<I'm hungry,> I said.
"I know that," muttered Edriss, not looking up from the report in her hand. "Just let me finish reading this."
<I want fries,> I said.
"Let me finish reading this."
<I want fries with chili,> I said.
"That's too bad," she snapped, "because we'll be having fish for the seventieth day in a row."
<I want fries with chili and cheese and a soda and ice cream with sprinkles afterwards,> I said wistfully, dragging the happy memories to the forefront of my brain.
Edriss slammed the report down on her desk. A few pens rolled to the floor. "Will you please stop that? I miss Earth food too, alright? You're not making this any easier for either of us!"
My name is Eva, and I get my entertainment where I can. Edriss usually thinks I'm pretty funny, but lately she's been stressed out because the Leeran invasion isn't going as smoothly as she'd hoped. And also because there is nothing to eat on this planet. She won't admit that second part, but it's true.
Don't get the wrong idea, I like Leera a lot. I've always loved the ocean, and the planet is beautiful. Sometimes Edriss and I steal one of the scouting boats and go sailing. If I had to choose a planet to be stuck on (other than Earth, home of the double cheeseburger), I would definitely choose Leera.
<There's got to be something good to eat around here,> I said. <You know what I think?>
"As a rule, yes."
<I think someone is stockpiling all the good food and charging exorbitant prices for it.>
"That's ridiculous. No one is doing that."
<Really? No one?>
<Then why aren't we doing it?> I asked.
Edriss ignored me. She can actually be pretty good at that, when she wants to. The fact that she was engaging in this conversation at all meant that she was bored with her paperwork.
<I dare you to steal a low-ranking host and go find out if I'm right,> I said. <If I'm wrong, I'll be quiet for a whole week. But if I'm right, you have to challenge Visser Three to a dance-off.>
Like I said, she's been stressed out. So she's not as much fun. Edriss and I make bets a lot, actually. She usually wins, and then I have to not bother her for a few days. But it's worth it when I'm right. Ever wondered why she doesn't have a Blade ship of her own? She used to. That's a great story, ask me about it later.
<Two weeks,> I said.
"You are not physically capable of being quiet for two weeks!"
<I could if I wanted to,> I said. A lie. There's not much point in lying to someone who can read your thoughts, but I do it anyway. <Anyway, back on topic: food?>
"In a minute!"
<This is the song that goes on forever. Cause it never, ever ends—>
"Fine!" Edriss jumped to my feet and opened her office door. She looked down the drab hallways and spotted a group of Controllers loitering around a water dispenser.
"A promotion to whoever brings me something to eat that does not live underwater!" she barked at them. They all scattered in different directions.
<Are you happy now?> she asked me.
<I am temporarily appeased,> I said generously.
Edriss closed the door and turned around. I knew that she had every intention of going back to her desk and staring at that report for another half hour.
But she couldn't.
Because when she turned around, her office was gone.
And instead of a Yeerk office, now we were standing in the middle of a swamp. Mud and water stretched for as far as my eyes could see.
<Edriss?> I asked, alarmed. She was too stunned to reply. I could feel muddy water seeping into my shoes.
Edriss directed my eyes to the most imposing feature of the land—immense gnarled trees with odd teal bark and silver-grey leaves. They didn't look like any sort of trees I'd ever seen, on Earth or elsewhere. Their roots rose from the mud in tangles.
Other plants grew from the water and the mud. There were long reed plants in a rather garish shade of orange with soft tufts of some sort of seed at the tops. Blue vines with giant heart-shaped leaves grew like ivy over whatever surface they could grasp. Clumps of spiky cerulean weeds marked the edge of each pool.
The water didn't look very deep, but it only stopped to make way for more mud. The shallow pools reflected back the yellow sky. I was pretty sure there was at least one sun, but it was dim, lost behind layers of mist and clouds, and I could not find it.
<I don't recognize this place,> she said at long last. <I do not believe we are on Leera anymore.>
<Are we captured?>
<I don't know,> she said, and that was scarier than anything else that had happened so far because Edriss hates to admit she doesn't know something. She took a few steps back, trying to get out of the mud to someplace dry.
