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Millenimorphs 1: The Transformation

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My name is Jake.

I won’t tell you my last name or where I live. You might be able to figure it out. According to my best friend Marco, you can find out pretty much anything about anyone on the internet if you know where to look. I used to think Marco was being paranoid, but now—well, let’s just say I believe in a lot of things that I didn’t back then.

Back then I wasn’t anybody special. I worked at a tech company, one of the thousands in the country, high up enough to manage people but not corner-office level. I was happily married to a woman way cooler than I was, and we were thinking about having a kid soon. Trying to come up with the down payment on a condo. You know. Normal thirty-year-old problems.

Until a certain Tuesday, when Marco showed up in my office just before five.

That wasn’t unusual. Marco and I have been best friends since we were in high school. He was actually the one who convinced me to come work in tech, back when I was panicking about what to do with a degree in economics in the middle of a recession. Marco went the computer science route; he spends his days actually making the things that the people I manage design. I’m not sure how he does it, since I seem to remember him napping and playing video games instead of studying for most of college, but he says he knows what he’s doing.

Speaking of which: “Hey, you want to hang out tonight?” Marco asked. “Play some Fortnite?”

Normally, I would have said yes. Cassie had a lot of evening surgeries, and Marco and I usually gamed when that happened. But that night I had plans. “Can’t,” I said. “Rachel’s in town.”

“Rachel as in your hot cousin Rachel?” Marco said.

“Pretty sure you’re not supposed to call her that,” I said.

“Yeah, you know, as it was coming out, it sounded wrong,” Marco said. “So, can I come with you guys?”

I should have said no. If I had said no, everything might have been different.

“Sure, I guess,” I said. “But if you call her hot, she’s going to kick your ass halfway back to Manhattan.”

“Believe me, I am very, very aware of that,” Marco said.

It’s weird, remembering that walk to the restaurant. At that point, the biggest thing I was worried about was how late Cassie might work that night. We’d planned to go through the condo listings our realtor had sent over, make some choices about what to view that weekend. I thought I had the whole future mapped out: Cassie and I would get pregnant within the next six months. By the time the baby was born, we’d have a condo all set up, and we’d get started raising a family. Get a dog, maybe some cats. Save up to move out to the countryside where Cassie could have all the animals she really wanted. That was how I thought my life would go, that night.

I was such a fool.

It wasn’t too far a walk. Our building is in kind of an office-park-y part of the city, but a few blocks away there’s a touristy area with a bunch of restaurants and shops. The restaurant we were meeting at was a trendy new one—you know, the kind where they put the prices on the menu in round numbers and everything is lower case. They’d done up the inside all fancy, and Rachel still made it look shabby, sitting there in her skirt suit and high heels with every shiny blond hair in place. I don’t know that much about fashion or anything, and I haven’t learned that much about it being married to Cassie, but somehow you just looked at Rachel and knew that her outfit cost more than your annual car insurance bill.

Right then she was looking pretty annoyed. I guess I should have warned her that Marco was coming. “Rachel,” Marco said, looking unfazed by the glare. “You don’t call, you don’t write, you don’t like my Instagram posts…”

“Wow, it’s almost like I didn’t want to,” Rachel said, turning her glare on me.

I cringed. Yeah, I should definitely have given her a heads up. “Uh, hi, Rachel,” I said. “Pierce not in town?”

Rachel was in town for our grandfather’s birthday that coming weekend. She’d come in a few days early to meet with some local clients. “He couldn’t get out of work,” she said, crossing her legs.

“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever met this guy,” Marco said. “Are we sure he really exists?”

Rachel just gave him a cool glance, as if to say, look at her; why wouldn’t she have an intimidatingly successful hedge-fund fiancé waiting in New York?

“Yeah, okay, good point,” Marco said.

Dinner started out uncomfortable, but it wasn’t actually terrible. There were times in high school when Rachel and Marco really didn’t get along, but they’d been better at it in recent years. Mostly since Marco’s sister had died a couple of years ago. Her death was a huge shock to everyone: she was only thirty-one, just a little older than us, and the car crash was so bad they had to use dental records to identify the body. Rachel had known her pretty well from gymnastics and had come back to town for the funeral. I think she’d been trying to cut Marco some slack since then.

Still, I was pretty ready for dinner to be over when the check came. “I’ll, uh, walk Rachel back to her hotel,” I said as we walked out, hoping Marco would get the hint and leave us alone.

He did not. “It’s not that far, I’ll come with you guys,” he said.

I glared at him. “We’ll probably cut through the construction site,” I said. “You know how you feel about people going through the construction site.”

The construction site was supposed to be more of the touristy shopping area a while back, but whoever owned it had gone bankrupt or something and they’d never finished building it. Now it was just a bunch of half-finished structures in this empty lot. There was a fence around it, but it had fallen down in a bunch of places, and a lot of people cut through it to avoid going around the whole block. Marco never cut through it, because, as he liked to say, “Only an idiot would go through that death trap,” and also, “Do you know how easy it is to get killed by a falling building?”

So he maybe wouldn’t have come with us, except that Rachel decided to jump in. “Ooh, a construction site at night,” she said. “Too scary for you, Marco?”

His chin went up. “Of course not,” he said. “I’d just, you know, I wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”

Three guesses how that went over. “I’ll be fine,” she said, striding ahead on her four-inch heels so that the two of us had to scramble to keep up with her.

“Oh great,” I muttered under my breath, and we went toward the construction site.

It wasn’t really that dumb a thing to do. People had been walking through the site for years without anything bad happening to them, and we had flashlight apps on our phones. We even met someone else on the way in—though he was pretty much always there.

“Oh, hi, Tobias,” I said. I didn’t know him well or anything, but he was usually sitting somewhere along my path between work and the coffee shop where I got lunch, and sometimes I’d buy him a sandwich or something. Give him the change in my pockets.

Right now he was sitting against the wall of one of the abandoned buildings, his dog Lucy huddled against his side. I think maybe he lived in those buildings, at least some of the time. He’s a young guy, probably about my age, and always has kind of wide eyes, like maybe they’re seeing things you wouldn’t want to see. Right now those eyes took us in, then darted a second look at Rachel.

“Hi guys,” he said in his soft voice. “You going through?”

“Yeah,” I said. “You having a good night?”

He nodded, large eyes solemn, and we went on past.

We were all kind of quiet as we went through the construction site. I’m not sure what the others were thinking; I was busy feeling vaguely guilty like I always did for not doing more to help Tobias, and then reminding myself that what would I do, anyway? Also the ground was pretty rough, so we were watching our feet. I’m not sure we would even have seen what was happening if Rachel hadn’t tripped and caught herself on a wall and looked up. “What’s that?” she said.

I looked up, too. There was a light in the sky, blue-white like a passing satellite except way bigger. “Probably a plane going in to the airport,” Marco said.

“It’s getting bigger fast,” Rachel pointed out.

Very fast: it looked like it was coming straight toward us, growing from a dot that looked fist-sized to something more like a dinner plate. And it was still growing.

“You think it’s someone’s drone?” I asked.

“Either that, or some pilot got really lost,” Marco joked.

“I think it’s going to land here,” Rachel said.

It did look like that. But that couldn’t be true. We were in a random construction site; planes or helicopters or whatever didn’t land here. And there was something weird about the thing: it had a blue light around it, like it was glowing. “Maybe it’s a something experimental?” I said. “Elon Musk or whatever?”

“Yeah, he’s moved on from flying cars, and now it’s flying saucers,” Marco said.

He was joking. But I didn’t say anything. The thing was getting bigger, and it didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen before.

There was a barking sound, and I looked up to see Tobias and his dog standing a ways behind us, looking up, too. Tobias met my gaze, and I knew he was thinking what Marco was thinking, but not as a joke.

“We should check Twitter,” Marco said. “See if there’s anything about UFO sightings.”

“UFOs aren’t real,” Rachel said firmly.

“There were over seven thousand, six hundred reported UFO sightings in 2018 alone,” Tobias said, and I did a double take at him.

The thing was getting close enough to see. It wasn’t exactly a flying saucer: it was pod-shaped, the length of a city bus but bigger around, with a pointy tail curving up behind it. “Uh, maybe we should leave,” I said. I tasted the sharp metal of adrenaline. “It might land on us.”

“Screw that,” Marco said. He had his phone out and was filming. “This is going to be worth a fortune.”

“It’s got to be fake,” Rachel said. “They’re filming something here. Right?”

The thing came even closer, close enough that it filled the whole sky. It was hovering above us, and the air was suddenly full of static, our hair rising above our heads. “What the fuck,” Marco said, punching at his phone screen.

“Put that away,” I hissed. I’m not sure what I thought was going to happen—but it seemed like a bad idea to be filming this. Like whoever came out of that ship was going to be angry about it.

That was another reason to run. I’m not sure why we didn’t—there was a big part of me yelling that I should get away, that this wasn’t going to end well, that I didn’t want Cassie to be getting a phone call with the worst news possible. But also I couldn’t leave. This was just so…it was so obviously special. The kind of thing I would never see again. I needed to see what would happen.

Or maybe I was just in the same boat as Rachel, and I didn’t believe it was real.

Either way, we didn’t leave. We stayed, mesmerized, as the ship settled to the ground, in the big open area amid the half-constructed shops. The glowing lights at the bottom went out, and our hair fell back against our heads.

Tobias stepped forward. “Maybe you shouldn’t,” I said, but I don’t think he was listening. He had this look on his face, like what was happening was amazing and wonderful.

“We should tell someone,” Rachel said.

“Yeah, like the media,” Marco said. He had his phone out again and was filming.

“Like the police,” Rachel said.

“Should we call the police?” I had my hand on my phone in my pocket.

“I don’t know, do these guys count as immigrants?” Marco asked.

“Hello,” Tobias said to the ship, as if the ship could hear him.

<Hello,> the ship said back.

We all froze.

“You guys all heard that, right?” Marco said. “I’m not crazy. You guys all heard that.”

“I heard that,” I said. I’d heard it, but I hadn’t exactly heard it: it was like a sound in my mind that wasn’t sound at all. Like thoughts were appearing in my head that weren’t my own.

<Don’t be afraid,> the voice said again.

“No chance of that,” Marco muttered.

“They’re trying to talk to us,” Rachel said, striding forward to stand next to Tobias. “We should see what they want. Can you understand us?” she said in the direction of the ship.

<Yes. I am coming out.>

There was a faint whirring sound, and a curving slit appeared in the side of the ship. “If Zoe Saldana comes out of there,” Marco whispered hysterically, “dibs.”

The slit widened to a circle, and a creature stood in the opening. It wasn’t Zoe Saldana. It was like a Greek centaur, only not: I’d never seen any pictures of centaurs who had stalks on top of their heads. Or thick tails that curved up behind them with a vicious-looking blade on the end. Or blue fur.

“Avatar, eat your heart out,” Marco murmured.

He—the voice had sounded like a he—stepped out of the ship. I had a moment to see that his head was even stranger than I’d thought: he had eyes like a human, only larger, and no mouth. And the stalks on the top of his head had eyes on them too. I just had time to see that, and then he staggered and fell.

Tobias ran to catch him. Rachel grabbed his other arm to keep him upright, but he cried out in our heads in agony and they let go. He fell back against the ground, sprawled on his side.

“He’s burned,” Rachel said. She was right: the whole side of his body he wasn’t lying on was charred-looking, raw.

“We’ll call an ambulance,” I said, reaching in my pocket for my phone.

<No,> the creature said in our heads. <The weapon with which I was burned…it has no remedy. It will continue to destroy me on a molecular level. I will die.>

I was surprised by how much I didn’t want that to happen. I should have just been thinking how bizarre this was. But I really didn’t want him to die.

Tobias knelt by him, putting a hand on his unburned shoulder.

“What is it? We might have a cure you don’t know about,” Rachel said.

The alien…I’m not sure how I knew he smiled, when he didn’t have a mouth. It was only his eyes. <I doubt it. If you call your authorities, you will only bring danger to yourselves. I am not the first alien to arrive here.>

“What, there are lots of you around?” Marco asked. He was going for sarcastic, but I could hear that he was shaken up.

<Not like me,> the alien said. <The Yeerks are not like me.>

“How so?” I asked.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by his answer. I’d seen enough sci-fi movies. But you never expect stuff like that to happen in your real life.

<They have come to destroy you,> he said.

Chapter Text

<They have come to destroy you.>

Marco laughed. Rachel looked angry. Tobias was still kneeling down, crouched by the alien. I don’t know what I looked like.

“Not for real, though,” I said.

<The Yeerks are real,> the alien said. And then he gave another cry of pain. I felt it through my whole body, like for a single moment his pain was mine. I saw the smirk fall off Marco’s face. <They are here already. They are among you.>

“Pretty sure that would be trending on Twitter,” Marco said.

<You would not notice. The Yeerks do not have independent bodies like you or me. They are slugs. They crawl inside the brains of sentient species and control them. Sometimes a creature gives them control voluntarily, but even if they do not, there is no way to resist. The Yeerk has almost total control.>

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said. I felt sick. This guy was telling us that some of the people around us were secretly being controlled by slugs in their brains?

I wanted to tell him he’d seen too many movies. But it was hard to make that argument when I was looking at a real-life alien, lying at the foot of his alien spaceship.

“What would they want with us?” Rachel asked. “Why invade Earth?”

<The Yeerks are parasites. They are almost helpless in their natural state,> the alien said. <They have come for your bodies.>

“Well, that’s the creepiest thing I’ve ever heard,” Marco said.

<They are here already.> His voice was full of urgency and pain. <We do not know the full extent of their invasion, but they have already infested hundreds of humans. Maybe thousands. They are spreading fast.>

I wanted to walk away. I wanted to turn and walk out of the construction site and pretend I’d never heard any of this.

“So you’re telling us, what, we’re doomed?” Rachel said.

<My people, the Andalites. We fight the Yeerks,> he said. <But the battle beyond your moon…we were overpowered. We did not expect them to be so numerous. We are fighting the Yeerks on many worlds, and we are spread thin. New forces will be sent, but by then it will be too late. You must fight the Yeerks yourselves.>

I looked at Marco, at Rachel. Tobias was still crouched by the alien and didn’t look up. “What, us?” Marco said.

“We could tell people,” I said. “Take more video, upload it. If this invasion thing is really happening, and people figure it out, maybe we can stop it.”

<The Yeerks will have established some measure of control over your information systems,> the Andalite said. <They—ahh…> Another cry, this one weaker, like he was fading. <They will obscure or muddle any attempts to spread the word. You must not tell anyone what you know. Anyone can be a Controller—anyone. You cannot know who to trust.>

“What, so we’re supposed to fight them?” Rachel said. “Us? How?”

“However we can,” Tobias said, without looking away from the Andalite.

That was a nice sentiment. But it was impossible. We were four people with normal lives and ordinary, boring jobs. Marco and I made apps for a living. Rachel had money, a fancy finance job, but it wasn’t like she was in the NSA. Tobias didn’t have a job or a home or anything. What were we supposed to do against an alien plague spreading through the population?

<I will give you something that can help,> the Andalite said. <In my ship. There is a cube, blue in color. Bring it out, and I will show you how you can fight.>

Marco and Rachel and I looked at each other. None of us wanted to go into that ship. It felt like it would mean committing to something. Maybe Tobias would have gone, but he was still kneeling by the Andalite like he didn’t want to leave.

<Quickly,> the Andalite said. <The Yeerks will arrive soon.>

“They’re coming? Here?” I said.

<They will have traced my ship.>

“This is, like, every horror movie rolled into one,” Marco said. His arms were wrapped around himself. “Do we really believe any of this?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I didn’t want to. But I was having a hard time talking myself out of it.

“Of course we believe it,” Tobias said, like it was easy for him.

There was a short silence. “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Rachel said, and went over to the alien’s ship. I almost called out to stop her, but there was no reason she couldn’t do it just as well as Marco or me. Instead I stood there feeling guilty.

She came out a minute later with a blue cube in her hand. It was small, about the size of a Rubik’s cube, with rounded edges. “Is this it?” she said.

<Yes. That is it.> The alien struggled to stand, and Tobias helped him, supporting his unburned side so that he could get to his feet. <If you wish, I can give you powers that may help you in your fight against the Yeerks.>

“Powers,” I said. “Like, superpowers?”

<This technology is a creation of the Andalites,> the alien said. <The Yeerks do not have it. No human has ever had it, either, until now. It is the power to morph.>

Marco laughed. It was his edge-of-losing-it laugh. “If this turns into the Power Rangers…”

<You will be able to transform your bodies. Any animal you can touch, any animal whose DNA you can acquire, you will be able to turn into that animal.>

“This is ridiculous,” I said. This guy was offering to give us the power to turn into animals so we could fight an alien invasion? A secret alien invasion. Which we would defeat by turning it, what, dogs and lizards and stuff?

“We should do it,” Tobias said.

He was standing up, facing us for the first time since the Andalite had come out of the spaceship. His eyes were bright.

A few hours ago I’d thought the biggest decision in my future would be what condo to buy. Now I was deciding if I should resist an alien invasion. “We should talk about it,” I said.

“No. Tobias is right,” Rachel said. “I don’t care how ridiculous it is. If this has even a chance of working, we can’t just walk away.”

I shared a glance with Marco. His eyes were wide. “You guys are seriously buying this?” he said. “We’re being invaded by aliens, and we’re going to fight them by touching that box and turning into lions and tigers and bears?”

“There’s an alien right in front of you,” Rachel snapped. “Pay attention.”

“Oh, I’m paying attention.” Marco’s voice rose hysterically. “I am completely aware that we’ve left reality here. That doesn’t mean I’m jumping on board the ride. I’d rather not fight aliens, thanks.”

“So you want to be taken over by them,” Rachel said. “You want to stick your head in the sand until these Yeerks or whatever win.”

“Rachel’s right,” I said. My stomach was churning sickly. I wanted to stick my head in the sand, just like Rachel was saying. But that wouldn't do any good. “If the Yeerks are here, if this is really happening, we can’t just do nothing.”

“Look,” Tobias said. His head was tipped back to the sky. I followed his gaze and saw twin red lights, coming towards us.

<The Yeerks,> the Andalite said. <They are coming.>

“We have to do this,” I said.

“We have to fight,” Tobias said.

“Unless we want to give up to the Yeerks,” Rachel said, crossing her arms.

Marco looked at the three of us. Then he threw up his hands. “You know what, fine. Why not? This box probably isn’t going to kill me. Worst thing that happens, I end up with alien cooties.”

 <You have decided, then?> the Andalite asked.

I looked around at the others. Rachel was looking at the alien like it was already decided. Tobias was looking at me, eyes full of hope. Marco’s mouth was pressed thin.

I don’t know why it felt like I had to decide. But it did. “Yeah,” I said. “We’ll do it.”

He had us place our hands on the sides of the cube. Then he placed his hand with ours: five sides covered, one side blank. His hand was thinner than ours, with too many fingers.

“What’s going to—” Marco started to ask, and then it hit: a tingly, electric feeling, starting at the top of my scalp and running down my body. Like I’d just been doused in something that wasn’t quite water.

<It is done,> the Andalite said. <Go now. Only remember this: you must never stay more than two hours in morph. More than two hours, and you will be trapped forever.>

“Two hours,” I repeated.

<The Yeerks are coming,> the Andalite said again. <Go.>

“We’re not going to—” Tobias started to say, but the Andalite cut him off with another cry: more pain, even more urgency. A psychic shove.

We turned and ran.

Chapter Text

We went back the way we came, the red lights circling closer above us. We almost didn’t make it: the new ships touched down just as we reached the edge of the open space in the middle of the construction site. I ducked behind a doorway as their landing lights switched off.

I turned around to look. I couldn’t help it: I was shaking with fear, but I had to see.

“Jake,” Marco hissed, tugging at my arm.

“We should watch,” I said. I’m not sure why I felt it so strongly. I just—I couldn’t leave the Andalite to die alone like that.

“This is real life, you know,” Marco said. “It’s not a video game. In real life, you can die. Do you want to die, Jake?”

“Jake’s right. We should know what we’re fighting,” Rachel said, stepping up next to me.

Tobias was still there too, of course, Lucy pressed against his leg. Marco made an exasperated sound and came to stand next to me.

The four of us, plus the dog, clustered in the shadows near a window in one of the abandoned buildings and watched the ships settle to the ground. They were about the size of the Andalite’s ship, but where his was sleek with a pointed tail, the new ones were bulbous with serrated spears along the sides. <Bug fighters,> the Andalite said in our head, and I jumped.

We all looked at each other. “Can he hear our thoughts?” Rachel asked.

“If so, he’s going to have some responses to the ones I’m having right now,” Marco muttered.

Bright beams shot from the tops of the Bug fighters toward the Andalite. For a second I thought—but they were just spotlights, lighting the Andalite in a bright white circle.

The doors of the Bug fighters opened, and these…creatures came out.

I’d thought the Andalite looked strange, but at least he had a head that was halfway human. These were like—like dinosaurs, if dinosaurs didn’t have feathers. They were at least seven feet tall had mottled green skin and walked upright on two legs, and every part of them, including the tail, was covered with blades. Even their heads: they had long necks and cruel curving beaks like a bird of prey, and their heads were ridged with three blades that swept forward into a point.

<Hork-Bajir,> the Andalite said. <Be very quiet. They cannot see well in the dark, but they have excellent hearing.>

The Hork-Bajir fanned out around the clearing, like they were securing the space. I stood very, very still.

<The Hork-Bajir were once a peaceful people,> the Andalite said. <They have been taken as slaves of the Yeerks.>

Marco gave the tiniest huff of breath next to me. I knew what he meant: these didn’t look like peaceful people. They looked like cartoon monsters. They looked like they would cut your head off before you could say hello.

Another type of creature came out of the Bug fighters. It didn’t step. It slithered.

“Oh,” Rachel said, so quietly I could barely hear her. It was a sound of disgust. The creature sliding its way out of the nearer Bug fighter wasn’t scary like the Hork-Bajir. It was scary in a whole different way. It was like a centipede, but not one you’d ever find crawling underneath a rock: it was at least ten feet long, and so big my arms wouldn’t have gone halfway around it. Yellow-green, segmented, undulating on tiny sharp-looking legs. Eyes that were red jelly-like cubes and a mouth that was perfectly round in the center of its face like a bright red O.

<Taxxons.> Even through the Andalite’s mind speech I could hear the revulsion. <They are collaborators. Voluntary hosts to the Yeerks.>

The Taxxons didn’t fan out like the Hork-Bajir did. They focused on the Andalite, not touching him but leaning close, mouths working and cone legs waving in the air.

I wanted to do something. The idea of hiding here while the Andalite was helpless under their gaze…but what could we do? All that would happen if I ran out there was that the Hork-Bajir would cut me into ribbons.

The Hork-Bajir were still circling. They weren’t looking too closely inside any of the buildings, thankfully. But then they stopped, spread out around the courtyard, and one of them stopped directly in front of our window.

I stopped breathing. It was barely five feet from us. Close enough that I could have taken two steps forward and touched it. In the low light, I could see the line of blades marching down its spine, and the lumpy darkness of its skin.

I’ve been scared a few times in my life. Not a lot. Waiting for a call from the doctor once. A close call on the highway. The day I proposed to Cassie. When Marco lost Ana, and I wasn’t sure if he was coming back from that, I was scared then.

This was totally different. It wasn’t excitement or shock or the creeping, pervasive fear that you might lose something important. It was active, clamoring, mind-melting fear that made my thoughts tangle and my nerves lose control of my muscles. There was a seven-foot-tall bladed monster five feet from me, and if it saw me, I would die.

Your mind plays tricks on you in moments like that. It tries to convince you this isn’t real, that you couldn’t actually die. But I could count the blades on the Hork-Bajir’s spine. I could hear its huffing breaths.

I eased my jaw open so my teeth wouldn’t chatter. I kept perfectly still. The others kept perfectly still. I prayed to anyone who was listening that the Hork-Bajir couldn’t hear my heartbeat.

And then we saw the reason they were all standing around. What they were waiting for. The Hork-Bajir was blocking part of our view, but I could see past its arm. Another ship was descending into the clearing, this one black.

Blacker than black. Blacker than the sky it came from. So black I almost couldn’t see the sharp edges of its bladed hull.

It landed in the clearing, sucking up the light from everything around it. And I felt…

I was already afraid. So I can’t quite say I felt fear. It was more like horror. Like despair. It sank into me, deeper than my bones. It was the idea that even if I didn’t die, something else even worse was going to happen. That maybe death would be the better option after all.

