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The Host (Chapter 52: Separated)

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We brought our plunder in through the south vent, though this meant that the jeep would have to be moved before dawn. My main concern with using the bigger entrance was that the Seeker would hear the commotion our arrival was sure to cause. I wasn't sure if she had any idea of what I was going to do, and I didn't want to give her any reason to kill her host and herself. The story Jeb had told me about one of their captives-the man who had simply collapsed, leaving no external evidence on the outside of the havoc wreaked inside his skull-haunted my thoughts.

The hospital was not empty. As I squeezed myself through the last tight bubble of space out into the main room, I found Doc preparing for the operation. His desk was laid out; on it, a propane lantern-the brightest illumination we had available-waited to be lit. The scalpels glinted in the duller blue light of the solar lamp.

I had known that Doc would agree to my terms, but seeing him thus occupied sent a wave of nervous nausea through me. Or maybe it was just the memory of that other day that sickened me, the day I'd caught him with blood on his hands.

"You're back," he said with relief. I realized that he'd been worried about us, just as everyone worried when someone left the safety of the caves.

"We brought you a gift," Jared said as he pushed himself free behind me. He straightened up and reached back for a box. With a flourish, he held it up, displaying the label on the side.

"Heal!" Doc crowed. "How much did you get?"

"Two cases. And we've found a much better way to renew our stores than to have Wanda stabbing herself."

Doc did not laugh at Jared's joke. Instead he turned to stare at me piercingly. We both must have been thinking the same thing: Convenient, since Wanda won't be around.

"Did you get the cryotanks?" he asked, more subdued.

Jared noticed the look and the tension. He glanced at me, his expression impossible to read.

"Yes," I answered. "Ten of them. It was all the car could hold."

While I spoke, Jared yanked on the rope behind him. With a clatter of loose rock, the second box of Heal, followed by the tanks, tumbled onto the floor behind him. The tanks clanked like metal, though they were built of no element that existed on this planet. I'd told him it was fine to treat the empty cryotanks roughly; they were built to withstand much worse abuse than being tugged through a stone channel. They glinted on the floor now, looking shiny and pristine.

Doc picked one up, freeing it from the rope, and turned it around in his hands.

"Ten?" The number seemed to surprise him. Did he think it too many? Or not enough? "Are they difficult to use?"

"No. Extremely easy. I'll show you how."

Doc nodded, his eyes examining the alien construction. I could feel Jared watching me, but I kept my eyes on Doc.

"What did Jeb, Brandt, and Aaron say?" I asked.

Doc looked up, locked his eyes on mine. "They're… in agreement with your terms."

I nodded, not convinced. "I won't show you unless I believe that."

"That's fair."

Jared glared at us, confused and frustrated.

"What did you tell him?" Doc asked me, being cautious.

"Just that I was going to save the Seeker." I turned to look in Jared's general direction without meeting his gaze. "Doc has promised me that if I show him how to perform the separation, you will give the released souls safe conduct to another life on another planet. No killing."

Jared nodded thoughtfully, his eyes flickering back to Doc. "I can agree to those terms. And I can make sure the others follow through. I assume you have a plan to get them off-planet?"

"It will be no more dangerous than what we did tonight. Just the opposite-adding to the stack rather than taking from it."

"Okay."

"Did you… have a time schedule in mind?" Doc asked. He tried to sound nonchalant, but I could hear the eagerness behind his voice.

He just wanted the answer that had eluded him for so long, I tried to tell myself. It wasn't that he was in a hurry to kill me.

"I have to take the jeep back-can you wait? I'd like to watch this."

"Sure, Jared," Doc agreed.

"Won't take me long," Jared promised as he shoved himself back into the vent.

That I was sure of. It wouldn't take enough time at all.

Doc and I did not speak until the sound of Jared's scrambling exit had faded.

"You didn't talk about… Melanie?" he asked softly.

I shook my head. "I think he sees where this is going. He must guess my plan."

"But not all of it. He won't allow -"

"He won't get a say," I interrupted severely. "All or nothing, Doc."

Doc sighed. After a moment of silence, he stretched and glanced toward the main exit. "I'm going to go talk to Jeb, get things ready."

He reached for a bottle on the table. The chloroform. I was sure the souls had something better to use. I would have to try to find it for Doc, before I was gone.

"Who knows about this?"

"Still just Jeb, Aaron, and Brandt. They all want to watch."

