My name is Tobias.
I am a Red-Tailed Hawk. A bird of prey, but it had been so long since I'd preyed on anything other than scraps. My natural habitat was the trees, somewhere in the woodlands or overlooking a mouse-laden meadow, but now I was confined to the dark corridors of a rattling, rusted old space ship. There was barely the room to spread my feathery wings, and certainly little opportunity to soar.
I was caged in that ship, just as I had been in other, less obvious ways.
I almost slammed into the pipes that lined the walls as I came veering around a corner at the far end of the ship. It was my sixth time around that day, a route that took me from the bridge of the ship, to the engine compartments and back again. The Mak vessel was maze-like in its construction, and there was very little open space. Everything looked the same, and came with the identical orange-red glows of the turgid lighting that barely lit it enough to see the floor.
Why was I on that ship? I thought that I knew before, but with every round route of that ship my vision became fainter and blurrier, the familiarity bringing with it only more questions that I had neglected to answer.
Ax was missing. My shorm. My uncle, technically. That was what sealed the deal at first.
But I had abandoned him, just as I had the others. I had turned my back on him and left to find a new purpose, because the old one had sadly departed.
I was not a Human. My ties had been all but severed. Those ties were what kept me down from the clouds and anchored me to my principles, but when they vanished I lost all hope of returning to that life.
Was I truly a hawk? How could I be? I was stuck in a Mak spaceship, on a mission to save a long-time friend. That was not hawk.
My journey was taking me back to the bridge of the ship. In no rush and deep within my thoughts, I slowed and took the passages cautiously, silently whizzing past the sleeping quarters where most of the crew were residing. I saw no activity, not that I would stop for it.
The noises of the distant engines were almost unnoticeable as I emerged into the bridge. Consoles flashed, computers bleeped, and there was the squeaking of a Mak seat that housed the ever-vigilant Menderash-Postill-Fastill. In front of him, the bright orange landscape that signified the Mak planet zipped by at a dizzying speed.
Menderash was like me. He was a nothlit; somebody trapped in a body that didn't belong to them. Only he was an Andalite stuck in a Human body. To him, it was a great dishonour, though he would never directly say that. Only indirectly.
He called himself a disgrace. To become a Human nothlit was a self-imposed punishment for abandoning the crew of The Intrepid. Ax's ship. Menderash was the only confirmed survivor. He never told anybody why that was so.
He turned in his seat, his stern expression and long, curly black hair coming into clear view as I landed quietly on a panel to his left. Obviously, I hadn't been quiet enough.
"How many times is that now?" He asked me.
<How many times what?>
"How many times you've flown the entire length of the ship and back again. I've been watching you in the security cameras."
Of course he had. <Six. I need to spread my wings, Mendy.>
"I've studied birds of prey, Tobias," He spoke, with the typical confidence of a knowledgeable Andalite. "In my research I discovered that they aren't as active as you make them out to be. They're very efficient creatures, only taking flight when flight is required. All you've done today is fly, and from what I've seen, it's been terribly inefficient."
<I just want to fly,> I huffed. <I want to move.>
"Is there something on your mind? Something specific?"
<Aside from wondering where the nearest rodent is on an alien spacecraft?>
Menderash narrowed his gaze and swivelled his chair to face me directly. He leaned forward. "You're very quiet. I may not have known you for very long, and I admit that the circumstances haven't left much time for trivial discussion, but even then I couldn't imagine you would be so reclusive."
<What did you expect?> I asked genuinely.
He paused to think for a moment, turning his seat steadily from side to side. "I may have expected a warrior. In my experience, a warrior is a proud character, unashamed of himself. Sometimes loud and obnoxious, but always admirable in his self-assuredness. If not that, then somebody with an aura of determination and direction. When I met you, I saw neither of those things."
<What did you see?> I felt compelled to ask, not necessarily eager for the answer.
"I saw a nothlit wallowing in self-pity, resigned to his own mind and unable to expose his true identity to anybody."
I felt the urge to take my seventh journey around the ship, and even took the first steps that would set me on my way. Menderash stopped me with his stare alone. He wasn't done.
"Tobias, you may be a nothlit, but you have what other nothlits do not. You still have the morphing capability. I'm envious, as would be any other nothlit."
I steadied myself back on the control panel. <Why would you be?>
"You have a choice that I am denied." He replied coldly.
<You have nothing to be envious about, believe me.>
He looked away contemplatively. "Your position isn't one I've ever been in. I'm sorry for being so presumptive."
<Hey, it's no big deal,> I said. <I guess it's just something I'll have to figure out myself.>
"That's what you've been doing," Menderash suggested. "Maybe that’s why you're so silent. But, Tobias, if you don't mind, I'd like to give you my opinion."
<Sure thing. Fire away.> I braced myself.
"I know what you did when War Commander Torceran was holding you. I get the impression that living the life of an Andalite would appeal to you. Maybe, when all this is done, you could make that change."
Of course he had noticed. Menderash's perceptiveness seemed flawless at times, and it wasn't something he would miss. <I'm still not sure what it is I want. Maybe I never will be.>
Menderash leaned back into his seat and tapped his fingers on his lap. "I think you'll find your direction soon. And I'll be here to help."
We descended upon the Makroovi capital. It was a discordant web of low-lying blue buildings and open platforms just like the dwelling we had visited previously. The blue buildings looked sturdy and comfortable on the loose, rocky ground, and through The Shadow's visual sensors we could see Mak filing in and out, going about their business just as any Earthly city inhabitants would.
The Mak also filled the platform-dwellings, each one circled by huge spires that held between them a large lumpy sheet. The sheets shielded the ground, protecting its inhabitants from the vicious heat of the planet's sun.
"It's busy." Cassie noted. She was closest to the projector screen at the rear of the bridge.
"Even in this temperature?!" Marco replied, astounded. "It's a-hundred-and-ten degrees out there!"
Menderash, still guiding The Shadow towards the outskirts of the city, explained further, "We're approaching midday for this particular latitude. From the information I have managed to gather, this is more than likely to be the middle of the Makroovi Winter."
"Some winter!" Santorelli commented with an impressed grin. "The place is hotter than Scarlett Johansson in a two-piece."
"You mean it gets hotter?!" Marco asked incredulously.
Menderash replied, "Not quite hot enough to boil water, but it may get close at the hottest parts of the Makroovi year."
"That's reassuring…" Cassie muttered.
"If we're in Mak morph, we should be fine with the heat," Jake spoke up. "Their bodies will be used to it."
We had all gathered onto the bridge in preparation for landing. Our speed was decreasing as the city grew closer, and our focus switched from the computerised images of the location to the actual view when it became visible on the horizon.
"Prince Jake," Menderash said. (Just like Ax, he had an insistence on using military titles when addressing the leader of our little ensemble.) "Approaching the capitol. I suggest that we moor at a reasonable distance and move in on foot."
"Stop us here." Jake agreed.
Menderash was instant in his reactions, spreading his arms to tap and turn various controls that were splayed beneath the bridge view. With the usual cacophony of rattles and rumbles, The Shadow decelerated, shook, and came to a halt. We were about a hundred feet up in the air, but Menderash began to guide us carefully to the ground.
"Prince Jake, I would suggest powering off as soon as we are able. There may be technology out there capable of picking up our power signals."
Jake nodded very slowly. His arms were folded as he gazed over the Makroovi landscape. "How fast could you get this thing off the ground in an emergency?"
"Approximately forty-three seconds."
Jake turned away from the view and towards the rest of us. It was time to come up with a plan of action, and I was already anticipating my role.
"We don't need to be here long," Jake began. "We're going to look around, find out what we can. Hopefully, we can find out some info on the Kelbrids or Kyritlyp."
"And find out if the Yeerks are still here." Cassie added.
"I'd put money on yes," Marco said. "Been so long since I've seen those guys. I started to really miss them, you know?"
Jeanne asked, "We are all going as Mak?"
"Yeah," Jake responded. "We shouldn't be too suspicious. Mak emerging from a Mak craft. We need to be as inconspicuous as possible."
I noticed Jeanne's eager grin. "Good."
Jake continued, "Mendy's going to stay back and keep in contact. He has some knowledge of the Mak language and symbolism."
"Limited," Menderash clarified. "But it should be enough."
Jake reached behind the control panel and pulled up a device. It looked almost like a black wrist watch, but its main body was no larger than about two centimeters across. "This is what we're going to use to keep in touch with Mendy. It's a Mak long-range comms band, fitted with some extra Andalite technology."
"Are we stickin’ or dispersin’ out there?" Santorelli questioned.
"We'll separate but keep within close proximity. And we'll establish a meeting place."
<I'm sure I can keep my eyes on five Mak.> I said.
"No," Jake replied. "You're on the ground with us."
"No lookout?" Marco asked, perplexed. "Seems a bit risky."
Jake had been thinking things through. "We don't want anything to be out of place. I want the least amount of risk possible while we're here, because we have no idea what's out there. Having a hawk flying around might raise eyebrows, and there are a lot of eyebrows in this city from what we can see. Besides, Mendy will act as our main lookout, and we'll be in constant contact."
In a way, I was happy. I had expected another lookout mission, fulfilling my usual duty. There was something else, too, that made me feel that much more positive.
"All Andalite technology has been shut down, Prince Jake," Menderash stated loudly. "From the outside, and by any primitive sensor, we are little more than a rusty old Mak vessel."
"Well," Jake hummed, raising his arms to open the floor. "If there are no objections…"
"Ready and willin’, boss!" Santorelli roared. He stood proud on his spot at the back of the bridge, and we watched on as the changes began.
Being a tall guy, Santorelli was due to shrink. It was the first obvious change to occur, but at the same time, other parts of the morph commenced. His skin began to darken and the texture changed to the rougher epidermis of the Mak. His eyes grew wider and moved closer to the sides of his face.
Then the others followed suit, and with an unrestricted curiosity they took their time with their own morphs. I was the awkward bird in the centre yet to begin. As soon as I realised that, I started myself.
I wasn't as skilled as the others. Cassie had always held a natural gift with the morphing technology, so by this point it was artistic and verging on magnificence. Jake had become essentially a morphing tutor and so did it professionally, and he had personally taught Santorelli and Jeanne to a high standard. Marco… Well, maybe he was at my level. He had clearly taken the previous years as retirement.
He'd been having issues that were quickly becoming apparent. Something was not right with him, so no doubt Jake would team him up with somebody. Perhaps Santorelli, who seemed more than capable of making quick decisions.
Then there was me. Had I morphed much recently? Had I practised just like the others? Had I honed my skills in anticipation of such a scenario?
In some ways, I had. I had tried all sorts, but it was never in an attempt to improve. It was change for change's sake.
And now I was to become something new. The Mak weren't overly strange in their appearance (after having seen some pretty freaky stuff in the past), but it was enough of a change to bring a few surprises. I instantly felt my insides churning, like my organs were shifting positions in a way that they had never done before. My torso shrivelled, almost like some of those organs simply dissolved, leaving an empty vacuum that sucked my flesh inwards.
My back extended out to form the slender Mak tail. The tail feathers remained but were spread thin, before creeping back hurriedly into my body. The prickly, cracking sounds of that and other activities combined into one loud drone of unpleasant.
Facial features shifted. Hard beak became rounded snout with rows of pointy, evenly-spaced teeth. The tongue thickened in my mouth, and there was a horrible aching as my throat made room for large vocal apparatus. Above all that, my eyes and nostrils grew to the exaggerated sizes found on the typical Mak.
Everybody else was close to finishing. Almost-Maks surrounded me, stretching arms and jaws, clutching fingers and testing the voice. I was the last to complete, finally coming to the end of the morph as the last of my feathers withered away.
The Mak mind was churning away beside my own. It was calm and comfortable in the claustrophobic innards of the vessel. The red and orange colours suddenly seemed very soothing. The Shadow instantly made more sense.
<Not bad.> Santorelli commented.
<It's hardly going to win any outstanding alien awards,> Marco replied, gawking at his clawed hands. <But it's fine.>
"Ri ri kit!" Cassie said with her new mouth. Needless to say, it would take some getting used to. She repeated herself in thought-speak. <I like it. The Mak feels really calm. Peaceful, even.>
Jake felt the need to extend a point on that. <Maybe so, but let's not take this as an easy trip. We don't know how these Mak act in the open.>
"They are relatively peaceful creatures," Menderash said, still watching us from the luxury of his seat. "It's not the Mak we should be concerned about."
Jake retook the communication device and placed it around his wrist. He fiddled around with it, and then lifted it. He spoke in thought-speak, and the added Andalite technology sent the words straight to the ship's bridge computer system.
His voice echoed around us. "Testing, testing. Yep, seems to be working."
<So we're all set?> Marco asked.
We all said yes. After some final instructions from Menderash on comms range and escape plans, we left him on the bridge and made our way to the middle of the ship as six brand new Mak.
I tested the body, the way it moved and the way it thought. Cassie was right in that it was peaceful, too content with its surroundings to worry.
It was a peace like the one that I wanted. A peace that I had forgotten.
I lifted my head. I had drifted back and away from the others. I jogged on clumsy, unfamiliar legs to catch up.
The Mak roadways were trenches; perfectly smooth scoops out of the land that stretched for miles in double parallel lines. The Mak equivalent of cars were great big spheres of transparent material that rolled through, the Mak within held upright in a second, stabilised sphere. We were the only Mak around walking, and that was cause enough for concern as we strolled by the right hand side of the trenches toward to city.
<No other Mak are walking along here,> Cassie warned. We were moving in single file, and she was second behind Jake. <No tracks either in the sand.>
Jake lifted the watch up on his arm and spoke through it. <Mendy, can you still see us?>
<Yes, Prince Jake,> Responded the fuzzy, computerised thought-speech. <You are close to the first buildings of the city.>
<No other Mak walking here, Mendy. Anybody around us getting suspicious?>
A short pause followed. <Not that I can see. There is a group nearby working on a construction, but they don't appear concerned.>
<Got it.> Jake replied, dropping the device back to his side to continue walking with the Mak's naturally slouched gait.
The noises of the city soon joined the occasional echo of the big rolling spheres. There was the sound of loud bleeps and chatter, the clink of tools and the hum of machines. The blue buildings that looked so small from a distance had become two-storey silos of thick, smoothened rock. The spire dwellings were comparably massive to the lone one we had met earlier, with many more objects and structures in circles on the platforms beneath.
We started to pass other Mak. They took very little notice of us, if at all. Not a single one of us reported a suspicious stare or alerting yell, even as our compact single file steadily dispersed outwards.
Jake had started giving orders. <Let's keep moving apart. I'm going to number us all, and we need to keep in contact with the person whose number comes before ours. I'm one; Sarge, two; Marco, three; Jeanne, four; Tobias, five; Cassie, six. Remember, keep in contact at all times with the number before you. Cassie, I'll keep in your range.>
<Okay, Jake.> She replied.
He continued. <Disperse into the city. You all see that vertical spire over there? Taller than everything else?>
As I moved along my desired track, I looked up to spot the feature Jake was pointing out. It was very similar to a skyscraper. The spire was tapered from a thick cylindrical structure that towered high above everything else, almost directly in front of us and quite far away.
<I see it.> I told him after everybody else had done the same.
<That's our meeting place,> Jake informed us. <We all head there and wait for the others.>
We had a simple plan, and that was the signal to begin. What remained of our single file line was finally cut.
But Jake wasn't quite finished. <Marco, Sarge. You two stick together.>
Marco replied, <Jake, dude, I'm fine.>
<Stick together.> Jake reiterated.
I heard nothing more on the matter, and maybe it went private. I couldn't be distracted, as I had a mission to complete. My diverging path brought me towards a line of low level blue buildings that formed parallel lines, just like a typical street. Mak were placed around generously, many of them simply standing there, taking in the Sun.
It was hot, but my Mak body was coping very happily. I moved with comfortable elegance, unimpeded by the dry atmosphere, my wide feet keeping me from sinking into any loose sand.
The Mak were quiet, and rarely would I see them talking to each other. Whole groups or families would be gathered without a single word being exchanged. It was not a threatening environment at all, and it became a gentle stroll for me. I remained on alert, of course, but my fears of sudden attack had completely disappeared.
Cruel reality wrapped its claws around me once again. Of course, we were also searching for a Yeerk presence.
It was Cassie who had called. Jake wanted details. <Where?!>
<In a vehicle,> She reported back. <I could see it through the sphere.>
There was silence as the message was passed through everybody out of my range. Jake put us on high alert. <Okay, any more sightings are to be reported. Look out for anything else Yeerkish.>
I could see nothing from where I was. My Mak street was becoming repetitive and my curiosity was lost. I had been heading right of the meeting place, so it was a good time to start moving in a straight line towards the target. <Jeanne, I'm going to head straight for the tower. This place looks pretty clear. Where are you?>
<I am by some… platforms?> She replied, unsure. <How do you say…? Stalls? They are selling.>
<Is it busy?>
<Yes. Very busy. There are many Mak.>
I used my relatively weak Mak ears. I caught the hint of a busy crowd close by to my left-hand side. Through a gap in two buildings, I could just see the scene Jeanne was describing. There was no point in joining her. In fact, I could move the other way. <I'm going to move right a bit.>
<Okay, Tobias.> She said.
So I continued moving, edging slowly right-wards to keep out of the path that Jeanne was already taking. I walked between two of the blue buildings on my right to take the next street over, the blinding Mak sun coming directly into my eye line, dominating the deep yellow sky.
I covered my eyes with a blocking arm and forged on, re-emerging from between the buildings into an entirely different atmosphere. There were many more Mak, and these were more active. Numerous spire dwellings dotted the area, ostensibly at random, and between them all were big open spaces. I saw small Mak that I thought to be children. They were running around in the open space, barking in growling, warbling tones while fully grown Mak watched on with casual regard.
