The next day was Friday. I was running on so little sleep that it wasn’t even slightly funny, so I made a stop between classes to grab a coffee from the cafeteria, up on the second floor of the U building. I spotted Rachel at the end of the sandwich line. As we go out of our way, usually, to only maintain the relationships we had prior to becoming Animorphs, I would never approach her if she didn’t approach me first. However, we’d allowed our relationships to progress a bit in the public eye since junior high, and it was OK for us to wave to each other or even say hi now.
We’d had to be careful. We’d all had relationships of some sort prior to becoming Animorphs. Jake and Rachel were cousins. Cassie was Rachel’s best friend and Marco was Jake’s. Tobias was some guy Jake had felt sorry for and rescued from bullies just before we all met up at the mall. I’d been volunteering at Cassie’s parent’s farm for months and Cassie and I had discovered that we had a lot in common. But it was still all coincidence that night, thirteen years ago, that we’d all met up at the mall and decided to walk home together. Call it fate, or divine intervention, or whatever you would like to call it, or perhaps even just the Ellimist messing with us… but it had lead us to where we were today.
What a joke, where we were today. Where were we? Rachel wasn’t talking to me, and by proxy, neither was Tobias. I was so wracked with guilt that I hadn’t been able to sleep the night before; and when I had dozed off, I’d been sucked into nightmares of Melissa screaming as a filthy slug crawled into her ear and stole her freedom. If I hadn’t slept, I could only imagine how much Rachel hadn’t slept… and she looked it. Her always perfect hair was slightly mussed, as if she hadn’t had time to brush it when she got out of bed, and there were dark circles under her eyes that mirrored my own.
“Hey, Kathy.” I jumped. Marco had caught me completely off guard as I exited the cafeteria and walked out onto the balcony. One glance told me that he was haunted by what we’d done as well. Not as badly as me or Rachel, but he still had that haggard, “I’ve had too much to deal with this week” look. Thankfully it could’ve been attributed to midterms. “Any luck with that assignment?” He was asking if we’d seen Melissa today.
I shook my head. “No. It’s still… way far over my head.”
Rachel walked up to us while we were talking. She greeted Marco, but barely acknowledged me. It was a testament to Marco’s intelligence that he immediately knew not to mention it. “What’s up?”
“Your boyfriend.” That was both Marco’s lame attempt at a joke, and also his way of letting me know that he’d spotted Tobias soaring above us somewhere. Rachel shot him a glare and seemed about to retort with actual words, when we were all interrupted by a fourth person walking up to us. It was both the last and first person I expected to see.
“Hey, guys. Have you got a minute? I wanted to go over our schedule for this weekend.” Was it Melissa talking? Was it a Yeerk? She looked normal. But, that’s what the real Yeerk threat was – a Controller didn’t LOOK any different than a normal person, after all.
Rachel looked ill, but nodded. I did my best to carry the normalcy of the conversation. “Ok! That’s right. We all wanted to get together this weekend. I’d almost forgotten.”
Wryly, Marco couldn’t help but jibe, “Which isn’t hard, knowing Kathy’s memory.” I elbowed him lightly. Melissa smiled and motioned for us to follow her. We went around the far edge of the U building, back behind the staff elevator, and her expression suddenly changed.
Her face suddenly went from “happy college kid” to “serious young woman.” “I have the other part of the trade for you. Mr. Tidwell sent me.”
Rachel’s face hardened immediately. We were talking to a Yeerk. She sneered. “So, did they tell her? Or did they just let her find out the normal way – screaming at the end of the infestation pier?!”
Melissa looked hurt for a moment, then took a slow breath. “Rachel, this isn’t what I’m here to talk about. The information I have for you is time sensitive… and I’m going to be late for my next class.” She sat on an empty planter and looked at each of us in turn. “The Yeerks are making an active attempt on the students of this college. Mini Yeerk Pools with portable Kandronas are being installed in all of the exam rooms in our health center. Students will go in to get something for a headache, and come out infested.”
Marco stiffened. “I KNEW there was a reason I didn’t like those doctors…”
Melissa nodded. “Almost all of the Health staff are Controllers already. Those that aren’t, will be by the end of the week. The exam tables and chairs are being modified with disappearing restraints. Those changes will be finished within the next few days.”
