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The Host (Chapter 25: Compelled)

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Another week passed, maybe two-there seemed little point in keeping track of time here, where it was so irrelevant-and things only got stranger for me.

I worked with the humans every day, but not always with Jeb. Some days Ian was with me, some days Doc, and some days only Jamie. I weeded fields, kneaded bread, and scrubbed counters. I carried water, boiled onion soup, washed clothes in the far end of the black pool, and burned my hands making that acidic soap. Everyone did their part, and since I had no right to be here, I tried to work twice as hard as the others. I could not earn a place, I knew that, but I tried to make my presence as light a burden as possible.

I got to know a little about the humans around me, mostly just by listening to them. I learned their names, at least. The caramel-skinned woman was named Lily, and she was from Philadelphia. She had a dry sense of humor and got along well with everyone because she never got ruffled. The young man with the bristly black hair, Wes, stared at her a lot, but she never seemed to notice that. He was only nineteen, and he'd escaped from Eureka, Montana. The sleepy-eyed mother was named Lucina, and her two boys were Isaiah and Freedom-Freedom had been born right here in the caves, delivered by Doc. I didn't see much of these three; it seemed that the mother kept her children as separate from me as was possible in this limited space. The balding, red-cheeked man was Trudy's husband; his name was Geoffrey. They were often with another older man, Heath, who had been Geoffrey's best friend since early childhood; the three had escaped the invasion together. The pallid man with the white hair was Walter. He was sick, but Doc didn't know what was wrong with him-there was no way to find out, not without labs and tests, and even if Doc could diagnose the problem, he had no medicine to treat it. As the symptoms progressed, Doc was starting to think it was a form of cancer. This pained me-to watch someone actually dying from something so easily fixed. Walter tired easily but was always cheerful. The white-blond woman-her eyes contrastingly dark-who'd brought water to the others that first day in the field was Heidi. Travis, John, Stanley, Reid, Carol, Violetta, Ruth Ann… I knew all the names, at least. There were thirty-five humans in the colony, with six of them gone on the raid, Jared included. Twenty-nine humans in the caves now, and one mostly unwelcome alien.

I also learned more about my neighbors.

Ian and Kyle shared the cave on my hallway with the two real doors propped over the entrance. Ian had begun bunking with Wes in another corridor in protest of my presence here, but he'd moved back after just two nights. The other nearby caves had also gone vacant for a while. Jeb told me the occupants were afraid of me, which made me laugh. Were twenty-nine rattlesnakes afraid of a lone field mouse?

Now Paige was back, next door, in the cave she shared with her partner, Andy, whose absence she mourned. Lily was with Heidi in the first cave, with the flowered sheets; Heath was in the second, with the duct-taped cardboard; and Trudy and Geoffrey were in the third, with a striped quilt. Reid and Violetta were one cave farther down the hall than mine, their privacy protected by a stained and threadbare oriental carpet.

The fourth cave in this corridor belonged to Doc and Sharon, and the fifth to Maggie, but none of these three had returned.

Doc and Sharon were partnered, and Maggie, in her rare moments of sarcastic humor, teased Sharon that it had taken the end of humanity for Sharon to find the perfect man: every mother wanted a doctor for her daughter.

Sharon was not the girl I'd seen in Melanie's memories. Was it the years of living alone with the dour Maggie that had changed her into a more brightly colored version of her mother? Though her relationship with Doc was newer to this world than I was, she showed none of the softening effects of new love.

I knew the duration of that relationship from Jamie-Sharon and Maggie rarely forgot when I was in a room with them, and their conversation was guarded. They were still the strongest opposition, the only people here whose ignoring me continued to feel aggressively hostile.

I'd asked Jamie how Sharon and Maggie had gotten here. Had they found Jeb on their own, beaten Jared and Jamie here? He seemed to understand the real question: had Melanie's last effort to find them been entirely a waste?

Jamie told me no. When Jared had showed him Melanie's last note, explained that she was gone-it took him a moment to be able to speak again after that word, and I could see in his face what this moment had done to them both-they'd gone to look for Sharon themselves. Maggie had held Jared at the point of an antique sword while he tried to explain; it had been a close thing.

It had not taken long with Maggie and Jared working together for them to decipher Jeb's riddle. The four of them had gotten to the caves before I'd moved from Chicago to San Diego.

