"Full emergency power to the engines," Jake said. "Ram the Blade ship."
The funny thing about spaceships, Marco thought, was that even when they were going fast, even when the engines were doing their engine thing as hard as they could, the inertial dampeners kept working just fine. It didn't feel like they were moving at all. It was almost easy to not realize that they were almost definitely going to die.
"Collision in ten seconds," Menderash reported grimly.
Not enough time to morph, even though morphing wouldn't save them. Not enough time to come up with another plan. Enough time, maybe, to say goodbye.
"Well," Marco said. "It was nice knowing you."
"An honor," Menderash added.
<Likewise,> Tobias said.
Rachel's smile on Jake's face widened further. He looked reckless and crazy and it only made Marco miss Rachel more, but it felt good. It felt like they were honoring her memory.
The impact was sudden and explosive. Their shields might as well have not been on at all. The two ships tore apart like they were made of tissue paper. Marco saw, briefly, an image of the hull exploding outwards into the empty darkness of space, felt a sudden, excruciating pain, and then
Marco was standing on something flat and hard that his brain firmly decided was a floor even though he couldn't see it. He was surrounded in all directions by space. Just lots and lots of space, with little pinpricks of stars as far as he could see. The others were with him, everyone on the ship, looking around and moving slowly as they took in what had just happened.
Jake's jaw hardened. "The Ellimist."
Santorelli patted himself down quickly, then tapped his feet against the floor. "The what? What's going on?"
Tobias flapped his wings. He managed to get into the "air", but after about ten feet he just stopped going up, even though Marco could see him flapping. <The Ellimist is more powerful than you could ever imagine. Humans, Andalites, Yeerks. They're all pawns to him.>
"I thought we were done playing this game!" Marco complained. "I thought our war was over." They'd saved Earth from the Yeerks. He'd hoped that it meant the rest of their lives would be left alone. He had been looking forward to dying old, preferably in a mansion surrounded by beautiful models. Apparently that was too optimistic.
"No, Marco," an old but familiar voice said to him as the Ellimist materialized before them, old, short, and blue. He looked like an old man, but he was infinitely more powerful than that. "But it should have been."
"What do you mean?" Jake asked. "And what happened to Ax?"
"There are more than just Crayak and me. There are others, even stronger." The Ellimist smiled wryly. "We try to stay out of their way."
"Why don't I like the sound of that?" Marco asked. "Does anyone else not like the sound of that?"
<What do you want with us?>
"You were never meant to be in this situation," the Ellimist said. "Or in this part of the universe. Even Crayak would agree. You have wandered off the game board and into someone else's game, my friends."
"We were looking for Ax," Jake said. "This is where he was last seen."
"Aximili was not supposed to be there either. It was a mistake. Someone else is in possession of him now and in his pursuit, they have nearly taken you away as well." The Ellimist's lips curled into an unreadable smile. "It was not yet your time. Crayak has also lost important pieces."
"What are you trying to say here?" Jeanne asked.
"Crayak and I have no intention of directly challenging the being that rules this sector of the universe," the Ellimist said. "But we want you to retrieve that which has been lost. Consider it a rescue mission, if you will. And a message."
"There's no way we survived the collision." Jake said. "I thought you had rules about that."
"The rules are suspended for now. A temporary amnesty agreed upon for this one task. I thought you'd be glad."
It was Tobias who realized first. <If the rules don't apply,> he said, <then does that mean – can you –>
Menderash, Santorelli, and Jeanne disappeared suddenly.
"Don't be alarmed," the Ellimist said before Marco could feel more than a split-second of surprise. "I delivered them safely to their homes. They were never on the ship with you. And as to your question, Tobias –" He made a motion in the air and then Rachel was there, human, looking just as Marco remembered her – beautiful and seventeen and wild. She was still wearing the morphing outfit he'd last seen her in.
Marco never thought he'd ever be so happy at the sight of another person.
The Ellimist raised his hand again.
Now Cassie appeared, dressed in regular clothes, as if she'd been pulled from Earth in the middle of going about her day. It was probably what had happened.
"What's going on?" Cassie asked in confusion. She turned in a slow, cautious circle that stopped abruptly when she saw Rachel. "What – Rachel?"
"They're playing another game," Jake explained. "Crayak and the Ellimist. Only this time, they're on the same side."
"The Ellimist let me watch with him after I died," Rachel said. Cassie winced at the word 'died'. So did Jake. Her voice was just like Marco remembered. "He and Crayak made a deal. Their game is on hold until they can stop this other guy from interfering. The One is his creation and they want us to destroy it."
"And then what?" Marco asked. "We get Ax back, we get Rachel back? That's how it works? We do this favor for you and you'll put everything back to how it was before?" He felt suddenly angry. Angry at the knowledge that they were just pawns, that the Ellimist could have prevented all the pain and grief they'd felt but hadn't because of his stupid rules and stupid game.
"Do you refuse?" the Ellimist asked.
<I'll do it,> Tobias said quickly. <If it brings her back.> Privately, to Marco, he said. <I know. I know how you feel but-- > But it was Rachel, and even now, the pain in Tobias's thought-speech voice sounded fresh and raw.
Jake nodded. Cassie said, "I'm in." She exchanged a look with Jake.
Rachel just shrugged. "This is why he brought me back. And I missed you guys."
Marco had made his decision on Earth. "I already said I was in," he said. "I meant it. I'm not giving up until we get Ax back."
"Then I will provide you with a ship," the Ellimist said. "It is an old design made by an old race, one long since lost to time. The Kelbrid won't recognize it, nor will any other aliens you encounter. I've modified the interior to be suitable for humans. There is just one thing."
"What thing?" Jake asked.
Suddenly, they were no longer surrounded by space. Marco stared. Instead, they were in a large, open room. Brightly-lit screens blanketed the walls, connected to each other by faintly pulsing colored lines that trailed along the entire wall and traced intricate patterns on the floor. As Marco watched, the color of the walls shifted slowly from pale green to pale blue. Whatever the ship was made of, it was something he'd never seen before. It felt almost alive.
The consoles sticking out from the walls and floors had switches, controls, and keyboards clearly designed by and tailored for humans. They stuck out like a sore thumb against the eerie, alien aesthetic that surrounded them.
They were in the bridge of their new (or very, very old) ship and the Ellimist was nowhere in sight.
"What thing?" Jake shouted at the ceiling. Swirls and streaks of multicolored light danced across it in no discernible pattern.
"You said it before," Rachel said with a strange, feral smile. Her fists were clenched at her sides as she looked at something behind them. "The Ellimist and Crayak are on the same side. But all of us belong to the Ellimist."
<We're short a member,> Tobias said. He hopped into the air and flew towards Rachel. She caught him in her arms and clutched him to her chest. Even though Marco could see his talons dig sharply enough into her forearm to draw blood, she didn't flinch. He, too, was looking behind them and his thought-speech felt grim as he said, <So Crayak sent one of his own pieces. And if the Ellimist doesn't need to follow the rules, then that means Crayak doesn't either.>
Jake turned around. So did everyone else.
"Hello Jake," said the Yeerk in Tom's head. A slow smile spread across his face. "Long time no see."