Last time we saw BEN… (click for recap)
Ben and Peter panic as they realize Ben has been invaded by a Watcher. They don’t know how long they’ve been watched, and what the Watcher has seen. Peter uses the kiln in the basement to shock Ben and free him of the Watcher, but it cost them: the man in the kiln dies. They try to flee the farm but are too late. Soldiers have already come and are surrounding the house. Peter and Ben attempt to shoot their way out but fail. During the firefight, Peter sets off two explosives, destroying the house and the barn. As the soldiers panic, Ben and Peter stagger away from the burning farm into the forest…
Ben had wandered these woods his entire life. As a child, he had limped through the trees in games of hide-and-seek. As a young man, he had forged for blueberries and blackberries hidden just out of sight and avoided poison ivy. He had strolled dappled paths and overgrown trails, only to find that he was back where he had started.
Now he fled. Terror nipped at his heels with her white jaws.
They plunged headlong into the darkness. Ben and Peter both knew every valley and hill by heart, but tonight they tripped over fallen branches. They dodged old stumps that seemed to rise to meet their feet, and their boots sank into squelching mud, slowing their flight. Peter would grab Ben’s arm to hurry him along or steady him down muddy hills and rocky paths, but Ben’s arm would flare with pain from his gunshot wound, and Peter’s help only slowed them down.
Ben followed blindly, not even thinking about where they were going, just that they were running away. Suddenly the charred Wildflower appeared. Its windows, like black and empty eyes, seemed to watch them as they passed.
Peter cursed under his breath and pulled Ben suddenly another way. They had been running towards West Six, but that was no longer safe. So they stumbled north in the dark.
Ben lost track of time. He was only aware of the pain in his arm and leg, and fear, in her white robe, was somewhere behind him, following him, stalking him at a distance.
Suddenly they crested a small hill and saw an open plain before them, vast and pale and empty. The road slithered its way across the sheet of cold earth without a traveler in sight. Somewhere beyond the horizon and plains and hills stood the mountains, red under the setting sun. Behind them lay the remains of West Six and Ben’s old life. The stars glittered in the darkness above them, and together they ran north over the plain towards the distant and hidden mountains.
Finally, they reached the distant treeline. Peter stopped and put his hand against a tree, wheezing and gasping. Ben leaned against an oak and looked down at his arm. It ached, and the blood had soaked through his jacket. There had been no time to stop and dress the wound.
Everything was gone.
Ben heard Peter speaking, but his voice was far away as Ben’s attention drifted inward. He dropped his crutch and stretched his hand open. He had been gripping the wood so tightly that his hand almost refused to open. Then he collapsed to the ground, dropping his crutch and wincing at his burning, aching hand, and leaned back against the tree. The earth was damp from the recent rain. As he sat staring down at the blood on his arm, all his emotions slammed into him like a red wave.
The village was gone. The house was gone. The lab was gone. That man down there, whoever he was, he was gone. Those soldiers, Ben had killed those soldiers…
“We should take care of that arm,” Peter said and rummaged through his pack. The mention of his wound brought Ben back to the present. His arm ached, but it was a dull, hot ache, not the slicing, searing pain from before. He peeled back the sleeve and looked down at the gash. The outside of his left arm had been ripped open, but it wasn’t deep.
Peter came over and knelt next to Ben with a small med kit. He cut the rest of Ben’s sleeve off and began cleaning his wound. Ben sucked in a breath as his arm stung, and the smell of disinfectant burned his nose.
Peter kept his eyes on Ben’s arm. “It’s not bad, just a graze. We’ll stitch you up right quick.” He pulled out needle, thread, and gauze, pale and blue in the moonlight.
“You burned it,” Ben said softly. “Why would you do that? And the barn. What? Did you rig explosives the day after you got here? And… shit—Celia! Did you blow up Celia?”
“Come on, Ben. Do you really think I’d blow up Celia?”
Ben knew he wouldn’t, but he stared up into the sky instead of answering. “I just… it was my home,” he said. Stars glimmered and blinked above the waving branches.
