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The Host (Chapter 16: Assigned)

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The ledge of the rock exit was worn down, but it scraped my palms and shins as I scrambled through it. It hurt, stiff as I was, to wrench myself erect, and my breath caught. My head swam as the blood flowed downward.

I looked for only one thing-where Jared was, so that I could put myself between him and his attackers.

They all stood frozen in place, staring at me. Jared had his back to the wall, his hands balled into fists and held low. In front of him, Kyle was hunched over, clutching his stomach. Ian and a stranger flanked him a few feet back, their mouths open with shock. I took advantage of their surprise. In two long, shaky strides, I moved between Kyle and Jared.

Kyle was the first to react. I was less than a foot from him, and his primary instinct was to shove me away. His hand struck my shoulder and heaved me toward the floor. Before I could fall, something caught my wrist and yanked me back to my feet.

As soon as he realized what he'd done, Jared dropped my wrist like my skin was oozing acid.

"Get back in there," he roared at me. He shoved my shoulder, too, but it wasn't as hard as Kyle's push. It sent me staggering two feet back toward the hole in the wall.

The hole was a black circle in the narrow hallway. Outside the small prison, the bigger cave looked just the same, only longer and taller, a tube rather than a bubble. A small lamp-powered by what, I couldn't guess-lit the hallway dimly from the ground. It cast strange shadows on the features of the men, turning them into scowling monster faces.

I took a step toward them again, turning my back to Jared.

"I'm what you want," I said directly to Kyle. "Leave him alone."

No one said anything for a long second.

"Tricky bugger," Ian finally muttered, eyes wide with horror.

"I said get back in there," Jared hissed behind me.

I turned halfway, not wanting Kyle out of my sight. "It's not your duty to protect me at your own expense."

Jared grimaced, one hand rising to push me back toward the cell again.

I skipped out of the way; the motion moved me toward the ones who wanted to kill me.

Ian grabbed my arms and pinned them behind me. I struggled instinctively, but he was very strong. He bent my joints too far back and I gasped.

"Get your hands off her!" Jared shouted, charging.

Kyle caught him and spun him around into a wrestling hold, forcing his neck forward. The other man grabbed one of Jared's thrashing arms.

"Don't hurt him!" I screeched. I strained against the hands that imprisoned me.

Jared's free elbow rammed into Kyle's stomach. Kyle gasped and lost his grip. Jared twisted away from his attackers and then lunged back, his fist connecting with Kyle's nose. Dark red blood spattered the wall and the lamp.

"Finish it, Ian!" Kyle yelled. He put his head down and hurtled into Jared, throwing him into the other man.

"No!" Jared and I cried at the same moment.

Ian dropped my arms, and his hands wrapped around my throat, choking off my air. I clawed at his hands with my useless, stubby nails. He gripped me tighter, dragging my feet off the floor.

It hurt-the strangling hands, the sudden panic of my lungs. It was agony. I writhed, more trying to escape the pain than the murdering hands.

Click, click.

I'd only heard the sound once before, but I recognized it. So did everyone else. They all froze, Ian with his hands locked hard on my neck.

"Kyle, Ian, Brandt-back off!" Jeb barked.

No one moved-just my hands, still clawing, and my feet, twitching in the air.

Jared suddenly darted under Kyle's motionless arm and sprang at me. I saw his fist flying toward my face, and closed my eyes.

A loud thwack sounded inches behind my head. Ian howled, and I dropped to the floor. I crumpled there at his feet, gasping. Jared retreated after an angry glance in my direction and went to stand at Jeb's elbow.

"You're guests here, boys, and don't forget it," Jeb growled. "I told you not to go looking for the girl. She's my guest, too, for the moment, and I don't take kindly to any of my guests killing any of the others."

"Jeb," Ian moaned above me, his voice muffled by the hand held to his mouth. "Jeb. This is insane."

"What's your plan?" Kyle demanded. His face was smeared with blood, a violent, macabre sight. But there was no evidence of pain in his voice, only controlled and simmering anger. "We have a right to know. We have to decide whether this place is safe or if it's time to move on. So… how long will you keep this thing as your pet? What will you do with it when you're finished playing God? All of us deserve to know the answers to these questions."

