Last time we saw BEN… (click for recap)
Ben wakes up to find the house empty. Peter and their unwelcome guest have disappeared. On his way out hunting, Ben passes a grave marked Astrid in their family graveyard. He doesn’t know who put that up or why, but now it’s a fixture. As he hunts, Ben reminisces about the day his mother disappeared. Soldiers and Rufus Loraine, the Prophet Killer, had been hunting for Seth, the Prophet. With the threat of Watchers, Ben’s mother sends him, Mica, and Anda into the woods to hide while she protects their house. But first, she makes Ben promise to return to their house and keep it safe—their father will return one day. She also makes him promise not to go down into the basement. Out in the woods, the hiding Alderman siblings are visited by Watchers. After returning empty-handed and drained from old memories, Ben prepares for Re-Incarnate Day. The others return home for the ceremony and discovers that Cassandra will not be joining them. But… everyone attends Re-Incarnate Day…
They walked to the village in silence, staring into the sunset. Mica held last year’s photos of Loraine and Rufus gently, so as not to crease them, while Anda braided Mica’s hair as they walked and tied it with a ribbon. Peter walked a little ahead of them. He didn’t normally do that. He usually kept pace with Ben.
Friends from neighboring farms soon filled the road carrying their own photos of the Eternals. Ben knew them all. He traded with them at the local black market to supplement their ration tickets. He bargained with Jesse, the old man with the missing teeth. Firewood for apples from Jesse’s trees. He helped Samuel, a young tanner who hated math, with his books, while Samuel tanned the hides Ben brought him for free. He had tutored Martha, a young girl with one arm, she couldn’t enroll in the government school with only one arm. Martha’s mother made fabric and always gave him a discount.
Not only did he work with virtually everyone in West Six, but he also knew and kept all their secrets. He knew whose marriages weren’t doing well. He knew who the drunks were, who reported to Adam, the local Peace Official, and who cheated at cards. The one thing he didn’t know yet was who had been sabotaging the soldiers’ food supply and dying cats pink. But he would find out one day. He had a hunch, and the arsonist would slip up eventually.
The neighbors nodded their hellos and said their quiet Re-Incarnate Day greetings and walked on ahead. Ben smiled and nodded and greeted, and watched their bargains and their flaws and their secrets walk away. All the while he wondered where Cassandra was and if her presence would bring all their deals and lies and secrets crashing down around them.
As they entered the village, they passed Viola’s home, a rundown house with shuttered windows and a sagging roof. She sat on the porch with Toby, her black, one-eyed cat. His yellow eye reminded Ben of the Eternal Eye, always watching. Together, Viola and Toby stared at the quiet procession that entered the village.
Viola and Toby were both the oldest and meanest things in West Six. It was generally believed that the craggy old woman, who smelled of yeast and onions and grass, with white hairs sprouting off of her chin, would outlive their Eternal Mother herself and one day rule the country with an iron claw. While Ben had been terrified of her when he was a child, he had been forced to deal with her in the past few years since she reigned over the local black market. Although he thought he had finally gotten on her good side, it had taken years. He wasn’t sure why she didn’t like him, but she had a special scowl for Ben and Mica.
Ben nodded to Viola as they passed, but she only waved him off. Anda smiled at her and earned a flick of a small smile from the old woman before being waved off herself with a huff. While Anda kept to herself, few people could be mean to Anda. Ben wondered how she managed that. Peter and Mica ignored Viola completely.
“Hey,” Ben said, smacking Mica’s arm. “Be nice.”
“Why? She’s not nice to us.”
“Doesn’t matter. You do it anyway.”
Mica made a frustrated sound but raised her hand in greeting. “Happy Re-Incarnate Day, Viola. I hope your joy and prosperity is as endless as our Eternal Mother and General Eternal’s reign. Be ever watchful.”
Ben rolled his eyes. Viola spat off the porch.
“See?” Mica whispered. “Mean ‘ol bat.”
“You can still be nice. It’s Re-Incarnate Day, after all,” he said with a smile that was more of a grimace.
“Hm. Do you know why Re-Incarnate Day is early this year?” she asked quietly.
Ben grit his teeth and kept his head bent close to hers. “No. And don’t you go asking. It’s early. That’s all.” He slowed, his leg was beginning to ache. Mica hung back with him as Peter and Anda walked ahead into the crowded village square.
