Last time we saw MICA… (click for recap)
Mica and Aaron reach the White Mountains past the Empty Places. Aaron insists that they follow protocol for entering the Unseen City, and blindfolds Mica for the ascent up the mountain. Aaron tells her that they will be evaluated for Watchers by mysterious Seers, but she shouldn’t worry. She won’t even know they are there. While hiking blindfolded, Mica is separated from Aaron. But she is not alone. She senses a presence and removes her blindfold to find a masked young man in front of her. His black mask covers his eyes, although she knows he sees her. More blindfolded warriors then surround her, and she panics. The unseeing warriors are joined by soldiers who grab and blindfold Mica…
Someone removed Mica’s blindfold, but not her cuffs. Blood had dried on her lip and chin, and she scrunched and rubbed her face on her shoulder, trying to clean off the blood. She blinked in the harsh light of a single bulb. It hung above her like a tiny sun casting precise shadows. Mica sat at a table in a small stone room, and across from her, sat a woman in a forest green uniform. It looked martial and sharp and clean. Brass and iron and silver bars decorated her chest and shoulders.
The woman was old enough to be Mica’s mother and probably would have been considered beautiful at one time in her life. But now her face was drawn back and harsh, hawkish. Stern was the word Mica settled on. The woman’s black braid pulled at the corners of her deep-set eyes. It snaked its way around her neck and down her shoulder across the soldierly bars across her chest. The bulb cast a single point of bright light in the woman’s dark eyes, giving her an intense and penetrating gaze.
Mica frowned at the woman.
The trip up the mountain had taken an eternity. At least, with a blindfold and cuffs, it had felt like forever to Mica. She had no idea how long it actually took. Despite her attempts to get more information out of the soldier sitting in the back of the transport with her, he had remained silent.
Finally, they had stopped. A guard quickly searched her and took her lighter before handing her off to another set of guiding hands. She yelled about the lighter. After many twists and turns and stairs and hallways, Mica was seated in a chair and her blindfold removed, revealing the woman across from her. A pen and file sat on the table in front of the woman.
“Where am I?” Mica asked. “Where’s Aaron?”
The woman stared at her.
Mica stared back. “The hell are you staring at? And where is my lighter? I want it back. That ass of a guard took it.”
A smile twitched at the corner of the woman’s mouth. “What’s your name?” she asked. Her voice resonated deeply like a rusted and tolling bell.
“I’m pissed. Who are you, and where’s my friend? Where’s Aaron?”
The woman looked at Mica for a moment, then leaned across the table and folded her hands in front of her. Her braid swung heavily off her shoulder like a rope in a bell tower and knocked the pen askew. She straightened it. “You’re not making the best first impression,” the woman said, her voice dropping low.
“And what if I don’t give a shit? And you’re not making the finest of first impressions either. Your people jumped me in the woods, cuffed me, and dragged me into the back of a very uncomfortable transport. And stealing people’s stuff isn’t exactly the best way to make friends. I want that lighter back.”
“You are the outsider here, Mica. You are a stranger, and you are considered our enemy unless I say otherwise. Do we understand each other?”
“If you already knew my name, why’d you bother to ask?”
The woman leaned back in her chair. “Why were you on our mountain?”
Mica considered a snide remark about the woman’s mother, but held her tongue and tried a different tactic. “Aaron said I would be safe here, but I don’t feel very safe.” She held up her cuffed hands.
The woman did not move.
“All right,” Mica said. “What’s your name then? It might be easier to answer questions if I knew who I was talking to.”
“Colonel Alayla Mason. You may call me, Colonel Mason. Now, what were you doing on our mountain, Mica?”
Mica made a frustrated sound. “Aaron and I were looking for your dumb city. And, since I’m here, I guess we found it. Whoohoo.”
“And where do you think you are?”
“Don’t do that. Don’t pretend I’m not in the Unseen City. There are no villages past West 11,002. Everyone knows that, and we passed West 11,002 days ago before we got to the Empty Places. And no one lives in the Empty Places. And you sure as hell aren’t with the government.”
“Why not?” Colonel Mason asked.
“Because if you were with the government, I’d already be shot or Burned. Probably both, and not necessarily in that order. And, like I said, there’s nothing past West 11,002 and the Empty Places. And yet, here we are. Somewhere.”
“You think you’re funny?”
“Yeah, I am.”
“Where are you from?”
“Come on. I know Aaron told you everything, where is he? I want to see him,” said Mica.
“Where are you from, Mica?” Colonel Mason repeated.
“Aaron already told you everything, so why don’t you just uncuff me, and let me see him?”
“Because I want to hear it from you,” Colonel Mason said, her voice growing like a ringing bell. Mica shivered at her words. “I want to hear your story from you, in your own words,” Colonel Mason continued. “Understand me?”
Mica rolled her eyes. “Maybe after the welcome I’ve gotten, I don’t feel like talking.”