Kyle's extraordinary words echoed behind the pulse thudding in my head. Keep me as a pet? Jeb had called me his guest… Was that another word for prisoner? Was it possible that two humans existed that did not demand either my death or my torture-wrung confession? If so, it was nothing less than a miracle.

"Don't have your answers, Kyle," Jeb said. "It's not up to me."

I doubted any other response Jeb could have given would have confused them more. All four men, Kyle, Ian, the one I didn't know, and even Jared, stared at him with shock. I still crouched gasping at Ian's feet, wishing there was some way I could climb back into my hole unnoticed.

"Not up to you?" Kyle finally echoed, still disbelieving. "Who, then? If you're thinking of putting it to a vote, that's already been done. Ian, Brandt, and I are the duly designated appointees of the result."

Jeb shook his head-a tight movement that never took his eyes off the man in front of him. "It's not up for a vote. This is still my house."

"Who, then?" Kyle shouted.

Jeb's eyes finally flickered-to another face and then back to Kyle. "It's Jared's decision."

Everyone, me included, shifted their eyes to stare at Jared.

He gaped at Jeb, just as astonished as the rest, and then his teeth ground together with an audible sound. He threw a glare of pure hate in my direction.

"Jared?" Kyle asked, facing Jeb again. "That makes no sense!" He was not in control of himself now, almost spluttering in rage. "He's more biased than anyone else! Why? How can he be rational about this?"

"Jeb, I don't…" Jared muttered.

"She's your responsibility, Jared," Jeb said in a firm voice. "I'll help you out, of course, if there's any more trouble like this, and with keeping track of her and all that. But when it comes to making decisions, that's all yours." He raised one hand when Kyle tried to protest again. "Look at it this way, Kyle. If somebody found your Jodi on a raid and brought her back here, would you want me or Doc or a vote deciding what we did with her?"

"Jodi is dead," Kyle hissed, blood spraying off his lips. He glared at me with much the same expression Jared had just used.

"Well, if her body wandered in here, it would still be up to you. Would you want it any other way?"

"The majority -"

"My house, my rules," Jeb interrupted harshly. "No more discussion on this. No more votes. No more execution attempts. You three spread the word-this is how it works from now on. New rule."

"Another one?" Ian muttered under his breath.

Jeb ignored him. "If, unlikely as it may be, somehow this ever happens again, whoever the body belongs to makes the call." Jeb poked the barrel of the gun toward Kyle, then jerked it a few inches toward the hall behind him. "Get out of here. I don't want to see you anywhere around this place again. You let everyone know that this corridor is off-limits. No one's got any reason for being here except Jared, and if I catch someone skulking around, I'm asking questions second. You got that? Move. Now." He jabbed the gun at Kyle again.

I was amazed that the three assassins immediately stalked back up the hallway, not even pausing to give me or Jeb a parting grimace.

I deeply wanted to believe that the gun in Jeb's hands was a bluff.

From the first time I'd seen him, Jeb had shown every outward appearance of kindness. He had not touched me once in violence; he had not even looked at me with recognizable hostility. Now it seemed that he was one of only two people here who meant me no harm. Jared might have fought to keep me alive, but it was plain that he was intensely conflicted about that decision. I sensed that he could change his mind at any time. From his expression, it was clear that part of him wanted this over with-especially now that Jeb had put the decision on his shoulders. While I made this analysis, Jared glowered at me with disgust in every line of his expression.

However, as much as I wanted to believe that Jeb was bluffing, while I watched the three men disappear into the darkness away from me, it was obvious there was no way he could be. Under the front he presented, Jeb must have been just as deadly and cruel as the rest of them. If he hadn't used that gun in the past-used it to kill, not just to threaten-no one would have obeyed him this way.

Desperate times, Melanie whispered. We can't afford to be kind in the world you've created. We're fugitives, an endangered species. Every choice is life-or-death.

Shh. I don't have time for a debate. I need to focus.

Jared was facing Jeb now, one hand held out in front of him, palm up, fingers curled limply. Now that the others were gone, their bodies slumped into a looser stance. Jeb was even grinning under his thick beard, as though he'd enjoyed the standoff at gunpoint. Strange human.

"Please don't put this on me, Jeb," Jared said. "Kyle is right about one thing-I can't make a rational decision."

