Not entirely happy with this one, but I suppose it'll do for now. It has potential for another part....and a part after that, but we'll see. Likely, I'll get distracted and end up writing something else.
I waited until the others were gone.
Maybe back in the day we’d have celebrated our ‘victory’ with a round or two of pizza. This was different. Hollow victory. No one was much in the mood for celebrations of any kind.
It was true, we were alive. And still more or less ourselves.
No, the morphing that occurred was internal and unlike the Cube’s variety, we couldn’t demorph from it.
As it was, we had arranged to meet at the mall, while Rachel and Ax….observed the procedure. We had figured it was close enough to the construction site that if anything went wrong, any unforeseen developments arose, we could be there fairly quick.
The mall. Any hawk or bird’s worst nightmare. A giant glass cage, bathed in false fluorescent light of nearly every shade of the rainbow. Crisp whites from clothing stores; exotic greens from a gaming store; a soft blue and contrastingly harsh yellow off a Best Buy store; bright pink neon radiating off Victoria’s Secret.
All, of course, surrounded by people.
I’m a human. Or I used to be. You know the score, lonely and depressed boy finds freedom and safety in form of bird, gets trapped. An uplifting experience, Marco would jokingly say every now and then.
Though I’ve since recovered my morphing power and even the ability to morph my old self, I live primarily as a hawk. Even though each morph carries its own brand of instincts and desires, the red-tailed’s instincts have become so integrated into who I am I can still hear his voice even in other morphs.
That was how the hawk felt. This wasn’t his scene. Nor mine to be honest. Never quite had been. I was more the type that had found pleasure in things like reading or games. Anything that took me away to a more interesting place than my then-surroundings.
Occasionally I had found some amusement in people watching. This was something the red-tailed hawk could relate to; all its life was sitting on a branch in a meadow and watch for prey.
I tried to convince myself it was just closer observation, but as I scanned the clock, I could see time was running out.
Not my time, David’s.
So when I made up the excuse to leave, I wasn’t met with much resistance. I think the others were still in a state of horror of what we did.
I was in horror at what I still had to do.
It had to be me.
Marco would have done it as well. He had that rational way of looking from A to Z.
Jake knew it had to be done, but he’d never have asked me. Or Rachel for that matter; he’d already played that card on her.
Thus it was everyone’s favorite Bird-Boy to the rescue.
I demorphed to my now natural hawk form, my wings spreading over my shrinking human arms like a warm blanket.
Once complete, I flew to the construction site, arriving in time to hear Ax counting off the final minute.
“By my my-yuh count k-k-k-kount, two hours have passed since David entered rat morph. Mor-ph. Mor-phhhh. Moooorph.”
Ax was in human morph…if you hadn’t noticed. His word play seemed even more exaggerated than usual. Probably to relieve his own tensions. And to distract against the disembodied voice screaming in panicked terror.
Tersely, Rachel nodded.
“Right, you’d better demorph, you’re getting close to your two hours as well.”
Possibly not trusting himself to talk or not wanting to be amused by the sounds of his alien mouth, Ax copied Rachel’s nod.
All the while David screamed in thought speak at them, to anyone in range to hear.
Really, it’s a miracle no one else heard it.
<Please, Rachel, I swear, let me go, I’ll walk away from all of this!>
It was pathetic to listen to.
Apparently Rachel thought as much too.
“Shut up,” she ordered.
Her voice betrayed neither a quiver nor crack. Still, I could sense her disturbance. And I could pretty well guess what thoughts were going through her head. Same as mine.
What had we done? Was it right?
A few minutes later, a bald eagle and a Northern harrier lifted off from the construction site carrying a metal wire cage.
Riding a thermal high, I carefully tracked their passage while keeping my distance. Across town, over the beach, waves slapped the shore with an out of place tranquility.
Occasionally, when bored of my meadow, I’d fly down here and take in the sand, surf, the seemingly endless ocean, even with my incredible eyes. Every now and then, I’d find someone reading and I’d hover several hundred feet away from in the air and read with them.
Ax and Rachel were careful, flying high enough that they weren’t more than indistinct blobs to the people on the ground, after all, it would be out of place for a harrier and an eagle to be hanging around…much less carrying a cage with a rat inside.
