"What? What aren't we going to believe?" demanded Edriss immediately.
"This creature—" Emiki shifted Sia Ren to one arm and used the other to indicate the Zasan she'd just infested, "—is one of six criminals who have a hideout not far from here. Well, five, now. They are wanted by their government for various crimes, including murder."
"I don't get it," said Icharyt.
"These Zasan attacked us because we were in their territory," said Emiki. I could see the worry in her face, in her violet eyes. "They don't know anything about the Ellimist. They don't even know what we are."
<Are you saying we've been chasing the wrong aliens this whole time?> cried Esplin.
"I…I don't know," admitted Emiki. "The Ellimist said that only our enemies would attack us. But he also said that they knew what we were. These Zasan know nothing, except that we are too close to their base."
<This is officially bullshit,> I proclaimed.
"And you can't talk to us from inside their bodies?" asked Edriss.
"Yes. The Zasan release pheromones to speak to each other. They have no way to communicate with other species, though the robotic suits they wear might be able to transmit data to a computer. Or if I had something to write with…well, I don't, so it's a moot point. I can understand you, though."
<So what are we going to do about this?> demanded Esplin.
"I can infest him again and guide you to their hideout, if you like," offered Emiki. "The others should have returned there for the night."
"Taking the battle to them? I like that idea," said Edriss.
<Assuming they're the ones we're even supposed to be fighting in the first place,> grumbled Esplin.
"It's all we've got," said Edriss. "Besides, Emiki said they're criminals. We'd be doing their society a favor by killing them."
"Maybe that's why we're here," said Emiki suddenly. She had a funny look on her face.
"What?" asked Edriss.
"Maybe…maybe the Ellimist isn't trying to kill us. Maybe he brought us here to get rid of these criminals because he's trying to protect the rest of the species."
"Then why did he make up all that stuff?" asked Icharyt.
<He's an Ellimist,> said Esplin, by way of explanation.
"Alright, but why us?" asked Edriss. "I'm sure there are plenty of people more suited for hunting down alien outlaws than us. The local law enforcement, perhaps…"
"I don't know," admitted Emiki. "It was just a guess."
<I want to take a look,> complained Aleet. Everyone shuffled back a few yards so that he could lean in close to the Zasan and listen to his thoughts for a while. I didn't see anything wrong with letting him think he was helping.
Edriss turned to Esplin. "You need to tell us everything you know about Ellimists. Everything," she said.
<I already did!> complained Esplin. <They've been around Andalites since the species first evolved. They think everything is a game. They say they don't interfere with the universe, but everyone knows that's a lie. Also they built a time machine.>
Edriss made a frustrated noise.
"What does it matter why he brought us here?" asked Icharyt. "I say we just kill these guys and go home."
<And if these aren't even the right aliens?> asked Esplin.
"Then we find more of them to kill!" said Icharyt, in a voice that suggested he thought we were all being idiots.
"It's getting late," said Emiki, glancing at the horizon. "I think we'd be better off resting until it gets light again, unless you want to attack now."
"I wouldn't mind a few hours of sleep," said Edriss, "but I am wondering if it would be wise to postpone our attack. We've captured one of them. Don't you think they'll launch a rescue effort?"
"I do not," said Emiki. "They have little affection for each other. They might attack us, but not with the intention of rescuing one of their friends. And I would like to rest as well."
<Will the other Zasan still be at their hideout in the morning?> demanded Esplin.
"I believe so," said Emiki. "If we wake up at sunrise, we can get there before they are awake. I now know their schedule. They usually sleep late into the day."
Icharyt pointed to the unconscious Zasan. "He's going to wake up soon. Should we kill him?"
"No, not yet. I need to get more information from him, and I'll probably need to be in his body to guide you," said Emiki. "To stop him from getting away, though, I'll infest him for the night."
We watched as Emiki went back to the Zasan's body and then put herself back in the robotic suit that he'd been wearing when we first captured him. I took a moment to appreciate the technology. Not only did it appear highly adaptive, rendering Dracon beams useless after just one shot, it made the Zasan look intimidating, and hid their weaknesses.
It was actually very clever, now that I gave it some more thought.
I felt a little sliver of suspicion niggling in my brain, but I was too tired and hungry to pursue it.
Esplin started a fire using one of his more ridiculous morphs, which was actually fortunate because there was no way any of us would have been able to light the wet sticks and leaves on our own. The light cast long shadows into the swamp. It had grown very cold after the sun set, and I was grateful for the warmth.
At one point, Osa Ren left her newborn in the care of Emiki and abruptly vanished into the night. I made a few jokes about her ditching us, but an hour later she returned with three silver-blue fishes speared on her claw. She gave one to Edriss to cook, brought the second over to Aleet's cave of banishment (that's what I was calling it, anyway), and ate the last one raw, splitting it with Sia Ren.