<If we're captured, whoever did it didn't do a very good job, because I don't see anything stopping us from leaving,> I said. <Let's see if we can find a town or something.>
<Do you see any indicators of what direction such a place might lie?> she asked.
<No,> I admitted. <Climb a tree. We'll be able to see further.>
Edriss looked at one of the giant teal trees. I had to admit it didn't exactly look like the climbing sort. But the only other species of tree I could see were slender turquoise things that dripped copper flowers from their branches…the lowest of which were at least ten feet up.
<You are hoping I am going to fall and break your neck,> she said accusingly.
<Noooo,> I lied.
I could feel Edriss forming a reply, but then the sound of heavy footsteps caught our attention. Edriss turned around. A male Hork-Bajir was climbing over the roots of one of the giant trees.
"Icharyt!" she cried. The Hork-Bajir (or Hork-Bajir Controller, in this case) spotted us. When he saw us, his shoulders slumped in obvious relief.
"Edriss! Is that you?" he asked, jumping down into the nearest pool and squishing through the mud without a care. "I can't believe I'm actually happy to see you. Where are we?"
I could tell that Edriss wasn't exactly thrilled to see Icharyt 945, or Visser Two. They don't get along much, seeing as Icharyt has a bit of a crush on Esplin. Also, Icharyt really is not the smartest Yeerk in the pool, and Edriss has no patience for idiots.
Still, having a Hork-Bajir around made me feel a bit better.
"Can you climb one of these trees?" Edriss asked, pointing at one of the gnarl-trees.
"I can climb any tree," said Icharyt, sounding mildly offended.
"Then do it," said Edriss, already irate.
As Icharyt climbed the designated tree with Hork-Bajir ease, Edriss found a nice, relatively dry boulder for us to sit on. She peeled off our shoes and socks and laid them out flat on top of some dry moss with tiny red blossoms. Then she looked at the spot in the sky where we thought the obscured sun might be and sighed.
"Now what?" called Icharyt. Edriss looked up. He was about as high as anyone could get in one of the gnarled trees without losing sight of us.
"Look for settlements!" said Edriss in the same tone of voice someone might use to talk to a small child, "or at least a landmark of some sort."
<WHAT IS GOING ON?> bellowed a new thought-speak voice.
"Esplin," said Edriss, looking around. "You're here too?"
Esplin's Andalite body stuck out like a sore thumb against the drab swamp setting. He was up to his knees in muddy water, and whipped his tail-blade around in agitation.
<WHAT IS THIS? WHERE AM I? I DEMAND TO KNOW—>
"I don't see anything, Edriss!" called Icharyt.
Two of Esplin's stalk-eyes pointed upwards.
"Esplin!" Icharyt nearly fell out of his tree. "Praise to the Kandrona! We are saved!"
"That really depends on your point of view," said Edriss dryly. "And to answer your question, we have no idea where we are. I was in my office, on Leera, and then I was here."
<I was on Earth,> said Visser Three, <volunteering at the anim—I mean, overseeing the acquisition of several powerful hosts. And then, as you said, I was here.>
"I was watching a hilarious video recording on the DataNet," contributed Icharyt, climbing back down the tree and then jumping to the ground when he was midway there. "A young Hork-Bajir was harvesting bark and got his blades stuck in the tree and—"
<How do you outrank me?> complained Esplin.
"Focus, both of you," said Edriss. "Esplin, can you morph something that can fly and scout out the area?"
<Yes, but I don't want to.>
"You idiotic brute—!"
From the nearest pool came a splashing sound, followed by a thought-speak cry of alarm. Everyone turned to see the newest arrival—a Leeran-Controller.
"Aleet?" said Edriss.
Aleet, or Visser Four, spends a lot of time on Leera. I rather like him. He's clever. The sad thing is, Edriss doesn't let any Leeran-Controllers come within thirty feet of her. Originally, they were allowed to come as near as ten feet, which is as close as they can get without reading your thoughts. But at that distance, I could still speak to them. Or, more accurately, recite limericks to them. The thirty-foot policy was implemented shortly afterwards.