Colonel Mason sucked her teeth and stared at Mica for a long moment. “Trust is a very delicate thing, and we do not take trust lightly. Around here, we must trust each other to keep everyone safe. And if we can’t trust you, then that’s on Aaron. What happens to him depends on you,” she said.
A heavy feeling settled on Mica’s shoulders and hollowed out her belly. “What do you mean?”
“We defend ourselves, Mica. And that means defending ourselves from outsiders and from agents who have made poor decisions. We don’t like it when our agents make poor decisions.”
Mica shifted. Shame peeped up at her from under the table with gray and white eyes ringed red.
Colonel Mason continued, “I need to know that Aaron didn’t make a bad decision in bringing you here, so you had better start cooperating. I want to help you, but I can’t do that unless you talk to me. So, you’re going to stop acting like a child and answer my questions.”
With that, Colonel Mason set Mica’s lighter on the table, picked up the pen, and opened the file.
“Now, Mica Alderman, what is your name?”
Mica sat and answered Colonel Mason’s questions with a crinkle in her forehead, and everything she said was true. She told Colonel Mason about her life in West Six and Ben and Anda. She told her about Peter. Colonel Mason asked about Aaron, and Mica told her how Aaron and Cassandra had broken into their house looking for Peter. She did not tell her about the stolen communicator, or the fires, or stealing from the soldiers, and shame put a tiny hand around her ankle.
She told the Colonel how Cassandra had told her that she would be safe in the Unseen City and that she could join them and fight with them to free Nova from Loraine. Her voice cracked with sadness when she spoke of the Watchers, and the Burning of West Six, and how she and Aaron had run off into a wood turned red with leaves like fire and smoke.
Colonel Mason took notes, but her eyes never left Mica’s face.
When Mica finished, Colonel Mason looked over her notes and then said, “thank you, Mica. Welcome to the Unseen City.” She reached over and took Mica’s cuffs off of her wrists. “See, that wasn’t so bad.”
Relief so strong that Mica felt dizzy swept over her in a rush.
“There really are no Watchers here? Really?” Mica asked, rubbing her wrists.
“Really. You’re safe now.”
Mica tried to let the idea of safe make sense, but it wasn’t a concept she had much experience with. There was always a soldier, a snitch, the chance someone else was peeking out from your own eyes and watching you. She had hoped to be safe here, but despite what Colonel Mason said, she did not feel safe.
Colonel Mason flipped her file closed. “Now that we’re done with that—”
“No, we’re not done. I answered all your questions, and now you answer mine.”
Colonel Mason raised an eyebrow at Mica, but she relaxed her shoulders and leaned back in her chair. “Ask,” she said.
“Aaron. Is he okay?”
“He’s fine,” Colonel Mason said, but Mica sensed irritation in her voice and the slant of her mouth. “He is in the medical bay right now being processed.”
Mica squirmed at the word. “And the men on the mountain, who were they?” she asked. “Where they Seers?”
Colonel Mason smiled, but it did not make her face kinder. “Yes. The Seers you encountered are our way of ensuring that you are not—how do you Novan’s say it?—possessed by a Watcher.”
The strange warriors both intrigued and frightened Mica. “They can tell if someone is…”
“They’ve been trained to sense… presence, even if the being’s physical body is not physically present. In other words, Watchers.”
A shiver went through Mica. She didn’t really know what the Watchers were. According to legend, Watchers were faithful soldiers gone but still serving Loraine. However, some in West Six believed that Watchers were the ghosts of the dead, enslaved by Loraine to spy on her own people. They believed the Watchers were not willing agents. Still others believed they were created beings without bodies. Some believed that Loraine herself was somehow walking the world, peering through other eyes. Others believed that the Watchers weren’t beings at all, but some kind of very sophisticated technological surveillance system. In short, Mica wasn’t sure what to believe. Watchers were simply a way for soldiers to spy on people, and that was enough to make them evil. Colonel Mason obviously knew far more than Mica did, and Mica felt curiosity like a squirrel on her back.
“Do the Watchers have bodies?” she asked, almost breathless for answers.
Colonel Mason ran her tongue over her teeth and made a surprised noise. “Sometimes I forget what you Novan’s don’t know. In the Unseen we believe that information like this should be freely accessible and that there are too many lies and secrets in Nova. Yes, Watchers do have bodies. They are not the spirits of faithful and loyal soldiers serving Loraine. They are not ghosts, and they are not whatever folksy-legend you Novans have created.
“Watchers are humans who have the ability to separate their consciousness from their bodies. They can move freely in this separated state, and when they come in contact with a conscious being with a mind and the ability to see (a nervous system), they are able to enter them and see through their eyes and other senses. The Watchers physical bodies are kept and monitored in kilns and—
“Kilns? Like the Transfer Kilns on Re-Incarnate Day?” Mica asked.
“But… those are for transferring the Eternals.”
Colonel Mason sneered. “The Kilns are for many things. In the Kilns, the Watchers are connected to a system which allows Technicians to see through the eyes of the being the Watcher is observing through. The Watchers body mimics that of the person they are Watching, and the Technician records that data through the kiln. Heart rate, temperature, that sort of thing. That is how Loraine spies on you. No ghosts, no dead soldiers, nothing nearly that exciting.”