“But why is it so early? That’s never happened before. Ever.” Mica tilted her head towards his and kept her eyes down.
“Yeah, Mics, I know. Malcolm didn’t explain, and I don’t think he knows why. So don’t ask, got it?”
“Got it? I don’t want you drawing attention to us. Especially now.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Adam, their local Peace Official, watching them with his eyebrows crinkled in thought. Adam had a pinched face like he was always eating something sour. His mouth was puckered and small. Ben smiled and turned back to Mica.
Mica frowned. “I know. But it’s weird, right? After three hundred years of spring Re-Incarnate Days, they just happen to have it early this year? And I mean really, really early? Six months early?”
“Yes. Now be quiet, and let’s celebrate. Adam is watching.” He smiled as brightly as he could and nudged Mica with his elbow. As her face lit up into a bright smile, even her eyes looked happy. Mica was very good at lying.
They passed Adam with a smile and a nod and entered the village square, where they smiled and nodded and greeted friends and neighbors. The crowd murmured softly and politely. It was a celebration, but tension covered the crowd like static, sparking here and there in short soft bursts of anxious twitches and nervous laughter. The square itself was beautiful, as always. Everywhere you looked were flowers and flags and pastries in gold and red and orange icing—the Novan colors. The Re-Incarnate Day lanterns, dozens of them, hung around the square and flickered with a warm light.
And the Eternal Eye was everywhere. It had been painted in red on windows, sewn in gold thread onto banners that rippled in the wind, and twisted in warm pastry dough and orange icing. The fountain, usually bubbling and flowing, stood empty, ready for its part in the ceremony. Ben grit his teeth at the sight of the empty fountain. The Icon Ritual was his least favorite part of the day.
At the far end of the square, in front of the Health Center, were dozens of cathode-ray tube, or CRT displays, all set for viewing the festivities. The CRTs were more like large, heavy boxes than anything else, but they worked. They sat on the stage, stacked high on top of each other so that everyone could see. The many displays all showing the same thing always made Ben think of a spider eye, all multifaceted and shining. The Health Center only had one very large display, usually left on in the Health Center window so everyone could keep up to date with the Windrose news. It cycled through news from Windrose, the weather, health warnings, and general propaganda. Sometimes it held information about what to do if you suspected your neighbor of being unpatriotic, irreverent, or subversive. But on Re-Incarnate Day it and all the other displays showed the ceremony direct from Windrose City itself.
“Ben,” a voice behind him said. He turned to see Titus and Agatha. It was just after five o’clock, and all the shops were now closed so that everyone could attend the viewing, bakers included. Titus and Agatha were dressed in their best clothes. However, their sleeves were dusted with flour, and they smelled like sugar and lemon and chocolate. Their eyes were ringed and bloodshot. Ben wondered when they last slept, and how many pastries they’d made in the past three days. It looked like they’d been baking until a moment before.
“Titus, Happy Re-Incarnate Day,” Ben said with a nod.
“Happy Re-Incarnate Day, indeed. May our Eternal Mother and General Eternal bless you and yours this year.” The tall man bowed in greeting, and his scalp gleamed at the top of his long dark braid. Titus was a bony man with a red and round nose like a strawberry, but above his berry nose, his eyes were keen and sharp.
“You and yours as well,” Ben said. “Hello, Agatha. Happy Re-Incarnate Day.”
Agatha smiled at him, and slipped her hand into her husband’s. Agatha didn’t get out much since she was white. Not just pale, but pure, colorless, white-white. Her eyes and hair and skin had no color at all. Ben had heard people say something was wrong with her to make her look that way, but to him, she was just Agatha, that was how she looked. Way out here in the West, you could get away with looking different. Ben wondered what her parents had to pay to keep her out of the system.
“Happy Re-Incarnate Day, Ben.” Then she turned and greeted Mica and Anda, her favorites. While she loved both the girls, she had a special bond with Anda. Ben guessed it was something to do with their white hair. Mica and Anda returned the greeting and smiled. They both adored Agatha, everyone did.
“We have been blessed, no? Two Re-Incarnate Days this year,” Titus said to Ben with a wink. “Our Mother has been good to us, hasn’t she?”
Ben caught his breath and thought of Lincoln: Malcolm’s now pink cat. Ben would bet anything that the baker had dyed that stupid cat, and that the baker was the arsonist.
“Yes, of course,” Ben said carefully. “We have been blessed.”