There was a Mak to my right that had noticed me. It faced me straight on, but I could not decipher the facial expression. From a raised ledge by its side, it pulled up two pieces of fabric.
"Barh rereju!" He repeated. "Kuyarm."
I had no knowledge of the language, nor of the hand gestures the Mak was giving me. My irrational mind came up with the action of nodding.
The Mak gawked and hesitated. "… Laru kippig."
I did nothing this time, which seemed to confuse the Mak even more.
Nevertheless, he continued with his routine. He took one piece of fabric and draped it over his head, just behind the eyes. He offered me the other piece. Thinking quickly, I placed that piece over my own head in the same manner.
"Barh rerejit!" He called, bouncing on his feet. He seemed appeased. Then, he raised a hand and turned his focus to the distance, past the large group of Mak. He was pointing me in that direction.
When he took off his fabric, I did the same. Once that was done, he began to urge me on, and I obliged.
<Jeanne?> I called out. <Cassie? I just had to go through some kind of ritual. I had to put some cloth on my head. I've been pointed to go east of the meeting spire.>
Cassie was the one to respond. <I saw something like that. Where are you?>
<Big open area. Mak kids running around. I count about six spire houses.>
<I can see that,> Cassie informed me. <And I can see Mak gathering in the middle.>
I moved my head to find the gathering she had alluded to. <Cassie, could you ask Jake to contact Menderash? I want to know what Barh rerejit means.>
<Barh rerejit…> She repeated flawlessly. <Give me a minute.>
While I waited for that response, I decided to investigate when I spotted the crowd Cassie had mentioned. It was indeed noticeable, because all of the Mak were standing and looking inwards at a space where, logical to pattern, a spire dwelling might stand.
There were signs as I approached, held on metal hooks so that they swung lightly in the sand-polluted breeze. The writing was a series of images and symbols, and I wasn't going to glean anything from them.
I didn't need them though. I reached the crowd and found a gap in between. The Mak around me were muttering, unfazed like it was a museum exhibit.
<Uh, hey,> I announced to Jeanne and Cassie. <I found something big.>
There had previously been a spire dwelling there. It had been reduced to rubble and rock, pieces of equipment sticking out haphazardly. Poking out from the top like a rising sun at dawn was a rounded metal ship, its features an instant giveaway.
<What is it?> Jeanne pressed.
<Bug Fighter,> I replied. <On the ground. Doesn't look like it's going anywhere fast.>
<I'm on my way!> Cassie said.
I crept forward a little further to gather more information. The entire scene was coated in a very generous layer of dust and sand, the Bug Fighter included. There was no smoke and no sign of life inside the Bug Fighter.
<It's been here a while.> I mentioned. <Nobody inside. I think it->
A taxxon! I froze mid-sentence when it rolled into sight. It was in the crowd, a few spaces to my left-hand side. It wasn't moving anywhere, just watching on with the group of Mak surrounding it.
"Urh vermoon." A Mak said to me. He must have noticed my stunned expression.
I said nothing to the Mak. I wouldn't be able to translate anything, anyway. Past the first Taxxon, I could make out another in the far distance, winding its way to the other crowds where Mak children played.
Instinct was bubbling. I needed to spring into action, but… the Mak were fine. The moving Taxxon was alongside three of them, and they passed the crowd without the slightest hint of confrontation.
<Tobias?> Cassie called. <You okay?>
<I see Taxxons,> I declared. <Two of them. The Mak aren't fazed.>
A few seconds later, Cassie spoke back. <Yeah, I see them. I've told Jake. He says to just remain inconspicuous. We'll keep going. Oh, and Tobias?>
<Menderash thinks he knows what Barh rerejit means. It means new life.>
<Are we confirming Yeerks?> Cassie questioned.
Jake replied, <Right now, yes. Assume Yeerks.>
<Jeanne,> I called, passing on the message. <Assume Yeerks.>
The message was passed down to Marco and Santorelli, who were out of my range. Now, Jake was on edge and eager to make sure that nobody became isolated.
<Start heading to the meeting point. No divergences,> He ordered. <Once we're at the tower, we'll stick together before heading back. We don't want any problems here.>
I was surprised how quickly he had come into thought-speak range since the Bug Fighter had been located. I had started to move away again, acting as just another Mak going about my daily business. The tower was my next destination, but I continued to look for clues.
I spotted more and more Taxxons as I moved on, and reported on them every time, detailing their activities. Most of them were engaging in manual work, which involved shifting sand or rock. Others lazed about or sifted through piles of garbage. They certainly didn't appear to be involved in warfare activity, nor did I see any other signs of Yeerks. Other than the downed Bug Fighter. The Mak were not bothered by the Taxxon presence at all.
I couldn't avoid them. Any attempt to would seem out of place, so when I escaped a small crowd and bumped into the squishy side of one of the gargantuan centipedes, I had no choice but to calmly step aside and allows its passage like a good, friendly citizen.
I got out of the clearing and into an area with yet more blue buildings that hugged the ground tightly to close me in. Suddenly, a report came through from Jake, whose voice was growing distant again. <Marco and Sarge have found someone new. Keep a lookout for guys in white overalls. Apparently, they look like radiation suits.>
<Are they Mak?> Cassie asked.
<No. Different body shape.> Jake clarified.
We passed the message down the line, and now we were all on alert for the strange new creatures in white radiation suits.
Another report came through. They were all armed and on guard. Things were beginning to seem a little more dangerous.
I didn't increase my speed, didn't allow myself to appear on-edge or anxious. I kept my body forward, taking a steady stride onwards towards the next area. It took me through a narrow street, doorways made of loose fabric on either side. Mak jogged up and down around me, taking absolutely no notice. That is, until I was actively approached by a Mak child.
It gazed up at me with yellow eyes and a toothy grin. I thought it was a grin. In its hands was a thick, rough-edged piece of black material. The Mak child seemed very pleased with the black material, and hoisted it up at me, urging me to appreciate.
With Mak hands I took the item. It crumpled beneath my claws and drooped, so I wrapped my other hand around it. I flipped it over to discover some kind of artwork scribbled on the reverse side. The lines were white and drawn with a clear artistic skill.
The drawing was of a Mak. Lowering the picture, I brought the child back into view and came to the conclusion that it was he who had been drawn. He widened his mouth into what I could only imagine was a smile of excitement.
I wished that I could speak with him, but the barrier of language restricted me to vague facial expressions which I allowed my morph to perform instinctively. I could not display my true feelings.
The child took back the image and ran off past me. I watched him right up until he disappeared around the corner from where I had arrived. I had to carry on, and I did.
Eventually, I found the exit of the narrow alley. The sun shone bright onto the small clearing, illuminating a busy section of the city within a small shallow dip, under the watchful gaze of the great spire tower that had crept slowly closer.
And then I saw one of them. The sunlight bounced off of the white suit brutishly, making the creature stand out like a beacon among the swarm of aliens that span like a whirlpool around. It was at least a foot taller than the average Mak, its limbs longer, and the suit tapered into the shape of a tail much thicker. The white suit covered the entirety of the body, from the head down to the powerful legs. The visor for the eyes was darkened, so I could not see through, but I didn't need that to tell me that it certainly was no Mak.
More noticeably, it held a weapon; a big, metallic gold weapon that resembled an oversized rifle. The gloved hands of the new creature curled around the monstrous, gleaming firearm, but remained far from the trigger that was distinguishable on the underside.
<I found one of the suited guys,> I announced. <He's standing in an opening. Doesn't look like he's guarding anything specific.>
The Mak, again, seemed unfazed by the presence of the alien. There was another Taxxon crawling around the area, and the suited creature had no adverse reaction. I was intrigued to find out what race the suited creature belonged to, but I knew that I couldn't simply walk up and ask.
I continued into the clearing. To one side, nearby the suited guard, was a Mak sitting before a rock table, watched by a cluster of passers-by. The sitting Mak was busy doing something, the space before him occupied by small containers.
He reached forward into one of the containers and pulled from it a piece of black material. It was the same kind that the Mak child had shown me earlier. It was the artist, and he was about to create another picture.
His hands moved expertly, speedily crafting a black-and-white image for one of the viewers. By the time I had subconsciously walked over, the picture was finished and the receiving Mak took it cheerfully.
At the edge of the table nearest to the viewers was a selection of completed pictures, held down with pebbles. Most of them seemed unimportant and trivial, but my eyes snapped to one far on the left…
A hand slapped down hard on the table beside me, sharply interrupting my focus. Another followed, and then another. The Mak around me were slamming hands onto the table, and the artist was watching each carefully. I had no idea what was going on.
Then somebody else squeezed in beside me. I fell into the shadow of the suited creature, its white costume brushing up against my side, its weapon clanking against the rock of the table's surface. Its head turned from side to side, glancing at the pictures just like I had done. The artist continued to acknowledge the table-slaps of the others, but it wasn't until the glove of the suit came down that he reached back into the container to bring out another canvas.
"Rik gyurap." The artist spoke casually to the suited creature.
"Fru tridrin! Akha durnet ra." The suit replied with a muffled but smoother voice.
The artist began his next piece. Meanwhile, I stood firm in my position beside the suit that loomed over me like a ghost. I had to keep calm, composed. To distract myself, I returned my sights to the picture that had previously caught my attention. I moved to grab it, carefully removing the pebbles. Nobody seemed to care.
I saw a Mak, unmistakeable. Beside it, though, an arm intertwined with the Mak's, was another creature. It was taller, more slender in its build. From its back sprouted a bush of wavy vine-like growths. It was a little like a hedgehog in that regard, as the vines sprouted from the back of the head and all the way down to the legs and tail. It had a face like a cat, with pointed ears and large horizontally slit eyes. The pair of them together appeared victorious in their stances.
There was something below them, small but with clear detail. It was a Yeerk. It was upside-down and seemed lifeless.
I studied that image carefully, almost forgetting that the suit beside me was awaiting a picture of his own. On remembering that, I placed the Yeerk picture back in its rightful place, just as the artist finished his drawing. He turned and showed it to the suit, who barked out in a contented voice.
It was the Mak and the vined race again, side-by-side. Before them, an Andalite lay dead, upper body entirely separated from the lower. The crowd around us started to slam the table once more.
I was able to take a few of the pictures. The artist, nor the audience, seemed to care. The slaps on the table must surely have been some bizarre currency. It really gave the artist a lot of joy.
The images were troubling. With expressions and pointing alone, I had convinced the artist to draw more Andalites. They were portrayed with demonic eyes and threatening stances, but often their depictions were at the claws of defeat, with Mak and the new creatures featuring heroically.
And, bar the one earlier exception, there were no Yeerks to be seen. I was beginning to form a conclusion, but I was not ready to report. I still had to reach the tower.
I dragged myself away from the artist with the vaguest expression of thanks, pictures held securely underarm. My route would take me downhill, through another narrow gap and into the next, larger clearing with plentiful activity. I politely swerved through lines of Mak and the odd suited alien, until I emerged into the bright open land.
All seemed normal, compared to the previous areas. That was until I moved about a hundred feet, and the clear signs of a destroyed building came into view from behind a spire dwelling. It looked like another Bug Fighter crash site, and my curiosity lassoed me to it. There was a Taxxon and two Mak busily working at the entrance, carrying loads to and from it. Two of the suited guards were there, too, but they weren't too bothered by the activity behind them.
I moved with intent to the wreckage, passing by the guards without issue. The Mak and Taxxon weren't taking any notice, either, and I stepped over fallen rock and torn fabrics where the entire front of the structure had been smashed down. The sun fell behind what remained of the place (which was probably about two-thirds of it.) I saw no signs of a Bug Fighter, but something had definitely hit the place and I was interested to find out what.
I stepped into a room with a wall missing, its innards still in plain view of the street I'd arrived from. I spotted vandalism. Blue splodges coated the walls in patterns of Mak language and carefully constructed images. They gave nothing away, but I could see that they continued through a smoothened round hole in the wall. It was dark, but I wandered through, stepping over loose rubble.
The room was much darker, but an opening on the opposite side allowed just enough light in to gaze upon the contents. Everything was coated in dust, but beneath that layer I could identify scorches. Burn marks. Pieces of rock had come away from the walls, webbed by cracks that trailed to the ceiling and the floor. My feet stepped over gaps, but it seemed sturdy enough to hold.
The blue images and languages changed. More colour was added, as was cautious detail, giving the walls an imaginative flair, something of a trait that I never imagined the Mak having.
I sidled along the walls like an art critic in a museum, scratching for clues or hints to past events, or perhaps a cause for the destruction around me. It came thick and fast.
There were Bug Fighters, a Blade Ship and other types of ships that engaged them in battle. Below were aliens: Mak, Taxxons, and other creatures that I had never seen before, including the vined ones. I moved along the wall, and it was like witnessing the plot of a film. In detail I saw the terror of the Mak race, enslaved by the Yeerks, eyes dull and bodies robotic. Yeerk slugs bordered the walls from floor to ceiling, themselves forming a cage around that period of history. Other races, too, had fallen prey to the Yeerk Empire, but the background of it all was a shocking, faint image of an Andalite face, perfectly woven into the painted details of the depictions that sat in the foreground. It was distorted and demonic, four evil eyes gazing outwards past the horrific scene of slavery and towards the golden glow of the distant sole window of the room.
But it didn't remain that way as I circled to the next wall. The vine-backed creatures became more prevalent, their images enlarged and thrown decidedly into the spotlight. They drew weapons like oversized rifles, outlined with gold. Some kind of liquid oozed over the weapon from the creatures' bodies, dripping downwards to the floor where the artist had cleverly illustrated a purple puddle.
The Yeerks were vanishing. Images of downed Bug Fighters and Yeerk slugs upside-down became ever more frequent. It ended in defeat, and the Mak resumed their natural stances and stares. They were standing alongside the vine-backs, just as I had seen in the artist's pictures earlier.
But that was not the end. The Andalite face reappeared, just as it had earlier, casting a daunting gloom around what should have been a momentous image. I moved along once more, facing the far wall by the window.
And there, dulled by the shadows of the window's edges and the contrasting light, was an Andalite with the feathers of a bird.
Suddenly, a report came through from Jake, who had wandered closer. <Menderash is certain. Kelbrids. Kelbrids in the white suits.>
Kelbrids! Menderash's word was all that I required to solidify my conclusion. I was about to speak, but as I took my next step to the right, coming to the bright open window, the space around me released a worrying sigh. There was a creak which rose to an earthquake around me! The ground beneath my feet began to shudder, and very quickly I was tilting forward with the building as it began to break apart. The crevices in the floor became canyons, and by the time I had realised that the structure was collapsing, I was too far from the stable ground to make it back.
The ceiling was coming down! Great chunks of rock broke loose and smashed to the floor either side of me. I had to maintain my balance, but it was impossible as the ground turned and split beneath me. It tumbled down, taking me with it.
Debris clattered my torso. I rolled up my arms to protect my head as best I could, as my lower body received a sudden jolt of pain and then… nothing.
My arms slammed, almost crushing my head between them, and something heavy rolled over my back. The sounds of falling rubble tortured my dull ears, and the vibrations ruffled every fibre of my flesh, but then it slowed. All that was left to settle was dust.
I could still see, but my vision was blurred. The world around me was a maze of cracks and dust. My lower body had deserted me entirely, so far as I could glean.
<I'm down,> I spoke to whoever was in range. <I'm down.>
<What was that?!> Cassie called back, startled.
I tried to move, but I could feel the pieces of fallen wall locking me in place. I panted heavily as I started to regain some sense of urgency. <The place just came down!> I replied, feeling the panic build after the initial shock began to subside. <Need help! Need it now!>
<Where are you?!> Jake demanded.
I took too long to respond, and Jeanne was quicker. <I heard it! It is east of the water pillars!>
<Can't feel my legs…> I reported. <Can't move. I think I can remain conscious.>
<Just stay there, Tobias,> Jake ordered. <We're coming. Everyone, east of the water pillars. Search for any signs of a collapsed building!>
I attempted another struggle, and this time I managed to dislodge my left arm that had been bent awkwardly around my head. It allowed me more space to breathe, but my mouth with filling with the dust that packed the air. It sent me into a fit of coughing, and I felt my vision blurring once again.
Then I felt a release! The direct light of the sun hit me again, and the pointy edges of debris beneath me shifted with movement.
My vision returned as the coughing ended. I looked up directly to two white suits, darkened visors gazing right back at me.
Jake's orders came with urgency and control. <Jeanne, you're closest. Find Tobias and stay with him. Cassie, find the building and do what you can to keep anybody from entering. Marco, Sarge, start heading this way.>
<Jake,> I called back as the white suits studied me and spoke in a foreign language. <I'm outside. The rear of the building collapsed. Two of the white suits are here.>
He became silent as he considered his options. <What else can you see?> He eventually asked.
I took my eyes away from the suited aliens and, with blurry eyes, investigated the surroundings. It was like a trench in the ground, but not like the smoothened cuttings of the Mak roadways. The ground was rough and dark, and I could see no signs of life other than the suits that spoke to each other frantically. Or at me. I could barely tell.
<It… It looks like a ditch,> I reported. <Nobody else here.>
I looked back up, at the very moment that I felt more rocks being pulled away from my damaged body. One of the suits reached down to me and placed a gloved hand against my chest, then my arms. He was still talking, and a little more calmly this time. The second was working hard to remove the rocks that compressed me.
Jake's voice grew closer. <Assume the public can see what's going on. Get in there, get Tobias, and let's start heading for the ship. We have forty-five left in morph. Go!>
Then, very faint in my head, I heard Santorelli speak up. <Boss, we found a kind of space chart! Looks useful.>
<Take it,> Jake ordered. <Then get over to our position as soon as you can. Tobias is the priority.>
<I can see the building!> Cassie announced. <Lots of dust, crowd gathering. Two of the white suits are stopping anybody from going in.>
The white suits above me were trying to pull me out. The one pulling away the rocks had almost finished and was inspecting my legs that were without doubt broken beyond repair. The other was checking my vitals, talking to me like he was trying to get a response. I couldn't, even if I tried.
