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The Host (Chapter 34: Buried)

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Jared lunged forward, away from me. With a loud smacking sound, his fist hit Kyle's face.

Kyle's eyes rolled back in his head, and his mouth fell slack.

The room was very quiet for a few seconds.

"Um," Doc said in a mild voice, "medically speaking, I'm not sure that was the most helpful thing for his condition."

"But I feel better," Jared answered, sullen.

Doc smiled the tiniest smile. "Well, maybe a few more minutes of unconsciousness won't kill him."

Doc began looking under Kyle's lids again, taking his pulse…

"What happened?" Wes was by my head, speaking in a murmur.

"Kyle tried to kill it," Jared answered before I could. "Are we really surprised?"

"Did not," I muttered.

Wes looked at Jared.

"Altruism seems to come more naturally to it than lies," Jared noted.

"Are you trying to be annoying?" I demanded. My patience was not waning, but entirely gone. How long had it been since I'd slept? The only thing that ached worse than my leg was my head. Every breath hurt my side. I realized, with some surprise, that I was in a truly bad mood. "Because if you are, then be assured, you have succeeded."

Jared and Wes looked at me with shocked eyes. I was sure that if I could see the others, their expressions would match. Maybe not Jeb's. He was the master of the poker face.

"I am female," I complained. "That ��it' business is really getting on my nerves."

Jared blinked in surprise. Then his face settled back into harder lines. "Because of the body you wear?"

Wes glared at him.

"Because of me," I hissed.

"By whose definition?"

"How about by yours? In my species, I am the one that bears young. Is that not female enough for you?"

That stopped him short. I felt almost smug.

As you should, Melanie approved. He's wrong, and he's being a pig about it.

Thank you.

We girls have to stick together.

"That's a story you've never told us," Wes murmured, while Jared struggled for a rebuttal. "How does that work?"

Wes's olive-toned face darkened, as if he'd just realized he had spoken the words out loud. "I mean, I guess you don't have to answer that, if I'm being rude."

I laughed. My mood was swinging around wildly, out of control. Slaphappy, like Mel had said. "No, you're not asking anything… inappropriate. We don't have such a complicated… elaborate setup as your species." I laughed again, and then felt warmth in my face. I remembered only too clearly how elaborate it could be.

Get your mind out of the gutter.

It's your mind, I reminded her.

"Then…?" Wes asked.

I sighed. "There are only a few of us who are… Mothers. Not Mothers. That's what they call us, but it's just the potential to be one…" I was sober again, thinking of it. There were no Mothers, no surviving Mothers, only the memories of them.

"You have that potential?" Jared asked stiffly.

I knew the others were listening. Even Doc had paused in the act of putting his ear to Kyle's chest.

I didn't answer his question. "We're… a little like your hives of bees, or your ants. Many, many sexless members of the family, and then the queen…"

"Queen?" Wes repeated, looking at me with a strange expression.

"Not like that. But there is only one Mother for every five, ten thousand of my kind. Sometimes less. There's no hard-and-fast rule."

"How many drones?" Wes wondered.

"Oh, no-there aren't drones. No, I told you, it's simpler than that."

They waited for me to explain. I swallowed. I shouldn't have brought this up. I didn't want to talk about it anymore. Was it really such a big thing to have Jared call me "it"?

They still waited. I frowned, but then I spoke. I'd started this. "The Mothers… divide. Every… cell, I guess you could call it, though our structure isn't the same as yours, becomes a new soul. Each new soul has a little of the Mother's memory, a piece of her that remains."

"How many cells?" Doc asked, curious. "How many young?"

I shrugged. "A million or so."

The eyes that I could see widened, looked a little wilder. I tried not to feel hurt when Wes cringed away from me.

Doc whistled under his breath. He was the only one who was still interested in continuing. Aaron and Andy had wary, disturbed expressions on their faces. They'd never heard me teach before. Never heard me speak so much.

"When does that happen? Is there a catalyst?" Doc asked.

