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The Host (Chapter 53: Condemned)

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The Seeker's host body was named Lacey; a dainty, soft, feminine name. Lacey. As inappropriate as the size, in my opinion. Like naming a pit bull Fluffy.

Lacey was just as loud as the Seeker-and still a complainer.

"You'll have to forgive me for going on and on," she insisted, allowing us no other options. "I've been shouting away in there for years and never getting to speak for myself. I've got a lot to say all stored up."

How lucky for us. I could almost make myself glad that I was leaving.

In answer to my earlier question to myself, no, the face was not less repugnant with a different awareness behind it. Because the awareness was not so very different, in the end.

"That's why we don't like you," she told me that first night, making no change from the present tense or the plural pronoun. "When she realized that you were hearing Melanie just the way she was hearing me, it made her frightened. She thought you might guess. I was her deep, dark secret." A grating laugh. "She couldn't make me shut up. That's why she became a Seeker, because she was hoping to figure out some way to better deal with resistant hosts. And then she requested being assigned to you, so she could watch how you did it. She was jealous of you; isn't that pathetic? She wanted to be strong like you. It gave us a real kick when we thought Melanie had won. I guess that didn't happen, though. I guess you did. So why did you come here? Why are you helping the rebels?"

I explained, unwillingly, that Melanie and I were friends. She didn't like that.

"Why?" she demanded.

"She's a good person."

"But why does she like you?"

Same reason.

"She says, for the same reason."

Lacey snorted. "Got her brainwashed, huh?"

Wow, she's worse than the first one.

Yes, I agreed. I can see why the Seeker was so obnoxious. Can you imagine having that in your head all the time?

I wasn't the only thing Lacey objected to.

"Do you have anywhere better to live than these caves? It's so dirty here. Isn't there a house somewhere, maybe? What do you mean we have to share rooms? Chore schedule? I don't understand. I have to work? I don't think you understand…"

Jeb had given her the usual tour the next day, trying to explain, through clenched teeth, the way we all lived here. When they'd passed me-eating in the kitchen with Ian and Jamie-he threw me a look that clearly asked why I hadn't let Aaron shoot her while that was still an option.

The tour was more crowded than mine. Everyone wanted to see the miracle for themselves. It didn't even seem to matter to most of them that she was… difficult. She was welcome. More than welcome. Again, I felt a little of that bitter jealousy. But that was silly. She was human. She represented hope. She belonged here. She would be here long after I was gone.

Lucky you, Mel whispered sarcastically.

Talking to Ian and Jamie about what had happened was not as difficult and painful as I'd imagined.

This was because they were, for different reasons, entirely clueless. Neither grasped that this new knowledge meant I would be leaving.

With Jamie, I understood why. More than anyone else, he had accepted me and Mel as the package deal we were. He was able, with his young, open mind, to grasp the reality of our dual personalities. He treated us like two people rather than one. Mel was so real, so present to him. The same way she was to me. He didn't miss her, because he had her. He didn't see the necessity of our separation.

I wasn't sure why Ian didn't understand. Was he too caught up in the potential? The changes this would mean for the human society here? They were all boggled by the idea that getting caught-the end-was no longer a finality. There was a way to come back. It seemed natural to him that I had acted to save the Seeker; it was consistent with his idea of my personality. Maybe that was as far as he'd considered it.

Or maybe Ian just didn't have a chance to think it all through, to see the glaring eventuality, before he was distracted. Distracted and enraged.

"I should have killed him years ago," Ian ranted as we packed what we needed for our raid. My final raid; I tried not to dwell on that. "No, our mother should have drowned him at birth!"

"He's your brother."

"I don't know why you keep saying that. Are you trying to make me feel worse?"

Everyone was furious with Kyle. Jared's lips were welded into a tight line of rage, and Jeb stroked his gun more than usual.

Jeb had been excited, planning to join us on this landmark raid, his first since I'd come to live here. He was particularly keen to see the shuttle field up close. But now, with Kyle putting us all in danger, he felt he had to stay behind just in case. Not getting his way put Jeb in a foul mood.

"Stuck behind with that creature," he muttered to himself, rubbing the rifle barrel again-he wasn't getting any happier about the new member of his community. "Missin' all the fun." He spit on the floor.

