Last time we saw MICA… (click for recap)
When Ben heads for West Six to help save Anda from soldiers and Burning, Mica is left alone. Consumed by memories, fear, and shame, Mica panics, only to discover that Aaron has returned to guide them back to the Unseen. They wait for Ben and the rest to return but are forced to flee when soldiers arrive suddenly. After running and hiding, Mica realizes she has to go back and save her family, but Aaron won’t let her. To go back is to die. And she will never find her family once they are Burned. But Mica realizes that the Unseen can help her find her family. After all, they found Peter, so they must be able to find a Burner. So she and Aaron head west for the White Mountains and the Unseen City…
They continued west. Aaron pushed them on all day. With each aching step away from West Six, Mica felt sadness and shame peeking out from behind the trees like a mother and child with their pale white eyes, always just out of sight. Yet a tiny spark of relief flickered against all her grief.
She wasn’t Burned.
She and Aaron had escaped. But whenever that spark of hope flickered, shame was there to pinch it out with bony, grubby fingers, and blow away the smoke.
The sun skidded across the sky and sank over the treetops. Night was coming. Finally, all the walking turned Mica’s legs to rubber, and her feet refused to keep going.
They stopped, hidden in a low and dried river bed, canopied by pines, to rest. Aaron stared intently into the trees behind them, searching for signs of pursuit. Despite the cold, his neck shown with sweat. Mica wondered how she looked, dirty and sweaty and tear-stained, her hair beginning to shine with grease. She pulled her eyes away from Aaron’s back and scanned the forest for signs of soldiers. She saw nothing but trees and grass turned lavender in the early evening shadows.
“I want to be over the river as soon as we can,” Aaron said.
“West Nine River. We cross the river and then make for the Empty Places and the White Mountains.”
Mica looked west like she could see the mountains in the distance, but she only saw shadows. Somewhere, deep in the White Mountains, lay the Unseen City, hidden from Loraine and Burnings and hunger. Mica had grown up hearing whispers of this city, but until Cassandra, she had always thought it was just a myth. Now, this myth was her only hope for finding her family. And this now solid and real myth had been Peter’s home.
The thought set her soul moaning and mourning, but she bit her tongue to keep quiet. Aaron was from this city too, and Mica wondered what Unseen secrets he had locked away in his mind.
“Who are you? I mean, really?” Mica asked.
Aaron wiped sweat from his forehead. “I’m a friend of Cassandra’s.”
He raised an eyebrow at her.
“Cassandra told us. You’re a spy. Aren’t you?”
“I wouldn’t be a very good spy if I told you that, would I?”
She frowned at him. “Cassandra told us all about your city. She told us about why you came to see Peter, and why you went back to Windrose. Did you find him?” she asked, and the sarcasm in her voice sounded bitter even to her.
“Did I find who?”
“You know… Perseus?”
Stars glimmered in the back of her mind in the delicate constellation shaped like a man. Perseus. Perseus is coming.
Cassandra had said that Aaron had gone back to Windrose looking for Perseus, the Savior of Nova, and the Destroyer of Loraine. Someone had told them that they would find Perseus where the Water Star fell. They didn’t know what that meant, but they had thought that Peter might. So Aaron and Cassandra found Peter, and Peter had told him where to look for this myth. Because that was all Perseus was: stars and stories and myth.
Mica remembered her mother looking up into the stars and saying, “Perseus is coming, Mica. Remember that. Perseus will come.”
Mica knew that to be a lie. There was no Perseus, and Aaron was crazy if he believed it. But she wondered anyway.
Aaron pushed himself up out of the dirt. “We’ve got a long way to go. Come on.”
They traveled through the sunset and into the night. The river suddenly appeared like a snake in the grass. Stars shimmered on the rippled surface of the water like scales, the wind hissed through the grass, and clouds rolled swiftly across the sky.
They stepped into the cold and the water and crossed the tarnished and sliding river. Frigid water plants plucked at Mica’s feet as she swam. Her fingers pulled her through the water and pushed past currents and little fishes and silent swimming things. Aaron kept looking back to make sure she was following, his breath making white puffs in front of his face.
