Chapter 12

"That's how we're going to do it."

There was plenty of uncertainty around the group, and that was to be expected. Only Tobias showed no signs of emotion on a feathery, beaked face.

Ax and Groof were in the machinery space, with Groof still pretending to fix the vital engine. Menderash, against my wishes, had stayed with them. He was no longer under my control, and I'd explained that to the others. He did not wish to follow along the path that I led.

Marco was the most shocked of them all. I could tell just by his baffled shake of the head. "Dude, if he says no… we're going to have worse enemies than Andalites and Kelbrids after us."

"We don't know that," I replied. "If nobody comes to any harm, then we can justify it. The One will be distracted enough that it would be reasonable to take that moment to our advantage. If I'm right – that Ax is sending transmissions to the Kelbrids – then they will assume that we are heading back home. They won't suspect anything else."

"I get that," Santorelli hummed. "But what about when they stop receivin' messages? They gonna think somethin's up?"

"That's why we have to be quick. Groof can get us there, almost instantaneously."

"He could also take us right back to Enrich…" Marco grumbled, unconvinced.

"Has anybody watched Groof operating the teleportation?" I asked openly.

And, just as I suspected… ((I have.))

We looked up to Tobias, who was nestled snugly atop a pipe that ran the length of the bridge.

"Can you see what he inputs when he takes us back to Enrich?" I asked.

((Yes. I can remember the squiggles. Vaguely, anyway.))

I pressed further, "And the buttons and switches?"

((Red button to activate; input co-ordinates; flick both left-most and third-in switches on the silver dashboard. Hold the same red button, while pulling the golden lever. Same every time.))

I nodded. "We input the Kyritlyp co-ordinates that we got when we took The Shadow. If Groof doesn't co-operate, then we do it ourselves."

"And hope he doesn't devour us and turn our bones into his fancy new earrings…" Marco added.

"He's outnumbered," I said. "And besides, we have his weapons."

I pulled up one of Eebing's weapons and rubbed a finger down the shimmering barrel. They hadn't been required so far.

"I like this plan," Santorelli commented.

Marco laughed lightly and shook his head once more. "So do I. It's stupid. It's insane. In. Sane. But those were always the best ones."

"It's about time we saw some action!" Santorelli cheered.

I shushed him quickly. "Tobias, could you tell Groof that we're ready to go?"

((Sure.)) He proceeded to privately send Groof the message. In a short time, he would announce that the engine was ready to be tested. During that test, we'd be told that we were prepared to leave for home.

Now, we just had to act normal.

Ax and Menderash were the first to arrive back into the main compartment of the ship. Ax looked pleased. Menderash looked more conflicted than I'd ever seen him. Needless to say, he didn't suspect a thing.

((Falralar says that the engine is ready for testing,)) Ax spoke as he emerged into the compartment. ((With luck, it will be repaired.))

"Let's hope so!" Santorelli replied, jumping away from the wall he'd been leaning against.

"Hey Ax, guess what," Marco said.

Ax looked at him with his main eyes. ((Guess what?))

"Guess!"

((… I am confused. Is this a test?))

"I got a PS3," Marco revealed. "When we get back, you can come visit my mansion for a while, and we'll make a night of it."

((That sounds exciting!)) Ax proclaimed. ((Will there be cinnamon buns?))

"More than you can ever hope to eat."

((I accept your challenge.))

I left them to their façade and spotted Menderash gazing over the ship's main control panel. He remained pensive and unsure, and so I approached him. He barely acknowledged me through his black, curly hair.

((You've made your decision,)) he assumed correctly.

"Yeah, I have," I replied.

((He is my Prince,)) Menderash said. ((And I still believe that is so. I must obey his commands and respect his leadership. I must also defend him, with my life if I have to.))

"You won't need to do that," I explained. "We're not going to kill him."

((How can I trust you?))

That hurt. It sent me reeling, and for a moment, I must have appeared physically struck. I reined it in and cleared my throat. "When have I ever broken your trust before, huh?"

((Under your leadership, I have sided with traitors, and I have become a fugitive from my people. Now you are trying to turn me against my own Prince. I can't trust your decisions anymore.))

I sighed and looked down at my feet. "We're going to save Ax. The real Ax. If you don't trust me enough to help, then you won't. It's that simple."

He became slightly more attentive to me. ((What is your plan?))

"We're going to Kyritlyp. Now."

