We've Got a Problem
Rating: PG I guess
Summary: Visser Three's hired a mercenary to take care of the Andalite bandits...and that's not the least of the Animorphs' problems.
ffnet link: here
My name is Jake. By now, you know the drill. Who we are. What we do. And why we can't tell you our last names. It's not just some silly game we're playing. It's literally a matter of life or death. Or enslavement. And the last isn't an option.
Believe me, I wish it was a game. I'm not like Rachel; she needs the rush, that surge of adrenaline that we all get in battle. I don't. I'd be happy just being some normal guy, hanging out with friends, playing video games, and complaining about school. Things that Marco manages to do anyway.
Marco. Looking at him, you wouldn't think that anything is wrong. Maybe nothing is wrong. Three weeks have passed since then. I look back on the whole thing now and there's holes. Things that we don't know. Missing information. I haven't asked him what really happened, and I don't know if he'll ever tell me. Maybe I don't want to know. Maybe it's a dirty little secret that should remain hidden.
The only people that know—really know—are Marco and a forsaken Andalite named Endozer-Coortil-Quartum. Possibly just Marco. I don't know what happened to Endozer. I don't think we'll see him again.
It began at the mall.
“Jake, you're not even trying anymore.” He had a pained look on his face.
“What, you're not enjoying my total annihilation?” I grunted, poorly deflecting a shot. It clattered weakly across the table and Marco deftly slammed it back.
“Stick to video games,” he said easily. “You suck less at those.”
“Thanks.” But he had a point—air hockey really wasn't my thing. The table cost fifty cents for a game. The first time, Marco and I both put in a quarter. The rule was that the loser of each game had to fully pay for the next. Needless to say, my pockets were swiftly emptying and Marco's were jingling cheerfully.
After he scored yet another point, I sighed and stood up. “I'm not interested in depleting my money any further, Marco.”
“Yeah.” He affected a look of sympathy. “I guess I've humiliated you enough.”
It was a normal day at the mall. Normal as in a day where we weren't screaming and bleeding and fighting. You know, that kind of normal. Marco was slaughtering me at every game we played—he doesn't even practice them. He just figures out all those little tricks and moves and before you know it, you're broke.
“I know a little something about psychology,” said a new voice. Erek came up to the table, grinning a holographic grin. “I believe Marco outsources his insecurity into games in which he believes himself to be superior in order to compensate for his shortcomings.”
“See?” I grinned at Marco. “SHORTcomings.”
The Chee are pretty cool. If you haven't been living under a rock, you know that they're androids. Without their holograms, they look a lot like large dogs standing on their hind legs. Speaking of dogs... never mind. That's a long story. Long story short, they're our spies. Their programming doesn't allow them to aid in violence, but they get us a lot of useful information. And while Erek's inhibitions prohibit him from fighting, it doesn't stop him from saving our necks. Which he's done many times.
“Ha. Ha,” said Marco. “But what I lack in vertical stature, I make up for in brains and outstanding good looks.” He got suddenly suspicious. “Erek, I'm assuming that you're not here to talk Mortal Kombat.”
“I feel so unwelcome. Don't you like me?”
“Sure I like you. I just can't stand the sight of you.”
“Thanks. By the way, Level 4 of Mortal Kombat is a killer,” Erek said indifferently. Then he got more serious. “Cassie told me you two might be here. Be at the usual place in half an hour, alright? It might be better if I told you all at the same time.”
“Erek, would you play dead if I told you to?”
“We'll be there,” I told Erek. He nodded and disappeared through the throng of laughing, talking people at the arcade games. Inside, I felt a little sick. Erek never brought good news. Marco glanced at me significantly.
“That's it. We're not inviting him to any more parties,” he muttered.
“Really, Erek, we're glad we're so popular,” Rachel said dryly. We were all in Cassie's barn, lounging on bales of hay. Tobias was, as usual, perched in the rafters, and Ax was standing away from the barn door. A few weeks ago, Cassie cleaned some old horse blankets and brought them in to make it just a little more comfortable. Rachel brought up her fingers and pinched the air. “But I was this close to convincing Cassie to go to the mall with me.”