<Visser Three,> the Andalite said. <The Blade ship of Visser Three.>

His voice cut through the horror for just a moment: a reminder of something other than the creeping darkness. But then the door of the Blade ship opened, and more Hork-Bajir and Taxxons came out. And following them, another Andalite.

I jerked a little in surprise. He was an Andalite, just like the one on the ground—but no, not the same at all. Their physical forms were almost identical, but everything else was different.

This was where the darkness was coming from. I was sure of it. That creature—he had the same blue-and-tan mouthless face as our Andalite, the same four legs and curving scythe-blade tail, but I could barely stand to look at him. There was something distorted about him that was at odds with the body he wore.

<Visser Three,> our Andalite said. <The one Andalite-Controller. The one Andalite in all the galaxy to have been taken by the Yeerks.>

His voice in our heads was weak. He was dying, he was surrounded by enemies, and he was still taking the time to give us information. To tell us what we needed to know, because we were going to have to fight this monster.

And then, something new in my mind: warmth, flowing from the Andalite. As bright as the Visser was dark. He was sending us courage.

I’d like to be able to say I didn’t need it. But in that moment, I think it was the only thing that kept me in control of myself.

<Ah, War-Prince Elfangor,> a new voice said in our heads. <I was hoping we would meet like this.>

I stiffened. Rachel’s hand clamped down on my shoulder. If he was speaking to us—

<He does not know you are there,> our Andalite said. Elfangor. <He is directing his thought-speech broadly. He is arrogant, and does not care who hears him gloat.>

<Elfangor-Sirinial-Shamtul,> the Visser said. He was strutting over to the Andalite, his tail held lazily high. Posturing for the troops. <The mighty hero. The only survivor of the great Andalite defeat above planet Earth. Yes, did you know that? Your Dome ship was destroyed, and all its fighters. There is no one now to keep us from our conquest of Earth.>

<The Andalites will return,> Elfangor said.

<But by then we will have won.> Visser Three stopped above Elfangor’s body. <We will have a new army, made up of these unsuspecting humans. So many of them! With their bodies at our command, we’ll be able to end resistance once and for all. We will be able to attack the Andalite home world. Crush your people’s paltry resistance and make you our own.>

<Never,> Elfangor said.

<You would like to think that,> the Visser said. He was standing over Elfangor’s fallen form and talking gloatingly. <It must be a nice story to tell yourself as you die.>

Elfangor was done for. I knew that, even while I watched and held my breath and prayed that something would swoop in and save him. But he didn’t stay down. He was doomed, but he still climbed to his feet, slowly, limbs trembling. Facing his enemy eye to eye at the last.

<You will never take my people,> Elfangor said.

<They’ll put me in charge of that invasion, too,> the Visser said. <I’ll be Visser One by then. I’ll subdue your people like I’ll subdue the humans, and I’ll save your family for last. I’ll let them watch while the rest of the world falls to our control. And then I’ll put trusted lieutenants in each of their heads, and I’ll have them tell me about their screams.>

Elfangor’s tail struck so quickly I almost didn’t see it move. One stroke, a killing blow—but Visser Three was just as fast. He moved aside just enough that the tail blade cut his shoulder instead of his neck.

At the same time, the Andalite ship struck, too: a beam of blue light shot from the curving tail, straight at the Bug fighter on the far side of the clearing. I felt the heat as the ship lit up blue for a single moment and then disintegrated.

It was so fast I almost couldn’t believe it. One moment the Bug fighter was there, and the next it was gone.

Hork-Bajir and Taxxons ran from the explosion. Visser Three was shouting, <His ship! Destroy it!> Red light shot from the other Bug fighter toward the Andalite ship. It glowed and disappeared.

I blinked in shock. Only a few seconds had passed, and half the ships in the courtyard were gone. No explosions, no shrapnel; just erasure.

I imagined those beams turned on humans. On us.

The Hork-Bajir were cheering the vanished ship. It was a throaty sound like a seal bark combined with a raptor screech. The Taxxons cheered too, in their own way, hissing and waving their legs in the air. And there was a third type of cheering: normal voices. Human voices.

Human-Controllers.

I couldn’t see them, but I could hear them. Just knowing they were there made me feel more exposed, like they might know we were there somehow. It reminded me of what Elfangor had said: that the Yeerks were already spreading throughout our world. That it was only a matter of time.

<You see, there is no defeating us,> the Visser said to Elfangor. Three Hork-Bajir had his arms now. <Time to give up the fight.>

And then the Visser started to change.

At first I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. It was dark in the courtyard, and while the Visser was standing with his front hooves in the light of the one remaining Bug fighter, I still thought it must be the glare and the shadows making me see things that weren’t happening. But he was getting larger fast, his blue-and-tan fur changing to hard, rock-like skin, his head stretching and growing monstrous.

Morphing. That was what it was. Of course: morphing was an Andalite technology, and Visser Three had an Andalite body.

He grew until he towered over the clearing, larger than the Bug fighter, three times as tall as a Hork-Bajir. He stood on huge tree-sized legs, with waving tentacles and a mouth bristling with teeth. Each of the teeth was larger than my head.

He opened his mouth, teeth gleaming in the light from the Bug fighter, and roared.

The sound shook me down to my bones. I desperately hoped someone would hear him and came running—and at the same time I didn’t: anyone who showed up here was going to die. All the police officers in the city would be helpless against that monster. The Army would barely have a chance.

He roared again. It rattled the walls of the building. I thought hysterically that Marco might be right: the buildings were going to fall on us after all. At the moment it felt like it would beat the alternative.

<That’s right, little Andalite prince, it’s the end,> the Visser said, his thought-speak voice coming from the enormous swollen beast he’d become. <It’s a shame we can’t keep you, turn you into another Controller to help bring your people to heel. But that Dracon beam damage is too advanced. I’m sure even the Councilor wouldn’t object to my destroying you now.>

There was a call from one of the human-Controllers. I couldn’t hear what they said, but it sounded approving, and some of the other humans cheered again.

Like I said. I couldn’t see them. And I couldn’t hear them that well, over the chuffing of the Hork-Bajir and hissing of the Taxxons. But there was something about that first voice…but I was probably imagining things. Terror was making me loopy.

The Visser reached down with his tentacles. He wrapped them around the Andalite. I still felt like something had to change, we had to do something—but there was nothing we could do. Nothing but stand there and watch the Andalite be lifted into the air.

The Visser raised the Andalite above his head. The Andalite struck again and again with his tail, slicing through the Visser’s tentacles, but the Visser raised more tentacles to take their place.

Then he lowered the Andalite to that enormous mouth and closed his teeth on him.

I heard Marco gasp, almost soundlessly. Tears were streaming down my face. Rachel had a vice grip on my shoulder.

The Visser bit down a few times. Taxxons were leaning up, straining to catch scraps of the Andalite’s body. The Hork-Bajir and humans were cheering again, a raucous commotion.

<Ah,> the Visser said. <Nothing like—>

And that’s when Lucy started to bark.

I’m not sure what had kept her quiet before then. Maybe Tobias had been doing something, and had forgotten when we saw the Andalite die. As soon as she started barking, he leapt away from the huddle and grabbed her, but it was too late.

The Hork-Bajir in front of us spun around. Others were bounding toward us. The light on top of the Bug fighter swung around.

“Run!” I shouted, and we ran.

We ran, stumbling over debris and leftover construction beams. I pounded out of that abandoned building toward the street and only realized as I passed the doorway that I was ahead of the others.

I turned around. They were all running toward me, but Marco is a lot shorter than I am, and Rachel was in high heels. I didn’t know the last time Tobias had had a square meal.

“Split up,” I said. “They can’t follow all of us.”

“Good idea,” Rachel said, and then she took off, shouting, “Hey, you motherfuckers! Over here!”

I wanted to yell at her that that’s not what I meant, but it was too late: the Hork-Bajir were pounding past the building toward her.

I just had time to see her running around the corner away from them. I’ll say this: even in heels, Rachel can move.

Marco and Tobias took off in different directions. I gave them a moment, then shouted back at the Hork-Bajir—I don’t even know what I shouted—and bolted in the only other direction I saw.

It wasn’t a great choice. I ended up running through a maze of half-finished walls I’d never been in before. The ground was this slippery grit-covered nightmare and I didn’t know which way was out and the Hork-Bajir were definitely following me.

I could hear them, shouting in a strange guttural language. They didn’t know the maze either, but all they had to do was outlast me. My lungs were burning. I took turn after turn, and then I took a turn that led to a dead end.

I stopped, chest heaving, and stared at the blank wall. I couldn’t turn around; the Hork-Bajir would find me. I couldn’t go through—except maybe I could.

There was a spot in the corner of the wall where the beams had been put in but it hadn’t been plastered or whatever. I could fit through. Maybe.

I flattened myself out as much as I could and slid into the gap. It was tight, especially when I tried to breathe in, still panting from the run. But I could make it. My chest just fit.

My head did not.

The Hork-Bajir were pounding down the corridor just out of sight. I panicked and bashed my chin against the beam, trying to get free. Any minute they would be here—

A dog barked again, somewhere across the construction site.

I heard the footsteps falter. I turned my head sideways, scraped my ears on the beams, and slipped through.

I wish I could say I tried to go back and help Lucy. Help Tobias, if he was still with her. But I was powered by pure terror by that point. I ran.

I ran two blocks out of my way and circled around until I finally got to the parking lot where I’d left my car. I fumbled the door open and sat in the front seat, shaking. I hadn’t finished shaking when I turned the car on and peeled onto the road and got the hell out of there.

Chapter Text

I was still shaking when I got home. I probably shouldn’t have been driving, but no way was I hanging out downtown a second longer than I had to. I made it to the lot underneath our building and parked and sat there for long minutes, just breathing.

I was okay. Nothing was going to come get me here. I was fine.

Finally my hands were only shaking a little, and I pulled out my phone.

I had a missed message from Marco, on Signal. He always uses that instead of the default texting app; nothing like being a programmer to make you paranoid about cybersecurity, I guess. I clicked through to his message: You get home okay?

Nothing about what we’d just seen. Even on Signal, he wasn’t going to say too much. Yeah, I wrote back, and was starting to ask about him when he started typing again.

Good. Remember that I told you that thing in secret. Don ’t tell anyone.

Obviously, I sent back, annoyed. As if I was going to start blabbing it to everyone.

Not even Cassie, he said.

Oh. That was different.

Cassie was my wife. I told her everything. How could I go upstairs and see her and not tell her? But Marco was already typing again: Jake. I mean it. You remember what that guy said. Not even Cassie.

I bit my lip. Fine, I sent back.

There were no texts from Rachel or Tobias. I didn't even know if Tobias had a phone.

Rachel didn’t have Signal. I opened the normal text app and started typing, Hey, good to have dinner with you tonight. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to send it. Not after what we’d just seen.

Hope you made it back okay, I sent instead, and then waited. No dots appeared.

That probably didn’t mean anything. She just wasn’t looking at her phone. She was probably back in her hotel room, freaking out, or…she was definitely back in her hotel room. Rachel was a good runner. She was fine.

I clicked the phone off and fought the urge to do something to check. If she hadn’t made it out, there wasn’t anything to do. And anyway, she had. I was sure of it.

I didn’t know if Tobias even had a phone. I had no way to contact him.

I got out of the car and went upstairs. Our apartment looked just like it always did: coats hung on the rack in the entryway, shoes overflowing the little rack we had for them. Cassie’s work boots were near the door. She was in the kitchen, humming and cooking herself some eggs.

I stopped in the doorway and looked at her. We’d been together for almost eleven years, ever since that first time I went to visit Rachel at college and walked into her dorm room and saw this cute, short black girl on the other bed. She’d smiled at me and that was pretty much it for me. I knew her so well by now. I knew she was making eggs because they were her default too-tired-for-real-dinner food. I knew the song she was humming was one her dad used to hum, and that she used to be embarrassed about not being able to carry a tune, but she didn’t worry about it so much anymore. I knew the little stuff and the big stuff, everything she knew about herself and hadn’t told anyone else. And she knew all that stuff about me. There was nothing in the past decade we hadn’t shared.

I must have made some noise, because she stopped humming and looked up, smiling. “Hey, how was dinner with Rachel?” she asked. Then, her voice changing, “What happened?”

“What do you mean?” I asked, taking a step back, but she was already coming toward me and touching her fingers to my jaw.

The pressure hurt. I remembered bashing my chin against the beams trying to escape from the Hork-Bajir. The Hork-Bajir, the vicious, bladed monster who had tried to kill me less than an hour ago, on the orders of the evil alien slug. The same kind of slug who might already have killed my cousin Rachel and the homeless man I passed on the street every day.

I wanted to say all that. I wanted to spill everything to her and have her tell me I was crazy, I was lying; I wanted her to make it not true for me.

I didn’t do it. Maybe it was Marco’s warning, or maybe I wasn’t ready to say it out loud yet. Maybe I was just afraid she wouldn’t argue with me.

“Tripped and fell,” I said.

She skated her fingers over it. “Looks bad.”

“Yeah, those concrete sidewalks are tough,” I said, attempting a smile.

She studied my face. I wasn’t sure what she was seeing, but she knew me at least as well as I knew her. She was seeing that something was off.

Maybe I should just tell her. This was Cassie; even if I couldn’t trust anyone else in the world, I could trust her. I had told her so many things while looking in her eyes like that: things I’d thought I would never say out loud to another person, things I hadn’t quite known were true until I started to say them. The idea of keeping something this big from her twisted itself sickly in my gut.

I almost did it right then. I almost opened my mouth and told her. But before I could, my phone buzzed in my pocket.

I pulled it out so fast I almost ripped the pocket seam. “I told Rachel to tell me if she got back all right,” I explained to Cassie.

She nodded, obviously a little weirded out. I tried not to feel too guilty as I clicked open Rachel’s text.

Got back okay. Couldn’t get in touch with our friend Tobias, though.

Shit. I swallowed down another type of guilt. You’re in town for a few more days, I said. Maybe you’ll see him.

Hope so, she said. And then, Did hear from Marco. I think he’s right about not telling people.

It was about as pointed as she could be while still being vague. She, like Marco, didn’t want me to tell Cassie.

I was annoyed that he’d doubted me enough that he’d sent Rachel to tell me the same thing. But then, I had almost told. Maybe he just knew me really well.

Yeah, okay, I said. I wouldn’t do anything tonight, anyway.

I didn’t know what to do about Tobias. I felt like I should go back and look—but where would I even look? None of us knew where to find him, except at the construction site. We would just have to hope he found a way to contact us.

We still hadn’t heard anything from him by the time I went to bed that night. Which wasn’t too much later: I was shaky and exhausted, and it was a struggle to stay awake long enough to put myself to bed. I guess finding out about an invasion of the world and running for your life from evil aliens will do that. I told Cassie I had a headache, and she looked concerned and said things about getting me checked for a concussion from my fall. I nodded and staggered off to the bedroom.

I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to sleep once I went to bed. I was afraid I’d close my eyes and all I would see would be Visser Three picking up the Andalite and putting him between his massive jaws, or the Hork-Bajir bearing down on us. I was afraid I’d see them in the corners of our bedroom, melting out of the shadows and coming for me.

But sometimes being terrified past the point of exhaustion is useful, I guess. I had barely closed my eyes and put my head on the pillow when I was asleep.

I was woken up by banging on the door.

I sat bolt upright at the sound, groggy, my heart racing. It was morning; the light was coming in past the edges of our curtains. Cassie was stirring next to me. “Who is it?” she mumbled.

“I don’t know. I’ll get it,” I said, and got out of bed.

I was scared when I went to answer the door. But there was no reason to be scared, I told myself. The dreams I’d had were only dreams. There weren’t really aliens invading Earth. That was a bad sci-fi movie premise. The person at the door would be a neighbor, or the super, or someone else human and normal who was supposed to be in the building at this hour.

I looked through the peephole. It was Tobias.

I almost didn’t recognize him at first. It took me a minute to put together why: he was clean. His hair was way blonder than I’d thought it was and not matted at all. The skin of his face was shiny clean, and his eyes were lit up.

“Jake,” he said when I opened the door. “It worked. I turned into Lucy.”

I looked over my shoulder to make sure Cassie hadn’t followed me. “What are you talking about?” I lowered my voice. “How did you know where I live?”

He looked a little hurt. “You told me you lived in this building.”

Had I? I had had a bunch of conversations with Tobias over the past few years. He never said a lot about himself, but sometimes if I didn’t bring lunch I’d pick up an extra sandwich and we would eat together. Somehow that turned into me telling him about my life. It had felt safe: telling my problems to someone who was so disconnected from them.

“Okay,” I said. “But what are you doing here?”

“I told you,” he said. “It works. I turned into Lucy.”

I tried to laugh. It didn’t quite work. “You sure you’re okay?” I said.

Now he definitely looked hurt. “Jake,” he said. “It’s the power. The one the Andalite gave us. Remember?”

“Keep your voice down,” I said. I looked around again; Cassie hadn’t come out of the bedroom. I pulled Tobias inside and into the tiny study we were trying to convince ourselves was big enough to be a second bedroom.

Tobias came inside. “Don’t you remember?” he asked once the study door was shut.

It wasn’t that I didn’t remember. I just didn’t want to remember. It was easier to think about last night as a hazy nightmare. “It can’t all be real, though,” I said.

Tobias looked at me with earnest eyes. “Watch,” he said, and then—he started to change.

I had already seen it happen once, when Visser Three had morphed the enormous monster that had killed Elfangor. But that was one strange creature turning into another. This was a human, a guy I knew, and within seconds his body wasn’t quite so human anymore. He was shrinking, his nose and eyes and mouth changing shape. His skull was changing shape, nose pushing out and his ears migrating up his head.

I yelped when the fur appeared on his face. I put a hand over my mouth right away, but it had been pretty loud, and I went still, listening for Cassie.

<Don’t worry,> a voice said in my head. <I’ll hear if anyone comes close.>

The voice sounded like Tobias. I don’t know how it was so recognizable; it wasn’t quite a speaking voice, and even if it was, it was lower than Tobias’ voice usually sounded. But there was enough similarity for me to know it was Tobias I was hearing.

“How are you doing that?” I whispered. I was still straining to hear if Cassie was coming to check on me.

I heard the shower start up. I relaxed a little; we had at least a few minutes. I couldn’t relax all that much, though: Tobias was currently a black lab mix sitting on the floor of my study in a pool of his own clothing.

<It’s thought-speech,> Tobias said in my head. <It’s what the Andalite did. I think it works anytime you’re in morph.>

In morph. The dog on my floor was a human in morph. I groped for the desk chair behind me and sat down.

<Don’t you get it?> Tobias pawed at the floor. His tongue was lolling out of his mouth. <The power is real. We can use it to fight the Yeerks.>

“How, though?” My own voice sounded weak in my ears. “By turning into dogs?”

<Not just dogs. Any animal we want.>

“To do what?”

<Whatever we need to. Whatever will help us stop them.>

I was silent for a minute. The shower turned off. “I have to get ready for work,” I said.

<Jake.> Tobias’s thought-speak voice was urgent. <The Yeerks are here. We have to do something about it.>

“I know, I just—” I could hear Cassie coming out of the bathroom, going back into our room. She’d be in the kitchen soon, getting breakfast. On a normal day I’d be out there with her, showering and shaving and pouring a bowl of cereal. She had to be wondering where I was by now.

“Hang on a couple minutes,” I said, and left the study, leaving Tobias behind in dog form.

Cassie was in our room, pulling on her jeans. “Who was at the door?” she asked.

I could have told her. I wanted to, almost as a way to keep from being pulled into this—a way to give myself an ally, help me keep my footing. But it wouldn’t really work that way.

“The lady from four was wondering if we’d seen a package she was looking for,” I said.

“At this hour?”

“I know, right?” I said. Then, “Uh, hey, so I remembered have to get some files off my laptop here before I go to work. It’s gonna take a while. Head out without me, okay?”

“Sure,” she said. “I’m just going to make some toast, and then I’m heading out. Main clinic today. There’s this wolverine that’s probably gonna need bowel surgery.”

Cassie has a bunch of different organizations she works with. There aren’t a lot of veterinary surgeons in the state with her expertise. “Sounds good. I’ll see you tonight.”

“I’ll try to come home early,” she said. “It’s the eleventh today.”

It took me a moment to realize what that meant, and then my expression froze on my face.

See, Cassie and I had been trying to have a baby.

“Oh,” I said. “Oh, great.”

She went into the kitchen, and I staggered back to the study where Tobias was waiting for me.

I shut the door behind me. “I don’t think I can do this,” I said.

Tobias had morphed back to human while I was with Cassie. “What? We have to do this.”

“We’re trying to have a family,” I said. “Me and Cassie. We…”

I felt it on my chest, like an enormous weight: everything the Andalite had told us. The image of Visser Three turning into a monster and destroying him. The Yeerks, who were taking over the world.

I could sidestep it all. I could take that weight off my chest and let it fall wherever it was going to fall. I could turn away and not watch and pretend I didn’t know.

“This isn’t going to stop if we don’t do anything about it,” Tobias said. “We have to—”

“Sh,” I said suddenly. Footsteps were coming towards us, across the living room. “Cassie’s coming,” I whispered. “You have to hide.”

I was looking at Tobias’s face while I said it. I saw the way those words hurt.

“It’s not—she can’t know,” I said. “We don’t know what she is yet.”

It was technically true. It was what Marco had been telling me. But right then it was an excuse. Because if I told Cassie, I could never escape the knowledge of what I was turning away from.

Tobias slipped into the space between the door and the desk. A moment later Cassie knocked, and opened the door. It hid Tobias from sight.

“I’m off,” she said. “You sure you don’t want a ride?”

I wasn’t even wearing real pants yet. It was a ridiculous thing to ask: she’d have to wait for me to get dressed, to shave, to have breakfast, and then she’d end up starting her first surgery late and running around all day to catch up. But that was Cassie for you. Always willing to inconvenience herself for the people around her. It’s something I love about her, and something I’ve had to be very careful of, in our relationship, not to ask more than she’d want to give.

She wouldn’t turn away from the fight, I was pretty sure. If she knew, she wouldn’t be saying no.

“No,” I said to her. “I’ll finish up here; see you tonight.”

She gave me a quick kiss goodbye. I turned it into a more serious one: not long; Tobias was still behind the door. But enough of one that she looked surprised when I broke away. “Tonight,” she said, her face warm in the way it only ever is for me.

I watched her go, my stomach knotting up.

“We can’t just walk away from this,” Tobias said, after the front door had shut.

Cassie would have said yes. But didn’t that make it more important that I say no? I was the one who had to decide for our family, the one who had to stand up for both of us.

I wished Tobias would stop saying “we.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said.

Chapter Text

I was late for work. Not horrifically late. Our office doesn’t care much when we come in, as long as our work doesn’t suffer. It was maybe nine-fifteen when I rolled in the door with my laptop bag and my Starbucks cup.

I wasn’t expecting anybody to be waiting for me. Like I said, no one cares when I come into work. But I had barely taken my jacket off and pressed the power button on my laptop dock when my boss popped his head in the door.

“Heeeeeey, Jakey,” he said. Steve is the kind of guy who has a nickname for everyone. Or several, in most cases. “How’s it going? You have a good night last night?”

“Yeah, pretty good,” I said. You know, if running for your life from aliens who were trying to kill you counted as good.

“What’d you get up to? Anything good?”

This was kind of weird. Steve was the vice president of product design; he was even busier than I was. He might waste time in meetings bragging about what he and his twenty-years-ago frat buddies got up to the past weekend, but he didn’t usually come by my office to do it. He didn’t usually come by my office at all, actually.

“Not much,” I said. “Had dinner with my cousin.”

“Cool cool,” he said. “Just asking because there was some shit that went down last night—you know that construction site a couple of buildings down?”

My heart suddenly started beating very, very fast.

“Uh, yeah,” I said, squinting my eyes like maybe I had to think about it. “Why?”

“I guess something got fucked up, some chemical leakage or whatever,” he said. “They’re trying to find anyone who might have been near there, round them up for decontamination.” He shrugged like he didn’t really know, either.

My grip on my coffee was getting slick with sweat. “Huh. Well, I didn’t go near there, so.”

“Yeah, okay, just checking,” he said. “You’re sure you didn’t see anything? Anyone who might have gone in there, anything like that?”

His gaze on me was about three shades too intense. The coffee was churning in my empty stomach. What did he know? What had he seen?