This didn't surprise me; Aaron and Brandt would be suspicious. "Don't tell anyone else. Not tonight."

Doc nodded, then he disappeared into the black corridor.

I went to sit against the wall, as far from the prepared cot as I could get. I'd have my turn on top of it all too soon.

Trying to think of something besides that grim fact, I realized that I hadn't heard from Melanie since… When was the last time she'd spoken to me? When I'd made the deal with Doc? I was belatedly surprised that the sleeping arrangements by the jeep today had not elicited a reaction from her.

Mel?

No answer.

It wasn't like before, so I didn't panic. I could definitely feel her there in my head, but she was… ignoring me? What was she doing?

Mel? What's going on?

No answer.

Are you mad at me? I'm sorry about before, by the jeep. I didn't do anything, you know, so it's not really fair –

She interrupted me, exasperated. Oh, stop. I'm not mad at you. Leave me alone.

Why won't you talk to me?

No answer.

I pushed a little harder, hoping to pick up the direction of her thoughts. She tried to keep me out, to put the wall in place, but it was too weak from disuse. I saw her plan.

I tried to keep my mental tone even. Have you lost your mind?

In a manner of speaking, she teased halfheartedly.

You think that if you can make yourself disappear, that will stop me?

What else can I do to stop you? If you've got a better idea, please share.

I don't get it, Melanie. Don't you want them back? Don't you want to be with Jared again? With Jamie?

She writhed, fighting the obviousness of the answer. Yes, but… I can't… She took a moment to steady herself. I find myself unable to be the death of you, Wanda. I can't stand it.

I saw the depth of her pain, and tears formed in my eyes.

Love you too, Mel. But there's not room for the both of us here. In this body, in this cave, in their lives…

I disagree.

Look, just stop trying to annihilate yourself, okay? Because if I think you can do it, I'll make Doc pull me out today. Or I'll tell Jared. Just imagine what he would do.

I imagined it for her, smiling a little through my tears. Remember? He said no guarantees about what he would or wouldn't do to keep you here. I thought of those burning kisses in the hall… thought of other kisses and other nights in her memory. My face warmed as I blushed.

You fight dirty.

You bet I do.

I'm not giving up.

You've been warned. No more silent treatment.

We thought of other things then, things that didn't hurt. Like where we would send the Seeker. Mel was all for the Mists Planet after my story tonight, but I thought the Planet of the Flowers would be more fitting. There wasn't a mellower planet in the universe. The Seeker needed a nice long lifetime eating sunshine.

We thought of my memories, the pretty ones. The ice castles and the night music and the colored suns. They were like fairytales to her. And she told me fairytales, too. Glass slippers, poisoned apples, mermaids who wanted to have souls…

Of course, we didn't have time to tell many stories.

They all returned together. Jared had come back through the main entrance. It had taken so very little time-perhaps he'd just driven the jeep around to the north side and hidden it under the overhang there. In a hurry.

I heard their voices coming, subdued, serious, low, and knew from their tone that the Seeker was with them. Knew that the time had come for the first stage of my death.

No.

Pay attention. You're going to have to help them do this when I'm –

No!

But she wasn't protesting my instruction, just the conclusion of my thought.

Jared was the one who carried the Seeker into the room. He came first, the others behind. Aaron and Brandt both had the guns ready-in case she was only feigning unconsciousness, perhaps, and about to jump up and attack them with her tiny hands. Jeb and Doc came last, and I knew Jeb's canny eyes would be on my face. How much had he figured out already with his crazy, insightful shrewdness?

I kept myself focused on the task at hand.

Jared laid the Seeker's inert form on the cot with exceptional gentleness. This might have bothered me before, but now it touched me. I understood that he did this for me, wishing that he could have treated me this way in the beginning.

"Doc, where's the No Pain?"

"I'll get it for you," he murmured.

I stared at the Seeker's face while I waited, wondering what it would look like when her host was free. Would anything be left? Would the host be empty or would the rightful owner reassert herself? Would the face be less repugnant to me when another awareness looked out of those eyes?

"Here you go." Doc put the canister in my hand.

"Thanks."

I pulled out one thin tissue square and handed the container back to him.

I found myself reluctant to touch the Seeker, but I made my hands move swiftly and purposefully as I pulled her chin down and put the No Pain on her tongue. Her face was very small-it made my hands feel big. Her tiny size always threw me off. It seemed so inappropriate.

I closed her mouth again. It was moist-the medicine would dissolve quickly.

