish creatures began to worm their way from the ships as well. Their bodies are a disgusting yellowish color, and their dozens of legs end in lobster-like claws. They had four eyes at the top of their heads. Their mouths were round and filled with hundreds of tiny, deadly teeth.

<These are the Taxxon Controllers,> The Andalite says, and for these creatures he holds no pity, <they are evil, cannibalistic...  they give themselves to the Yeerks willingly.> The Hork-Bajir and the Taxxon began to circle the Andalite, their eyes training upon his wounded form. One of the Hork-Bajir controllers suddenly turned toward the teenagers’ hiding spot, coming so close Jo could practically see each individual scale on its body. Jake held tightly to Cassie, shoving himself and her toward the ground in cover. Marco ducked low too, as did the others, though his lips parted as he bore his teeth in terror. Jo flung herself toward the ground, and she was mildly aware of Rachel’s body hovering just inches above Jo’s一 she can practically feel the fear and body heat radiating from Rachel’s body. Jo’s hand somehow finds Rachel’s, which she squeezes like a lifeline一 and, to her surprise, Rachel squeezes back一 as her heart hammers against her chest as she realizes the Hork-Bajir is carrying some sort of gun-like weapon.

<Be silent,> The Andalite warns, his tone urgent, <the Hork-Bajir cannot see well in the darkness, but their hearing is magnificent.> The Hork-Bajir creeps closer, his head snapping left and right as he tries to distinguish the teens’ forms from the shadows. Jo’s breath hitches in her chest, and she can feel Rachel finally press herself into Jo’s back as the alien lizard comes forward. Piotr一 or maybe Bijou, Jo can’t tell一 is pressed into her side, gripping Jo’s upper arm. Jo stares on at the alien’s wicked blades as it stalks forward, her life practically flashing before her eyes.

<Have courage, my friends.> The Andalite says, trying to ground them. A sudden wave of calm一 well, not really calm seeing as though Jo was still petrified, but rather assurance一 washes through Jo’s body and mind, and she realizes the Andalite is sharing his strength and courage with them. Surely he’s frightened as well, but here he is lending his strength to a group of strangers… which makes Jo admire him. The Hork-Bajir stops just in front of the wall, listening, but after a moment he moves away and leaves the teens to catch their breath as they slowly peek over the wall. The alien Controllers were beginning to raise their heads toward the blade ship in a sick, twisted sort of praise or subservience; their eyes set upon the ship as it slowly began to open.

“I… think they’re standing at attention,” Jake whispers, slowly uncovering Cassie’s mouth. Part of Jo has forgotten Jake was even covering Cassie’s mouth, but then she remembers why he’d done so anyway.

“How can you tell?” Marco whispers back. “How can you tell if Frankenstein’s gummy worm or a walking knife rack is standing at attention?”

“Be quiet,” Jo hears Faline half-hiss, half-whisper to Marco, “that lizard could come back.” Slowly, another shadowed figure began to exit the blade ship… and Jo doesn’t like what she sees. It’s the familiar, unmistakable Andalite figure stalking from the blade ship.

<Visser Three.> The Andalite, the friendly one, hisses in regards to the Andalite Controller.

“That’s…” Rachel’s eyes widen as she rises up a little more. “He’s an Andalite!”

“Shh!” Jo hisses at Rachel, her grip tightening on the blonde’s hand. Surprisingly, there’s no glare from Rachel this time… not that Jo minds, she’s too frightened to care. “Stay down, do you want to be seen?” This earns Jo a slight swat to the head, although it doesn’t hurt it’s enough for Jo to wrap an arm around Rachel’s waist and pull her back down.

<A Yeerk has only been able to infest an Andalite body once…> The Andalite tells them. <There is only one Andalite Controller, and that is Visser Three.> The Visser approaches the wounded Andalite一 if he had a mouth, Jo swears he’d be sneering at the fallen Andalite’s plight. Visser Three is a little taller than the fallen Andalite, and though he doesn’t look too different he feels off . The Visser’s demeanor feels as though he’s wearing a mask, which Jo realizes isn’t far off from the truth, as the Yeerk inside him pretends to be an Andalite.

<Well, well…> Visser Three mocks as he comes to stand before the fallen Andalite, his eyes glinting cruelly. Jo jerks back a bit, startled by the Visser’s thoughts一 they’re hearing him just as they hear the fallen Andalite.

