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The Host (Chapter 50: Sacrificed)

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The Seeker scrutinized my face while Mel and I fought.

No, Wanda, no!

Don't be stupid, Mel. You of all people should see the potential of this choice. Isn't this what you want?

But even as I tried to look at the happy ending, I couldn't escape the horror of this choice. This was the secret I should die to protect. The information I'd been desperate to keep safe no matter what hideous torture I was put through.

This was not the kind of torture I'd expected: a personal crisis of conscience, confused and complicated by love for my human family. Very painful, nevertheless.

I could not claim to be an expatriate if I did this. No, I would be purely a traitor.

Not for her, Wanda! Not for her! Mel howled.

Should I wait? Wait until they catch another soul? An innocent soul whom I have no reason to hate? I'll have to make the decision sometime.

Not now! Wait! Think about this!

My stomach rolled again, and I had to hunch my body forward and take a deep breath. I just managed not to gag.

"Wanda?" Jeb called in concern.

I could do it, Mel. I could justify letting her die if she was one of those innocent souls. I could let them kill her then. I could trust myself to make an objective decision.

But she's horrible, Wanda! We hate her!

Exactly. And I can't trust myself. Look at how I almost didn't see the answer…

"Wanda, you all right?"

The Seeker glared past me, toward Jeb's voice.

"Fine, Jeb," I gasped. My voice was breathy, strained. I was surprised at how bad it sounded.

The Seeker's dark eyes flickered between us, unsure. Then she recoiled from me, cringing into the wall. I recognized the pose-remembered exactly how it felt to hold it.

A gentle hand came down on my shoulder and spun me around.

"What's going on with you, hon?" Jeb asked.

"I need a minute," I told him breathlessly. I looked straight into his faded-denim eyes and told him something that was most definitely not a lie. "I have one more question. But I really need a minute to myself. Can you… wait for me?"

"Sure, we can wait a little while more. Take a breather."

I nodded and walked as quickly as I could from the prison. My legs were stiff with terror at first, but I found my stride as I moved. By the time I passed Aaron and Brandt, I was almost running.

"What happened?" I heard Aaron whisper to Brandt, his voice bewildered.

I wasn't sure where to hide while I thought. My feet, like a shuttle on automatic pilot, took me through the corridors toward my sleeping room. I could only hope that it would be empty.

It was dark, barely any light from the stars trickling down through the cracked ceiling. I didn't see Lily till I tripped over her in the darkness.

I almost didn't recognize her tear-swollen face. She was curled into a tight, tiny ball on the floor in the middle of the passageway. Her eyes were wide, not quite comprehending who I was.

"Why?" she asked me.

I stared at her wordlessly.

"I said that life and love go on. But why do they? They shouldn't. Not anymore. What's the point?"

"I don't know, Lily. I'm not sure what the point is."

"Why?" she asked again, not speaking to me anymore. Her glassy eyes looked right through me.

I stepped carefully past her and hurried to my room. I had my own question that had to be answered.

To my great relief, the room was empty. I threw myself facedown on the mattress where Jamie and I slept.

When I'd told Jeb I had one more question, that was the truth. But the question was not for the Seeker. The question was for me.

The question was would I-not could I-do it?

I could save the Seeker's life. I knew how. It would not endanger any of the lives here. Except my own. I would have to trade that.

No. Melanie tried to be firm through her panic.

Please let me think.

No.

This is the thing, Mel. It's inevitable anyway. I can see that now. I should have seen it long ago. It's so obvious.

No, it isn't.

I remembered our conversation when Jamie was ill. When we were making up. I'd told her that I wouldn't erase her and that I was sorry that I couldn't give her more than that.

It wasn't so much a lie as it was an unfinished sentence. I couldn't give her more than that-and stay alive myself.

The actual lie had been given to Jared. I'd told him, just seconds later, that I didn't know how to make myself not exist. In the context of our discussion, it was true. I didn't know how to fade away, here inside Melanie. But I was surprised I hadn't heard the obvious lie right then, hadn't seen in that moment what I was seeing now. Of course I knew how to make myself not exist.

It was just that I had never considered that option viable, ultimate betrayal that it was to every soul on this planet.

Once the humans knew that I had this answer, the one they had murdered for over and over again, it would cost me.

No, Wanda!

Don't you want to be free?

A long pause.

I wouldn't ask you for this, she finally said. And I wouldn't do it for you. And I sure as hell wouldn't do it for the Seeker!

You don't have to ask. I think I might have volunteered… eventually.

Why do you think that? she demanded, her tone close to a sob. It touched me. I expected her to be elated.

In part because of them. Jared and Jamie. I can give them the whole world, everything they want. I can give them you. I probably would have realized that… someday. Who knows? Maybe Jared would have asked. You know I wouldn't have said no.

Ian's right. You're too self-sacrificing. You don't have any limits. You need limits, Wanda!

Ah, Ian, I moaned. A new pain twisted through me, surprisingly close to my heart.

You'll take the whole world away from him. Everything he wants.

