Kevin was a lot calmer than I expected a Kelbrid to be. Then again, I suppose that every Kelbrid we met previously had already been trying to kill us. Kevin was willing to sit down (not literally) and listen to what we decided to tell him of our story, starting with the First War and then telling him all non-compromising pieces of information about the current one. I think he was impressed.
Tobias was telling him about the battle we fought for the Hork-bajir planet when Kevin interrupted him. “The computer tells another ship docks.”
“We weren't expecting company,” Tobias muttered. “I don't suppose you have an ID on it?”
<I am sorry, Prince Tobias, but I can do nothing with these computer systems.>
Tobias sighed. “I figured. Alright, people, let's be on the safe side. Battle morphs. Ax, Fel'Mar, get on either side of that door while Rachel, Jeanne, and I morph. Al, stay near Kevin. Try not to look suspicious.”
I morphed rapidly while Kevin gave us an update on the intruders' progress. “No recognized life signs. Alien to me. Energy signatures say armed. Difficult to say how many.”
It took a few minutes for them to reach us. Considerably faster than we had gotten here. I guess that shouldn't surprise me. They would have seen the Reliquary in the hangar, and our enemies knew that ship pretty well. They would have made a beeline for any non-Kelbrid life signs. Good thing we were ready.
We shut off our flashlights, so we could see them coming from far off. They had flashlights of their own, but they weren't the big ones we brought. It looked like they weren't expecting total darkness and made due with whatever they had on board. Some came through the door. Passed between Ax and Fel'Mar. Jeanne and I spread out to flank them, using our noses to guide us. I knew that smell. I could never forget it. Hork-bajir. Looks like the Yeerks visited early. But why Hork-bajir and not Kelbrid?
Suddenly, Al snapped on a flashlight. Tobias and Ax did the same, blinding our enemies for a minute. In that instant of confusion, we tore into our enemies. I struck at the two nearest Hork-bajir, ripping their throats with my claws before they even realized what happened. Before they even hit the ground, I was trying to get a grip on a third to bite him.
Ax carved a nice line starting at the shoulder of one Hork-bajir and ending around the waist of the one next to him. Neither would last long. Fel'Mar had a Hork-bajir impaled on each hooked hand. Jeanne was climbing off of one downed Hork, preparing to spring for another. Al was cutting the legs out from another one. The Controller fighting Kevin didn't realize he was already dead, impaled through the chest by a Kelbrid stinger. Tobias had already killed two and was fighting two more. There was a cut on his chest, but it was already sealing up.
All of this happened in an instant, the world exploding into violence in the blink of an eye. Eleven Hork-bajir down before they could react. And yet there were still more. I guess there must have been around thirty when we started. That left us outnumbered. Badly.
I ripped the throat out of the Hork-bajir I was fighting, then shoved my way past two more to block the door. A moment later, Ax was beside me. There were a few Hork-bajir behind us, and a whole lot more ahead. Maybe fifteen. And behind them was some kind of alien I had never seen before.
It had a vaguely human shape – two arms, two legs, one head – but its limbs and neck were oddly elongated. The alien was very thin, almost frail looking. Its hands had long fingers that looked pretty sharp. It had a weird jawbone, which grew above its head so that it looked a lot like horns.
The jaw was the most striking part. Its jawbone extended almost half a foot above its head, looking almost like horns. Its nose was just one thin, vertical slit. It had four small, tilted eyes that I think were red – it was hard to tell in this light. The whole thing was a burnt-orange color, and I think it was actually wearing a robe of some sort. It was impossible to tell what the color was.
It stood behind the Hork-bajir, seeming almost board. Why shouldn't it? We'd be overwhelmed for sure. The others finished off the remaining Hork-bajir behind us. <Kevin, is there another way out of here?>
“Where do you want to go?” Kevin asked.
<Preferably the hangar.>
“We are next to it.”
<What? But we came in that way. You mean we walked around the whole ship when this room was right next to us?> Tobias asked.
Kevin gestured to the far wall. “Thick wall.”
<And the hangar is on the other side?>
<Jeanne? Al? Blow it up.>
Jeanne and Al went to work with Kevin to interpret computer stuff. I have no idea what they were doing and I didn't really care. I had other concerns. Specifically the fifteen Hork-bajir on the other side of this doorway; which, of course, didn't have a door.
