“We are going to die,” announced Aviss.
“Don’t be silly,” said Osa Ren. “I would not have rescued you if I didn’t have an escape plan.”
“Mind sharing it with us?” asked Elit.
“Follow me,” instructed Osa Ren, and she leapt from the ladder. A pair of beautifully patterned insectoid wings flared from beneath her exoskeleton to catch her, and she landed elegantly on the ground below.
“I’m not doing that,” said Aviss immediately. I ignored her and jumped after Osa Ren. I hit the ground hard, but my Hork-Bajir host had been through far worse. I raised my blades towards the oncoming Roson. Elit rushed past me to face them head-on.
“Climb down, Aviss!” I yelled at her. I had a feeling her human host was not nearly as durable as mine—if it hit the ground, it might splash.
Osa Ren turned to check on us and made a frustrated chirring sound when she saw how far behind we still were.
“We do not have long!” she warned.
“Climb down or we will leave you!” I yelled at my pool-sister. That got her moving, though still with painful slowness. As she worked her way down, I dug my blades into the scaffolding and climbed up to meet her. Then, not caring if I injured her, I plucked her off the ladder and hit the ground again.
I sprinted after Osa Ren, calling to Elit to forget her battle and join us as I went. Osa Ren slowed enough to allow me to catch up with her.
“Where is your ship?” she asked.
“Outside town. Follow me,” I said. I couldn’t see how near or far my pursuers were, and I didn’t dare turn around to check. I felt a burning pain in my shoulder, and tried to ignore it. But not even adrenaline could numb the pain. After only a few steps, I dropped Aviss. Two steps more, and I fell to my knees.
Another burn, this time in the center of my back. My host screamed the sort of scream I’d only heard from him in the earliest days of his infestation. The world tilted.
And then there was no world.
Instinct guided me. I left my Hork-Bajir host’s brain, begging the Kandrona that one of my pool-mates would pick me up and carry me to safety. But it was not soft human hands that I felt cup my body, nor was it reptilian Hork-Bajir claws.
I sensed an ear canal, and in my desperation, I moved towards it, not wondering or caring where my new host had come from. The only thing that mattered was that I felt the gentle roar of an organic electrical field.
I wrapped myself around the new brain and was instantly flooded with a lifetime’s worth of memories and knowledge. But I pushed through it, knowing that the situation was still urgent, that the Roson were probably still not far away. I opened my new eyes, and was surprised to find myself back on Aviss’ shuttle.
<This tickles,> commented Osa Ren.
* * *
My discarded host distracted the Roson long enough for us to make a getaway, though only just. Elit had to toss a few law enforcement officers out of the back of the shuttle before Aviss took off into the lower atmosphere. Elit had been wounded as well, and while it did not appear as bad as my injuries had been, the ugly black burns were spreading across his body like a slow infection. Aviss rushed through his medical care because she was far more interested in examining me.
“You’re in luck,” said Aviss, after completing a scan. “It appears that her brain structure and chemical make-up are within the safe zone for us.”
“You mean, we can use the Nahara as hosts?” asked Elit eagerly. I knew he’d be trading his damaged host out for a Nahara the moment we came in contact with one.
“Yes. I believe we can.” Aviss gave a thin little smile, and I just knew she was imagining the praise and promotions that awaited her once we got back to the homeworld.
<You can live in my body?> asked Osa Ren with great interest. <That sounds fun!>
<You…do not mind?> I asked, incredulous.
<Most people scream,> I admitted.
<Now you do something!> ordered Osa Ren. I raised her primary set of hands up to her eyes to examine them. Osa Ren would have shrieked with laughter if I’d let her.
I turned to examine her memories. I’d been hit with a flood of them when I’d infested her, but I hadn’t had the time to really look at them. Now I was Osa Ren, completely and utterly. My mother was Ela Ren and my father was Osa Dret. I was a female of the Ifhara Clan, the People of the Sky. I was quiet and meek and obedient and…
Slowly, I began to understand.
