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The Host (Chapter 13: Sentenced)

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Are they here?" We choked out the words-they burst from us like the water in our lungs had, expelled. After water, this question was all that mattered. "Did they make it?"

Uncle Jeb's face was impossible to read in the darkness. "Who?" he asked.

"Jamie, Jared!" Our whisper burned like a shout. "Jared was with Jamie. Our brother! Are they here? Did they come? Did you find them, too?"

There was barely a pause.

"No." His answer was forceful, and there was no pity in it, no feeling at all.

"No," we whispered. We were not echoing him, we were protesting against getting our life back. What was the point? We closed our eyes again and listened to the pain in our body. We let that drown out the pain in our mind.

"Look," Uncle Jeb said after a moment. "I, uh, have something to take care of. You rest for a bit, and I'll be back for you."

We didn't hear the meaning in his words, just the sounds. Our eyes stayed closed. His footsteps crunched quietly away from us. We couldn't tell which direction he went. We didn't care anyway.

They were gone. There was no way to find them, no hope. Jared and Jamie had disappeared, something they knew well how to do, and we would never see them again.

The water and the cooler night air were making us lucid, something we did not want. We rolled over, to bury our face against the sand again. We were so tired, past the point of exhaustion and into some deeper, more painful state. Surely we could sleep. All we had to do was not think. We could do that.

We did.

When we woke, it was still night, but dawn was threatening on the eastern horizon-the mountains were lined with dull red. Our mouth tasted of dust, and at first we were sure that we had dreamed Uncle Jeb's appearance. Of course we had.

Our head was clearer this morning, and we noticed quickly the strange shape near our right cheek-something that was not a rock or a cactus. We touched it, and it was hard and smooth. We nudged it, and the delicious sound of sloshing water came from inside.

Uncle Jeb was real, and he'd left us a canteen.

We sat up carefully, surprised when we didn't break in two like a withered stick. Actually, we felt better. The water must have had time to work its way through some of our body. The pain was dull, and for the first time in a long while, we felt hungry again.

Our fingers were stiff and clumsy as we twisted the cap from the top of the canteen. It wasn't all the way full, but there was enough water to stretch the walls of our belly again-it must have shrunk. We drank it all; we were done with rationing.

We dropped the metal canteen to the sand, where it made a dull thud in the predawn silence. We felt wide awake now. We sighed, preferring unconsciousness, and let our head fall into our hands. What now?

"Why did you give it water, Jeb?" an angry voice demanded, close behind our back.

We whirled, twisting onto our knees. What we saw made our heart falter and our awareness splinter apart.

There were eight humans half-circled around where I knelt under the tree. There was no question they were humans, all of them. I'd never seen faces contorted into such expressions-not on my kind. These lips twisted with hatred, pulled back over clenched teeth like wild animals. These brows pulled low over eyes that burned with fury.

Six men and two women, some of them very big, most of them bigger than me. I felt the blood drain from my face as I realized why they held their hands so oddly-gripped tightly in front of them, each balancing an object. They held weapons. Some held blades-a few short ones like those I had kept in my kitchen, and some longer, one huge and menacing. This knife had no purpose in a kitchen. Melanie supplied the name: a machete.

Others held long bars, some metal, some wooden. Clubs.

I recognized Uncle Jeb in their midst. Held loosely in his hands was an object I'd never seen in person, only in Melanie's memories, like the big knife. It was a rifle.

I saw horror, but Melanie saw all this with wonder, her mind boggling at their numbers. Eight human survivors. She'd thought Jeb was alone or, in the best case scenario, with only two others. To see so many of her kind alive filled her with joy.

You're an idiot, I told her. Look at them. See them.

I forced her to see it from my perspective: to see the threatening shapes inside the dirty jeans and light cotton shirts, brown with dust. They might have been human-as she thought of the word-once, but at this moment they were something else. They were barbarians, monsters. They hung over us, slavering for blood.

There was a death sentence in every pair of eyes.

Melanie saw all this and, though grudgingly, she had to admit that I was right. At this moment, her beloved humans were at their worst-like the newspaper stories we'd seen in the abandoned shack. We were looking at killers.

We should have been wiser; we should have died yesterday.

Why would Uncle Jeb keep us alive for this?

