<Alright, so we don't eat the kid,> said Esplin.
Emiki hissed at him. Her eyes were an emerald-green color that I'd never seen before, but I was pretty sure it indicated rage.
"Esplin," suggested Edriss, "just shut up."
<I meant no offense,> he said petulantly, and the thing was, I was pretty sure he was telling the truth. He was like a little kid. He had no filter.
It was starting to get dark. The sky had gone from yellow to silver in the past hour or so, and the gnarl-trees seemed to cast longer shadows. It occurred to me that we had no idea how many hours night lasted on this planet.
And I still hadn't eaten lunch.
"Let's just focus," suggested Edriss, trying to comb my hair with my fingers. "Emiki, you killed one of the Zasan. I think we should take a closer look at it. Examine the body for weak spots, anything that might help us against the other five."
"I believe our—my—exoskeleton protected against the electrical current," said Emiki, hugging her basket to her body. "I don't recommend the rest of you attempt to stab one as I did."
<I tried to eat one,> contributed Esplin. <I think I broke my jaw. That's not fair. You got to kill one, and I didn't.>
"Well, maybe if you'd try something other than eating your adversaries, for once…" Edriss rolled my eyes.
<Hey! I don't always eat them!> protested Esplin. <Sometimes I light them on fire.>
Emiki took a few tentative steps into the mud and looked around. "I don't know where the body landed," she said. "This all looks the same to me."
"We were by that rock, I think," said Edriss, pointing. She picked up a stick and began to poke at the mud like she was searching for landmines. "Aleet?"
<Now what?> Aleet crossed his front arms petulantly. He really had not been doing much to help, and I had a feeling that Edriss wasn't the only one getting annoyed.
"Don't just stand there. Help us look."
<No. I am maintaining my distance, as I was instructed to do.>
Edriss made a frustrated sound and kicked at the mud. A sharp pain shot up my foot.
<Found it!> I said.
Icharyt was the one to pull the Zasan's body out from where it had sunk into the mud. Everyone else gathered around to watch, minus Aleet, who was still not allowed within mind-reading distance of anyone.
"It's an unusual creature, isn't it?" commented Edriss. "It reminds me of a Mak."
Icharyt went to brush some of the mud off the Zasan's body with one of his blades. But he must have underestimated his own strength, because the blade sliced through the Zasan's silvery skin. It split open, spilling out coils of wire and a moment of blue sparks.
Everyone jumped back simultaneously. After a moment of stunned silence, Edriss was the first to speak.
"It is robotic," she said.
"Is this a joke?" asked Icharyt, looking legitimately confused.
Emiki nudged him out of the way with one of her feet. He moved without a fight. Then she lifted one foot, balancing on the other three to keep herself upright, and slashed the metal casing open.
And that was when we got our first true look at the Zasan.
It was not tall. The long legs were a part of the robotic body, like stilts. Its true legs were four short, stubby things that looked like they were designed for swimming. It had a short, fin-like tail and growing out of its face was a long trunk that ended in appendages that looked almost like fingers. This had been the 'hand' that had held its weapon.
"It's armor!" said Edriss. "They're…wearing armor."
"Someone make this make sense," whined Icharyt.
Emiki leaned forward and, with one hand, ripped a short, stubby leg from Zasan's body. It came off far more easily than a limb should.
"They're very fragile," reported Emiki, needlessly. "I believe their strength is their technology. Their weakness is just about everything else."
And she raised the limb, dripping with orange blood, to her mouth.
"Emiki! That's disgusting!" cried Edriss.
"Do you see any birds around here?" demanded Emiki around her mouthful of dead Zasan.
<I want some,> said Esplin.
<If he can turn into that fire-breathing thing, we can start a campfire and cook it, maybe,> I suggested.
<Absolutely not,> replied Edriss.
<That is a sentient creature,> said Aleet, apparently in agreement. <You are both sick.>
<Go catch a fish, then,> said Esplin, looking at the nearest pond. <Leerans are good at that, aren't they?>
<Only when we have spears or nets!>
"We—I can probably catch a fish," said Emiki. "I've never tried before, but I catch birds all the time."
"You're not killing anything," said Edriss. "You need to find a safe place and stay there."
Emiki flared her wings. "I am a Visser of the Yeerk Empire! I will not be told when to leave a battlefield!"
"If you recall, your egg counts as one of us. Meaning that it—"
"—is somehow expected to fight and defend herself against the Zasan. She is as much of a target as the rest of us."