<You pretend to be weak,> I said slowly, <so that others will underestimate you.>
<What other way is there to be?> asked Osa Ren.
<Yeerks like to pretend to be stronger than they are, so none will challenge them.>
Osa Ren considered it. <A good way. But not as good as the Nahara way.>
<It looks like it’s the Roson way, too,> I said, remembering Ji’s lies. I sorted through her memories, and was shocked at what I found.
<You are a child,> I said.
<I am almost one year old,> said Osa Ren, offended. <I am not a child!>
I examined her memories more closely. I focused not on her personal life, but on the history of the Nahara and the Roson. At first I was disgusted.
Then I was horrified.
<The Roson were once our cousins,> commented Osa Ren when she realized what I was after. <Our hatchlings played in the same trees. Then, the Roson became cruel. They changed our bodies so that our eggs are few and our lives are short.>
<Your lifespan—> I began, only to find that I couldn’t finish the sentence, as if perhaps that would stop it from being true.
<Yes,> agreed Osa Ren.
To say Aviss took the news badly would be an understatement.
“I am not getting up in front of the Council of Thirteen and explaining that I’ve brought back a species with a five-year lifespan and terminally low reproductive rate!” screamed Aviss, throwing one of her notepads at me for emphasis.
“The alternative is getting up in front of the Council of Thirteen and explaining that you’ve brought back nothing,” I pointed out. “Would you prefer that?”
“I want to die!” howled Aviss, slamming her own head into the table and alarming my new host terribly.
<Your pool-sister, is she in physical danger or…?>
<She’s just an idiot, Osa Ren.>
<Ah. I thought so.>
I laughed out loud at that. Osa Ren’s laughter was breathy and rippling. Aviss raised her head to glare at me.
“What’s funny?” my pool-sister demanded. Her forehead was now red.
“Nothing,” I lied.
Osa Ren promised us that the trip wouldn’t be long, but it took us across deep gorges and over ice-white mountain peaks. She pointed out landmarks and interesting fauna to me as we passed them. It was nothing I could not have seen in her memories, but I let her show me anyway.
The Ifhara clan, Osa Ren informed me, was far smaller than it had been once. But that only meant that there were more weapons to go around. Once again, we were forced to land our shuttle on the outskirts of the village. Osa Ren insisted upon this, saying that the sight of an alien shuttle flying over the cliffs would cause hysteria.
So we left the ship and continued on foot. From what I could see, the village was similar to the Roson town, but there were distinct differences. Instead of being up on scaffolding, the homes were built directly into trees, the branches woven into a protective cradle. A sparkling white river cut through the land, and the ground was inhospitable and rocky. I could pick out a few pale shapes moving between the trees.
Osa Ren’s brain was alight with excitement and anticipation, and she struggled to break into a run. I insisted that we couldn’t let Aviss and Elit fall too far behind—and Elit was really struggling to walk, though offering to help him would only be seen as an insult, so I didn’t bother.
The first Nahara spotted us, and called to the others in the trilling, chittering language that I now understood thanks to Osa Ren.
“Intruders!” he called. An echoing cry sounded around the grove.
<They’ll be getting their weapons,> said Osa Ren serenely, and she was correct. Five Nahara landed on the rocks and started towards us, weapons ready.
The large female at the front of the group lowered her weapon when we came near enough to identify. Her eyes went from wary, suspicious orange to electric blue. Osa Ren cried out in my mind.
“Osa Ren!” sang the female. Osa Ren’s brain helpfully identified her as Ela Ren—her mother.
I did not stop my new host from running to her family and losing herself in the multi-armed embrace. And as they held her, I imagined that they might be holding me, too.
I looked up at Ela Ren. Her eyes were now a bright, bright red. My Yeerk instincts screamed danger, but Osa Ren knew better. Ela Ren was not angry. She was crying for her stolen daughter, home at last.
* * *
Night was falling quickly, and Osa Ren’s steady stream of admirers had slowed to a trickle. They had thought her lost forever when she’d been taken by Roson slavers, and mourned her as though she was dead. She happily told the story of our escape for anyone who asked. They especially liked the part where she explained how she’d poisoned the entire household, and she told it at least four times.