“What could we possibly have done to earn the love of our Eternal Mother and General Eternal, yes?” Titus asked with a flashing smile. Agatha put her hand gently on her husband’s arm and smiled at Ben. She had the kind of smile that made her eyes disappear into soft lines and wrinkles.
“We have been blessed,” Ben said again. Mica shot him a look but thankfully kept her mouth shut.
“I hope you will enjoy your Re-Incarnate Day celebration tonight. You chose a good cake the other day.”
Ben swallowed. They had already eaten the cake. They would not be celebrating in a preferred manner, and if Malcolm found out, he could slap them with a hefty fine for failing to show proper respect. If Adam found out, and was feeling patriotic, he could suggest they be taken in for Adjustment.
Mica smiled up at Titus. “Oh yes, we are so looking forward to celebrating tonight. The cake looks so wonderful—I’ve been staring at it all day, and could barely stop myself from stealing a taste of that icing,” she said.
Titus smiled down at Mica with narrowed eyes, he even opened his mouth to speak, but the crowd suddenly cheered. Ben turned, thankful to end the conversation, and saw that the displays had lit up. Some flickered, some shown brightly, some were dim, but all were finally on. Lieutenant Malcolm Fischer ascended the platform below the glowing spider-eyed displays to make his brief, mandatory speech before the ceremony.
Malcolm, like all Windrose soldiers and citizens, had that hazy-eyed look from the Calm, the drug used to keep everyone in big cities nice and relaxed and carefree. Most soldiers used it too, but less so out here. Out here in the rural areas, the Calm wasn’t mandatory—too few people, too few issues. Most problems out here could be solved by a squad of soldiers with Burn guns.
The crowd cheered and clapped on cue as Malcolm faced the people. Ben heard Viola’s scratchy voice raised somewhere in the crowd, like a crow laughing. Malcolm raised a skinny arm to quiet them all.
“Today is a special day,” he began. “Today, we celebrate our Eternal Mother and General Eternal’s three hundred and thirteenth year as our glorious leaders. Our Eternals.”
A loud cheer went up from the crowd. Malcolm again raised his hand to quiet them. “In just a few moments, we will witness our Eternal’s Re-Incarnation. This is a sacred day. An honored day. A holy day. And I urge you this night to consider our blessings and to give thanks to our Eternal Mother. She has provided for us. She has loved us. We are safe, we are fed, and we are forever free!”
The crowd cheered. Ben clapped and yelled along with his neighbors and friends. Even out here in the more rural parts of the country, it was best to appear patriotic and loyal. While the West Six Health Center was run by a fat man who took bribes and preferred not to do Adjustments because of the paperwork, it was always better to be safe than sorry. So Ben, Mica, Anda, and Peter all cheered and screamed their blessings upon their beloved Eternals.
The CRTs splashed warm gold and amber images of Windrose City onto the West Six crowd. While Ben had no desire to go to Windrose, sometimes he wondered what it was like. Of course, they’d never show images of the ruined parts, the burned and destroyed parts, but he still wondered what they looked like. All they ever showed were the cleaned and bright parts of Windrose, near the city center, and the Eternal’s Palace. He’d never admit it, but the images of the city scared him. Windrose City was all towers of glass and steel, with doors like gaping mouths and windows like glazed eyes. Windrose City was all concrete, iron, and wind whipping down the city streets like a scream. It was all crowds full of faces, endless crowds stretching on for what seemed like miles and miles and miles….
But more than the towers, more than the stone and marble buildings, more than the steel skyscrapers, it was that flicker of gold flashing through the eyes in the crowd that terrified Ben the most. Even on the displays, you could see them flitting through the crowd like golden, glowing fireflies, turning the hazy-eyed city-dwellers into gilded, golden-eyed Watched.
The image panned from the roaring crowd to the stage where the ceremony would take place. The Master of Ceremonies, a round man with spectacles and a white coat, stepped forward. Ben frowned. Something was wrong. Usually, there were speeches and music, presentations of flowers and medals and honors were given. They had skipped all of that and were getting right to the point—the Transfer Ceremony.
Ben cheered along with his West Six neighbors when Rufus walked onto the stage, and the Master of Ceremonies bowed to him. Rufus was second in command under Loraine, and head of the military. He was the Prophet Killer. As Rufus nodded to the fat man, his shaved and shining head bobbed to the crowd. His skull stood out angled and sharp beneath his skin. The many displays showed a dozen Rufus’s and a dozen gleaming skulls and a dozen hateful grins.
