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Ghost in the Shell

Chapter Text

“Take your time, hurry up, the choice is yours, so don’t be late.”

—Nirvana, 1991

 

The first guy who spoke was a couple years older than me; he wore a green t-shirt that said Kill the Whales across the front.  "My name's Clark.  And I was infested for eighteen months."

The whole circle cracked up.  The laughter was more nervous than amused, but it seemed to give him courage.

"Anyway, I think it's good we're all here.  And, yeah, that's all I really have to say."  He glanced at Eva for confirmation.

Eva smiled.  "Thanks, Clark.  Who'd like to go next?"

A girl about my age raised her hand.  Realizing what she'd done, she dropped it, blushing.

Eva motioned for her to go ahead.

"Mary," she said.  "Mary Lennox." She raised a hand halfway to her mouth as if to cover it.  "Um, everybody forget I said my last name."

"Will do," the green-haired girl next to her said solemnly.

I smiled faintly.  Oh yeah, everyone here was shy, unsure, hesitant.  At least all of us here had excellent poker faces.

"Anyway," Mary said.  "I was only infested for about a month and a half there."

"It's not a contest," Kill the Whales guy (I'd already forgotten his name) said.  I was guessing the shirt was a nod to the deal Cassie and Jake wrangled for the yeerks—the subtle distinction that they’d ended up morphed as all kinds of aquatic animals was lost on most people.  

"And if it is, I already won by a landslide," Eva muttered.  No one laughed, but at least it made people stop glancing over at her nervously in case Visser Mom disapproved of anything they said.

"Yeah, it still wasn't fun," Mary definitely-not-Lennox agreed.  "It was my dad, actually.  He saw what was happening with the battle over Santa Barbara and, I don't know, decided we couldn't beat them so we might as well join them."

Green-haired girl made a noise of disgust.  I agreed with the sentiment.

“Not that all voluntary hosts aren’t whacked in the head,” another woman muttered, “but dragging your whole family along?  That’s, like, eight steps beyond...”  She broke off, shaking her head.

"Yeah," Mary said.  "Last I talked to him he hadn't changed his mind—kept insisting that it was only a matter of time before they came back and took over, and then we'd all see."

There was an ominous silence.   

"Someone's been hitting the maple-and-ginger oatmeal," an older woman to my left muttered.  The moment broke as Mary cracked a smile and Eva rolled her eyes.

"So, your dad—is he a Symbiote these days?" Kill the Whales guy asked.

Mary shook her head.  "Nothing that extreme.  Just, I guess, supports their cause."

Symbiotes were, in my humble and entirely unbiased opinion, the scum of the earth.  They comprised a brand-new extremist movement which insisted that yeerks and humans were supposed to live in harmony, that the superior aliens were only trying to stop the humans from pursuing their barbaric ways, and that yeerks had the right to take over the bodies of those humans who weren't using them properly.  None of that was particularly bad in and of itself (if nonetheless fairly stupid), but Symbiotes also tended to insist that the humans who weren't using their humanity properly included anyone with brain damage, anyone who'd ever been addicted to drugs or alcohol, anyone who had ever committed a crime, anyone who disagreed with the Symbiote movement... Oh, and they mostly expressed this opinion through blowing up cars and sending Jake vaguely-worded death threats.

Isn’t humanity lovely.

"Grant," the next guy said.  "Four years, two months, eighteen days."  He left it at that, expression sliding back into blankness the second he was done talking.

“Thank you,” Eva said.  I suspected she was a little nervous herself, but so far she wasn’t showing it.

"Rose Rita."  The green-haired girl sat forward, resting her elbows on her knees.  "And I haven't been a controller in over a month," she added with a challenging grin.  "So how I actually ended up that way is the weirdest story..."

Okay, let me start at the beginning.  First thing you should know: it was all Eva's idea.  Seriously.  She just showed up at my house one day out of the blue, and next thing I knew I was getting talked into gatecrashing veterans’ protests and taking on serial killers.

Anyway, like I said, she showed up one day out of the blue.  And there I was.  Eavesdropping.

Because, as it turned out, listening to Eva’s and my mom’s attempts at small talk was somewhere between hilarious and excruciating:

“Eva, I love what you’ve done with your hair!”

“Thanks, Jean.  I see you’re looking very well with the shorter cut too.”

“Well, actually some yeerk cut it all off, but I guess you make do with what you can, right?”

“I know the feeling.  So, how’re the kids?”

“Um, they’re... Well, I’m sure they’re fine.  How’s your family been?”

“Dead, mostly, but we seem to have an excellent recovery rate so far.  Although you wouldn’t believe the paperwork involved in getting one’s own death reversed.”

“I can only imagine.”

Here, a very long pause.  Followed by both of them attempting to speak at once.

Finally, my mom said, “Well, you look great for a dead woman!”

“That’s the most honest compliment I’ve gotten in a good year.  Yeerks cut your hair, yeerks redecorated my face, but what’re you gonna do?”

“Really, I think you look fine, all things considered.”

“Well, thank you, Jean.  And I was telling the truth about the haircut, by the way.”

“You really think it looks okay?”

“Swear it on my grave.  Speaking of which, Peter told me you helped out with my headstone, and I’ve been meaning to thank you for that.  Very nice, very tasteful, exactly the sort of thing I would have picked out.  I love that man, but if it had been up to him to decide... I shudder to think.”

“Oh, of course, don’t mention it.  I’m sure you’d do the same for me.”

Me?  I was hovering at the top of the stairs, wondering if I had the necessary spine to go down there and attempt to contribute.  I tended to find interacting with other humans confusing at best and unbearably obnoxious at worst, but I also figured I had a filial duty to rescue my mom from the slow disastrophe of social niceties playing out in our kitchen.

Wonderful loyal dutiful son that I am, I clomped down the stairs as obviously as I could and shuffled my way into the kitchen with a loud “Hi, Mom!”

It took me completely off guard when Eva turned around, caught my eye, and said, “There you are!”

For a second I seriously wondered if she’d mistaken me for Jake, despite the fact that she knew our family way better than that.

“I had a favor I wanted to ask you,” she said.  “Might take a little while, so if you’re not free right now I can come back.”

I shrugged.  “I’m free as a bird.”

Eva flashed a smile, not missing my implied joke.  “Perfect.”

My mom, utterly betraying my gesture of loyalty, took that opportunity to say “I’m just going to...” and sneak out of the room.

I dropped into a kitchen chair and Eva sat down across from me like a queen settling onto her throne.

Eva folded her hands on the tabletop, looking closely at me.  “So,” she said.  “How are you doing?”

I hesitated.  The way she said it made it sound less like a casual polite inquiry than like the beginning to a psychological assessment.  “Um?” I said intelligently.

She pressed her lips together into something that wasn’t quite a smile this time.  “That well, huh?”

I admit it: Eva scared the hell out of me.  She’d been intimidating even back when I’d been stuck babysitting Marco and Jake all the time and she’d had dozens of very specific and dire threats about what would happen to me if I let them eat candy and watch TV all afternoon.  And now... Well, now I kept flashing back to the incredibly vivid memory of watching Visser One shoot a human-controller in the leg and leave him in a room full of taxxons after he accidentally brewed her coffee wrong.  It was, admittedly, a little distracting.

“I’m good!” I said at last.  “I mean, I’m... not being controlled by aliens anymore.  So...  You know.”

Eva raised her eyebrows.  “Exhausting, isn’t it?”

I blinked.  That had been... more honest than I was expecting.

“I’m sorry.”  She glanced down, smoothing her thumb over a line in the wood of our tabletop.  “I’m supposed to preface that with a polite statement about how I’m grateful, and I of course would never want to go back to that life, but I’m still learning to adjust.”  She didn’t sound particularly apologetic.

“Okay, yeah, it’s a little bit...”  I gave up; she’d already dumped it all on the table and I might as well do the same.  “It kind of feels like I got to be lazy about everything for three years and now everyone expects me to... Make conversation.  Show up.  Meet commitments.  Clean my room.”

“Oh, and heaven forbid you’re not doing something sixty minutes an hour, twenty-four hours a day, am I right?” Eva said.

I laughed—I’d never thought of it quite that way before.  “Yeah, a little bit.  I mean, they’re just concerned, but...”

She leaned forward conspiratorially.  “But sometimes you want to sit around and do nothing, and if you’re not fidgeting or, I don’t know, blinking enough, then people act like you went and died or something.”

“Ugh.  I know exactly what you mean,” I said.

“Yes, I know you do.”  Her tone shifted, becoming more serious.  “Which brings me to my point: Do you have access to the Sharing’s phone tree?”

I opened my mouth and shut it again without saying anything.  Evidently we had made a leap of logic at some point and I had failed to follow.

“I’m trying to hunt down as many ex-hosts as I can,” Eva said.  “I think we need to form up.  Connect, if nothing else.  The government has done shit so far outside of letting a couple clearly innocent people out of prison, and I figure we need to organize.  Stop letting everyone classify us as inconvenient and ignore us whenever possible.”

“Huh.”  It sounded a little crazy to me—from what little I’d seen of fellow ex-hosts, we weren’t the most reputable-looking population in the world—but I wasn’t about to stand in her way.  “In that case, yeah, sure.”

“You have the Sharing contact list?” she asked.

“Yeah.  It’s only got names and numbers for the Santa Barbara and L.A. chapters, maybe five thousand people in all.  But it’s a start, right?”

“It’s more than I have,” Eva said.  “If you want to know the name of every yeerk that was ever on the planet I’m all set, but the names of the hosts?”

“Course not.”  I sighed.  “Why on earth would you want to record personal information about your livestock?”

“Damn yeerks.”  She sounded almost fond.

“I can also do a search of our computer, see if I can get email addresses while I’m at it,” I said.  “That might not get us anyone’s real name, or even any answers at all, but if I send out a mass notice and drop a flag on the Sharing website as well, it might get us a few replies.”

“Yes, that would be...”  Eva stopped, shaking her head.  “Okay, I’m sorry, I died before email was invented.  Can you explain to me, using smaller words than my husband, how exactly it works?”

I found myself grinning.  She was still terrifying, but she was starting to grow on me.

***************

As it turned out, I had access to more information than I thought I did.  There were a couple dozen names and addresses I could pull from various Sharing promotional materials, files with backlogs of recruitment options, and a few dozen old messages in the inbox for e412@aol.com that I could pull.

While I waited for the massive file with the phone tree to load, I found a scrap of paper and started jotting down names of hosts whose yeerks hadn’t been in the Sharing.  Not that many were coming to mind—the yeerks had primarily used younger hosts like me for recruitment, not upper management—but I was six or seven names deep when I heard Jake make a strangled sound behind me.

I swiveled the chair around to look at him.  He appeared to have frozen in the midst of walking through the living room into the kitchen, and he was staring over my shoulder at the screen.

“Hi?” I said.

“Is that what I think it is?”  His voice was hushed, reverent.

I spun back around.  The list was steadily populating across the screen, loading faster now that the bulk of the file had already been processed.  “Eva’s pulling together a list of ex-hosts for some kind of...”

I trailed off as it finally occurred to me why he was staring at the computer screen like it was a ghost.  A few short months ago, this would have been a list of almost every controller in the entire county.  A nearly-complete who’s who of the people that could be trusted and the ones that could not.  If the Animorphs had ever figured out how to access the list of names still populating across the screen three years, one year, even six months ago... The possibilities were staggering.  There might not have been a war, or at least not for long.

And the entire time it had been sitting right here on the desktop of our home computer, deliberately mislabeled as one of my old English essays.

I had the absurd and too-late urge to hastily switch the computer off and pretend that Jake hadn’t actually seen what he’d just seen.  Instead I moved out of the way as he walked slowly over to touch the screen, expression pained.

Knowing Jake, it was going through his head as well: if he’d known... If he’d only thought to look...

“It doesn’t actually load faster if you watch it, you know,” I said out loud.

Jake jerked his head around like he was startled to find I was still there.

I raised my eyebrows at him.  “Now go steal Mom’s laptop and start doing news searches for anyone who’s popped up as an ex-host since the war, would you?”

Jake walked out of the room—either to do as he was told or to disappear into his room again—and I let out a long breath.  Kid thought too much for his own damn good.

And then, figuring that Eva would never get through all these people on her own, I picked up the phone and started dialing.

They were definitely among the stranger conversations I’d ever had in my life (“Uh, hello, is this still the number for Anthea Psammead?... No, I’m not selling anything, I’m... Well, actually, this is Visser Seventeen’s former host, she probably doesn’t know my name, but if I could just talk to her...") but I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people who showed interest in what Eva was proposing.  Maybe that was just because I was rather hopefully defining “interest” as anything that wasn’t just grunting and hanging up on me, but by that somewhat pathetic metric I had a nearly 50% success rate.

Jake did in fact wander back in, mostly just contributing unhelpful commentary (“Aw, man, Mr. Broxholm was a controller?  Think I can use that to contest all those chemistry tests he failed me on?”) until eventually he remembered he was supposed to be searching news sites for names I’d missed.  He actually managed to surprise me a few times (“Dude!  Barbra Streisand!  This is not a drill, I repeat: Barbra freakin’ Streisand!”) but was not all that useful when it came to finding contact information.  Because, as it turned out, most famous actresses did not have public numbers listed anywhere on the internet.

At one point Jake called Marco under the assumption that Marco knew all the famous people in the world, got distracted by the discovery that despite not having met Barbra Streisand Marco had in fact attended one of Mike Tyson’s house parties, and wandered off.

I kept going down the list.  So far I had six “yes”es, forty-three “maybe”s, and fifty-five variations on the theme of “fuck off, please.”

I kept going, figuring that at least most of the rejections were polite.

***************

Matter Over Mind, we called it.  The name was the only easy-to-remember thing either Eva or I could come up with after ten minutes of brainstorming, and (after my alternate suggestion of Alien Abductees Anonymous turned out to be copyrighted already by the Skrit Na’s victims) it stuck.

The first meeting had more turnout than I was expecting, in that it had any turnout at all.  There were maybe fifteen people who showed up that first time, perching awkwardly on the edges of folding chairs to listen to Eva talk.  She held it in a church basement, for lack of another venue that would take an uncertain number of people for free on such short notice.

Although I could practically hear my mother making disapproving noises in the back of my head, the church people proved to be pretty nice.  They loaned us a basement and 20-odd folding chairs, and even made coffee for the occasion (no free wine, even though I was hopeful since they were Catholics).

Now, we were winding down as we listened to a guy named Justin (one year, ten months) wander through a sentence.  “It’s like... like someone else borrowed your car,” he was saying.  “And not only did they trash the interior, and never change the oil, and scratch up the paint... they also racked up, like, thirty speeding tickets.”

There was a general murmur of agreement.

I dropped my eyes.  The body I’d gotten back was more or less in mint condition, crappy knee fixed and old scars gone.  The morphing ability I’d inherited hadn’t hurt either.  Funny thing to feel guilty about, and yet I did.  

“And it doesn’t quite feel like yours anymore,” Justin said softly.

“Like it’s only a matter of time before you lose it again.  Like this is all temporary,” one of the teenagers said.

“They’re not coming back.”  The girl with the green hair spoke quietly but firmly.  “They’re not.  Never again.”

“Another invasion?” Eva said with confidence I suspected she didn’t feel.  “Never gonna happen.  The yeerks have nowhere near the technological capability to come close, and humans have some pretty powerful friends right about now.”

“Too bad our own technology’s nowhere near up to scratch,” another woman muttered.

“We did okay despite that,” Mary said.

“With Andalite technology,” the woman said coldly.

“Humans using andalite technology,” I couldn’t help but point out.

“Naive preteens who got lucky.”  The woman shrugged.

I turned to Debbie Downer, trying not to get too annoyed with her.  “Sorry, who are you?”

“Margaret.”  She left it at that.

"Humans are getting there, though," the green-haired girl said.  "I mean, they've got that manned mission to Saturn they're trying to get off the ground right now."

"They do know Saturn is already inhabited by giant people-eating clouds, right?"  the guy in the Kill the Whales shirt said dryly.  "Because if not someone should probably tell them."

An older woman shuddered, making a face.  "I was part of the crew that had to bring that stupid Veleek-thing in.  My hand to god, we lost more personnel just trying to get it under control than in the entire rest of the war.  Gertrude," she added belatedly.  "Three and a half years."

"What did it eat, then?" Mary no-last-name asked.

"You mean besides human-controllers?" Gertrude asked with a wry smile.  "Z-space energy output.  Eventually.  What a mess.  But, well..."  She shrugged.  "KTVH."

That got another laugh out of the circle.

"KTVH?" Eva asked.

Everyone abruptly fell silent.

"Awkwaaaard," Kill the Whales guy whispered under his breath.

No one else said anything.

“No, really.”  Eva was starting to look annoyed now.  “What does KTVH stand for?”

The girl with the green hair turned and looked at me.  The guy on her other side looked at me as well.  Pretty soon the whole damn circle was giving me a fifteen-times-concentrated version of Jake’s patented how about you explain to Mom why there’s a giant hole in the ceiling and the carpet is on fire? look.  (In my defense, I don’t know how we could have been expected to realize that setting off bottle rockets inside the house would be a bad idea.  We were, like, six and nine at the time.  A fact that didn’t stop Mom from grounding us for over two months.)

Crumpling under the weight of peer pressure, I turned to Eva.  “It’s human-controller slang, probably from text-speak.  Number-one priority of the invasion.  And, well, any given mission, for that matter.”

She didn’t let me leave it there.  “And that number-one priority would be...?”

“KTVH,” I said, shrugging.  “Keep the visser happy.”

"'Keep the...'"  Eva snorted, pressing a hand to her mouth to hide her smile. “Are you kidding me?”

“No ma’am,” I said solemnly.

“Oh my god,” she said, delighted.  “What a bunch of... No wonder they lost the war.”

Emboldened, an older man across the circle spoke up.  “It’s not that none of the yeerks cared about conquering the planet.  It’s just that... Well, they cared a hell of a lot less about conquering the planet than they did about avoiding being fed to taxxons, if you catch my meaning.”

Eva slowly looked around the circle.  “And every yeerk on the planet knew about this except Edriss five-six-two?”

“And the rest of the single-digit vissers,” I added.  “Presumably if Visser Three had ever found out the response would have been... dramatic.”

Eva was still frantically scanning the room as if seeing everyone in it for the first time.  “And that’s it?  ‘Keep the visser happy,’ no matter how wrong the visser in question happens to be?”

“Well, sure.”  Gertrude the Veleek wrangler spoke up again.  “Even knowing that a project is probably going to fail... KTVH.”

“Everybody knows that hamburgers with GHB don’t actually cause mind control?”  Kill the Whales guy shrugged.  “KTVH.”

“Visser Three wants every bird in a five-mile radius shot?  KTVH,” someone else offered.

One guy who I vaguely recognized as the host for one of the yeerk technicians laughed.  “Gleet BioFilters cost five hundred thousand bucks a pop?  KTVH.  Make sure all twenty-eight yeerk pool entrances have ‘em and throw a couple on the Blade ship for good measure.”

Gertrude gasped. “Each Gleet BioFilter cost half a million dollars?  Each one?”

“Yep,” the technician guy said.

She whistled.  “And how many were there on Earth by the end of the war?”

“A hundred sixteen,” I volunteered.  I knew this one; Essa 412 had been in charge of the invasion force’s security at the end of the war.  “Counting the ones the Animorphs either destroyed or disabled, they actually built about a hundred sixty-three in total.”

There was a moment of silence while we all did that mental math.

“Animorphs,” Gertrude said fondly, shaking her head.  “Saving the world by bankrupting the yeerk empire since nineteen ninety-six.”

Mary straightened up, cocking her head to the side.  “It’s actually not a bad strategy, if you think about it.  As long as they focused on destroying things the yeerks had to import materials from other planets to rebuild—Well, look how much damage that did.  Look at the billions of dollars Visser Three threw away on hundreds of projects to keep six kids out of his hair.”

“Yeah,” the technician guy said.  “The destruction of the ground-based kandrona alone...”

Eva suddenly sat forward.  “Hang on.  That was the Animorphs who destroyed the kandrona source?  Are you sure?”

“Um, yeah.”  The guy looked a little uncertain now.  “I mean, unless a wild elephant just happened to break into the EGS Tower and throw it out a window.”

Eva sat back in her chair.  “Visser Three told Visser One that it just stopped working on its own.”

“You mean...”

She grinned.  “KTVH, apparently.”

The meeting broke up not long after that.  The church people handed us all pamphlets on the way out the door.  I only glanced at the cover of mine—“How to Cope with Demonic Possession Through the Love of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”—before tossing it.  I guess it was nice that they were trying to save our souls or something, but I wasn’t about to convert.  God hadn’t been much help in the past, and I wasn’t expecting him to start now.

Chapter Text

“The world is gonna pull through; don’t give up.”

—The New Radicals, 1998

 

I was still asleep when my phone rang at nine o’clock the next morning.  Which was unbelievably obnoxious, since it was right next to my head.  Maybe it would go away soon.  Maybe it would run out of batteries.  Ugh.  

And then I finally remembered that I could always just move my arm and pick it up myself.  That was exciting.  The number was unfamiliar, so (cursing the manners my parents had indoctrinated into me) I flipped it open and made a vague noise of acknowledgement at the person on the other end.

“So, I think that went well,” Eva said.  “You think we should try for that same time next week?”

I stared in surprise at the phone.  “No,” I said at last.

“Why, was it too late in the day?”

“Look.”  I sat up, rubbing a hand over my hair.  “It was a nice idea, and I think that went okay, but...”

“But what?”

The problem was so huge that I didn’t quite know how to put it into words.  “But we’re not good for each other.  That was some nice small talk, sure, but how long is it before someone blurts out something unforgivable?  Did you not notice how awkward some of it was?”

“What do you mean?” Eva said.

“I mean gossip.  Junk.  The freaking contents of other people’s heads,” I said slowly.  “The idea of making it anonymous—sure, that’s nice and all, but we both know that’s impossible.”

“Okay, I don’t follow.”  Eva was starting to sound annoyed.  “What’s your problem with making it anonymous?”

Oh.  Of course Visser One was out of the loop—who was going to sit around swapping rumors and whining about uncooperative hosts with her?  Not to mention the fact that Eva had spent almost the entire war off-world.  

I slid down to sit on the floor and drop my head back onto the bed.  This was going to get ugly.  “That guy with the dark hair, Odret one-seven-seven’s host, Clark whatshisface?”

“Sure.”

“Cheating on his wife.  With two other guys.  So far in the closet he still thinks he’s straight.”

Eva was silent for a moment, clearly taken aback by my rudeness.  “Well, thank you for passing along information that’s certainly not yours to share.  What point are you trying to make?”

“The only reason I know that is because Odret one-seven-seven was a chronic gossip and Essa four-one-two was a drama addict,” I said slowly.

“So, what, you have more information on this guy than you want?”

“I can keep going if you like.  Tell you which hosts were skimming from their offices’ bank accounts when the yeerks took over, tell you which ones were alcoholics.  Which ones had dumb little fantasies about being the first woman to walk on Mars or hidden crushes on the boy next door.  I could give you half their names, their numbers, their sexual preferences.  Could tell you about the most embarrassing thought that has crossed each of their minds.”

“We can get over all that.  Give it time,” Eva said sharply.  “This is more important than some people’s delicate feelings.”  

“Eva.  You do realize how valuable privacy is, yeah?”  I dropped my head back against the bed, closing my eyes.  “Can you get why I don’t want anything else aired?”

She was silent for another moment.  “Yes, I understand.  And if you want out then I’m not going to make you stay.  Of course not.”

“Thanks,” I whispered.

It felt like cowardice.

“But I'm going to keep doing it.”  Her voice was hard with determination.  “As long as anyone else wants to come, I'm going to give them somewhere to go.  Okay?”

“Yeah.”  I breathed out slowly.  “Best of luck, then.”

“Thank you.”

“Look...”

She hung up.

I can’t even say I blamed her.

**************

It was almost two weeks before I heard anything else.  I guess Eva cobbled together a few more meetings, and actually got better turnout the second and third times.  I wished her all the best.  I really did.

I was brooding on it when driving out to CHLA to see Jodi, wondering if I should at least offer to try again.  It took me half a second too long to react when the car in front of me slammed to a stop.  “Shit!” I gasped.  I jammed the brakes on my mom’s minivan as quickly as I could once I realized.

The minivan’s wheels screeched across the pavement.  The ancient anti-lock brake system struggled, juddering, and finally stopped the car.  Without hitting anything.  I froze for a second, gasping for air.

Screeee—

WHAM.

The minivan jolted forward several inches, throwing my head forward and then back.

Apparently the driver behind me hadn’t hit the brakes quite as quickly as I had.

“Oh, fucking perfect,” I said.

The driver of that car, a hassled-looking woman around my mom’s age, threw her door open practically before her own sedan was done rocking back into place.

From the look on her face, she was about to try and blame her shitty driving on me.

Maybe if I just morphed really small she’d think I had melted into thin air and would go away.  It was tempting, but the thought that then Mom’s car might get towed was enough to make me growl in annoyance and throw open my own door instead.

“Are you okay?  You’re not hurt, right?”  I tried to be polite.  I really did.

Hey , you stupid kid!”  She was a couple inches from my face now.  She had to stand on tip-toe to shake her finger in my face, but apparently that didn’t deter her.  “What the hell is your problem?  You think you can just stop like that out of the blue?  You think you can just drive around all over the place and other people will get out of the way?  Is that what you think?”

She continued yelling.  In the meantime I focused on trying to remember if I was supposed to call her insurance company or my mom’s.  Or was it that the insurance companies were supposed to call each other?  No, somebody had to call them first, or else they wouldn’t even know that there was a huge ugly dent in our back bumper in the first place.

But I didn’t have to, right?  I could definitely remember hearing that somewhere.

I felt a faint pressure just below my left shoulder.  Oh, now she’d resorted to poking me in the chest.  She hadn’t lost any volume either.

“Damn spoiled brats like you driving around getting people killed!  You could have KILLED someone, stopping like that!”

Impressive lung capacity.

“I won’t charge you for the accident,” I offered.

She took a deep breath to make a few more unfounded accusations about my character, and then stopped when what I’d said caught up to her.  “What?”

I shrugged.  “The dent on my mom’s car doesn’t look to bad, and you can do what you want with yours.  How about we both just drive off and pretend it never happened?”

She blinked a few more times.  Her eyes skimmed over my face.  She looked almost shaken now—she had probably expected more of a reaction than I was giving her.  

Okay, moment of truth: if she thought there was any way in hell the cops would actually believe the accident was my fault then this was never going to work.  If she was even slightly honest with herself, on the other hand…

“Fine,” she said through gritted teeth.

“Great.”  I smiled at her.  It probably didn't look particularly sincere, but then most of my expressions didn’t.  “Have a nice day.”

That may have been a step too far, because now she was turning red again.

Before we had time to go back to insulting each other’s parents, I turned around and walked back to my car.

And only then did it occur to me that we were still sitting in the middle of the right lane of a fairly major highway, and no one had honked or tried to go around us.  I craned my neck, peering down the road—as far as I could see in either direction, cars were stopped bumper to bumper.  That had to be over half a mile’s worth of traffic that was not moving at all.

Even for L.A., that was a little weird.

Trying to see if there was any hope of what had to be an accident getting cleared up, I jumped up on the hood of the minivan.  All that got me was a view of almost a mile’s worth of stopped cars and pissed-off drivers.  I could climb up on the roof, if that wouldn’t look too ridiculous, because I wanted to get higher, to see better…

“Tom, you dumbass,” I said out loud.

And then I kicked off my shoes and started to morph.

I closed my eyes, trying to ignore the sensation of my bones grinding into new configurations and my face melting into a beak.  When I opened them, I could see every grain of dust floating in the air between me and the Jersey barrier over a hundred feet away.

I had a two-second glimpse of the lady who had hit me, eyes bugged halfway out of her head and mouth hanging open, and then I spread my wings and took off.

The highway and its solid collection of reflective cars gave off so much heat I had no trouble rising several hundred feet straight up with just a few powerful beats of my wings.  I spiraled upward and upward.  Whatever had happened must have happened suddenly—the shock wave of panicked drivers locking up their brakes had traveled backwards quickly enough that I could see mine wasn’t the only bumper with a brand-new dent.

I followed the line of the highway down, soaring over acres of stopped cars.  Yeah, just about everyone attempting to get anywhere close to L.A. this morning was going to be having a bad day.

And then I saw the cause of the disturbance, and really wished I hadn’t.

The woman sprawled across the left and center lanes of the highway, surrounded by a halo of cop cars, her belongings scattered through the road.  She must have fallen from the overpass almost thirty feet over the highway where she now lay.

No.  Not fallen.  Jumped.  She must have jumped.

Golden eagle vision left nothing whatsoever to the imagination.  Not the split skin on her hands from what had to be road rash, but almost looked like claw marks. Not the handbag that had torn in half and vomited its contents, sending a tiny handwritten birthday card to roll end-over-end and get snatched up by the wind.  Not the blood hardening into gelatinous chunks on the asphalt around her.  Not the enormous dent where her head had caved in.

I turned away the instant I saw, wheeling around.  I meant to fly away—back to the car maybe.  Or just straight on to the hospital, car be damned.

But then the one cop crouching over the dead woman shook his head and said, “What a friggin’ shame this is.  Damn controllers.”

I almost fell out of the sky.

Controllers.  On Earth.  Killing people.  What—?  How—?

I frantically flapped my wings when I realized I was tilting sideways.  Folding my feathers partway inward, I spiraled downward to listen.

“Shit, Bob. Another one?”  The cop’s partner sat back on the hood of her car, looking over the dead woman with disgust.

The male cop—Bob—pulled off the rubber gloves he’d been wearing, straightening to his feet.  “Dispatcher just ran the I.D. and confirmed it.  She was infested in ninety-five.  Yeerk-heads are offing themselves like it’s going out of style.”

This time the chill I felt had nothing to do with fear; it was more of a gut-deep sadness.  I knew it wasn’t easy for many of the ex-hosts.  That most of them hadn’t come home to understanding families and accepting homes the way I had.  That many had emerged from the war scarred and afraid.

This was just the first time I’d had it driven home for me so clearly.

“Damn.”  The cop sitting on the hood of the car shook her head.

“You ever talked to one of those yeerk-heads?” Bob asked.

“Nah, you?”

He nodded slowly.  “Creepiest darned thing you’ll see in your life.  It’s like they’ve got no souls.”

His partner narrowed her eyes.  “Don’t be melodramatic.”

“I swear to God, you look at those eyes, it’s like there’s nothing there.  Like they’re just robots or something trying reeeeeal hard to be human, but they’re always just a little bit off.”  Bob shrugged.  “If we go to interview the family and Ms. Sophie Hatter here converted any of them, you’ll see what I mean.  There’s a reason they call ‘em ‘zombies.’”

“Converted?  As in...”

“Yep.”  He popped the ‘p’ sound in his mouth.

“Then she was…?”  The female cop made a vague gesture in the air.

“’Voluntary?’”  Bob actually held up his fingers in scare quotes around the word.  “Yes she was.”

“So it’s exactly like the other two.”  She massaged a hand over her eyes, looking exhausted.  “And I’m guessing we’re going to find no history, no family, not even a nice little note explaining it all.  Just like the others.”

“Y’know, at least the friggin copycats could have the decency to up and die somewhere other than busy highways.”  Bob sighed, pulling open the door to his car.  “How long ‘til they can get the chopper here?”

The female cop checked something on her phone.  “’nother twenty minutes.”

“Seriously?”  He shaded his eyes, looking up at me.  “Our friend here is already starting to attract carrion, so tell them to hurry it up.”

What did he think I was, a vulture?

The other cop made a noise of disgust.  “Apparently there’s a ton of air traffic already in the area for Jeremy Jason McCole’s grand return and they’re having trouble getting clearance to come in.”

“Speaking of people the world is better off without…” Bob snorted.

His partner crossed her arms.  “A woman is dead, Bob.  Show a little respect.”

Voluntary controller.”  Bob took his time sounding out each syllable.  “Not only that, but this particular one decided she should take out her disappointment over losing the war in the middle of other people’s commutes.”

The little birthday card had blown off the highway and onto the median by now, but I could still see it clearly.  It had fallen partway open where it rested in the grass.

Only the first line of the message inside was legible: “To my beloved daughter...”

Chapter Text

“Put it in the ground, where the flowers grow.”

—R.E.M., 1991

 

“I’m in,” I said as soon as Eva picked up the phone.

“Hang on,” she said.

The phone went muffled, and I heard her talking to someone else on the other end, presumably as she pressed the end of the receiver to her shoulder.

I sat down in one of the mechanic’s waiting room chairs while she continued her other conversation.  Mom had declared that if I was going to let people get away with hitting the car then I could be the one to worry about getting it fixed.  

“Sorry.”  Eva spoke too close to the phone now, voice amplified.  “If you’re calling to discourage me some more, then this is really a bad time because I’m in the middle of—No, no, up the stairs!”

“I’m not calling to discourage you.”  I rolled my eyes even though there was no one there to see it.  “I’m calling to say that, if you’ll have me, I want to help.”

That, at least, got her to stop having two conversations at once.  “You mean it?” she said, somewhere much quieter now.

“It might be stupid, and it might be doomed to fail, but...”

But the dead woman’s ruined face wouldn’t leave my mind.  It was the most inglorious end I could imagine, to be reduced to a rude joke between state troopers after leaving this world behind.  Yesterday there had been a brief news story about a severe delay on Highway 101 because of “debris” in the passing lane, and that was all the attention she’d gotten.

Jeremy Jason McCole had been interviewed for over an hour about the whopping day and a half he’d spent as a controller.  The interviewer even cried.

“But you’re right that we have to do something,” I told Eva, rather than trying to explain.  “Because no one else is going to do shit for the hosts.  And I know I have it a hell of a lot better than the people who are still wandering around lost out there with no one to talk to.”

“That’s great.”  She sounded like she meant it.  “I could really use you.  I’m trying to unpack the office I’m renovating, and I’m completely lost about where to put most of this stuff.”

I raised my eyebrows.  She’d only come up with this idea less than two weeks ago.  The lady moved fast.  “You rented an office?”

“Technically Visser One rented it, but my signature is still on the lease so we’re not going to get into that distinction unless we have to,” she said brusquely.

“You’re really actually serious about this, aren’t you?” I said.  “Like, this is the basket where you’re putting every single one of your eggs.”

“A little positivity never hurt anyone.”

I hadn’t mentioned that I thought it sounded like she was biting off far, far more responsibility than she could chew, so in my book that had been positivity.  “Okay,” I said.  “Text me the address, and I’ll be there... Well, however long it takes me to fly there.”

“All right.”  Eva hesitated before she spoke again.  “If you don’t mind me asking... what changed your mind?”

“Long story,” I said tiredly.

“Great.  You can explain and unpack at the same time.”

I hung up, and then shot a text to my mom letting her know that the car was in the shop and I’d be back later that night.

By the time I arrived at the address Eva sent me, the moving guys she’d been directing had already left, and she was surrounded by floor-to-ceiling stacks of boxes that completely covered two walls.  She propped open a window far enough that I could fly inside, nearly hitting the far wall before I hastily flared out my feathers.

“All right, about half of this is probably useless,” she was saying even as I demorphed.  “But there has to be some stuff in here that’s useful, and the trick is going to be finding it.”

I stood up slowly, looking around at the mismatched Jenga tower of cardboard propping up the plaster wall.  “Where did all this even come from?”

“Anywhere that would listen to me long enough for me to talk them into helping out.”  Eva shrugged.  “Most of it I could probably afford to buy, but the point is to get people involved.  Make them feel like they’ve got a stake in our success.”

As it turned out from the labels inside the boxes, it was a mish-mash of office supplies from all over the place: Santa Barbara Relief Services donations, reclaimed community center supplies, odds and ends from the local offices that wanted to support us, and a few mystery boxes that had been here since Visser One had rented the office.

Soon we started sorting the equipment into three loose categories, helpfully labeled with little sticky notes: “Trash,” “Probably Useful,” and “I Don’t Know What the Hell This Is & We’ll Figure It Out Later.”  Oh, and there was the huge pile of bubble wrap in the corner, fate uncertain, but that didn’t warrant its own sticky note.

“Do we actually need four monitors?” I asked, peering through the haze of packing peanuts into the box in front of me.

“Nope,” Eva said.  “But until we figure out whether any of them actually work, we shouldn’t get rid of any of them.  We’ll pull out the two least overexposed ones and donate the others to someone more desperate than we are.”

“Okay.”  I dragged the monitor over to the “Probably Useful” pile and set it gingerly between the industrial box of floppy disks and the 50 pack of gel pens.

“Any CPUs yet?” Eva asked hopefully.

“Of course not,” I said.  “Then we’d have to start a ‘definitely useful’ pile.”

She laughed, dumping yet another box of unlabeled cassettes into the “I Don’t Know What the Hell This Is” pile.

I was actually glad I’d come.  For all that she was stubbornly insistent on lifting heavy boxes and dragging desks into place herself, Eva was also not nearly as young as I was.  Not nearly as young as most women her age, for that matter.  At 39 she had almost as much silver as black in her hair, and I could tell that at least some of her joints were protesting this much movement.

She was better off than most people who had broken half the bones in their body falling off a cliff and then never had any proper medical treatment would have been.  A hell of a lot better off than the hosts of most yeerks who were convicted of treason ever ended up being, for that matter.  But her knees and wrists and vertebrae had been caught in the crossfire of the yeerk-human war, sustaining damage from both sides of the conflict that went far deeper than the thick scars that wrapped her forearms and spiderwebbed across the left side of her face and neck.  It showed, just a little, in the way she walked up the stairs.  In the way she straightened up with her arms full and had to brace herself on the wall.  In the gingerness with which she stepped across the floor after we’d covered it in packing materials.

So I carried boxes.  I moved heavy equipment.  I casually made sure that the work that was most convenient for her to do all happened at ground level with no heavy lifting.

And I felt useful, for the first time in a long time.

“You said you had a long story about why you changed your mind,” Eva said, interrupting my thoughts.  “Entertain me.”

As we continued to work, I explained about the dead woman I’d seen.  And about what little I’d learned since then.

“And it got me thinking,” I said at the end.  “What you said about how help wasn’t going to come from the outside.  How no one was going to speak for us if we didn’t speak up ourselves.”

“You want to prevent more deaths?” Eva said.

“No, it’s...”  I peeled away the layers of packing paper on top of the box in front of me as I thought.  “It was the way they talked about her.  Like she didn’t matter, because of who she was.  They were joking around, complaining about the helicopter...  Like there wasn’t someone dead, someone that people loved, right there.”

“They’re L.A.P.D.”  Eva shrugged, turning her attention to the empty desk in front of her.  “They probably see ten dead bodies a week.”

“Sophie Hatter,” I said.  “The dead body was Sophie Hatter.  Her mom or dad wrote her a letter on her birthday that meant enough for her to keep it in her purse.  She was wearing cut off shorts that she’d made herself.”

Eva set a cup on the desk and started dumping paper clips, safety pins, and thumbtacks in all together.  “Sorry, but so what?”

“They called her a yeerk-head.”  I stood up, setting the box of pencils I’d found on the other side of the desk from her.  “And a zombie.  And the way they talked, they made it sound like... yeerk-heads had nothing to live for.  Like she—they—like we are already dead on the inside, so it doesn’t matter if we die on the outside too.”

Eva smiled at me, reaching across the desk to rest a hand on my arm for a second.  “In that case, let’s prove them wrong.”

Gently pulling away, I wadded the pencils’ wrapping paper into a ball and lobbed it to land perfectly on the top of the trash pile.  Three points for team me.  “Yeah.  Okay, then.”

We worked in silence for a while longer, actually making a considerable dent in the mess (and making some more mess along the way).  I continued chewing on what I’d seen, what the cops had said... There had been something else there, something else I couldn’t put my finger on.

The idea, when it finally came to me, seemed dumb.  Melodramatic, even.  And yet...

“Maybe I’m crazy, but I’m not sure she did kill herself,” I said out loud.

Eva slowly lifted her head up to look at me.  “What?”

“Okay, here’s what’s a little weird to me.”  I straightened up from my current box, holding an armful of cords that didn’t seem to belong to anything.  “She had her purse there.  And it hit the ground before her—it was partway underneath her on the sidewalk.  The whole thing was slashed open.  Slashed, as in not along a seam.”

Eva took the end of something that was possibly a phone cord from my other hand, slowly backing across the room to straighten it out and disentangle it.  “Okay, what’s your point?”

“She threw herself off a bridge, but she threw her purse off first?  After having cut it open down the middle?”  I grimaced as the cord kinked, a knot pulling tight in the middle.  “Who does that?”

“Sophie Hatter, apparently.”  Eva tossed me the far end and I dropped everything else to start in on pulling the knots apart.

“Okay, but...” I picked at the snarl in front of me, trying to slide the far end of the phone jack out of the way without breaking off the fiddly little plastic part that kept it in the wall.  “But that’s still kind of weird, right?”

Eva shrugged.  “Honestly I don’t see what you’re talking about.  She was apparently minutes away from taking her own life, so just about anything she did is going to seem weird to me.”

“Yeah, I guess.”  I smiled as the cord finally pulled smooth, wrapping it into a quick coil around my hand.

I kept chewing on the question of why I was even bringing this up at all as I dropped to the ground, finding an Exacto knife to start in on the still-taped boxes in front of me.  

“It’s not just that.  She was the third voluntary controller who killed herself this month, they said.”  I set the box cutter aside, ticking the points off on my fingers.  “She didn’t leave a note, and none of the other victims did.  She had scratches on her hands, including blood under her fingernails, which seems more like it’d be from defensive wounds than your typical falling wounds.  And it’s a weird way to go about committing suicide, jumping from a height that only has, I don’t know, maybe a seventy percent chance of killing you right away.”

Eva was silent for a moment, slowly moving pencils to the desk drawer in front of her.  “You think Humpty Dumpty was pushed?” she said at last.

I winced.  I wouldn’t have put it quite like that.  “I think it’s a possibility that the police should consider.  One they’re clearly not.”

“So, let’s just play this out.”  Eva set the box aside.  “You’re saying that, hypothetically, there might be someone out there who successfully killed no less than three different voluntary hosts and somehow managed to make it look like a string of suicides.  That this person might continue to kill voluntary hosts indefinitely unless someone stops him.”

“I don’t know.”  I sighed, looking back down at my box.  “Yeah, I guess that would have to be it.”

“Well.”  She dumped the last of the pencils directly into the desk drawer en masse.  “If you figure out who it is, be sure to let me know.  I’ll pick out the flowers, you write the card.”

I slid the knife under the flap of another box.  “That’s not funny.”  My voice came out even colder than I meant it to.

“Wasn’t meant to be.”  Eva smiled, but the expression was bitter.  “Voluntary hosts.  Traitors to their species.  Murderers.  Cowards.  And now they’re dying.  If there’s someone responsible, then that person is doing the world a favor.”

“People didn’t accept infestation for kicks, you know,” I said quietly.  

"They still did it."

“I was there.  Essa 412 spent years in recruitment, and it wasn’t bored idiots they were pulling in.  We’re talking about people whose situations were so fucked up they wanted to give up their entire lives to some other species.”

Eva’s expression softened.  “I know it must have been hard for you seeing that, but that doesn’t change anything.”

I didn’t let it go.  “Many of them were homeless.  Some were recently divorced.  Most were battling some kind of severe depression, or addiction, or some other kind of demons.  They weren’t looking for power.  Not the majority.  The majority wanted somewhere to sleep.  Someone to make them feel less alone.  Some way to save their own lives.”

“That’s not an excuse.”  She slammed the drawer shut so hard it bounced back open; she turned away without trying to close it again.  “I lost my father when I was ten years old.  Growing up, my mother and I were alone with so little money that having enough to eat meant not having enough for rent.  It meant having no running water and no electricity most of the time.  It meant hiding sandwiches in my pockets during the school’s free lunches so I could have dinner too. And what did I do?”  She leaned forward, bracing both hands on the desk.  “I dealt with it.  I stayed in school.  I found a job.  I found a husband.  I did pretty well for myself, even, until aliens decided that that man I’d found for myself needed to be monitored to make sure he didn’t do anything too smart for his own good.

“And they took me away, and they hurt me, and you know what?”  She paused to collect herself, still flushed with anger.  “It sucked.  It destroyed me.  Broke my body and fucked up my mind.  I still didn’t decide to go out and help them destroy my species.  I didn’t sit around and watch as children were ripped out of their parents’ arms to be dragged down the reinfestation pier.  I didn’t help along the enslavement of my family and friends.  I dealt.  Am dealing.  Not perfectly, maybe, but not in a way that gets other people killed.”

There was a long silence, except for Eva’s harsh breathing.  I’d forgotten the box cutter I held, only noticing it again when I felt a sharp pain and realized I was holding it by the blade.  Carefully I set it on the ground, wiping the thin line of blood off my hand with the hem of my shirt.  

"I..."  Not sure what to do in the face of that much honesty, I looked at the ground.  “Maybe you’re right,” I said at last.  “But... They’re still people.  They still have a right to live their lives.  And what they did was wrong, sure, but shouldn’t they at least get tried and convicted before being punished or killed?”

“Don’t forget that many of them were tried.”  Eva grimaced.  “And that most of them got off because no one could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they were there by choice, or that it wasn’t the yeerk doing most of the terrible things they did.”

“Yeah.”  I had only seen snippets of the few trials there had been; the courts were still waiting on dozens more.  “But is what they did actually bad enough that they all deserve to die for it?”

“Yes.”  Eva didn’t hesitate.

“You’re wrong.”  My hand clenched around the half-open box I still held.  “They were wrong too, but... Three people are dead, however it happened.  That’s not any kind of greater good at work.”

“Being weak isn’t a sin.”  Eva folded the flaps of her own box back together with enormous care.  “Nor is wanting to have a yeerk in your head, for that matter.”  She raised her eyebrows at me, smiling in a clear effort to lighten the conversation.  “Weird?  Sure.  Insane?  Probably.  Wrong?  No.”

“I’m with you on that,” I muttered.

Her quick flash of smile disappeared.  “Where it pushes over the line, beyond all redeemability, is when accepting a yeerk in your head means standing by and watching as other humans are enslaved and killed.  When you have the power to do something about the people who are screaming at you to help them as they’re dragged down the reinfestation pier, and you choose to do nothing.  Anyone who can do that is just as bad as any yeerk in my book.  Worse, even, because the yeerks might think we’re nothing but dumb animals but the humans can stare into another person’s eyes, imagine what that person is feeling, and still choose not to act.”

“And the ones who did it to save their families?” I asked quietly.

That one gave her pause.  “Did anyone actually?  That you know of?”

I took a deep breath.  “Jane Eager.  Lottie Doyle.  That tall blond woman who worked in the yeerk pool cafeteria.  Allison and Hendrick Chapman.  Issirt twenty-three-twelve’s host, whatever his name was.  It was a threat they used all the time to pull in hosts on the edge: let us take you or we’ll take your parents, your spouse, your children instead.  And others...”  I looked away, not knowing if I could be quite that honest.

“Others?”

Eva had done a little soul-bearing, I figured, and I might as well do the same.  “Others offered,” I said in a rush.  “Already involuntary, already taken, and then offered to become voluntary.”

“Even knowing what they were getting into?” Eva sounded disgusted.  No, horrified.

“I did.”  

Eva glanced up; I snapped my eyes to the floor rather than make eye contact.

I swallowed, heart pounding.  Trying to find the courage to keep going.  “I offered, that is.  Never actually... I mean, they didn’t take me up on it.  Temrash one-fourteen was trying to recruit Jake, and...”  I swallowed another lungful of air, and then another.  “And it was all I had left at that point to get the yeerk to stop.  Not enough, I guess, because it never worked, but...”

“But?”

This time when I spoke I met Eva’s eyes unflinchingly, lifting my chin in a silent dare for her to think about judging me.  “But I would have done it.  Would have drunk their Kool-Aid, jumped when they told me to, gone to and from my cage during feedings like a good little slave.  If it would have saved my family from getting dragged into the war, I’d do it right now.  And I wouldn’t give a damn how many other people I had to kill, if it meant keeping my family safe.  Maybe that makes me a terrible person, and I don’t even care.  Because I don’t care about some random strangers as much as I do them.”

Clearly a little taken aback, Eva didn’t say anything at first.

Well, I thought, if I had been too honest then at least I’d been honest.  In the meantime I wouldn’t worry about what she thought of me; I’d worry about whether there was a phone to go with the set of phone cables in the six or seven boxes we’d yet to open.

“I’d say it makes you human.”

I looked up sharply at Eva, who was stacking jars of canned goods together like she hadn’t even spoken.

“Why are there canned goods?” I said at last.

Eva paused, contemplated a can of green beans for a second, and then shrugged.  “Apparently someone thought we needed more vegetables.  Or the someone had a stock of vegetables that no one wanted to use.  I mean, does anyone actually like green beans?  We’ll start a ‘Donate Elsewhere’ pile.”

“All right.”  I obediently tore off another Post-It note and started writing.

By the time it was getting dark we had a nearly functioning office, complete with phone line and computer whose monitor was only slightly overexposed.  Eva ordered Chinese from a place downtown.  To eat, we each perched on top of our own pile of the boxes that were awaiting the dumpster outside.

“Anyway, thanks for being here,” Eva said, not looking up from the little carton of fried rice she held.  “Whyever you’re doing it.”  

I shrugged, unable to look directly at her.  It was ill-defined even in my mind: something to do with the relief of knowing there were others like me out there, something as well to do with the fear that every single one of us was headed for a broken spatter on the concrete and a couple of apathetic cops who didn’t see anything beyond another dead zombie.  Something to do with the sense that the whole universe was standing behind most of us, daring us to jump.  And that some of us had more forces pushing us toward the guard rail than others.  

“Okay, supposing someone is killing voluntaries.”  Eva pointed a chopstick at me, pulling me out of my melancholy wondering.  “We covered the why, what about the how?”

I wound noodles around my fork (I’d made no attempt to use chopsticks, uncultured American that I was) as I thought about it.  “Like I said, it’s just a thought.  Just something I think they should think about.”

Eva nodded.  “So... how?  Hypothetically.”

“They said she was the third suicide, and that none of them left notes,” I said.  “I don’t know if they all fell off high surfaces, but if they did, then it’d be pretty easy to conceal the fact that they’d been shoved off.  The purse, her hands—the guy could’ve threatened her with a knife to get her to jump.”

“And how do you lure someone to, say, the edge of an overpass?  Even assuming our killer knows all the victims, he couldn’t exactly call them and say ‘meet me for drinks in the middle of the interstate.’”

Momentarily stumped, I shoved a wad of lo mein in my mouth to give myself time to think.  “Maybe he shoved her out of a moving car?” I said when I was done chewing and swallowing.

“But he threw her purse out first?” Eva said smugly.

“Okay, fine.”  I put my fork down.  “What’s your theory?”

“Hate to say it, but if we’re going with Occam’s Razor in this case... I’m pretty sure it’s exactly what it looks like.  That they all just killed themselves.”  Eva set her takeout box aside, leaning forward to make eye contact with me.  “You said it yourself: most of the voluntaries were in pretty terrible life circumstances even before the war.  And then they came out of it under investigation for war crimes, and even if most of them haven’t been convicted in the courts, you can bet the world knows what they’ve done and judges them for it.  All of that seems like it might be enough to do the job, no killer necessary.”

I didn’t answer.  It wasn’t a line of thought I necessarily wanted to explore.  It seemed to me that the species should be doing better at protecting its most vulnerable members.  It seemed like there should be something that someone could do.  To survive the war, only to be killed by the weight of normal life...

Well, there was a part of me that actually wanted a serial killer to be targeting ex-hosts.

Chapter Text

“I don’t care if it hurts—I wanna have control.”

—Radiohead, 1993

 

I attended two more meetings, and each one had more than thirty people.  Eva was talking about picking up a second weeknight to try and draw more attendance.

After the third meeting a guy all in black who I figured must be a priest came downstairs.

He blessed everyone, and then he led a bunch of people who were interested through a quick prayer service.  I wasn't exactly into the whole church thing (or the whole God thing, added Jesus elements or no, not for a while) but I could sit there and listen in respectful silence while other people did the religious bit.  The priest gave a sort of freeform speech about how God could see into all our hearts and he heard even those calls for his help that were not spoken aloud, about how eventually all such cries were answered and we should all remember to be grateful.  There was a fair amount of amening at the end, so that must have been the prayer.

When they all started to sing, I stood up and walked out.

I hadn't done the whole belief in a higher power thing since...

Since late December, two years ago.  First night of Hanukkah.  Christmas Eve, too, coincidentally, and don't think that didn't annoy my mom.  It didn't matter; I was still down in that hell, because yeerks didn't care about family holidays.

The little boy hadn't meant anything by it, not really.  He couldn't have, given how young he was.  Just a lonely little kid scared out of his mind, singing to comfort himself as the controllers led him off the deinfestation pier.  And yet, when that high clear voice broke over the usual screaming din of the place...

"Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel..."

I found out later it was a fucking Christmas carol.  People sang it at parties.  He couldn't have known the effect it would have.

Dozens of humans and yeerks alike froze where they were.  It was the first time any of us had ever heard singing in that place.  Much less the thin but soaring melody that now seemed to echo across the very roof of the cavern.

"That mourns in lonely exile here... " he sang.  He had to realize he was having an effect by now, but he kept going.  "Rejoice, rejoice!  Emmanuel shall come to thee, oh Israel."

The two controllers who were supposed to be guarding him just watched in surprise and a little confusion.  They must not have realized what was happening at first, because he was still walking obediently with them toward the cell at the far end of the pool.  But people were turning to watch him.  Leaning against the bars, trying to see.  Desperate to hear.

“Oh come, thou rod of Jesse, free thine own from Satan's tyranny, from depths of hell...”

It was breathtaking in its sheer strangeness, this aggressive whisper of beauty.  So much fierceness in such a thin sound.  In the cages they were holding each other.  There were tears shining on the humans’ faces. I could see total strangers hugging.

And some of the ones who knew the song had started joining in.

"Open wide our heavenly home, make safe the way that leads on high, and close the path to misery..."

Music, in that place that until then had known screams and death.  Defiant in their hope, the captives sang.  And the yeerks themselves paused to listen.

"Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel shall come to thee, oh Israel!"

The chorus was building in power, voices building together until they almost swallowed that first thread of melody.

My eyes were trained toward that little boy, shoulders drawn together, head tilted back as he sang furiously, sang for his life, sang with fists clenched at his sides and a voice wavering from effort.  And watching him, watching the wide-eyed faces that turned toward him and the trembling hands that grasped at the bars... I felt it, that dangerous thing with the feathers.  Swelling up inside me, filling me with warmth.  Felt it in a way I hadn't in so many many months.

And that was what did it, that stirring behind my breastbone.

Essa 412 strode across the floor of the yeerk pool, shoving hork-bajir aside.  My right hand grabbed the boy's shoulder and yanked him around.  Before he had time to do more than cry out once in pain, my hands were around his throat. I could feel the pulse beating frantically under the skin.  Could feel my own fingers trembling with the force with which they crushed cartilage and artery, cutting off that dangerous sound.

Strangulation would have taken too much time.  My left hand braced against the base of his neck as the fingers of my right hand locked around the back of that delicate skull and twisted.  The whole weight of my body was thrown into the blow.  The bones snapped under my hands and I could feel the ligaments pop and tear underneath his skin as his neck was forced to twist in a way it never should have done.  The brutal grip of my fingers around the back of his skull forced it to separate from the connections to his neck.  

There was a single crack.  That was what it sounded like.  What it felt like was tearing through a warm sack of meat.  

Essa 412 dropped the body, my chest heaving with effort.  It slid to the ground, landing with a dull thump.

And then, for the first and last time I ever heard, there was silence in the yeerk pool.  No movement, no voices.  Just thousands of humans and aliens, all watching me in surprise and confusion and horror.

"What?" my voice said.  "It was fucking annoying."

The moment broke when the woman started to scream.  She was in one of the cages on the far side of the pool and didn't even seem to know she was doing it.  She must have been the boy's mother, his sister, someone: the wordless siren shriek of incomprehensible pain went on and on until I thought surely her voice would have to give out soon.

There were other people screaming, after that.  Other sobs and pleas and demands for help or for freedom.  The moment was gone.

If that was hope... If that was God...

Then God was dead, and these hands had killed him.  He was still down there, slumped against the base of the reinfestation pier in Batman sneakers and a ragged Pokemon t-shirt.

Essa had never understood.  Not why I'd felt that momentary stirring of defiant hope, not why I was so angry over the boy’s death, not why I cared.

<You didn't even know his name,> the yeerk had said.  <You never saw him before in your life.  He was no one.>

Someone loved that kid, I’d insisted, even though that wasn’t all there was to it. Somewhere out there.

<Oh come on, you don't know that.  He was a stranger.>

Mentally I’d turned away.  He was human.

Now I sat down outside, back against the rough bricks at the base of the building, and waited for them to finish singing and be done with it.  

And I stared down at those long fingers, those ragged cuticles.  That pale skin, soft on the palms and rough across the knuckles.  The little boy hadn't been the only one these hands had killed.  These lifelines and fingerprints and wrists were mine and yet not, filled with sense memories of how to squeeze a life until it was gone.

Unclean.  It was a word I’d heard more than once since coming to the meetings.  Feeling contaminated, as if the yeerk left something behind in the body it used.  Something that could never be gotten out.

There were memories in those cells, trembling through those nerves.  Memories of how to wield a knife, a gun, a dracon beam, or even just the power of those wrists.  How to bring a life to an end.  How to make a vivid breathing person into a sack of raw wet meat on the ground, and how to feel the crunch of a crushed windpipe as I did it.

There was a quiet noise somewhere to my right and I jerked my head up.  I wasn’t sure where it had come from—there was no one immediately visible—but I knew the sound of a sob that was not quite muffled all the way to silence.

I stood up, walking around the corner of the building.  It occurred to me a second too late that interrupting somebody else’s cry was probably a rude thing to do, but by then the woman hunched against the recessed corner of the church building was already looking up. Pinned by her stare, I didn’t move.

It was the woman from that first meeting who had shot down Mary’s attempt at optimism.  She was younger than I’d first thought; the threads of grey in her blond hair had fooled me into thinking she must be middle aged, but the face looking at me now was unlined enough that it had to be no older than thirty.  Maybe part of it was that she had the demeanor of an old woman, walking with a slight hunched stiffness and even now standing as though every bone in her body was brittle with age and could be broken by a short fall.

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly.  “I didn’t mean to...”

She waved me off with one hand, cupping the other one over the lower half of her face as if trying to hide the tear tracks but also not wanting to lose sight of me.  “You’re all right, sweetheart,” she said through her hand.  Her voice was all clipped consonants, accent from somewhere on the east coast.

I gestured vaguely behind myself.  “You want me to go away?”

“No, no, I don’t mind.”  She dropped the hand from her face and wrapped it around her middle, hugging herself.  “It’s a free planet.”

The joke fell flat between us; later I wondered if I should have given her a polite smile.  “Is there... anything I can do?”

“Oh, sweetie, don’t I wish that were the case.”  She did smile this time, even if there was no happiness behind it.  “But I just get low sometimes.  You know how it is.”

I nodded.  Yeah, I knew.  “Tom,” I said.

She raised her eyebrows at me.

“My name’s Tom, and I’m pretty sure I’m not ‘sweet’ by anyone’s definition,” I clarified.  Mostly in the hope that she’d introduce herself again, because I’d forgotten her name.

“I’m Margaret.”  She pushed herself off the wall, wiping her face clean with a rumpled snarl of Kleenex.  As she walked by she gently squeezed my elbow, staring up into my eyes.  “And you’ve got more sweetness in you than you know, stopping to check on an emotional crazy lady like me.”

She walked away, that arm still pressed to her middle like she had a hole in her gut she was trying to hold together.

Hold together.  Keep your insides on the inside.  Run and keep running as hard as you have to in order to stay where you are.  If she can do it, so can you.

************

The next voluntary host who committed suicide didn’t fit the maybe-pattern: he wrote a rambling ten-page letter explaining his motives before he killed himself, and he used a gun instead of jumping.  

Also: he had a family.  Apparently it still wasn’t enough.

Chapter Text

“You come swimming into view/ and I’m hanging on your words/ like I always used to do...”

—Third Eye Blind, 1997

 

By the time we were several weeks into Eva’s experiment, even I had to admit it was working.  She kept up the meetings, and people kept coming.  Most of the time they called our office to check first, but often they just showed up.  

I was lurking near the crappy coffee stand next to the door of the meeting room, watching everyone come in and exchange awkward I forgot how to make facial expressions while possessed type greetings, when someone touched my elbow.  I turned sharply, startled.

“Hi,” the girl said, smiling.  “Tom, right?”

I stared at her in silence, unable to figure out what the answer to that question could possibly be.

It was Bonnie Park.  Bonnie Park, who was in all of my history and science classes all throughout high school.  Bonnie Park, who would toss her head when she laughed so that her dark hair rippled and caught the light, who had an easy smile that showed off the slight (adorable) gap between her front teeth.  Bonnie Park, who could run a six-minute mile around our school's indoor track.  Bonnie Park, who became my first and most painful crush the day she staged an (unsuccessful, but still impressive) walk-out of our eighth grade American History class after declaring our teacher to be a sexist old windbag.  

Bonnie Park, who finally noticed all my pathetic attempts at flirtation midway through tenth grade and asked me out, an unfamiliar tone to her voice as she did so.  Bonnie Park. who immediately after invited me to join her at a meeting of this new organization called The Sharing.  Bonnie Park, who watched in apparent apathy as controllers dragged me down the pier and forced my head under the surface of the kandrona that first time.

So really, it wasn’t entirely my fault that my brain short-circuited at the sight of her.

“Bonnie?” she said, taking pity on me in my inability to string two words together.  “Ninth grade chemistry?  We served detention together after we—”

“Used a bunsen burner to set a textbook on fire,” I finished.  “Not the kind of thing you forget."

She laughed loudly, tossing her head back.  That cute gap between her teeth was still there.

A couple of people turned to look at us—we were probably the only two people in the room not looking stiff and awkward while attempting to be comforting to each other—but most of the ones who retained enough social graces to look away did so after a second.

Bonnie didn’t appear to have noticed.  “God, that was so worth it for the expression on Miss Zarves’s face.”

“Yeah, but I seem to recall it was your idea,” I said.  “And you weren’t the one who broke a perfect disciplinary record with that little incident.”

She pretended to consider for a second, and then shook her head.  “Nope, still worth it,” she concluded.  “Anyway, how’ve you been?”

I shrugged, trying to figure out a polite answer to that question.  “Probably about the same as you—crappy for a while there, a little better now.”

Bonnie must have realized a few seconds too late what a loaded question that actually was in a setting like this, because she winced.  “Uh, yeah.  Like you said, less crappy now than I was a few months ago.”

"What are you up to these days?" I asked.

"Working at the local cable network, actually," she said. "The yeerk that was inside the guy who runs the archives hired Nikto 770 to filter through the local stories and make sure nothing too weird made it to the CNSB broadcasts, but then when everything came out they let me stay on. Nowadays I get paid to filter through the old stories and look for that same weird stuff so they can dig it out on slow news days."

Well, that was a lot more interesting than my life.  "Find any hidden gems yet?"

"Hard to tell," she said, shrugging. "Couple old photos of Marco Alvarez mid-morph behind a dumpster from a few years ago, fifteen minutes' worth of some old guy finding andalite fighter wreckage on the beach, one circus employee who claims an elephant scolded him inside his brain for using a cattle prod, although god only knows if he's just crazy or if it's actually Rachel Berenson..."

"Well, that certainly sounds like her," I said, smiling sadly.

“Shit, sorry.”  Her eyes widened.  “I forgot... She’d be your cousin, right?”

I nodded, not sure what to say.

Trying to cover for the awkward moment, Bonnie turned and poured herself a cup of coffee.  The moment she took a sip she grimaced, quickly setting the cup down.  “That is disgusting.  And possibly poisonous."

“I know!” I said loudly, seizing on the topic change.  “At least the Sharing meetings always had free food, right?”

You know how every so often just one line spoken in a crowded room can fall into dead silence?  You know how it’s always exactly the wrong thing to say?  You know how any time that happens in a room full of former hosts none of them have enough social graces to stop staring at you in horror after the first few seconds, so everyone just keeps right on doing it?

No one made a sound, except for the one or two people who actually gasped out loud, as if... As if I’d just made an incredibly inappropriate joke about everyone’s shared trauma in a tone that suggested I may have voluntarily worked for the aliens that used to mind-control all the people in the room.

I wanted to turn myself into a fly and fling myself at the bug zapper outside and die.

Bonnie had one fist pressed over her mouth and was slowly turning red.  For half a second of terror I thought she was about to burst into tears—and then I realized she was giggling uncontrollably but trying not to make any noise.

“Sorry,” she told the room as a whole, stage-whispering.  “He’s just having a little trouble controlling his host—must have slipped out.”

It occurred to me then that I might still be in love with this girl.

This time half the room gasped.

“I hardly think that’s appropriate,” one older woman muttered loudly.

Another woman was walking toward us.  Unlike everyone else she didn’t look blank or shocked; she looked angry.  “Young lady,” she said.  “Do you really think that now is the time to be—?”

“Nice seeing you all, catch you later, bye!” I blurted, throwing myself between Bonnie and the room as a whole.  I backed us out of the door before they had time to form into a torch-wielding angry mob.

We got all the way to the lawn outside before I made the mistake of making eye contact with her.  That was when I burst out laughing as well.  Bonnie had one hand pressed over her eyes but was giggling again.

"That was so inappropriate."  I shook my head, gasping for air.  “I cannot believe we just...”

Bonnie dropped her hand, still blushing but grinning now as well.  “I was defending you, you idiot.  I can’t believe you...”

“I know, I know.”  I sighed, glancing back toward the church.  I had a mental image of half the people in the meeting watching us out the window.  “I have poor impulse control.”

“I’ll say!”  She laughed again, shaking her head.

“What’s your excuse?”

"I couldn't just leave you there looking like a pitiful bunny staring down the headlights of an oncoming car," she said.

"Your attempt at flattery won't work on me," I said dryly.

"Oh, shut up."  She swatted me on the arm.  "You're gorgeous and you know it."

Okay, that one did work on me.  I had to clamp down on the urge to ask her if she really meant it like I was still an insecure thirteen-year-old.

"So.  I guess now we've got an hour to kill," I said, trying to be cool and probably coming off like I was making too much of an effort to be casual.

"Yeah." Bonnie checked her watch and frowned.  "My dad's not going to be here to pick me up for a while."

"No car access?" I asked.

She shook her head.  "No license."  She rolled her eyes.  "Actually I have one, but since it wasn't technically me who took the road test the DMV cancelled it on me."

"Those bastards," I said.  "You should retake it now and prove to them you do know what you're doing."

"Um."  She laughed nervously.  "I did.  And let's just say they didn't give me my license back but at least I got revenge by ensuring they won't be able to use most of those cones ever again.  Or that guard rail.  Or the test car."

"So the DMV was doing a service to the greater good?" I asked.

She stuck out her tongue.  "Maybe.  But now I'm relying on my dad to get anywhere, and he barely has time to transport me, much less teach me all over again."

"I could teach you."  Did I seriously just say that?  Way to come on too strong, dumbass.

"Really?" She was smiling again.  That couldn't be a bad sign, right?

"Sure.  I've got my brother's Jaguar with me, so I could show you the basics in something that'll handle well."

Bonnie opened her mouth and then shut it again.  “I did just tell you I crashed the test car, right?  If I kill an innocent Jaguar...”

“It’s not an innocent Jaguar,” I protested.  “It’s... experienced in the ways of the world.  Seasoned in battle.  It’s seen things you wouldn’t believe.  Blade ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.  Dracon beams glittering in the dark near Leera.”  I would have kept going but I couldn’t keep a straight face through her giggling.

“So, what?” she asked breathlessly, still laughing.  “Now it’s time for it to die?”

“Absolutely,” I said.

She thought it over for a few more seconds before she smiled.  “Okay.  But if I scratch up the paint and turn up in my bed mauled to death by a tiger...”

“I promise to have a stern conversation with Jake,” I said solemnly.  “Mostly about the fact that there are far better ways to get away with murder.”

Before she could come up with another protest I dug out the keys and tossed them to her.

We walked around back to where I’d left it, and she gingerly opened the driver’s side door and slid into the front seat.

“I feel like now would be the time to mention I’ve never used a manual transmission before?” she said.

I shrugged, buckling my seat belt.  “Gotta fly before you can walk.”

“Wait, wait, don’t tell me this thing flies.”  She was frantically fumbling for her seat belt now too.

I laughed.  “It’s an XK8, not a DeLorean.”

“Yeah, well, Porsche gave Marco Alvarez an experimental Carrera that flies,” she said, fumbling the keys into the ignition.  “So for all I know they’re Animorphs standard issue these days.”

“Oh dear lord.”  I flopped back against the headrest.  The Earth was doomed.  “Well, that explains why Eva had such conniptions about him passing his driving test last month.”    

Bonnie laughed.  “Oh well.  I think the idea was that people were hoping he’d be good at flying since he can, y’know, actually fly.  In the meantime...”  She shifted into gear.

“Watch out,” I said.  “The accelerator is kind of—”

We shot forward nearly three hundred feet in half a second, covering over half the parking lot before Bonnie slammed to a stop so hard both our seat belts locked up.

“—sensitive,” I finished.

"Ooookay, maybe that's enough driving for today," she said.

“Nuh-uh.  Don’t wimp out on me now.”

She crossed her arms.  “We’re going to die.”

“Everybody dies eventually.  The trick is living first.”

She glared at me.  “Did you steal that off a fortune cookie?”

“It was a motivational poster,” I said stiffly.  “Just... try easing down gently on the gas, okay?”

“Fine, fine.”  She grabbed the wheel again and tapped the accelerator with the barest tip of her toe.  Nothing happened.

I didn’t say anything.

When she tapped a second time it was a tiny bit harder, and now the car eased forward.

We made three creeping circuits around the parking lot before she felt comfortable enough to try pulling out onto the road.  Once there we coasted along in the right lane (and part of the shoulder) for a few miles at 20 MPH until I figured that running the car in first gear for that long probably wasn’t good and told her to turn around.  That became its own adventure when Bonnie somewhat misjudged her turning window and forced a truck driver to screech to a stop to avoid us.

He rolled down his window and made a comment I won’t repeat about Bonnie’s gender and ethnicity being the cause of her bad driving.  

“A very merry Christmas to you too!” Bonnie shouted back, and stomped on the gas again.

I was gaining a lot of sympathy for my mother’s own hysterical-screaming school of Driver’s Ed as we again became well-acquainted with the shoulder and almost fishtailed turning back into the church parking lot.  Bonnie braked with enough force that I was once again clotheslined by the seatbelt, but at least she didn’t dent the Holy Roller van with a few inches to spare.

“Well,” I said slowly, once I was breathing normally again.  “That wasn’t as bad as it could have been.  Not sure the transmission on this thing is going to be able to survive any more handling like that, but we didn’t crash.”

“Told you I was pretty terrible.”  Bonnie took her seatbelt off, turning to open her door—

“Parking brake!  Put on the parking brake!” I said hastily.

“Huh?”

I sighed.  “It’s a manual transmission.  So to make sure it doesn’t roll away you have to put your foot on the brake and then pull on that doohickey until it clicks.”

“Oh.”  She yanked the parking brake into position and then hopped out.

I followed her.  To my surprise we were in only one parking space, and even more or less aligned straight.

“I’m a car-parking fiend,” she said, noticing the direction of my gaze.  “I just can’t drive.”

“I’ll say,” I muttered.

Bonnie turned to look at me.  “I thought I did okay.”

“Yeah, definitely,” I said quickly.  “You’re better than most people are their first times out.”

“Thanks,” she drawled.  

“Sorry, I didn’t mean...”  I fumbled for a few seconds.  “I mean, for someone with no real experience...”

She smiled.  “Stop before you hurt yourself.”

“You drive with a lot of... confidence,” I said at last.

This time she laughed outright.  “You’re very kind,” she said.

“No I’m not,” I said immediately.  “Case in point, I’m going to agree with you about finding a different car for next time.”

“Next time?”  She looked up at me through her eyelashes, smile taking on a playful edge.  “So there’s going to be a next time, then?”

“Yes?  I mean, if you want?  There doesn’t have to be.  Another date.  Not that this was a date.  I mean, not a date-date.  And I don’t want to make things date-like if you don’t want.  But I want.  No, that sounded wrong.  I just mean that I want what you want to want, if that’s what you’d want.  If you want, that is.”  

Please god let somebody shoot me.  Right now.  In the head.  Let lightning strike me down where I stand and get me out of this conversation.  Maybe she wasn’t even asking me out.  Maybe she’d just been asking for clarification.  Either way she definitely thought I was a total idiot now.  A blathering, stupid, overly pushy idiot.

It was a mark of how deeply pathetic my life was that in that second I actually wished there was a yeerk there who could have this conversation for me.

“Okay,” Bonnie said.  Probably just to cut me off.  “Here’s what I want.  I want to get coffee with you.”

I started breathing again.  Which was good, because I was starting to get light-headed.

“I want to drive badly with you until I suck at it a little less.  I want to talk, I want to go to movies...  Beyond that?”  Bonnie took a deep breath, wiping sweat off the palms of her hands onto the thighs of her jeans, and it occurred to me for the first time that she was nervous too.

“There doesn’t have to be any beyond that,” I said.  “If that’s what you’re saying.”

She chewed her lip.  “I’d like...  I want to kiss you.  I want to enjoy kissing you, and...”  She blushed even more, ducking her head to tuck a lock of that gorgeous silky hair behind her ear.  “But this?”  She gestured to herself as if to encompass her whole body.  “Doesn’t feel like mine sometimes.  A lot of the time, actually.  And it did a lot of stuff, while I was... away.  I don’t know... I just don’t know.”

“Bonnie?”  I stepped forward enough that she looked up at me.  “I get it.  Okay?  Like, on a really fucking visceral level, I know exactly what you’re talking about.  So... Coffee?  And a long conversation about whether either of us should kiss the other goodnight afterwards?”  

She smiled, reaching forward and gently catching my hand in hers.  It was strange to think that we were tied down by these collections of muscle and bone, and even stranger to think that those muscles and bones were ours to move if we so chose.  

“Yes.”  Bonnie squeezed my hand gently.  “I want that.  To answer your earlier question.”

I found myself grinning.  “Well, then.  You willing to meet me for coffee on Saturday?”

“Depends.”  Her eyes crinkled in an easy smile.  “Can I get a ride?”

Chapter Text

“If I could start again a million miles away/ I would keep myself, I would find a way.”

—Nice Is Neat, 1994

 

Bonnie was the easiest person in the world to talk to, which is how one coffee became three a week became movies and shopping trips and walks along the edge of the shore to whisper rude things about the tourists to each other.  

And it was funny, how quickly I got in the habit of stopping by Eva’s office more days than not.  It turned out there was a ton more administrative work that went into running a non-profit than I’d ever had the slightest idea about, and she could always use an extra pair of hands.

I made coffee, organized papers, and skimmed the internet trying to get word out.  I learned how to make the crappy circa-1978 printer in the rented office space work even on its worst days.  I answered the phone and filtered visitors, probably the most simultaneously challenging and rewarding part of the whole experience given the number of crises I accidentally ended up handling.

If Eva even was my boss, she was so lenient about it I wasn’t sure she counted.  She never cared that I always showed up in jeans and sneakers, except for the days when I flew in and showed up dressed like a barefoot Bon Jovi reject.  If I emailed her with an hour’s notice—or didn’t give notice at all—that I wasn’t going to show up that day, the sternest response I ever got was a sad-faced emoticon in the reply.

Sometimes I couldn’t muster the energy.  Sometimes Bonnie kidnapped me for more informal driving lessons or to accompany her on work-related excursions.  Sometimes I stopped by CHLA to check on Jodi instead.  Sometimes I had to shuttle my idiot brother to the hospital when he acquired something that disagreed with him.

But I tended to do that less and less as time went on.  Because there were always papers that needed filling, and emails that needed answering, and people calling our number because they didn’t know who else to call.  

The meetings themselves rapidly developed a core of regulars.  Most of us who were there twice a week, every week were in the same odd limbo: too young or too socially stunted to hold down regular jobs, but old enough and high-functioning enough to be restless with that situation.  

Gradually we developed our own lingo, coming up with words and phrases for that exciting moment when your nose itches and you remember you can actually scratch it yourself or the annoying tendency for other people to assume you’re not listening to them if you don’t smile and nod frequently enough.

I like to think we helped at least a couple people along the way.

We couldn’t reach all of them.  I mean, of course not, no fucking way.  And yet...

For every soft-spoken college student who lit up at the realization that there were people who actually understood what it was like to go through the hell of an involuntary exit, there was another one who quietly starved to death in her dorm room because she’d forgotten how to feed herself.  

Sometimes the people who called me would sit there in silence for several minutes, or slur their words so much that even I couldn’t understand, couldn’t help.  

I sat through the heartbreaking calls from the desperately lonely ex-hosts who had returned to a world in which a yeerk had driven away everyone they loved.  I endured the boring ones with people who really wanted Matter Over Mind to meet on different days of the week and had entire novels’ worth of explanation for why.  I solemnly promised the woman who called me about a yeerk in her backyard eating her cabbages that I would send an Animorph over to check it out, and laughed through an entire afternoon’s worth of angry text messages from Jake vowing bloody revenge the next time I sent him to exterminate some old bat’s banana slugs.

I tried to help.  I tried to listen.

And that’s how I ended up with Loren Fangor standing in my driveway.

I was shooting hoops at the time.

No, I was trying.  And mostly failing.

I dribbled across the driveway, establishing a precise rhythm against the blacktop, and, ten feet out from the hoop above the garage door, sprang and released.

The ball arced smoothly through the air, soaring with just the right amount of spin... and at entirely the wrong angle.  It hit the rim, bounced off, and wobbled across the backdrop.  I tried to grab it on the rebound... and missed.

“God damn it!”  

Homer, who had immediately run over to try and retrieve the ball even though it was way too large for him to hold, shot me an offended look.

“Not you,” I said.  “You’re very...”

He was currently trying to fit the basketball in his mouth, and in the process pushing it steadily further into the grass.

“Very well-intentioned, I’m sure.”  I ran over and grabbed the basketball away from him before he could succeed in chewing through the rubber.  

I shot from where I stood.  The ball hit the backboard, rolled around the rim... and tipped off the side.

Shit!”  

I put a hand on Homer’s collar.  “Chill, Air Bud,” I snapped.  He gave me a worried look.  

“I’m not angry at you,” I explained to Homer, because the alternative would have been to go over and start punching a wall.  “I’m angry at...”

At Temrash 114, who had decided that maintaining his cover was less important than racking in new recruits and that playing basketball was an inconvenient way to spend that time.  At Essa 412, who had ensured that I fell out of practice and stayed out of practice without even thinking about it.  At my own body, for refusing to cooperate the way I knew it could.  At myself, for being so stupid.  For getting infested in the first place.

Once upon a time, making that kind of shot had been as easy as breathing.  There was no thought, no control necessary; my hands just knew exactly when and how to release to make the ball go where I wanted.  It had been as simple as walking down the street, as selfless as dancing, joyful and effortless and—

And it was gone.  In the hours I’d spent out here in the months since the war, I’d gone from making less than a quarter of my shots to making just over half.

It was still fucking embarrassing.

I could keep reassuring Homer, I could go punch a wall, or I could sit down in the grass and start bawling.

Only one of those options would actually accomplish anything.  So I ran my fingers through the fur behind Homer’s left ear and said, “Thanks for trying, anyway.”

I straightened up, retrieved the ball, and shot from closer this time.  Took several seconds to line up the shot with care, like an amateur just learning the court.

The ball swished perfectly through the net, never touching the rim.

Ha.  I wasn’t totally hopeless.

I grabbed it at the apex of its third bounce.  Without letting myself think I shot quickly and smoothly, the way I remembered how... and the ball hit the wall of the house a solid six inches above the hoop and bounced off.

“Shit.  Shit.   Fucking... fuck,” I said eloquently.

“You kiss your mother with that mouth?”

I spun around.  The woman had come up behind me without my even noticing.  She was no one I’d met before, although she looked vaguely familiar as if I’d seen her on TV or something.  Her greying blond hair was braided into a long plait which fell over her left shoulder, and she held the leash for a German shepherd, which meant—

“Arrrarrrarrrarrr-AROOOOO!”

Right on cue, Homer went nuts.

He bounced up to the other dog, still barking furiously, fur standing on end.  The German shepherd remained where he was in polite (and, I imagined, somewhat disdainful) silence even as Homer circled him, howling now.

“Sorry,” I called to the lady over the continued racket.  “He was never that well-trained to begin with, and a couple months on his own haven’t exactly done wonders for his manners.”

Homer, who had figured out that the interloper wasn’t going to be intimidated by his aggressive campaign of barking his fool head off, instead switched to frantically peeing on every vertical surface within a hundred yards in case there was a property dispute in the near future.

“You are a disgrace to all Pemalites,” I told him.

He glanced up from where he was claiming the front bumper of Jake’s Jaguar long enough to wag his tail at me, and then went back to asserting his ownership of the car.

“Sorry,” I said again.

The woman shook her head.  “He’s just defending you—I don’t mind.”

“He’s defending his property,” I said.  “Not sure whether I count or not.  And if he even thinks about peeing on me too then I am locking him in Jake’s room until kingdom come.”

That got a laugh out of her.  “Do you mind if I...?”  She gestured to the clip connecting her own dog’s leash to his harness.

I shrugged.  “Sure.  Homer’s a total wimp and won’t actually start any fights over some other dog being in his yard.”

She unclipped her dog.  “Go ahead, Champ.”

The German Shepherd glanced once at his human for confirmation, then ran off to go chase Homer, who suddenly wasn’t so interested in being aggressive anymore.

“Hi.  I’m Loren.”  The woman stuck out her hand.  “Eva sent me.”  

Huh.  I shook her hand gently.  “Tom.  Sorry about earlier.”

She laughed.  “Not the first time I’ve heard any of that before.  Have you ever tried baseball?”

“Huh?”

“You whack things with sticks and practice throwing balls at people,” she said.  “Way more cathartic than basketball, if you ask me.”

“I’ll be sure to bear that in mind,” I said.  “Uh, how did you say you knew Eva?”

“From the world’s longest camping trip.”  She rolled her eyes.  “Four months of hork-bajir calling us all ‘cute’ and ‘fuzzy’ and giving us pitying looks every time we had to get food out of cans because we were too helpless even to digest bark properly.”  She waved a hand as if dismissing the whole thing.  “And don’t get me started on the excuse for plumbing.”  

“Gotcha,” I said, grinning.  

“Anyway, Eva called me about... Well, about some of the hosts who have been struggling recently.  She said you ended up being a gatekeeper of sorts, and while I can’t promise to help you I can definitely try.”

I didn’t answer right away.  I hadn’t even been aware that Eva had noticed—I never directed the calls on to her if the person on the other end was upset, or worried, or just desperately looking for someone to talk to.  I could listen just fine, even if I didn’t know what to say most of the time.

“I have over ten years’ experience working for a suicide hotline call center,” Loren explained.  “You pick up a few things along the way.”

“Huh.  How’d you end up there?” I asked.

“Short answer: I didn’t have many other options,” Loren said.  “Honest answer: I literally don’t remember.”

“Okay.”  It wasn’t the oddest excuse anyone had ever given to me.

“So,” she said, sitting down on the retaining wall that edged our front yard.  “I’m calling from my house, and I need some kind of guidance.  That’s all the information I’ve given you, now talk to me.”

I sat down next to her.  “Hello, ma’am, and thank you for calling—”

She poked me on the arm.  “Nope, too formal.  Last thing you want is to seem distant.”

“Hi?” I tried.  “Thanks for calling?”

She shook her head.  “It’s good that you called.”

“Hello, I’m glad that you called.  You mentioned that you needed guidance?”

“Good.”  Loren moderated her voice, miming talking on the phone.  “Yes, I could use some help.  Do you people do that sort of thing?”

“Yes, we’re all very helpful here—”  This time I dodged before she poked me.  “What?”

“Don’t make promises you might not be able to keep,” she explained.  “What if I’m calling to tell you that my roof just caved in?”

“Then you have the wrong number,” I said.  “Also, I’m starting to doubt the intelligence of fictional-you.”

“Too bad.  You’d better connect me to the fire department or apologize and give me the number of the fire department anyway.”

I sighed.  “I’m very sorry to hear about your roof.  I’m afraid that we can’t help with that kind of problem.  Would you like me to connect you to the local fire department?”

“Good.”  Loren smiled.  “Now, go through it again, and this time try not to sound bored the entire time.”

“I did not sound bored!” I said indignantly.

“I can’t tell that from way on the other end of the phone,” she said.

We were going to be here all day.

***********

“Tommy-boy!” Kit Rodriguez bellowed across half the bar room.  “Get your sorry butt over here!”

I found myself grinning as I picked my way through the clutter of high-tops and chairs to where most of the Santa Barbara High School basketball team of 1996 sat jammed together around a table too small for seven guys that size.  The invitation to the informal meet-up (the occasion of which was one of Kit’s rare visits to town after he’d moved east for college) had come as a pleasant surprise to me.  I could only imagine some of the shit these guys had talked about me behind my back after Temrash 114 had quit the team with no warning mid-season, leaving the Dons to slide into their worst losing streak in the past ten years.  However, it seemed that with the news about my infestation all was forgiven.

I grabbed a chair from an unoccupied table and slid it over to jam into the space that Aristotle and Dante had scooted apart to clear for me.

Gabriel “G.T.” Stoop leaned around Ari to grin mockingly at me.  “Where the hell you been hiding this whole time?”

I spread my hands apologetically, smiling with a confidence I didn’t quite feel.  “Got abducted by aliens.”

His eyes widened in shock—apparently he hadn’t heard that bit of news yet.  “Shit, man, really?”

I nodded.

“So does this mean you’ve decided you aren’t too good to hang out with the likes of us after all?” he said, recovering from the surprise.

Kit whacked G.T. on the back of the head.  “Boy was getting brain-fucked by space slugs.  Show a little respect!”

“Nah, it’s all right,” I said.  “Dunno if Coach would take that as an excuse for missing practice, but I’m sure he’s over it by now.”

“Well, won’t get you outta practice, but it’ll get you a beer,” Elijah Springfield concluded.  “What’s your poison?”

I smiled.  “Thanks, but I’m nineteen.”

Elijah frowned, apparently not having done this math before now.  I was younger than most of the guys here—I’d been the prodigy who made JV in eighth grade and varsity in ninth, whereas most of them had been juniors and seniors by the time they’d made first string.

“Hey, Lydia!”  Ari leaned back in his seat to flag down the bartender.  “Get this boy an ice-cold Pacifico, would you?”

The bartender—Lydia—stopped, cocking her hip to balance her tray on its edge.  “Oh yeah, and how old is he?”

Ari grinned, teeth very white against his coffee-dark skin, and threw an arm around my neck.  “Why Lydia, this is my very own twin brother.”

Lydia crossed her arms.  “Ari, hon, you know I can’t.  Not without an ID.”

“Oh, come on, this boy fought in the war!” Ari tilted his head at her imploringly.  “Man deserves at least one drink after that.”

“I didn’t,” I said quickly.  “At least, not on purpose.  I mean, I was, like, there for a handful of battles, but I wasn’t really, uh, participating, not voluntarily...”

It was too late.  Her eyes had gone dewey and she was looking at me like I was a wounded kitten.

Lydia scooted off and came back before I could make any more half-hearted arguments.  “There you are, hon,” she said, setting the bottle in front of me.

“See?” Ari said smugly.  “You gotta live a little, man.”

“Yeah, yeah, okay,” I said tolerantly.  “And, uh, thanks.”

He flapped a hand in the air.  “No skin off my butt.”

“So what’s it like?” G.T. said.

I took a sip.  “Sort of hoppy, but not bad.”

“Not the beer,” Elijah said, laughing.  “He means... y’know.”  He made a swirling motion next to his left ear.

“Going crazy?” I asked, blank.

“Having a yeerk in your head,” G.T. said, raising his eyebrows as if to imply you dumbass.

“Oh.”  I took another generous swallow of liquid courage before I answered.  “Unpleasant at first, like you’d think.  Then, after a while?  It’s really fucking boring.  There’s nothing to do.”

That was more or less honest, even.  There were other words I could have used—words for the excruciating loneliness, the soul-sucking pull of despair, the fear that never went away—but boring was also true for a lot of it.

“That happened to my girlfriend’s old lady,” Dante said softly.  “She ain’t been right in the head since.”

“Seems to me like you hear every day about some folks who got a yeerk up the head and haven’t been right since,” Elijah said.

The awkward silence that ensued lasted for several seconds.  Once again it was Kit who rescued us when he sat back with a laugh, kicking me under the table.  “Lucky for him, then, that our little Tommy wasn’t right in the head to begin with.”

“Gee, thanks,” I said.  Though my tone was dry I suspected Kit could tell I meant it.

“Speaking of weird shit with aliens and whatnot, what about that dead lady out in Carpinteria?” Ari said.

“You mean the one whose husband did her?” Nick Adams spoke up for the first time.

“Her husband was a, whatyacallit, a controller?” Kit said.

Ari shook his head.  “Might not have been the husband, even.  This lady calls the cops, see, and when they show up at her house she’s there all bleeding to death on the floor.  They got the EMTs in there fast as they could, but weren’t in time to save her.  Anyway, she tells the cops just before she goes under that it was her husband who stabbed her.  Out of the blue, she said, just walked in and stabbed her.  And sure enough, they check and there’s her husband’s fingerprints all over the knife.”

“Okay, sucks to be her, but what’s that got to do with aliens?” Elijah said.

“The police go to arrest her husband...” Ari leaned forward, drawing us into the story.  “And it turns out he’s in friggin New York City.  At some conference, for him and a bunch of other teachers.  And they’ve got like forty other teachers—and security footage and shit—that proves he was there the whole week before.  Never left.”

“Oh, wait, I read this story, it was the identical twin!” Dante said, slapping the table.

People laughed, but there was a nervous edge to it.

“Not a twin,” I said softly.  “Someone in morph.”

Ari cocked two fingers like a gun and pointed it at me.  “Got it in one.  That’s what the police are saying anyway.  I mean, I hear you can tell someone in morph from someone who’s not if you do a DNA test, but they’ve got a crapton of the husband’s DNA from all over the house and they’ve got no way to tell so far what’s his and what’s the killer.”

“Anyway, you haven’t even gotten to the weirdest part of the story yet,” Nick said, elbowing Ari.

“There’s something weirder than some Animorph pretending to be some lady’s husband to kill her?” G.T. demanded.

“Andalite,” I said.

G.T. shot me a questioning look.

“It could be an andalite.”  I shrugged.  “You don’t know.”

“He’s related to, like, half the Animorphs,” Kit stage-whispered.  “He’s a little biased.”

“Only one third,” I said primly.

Kit laughed.  “In that case you’re impartial as they come, then.”

“Anyway, Ari, tell them the really weird part,” Nick said.

“So, you know what’s weirder than someone pretending to be this guy to kill his wife?” Ari said.  “The police start looking into who she was, why someone would want to kill her, all that... And they found out she got a yeerk in her head during the war.”

“So?” G.T. snorted.  “That happened to loads of people.”  He whacked me on my arm to emphasize his point.  

“No, no, you don’t get it.”  Ari leaned in again, expression intent.  “She got a yeerk.  As in, put it there herself.  The lady chose to put a yeerk in her own brain.”

I jolted upright in my chair, suddenly chilled despite the warmth of the bar.  “And then someone murdered her,” I said.

“Good to know you’re paying attention, because this will be on the test later,” Dante teased.

I didn’t answer.  The possibility looming before me was terrifying.  It didn’t seem to have occurred to anyone else at the table, but this meant there was someone out there willing and able to kill humans... who could morph.

It could be anyone.  Literally anyone.

Pieces were falling together, and I didn’t like the picture they formed.  It was everything I’d feared and more.  Three, now four deaths in a consistent pattern.  All ex-hosts, and not just any ex-hosts.  Voluntaries.  One was definitely a murder, and the others...

How could he have lured them out to high places?  Eva had asked.  The answer was obvious now: most people wouldn’t follow a stranger or even an acquaintance out to the edge of an overpass, but their own spouses, their own parents or siblings...

“Couldn’t you just smoke crack or something?” G.T. asked.

I blinked.  I’d lost the thread of the conversation.

“People didn’t get yeerks in their heads because they wanted to get high.”  Dante scoffed.  “That’s whacked, man.”

“Okay, then why do they do it?” Elijah said.

Dante sat back, opening his hands.  “I got no fuckin’ clue.”

Ari nudged me.  “Y’all right?”

I inhaled steadily.  “Sure.  You were saying?”

“He was saying,” Kit said, “that there’s crazy, and then there’s batshit, and then there’s putting a yeerk inside your own fucking brain.”

I toasted him with the neck of my bottle.  “That about sums it up.”

There was nothing I could do about it.  Not here, not now.  There was no way to be sure even now that I wasn’t totally crazy.  Just seeing things.  That this pattern wasn’t just me making shit up because I wanted an explanation for everything.  

I sat back, took another long sip, and listened to Kit launch into a rant about people who did dumb shit for fun, resolved to worry about it later.  

Chapter Text

“Life is hard, and so am I.”

—Eels, 1996

 

By four o’clock the following morning, I was starting to wish for the possibility that I was actually off my rocker.  Because there I was, going through news sites, looking for suicides.  And what I’d found so far was fucking terrifying.  

The first three or four names of voluntaries I’d pulled out from the top of my head were duds.  So were the next twenty or so that I culled from the larger phone tree.  And then one T.J. Avery popped up in the San Francisco Tribune.  Dead.  “Unnatural causes” suspected.  Not long after that came Cecily Tallis, missing and presumed.  Car found near the edge of a ravine.  Call this number if you have any information.

 But it still brought the total to six people.  All voluntary hosts.  Dead.  Possibly murdered.

The ones who came before Sophie Hatter were Lucas Cabral and Alex Morales.  The woman from Carpinteria was named Karana Nicoleño.  None of the articles so much as hinted at the possibility that the police were considering any cause outside of suicide.  There probably wouldn’t have been news at all about most of these people, but the killer seemed fond of leaving the bodies in very public places.  As if he didn’t care whether anyone had noticed that these weren’t suicides.

The next morning I went begging to Bonnie for help.  

God bless her, she actually sat there and listened patiently as I rambled out everything I knew, everything I suspected, and everything I was speculating wildly about.

And then she grabbed my hand, looked me in the eye, and said, “For starters, I believe you.”

I sat down hard on her couch, more relieved than I’d expected to be.  

Bonnie allowed herself to tumble down next to me, legs tangling with mine.  Funny how comfortable she always felt to me, in a way that no one else did.  She was wearing black leggings under a flower-print skirt, and I could feel the warmth of her skin through the thin fabric.  I pressed myself against her, wanting to stay like this forever.  Breathing in the faint scent of her hair wash, taking comfort in the physical realness of her long hair and soft smile.  

“Second, but no less important...” She twisted around to look at me.  “I absolutely think we need to tell the police about this.  Because this is freaking me the hell out.”

“Yeah.”  I pressed my lips together in an expression that wasn’t quite a smile.  “Me too.”

“You’ll probably want to pitch it as ‘there’s this thing I’ve been noticing...’” She pressed my fingers between her palms, looking up at me.  “And, best case scenario, they say ‘we have someone on that already, but keep it hush-hush for now.’”

I sighed.  “Yep.  Worst case scenario, they tell me to stop wasting their time.”

Bonnie hesitated before saying anything else, looking down at our interlaced fingers.  “Okay, outside question, and don’t get mad at me for asking.”

“No mad.  Got it.”

“Why aren’t these people, like, already in prison?  The voluntaries, that is.”

I tilted my head, conceding the point.  “Probably a lot of them should be.  I know that at least twenty or so were taken to trial, but the court system is set up right now so that unless you can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there’s no way anyone but this one person is guilty of a crime, you can’t convict.”

“So they can’t distinguish enough between the host and the yeerk to blame either one?”  Bonnie grimaced, hand tightening around mine.  “That’s... But couldn’t they get the hosts for negligent homicide or something, at the very least?”

“Most of them are claiming they tried to stop the yeerk from doing anything terrible,” I said dully.  “And that it worked about as well as the rest of us trying the same thing.”

She sat back on the couch, letting my hand slip free.  “So... someone’s taking justice into their own hands.”

“Apparently.”  I leaned closer, chasing her warmth.  

“Damn.”  She leaned her head against my shoulder, pressing an almost absentminded kiss to my collarbone while she was there.  

I made an approving noise in the back of my throat.  Eva was always going on about bodily mindfulness; we were just practicing what she preached.  

And, okay, maybe that wasn’t the only reason that Bonnie’s back arched as she pressed herself ever closer to me, sliding our hips together... But, sure, mindfulness was good.  

“Hate to say it, but what if it really is justice?” Bonnie asked.

“There’s a saying, by some dead guy, that says it’s better to let ten guilty people go free than to convict one innocent person,” I said.  “Which I guess makes sense to me.  And, okay, even assuming that our killer is one hundred percent certain that all these people really were totally voluntary... What does he accomplish by killing them?  It’s not like they’re going to be repeat offenders, right?”

Bonnie laughed humorlessly.  “Sure.”

“Just...” I glanced over at her.  “You do believe me, right?  You don’t think I’m crazy?”

She had to hear the real worry in my voice, because she twisted around to look me in the eye.  “I think this pattern, whatever you’re seeing, is real.  I hope to hell that the morpher who killed that one woman was a one-off, but that’s because the idea that it’s not scares the pee out of me.  Not because I think you’re crazy.” 

I didn’t really have an answer for that.   

We sat there in silence for a little while longer.  Bonnie stroked her hand slowly down my arm, running our skins together.  

“Speaking of weird legal stuff, you hear about Maybeth Tillerman?” Bonnie asked.

I shook my head.  “Who?” 

“They, uh, just released her from prison.”  Bonnie leaned back again.  “She was convicted of murder, assault, a bunch of other stuff, but they ended up releasing her because they got some MRI scan or something which proved to the investigators that she’d been a controller.  Freaky, right?”  

“Freaky?”  I had just been thinking that it was kind of a weight off, knowing there was no way in hell anyone would be throwing me in prison for any of the shit the yeerks had used my body to do.   

Bonnie tilted her head around to look me in the eye.  “They could tell that a yeerk had come and gone from this lady’s brain years ago, just by looking at some photos of her brain.  They could tell her brain apart from some non-yeerk-ifed brain, just by looking.”

“Oh, jeez.”  It had finally sunk in for me.  “You’re saying there was brain damage.  That she... that all of us...”  I pressed a hand over my eyes.  “Have some kind of freaking damage or residue or rewiring or something.”  

“Yeah.”  Bonnie’s voice was toneless.  

“Ugh.  Ugh.”  I wanted to crack my own skull open and start scrubbing the folds of my brain with hydrogen peroxide.  

I realized I had one hand cupped over my ear, imagining a trail of anything from kandrona to dead brain cells leading down the oft-abused ear canal.  Trying really hard not to think about the folds and crevices of my brain being twisted and marked where that slimy body had been all over the inside of my head.  Trying not to imagine impressions left inside my brain from where the yeerk had touched and moved and spread itself out, pressing feelers against all the places inside of me where nothing was ever supposed to touch.  

With conscious effort I dropped my hand, crossing my arms.  Nausea churned in my gut.

Bonnie pressed herself close to me.  I wrapped both arms around her and squeezed, trying desperately to focus on her and not the inside of my own skull.  

We sat there in silence for several seconds, thoroughly wigged out.

“You might be okay,” she said at last.  “Because of the morphing and all.”  

I shuddered.  “Yeah, maybe.” 

“It heals everything,” she said earnestly.  “You said so yourself.”

“Like, ninety-nine percent of the time, yeah.  The other one percent?”  I shrugged, grateful for the change of topic.  “Don’t know why, but it doesn’t always work.”

“Wait, really?”  Bonnie frowned. 

“Yeah.  Weird, I know.  But you ever get a good look at Visser Three and notice how many scars Alloran has?”  

Bonnie opened her mouth partway in surprise.  “You’re right.  That shouldn’t be possible, given how often he morphs.”

“Yeah, and Jake’s got a couple different stories about the morphing not fixing everything the way it should.  And Cassie has her ears pierced, and still has them pierced, and technically that should heal too.  Plus—”  I straightened out my right knee all the way, and then folded it back into place.  When it locked into place and again when I bent it, there was a slight cracking noise.  

“How’d that happen?”  Bonnie poked gently at my kneecap through my jeans.

“Broke it a couple years back.  It healed, obviously, but...”  I repeated the motion, and again there were those two little noises of the joint cracking.  “It didn’t used to do that.  And it shouldn’t anymore, now that I morphed.”

“But that doesn’t make sense,” Bonnie said.  “The Animorphs can regrow entire limbs.  I’ve seen them do it.”

“Right?”  I held out both hands as if asking her to offer an explanation.

“So morphing fixes fatal injuries but not minor ones,” she said slowly.  “Except when it does.  Except when it doesn’t.”

“More or less.”   

Bonnie buried her face in her hands.  “Remember back when the most complex biological questions we had to worry about were all on Mrs. Zarves’s weekly quizzes?”

“At least now I know the difference between a chloroplast and a mitochondrion,” I drawled.  “And that knowledge has proven to be invaluable so many times.”  

“Yeah, well, chloroplasts make sense.”  Bonnie dropped her hands.  “Morphing can make no such claim.”

“Yes and no.”  I tried to think about how to put it into words.  “I think there’s a part of me that feels like the fact that it doesn’t make sense to us makes a lot of sense.” 

Bonnie gave me a patient look.  “You lost me.”

“It’s andalite tech, right?”

“Sure.”

“But none of the andalites seemed to think it was possible to morph with clothes on until the Animorphs just started doing it because no one told them not to,” I said.  

“Huh.  So you’re saying even they don’t know everything,” Bonnie said.  

“Yeah.  So I guess my theory is that morphing tech is so far advanced from our way of thinking that we never really had a hope of understanding it.”  

It was something I’d thought about.  A lot.  After all, I hadn’t chosen to become morph-capable.  Hadn’t even chosen most of the morphs I currently had.  It was something that had happened to me, had changed me, and now I had to try and figure out how to respond.   

I would give it up if I could.  Not that flying wasn’t great, but... I was a perfect host now.  Absolutely ideal.  I was young, I was healthy, I came pre-broken, and now I could take any shape I wanted.  The yeerks knew where I lived, who I associated with, what my favorite foods were, and how to apply pressure to make me shatter so they could rebuild me as a perfect slave.  If anything ever happened, if they somehow made another attempt for the planet, I’d be right on the top of their list of perfect bodies to use.  Because several months ago Essa 412 had pressed my hand against a little blue box and given me the most dangerous power in the world.  

“Huh.”  Bonnie’s expression was thoughtful.  “So what do you think?  That it’s a Matrix-type thing where imagining your original form with damage is enough to keep that damage around after morphing?  Is it because of the whole connection between z-space and thought-speak willpower stuff?”

“I mean, that’s as good a theory as any,” I said.  

She raised her eyebrows, not letting me get away with waffling.  “But that’s not what you think is happening.”

“I think that no matter what ideas we come up with, we’re not going to be able to capture what the andalites were thinking when they came up with it because it’s so far beyond us,” I admitted.  “Like we’re... cavemen.  Using a cell phone that we got from some alien race.  Only using it as a flashlight.  So all we know is that it’s a little glowy thing, we have no idea why it rings or runs out of batteries or anything like that.  Since we’re only using it for, like, one millionth of its possible functions, even though it’s still plenty useful as is.”  I glanced over at Bonnie.  “Does that make sense?”

“Cavemen with cell phones.”  Bonnie laughed, leaning toward me and propping her head on her hand.  It caused the front of her blouse to drop distractingly low, which was probably the point.  “Seems pretty smart to me.”  

I could feel myself blushing, and then blushing even more as she slid a hand up to cup my elbow.  She had such miraculously soft skin, so warm that I wondered if I felt cold to her.  

Scooting across the spare inches of couch cushion that separated us, Bonnie leaned her head against my shoulder.  Idly she traced her fingers up my arm, across my chest, and slowly down to a spot along my lowest rib.  I could feel her warm breath against my neck, the smoothness of her hip underneath my own hand... It was all so beautiful in its simplicity.  So decadent, to be doing this with no pressure, no fear, no silent watcher, no one in control but the two of us in our own bodies.  

“You’d know better than I would,” Bonnie said.   

“It’s just my theory.”  I wasn’t really listening to myself, too caught in the strange and wonderful feeling of comfort in my own skin.  “Not really based on any actual evidence.”

“Well, it makes more sense to me than most of the other attempts to decipher morphing that I’ve heard.”  Bonnie snorted.  “And there are some really strange ones.”

“Oh?”

Bonnie leaned up far enough to look directly at me.  I was sad at the loss of her warmth, but then again there was the flawless curve of her chin, the tiny mole under her neck, the soft presence of her lips that were just barely parted to reveal hidden depths... She giggled, seeing me looking, and I blushed again.  

“There was some preacher guy in the newsroom last week,” she said, and I focused back on her voice.  “Talking about how we’ve all been possessed by the spirits of angels and we should accept those angels into our hearts and minds instead of trying to resist."

I groaned, all silly thoughts disappearing.  Humans sucked sometimes.  “These ‘angels’ are grey and slimy, I take it?”

“Uh-huh.”  Bonnie made a face that suggested she felt the way I did about the whole nonsense.  “Apparently the only proof anyone needs of that theory is the fact that shape-shifting demons have finally shown their true faces among us as a test of humans’ willingness to expel the threat from our midst.”  

“How does this oatmeal-head want us to ‘expel’ the morphers, anyway?” I asked.  

“By giving him money, obviously.”  Bonnie poked me in the chest as if gently scolding me.  “I mean, you might not want to, since his whole theory hinges on your brother being the Anti-Christ, but the rest of us are at risk for eternal damnation if not.”

I opened my mouth halfway, completely baffled by that one.  “How exactly does Jake qualify for Anti-Christness, anyway?”

“Um, there’s some stuff in the Bible about the devil appearing in many forms that, when you squint and misinterpret it, can refer to morphing,” Bonnie said.  “Oh, and there was that whole ‘Save the Anacondas’ thing he did.”

“The Anti-Christ wants to protect the rainforest?”  I frowned.  “Does that mean God wants to destroy the rainforest?”

“I don’t think it’s the rainforest itself that’s Satanic, it’s the snakes thing,” Bonnie said patiently.  “Because, like, you’d have to be ungodly to want to save reptiles?”

I sighed.  I had no idea what so many people had against snakes.  “Is it because they’re not cute and fluffy and sometimes they kill people?  By that standard, shouldn’t rhinoceroses also be Satanic?”

“Well, the Anti-Christ has been known to turn into one on occasion,” Bonnie said solemnly.  

“So rhinos are evil because they’re associated with Jake, who is evil because he’s associated with anacondas, who are evil because they’re associated with that guy passing out apples in Genesis.”  

Bonnie nodded.  “Exactly.”

“Wow, I actually think my theory about morphing is less confusing than that one,” I said.  

“I’m sure if you write this preacher guy a personal check he’ll explain it all to you.”   

I snorted.  “My days of cult-joining are over, thank you very much."

We ended up spending the rest of the afternoon on her couch, talking about the weirdest reactions to morphing we’d ever seen and doing plenty of necking in between.  She ate up my mind with nothing in particular, with the moment, with our own daring existence.  If anyone else died in the interim, I sure as hell didn’t know about it.

Chapter Text

“There’s something wrong with the world today, and I don’t know what it is.”

—Aerosmith, 1993

 

I was the first one in to the Matter Over Mind office the following morning, for once.  

When I got in I checked the messages on the phone.  The only one that had been left in my absence was clearly not meant for me. (“Evita, darling, Dr. Moreau called and said there is no other time he can do the surgery except tomorrow and that if you want to keep walking on that knee it needs to be done now.  Also, we are cornering that boy of ours tonight over dinner and getting a straight answer from him about all of this nonsense with celebrity sponsorship of child-labor-using organizations.  And I know you were dead when cell phones were invented, but dear?  You might want to try and keep yours charged.”)  I saved it and marked it for Eva’s review, and then plunged into the website.