Before I could explain any further, Groof emerged from the machinery space at the rear of the compartment, still deep in the guise of the grouchy rebel Falralar. He stomped forward and past everybody, right up between Menderash and me at the cockpit. ((Apologies for the wait. There were far too many fingers dithering in my way.))

"Is it fixed?" I asked of him.

He answered me, looking with just one stalk eye. ((I have realigned the balance pistons. It should be fully functional now. I'm just about to run through the start-up procedure.))

Ax stepped forward, still keeping a considerable distance between himself and Falralar, both stalk eyes at full attention. ((I am eager to see this ship in action. The engines are very peculiar!))

((I hate you officers so much…)) Falralar groaned. Ax pretended not to notice.

He started to activate the ship's necessary functions, doing it slowly as if to appear tentative. He watched the dials and levels closely while the compartment around us lit us with indicators and switches. The main compartment lights dimmed somewhat, leaving us all in a bluer hue.

Ax was showing much interest in the ship's activation but still found a moment to ask of our plan. ((Prince Jake, if the engines are indeed ready, will we be heading back to Earth straight away? Marco seems to have planned a Games and Cinnamon Bun night at his home, and though I'm aware that I have an urgent need to get back to my people, his offer is quite irresistible.))

"We've discussed it," I started. "And yeah, we're going back to Earth. We don't want to run the risk of getting arrested, so we'll go home and drop you near the California Andalite Spaceport when you're ready."

((I appreciate that very much,)) he said, bowing his stalk eyes. ((And your secrets will be safe with me, for so long as you wish. I will tell the War Commander that you have saved me, and maybe he will grant a pardon. Whatever the case, I will make sure that we have a line of contact.))

"Sounds good to me," I responded. "When we get home, we'll catch up over a drink."

I heard a ruffle and gazed back to the ceiling of the compartment. Tobias had left.

((Things appear to be running smoothly,)) Groof announced to the room. ((Engines are stable. They are correctly balanced. I'm lifting the vessel away from the ground for the final check.))

The ship rumbled beneath our feet, and engines' dull moaning vanished with little more to vibrate against. It pleased Ax, whose smile was visible to the room.

((Almost without sound… This must be an enjoyable ship to travel in. ))

"Maybe if it was a little larger than a coffin…" Marco commented.

((There's plenty of space with less people,)) Groof uttered, still very much in character.

And then, he spoke to me privately. ((Jake, I have cloaked the ship with a transmission disruptor. Nothing is getting in or out! Isn't that exhilarating?!))

Ax was still none the wiser, and he was casually inspecting a series of dials on the starboard bulkhead. ((This language is bizarre,)) he muttered. ((Do you read from left to right, like your English language?))

"Don't ask me," I said. "Only Falralar knows, and he doesn't think explaining it is worth his time."

((The engines are repaired,)) Groof announced with a slight hint of cheer. ((We're ready to move.))

I ordered, "Take us out of the atmosphere. Sarge, keep eyes on the radar for other ships."

"Gotcha, boss!"

Out of the cockpit, the barren, dusty moon began to fall away. Clouds bristled against the reinforced glass, and soon, all that could be seen was the dark brown mist of the moon's cluttered atmosphere. The ship rumbled harshly, but as the world outside became emptier, the jittering died down to nothing. The dark brown became the infinite black of space, partially obscured by the bleak horizon of the land.

((We have left the atmosphere. We're drifting,)) Groof announced. ((Where do you Humans want to go next?))

"Set co-ordinates for Earth," I replied.

((Very well,)) he grumbled. ((Everybody to the back on the compartment in preparation for acceleration.))

I lifted a hand toward the back of the compartment for Ax. "It's a pretty sharp acceleration. Probably best that you stand back."

I led the way, heading to the wall beside the hatch to the engine space at the rear.

Ax trustingly followed. I stepped aside, and he leaned against the wall closest to the hatch. Marco and Menderash joined us, holding onto firm protrusions on the port side. Santorelli stayed by the radar and pretended to hold himself firmly in place with the use of an out-sticking pipe.

((This is very unusual,)) Ax murmured. ((Why don't you simply accelerate once entirely free of atmosphere? You would not experience such forces.))

We didn't need to provide an answer. Quick as a flash, the big fist of the Hork-Bajir shot around the frame of the open hatch. It clobbered noisily with Ax's skull, far too quick and unexpected for him to even think of reacting. He fell back against me, and I was squeezed out of the way as his unconscious body crumpled to the floor. He wasn't going to get up any time soon.

