Last time we saw BEN… (click for recap)
Ben and Peter explore the hidden basement under the farmhouse. They find medical equipment, old computer terminals, and many, many books. Peter questions Ben about his parents, but Ben doesn’t know how his father, a farmer, could have all these illegal and specialized things. While Peter tinkers with a terminal, Ben discovers a working kiln with a man inside–he believes the man is his father. Peter tells him that can’t possibly be true and that the man in the kiln must be a vessel, a being originally created to serve the Eternals. As they discuss what to do with the man, Peter discovers a Watcher staring out of Ben’s eyes…
Ben looked at the kiln. He had to refocus his eyes to look at himself and not at the man behind the glass. He froze. His eyes glowed gold. The usual yellow glimmer turned green from the blue light of the kiln. Ben shut his eyes and shook his head in surprise, but when he opened his eyes, the shimmering color was still there. Panic and hate mixed in his stomach like curdling milk, making him queasy, and he squeezed his eyes shut again.
The world turned blue and green and red, and the image of the man in the kiln lingered and flared like a bonfire behind his eyelids.
“Of course they’d have Watchers,” Peter mumbled. “Come on.” He grabbed Ben’s arm, guided him a few steps, and then shoved him down onto a chair.
“What do we do?” Ben asked, his voice shaking. “Do you have one of those shocker thingies? What Cassandra used on Mica?” He gripped the edges of the chair with his free hand, feeling the dust roll under his fingertips, preparing for a surprising and jolting pain. Shadows pulsed purple and orange behind his eyelids.
Sounds of Peter moving around, searching for something, came sharp and harsh over the pounding of his heartbeat and the thudding of blood in his ears. He gripped his crutch until his hand hurt.
“Peter. Peter! What are you doing? Talk to me!”
“I don’t have a Shock Stick, so we have to get that thing out of you another way. Just… just hold tight. I’ll get it out.”
Fear welled up in Ben’s throat. The Watcher saw the lab and the books and… Peter. And the kiln.
“Peter, they saw the lab. They saw… they saw… you.”
“I know—just give me a second…”
Panic gurgled and fizzed in his gut, rising and rising and rising. Fear laughed at him from the darkness.
“Get this thing out. Get it out of me!” Ben demanded. He could hear Peter rummaging around the basement. Sounds of glass and metal and paper. His senses seemed duller and yet more acute with his eyes closed like he could sense more but could not interpret what he experienced without his eyes.
“Shit, shit, shit,” Peter said.
“If they have Watchers, they’ll be sending soldiers.”
“Yeah, I kinda figured that. There has to be something here….”
Ben could feel his breath coming fast and short, his chest constricted and tightened.
The Watcher saw the kiln. He wondered what the soldiers would do to this man who looked like his father.
“They saw the kiln,” Ben said, suddenly afraid. This man, whatever it really was, person or not, was a strange and mysterious link, a clue, to his missing father. It was the only one he had.
“Peter? Peter what is it?”
Movement in the darkness as Peter moved, a flurry of sound and action, scraping metal, knocking wood, fluttering papers.
“What is it? Peter!”
“The kiln. That’s it.”
Sounds of metal scraping and snapping with a crack.
“What’s it?” Ben asked. No response. A sparking sound. “Peter! What are you doing?”
Hands around his arm, hauling him up.
“I’m gonna use the kiln to get the Watcher out of you.”
“What? How?” Ben asked as Peter got him out of the chair and hauled him forward. He winced as he banged his shin against metal. Invisible items scattered as his crutch knocked them over. He dropped his crutch and stumbled. “Watch it!” he said, reaching for Peter as he staggered on his bad leg.
“Sorry. I’m going to use the power from the kiln to shock you.”
“But if you use the power from the kiln, what will happen to him?”
Peter released his grip on Ben, leaving him to balance on his good leg, with his hands stretched out to emptiness. “Just wait there,” Peter said.
“But what will happen to… to him, Peter?”
That sparking sound again.
“I should be able to get enough power from the kiln to kick the Watcher out of you, but it’ll most likely deplete the power supply. I’m sorry, Ben, but it’ll bust the kiln. He won’t survive.”
Ben reached forward, and his fingertips connected with cold glass. He opened his eyes and found himself looking into the vessel’s face, the face of his father. A million questions swirled around his mind.
Was this man the reason he was supposed to keep the house safe? Had his mother known about him? Had she stayed behind to keep this man safe and gotten herself killed for it? Had she protected this innocent in glass who Peter was now going to destroy?
