The Host (Chapter 21: Named)
I wasn't able to concentrate much on the rest of Jeb's tour. My attention was not focused on the second set of gardens he led me through-one with corn growing waist-high in the blistering heat of the brilliant mirrors-or the wide but low-ceilinged cavern he called the "rec room." That one was pitch-black and deep underground, but he told me they brought in lights when they wanted to play. The word play didn't make sense to me, not here in this group of tense, angry survivors, but I didn't ask him to explain. There was more water here, a tiny, noxiously sulfurous spring that Jeb said they sometimes used as a second latrine because it was no good for drinking.
My attention was divided between the men walking behind us and the boy at my side.
Ian and the doctor did mind their manners surprisingly well. No one attacked me from behind-though I thought my eyes might get lodged in the back of my head from trying to see if they were about to. They just followed quietly, sometimes talking to each other in low voices. Their comments revolved around names I didn't know and nicknames for places and things that might or might not have been inside these caves. I couldn't understand any of it.
Jamie said nothing, but he looked at me a lot. When I wasn't trying to keep an eye on the others, I was often peeking at him, too. This left little time to admire the things Jeb showed me, but he didn't seem to notice my preoccupations.
Some of the tunnels were very long-the distances hidden beneath the ground here were mind-boggling. Often they were pitch-black, but Jeb and the others never so much as paused, clearly familiar with their whereabouts and long since accustomed to traveling in darkness. It was harder for me than it was when Jeb and I were alone. In the dark, every noise sounded like an attack. Even the doctor's and Ian's casual chatter seemed like a cover for some nefarious move.
Paranoid, Melanie commented.
If that's what it takes to keep us alive, so be it.
I wish you would pay more attention to Uncle Jeb. This is fascinating.
Do what you want with your time.
I can only hear and see what you hear and see, Wanderer, she told me. Then she changed the subject. Jamie looks okay, don't you think? Not too unhappy.
He looks… wary.
We were just coming into some light after the longest trek so far in the humid blackness.
"This here is the southernmost spur of the tube system," Jeb explained as we walked. "Not super convenient, but it gets good light all day long. That's why we made it the hospital wing. This is where Doc does his thing."
The moment Jeb announced where we were, my body froze and my joints locked; I skidded to a halt, my feet planted against the rock floor. My eyes, wide with terror, flickered between Jeb's face and the face of the doctor.
Had this all been a ruse, then? Wait for stubborn Jared to be out of the picture and then lure me back here? I couldn't believe I'd walked to this place under my own power. How stupid I was!
Melanie was just as aghast. We might as well have gift-wrapped ourselves for them!
They stared back at me, Jeb expressionless, the doctor looking as surprised as I felt-though not as horrified.
I would have flinched, ripped myself away from the touch of a hand on my arm, if the hand had not been so familiar.
"No," Jamie said, his hand hesitantly resting just below my elbow. "No, it's okay. Really. Right, Uncle Jeb?" Jamie looked trustingly at the old man. "It's okay, right?"
"Sure it is." Jeb's faded blue eyes were calm and clear. "Just showing you my place, kid, that's all."
"What are you talking about?" Ian grumbled from behind us, sounding annoyed that he didn't understand.
"Did you think we brought you here on purpose, for Doc?" Jamie said to me instead of answering Ian. "Because we wouldn't do that. We promised Jared."
I stared at his earnest face, trying to believe.
"Oh!" Ian said as he understood, and then he laughed. "That wasn't a bad plan. I'm surprised I didn't think of it."
Jamie scowled at the big man and patted my arm before removing his hand. "Don't be scared," he said.
Jeb took up where he'd left off. "So this big room here is fitted up with a few cots in case anyone gets sick or hurt. We've been pretty lucky on that count. Doc doesn't have much to work with in an emergency." Jeb grinned at me. "Your folks threw out all our medicines when they took over things. Hard to get our hands on what we need."
I nodded slightly; the movement was absentminded. I was still reeling, trying to get my bearings. This room looked innocent enough, as if it were only used for healing, but it made my stomach twist and contract.
"What do you know about alien medicine?" the doctor asked suddenly, his head cocked to the side. He watched my face with expectant curiosity.
I stared at him wordlessly.
"Oh, you can talk to Doc," Jeb encouraged me. "He's a pretty decent guy, all things considered."
I shook my head once. I meant to answer the doctor's question, to tell them that I knew nothing, but they misunderstood.
"She's not giving away any trade secrets," Ian said sourly. "Are you, sweetheart?"