Most people who used the forums had yet to grasp the fact that we also had a messaging system which was probably a better spot for airing personal grievances than the piranha tank of the open conversation page.  I tried to make a habit of wading in at least once a day to delete the comments that were irrelevant (“how do I get my new z-space computer to work?”), nonsensical (“Broccoli is from ANOTHER PLANET and therefore NOT NATURAL so you should NEVER EAT IT or you will die”), rude (“sorry I killed your cat but aliens made me do it, LOL”), or just there to be shocking (“Cassie Day was a voluntary controller - pass it on!”).  

I was staring at the reroute code that would take anyone who tried to navigate to jointhesharing.com to our web page instead, debating whether linking the two would be tacky.  Jointhesharing.com had recently collapsed under its own nonsense after months’ worth of anyone who logged on automatically getting shouted down as an allegedly voluntary controller until eventually they left, but anyone who had a membership to that site would potentially be interested in Matter Over Mind.  I still hadn’t come to a decision when the phone rang.

I grabbed it out of the cradle, hoping that I could stop Peter this time before he left any other messages with entirely too much personal information.  “Matter Over Mind, this is Tom, how can I help you,” I blurted before the caller could get a word in edgewise.

“Um.  Hi.  My name is Danica, and I’m not sure whether I have the right number.”  

I relaxed.  The voice was high, female, and probably not about to start talking about which shady organization Marco had accidentally endorsed this week.  “Well, why don’t you tell me what you’re calling about, and I can let you know whether you reached the right place or not.”

“Um, I need a way to convince people that yeerks are real,” Danica said.

I closed my eyes.  I knew what she was really saying.  “Convince people yeerks are real” meant “get people to stop blaming me for things that are not my fault.”  There was a part of me that felt a sick guilty kind of gratitude for the fact that everyone who mattered in my life, from my girlfriend to my parents to my boss to my kid brother, had first-hand experience with the special hell of having a yeerk in one's head.  It severely cut down on the chances that they would conflate my own actions with those of a planet-conquering homicidal alien.

“Actually, I think I can help you with that,” I said aloud.

She blew out a long breath, the sound echoing tinnily down the phone line. “It's just... it's my boss.  And my husband.  I mean, they claim that they're understanding, and they're not denialists or anything, but...”

When she didn't say anything else for a long time I cleared my throat. “But they still bring up things that you—or allegedly you—did wrong. They still assume that you're the one who never bothered with human responsibilities or wandered off every three days.  Or that it wasn't that bad. Or that you could have fought back more than you did.  How am I doing?”  

The only response I got was a quiet sob.

Fuck the yeerks anyway.

“If you want, I could come over there and...” Well, okay, I didn't have the authority to do anything other than stand there and try to look intimidating.  I could always morph, which was usually enough to convince most people that at least some of the alien stuff was real. If need be I could call out the big guns and get Jake to go over there and give one of his super-stern lectures on identity confusion. (The kid was a natural-born prodigy in Not Angry Just Disappointed.  He’d probably make a hell of a parent someday.)  

“No, I...”  Danica took several more breaths, struggling to collect herself.  “No, that’s all right.”

“Okay, then I’m going to email you a few links that will hopefully be useful," I said.  “If none of that works, call us back and there are like eight other things we can try.  It’s mostly news articles, recommended scripts, advice for talking to people—all written by survivors, don’t worry—but there’s a fair amount of emphasis on hard evidence.  That work for you?”

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“And Danica?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re not alone.  There are a heck of a lot of us, and if you’re ever free on a Monday or Thursday at six-thirty, swing by the community center on Victoria Street to drink bad coffee and talk about it with a bunch of us who understand.”  

“Monday and Thursday?”

“At six-thirty.  The coffee is free, membership is not obligatory, and no one will judge you if you only show up once.”  Essa 412’s sales pitch for the Sharing had been a hell of a lot more impressive.  But then I wasn’t Essa 412, for all that we shared a passing resemblance in the face area.  

“I, uh, thanks.”  

She gave me her email address, and I walked her through the process of downloading an attachment.  I’d just hung up and gone back to the forums when Eva breezed in.  

“You’re here early,” she commented.  

“Beats sleeping,” I said.  

My attempt at casualness didn’t fool her.  “What’s bothering you?” she said.

I handed over the packet of articles I’d already printed out.  

“Obviously it’s not the cost of printer ink,” she said dryly.

“Just...”  I tried for a smile, feeling shaky.  “Just read, okay?”

I sat there in silence, slowly drumming my fingers on the desktop, while she paged through the articles.  One briefly covered Sophie Hatter.  The next one was about Karana Nicoleño and her husband’s mysterious clone.  After that was T.J. Avery, and then Lucas Cabral.  All of the articles had the same two phrases circled: “voluntary controller” and “suspicious death.”  

Eva didn’t read any of the articles that closely, but she didn’t have to.  

“You know that old saying about how one’s an accident, two’s a coincidence, and three’s a sign someone’s taking deliberate action?” I said, when she finally set the articles down.  

Eva’s eyebrows were drawn together in a frown.  “Did you contact the police?” she asked.  

I turned my computer monitor around so that she could see the screen.  My polite email drawing the connection between the cases was on top; the police department’s reply that they could see why I was concerned but had many different cases that required urgent attention was at the bottom.  They had advised me to call 911 if anyone’s life was in immediate danger, and otherwise to remain a conscientious and vigilant citizen.  

“Well, you’ve done all you can,” Eva said.  “And that’s that.  After all, you don’t know for sure that no one is looking twice at what you sent in...”  

“They probably never even opened the attached articles, did they,” I said.  

She pressed her lips together.  “No, probably not,” she said at last.  “At this point, there isn’t anything else you can do except to make people aware.  The fact that you’ve even done this much—That’s something.”

I folded my arms on the desk, resting my chin on my wrist.  It all felt so big, so hopeless.  “Would you care more if they were all involuntaries?” I asked her in a very small voice.

Eva slid the monitor out from between us so that she could give me a long, hard look.  “I’m not going to apologize for the fact that I would, if that’s what you’re hoping for.”  

I opened my mouth to argue, and then shut it again.  Everything I wanted to say sounded childish and accusatory in my mind.

Breathing out a sigh, Eva leaned against the front of my desk.  “Tom, you’ve already done more than enough.  And I’m not sure what else can be done in this case.  It’s...”

While she searched for phrasing, I stood up to grab the other chair from the room and hand it to her.

She sat in it with a smile of thanks.  “It was a long, nasty war.  And there are a lot of people out there who want there to have been a little more punishment and a lot less forgiveness than there was.  I’m not saying that murder is the right answer, but... This might just be how the world is, for a time.”

I crossed my arms.  “And I’m just supposed to accept that?”

Eva gave me another one of those long, steady looks.  “You’re supposed to work within the boundaries of the possible,” she said at last.

Slowly I sat back down, not saying anything to her.

Eva shifted her weight.  “You’ve done what you can.  You know that.”

“I guess,” I mumbled to my keyboard.

“Look.”  She waited until I glanced back up at her, and then offered me a small smile.  “What is possible is continuing to help where you can.  On that subject, how do you feel about anti-government protests?”

I blinked.  “Um, ambivalent?”

She slid a flier onto my desk.  It was a call for people to assemble at one of the city blocks downtown that had been leveled by the yeerks and not yet rebuilt.  The protest would be the following morning, and was expected to go through the rest of the day.

I picked it up slowly, smoothing out the folds.  “The POW thing again?”

“What else?” Eva said.

The United Nations defined a prisoner of war as anyone taken by force by enemy combatants during an armed conflict.  Technically the ex-hosts should have qualified, in spite of the fact that the U.S. hadn't officially declared war on the yeerks during the conflict.  Technically we should have been able to offer everyone who came to us for help not only free counseling at the health center downtown (which we already did) but fully paid medical and mental health service, job training, disability benefits, and as much government assistance as they needed.  Technically.

In order for all of that to happen, the U.S. government had to acknowledge that the yeerk hosts had, in fact, been prisoners of war.  Given that there were over a hundred thousand of us currently living in the U.S., given that the yeerks had never actually declared war, and given how much money it would cost to give us our much-deserved federal support, I could almost understand why the government didn’t want to do that.   Almost.

Cassie had made a couple of impassioned speeches on behalf of the hosts, which had probably helped.  However, given that she spent most of her time frantically trying to keep the hork-bajir out of internment camps (because there were only too many people who thought the only good alien was a gone alien), she had more important things to worry about than us.

“The local Veterans’ Association chapter is going to be there in force,” Eva said.  “I only know because they wanted Marco to join them, but he opted out.”

“So you want a bunch of us to show up and piggyback on these other people complaining about these other problems to demand recognition,” I said slowly.  “While the VA is there.”

“It will be highly visible, and it should get people talking.”  Eva leaned back in her chair.  “There will of course be plenty of press there, and we’ll be enough of an anomaly that we should get some coverage.  I think you should be the one front and center.”

“Not you?” I said.  “You’re better at the... talking thing.”  Plus, she was more visible.  What little coverage we’d gotten in the news so far had mostly consisted of Eva talking while I hovered in the background and tried to look pleasantly uninteresting.

Those interviews had always quickly devolved into questions about Jake’s favorite foods, what Marco had been like as a baby, what it was really like being forced to attempt to murder one’s family, all that inane nonsense.  I got what this opportunity could be: a chance to force a news story to focus on the ex-hosts and not the Animorphs’ fashion choices or alleged love lives for once.

“Wish I could,” Eva said.  “Unfortunately, the good doctor who is going to build me a new knee tomorrow has insisted that she has to do so as soon as possible and cannot reschedule, and for some reason Marco’s idea of moving the entire protest back a week for little old me didn’t go over well with the organizers.”

“So it’s gotta be me?”  I spoke quietly.  I wasn’t exactly the inspiring-leader type.  Or the rabble-rousing type, for that matter.  Visser Seventeen had done surprisingly well at it, but I would stab myself in the head before I started deliberately channeling his mannerisms to get people to listen to me.

“You’re our only hope, kid,” Eva said solemnly.

“So, uh, no pressure then.”  I laughed nervously.

“You’ve got more than enough charisma to pull it off.”  Eva pushed herself effortfully to her feet, using the back of the chair for support.  Having to get one’s knee rebuilt from scratch sounded... unpleasant.  Then again, I’d seen how out of breath she got going up a single flight of stairs.  Maybe it would help, having a new synthetic knee.

I looked down at the flier, and then back up at her.  “I’m going to be torn limb from limb by angry Marines if I try to claim we should be getting the same rights as them.”

She shrugged.  “You can morph.  If that happens, just regrow the limbs.”

“Oh, well, in that case I can’t see why I’d ever worry about being dismembered,” I said dryly.  I slowly paged through the flier.  “Eva...”

“There are a lot of veterans out there who respect the hell out of what we’re doing.”  She walked over to sit at her own desk, joints creaking.  “Remember that the yeerks did mass sweeps of the military in the last few weeks of the open invasion.  There are entire squadrons who were infested, who have nothing to show for it, and who are as angry as we are.”

“Do you seriously think this will work?”  I turned the flier over, reading the mission statement on the back.

“I think it will draw attention, which is what we need right now,” Eva said.  “A couple dozen zombies carrying signs at some other rally won’t make Congress whip out a new bill overnight, but it will get people talking.”

“Oh, what, I’m not allowed to use the ‘z’ word but you are?”  I crossed my arms.

Eva opened her mouth partway, looking startled.  “I did just call us zombies, didn’t I?”

“Uh-huh,” I said.

“It’s okay, some of my best friends are zombies.”  Eva still looked surprised at herself.

“Seriously?”

“I’m kidding, Tom.  Outlawing that word is item seven-hundred something on the to-do list.”

“I’ll be sure to contact the Night of the Living Dead producers and let them know.”  I tapped my pen on the pad in front of me as if I was actually going to do it.

“Anyway,” Eva said.  “Go.  Be visible.  If you get in front of a camera, perfect.  Tell them why you’re there and why you believe what you do—in short sound bites, or they’ll never use it—and then be boring the rest of the time.  Don’t let them get you off-topic.  If they ask you about Jake, admit you’re related to him, but give them nothing else.  Boring boring boring.  You do that, and you’ll be just fine."

“Yeah,” I said slowly.  “But don’t you think it should wait until you can lead us?  I don’t know much about interviewing, or protesting, and I probably...” Suck at it almost as much as Jake does.  “Probably won’t know what to say.”

Eva folded her hands together on top of her desk.  She looked like she was thinking through how to say whatever it was she was about to tell me.  “As my son feels the need to tell me at least three times a week, the world of television is all about image.  Surface.  What makes for attractive copy.”  She gestured to her own face, the motion lingering near the scars on her cheek and neck.  “I can say without much self-delusion that no one wants to film some old lady like me.”

“You look—”

“Bite your tongue.  My point is, you clean up perfectly well—better than most people, even—when you actually bother to shave and dress nice.  And smile occasionally.  You’ll make for better-looking film than I will, anyway.”

I blinked.  “Are you calling me handsome?”

“Don’t let it go to your head,” Eva said briskly.  “The goal is to get on camera, say your piece, and stick to ‘no comment’ where everything else is concerned.  Let them either figure out who you are or not.”

I smiled slowly.  “You’re saying all I have to do is stand there and look pretty?”

“If I’d known it would go to your head this badly I would have kept my mouth shut,” she said. “Think you can be boring on camera long enough to give us a little free advertising?”

“Yeah, I think so."

“Good.  Now get off your butt and start filing last week’s minutes.  I need them all organized in an hour, because that’s when I’m going to start coaching you.”  She made little shooing motions with one hand.  “I don’t pay you to sit around and improve the decor.”

“You don’t pay me at all,” I pointed out.  I pushed off the floor so my chair wheeled across the room.

“That’s how I know I’m getting my money’s worth.”

Laughing, I grabbed the first stack of files off the hodge-podge on top of the cabinet.

Chapter Text

“I’m not that innocent.”

—Britney Spears, 2000

 

We sent out the call, and to my surprise by the time I arrived at the protest site the next morning there were over twenty Matter Over Mind people waiting for me.  

“Thanks for coming,” I told everyone in our little corner of the square.  “It, uh, it means a lot.”

“There’s no shutting us up now!” Rose Rita called cheerfully.  There was a smattering of laughter.  

Two or three of the people there had signs which said We Were Prisoners Too, which I guess worked as well as anything.  Even as I watched another minivan pulled up and eight more teenagers piled out, chattering to each other as they wandered over to join our group.  The main crowd in the middle of the square—which seemed to be protesting everything from the dearth of FEMA aid for the crisis to the bill which had allowed yeerks to permanently morph aquatic mammals—swelled steadily as I watched.  There looked to be over a thousand people here.  Luckily most of them looked pretty peaceful.  If any violence broke out, we’d all be in major trouble.  

The first person who actually approached me was luckily just one of the Matter Over Mind contingent.  It was Margaret, her greying hair in a severe bun and her posture harsh under her skintight t-shirt.  

“Do you actually believe we’re accomplishing anything by being here?”  Her tone was gentle in contrast to the harshness of her words.  Gotta love those ex-hosts and their social niceties.  

“I think we’re doing more by being here than we’d get done by staying home,” I said at last.  

She opened her mouth, considered, and then shut it again.  “I hope you’re right, sweetheart.”

I sighed.  It was impossible to tell if she was being deliberately condescending or she was just trying to be gentle.  “Yeah, I hope so too.”

She nodded slowly, and then walked away to go join the cluster of ex-hosts without saying goodbye.  

See?  I thought.  With the right standard of comparison, I’m practically normal.

And then I realized I’d automatically addressed that thought to Essa 412.  There went any claim I might have toward being well-adjusted.   

“Hey, you.”  

I felt a smile break out over my face even as I turned.  Bonnie was a vision in a burgundy peasant skirt and an off-the-shoulder top, the wind pulling her hair and clothes into goddesslike ripples.  Gently I slid a hand through her hair, tucking several strands behind her ear and away from where they were trying to glue themselves to her lip gloss.  

“I should have grabbed a scrunchie,” she said, swatting at her fringe.

“You look beautiful, if it helps.”  I gently caught her hair as it made another bid for whipping around and hitting her face again.  

She grinned.  “Guess you just have to stand here and hold it all day, then.”

“Doesn’t sound like such a bad deal to me.”  I dipped a kiss onto the top of her head.  

Bonnie laughed, gently shaking herself loose.  “We gotta save the world first, remember?”  

“Fine, fine.”  I tucked myself against her side, turning to watch as yet another small cluster of ex-hosts wandered over to us.  “Good turnout, huh?”

“No kidding.”  

“What’s with the weird fashion statement?” I asked, nodding toward a cluster of people in odd hats on the fringe of our group.  

“You mean the thing where all those high schoolers are wearing body shirts and leggings in combination?” Bonnie said.  “No clue.”

“Actually, that one I know,” I said.  Even as we watched, a girl walked by in a skintight top, form-hugging shorts, and bare feet.  “It’s called ‘morpher chique.’  Apparently the idea is to kind of look like you might be able to turn into an elephant and rip someone in half if they mess with you, without actually going so far as to emulate the visual atrocity that is Jake in bike shorts.”  

“Kids these days.”  Bonnie shook her head, bemoaning the generational difference from the ripe old age of nineteen.  

I laughed.  “Actually I was asking about the weird pointy beret things that the yuppies over there have on.”  

“Oh, those are pileuses,” Bonnie said.  “Apparently they were hats that Ancient Romans gave out to newly freed slaves to celebrate them being newly freed.  People were wearing them all over the place during that massive parade they had the day after the yeerk surrender.”  

“I spent the day after the yeerk surrender in some crappy cell in Virginia because no one believed me about not being a controller,” I said.  “Must have missed the party.”  

“I could probably get you one if you want,” she offered.  

I glanced over at the cluster of Coneheads and mimed a shudder of horror.  “I think I’ll survive without somehow.”  

“Oh come on.  You would look adorable,” she said solemnly.  

“Nope,” I said firmly.  

She pouted.  

Just then a guy with a megaphone started yelling “What do we want?”

Apparently the correct answer was “JUSTICE!” since that was what his (much larger) cluster of people came back with.  

“When do we want it?” he shouted.  

“NOW!”  

Well, it was a classic for a reason.  I had no idea what justice they wanted, but I imagined I’d probably find out soon if they kept up that volume.  

“Think we should be yelling something?”  It was an older guy from the Matter Over Mind meetings, and he was addressing me.  

I turned to look at him, and the cluster of people behind him.  “According to Visser Mom, our job is to stand here and be visible, so I think that’s what we should do,” I said loudly enough for everyone to hear.  “Any questions?” 

Rose Rita stuck up her hand.  “Does Mrs. Alvarez know you call her that?”  

“He’s still alive, isn’t he?” Mary asked.  There was a smattering of laughter.  

There was an oddly celebratory mood to our little gathering as the morning wore on.  It might have been because of the perfect weather, just breezy enough not to be too hot, or it might have been because we all felt like we were accomplishing something just by being there.  One of the VA guys did wander over to us, but all he did was shake hands with a few people and tell them to keep up the good work.  Some lady in a Humans First t-shirt made some loud comments about “yeerk-heads” getting in the way of the protest, but she was shouted down by the “JUSTICE!” people (whose cause I still hadn’t figured out) before she could rouse anyone else’s anger.  

The news helicopters started circling lazily overhead before long, and they were joined by a corps of reporters on the ground.  Bonnie went over to talk to a few of her coworkers at CNSB, but didn’t make any formal statements other than waving her We Were Prisoners Too sign at the camera; she got called in to help work the crowd before long and had to leave us to it.  A group of people from the Lutheran church came by and gave everyone water bottles, and across the square a children’s choir from some other religious gathering struck up a chorus of “Give Peace a Chance.”  People either wandered by and decided to join in or just showed up late, but there were almost fifty of us by the time the sun was directly overhead.  

And then one of the businessmen in a pileus stepped back from a reporter, and gestured to me instead.  

I moistened my lips.  Guess that was my cue.  

“Nate Quarter, reporting live with CNSB here in downtown Santa Barbara,” the reporter said, and then thrust the microphone at me.  “I hear you’re the leader of these controllers?”

I twitched.  “Fortunately, all of us here are ex-controllers.  And I’m the assistant to the leader of Matter Over Mind, our local support organization for the ex-hosts.”  

“So why are you here today?”  The reporter smiled at me, revealing a lot of extremely white teeth and a few small cracks in his thick layer of make-up.  

“Well, we all believe that the U.S. government needs to recognize that the hosts taken by yeerks are in fact former prisoners of war,” I said.  “And we’re here today protesting the fact that they haven’t been recognized yet.”  

“Yes, and—”  The guy held up a hand to cut himself off.  One of his camera operators had just come over to whisper in his ear.  Presumably the news station had cut to a different reporter, because for the first time his expression relaxed into something human-looking as he listened.  

Uh-oh.  Here it came.  

The camera operator showed the reporter something on her phone, and he looked up at me with wide eyes.  

“This is Nate Quarter, speaking to Animorphs leader Jake Berenson’s older brother Tom Berenson, who is the former host to the yeerk...” He glanced at the phone he’d been handed.  “Visser Seventeen.”  

Well, that hadn’t taken long at all.  

"So," the guy said, grinning at me.  "Tell us, what's it like living with an Animorph?"

I wanted to pull out my phone and send Eva an I told you so text, but I figured that that probably wasn't the thing to do while being filmed.  "It's not bad," I said.   Be boring, I reminded myself.  At least where Jake was concerned.

The guy nodded like he was really thinking about that.  "Can you clarify what you mean by that?" he said.

No, I was tempted to answer.  But I conjured a small smile for him.  "I mean, Jake's fine.  He never cleans his room, he has terrible taste in music, but I wouldn't trade him in if I had the chance."

The reporter did some more smiling and nodding.  "Didn't he try to kill you?" 

Oh, there it was.  At least I wasn't totally caught off guard by this one, having already seen in detail just how creepy-invasive people could be when they asked Jake about me.  And honestly, what did they want me to say?  Yes?  No?  It's complicated?  He was trying to save the entire fucking planet and Visser Seventeen was about to fuck it over, you ungrateful idiots?  Actually, I think you're thinking of Rachel—why don't you go sling mud at her instead?

The guy repeated the question.  Figuring at this point my chance to pop out a diplomatic answer (“He did what we had to and we talked about it and it's all good with me” or something like that) had come and gone, I remained silent.  I did my best to imitate Eva’s ice-cold stone-faced stare of silent judgment.  It always worked for her, effectively shutting down anyone who asked her personal questions about Marco.  I must have pulled it off at least a little because the reporter cleared his throat, looking uncomfortable.  

The guy leaned closer and repeated the question a little louder, looking concerned, and then did it again.  I kept the polite look on my face, and then I suddenly raised my eyebrows like it had only just dawned on me then what he was asking about.  

“Oh,” I said, as if I’d just figured out what he was asking.  “In that case, no comment.” I smiled blandly.  

Hopefully that was enough to give them a thoroughly boring film clip for tomorrow’s news.  

“I'm actually here today for the protest, just like everyone else,” I said before the reporter could recover enough to pop out another question.

“So you support former controllers being recognized as prisoners of war by the U.S. government?”  Thank goodness, he did actually seize on that one.

“Yes I do.”  This one I had a meaningful answer for.  “There is no reason they should not be, given that the conflict with the yeerks is already being described as the Universal War or the Silent War by the recent history books and the fight, although quantifiably different from the traditional idea of war of the twentieth century, nonetheless involved the taking of prisoners by both sides.”

“And the fact that most of those prisoners were civilians?” The reporter smiled. “Please repeat the question in your answer.”

What was this, elementary school? “It shouldn’t matter that they were civilians.  The Geneva Convention allotted reparations for individuals taken from their homes during World War II even if they were not soldiers.  So there is a precedent for considering non-combatants who still get caught up in the conflict prisoners of war, even if they didn't choose to fight."

"Yes, and what about the ones who did choose to fight?"  There was a gotcha gleam in the man's eye; he had to realize I couldn't keep up the verbal fencing match forever without stumbling.  "Do you consider the people who became controllers willingly a part of what you're trying to do here?"

"I think that the differences between the people who were taken and held by force and the ones who joined the yeerks voluntarily are pretty vast," I said.  

This guy wasn't Eva, wasn't some Matter Over Mind attendee with a chip in his shoulder.  He was, if I had to guess, one of the random schmoes who at best didn't understand the difference between voluntaries and involuntaries and at worst didn't care.

"So you don't consider them a part of your movement,” he said.

I waited a second, hoping for patience.  At least the yeerks had effectively killed every shred of impulsivity I'd ever had.  "I doubt many of them would want a part of it.  Most of them supported the yeerks, remember."  

The reporter glanced down at the phone surreptitiously, and then back up at me. “And how do you feel about the recent Cooper-Trebond verdict, where the courts decided not to convict voluntary controllers of war crimes?  Doesn’t it worry you that these individuals will escape justice?”

“Not particularly,” I said honestly.  

Clearly they’d been hoping for some more indignation than that after I’d just said that voluntaries couldn’t be part of Eva’s special little club.  The journalist frowned.  

“We are talking about individuals who chose to help the yeerk invaders take over the Earth,” he said sharply.  

I sighed.  “Yeah, maybe.  I know the case, and... Look, it’s just not even that easy to tell who was voluntary and who was not.”

“Then don’t you think the police should be working harder to figure out who the voluntary controllers were?” the reporter said.  

“How?”  I could hear the weariness in my own voice.  “A witch hunt is the last thing anyone needs, and it would basically be a witch hunt since all we’ve got is a bunch of hearsay.  Most of the hosts didn’t even know each other’s names anyway.”

The guy tried again.  “So then you don’t think voluntary controllers should be punished?”  

I shifted in place on the steps, very aware of the camera pointed at my face.  Had to remember to choose my words carefully.  “I think that the war’s over, and we should focus on rebuilding, not punishing.”

The reporter looked down at his notes, and then back up at me.  “So you agree with the police’s decision to devote almost no resources to the investigation of war crimes perpetrated by both sides of the conflict?”  

Yeah, I detected that verbal trap loud and clear.  It annoyed me enough that I veered off into the subject forefront on my mind without even meaning to.  “If the police have so much time to spare, how about Sophie Hatter?  Karana Nicoleño?  Benjamin Passmore? All ex-voluntary hosts.  All murdered.  Maybe even the same person who did it.  Why isn’t anyone paying attention to that?  It’s happening right now.”

“Excuse me?” the reporter said.  

“There have been five, maybe six, former voluntary hosts murdered since the end of the war,” I said.  In for a penny, in for several hundred dollars... “Someone is killing them.  And yet no one seems to care, because they’re voluntary hosts.”  

The reporter seemed to be scrambling to catch up with this abrupt shift in topic.  “Are you saying that you think the voluntary hosts were right?”

“No, of course not,” I snapped.  “I’m saying I don’t think they should be murdered.  There’s a huge difference.”  

He frowned thoughtfully.  “Could you give me those names again?”

A surge of hope expanded in my gut.  Maybe for the first time someone was going to listen to me, even if it was an ambulance-chasing mudslinger only looking for a sufficiently shocking story.  “Sophie Hatter.  Karana Nicoleño.  Benjamin Passmore.  T.J. Avery, too, I think.  Maybe Alex Morales and Lucas Cabral, too, but I could be wrong about those.  I’m not a detective.  Someone who actually knows what they’re doing needs to look into this.”

“And you think these deaths are all connected somehow?” the reporter said.  “That one person is somehow responsible for all these people dying?”

“I think it’s a possibility someone should investigate.”  I could tell we were heading for dangerous territory again—he was probably hoping I would start raving about government conspiracies or something.  

One of the reporter’s many assistants was taking notes.  

He stepped further into the light of the camera.  “How exactly would someone be able to pull off that many murders?”  

“If they could morph...”  I stopped myself, took a deep breath, and deliberately backtracked.  It was a little late to be boring, but I could at least keep the crazy to a minimum.  “I just mean, that’s one possibility.  I’m not sure how they would be doing it.  Just that it’s awfully suspicious this many voluntaries—that is, voluntary ex-hosts—died in the same way, in such close succession.  That’s all.”

“Okay,” the reporter said brightly.  He didn’t exactly seem concerned with the possibility that a morph-capable serial killer might be out there right now.  “Thank you for your time.  That’ll be all for now, thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” I said slowly.  I had the nasty feeling I’d just fucked up pretty royally.  

He was already turning away to say something else chipper to the camera.  

Sighing, I stuffed my hands in my pockets and walked away slowly.  For the first time I became aware that my heart was pounding with tension, and had been the whole time I was on camera.  

Fortunately, it wasn’t that hard to disappear into the crowd, and remain anonymous for the rest of the morning.  The police showed up and dispersed the protest in the early afternoon (to the clear disappointment of some of the “JUSTICE!” people, they neither arrested anyone nor used their nightsticks), and everyone wandered off.  

I glanced back toward the courthouse steps, wondering if I should call Eva and forewarn her that I’d just babbled about my stupid serial killer theory in front of a news camera.  Forestalling the inevitable, I left my phone in my pocket and headed home.  

Bonnie called me almost as soon as I walked in the door.

"Hey," I said heavily.

"I'm sorry," she said.  "I did what I could to suppress the story, but, well, that totally failed. So I figured the least I could do was warn you."

“It’s okay.”  I glanced around, but no one else was in earshot.  Jake was probably home, since he was rarely anywhere else, but he was apparently upstairs for now.  “I knew what I was getting myself into.  I’ll deal with it.”  

Bonnie didn’t answer, which was ominous.

I dropped onto the couch, phone jammed awkwardly between my cheek and shoulder.  “Let me guess: 'Paranoid Yeerk-Head Spouts Conspiracy Theories; Sources Worry the Craziness Runs in the Family'?"

"No," she said grimly. "Not exactly.”

“What, then?”

Bonnie sighed, the sound echoing loudly down the phone line.  “CNSB did some little fluff piece on the protest and used that clip from you, but then CNN bought the footage.  Judging by what their intern told me, I think they’re going to try and make it out as some kind of schism between you and Jake.”

“Wait, what?  I barely even mentioned Jake.”  

“Yeah.  I’m not sure what extremely flimsy crap they’re using to build that story, but apparently something you said today, taken out of context...”

I frowned. That was going to require a lot of liberal interpretation on the part of some aspiring reporter somewhere, but I was sure that with enough creative editing anything was possible.

“Well, shit,” I said at last.

“Yeah,” Bonnie said, “sorry.”

“Well, thanks for trying, anyway.”

“Yeah.”  Bonnie shifted around, typing something in the background.  “I don’t know all the details.  Call me after you watch, okay?”

"Will do.  Thanks.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” she said darkly.

I caught the story that afternoon, and Bonnie was right: it was worse than I'd anticipated.

It took a while for the right story to come up.  First I had to sit through a couple talking heads bemoaning the death of society in light of the rise of amateur preteen vigilantism.  That was followed by an inane fashion piece on the hot new trend in spandex rocking the nation.  Then there was yet another rehashing of the controversy surrounding Madonna's new single "I Want to Be Controlled (So Baby Crawl Your Way Inside Me Tonight)" and whether it was technically exploiting the live yeerks that were used as set pieces in the accompanying music video.

I wasn't sure if CNN had ever been a quality news program at any point in its distant past, but I was becoming more and more convinced it wasn't one now.  And it didn't even have the excuse of being partially run by yeerks the way it had this time last year.

The tagine the CNN talking head used was "Up next: trouble in paradise? Jake Berenson's own brother expresses sympathy for the yeerk cause. Get the full story after these messages."

"WHAT?" I blurted, so loudly I heard a thump upstairs.  

A minute later Jake poked his head into the room. "What's wrong?"

I grabbed the remote, turned off the sound, and told him what they'd said.

"What did you say?" Jake said slowly.

I turned to glare at him, annoyed at the implied accusation. "Not, 'gee, the yeerks sure were right about everything,’ if that’s what you’re wondering.”

“I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Sorry,” I muttered.

He sat down next to me, squinting at the screen which now showed a muted commercial.  “Look, clearly they’re using something as the basis for their bullshit. Do you know where they’re getting this from?”

“Um.”  I ran through the interview again in my head.  Unless the guy had taken my silence on the subject of Jake trying to kill me as disgust or horror, not much was coming to mind.  “I said that I wasn’t pissed voluntaries aren’t in prison?” 

Jake bit his lip.  “That might do it.”

“Is it too late to become a hermit and live in the woods?”

“Shhh.”  Jake turned up the volume on the TV; the commercial break had ended.  

“Jake Berenson emerged as a hero of the yeerk-human war six months ago when he forced a surrender of the empire’s vissers,” the voice-over said.  There was a clip of Jake talking into the comm screen of the Pool ship, and another one of the ship landing on the lawn of the Washington Mall.  “As he has openly admitted, his final gambit in ending the war involved sending his cousin, Rachel Berenson—”  A still photo of her, at least a few years out of date, formally dressed for school picture day.  “to kill his own brother, Thomas Berenson, in order to defeat the yeerk, Visser Seventeen, inside his brother’s head.”  A shot of me standing on the bridge of the Blade ship, one of Essa 412’s smug little expressions twisting the corner of my mouth.

“Blah, blah, come on,” I muttered, drumming the fingers of my right hand against the couch cushion.  

Jake shushed me again, still staring intently at the screen.  

“Up until now, we have had no reason to doubt Jake’s assurances that Tom was infested involuntarily and did not willingly play any role in the devastation that Visser Seventeen wrought on Santa Barbara.  However, new evidence came to light today—”

No.”  Jake’s voice was a low growl of anger.  “No.  They wouldn’t.”

I was frozen, heart pounding.  What the fuck had I said?

“—that raises questions about whether Tom may have been a voluntary accomplice of the yeerks.”

Chapter Text

“I held my head up high/ hiding hate that burns inside/ which only fuels their selfish pride.”

—Creed, 1997

 

The clip they cut to was from earlier today.  I was standing on the steps across from the glossy reporter, looking flat and washed-out in the brilliant sunlight.  “And how do you feel about the recent Cooper-Trebond verdict, where the courts decided not to convict voluntary controllers of war crimes?” the reporter said.  “Doesn’t it worry you that these individuals will escape justice?” 

My voice sounded flat even to my own ears as I said, “Not particularly.”

Jake groaned, burying his head in his hands.  

The scene cut, zooming in on my expression as I said, “A witch hunt is the last thing anyone needs.”

The story cut back to the news anchor, looking solemn.  “So he doesn’t care about whether the yeerks’ allies are punished or not?  Or is it that he actively wants to avoid the voluntary controllers being brought to justice?”  She folded her hands on the desk.  “What would a truly involuntary controller have to fear from the proper application of the law?  If he hasn’t done anything wrong, why would he refer to the search for human traitors as a ‘witch hunt?’”

This time the clip was just me saying, “It’s just not even that easy to tell who was voluntary and who was not.”

“Very convenient for many of the former voluntary controllers, don’t you think?” the news anchor asked.  “Especially Mr. Berenson.”

Another cut back to the courthouse steps.  

“So then you don’t think voluntary controllers should be punished?” the reporter was asking.

The several seconds of hesitation before I answered looked very suspicious from the outside.  Finally they zoomed in on my nervous expression as I said, “I think that the war’s over.  And we should focus on rebuilding, not punishing.”

“Well, there you have it, viewers.”  The news anchor adjusted her pile of notes, looking almost smug.  “He doesn’t think there should be war reparations.  Nor does he believe that any further attempt should be made to separate the criminals from the innocent victims of the war.  One must wonder: if he truly is one of the innocent, what would he have to fear from the search for voluntaries?”

Well, damn.

Jake turned to look at me.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I didn’t realize—”

“No, it’s not your fault,” he said sharply.  “They’re just...”

The TV screen was currently showing footage from Rachel’s funeral.  It panned past the urn and flowers to show me standing just beyond Jordan and Sarah, expression blank.  As if I was bored by the whole thing.  Apathetic about her death.  No, worse—as I was holding that blank look.  As if I was hiding something.  Anger at the yeerks’ defeat, maybe.  Glee that Rachel was gone.  

“... must ask ourselves,” the voice-over was saying, “what this lack of empathy indicates about the character of this young man...”  

Jake stood up, pacing across the floor.  “Those bastards!”

"Everything all right?" Apparently Dad had gotten off work.  He was peering into the room, frowning.  

"The media got bored of defaming Jake's character and decided to go after me instead,” I said.

What?”  Dad walked into the room and stopped next to the couch, arms crossed.  

“I know, I know.  But we can’t all be ‘the only person FOX and CNN can agree upon liking,’ according to the L.A. Times.”  I offered him a smile I didn’t feel.

“MSNBC doesn’t like me,” Jake said defensively, not looking over.  He perched back on the arm of the couch, still vibrating with anger.  

“Hence the defaming,” I murmured.  

We all watched footage of Essa 412 accepting an award for “Services to the Community” from Visser Three, a smarmy little grin on my face the whole time.  We were silent, even though the CNN commentary wasn’t saying anything any of us wanted to hear.

I wasn't sure if the feeling in my gut was closer to nausea or exhaustion, but I knew its source: dread. What was this going to mean for... everything? How could I have been so stupid?

And then the screen flashed Viewer Discretion Advised: Content May Be Disturbing to Some Individuals.

Oh God they had footage from the yeerk pool the little boy or maybe it was the garment factory that young woman they were about to watch my body murder someone the whole world they were saying it was me doing all this me and not the yeerk—

The shot switched to security footage from an industrial garage, empty except for an ambulance parked in the corner, and I realized it was both better and worse than I’d feared.

Jake must have recognized what we were about to see as well, because he snapped his head around to look at me, eyes wide with alarm.  He shot a pointed glance at Dad’s back and then looked back to me, tilting his head toward the door.

I nodded.

Jake jumped to his feet.  “Dad, look, it’s probably better if you don’t see this,” he said.

“But it’s all right for you to see?” Dad frowned.  “What is it, kiddo?”

On the screen, hork-bajir-controllers started flooding into the hospital garage.

Mercifully, there was no sound, but the picture was in color and not nearly as pixelated as it could have been.  It was more than clear enough to watch as Jake and I entered the screen.  Jake was being half-pulled, half-dragged by the bruising grip of my left hand wrapped around his neck and my right, which wrenched his arm behind him at a deliberately painful angle.  

Dad hissed in surprise.  The sound was very loud in the quiet of the room.  The CNN anchor was still technically talking, but no one was listening to her.

Jake stood up, gently shepherding Dad out of the room.  I’m not sure what he said, just that there was a whispered argument in the hallway and he came back alone.  

I was staring raptly at the center of the screen, even though I knew what was happening.  There were more hork-bajir-controllers following Essa 412 into the room now, dragging with them the rest of the Animorphs.  Essa 412 suddenly lashed out, releasing my grip on Jake’s neck and flinging him into the wall.  He impacted with so much force that in the present moment I flinched.  My memory supplied the crunch of a rib breaking as Jake’s body slammed into the unforgiving concrete.

Rachel’s mouth was open, yelling, as she struggled against the hork-bajir who held her.  It was a shame no one had recorded that; from what I could recall the threats had been extremely graphic and mostly centered around the theme of her breaking my skull open with her bare hands, digging the yeerk out with a shrimp fork, and barbecuing it to death over the course of several hours if it laid one more finger on Jake.  

My face turned directly toward the camera, my mouth opening as Essa 412 answered Efflit 1318’s comment that the Blade ship had been delayed but should arrive in a few minutes.  My eyes were wide, the expression on my face almost crazed. Essa had been at the end of the metaphorical rope, one screw-up away from a thoroughly painful death and very aware of it.

Jake was just the most convenient target of that rage and frustration.

On the tape Jake was starting to get to his feet.  Essa spun back around.

"You're going to join them."  There was still no sound, but I remembered the shape of the words in my mouth. "Your mommy and daddy are pitiful slaves by now, Jake, and pretty soon you're going to join them.  Won't take long before you're as beaten down as Tommy here."  

Essa backhanded Jake into the wall.  As soon as Jake was down my foot came up, stomping down full-force.  I wished I didn't remember the feel of Jake’s second and third ribs breaking under my sneaker.  Didn't know about the way Jake’s scream of pain had been cut off by his inability to get a full breath of air.  

"You know, I thought there was nothing left of him. I thought we'd broken him for good.  That he was finally going to stop whimpering all the time." Essa crouched over Jake. My voice had gone low, as if sharing a secret.  “But he just woke up.  And you know what, midget?  Right now he’s screaming.”  

On the tape Jake’s head jerked up, fury replacing pain on his face.  I watched his mouth form the shape of several words that our dad probably wasn’t aware Jake even knew, and definitely would have grounded him for using.  

Essa’s response was to swing my fist around and break Jake’s nose as well.  I remembered the sharp sting against my knuckles.  Jake’s head slammed back against the concrete, and this time his eyes rolled back in his head.  And then Essa stood up, turning to address someone else in the room even though it wasn’t clear who was talking.

In the present, Jake shot me a questioning look.  

“Marco,” I explained shortly.  “Pointing out that if Essa four-twelve killed you then Visser One would throw a shit fit.”  

“Killed me?” Jake said.  “He wasn’t going to kill me.”

“You weren’t breathing properly by then.  We could all hear it.”  I swallowed, bile hot in the back of my throat.  “And yeah, he was.  If he could get away with making it look like an accident.”

“‘Accident?’”  Jake was the only one keeping this conversation going.  “What, as in ‘oopsie, I strangled my host’s brother without meaning to?’  Yeah, I’m sure Visser One would have totally believed that.”

The version of Jake on the tape was slowly opening his eyes, which were bright with unshed tears.  Essa 412 was explaining to him that they were going to kill his parents very slowly over the course of several hours if Jake didn’t accept infestation quietly.

“As in ‘oopsie, he wouldn’t tell me where the morphing cube was,’” I said.  "But 'hey look, I found it, so I guess all's forgiven.'"  My right hand was clenched around my left so hard that my fingers were throbbing.  It wasn’t enough to suppress the sense memory of Jake’s skin and bone breaking under those same hands, but at least it stopped the shaking.

“Oh, well, that’s...”  Jake gave up.  He was still watching as his past self stared up at me through two rapidly-blackening eyes, blood from a cut under his hairline painting its way down his forehead.

On the tape, my head turned toward Efflit 1318 again.  This time Efflit was announcing that the Blade ship had arrived.  

My left hand gestured sharply toward the hork-bajir as Essa 412 snapped out another order.  The yeerk had my right hand jammed into my jacket pocket, wrapped firmly around the morphing cube.  Two of the hork-bajir controllers moved forward and hauled Jake to his feet.  He was still hunched halfway over, blood now pouring out of his nose and the corner of his mouth.

I glanced toward the Jake sitting on the arm of the couch.  For the first time I wondered whether that last kick had, in fact, punctured his lung.  Whether he’d even have survived the trip to the yeerk pool, if Cassie hadn’t shown up when she did and given him the chance to morph.  

The TV cut abruptly from that last shot of Jake coughing blood onto the floor to a close-up of a news anchor whose lips were pursed in fake concern.  Apparently we weren’t going to get to see Cassie and James’s crew kick the yeerks’ butt today.  

“Now,” the news anchor said, “these are of course very serious allegations, but any possibility at all that the young man in question could have willingly perpetrated such..."

I lost the thread of what she was saying.  Lost track of everything.  The TV now was flickering, cutting to a different picture, and I didn’t want to see what else they had, just hoped that my eyes would move away from the screen soon.  

Jake suddenly blocked my view of the screen, moving into my personal space.  He reached down and gently pried my hands apart.

Shuddering, my body pulled away from him.  It was enough to remind me that I could move.

Moving awkwardly (my whole left hand was asleep), I shoved myself to my feet.  Jake took a hasty step back. He was looking at me with an expression that was somewhere between horror and pity.  

“Tom,” he said softly.  

I took another step away from him.

“We can figure this out.”  Jake stepped forward again.  “I’ll tell them right now that you’re not—”

“Excuse me,” I said.  And then I turned and ran from the room.  

I stumbled upstairs, shutting myself in the hall bathroom.  It was the only room in the house that actually locked.  

When I turned away from the door, my reflection stared back at me.  It had that same wild, uncertain expression that had distorted the face Essa 412 had owned.  Everything was the same, from the wide dark eyes darting and fixing in erratic patterns to the narrow mouth that trembled just slightly.  If I wanted to, I could pull out Temrash 114’s cold smirk.  Or the cruel expression Visser Seventeen had worn while taunting Jake in the taxxon tunnels.  It was all there.  It was all me.  

“I’m not a visser,” I whispered out loud.  “I just play one on television.”

If this had been an episode of one of the TV dramas my mom wrote for, I would take this opportunity to smash the mirror.  As it was, I had enough sense to refrain from doing that—but I did drop down to dig through the drawers under the sink, a much more practical goal in mind.  A much better weapon.  Not one of the crappy safety razors, not the electric one, but the long narrow straight razor Jake had inherited from our grandfather years ago.  He kept it sharp, which worked well for my purposes.

Gripping the straight razor carefully in my right hand, I flattened my left on the counter.  

The last two fingers of my left hand were long, narrow, smooth-skinned except for where the knuckles puckered into wrinkles.  I had a scab on my ring finger where I’d caught it on a cabinet drawer the day before yesterday.  My pinky curved slightly inwards even as I spread it away from my other fingers.  

I wouldn’t miss them that much.

I could still type with eight fingers, if I’d be a little slower at it.  I could dribble a ball righty and shoot with both hands, and their absence wouldn’t make much difference.  If the impulse to get married ever struck me I could just stick the wedding band on my right hand.

It was the smallest injury I’d ever seen Visser Three execute a host for: losing two fingers from the non-dominant hand.  Ax had done it, to stop the controller in question from shooting Cassie.  He’d probably even thought at the time that he was using non-lethal tactics.

I ran my thumb along the razor edge.  Sure enough, it was sharp enough to leave a narrow and painless cut behind.  It would be fast.  

I wouldn’t miss them that much, but without those two fingers I’d be unfit.  Uninhabitable.  Unuseable.  

Uninfested.

My right hand was shaking, just a little.  That wouldn’t matter—this wasn’t a precision job.  Had to try and get it done with one clean chop.  The idea of having to saw at the tendons and bones turned my stomach over.  

“Okay,” I whispered.  “Okay.”

I took careful aim, raised the razor—and slammed it down with all my strength.

The pain was exquisite.  It rocked me backwards, every nerve ending signing to life.  It was so sharp, so consciousness-consuming, that I stopped breathing for several seconds.  Black splodges threatened the edges of my vision.

Blood sprayed over the mirror, the sink, the linoleum.  Drunk and dizzy and elated from its loss, I staggered back two steps and sat hard on the floor.  

There were two small round shapes still lying on the countertop, bone showing through the broken ends.  My stomach and lap were becoming soaked with the blood running steadily from my mutilated hand.  I was seconds away from losing consciousness.

I closed my eyes and focused on the king cobra.

My entire body collapsed inwards on my spine, sucked into the ever-growing string of vertebrae as scales raced across my skin.  The snake mind, when it surfaced, wanted to relax.  Wanted to be calm and think things through.  Wanted to lie around and consider my options and maybe hope some prey came along while we were waiting.

Before that idea could become too tempting, I reversed the morph.  

When I demorphed, I did so far more slowly.  I focused on my face as I knew it in the mirror.  Focused on my current haircut.  Focused on ten toes, eight fingers.  Eight.  

It should work in theory.  Just as long as I pictured—

My left hand.  Three fingers, two stumps.  My body.  How it was going to be from now on.  

When I was done demorphing, I finally opened my eyes.  

The blood was still there, but my left hand had completely healed itself.  I looked down at the ring and pinky fingers I had just regrown—and then back up to the severed bone-shattered copies of them still lying on the counter.  

“Shit,” I said softly.  

With a grimace of distaste, I stood up and swept the fingers I’d chopped off into the trash can.  There was still blood all over everything, but that didn’t matter.  I was about to make even more of a mess.  

I carefully raised the razor again, trying to imitate the exact angle I’d used last time.  Knowing the pain was coming was worse now; I could feel bile trying to crawl up my throat.  I took a deep breath, bracing myself, and aligned the razor.  

“It’s not gonna work.”

I whipped around.  

Jake was leaning against the door, which was still locked.  Of course that hadn’t been enough to keep him out.  

I set the razor down on the edge of the sink, trying to look casual.  “I just...”

Jake waited.  

I didn’t bother finishing my sentence.  The bathroom already looked like a slaughterhouse.  There wasn’t really a legitimate way I could excuse that.

“So you were going to keep chopping fingers off until eventually they stayed gone?” Jake’s voice wavered.

I felt a sick lurch. Those were tears I could hear in his voice.  “More or less,” I said.

Jake closed his eyes, making a visible effort to keep calm.  “You seriously think you could keep that up?”

“You seriously think you could stop me?”

Jake swallowed, and then did it again.  “Yeah.  I probably could.”

He was probably right, too.  I didn't have an answer to that. I turned away, picking up the razor again.

Jake put two tentative fingers on my wrist to stop me. “If you do that over and over, eventually you're going to bleed to death.”

“I'll make sure that doesn't happen.” I swung my wrist out from under his hand, careful not to catch him with the blade. These hands had already done more than enough damage to his skin and bone.

Jake grabbed the razor by the bladed end.  He hissed in pain—it had opened up a long cut on his palm—but still yanked it away from me.  He folded it without cleaning it and stuck it in his pocket.  

“Guess I could always become a nothlit instead,” I said.

“You'd be better off dead.”

I smiled, expression twisted. It probably made me look like Essa 412. “Did Tobias tell you that?”

“No,” Jake said. “Arbron.”

There was a silence.  Jake pressed his uninjured hand against his palm to stop the blood flow, grimacing in pain.  

“You should really just morph to fix that,” I said wearily.  “And while you’re at it, piss off.  Leave me alone.”  

“And here I thought you were done letting yeerks run your life,” Jake spat.  “My mistake.”

“You shouldn't believe everything you hear on TV,” I said, rather than answering him directly. “I never let yeerks do anything.”

“That’s not what I—”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.”  I pointed toward the door of the bathroom.  “Piss off, would you?  I’ve got this all under control.”

Jake opened his mouth and then snapped it shut again.  I could see him grinding his teeth together, trying to get his temper under control.  Not my problem.

I was just so fucking tired.  So... done.  

“I don’t want to lose you,” Jake said at last.  His voice was very tight.  “I don’t want to lose anyone ever again, and you’re pretty damn high on the list of anyone.  Is that so much to ask for?”   

He was doing that thing again.  That thing where he looked all wide-eyed and imploring—it so didn’t help that he still had his hands clasped together—and next thing I knew I was telling him that of course he could tag along with me and my friends.  Or that he didn’t really have to give back the walkman he’d stolen from me over a month ago.  Or that I had nothing better to do than spend an entire afternoon making yet another futile attempt to teach him a proper layup.  

“You wouldn’t think that would be too much to ask,” Jake continued.  “But apparently...”  He looked away, pressing his lips together.  

“I’m not going anywhere.”  I sighed, sitting on the edge of the sink.  “I just...”  I buried my face in my hands, sticky blood spreading everywhere.  “What if they come back?  You ever think about that?  What if it happens again?”

“If it does, it’ll take me about two months to kill them all.”  

I looked up at Jake.

He looked straight at me, unapologetic.  “They know who I am, so there’d be no point in trying to hide or do it their way.  I’d bring the fight to them.  Hit them hard, right away, with the full strength of the U.N. peacekeeping force and the U.S. military, before they can get a foothold.  The second they built a pool, I’d poison it.  If they took hosts, we’d lock them up and starve the yeerks out.  We could recruit the human and andalite governments right away.  The offensive strategy would focus on preventing the establishment of yeerk pools, whereas the defensive strategy would be about using the U.S.’s missile-defense system and interstellar communications shutdown to create a safe zone for the human and hork-bajir forces.  Using that system, we could probably turn back a force up to ten times the size of the ones the yeerks brought last time with minimal casualties.  It’d be over in two months, tops, even assuming massive technological advances on their part.”

“Then again,” I said slowly, “maybe you’ve thought about this more than I have.”

“What, you thought you cornered the market on wondering in the middle of the night whether this peace is permanent?”  He smiled, the expression shaky.  

“You seriously think that’s how it would happen?” I asked.  “That it would be that simple to win this time?”

“Remember the part where there are five billion of us and only about a hundred thousand of them?”  He shrugged.  “Of course, all of that is assuming they’d manage to get another invasion off the ground.  The yeerks know we treat our prisoners of war a hell of a lot better than they treat theirs.  Last time they figured out all on their own it was to their advantage to surrender.  You seriously think the Council of Thirteen could muster enough popular support for another war?”  

It all seemed so simple when he laid it out like that.  And he would know better than I would how to defend the planet from yeerks.  

“You seem very sure about this,” I said at last.  

“I’m freakin’ betting my life on it,” he said.  “I’d better be.”

I sighed.  

“Look, can you please just come downstairs?  Please?”  He was giving me that stupid imploring look again.  Manipulative little shit.  

“I’m not going to do anything stupid,” I mumbled.  “Wouldn’t work anyway.  And yeah, you’re right it would be letting them win.”

“Great.”  He opened the door, smearing blood on the handle.  “So unless you have to pee or something, there’s no reason you can’t just come back downstairs.”  

I rolled my eyes.  “Okay, okay.”

“Thanks." 

“You should seriously do something about that hand,” I said. 

Jake looked at his palm.  “It’s not that bad.  Anyway, do you have an excuse for Mom when she inevitably asks why there are enough bloody paper towels for an entire Satanic cult in the trash can?”

I opened my mouth, thought for a second, and shut it again.  “Okay, but don’t, like, bleed out,” I said at last.  I walked out of the bathroom, turning toward the stairs with a pointed look at Jake.  

“This mess’ll blow over,” Jake said softly.  

I snorted.  “That a promise, midget?”  

“Sure.”  Jake gave me one of those dangerous smiles.  “And if it doesn’t, I’ll just have to do something about it.”  

Chapter Text

“What’s so civil about war, anyway?”