“How do you know all this?” Mica asked.
Colonel Mason smiled. “We have been learning about the Watchers for generations.”
“And are they all blind? The Seers?”
Colonel Mason barely flinched, but Mica saw it, and she wondered what it meant.
“Yes,” Colonel Mason said. “In a way, the Seers are blind, although not technically. Although no one is forced to give up their sight, it is an honor to do so.”
A cold feeling blew across Mica’s shoulders. “How do they sense the Watchers? How do you train someone for something like that if you don’t have a Watcher to practice on? And what does it even feel like—you can’t even feel Watchers in your mind. You don’t—I would know.”
“Enough questions. After your medical exam, you must decide what you want next,” Colonel Mason said, folding her hands in front of her.
“What do you mean?”
“Whether you want to stay in the Unseen or leave Nova.”
“Leave,” she said to herself, turning the word over like a strange and poisonous plant.
Alayla lowered her gaze, opened her file, and wrote. “Would you prefer a cold climate, or somewhere warmer? I’d suggest the warmer climate, much more comfortable.”
“But I don’t want to leave.”
Colonel Mason looked up, surprised, and tapped her pen on the table. “But you said.”
“No, I was just thinking. Out loud. I don’t want to leave.”
“Oh. An unusual decision, but… all right then. You’ll probably get a work assignment in the fields. We’re always short on field hands.”
“No!” Mica said. “No fieldwork. I don’t want that.”
Field hand was her best choice back home in Nova. If she’d gone to school and received a placement, field hand was the best she could have hoped for, but factory worker was more likely. Fieldwork meant she would have worked outside in the sun, factory work meant rising before the sun and getting off duty well after dark. She’d have lost her mind in a factory.
After coming all the way to the Unseen, her life had to be at least better than Nova. Besides, working for the Unseen wasn’t her ultimate goal: finding her family was.
So no fieldwork for her.
Colonel Mason ran her tongue over her teeth. “If you stay, you don’t get to choose your work assignment.”
“Can’t you at least take what I’m good at, and what I want, into consideration?”
“And what do you want?”
Fear shivered just out of sight. “I want to do what Aaron does. I want to be a spy for the Unseen.”
“Not possible,” Colonel Mason said instantly.
“Many reasons. First,” she said, rearranging her limbs and recrossing her legs. “You have to pass the basic exams. That takes years of schooling. Second, you have to pass the specialized exam for entrance to the Office of Military Strategy and Intelligence, a highly specialized exam that takes months to prepare for. Then you need to find someone with credentials to write you a letter of recommendation for the Intelligence branch, be accepted, and then pass another specialized exam, not to mention the field and basics exam—
“Okay, I get it,” Mica said, cutting her off. “It’s hard. But I can do it.”
“It’s not just hard. It is extremely difficult, and the majority of our own citizens can’t even do it. What makes you think you can?”
Mica took a deep breath. “Because I’ve already been doing Aaron’s job for years.”
“Hiding in plain sight. Stealing. Getting into places I’m not allowed. Getting out of places. Coming up with plans, making them happen. Besides all that, you need me because I know Nova.”
“We know Nova as well,” she said, and her voice was bored.
She could feel Colonel Mason fading and losing interest, and she panicked. “Not like someone who was born there, lived there, and got around undetected. I dealt with the black market, so I have contacts. I can do this, and I want to do this. Please. At least give me a chance.”
Colonel Mason sat silent for what felt like too long, and Mica began to sweat.
“I’m afraid there is another reason why you can’t be an agent,” the Colonel said. “We don’t trust you yet.”
Mica’s heart dropped, and it kept falling. “You can trust me, just let me prove it to you. I can—”
“Why do you want to serve as an agent?” Colonel Mason folded her arms across the medals decorating her chest.
This was the question she’d dreaded, and Mica fought to keep her pulse slow and steady. If Colonel Mason was going to find out her lie, it would be now. The faces of her family rose in front of her like apparitions, and shame looked from them to Mica and back again. But Mica let their faces spark something hot and burning and scorching inside her.
“I want to serve… I want to serve because Loraine took my family from me. If there is something I can do to stop Loraine, I will.”
Colonel Mason stared at her, and Mica stared back, praying she would see only rage and not her true plan.
“Here’s what we’ll do,” Colonel Mason said. “I’m not about to let someone with skills and desire to serve go to waste, that wouldn’t be in my city’s best interest. So while you are working in the fields, I will assign you a tutor. You will have a few months to study and pass the general exams, and then, if you do that, we’ll talk about the next step.”
Mica leaned back in her chair. “Thank you. I won’t let you down.”
“Oh, I’m not worried about you, and I have little incentive to see you succeed. But I will let you try.”
“Oh, and Mica?” Colonel Mason said after she’d gathered her pen, file, and Mica’s lighter and started for the door. “This doesn’t mean I trust you,” she said and tossed Mica her lighter.