Ben stared at the man, wishing he would open his eyes and look back at him. “But… no. You can’t let him die.”
“I’m sorry, but this is our only shot.”
“No. No, he didn’t do anything. He can’t die for me. That’s not fair.”
“Ben, shut your eyes.”
“No, he didn’t do anything. Find another way.”
“There is no other way, Ben. I’m sorry, but this is the only thing here with enough power.”
“Find another way.”
“We don’t have time. Soldiers are on their way now! I don’t know how long that Watcher’s been in your head, so we’re out of time. I know it’s not fair, but that’s the way it is,” he added, his voice softer and less urgent. But the softness of his tone didn’t help.
“It’s not your call,” Ben said and looked right at Peter with his golden glowing eyes.
Peter stared back at him, and Ben finally saw how tired and broken Peter was. He once again saw Peter through Seth’s eyes. He saw him as a little boy, overwhelmed and lost and exhausted. His shoulders slumped, and his neck bowed as if the weight of this strange man beneath glass was already dragging him down.
“Yeah, Ben, I’m afraid it is my call. I’m sorry.”
Before Ben could respond, Peter jammed two wires into Ben’s side. The shock was unlike anything Ben had ever experienced before. He wailed, falling over and convulsing on the ground. Every muscle in his body throbbed and spasmed. The light from the kiln flickered blue and red and green. Finally, Peter released the wires, and Ben collapsed, completely spent.
He shut his eyes, still in pain. He didn’t need to look to know that the kiln had gone dark, and the man inside slumped against the glass. Every part of Ben felt fried and tender and painful.
“Look at me,” Peter demanded. It took everything for Ben to open his eyelids and make eye contact with Peter. “It’s gone,” Peter said with a sigh.
Ben groaned and crumpled to the ground.
“But it won’t be long before they find us. We’ve got to go, now,” Peter said. “You’ve got to get up. Maybe we can lose them in the woods.”
“You sick son of a bitch… that hurt…”
“Yeah, yeah. Even Mica didn’t whine this much. Get up, Ben.”
“He’s gone, isn’t he?”
Peter went quiet for a moment. “Yeah, Ben. He’s gone. I’m… I’m sorry.”
Ben looked at the kiln. The innocent inside it seemed peaceful behind the dusted and dark glass. He slumped forward, his chin rested on his chest, as if he were only napping.
“It’s not fair,” Ben said.
“We can make it out if we start now, but we’ve got to go. Now.”
This time Peter didn’t wait for Ben’s answer. He hauled Ben to his feet, handing him his crutch. Ben yelped with the movement and tried to think clearly. He was about to argue that he could barely move and certainly couldn’t make a run for it through the woods when a low rumble started in the walls around them. Peter looked up.
Ben howled as Peter pushed him up the stairs and into the hallway. His muscles fizzled and crackled from the shock. Peter disappeared out the back door as Ben collapsed and groaned. His limbs, feeling more like jelly than arms and legs, refused to work correctly. His bad leg ached and cramped. When Peter reappeared, he held their packs, which they had packed for their escape before the Burning of West Six all those days ago, and a duffle bag slung over his shoulder. It felt like a lifetime ago a different man had packed that bag.
“Come on,” Peter said. He put an arm under Ben’s shoulder and hauled him upright. Ben staggered forward, struggling with his crutch and the bag Peter shoved at him, and together they stumbled towards the back door. Ben collapsed despite Peter’s help. His legs were unable to keep him up, and his bad leg throbbed and weak.
“Sorry, Ben, but we’ve got to move. Up, come on, you can do it.”
“I’m trying. Let’s shock you and see how well you run, how about that?”
“Sure, next time, we’ll do that.”
As they reached the back door, the rumble of engines grew suddenly louder. Peter swore, dropped Ben’s arm, and ran to the front window.
“Soldiers?” Ben asked, but he could hear the transport doors slamming and soldiers yelling to each other.
“We’re out of time. We’re going to have to fight our way out,” Peter said. He dropped his duffle bag to the floor and unzipped it.
“What are you doing?” Ben asked, making his way over to Peter on three wobbly legs. Even his crutch felt unsteady somehow. He watched as Peter lifted weapons from the bag. There were rifles handguns, and cases of ammo: all illegal. “These are yours?” Ben asked.
“They sure as hell ain’t Anda’s,” Peter said.
“Where did you get these?”
“But where did you get them?” Ben asked again. Over the years he had considered getting an illegal weapon, more for protection than for hunting, but they had been far too expensive. Peter had four, five, and counting.
Peter shrugged. “Viola sells ’em. Sold ’em.”