"Jared, could you please roll her onto her stomach?" I asked.

He did as I asked-again, gently. Just then, the propane lantern flared to life. The cave was suddenly bright, almost like daylight. I glanced up instinctively and saw that Doc had covered the big holes in the roof with tarps to keep our light from escaping. He'd done a lot of preparation in our absence.

It was very quiet. I could hear the Seeker breathing evenly in and out. I could hear the faster, tenser breathing of the men in the room with me. Someone shifted from one foot to the other, and sand ground against rock under his heel. Their stares had a physical weight on my skin.

I swallowed, hoping I could keep my voice normal. "Doc, I need Heal, Clean, Seal, and Smooth."

"Right here."

I brushed the Seeker's coarse black hair out of the way, exposing the little pink line at the base of her skull. I stared at her olive tan skin and hesitated.

"Would you cut, Doc? I don't… I don't want to."

"No problem, Wanda."

I saw only his hands as he came to stand across from me. He set a little row of white cylinders on the cot next to the Seeker's shoulder. The scalpel winked in the bright light, flashing across my face.

"Hold her hair out of the way."

I used both hands to clear her neck.

"Wish I could scrub up," Doc muttered to himself, obviously feeling underprepared.

"It's not really necessary. We have Clean."

"I know." He sighed. What he really wanted was the routine, the mental cleansing that the old habits had given him.

"How much room do you need?" he asked, hesitating with the point of the blade an inch from her skin.

I could feel the heat of the other bodies behind me, squeezing in to get a better view. They were careful not to touch either of us.

"Just the length of the scar. That will be enough."

This didn't seem like enough to him. "You sure?"

"Yes. Oh, wait!"

Doc pulled back.

I realized I was doing this all backward. I was no Healer. I wasn't cut out for this. My hands were shaking. I couldn't seem to look away from the Seeker's body.

"Jared, could you get one of those tanks for me?"

"Of course."

I heard him walk the few steps away, heard the dull, metallic clunk of the tank he chose knocking against the others.

"What now?"

"There's a circle on top of the lid. Press it in."

I heard the low hum of the cryotank as it powered on. The men muttered and shuffled their feet, moving away from it.

"Okay, on the side there should be a switch… more like a dial, actually. Can you see it?"

"Yes."

"Spin it all the way down."

"Okay."

"What color is the light on top of the tank?"

"It's… it's just turning from purple to… bright blue. Light blue now."

I took a deep breath. At least the tanks were functional.

"Great. Pop the lid and wait for me."

"How?"

"Latch under the lip."

"Got it." I heard the click of the latch, and then the whir of the mechanism. "It's cold!"

"That's sort of the point."

"How does it work? What's the power source?"

I sighed. "I knew the answers when I was a Spider. I don't understand it now. Doc, you can go ahead. I'm ready."

"Here we go," Doc whispered as he slid the blade of the scalpel deftly, almost gracefully, through the skin. Blood coursed down the side of her neck, pooling on the towel Doc had placed underneath.

"A tiny bit deeper. Just under the edge -"

"Yes, I see." Doc was breathing fast, excited.

Silver glinted out from the red.

"That's good. Now you hold the hair."

Doc switched places with me in a smooth, swift movement. He was good at his Calling. He would have made quite a Healer.

I didn't try to hide what I was doing from him. The movements were too minute for him to have any chance of seeing. He would not be able to do this until I explained.

I slid one fingertip carefully along the back ridge of the tiny silver creature until my finger was almost entirely inserted into the hot opening at the base of the host body's neck. I traced my way to the anterior antennae, feeling the taut lines of the bound attachments stretched tight like harp strings into the deeper recesses of her head.

I twisted my finger around the underside of the soul's body, caressing down from the first segment along the other line of attachments, as stiff and profuse as the bristles of a brush.

I felt carefully at the juncture of these tight strings, at the tiny joints, no bigger than pinheads. I stroked my way about a third of the way down. I could have counted, but that would have taken a very long time. It would be the two hundred seventeenth connection, but there was another way to find it. There it was, the little ridge that made this joint just a bit bigger-a seed pearl rather than a pinhead. It was smooth under my fingertip.

I pressed against it with gentle pressure, tenderly massaging. Kindness was always the way of the souls. Never violence.

"Relax," I breathed.

And, though the soul could not hear me, it obeyed. The harp strings loosened, went slack. I could feel the slither as they retracted, feel the slight swelling of the body as it absorbed them. The process took no more than a few beats of my heart. I held my breath until I felt the soul undulate under my touch. Wriggling free.