"Manners, Ian," Jeb barked.
"Is it a secret?" Jamie asked, guarded but clearly curious.
I shook my head again. They all stared at me in confusion. Doc shook his head, too, slowly, baffled.
I took a deep breath, then whispered, "I'm not a Healer. I don't know how they-the medications-work. Only that they do work- they heal, rather than merely treating symptoms. No trial and error. Of course the human medicines were discarded."
All four of them stared with blank expressions. First they were surprised when I didn't answer, and now they were surprised when I did. Humans were impossible to please.
"Your kind didn't change too much of what we left behind," Jeb said thoughtfully after a moment. "Just the medical stuff, and the spaceships instead of planes. Other than that, life seems to go on just the same as ever… on the surface."
"We come to experience, not to change," I whispered. "Health takes priority over that philosophy, though."
I shut my mouth with an audible snap. I had to be more careful. The humans hardly wanted a lecture on soul philosophy. Who knew what would anger them? Or what would snap their fragile patience?
Jeb nodded, still thoughtful, and then ushered us onward. He wasn't as enthusiastic as he continued my tour through the few connecting caves here in the medical wing, not as involved in the presentation. When we turned around and headed back into the black corridor, he lapsed into silence. It was a long, quiet walk. I thought through what I'd said, looking for something that might have offended. Jeb was too strange for me to guess if that was the case. The other humans, hostile and suspicious as they were, at least made sense. How could I hope to make sense of Jeb?
The tour ended abruptly when we reentered the huge garden cavern where the carrot sprouts made a bright green carpet across the dark floor.
"Show's over," Jeb said gruffly, looking at Ian and the doctor. "Go do something useful."
Ian rolled his eyes at the doctor, but they both turned good-naturedly enough and made their way toward the biggest exit-the one that led to the kitchen, I remembered. Jamie hesitated, looking after them but not moving.
"You come with me," Jeb told him, slightly less gruff this time. "I've got a job for you."
"Okay," Jamie said. I could see that he was pleased to have been chosen.
Jamie walked beside me again as we headed back toward the sleeping-quarters section of the caves. I was surprised, as we chose the third passageway from the left, that Jamie seemed to know exactly where we were going. Jeb was slightly behind us, but Jamie stopped at once when we reached the green screen that covered the seventh apartment. He moved the screen aside for me but stayed in the hall.
"You okay to sit tight for a while?" Jeb asked me.
I nodded, grateful at the thought of hiding again. I ducked through the opening and then stood a few feet in, not sure what to do with myself. Melanie remembered that there were books here, but I reminded her of my vow to not touch anything.
"I got things to do, kid," Jeb said to Jamie. "Food ain't gonna fix itself, you know. You up to guard duty?"
"Sure," Jamie said with a bright smile. His thin chest swelled with a deep breath.
My eyes widened in disbelief as I watched Jeb place the rifle in Jamie's eager hands.
"Are you crazy?" I shouted. My voice was so loud that I didn't recognize it at first. It felt like I'd been whispering forever.
Jeb and Jamie looked up at me, shocked. I was out in the hallway with them in a second.
I almost reached for the hard metal of the barrel, almost ripped it from the boy's hands. What stopped me wasn't the knowledge that a move like that would surely get me killed. What stopped me was the fact that I was weaker than the humans in this way; even to save the boy, I could not make myself touch the weapon.
I turned on Jeb instead.
"What are you thinking? Giving the weapon to a child? He could kill himself!"
"Jamie's been through enough to be called a man, I think. He knows how to handle himself around a gun."
Jamie's shoulders straightened at Jeb's praise, and he gripped the gun tighter to his chest.
I gaped at Jeb's stupidity. "What if they come for me with him here? Did you think of what could happen? This isn't a joke! They'll hurt him to get to me!"
Jeb remained calm, his face placid. "Don't think there'll be any trouble today. I'd bet on it."
"Well, I wouldn't!" I was yelling again. My voice echoed off the tunnel walls-someone was sure to hear, but I didn't care. Better they come while Jeb was still here. "If you're so sure, then leave me here alone. Let what happens happen. But don't put Jamie in danger!"
"Is it the kid you're worried about, or are you just afraid that he'll turn the gun on you?" Jeb asked, his voice almost languid.
I blinked, my anger derailed. That thought had not even occurred to me. I glanced blankly at Jamie, met his surprised gaze, and saw that the idea was shocking to him, too.
It took me a minute to recover my side of the argument, and by the time I did, Jeb's expression had changed. His eyes were intent, his mouth pursed-as if he were about to fit the last piece into a frustrating puzzle.
