Last time we saw BEN… (click for recap)
While getting ready to flee West Six for good, Ben, Peter, and Cassandra discover a Watcher in Mica. Ben attempts to calm Mica, and wonders who else is looking out at him through her eyes. Cassandra gets rid of the Watcher using a Shock Stick, which leaves Mica foggy and in pain. They panic and get ready to leave immediately, but discover Anda is missing: gone to West Six, which is now crawling with soldiers and Watchers…
Ben turned just in time to see Mica take a hesitant step and pitch forward, still unstable from the shock. He caught her with his free hand and eased her down onto the bench.
“Mics? You ok?” Ben stared into her eyes, looking for any sign of recognition. The shock had messed with her head, and he could see her struggling to focus.
“I’m going too,” she said.
“Yeah, that’s not happening. You’re staying here.”
She tried to stand again, but Ben pushed her down with one finger. She flushed and nodded heavily. Her eyes narrowed at something behind Ben. He turned and saw Peter holding a handgun.
“Where did you get that?” Ben asked.
Peter ran his hands over the weapon and then tucked it into his belt.
“Been saving it. Where do we look for Anda?”
Ben cringed as he thought. The market would be chaos, but that’s where she would go to trade and buy thread. Other than that, she visited Viola’s cat, the butcher’s dog, and Rose’s horses—Anda wasn’t really friendly with people unless they had animals.
“She probably went to the market, but you should also check Viola’s, the butcher’s, and Rose’s.”
“Got it. If we’re not back in forty minutes, you leave, understand? You head west, and you don’t look back. Aaron will find you.”
Ben knew that Peter was right. He had to stay behind with Mica. His limp would slow them down and put them all in danger. The thought ate away at his gut like rot: he was too weak to even go save his sister. He just nodded to Peter.
“You stay safe, you hear?” Peter said.
Ben nodded again.
“Good. Later, Mics,” Peter said.
“Wait,” she said, reaching out for him. “Here,” she said and handed him
It was a little silver lighter. Ben wondered if it was what she had used to start all those damn fires.
“For Anda. Make sure they burn for this,” Mica said and looked up at Peter. Ben caught his breath when he saw her face. The anger in her eyes startled him, and he wondered if he ever really knew her or what she was truly capable of.
Peter nodded, tucked the lighter into his pocket, then looked to Cassandra. “Let’s move,” he said and disappeared out the front door into the sunshine.
Cassandra saluted to Mica. Then she looked at Ben. She opened her mouth like she wanted to say something, but her eyes grew sad. Ben wanted to say something too, but he didn’t know what. Cassandra nodded, stepped out the door into the early morning light, and was gone.
The room felt colder. Unsaid words flickered through Ben’s mind, words it was now too late to say. The house suddenly seemed large and empty and hollow, and Ben stared into the light and the bright that filled the doorway. He limped out into the white, but Peter and Cassandra had already disappeared.
Gone. He felt as though something had been stolen from him, but he didn’t know what it was. He stared down the road, watching the falling leaves swirl and gust like water and rain. It had been a day just like this when the Watchers had come the last time. They had stolen things then too: more unsaid words, knowledge, history, family. Now there were things from his past that Ben would never understand because there was no one left to explain it.
What would be lost now? Fear leaned in close and whispered doubts in his ear. What if Peter and Cassandra didn’t find her? What if they got Burned? What if they found her, but led soldiers back here and got everyone Burned? Fear’s red lips brushed against his ear, reminding him that Anda needed help, she always did. Peter was smart, capable, but he still didn’t know the village like Ben did. Cassandra was an outsider.
They’d never find Anda in time.
“Ben!” Mica called from inside.
“Yeah?” he said, rousing himself from shadows and memories and maybes and coming back inside.
Mica simply said: “Agatha.”
Fear smiled at him and licked her chops. Panic sparked up and down Ben’s spine. Of course, Anda would go to the bakery, why hadn’t he thought of that? Agatha was virtually the only person Anda actually liked. Agatha gave her spoonfuls of cookies dough sometimes, or candied fruit. In a time of crisis, she would definitely go to Agatha for help.