I glanced sidelong at Cassie, who was predictably cleaning a currently empty cage. She grinned ruefully at my knowing look. “There was a new nature documentary on tape at the Discovery Channel store,” she said dutifully, “which just happens to be right next to The Gap.”
“And The Gap just happened to be having a major sale,” Rachel finished.
I smiled. “Erek, what do you have to say?”
He looked hesitant, like he regretted having to spoil our respective good moods. I couldn't blame him—we'd had a few days off from doing anything remotely dangerous, and telling us about some new threat wasn't going to be received well. His somber expression, though projected by a hologram, was convincing enough, and we quickly sobered.
“We've found something out that you ought to know,” he said. “Early this morning. It seems that Visser Three has put out for some hired help.”
(Hired help?) Tobias said sharply. Erek nodded. I started to get a bad feeling.
Rachel frowned. “What kind of hired help? Like the Taxxons?”
“No,” said Erek, shaking his head. “Not a deal. No infestation. He's hiring out, paying actual money.”
I raised an eyebrow. “That doesn't sound like Visser Three. What is it that he would pay for that his troops couldn't do themselves?”
Erek looked at me seriously. “The only thing that his troops haven't been able to do—kill the 'Andalite bandits.'”
We were silent for a moment. Then:
(Impossible,) Ax said flatly. (He would never concede that honor. He would want to kill us himself and take all the glory.)
“That's why it's so strange. We assume that he'll pay well enough that he could, ah, buy the credit.”
“Now that sounds more like Visser Three,” Marco said, rolling his eyes.
“Who exactly is he hiring?” I asked.
Erek looked directly at Ax. “You may have heard of him,” he said. “His name is Endozer-Coortil-Quartum.”
Ax stiffened before Erek even got the full name out. Rachel looked at him with a raised eyebrow.
“Gee, another model deputy of your sterling race?” she said mockingly. I shot a warning look at her. But we were all thinking it—about the betrayal of the Andalite captian on Leera. About how not even Andalites were perfect. Ax, however, did not retort. I looked over at him, and was surprised. He seemed to be trembling with anger, but not because of Rachel.
(Yes, I have heard of him,) he said, struggling to keep his voice calm. I could hear the fury radiating through his thought-speech.
Cassie looked at Erek thoughtfully. “So... Visser Three hired an Andalite?”
(He is not an Andalite!) Ax said fiercely, surprising us all. His deadly tail flicked in agitation. (He is not one of us!)
(Oo-kay,) said Tobias. (I'm thinking there's a history behind this.)
Ax didn't appear like he wanted to answer. He realized that his people weren't nearly as pristine as they made themselves out to be, but he didn't want to admit. I understood that, but I also wanted an answer.
“Ax, what's the deal with this guy?” I asked firmly. “Tell me.”
He was still reluctant, but he wouldn't dare disobey a direct order from his “prince.” His main eyes focused on the floor. (He is forsaken.)
“Forsaken?” Rachel echoed.
(Yes. He—he used to be in the Andalite army. He was a fierce, great warrior. He was even made a prince. But...) he faltered. (Something happened. I do not know the details. One day, he was out. Gone. Stripped of his title. Since then, he has acted as a mercenary. His name is sometimes spoken as a curse word.) He vehemently stomped the dirt floor with a hoof. (I would have thought that he would have had enough remains of his Andalite dignity not to hire out to the Yeerks, but... I was wrong.)
Tobias whistled. (Woah. This guy sounds like trouble.)
I noticed Marco, being oddly quiet. His arms were crossed and he had a perplexed frown on his face, his dark eyes staring a hole through the floor.
I turned my attention back to Ax. “Ax. How good is this guy? What can we expect from him?”
“He's good enough that Visser Three would actually hire him,” Cassie pointed out. She tossed her dirty rag on one hay bale and sat on another.
Ax nodded in agreement with Cassie. It was always strange to see such a habitual human behavior characteristic on him. (Yes. He is very competent. He... he may be one of the best warriors that have ever come out of the Andalite army. Maybe even better than my brother was.) The last sentence he had to force out, like the admittance was going completely against his entire being. Cassie patted his shoulder sympathetically.
“How much is he paying this guy?” Rachel wondered.
“An extravagant amount,” said Erek. “Unheard of. On your planet, the amount would translate roughly to about five million.”