"No one said you had to decide this second. She's not going anywhere." Jeb glanced down at me, still grinning. The eye closest to me-the one Jared couldn't see-closed quickly and opened again. A wink. "Not after all the trouble she took to get here. You've got plenty of time to think it through."

"There's nothing to think through. Melanie is dead. But I can't-I can't-Jeb, I can't just…" Jared couldn't seem to finish the sentence.

Tell him.

I'm not ready to die right this second.

"Don't think about it, then," Jeb told him. "Maybe you'll figure something out later. Give it some time."

"What are we going to do with it? We can't keep watch on it round the clock."

Jeb shook his head. "That's exactly what we're going to have to do for a while. Things will calm down. Even Kyle can't preserve a murderous rage for more than a few weeks."

"A few weeks? We can't afford to play guard down here for a few weeks. We have other things -"

"I know, I know." Jeb sighed. "I'll figure something out."

"And that's only half the problem." Jared looked at me again; a vein in his forehead pulsed. "Where do we keep it? It's not like we have a cell block."

Jeb smiled down at me. "You're not going to give us any trouble, now, are you?"

I stared at him mutely.

"Jeb," Jared muttered, upset.

"Oh, don't worry about her. First of all, we'll keep an eye on her. Secondly, she'd never be able to find her way out of here-she'd wander around lost until she ran into somebody. Which leads us to number three: she's not that stupid." He raised one thick white eyebrow at me. "You're not going to go looking for Kyle or the rest of them, are you? I don't think any of them are very fond of you."

I just stared, wary of his easy, chatty tone.

"I wish you wouldn't talk to it like that," Jared muttered.

"I was raised in a politer time, kid. I can't help myself." Jeb put one hand on Jared's arm, patting lightly. "Look, you've had a full night. Let me take the next watch here. Get some sleep."

Jared seemed about to object, but then he looked at me again and his expression hardened.

"Whatever you want, Jeb. And… I don't-I won't accept responsibility for this thing. Kill it if you think that's best."

I flinched.

Jared scowled at my reaction, then turned his back abruptly and walked the same way the others had gone. Jeb watched him go. While he was distracted, I crept back into my hole.

I heard Jeb settle slowly to the ground beside the opening. He sighed and stretched, popping a few joints. After a few minutes, he started whistling quietly. It was a cheery tune.

I curled myself around my bent knees, pressing my back into the farthest recess of the little cell. Tremors started at the small of my back and ran up and down my spine. My hands shook, and my teeth chattered softly together, despite the soggy heat.

"Might as well lie down and get some sleep," Jeb said, whether to me or to himself, I wasn't sure. "Tomorrow's bound to be a tough one."

The shivers passed after a time-maybe half an hour. When they were gone, I felt exhausted. I decided to take Jeb's advice. Though the floor felt even more uncomfortable than before, I was unconscious in seconds.

The smell of food woke me. This time I was groggy and disoriented when I opened my eyes. An instinctive sense of panic had my hands trembling again before I was fully conscious.

The same tray sat on the ground beside me, identical offerings on it. I could both see and hear Jeb. He sat in front of the cave in profile, looking straight ahead down the long round corridor and whistling softly.

Driven by my fierce thirst, I sat up and grabbed the open bottle of water.

"Morning," Jeb said, nodding in my direction.

I froze, my hand on the bottle, until he turned his head and started whistling again.

Only now, not quite so desperately thirsty as before, did I notice the odd, unpleasant aftertaste to the water. It matched the acrid taste of the air, but it was slightly stronger. The tang lingered in my mouth, inescapable.

I ate quickly, this time saving the soup for last. My stomach reacted more happily today, accepting the food with better grace. It barely gurgled.

My body had other needs, though, now that the loudest ones had been sated. I looked around my dark, cramped hole. There weren't a lot of options visible. But I could barely contain my fear at the thought of speaking up and making a request, even of the bizarre but friendly Jeb.

I rocked back and forth, debating. My hips ached from curving to the bowled shape of the cave.

"Ahem," Jeb said.

He was looking at me again, his face a deeper color under the white hair than usual.

"You've been stuck in here for a while," he said. "You need to… get out?"

I nodded.

"Don't mind a walk myself." His voice was cheerful. He sprang to his feet with surprising agility.

I crawled to the edge of my hole, staring out at him cautiously.