It was chaos in the doorway, pandemonium. A storm of flailing blades and claws, and it was impossible to say what belonged to who. I'm not even sure what happened, or how long it took. Instinct took over, my body reacting before I even knew what was happening. I was vaguely aware of Tobias pulling Ax back from the door and Fel'Mar taking his place. It barely registered. Everything was one drawn out second, like the whole fight was happening in one instant. And just as suddenly as it started, it was over.
The Hork-bajir stepped back from the door. It was hard to get a count with bear eyes, but I think at least six Hork-bajir were down, dead or incapacitated. Not too shabby. I was bleeding badly, but that could wait for now.
The orange alien shook its head. Its voice seemed to be in our ears as well as in our heads. Not quite like thought-speak as we knew it, but not normal speech either. <“Enough! This is a waste of time. You are issued Dracon beams for a reason. Shoot them now and be done with it.”>
<Step back!> Tobias ordered us. Fel'Mar and I pulled out of the doorway as several beams of red light lanced through. Tobias was still standing in the entrance, with several holes in his chest leaking smoke. A moment later, they sealed back up, good as new.
<“I have heard of you.”> She leveled some sort of gun at Tobias. There was a hiss, then Tobias stumbled back.
<Some sort of dart,> Ax commented.
<Kelbrid poison!> Tobias gasped. He tried to get out of the way, but three more darts lodged in his chest.
<Fel'Mar, get him out of here!>I shouted. Then I charged through the doorway, straight at the orange thing. A Hork-bajir got in my way. I didn't bother going around him. There's something really satisfying about hearing someone's chest collapse under your foot. I vaguely felt several blades slice into me. I didn't care. Rage gave me new strength.
I was almost within reach of the alien when my body stopped. I didn't collapse, like I lost too much blood or anything like that. And it wasn't like I hit a wall or anything either. All the sudden, I just stopped moving forward. I tried to take a step, but my body didn't listen.
The alien looked at me and smiled. <“Your primitive rage is no match for my Spaar host,”> the alien answered. She turned her attention to the others. <“Surrender the Kelbrid and this ship, and I will allow you a swift death.”>
<What does the Visser want with this ship?> Ax asked. He was stalling, I knew, waiting for Al and Jeanne to finish their work.
The Spaar-Controller sniffed. <“The Visser is irrelevant. I claim this ship in the name of the Emperor.”>
<Somehow, I don't think our old buddy Esplin will like that,> I answered. <Isn't he supposed to be in charge around here? You people just can't make a government work, can you?>
<“This coming from a human?”>
I tried to swipe a paw at her but still couldn't move. It was like I was paralyzed. My brain was sending signals, my body just wasn't getting them. The Spaar-Controller stepped up to me. <“Struggle. Please, do. The Spaar does enjoy it so. But your mind is not strong enough to break loose from my control.”>
<What are you talking about?> I demanded. The longer we could keep it distracted, the more time Al and Jeanne had to get us out.
<“The Spaar is an interesting species. They have the ability to shut down the connection between a victim's mind and body. Powerful Spaar can even control a subject's body. Like this.”> I stared helplessly as I dropped to all fours in front of her. <“They say that some can even control the minds of those near them, dictating their very thoughts. Naturally, such a race would be difficult to enslave. How nice of this one to volunteer. Of course, I do have to appease her tastes. Otherwise, I would have shot you already. Instead...”>
She slashed at me. She was faster than I thought, and I couldn't move anyway. Her long fingers scratched lines of blood across my face. <“She does enjoy this, inefficient thought it may be.”>
<Rachel?> Jeanne said privately to me. <We are ready to go. We await your signal.>
My signal? Why not Tobias? The only reason I could think of was that he was unconscious. Come to think of it, he had been quiet for a while. That made it all the more important that we went now. <You know what I enjoy, lady? Fireworks.>
The explosion rocked the bridge, knocking everyone over. It was enough of a distraction that the Spaar lost her grip on me. I scrambled to my feet and made for the hole in the wall. Al, Jeanne, and Kevin were already through. Ax and Fel'Mar were dragging Tobias towards it. Not fast enough. <I got him, get moving!> I ordered.