When Peter finished with Ben’s wound, he leaned his head back and lifted his eyes to the stars. “The explosives were new. I didn’t have the expertise to rig them correctly and safely, so when Cassie got here, I had her help me rig the barn. She always was good with stuff like that. It was just in case. We couldn’t risk them finding the Blind and figuring out how it worked. Not that it matters now. I burned the house because they were going to find that lab. But we got out, didn’t we?” he said, looking up like he was asking the stars.
“Yeah. We got out,” Ben said but turned away with a lump in his throat. “Thanks.”
“Yeah, yeah. Now, let’s keep moving.” Peter slung his pack across his shoulder and walked away.
Ben looked back the way they had come. Behind him, the trees faded into a sea of darkness. Somewhere back there had been his home, and now he could never go back.
They cut north through the woods, away from the farms and soldiers and the remains of West Six. Then, with the moon rising high, they walked in silence, listening for signs of pursuit. They only heard night sounds.
“How far to the Unseen?” Ben asked.
“You sure you want to go there, Perseus?”
“Don’t call me that. And yeah, I want to go to the Unseen. How far?”
“A while. We’re not even out of West Six yet.”
“‘A while’ meaning….”
“Days. Weeks. Maybe a month or more if we can’t get a transport.”
Ben felt his heart sinking. A month walking would be extremely difficult and made even longer by his bad leg, especially if they trekked over unfamiliar and uncertain terrain. “How do we get there?” he asked.
“Well, first we stop in West Nine,” Peter said.
“West Nine is a farm and industry city.”
“Yep. And we need a transport, or our trip could take a very long time, remember? At the far edge of West Nine is an abandoned factory. The Unseen stash transports in the hangar to get from here across the Empty Places to the White Mountains. We pick up a transport there, and we’re in the Unseen a few days later. Easy as pie.”
“Easy. A city filled with soldiers and Burners? Doesn’t sound easy. Can’t we get a transport somewhere else?”
“Yeah, we could. But West Nine is the closest, and it isn’t just farms and factories. They just opened a new Processing Center.” Ben caught his breath. “That’s probably where the West Six Burners we saw would have been processed,” Peter whispered.
“You think…” Ben hesitated. Maybe Anda and Cassandra were sent there.
“I don’t know” Peter said, gently answering his unfinished question. “But we’re going to have a look around. Just in case. If we can find them, then we don’t need to go the Unseen.”
“Why don’t you trust them?” Ben asked. “You grew up there. You’re one of them.”
“Yeah. So I know too much.” Then Peter was quiet, and Ben didn’t push him.
They walked on in silence until they came to the edge of the forest, and a road appeared before them, gray and dusty in the moonlight.
“Hold up,” Peter whispered. He dropped to the ground and inched forward over the icy hill.
Ben did the same, struggling a bit with his leg, wounded arm, and crutch. Peter hunkered down to the cold earth, staring hard at something up ahead. Ben followed Peter’s gaze and shivered. Silver and chrome caught the moonlight.
“What is that?” he asked.
The road in front of them led back to West Six, and they needed to cross it to continue through the forest. But across that road in a field stood a large transport shining in the moonlight. It was larger than any Ben had ever seen, and something about it unsettled him.
Peter shook his head. “It looks like a mobile Watcher unit. We should go around, just in case they’ve left a guard, or worse, in case the Watcher is still there. Here,” Peter reached into his pack, pulled out a small pistol, and held it out to Ben, who did not hesitate to take it.
“You mean there’s one in there? A real Watcher?” Ben asked.
“In the flesh.”
“So, they have bodies?”
“Of course. You don’t still believe all that, ghosts of dead soldiers crap, do you?”
“No… but if they have bodies, then they can be killed. If no one’s guarding the Watcher, shouldn’t we get rid of it?” Ben asked.
Peter shook his head. “No, I’m not doing that.”
The words of his parents rang through his mind: Watchers were not ghosts or demons, but slaves and innocents to be pitied rather than feared. But the memories of his family being taken from him, his home destroyed, and that man dying in the kiln for him were still fresh in his head. The pain of those moments sent something hot and vengeful through his veins. Bitterness curled his canine lip at him, baring his red teeth.
“Why not?” Ben asked. “If they’re not the ghosts of dead soldiers, they’re pretty damn close. Why shouldn’t we kill it?”
“I’m not going in there,” Peter said sharply.
