Last time we saw MICA… (click for recap)
Mica and Aaron flee West Six for the White Mountains. They find a home that has been ransacked by soldiers and bury the murdered couple. As they head for the Empty Places, Mica questions Aaron’s belief in Perseus, the mythical savior of Nova, arguing that they must fight for their freedom, not wait to be saved. After everything that has happened to her, Mica focuses on fighting, but shame follows her close behind…
Mica was bored. The Empty Places were aptly named. She walked ahead through yet another a dry and ancient wood. Most of the trees had lost their leaves, but evergreens scented the wood like home. They had been walking for two days, and she was hungry, tired, and eager to get to the mountains. But wherever she looked, she only saw fields and trees and grass and light.
She had slept fitfully the night before, huddled against the earth trying to keep warm, and her vision swam. They had walked all morning and afternoon, and it was far past dinnertime. Food was the only thing on Mica’s mind as she put one foot in front of the other.
As her mind wandered from thoughts of food and home to fire and smoke, she stepped out of the trees and onto a dirt road. Blinded by the sudden brightness, she stopped to let her eyes adjust and to let Aaron catch up.
A sound. Growing, like a fire rushing and roaring towards her.
A transport rounded the bend behind the trees sending up a cloud of dust and headed right for her.
Shock, but also curiosity, kept Mica rooted to the ground as the transport barreled towards her. This had to be an Unseen transport—they had to be almost at the Unseen City.
The transport grew larger and larger with every second. The dusty road triggered the memory of smoke and burning and blood and running.
And shame was there in the swirling dust.
Aaron grabbed Mica by the arm and yanked her back into trees, where gray shadow engulfed them. He pulled her close and slid behind a tree.
“What the hell were you doing?” he asked, shoving her forward. “Run!”
“But aren’t they yours?” Mica asked.
“Novan,” he said sharply.
Something strange and urgent rose in her throat, and she worried that she would not be able to contain it. “But we’re in the Empty Places—there’s nothing here, we’re safe, there’s—”
The roar of the transport stopped. Everything went quiet.
Mica started to speak in the ringing silence, but Aaron clamped a hand over her mouth, and the scent of his skin and dirt and salt flooded her senses. He dropped to the ground, pulling Mica down with him, and hid them behind a fallen tree.
“Yes, we’re in the Empty Places, but nowhere is safe in Nova. Nowhere,” he whispered into her ear. “They sometimes patrol the Empty Places looking for people like us, and they use the roads for transporting supplies. Now, do you want to get Burned, or will you listen to me?” Aaron said, his breath hot in her ear and his arm around her waist.
A tear rolled down Mica’s cheek and onto Aaron’s hand. She nodded, and he released her.
The transport doors opened and closed in the distance.
“Good, now you’re going to get down and hide. Got it?”
“You stay down and don’t move until I say so, do you understand?” Aaron said, and Mica heard anger and a threat in his voice. She nodded again.
Slow footsteps crunched on the dirt road, then faded into the woods.
Mica’s stomach churned. Aaron took off his glasses and slid them into her hand. She closed her fist around the warm metal and looked up at him. She liked the way he looked without glasses. He looked younger. He looked nothing like Peter, although she felt like he should.
A twig snapped.
A branch swept aside and rustled back into place, sending fear sparking through Mica’s skin.
Aaron nodded towards the dark of the woods, and she turned and picked her way silently through the trees. She looked back for Aaron, but he was gone.
Mica pushed her way into the shelter of a dense fir tree. She crouched in the half-light, and let the branches cover her like piney wings. She carefully cradled Aaron’s glasses in her one hand, her own face a dark and dim reflection on the smooth glass. In her other hand, she held a dead man’s lighter.
Footsteps. Heavy footsteps and raspy breathing edged closer and closer.
Mica squeezed her eyes shut.
A struggle and a gurgling noise. Silence.
Someone yelled. Crashing through the brush away from Mica.
Everything went still.
Mica strained to see through the branches, but she saw nothing but the feathery pine needles surrounding her. She sent up a silent prayer for Aaron and tried to still her pounding heart.
Mica flinched, she knew that sound. The soft click of a Windrose weapon sounded like thunder in the quiet forest.
