Author's note: I notice now has a new feature where pictures can be uploaded as a 'book cover' for your story. However, as my own fan art skills are non-existent and I don't want to steal anyone else's without permission, if anyone fancies drawing a book cover for this story I would definitely gratefully accept it! PM me if by any chance anyone is interested.
"I want to say thank you to you all. Thank you so much," I said. "You've saved my life."
"It's what we Animorphs do best," Marco said, with an uncomfortable grin.
"Have you chosen a morph?" Jake asked.
I hesitated for a moment, choosing my next words carefully. "Yes. But I don't know if it will be possible."
"We've acquired some pretty impossible morphs," Rachel said.
(Harder for some of us than others,) Tobias added. (I'm sure we can do it.)
"It isn't a practical problem as such," I admitted. "You see, I would like, if I can, to morph a human."
I allowed a couple of seconds for that to sink in. "Cassie has already offered me her DNA. But obviously I don't want to be a clone of her, so I was wondering if I could use some of your DNA. And, you know, do what Ax does for his human morph."
Jake nodded. "You can have mine."
"Rachel, don't volunteer," Marco said quickly. "Then we can see what their future kids will look like."
"Cassie would like me to repeat a thought for her. It is 'ha, ha'," I said sarcastically. "And also I just won a dollar. And thank you, Jake, that's very kind."
Rachel and Marco were quiet for a few minutes.
"You can have mine, too," Marco said. "Don't use too much of it, mind. The world can only cope with so much cuteness."
"I'll bear that in mind."
"You can have mine, too," Rachel said, after a few more seconds' pause.
"Don't feel you have to," I said quickly. "Only if you're sure."
"I'm sure," she replied.
"Thank you," I replied sincerely, looking between her and Marco.
"There are a few practical issues though," Jake said. "Where are you going to live, Aftran? What will you eat?"
"I… hadn't thought of that," I admitted. "The peace movement might be able to help provide me with food: it's a lot less risky than Kandrona, after all, and there are enough of them with human hosts to help. Where to stay is more of a problem."
Suddenly, Ax's thought-speak broke loudly into my head, and judging by their expressions, the heads of the rest of the Animorphs as well.
(NO, Tobias. I cannot. I have already spared a Yeerk and agreed to give her my people's technology! I will NOT agree to share my living space with a filthy parasite!)
Everybody looked between Ax and Tobias.
(Well, this is awkward,) Tobias said. (I was suggesting the scoop, privately, to Ax. I thought it might be the most secure bet.)
Jake nodded. "It probably would be. The Hork-Bajir valley's the only other option, and it's a long way to take food there. But if Ax doesn't want to do it, then I guess we need to look at other options."
(Does the Yeerk have to be human?) Ax asked.
I decided to ignore the fact that he was referring to me in the third person when I was right there. It hadn't been an easy few days for him.
"I'd prefer it. If it's possible. I could help you communicate with the peace movement, provide information. It would mean I wouldn't be completely isolated, I could still communicate easily. But it's up to you."
(If my Prince orders it, then I will have to do as he commands,) Ax said, after a long pause.
Jake sighed. "Ax, I don't want to give you an order like that. But would you be OK with it if it was only temporary? If we tried to, I don't know; build her a separate scoop as soon as we can?" He yawned.
(I do not know, Prince Jake,) Ax replied, with a sneering, disgusted glance at me.
Jake sighed, and pressed a hand to his forehead for a brief moment. I saw Ax tilt a stalk-eye towards Tobias quizzically, as though listening. It was a long time before anyone spoke. Nervous, I tried to distract myself by focusing on the soft rustling sounds of the animals in their cages and stalls, and the shining red-brown of a nearby chestnut mare's coat. I was not completely successful.
(What about the Chee?) Cassie thought suddenly.(They have that big dog park; you could stay there, at least temporarily. It would be more comfortable than the scoop, and Ax and you wouldn't end up killing each other.)
I laughed inside her head, and repeated her thought back to the rest of the group. Save for the last sentence, of course. I was wary about insulting an Andalite.
(That seems like a good idea,) Tobias said. (I'll fly over and tell them you're coming.)
