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The Host (Chapter 41: Vanished)

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Ian sat with me for three days in the darkness.

He left for only a few short minutes at a time, to get us food and water. At first, Ian ate, though I did not. Then, as he realized that it wasn't a loss of appetite that left my tray full, he stopped eating, too.

I used his brief absences to deal with the physical needs that I could not ignore, thankful for the proximity of the odorous stream. As my fast lengthened, those needs vanished.

I couldn't keep from sleeping, but I did not make myself comfortable. The first day, I woke to find my head and shoulders cradled on his lap. I recoiled from him, shuddering so violently that he did not repeat the gesture. After that, I slumped against the stones where I was, and when I woke, I would curl back up into my silent ball at once.

"Please," Ian whispered on the third day-at least I thought it was the third day; there was no way to be sure of the passing time in this dark, silent place. It was the first time he'd spoken.

I knew a tray of food was in front of me. He pushed it closer, till it touched my leg. I cringed away.

"Please, Wanda. Please eat something."

He put his hand on my arm but moved away quickly when I flinched out from under it.

"Please don't hate me. I'm so sorry. If I'd known… I would have stopped them. I won't let it happen again."

He would never stop them. He was just one among many. And, as Jared had said, he'd had no objections before. I was the enemy. Even in the most compassionate, humankind's limited scope of mercy was reserved for their own.

I knew Doc could never intentionally inflict pain on another person. I doubted he would even be capable of watching such a thing, tender as his feelings were. But a worm, a centipede? Why would he care about the agony of a strange alien creature? Why would it bother him to murder a baby-slowly, slicing it apart piece by piece-if it had no human mouth to scream with?

"I should have told you," Ian whispered.

Would it have mattered if I'd simply been told rather than having seen the tortured remains for myself? Would the pain be less strong?

"Please eat."

The silence returned. We sat in it for a while, maybe another hour.

Ian got up and walked quietly away.

I could make no sense of my emotions. In that moment, I hated the body I was bound to. How did it make sense that his going depressed me? Why should it pain me to have the solitude I craved? I wanted the monster back, and that was plainly wrong.

I wasn't alone for long. I didn't know if Ian had gone to get him or if he'd been waiting for Ian to leave, but I recognized Jeb's contemplative whistle as it approached in the darkness.

The whistling stopped a few feet from me, and there was a loud click. A beam of yellow light burned my eyes. I blinked against it.

Jeb set the flashlight down, bulb up. It threw a circle of light on the low ceiling and made a wider, more diffuse sphere of light around us.

Jeb settled himself against the wall beside me.

"Gonna starve yourself, then? Is that the plan?"

I glared at the stone floor.

If I was being honest with myself, I knew that my mourning was over. I had grieved. I hadn't known the child or the other soul in the cave of horrors. I could not grieve for strangers forever. No, now I was angry.

"You wanna die, there are easier and faster ways."

As if I wasn't aware of that.

"So give me to Doc, then," I croaked.

Jeb wasn't surprised to hear me speak. He nodded to himself, as if this was exactly what he'd known would come out of my mouth.

"Did you expect us to just give up, Wanderer?" Jeb's voice was stern and more serious than I had ever heard it before. "We have a stronger survival instinct than that. Of course we want to find a way to get our minds back. It could be any one of us someday. So many people we love are already lost.

"It isn't easy. It nearly kills Doc each time he fails-you've seen that. But this is our reality, Wanda. This is our world. We've lost a war. We are about to be extinct. We're trying to find ways to save ourselves."

For the first time, Jeb spoke to me as if I were a soul and not a human. I had a sense that the distinction had always been clear to him, though. He was just a courteous monster.

I couldn't deny the truth of what he was saying, or the sense of it. The shock had worn off, and I was myself again. It was in my nature to be fair.

Some few of these humans could see my side of things; Ian, at least. Then I, too, could consider their perspective. They were monsters, but maybe monsters who were justified in what they were doing.

Of course they would think violence was the answer. They wouldn't be able to imagine any other solution. Could I blame them that their genetic programming restricted their problem-solving abilities in this way?

I cleared my throat, but my voice was still hoarse with disuse. "Hacking up babies won't save anyone, Jeb. Now they're all dead."

He was quiet for a moment. "We can't tell your young from your old."

"No, I know that."

"Your kind don't spare our babies."

"We don't torture them, though. We never intentionally cause anyone pain."

"You do worse than that. You erase them."