<I'm finding a way around!> Cassie said. <I won't be long, Tobias!>
With my blurred vision, the next few seconds seemed almost unreal in the orange ambience of the Mak home world. As I continued to look up at the faceless suit that cared for me, a large black paw swung from the side, almost too quick to see. It crashed to the side of the suit's head and he fell harshly away and out of my view. The black paw shifted and the outline of a Black Bear reared up as the second white entity was thrown violently to the side.
<Jeanne?!> I gasped. <How did you…?>
She disappeared from view without immediate reply, and I heard the faint noises of further paw slams.
<Jake!> She called. <I am by Tobias! The people in suits are unconscious!>
Even he sounded perplexed. <…. How?!>
<I have knocked them out.> She replied with that thick French twang.
The rubble around me shifted again, and the bear came back into view, its big nose approaching my face. My vision was clearing up, and I caught sight of her eyes.
<Jeanne, I hope nobody was around to see that…> Jake grumbled.
She responded, <There is nobody. I made sure, Jake.>
<You're a bear?!>
That was Cassie. I couldn't move to see, but Jeanne's head movement implied Cassie's arrival into the deep ditch behind the line of buildings.
<She's what?!> Jake barked.
<I have rescued Tobias,> Jeanne said back, as if the statement alone explained everything. <They are unconscious.>
Cassie sprinted into view, and her Mak eyes swooped over me with concern. <Wow… Okay, Tobias. Demorph.>
Jake heard Cassie's suggestion, and pressed for clarity. <How does he look?>
<Legs look like Play-doh gone wrong,> She replied glumly. <He isn't moving anywhere.>
Jake was quick to agree with her previous order. <Demorph, Tobias. The rest of us are nearly there. Nobody will see you.>
I didn't need another invitation and began the process of demorphing. As I did, the space around me began to open up, no longer compressed by the small gap of rocks that had collapsed around me. My vision started to improve drastically, and the area became more detailed. The ditch I had collapsed into was shallow, but blocked either side by large walls and buildings. It looked almost like a drained waterway.
Cassie was sitting by my side, and even in the foreign Mak eyes I couldn't miss the worry. Jeanne, on the other hand, was nearby, still proud in her bear morph. Before her was the pile of two unconscious bodies in white radiation suits.
Another Mak arrived just as I had finished demorphing. Jake calculated the situation carefully as I rustled my feathers and clutched close to the rocks around me, keeping out of sight.
He was most interested in Jeanne. He walked right up to her, occasionally glancing down to the bodies. I noticed him waving the comms device over them, sending images through to Menderash. <Mendy says it was approximately a minute and forty-eight seconds from the moment Tobias was reported injured to the moment you arrived here. How did you morph bear so quickly?>
<I morphed quickly, Jake.> She explained innocently.
Jake wasn't buying it. <I'd like to have a private talk later, back on the ship,> Then he lifted his comms device up. <Mendy, seen enough?>
His muffled voice entered our heads. <These suits are used to avoid bodily contact, the material makes that clear.>
<You said before,> Jake uttered. <That the Kelbrids are thought to secrete toxin.>
<Yes. I would highly advice care when acquiring their DNA.>
<You're jumping the gun there, Mendy,> Jake chuckled bitterly. <But yeah, I think we'll need to. We'll wait for the others to get here and set up sentry.>
<Jake.> I said once it was apparent their conversation was done. His Mak head turned, and he waited for what I had to say.
<There are no Yeerks here,> I told him. <They're all gone. The Kelbrids saved the Mak.>
A short while later, Marco and Santorelli arrived. Santorelli delivered a collection of sheets to Jake, who had also received the drawings I had gathered earlier. He had a lot to think about, and at times I thought I could almost see the cogs in his head churning, working tirelessly to piece together the facts. He told us to set up a sentry, which the two latest arrivals volunteered for. They placed themselves on either side of the ditch, a hundred metres or so away from us.
<I would exercise extreme caution,> Menderash warned through the comms device as we prepared to acquire the DNA of our captives. <And immediate morphing. I know nothing of this Kelbrid toxin, but the morphing technology will rid the body of it. I recommend morphing back to Mak.>
<Noted,> Jake replied. <Okay, let's get this done ASAP. Jeanne, demorph. Tobias, you acquire first, then morph Mak and take Marco's place as sentry. Whoever isn’t Mak, keep yourself hidden in the rubble.>
<Got it.> I replied, hiding the shakiness still present after nearly being crushed only shortly before.
<Area clear,> Santorelli grunted, Marco following up with the same declaration. It was my signal to move in.
I spread my wings and flung myself from the rocks that had trapped me, a warm breeze quickly encircling me before I descended to land on the suited torso of one of the bodies. Jeanne's small bear eyes watched over me curiously, and then she began to change, Human features becoming apparent on the hairy bear body.
Jake stood over the unconscious Kelbrid and reached down to the head. With thick Mak claws, he adjusted it left and right, taking care in the knowledge that the creature within could be highly toxic. When he lifted the head forward, he found a way to open the suit, and with delicacy he pulled open the seal. The suit beneath my talons loosened.
The helmet was pulled over, Jake folding his fingers so that he didn't come into contact with the interior skin of the material. The Kelbrid's head was now exposed. It was a dark purple colour, and the vine-like growths grew like thick dreadlocks from its head, smooth and slimy like the arms of a squid or an octopus. The face lacked these, giving way to a cat-like face. The prominent nose had three nostrils that flared as the Kelbrid breathed, and below them was a mouth occasionally interrupted by the protrusion of brilliant white, sharp teeth. The thick neck disappeared down into the rest of the suit, but we didn't need to see anymore.
<Here goes…> I sighed, bouncing over to grasp onto the nose of the Kelbrid, clinging on hard enough to stick but not to pierce the skin. I feared that doing so would unleash whatever toxin swam through the alien’s system.
I instantly began to acquire, and at first I felt nothing untoward. I thought that no toxin was being absorbed into my skin. After all, the slime present on the vine-like growths on the Kelbrid's back wasn't covering the face.
<I've got the DNA,> I said, jumping from the Kelbrid's face and to the ground by the side.
I had to morph Mak next, back into a healthy body that still had legs. I started the morph, but I was suddenly hit with an incredible stinging sensation across my lower body. I gasped out my pain and my body seized! I fell to the side and into the dirt with a disturbing twitch down my side.
<Tobias!> Jake shouted. <Morph! Now!>
I could feel an aching in my talons. The rest of my body was struck with an agonising paralysis, convulsing around me as my brain struggled to keep control. <Morphing!> I reassured. <God, it burns!>
<Just concentrate, Tobias!> Cassie urged.
I grew larger, but still I couldn't move. Without the developed morphing skills of the others, I had no way of telling what was changing and when. I needed my blood to change, and my organs. My nerves needed to morph to rid themselves of the toxins before the affliction entered my brain.
The feeling came over me. An inner numbness approached, and my vision faded to darkness…
And then it was lifted! The control of my limbs returned, and I pulled myself back to a seated position with a shuddering sigh.
I completed the morph and stood up, rubbing off dirt that had been gathered. Jake, the fully-demorphed Jeanne and Cassie all stared.
<I've almost died twice in the last half hour,> I said. <Normal service resumed, I guess.>
Jake had finished for the night and left the designated crew lounging area, abandoning the shiny metal table in the centre of the room with sheets of Mak paper sprawled across in a chaotic manner. He had grown very quiet since leaving Makroovi, so engrossed in formulating his ideas. He was more of a leader than ever.
But everybody has their limits, and he had reached his. As soon as he left for his quarters, I swooped into the room and took my place on a large pipe that hung horizontally from the ceiling. My eyes searched among the sheets, and I focused on the artist's pictures that Jake had become so obsessed with.
It had been two days since we'd left the Mak home world. With each of us capable of morphing Kelbrid - and with vague coordinates to Kyritlyp, as speculated by Menderash - there was nothing holding us from tackling the next phase of our mission. However, the clues we had found were troubling, and that was why Jake was so determined to piece together answers. It was clear that the Yeerks were gone, and that the Mak and Kelbrids were allied, but that raised a prominent question: Why were Yeerks freely travelling Kelbrid space with cutting-edge Kelbrid technology whose actions were determined by a base on the Kelbrid home world? It made no sense.
And Jake had conversed with the Visser recently. The Visser was adamant that the Kelbrids would save him from his Earthly prison.
Maybe soon we would find out some answers… But that was not why I'd entered the room.
I recalled the drawing of the child. It was one that did not belong to me, and never would, but the remembrance of it was clear in my mind, and the simple innocence of it permeated like a field of fragrance. For some reason, it wouldn't leave me, even when my wandering eyes collapsed to the image of an Andalite sliced in two below the celebrating alien allies.
If what I saw was true, then the Mak were our enemies. I didn't feel it true, though.
Footsteps approached, but I couldn't find the urgency to fly out to isolation before they arrived. I remained on my perch and awaited the empty conversation. However, that hope was to be dashed.
"Tobias?" Cassie said upon noticing me. She bent her head back to see me directly as she entered. "Hey."
<Hi Cassie,> I replied nonchalantly. <I thought you would be asleep. Your shift isn't for another two hours.>
"I can't sleep," She said, before taking Jake's seat against the messy table. "And your shift isn't for another four hours."
She had me there. <I can't sleep either.>
"Jake's been so busy…" She sighed as she looked over all the papers. "And he's hardly said anything to anybody. Marco is suffering from some sort of PTSD, and Jeanne…"
<Jeanne's a mystery.> I concluded subtly.
"Yeah, she is. You were talking to her in the capital, right?"
I ruffled my feathers while recalling. <Quite a lot. I was trying to keep in her range so we wouldn't split off, just like Jake ordered.>
"And she always responded?" She asked.
<Always,> I said assuredly. <At least once every thirty seconds. I know that you're probably the quickest of all of us at morphing, Cassie. How fast have you done it before?>
She paused to think, running her left hand over the sheets of paper on the table. <Just under a minute is the fastest for me.>
<And a demorph-remorph cycle?>
"Just over two minutes. Maybe less, I don't know…"
Jeanne certainly was an enigma. It wasn't often that I would speak to her, but then that was the same with everybody. Jake was clearly determined to get down to explanations, and only he and Jeanne knew if he'd received them.
In the midst of my analysing, Cassie took a sudden and uneasy turn of subject. "You shouldn't hide away, Tobias."
<Huh?> I responded, caught off-guard. <What do you mean?>
"You hardly talk to anybody. It's not good for you."
I suddenly found myself in a haze of nostalgia. Cassie was totally different to Menderash, though, and it felt somewhat more comfortable. <I'm not hiding away. If I was, I wouldn't be here.>
"I don't mean it literally," She hummed. "Though, you did hide away from me."
<Yellowstone is a big place.> I replied coldly.
"You think I don't know that you had a tree only about three miles from my home?" She countered with a knowing smile. "You should know that I have insiders checking up on you."
<Yeah, I know. I appreciate the concern, I guess. I just…>
"You don't want to be you."
I was taken aback by her forwardness. <No. No, that's not it.>
She narrowed her eyes with intent to unravel me. "I want you to tell me, Tobias," She requested. "I don't want to see you avoiding us all like you do."
I remained silent. The talk was going far beyond my comfort zone.
"You don't want to be Human, do you?"
She was grabbing an answer from my silence. <I'm not a Human.>
"You're a hawk with a Human mind," She reasoned. "To the rest of us, you're Human. I think you feel the same."
<I don't. And I'm not Human. I'm part Human, part hawk… Part Andalite. Probably part other-things, too. I'm a freak, Cassie.>
"You aren't a freak," She disputed. "You're a Human, Tobias. Unique, yes, but that doesn't make you a freak."
I relented to her, but took a few moments to gather my thoughts and words. <I don't know who I want to be. When we were in Makroovi, I saw the kind of peace and content that the Mak lived under. I wanted that. To live my life without worrying about losing my values, or anything else. But then I saw that.>
I motioned my head to the images of the defeated Andalites, and Cassie followed. "These?"
<Just another race caught up in war and loss.>
Cassie nodded sorrowfully. "I saw it all, too."
The conversation appeared to end there, and I rustled my wings in preparation for flight.
"You're one of us, Tobias," Cassie spoke. "You always will be."
I dropped from my perch and took an immediate left turn. Steadying myself, I descended to the floor of the corridor outside, readying to lift off again.
But a shadow fell over me from the southwards corridor. When I turned, I saw her silhouette outlined by the red glow of The Shadows grimy interior lighting. Her long hair fell over her shoulders, and some flowed in the light breeze of the ship's ventilation. Her posture was one of strength and of supreme self-confidence.
My eyes adjusted to the lighting. Jeanne was there, watching me from a distance.
I turned on the spot and flew back to my isolation.
"Incoming vessel, Prince Jake. I don't recognise the construction as anything witnessed in Andalite Space."
"Don't make any sudden course alterations," Jake replied from his position in the centre of the bridge. "Warn of any changes in their direction. We need all fields down. Let's get morphing."
We had travelled for six days, following the vague and incalculable co-ordinates loosely translated from a stolen Mak document. It was leading us further and further into Kelbrid Space, but the increase in Space traffic over the last twenty-four hours was a promising sign. A light-brown globe was becoming apparent on long-distance radar, and that was where most of the activity was growing denser.
Santorelli was quick to the ship-wide announcer that would alert Cassie and Marco, who were away in the sleeping quarters. "Mak time. Get off yer lazy asses. Prince Jake's orders!" He spoke with a deft combination of authority and informality. Menderash looked at him quizzically, still not caught up on the humor displayed, yet well in the knowledge that his own habits had been part of it.
Jake started, and the rest of us followed. We were morphing Mak, the final step in assuming the full disguise as a Mak vessel in transit to the Kelbrid home world.
I watched Jeanne as we morphed. She was beside Jake, who had also been curious about her. Jeanne caught my stare and returned a blank smile and a greeting wave of her fingers.
<Mendy,> Jake said as his morph came to an end. <Secure yourself in the storage. Keep in range.>
He stood and bowed his body in a distinctly Andalite manner, facing the three Mak that now occupied the bridge. "Yes, Prince Jake." Then he left the room, just as Marco and Cassie arrived, hobbling in half-morph.
<Activity?> Cassie asked.
Jake replied, <We're getting close to the planet. Looks like it's Kyritlyp. Lots of ships around now, so we need to be in full disguise.>
<Gotcha,> Marco said as his Mak tail sprouted to finalise his change. <Time for the Animorphs to become the Masters of Disguise.>
<These Kelbrid bastards won't suspect a thing!> Santorelli called, before adding the worrying addendum, <Until they ask us to say somethin’ and we stutter like a nun in a whore house.>
<Mendy has programmed in an automatic response to any comms we receive,> Jake explained. <We should be safe getting to the surface.>
<That's when the fun begins.> Marco uttered.
Santorelli turned in his seat at the controls. <You mean you haven't been havin’ fun already?>
<Let's see,> Marco responded, scratching at his Mak chin. <It was this, or a pool party with Jessica Alba… Yeah, it's gotta be this. Hands down.>
<Every time.> Santorelli agreed.
<Maybe Jessica's on that ship,> Cassie hummed, looking out to the foreign vessel that was crossing our path in the distance. <You could do both.>
<You ever met Jessica Alba?> Santorelli asked Marco.
<Yeah! I saw her on the set for The Sleeping Dictionary. I wasn't kidding about the pool party.>
Santorelli laughed, not entirely believing. <Marco, Marco, my man… She's outta your league!>
<Ha! You're kidding, right? I saw the look she gave me.>
<No offense, man,> Santorelli grinned. <But she wouldn't go for your scrawny ass.>
<Scrawny, huh?> Marco huffed. <You're talking to the monkey man, remember? Gorilla or Ox? I know where my money's going.>
<Yeah, 'cos I gave you a whoopin' back on Makroovi.>
<I had my back turned,> Marco defended. <That doesn't count!>
The exchange was abruptly halted by a deafening static noise that filled the bridge. The projector zapped up a distorted image between us all. Jake took three steps back to escape the channelled light, just in time for the image to clear up.
The upper body of a Kelbrid sprouted between us. The cat eyes scanned the bridge, taking turn to inspect us individually with a military thoroughness. The toxic tendrils that flowed from its head jiggled in rhythm with each little movement.
"Karrit raaghrum." It spoke.
Santorelli swivelled in his seat and pressed three buttons which began the process of delivering the prepared message. <Sendin’ it through.> He clarified to us privately.
The Kelbrid's head motioned downwards as the script was delivered. It took a few moments before he looked back up to us. "Rumaz karra nit. Ackpa nyuti-raah."
We had no idea what it meant, but the Kelbrid's calm and almost disinterested tone was enough of an indication that the message had done its job. He spoke another message, and then the projection shrank into a singular ball of light before vanishing completely.
Jake reported instantly. <Mendy, we received a transmission. Kelbrid.>
Menderash spoke back, voice muffled by distance. <The transmission will have come from the crossing vessel, Prince Jake. We should keep track for any changes in course.>
Every set of eyes looked forward to the view into deep Kelbrid Space. The Kelbrid ship was closer, its more intimate details becoming visible. It was egg-shaped with a flattened underside and three large thrusters at the rear in a triangular formation. The entirety of the structure was artistically curved and gave off an unusual, gleaming shine as the light of the nearest sun landed on its surface. White lights in long strands ran down the body of the ship, closing together to a point at the bow where a small opening was present.
It wasn't changing course. After minutes of careful observation, Jake concluded that we were clear to continue. Menderash, however, was to wait in storage for the rest of the journey to the Kelbrid home world. Marco and Santorelli took charge of navigating The Shadow, and we made direct route for the planet that was closing in on us.