My immediate attention went to Menderash. He bolted up and took one step towards his fallen Prince. Tobias revealed himself from the engine space and provided an intimidating obstacle to block his path.

I heard Menderash's seething breath. "You're making a mistake."

"No. I'm doing exactly what Ax would do in my place."

He appeared ready to lash out, but I knew that Tobias would be enough of a deterrent, long enough for him to calm.

Groof had assessed the situation and had started to demorph. He'd been Andalite for a while. ((Good job, Humans! I have fluids in the aid box that will keep him asleep for as long as you need.))

"Thanks, Groof," I said.

We waited for him to demorph fully. The blue fur was sucked down into a hardened exoskeleton, his stalk eyes shriveled away, and finally, the deadly tail blade became little more than blunt shell. His earrings stayed stubbornly in place, the only parts not to change.

He clapped his pincers excitedly. "Wonderful! Let's head back to Enrich for a marvelous acid shower! Oh, wait, you Humans prefer pH neutral showers… I suppose you can enjoy that, too."

I came away from the back of the compartment and stood beside the starboard weapons hold. "Groof, there's been a change of plan."

The massive bug tip-tapped his spindly legs to face me directly. "There has? Did you wish to visit Earth after all?"

"No," I said. "We should go to Kyritlyp. If Ax was sending messages to The One, then this is the perfect time to go. You can get us to the planet instantly, and we have Burr-Ammit's co-ords. We need to find out if this is the real Ax."

Groof scratched uneasily at his thorax. "That is very hasty. I admire such Human courage, even though Humans barely have the physical strength to make it an efficient principle!"

He laughed. Clearly, he wasn't taking us too seriously.

"Maybe it's hasty," I suggested. "But we've always been a little impatient. We need you to take us to Kyritlyp."

He laughed, but now it seems more nervous… as far as I could decipher the nervous laughter of his bizarre race. "It has to be approved, first. Perhaps when we get back to Enrich, we could discuss this with Surote. He may allow it."

"No. You will take us there now."

"I can't."

I reached right and wrapped my hand around Eebing's rifle. I held it, the barrel staring ahead to the befuddled alien. Other clicks echoed through the compartment, as Marco and Santorelli drew their weapons, too. Suddenly, Groof's jovial nature had melted away.

"You can," I urged. "And you will."

"This is a very unexpected turn of events…" Groof commented offhandedly.

"Sorry, man," said Marco. "It's nothing personal. We just want Ax back, and we're not waiting any longer."

"Hands up!" Santorelli bellowed, forcing a jump even from us. "Or pincers! Whatever!"

"Okay, okay," Groof replied, raising the pincers that Santorelli clearly thought to be too dangerous to leave unchecked.

"Now, turn around!" he continued. "All the way!"

Slowly, Groof returned to the cockpit, pincers still up in the air.

Santorelli wagged a finger to Tobias. The big Hork-Bajir pushed ahead in the compartment, directing Menderash forward, too, with a hand. Menderash was diverted to the side where he was in everybody's sights, and Tobias stood beside Groof, watching closely over his bug shoulder to the controls.

Santorelli shouted, "Now, the co-ordinates! Take us to Kyritlyp!"

Groof sighed. Even if he looked, he'd notice that any potential weapon had been removed. All that he had at his disposal was the control panel. He gently lowered his pincers and started to procedure to teleport the ship. Tobias kept watch with unrelenting eyes.

((Those are the wrong co-ordinates,)) Tobias stated after a moment of Groof's alterations.

"Better not be…" Santorelli said.

Suddenly, Groof's actions became frantic! His pincers whirred, slamming mechanically at the controls. Tobias' reaction was purely reactionary, and Groof met the same fate that Ax had moments earlier. However, Groof did not immediately lose consciousness. He fell but started to writhe away.

The writhing stopped when three barrels were aimed down at him. He raised his pincers again in defense.

"I-I'm just the taxi!" he uttered.

Tobias spoke back to us, ((He put in the co-ordinates for Enrich. He was about to take us back there.))

"I only perform approved actions," Groof clarified. "I can't in good conscience take you to Kyritlyp when you are so unprepared."

"We'll take you back to Enrich when we have Ax," I said. "Tobias, input the coordinates. Let's do it."