Read the prologue first!
It was a small ship, barely more than a cruiser. There was no question that this was a vehicle of science and exploration, rather than warfare. Not my first choice, but most of our resources these days were going towards securing the newly-discovered and badly-named Earth. We’d been told to consider ourselves lucky that our mission had not been completely scrapped.
Originally, the expedition was meant to be six scientific vessels escorted by three warships. Then Edriss turned up with five billion humans and a very vague explanation and the Empire no longer needed to send giant expeditions on blind hunts for new hosts. So our nine ships became one.
Edriss’ discovery had transformed the Empire overnight. To accommodate it, different research and engineering departments were being created and cut each day. What would the Empire need, now that we had this amazing new world? And what could we get rid of? Politicians yelled into each other’s faces until late into the night. There was even some talk about designing Bug fighters for human pilots.
I think everyone in my regiment was so excited about the discovery that they didn’t notice how our commander, Sub-Visser 88, struggled to remain optimistic. But when it was announced that only fifty of the Sub-Visser’s five thousand soldiers would be allowed to bring their hosts on the journey, the excitement died down quickly.
I was lucky enough to be one of the chosen fifty. Those who weren’t would be crammed into a few small portable pools for the entirety of the journey on the off chance that we found a suitable host race.
I was also happy to learn that my closest poolmate, Elit, would also be on the ship with us, though not as one of the sub-Visser’s warriors. Elit was a low-ranking security officer with a Hork-Bajir body, like mine. I often found his lack of motivation infuriating, but I got along with him much better than I did Aviss.
Of the three of us, Aviss was the youngest. She was a scientist, and made it fairly clear that she saw physical combat as barbaric and distasteful, even when it was for the glory of the Empire. I don’t think she was opposed to the war; she just saw herself as above the bloody, dirty troops who fought Andalites face-to-face. She lacked a basic concern for her fellow Yeerks, which had alienated her from most of our peers, though I do not know if she ever noticed or cared. I was one of the few people she tolerated, and the only one she ever sought out for conversation.
I had been glad when Elit was assigned to the same ship as her. I knew he’d watch over her, no matter how annoying she got. I lived in constant fear that one day she would skewer the wrong person with her tongue and come to a sudden, violent end.
The journey began uneventfully, and we dropped out of Z-space on schedule. Over the next few weeks, we did find and catalogue a few new planets. But only one or two had the sort of resources we were searching for, and not in great enough quantities to be reported to the Empire. And none of the planets had any creatures we could infest.
As the days trickled by, Elit and I entertained ourselves by sparring and gossiping. He introduced me to his fellow security guards and I forced the rest of my brigade to open up towards the crew. There was still a bit of a divide between the crew and the soldiers, but it was slowly being worn away. It was a nice thing to observe.
One quiet morning-cycle, Elit and I were discussing whether or not Aviss needed some manners punched into her today. Elit was strongly in favor, but I was lukewarm. We were just coming to the conclusion that her new human body had inflated her already-healthy ego when I was summoned to the bridge by Vella 470, the sub-Visser’s second in command.
While I adored the Sub-Visser, even idolized him, I was far less fond of Vella. He was the sort of Yeerk who always had a printed copy of the regulations on hand, and he poured over it like a grub with a compilation of fantasy stories, scouring for details and loopholes that nobody else cared about. Still, an order was an order and I was always happy to be on the bridge.
When I arrived, I found almost everyone gathered around the largest display screen. It was showing images from the probe that we’d sent down to the most recent planet, a small and pale world with no entry in the Galactic Encyclopedia. The probe must have found something promising if everyone had halted work to gawk over some pictures.
I moved closer to take a look. My first impression was that the planet was covered in snow. But then I realized that the plants themselves were pale silvers and pinks and blues, giving the false impression of a winter planet.
Now that I knew what I was looking at, I could pick out individual trees (long and thin, with sudden explosions of branches at the very top). The probe sent back another image, this one of an enormous lake. Then a canyon of pale orange and red stones, cut deep into the earth.
Hosts or no hosts, we’d already made an excellent find.
