I growled softly under my breath, shifting my paws in the undergrowth. I felt calmer, more centered. Being in my hyena’s body was always calming for me – which was odd, considering that after 13 years of using this body for almost nothing but violent and life-threatening encounters, you’d think I’d never want to take this form again. Maybe it’s the therianthropic connection to dire wolf that makes me feel more at home in the hyena’s body.
I could smell human, with an undercurrent that was very familiar to me at this point. I knew Ax was standing with Mr. Tidwell, our Yeerk Peace Movement contact, and what I was smelling was the combination of human and Yeerk that marked Controllers. Even with the Hyena’s nose, I wouldn’t have noticed the subtle differences unless I’d been looking for them. Ax was always the one to contact Mr. Tidwell and Illim, his Yeerk, for the sole reason that he was the only true Andalite in the group. And while Mr. Tidwell knew that Cassie was one of us, he had no idea that the rest of us weren’t Andalites… Or if he did have suspicions, he never said anything. And he hadn’t turned us in, in thirteen years, so I was inclined to trust him and his Yeerk… at least as much as any of us trusted any Yeerk.
I smelled the Chapmans approach and growled softly. As if in cue, there was a low growl from each of us in turn, just enough to give the Chapmans vague ideas of our positions, and the information that we were all in morph. We were prepared for a fight, and we wanted them to know it. Hopefully, they wouldn’t want to fight any more than we did.
<Stop there, Yeerks.> That was Jake, in his “I am a commanding Andalite Prince” voice. We’d all learned to pitch our voices in such a way that we could reasonably imitate the way an Andalite sounded in thought-speak. When the war began, all of us were terrified to ever speak to a Yeerk, and I knew that I at least had been tempted to shout out my true identity at some time or another, certain that I was about to die and wanting them to know who was taking them down. Somehow, we’ve made it out of countless battles. Sometimes I wondered just how much the Ellimist had to do with our thirteen year battle without a single fatality on our side. I knew that to him, we were little more than pawns in his great cosmic chess game with a creature called Crayak, but I fancied that he had more attachment to us than simple pieces on a chess board. Why else would he have bent the rules so many times to save one or all of us?
Chapman looked furious, and his hand rested on his wife’s arm, as if ready to pull her behind him at any moment. “You promised us our daughter. We are alone, you filthy grass-eaters, and yet you trap us with your disgusting morphs…”
<Be quiet, Yeerk.> Jake interjected in a ridiculing tone. <We have brought the human female. We have also brought another of your species to discuss our solution to the problem of your host’s daughter.>
“We’ve heard of the “peace movement” before, Andalite.” That was Mrs. Chapman. The look of contempt on her face was clear from even this distance away. But I couldn’t smell the tell-tale scent of a Dracon Beam concealed anywhere on either of them. That didn’t mean they didn’t HAVE one – just that it wasn’t on and charging. We knew that scent. We knew that scent by heart… It was the scent that usually precursed quite a bit of pain, accompanied by the scent of burning fur and flesh. Oh yes, we knew that smell well.
“But you will hear of it again.” Mr. Tidwell and Illim were talking a huge risk by exposing themselves to the Chapmans. The information he was about to give could easily be used to wipe out the Peace Movement once and for all. There was a lot of trust involved in what we were doing today. All for the sake of one girl. Sometimes I questioned my own sympathy. “If a Yeerk is to take your daughter, she will be dominated. She will be crushed. You have both been through the host subduing training.”
The pained look that crossed both of the Chapmans’ faces made me question myself on the exact link between the Yeerk and the host – where was that line drawn? Were the expressions I was watching really the Chapmans’, or their Yeerks? Was there even any difference? Was there a difference between me and the hyena?
“I offer you a chance to save your daughter some of the pain. If she is taken by a Peace Movement Yeerk, she will be as true a symbiote as is currently possible. But we must act quickly.” He met each of the Chapmans’ eyes and held their gazes for a long moment, and I got the impression that he was meeting not only the Chapmans’ physical eyes, but the metaphorical eyes of each Yeerk housed within the Chapmans’ brains. “They are expecting your daughter infested by the end of the week, correct?”
Mr. Chapman looked ill when he nodded. “What is the condition? Why would the Andalite bandits care about one infested human girl?”
<Because you will be giving us something in return.> That was Marco, though if I hadn’t known it was him, I wouldn’t have recognized his “voice.” We traded off who was talking, allowing our animal bodies to growl or make some other noise to indicate who was speaking. It reinforced in our opponents minds that they were both outnumbered and surrounded. <In exchange for this Yeerk ensuring your daughter’s infestation by a Peace Movement Yeerk…> Somehow Marco managed to get a sound of disgust and disbelief into his thought-speak voice at the words “Peace Movement Yeerk,” as any good Andalite would be suspicious. <… you will tell us a piece of vital information about the invasion.>
Chapmans’ eyes widened. “You mean provide you with a target. A place to attack our Empire.”
<Yes,> I said, letting a low growl rumble from the hyena’s throat. <And if you betray us, at the next time your daughter’s new Yeerk is feeding at the Pool, something quite unfortunate may occur to her human body in the cages.> The Yeerks are warlike. I had warned Mr. Tidwell that I might give that statement, and to his credit, he didn’t react. He stood there stoicly, and seemingly agreed with what I had said. Chapman’s Yeerk would expect treachery, and a further threat. So while we would never ask Mr. Tidwell to kill Melissa, Chapman had to believe he would. Otherwise he wouldn’t give us anything to make this worthwhile… And while our whole purpose was to save Melissa in the only way we had left to us that would keep her out of the actual FIGHTING, the “Andalite Bandits” would want something in return. Marco had pointed that out last night – we had to have leverage, and we had to have something we wanted in exchange for giving Melissa back… and it had to look like that was the whole reason we’d taken her. Marco, the clear-headed skeptic who could always see that straight, clear line from A to B, even when it went right THROUGH someone, not only realized we needed it, but also came up with exactly the story we wound up using.