The fish wasn't the best thing I'd ever tasted, and up close it resembled a frog or a lizard more than a fish. But when you're hungry, your standards are pretty low.
<I can't believe it. We're probably millions of lightyears away from Leera and I'm still stuck eating fish.>
<I guess it's all part of an elaborate scheme to make you miserable,> said Edriss dryly.
<Hey, maybe it's poisonous,> I suggested.
<Eva. Shut up.>
<No, really. Maybe that's how the Ellimist is planning on killing us. The Zasan are just a clever ruse, and the real danger is right here—>
<Eva, please.> In all the time I've known her, I don't think I'd ever heard Edriss sound so exhausted, so I decided to let up for a little while. I'm not completely merciless.
Sia Ren was like a newborn horse, running around on long, shaky legs. She splashed in the water and made an irregular chirring sound that Edriss identified as laughter. I wanted to play with her, but Edriss wouldn't go near her.
<Do they really have five-year lifespans?> I asked, recalling what Esplin had said earlier about the Nahara.
<It wasn't always like that,> said Edriss. <Apparently, long before we discovered them, another species attempted to enslave them by altering their DNA. They might have succeeded, if we hadn't interfered. It's a long story.>
Sia Ren picked up a handful of mud and smeared it across Esplin's flank like it was paint. He moved to slap her away, but the moment he raised his hand, Osa Ren made a sound like an angry snake and Emiki spun around to give him a threatening look. This was impressive, given that we could not see her face.
Esplin put his hand back down, and Sia Ren went on painting happily.
<So, what's the deal with Emiki and her host?> I asked.
<That,> said Edriss, <is none of our business.>
<You have to admit it's weird.>
<I am not denying that. I just do not wish to discuss it with you.>
<You're no fun at all.> I pouted. <I bet Esplin would gossip with me.>
<Do shut up.>
Edriss and I took the first watch, though honestly if someone did attack us, I don't really know what we could have done about it. After about two hours, we passed the job on to Icharyt. I don't know how I managed it, but I eventually managed to fall asleep on the cold dirt floor of the cave.
When Edriss woke me up a few hours later, my body was sore and stiff, and I wasn't much less tired than I'd been before we'd fallen asleep.
<I have an idea, let's never do this again,> I complained as Edriss stretched and tried to rub some of the soreness from my limbs.
Early-morning sunlight was spilling into the mouth of the cave, and my eyes were adjusted to the darkness enough that I could tell that Esplin and Icharyt were nowhere to be seen. Edriss figured they were probably looking for grass and tree bark, respectively.
Osa Ren was still asleep, cradling Sia Ren in her arms. It was hard to tell with Zasan, but I was pretty sure Emiki was sleeping, too. She had to be. Because if she was conscious, then she would have never wrapped her arm around Osa Ren.
<We. Do not. Talk about it,> grumbled Edriss.
She shuffled out of the cave and into the early-morning light of the swamp. The fire had been reduced to a few smoldering embers. On the other side of the clearing, I could see Esplin, doing something with some plants. When he spotted us with his stalk-eyes, he came galloping over. There was something clutched in his Andalite fingers.
As he drew nearer, I realized that he'd put together a collection of copper blossoms from the nearby trees and some other small flowers that I'd half-noticed during our wild dash through the swamp yesterday.
Esplin skidded to a sudden halt before us and held the flowers out as if they were a weapon he did not know how to use. Edriss just stared. I couldn't tell what she was thinking. Maybe she wasn't thinking anything at all.
<I wish to apologize for my earlier lapse in judgment,> said Esplin at last. <To this end, I have brought you the severed sexual organs of some local flowering plants.>
Then he thrust the flowers into our hands and galloped away, looking mortified.
<I give it a B+ for effort,> I said.
* * *
<Edriss and Esplin, sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G. First comes love, then comes marriage. Then they fuse together and dissolve into hundreds of tiny new grubs who will never know their parents.>
<I am going to kill you.>
<Wait, I've got another one!>
<I don't want to hear it.>
We were following Emiki through the swamp, doing our best to move quietly but probably not succeeding. Icharyt traveled overhead, jumping from tree to tree with ease and keeping an eye out for an ambush. Esplin was in the skies as a local bird that he'd acquired the DNA of early this morning.
Aleet had been told to wait in his cave and try not to die. He wasn't happy about that, but none of the Vissers really cared.
Emiki had wanted Osa Ren to stay behind as well, but Osa Ren refused. It was the first time I'd really heard the Nahara speak, and she'd given only a flat, "No." And that, apparently, had settled the argument.