I scooped Tobias up in one arm. Yeah, he was unconscious. Not dead, definitely. But out cold. I warned him the Howler morph wasn't invincible. But no, he wouldn't listen. He had to play the big shot and stand there, letting them shoot him. Idiot.
I dove through the hole and followed the others into the Reliquary. Al was already preparing to take off. <Prince Tobias...?> he trailed off.
<Unconscious,> I answered. <We need to get him demorphed. Anyone got any ideas?>
<Electrical shock?> Ax suggested. <All Shredders have a defibrillator setting.>
<Alright, we'll try that. Al, get us out of here. Everyone who can, fix yourselves up. I'll let Jake know things didn't go as planned.>
Al zoomed out of the hangar faster than he probably should have, nearly crashing into the engines. At almost the last moment, he angled down, taking us out of the ring. Fel'Mar carried Tobias over to one of the Reliuary's bunks. He was motionless, but I could feel his heart beating and see him breathing shallowly. “Okay, Ax, how do I do this?”
Ax handed me a Shredder. <It is already at the appropriate setting. Simply place it against his heart and fire. There are very few cases of this working poorly.>
I turned to him. “Very few?”
<The last time I saw it done, it went well.>
I didn't have any other ideas, so I shrugged and put the gun barrel over my husband's heart. I paused for a moment to appreciate how strange my life still is. Then I fired.
A jolt of electricity ran through his body. He convulses slightly for a few seconds, then his eyes snapped open. He opened his mouth, perhaps to use the Howler's signature weapon. It was entirely possible that, for a moment, the Howler was in control of him. Well, if it was, so was I. I shoved a wadded up sock in his mouth.
“Listen to me, because I don't know when the poison is going to knock you back out. Demorph, now.”
He paused for a moment, then nodded. The transition was fast, since Howlers are so close to human already. When he was back to his old self, he laid back down on the cot. “Al, get us home. I need a quick rest. Rach's in charge, but I think you already knew that.” He closed his eyes and was out like a light.
It was only a few moments later that the Reliquary's sensors went off and something dropped out of Z-space.
It was huge! One of the biggest ships I had ever seen. Maybe 3/4ths the size of a Pool ship. The main body of it was a cylinder, with four massive engines bunched up at one end. Eight pods surrounded it, connected to the cylinder like cancerous growths. The whole thing was that light-drinking shade of black the Yeerks have always favored.
“What the hell is that thing?” I demanded.
<A Nova-class Empire ship,> Ax answered. <The next best thing to a Pool ship; better, in some respects. It is faster and more maneuverable, with nearly the same firepower and personnel capacity. Very expensive to construct. I know of only a few ever built. One was given as a gift to the former Visser One, our current Visser's old rival. I know it irritated him to no end that he never had one of his own.>
“Who was that alien that she has this kind of pull?” I asked.
“I saw her before, on Ssri,” Jeanne answered. “She is an Inspector, one who answers to the Emperor directly.” Inspectors, at least under the old Empire system, were somewhere between Vissers and members of the Council of Thirteen. Every Councilor had an Inspector or two who made sure that their Councilor's orders were being followed. In some ways, they ranked higher than Vissers. They acted with the full authority of the Council of Thirteen, overseeing all aspects of the Empire.
<According to the sensors, that Nova ship has enough firepower to destroy an entire fleet of ships equal to our own,> Al commented. <It would be unwise to engage it.>
“Oh, great. Thanks for telling us that, Warrior Obvious. I was totally thinking of trying to take that thing on,” I answered.
“Well, this is you we are talking about,” Jeanne pointed out. “It is not out of the question.”
The Nova ship wasn't interested in us, fortunately. It pulled up over the slightly smaller Kelbrid ship. Beams of nearly transparent light streamed down from the pods, connecting with various parts of the Kelbrid ship. <Tractor beams,> Ax explained. <It looks as though, rather than attempt to take control of the ship and fly it somewhere, they are going to use the Nova ship to carry it.>
“They can't get very far that way, can they?” I asked.
<No. I think they will take it to the nearest Yeerk base for examination.>
“And where is that?” I asked.
I called Jake after that. “Hey, Rach. How'd everything go?” he asked me. “Where's Tobias?”
“Sleeping,” I answered. “Everything started out good. We got in without any trouble, and we even made a new friend.” I swiveled the display so that he could see Kevin for a moment before turning it back to me. “Kevin's a nice guy, once you get him to listen.”