“You sure?” he asked, limping back inside, but he knew the answer.
Mica nodded, her head in her hands.
Ben swore and pounded his crutch on the floor. He would never be able to reach Peter and Cassandra in time. He could stagger down the road, limping and tripping along, but he’d never make it. If they didn’t check the bakery, they wouldn’t find Anda, but no matter how much he wanted to stumble his way to the village to help, he couldn’t leave Mica alone. She could barely stand up on her own, not that he could do much better.
He paced, his crutch thumping against the floor. There had to be a way to fix this. He had to get to the village and keep Mica safe, but how?
“You have to go,” Mica said. She blinked slowly. “Go find her.”
“I can’t leave you.”
She waved him off. “I can take care of myself.”
“You can’t even stand.”
“You can’t even walk! Sorry. But you have to go after them.”
“I know. But I can’t….” But he paused, catching his breath.
“Go. Just go!” she screamed.
So Ben ran. He stumbled out the door and down the porch stairs towards the road.
A sound behind him.
He whirled to see. A man ran towards the house, long braid flying in the wind, glasses flashing in the sunlight. Behind him, a transport sat parked by the trees, steam rising off the engine block.
Relief settled in his chest like a dove. Ben turned and hurried to meet him. “Aaron!”
“Ben! We’ve got to go. Now. Where’s Cassandra and Peter?”
“What?” Aaron blinked at him.
“Anda went to the village, and Peter and Cassandra went to go find her.”
Aaron shook his head. “Well, come on then. Let’s go,” he said and turned back towards the transport.
“No. I’m going to the village. Take care of Mica,” Ben said, pointing to the house, and he was already limping towards the road to West Six. Now that Mica wasn’t alone, he could try and make it to the village—he could try and save them. He had to try. What sort of man was he if he couldn’t even keep his promises? Besides, if he didn’t do something, they might not make it out at all.
“Excuse me?” Aaron asked. “The village? The one being Burned at this very moment? You’re going there?”
“I have to.”
In an instant, Ben was on the ground, staring up at the sky, his leg screaming with pain. A vicious kick to his bad leg had sent him sprawling. His leg ached and throbbed. Aaron stood above him, holding his crutch, his glasses reflecting the light and hiding his eyes.
“What was that?” Ben asked, struggling to his feet and reaching for his crutch.
Aaron slammed the crutch into Ben’s chest, knocking him back to the ground.
“I’m saving your life,” Aaron said, pointing the crutch at Ben’s face. “Thank me later. Now, you’re coming with me. We don’t have time for this.”
He held a hand out to Ben to help him up, but Ben got to his feet on his own.
“They’re looking in the wrong place,” he said, brushing Aaron’s hand away. “They won’t find Anda. I have to help them.”
“Weren’t you paying attention? I just knocked you down like it was nothing.”
“I’m going anyway.”
“And when the soldiers find you? Then what?”
Ben flushed. “Then nothing.”
“Exactly. Nothing. Because you will be Burned if you go there. Then they will kill you just because you’re crippled. Damaged. You know that.”
Ben grit his teeth. “Then that’s what will happen.” He held his hand out for his crutch.
Aaron hesitated. “Please, don’t go.”
Fear hovered behind Aaron’s shoulder, looking at Ben with her milky white eyes. “Take care of Mica. Please.”
Aaron nodded and gave Ben his crutch. Then Ben turned for the village.
Ben had never moved so fast in his life. The forest was deep and quiet, unusually so. Fallen leaves hissed and swirled around his feet and crutch like sprays of water, the only sound in the deep stillness of the wood. All at once, the forest cleared, and the Wildflower came into view.
The little Inn blazed with fire, and its paint curled from the wood, yellow and black as scabs. Despite the movement of the fire, the place was still.