They flew off coast and found an island…well…little more than a rock really.
The local inhabitants – mostly other rats – froze in pure terror at the sight of Ax and Rachel’s respective raptor morphs descending on them. You could practically read the rodents’ thoughts as easily as if displayed on giant Vegas-sized neon signs.
RUN. RUN. HIDE. NOWHERE TO HIDE. Fight? CAN’T. RUN HIDErunhideohgodrunhidecan’t –
Maybe under different circumstances it’d be funny. Hysterical.
The eagle and harrier landed and a minute later, a blue centaur and blonde girl emerged, making a great contender for World’s Weirdest Date.
I hung back, afraid one of them would look up and see me. Rachel would chastise me for being overbearing or overprotective, mistaking my presence for concern of her well-being.
I suppose I could have used something a little less conspicuous, like my seagull morph ….but I happen have some standards.
They hovered for a minute or two, no doubt laying down the law, then Rachel began to change again.
Her skin turned corpse grey, rubbery; then her face stretched and contorted, forming a bottlenose, along her back a dorsal fin was sprouting…
Quizzically, I cocked my head. Dolphin?
Curious choice. It could be argued the bird of prey morphs might not be wise; it’d be all too easy for David to attempt to attack either in midmorph and somehow incapacitate them, or worse inspire a revolt in the petrified rodents.
Go big, aquatic. Why not a shark though? Normally Rachel was the type to go for the biggest and baddest pack in her arsenal.
It clicked as I recalled my own experience with the dolphin morph.
Though acquiring had been an audacious ordeal that prompted Marco to suggest The Gardens start a hawk-dolphin rodeo, the morph itself was pure euphoria.
Essentially, dolphins were overgrown, six foot children. If dogs were instinctively the happiest land animals, dolphins were their sea equivalent, and maybe even then some.
To them, everything was a game and fun. Whipping through the water, breaking through the water, surging along like a biological missile. Even hunting for them was a happy sport.
Rachel needed the dolphin’s bouncy, positive energy. I couldn’t blame her.
Ax stood guard until Rachel was fully formed and flopped in the water
An Andalite’s facial expressions are normally hard to read, owing vastly to their lack of mouth and strange vertical nose.
Today was an exception for Ax. All four of his eyes were trained on the white lab rat (that only a few hours ago had been our greatest threat) with such intense fury, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see quad laser beams blast from his eyes.
Then, with that astonishing speed and grace unique to Andalites, Ax’s tail lashed out, striking the cage.
For a moment, I wasn’t sure if Ax had simply cleaved David in half.
But no, a flash of white fur shot from the sliced metal.
A moment later, Ax jumped in the water, melting into another grey-blue mass. His eye stalks retracted into his head like a five year old slurping spaghetti and a horizontal line split his face, forming a mouth, a mouth that quick filled with giant, shot glass sized teeth.
Unlike dolphins, sharks were fairly one tracked. Much like the hawk, their thinking ran something similar to the tune of hunger, food, kill, eat, with a generous dollop of BLOOD, FIND BLOOD, should the shark’s brain detect any.
As soon as the last of Ax’s morph was complete, the peculiar pair motored away.
Spreading my wings, I felt air ripple over my feathers, flying over sea isn’t quite as easy as swooping through land. You get less thermals and end up doing more work.
I felt a little guilty about scaring the rats again. They had no sooner began to calm down when my shadow darkened their rock. More than one probably had thoughts about relocating.
It was child's play to find him. Even without my vision.
Just look for the rat that looks completely out of place. The others squirmed in terror, but David…he had frozen.
His voice howled in my head with a terror and horror that haunts me to this day.
Maybe because I empathized with him, of any of the others, I could literally say I knew how he felt.
Don't mistake my feelings for pity.
That would be unwise.
<You….> David whispered, recognizing me. His thought carried an edge of terror, no doubt influenced by the still fresh instincts of the rat.
At least one of them was smart.
He quickly covered his fear with a disgruntled and angry, <YOU!> striving to maintain a tone of nonchalant disdain.
Hey, I can play nonchalant as well as the rest of them.