“I mean, I was in this building yesterday, is that close enough?” I asked. I widened my eyes as much as I could. “Should we maybe all get tested?”

“Nah, don’t worry about it, I think you had to be on the site,” he said. He slapped my door frame and took a step out of my office, like he was going to leave. Then, turning back. “You sure you didn’t see anyone around there?”

I shook my head.

“Cool. Just don’t want to see anyone get hurt,” he said, slapping the wall again and leaving.

I waited about ten seconds, to make sure that he was gone. Then I waited another five seconds to make sure I wasn’t going to hurl my lack-of-breakfast all over the desk. Then I went out to find Marco.

Marco works a little ways away on the same floor, in the coding bullpen. It’s this big open area of cubicles with white boards all around and big windows that let in the sun. I caught sight of him in his cubicle, typing away at his computer. He met my gaze with wide eyes, still typing.

“Oh, hey, Jake,” he said with a slightly manic grin as I came up to his cube. “How’s it going?” Then, when I got close enough, in a low voice, “Where the fuck have you been? I sent you like twelve messages, I stopped by your office, I thought you were—”

“Steve’s one of them,” I said in an undertone.

“What?”

“A—” I broke off and leaned closer. “A controller. Steve’s a controller.”

I pulled back. Marco’s eyes were so wide I could see the whites all around his irises. “Oh,” he said. “Oh, fuck.”

Then he stood up and grabbed my shirt and pulled me after him.

There’s a mail room around the corner from the bullpen. It doesn’t have a door that shuts or anything, but at least it’s out of hearing range of the cubicles, if you talk in a low voice.

“He was asking me about my night,” I said after Marco pulled me inside. “He wanted to know if I’d been to the construction site. Said there was a contaminant spill. He asked me, like, six times.”

“Figures they’d have a cover story,” Marco said. “Do you have your phone?”

“I think he might know something. I think he might have seen—”

“Your phone,” Marco said.

“What? Why?”

“I need to see your location settings. Let me—”

“Of course I have my location settings off, I’m not an idiot,” I said.

Marco took my phone anyway and made me unlock it so he could scroll through my settings. His shoulders relaxed a little. “Okay. Good,” he said. “You didn’t have Maps open or anything, did you?”

“Why would I have Maps open?” I said. “I was walking from the restaurant to my car.”

“Hey, sometimes people just have Maps open.”

“Well, I didn’t.”

“Good,” Marco said. And then, at a normal volume, “Yeah, breakfast sounds good. Let’s go grab some.”

“What?” I hurried after him as he walked out. “Why are we getting breakfast?” I hissed.

“We have some other people to talk to,” he said in a low voice, tapping away at his phone. “Breakfast sandwich, maybe?” he said in a normal voice again.

I pressed my lips together but didn’t argue.

Rachel was waiting in the coffee shop a block away from our office when we walked in, sunglasses on and arms and legs crossed. “I thought you said quarter past nine,” she said.

“This guy wasn’t in his office yet,” Marco said. “Can I see your phone?”

“What? No,” she said.

“He wants to check your location settings,” I said.

She gave him a look. Then she opened up her phone, clicked a few things, and handed it to him.

“You okay?” I asked her as Marco scrolled through her settings.

“I’ve had better nights,” she said.

You couldn’t tell it to look at her. But then, I guessed she didn’t usually wear sunglasses indoors. “Tell me about it,” I said.

Marco handed her her phone back.“You’re good,” he said. “Does—what was the guy’s name? Toby?”

“Tobias,” Rachel said, at the same time that I said, “He came by my apartment this morning.”

That got their attention. “And?” Marco said.

“He wants us to do the thing.” I lowered my voice. “Fight these—Yeerks.”

“Well, obviously,” Rachel said.

Marco shot her a look. “It’s not that obvious.”

“What, you want to walk away?” she asked, scorn dripping from her voice.

My stomach churned. I was really regretting the coffee and no food thing.

“Walk away from what?” Marco said. “The chance to die really stupidly? You know, I think I’m good with that.”

“We didn’t get the thing so that we could walk away,” she said.

“Have you tried it?” I asked her.

She lifted one shoulder a little. I was taking that as a no.

“That’s not the priority right now,” Marco said. “The priority is, let’s make sure these jackasses don’t know who we are.”

“How would they know who we are?” Rachel asked, impatient.

“They’re asking around,” I said. “My boss. One of our VPs. He was asking if I’d seen anyone near the construction site last night.”

Marco cocked his eyebrow at Rachel, like, see?

“Okay,” she said. “All the more reason to do something about it. Get them before they get us.”

I was starting to see why Rachel was so terrifying on the trading floor. Not that I’d really questioned it before.

“I don’t think we can do much about it,” I said. “I don’t think it’ll help to, like.” I lowered my voice. “Turn into an elephant at him.”

I looked at Marco to see if he was going to back me up. But his eyes were narrowed thoughtfully. “Actually,” he said.

#

“This is a terrible idea,” I said.

“I agree,” Marco said. The three of us were behind the coffee shop, in the alley where they had their trash cans. “This is all a terrible idea. That’s why I’d like it to be over so I can go back to pretending none of it ever happened.”

“It’s not going to be over,” Rachel said. She was still wearing her sunglasses, and holding herself like someone aware that every single surface in this alleyway would stain her suit. Or maybe like she was daring them to try.

“Isn’t there something else we can try?” I asked feebly.

“Not unless you want me to spend the whole day trying to hack into the cell phone database and every single security network that might have caught us on camera within two blocks of the construction site and wipe all traces of us from existence,” Marco said.

“Well—”

“I mean, obviously I’m gonna do that anyway,” Marco said. “But I’ll probably still fail, so.”

I looked at the pile of trash bags heaped around the bottom of the dumpster. I couldn’t see anything moving. But I was pretty sure I knew what was in there. “He said animals,” I said. “Do we even know if they’re animals?”

“Of course they are,” Rachel said. “Didn’t you pay attention in bio?”

Not actually a ton. But enough to know that she was, at least technically, right.

“So?” Marco said. “Go for it.”

“Why do I have to go for it?” I asked.

“I’m going to be busy hacking,” Marco said.

I swear, he looked just a tiny bit smug when he said that.

I looked at the pile of trash. Maybe we weren’t even going to find anything. It seemed like a clean cafe. Probably their trash was hygienically bagged and we were out of luck. I could tell myself that, right?

“Maybe…maybe we should just wait for one to crawl out,” I said.

“You two are pathetic,” Rachel said, and waded in and kicked at the bags with her pointy-toed boots. They went tumbling over the ground, spilling trash—definitely not hygienically bagged—and a rat went running in one direction. Rachel lunged in the other, and came up with something pinched between her fingers. “One cockroach,” she said.

There was probably something wrong with me. I was thinking longingly of the rat.

The little brown bug was squirming between Rachel’s fingers. Its antennae were waving, and its wings were trying to flap. “So do I just, uh.”

She shrugged. “He said you touch it, right?”

I touched my fingers to the cockroach’s wing. It felt cool and slick and hard, like plastic. Just a fake cockroach, I told myself. This is all a joke. A game.

Just a game. A game where I was either going to turn into a cockroach, or run around screaming my guts out. It was definitely going to be one or the other.

I focused on the cockroach under my fingertips. I thought about what it would be like to become it. I couldn’t tell if anything was happening—but then the roach under my fingers went still. It stopped struggling.

“Did you do it?” Marco asked.

I took my fingers away. “I don’t know. I guess so.”

“Guess you’ll find out,” Rachel said.

“Yeah, either it’ll work, or we all head down to the nearest hospital for psych evaluations,” Marco said.

Again, there was probably something wrong with me. Compared to our actual plan, that sounded like a really pleasant alternative.

Chapter Text

Marco and I went back to work. Rachel stayed in the cafe to work and wait for Tobias. I mentioned that I wasn’t sure if he’d come back to the area—he had probably realized that the Yeerks would be looking for witnesses—and she just shrugged and said she’d find him.

I went to my ten o’clock meeting. Then the meeting after that. Marco and I work for this company called Dapsen. When we started, it had a different name and focused on software, but two years ago it was bought out and now mostly does apps. Sometimes for other companies that hire us to do the work, and sometimes as independent business ventures. We’ve had some pretty successful ones—some you’ve maybe even used, like Fit or Scrapbook. We were currently in beta for Share, our social media app, and management was hoping it would make a big splash when we formally launched in a couple of months.

Which meant I had to go to a bunch of planning meetings where I sat across from Steve and pretended I wasn’t staring at his head, trying to imagine the Yeerk in there.

He seemed so normal. The same boss I’d had for four years now. Was there really an alien inside his head, controlling his every move? Why did an alien care about the spacing on our app launch announcements?

Do you know?I wondered, staring at his forehead. Were you asking everyone about last night, or do you know something about me?

Probably he didn’t. If he did, we wouldn’t be sitting here like this. But I still had to find out as much as I could.

I had a text when I got back to my desk. From Rachel: So? Did you do the thing yet?

Just about to, I sent back. I locked my door, closed my eyes, and took three deep breaths. Then I remembered what it had been like for Tobias, morphing to a dog inside his clothes, so I opened my eyes, shucked my clothing, and took a few more deep breaths.

Honestly, the clothing part was weird enough on its own. I don’t usually get naked inside my office. We don’t have windows in our doors, but if someone came and knocked, it would already be pretty freaking weird. And that was leaving aside the thing where I was about to turn into a cockroach.

Not really the kind of thing you expect from the head of your product team.

I folded up my clothes and put them in a desk drawer, just in case. Then I pictured the cockroach.

I wasn’t really sure how the whole morphing thing worked. I wasn’t even really sure I believed in it, even though I’d seen Tobias do it. So when my body started changing, I was so surprised that it immediately stopped.

I opened my eyes. I was still human—mostly. But I was smaller than usual. I’m on the tall side normally, but now I probably wasn’t any taller than Marco. Maybe not any taller Cassie. Everything looked just slightly off, the wrong distance from my face.

I looked down at my hands. And then pressed my lips together to hold in a scream.

They were brown. Not brown like skin can be brown, but brown like plastic. Brown like a cockroach’s wings.

I looked away. I wasn’t going to keep going, if I let myself keep thinking about it. And I had to keep going. Everyone was counting on me.

Cassie’s counting on you, too—to come home tonight in one piece, a voice in my head said. But that was why I had to do this. Turning into a roach to spy on my boss had to be less dangerous than hoping he didn’t know about me and walking into a trap.

I closed my eyes again and focused. The morph continued. I felt myself shrinking—I’m not sure how I could feel that, but I could: my body was getting smaller. All sorts of vital pieces of me were dissolving. It didn’t hurt, but I could feel it happening: I felt the lurch when my bones disappeared, and the tug when my internal organs sloshed around without structure. I felt the pinch as my waist narrowed to form the tripartite insect body. I felt the hardening of my skin as it turned into an exoskeleton, and the jolt as extra legs sprouted from my chest.

And then my eyes weren’t closed anymore. I could see, but not like a human: the world was dim and distorted around me, and I couldn’t blink to clear it. I didn’t have eyelids.

That was the point where I wanted to scream. Where I didn’t care about secrecy, or safety, or any of the reasons I was doing this. I was trapped inside a body that wasn’t mine, and I couldn’t even see the world the way I normally could. But I couldn’t even scream—I didn’t have a mouth or a throat anymore.

Then, the weirdest thing. This other mind joined mine. Not, like, a thinking person’s mind. I don’t even know how to describe it. It was a little like the thought-speech: there was something in my head that wasn’t me, and I knew it wasn’t me, but it wasn’t really anyone else, either. But it wasn’t words. It was just a presence. This sort of calm confidence. It was a mind that felt at home in the body of the roach.

The roach mind, I realized. I was getting some kind of roach brain along with the body.

I didn’t even want to think about how my brain was still working. I was about an inch and a half long. A quarter-inch off the ground. I weighed less than an ounce. Most of my body was just…gone.

Don’t think about it, I told myself. That wasn’t too hard; I’d never wanted to think about anything less. Just go.

I went. I went almost without thinking about it: the cockroach body knew how to move. Have you ever tried to step on a cockroach? You know how they move so fast you can’t quite get them? Let me tell you, it feels even faster when you’re the roach. I flew across the gray industrial carpet of my office.

Not in any particular direction, I realized. I stopped and got my bearings. My office was right next to Steve’s. There was my desk, and there was the wall, so Steve’s office was…that way. The roach brain wanted to be distracted by the contents of my trash can, but I had a mission.

I hauled roach across the floor to the door. There was a crack under the door—not large, but it was basically a ten-foot ceiling to my roach body. I slipped underneath and hovered before going out into the hall, trying to figure out if the coast was clear.

The cockroach couldn’t exactly hear. Not the way humans hear. But the antennae picked up vibrations. It was picking up on them now: rhythmic, large. Footsteps? Were they close?

I waited a moment, and the footsteps grew louder. Then louder still. Then they were huge and earth-shaking, rattling the world as they went by.

Ah. So that was what it was like when they were close.

There were more vibrations, but none of them were huge like that. I seized my moment and ran out into the hall.

I hugged the baseboard and headed for Steve’s open door. I ran inside and stayed along the wall, then cut over to the desk.

This was the tricky part. I was small, but I wasn’t invisible. I couldn’t just plop myself down next to Steve’s keyboard and hope he didn’t notice. I had to stick to the shadows.

I climbed up the leg of the desk and ran across the underside. I didn’t even think about it, just did it, my little roach feet gripping the irregularities in the particle board. It was pretty cool, if you overlooked the grossness aspect.

Then the desk surface ended in front of me. I stopped. I was probably above the keyboard tray now. A good place to overhear something—if anything was happening.

Huh. It didn’t sound like anything was happening.

I stuck my little roach head out beyond the edge of the desk. I could see the brightness of the window, and the large shape of something blocking it. Something dark-colored. A chair, not a person.

Well, shit.

I had looked at Steve’s calendar before I’d morphed. He wasn’t supposed to have any meetings until three. But maybe he’d gone out for lunch. Maybe he’d been pulled into something at the last minute. He might not be back for hours.

I had two hours in morph. But I had no way to track that. I was so used to having clocks around me all the time: on my phone, on my computer screen, on the walls. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d have no way of seeing any of those in roach form. I was going to have to wait, and guess.

I waited. There was nothing to do while waiting except be revolted by my roach body and wonder how much time had gone by. Every once in a while the revulsion would get to be too much, and I’d think that I should go—that maybe more time had passed than I thought, and Steve had been gone for hours, and I should go back and demorph right way. What if I got trapped in roach morph? What if I never got to see Cassie again?

I wasn’t going to be trapped in roach morph. It hadn’t even been an hour. I could wait. And I did, and the cycle would begin all over again.

Finally, when I was just about crawling out of my skin, sounds came closer. I perked up.

A bang. The door closing. Then the thud of footsteps coming toward the desk. The desk shook a little—something landing on the surface, maybe. The chair in front of me moved, and a person sat down in it.

The roach, which had been calm up to that point, suddenly woke up and wanted to run. DANGER, it said, RUN!

I managed to stay put. But only barely.

There were higher-pitched vibrations now. Different from the footsteps. It took me a minute, but finally I figured out it was a voice.

Steve’s voice. He was talking to someone.

That was when I realized just how dumb this plan was. Because, roaches? Not that good at hearing. Definitely not that good at hearing in a way a human can understand. I knew Steve was talking. But I had absolutely no idea what he was saying.

I might have given up at that point. It would have been easy to explain to the others. But I’d already morphed a roach. I wasn’t going to have that be for nothing.

I stayed on the underside of Steve’s desk and listened to what he was saying. And slowly, like I had with the footsteps but on a much finer scale, I figured out how to recognize the words.

He was yelling at someone, I was pretty sure. “I don’t care,” was the first phrase I picked out that I was sure about. And then, “So something-something them.”

A weird sound—maybe a snort? “Look, I don’t care what you do, but get me that footage. What? No. Get it for me, or you’ll be the one explaining to the boss why we don’t know who was at that construction site.”

The boss. Visser Three. And he was looking for—oh. Oh. He was looking for footage.

Marco had mentioned security networks. I’d passed a lot buildings on my way back to the car last night. What were the chances not a single one of them had a camera pointed at the street?

In case you’re wondering, a cockroach’s blood can’t run cold. But it can get nervous. I suddenly was much less willing to stay in one spot under the desk.

I made myself stay. Steve was still talking.

“No, I’ve asked around here,” he was saying now. “All the ones who aren’t our people. None of them say they saw anything—no, of course, I know they wouldn’t, but—”

A new kind of vibration. Like the footsteps, only louder. Then a new voice from farther away. “Hey, Steve, sorry to bug you, but have you seen Jake? He said to come by with the new spec for the SmartMart job, but his door’s locked, and he’s not answering.”

Oh no. It was Kayla, one of my designers. I’d forgotten all about that. I might have had a few other things on my mind that morning.

“His door’s locked?” Steve said. More sounds as he pushed his chair back and stood up.

I waited for him to move past the desk. Then I powered out of there as fast as I could.

I had to get around the corner and into my office, which would by tricky with both of them there. Maybe they wouldn’t look down—but maybe they would. I didn’t have any choice, though, unless—

Well. Roaches hid in walls all the time, didn’t they?

It was maybe a dumb move. I didn’t actually know if I could get through, and I didn’t have any time to waste. But I panicked a little, and my roach body knew how to respond to panic: it flattened itself out and slid right under the wall.

It was crowded in there. Not a big gap. But it turns out roaches can really compress. There was a line of light on the far side of the wall, and I raced for it.

I started demorphing as soon as I was free of the wall. It was almost as horrifying as the morph into the cockroach: my human body reappeared, but in a blurry, fluid way, limbs growing as blobs out of my hard-skinned cockroach body.

A pounding on the door. “Jake? Are you in there?”

Another voice. I could hear it better now that my human ears were returning. “Maybe we shouldn’t bother him,” Kayla said.

“He’s not answering his phone,” Steve said.

I was almost human again. I took a staggering step toward my desk—no, not human enough for that yet. I tripped and fell.

“Did you hear something?” Kayla asked.

“We should get someone to open the door,” Steve said.

I tried walking again. Success. I wasn’t a hundred percent sure I was finished morphing, but my fingers looked normal as I fumbled the drawer open. I had kept my underwear and contacts on—though my contacts felt dry and gross—but I needed way more clothing, fast.

Shirt buttons. Shoe laces. Voices in the hallway, “Is everything okay here?” And then, horrifyingly, Marco’s voice: “Hey guys, I was just looking for Jake—”

I tried to will Marco away. He didn’t need to get caught up in this. Unfortunately, thought speech doesn’t work when you’re in human form.

I finished tying my shoes and shut the drawer. Then I opened it again. There was a case at the bottom I’d almost never opened. I pulled it out, jiggled my computer mouse, typed in my password, then got up open the door.

The noise stopped suddenly when I did. Steve was there, and Kayla, and a few other people, including one in janitor’s clothes who was holding a set of tools. Marco was there, too, giving me a significant look from behind them.

“Jake!” Steve said. “You all right, man?”

I couldn’t tell how much of an edge of suspicion was in his voice. “Yeah, sorry, were you trying to reach me?” I gestured back toward my desk. “I had my noise-canceling headphones on.”

They all looked at my desk, where the headphones were plugged into the computer. I hoped no one investigated too closely. I was pretty sure they didn’t have batteries in them.

“Your door was locked,” Steve said.

“Yeah, I was working on performance reviews, wanted to make sure I had privacy,” I said. “I didn’t worry you, did I?”

The janitor was already leaving.“Not a problem,” Kayla said. She looked relieved. “Did you want to go over the SmartMart spec?”

I wanted to just say yes. It would have been the best way of preserving normalcy. But Marco was still giving me significant looks behind them. “Sure,” I said. “Give me five minutes? I’m going to run to the restroom first.”

Marco followed me to the restroom. I cracked open my stall door when I heard him come in, and he made a face and joined me inside. “This is very smooth,” he whispered. “No one’s going to think we’re having secret bathroom assignations or anything.”

“Steve doesn’t know about us yet,” I said. “But he’s trying to get footage. There must have been security cameras on us.”

Marco waved a hand. “We have bigger problems than that,” he said. “Do you have Share on your phone?”

“Of course.” I had all our apps.

“Do you use it?”

I made a face. “Not really.” It wasn’t really my thing. It was even less Marco’s thing, even though he’d helped build it: he liked to call it a “more desperate version of FourSquare.”

“Well, guess what I found when I hacked your cell phone provider,” he said.

“I thought you said you couldn’t do that,” I said.

“I said I couldn’t erase us totally. I didn’t say I couldn’t hack anything.”

“Okay, and?”

“Guess which one app is accessing location data?”

I didn’t have to guess. “It’s only supposed to do that when I’m using it.”

“Yeah, well, either someone messed up, or someone lied to us, because there was definite data access.”

His face was completely serious. It was disconcerting. That wasn’t something I saw often. “You erased it, right?” I said.

“Okay, even assuming I can erase data from the cell phone provider,” Marco said. “Which—okay, maybe, but it doesn’t matter. It’s the app that’s collecting the data. The cell provider doesn’t have it.”

“So that’s even easier,” I said. “Just erase it from Share.”

“I can’t,” Marco said. There was an edge of hysteria in his whisper. “You’d better believe I’ve been trying, and I can’t delete it.”

“But that’s, like, our data,” I said. “You helped build the app. Can’t you just—”

I shut up as the door opened. We both stood very still and listened as someone unzipped and used the urinal. I prayed very, very hard he wasn’t going to come investigate the two pairs of feet in the farthest stall.

Marco mouthed something at me. I made a “what?” face. He rolled his eyes, and we waited.

It felt like it took forever until the guy left. Finally the door swung shut behind him, and Marco leaned forward again. “I can’t,” he said. “Jake. Do you get it? I have the deepest level of access anyone is theoretically supposed to have to the app. And I can’t. Erase. The data.”

I felt like I needed to throw up again. At least there was a toilet right there.

“So they’re gonna know,” I said. “They know we were there.”

“I swapped around the phone numbers associated with the data on the front end,” Marco said. “If they didn’t think to check last night, they won’t find out right away. But it’s not clean. If someone who knows how to hack looks at it closely, they’re gonna figure it out.”

“So what do we do?” My heart was pounding way too hard.

“I don’t know!” Marco ran a hand through his hair. “The data’s there, in the servers, I just can’t get to it—”

“Can’t you do something about the servers?”

“What, like, blow them up?” Marco asked sarcastically.

“Well,” I said. When he put it like that, it sounded way too extreme. But then, I had just turned into a cockroach and snuck into my boss’s office. We were already several steps away from reality. “Yeah.”

Marco blinked at me. “Okay, yeah, I guess that would work.”

I reached for my phone to check the time, then remembered I hadn’t put it back in my pocket after morphing. “I have to go meet with Kayla,” I said. “I can’t disappear again. Can you—is there something you can do to make it harder to trace?”

Marco looked grim. “Yeah, I can mess a few things around, buy us a couple of days. It’ll totally fuck the database, but—well, I guess the company will have bigger problems soon.”

I kind of wanted to laugh hysterically. I couldn’t believe I was doing this: hiding in the bathroom in the middle of the workday, plotting to blow up the company servers. “Do it,” I said. “We’ll figure out the next step later.”

Chapter Text

“Destroy the servers?” Rachel said. “Cool.”

The four of us were sitting in a little square of green grass and trees a few blocks from our office. A good distance from any buildings, because none of us were in a trusting mood about electronic surveillance right now. I had powered my phone off, and I still felt like it was watching me.

Rachel had found Tobias. He was sitting with us, his eyes on the clouds, Lucy curled up at his side. I kept glancing at Lucy. I still hadn’t gotten over the image of Tobias becoming her.

“It’s not that easy,” Marco said. “We have to get into server room first.”

“So we steal a key,” Rachel said, shrugging.

“Wow, I can’t believe I didn’t think of that!” Marco said, smacking himself on the forehead. “How could I not think of that?”

“Marco,” I said.

“Yeah, so I thought of that,” Marco said. “I even hacked into our office’s security system to get a look at the door. And guess what? There’s no keyhole.”

“So we just walk in?” Tobias asked.

“There’s a bio-sensitive pad,” Marco said. “With five security cameras pointed at it. Five.”

Rachel made a face. “What the fuck kind of office do you guys work in?”

“Not one with a lot of security,” Marco said. “Elevators and stairwells, lobby, the normal stuff. Not in the offices. But somehow this door gets five cameras?”

