The next morning, I sought out Sahn Lane and Mia Zi, the leaders of the Ifhara clan. I found them down by the river, splashing each other like children.
They are children, I reminded myself. The disarmingly cheerful attitude of the Nahara was more than just a façade. They had learned to turn their natural temperaments into a weapon.
“I think I can help you,” I told them. “But first, I need to know exactly what the Roson did to your DNA. So I…so our scientists…can reverse it.”
Sahn Lane and Mia Zi became very serious when they heard that.
“The project,” said Mia Zi, “was called the Countermeasure, or so we are told. The Roson released a sort of disease into Nahara lands. It did not make us ill, not in the way you’re thinking. But it did not take very long for us to notice the change.”
“Are there any Nahara who weren’t modified?” I asked.
“Perhaps there were,” said Sahn Lane, “but it was many generations ago. They would not be alive now.”
“We do not have the technology to manipulate DNA,” added Mia Zi. “But if you go to the Capitol, you will find the Archives. We think that all the data from the Countermeasure project is stored there. If you could bring it back…”
“That would be perfect,” I said. “But how can we get to the Archives? Is it guarded?”
<Nobody notices slaves,> said Osa Ren. <We could sneak in and back out.>
I liked that idea, and so did Mia Zi and Sahn Lane.
“How much backup do you need?” asked Sahn Lane.
“We think it would be best if only a few came with us,” I said. “A larger group would attract attention, but…”
Osa Ren signaled she wanted to say something, so I let her.
“If we have anyone who has escaped the Capitol before, their advice would be welcome,” she said. “We also need to think of a way to get into the city without documentation.”
I saw a flicker of something interesting in Osa Ren’s memories, so I pulled at it.
“Who are the Silver Claw?” I asked.
“They help slaves escape,” said Mia Zi. “But…they are also known for blowing up buildings and public transits that have both Roson and Nahara inside.”
“Would they help us?” I pressed. Mia Zi looked distinctly uncomfortable.
“If you could find them…” said Sahn Lane.
“I don’t want those terrorists in my village,” said Mia Zi with surprising harshness. “They’ll call down the Enforcers on our heads.”
I could see her point. The Ifhara clan had worked hard to stay below the radar. Bringing in wanted criminals could easily undo all their hard work.
“Alright,” I said. “We need to go plan. Thank you for your help.”
Aviss was excited once she heard what I wanted to do, though not for the reasons I’d been hoping.
“The Council will be much happier if we bring them the Nahara as they were before the Roson messed them up,” she said. “Maybe I’ll even get my own lab.”
“Do you ever not think about promotions?” I snapped, looking up from my collection of maps.
“What’s the matter with you?” asked Elit, and I found that I had no answer.
“Listen,” I said at last. “We’re going to the capitol. Osa Ren and I are going to pretend to be a slave. Then we’re going to break in to the Archives and steal the data we need to make the Nahara the way they used to be.”
“Sounds risky,” said Elit. “Why not just wait for help to get here and then go in and take the data?”
“Because we don’t want to risk the Archives being destroyed,” I said. The Archives, from the looks of it, was a tall building in the center of the city. I couldn’t imagine it withstanding a battle. Worse still, Osa Ren seemed to think that if the Roson learned what we wanted, they would destroy the information just to spite us.
“I asked, and that one Nahara in charge of the transponder—”
“Illi Tam,” I said automatically.
“Who cares?” said Aviss. “He said I could use it to call home this afternoon. I can’t wait to tell everyone we found a new race to use as soldiers!”
“No,” I said. “Not as soldiers. They’re too few, and too fragile. The population needs to stabilize before we can even think about putting them on a battlefield. We could…we could give them to civilians, though. This world could become a civilian world! Imagine a host species not used for warfare!” I was pretty pleased with myself for coming up with this plan.
My poolmates were not.
“Emiki, have you gone insane?” said Aviss.
“No!” I said defensively. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh, gee, where do I start?” asked Aviss. “You’re risking your life on a crazy mission for an alien species, you’re saying you don’t want the Empire to use said alien species for warfare, and you are referring to yourself in the plural!”
“No we’re not,” I said. “I just…Elit. Elit, don’t you think the Nahara are special?”
“What do you mean, special?”
“Elit,” I said. “What’s your host’s name?”
Elit hesitated. I knew he was looking for the answer.
“His name’s Lau Eso,” I said. “Elit, have you even spoken to him?”
“You have gone insane,” said Aviss. “Emiki, I think it’s time for you to leave your host body. You can wait in the pool until reinforcements get here…”
“Don’t talk to me like I’m a grub!”
“Well, you’re acting like one,” said Aviss.
“We—I have work to do,” I snapped, collecting up all the maps. “Don’t bother me until I’m done.”
I kicked some furniture around for emphasis, and then I was gone.
The Nahara had powerful ground-based vehicles built to handle the rocky terrain. They were painfully slow compared to the shuttle, but the shuttle was no longer an option. The village engineer, Imi Nal, explained that most of the vehicles had been stolen from Roson scouting parties, as the Ifhara clan no longer had the resources to build their own.