The traffic grew denser as we approached, many of them of a similar design to the egg-shaped Kelbrid vessel. There were others, too, but only one that we recognised, and it was a Mak ship not too dissimilar to our own. It was heading to the planet, just like we were, and that lent us some security.
The planet was large and, like Makroovi, looked to be mostly covered in desert regions, but there was much more ocean. Menderash advised that we follow the sporadic flow of space traffic to what would likely be a large space port. We found a group of ships that were headed for the planet, and Marco, with the expertise of a man who’d spent most of his time playing video games, was able to bring us comfortably alongside them.
Jeanne took over from Santorelli and sat beside Marco at the controls. Even Marco was acting different around her in recent times, and he was even more perplexed when she became the self-appointed navigator.
<We should go here,> She suggested, guiding a delicate finger over the short-distance radar between them. <You see?>
<Uh… Not really.> He replied.
Menderash, always ready to jump in even if he was hidden away in a distant storage closet, reinstated his opinion. <I would advise remaining within the traffic line. It will likely lead us to a major Kelbrid city.>
Jeanne disagreed. <You see these ships?> She moved her finger up to the view of the encompassing planet and the intermittent line of ships that we were following.
<Yeah…> Marco said.
<Not Kelbrid ships!> She chirped. Then, she moved her finger again to the left. There were three of the known Kelbrid egg-like ships, a little more spread than those within the traffic line. <The Kelbrid ships are going over there.>
Menderash responded as Marco gazed at Jeanne with puzzlement. <I would still advise following the largest volume of traffic.>
<We are looking for a military base, yes?> Jeanne countered. <There are no military ships going this way. Those Kelbrid ships have weaponry.>
We all narrowed our eyes to focus on the distant Kelbrid ships, wondering how she could possibly know. Cassie asked the question on everybody's mind. <How do you know those have weapons?>
Jeanne was confident in her reply. <You see the hole at the front? These are for weapons.>
Jake moved to stand behind her, making sure he got a view from her perspective. <We don't know that.>
<Look!> She insisted. Her hands moved to the right to work at a small computer screen. It brought up a zoomed image of the nearest of the Kelbrid egg-ships. With some trial-and-error, she increased the focus to the front of the ship where the hole on the bow was located. Some of the more minor details became apparent, but they looked baffling and nonsensical to me and, as I saw on their faces, everybody else.
Jake needed to be sure. He raised his comms device and took a snapshot of the image. <Sending you an image of the Kelbrid ship's bow, Mendy. What does that look like to you?>
<Received, Prince Jake,> Menderash replied. Then, after deliberation, he gave his answer. <It has components similar to the Akkrid Droon system: a complicated pulse thruster most often used to break apart metal compounds using high-diversity electro-magnetic waves and disrupt communication signals. It's complex, but an effective way to tackle multiple problems with one efficient solution.>
<Somebody got a dictionary?> Santorelli quipped.
<Simplify, Mendy.> Jake grumbled.
<It's highly advanced weaponry, Prince Jake. It is more than capable of ripping The Shadow to shreds in a matter of milliseconds.>
<So we will follow them now?> Jeanne requested.
Marco replied, <My head says no. My heart says no. My gut says no. But when have they ever been right before?>
We managed to pass through three security checkpoints as we approached the planet. Menderash's pre-scripted message did the trick, and we were dropping into the new atmosphere at a steady speed. He had re-emerged on the bridge and was doing what he could to study the environment with great interest.
Everything was going according to plan. They thought that we were simply another Mak vessel, and there didn't seem to be any great effort to perform thorough checks. We disengaged from a sparse line of traffic as we descended below the clouds and resorted to a long-range scanner to take an indirect route towards the nearest population centre. With the presence of multiple Kelbrid ships in the area, we assumed to be near a city or base of some sort.
We were correct. After distantly following two of the ships, a city became apparent on the radar. And not a small one, either.
"My estimates would measure this city at approximately seven-thousand square kilometres." Menderash concluded, eyes glued to his series of screens off to the side of the bridge.
<That's almost as big as New York,> Cassie murmured over his shoulder. <Let's hope any military base is easy to find.>
"We shall continue following these vessels," Menderash said, casting his sights to the distant ships. "Having descended from outer-atmosphere, they are likely down to dock or refuel. They should lead us to a base."
Jake, still in Mak morph as we all were, was forever plastered to the centre of the bridge, keeping close watch on all that happened around. He had fallen silent again after a previous series of orders, but his presence was nonetheless louder than ever. As I watched from afar, he perused every one of us, and I could sense him formulating his ideas. Finally, he turned away from the windows. <Mendy, how long left in morph?>
"Thirty-three minutes, Prince Jake."
<When we find this base, we'll dock The Shadow somewhere secluded, away from the base. We'll leave it as Kelbrids and spread across the area like we did in Makroovi. We'll use the military base as a meeting point, without entering, and observe. However, nobody is to go alone. Marco, Sarge, go together again. Cassie, you're with Tobias,> He made a deliberate turn to face Jeanne. <And then us two. We'll be Mendy's contact. Mendy, you'll guard the ship.>
With a plan settled, all that was left was to land somewhere. Eventually, one of the Kelbrid ships began to slow, and at the same time the Kelbrid city sprang into glorious view over the desert horizon. The foreground to an amazing rising sun was a landscape of sparkling buildings of all different shapes and sizes. Not like the enormous rectangular skyscrapers of Earth cities, but a zoo of mismatched edifices that melted together like the work of an avant-garde sculptor at the peak of inspiration. The sun's rays shone through curves and spirals and tubes that separated one colossal structure from another, and it looked like a series of luminous strings knotted and tied through the forever-stretching city.
<It's beautiful…> Cassie uttered in our heads, and nobody was going to disagree. Not even Menderash, even if he did force his lips together like he was holding back some petty criticisms.
The Shadow flew over, and we each took some time to gaze out over the city horizon, almost forgetting to look up and around at the other traffic that slowly traversed the skies. We held enough focus to remain behind our target ship.
It wasn't long before we found what we had come looking for. The Kelbrid ship veered leftwards, and behind a clutch of markedly artistically domes was an area of the city isolated by a series of three walls circling in parallel. The base extended far into the distance, but the bright glow of some kind of red lazer grid atop the walls signified its enclosed nature. The buildings within looked different, too, certainly not as inspired in architecture, and there were far more empty spaces, some of which were occupied by static vessels. There were more of the egg-like ones, but there were also others that looked considerably more intimidating.
In the center was a pillar that stretched high into the air. Atop, where the structure tapered, was a great golden pyramid that shone blindingly under the sun's influence, casting bright light down over the extent of the base.
"We can safely assume that this is a Kelbrid military base, Prince Jake." Menderash suggested.
He nodded. <We aren't going to miss that pillar. Let's find somewhere to park.>
It was difficult to find the right area, considering how compacted the enormous city appeared to be, but after rushed debate, we settled on an empty space between two buildings a few hundred yards from the base's walls. A guarded entrance through the base walls had been spotted, and that helped in our deciding. Menderash took control of the craft in order to carry out the tricky manoeuvre of parking, the width of the ship neatly fitting into the space we'd allocated.
Jake gave Menderash his orders. He was to lock down the ship whilst remaining unshielded by the added Andalite technology. He knew his role well, and so Jake was quick to relay our own steps.
And then we morphed again, initially retreating into our own bodies before attempting the Kelbrid morph for the first time.
Arms grew sturdily from my wings, and feathers were replaced by coarse purple fur. Dextrous fingers sprouted from a newly emerging hand, complete with striking stripes of silvered fur that stamped the digits. Unbalanced, I dropped forward, but held myself with those arms in a plank position as more changes commenced behind.
A tail whipped purposefully in the air, coming to a lion tuft of brilliant silver, but the smooth fur became quickly interrupted by a series of protrusions that pushed out from the dorsal skin. They lined up in single file from my tail, and then spread into an army on my lower back, marching to my bulky shoulders that held in place the strong arms. The projections came up my neck and formed up over my head, stopping just short of my brow, settling like a thick hairline.
Muscles shifted for new purposes. The strength in the upper body grew past the levels of your average Human, and the legs were bulky and purposeful. I was built for pace and endurance.
My beak was the last thing to melt away, replaced by the twitching, sensitive nose of my new body. The sense of smell was outstanding, as were the eyes, despite limited vertical vision. The hearing was similar to Human hearing. From what I could remember.
The morph was complete, and I was a Kelbrid. Curious, I raised a hand up and took in it one of the thick vines on my head. I squeezed, and moved my hand up to the tip. Returning my hand, I opened my palm to see it covered in viscous, clear goo. Toxin.
Six Kelbrids, all spending some time to get used to the new form. Menderash was standing well off to the side, and wisely so. He looked to us with a hoisted chin, a reluctance to concede any sign of interest.
"So this is the great new threat to the Andalite race?" He scoffed. "Ugly creatures. If it weren't for the toxins, they would be almost harmless."
I remarked in thought-speak, <If it weren't for the Sun, Earth would spin off into the depths of space.>
Menderash was not the type to back down. "I understand your point, but I still am not impressed by these bodies, toxins or not. Nevertheless, I would request that you keep at least a five metre distance from me at all times. One drop of the toxin would kill me in minutes. Not that I'm scared, of course."
<That looks like a weapon.> Cassie said.
I followed her eyes to the Kelbrid that was tending to a house on our right. There was a bulky metal contraption slung around its shoulders, dangling lazily on its back. The front of it looked like a stumpy barrel.
<Yeah. I'd say so.>
The Kelbrid didn't bear any kind of official military dress, though. It looked like just another citizen in the quiet street that we strolled through. The Kelbrid houses wound like ribbons over the ground, pathways just wide enough for three or four to walk through at a time. All traffic was airborne, and we would occasionally wander beneath a roadway marked with floating buoys. The buildings were just as imaginative and unique as the larger ones we had seen upon arrival. The Kelbrids clearly took pride in creativity. This weapon-bearing Kelbrid's home came to a sharp, asymmetric taper at the top that looped over like the tip of newly whipped ice cream. The Kelbrid itself looked to us briefly, and then went on about its business.
Cassie was deeply immersed in the surroundings, though she still held to the task at hand. <It's amazing! It's like every little detail is made to be original. Unique.>
I joined in her admiration, but at the same time I was wary of the potentials of our situation. We had yet to be approached, and we were all very aware that we had zero grasp of the Kelbrid language. We were not to draw any attention, so our eyes never lingered for too long. A lot of the time, we stared down at the perfectly flat orange-rock ground.
And we became even more cautious the further we went. With the golden-topped tower coming closer in the distance, the presence of military Kelbrids increased. We had quickly established the marks of the military personnel. Some had been spotted on guard, mostly by Jake and Jeanne who were taking another route. The golden triangle appeared to be the official emblem, and the Kelbrids on guard had scarves around the neck bearing that pyramid insignia. They also held large weaponry, just like the lengthy golden rifles we’d seen on Makroovi, fingers poised and ready.
<There's one,> Cassie alerted. <Just past that statue.>
The shimmering barrel of the gun came first around the stone statue of some famed Kelbrid as the area opened up into a type of courtyard. As we walked, the rest of the individual came into sight. The Kelbrid was motionless, chest pushed outwards and expression nulled. Not that Kelbrid expressions were a thing I knew anything about.
The scarf over its chest stood out against the purple/silver of its body. It was a deep silken black, embroidered with a large golden triangle.
<Definitely military.> Cassie assumed. Upon agreement, we turned our eyes away and wandered on like it was no big deal.
Then somebody else showed up. Two, actually. From the opposite side of the courtyard they appeared, one after the other. The second wore the same scarf as the one on guard, but the Kelbrid ahead had something a little different.
<That's new.> I said, casting my eyes.
<Three stars… And those things on its neck.>
The singular triangle on the scarves of the other two was split into three stars on this third Kelbrid. Above the scarf, hanging like a tight necklace, was a series of small golden cylinders.
The two approached the stationary guard. At a six pace distance, the guard suddenly straightened even further than it was previous. There came a ferocious stomp of its right foot, and a solid bark of a Kelbrid word. The more decorated Kelbrid stopped in front and looked the guard over.
As we walked, we could hear them talking. Before we lost sight of them, we caught the decorated Kelbrid swapping the two lower ranks, the second taking the place of the first.
Cassie hummed. <Looks like a duty swap.>
<Gives us a good idea of what to look for,> I replied. <The one with the three stars was definitely in charge.> Then, I addressed the others. <Guys, we found a Kelbrid with three stars and a gold necklace. He's ordering the other ones around. Anybody seen anything similar?>
<Negative.> Santorelli informed, voice muffled by distance.
Jake spoke from another location. <We saw one with two stars on the scarf. Seems the triangles are the low rank. Stars must mean officers.>
<So how many stars are we looking for, exactly?> Marco asked.
<No idea,> Came Jake's answer. <We're seeing a lot of armed Kelbrids without insignias, though. I'm beginning to think that it's just normal for civilians to carry heavy weaponry.>
<Great,> Marco groaned. <Even Average Joe Kelbrid is ready to blow our heads off.>
<Just don't draw attention,> Jake reinforced. <We'll rendezvous near the base entrance. Keep your eyes open for anything new.>
We moved on, continuing both our search for new information and our sightseeing of the fascinating Kelbrid city. I found my mind wandering again, taking into account the way the Kelbrids went about their daily lives. They weren't as chirpy and rushed as the Mak. They seemed more composed and confident. Calm and purposeful. It was like walking through a perfectly oiled machine. Everything just seemed so… ordered.
There were other aliens around, but things had been reversed. On Makroovi, the Kelbrids wore full body suits, protecting others from their vicious toxin. Here, they were naked, and the foreigners were dressed from head to toe in protective gear. I saw two that were very clearly Mak, and one Taxxon – a very peculiar sight in white overalls. Other aliens were present, but their body shapes were often so bizarre that I instantly knew I'd never seen them before.
The Kelbrids were very safety-conscious. That was at least some comfort to us.
We saw little of interest for the rest of the journey. Through constant communication we narrowed in on a rendezvous point near to the closest base entrance. Cassie and I approached it, and it was instantly obvious that there was no way of getting in the way we were. The entrance was a break in the high, lazer-topped walls that extended far on either side; an archway that breathed with a hint of an almost Andalite-like forcefield, likely permitting little other than light through its repelling skin. Standing guard were two Kelbrids on each side, all sporting that same golden military triangle over their chests, weapons gripped and ready.
Passing that and reporting on what we saw, we carried on to the meeting point, not too far from that position. Jake and Jeanne had already made it there, storing themselves casually in the narrow space between two empty dwellings far from view of any guards. Marco and Santorelli arrived shortly after.
<Lots of weapons,> Marco commented. <Why do I get the feeling that this plan is completely insane?>
Cassie rolled her Kelbrid eyes. <You used to be so optimistic, Marco…>
<You've been watching the movies too much.>
<You mean that they weren't accurate depictions?>
<Well, the stuff about how brave and handsome I am is pretty accurate.> He remarked.
<I thought they depicted me as the handsome one.> Jake replied in a rare showing of informality.
Marco laughed. <Keep dreaming.>
Like a set of blinds crashing to a windowsill, Jake switched back. <Okay, it's pretty obvious that we aren't getting into the base at ground level, but we have an idea of who we're after: More stars means more influence.>
<So we get in and search for the guy covered in gold stars.> Santorelli suggested.
<The more stars, the better.> Jake concurred.
<Question is,> Cassie began. <How do we get inside to find what we're looking for?>
They postulated as they always would, and I took my regular spot at the side, gazing at the world like the answer would fall from the sky.
The others were discussing the possibility of using fly morph to get over the wall, with the obvious rebuttals coming in return. I was still standing to the side, eyes elsewhere, when something small and blue came fluttering deftly over the ledge of a low wall of the alley. It flapped a wing that protruded as a semi-circular flap around the sides and rear of its body. Two beady eyes sat atop its pointed, rodent-like snout that sniffed along the ground the moment it landed, searching out any scrap of whatever food it ate.
<There.> I called, interrupting the conversation of my team.
They found what I had spotted. <A bird?> Santorelli blurted.
<It's native,> Cassie pointed out. <So it won't look out of place.>
<A kelbird!> Marco helpfully added.
<Trust monkey man to give it the worst name possible.> Santorelli mocked.
Marco shot him a glare. <What's wrong with it?>
<It's almost as bad as Animorphs.> Santorelli teased with a chuckle.
<That's a great name,> Marco defended. <What would you call us?>
Santorelli shook his head with a sly smile. <Hey, I don't know man. I'm not great with namin’ things. I just know shit when I smell it.>
<Maybe we should call ourselves Les Sauveteurs Changeants.> Jeanne suggested, drawing all attention.
Of course, Marco was the first to react. <The Solvent Chandeliers?>
<No, Marco,> Cassie sighed. <The Changing Saviours.>
<Oh yeah. Sorry, I misheard you.> Marco coughed in a pathetic attempt to redeem himself. It didn't work.
<Let's worry about that later,> Jake grumbled. <Time isn't on our side, so let's do this now. We need to catch that bird.>
From personal experience, I knew that that was easier said than done.
<Wait!> Cassie cried out.
Santorelli was poised, hanging over the Kelbrid disposal unit's lid as the wary kelbird froze on its spot only six feet away.
<Huh? What now?> He grumbled, eager to make his decisive jump.
<How do we know the Kelbrid toxin won't kill the bird?> She posited.
Jake hummed, watching on from the other end of the alleyway to block off the bird's ground level exit. <Good point. We don't know.>
<Geez…> Marco sighed. <Here we are, deep in the bowels of Kelbrid Space, on a mission to save an alien centaur, kidnap the general of the poison-hedgehog aliens and avert the oncoming Space War III… and we're pulling out our hair trying to catch a bird.>
<Small, simple steps.> Cassie replied with a subtle hint of frustration.