“Check for communications,” the Sub-Visser ordered the Taxxons on Sensory. They set to work immediately. I kept my eyes on the screen, and was lucky enough to see a strange bird with a beak like a Hork-Bajir’s blade flitted past the screen and I swear the entire bridge gasped. Complex organisms. It had seemed like too much to hope for.
“I’m, I’m picking something up,” reported one of the Taxxons eagerly. “Audio. It might be…”
“Play it,” ordered the Sub-Visser. I could tell he was trying hard to keep from sounding too excited, as if even hoping was too much.
The Taxxon pressed a few keys on his console. All was quiet. Then…
A soft noise, gentle and trilling, rose from the speakers. It was slow at first, but quickly gained speed and complexity, rising and falling like a wave. After a few minutes, a second noise joined in. The two sounds twined together, and it was only then that I realized that I was hearing music.
The Sub-Visser caught my eye and grinned. I offered a wide smile.
Then Mitti 637 screamed like she’d been stabbed.
We all turned, as one, to look at her. She was at her station in front of the Navigations terminal, her eyes locked on her screen. There was horror on her Ongachic face, and when I followed her gaze I realized why.
An Andalite Dome ship that had just dropped out of Z-Space directly in front of us.
I had a moment to register pure, unfiltered terror before the first shredder beam rocked our little ship.
I might have blacked out. Even now, it’s difficult to say. But the next thing I remember is the ship being dark, with only the dim glow of the emergency backup lights illuminating our shocked faces. Fallen bodies lay sprawled on the floor. I waited for the sub-Visser to start yelling the orders that would save us.
He never did.
Vella must have come to the same realization, because he shrilled, “Report!”
“Shields…shields…shields…” stammered one of the Taxxons. I recognized him, though his name escaped me.
“What about the shields?” screeched Vella.
“The shields are…they are…”
“Can someone who isn’t a babbling imbecile give me a report?”
“They hit the labs,” said someone else. I felt my throat close up. Aviss…
“Seal them off! What about our weapons?” demanded Vella.
“Online, but nothing this ship has stands a chance against a Dome ship, sir!”
“I don’t care!” raged Vella. “We’re going to stand and fight! Get to the Bug fighters!”
“You’re on a science vessel, there are no Bug fighters!” I couldn’t tell who had spoken, and luckily for whoever it was, neither could Vella.
“We’re going to die,” whimpered Mitti.
“No we’re not,” I said, and something new came over me in a rush as I said those words. It wasn’t anger, or even sorrow. It was something I’d never felt before, smooth and cold and a little scary.
“Mitti,” I said, turning to her. She flinched as if expecting to be reprimanded. I raised my hands in a gesture of reassurance. “Mitti, it’s alright. Mitti, I want you to take us down to the surface of that planet. Can you do that for me?”
“What?” yelled Vella.
“Take us down to the surface,” I repeated. “That Dome ship is far too large to follow us into the canyons, and maybe if we power down completely we can hide in the rock formations.”
“Emiki 255, I am your superior officer and you would do well to remember—” began Vella.
“All power to main thrusters!” I shouted. “We’re getting out of here now.”
“Belay that!” yelled Vella. “Emiki 255 you are under arrest—”
“There’s an Andalite Dome ship just outside and you’re going to arrest her?” sneered Esorit, one of my fellow soldiers.
“We have five thousand unhosted Yeerks on this ship. We cannot afford to die gloriously,” I said. “Mitti—”
But Mitti had recovered from her shock and was already keying in the commands. I could have kissed her.
“Emiki, Engineering wants to know what to do about the shields?” asked Isako 203 from Communications.
“Forget them. We’re dead if the Andalites fire again, shields or no shields. Just route all power to the thrusters.”
“They’re powering up for another shot!” warned the Taxxon-controller beside him. I dug my claws into my fists. The big Andalite shredder cannons required more than a few minutes between shots, and that was probably the only reason we were alive right now. That, and the Andalites clearly didn’t feel there was any hurry.