“But we can finish—”
Peter turned to him, his face bright in the moonlight. “I said, no. Watchers aren’t what you think. They’re not soldiers. Don’t you remember the kiln in the basement? Didn’t that teach you anything? Watchers are victims just as much as we are, and I’m not going in there. Got it?”
“Fine.” But Ben continued to stare at the transport, imagining what was inside. “But it’s a transport. Why don’t we get rid of the Watcher and steal the transport instead of going all the way to the West Nine?”
“Didn’t you hear me? I’m not going in there, and neither are you. Besides, no way we can make it to the mountains in a Watcher unit: we’d definitely be stopped. And those things aren’t built for long distances and rough terrain. Come on, let’s go up the road, then cut over.” Peter said and moved off through the brush.
But Ben kept looking at the transport. They were so close. He reached into his pocket and felt Mica’s lighter. A burning sorrow filled him. His family was gone, and he was running. Like water turning to ice, the sorrow in his gut shifted and froze to hate.
Mica was always the fighter. Even when she was reckless and stupid, she was doing something. Now it was his turn.
He pushed himself up and started across the road towards the field, crutch in one hand, gun in the other. There weren’t any soldiers around, so if he moved fast, he could make it in and out in a few minutes.
A few minutes was all he needed. He knew it was reckless, but he went anyway.
“Ben, what are you doing?” Peter asked, suddenly at Ben’s side in the dark.
“I’m going in there.”
“Come on, Ben. You don’t want to see what’s in there. Trust me.”
“And miss my one and only opportunity to get some justice? No thanks.” Ben kept limping forward, his leg throbbed, but he pushed through.
“This isn’t like you, Ben, and this isn’t justice. You know that.”
“Will there be justice for Mica?” Ben asked and paused. The wind whipped through the grass, shuddering and wailing.
Peter stopped. “There will be. But not this way. We need to go.”
“No. Not yet,” Ben said and started again for the transport.
Peter’s voice stopped him cold. He knew that Peter would never hurt him, but the warning in his voice sent a shock of fear through him.
“Why don’t you want to go in there?” Ben asked, turning back to Peter. He blinked when he saw the gun in Peter’s hands. It wasn’t a threatening gesture, but it wasn’t yielding either. “What, you going to shoot Perseus?”
“Of course not.”
“Then why don’t you want to go in there? Because I would have thought that you would want to make sure one of these things isn’t going to be Watching us or anyone else anymore.”
“And what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to get rid of it.”
“Ben, just let it go.”
“No, it helped them destroy my home. Now I’m going to destroy it.”
Peter shook his head. “Shit, Ben,” he put his hands out in a sweeping gesture. “You’re too late—I beat you to it,” he added with distaste.
Ben blinked. “What are you talking about?”
“You want to see the Watcher so badly? Fine. Let’s go meet him.” Peter pushed past him, nudging him off balance, and headed directly for the transport.
Both glad to have gotten his way, but anxious at the light in Peter’s eyes, Ben followed. He suddenly felt as though the air between Peter and himself was different, and he didn’t know why. Peter paused at the transport door long enough to tighten his grip on the pistol. Then he wrenched the door open, snapping his gun up ready for a fight.
A blue-white light shocked him, momentarily blinding him, and he blinked to adjust his vision. He had expected an attack, to see the Watcher or soldier charge him, or at least to raise a weapon at him. But the lights flickered and hummed. Ben climbed the steps into the transport after Peter and let the door swing shut behind him with a soft click.
The empty unit was a mess. The walls were black and charred. A melting white foam covered the floor, making the metal beneath their feet slick, and broken lights hung from the ceiling. The benches that lined the walls by the door, probably to hold a small patrol of soldiers, were scorched. Burned medical supplies, wires, and melted rubber tubes littered the floor.
The entire back right of the transport was covered with computer terminals and CRT displays that had exploded, leaving gaping mouths with black shards of glass for teeth.
Glass crunched underfoot in the foam as Ben cautiously made his way to the back of the transport. The left side of the cabin held a long and low table covered with a cloth, suspiciously clean and white. Ben wondered what lay underneath.
“Well, where is it?” he asked.
Peter just pointed to the white cloth at the back end of the transport. “They Burn us, we Burn them.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Remember when I zapped you back in the lab when the Watcher was in your head? There he is.”