Rachel listened to every word, her jaw set, her eyes hard. I knew what she was imagining – it wasn’t hard to think of Melissa screaming at the back of her head, perhaps cursing us for essentially selling her into slavery.
Melissa’s expression changed again as a teacher walked by, and she smiled and waved at us. “Anyway, I gotta get back before my Calc class! I’ll see you guys this weekend!” I managed to wave – I have no idea how. Marco managed a wave and a grin. Rachel didn’t move.
I turned to Rachel once Melissa was out of sight… I don’t know what I wanted to say. “I’m sorry,” maybe. Maybe more. But before I could get whatever it was out of my mouth, Rachel turned, met my eyes, then stalked away without a word to either of us.
Marco looked at me. I hated the sympathetic look on his face. A wave of irrational anger washed over me and the desire to smack him was just completely overwhelming. With a glare that could be roughly translated as, “screw you and the gorilla you morph into,” I turned and stalked away myself. It wasn’t until I’d gone a good hundred yards that I realized I’d gone the complete wrong way for the class I was supposedly heading to. I wanted to scream, I wanted to cry, I wanted to rage, I wanted to hit something. Instead, I just turned and headed back to my class, mourning for my lost friendships with Rachel and Tobias… After all, it was my fault… all my fault… that Rachel now hated me.
* * * * * *
“Doctors and nurses and slugs, oh my,” Marco quipped, lounging back atop a pile of hay in the corner of Cassie’s barn. The gang was all here for this meeting tonight, and for once, it hadn’t been difficult for any of us to get away. The reasons varied, but I was thankful for them all – one more level of stress that, at least tonight, I didn’t have to deal with.
Jake was pacing thoughtfully around a clean cage in the middle of the floor, obviously lost in thought. “It’s useful information. Taking out this facility would save countless students from becoming Controllers. The question is… how to do it? We have, at most, a week or so before all of this is operational, and that’s probably an exaggerated estimate, knowing how fast the Yeerks work.”
<Melissa’s sacrifice can’t be in vain. We have to do something to stop this,> Tobias said, fixing me with his fierce hawk’s gaze. I knew that he wasn’t usually as angry and fierce as he appeared, but something told me that, with regards to me, at the moment, he was just as furious as he appeared. Rachel remained strangely quiet, sitting beneath her boyfriend on a large cage meant for animals like coyotes.
Jake looked up at Tobias. “Of course we’re going to do something. But we don’t know how far they’ve gotten as far as actual defenses of the facility. They can’t use Hunter/Killer Robots, since the facility still has to be 90% public, and non Controllers WILL walk through there. It’s the student health center. They can’t infest EVERYONE on their first walk through the door. Gleet Biofilters, on the other hand, are a possibility. And we all know how popular they are with the Yeerks.
<Yes. The sensation of my fly eyes melting is not one I will soon forget,> Ax said. He was standing in one of the small stalls meant for deer and other similar hooved creatures. His forehoof was in a trough of water, getting a drink while we talked. Andalites don’t have mouths, so they eat by absorbing crushed up grass with their feet. Apparently they also drink with their feet. I stopped questioning the biology of it about the time I started turning into a Hyena on a regular basis.
Marco nodded. “So, surveillance for a couple of days, then another meeting?” Despite his crack earlier, he was still uncharacteristically serious. The stress of the situation with Melissa was telling on us all. The way that both Cassie and Jake kept looking between me, sitting alone next to a cage filled with very frightened rabbits, and Rachel and Tobias wasn’t my imagination. No one had any doubt what was going on between us, though I doubted Marco, Jake, Ax, or Cassie blamed me the way Rachel and Tobias did.
“Sounds like our best bet. Hang out in the U-Building any chance you get. Be literal flies on the walls. Tobias, watch who comes and goes, and how long they stay. Get us a good count of how many Controllers we might be dealing with in there, and if any of you see signs of Hork-Bajir or Taxxons, do NOT attack. We do this together, and we do it right.” When he said the word “together” he shot me, Rachel, and Tobias a pointed look. Fighting or not, we were still a team. We all nodded. “Alright. Meet back here in two days, and we’ll decide what to do.”
As the meeting broke up, Rachel and Tobias were the first to leave. I didn’t stay long after they left. That had just proven something to me, once and for all – there was no way to salvage my friendship with Rachel, and probably Tobias, too. I cried myself to sleep that night, and even the usual nightmares seemed worse than normal.
Chapter 12 (COMING SOON!)