"It's a choice. A voluntary choice," I told him. "It's the only way we ever willingly choose to die. A trade, for a new generation."

"You could choose now, to divide all your cells, just like that?"

"Not quite just like that, but yes."

"Is it complicated?"

"The decision is. The process is… painful."

"Painful?"

Why should that have surprised him so? Wasn't it the same for his kind?

Men. Mel snorted.

"Excruciating," I told him. "We all remember how it was for our Mothers."

Doc was stroking his chin, entranced. "I wonder what the evolutionary track would be… to produce a hive society with suiciding queens…" He was lost on another plane of thought.

"Altruism," Wes murmured.

"Hmm," Doc said. "Yes, that."

I closed my eyes, wishing my mouth had stayed closed. I felt dizzy. Was I just tired or was it my head wound?

"Oh," Doc muttered. "You've slept even less than I have, haven't you, Wanda? We should let you get some rest."

"'M fine," I mumbled, but I didn't open my eyes.

"That's just great," someone said under his breath. "We've got a bloody queen mother alien living with us. She could blow into a million new buggers at any moment."

"Shh."

"They couldn't hurt you," I told whoever it was, not opening my eyes. "Without host bodies, they would die quickly." I winced, imagining the unimaginable grief. A million tiny, helpless souls, tiny silver babies, withering…

No one answered me, but I could feel their relief in the air.

I was so tired. I didn't care that Kyle was three feet from me. I didn't care that two of the men in the room would side with Kyle if he came around. I didn't care about anything but sleep.

Of course, that was when Walter woke up.

"Uuuh," he groaned, just a whisper. "Gladdie?"

With a groan of my own, I rolled toward him. The pain in my leg made me wince, but I couldn't twist my torso. I reached out to him, found his hand.

"Here," I whispered.

"Ahh," Walter sighed in relief.

Doc hushed the men who began to protest. "Wanda's given up sleep and peace to help him through the pain. Her hands are bruised from holding his. What have you done for him?"

Walter groaned again. The sound began low and guttural but turned quickly to a high-pitched whimper.

Doc winced. "Aaron, Andy, Wes… would you, ah, go get Sharon for me, please?"

"All of us?"

"Get out," Jeb translated.

The only answer was a shuffling of feet as they left.

"Wanda," Doc whispered, close beside my ear. "He's in pain. I can't let him come all the way around."

I tried to breathe evenly. "It's better if he doesn't know me. It's better if he thinks Gladdie is here."

I pulled my eyes open. Jeb was beside Walter, whose face still looked as if he slept.

"Bye, Walt," Jeb said. "See you on the other side."

He stepped back.

"You're a good man. You'll be missed," Jared murmured.

Doc was fumbling in the package of morphine again. The paper crackled.

"Gladdie?" Walt sobbed. "It hurts."

"Shhh. It won't hurt much longer. Doc will make it stop."

"Gladdie?"

"Yes?"

"I love you, Gladdie. I've loved you my whole life long."

"I know, Walter. I-I love you, too. You know how I love you."

Walter sighed.

I closed my eyes when Doc leaned over Walter with the syringe.

"Sleep well, friend," Doc murmured.

Walter's fingers relaxed, loosened. I held on to them-I was the one clinging now.

The minutes passed, and all was quiet except my breathing. It was hitching and breaking, tending toward quiet sobs.

Someone patted my shoulder. "He's gone, Wanda," Doc said, his voice thick. "He's out of pain."

He pulled my hand free and rolled me carefully out of my awkward position into one that was less agonizing. But only slightly so. Now that I knew Walter wouldn't be disturbed, the sobs were not so quiet. I clutched at my side, where it throbbed.

"Oh, go ahead. You won't be happy otherwise," Jared muttered in a grudging tone. I tried to open my eyes, but I couldn't do it.

Something stung my arm. I didn't remember having hurt my arm. And in such a strange place, just inside my elbow…

Morphine, Melanie whispered.

We were already drifting now. I tried to be alarmed, but I couldn't be. I was too far gone.