"You do both."

"We do, yes-because we have to try. We have to keep fighting. It's the only way we know. It's keep trying or turn our faces to the wall and die." He raised one eyebrow at me.

That must have been what it looked like I was doing.

I sighed and took the water bottle Ian had left close to my foot. I drained it in one long pull, and then cleared my throat again.

"It will never work, Jeb. You can keep cutting us out in pieces, but you'll just murder more and more sentient creatures of both species. We do not willingly kill, but our bodies are not weak, either. Our attachments may look like soft silver hair, but they're stronger than your organs. That's what's happening, isn't it? Doc slices up my family, and their limbs shred through the brains of yours."

"Like cottage cheese," he agreed.

I gagged and then shuddered at the image.

"It makes me sick, too," he admitted. "Doc gets real bent out of shape. Every time he thinks he's got it cracked, it goes south again. He's tried everything he can think of, but he can't save them from getting turned into oatmeal. Your souls don't respond to injected sedation… or poison."

My voice came out rough with new horror. "Of course not. Our chemical makeup is completely different."

"Once, one of yours seemed to guess what was going to happen. Before Doc could knock the human out, the silver thingy tore up his brain from the inside. Course, we didn't know that until Doc opened him up. The guy just collapsed."

I was surprised, strangely impressed. That soul must have been very brave. I had not had the courage to take that step, even in the beginning when I was sure they were going to try to torture this very information from me. I didn't imagine they would try to slash the answer out for themselves; that course was so obviously doomed to failure, it had never occurred to me.

"Jeb, we are relatively tiny creatures, utterly dependent on unwilling hosts. We wouldn't have lasted very long if we didn't have some defenses."

"I'm not denying that your kind have a right to those defenses. I'm just telling you that we're gonna keep fighting back, however we can. We don't mean to cause anyone pain. We're makin' this up as we go. But we will keep fighting."

We looked at each other.

"Then maybe you should have Doc slice me up. What else am I good for?"

"Now, now. Don't be silly, Wanda. We humans aren't so logical as all that. We have a greater range of good and bad in us than you do. Well, maybe mostly the bad."

I nodded at that, but he kept going, ignoring me.

"We value the individual. We probably put too much emphasis on the individual, if it comes right down to it. How many people, in the abstract, would… let's say Paige… how many people would she sacrifice to keep Andy alive? The answer wouldn't make any sense if you were looking at the whole of humanity as equals.

"The way you are valued here… Well, that don't make much sense when you look at it from humanity's perspective, either. But there's some who would value you above a human stranger. Have to admit, I put myself in that group. I count you as a friend, Wanda. Course, that's not gonna work well if you hate me."

"I don't hate you, Jeb. But…"

"Yeah?"

"I just don't see how I can live here anymore. Not if you're going to be slaughtering my family in the other room. And I can't leave, obviously. So you see what I mean? What else is there for me but Doc's pointless cutting?" I shuddered.

He nodded seriously. "Now, that's a real valid point. It's not fair to ask you to live with that."

My stomach dropped. "If I get a choice, I'd rather you shot me, actually," I whispered.

Jeb laughed. "Slow down there, honey. Nobody's shooting my friends, or hackin' ' em up. I know you're not lying, Wanda. If you say doing it our way isn't going to work, then we're going to have to rethink things. I'll tell the boys they're not to bring any more souls back for now. Besides, I think Doc's nerves are toast. He can't take much more of this."

"You could be lying to me," I reminded him. "I probably couldn't tell."

"You'll have to trust me, then. Because I'm not going to shoot you. And I'm not going to let you starve yourself, either. Eat something, kid. That's an order."

I took a deep breath, trying to think. I wasn't sure if we'd come to an accommodation or not. Nothing made sense in this body. I liked the people here too much. They were friends. Monstrous friends that I couldn't see in the proper light while sunk in emotion.

Jeb picked up a thick square of cornbread soaked through with stolen honey and shoved it into my hand.

It made a mess there, crumbling into gluey morsels that stuck to my fingers. I sighed again and started cleaning them off with my tongue.

"That's a girl! We'll get over this rough spot. Things are gonna work out here, you'll see. Try to think positive."

"Think positive," I mumbled around a mouthful of food, shaking my head with disbelief. Only Jeb…

Ian came back then. When he walked into our circle of light and saw the food in my hand, the look that spread across his face filled me with guilt. It was a look of joyous relief.