<It's a party,> I said. <A Visser Party. Did anyone rent a keg?>
<STAY AWAY FROM ME!> yelled Esplin as Aleet's giant frog body swam closer. <MY THOUGHTS ARE PRIVATE!>
<Very well,> said Aleet. <Since you asked so politely. Might I ask where we are?>
"We're not sure yet," said Edriss.
Emiki 255, or Visser Five, was the next to arrive. At this point, I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was. She simply appeared as the others had, standing in mud that had been unoccupied a moment ago.
She made a sound of surprise when she realized where she was, and pulled her arms closer to herself. Giant blue eyes looked around at everyone and everything. I noticed that she carried something that looked a lot like a picnic basket in the crook of one of her elbows.
Emiki has a rare Nahara host. Apparently they're an endangered species, partially because of the Yeerks but also partially because they only reproduce once in their entire lifetime.
Most high-ranking Yeerks don't like taking Nahara hosts because their emotions are displayed in their eyes, which change color due to biochemical reactions that not even Yeerks can fully control. It makes political intrigue difficult. Most Yeerks, anyway—Edriss suspects that Emiki has complete control over what emotions she projects.
Emiki is always polite, but she makes me nervous. Edriss does not trust her at all. I sort of get the feeling that she wouldn't have any qualms about eating us both if she thought she could pull it off.
"What is this?" she asked. "How did we get here?"
"That's what we'd like to know," said Edriss tersely, still curled up on the boulder that she'd begun to think of as hers. "I am beginning to wonder if this is not some kind of a joke."
I felt Edriss jump. The voice came from all around us…and from inside my head. It reminded me of Leeran thought-speak, so deep and resonant, not really words at all. Edriss and all the others looked around frantically, trying to find the source of the voice.
Then, just as Emiki had appeared, so did he.
He looked a lot like a human, an old man, except for the fact that his skin glowed an electric blue color. He had a rather unpleasant smile on his face as he looked around at each of us. He stood in the middle of us, in a pool, his robes floating on the water.
<Ellimist,> hissed Esplin, the malice in his voice palpable.
<What's an Ellimist?> I asked Edriss. I felt her searching my memories for a point of reference.
<Like the Q,> she said. <I don't know much about them. I never thought they were real creatures, though Esplin always swore they were. They favor Andalites.>
<That's probably bad news for us,> I said.
<Yes, that's what I was thinking,> said Edriss.
<What do you want?> demanded Esplin, storming forward, utterly fearless. Edriss, for her part, stayed planted on her boulder. <Why have you brought us here?>
The Ellimist gave an insipid smile. "Brash as always, Esplin 9466," he said. "But since you asked…I have brought you here because I needed you in a secluded location before I forced you to fight to the death."
Edriss had a hand on her Dracon beam before I had time to fully process the statement. At the same moment, Esplin began to morph and Icharyt raised his blades. Emiki unfurled her wings and darted halfway up a thin turquoise tree and Aleet just jumped back in the water.
"NOT AGAINST EACH OTHER!" The Ellimist's voice was booming, infinite, and exasperated. Everyone turned slowly to look at him.
"Not against each other," he repeated in a calmer voice, though that did little for the adrenaline now racing through my veins, "amusing as that would be. No. For you, my prize collection of psychopaths, sociopaths, and traitors, I have assembled something special."
<I'm not a traitor,> said Esplin, sounding legitimately offended.
"The natives of this planet," said the Ellimist, "are known as the Zasan. You would not have heard of them, because you are currently quite a long way from home. I have assembled an equal number of upstanding Zasan citizens for you to fight, one for each of you. Once I explained to them what a Yeerk was, they happily agreed to my terms. Defeat them, and you may return to your stations. Lose, and the Yeerk Empire will never learn of what befell you."
<You're trying to kill us, is that it?> demanded Esplin. <Because we've dared stand up to your precious Andalites?>
"But he can't be bothered to dirty his own hands," agreed Edriss, glaring at the old man.
"None but your enemies will attack you," continued the Ellimist, as if he had not heard this, "I suggest you extend the same courtesy to the civilians, should you encounter them."
