My name is Jake. At this point, I could tell you everything. I could tell you my last name and where I live and what school I go to. But I won't, because not telling people things has become sort of a habit.
It's been about a month since the treaty was formalized, and my friends and I have all given up on going to school because the media pees themselves every time we go out in public. It was kind of cool at first, being famous and all. We got to go on lots of talk shows, and companies gave us all sorts of free merchandise. Clothing, food, backpacks, whatever. I even got a free computer! Apparently it makes them look good if we're seen using their stuff. Rachel was loving it. Marco, too.
The vacation from school was pretty sweet, too. Or at least it was. Now I'm starting to get bored. We're all starting to get bored. Even sneaking out the window to go flying is less fun when there was nothing to do and nowhere to really go. The mall? Forget about it. We'd start a riot. I'm even sort of starting to miss the crazy stupid missions and stalking Controllers all over town.
These days there are two places we hang out: the Hork-Bajir colony, and Ax's scoop. Cassie's barn is out of the question since her parents turned it into the Animorphs Base of Operations Museum and Gift Shop. Yes, you read that right. Being famous makes people do weird things.
I grabbed my bag and headed down the steps. That was when I ran into Tom. My parents told him that he didn't have to go to school either, to make it fair, but he goes anyway. He's always been a popular guy, and now that he's Jake's Older Brother (which is weird because I've been Tom's Little Brother my whole life up to this point) he's got girls hanging off both arms.
"Going out?" he asked.
"Yeah, Ax's commercial is airing today," I said. "He wants us to come over and watch for it."
With the war over, we thought Ax would leave for good. It sucked, but we understood why he'd want to go back to his home planet, where they don't spray their grass with pesticides. And he did go home for a week. The worst week ever. Then Cinnabon offered him a contract as their spokesperson. So now he's back.
Tom made an amused sound. "Well, have fun."
"I will," I said. Then I realized he was carrying a duffel bag. "What about you? Where are you going?"
"We've got basketball practice," said Tom with a grin.
"You're back on the team?" I was happy to hear that. After Tom was made a Controller, he'd been forced to give up the sport he loved in favor of running errands for the Sharing. It had been one of the first signs that something wasn't right with him.
"Yeah. Making up for lost time. The scouts start coming around in a few weeks, so it's gonna be pretty intense." Tom crossed his arms. "But we think we've got a shot still."
I almost nodded, but then I didn't. There had been something wrong with that sentence.
"'We?'" I said.
"Yeah," said Tom, "me and—" Then he stopped. Looked guilty. Glanced at the window. "Uh. Well..."
"You and who?" I said.
His silence felt like it lasted for an hour, even though my watch said it hadn't even been a full minute.
"And who?" I repeated.
"Okay," he said. "Don't freak out, but—"
"Tom," I said in the calmest voice ever, "are you alone in there?"
"Not exactly," said Tom. "Hey, you're freaking out. Don't freak out."
"I'm freaking out," I snapped, "because after everything, after me and my friends fighting and lying and sneaking around and getting disemboweled for you, you've still got a slug in your—"
"Woah, racial slurs, not cool," said Tom.
"—after everything!" I was starting to get mad. "You went back to them!"
"Look, I know it sounds insane, alright?" persisted Tom. "But a few days ago, after everything died down, I started feeling…alone, I guess."
"Do Mom and Dad know about this?" I demanded.
"Yeah," said Tom. "We were gonna tell you in a few weeks. We were. Right now you, you're still in war mode. You still talk in weirdo code on the phone and Mom said when you went shopping with her, you kept checking to see if you were being followed!"
"Great reason to keep it a secret from me," I said.
"This is not about you, okay?" said Tom. "And I know you think I'm nuts."
"Yeah," I said. "I do."
"Which is why you need calm down and let me explain. I know all you saw was the war," said Tom, putting his hands in his pockets. "But there was a lot of down time. Do you know how much better high school is when there's someone else in there with you?"
I made a sound to show I was listening, but didn't exactly agree.
