I put on my best attire. Best wasn't the appropriate word.
When we set off for Enrich, we didn't know precisely how many sets of clothes to bring, but after almost a week deep in the far reaches of Space, we were starting to feel that maybe our stay was to be lengthier than we originally anticipated. I certainly didn't expect to have to dress smartly on this particular evening.
Thankfully, I had brought some smart-casual clothing. I had a lightly chequered button-up shirt and some straight jeans. After shaving and combing my hair neatly, I didn't look like the scruffy, worn soldier that I had suddenly become.
I tugged at my collar, inspecting it in the drop-down mirror that was one of only a few features of my isolated cabin. Over the low rumbling of the large, active ship, I heard the material crease and crumple beneath my fingers. I held the top button, stared at it, and decided to keep that one loose. I didn't have a tie.
I was ready to go.
My journey took me up fourteen floors via the rapid-transportation elevators, so quick that you barely had time to stop and stand still before you were being shooed out by the next user. Even after being on Enrich for so long, I would always be passing aliens that I'd never even imagined seeing. The varieties and directions that life took throughout the universe were unreal and unnerving. The numbers dissipated, however, when I reached the Heads of Departments – or HoDs – floor. Here, only the most important and influential members would venture. I'd only been there twice, and this was the third time.
The corridors were sweeping halls of gold and velvet, and the scents of flowers from the most beautiful planets. Even the ship's low hum was gone, replaced by the music of some unknown race, undoubtedly toted as the greatest purveyors of sound across all galaxies. It made Human music sound like nails on a chalkboard.
At the end of the corridor, a set of steps descended into a round lobby. The was a sculpture far up above, a perfect model of the upper half of Enrich. In the center was a light casting its glow upon the whole room. It represented the very room in which I stood. I was in the heart of Enrich.
There was a door directly ahead. It was, like the room, a perfect circle. Beside it stood an alien, tall and somewhat slimy in appearance, the skin shimmering with wetness. On top of the slender, stick-like body was a pointed head with a tiny mouth and large, studying eyes. It wore a bowl over its head, filled with water, just like Arkv had.
I walked over to it. The unfamiliar alien seemed to recognize me immediately and stepped aside with an open arm. With a muffled voice, it said, "Welcome to the Enrich Hall. Please, find your seat and dine with the etiquette of your people."
"Thank you," I replied. The door ahead of me was easily pressed open, and the noises of the Enrich Hall came whispering through, introducing a brilliant view of mahogany and gold. I shouldn't have been surprised, but everything about the ship was unbelievable thing after another.
Imagine the fanciest dining hall in your head. Multiply it by fifty. Then, perhaps, you'd come close. Every surface was impossibly clean, and the air was fresher than could ever be achieved on Earth. The ceiling was an art-piece of white and pale yellow in wispy, glorious patterns that stretched down to thick pillars lining the walls like sentries. Every curve, and every edge, was shimmering and without flaw.
And it was all there for those marvelous few. They sat around a table of sixteen, and most were present by this time. Some chairs were bigger, and some smaller; whatever was necessary to comfortably seat body forms so diverse. I'd seen all of them before, some more than others, and few didn't continue to frighten.
The co-founder, and by far the spookiest, was Surote. The Yeerk was greeting diners as they entered, and his bug-centaur body was unnervingly motionless. Even his eyes. Only his mouth jittered when he uttered the words, "Good evening, Jake. You look splendid this day. You've shaved."
"Yeah," I replied emptily. "Beard was a little scruffy. Thought, 'why not just get rid of it?'"
"You've always been a smart thinker," he said, mechanical mouth turning up into a smile. Then, his upper body swiveled, and a hand raised towards the table. "Please, take a seat. We are only waiting for two more diners."
"Thanks," I said. Then I walked past as his body jerked back into its previous position.
I was left to find my seat. Amongst the ensemble of weird and wacky aliens, only a few places remained. Two of them looked like they could sit a Human being. Fortunately, I didn't have to guess which was mine.
The tendriled head of a Kelbrid twisted to look over its left shoulder. A toothy grin shone. "Well, hello there, Jake Berenson! You look a completely different Human! Get yourself down here." He yanked back the empty, Human-sized seat beside him.
I knew Burr-Ammit. He seemed like a pretty trustworthy guy, from what I'd experienced. Friendly, too, unlike his Andalite counterpart. However, I didn't see Asaccah anywhere.
I took his invitation and sat carefully into the padded seat. Its comfort was immediate and unsurprising. I'd almost gotten used to absolute pleasure.
"It's good to see ya," Burr-Ammit greeted heartily.
He slapped his hand onto my arm and gripped with fat fingers. I gasped and recoiled, but he maintained his grip. My mind jumped straight to the toxin that Kelbrids harbored. Of course, I had no reason to fear. That knowledge couldn't override my instinct.
"Haha!" Burr-Ammit chortled. "Got you there, didn't I?! Never fear, Jake, I wouldn't kill ya! I like you too much, you know?"
"Just hope he never changes his mind."
The voice was high-pitched. I politely pulled my arms from Burr-Ammit's fingers and turned to face the diner sitting opposite. The white ball of fluff gawked at me with bulging pink eyes. At its side were stubby little limbs, and it smiled at me with a button-snout. The chair would seem far too large for its round fluffball body.
"Excuse me?" I asked, not quite knowing how else to react.
"He's changed his mind before!" The furball chirped.
Burr-Ammit laughed like it was a trivial comment. "That's Ittee. I would suggest not letting her appearance fool you, but he is what he seems. Not much more to her, you get me?"
"I can inflate to ten times my natural body size, actually!" She hissed.