<It's just an egg,> said Esplin, unimpressed.
"She is an endangered species!" shrilled Emiki.
<The Nahara aren't very good hosts anyway,> said Esplin. <Their lifespan is what, five, six years—?>
Emiki rose up onto her hind legs and struck out with her front claws. But this time Esplin was ready for the attack. He dodged it, leaping out of the way before his knees could be shattered again. Then he raised his tail for his own attack.
"Stop it!" yelled Edriss. "Idiots!"
Luckily, Esplin lowered his tail-blade without argument. Emiki just glared and went into a sulk.
<Take a closer look at the Zasan,> suggested Aleet. <Do you see ear canals? If we can capture and infest one of these things, we might be able to find a way to beat them.>
Edriss leaned forward and used her stick to poke at what I suppose was the thing's head. "That might be an ear canal. But it might also be its mouth."
"I'll cut it open!" said Icharyt enthusiastically.
<No, you idiot…> Then Aleet stopped. <Wait, you're actually right. If we can dissect it, we can figure out how to infest it.>
"I helped!" said Icharyt, glowing with pride.
<Use your blades to cut open its head, then,> instructed Aleet. <But be careful you don't damage anything.>
"Even if we can infest one, how will we capture it?" asked Edriss.
<We'll have to lead it into a trap,> said Aleet. <And I am certain they'll come after us again, it's only a matter of time. Now everyone move, I am going to examine it.>
We all shuffled back so that Aleet could conduct his investigation. With his blobby Leeran fingers, he began to pull back layers of skin and bone. It was gross, but I was thankful that he was here to do it.
"Do you think the Ellimist would put us against a species we could infest?" asked Edriss, mostly to kill the silence.
<I think we've established that we have no reliable method of guessing the Ellimist's motives,> said Esplin.
"Mm," said Edriss. She turned to look at Emiki, who was now examining her egg. A few cracks had appeared in the shell. I was certain they hadn't been there before.
"Do you have a name picked out?" asked Edriss. I was surprised at how interested she was in the egg. Though maybe she was just bored. Yeah. That was probably it.
"Nahara naming conventions are very specific," said Emiki. "A female hatchlings will take her father's first name and her mother's second name. So her name will be Sia Ren. Of the Ifhara clan, like her parents."
"How do you know she's a girl?" asked Edriss.
"Osa Ren—my host—can sense the gender. All Nahara mothers can." Emiki looked a little reluctant to say more, though I could sense genuine curiosity from Edriss.
<I believe we can infest the Zasan,> announced Aleet, turning to look at us. He splashed his hands in the water, cleaning off the gore and fluids left over from his little science project. <I could be incorrect, of course, but I think we should take the chance.>
"Alright," said Edriss. "So how do we capture one of them?"
<There is more than one cave around here,> said Aleet. <If we could lure one inside and then trap it…>
"We have no supplies," pointed out Edriss, crossing my arms. "Nothing to build a trap with."
<I have a Lerdethak morph!> said Esplin.
"What? How?" asked Icharyt.
"I have no idea what that is," said Edriss. I could sense her impatience.
"It's a creature of the de—a monster from the Hork-Bajir homeworld," said Icharyt. "Very dangerous. How did you get close enough to touch it?"
<The important part is, I think I can use it to capture a Zasan,> said Esplin. <If you could lead one to me, that is. I doubt they would attack one knowingly.>
"Can't you draw one into an attack, and then morph?" asked Icharyt.
<I can only morph so quickly,> said Esplin. <And I'm completely vulnerable in the between stages. So no, I can't.>
<Then you can hide in one of the caves,> said Aleet, <be waiting in morph. One of us will lead the Zasan in.>
"How, though?" asked Edriss. "They seem to be distance fighters."
<Who is the fastest runner here?> asked Aleet.
<I am,> said Esplin.
<You are going to be the Lerdethak,> Aleet reminded him.
<I never get to do anything fun!>
"I'm fast," said Emiki.
"You're disqualified for reasons of having brought a baby," said Edriss. She turned to look at Icharyt. "What about you?"
"I could try…" he began dubiously. "I'm faster in the trees."
<They can't climb. We don't want to lose them,> said Aleet. <Just stay far enough ahead that they can't hurt you.>
Icharyt looked even more doubtful now.
<Damn it,> I said. <That leaves us, doesn't it?>
<I am afraid so,> said Edriss. Then aloud, "I will do it."
To say everyone was surprised was an understatement.