Rachel held the door open for him as he sped out of the barn towards town.
"Okay," Jake said, turning back to me. "We'll let you touch Cassie, me, Marco and Rachel in that order, Aftran. Remember it, so you can concentrate on the right person when you acquire them."
"How do I perform the Frolis Manoeuvre, Aximili?" I asked hesitantly.
(I…) he hesitated for a moment. (It is quite simple. You need to imagine a human whose features can be made using a mix of the four humans you have acquired. You need to simply imagine that human and concentrate on that instead of on any of the individual humans you have acquired.)
"Thanks." I looked intently at Jake, Marco and Rachel, memorising their features so I would be able to construct an imagined human later.
"Ok, well that's freaky," Marco commented as I stared at him.
I didn't reply, not wanting to break my concentration. When I was finished, I turned my focus inwards to Cassie.
(Well, I guess this is it,) I said. (I'll never communicate in this way again.)
(It's good though, right?) Cassie asked anxiously.
(It's better than I ever dared to hope,) I replied. (Still, it will be strange to lose my own body permanently, pathetic though it is.) It would probably also lose me my two mates, though one of them was probably lost to me already. I did not tell Cassie this, however. I could already sense guilt from her.
(It is not your fault,) I reassured her. (And as I have said, it is far better than the alternatives. My own eyes!)
She smiled mentally. (If anyone deserves them, you do. Bye for now, Aftran.)
(Goodbye,) I replied. Then I left her ear for the last time.
I felt myself being picked up by the four humans in succession. I focused on imagining their faces, and felt their hands go looser around me as I acquired them. It was a little nerve-wracking: I was worried one of them might relax enough to drop me, but thankfully that did not happen.
They placed me on the floor, and I focused on mixing the DNA of the four humans together. I wanted a female morph: both my human and Hork-Bajir hosts had all been female, so I identified with that gender more than a male. I wanted Cassie's eyes, and combined it with Marco's hair, but hoped it would come out somewhere between Marco and Rachel's length. I wasn't sure, as hair length was hardly genetic, if this was something I could control, but if not I could always grow it. I took an equal mix of all their facial features and skin tone, so my final skin tone was just slightly paler than Marco's. Rachel and Jake were the tallest of the four, so I went for a height somewhere between the two of them, with a similar weight to Rachel. I hoped the humans remembered to look away, as a morphing outfit could only be re-morphed if you'd started off your morph wearing it, and not just morphed from nowhere. I wasn't worried, as Yeerks of course have no concept of clothing, but I didn't imagine the Animorphs would particularly enjoy seeing a mix of their own and others' DNA standing naked in a barn.
Once I had decided on the human shape I wanted to assume, I began to concentrate hard, and soon I felt the changes begin.
My Yeerk body began to swell, and carried on inflating like a balloon, only well past the point where a normal balloon would have popped. Arms and legs began to grow from buds on the side of my body, but at first felt very small compared to the rest of me. I imagined they must look rather comical. My slime coat dried up, and hardened to become skin. My Yeerk body began to change shape, elongating and thinning, and forming hips, waist, chest and neck. I felt my insides changing as much more complex organs than those in a Yeerk began to form. I tried to echo-locate, to check my enlarging body would not hit anything, but the sense was gone.
And then the eyes formed. At first, the image was dim as the nerves needed to build their way to my brain, but soon I was seeing again. Shape! Texture! Colour! The beauty was, as always, overwhelming, but even more so now I knew it was mine permanently. My eyes! My eyes and no host to ruin the feeling.
My ears, nose and mouth formed. I could soon smell the soft, earthy scent of the hay I was lying on, and hear Marco's voice. The morph was complete.
"Ew," Marco was saying. "Yuck. I never want to see that again."
The humans, I noticed, had turned away, but Ax was watching me, his tail blade angled towards where I lay on the floor.
"I'm going to stand up," I said. The words came easily, my voice thankfully sounding unique, not like any of the other Animorphs'. I had forgotten to think about my voice.
I pushed myself carefully off the floor using the strength of my human arms, and reached quickly for a horse rug, which I wrapped around my body.
"You can look now," I said. "I'm decent. Ish."