Rufus straightened, and Ben stared at him. Ben hadn’t seen a picture of him since the last Re-Incarnate Day, but something about him didn’t look right. He looked…. shorter than last time. Ben stole a glance at Peter to see if he noticed anything unusual either. Peter’s forehead knit together for a moment, then his face flashed into that expression of joy that everyone had cultivated and ready. Yes, Peter had noticed something odd about Rufus too.
When the screaming in Windrose died down, the Master of Ceremonies and Rufus turned and stood at attention, and Loraine herself came on the stage. The crowds gathered all around the country roused into a joyous frenzy. As Ben cheered along with West Six, he studied Loraine. She wore a military dress uniform, like Rufus, yet hers was decorated with metals and fringe and great brass buttons. Her shiny, black hair, tied in an intricate braid, snaked down her back to the ground. She waved to the crowd.
A stab of anxiety shot through Ben: Loraine looked different too. Her nose looked bigger. Not much, but just a little. She, like Rufus, looked drawn and hollowed and shorter than usual. Yet no one seemed to notice. Ben wondered if they were sick, but their eternal leaders did not get sick. Not ever. They were eternal, after all.
He stole a glance at one of the many photos in hand throughout the crowd. Loraine’s deep-set and bright eyes stared back at him from every angle. Her nose was definitely different. Why would her nose be bigger?
He knew Adam was somewhere surveying the crowd, searching for any sign of disrespect or a critical expression, and he put on his most attentive and joyous gaze and stared at the spider-eye of CRTs, just in case.
Then the kilns, the glass, coffin-like chambers at the back of the Windrose stage, were uncovered and brought forward with a flourish. And the Transfer Ceremony began. Normally, at this point in the festivities, Loraine and Rufus would address the people. Every year they spoke eloquently and sincerely of their love for Nova and of the honor of leading these great people and this great country, the greatest country in the world. This year, they remained silent. Ben kept his eyes straight ahead, staring at the CRTs, determined not to show that his anxiety. The Re-Incarnate Ceremony had been done the same way for over three hundred years. Why would it be different now?
The four holy kilns were rolled forward to the center of the stage and lined up, two in front, and two behind. The kilns themselves were simple in construction, just glass boxes with gold seams, but they were ornate in style. Gold filigree traced along the gold seems, and tiny jewels sparkled in the light. These decorative coffins always gave Ben shivers. They were propped up at a gentle angle so the whole country could see into the kilns. In the two kilns in the front row, lay those who had been selected for the sacrifice: the vessels, one man and one woman.
Each year, two individuals from Nova were selected to serve their Eternals by becoming the home for Eternals’ consciousness, enabling stability and peace for the nation of Nova forever. In this way, Loraine and Rufus would live and serve Nova forever, never to die and rest in death. Loraine called it a sacrifice, but Ben didn’t buy it. He watched as the two back kilns opened like coffins, and Loraine and Rufus laid down inside. The glass lids closed over the Eternals, and the Master of Ceremonies began to chant. As he lifted his hands, the kilns began to glow.
In the True Tales storybook, the Great Scientist gives Loraine the kilns to bind her to her people, but Ben suspected there was more to the kilns than what the storybook said. While Ben knew that the Transfer was a highly sophisticated scientific process, he still had questions that he knew would never be answered. He had been taught that the vessel would willingly give up its right to its self, leaving its body in a glorious sacrifice of death, allowing Loraine and Rufus to inhabit their vacated body. The Eternals’ consciousnesses would be transferred into the vessels for another year of glorious rule. To never die was Loraine and Rufus’s sacrifice. But Ben always wondered what happened to the vessel’s consciousness. Where did it go? Was it really dead? Can you just give up and become nothing?
The holy kilns glowed bright blue and hummed. And then, with a burst of bright cyan light. Then it was done. A white fog filled the kilns.
The glass of the front two kilns lifted, a cloud of white spilled out, and the new Loraine and Rufus sat up in their new bodies and greeted their people. The Windrose crowd went wild. This new Loraine vessel was very tall, her pale skin almost white almost as white as her simple silk gown, which flowed and gathered and billowed around her. Her long hair, thick and black, flowed free and hung around her like heavy velvet. Rufus wore a flowing white gown, the same as Loraine, but his new vessel was small and had the darkest skin Ben had ever seen. His head had been shaved, as usual, and it glistened in the setting sun. The Eternals looked healthier, more awake, their postures straighter and taller. They looked younger. Ethereal.