“Viola? Your grandma sold you illegal firearms?”
Peter gave him a look. “Family discount.” He lifted yet another weapon and examined it. That made six. Three handguns and one rifle, and two weapons that Ben could not identify. “You can use one of these, right?” Peter asked.
“Sure.” He and Mica sometimes practiced with Titus’s hunting rifle since they didn’t have their own, and they weren’t bad shots, but they weren’t good either. Anda never learned. She wouldn’t even touch them.
“Go on, grab one,” Peter said.
Ben reached for a rifle–he was at least familiar with that one.
Peter picked up the largest gun, one Ben did not know the name of, and inspected it. “All right,” he said. “Those soldiers have a transport, and we need one. You do not let them through that front door, understand? I’ll head upstairs and try and pick them off. If we can clear this transport, we can steal it and be on our way before they send reinforcements. Got it? If it’s just us two, maybe they didn’t send too many soldiers. And they won’t expect us to be armed. No one ever is around here.”
With one hand, Peter flipped the table over for Ben to crouch behind. Dishes and days-old food crashed to the ground. Then he turned and ran upstairs. Ben lowered himself to the floor behind the table, his limbs were still tingly and aching, but adrenaline pumped his muscles and kept him moving. The curtains on the front windows snapped and fluttered in the night breeze. Anda had made those curtains.
The moon glowed just brightly enough for Ben to see the transport parked in the grass through the shifting curtains. He wondered when it had turned to evening. A dark scar of tire tracks cut through the front lawn. Soldiers hopped to the ground like crickets in the dark and darted away. Some arranged themselves behind the cab of the transport while others moved for the house with weapons raised. Ben cursed under his breath. They had sent a whole squad—way more than the two of them could take.
He set the gun on the table and aimed. He waited. They wouldn’t be expecting them to have weapons, but as soon as Peter fired, the soldiers would take cover, making the next shot that much harder. Ben took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. He’d never shot someone before.
Peter’s first two shots were accurate. Two soldiers fell, the rest scattered, screaming to each other and firing blindly at the house. Ben tried to remember what Titus had taught him: both eyes open. Breathe. Squeeze the trigger gently. It was a terrible sound in the dark.
The soldiers still panicked and looked wildly around, trying to find the shooter. They shot at random windows. Ben took one more shot. Another miss. He tried to get a better sense of where the soldiers had moved to, peeking up above the table, but ducked just as the soldiers opened fire.
Bullets whizzed over his head and peppered the wall behind him. Splinters and chunks of plaster showered down. The window frame splintered and shattered under fire. When the shooting paused, Ben got to his knees and fired again. More misses.
Another shower of bullets sprayed around him as he dove for the floor. The soft thunk of darts hit the window frame and the table as Ben scrambled to reload. Spent shells spun and rolled like golden teeth around him. Ben suddenly worried that soldiers would come through the back door, but as the thought passed through his mind, an explosion shook the house.
Behind him, where the broken back door had been, a gaping, smoldering hole stared out into the night. Smoke and dust hung in the air around him. Bits and edges of torn house glowed and flickered from the explosion, and smoke filled his nose and clogged his lungs.
His ears ringing, Ben pushed himself up and took aim out the window. The soldiers yelled to each other, frantic and confused. Ben fired and missed again. The soldiers took cover behind the transport, and Ben couldn’t get a clear shot. Shots pounded into the overturned table, and Ben crouched down, pinned beneath the fire, and terrified. He was sure this was where he would die. The bullets were coming so fast and too many. He’d die here, behind this table, muscles still fizzling from the shock. At least he’d die at home.
But Peter suddenly appeared next to him and knelt behind the overturned table. He balanced a gun on the edge and shot through the tattered curtains which fluttered in the cross-fire.
“You ready to get out of here?” Peter yelled over the noise gunfire.
Ben wanted to ask how they were going to do that, but a sound behind him sent panic through his mind. He wheeled around and fired without thinking or looking.
A soldier charged through the smoke and smolder and glow of the ruined hallway.
Ben’s blind bullets connected, and the soldier dropped. Another soldier emerged through the smoke with his weapon raised. Ben yelped as a bullet ripped through his left arm. Then he fired. That soldier dropped, too.
Ben had never killed anyone before.
His arm seared with pain, and he clamped down on the wound. Hot blood, red as fear’s lips, pushed through his fingers and trickled down his hand. Ben breathed deeply and begged himself to keep it together.
Peter turned to see the downed soldiers. He nodded to Ben. “Thanks.”