It would never work with Ian. Not in this body, even though he loves it. It doesn't love him.

Wanda, I… Melanie struggled for words. Still, the joy I expected from her did not come. Again, this touched me. I don't think I can let you do this. You're more important than that. In the bigger picture, you are of much more value to them than I am. You can help them; you can save them. I can't do any of that. You have to stay.

I can't see any other way, Mel. I wonder how I didn't see it sooner. It seems so completely obvious. Of course I have to go. Of course I have to give you yourself back. I already knew we souls were wrong to come here. So I don't have any choice now but to do the right thing, and leave. You all survived without me before; you'll do it again. You've learned so much about the souls from me-you'll help them. Can't you see? This is the happy ending. It's the way they all need the story to finish. I can give them hope. I can give them… not a future. Maybe not that. But as much as I can. Everything I can.

No, Wanda, no.

She was crying, becoming incoherent. Her sorrow brought tears to my eyes. I'd no idea that she cared so much for me. Almost as much as I cared for her. I hadn't realized that we loved each other.

Even if Jared had never asked me for this, even if Jared did not exist… Once this path had occurred to me, I would have had to proceed down it. I loved her that much.

No wonder the success rate for resistant hosts was so low here on Earth. Once we learned to love our human host, what hope did we souls have? We could not exist at the expense of one we loved. Not a soul. A soul could not live that way.

I rolled myself over and, in the starlight, I looked at my body.

My hands were dirty and scratched, but under the surface blemishes, they were beautiful. The skin was a pretty sun-browned color; even bleached in the pale light, it was pretty. The nails were chewed short but still healthy and smooth, with little half moons of white at the bases. I fluttered my fingers, watching the muscles pull the bones in graceful patterns. I let them dance above me, where they became black fluid shapes against the stars.

I ran them through my hair. It was almost to my shoulders now. Mel would like that. After a few weeks of shampoo in hotel showers and Health vitamins, it was glossy and soft again.

I stretched my arms out as far as they would go, tugging against the tendons until some of my joints cracked. My arms felt strong. They could pull me up a mountainside, they could carry a heavy load, they could plow a field. But they were also soft. They could hold a child, they could comfort a friend, they could love… but that was not for me.

I took a deep breath, and tears welled out of the corners of my eyes and rolled down my temples into my hair.

I tensed the muscles in my legs, felt their ready strength and speed. I wanted to run, to have an open field that I could race across just to see how fast I could go. I wanted to do this barefoot, so I could feel the earth beneath my feet. I wanted to feel the wind fly through my hair. I wanted it to rain, so that I could smell it in the air as I ran.

My feet flexed and pointed slowly, to the rhythm of my breathing. In and out. Flex and point. It felt nice.

I traced my face with my fingertips. They were warm on my skin, skin that was smooth and pretty. I was glad I was giving Melanie her face back the way it had been. I closed my eyes and stroked my eyelids.

I'd lived in so many bodies, but never one I loved like this. Never one that I craved in this way. Of course, this would be the one I'd have to give up.

The irony made me laugh, and I concentrated on the feel of the air that popped in little bubbles from my chest and up through my throat. Laughter was like a fresh breeze-it cleaned its way through the body, making everything feel good. Did other species have such a simple healer? I couldn't remember one.

I touched my lips and remembered how it felt to kiss Jared, and how it felt to kiss Ian. Not everyone got to kiss so many other beautiful bodies. I'd had more than some, even in this short time.

It was just so short! Maybe a year now, I wasn't completely sure. Just one quick revolution of a blue green planet around an unexceptional yellow star. The shortest life of any I'd ever lived.

The shortest, the most important, the most heartbreaking of lives. The life that would forever define me. The life that had finally tied me to one star, to one planet, to one small family of strangers.

A little more time… would that be so wrong?

No, Mel whispered. Just take a little more time.

You never know how much time you'll have, I whispered back.

But I did. I knew exactly how much time I had. I couldn't take any more time. My time was up.

I was going anyway. I had to do the right thing, be my true self, with what time I had left.

With a sigh that seemed to come all the way from the soles of my feet and the palms of my hands, I got up.

Aaron and Brandt wouldn't wait forever. And now I had a few more questions that I needed answered. This time, the questions were for Doc.

The caves were full of sad, cast-down eyes. It was easy enough to slip unobtrusively past them all. No one cared what I was doing right now, except maybe Jeb, Brandt, and Aaron, and they weren't here.

I didn't have an open, rainy field, but at least I had the long south tunnel. It was too dark to run flat out the way I wanted, but I kept up a steady jog. It felt good as my muscles warmed.

I expected I would find Doc already there, but I'd wait if I had to. He would be alone. Poor Doc, that was usually the case now.

Doc had been sleeping alone in his hospital since the night we'd saved Jamie's life. Sharon had taken her things from their room and moved them to her mother's, and Doc wouldn't sleep in the empty room.

Such a great hatred. Sharon would rather kill her own happiness, and Doc's, too, than forgive him for helping me heal Jamie.