It had been her body that had killed the first Zasan, so I suppose that worked in her favor too. Now she walked alongside Edriss and I, carrying Sia Ren in her arms, chirping to her occasionally. I wanted to talk to her, to ask her questions, but Edriss was not in an accommodating mood for some reason.
"Why do you have flowers in your hair?" asked Osa Ren after a little while.
"I—uh. No reason," said Edriss.
"Why is your face red? Are you ill?"
"Yes!" Edriss practically shouted. "I am ill. Terribly ill. I'm probably dying. So keep your egg-baby thing away from me."
Osa Ren burst into chirring giggles, and Sia Ren mimicked the sound. I tried to remember everything I knew about Nahara, which honestly was not a lot. They were rare hosts, and seldom seen off their homeworld. They were popular with lower-ranking Yeerks because of their ability to fly, but they were not allowed in combat for some reason. Most Nahara-Controllers did clerical work. Safe, but probably boring.
"Does she frighten you, Edriss?" asked Osa Ren.
"Does Sia Ren frighten you?" Gigantic grey eyes bored into mine. "You seem to dislike her."
"No—I—I don't…" Edriss stammered. She slapped at a biting insect distractedly. "I'm just not used to children."
"Have you never had a host with offspring?"
"Oh, look, a bridge!" Edriss practically yelled. Emiki turned around to make a shushing motion with her hand.
As Edriss had noted, a rope bridge stretched across the lake before us. On the far side was a rather poorly-made structure that reminded me of an old log cabin, or perhaps a beaver dam.
<I'm guessing that's it,> I said.
Ahead of us, Esplin swooped down and landed in front of the structure. He looked around for a while, and then came back.
<I can see surveillance equipment,> he reported as he morphed back to Andalite, a process that made Sia Ren scream with laughter. <I'm going to morph to Luminar and burn the place down.>
"No, Esplin!" said Edriss.
<Why not?> he whined.
"Yeah, why not?" asked Icharyt, jumping down from his tree and landing in the mud with a splash.
"Because if one of them escapes, we'll never find them again!" said Edriss. "And we only have two days left, at the most!"
That wasn't totally true. I knew Edriss only had one day left. She would need Kandrona rays soon. She hadn't spoken of it, but I knew it was worrying her to no end.
Esplin looked at her. She tried to give him a harsh look, but his desire to burn something down won out in the end. As always.
<I'm doing it,> he declared, and began to morph again.
"Esplin, I said no!"
I'd never seen the Luminar before, though I knew it was yet another one of Esplin's fire-shooting morphs. As he morphed, I could see it was humanoid, and not that much taller than an adult man, though the body was round and the arms and legs were very short. It radiated heat, scorching the plants and causing the mud around him to dry out and crack.
<How the hell did he acquire that?> I demanded.
"We must do something," said Osa Ren.
"Like what?" asked Edriss, as the Luminar stomped across the bridge, practically incinerating it. This made it difficult for Icharyt to follow, but he was clearly trying his hardest. "The only thing my host can do is make men feel guilty by crying hysterically!"
<Hey! Sexist!> I howled, outraged. <Once we get home, we are going to take a shower and then we are going to talk about your attitude towards women!>
Osa Ren thrust Sia Ren at us. "Hold her for me," she commanded. Edriss looked down at the Nahara infant, who gazed at us with giant blue eyes. One of her claws reached up to touch my face. She giggled at the softness of my flesh, obviously used to the Nahara's hard exoskeleton.
<She laughs a lot, doesn't she?> I asked. Edriss said nothing. She seemed to be unable to look away from the tiny thing in her arms. Pleased at the attention, Sia Ren flared her tiny wings, displaying rather intimidating eyespots that reminded me of the butterflies back home. I felt Edriss smile crookedly.
Sudden movement caught our eye, and Edriss looked up to see Osa Ren running over to Emiki. They seemed to come to some sort of silent agreement, and the helmet of Emiki's Zasan robot suit retracted. Osa Ren pressed her head to the Zasan's.
Then, just as the Zasan began to move again, Emiki speared it through the chest.
"What does he think he's doing?" Emiki yelled, once she'd recovered from the electrical jolt. It took her less time to shake off the shock than it had yesterday, and she didn't even fall over.
"I don't know!" Edriss called back. "He won't listen to me, and now…"
And now Esplin was nearly in front of the little structure. He pointed at it, and flames shot from his hands, setting it on fire. At the same moment, silver bullets flew from the surrounding trees. I couldn't see who was shooting, but it seemed that at least one of the Zasan had been watching us from a distance. Esplin gave a roar of anger and charged after him. The fire went on burning, though the dampness of the area stopped it from spreading very quickly.