“There’s another problem,” I said. “My boss, Steve—he’s trying to get the security footage from other places on the street. I don’t think they have it yet, but they’re gonna—”

“I can help with that,” Tobias said.

“You?” Marco said.

It wasn’t much more skeptical than most of the things that come out of Marco’s mouth. But it was definitely a little more skeptical.

“Yeah, him,” Rachel said forcefully. “You have a problem with that?”

“No,” Marco said, holding up his hands. “I just—”

“There’s a guy.” Tobias looked faintly defensive, but he powered forward. “One of the guys who sleeps at the construction site sometimes. He has a thing about surveillance. I can check with him.”

“That would be awesome,” I said.

“Great, so we’ll only get killed because of the Share data,” Marco said. “I feel so much better now.”

We were all under a lot of stress. I reminded myself of that and took a deep breath before, I don’t know, smacking Marco upside the head or something. “Okay, one crisis at a time,” I said. “Tobias figures out what cameras might have caught us. Marco works on the server room. If we can’t unlock it, what do we do?”

“Blow the building up,” Rachel said.

She was joking. I think.

“We use the morphing power,” Tobias said. “We find out who can get into the server room, and we turn into them.”

It was a deeply creepy solution. But it made sense. “Might not be that easy,” I said. “If they have that many cameras on the door, there might be more than servers inside.”

“So we bring some firepower,” Rachel said.

“You want us to go in with Uzis?” Marco asked skeptically.

Rachel grinned. “Not that kind of firepower.”

***

It was a pretty long drive out to Cassie’s office at rush hour. “This is where Cassie works?” Rachel asked when we got out in the mostly empty parking lot.

“Sometimes,” I said. Her main office was in the city, part of a normal vet’s office with a tiny surgery attached. But she circulated a lot in the area, sometimes flying across the country when there was a case that no one else could handle.

She came to this office pretty often, but she wouldn’t be there tonight. I was kind of hoping no one would be. No such luck: there were a bunch of cars on the other side of the lot, where they did the demonstrations.

“What kind of animals does she work on?” Tobias asked.

“Exotics, mostly,” I said. “I don’t know what will be here tonight. But we’ll probably find a lot of those.”

I pointed up, over the field where the demonstration was happening. We were just in time to see something streak down from above, a dark shape moving fast as a bullet. It plummeted to the ground and then spread its wings, going from terminal velocity to a swooping glide in a fraction of a second. Then up, up, and away.

“Holy shit,” Rachel said.

Tobias’s face was glowing, tilted toward the sky.

“This place is affiliated with a raptor center,” I said. “I thought it might come in handy.”

Marco wasn’t there yet: he’d taken his own car, so that we wouldn’t have to go back into the city for it. “Should we wait?” Tobias asked.

I checked my phone. “Nah, better not.” I was already worried about running into one of Cassie’s colleagues. “We don’t want anyone wondering why we’re out here.”

The door was unlocked. “Just look like you know where you’re going,” I said in a low voice as we went in.

Fortunately, I did kind of know where I was going. I had come out here with Cassie a couple of times. There were some other exhibits aside from the raptors, animals that needed a place to heal under veterinary supervision, and sometimes Cassie had a really cool patient she wanted to show me. Great cats, porcupines, stuff like that.

The room where Cassie usually worked was a jumble of medical supplies and paperwork. Knowing Cassie, it was probably perfectly organized; just not in a way anyone else would understand. “I don’t see any animals,” Rachel said.

“They’re through here.” I led them to another door in the back of the room. “They only keep the really sick animals in here: the ones that are being prepped for surgery, or who need to be sedated for recovery. There’s a night crew that comes around, but it should be too early for them.”

“Is this really going to give us what we need?” Rachel asked. “I mean, birds are great, but if we’re going to be fighting anyone, we’ll need something bigger than we can find in a—”

I opened the door. The first cage was one of the big ones, and lying sleeping on the floor, its side rising and falling with its enormous breaths, was an eight-foot grizzly bear.

“Well, okay,” she said.

It wasn’t easy figuring out how to acquire the grizzly. The keys to the cages were on the wall and labeled, but that was hardly the problem. “He’s asleep,” Rachel kept saying. “It’ll be fine.”

“Until he wakes up and chomps your leg,” I said. I had heard a lot of stories about animals in my time. Especially ones that were in pain.

“I’m sure he won’t do that,” Rachel said, as confident as someone who’d never heard the story about how Cassie’s college lab partner lost his left forefinger.

“He might get sleepy when you acquire him,” Tobias said. “That’s what happened with Lucy.” But we didn’t have any way of knowing if that would happen again.

In the end, Rachel went into the cage while I held a tranquilizer gun pointed at the bear. It wasn’t a perfect solution—if nothing else, Cassie would kill us for giving the bear meds no one had approved—but if we wanted firepower, we had to take some risks to get it.

It was kind of anticlimactic in the end. The bear didn’t even wake up. Rachel crouched down and put her hand on the bear’s massive shoulder, and its breathing didn’t even change.

“One bear, acquired,” she said, looking smug as she came out of the cage.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said.

We locked up the bear again, and Tobias made a beeline for the birds. They were easy enough to acquire: they stayed on their perches when their doors were opened, and they were familiar with humans enough that they let us put a hand to their heads. Tobias got a red-tailed hawk, I got a kestral, and Rachel got—

“Don’t even say it,” Rachel said after she acquired her bird, and we flipped over the tag that said “harpy eagle.”

Tobias and I didn’t say a thing.

I wasn’t sure what we should get next. There were some other animals around: a bunch of smaller animals like frogs and squirrels, who probably weren’t destined for Cassie’s table, and a couple large ones that wouldn’t be that useful, like a capybara and a python. “C’mon, where are the elephants or whatever?” Rachel asked.

“You said there were more animals outside?” Tobias said to me.

“Yeah,” I said—there were larger outdoor recovery areas for animals that didn’t need as close supervision, but it would be harder to get to them. I would have explained that, but I was distracted by the animal I’d just found on the far side of the bear cage. The one with very recognizable spots.

“Oh,” Tobias said, coming up behind me. “It’s beautiful.”

“Yeah.” I stared at the leopard, and it stared back at me. Then it turned its head and started licking its paw lazily, like it was done with me.

It was strong, and it was fast, and those teeth would be good in a fight. “Rachel, do you want to hold the tranquilizer gun?”

I didn’t have to go into the cage for this one. Instead I held my fingers through the grating, like I would have for one of our cats. The leopard pretended not to notice me for a while, and finally it came over to sniff.

My fingers were shaking. But I touched them to its nose anyway, and as soon as I focused on the animal, its eyes lost focus and it stood still.

I pulled my fingers away before it could wake up. “Do you want to acquire it, too?” I asked Tobias.

He shrugged. “We should see what else there is.”

“I think we’ve seen most of it.” I pulled out my phone: still nothing from Marco. “And we should probably hurry. I don’t know what the hell happened to—”

A door slammed, not too far away. We all froze.

A minute or so passed, and I didn’t hear anything except for the thudding of my heart. “Maybe a different office?” Rachel said.

“I should go check,” I said. “If it’s someone who works with Cassie, it’ll be less weird if I’m here alone.”

I left them behind the bear cage while I went back into the office area. No one: just the paperwork and random medical gear. But something was out of place. Had that coat been draped over that chair before? It did look kind of like one Cassie had; but then, she was here a lot. Probably the coat was left over from—

The other door opened, the one to the surgery, and Cassie came out.

“Jake!” she said.

“Hi,” I said. “Hi. I just came by to—surprise you.”

“That’s so sweet,” she said, looking confused. Probably because this wasn’t a thing I did very often. Or at all. Because usually, when she worked late, she was in surgery, and I wasn’t out of touch with reality enough to try to visit her while she was in surgery.

Usually.

“What are you doing here, though? I told you I was going to be in the main office today,” she said.

“Oh,” I said. That was right: she had told me that. Which was why I thought I would be safe coming to the raptor center surgery. Not that I could tell her that. “Uh, wow, I must have forgotten.”

She laughed. “Well, it was still very sweet,” she said, coming over to squeeze my hand. “I’m sorry I can’t stay long—I just came by to grab a saw I needed. I’m going to be later than I thought tonight,” she added apologetically. “Still have to do that wolverine surgery.”

“No, that’s fine, you’ll still be—you know,” I said. “Tomorrow. Right?”

“Should be fine until the fourteenth,” she said. And then, “Hey, where did you trip and fall last night? There was something weird on the news near your office—some kind of chemical leak in a construction site. You weren’t near there, were you?”

Let me tell you: I’d been through a lot of scary stuff over the past day and a half. I’d turned into a cockroach. I’d seen a giant tentacle monster eat someone. I’d been chased by seven-foot-tall bladed aliens who wanted to kill me. But nothing scared me more than hearing that question come out of Cassie’s mouth.

For a moment I couldn’t make myself say anything. Then I raised my shoulders in a shrug. “No,” someone said—it must have been me, but I wasn’t there for it. “I heard something about that at work, but no. I wasn’t anywhere near there.”

“Well, good,” she said, and the little part of me that was managing to hang onto thought at the moment recognized that it was a leaving voice: an almost-out-the-door voice. Which was good, because the rest of me was having a hard time holding it together. “Give me a minute, and I’ll walk you out,” she said.

She was heading toward the other door, the one where the animals were. Where Tobias and Rachel were. “Where you are going?” I asked, my voice rising in alarm.

“I just want to check on the bear I worked on yesterday,” she said. “I hear he had a rough night last night.”

“Um—” I said, but I couldn’t come up with anything to say after that. What was I going to do, tell her she couldn’t go see her own patients?

I followed close behind her instead, trying to make a bunch of noise so that Rachel and Tobias would at least hear me and know to hide. If they could find anywhere to hide. The cages were all barred, nothing opaque that would hide someone. Maybe…maybe I could say they came with me? As a surprise? Yeah, Cassie’s college roommate and also the random homeless guy I passed on the way to work, hiding in a room I hadn’t told her to go into: the perfect surprise.

We went through the door. I looked to the left at where Rachel and Tobias had been. Nothing.

I did a scan of the room, trying to figure out where they were so that I could block Cassie’s sightline. Still nothing.

“I’ll just be a minute,” Cassie said, unlocking the bear cage. And then, misinterpreting the slightly wild look in my eyes: “Don’t worry, he’s heavily sedated.”

I kept scanning the room while Cassie did a vitals check on the bear. There really weren’t that many places to hide. Where were they?

Not here, anyway. Which meant I only had the one problem instead of the two.

Cassie was checking on the bear. I had seen her do this so many times over the years: take careful, methodical stock of an animal’s health, her fingers moving expertly over its skin or fur or scales. It was one of the things I thought of automatically when I conjured an image of Cassie in my mind: smile, and the gentle cadence of her voice, and the way she cared for an animal in pain.

She seemed the same. She seemed so much like herself.

There were lots of reasons she might ask me about the thing at the construction site. Right? Innocent reasons. It didn’t mean anything.

Something caught my eye, on the other side of the bear cage. Something on the ground, in a few different colors. Was that—clothing?

Cassie straightened up and fiddled with the bear’s IV. “Okay, I think I’m done here,” she said.

I followed her out. She started putting on her coat. Left arm first, the way she always had, in all the years I’d known her.

I slipped my hand in my pocket and turned off the ringer on my phone. “Oh,” I said. “Uh, I think I dropped my phone in the other room.” Then, when she took a step back toward the other room, “No, you go on. I don’t want to make you later than you have to be.”

“Are you sure?” she said. “I can—”

“No, no, you go ahead,” I said.

“Okay,” she said. “See you at home later.”

“Sure,” I said, bending to kiss her.

Cassie and I had been together for eleven years. It was the first time I’d kissed her and felt like a fraud.

I went back into the other room after Cassie was gone. “Rachel?” I called softly. “Tobias?” I still couldn’t see them. I didn’t know where they were, or whatthey were.

<Is she gone?> Rachel asked, a voice in my head. A gray squirrel hopped out from behind a cage, followed by another gray squirrel.

“Yeah.” I said. “Good thinking with the morphs.”

<Tobias wanted to turn into the hawk,> Rachel said, an eye roll in her voice as they scurried back across the room to their clothes.

<Hey, it would have worked,> Tobias said. He didn’t sound hurt, though. <People hardly ever look up.>

Rachel and Tobias morphed back to human. I had never seen anyone do that; it was just as weird as seeing Tobias morph to dog, watching the human features reemerge from tiny squirrels. I was distracted enough that I forgot to wonder whether they’d figured out the clothing thing.

It turned out they had. Rachel had leggings and a sports bra on, and Tobias had boxers and a t-shirt.

The t-shirt was a tight enough t-shirt that it didn’t hide anything. He turned away in embarrassment as soon as the morph finished. “Sorry,” he whispered, arms crossed over his chest. “Sorry.”

I dropped my eyes to the ground. I hadn’t known. Should I have known? Should I say something now?

“We’ll get you a binder,” Rachel said firmly. She bent down and picked up Tobias’s sweatshirt, one of the many layers he usually wore, and handed it to him.

He didn’t say anything, but when I looked back at him, he was wearing the sweatshirt and looking at Rachel with obvious gratitude.

“So,” Rachel said loudly into the awkward silence that hung in the air after that. “No word from Marco.”

I pulled out my silenced phone. Still no notifications. “Shit,” I muttered, and hit call.

Marco took long enough to answer that I thought he wasn’t going to. Then finally, after about six rings, the line picked up and I heard someone talking in the background and then Marco’s breathless voice saying. “Jake! Sorry, man. I was just about to call you.”

I exchanged a look with Rachel and Tobias, who were watching me expectantly. “Okay,” I said slowly. “What the hell have you been doing?”

“Believe me when I say that if the story were a novel, George R.R. Martin would still be writing it,” he said. “Can you meet me at my place?”

I took the phone away from my ear. “He wants to meet at his place,” I said.

Rachel made a what the hell face. Tobias asked, very seriously, “Do you think they took him?”

I didn’t. I didn’t want to think that any of the people I cared about had been taken by the Controllers, and I’d already had to do it once tonight. I closed my eyes for a beat, then put the phone back to my ear. “We can’t meet you there,” I said. “We’ll meet you at Rachel’s hotel room.”

“What the fuck,” Marco said. “Jake, do not do this to me, you don’t know how hard it was to—wait, where is she even staying? Do not make me—”

“We’ll tell you when we get closer,” I said, and hung up the phone.

I looked at Rachel and Tobias. “Okay, we need a plan.”

#

The plan ended up being pretty simple. First, it involved Tobias and me hiding in the bathroom.

“So, uh,” I said, perched on the side of the tub. “Do you think she’s done out there?”

“It’s only been two minutes,” Tobias said. He had Rachel’s phone in his hands.

“Right.” I wasn’t sure how long it had taken me to morph the roach. Maybe more than that. It had felt like it was taking a long time, anyway.

“She might not have that much trouble with it,” Tobias said. “Lucy was easy to get used to.”

I didn’t want to point out that a dog wasn’t quite the same thing as this. “How were the squirrels?” I asked.

He wrinkled his nose. “Jumpy. You don’t know how hard it was to stay behind that cage.”

We were quiet again. Then there was a thud from outside the bathroom, something heavy hitting the floor. Another thud, quieter, like a really loud footstep. Then, <Oh. Oh, wow.>

“Rachel?” I called through the bathroom door. “You good out there?”

<Yeah. This guy is…wow. I think I have it under control, though.>

I eased open the door. A grizzly bear was standing in the middle of the room, its shaggy head close to the ceiling. It didn’t look like it was about to start murderously rampaging.

<This thing is seriously powerful,> Rachel said. <It’s not that hard to control, but I kind of want to…> She lifted her paws, moved them around a little bit. <Seems like a shame not to see what it can do, you know?>

“Maybe…maybe don’t,” I said.

Tobias and I sat on the bed and waited. Rachel stood for a while, and then she sat on the floor. A grizzly bear sitting down is kind of funny. It reminded me of a toddler: the short arms and legs, the clumsiness. Then I remembered that it could carve me up like a Thanksgiving turkey, and it stopped being so cute.

We had texted Marco as we pulled up to the hotel. There was a knock on the door about twenty minutes later.

“Okay,” Marco said when I answered it. “You’d better have a good explanation for why I had to holy fuck!”

Rachel was standing up again. She really made quite an impression.

A guy stumbled up behind Marco. I’d never seen him before. His skin was a little darker than Marco’s, except around his mouth, where it was stained blue. “Hi!” he said, swaying toward me, enough that I could smell the alcohol on his breath. “Are you Andalites?”

Chapter Text

“Okay, I’m gonna say it again,” Marco said. “Was the bear really necessary?”

The bear was still looking down at him from her height of eight feet or so. His height. Its height. However morphed gender worked.

The guy with the blue mouth swayed a little as he looked up at the bear. “You are not an Andalite,” he said to it.

I crossed my arms. “The bear was necessary,” I said, “because you didn’t show up to—the place we were going,” I said, with a glance at the new guy, “and you wouldn’t tell us why.”

“Yeah, yeah, okay, that was shitty of me,” Marco said. “But it was this guy’s fault.” He gestured at blue-mouth guy.

“I do not think it was my fault,” the guy said. He was still looking up at the bear. “Fault. Fffff-ault. That is a fun sound to say with human mouth parts.” Then he looked down, at me. “You are pleasant to look at, but not as pleasant as Marco,” he said.

“Oh God,” Marco muttered. “Hey, Ax. What did I tell you to do when we came into the hotel?”

The guy—Ax, apparently—turned toward him, stumbled, and had to catch himself on a chair. “You told me to consume the human delicacy.”

“That’s right,” Marco said, like he was talking to a very slow toddler. “Like this. Remember?” He raised Ax’s hand to his mouth so that Ax started sucking on the thing he was holding.

“Is that a Ring-Pop?” I asked.

“Is that an Andalite?” Tobias asked.

Tobias’s question was better. I looked at Ax, who certainly looked human. But he was wearing a shirt that was too big for him and dress shoes without socks. And then there was the thing where he kept asking if we were Andalites.

<I’m gonna say that’s an Andalite,> Rachel said.

Ax the probable Andalite sucked on the Ring-Pop. “Candy is sweet,” he told us with a mouthful of Ring-Pop. Then he looked confused, like he didn’t know why that had come out gargled.

“So I’m walking down Brookview, right?” Marco said. “Going to my car. Only there’s that restaurant there, the one with the big glass windows they open when it’s nice out—”

“The one where it’s ladies’ night every Wednesday?” I asked, eyes narrowed.

Marco waved a hand. “Unimportant. The point is, I’m walking by, and there’s all this commotion, and I look inside and this guy is running around, drinking everything in sight.”

I looked over at Ax. He was still swaying, even though he was leaning against the chair, and he was staring up at the bear while he sucked on the Ring-Pop.

“I think, whatever, I don’t have time for this, I’m gonna go on past,” Marco said. “But then I hear him ask this girl if she knows where the Andalites are.”

Ax’s head snapped around. “Andalites?” he asked hopefully.

“Nope,” I said. And then, to Marco, “How did you know he wasn’t a Yeerk?”

“I didn’t, obviously,” Marco said. “But I decided to stay, lurk out of sight, and then he says he’s looking for his brother.”

My stomach sank. I didn’t know the whole story yet, but I had a very bad feeling about this.

“And then I figure, had to be more than one Andalite who came to Earth, right?” Marco said. “If they were fighting the Yeerks or whatever. And then I figure that if this guy actually is an Andalite, the Yeerks are going to be looking for him, too. So I go in and try to get him to be quiet about the whole Andalite thing.”

<That was really dumb,> Rachel said. <What if there were Yeerks there?>

“I thought of that. But if there were Yeerks there, they’d already have shut him up, right?” Marco shrugged. “Anyway, I didn’t want to just leave him there until they found him.”

“It was the right thing to do,” Tobias said softly.

Marco looked uncomfortable. Marco has an interesting relationship with morality. “I mean, I don’t know about that.”

“So you saved this guy from shouting about Andalites to the world,” I said. “How come you couldn’t text us and tell us you were going to be late?”

Marco grimaced. “So by that point he’d drunk an entire bachelorette party’s worth of cocktails. I had to pay for them, but they were only taking cash, so I had to leave my phone as collateral and go get cash. Dragging this one behind me.” He waved toward Ax. “And, you know, keeping him from talking about Andalites the whole time.”

“Andalites,” Ax slurred sadly.

“You have really expensive tastes,” Marco said to him. “Next time, drink the bottom-shelf whiskey. Anyway, by the time I got him into the car, I was just focused on getting him home as fast as I could. Which was when you called. I really was about to text,” he said to me, which was pretty much an apology coming from him.

“Does he know?” Tobias asked Marco.

“What?” Marco said. “About us? No, I mean, I didn’t want to give him more secrets to blab to everyone.”

“No,” Tobias said. “The other thing.”

“About the other Andalite,” I filled in.

Marco’s face shuttered over.

No one said anything for a minute. Then Tobias got up off the bed and went to stand in front of the Andalite. “Hi,” he said. “My name is Tobias.”

Ax tore his eyes away from the bear. “Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill,” he said.

<Wow,> Rachel said.

“Oh,” Tobias said. “Can I—can I call you Ax?”

Ax looked at him for a moment. “Ax is an acceptable approximation of my name using human mouth-parts. Aprokssss-imation.”

“Well, Ax, we actually have seen an Andalite,” Tobias said. “His name was Elfangor.”

“War-Prince Elfangor!” Ax’s eyes widened. “He is my brother. Is he here?”

He looked around, like we might be hiding Elfangor behind the bureau. My heart sank.

“He—no,” Tobias said. “He didn’t make it. He was killed, by Visser Three.”

Ax’s face crumpled. Actually, his whole body crumpled. “No,” he said, and Tobias was suddenly staggering under his weight. Marco and I both ran to help, but Marco was much closer, and Ax slumped over against his shoulder, weeping. He wasn’t holding on—he didn’t seem to have any sense that he could hold on with his arms—but he was heavy, and we ended up helping Marco back to the bed, where Ax lay draped across him, crying hysterically.

The rest of us sat there uncomfortably. Ax wasn’t being loud, but the sound of his gasps made me want to crawl into a hole somewhere and never come out. They made me want to go back and fight Visser Three singlehanded for the right to take Elfangor away and keep him safe.

<I’m gonna demorph now,> Rachel said, and she started to shrink.

“So, uh,” I said once she was human again. “What do we do now?”

Marco shrugged, his arms above the Andalite who was now possibly passed out on his lap. “We play hide the Andalite?”

“He’s going to have to go home with you,” Rachel said.

“What?” Marco said. “Why?”

“Do you see any other options?” I asked.

“You have a hotel room,” he said to Rachel.

“With one bed,” she pointed out. “Do we want to risk the cleaning staff seeing him?”

Marco made a face, but it wasn’t like there were a lot of other options. Tobias didn’t have a home to go to, and I couldn’t take Ax home to Cassie.

Speaking of which. “I should really get going,” I said. “Cassie’s going to be done with her surgery soon.”

Marco straightened up under his pile of Andalite. “Jake, so help me, if you leave me to bring this guy home alone, I will never speak to you again.”

“Don’t bribe him like that,” Rachel said.

#

It was late when I got home, after getting Ax into Marco’s car. I made it through the door about ninety seconds before Cassie, and then pretended I was looking for something on the living room bookshelves instead of walking by them on my way to the bedroom.

“Oh hey, you’re still up,” she said, tired but smiling at me anyway, and I had to pretend to smile back.

We went to sleep pretty soon after that. I was glad: I didn’t want to have to make any excuses for why I was being weird. I wanted to pretend everything was normal, that we were going straight to sleep because Cassie was tired from surgery, that I had no reason to suspect that anything else was up.

I should have told the others. I knew it; I’d known it when I stood in that hotel room; but I hadn’t been able to bring myself to say it. I didn’t think they’d have kept me from going home to her—it was important to pretend everything was normal, even if it wasn’t. But they would have believed me when I said it, when I didn’t even quite believe it myself. They would have made it real.

I listened to Cassie breathing on the pillow next to mine, the same sound I’d heard almost every night for the last decade, and didn’t fall asleep for a long, long time.

Chapter Text

Marco cornered me on the way into work the next day. “He is a nightmare,” he hissed, falling into step beside me as soon as I came through the doors. “An absolute terror.”

“What did you do with him?” I asked, glancing around. Not that I thought Marco would bring him to work. But what did you do with an Andalite?

“He’s still alive, if that’s what you’re wondering,” Marco said. “But only just. Did you know that And—that they can take up to eighteen hours to sober up after drinking? And that alcohol follows them into a morph? I do, because I got woken up in the middle of the night for a fun lecture on you-know-what drinking facts.”

