Yalran went to see her sub-visser at lunchtime that very day.
Helen's yeerk, Imliss Seven-Five-One, had sent us there. I'd been eating lunch with Caleb, with Yalran watching carefully inside my head, only for Imliss to come and tell us that "Miss Andrews" wanted a word. Apparently, she wanted to ask about "my" book club.
And so, I watched Yalran make her way to Miss Andrews' classroom, reduced to a passenger in my own body once again.
It stung to not have control just then. Yalran had been giving me control nearly all morning, from the moment the first class started, and I'd been hoping it stayed that way the entire day. But I didn't fault Yalran for taking control, because I knew that Tellarin One-Four-Seven-Six could not be ignored. I'd just have to hope that this meeting was painless and quick.
Miss Andrew's classroom was shut when we reached it. Yalran knocked briskly, and Tellarin quickly appeared. 'Ah, Beth,' Tellarin said brightly, peering around the door. 'Do come in.'
Yalran did as instructed, slipping inside and shutting the door, as Tellarin marched back to Miss Andrews' desk.
The classroom looked so very ordinary. Students' desks lay empty in orderly rows, a chair under each one. A small stack of papers sat neatly upon Miss Andrews' own desk, along with a small collection of pencils, pens and whiteboard markers.
Tellarin gestured to an empty desk right in front of her own. 'You might as well sit down,' she said, in a friendly enough way. 'There's plenty of space, as you can see.'
Yalran did as instructed, once again. She waited for the sub-visser to say more, as did I.
'I trust your club will start on schedule?' Tellarin asked.
So this was about the book club then. If I was lucky, that would be all this was about.
'Yes, sub-visser,' Yalran replied. 'It's starting next week. And more than enough humans seem interested.'
Tellarin nodded slowly. 'Good.' She wore a casual expression, even as her eyes seemed to bore into mine. 'See to it that at least some of them join the Sharing. That is the purpose of this, after all.'
'Yes, sub-visser,' Yalran said.
I should have been doing this, I thought: starting clubs, making new friends. I should have been this without the Sharing, without yeerks. But it was way too late for that now.
For a moment, I thought Tellarin would dismiss us there and then. I was hoping she'd dismiss us there and then: that at least would mean no other orders, no extra recruitments, no further things for Yalran to make me do.
Tellarin sighed, glancing away from me. 'I had Imliss tell me how exactly you recruited that voluntary. What she told me was…most enlightening.' She focussed intently on my face once again. 'That was some quick thinking, Yalran. You did well.'
'Thank you, sub-visser,' Yalran said steadily.
'Of course, Helen knows now that the part with your host was a ruse,' Tellarin continued. 'But Imliss reports that she remains cooperative. She finds the idea of sharing her senses to be appealing, apparently. It seems you left quite the impression.'
So Helen would stay voluntary, then. She wouldn't be going to the cages like me.
That was good, right?
Tellarin leaned forwards towards us, her face a picture of innocence. 'Of course, with the correct host, perhaps it need not be a ruse. My Maria could do it, with the proper preparation, but…tell me: how would you like to assigned to such a host?'
Yalran flapped my mouth wordlessly, before abruptly collecting herself. 'I'm not sure I understand, sub-visser,' she replied carefully.
'I mean a voluntary host, Yalran. And not one who's merely resigned to us. A true voluntary. One who appreciates what we bring to them. And who appreciates what they bring to us.' She straightened her posture, her eyes locked onto mine. 'I think you'd make good use of such a host. Don't you?'
She she folded her hands on her desk. And then, her right hand squeezed the left, gently and subtly. It seemed to be the only part of Miss Andrews's body that was moving at that moment, like it was totally separated from the rest of her body
Like someone besides Tellarin was in control of it.
'How would you like to be reassigned?' Tellarin asked. 'How would you like to leave your involuntary behind?'