When Jamie and I spoke of Melanie, it was not as difficult as it should have been. She was always a part of these conversations-soothing his pain, smoothing my awkwardness-though she had little to say. She rarely spoke to me anymore, and when she did it was muted; now and then I wasn't sure if I really heard her or just my own idea of what she might think. But she made an effort for Jamie. When I heard her, it was always with him. When she didn't speak, we both felt her there.

"Why is Melanie so quiet now?" Jamie asked me late one night. For once, he wasn't grilling me about Spiders and Fire-Tasters. We were both tired-it had been a long day pulling carrots. The small of my back was in knots.

"It's hard for her to talk. It takes so much more effort than it takes you and me. She doesn't have anything she wants to say that badly."

"What does she do all the time?"

"She listens, I think. I guess I don't know."

"Can you hear her now?"

"No."

I yawned, and he was quiet. I thought he was asleep. I drifted in that direction, too.

"Do you think she'll go away? Really gone?" Jamie suddenly whispered. His voice caught on the last word.

I was not a liar, and I don't think I could have lied to Jamie if I were. I tried not to think about the implications of my feelings for him. Because what did it mean if the greatest love I'd ever felt in my nine lives, the first true sense of family, of maternal instinct, was for an alien life-form? I shoved the thought away.

"I don't know," I told him. And then, because it was true, I added, "I hope not."

"Do you like her like you like me? Did you used to hate her, like she hated you?"

"It's different than how I like you. And I never really hated her, not even in the beginning. I was very afraid of her, and I was angry that because of her I couldn't be like everyone else. But I've always, always admired strength, and Melanie is the strongest person I've ever known."

Jamie laughed. "You were afraid of her?"

"You don't think your sister can be scary? Remember the time you went too far up the canyon, and when you came home late she ��threw a raging hissy fit,' according to Jared?"

He chuckled at the memory. I was pleased, having distracted him from his painful question.

I was eager to keep the peace with all my new companions in any way I could. I thought I was willing to do anything, no matter how backbreaking or smelly, but it turned out I was wrong.

"So I was thinking," Jeb said to me one day, maybe two weeks after everyone had "calmed down."

I was beginning to hate those words from Jeb.

"Do you remember what I was saying about you maybe teaching a little here?"

My answer was curt. "Yes."

"Well, how 'bout it?"

I didn't have to think it through. "No."

My refusal sent an unexpected pang of guilt through me. I'd never refused a Calling before. It felt like a selfish thing to do. Obviously, though, this was not the same. The souls would have never asked me to do something so suicidal.

He frowned at me, scrunching his caterpillar eyebrows together. "Why not?"

"How do you think Sharon would like that?" I asked him in an even voice. It was just one example, but perhaps the most forceful.

He nodded, still frowning, acknowledging my point.

"It's for the greater good," he grumbled.

I snorted. "The greater good? Wouldn't that be shooting me?"

"Wanda, that's shortsighted," he said, arguing with me as if my answer had been a serious attempt at persuasion. "What we have here is a very unusual opportunity for learning. It would be wasteful to squander that."

"I really don't think anyone wants to learn from me. I don't mind talking to you or Jamie -"

"Doesn't matter what they want," Jeb insisted. "It's what's good for them. Like chocolate versus broccoli. Ought to know more about the universe-not to mention the new tenants of our planet."

"How does it help them, Jeb? Do you think I know something that could destroy the souls? Turn the tide? Jeb, it's over."

"It's not over while we're still here," he told me, grinning so I knew he was teasing me again. "I don't expect you to turn traitor and give us some super-weapon. I just think we should know more about the world we live in."

I flinched at the word traitor. "I couldn't give you a weapon if I wanted to, Jeb. We don't have some great weakness, an Achilles' heel. No archenemies out there in space who could come to your aid, no viruses that will wipe us out and leave you standing. Sorry."

"Don't sweat it." He made a fist and tapped it playfully against my arm. "You might be surprised, though. I told you it gets boring in here. People might want your stories more than you think."

I knew Jeb would not leave it alone. Was Jeb capable of conceding defeat? I doubted it.

At mealtimes I usually sat with Jeb and Jamie, if he was not in school or busy elsewhere. Ian always sat near, though not really with us. I could not fully accept the idea of his self-appointed role as my bodyguard. It seemed too good to be true and thus, by human philosophy, clearly false.