Even as he hurried forward, staggering and limping, sweating and panting, Ben shivered. The doors lay broken like shattered bones. Shards from broken windows sparkled in the grass like tears. Two bodies lay on the front lawn. Ben couldn’t tell who they were. Although he was sure he knew them, West Six was small.
He didn’t stop moving until the village came into view under a red sunrise, and Ben almost dropped to his knees when he saw the flames. Most of the village was burning under a weeping sun. Flames licked upward in the morning breeze to a swirling cloud of ash and smoke. The scent of blood filled his nose, and for a moment, completely overpowered him.
The last time Watchers had come, ten, maybe twenty people at most had been Burned, and the soldiers had not wrecked the village. Now the soldiers were destroying everything, but that didn’t make sense. Why destroy the entire village? Because Mica set some fires and stole some booze?
He crossed the wide field and struggled over the fence behind Viola’s house. A feral sound split his ears, and he fell to the ground, dropping his crutch. A black streak shot past him and bounded over the fence: Toby, Viola’s cat.
He couldn’t help but feel grateful that Toby had escaped, no matter how many times that cat had scratched him as a kid. Ben collapsed against the house to catch his breath. Sweat stung his eyes, poured down his back, and his leg ached.
A voice, serene, and level, came from somewhere. Its monotone words echoing back onto each other too loud and too far away to be understood. When Ben had stopped wheezing, he poked his head around the side of the house.
He was still several streets away from the village square, and even from there, it was chaos. People ran to escape the soldiers and the Burn darts, but most failed. Bodies littered the streets, yet the sight of the tranquil villagers frightened Ben the most.
Those hit with the honey-colored darts stilled. The Burn serum was mixed with the Calm, dampening the effects of the chaos around them and making the Burners easier to contain and corral to processing centers. It took a few moments for the Burn to take effect. A few struggling steps, one last flickering memory, image, one final thought, and then stillness.
The Burned stood calmly over the dead. Those were the lucky ones, the ones who didn’t get Burned. People wiped of their pasts stared at the bodies lying in the street, completely oblivious that only moments before those bodies had been friends, family, husbands, and wives.
With a grunt, Ben raised himself to his feet. He had to make it to the bakery. As he limped to the back of the house, he tried to stay low. His limp made him an easy target, and he hoped he could avoid the panic and chaos of the soldiers by sticking to the little backyards and alleys. The side street was empty, and he hobbled towards the town square.
Hoping to cut down an already cleared street, he rounded a corner and yelped with surprise. Two wiry soldiers turned on him like spiders eyeing a fly. Their green uniforms splattered with dirt and blood. Ben ducked just as the darts missed him and stuck with a twang into the wood behind his head. He reached for anything to shield himself from their next volley. A piece of the broken shutter was the first thing under his hand. He raised it and felt the darts thud into the splintered wood. He braced for bullets to rip into him next, but the soldiers didn’t fire.
Uncertainly, Ben lowered his shield to see what was happening. The soldiers fought someone hand to hand.
The fighter moved so quickly that he could barely make out who it was, but the swinging dark dreads told him it was Cassandra. She fought with a short stick in one hand and a blade in the other, circling to keep one thin soldier in between her and the other.
He had never seen someone move so smoothly, so precisely, and so sharply. With fluid motions, she relieved one soldier of his Burn gun, kicked him to the ground, spun, and shot the other soldier charging her with a Burn dart.
A yellow feather stuck into his neck, and he stumbled backward, grabbing at the dart and screaming. But it was too late. She raised the Burn gun at the first soldier rising to meet her, but the weapon clicked.
The soldier rushed her, and they clashed. Her blade flashed in the smoky light. The thin-limbed soldier blocked and countered, twisting, trying to keep her in front of him in a desperate dance. She landed a kick and knocked him off balance, sending him stumbling towards Ben.
The stumble gave Ben the window to scramble to his feet, grab his crutch, and swing at the falling soldier. His crutch connected with a crunch, but the swing pulled him off balance, and Ben tumbled onto slick cobblestones and rolled to a stop against the curb. Ben maneuvered himself upright and pounced on the soldier, pinning him down. He pulled his fist back and froze.