Yalran opened my mouth - or at least, I think she did. Truth be told, I could barely feel my face at the moment, little sensations hitting me in little bursts as the strength of Yalran's control shifted. Words were failing her, just as words were failing me.
She huddled down, crossing my arms in an instinctive motion.
And to that, Tellarin smiled a knowing smile.
Yalran jolted me upright and snapped my arms to my sides, but the damage by then was done. Tellarin had surely read her action, clear as day.
'Yes. Well,' Tellarn said lightly. 'I suppose you are accustomed to that host of yours by now. Very accustomed, I'm sure. No more resistance, I take it?'
Yalran shook my head rapidly. 'No, sub-visser. None.'
Tellarin continued to smile at us in what I was sure was a mocking way. 'And I suppose you've had no luck convincing family members to join? We do have that family night this weekend, but…your host's family weren't interested, were they?'
That family night was what had made me fight against Yalran out in the open, and what had then made me promise not to fight ever again. It all felt like such a long time ago.
'No, they…I tried, sub-visser. I did try. I promise I tried! But-'
Tellain held up her hand, and Yalran lapsed into silent.
In my mind, she hugged me tight.
'Perhaps a transfer would be good for you,' Tellarin said quietly, without a trace of emotion. 'That host is just an involuntary, Yalran. There's really no need to fear moving on.'
It wasn't fair, I thought. It just wasn't fair! I'd only just gotten to be with my family again, and already it was being snatched away. And Yalran…Yalran would be branded a traitor, once another yeerk saw into my mind! Yalran was going to die, purely for treating me with just a little decency!
It wasn't fair! It wasn't fair!
'Yes. A transfer,' Tellarin said. 'When you next report for feeding, you-'
She sat utterly still, her eyes suddenly losing all of their focus. She looked off to one side, and nodded just a tiny amount. She glanced in our direction and then immediately glanced away, her face creased into a frown.
Yalran watched her with my controlled eyes, not daring to make a sound.
And then all at once, everything about Tellarin snapped back into place. She straightened up, her host's face sharp and level, as though she'd been that way the whole time.
Her hands were still folded on her desk, the right hand lightly squeezing the left.
'Of course, you have produced results in that host,' Tellarin said carefully. 'Haven't you?'
'Y-yes, sub-visser,' Yalran replied.
'And you'll continue to produce results. Won't you?' She stared at us pointedly, waiting for Yalran's reply
'Yes, sub-visser,' Yalran repeated.
'And as long as you do that…I'd say there's no reason to move you. Wouldn't you agree?'
At first, Yalran just sat dumbly, as though not quite believing what she was hearing. It was a reaction I could well understand.
But then, Yalran recovered. She nodded like mad, my back rigidly straight.
'Yes. I mean, yes sub-visser. Yes!'
So that was it then. Yalran and I were staying together. Yalran and I were being given a reprieve.
For now, at least.
Tellarin eyed us just a moment longer, drumming her fingers lightly on the desk. Yalran seemed to wither under her gaze, hunkering down as the sub-visser continued to stare.
Finally, Tellarin looked away from us, and nodded towards the door. 'Very good, then. Carry on.'
Yalran wasted no time in getting us far away from that room. She hurried through the corridor, half-walking and half-running, seeming as desperate to get away from the sub-visser as I. She passed by one of the school noticeboards, and I couldn't not see it out of the corner of my eye: one of Yalran's book club posters, that I had inadvertently helped her to make.
Yalran stopped, turned my head, and stared.
I could it full-on now. I saw the big text and the pretty little pictures. I saw the room number, the date and the time. Less than a week from now, "my" book club - Yalran's bookclub - would be meeting after school. Less than a week from now, it would begin: just one more scheme to funnel host bodies into the Empire's machine.
And I knew beyond all doubt that I wouldn't be fighting her. I wouldn't be struggling physically, nor would I be trying to stop her in any way.