A shiver passed through me at the thought. I'd skimmed through the histories of human atrocities. I'd had no stomach for them. Perhaps I should have concentrated better. I knew there were reasons why humans let their enemies live, for a little while. Things they wanted from their minds or their bodies…

Of course it sprang into my head immediately-the one secret they would want from me. The one I could never, never tell them. No matter what they did to me. I would have to kill myself first.

I did not let Melanie see the secret I protected. I used her own defenses against her and threw up a wall in my head to hide behind while I thought of the information for the first time since implantation. There had been no reason to think of it before.

Melanie was hardly even curious on the other side of the wall; she made no effort to break through it. There were much more immediate concerns than the fact that she had not been the only one keeping information in reserve.

Did it matter that I protected my secret from her? I wasn't as strong as Melanie; I had no doubt she could endure torture. How much pain could I stand before I gave them anything they wanted?

My stomach heaved. Suicide was a repugnant option-worse because it would be murder, too. Melanie would be part of either torture or death. I would wait for that until I had absolutely no other choice.

No, they can't. Uncle Jeb would never let them hurt me.

Uncle Jeb doesn't know you're here, I reminded her.

Tell him!

I focused on the old man's face. The thick white beard kept me from seeing the set of his mouth, but his eyes did not seem to burn like the others'. From the corner of my eye, I could see a few of the men shift their gaze from me to him. They were waiting for him to answer the question that had alerted me to their presence. Uncle Jeb stared at me, ignoring them.

I can't tell him, Melanie. He won't believe me. And if they think I'm lying to them, they'll think I'm a Seeker. They must have experience enough to know that only a Seeker would come out here with a lie, a story designed for infiltration.

Melanie recognized the truth of my thought at once. The very word Seeker made her recoil with hatred, and she knew these strangers would have the same reaction.

It doesn't matter anyway. I'm a soul-that's enough for them.

The one with the machete-the biggest man there, black-haired with oddly fair skin and vivid blue eyes-made a sound of disgust and spit on the ground. He took a step forward, slowly raising the long blade.

Better fast than slow. Better that it was this brutal hand and not mine that killed us. Better that I didn't die a creature of violence, accountable for Melanie's blood as well as my own.

"Hold it, Kyle." Jeb's words were unhurried, almost casual, but the big man stopped. He grimaced and turned to face Melanie's uncle.

"Why? You said you made sure. It's one of them."

I recognized the voice-he was the same one who'd asked Jeb why he'd given me water.

"Well, yes, she surely is. But it's a little complicated."

"How?" A different man asked the question. He stood next to the big, dark-haired Kyle, and they looked so much alike that they had to be brothers.

"See, this here is my niece, too."

"Not anymore she's not," Kyle said flatly. He spit again and took another deliberate step in my direction, knife ready. I could see from the way his shoulders leaned into the action that words would not stop him again. I closed my eyes.

There were two sharp metallic clicks, and someone gasped. My eyes flew open again.

"I said hold it, Kyle." Uncle Jeb's voice was still relaxed, but the long rifle was gripped tightly in his hands now, and the barrels were pointed at Kyle's back. Kyle was frozen just steps from me; his machete hung motionless in the air above his shoulder.

"Jeb," the brother said, horrified, "what are you doing?"

"Step away from the girl, Kyle."

Kyle turned his back to us, whirling on Jeb in fury. "It's not a girl, Jeb!"

Jeb shrugged; the gun stayed steady in his hands, pointed at Kyle. "There are things to be discussed."

"The doctor might be able to learn something from it," a female voice offered gruffly.

I cringed at the words, hearing in them my worst fears. When Jeb had called me his niece just now, I'd foolishly let a spark of hope flame to life-perhaps there would be pity. I'd been stupid to think that, even for a second. Death would be the only pity I could hope for from these creatures.

I looked at the woman who'd spoken, surprised to see that she was as old as Jeb, maybe older. Her hair was dark gray rather than white, which is why I hadn't noticed her age before. Her face was a mass of wrinkles, all of them turning down into angry lines. But there was something familiar about the features behind the lines.

Melanie made the connection between this ancient face and another, smoother face in her memory.