“Stay off the main roads, once you get to the Roson territories,” said Imi Nal. “Patrols come by regularly. But they hate the canyons, so try to stick by the rocks.”
“Won’t it be faster to fly?” I asked.
“Maybe at first,” granted Imi Nal, “but the Grounders don’t get tired.”
Osa Ren and I would not be making our journey alone. There were a handful of young Nahara who wanted to help, and I could not bear to turn them away. It was strange—I was so certain I’d be making this trip alone. But now I was glad for the company.
Included in the group was a male Nahara who Osa Ren identified for me as Sia Ito. He’d approached us just after our visit to the mechanic. Osa Ren liked his smile. I hated him immediately.
“I am told you were asking about the Silver Claw,” he said. “I think I can help you.”
“Do you know where we can find them?” I asked.
“A group of them came to trade a few months ago…when you were gone. Mia Zi wouldn’t let them in the village, but I talked to them. They said if I wanted to join, they had a cell outside the Capitol.”
“That’s perfect!” cried Osa Ren, before I could stop her.
<You want him?> I asked as Sia Ito walked away.
<Mmm. Perhaps,> said Osa Ren. <Emiki, are you jealous?>
<Jealous of what?> I said scornfully, and that was the end of that conversation.
There was not much to do while we drove along the canyons, and eventually Osa Ren fell asleep. While she dreamed nonsense dreams, I examined her memories further. She had been a slave for much of her life. The monotony of serving and cleaning was only broken up by the occasional horrors that I could not bear to look at for long. It was no wonder that she’d started collecting poisons.
Oddly, irrationally, I wished that I could hold her.
We hit a bump, and Osa Ren woke at last.
<Emiki?> she asked, still slow and foggy. Tendrils of dreams still clung to her thoughts.
<I’m still here,> I said.
Osa Ren could not see very well in the dark, so she raised our eyes to the stars instead. It was a clear night, and she picked out familiar constellations automatically. Each had a story, and I thought of how Aviss and maybe even Elit would dismiss them as primitive.
I’d never felt further from my siblings than I did in that moment. And strangely, I didn’t mind.
<Are we going to see the stars up close?> Osa Ren asked me.
<Of course,> I replied. <You’ll see. Every big ship has observation windows. Some even have whole observation decks. They’re perfectly clear and it’s like you’re standing on the edge of…of everything.>
One of the other Nahara started up a song, and the others were quick to join in. It was soft and sweet, and it reminded me of my last moments on the bridge of our ship before the Andalites attacked. I could close our eyes and pretend that I was still standing next to the Sub-Visser, glowing with pride.
<I’m glad you live in my brain,> said Osa Ren. <I’m glad we’re friends.>
I saw the tall spire of the Archives long before I saw the walls of the Capitol. When I realized just how large it was, I was glad I’d decided not to wait until reinforcements arrived to carry out that mission. Knowing my fellow Yeerks, they’d shoot at it just to watch it fall.
Maybe, in another life, I would have as well.
Sia Ito swore up and down that he could find us the place where the Silver Claw was hiding. He led us to a beautiful grove filled with white flowers, threw his main arms out, and announced, “I think this is it!”
It wasn’t. The grove was completely empty, and the nearby trees showed no sign that they’d ever been lived in. So we moved on, and soon found a little valley with a lake. Osa Ren caught us a sort of bird she’d never tasted before. While we ate, Sia Ito once again spread his arms and cried, “I think this is it!”
This happened three times in total. After the third time, Lor Ita began lifting up small stones, peering under them, and crying, “I think this is it!”
But the Silver Claw did not live in the trees. Their cell was hidden deep in a gorge, in the canyons that the Roson hated. We picked our way around the rocks, searching for any signs of life. I was just about to start teasing Sia Ito again when Osa Ren and I found ourselves staring down the barrel of a strange weapon that we did not recognize.
“I think this is it,” I said, not looking away from the two strange, stern Nahara that glared down at me.
“Oh, shut up,” said Sia Ito from somewhere in the rocks.
The Nahara of the Silver Claw were wary at first, and I could not blame them. The group ran itself very much like a clan. The leaders were a male and female named Cing Iro and Li Jin. They were a darkly cynical pair, and I could tell they were trying hard not to believe that my plan could work. Optimism, it seemed, had been beaten out of them.
They brought me into a little room that looked like it had been used for interrogations at one point. I ignored the bloodstains and told them everything. I needed their trust, and I needed their help. If they appreciated my openness, I could not tell.
“We need to act quickly,” I said. “My people will be here very soon. And they’ll probably start destroying Roson cities.”
When I said that, there was a happy little murmur from behind me. Li Jin hurried over to the door and gave it a kick. I heard the noises of panic as the eavesdroppers scurried away.
“…So we need to get the data before that happens,” I finished, a little thrown by the interruption. “If you could help us sneak into the Capitol, it would benefit us all.”
“Wait here,” ordered Li Jin. I didn’t point out that I had nowhere to go. The two Nahara left the room, and I think I heard the door lock behind them.