Because if Yalran stopped now, Tellerin would take her from me. Because if Yalran stopped now, I'd lose my family once again. Because if Yalran stopped now, I'd lose the tiny slice of heaven that I'd carved out for myself from this hell.
I couldn't help but be grateful when Yalran turned my head away.
((That was Miss Andrews, wasn't it?)) I said. ((She spoke to the sub-visser, didn't she?))
((Yeah,)) Yalran replied. ((I think it was.))
I was convinced that it was Miss Andrews who'd saved us. She was the one who had kept Yalran and I together. She was the one who had persuaded Tellarin to back down.
But not, I knew, without a price.
Yalran folded my arms. ((I'll have to go through with it, won't I? I'll have to recruit with the club. And outside of it, too.)) She sighed softly. ((Not super-often, but…often enough.))
I wanted to hate her for that. I wanted to call her a coward, to demand that she stop, to demand she do the right thing.
But I couldn't. I wouldn't.
((I'll…I'll be careful,)) Yalran told me. ((I'll take it slow, make sure they'll be voluntary. Not like with Helen. Not like some with some of the others.))
I nodded in my mind, even though her words rang utterly hollow. She could never be truly sure that someone would go willingly. And "voluntary" hardly meant "happy" - not really.
((I know it's wrong,)) Yalran said. ((But…you heard the sub-visser. If I stop recruiting now, she'll just…))
I nodded - physically, with my very own neck. Yalran had dropped her control at some point, and I'd only just noticed.
It was all I could bring myself to say. Even saying that much felt like an almost impossible struggle. By saying that, I was letting her do it. By saying that, I was cooperating, once again.
((No you're not.))
'Hmm?' I glanced behind me, as though expecting her to be physically there.
((You're involuntary, Beth. You don't let me do anything.)) She took over gently, strolling away from the noticeboard and slowly swinging my arms. ((I just do it. It's not you. None of it is.))
I knew she meant it. I knew she believed it. But I couldn't believe it - not completely.
((No, I'm not involuntary,)) I told her. ((Not completely. Not to you.))
I felt sick, saying that - truly and utterly sick to my core. But I knew in my heart that it was the truth.
The Family Night came and went. I kept quiet for that and left Yalran to play her part, safe in the knowledge that my own family were far away.
The first meeting of the book club came next, the following Wednesday after school. Yalran led it, and she led it well. Everyone introduced themselves and voted on the first book, without a clue as to Yalran's plan.
I ate with my family that evening, without needing Yalran to take over once. I played some video games with Ben afterwards. And then, Yalran played some games with Ben; she'd asked for control, and I'd said "yes".
On Thursday, I watched Yalran and Imliss bring Caleb to a Full Member orientation. He took his yeerk willingly, just one more voluntary for the Yeerk Empire.
On Friday after school, I badgered Yalran into doing my homework for me. I let her stay in control for dinner afterwards, by way of thanks.
And on Saturday morning, I watched her descend down into the Yeerk Pool, ready to have me caged once again.
My cage was full that time. Far too many prisoners occupied the cramped space. Some cried and screamed, while others kept themselves quiet and still.
I kept myself to myself in one of the front corners, doing my best to stay out of everyone's way. I'd gradually shuffled there from the back over the course of about an hour, ready for the guards to take me when my turn came.
I'd be out of here soon, I told myself. I'd be free soon. I'd have control soon.
It was getting easier, for myself and for Yalran both: me, in control in front of my family, talking to them and being with them and pretending that all was normal and well. Yalran would keep watch in my head, ready to take over if the need arose, but equally ready to release me when the need was gone.
It still wasn't easy, mind. I still wished I could rush up to them and hug them hard. I wanted desperately to be able to be honest, to be able to tell them what was really happening.
I wanted to talk to them about Yalran. I wanted to talk to someone, to anyone, about Yalran.
She was probably with Kessam right now. Perhaps they were talking to each other, I thought, in between the orders boomed out from those speakers. Or perhaps they were just swimming quietly together, echolocating after each other and simply enjoying their closeness.