No, I had never intentionally caused anyone physical pain, but I had hurt Ian deeply enough just by hurting myself. Human lives were so impossibly tangled. What a mess.

"Here you are, Jeb," he said in a subdued voice as he sat down across from us, just slightly closer to Jeb. "Jared guessed you might be here."

I dragged myself half a foot toward him, my arms aching from being motionless so long, and put my hand on his.

"Sorry," I whispered.

He turned his hand up to hold mine. "Don't apologize to me."

"I should have known. Jeb's right. Of course you fight back. How can I blame you for that?"

"It's different with you here. It should have stopped."

But my being here had only made it that much more important to solve the problem. How to rip me out and keep Melanie here. How to erase me to bring her back.

"All's fair in war," I murmured, trying to smile.

He grinned weakly back. "And love. You forgot that part."

"Okay, break it up," Jeb mumbled. "I'm not done here."

I looked at him curiously. What more was there?

"Now." He took a deep breath. "Try not to freak out again, okay?" he asked, looking at me.

I froze, gripping Ian's hand tighter.

Ian threw an anxious glance at Jeb.

"You're going to tell her?" Ian asked.

"What now?" I gasped. "What is it now?"

Jeb had his poker face on. "It's Jamie."

Those two words turned the world upside down again.

For three long days, I'd been Wanderer, a soul among humans. I was suddenly Wanda again, a very confused soul with human emotions that were too powerful to control.

I jumped to my feet-yanking Ian up with me, my hand locked on his like a vise-and then swayed, my head spinning.

"Sheesh. I said don't freak out, Wanda. Jamie's okay. He's just really anxious about you. He heard what happened, and he's been asking for you-worried out of his mind, that kid is-and I don't think it's good for him. I came down here to ask you to go see him. But you can't go like this. You look horrible. It will just upset him for no good reason. Sit down and eat some more food."

"His leg?" I demanded.

"There's a little infection," Ian murmured. "Doc wants him to stay down or he'd have come to get you a long time ago. If Jared wasn't practically pinning him to the bed, he would have come anyway."

Jeb nodded. "Jared almost came here and carried you out by force, but I told him to let me speak to you first. It wouldn't do the kid any good to see you catatonic."

My blood felt as though it had changed into ice water. Surely just my imagination.

"What's being done?"

Jeb shrugged. "Nothin' to do. Kid's strong; he'll fight it off."

"Nothing to do? What do you mean?"

"It's a bacterial infection," Ian said. "We don't have antibiotics anymore."

"Because they don't work-the bacteria are smarter than your medicines. There has to be something better, something else."

"Well, we don't have anything else," Jeb said. "He's a healthy kid. It just has to run its course."

"Run… its… course." I murmured the words in a daze.

"Eat something," Ian urged. "You'll worry him if he sees you like this."

I rubbed my eyes, trying to think straight.

Jamie was sick. There was nothing to treat him with here. No options but waiting to see if his body could heal itself. And if it couldn't…

"No," I gasped.

I felt as if I were standing on the edge of Walter's grave again, listening to the sound of sand falling into the darkness.

"No," I moaned, fighting against the memory.

I turned mechanically and started walking with stiff strides toward the exit.

"Wait," Ian said, but he didn't pull against the hand he still held. He kept pace with me.

Jeb caught up to me on the other side and shoved more food into my free hand.

"Eat for the kid's sake," he said.

I bit into it without tasting, chewed without thinking, swallowed without feeling the food go down.

"Knew she was gonna overreact," Jeb grumbled.

"So why did you tell her?" Ian asked, frustrated.

Jeb didn't answer. I wondered why he didn't. Was this worse even than I imagined?

"Is he in the hospital?" I asked in an emotionless, inflectionless voice.

"No, no," Ian assured me quickly. "He's in your room."

I didn't even feel relief. Too numb for that.

I would have gone into that room again for Jamie, even if it was still reeking of blood.

I didn't see the familiar caves I walked through. I barely noticed that it was day. I couldn't meet the eyes of any of the humans who stopped to stare at me. I could only put one foot in front of the other until I finally reached the hallway.

There were a few people clustered in front of the seventh cave. The silk screen was pushed far aside, and they craned their necks to see into Jared's room. They were all familiar, people I'd considered friends. Jamie's friends, too. Why were they here? Was his condition so unstable that they needed to check on him often?

"Wanda," someone said. Heidi. "Wanda's here."