"Aunt Maggie? You're here? How? Is Sharon -" The words were all Melanie, but they gushed from my mouth, and I was unable to stop them. Sharing for so long in the desert had made her stronger, or me weaker. Or maybe it was just that I was concentrating on which direction the deathblow was going to fall from. I was bracing for our murder, and she was having a family reunion.

Melanie got only halfway through her surprised exclamation. The much-aged woman named Maggie lunged forward with a speed that belied her brittle exterior. She didn't raise the hand that held the black crowbar. That was the hand I was watching, so I didn't see her free hand swing out to slap me hard across the face.

My head snapped back and then forward. She slapped me again.

"You won't fool us, you parasite. We know how you work. We know how well you can mimic us."

I tasted blood inside my cheek.

Don't do that again, I scolded Melanie. I told you what they'd think.

Melanie was too shocked to answer.

"Now, Maggie," Jeb began in a soothing tone.

"Don't you ��Now, Maggie' me, you old fool! She's probably led a legion of them down on us." She backed away from me, her eyes measuring my stillness as if I were a coiled snake. She stopped beside her brother.

"I don't see anyone," Jeb retorted. "Hey!" he yelled, and I flinched in surprise. I wasn't the only one. Jeb waved his left hand over his head, the gun still clenched in the right. "Over here!"

"Shut up," Maggie growled, shoving his chest. Though I had good reason to know she was strong, Jeb didn't wobble.

"She's alone, Mag. She was pretty much dead when I found her-she's not in such great shape now. The centipedes don't sacrifice their own that way. They would have come for her much sooner than I did. Whatever else she is, she's alone."

I saw the image of the long, many-legged insect in my head, but I didn't make the connection.

He's talking about you, Melanie translated. She placed the picture of the ugly bug next to my memory of a bright silver soul. I didn't see a resemblance.

I wonder how he knows what you look like, Melanie wondered absently. My memories of a soul's true appearance had been new to her in the beginning.

I didn't have time to wonder with her. Jeb was walking toward me, and the others were close behind. Kyle's hand hovered at Jeb's shoulder, ready to restrain him or throw him out of the way, I couldn't tell.

Jeb put his gun in his left hand and extended the right to me. I eyed it warily, waiting for it to hit me.

"C'mon," he urged gently. "If I could carry you that far, I woulda brought you home last night. You're gonna have to walk some more."

"No!" Kyle grunted.

"I'm takin' her back," Jeb said, and for the first time there was a harsher tone to his voice. Under his beard, his jaw flexed into a stubborn line.

"Jeb!" Maggie protested.

"'S my place, Mag. I'll do what I want."

"Old fool!" she snapped again.

Jeb reached down and grabbed my hand from where it lay curled into a fist against my thigh. He yanked me to my feet. It was not cruelty; it was merely as if he was in a hurry. Yet was it not the very worst form of cruelty to prolong my life for the reasons he had?

I rocked unsteadily. I couldn't feel my legs very well-just prickles like needle points as the blood flowed down.

There was a hiss of disapproval behind him. It came from more than one mouth.

"Okay, whoever you are," he said to me, his voice still kind. "Let's get out of here before it heats up."

The one who must have been Kyle's brother put his hand on Jeb's arm.

"You can't just show it where we live, Jeb."

"I suppose it doesn't matter," Maggie said harshly. "It won't get a chance to tell tales."

Jeb sighed and pulled a bandanna-all but hidden by his beard-from around his neck.

"This is silly," he muttered, but he rolled the dirty fabric, stiff with dry sweat, into a blindfold.

I kept perfectly still as he tied it over my eyes, fighting the panic that increased when I couldn't see my enemies.

I couldn't see, but I knew it was Jeb who put one hand on my back and guided me; none of the others would have been so gentle.

We started forward, toward the north, I thought. No one spoke at first-there was just the sound of sand grinding under many feet. The ground was even, but I stumbled on my numb legs again and again. Jeb was patient; his guiding hand was almost chivalrous.

I felt the sun rise as we walked. Some of the footsteps were faster than others. They moved ahead of us until they were hard to hear. It sounded like it was the minority that stayed with Jeb and me. I must not have looked like I needed many guards-I was faint with hunger, and I swayed with every step; my head felt dizzy and hollow.

"You aren't planning to tell him, are you?"

It was Maggie's voice; it came from a few feet behind me, and it sounded like an accusation.

