Last time we saw BEN… (click for recap)
While trying to escape a ruined West Six, Ben and Peter fight Burners guarding the village, but Ben recognizes one of the Burners as Astrid, an old family friend. As Ben struggles to keep from injuring the Burned Agatha, who does not remember him, something strange happens. Agatha’s eyes glow deep blue, Ben sees Agatha’s memories, and she seems to recognize Ben just before Peter knocks her out. While Ben and Peter flee through the woods and plan their next move, Ben is preoccupied with what he has just seen—the possibility that Burners’ memories are not entirely gone. When Peter realizes that Ben saw Agatha’s memories, he claims that Ben is Perseus. They argue, and Ben asserts that they will continue to the Unseen for help, but only after he stops by his old house: it’s finally time to see what’s in the basement…
Ben made his way towards the front door through the field, moving softly through the limp grass.
“What are you doing,” Peter whispered, suddenly at his side and glancing around as if soldiers and Burners would materialize out of nothing.
“I just have to check something in the house,” Ben said and kept limping. “You go ahead. I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Soldiers tore it apart. I checked this morning. And remember, where you go….”
“Yeah, yeah. Where I go, you go. Then this won’t take long,” Ben said.
Before Ben left this place forever, he would find out what was in the basement that was so important to his parents, if it was even still there.
Ben stepped up onto the front porch and stopped cold. He stared at the front door. Someone had connected with chalk all the blue star flowers with white centers, the white centers his mother had painted. They made a symbol, a constellation, Perseus.
Ben pushed his way into the house and past the stars, unwilling to think about what they meant. Maybe they meant nothing. He hoped they meant nothing. Peter followed. Black and blue shadows swam in front of him as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. When they did, he saw that his home had been ransacked. Everything in the kitchen had been dumped onto the floor. Broken chairs, playing cards, shredded blankets, and smashed dishes littered their once neat living room. Ben limped like a ghost through the rooms, mourning what was left of his home.
He froze when he saw the basement door under the stairs. It was broken open.
Nine years ago, their mother had nailed that door shut before she died. Ben had painted over it and set an end table and a vase of flowers in front of it to help them forget. The vase lay smashed on the floor, the flowers rotting and brown. The end table was broken into splinters. Where the little door had been, where Ben had painted over and forgotten, was a gaping hole. In the darkness under the stairs, Ben could see rickety stairs descended into cool blackness below.
“It seems your parents had a thing for secret hideouts,” Peter said.
“What are you talking about?”
“The shelter under the barn.”
“What, you didn’t make it?”
Peter shook his head. “I found it about the same time I found your stash of books. Viola didn’t know about the shelter either. It had to be your parents. This wasn’t broken open when I checked this morning.”
“Seth,” Ben said with a lump in his throat. “He said he found….”
“What?” Peter asked.
“My parents never let us down there. Whatever’s down there, they didn’t want Watchers to find it.”
“Well, let’s go see what they were hiding,” Peter said.
Ben reached into the stairwell and found a light switch. He flipped it, not expecting it to work, the house rarely had electricity. To Ben’s surprise, a bulb flickered and clicked on.
“Must be a generator,” Peter said.
It was like walking into a crypt. A layer of dust from years of neglect coated the stairs. A single set of footprints went down the steps and back up. Ben brushed aside spiders dangling from silk webs as he descended, his crutch thumping all the way down. At the bottom, he paused and felt along the walls for another switch. He flipped the lights on, and froze, transfixed and frightened by what he saw.
The basement was nothing more than a concrete box, roughly the size of the house above it, and it was filled with strange medical equipment and hundreds of books. In one corner stood a long table with glass tubes, and syringes turned gray and opaque with dust. Metal scalpels and needles dulled and rusted from over a decade of neglect. And the books—so many books. Bookcases lined the walls, boxes of books stacked in front of already full shelves, piles lay on tabletops, and in corners. The place smelled of old, forgotten words, water and metal, and cold.
Peter looked over Ben’s shoulder and caught his breath. “What’s all this?”
“Don’t ask me. I’ve never seen any of this before.”
Peter gently pushed past him and stepped into the room. “Was your father a doctor?” he asked as he looked down at a row of needles.
“You sure about that?” Peter found an old computer terminal at a desk and sat down. “Let’s see what your dear ‘ol dad was up to.” He tapped a button on the keyboard, and the CRT display gradually lit up. Peter wiped the dust from the glass and blew over the keys.
