Ears. When you've seen as much of war as I have, it's hard to care about little things like those. I've slashed plenty off. I've had my own bloodied—and then morphed them back.
But the Yeerks came to Earth because not only did we have eyes and noses and arms and legs to sense and maneuver and operate in the world, we also had ears that they could penetrate and sneak into our brains. Imprison and enslave us, all because our puny little ears couldn't fight back.
It was just dumb luck, we thought. Primates like us, or orangutans or Big Jim, had useless muscles in our ears. An evolutionary dead end.
But it turns out the primates of Earth didn't evolve here. Our distant ancestors were dropped off by some wayward alien—probably a Skrit Na, they get around. And on the other side of the galaxy, our monkey cousins evolved into very similar bipeds—but without the ear mutation. They have strong ears, and the Yeerks couldn't get into their canal before turning back. Just a few genes difference, making them Class One and us Class Five.
There are other things that make a difference, too. The changing dimensions of Z-Space, or as they call it on this side of the galaxy, hyperspace. Beings like the Ellimist and Crayak playing their games. Depending on who you ask, the "Force." But sometimes, wars are won or lost—or avoided—because of something as mundane as ears.
My name is Jake Berenson. Stop me if you've heard this one.
I was a Wookiee. Several Wookiees, actually; since arriving in this arm of the galaxy, I've been a lot more comfortable with the Frolis maneuver. Ax needed it to blend in on Earth, after all, and I don't think I've done anything quite as embarrassing as his first reactions to food. There was a time when we were reluctant to morph sentient creatures, afraid that copying someone's body was almost as repulsive as stealing it. We were reluctant to do a lot of things.
Wookiees can seriously dislocate a human's bones without too much effort, and their home planet has fallen on hard times or something in recent years, which means people usually give them wide berths out of fear or pity. Unfortunately, one of the humans in the cantina seemed to be looking for a Wookiee. Even more unfortunately, acquiring the morph's instincts doesn't mean having a command of their language.
"Tarfful?" the human whispered. "We have your herbs."
I tried to say something like "Sorry, wrong guy." What came out was something like "Aaaruuwo glaaaanti."
The human bristled. I didn't need a bird of prey's vision to tell me he was sizing me up, checking for his weapons. At that point, I figured anything I tried to say wouldn't help, so I just slowly backed toward the bar, pointing and waving in the universal gesture for "buy the band another round, it's on me." I'd needed an oversized pouch to carry my credits as a Wookiee. It wasn't bad, it just looked disproportionately large on me as a human and could make me a target, so I saved it for Frolis nights. Marco would have made fun of me for it. The band wasn't any good—quite the opposite, in fact—but it seemed to keep the crowd calm. Or drown out the sound of blasters. Whichever.
The human made a couple more slow laps of the cantina, looking for "Tarfful" or whoever, who seemed increasingly unlikely to show. I recognized that posture, the feigned casualness, the glimpses that took in everything. He almost looked like Marco. If Marco hadn't been able to be the Marco, the Animorph, the savior of Earth after the war, and had turned into someone like...well, like me. And was also kind of hot.
Focus, Jake. Not the time to be having those thoughts about Marco—although in retrospect, it explained some things.
Another nice thing about morphing sentient creatures, even by Frolis, was that no one looked twice at my watch. When it got late, I demorphed; the idea of changing species wasn't completely unheard of, but I hadn't broken the habit of heading for the bathroom first. Another night where I hadn't managed to forget myself, but I'd seen aliens with green horns and big eyes and orange ears and hadn't gotten jaded yet, didn't take the richness of the galaxy for granted. Good enough.
But before I made it out the front door, the human agent accosted me. "Where'd you get that?"
"This?" I said, toying with my watch. "Bazaar on Kafrene. Cheap."
"Oh." Now that I was human again, it did look kind of big on me. "Geonosis, I think?"
"I mean tonight, and don't play games with me."
"What? It's just a bag, look." I opened it: dull credits, untraceable. "Nothing special."
"I know you got it off the Wookiee who was in here. Now, we can do this the easy way—"
I was starting to see why Visser Three had stubbornly assumed we were "Andalite bandits" for so long. Sometimes it was easier not to look for new evidence. "No, no, I'm the Wookiee. Relax." Slowly, focusing on my hands, I started to grow fur. I would never be able to control it like Cassie could, but I could probably manage to avoid sprouting up to full Wookiee height in an instant. And if things turned rough, I'd rather be part-Wookiee than all-human.
"You're a shifter," he said. Okay, good, he wasn't completely unfamiliar with the concept. "What's your base?"
"My base?" I said, quickly turning back to human.
"When you're not in disguise. Clawdite? Figdor? Something else?"
"What's it to you?" I said. "I'm leaving."
"Your clients can't be all that great if this is where you hang out. I can help you get better jobs."
I couldn't help laughing. "I'm not looking for work, thanks."
"Fine," he said. "Next time get a human form that's old enough to drink."
"You got some kind of death wish, buddy?"
He stiffened, not for long, but I caught it. "What's it to you?"
"Not a lot of people go around insulting someone who they know can morph."
He gave a long, dull stare, then allowed the corners of a smile. "You've got some nerve, I'll give you that."