<This is ridiculous! I refuse to participate!> cried Aleet.
"By all means, refuse," said the Ellimist. "However, your competitors have already accepted."
<Typical Ellimist,> said Esplin.
"How long do we have?" asked Emiki. She was still safely in the upper branches of her tree, and seemed more interested in finding a safe place for her basket than the multi-dimensional entity that stood before us.
"As long as it takes," said the Ellimist. "However… there is no Kandrona or Kandrona substitute on this planet. So I'd work quickly, if I were you."
And then he was gone.
Edriss let out a string of curse words in two or three different languages. Esplin stormed off to murder some hapless flora. Emiki went back to her basket and her eyes turned the dark gold color that I was pretty sure indicated a sulk. Icharyt just looked confused.
<Could we all just calm down, please?> begged Aleet.
<NO!> roared Esplin.
"We are going to starve to death before we even manage to find the aliens we're supposed to fight," Edriss told Aleet, rather nastily. "And unless you were able to read his thoughts, I don't see how you can contribute at all."
<And what about you?> accused Esplin, pointing at us, at me. <Once your Dracon beam runs out of charge, what will you do?>
"At least I brought a Dracon beam!"
<Your body has no natural weapons!>
"It has one," said Edriss, but she did not elaborate.
"Let's find these aliens and kill them!" said Icharyt enthusiastically. "I say it can't be that hard."
Edriss looked at Esplin, "Do you have any morphs that can track by scent?" she asked.
<I do, but we're in a swamp,> said Esplin. <We'd be better off flying.>
"You do that, then," said Edriss. Esplin immediately began morphing to a six-winged Kafit bird. "And when you find them, morph to something ridiculous and eat them. The rest of us will wait here. I think I see a cave."
<Oh, good,> said Aleet.
"I also see a sign posted in front of it," she added. "It says, ‘No Leerans allowed.'"
<But…> protested Aleet.
"I can see another cave on the far side of the swamp," contributed Emiki from thirty feet above our heads. "You can have that one!"
Aleet looked around at everyone, radiating disbelief.
<You heard her,> said Esplin, now a full Kafit bird. <Go away.>
"We'll tell you when it's over," offered Icharyt.
"But not too far!" Edriss yelled after him, pulling her still-wet socks back on my feet.
Aleet said something very rude in response, but he went without a fight. I had a feeling that he was used to this sort of thing. Most Leeran-Controllers are.
"Alright," said Edriss, still fumbling with her shoes, "now—"
Icharyt suddenly bellowed in pain. Edriss snapped my neck around to look at him. He was raising one clawed hand to the back of his neck, where something silver was sticking out. It crackled with electricity as he thrashed in pain, trying to loosen it.
<He's been shot,> I said.
Edriss looked in the opposite direction to see where the projectile had come from. That was when we got our first look at our enemies, hiding in the roots of one of the gnarl-trees.
He was tall, taller than Icharyt's Hork-Bajir host. He had four long, sturdy legs that kept his short, squat bodies above the water. From what I assumed was the head (though I could see nothing that resembled eyes, or a face) grew a single long arm, like a trunk. His skin was metallic and gleamed like water.
The alien carried a strange, three-pronged weapon in his ‘hand.' It reminded me of a taser, oddly enough. From what I'd seen, the weapons fired some sort of silver darts, which would then electrocute their victims. The alien was watching Icharyt with a sort of scientific curiosity as he flailed about, but he did not attack outright.
Not yet, anyway.
Emiki was the first to move, but all she did was wedge her basket between two branches, because apparently that took priority over helping her fellow Vissers. From the corner of my eye, I could see her testing it to make sure it would not fall.
Edriss abandoned her shoes and rolled off the boulder so she could use it for cover. Then she readied her Dracon beam, aiming for the alien. She practices all the time, so she's a pretty good shot. I wasn't surprised when she hit her target.
When the beam hit, the creature's shining flesh sizzled and melted. It made an outraged sound and looked directly at us. But then, after a moment, the flesh knitted back together again, leaving no sign of any wounds.