Finally, Mica pulled herself up the riverbank and looked back, shivering. On the water’s surface, moonlight shifted. Tall grasses waved in the breeze. Stars burned in the blackness above. Back there, across the river, Mica pictured her family staring up into the sky with no memories, no knowledge, and no hope. That feeling, that searing feeling like a burning torch that came whenever shame touched her with dirty and childlike hands burned softly in her chest. Then Mica turned and followed Aaron silently through the grass.
Soon Aaron found a small cluster of trees just on the other side of a low rolling hill, hidden from the road and the eyes of the river. He built a small fire, and they huddled around it with outstretched and shaking hands.
“You think everyone’s gone?” Mica asked.
Aaron did not answer.
“You think anyone survived?”
He passed a hand over his face. “Windrose soldiers are well trained. They are thorough.”
Mica nodded and realized that she was finally truly alone. But shame coiled her thin arms around her and held her tight.
“I’m sixteen. I’m five minutes older than my twin, Miranda,” she said, staring into the fire. “Ben used to tell us stories when we were little. My mother’s name is Esther. My father’s name is Caleb. We kept a stash of my father’s book in a plastic tub behind the barn. Alice in Wonderland was my favorite.”
“Mica,” Aaron said in a soft tone, the tone you might use when comforting a stranger you had found crying on the street. She lay down and looked up at the mournful stars. Perseus shimmered in the sky. “Your family will be remembered,” Aaron said. He lay down near the fire and turned his back to the flames and away from Mica.
Mica thought of her mother, a hammer clenched in her fist, standing on their back porch, watching her children flee for safety while she stood and fought for them. After a long stretch of deep silence, Mica said, “just remembering isn’t good enough. You have to fight.”
Aaron did not answer. Mica turned and saw his shoulders rise and fall steadily with sleep, and she turned her eyes up into the night. While staring at the constellations, she drifted off to sleep.
She dreamed that if she fell asleep, she would wake up Burned and not know who she was. She dreamed that she was running through the woods from a flock of shrieking yellow birds. The swarm engulfed her, yellow birds with black beaks and red tongues and glassy eyes. She burst through the woods and the flock and into a clearing. Anda and Ben and Peter stood in the center of the bright and the clear and looked at her.
Peter reached out to her.
“Help me,” Anda said as the fluttering of yellow and black swirled around them and overwhelmed them.
“Help me, Mica!”
“Mica, time to get up.”
Mica awoke with a start and smacked at the thing on her shoulder, afraid it was a yellow bird. Aaron sat back, but not in surprise. He had been shaking her shoulder to wake her, and she had slapped his hand away.
They sat, staring at each other in the dark. Her heart pounded, cold sweat dripping down her sides and her chest and her belly, and she wiped the cold dampness off her neck.
“Morning,” he said, turning away from her.
“Not really morning yet is it,” Mica said, blinking in the darkness. They had slept a few hours, but it wasn’t enough. It felt like centuries of wakefulness condensed into a heartbeat, and yet no time at all. Mica sat up and brushed her hair out of her face. Dead leaves had tangled in her braid, and she hated knowing that she looked so wild and feral and dirty—more so than usual.
She’d never been pretty, and she knew it. Part of it was just her face, her mouth was too wide and her eyes too small under too bushy eyebrows, but part of it was also her own fault, her own lack of maintenance. Being pretty in West Six got you too much attention from soldiers, so she tended to let her hair tangle and scrubbed her face red and a bit raw. But now she tried to comb the leaves out of her heavy hair discretely and wished for something to calm her chapped lips and red nose.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Aaron said and started off into the wild. “The Empty Places aren’t far.”
They walked through the harsh cold that always proceeds the sunrise, and they kept walking through the long morning shadows and the warm midday brightness. By mid-afternoon, they found a farmhouse with flowers in a window box near the last West town.
Beyond lay the Empty Places.
After making sure the house was quiet and empty, they crept inside and raided the pantry.
The place was deserted, but the table lay overturned, and dishes spilled across the floor. The occupants had left in a hurry. Aaron insisted they take nothing but what they needed, and that they damage nothing.