We all knew where Kyle was. As soon as he'd grasped how the Seeker-worm had magically transformed into the Lacey-human in the night, he'd slipped out the back. I'd been expecting him to lead the party demanding the Seeker's death (I kept the cryotank always cradled in my arms; I slept lightly, my hand touching its smooth surface), but he was nowhere to be found, and Jeb had quashed the resistance easily in his absence.

Jared was the one to realize the jeep was gone. And Ian had been the one to link the two absences.

"He's gone after Jodi," Ian had groaned. "What else?"

Hope and despair. I had given them one, Kyle the other. Would he betray them all before they could even make use of the hope?

Jared and Jeb wanted to put off the raid until we knew if Kyle was successful-it would take him three days under the best circumstances, if his Jodi still lived in Oregon. If he could find her there.

There was another place, another cave we could evacuate to. A much smaller place, with no water, so we couldn't hide there long. They'd debated whether they should move everyone now or wait.

But I was in a hurry. I'd seen the way the others eyed the silver tank in my arms. I'd heard the whispers. The longer I kept the Seeker here, the better chance that someone would kill her. Having met Lacey, I'd begun to pity the Seeker. She deserved a mild, pleasant new life with the Flowers.

Ironically enough, Ian was the one who took my side and helped hurry the raid along. He still didn't see where this would lead.

But I was grateful that he helped me convince Jared there was time to make the raid and get back before a decision was made about Kyle. Grateful also that he was back to playing bodyguard. I knew I could trust Ian with the shiny cryotank more than anyone else. He was the only one I would let hold it when I needed my arms. He was the only one who could see, in the shape of that small container, a life to be protected. He could think of that shape as a friend, something that could be loved. He was the best ally of all. I was so grateful for Ian, and so grateful for the obliviousness that saved him, for the moment, from pain.

We had to be fast, in case Kyle ruined everything. We went to Phoenix again, to one of the many communities that spun out from the hub. There was a big shuttle field to the southeast, in a town called Mesa, with several Healing facilities nearby. That was what I wanted-I would give them as much as I could before I left. If we took a Healer, then we might be able to preserve the Healer's memory in the host body. Someone who understood all the medicines and their uses. Someone who knew the best ways to get to unattended stashes. Doc would love that. I could imagine all the questions he'd be dying to ask.

First the shuttle field.

I was sad that Jeb was missing this, but he'd have so many other chances in the future. Though it was dark, a long line of small snub-nosed shuttles drifted in to land while others took flight in an endless stream.

I drove the old van while the others rode in the back-Ian in charge of the tank, of course. I circled the field, staying clear of the busy local terminal. It was easy to spot the vast, sleek white vessels that left the planet. They did not depart with the frequency of the smaller ships. All I saw were docked, none preparing to leave immediately.

"Everything's labeled," I reported to the others, invisible in the dark back. "Now, this is important. Avoid ships to the Bats, and especially the See Weeds. The See Weeds are just one system over-it takes only a decade to make the round trip. That's much too short. The Flowers are the farthest, and the Dolphins, Bears, and Spiders all take at least a century to go one way. Only send tanks to those."

I drove slowly, close to the crafts.

"This will be easy. They've got all kinds of delivery vehicles out here, and we blend in. Oh! I can see a tank truck-it's just like the one we saw them unloading at the hospital, Jared. There's a man looking over the stacks… He's putting them onto a hover cart. He's going to load them…" I drove even slower, trying to get a good look. "Yes, onto this ship. Right into the open hatch. I'll circle back and make my move when he's in the ship." I pulled past, examining the scene in my mirrors. There was a lit sign beside the tube that connected the head of the ship to the terminal. I smiled as I read the words backward. This ship was going to the Flowers. It was meant to be.

I made a slow turn as the man disappeared into the hull of the ship.

"Get ready," I whispered as I pulled into the shadow made by the cylindrical wing of the next enormous ship over. I was only three or four yards from the tank truck. There were a few technicians working near the front of the Flower-bound vessel and others, farther away, out on the old runway. I would be just another figure in the night.

I cut the engine and hopped down from the driver's seat, trying to look casual, like I was only doing my job. I went around to the back of the van and opened the door a crack. The tank was right at the edge, the light on top glowing dull red, signifying that it was occupied. I lifted it carefully and closed the door.

I kept up an easy rolling pace as I walked to the open end of the truck. But my breathing sped up. This felt more dangerous than the hospital, and that worried me. Could I expect my humans to risk their lives this way?