Slow footsteps sounded closer and closer. Then they ran, sprinting through the woods.
Four gunshots tore through the silence.
Someone yelled. And then laughed.
Birds shrieked and fluttered from the trees, and up into the sky like a dozen black bullets. And she knew that Aaron was gone. Mica sat frozen with fear—she was alone again.
She clenched her fist around Aaron’s glasses. Shame gave her a disappointed look. She should have fought with Aaron. She should have helped him. Now it was too late.
Panic overwhelmed her. She should have helped him, and she should have fought with him instead of hiding away as he had said. Wasn’t that what she wanted? To fight? If she didn’t fight now, then what was she? Shame shook her head at Mica, chiding, her greasy hair flopping around her face.
Mica stuffed the lighter and Aaron’s glasses into the dead man’s pocket and sprang from under the wings of the tree. And she ran. A deep and feral sound ripped through her throat, and emotion propelled her forward through the trees towards the gunshots, jumping over fallen logs and dodging low hanging branches. She sprinted from shame, her teeth grit in fury.
Up ahead, through the thin and broken branches, she saw a figure standing, and she lurched to a halt. The figure turned and looked at Mica. A soldier stared at her. Blood dripped from his hands and streaked his bare shining head as if he had smeared it over his scalp, and he raised his weapon at her.
She screamed a grating and clawing sound and ran for him. But a red smile filled the soldier’s face, and his hazy eyes darkened like smoke. She held her breath, waiting for the bullets to bite into her flesh and squeezed her eyes shut.
The gun went off, and Mica lurched sideways. She fell to her knees and gasped.
Mica forced herself to open her eyes and looked down at her chest, wondering how bad it was, how deep the bullets had ripped. But as she ran her hands over herself, she realized that she had not been shot. The sound of something heavy falling to the forest floor caught her attention, and she looked up. Aaron stood over the soldier, red dripped from a dark knife in his hand. The soldier lay still.
“But… he shot,” Mica said. “He shot me.”
“I thought you were dead.”
“I can see that. Shit. What happened?”
“I told you to stay hidden. And I told you to watch your language.”
She saw a spot of red in the corner of her eye and looked. The other soldier lay sprawled on the ground. “Did you kill them?”
“What were you expecting me to do?”
“I don’t know… I didn’t… I didn’t think you’d kill them… shit.” Mica said again.
“You were in danger,” Aaron said simply.
“So you killed them?”
“You’re forgetting what I do for a living.”
“You’re a history professor.”
“No,” Aaron said. “I am an Agent of the Unseen City.” He stood tall and still, and for the first time, Mica really saw him. She saw the tension in his hands and the veins on his neck and the clench of his jaw. Something strange and hidden inside of him raised its head to look at her. It was something that Mica did not recognize, something calm and intelligent and pale. She wondered if she should be afraid of Aaron and the thing that looked out at her from deep inside him.
“Are you all right?” he asked. The strange and shadowed thing disappeared back behind Aaron’s eyes, leaving only a concerned look wedged between his eyebrows.
“No, I’m not all right. You killed them.”
“Part of my job is protecting people. And I protected you, do you understand that?”
“It’s just that… people keep dying.”
That burning ache grew hotter in her chest, and shame with her dark and dirty hair came closer. The scent of pine and roots and rotting leaves filled Mica’s nose and mouth.
Aaron stepped over the fallen soldier and walked over to Mica. He knelt down and looked her in the eye. “I know.”
“It’s not fair.”
“No. It isn’t. But that is what fighting means. People die.”
“But if we don’t fight, people die anyway.”
“What are we supposed to do then? People die no matter what you do.”
“We fight anyway.”
“Why? Why do you fight?”
“For my people.”
Mica rubbed hard at her face to keep from crying. Aaron shifted and sat down in the dirt with her. They sat quietly, watching the bars of autumn sunlight shimmer through the trees, and something sparked inside her, not like the burn of shame, but like a warm and pure and cleansing fire.
A cold breeze rushed through the branches, and Mica watched the dead leaves, white in the sun, fall to the earth in a swirl of gray and white. And then that feeling was gone, but it had been there.