—Guns ‘n Roses, 1991

 

The first thing that Eva said to me when I got into the office the following Monday was, “I’m sorry.”   

I blinked, caught by surprise.  “I think that’s my line,” I said at last.

It was Eva’s turn to look surprised.  “What’d you do?”

“You wanted good press for the organization,” I said heavily.  “That was not exactly what I got us.”  

“Yeah, and whose fault is that?”  Eva’s expression was hard, but her voice was more gentle than I’d ever heard it.

“Um, mine?” I guessed.

“No.”  She was still staring intently at me from across the desk. “They went looking for dirt on Jake as soon as they figured out who you were, and when you didn’t give them any they resorted to making stuff up.  Honey, you didn’t say—or do—a single thing you shouldn’t have.  You probably could have sneezed in the middle of the interview and they’d be talking right now about how your entire family is dying of E. coli.”

This was not even slightly the reaction I’d been expecting from Eva.  Hell, I’d have given it even odds this morning about whether she was going to fire me.  I swallowed hard, not saying anything.  

“So yeah, we’re probably going to get some stupid crap from bad press for a little while, but we’ll deal with it.”  Eva shrugged.  “We’ve all survived worse.”

“Thanks,” I whispered.  “And... I am sorry I didn’t think through what I was saying more.”

“And I’m sorry I threw you to the wolves without meaning to. We live, we learn, we—”

Beedeedeedeedee.

“—answer the phone?” I suggested.  

“Exactly.”  Eva gestured grandly toward my desk.  

I leaned over the desk to grab it out of its cradle.  “Matter Over Mind, this is...”  I hesitated.  “This is Eva Alvarez’s assistant.  How can I help you?”

“Um, well, I’m not sure if I’m calling the right place?”  The woman on the other end gave a nervous little laugh.  “Do you know anything about how to, like, write a cover letter to get a job?  If you don’t have any previous jobs?  But you didn’t because, well, yeerks?”

“Absolutely.”  I spoke with a little too much enthusiasm, mostly because it wasn’t a call about yesterday’s news story the way I’d been expecting.  “All right, do you have a soft copy of your resume and an email address?”  

“Yeah?”  

I couldn’t tell if her voice just naturally went up at the end of every sentence or if she genuinely phrased everything as a question.  “Great,” I said.  “So, the key to everything I’m about to tell you boils down to one concept: observational experience.”

“Observational...?  Why?”

That one had actually been Bonnie’s idea initially, but it had proven to be wildly useful.  As it turned out there were a lot of people who had no jobs because, well, yeerks.  

“Well, you’re going to want to write down every skill that the yeerk ever picked up or used that you think you could apply now, ma’am.”  I sat down behind the desk, still cradling the phone, and switched on the computer.  “Do you speak any alien languages?”

“A little Galard, yes.”

Oh look, an actual statement that wasn’t a question.  “Perfect,” I said.  “Write that one down.  What about Bug fighter maintenance, communications equipment programming, anything like that?”  

“No, I...”  She sighed.  “This is hopeless.  Okdar eleven-fifty-eight just worked in the yeerk pool kitchen, mostly.” 

“Are you kidding?”  I straightened up.  “That’s perfect.  Okay, so, you’ve got ‘observational experience’ with food preparation and service right there.  What about any planning functions?  Ordering?  Anything like that?”

“Yes, some?  Washing dishes, too, and planning out the new supply routes after the one water ship got destroyed?”  

“Teenagers, right?” I said. “They’ll blow up anything if you leave them unsupervised for long enough.”  

“Should I put that down in my resume?”  

Be literal, my mental Loren said.   Literal.  

“So you’ll want to write down absolutely everything that Okdar eleven-fifty-eight did that could possibly count as a skill, but you’ll want to be honest about it.”  I didn’t bother to dignify her question with a response. “Admit where that experience comes from, admit that it’s not like you’ve done most of that volitionally, but still apply to places that are looking for experienced cooks or servers or planners.  You’ve got more to work with than I think you realize.  It’s all in how you sell it.  Anyway, write all that down, jot out a cover letter based on that idea, and send it all along to—do you have a pen?”

“Yes?”

Did that mean she had a pen or not?  “Okay,” I said.  “It’s matterovermind-at-AOL-dot-com.  You need me to spell any of that?”  

“No?”

“Great.  Send that along when you get a chance.  I’ll take a look and send it back.”  I was tempted to hang up right there, but...  “Is that everything I can help you with today?”  

“Yeah?”  

“Okay.  Have a good day, then.”  Now I did hang up. 

“Not that it’s not nice of you to try and help,” Eva said loftily from where she was now sorting mail across the room.  “But I’m just saying, you’re not gonna see me trying to work a sailboat all on my own anytime soon.”

“Yes, well, you died in a sailboat, as you just got done telling that telemarketer last Thursday,” I pointed out.  “So I’d say that’s a little different.”

“They don’t call back if you tell them the person they’re asking after died over five years ago.”  Eva dropped one of her piles of mail into the trash can and tucked the other one under her arm.

“They also end up tearfully apologizing for the misunderstanding half the time.”  I kicked the CPU a few times with the toe of my sneaker in the hope that would make it boot up faster.

“Yeah, which is how you know for sure they’re not going to call back.”

I lifted my head up from the computer.  “Telemarketers are people too.  And I hate to be the one to break this to you, but you’re not actually dead.  Couldn’t you, like, ask them nicely to be taken off the list instead?”

Eva shrugged.  “If you’re such a bleeding heart, you can talk them out of calling back.  Just don’t accidentally sign us up for any catalogs or life insurance policies while you’re at it.”

I saluted her.  “You can count on me.”

The computer made several beeping and whirring noises in what was clearly an attempt to convince me that it really was trying to boot up, even though I knew it was a lazy piece of crap that didn’t deserve my sympathy.

Eventually the pitiful old monitor flickered and hummed to life, and I got to work first reviewing the cover letter I’d been sent, then sorting through the emails we’d received in the past few hours.  I shamelessly tied up the phone line for most of the afternoon by calling everyone from the California state senators to the representatives of the local Veterans’ Association to leave essentially the same phone message in each place making the case for why they should support for Prisoner of War benefits for ex-hosts.  I had moved from the politicians to the local activists on my phone list when an incoming call did manage to slip through.

“Matter Over Mind, this is Eva Alvarez’s assistant, how can I help you?” 

“You should be ashamed of yourselves.  All of you!”  The guy on the other end sounded distraught. 

“Trust me, sir, we are.  Every single day,” I said.  It was exactly what I had been expecting.  The flippancy was a defense mechanism.  “Thank you for the advice, though.”

“Any organization that harbors voluntary controllers deserves to be shut down by the government as un-American,” he spat.  

I sighed.  “I’m sorry you feel that way.  However, we don’t—”

“Do you realize how many innocents were murdered in cold blood by the yeerks and their accomplices?” he demanded.  “How many people’s lives were completely destroyed by the invasion?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, we do.  Which is actually the whole point of this organization—”

“You should all kill yourselves!” 

Okay, this was doing no good.  “I’m sorry,” I said loudly.  “For that kind of complaint I’m going to have to transfer you directly to our Communications department.” 

Eva looked over.  “Communications department” was our code for any time we had a particularly difficult caller and needed to transfer the person to one another.  Not only did that phrasing make the organization sound much larger and more impressive than it really was, it also gave us the chance to put the person on hold for five minutes to hopefully cool off a little.  Plus, it allowed us both to extract ourselves from any conversations that were getting too personal or too belligerent by passing the ball to a teammate.

“What’s this one?” Eva asked.

“Thinks people who harbor voluntaries are no better than voluntaries, thinks voluntaries are no better than yeerks, and would very much like us all to kill ourselves if that’s not too much trouble,” I said dully.

Hijo de puta.”  Eva glared at her own phone as if the guy on the other end could actually see it.  “Where’s he calling from?”

“Area code’s five-one-five,” I said.  “So, uh...” I typed an inquiry into yahoo.com.  “That’s Des Moines.  Definitely long-distance.”

“All right then.”  Eva’s smile was downright diabolical.  “Let’s see how high we can run up his phone bill.”

I pushed the button to transfer the call to her. 

“Good afternoon, sir,” she chirruped.  “Did you know that it is a felony to instruct another person to commit suicide?”

She wound him up for quite a while, and twice put him on hold for over fifteen minutes to handle “other callers.”  There was no point in trying to change his mind; some of the other people might be argued around, but we weren’t going to bother with the extremists.

After she finally hung up on him, we both got involved in our own stuff—me emailing various local businesses asking them to please consider hiring ex-hosts, Eva drafting an official statement to the effect that we didn’t harbor voluntaries and Visser Mom was Personally Disappointed in anyone who thought otherwise—until the reminder about today’s meeting popped up on both our screens.

“You don’t have to come if you don’t want to,” Eva said.

I pointedly pushed my chair back from my desk.  “Wouldn’t that just be admitting my guilt?”

“No,” she said, but left it at that.

We had an actual meeting room now with an actual (temporary) sign on the door in an actual public building that we paid to rent from using actual money.  We were moving up in the world.  Case in point, we had almost 50 folding chairs, and coffee that was fit for human consumption nearly half the time.

Bonnie was already waiting for us when we got in.  She caught me in a hug; I hung on for several seconds, face buried in her hair, breathing in the nebulous floral musk of her shampoo. 

“Yeah,” she whispered.  “Yeah, okay.”

I thought sometimes I’d been in love with her since I even knew what it was to be in love with anyone.  And when I thought about those two stupid kids who’d never done anything worse than set a textbook on fire, when I thought sometimes about what would have happened if I’d just said something, if I’d just worked up the courage, if she hadn’t been so alone that she’d wandered into a Sharing meeting just to have someone to talk to...

“I don’t deserve someone as good as you,” I mumbled against Bonnie’s shoulder.

“Too bad.  You’re stuck with me.”  She was holding me upright, in some ways the only thing holding me. 

“I hate people,” I mumbled.  “Not you.  Just all the other people.” 

Aware that by now the room was half-full, I stepped back from her at last. 

“Me too,” Bonnie said softly.  “Join the club.  We have t-shirts.”

“Where’d we get the budget for t-shirts?” I said.

She smiled faintly.  “The t-shirts are a state of mind.  They’re made of willpower.”

“Oh of course, silly me.”

“How you doing?” she asked.

I shrugged.  “How do you feel about running away with me to become hermits in the mountains?”

She tilted her head, hair flowing to the side and revealing one pale shoulder bisected by a green spaghetti strap.  “Depends.  How long do you think we’d last before we went all Donner Party?”

“We’d bring lots of Ramen,” I promised.  I was only mostly joking.  

Bonnie barked a laugh.  “Just Ramen?  Nothing else?”

“I think you’ll find that non-Ramen food groups are highly overrated.  Also overpriced.”  I frowned, imitating her mock-thoughtfulness.  “I could, however, be talked into including peanut butter as well.  If you made a convincing enough case.”

Eva called the meeting to order before I got the chance to hear Bonnie’s defense of non-Ramen foods. 

“You know what some guy in the grocery store said to me the other day?” she said to the room as a whole, standing in the little space we’d cleared for that kind of general testimony.  “He commented to me, one of those oops-didn’t-recognize you asides...”

There was a collective snort of laughter at this.  Everyone in this room of course knew Eva’s face thanks to Visser One, and most of the rest of the world did too.

“He said to me,” Eva continued, “that he didn’t see what anyone should expect, having signed up for an organization like the Sharing that had no officially registered mission statement, a history of illegal funding, and only a vague outline of the purpose to which its donation money would be put.  He said he was pretty sure anyone who went to a meeting of an organization like that practically deserved what they got, for not doing their homework in advance.”

There was a murmur of anger throughout the room. 

Eva took a deep breath.  “I didn’t punch him.  I’d say that’s my accomplishment for the week.”  

Several people laughed.

She folded her hands and stepped back, leaving the space for the next person who felt like talking.

As usual, that got at least one highly opinionated person to go on a philosophical rant, which caused someone else to refute it using a personal anecdote, and it went from there.  I kept to myself and Eva kept the conversation away from me, for which I was grateful.  Even when we splintered off into the smaller group discussions I ended up listening in silence while some lady named Arimathia told us a surprisingly funny story about the excellent thigh muscles Sub-Visser Two-Eighteen had developed for her. 

In fact, I managed to avoid the room’s metaphorical elephant entirely until after the meeting had already broken up.  People were devolving into small clusters of conversation as if we’d just gotten out of Temple when someone touched me on the arm. 

I turned around, but it took me a second to spot the girl: at five-one, she was over a foot shorter than me.  It didn’t help that her white-blond hair and pale grey sundress practically made her disappear into the background.

“Um, hi,” she said softly.

“Hi?”  I was pretty sure I’d seen her before, but I wasn’t sure where or whether I’d ever actually had a conversation with her or just some yeerk wearing her face.  Anyway, if she started yelling about voluntaries then I’d probably just run for it.

“I just wanted to say, what you said yesterday...”  She looked up at me through her eyelashes.  “I thought it was really brave.”

“Oh.”  I didn’t say anything else at first, caught off guard by this response.

She was blushing now, pale cheeks becoming steadily redder as she spoke.  “It’s just... Well, there’s not that many people out there sticking up for voluntaries at all, and I think a lot of people don’t want to.  Both of my parents were...”  Again a glance up at me, and then back to the floor, without actually moving her chin.  “I mean, it’s complicated.  But, anyway, thank you.”

“Um, thanks,” I said.  “I mean, you’re welcome?  I mean... thanks?” 

That made her blush some more.  She smiled up at me, one of those narrow little smiles like we had a secret in common.  She was toying with the end of her hair.  “I just wanted to know that I was really touched.  You’re a good person.”

“Okay, sorry, starting over.”  I took a deep breath.  “Thanks, for calling me brave, and I’m sorry that people are stupid.  And you’re welcome as well, even though I didn’t really mean to start anything.  But I didn’t set out to... declare a political position, or anything like that.”

“I understand that.”  She licked her lips.  “But I still... I really admire what you did.  Are you here alone?”

I glanced around us.  There were loads of people.  “Eva’s the one who drove me.”  

“Yeah, but you work for her, right?”

“Um, yeah.”  This conversation was becoming weird.  Or at least her tone was becoming weird.  Ugh, I sucked at people. 

“That must be very interesting,” the girl said intently. 

Was she looking for a job?  “I guess.”

She giggled nervously.  Her cheeks were still very flushed.  “Anyway, I was wondering..."

Bonnie suddenly linked her arm through mine, leaning her head on my shoulder.  “Hi, Melissa!”

Oh God, Bonnie knew her name?  Should I know her name?  Did she know my name?  Shit, we’d probably gone to high school together, hadn’t we.  She looked a little bit familiar, but I thought that was just from the meetings.  Maybe not.  Maybe she thought she knew me.

Worst-case scenario: maybe she only knew Essa 412 and couldn’t tell us apart. 

Melissa, Bonnie had called her.  Melissa.  Okay, I could totally act like I knew her name all along. 

“Hello,” Melissa said.  “Anyway, it was nice seeing you, Tom.”

Dammit.  She did know me.

“You too.  Melissa.”  I smiled at her.  

She glanced over her shoulder to give us a little wave as she walked away.

Bonnie shook her head, rolling her eyes.  “You seriously don’t remember that we had an AP Biology class with her, do you?”

“Nope.”

“And you had no clue she was flirting with you, did you?"

“She was... Are you sure?”  I looked from Bonnie toward the door Melissa had left through.  “She just wanted to thank me for what I said yesterday.” 

“One of these days I’ll teach you the fine art of reading body language,” Bonnie said.

Again I looked toward the door, not convinced.  “Yeah, okay, I’ll take your word for it.  Can I just keep you and ignore all other interested parties?” 

Bonnie laughed, squeezing my arm.  “Yes.  You have my permission.”

“Good.”  

Bonnie stood on tiptoe to peck a kiss onto my cheek.  “Gotta get out of here and deal with yet another alleged emergency at work—surprise, surprise—but I should have calmed my manager’s latest hysteria soon.  You still free for tomorrow night?”

“For you?  I’m always free.”  

She laughed.  “Okay.  You sure you’re going to be okay until then?” 

“Yeah.”  I caught her hand in mine.  She gave me a reassuring squeeze.  

“I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”  She blew me another kiss on her way out the door.

Another host caught me before I could get away, but it was some old guy who was nearly as nice about the whole thing as Melissa.  “If you ever need anyone to testify that you’re involuntary, son, I can tell them I saw myself when they dragged you into them cages during the feedings.  You weren’t no voluntary, and I’ll say it to the world if I have to,” he said. 

I thanked him and assured him that I’d think of him if it came to that.  Two other people expressed support, and three others asked rude questions.  Margaret who I’d seen crying after that one meeting gave me a poisonous look from across the room; so much for our moment of solidarity.  I didn’t know what to make of the one guy who said “You’re not really a voluntary, right?” and then left before I could answer. 

By the time I shook off the last of the people who felt the need to express one opinion or another, there were only a few clusters of lurkers left. 

Eva lingered back to put a new set of pamphlets by the door.  I walked down the hallway toward the stairs, drafting a text to Bonnie, when—

“Visser Seventeen!”

I froze when the sharp voice spoke behind me.  Had someone seriously just...?

Very, very slowly, I pivoted on the spot to look at the young woman behind me.  She was about my age, with thick blond hair that had been arranged artfully so that it almost entirely hid the burn scars across the right side of her face.  

“I’m sorry,” I said through my teeth.  “Essa four-one-two is not available right now.  You’ll have to leave a message and I’m sure he’ll get back to you when he can.”

The young woman’s expression hardened into defensive lines.  “It’s not like I know your name.  What was I supposed to call you?”

“‘Hey, you,’ would work just as well,” I said coldly.  “Better, in fact.”

She shifted her weight, leaning more heavily on the cane she held.  “Fine.  Whatever.”

It took me a minute, but I actually recognized this one.  It was Sub-Visser Fifty-One’s host.  I didn’t know her name either, but Essa 412 had worked with her yeerk during the construction of the Sharing’s community center.

I stuck out my hand.  “Tom Berenson.  It’s nice to meet you.”  

There was still a sharp edge to my tone, which was probably why she didn’t bother to take the hand I offered.  Instead she narrowed her eyes.  “It’s not like we’re meeting for the first time.”

I sighed.  “Well, unless your parents had a really cruel sense of humor and actually named you ‘Irdiss 435,’ that’s probably not true.”

The hand that she placed in mine was a high-quality prosthetic, which, admittedly, might have explained her earlier hesitation.  I shook it gently.  

“Hi.  I’m Taylor.”  Her tone had more than a little acid in it too.  

“What did you want to talk about?” I asked.

She straightened her stance, staring me down.  “The blatant discrimination rampant in this entire organization.”

Oooooookaaay...  “What?”

“I want to talk to you about voluntary controllers,” she said tightly.  The knuckles of her flesh hand were white against the handle of her cane. 

Just great.  I was about to get murdered by some cane-wielding pissed-off former host in the middle of this hallway while fifteen other ex-hosts watched in mild interest and totally failed to remember that they had the option to intervene if they so chose.

“It’s just disgusting that voluntary hosts are being barred from membership in this organization,” Taylor said.

I blinked.  That... wasn’t the direction I’d been expecting this conversation to take.  “Wait, what?” I said.

She took a step closer.  “You of all people should realize how ridiculous it is that we are being discriminated against.  We’re former hosts too, so where are our protests?  Why aren’t people fighting for us to have benefits?”

I took a step back.  “Me, of all people?”

Taylor made a sharply dismissive gesture.  “Are you going to answer me, or not?”

“Look,” I said slowly.  “I think maybe you should be having this conversation with Eva.  She’s the one in charge of all the major decisions.  I’m just here to look pretty and answer the phones.”

“I did, months ago.”  Taylor grimaced.  “She told me that I was a human waste of oxygen and that she never wanted to see me again.”

“Did you call her ‘Visser One’ to her face?” I said.  “Because that might be your problem right there.”

“If you support the voluntaries, why won’t you stand up to her?” Taylor demanded.

I crossed my arms.  Getting angry wouldn’t help.  “Who said I supported the voluntaries?”

Taylor gave me a look like she was doubting my intelligence or perhaps my sanity.  “You did.  Yesterday.  When you talked about the murders.” 

“Okay.”  I took a deep breath.  “No.  For the record, I disagree with absolutely everything that the voluntary hosts did, what they stood for, and all of the unbelievably shitty ways they justified their own behavior to themselves.”

“Then—”

“This might be a radical concept for you, but there’s a hell of a difference between disagreeing with someone and wanting that person dead.”  I enunciated each word slowly.  “If there wasn’t, I would have killed the man who cut me off in line yesterday, and the lady who put a dent in my mom’s car, that one guy who always has to one-up people’s stories in group meetings, and like six hundred other people.  Let’s be honest, we’re both lucky that that’s the case, because I probably would have killed you too since you just called me—”

“God, get over the whole ‘visser’ thing.”  She blew her hair out of her face.  “What’s your problem with it anyway?”

“Taylor, the very fact that you feel the need to ask that question nicely sums up all of the reasons you’re not invited to sit with us at the lunch table.”  I glanced behind her; there were still at least four or five people openly watching us.  Gotta love zombies.  “Please, feel free to start your own organization for voluntary hosts.  No one is stopping you.  But I think everyone here would be more comfortable if some of the people responsible for their trauma were not invited to hang out with them.”

“Oh, what, like you guys have the copyright on having difficult lives?”  Taylor made an angry gesture to herself.  “You think I like looking like a freak?  Having no one like me now that I’m ugly?”

If people don’t like you, then trust me that it has nothing to do with physical appearances.  The thought was too mean, too middle-school petty, for me to speak out loud.  It’d just be a dark secret between me and—

Huh.  No yeerk.  Just me, then.

“Well, like I said, we’re not your only option,” I said patiently.  “Nor are we your best one.  And you’re not going to change my mind about this, or Eva’s.  That’s just how it is.”  

Taylor stared me down, narrow-eyed.  “Does she pay you to kiss her ass, or are you her slave?”

Then again, maybe this conversation was going to devolve into pettiness no matter how much restraint I exerted.  “I prefer to think of it as indentured servitude.  In exchange she doesn’t fulfill her claim on my immortal soul and drag me down to hell.  It works out well for the both of us.” 

“Bootlicker,” Taylor spat.  She shoved past me, limping into the open elevators.

“That’s rich coming from a Quisling like you,” I said, but quietly enough that the whole argument wouldn’t start up again. 

I got another poisonous glare before the doors snapped shut and blocked her from sight.

“Wow.”  Eva was leaning in the open doorway of the meeting room.

“Did you seriously just watch all of that?” I asked.

“Nope.  Just caught the tail end.  I would have rescued you if I thought you needed it.”  

She was carrying a box of fliers; I took it from her automatically.

“So,” she said as we headed down the stairs.  “Still think voluntaries are worth saving?”  

I shifted to a one-handed grip on the box so I could rub at my eyes, aching with tiredness.  “I just don’t want any people to get murdered.  Ever.  For any reason.  Is that really so complicated?”

Eva gave me one of those looks I knew meant she thought I was being naive.  “Not even in cases of capital punishment?”

I thought about it.  “I guess not?  I mean, didn’t I read somewhere that it’s actually cheaper just to keep them locked up for life?” 

“And what if someone was pointing a gun at you, or someone you loved?  Would you kill that person if you had the chance?”

“Um, yeah,” I said, “but doing so would prevent more murders, so that’s sort of a moot point.”

Eva scoffed.  “What if you were able to assassinate one person knowing they’d have a seventy-five percent chance of taking over a foreign country as a dictator and causing the whole place to descend into genocide?” 

“Then I’d quit the CIA and go start a peanut farm instead.”  I shoved open the door at the bottom of the stairs with my hip, holding it for her.  “What if tomorrow the sky falls and taxxons take over the planet in its post-apocalyptic state and next thing we know we’re all food for a bunch of giant hangry caterpillar overlords?”

She smiled, but I could tell I hadn’t exactly convinced her.  “Well, what if?"

“I’m just saying, I’ll deal with it as it arises.”  I frowned.  “Not that I think that last one is very likely.”  

“And you don’t think there’d ever be room for justifiable homicide,” Eva said.

“I just think that there’s been enough of humans getting killed for a while.  And that it’s stupid they keep killing each other, and that I want to stop it.  I didn’t think it was that radical a concept until everyone got all up in arms yesterday.”

Eva watched me settle the box carefully in the trunk of her Honda.  “Okay,” she said at last.  “I hope you’re never in a situation where you have to compromise that viewpoint.”

“If goddamn aliens would just stop attacking the stupid planet, everything will work out fine,” I said.

This time her smile was clearly genuine.  “I certainly hope so.”

**********

I was banging a basketball against the side of the house that evening (and actually getting it through the hoop about 75% of the time; yay me) when Jake made a soft sound behind me. 

Without bothering to say anything I spun around and shot the ball at him.

To the surprise of exactly no one, Jake made an awkward one-handed grab at it and missed completely, failing to stop the ball from bouncing off his shoulder and rolling away into the grass.

“You did that on purpose, you jerk,” he said.

“I admit it.”  I made a show of looking contrite.  “I dropped you on your head as a baby, and that’s why you’ve always been such an uncoordinated dork.”

Jake flipped me off.

I gasped.  “What would all the loyal readers of Seventeen think?”

“How did you even know I’m on the cover of Seventeen unless you’re one of those loyal readers?” Jake asked.

I jogged past him to go find the ball he’d failed to catch.  “I shop at grocery stores just like normal people!” I called.  “Most of them have magazine racks with your ugly mug in them.”

I tossed the ball back to him.  He missed, again.  And to think, this was the kind of star talent the Santa Barbara Middle School team had missed out on recruiting.  

“Here.”  Jake held out his left hand, index finger and thumb pressed together.  “I was going to give you this before you started hurling projectiles at my head.”

“What’s that, the world’s smallest violin?” I asked.

Jake rolled his eyes.  “It’s a flea.  If you want a pity party, you’re going to have to go elsewhere.”

I held out my hand.  He dropped the flea into my palm, and I quickly closed my fingers around it before it could hop away.

“They’re nearly indestructible, and pretty much impossible to find in a standard-sized room,” Jake explained.  “Also, as Ax figured out the hard way, just about the only Earth animal the yeerks haven’t found a way to contain or destroy.”

I focused on the breadcrumb-sized insect, so tiny I could barely feel it against my fingertip even knowing it was there.  It stopped struggling, relaxing until I opened my hand and it slid off without resistance.

“You’re never going to need it,” Jake said.  “Or want it, for that matter.  Their senses are pretty crappy, and half the time you end up drinking blood whether you want to or not.  But...”

But now I had it.  Insurance, in case the worst happened.  A last-minute way out, one that gave me an escape option other than killing myself.

It was about feeling safe.  It was about having another way to make sure that even if they took me, they’d have a hell of a time hanging onto me.

I swallowed hard.  “Thanks,” I said softly.

“Sure.”  Jake smiled.

I cleared my throat.  “Now go get that ball, you doofus.  I’m going to teach your sorry butt how to receive a pass properly if we have to stay out here all night.” 

Chapter Text

“Like a soul without a mind/ in a body without a heart/ I’m missing every part.”

—Massive Attack, 1991

 

I got into work early the next Monday, which meant that I had the joy of catching most of the hate mail when it arrived in our inbox.  I didn’t do more than skim the fronts of most of the envelopes before dumping them into the trash, but there were a couple bills, donation checks, and expressions of support in there as well. 

It wasn’t long before Eva got in.  She handed me a box of matches and I smiled.  While she opened the window and turned off the smoke alarm, I went about burning the entire contents of the trash can.  With prejudice.  

“Gotta enjoy the little things.”  Eva sat back, breathing in the smoke like we were in an opium den.  

I laughed.  “Thanks.”

We sat in silence for several more seconds, and then Eva said, “You see they have an investigation going for the murders now?”

“Yeah.”  I smiled at her through the smoke.  “Cops have been by to interview me.  Said they’re reopening some of the old cases, and that no they will not keep me posted on how the investigation is progressing.”

“Silver linings,” she said. 

The smoke gradually wafted out the window as the trash can smoldered down into ash.  I got about halfway through the email equivalent of burning all the hate mail when I was distracted by looking up news stories about the murders.  There were no details yet—at least, none the police were releasing to the public—but according to the News-Press website “several leads” were “under investigation.”  Of course, according to KEYT.Com, this guy was cleaning up the streets by cracking down on all the traitors who had walked free, but at least they seemed to believe he really existed. 

“So if I accidentally clicked on a link claiming I’d won a Nintendo when I was trying to close the window, and now the computer is frozen, that’s bad, right?” Eva said slowly.  

I pushed off my desk so that my chair shot on its little wheels across the room and gently bumped into hers.  “Yeah,” I said, peering at her screen.  “Just hold down the ‘off’ button until it goes into emergency shutdown.  If rebooting doesn’t work, we’ll try shaking it, banging on it, and using my computer to beg the hacker forums for help before we resort to calling a technician.”  

“How optimistic.”  Eva leaned on the on/off button until the computer finally shut down.

“Um, I could tell you that I definitely know how to fix it, but that would be a shameless lie,” I said. 

We both waited around until the fan had stopped whirring, and then Eva switched it back on.  The computer spent several minutes scrolling through code and debating whether it really wanted to keep working or not, before finally chugging to life.  She opened the internet browser, and everything looked as it had before.

“It’s a miracle,” I drawled.  “So, when’s your new Nintendo due to arrive?”

Eva glared.  “I wasn’t trying to click on it.”

“Uh-huh.”  I smiled innocently.  “Well, if you need anything else, I can—”

Eva held up a hand to cut me off, glancing down at her watch.  “Hang on.”

It took a little clicking around and cursing on her part, but she pulled up a recap of last evening’s news broadcast on the CBS website.  And thereby displayed more technological prowess than I’d suspected her of having.  She clicked around on the play indicator until finally Marco’s face appeared on the video display.

Marco was sitting across the table from Dan Rather, smiling cheekily at the camera.  “Kind of weird?  Yes,” he said in response to something the anchor had asked.  “Occasionally a jerk?  Also yes.  Socially awkward?  You bet.  A voluntary host?  Nope.  No way in hell.  I saw him fighting back for myself, and so did a couple hundred other witnesses.”

“You’re certain, then?” Dan Rather said.  “That he was entirely involuntarily infested?”

“Definitely.”  Marco rolled his eyes.  “Just because he’s absolutely terrible in front of the camera doesn’t mean he was pro-yeerk.  Sorry, but it’s a non-story.  Trust me.  There’s absolutely nothing interesting about him.”

Oh,” I said softly.

On the screen Dan Rather sat back in his chair.  “All right then.”  He glanced at his notes.  “So your fellow Animorph Cassie Day mentioned something in an interview not that long ago about an incident with a yeerk ship that was taking water from local ponds in order to supply their troops?”

“Oh, that is a great story,” Marco said, laughing.  “First thing you should know is that I absolutely hate tartar sauce.”

“I’m guessing this story ends with you turning into a crab?” Dan Rather said.

“See, that?”  Marco grinned.  “That would have been a good idea.  Well thought-out.  Intelligent.  Because then we could have gotten our own selves from the cave to the stream without having to resort to riding Tobias Air.  But, hey, we had no freaking clue what we were doing because at that point we’d been involved in the war for, like, two weeks flat.  So you know what?  Turning into trout seemed like a good idea at the time.  Famous last words, right?”

“You had a trout?”

Marco leaned forward.  “Again, you’re giving us too much credit.  Nuh-uh.  First we had to catch a trout.  We thought, how hard could it be?”

We sat there and watched in silence for several more seconds.  I swallowed, trying to ignore the enormous burst of warm fuzzies I was now feeling toward Marco.  

“I mean, we’re not there to hurt anyone, right?” Marco said, and Dan Rather laughed.  “No, really.”  Marco’s eyes widened.  “We’re just trying to go along our little fishy way, and out of nowhere—”

“They never killed the humans.”  Eva spoke suddenly.  

I glanced over.  She was still looking at the computer screen, fiddling with one of the bracelets she always wore to hide the ligature marks on her wrists.  She had an odd, mechanical way of fidgeting, like she was concentrating too hard on reminding herself to do it rather than just letting it happen automatically.  Now as she twisted the silvery cuff around and around, her motions were a little too precise to come off as entirely natural.

“What?” I said at last, when she didn’t elaborate.

“That was how Edriss—Visser One—figured it out.”  She didn’t look away from where Marco was relating some anecdote about wolf-Jake feeling the need to pee on half the trees in the county as Dan Rather gave one of those overly enthusiastic TV laughs.  “They didn’t kill controllers if they could avoid it, period.  But when they did... Taxxons.  Hork-bajir, sometimes.  Gedds, leerans... but never humans.  Not even when it would have made more sense to...”  She moistened her lips, looking down as if it took all her concentration to keep turning that ring of silver over and over at the base of her hand.  “They always left the humans alive.”

“They were just doing the best they knew how,” I said softly.

She glanced up at me, and then quickly away to the computer screen.  “They’re just children.  Everyone keeps forgetting that...”  She gestured to the video still playing.  “He’s been shaving for less than a year.  His voice still cracks when he’s angry about something.  He never graduated high school, or held a real job, or had a relationship that lasted more than two dates.”  She wasn’t talking about Dan Rather.  “I think people forget that sometimes.”

“You’re saying the Animorphs didn’t realize,” I said.  “What leaving the humans alive would mean.”  I’d suspected the same thing.

“I’m saying they still don’t.”

I couldn’t count the number of times it had happened: word went out through the yeerk grapevine that there had been another andalite raid on a yeerk pool entrance, a community center, a gathering place.  The “andalites” would barely have had time to disappear before the Sharing Relief Services vans would be pulling up, and controllers would be swarming the scene looking for bodies.

It was the ordinary humans we found.  The ones who would throw themselves into my arms, babbling about how there had been an elephant and a gorilla and all these weird things, they were so tall and they had spikes on their heads...

“It’s gonna be okay,” Essa 412 would murmur, in that trust-me tone that rolled so smoothly from the back of my throat.  “I believe you.  We’re just going to get you checked out, okay?”  He’d put my arm around the shoulders of the traumatized witness, still murmuring reassurances, and guide the human to the back of the van.

“I got you, it’s all okay,” the yeerk would say gently.  “I just need you to hold still while my colleague here scans you for concussions... You’re going to feel a slight pinch in your left ear...”

That was how they had gotten half the ex-hosts who showed up to Matter Over Mind every week, twice a week.

I’m not sure how the Animorphs rationalized the fact that they’d done everything from destroy a haunted house at the Gardens to mop the carpet while in morph at a Colorado office building without it ever making the news that there was half a zoo running around on the loose.  The truth was, of course, that they had left trails of dozens or even hundreds of human-controllers in their wake everywhere they went.  All it took was a disaster report and the yeerks were there to collect the witnesses.

It had always angered me, that the andalites apparently couldn’t be bothered to kill the human witnesses quickly and spare them all that pain.  If only I had known.

If only they had.

“They’re probably never going to,” Eva said.

“Hmm?”  I’d missed something.

She smiled.  There was no happiness in the expression.  “They’re never going to graduate high school.  Have normal relationships.  Hold down real jobs.”  

I shrugged.  “On the other hand, there are all the advantages of being rich and famous.”

“You’re saying you’d want this for your kids?”  She raised her eyebrows.

“Of course not.” 

“The, um.”  Eva took a second in stillness.  “The violence alone.  The fact that in order to protect us, what they had to do..."

Yeah, I knew.

It was one of the many reasons I never wanted Jake coming to any of the meetings.  (He technically qualified.  Temrash 114 had made a side detour after leaving my body behind and before reaching the governor, and for three days the other Animorphs had stashed Jake God-knew-where while Ax hung around our house pretending—badly—to be Jake and they all waited for the yeerk to starve.  I knew, and Jake knew that I knew, but it wasn’t something we’d ever really talked about.)  But I’d never offered.  Never asked if he wanted to talk. 

Because the people coming in to the Matter Over Mind meetings missing fingers, or whole hands, or scarred almost into unrecognition by andalite tail blades or hawk talons or tiger claws... Those were the rare ones, the lucky ones.  The ones who had been allowed to live.  Every time the Animorphs had tried to leave a human witness alone, they had created a new controller.  Every time they had tried to injure a human-controller instead of killing, they had spared yeerk and human alike a fast death and thereby guaranteed a slow and terrible one.

To get an inkling of what happened to the victims of the Animorphs’ mercy, you could look at the keloid lines covering Eva’s entire body.  You could listen to the way she gasped for air after walking less than thirty yards.

“He’s seeing someone.”

“Who, Marco?” I said.  I wasn’t sure why this was news.  Marco’s latest fling was usually every gossip rag’s go-to topic for slow news days.

Eva’s hand on her bracelet was moving faster now: turn, turn, turn.  Like a lot of ex-hosts, she only broke the stillness with this kind of repeated tic—biting one’s nails, fidgeting with one’s clothes—to remind herself who was in control here.  I did it all the time, slowly bending and straightening the fingers of my right hand one at a time.

No wonder everyone thought we were a bunch of weirdos.

“His name is Jack,” she said after a while.

“Hmm?” I said.

“Jack Merridew.  The boy he’s seeing.  I’ve met him.  He seems all right.  Like a good person.” 

I didn’t say anything.  I needed to figure out why she was telling me this before I responded.

The motion of the bracelet slowed, but it was harsher now.  The metal was digging into her fingertips.  “I love that boy.  More than anything.  Literally more than I love my life.  Or anything else, for that matter.”  Turn, turn, turn.  “And I don’t want anything that will make his life more difficult, for any reason.  Much less anything that will get even more paparazzi following him around.  He’s been through enough.  More than.  So what I can’t understand is, if he’s attracted to girls as well as boys, why he can’t just date female partners instead.  Why he has to make things so difficult for himself by experimenting with all this... bisexuality.”  

The first thing that came to mind was something my ninth grade English teacher had said about Romeo and Juliet: the point of the story wasn’t that the main characters had this great love, or even that they were immature idiots who had gotten married the day after meeting each other.  The point of the play was that they should have had the freedom to get to know each other and find out if they liked each other the normal way—and they didn’t, because of a bunch of adults with a bunch of dumb prejudices that eventually got a bunch of people killed.  Including those two immature idiots, all because they’d tried to make love not war.

However, I didn’t think bringing up some Elizabethan suicides would be the best way to go with this conversation.

“It’s not like he’s doing anything wrong if he wants to enjoy some time with someone,” I said.  “And I know other people might make his life difficult for that, but that’s his choice to put up with it or not.”

“He doesn’t know what he wants.”  Eva sighed, trailing her fingers over the bracelet but not moving it anymore.  “He’s sixteen years old.”

“So maybe that’s what he wants,” I suggested.  “To be sixteen.  To date people.”

On the computer screen, Marco said something that caused Dan Rather to fake-laugh so hard he threw his head back and slapped his knee.  Marco looked surprised but also pleased with himself.  At some point Eva had turned down the volume; they were just shadows flickering across the surface of the screen. 

“But couldn’t he just date girls?” Eva asked.

“Why?” I said.  “So other people won’t say dumb shit about him?  People already say dumb shit about him, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“Trust me.  I noticed.”

I pressed my lips together, trying to think this one through.  “If this person he’s dating seems like a good person, and makes him happy, couldn’t you just focus on that being a good thing and worry about the rest of it later?”

Eva stood up slowly, bracing herself on the desk.  “I don’t want him to be hurt.  I know that probably sounds... After everything, after all the ways I’ve already failed to keep him safe, what gives me the right to think of him as my child?”

“That’s not—”

“Thanks,” she said, cutting me off.  “How’s it going with the modification to the 501-C3 form?”

“We’re still too political for their tastes, but I’m working on it,” I said.  “You remember how you told that one lady Laura that she needed to stop blaming herself for getting infested?  You ever think of taking your own advice?”

“Do as I say, not as I do.”  Eva handed me a stack of tax exemption forms.  “Go fight the IRS for me, will you?  I’m going to see about getting some good press out of all this nonsense.”

“Have you considered rebranding us as a religion?” I asked, flipping through the long lists of policies.  “I mean, it’d probably have to be a cult, since we definitely don’t have enough members to count as anything else, but if we did set you up as a false god then we’d have no problem qualifying for tax exemption.”

Eva gave me a long, steady look. 

Smiling innocently at her, I pushed off the desk and rolled back across the room. 

Chapter Text

“On the second day he came with a single red rose and said, ‘Will you give me your loss and your sorrow?’”

—Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, 1996

 

“I still say I should go back in there and give her a piece of my mind.”  Bonnie tightened her hand around mine, skin warm and cheeks flushed prettily with anger.

“It’s okay.”  I have her hand a gentle squeeze in return.  “Besides, I think you already did.  There aren’t that many ways to interpret being called ‘a small-minded old bat,’ after all."

We’d had the great misfortune to stop in a convenience store that was selling, among other things, copies of The Daily News with the headline “Cain and Abel?” over a lurid color photo of me apparently doing my level best to murder Jake.  The cashier had only needed that prompt to figure out who I was, and she’d told us coldly that she didn’t serve “people like you” in her store.  Bonnie had taken that opportunity to whip out several key insults, while I stood there and tried to look sternly approving rather than tickled pink at how she was defending my honor.

“Still,” Bonnie said now.  “What does that old fart know, huh?  What does The Daily News know?” 

“Absolutely nothing,” I said obligingly.

“Exactly.”  She stamped on the sidewalk with enough force that I imagined her grinding the entire tabloid media as a bug underneath her platform shoe.  “But they keep on blathering anyway, and people keep buying that crap."

You know.”  I stopped walking so that she swung around to look at me.  The flush was gone, but her dark eyes still shone brilliantly with righteous anger.  “And you’re the one that matters.”

Bonnie flashed me a quick touch of smile.  “That still leaves a lot of wrong people in the world.”

Over her shoulder I watched as a man with kids caught sight of me and pulled them in closer, putting himself between the toddlers and me.  He turned to keep watching me even as they walked past, open worry pinching every line of his face.

I didn’t say anything to Bonnie.  It wouldn’t have been worth it.  Anyway, this whole mess was my own stupid fault.  Just because I wasn’t voluntary didn’t mean I wasn’t an idiot.

“Let them be wrong,” I told Bonnie.  “I don’t care.”  At least, I didn’t want to care.  Which was almost the same thing. 

She stood on tip-toe, cupping both hands around the back of my neck.  “I just hate the things they’re saying,” she whispered.

“I don’t love it either.”  I slid a stray clump of hair behind her ear, luxuriating in its silkiness.  “But at least everyone’s talking about this mess with the voluntaries, though.  That’s something, right?”

Bonnie frowned. 

“Not the dumb rumor about me,” I said quickly.  “About the deaths.  The killings.”

Slowly she slid her hands down to wrap them loosely around my waist.  She pressed her forehead against my shoulder.  “That’s something.  But I still hate people,” she mumbled.

“Yeah, I’ve never really gotten used to the taste, myself,” I said.

It distracted her into huffing a laugh against my skin, which was the whole goal.

I wrapped my arms around her solid form.  I could feel the tiny hairs on her arms, the slight ridges of her bra through the soft white cotton of her t-shirt.  That was real.  A bunch of words in the air and in the paper didn’t have to be real if I didn’t want them to.

“C’mere.”  Bonnie pulled away, lacing one arm around my waist and guiding me toward the public park two blocks down.

She’d had the right idea: it was private, anonymous.  The only other people there were a handful of parents too busy watching their kids on the swing set to worry about a couple of teenagers.  Under the cool shelter of the trees, we found a bench away from anyone and she pulled me down to sit next to each other.

“You’re right that now everyone knows about the deaths,” she said, leaning up against me.  “I guess that is something.”

I gently combed my fingers through her hair.  “Yeah.  Next battle is going to be getting them to care.”  Most of the articles or news items covering the story of the murders since it broke seemed torn between the opinion that the only good voluntary was a dead voluntary and that crime sure was a shame but it wasn’t as though anyone could do anything about it.  Even calling this person a “vigilante” (as many of them did) was going a little far, in my book.  The guy was a serial killer, not a caped crusader.

“How come Mr. ‘I Kill People For Fun’ gets hailed as 'the next generation of Animorph' and I get dumb shit about me helping the yeerks?” I whined.

“Next generation of...”  Bonnie looked at the statue in the center of the park like it was going to come to life and strike her with lightning for blasphemy.  “Of all the stupid...” 

“Yeah.”  It came out even heavier than I meant it to.  

Bonnie winced.  “I tried pitching the whole thing to my boss, you know.  A story that would focus a little less on the sensationalism and a little more on the people who died.  No dice.”

Idly I started plaiting three strands of her hair together into something that was a little too lopsided to be a proper braid.  “Thanks for trying, anyway.  Sorry I keep brooding on this.”

Bonnie leaned into my touch, not seeming to care about my crappy braiding skills.  “It’s part of what I like about you.  You’re the kind of guy who can’t just keep walking if he sees someone getting mugged or rubbernecks but doesn’t do anything if there’s a car stranded by the side of the road.  You want to help.  You want to solve things.  A lot more than most people, anyway.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “This isn’t your gentle way of telling me to let the police take it from here, is it?”

“Maaaaybe?”  Bonnie shot me a sideways glance through her hair.  “But I wasn’t lying about liking how much you want to help.”

“All right.”  I breathed out slowly.  “I’m letting it go.  Living in the moment.  Enjoying the scenery.  If we’re going to be really charitable and call it scenery.”

Bonnie laughed.

The newly-erected statue that formed the centerpiece of the park was actually a 3D rendering of a famous photograph the world’s luckiest photojournalist had stumbled upon in one of the yeerks’ hidden archives. The marble menagerie was actually kind of cool, from a distance, if you didn’t mind a little pretentiousness.  

When the statue was first put in place someone had added a discreet plaque to the plinth asking that out of respect for the local veterans no one touch or climb on the artwork.  Evidently no one had told that to the little girl who was even now perched on the andalite’s head, daring her brother to abandon his current post on the wolf’s back and come join her.  I’m not sure how the city commissioners had expected anything different, given that they had just put a bunch of life-size marble replicas of giant animals in the middle of a park that also had two playgrounds and a picnic area.  At least the kids weren’t making a mess on elephant ears and hawk wings the way the pigeons were, by my way of thinking.

The thing of it was, those six weren’t the only ones visible in the photographs from that battle.  There were dozens of ordinary-looking humans and somewhat less ordinary-looking hork-bajir standing up against that little crowd of circus rejects.  Eva herself was just visible on the edge of the frame where she stood to one side of the cluster of controllers, straight-backed and unscarred in a way I could barely remember seeing her.  Her presence probably explained the wide-eyed tension in the gorilla’s posture, the protective way the tiger bared his teeth toward an invisible enemy.

Some of those humans, and many of those hork-bajir, had died that day.

There was no statue for them. Just a solid block of obsidian with over a thousand names printed on its glossy sides, positioned on the far side of town in an abandoned section of graveyard.  The memorial didn’t even have words at the top, just those silvery rows of names marching down its many surfaces.

And, well, what could be said of those less-heroic dead?  “They gave their lives for freedom—shame they didn’t have a choice in the matter?” “Their valiant sacrifice is somewhat marred by the fact that most of them were probably scared to death and wanted to be anywhere but there?” “Sorry about the infestation, you poor bastards?”

We were an inconvenient population, we bodies that had perpetuated the war attached to minds who had been its victims.  We were the face of the enemy but not its intent, the hands who had murdered civilians driven by tiny slugs who were gone now.  We were uncomfortable to be around, with our hollow stares and blank compulsions.  We were victims and killers, ridden hard and put away wet, the repulsive pitiful detritus of the war.

Far better to crop us out of the frame and zoom in on the heroism of those six kids.  Their stories were simple, clean, beautiful.  (No, not simple at all, but anyone who had never lain awake at night listening to their alleged superhero cry himself to sleep down the hall could keep that illusion.)  Ours were messy, strange, hard to explain and harder still to understand.  It’d be more convenient for everyone if we’d just go away.  

“Speaking of bystander intervention,” Bonnie said, “should we, like, say something?”  She tilted her chin toward where the two little kids had now made it as high as the top of the elephant’s head.

The little girl balanced between the elephant’s trunk and one of its ears, yelling something about morphing into a dragon.  The little boy was currently bouncing on the back of its neck, making giddyup noises.

“You know, I really don’t think she would’ve minded,” I said.

Bonnie hmmmed in agreement, leaning her head against my shoulder so that her hair fell loosely against my back.  "Yeah, it's not like they're being deliberately disrespectful."

“Plus, it’s not like they’re peeing all over it.”  I tilted my head.  “Those pigeons, on the other hand, should probably be shot on sight for disobeying pretentious little signposts.”  

Bonnie laughed, shoving me with her elbow so that I almost toppled off the back of the bench.  "You're terrible."

"What happened to me being such a nice, helpful person?" I said, pouting.

She knelt on the seat of the bench to kiss the pout off my face.  I surged forward, opening my mouth against hers, chasing the taste of her vanilla lip gloss.

We kissed lazily, indulgently, for what felt like a very long time.  We were restless youth with nowhere we needed to be on a late Sunday morning; we could do whatever we wanted.

“What if someone stole it?” Bonnie said, apropos of nothing, when we came up for air.

I blinked several times, trying to re-engage my higher brain functions.  “What?”

“Would it even be possible to steal?” she asked.  

"The statue?" I said.

"No, I mean..."  She twisted around, moving to sit on the arm of the bench so that she could look at me.  "What if someone stole the power to morph?"

Finally following the conversation now, I frowned at her.  “How?”  

"Okay, the yeerks had one of those little blue boxes for months, right?  Maybe our guy's yeerk decided to sneak in at some point and touch it.  Then..."  She shrugged.  "There you go."

"Two problems with that," I said.  I slid down to lie back on the seat of the bench, looking up at her.  Admiring the view of her soft stomach and breasts swelling the front of her t-shirt.  "One, the security around that thing was ridiculous, if you'll recall."

Bonnie only seemed half-interested in the conversation, instead winding her fingers through mine.  "But they still shared it with almost a hundred yeerks and hosts.  Which would have meant letting some people in some of the time."

"Sure, but these were a hundred-odd controllers who they vetted the hell out of."  I smiled, deliberately sardonic.  "Almost like they were worried letting too many of their own morph would start a rebellion or something.  Plus, containing the morph-capable hosts was...”  I swallowed, clenching my jaw, doing my best not to think about it.  “A lot of effort.  For them."

Bonnie looked up at me, eyes wide.  She squeezed my hand in both of hers.  “I saw,” she said softly.

I sat up, still clinging to her hand.  “Anyway.  There was that drain on resources.  Razor wire cages and nervous system manipulators cost money, after all.  When they tried to solve it by letting the yeerks morph directly, then they started getting deserters—the yeerks would just morph and walk or fly out of there never to come back.  Turns out no technology is perfect.  All in all, they had less than fifty morph-capable hosts by the end.  And they were super-paranoid that someone was going to get together a rebellion and try getting rid of the visser-host-kandrona mess altogether.”

"I can’t imagine why they’d ever worry about something like that.”  Bonnie was slowly tracing the lines of my cuticles with one blue-painted nail in a way that was far more sensual than I would have expected.  Grounding me.  Not letting me leave the present moment.  "What was the second problem?"

"That's not how it works, just tap and go," I said, closing my hand gently around her finger.  "You actually need someone who can already morph touching it at the same time as the person who can't morph in order to transfer the power from one to the other.  Essa four-twelve had to bring me to Visser Three in order to get the morphing power from Alloran—it didn't just happen automatically."

Bonnie stole her hand back by distracting me with a quick kiss on the cheek.  "Okay, then."

"It's still an interesting idea, though," I said, not wanting to dismiss her.  “Maybe sometime after the war.  It wouldn’t be that hard, provided you got your hands on one of those Escafil-thingies.  That one kid Sandra’s eleven—wouldn’t be that hard to convince her to share the morphing with an adult.  And given that that guy Jay is in a coma, all you’d have to do would be to touch the cube to his skin and you’d be good to go.”

“Where are those Escafil-thingies, anyway?” Bonnie said.  “Assuming someone could borrow or steal one.”

“Um, one’s with the Identity Registration Office in D.C. for the transcenders to use,” I said, frowning.  “I think one is still with the U.S. government somewhere, so that they can offer it to any other taxxons or yeerks or whoever that wander by.  And the third...” 

“Is it missing?”  Bonnie sounded entirely too excited by that prospect.

I smiled, shaking my head.  “Probably not.  I mean, the last I heard Jake had it.  Presumably he found somewhere to stash it in case of emergency, but I should check in and be sure he hasn’t lost it.  Wouldn’t put it past him.” 

Bonnie laughed.

“We’re not going to solve this one sitting on a park bench, are we?” I asked. 

“You're right.  No more talk of serial killers.”  Bonnie dropped her free fist to bang it against her knee like it was a judge’s gavel.

“You started it,” I couldn’t help pointing out. 

She pressed a finger against my lips.  “And now I’m calling an end to it.”

“Okay, okay.”

This time when she silenced me she used her mouth.  And now I did, in fact, shut up about serial killers.

Chapter Text

“What you see, you might not get.”

—The Beastie Boys, 1994

 

“Did you know Marco was bisexual?” I asked, walking into Jake’s room.

Jake was sitting on his bed, scrolling through some web page.  The instant I spoke he gasped, slamming his computer shut so hard it almost bounced off the bed.

“Um,” I said.

“Knock much?”  Jake was using the breathless, overly casual tone that he pulled out any time he was trying to pretend he wasn’t badly startled. 

“Your door was ajar.”  I gestured to it.  “I assumed.  Sorry.”

“Well, you’re in here now.”  Jake sounded like he was still adrenaline-energized.  “What were you saying?”

“Look.”  I could feel my face burning.  “If you’re, um...” please God kill me before I have to finish this sentence “having personal time.  Then I can come back.  It’s not important.”

“What?”  And then Jake’s eyes widened.  “Oh.  I wasn’t.”  He looked at the computer, and then back up at me.  “I was...”  And now he was blushing.  Oh, wonderful.  “That was just... habit.  Reflex.  Sorry.  I didn’t mean to...”

Flushing even more, he opened the computer and turned the screen around to face me.

I almost slammed my eyes shut before they burned out of my skull, but the screen just showed a forum screen.  A fairly harmless one.  The topic of discussion appeared to be the extent of the spread of the yeerk invasion at its peak. 