“Do you have a problem with the name Kevin?” I asked.
“No ma'am. No problems at all,” he answered suspiciously quickly. “So was the mission a success?”
I shook my head. “Things broke down pretty quickly. Some Yeerks showed up.”
“I thought the Visser was going to wait a few days,” Jake commented. “Was our information unreliable?” I understood the underlying question there. Could we trust Fel'Mar?
“Fel'Mar told us the truth,” I answered. “These Yeerks were working for an Inspector Jeanne and Melissa saw on Ssri. She works directly for the Emperor. Looks like Lesplin didn't like the idea of his brother having all the Kelbrid answering to him and wanted some of his own.”
“He's Lesplin, now?” Jake asked.
“Esplin Nine-Four-Six-Six Lesser,” I answered. “Lesplin. What, you have a problem with my names?”
“No more than I have with your cooking,” he answered.
“So they're great, then,” I answered. Everyone loved my cooking. There was a reason we used to have meetings during meals.
“So what happened?” Jake asked again.
“She brought a whole lot of Hork-bajir. Plus her host has some kind of mind control power. We killed...probably half of the Horks, but there were too many to keep that up. We managed to get away, though. And Kevin is the leader of that pack, so getting him out was a plus.”
Jake nodded. “Yeah, that could have gone worse. What are the Yeerks doing now?”
“They picked the Kelbrid transport up in a big ship of their own – Ax seemed impressed by it – and are hauling it to Mars the hard way.”
Jake frowned. “Do you think the Emperor can take control of these Kelbrid?”
“I don't know,” I admitted. “I doubt he knows much about them. We've always seen him using other hosts to do his work. And the technology on that ship is difficult to use. Since Kelbrid don't have eyes, their computers and stuff function really differently than anything the Yeerks are probably familiar with.”
“Alright. That might buy us some time. Can Ax hear me?” he asked.
<I can, Prince Jake,> Ax answered.
“Don't call me Prince. How long do you think it will take them to get that thing to Mars?”
<They will have to perform a Zero-space drift maneuver. Tractor beams are unreliable in Zero-space. Therefor, they would have to fly in normal space for a time to build momentum. They transition into Zero-space and release the transport, which flies through Zero-space on its own momentum. When it slows down, they reestablish contact, transition back to normal space, and repeat the process.> Ax answered. <I would estimate that it would take them approximately three times as long as it took us to arrive.>
“So that's what, twelve days?” I answered. Ax nodded. “Alright. You got any ideas, Jake?”
He shook his head. “I don't know. If we can stop them from getting that to Mars, that'd be good. Ax, what are the odds of that?”
<I know of no ship available to us that would have even the remotest chance of defeating their Nova ship in battle,> Ax answered.
Jake muttered something under his breath. “This is starting to look really bad. James said Tobias got a call from Alloran while you were all gone; he decided it was best not to patch it through to your ship. Something about David being worried about revealing your position.” Jake shrugged. “I've never been good with spacy stuff.”
“What did Alloran want?” I asked.
“It sounds like things are heating up,” Jake answered. “From what Alloran sent to Tobias, the Americans, Russians, and Tri-I are just about ready to make their move. Seems a little premature to me, but I guess there's some political rush going on I don't know about. Everyone wants to get this going.”
“We'll wish them the best of luck,” I answered.
“Alloran is hoping for more than that. Actually, I guess you could say he's demanding it,” Jake continued. “He has suggested to the combined forces that they put Tobias in command of the invasion.”
“What? That's absurd. There's no way they'd agree to that, they don't even know him,” I answered.
“Yeah, I thought so too. But I'm not so sure anymore. Alloran's support – and that of the War Council – counts for something to them, apparently. And Tobias does have a pretty impressive record so far. Not to mention that Putin seems to be behind the suggestion in the first place.”
That was a sobering thought. With Putin and Alloran pushing this... “I don't like it, Jake,” I answered. “It puts us all too much in the spotlight. He's still supposed to be a hawk, for all everyone knows! He can't just hand wave that away. It puts everything at risk.”
“I know, I know. But I'm not sure what we can do. Our most powerful connections are behind this all the way.”