“He can’t hear our thoughts, can he?” Cassie whimpers, gripping Jake’s sleeve as she watches in horror.

“If he can,” Rachel whispers, her eyes set on the scene, “we’re fucking dead. We’re so dead, I don’t even want to think about it.”

“We’re not dead.” Jo deadpans, though her arm tightens reassuringly一 protectively, even, Jo thinks一 around Rachel. “We’re not dead yet.”

<He cannot hear your thoughts.> The Andalite reassures them. <Unless you are morphed and you direct your thoughts to him, he cannot hear you. You hear his thoughts because he is broadcasting them for all to hear… for him, this is a great victory.>

<What have we here?> The Visser taunts. <A meddling Andalite, perhaps? Ah… no, this is no ordinary Andalite warrior. We are in the presence of a prince!> He laughs coldly, his eyes gleaming with malice. Jo pulls Rachel closer, her heart beginning to race again as she seeks something to ground her. It is Bijou, Jo realizes, that’s also pressed into Jo’s side; shaking with terror as she grips Piotr’s hand. Tobias crouches ridgedly by Piotr, eyes wide.

<Prince Elfangor-Sirinial-Shamtul, I believe you are called.> The Visser continues to mock the dying prince一 Elfangor, that’s his name, Jo realizes. <What an honor to meet you again… you’re a legend now, aren’t you? How many of our fighters have you destroyed, now? Seven, eight? I’m not quite sure I can recall.>

Elfangor stays silent, but Jo wishes he’d do something.

<You are the very last Andalite in this sector of space.> Visser Three sneers. <I’m afraid your dome ship has been destroyed, dear prince. I personally watched it burn as it crumbled in this world’s atmosphere.>

<There will be others,> Elfangor says finally, one eye stalk swiveling toward the teens’ hiding spot.

<Yes,> The Visser sneers, <but when they come it will be too late. This is my world now, dear prince, my contribution to the Empire. Once we’re finished here, I’ll be named Visser One.>

<What do you want with the humans?> Elfangor snaps. <You have your Taxxon allies, your enslaved Hork-Bajir… your Gedd. What more could you possibly desire from the humans? What more could you possibly want?>

<Their minds are weak, they’re malleable. Easy hosts, dear prince. They’ve no idea what’s happening!> The Visser laughs, a hollow sound that makes Jo flinch. <There are billions of them, and they’ve no idea what’s happening! Once we’re finished with this planet, we’ll have enough hosts to spread throughout the universe. Face it, dear prince, you have lost.>

Slowly, Elfangor climbs to his feet despite his pain. Jo can tell he’s afraid, she can feel his fear, but he does not cower. He is brave, braver than Jo can ever hope to be, and despite knowing he’s about to die he wants to die on his feet; looking the enemy in the eye.

<Once we’re done here,> Visser Three sizes Elfangor up, his smugness radiating from him, <I will move onto the Andalite homeworld… and I, personally, will give my best lieutenants the bodies of your family… I do hope they resist, dear prince, I wish to hear them scream.> Elfangor strikes, his tail moving so fast Jo almost misses it. The Visser twists aside, his features contorting with rage and pain as Elfangor’s tail cuts deep into his shoulder. Black blood一 at least Jo thinks it’s blood一 sprays from the wound as the Visser’s hand flies upward.

“Yes!” Jo hears Jake hiss. Suddenly, Elfangor’s ship fires at one of the bug fighters. The ship explodes, disintegrating a horde of Taxxon and Hork-Bajir, and sends a blistering wave of heat throughout the perimeter.

<Fire!> Visser Three howls with rage. <Destroy his ship!> Jo averts her eyes as the construction site is enveloped in a blinding light. She buries her face in Rachel’s shoulder and she feels Bijou burying her own face in Jo’s side. Jo quakes with terror, her breathing becoming erratic as she tries to calm herself down.

“There’s people over there!” Jake whispers.

“Like, prisoners?” Marco asks worriedly.

<Take the Andalite!> Visser Three snarls. <Hold him for me!> A group of Hork-Bajir encircle Elfangor, shoving him to the ground. They bring their wrist blades to his throat, but they do not kill him… that’s not their job, it’s the Visser’s. Slowly, the Andalite Controller began to morph; his features twisting and contorting into something that’s somehow more horrifying than anything else Jo has seen.