A few days after I'd refused Jeb's request to teach the humans "for their own good," Doc came to sit by me during the evening meal.

Sharon remained where she was, in the corner farthest from my usual place. She was alone today, without her mother. She didn't turn to watch Doc walking toward me. Her vivid hair was wound into a high bun, so I could see that her neck was stiff, and her shoulders were hunched, tense and unhappy. It made me want to leave at once, before Doc could say whatever he meant to say to me, so that I could not be considered in collusion with him.

But Jamie was with me, and he took my hand when he saw the familiar panicked look come into my eyes. He was developing an uncanny ability to sense when I was turning skittish. I sighed and stayed where I was. It should probably have bothered me more that I was such a slave to this child's wishes.

"How are things?" Doc asked in a casual voice, sliding onto the counter next to me.

Ian, a few feet down from us, turned his body so it looked like he was part of the group.

I shrugged.

"We boiled soup today," Jamie announced. "My eyes are still stinging."

Doc held up a pair of bright red hands. "Soap."

Jamie laughed. "You win."

Doc gave a mocking bow from the waist, then turned to me. "Wanda, I had a question for you…" He let the words trail off.

I raised my eyebrows.

"Well, I was wondering… Of all the different planets you're familiar with, which species is physically the closest to humankind?"

I blinked. "Why?"

"Just good old-fashioned biological curiosity. I guess I've been thinking about your Healers… Where do they get the knowledge to cure, rather than just treat symptoms, as you said?" Doc was speaking louder than necessary, his mild voice carrying farther than usual. Several people looked up-Trudy and Geoffrey, Lily, Walter…

I wrapped my arms tightly around myself, trying to take up less space. "Those are two different questions," I murmured.

Doc smiled and gestured with one hand for me to proceed.

Jamie squeezed my hand.

I sighed. "The Bears on the Mists Planet, probably."

"With the claw beasts?" Jamie whispered.

I nodded.

"How are they similar?" Doc prodded.

I rolled my eyes, feeling Jeb's direction in this, but continued. "They're close to mammals in many ways. Fur, warm-blooded. Their blood isn't exactly the same as yours, but it does essentially the same job. They have similar emotions, the same need for societal interaction and creative outlets -"

"Creative?" Doc leaned forward, fascinated-or feigning fascination. "How so?"

I looked at Jamie. "You know. Why don't you tell Doc?"

"I might get it wrong."

"You won't."

He looked at Doc, who nodded.

"Well, see, they have these awesome hands." Jamie was enthusiastic almost immediately. "Sort of double-jointed-they can curl both ways." He flexed his own fingers, as if trying to bend them backward. "One side is soft, like my palm, but the other side is like razors! They cut the ice-ice sculpting. They make cities that are all crystal castles that never melt! It's beautiful, isn't it, Wanda?" He turned to me for backup.

I nodded. "They see a different range of colors-the ice is full of rainbows. Their cities are a point of pride for them. They're always trying to make them more beautiful. I knew of one Bear who we called… well, something like Glitter Weaver, but it sounds better in that language, because of the way the ice seemed to know what he wanted and shaped itself into his dreams. I met him once and saw his creations. That's one of my most beautiful memories."

"They dream?" Ian asked quietly.

I smiled wryly. "Not as vividly as humans."

"How do your Healers get their knowledge about the physiology of a new species? They came to this planet prepared. I watched it start-watched the terminal patients walk out of the hospital whole…" A frown etched a V-shaped crease into Doc's narrow forehead. He hated the invaders, like everyone, but unlike the others, he also envied them.

I didn't want to answer. Everyone was listening to us by this point, and this was no pretty fairytale about ice-sculpting Bears. This was the story of their defeat.

Doc waited, frowning.

"They… they take samples," I muttered.

Ian grinned in understanding. "Alien abductions."

I ignored him.

Doc pursed his lips. "Makes sense."

The silence in the room reminded me of my first time here.

"Where did your kind begin?" Doc asked. "Do you remember? I mean, as a species, do you know how you evolved?"

"The Origin," I answered, nodding. "We still live there. It's where I was… born."

"That's kind of special," Jamie added. "It's rare to meet someone from the Origin, isn't it? Most souls try to stay there, right, Wanda?" He didn't wait for my response. I was beginning to regret answering his questions so thoroughly each night. "So when someone moves on, it makes them almost… like a celebrity? Or like a member of a royal family."