Rufus raised his arm. In his clenched fist, he held a flashing knife. Ben always hated this part. It always sent chills down his spine like a cold fingernail. Rufus gripped the knife and sliced a line down the right side of his forehead, skipping over his eye, and continuing down his cheek. Blood ran down his face and dripped onto his otherwise spotless gown. Each year Rufus marred his face as a way to remember the past sufferings of his people. Ben guessed there was another reason, but he had no way of finding out what it was.
Ben and all of West Six cheered the new vessels and their inhabitants, their beloved Eternals. Suddenly, a shriek shot through the sound system, cracking and piercing. Ben and all of West Six froze. Just before the displays went blank, Ben saw it, and his heart skipped. The other kiln, the one that held the body of the old Loraine, the one with the body that was not supposed to be awake, inside that white, smoke-filled chamber, Ben clearly saw a hand flash against the glass. On the spider-eye of displays, a dozen hands flashed on a dozen kilns seen by a million people.
Then the displays went black. A spider winking in the dark.
No one knew what to do. The ceremony had been the same for the past three hundred years, and it was like their Eternal Mother: constant. The West Six crowd shuffled nervously. Fear raised its pale head and stared with white and milky eyes. Panic began to surge through the crowd, but no one dared make too much of the incident—no one wanted to appear unpatriotic, irreverent, or disloyal.
Ben looked at Mica, she stared at the displays, her mouth open, her eyes flitting from one to the other to another. Peter too stared at the displays. Malcolm was saying something about a difficulty with the CRTs, and that there was nothing to worry about. What they heard was a short in a wire somewhere. Nothing more. Ben felt fear run down his spine like a drop of ice water slipping down his skin. He turned to see Anda looking at him. Her eyes fluttered, then opened, and she looked straight at him. He could not read her expression, and that frightened him all the more.
The Health Center display flicked back on in the dusk, and all eyes turned to the glowing display, one eye of a dozen open and watchful, the rest black and blind. But the display did not show the ceremony. It only showed a general warning from the Health Center. “Keep yourself and your family happy and calm. Tell someone if you’re having trouble with your feelings. Keeping yourself and your family calm is the best way to serve our Eternal Mother. Forever may she reign! Be ever watchful!”
And that was all.
“Thank you for coming. It has been a joyous Re-Incarnate Day, indeed!” Malcolm said. But his voice shook. With that, they were dismissed to collect their new photos during the Icon Ritual and return home.
A quiet, unsettled murmur went through the crowd. People greeted and nodded and smiled, but there was a film of white fear over everyone’s eyes. They were almost free, one more ritual to complete, and then they could leave. Titus, his face tight and anxious, nodded to Ben and pulled Agatha quickly towards the fountain. Her white-white hair disappeared in the crowd.
Ben limped along with the shuffling assembly through the square towards the fountain growing more and more anxious with every step: the Icon Ritual was next. His heart pounded. His hands went slick with sweat, and his mouth went dry. Someone lit the oil that filled the three stone basins of the fountain, and the fountain flamed to life as the ritual began. Ben felt the heat from the fire as the red and yellow and orange flames twisted and shivered and pulsed.
He and Mica and Anda stepped up to the fountain. Eternals’ photos from the previous year had already been thrown into the flaming basin, a symbol of their Eternals’ transformation. Always sacrificing, always dying, always alive. Fire is life.
Ben hated the Icon Ritual more than anything. He hated how Loraine mocked their suffering, their Burning, making herself seem to have suffered with her people. But Ben felt certain she had never lost someone to the Burning, never looked into the eyes of a loved one and saw only a stranger staring back.
Mica tossed their photos of Loraine and Rufus into the flaming fountain. The pages curled and dissolved into amber and ash. They continued past the fountain and received their new official photos of the Eternals. Mica took them from the soldier with her head down.
Then they turned for home.
Ben realized that Peter was not at his shoulder and turned around. Peter faced away from Ben, staring at something. Peter stood so still that Ben wondered if he was all right, but then Ben’s eyes found the Health Center display. There, in black and white, was Cassandra’s face. Her cat eyes narrowed and bright. And below her dark and blurred face was an outrageous sum of money. Ben swallowed. That reward could get him and Mica and Anda out of Nova for good….