The Host (Chapter 2: Overheard)

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The voices were soft and close and, though I was only now aware of them, apparently in the middle of a murmured conversation.

"I'm afraid it's too much for her," one said. The voice was soft but deep, male. "Too much for anyone. Such violence!" The tone spoke of revulsion.

"She screamed only once," said a higher, reedy, female voice, pointing this out with a hint of glee, as if

she were winning an argument.

"I know," the man admitted. "She is very strong. Others have had much more trauma, with much less cause."

"I'm sure she'll be fine, just as I told you."

"Maybe you missed your Calling." There was an edge to the man's voice. Sarcasm, my memory named it. "Perhaps you were meant to be a Healer, like me."

The woman made a sound of amusement. Laughter. "I doubt that. We Seekers prefer a different sort of diagnosis."

My body knew this word, this title:Seeker. It sent a shudder of fear down my spine. A leftover reaction.

"I sometimes wonder if the infection of humanity touches those in your profession," the man mused, his voice still sour with annoyance. "Violence is part of your life choice. Does enough of your body's native temperament linger to give you enjoyment of the horror?"

I was surprised at his accusation, at his tone. This discussion was almost like�� an argument. Something my host was familiar with but that I'd never experienced.

The woman was defensive. "We do not choose violence. We face it when we must. And it's a good thing for the rest of you that some of us are strong enough for the unpleasantness. Your peace would be shattered without our work."

"Once upon a time. Your vocation will soon be obsolete, I think."

"The error of that statement lies on the bed there."

"One human girl, alone and unarmed! Yes, quite a threat to our peace."

The woman breathed out heavily. A sigh. "But where did she come from? How did she appear in the middle of Chicago, a city long since civilized, hundreds of miles from any trace of rebel activity? Did she manage it alone?"

She listed the questions without seeming to seek an answer, as if she had already voiced them many times.

"That's your problem, not mine," the man said. "My job is to help this soul adapt herself to her new host without unnecessary pain or trauma. And you are here to interfere with my job."

Still slowly surfacing, acclimating myself to this new world of senses, I understood only now that I was the subject of the conversation. I was the soul they spoke of. It was a new connotation to the word, a word that had meant many other things to my host. On every planet we took a different name.Soul. I suppose it was an apt description. The unseen force that guides the body.

"The answers to my questions matter as much as your responsibilities to the soul."

"That's debatable."

There was the sound of movement, and her voice was suddenly a whisper. "When will she become responsive? The sedation must be about to wear off."

"When she's ready. Leave her be. She deserves to handle the situation however she finds most comfortable. Imagine the shock of her awakening��inside a rebel host injured to the point of death in the escape attempt! No one should have to endure such trauma in times of peace!" His voice rose with the increase of emotion.

"She is strong." The woman's tone was reassuring now. "See how well she did with the first memory, the worst memory. Whatever she expected, she handled this."

"Why should she have to?" the man muttered, but he didn't seem to expect an answer.

"Needbeing your word. I would choose the termwant. "

"Then someone must take on the unpleasantness," she continued as if he had not interrupted. "And I think, from all I know of this one, she would accept the challenge if there had been any way to ask her. What do you call her?"

The man didn't speak for a long moment. The woman waited.

"Wanderer," he finally and unwillingly answered.

"Fitting," she said. "I don't have any official statistics, but she has to be one of the very few, if not the only one, who has wandered so far. Yes,Wanderer will suit her well until she chooses a new name for herself."

He said nothing.

"Of course, she may assume the host's name.�� We found no matches on record for the fingerprints or retinal scan. I can't tell you what that name was."

"She won't take the human name," the man muttered.

Her response was conciliatory. "Everyone finds comfort their own way."

"This Wanderer will need more comfort than most, thanks to your style of Seeking."

There were sharp sounds��footsteps, staccato against a hard floor. When she spoke again, the woman's voice was across the room from the man.

"You would have reacted poorly to the early days of this occupation," she said.

"Perhaps you react poorly to peace."

The woman laughed, but the sound was false��there was no real amusement. My mind seemed well adapted to inferring the true meanings from tones and inflections.

"You do not have a clear perception of what my Calling entails. Long hours hunched over files and maps. Mostly desk work. Not very often the conflict or violence you seem to think it is."

"Ten days ago you were armed with killing weapons, running this body down."

"The exception, I assure you, not the rule. Do not forget, the weapons that disgust you are turned on our kind wherever we Seekers have not been vigilant enough. The humans kill us happily whenever they have the ability to do so. Those whose lives have been touched by the hostility see us as heroes."

"You speak as if a war were raging."

"To the remains of the human race, one is."

These words were strong in my ears. My body reacted to them; I felt my breathing speed, heard the

"But one that even they must realize is long lost. They are outnumbered by what? A million to one? I imagine you would know."

"We estimate the odds are quite a bit higher in our favor," she admitted grudgingly.

The Healer appeared to be content to let his side of the disagreement rest with that information. It was quiet for a moment.

I used the empty time to evaluate my situation. Much was obvious.

I was in a Healing facility, recovering from an unusually traumatic insertion. I was sure the body that hosted me had been fully healed before it was given to me. A damaged host would have been disposed of.