<What, no hello?>
<Come on down, I’ll give you a big hug,> David challenged.
Gee, where was all that bravado when we were faced off against Visser Three and his Hork-Bajir?
Of course…courage can be born of many things, and desperation and hopelessness are exceptional contenders.
<So is it lunch time already?> David jested. <Come to bring me some snacks?>
If I had lips, they would have been curled in a legitimately amused smile.
<No…you are the lunch,> I told him simply.
That was enough for him to register what his rat brain was no doubt screaming, “THAT’S A HAWK! BIG BIRD OF PREY! WANTS TO EAT US! RUNHIDERUNHIDEIHIDEHIDE!”
By this point I had already begun my dive. Folding my wings against my body, I shot down, making minor adjustments for the perfect dive. The hawk knew what to do. How to perfectly time each and every feather, when to bank and adjust for that crosswind, position claws and….flair!
David never had a chance to so much as move a toe before my talons curled around him.
I was airborne again, effortlessly carrying my unwilling ‘passenger’ up, up, and away.
Not that he went quietly, flailing and whipping every available appendage. Tiny claws nicked my scaly talons, his tail struck and lashed every part of me it could reach, like a wild bullwhip.
All equating to a minor inconvenience at best to the hawk. Maybe the very worst case would be if David harbored some sort of infectious disease transferable by the scratches.
The tricky part was not listening to the hawk and simply finish the job, namely give my talons a squeeze until the prey stopped squirming.
We went cruising over the water. As I’ve mentioned, typically there aren’t many thermals over the water, but if I make a fast dive and ride close to the water’s surface, I can take advantage of the ground effect to coast along.
Once David realized the helplessness of his condition, he relented, almost completely going limp.
<Why are you doing this?> he demanded. <What do you want?>
<You tried to kill me,> I reminded him, <I’d say it’s only fair I settled the score.>
If he was afraid, he didn’t let it show.
<You’re not going to kill me,> he sneered, <even this is just the coward’s way out.>
It sounded like a dare, with a hint of hope that I’d accept the bait.
A dark chuckle escapes me. <You know I’ve killed a whole race? Genocide. What’s one small rat? I eat them for breakfast.>
There’s a pause as he processed that. Or perhaps he was just enjoying the ride. Terrified as the rat was, the human inside had to have been at least somewhat exhilarated by the sights and sensations of flying.
Especially as a bird. Human pilots in their metal birds will tell you there’s no greater thing than behind the yoke of a speed, maneuverable plane. But to actually be the bird, to feel the wind ripple through you…
<Look, with the whole killing thing, that was nothing personal,> David attempted to assure.
A new tone had washed through him, replacing the melancholy funk that had initially controlled him.
See? Flying cheers everyone up.
<Actually,> David continued, a burst of fresh excitement rolling off his words, <the way I see it, I set us free. You and me. We could have been the start of our own Animorphs, unhindered by those others. You know, I always felt a connection with you. Being the outsider.>
<Careful, if you get any slimier, you might slip out of my talons.>
Disappointed to see he couldn’t con me, his mood shifted back to surly.
<Come to gloat then?> he sneered, aiming his weak, beady eyes at me. My fierce amber eyes spoke for themselves.
<Just checking if there’s any hard feelings,> I lied. The reality was…well…
What had Jake said to Ax?
We may have to do something terrible, too.
A cold, hard laugh filled my head.
<You may not have much in the brain department, but you’ve got some nerve,> David said.
My flight had begun to slow, I needed to reset my dive.
<Outsmarted you,> I noted, beating my wings to gain altitude.
<Rachel outsmarted me,> David corrected, <And even then, not her, it was all Cassie and Jake. She was just the bait.>
<And you fell for it.>
<Go ahead and enjoy it, if that’s how you get your kicks,> David pithily offered. <Must be quite the victory in your little war.>
Flapping my wings, I angled and circled around towards the rock island.
His sarcasm was evident even to his fellow rats who had mostly abandoned the island. They’d be back. Where they had gone to was another question. But I suppose if there’s one thing prey are good at, it’s hiding.
<It didn’t have to be this way, you know,> I said. <We really could have used you – >
<Hft,> David scoffed. <Emphasis on used.>
Man he was whiny.
