Author's Note: Apologies for the length of time I've been in updating this. I'm hoping to do some more work on it in the near future though, so hopefully it won't be as long a wait for the next update!
A few hours later, Quafijinivon, Toby and I gathered around the small Nova-class fighter Quafijinivon had stolen to get here. We waited silently for the Animorphs, including Cassie, to return from speaking to the Chee. I watched as the Animorphs demorphed and acquired Hork-Bajir morphs, watching Cassie with particular care. I was a little reassured as I noticed Cassie ask permission for the DNA: she must be in control of her own body, at least for now.
I waited anxiously while Quafijinivon gave a final speech to the Hork-Bajir before we boarded the spacecraft. Despite my concern for Cassie, and my fear for myself when Aldrea inevitably discovered what I was, I looked around at my surroundings with some curiosity. I had never been aboard this class of fighter before, which, along with the corresponding Empire ships, were the newest range of Yeerk spacecraft in use.
"Hey, all right, a hot tub. All you ladies are invited to join me."
Marco, at least, seemed to approve. The interior of the fighter was simple, yet elegant, containing only the controls for the ship, a central small Yeerk pool and a wall-based Kandrona emitter. I frowned, looking in puzzlement for the final feature; some way of restraining temporarily free hosts. I saw nothing, however: perhaps Quafijinivon had removed the straps that would probably be used in such a restricted space.
My gaze travelled back to Cassie, observing her worriedly. I couldn't say much to her: Aldrea would be listening, of course. Though she clearly did not know everything Cassie knew, as she'd surely have said something already if she knew my identity.
Quafijinivon went to sit awkwardly in the captain's chair, while Aximili approached the computer.
(This is a newer-generation Yeerk ship. They've made some small innovations since they acquired the original Andalite technology from… well, we all know who gave the Yeerks the capacity for Z-space travel.)
"That's helpful," I muttered sarcastically.
"My father," Aldrea said defiantly, using Cassie's mouth. "My father, Prince Seerow. Without my father, the Yeerks would never have had the opportunity to spread their evil. Without my father, we would not all be risking our lives on this mission. That is the point the Andalite wishes to make."
There was a long silence. I felt expectant for a few moments, then realised I was waiting for Cassie to say something to release the tension a little. Aldrea's choice of receptacle was particularly unfortunate now. I racked my brains to think of what she might have said.
"I guess it's a bit difficult to say how it would have changed things," I said hesitantly. "Perhaps we- perhaps the Yeerks would have got technology from some other source eventually, even without Prince Seerow."
Aldrea turned her head to look at me accusingly. "Who are you?"
"Karen," I said quickly.
She narrowed Cassie's eyes. It was very unpleasant to see an expression of such suspicion and dislike on Cassie's face. "I don't think so. Cassie introduced all the others as soon as I looked at them, but she was strangely hesitant with you. And you said we just now."
"Very well. My name is Aftran Nine-Four-Two of the Hett Simplatt pool. I'm the leader, well, one of the leaders, of a movement working against the Empire."
"Yeerk," she said with loathing.
"Yes," I replied. "You'd already guessed that, surely, Andalite."
"And are we expected to hold your host down when you leave it to feed your filthy body?" Aldrea sneered.
"No. I have no host; I'm a nothlit in this form. Even if I were not, I refuse to take unwilling hosts."
Aldrea widened Cassie's eyes in shock. "A nothlit! How did you come by the morphing power?"
"Er-" I hesitated.
"Come on, I'm waiting. If your filthy kind have managed to steal the technology, I want to know. I want to know what animals I should be suspicious of when I get home."
(Home!) Ax exclaimed.
"I am the only Yeerk that I know of to ever be exposed to the technology. Well, with the exception of Visser Three, but it is his host that can morph, not his own natural body."
"And how did you come to be exposed to it?" Aldrea asked, but she was looking penetratingly at Aximili, not at me.
(We gave it to her,) Tobias said. (We trust her.)
While he was defending me, it was an extremely foolish thing to say.
Aldrea laughed humourlessly. "So, Andalite, you criticise my father, yet you yourself have given this Yeerk more technology than he ever did."
Aximili kicked forward with his front hoof against the metal floor, making a tiny spark of static electricity. (It is different,) he replied.
"That's true. Aximili was overruled by his Prince," I said. "He protested, but ultimately had to follow orders."
"His Prince being this human here? And who gave these humans the power to morph?"
(You cannot compare your father to my brother!) Aximili said angrily, twitching his tail blade.
I felt a spark of fear. Surely he wouldn't attack Aldrea, not while she was in Cassie's body.
"Oh, but I can!" Aldrea said triumphantly.
"Well, we're off to a good start," Marco joked. "We haven't even got to the first rest stop and already the kids are fighting in the back seat."
"Look, can we just-" I began.
"Right, discussion over," Jake said authoritatively.
I fell silent instantly, looking at him.
"We have to be a team here. We're going deep into enemy territory; we have to be able to count on each other, and we're relying on two people we don't know: Quafijinivon and Aldrea. We'll be advised by them, and we'll always listen to Toby and Aftran. But this is an Animorph mission."
"Meaning you are in charge?" Aldrea asked scathingly.
"That's exactly what I mean."
"I will follow Jake as though he were my Prince," Aldrea said, after a pause which looked as if she might be communicating with Cassie.
Aximili stepped forward, bringing a third eye to focus on Aldrea, but Jake held up his hand. "Thanks, Aldrea. It's an honour to have you on the team."
(I'll open the observation panels,) Ax said, to cover the moment. I took the opportunity to glance back at Earth before we made the translation to Zero-Space. I noted how well the ship compensated for the thrust: much better than a Bug Fighter. We had none of these ships on Earth yet.
Everyone glanced at each other, uncomfortable after the recent argument. It was going to be a long trip.