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The Host (Chapter 3: Resisted)

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"She won't recognize the new name," the Healer murmured.

A new sensation distracted me. Something pleasant, a change in the air as the Seeker stood at my side. A scent, I realized. Something different than the sterile, odorless room. Perfume, my new mind told me. Floral, lush…

"Can you hear me?" the Seeker asked, interrupting my analysis. "Are you aware?"

"Take your time," the Healer urged in a softer voice than the one he had used before.

I did not open my eyes. I didn't want to be distracted. My mind gave me the words I needed, and the tone that would convey what I couldn't say without using many words.

"Have I been placed in a damaged host in order to gain the information you need, Seeker?"

There was a gasp-surprise and outrage mingled-and something warm touched my skin, covered my hand.

"Of course not, Wanderer," the man said reassuringly. "Even a Seeker would stop at some things."

The Seeker gasped again. Hissed, my memory corrected.

"Then why doesn't this mind function correctly?"

There was a pause.

"The scans were perfect," the Seeker said. Her words not reassuring but argumentative. Did she mean to quarrel with me? "The body was entirely healed."

"From a suicide attempt that was perilously close to succeeding." My tone was stiff, still angry. I wasn't used to anger. It was hard to contain it.

"Everything was in perfect order -"

The Healer cut her off. "What is missing?" he asked. "Clearly, you've accessed speech."

"Memory. I was trying to find what the Seeker wants."

Though there was no sound, there was a change. The atmosphere, which had gone tense at my accusation, relaxed. I wondered how I knew this. I had a strange sensation that I was somehow receiving more than my five senses were giving me-almost a feeling that there was another sense, on the fringes, not quite harnessed. Intuition? That was almost the right word. As if any creature needed more than five senses.

The Seeker cleared her throat, but it was the Healer who answered.

"Ah," he said. "Don't make yourself anxious about some partial memory… difficulties. That's, well, not to be expected, exactly, but not surprising, considering."

"I don't understand your meaning."

"This host was part of the human resistance." There was a hint of excitement in the Seeker's voice now. "Those humans who were aware of us before insertion are more difficult to subdue. This one still resists."

There was a moment of silence while they waited for my response.

Resisting? The host was blocking my access? Again, the heat of my anger surprised me.

"Am I correctly bound?" I asked, my voice distorted because it came through my teeth.

"Yes," the Healer said. "All eight hundred twenty-seven points are latched securely in the optimum positions."

This mind used more of my faculties than any host before, leaving me only one hundred eighty-one spare attachments. Perhaps the numerous bindings were the reason the emotions were so vivid.

I decided to open my eyes. I felt the need to double-check the Healer's promises and make sure the rest of me worked.

Light. Bright, painful. I closed my eyes again. The last light I had seen had been filtered through a hundred ocean fathoms. But these eyes had seen brighter and could handle it. I opened them narrowly, keeping my eyelashes feathered over the breach.

"Would you like me to turn down the lights?"

"No, Healer. My eyes will adjust."

"Very good," he said, and I understood that his approval was meant for my casual use of the possessive.

Both waited quietly while my eyes slowly widened.

My mind recognized this as an average room in a medical facility. A hospital. The ceiling tiles were white with darker speckles. The lights were rectangular and the same size as the tiles, replacing them at regular intervals. The walls were light green-a calming color, but also the color of sickness. A poor choice, in my quickly formed opinion.

The people facing me were more interesting than the room. The word doctor sounded in my mind as soon as my eyes fastened on the Healer. He wore loose-fitting blue green clothes that left his arms bare. Scrubs. He had hair on his face, a strange color that my memory called red.

Red! It had been three worlds since I had seen the color or any of its relatives. Even this gingery gold filled me with nostalgia.

His face was generically human to me, but the knowledge in my memory applied the word kind.

An impatient breath pulled my attention to the Seeker.

She was very small. If she had remained still, it would have taken me longer to notice her there beside the Healer. She didn't draw the eye, a darkness in the bright room. She wore black from chin to wrists-a conservative suit with a silk turtleneck underneath. Her hair was black, too. It grew to her chin and was pushed back behind her ears. Her skin was darker than the Healer's. Olive toned.

The tiny changes in humans' expressions were so minimal they were very hard to read. My memory could name the look on this woman's face, though. The black brows, slanted down over the slightly bulging eyes, created a familiar design. Not quite anger. Intensity. Irritation.

"How often does this happen?" I asked, looking at the Healer again.

"Not often," the Healer admitted. "We have so few full-grown hosts available anymore. The immature hosts are entirely pliable. But you indicated that you preferred to begin as an adult…"

"Yes."