I considered the conflicting opinions of the Healer and the Seeker. According to the information I had been given before making the choice to come here, the Healer had the right of it. Hostilities with the few remaining pockets of humans were all but over. The planet called Earth was as peaceful and serene as it looked from space, invitingly green and blue, wreathed in its harmless white vapors. As was the way of the soul, harmony was universal now.

The verbal dissension between the Healer and the Seeker was out of character. Strangely aggressive for our kind. It made me wonder. Could they be true, the whispered rumors that had undulated like waves through the thoughts of the�� of the��

I was distracted, trying to find the name for my last host species. We'd had a name, I knew that. But, no longer connected to that host, I could not remember the word. We'd used much simpler language than this, a silent language of thought that connected us all into one great mind. A necessary convenience when one was rooted forever into the wet black soil.

I could describe that species in my new human language. We lived on the floor of the great ocean that covered the entire surface of our world��a world that had a name, too, but that was also gone. We each had a hundred arms and on each arm a thousand eyes, so that, with our thoughts connected, not one sight in the vast waters went unseen. There was no need for sound, so there was no way to hear it. We tasted the waters, and, with our sight, that told us all we needed to know. We tasted the suns, so many leagues above the water, and turned their taste into the food we needed.

I could describe us, but I could not name us. I sighed for the lost knowledge, and then returned my ponderings to what I'd overheard.

Souls did not, as a rule, speak anything but the truth. Seekers, of course, had the requirements of their Calling, but between souls there was never reason for a lie. With my last species' language of thought, it would have been impossible to lie, even had we wanted to. However, anchored as we were, we told ourselves stories to alleviate the boredom. Storytelling was the most honored of all talents, for it benefited everyone.

Sometimes, fact mixed with fiction so thoroughly that, though no lies were told, it was hard to remember what was strictly true.

But there were whispers of this: of human hosts so strong that the souls were forced to abandon them. Hosts whose minds could not be completely suppressed. Souls who took on the personality of the body, rather than the other way around. Stories. Wild rumors. Madness.

But that seemed almost to be the Healer's accusation.��

I dismissed the thought. The more likely meaning of his censure was the distaste most of us felt for the Seeker's Calling. Who would choose a life of conflict and pursuit? Who would be attracted to the chore of tracking down unwilling hosts and capturing them? Who would have the stomach to face the violence of this particular species, the hostile humans who killed so easily, so thoughtlessly? Here, on this planet, the Seekers had become practically a�� militia��my new brain supplied the term for the unfamiliar concept. Most believed that only the least civilized souls, the least evolved, the lesser among us, would be drawn to the path of Seeker.

Still, on Earth the Seekers had gained new status. Never before had an occupation gone so awry. Never before had it turned into a fierce and bloody battle. Never before had the lives of so many souls been sacrificed. The Seekers stood as a mighty shield, and the souls of this world were thrice-over indebted to them: for the safety they had carved out of the mayhem, for the risk of the final death that they faced willingly every day, and for the new bodies they continued to provide.

Now that the danger was virtually past, it appeared the gratitude was fading. And, for this Seeker at least, the change was not a pleasant one.

It was easy to imagine what her questions for me would be. Though the Healer was trying to buy me time to adjust to my new body, I knew I would do my best to help the Seeker. Good citizenship was quintessential to every soul.

So I took a deep breath to prepare myself. The monitor registered the movement. I knew I was stalling a bit. I hated to admit it, but I was afraid. To get the information the Seeker needed, I would have to explore the violent memories that had made me scream in horror. More than that, I was afraid of the voice I'd heard so loudly in my head. But she was silent now, as was right. She was just a memory, too.

I should not have been afraid. After all, I was called Wanderer now. And I'd earned the name.

With another deep breath, I delved into the memories that frightened me, faced them head-on with my teeth locked together.

I could skip past the end��it didn't overwhelm me now. In fast-forward, I ran through the dark again, wincing, trying not to feel. It was over quickly.

Once I was through that barrier, it wasn't hard to float through less-alarming things and places, skimming for the information I wanted. I saw how she'd come to this cold city, driving by night in a stolen car chosen for its nondescript appearance. She'd walked through the streets of Chicago in darkness, shivering beneath her coat.

The words came slower and slower, and at first I did not understand why. Was this forgotten? Lost in the trauma of an almost death? Was I still sluggish from unconsciousness? I struggled to think clearly. This sensation was unfamiliar. Was my body still sedated? I felt alert enough, but my mind labored unsuccessfully for the answers I wanted.

I tried another avenue of searching, hoping for clearer responses. What was her goal? She would find�� Sharon��I fished out the name��and they would��

I hit a wall.

It was a blank, a nothing. I tried to circle around it, but I couldn't find the edges of the void. It was as if the information I sought had been erased.

As if this brain had been damaged.

Anger flashed through me, hot and wild. I gasped in surprise at the unexpected reaction. I'd heard of the emotional instability of these human bodies, but this was beyond my ability to anticipate. In eight full lives, I'd never had an emotion touch me with such force.

I felt the blood pulse through my neck, pounding behind my ears. My hands tightened into fists.

The machines beside me reported the acceleration of my heartbeats. There was a reaction in the room: the sharp tap of the Seeker's shoes approached me, mingled with a quieter shuffle that must have been the Healer.

"Welcome to Earth, Wanderer," the female voice said.

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