Burr-Ammit huffed dismissively and whispered to me, "We use her for sports practice when we can't find a ball. You wouldn't guess that she is the adviser to the high-leader of the Telemk galaxy, would you?"
"No…" I admitted.
I remained mostly quiet as we waited for the last of the diners. My conversations were limited to hums of neutrality as Ittee and Burr-Ammit exchanged banter from either side of me. I said polite hellos to others in my near vicinity, but apart from that, I felt too awkward to say much else.
These were, without exaggeration, some of, if not the most powerful beings in the Universe. My first time was never going to be easy.
I was relieved when the last of the diners arrived, but my relief wouldn't last for long. Surote returned to the head of the table, and all conversations died down to the quietest whispers.
Surote smiled, and when he did, a hole appeared in front of every diner at the table. I gazed down into the circular blackness and watched as a bowl rose to greet me. There were rubbery pink squares packed neatly within. Idnsi gum. An appetizer.
"Welcome, all!" Surote said to the alien montage ahead of him. "I'm sure you're all ready for our feast after a busy period."
The room gave its unanimous approval.
"And we have a guest tonight! It's been a while since we had a Human among us! In fact…"
"First time!" somebody called out.
"You're right, it's the first time," Surote agreed. "Jake Berenson, don't be afraid to get involved with the conversation that you hear tonight. This is your opportunity to touch the heart of Enrich!"
I looked at him briefly to say, "thank you," before looking down at my bowl once more.
"Perhaps you're wondering why you've been invited here."
He said it with a much more severe tone than he had previously used, and I looked up once more. The table had fallen silent. Under his silence, I felt pressured to respond. "It crossed my mind," I replied.
Surote smiled, and it seemed to be an attempt at reassurance. "We've been very open since you first discovered us," he said. "And it would be a tremendous shame if we started to close our mouths to each other. Enrich has always prided itself on its transparency. Many tragedies have, of course, erupted from the dark caves of secrets!"
"Like the Elmand War," Burr-Ammit suggested.
Surote was in agreement. "Precisely. Jake, we hope that Enrich can build the most open relationship possible with you, and the other Animorphs. From my own experience, you have lived up to this, and for that, we all thank you."
I nodded. "We wouldn't keep secrets. I don't think we could if we tried."
I expected a chuckle, even just a tiny one. The table remained stone-cold silent.
Surote continued, "We must maintain our side of this trust. Your friend Cassie was recently visiting by Andalite law enforcement. They wanted your location in return for her freedom."
It was the first I'd heard of it. "What happened?"
"With some help from us, she was able to gain valuable information. That information has allowed her to hold off the Andalites for now. Thankfully, she will not have her freedom taken from her.
"That's good news," I said. However, from his tone, I knew that more was to come. There was more to the story.
His robotic arms reached forward and grabbed the edge of the table. He looked to me with his stern, unblinking eyes. "You know our policy on leaks, do you not?"
I nodded lightly. "Yeah. I know."
"Our informant has told us that two people are suspicious. They are suspicious of outside involvement. Specifically, they are suspicious of the one you know as Jeanne Gerard."
That was bad. Very bad. I bit my lip and looked down at the table again, wondering who he could be talking about. I had the answers in my head before he could tell me.
With some sympathy in his voice, he told me, "The Human Ronnie Chambers, and the Hork-Bajir Toby Hamee. Jeanne Gerard regrets to say that both of them have their suspicions. We are not at the point of… correcting this, but I have brought you here to pass the message to you. Do you understand why I would pass it on?"
I felt cold and numb. I struggled to give my response, and my hands gripped the edge of the table harder than I initially realized. "Yes," was all I could respond.
Surote elucidated, "You know these creatures. I tell you for transparency, and so that, given the opportunity, you can reverse these suspicions before it's too late."
I saw Cassie. She was more apparent than any alien sat around the table. I saw her with tears in her eyes, sitting alone by her fireside.
I'd never gotten to know Ronnie. In fact, I hardly ever met the guy, because I preferred to stay well clear. Old scars didn't need picking. However, I knew how much he meant to Cassie and how ruined she would be if her own actions took him away. She carried enough guilt on her shoulders.
"No," I said.
Surote's metal eyelids narrowed. "Excuse me?"
"You won't," I replied.
He was puzzled but determined to take any explanation. "I do anything for Enrich," He swore.
"Not that. I wouldn't let you."
His hands snapped away from the table, and his posture rose. The silence of everybody else dropped somehow further.
"We had an agreement," He uttered warningly. "You understood."
"You want transparency," I said. "This is it. If you lay a hand on them, we'll serve our own justice."
"Then you know nothing about justice!" He burst. "What we do is for the greatest cause. You would stand in the way of that for the sake of two? How many would die if you got your way, Jake Berenson? Do you not remember the guilt of your own actions?!"
I remained seated, no matter how much I wanted to run. "I remember," I told him.
His voice settled to an eerie tone. "You remember how I forgave your sins. This one, I would never forgive. Cross me, and you will die."
We stared at each other. I dared not blink.
Then, Burr-Ammit laughed. It distracted us both. "Now, now. This was meant to be a friendly occasion! I think we need more wine!"
The room chanted its agreement, but it was tinged with a tension that wouldn't soon disperse.
"Yes, it was," Surote muttered, still with fury in his eyes. "I offer transparency, and this is how I'm repaid."
"Surote!" Burr-Ammit called. "We can discuss that later. Let's fill our stomachs and forget about whatever duties we need to forget about. Tonight, we celebrate!"
He continued to stare, the clogs churning in his mind. Then, he reached forward, and he took from the table a half-full glass. He raised it.
"To Enrich!" the room replied.