“Talk to them. Convince them that this is too dangerous. Or too stupid. Or that the Americans and Tri-I people won't listen to him. He's twenty-one, after all. He's kid as far as they're concerned.”
“I'll do what I can, Rachel. I've still got some pull. Captain-Prince Galuit likes me, and he's got a big say in what the War Council decides. Even if Alloran won't listen to him, maybe Caysath will.”
I shook my head. “This is getting out of control, Jake. It kind of feels like it's all racing away from us, you know? Like...”
“Like there are things going on here that are out of our hands entirely, but somehow we're right in the middle of it,” he answered.
“Exactly,” I sighed. “I wonder if our n-dimensional friends are putting their fingers in things this time?”
Jake shrugged. “Maybe. It might explain a few things. But what can we do?”
I shook my head. “I guess we do what we always do.”
“And that is?”
“Kick Yeerk butt.”
I was looking forward to relaxing when we got home. A hot shower. A quiet nap in my own bed. Maybe watch some TV. Something like that. What I got instead was a crying baby shoved into my arms. “Rachel? Tobias? Don't take this as a critique of your parenting because you both scare me to death. But please don't ever leave me with Gideon for eight days again.”
Yeah, yeah, I know, we're terrible parents. We didn't have much choice, though. Tobias is our leader, and for a mission like that, he had to be present. And if it comes down to fighting a ship full of Kelbrid – or even just thirty regular old Hork-bajir-Controllers – there was no one better for the job than me. Al and Jeanne came along to do anything stealthy that needed one. Ax and I came because we were probably the best fighters of all the Animorphs.
We were gong to send Fel'Mar back with Jeanne and Ax, to work under Jake. They needed another soldier more than we did, and they could definitely use someone to help them take on the Apostates. Tobias and I had that duty covered on this front. Kevin stayed with us, for now. We still weren't exactly sure what to do with him yet, but we knew for sure that my mom wouldn't let a Kelbrid stay at her place.
For now, Kevin stayed in Ronnie and Cassie's house – with Ronnie and James watching over him. Ax, Jeanne, and Fel'Mar were staying the night there, too. It was a good enough compromise. It got everyone some more space, it gave Ronnie something to do when he wasn't working, and I thought Cassie would have approved. After all, we were trying to make friends with one of the most ruthless killing machines in the galaxy. Having Kevin sleep on her couch was just the sort of stunt she would pull.
It took a while for me to get Gideon to calm down. Tobias and I spent a few hours just spending time with our son. Once, Tobias had promised to end the war before Gideon was born. I didn't hold it against him that he failed. There really wasn't any way he could have succeeded. If anything, the war only got more intense.
After a few hours, Gideon fell asleep in Tobias's arms and we tucked him in his crib. I laid down on the bed, ready to sleep for a week. It had been a stressful trip, and sleeping on the cold, hard floor of the Reliquary was far from refreshing. The cots weren't much better.
<Hey guys?> David called from outside our door. At least, he better have been outside of our room. <There's something I need to talk to you about, if Gideon's asleep.>
I sighed and got up. “David, if this isn't important, I'm going to make you into a purse.”
<I think I'd make a better hat, but that's not here or there,> he answered.
I flopped down on the couch. Tobias sat down beside me, looking concerned. David was sitting on the coffee table in front of us. Al was already in the living room, and Kristina was presumably getting some much deserved sleep in her room. “What's up?” Tobias asked.
<Do you know how old I am?> David asked.
“Is this one of those philosophical things?” I asked. “Look, David, I don't care if your twenty-one or fourteen, you're not dating any of my sisters, got it? It's bad enough that Jeanne and Marco are dating, I don't want to add anyone else to the list.
<It's a literal question, Rachel. How long have I been in this body?>
“Six years?” I asked. “Seven?”
<Yeah, something like that.> He paused. <The world's oldest rat was named Rodney. He lived for seven years, four months. I think I might be a little over that,> David responded.
“You want us to call Guinness?” I asked.
<No, Rachel, I want you to be serious about this.>
“No way,” I answered. “Because you can't seriously be about to say what I think you are.”
David shook his head, an oddly human gesture for a rat. <I'm getting old, guys. Really old. I think only the morphing has kept me alive this long, regularly flushing bad stuff out of my body. But it can't go on forever. Already, I can feel myself getting old. My brain...it does weird stuff sometimes. I forget things. Once, I fell asleep when I was supposed to be keeping watch.>
“Plenty of people have done that,” I answered.