I was almost thrown to the floor as our little ship suddenly flared to life and shot off towards the mystery planet at a greater velocity than I’d ever imagined it capable of. The Andalites were clearly not expecting this, and their shot passed through the space where we had been a minute before.
That was the last thing I saw before we entered the blazing atmosphere.
The bridge went quiet. Over Isako’s speakers, I could hear the cheers of the Hork-Bajir in Engineering. I went limp against a smashed terminal.
Everyone was still looking at me, I realized. Did they think I was their Sub-Visser now? Where was Vella? I didn’t know, and at that moment I didn’t particularly care.
“We’re not out yet,” I said, pulling myself together. “We’ve got to find a place to hide. Mitti, do you have maps of those canyons?”
“I’ve already found a good spot,” said Mitti. I went over to her screen and looked at the location she indicated. It was an underground cave. Reaching it would be tricky, but not impossible. If we powered down fast enough, the Andalites wouldn’t be able to find us.
If we were extremely lucky, they might even assume we’d crashed. I made a note to myself to send a team out to strew around some wreckage on the surface once we landed.
Mitti called over some Taxxons to assist her, and they began the arduous process of charting a safe path through the canyons.
“We need to slow down,” reported Mitti. “The path is too narrow. If we hit one of those rock formations…”
“Reduce speed and see if Engineering can’t do something about the shields,” I ordered. I hadn’t dragged us this far only to die in a head-on collision with a boulder.
We wove through the canyon, staying quite near to the ground. Mitti took us into one of the caves, which was as dark as deep space. The bridge went quiet again. Nobody wanted to be the first to speak. To wonder. To ask the difficult questions.
Eventually we reached the safe spot Mitti had chosen. We landed our battered, faithful little spacecraft on the canyon rocks and powered down everything that wasn’t actively keeping us alive.
I realized I hadn’t heard Vella’s whining in a little while. A sickening little flicker of suspicion rose up in my mind, but I squashed it. He was probably just off sulking, and rightly so. I’d been in the wrong, even if my plan had saved us all. I couldn’t imagine that he’d ever forgive me, let alone drop the charges, but I didn’t feel right letting him wander around alone and embarrassed.
I mumbled an excuse and left the bridge in search of our rightful commander. I wasn’t really sure where to start looking, so I just wandered. The ship was barely recognizable, and we would be lucky if we could ever get it to fly again after this, I thought. I forced my mind to stay on serious matters, on energy and rations and discipline and anything other than the fact that Aviss was dead.
The sounds of yelling caught my attention, and I broke into a run. I rounded a corner in time to see Elit strike Vella across the face, sending him crashing to the ground.
“Elit!” I said. “What are you doing?”
“This fool has killed us all!” Elit shouted, gesturing to Vella. “You pompous dapsen, I should cut your throat!”
”What happened?” I said. Elit just pointed to the terminal behind them with one shaking hand. I could see words on it, but I didn’t want to believe what I was reading. I forced myself to take a step closer.
“You sent out a distress call?” I wailed, spinning around to look at Vella.
“Yes!” he said defensively. “I was reporting a mutiny—”
“You idiot! You just gave away our position to the Andalites!” I cried. How much time did we have? A minute? Less?
I spun around, thinking of the intercom on the bridge that would allow me to warn everyone, order them to evacuate—
But a strong hand grabbed me and dragged me back.
“They’ll be aiming for the bridge,” said Elit. “We need to get out of here.”
“We need to sound evacuation!” I said, flailing and twisting to be free of Elit’s iron grip. “Damn it, let me go!”
But he didn’t. Instead, he lifted me off my feet with easy strength and spun around. I struggled, but his host was bigger and stronger and chosen for hand-to-hand combat rather than shooting enemies from a safe distance as mine was.
Elit ran, pounding down the hallway even as I fought to get free.
“You put me down right now!” I yelled.
“Emiki,” said Elit, “it’s too late.”
“It is not!” I slashed at him with my blades, but he was indifferent to the blows. “You idiot, I can still save the others—”
A shock wave of heat and sound hurled us forward as the beam of the Dome ship’s main Shredder cannon hit the bridge.
to be continued