"I'll show you our little washroom," he continued. "Now, you should know that we're going to have to go through… kind of the main plaza, so to speak. Don't worry. I think everyone will have gotten the message by now." Unconsciously, he stroked the length of his gun.

I tried to swallow. My bladder was so full it was a constant pain, impossible to ignore. But to parade right through the middle of the hive of angry killers? Couldn't he just bring me a bucket?

He measured the panic in my eyes-watched the way I automatically shrank back farther into the hole-and his lips pursed in speculation. Then he turned and started walking down the dark hall. "Follow me," he called back, not looking to see if I obeyed.

I had one vivid flash of Kyle finding me here alone, and was after Jeb before a second passed, scrambling awkwardly through the opening and then hobbling along on my stiff legs as fast as I could to catch up. It felt both horrible and wonderful to stand straight again-the pain was sharp, but the relief was greater.

I was close behind him when we reached the end of the hall; darkness loomed through the tall broken oval of the exit. I hesitated, looking back at the small lamp he'd left on the floor. It was the only light in the dark cave. Was I supposed to bring it?

He heard me stop and turned to peer at me over his shoulder. I nodded toward the light, then looked back at him.

"Leave it. I know my way." He held out his free hand to me. "I'll guide you."

I stared at the hand for a long moment, and then, feeling the urgency in my bladder, I slowly put my hand on his palm, barely touching it-the way I would have touched a snake if for some reason I was ever forced to.

Jeb led me through the blackness with sure, quick steps. The long tunnel was followed by a series of bewildering twists in opposing directions. As we rounded yet another sharp V in the path, I knew I was hopelessly turned around. I was sure this was on purpose, and the reason Jeb had left the lamp behind. He wouldn't want me knowing too much about how to find my way out of this labyrinth.

I was curious as to how this place had come to be, how Jeb had found it, and how the others had wound up here. But I forced my lips tightly together. It seemed to me that keeping silent was my best bet now. What I was hoping for, I wasn't sure. A few more days of life? Just a cessation of pain? Was there anything else left? All I knew was that I wasn't ready to die, as I'd told Melanie before; my survival instinct was every bit as developed as the average human's.

We turned another corner, and the first light reached us. Ahead, a tall, narrow crevice glowed with light from another room. This light was not artificial like the little lamp by my cave. It was too white, too pure.

We couldn't move through the narrow fracture in the rock side by side. Jeb went first, towing me close behind. Once through-and able to see again-I pulled my hand out of Jeb's light grip. He didn't react in any way except to put his newly freed hand back on the gun.

We were in a short tunnel, and a brighter light shone through a rough arched doorway. The walls were the same holey purple rock.

I could hear voices now. They were low, less urgent than the last time I'd heard the babble of a human crowd. No one was expecting us today. I could only imagine what the response would be to my appearance with Jeb. My palms were cold and wet; my breath came in shallow gasps. I leaned as close as I could to Jeb without actually touching him.

"Easy," he murmured, not turning. "They're more afraid of you than you are of them."

I doubted that. And even if there were any way that it could be true, fear turned into hatred and violence in the human heart.

"I won't let anybody hurt you," Jeb mumbled as he reached the archway. "Anyway, might as well get used to this."

I wanted to ask what that meant, but he stepped through into the next room. I crept in after him, half a step behind, keeping myself hidden by his body as much as possible. The only thing harder than moving myself forward into that room was the thought of falling behind Jeb and being caught alone here.

Sudden silence greeted our entrance.

We were in the gigantic, bright cavern again, the one they'd first brought me to. How long ago was that? I had no idea. The ceiling was still too bright for me to make out exactly how it was lit. I hadn't noticed before, but the walls were not unbroken-dozens of irregular gaps opened to adjoining tunnels. Some of the openings were huge, others barely large enough for a man to fit through stooped over; some were natural crevices, others were, if not man-made, at least enhanced by someone's hands.

Several people stared at us from the recesses of those crevices, frozen in the act of coming or going. More people were out in the open, their bodies caught in the middle of whatever movement our entrance had interrupted. One woman was bent in half, reaching for her shoelaces. A man's motionless arms hung in the air, raised to illustrate some point he'd been making to his companions. Another man wobbled, caught off balance in a sudden stop. His foot came down hard as he struggled to keep steady; the thud of its fall was the only sound in the vast space. It echoed through the room.