"Anyway, I've known some Yeerks in the past that were bad. It's like people. Some were okay, some were horrible, and some were actually good. And Ithin's one of the better ones. He's…a friend. So we came to an agreement. We're gonna finish school and all that together, and then we'll figure out where we want to go from there."
"I don't like this," I said.
"I knew you wouldn't," said Tom, or possibly Ithin. "But you've got to understand—"
"I've got to go," I said. Suddenly the house felt very small. I pushed past Tom and half-ran, half-tripped down the stairs.
"Jake!" said Tom, sounding more exasperated than anything. "Come back here, you're being—"
I ripped the front door open and ran out of the house, morphing to peregrine falcon as I went. The moment my wings were strong enough to carry me, I lifted off and soared into the late afternoon sunlight.
<What do you mean, Tom's still infested?> demanded Marco. <You said you watched him dump his Yeerk weeks ago!>
<Well, he went and got it back!> I said. <Said he felt…lonely.>
We wheeled through the sky above the nature preserve, headed for Ax's place. I was still partially convinced that the whole thing with Tom had been a stress-induced hallucination or something. Why would anyone want to be a Controller?
<It's got to be a trick,> said Marco, in osprey morph. <Okay, we'll watch him twenty-four/seven. He's got to get to a Kandrona eventually. When they lock him in a cage, we'll go to our new friends in camo with the proof.>
A four-star General had given us his business card when the Andalite ships landed. Marco was sort of looking for any excuse to use it.
<And if they don't lock him in a cage?> I said. The only thing worse than Tom being a prisoner was Tom not being a prisoner. I wasn't sure if I could handle that.
<Stockholm syndrome,> said Marco, as we reached Ax's scoop. We landed on the grass and began to demorph. <It's a thing. Get him to therapy. I can't believe your parents are cool with this.>
Now that Ax is a spokesperson, his scoop is full of the most random things that money can buy. His most recent purchase was a glass armonica. He can play that one song from The Nutcracker on it pretty well. There was also a Russian tank from World War II parked outside. I don't know where Ax got a Russian tank, and I don't know what he plans on doing with it. I guess when you don't have to worry about paying for college, that's the sort of thing you can do.
When we got inside (or as close as you can get to ‘inside' an Andalite scoop, because they're partially open-air) everyone else was sitting on the couch, watching TV. Ax was in his human morph with a bowl of popcorn in his lap. Cassie and Rachel were on either side of him. Their attempts at getting past Ax's possessive elbows to the bowl were proving futile. Tobias was perched on a coat rack that had been bought specifically for him.
I grabbed the remote and turned the TV off.
"Heyyyy," whined Rachel. "What are you doing?"
"There's been a change of plans," I said grimly, moving in front of the TV screen. "Sorry guys. It's mission time."
"Oh no," said Cassie, sitting up straight. "What happened?"
"Tom's still a Controller," I said. "He admitted it to me just now."
"What?" cried Rachel, jostling Ax and making him spill popcorn all over her lap.
"I do not understand," said Ax, who was just as happy to eat off of Rachel's legs as out of a bowl. "Your brother was among the first to be freed."
"Yeah," I said, starting to pace. "And apparently he was also among the first to go running back! He said—or maybe the Yeerk was talking at that point, I don't even know—anyway, someone claimed that he was feeling lonely and so he became voluntary!"
"I said Stockholm Syndrome," said Marco.
"That's a possibility," said Cassie. "But I mean, it makes sense that the Yeerks are trying to get human hosts still. Not many of them agreed to trap themselves in morph. Visser One was a big exception, but she's…weird."
"I can't believe the government is okay with this," I said. "I mean, do they not realize—?"
"No, they don't realize," said Cassie patiently. "None of them fought. None of them saw the war. They just woke up one morning to, 'Hi, we've been on your planet since the seventies, let's be friends.' The fact that they ditched their involuntary hosts without a fight has been working in their favor. Also, the Yeerks have been way nicer to the media and the government and everyone than the Andalites have."
"I take great offense to that!" shrilled Ax.