And then I finally figured out why he had shut the computer so sharply when I’d interrupted.  He’d been looking at intel on the Yeerk Empire.  And, just for a second, when I had walked in, he had assumed I was... not myself.  Had reacted as if a controller had just stumbled on him reading up on yeerks.

“Sorry,” Jake repeated.  “It was just... reflex.”

Well.  Now there was a part of me that kind of wished he had in fact been looking at porn.  Because even that conversation would have been less awkward than this one was rapidly becoming. 

“So.”  Jake crossed his legs.  He was back to sounding way too casual to be believable.  “What did you want?”

“Help convincing Eva that it’s okay to be gay.”  I seized on the change of topic.  “Or bisexual.  Or any of those.”

“You’re gay?”  Jake frowned.  “But Bonnie—”

“Marco,” I said, leaning against his desk.  “Marco is bisexual, apparently.   Please tell me you already knew this and I didn’t just out him.”

“Yeah, I knew.  He blurted it out to me in the middle of some other conversation.”

“Eva did the same thing to me.”  Apparently it ran in the family.

“Anyway, we both kind of guessed that his mom might not take it well.  But it was also like the absolute last thing on anyone’s mind during the war, so...”  Jake stood up, running both hands through his hair.  It looked like he’d actually showered at some point in the past week, which trust me was an improvement. 

Now if we could just get him to leave the house on more days than not...

Jake suddenly turned around.  “Did this have anything to do with that interview he did the other day?”

“No, it just kind of led out of that,” I said.  “He, uh, defended my honor.  I think took a little of the attention onto himself in the process.”

“By coming out?”  Jake sounded alarmed.

I shook my head.  “No.  He’s not that stupid.  I mean...”  I moistened my lips.  “This thing with the media and the crap with the voluntaries, that’ll pass.  They’ll lose interest.  It’s topical.”

There had been an uptick in people—both professional paparazzi and random schmoes—filming or photographing Eva and I in the past few weeks.  But so far most of the press had just earned us more Matter Over Mind members, so we weren’t complaining.  Much.

“But, like,” I said, “I’m pretty sure people have been getting indignant about other people’s dating habits for just about as long as there have been humans.  If Marco ever drops that one on the news, it won’t just go away after fifteen minutes of interest.”

Jake snorted.  “Probably.”

“Um, so, Eva.”  I shifted position, almost knocking several things off the desk.  “I think she’s sort of... doing that thing that Mom and Dad do.  You know, where they freak out and threaten to swaddle us in bubble wrap and never let us leave the house again.  Because they’re all weirdly guilty that they, I don’t know, didn’t personally stop the yeerk invasion before it reached either one of us?”

“And it’s wrapped up in the fact that she doesn’t want Marco to be bi,” Jake said grimly.  He sat slowly back down.

“Little bit, yeah.”  I shrugged.  “But she also doesn’t seem to want to admit she doesn’t want that.”

“Huh.”

“Yeah.”

We sat there in silence for a few minutes, digesting the problem silently.

“At least she wants to be okay with it, though,” Jake said.  “Right?”

“Yeah.  Eva’s good people.”  I propped one foot on the pile of books on the floor.  Funny how the novelty of shifting into a more comfortable position any time I felt like it still hadn’t worn off.  “I think she’ll come around, if Marco gives her time to get used to the idea.”

“In the meantime, shouldn’t she be grateful to have him back at all?” Jake said.

I felt my expression go cold and shuttered.  “You mean shouldn’t she be grateful for what she has.  Shouldn’t she be grateful to be free at all.  Shouldn’t she stop complaining and just be happy.  Shouldn’t she be glad that it’s over, and stop worrying about the fact that it happened at all.”

“No.  That’s not what I meant.  Tom—"

“Sorry.  Fuck.  I know.  I know that’s not... It’s just...”  I smoothed my hand across one of the papers I’d wrinkled when I sat down.

“I’m guessing that’s some of what you guys get on a daily basis?"

I smiled faintly.  “If we had a nickel for every 'you're not alien puppets anymore so stop whining' call we got, we could close up shop and stop asking for donations now."

“Sorry,” Jake said.

“Yeah.  Sorry I...”  I sighed.

“I’ll talk to Marco.  See if there’s anything I can do.”

“Uh-huh.  Thanks."

Jake shrugged.  "I'm not a miracle worker."

"Anyway, do you still have an Escafil device?” I asked.

Jake blinked.  “Random much?”

“Sorry, that was what I meant to ask earlier, got distracted.  It’s this thing with this killer.”  It had completely slipped my mind until now.

“And me suggesting that maybe you should let the cops handle it...”  Jake caught the expression on my face.  “Would be totally hypocritical.  Okay then.”

“I think he can morph.  No, I’m almost positive he can morph.  And you or Cassie or someone are the only people who I can think of that might have a stray morphing cube lying around, somewhere out of government control.  Right now I’m working off the theory that this guy figured out how to morph at some point after the war was over.”

“I thought it had to be an ex-controller,” Jake said, frowning.  “I mean, who else besides an Animorph—and let’s be real, random murders are not our thing—would be both willing and able to do it?”

“Problem is, there aren’t that many of us either.”  I dug into my pocket until I found the scrunched-up piece of note paper I’d filled earlier, and handed it over to Jake.  “That’s every morph-capable host Visser Seventeen ever made.  The ones crossed out with green are dead, and the ones crossed out with blue are still on the Blade ship.  That leaves only twelve people, most of whom were too young to be of use on the Blade ship.  Jesse Hauptman comes to Matter Over Mind meetings every week and almost certainly wouldn’t hurt a fly.  Alice Liddell—sorry, Alan Liddell—transcended, so he’s a nothlit now.  Eerow sixty-eleven’s host, some guy named Jay, is still comatose in the hospital after someone tried to remove the yeerk by force.  The rest are all younger than fifteen.”

Jake looked up from the list, expression ironic.  “You don’t have to be over fifteen to do a hell of a lot of damage.”

“I haven’t ruled them out, but for the moment I suspect there’s something else going on here,” I said.  “And judging by the location of Sophie Hatter’s death, this guy knows how to drive."

Jake glanced back down at the piece of paper, frowning.  If he was wondering how many of the crossed-out names on there represented deaths he was directly or indirectly responsible for, I wasn't going to enlighten him.

"On your end, Collette Wells, Elena Angelo, Timmy Dugan, Pedro Juarez, and Loren Fangor all have too much alibi or not enough motive," I continued.  "So.  If you have an Escafil device in a Swiss bank account somewhere, now might be the time to make sure it’s still there.”

“Well, I don’t have a Swiss bank account—I don’t think I have a bank account, period—but there’s one under my bed,” Jake said.

I opened my mouth.  And then closed it.  And then opened it again. 

“Oh, shut up,” he grumbled.  Without having to ask he flattened himself on the floor and dove halfway under his bed. 

“Actually,” I said, “I think I’m kind of impressed by your brilliance.  Teams of professional archaeologists couldn’t find anything under your bed if they had years to excavate.” 

One hand snaked out from under the bed skirt long enough to flip me off, and then disappeared again to resume digging. 

Jake started tossing crap out from under his bed—stray socks, old package string, a Coke bottle, several blue Legos, a Joan of Arc biography that had been due back to the library in 1998—and I dodged out of the way.  An English essay (“The Use of Rhetoric to Disguise a Lack of Content,” with a D+) fluttered past me and landed on top of a copy of National Geographic.

I picked up the magazine to close it—and stopped at the cover image, which showed Cassie standing in front of a redwood tree looking fierce and beautiful.  She had an entirely human body but also enormous osprey wings spread on either side of her.  The grey-and-white plumage was striking against her dark human skin and the harsh golden lighting that caught her hair and feathers from behind to surround her in a brilliant yellow aura.  "Yellowstone's New Guardian Angel: Animorph Cassie Day Vows to Protect Redwoods, Hork-Bajir," the headline announced.  Just in case it was remotely possible to miss the big honking symbolism in the photograph.

“So,” I said loudly.  “Do you buy National Geographic for the articles, or is it—?”

Jake ducked out from under the bed long enough to whack me hard in the knee with an encyclopedia of North American insects and grab the magazine away from me.  And then he disappeared from sight again, taking the National Geographic with him. 

Yeah, I probably deserved that.

I nudged an old leather-bound book with the toe of one sneaker, surprised when it flipped open to reveal handwriting that was definitely too neat to be Jake’s.  I rolled my eyes.  Apparently no one had ever told him it was rude to read other people’s journals.  

“Ha!”  Jake scooted backwards, coming out with one hand wrapped around a little blue box. 

“Well, there goes that theory.”  I took it from him, turning it over in my hands.  If someone had put me in charge of one of these, I probably wouldn’t have been nearly as responsible with it as he was.

It weighed maybe two pounds, and it would fit in my jacket pocket.  It also might have been the single most powerful weapon on the planet.  It would ensure that Eva never again went pinched around the eyes with pain when she walked up a flight of stairs.  It would let Bonnie fly.  It could save lives, and destroy them. 

I tossed it lightly back to Jake before that thought train could get any further out of hand.  He bobbled it but at least didn’t drop it.

“Before this, I was kind of assuming it had to be an andalite,” I said.  “I asked the cops, but they requested the Earth-travel records to that effect and it turns out that no andalite has spent more than a week or two on Earth in recorded history, outside of one Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill.  And like you said, random murders don’t seem like an Animorph thing.  So from there I went to the ex-hosts, and now...”  I shrugged.

Jake looked down at the cube in his hands.  “Could it be a host who morphed to get away from the yeerks during the invasion?”

I laughed humorlessly.  “Trust me, the yeerks had very thorough ways of preventing those of us who could morph from escaping during feedings.”

Judging by the expression on Jake’s face, he had correctly guessed that he didn’t want to know what those ways were. 

“You don’t think a yeerk would be able to morph and do it, right?” I said slowly.

“And when it demorphed, where would it go?  All the kandrona on the planet is incredibly restricted,” Jake pointed out.

“Yeah, assuming the military actually managed to hunt down all the stray mini-generators from Bug fighters and such.”  I crossed my arms.  “Which we don’t know for sure.  So if one acquired a human morph, just walked out of a facility, and then—”

“There are safeguards in place to prevent that,” Jake said.  “The andalites went over and over all of them before they’d let us borrow any morphing cubes.”

“But supposing a yeerk managed to get help from someone monitoring the morphing process.  It could happen.”

Jake huffed in annoyance.  “I’m telling you, I had this conversation with the andalites seven billion times.  They started out yeerks, they turned into whales.  There were no intermittent steps.  There was no room for intermittent steps.”

“Right,” I said.  “But just supposing that one somehow managed to morph and get away—”

“Not every problem on the planet is caused by yeerks, Tom!”

There was a long silence.  Jake pressed his lips together as if consciously stopping himself from saying anything else.

I glared at Jake until he dropped his eyes.  “I know that,” I said at last.

Jake let out a breath, shoulders slumping.  “I’m just really sick of defending the decision not to wipe out every yeerk on the planet once the war ended.”  He flopped back onto the bed, tossing the morphing cube aside.  It tumbled off the edge of his mattress and disappeared into a quicksand pit of unwashed clothes on the other side.

Personally I sided with the andalites on that one—I didn’t see what was so bad about flushing all the yeerks into the vacuum of space—but I opted to keep that opinion to myself. 

“Hate to break it to you, but sometimes people just suck,” Jake said.

I grimaced.  He wasn’t wrong.

“Any other ideas?”  Jake’s tone suggested he regretted his earlier harshness.

“None whatsoever,” I admitted.

“All right, well, good luck with that,” Jake said.

“I guess in the meantime I’ll hope the police know what they’re doing,” I said, turning to go.  “And that they actually want to stop this person, even knowing who his victims are.”

“Tom?”

I turned back around.  “Yeah?”

“Just, uh... be careful, okay?” Jake said.  “I know you’re not voluntary, but if other people think you are... If this guy thinks you are... It could be bad.”

“See?” I said tiredly.  “This is why I don’t support people taking justice into their own hands.  There’s no really good way to tell who actually deserves it and who doesn’t without any kind of court system backing you up.”

“I feel like I don’t have the right to condemn vigilantism,” Jake said, “but still watch your back.  Okay?”

“Yeah, okay.”  I ducked out into the hallway.  “Enjoy your National Geographic, midget!” I called on my way out. 

“Bite me!” Jake yelled, and slammed his door shut. 

************

There followed over a week of all quiet on the zombie front, and for the first time in a while I was remembering what it was like to get bored.  Case in point, Jake’s example had me cleaning my own room out of the fear it would descend into entropy like his had.

To give credit where it’s due, cleaning my room was a lot easier for me than it would have been for Jake.  Temrash 114 had gone through and thrown out just about everything I used to own: Lakers posters and X-Men graphic novels, photographs of friends and home-mixed cassettes.   Star Wars paperbacks.  My stereo.  The trophies I'd won during our school, regional, and statewide basketball championships.  The teddy bear I hadn't admitted to anyone I still owned.  Some of it had been trashed to punish me, some to reduce clutter.

It was all gone now, and I guess it didn't matter.  It was just stuff.  I shouldn't have cared one way or another, especially not in the grand scheme of things.  Plus, it made straightening up much easier.

I paused in the middle of disentangling the lamp cord from the corner of my desk when my phone beeped.

Grabbing my phone off my desk, I flipped it open.  Bonnie had sent me a text with a photo: an array of dozens of bottles of jam and jelly, all strawberry flavored, lined up across four shelves of a grocery store. 

Times like these... she wrote.

She didn't have to finish the sentence, because she knew I'd know how to fill in the blank. Times like these, you actually start to miss having a yeerk around to make all the decisions.

It was the kind of thought we dared not speak out loud. The kind of thought we dared not admit to anyone who wouldn't understand. I could only imagine what most people's faces would look like, if I told them that I too could be reduced to longing for someone to lift my arm and make a decision, longing for someone else to choose my words and where to direct my gaze. 

It was the kind of thought that could make your stomach curdle with shame... until you realized that someone else had it too.  That maybe, just maybe, it was an okay thing to think, given the circumstances. 

Go for the last one on the left on the second row down, I wrote back to her.   That one looks lucky to me.

:-) Thanks.

I smiled at my phone.  Goodness only knew what either of us would do if anyone asked us to choose our own jobs or houses or colleges or friends, but in the meantime we could do this for each other.  

Did you see the latest from Simi Valley? Bonnie asked.

My stomach clenched with anxiety.  I probably didn’t want to know what it was.

Nope, I said.   They caught the killer, put him in jail forever, decided to count hosts as POWs, and solved world hunger?

In response she sent me a photo from the grocery store’s news stand.  It had me snapping the phone shut and running down the stairs in an instant.  When I logged onto the computer in the living room, the headline was right there, unchanged: Double Murder Brings Shocking Revelations to Small Community. 

“Don’t read it,” I told myself.  “It’s not your problem anymore. Don’t read it.”

And would you look at that, I’d already clicked on the link.

Simi Valley: A local suburban community was rocked by the double murder of Christina "Chris" Rodriguez and her husband Luke Castellan today, and even more shocked by the discovery that their murders were connected to the string of deaths that have surrounded the greater Santa Barbara area.  After a witness described seeing a large bird of prey land on the roof of the couple’s house just minutes before the time of death later given by coroners, police began investigating the victims’ history and discovered that both individuals had been involved in recruitment for the Sharing, an organization now made infamous with the discovery that it was a front for the yeerk invasion force.  As one neighbor who wished to remain anonymous said, “Chris was always such a great lady... I never would have thought her capable of this terrible a thing.  It goes to show you never know about people.” 

As of this writing, the vigilante killer remains at large.  Although some are calling this individual a new generation of hero, or saying that he has done the work the Animorphs cannot, others have asserted that the law must be enforced no matter what.  If you have any information, please contact the Santa Barbara Police Department. 

I shoved back from the computer so hard I almost knocked over the desk chair.  It was the victims who were “terrible,” was it?  It was the killer who was a “vigilante,” huh?

“I guess they deserved what they got, then?” I demanded of the absent writer.  “I guess we should just kill them all then, is that it?”

Slowly I breathed in, uncurling the fingers of my right hand one by one.  I was yelling at a computer in the middle of an otherwise empty room.  I needed to get ahold of myself. 

And to tamp down the urge to go scream at the local police station until they started doing their damn jobs.  Or to throw eggs at the nearest news office.  People were getting murdered.  Why was I the only one who gave a damn?

**************

They were killing aliens in our living room when I walked in.

Well, technically only Marco was.  Jake had already died, judging by the way he sat back, controller dangling from his fingers by its cord, and made unhelpful suggestions as Marco frantically punched the A key over and over.

I leaned against the door frame, politely waiting until Marco also died (a process that involved a lot of cursing on his part and much gloating from Jake) before I said anything.

Once Marco tossed his own controller aside, I cleared my throat and they both glanced over.

“You guys didn’t happen to give anyone the power to morph before James Connerton, did you?” I asked.

Jake opened his mouth to say something, a frown pulling his eyebrows together.  

Marco beat him to the chase.  “Suuuuuure.  Loads of people.  I took hot girls on flying dates, I made sure aalllll my friends got to be Animorphs too, I showed off in gym class with my awesome little blue box, I did all kinds of...”  He broke off, clearly not even able to sustain the rant. “Do you realize how colossally stupid it would have been for us to go around handing out morphing power?”

A simple ‘no’ would have sufficed.  And been a hell of a lot more convincing, for that matter.

“Okay...” I said slowly.

“What’s with that tone?” Marco said.  

“Well, for one thing, you made more Animorphs at least once that I know of,” I pointed out.

“Yeah, and look at how well that turned out for us.”  Marco was still looking at me in utter disgust.

“I’m just saying, it wasn’t a totally illogical assumption on my part,” I said.

“Okay, and I’m just saying, we’re not that stupid.”  He rolled his eyes.  “Of course we didn’t go around giving people the power to morph.”

“Uh-huh.”  I didn’t bother to hide the fact that I wasn’t convinced.

Marco grimaced.  “If that’s all, can you leave now?”

I crossed my arms, not bothering to go anywhere.  I had no idea what I’d just stepped into, but now I was curious.  And starting to be a little pissed off.

“Dude, what’s your problem?” Marco said.

“You have no idea what I’m talking about,” I said.  “You’d never consider giving anyone else the power to morph.  Sure.”

“We already covered this,” Marco said tiredly.  “What are you, brain damaged?”

“Probably,” I said, shrugging.  “But hey, at least I’m not lying.”

“Guys,” Jake said quietly.  “Can we not?”

Marco jumped to his feet, controller tumbling off his lap onto the floor.  “What the hell is your problem, man?  You can’t just accuse people of lying like...  Like...”

I tilted my head in exaggerated thoughtfulness.  “You know, I think I did.  And funny enough you still haven’t answered my question.”

“Why the hell do you care so much, anyway?” Marco demanded.

“It was a casual question,” I said.  “Now I’m just wondering why you’re acting like such an asshole over something you apparently never did.”

“Maybe I don’t appreciate you coming in and accusing us of being irresponsible morons.”  Marco took another step forward, as if actually expecting me to back down.  He was about a foot shorter than me, so it wasn’t the most intimidating thing he could have done. 

I stepped forward as well.  Eva would probably be at least a little put out if I punched him, I reminded myself.  Then again, she'd probably get over it eventually. 

“Please stop,” Jake said.  He was massaging his temples as if trying to block our voices out of his head.  “Marco, chill.  Tom... nothing happened.  Please just drop it.”

I turned, making eye contact with him.  Jake held my gaze for a second, and then he shook his head a fraction of an inch.

Oh, I got the message loud and clear: he was siding with Marco.  Whatever the lie was here, I wasn’t going to get the truth from him.  And no amount of pushing on my part was going to change that.

So that’s how it was, then.

“Hypothetically speaking,” I said slowly.  “If there was someone.”

Marco opened his mouth.

“Which there is not,” I added through gritted teeth.  “But if there was.  Is there any chance that this person, who does not appear on the roster of the auxiliary Animorphs, could be out there killing voluntary hosts?”

Jake swallowed audibly.  “No.  Not a chance.  Please just drop it, okay?”

I turned and walked out of the room, too angry to bother trying to answer him.

I’d been telling the truth when I’d said it was a casual question.  Now I was starting to regret having learned that there had apparently been a seventh Animorph.  One who had, no doubt, died in the war.

Well, I figured, at least that idea was almost certainly a dead end.

The thought wasn’t particularly comforting.

Chapter Text

“We’re spinning round on this ball of hate/ there’s no parole, there’s no great escape/ we’re sentenced here until the end of days/ and then, my brother, there’s a price to pay.”

—Alice Cooper, 2000

 

At the next Matter Over Mind meeting a woman with wide blue eyes named Yvonne told us her story in short, halting sentences.  She’d gotten lucky, relatively speaking: she had been infested for less than a week before the war ended, although she’d had another three days after that in which the yeerk refused to give up her body in the hope that the tide of the war would change.

As usual Eva thanked her for sharing and the person sitting next to her patted her on the back of the hand in an awkward attempt at comfort.

It was Cornelius who leaned forward and said, “You know that thing that happens when a yeerk dies in your head?”

I exchanged a surprised look with Eva behind the guy’s back.

Cornelius (if that was actually his name; he always wrote it on the name tags but he occasionally misspelled it and never answered to it) was one of the odd ones who hung at the fringes of the meetings.  He normally never said a word during the actual group discussions.  However, he also had long fluent conversations with himself while waiting for the meetings to start, leading Eva and I to believe that whatever his oddness was it had nothing to do with yeerks.  Neither one of us had ever had the heart to ask him if he was, in fact, faking.  But this was the first sign either of us had seen that maybe he wasn’t.

“Fugue state,” Bonnie volunteered.

Cornelius turned and leveled one of those too-intense stares at her.  In that regard, at least, he fit right in.

“That’s what the yeerks call it.”  She smiled gently at him.  “The fugue.”

I was silent.  I’d heard the rumors before, of course, but I had never experienced it.  Thank god for the small blessings.

Cornelius, apparently done contributing for the next six months, didn’t answer.

Theodore, a kid my age with more tattoos than bare skin, leaned forward.  “How long does it last, like, in real time?” he said hesitantly.  “Does anyone know?”

“Feels like hours,” Clark murmured.

Eva made one of those facial expressions that was a little too disturbing to count as a smile.  “It can last months, if you do it right.”

“But, like, has anyone ever timed it?” Theodore said.

“Probably not.”  That one was an older guy whose nametag said ‘Harris.’  “Be pretty morbid if they did.”

“Did anyone else get memories?” Yvonne said softly.

“Memories of the yeerk dying?” Ricardo said.  “Is that what happens?”  Which made me feel a little better about not being the only one present who wasn’t a member of the suckiest club on the planet.

Bonnie shook her head.  “It’s like your life passing before your eyes.  Only not your life, the yeerk’s.  So you actually end up seeing… Or remembering, I guess… Huge chunks of the yeerk’s life.  All their previous lives, their past hosts, all that.  Just sort of downloaded into your brain.”  She glanced around the circle.  “Am I describing that right?”

Clark nodded.

“It can feel like you are the yeerk, for a while,” Eva said.  “Seeing through its eyes the way it normally sees through yours.”

“Weird,” Ricardo murmured.

“I found out during the fugue that Nehci thirty-ten had that lady with the modern-style cooking show as a host before me,” Odette, another teenager, piped up.  She smiled sadly, pressing her lips together.  “She escaped, not that long after she was infested.”

I winced.

Bonnie leaned over and gently patted Odette on the arm.

“Escaped?” Yvonne said.  “I thought that lady killed hers—” She took a deep breath.  “Oh.  I get it.”

“Welcome to the family,” Eva said dryly.  “We’re all a little creepy here.”

“So you get the past host’s memories?” I said.  “You remember them?”

“Yeah,” Theodore said.  “It’s trippy.  But in a seriously bad way.”

“So if…” I cleared my throat and started again.  “If you had a yeerk in your head that someone else had before you, and it died there… You’d remember that person’s life.  Not just their life.  Their thoughts.  Their emotions.  Everything the yeerk saw, or heard, or knew.  You’d know that too.”

“Now you understand why the rest of us find it so very unpleasant,” Harris said.  “It’s rather an unfortunate time to suddenly start having empathy for one’s yeerk.”

“I certainly got through it without that happening.  Didn’t see why it couldn’t just die quick and save us both some trouble.”  Margaret was once again being a downer.  As always, she wore a skintight top, a messy ponytail, and an angry scowl.  

Clark said something else.  I missed it.  And the next several minutes.

“You okay?” Bonnie whispered to me, leaning her head against my shoulder.

I nodded.  “I just… never knew,” I whispered back.

She frowned at me, but I didn’t offer anything else.

When the meeting broke up Bonnie walked out with me, still watching me carefully.  “You sure you’re going to be okay?” she asked.

“Sure.”  I leaned over, kissing her on the cheek before she could press the issue.  “We still on for tomorrow?”

“You bet.”  Her hand lingered on my arm even as I tried to step back.  “You sure you don’t want me to stay a little while?”

“Thanks, but…” I shook my head.  “I’m good.  I just need a little time to think.”

“’kay.”  She dropped her hand reluctantly.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it the whole way home.  I’d never known much about any past hosts of any yeerk I’d had in my head—the connection between parasite and host was almost entirely one way—but apparently all those barriers fell in the last seconds of life.

I’d meant it when I’d told Eva that it was possible to know too much about a person.  It was true: there was nothing quite like having every impulse and fear and desire in your head cracked open for another being to make you appreciate the value of keeping one’s thoughts to oneself.  To make you cling close to the precious commodity of your own secrets.  To make you want to die at the thought of yet another person having been inside your brain.

Like, say, your own little brother.

It was so like him, too.  Just deciding that this was the kind of thing he should keep to himself, that I was better off not knowing.  The kid would set himself on fire to light a room if you let him.  His attitude that he had to be responsible for everyone and everything for their own good got really fucking old sometimes.   

My hand clenched hard around the doorknob as I pushed it slowly inward.

“Hey, how’s stuff?”  Talk of the devil.  Jake was sitting in the living room like... Like nothing.  Just eating a sandwich like any old day.

What had he seen?  

I made a nondescript noise of acknowledgement and walked past him.  I sank into a kitchen chair, closing my eyes and curling forward to rest my cheek against the tabletop.

What had he seen?

It was my brain.  Literally everything was in there: the first time I’d masturbated.  The last time I’d cried.  That time when I stood there and watched three older kids beat up Rod Allbright for having the wrong kind of clothes, not saying a word because at the time I’d figured he deserved it.  That girl whose name I couldn’t even remember who spat on my shoes and called me ugly when I asked her to the seventh-grade Spring mixer.

Other things.  Every terrible stupid regretful thought I’d ever had.  The time I hate Mom and I wish she would die had crossed my mind during a fight about whether I actually needed a new pair of Air Jordans.  The moment I wondered what it would be like if I touched Ms. Zarves’s boobs as she leaned over my desk.

My greatest hits.  I knew they were, because Temrash 114 had pulled them out for its own personal amusement.  Time after time.  

And again.  And again.

What had he seen?

God, I wanted to die.  I wanted to get run over by a bus.  To get flattened into the sidewalk the way Sophie Hatter had been.  I wanted a meteor to crash into the house and reduce me to a gross smear on the linoleum.

Barring that, I’d settle for being horribly injured.  And so brain-damaged I lost the ability to morph it off.  It’d be great—I’d get horrible amnesia from the shock and forget this had ever happened, I’d be unfit for infestation in case anyone else decided to come along and steal my body... Everybody would win.

Just get me away from—

Jake touched my arm.  I jerked upright, slapping him away even harder than I meant to.

He held up both hands to look nonthreatening.  “Sorry,” he said.  “I was just... are you okay?”

“Fine,” I said.  “Totally, completely, absolutely fine.  Never been better in my entire fucking life.”

Jake waited for me to say something else.  When I didn’t, he said, “Okay, then.”

He brought the plate he’d been using over to the sink, still watching me out of the corner of his eye.  In the most transparent excuse for checking on me he could’ve picked, he actually started washing the plate of his own accord.  Quite possibly the first time in his life he had ever cleaned anything without one my parents telling him to do so forty times first.

Call the papers.  It’s a miracle.

“Why the hell didn’t you tell me you’d been inside my mind?”

Jake turned around, and, oh, I must have said that out loud.  Oopsie.  Turns out sometimes people actually hear you when you scream, when there’s not a yeerk there.

“Okay,” Jake said slowly.  “What are we talking about?”

“You don’t remember?” I said, disgusted.

“I don’t know if I remember because I literally do not know what you are talking about.”  Now he sounded annoyed.  Oh goodie.

“Temrash one-fourteen,” I said tightly.  “The fugue.  What did you see?”

Jake’s eyes went wide, and he glanced around as if checking we were alone.  “How do you know about that?”

“Had an enlightening conversation today.”  I left it at that, waiting for him to answer my question.

“Okay, well, I thought it was another hallucination at first,” Jake said.  “It was only later that I found out that he—it— Crayak was real.  Crayak is this, like, cosmic being.  Who has a standing challenge with the Ellimist, and for some reason we six were the turning point in that challenge, which is why—”

I slammed my fist down on the tabletop.

Jake jumped, falling blessedly silent.

“I don’t really care about your imaginary friend,” I said.  “I care about my memories.  My brain.  My life!  Downloaded into your head!  And you never once thought to mention it to me.”

“Oh,” Jake said softly.  “That.”

“Yeah.  That.”

“Look.”  Jake drew himself up, leaning back against the sink for support.  “It was all sort of jumbled together, and I couldn’t make sense of most of it, and there was a bunch of other stuff mixed in—”

“What.  Did you.  See.”

He spread out his hands.  “Nothing that exciting.  No... hidden murders or terrible secrets or anything for you to be acting like—”

I stood up, crossing my arms.  “Let’s just pretend, for a second, that the contents of my own mind matter to me.  That sometimes I like to keep them where they belong.  I’m quirky like that.”

He bit his lip, actually thinking about it now.  “I saw you get infested,” he admitted at last.  “I saw Bonnie, that one Sharing meeting, and... what came after.  I saw that morning before I disappeared and Ax took over, only from your point of view.”

A shudder rippled through my body.  I dropped my eyes, unable to look at him.

“There were a handful of other brief little memories, but nothing else coherent,” Jake insisted.  “Just these tiny out-of-context moments, stray thoughts or images that didn’t mean anything.”

“You know,” I said into the floor.  “I get that apparently I don’t have the right to the privacy of my own thoughts, that anyone who feels like it could go rifling around in there any time they felt like, but you?  I kind of thought that you—”

“I had a yeerk in my head,” Jake said.  “Not a whole lot of choice in that situation, in case you didn't notice."

“You could have at least told me.  Could have at least said—”

“I called.”

I looked up at him now.  He was staring me down steadily, shoulders drawn back with tension.

“You mean...”  I moistened my lips.  “That was...”

“Yeah.  That was me.”

For a second we were both frozen there in hideously awkward silence.  And then Jake turned away and started washing dishes again, probably just for something to do with his hands.

I leaned back, halfway sitting on top of the table.  I remembered that call.  That brief, bizarre conversation.  It had come within days of Temrash 114’s death.

Oh.

Jake was very carefully not looking at me as he scrubbed useless circles into the one plate.  Because of course he’d known.  Way back then, he had known what was happening to me.

I already knew that, sure, but right now that knowledge was bringing up a whole slew of other questions.  He’d spent the entire war perfectly aware of what was happening, and had apparently not given a damn.  I’d seen him in the yeerk pool, made eye contact human to tiger, mere weeks after I was taken.  Of course he’d known.  Of course they all had.  Almost the entire time.

He’d given a pretty damn good show of apathy, given that that was the case.  

“Look, I...”  Jake stopped.  He looked down, considering, and then back up at me.  “It’s just...”  His courage apparently failed him again.

I waited.  It wasn’t like I had anything better to do.

“I’m sorry, okay?” he finally blurted.  “It genuinely didn’t occur to me to tell you.  And it was a long time ago.”

“No shit,” I said flatly.

“I.  I wasn’t thinking.”

“Uh-huh.”

Jake turned back to the sink, shoulders hunched.

“So had you already written me off by then?” I asked.

Jake whipped around, eyes wide.  “What?”

“I’m sorry, I have a tendency to mumble ever since aliens hijacked my brain,” I said brightly.  “I was asking whether at that time you had already decided I wasn’t worth saving and it would be more convenient just to kill me, or if that didn’t come until later in the war.”

Jake stared at me for a solid ten seconds as if unable to comprehend  the words I was using. “It wasn’t like that,” he said at last, eyes shining with moisture.  “You have to believe me.  We tried so hard...”

“Whoops, guess you didn’t succeed!  Better send Rachel to off me instead.”

Jake clutched the plate in his hands a little closer like it was a stuffed animal.  His cheeks were definitely wet now but his expression was still angry, defiant.  “You know it wasn’t like that.  I promise you, if I’d had any choice, any chance to do so, I would have gotten you out.  But there were so many other things—”

CRASH.

I’d ripped the plate out of his hands and thrown it full-force at the floor.  There had been no thought, no intention.  I’d just done it.

“Sure.  You were busy.”  My voice came out steady, let out no hint that I’d just startled myself almost as much as Jake.  “You had stuff you needed to do.  For three years.  And hey, there was a war on.  Far too busy to make one human disappear.  Or, hey, here’s a radical thought.”  I snapped my fingers.  “If you hadn’t put Mom and Dad dead last on your priority list, they probably wouldn’t have been taken in the first place.  Did that ever occur to you?”

“We couldn’t.”  Jake swallowed, sniffing angrily.  “Especially not anyone that close to us.  If the yeerks had figured out who we were...”

“Better tell that one to Marco,” I said in mock-seriousness.  “Because he protected his parents.  He made sure his dad never got taken.”

“It...”

“He almost cost everyone’s lives getting Eva out of there.” I frowned.  “Took a hell of a chance.  Doesn’t fit with the overall strategy, does it?”

“He scared the hell out of me, doing that,” Jake said heavily.  “I thought he’d be the last one to risk the whole war effort for two people.”

“Or maybe,” I said, taking another step forward until I was looming over him. “Maybe it’s just that you’ve got to be the martyr.  The one whose family doesn’t get saved.  The one who sacrifices everything for the war.  Maybe that’s why you’re the one with the Medal of Honor and Marco’s the one with the filler articles in Us Weekly.  It’s all about sacrifice, right?”

Jake shoved me back, breathing heavily.  “There were a lot of other factors—”

“Oh, well, as long as you calculated that I wasn’t worth saving.”  I held up my hands defensively.  “As long as you had a formula to back it up.  Then that’s okay.  My mistake.”

“I’m sorry.”  Jake said it like the words were broken glass he was trying to roll through his mouth.  “I fucked up.  Again and again.  And you’re right.  I failed.  I should have realized what would happen.  I should have foreseen that—”

“No, you should have given a shit!  About your own family!”

“Trust me.  I cared.”

I smiled.  The expression was horrible, fake.  “Funny enough, so did I.  Because while you were so very busy running around having your cute little mix-ups with Hansen and learning how to fly, I was getting shoved into and out of cages by hork-bajir with cattle prods.  I was spending two months’ worth of feedings in a straitjacket because I planned to kill myself in a way that might have actually worked, but even my stupid ideas about stupid ways to commit suicide weren’t private from the yeerks.”  I swallowed, balling my hand into a fist at my side in an effort to stop myself from trembling.  I wanted to be angry, not afraid.  “But hey, I get it.  You had Algebra tests and homecoming dances and new morphs to try.  No time to worry about little old me.”

Jake opened his mouth to say something else.  Nothing came out but a small sob.

I turned away just in time to see my mother walk in the door with an armload of groceries and stop dead.  She took in the scene: Jake with the knuckles of one hand pressed to his mouth so hard he had to be hurting himself, the shards of porcelain from where the plate had exploded all over the floor, me standing in the epicenter red-faced and shaking.  And then she slowly lowered the paper bag to rest on the counter.

“Okay.”  She sounded like she was fighting hard to remain calm.  “What is going on here?”

“Absolutely nothing,” I said.  “I’m leaving.  It’s been real.  Thanks for everything.”

“I don’t know what this is about,” Mom said, trying for a soothing tone and not quite succeeding. “But honey, right now there is some kind of crazy killer running around out there and it’s not safe—”

“Don’t worry.”  I smiled.  “I’m sure Jake will protect you.  If, y’know, he doesn’t have anything else he’d rather be doing at the time.”

Mom took a step forward.  “What are you—?”

I wrenched open the back door and walked out.

Chapter Text

“When I look at you I’ve got a second chance, really need to take it now.”

—Screaming Trees, 1996

 

I walked away, and kept walking.  I didn’t morph.  I didn’t want to morph.  Morphing would make me clear-headed, and I wanted to hang onto my anger.  I had a creeping suspicion that as soon as I stopped being so pissed off at Jake, the guilt churning in my gut would surge up and overwhelm all my righteous indignation.  Then I’d be in trouble.

But I had a right to be angry.  I had a right to want to burn down the entire fucking world and then piss on the ashes.

It shouldn’t be this way.  It shouldn’t be a matter of living day to day.  A matter of picking up the pieces of our lives.  A matter of having died at age sixteen and then been improperly resurrected out of the cobbled-together pieces.  Someone should have changed something so that the war never happened.  So the yeerks never came.

And, yeah, maybe Jake didn’t deserve all the blame.

Or most of it.

Or, well, any of it.

Not that I gave a shit.  Or apparently not enough of one, because I had still done it.

But it had felt so good to yell at someone.  To be not okay with the way things were.  To demand that the recent past be different from the way it was.

My phone started buzzing in my pocket.  I jammed my hand into my jacket long enough to flip it open and shut, hanging up on whoever it was.

There was nothing left to be angry at.  Nothing to do to change the past or even the present when there were no yeerks left to kill, no battles left to fight.

Well—I laughed aloud, a bitter choking sound—there was always murdering voluntary hosts.

Eventually I started walking toward Bonnie’s apartment block.  I didn’t have anywhere else to go, unless I wanted to camp out under my desk at the Matter Over Mind office.

My phone buzzed again.  I’d come up with eight or nine more incredibly mean things I wanted to say to Jake if he was seriously trying to call me already, so this time I pulled it out—and saw that it was Eva calling.

“So there’s another press event I need you to show up for on Wednesday,” Eva said with her usual lack of social niceties, the instant I picked up.  “Some kind of civil rights protest but there’s probably going to be a significant presence of ex-hosts.  If you show up, look pretty, tell some reporters you’re not going to comment and actually mean it this time—”

“Sorry, but I’d really rather not.”

Eva must have heard something in my voice—I wasn’t paying much attention, which probably meant I was letting words run together more than usual—because she was silent for a second.  “You all right?” she said at last.

“I just had a fight with Jake,” I admitted.

Eva was silent.

“Or, uh, I stood there and yelled a bunch of shit at him and he kind of stood there and took it.”  And now I was remembering the look on his face.  And I really didn’t want to.  “And then I left,” I mumbled.

“Oh, honey.”  She sighed.  “It’s about time.”

Have I mentioned that Eva can be a little blunt at times?

“Peter and I had the blow-up of the century months ago,” she went on.  “We’re lucky Marco wasn’t there to see it, because there was screaming and blame-throwing and all sorts of immaturity.  But we got it out of our system, we talked about it like sane people once we were less emotional, and now we’re okay.”

“You didn’t hear what I said,” I whispered.

“It’s an ugly time right now.  You don’t have to be gracious about it.”  Eva sighed.  “The screaming match between Marco and I wasn’t quite that dramatic, but it still happened.  And we still used it to get a lot of shit out there.  You’ll understand someday when you’re a parent.”

“Thank you, but I’m not having kids,” I said.  “To the eternal disappointment of every single one of my ancestors stretching back to the dawn of time.”

“You say that now, but things will change.”

“Yeah, that’s what my grandmother says every time it comes up.”

Already I felt calmer, more clear-headed.  Enough to start feeling the full force of sickness for the amount of assholery I’d just demonstrated.

But I had a right to be pissed at him for trying to kill me, a small part of my brain insisted.  I had a right to be angry that he hadn’t protected Mom and Dad. 

And then a much larger part felt the need to point out that even if that was the case, I definitely shouldn’t have said anything to him the way I did. 

I wasn’t even pissed at Jake over that.  I was pissed... I don’t know, that he hadn’t prevented the entire war from happening. 

Shut up.  I didn’t have to be rational if I didn’t feel like it.  

“The issue of parenthood aside, at least now whatever you said is all out there,” Eva said.  “And he’ll know not to do whatever thing in the future.  You’ll see, it’ll all work out.”

“I wasn’t yelling at him about the present,” I said.  “Mostly I just accused him of not doing enough to protect our family during the war.”

“Oh.  That’s...”

“Yeah.”  I stared at the sidewalk in front of me, unwilling to look up and see where I was going.

Eva paused for a long time.  “Then at least he knows that’s how you feel.”

“Thanks.”  I think I sounded about as sincere as she did.  At least we’d both tried, more or less.

“You want me to talk to him?” Eva said.

“What?” I said.  “I mean, um, look, don’t go to any bother.  I’m sure we’ll work it out.”

“Remember: the sane conversation afterward is the important one,” she said.

“Hang on a second.”  

I sandwiched the phone between my ear and my shoulder in order to dig out my wallet. When I found it, I took out a twenty and a business card with our information and dropped both into the waiting cup of a woman curled up in a doorway. The earmuffs she wore despite the heat and the vacant way she stared beyond me told me everything I needed to know about how she'd ended up sitting on that street corner.

She didn't look up, and I didn't bother trying to start a conversation with her. There were probably ear plugs under the earmuffs so it wouldn't be worth it.

“Anyway.”  I put the phone back up to my ear. “I...  I just wasn’t expecting that little bombshell about the fugue, okay?  I promise I’ll... Shit, I’ll apologize."

“I’m sure you will,” Eva said.  “I might talk to him anyway, though.  I promise you’re headed in the right direction, honey, even if we all do dumb things along the way."

“Thanks, Visser Mom.”

Eva choked out a laugh.  “What was I thinking.  You’re incorrigible.”  

“I’ll see you Monday, okay?” I said, smiling now.

“Let me know if you need anything else.”

“I... thanks.”

“Okay.”  She hung up.

I kept walking.  Unfortunately talking with Eva had worn off the heat of my anger, and now I just felt like a total jerk.  Some of what I’d told Jake had been genuinely felt, but most of it would have been better with different phrasing or just unsaid entirely.

It wasn’t a long walk across town to Bonnie’s place, but I was still exhausted by the time I got there.  

I hit the buzzer on Bonnie’s door; she didn’t bother unlocking it for me, just came down the stairs.  Her hair was a radiant halo of static around her head, except where it was flattened against her cheek.  She was wearing plaid boxers and a shirt that had the words “The Sharing Fifteenth Annual Family Weekend” crossed out and “aliens stole my brain and all I got was this crappy t-shirt” written over the top. 

She looked beautiful.

More to the point, I’d probably just woken her up.

“Sorry,” I mumbled.  “I can go.”

She caught one of my hands in both of hers.  “Don’t.”

“I...”  I bit my lip.  “It’s not important.”  

“Hey,” she said quietly.  “You okay?”

“I hate my family,” I told her.

She absorbed that for a second.  “Wanna play Candy Land and talk about it?”

I blinked.  “Candy Land?”

“Any time my sister and I fought, my mom would tell us to have it out over a game of Candy Land,” she explained, smiling self-consciously.  “It turns out it’s a great way to have a conversation, provided the competition doesn’t get too fierce or bloody.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever played Candy Land,” I admitted.

“In that case?”  She took my hand, gently drawing me backward up the stairs.  “You have not yet lived, my dear.”

**********

“Um,” I said, looking at the card in my hand.  “What happens if I got the candy cane thing but I already went past the candy cane square?”

“You move backwards,” Bonnie said smugly.  “All the way back to Peppermint Forest."

“What?”  I glared at the card.  “You’re just making this shit up.”

Bonnie picked up the box, clearing her throat.  “‘When you draw a Picture card, move your pawn forward or backward on the path to the pink picture space that matches the pink picture square on your card.’”

“Fine, fine—”

“‘However,’” she continued, still reading, “‘if your toddler starts melting down over having to move backwards, this rule can be dropped—’”

I grabbed one of the unused pawns out of the box and threw it at her.

Laughing, she used the box as a shield and it bounced off.  “Well, I think resorting to throwing things counts as ‘melting down,’” she said seriously.

“Oh, shut up.”  I picked up my little plastic token and set it pointedly on the Peppermint Forest square.

“Very good.”  Bonnie rewarded me with a deep, lingering kiss, warm tongue filling my mouth.

There was zero strategy involved in this game, which left plenty of room for conversation.  I spent the first three rounds ranting about every dumb thing Jake had ever done in his life, got out another round’s worth complaining about my parents, and then ran out of steam.  Bonnie mostly listened, and nodded along, and probably cheated as well because there was no way that she could win all five rounds of a game based entirely on luck the way that she had.

When I finally fell silent, Bonnie looked up from where she had been idly smoothing her hand over my wrist.  “You okay?” she asked.

“I’m an idiot,” I admitted.  “I didn’t mean half the things I said to him, and the other half still came out way meaner than I ever would have wanted.  I just... I wish he’d stop trying to control everything all the time and then freaking out when that doesn’t work.” 

“I don’t think you’re an idiot.”  She scooted around the game board to press herself under my arm.  “I think you’re smart enough to figure out when you’re wrong, and I also think you’re brave enough that you’ll tell him that."

I pressed a kiss to her forehead.  And then one to her mouth.  She opened her lips under mine and probed her tongue forward, sending pleasant shivers over my skin.  I sucked gently at her lip, which caused her to surge forward and wrap both arms around my shoulders.  Gently I adjusted our angle, pulling her into my lap, without either of us breaking apart.

When I cupped a hand around her right breast she gave a small happy moan.  She scratched her nails lightly down my back, finding the hem of my shirt and sliding both hands underneath to press her fingertips into my skin.  My hips jerked forward involuntarily and she laughed, holding me tighter.

I pulled off her with a wet sucking sound, catching my breath.  “You wanna try again?” I asked. 

“Yeah.”  She nodded, hair rippling in the low light.  “You good with that?”

Certain parts of my body were very good with that idea indeed.  “I’m good.”

She pressed herself forward again, this time latching her mouth onto my neck.  I made a breathless sound, nerves singing, and buried my hand in her silky hair to pull her closer.  I imagined her marking me, possessing me, leaving her signature down to that gap between her front teeth. 

The next time she came up for air, I gently laid her back on the floor.  Grabbing a throw pillow off the couch, I slid it under her head.  And then I went to work on the buttons of her shirt.

Bonnie had to stop pulling my pants and underwear off to give me a hand when I got stuck on the fiddly little clasp of her bra.  But with her help I pulled her round, firm breasts free and got to work licking gently around one nipple as I massaged the other with my free hand.  I was so focused on what I was doing that I didn’t catch it at first when Bonnie stopped moving.

Embarrassingly, it was my own neglected erection that caused me to notice she was no longer touching me back.  Immediately I pulled away to look at her face.

Shit,” I said.

Bonnie was staring at the ceiling, expression blank, apparently unaware that anything else was happening.

“Bonnie?”  I didn’t touch her, but I wasn’t sure how else to get her to respond.  “Bonnie?"

She gasped like she was coming up for air, bare chest heaving in a way that was uselessly distracting.  She blinked, and then focused on me.  “Damn it,” she said.

“You okay?” I asked.

“I’m fine.”  She grimaced.  “Frustrated, sure.  But you didn’t hurt me or anything.” 

It had the tendency to happen to both of us: we’d get too distracted and then forget who was in charge of moving the bodies attached to our minds.  I was terrified that one of these days Bonnie would drift off like this in the middle of sex, or I would, and the other person wouldn’t stop in time. 

“You want to try again?” Bonnie said.

I shook my head.  “It’s fine.  Some other time.”  I could already feel myself wilting from the cold shock of what had just happened. 

Bonnie crossed her arms.  “I, for one, am still riled up and ready to go.  So if you’re willing to try again, I want to try again.  Maybe if you’re the one who lies back and thinks of England while I do most of the work, I’ll hang on just fine."

“If you’re sure...”  I wasn’t about to turn her down if she really was interested.

“All right.”  She gently pushed me back until I was lying flat on the floor.  “But I gotta know you’re still with me, so keep talking, okay?”

“What do you want me to talk ab—”  Her hand moved and I gasped.  “Oh.  Yes, please, there, please, yes, keep doing that, yes, yes, ohmyfuckinggod—”

She grinned wickedly, continuing to move.  “I’m sure you’ll find something to say.” 

*****************

I spent the night cuddled with Bonnie on her fotoun, sending my parents a quick text to let them know I wasn’t dead but not bothering to answer their eight phone calls.  In the morning Bonnie tried her best to teach me how to make omelettes, with the end result that I was very glad I’d never had to survive off my own cooking in my life before.  She stood on tiptoe to kiss me and then left for work.

Left at loose ends for the time being, I texted her to ask to use her computer and, when she gave me the okay, started looking up this event Eva had been talking about.  It actually did sound like our kind of gig: the protest was about international slavery laws, and it was pulling on the recent mass liberation of controllers for support.  I should probably—

My phone started buzzing, again, and I huffed in annoyance.  I flipped over the screen to see if it was Eva or just my parents for the seven hundredth time, and frowned when I saw it was Bonnie.

I flipped it open.

Before I had time to say anything she said, “Are you near a TV?”

Her tone was frantic, shaking.  It froze my blood.  “Yeah, I’m still at—”

“Turn it on.  Now.”

The phone clattered out of my hand.  Bonnie was still talking, but I couldn’t hear her.  I vaulted over the back of her sofa, landing in a crouch in front of the television.  I switched it on and frantically scanned the channels up and up, looking for news—

“—where shots were fired just now outside the Loreto Plaza Shopping Center,” the news anchor was saying, his expression solemn.  “Ma’am...” He stepped in front of a young woman walking away from the scene, white-faced.  “Ma’am, can you tell us what happened?”

“They shot him,” the woman said frantically.  “Shot him dead.  It was so loud.  They killed him, that Animorph boy Jake.”

Chapter Text

“Unhook my lights to peek behind the flesh, for I am crystal chrome, I am shatter dome, I am kremlin king of angels avenged...”

—The Smashing Pumpkins, 1997

 

I crash-landed in the middle of the police-created clearing in the crowd, hitting the ground at the wrong angle so that I rolled onto my side, jarring every one of my hollow bones.

“Graceful,” Jake said dryly.

I demorphed frantically as I stood up, grabbing him by the shoulders even as the last of the feathers disappeared.  He was dressed in morphing clothes, the jeans and coat and shoes he’d been wearing discarded to one side.

All of it, from the ends of his hair down to the sneakers he’d abandoned, was soaked in blood.

“Are you okay?” I demanded.

“I morphed,” he said.  “I’m totally fine.  Are you okay?  You look a little—”

I yanked him into a hug before he had time to say anything else, squeezing him hard enough that he made a strangled noise of annoyance and pulled himself away.

“Chill, would you? I’m fine,” he said again.

“Good.”  I whacked him on the back of the head.  “Duck next time, won’t you?”

“Ow!”  Jake rubbed at his hair, indignant.  “How am I supposed to dodge bullets, you dumbass?”

I didn’t bother coming up with a response for that.  “What the hell happened?”

Jake shrugged.  “I didn’t even see anything.  It was just a sudden bang, and then...” He spread out his hands to indicate the drying puddle on the sidewalk.  “Like, ew.”

“‘Ew?’” I said.  “Not ‘ow?’”

He shrugged again.

“We think the shooter came out of the Sears there.”  That was Eva, who I hadn’t even spotted until she spoke.  She broke away from the group of police officers who were still trying to ask her questions.  “He and Marco and I had just walked out of the cafe and we got mobbed.  Well...”  She grimaced.  “Marco got mobbed.  Most of the mob in question was young and female.  Somewhere in the chaos someone decided to pull out a gun.  None of us saw anything until Jake was already on the ground with a bullet hole...”  She touched her own chest just below the collarbone.  “Here.”

“Holy god,” I breathed.  He could have bled out in seconds, before he even had time to morph.  He could have blacked out immediately and suffocated before he ever woke up.

Eva hummed in agreement.  “Marco morphed wolf and took off after the shooter—he’s to track the person down and not engage under any circumstances or else he’s going to be grounded for the rest of his natural existence.  We’ll know if—”

The rest of what she said was drowned out by a siren as an ambulance finally broke through the surrounding crowd of gawkers and reporters.  It screeched to a stop just on the other side of the police barricade and two EMTs jumped out.

“You know I would’ve been dead like eight times over before you got here, right?” Jake said.

I whacked him again, which earned me a horrified look from one of the EMTs.

“Has anyone made sure the gunman isn’t still here?” I asked.  The scale of the mob scene around us was just starting to sink in—there had to be hundreds of people standing around watching us and yelling things like they had nothing better to do.  The seething mass of onlookers was still well within shooting range of where we stood, and the police’s attempts to clear the scene were so far accomplishing nothing.

“I don’t know,” Eva said.

That was all I needed.  I started to morph again, knees reversing direction and teeth pushing outward into a snout as the jaguar’s senses replaced my own.

“You don’t need to...”  Jake gave up.  Either that or he was distracted by the EMTs.  One was currently trying to drape a blanket over him while the other held a water bottle ineffectually in his general direction.

“Let them through!  Let them through!” one of the cops started yelling.  Which was how I knew our parents had gotten here.

Sure enough, the authorities managed to push enough of a path through the mob to escort Mom and Dad to the edge of the barrier.  They were wide-eyed, frantic.  Mom was doing more than a little shoving of her own.

The cop who had been yelling before turned away as soon as they were in our little circle, bellowing about how much of a mess the scene was and how many heads were going to roll if they didn’t get these people out of here right now.

Mom and Dad immediately grabbed Jake, looking him over and exclaiming about the blood.

I turned away, finishing the jaguar morph.  I prowled around the edges of our little clearing in the crowd, growling at anyone who got too close.  Other than the faint lingering trace of gunpowder scent in the air, I couldn’t smell shooting residue on anyone else.  My tail slashed at the air, unretracted claws clicking against the asphalt.  If the cops didn’t succeed in getting everyone out of here soon then I was going to start helping them clear people.  Using as much violence as necessary.