Mica insisted that she needed both loaves of bread and the fresh apples. Aaron allowed the bread, but made her put the apples back, and take a box of dried fruit instead. He said it would last longer. Mica rolled her eyes.
She wandered around the small farmhouse and eyed a patched and heavy jacket lying across the back of a chair. Her jacket was warm enough but was beginning to show signs of age. She could use a new one.
“No,” Aaron said from the kitchen.
Mica made a face and took a big bite out of a slice of bread. “Why not? We’re already stealing from these nice people,” she said through a full mouth.
“You have a jacket already. We won’t take more than we need. And we do try to compensate people.” Aaron pulled out his wallet and took out a wad of colorful bills. A pang of jealousy flashed through Mica at the sight of so much cash. Aaron carried a fortune in his wallet, bills that Mica hadn’t before seen in person.
Aaron slipped the bills into a well-worn tractor manual and set the book down on the table. “I prefer to think that we’re borrowing these nice people’s belongings, as they will be purchasing better replacements very soon,” he said.
Mica made snorted and ate more bread. “Sure, like these people are just going to go to the local tractor store and buy one.” She paced, exploring the still and quiet house.
“They will be compensated for their trouble. That’s all.”
A door they hadn’t opened.
She walked towards it, chewing and talking. “Yeah, and you just happen to have so much money, because professors make so much—”
She stopped when she opened the door, the bread going dry in her mouth. Before her lay two bodies. A man and a woman. Holding hands.
Dried and dark blood beneath them.
Aaron appeared at her side and paused when he saw the bodies. “Here,” he said, putting a hand on her arm and trying to steer her away. She didn’t move. She forced herself to swallow the bread, and it ached going down.
“They’re… not much older than me,” Mica said.
Aaron stepped into the room and stooped to examine the bodies. “Shot. Probably soldiers came for something, and they fought back.”
Mica had seen dead bodies before, a hazard of living in Nova, but these two holding hands on the ground shifted something inside her. She looked back at the spilled dishes and the overturned table. Two plates. Two bowls.
“They were just… eating dinner,” she said.
“Yes. It’s not safe here. We need to keep moving.”
“We need to bury them.”
Aaron hesitated. “We don’t have time. Grab what you can. You can take that jacket now.”
“We need to bury them,” she said again.
“Mica,” Aaron said, his voice cold and sharp like sheers. “We need to get to safety. Soldiers might come back to loot the place.”
“We’re not leaving until we bury them,” she said and put her bread down. “You can help or not, but I am going to bury them.”
And Aaron nodded. And they did. Out front, in the yard, they buried the young couple. Mica put up two crosses so that anyone coming to look for them would know they’d been taken care of.
“Let’s get a few more things from the house, but only what we need,” Aaron said after they’d stood in silence over the graves. “We have to keep going.”
Inside, Mica examined the books of the dead while Aaron raided the tool shed. Nothing unusual, all government approved. A lighter, its’ silver sides scrolled with flower and leaves, sat on the lowest bookshelf covered in dust. Mica picked it up and ran her thumb over the etched surface. Dust rolled under her thumb. Something silent and hidden prompted her, nudging her elbow until she slipped the lighter into her pocket. Then that strange something disappeared, quieted, and satisfied.
“You ready?” Aaron asked, appearing in the doorway.
She nodded. Then they took the transport and drove across the field, eating bread and cheese and fresh, green apples. Mica wondered if the woman had picked them herself.
They drove all day. Mica sat flicking her lighter on and off and on and off, watching the little flame burn. Just before sunset, they stopped, parking the transport in a cluster of trees away from the road. After a brief meal, they slept.
In the morning, they continued down dirt roads, deserted fields, and open plains.
“Are we in the Empty Places yet?” Mica asked. She’d been staring at nothing for hours.
A few hours later the transport slowed and then stopped. Out of gas. Aaron and Mica pushed the transport off the road, hoisted their borrowed packs, and began walking. Mica wondered what they might find in this empty wilderness, and kept her eyes open. The sun had risen warm and bright, but it soon slipped behind clouds, and the day stayed cool and gray. Mica pulled the dead man’s jacket close.