"The Andalites came down with their huge ships at seven in the morning on a Tuesday and scared the hell out of everyone," said Cassie. "Don't even try to deny it. I knew exactly what was going on, and I was terrified! Imagine how it must have looked to the people who had no clue! Meanwhile, the Yeerks have donated millions to human charities, do all sorts of service work, and every other word out of their mouths isn't 'inferior' or 'primitive.' There's a reason the Yeerks are allowed to run wild on Earth and the Andalites aren't. Visser Five—"
"THAT BITCH!" yelled Rachel, on principle. Visser Five once tried to feed us to Visser Three as part of an elaborate plot to end the war. We haven't really forgiven her yet.
"—was right. It's all about public opinion." Cassie looked around at each of us. "Maybe we should have expected this. I'm gonna talk to Aftran, maybe she has some ideas. Uh, Marco?"
I looked where Cassie was looking. Marco had suddenly gotten a really weird look on his face. He was zoned out, but whatever he was thinking about was apparently horrifying.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
Marco snapped back to earth. He looked at me. "Uh. Yeah. I'm fine," he said. He wasn't fine. That was obvious. "I uh. Home."
"Your mom?" I asked. "You think she's...?"
"Don't know," said Marco. He began to morph faster than I'd even seen anyone ever morph, aside from Cassie. <Hope not. Probably not. Gotta check. Bye.>
"Hold on!" said Rachel, jumping up. "We're coming with you."
"Besides, Visser One trapped herself in human morph so she could be with her kids," said Cassie, getting up too. "We watched her do it."
<Don't know. Gotta check,> repeated Marco, flapping his wings impatiently. <If you're coming, hurry up!>
With our assorted raptor morphs, it didn't take us too long to get to Marco's house. We flew a good distance apart from each other because back in what was rapidly becoming ‘the good old days', traveling as a flock of assorted birds of prey was a gigantic security risk.
Now, I supposed it hardly mattered. It was more instinct than anything.
Maybe Tom was right. Maybe I was still in war mode.
That didn't make it okay for him to become voluntary, though.
The whole way, Marco wouldn't answer any of our questions or logical arguments that Eva probably was not a voluntary Controller because it would mean being a host to a completely random Yeerk that she'd never met before.
Still, I didn't really blame him for being freaked out. Losing his mom had been pretty hard for him. Finding out she was alive had sort of messed him up. Now that she was back for good, I didn't think he'd ever risk losing her again.
The minute he was fully human again, Marco went to the front door and pulled it open. At that exact moments, the fire alarms inside began to wail, and a thick cloud of black smoke hit us all in the face and made us choke.
"What the—! Mom?" yelled Marco, panic rising in his face. He tore into the house, and we all followed him. Tobias didn't have to demorph, so he was closest behind him. I stopped for a second to look around. Nothing was on fire, but every room was hazy.
From the kitchen came a steady stream of curse words in Galard.
"Mom?" repeated Marco, rounding the corner. Then he came to a sudden stop, and I nearly crashed into him, which caused Cassie to nearly crash into me. "Uh, Mom?"
Eva was standing in the middle of the room with a stained apron tied around her waist. She smiled guiltily. "Hi, Marco. How do you feel about pizza tonight?"
She grabbed a dishtowel and began flapping it around to clear the smoke.
"Pizza's fine," said Marco. "Uh. What happened?"
"I forgot human ovens don't automatically turn off." Eva shook her head. "Don't tell your father, please. Oh, hello!" She'd finally spotted the rest of us. "Come in, it should be safe to breathe."
"Bad time?" I said awkwardly, watching as Eva removed a dish from the oven. Whatever it had been meant to be, it was coal-black and still smoking.
"No, no! Stay for dinner." She went to the fridge and began to sort through takeout menus. "Marco, honey, open the windows for me."
Marco started doing that, and I went to help him, mainly so I could give him a look like ‘well?'
"What?" he hissed. "She's always been a lousy cook. This doesn't prove anything."
"You could just ask her," I replied in a low voice.
"Hey Mom," said Marco. "Jake has a weird story he was just telling us."
"Oh, not cool, Marco," I muttered.
"Really?" said Eva, oblivious to the dirty look I was giving her son. "What is it?"