<Hey,> Santorelli barked, glancing over his shoulder at Cassie. <This is a Kelbrid trash can, right?> He asked, tapping a silver finger on the surface of the large container.
<Smells like one.> Marco answered in her place.
Without much thought, Santorelli rolled to his side and reached for the lid of the container. It wailed and squeaked when he lifted, and everybody had an undignified moment of panic when the startled bird flapped up as if to make an escape. But despite the noise of the container and all the calls for Santorelli to be quieter, the bird was confident enough to fall back to the ground, albeit closer to the far wall.
<Sorry.> Santorelli acknowledged. On second attempt, he performed the action with a little more care. With the lid opened, he shifted his form and tumbled inside with the most repulsive squealch! <Oh-ho man!> He exclaimed. <It's like Marco's Academy Award speech in here. Full of shit.>
Jeanne turned to Marco inquisitively. <You have won an Academy Award, Marco?>
Even his morph smiled. <Why, yes! I co-directed a movie back in '03. I'll show it to you sometime!>
<I hate those awards.> She said.
<Ah. Right. Well, so do I! We share so much in common.>
She didn't waste a second. <No, I do not think so.>
Santorelli rustled within the container, causing us all to pay attention to the bird that was sniffing around the wall, seemingly inattentive. <Hey, will a rag work?> He asked, his arm popping out with a dirty sheet in hand.
<Better than nothing,> Jake surmised. <Let's give it a try.>
Santorelli slowly emerged from the dumpster, dragging multiple used sheets with him. He threw one to Marco. <Here, maybe you could at least catch one bird today.>
Marco grumbled something incoherent, but didn't refuse the sheet, and the pair of them diverted paths to surround the bird. It was starting to take notice.
<Monkey man,> Santorelli whispered – which was completely redundant in thought-speak, but he insisted anyway. <I'll go for the first strike. If I miss…>
<Got it,> Marco replied. <I pounce.>
They approached with extreme care, holding the wide sheets in front of all but their eyes to lull the bird into a false sense of security. It seemed baffled, more than anything. Its little head twitched from side to side. Yet, it remained on the ground.
Five feet. Four feet. Three…
<Now!> Santorelli bellowed. Marco braced himself as Santorelli lunged forward, lengthening both legs simultaneously and dropping his upper body to the deck with the sheet out in front.
The bird caught on quickly and attempted to dash off to the side, but it simply wasn't quick enough. With a painful thud, Santorelli landed on his Kelbrid chest, but with his arms reaching out he covered the small bird with the dirty old rag and held it to the ground.
<Ha! Got it!> He cheered. <Sorry, Marco, still no birds for you today!>
Marco dropped his sheet with subtle irritation as Santorelli cackled victoriously in our heads and began the process of folding the sheet around the bird beneath, adjusting it like a sack. Once completed, he held it up in the air. The bird struggled inside.
Jake approached, not in the mood to celebrate catching a single bird. <We take it in turns. Get in the dumpster, demorph, get your hand in the bag and acquire the morph. Next person goes in, grabs the bag, first person morphs and flies out. Let's go.>
<Aye aye, Captain Fun!> Marco saluted.
The kelbird was a surprisingly calm creature, for one so small and vulnerable. Anything similar on Earth tended to be manic, often irrationally so. It was as if the creature lived without fear of natural predators. Surely, it had them. That was nature, or nature as I knew it.
I was the last to acquire the morph, since I had no hands in my natural form and had to snatch the befuddled creature from the bag in the procedure. It flew from a gap in the container as I began the transformation.
Jake had the comms device to Menderash attached to his left hind leg so that we could continue to send him updates. He was growing wary of our progressing decisions, but had yet to suggest anything other than what Jake imposed. He wished us luck as we took to the air, rising above the line of buildings before heading for the walled military base.
Menderash's fuzzled voice came through to us as we approached the lazer-topped wall. <Prince Jake, from here I can't sense any forcefields over the base.>
<Check anyway,> Jake insisted. <Sarge, swoop by the wall.>
<On it, boss!> He called back, and as the rest of us turned to fly away in random directions or sit on roofs, he flapped onwards with the single kelbird wing.
Just before an infiltration over the lazers, he forced the wing sideways and swooped left, parallel to the top of the wall. He turned and headed back.
<Feel anything?> Jake asked.
<Nothing, boss!> Santorelli reported.
<Then let's go.>
With reasonable distance, we crossed the boundary one by one. Jake split us up, designating us areas within the base to fly over. I was to flap on over to the furthest side.
It was a considerable distance for my little bird body, and it didn't fly particularly well. It expended far more energy than my hawk body ever would over the same distance. Nevertheless, I made it around the enormous tower structure in the centre. I had to avert my eyes as the golden pyramid high above forced dense sunlight down, and it was worse the closer I got.
So I swooped downwards. Ahead, I could make out the movement of military Kelbrids, each one carrying some form of insignia. A lot of them were in groups, formations just like those seen in any Earth army. They were performing drills. I even saw a large group doing a physical training exercise on a raised platform near the outer edge.
And then I spotted exactly what I was looking for. Wandering alone along a main circular passageway was a Kelbrid, whose gold burst light in extraordinary beams, bouncing back the light from the golden pyramid. He strutted slowly, purposefully, and though he held no weaponry himself, the proud salutes of the others he past made clear that he had no need.
I dived closer, feeling confident enough to land on a roof he was passing. His scarf was claret, and on it were nine glistening stars, each one lined with tiny red jewels. His collar was protected with a golden, jewelled amulet, inscribed with something indecipherable.
<Guys!> I shouted. <Found a Kelbrid with nine stars! Getting saluted by pretty much everybody.>
<Nine?> Marco repeated. <That beats my six.>
<Sounds like a suitable target,> Jake concluded. <Keep an eye on him. Cassie, join up with Tobias. The rest of us will keep a lookout for anything else.>
I maintained sight of the Kelbrid, but to remain inconspicuous I jumped up to take flight once more. I lifted my tiny body higher, making some distance to temporarily disappear from sight.
How best to briefly disappear and erase any suspicion I may potentially have built up?
The golden pyramid! I could hide beneath the light it cast. From there, I could still see the ground.
It was a long way up, but nothing the little kelbird couldn't handle. The only difficulty was not being blinded by the rays the pyramid gave off, but I hugged the tower closely to evade most of it. I passed barred openings on the way up, just wide enough that I might be able to squeeze through.
I reached the uppermost opening and landed on the ledge, shielded from above by the incredible beams of light. But instead of gazing back from where I had arrived to keep track of the highly-ranked Kelbrid, I was immediately distracted by something behind the bars.
The perfect lines of red hummed dangerously, tangled together like the most baffling spider web, criss-crossing with the clearest intent to keep even the most ambitious intruder out. There must have been dozens of lazers in the grid, and it gave the room behind the bars a haunting red glow.
But within that red glow, a blue one attempted desperately to push back the tide. It came from the centerpiece, caged away behind the exaggerated defence, huddled neatly within a thick glass casing. Even then, the small blue box overpowered everything that enclosed it.
<Jake, they have the morphing cube.>
We waited. The Kelbrid we were after had entered the central tower and had not come back for a while, but we were determined to keep track of him. We had watched him for a while and taken note of distinguishing features, such as the broken silver stripes down his arm which were split into three, and the two small bald patches on his tail.
The news of the Escafil Device's presence came with confused reaction. We presumed it to be the very same cube taken by the Yeerks towards the end of the war. Us four original Animorphs fell somewhat silent, recalling past events that had very clearly come back to cause us huge concern. Menderash was, alternately, in a diabolical, stuttering mess over the situation.
For the moment, we had no solid plan to retrieve it. That was something for another day, despite Menderash's insistence that it be retrieved as soon as possible. Jake shouted him down.
The Kelbrid day was short. Just over sixteen hours, according to Menderash. The Kelbrid sun was setting quickly, and the beams coming down from the central golden pyramid intensified as the angle of contact grew more acute. Soon, though, the light would disappear, leaving the base in sudden darkness. We hoped that he would emerge again before that time.
I had just returned from the alleyway, since we had taken turns to remorph to continue the operation. Retaking my place at the southern end, I found an empty building to perch atop. The activity within the base was decreasing, and many Kelbrids were leaving through the few entrances, all military clothing abandoned inside, or carried in the spherical bags they would often have slung over their shoulders. Still no sign of our guy, though.
<Maybe he lives here.> Santorelli soon hypothesised.
<It's possible,> Cassie replied. <Are we staying till dark, Jake?>
<Yeah. When the light goes, we get back to The Shadow. We'll come back tomorrow. We stay as long as it takes for us to get what we came for.>
That was an unnerving thought, for sure, and everybody fell silent after that. I got the feeling that not everybody felt so dedicated. Myself included.
I wasn't there for some Kelbrid General. I was there for Ax.
We had seen nothing other than barracks and training areas. Jake had already discarded the thought that perhaps The One's central system was housed there, and doubts had grown in my mind that the Visser had told him the truth at all. Jake never talked about what happened in that room, so nobody really had anything to go on.
The sun was clasping the horizon when something finally occurred, just as we were readying to head back to Menderash.
<Is that…? Hey… Hey, guys, I've spotted him!> Marco alerted. <He just left the central tower!>
<Seen!> Santorelli announced.
Jake was quick to issue orders. <Three sets of eyes on him at all times. We follow, find where he goes.>
I swerved in mid-air and made a direct line for Marco's northerly position. I spotted him and Santorelli in the distance, fluttering innocently like any ordinary kelbirds. When I made some distance, the Kelbrid came into view. I spotted the bald spots of the tail, and that was enough to give him away.
He'd removed all clothing, but a weapon was held snugly around his shoulder with an accompanying sphere bag. He was heading for the northern base entrance.
Keeping enough distance between us, we followed as he left the base to wander into civilian territory. He must have been heading home, and that was perfect for us.
<He's heading for that ship!> Cassie informed.
A relatively bland, long ship was docked nearby on an open platform. A small shelter housed three other Kelbrids, but as we watched, they boarded the ship one-by-one.
<Is that what I think it is?> Marco asked.
<You thinkin’ bus stop, too?> Santorelli replied.
<Yep. Looks like General Kelbrid is catching a bus home.>
We positioned ourselves around the platform and waited as the Kelbrid approached. We expected him to board, just like the others, but he had different ideas.
He walked around the bus, and then took a closer look at a collection of symbols on the front. Then, he took his place in the shelter and ignored the ship. It began its ascent with a low hum, and set off without him.
<Wrong bus.> Jake grumbled.
The wait sustained. Even the Kelbrid appeared to be growing impatient, but just as the last of the sun was about to dip, another ship turned in our direction. It hovered over the platform and descended, much to the relief of both ourselves and the Kelbrid.
Jake anticipated a difficult flight, and when the Kelbrid boarded, he warned us, <Be prepared to fly. We don't know how far we're going. Mendy, how long do we have?>
<Jeanne has the shortest morph time remaining, Prince Jake. Fifty-seven Earth minutes.> He informed through the comms device.
<Let's hope it's enough.> Jake said.
The ship made regular stops along the way, which came as a great relief considering how much energy we used trying to keep up. The kelbirds weren't built for speed, and I was dearly missing my own body. The others struggled just as much, if not more, with flying experience variable between us all. Without the ship stopping every couple miles, we would have been left far, far behind.
The ship breached the city boundaries, and we left behind the dazzling spectacle to swoop straight into another. The hilly landscape that engulfed the city was being visited by the last rays of sunlight, casting great shadows behind them. The contrast against the orange of the rock hills was stunning.
We had thirteen minutes left. Jake was considering splitting the team to allow quick demorphs, but something new appeared over a particularly large hill.
It was something akin to a mansion back on Earth, but much more inclined to the usual Kelbrid standard of originality and bewildering design. The main body of the black building was shaped almost like the crown of a monarch, dipped in the centre with looping spires around the edges. The whole thing was angled into the rocks behind it as if the ground was slowly swallowing it whole.
Walls surrounded it on all sides, and the expansive lands looked nearly as secure as the military base. A guard was standing on patrol at the gate, neglecting to look upwards as six small birds approached.
The ship came to a stop on the ground by the wall. Out popped our Kelbrid friend, exchanging some last pleasantries with the ship's driver, hidden inside. Seemingly in a good mood, he turned to walk away from the bus-ship when it rose from the ground again.
He was welcomed through the main gate by the guard, the field being collapsed to allow him access.
<We don't have much time,> Jake panted, still exhausted from the travel. <No doubt this is his place. We need to find somewhere to demorph. Mendy?>
<Yes, Prince Jake?> He responded over the device.
<We've located his home. Follow device co-ords but keep some distance. I want The Shadows engines to remain on, in case something happens here.>
<I'm on my way, Prince Jake.>
<We going in?> Marco asked.
<We're going in.> Jake clarified.
<Seven minutes, Prince Jake. I would highly recommend either splitting the group or finding somewhere to demorph as soon as possible.>
<Jake?> Cassie said, heavily concerned as the time limit drew near.
He swooped right, dodging around a gargantuan black growth of the Kelbrid's abode. <I saw something over here. A window inside. We get in and demorph.>
<How can we be sure the place is clear?> Marco asked.
<We can't. Sarge, you'll do a fly-by. You see the window I'm talking about?>
Our group had come together into close formation, no longer so fussed about inconspicuousness. We could all see the opening that Jake alluded to. It was a rectangular gap at the rear end of the mansion, at the base of one of the black spires.
<On it, boss!> Santorelli called. He didn't seem to care that Jake always sent him down first…
His Kelbird body dropped from our cluster, wrapping the single wing to the side so he plummeted like a missile. From an almost vertical descent, he pulled out his wing and hit the air, lashing through to a horizontal flight in a movement that would cause any other creature severe neck injury.
He zipped by the window with reduced speed. Then he swerved and came back around for a second look.
Then he switched direction again, and disappeared inside.
<All clear, boss!>
<Go, go!> Jake shouted. <Get in, demorph!>
With considerable doubt echoing between the rest of us, there was yet no reluctance to follow as our leader made good for the window. One at a time we entered into the dark, open space.
All the while, Menderash had garnered the courage to question, and I listened intently as I observed the unlit, empty room. The really empty room.
<Prince Jake, I hate to admit doubts on your judgement, but is this course of action wise?> He began. <Surely, there is not such rush that we have to compromise on security.>
<We're doing this now,> Jake countered firmly. <The Kelbrid is here. I'm not taking a break to end up losing him.>
<I understand, my Prince, but this seems unnecessarily dangerous. Perhaps a better course would be to keep a sentry while the others demorph and rebuild their strength.>
<We're doing this now,> Jake growled. <Nothing we do is going to take the danger out of this. Keep The Shadow ready and respond to any alerts.>
<Prince Jake, I->
<Not now, Mendy!>
The group demorphed in hushed silence, eyeing the smooth white walls of the room with no idea of the dangers that lay behind.
I had my own wings back, and it was a welcome change. Regardless, the room didn't appear any brighter. The others were gradually returning to their Human forms.
I noted the layout of the room. Blank white walls and floor, and nothing else to decipher. Absolutely nothing to suggest it was used for anything. The ceiling had a checkered pattern to it, but it gave away nothing of use, and only served to provide the most minimal lighting. However, I could make out a door. It was a circular section of the wall, a hinge at the top.
Jake compromised enough with the whining Menderash to allow a minute to recover, but that did nothing to settle nerves. We had no sentry, and while Human they were effectively defenceless.
But the time came to change. Jake announced, "Battle morphs, everybody. Marco, you find something to use as a club. We corner him, and let Marco knock him out cold. Nobody touch him. Under no circumstances. Understood?"
We all understood well enough. I already knew my role. I wouldn't even have to morph again.
"Let's do this quick."
The switch to battle morphs began, something we had not collectively done for so long. It filled me with dread, and I could tell from the faces around me that I was not alone.
The room rapidly became a mini zoo, cramped in the tight space as bodies grew bulkier and larger. Barely enough room for a tiger or a gorilla. An ox or a wolf or a panther. At least I was small enough to sit on the ox's back.
<Marco,> Jake spoke. <Break the door off its hinges. Use it as a shield.>
The snorting gorilla nodded, a very un-gorilla-like thing to see. With pan-sized fists he rocked forward to the door outline. He pushed at it with a chunky finger and it opened without resistance. Then he smoothly lifted his hand around the side and to the hinge. With a tug and a crack, the entire door came free, and Marco propped it ahead of him like a medieval shield.
He hoisted a tentative, unsteady gorilla foot and crossed the boundary into the next room.
Something must have been triggered. Everything lit up! The dark room became an achingly bright white, causing us to shirk and stutter. Marco dropped the shield against his head and groaned out a guttural bellow.
And then the alarm rang. A high-pitched, pulsating squeal drowned our ears.
<Alarm!> Jake cried out. <Everybody get back! Get->
He froze, simultaneous to a mechanical hum from behind. Slowly we changed direction, to come face-to-face with the pair of turrets emerging from the ceiling by the window. They unravelled from their metal wombs with clicks and whirs, components spinning and locking into place. Enormous black barrels stared back, and we gawked deep into the darkness within.
Jake broke his hesitation. <Get out. Get out! The door!>
The mad rush commenced with four gargantuan mammals trying to force their way through the doorway. Marco had twisted in place and held up the shield, uttering panicked, repeated syllables. I zoomed out through the smallest of gaps and into the next room over, just as brightly lit.
There came a great boom as the turrets unleashed a wave of whatever ammunition it used! Marco screamed out harshly. His continued cursing meant the shield must have worked.
But my attention didn't remain on him. Rather, it switched to the new turret. The even larger turret that hung from the ceiling in the new room. It groaned low, hauntingly so as it took aim.