The soldier stared up at him with blank and empty eyes. A little yellow feather stuck in the soldier’s arm.
Ben dropped his fist and lurched back as the soldier’s limbs curled up and tangled like a dead spider. Cassandra stood above them in the sun, holding a smoking Burn gun. She emptied the chamber and smashed the remaining darts on the ground under her heel. Thin, honey liquid flowed between the stones. She threw the Burn gun away and extended a hand to Ben.
“What are you doing here?” she asked and pulled Ben to his feet. “We told you to stay at the house. You’re going to get us all killed—did you just leave Mica? She’s not here too, is she?”
“No. Aaron’s there. Where’s Peter?”
“Peter’s searching what’s left of the market. We’re meeting up and heading back. I didn’t find her. I’m sorry.”
“We need to try the bakery—Anda probably went to the bakery.”
Cassandra shook her head. “No time. I barely made it out of the butcher’s. Peter is meeting me here, and then we’re leaving. Come on,” she said, grabbing his arm and pushing him back towards Viola’s house.”
“No! I’m going to the bakery—I’m finding Anda,” Ben said and started down the street.
“Ben, wait. Please!”
“You go. I’m not leaving without her.”
He saw her move and reacted just before she grabbed his crutch. He spun around and shoved her hand away. “No!”
“Ben, I can’t let you do this,” she said, her voice low, and her eyes dark.
“Aaron already gave me the speech.”
“Then you know you won’t make it,” She said.
“And I told you—not leaving without Anda.”
Cassandra set her jaw and glared at him. “I didn’t want to have to do this,” she said. Then she lunged at him.
Ben threw his full weight into her, and they collapsed to the ground. As Cassandra grabbed for the crutch, Ben reached for the gun one of the soldiers had dropped. In a flash, he was aiming at her as she crouched with her hand out for his crutch.
They stared at each other.
“You wouldn’t shoot an unarmed girl,” she said.
“You wouldn’t beat up a cripple. Now, give me the crutch.”
Cassandra reluctantly handed it over, and Ben pushed himself up.
“Ben, please,” she said. “There are enough new ghosts today.”
“And Anda won’t be one of them.”
Ben turned and hobbled down the street, crutch under one arm, gun in his free hand.
Behind him, he heard her curse and start after him. “Well, I can’t let you get yourself Burned—Peter would never forgive me,” she mumbled.
As they hurried towards the town square, that monotone voice grew louder and louder, and Ben went cold at the words.
“…chosen to give up yourself in service to Our Eternal Mother. It was a noble and brave thing to do, and we are honored by your loyalty. Your service will be rewarded. You now serve your Eternal Mother, Loraine. Thank you for your service. You have chosen….”
They were almost to the alley behind the bakery when the square came into view. Ben ducked behind an abandoned and flaming transport and stared at the square. Cassandra knelt close beside him. He could feel her breath on his neck, hot and moist. The square was crawling with soldiers.
A body lay still over the side of the fountain, its blood turning the water red as it shot up into the cold and smoky sky. Soldiers roughly corralled people into fast-moving lines where they stuck Burn needles in their necks, scanned a blood sample, and directed the newly Burned to transports full of silent people.
Some in the queue resisted. They were shot. People desperately looked for their families, searching for one last familiar and loving face before it was all gone. Then, as the needle plunged into their neck, the serum took effect, and they vanished.
Ben watched the closest queue, just at the end of the alley, and strained to hear the soldier’s words.
“Thank you for your sacrifice. Next,” the soldier said, his voice even and bored. The next in line was roughly shoved forward. An old man with tangled hair and a wild beard. Apples for firewood. Jesse. The soldier jammed a Burn needle into the man’s neck, and the old man cringed.
He felt Cassandra’s hand on his arm and realized that he was standing.
“No, Ben, there’s nothing you can do,” she said.
