Aftran Nine-Four-Two had not heard thought speech in, she was certain, decades. Not since the war.
Granted, she had no way of keeping track of time internally, as did the Andalites, the ones who spoke this way. Moreover, for awhile, she hardly cared. Her life was one spent in the ocean. Not limited to any one body of water, she had traveled frequently. Simply because she could. Her body was massive and powerful. Not that she was dangerous, except, perhaps, to the small fish that made up her diet. No doubt, had they the sentience of other creatures she had known, they would see Aftran and other whales as vicious predators.
But aside from what she had to consume in order to survive, she shed no blood. She was no killer, in self defense or otherwise.
Really, most of her life was spent catching food and swimming. After awhile, it became somewhat tedious.
She never thought that she would see her new life this way. Surely, having one's own body with sight, not having to depend on a host for this wondrous sight, was something to be amazed at. Hadn't she told Cassie that humans were living in paradise? And while she was not a human, was she not partaking in some way in this paradise? Her freedom of movement, of traveling miles in a day, of seeing the world, did not come at the expense of another sentient creature's freedom.
She still believed this.
At the same time, Aftran was lonely. Not for the first year or so, perhaps. Everything had been new then, a wonder. A marvel. She was alive, for one thing. Not blind. Not helpless. Not subject to the empire.
Really, even just being alive would have been enough for her.
Yet, as time passed, she found herself thinking about her old life. Talking, in the Yeerk language, to Illim and her other brother Yeerks in the pool. Her life between agreeing to free Karen and Cassie's rescue of her from the hands of Visser Three's host body.
She didn't let herself wonder if she missed it. She'd known, when she'd become a nothlit, that doing so would mean being free from the Yeerk empire and the expectation of involuntary infestation. Freed from the dependence on the Kandrona rays. Free from the helplessness of her own body.
At the same time, it also meant a life isolated from everyone. Not just her fellow Yeerks, but all sentient life.
Whales, after all, could not communicate with each other the way other sentient creatures could.
And Aftran was not really a whale, in the end. She was a Yeerk, trapped in the body of a whale.
Until she heard the message, she believed that she would spend the rest of her life in this body.
It wasn't bad, really. But it was far from the life she had expected.
The message had come suddenly.
((Attention, all nothlits. A cure has been found, and it has been proven effective. Regardless of what your natural form was, you may receive your former body back, at no cost. Humans, contact Lab Hydra at 555-532-5830. All animal nothlits, visit this location and use thought speech to confirm your identity. Animals, report at the nearest coastal region and report via thought speech. This message will play three times a day for the next two years.)
Had she had a human body body, she would have started, or perhaps, blinked in surprise.
A cure? A cure for nothlits? She'd hadn't known that such a thing was possible. Once someone stayed in a morph for two hours, they were trapped. Period.
Oh, Aftran knew there were exceptions. Loopholes. Tobias had been given his power back by the Ellimist, even though he was cursed to remain in a hawk body. Cassie, of course, had escaped the caterpillar morph because of the natural morphing cycle in which caterpillars become butterflies. This, according to Ax, had reset her morphing clock, and she had been able to resume her human form.
Still, those were anomalies. With those exceptions aside, no one had been able to come back from a morph after two hours. Now, suddenly, it was possible?
No, not possible. It wouldn't be done because of some intense concentration, as though if Aftran focused with enough force on her Yeerk form, she would suddenly be able to become a Yeerk again. The message had referred to a "cure". Something that would need to be administered to her. To others.
Others. Did that mean that the war was over? That Cassie and her friends had won? That there were many others who once had the morphing power, but were now trapped in some alien form?
Was it possible that other Yeerks had been given the power to morph, just as Cassie and her friends had done with her, under the condition that they became nothlits? And now, after what must be at least several years, they would be given the cure?
Perhaps, then, the Yeerks had surrendered. Had been forced to become nothlits, and for whatever reason, this was no longer the best solution. So, they were now allowed to resume their natural form.
Or, maybe, the cure referred only to non-Yeerks trapped in morph. Perhaps, Aftran was deluding herself.
Still, it wasn't as though it would hurt to swim to that base and find out?
The most they could do would be to kill her, and as she had already escaped Kandrona starvation, surely the risk of death would be worth it. It had to be less painful than Kandrona starvation.
She swam for miles. Perhaps, thousands of miles. She hadn't attempted to stay close to the California coast, after saying goodbye to Cassie. What was the point? So, the journey back would be long. But she was a whale, after all, and a mile for them was no great feat.
She thought spoke as she neared the coast. She kept her message short, lest it become tedious in her mind.
(I am Aftran Nine-Four-Two. Friend of Cassie and the Animorphs. I heard your message, and want to learn more.)