No one said goodbye, I thought dully. I couldn't expect Jared… but Jeb… Doc… Ian wasn't here…

No one's dying, she promised me. Just sleeping this time…

When I woke, the ceiling above me was dim, starlit. Nighttime. There were so many stars. I wondered where I was. There were no black obstructions, no pieces of ceiling in my view. Just stars and stars and stars…

Wind fanned my face. It smelled like… dust and… something I couldn't put my finger on. An absence. The musty smell was gone. No sulfur, and it was so dry.

"Wanda?" someone whispered, touching my good cheek.

My eyes found Ian's face, white in the starlight, leaning over me. His hand on my skin was cooler than the breeze, but the air was so dry it wasn't uncomfortable. Where was I?

"Wanda? Are you awake? They won't wait any longer."

I whispered because he did. "What?"

"They're starting already. I knew you would want to be here."

"She comin' around?" Jeb's voice asked.

"What's starting?" I asked.

"Walter's funeral."

I tried to sit up, but my body was all rubbery. Ian's hand moved to my forehead, holding me down.

I twisted my head under his hand, trying to see…

I was outside.

Outside.

On my left, a rough, tumbled pile of boulders formed a miniature mountain, complete with scrubby brush. On my right, the desert plain stretched away from me, disappearing in the darkness. I looked down past my feet, and I could see the huddle of humans, ill at ease in the open air. I knew just how they felt. Exposed.

I tried to get up again. I wanted to be closer, to see. Ian's hand restrained me.

"Easy there," he said. "Don't try to stand."

"Help me," I pleaded.

"Wanda?"

I heard Jamie's voice, and then I saw him, his hair bobbing as he ran to where I was lying.

My fingertips traced the edges of the mat beneath me. How did I get here, sleeping under the stars?

"They didn't wait," Jamie said to Ian. "It will be over soon."

"Help me up," I said.

Jamie reached for my hand, but Ian shook his head. "I got her."

Ian slid his arms under me, very careful to avoid the worst of the sore spots. He pulled me up off the ground, and my head spun like a ship about to capsize. I groaned.

"What did Doc do to me?"

"He gave you a little of the leftover morphine, so that he could check you out without hurting you. You needed sleep anyway."

I frowned, disapproving. "Won't someone else need the medicine more?"

"Shh," he said, and I could hear a low voice in the distance. I turned my head.

I could see the group of humans again. They stood at the mouth of a low, dark, open space carved out by the wind under the unstable-looking pile of boulders. They stood in a ragged line, facing the shadowed grotto.

I recognized Trudy's voice.

"Walter always saw the bright side of things. He could see the bright side of a black hole. I'll miss that."

I saw a figure step forward, saw the gray-and-black braid swing as she moved, and watched Trudy toss a handful of something into the darkness. Sand scattered from her fingers, falling to the ground with a faint hiss.

She went back to stand beside her husband. Geoffrey moved away from her, stepped forward toward the black space.

"He'll find his Gladys now. He's happier where he is." Geoffrey threw his handful of dirt.

Ian carried me to the right side of the line of people, close enough to see into the murky grotto. There was a darker space on the ground in front of us, a big oblong around which the entire human population stood in a loose half circle.

Everyone was there-everyone.

Kyle stepped forward.

I trembled, and Ian squeezed me gently.

Kyle did not look in our direction. I saw his face in profile; his right eye was nearly swollen shut.

"Walter died human," Kyle said. "None of us can ask for more than that." He threw a fistful of dirt into the dark shape on the ground.

Kyle rejoined the group.

Jared stood beside him. He took the short walk and stopped at the edge of Walter's grave.

"Walter was good through and through. Not one of us is his equal." He threw his sand.

Jamie walked forward, and Jared patted his shoulder once as they passed each other.

"Walter was brave," Jamie said. "He wasn't afraid to die, he wasn't afraid to live, and… he wasn't afraid to believe. He made his own decisions, and he made good ones." Jamie threw his handful. He turned and walked back, his eyes locked on mine the whole way.

