BEN

Last time we saw BEN… (click for recap)

Ben and Peter barely escape soldiers and the burning ruin of Ben’s family farm into the woods. They come across a mobile Watcher unit, and Peter refuses to go inside and kill the Watcher. They argue, and Peter bitterly relents. Inside the unit, Ben expects to find a Watcher ready to fight, but the unit is empty. A fight, or something worse, has taken place, and the unit has been trashed and destroyed by a fire. Except for one object in the back–a kiln. Inside the kiln lies the dead Watcher: a little girl. Not finding the Watchers what he expected, Ben questions Peter about the Watchers and learns what they really are. Peter issues Ben a challenge: now that he knows the truth, what is he going to do about it? What is Persues going to do about it…

Ben and Peter resumed their journey to West Nine and eventually, the Unseen City. They slipped through the forest, unseen and unheard. Peter was intent on getting as much distance between them and the mobile Watcher unit as possible, so they darted quickly through the shadows. They walked through the forest until the sky began to warm with morning light, and the branches above them showed black against a pink sunrise.

“We should stop. I don’t want to travel during the day,” Peter said. They stopped near a stream, which carved a path down a hill and around a bend. Peter dropped his pack and began gathering branches.

Ben collapsed to the ground, dropping his crutch, and rubbed at his sore and aching leg. He had never walked so long and so hard before, and his leg screamed with pain. 

“How far is West Nine?” Ben asked as he massaged his thigh. Whenever he thought about West Nine, he got queasy, and anxiety seemed to sit in his gut, squat and heavy and nauseous.

Peter hesitated. “Twenty miles or so.”

Twenty miles was a long way to go with a bad leg and a wounded arm. He wasn’t sure how he would make it, but the thought of possibly finding Anda and seeing Cassie again filled him with a warm light. He would get to West Nine one way or another.

Ben had never been to West Nine because there was no reason to go. It consisted entirely of government-run farms and factories, and there was no chance for trade or jobs or anything else. All manufactured goods and produce from West Nine were shipped to Windrose or other large cities, and the jobs in West Nine weren’t the kind that people took willingly. The workers employed at West Nine factories and farms were all Burners. As far as Ben was concerned, the place was a living graveyard.

The sun was almost up when Peter finished the lean-to and headed down to the stream. Ben did the same, taking a good, long drink before returning to their makeshift camp. Inside of the lean-to, they silently ate crackers and jerky from Peter’s pack. The sun rose, poking little fingers of light through the branches above them.

“You sleep first, I’ll wake you later,” Peter said, settling himself into the dirt with his back against the tree. Ben didn’t argue. He lay down and let sleep roll over his eyelids like a heavy fog.

He dreamed of water and fire and wind and doors with blue and white flowers. 

Cassandra. Washing her hands in bright water.

A face he had not seen in years: a man with a few days’ stubble on his chin. 

Mica making a stupid face at him.

The field out back. The little family graveyard. 

Staring up at the stars. 

Promise me you’ll take care of them. Promise me. Take care of all of them. 

I will. I will take care of them. All of them.

Remember: ‘Perseus is coming.’

The soldiers he had shot staring up into the stars. The little watcher girl. Staring up at Perseus who would not come for her… who killed her–

Ben awoke to find Peter gently shaking his good arm. He sat up and winced. As he’d slept, his wounded arm had gone stiff, and his legs felt numb and heavy from tiredness. The sun had rolled across the sky, and the shadows were backward. Disoriented, Ben waved Peter’s hand away.

“Anything happen?”

“Nothing,” Peter said and lay down. “Wake me after sunset,” he said, and his eyelids sagged with more than just weariness. He was snoring softly within moments.

Ben kept watch as the light crawled across the leaves of the lean-to and pulled the shadows with it. He couldn’t see much beyond the veil of leaves and branches above him, so he listened. The stream sang as it flowed. Birds chirped. Something hopped by, a rabbit perhaps, inspected the lean-to and went on its way.

The past few days had felt like someone else’s life and couldn’t possibly be his own. He pulled out Mica’s lighter and turned it over in his hands. He would find Anda and Cassandra. For Mica. If nothing else, he would die trying to save them. Living free with the millstone of guilt around his neck would be too painful. 

The sun slid over the earth and finally set. Beams of red, pink, and orange sliced through the shelter above them. When it was fully dark, Ben reached over and nudged Peter, who hadn’t moved at all since he had fallen asleep.

“What?” Peter asked, instantly awake at Ben’s touch.

“Sunset.”

Peter sat up and rubbed his forehead. “Anything?”

“No.”

Peter nodded and got up. Outside the shelter, they stretched their sleepy limbs, ate some jerky, took several long drinks from the stream, and filled their canteens. Ben wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“It’s almost twenty miles to the city. We need to be out of there with a transport by dawn. Let’s move,” Peter said. He didn’t ask if Ben could keep up, or how his leg was. Peter didn’t do that, but Ben knew it was on his mind. It was his own mind, his slow gait, his crutch thumping through the underbrush, his aching leg. But he didn’t have a choice, so he would lumber along the best he could.

As they moved through the forest, stars darted in and out of sight between the branches above them. Owls rushed past them in the dark. Bats whirled over head in the meadows and fields, chaotic shadows in the sky. Ben began to sweat, but he kept pace with Peter. Although he knew Peter was slowing down for him, he didn’t want to let on just how hard it was to keep up. Peter moved like he had been here before like he knew the land and the woods and where the hills and boulders were. But maybe he was just rested, and fatigue was no longer wrapped around him. 