I wanted to see their weapons and technology, but the leaders of the clan, a male and female pair named Sahn Lane and Mia Zi, explained that the village must use their power sparingly, or else risk getting the attention of the Roson.
“This is infuriating,” grumbled Aviss once we were alone. A flickering lantern lit the room. “I don’t even believe they have technology at all. We’re in a treehouse.”
“You wish to contact your homeworld, do you not?” asked Osa Ren. I let her speak because I was too tired to engage Aviss.
“Of course,” said Aviss, “But Governor Ji said you don’t have the technology…”
Osa Ren made an amused sound. “And you believed him?”
Osa Ren was confident that we’d be allowed to call home the moment her clan leaders declared it safe, so I tried not to worry much. Meanwhile, Elit had traded his dying Hork-Bajir for another Nahara. He’d had at least ten volunteers. They had to make it a lottery.
<Let’s fly,> suggested Osa Ren. She didn’t need to ask twice.
“Emiki! Where are you going?” Aviss yelled after me.
I didn’t bother answering.
I’d been thinking we’d go down to the ground and get a running start. But Osa Ren had other plans. At the edge of the balcony, she unfurled her wings and leapt.
Inside our shared mind, I screamed. But then we were in the air. And we stayed there.
It was not effortless flight; Osa Ren’s body was a little too awkward to allow that. But it was flight all the same. Osa Ren’s wingbeats became a rhythm that I clung to.
<The Roson cannot fly like we do,> explained Osa Ren. <Their wings have forgotten their purpose. Perhaps that is why they are so cruel.>
A flash of pale feathers darted past our eyes, and Osa Ren’s mind lit up with excitement. She’d just spotted a meal. I didn’t try to stop her. I was too fascinated by the switch from child to predator. Hork-Bajir had no prey drive, and the Taxxons had nothing but. The Nahara, it seemed, were a balance similar to the Ongachic.
She flew after it, picking up a sudden burst of speed. The bird was fast, but Osa Ren swept down beneath it and then shot upwards, spearing it on her outstretched claws. It took less than a minute, and I barely knew what had happened when it was over.
Osa Ren landed in a tree and raised the bird to her mouth, ripping open the breast with her mandibles. This bird was from a species called the tzfonn, commonly eaten by both Nahara and Roson. I saw from Osa Ren’s memories that the Nahara preferred to hunt while the Roson liked to raise their own meat on farms.
Osa Ren was pushing into my memories. I should have stopped her. Rebuked her, even. But I didn’t. I knew I’d been lucky, but I couldn’t hide the true nature of the Yeerk Empire from Osa Ren forever. I could all-too-clearly imagine her friendliness fading into hatred once she learned…
<You were very brave,> whispered Osa Ren in my mind. I’d let her see the Andalite ship drop out of Z-space, and now she was watching me yell orders at the terrified bridge staff. She skipped ahead, and then she saw the charred ruins of our ship as it had been just after I’d awoken on her planet. She examined Vella, crawling down the destroyed hallway, with a clinical sort of curiosity.
“Maybe,” I said. “But what good did it do?”
<You saved yourself. You saved your sister and your brother.>
“And I lost five thousand others.”
<Do you wish you had died with them?> she asked with alarming bluntness.
“Of course not,” I said. But truthfully, I was not sure. “It’s too early to say,” I amended.
For once, Osa Ren said nothing.
“What do you want?” I cried suddenly. “You knew what I was all along! You rescued us, let me into your brain, but I still can’t figure out what you want from me!”
<I thought you could see my plans?> said Osa Ren. <I thought you could see everything?>
“I can!” I could. But they were…nonsensical. I saw actions, but I couldn’t connect them to outcomes. I saw plans, but they made no sense to me. Was this host insane, or were all Nahara so opaque? Even in the privacy of their own minds, the deception continued. It was as if her race had been created to frustrate mine.
<Save us,> said Osa Ren. <It’s really not complicated at all.>
to be continued