I'll be there. I'll do it myself, just like you would. On the off chance you get your way, that is.

Thanks, Mel.

I had to force myself not to keep glancing over my shoulder at the open hatch where the man had disappeared. I placed the tank gently atop the closest column in the truck. The addition, one among hundreds, was not noticeable.

"Goodbye," I whispered. "Better luck with your next host."

I walked back to the van as slowly as I could stand to.

It was silent in the van as I reversed out from under the big ship. I started back the way we'd come, my heart hammering too fast. In my mirrors, the hatch remained empty. I didn't see the man emerge before the ship was out of sight.

Ian climbed into the passenger seat. "Doesn't look too hard."

"It was very good luck with the timing. You might have to wait longer for an opportunity next time."

Ian reached over to take my hand. "You're the good-luck charm."

I didn't answer.

"Do you feel better now that she's safe?"

"Yes."

I saw his head turn sharply as he heard the unexpected sound of a lie in my voice. I didn't meet his gaze.

"Let's go catch some Healers," I muttered.

Ian was silent and thoughtful as we drove the short distance to the small Healing facility.

I'd thought the second task would be the challenge, the danger. The plan was that I would-if the conditions and numbers were right-try to lead a Healer or two out of the facility under the pretext that I had an injured friend in my van. An old trick, but one that would work only too well on the unsuspecting, trusting Healers.

As it turned out, I didn't even have to go in. I pulled into the lot just as two middle-aged Healers, a man and a woman wearing purple scrubs, were getting into a car. Their shift over, they were heading home. The car was around the corner from the entrance. No one else was in sight.

Ian nodded tensely.

I stopped the van right behind their car. They looked up, surprised.

I opened my door and slid out. My voice was thick with tears, my face twisted with remorse, and that helped to fool them.

"My friend is in the back-I don't know what's wrong with him."

They responded with the instant concern I knew they would show. I hurried to open the back doors for them, and they followed right behind. Ian went around the other side. Jared was ready with the chloroform.

I didn't watch.

It took just seconds. Jared hauled the unconscious bodies into the back, and Ian slammed the doors shut. Ian stared at my tear-swollen eyes for just a second, then took the driver's seat.

I rode shotgun. He held my hand again.

"Sorry, Wanda. I know this is hard for you."

"Yes." He had no idea how hard, and for how many different reasons.

He squeezed my fingers. "But that went well, at least. You make an excellent charm."

Too well. Both missions had gone too perfectly, too fast. Fate was rushing me.

He drove back toward the freeway. After a few minutes, I saw a bright, familiar sign in the distance. I took a deep breath and wiped my eyes clear.

"Ian, could you do me a favor?"

"Anything you want."

"I want fast food."

He laughed. "No problem."

We switched seats in the parking lot, and I drove up to the ordering box.

"What do you want?" I asked Ian.

"Nothing. I'm getting a kick out of watching you do something for yourself. This has to be a first."

I didn't smile at his joke. To me, this was sort of a last meal-the final gift to the condemned. I wouldn't leave the caves again.

"Jared, how about you?"

"Two of whatever you're having."

So I ordered three cheeseburgers, three bags of fries, and three strawberry shakes.

After I got my food, Ian and I switched again so I could eat while he drove.

"Eew," he said, watching me dip a french fry into the shake.

"You should try it. It's good." I offered him a well-coated fry.

He shrugged and took it. He popped it into his mouth and chewed. "Interesting."

I laughed. "Melanie thinks it's gross, too." That's why I'd cultivated the habit in the beginning. It was funny now to think how I'd gone out of my way to annoy her.

I wasn't really hungry. I'd just wanted some of the flavors I particularly remembered, one more time. Ian finished off half my burger when I was full.

We made it home without incident. We saw no sign of the Seekers' surveillance. Perhaps they'd accepted the coincidence. Maybe they thought it inevitable-wander the desert alone long enough, and something bad would happen to you. We'd had a saying like that on the Mists Planet: Cross too many ice fields alone, and wind up a claw beast's meal. That was a rough translation. It sounded better in Bear.

There was a large reception waiting for us.

I smiled halfheartedly at my friends: Trudy, Geoffrey, Heath, and Heidi. My true friends were dwindling. No Walter, no Wes. I didn't know where Lily was. This made me sad. Maybe I didn't want to live on this sad planet with so much death. Maybe nothingness was better.