But then, perhaps he had an inkling of a right to be. His life had essentially gone to hell the moment we met up with him. But we had tried our best to help him.
Spilling air from my wings, I aimed for the island and dropped him back on it. Only one fellow rat had plucked enough courage to come back in my view, only to spy me and scamper away.
<I stuck my neck out for you. I voted for you to join,> I informed in a flare of rage that ebbed as suddenly as it came. <Guess I should have listened to the hawk then. He knows a rat when he sees one.>
<I am not a rat!> he protested, standing on his mouse’s hind legs in attempt to appear dignified. The whiskers on his nose twitched, habitually searching for food.
Deciding to give my wings a minor break, I swooped down, landing on the rock, inches from David. The rat’s instincts must have been running on wild panic and terror.
Intimidation factor was another reason.
<Definitely not a human.>
<What does that make you?> he shot back.
Alright, maybe he had me there.
Again, that cold, hard laugh.
Had to give him credit. The average sized human unfamiliar with birds of prey and falconry wouldn’t want to be this close to me.
Yet, here he was having a chuckle.
<Hah,> he mocked. <Loyalty…what’s that worth?>
A silence fell.
I guess I could have told him it was worth friends. Friends that did things like make sure you were taken care of. A place to stay, food if my meadow ever ran dry.
But that might have sounded like I was rubbing it in.
Not that it mattered as I was contemplating to rub him out.
But we had only ever killed Controllers in the past. Whether it was a Hork-Bajir slashing at our throats or a hungry Taxxon attempting to gnaw off an arm or leg, there had always been an evil parasitic slug wrapped around the creature’s head. A Yeerk.
That had made them a threat. That had made it right.
So we would tell ourselves.
David had been a threat as well. Not of alien variety, but human.
We neutralized him in the best manner we could.
Was it enough?
Her name filled my mind. As I thought about loyalty and friends, thoughts of her flashed, like bolts of lightning followed by rumbling pangs.
<Plenty,> I eventually told him, my thoughts still ambiguously far away.
Maybe it was hypocritical of us not to kill David. Oh sure, let’s screw up your life and destroy any sense of normalcy, but no, we won’t kill you.
Just make you wish you were dead.
God, that made us worse than killers. Masochists. Torturers. Schadenfreude.
Had we already crossed the line of murder?
Could I cross it?
I didn’t know.
Funny. I killed on a daily basis. I, of all the others, should have the least constraints in terms of dealing death.
Maybe it was some part of the old me, that human kid Tobias, striving to protect his last shred of humanity.
<You want my advice?> I offered, knowing he probably didn’t. Too bad, he’d get it anyway. <Assuming you don’t kill yourself in the first twenty four hours, forget everything. Your old life. Family. Friends. Humans. Andalites, Yeerks. Us. Just let the instincts take over.>
With that, I spread my wings for takeoff.
David flinched. Whether from the downwash of my wings or from fear, I wasn’t sure.
By the time I made it back to my meadow, the sun had begun to sink below the horizon, casting a wild menagerie of orange, red, purple shafts. In a few minutes, the last vestiges of light would vanish entirely, then it would be the owl’s meadow.
I could have found something quick to eat, a tasty mouse, mole, or vole to eviscerate, I was kinda hungry…but not. Like if I’d had a helping of dinner and eaten most of it, but still had some left on my plate. I could finish it, but I wasn’t necessarily hungry for it.
An anxious pit had developed inside me.
I settled on my favorite branch, my talons finding familiar nicks and grooves to curl around. I tried settling in, but my mind couldn’t shut down.
Too many thoughts darkening inside, like clouds, ready to burst and shoot lightning.
Only this storm seemed insistent on flashing faces.
Faces twisting, shifting, melting.
The few diurnal birds finished the last of their songs, presenting a brief interlude of silence before the nocturnal animals filled the choir gap.
The silence was deafening, much as it had been on that rock.
In a sudden flurry, I burst from my tree, my wings a blur as I charged from the meadow.
The night air was warm, but cooling fast in the sun’s absence. I made best use of it, flapping my wings hard.
