Cassie's parents were gone for the day. Her mom was working at The Gardens. Her dad was at a vet conference.
I was up on the usual rafter, keeping a lookout just in case. We were waiting for Jake and most likely Erek.
Rachel was lounging on the hay bales, fighting to stay awake after a late night. Blue eyes appeared, disappeared, reappeared at half-mast.
Ax, in Andalite form, stood nearby, a bizarre mix of blue deer, stalk-eyed boy, and scorpion. Funny how we'd all gotten used to seeing a creature so utterly inhuman hanging around.
Cassie was preoccupied with a bald eagle, tending it even though she said it was living its final days. It had fought a terminal illness, and lost. It was hard to look at it. Feathers matted. A patch missing from the chest. A noble creature at the end of its time. I shuddered at the thought.
"Let me get this straight," Marco said. "Erek got busted, not because he's an android walking the streets in a hologram shield. Not because he's an informant for the 'Andalite bandits.' But for smelling like cigarettes?"
"It was because Chapman knows he's a member of The Sharing," Rachel said. "Members aren't supposed to be troublesome. You know. More Boy Scouty than the Boy Scouts. Especially because they have this big thing going on, this new community center. There'll be media there. Have to watch that image."
The Sharing is a Yeerk front organization. On the surface, a do-good family-oriented get-together. Beneath that veneer, the Yeerks used the wholesome enticements as a means of recruiting Controllers.
< Igniting sticks of plant and paper? > Ax wondered. < Why is that such a serious offense? >
< Because cigarettes can kill you, > I answered. < That is, if a golden eagle or a case of coccidiosis doesn't get you first. >
Rachel gave me a dirty look. "So not funny."
"And because they become an addiction," Cassie said.
"Like Marco and computer games," Rachel added.
"Or Rachel and Calvin Klein clearance racks." Marco shot her a sidewise glance. She ignored him.
< Ah. Yes. As we say on the home world: "A test of will may lead to wisdom; a loss of will breeds but defeat." >
"Hey, I saw that same thing in a fortune cookie, once."
"Where are Jake and Erek?" Rachel demanded.
< They'll be here in about five seconds, > I said. My job is to handle security for meetings. From my perch in the rafters I can look out through the open hayloft and watch the road and Cassie's house. And with red-tail ears I can hear just about anything approaching.
"Hey, everybody!" Jake said loudly. "Sorry we're late, but Erek has breaking news. Listen up!"
"As I told Jake," Erek started, "we know the Yeerks are ready to test the AMR. But they don't have a test subject," Erek continued.
< Why can't they use Visser Three? > I asked. < You know, get him to morph the nightmare alien beast-of-the-day, then turn the ray on him? >
"They could if he were volunteering. Which he isn't. Probably because there's a chance the ray could prove fatal. And there's a possibility that a feedback effect could blow the weapon up."
Rachel brightened. "Well, that's a hopeful thought, at least."
"Man," Cassie said. She closed the bald eagle in its cage and came over to join the group. "So you're suggesting they want to test the AMR on one of us?"
Eric nodded. "The next time you make an appearance, I believe the Yeerks will do everything in their power to capture you. Or, failing that, at least fire the weapon at you."
"Well, then," Marco said, "we just won't get caught. We won't let them see us. Or hear us. Or smell us..."
"Or will we?" Jake interrupted.
Everyone turned to look at him. "Look, on the way over I started thinking."
"Had to happen sooner or later," Marco said in a loud whisper.
"Anyway, I was thinking, maybe that's exactly what we should do: Let the Yeerks capture one of us. Provide them with their test subject. Me, for instance. I let them take me prisoner. The rest of you follow secretly. They'll lead us straight to the AMR. Exactly where we want to go. In a position to destroy the weapon."
Marco spoke with disbelief. "I'm just going to ask this once. Are you insane?? Jake, dude, think about it. Not that I should even be considering the details of a scheme as idiotic as this one, but what happens if we don't get there in time? If they drag you off and we can't trail you because we get held up by, oh I don't know, a few dozen Hork-Bajir and a small army of Taxxons? The Yeerks get to use that AMR on you. And assuming it doesn't kill you -- and that's assuming a lot -- you know what they'll get when they forcibly demorph you? A human kid. Kiss our cover good-bye. Kiss us good-bye."
Rachel shook her head in disagreement. "Yeah, it's dangerous. But I say we do it. Jake just isn't the one to go. You're too important, Jake. We need you planning the attack on the AMR. So I volunteer."
Jake raised an arm to counter, but Ax broke in.
< Prince Jake, Rachel? If I may say so, I believe the only logical answer is for me to go. I am Andalite, after all. Should the AMR prove successful and the Yeerks are able to demorph me, they will get what they are expecting: An Andalite. >
"Makes sense," Marco said. "I mean, given that we're even talking this way, like we'd do it."
I watched Jake all this time. He was nodding. Like he bought what everyone was saying. But he was remaining quiet. So was Erek.
Jake had another idea in mind. He was just waiting for someone else to suggest it.
"You could die, Ax," Cassie emphasized. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
Ax spread-planted his hooves firmly, squared his shoulders and looked us all in the eyes.
< I am sure. >
"We don't know where they're keeping the AMR," Jake said, not committing.
Now Marco was watching Jake. He'd seen the same reluctance I'd seen on Jake's face. The same holding back.
We were missing something. I knew that much. I just wasn't sure what it was. And then I knew.
< Guys. Wait a minute, > I interrupted.
"What is it?" Jake asked.
I swooped down from the rafter to the floor. Loose straw swirled in small eddies as I touched down. A ray of light from a crack in the barn wall bathed my feathers in yellow light. It was almost too much. Too theatrical. I half-expected angels to hover up out of the hayloft and break into song.
< It's me, > I said. < I'm the one who has to go. >
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