Mica struggled to her feet, and Aaron did the same. Mica’s hands still shook with the remnants of adrenaline, and her knees felt weak, but she stood straight and held Aaron’s glasses out to him.
“It’s not fair,” she said.
Aaron accepted his glasses, and set them back on his nose. He blinked at her. “I know,” he said and began walking towards the road. Mica followed him but glanced back. Behind her, where she had been sitting, in a patch of light, a small green shoot poked its head up out of the dirt to the sunshine.
They picked their way through the woods back to the road. Aaron opened the back of the transport and surveyed the supplies. Food. Boxes and boxes of food!
He smiled and slammed the back doors shut. “Looks like this worked out after all,” he said.
“Now what?” Mica asked.
“Bury them. Then, we take the transport and go. Before others come looking for them.”
She flushed. “They don’t deserve it.”
They’d Burned people. They’d killed. They’d come after her and Aaron for no reason. Maybe they had even been the soldiers who had killed that couple. Whatever they were, they were Novan soldiers, so they didn’t deserve kindness.
He blinked at her. “They are victims as much as we are. In some ways, even more so.”
“How can you say that after you just slit their throats? You know what they are.”
“They are soldiers, and this is war. They fought, they lost. Things must be done in war that are unthinkable, but they are necessary to save our people. All of them.”
“They aren’t your people. They’re soldiers.”
“They are oppressed by Loraine as much as any of us. And Perseus will save all, not just the Unseen, but the Novans and the soldiers and the poor and the Burned. All.”
“But you’re Unseen,” she said, trying to wrap her head around his words.
“My time in Windrose taught me much,” he said carefully. “Stay here and keep watch. I will take care of it. Let me know if another transport comes.”
Mica shifted as Aaron slipped into the woods. She stood behind a tree, peeking out first to one side, then the other, watching. The road stretched out of sight in either direction, and she kept watch for little clouds of dust that meant transports.
Aaron soon emerged silently from the woods, carrying the soldiers’ weapons and the keys to the transport. Mica shivered when she saw the blood on his hands and clothes. Aaron yanked a tracking device from under the transport, tossed it into the woods, then they climbed into the cab and began driving.
They drove until it got dark, then Aaron pulled the transport over, and they slept. Mica slept in the back with the boxes and supplies. She slept with her fist tight around her lighter. Aaron slept up front in the cab.
They spent the next day driving west and eating the supplies of crackers and canned vegetables from the back of the transport. Every now and then, Aaron would stop and stretch his legs, but only ever for a few minutes. They drove in silence, watching for patrols and transports. But mercifully, the Empty Places remained empty.
Mica nodded sleepily in a patch of warm sunlight. Thoughts of her family and Peter glowed bright and red in her mind, like the sun flashing across her eyelids. She remembered Peter’s amber eyes and how they looked gold in the sunlight. She remembered the way he smelled, like grass and dirt and smoke, and the spiraling tattoo on his belly. She remembered the last time she saw him, stepping out into the sunlight to rescue Anda.
“You think you’ll ever see her again?” Mica asked, her eyes still shut to preserve the opalescent memories behind her eyelids.
“Cassandra,” Mica said, still thinking about Peter. Orange and purple shadows played on the backs of her eyelids.
“No,” Aaron said.
Mica opened her eyes and looked at him. “Why not? They can find Burners, can’t they—the Unseen?”
“Why would they? Burners are gone. No memories, no history. They are not who they once were so there’s no point. The Unseen do not find Burners.”
“But they could if they wanted to,” Mica said, her words a question and a hope and a dread.
Aaron’s mouth twisted up in thought. “I suppose they could. Nova keeps excellent records of their Burners. But why would we find them? They’re gone.”
They continued driving in silence, and Mica turned his words over and over in her mind. The Unseen could find her family, but it sounded like they wouldn’t. She’d have to figure out some way to use the Unseen and find them on her own.
They came to the top of a low hill and stopped with a sudden jolt, and a thrill of emotion pulsed through Mica. The White Mountains. Somewhere on that mountainside lay the Unseen City.
Aaron smiled. “Almost home.”