“Please stop,” Jake said to Dad, who was currently tilting his head back to check his pupil dilation.

<They know you don’t still have a hole in your lung, now let them make sure you’re not going into shock or something,> I told him.

There was no sign of anyone with a weapon, but there were a hell of a lot of cell phones and palm pilots pointed in our direction.  A woman broke the barrier to get closer, disposable camera in hand.  I growled and she wisely stepped back behind the line.

“I’m not going into shock!”  Jake actually sounded indignant.  “Look.”  He shrugged the blanket off and handed it back to the EMT with unnecessary force.  “I have been shot loads of times before.  I’ve been shot in the chest.  I’ve been shot in the head.  On more than one occasion.  I have had entire limbs blown off—Tom, tell them!”

<Not helping, midget.>

“I’m just saying.”  Jake ducked out of the way of a third EMT who was wielding a thermometer.  “I’m practically used to it.  And if I do go into shock I’ll just morph again, and then I’ll be fine.”

<Jake, you do realize that you’re about two seconds away from pushing Mom and Dad into full-blown panic mode, right?> I said privately.  <For pete’s sake, stop talking about getting fatally injured all those times they weren’t there to help.>

That, at least, shut him up.

A grey wolf pushed its way through the thinning crowd toward us, breathing heavily.

<Anything?> I asked.

Marco shook his head.  <Lost the scent about four blocks down.>

“Okay, fine,” Jake said tiredly.  “Can everyone just stop fussing and demorph?”

“Why don’t you sit down, sweetheart, and just have something to drink?” Mom said as if he hadn’t spoken.  She had gotten a baby wipe from somewhere in the depths of her purse and was currently using it to clean the blood off Jake’s neck and arms like he was a sticky toddler.

<Jake, buddy, you just got shot in the chest and bled most of the way to death.  Your family’s allowed to be a little bit emotional about the whole thing for at least another ten minutes,> Marco said.  <Maybe fifteen, if we’re feeling generous.  But no more than twenty.>

“Okay, seriously, that makes it sound like I died or something,” Jake said impatiently.

<You mostly did.  So shut up and drink your damn water, squirt.>  I turned away from him, back toward Marco.  <What do you mean, you lost the scent?>

<I followed it down State Street that way—> He jerked his head toward the west.  <And right near the intersection with Ontare I couldn’t find it anymore.  It just disappeared.>

“Did the person get in a car?” Jake asked.

<Maybe, but I don’t think so.  It’d have to be pretty small to fit in the alleyway behind the Denny’s where the scent disappeared, but it’s possible,> Marco said.

<And you didn’t try and follow the scent of the car?> I asked, disgusted.

<What am I, Sherlock Holmes?  How the hell could I tell what car it was?>

<Was there the scent of a car in the alleyway?  Because if so that was probably the one, Sherlock.>

“There wasn’t a fire escape in the alleyway, was there?” Jake said.  “Because if he climbed out of there, that could explain it.”

Marco looked away.  <Um, I don’t think so?  I didn’t really look, but probably not.>

<Seriously?> I said.  <That never occurred to you?  Okay, what if the guy doubled back?>

Marco rolled his eyes, an expression that looked very odd on a wolf.  <That would have been a deeply stupid thing to do.>

I glanced around.  The crowd was getting steadily thinner and further away from us, but still... <Are you sure there was no fire escape?>

<I don’t know, mostly sure.>  Marco glanced away.

I bared my teeth in a snarl of frustration before I could stop myself.  With conscious effort I closed my mouth, turning away.  <So you let him get away?>

<I did not let anything—>

<You realize that this is some Symbiote, or some other kind of psycho, who is trying to kill Jake?  You do realize that, right?>

<Gee, you think?  Between the mass screaming panic and the watching my best friend bleed out on the sidewalk, I didn’t notice that!>

I whipped around, staring him down.  <I’m not the one who lost the guy, Marco.>

<So, what, this is my fault now?>

<That’s not—>

<Because I’m not the one going around raising a stink in the press and painting a target on my own back.>

Stop it!  Both of you!” Eva snapped.

“And demorph now before someone gets hurt,” Jake added.

We were standing less than a foot apart, staring each other down with hackles raised.  Even though we both stepped back when Eva yelled, neither one of us made any move to be the first one to demorph.

“Come on.  Please?” Jake said.  “Neither of you is helping anything, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

I broke eye contact, turning away before I started morphing.  Marco huffed dismissively but started doing the same.

By the time I stood up, completely human again, someone had forced Jake to sit down on the back bumper of the ambulance.  He wore a long-suffering expression as Mom combed her fingers through his hair and Dad took his pulse with a blood pressure cuff clearly stolen from somewhere inside the ambulance.

Apparently it was catching, because Eva suddenly grabbed Marco in a hug.  “Are you okay?” she demanded.

“Um, yeah?”  Marco gently pulled back.  “Mom, I’m fine!  I’m not even the one who got himself shot.”

Jake made a noise of objection.

“You—you...”  Eva cupped Marco’s cheek.  “I love you, I never should have questioned you about that boy of yours.  He seems like a lovely young man, I just want you to be happy, bring him by, if you had been shot and I’d never told you that...”

“Then he’d still be fine,” Jake muttered.  “We’re really hard to kill, guys.”

“I just want you and this boy of yours to be happy,” Eva was gushing.

Marco sighed.  “Okay, first, Jack and I broke up like a week ago, and second, I’m fine.  Whoever the heck it was shot Jake, not—”

“You said you had the shooter’s scent?” Mom interrupted.  “Was it anyone you recognized?”

Marco tossed his hair out of his eyes.  “Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.  It was no one whose scent I’d ever tracked in that morph before, but that only rules out Rachel.”

I winced.  Dad hugged the arm of Jake’s he held a little tighter.

“But you’re certain you, uh, scented the right person?” Mom pressed.

“Unless there was a different person who smelled like panicked human and gunpowder within ten feet of us in the past fifteen minutes,” Marco said.  “So, yeah, pretty sure.”

“So the shooter definitely smelled human, then?” I said.

Marco shrugged one shoulder.  “Sure, but...” He spread his hands in a helpless gesture.

Mom looked from one of us to the other, clearly confused.

“But that doesn’t rule out an andalite in morph,” I explained.  “Or a yeerk wearing some human, on the off chance one made it to Earth somehow.  Or some other kind of alien we haven’t encountered before.”

Dad glanced up.  “The Twenty-Eighth Amendment made it illegal to imitate or steal anyone else’s physical form through morphing or infestation.”

“Steve, honey, there are also laws against shooting people in broad daylight,” Mom said gently.  “That doesn’t seem to have stopped this person so far.”

The police came over and (after verifying that Jake was as fine as he kept insisting he was) swept us off en masse to give statements.  I kind of thought that Jake at least would get to go home (or I would, since I hadn’t seen anything) but apparently not.  We all spent a long and frustrating afternoon telling four different sets of people the same information in four different forms.

At one point Jake and I washed up on a bench outside, watching the police process drunk idiots from the bars nearby.  We were both supposed to wait until the FBI agent (who apparently couldn’t get the information from the detective, who couldn’t get it from the police chief, who couldn’t get it from the scene lead, who couldn’t get it from the officer who’d initially interviewed us) could ask us some questions.

“Okay, but what kind of self-hating moron brings a gun into a bar?” Jake asked, leaning against the wall and continuing to watch our live crime drama.

“Maybe he was already drunk when he left?” I said.  It was probably a good thing they’d taken the guy’s gun away, because now he was trying to punch one of the cops for being too rough when stamping his fingerprints.  “And so on his way out the door he was like, grab my keys, grab my wallet, grab my gun?”

Jake laughed, scratching absently at where some of the dried blood was still stuck to the top of his shoulder.

“Hey, look.”  I took a deep breath.  “What I said earlier... I’m sorry, okay?”

“Nah, you were right, I was freaking Mom and Dad out too much,” he said.

I twisted around on the bench, giving him a hard look.  “Don’t be an idiot.  You know that wasn’t what I was talking about.”

Jake looked away, tensing.

“Yeah, the shared memory thing freaked me out. But I was being an asshole,” I said.  “And—”  I nudged him on the knee.  “Hey, look at me.”

He finally did meet my eyes.

“And I was wrong.  I was pissed, and I said a bunch of shit that wasn’t fair and definitely wasn’t true, and I’m sorry.  Because I shouldn’t have said any of that.  And I didn’t mean—  Well, I did at the time, but I was wrong.  Okay?”

“You kinda had a point,” Jake said softly.  “I completely failed to—”

No!”

I spoke loudly enough that two of the cops and one of the drunk idiots looked over.

“No, you don’t get to do this,” I said more quietly.  “That was a load of bullshit I dumped on you, and you don’t get to believe it.”

“You weren’t lying,” Jake said.

“I was looking for someone to be pissed at and you were convenient.  It was a total dick move on my part.  That’s it.  Do us all a favor and blame me for being a jerk, don’t go thinking I was right.”

His eyes were shining again.  This had probably been the wrong time and place for me to start this conversation, but we were already past the turning back point now.

“Seriously,” I said.  “This is me, telling you not to take responsibility for shit that’s not yours to take responsibility for.  And that includes—”  I gestured vaguely at myself, and then in the direction that Mom and Dad had gone when the most recent set of police officers had ushered them off.  “Everything.”

Jake opened his mouth and then shut it again.  He shrugged.

“Couldn’t you, like, yell at me?” I said.  “Punch me?  I would totally have it coming.”

“Would that make you feel better?” Jake asked. 

I dropped my head back against the wall behind me.  “Okay, why would you even ask that?  No, it wouldn’t make me feel better.  I just—you should really be more pissed at me than this.”

“Dude, I have had a really long day already,” Jake said.  “I so do not feel like being mad at anyone right now.” 

“But...”  I trailed off.  I didn’t have a good counterargument. 

“Yeah?”

“I’m sorry, okay?”  I looked down.  “I shouldn’t have said any of that.”

“Yeah, and I’m sorry too,” Jake said.  “You know that, right?  I did screw up a lot along the way.”

“No, you did all right.  Yeerks are assholes, and no one asked them to come here.  Especially not you.”

That got a small, tight smile out of him.  

“Just...”  I glanced around, trying to figure out how to make this better.  “Just tell me next time you get half my brain downloaded into your mind, okay?”

“‘Next time?’” He raised an eyebrow.

“Okay, fine.  Don’t get infested at all.  Ever again.  Oh, and while you’re at it, don’t get shot again.  You dumbass.”

Jake grinned.  “C’mon, you act like I invite this crap to happen to me.”

“Yeah,” I drawled, “since you’ve never deliberately gone looking for trouble in your life.”

“Oh, shut up.”  He kicked me.

I shoved him back.  “You shut up.”

Chapter Text

“Let me walk you down the corridors of my life... Isms and schisms, we’re living helter-skelter.”

—Tricky, 1995

 

Jake and I lapsed into silence, continuing to watch the drunk guy wave his hands and raise a stink about his Second Amendment rights. Eventually one of the cops—his name tag said Officer Nice, which seemed like it had to be a joke—came back for us.

Instead of talking to the FBI agent (who was apparently stuck in traffic, to no one’s surprise), we were ushered into an empty interrogation room with a crappy little TV sitting on the table. Marco was waiting in there for us, leaning his chair back on two legs. He was holding a paper cup of coffee in a way that suggested he regretted having embarked upon the task of attempting to drink it.

“We need you to watch the security footage of the shooting, see if you recognize the perp,” Officer Nice said heavily.

“I didn’t think they even said the word ‘perp’ outside of television,” Marco whispered loudly.

Officer Nice directed a glare at him, but slid the VHS into the TV without saying anything else.

The footage was terrible quality—black and white, pixelated, and from an awkward angle—but it was still possible to follow what happened. Officer Nice fast-forwarded to the moment Marco came out of the cafe. He walked a little ahead of Eva, looking around for the car, while Eva stopped to hold the door open for Jake.

Just as Jake stepped through the door a girl in the far corner of the screen nudged her friend, pointing at Marco. They turned and yelled to a group of people still inside the front entryway of the nearby restaurant, who all came pouring out toward Marco.

Eva and Jake, still standing in the doorway, had time to exchange a single exasperated look before another figure stepped up behind Jake. He crumpled to the ground as blood spattered across him and Eva. There was no sound but the effect of the gunshot was plainly visible; the entire crowd around Marco scattered, most of them turning and running away as he sprinted upstream toward Eva and Jake.

The grainy image showed people pouring out of the restaurant now, summoned by the sound of the shot. Eva, crouched over Jake, lifted her head long enough to yell something that got most of the people crowding closest to step back. A woman pulled out her phone and started to dial just as Jake started to morph, tearing out of his clothes as he grew.

The crowd surged and swelled, some people running forward and trying to help as others just fled the scene. Two cop cars pulled up, a news van right on their heels. Jake, in tiger form now, climbed up on shaky paws. He must have said something to Marco, who started morphing as well.

The cop paused it just as Marco put his wolf’s nose to the ground and took off in the same direction as the shooter.

There was silence in the room.

“Okay, I got nothing,” Jake admitted at last.

“Maybe this will help. This is the clearest image we were able to get of the shooter.” Officer Nice slid an 8-by-11 screenshot from the video across the table to us.

It showed the fuzzy outline of a figure in a light-colored hoodie and dark pants, completely hidden by the baggy clothes and the angle of the camera except for one outstretched hand which held a small pistol.

“Congratulations,” Marco said after a second. “You’ve narrowed it down to people with hands.”

That got him another scowl from Officer Not So Nice.

“Sorry, but I gotta agree with him,” I said. “That could be my own mother under there and I’d have no idea.”

“That’d be pretty odd if Mom was shooting me,” Jake said absently. He was looking at the photo, or at least pretending to look at the photo for the sake of being polite.

“It’s a shame this isn’t that part on CSI where they zoom waaaaay way in and find out the guy has a clearly identifying scar on the back of his wrist,” Marco added helpfully.

“Do you guys still think it’s a Symbiote?” I asked.

“We’re investigating several possible leads,” Officer Nice said.

“Jake is number one on their shit list for ending their precious yeerks’ invasion,” Marco said.

“If it is them, this would be the first time they’ve ever done any kind of daylight shooting,” Jake said. He was still looking at the photo.

I felt a sudden chill. This shapeless little blob of a person on the paper in front of us wanted Jake dead. And had nearly succeeded in seeing that happen.

Marco smiled at Jake. “For you, the Symbiotes might make an exception.”

“I’m number one on a lot of people’s shit lists,” Jake said tiredly. “Could be ordinary yeerk sympathizers, Neo-Humanist terrorists, SETI—”

Officer Nice looked up from where he was scribbling on his pad. “SETI?”

“Shortsighted Egregiously-Thoughtless Imbeciles,” I said.

The cop frowned, but actually started writing that down.

“He’s being sarcastic,” Jake said quickly.

“Not that anyone can ever tell,” Marco muttered.

“SETI is... uh, was...” Jake shrugged. “The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. They were blasting radio signals into space in the hope that aliens would hear them and show up to interact with humans, and...”

“Some did,” I said. “We’re all very happy that those hardworking folks got to see their dreams come true in this lifetime.”

“We’re pretty sure that one was also sarcasm,” Marco whispered loudly. I flipped him off.

“Anyway, they’re not happy with us because...” Jake glanced at Marco. “They think we should have encouraged the aliens we did get to stick around?”

“Something like that,” Marco said. “Oh, and don’t forget, like, the entire Zone 91 crew.”

“Okay, I’m not the one who used the phrase ‘sixty million dollar Porta Potty’ on Letterman,” Jake said indignantly. “They probably don’t dislike me nearly as much as they dislike you.”

“We’ll look into it anyway.” Officer Nice was still writing everything down.

“There’s also that firm in Florida that went bankrupt because it had to pay out so many UFO abduction insurance policies,” Jake said. “There’s the Alien-Human Coexistence League, GRIP Limited, that one cult in Nevada that said I was the Antichrist, the ALF, PETA...”

“Why the hell doesn’t PETA like you?” I asked.

Marco made an excessively realistic vomiting noise. “Okay, first, who isn’t on PETA’s shit list? Second, don’t get Cassie talking about them or else you’ll want to go burn down their headquarters and rescue all the puppies they kill for yourself.”

“Third, we apparently ‘violate’ the ‘natural rights’ of the ‘animals’ by turning into them,” Jake added, complete with air quotes.

“Okay, but why would the animals ever give a rat’s ass about anyone turning into them?” I said.

“Because,” Marco said solemnly, wide-eyed. “We’re violating their Twenty-Eighth Amendment rights.”

“Um.” I was starting to suspect that there were stranger and darker depths to PETA than I ever realized. “They do know the yeerks would have wiped every inedible animal species off the face of the Earth if you guys hadn’t stopped them, right?”

“See, they should be thanking us!” Marco said. “Forget the war, how about all that half-assed ecoterrorism we got up to, huh? There was the Rainforest Cafe incident, the thing with William Rodger Tennant, and let’s not forget Joey, Johnnie, Marky, and C.J....”

“Rachel and Tobias setting that hawk free,” Jake listed, “the incident at the circus with Cassie and Rachel, that time you idiots set all those hermit crabs loose...”

Marco straightened up. “Cassie told you about that?” He gasped, pressing a hand over his heart. “That traitor! She swore up and down that you would never ever find out about the hermit crab incident.”

“Yeah,” Jake said. “I needed Cassie to tell me that over a hundred hermit crabs didn’t just decide of their own accord to pick the lock on their cage, walk out of the surf shop where they were being sold to tourists, and march en masse across the boardwalk down to the beach singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ while a red-tailed hawk prevented them from being eaten by seagulls. Because I heard the news story and thought ‘yep, that seems like perfectly normal hermit crab behavior. Not at all the kind of idea that Cassie would come up with, Rachel would talk Tobias into, Marco would be stupid enough to plan out, and Ax would get dragged along for because he found the rest of you amusing. Also, not even slightly the kind of idiocy that would ever attract the wrong kind of attention when there were tens of thousands of controllers looking for us.’”

“Anyway, what was Jake going to do if you did tell him?” I said. “Ground you? Tell your parents?”

“Nope, we just figured he’d be really sarcastic about the whole thing,” Marco said.

“Did you just confess to the theft of over a hundred live animals?” Officer Nice said slowly.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Marco jerked his head at Jake. “He just falsely accused me of the theft of over a hundred live animals.” He widened his eyes in a way that was probably supposed to look innocent. “Falsely.”

“Okay, assuming for the moment that PETA is not trying to kill me,” Jake said, rolling his eyes, “who else would it be?”

I shrugged. “Anyone who supports the yeerks. Or did support them during the war. Or thinks the yeerks just want to be our friends. Or is angry that yeerks don’t have voting rights.”

“There’s like eight kinds of Symbiotes: the One-Eathers, the second-wave Cargo Cults, the ultra-humanists,” Marco listed off.

“Pretty much any of the many types of oatmeal-heads who are deeply and thoroughly confused about what yeerks are, what they were doing here on Earth, or what infestation actually consists of,” I admitted. “And it’s a depressingly long list.”

“Think broader, even,” Jake said. “There’s Marco’s stalker. And Marco’s other stalker. And that other lady who shows up outside Marco’s house all the time who he insists isn’t a stalker but really is.”

“Who am I to deny people their worship of my magnificence?” Marco gave a slight bow as if overwhelmed by his own generosity. “And for your information Mrs. Danvers is a very nice lady. She proposes marriage every time she sees me and even puts the binoculars away when I come outside.”

“You don’t think any andalite would be pissed at you enough to try and off you, right?” I asked Jake rather than bothering to dignify that comment with a response.

Jake’s eyebrows pulled together in a frown. “No? Probably not?”

Officer Nice was frantically scribbling on a pad as we spoke. “So far I have Symbiotes, SETI, Cargo Cults, PETA, the Rainforest Cafe, One-Earthers, possibly andalites, voluntary hosts, yeerk supporters, the ALF, various insurance companies, Neo-Humanists, the Stearn’s Wharf pet store, and a Mrs. Danvers as possible known enemies,” he said. “Am I missing anyone?”

“Okay, why would Mrs. Danvers even try and kill Jake?” Marco said. “Last I checked she doesn’t even know Jake exists.”

“Maybe she’s jealous because she actually believes that tabloid article about how you two have a secret tryst going,” I said.

Jake shrugged. “That’s a long shot, if you ask me. I mean, it was one stupid article, and it got even less press than the theory that you and Eva are—”

Scary visual place!” Marco yelled. “Which we will never be visiting again!”

“Agreed,” I muttered.

“Okay, wait.” Marco snapped his fingers, forehead wrinkling as he thought. “That’s a thought. Tabloids, stalkers, my mom...” He pointed at Officer Nice. “Dude, can you play that tape again?”

“Yes, of course.” Officer Nice leaned over and rewound the VCR, stopping just as the cafe door opened and Marco emerged.

“Okay, okay,” Marco said as it played a second time. “See, I’m way over there. And our mystery guy actually comes as a part of the whole crowd that’s looking for a piece of my sweet ass. Look—assuming that’s the same sweatshirt-wearing freak right there, he’s just standing around talking to that lady until he suddenly glances around to see what the hullabaloo is, spots me...”

“No,” I said, straightening up. “Not you. Eva.”

“What?” Marco said.

Officer Nice rewound without having to be asked this time.

“See?” I tapped the grey blob next to the other grey blob that was across from a grey blob, which caused static to fuzz briefly across the screen. “He’s not looking at you. He’s looking at the door.”

“You’re right about Marco, but it’s impossible to tell whether he’s looking at me or Eva,” Jake grumbled. “His face is almost completely blocked by that stupid hood.”

“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “You’re still inside right here. And even when you do come out, you’re in shadow and you have your back to him the whole time, while Eva is clearly visible.”

Officer Nice hit play again, and we watched a second time as the guy in the hoodie emerged from the edge of the screen, fumbling for the weapon. His hand emerged from the end of his sleeve, gun held tightly as he took aim, and then Jake crumpled.

“You’re thinking what I’m thinking, right?” Marco looked at me.

“I certainly hope not,” I muttered.

Jake kicked me under the table.

I gave in. “Jake wasn’t the intended target.”

Marco raised a finger in the air. “Bingo.”

“So we should tell you mom right now that she’s got someone gunning for her,” I said.

Marco’s shoulders slumped. “Okay, no. No. My mom was not the target. You were.”

Jake snickered. “In that case, this guy has terrible aim.”

“Tom.” Marco crossed his arms. “How many times, in the past six months, has some random stranger mistaken you for Jake?”

“Hey, you never know,” I said. “Maybe there are a bunch of really nice people out there who really want to congratulate me on my service record and have them autograph their stuff.”

“So, in other words, it happens a lot,” Marco said smugly.

Jake shot me an offended look. “You sign my name on things?”

“Only when the person in question doesn’t believe me the first three times I tell them that they must be mistaken about me being famous,” I said. “After that they deserve it.”

“So.” Marco tapped his fingertips against the tabletop. “Point being—what if this guy believed a different tabloid article? What if he, say, thought you were voluntary?”

I grimaced. “What does that have to do with—?”

“Think about it,” Marco said. “Our guy is hanging out, doing his thing, and all of a sudden he recognizes my mom walking around minding her own business... and then he sees Jake, from behind, through a crowd, next to my mom. Since Tom is the one who has appeared on the news with her more than once in the past, it’s not that illogical to mistake Jake from behind in that context. And then he...” Marco mimed firing a gun at Jake. “Boom. Runs off, ducks into the first alleyway he finds so that he can morph—”

Morph?” Jake said.

“Sure.” Marco shrugged. “Because who else would be trying to kill Tom but our friendly neighborhood controller-targeting serial killer?”

“Oh, shit,” I breathed.

“I’m an idiot.” Marco grinned, the expression more angry than anything. “The guy’s scent just disappears in some dead-end alleyway and I’m stuck on the question of whether a car can fit down there? How about if he just flew away?”

“Shit,” I said again, burying my face in my hands.

“You think this is related to the Hatter-Avery case?” Officer Nice said sharply.

“If that’s the case around the person killing controllers, sure,” Jake said. “I don’t think Marco’s saying it’s a guarantee or anything—we don’t have any proof—but it’s more logical than some Symbiote trying to kill me and then no one claiming credit for it.”

“But I’m not a voluntary,” I said into my hands.

“We know.” Marco patted my arm condescendingly.

“It doesn’t matter,” Jake said sharply. “There’s a distinct possibility that some murderer, who can morph, thinks you’re close enough to be worth killing.”

I lifted my head up. Jake, Marco, and Officer Nice were all looking at me, their expressions ranging from horror to pity.

And then Marco cracked a grin. “Dude,” he said, “you are screwed.”

Chapter Text

“Think about it, every night and day.”

—R. Kelly, 1998

 

“We’re going to post a twenty-four-hour armed guard around your house until we’re certain the threat has cleared,” the police captain told us brusquely.  She had driven us all back to the house, and was supervising the people crawling all over sweeping our bushes.

The ballistics report had confirmed Marco’s theory: the type of gun that the guy pretending to be Cecily Tallis’s husband had used to shoot her was the same type used on Jake.  The police were waiting on some kind of test to see whether it was exactly the same gun, but the evidence was already pretty overwhelming.  This guy wanted me dead, and he could turn into just about anything to make that happen.

“The house is being fumigated right now,” the police captain continued.  “Your dog is being quarantined until such time as we can be sure he is who he appears to be—”

I had to stop myself from giggling at that one, because it conjured the image of Homer presenting false documentation at a job interview.  Also because I was maybe becoming a little hysterical.

“This is Gerald,” the police captain said.  “He’ll be watching the house after we leave.  If you detect any unusual activity from any neighbors or insects, report it to him immediately.  He has been authorized to neutralize any animals acting suspiciously, using force if necessary, so I would recommend keeping the neighbors’ pets away.”

“Don’t worry,” Gerald said earnestly, putting his hand on the butt of his nightstick.  “You folks are going to be just fine until this all blows over.”

“Worry?” Dad said faintly. “Why on earth would we worry?”

The conversation kept going around me, but I was busy remembering the time I’d seen a three-story brick warehouse torn down to rubble after the Animorphs had been through.  The time Essa 412 had searched every inch of my skin and not found the source of Rachel’s taunting voice echoing through my mind.  The number of times the yeerks had erected more and more and more high-tech security systems only to have six untrained children with the most powerful weapon in the known universe chew through those defenses like bulldozers through tissue paper.

Right now we were playing defense, which was a losing game.  This guy might be one guy, but he had the advantage of surprise.  The advantage of choosing when and where to make his move, while we just had to wait around for him to show up.  The advantage of looking like anyone, being anything.

It was a hell of an advantage.  Just ask the kid standing to my left who’d used it to take down an empire.  

When they finally let us in the house I went up to the second floor, watching through the landing window as Gerald started a patrol of the yard.  Pretty soon Jake came and leaned against the banister next to me.

“A guy with a nightstick against a morph-capable serial killer,” Jake said softly.  “I’m sure going to sleep well tonight.”

“Technically, it’s a guy with a nightstick and a taser against a morph-capable serial killer.”

“Rock-paper-scissors for who stays up the first four hours?”

“You say that like we don’t both know that you cheat.”

“If you’re referring to my lightning-fast reflexes as ‘cheating...’”

“Just flip a damn coin, midget.”

**********

What followed were a very long, very tense, very tiring three days.  Mom and Dad pretended not to notice as Jake and I continued to patrol the house, and Gerald genuinely didn’t seem to notice at all that there were an unusual number of birds of prey in the area, which was pretty worrying.

After the first night when I complained about being nearly blind, Jake took me to the Gardens to acquire an owl morph.  Getting in the door didn’t actually cost us any money, although it did involve Jake standing there in long-suffering silence as Cassie’s mom hugged him for a solid ninety seconds.

“You holding up all right?” she asked him when she finally broke away.

Jake gave her one of those brittle smiles.  “I’m hanging in there.”

She patted him on the cheek.  “Bless your baby bones.”

The barred owl that I acquired had to be the least threatening-looking bird I’d seen in my life, including several sparrows and a hummingbird.  Between the enormous long-lashed eyes, the heart-shaped face, the tiny curve of beak, and the round little body, it resembled nothing so much as a Manga character brought to life and given feathers.  It was actually pretty cute, and looked more clueless than wise as it blinked dopily in the sunlight.

Now, as I circled above the house on silent wings, it seemed obvious to me why people thought owls were so creepy.  I was a nearly-undetectable killing machine, watching a single fruit fly circle around Gerald’s head from three hundred feet in the air.  The low light of the street lamps was more than enough to outline the edge of every blade of grass I could see.  If I felt like it, I could have dived the entire distance fast enough to snatch that fly out of the air before it even had time to try and flee my silent wings.  Each of my talons ended in four wickedly-hooked claws, able to squeeze together with enough force to kill a housecat.  

This little owl might have been cute, but it was also a predator.  Every inch as much as the eagle.

My human mind was bored by the endless hours of circling and watching, circling and watching.  There was nothing to do, especially since all the owl mind wanted to do was hunt and there was no way in hell I was eating a live mouse just to kill time.

Gerald swatted at the fruit fly and missed.  He shifted directions, mirroring my endless patrols on the ground.  As he did so he glanced at his watch, yawning with jaw-cracking force and then shaking his head to clear it.

You and me both, I thought.  Poor schmuck.  He’d probably become a police officer for the excitement, not because he had the phrase “I love standing around in other people’s bushes for days on end with nothing to do” somewhere in his cover letter. 

The alarm I’d set started beeping, letting me know that it had been an hour and fifty-five minutes since I’d morphed, and I circled in to land on my windowsill.  I hopped onto my desk just inside the window, demorphing until I was sitting on the edge of the desktop.  Once I had fingers I leaned over and switched off the alarm.

Just for a minute I sat there, breathing deeply and trying to muster the willpower for another morph.  I was exhausted in the way that a few hours’ sleep or a dozen cups of coffee wouldn’t fix.  It had been too long since I’d gotten a full night’s sleep or gone more than four hours without having to morph and start flying again.

I stared dully into the darkness and tried to come up with reasons not to doze off.  Somehow the fact that I could die if I left the house unguarded didn’t hold much weight against the soft bed two feet away from me, or the grittiness behind my eyes.  Finally I ran my hands over my face, shaking myself off, and reset the alarm.

“Just two more hours,” I mumbled, talking to myself as I morphed.  “Then you can—”  My beak sprouted and the words disappeared.

Once I finished the morph the owl’s mind awoke refreshed and ready to hunt.  My inner human was still stupidly tired, but there was nothing I could do about that right now.  I hopped out onto the windowsill and pushed off, spreading my wings to catch the cool air and turn my long swooping dive into an upward curve.  Another advantage of owls over eagles: I didn’t need heat to gain momentum.  I could coast even in the relative coolness of the backyard almost indefinitely, watching Gerald pace around—

And then I realized that Gerald wasn’t pacing.  Or moving at all.  He was sitting on the ground against the house, not moving.

<Oh, what, you’re allowed to sleep but I’m not?> I said, swooping in lower to check on him.

Ten feet away from him I flared my wings, screeching to a stop in midair.

He wasn’t asleep.

His throat had been torn out, claw marks creating a jagged rip from under his left ear all the way down to the right side of his collarbone.  His entire neck was obliterated, the open tubes of his throat gaping disgustingly in the night air, ragged pieces of cartilage and artery hanging loose over the blood-blackened remains of his chest.

<Jake?> I called, and then louder.  <Jake!>  No answer.  He was probably as exhausted as I was.

Gerald’s throat was still bleeding sluggishly, but he wasn’t moving at all.  He was beyond helping.  

I was completely distracted by the sight of him.  I never saw the danger from above.

What felt like a hundred-pound anvil slammed me into the grass with so much force that the breath was driven out of my lungs.

I moved more on instinct than thought, rolling forward.  The instant I had my talons under me I took off again, frantically flapping to get away from the—

When I saw what had hit me, I actually froze for half a second before I got control of myself.

It was huge.  Pitch black.  Covered in night-dark feathers, except for that ghastly bald head.  The wickedly curved beak and the sharp talons gleamed in the low light. 

It had to be five times the size of my puny owl morph.

<What the hell?> I blurted.

The bird swung at me again.  

<It’s an Andean condor, sweetheart.>

My wings stiffened in surprise.  I knew that clipped, rapid voice.  The woman from outside the Matter Over Mind meeting.   I just get low sometimes.

<Trust me, I wish I didn’t have to do this,> she said.  <But I need to finish what I set out to do and you’re in the way.>

<Look,> I said warily, beating my wings harder now to move out of range of those talons.  If I actually survived the next 30 seconds, I was going to murder Jake for being such a deep sleeper.  <Margaret, right?  If you don’t want to kill me then don’t.  No one’s making you—>

<Well, you’re right about that.>  Her thought-speak voice was flat, bitter.

And then she angled those huge wings and dove at me.

I wheeled around in the air and took off flapping madly.  I had no plan in mind, no end goal other than to get away.  To hide, if I could.  I couldn’t fight her.  I’d lose in seconds.  My only hope was to run.

I flew with frantic gracelessness, diving and then diving again to try and gain momentum until I was barely skimming over the tops of the houses.  She couldn’t see as well as I could.  Right now that was my only advantage.  But it didn’t matter.  Not enough.  We were in a well-lit suburban neighborhood.  She could still spot me unless—

I hung a sharp right, flapping toward the woods.  Darkness.  Needed darkness.  Had to hide.  Had to get away.  My only chance.  

I pounded my wings against the air.  Intellectually I knew to glide, but I wanted to run.  Raced with the need to keep fleeing.  Every second I expected to feel her grab me again.  Practically thought I could feel her about to dive.

Trees flashed by beneath me as I left the danger of the streetlamps behind. 

But I could hear her, flying well behind me.  Compared to the owl’s utter silence she was clumsy and loud, charging through the sky with rustling feathers and heavy breaths.  I still had some time.  I could get away.  I could.

I had to keep telling myself that.

My wings were burning, the muscles in my chest pulling tight and the ends of my feathers starting to tremble with exhaustion.  Birds of prey simply couldn’t flap and keep flapping the way I was forcing the owl to do.  But I was getting steadily deeper into the woods, and it was getting darker the further we got from the street lights.  The three-quarter moon and ambient light pollution weren’t doing me any favors, but I desperately beat my wings forward through ever-more darkness.  

I could do this.  I could get low, lose her, and then wait for her to go away.  She had less time in morph than I did, if not by much.  And it was me she wanted, not anyone else.  I had already lured her away from the house, and I had to keep her away as long as possible.

Again I dove.  Now I barely cleared the tops of the trees, skimming over the topmost branches.  She was still behind me.  Gaining.

Desperate, I dove again.  Branches slapped at me and one nearly caught my wing, but I cleared the gap between two oaks.  I was below the treeline now. 

Trees came at me.  Fast, too fast.  I dodged.  Dodged again.  Tree!  Tree!  Up!  Left!

Exhausting.  Impossible.  It was left-right-up-left-under-left, a mad zig-zag.  Couldn’t keep it up.  

I couldn’t hear her.  Where—?

Another tree.  Another.

There was a tiny clearing ahead.  I dodged toward it in a split-second decision.  

Instantly, she was on me.

Her talons stabbed me.  Dug through my feathers.  Tore the muscle and skin underneath. 

I screamed aloud, the sound strange and hoarse.  I was twisting madly in her grip.  Trying to free myself.  To pull away from those white points of pain.  I yanked my wings into my body as hard as I could.  My skin pulled free, tearing out feathers.  

Even as I ripped away from her I fell.  Desperate to escape, I beat my wings against the air.  Bleeding now, I spiraled straight up.

I had a tiny amount of momentum in the night air; she had none.  I twisted again, laboring upward, damaged wing trailing with each upstroke.

Now she was beneath me.  A Star Destroyer to my X-Wing.

It was probably suicidal, but I was out of options.  I folded my wings to my body and dove.

I slammed into her with no technique, only the momentum from my fall.  It forced her off-kilter and she screeched loudly, flapping hard to recover.  I slid across the surface of her wing, digging in with my tiny hooked beak.  I could tell I inflicted some damage because this time when she cried out it was high-pitched with pain.

She curved that long condor neck around, snapping with her beak.  I rolled out of the way, still hanging on to her back.  I dug in with my talons, feeling them penetrate her skin and muscle.  

So she simply folded her wing into her side.

I didn’t even have time to slip off all the way before she snaked out a talon and grabbed my wing, pinning me there.

My right wing broke with a sickening crack.  The impact ripped through me, the sound echoed in my body’s alarm-cry of pain. 

My vision went white with agony.  Consciousness fuzzed out for half a second.

When I came to, I was falling out of the sky.

The ground rushed toward me blindingly fast.  Air snatched my breath away.  I flung out my wings to catch myself.  The left one opened.  The right crumpled against my side, twisted further out of alignment.

An owl’s hoarse scream of pain tore its way out of my throat.  I was spiraling now, tumbling end over end, the ground flinging itself upward at me.  Struggling to brace against the pain, I threw my right wing out again.

White-hot pain arced through my entire body, lighting my bones on fire.  It was excruciating.  Nerve-grinding.  Like trying to walk on a broken leg.

And it wasn’t enough.

I was gliding now, but still downward.  I’d slowed my fall but there was no hope of flying.  Not like this.  I was going to hit the ground.  When I did, she would kill me.  

I tried to flap with my left wing only and it jostled something.  My right wing crumpled again and I didn’t have time to react—

I slammed the ground with breath-stealing force.  Something else inside my fragile body ruptured and shattered.

For a second I lay there, stunned and sickened with pain.  Hot blood from internal injuries ran out of my beak.

Margaret!

I had to move, now.  No time to demorph, no possible way to take off.  I had to get out of sight and stay there, pray that she hadn’t seen where I landed.  Forget trying to fight; I needed to hide.  Now. 

If I could just get under the trees she’d never find me.  Not at night.

It stole my breath away, but I pushed off with my left wing enough to lift myself partway off the dirt.  I dragged my body forward as quickly as I possibly could.  Pieces of bone and muscle ground against each other inside my broken body as I crawled forward.  Each heaving, excruciating flop of energy put me six inches closer to my goal: the safety of the trees.

I had to believe it was safe.  Had to believe I could make it.  The alternative was giving up and waiting to die.

Dig in.  Shove.  Drag.  Dig in.  Shove.  Drag.  Again.  Don’t think about the pain.  Don’t think at all.  Just move.  Dig in.  Shove.  Drag.  

The edge of the clearing was just over a yard away now—if I could just make it under the trees—

At the rustle of feathers I snapped my head around.  She was right there, an enormous dark shadow between me and the moon.  A black deadly angel.  Even now she was turning, tucking her wings into her body, tilting forward for the dive.

Like so many helpless prey animals before me, the last sight I ever saw would be a pair of ripping talons closing around my body.

Desperate, hopeless, I flipped onto my back in the last seconds before she reached me.  Baring my talons at the sky, I screeched a final defiant cry of challenge.  I couldn’t survive this fight, but if I took her with me...

The deadly angel plunged.  Time slowed.

The world narrowed to the sight of her plummeting toward me.

A hundred feet overhead. 

Seventy feet.  Fifty.  Twenty-five.

I refused to look away.

Wham!

She was slammed from the side full-force.  Knocked out of the sky.

She tumbled end over end, barely catching herself before she hit the ground... and the red-tailed hawk dived almost on top of her.

Margaret whipped around, clearly injured but with plenty of fight left in her.  The hawk didn't give her the time or the space to bring her talons to bear.  He raked talons across her back, dodged her counterstrike, and dropped out of her reach.  Before she could turn he had already come up behind her with a rapid stroke of dark wings.  Again and again he dove.  Each time caught her with beak or talons.  She twisted madly, trying to face him.

But no matter how Margaret wheeled around, he was never there.  He understood exactly where she would be before she ever got there, and each time he was gone before she could reach him.  The pale feathers underneath his wings flickered in the low light, making him almost ghostly.  He must have seemed intangible as a ghost to Margaret, who still hadn’t landed a single hit on him.

Margaret spread her enormous wings and hissed a challenge at him.  The hawk swung under her, twisting around madly in the air and actually flying upside-down for a second to rake his talons on the underside of her wing.   

I watched them in breathless anticipation, demorphing as I did.  It meant I lost most of my vision but also that the broken bones healed.  And, if necessary, I was much better equipped to fend off a condor as a human than an owl.

I doubted my help would be needed, though.

The red-tail was like a wasp fighting a bear—and winning.  Suddenly Margaret’s awesome size seemed clumsy and awkward as the smaller hawk literally flew circles around her.  He clawed at her again and again.  Each time she turned to snap at him, he was already gone.

It was over in a matter of seconds.  Margaret gave a final squawk of annoyance and fled, powerful wingbeats quickly carrying her out of reach.

Tobias landed on the ground next to where I was just finishing the morph.

"Thanks, man," I said, voice shakier than I would have liked. I was still struggling to catch my breath.

<Sure.>  He glanced up from where he'd been straightening out feathers misaligned in the fight. <What was that?>

I started to stand up and had to throw out a hand to catch myself on the trunk of a nearby tree.  My knees didn't seem to want to hold me.  "Andean condor, apparently."

<I know that.>  Tobias's tone suggested you'd have to be some kind of moron not to recognize an Andean condor when you saw one.  <I meant, did I just get woken up in the middle of the freakin' night for the world's most violent lovers' quarrel, or what?>

Lovers' quarrel? I wondered.  It made me want to know—and not—if that was what it had looked like when he'd fought with Rachel.  "She’s been killing ex-hosts," I said hoarsely.  I glanced down, brushing myself off.  "Apparently my continued existence is offensive to her."

<Good grief.  Kids these days.>

I laughed.  It came out a little hysterical sounding.  "You all right?"

<Yeah.  She never touched me.>  He ruffled his feathers, checking that they were all aligned correctly. <You?>

"Sure," I said.

<Good.>

"Tobias—"

Before I could say anything else he'd already taken off.  He disappeared over the tops of the trees.  The clearing was left as silent as if none of us had ever been there.

I shivered in the stillness.  Suddenly morphing jaguar and walking home seemed like a very good idea.

Chapter Text

“Sunny came home with a list of names/ she didn’t believe in transcendence/ ‘It’s time for a few small repairs,’ she said/ Sunny came home with a vengeance.”

—Shawn Colvin, 1996

 

I became the one to break the news about the dead cop to my parents, and then to his squad.

It turned out Gerald had been newly married to a court stenographer from Irvine, a fact I only learned as the police prepared his funeral.  Everyone decided together that Jake's idea of making an appearance out of respect was a bad one—he'd only attract a media circus, and it probably wasn't safe—so we stayed in the house and watched the tiny news blurb that tacked coverage of the service onto the end of yet another recap of Jake being shot.

Mom turned off the TV midway through Ann Coulter's sentence ("raising speculation that the deceased may have himself been a vol—"), which was a blessing.

There were now no less than eight cops surrounding the house, whispering back and forth to each other on their radios.  None of us were allowed out unless we had a police escort of at least two people.

I found I wasn't even afraid anymore.  I was just exhausted.  And angry.  Margaret had murdered some guy five years older than me who was just trying to do his job.  Murdered him on my watch.  Because it was convenient for her.  Because she wanted to use him to get to me.

Throughout the next round of twelve different interviews with twelve different cops I found out that Margaret Elizabeth White had been a controller from June of 1994 to March of 2000.  That she had no previous arrests but had an ex-husband who had filed for divorce after bringing assault charges against her in 1993.  The charges had eventually been dropped, probably because the poor guy couldn't get anyone to listen to him, but now the cops were looking a lot harder at that old claim.  Margaret White lived in a condo just south of Santa Barbara proper, but when the cops surrounded it and told her to come out an elephant had come bursting through the front wall, destroying two cars and seriously injuring nine officers.  She was still at large, and officially wanted for questioning.

Right now I was reduced to hoping that she morphed a fly and someone stepped on her and squashed her to death.  Or that she tripped over some loose carpeting and broke her neck.  I was useless, helpless, waiting around to see which of us would die first.

Also, the cabin fever was getting bad enough that Jake and I were going to murder each other if something didn't change soon.  It had been almost eight days now, and it felt like living in a siege state.  Jake had snuck out at least once that I knew of, although he was back before either Mom or the cops had time to call the National Guard.

It came as an enormous relief when Eva finally showed up and kidnapped me, glaring at the cops who sat around and watched her for the full two hours it took to verify that she wasn't in morph.

When she and I (and the two cops who were following me to stare suspiciously at every passing moth or ant) reached the Matter Over Mind office, she heaved a huge cardboard box onto the desk in front of me.

"What is that?" I said.

"Called in a few connections," she said.  "I couldn't get anyone to agree to let me upload the administrative Yeerk Empire communications to any kind of computer because they don't want the information to be hackable.  But I did manage to get print-outs."

I looked at her, and then at the box.  "You're kidding me."

"We're looking for any mention of Senna two nine seven—that's Margaret's yeerk—Issirk oh eight one, Garissh three seven ten, or any of the other hosts she killed," Eva said.  "Not going to be legally permissible evidence if it ever comes to that, but we can give the cops somewhere to start if we figure out whether she's working from a list or just picking anyone she knew was voluntary off the top of her head."

"Uh-huh."  I opened the lid.  The stack of paper inside was enormous, and somewhat terrifying.  "So... why aren't the cops just doing this?"

"Oh."  Eva's smile was pure evil as she set the small universal translator on the desk.  "Did I not mention they're all written in Galard?"

"Or you could always just kill me now, save everyone a lot of trouble," I said.

She took a stack of her own and retreated back to her own desk.

“Gee thanks, Visser Mom,” I mumbled.

“I heard that!”

As it turned out, even my spotty working knowledge of Galard proved to be pretty useful when it came to using the translator.  Even when I didn't know what a particular word or phrase meant, I still understood the written symbols enough to read it aloud into the translator.  And I understood enough to know that when the translator spit out phrases like "the crushing of the cockroaches will be done with care," it wasn't meant to be literal.

The first dozen or so documents proved to be incredibly dull lists of regulations for when Bug fighters could and could not be brought in for repair.  After that came a stern memo written on behalf of Visser Four that instructed taxxon-controllers on all the horrible ways they would be killed if they continued to eat valuable hosts, along with a press release discussing how the disappearance of six hikers near the Nevada border would be explained away by the presence of a large sinkhole in the area.

Thankfully that was the most disturbing one for a while.  I then had to slog through hundreds of pages of updates on infiltration progress that were mostly just numbers and names.  Two of the humans mentioned had been Margaret’s victims, but there wasn’t any pattern there that I could see.  It was just long pairs of thousands of yeerk and human names.  

The cops watched me or stared out the window as they had a long discussion about whether Dana Scully’s apparent refusal to believe that aliens existed stemmed from the fact that she was secretly a human-controller planted in the FBI.  

And then I turned a page and a photograph of Rachel slid out onto the desk.

I jerked back in surprise, sharply enough that both the cops and Eva looked over.  "You find something?" Eva called, setting aside her own stack of paper to come over.

I shook my head, but handed her the photograph anyway.

Technically it was all six of them.  Rachel was front and center, which was probably why the photographer had taken the shot: she looked like a fairy princess in her elaborate, flowing pink dress, her hair stabbed through with some kind of complex butterfly ornament that left several gold curls falling around her neck and framing her face.  She had her chin tilted up, grinning confidently as she looked somewhere a little to the left of the camera.  Her skirt flared out around her legs as she twirled across the dance floor, caught in an instant of vibrant motion.

Tobias was cradled loosely in her arms, managing to look awkward despite the designer clothes she must have picked out for him.  His expression was somewhat awed by Rachel's radiance as she spun them both between the other dancing couples.

Jake and Cassie were visible in the gap between their arms, standing in the background watching them.  Thankfully Jake was not trying to dance (he had to be hands-down the worst dancer I had ever seen in my life, and probably always would be; he didn't really have it in him to master the utter lack of self-consciousness required for truly graceful dancing), instead just standing next to Cassie.  If I had to guess Rachel had used both of them as her Ken and Barbie dolls as well, because not only was Jake's tie actually knotted correctly, but Cassie was in a sweeping pale-blue dress and had a pair of silvery heels dangling by their straps from her left hand.

The camera had caught Marco looking at the others from the right side of the frame, expression wistful and melancholy.  His long hair was neatly combed for once, and he was in a full tuxedo complete with bow tie.  Ax, who had clearly noticed Marco's mood, was standing nearby gesturing enthusiastically with a tiny canape in each hand in a clear effort to get Marco to smile.

It took me a second or two, looking at the photo from upside down as Eva squinted at it, but I suddenly realized the reason for Marco's mood: the long buffet table he leaned against had a four-tier cake in the far corner, two tiny plastic figures on top.  It was a wedding reception.

"HAVE YOU SEEN THESE CHILDREN?" someone had written across the top in black marker, the words in English for once.  "Anyone with information on these humans must report it immediately to the nearest available Visser.  Attempt to capture or kill on sight."

And then I realized I'd just handed Eva a photograph of her husband's second wedding.  His wedding some other lady.

"It's probably not useful."  I gently tugged it out of her hands before she could notice the cake, tossing it in the pile of papers I'd already read.  "Just, uh, interesting.  But not that interesting."

She shrugged. "Yeah.  When..."

"School dance, probably," I said.  "Some lucky prom photographer, right?"

"I was going to say, 'when you find anything, let me know.'" She raised her eyebrows.  "But sure."

If she realized the same thing I had, she didn't mention it.  She sat back down at her desk.

I continued crawling through the files.  Two I balled up and tossed after getting only a few words in—they were about medical experiments on hork-bajir that I could just as happily die without knowing about—and another four or five got skimmed and hastily set aside for the amount of time they spent talking about acceptable death tolls for an open invasion.

And then I found something.  It just wasn’t what I expected.

“Huh,” I said out loud. 

“What is it?” Eva asked.

“Senna two-one-nine, right?” I said.  “That was Margaret’s yeerk?"

“Yeah.”  She walked over to my desk again. 

I handed the sheaf of papers to her, shrugging.  “I think it’s a family tree.”

Eva lifted the first sheet to look at the one underneath.  Near as I could tell from the dates and names, it traced Margaret’s family back seven generations on both sides.  The long list of names had what appeared to be birth and death dates, as well as lists of known medical conditions.  And that was it. 

“I don’t get it,” Eva said.  “Why did they care?”

As I turned over the cluster of files underneath, I rapidly realized that I’d hit the jackpot. 

“Look at this,” I said.  “It’s a complete set of bloodwork for Margaret too.”  The top sheet was stamped across the front with NO PAST CONDITIONS. 

Eva paged through that one as well.  “I didn’t know the yeerks cared that much about all that eugenics bullshit, outside of murdering the disabled hosts,” she said thoughtfully.  “But that’s about the only reason I can think of they’d have all this.”

More excited now, I paged through the documents underneath.  There were family trees and medical reports for seven or eight other hosts, all female, and then an official-looking little memo.

“Bingo,” I whispered.

Eva set aside the medical reports.  “What is it?”

I cleared my throat and read out loud.  “‘On the seventh of January two-thousand, the loyal warrior Senna two-one-nine did receive the ability to morph by way of the loyal warrior Efflit one-three-one-eight, for the purposes of...’ Huh.”

“For the purposes of...?”

“‘Repairing internal damage to the host body, in order to preserve and optimize the DNA.’”  I looked up at Eva.  “Why the hell did they care about preserving her DNA so much, if she was the one morphing?  If other people were morphing her, then sure it would make sense.  But...”

Eva looked at the sheaf of papers she held.  “So all this must have been them vetting her for authorization for the morphing.  But you’re right, that doesn’t fit with her being the one morphing.  And ‘repairing internal damage’?  No offense to Ms. White, but why didn’t they just kill her if she was seriously injured?”

There was a bunch of other verbiage in the paper I held basically excusing the fact that they wanted to keep her alive to show off to the next visser who stopped by as proof that their project was working, but none of it was particularly illuminating.

“Is there anything in the bloodwork?” I asked.  “Or was she, like, descended from the Kennedys or something?”

Eva handed the family tree back to me and looked more closely at the medical report.

There seemed to be a lot of people who had lived to be in their 90s or even 100s in Margaret’s ancestry, which I guessed made sense if you were looking for good DNA.  But no names jumped out at me. 

“Her blood pressure was off the charts, especially given how young she was,” Eva said.

“That’s not unusual,” I said absently, not looking up.  “That’s part of why they started taking voluntaries in the first place.”

“Hmmm?”

I set the family tree aside as unilluminating.  “Involuntary hosts have a nasty habit of dying of heart attacks at age fifty or younger,” I explained.  “The continuous, massive stress of infestation basically fucks the circulatory system over.  And anyone who had any kind of pre-existing condition before infestation... Forget about it.  Eventually the yeerks got sick of the waste and started putting more and more resources toward trying to get people to go willingly.  Ergo..."

I held up a poster which said “Join the Sharing!  Give back to your community!  Become part of something bigger than yourself!” in hideous neon colors.

Eva snorted.  “Apparently hosts dying of heart attacks also goes on the list of things no one told Visser One about.”

“Along with this whole project,” I said, gesturing to the family tree.  “But hey, can’t have too much communication in your empire, can you?  Then everyone would know about all those embarrassing failures of Visser Three’s.  Nobody respects a guy who spends more than the gross domestic product of small nation on Anti-Morphing Rays that don’t do shit.”

Eva glanced back down at the print-out.  “Would stress explain her estrogen levels and most of her other hormones being outside normal range?”

I shrugged.  “I have no clue.  I could forward a scan to my dad if you want an actual professional opinion.  But that would make sense, right?”

“Can you check the other hosts whose medical records we’ve got?” she asked.

“Um, yep.”  I squinted at the Galard writing.  Between the alien language and the medical jargon, I couldn’t make out more than a third of the document.  Finally I just handed the lot to Eva.

“Yeah, same issue with hormone levels outside the normal range,” she said.  “And...” She paged through the stack, frowning.  “All of the others are marked ‘deceased.’  No cause of death listed.  So why have Margaret’s and some dead women’s medical records stored together?”

“Maybe they all had the same disease,” I suggested.  “And Margaret was the only survivor.  And they were trying to figure out why, by looking at her medical records, and then...”  That didn’t explain the need to heal her.  “I got nothing.”