They walked all day until the sun peeped out from behind the clouds in a final bursting sunset, and Mica and Aaron cast long shifting shadows behind them. Mica’s stomach grumbled, and she wanted to talk to distract herself from the ache of hunger in her belly. Not that she wasn’t used to hunger, but she preferred not to be reminded of the dark times when her family had gone without food in the days and months before Peter.
Reminiscence, despite her dancing step and singing smile, carried dark and sad things inside her too. Mica never trusted her. Reminiscence changed what she touched, making good things bad and evil things mundane. That barefoot ghost could never be trusted.
“You really believe all this Perseus stuff?” Mica asked as they walked across a barren field towards the woods on the horizon.
Aaron looked back at her, then turned his face to the last warmth of the sun.
For a moment, Mica worried that he wouldn’t answer her or would give her some cryptic and evasive answer, but he said, “yes, I do.”
Mica blinked in surprise. “Did you find Perseus, when you went back to Windrose? You never did answer my question.”
Aaron walked a few paces and did not answer. The wind blew gently through the grass, making a shushing sound, almost as if to quiet their conversation.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Mica said. “Seems to be the story with Perseus—too late, never there when you need him, not even real,” she said with some bitterness. She remembered her mother telling her the story of Perseus with hope in her eyes. She also remembered thinking her own mother was a fool. Their own father wasn’t even there for them, why would anyone else be?
She thought about the couple in the farmhouse, now resting in their field under the stars. At least she’d been there for them in some small way like they had been there for her, lending her food and clothes so that she could get to safety. They had given her something of value, Perseus had given her nothing.
“I believe that Perseus will be revealed in time,” Aaron said, his face lifted to the sky. The setting sun glinted off his glasses.
“But why wait for someone to save you? You and the Unseen fight, don’t you?”
“Yes. But, while we fight, we also wait. Do you know the history of the Perseus Prophecy?” he asked.
“Sure, Cassandra told us. Someone named Juliette said she saw the future. She said she saw Perseus save us from Loraine,” Mica said with a sour taste in her mouth. “But it’s all bullshit. No one can see the future.”
“I believe that Juliette did. And watch your language.”
“Really? You’re a professor or something, right? I mean, you’re super smart and all that?” she said and then blushed.
“I wouldn’t say super smart, and all that. But I was a professor of Novan history at Windrose University. That was my alias.”
Mica pondered the idea of Aaron as a history professor. “But why do you believe in Perseus?”
“Because it was science. Juliette saw the future because of her genetic abilities. She was like the Watchers, and you know what they can do. Why couldn’t there have been someone with the ability to see the future? You believe the Watchers exist, don’t you?”
Mica shivered. “Yeah, but… that’s different. Watchers are….” but she stopped, realizing she wasn’t exactly sure what they were.
“No, it’s no different. It’s science. It’s real, and I look forward to when Perseus is revealed and saves us all. Algol is falling. Perseus is coming. Cetus will die.”
Mica snorted. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s something Juliette said. Algol is the demon star. It represents the decline of Nova and hales the end of Loraine and the coming of Perseus. Cetus is Loraine, a monster who will die for her crimes.”
“Ok, sure. But it’s been over three hundred years since Juliette. You really believe that someone saw over three hundred years into the future? It’s just a stupid story from forever ago—like that stupid Novan storybook they make you read when you’re a kid. No one is coming to save us, so we have to save ourselves. We have to fight,” she said, but the two freshly dug graves flickered in her mind.
Shame, always behind her, came close enough for her to hear the thud of her heartbeat and smell the stink of her breath and see the dirt on her hands. And blood. Shame had blood on her hands.
Aaron lifted his eyes to the stars above the sunset. “I agree that we should fight, but I believe the final fight will not be ours. The final battle will belong to Perseus. The end of Loraine is coming, and until then, I will fight for our freedom. But I also await Perseus with hope. I think I can do both, don’t you?”
Mica clutched her lighter. “No. I think we should fight.”