<People, yes. But for a rat to fall asleep when it's supposed to be keeping a lookout? That doesn't happen,> David answered.
Tobias remained silent. That was fine by me. I had more than enough to say to David on my own. “So you want out, is that it?”
<No, I don't,> David answered. <Rachel, you know better than anyone the stuff I've done. This fight isn't something I can just walk away from. There's still so much I need to atone for. But if I keep on like this, I'm going to die. Maybe in a few months. Maybe next week, I don't know. But I can't keep it up any more.>
“What's the plan, then?” Tobias asked. Of course. David always had a plan. That's what made him so important.
<I go human. Full time. See, there's... Al, could you maybe...?>
<I think, David, that it would be best if you told them.>
I looked at Al. It wasn't like him to keep secrets. But he wouldn't keep any secrets that would endanger anyone. At least, none that would endanger us.
<My name...do either of you remember my last name?>
Tobias shrugged. “I don't know if I ever knew it.”
“Same here,” I answered.
That name sounded kind of familiar. “Wasn't the name of the guy from that Poe story? What was it called?”
“It's also the name of the Global Operations Director of Tri-I,” Tobias answered. “John Montresor.”
<Yeah. That's not a coincidence. He...he's my father.>
That made me pause for a moment. “I always wondered what happened to your parents,” I told him at last.
<Yeah, me too. I was always too afraid of what I would find to try and figure it out. But after I found out about my father, I did a little digging. He and my mother are both still alive. Still married. They've got a nice house. Several, actually. And...I've got a brother. Solomon. He's four years old. He looks so much like I did at that age I - > David cut off, his voice breaking.
He took a moment to compose himself before he continued. <If I stay a rat, I'm going to die. But I can become human. Forever. And as the son of Tri-I's GOD, I'll bet I can get access to all of Tri-I's information; with a little help from Al, of course. I can give you everything they know about everything. And I can help deflect attention away from you and your activities. I can still help.>
Tobias nodded. “David...did you expect I'd say no? That I'd order you to die in that body? Even if you couldn't still be of use in this war, you know I'd never order you to do something like that.”
<Don't be too sure of that. It's one of the things I respect about you, Tobias. Though I'm glad not to be on the receiving end of it.>
I nodded, too. “I know something of what it's like, you know,” I told him. “I can't count how often I used to wish Tobias was human again. I...” I trailed off and took a moment to gather my thoughts. “I'm just glad you have a home to go back to. I don't know how you'll explain everything, though...”
<The truth where I can, lies where I can't,> he answered. <Same as usual. But I'm not going just yet. It looks like everything is going to come to a heat at Mars. I can't walk away before the big game.>
I smiled. “You have no idea how much you've changed.”
Finally, Tobias and I got some peace and quiet. At least, we got a break from the others. We still had each other to deal with, not that I minded. I was so used to Tobias being there, it was like being alone. He was a part of me. We were laying in bed, just relaxing. He was holding my hand under the blankets. It's something most couples take for granted, but there were years when we couldn't do anything of the sort.
“Losing David will hurt,” I said.
He nodded. “Yeah. He'll still be a big help if he can get all that Tri-I data, but I'll miss his mind. I don't know what I'll do without him.”
“You'll think of something. You always do.”
“Yeah; and it's David who makes it feasible,” he answered. “I feel like -”
“If you were about to say the name of some Chinese guy, I'm going to sleep right now,” I warned him.
“Fine, fine.” He shook his head. “I don't like this, Rachel. I can almost feel events swirling around us. I think we're in the eye of the storm right now.”
“How do you mean?” I asked.
“It's building up, one thing on top of another. And now it's been set in motion. What happened on that Kelbrid ship started something. Or...no, no, it started long ago. But that's what tipped it over the edge, somehow.”
“Tobias, what are you talking about?” I demanded.
“I'm not sure. It's just that there are a lot of things coming together now. Bits and pieces that I never noticed before that now seem to be parts of a big puzzle. Our meeting Putin, getting Alloran put on the War Council... Even further back. Chasing after Mersa and running into the Pythagi in the first place. And maybe even stuff before that. I don't know. I think I'm seeing it for the first time.”