<Mendy! Code red! Get here now!>
Boom! A wave of burning red charged me from the turret! I was already mid-duck, and it clipped several feathers along my back.
I glanced around just in time to see that I was not the intended target.
He took a blow to the face, having bundled clumsily through the doorway! His tiger head glowed a sizzling red. It was no burn. I couldn't tell what it was.
He collapsed, flopping to the deck like a ragdoll.
At the flick of a switch, Santorelli took charge. <Get out however you can! Marco, get Jake! I'll clear the path. Everybody follow!>
The ox delivered a determined snort and braced, the boulder of hairy muscle clomping noisily at the floor before charging.
He obviously couldn't find any doors.
A wall came down with a mighty crash, Santorelli's ox ploughing through without so much as a flinch.
Marco had dropped the shield. That was his defence gone. Cassie stayed behind as Jake was pulled over the gorilla's shoulder. Jeanne pounced off ahead and through the gap Santorelli had messily produced.
<Move it!> Marco screamed to Cassie. She acknowledged and followed the black panther ahead of her.
The flash of red filled the air, the blast catching Cassie hard in the side, sending her limp body against the far wall. She wasn't getting up.
<Cassie's down! Cassie's down!> Marco alerted.
<Shit…!> Santorelli cursed from two rooms across. <Can you lift her?!>
I was circling the room, hurriedly assessing the situation as best I could. The group was split, and Marco did his best to grab Cassie, but he was too slow. The turret was charging again!
I moved sharply, flicking my wings so that I landed on the base of the swivelling turret. I looked for any weakness, any wire or button.
There was nothing.
<Damn it! Jeanne! Jeanne is down!> Santorelli screamed, far out of view.
Marco lurched, dragging with him the two unconscious bodies of Jake and Cassie. Not quick enough. When he stumbled to the side before the door, the turret fired again.
Three bodies were forcefully dispersed across the floor. Unconscious or dead. I couldn't tell.
<Marco's down.> I told, unable to remove the defeat from my tone.
<Get out, Tobias! Get out now!>
A hum grew, vibrating through my talons. Heat came, the turret fizzed.
Before I could react, the turret blasted, sending from all sides a pulse of sizzling red. It hit, and I was down.
I lifted to my feet, rustled my feathers and opened my eyes to the sight of a fuzzy red line.
"Vaar drihurr. Grayii breck dunnij vhraar."
"Trook. Vhraar kennip."
They moved behind the red lines, the lazer grid that formed a vertical wall before us crossing tightly enough to deny even my relatively small hawk body an exit.
"Inniesfor yurwen vakkap."
In my waking daze I stumbled in a circle. Around me were the groaning, stirring bodies of my friends, still in battle morph.
There was no way out. We were trapped in a cell.
The gruff Kelbrid voice was increasing in volume. I flicked my head and saw that it was staring right back at me through the lazer grid, weapon lifted in my direction.
<Guys?> I said. <Guys?!>
<Tobias? Is that you?>
<Yeah, Cassie. We're all here. No sudden movements.>
The wolf shakily brought up its head. She sniffed at the air, looked to the lazer grid and then to the others. They were all waking.
<Kelbrids,> I quietly warned, doing my best not to start an immediate panic. <At least three. We can't get to them.>
Jake's head rose from the pile, somewhere between Marco and Santorelli. <Are we all here? Anybody missing?>
<Everybody's here, Jake.> I explained.
He weakly got to his feet and nearly collapsed straight back down. <Where's Mendy? Mendy?!>
To my surprise, his voice replied. But worringly, it came from behind the lazer grid. <Prince Jake. I lost contact.>
Jake jumped over Marco to meet the lazer grid up close. We both spotted the comms device that Menderash spoke through, clutched in the hairy digits of the Kelbrid we had been after.
He didn't smile, didn't grow angry. He was stone-faced, eyes locked firmly on us. Three armed Kelbrids lined up beside him, ready to deal with any rebellion we could put up.
Jake was spiralling, hesitant. His eyes darted between the Kelbrids, back to us, and then to the Kelbrids again. <Mendy… Don't… Stay where you are. Don't approach. Not yet.>
<Yes, Prince Jake.>
The Kelbrid spoke something to us. We had no idea what. He repeated the statement, but when we remained silent he addressed one of his armed comrades.
<Oh man…> Marco grunted, having rested his body against the back wall. <I don't know what the hell he's saying.>
<Nobody does,> Jake replied. <Mendy, any ideas?>
<I'm afraid not, Prince Jake.>
Cassie added a suggestion. <Try Mak?>
<Ah. That may work.> Menderash considered.
<What should I say, Prince Jake?>
He took a moment to think. <Tell him we aren't here to cause them harm.>
Menderash formulated a sentence, which took him all of twenty seconds, and then relayed it through the comms device.
The Kelbrid listened intently, his eyes narrowing. He seemed to understand Menderash's amateur Mak impression.
He replied to Menderash, presumably in Mak.
<I don't think he believes us, Prince Jake.> Menderash said gravely.
The Kelbrid began pacing up and down the lazer grid, inspecting the bizarre, unnatural zoo we formed, staring each one of us down individually.
"Teghuir hrahyur ecki fhral. Hufrakil!"
<Ah.> Menderash sighed.
<What?> Jake demanded. <What did he say?!>
<He believes we might be Andalites, Prince Jake.>
The Kelbrid grinned for the first time, displaying rows of sharp, white teeth.
<What are the implications?> Jake enquired warily.
<If he believes that Andalites have crossed the Gratt Border, he could start a war.>
<And if we reveal that we're Human?>
Menderash paused. <I don't believe that Kelbrids have ever had contact with Humans.>
The Kelbrid paced up again, holding the comms device in front of him like he was waiting for some kind of concession.
Jake asked, <Mendy, how long have we been in morph?>
<One hour, thirty-seven minutes.>
That added yet enough layer of pressure to Jake's decision-making. He fell silent again, turning away from the lazer grid and retreating to the centre of the cell.
<Can't see a way out, boss.> Santorelli helpfully opined.
<What should we do?> Cassie asked. <Demorph? You heard Menderash. If he thinks we're Andalites, he could start a war!>
Marco, shaking vigorously, added, <And if we demorph, they'll wonder what the hell we are. Then they'll p-probably blast us to smithereens.>
Jake noticed Marco's shuddering and his broken, monotonous tone. I sensed it, too. I recalled the last time he had been trapped in a cell.
<Boss, this guy doesn't look like the patient type.>
Neither option was appealing, and Jake had the cruel headache of deciding what to do. I didn't envy his position. I never did.
We could stay in morph and live out the rest of our lives as battle forms, and in the process start a war between the Andalites and the Kelbrids. Or we could demorph and take the risk of revealing ourselves as Humans and either be permanently kept prisoner or destroyed.
Come to think of it, there wasn't much chance of us getting out of this, no matter what we did.
Jake must have thought the same thing, and decided on the least damaging option. <Demorph. We don't want them to think we're Andalites.>
<You sure, Jake?> Cassie pushed.
<Prince Jake,> Menderash spoke up. <I could create a distraction.>
<No, Mendy. Don't bring the ship. You'll either kill yourself, or us.>
<We'll find a way, Prince Ja->
The Kelbrid tapped a button on the device, turning off communications. Clearly, he had grown tired of our delaying. "Varra!"
Our contact with the outside world lost, we resigned ourselves to the decision we had made.
<Let's get this over with.>
They began to demorph, their bodies all shrinking, fur disappearing to be replaced by Human skin.
Except for me. I was in my own body, and I suddenly realised the issue I could cause. <Wait, should I morph Human?>
<Yes,> Jake instructed. <Morph Human. We all need to.>
I intended to do just that. But when I started to picture the Human Tobias in my head… I forgot what he looked like.
<Tobias.> It was Jeanne's voice, and it shocked me out of my concentration.
<What? What is it?>
I waited for a rebuttal from Jake, but nothing came. She was talking privately.
<Why should I…?> I uttered. I never completed the question.
Something told me that she had an idea. I ran with it.
I pictured the Kelbrid in my head, something strangely more familiar. The changes began, Kelbrid purple and silver fur replacing my feathers, toxic protrusions rushing from my back.
<Wait… What the hell?!> Marco called.
I said nothing, but continued the change, rising gradually from the floor as my body became more Kelbrid than hawk.
<What are you doing?!> Jake blurted, shock filling his voice.
And then I realised that they weren't even looking at me.
<Jeanne?! How are you…?!>
She was to my right, and I saw the source of confusion when I turned to face her. What I saw was something half-black panther, half-Kelbrid. She continued her morph, saying nothing.
Nobody was able to gauge the Kelbrid's reaction. We were all too busy reacting ourselves, as the Black Panther finished its morph to Kelbrid. Jeanne didn't seem overly fazed, but everybody else was gawking, not a single set of jaws closed.
Four Humans, two Kelbrids. Fortunately, Jeanne and I had acquired two different Kelbrids, so we weren't spitting images. Not that we were necessarily thinking about that at the time.
"Did she ju-?"
<Do not make this any more suspicious than it already is!> Jeanne shushed Marco harshly in private thought-speak, cutting him off.
They must have assumed she was up to something. They exchanged glances, but retrieved their lower jaws and turned to face the real Kelbrids once more.
The Kelbrid General – or whatever rank he was – didn't appear quite as smug as before. His pupils darted between the lot of us, and the hand in which he held the comms device shook. He flashed at one of his comrades. "Veni! Jruip frahgyum eramma!"
"Ludurt frahgyum amnat rewret." The addressed Kelbrid replied calmly.
"Hufrakil hyurn." The Kelbrid General hissed, pointing a shaky finger at the four Humans.
<He says that we are not Andalites. That has upset him.>
It was Jeanne. Though it was good news, her assumedly accurate translation only added to the growing mountain of questions.
The Kelbrid General was growing angrier. So angry that he flung the small comms device across the room. It crashed against the furthest wall. Then he pointed at the Humans again.
"Grum rewret doogri?"
The other Kelbrids had no reply, even though the question was posed to them. They looked just as confused as he did.
<They don't know Humans.> Jeanne translated again.
<How do you know what they're saying?> I demanded of her.
<I will tell you later.>
<How can you be sure there'll even be a later?>
Her big Kelbrid mouth exhibited the slightest of smiles. <I know.>
The Kelbrid's focus switched. Having no idea what the Humans were, and knowing that there were presumably no Andalites present, his next priority was the two Kelbrids. He yelled something at us, pointing and gesturing so that Jeanne's translation wouldn't even be required.
Surely, we were seen as traitors. He looked utterly disgusted, and he even flicked some toxic goop at us from his right hand. The Human four jumped and backed away.
He seemed to calm down, uttering some more words before conversing again with his three soldiers.
Jeanne was paying full attention, and translated the key points. <Two traitors, and four ugly hairless monstrosities. Perhaps they are from Andalite Space. Never seen anything like them before, unless… No, I have seen these things before! The Yeerks had these as host bodies. I didn't see these ones on the Yeerk ship specifically, though. Take them to the main base, see if they are still infested, and if not, we will find out where they came from. Let’s hope that those parasites haven’t figured it out. As for the traitors, take them to the city prison. They will be tried and punished accordingly.>
It could have been much worse. I even breathed the most silent sigh of relief to find out that we seemed to be avoiding the worst-case scenarios. No war. No death.
We had been told that the Kelbrids were a very trustworthy race. Hopefully, that would go hand-in-hand with a merciful justice system for five Humans and a bird.
Before I could bask in my fortuitousness any longer, the General shouted an order, and the three massive barrels were levelled at us once more. Then he pulled his own from over his shoulder, too, pushing the number up to four.
"Vunip! Derri sariyup."
With a zap the lazer grid disappeared from before us, taking us all by surprise. Needless to say, however, nobody was going to be big and brave enough to charge for an escape. Not even Santorelli.
"Kovvid! Kovvid!" One of the lesser Kelbrids ordered, gesturing at me and Jeanne.
<Walk forward, Tobias.> Jeanne evenly instructed.
Together we took three paces before being abruptly halted by a raised weapon.
"Vunip! Derri sariyinu!"
A second zap arose from behind us. The lazer grid was re-established. We had been separated.
<What's happening?> I asked her privately. <Why are they separating us?!>
<Do not panic, Tobias,> Jeanne said. <We will be transported to the city. The others will go to the military base.>
<They will search. They will not find. Menderash is not stupid.>
The General distributed orders to his soldiers and gifted us the most disappointed scowl. But his main attention switched back to our four friends still waiting behind the lazer grid.
"Kovvid." One of the other Kelbrids spoke to us. He wanted us to follow. We had little choice but to obey.
The three lower-ranked Kelbrids escorted us through the building, from the darkened room we had been imprisoned in to an area far more brightly lit and decorated. We were taken through halls, down staircases and over bridge walkways, gaining an undeserved tour of the General's home.
Kelbrid interiors were just as imaginative and unpredictable as the exteriors. Rooms were sparsely decorated with objects and items placed as if to be deemed purposeful, but with such extraordinary shapes that those purposes were far beyond my comprehension. I was dazzled, perhaps even awestruck by the inexplicable beauty of the Kelbrid abode.
It was a cruel return to reality when we emerged abruptly into the outside world. We exited the big circular door and felt the cold bury beneath our hair, carried by strong winds that fought to push us back inside.
There was a vessel - one of the egg-shaped military ones - mere metres from the door. They had been called in for an emergency. It was still active, engines humming an eerie pulse, glowing white in the now-settled Kelbrid night.
They led us around to the side, where a shallow ramp was lowered. With firm orders, they raised their weapons and walked us inside.
We were loaded into cargo, a small hold somewhere in the lower decks of the ship, devoid of anything other than minimal lighting and assorted metal containers in tightly restrained piles. The sole door was locked behind us, and we had nothing to do but gear up for the journey of unknown length to whatever Kelbrid jail had been implied.
<You know, Marco was worried about us getting locked away in Leavenworth…> I chuckled bitterly to Jeanne. <I'm starting to think that it would have been our best option.>
She had found a comfortable space between two large crates and was gazing outwards with an almost irritating level of calm. <We are not getting locked away, Tobias.>
<You seem so sure,> I grumbled. <I don't… How… What happened back there, Jeanne?!>
She faced me directly as I joined her in the narrow space between the crates. <There's a lot you don't know about me.>
<Yeah, I figured.>
She smiled. <There is a way out of this, Tobias. The Kelbrids are advanced, but they still do not fully understand the capabilities of the morphing power we have. They are unfamiliar with Andalite technology.>
<They have the morphing cube,> I pointed out. <I saw it, locked away behind walls of bars and lazers. The Yeerks must have given it to them.>
<And yet, the Yeerks aren't here.>
<It's giving Jake a headache.> I said.
<But not you?>
<Of course it is,> I replied, but I caught onto my own uncertainty. <Why wouldn't it?>
<It is strange,> She hummed. <But if the morphing cube is locked away so securely, that must mean it's the only one. And it's not being used.>
<Not much, and not yet.>
<They will use it to study the Andalites. That is who they are interested in. Not Yeerks. Not Humans.>
I blinked to her, curious to what she was implying. Then, I found a problem. <Not interested in Yeerks, but interested enough to hand them some of their most advanced technology?>
<Yes. The One…> She mused. <Transported by the Yeerks into Andalite Space to chase down and capture the Prince of the Intrepid.>
<You think the Yeerks are just being used to do the Kelbrid dirty work?>
She turned her eyes away. She was done contemplating. <You should demorph, Tobias. The Kelbrid doesn't suit you.>
I considered it. There were no cameras around, from what I could tell. Not that the Kelbrids would be too worried about me turning hawk.
I took one last look at my Kelbrid hands; the strange, slightly shimmering silver-purple appendages that felt unnervingly comfortable.
Then I glanced away, and set my eyes on the dark, gloomy deck around me, cold and empty. I started to demorph.
<You never told me,> I began halfway through the process. <What happened back there. You went straight from panther to Kelbrid. Was that something Jake tau-… No, he didn't know what was going on, either.>
She was smiling, but she had backed further between the crates, allowing me room so that we avoided physical contact. <I haven't been entirely truthful, Tobias. I am sorry. There are things that I can't tell you.>
<You should tell us,> I insisted forcefully. <I mean, you've been with us for a long time now. We're a team. We trust each other and we're truthful with each other. If you're hiding stuff from us…>
I let it hang there and tried to suss her reaction, but she remained emotionless, controlling her Kelbrid face with ease. <Maybe someday, I will tell you all about Jeanne Gerard.>
<You went from morph to morph!> I reiterated, placing yet more firmness into my tone. <You have to understand how incredibly important that could be to us! Not even Menderash has ever mentioned that ability!>
<That is because the technology is still in testing.> She explained calmly.
Another baffling revelation. Fully hawk, I still instinctively stepped back in the sudden burst of added confusion. The technology was still in testing? So how could she possibly have access? On top of that, she understood the Kelbrid language. And all this time she'd been hiding these things. It bordered on betrayal, and I was growing angrier each and every second she remained in such a calm, unmoved state.
<Who – or what – are you?> I demanded.
<I am a Human,> She giggled. <That much I can tell you.>
<You need to tell me more. A whole lot more. This isn't funny, Jeanne.>
She sighed and looked to the ground. <I've already shown you too much. I wasn't meant to, but I didn't have another choice. But I am not betraying you, Tobias. I'm not here to undermine you. I'm here to help.>
<You can help by giving us that technology.> I said bluntly.