Aftran was certain that she would need to repeat the message at least a hundred times, but after the third, she heard a response.
A vocal response. But she saw the face, as well.
"Aftran? It's me, Cassie."
Aftran would have started, had she been human. This human claiming to be Cassie was far older than the child she had once met. Not elderly, exactly, but as old as Karen's father had been. How much time had passed?
Of course, it might not be her. Aftran would have to test the human, make sure that it was really Cassie.
(What did you morph as to rescue me?) she asked.
There was no hesitation. "An osprey."
Someone could have told the human. Aftran would not let herself hope. Not yet.
(What was the first thing I said when I entered your head after you saved me?)
The response was immediate. "I knew you would come for me."
(And after that?)
Cassie-well, the human claiming to be Cassie-laughed. "That you never would have believed me if I had told you, when we first met, that you would help save Ax."
(And how did I save Ax?) Aftran pressed.
Another laugh. "I put you in his head. He needed surgery-brain surgery. I asked you to locate the Triaa gland. You did, and you walked me through the operation. It went well, but as soon as he started to come to, he freaked out, because you were in his head. You left immediately."
Either it was a very elaborate trap, or it was really Cassie. Aftran swan as close to the coast as she could.
(It's you,) she said. (It's really you.)
Cassie grinned. "So, you're going to join the millions of Yeerks who are getting the cure? Or, you just wanted to catch up after twenty-seven years?"
Twenty-seven years? No wonder Cassie looked as old as her former host's father. She had been nearly fifteen during their second meeting, placing her at around forty-two now. How much, exactly, had she missed during this time? But more importantly...
(Millions of Yeerks?) Aftran echoed. (What happened, exactly?)
"We won the war," Cassie explained, her voice grim. "About a year and a half after we rescued you. We made a deal with the Andalites and the Yeerks. No more Controllers, no more hosts. They could pick an animal or a human and become a nothlit. It would give you bodies without..."
(Without making someone else a slave,) Aftran finished, gently. (I'm amazed that the Andalites let you do it.)
A laugh. "We have Jake to thank for that. And Alloran. But...it went wrong. Well, not horribly wrong, exactly, but it didn't play out the way we wanted. It's a long story."
(I have time,) Aftran reminded her. (And if I'm going to be allowed to change back into my Yeerk form, I need to know what I can expect. Will I be living in the Yeerk Pool for the rest of my days?)
"I was hoping that I would be your host," Cassie replied, quietly. "At least, in the beginning. If...everything went well, we could decide whether or not to do it long term."
It was not the first time Cassie had made the offer. Truthfully, the idea of living inside Cassie's head sounded wonderful. Being a Yeerk again, with a voluntary host. It was what all Yeerks dreamt of. Even if the empire had told them that the willingness of a host didn't matter, it was their right as Yeerks to infest any creature that could be infested.
(Please, Cassie. Tell me everything that happened,) Aftran pressed. (I'm not saying no...I just want to know what I missed.)
"Right. Okay." Cassie sat down on the beach. "So, at first, every Yeerk was supposed to become a nothlit. That was the agreement. Except, the Peace Movement Yeerks were allowed to remain Yeerks, because there were a couple hundred of them, and their hosts really wanted to be with them."
"Yes. So, after some debate, the government said that was fine, since it was only a few hundred, and those Yeerks had-well, had proven that they could be trusted." Cassie shrugged. "So, they were allowed to remain Yeerks with their hosts, or get new hosts if they didn't have a host, as long as it was all voluntary and there were no cages or anything like that. But every other Yeerk needed to become a nothlit," Cassie continued. "It took months to get every Yeerk registered and morphed. Some weren't allowed, because they were war criminals, and they weren't executed, but they were confined to a different Yeerk pool."
(A different Yeerk pool?) Aftran echoed. (Sounds ominous.)
"This pool had restricted rays. The Kandrona would only shine for long enough for them to receive the bare nutrients necessary for survival. And it would be turned off for the rest of the time. No Yeerk has starved, but they're always hungry, except for the time when they're allowed to feed."
(What constitutes a war criminal?) Aftran wondered.
"Mostly severe host abuse, on multiple occasions. Murder of subordinates, if they were high ranking enough to have any. Torture. War crimes that made them too dangerous to be part of our society, even in an animal form. But we wanted to show some mercy, and not kill them."
Had Aftran been inside of a human host, and in control, she would have nodded. (That's more than fair. So, after every Yeerk was registered and allowed to morph? I suppose that they all had to become nothlits?)