Edriss fired again, but this time, the Dracon beam did nothing.
<Oh my God, it built up an immunity in less than three seconds,> I said.
"Aleet!" yelled Edriss, twisting her body in the direction that he'd vanished in.
<Is it over already?> asked Aleet's thought-speak voice from somewhere nearby. <No? Then I suppose I will just stay here in my cave.>
"DAMN IT, ALEET!" Edriss fired at the alien a few more times, but it was useless. The Dracon beam would no longer work on this particular Zasan.
<Get to Icharyt,> I said. <Pull that thing out of his neck before it kills him.>
<It will electrocute us as well!> But she'd already seen the solution in my brain. Abandoning her cover, she ran for the Hork-Bajir. He was still flailing wildly. Esplin was trying to avoid his arms while simultaneously morphing back from Kafit bird to Andalite. He was currently at an awkward and unsightly middle phase.
<HOLD STILL YOU IMBICILE!> he roared at Icharyt, as he narrowly avoided being cut. <IF YOU KILL ME I SWEAR I WILL KILL YOU!>
"Yes, Icharyt, hold still!" yelled Edriss. "I'm going to help you, just hold still!"
Icharyt turned to look at us and bellowed in pain. The sound blew my hair back like a strong wind. Edriss slapped his cheek.
<Ow,> I said.
"Ow," she said. But it did the trick. Icharyt held still. She ripped off her jacked and wrapped it around one hand like an oven mitt. Then she grasped the silver thing at the base of Icharyt's neck and yanked it out. It fell into the water, where it fizzled and died.
"Over there!" Edriss called to Esplin, pointing towards the hidden Zasan. He was now fully Andalite again. But he ran in the opposite direction. At first I thought he was fleeing (and since when did Visser Three ever run from a fight?) but then I saw why. Five more Zasan had been watching our stupidity from the opposite side of the swamp, probably assessing what sort of threat the Ellimist had sent them.
Meanwhile, the first Zasan had seen enough. He moved out from the safety of the roots and began to walk towards me, his long legs covering a lot of ground in a very short amount of time.
Edriss ran. Stones cut through our socks and plants ripped at our clothes and still she ran, looking for somewhere to hide. I heard a sound like clang, followed by Esplin's roar of pain and rage, but Edriss did not look to see what had happened. She tried to climb up the roots of one of the gnarl-trees, but she fell, landing on her hands in the shining water.
I could hear the heavy footsteps splashing towards us. Edriss looked behind us. One of the Zasan was looking down at us and readying his weapon. I could tell that he was in no great hurry.
<Well, human, I guess this is goodbye,> said Edriss.
<We had some good times, didn't we?> I asked.
<All things considered, it could have been worse,> she granted.
<Yeah. And I'm sorry about the custard thing.>
Something white speared the Zasan through his chest. He slumped forward, and that was when I saw that Emiki stood behind him, one arm buried in his back. She grinned, but before she could say anything, electricity raced up her arm from the Zasan's back.
Emiki screamed and fell backwards, withdrawing her arm in the process. It was now covered in something bright purple. The Zasan landed on us. Edriss shoved it aside and it lay still where it had fallen, floating face-down.
Emiki was also lying in the muddy water, staring up at the sky with orange eyes.
"If you do not mind, I am going to just rest here for a minute," she said, folding her hands.
Edriss looked out across the swamp. Aleet was still nowhere to be seen, but Icharyt and Esplin were menacing the other five aliens, and I could not help but be impressed.
Esplin was morphing out of something that I couldn't have identified in a thousand years and back to Andalite. Meanwhile, Icharyt lunged at the Zasan with his blades. They leapt back every time Icharyt tried to cut them, and so he wasn't able to land a blow, but they weren't able to shoot him again, either. It was a rather silly-looking stalemate.
When Esplin returned to full Andalite form and raised his tail-blade, one of the Zasan was brage enough to come forward for the challenge, his weapon ready. But Esplin was fast, and sliced off the Zasan's only hand in a lightning-fast move.
At that, the Zasan had had enough. They were gone as quickly as they'd come, long legs carrying them deeper into the swamps. Esplin galloped after them, but after a few minutes, I could hear his roar of rage at having lost his prey.