<Maybe,> I growled. <Who's stopping you Jeanne? Who do you work for?>
She shook her head. <I can't tell you.>
<Is it the Andalites? If you have access to their new technology, you must be.>
<I don't work for the Andalites,> She stated without hesitation. <Tobias, I don't work for any race in particular. I fight for something that every race deserves.>
I huffed. <And what's that?>
<Justice…> I repeated, exhaling a sigh at what felt like the most sickening cliché. <What justice? Whose justice?>
<I fight for justice where justice has been circumvented. I told you, Tobias, I don't fight for anybody in particular.>
<Do you fight for us?>
<I fight with you.>
I flew to the obvious question. <So what is the injustice you're fighting against now?>
<There should not be a war between the Kelbrids and the Andalites,> She said, leaning against one of the crates and inspecting her Kelbrid claws. <The implications will be huge. Innocent lives will be lost.>
<Wait a minute,> I interrupted. <You mean you knew about the Kelbrid-Andalite thing before Ax went missing?!>
She fell silent. Maybe she didn't expect me to jump to that conclusion, but it made sense in context of what she'd already told me.
<You're going to have a lot to explain to Jake,> I warned. <How many secrets have you been hiding? How can we know you're even working with us?>
<I would not be here if I wasn't.>
<I'm not sure I can believe you.>
She bowed her head glumly. <That is understandable. But I'm telling you the truth, Tobias.>
<Maybe you want to stop a war from breaking out, but that's not our priority,> I explained. <Our priority is Ax. We're saving Ax.>
She looked sideways to me. <Is that your priority, too?>
<I'm not too sure.>
I looked away, still with heightened frustration. <It is my priority.>
<Maybe it is,> She hummed. <But you are after something else. You are a hawk.>
<You just noticed?>
<But you don't want to be a hawk,> She accused. <I have seen you when you morph. Mak, Kelbrid. I have seen you morphing in the hallways of The Shadow. Your hawk body will only live another few years.>
It was my turn to go silent. I turned to gaze the other way.
She continued, <I have heard what happened after the Yeerk War. You left to live in Yellowstone, away from Humanity.>
I snorted. <What's that got to do with anything?>
<You don't want to be Human. You don't want to be hawk. You want to find somewhere to belong.>
<Jeanne, I don't need this. I don't need this condescending.>
<Yes, I know. You won't let anybody help you,> She replied with a curious change in tone to something much more accusatory. <You are always so quiet around your friends. Maybe you should think about what they say. Maybe you should take their advice.>
<I already do,> I countered. <But… They all come up with different solutions. Different ideas.>
<Who do you trust the most, Tobias?>
That got me thinking, and it caused my anger to subside. I looked up to her, into her inquisitive and cutting eyes. <I don't know.>
She turned her calculating glare into a grin. <The answer has been right under your beak this whole time. You just have to look down at yourself to find it.>
I didn't have a reply, only a self-conscious sweep through my own jumbled thoughts. Right then, I couldn't make sense of any of it.
It was not a conversation I'd ever had with Jeanne before. I barely spoke to her at all, full stop. Was I really so easy to cut open and read?
Maybe. But then, maybe Jeanne was a little more incisive than others. Only now was I beginning to see that. I wanted to know more.
<Hey, Jeanne,> I spoke, volume finally lowered and voice calmed. <What did you do before all this? How did you get here? Did you really work for French Intelligence?>
<I did,> She replied. <And before that, I was an actress.>
<Are you telling the truth?> I asked, probably with a hint of rudeness, but I needed to safeguard.
<Yes. I did a lot of voice acting. That's why I was chosen.>
<You were chosen for… whatever it is, because you could act?>
She laughed lightly. <They called me the best. I could be anybody, anywhere. Anything. I can be an Albanian ambassador. I can be an Andalite translator. I can teach any alien to sound like a Human.>
<And you never thought to tell any of us before…>
<I have now.>
It was all a bit much to take, and I shook my little bird head. It was all too bizarre, too out of place.
It was something to think about later.
<So, I got the feeling that you had an idea. You know, some way to get out of this situation.>
<Ah yes, I nearly forgot,> She chirped with so little worry. <We need to get our friends out of the base.>
<Yeah, I know,> I grumbled. <How?>
<You must convince the Kelbrids that Humans are allies.>
I let that hang for a moment, then repeated it back to her. <Convince the Kelbrids that Humans are allies.>
She nodded. <Yes.>
<You can find a way. When the Kelbrids are convinced, they will let the Humans free. When they are allowed back to the ship, we will trap the Kelbrid aboard.>
<Again, how?> I pressed.
She laughed, and from a Kelbrid it sounds like a rough series of cat hisses. <You are smart. And so is Menderash. I will meet you at The Shadow when you arrive.>
<You'll wh-… Wait, we're splitting up? I hate to do this for a third time but… How?>
Already, she was changing. She removed herself from her slumped position and took her rapidly changing fist to the air. It grew thick and hairy. A red, fiery hair that sprouted from three strong clawed fingers. It was nothing of Earth origin.
<Fly to Menderash, Tobias. He won't be far.> She instructed, before slamming the sharp claws into the bulkhead of the ship, tearing through the metal like it was little more than aluminium foil.
I didn't even bother asking.
An alarm began to ring as air rushed ferociously past the new opening. The guards would be on us at any moment.
I spread my wings and bounced forward, flapping once to gain air before folding them back to zoom through the hole. The force of the air as the ship drifted over the city spun me, but I caught my balance and swept away into the Kelbrid night.
<See you soon, Tobias.>
I zipped up the white suit, closing my vulnerable body to all but the minute air vents on either side of my wide snout. My own breathing was amplified, my skin promptly feeling the increased heat as warm air from my body circulated.
I whipped my tail in the air and flexed my claws, testing the durability of the protective clothing that I had stolen from the Mak building I had located. It was the perfect disguise, and the perfect reassurance that I may actually survive the mission.
After doubtful negotiation, Menderash and I had put something together. It was a long shot, and it was risky, but we didn't have much else. More than anything, Menderash wanted to recover the Escafil Device, but I successfully argued that our friends were somewhat more valuable.
I placed a pile of black sheets under my arm, the previous artist's images regrettably washed off. I had some chalk, as well, something close to what had originally been used. I was ready to go.
I left the Mak gathering place, fully suited and protected from the Kelbrid toxin, seeing the world through a scratched visor that steamed up awkwardly with every breath I took. I hoped that it wouldn't interfere with what I had in mind.
It was late in the day as I wandered toward the bus stop. The Kelbrid sun was beginning to set, resting on the horizon that I could see beyond the great tower in the distance. Activity was limited, but not even lower Kelbrids cared for a little Mak like myself. They barely even shifted their path to avoid knocking into me. The balance of power between the races was as clear as the one-foot difference in height.
Four Kelbrids occupied the bus stop where I intended to set up my ambitious artist stand. They eyed me with the vaguest interest when I arrived and began to set up. I kicked out the folding legs of the table I had brought along and dropped it directly beside the shelter, in plain sight of the inhabitants.
They lost interest quickly. As soon as I started drawing, in fact. But it didn't matter, because they weren't my target.
My target quickly arrived. He appeared just as he had the last time. You would never tell that he'd experienced a home invasion by San Diego Zoo just the day before. I had already completed one picture of a Kelbrid and a Mak standing proud together. However, I wasn't too keen on my own drawing talent… I could call it abstract.
He approached just as the bus did. I started to panic that I would have no time to draw his attention, but he took one glance at the bus and shrugged it off. Just like before, he had to wait for the second bus. The four other Kelbrids boarded, and it was just me and him. I had to impress.
I started my second picture as the first bus left. The General had taken two half-interested glances at me, but right then he was looking off into the distance. I made my chalk movements extra loud as I drew.
A Kelbrid and an Andalite facing off. I drew the most intimidating poses I could manage, and the Andalite with an extra sprinkling of evil. I even tried to make the Kelbrid look like the General. I wasn't sure how successful that was.
He didn't seem to care. Disheartened, I moved onto my next picture, attempting to be even louder than before. I even started humming, hoping it could still be heard outside of my hot and stuffy protective suit. He looked over once or twice, but he seemed genuinely uninterested.
For my third picture, I opted to go for the big guns. I started to draw an Andalite, cut down dead on the ground. I motioned my eyes up and down, sculpting the General as personally as I could onto the paper, standing proud over the deceased body. I made it obvious that I was using him as a model.
At last! He noticed my efforts and held a stare for longer than three seconds. The bus must have only been minutes away, so I had to grab the opportunity with both claws.
I lifted the page into the air, visibly showing it to the Kelbrid. His interest piqued, he made the short journey from the far side of the shelter to mine. He arrived before my table, and I swept my hand to make visible all the sketches I had done up to that point.
He puckered his lips as he scoured the images. Two of them he washed over with nothing more than a tut in lack of intrigue.
But he spent longer on the one with the Kelbrid and Andalite facing off. He reached a deliberate hand down and picked up the image, bringing it in for a closer look. I braced for the response, hoping for something positive.
He dropped the picture back to the table. Then…
Slam! Down came his open palm, crashing against the table. He wanted more.
Delighted with the progress, I got straight to work. Now was the time to draw the scene that I hoped would take me to phase two of the overly-ambitious mission.
It involved another dead Andalite, of course. I imagined he would like that. Above the Andalite, standing with arms aloft in victory, was him, the Kelbrid. To his immediate left I drew a Mak, equally celebrative. On the right, I drew a Taxxon.
I didn't leave it at that. It was to be a busy impression, and I hoped that he would not get bored. But he had paid me in that weird way Mak appreciate, and so I knew I had time.
On each side I drew more of the various aliens I had seen on Kyritlyp and Makroovi, doing my very best to capture distinctive details.
And then, the last piece of the puzzle. On the right-most side, I started to draw a Human.
Throughout, the General has been keeping subtle devotion, but on occasion he would turn and observe the rest of the world go by as the city grew darker and street lighting flashed up. But when I started to get the distinguishing features of the Human down, suddenly I became a lot more interesting. His eyes widened, his posture raised.
I finished and offered him the picture to keep. He took it immediately and turned away to inspect.
There came an echoing hum from behind, then directly above. Flashing green lights indicated the arrival of the bus at the shelter, and it carefully settled down onto the platform beside us.
He didn't board, even when prompted by the driver who leaned out of the door with a cheery wave of his goopy hand.
I had him.
"Guurinim…" He whispered quietly, just loud enough that I could hear. Then he span around to me so fast that I felt the breeze ruffle my protective clothing. "Guurinim!" He cried, shaking the image in the air.
I said the words I hope you enjoy in Mak, as taught by Menderash, feigning total ignorance as to the significance of what I had drawn.
The Kelbrid shook his spare fist, but I couldn't tell what emotion it displayed. I could, however, recognise his intent. "Varra!" He insisted, gesturing his hand for me to follow. "Varra jumint! Varra!"
The General took me all the way back to the base with considerable urgency. The sun had finally set as we passed through the gate, the great golden pyramid temporarily extinguished, and the whole base was lit dimly by some kind of neon lighting that lined the circumference of each individual structure within.
He gathered three of his guards to join us, giving one of them the duty to keep watch over me, despite the fact that he saw me as no real danger. I was not his focus, clearly, but he was definitely antsy.
We remained on the near side of the base, travelling to an atypically dull cuboidal building with very large metal doors and a copious amount of security measures. Eye scans were performed, codes typed in, and I swear there was a toxin test. The General wiped some from his fingers on to a small panel, and it bleeped to allow us entry into the third door. That's how it seemed at the time.
I was in, that was what mattered. The General kept the guilty image in hand as he guided our mute group down a series of ramps and into a kind of prison, the walls lined with cells just large enough to hold two or three Humans at maximum.
Fortunately for my friends, they each had a cell to themselves. If you could call that fortunate.
They gave away a defeated atmosphere. Santorelli was standing beside the lazer grid that held him, but the others were slumped as far from the corridor as possible. I got the horrible feeling that things hadn't been great down there in my absence.
They perked up only slightly when we came into view. I looked to them all as the General was going over some unknown details with his guards.
<Guys, it's me!> I announced to them privately. <Don't do anything to give me away. The General thinks I'm just a Mak.>
They hardly reacted at all. Perfect. Any synchronised movement between them could have raised suspicions.
<We have a plan to get you out of here,> I explained. <You just have to play along. We have to convince the Kelbrids that we are allies against a common enemy. Common enemy being Andalites.>
They showed no signs for a few seconds. Then past the steam of my visor I noticed the tiniest of nods from Jake. He was in.
I elaborated. <We'll tell him that we've brought Andalite technology on our ship, and that we're willing to give it to him.>
Another little nod from Jake. I was going to go on, but the General had finished with whatever details he was discussing with his guards.
"Jumint veck hugarh!" He grunted, speaking to me directly. I swivelled to face him. "Jumint gwoor decurth harkhij!"
I had no idea what he was talking about, or even which race's language he was using. When he displayed the picture I had drawn again, however, and pointed all fingers to the poorly designed Human, I got the hint.
I grinned, hoping he could see it past my visor. "Human!" I called, pointing to the sketched Human and then to the four hosted cells around us.
"Ooman…" He repeated wistfully. "Jumint veck Ooman atta Kelbrid yurrtin?"
Again, I had no idea. I reverted to one of the predetermined Makroovian statements Menderash had taught me. Roughly translated, I said Humans are allies, they fight the Andalites.
The Kelbrid gave me a funny look that I couldn't decipher. For a moment, I thought I might have given myself away, but he averted his sights to my friends in their cells. He approached Santorelli.
He spoke something that we couldn't understand, forging for a response. Santorelli shrugged his shoulders.
The General contemplated, realising the language issue. Seemingly stuck, he spoke something to a guard, who ran off back up the ramps.
The General span, eyes broadened when Jake uttered the word. He had arisen from his slump and placed himself at the edge of his cell. I was more than happy to find he'd picked up the Kelbrid word for Andalite.
Immediately attentive, the General approached Jake's cell, and they met head-on, eyeballing each other with mutual curiosity.
"Hufrakil." Jake repeated. He scrunched up his face and twisted his neck to spit violently to the ground. Then, he clenched a fist and ran it slowly over his neck, one side to the other.
The message was clear, but the Kelbrid was unflinching. He was calculating the situation, searching for sincerity in Jake's posture and resolve.
But the inquest didn't last long. The guard that had left returned, skipping down the ramp with the urgency that the General had demanded. He handed to the General an item, small and black.
On closer inspection, I could make it out to be the comms device connecting us to Menderash.
The General fiddled around with the device, and then spoke directly into it. There was a crackle, and then silence.
"I'm receiving dialogue." Spoke Menderash's distorted voice.
It worked! It was exactly what we'd hoped for.
The General snorted into it and spoke something in the Mak language. I could make out the words Oomans and Hufrakil, but that was it.
All the while, Menderash reported in private thought-speech through the device. <Prince Jake, are you all okay?>
Since I was the only one capable, I responded on his behalf. <Everybody looks okay, Mendy. A little shaken… but I can't see any injuries.>
<I am telling the Kelbrid that we are bringing in Andalite technology for their use… Now I have told him that we arrived in a Mak vessel.>
We had agreed on transparency. Only the half-truth would be enough to convince the General, and we needed to give them the correct details on the ship. He was going to find it. Or, rather, we were going to bring it right to him.
<Prince Jake!> Menderash called out, still in the midst of a tentative conversation with the General. <You must repeat this phrase to the Kelbrid: Avor deenirt Hufrakil, kranf eerun varrak non. Translated, it means "our ship has brought for you new Andalite technologies.">
Jake was unmoving, but I knew he'd received the words clearly. He just had to wait for the perfect opportunity.
The conversation between Menderash and the General came to an end. <The Kelbrid is sceptical to a degree, but seems interested enough to follow for a while.>
He dropped the comms device from shoulder height, turning back to the four cells. "Oomans!" He barked.
Jake was still by the edge of his cell. He reached a careful arm between a gap in the lazer grid and used it to snatch the General's concentration.
And he uttered the statement, "Avor deenirt Hufrakil, kranf eerun varrak non!"
The General exhaled gruffly, staring for one last time between each of the Human-occupied cells. With a flick of a slimy finger, his three guards stepped forward, weapons raised and ready.
"Vunip! Derri sariyup."
The lazer grids vanished, leaving behind tiny clouds of smoke. My friends were free.
With Phase One complete, things would get considerably more complicated. And difficult. And precise. And dangerous.
I was dismissed by the General and his guards, who led me out of the base. The General had lost interest in the picture and handed it back to me. I was actually a bit disappointed, but deep down I knew that my drawing skills wouldn't even appeal to the most empathetic individual.
I scurried off to the alleyway we had started in and demorphed, depositing my Mak overalls in the trash container. I relished my fresh wings, but it wouldn't last long. I couldn't be seen as hawk. Besides, my hawk body was a little too big for my additional objective.
The Kelbird was small enough. It was also inconspicuous and more than capable of getting where I needed to go. Not that it would be easy. So I changed, shrinking under half my normal size, feathers turning blue rather than orange-brown. My wings adjusted and melded into one behind me. My beak softened and blunted, and a nose took its place.
Allowing a minute to recover my strength after the fatigue of quick morphing, I took flight. There was more morphing to come, and I was bracing myself to lose a lot of energy. I didn't morph much since the war ended, so it was very much a shock to my system.
My objective took me back to the base. As I passed high over the perimeter wall, the activities of the General and his men were becoming apparent. They were gathering near the southern gate. Twenty, approaching thirty, mustering into formation with the General keeping an overview.
Four Humans walked out from below a shelter close by, encircled by a small platoon of Kelbrid soldiers, armed to the teeth. They weren't being treated like criminals anymore, but the Kelbrids were certainly not stupid enough to drop their guard.
The General was holding the comms device. On occasion he would speak into it, and I assumed Menderash was replying.
However, it would be a while before Menderash could land The Shadow, and they also needed to establish a landing zone. By the look of things, the Kelbrids were getting ready to mobilise to the outer limits of the city. Menderash had told me that he intended to keep away from highly defended areas, and the military base would no doubt fall into that category. We had planned to land The Shadow on the southwestern outskirts of the city, a dip between two hills.