I smiled at the image, and then immediately frowned. Should I really have smiled then, I asked myself? Should I really have been happy for my own yeerk? Should I have been hating my yeerk instead, for the things she had done and would do?
A chorus of jeers erupted around me, jolting me to the present. I looked around, heart thumping, and immediately saw her: Alice, Kessam's host, rushing through the throng of cages with her face streaked with tears. The prisoners shouted and gestured and spat as she went past. She was just a voluntary to them. She was a collaborator to them; she was an enemy to be hated as much as the yeerks themselves.
Was that how they would see me, if they knew what Yalran and I now had? Because I wasn't voluntary, and I'd never be voluntary…but I wasn't exactly involuntary either. Not to Yalran, at least.
I wondered to myself if Yalran had found her third. I knew she still hoped for exactly that.
And then, I noticed two Hork-Bajir coming my way. I knew they wanted me the moment I saw their approach. Yalran and Kessam were timing their feedings now, and with Alice going for re-infestation, I couldn't possibly have been far behind.
They opened the cage and gestured to me, and I quickly stepped out. They slammed the cage shut right after, and I couldn't help but shudder. They gripped my arms firmly, but not painfully, and walked me to the pier at a steady pace.
There were just a handful of people ahead of me when we got there. Immediately in front, a large man in an expensive-looking suit drooped in the grip of his Hork-Bajir captors. In front of him, a young girl thrashed and screamed and cried. And in front of her: Alice, down on the ground, her head obediently lowered into the sludge.
I stared at the metal floor of the pier for the remainder of the time, shuffling forwards as directed.
When my turn did come, I didn't hesitate to go onto my stomach. I crawled over to pier's edge, imagining Yalran waiting down below. A Hork-Bajir hand pressed lightly on my head, pushing it under. I felt a yeerk press against my ear, felt it make its way in.
I tensed up hard, waiting to know that the yeerk was Yalran, waiting to know that it wasn't someone else. Tellarin had come so close to ordering Yalran's transfer; what was to say that she wouldn't still change her mind?
The muscles in my body fell out of my control one by one. An arm went first, then a leg, then my neck.
And then, she touched my mind. Yalran touched my mind. I don't know how I knew it was her, but I knew. I relaxed as she took the rest of my body, knowing that I'd have it back before long.
She sounded particularly happy that time. Maybe that meant she'd had a good time with Kessam. Or maybe she was just happy to be hosted once more.
((Oh, both,)) Yalran said, as she clambered to my feet. She faced my two guards, who continued to glare down at me. 'I'm in control,' she made me say.
She was indeed in complete control. But she wouldn't be, soon. Soon, we'd be out of this dank cavern and into the big bright world above. Soon, she'd let go of me, just as she had done after the last few feedings now.
She walked up the pier, moved through the cages and then hurried to the cavern's edge. I already knew which exit she was heading for. We'd decided on this ahead of time, and she'd already agreed to give control to me once we were through.
((So how'd you get on?)) I asked her, as she began to climb some stairs.
((Oh, it was good,)) Yalran said. ((We had fun.))
It was right about then that I realised she was grinning.
((How come?)) I asked her, filled with a renewed curiosity. ((What happened?))
She giggled softly, covering my mouth. ((Oh, you know. Stuff.))
I could feel a faint embarrassment through our connection, but I felt a strange thrill as well. It was like she was thinking of something she still really wasn't used to talking me about, and yet was bursting to tell me at the same time. Something like…like…
((We have a third!)) she blurted out.
((What, you mean, you and Kessam?))
She sounded like she wanted to jump for joy, right there and right then.
((We were swimming. Me and Kessam,)) she told me quickly. ((And someone swam up to us, and we got talking. The three of us, I mean. So we tried swimming together for a while, and it…it just felt right, you know? So we're getting together again next time, and…we have a third! We have a third!))