"He's got a right to know," Jeb replied. The stubborn note was back in his voice.

"It's an unkind thing you are doing, Jebediah."

"Life is unkind, Magnolia."

It was hard to decide who was the more terrifying of the two. Was it Jeb, who seemed so intent on keeping me alive? Or Maggie, who had first suggested the doctor-an appellation that filled me with instinctive, nauseated dread-but who seemed more worried about cruelty than her brother?

We walked in silence again for a few hours. When my legs buckled, Jeb lowered me to the ground and held a canteen to my lips as he had in the night.

"Let me know when you're ready," Jeb told me. His voice sounded kind, though I knew that was a false interpretation.

Someone sighed impatiently.

"Why are you doing this, Jeb?" a man asked. I'd heard the voice before; it was one of the brothers. "For Doc? You could have just told Kyle that. You didn't have to pull a gun on him."

"Kyle needs a gun pulled on him more often," Jeb muttered.

"Please tell me this wasn't about sympathy," the man continued. "After all you've seen…"

"After all I've seen, if I hadn't learned compassion, I wouldn't be worth much. But no, it was not about sympathy. If I had enough sympathy for this poor creature, I would have let her die."

I shivered in the oven-hot air.

"What, then?" Kyle's brother demanded.

There was a long silence, and then Jeb's hand touched mine. I grasped it, needing the help to get back on my feet. His other hand pressed against my back, and I started forward again.

"Curiosity," Jeb said in a low voice.

No one replied.

As we walked, I considered a few sure facts. One, I was not the first soul they'd captured. There was already a set routine here. This "Doc" had tried to get his answer from others before me.

Two, he had tried unsuccessfully. If any soul had forgone suicide only to crack under the humans' torture, they would not need me now. My death would have been mercifully swift.

Oddly, I couldn't bring myself to hope for a quick end, though, or to try to effect that outcome. It would be easy to do, even without doing the deed myself. I would only have to tell them a lie-pretend to be a Seeker, tell them my colleagues were tracking me right now, bluster and threaten. Or tell them the truth-that Melanie lived on inside me, and that she had brought me here.

They would see another lie, and one so richly irresistible-the idea that the human could live on after implantation-so tempting to believe from their perspective, so insidious, that they would believe I was a Seeker more surely than if I claimed it. They would assume a trap, get rid of me quickly, and find a new place to hide, far away from here.

You're probably right, Melanie agreed. It's what I would do.

But I wasn't in pain yet, and so either form of suicide was hard to embrace; my instinct for survival sealed my lips. The memory of my last session with my Comforter-a time so civilized it seemed to belong to a different planet-flashed through my head. Melanie challenging me to have her removed, a seemingly suicidal impulse, but only a bluff. I remembered thinking how hard it was to contemplate death from a comfortable chair.

Last night Melanie and I had wished for death, but death had been only inches away at the time. It was different now that I was on my feet again.

I don't want to die, either, Melanie whispered. But maybe you're wrong. Maybe that's not why they're keeping us alive. I don't understand why they would… She didn't want to imagine the things they might do to us-I was sure she could come up with worse than I. What answer would they want from you that bad?

I'll never tell. Not you, not any human.

A bold declaration. But then, I wasn't in pain yet…

Another hour had passed-the sun was directly overhead, the heat of it like a crown of fire on my hair-when the sound changed. The grinding steps that I barely heard anymore turned to echoes ahead of me. Jeb's feet still crunched against the sand like mine, but someone in front of us had reached a new terrain.

"Careful, now," Jeb warned me. "Watch your head."

I hesitated, not sure what I was watching for, or how to watch with no eyes. His hand left my back and pressed down on my head, telling me to duck. I bent forward. My neck was stiff.

He guided me forward again, and I heard our footsteps make the same echoing sound. The ground didn't give like sand, didn't feel loose like rock. It was flat and solid beneath my feet.

The sun was gone-I could no longer feel it burn my skin or scorch my hair.

I took another step, and a new air touched my face. It was not a breeze. This was stagnant-I moved into it. The dry desert wind was gone. This air was still and cooler. There was the faintest hint of moisture to it, a mustiness that I could both smell and taste.

There were so many questions in my mind, and in Melanie's. She wanted to ask hers, but I kept silent. There was nothing either of us could say that would help us now.