"Most requests are the opposite. The human life span is much shorter than you're used to."

"I'm well versed in all the facts, Healer. Have you dealt with this… resistance before yourself?"

"Only once, myself."

"Tell me the facts of the case." I paused. "Please," I added, feeling a lack of courtesy in my command.

The Healer sighed.

The Seeker began tapping her fingers against her arm. A sign of impatience. She did not care to wait for what she wanted.

"This occurred four years ago," the Healer began. "The soul involved had requested an adult male host. The first one to be available was a human who had been living in a pocket of resistance since the early years of the occupation. The human… knew what would happen when he was caught."

"Just as my host did."

"Um, yes." He cleared his throat. "This was only the soul's second life. He came from Blind World."

"Blind World?" I asked, cocking my head to the side reflexively.

"Oh, sorry, you wouldn't know our nicknames. This was one of yours, though, was it not?" He pulled a device from his pocket, a computer, and scanned quickly. "Yes, your seventh planet. In the eighty-first sector."

"Blind World?" I said again, my voice now disapproving.

"Yes, well, some who have lived there prefer to call it the Singing World."

I nodded slowly. I liked that better.

"And some who've never been there call it Planet of the Bats," the Seeker muttered.

I turned my eyes to her, feeling them narrow as my mind dredged up the appropriate image of the ugly flying rodent she referred to.

"I assume you are one who has never lived there, Seeker," the Healer said lightly. "We called this soul Racing Song at first-it was a loose translation of his name on… the Singing World. But he soon opted to take the name of his host, Kevin. Though he was slated for a Calling in Musical Performance, given his background, he said he felt more comfortable continuing in the host's previous line of work, which was mechanical.

"These signs were somewhat worrisome to his assigned Comforter, but they were well within normal bounds.

"Then Kevin started to complain that he was blacking out for periods of time. They brought him back to me, and we ran extensive tests to make sure there was no hidden flaw in the host's brain. During the testing, several Healers noted marked differences in his behavior and personality. When we questioned him about this, he claimed to have no memory of certain statements and actions. We continued to observe him, along with his Comforter, and eventually discovered that the host was periodically taking control of Kevin's body."

"Taking control?" My eyes strained wide. "With the soul unaware? The host took the body back?"

"Sadly, yes. Kevin was not strong enough to suppress this host."

Not strong enough.

Would they think me weak as well? Was I weak, that I could not force this mind to answer my questions? Weaker still, because her living thoughts had existed in my head where there should be nothing but memory? I'd always thought of myself as strong. This idea of weakness made me flinch. Made me feel shame.

The Healer continued. "Certain events occurred, and it was decided -"

"What events?"

The Healer looked down without answering.

"What events?" I demanded again. "I believe I have a right to know."

The Healer sighed. "You do. Kevin… physically attacked a Healer while not… himself." He winced. "He knocked the Healer unconscious with a blow from his fist and then found a scalpel on her person. We found him insensible. The host had tried to cut the soul out of his body."

It took me a moment before I could speak. Even then, my voice was just a breath. "What happened to them?"

"Luckily, the host was unable to stay conscious long enough to inflict real damage. Kevin was relocated, into an immature host this time. The troublesome host was in poor repair, and it was decided there wasn't much point in saving him.

"Kevin is seven human years old now and perfectly normal… aside from the fact that he kept the name Kevin, that is. His guardians are taking great care that he is heavily exposed to music, and that is coming along well…" The last was added as if it were good news-news that could somehow cancel out the rest.

"Why?" I cleared my throat so that my voice could gain some volume. "Why have these risks not been shared?"

"Actually," the Seeker broke in, "it is very clearly stated in all recruitment propaganda that assimilating the remaining adult human hosts is much more challenging than assimilating a child. An immature host is highly recommended."

"The word challenging does not quite cover Kevin's story," I whispered.

"Yes, well, you preferred to ignore the recommendation." She held up her hands in a peacemaking gesture when my body tensed, causing the stiff fabric on the narrow bed to crackle softly. "Not that I blame you. Childhood is extraordinarily tedious. And you are clearly not the average soul. I have every confidence that this is well within your abilities to handle. This is just another host. I'm sure you will have full access and control shortly."

By this point in my observations of the Seeker, I was surprised that she'd had the patience to wait for any delay, even my personal acclimatization. I sensed her disappointment in my lack of information, and it brought back some of the unfamiliar feelings of anger.

"Did it not occur to you that you could get the answers you seek by being inserted into this body yourself?" I asked.

She stiffened. "I'm no skipper."

My eyebrows pulled up automatically.

"Another nickname," the Healer explained. "For those who do not complete a life term in their host."