Within a few minutes, neighborhoods and suburbs were in view. I zeroed in on one and made my descent, landing on the lawn. Then I did something I don’t normally do on these visits.
Wings and talons melted, separated. Scales softened to puny flesh. My vision dimmed just a bit, at night a hawk’s sight doesn’t have much advantage over a human’s.
Fingers formed and teeth sprouted. Organs groaned and sloshed like the contents of a dented soup can. Bones creaked and stretched.
Then I was Tobias the boy.
For all the hawk had taught me, there were still a few things I knew better as human.
Since this was technically a morph, I still retained my thought-speak ability.
I made a frown…or whatever passed for one. Facial expressions were another feature the hawk had no use for.
Was she sleeping or herself doing some midnight soul-searching?
Agitated, I kicked over my feet, displacing a few pebbles on her driveway. I pick one up and toss it at her window.
Yeah, I know it’s a complete cliché.
But apparently for a reason as a moment later, a light comes on and Rachel peered out the window, confused for only until she spots me. Her expression doesn’t change, her eyes don’t widen, she gives no easily discernable tells (least nothing I can pick up with weak, human eyes).
I sense her eyes linger, as though examining me for her sake that she’s not caught in a dream.
As usual, she looks amazing. Bleary eyed, untamed hair, and all. An old Ramones t-shirt casually thrown on.
That was one of her superpowers: To perpetually seem unaffected by the world around her. As though she had her own personal spotlight that gave her an angelic glow.
Okay, that was a little corny, even for a guy that lives in a tree.
Softly, she calls out.
I smile and nod.
The window closes and the light clicks off. A minute later, she came down to meet me.
A jacket had been thrown over the Ramones shirt. It looked familiar, but I wasn’t paying attention.
“What're you doing here?” she inquired with a yawn.
To see how you’re coping with the David thing.
Normally, if I went to meet with Rachel, I’d fly up to her room and we’d chat. Sometimes I’d help her with homework, or listen to music, occasionally watch a movie. Simple things, to help forget whatever atrocities we’ve just committed.
Though usually it wasn’t quite so late.
“I was...in the neighborhood....did you want to go on a walk?”
Wryly, she cocked an eyebrow.
“Let’s see….it’s one in the morning…I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since last week…tomorrow’s a school day…but then again, the odds of me sleeping at all for the next few days are slim to none, so…yeah, sure. Do you still remember how?”
She can tend to be a bit cranky or outright sarcastic depending on her sleep levels.
I think we can all sympathize.
“Yeah, I think so....one foot goes in front of the other?”
Rachel breaks a smile. It carries the same authenticity of her Warrior's Grin (which matches a shark’s) but it has a certain warmth to it. “Something like that.”
I go to take a step and nearly fall flat on my face, having tripped over my own feet. Instinctively, my arms shoot out crooking at the perfect angles to cup air under nonexistent wings.
Luckily, I don’t make a complete dork of myself and catch myself in time.
Disdainfully I shake it off with playful disgust.
“Such an inefficient matter of travel.”
“Yeah?” Rachel challenges, personally offended. “Well it works fine for the rest of us, Bird-boy.”
“I’m just saying, wings are definitely more fun.”
“Is that so?” she mused. Her voice softens. “I suppose I better help you then.”
Before I can object, she laces fingers into mine.
It’s an alien and unique experience. Back when I was still Tobias the boy, I hadn’t done a lot of hand holding or hugging or any of that ‘normal’ human stuff.
Holding Rachel’s hand gave a sense of being united. Being stronger.
That same hand had morphed into grizzly bears and elephants, stampeded car lots, squashed Taxxon, slashed Hork-Bajir, yet she hadn’t forgotten to be tender.
Such a strange word.
Like a chicken tender, or a tender wound.
Rachel, by trade, is neither chicken nor weak.
She’s the strongest person I know.
For a while, we didn't need to say anything. The moment spoke for itself. Whatever became of us, the future toll of this war, we were in it together. Hawk and girl.
Corny as that sounds.
The hawk had taught me many lessons. How to be strong, how to survive. To not let the past judge the present. To be free.
But there were still a few things I remembered about being a human.
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- LEP Commander
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