<I have an idea. Let's go back to the cave and just lie down until this is all over,> I suggested.
Two more Zasan emerged from the burning structure, their weapons ready. They looked around cautiously, and spotted us.
<Crap,> I said.
Emiki flared her wings and took to the skies, somewhat awkwardly. But instead of running away, I could tell she was planning on fighting these two, despite the overwhelming odds. Edriss pressed Sia Ren to my chest and took off the way we'd come. I could tell she didn't have a plan, just a desire to escape.
From behind us, I could hear weapons firing. I didn't want to think about who was shooting who, and with what. I focused on the path in front of us, trying to be useful, to think of something to save us, and the infant Nahara we carried.
I was starting to think that maybe we would actually make it back to the cave when we collided directly with a new Zasan. We hit the ground, and Edriss almost dropped Sia Ren. But I took advantage of her moment of fear and confusion, and wrested back control of my arms long enough to catch her.
Edriss looked up. The Zasan turned his blank metal face down towards us.
<Oh no,> I whimpered.
But the Zasan did not attack. I noticed that his armor was different from the armor of the Zasan we'd been fighting for the last day. It was painted a bright, almost garish red color, and the design was more streamlined. There was a blue stripe running horizontally across his chest, and another across his helmet.
<Get up, you idiot.>
Edriss jumped. The thought-speak voice was blessedly familiar.
"Aleet?" she asked. "Where are you?"
A yellow frog peeked out from behind the new Zasan's long legs.
"What…what's going on?" Edriss stammered.
<What's going on is that, unlike the rest of you dumb brutes, I used my brain to think up a plan to get us home before we all starve to death!> yelled Aleet. <Did you really try to burn down their hideout? We're in a swamp!>
"Esplin did that," said Edriss. She looked back at the Zasan. "Uh. What…who is this?"
<This is the head of the local law enforcement,> said Aleet. <Honestly. You are all idiots.>
"We can't talk to them," mumbled Edriss, still sounding dazed.
<You can't talk to them because your host is a stupid human,> said Aleet. <Some of us have more refined tastes.>
<I can't handle this right now,> I said. <I just can't.>
I could hear more weapons firing now, though they weren't any weapons that I was familiar with. Aleet gave us a rather contemptuous look and half-hopped, half-swam towards the smoldering structure. The Zasan officer ran on ahead.
<Well then,> I said.
<Agreed,> said Edriss.
The little patch of land where the structure had bene was now crowded with more red-painted Zasan. They outnumbered our opponents five to one, and it wasn't a battle as much as it was a slaughter. I saw their weapons tear through our opponents' armor like it was paper, and within the space of five minutes I saw two Zasan lying on the ground, orange blood swelling from ugly, gaping wounds. It was far more efficient than anything Emiki could do. I saw Esplin demorph, and I heard his enraged thought speak voice.
<EXCUSE ME? DID I ASK FOR YOUR HELP? STOP STEALING MY KILLS. WHERE DID YOU COME FROM? GO HOME!>
<This is, uh, sort of embarrassing,> I said, as a third Zasan turned and tried to run away and received a hole in the back for his trouble.
"Indeed," muttered Edriss.
Now the officers were gathering in a semicircle towards the last Zasan. He looked around desperately, but I had a feeling he knew that he had lost. He fired his weapon, but nothing happened. He was all out of ammunition.
We were gone before his body even hit the ground.
* * *
"Well, that certainly took you long enough," said the Ellimist.
We weren't in the swamp anymore. We weren't anywhere. I don't know how else to describe it. I was standing, but I don't know what I was standing on. Anyway, it didn't matter. Gravity didn't seem to be a thing here.
The others stood beside me, looking about as confused as I felt. Sia Ren cooed and waved four tiny arms at the Ellimist. He gave an incomprehensible smile and touched her forehead.
Esplin turned to Aleet. <WE ARE YEERKS! WE DO NOT CALL THE POLICE!> he roared.
<It worked, didn't it?> Aleet retorted.
"Yes, but I am afraid Esplin is correct in his assessment that it will not make for a very impressive story," said the Ellimist dryly.
"So, can we go home now?" asked Icharyt.
"Yes," said the Ellimist. "Now you may go home. You have done...well."
<What was the point of that?> demanded Esplin. <What was the point?>
"Did you not learn anything from the Zasan?" said the Ellimist, looking a bit baffled.
Everyone glanced around at each other.
"Nothing?" said the Ellimist, after a long and awkward moment of silence. There was a bit of an edge in his voice. "Nothing, from this fragile race of aliens who protect themselves from a world they cannot survive in by building non-sentient bodies for themselves?"
Seven pairs of eyes stared back at him. His shoulders sagged.
"Go home," he said, and we were gone.
to be concluded