The Chapmans stiffened, but it was what they expected. Their postures said they were in familiar territory now. The Andalites were being militaristic and demanding. They knew what to expect. “I do not know what I could tell you.”
<He’s lying.> That was Marco, in thought-speak directed only at the seven of us. <His heart rate just jumped a mile.> Marco was close enough that his Gorilla’s ears could pick up the beating of Chapmans’ heart. You don’t want a Gorilla that close to you. Especially a Gorilla that’s controlled by the mind of a man who has no problem beating you into the ground like a railroad spike with his bare fist.
<We do not appreciate being lied to, Yeerk.> Jake’s voice reflected Marco’s advice, and he sounded angry now. It was beyond Andalite arrogance – the Chapmans were caught in a lie, and he wanted them to know that we KNEW it.
The Chapmans glanced at each other for a split second. “Give us the girl first. After you carry out your end of the bargain, we will get in contact with you with the information.”
<Not acceptable.> That was Marco again. <We need at least partial information now, or you simply will not receive the girl.>
“You wouldn’t,” Mrs. Chapman spat. “You Andalites are too “honorable”… you “value life.””
<Oh, do we?> Ax spoke for the first time, and he moved within the bushes. His powerful Warrior’s build easily pushed the undergrowth aside, and he stepped into the clearing. All three Yeerks flinched at the sight of the Andalite’s massive tail blade, held in a casual, yet alert pose, hovering over Ax’s right shoulder. Another Andalite, seemingly younger than Ax, pushed a makeshift mat made of woven branches into the clearing, Melissa’s unconscious form laid out on it. The second Andalite was actually Tobias, in a morph of Ax’s younger self, acquired nearly ten years earlier, but it afforded the illusion that there were definitely more Andalites, if our morph’s heavy breathing and growls weren’t enough evidence. Before the Chapmans could react, Ax’s tail whipped through the air, fast enough to make a bullwhip sound… and the blade froze, hovering, less than an inch from the girl’s oblivious throat. <Her life means nothing to us. If it means nothing to you as well, then we end this right here, and we all go our seperate ways.>
For a long moment, no one moved. If I hadn’t been able to hear each of our breathing, I would’ve thought no one had taken a breath, either. One twitch from Ax’s tail and Melissa’s head would go rolling away in a spray of blood.
“No!” Both Chapmans came alive at once, and the way they clutched each other’s arms, it was very clear to me that the two people and the two Yeerks were reacting as one. They were the terrified parents watching their child in the room with a mad gunman. I felt a twinge of guilt again… now this woman is being threatened and she doesn’t even KNOW it. Her parents are terrified. It’s my fault. Sink into the mind of the Hyena. Let the guilt go…
I spaced out. I don’t even remember the next few minutes. The next thing I knew, Melissa was given the stimulant shot we’d brought for her. She’d wake up in the car with her parents, and it would be up to her from there. I stepped into the clearing and watched the Chapmans carry their daughter’s slowly regaining consciousness form out of the shallow woods along the path they’d taken to get in. I shook myself and growled. I’d have to pick up what was happening from listening to the others.
<We have to trust them now,> Jake said, shaking his tiger’s head as he stepped into the clearing. <Our part in this is done.> It was a definitive statement, aimed both at me and at Rachel. The fight was to be over – there was nothing more we could do. But as I looked into Rachel’s bear’s eyes as the Grizzly lumbered into the clearing, I knew the fight wasn’t over. Rachel wouldn’t forgive me for this for a long time.
* * * * * *
That night, as I sat, fidgeting in my seat in Anthropology, I couldn’t help but think of what might have been happening below me. It hadn’t taken long after our “meeting” for me to figure out what I missed when I blanked out to avoid my own guilt trip. In the drive home, Jake, Ax, Marco and Cassie included me in the thought-speak as they flew a mile or so above my car. What made me sad was that I never heard Rachel… or Tobias’… voices while I was driving, but I DID hear the others responding to them. I was being excluded from Rachel and Tobias’ though-speak, and no one was aware of it because they all knew I couldn’t respond. But I did gather enough to figure out what had happened.
The Chapmans had agreed. They gave us a tidbit – there’s something going on at the College. The Peace Movement would get us further information in the next couple of days. Mr. Tidwell had told them that Melissa would have to be in the Pool for infestation tonight, as the Peace Movement were feeding as a group on Thursday nights at the time.
All I could think, as I sat in Anthropology and struggled to pay attention to my professor, was that somewhere below the College, Melissa was being dragged, screaming and crying, by two hulking Hork-Bajir Controllers, to the end of the infestation pier. Her head was being forced below the surface of the sludgy, disgusting Yeerk pool, and a Peace Movement Yeerk was pushing it’s way into her ear, taking over her brain, taking her life…
Had the Chapmans explained anything to her? Had they told her anything? Had they warned her what she would experience? Had they told her that she would lose her freedom? There was absolutely no way to know.
So I sat there, horrific fantasies running through my head, trying desperately to listen to my professor lecture on the importance of religion in Anthropology, all the while knowing that, no matter how horrible my fantasies were, what Melissa was going through… and what Rachel was imagining… had to be a thousand times worse.