Sharon and Maggie were barely a presence in the caves anymore. They looked past everyone now, the way they used to look past only me. I wondered if that would change when I was gone, or if they were both so rigid in their grudge that it would be too late for them to change.

What an extraordinarily stupid way to waste time.

For the first time ever, the south tunnel felt short. Before I thought I'd gone halfway, I could see Doc's light glowing dimly from the rough arch ahead. He was home.

I slowed myself to a walk before I interrupted him. I didn't want to scare him, to make him think there was an emergency.

He was still startled when I appeared, a little breathless, in the stone doorway.

He jumped up from behind his desk. The book he was reading fell out of his hands.

"Wanda? Is something wrong?"

"No, Doc," I reassured him. "Everything's fine."

"Does someone need me?"

"Just me." I gave him a weak smile.

He walked around his desk to meet me, his eyes wide with curiosity. He paused half a step away and raised one eyebrow.

His long face was gentle, the opposite of alarming. It was hard to remember how he'd looked like a monster to me before.

"You are a man of your word," I began.

He nodded and opened his mouth to speak, but I held one hand up.

"No one will ever test that more than I will test it now," I warned him.

He waited, eyes confused and wary.

I took a deep breath, felt it expand my lungs.

"I know how to do what you've been ending so many lives to discover. I know how to take the souls from your bodies without harm to either. Of course I know that. We all have to, in case of an emergency. I even performed the emergency procedure once, when I was a Bear."

I stared at him, waiting for his response. It took him a long moment, and his eyes grew wilder every second.

"Why are you telling me this?" he finally gasped.

"Because I… I am going to give you the knowledge you need." I held up my hand again. "But only if you will give me what I want in return. I'm warning you right now, it won't be any easier for you to give me what I want than it will be for me to give you what you want."

His face was fiercer than I'd ever seen it. "Name your terms."

"You can't kill them-the souls you remove. You must give me your word-your promise, your oath, your vow-that you will give them safe conduct on to another life. This means some danger; you will have to have cryotanks, and you will have to get those souls onto shuttles off-planet. You have to send them to another world to live. But they won't be able to hurt you. By the time they reach their next planet, your grandchildren will be dead."

Would my conditions mitigate my guilt in this? Only if Doc could be trusted.

He was thinking very hard as I explained. I watched his face to see what he would make of my demand. He didn't look angry, but his eyes were still wild.

"You don't want us to kill the Seeker?" he guessed.

I didn't answer his question because he wouldn't understand the answer; I did want them to kill her. That was the whole problem. Instead, I explained further.

"She'll be the first, the test. I want to make sure, while I'm still here, that you're going to follow through. I will do the separation myself. When she is safe, I'll teach you how it's done."

"On who?"

"Kidnapped souls. The same as before. I can't guarantee you that the human minds will come back. I don't know if the erased can return. We'll see with the Seeker."

Doc blinked, processing something. "What do you mean, while you are still here? Are you leaving?"

I stared at him, waiting for the realization to hit. He stared back, uncomprehending.

"Don't you realize what I'm giving you?" I whispered.

Finally, comprehension slammed home in his expression.

I spoke quickly, before he could. "There's something else I'm going to ask you for, Doc. I don't want to… I won't be shipped off to another planet. This is my planet, it truly is. And yet, there's really no place for me here. So… I know it might… offend some of the others. Don't tell them if you think they won't allow it. Lie if you have to. But I'd like to be buried by Walt and Wes. Can you do that for me? I won't take up much space." I smiled weakly again.

No! Melanie was howling. No, no, no, no…

"No, Wanda," Doc objected, too, with a shocked expression.

"Please, Doc," I whispered, wincing against the protest in my head, which was getting louder. "I don't think Wes or Walt will mind."

"That's not what I meant! I can't kill you, Wanda. Ugh! I'm so sick of death, so sick of killing my friends." Doc's voice caught in a sob.

I put my hand on his thin arm, rubbed it. "People die here. It happens." Kyle had said something to that effect. Funny that I should quote Kyle of all people twice in one night.

"What about Jared and Jamie?" Doc asked in a choked voice.

"They'll have Melanie. They'll be fine."

"Ian?"

Through my teeth. "Better off without me."

Doc shook his head, wiping at his eyes. "I need to think about this, Wanda."

"We don't have long. They won't wait forever before they kill the Seeker."

"I don't mean about that part. I agree to those terms. But I don't think I can kill you."

"It's all or none, Doc. You have to decide right now. And…" I realized I had one more demand. "And you can't tell anyone else about the last part of our agreement. No one. Those are my terms, take them or leave them. Do you want to know how to remove a soul from a human body?"

Doc shook his head again. "Let me think."

"You already know the answer, Doc. This is what you've been searching for."

He just kept shaking his head slowly back and forth.

I ignored that symbol of denial because we both knew his choice was made.

"I'll get Jared," I said. "We'll make a quick raid for cryotanks. Hold off the others. Tell them… tell them the truth. Tell them I'm going to help you get the Seeker out of that body."

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