"That was the plan," Cassie began, "But there were problems with Yeerks who couldn't take the power. Thousands of them. Not even 1% of the entire population, but still...They were allergic to it. So, we had thousand of Yeerks, mostly ones who had been loyal enough to the empire. At first, we put them in a separate pool, with constant access to the Kandrona, and all the technology that the Yeerks had in the Sulp Niar pool. Computers with access to programs so they could learn more. Also, they could use these computers so they could communicate with any visitors to the pool. After awhile, the same people who campaigned for the Peace Movement Yeerks to be allowed to have hosts set up another one for these Yeerks to have them." Cassie laughed, a little. "See, by the end of the war, there were thousands of humans who were voluntary Controllers. Really voluntary. They wanted to stay with their Yeerks. I guess they must have told others about the benefits of having a Yeerk in their head. So, with the addition of thousands of Yeerks who couldn't become nothlits...the government said that they could have humans as hosts, as long as it was monitored and they were really voluntary, and no one was being kept against their will. It worked out. In fact, there were way more humans who wanted to have a Yeerk than there were Yeerks available. Even when they were allowed to reproduce."
(It sounds too good to be true,) Aftran admitted. (So, I imagine that there were still more humans who wanted Yeerks than there were Yeerks available, and eventually, your government approved testing a cure to remove the nothlit condition?)
"That's part of it. A small part."
(And the rest of it, Cassie?) Aftran pressed. At the human's silence, she added, (Please. I need to know.)
Cassie shuddered. "The ones who became animals were okay. At least, as far as I know. Probably, some were hunted down and killed. But mostly, we didn't hear anything. The ones who became human, though...they had it rough. Really, really bad. Everyone knew who they were. They couldn't get jobs, not even the lowest paying ones. Some were attacked. Even killed. Things settled down, a little, for some. But for most of them? It was a horrible life."
(You couldn't have known,) Aftran told her, gently. (You thought that giving my brother Yeerks bodies would solve everything.)
Truthfully, though, Aftran was far from surprised. Allowing Yeerk nothlits to live with humans? It would have been better to send the Yeerks back to the home world. Even say that they could no longer have hosts, except Gedds. What was the human government thinking, allowing Yeerks to live alongside angry humans? Of course, there would be violence.
Aftran might have expected their sort of naive thought process from Cassie. But the others? The government who allowed this to happen? It was laughable.
Well, it was optimistic. And having won the war, perhaps the people in charge believed that the Animorphs' solution for the Yeerks came at the hands of those with experience with war, and therefore, managing a peaceful transition afterwards.
"Scientists decided to find a cure for nothlits. Probably, as a way to solve the problem. Not that they made it that explicit," Cassie added, smiling a little sardonically. "It took years, but they figured it out. It's being administered to anyone who wants it. It works."
It was official, then. She could have her body back. Another idea occurred to her.
(Does that mean that the Yeerks who receive it can still morph?) Aftran wondered.
"Yes. They have the DNA of anything they acquired beforehand. Which is usually just the human or animal DNA they acquired. But once they turn back, they can acquire new morphs. Most do, but they spend the majority of their time as a Yeerk."
Another laugh. "The demand for Yeerks is larger than ever. A lot of people still want a Yeerk. Voluntary Controllers during the war who got along with their Yeerk. New people, who never were infested, but have heard the good stories. Not the majority of Americans, but there are hundreds of millions of us. Plus, those who live in other countries, who've heard about Yeerks, and want to try it. We have Yeerk Pools waiting in three other continents. It's all voluntary, of course."
(Incredible,) was all Aftran could manage to say.
"There's just one thing..."
Aftran tried not to let her disappointment show in her voice. She knew that it couldn't have been as simple as Cassie made it seem.
"The Peace Movement Yeerks were allowed to have human hosts without any problem, because they had risked their lives for the effort. Most people-the ones who mattered-saw them as being on our side. And the ones who couldn't morph were allowed to have hosts, but it was monitored closely to make sure there was no coercion or abuse. With the nothlits...Aftran, you're not included in this, because of your role in the Peace Movement. I'll make sure of that. You were willing to die for us. However, you're going to find out either way, so I want you to know from me..."
(Cassie, just tell me.)
"Before any Yeerk, any former nothlit who wasn't part of the Peace Movement when they morphed, can have a host, they have to morph human and be infested for just under two hours. They have to experience every aspect of being a Controller. Personally."
To be continued...
A/N: If you are wondering why this requirement did not apply to Lertam, since he was not in the Peace Movement during the war, there are a few possibilities. The first is that he was the first to receive the cure, so while it was safe, he was essentially a test subject. The second is that his host during the war wanted to be his host, and not taking a new host made him "exempt" from the requirement. The third is that the regulation passed after the first group of nothlits were given the morphing power and wanted hosts-not just to live as Yeerks.
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