Only now that the immediate threat was gone did Edriss turned her attention to our Zasan.
"Is it dead?" Edriss asked.
<Might be, probably,> I said. <What's with the electricity? Do they generate it?>
"Maybe," said Edriss, so shaken that she forgot to speak privately. "So they're immune to energy beams, but not to being stabbed."
<Make a spear out of a stick and a sharp rock,> I said. <Or no. Cut off Esplin's tail-blade. It will just regrow when he morphs.>
"I understand that you are going to be an idiot, as it is in your nature," said Edriss, sitting down in the water and pressing one hand to my forehead. "However, can it at least wait until the danger has passed?"
"Excuse me?" said Emiki.
"Not you," said Edriss, glaring.
Emiki gave an insane little giggle and closed her eyes. "Talking to your host? How unprofessional."
Edriss splashed her, and she just laughed some more. Esplin stormed over a few minutes later, clearly still enraged. Icharyt followed behind him.
<They escaped,> Esplin reported. <They appear to have some sort of cloaking technology.> He looked down at the dead Zasan. <You killed one.>
"Emiki did. She stabbed it," said Edriss.
"Basket," rasped Emiki.
"Someone get me my basket. I left it in a tree."
"I'll get it," said Icharyt.
A splashing sound made us all freeze up, but it was just Aleet, come to see if anyone was dead.
"Oh, look who decided to show up," said Edriss.
<I was just following my orders,> sneered Aleet. <In any case, I came over to ask you if you bothered to count them.>
"What are you talking about?" said Edriss, standing back up.
<Did you bother to count them?> repeated Aleet. <The Zasan? Did you count them?>
"Aleet, I have a headache, so if you could just get to the point—"
<There's six of them, and only five of us!> he cried.
Edriss gave him a sharp look. "What?"
<We're outnumbered! The Ellimist can't count!>
<Unless he was counting hosts as well,> I said. <And we're up against twelve of these things.>
Edriss passed on my observation to the others.
"He wouldn't do that. Would he?" asked Icharyt, returning with the basket. Emiki took it from him with her middle set of arms.
<He's an Ellimist,> said Esplin by way of explanation.
"You have an Andalite host," said Edriss. "What do you know about Ellimists?"
<They feature heavily in Andalite mythology as trickster deities. Making unfair bargains, taking advantage of poorly-worded requests…> Esplin's eyes searched the yellow sky. <But I don't think they've ever actually tried to kill anyone.>
"Except us," said Icharyt, "just now."
<Something's not right,> said Aleet. <About this whole situation. I can't place it. But I don't think the Ellimist is telling us the whole truth. No. I don't even think he's telling us part of the truth.>
"What do you mean?" asked Edriss.
<I just don't think that we're here for the reason the Ellimist told us we're here,> he said.
<Are you saying he's not trying to kill us?> demanded Esplin. <Because that's what it looks like to me.>
Emiki got back to her feet. "I cannot speak for the Ellimist," she said. "But I believe I can explain why we have six foes, instead of five."
<What do you mean?> demanded Visser Three.
Emiki didn't say anything. Instead, she just turned to look at her basket. With her other hand, she undid the straps that held it shut.
Inside, nestled between strips of soft fabric, was something large and round. It was the same albino-pink color as Emiki's Nahara host, and speckled with blue and white spots here and there.
<It's an egg,> I said. <It's a baby! Edriss, she has a baby!>
<Thank you for helping me puzzle that out, Eva,> said Edriss.
"This is the reason there are six aliens to fight," said Emiki, cradling the egg. "The Ellimist's timing could not have been worse. She will hatch in a matter of hours."
Edriss seemed entranced by the egg. She held out one tentative hand, and Emiki didn't stop her. My hand, her hand, our hand, touched the smooth pink shell. It was warm, and I imagined that I could feel movement.
<Well, at least our hosts won't starve to death,> said Esplin.
Emiki looked at him. She tilted her triangular head to the side.
Twenty seconds later, he had two broken legs.
to be continued