"Uh, it's not that interesting," I said. Suddenly, it occurred to me that asking someone if they were a Controller seemed sort of rude. "It's just, uh, my brother. Tom."
"What about Tom?" said Eva, who was only half-listening because Ax had just knocked over a stack of plates with his tail.
"He, uh, today he told me he's still a Controller," I said. "Voluntary. Supposedly."
"Oh yes?" said Eva. "Wait…Ithin 817, right?"
<What?> cried Ax, knocking over the plates again in his shock. <Of the the Hett Simplat pool?>
"Wait, you know him?" I asked Eva. Then I turned to Ax. "And you know him?"
"Oh, everyone knows Ithin," said Eva. "He was a Taxxon fighter pilot for a long time, one of the best in the Empire."
<He shot down at least a hundred Andalites,> said Ax tersely.
Eva looked at Ax. Ax looked at Eva.
"Oooh, awkward," muttered Rachel.
"In any event," said Eva, who was suddenly fascinated by a stain on the countertops, "he was stationed on Earth because Esplin threw himself on the ground and kicked and screamed until the Council gave him the very best pilots they had. Then, about six months ago, they were testing a prototype Bug fighter—not far from here, actually—and he was the pilot, because what could go wrong? Well, he crashed the thing right into a Safeway!" Eva burst out laughing at the memory.
<I remember that,> said Tobias. <We were thinking about stealing it, but Jake said no at the last second.>
"The footage of the crash was all over the Empire's datasharing network, which completely destroyed his reputation," said Eva. "And that is how he was demoted to high school student. If he wasn't a decorated pilot, I'm sure Esplin would have just eaten him."
"And now he's in my brother's head," I said.
Eva looked at me. I could see the understanding in her face.
"That must be hard for you," she said softly. "Have you discussed it with him?"
"Sort of," I said. "For a minute. Do you think more people are going to do the same thing?"
"It's possible," said Eva. "Personally, I like my privacy. But many humans spend their lives being very lonely. Part of the reason that The Sharing worked so well was because it promised community and understanding. The numbers of voluntary human hosts were not insignificant. I would be willing to bet that more humans, humans who were never Controllers before, will volunteer to share their bodies with a Yeerk in return for the companionship."
"They're not our friends!" I said. "Are we seriously the only ones who remember that they treated their hosts like slaves? Tom—I saw Tom screaming in one of those cages! And now he's voluntary? That's insane! He's insane!"
"Aftran once told me that Yeerks are pretty much raised to see their hosts as animals," said Cassie. "But she came around pretty quickly. I think there's the potential there to reach some kind of understanding."
"Host-Yeerk relationships are complicated thing," said Eva. "And I've seen all sorts. Besides, you're forgetting that there are alternatives. I think there is a lot of potential for artificial bodies. It would eliminate the need for sentient hosts. I know a lot hasn't been done in that direction, but the Ellimist once—"
"You know the Ellimist?" I interrupted.
"Oh yes," said Eva, looking a bit surprised. "Have you met him?"
"Yeah, a few times," I said. "He set up the free Hork-Bajir colony and gave Tobias his morphing back. And once he once made us fight these seven random alien monsters to the death."
"Really?" Eva's black eyes widened in surprise. "He did the same thing to us!"
Slowly, we all turned to stare at her, except Ax, who was busy poring over the list of pizza toppings like it was an ancient manuscript of untold value.
"Are you serious?" said Rachel.
"Yes!" said Eva. "Myself, and Esplin, and Emiki, as well as Aleet and Icharyt. We were put down on this horrible planet, nothing but swamps—"
"And he made you guys fight Howlers?" I said.
"Howlers?" Eva shook her head. "No. They were called the Zasan. They went around in…well, it's a complicated story."
"I need to hear this," said Rachel.
"Yeah, me too," I said.
<I would be very interested to hear your experiences with the Ellimist,> said Ax. <Any information you could provide would go towards furthering our understanding of him.>
"Ax-man, we'll never understand him," said Marco. "I just want to hear the story."
"Alright, alright," Eva laughed. "It was about a year ago. I was on Leera when it all started. It had been a pretty normal day, but then things got strange…"
to be continued