“All right.” Eva set the whole stack on the desk.  “We’ll give it to someone who knows more about human medicine than us.”

I squinted at the documents upside-down.  And then the only thing written in English characters jumped out at me.  “Agram oh-one-one,” I said.

“Hmmm?”

I held out my hand, and Eva handed back the set of reports.  “Look,” I said.  “They’re all signed by the same technician.  Agram oh-one-one.”  I set down the medical reports, shifting a stack of technical papers aside until I found that long list of yeerks and hosts.  Sure enough, the name I had highlighted halfway down the list—Alex Morales—was matched with the name Agram 011.

“Let me guess,” Eva said.  “The technician had a voluntary host.  One who died suddenly at some point in the past six months, apparently of suicide.”

“Congratulations, Ms. Alvarez, you win one million dollars,” I murmured. 

“But what does it all mean?” Eva leaned against the desk, frowning.  “So Margaret killed the host for the medical technician for the yeerk that was infesting her.  So what?  Is it a coincidence?  Did their respective yeerks have a vendetta?”

“Maybe none of the above,” I said.  “Maybe it wasn’t so much personal as it was a matter of her going after this guy because she knew for sure he was voluntary.  If their yeerks interacted plenty, it’s reasonable to assume that at some point Agram oh-one-one mentioned to Senna two-one-nine that its host was voluntary.  I don’t know.”

Eva thought about it for a little while longer, and then shook her head.  “Okay.  Whatever this is, I don’t think we have enough pieces of it to make a tangram yet.  Set those aside, keep looking, and we’ll give it all to the FBI when we’re done.” 

I nodded.  “Yeah, sounds good.”

“Let me know if you find anything else."

“Will do.”

She sat back down, and I pulled the next stack of papers toward me.  I uncovered another half-dozen family trees, for male as well as female hosts, but none of the names were familiar and so I set them aside.  Once that packet had been exhausted, I turned over another huge clump of paper.  There wasn’t anything in there—it was a bunch of records of the attempted sale of something that may or may not have been an Escafil device that some kid had found in an abandoned building.  As usual, Visser Three had thrown a ton of money and resources at the problem and nothing had come of it. 

The medical records were still sitting on the edge of my desk.  Maybe that’s all there was to this possible mystery disease.  Just another massive waste of time and effort, all to appease the ego of some emotionally unstable andalite-controller.  

With a guilty glance over at Eva I slid the photo of Peter’s wedding back out from the stack of papers I’d hidden it under.  I wanted to... do something with it.  Give it to the news stations, so they’d stop pulling out that God-awful grainy footage of Rachel’s last gymnastics meet or waving around the stiff out-of-date photos from her Bat Mitzvah every time they talked about her.  It made her so strange and distant and unreal, like all there’d been to her was the green sundress she’d owned when she was thirteen or the way she’d stubbed her toe on the end of the balance beam.  Maybe the others felt the same way about Tobias, and this round-faced kid with his shy smile was the reality while distant footage of a swooping red-tail was not.  Maybe the more people talked about them the less real they became, until—

I was jerked out of my thoughts by the phone ringing.

“Matter Over Mind, this is Tom, how can I help you?” I rattled off, tucking the phone between my shoulder and my cheek.  It left both my hands free to shove the photo hastily into a drawer.  

“I think there’s someone in my house,” the man on the other end whispered.

The chill that raced through me froze me in silence for a second.  “All right,” I said, sounding calm.  “In that case I’m going to connect you to the police—”

Both of the cops in the room jumped to their feet, looking at me.  I held up a hand as the guy started talking again.

“You don’t understand,” he whispered all in a rush.  “My name is Paul Edgecombe.  I was voluntary, they’re not gonna come for me.  My wife just walked in our door... But it’s not my wife.  Zoey is in the hospital.  It’s not her.  I think it might be...”

“Where do you live?” I heard myself ask.

“Twenty-one forty Emerson Ave.  Two blocks down from the old mission.”

“I’ll be there soon,” I said.

“What should I do until then?”

“Don’t die,” I blurted, and hung up.

I stood up from behind the desk, striding over to the window.

“Sir, what are you doing?”  It was the younger cop; I had no idea what his name was.  He was probably reacting to the fact that I had feather patterns sprouting down my arms and my eyes had turned a dull gold.

“Twenty-one forty Emerson Ave,” I said, shoving the window open.  We were about twelve stories up—I was going to have to time this carefully.  “Margaret.  Get someone thwwwwa—”  My mouth melted.

“Sir, I need you to stop,” the cop said.  “Stop immediately, or I will be forced to stop you.”

I shook out my wings as the underlying bone structure snapped into place.  <I’ll meet you there.>

And then I threw myself out the window.

Chapter Text

“Liberty or death!”

—Metallica, 1991

 

I spiraled between the buildings, flapping frantically to try and get between the roofs and windows that threw themselves at me.  I shot above the hotel downtown and coasted upward, catching a headwind and using it to power my way upward.  All the while I moved north, ever north, toward the neighborhoods on the edge of town.

The city wound beneath me, a living map of the landscape.  I sighted the neighborhood I needed, and then I tucked into a long sprint.

Peregrine falcons might technically be the fastest things in the air in a dive (not that Jake ever shut up about it), but when it came to straight-out level flying, nothing beat a golden eagle.  Not when the ground was shooting past me at a dizzying 150 miles an hour and I was just getting up to speed.

I was over the neighborhood in seconds.  I tucked myself into a bullet and dove, screaming toward the house.  I flared with a hundred yards (half a second) to spare and touched down on the edge of the porch roof.

There was a guy—Paul Edgecombe, presumably—crouched just inside the window behind me, a dracon beam clutched to his chest.

<You all right?> I asked.

He opened the window a crack, watching me with wide eyes.  “She’s out in the yard,” he whispered.

I started demorphing, still on the roof.  I threw out a hand to stop myself from falling off, catching it on the gutter with a hiss of pain.

“She’s going to kill me, isn’t she.” Paul still spoke in a whisper, but his voice was pained.

I shook my head.

“I didn’t mean for any of it to get this far.”  He pressed his hands against the glass.  “And I’m not a bad guy.  You have to believe me.  I know I shouldn’t have listened to the yeerks, but... It was just... they were so powerful, and I didn’t know what it meant when they asked me to be a full member.  And then once I agreed, what was I supposed to do, back out?  Look like a weenie?”

“Paul?” I said quietly.

“Yeah?”

“Shut up before I decide to kill you myself.”

“Okay.”

There was a sound from below.  I spun around, almost falling off the roof.

Margaret was walking slowly through the back yard.

Ten minutes, I reminded myself.  At most.  And then the cops would be here, and it would be okay.  I just had to stall her for that long.

I inched out over the gutter, leaning my weight forward, and then I dropped to the ground.  I rolled with the impact and came to my feet, jarred but not seriously hurt.

Margaret whipped around where she’d been walking away.  She jerked back at the sight of me.  “What the hell?”

“Hey there, Margaret,” I said lightly.  It was blisteringly hot outside, but there was cold sweat running down my lower back and goosebumps covered my skin.

She was human, for the moment.  The black leggings and pale pink leotard she wore, along with the severe way she had tied back her long hair, made her look like a lost ballet dancer.

“You mind telling me what you’re doing here?” I said, stepping forward.  I kept my hands loose and open by my sides, even though we both knew perfectly well that my primary weapon wasn’t one that could be held.

“Do you know what that monster is?”  Margaret gestured sharply at the house.

“A guy who made some damned stupid choices but doesn’t deserve to die for them.”  I spoke almost casually, some faint part of me amazed at how slow and steady the words came out.  Anger was rapidly taking the place of fear in my gut.  This asshole had murdered eleven or more people, including at least one who had done nothing more than get in her way.  I wanted to see her go down, whether it was fried to death in an electric chair or just locked away in a dank little cell for the entire rest of her life.

“He doesn’t deserve to die so he can get away with it?”  She sounded pissed now too.  “Sweetheart, you are a naive little boy with no idea what he’s talking about.”

“Don’t kill him,” I said.  “And don’t kill me either.  Walk away, let it go—I know that what he did was wrong, but this isn’t going to help anything.  The cops are going to be here in a few minutes and I’d just as soon be standing here telling them you ran off and I have no idea where you went.”

She hunched forward, face going pale.  I actually wondered for a second if she was ill.  And then I realized that I was an idiot and that was white fur sprouting out of her skin.

Her teeth sprouted into thick yellow fangs, which was enough to snap out me of my shock and into action.

My limbs shriveled and melted together, winding inward to connect with my spine as it doubled in length and then doubled again.  My vision shifted, normal color disappearing and being replaced by heat signatures and motion trails, but I kept watching her.  Never looked away from the hideous, shifting thing in front of me.

It was a race to the death, and I didn’t intend to lose.  Tiny scales rippled down my skin in bands of olive green and yellow-brown, scent and taste suddenly becoming more important as my senses changed.

I collapsed sideways in the grass, a tube of flesh still lengthening and narrowing like some grotesque human version of a snake being rolled from clay.  The stalks of grass grew up higher and higher in front of my changing eyes—Paul Edgecombe apparently hadn’t cut his grass in a while, because there were weeds that almost completely concealed me.

When it was done, I slowly lifted my head to flick my tongue against the air.

The king cobra’s world was nothing but heat and motion and scent.  All distractions of color and detail had been stripped away, leaving just the vibrations and the traces the snake mind needed to hunt and kill.  There was no emotion in that calculating reptile brain.  Even knowing that the hunt was on, even while aware that the prey mere yards away was itself a predator, the snake mind was so cooly confident it was almost lazy.  Nothing scared the king cobra: not mongooses, not pythons, and not the snow leopard that would become our prey.

Because Margaret had just finished morphing.  She was enormous now, all beautiful fluffy fur on her legs and tail that nearly distracted from the length of her teeth and claws.  Snow leopard.  An Arctic animal, now panting heavily in the California autumn heat.

I could see her looking around frantically, trying to find me.  I slithered steadily away from the spot where I’d morphed, finding longer stalks to hide among.

Of course she’d gone for brute force.  And now she was a brilliant heat signature whose movement I could easily follow.  While I was just a snake in the grass: invisible, right at home, and deadly.  She was fast; I was faster.  I could flee, or hide.  Or strike.  She had to make the first move.  Advantage me.

Margaret was pacing rapidly through the grass, looking around for any sign of me.  I might have had the advantage, but I wasn’t about to press it just yet.

<Just so you know, I’m still a fan of this idea of you leaving quietly and no one getting hurt,> I said.

<Do you know what that thing in the house is?> she demanded.  <You realize that’s not a person in there, right?  That’s practically a yeerk.>

<He seemed pretty human to me,> I said calmly.

She blindly took a step in the right direction and I watched her approach with lazy anticipation.  Just let her come.  Let her try something.  I could feel the sacks of venom swollen and ready behind my fangs.

She took another step toward me.  Getting warmer.  Another one.  Warmer still.  I didn’t move, watching her.

The air was hot and still around us.  She was crouching her knees now, preparing to pounce.

I had no limbs, and yet every vertebra was like a tiny limb of its own.  They moved independently, my ribs bending apart and pulling together as easily as thought.  So that, for instance, I could pull all my long coils close.  Bunched under my body.  Ready to spring.

<I’m here for justice, sweetie.  It’s not that hard a concept.>  Margaret was apparently not through trying to reason with me.

<Justice would be putting that guy in prison,> I agreed.  <Making sure he knew how much harm he’d caused.  Not cold-blooded murder without trial.  He’s got a wife in the hospital.  He’s still a person, if a somewhat crappy one.>

<And yet, here he is walking around.>  Margaret stepped forward again.  Warmer.  <Does that seem like justice to you?>

<You’re not judge, jury, and executioner.>  My blood was racing, the cobra body shaking off the sluggishness of the relative cold here in anticipation of the hunt.

She bristled, her fur standing on end.  <Don’t get righteous on me.  Don’t tell me you never lie awake at night, thinking about all the things they did to you.  That you don’t seethe with the need to kill them all.>

<You really have no idea how I feel,> I said wearily.

She took two more rapid steps.  Colder now.  Too far to the right.  <I’m finishing it.  I’m cleaning this scum off the Earth.  You know I’m right.>

<Uh-huh.>  I pulled my coils in tighter.  I’d gotten lucky once, reacting too slowly when she started to morph.  I wasn’t going to need luck a second time around.  <Just tell me one thing: did you start killing ex-hosts because they’re bad people... or because zombies almost never fight back?>

Margaret recoiled.  <I don’t—that’s completely—My god.  That you would think that!>

It wasn’t a yes, but it wasn’t a no either. I shuddered.

Margaret whipped around cat-fast and dove.  She slammed to the ground an inch shy of my body, the ground shuddering with the force of her impact.  I rolled out of the way but one of her huge paws caught me, claws raking several scales off my side.

I reared back, pulling almost a third of my body off the ground.  I hissed sharply, baring my fangs.  I struck at the air.

She jerked away so fast it was almost comical, scrambling back several steps and almost falling on her butt.

That’s right, asshole: I will bite back.

I swayed, shifting to keep my balance.  I was actually taller than her right now, head almost five feet off the ground.  My hood was flared out, spines in my neck spreading to show the throat that could swallow a mongoose whole.  I was a killer of killers.  The king cobra got its name by hunting down and eating other poisonous snakes.

Let her come.  The snake didn’t know fear.

The stalemate lasted ten long seconds as neither of us moved.

And then Margaret tried to pounce.

I lashed forward and caught her in midair, fangs sinking into her front paw.  She shrieked, a startling animal sound, and slammed to the ground.  I released her before she hit, teeth aching where my fangs had almost been ripped out.

While I was still twisted around, her back leg caught me.  The heavy paw slammed me to the ground with bruising force.  I yanked away from her, pulling into myself.

She put weight on that paw and immediately jerked it off the ground.  I hadn’t poisoned her that badly.  She would still be able to fight.  Could still kill me.

She dodged to the left.  I shot after her—she turned at the last second.  Her teeth snapped the air inches from me as I flattened to the ground.

The cobra body was tiring, in pain.  She had cracked at least a few of my narrow little ribs.  I had lost flexibility in that six inches of my body.

But Margaret was staggering too.  She had to be dizzy, nauseous.  Even a little venom would be enough to slow her down.

Still watching my fangs, my flared hood and tiny black eyes, she took a step to the left.  And her injured paw landed half an inch from my tail.

There was my chance.

I struck backwards, wrapping my tail around her leg and pulling the rest of my body tight.

I was a living bullwhip, yanking tight around her paw.  I wound backwards up her leg, gripping the warm skin in my coils, pulling taut around her in a move that was more typical of a python than a cobra.

Margaret yanked back, trying to shake me off.  I tightened my hold, spiraling upward like her leg was a tree trunk.  She couldn’t dislodge me, even when she rolled over and leaned enough of her weight on my body that I gasped in pain.

When I sighted the vulnerable skin under her leg I struck.  This time my fangs sank deep through her fur into her skin, and stayed.  I hung on grimly, pumping more and more poison into her, as she shuddered and tried to bite me loose.

I latched into my hold with the mouthful of skin and fur and muscle I held.   Not much left now.  Just a little while longer.  I allowed my tail to slip off her leg.

Which was when she brought her other front paw around, dug her claws into me, and tore me clean in half.

Chapter Text

“You always told me you’d not live past twenty-five/ I say, stay long enough to repay all who cause strife.”

—Alice in Chains, 1995

 

Here’s a little fun fact for you: people used to think that if you cut a snake in half it would still survive the injury.  That it could, in fact, heal from even a wound that bisected it.  This belief was once so prevalent that people would burn the bodies of snakes they’d beheaded, for fear that the snake would somehow glue itself back together and slither off like nothing happened.

The idea of people having such deep-seated confusion about the difference between snakes and earthworms is not the fun fact.  The fun fact is this: that belief is complete and utter bullshit.

You want to know what will really happen if you cut a snake in half? IT WILL FUCKING DIE.

Anyway, you can see why I was a little worried.

No, not worried.  Screaming in pain.  Unable to breathe with it.  Deaf and wallowing with panic.

Everything was going black and fuzzy.  It was a relief.  The pain was—

I couldn’t understand the pain.  It was too great.

It was coming from everywhere, seemingly.  It was too great, too much—

She’d cut off over thirty inches of my tail.  I was bleeding out.  This fact was urgent but only in a distant way, unable to emerge through the shock of it all.

Morph.  I needed to—

But it hurt

No.  Escape.  Not to sleep (you won’t wake up), to yourself.  Fight.  Breathe, damn you.

Morph.

It was so slow.  I was so dizzy, so tired.  It was hard to think.  Hard to focus on me.

It hurt.

Then stop whining and do something about it, you whimpering pathetic sack of shit.

Human.  Human.  Be human.

And then, in bits and inches and random pieces of skin, I was.  Limbs emerged and I sprouted outward, regaining shape and focus.  I healed.  Became whole.

My mind cleared as the pain receded.  I was lying on my side in the grass.  Back in the present moment.

Where the hell was Margaret?

I pushed to my feet, frantically looking around.  There was no sign of the snow leopard, but that didn’t mean anything—she could be crouched on a roof, waiting to pounce—

Something hit me from the side and I screamed.  Manfully.  Stoically.  With a great deal of dignity.

It was Paul.

I shoved him off me—or tried to.  He was clinging to my arm now and wouldn’t let go.

“Oh my god thank you you just saved my life I owe you my life!” he babbled.

“Then don’t give me a fucking heart attack.”  I tried again to shove him off.

He held onto my arm a little tighter.  “She was gonna kill me!”

“No shit,” I said.  “Is she still here?”

This thought apparently hadn’t occurred to Paul, who immediately started craning his head every which-way.  He crowded further up against me as he did so, as if physically putting me between him and any further threats.

I yanked myself away from him hard enough that he stumbled.  “Where did she go?” I demanded.

Paul shrugged.  He was still holding the dracon beam.  “She just ran off.”

Which way?”  If she hadn’t demorphed then she hadn’t gotten far.  King cobra venom could kill an elephant, and I had emptied several ounces of poison into her bloodstream before she’d shaken me off.

“I dunno.  That way, I guess.”  Paul gestured with the hand still holding the dracon beam.

“Give me that,” I snapped.

He shook his head, immediately tightening his grip on the weapon.  “I have a right to defend myself, man.  It’s a Second Amendment—”

I got as far as jerking my fist up to punch him before I managed in reign in the impulse.  I forced my arm to drop to my side.  “Give it to me.  Now.  I am trying to save your life, you disgusting waste of oxygen.”

He jerked back.  “How do I know you’re who you say?” he whined.  “For all I know you’re her.”

“You just watched me morph.  So either I am a sentient snake that learned English and somehow figured out how to turn into a human, or—”  Midsentence I grabbed his wrist, wrenched the dracon beam away from him, and set off running in the direction he’d pointed.

I knew almost immediately he’d pointed me the right way.  Thirty yards down the grass was flattened in a patch where a large animal had fallen and then gotten to her feet again.  The trail of damaged grass that continued from there wove unsteadily back and forth.

“Dammit,” I whispered.  She hadn’t demorphed.  Which meant I had minutes to reach her before I became responsible for her death.

I came up the low hill and spotted the heavy white shape lying on its side up ahead.  I sprinted the last few yards to her side and then collapsed on my knees next to her.

“Margaret,” I said, low and urgent.  “Margaret, you’re dying.  You have to morph out, now.”

<It’s done.>  Her voice was quiet, and impossibly weary.  She tried to lift her head to look at me but collapsed after a few inches, lacking the strength.  <It’s been over for a while, and I did what I could.  Now it’s time.>

“No, no, don’t you dare.”  My voice was getting steadily louder now.  “You morph out.  You do not get to die on me now.”

<Sorry, sweetheart, but this is it.>

“What’s going on?”  It was Paul, running up behind me, gasping for air.

Morph!” I screamed at Margaret.

<No!>

Her entire leg was swollen and black where I’d bitten her.  Her breathing was becoming shallower, visibly so.  She was really going to go through with it.  She was going to escape justice, and she was going to use me to do it, because the only thing that would be worse than death was—

“Paul,” I said without inflection.  “Go back inside.  Dial 362-4360.  It’ll connect you to the xenopathogen laboratory on Laguna Street.  When you get the head researcher on the phone, tell her to bring a yeerk from the lab to this location, STAT.  She can get here in less than ten minutes, at which point I need you to bring the yeerk out here. We’ll have it get Margaret to demorph, and we’ll figure the rest out from there.  Got that?”

“Three-six-two, four-three-six-oh,” Paul said breathlessly.  “Got it.”

<No,> Margaret said.  <No.>

“Don’t worry,” I said viciously.  “The venom doesn’t work that fast.  You won’t die for another twenty minutes at least.  They can have a yeerk here in less than ten.  You’re going to demorph, one way or another.  I suggest you do it before you lose consciousness and leave us no choice.” 

<No, please!>

“I’ll be right back.”  Paul ran off.

“Last chance.”  I swallowed hard.  “Demorph or we’ll do it for you.”

<Please,> she said. <Don’t do this.  Please just let me die.  I have nothing left.  Please.>  She was struggling weakly now, trying to make it back to her feet.  Tiny whines of pain or fear came from her throat.

The poison inside of her was destroying tissues, making the flesh around where I’d bitten her blacken and rot.  She was dying in pieces, spreading outward from the place where I could see my own teeth marks sunken into her flesh.

I hated her in that moment.  I wanted her to feel the helpless terror of infestation.  

“Sorry,” I said, voice flat with exhaustion.  “But you don’t get out of paying for what you’ve done.  Guess it’s a good thing I’ve got friends in high places, huh?”  

<You wouldn’t do this.>  Her desperation echoed through me on that level deeper than sound.  Her sides heaved with the force of her panic.  <You wouldn’t.  You know what this would mean.>

“Lady, you tried to kill my brother. You have no idea what I’m capable of.”

<Please.  Please, no.>

I didn’t waver.  “Demorph.” 

<God, god, please just let me go.  Please!>

“If you don’t want a yeerk inside you, then demorph.”

<You don’t understand.  Please.  You wouldn't do this.>

“Apparently I would.  Demorph.”

She did.  It seemed to take a long, long time, for her claws and fur to melt away.  But I watched all the way through until there was nothing but a vulnerable human lying there in the grass, looking up at me with silent tears coursing down her face.  

She didn’t bother rising off her knees once she was fully human again.  And she made no attempt to flinch away when I raised the dracon beam, turned it down to 9, and shot her in the chest.

Paul came running back a minute later, face shining with sweat.  “Dude, I called that number you gave me, and it connected to a Domino’s pizzeria.”

“Yeah,” I said dully.  “I know.”  And then I turned away, struggling not to vomit into the grass.

When the police showed up a minute or two later I was still there, kneeling next to her unconscious body.  There were a lot of them, and they made a lot of noise as they moved meaninglessly in front of my eyes.

Time passed.

I guess they must have asked me some questions for a while; I don’t really know.  There were words, but none of them meant anything.

The first thing I actually heard was Jake, speaking from where he crouched in front of me, eyes wide with concern.  “Come on, man,” he said softly.  “Let’s go home.”

**********

It took me almost twelve hours to surface.  The world was still there, as it turned out, bright and loud and filled with people whose voices had nerve-grating gentle worry.  I left them downstairs and went to take a shower, even though I knew the unclean feeling had nothing to do with my skin.

I washed every inch of this strange, oft-changing collection of body parts I had inherited from its previous owner amidst so much blood and betrayal.  Strange to watch one's own hands move and know that you are moving them, even though the feeling is not quite there.

If someone had told me, I thought.

I watched the soap-trails slide between my fingers as my skin became red and then white and wrinkled, as if I was aging faster than I should.

If someone had told me a year ago how fucking exhausting, how unbelievably awful, it could be to know that you were the only one responsible for your own actions... If someone had told me then that there were times I'd have this gut-deep longing for another mind inside my own to take all the choices away...

I'd have wanted to punch that someone in the face, and I'd have been right.  

Chapter Text

“While you were hanging yourself on someone else's words/ Dying to believe in what you heard/ I was staring straight into the shining sun/ Lost in thought and lost in time/ While the seeds of life and the seeds of change were planted.”

—Pink Floyd, 1994

 

Bonnie was there before I had to face my family, ushering me back up the stairs and away from the kitchen while I nearly cried from the relief of putting off their concern. I was vaguely aware that this entire time my parents had been saying something to keep the cops from mobbing me with questions, while Jake was keeping the media at bay. I felt a rush of gratitude for them, yet another of those feelings that I had been too lucky so far, too blessed, that someday it would all have to go back to the horrific status quo. 

“You know what I was wondering about recently?” Bonnie asked me.

We were sitting curled around each other in a tangle of legs and skin and elbows on the floor of my room. We had ended up in the area between my bed and the wall, because it felt small and safe here. I wasn't quite at the point of literally hiding under the covers until it all went away, but until then this was more than good enough.

“What were you wondering?”  My voice sounded hoarser than I expected it to.

“What am I?” Bonnie said.

I twisted my neck around enough to look her in the eye.  At this minute distance there was something unbearably fragile about the delicate roundness of her cheeks, the black baby hairs that static had pulled from her ponytail and glued to the white of her skin. The narrow soft lips painted with archaeological cracks, the silk of her eyelashes... It could all break in an instant.

She was liquids and tissues.  Human bodies ripped apart so easily, blood ready to pour forth at any second, either to pool purple-black under the skin or to evaporate into the air.  She couldn’t change and shift and escape the damage like me—she was just human, and that was a fragile and terrible thing to be.

“You’re Bonnie,” I said at last.  “At least...”  I drew back a little, giving her another once-over.  “I hope you’re Bonnie.”

She snorted.  “Yeah, yeah, I’m me.  I just meant...”  She waved a hand in the air, nearly hitting my nose.  “What is me?”

I let my head come to rest back on her shoulder with a sigh.  “Is that profound or nonsensical?  I can’t tell.”

“Okay, I’m just saying, whatever the essence of me is, whatever makes me myself...”  Bonnie flicked one pale knee where it emerged from the hem of her skirt.  “It’s not this.  Certainly not.  Six yeerks in four years claiming this pile of meat and driving it around, and I’m pretty sure this—”  Again, she poked herself in the leg, motion angry.  “This isn’t me.  This is a thing that anyone can rent with the possibility of ownership.”

I caught her hand before she could poke herself again.  “It’s still a beautiful pile of meat, if you ask me.  I like your meaty bits.”

Bonnie laughed, but the sound was harsh.  “Sure.  You followed this collection of meaty bits straight into—”

“Don’t,” I said.

Bonnie drew herself up, looking intently at me across the inches that separated us.  “I just mean that this body can’t be all there is to me.  I know because for the longest time it wasn’t.  But I was still here.  I was still me.  Even when this body wasn’t.  So that means there’s something else.  Something more than just an object in space, more to each of us.”

It wasn’t the kind of thing I liked thinking about, but I understood exactly what she meant.  Because I remembered eyes that didn’t belong to me watching her dark hair across the killing fields, Temrash 114 wondering idly how Ashean 3910 liked it in there.  I remembered the way Nikto 770 had pulled one half of her mouth up into that coy smile, performing the girl I’d fallen in love with to make me dance to her tune.  I remembered personalities and mannerisms and words that were not Bonnie Park, shaped by those lips and that voice.

I remembered the gut-tearing shock of incomprehension at her betrayal, in those last seconds that my body had been entirely, thoughtlessly my own.

And yet that hadn’t been Bonnie.  Whatever, whoever the essence of Bonnie was, it had nothing to do with the cold pair of eyes that had watched my kidnapping and violation.  And certainly not the steady hands that I had seen slitting the throat of a human host, seconds after the yeerk in his head had died of kandrona starvation.

“What does that even mean?” I said at last.

“It means that, barring anything else, I know this much: I’m a thing that thinks.”  Bonnie’s lips pressed together for a second in thought before relaxing into their usual plush roundness.  “Anything else is up to debate, but...”  She squeezed gently at my knee.  “But there’s something rattling around inside this lovely collection of meat here that no yeerk can touch or move around.  And the same goes for me.”

“Are you saying that this means we have souls?” I said.

“Not with any certainty.”  Bonnie shrugged, skin smooth against my own.  “But what better proof are we going to get?”

“Huh.”  I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.  If there was some grand reckoning awaiting me in the afterlife, then I was pretty well screwed.  Then again, the idea of death followed by oblivion didn’t seem quite as nice nowadays as it once had.

“Clearly, this...”  She pressed a warm hand against my breastbone.  “Isn’t you.  It changes, becomes other things, and yet you remain.”

“Well, damn.”

Bonnie hummed in agreement.  She left her hand on my chest, slowly working her way up my pectoral toward my collarbone, fingertips gracing the hollow where it met my shoulder.  “But, for the record, whatever this is,” she added softly, “I like it.”

I laughed low in the back of my throat.  The sound abruptly shifted to an undignified squeak when Bonnie took her hand away and immediately fastened lips and teeth into the skin at the base of my neck.  She sucked and teased at the nerve endings there while I made contented noises, one hand coming around to tease idly at the place where her right breast pushed out the fabric of her shirt.

“Maybe you’re right,” I said breathlessly.  “And maybe all that matters is that, whatever you are, I love that thing.”

Bonnie pulled back, lips swollen, pupils dilated.  She just stared at me for several seconds, breathing heavily.  “Want to forget?” she asked.

I blinked.  “What?”

“All of it.  My stupid philosophical nonsense, the past, the stuff we still have to deal with... The point is, we’re here now.  And we’ve got a couple of bodies that people would literally kill to possess, all to ourselves.”  She grinned.  “Want to just forget for a while that we’re anything other than a couple collections of body parts that interlock?”

“That’s got to be the most romantic thing anyone’s ever said to me.”  The fact that I was laughing so much sort of ruined the deadpan delivery I was trying for. 

Bonnie raised her eyebrows.  “That a yes?"

“That’s a yes.”

She popped to her feet.  With a brisk efficiency that was infinitely hotter than any show or tease could have been, she stripped off shirt-skirt-panties-bra in several quick motions.

“Fuck,” I breathed.  I was still fully clothed, which fact only registered in the vaguest sense as the ache of my zipper pressed against the erection that had appeared instantaneously in the last ten seconds.

I had seen her before, but she was still fresh and beautiful: dark nipples, smooth legs, narrow shoulders and wide hips.  Even as I stared in awe she touched her elbow, her thigh, the hollow between her breasts. 

“Mine,” she said fiercely, lifting her chin.  “All mine.  No one else’s.”

Standing, I imitated her, tossing clothes aside.  I touched cold fingertips to the insides of my wrists, to the skin over my ribs, to the back of my neck.  “Mine,” I whispered, giddy with defiance.  “Mine.”

Bonnie grinned at me.  “Well, now that you’ve got it, what’re you going to do with it?”

And she was right: for a time, we were just bodies.  Just objects.  For a time we forgot all the rest.  And it was more than enough.

***********

I waited until 3:00 in the morning before I finally snuck out of my room, kissing Bonnie’s temple where she lay sleeping on my pillow.  Of course, in this house 3:00 AM might as well have been the middle of the afternoon, because not only could I hear the TV playing downstairs, but I also made it just as far as the end of the hall before I bumped into my dad.

“You all right?” he asked, squinting at me in the low light.

I sighed.  “Yeah.”

He nodded.  “And, uh, Bonnie, is she...?”

“Yes.”

“Did you...?”

“Yes.”

“But did you remember to—?”

Yes, Dad.”

“You don’t know what I was going to ask.”

“Yes I do.”  I spoke as quickly as I could.  “You’re too young to be a grandfather, diseases are real, check the expiration date, roll from the top, I get it.”

Dad blinked several times.  “Yeah.  That.”

“I’m just going to go repeatedly bash my head against a wall until I forget we ever had this conversation, okay?” I said.

“Yeah,” Dad said vaguely.  “Okay, good, you do that.”

I fled downstairs before he could ask me anything else.

The TV was on in the living room.  I could hear the canned voices of some late-late broadcast, could see the faint blue flickers across the wall of the kitchen through the doorway of the living room.  When the floorboard between the kitchen and the living room creaked under my weight, Jake startled.  He jumped to his feet and whipped around to look at me, face pale in the low light.

“Hi,” I said softly.  “Anything good on?”

Jake breathed out, still tense but starting to relax.  “Nah.  Just couldn’t get back to sleep.  You?”

“Sleep is for the weak.”  I leaned against the door frame.

Jake nodded.  “Must be nice for the weak, then.”

I laughed.  “Yeah, probably.”

On the TV in the background, shadow people talked into the silence we’d left.  Projected to us from some mysterious distance and immeasurable time, they prattled their way through an advertisement (“Join up!  Be all you can be!”) to an audience who paid them no mind.

“Rachel,” Jake said suddenly.

“Yeah?” I said, more than a little wary.

Jake leaned back against the couch.  He was drumming his fingers against his arm, constantly shifting position.  Great.  The more nervous energy he had, the worse whatever was going to be when he finally spit it out.

“She protected all of us,” Jake said.  “In a way that no one else could have.  There were things she did, things that I asked her to do, that none of the rest of us could have done.  But she did.  Because it was necessary.  Because she could, I don’t know, live with herself.  Because she was the toughest, the bravest...”

“Sure.  Got it.”  Considering that I had, in fact, been one of those things that needed getting rid of that only Rachel could have gotten rid of, I didn’t exactly need him to explain it more than that.

“So.”  Jake cleared his throat.  “We owe it to her to protect her in turn.  To protect who she was.  To make sure that the world knows what kind of person she was.  That they don’t get the facts without the context.”

“Okay...”

“There was another Animorph.”  Jake finally seemed to be getting to the point, glancing down at the carpet and then back up at me.  “Obviously.”

I nodded.  So that’s what we were talking about.  He and Marco hadn’t exactly been subtle about it, back when I’d asked, so I wasn’t too surprised now.

“A situation arose.  One that put all our lives at risk.”  Jake took a slow breath, finally going still.  “Rachel handled it.” 

“Oh.”  I opened my mouth to say something with more substance, couldn’t find any other words, and finally gave up.  “Oh.”

“If she hadn’t—”

Stop.”  My voice came out sharp enough that Jake flinched.  “Just... I understand.  We don’t have to talk about it.”

Jake’s shoulders sagged so much he almost slipped off his perch against the couch.  “Thanks.”

“Yeah.”

The silence stretched again.  And then I caught what the television was saying—

“...return now to this morning’s discussion with Yellowstone’s favorite Animorph, Cassie Day, about her relationships with her surviving teammates and what the future holds for her.”

Jake suddenly developed an intense fascination with his own fingernails, but he didn’t duck his head fast enough to hide the fact that he was blushing.

Since there was nothing whatsoever I wanted to add to the conversation we’d just been having, and I sincerely hoped that the subject never came up again as long as I lived, I leaned around him to look at the television screen.

“Would you say you were in love with him?” the interviewer said.

And now the expression on Jake’s face was agonizing enough that I almost felt bad for the kid.

“Oh, of course I was,” Cassie said.  “But it was puppy love, you know?  We always were going to be better off apart.”

“Pining is not a good look for you, midget,” I said gently.

“Fuck you, I’m not—”  Jake killed any credibility he might have had from his indignant tone by cutting himself off when Cassie started to speak again.

“Oh, yes, it was a very amicable breakup.”  She smiled sadly at the camera.  “Absolutely just a matter of us deciding we were better off as friends.”

I snorted loudly.  Considering I had the deeply dubious honor of being the sole surviving witness (and the inadvertent cause) of the breakup under discussion, I had a lot of questions about Cassie’s definition of the word ‘amicable.’  Rather than share that thought with Jake—who would not have appreciated it—I turned and walked out of the room.

By the time I got back, Jake had settled on the couch, probably in the hope that I’d simply gone to bed and left him to torture himself in peace.  He jumped when I dumped the huge armload of envelopes on the couch next to him.

“What’s...?”

“Fish.  Sea.  There are many others.  Most of whom don’t actually turn into fish,” I said.  “Sorry if that’s a deal breaker.” 

“Please tell me that’s the non-exploding mail pile,” Jake said, rolling his eyes.

“Don’t be ridiculous.  The FBI incinerates the probably-exploding ones unopened, they sent us a letter explaining that in the...”  Then again, I could see why he’d never actually seen the letter in question.  “Point is.”  I grabbed the remote and snapped off the TV.

Jake made a noise of indignation.  He grabbed for the remote and I yanked it out of the way.  For a second there I thought we were seriously going to descend into one of those wrestling matches that had caused so many rug burns and bloody noses when we were kids, but Jake dropped his hand without making a second attempt.

Tossing the remote aside, I grabbed an envelope and tore it open.  “Kate Malone.  Lives in Simi Valley, likes your hair, plans to wear green to your wedding but only if you agree to do the same.  Oookay, maybe she’s a little intense.  However...”  I scanned another envelope.  “Mae Tuck.  Reno.”  I ripped it open.  “She has nice handwriting, she’s willing to pay for airfare to come visit you—aww, that’s nice of her—and she wants you to know that it doesn’t matter at all to her that you’re half her age, or that you guys both have a history of long-term unemployment.”

“Yeah,” Jake drawled.  “Sounds like a real winner.”

“Annie Hughes.”  I grabbed another one.  “Has always wanted to date a boy with such intense eyes—apparently you have intense eyes, should see a doctor about that—and would very much like to take you home with her so that she can stick her tongue in... Oh fuck no.  That is so very wrong.”  I balled that one up and threw it across the room.

“You’re starting to regret opening this can of worms, aren’t you,” Jake said.

Determinedly, I tossed aside several written by court agents or elementary schools in search of another likely-looking envelope.  “Kirsten Larson.”  When I pulled that envelope open, something small but heavy tumbled out.  “Ooooh, look, she sent you a ring.”  I held it up, squinting in the low light.  “You think that’s a real diamond?”

“Apparently it is.”  Jake had grabbed Kirsten Larson’s letter while I was distracted by the engagement ring.  “And it’s also in my size, which she knows because she has compiled and personally memorized every piece of footage of me ever filmed.” 

“Yeesh.”  I quickly put the ring down.  “At least you can sell the diamond, though.” 

“Yay.”

“Adah Price, that’s a pretty name.”  I peeked in that envelope, but there was no more jewelry, thankfully.  “She wants a pen pal, how sweet.  She likes unicorns, she doesn’t know how to spell ‘Berenson,’ she’s twelve years old...”  I balled that one up and threw it away as well.  “How about...”  I grabbed a flowery-scented envelope.  “Iris Chase, she lives in Canada, but she’s more than happy to divorce her husband, and come join you here so that she can...”  I blinked several times.  “So that she can adopt you?  Okay, I am also not going to think too hard about that one."

“Pass,” Jake said.  “Also going to pass on Dawn Schafer—” He held up an envelope of his own.  “Who seems perfectly nice, but who I somehow suspect wouldn’t appreciate me for who I am given that she’s only interested in me because of her raging tiger fetish.  And Henry Case, who seems normal enough but is also, sadly, too male for my tastes.  And...”  He tossed another envelope at me unopened.  “Whoever felt the need to send me dirty panties without ever having met me.”

I snagged the envelope out of the air.  Going by touch alone, he was right about the contents.  I glanced over the package at Jake.  “You don’t know, she could be a great person.”

“She sent underwear.  To a total stranger.”  He raised an eyebrow at me.  “You’re not even a little weirded out by that?”

“I wasn’t before, but now I think about it I am so very weirded out.”  I tossed the package across the room to land on the pile of duds we’d already started.

“Uh-huh.”

I grabbed another letter off the stack.  “On the other hand, Parvana Weera here feels like she already knows you, and she wrote you...”  I flipped quickly through the attached sheets.  “A fifteen-page life history, so that you can know her too.”

“Dude, just quit while you’re behind.”

I glanced up from Raven Madison’s explanation of how she had never known anyone like Jake before and would literally die without him.  Jake was trying and failing to look stern, laughter causing the corner of his mouth to twitch upwards.  I knew he never read any of this crap, which was part of the reason I’d dug it out of the garage in the first place.  And for every pervy marriage proposal in the pile, there were six or seven heartfelt letters from people who wanted to say thank you, or I admire you, or I want to meet you, or it’s nice to know you exist.  Or “I want to lick you,” which seemed to be a horrifyingly common motif, but at least that was a neutral sentiment at best.

“Go the fuck to sleep,” I said.  “I’ll clean up this mess, you egotistical celebrity.”

“Only fair,” Jake said.  “Seeing as you’re the one who made it.”

“Yeah, yeah, go before I change my mind.”  I scooped up a discarded pile of letters.

Jake ran off up the stairs, and I shoved everything I held into the trash can.  And then I just stood there for a second, staring out at the dimly lit backyard, floored by my own immeasurable gratitude for Bonnie’s existence. 

Chapter Text

“Pleasures remain, so does the pain... Words are meaningless and forgettable.”

—Depeche Mode, 1990

 

They expedited the hell out of the trial.  Partially because that way the media circus couldn’t have time to send people off into too many wild theories about what had really happened.  Partially because the penitentiary where they were holding Margaret had to have armed guards watching her twenty-four-seven ready to gas her into unconsciousness if she started to morph, which was costing them a fortune.  Maybe it was partially because, like me, everyone wanted the whole thing over with.  I heard her defense lawyers tried to argue for more time to gather evidence or build a case or something, but it was Margaret herself who declared that she wanted the trial as soon as possible and she didn’t care what kind of evidence they had.

Whatever the reason, it was less than a month and a half later that we all filed into the courtroom for the first day of the trial.

Margaret herself looked younger than I’d ever seen her in soft lipstick and a conservatively-cut navy blue dress.  She sat through the judge’s long explanation of the proceedings without blinking or moving, her hands folded in her lap and her neatly made-up face devoid of expression.  A doll that had been set aside for the moment, patiently waiting for someone to come along and place a plastic teacup in her hand.

I shook my head, disgusted with myself as soon as the thought occurred to me.  We were human beings, not playthings or puppets.

And so were the people that the prosecuting attorney began to talk about.  She had a long, rambling opening statement that told the stories of the people Margaret had killed.  Karana Nicoleño, who had been her college roommate.  Lucas Cabral, who had left behind three children.  Sophie Hatter, who had graduated from college the week before she was murdered.  Gerald Cruncher, whose only crime had been getting in her way.

All the while Margaret listened.  It was impossible to guess what she was thinking.

Next to me, Jake was starting to shift uncomfortably on the bench.  He’d always been terrible at sitting still for long periods of time, and now he was leaning over to whisper to Marco every time the judge took a pause.

I kicked him, and when he glanced my way, nodded pointedly at the front of the room.  He rolled his eyes like a sullen teenager.

It was going to be a long trial.

The defense lawyer began his own opening statement by breathing out slowly as if sagging a little under the weight of what he had to say.  “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the case before you today is both highly complex and thoroughly modern.  The question of the defendant’s guilt will not be easily resolved.  You will hear a man testify that he was attacked by his own wife, and yet that my client was the one to blame.  You will hear my colleague Ms. Logan assert that my client is somehow responsible for her actions in a way that the mass murderers she killed were not.  You will hear a young man who had been caught on video torturing and attempting to murder his own brother argue that his knowledge of right and wrong is superior to that of my client, her allies, and indeed the entire United States Justice System—”

I missed the next several things he said, too busy grabbing Jake’s arm to yank him back into his seat before he could do something tomorrow’s tabloids would love and the rest of us would regret.  But I caught the important phrase:

“... find my client not guilty by reason of insanity.”

Jake was still busy muttering rude things about stupid lawyers who didn’t know what they were talking about, but at those last words Marco looked up sharply, making eye contact with me.

I shrugged at him.  Margaret wasn’t right in the head, I wasn’t going to dispute that.  But she’d also planned out and executed a complex series of murders while making an effort to cover her tracks.  It’d be one hell of an uphill battle for the defense lawyer to get the jury to believe she had diminished capacity.

Patty Hearst? Marco mouthed.

I had to search for that one on my phone, but when I did I looked up, shaking my head.  While there were certainly some people who had gone over to the yeerks’ side after being held for too long, she wasn’t one of them.

“Here is something you may not know about my client,” the lawyer continued.  “Just over seven years ago, she attended a meeting of a local nonprofit organization known as the Sharing.  She had reservations about joining, but she was, in fact, only there for a friend.  Her college roommate, one Karana Nicoleño, told her that the organization was desperate to get off the ground and struggling to draw new members.  Ms. White attended just a single meeting, drawn by the desire to be a good friend and to help her community, before the true leaders of this organization determined that she was asking too many questions about its operation.  So they kidnapped her right then and there.  Dragged her, struggling and screaming for help, to the yeerk pool.

“Now, I’m sure we’re all familiar with the first-hand accounts of yeerk infestation, but I want you to take a little time right now and imagine that moment.”  Here the lawyer paused for a long time, allowing everyone to do just that.

“Imagine the moment Margaret realized she could not move, could not speak or even breathe of her own volition,” he continued.  “That the alien creature now holding hostile control of her mind not only had the power to move and use her body however it wished, but also had access to every single thought that had ever crossed her mind, no matter how private.  That degree of violation is, I hope, truly unimaginable to most of us.  But we have a duty to try to understand.  Because in just a few short minutes, this young woman had gone from being a free, autonomous person with her whole life ahead of her to being enslaved body and mind with no hope of escape until the day she died.  As I said, none of us can truly imagine how traumatic that experience must have been, but still we must try.  Because imagining that hellish enslavement will be a necessary part of understanding Margaret White.”

“Yeah,” I muttered, “very sad and all, but you don’t see me running around killing people, do you?”

Jake didn’t laugh.  Mom was staring fixedly ahead, looking like she was fighting tears.

“Apparently,” Marco whispered, “we’re going to have to wait for the cross-examination for that.”

“However, for Margaret, the nightmare did not end there,” the lawyer said solemnly.

“No shit, Sherlock,” I whispered.

“The yeerks had control of her body for most of the next six years.  And it was not long after she was taken that the yeerk in Margaret’s head was signed up for Project Tabula Rasa.”

Eva jolted upright in her seat, spine stiffening like she’d been electrocuted.  She murmured what were probably several very bad words in Spanish, hand going to the cross at her throat.  

“Mom?” Marco said softly.

“You should leave,” she said.  “You don’t have to be here for this.”

Marco set his jaw, crossing his arms in silent refusal.  For a second they stared each other down with identical stubborn expressions.

I missed where their whispered argument went from there, because the defense lawyer started talking again.

“Project Tabula Rasa was proposed by a radically liberal splinter group of yeerks, as a kinder, more humane alternative to taking involuntary hosts.  It was inspired because the yeerks had noticed that certain hork-bajir who were infested at a very young age and held for many years... ‘went quiet,’ or so they called it.”

I swallowed, the air suddenly tight around me as if gravity had gotten much stronger in the last ten seconds.  I knew what he was talking about.

“The ones who went quiet would stop fighting,” the lawyer explained, “but it was more than that.  The small mental voice, the chain of thought, would disappear entirely after never fully developing at all.  These hork-bajir were essentially in a permanent vegetative state, even as their bodies were up and moving around, and the yeerks wanted to replicate the effect with humans.

“The idea was to impregnate a human-controller, take away her children the instant they were born, and infest them literally from the day of birth.  The yeerks had reason to believe that children raised in such conditions would never develop free will, would indeed never develop consciousness at all.  They would never know any life outside of a yeerk pool, and so they would never have the chance to learn and grow as human beings.  Never learn to fight, and so be happy in slavery.

“In the name of kindness, of humane treatment of the hosts, Margaret White was sexually assaulted dozens if not hundreds of times.  She was forced to lie there, unable to move, unable even to cry out, as the yeerks used dozens of equally victimized ‘sperm donors’ to attempt to create new hosts.  She was forced to become pregnant again and again, and after each time she gave birth the yeerks began attempting to impregnate her again within days.  She lost two pregnancies because of the stress she underwent, and was eventually given the power to morph specifically to heal the damage her body had undergone.  The yeerks needed at least one of their birth mothers kept alive, so that they could prove to the Council of Thirteen their project was working.  By that time Margaret had borne five children in the six years she was enslaved.

“Each time her children were taken from her, and yeerks were forced into the brains when they were infants.  All in the name of being humane, of creating hosts who knew no misery because they knew nothing at all.  The yeerks killed one of Margaret’s children for failing to live up to their standards for the theoretical perfect host.  Three more are alive to this day, on life support for what will probably be the rest of their lives.  The last child died when the U.S. military starved out the yeerk in his head, and then failed to realize that a five-year-old would need intensive care to survive on his own until it was too late.”

The lawyer took a deep breath, running his hands over this thinning hair.  “As you might imagine, a project this kind, this forward-thinking and concerned for the well-being of humans, attracted dozens of voluntary hosts.  Including Sophie Hatter.  T.J. Avery.  Paul Edgecombe.  Benjamin Passmore.  Karana Nicoleño.  Lucas Cabral.  Humans, voluntarily overseeing her abuse and assault in the name of ensuring that her children would be perfect slaves, convenient for the yeerks to use and own.  I ask you: who is the real monster here?  The grieving mother, or the people who subjected her and her children to a fate worse than death?

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Margaret White did not kill out of a sense of malice, nor did she do so for personal gain.  She sought conventional justice against her captors, and the killers of her children, and she was denied.  We were told at the time to forgive.  To forget.  To allow the yeerks and those who aided them to escape punishment, and to focus on moving on.  We were told this by children who were simply too young to understand that some sins are unforgivable, that for many of the war’s victims there would be no forgetting.  Margaret was denied justice. She then felt she had no choice but to take justice into her own hands.  I think we can all agree that their crimes against her go far beyond all reasonable standards of provocation.  That Margaret’s actions may have been insane, but her reasons were not.”

He turned, facing the jury now with his hands clasped in front of him. “The U.S. Justice system has already failed Margaret White once.  Let’s not allow it to happen again.  We have a duty to get this woman the help she needs to recover, not to lock her up.  And the way that you can fulfill that duty is through finding her not guilty by reason of insanity.”

He stopped talking.  Silence filled the courtroom.

The silence inside my head was even louder.

The judge was calling the first witness to the stand, but her voice sounded unimportant and distant.

I stood up and walked—floated, more like—out of the room.  My body was disconnected.  My consciousness was an invisible balloon hovering just over six feet off the floor, not associated with the meat and bone that carried it around.

The courtroom hallway scrolled past me, no more real than a screensaver.  I made it as far as the restroom.  Then my legs decided to stop holding me.  I unwillingly sat on the floor.

Just let me die, she’d said.  Begged.

And I had refused.  Had threatened to reinfest her to stop her from getting what she wanted.  To keep her around.  For what?  To have my own chance at revenge?

I curled forward, burying my face against my knees.  I was so, so sick of all of this.  Of uncovering more shit, every time I thought I had seen the worst of what the yeerks could do.

It was unimaginable, what had happened to her.  What had been done to her.

You know what this would mean, she said to me.  And she’d been wrong.  I’d had no idea.  Still didn’t know.  Could only try.

Project Tabula Rasa.

Tabula Rasa.  Blank slate.  I remembered that one from history class.  Blank slate.  I could guess what that would mean to the yeerks.  I’d never been a parent, but if that had been my family... If that had been me... Her children deserved to come home.  To live, to exist without the war still inside their bodies.  Instead they had been trapped and remade, the ones that had not already died.  There was no freedom for her after that.  No moving on.  No way to heal from a wound that grave.

The door swung open and I snapped my head up, frantically scrubbing at my face where I belatedly realized it was wet with tears.  If it was a reporter...

It wasn’t.

“You know you’re not supposed to be in here, right?” I said hoarsely.

My mom flashed a quick smile.  “I’m a rebel.”

I tried to give her a smile in return.  It didn’t quite work.

She shut the door behind her and then sat down, leaning her back against it to face me.  She didn’t say anything, waiting for me.  She had tears on her face as well, but her expression was set with determination.  

“You ever think...”  I stopped, swallowed, and then started again.  “Do you think maybe there’s a point a person can reach where something is so terrible that you can’t feel it anymore?  That you can’t feel anything anymore?  Where the part of you that could feel things for other people has so much pain that it just... I don’t know, shuts off.  Kills itself, so that the rest of you can live.”

Tourniquet.  That was the word I was searching for.  Kill your own arm or leg, so that the rest of your body can keep the blood that it would be lost if it stayed.  Kill your own soul, because feeling the pain of it would kill you.  

“Anyway, I think maybe she didn’t wither away like the rest of us,” I said.  “I think she just died on the inside.  All at once.”

Mom took a deep breath, leaning her head back against the door.  She looked so small sometimes, so much more fragile than I expected.  It had been over five years but I still got a small jolt every time I realized that I was taller than her.  That she couldn’t block out the world anymore.  “I don’t know,” she said at last.  “Maybe you’re right.  But that doesn’t make what she did okay.”

I shrugged.  “Nothing is going to.  But, like, are we supposed to keep the cycle going?  Hurt her so that someone else who loves her can hurt someone else to try and keep the balance?”

“It’s out of our hands now.”  She spoke firmly, with a certainty I didn’t have.  “The important thing is that you stopped her from hurting anyone else.  From killing—”

“One of the guys who helped rape her?”

Mom flinched, but she met my eyes steadily.  “And if he’d had someone else in the house with him, do you think she’d have let that person live?  For that matter, what did Jake ever do to her?  What did that poor guy Gerald ever do?”

I didn’t answer her.  Jake wouldn’t have been in the line of fire at all—and nor would Gerald—if I had just left well enough alone.  If I had listened to Eva, when she told me to let the world put itself right even if that meant people died along the way.  If I hadn’t meddled in someone else’s attempt to seek justice. 

“She was killing anyone who got in her way,” Mom said.  “And you stopped her.”

“So that’s it, then.”  I made a noise that wasn’t quite a laugh.  “Two wrongs make a right.  I had a right to kill her.”

Mom crossed her arms.  “I notice that you did not, in fact, kill her.  That unless you lied to the police, you also prevented her from killing herself.”

I shrugged.  It wasn’t over.  What I did might kill her yet, depending on what the jury decided.

“C’mere.”  Mom gently tugged my arm, and I scooted over to sit next to her.

“It just seems so awful that...”  I stopped, trying to find the right words for what I was thinking.  “You survive the war, and it still isn’t over.  Like maybe it’s never going to be over.  Like all that pain and death was for nothing, because the world is still... Like this.”