“Wow.” I’d kind of been hoping Ax would stay passed out after he left the hotel. “Well, we shouldn’t leave him alone all day.”

“Yeah, he might hurt himself, and what a tragedy that would be,” Marco muttered. “No, no, fine, I’ll see if Rachel will go over.”

Rachel was the only one of us who didn’t have a specific mission that day. I wished I could say that about myself.

“Hey, you look like shit,” Marco said, like he was just noticing.

I hadn’t slept that much. “Yeah, uh, long night.” I fought back a yawn. “See you in the bathroom at eleven?”

“How could I refuse an invitation like that?” he said.

I had learned my lesson yesterday. This time I pretended to be leaving for a doctor’s appointment.

Marco met me in the bathroom and rescued my clothes after I morphed. “Jake, I really, really hope that’s you,” he said when I crawled onto his arm. “Because I don’t even want to tell you how much I want to go for the Raid right now.”

<We could always switch, and you can morph the roach,> I said.

“You know what, I’m feeling better about this,” Marco said. “Yup. All good. Let’s go.”

Marco shook his hand when he was in front of Steve’s office. I jumped out of his sleeve and fell to the ground.

That part hadn’t seemed like a big deal when we’d come up with the plan. Marco’s hand was, what, a couple feet from the floor? That was practically nothing. But then I was an inch-and-a-half-long insect, falling what felt like the height of a building, and it kind of did seem like a big deal.

That didn’t occur to me until I was falling. <Aaaaaaah!> I cried in Marco’s head as the ground swooped up to meet me.

“What? What?” he said, huge vibrations shaking the air.

I hit the ground. I felt…well, basically nothing. It turns out two feet isn’t a big deal to a cockroach. <Uh, nothing, sorry,> I said.

Marco left, probably muttering about how I was making him look like a crazy person. I couldn’t actually hear him, but I knew him.

I went into Steve’s office and motored across the underside of the desk again. I’d chosen a time of day when his calendar looked clear, so hopefully he’d be around.

He was around. The problem was, around didn’t necessary mean talking.

He moved his computer mouse. He typed on his keyboard. I could feel the vibrations shaking the surface of the desk. But I couldn’t actually see the screen, so I wasn’t getting anything out of it.

Huh. I hadn’t thought about this possibility.

I left my position and scooted down a desk leg and climbed up the desk chair instead, perching on the mesh behind his head. It was a riskier position—roaches don’t usually hang out on chairs, inches from human heads—but at least I could see the screen.

For some value of “see.” Imagine you’re standing in front of one of those jumbotrons, only instead of whatever glasses or whatever you wear normally, you’re looking through the bottom of actual Coke bottles. And then imagine someone comes along and sprays the Coke bottles with water. That was the level of vision I was working with.

He was scrolling something. That much I could see. There might have been colors involved.

<Gotta get a bug morph with better eyes,> I told myself.

Suddenly the chair gave a lurch. I hung on with my tiny bug feet. Steve was standing up.

There were noises. Someone else in the room, thanking Steve for meeting with her. Then clunking sounds—they were sitting down at the table.

At least I’d be able to hear them. But this was worse than the silence. I only had an hour and change of morph time left. I didn’t need to hear Steve’s random meeting about Dapsen business.

I powered down the chair and closer to the table anyway. It wasn’t like I had anything else to do.

They were talking about app design. I was pretty sure the woman was Tina, one of the UI experts on my team.

Which was weird, actually. Why was Tina meeting with Steve? His division was in charge of app production and rollout, but he didn’t usually get involved in the details.

I moved closer, up one of the table legs. Tina was laying out the levels that users went through as they gained points in the Share app. I knew about them, though I hadn’t been involved in choosing them. They were all named after types of relationships, from least close to closest, so that if you got all the way to the top you became “family.” Family members got to go to a bunch of in-person meet-ups and stuff. It was kind of dumb, if you asked me—who wanted to be family with a bunch of people they only knew from using the same app at the same time?—but it seemed to be doing okay with the beta testers.

“So you’re saying we can cut one of these,” Steve was saying.

“That’s what the results suggest,” Tina said. “You can see the drop-off we get after each level. If we eliminate a level, we’ll raise the number of people who make it to the end.”

“But we’ll lower the investment they put in to get there,” Steve said.

“They’ll still have been through half a dozen levels,” Tina said. “That should be enough for most humans.”

Most humans? That was a weird way to put it.

“Better make sure,” Steven said. “We want the people who make it to the end to be in the optimal mindset to infest.”

Wait. Wait.

“We’ll need further research to evaluate mindset,” Tina said. “We can survey the Controllers who’ve come in through the app, see what their host experience has been like.”

“Do it,” Steve said. “Loop in Brett and Annie. Get me your findings next week.”

I was still stuck on the last things they’d said. Infest. Infest, like…

They were standing up, moving away from the table. I had to get out of there, too. I had to tell Marco about this.

I scurried down the side of the table and toward the door. I was hugging the inside wall by the door when I heard Steve ask, “How’s the team’s progress with the data from the other night?”

I stopped.

“It’s actually pretty weird,” Tina said. “There were two app users on site, but when we investigated, it didn’t add up. One was from a state away, no check-ins in the area. Another was nuclear family, and she said she wasn’t anywhere near the construction site. We think we might have a data bug.”

“Get to the bottom of it fast, would you? The boss doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

“Sure,” she said, and then her feet were thudding past me into the hall.

Marco was supposed to come by and pick me up at the hour-and-a-half mark. But I didn’t want to wait for that. It occurred to me that maybe I didn’t have to. <Marco,> I said. <Hey, Marco. Come get me?>

I couldn’t tell if it had worked for a few minutes, but then a large blurry shape that looked sort of like Marco bent down in front of Steve’s office door to tie his shoes.

<Marco, I hope this is you,> I said as I scurried up his sleeve again.

“I think that’s my line,” he muttered, straightening up.

He brought me back to the bathroom stall, clothes in hand, and then made the mistake of staying while I morphed. “Oh,” I heard. “Oh, no. Oh, that’s—” and then my hearing shifted enough that things got hard to understand for a while.

Marco looked vaguely green when I was done. “I changed my mind; I don’t care if they find us,” he said. “I just want to never have to do that.”

“We might have to do more of it,” I said, and told him what Steve and Tina had said.

“What? There’s no nuclear family level,” Marco said. “I built that app. I would know.”

“Steve said,” I started to say, but Marco’s eyes were widening.

“I built that app,” he said again. He looked sick. “Jake. If this app is—I did that. That was me.”

“You didn’t know what you were doing,” I said, even though it felt like a dumb thing to say. I kept thinking about it, too: the design process, the marketing materials, all the things I’d overseen. Still was overseeing. We hadn’t even formally launched yet. “And you weren’t the only person building it. Right?”

“There were four of us,” Marco said. “So one of them—”

“Maybe more,” I said. “Steve mentioned a couple of people in research. I think—I think maybe there are a lot of them here. A lot of Controllers.”

“And we’ve been building a recruitment app for the Yeerks,” Marco said, his voice grim and angry.

Someone else came in to pee. I pressed myself into the corner of the stall and held myself stiffly. I’d been afraid the day before, but not on this level. I’d thought someone might think we were weird, or that word might get back to Steve. Now it seemed like no one was safe. How many of them were around us?

“We have to get out of here,” I said when the guy was gone. “We have to quit.”

“We can’t quit,” Marco said. “They’re all on crazy high alert about the construction site thing. We both quit, suddenly, no other jobs lined up, what are they going to think?”

He was right. I knew he was right. If nothing else, we had to stay here, finish getting rid of the data that might point them toward us.

There was another problem, one I didn’t mention to Marco: what would I say to Cassie if I quit? She would want to know why, and I couldn’t tell her the truth.

“Yeah,” I said, over the hammering of my heart. “Yeah, you’re right. We have to stay.”

“Right now, though,” Marco said. His face was still hard. “Right now, I think it’s time for lunch.”

Chapter Text

Rachel had texted while I was in roach morph. She wanted us to meet her, but not at the café this time.

“Are you sure this is the right place?” Marco asked for the fourth time when I pulled up next to the gate of the abandoned quarry.

“Yes, for the last time, this is the pin she sent.”

“Just saying, GPS,” Marco said. “Once it tried to get me to drive straight through the side of a Walmart. Not that that was a bad idea, necessarily…”

I surveyed the chain-link gate. It didn’t look impossible to climb over, but it did look like a good way to ruin a work outfit. “How are we supposed to get over this?”

“How about by texting Rachel to forget this and meet us at the nearest Panera?”

A bird flew down and landed on the top of the gate. A big bird, with a red tail. <Hey guys,> Tobias’s voice said in my head. <Fly on in, you have got to see this.>

I looked at Marco and shrugged. “Guess you should have come with us last night.”

The kestrel morph started with me shrinking down, like the roach morph. But it was completely different. I kept my bones, for one thing, though I felt them hollow out, get lighter. All of me got lighter. Feather patterns etched themselves along my skin, like a tattoo on fast-forward, and most of my body melted away while my arms grew into wings.

It was like…like gravity wasn’t such an issue anymore. Like it was something I could work with, instead of a non-negotiable.

The bird’s mind wasn’t hard to deal with. Mostly I felt it change my focus: I was suddenly very attuned to motion. Marco shifted his feet, and my kestrel brain zeroed in on that. It was very good at zeroing in. Suddenly I could count the fibers in Marco’s socks.

<Wow, can these things ever see,> I said. Then a breeze swept toward me, and before I could think about it, I was putting out my wings to catch it. I was flying.

I was flying.

Did you ever look up at birds when you were a kid and wish you could do what they did, just take off and soar through the sky? I did. I mean, I hadn’t thought about it much over the past decade. But all of a sudden I was remembering my old flying dreams, that belief I’d used to have that someday I’d be able to lift my arms and leave the ground behind.

It wasn’t exactly like I’d thought it would be. It was better.

<Okay, this is seriously cool,> I said, as warm air buoyed me up.

<Right?> Tobias’s thought-speak voice was happier than I’d ever heard it. <Don’t you wish you never had to walk again?>

“Yeah, way to rub it in,” Marco grumbled.

Marco didn’t have a bird morph yet. He didn’t have any morphs yet. He had to go over the fence the old-fashioned way.

<You know,> I said to him as he climbed, <if you’d morphed the roach, you could have gone right through the links.>

He was fifteen feet up, but he still managed to give me the finger.

I flew after Tobias—still so cool—as he led the way into the quarry. <What are we doing here, anyway?> I asked.

<Wait till you see it,> he said, and then I did.

It was the Andalite fighter from the construction site the other night. No—it couldn’t be the same ship; the Yeerks had blown that one up. But it was the same kind of ship: the same sleek contours, the same vicious-looking tail swooping up behind. The only differences were that this one was at the bottom of a quarry pit, behind a huge pile of rubble, and that its hull was streaked with black like it had been burned.

<What is that doing here?> I asked.

<That’s how Ax got here,> Tobias said. <He says it can’t fly anymore, though.>

“You have got to be kidding me,” Marco said. He was on the ground below us, but falcon hearing is better than human. “Are you saying I need to go down there? Because I have seen this movie, and everyone dies at the end.”

<Could still catch you a roach,> I said.

In the end we caught him a mouse. “I can’t believe this is the first morph I’m gonna ever AAAAAAAH,” Marco said, as fur sprouted up on his hands.

<You do remember what my first morph was,> I said.

Tobias got the honor of carrying Marco into the quarry. Kestrels are fast but small. <Do not eat me I repeat do not chow down,> Marco said while Tobias carried him.

<Mice are friends, not food, got it,> Tobias said.

It might have been the first time I’d heard Tobias make a joke.

The two of us, Marco-mouse in tow, swooped through the round hole in the side of the fighter. The inside of the ship was a lot like the outside: made of smooth curves, mostly cream in color. The floor was mostly open; I guess Andalites don’t go in for a lot of furniture. Rachel was there, sitting on what looked like a control panel, and opposite her stood an Andalite.

Obviously I’d known Ax was an Andalite. He’d made that pretty clear. But still, it was startling to see someone who was so clearly not from around here. He looked a lot like his brother—at least, to my eyes; I wasn’t exactly an Andalite expert—except for not having the burns down his side. And I wasn’t that great at reading Andalite expressions, but he didn’t seem like he was in the same kind of mood he’d been in last night.

“Oh hey, guys,” Rachel said. “So this is Ax.”

We started demorphing while he did a weird bow thing where he bent his front legs and inclined his torso while lowering his tail. <I thank you for your assistance last night,> he said stiffly. At least, it sounded stiff, as thought-speak went.

<Hey, no big,> Marco said as he grew up from the ground. I was actually impressed that he could manage to talk, during his first demorph. <What’s a little bar tab between friends?>

<We’re—sorry about what happened,> I said, which felt like way too little, considering his brother had been eaten by the leader of the Yeerk invasion.

Ax looked at me with his main eyes, the ones on his face, but didn’t show any emotion. It was sort of unsettling. <My brother gave you this power,> he said. <Before he died.>

“No, we can jerst nerturally—ugh,” Marco said, as he tried to talk before his mouth was done changing. “We can just naturally turn into animals.”

Ax looked dubious.

<It’s sarcasm,> Tobias said. He hadn’t demorphed. I guessed he would have had to remorph pretty soon anyway; why bother?

<I see,> Ax said, thought he clearly didn’t. He surveyed us all, then said, like a pronouncement, <Until I am able to repair my ship and rejoin my people, I will join you in your fight against the Yeerks.>

“Whoa, getting a little ahead of us, E.T.,” Marco said. “We’re not fighting so much as trying to keep the Yeerks from finding out who we are and murdering us.”

“Speak for yourself,” Rachel said.

Ax fixed his main eyes on Marco while his stalk eyes continued to move around. <You do not intend to use the power my brother gave you?>

“Not that I don’t love being Mickey Mouse, but—as little as possible, basically,” Marco said.

<We can’t just turn our back on this fight,> Tobias said.

“Sure we can,” Marco said. “Even four-eyes here can.” He waved a hand at Ax. “You’d love a chance not to fight the Yeerks, wouldn’t you?”

Ax took a step forward, and now there was something in his eyes: anger. His tail blade was twitching over his head. <I am a prince in the service of the Andalite people—>

“Yeah, I’m sure you’ve got a really great crown,” Marco said.

<I am charged with leading our people into battle,> he said sternly. <A battle I would never forsake, even to the very end of my honor and courage.>

“Funny,” Marco said, “that’s not what you said last night.”

Ax went rigid.

“Yeah, you remember,” Marco said. “When you were going on about how much better this was than war, how you wished you could run away from the fight and drink fancy girly drinks forever, how battle was worse than I could even imagine and you never wanted to go back to it.”

Ax didn’t say anything.

“Which, you know what, fair,” Marco said. “I was at the construction site. I saw the Hork-Bajir. I saw what Visser Three turned into. I heard what Elfangor said, about the Andalite fleet being wiped out. I’m pretty sure if they couldn’t succeed, we can’t either, and I’m not all that eager to die trying.”

<So maybe it’s a hopeless fight,> Tobias said, <but I’m not going to give it up until we have to.>

“Maybe you should look into having more to lose, then,” Marco said.

“Hey,” Rachel said, standing up.

“Hey. Hey!” I said more loudly, stepping forward to stand between them. “We don’t have to decide this now. Okay? We just need to figure out what to do about the info the Yeerks have on us.”

“Right,” Marco mumbled. He looked vaguely abashed. He sometimes says dumb stuff, but he isn’t usually that mean about it. We were all on edge, Marco more than the rest of us.

I had some idea what was behind it: his dad was still reeling from Ana’s death. I was sure Marco didn’t want to do that to him again. But that wasn’t the choice that was before us right now.

“Marco and I have some new info,” I said, and I filled them in on what I’d learned from Steve.

“Let me get this straight,” Rachel said when I was done. “You guys were building an app where people log their location to rise in the ranks until they get to come to secret in-person meetings, and you didn’t think evil cult?”

“Mostly I thought, social media is dumb, I don’t care, and I’m getting paid for this,” Marco said, ticking them off on his fingers.

<This communication module is in accord with what we know of the Yeerks’ Earth invasion strategy,> Ax said. <We believe they are attempting a stealth infiltration until a critical mass is reached.>

“So, even more important that we blow up these servers, stop whatever your company is doing,” Rachel said.

“‘Destroy,’” Marco said. “I believe the word was, ‘destroy.’ Not ‘blow up.’”

Rachel shrugged a shoulder, like she didn’t see the difference.

“That won’t stop the Yeerks from rolling out the app,” I said. “Full launch is scheduled for six weeks from now.”

“Is the app even going to work?” Rachel asked. “What person would voluntarily let a Yeerk into their head?”

<Many humans have already done so,> Ax said.

<It will work,> Tobias said. <They’re preying on people who are looking for connection. There will always be people willing to give anything for that.>

His thought-speak voice was serious. We all fell silent for a moment.

“Well, this has been nice and depressing,” Marco said. “Can we go now? Some of us have evil Yeerk front organizations to go work for.”

<Wait,> Tobias said. <I have news.>

Tobias’s job for the day had been to talk to some of the people he knew on the streets—<Discreetly,> he’d promised. And it turned out there was an antique store a couple blocks down from the construction site that might have had street footage.

“Do the Yeerks know?” Rachel asked.

“Steve didn’t say anything about it,” I said. “But if we can figure it out, so can they.”

<At what level of development is this video technology?> Ax asked. And then, once we’d explained—well, once Marco had explained; it turns out knowing what something does is not at all the same as knowing how it works—he said, <Why do you not simply perform a retroactive data bypass using an electromagnetic specifier?>

“Gee,” Marco said, “why didn’t we do that?”

“Is that something you can do?” I asked Ax.

It was, apparently. Whatever “it” was. “Okay, so you go do that,” I said. “Rachel, Tobias, can you help him?” Marco would have been a better choice, but the two of us really couldn’t be gone from the office for much longer.

“Sure, why not,” Rachel said. “Not like I have a job I’m supposed to be working at remotely or anything.”

“Hey, these are the sacrifices you have to make to be an Animorph,” Marco said.

“A what?” she said.

“You know, animals, morphing. Animorphs,” Marco said. And then, when I gave him a look, “What? I thought we could use a cool team name.”

It was sort of an apology. Maybe. <As long as you aren’t in charge of the t-shirts,> Tobias said.

Chapter Text

Of course, the plan didn’t go as smoothly as I outlined. Why would it go smoothly? That wasn’t the life we were leading anymore.

No good, Rachel texted later in the afternoon. She had gotten the Signal app, and she was texting a group that included Marco and a number I didn’t know. I hoped it was Tobias or Ax. Meet after work instead.

Well, that wasn’t going to make for a tense afternoon or anything.

I fought down the desire to ask for more details. That would only create more of a security risk. Sounds good, I texted back instead.

I was supposed to go straight home after work. Cassie finally wasn’t working late; we were probably going to make dinner together, take advantage of the ovulation window. I’d been dreading it all day, and not thinking about why I was dreading it. It was fine. As long as I didn’t think about it, it was fine. Except that now I wouldn’t be home when I’d said I would be. I didn’t even know what I was going to say about that.

Well, maybe this wouldn’t take that long. Maybe I could still be home by a reasonable time. I tried to pretend I was hoping for that.

I’m not even sure what I did that afternoon at work. Everyone who came in to talk to me, I had to ask myself, Is this person a Controller? And the worst part was that even though I didn’t have any way of telling, there were probably a lot of cases where the answer was yes.

Marco and I met Rachel and Tobias and Ax in Rachel’s hotel room again. Rachel let us in, locked the chain, and then said, “Okay, Ax, you can demorph now.”

Ax’s blue-furred scorpion-centaur form emerged from the human. <Which of you is the prince?> he asked when he had finished demorphing.

“Huh?” I said.

<I must apologize,> he said. <To your leader.>

Marco shot me a smirk. He has a longstanding joke about how I always end up being the leader of whatever group of people I’m in, not because I want to, but because I always step up when things devolve into chaos.

I shook my head at him subtly. I didn’t want to claim this.

As I was shaking my head, though, it was Tobias who said, “Jake.”

“What?” Rachel said. “Why Jake?”

Tobias was sitting on the bedspread with Lucy in his arms. “He’s made all the plans so far,” he said, which—was that true? I hadn’t said anything anyone else couldn’t have. “And he’s the connection between all of us.”

That was sort of true. Marco and Rachel had known each other—through me—since high school, and I didn’t know Tobias better than any of the others by this point. But Marco and Rachel would never have been able to lead each other. And I guessed Tobias was saying he didn’t want to.

I didn’t really want to, either. But I guess Marco was right about me, because what I said was, “Okay.”

I was treated to the sight of an Andalite bending down so that his front knees touched the ground. His tail blade hung over his left shoulder, and his torso was bent so that it was almost level with the ground.

“Oh, sure,” Rachel muttered. “Bow for the middle-class white man.”

<My fellow prince,> Ax said, head still bent toward the ground. <I have failed in my mission. I was unable to overwrite the incriminating data stream, and for that, I cast myself upon your mercy.>

“Oh,” I said, a little startled. “Uh, that’s okay.”

Ax didn’t move.

“You…can get up now?” I said.

He did. I had the feeling I hadn’t done that exactly right, but Ax was just going to have to live with that.

“What happened?” I asked, cutting my eyes over to Rachel and Tobias.

Rachel shrugged. “We found the cable. Ax attached his box-thingy. Nothing.”

“No ‘retroactive data bypass,’ huh?” Marco said. He didn’t do the air quotes, but I could hear them.

<The technology must be incompatible.> Ax sounded frustrated. <The electromagnetic specifier is meant to be able to work with any technology at level forty or below.>

“We want to get Ax in to take a closer look, but the store doesn’t close for an hour,” Tobias said.

It was already five-thirty. This was going to take way too long. “And we don’t want to just go ahead and—”

“Have you seen Ax around humans?” Rachel said. “We were thinking no.”

It was probably the right call. If the Yeerks didn’t know about the store yet, they weren’t like to find out in the next hour. But it meant I wouldn’t be home for dinner. “Shit, Cassie’s going to kill me.”

We had a solid hour to kill before it made sense to head in the direction of the antique store—as Tobias pointed out, the staff wouldn’t leave at six-thirty on the dot. Fortunately, Marco had spent the afternoon poking at the Share app, and he’s always happy to fill a silence with some boring technical stuff.

“So I’m poking around the sheet objects, wondering if maybe there’s something I missed,” he said, while our eyes glazed over. “Like, you can make stuff invisible, obviously—well, just take my word for it, you can. But these objects weren’t even there. And then they just appeared, like out of nowhere. No idea what I changed. Couldn’t recreate it. They just showed up.”

“What were they?” I asked. I at least was used to listening to coders talk about stuff like this. Rachel looked like she was going to fall asleep and start drooling on her silk blouse.

“Some weird game, maybe?” Marco said. “I couldn’t figure it out. It was called “Pool Time,” and there was a countdown clock, and a calendar, but I couldn’t find any—”

<The Yeerk pool?> Ax asked sharply. He had been paying close attention to Marco, though I couldn’t tell how much of the terminology he’d been following.

“Uh, maybe,” Marco said. “I was thinking, like, billiards, Michael Phelps, something like that, but…”

<It is no game,> Ax said. <The Yeerk pool is where the Yeerks live, when they are not insidiously infesting other species. When they are away from their planet, they must return to the pool every three days to soak up rays from the Kandrona, an artificial version of their home sun.>

“Wait.” Rachel had straightened up. “There’s one here? Like, on Earth?”

<The Yeerks must construct a pool in every place they infest,> Ax said.

“So…somewhere around here, there are a bunch of Yeerks sunbathing,” Marco said.

“That’s great,” Rachel said. “We can find it and destroy it.”

<It will be large, and heavily guarded,> Ax said. <There will be guards around the pool itself to contain the involuntary Controllers. And cages where the hosts will stay while their Yeerks are feeding. It would not be easy to attack.>

I wasn’t very used to reading thought-speech voices. Not Ax’s, anyway. But something about how he said it…I was pretty sure Ax wasn’t describing this place based on rumors. Somewhere, on some other planet, Ax had been to one of these Yeerk pools.

I was pretty sure I didn’t want to know what it had been like.

“It must be around here, though,” Tobias said, “if there are so many Controllers at Jake and Marco’s company. We should at least try to find it.”