"Your turn," he whispered when he was at my side.

Andy was already moving forward, a shovel in his hands.

"Wait," Jamie said in a low voice that carried in the silence. "Wanda and Ian haven't said anything."

There was an unhappy mutter around me. My brain felt like it was pitching and heaving inside my skull.

"Let's have some respect," Jeb said, louder than Jamie. It felt too loud to me.

My first instinct was to wave Andy ahead and make Ian carry me away. This was human mourning, not mine.

But I did mourn. And I did have something to say.

"Ian, help me get some sand."

Ian crouched down so I could scoop up a handful of the loose rocks at our feet. He rested my weight on his knee to get his own share of dirt. Then he straightened and carried me to the edge of the grave.

I couldn't see into the hole. It was dark under the overhang of rock, and the grave seemed to be very deep.

Ian began speaking before I could.

"Walter was the best and brightest of what is human," he said, and scattered his sand into the hole. It fell for a long time before I heard it hiss against the bottom.

Ian looked down at me.

It was absolutely silent in the starlit night. Even the wind was calm. I whispered, but I knew my voice carried to everyone.

"There was no hatred in your heart," I whispered. "That you existed is proof that we were wrong. We had no right to take your world from you, Walter. I hope your fairytales are true. I hope you find your Gladdie."

I let the rocks trickle through my fingers and waited until I heard them fall with a soft patter onto Walter's body, obscured in the deep, dark grave.

Andy started to work as soon as Ian took the first step back, shoveling from a mound of pale, dusty earth that was piled a few feet farther into the grotto. The shovel load hit with a thump rather than a whisper. The sound made me cringe.

Aaron stepped past us with another shovel. Ian turned slowly and carried me away to make room for them. The heavy thuds of falling dirt echoed behind us. Low voices began to murmur. I heard footsteps as people milled and huddled to discuss the funeral.

I really looked at Ian for the first time as he walked back to the dark mat where it lay on the open dirt-out of place, not belonging. Ian's face was streaked with pale dust, his expression weary. I'd seen his face like that before. I couldn't pinpoint the memory before Ian had laid me on the mat again, and I was distracted. What was I supposed to do out here in the open? Sleep? Doc was right behind us; he and Ian both knelt down in the dust beside me.

"How are you feeling?" Doc asked, already prodding at my side.

I wanted to sit up, but Ian pressed my shoulder down when I tried.

"I'm fine. I think maybe I could walk…"

"No need to push it. Let's give that leg a few days, okay?" Doc pulled my left eyelid up, absentminded, and shone a tiny beam of light into it. My right eye saw the bright reflection that danced across his face. He squinted away from the light, recoiling a few inches. Ian's hand on my shoulder didn't flinch. That surprised me.

"Hmm. That doesn't help a diagnosis, does it? How does your head feel?" Doc asked.

"A little dizzy. I think it's the drugs you gave me, though, not the wound. I don't like them-I'd rather feel the pain, I think."

Doc grimaced. So did Ian.

"What?" I demanded.

"I'm going to have to put you under again, Wanda. I'm sorry."

"But… why?" I whispered. "I'm really not that hurt. I don't want -"

"We have to take you back inside," Ian said, cutting me off, his voice low, as if he didn't want it to carry back to the others. I could hear the voices behind us, echoing quietly off the rocks. "We promised… that you wouldn't be conscious."

"Blindfold me again."

Doc pulled the little syringe from his pocket. It was already depressed, only a quarter left. I shied away from it, toward Ian. His hand on my shoulder became a restraint.

"You know the caves too well," Doc murmured. "They don't want you having the chance to guess…"

"But where would I go?" I whispered, my voice frantic. "If I knew the way out? Why would I leave now?"

"If it eases their minds…" Ian said.

Doc took my wrist, and I didn't fight him. I looked away as the needle bit into my skin, looked at Ian. His eyes were midnight in the dark. They tightened at the look of betrayal in mine.

"Sorry," he muttered. It was the last thing I heard.

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