I couldn't not be happy for her. I knew she'd been wanting this so very badly. And I knew it would make things so much better for her when she fed in the Pool.
((So who is it?)) I asked her then. ((Anyone I know?))
((Nah. His name is Calgiss Five-Six-Three-One.)) She shrugged my shoulders, still grinning away with my mouth. ((He has a taxxon for a host. Not your crowd.))
It was a name that meant so little to me, back then.
It was a name that would mean so much more to me later on.
We came out into a changing room, connected to one of the many shops in the mall. Yalran dropped her control then, just as I'd known she would. I stretched my arms up wide in that enclosed space, for no reason beyond the simple fact that I could. That done, I made my way out of that shop and into the bustling mall beyond.
It was loud and lively out there, chock-full of people. For a moment, I just stopped and stared, watching everyone going about their day: families with young children, older couples, groups of teenage friends. It all looked so wonderful and safe and normal, not like the Yeerk Pool at all.
I could feel and yet not feel that Yalran was there, watching the world through my eyes and listening to through my ears. She was alert and yet at ease, ready to take over if needed and yet wholly willing to keep herself back.
I joined seamlessly with the crowd, walking through the mall with no particular destination in mind. I could have left and gone straight home, but I didn't feel like going home just yet. Instead, I felt like enjoying the crowds, spending some money, and taking some time to enjoy being out of that dank little cage.
And right then, I was free to do exactly those things.
I bought a cinnamon bun and a large coke and then sat at an empty table - a treat for Yalran, and for myself as well. I took my first bite and savoured the sweet taste, expecting and inviting my yeerk to do the same.
I felt an unspoken question touch my mind. I nodded mentally, and then wholly relaxed into Yalran's grip. She proceeded to eat slowly and carefully, drinking every so often in tiny sips, watching the world around us all the while.
((Thank you,)) she said quietly.
And I could feel that she meant it, more than words alone could ever express.
Yalran wasn't a soldier for the Yeerk Empire just then. Just then, she was simply a young yeerk living a human life, inside of her human host. She was a young yeerk who was living life and enjoying life, who was using my body to do those things with my total and utter consent.
Later, she'd be a soldier again. Later, she'd be recruiting hosts again. But not right now.
When I look back on my time with Yalran, I always wonder the same few things. What would it have been like, had it just been me and her, with no Empire and no Sharing? What would it have been like to host her, not as an involuntary or voluntary, but simply as a friend?
I think I could have lived with her, had there been no Empire. I truly think that I could.
And I know that she'd have loved it, right from beginning to end.
More than two years ago now, I started writing a fanfic. I envisioned that fanfic as a slightly longer prequel to a short oneshot that I had only just finished. I expected the fanfic to be a short and simple project lasting a few months at most — something to help get me back into writing regularly, having not done so in far too long.
Needless to say, things didn't quite turn out that way.
The Sickening did not come out at all as I first imagined it. In terms of word-count, I planned it to be 10-20k at most; instead, it finished up at over 80k. I planned for Yalran to be a bit-part character who left the story after only a few chapters; instead, Yalran became the focus of the whole narrative. I originally chose the fic's title based on a very specific planned scene that would serve as a pivotal moment; said scene, in the end, never even appeared.
I do plan to write a sequel to this fic. However, that sequel will probably not get uploaded for quite some time, for two reasons.
The first reason is that I'd like to write some other things before I return to this story. I had a number of ideas for other stories while writing this, and I'm keen to start exploring those stories before I take this particular story further.
The second reason is that I plan to draft and edit the sequel fully before I begin posting it. I wrote and edited and posted The Sickening on a chapter-by-chapter basis, with no buffer whatsoever, which led to increasingly long posting gaps as the fic went on. I have long since decided that this was a terrible idea, and so I do not intend to run any future fics in such a manner.
At any rate, it's been a really fun ride. Thanks very much to everyone who has been reading the story! I can only hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.