Ben looked back as the glassy expression came over Jesse’s face, and his memories, history, and self slipped quietly away.
And just like that, the old man was gone.
“You have chosen to give your life in service to your Eternal Mother,” the soldier said to the new ghost before him. “And we thank you for your sacrifice. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.”
The soldier grabbed Jesse’s hand and jammed a scanner to his thumb.
“For the time being, please follow any and all instructions as we are only here to assist you. You will be processed in full at the…”
The scanner blinked red.
“West Nine Processing Center,” the soldier said, looking at the device.
“You serve your Eternal Mother, Loraine. Whom do you serve?” he asked.
“My Eternal Mother, Loraine,” Jesse said.
“Yes, yes. Our Eternal Mother.” The soldier shoved him towards a row of transports filled with people. “And thank you for your service. Next!”
“What is that scanner?” Ben asked, his eyes still on Jesse staggering towards the transport. Suddenly he could hear the phrase, our Eternal Mother, being repeated, echoed and intoned all over the square, and he shuddered.
“They’re making sure no one’s special,” Cassandra said like the words were bitter. “Come on. We’re not getting anywhere near that bakery. Let’s find Peter and get out of here.”
Something caught his eye. A small, dark soldier with brass on his chest and a shaved head gleaming in the firelight. The soldier strolled through the square. He turned his head, and Ben saw the scar down his face.
Cold fear washed over Ben as he stared at Rufus Loraine. He had only ever seen Rufus on a CRT display at the Re-Incarnate Day Ceremony.
Why was Rufus here?
Rufus paused his stroll to watch the Burnings and chaos around him calmly, standing still and breathing deeply. Despite his calmness, his eyes were wild, searching, cold as steel marbles set into the empty sockets of a black skull. His calm sent a chill over Ben, and he couldn’t look away from the strange man with the horrible eyes. Rufus’s eyes roamed the square, searching. His gaze flicked closer and closer to Ben. Almost on him.
Cassandra pushed Ben into a doorway for cover, pulling him out of his fixation and away from Rufus’s gaze. “There are too many,” she said. “We won’t find Anda. I’m sorry…”
Ben wanted to run, but he couldn’t. He stayed glued to the wall watching his friends and neighbors rounded up and Burned. He knew these people, he knew them well. Most of them, he had known all his life. Ben looked at as many people as he could, desperately trying to remember an entire village before it could not remember itself.
Reminiscence knelt in the street. She wept and grew pale, tears streaming down her ghostly face.
“Ben, come on,” he heard Cassandra speaking, but her words were far away and empty echoes. She placed a hand on his arm.
The crack of a bullet jarred Ben out of his thoughts. “All right, let’s go,” Ben said, finding his words again and nodding back the way they had come. He scanned the line of waiting villagers one last time. In a few moments, Ben would carry in his memory all that what was left of them.
His heart stopped. They were too late.
A flash of white hair: Anda. She stood in line, two from the front, eyelids fluttering.
Ben broke away from Cassandra’s grasp and rushed for the square, his crutch scraping and cracking against the cobblestones. He would fight off every one of them if he had to.
“Anda!” he screamed. Her eyes fluttered, then snapped open, and she scanned for him. “Anda!” Ben yelled again.
She found him. She opened her mouth to cry out, but her eyelids fluttered rapidly. Her eyes opened impossibly wide, and she stared at him. Then she turned and stepped onto one of the transports.
“Anda!” Ben screamed again, but a soldier stepped out of the building to his right, startling him. Ben was too far away to reach the soldier before he fired, and too close to avoid being hit.
The sharp sting of the dart warmed his shoulder. He didn’t need to look down to know the little yellow feather was there.
Maybe if he kept running. Maybe if he pulled out the dart… maybe….
A burning started at the base of his skull. It spread over his scalp and down into his eyes, blurring his vision. He struggled to keep his eyes open and focused. Everything hazed.
He had to keep running… just keep….
His legs slowed themselves to a walk. Just keep… keep…. And then he stopped.
Then there was nothing…