It was fundamentally wrong for me to feel grateful to that hideous weapon in Jeb's hands… but I did. I knew that without it we would probably have been attacked. These humans would not stop themselves from hurting Jeb if it meant they could get to me. Though we might be attacked despite the gun. Jeb could only shoot one of them at a time.

The picture in my head had turned so grisly that I couldn't bear it. I tried to focus on my immediate surroundings, which were bad enough.

Jeb paused for a moment, the gun held at his waist, pointing outward. He stared all around the room, seeming to lock his gaze one by one with each person in it. There were fewer than twenty here; it did not take long. When he was satisfied with his study, he headed for the left wall of the cavern. Blood thudding in my ears, I followed in his shadow.

He did not walk directly across the cavern, instead keeping close to the curve of the wall. I wondered at his path until I noticed a large square of darker ground that took up the center of the floor-a very large space. No one stood on this darker ground. I was too frightened to do more than notice the anomaly; I didn't even guess at a reason.

There were small movements as we circled the silent room. The bending woman straightened, twisting at the waist to watch us go. The gesturing man folded his arms across his chest. All eyes narrowed, and all faces tightened into expressions of rage. However, no one moved toward us, and no one spoke. Whatever Kyle and the others had told these people about their confrontation with Jeb, it seemed to have had the effect Jeb was hoping for.

As we passed through the grove of human statues, I recognized Sharon and Maggie eyeing us from the wide mouth of one opening. Their expressions were blank, their eyes cold. They did not look at me, only Jeb. He ignored them.

It felt like years later when we finally reached the far side of the cavern. Jeb headed for a medium-sized exit, black against the brightness of this room. The eyes on my back made my scalp tingle, but I didn't dare to look behind me. The humans were still silent, but I worried that they might follow. It was a relief to slip into the darkness of the new passageway. Jeb's hand touched my elbow to guide me, and I did not shrink away from it. The babble of voices didn't pick up again behind us.

"That went better than I expected," Jeb muttered as he steered me through the cave. His words surprised me, and I was glad I didn't know what he'd thought would happen.

The ground sloped downward under my feet. Ahead, a dim light kept me from total blindness.

"Bet you've never seen anything like my place here." Jeb's voice was louder now, back to the chatty tone he'd used before. "It's really something, isn't it?"

He paused briefly in case I might respond, and then went on.

"Found this place back in the seventies. Well, it found me. I fell through the roof of the big room-probably shoulda died from the fall, but I'm too tough for my own good. Took me a while to find a way out. I was hungry enough to eat rock by the time I managed it.

"I was the only one left on the ranch by then, so I didn't have anyone to show it to. I explored every nook and cranny, and I could see the possibilities. I decided this might be a good card to keep up my sleeve, just in case. That's how we Stryders are-we like to be prepared."

We passed the dim light-it came from a fist-sized hole in the ceiling, making a small circle of brightness on the floor. When it was behind us, I could see another spot of illumination far ahead.

"You're probably curious as to how this all got here." Another pause, shorter than the last. "I know I was. I did a little research. These are lava tubes-can you beat that? This used to be a volcano. Well, still is a volcano, I expect. Not quite dead, as you'll see in a bit. All these caves and holes are bubbles of air that got caught in the cooling lava. I've put quite a bit of work into it over the last few decades. Some of it was easy-connecting the tubes just took a little elbow grease. Other parts took more imagination. Did you see the ceiling in the big room? That took me years to get right."

I wanted to ask him how, but I couldn't bring myself to speak. Silence was safest.

The floor began to slant downward at a steeper angle. The terrain was broken into rough steps, but they seemed secure enough. Jeb led me down them confidently. As we dropped lower and lower into the ground, the heat and humidity increased.

I stiffened when I heard a babble of voices again, this time from ahead. Jeb patted my hand kindly.

"You'll like this part-it's always everyone's favorite," he promised.

A wide, open arch shimmered with moving light. It was the same color as the light in the big room, pure and white, but it flickered at a strange dancing pace. Like everything else that I couldn't understand in this cavern, the light frightened me.

"Here we are," Jeb said enthusiastically, pulling me through the archway. "What do you think?"

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