I let it twist itself a little farther out, and then I curled my fingers gently around the tiny, fragile body. I lifted it, silver and gleaming, wet with blood that was quickly shed from the smooth casing, and cradled it in my hand.

It was beautiful. The soul whose name I'd never known billowed like a silver wave in my hand… a lovely feathered ribbon.

I couldn't hate the Seeker in this form. An almost maternal love swept through me.

"Sleep well, little one," I whispered.

I turned toward the faint hum of the cryotank, just to my left. Jared held it low and angled, so it was a simple matter for me to ease the soul into the shockingly cold air that gusted from the opening. I let it slide into the small space and then carefully relatched the lid.

I took the cryotank from Jared, easing it rather than tugging it, turning it with care until it was vertical, and then I hugged it to my chest. The outside of the tank was the same temperature as the warm room. I cradled it to my body, protective as any mother.

I looked back at the stranger on the table. Doc was already dust-ing Smooth over the sealed wound. We made a good team: one attending to the soul, the other to the body. Everyone was taken care of.

Doc looked up at me, his eyes full of exhilaration and wonder. "Amazing," he murmured. "That was incredible."

"Good job," I whispered back.

"When do you think she'll wake up?" Doc asked.

"That depends on how much chloroform she inhaled."

"Not much."

"And if she's still there. We'll have to wait and see."

Before I could ask, Jared lifted the nameless woman tenderly from the cot, rolled her face-up, and laid her on another, cleaner resting place. This tenderness did not move me. This tenderness was for the human, for Melanie…

Doc went with him, checking her pulse, peeking under her lids. He shone a flashlight into her unconscious eyes and watched the pupils constrict. No light reflected back to blind him. He and Jared exchanged a long glance.

"She really did it," Jared said, his voice low.

"Yes," Doc agreed.

I didn't hear Jeb sidle up next to me.

"Pretty slick, kid," he murmured.

I shrugged.

"Feeling a smidge conflicted?"

I didn't answer.

"Yeah. Me, too, hon. Me, too."

Aaron and Brandt were talking behind me, their voices rising with excitement, answering each other's thoughts before the questions were spoken.

No conflict there.

"Wait till the others hear!"

"Think of the -"

"We should go get some -"

"Right now, I'm ready -"

"Hold up," Jeb cut Brandt off. "No soul snatching until that cryotank is safely on its way into outer space. Right, Wanda?"

"Right," I agreed in a firmer voice, hugging the tank tighter to my chest.

Brandt and Aaron exchanged sour glances.

I was going to need more allies. Jared and Jeb and Doc were only three, though certainly the most influential three here. Still, they would need support.

I knew what this meant.

It meant talking to Ian.

Others, too, of course, but Ian would have to be one of them. My heart seemed to slump lower in my chest, to curl limply in on itself. I'd done many things I had not wanted to do since joining the humans, but I couldn't remember any this sharply and pointedly painful. Even deciding to trade my life for the Seeker's-that was a huge, vast hurt, a wide field of ache, but it was almost manageable because it was so tied up in the bigger picture. Telling Ian goodbye was a razor-sharp piercing; it made the greater vision hard to see. I wished there was some way, any way, to save him from the same pain. There wasn't.

The only thing worse would be telling Jared goodbye. That one would burn and fester. Because he wouldn't feel pain. His joy would far outweigh any small regret he might feel over me.

As for Jamie, well, I wasn't planning on facing that goodbye at all.

"Wanda!" Doc's voice was sharp.

I hurried to the bed Doc was hovering over. Before I got there, I could see the tiny olive hand fisting and unfisting where it hung over the edge of the cot.

"Ah," the Seeker's familiar voice moaned from the human body. "Ah."

The room went utterly silent. Everyone looked at me, as if I were the expert on humans.

I elbowed Doc, my hands still wrapped around the tank. "Talk to her," I whispered.

"Um… Hello? Can you hear me… miss? You're safe now. Do you understand me?"

"Ah," she groaned. Her eyes fluttered open, focused quickly on Doc's face. There was no discomfort in her expression-the No Pain would be making her feel wonderful, of course. Her eyes were onyx black. They darted around the room until she found me, and recognition was quickly followed by a scowl. She looked away, back to Doc.

"Well, it feels good to have my head back," she said in a loud, clear voice. "Thanks."

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