I could feel my cheeks getting warm.

"It's a cool place," Jamie went on. "Lots of clouds, with a bunch of different-colored layers. It's the only planet where the souls can live outside of a host for very long. The hosts on the Origin planet are really pretty, too, with sort of wings and lots of tentacles and big silver eyes."

Doc was leaning forward with his face in his hands. "Do they remember how the host-parasite relationship was formed? How did the colonization begin?"

Jamie looked at me, shrugging.

"We were always that way," I answered slowly, still unwilling. "As far back as we were intelligent enough to know ourselves, at least. We were discovered by another species-the Vultures, we call them here, though more for their personalities than for their looks. They were… not kind. Then we discovered that we could bond with them just as we had with our original hosts. Once we controlled them, we made use of their technology. We took their planet first, and then followed them to the Dragon Planet and the Summer World-lovely places where the Vultures had also not been kind. We started colonizing; our hosts reproduced so much slower than we did, and their life spans were short. We began exploring farther into the universe…"

I trailed off, conscious of the many eyes on my face. Only Sharon continued to look away.

"You speak of it almost as if you were there," Ian noted quietly. "How long ago did this happen?"

"After dinosaurs lived here but before you did. I was not there, but I remember some of what my mother's mother's mother remembered of it."

"How old are you?" Ian asked, leaning toward me, his brilliant blue eyes penetrating.

"I don't know in Earth years."

"An estimate?" he pressed.

"Thousands of years, maybe." I shrugged. "I lose track of the years spent in hibernation."

Ian leaned back, stunned.

"Wow, that's old," Jamie breathed.

"But in a very real sense, I'm younger than you," I murmured to him. "Not even a year old. I feel like a child all the time."

Jamie's lips pulled up slightly at the corners. He liked the idea of being more mature than I was.

"What's the aging process for your kind?" Doc asked. "The natural life span?"

"We don't have one," I told him. "As long as we have a healthy host, we can live forever."

A low murmur-angry? frightened? disgusted? I couldn't tell-swirled around the edges of the cave. I saw that my answer had been unwise; I understood what these words would mean to them.

"Beautiful." The low, furious word came from Sharon's direction, but she hadn't turned.

Jamie squeezed my hand, seeing again in my eyes the desire to bolt. This time I gently pulled my hand free.

"I'm not hungry anymore," I whispered, though my bread sat barely touched on the counter beside me. I hopped down and, hugging the wall, made my escape.

Jamie followed right behind me. He caught up to me in the big garden plaza and handed me the remains of my bread.

"It was real interesting, honest," he told me. "I don't think anyone's too upset."

"Jeb put Doc up to this, didn't he?"

"You tell good stories. Once everyone knows that, they'll want to hear them. Just like me and Jeb."

"What if I don't want to tell them?"

Jamie frowned. "Well, I guess then… you shouldn't. But it seems like you don't mind telling me stories."

"That's different. You like me." I could have said, You don't want to kill me, but the implications would have upset him.

"Once people get to know you, they'll all like you. Ian and Doc do."

"Ian and Doc do not like me, Jamie. They're just morbidly curious."

"Do so."

"Ugh," I groaned. We were to our room by now. I shoved the screen aside and threw myself onto the mattress. Jamie sat down less forcefully beside me and looped his arms around his knees.

"Don't be mad," he pleaded. "Jeb means well."

I groaned again.

"It won't be so bad."

"Doc's going to do this every time I go in the kitchen, isn't he?"

Jamie nodded sheepishly. "Or Ian. Or Jeb."

"Or you."

"We all want to know."

I sighed and rolled onto my stomach. "Does Jeb have to get his way every single time?"

Jamie thought for a moment, then nodded. "Pretty much, yeah."

I took a big bite of bread. When I was done chewing, I said, "I think I'll eat in here from now on."

"Ian's going to ask you questions tomorrow when you're weeding the spinach. Jeb's not making him-he wants to."

"Well, that's wonderful."

"You're pretty good with sarcasm. I thought the parasites-I mean the souls-didn't like negative humor. Just the happy stuff."

"They'd learn pretty quick in here, kid."

Jamie laughed and then took my hand. "You don't hate it here, do you? You're not miserable, are you?"

His big chocolate-colored eyes were troubled.

I pressed his hand to my face. "I'm fine," I told him, and at that moment, it was entirely the truth.

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