“This isn’t real, this isn’t real…” Cassie whispers in horror as Visser Three’s morph roars一 a deafening sound that echoes throughout the construction site, almost shaking the ground beneath everyone. Slowly, the Visser reaches out for Elfangor. He wraps a tentacle around the wounded Andalite’s waist and begins to raise him into the air. “No, no, no…!” Cassie continues.

“Don’t look,” Rachel whispers, but the blonde continues to look onward. She’s crying, Jo realizes, when one of Rachel’s tears strikes Jo’s skin. Rachel wraps an arm around Cassie, pulling her close, and Jo finds herself enveloping Cassie, Rachel, and Bijou in a protective embrace一 though she doesn’t quite realize the protectiveness of her actions until later一 as she feels them shake beneath her touch. Elfangor begins to strike at the Visser’s morph, but even his deadly tail is of no use against the Visser. The Visser holds Elfangor high above his head, his maw opening, and suddenly Jake leaps.

“You fucking一” Jake goes to grab a rusted pipe from the ground, but something makes him hesitate just enough for Marco and Faline to pull him back down. Faline clamps a hand over Jake’s mouth, her eyes wide with terror, as Marco holds Jake down.

“Shut up, you moron!” Marco hisses. “You’re gonna get us all killed!” Cassie tears herself from Rachel and Jo, placing a calming hand on Jake’s cheek.

“Don’t.” She whispers, eyes brimming with tears. “He doesn’t want you to die for him… he’s dying for us.” As the words leave Cassie’s mouth, the Visser drops Elfangor into his. Jo watches, unable to look away, with the sick awe someone has when watching a fatal car crash. It’s like those videos Jo’s seen of alligators or crocodiles attacking others. The Visser’s teeth rips Elfangor apart, black blood dripping from his maw as the alien’s intestines and bones and flesh are grinded into little bits. Jo hears Elfangor’s dying scream in her head, and an involuntary sob leaves her lips.

“It’s okay,” Jo hears Rachel whisper in her ear as the blonde tries to lend Jo her strength, but Jo can’t process Rachel’s words as the Controllers begin to laugh… they laugh as bits of the Andalite gore drops from the Visser’s mouth and onto the ground. The Taxxons rush forward, their greedy mouths snapping up bits of the Andalite… of Elfangor… as they fall to the ground. Jo makes a gagging noise as she keels forward, her stomach heaving, but nothing happened. Cassie is crying, Tobias hides his face, as a familiar sound fills the air一 human laughter . Jake’s right, there are humans here. Marco, unlike Jo, was successful in throwing up whatever he’d last eaten; but the sound causes the nearest Hork-Bajir to snap toward the teens. Jo isn’t sure who runs first as the Hork-Bajir approaches, but soon the group is tearing from their hiding spot; tears still streaming from their faces, eyes wide with fear. Jo can hear the Hork-Bajir gasp in surprise as the teens run.

“Split up!” Jake screams. “They can’t follow all of us!” And Jake is right, they can’t. At first, Jo stays close to Rachel; their hands are clasped together so tightly Jo forgets how to release Rachel’s hand. But after a few steps Jo rips herself from Rachel and runs the other way, her lungs heaving for air. She’s vaguely aware of Faline behind her as she ducks behind another concrete wall to catch her breath, her hands shaking with fear as cold sweat dampens the back of her neck. Faline does not stop, however. She continues to run, but as she streaks by Jo one of the firecrackers falls from Faline’s still open bag that Jo forgot they’d brought. She lunges forward to catch it, her heart hammering violently, and fortunately Jo’s able to catch the firecracker before it touches the ground. Tobias and Cassie are struggling to escape, but Jo can’t see the others一 she only sees Rachel and Jake, trying to distract some of the Hork-Bajir a few feet away. If Jo doesn’t act… Jo banishes the thought, unable to allow herself to think of Jake or Rachel being harmed.

She’s suddenly aware of the light weight of the lighter in her pocket, which she’s also forgotten she has. Jo wrestles the lighter from her pocket frantically. She flips it open and tries to light it with shaking hands, though Jo is afraid she’s shaking so hard the flame will extinguish itself. She manages to light the firecracker’s wick, and once that’s done she winds her arm back and flings the firecracker through the air and toward the Hork-Bajir cornering Jake and Rachel. It strikes the Hork-Bajir, and Jo can hear its pained cries as she turns tail and runs as fast as she can.