I nodded in understanding. We'd had a name for it on my other worlds. On no world was it smiled upon. So I quit quizzing the Seeker and gave her what I could.

"Her name was Melanie Stryder. She was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She was in Los Angeles when the occupation became known to her, and she hid in the wilderness for a few years before finding… Hmmm. Sorry, I'll try that one again later. The body has seen twenty years. She drove to Chicago from…" I shook my head. "There were several stages, not all of them alone. The vehicle was stolen. She was searching for a cousin named Sharon, whom she had reason to hope was still human. She neither found nor contacted anyone before she was spotted. But…" I struggled, fighting against another blank wall. "I think… I can't be sure… I think she left a note… somewhere."

"So she expected someone would look for her?" the Seeker asked eagerly.

"Yes. She will be… missed. If she does not rendezvous with…" I gritted my teeth, truly fighting now. The wall was black, and I could not tell how thick it was. I battered against it, sweat beading on my forehead. The Seeker and the Healer were very quiet, allowing me to concentrate.

I tried thinking of something else-the loud, unfamiliar noises the engine of the car had made, the jittery rush of adrenaline every time the lights of another vehicle drew near on the road. I already had this, and nothing fought me. I let the memory carry me along, let it skip over the cold hike through the city under the sheltering darkness of night, let it wind its way to the building where they'd found me.

Not me, her. My body shuddered.

"Don't overextend -" the Healer began.

The Seeker shushed him.

I let my mind dwell on the horror of discovery, the burning hatred of the Seekers that overpowered almost everything else. The hatred was evil; it was pain. I could hardly bear to feel it. But I let it run its course, hoping it would distract the resistance, weaken the defenses.

I watched carefully as she tried to hide and then knew she could not. A note, scratched on a piece of debris with a broken pencil. Shoved hastily under a door. Not just any door.

"The pattern is the fifth door along the fifth hall on the fifth floor. Her communication is there."

The Seeker had a small phone in her hand; she murmured rapidly into it.

"The building was supposed to be safe," I continued. "They knew it was condemned. She doesn't know how she was discovered. Did they find Sharon?"

A chill of horror raised goose bumps on my arms.

The question was not mine.

The question wasn't mine, but it flowed naturally through my lips as if it were. The Seeker did not notice anything amiss.

"The cousin? No, they found no other human," she answered, and my body relaxed in response. "This host was spotted entering the building. Since the building was known to be condemned, the citizen who observed her was concerned. He called us, and we watched the building to see if we could catch more than one, and then moved in when that seemed unlikely. Can you find the rendezvous point?"

I tried.

So many memories, all of them so colorful and sharp. I saw a hundred places I'd never been, heard their names for the first time. A house in Los Angeles, lined with tall fronded trees. A meadow in a forest, with a tent and a fire, outside Winslow, Arizona. A deserted rocky beach in Mexico. A cave, the entrance guarded by sheeting rain, somewhere in Oregon. Tents, huts, rude shelters. As time went on, the names grew less specific. She did not know where she was, nor did she care.

My name was now Wanderer, yet her memories fit it just as well as my own. Except that my wandering was by choice. These flashes of memory were always tinged with the fear of the hunted. Not wandering, but running.

I tried not to feel pity. Instead, I worked to focus the memories. I didn't need to see where she'd been, only where she was going. I sorted through the pictures that tied to the word Chicago , but none seemed to be anything more than random images. I widened my net. What was outside Chicago? Cold, I thought. It was cold, and there was some worry about that.

Where? I pushed, and the wall came back.

I exhaled in a gust. "Outside the city-in the wilderness… a state park, away from any habitations. It's not somewhere she'd been before, but she knew how to get there."

"How soon?" the Seeker asked.

"Soon." The answer came automatically. "How long have I been here?"

"We let the host heal for nine days, just to be absolutely sure she was recovered," the Healer told me. "Insertion was today, the tenth day."

Ten days. My body felt a staggering wave of relief.

"Too late," I said. "For the rendezvous point… or even the note." I could feel the host's reaction to this-could feel it much too strongly. The host was almost… smug. I allowed the words she thought to be spoken, so that I could learn from them. "He won't be there."

"He?" The Seeker pounced on the pronoun. "Who?"

The black wall slammed down with more force than she'd used before. She was the tiniest fraction of a second too late.

Again, the face filled my mind. The beautiful face with the golden tan skin and the light-flecked eyes. The face that stirred a strange, deep pleasure within me while I viewed it so clearly in my mind.

Though the wall slapped into place with an accompanying sensation of vicious resentment, it was not fast enough.

"Jared," I answered. As quickly as if it had come from me, the thought that was not mine followed the name through my lips. "Jared is safe."

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