Mom thought about it for a while.  At one point she started to say something, stopped, and shook her head.

Finally she spoke. “If you ever have kids, you’ll learn how quickly your dreams and fears for the future can change.  Whether it’s your eldest coming home from school talking about basketball scholarships to Big Ten colleges or your youngest earning a perfect score on a history test...”  She took a shaky breath.  “Or whether it’s sitting there trapped inside your own brain, saying to God again and again: please, just let me see my babies again.  Let me hold them, and know that they’re safe, if only for one more instant.  I don’t care what happens to the rest of the world.  I don’t care what happens to me.  That’s all I have left to want from this life.  Just to know that they’re safe.  That they made it through.”

I wrapped my arms around my middle, not wanting to interrupt her.  Mom had tried so hard to reason with me, the day the yeerks figured out who Jake was.  She’d demanded to know what was going on, where these people were taking her, what the hell I thought I was doing.  Essa 412’s response had been to grab a fistful of her hair and start dragging her down the stairs to the yeerk pool.  Several long strands had torn out of her scalp between my fingers as she cried out in pain.  The yeerk they’d put inside her—some no-rank warrior who knew as well as anyone else that she was only there to be a hostage against Jake—had cut her hair off down to the ragged ends, until there was less than an inch of it left.  Even now it barely reached her chin, when it had once come to halfway down her back.  

“I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you,” I said softly.

Mom curved her hand over my wrist, just the softest of touches.  “And I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you.  I’m so sorry I never realized.  That we didn’t know what was happening to you until it was too late.”

I swallowed.  “That’s... You couldn’t have...  It’d be a hell of a guess to jump from ‘my kid quit the basketball team’ to ‘he’s being controlled by aliens.’”  I tried to say it lightly, ironically.  I didn’t really succeed.

“Doesn’t mean I’m not going to regret it for the rest of my life,” she said.  Like she was just stating a fact, and not even a particularly interesting one.

My breath caught.  “Mom...”

“But that wasn’t what I meant.  I just meant...”  She picked up her hand, stretching it out in front of her and wiggling the fingers. “This is a miracle.”

She didn’t have to explain it to me more than that.

“And sometimes you have to look hard at the miracles, and let everything else go,” she said.  “Sometimes you have to choose to be happy, choose to focus on the good things about this particular moment and nothing else.”

I sighed.  It was a nice idea, but... “You can’t just forget everything that came before.”

“No,” she said.  “But you can still be grateful.  You have the right to be happy, whatever that means.  And you have the right to go after that happiness.”

“Do you think I did the right thing?” I asked.  “Stopping her, I mean.”

“I think that there are times when the worst thing you can possibly do is look at a problem and say ‘someone else caused it, so it’s someone else’s problem,’” Mom said.  “And you refused to do that.  You saved lives.  And you stopped the bastard who shot my baby boy, so I fully support that.  And I’m sorry if this is uncharitable, but I hope she rots in prison for that alone.”

I was pretty sure she wouldn’t, but I didn’t bother sharing that suspicion with Mom.

Mom jumped when someone suddenly knocked on the other side of the door.

“Come on, man,” some guy called.  “I really gotta go!”

“Then use the ladies’ room!” Mom yelled back.

I laughed, caught by surprise.  “Mom.”

“What?” she said.  “It’s right there, and it has toilets too.”

I held up my hands.  “Sorry.  Didn’t mean to get in the way of you continuing to be a rebel.”

She smiled, leaning over to press a kiss to the top of my head.  “Come on, I’ll take you home.”

I shook my head.  “Thanks, but I want to see how it ends.”

Chapter Text

“We can do an inventory of our history, but for now I don’t wanna know.  Lie to me... let it sink into my brain.”

—Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, 1991

 

I leaned back against the cool stone of the memorial obelisk behind me, crossing my arms.  “You know something funny?” I said quietly.  “For the longest time I thought that everything—everyone—would have been better off, if you’d just given me a good clean death the way you tried to do.”

It was the middle of the goddamn night, and I was due back to the courthouse in just over four hours.  And yet here I stood.

Rachel’s grave was, as always, covered in wreaths and cards and bouquets.  I never knew who left them—no one in my family really went for that kind of thing, and as far as I knew Aunt Naomi and Uncle Dan hadn’t been back here since the funeral.  Admirers, maybe.  Grateful strangers whose lives she had saved, even though she’d never learn their names and at the time they hadn’t known hers.  Their connection to this place was probably stronger than ours: we all knew that she wasn’t buried here, that she would have hated the candid no-makeup photo that someone had propped up against the headstone.

“Anyway.”  I wrapped my arms a little tighter around myself; it was the middle of January and a cold breeze blew through the graveyard.  “I only really realized that I’d been assuming that was the case because, uh, I think now I was wrong.  I’m starting to think that there are a lot of things I would have missed.  Ones that wouldn’t have been worth missing.  Things I will miss in the future, if I drop dead tomorrow, that it would really suck to miss.  And, uh, I haven’t thought that in a long time.  Like, a really long...”

Rachel probably would have hated the plastic flowers and the school photo where you could see her pores and the zit on her left cheek, but I had a feeling that she would have loved the monument itself.  In the grey pre-sunrise light it looked majestic and terrifying.  When the artist who designed it had described the idea to Jake in an attempt to get the Official Animorphs Stamp of Approval on the thing (which ended up being more like the Official Animorphs Shrug of Apathy), I’d assumed that it was going to turn out hideous-looking and bizarre.  But the reality was surprisingly graceful.

The statue looming over the headstone showed Rachel striding forward confidently with her head thrown back and her hair streaming behind her.  Her outstretched arms were a pair of eagle wings adorned with hork-bajir elbow blades, the foot she had planted on the front of the plinth ended in a grizzly bear paw, and her face was framed by halo-like elephant ears.  Her back leg managed to form half a dolphin’s tail without making her look like a ridiculous mermaid-thing, and she had an extra pair of many-jointed insect limbs sprouting from the middle of her body.

It was filled with movement and light like it was about to lunge forward at any second on its terrifying mishmash of body parts and kill anyone who dared look on it.  She looked like a cross between that headless angel sculpture from ancient Greece and one of the fiercer-looking statues of Shiva, only more like a movie monster than either of those.

“Like, maybe I’m fucking this all up,” I whispered. “But maybe I want to keep trying anyway.”

Someone had left a candle on the edge of the plinth, burned-out wax slopping over the side and frozen now in a single moment of freefall. 

“So, yeah.”  I cleared my throat.  “I guess what I’m saying is, turns out there is life after high school.  So I’m sorry that you’re missing it.  But I also, uh, I want to be grateful.  I mean I am grateful.  Because...”  I spread out my arms, almost sliding sideways off the monument I was leaning against.  “Because it seemed like I should tell someone.  Because, not gonna lie, there’ve been times when I thought the dead were the lucky ones.  But I’m starting to think there’s some stuff worth sticking around for as well.  Only if you’d opted to say ‘fuck it’ and stay safe at home, I’d be dead or worse.  So... Thanks.”

The night was cold and getting ever colder.  They probably needed me to testify tomorrow—today, I guess—if the lawyers ever got over their technicalities and moved the damn evidence forward.  Rain threatened in the low-slung clouds overhead, and I hadn’t forgotten that I was technically trespassing in a national cemetery right now.

I stayed.

“You gonna lurk up there all night, or are you going to come down like a normal person?” I said at last, voice loud and hoarse. 

The ancient tree that separated this section of graves from the rest of the cemetery rattled, and a dark shape swooped down from its upper branches.

I blinked, startled, when Tobias flared and landed gracefully on one of Rachel’s outstretched insect-legs.  I’d been expecting Marco, with an outside chance of either Jake or Cassie.

“Anybody ever tell you that it’s rude to lurk in trees and watch other people grieve?” I said, trying to hide my surprise with irritation.

<You know, they never actually covered that one in any of the etiquette classes I had in elementary school,> Tobias said, cocking his head at me.

“Etiquette classes?  Where the hell’d you go to elementary school?” We’d only ever had math and reading and occasional hodge-podge science or history when I’d been a kid.

<West Virginia.  And Colorado.  And Pennsylvania, I guess, but I was there for less than a year so I don’t really count that one.>

This conversation was very weird and I was starting to regret having gotten into it in the first place.  “What were you, a miniature Holden Caulfield?”

<Foster kid.>

“Oh.”

<Anyway, sorry, I guess.  For being weird.> 

I sighed.  “You saved my sorry butt last month, so I’ll give you a pass.  Several more, too, if it comes to that.”

<Thanks.>  Tobias settled into a more comfortable position on Rachel’s marble arm. 

“Uh-huh.”

<You ever resolve that one, by the way?> he asked. 

I grimaced.  “Kind of.  She’s on trial for six or seven of the murders now.”

<You don’t sound particularly happy about that fact.>

I opened my mouth to make some dismissive comment about how zombies never sound happy about anything and he shouldn’t take it personally, but I closed it again without saying anything.  The truth of the situation wasn’t one that I should be able to wave aside.  “She might have been right all along,” I said at last.

<What, you think people should kill voluntary hosts now?>  Tobias sounded annoyed. 

“No.”  I stared into space across the dark graveyard, trying to figure out the words I wanted to use.  “But... the yeerks had her for a long time.  And they did things to her that no one should ever have to live through."

<Couldn’t the same be said of all you guys?>

I bit my lip.  “Not exactly.  You, uh, you know how the yeerks were getting more hork-bajir, right?  I mean after that first generation they took by force from the home world.”

It took Tobias quite a while to answer.  <Honestly I hadn’t thought about it before, but now that I have worked it out, I think I was better off not knowing.>  He’d gone tense, sharp, watching me with unforgiving intensity. 

“Um, yeah.”  I shifted position, not sure I should even be talking about this.  “Anyway, turns out the yeerks had already made the first forays into breeding human hosts as well.  She was one of the first victims they used as a mother.  She’s been going after the voluntaries involved with the project.”

<Hrthesthr.>  Tobias said it like a curse.

“What’s that?” I said.  I’d heard the term before—it was from the native hork-bajir language—but didn’t know what it meant.

He laughed without humor.  <Literally, it translates to ‘one who is so careless in cutting the bark from a tree as to damage the wood underneath, causing the entire tree to become diseased and rot.’  Figuratively...>

“Ouch.”  Yeah, I could figure that one out.  “I always just guessed it meant ‘yeerk,’” I admitted.  “But then, the only time I’d heard it before was from hork-bajir hosts during feedings, so I guess that makes sense.”

<I wasn’t talking about the yeerks.>  Tobias’s voice was thick with disgust. 

I thought again of Sophie Hatter dead on the pavement, of how Margaret’s claws must have torn into her.  Of the bleak terror of freefall, and how much worse it must have been with no wings to save her.  Had that been justice?  Had she been a monster who the world was better off without?

Had I, in fact, made everything worse by meddling?

<Anyway, you were saying.>

Oh.  Margaret.  “She was killing the voluntary hosts who were complicit in... what happened to her.  And to the kids that the yeerks took from her and basically lobotomized.”

<So you’re pretty sure you should have left her to it.>

I tensed, hunching my shoulders.  Hearing it so bluntly phrased was... It was like the pain of the razor severing tendons and skin and prying apart the bones.  Brilliant and world-crystallizing and shocking and vomit-inducing horrible, all at once.

“She was killing human beings,” I whispered.

<So?>

“So murder’s not... I just mean...”

I didn’t have an answer for that one.  She’d put more pain into the world with what she did, but then maybe so had I.

Tobias said something else and I missed it.

“Hmm?” I said at last, looking up at him.

<I was just wondering why the heck she was so determined to kill you, if that was her M.O.>

“Oh, that.”  I pressed one hand over my eyes, even knowing it wouldn’t help the headache building in my brain.  “I ran my mouth on national television, and it came off sounding like I might have been a voluntary myself.”

<What?>  Tobias shuffled his wings restlessly, looking impatient.  <That’s bullshit.  There’s tons of evidence that you’re not— There’s no way you were— I saw you punch a taxxon-controller, for Pete’s sake!>

Yeah, that had been one of the stupider things I’d ever done, on a long list of extremely stupid things.  I had paid dearly for that little escape attempt, along with most of the other hosts involved.  Just picture the worst migraine you’ve ever had, and then double it, and then double that until you want to throw up from the pain, and then imagine that every nerve in your entire body is...

Anyway, you get the picture.

“What can I say,” I drawled.  “It’s that legendary Berenson caution at work.  Measure twice, cut once, practically there on the family crest.”

Tobias laughed silently.  <Yeah, well, if you need anyone to tell people that you definitely weren’t there because you wanted to be...>

“Thanks.”  I smiled tightly.  “But I’ve got everyone from ex-hosts to Animorphs to your mom giving statements on my behalf already.  At this point it’s only interesting to the really scungy tabloids.”  

<Still, what happened to her.  It sounds like it messed her up.>

“No disagreement here,” I said.  “Like you said.  I probably should have left her to it.”

<Killing people?  I mean, if you really think it was helping her...>

“What?  No.  I don’t think it was helping anyone.”  I shook my head sharply.  “I just don’t think that doing nothing while they walked around free was helping her either.”

<So what would you do if you could do it differently?>

“I don’t know.”  I ran a hand over my hair.  “Have a conversation with her?  But I guess if I did she’d probably just kill me.  And her kids... I don’t know.  They were murdered, and she murdered someone else."

<And it didn’t fix anything.>

“I didn’t fix anything either.”

<Sorry, man, I’m not a fortune cookie.  I’ve got nothing.>

“Yeah.”  I sighed, glancing away from him.  “Yeah, I guess.”

We lapsed into silence, the graveyard around us as quiet as... Well, you know. 

The hosts who died during infestation didn’t get graves and headstones.  I tried, and failed, to avoid imagining a tiny infant body tossed to the hungry taxxons below.  Had Margaret's child even had a name?  How long had it lived?  Was it, in fact, still alive when they threw it into the tunnels?

"It's weird, isn’t it?” I said at last, when the silence got too long for even me to stand.

Rachel was still watching us both in fierce silence.  Would she have understood what I did?  Would she have understood Margaret?

<What is?>

“Trying to figure out what someone would have wanted, after...”  I shrugged, shoulders rubbing against the cool stone of the monument I leaned against.  “After death.”

<Why should it matter at all?>  Tobias sounded harsh.  I knew there was more emotion than his cold tone revealed hiding behind those predators’ eyes, though.

“I don’t know, common courtesy?”  I shrugged again.  Rachel’s metal eyes were half-lidded, hollow and yet piercing.  “Like, you usually try your best not to do stuff that would hurt the people you care about before they’re dead.  So it’s sort of natural that that instinct to do what’s best for people, especially the ones you care about, continues after.  Right?”

Tobias was silent. 

“Sorry,” I mumbled.  “I’m talking nonsense.”

<So what would she have wanted?> Tobias asked, glancing up at the statue’s face.  Like me, he wasn’t talking about Margaret anymore.

To live, I thought, but the idea of saying so out loud seemed unnecessarily cruel.  “For me?”  I smiled tightly.  “A bullet in the head, no doubt."

<We both know that’s not true.>

I gave Tobias a long, steady look.  “Uh-huh.”

<If that was the case, why the hell did she not just kill you the instant she figured out you were a controller?> he asked.  <It would have been simpler.  Safer.  For everyone on the team.  What she wanted was what you’ve got.  You.  Free.  No yeerk.> 

“Oh, sure,” I said, “and she wanted you to become some recluse who lives in a tree for the rest of eternity.  Don’t be naive.” 

<Hey, man, you’re the one all worried about doing what she would have wanted.  Personally I don’t give a crap one way or another.>

I rolled my eyes.  “Bullshit.”

<She’s gone,> Tobias said.  <And we both know whose fault that is.  Consider it me doing the only favor I owe her that I haven’t done anything about that.>

“Are you threatening me?” I said, baffled.

<What?>  Now Tobias was the one who sounded genuinely surprised.  <Of course not.  I wasn’t talking about you.>

Oh.  So that’s how it was.  “Uh-huh.”  I crossed my arms.  “Well, in that case thank you ever so much for not killing Jake.  What saintly self-control that must take, denying yourself the opportunity for murder out of love for Rachel.  Clearly I cannot begin to comprehend the—”

<Shut up,> he snapped.

“You realize that the decision to stay or go, to die or not, came down to one person, right?” I said.  “And that one person wasn’t Jake.”

<She never would have even been in that situation if not for what Jake decided was best,> Tobias said bitterly.

I hadn’t been present when that particular decision was made, and I was pretty sure Tobias hadn’t been either.  All I knew was that Jake didn’t have nearly enough stubbornness—and Rachel didn’t have nearly enough compliance—that he could have in a million years gotten her to agree to anything she didn’t want to do. 

I slid down the mausoleum at my back to sit on the damp grass, not caring about its unpleasant coolness.  “What I’m getting out of this conversation is that you’re only pissed at Jake because it’s easier than being pissed at Rachel.”

<Gee, thanks for the gross oversimplification, Dr. Phil.>  Tobias glared at me, feathers puffed with annoyance.  <You’ve cleared everything right up.>

“Well, at least the ‘oversimplification’ part tells me I’m partially right,” I said.

Tobias turned away from me.

“Awesome.”  I flattened my right hand against the grass, cool blades slipping between my fingers.  “Glad we got that all straightened out."

<Look, I get it, okay?> Tobias burst out.  <I know.  She only did it because she had nothing left to live for.  She knew there wasn’t a point to life after the war.  I know I wasn’t enough to keep her here.  Not when... When I wouldn’t even become human for her, when she asked.  So she figured she didn’t have me, wouldn’t have the war, wouldn’t have anything.  Might as well die, right?  Trust me, I get it.>

I stared at him for several seconds.  Also not at all where I had been expecting this conversation to go.  “If you managed to get that out of what I just said, then you must have been listening to someone else,” I said slowly.  “How the fuck does you not wanting to be human cause Rachel’s death?”

<I just told you.  She obviously didn’t see the point in sticking around.>

“So let me get this straight.  You think you’re the reason Rachel’s dead?”

<Fuck you.>  He hadn’t left yet, which I was choosing to take as a good sign. 

“I’m gonna go ahead and take that as a ‘yes.’”  I snorted a laugh, which was probably rude.  “Fucking hell, you’re as bad as Jake.”

<Excuse me?>

If he took it as that much of an insult, that was his problem.

“Both of you, it’s like...”  I leaned my head back, thinking.  “Like that chicken in that story that thinks it makes the sun come up and if for some reason it doesn’t crow at dawn then the whole world will be dark forever.”

<Rooster,> Tobias said flatly. 

“Huh?”

<It’d have to be a rooster.  Chickens don’t crow.>

“You’re the expert,” I said easily.  “Anyway, quick point of clarification...”  I sat up all the way to look at him, squinting through the low light.  “Are you now or have you ever been a yeerk, an Ellimist, or one of those creepy Leeran things?”

<What?>  Tobias still sounded hostile, but he was also still sitting there. 

“Are you now or—?”

<No.  No I haven’t,> he said.

“Then,” I said slowly, “how the fuck are you controlling other people’s actions?”

<Again with the massive oversimplification.>

“Fine then.”  I shifted into a more comfortable position as if getting ready to sit there all night.  “Explain to me how I’m wrong.  Tell me how you—or Jake, or whoever—caused Rachel’s death, without actually being the ones to kill her.”

<That’s not what I meant.>

“Efflit thirteen-eighteen,” I snapped.

<What?>

“Yeerk.  No rank.  Total psychopath.  Controlled a guy named Tendai Matsika.  Favored a polar bear morph.  Visser Seventeen’s second-in-command.”  I spread out my arms.  “Hey look.  I figured out who’s responsible for her death.”

Tobias had suddenly become fascinated with preening his own feathers.  I stared into space, waiting him out.

<We could have found another way,> Tobias said at last.  It sounded weak even to me.

“One that had a one-hundred-percent guarantee that a whole fuckton of other people wouldn’t die in her place?” I asked.

He didn’t answer.

“Well, when you figure that one out, let me know.”  I hauled myself to my feet using a nearby cross for support.  My left leg was all pins and needles because I didn’t move around enough when staying in one place.  Add it to Eva’s unending list of Zombie Problems.

<You don’t know everything either,> he said at last.  <You didn’t know her like I did.>

I tilted my head, conceding the point to him.  “In that case, you mind interpreting?  Taking an educated guess about what she’d want?”

It took him a long time to answer.  When he did, he spoke very slowly like he was choosing each word before using it.  <She’d want what she got.  Like I said.  I wasn’t enough.  Sorry.>

“So maybe that’s it.  Maybe—”

Maybe Rachel was the only one who would understand, who wouldn’t judge, if I told her what I’d done.  That I’d been so angry, so righteous, that I hadn’t asked enough questions.  That I’d drawn out Margaret’s life.  That I had done whatever it took to take her down, and then to keep her alive.  That I’d been angry, and it had made me ruthless.  No.  It had made me cruel.

Yeah, that was the real reason I came out here tonight.  I know, I know, pathetic.  Shut up. 

<What, you got it all figured out?> Tobias asked.

“Fuck no.”  I looked down, dusting myself off.  It was occurring to me for the first time that Tobias had probably been here before I’d shown up.  That I had interrupted, not the other way around.  “But... anyway, thanks.”

<What for?>

“I don’t know, existing?”  I shrugged.  “Obviously the sum total of your life has made the universe suck less, so... thanks.  For that.”

Tobias stared at me, expression inscrutably birdlike, for several more seconds.  Then he suddenly took off, swooping low overhead before he caught an updraft and flapped upward into the sky.

I opened my mouth to say something rude about Tobias’s idea of ending a conversation, glanced up at the statue, and thought better of it.  Instead I scooped a pebble off the ground and balanced it on the edge of the plinth.

The ocean beyond the rise above me was just starting to become visible in the pink and grey light of the dawn, waves gilded by the first light of the sun breaking over the horizon.  It was high time I moved on and headed home.  

Chapter Text

“You’re safe from pain in the dream domain, a soul set free to fly.”

—Queensryche, 1990

 

The list of witnesses was seemingly endless.  I patiently waited my turn through the next several days’ worth of testimonies.  There were three different psychiatrists who had conflicting opinions on whether or not Margaret understood that killing people was wrong, and two other voluntary hosts besides Paul Edgecombe who had had contact with her when she was a controller.  It rapidly became as much about Margaret’s victims as Margaret herself: whether they were guilty, whether she was justified in killing them, whether they had any defense.  The most interesting moment of the trial—at least, for anyone who had never seen that kind of thing before—came when Marco morphed wolf and testified that Margaret had the same scent at the person who shot Jake.  The lawyers spent almost an entire afternoon going back and forth about whether the judge should admit that as evidence.  

And then the prosecution called Eva as a witness.

Marco wasn’t there the day she testified.  Eva had called in a favor with Jake, who called in a favor with several andalites who were almost certainly more important than him, who called in a favor with the Intrepid.  The end result was that Ax happened to get shore leave at exactly the right time.  He and Jake kidnapped Marco off to Las Vegas, solemnly promising Eva to have him gone for at least as long as she needed.

“Mrs. Alvarez,” the prosecuting lawyer began.  “Mr. Edgecombe asserts that, had he attempted to leave yeerk control after initially assenting to it, he would have been executed as a traitor.  Is he correct in saying that any voluntary host who expressed a desire to leave voluntary service would be considered a traitor to the yeerk cause?”

Eva nodded.  “Yes, that’s correct.”

I knew she’d agreed with Margaret more than I had, but I also knew she was here for the same reason I was: to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but.  And then to be done with it.

“Could you please explain what would happen to yeerks who were convicted of treason?” the prosecutor asked.

“They would be starved to death,” Eva said flatly.  “Generally the process was drawn out over weeks or months—the yeerk would be allowed three minutes of kandrona exposure every thirty-six hours.”

“And that would kill the yeerk?”

“It’s a carefully calculated process, designed to induce death after approximately two months.  You see, they can survive for just over seventy-two hours on the amount of kandrona that can be absorbed in twenty minutes, fifteen if there is rationing in effect, but eventually they die of malnutrition with any less.”  Eva stopped talking.

“Is there anything else?” the prosecutor asked pointedly.

“Then the yeerk is dead,” Eva said.  “What else is there?”

I smiled without humor.  I knew what game she was playing.

The lawyer figured it out too.  “Does anything happen to the host?”

“Yes.”  Eva straightened her spine, bracing herself.  “The yeerk is still able to feel what the host can, so the goal is to inflict pain without killing.”

The lawyer opened her mouth to say something else, but Eva kept going.  Trying to get it out all at once.

“Generally, the host’s legs are broken to start with,” she explained.  Apparently calm, apparently detached.  “The limb is placed across an open space with supports on either side and then impacted using a crowbar, a baseball bat, or another hard implement.  This is a relatively precise method of inducing multiple clean fractures just above the knee region, in order to minimize the chances of escape.  Afterward, they typically begin removing sections of the host’s skin using a paring knife for the initial incisions and a set of needle-nose pliers to peel the dermis away from the muscle.  They start with the extremities in order to...”

I chose to stop hearing her.

There was an ant crawling along the top edge of the bench in front of me.  I watched as it progressed slowly across its wooden tightrope, tiny antennae waving.  What did ants think about?  Not much, other than killing and finding food, according to Jake.  Good to know we weren’t the only species who killed our own.

Well, us and the yeerks.  And apparently ants.

Eva was still talking. 

I remembered the second Essa 412 had realized Jake had flushed the Pool ship.  My stomach had jolted hot with nausea, my lungs empty of air for several long seconds.   Good, I had thought at the time, and the only response had been a wordless cry of shock and anger from the yeerk.

Essa 412 had scrambled, blurting excuses, pretending not to care.  Pretending badly.  Already compartmentalizing: they had been the enemy.  Part of Visser Three’s forces.  Not complicit in the rebellion.  Not important.

Maybe humans did the same thing, walled off other humans to make them stop mattering.  To make them acceptable losses.  If so, I wasn’t sure how. 

I didn’t look up until Eva sat down next to me again.  Her back was still rigidly straight, her mouth set into a firm line.

“You know,” I whispered to her, “there are rumors on the internet that you can book illegal whale-hunting charters out of Japan.” 

For the first time her stiff expression cracked, one corner of her mouth curling slightly upward.  “You and I have had our revenge.”  She squeezed my arm gently.  “Leave that to the Japanese hosts.”

Oddly, it filled me with a sort of warm bubbly contentment to remember that I had, in fact, killed Essa 412.  That Edriss 562 was long-since a small grey smear on the floor of a yeerk pool.  Eva was right: we’d had our revenge.  We’d refused to go quietly.  We had fought back the first millisecond we could do so, and we’d shown once and for all that we were no one’s property, certainly not some slug’s.  It was a comforting thought.

Then again, maybe it was just a sign that I’m a sadistic asshole.

We waited quietly through some psychologist making some argument that none of the voluntaries had done anything wrong because of cognitive dissonance (whatever that meant), and then the court let out for the day.

When we stepped outside, we found the usual cluster of reporters standing a barely-legal distance away from Marco and Jake.  They stood at the base of the courthouse steps, talking quietly with a startlingly beautiful boy their own age. 

I turned away from them.  “Are you sure you’re going to be all right?” I said softly to Eva. 

“This much concern is so unlike you.”  She pressed a hand over her heart, squinting up at me.  “Are you sure that’s all you in there?”  

I opened my mouth and then shut it again.  Finally I found words.  “If anyone else on the planet had just made that joke...  That— You are—”  I spluttered myself into indignant silence. 

She grinned.  “Take care of yourself, kiddo.”

She’d already collected Marco and wandered off before I realized how effectively she’d distracted me from worrying about her, or asking again whether she was okay.

I was still staring after her, flummoxed, when someone spoke my name. 

Turning around, I found myself face-to-face with the androgynous boy who had been talking with Jake and Marco earlier. 

“Um, hi?” I said.  I had never actually met Ax before, but of course I knew him by reputation.

“Hello.  Prince Jake tells me that you have been in contact with Tobias recently.”  Ax spoke with carefully formal inflection, barely glancing away from me.  For an andalite in human morph—who, like all andalites, tended to glance around compulsively when limited to only two eyes—that was about as intense as eye contact got.

“Yeah, kind of.”  I shrugged, glancing down myself now.  “It was just, like, one or two quick conversations.  I don’t know where to find him or anything, if that’s what you’re hoping.”

Ax shook his head.  “I would not impose on his self-chosen solitude.  Sollllllit-tuuud,” he added, like he wasn’t sure he’d said it correctly the first time.  

I raised my eyebrows.  “Then what did you want to ask?”

“If you see him again, would you tell him...”  During the long pause that ensued, Ax considered and discarded a hundred, a thousand different messages.  I could see it on his face. 

I waited with zombie patience. 

“If you could just tell him I miss him,” Ax said at last.

“Yeah.  ‘course.  I don’t know if I’m going to bump into him again, but if I do, I’ll tell him.”

Ax nodded gravely.  “I appreciate that.”  He turned very carefully on the spot like he was expecting to fall over at any second, and started to walk away.

“Ax!” I blurted.

He turned more quickly this time, and almost did fall before he threw out a hand to balance himself.  “Yes?”

“Stay for dinner,” I said impulsively.  “Jake misses all five of you too, misses you like hell, and bullying him into a little social interaction always seems to help.”

Ax stiffened a little.  The idea of bullying one’s former commander into anything was probably the height of rudeness according to andalite standards.  All he said out loud was, “I would not wish to impose.”  The words had a formality to them, like something he’d memorized out of a book.

“Trust me, you wouldn’t be.  Jake would appreciate it.  I swear.” 

“Your parents would also be amenable?” he said.  “Amen-nenenen-nable?”

I laughed.  “Man, you are, to date, the only person in the entire history of the planet to actually compliment my mom’s awful cooking and sound sincere about it.  She and my dad probably would have adopted you on the spot if they hadn’t just assumed you were a very stoned version of Jake.  Don’t be surprised if they try to keep you for real this time.”

Ax nodded, smiling faintly, and then frowned.  “‘Stoned?’”

“Um, you know?”  I rubbed the back of my neck.  “High?  On marijuana?”

“I am not familiar with this mari-wa-nawa.  Mareeee-waaan-uh?”

And now I thoroughly regretted bringing up the subject.  “You know what?  You’ll have to ask Marco about that one,” I said. 

“I will,” Ax said gravely.  “And I will be sure to tell him that you commended his expertise on the subject when I do so.”

I blinked several times.  Had that last statement been literal, or just very very tongue-in-cheek?  “Um, yeah,” I said.  “So... dinner?”

“Very well,” Ax said.  “For the sake of Prince Jake’s well-being, I will join this human repast.”

I laughed.  I knew that one wasn’t him being literal—I’d seen the boy put away food.

***************

The trial lurched and lumbered forward, a behemoth of awkwardness, argumentation, and half-remembered pain. 

“I’d like to call Warren DeGroot to the stand,” the defense lawyer said.

There was a pause. 

“Warren DeGroot?” the judge said.

A guy two rows back stood up.  Slowly.  He shuffled down the aisle, left hand clenching and unclenching rhythmically as he walked.  He spent entirely too long staring at Margaret as he walked by, until he finally dropped his gaze.

During the entire process of swearing him in, he continued to open and close his left hand time after time.

I knew exactly what he was doing: reminding himself that he was in control of his own body.  I wasn’t sure why he was even being called to testify, though; that kind of tic only usually happened for former involuntary hosts.

“Please state your full name and profession for the record.”

There was a pause of several seconds before he mumbled, “Warren James DeGroot junior.  Civil defense attorney.”

“Thank you,” the defense attorney said.  “Now, Mr. DeGroot, in your opinion as a legal professional, does Margaret White demonstrate the necessary qualities for reasonable capacity to understand that her own actions are wrong?”

“... No.”

“Would you please clarify for the jury why you hold that position, Mr. DeGroot?”

My right hand was clenched into a fist in my lap, my wrist shaking.  I knew perfectly well what the lawyer was doing.  He hadn’t chosen this witness for his legal expertise.  He’d done it because the guy was dull-eyed and mumbling, because this was actual physical proof that the ex-hosts were just as crazy as everyone said.  This DeGroot guy was here to be a material piece of proof that Margaret was nuts.  He was being used.

Sure enough, the next legal witness the defense lawyer called after Mr. DeGroot was another ex-host who had only too clearly suffered a lot of damage during the years of infestation.  Then came the psychiatrist who hummed softly to herself (to annoy the yeerk, although I was one of the few people present who knew that) and the character witness who answered all the questions in such a monotone it was impossible to know if he was lying.  It dragged on like that for another five hours before the prosecution finally called my name.

They swore me in with a Catholic Bible, mostly because I hadn’t bothered to request anything different, but it didn’t matter to me.  I was going to tell the truth whether or not I thought any higher powers would hold me accountable—I had nothing to gain from lying. 

The actual testimony I gave was pretty simple.  The prosecutor just spoon-fed me a bunch of questions that I could answer with a couple words each. 

The cross-examination, by contrast, was kind of a clusterfuck.

“Mr. Berenson,” the defense lawyer said.  “This yeerk they placed in your head, Essa four-one-two of the Madra Prime pool... Did you agree to that procedure willingly?”

“No,” I said tiredly.  “And I can prove—”

“So you assert that you were not, yourself, a voluntary controller.” 

“That’s what I just—”

“However, you were the one who told the police initially that Ms. White was targeting voluntary controllers for murder,” the lawyer said.  

I didn’t answer; what was the point?  I may have agreed with him, but I most definitely didn’t like him.  

The lawyer spoke louder.  “Were you telling the truth when you said that?”

“Yes, even though—”

“And yet you also assert that Ms. White tried to kill you.”  He turned to give a meaningful look to the jury. 

“Yeah, but—”

“Which directly contradicts what you just said, that she was only targeting voluntary hosts and yet that you yourself were not voluntary.”

“Yes, well, at the time—”

“So do you admit that one of your previous statements was incorrect?”

“No—”

“You don’t admit that you were either wrong about your interpretation of Ms. White’s actions or that you have ulterior motives for wanting to level accusations at anyone who attempts to bring voluntary controllers to justice?”

“No, because—”

“Or is it just that you wanted the attention of claiming she’d tried to kill you?”

I pressed my lips together, not answering. 

“Is it or is it not true that you initially leveled these accusations against Ms. White at a time when you were also under investigation as a potential voluntary host?” he asked. 

I continued to look at him in polite interest, not moving except to breathe.  I didn’t look away, nor did I open my mouth.  He met my gaze at first, but it was a staring contest he had no hope of winning.  

“Please read back my previous question for the witness,” the lawyer told the court stenographer, turning away.

She did, sounding bored by the whole thing.

I remained silent.

“Will you please answer the question, Mr. Berenson?” the lawyer demanded.

“That depends,” I said at last. 

“Depends on what?” he asked, visibly exasperated.

“On whether you’ll let me actually finish a sentence when I do,” I said.

The head juror smirked.  Several people gasped, but Eva, sitting in the front row, gave me a smile and a thumbs-up.

The defense lawyer took a slow breath.  “Fine,” he said tightly.

“Thank you.”  Now I just sounded like a little shit, and I knew it.  “As I was saying, at the time when I first became aware of Margaret’s activities, she had only killed voluntary hosts so far.  I correctly reported that to the authorities.  Obviously she branched out since then, because she also murdered Gerald Cruncher, who was never a controller at all.  Much less a voluntary one."

The lawyer cleared his throat.  “And what led you to believe that these deaths were even connected?” he said through gritted teeth.

We managed to tolerate each other’s existence for the next thirty minutes, and that’s about all I can say for that conversation.  Of course he pulled out that news clip from the hospital garage.  Of course the prosecution had no trouble producing witnesses to testify that I’d been there involuntarily.  Honestly I didn’t get the point of it all. 

There were two more witnesses after me that day, and then an entire morning devoted to closing statements.  

The jury filed out on the last day after one more speech from the prosecution about how serious their duty to their community was.  And then we all went home.

Except Margaret, I guess.

The jurors debated for a full two days (I have no idea what it took two days to say that the lawyers hadn’t already said) but finally the verdict hearing was announced early on the third morning.

Margaret was silent as they led her into the courtroom that last day, even though there were reporters screaming at her in the hope of a statement her whole way up the courthouse steps.  She had on a different dress, this one dark green and short-sleeved.  

She lifted her chin in defiant pride as the guards escorted her over to sit behind the desk where she’d spent the past three weeks handcuffed.  Ready for whatever came.

The jury foreman didn’t sugar-coat it, and he didn’t bother building it up at all.  “The jury has found the defendant guilty on five charges of murder in the first degree, one charge of assault with intent, two charges of assault with a deadly weapon, and one charge of attempted murder.”

I swallowed, sick to my stomach with dread.  Eva turned away, mouth tight.  For a second we made eye contact; her expression softened and I looked away.

“My opinion is that this verdict is correct and this jury has decided with the proper care these proceedings deserve,” the judge said.  “For these crimes you will be sentenced to four consecutive life terms in prison without chance for parole—”

It happened almost immediately.

Margaret’s face began to deform, her lips pulling together and then puckering outward as they took on a waxy, plastic-like texture.  Her skin split apart into tiny metallic sections, the pale tan becoming brilliant yellow and dark green.

“Stop!” the guard said.  “Stop immediately or I will be forced to shoot!”

Why bother, I thought.  They’d just be accomplishing the same end.

She shrank, fins sprouting along her back.  For several seconds she was a grotesque reverse mermaid, and then her legs melted together into a forked tail.

Marco vaulted over the bench, shoving people out of the way as he tried to reach her.  Jake skipped running entirely and just morphed in place.  I could hear him yelling to her in thought speak, demanding that she morph back.

Both guards still had their guns pointed at Margaret, but they had clearly figured out that she wasn’t a threat to anyone else in the room because neither one had fired. Other people were yelling as well, either trying to get out of the way or demanding to know what was happening.  

Most of the people attending the trial crowded into the aisles, running for the door.  Jake, fully in tiger form now, lept over three rows of benches and several people’s heads.  He landed in a crouch next to Margaret, still frantically trying to talk her down.

“Someone get a glass of water!  Get a glass of water, now!”

Ah, so the prosecuting attorney had finally figured out what was going on.

Through all the chaos I sat quietly, not moving either to help or to leave.  Eva remained seated as well, eyes tightly closed but expression serene.  

I could still see Margaret on the floor, tail curling upward in pain as her gills gasped pathetically in the dry air.  The fish brain would have taken over by now, blindly panicked enough to overwhelm any human instincts that might have enabled her to morph out.

After several minutes they did find a bowl of water large enough for the fish she had become, but by then it was already too late.

Angelfish, Cassie’s mother said, when they called her in to declare Margaret dead at the scene.  Not only was it large enough that the legal intern who had tried to protect her had been forced to run all over the building looking for a container that could hold her, but tap water wouldn’t have saved her anyway.  That species only breathed salt water, and needed a particular mix of bacteria and electrolytes that no one could have imitated on such short notice.

Margaret had planned it out perfectly.  Weeks before she’d even been caught.

And just like that it was over.  Nothing to show for it but eleven dead humans and one body too small to merit a coffin.

Chapter Text

“For what it’s worth, it was worth all the while.”

—Green Day, 1997

 

Jake caught me as we were trailing silently out of the courthouse.  He must have noticed more than I thought he did, because the first thing he said was, “You knew that was going to happen?”

I looked away, half-shrugging.  I didn’t really want to talk about it.  “You know that whole live free or die thing isn’t just to sell t-shirts, right?” 

He nodded wearily.  “You knew... that if she got convicted.  Period.  She was going to kill herself."

“Wasn’t certain.  Don’t know if she was certain either.  Prison’s probably not the worst way to be locked up, all things considered.”  I stared at the ground, knowing I was avoiding the answer.  “But yeah.  I figured.  And I gave her over to the police anyway.  Knowing what would happen.”

“You did what you had to in order to protect the people she would have killed.  And yourself.  And me.  You made the right call.”  Jake spoke with surprising intensity.  He stepped forward, forcing my gaze upward.  When I did meet his eyes he stared me down.  “You did what you had to.”

I took a deep breath.  Yeah, Jake would know a thing or two about having to make a decision and go with it when all the options were crappy.  Not just crappy.  When all the options—all of them—would end in someone getting killed. 

We were alone for the moment.  Marco was holding court over at the foot of the stairs and most of the reporters had clustered around him. 

“I should have let her do her thing,” I said flatly.  “Shouldn’t have stopped her in the first place.  Think about it.  She’d have been better off if I let her go on killing until she died.  Or at the very least if I’d done her the courtesy of shooting her in the head.  Not...”

Jake frowned.  I could see him turning over what I’d said, either trying to figure out what I meant or just to sort through the words I had mumbled toward the ground.

I turned away, not even sure where I was going, and he caught my arm. 

“You know what the really crucial part of that little saying is?” he said.  “It’s the ‘or.’  Live free or die.  Means if you don’t do one, you kind of have to do the other.  Seems to me like she already made a choice, and it wasn’t living free.  Not when she had the chance.”

“Doesn’t give me the right to kill her.”

He shrugged.  “Doesn’t give you the right to do anything except try and stop more people from dying.  Which you did.”  

“I didn’t do it for that.  I...”  I swallowed.  “I wanted her hurt.  I wanted her punished.  For what she did.”

“And you think I’ve never killed anyone out of anger before?” Jake asked. 

The way he said it was so simple.  So matter of fact. 

“It’s...”  He glanced away, at where there were still a handful of people milling around on the steps.  “It’s not right.   It’s not something I’m proud of.  But at the end of the day, I gotta live with it.  And I’d say you’re doing a hell of a lot better than me.  At... living.”

“You’re saying that if you’re not dead, and you’re not trapped, you have to live,” I said.  “That if it’s not one, it has to be the other.  That we have a duty to live our own lives.  To be free, but not... I don’t know, not hurt anyone else’s freedom.”

“Um.”  Jake jammed his hands in his pockets.  “I mean, that wasn’t what I was saying, but that’s... I think you’re right.”

“You gonna be all right?” I said.

“Sure.”  He smiled.  “You?”

I considered for a second, and then I said, “Come up with something so Mom and Dad won’t worry, would you?”

“Yeah, okay.  Where you going?"

I shrugged.  “Wherever the fuck I want.”

Surprised into a smile, he waved me off. 

***************

I went back to the office.  It was something to do.  A way to make myself feel like I was accomplishing something.  Eva wasn’t there, but there were still emails to answer and meetings to schedule and rental permits to renew.  

I stared at the phone for a long time when it rang, debating whether I felt like dealing with it.  On the off chance that it was someone calling with a genuine problem, I sighed and picked it up.

“Matter Over Mind, this is—”

“Son, I don't think your link is working.”

The guy on the other end had a scratchy chain-smoker voice.  My link?   Huh?

“I'm sorry?” I said.

“The link to donate funds. On your website. I can't find it anywhere,” he said. “I'm terrible with computers, I know, but if you could give me the full URL, then I’m sure I’d be able to copy it over.”

“Um, sir, I'm not sure you have the right number,” I said slowly.  Matter Over Mind didn't have a donate link on its website, and the only donations we got were occasional checks in the mail. 

“Oh.”  The guy cleared his throat. “Is this the organization helping the controllers? The one run by that Visser One lady?”

I took three deep breaths to give myself time to remember that it wasn't my job to explain to every well-meaning but ignorant person the distinction between a controller and an ex-host. “Yes, Matter Over Mind is set up by former hosts to provide a variety of services to—”

“Well, then, I saw in the news about that poor woman they were saying had all those children, and how they've got that fund set up to help Ms. White’s poor babies and all those other folks, and...”  For the first time he hesitated. “I'm a father myself, you see, and my daughter was—I'm lucky to have her. Lucky she's still whole and healthy. And it so happens I'm blessed with a fair amount of wealth myself, as the CEO of UniBank, so I was hoping I could help out. Give back, as it were. Only on your website, you don't have anything marked anywhere for how to give money to that Tabula Rasa fund, and I was hoping you could help me out.”

Hoo boy. That was a lot to take in. “Well, sir, I have to tell you—we're here to help out former hosts, yes, but I am honestly not familiar with this fund for the Tabula Rasa victims that you mentioned.”

“It was in the newspaper.  People have donated over a hundred thousand dollars already to help those children, and the article mentioned your organization by name.  I figured that this would be the place to contact if I wanted to give some money.”

Slowly I lifted my head.  If UniBank guy was still talking, I missed it.

One hundred thousand dollars.  To Margaret’s children, and the other children who had been born into this project.  And the other hosts who had been used as well, from the sound of it.  Because a bunch of people had read about the trial in the papers and decided to do something about it. 

Maybe just a few people had given some enormous amount.  Maybe people had only given a few bucks apiece, but there were hundreds of them.  It didn’t really matter.  A bunch of strangers had read about some kids in the paper, and had decided they were going to do something about it.  Maybe the human species had decided just for once that it wasn’t going to suck.  Wasn’t going to hurt people, when it could help instead. 

“Are you still there?”  It was the UniBank guy.

“Sorry about that.  I’m afraid that’s a completely different organization you’re looking for,” I said at last.  “Best of luck to you, though.”

“Well, do you have a donate link?” he asked.

What?

“We accept personal checks and wire transfers, if that’s what you mean.”  I shrugged automatically, even though he couldn’t see it.  “But like I said, we’re not affiliated with this other fund.”

“Seems to me you’re nonetheless doing a lot of good.”  There were scratching sounds from a pen on the other end.  “You can still do tax write-offs for quantities over ten thousand, right?”

I choked on a mouthful of air.  “Sure,” I said faintly, when I could breathe again.

“All right then.”  He coughed again.  “If I come by to deliver it in person, do you have some fliers you’d be able to give me so I can put them in bank branches?  I know a lot of folks who might benefit from what you have to offer.”

“That would be...”  I had to stop and breathe for a moment.  Was this seriously happening?  “We’d appreciate that, sir.  Thank you.”

“It’s as I said.  I want to be grateful for all I have.  I’ll be by in about three hours, all right?”

“That’ll be fine.”  Which was a massive understatement.  “I’ll see you then.”

He hung up without getting the address from me, but if he’d found our website then he’d be able to find the driving directions on our contact page. 

I was gawking at an online article in surprise—the UniBank guy had been right about everything—when Eva walked in.

“Tom?  You okay?”  She immediately dropped her purse on the floor and came around the desk to put a hand on my arm. 

“Yeah,” I said slowly.  “Weirdest thing.”

I waited until she’d sat down herself, and then I told her what had just happened in as much detail as I could remember.  The article on my screen was exactly what he’d said.  It told about the efforts to help Margaret’s kids, talked about the other ex-hosts, and from there transitioned to giving our contact information—complete with an enthusiastic endorsement—to anyone who happened to read the LA Times

Eva listened in silence, expression frozen in careful consideration. Finally she straightened up, breathed out slowly, and seemed to shake herself off.

And then I mentioned the part where it seemed like they needed our help.  Where there was this fund sitting around, but so far it was ill-directed.  Where we could probably raise even more money, if we threw Matter Over Mind behind this cause.

“So what are we going to do?” I asked.

“You seem to like the idea,” she said.

“Margaret—I mean—We can’t undo what happened to her.  But anything... Anything at all that could...”  I trailed off, not even sure what I was trying to say.  

“Anything we can do to mitigate the damage they caused,” Eva suggested. 

I nodded.

“Even though we’re not the ones who started the war.  We can try to help.”  Eva stood up slowly, looking at me.  “That’s all you’ve ever tried to do.  To mitigate.  To help.” 

Pressing my lips together, I stared down at the keyboard in front of me as if the random letters would have a hidden message.  “If I hadn’t...”

“You can play that game all day, or you can write up a plan for what the ever-loving hell we’re going to do with ten thousand dollars and how we’re going to correspond with the Tabula Rasa fund,” Eva said.  “I’d say there’s one pretty good answer in this situation.”

“We’re going to help them, then?”  I looked back up at her, hope in my voice.

“I say we go for it. We affiliate ourselves with this fund, we advertise for them, we take in money and make sure these kids actually benefit from it. It's going to take more manpower, more organization, a hell of a lot more paperwork, but apparently we’re going to be able to afford to expand soon.”  She smoothed her skirt, adjusted her bracelets, and then spoke again. “I do have one condition for our involvement.”

“Okay,” I said.  My heart was beating faster. Everything was so surreal. It had been a long-ass week.

“We’re going to add two more children to the fund.” Eva’s voice was very careful, very stiff. “Maybe more as we go down the line, but for now definitely these two.”

That had not been the condition I was expecting, but we could do it. “Which kids?”

Eva moistened her lips. “Darwin and Madra Gervais.”

Which meant nothing to me. “Sorry, who?”

“Darwin as in the scientist and Madra as in the moon,” Eva said steadily.  “Same last name, Gervais.”

“Okay, but what’s their connection to—?”

“They’re twins, but both have been adopted so they may have different last names now.  You may have to ask for state records to find them.  Their mother is Allison Kim, their father Hildy Gervais.”

I frowned. “So were they controllers?”

“Gervais is spelled G-E-R-V-A-I-S.”

Finally taking the hint, I grabbed a pen and a pad of Post-It notes off the desk. “College funds for  Darwin and Madra Gervais, coming right up.”

“Thank you,” Eva said softly.

I stuck the Post-It to the top of my computer.  “Yeah, well, shouldn’t be too hard.  Especially now that we’re coming into more money than we know what to do with—”

“Tom.”  Eva’s voice was serious. 

I looked up, hands still hovering over the keyboard.  “Yeah?”

She looked steadily at me.  “Thank you.  For everything.”

I opened my mouth to make some flippant comment about whether that meant she was actually going to start paying me, and then shut it again.  “You know only I’m here because I want to be,” I said at last. 

“Still.” 

“Wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t.”  I grinned at her.  “After all, it’s a free planet.”

***********

Bonnie found me standing against the railing of her balcony that night, looking out at the stars.

“Sorry,” I said.  “I should have knocked.”

She shrugged.  “It’s sort of romantic.  Very Romeo and Juliet.”

I smiled weakly.

“Besides, I did tell you that you could stop by any time.”  She leaned back against the railing next to me.  I scooted a little closer to her, and she wrapped both her arms around one of mine.

We stayed like that for a long time, staring out at the night, reveling in each other’s safety.  

The stars were pale and distant, weak freckles against the vast blackness that hemmed them in on all sides.  More emerged into view, but they were overtaken just as quickly by the steady rows of street lights flickering on below us, and disappeared once again.

It could be tiring, living like this.  Trying to pick up where I left off.  Always being afraid.  Feeling sometimes like my life ended when I was sixteen.  But Margaret’s solution—hurting others, hurting herself—didn’t help anyone or anything.  The solution, if there even was one, had to be something different than that.

And maybe the answer looked something like this.  Like standing on the balcony and watching the stars emerge and feeling Bonnie alive and beautiful where her arm was warm against mine.  Like the sarcastic texts from Eva that were her own way of showing concern.  Like making my own life, making it work.

It could make you scream sometimes.  Just... all of it.  And sometimes you could laugh about it.  And maybe it was okay to laugh, and to scream.  If you kept it away from hurting people.

Maybe Margaret thought she was getting justice, balancing the scales, doing something about the problem, but at the end of the day what had she accomplished?  Putting more pain, more hurt, more death into the world?  Ruining dozens of lives and ending eleven of them?

It might have been nice, to be hurt and then hurt back.  To punish.  To know that the people who damaged you knew a little of what it felt like.  But lashing out—giving in—didn’t relieve any sort of pressure.  It just made the whole thing bigger and more real.  Made it someone else’s problem as well as yours.

Making the world suck a little less, however you could do so, might not be perfect and might not feel as good in the short term, but if you left the bandage on instead of scratching the scab off you’d heal cleaner in the long run.  It was a thought, anyway.

“Do you ever wonder if humans are alone in the universe?” Bonnie said.

I made a vague noise of acknowledgment.  And then it belatedly registered what she’d said.

I twisted around to look at her.

She was grinning in the low light of the streetlamps.  “What?  Isn’t that the traditional question for looking up at the stars?”

I laughed helplessly, leaning down to kiss her on the temple.  “What’s the traditional response?”

“Something about the size of the universe, I don’t know.”  She dug an elbow gently into my ribs.

“Just because we’re not the only ones doesn’t mean we have anyone on our side,” I said.  “It’s still possible for us to be a lonely little species.”

“Okay, you just went so much deeper with that than I did.”  She laughed, shaking her head. 

“Sorry.  Long day.”

She hmmed, leaning into me.  “You doing all right?”

“Actually, I guess I am.” 

It was the truth.  Maybe Mom was right, and all you could do was look for the good. Maybe Jake had a point that all you could do was live your own life.  Maybe I was immeasurably lucky to have them, to have this, at all.  And maybe that thought was going to be enough to let me sleep tonight.

“But maybe we can do okay on our own, and that’s not such a bad thing, even if we don’t have any other species on our side,” Bonnie said softly.  “Maybe that means we can be self-sufficient.  That we’re free to make our own little place in this brave new universe that has such whacky creatures in it.”

“Huh.”

The stars continued to blink slowly to life.  We watched in silence.  We’d both learned patience the hard way, but we sure as hell had it now.  The tiny blue marble continued its slow turn, facing away from its star long enough to show the universe to this corner of California, U.S.A., Planet Earth, Milky Way Galaxy.  

“Penny for your thoughts,” Bonnie said after a while.  

I’d been thinking about the Blade ship.  About the last twenty-odd human-controllers left in the universe, still out there somewhere.  Trapped.  Alone.  Without hope.

But for the grace of God—and, well, Rachel—there went I.

There was something in that thought.  Something about gratitude.  Something about wanting to relish the feeling of the air in my lungs and the concrete railing against my skin.  Something about...

“You ever been off-world?” I asked instead.

“Nope.”  Bonnie smiled.  “You?”

“Couple times,” I said.  “Just ships.  Never landed anywhere.”

“Why do you ask?”

I grinned.  “Wanna go to the moon?  I wanna give you the moon.”

“You think we can?”  She was laughing incredulously.

“Sure.”  I shrugged.  “We can do anything we want, right?”

She held out her hand.  “Yep.”

I breathed in all the way.  And then I reached out and closed my fingers around hers.  I did.  Me.  I willed it to happen and it did.  Effortlessly.

And that?  That was a fucking miracle.