Ben turned to the white cloth. He stepped closer to it and reached out to pull it away, but something stopped him. “It’s dead?” he asked.
“I don’t understand…”
“Come on, Ben—dead. Dead is dead. The Watcher is dead.”
Peter walked over and pulled the white cloth off the table. Under the cloth was a glass chamber—another kiln, just like the one they had found in the lab, laying flat like a coffin. Inside the kiln lay the body of a young girl, no more than seven or eight.
She was completely hairless. Her cheeks were hollow, and her eyes were sunken into her skull. She wore a thin, white gown. Wires and colored tubes snaked in and out of her body like roots and vines. Yet there was something strangely peaceful about her face as if she had just fallen asleep. Despite the peace on her face, her tiny fist was resting against a spider-webbed shatter in the glass. Her fist was bloody.
Just like on Re-Incarnate Day.
Ben stared at the little girl before him and choked back the rising feeling in his throat. Peter slowly spread the cloth back over the glass and lowered his head, as if in prayer.
“But… but she’s…” Ben struggled. “She’s so young. A kid.”
“She’s a… she’s a Watcher? How? And why is she in a kiln?”
“She’s like a vessel, probably. Born, bred, and dead in a kiln.”
“But how does she…” Ben wasn’t even sure what he was asking.
Peter pinched the bridge of his nose. “Loraine breeds them. Makes them. Most of them. Unless you’re unlucky enough to be born one in the real world. Some people have the ability to… I can’t remember the technical term, but they can Separate their minds, their consciousness, from their bodies and walk. Like ghosts, but not dead. When they come in contact with another person, a consciousness in a physical body, boom. The Watcher connects to that being, and their body mimics the person’s vital signs and sight. Their biometrics get projected to the Watcher’s body here. If they’re all wired up, then the tech can read those vitals and see what that person sees.”
Peter gestured to the blown-out CRT’s behind them. “Must be a nightmare. Being inside someone else’s head and body like that… to feel everything someone else feels. Someone else’s emotions.”
“Emotions? I thought they just watched.”
Peter shrugged. “They experience physical effects, so why shouldn’t they also experience our emotions? Emotions have physical effects, tears, temperature, heart rate, gut.”
“Are they like the vessels?”
“Yes and no. Like I said: born, bred, and dead in a kiln.”
“She was born.”
“Maybe. Yeah. They’re always on the lookout for people with the Watcher ability. When they Burn you, they check. It’s in your blood.”
Ben remembered the soldier scanning the Burners before sending them off to be processed.
“And how did shocking me do this?”
“If you deliver a big enough shock, then it happens on this end, too. They’re wired up,” Peter said and again motioned to the terminals and displays behind him. “Poof. We’re not exactly sure how it happens, but it’s our only way to fight them.”
“When Cassandra shocked Mica, did one of them die then too?”
“Then too. I hate shocking people,” Peter said softly, staring at the white sheet.
Without another word, Ben turned and left the unit. He hopped to the frozen ground below, stumbling a bit in the dirt, and made his way into the open field where he stared up into the sky.
Clouds, pale from the glow of a full moon, rolled over the sky. If they were lucky, it wouldn’t rain again. He hated himself for making Peter go in there and see that little girl’s face. The faces of the soldiers he had killed back at the house appeared before him with vacant, golden, glowing eyes. And the face of that little watcher girl joined them.
Footsteps in the damp grass behind him, as Peter followed him out into the field.
They both stared up at the void and stars and silence.
“I feel like I’ve just seen a ghost,” Ben said, breaking the silence.
Peter scratched at his beard. “And that ghost of yours wasn’t what you expected, was it? Now, what are you going to do about it?”
Ben stared up into the sky. Andromeda stared back at him. Peter didn’t have to say it exactly, but Ben knew what he was asking.
Perseus is coming.
His mother had always said that Perseus was coming for them—that Perseus would come and save them. She had been so sure of that, but Ben had always doubted. There was no Perseus. Persues wouldn’t have left them to suffer so long. He couldn’t have.
He turned and saw Peter watching him with a strange expression. “I’m not Perseus.”
As they looked at each other, Peter smiled. For the first time in a while, he really, truly, smiled. “Of course you are, Ben. And you’re going to save us all. Let’s go.” Then he turned and walked towards the forest.