Finally, they slowed and stopped. Ben was limping badly by now, and his leg ached with every step.

“We’re still a few miles from the city limits,” Peter said. “But between us and the abandoned factory are several farms, the city, and a river. We’ll have to slip past the farms and make it to the tunnels, but it should be pretty easy—they don’t have much security out here.”

“Tunnels?” Ben said.

“Under the city. There’s an entrance in between a couple of farms. We can cut through some fields and get to this old house. There’s a hatch in the basement. Once we get there, we’ll rest a bit,” Peter said without looking at him.

They walked until they came to a long and very tall fence running out of sight in either direction. Barbed wire laced the top like a delicate crown. Ben didn’t want to attempt climbing it and looked to Peter.

Peter frowned at the fence. “This is new, and the entrance is on the other side. Let’s keep going. Maybe there’s a way in.”

On the other side of the fence, a field like a great, green sea stretched over the earth into the darkness before dawn. They walked, keeping the fence on their left, and being careful to stay within the treeline, just in case. Every few hundred yards or so, small guard towers stood at attention. Peter suspiciously eyed the towers and slid farther back into the protective shadow of the forest. Ben felt fear raise her head and look at him, pushing her pale and lank hair off her forehead.

“I don’t like this,” Peter whispered. “Those towers weren’t here the last time I made this trip. Looks like they tightened security. Change of plans. We’re taking the long way.”

Ben stifled a groan but followed Peter. Every second they wasted, Anda and Cassandra slipped farther and farther away. The sooner they got on the other side of that fence, the sooner they could make it to the Processing Center and search for clues about their West Six Burners. And every step ached and throbbed.

They followed the fence past farms and towers. Soon, The sun began to rise, melting the silver moonlight and shifting the world to color. Workers began to file out into the gray fields to work. In some fields, they used hand tools and weeded. In others, they picked ripe fruit and winter vegetables. High walls surrounded orchards of apple and pear trees. The tops of the trees swayed in the breeze like wind-tossed waves.

Ben stopped and looked out over a field of squashes in the dim morning light. The workers wore gray uniforms, and when they bent to the ground, they looked like rocks in a green and rolling sea. The fields were eerily quiet. There were so many workers that Ben thought he’d hear voices, friendly chatter, maybe even a working song or two, but these fields were silent. Ben heard only a few voices, and he guessed they belonged to the soldiers who watched with weapons ready.

He stared over the hundreds upon hundreds of silent workers before him. Even if Anda and Cassandra were in West Nine, he’d never find them. Two unique heartbeats in a hundred. And Nova was even bigger. How could the Unseen possibly find two Burners in so many?

Fear wrapped an arm around his neck. To Ben, it was like the arm of a drowning person dragging him down into a sea of green and gold and orange. Ben turned from the wide field in despair. Finding Anda and Cassandra would be like finding a nameless grave in a field of millions of blank tombstones.

Peter and Ben crept even farther into the woods and kept moving, always keeping the fence within sight. By now, they had passed several farms with hundreds of workers, the sun was up, and they were nowhere near the abandoned factory, let alone the river.

He followed Peter back into the woods to a well strangled with ivy. At the well, Peter pointed himself north and walked in a straight line towards a steep hillside.

Ben tripped and swore. He regained his balance but felt his grasp on everything else slipping. “What?” he said when he saw Peter staring at him.

“Nothing,” Peter said and continued on.

“We should have been there by now.”

“We’ll get there,” Peter said.

“It’s already morning. We should be searching West Nine for Anda and Cassie, or in a transport headed for the White Mountains. Either way, I shouldn’t be wandering around some stupid forest. My leg can’t take much more of this,” he said. Peter responded by tossing him a protein pack. He ate in silence. “Sorry,” he said when he’d finished the pack and felt a bit better. Peter only shrugged his apology aside and ate his own protein pack.

“There’s another entrance to the tunnels out here,” Peter said and pointed to the hill.

The sun shown warm and bright, and a cool breeze ruffled the dry leaves around Ben’s feet as he followed Peter towards the hill. “And you do know where this tunnel is, right?” he asked. The food had helped, but he was ready to be done walking.

“Of course, I know where it is. Here!”

Peter thrust his hand into a bank of ivy, twisting its way down the hill. He grabbed onto something, braced his foot on the slope, and pulled. After some tugging, a door squeaked open, pushing up a blanket of ivy and dead leaves and brush. Birds scattered and shrieked at the sudden noise.

Ben climbed the hillside to the door, struggling with his crutch up the incline.

“You ready?” Peter said.

Ben stared down into the tunnel. Stone steps plunged into the earth. Cold and stale air wafted up from the darkness below. Ben found the stillness unsettling and felt like he was about to step into his own grave.

“Don’t really have a choice, do I?” Ben asked and stepped down into the tunnel. At least down there in the dark, he could rest.

Peter scanned the forest behind them one last time. The shadows in the trees shifted and fluttered, and the leaves hissed like a rolling wave in the breeze. Ben had one last glimpse of sunlight and falling leaves before Peter slipped into the tunnel and pulled the door closed behind him, shutting out the wind and light.