"Let her through," Wes said. He slapped Jeb on the back. "Good job."

I walked through the little group without looking at them. They parted for me; I might have walked right into them if they hadn't. I couldn't concentrate on anything but moving myself forward.

It was bright in the high-ceilinged room. The room itself was not crowded. Doc or Jared had kept everyone out. I was vaguely aware of Jared, leaning against the far wall with his hands clasped behind him-a posture he assumed only when he was really worried. Doc knelt beside the big bed where Jamie lay, just where I had left him.

Why had I left him?

Jamie's face was red and sweaty. The right leg of his jeans had been cut away, and the bandage was peeled back from his wound. It wasn't as big as I'd expected. Not as horrible as I would have imagined. Just a two-inch gash with smooth edges. But the edges were a frightening shade of red, and the skin around the cut was swollen and shiny.

"Wanda," Jamie exhaled when he saw me. "Oh, you're okay. Oh." He took a deep breath.

I stumbled and fell to my knees beside him, dragging Ian down with me. I touched Jamie's face and felt the skin burn under my hand. My elbow brushed Doc's, but I barely noticed. He scooted away, but I didn't look to see what emotion was on his face, whether it was aversion or guilt.

"Jamie, baby, how are you?"

"Stupid," he said, grinning. "Just plain stupid. Can you believe this?" He gestured to his leg. "Of all the luck."

I found a wet rag on his pillow and wiped it across his forehead.

"You're going to be fine," I promised. I was surprised at how fierce my voice sounded.

"Of course. It's nothing. But Jared wouldn't let me come talk to you." His face was suddenly anxious. "I heard about… and Wanda, you know I -"

"Shh. Don't even think of it. If I'd had any idea you were sick I would have been here sooner."

"I'm not really sick. Just a stupid infection. I'm glad you're here, though. I hated not knowing how you were."

I couldn't swallow down the lump in my throat. Monster? My Jamie? Never.

"So I heard you schooled Wes the day we got back," Jamie said, changing the subject with a wide grin. "Man, I wish I could have seen that! I bet Melanie loved it."

"Yes, she did."

"She okay? Not too worried?"

"Of course she's worried," I murmured, watching the cloth travel across his forehead as if it were someone else's hand moving it.

Melanie.

Where was she?

I searched through my head for her familiar voice. There was nothing but silence. Why wasn't she here? Jamie's skin was burning where my fingers brushed it. The feel of it-that unwholesome heat-should have had her in the same panic I was feeling.

"You okay?" Jamie asked. "Wanda?"

"I'm… tired. Jamie, I'm sorry. I'm just… out of it."

He eyed me carefully. "You don't look so good."

What had I done?

"I haven't cleaned up in a while."

"I'm fine, you know. You should go eat or something. You're pale."

"Don't worry about me."

"I'll get you some food," Ian said. "You hungry, kid?"

"Ah… no, not really."

My eyes flashed back to Jamie. Jamie was always hungry.

"Send someone else," I told Ian, gripping his hand tighter.

"Sure." His face was smooth, but I could sense both surprise and worry. "Wes, could you get some food? Something for Jamie, too. I'm sure he'll find that appetite by the time you get back."

I measured Jamie's face. He was flushed, but his eyes were bright. He would be okay for a few minutes if I left him here.

"Jamie, do you mind if I go wash my face? I feel sort of… grimy."

He frowned at the false note in my voice. "Course not."

I pulled Ian up with me again as I rose. "I'll be right back. I mean it this time."

He smiled at my weak joke.

I felt someone's eyes on me as I left the room. Jared's or Doc's, I didn't know. I didn't care.

Only Jeb still stood in the hallway now; the others had gone, reassured, perhaps, that Jamie was doing okay. Jeb's head tilted to the side, curious, as he tried to figure out what I was doing. He was surprised to see me leave Jamie's side so soon and so abruptly. He, too, had heard the sham in my excuse.

I hurried past his inquisitive gaze, towing Ian with me.

I dragged Ian back through the room where the tunnels to all the living quarters met in a big tangle of openings. Instead of keeping on toward the main plaza, I pulled him into one of the dark corridors, picking at random. It was deserted.

"Wanda, what -"

"I need you to help me, Ian." My voice was strained, frantic.

"Whatever you need. You know that."

I put my hands on either side of his face, staring into his eyes. I could barely see a glint of their blue in the darkness.

"I need you to kiss me, Ian. Now. Please."

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