"Give the gun to Ian or any of the others. I don't care," I said, my voice slow and even. "Just leave the boy out of this."
Jeb's sudden face-wide grin reminded me, strangely, of a pouncing cat.
"It's my house, kid, and I'll do what I want. I always do."
Jeb turned his back and ambled away down the hall, whistling as he went. I watched him go, my mouth hanging open. When he disappeared, I turned to Jamie, who was watching me with a sullen expression.
"I'm not a child," he muttered in a deeper tone than usual, his chin jutting out belligerently. "Now, you should… you should go in your room."
The order was less than severe, but there was nothing else I could do. I'd lost this disagreement by a large margin.
I sat down with my back against the rock that formed one side of the cave opening-the side where I could hide behind the half-opened screen but still watch Jamie. I wrapped my arms around my legs and began doing what I knew I would be doing as long as this insane situation continued: I worried.
I also strained my eyes and ears for some sound of approach, to be ready. No matter what Jeb said, I would prevent anyone from challenging Jamie's guard. I would give myself up before they asked.
Yes, Melanie agreed succinctly.
Jamie stood in the hallway for a few minutes, the gun tight in his hands, unsure as to how to do his job. He started pacing after that, back and forth in front of the screen, but he seemed to feel silly after a couple of passes. Then he sat down on the floor beside the open end of the screen. The gun eventually settled on his folded legs, and his chin into his cupped hands. After a long time, he sighed. Guard duty was not as exciting as he'd been expecting.
I did not get bored watching him.
After maybe an hour or two, he started looking at me again, flickering glances. His lips opened a few times, and then he thought better of whatever he was going to say.
I laid my chin on my knees and waited as he struggled. My patience was rewarded.
"That planet you were coming from before you were in Melanie," he finally said. "What was it like there? Was it like here?"
The direction of his thoughts caught me off guard. "No," I said. With only Jamie here, it felt right to speak normally instead of whispering. "No, it was very different."
"Will you tell me what it was like?" he asked, cocking his head to one side the way he used to when he was really interested in one of Melanie's bedtime stories.
So I told him.
I told him all about the See Weeds' waterlogged planet. I told him about the two suns, the elliptical orbit, the gray waters, the unmoving permanence of roots, the stunning vistas of a thousand eyes, the endless conversations of a million soundless voices that all could hear.
He listened with wide eyes and a fascinated smile.
"Is that the only other place?" he asked when I fell silent, trying to think of anything I'd missed. "Are the See Weeds"-he laughed once at the pun-"the only other aliens?"
I laughed, too. "Hardly. No more than I'm the only alien on this world."
So I told him about the Bats on the Singing World-how it was to live in musical blindness, how it was to fly. I told him about the Mists Planet-how it felt to have thick white fur and four hearts to keep warm, how to give claw beasts a wide berth.
I started to tell him about the Planet of the Flowers, about the color and the light, but he interrupted me with a new question.
"What about the little green guys with the triangle heads and the big black eyes? The ones who crashed in Roswell and all that. Was that you guys?"
"Nope, not us."
"Was it all fake?"
"I don't know-maybe, maybe not. It's a big universe, and there's a lot of company out there."
"How did you come here, then-if you weren't the little green guys, who were you? You had to have bodies to move and stuff, right?"
"Right," I agreed, surprised at his grasp of the facts at hand. I shouldn't have been surprised-I knew how bright he was, his mind like a thirsty sponge. "We used our Spider selves in the very beginning, to get things started."
I told him about the Spiders-a fascinating species. Brilliant, the most incredible minds we'd ever come across, and each Spider had three of them. Three brains, one in each section of their segmented bodies. We'd yet to find a problem they couldn't solve for us. And yet they were so coldly analytical that they rarely came up with a problem they were curious enough to solve for themselves. Of all our hosts, the Spiders welcomed our occupation the most. They barely noticed the difference, and when they did, they seemed to appreciate the direction we provided. The few souls who had walked on the surface of the Spiders' planet before implantation told us that it was cold and gray-no wonder the Spiders only saw in black and white and had a limited sense of temperature. The Spiders lived short lives, but the young were born knowing everything their parent had, so no knowledge was lost.
I'd lived out one of the short life terms of the species and then left with no desire to return. The amazing clarity of my thoughts, the easy answers that came to any question almost without effort, the march and dance of numbers were no substitute for emotion and color, which I could only vaguely understand when inside that body. I wondered how any soul could be content there, but the planet had been self-sufficient for thousands of Earth years. It was still open for settling only because the Spiders reproduced so quickly-great sacs of eggs.