“You're losing me here.”
“The Chessmasters. Ellimist, Crayak, Azmaveth...they all move things around. They put people in places, encourage events to happen or not happen. All part of some greater strategy, working towards some overall goal. I think that normally, it's only in retrospect that we see the moves they made, and maybe we can guess why. But this time... I don't know, Rach. This time, I feel like I can see the moves as they're being made. I feel like I can see how they're moving us and those around us. I almost think that if I try hard enough, I can figure out where it's all headed.”
“But who is moving who?” I asked. “Are they setting us up to succeed, or forcing us into a position where we can only fail? Are we the piece that's supposed to win it all, or are we just another pawn to be sacrificed?”
Tobias shook his head. “Or am I just tired and egotistical? I should at least focus on the plots and manipulations going on at my own level.”
“Alloran and Putin want me to be in charge of this attack on Mars. As much confidence as Caysath may have in my abilities, I know the Americans, Russians, and Tri-I all have people they'd rather put in charge. So do the Andalites, for that matter. Galuit comes to mind, or Alloran himself. Maybe even Asculan, if they haven't found some place to put his fleet while we were gone.”
“Caysath made you the official military liaison between the Andalites and Earth,” I reminded him.
“And I wonder who was really behind that?”
“Are you suggesting...”
“Maybe. I don't know. We know they've been heavily embedded in the Andalite government for a long time now. Jaham was in it deep; what David and Al heard on the Andalite planet confirmed that. Lirem, too. And we know Alloran used to be...”
“You think they got to Caysath?” I asked.
“I don't know,” he admitted. “I hope not. He was relatively unimportant before the election. And the other three were the ones always taking center stage.”
“It's possible, though,” I sighed. “That game might have been rigged from the start. If all four of them were in on it... Have three of them make idiots of themselves and the fourth one gets elected no problem.”
Tobias gripped my hand tighter. “You might be right. I fear we played right into their hands. And now... Now I think they're setting me up, Rach. They know I'm up to something, and they want to find out what. They don't know yet, not for sure. But they're trying to turn the spotlight on me so I can't hide it.”
“We know they're working with the Yeerks,” I agreed. “Jeanne and Melissa heard the Emperor talking about it on Ssri. Thank God they didn't know who he was talking about.”
“Thank God the Emperor doesn't know for sure,” Tobias answered. “And while we're at it, thank him that they're working with the Emperor and not the Visser.”
“So what do you want to do about it?” I asked.
“If I can't deflect the spotlight without looking too suspicious, I don't have many options. If I can't hide from it, I'll have to step straight into it like I've got nothing to hide. They know I'm dangerous to them. It's why they haven't come after me yet. Maybe I'll show them just how dangerous I can be. If I make a good enough show if it, they might decide I'm more trouble than it's worth, especially if I leave them alone.”
I nodded. “I'll trust you on this. If you can handle the stuff we've been doing so far, you can handle the Andalite War Clan.”
I leaned over to kiss him. That was when his communicator started beeping. “What fresh hell is this?” he wondered as he answered it.
A voice I didn't recognize came over the other end. There was no image displayed. It was a short message. A recording set to loop. It wasn't a language I recognized, but some software Al made for the communicator translated it for us.
“Help! We have been captured and are being held prisoner on a Pythagi military base. If you can hear this, and if you have no love for the Pythagi, come. If you can hear this, help us. We are imprisoned on Mars.”
Don't miss the next installment of the Animorphs series:
76: The Escalation
New enemies are the reality for the Animorphs these days, and it seems that they are all going to converge on Mars. The Pyghati conglomerate, the Kelbrid, and the forces of the Visser are only half the trouble. Yeerks loyal to the old ways of the Empire seek to undermine them, shadowy forces from the Andalite world seek to trap them, and even elements of Earth's own population want their destruction. It seems that there is no one who can be trusted, and all these forces are going to come together at Mars.
But with new enemies come new allies as well. When the Animorphs are forced to divide themselves as they never have before, they will need help now more than ever. And when Melissa, Jake, Marco, Jeanne, and the Ssri'Kai Fel'Mar go to investigate a distress call from the Pythagi base on Mars, they find more than they bargained for. The galaxy is a wide place, and their enemies may turn out to be even more numerous than they know...