“You know how to work one of those?” Ben asked.
He had never had the privilege of using a computer terminal, only government workers and the very wealthy could afford them.
“Sure. It’s old,” Peter said. “But I’ve used these models before.” The display flashed for the password. “Any ideas?”
“Seriously?” Ben asked, he almost laughed.
“Worth a shot. Let me try something…” The display flashed black, and Peter began tapping on the keyboard. White words formed on the display in front of him.
Ben returned his attention to exploring the lab while Peter tapped away behind him. He moved between tables covered with sharp and metal things he did not understand. He felt like he was exploring a museum from another civilization. Objects that seemed strange and fascinating and exotic to him were probably mundane and domestic to someone else. It left him with a sense of unease. These strange and foreign things were his father’s things. His mother’s things.
A blue-green light in the back corner caught his eye. A glow. It started pale and faint but grew steadily brighter until it lit up the back of the lab. Ben limped towards the soft light. It came from a large rectangular shape covered in a white cloth turned cyan from the light. Curious, Ben pulled the cloth away.
The white and dusty fabric fell to the ground, and Ben found himself staring at a face turned bright blue-green in the light. Ben’s heart rate spiked, and the hair on his neck and arms stood on end. A face, a man, was on the other side of the glass. Ben stumbled back and tripped over a chair and his crutch, falling to the ground.
“Peter!” he shouted, staring up at the thing he had uncovered. Peter scrambled over and froze when he saw the glow and the man.
“What is that? What is—is that a…” Ben asked, pushing himself to his feet and struggling to find his crutch. He had kicked it under a table heavy with books and stacks of yellowed paper. Behind him, Peter stared at what Ben had uncovered: a glass case, almost like a display case, holding a limp-haired man. As he looked at it, Ben realized that it looked more like a coffin than anything. Peter approached the glass and examined the face beneath. Ben kept back, his heart still racing and adrenaline pumping. As his breath deepened and his pulse slowed, he realized the glass reminded him of something else.
“This is a kiln,” Peter said just as Ben thought it, but the word still sent a shock of fear through him as memories of Re-Incarnate Day flicked through his mind. The parades, the speeches, the crowds, all colored in amber and gold and red. And then the dreaded ceremony to renew Loraine and Rufus for another year of their eternal reign—the holy kilns. That flash of blue-green light—like the light he now saw glowing from beneath the glass before him.
“A Transfer kiln?” Ben asked. “Is this a holy kiln? It can’t be.”
“It’s a crude model, but it’s definitely a kiln. Why would your father have a kiln in his basement?”
“He wouldn’t… how could he?” Ben asked. Slowly, he joined Peter. They stared at the glowing kiln, looking through the years of dust and dirt to the sleeping man. As Peter moved to examine the kiln, Ben studied the sleeping man’s face. Lanky hair fell to his shoulders and around his face. Something about him was familiar. Slowly, recognition dawned on him.
“It can’t be…” Ben said softly. Fear, with her invisible hand, ran a finger down his spine.
The man inside the kiln was his father.
Peter tapped the glass. “He’s alive… barely.” He pointed to a monitor on the side of the kiln with a blinking red light. “I wonder how long he’s been here.”
“It’s my father,” Ben said, barely able to get the words out.
“He’s not your father,” Peter said, not even bothering to look at Ben.
“It is. That’s him.” Ben stared at the man, light shimmered around his head like he was underwater. He had the same nose, the same forehead, same dark hair. “I thought he left us,” Ben said.
“What happened?” Peter asked. He had never asked Ben that question before, but Ben knew that Mica had told him what she knew.
“One day, I woke up, and he was gone. Nothing else to say. But this is him, it has to be. I think I’d know my own father.”
Peter shook his head. “Ben, he isn’t your father. He can’t be. He’s a vessel—a shell. Besides, look at him, he’s barely older than you. How could he be your father?”
Ben took a harder look at the man. There was a familial resemblance, but the jawline was different, leaner, slimmer. And the mouth was smaller, tighter than his father’s. And the hands were strange, unfamiliar to Ben. Stronger, softer, younger. Those were not his father’s hands. He realized that the vessel was no older than himself, twenty at most. The skin was too taught, the muscles too firm, and those crinkly lines around his father’s eyes were missing. His father had streaks of gray in his hair. This man did not.
“If he’s not my father, then who is he?”