I guess he realized his buddy Tarfful wasn't going to show, because with the ice broken, he was able to point me to a better cantina on the same moon.
Morphing is one way to understand the mind of another creature. A pretty good way, actually. You can read about the power of a tiger or the speed of a peregrine falcon or the invulnerability of a cockroach, but that's no substitute for being one.
Morphing sentients, it's a lot harder to tell what's the instincts of the morph versus your own conscious mind. I've been a Hork-Bajir, Tobias has been an Andalite, and of course, Ax has been human. But most of the time, if you want to understand another species with a mind of its own, you actually have to talk to them. I've had a lot of practice with that, too: Ax, Jara Hamee, Temrash 114. I can't say I liked being infested, especially putting my friends' and the planet's freedom at risk, but it was a learning experience.
But, maybe because I was so used to dealing with other species, I got pretty impatient when a fellow human was making no sense. "When you say 'Empire,'" I repeated. "These guys aren't Yeerks. They're not taking over other individuals' bodies."
"No," said Willix. I was pretty sure that wasn't his real name, but I didn't care. "They are not very welcoming of non-human species."
"Then what do they want? I mean, are they enslaving people?"
"Not humans," said Willix. "Ask your Wookiee friends what's happened to their planet."
"Okay, but..." As horrible as the Yeerk Empire was, we could understand why they thought bodies like ours were worth killing for. "Why are they so...unpopular?"
"I don't know what your planet is like, but it must be a very strange place if no group has ever sought to hurt and overpower others, just because they can."
Okay, he had me there. "Yeah. And there have always been other groups that have defeated them. Not quickly, and not easily, but the tyrants never survive."
"There's nothing outside the galaxy. If they had their way, they would rule everything."
"Uh," I said. "I'm not an expert on space travel, but I'm pretty sure there are lots of galaxies."
"Hyperspace travel can't cross the intergalactic vacuum," Willix said dismissively. "They don't affect us."
His tone reminded me of Ax. "Let me guess, everyone learned that in school, except you were playing hooky that day?"
"Not all of us had the luxury of warm classrooms," he said.
"Sorry," I said. "But still. Obviously even here, in areas where they claim to have control, there are people who don't...get along, yeah? I mean, why did you—"
"I took you here because I find you attractive," said Willix, "not because I want to answer stupid questions."
What was I supposed to say to that? If I'd been Cassie, I would have tried to understand him more, not accept his flattery until I believed in what he was fighting for. If I'd been Cassie, I would still be on Earth, building and growing roots rather than tumbling through the galaxy. I let him silence me.
Downside of going to bed with a spy: normal self-consciousness about whether you're being too embarrassing is compounded by the fact that the name he gave you is almost certainly not his real one, so it'd be weird to yell it.
Upsides of going to bed with a spy: plenty.
"If you can impersonate a Vund," said Willix, "go east to the depot and wait for one of their ships to come by. They're fast, but don't take to outsiders. Otherwise go south to the smaller outpost. Less chance you'll be followed."
"You think everyone you talk to is important enough to be followed, huh?" I said. It was crabbier than I meant it; Willix had been plenty kind. And yet he sounded like I couldn't find my own way off-world, like I was still a kid.
"Yes," he said, unsmiling. "That's why I'm still alive."
"And what am I, too harmless to even merit a background check?"
Willix stared. "You really aren't from around here, are you?"
"Humans on my planet don't get out much. We're working on that."
"You showed me that you could change shape. If you were out to get me, you wouldn't have revealed your biggest advantage right away."
"I spent a long time keeping secrets. It's nice to do something else."
I expected more sarcasm or deflection, a glib I wouldn't know, but he only gave me another glance. Maybe wondering how old I was, maybe recognizing a familiar weight.
I thought of the Andalites, how they'd been happy to trade the Escafil devices to Earth for cinnamon buns and coffee. What would Willix give for the ability to morph? Maybe a better question was, what did I want? Could I criticize him for fighting the innocuous-seeming Empire when I had no direction?
"If you're ever out towards Earth," I said, "ask the humans there about our technology. We're not good at space travel, but we have lots of trading partners."
"I try not to pass through Hutt space if I can help it."
"Kelbrid, they call themselves. Not pleasant in any language." The name rang a bell, but I couldn't place it.
I wanted to wish him well, but what would I have wanted someone to tell me in his position? Hope for success? Of being on the right side, win or lose? The ability to live with himself? "I hope your friend is okay."
"The Wookiee you were looking for."
Willix gave a grim smile that said probably not, but spoke, "We can hope."
"Yeah," I said.
In war, there are times for careful planning and prudent espionage. There are also times for crazy, impulsive, reckless decisions. I turned to kiss Willix goodbye. Not because he was a good kisser, or particularly tender, or had anything left to say to me, but because in the brief moment when we touched, I borrowed something else from him as well. I wasn't sure which planet I'd be on in a day or a year, but something told me there might be a time when I would want to copy his face and adopt some other pseudonym. Maybe by playing the part of an anti-Galactic-Empire human, I could help him stay alive long enough to see the end of his war.
Would he want a life like mine, too scarred to stay in one place too long? I had no idea. But the only way to find out was to live.