Our jaws dropped. (Five million!) Tobias demanded. (No way. He's got resources, but he can't have that much.)
“He does,” Erek said grimly. Marco still wasn't saying anything. Cassie noticed and slanted a look at him.
“Unbelievable,” Rachel muttered. “Five million dollars. He'd pay that much to get rid of us? I'm flattered.”
“Is this public?” Marco said suddenly. “I mean, do all the Controllers know about it?”
Erek looked surprised, but nodded. “Yes, many of them do. It's strange. We didn't think he'd be so open about it.”
“I'm still having a hard time believing this,” Marco said. "It doesn't make sense. Not the way we're looking at it."
“Well, believe it,” Rachel said disdainfully. “'Cause whether you like it or not, we've got another Andalite traitor on our hands.”
“Not that,” Marco shot back. “Visser Three. If so many know about the hiring, it'd be impossible to hide it from the Council of Thirteen. He'd never surrender the glory of handing our heads to them and saying he did it himself.”
“So what are you saying?”
“What I'm saying is, he's being just a little too loud about this.”
“And?” Casse pressed.
“And, well—he's gotta figure that there are leaks, right? I mean, how else could we have figured out his other plans? He probably thinks that there are more like Aftran—spies, Yeerks against him. He knows there's a hole somewhere. He knew that if he was vocal about it, we'd find out. We'd know about Boozer-what's-his-name.”
(Endozer-Coortil-Quartum,) Ax corrected automatically.
“Whatever. I think it's all a distraction.”
(A distraction?) Tobias said doubtfully. (I don't know. Five million bucks is a little pricey for a distraction.)
“We'd think that, wouldn't we?” He scratched his head. “But you gotta wonder—no matter how good Dizzy—”
“—is, what can he do that neither Visser Three nor his his troops could do?” He paused, then answered his own question. “Nothing, that's what. Visser Three doesn't think that Edzo—”
“—can really do it. He doesn't really believe that this guy can wipe us out after the Yeerks have failed. If he did, he'd figure he could do it too. He wouldn't just let someone else hand us over. He's covering something. He wants our attention on this Ebeneezer guy—”
“—so we can't tackle whatever little project he's working on.”
Beneath the jokes and the sarcasm, Marco's a pretty smart guy.
“I think he's probably right,” I finally said to Erek. “Is there something—anything—else going on that you've heard about?”
He shrugged. “No. But the Chee aren't that high up on the ladder. It's always possible that there's something we don't know about if it's kept strictly to a very select group.”
“I think that has to be it,” Cassie said. “Marco's right. This is all just too coincidental.” She paused to briefly stroke the wing of an injured seagull. “Are you sure that there's no possible way that you could find out?”
“Maybe,” Erek replied speculatively. “We'd have to pull some moves that are kind of risky. But if he is right, and there's a good chance that he is, there's a chance.”
“Use your holograms?” Rachel mused. “Sneak in somewhere? Maybe we could go in in insect morph.”
“We'll try it first. If we can't get anything, we'll let you know.”
The discussion hit a sort of lull, and we all quieted, pondering. Erek said his goodbye and left. One by one, we all drifted away. Tobias and Ax went back to Ax's scoop—some soap opera that he was fond of was due to be on shortly. Cassie began to gather up some medicines. For the first time, I realized that the barn provided an outlet for her—something for her to busy herself with and take her mind off things. I flashed a quick, reassuring smile at her before I left with Marco and Rachel to head back to our neighborhood. She smiled back at me.
Rachel sighed in exasperation when we left the barn. “Just ask her out, already. You two are acting like idiotic tweens.”
Marco nodded sagely. “We don't have the patience for you two to test out your respective hormones, buddy. I'm losing sleep over this. It's plaguing me.”
“Jake?” Marco looked at me with quirked eyebrows. “Do you need me to ask her out for you?” he said as though speaking to a five-year-old. “I may just have to. The consequences could be dire. If you want to avoid the damage that would cause, you'd better hurry and do it before I have to.”
Rachel snickered and I didn't have a witty reply prepared, so I trudged along in silence.
My mood had lightened, and we were joking again, but a small voice nagged me from the back of my mind.
What could be so important that Visser Three would go to such lengths to hide it?
I'll post the next chapters soon!