A Kelbrid ship was being revved up. I didn't have much time.
I took myself away from the ground-level activities and turned my attention to the enormous tower that signified the center of the base. It was dimly lit, no longer illuminated by the encompassing golden triangle atop, and my diurnal Kelbird was having a hard time making out some of the minor details. Nevertheless, my destination was an easy spot. It lay just beneath the golden pyramid, in a room stolen from the planet by metal grids and lazers.
Menderash recognised the priority of getting us all out free and alive, but he had a secondary objective. He couldn't allow the Escafil device to remain in Kelbrid hands. While the General was preparing to rendezvous with The Shadow, I was tasked to retrieve the morphing cube from its impenetrable fortress.
Impenetrable to a Kelbrid or a Mak or even a hawk. But the Kelbird was small. The Kelbrids certainly didn't expect such tiny birds to attempt to steal an outwardly superficial blue box. They probably hadn't accounted for morph capable enemies, since the Andalites were not permitted inside Kelbrid Space.
However, I was hawk, and not an Andalite.
My tiny feet clamped onto the narrow ledge, and I was engulfed in a mosaic of blue and red lighting, borne of the complex, tight lazer grid and the morphing cube held within. The metal bars were the first barrier, and I recalled how small they were. Even my tiny body could struggle.
I pressed my head through with ease, but the rest was more of a challenge. I folded in my single wing and pushed forward with my legs. The metal scraped against my delicate body, compressing me tightly and causing the instinctual mind to scream for retreat.
But with a pop I came through, tumbling and rolling forward into the tower. Scrambling on the ledge, I regained my footing to judge the next movement. It would take me through the lazers, which were packed tightly together in triple-layered rings. They buzzed with heated power. Alarm sensors, but also probably incredibly dangerous to touch.
My beady eyes darted for the best route. There wasn't much to choose from, but with a little concentration I was sure that I could pass through without setting anything off. I leapt forward and dipped right immediately.
The path swung me through the narrowest of gaps in the first circular perimeter of lazer, a horrible buzz ringing through my ears as I passed through. I could feel the heat, and it singed the feathers over my back and wing.
Landing on the narrowest of openings between the grids, I focused on the last two passable holes. They were aligned, so I could make it through with one skilful turn and twist.
Even though I was inhabiting a new body, I knew how flight worked. It was nothing I couldn't handle. I took two steps, flapped my wing and soared upwards towards the gap, visualising the space and the angle of the turn.
I flicked the tip of the right side of my wing, enough to pull me directly sideways and through the second gap. Then, with a heavy flap I lunged upwards and through the next one.
I was through! Steadying, I landed with a clink on the glass casing that held the cube. It glowed brightly beneath me.
There was sufficient room between the podium the cube lived on and the closest lazer grid. I hopped down to the floor, hugged myself to the side of the podium and began to demorph with speed.
Then I went straight to the next morph, once my hawk body had been resumed. I began to grow taller. My legs thickened and my wings adjusted and twisted, growing stumpy digits at the ends.
I clung closer to the podium, wrapping limbs and tail around it as they grew from me. When the morphing process was over, and I was fully Mak, I judged the distances and stepped back.
It was incredibly tiring, and my breathing was increased due to the multiple morphs, but it wasn't over.
The cube was housed in a glass box on top of the podium. I couldn't see any in-built alarms or wires, only small metal latches holding it in place. The locked, barred room with lazers, hidden far from the ground and beneath a blinding beacon should have been enough to keep even the wiriest of sentient aliens out, so why bother alarming the box?
With that in mind, I took the risk. I cautiously reached my sharp Mak claws forward and dug them under the closest two latches. No change. I applied pressure upwards, and with some resistance both latches snapped up with a click. Again, no change.
The other six latches came up just as easily, and soon I had my hands clasped around the glass container, slowly lifting it away from the brilliant blue box. I gently placed it on the floor beside me, and then went in to claim my prize.
A cruel thought bounced into my head at that moment. I gazed at the cube, judged its measurements. Then I looked back to the metal bars I had snuck through.
It wouldn't fit back out. What an idiot I'd been!
I panicked, felt my Mak jaws clench as I realised the oversight. Observing the room, I could see no other way out. Only walls and lazers…
I grabbed the blue box cautiously from its comfortable perch. In the perfectly flat sides I could just see my reflection beyond the spooky blue glow.
Reflection is what I so desperately needed.
I turned on the spot to face the barred window to the dark outside. A lazer was between, coming down vertically from its source in the ceiling. I adjusted the box in my hand, and took a step forward.
The red struck blue. With the box at an angle, the beam bounced sideways, striking the wall south of the window. Instantly, the spot began to smoke, heat reacting with the solid non-reflective surface.
With minor movements I directed the beam upwards. All the while, I knew that alarms could be ringing in all areas of the base. I could be swarmed in seconds. There was no turning back, though, so I connected the beam with the first bar over the window. It sizzled and smoke poured as the lazer tore through the dull metal.
All I needed was a hole big enough for myself and the box. I moved the beam slowly to the side, cutting through it at a pace I only wished was greater. But it was working, and soon I was shifting the lazer downwards…
With a spark the grid came away, smoke billowing out into the sky. It crashed onto the floor and echoed through the chamber. My escape was made possible, and despite my exhaustion I got straight to morphing again.
I didn't care that my eyes were blurring from the tiredness when my feathers returned. Nor did I care to be inconspicuous. I grabbed the box between my two talons, and with familiar wings I zigzagged through the gaps in the lazer grid, the smoking window, and out into the gloomy night sky.
I flew so high that I could barely see the ground. I hoped that the height would diminish the glow of the cube, but it probably looked like a shooting star whizzing over the Kelbrid landscape as I clutched it like a prize kill beneath my wings.
All was quiet for some time as I continued on my estimated path to our pre-planned destination. When a roar erupted from behind me, and the lights of a ship blurred through the cloud, I zoomed higher up before the behemoth vessel could trap me in the gusts it would influence. The Kelbrid ship steamed ahead, causing an updraft of hot air as it shifted like a ghost to the meeting point, haunting white lights the only presence to remain as it persisted through the fog. I increased my pace to follow, a struggle in my fatigued state.
I started to catch up, even though I had stopped accelerating. The ship was coming to a halt, and it dipped towards the ground. I continued on my path, keeping sufficient height to avoid detection.
When I saw the faintest orange glow, I descended. The lighting of The Shadow wasn't particularly bright, but it still pierced the thick fog that had collected between the two hills of the meeting point. Menderash had landed our ship, but lit all beacons to the oncoming Kelbrids. And myself.
<Mendy! I'm coming down! I have the cube!>
<Main hatch open. I have prepared the chamber.> He responded.
I stopped flapping my wings and adjusted my angle to aim for the main hatch on the side of the ship. The combination of fog and the night's darkness made it a challenge, but the light of The Shadow guided my way. I located the hatch, decelerated, and landed on flat metal flooring.
Menderash's footsteps greeted me. I released the cube on the ground and he reached down to take it.
<Did you set off any alarms?> He asked through thought speak.
<The Kelbrids are on their way. I think any alarm would have delayed them.>
<How close are they?>
<They just landed,> I informed, preparing to fly again. <I need to go. Stay safe.>
He nodded. <You too, Tobias.>
I shot back out of the hatch and into the fog. All I had to do now was find the Kelbrid vessel. It wouldn't be hard. Through the dense air I noticed the patterned lines of white light that marked it out, and the noise crackled the air as its engines powered down. I needed to find the right place to morph.
As the Kelbrids settled, I drifted away to the side, finding a comfortable spot hidden away from the ship. There, I started the next morph, despite my body's protests. It was slow, and the paranoia of being spotted clouded my head.
But I emerged from my hiding spot as a full Kelbrid, discovering how the eyesight struggled in the night. I could hardly see, surrounded by darkness.
However, the Kelbrids were prepared for such an issue. From their ship came a bright yellow gleam, illuminating the area around the ship and the near-side of The Shadow, which looked clunky and worn against the sleek Kelbrid design. Between, the platoon of Kelbrid soldiers had formed, the General warily pacing up and down them.
<Tobias?> I heard. It was Jeanne's voice. <Are you here?>
I was shocked, but relieved to hear it. <Yeah! I'm here. I'm a little way behind the Kelbrid ship. I can see them.>
In the light I saw the four Humans being escorted out, six Kelbrid soldiers behind them. They didn't resist, nor did they observe their surroundings or utter a word. As they were stopped before the General, the mustered soldiers were dispersed.
<Guide me, Tobias,> Jeanne spoke. <I will sneeze.>
I concentrated on the dispersing Kelbrids. One of them stopped, placed a hand to its face and seemed to sneeze.
<Turn left,> I aided. <A little more… little more… There, I'm straight ahead of you.>
She headed my way, strutting like a confident soldier. I remained hidden in the dip I sat in, but waved her over when she was close enough to notice. She stopped before me and glanced around for security.
<I am happy you're here,> She said. <Do you have a plan?>
<It looks like you're the one with the plan…> I murmured.
I could not see her face in the shadows, but I knew she was smiling. She took her hands away from the weapon she held and rustled through a bag clipped to a belt around her waist. She threw some contents down at me. <Put this on. You will look like another soldier. I will get a weapon from the ship for you.>
She left back for the ship, leaving me to get into the minimal military uniform she had dropped down, including the single-triangle cloth that I strung around my neck, and a utility belt that all the other soldiers wore.
Jeanne returned quickly, and I was armed with my own Kelbrid weapon.
<I was hoping you would show up,> I told her as we emerged from our hole. <It will make things a lot simpler.>
<Tell me what is happening.>
We stopped in our spots, posing as sentry on the edge of the lit area, watching as the General eyed up our ship. <They'll show the General around the ship. We'll follow. I will remain on the bridge and take control of the ship. Menderash will tell me when to power up and close the hatches. I trust him to get the timing right…>
She huffed. <You had a role for me?>
<Yeah, but I didn't know you would be here. Now that you are… You will pose as a guard. When the time is right, you will take out the General and separate him into the ship.>
<I am not good at fighting,> She insisted. <I can control the ship better than you can.>
I sighed inwardly. <Okay. Then we swap roles. Keep in contact with Menderash and myself, and hopefully we'll get off this planet in one piece.>
The General began to mobilise, and so did we. He gathered together four of his soldiers, and we made a point to volunteer ourselves as well. We took control of the Humans as we walked towards The Shadow.
Jeanne and I informed them that we'd infiltrated the Kelbrid group. We told them to play along.
But we stayed behind the other Kelbrids. We were fully aware that I might not be recognised, and the suspicions that could arise from that could be disastrous. Thankfully, with the light of the Kelbrid ship behind us, my face fell to the shadows and the fog.
Jeanne, on the other hand, had at some point acquired the DNA of a brand new Kelbrid. She had little problem blending in.
Menderash appeared in the hatch, hands aloft to display his surrender as the General ascended the ramp. Without physical contact, two of the soldiers searched him, and then relegated him to the other Humans. Together, the party boarded the cramped ship.
The Kelbrids had seen Mak ships before, and had little issue in finding their way to important sections. They inspected, took notes and images. Eventually, they grew impatient, finding little of the Andalite technology they had been promised. Menderash was cunningly guiding them to various Andalite appliances that were of little use in war-fighting or science. The General became especially irate when he was introduced to a machine that cleaned grass to an edible standard. He yelled at Menderash for a while.
However, he was eager to continue, and eventually we wandered onto the ship's bridge. Again, Menderash had thought ahead, restricting what the General could find.
They moved on quickly to the engine rooms. Jeanne stayed behind on the bridge, as well as another Kelbrid soldier. According to Jeanne, as we were leaving, that soldier was tasked with inspecting the ship's controls, and was sifting through all the available systems as she watched.
Thirty seconds later, that changed.
<I have knocked him down.> She informed me and Menderash.
<You should have waited!> Menderash scolded. <The other Kelbrids might notice!>
<He was finding more than I am comfortable with,> She defended. <He was close to disabling the ship. Don't worry, I have stored him somewhere hidden.>
Menderash let it slide. A disabled ship was useless to us. We needed to be ready to go.
The General grew angrier and angrier, and by the time we had arrived back at the main ship hatch, he was close to physical attack. He restrained himself, especially around my vulnerable friends who had remained calm and polite throughout. Menderash had hidden things very well, but it was on the verge of backfire.
It could work in our favor. The General was off guard, not as alert as perhaps he should have been, and that was transferring down to his soldiers, who had grown reluctant and distant.
In fact, that was perfect. I just had to wait for the right moment.
<Jeanne, are you ready? We're by the hatch.>
<I am ready,> She replied. <I can close the hatch in an instant and start the engines.>
I stood back and watched. My colleagues were being held back from the hatch against the wall, watched over by two of the soldiers while the General was giving an emotional brief to another four, just on the edge of the ramp. With the scene ingrained, I moved between the two guards on watch and copied their posture. As far as they knew, I was one of them.
<Mendy, you give me the signal.> I requested.
<Not yet.> He replied, standing quietly between Cassie and Santorelli.
I noticed that Marco was shivering. His eyes were closed and Jake frequently looked him over. I could sense that he was on the brink of another episode. Hopefully he could hold out for just a little longer.
Menderash reported, <He is pointing back to the Kelbrid ship… Now he's looking at us… Now back at them.>
I tightened my hands on my weapon, feeling its weight and calculating its swing. I glanced left and right, to the stern-looking soldiers that were entirely focused on the Humans.
<He's sending them!> Menderash alerted. <Go! Close the hatch!>
A metallic clunk spooked the two soldiers, an indelicate whirring indicating the fast rising of the hatch door. I pulled air into my tired lungs and span left. The momentum carried my golden weapon as I held it out, and it caught the first soldier hard in the face. He collapsed back in a bloodied heap.
I continued my spin and grappled my weapon in hand again. The second soldier was caught in numerous minds, and seemed entirely uncertain on what was happening. I wouldn't allow him time to consider. I swung my weapon the other way and slapped him roughly over the side of the head. He slammed against the far wall as he stumbled and joined his comrade, unconscious on the ground.
"Viki ranfur! Viki ranfur!" I heard the General scream. The sudden change in situation had become clear, but the hatch was too fast in closing to permit his escape. Without a weapon of his own, he was defenceless.
Or so it appeared. When he started to rush Menderash, I recalled the vicious toxin. I had to intercede.
Amidst the calls and screams from the ship's exterior, and the rattle of The Shadow as Jeanne powered the beast up, I could barely hear myself as I rushed to intercept.
I hit him before he could spread his poison, catching him haphazardly in the side to send us both to the floor in a tangled mess. He screamed, called for help, and resisted all the while as I attempted to gain control.
<Get out of here!> I demanded of the others. <Don't let either of us touch you!>
I couldn't hear their footsteps as they left. I assumed they had. The incredible hum as The Shadow lifted from the ground took over every sense as our tussle continued.
I tried to hit him with the weapon, but he was holding it down, wise to its decisiveness. He walloped me around the face, untangling me from the pile and sending me backwards. He tugged me back with the weapon strap and hit me again. Dazed, and too exhausted to continue, I felt the fight slipping from me. My attempts to return fire were weak and inaccurate.
He snapped the weapon strap with a forceful yank and used the butt of the gun to whack me back to the floor. I groaned, and felt the blood trickle down my cheek.
He grinned a bloody grin and stood tall…
A thick pipe came down from above and crashed onto the General's head. His eyes span, his posture faltered, and his hands fell from the weapon he’d taken from me. When all balance left, he dropped forward, landing heavily onto my aching body, revealing an adrenaline-radiating Santorelli standing behind, improvised pipe weapon in hand.
The Andalite cloaking system shielded us from Kelbrid radars. Their ships filled the skies like a plague of locusts, but in the dark of the night they would not locate us as we zigzagged through at a hurried speed.
The technology was a secret held from them for the time being. Maybe it wouldn't remain that way for long. Right then, it was the only thing saving us from the wrath of the Kelbrids whose citizens we had abducted. They were being held in a storage compartment, tied down with metal cables and cloth.
Only once we had exited the Kelbrid atmosphere and breached the dense emptiness of space could we reflect on what had occurred on the surface, but the reflection became inflective, and we each succumbed to silence. Whatever happened in the cells in my absence must have had an effect, and Marco was the center of it. Jake had his own issues to worry about, and he became the self-assigned supervisor of the infinitely confusing Jeanne. The intervention would occur soon.
The mission was a partial success. We had a Kelbrid General, but that wasn't our mission. Our mission was still missing, somewhere unknown on the vast alien planet. Maybe even somewhere else. Maybe we'd never find it.
I couldn't let myself think like that. I looked back at my reasons for being on that horrible old ship, and I realised that it was all I had.
Or all I could find. I continued my search, again on that maze of a vessel that spiralled through foreign space.
The corridor was quiet. Only the distant hum of the engines threatened the peace of the claustrophobic tube. I felt the itch, and I scratched it.
My feathers shrank and withered back to my naked skin, replaced by the short blue fur. Talons became hooves, wings became legs. Two more limbs sprouted with a squelch from my chest and rose as my spine extended in both directions. Pygostyle became tail, beak became nose. My mouth apparatus faded to nothing.
A wicked blade unsheathed at the tip of the tail that wavered and curled around me. It shone a dangerous orange glow, reflecting the grim atmosphere of The Shadow.
The Andalite body was so strange to me, after so long, and despite the history I loosely held.
I had only met the War Commander once. He was confident. Self-assured. More than comfortable in a body that was no doubt full of stress and loss. Surely, I could find similar comfort.
I moved his legs and his arms. I rolled his head over his shoulders and stretched his stiffened muscles. And then I wandered, searching for that something that I knew I would never find in the space-bound prison that was our ship. I tried, nonetheless.