“Sure,” Ben said, but he was shaking, and his arm burned.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Peter said, got to his feet, and then disappeared into the smoke behind them, stepping over the fallen soldiers.
Ben tried to return the fire that was still flying over his head, but he couldn’t get above the edge of the table. Bullets peppered the wall behind him. He felt the whump of bullets driving into the heavy tabletop and knew they were getting closer and closer, slowly eating through the wood like termites. Suddenly, Peter was at his side again with the packs slung over his arm.
“Ready?” Peter asked. He grabbed the gun out of Ben’s hand and tossed it away, giving him his crutch instead.
“What?” Ben clutched the crutch to his chest, grateful to hold something ordinary and less martial.
“On my mark, run for it. Out the back, around front, and straight for the transport,” Peter said.
“Wait… what did you do?” Ben asked, but Peter didn’t answer him. Then he saw the little metal box with a switch in Peter’s hand. “What is—”
But Peter flipped the switch.
This time the explosion came from outside the house. It was much larger than the one that had blown a hole where the back door had been. What was left of the house shook. Dust fell in clouds around them. Peter hauled Ben to his feet and pushed him towards the back. They stepped over the soldiers, their eyes vacant and still. The soldiers weren’t much older than Ben.
Ben slipped on a glittering shell and fell forward. He landed on his wounded left arm. Pain shot through him again, darkness dusted the edges of his vision, and everything spun. He felt like someone had stabbed his arm with a hot poker.
His sight was still black and blue darkness as Peter hauled him back to his feet.
“Gotta keep moving. Go!”
As he limped passed the kitchen door towards the back, Ben heard crackling and snapping. Fire.
“No, wait! What did you do?” He shoved Peter away and stumbled back to the kitchen door. He threw opened the door and gasped. Flames. Red and blue and green tongues of fire shimmered in a bonfire of chairs and towels in the middle of the floor. The flames reached high and scorched the once white ceiling with flickering tongues.
This would destroy everything if left unchecked. It was probably too late already. The thought of seeing his home burn before him overwhelmed him, and a sick feeling welled up in his throat. Peter pushed him on, grabbing his wounded arm.
“No!” Ben screamed as he realized with horror that the lab would burn. That man in glass would burn. He was already dead, but the thought of the man being consumed with fire filled Ben with rage like shards of glass. He tried to go back to the lab to grab one book, one page of notes, anything, but Peter seized his wounded arm and gripped hard. Ben screamed, and his knees went limp.
“You have to let it go, Ben,” Peter said.
“No, please, one book, I can grab one—just one!” Ben moved for the stairs, wrenching his arm away from Peter, but he tripped on a pile of debris. Peter caught him before he pitched forward down into the darkness below.
“We can’t let them find the lab or the books or… or that kiln. You know that.”
“But the man!”
“Yeah, Ben, I know. I know. But he’s already gone. Don’t let that be a waste.”
Something in the next room splintered and crashed, and a cloud of dark smoke rolled in and swallowed them, filling their lungs and noses and mouths. Ben coughed and retched, and Peter dragged him away from the flames and the smoke.
They stumbled out into the night. The fire swallowed the hallway behind them and followed them out the door, licking the back porch. Once outside, Ben saw where the explosion had come from: the barn. A tower of flame and smoke and ash spun high into the night where the barn had been. The soldiers were in chaos, surprised at the explosion. They’d fallen back, running away from the fire, anticipating more violence.
Together, Ben and Peter rushed towards the transport, Peter shooting at the soldiers blindly, but he stopped short and cursed. Two more transports barreled up the grass towards them, their headlights flashing and slicing through the haze of smoke. They wouldn’t reach the empty transport in time, not before those other two squads got there first.
“Woods, woods, get to the trees!” Peter said. He slipped in the mud, pulling Ben back the way they had come, and dragged him away from the flames and the farmhouse towards the woods. He fired blindly behind them at the soldiers until the gun clicked, then he threw it aside and hauled Ben forward faster.
The forest glowed red from the light of the flames. Trees glittered like rusted iron bars. Ben turned to see if soldiers were following, but they weren’t. Several lay scattered on the ground, still. The fresh soldiers scrambled from their transports to figure out what was happening and missed the two shadows slipping into the darkness beneath the leaves.
Ben watched as everything he had left in the world burned before him in a glimmer of green and red and blue.
All his memories, and all his history. Gone. Everything vanished into smoke and light and shadow. Ben paused at the edge of the wood and took one last look at his home. The remains of the barn stood like a pulsing pillar of fire. Ash and shadows spun over the house. Then he and Peter plunged into the dark forest.