“Hey, you want to go head to head against monsters they wouldn’t even allow on the Monsters, Inc. scare floor, be my guest,” Marco said. “I’m gonna choose life.”

I rubbed my temples. I was already regretting letting Tobias put me in charge. “We can figure that out another day,” I said. “Right now we just need to go get the video footage.”

#

It was surreal walking from the hotel to the antique store. These were the familiar streets where I went to work every day, and it was only six-forty-five: the sun hadn’t even set yet. It didn’t feel like we could possibly be about to break into a business establishment and steal their security footage.

I fell into step next to Rachel as we walked. I hadn’t talked to her one-on-one since this whole thing had gone down. “How are you holding up?” I asked her.

She shrugged. She looked tired. Or maybe she was just wearing less makeup than usual. “Been better,” she said. “Pierce called today, and I couldn’t even talk to him, you know?”

I knew. I very much knew. Every time I thought about Cassie I felt like I wanted to throw up. “You really think we should do this? Make this, like, a real fight, not just trying to keep them from finding us?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Part of me just keeps thinking, it’s insane. Like, I already do stuff for the world. I give to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood and the Women’s Refugee Commission, and I show up to protests on the weekends. I care. But I can do all that and still…have my life, you know? This is a totally different thing.” She shrugged again. “But there’s no one else who can fight this fight. I can’t just walk away.”

“Does that mean you’re not going back to New York?” I asked.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted the answer to be. If we were going to fight, I wanted her alongside us. But her deciding to stay would make it too real.

“I don’t even know,” she said. “I’ll think about that after this week is over.” She looked at me. “How are you holding up? With Cassie and everything?”

“This is it,” Tobias said loudly, and we all stopped walking.

It was a little store on one end of a strip mall a few blocks from the construction site, next to a dry cleaner and a shoe repair place. I couldn’t see any cameras, but I would take Tobias’s word for it that they were here.

“Did anyone even walk past here on their way back from the construction site?” I asked.

“I did,” Marco said.

He sounded grim. Maybe he was the only one who’d be directly screwed over, if the Yeerks found this footage. But that wasn’t how it would work. If they found him, they’d make the jump to me. Everyone at work knew we were friends. And from me they might guess Rachel; I’d had dinner with her in my calendar. And Elfangor had said they they invaded our minds; if they infested any one of us, would they get the rest?

Ax might escape. If he could get his ship working. But the Yeerks would know where that was, too.

“So, cool, breaking and entering,” Marco said into the awkward silence. “Who knows how to pick locks?”

None of us, it turned out. “If I had my tail…” Ax said, but he couldn’t really demorph in broad daylight, even if the parking lot was empty.

“Fuck this,” Rachel said finally, when credit cards weren’t working. “There has to be a back door, right?”

“Yeah, but that’s not gonna—okay, bye,” I said as she walked around the corner of the building.

We followed her around to the back, where there was a back door on the far side of a Dumpster. We went around the Dumpster and found Rachel already halfway into grizzly bear morph.

“Oh man,” I said, scanning the perimeter. There wasn’t a lot of space between the back of the building and the fence, but that didn’t mean someone wasn’t going to come back here without warning.

<Hey, we’re wiping the security footage anyway, right?> Rachel said.

“I guess we are now,” I muttered.

Rachel finished the morph, and then she used her huge bear claws to cut a gash through the lock mechanism in the rear door. I was pretty sure it was solid steel.

It swung open. <See? Easy,> she said. Marco and I exchanged a glance, but we followed her into the store.

The back was a crowded storeroom filled with towering, dusty piles of old furniture. Not the best place for a grizzly. <Oops,> Rachel said as she knocked a lamp to the floor.

“Okay, we don’t actually hate these people, remember?” I said. “Let’s not destroy their store.”

<I’m trying, I’m trying,> she said.

There was a little office between the storeroom and the main area of the store. Rachel didn’t fit, but the rest of us crammed ourselves in. It was already crowded with two desks piled high with papers. One of them had six security monitors mounted on it.

“Six!” Marco said. “What are they selling here, antique diamonds?”

“Maybe not,” Tobias said. “Doesn’t look like they’ve invested in this system in a long time.”

He was right. The TVs were half-blocked by the piles of papers. The screens themselves were small and old, tubes instead of flat screens, and they were hooked up to…

“Whoa,” Marco said. “Is that a VCR? Like, an actual VCR? Am I in eighth grade again?”

“Hey, not everyone has a fancy DVR setup,” I said, popping the cassette out.

“I do not understand,” Ax said. “Is this a data storage device?”

“Yeah, see, the data is recorded on the tape,” I said, showing him where the tape was exposed by the plastic casing.

He studied it for a minute. Then he laughed. It was kind of a disturbing sound; I guess he didn’t have a lot of practice laughing with a mouth. “Ah ha ha. It is analog. The things you humans come up with.”

“Hey, we’ve moved on from this,” Marco said. “We have Netflix now.”

“I could never have altered this with a specifier,” Ax said. “It does not rate even level five on the technology scale.”

“But we can still destroy it, right?” Tobias said.

“Yeah, sure, we seem to be all about that these days,” Marco said.

There was a pile of cassette tapes next to the VCR. We couldn’t find a magnet powerful enough to do them much harm, so we decided to pull the tape out and burn it. “Shouldn’t take too long,” I said, pulling the tape out of that first cassette. There were only four of them.

“Uh, guys?” Tobias said.

He was standing in front of a cabinet on the other wall. A cabinet full of rewritable VHS tapes. There had to be at least a hundred of them.

“Tell me they have labels,” I said.

Chapter Text

They did not have labels. “Well, this is going to take forever,” Marco said, as we pulled tape out of the cassettes and piled it in a metal trash can we’d found under a desk.

It would have gone faster if Rachel had helped, but she opted to stay in the hallway in her bear morph in case anything happened. Probably smart. It would also have gone faster if Ax hadn’t been so distracted by his human hands.

“Your fingers are strong, but there are so few of them,” he said as he stopped pulling on tape to examine his fingers. “You must find your efficacy greatly reduced.”

“Yeah, we’re always complaining about our efficacy,” I said, not really paying attention. I had texted Cassie to tell her I would be late, but I hadn’t told her I’d be this late, and I’d left my phone back in Rachel’s hotel room to avoid creating further data problems. “Does anyone know what time it is?”

“It is seven-fourteen and twenty-three of your seconds,” Ax said promptly.

We blinked at him.

“Is that incorrect?” he asked.

“How the hell do you know that?” I asked.

“That’s what time it is,” Ax said, like it was obvious.

“Man, the Andalite clock industry must have a major customer-base problem,” Marco said.

“So you can keep track of time in your head,” Tobias said to Ax. “That must be helpful with the two hours in morph.”

“It is actually closer to two of your hours and one of your minutes,” Ax said. “I am currently at forty-one of your minutes.”

I took a look at the cabinet of VHSes. We were barely halfway done, and it was already quarter past seven. “We have got to hurry this up,” I said.

“Is there another time limit I am unaware of?” Ax asked.

“Nah, some of us just have people to go home to,” Marco said, jerking his thumb at me.

“Oh, yeah,” Tobias said. “Was Cassie weird about the thing last night?”

Marco looked at me. “What? What thing last night?”

“Just, uh.” I yanked out a bunch more tape. “She showed up while Rachel and Tobias and I were acquiring animals at the raptor center. She didn’t see anything, though.”

Marco narrowed his eyes at me. I kept pulling out tape.

“Okay, see, here’s the thing,” he said. “You know you suck at lying to me. Why do you even try?”

“She really didn’t see anything,” I said.

“Yeah, but something else happened,” he said. “Right?”

I thought about deflecting. But Marco was right: he’s good at knowing when I’m lying. Almost as good as Cassie. And I should have told them earlier. “She asked me some stuff,” I said finally. “About the construction site.”

Marco dropped the tape he was holding. “What?

<Wait,> Rachel said from the hallway, where she could evidently hear us. <What? She asked you about the construction site?>

“Jake, buddy,” Marco said. His eyes were wide. “I hate to say it, but you know what that means.”

“It doesn’t necessarily.” I could hear the pleading note in my own voice. “She saw it on the news. She could have just been concerned.”

“Right, because I bet she asks you about every bad thing on the news,” Marco said.

“She might if they were all down the street from my office,” I said.

“We don’t know for sure she’s a Controller,” Tobias said. “But you should be careful.”

“Who is Cassie?” Ax asked.

“Jake’s wife,” Marco said.

“Ah,” Ax said.

<Jake,> Rachel said. <Aren’t you guys trying?>

I wasn’t sure if she said it so that everyone else could hear it. But I was distracted by sudden relief. “That’s right,” I said, as the full implication struck me. “We’re trying to start a family. She’d never do that if she were a Controller.”

“Not necessarily,” Marco said. “She’s not pregnant yet, right?”

“So what?” I said. “We’ve only been trying a couple of months.”

“So, there are plenty of ways for her to be on birth control without you knowing about it,” he said.

I swear, I almost punched him. I was already clenching my hands around the VHS tape. I might have, except that Tobias said, “Hey, who’s that?”

He was pointing at that security monitors. They were still connected to the cameras, even if the VCR wasn’t recording anymore. One of the cameras was pointing at the front of the store, and there were three people visible in the frame, jiggling the front door.

“Maybe we set off a security alarm,” I said. They looked like they could be security guards.

“Hang on,” Marco said. “The guy on the left. Isn’t that one of the janitors in our building?”

Well. That probably ruled out the alarm company.

Marco and Tobias didn’t have good battle morphs. “You guys stay here and finish the tape,” I said. “Ax and I are going to morph. Rachel? Block off the back door. We don’t want them getting in another way.” And then my mouth changed, my teeth lengthening and sharpening.

<Roger,> she said, her lumbering steps moving away.

I was already swimming in my clothes. I should have taken them off before I morphed. Fur was spreading over my skin like fast-growing grass, prickling as it went. My bones were shifting like I was on the worst amusement park ride of my life.

It still didn’t hurt. It was so hard to get over that bit. My body was melting and being reshaped, and I could feel it, but there was no pain.

My face bulged forward as the fur spread over it. My ears slid back on my head. My eyes grew sharper, seeing easily through the dim light of the office.

I could hear the others breathing. I could smell their sweat.

I had never morphed the leopard before. Its mind rose up beneath mine, wary but confident. None of the jumpiness of a bird. This animal knew it was the alpha predator, and it was on the alert for threats, but it wasn’t worried. It knew it could handle them.

The two soft-looking creatures in the room with me were no threat. But were they food? Possibly. They were large, but slow. Third one, though—I couldn’t be sure about the third. It had a sharp-looking tail, and when it moved it, I knew it could fight.

“Whoa,” one of the soft creatures said. A vocalization I didn’t understand. Unimportant. I brushed it aside and prepared for the fight against the tailed beast.

“Jake?” another one said. Another vocalization. “Jake, man, you okay in there?”

Jake. Right. That was me. Not the leopard. Jake, and the creature with the tail was Ax. Not my enemy. <Uh, yeah, sorry,> I said, a little shaken. The predator mind had taken me by surprise. <Let’s go.>

We came out of the office just as Rachel was lumbering back from the storage room. <Door’s blocked,> she said.

We crept into the front room. As much as an Andalite and a grizzly bear can creep, anyway. The leopard was made for creeping. The human-Controllers were still outside the front door, fiddling with the lock.

<So what do you think, we just scare these people away?> Rachel asked.

I wasn’t sure if they could be scared away. Did human-Controllers scare? <Let’s try not to hurt them too badly,> I said. <There are still humans in there.>

<Minimal damage, got it,> Rachel said, straightening up to her full eight feet and swiping the air with her massive claws.

Yeah, this was gonna go well.

Just then the door burst open. It turns out human-Controllers do scare.

“Holy fuck!” one of them shouted, and scrambled back a few steps.

“Come back here, you idiot,” one of the others said. “Do you want Visser Three to gut you alive? Shoot them already.”

She pulled out a weird stubby weapon, like something out Star Trek. <Dracon beam,> Ax said, his voice full of hate. <Do not let them shoot you. Dracon beams work on a quantum level. They will continue to disintegrate your bodies even if you morph away from the injured form.>

That didn’t sound like something I wanted to experience. Maybe it was time to take these people out.

I leapt at the woman with my leopard body. I was on her before she could aim the Dracon beam at me.

Wow. I had known the leopard would be fast, but this was fast. The woman didn’t have a chance against me. The leopard wanted to claw her open, but I was making the calls. I retracted my claws and swung my paw at her head.

She fell to the ground, the Dracon beam rolling away. Ax leapt forward and landed beside me, tail raised to strike at her.

<No!> I cried out.

<I must make sure she doesn’t rise,> he said. He swung his tail down and struck her in the head with the flat of it, and she stopped moving.

Meanwhile, Rachel was bowling toward one of the other humans, whose hand was shaking too much to use his own Dracon beam. She hit him like a loaded tractor-trailer. He crashed into the wall and fell down, limp.

That was too much for the third guy, the one who’d fallen back. He broke and ran.

<Ah-hah!> Rachel shouted in triumph.

I stood there, panting. We’d just taken out two humans in less than two minutes. I didn’t want to have to do that again. But as I listened, making sure the two of them were breathing, I heard another sound. Something more distant, and I didn’t think it was Marco and Tobias. <Is there someone by the back door?> I asked.

Ax took off immediately, racing toward the rear of the store. He was maybe halfway there when there was a crash like a dozen pieces of furniture falling over.

<Oops,> Rachel said, a wince in her thought-speech. So much for not doing damage to the store.

Then I caught up to Ax, and I wasn’t worried about damage to the store anymore.

There were Hork-Bajir in the doorway. Three of them, backed up by two more human-Controllers holding Dracon beams.

I froze. The Hork-Bajir were seven feet tall, covered in blades. These weren’t human-Controllers who’d go down with one blow to the head. This was death, facing me.

The leopard went still, too. Here was something it didn’t know: huge bladed monsters smelling like nothing on Earth. Could it fight them?

Ax did not go still. He leapt forward, tail flashing over his head.

“Hruthin! Andalite!” one of the Hork-Bajir shouted. Then it didn’t have a throat to shout with anymore.

I might have screamed. I’m not sure. I wanted to turn around and run. But there was a Hork-Bajir in front of me, its blades whirling forward, and I didn’t have the option of running.

I let the leopard take over. It didn’t know the Hork-Bajir, but it knew how to fight. It avoided the blades like they were in slow motion and swiped at the unbladed flesh. I could feel it give under my claws, under my jaw.

Rachel was roaring next to me. Ax’s tail blade was flashing again. I was getting it in flashes, like a nightmare: the darkness, the noises, the flying blades.

I heard one of the human-Controllers shouting into a phone. “We need backup! Two more units to the antique store!”

My Hork-Bajir wasn’t moving anymore. I backed away. <Marco! Tobias! Morph into something. We are out of here.>

The human-Controllers had moved away from the doorway. Waiting for backup. Ax whirled around. <What now?> he asked, as if eager for more action. His tail blade was slick with blood.

<Now we deal with the tape,> I said.

In the office, Marco and Tobias were mostly morphed, a red-tailed hawk and a mouse. Our clothing was strewn on the floor. <Ax, can you pick up the clothing?> I asked. I swept the last few cassettes into the trash can, on top of the mound of tape. And then I realized the problem.

<Does anyone have a lighter?> I asked, my stomach sinking.

We all stood there blankly for a moment. Then Ax grabbed an old lamp base from atop a filing cabinet near the door, a lump of heavy metal, and struck his tail against it so that sparks flew into the trash can.

The VHS tape went up beautifully. In seconds there was an open fire in the metal can.

<Great,> I said, backing away from the smoke. <Let’s get out of here.>

Chapter Text

We all made it back to Rachel’s hotel room, one way or another. Rachel and I ran behind the buildings, and Marco perched on my leopard back. Rachel carried our clothing around her neck where Ax had draped it. We demorphed between some Dumpsters behind a Wendy’s and pulled on our clothing with shaking hands.

We heard sirens go by as we attempted to walk casually back to the hotel. Normal cops? Or had the Yeerks infiltrated the cops, too?

Ax and Tobias flew. Ax had turned into a bird with six wings, something I’d never seen before and probably no one else on Earth had, either. The two of them landed on Rachel’s balcony a few minutes after we got there.

None of us had a lot to say. I couldn’t get over how it had felt: my leopard claws sinking into the flesh of the Hork-Bajir. I kept thinking it was clinging to me, even though my leopard claws were gone.

“So,” I said as we all gathered up our things to leave. I was aiming for peppy, but it came out sounding tired. “Tomorrow night. Servers?”

“Sounds like a party,” Marco said, dragging himself toward the door.

Cassie was home when I got there, of course. I spent a minute outside the door of the apartment, steeling myself to be normal when I went inside. Then I went in and saw her sitting at the kitchen table, book in her hand, a covered plate of food at my spot, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to pull it off.

She came over to me right away, of course. “Are you all right?” she asked, putting her hands on my arms.

I put my arms around her. She still felt like herself. She still smelled like herself. Holding her like this—I knew this. This was the center of everything. It wasn’t possible that I was holding a stranger.

“I just,” I said, my face pressed into her hair. “I just feel really awful.”

It wasn’t even a lie. “You should go lie down,” she said. “Are you hungry? Do you want me to bring you anything?”

I was starving, actually. But the thought of eating made me think of the leopard’s jaws closing. “I think I’m okay,” I said.

I was almost too tired to get undressed. My hands shook on the buttons of my shirt. But once I lay down, I couldn’t turn my mind off. I kept seeing the fight.

I don’t know if you’ve ever killed anything. Lots of people have, I guess: they hunt, they butcher animals on farms. I’d never done any of that. I’d never felt it before, a body full of warm moving life, my own hands reaching out and taking it away.

The Hork-Bajir had been trying to kill me, I reminded myself. I was fighting for my life, and for the lives of my friends. But it wasn’t even about that. It wasn’t a moral thing. It was just the feeling: my jaws reaching out and squeezing until the life was gone.

I didn’t even remember the moment when it had happened. Isn’t that horrible? I didn’t know if Ax had killed it, or if it had been me. I just remembered striking, and striking, and the body lying motionless before me.

I never wanted to do that again.

Cassie came in when I’d been lying there awhile. She was holding a thermometer and a glass of ginger ale. “I thought I should take your temperature.”

Cassie’s a good person to have around when you’re sick. Not quite as good when you’re only pretending to be sick. She might specialize in animals, but there’s not a lot about the human body she doesn’t know.

I let her put the thermometer into my mouth. She sat on the side of the bed and left her hand on my face while we waited for it to do its thing, and I closed my eyes and let myself feel it. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know if it was her or a slug controlling her body. At the moment, all I wanted was the comfort of her touch.

The thermometer beeped after a minute, and she pulled it out. “No fever,” she said.

No surprise there. “Good,” I said.

She sat there in silence with me for a minute, her hand on my arm. “Jake,” she said finally. “Is there something going on?”

Fear jolted through my gut. “What?” I said. “What would be going on?”

“I don’t know.” Her brow was furrowed. “Just, the last few days, you’ve seemed…distant.”

My heart was racing. “Really?”

“Maybe distant isn’t the right word,” she said. “I don’t know. Are you sure there isn’t anything wrong?”

I wanted to give her a real answer. I wanted to tell her everything, because she shouldn’t have to wonder why I was being strange. I shouldn’t have to keep it from her. Not now, not here, in this safe space the two of us shared, where we’d always been open with each other.

But I couldn’t trust her. Like Tobias said: no matter how I felt, I couldn’t know.

“Nothing in particular,” I said. “Just, you know, busy at work, that kind of thing.”

“Okay.” She ran her hand up and down my arm. “Because, you know, if you’re having second thoughts about the kid thing, we don’t have to try right now.”

I choked back a laugh. It would be such an obvious explanation for the way I was acting this week. And I was having second thoughts—but not for reasons I could tell her. There are aliens invading our planet and maybe I have to fight them instead of having a normal life isn’t exactly a low-profile excuse to give.

Besides, I was still hoping this would blow over somehow. That we could go back to trying next month.

“No,” I said. “It’s not that. I just, I really feel crappy right now.”

“You sure you weren’t exposed to that chemical leak?” she asked, brushing her fingers over my forehead.

If she had asked anything else. If she had come up with any other explanation. Maybe I would have been able to trust her.

“I don’t even know anymore,” I said.

#

I slept eventually, and when I woke up, it was with the nerve-zapping knowledge that today was the day. Marco’s time estimate was up. Today we’d have to destroy the servers, or fail trying.

“You’re really up for going to work today?” Cassie asked me over the breakfast table.

“Yeah, of course.” I forced a smile at her over the bowl of Wheaties I was trying to eat. Not a Hork-Bajir, I reminded myself. Nothing like a Hork-Bajir.

“Sure,” she said. “It’s just, last night, you seemed…”

“I think I was just tired,” I said. I put a big spoonful in my mouth. Really nothing like a Hork-Bajir at all.

It was still hard to swallow.

Actually I was only pretending to go into work when I left the house. What I was really doing was meeting up with Marco and then sneaking into Cassie’s office downtown.

She wasn’t going to be there that morning. I’d checked on that maybe more times than I should have. But the receptionist Nick knew me, and he waved me through when I said I had something to drop off for Cassie.

I hadn’t thought to bring a real thing to drop off. I was hoping that didn’t come back to bite me.

“Okay,” I said when we were back with the animals, my voice low in case any of the nurses came by. “Choose.”

“Seriously?” Marco said. “These are all, like, dogs and stuff. I’m supposed to go into battle as a dog?”

“Hey, dogs are cool.”

Marco gave me a look.

“Should have come with us when we went to get battle morphs,” I said, shrugging.

Marco walked along the rows of cages. It wasn’t all dogs and cats: there were some reptiles, a couple of birds. Not a lot that would be useful in a fight.

“Oh, here we go,” I said. I had found some of Cassie’s patient.

Marco came up behind me. “What, this giant cat-raccoon thing?”

It was about three feet long, stocky, with busy fur. It snarled a little at us as we looked down at it.

“Come on, Marco,” I said. “Don’t tell me you don’t want to be Wolverine.”

He had his mouth open for another smart comment, but he paused, head cocked. “Okay, when you put it that way.”

I put on a pair of thick gloves and kept it from snapping at us while Marco got a hand onto its fur. It was very interested in snapping at us. I was glad when it went into the acquiring trance.

“I hope this thing at least comes with adamantium claws,” Marco said on the way out.

“Aw, don’t be bummed,” I said. “Did you know you’re also referred to as the skunk bear?”

He gave me a dirty look. “You just Googled this, didn’t you?”

“Sure did,” I said, tucking my phone back into my pocket. It was pretty encouraging, actually. Wolverines were known for their ability to kill prey much larger than them. “And I think that as the second-largest member of the weasel family, you should be proud of that.”

“Let’s see if you’re laughing when I tell you what you need to morph next,” Marco said as we got into the car.

That did wipe the grin from my face. “What?”

“We have to get through the security door, remember?” he said.

#

“How come I have to do this?” I whispered to Marco while we hovered by the Keurig machine in the office kitchen, waiting to put our plan into motion. “I had to do the roach.”

“He’s your boss,” Marco said.

“And you’re telling me you definitely didn’t see Deborah going through that door.” Deborah is Marco’s boss, the head of the coding team.

“Would I hide that kind of information from you?” Marco asked innocently, stirring the gross artificial sweetener he likes into his French Roast.

I made a face. Not that turning into Steve would be that different from being myself. Certainly not as different as being a bird, or a leopard. But also…ew.

I almost told Marco that the next time an insect morph came up, he’d have to do it. But I held back. I didn’t want to think about there being a next time.

“Look on the bright side,” Marco said. “You’ll get to find out if greasy hair is genetic.”

I checked my watch. Steve would be getting out of his meeting any minute now. In fact, that sounded like the burst of chatter that came with the conference room door opening. “Okay, here I go.”

I walked into the hall, focusing on the papers in my hand. Not looking up. Walked carefully along the hall until Steve was almost level with me, talking to Evelyn from User Support. Then I stumbled straight into him.

It’s surprisingly hard to stumble into someone on purpose. I stumbled into him so hard that he fell down. “Oh my God, I am so sorry,” I said, and meant it. I was very sorry to have to be doing any of this.

“Fuck’s sake, man, don’t you know how to walk?” Steve started to pick himself up from the ground. I offered him a hand. He looked at me with disgust for a moment, then took it.

I started focusing as soon as his hand touched mine. I knew it was working when his muscles went lax and his weight sagged back toward the ground.

