"And the next words out of Rachel's mouth will be . . ."
"I'll do it," Rachel said, giving Marco a self-mocking look.
"Bingo," Marco said.
"I don't consider myself worthy of the honor," Toby said, "but I, too will volunteer."
I kept quiet. The description fit Rachel and Toby. Not me.
We debated. We argued. Rachel for. Tobias for. Ax and Marco against. Jake listening, weighing, considering whether to once more put us all in harm's way.
Me? I just felt unsettled.
I knew how the debate would end. It was a chance to hurt the Yeerks. It was a chance to help the free Hork-Bajir. A no-brainer, morally or strategically. Except for the fact that, as Marco pointed out, it was insane.
We very seldom ended up refusing to do what was insane.
Quafijinivon asked if there was some more confined space nearby. The Hork-Bajir led us to a cave.
I shivered. I told myself it was because the cave was cold.
< I would like to ask a question, > Ax said. He turned all four of his eyes toward the Arn. < You claim that the receptacle will share space with the Ixcila of Aldrea until it is time for it to be returned to storage. >
"That is correct," Quafijinivon answered. His eyes were as bright as stars in the darkness.
< What if Aldrea does not wish to leave the receptacle after she helps us find the weapons? > Ax asked. < Is there some way to force her to do so? >
There was a long moment of silence. The kind of silence that feels as if it sucks half the oxygen out of the air.
"Aldrea must choose to release her hold on the receptacle," Quafijinivon said, not exactly answering the question Ax had asked.
Ax rolled one eye stalk toward Rachel and one toward Toby. We'd all agreed that Aldrea would be drawn to one of them . . . if the so-called Ceremony worked at all.
Rachel, because of her Rachelness. Toby because she was Aldrea's great-granddaughter and a Hork-Bajir seer.
< And if she doesn't chose to release her hold? > Ax prodded.
"We could probably sell the story rights to Lifetime for big bucks," Marco commented. "This is so television for women. Two strong, independent girls. One body."
Toby turned to Ax. "You only ask this because you don't trust Aldrea. As an Andalite you mistrust anyone who would choose to permanently become Hork-Bajir," she accused.
Toby's gifts didn't just make her more articulate than the other Hork-Bajir. They make her more insightful. More capable of drawing conclusions.
I wondered if she was right about Ax. The thought of an Andalite choosing to become Hork-Bajir had to be repellent to Ax. Almost sacrilegious. Andalites are not known for their humility.
But I understood Aldrea's choice. More than that, I admired it. I admired her.
Aldrea discovered that her own fellow Andalites had created a virus targeted to kill the Hork-Bajir. It was a cold-blooded, military-minded decision. The Andalites knew they would lose the Hork-Bajir planet. They knew that if the Hork-Bajir survived in large numbers they would be used as weapons for the Yeerks. And that with such troops the Yeerks would have a much-strengthened chance of conquering other planets throughout the galaxies.
The leader of the desperate Andalite forces on the planet made the call. Later it was disavowed by the Andalite people. Too late to stop what happened.
Sometimes, in war, even the "good guys" do awful things.
Once Aldrea learned of the virus, she was forced to choose between her own people and Dak Hamee, the Hork-Bajir seer she had come to love. She chose Dak. She stayed in Hork-Bajir morph until the change became permanent. Aldrea and Dak vowed to fight both the Yeerks and the Andalites. They died keeping this vow.
Ax shifted his weight from one hoof to the other. < I ask only because it is a logical question, > he finally said.
"I did not mean to sound suspicious of my Andalite friend," Toby said with no sincerity whatsoever.
< The Hork-Bajir have reason to be . . . hesitant . . . about trusting the Andalites, > Ax allowed.
Toby bowed her head graciously. Then she said, "I, too, want an answer, Arn."
Quafijinivon sighed. "If Aldrea does not choose to release her hold, there is no way to force her to do so," he confessed.
"I see. I trust my great-grandmother," Toby said firmly. "If she chooses me for this honor I will trust my freedom to her."
"Okay. Rachel? It's your call," Jake told her.
He clearly felt obligated to ask the question even though anyone who knows Rachel also knew what her answer would be.
"I still say let's do it," she said.
No surprise there. Rachel wouldn't have been Rachel if she'd said anything else.
Quafijinivon nodded. He reached into a small metallic pouch hanging from a cord around his neck and pulled out a small vial. The liquid inside glowed green.
"Isn't that what nuclear waste looks like?" Marco asked in a loud whisper.
"We gather to conduct the Atafalxical," Quafijinivon began. "The Ceremony of Rebirth is an occasion for both solemnity and joy, for grieving and celebration."
"Not to mention a severe case of the willies," Marco said under his breath.
If he was close enough I would have elbowed him. Not that it would have shut him up. Solemnity just isn't part of Marco's repertoire.
Quafijinivon continued with the ceremony as if he hadn't heard Marco. He pulled the stopper out of the vial and a wisp of vapor escaped. A moment later the inside of my nose started to burn, although I couldn't smell anything except the odor of damp cave.
"We call on Aldrea-Iskillion-Falan," Quafijinivon said. He reached into the pouch again. I squinted, trying to see what he'd removed. It looked like a small piece of metal.
It must have been some kind of catalyst, because the instant he dropped it into the vial, the liquid turned from green to a fluorescent scarlet. Its light washed over those closest to it.
Rachel's fair skin appeared to be have been drenched in blood. Toby's green flesh had darkened until it was almost black.
Quafijinivon added another piece of metal to the vial. "We call on Aldrea-Iskillion-Falan," he repeated.
"Paging Stephen King." Marco said quietly. "R.L. Stine calling Stephen King with a message from Ann Rice."
The liquid in the vial thickened. It began to contract and expand.
In and out.
In and out.
My heart began to beat to the same rhythm. I could feel it in my chest and in the base of my throat. I could feel it in my ears and in my fingertips.
"We call on Aldrea-Iskillion-Falan. We call on Aldrea-Iskillion-Falan."
Quafijinivon repeated the words again and again, stamping his feet as he cried them out.
"We call on Aldrea-Iskillion-Falan." His voice grew louder. His feet stamped so hard they sent a vibration through the rock floor of the cave.
The liquid in the vial contracted and expanded faster.
In and out. In and out. In and out.
My heartbeat matched the new rhythm.
"We. Call. On. Aldrea. Iskillion. Falan," Quafijinivon wailed.
"If I see one single zombie I am -"
The cave floor jerked under my feet. I stumbled forward and landed on my knees in front of the Arn.
"The receptacle has been chosen!" Quafijinivon shouted.
He reached out and put his hand on my head. "Will you accept the Ixcila of Aldrea-Iskillion-Falan?"
What? What? She chose me?
That couldn't be right.
"Will you accept the Ixcila?" Quafijinivon repeated, his voice echoing in the cave.
"No!" Jake snapped.
But there was only one answer I could give.
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