It also made me sad, petty as it was, to see Lucina standing beside Lacey, with Reid and Violetta on the other side. They were talking animatedly, asking questions, it looked like. Lacey was holding Freedom on her hip. He didn't look especially thrilled about this, but he was happy enough being part of the adults' conversation that he didn't squirm down.

I'd never been allowed near the child, but Lacey was already one of them. Trusted.

We went straight to the south tunnel, Jared and Ian laboring under the weight of the Healers. Ian had the heavier one, the man, and sweat ran down his fair face. Jeb shooed the others back at the tunnel entrance and then followed us.

Doc was waiting for us in the hospital, rubbing his hands together absently, as if washing them.

Time continued to speed up. The brighter lamp was lit. The Healers were given No Pain and laid out facedown on the cots. Jared showed Ian how to activate the tanks. They held them ready, Ian wincing at the stunning cold. Doc stood over the female, scalpel in hand and medicines laid out in a row.

"Wanda?" he asked.

My heart squeezed inward painfully. "Do you swear, Doc? All of my terms? Do you promise me on your own life?"

"I do. I will meet all of your terms, Wanda. I swear it."

"Jared?"

"Yes. Absolutely no killing, ever."

"Ian?"

"I'll protect them with my own life, Wanda."

"Jeb?"

"It's my house. Anyone who can't abide by this agreement will have to get out."

I nodded, tears in my eyes. "Okay, then. Let's get it over with."

Doc, excited again, cut into the Healer until he could see the silver gleam. He set the scalpel quickly aside. "Now what?"

I put my hand on his.

"Trace up the back ridge. Can you feel that? Feel the shape of the segments. They get smaller toward the anterior section. Okay, at the end you should feel three small… stubby things. Do you feel what I'm talking about?"

"Yes," he breathed.

"Good. Those are the anterior antennae. Start there. Now, very gently, roll your finger under the body. Find the line of attachments. They'll feel tight, like wires."

He nodded.

I guided him a third of the way down, told him how to count if he wasn't sure. We didn't have time for counting with all the blood flowing free. I was sure the Healer's body, if she came around, would be able to help us-there must be something for that. I helped him find the biggest nodule.

"Now, rub softly in toward the body. Knead it lightly."

Doc's voice went up in pitch, turned a little panicky. "It's moving."

"That's good-it means you're doing it right. Give it time to retract. Wait till it rolls up a bit, then take it into your hand."

"Okay." His voice shook.

I reached toward Ian. "Give me your hand."

I felt Ian's hand wind around mine. I turned it over, curled his hand into a cup, and pulled it close to Doc's operation site.

"Give the soul to Ian-gently, please."

Ian would be the perfect assistant. When I was gone, who else would take such care with my little relatives?

Doc passed the soul into Ian's waiting hand, then turned at once to heal the human body.

Ian stared at the silver ribbon in his hand, his face full of wonder rather than revulsion. It felt warmer inside my chest while I watched his reaction.

"It's pretty," he whispered, surprised. No matter how he felt about me, he'd been conditioned to expect a parasite, a centipede, a monster. Cleaning up severed bodies had not prepared him for the beauty here.

"I think so, too. Let it slide into your tank."

Ian held the soul cupped in his hand for one more second, as if memorizing the sight and feel. Then, with delicate care, he let it glide into the cold.

Jared showed him how to latch the lid.

A weight fell off my shoulders.

It was done. It was too late to change my mind. This didn't feel as horrible as I'd anticipated, because I felt sure these four humans would care for the souls just as I would. When I was gone.

"Look out!" Jeb suddenly shouted. The gun came up in his hands, pointed past us.

We whirled toward the danger, and Jared's tank fell to the floor as he jumped toward the male Healer, who was on his knees on the cot, staring at us in shock. Ian had the presence of mind to hold on to his tank.

"Chloroform," Jared shouted as he tackled the Healer, pinning him back down to the cot. But it was too late.

The Healer stared straight at me, his face childlike in his bewilderment. I knew why his eyes were on me-the lantern's rays danced off both his eyes and mine, making diamond patterns on the wall.

"Why?" he asked me.

Then his face went blank, and his body slumped, unresisting, to the cot. Two trails of blood flowed from his nostrils.

"No!" I screamed, lurching to his inert form, knowing it was far too late. "No!"

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