The Silver Claw had a network of tunnels that allowed them to sneak in and out regularly, though they didn’t use them often for fear of detection. All of the tunnels could be easily collapsed, and seeing the frail-looking beams made Osa Ren and I nervous.
Li Jin had swiftly and curtly explained the plan to me, and I found that I had no objections. I would be heading to the Archives alone, as a group of Nahara would arouse suspicion. Osa Ren had never been to the Capitol before, but the Archives was easily the largest building in it. We’d have no trouble finding it. In the meantime, the Silver Claw would be making their own arrangements.
We emerged from an abandoned house in the slave district just as the sun was rising. There were no streets, only grassy fields and Roson-style buildings up on stilts. I wanted to fly straight to the archives, but Osa Ren warned that we’d be arrested if we did. So we took a slower route across the public greenery.
There weren’t many people out yet. And as usual, most of the Roson ignored us. Occasionally, one would give Osa Ren a look. Each time that happened, I felt her heart freeze up with fear.
<It’s alright,> I soothed. <If anyone tries anything…>
Still, I could sense Osa Ren’s doubt. Would I jeopardize the entire mission just to beat up a Roson?
I wasn’t sure, and luckily, we never found out.
The fields of the Capitol became more and more beautiful as we drew nearer to the center. Nahara slaves labored in immense, elaborate gardens, and important-looking Roson hurried into equally important-looking buildings.
I was so afraid that someone would stop us as we approached the Archives. It was one of the few buildings not on stilts, because I supposed it did not need the extra height. It was made of the same gleaming white material that all the other buildings seemed to be constructed from.
<It’s pretty,> I said admiringly, stepping back for a full view. I probably looked like a tourist.
<It was built by slaves,> retorted Osa Ren.
Then, right on schedule, an explosion rocked the city.
We half-ran, half-flew into the Archives. We weren’t the only ones. Everyone who had been outside, Nahara and Roson alike, had ducked into one of the nearby buildings for shelter. Panicking civilians outnumbered the Enforcers a hundred to one, so it wasn’t hard to sneak past the entrance hall and into the heart of the Archives.
The Silver Claw had informed us that they were planning on taking out a large residential area for rich Roson, and that we’d be wise to take advantage of the diversion. I didn’t ask how many Nahara were also living there with their masters, though I did make a mental note that the Silver Claw would need to be dealt with after I’d liberated the Nahara.
Once we made it past security, nobody paid much attention to us. Between the terrorist attack and the fact that we were just a slave girl on an errand, we might as well have been invisible.
The building that held the Archives was many, many stories. It looked as if the Roson had recorded everything they’d ever done. We hurried to the electronic database that stood like a pillar in the center of the room. Nobody was around, so we quickly typed in ‘Countermeasure’.
There were hundreds of results, and not all of them had anything to do with the Nahara. A lot of them were simply medical. I added the condition ‘Nahara’ to the search.
There were significantly fewer results now. I selected the abstract for the first result, but it was just a news report, published to inform the Roson of the success of the project. Disgusted, I tried the second, and then the third. I narrowed the search further, removing everything except lab reports and other scientific documents.
“I can’t find anything!” I cried in frustration. “It’s almost like it’s been hidden, or—”
“Purged?” said a new voice. Or…not a new voice. Not a new voice at all. A voice I knew very, very well.
Our claws tightened around the base of the keyboard. I didn’t look away from the screen. Couldn’t.
“Aviss?” I said. “What are you doing here?” I was playing stupid. As if that could make it not be true. As if that could stop the dread and realization that had already twined together in my stomach.
In our peripheral vision, we saw my pool-sister step out of the shadows.
“Why?” I whispered. I had the sudden, irrational feeling that the entire universe had narrowed down to this single moment. There was no Yeerk Empire. No Andalites. No war. No Roson. Just this room and my pool-sister and Osa Ren.
“I’d rather bring a doomed host species back than lose you to that insect!” snapped Aviss. “Do you not see what you’ve become? Emiki, you have lost your mind. You care more about the Nahara than you do us.”
I turned my head to stare at her. Aviss. My pool-sister, with her squishy human host and long yellow hair. I saw her, but I didn’t see her.
“They’ll die out soon enough,” said Aviss. “I know you’ll be mad at me, but you’ll get over it. And then you’ll see I was right. But right now you’re lost.”
I heard her, but I didn’t hear her.
“Reinforcements will be here any minute,” continued Aviss. “So you need to pull yourself together. If they find out you’ve gone native, it’s Kandrona starvation. You know that. You know that. I did this for you, you idiot. Because you’re my sister. And…you’re the only one who was ever nice to me.”
Osa Ren gave a piercing scream of rage. Aviss took an automatic step back, and her eyes widened in surprise. It was only then that she seemed to realize that she had made a mistake, because it was only then that she turned and ran.
And when she did, it lit up the part of Osa Ren’s brain that was in charge of spearing birds out of the sky.
She was my host. I could have stopped her easily.
to be concluded