I started to tell Jamie how the offensive had been launched here. The Spiders were our best engineers-the ships they made for us danced nimbly and undetectably through the stars. The Spiders' bodies were almost as useful as their minds: four long legs to each segment-from which they'd earned their nickname on this planet-and twelve-fingered hands on each leg. These six-jointed fingers were as slender and strong as steel threads, capable of the most delicate procedures. About the mass of a cow, but short and lean, the Spiders had no trouble with the first insertions. They were stronger than humans, smarter than humans, and prepared, which the humans were not…
I stopped short, midsentence, when I saw the crystalline sparkle on Jamie's cheek.
He was staring straight ahead at nothing, his lips pressed in a tight line. A large drop of salt water rolled slowly down the cheek closest to me.
Idiot, Melanie chastised me. Didn't you think what your story would mean to him?
Didn't you think of warning me sooner?
She didn't answer. No doubt she'd been as caught up in the storytelling as I was.
"Jamie," I murmured. My voice was thick. The sight of his tear had done strange things to my throat. "Jamie, I'm so sorry. I wasn't thinking."
Jamie shook his head. "'S okay. I asked. I wanted to know how it happened." His voice was gruff, trying to hide the pain.
It was instinctive, the desire to lean forward and wipe that tear away. I tried at first to ignore it; I was not Melanie. But the tear hung there, motionless, as if it would never fall. Jamie's eyes stayed fixed on the blank wall, and his lips trembled.
He wasn't far from me. I stretched my arm out to brush my fingers against his cheek; the tear spread thin across his skin and disappeared. Acting on instinct again, I left my hand against his warm cheek, cradling his face.
For a short second, he pretended to ignore me.
Then he rolled toward me, his eyes closed, his hands reaching. He curled into my side, his cheek against the hollow of my shoulder, where it had once fit better, and sobbed.
These were not the tears of a child, and that made them more profound-made it more sacred and painful that he would cry them in front of me. This was the grief of a man at the funeral for his entire family.
My arms wound around him, not fitting as easily as they used to, and I cried, too.
"I'm sorry," I said again and again. I apologized for everything in those two words. That we'd ever found this place. That we'd chosen it. That I'd been the one to take his sister. That I'd brought her back here and hurt him again. That I'd made him cry today with my insensitive stories.
I didn't drop my arms when his anguish quieted; I was in no hurry to let him go. It seemed as though my body had been starving for this from the beginning, but I'd never understood before now what would feed the hunger. The mysterious bond of mother and child-so strong on this planet-was not a mystery to me any longer. There was no bond greater than one that required your life for another's. I'd understood this truth before; what I had not understood was why. Now I knew why a mother would give her life for her child, and this knowledge would forever shape the way I saw the universe.
"I know I've taught you better than that, kid."
We jumped apart. Jamie lurched to his feet, but I curled closer to the ground, cringing into the wall.
Jeb leaned down and picked up the gun we'd both forgotten from the floor. "You've got to mind a gun better than this, Jamie." His tone was very gentle-it softened the criticism. He reached out to tousle Jamie's shaggy hair.
Jamie ducked under Jeb's hand, his face scarlet with mortification.
"Sorry," he muttered, and turned as if to flee. He stopped after just a step, though, and swiveled back to look at me. "I don't know your name," he said.
"They called me Wanderer," I whispered.
He nodded, too, then hurried away. The back of his neck was still red.
When he was gone, Jeb leaned against the rock and slid down till he was seated where Jamie had been. Like Jamie, he kept the gun cradled in his lap.
"That's a real interesting name you've got there," he told me. He seemed to be back to his chatty mood. "Maybe sometime you'll tell me how you got it. Bet that's a good story. But it's kind of a mouthful, don't you think? Wanderer?"
I stared at him.
"Mind if I call you Wanda, for short? It flows easier."
He waited this time for a response. Finally, I shrugged. It didn't matter to me whether he called me "kid" or some strange human nickname. I believed it was meant kindly.
"Okay, then, Wanda." He smiled, pleased at his invention. "It's nice to have a handle on you. Makes me feel like we're old friends."
He grinned that huge, cheek-stretching grin, and I couldn't help grinning back, though my smile was more rueful than delighted. He was supposed to be my enemy. He was probably insane. And he was my friend. Not that he wouldn't kill me if things turned out that way, but he wouldn't like doing it. With humans, what more could you ask of a friend?