<What do you mean, you will do it?> demanded Esplin.
"I mean I will do it! I'll let them chase me, and lead them to you," said Edriss. "What's so hard to understand about that? You were fine with letting Icharyt do it!"
<Yes but you're…you,> said Esplin. <You never want to do anything fun. Or dangerous. Fun-dangerous. Dangerous fun.>
"Shut up," said Edriss through gritted teeth.
"He's right, though. When have you ever wanted to risk your own safety?" rumbled Icharyt. Emiki nodded in agreement, her eyes a confused and smoky grey color.
"If everyone doesn't shut up, I'm going to start shooting," threatened Edriss, one hand going for her Dracon beam. That put a stop to the questions, at least.
Thirty minutes later, we were running through the swamp.
* * *
<Are you having fun?> I asked as branches tore at my hair.
<So much fun,> retorted Edriss. To her credit, she didn't slow down, not even a little, even though I could feel the steady burn building up in my legs.
<You're lucky I'm in such good shape,> I said as a silver projectile whizzed over my shoulder. <Say, 'thank you, Eva', will you?>
<Shut up, Eva.>
<Close enough!> I said happily. The exhilarating terror of the chase was starting to get to me. <You know, we should do fun things more often!>
<Oh yes?> asked Edriss, zigzagging irregularly to dodge the Zasan's shots. She leapt over a low root and almost lost her balance, but managed to right herself in time.
<Yeah. You should challenge Esplin to something. That would be fun. You and him. Just have it out.>
<We would both be destroyed in a duel,> she pointed out, skidding to avoid a rather large and jagged tree stump.
<I didn't mean a duel, you sociopath. I meant like something you can beat him at.>
<Like what?> Her breathing was becoming more labored.
<A game of chess, maybe. Or a wet t-shirt contest.>
"By the Kandrona, you are the single most annoying host in the history of my people," she muttered aloud.
<I like you too, Edriss,> I said, trying to focus on something other than my burning legs. <Come on, we're almost there.>
<Shut. Up.> Her breath was coming in deep, rapid gasps now. We were getting tired. A branch slapped us in the face, but she ignored it. I could see the familiar clearing where we'd defeated the first Zasan. This would be the most dangerous part, since there were no trees or other things to protect us from a bullet.
A few hundred yards past it was the cave where Esplin was waiting. Hopefully we'd make it. And if not, well, that was alright, too.
<You know, I hope he doesn't grab us instead of the Zasan,> I said. <It didn't look like the Lerdethak had very good eyesight.>
Esplin's Lerdethak morph was a terrible thing to behold, a mess of writhing tentacles and a giant, gaping mouth. But if anything could capture one of the Zasan without killing it, the Lerdethak was certainly it.
We crossed the empty, muddy clearing in less than a minute. The black stone of the cave was a welcome sight. Edriss darted inside, and a moment later, I heard the Zasan's footsteps follow us.
It was too dark to see, but Edriss pressed up against one of the walls. I felt the rush of air as the Zasan ran past us, right into—
<Got you!> said Esplin's triumphant voice. <Edriss, I hope this isn't you.>
"No, not me," gasped Edriss, still catching her breath. "But be careful, there was more than one chasing me."
I felt the brush of tentacles as the Lerdethak pushed past us, out into the fading light of the clearing. Edriss followed him slowly, legs shaking. Now that the immediate danger was gone, the thrill of the chase was starting to die down, leaving behind only fear.
<I can't believe I did that,> muttered Edriss. <I must be losing my mind.>
If there had been other Zasan following us, they had fled before the Lerdethak, because the clearing was devoid of any enemies. Edriss leaned over to rest her hands on her knees.
"So where is it, Esplin?" she panted.
<I have a pouch inside my mouth. He is in there. Unhappy, but alive.>
<Like a chipmunk,> I contributed.
When they realized that we were probably safe, Icharyt and Emiki climbed down from the trees they had been hidden in. Icharyt approached Esplin carefully, while Emiki stayed back.
"Do you have it?" asked Emiki.
"Of course he does!" said Icharyt. "He's Esplin."
<Quite right,> said Esplin smugly.
Edriss glanced past Icharyt, and that was when she spotted the little thing in Emiki's slender arms. It was tiny, and white, with lots of legs and comically overlarge eyes that were shading from bright blue to a peaceful yellow color.
"Emiki!" she said. "She hatched!"