"Okay, you can straighten up," Jeb told me.

I raised my head slowly.

Even with the blindfold, I could tell that there was no light. It was utterly black around the edges of the bandanna. I could hear the others behind me, shuffling their feet impatiently, waiting for us to move forward.

"This way," Jeb said, and he was guiding me again. Our footsteps echoed back from close by-the space we were in must have been quite small. I found myself ducking my head instinctively.

We went a few steps farther, and then we rounded a sharp curve that seemed to turn us back the way we'd come. The ground started to slant downward. The angle got steeper with every step, and Jeb gave me his rough hand to keep me from falling. I don't know how long I slipped and skidded my way through the darkness. The hike probably felt longer than it was with each minute slowed by my terror.

We took another turn, and then the floor started to climb upward. My legs were so numb and wooden that as the path got steeper, Jeb had to half drag me up the incline. The air got mustier and moister the farther we went, but the blackness didn't change. The only sounds were our footsteps and their nearby echoes.

The pathway flattened out and began to turn and twist like a serpent.

Finally, finally, there was a brightness around the top and bottom of my blindfold. I wished that it would slip, as I was too frightened to pull it off myself. It seemed to me that I wouldn't be so terrified if I could just see where I was and who was with me.

With the light came noise. Strange noise, a low murmuring babble. It sounded almost like a waterfall.

The babble got louder as we moved forward, and the closer it got, the less it sounded like water. It was too varied, low and high pitches mingling and echoing. If it had not been so discordant, it might have sounded like an uglier version of the constant music I'd heard and sung on the Singing World. The darkness of the blindfold suited that memory, the memory of blindness.

Melanie understood the cacophony before I did. I'd never heard the sound because I'd never been with humans before.

It's an argument, she realized. It sounds like so many people arguing.

She was drawn by the sound. Were there more people here, then? That there were even eight had surprised us both. What was this place?

Hands touched the back of my neck, and I shied away from them.

"Easy now," Jeb said. He pulled the blindfold off my eyes.

I blinked slowly, and the shadows around me settled into shapes I could understand: rough, uneven walls; a pocked ceiling; a worn, dusty floor. We were underground somewhere in a natural cave formation. We couldn't be that deep. I thought we'd hiked upward longer than we'd slid downward.

The rock walls and ceiling were a dark purpley brown, and they were riddled with shallow holes like Swiss cheese. The edges of the lower holes were worn down, but over my head the circles were more defined, and their rims looked sharp.

The light came from a round hole ahead of us, its shape not unlike the holes that peppered the cavern, but larger. This was an entrance, a doorway to a brighter place. Melanie was eager, fascinated by the concept of more humans. I held back, suddenly worried that blindness might be better than sight.

Jeb sighed. "Sorry," he muttered, so low that I was certainly the only one to hear.

I tried to swallow and could not. My head started to spin, but that might have been from hunger. My hands were trembling like leaves in a stiff breeze as Jeb prodded me through the big hole.

The tunnel opened into a chamber so vast that at first I couldn't accept what my eyes told me. The ceiling was too bright and too high-it was like an artificial sky. I tried to see what brightened it, but it sent down sharp lances of light that hurt my eyes.

I was expecting the babble to get louder, but it was abruptly dead quiet in the huge cavern.

The floor was dim compared to the brilliant ceiling so far above. It took a moment for my eyes to make sense of all the shapes.

A crowd. There was no other word for it-there was a crowd of humans standing stock-still and silent, all staring at me with the same burning, hate-filled expressions I'd seen at dawn.

Melanie was too stunned to do anything more than count. Ten, fifteen, twenty… twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven…

I didn't care how many there were. I tried to tell her how little it mattered. It wouldn't take twenty of them to kill me. To kill us. I tried to make her see how precarious our position was, but she was beyond my warnings at the moment, lost in this human world she'd never dreamed was here.

One man stepped forward from the crowd, and my eyes darted first to his hands, looking for the weapon they would carry. His hands were clenched in fists but empty of any other threat. My eyes, adjusting to the dazzling light, made out the sun-gilded tint of his skin and then recognized it.

Choking on the sudden hope that dizzied me, I lifted my eyes to the man's face.

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