He was calm with the acquiring trance, but I wasn’t. I was terrified. Would he recognize the effect? How much did the Yeerks know about morphing tech?

“Steve, are you okay?” Evelyn asked.

“Yeah, you didn’t hit your head or anything, did you?” I asked.

His eyelids sank shut for a moment, and then he wrenched them back open and shook his head. “What? No. I’m fine.” He pulled his hand out of mine and got up by himself, swaying a little.

“Well, you should sit down for a minute,” Evelyn said, and I walked away, Steve’s DNA a part of me.

I shuddered a little.

Marco was waiting in my office. “Success?” he asked in a low voice.

“If that’s what you want to call it,” I said. I jiggled my mouse and looked at the new emails that had come in while I was up. A message from Cassie, checking in, and—“Uh-oh.”

“What?” Marco came around my desk to look at the email I had up on the screen. “Uh-oh,” he echoed.

It was an email from the CEO’s address. Building closing tonight at five sharp, the subject line said. Then in the body: We will be holding a shareholders’ meeting in the fourth-floor conference room this evening. We appreciate the excellent work ethic all our team members bring to this company, but request that for tonight you give yourselves a well-deserved rest and clear the building before…

We’d been planning to take care of the server room after work today. “What do you think?” I asked.

“It’s a meeting of them,” Marco said instantly. “Has to be. And it’s probably about us.”

But it made sense, even if I hated to think of enough of our company being Controllers that they could make this happen. There had been shareholders’ meetings before, but they were usually a major event, with way more notice than this. Catering was ordered, staff was invited to make presentations, that kind of thing.

I hadn’t been invited in years. I’d actually been a little hurt by that in the past. Now I wondered if there was a reason for it.

“Actually,” Marco said.

“What?”

“You remember Rachel’s suggestion?”

“What? Oh,” I said, as I remembered. “We can’t—” I dropped my voice further. “We can’t blow up the building.”

“If there are only Controllers in it?” Marco said.

I gave him a look. “They’re not just Yeerks. There are also the hosts.”

“People who’ve signed themselves over,” Marco pointed out. “If they’re all voluntary Controllers—”

He stopped. Probably because of the look on my face.

“Oh,” he said. “Uh, sorry.”

I couldn’t imagine Cassie signing herself over voluntarily. That much I would not believe. But even if she had…if she were here tonight, in this building…

“We don’t blow it up,” I said. “That’s going too far.”

“Fine,” Marco said. “But we do have to do the server thing. My hacking job was not good enough to last much longer than this.”

“We’ll break in while they’re all in this meeting.” I took a deep breath, willing the Wheaties to settle in my stomach. “And maybe we spy a little. Wouldn’t hurt to know more about these guys.”

If I was partly hoping to find out if Cassie was among them—well, that would be good knowledge, too.

Chapter Text

I’d already told Cassie I was going to be working late. Now I just had to make it through the rest of the day without visibly freaking out.

I had a meeting that afternoon with Tina, to review the work plan for Share. It was the kind of meeting I’d had dozens of times with her. She’d been here for two years, since the buyout; I’d never had any problems working with her.

Now I could barely focus on the words she was saying. I kept looking at her, thinking, who was I really talking to? How long had it not been Tina?

I’d always thought of myself as a good manager. I thought it was because I understood people: I knew what motivated them, what gave them trouble. But apparently I didn’t know my employees at all.

Tina was outlining the plan for some changes to Share. The app that was going to make more people into Controllers, help the Yeerks spread through society, until there was no way to hold onto freedom. “Sounds good,” I said. “Are you going to the shareholders’ meeting this afternoon?”

She looked surprised but pleased that I asked. “I am. They asked to hear about the plan for the rollout.”

“Well, you’re well-prepared,” I said. “It should be a good presentation.”

She smiled and left, and I thought, maybe Marco’s suggestion of blowing up the building hadn’t been a bad one.

I still knew it wasn’t the right move. But sitting there, in the midst of friendly, professional coworkers whose faces hid slugs who were trying to take over the world, all I wanted was for the entire place to disappear.

Marco and I left at five on the dot. I always tried to leave punctually anyway to set a good example for my team, but I wasn’t usually out of there as soon as the clocks ticked over. Today, I had my jacket on at five minutes to.

“So, this is gonna be fun,” Marco said as we made our way to Rachel’s hotel room.

I didn’t say anything. My stomach lining was trying to eat itself. The thing last night had gone okay—for some value of “okay” that involved my leopard claws sinking into a Hork-Bajir. But the antique store hadn’t had anyone in it. Tonight we were breaking into a building full of the people who most wanted us dead. Being able to turn into a cockroach, kestrel, and/or leopard didn’t feel like enough to deal with that.

The mood was tense when we walked into Rachel’s room. Ax was sitting on the bed, in human morph; I nodded to him. He didn’t nod back, but that might have been because he didn’t know what that meant. It was hard to believe, looking at him, that just last night his tail had been dripping with blood.

Rachel was on the balcony. “We ready?” I asked, going out to join her.

She nodded. “Just have to wait for Tobias.”

Tobias was catching us a morph.

I looked at Rachel, who was leaning against the railing, eyes fixed on the sky. I’d known Rachel a long time, but I hadn’t seen her as much in the past eight years since she’d moved to New York. I didn’t know how much this was just her now: how much of the tense lines of her shoulders, the tight clench of her fingers, the cool blue of her eyes was Rachel-the-finance-queen, and how much of it was a reaction to what we’d done yesterday. To what we were about to do today.

“It won’t be a big deal,” I said. “Just breaking into an office building, wiping out a server rack. Nothing to it.”

Maybe we hadn’t seen each other a lotlately, but she still knew when I was bullshitting. The disdainful look she shot me was pure Rachel.

<Incoming,> Tobias said, and the next thing I knew a squirming rat was being dropped into my hands.

“Oh,” I said. In a normal tone of voice. Not a yelp. Definitely not. “Uh, thanks, Tobias.”

I acquired the rat quickly to keep it from biting me. I didn’t want to think about what it might be carrying.

<No problem,> Tobias said. <It was surprisingly easy to catch. You’d think, that high up, it would be hard to spot something so small, but they’re everywhere. Lots of tiny, helpless prey, just waiting for you to swoop down…>

“Hey, Tobias, you’re not going hawk on us, are you?” Marco said. “I mean, flying, sure, that’s cool, but I’m not sure I want to hang out with someone who eats rats for dinner.”

There was an uncomfortable pause. “Keep your opinions to yourself, Marco,” Rachel said, swiping the rat from my hands and starting to acquire it.

Tobias didn’t say anything. I felt like I should, but I wasn’t sure what to say. “Come on,” I said finally. “Let’s do this thing.”

Morphing the rat wasn’t that weird. I mean, not after all the other things I’d morphed. I shrank, like I had for the cockroach, but my bone structure stayed roughly intact, like it had when I’d morphed the leopard and the kestrel. The fur that spread across my skin prickled like it had for the leopard. The tail was a surprise: hairless, longer than the leopard’s compared to my body, a protrusion of skin stretching out and out and out where I wasn’t used to having any part of me at all.

But mostly it was the mind that was different. I hadn’t morphed a prey animal before. The cockroach had been small and quick to flee, but it hadn’t been afraid. Not like this.

There was a predator in the room. A familiar scent in the air. Run!

I ran under the bed, away from Tobias. I sort of knew I was doing it—knew, in a small corner of my mind, that I didn’t need to run—but the fear was too strong. The rat had evolved for millennia to avoid that dark shape in the sky.

It was better under the bed. My little rat heart started slowing down—relatively, anyway. It was still going hundreds of beats per minute.

There was another rat under here. But a weird rat: it smelled like me. Exactly like me. The rat mind didn’t know what to do with that.

That confused my rat mind enough that my human mind was able to claw its way closer to the surface. <Rachel?> I said to the other rat.

<Oh,> she said sounding startled. <I. Huh.>

Rachel and I made our way out from under the bed. Marco was sitting in the middle of the floor in his mouse morph. <Too much for you?> he asked smugly when we emerged.

<Shut up, Marco,> Rachel said. She sounded angry. She was probably afraid: the rat mind was still yammering at me, telling me to get out of the light.

We were all afraid. It felt wrong: we were going into a dangerous situation at each other’s throats. But what could I do about it? <Right,> I said. <Time to board the bus.>

Ax was the bus. <Is this a way you humans usually transport small animals?> he asked as we climbed into the sleeve of the jacket Rachel had bought for him.

<Definitely not,> Marco said. <Usually when we see a rat we like to jump up on a chair and scream. It’s a longstanding human tradition.>

Ax sounded confused. <Should I…>

<No, Ax, let’s go,> I said. Tobias took off from the balcony as the rest of us huddled around Ax’s collar for the journey to Dapsen, Inc.

We had decided that Ax would be the only human for a couple of reasons. For one thing, his was the only human form that was disposable: if he got sighted by a Controller, he could always acquire different human DNA and make a new morph. But mostly it was the thing where none of us trusted ourselves to operate an electromagnetic specifier. Whatever that was.

Ax as the only human meant that we had to guide him every step of the way. Which meant sticking our little ratty noses out into the air. That exacerbated the rat’s fear, and with the rat’s fear came my own fear. What did we really know about what we were getting into here?

<I’d just like to say, for the record, that this is a crappy way to spend a Friday night,> Marco said as Ax walked down the street. <You know when we were kids, and we promised ourselves we’d never become those boring adults who did lame stuff with their weekends?>

<Come on, Marco, didn’t you always want to be a superhero?> Rachel said. <Your high school self would be thrilled.>

<My high school self would want to know why I have to keep turning into a mouse,> Marco said. <Justsaying, there have to be way cooler things we can do with these powers. I’m thinking: tigers. Five of them. Riding in a Lamborghini.>

<Where are we getting a Lamborghini?> Tobias asked, above us.

<It will be gifted to us by the gods because of our extreme coolness,> Marco said. <What do you think about sunglasses on the tigers—too much?>

<Turn left here,> I said to Ax, and there it was: our building, four stories of windows reflecting the evening sunlight.

We directed Ax to the side entrance. There would be cameras on that, too, of course; that was why he had to wait for Tobias to make his move.

<Here goes,> Tobias said, and then my rat ears heard a noise that made me want to haul my furry butt back into Ax’s jacket and never come out: the TSEEEEEEEER of a red-tailed hawk in dive.

<Okay, you’ve got your opening,> Tobias said. <This guy is staring at me like he’s never seen a bird before. I mean, maybe never one that was zooming back and forth in front of his window, but…>

Ax went up to the door. He looked up at the camera lens winking over it. At least, I assumed it was. I couldn’t see all that well as a rat, but Marco and I had cased out the entrance earlier. <We have a difficulty,> he said. <My human body is unable to reach this camera.>

Oh. Shit. We hadn’t thought this through. <Uh,> I said. <Maybe one of us can demorph, boost you up? Or…>

<Ax,> Marco said. <How big is this specifier?>

Pretty small, it turned out. Small enough to fit into a rat’s mouth.

<Again, not how I thought I’d be spending my Friday evenings in adulthood,> Marco grumbled as the two of us made our way up the wall.

<At least you don’t have to carry it,> I said. The specifier wasn’t big, but it was big for a rat who was trying to keep a grip on brick.

The camera was a black box that stuck out from the side of the building. <You said we just put the specifier on it anywhere?> I asked Ax.

<Near a wire would be best,> Ax said. I nudged the little silver hemisphere toward the back of the camera box, and when it was near enough, the flat part jerked toward the camera like it was magnetized. <Ah yes, thank you, it is working already,> Ax said.

I looked down at him. He wasn’t even reaching up. <How are you…>

<It works on mental control,> Ax said.

<Of course it does,> Marco said.

<Are you guys coming down, or what?> Rachel asked.

Marco and I made our way back down to Rachel while Ax, I don’t know, rewrote video footage with his mind or something. <Are we good?> I asked after a few minutes of silence.

<Yes.> Ax sounded distracted. <Your guard should see only motionless hallways.>

<Great,> I said. <Tobias!>

Tobias was going to provide air cover while Ax demorphed. See, the doors were locked, and we couldn’t use anyone’s pass to get in, because that would be recorded. But Andalite tails are way tougher than any metal lock.

My rat eyes were dazzled by the spray of sparks as Ax’s tail cut through the lock mechanism. Then we all went through the unlocked door, Ax as an Andalite, Tobias as a bird, and the rest of us as rodents on Ax’s back.

The next part would be the tricky bit. Well—the first of the tricky bits. Both staircases to the basement were located in the lobby. We could all have morphed something small and gotten down without being seen, but Ax was carrying a satchel with the things we needed. We couldn’t have carried all that in rat morph.

<We need another distraction,> I said as Ax crept toward the lobby on his four Andalite hooves. We hadn’t specifically planned for this part. <Ax, if we get you to another camera, can you alter the feed to show—>

<Prince Jake,> he interrupted. <That may be unnecessary. There is already someone approaching the front doors.>

<How do you know that?> Tobias said. <I can’t even hear that from here.>

<I still have a mental link to the video feed,> Ax said.

<Probably a Controller coming to the meeting,> Rachel said.

<It is a short woman with dark skin,> Ax said. <She is wearing a garment of coarse blue cloth that fastens over her shoulders.>

<Cassie,> I said immediately. There was no way to know for sure, but—those were her work overalls. It had to be her.

My first impulse was that we should go out to her, tell her to get away. She shouldn’t be anywhere near this building, not tonight. But of course, that was wrong, wasn’t it?

<Jake,> Marco said. His thought-speech voice was surprisingly gentle. <You know what this means.>

I knew what it meant. There was only one reason Cassie would be coming to this building tonight. I still wanted to find a way to make it untrue, but I couldn’t pretend this away.

<Right,> I said. My voice didn’t sound as sick as I felt. <We sit tight. Maybe she’ll provide a distraction.>

It was horrible, standing there while Cassie came closer and closer to the building. I knew, rationally, that it wasn’t really Cassie doing it: that the Yeerk in her head was making the calls, and the Yeerk wouldn’t be in any danger in this building. But it was still almost impossible to stay still and not shout in thought-speech for her to get away.

Something nuzzled at the side of my head: the other rat, Rachel. She knew what this must be doing to me. She was providing as much comfort as a rat could.

We heard the door opening. <She has entered the building,> Ax said. <The security guard is up from his desk and speaking with her.>

If he was over by the front doors, the nearest staircase would be out of his line of sight. Maybe Cassie’s, too, if we were lucky.

<Okay, Marco, Rachel, and I go first,> I said. <We’ll tell you if the coast is clear.>

We scurried down from Ax’s back and around the corner into the lobby. Rat senses aren’t the best—they’re more about smell than hearing or sight—but I could see Cassie talking to the guard, and just about make out what they were saying.

<They’re too close to the staircase,> Marco said. <We’re going to need a better distraction.>

<Let’s wait a minute,> I said. The guard was raising his voice, and I wanted to listen.

“I’ve already told you, the building is closed,” he was saying.

“I just came to see my husband,” Cassie said, which—that was weird. Why was she saying that? “He’s working late here tonight. He’s a release manager.”

<Jake,> Rachel said. <We should really—>

<Sh,> I said.

“Only the shareholders’ meeting here tonight,” the guard was saying, and then, when she gave my name, “He’s not on the list.”

This wasn’t right. My rat brain was squealing at me, picking up on my fear and telling me to run.

“I was really hoping I could come in to check on him,” Cassie said. “I know there was that chemical leak at the construction site—”

“What do you know about the construction site?” he asked, voice suddenly hard. There was a sudden lunging motion. He was grabbing her arm, holding onto her, and oh no I had fucked up so badly.

I had to say something to her. I had to—

<Jake.> Marco was repeating my name. <Jake. Listen to me. You can’t say anything to her.>

<She’s not a Controller,> I said. I’d been right all along: right to hope. Right to trust her. <You heard her. She’s not.>

<I know,> he said. <But you can’t help her that way. And what if they take her?>

That woke me up a little. If she knew about me, they’d take me, too, and then all the others would be lost. I couldn’t do that. But—

<We’ll save her another way,> Rachel said angrily. <Let’s kick that slug’s ass.>

<Right.> I tried to pull my thoughts together. The guard was strong-arming Cassie toward the far staircase, and it made it so hard to think about anything except getting her away from him. Right away, as quickly as possible. <Head for that staircase. We’re going to battle morphs.>

Chapter Text

It felt good to leave the rat’s fear behind. But my own human mind, when I demorphed, wasn’t that much better: there was no part of me that wasn’t a mix of scared and guilty and angry about what they might do to Cassie.

But the leopard’s mind. I felt it surface beneath my own, and I took refuge in it: in its smooth mastery, in its confident wariness. It knew there was no problem it couldn’t solve.

I breathed in, and the scent of Cassie lit up across the floor like a landing strip.

The others were around me: a mismatched group of bear, hawk, wolverine, and alien crammed onto the top landing of a staircase. We were ready for anything. <Let’s go,> I said.

The scent trail led down the stairs and to a door with a gray pad next to it. I had never been to our server room, but I didn’t need Marco to tell me this was it.

<Uh, Jake?> Marco asked. <Wasn’t this the part where you were supposed to morph Steve?>

I had forgotten about needing to get through the biometric lock. I wanted to snap at him. But my forgetfulness wasn’t his fault. <Ax?> I said. <Can you do anything about this?>

<No, Prince Jake,> he said. <Yeerk technology has much better safeguards than your human surveillance systems. It is possible I could slice through the locking mechanism, but if they are concerned about security on this door, that would not doubt trigger an alarm.>

<If we don’t want them to know we’re coming—> Tobias said.

<Oh, everyone stand back,> Rachel said, impatient. Then, <What? Did we really think we were getting in there in these bodies undetected?>

<I guess we do kind of stand out,> Marco said, and we stood back as Rachel rolled forward, seven hundred pounds of adult male grizzly, and slammed into the door.

Slammed throughthe door, actually. And the wall. The drywall gave way, and the entire door frame fell into the room. I looked Rachel to make sure she was okay, but the wall seemed to have gotten the worst of it.

We sprang forward in her wake. And found…a server room.

<Seriously?> I said.

<Make sense,> Marco said. He trotted up to the server cabinets, nudging them with his nose. <We do need to have servers.>

<Yeah, but…> I looked around. The room was about three times the size of my office, and there was nothing in it but the servers. They were in cabinets in the middle of the room, connected by thick black cables.

No guard. No Cassie.

We’d expected to find servers somewhere down here. That was what we’d come for; that was why Ax had charges in his bag, ready do to some very precise detonation. But I didn’t care about the servers right now.

<If this is where the human woman was taken, there must be another exit,> Ax said.

<Great, does anyone know where it is?> I asked.

<Do any of you hear…> Tobias said.

<What?> Rachel asked when he didn’t finish.

<Nothing,> he said.

<Thanks, that’s really helpful, now where the fuck did she go?> I was pacing back and forth in the space between the wall and the servers.

<Jake,> Marco said suddenly. <You have to be able to smell at least as well as I can. Isn’t theresomething weird here?>

I had forgotten about the trail. The electric smell in my nose was distracting, and my human brain wasn’t used to relying on scent. But Marco was right. The scent trail led across the floor from the entrance to the opposite wall, and then it stopped.

The others joined us near the wall. <Okay, now I definitely hear something,> Tobias said.

I was about ready to bite through the wall if it would get me to Cassie. <Rachel, want to do your thing again?>

<No need,> Ax said. He reached out a slim Andalite hand and touched the wall at a point that looked completely blank to me. The wall dimpled and then opened up, an archway appearing. <It is…an Andalite door design,> he said, his thought-speech voice grim.

There was a staircase going down on the other side of the arch, but that wasn’t the first thing I noticed. As soon as the arch was open, I heard what Tobias had been talking about. Voice filtered up from somewhere far below. But they weren’t talking. They were screaming.

Screaming in fear. Screaming for help. Calling out, crying, sobbing. Desperate, miserable. Like we’d just opened a door to hell.

A smell rolled up from below, oily and rich and strange.

<What is this place?> I asked, even my thought-speech voice shaking.

<I cannot guarantee it,> Ax said. <But I believe we have found the Yeerk pool.>

We stood for a moment, listening. Stunned by the quantity of human misery coming up from below.

<Well, we’re going down there, right?> Rachel said.

<How about, oh, I don’t know, not?> Marco asked, a hysterical note in his voice.

<Cassie’s down there,> Tobias said.

That was the problem. There was no part of me that wanted to go down there—it was impossible to hear those screams and not think that by going down there, I would end up screaming like that myself. But I couldn’t even think about leaving Cassie down there alone.

<I’m going,> I said. <You guys can do whatever you want.>

<Don’t be an idiot,> Rachel said. <Of course we’re going.>

<Ugh,> Marco said. <I knew this friendship thing was going to screw me over someday.>

They all came. Four assorted animals and one alien, running down the long, long shadowy stair.

<Of course, you realize we’re doomed, right?> Marco said as we descended. <I mean, I’ve seen this movie. Pretty sure there’s, like, five hundred orcs at the bottom of this staircase. Or maybe a balrog.>

<They mostly lived in that movie,> Tobias said.

<Yeah, but they had plot armor,> Marco said. <You see any plot armor around us?>

<Oh, stop being a wimp,> Rachel said. <We can take a few piddly orcs.>

<Easy for you to say,> Marco said. <You’re like ten feet tall. You’re not gonna see me beating an oliphaunt.>

<I do not know what you are discussing,> Ax said stiffly, <but I feel it is inappropriate for the moments preceding a battle.>

I wasn’t really listening. I was listening for footsteps ahead. We were all going down pretty fast: Ax was probably the limiting factor, and even he had four legs instead of the human two. We had to be faster than Cassie and the guard. Even with the time we’d lost morphing and finding the door, we were bound to catch up to them soon.

<I think we’re near the bottom,> Tobias said.

He was right. The stair curved slightly, so that we couldn’t see the end, but the noises were much louder than before. I put on a burst of speed and ran on ahead of the others, hoping to find Cassie and the guard before they reached the bottom—but I was too late. The stair was opening in front of me, giving way to a cavern so huge I couldn’t quite believe it was real.

I’m not sure what I expected. But this wasn’t just a pool of sludge. This was an entire underground world. The roof was so high above that it receded into shadows, and the walls I could see were rough-hewn, like they’d been carved from rock, supported by metal struts. In the vast open space between them were actual buildings: not skyscrapers or anything, but one- and two-story buildings like offices and warehouses and even storefronts. A couple of new ones were under construction. There was more construction equipment around the edges, like the walls were being pushed out. And in the middle, at the center of everything, was the pool.

That was where Cassie was headed. I could see her now, pulled along by the security guard that still had her by the arm. Toward the raised platform with the pool of sludge.

There were cages close to the pool. Inside them, humans and Hork-Bajir screamed or wept or stood in blank-faced horror. I watched as one human man, perfectly cooperative, knelt on a pier and bent his head toward the roiling water. A slug crawled out of his ear, and he immediately began to sob. A Hork-Bajir grabbed him and hustled him toward a cage.

<Holy shit,> Marco said. The others had caught up to me.

<We have to save her,> I said. <We need a plan, a…>

<No time,> Rachel said. <This place is chaos. I say we just go for it.>

I could see Cassie and the guard getting closer to the platform. No time to think about it. <Okay. Rachel, with me. I’m going to need you to carry Cassie. The rest of you, cover us. We’re going in.>

Chapter Text

I hadn’t done much running yet as the leopard. I knew I was fast. But I hadn’t expected the way I shot forward immediately. I looked it up later: a leopard can go up to 36 miles per hour. And it can reach that speed in just two or three strides. That’s a car zipping by you on a suburban street.

You might think a massive grizzly bear would be slower. But it turns out, not by much. And it accelerates almost as fast as a leopard does.

Within seconds, Rachel and I were sprinting across the Yeerk pool complex at the speed of a car on a highway on-ramp. Thirty-plus miles per hour might not sound that fast when a car is doing it, but trust me, when you’re doing it on your own four legs in the open air? It is freaking fast.

The security guard didn’t see us coming.

I probably should have just knocked him out, like I had the human-Controllers at the antique store, but I was mad. He had dragged Cassie down to this hell. I hit him at a leap, claws out, and slammed him to the ground.

Cassie screamed. But the Yeerks had noticed us already. “Andalites!” someone shouted.

<Rachel, grab Cassie,> I said, and leapt at the nearest Hork-Bajir.