The humans turned cautiously, and Rachel grinned at the sight of me wrapped in a horse rug. "I don't think that's going to be making it into Vogue any time soon," she laughed.
"There should be some clothes in- well, you know where they would be," Cassie said.
"Watch carefully, everyone," Rachel teased. "This is the one time in the world where Cassie's fashion sense will actually be an improvement."
I went and changed into the riding clothes Cassie kept in the barn's tack room. On the way back, curious, I peered into the water trough to look at my reflection. Unnecessary, of course, as I had imagined the morph myself. But I still felt it was something I had to do.
Cassie's dark eyes looked back at me, surrounded by a familiar-yet-unfamiliar face. I realised it would take me a while to adjust to the fact that this was now my own true body.
"You OK, Aftran?"
I hear Cassie's voice and snap out of my reverie. "Coming," I reply."
"She can't walk down the street like that," Rachel pointed out as soon as I reappeared. "And she has to go to the Chee."
"I'll get her some normal clothes before the two hours are up," Cassie promised.
"Since when do you own normal clothes?" Rachel teased.
"Shut up. How are you feeling, Aftran?"
"Good," I replied. "A little strange, but good. Thank you so much."
"It's the least you deserve," Cassie answered.
(I disagree. It's the most you deserve, Yeerk, and you should be grateful.)
"Ax!" Cassie exclaimed angrily.
"I am grateful, Aximili," I said quickly. "And it's OK, Cassie. Ax has been very kind to allow this at all. I'm guessing it would be contravening about five Andalite laws. Although I would prefer it if you didn't call me 'Yeerk'."
Ax was silent for a few moments. Then he asked: (May I return to my scoop now, Prince Jake?)
Jake nodded. "Sure, Ax. Actually, we're all still pretty sick. Maybe we should all go and get some rest. Cassie, make sure Aftran stays in this morph for two hours, and take her to the Chee. Marco and Rachel, go and get some rest."
The next two hours passed uneventfully, as I helped Cassie with her chores in the barn, prepared to jump into an old rug box if her parents came towards the barn. Just before my time was up, Tobias returned to confirm that the Chee were prepared to take me. Ten minutes later, my decision became irreversible.
"I'll go up to the house and get you some other clothes," Cassie said.
It took a long time to get to the Chee, as I of course could not fly. We had to take a couple of different buses, and walk for a while either end of that. As we were walking the final stretch, I said:
"Can you make sure Illim knows that I'm alive? As soon as you can at school tomorrow? And can you ask him to come to the Chee house as soon as he can?"
"I- I don't know if the Chee will want too many people to know about them."
"It won't be many. Just Illim," I promised. "Then we can work out a way for me to meet with the rest of the peace movement. We generally use our host's homes if we have to meet hosted or outside the Yeerk pool. I'm sure we can work something out."
Cassie nodded. "I'll definitely tell him you're alive. I'll check with the Chee when we get there if I can tell him to come here."
We had reached the door to Erek King's house, and it opened before Cassie could knock. Erek stood in the doorway.
"Come in," he said.
Once the door was shut, he turned to smile at me. Or at least, his hologram did. I didn't return the grin. I was too busy staring at his forehead. I knew what rested inside his android skull, and what he had done sickened me. It was even worse to finally stand face-to-face with him and do nothing. There was nothing I could do, though, and I needed somewhere to stay. I would almost rather have stayed with the Andalite.
"Hello, Aftran," he said. "Follow me."
He took me through to the Chee's underground base, where I saw a meal was waiting for me beneath one of the trees. A few dogs sat around hopefully, too well-trained to touch the food.
"Welcome, Aftran Nine-Four-Two," said a Chee I did not know, with a hologram of a middle-aged lady. "We hope you will be comfortable here."
"I'd better go," Cassie said. "I'll tell Illim. Erek, is it okay if one member of the peace movement comes here, as long as he doesn't tell any of the others?"
Erek nodded. "I suppose so. The six of you are already a security risk; two more beings won't make much of a difference."
Cassie nodded, and turned to me. "I guess this is goodbye for now," she said. "Are you going to be okay?"
I nodded. "I think so. I'll have to be."