“What’s he look like? He’s a vessel. How the hell did your father make a vessel?” Peter said more to himself than to Ben.
“Make a vessel? What does that even mean? They’re volunteers. It’s an honor,” he said the ingrained words with a bitter taste in his mouth.
“Nah. They’re not volunteers. They’re specially grown in these things.” Peter tapped the glass. “These kilns are womb, home, and coffin.” He ran his hands up and down the chamber and found a blinking panel on the side. He opened it and examined the wires inside.
“You mean those people, they’re not… I mean, what do you mean, grown?” Ben asked.
“Grown: created, made, engineered, whatever you want to call it, but not born. Like a cabbage. They’re not volunteers like they tell us, and this is no honor.”
“They’re made?” Ben asked, trying to get his head around the concept. How do you make a person?
“In a lab. In these kilns for Loraine and Rufus to transfer into.”
Peter tugged at a wire. “Because Loraine and Rufus want to live forever. Why else?”
“No, no, I know that. But, why make these… people?”
Peter scratched his beard, his eyes still on the wires running through the kiln. “It’s complicated. But from what the Unseen have learned, the transfer process needs a clean slate, a body without a consciousness, a brain without a mind. Somehow Windrose makes these bodies, vessels, empty. No personality, no mental life, just a shell for Loraine and Rufus to inhabit. They make humans without that thing that makes them people, the… what did they call it? The breath of life? The soul? At least that’s what we thought.”
And Ben knew that Peter was thinking about the hand they all saw in the kiln on Re-Incarnate Day. That hand reaching out for help—could an empty shell do that?
“You saw the hand,” Ben said. “On Re-Incarnate Day, in the kiln.”
“I’d say most of Nova saw it.”
“So, what does that mean? You said they’re not awake. They’re not people. Empty.”
Peter paused his exploration of the kiln’s wiring and looked up at the man inside. Blue-green light from the kiln flickered across Peter’s face like ripples on a river. He looked so sad, so mournful and pained. Ben wanted to reach out to him in a fatherly way that lingered from Seth’s memories, but he clenched his fist instead.
“Then what is he?” Ben asked again.” You just said he’s nothing—”
“That’s what we thought. Before,” Peter said and went back to the wiring. “But even if that’s true, just because his brain isn’t fully functioning, that doesn’t mean he’s not alive and doesn’t have… I don’t know, a soul or something. He’s not nothing: he’s innocent.”
Ben looked at the man, this man who looked so much like his father, and innocent seemed to fit.
“The real question is, why did your father have one of these things in his basement?” Peter asked, focusing more intently on the wiring and guts of the kiln.
“You think this is what Seth was looking for?” Ben asked.
“No. He was here, but he left. I think he was looking… for your father. Not… whatever this man is.”
“That’s not right. He didn’t know my father. And my father didn’t have any connection to the Unseen. His name was Caleb, not Eli.”
But the question still nagged at the back of his mind: who was Seth looking for? Who was Eli?
Peter just shrugged.
“So how the hell did… he end up here?” Ben asked, gesturing the kiln.
“Your father must have made him.”
“And how the hell did he do that?”
“That is the question, isn’t it? And you’re sure that your father didn’t have any connection to the Unseen?” Peter asked, shutting the panel and wiping dust from his hands.
“No. Of course not.” But an idea came to Ben. “You’re sure he’s alive?” he asked, nodding to the man in the kiln. “Maybe we can wake him up and ask him some questions.”
Peter peered at the controls on the other side of the kiln. “Yeah. He’s alive. But we can’t wake him up. This thing is old and damaged and I don’t quite understand what’s going on inside. Not my expertise. If Cassie were here…. Well, either way, I don’t know what state he would be in. He’d probably require medical attention that we can’t give him.”
“Maybe the Unseen can help.”
“You still want to go there? After this?” Peter motioned around the room, but kept his eyes on the kiln. “This doesn’t make you think that maybe, just maybe, you’re a little bit… special?”
“All this proves is that I didn’t know my parents at all. When we get to the Unseen, we’ll tell them he’s here. They’ll be able to help. But the first thing is to get back to the Unseen City so they can help us find Anda and Cassie.”
Peter shrugged. “Whatever you say. But let’s board up the door, just in case soldiers come back, and….” Peter’s words faded as he turned and looked at Ben, and his silence sent a warning screaming through Ben’s mind.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Shut your eyes. Watchers.”