The next few minutes were a blur. I slashed at Hork-Bajir, twisting away before their blades could get me. Sometimes I wasn’t quite fast enough: one of my legs stung where a blade had scored it, and I was pretty sure I was missing one of my ears. But it didn’t matter. I was faster than they were.

Ax fought alongside me, tail blade flashing, and Marco sprang up into the faces of very confused Hork-Bajir who couldn’t figure out how to fight something at such close range.

<Ah-hah, this little guy can fuck people up!> Marco shouted.

Rachel was fighting, too, smashing people with her paws while keeping Cassie behind her. Tobias was overhead, shouting instructions. <Jake, on your left! Ax, they’re trying to shoot at you, get into a crowd!>

They couldn’t shoot very well: too many of their own people in the way. It was a nightmare. But they weren’t prepared for us. We were winning.

<Rachel, you’re near the human cages,> Tobias said. <You get rid of that one guard, and you could open them.>

<Do we want that?> Rachel asked.

I thought about it for a split second. It would be easier to just grab Cassie, beat a retreat—but there were other people’s family members in that cage. Their partners, their parents, their friends. <Yeah,> I said. <Do it.>

<Okay, Rachel’s opening the cages,> Tobias said. <They’ve—Marco, get out of there, they’re going to team up on you. Okay, the humans are running for it. We leave, we can clear a path for them to the stairs.>

<Let’s do it,> I said. <Everyone head for the stairs.>

And then, before I could turn, I heard a voice I’d been hearing all week in my nightmares.

<Oh-ho, I see that I was wrong,> Visser Three said. <Some of you did survive the destruction of your paltry Dome ship.>

He stepped out of the crowd, a swaggering blue Andalite with that deadly tail curving up behind him. I felt the same crawling horror I had the night at the construction site. It was only an Andalite body, just like Elfangor’s or Ax’s, but it was terrible, somehow. I hated the sight of it.

<Leave them to me,> he said to his guards. <I have a bit of a treat for them.> He started to morph.

<Come on, we have to get out of here now!> I said. I didn’t know what the Visser was morphing—but I was pretty sure we didn’t want to be around for it.

The guards were standing back from us, respecting Visser Three’s wishes, but it was still chaos. Freed humans were running, stumbling on the loose rocks on the cavern floor. I wanted to yell at them to save themselves, but what good would it do? All they could do was go as fast as they could.

Then suddenly the air above me turned scorching, a scent hitting me like burning rubber, and a fireball streaked over my head and hit a group of fleeing humans in the back.

I leapt back, panic grabbing me by the throat. It’s terrible, but all I could think was: was that Cassie? Was Cassie in that group?

<Come on!> Rachel shouted, loping by me. Cassie was slung over her shoulder. I started running again.

That was when the real pandemonium started. It was all I could do to keep a rough visual lock on the stairs in front of me, and on Cassie on Rachel’s back, while dodging the fireballs. Then another fireball hit, this one at base of the stairs themselves, and the very floor of the cavern caught fire.

<Oh shit, we’re done for,> Marco said. He was right: our escape route was cut off. Unless we found a way to get through the fire—

“Oh, well done,” a human voice said.

It was amplified, like there was a sound system in here. I whirled around to see a woman standing near the enormous fire monster that was Visser Three. She had a headset on, one of those Bluetooth ones. And I knew her. She was our CEO, Lila.

Lila had worked for the company for two years. Since we were bought. I hadn’t worked directly with her that much. But I’d spent plenty of time in meetings with her, across a narrow conference table, talking logistics and market strategy and chatting about our weekends. And here she was in the middle of the Yeerk pool congratulating Visser Three on our capture.

There were other people with her. People I recognized. Steve. Tina. Brett from Finance. Annie, one of our user support specialists.

“When I heard about the fight at the antique store last night, I thought there might be a significant problem,” Lila said. “But you’ve captured them neatly. I congratulate you.”

<Thank you, councilor,> the Visser said, his thought-speech voice hungry. <Now to finish them off.>

She held up a hand lazily. I couldn’t even imagine how much clout she must have had to raise a hand to the Visser like that. “Not so fast,” she said. “Not everything has to be accomplished with brute force. There are better ways to make them ours.”

<Okay, I do not like the sound of this,> Marco said. We were near the stairs, backed up as far as we could go, but the fire hot at our backs. We couldn’t go any farther.

<They are already ours,> the Visser said. <They can’t possibly escape my vlaridiox. I will burn them to a—>

“Sure, you could do that,” she said. “But wouldn’t it be better if they came to us voluntarily? I know you’ve never experienced it,” she said to the Visser, “but I can’t tell you how much of an advantage it is to have a collaborative relationship with your host. Mine has been extraordinarily helpful.”

<As the councilor says,> the Visser said. If he’d had teeth, I think he would have been grinding them.

<Okay. Can we kick their asses now?> Rachel asked.

<How do you suggest we do that?> Marco demanded, half-hysterical. <There’s a fire-breathing monster!>

He was right. We were pinned between a wall of flame and the creature that had created it. And even if we could escape, the freed humans with us probably couldn’t.

I’m ashamed to say it, but in that moment I wanted to leave them. They were screwed either way.

<Prince Jake,> Ax said. <I have a morph which may be effective in this situation. Should I use it?>

<Yes, for fuck’s sake, Ax, do it,> I said.

Next to me, he started growing.

“Andalites,” Lila said to us, her voice still amplified. “This does not need to be the end for you. You can join with us, and help us achieve partnership with the human race.”

<No one answer her,> I said. We couldn’t afford to let her know we were human. Even if she would know, very soon, as soon as she captured us and forced Yeerks into our heads.

Ax was growing still larger, a swelling shape of muddled blues.

“You may have heard lies about Yeerk cruelty,” Lila said. It was her inspirational-speaking voice. I’d heard it before, at company all-staffs. “I promise you, with the correct spirit of cooperation, partnership with a Yeerk can bring the greatest joy a sentient being can ever know. It means an end to loneliness, to the prison of your own solitary existence—>

Someone tugged on her sleeve. A guy I vaguely recognized from the mailroom. He was pointing at Ax.

<One of the Andalites is morphing! The councilor must be defended!> Visser Three shouted, and he belched a stream of fire straight toward us.

But it was too late. Ax was huge now—think an elephant, but with another elephant on top of it. That was about the size of it. I could make out something like a head, and maybe some limbs, but his outline was still weirdly fluid, like maybe he wasn’t done morphing. But when the Visser shot a fireball at us, all that fluidity gathered up into a sort of cup thing on top of his head, like water running uphill, and shot toward the Visser.

Turned out it actually was water. The air filling with hissing steam. <A blastian arl!> the Visser said, in furious recognition. <You think to counter me?>

<Ax, the stairs!> I said, and this time the water jetted behind him, to put out the fire smoldering on the steps.

There was a tseeeeew sound, and beams of red light shot at Ax. Dracon beams. But they only sizzled off the surface of the water.

<Let’s go!> Rachel said, loping for the stairs.

Cassie was still draped over her shoulder. She looked like she was unconscious. I ran after them.

The Visser wasn’t done lobbing his fireballs. But Ax wasn’t done with his water trick, either. I didn’t know where he was getting all the water, but the air was a maelstrom of fire and superheated steam. I could only just evade the worst of it, my leopard body quick enough to leap out of the path of the flame.

The humans with us weren’t so lucky. I saw one of them fall, flame hitting her in the back. Then another. There was nothing I could do about it: I was large for a cat, but I was still only about half the weight of a human. I couldn’t carry even one of them on my back. I couldn’t fight off the fireballs with my teeth, or do anything to protect them. I could only run.

It was a disaster. I saw Marco running near me, through a gap in the steam. I heard Tobias’s hawk screeching overhead. We were all still alive. But we were losing. If we stayed to fight, if we made Visser Three keep throwing his fireballs, we’d only create more human death.

<Ax, Tobias, everyone, make for the stairs! We’re out of here!> I shouted, leaping up the first few steps. Then I howled in pain as something sliced through my tail.

A Hork-Bajir. I spun around and struck, disengaging quickly as he fell back a few steps—and then leapt away as a fireball engulfed him. I sprinted up the stairs.

It was a miserable run. Leopards are fast, but they don’t have much endurance. I was struggling before we were halfway up, choking on steam and smoke, driven by fear more than anything else. Fleeing the screams in the cavern below.

Ax caught up to us, climbing surprisingly fast in a weird flowing motion up the steps, then demorphing and climbing awkwardly on half-formed Andalite legs.

<We’re probably faster than anything they’ve got, right?> Marco said. <I mean, those Hork-Bajir guys look kind of bulky. They won’t be able to catch up to us.>

<The Hork-Bajir evolved on very uneven terrain,> Ax said. <They are excellent climbers.>

<Shit,> Marco said.

<Guys!> Tobias shouted to us. <You’ve got Hork-Bajir incoming. Maybe two dozen of them, heading up the stairs, like one minute behind you.>

<Oh no,> Marco said. <Oh no oh no oh no.>

<Ax,> I said. <Those charges up in the server room. They can be configured to blow up in a not contained manner, right?>

<Of course,> he said.

<Then let’s get to the top before they do,> I said. <Tobias, get your feathered ass up here!>

<Will do,> he called up, and the rest of us ran.

Chapter Text

For the life of me I have no idea how I managed to finish that run. The leopard’s muscles were screaming at me, and I was screaming at myself: don’t fall behind, don’t fail, don’t let Cassie and everyone die.

<Door ahead!> Rachel said, just when I was starting to think I’d never make it.

<Come on, come on,> I said as we all staggered through the door. Ax went straight for the charges, pulling them out of the bag and uncoupling wires and reattaching them in ways that were hopefully more destructive.

<I will attach them at strategic places around the door,> Ax said. <That should collapse a portion of the tunnel and destroy the servers as well. I will build in a brief time delay so that we can—>

<Wait!> Rachel said. <Where’s Tobias?>

I looked around. Marco, a panting wolverine; Rachel, with Cassie slung over her back, hopefully unharmed; Ax, hastily setting up the charges. <Tobias!> I called.

<Can’t—Hork-Bajir,> he said. His thought-speech was faint, like he was too far away. <Go on and—>

<We are not fucking blowing this place up before Tobias is here,> Rachel said, stepping forward on her massive hind legs.

<What, you want all of us to die with him?> Marco said.

<—hiding,> Tobias said, another faint wisp of thought-speech. <—can find a—>

<There will be multiple exits from the Yeerk pool,> Ax said. <He may well be able to find another way out.>

I remembered seeing other dark shapes on the far side of the cavern that might have been more staircases. I hated to leave Tobias to find one of them, but if I didn’t—

<Do it,> I said to Ax. <And don’t start with us,> I said, turning to face Rachel. <We’re all going to die in about two minutes if we don’t.>

She glared down at me, tiny bear eyes expressionless but menacing. Then she looked away.

<We have forty-five seconds,> Ax said. <Run!>

We ran. For what felt like the hundredth time that night, we ran like our lives depended on it.

We had made it to the base of the stairs when Rachel said, <Hang on, Cassie’s—ow! Shit!>

I spun around. <What happened?>

Rachel was slumped against the wall. <She stuck me with a—>

Cassie was awake. She jerked away from Rachel, hypodermic needle still in her hand, took a wide-eyed look at the rest of us, and ran.

Down the stairs. Toward the explosion.

<Cassie, no!> I cried.

She stopped. She turned around.

“Jake?” she said.

Then the world exploded.

Not the whole world. But it felt like that for a moment: there was a devastating boom, and the building shook around us. I lost my footing and only just managed to find it again on the stairs. Marco landed flat on his face, and Cassie fell with a shout.

I ran to her. <Are you okay?>

“I think so.” She raised herself to a sitting position and moved her ankles and wrists to check for breaks. Then she looked at me. “Or—maybe not. What the hell is going on?”

I knew it wasn’t going to be particularly comforting to be nuzzled by a leopard, but I couldn’t resist rubbing my head against her just a little, to feel for myself that she was okay. I was so glad she was alive. So glad she wasn’t a Controller. <It’s a long story,> I said. <I’ll tell it to you, I promise, but right now we need to get out of here.>

We didn’t know how long it would take the Controllers to send people to investigate the building. We ran out in our crazy animal forms—Ax swiped the specifier from the video camera as we went—and demorphed behind a couple of trucks in a nearby parking lot.

Cassie watched with wide eyes as Rachel, Marco, and I regained our human bodies, flesh shifting and taking new form. “This is—what’s—” she said, her eyes getting wider and wider.

As soon as I was human I went and put my arms around her. She hugged me back, though I could tell she wasn’t quite there for it. “There’s still something we have to do,” I said. “Is it okay if Marco explains things to you first? I promise I’ll come back as soon as I can.”

She shrugged helplessly. “Not like I can really argue, can I?” Which made me feel terrible, but what could I do?

I looked at Marco, and he beckoned her to follow him. “Do I ever have a story for you,” he said.

I hated to see her go right after I’d almost gotten her killed. And I might not have chosen Marco to be the first one to fill her in. But he was the only one who didn’t have a bird morph.

“Come on, what are we waiting for?” Rachel said, impatient, and started to shrink.

It wasn’t dark out yet. That was the craziest thing about all that had happened: it felt like we’d been gone for hours, it was still barely six-thirty. Plenty of daylight left for my kestrel eyes to see in.

<How much time do we have?> I asked Ax as we finished growing our feathers.

Ax was morphing what he’d called a kafit bird: three overlapping wings on each side, with muted-green feathers and a sharp pointed beak. <I did not see Tobias morph,> he said. <But I would estimate twenty-five minutes.>

That was really not very long. <Let’s go, then,> Rachel said, lifting off with her powerful wings and sending me skidding in the downdraft.

Rachel was too large to be inconspicuous in the city. Ax would never be inconspicuous anywhere on Earth. Which meant they were they eyes in the sky—way up in the sky—and I was on ground duty.

A kestrel is small as birds go, and it was late enough in the day that this part of the city wasn’t crowded. Hopefully no one would notice me skimming around, as close to the ground as I could go.

<Tobias!> I shouted as I flew. <Tobias!>

We didn’t know how thick the roof of the Yeerk pool was. Or if Tobias was even up by the roof—maybe he was hundreds of feet down, finding somewhere safe to demorph or escaping through a stairway. Maybe he didn’t need our help at all. But we had to try. We had left him behind, and we had to try to save him.

I skimmed across parking lots, along the roofs of low buildings, as low down on the sidewalks as I could risk going. I went the wrong way for a while, and then Ax corrected me: apparently compass directions were another thing Andalites knew. Then I flew over a different set of parking lots and buildings and sidewalks. I flew across a park. Past a high-rise, where I had to hope the residents weren’t looking out the windows. <Tobias!>

<Approximately twelve of your minutes left,> Ax said.

<This is dumb,> Rachel said. <I’m not seeing anything up here. I’m coming down.>

<No!> I said. Rachel was one of the biggest raptors in the world. No way would she go unnoticed. Even I was getting some excited pointing from people on sidewalks. If there were Controllers around…

<Prince Jake,> Ax said. <I believe I recognize several of the humans one street to your left. They were present while the Yeerk councilor was addressing us in the pool.>

That was just what we needed. <Rachel, stay up there, or you’re going to get shot at.>

<So what? We all just got shot at. I’m not gonna—>

<Jake?>

It was Tobias’s voice. <Sh!> I said to Rachel. <I think I heard something.>

Thought-speech isn’t very directional. I couldn’t tell where Tobias was. He hadn’t sounded all that distant, though.

I circled back the way I’d just come. <Tobias?>

<Jake.> His voice was louder now. <I think I’ve found a way out. I’m in some kind of ventilation shaft. The exit is blocked, though. I can’t get it open.>

I was in a little area of parking lot and grass between a few buildings: a doctor’s office, a real estate office, some other kind of workplace. None of them looked open right now. He could have been under any of them. <Can you tap on something with your beak?> I said. <Some kind of pattern?>

It took me a moment to hear it. And another moment to recognize it: three slow taps, three quick ones, three slow. Morse code for SOS.

It wasn’t coming from any of the buildings. It sounded like it was coming from the ground.

Rachel swooped down next to me in her huge eagle body. <Did you find him?>

<He’s around here somewhere,> I said. <Can you tell where that sound is coming from?>

<Prince Jake, the Yeerks are approaching your location,> Ax said.

<Quick, hide,> I said to Rachel. <Tobias, stop tapping for a minute.>

We fluttered behind some bushes. The kestrel did not like that: it was not meant to be tangled in branches on the ground. The ground was for prey. I fought the body’s instincts and held still.

I heard footsteps going by. A voice: “No, our quadrant ends two blocks that way. Call back if you don’t believe me. Here, give me that map.”

“I don’t know how they expect us to find them,” another person grumbled. “They could be anything.”

Rachel and I stayed still as they passed and Tobias’s time kept ticking. <Eight of your minutes,> Ax said.

<Tobias, can you tap for us again?> I said.

The rhythmic tapping started again. <This way,> Rachel said, skimming over the grass. She stopped over what looked like gravel. <I think he’s down there.>

I caught up to her. There didn’t seem to be a lot of down, there. <Tobias, how’s the light where you are?> I asked.

<Not great,> he said. <Just got darker.>

<Ha,> Rachel said, and started raking through the gravel with her beak. <There’s some kind of metal.>

It was a metal screen, hidden under a layer of gravel. Once the gravel was clear, we could see Tobias through the tiny holes, gripping a seam of the ventilation shaft with his talons. There wasn’t enough room for him to dimorph, and the screen was held down by a padlock. A very thick padlock.

<There’s no way we can break that like this,> I said. We were running out of time. <Rachel, you should demorph and morph the bear, or—>

<Hang on,> she said. <The padlock looks tough, but the metal underneath it doesn’t. I’m gonna give it a shot.>

I wanted to snap at her that we didn’t have time. But honestly we didn’t really have time for her to demorph and morph the bear, either. <Three of your minutes,> Ax said, as Rachel got her talons around the padlock and pulled.

I didn’t think anything was going to happen. The kestrel would never have been strong enough to break through even flimsy metal. But Rachel beat her huge wings, hard enough to tumble me back a foot or two, and her powerful eagle body strained against the metal of the grate until it gave a crack and popped free.

Tobias immediately fluttered up to the surface. <One of your minutes,> Ax said.

<Thank God,> I said. <Tobias, demorph right now.>

Rachel and I looked at him. Nothing happened.

<Tobias?> Rachel said, her voice rising.

<I can’t,> he said.

<You should still be within the time limit,> Ax said. His silhouette circled overhead. <Even allowing fifteen of your minutes for catching the rat, and several more to fly back to Rachel’s hotel room—>

<It was more like thirty,> Tobias said. <I, uh. I morphed before I went over to Rachel’s. I thought—I thought I would have time to change back later. I didn’t want to stop flying.>

We were silent.

I wanted to yell at him. Tell him to try again. He couldn’t be stuck; I couldn’t have let him get stuck. Maybe he wasn’t focusing hard enough. Maybe…

<I’m sorry,> Tobias said. He was looking at Rachel.

<Don’t be sorry,> she said. Her voice savage, but I didn’t think the savagery was meant for him. <It’s the Yeerks’ fault. They’re the ones who should be sorry.>

<I should have been more careful,> he said. He sounded almost pleading, like he wanted us to forgive him. <I should have planned better.>

Yeah. He should have. I wanted to agree with him, to shout at him for being careless, for doing this to himself and making all of us guilty of it.

I didn’t do any of that. But I couldn’t bring myself to say the words to forgive him, either. <Let’s head back to join the others,> I said.

Chapter Text

We met up with the others back in Rachel’s hotel room. Cassie looked vaguely shell-shocked from whatever Marco had been telling her. Marco shrugged at me, a ghost of a smile on his face, like, hey, what can you do.

I didn’t smile back. I assume someone told him about Tobias after that—it wasn’t me. I didn’t think I could have said those words out loud right then.

Cassie and I went home. I’m not going to tell you everything we talked about. I apologized a lot, even though she told me I didn’t need to. As she pointed out, I didn’t have any way of knowing she wasn’t a Controller. But I still felt like I had to. Maybe it was like how Tobias had felt like he needed to apologize for getting stuck in morph. Sometimes, when everything’s terrible, you feel like you just need to apologize, and maybe that will make things better somehow.

I’d done a lot of terrible things over the past two days. I’d seen a lot of terrible things. I felt them all tangled up inside of me, like poison in my blood. Cassie couldn’t do anything to make that better. But she could listen, as I told her everything.

The listening helped.

“So what now?” she asked when my flow of words had dried up.

I shrugged. Her arms were around me, where she’d put them while I was talking.

I was tempted to say we could run away. Pack up our things, empty our accounts, book flights in cash and disappear. Timbuktu. Uzbekistan. Cassie could find animals to help anywhere. I’d make do. Anywhere the Yeerks weren’t, that was good enough for me.

But that wouldn’t make the Yeerk invasion go away. It wouldn’t help the people down in the Yeerk pool. It wouldn’t help Tobias, who’d gotten himself trapped to save us.

There were a lot of problems in the world. A lot more just in the past few years, it felt like. Way more than five humans and an Andalite could ever solve. But this one problem was different. This problem, maybe we were the only people who could try.

“I guess…” I sighed. “I think we have to stay. I think we have to fight.”

She nodded. “That’s how I feel, too. I feel like…maybe we can make a difference here.”

I rested my forehead on her shoulder. It would almost have been nice to think it was hopeless. If it was hopeless, I didn’t have to feel bad about the people I’d left behind in the Yeerk pool. I didn’t have to feel bad about the other people the Yeerks had already made into Controllers. I didn’t have to feel bad about Tobias. If it was hopeless, I couldn’t have done anything to help them anyway.

But that’s one of the things I’ve always loved about Cassie. It’s one of the reasons I married her. With her, it’s hard to feel like anything’s hopeless.

“All right,” I said. “All right, we fight.”

#

The six of us got together the next morning at Ax’s ship. Outside his ship, actually. It was still at the bottom of the quarry, and Cassie didn’t have any way to get down to it, so we met in the woods nearby.

Most of us were human. Ax was in his Andalite form. Tobias—Tobias was a red-tailed hawk.

None of us were really talking about that. I didn’t even know what I would say.

Lucy was there, too, her long red tongue lolling out. Rachel had a hand on her head. That was another thing we’d have to figure out.

Ax had brought with him a familiar blue box. Apparently Elfangor wasn’t the only one who carried one in his ship. “Are you sure?” Rachel said to Cassie for like the third time. “Because you really don’t have to do this.”

Sometimes I think Rachel is even more protective of Cassie than I am. Or maybe she just has a protectiveness thing. Cassie smiled, though. “I’m sure,” she said, and put her hand on the morphing cube alongside Ax’s.

There was a pause, where we watched them standing there, hands on the box.

“Is that it?” Cassie asked. “I can do it now?”

“Let’s pick an animal, test it out,” I said.

There was something eager in her face. It made me grin a little, despite everything. Obviously this whole fight was more terrible than anything else, but Cassie was going to be able to turn into the animals she’d always loved more than anything. At least something good was coming out of this.

“Yeah, Cassie, speaking of which, I’m going to have to ask for some better morphs,” Marco said. “All this guy could get me was a wolverine. Which, surprisingly feisty, but…”

<Does that mean you’re staying in the fight?> Tobias asked Marco.

Marco looked up at Tobias. I had to give him props: I was still having trouble doing that. “I mean, I’m thinking about it,” Marco said. “Not gonna sign over my 401K or anything yet, but yeah, I could stick around for a while. Kick a little Yeerk butt.”

“How about you?” Cassie asked Ax.

<I am an Andalite prince,> he said. <It is my duty fight the Yeerk empire wherever it spreads. As long as I am here on Earth, I will fight alongside you, and follow Prince Jake.> He dipped a shallow bow at me.

Prince Jake?” Cassie arched an eyebrow at me.

“Still can’t believe you got the prince title,” Rachel muttered.

“Okay,” I said, looking around at all of them. “Seems like we’re all in this.”

“Aw,” Marco said, throwing an arm around Rachel and me. “Look at us. One big happy family.” He grinned at us. “Does this mean I get to come to that fancy family party you’re having today?”

“If you want my grandfather to tell you to cut your hair and my mom to ask you when you’re settling down and starting a family,” I said.

He made a horrified face and took his arms away. “You know what? Never mind. I’ll just go fight some more aliens.”

“No more aliens today,” I said. We’d been through more horror in the past week than I’d seen in my life up to that point. We all needed a breather. “Tomorrow, though…”

Cassie met my eye. “Tomorrow, we start saving the world.”