"Yes, I know," said Emiki quietly. The infant Nahara made a soft sound, like the call of a dove. To my surprise, Emiki replied, chirping to her in what I assumed was the Nahara language. The sound reminded me of early-morning birdsong that I used to wake up to on Earth.
I felt a strange ache in my chest at the sight, but the feeling wasn't coming from me. It was Edriss. She usually keeps her more private feelings from me, but now she was broadcasting them, albeit unintentionally. I could feel a deep sadness and regret as she watched Sia Ren reach up and press slender fingers to her mother's face.
Suddenly, Edriss muttered something about biological functions and left. Nobody said anything, because between Sia Ren and the Lerdethak, no one was paying any attention to us.
<Edriss?> I asked. I knew perfectly well that we did not have to take care of any biological functions at this point.
<Shut up, Eva. Just SHUT UP!> she screeched. I was so shocked at the intensity of her anger that I fell silent. She stumbled deeper into the swamp, splashing through the water and kicking fallen branches out of her way.
Finally, when she could go no further, she leaned up against one of the gnarled old trees and hugged it as if it was a long lost friend, or perhaps just the only thing keeping her upright.
She pressed her face, my face, our face against the withered bark and began to cry.
<Edriss,> I pleaded. <Please tell me what's wrong.>
But she would not.
I don't know how long we stayed like that for. Maybe we would have been there for the rest of the night if Esplin had not eventually come looking for us.
<Edriss?> he yelled, splashing through the water. <Are you dead? You'd better not be dead. I'm the only one allowed to kill you.>
Edriss lifted my head from the bark slowly. I could feel where it had pressed patterns into my cheek.
"Esplin-Nine-Four-Double-Six," she said in a voice that radiated ice, "if you do not leave me in peace immediately, I will remove you from your host with my bare hands."
Esplin was behind us, so hadn't seen our tearstained face yet. I knew he thought she was probably just flirting with him. It was an easy mistake to make.
<I'd like to see you try!> he boasted.
"Get away from me!" she screamed, twisting my body around to look at him. Esplin reared back in shock. Through her tears, I could see the utterly stunned expression on his Andalite face.
<What—what happened?> he asked in a stupefied tone of voice.
"What happened is that there is an incompetent, cannibalistic moron refusing to leave me alone!" shrilled Edriss. I felt a tear slip down my chin and land on my neck. "Do you think perhaps you could do something about it?"
Esplin stared at her for a moment longer. Then he spun around and fled, his hoofsteps fading into the distance.
<That,> I said, <was not very nice.>
"Shut up," muttered Edriss, and closed my eyes.
After a little while, it started to rain.
* * *
Edriss finally managed to pull herself together a little bit after that. She splashed some muddy water on my face and began the tedious walk back to the rest of the group.
<You're lucky one of the Zasan didn't find you,> I said. <You know they're hanging around.>
<I don't recall asking for your input,> grumbled Edriss.
Nobody said anything when we finally arrived back. I had a feeling Esplin had warned them not to mess with Edriss, as she had apparently gone completely insane. The captured Zasan was lying on the ground, unconscious. I wondered how they'd managed to knock him out, and had a sudden mental image of Esplin as the Lerdethak beating the alien against the ground like a doll until it passed out.
"Well," said Icharyt, "who wants to infest it?"
<I am not leaving this host,> said Esplin immediately.
<Go infest it,> I encouraged Edriss. <It'll be fine. I'll be good. There's no custard here.>
"I will do it," offered Emiki. "Osa Ren will give you no trouble."
That was an understatement. Osa Ren takes Emiki's calls for her when Emiki is in the Yeerk Pool. She makes voluntary human-controllers look like flight risks.
Nobody argued, and Emiki, still clutching Sia Ren to her chest, crouched down beside the captured Zasan and pressed her host's head to his. I caught a glimpse of something grey moving between their ear canals before the Nahara got back up.
A long moment passed, in which we all stared at the Zasan expectantly. But it did not move. And it did not speak.
<Well?> demanded Esplin.
"I don't think she can communicate with us," said Edriss. "I assumed they used thought-speak, but perhaps not."
The Zasan turned its face to look at us, but said nothing. Its long trunk reached out and gestured towards Osa Ren. But Osa Ren was already kneeling down again. I watched as the free Nahara pressed the side of her head to the Zasan's ear canal.
It was weird. She was weird. I'd have to give it some more thought later.
Once Emiki was back in her usual host's head, she took a moment to re-orient herself, and then looked at us.
"You are probably not going to believe this," she said.
to be continued