Last time we saw BEN… (click for recap)
Ben and Peter make their way to West Nine, the government-run factory city, to find Anda and Cassandra, and then flee Nova to the Unseen City. At the edge of the city, Peter notes the increases security from the last time he was there and takes them a different way to the tunnels. As they pass field after field filled with Burners, Ben grows discouraged and wonders how he will ever find Anda and Cassandra, two Burners among millions…
Ben collapsed to the ground just inside the tunnel. He wanted so badly to rest and let his leg stop aching and rewrap his wound, but he knew there wasn’t time for that. He flicked Mica’s lighter, and a small flame appeared in the dark. As Peter rummaged around through the debris littered around the tunnel, broken crates and trash from other journeys in the dark, Ben held the light still.
“Find anything?” he asked.
“You always leave something for the next guy. Courtesy. Ah-ha.” Peter stood up from a pile of wood with two torches in hand. He lit one with Mica’s lighter, and a warm, orange light fluttered and filled the darkness around them.
“Here,” he said and held the torch to Ben.
“You hold it for now,” Ben said. He put the lighter safely in his jacket pocket and pulled out his pistol. He couldn’t hold a torch, a gun, and his crutch all at the same time.
Peter raised an eyebrow at him. “I don’t think you’ll need that here.”
“Do you know what’s down there?” Ben motioned to the blackness in front of them.
“Then I’m ready for rats,” Ben said, holding his gun out in front of him and limping forward. “Let’s go, don’t got all day.”
Peter snorted and shook his head. “Wonderful,” he said under his breath. He dug through his pack and pulled out some sticks of jerky wrapped tightly in plastic, which he left under a broken crate in the corner. Then he led the way into darkness.
They walked for what felt like miles, but they kept a slow pace. It was a nice change from their dark dash through the woods. The gentle slope down into the earth was easier to navigate than the woods with its roots and rocks and fallen trees reaching to trip him up and catch his crutch. It wasn’t as good as a rest, but it wasn’t as taxing as running through the forest.
Ben kept his head and didn’t shoot any of the rats that scurried past them, although he wanted to. Water dripped a slow and persistent beat from the rocky walls around them. Every so often, ladders rose the walls and into dark shafts.
“Where do those go?” Ben asked as they passed a rusted ladder that disappeared into the darkness above.
“Don’t know. And I’m not sticking my head up there to check,” Peter said. He stopped and pointed to a black X on the wall next to the ladder. “Means this ladder is a bad idea.”
“Who left the marks?”
Peter scratched at his beard. “Don’t know, but I’m glad they did.”
Eventually, the tunnel began to slope steeply downwards, and a set of stairs going nearly straight down appeared.
“Here’s my favorite part,” Peter said with more than a bit of sarcasm and stopped at the top of the stairs.
Ben looked down uncertainly. “What is this?”
“The tunnel runs under the river. Not sure how they managed it, but they did. Makes me nervous. Always thinkin’ the whole thing is just going to collapse. Boom!” Peter said, and then pretended he was drowning.
“Perfect,” Ben said. He could hear the muffled sound of fast-moving water rushing over rocks. The temperature had dropped as they had neared the river, and Ben shivered.
“Well, let’s go,” Peter said and began to descend the slippery steps. “Get this over with as quick as we can.”
Ben eyed the wet stone stair. He had a hard enough time with stairs when they weren’t slippery. Carefully, they descended the slick stones. Peter kept pausing and holding the torch behind him for Ben to see the steps. Ben didn’t correct him. At the bottom of the stairs, several inches of water covered the tunnel ahead of them. Peter’s torch shimmered on the rippling surface. He led the way into the cold water, and they sloshed forward. Ben could see the stone underneath the shuddering water, but the stones seemed to change and shift, distorted by the glimmering water, so he walked even slower, carefully testing the rock with his crutch.
The tunnel under the river felt even longer than the one through the earth, although it was a fraction of the distance. All Ben could think about was the rushing river above their heads. And the sound of thundering water that filled his ears. His leg began to ache in the cold, and his feet went numb. His boots were not waterproof, but it didn’t matter as the water crawled over his boots and began soaking up his pants.
“And what’s on the other side of this?” Ben asked, trying to distract himself from the weight of the river above him and the cold around him.
“It goes to that abandoned factory on the west side of the river.”
“What about Watchers? Don’t they notice a bunch of people under their city?”
Peter shook his head. “Don’t have Watchers here. Don’t need them. Everyone in this city is Burned or Burning,” he added with venom.
Ben turned his mind back to walking forward. His feet grew colder with every step, and the frigid river water swirled around his ankles. The water splashed up to his knees as he limped forward in the shin-deep water.
After what felt like miles, the ground began to tilt upward again, and the water around their calves grew shallower. Desperate to get out of the cold, Ben hurried forward as soon as he caught a glimpse of the stairs. He was so close, and he had to get out from under this river. He could see the stairs.
“Hey, slow down!” Peter said. His voice bounced off the water and stone around them, but he was too late. Ben slipped on the slick rock beneath him and fell, twisting around onto his side so he wouldn’t land on his bad leg and dropped his crutch in the water. But his hand jerked as he slammed into the rock below, and the gun went off.
The sound echoed and reverberated all around them, and a splitting crack rang in his ears.
Ben groped for the gun, but it was gone. He shook his head to clear the sound and heard nothing but ringing. Peter shoved him forward and hauled him towards the stairs. He was yelling, but Ben couldn’t hear what he was saying over the shrill ring in his ears. He screamed that he needed his crutch and scrambled for it. But he turned and saw panic in Peter’s eyes.
When he looked back, he understood: his bullet had cracked the ceiling. Water sprayed through the fracture, forcing it wider and wider. Ben’s heart skipped, and he scrambled out of the water, leaving his crutch somewhere under the roiling surface. They both hurried forward, Peter practically carrying him towards the stairs.
A second later, the ceiling exploded behind them, blowing a hole in the stone and concrete. The sudden surge of water knocked them forward and apart. Ben struggled to stay on his feet as the water churned against his knees, but his bad leg gave way, and he fell. Water poured in and filled the tunnel.
The spray extinguished Peter’s torch and plunged them into complete darkness.
Ben screamed for Peter, pushed himself to his feet, and reached out in the blackness, but he felt nothing. The water reached his waist. He knew the water was crawling up the stairs by now, and he pushed on towards the exit. He had to get up those stairs. The water reached his chest. He pushed forward with his hands out in front of him. He knew that as soon as his feet lifted from the floor, and the water spun him around, his sense of direction would be gone. He would not be able to find the stairs disoriented in the dark. He struggled to breathe as the frigid water crept up his shoulders and neck.
“Peter!” he screamed again. No answer came.
Suddenly, his feet lifted from the stone below him, and he struggled to keep his head above water. He swam forward in the dark, flailing to find the stairs, the wall, Peter, anything. His head bumped the ceiling. He took one final deep breath just before the water covered him completely.
There was nothing but coldness and the shifting of water in his ears. Fear and panic overwhelmed him. He thrashed to find something with his hands, but there was nothing, just the smooth, flat stone above his head. His lungs started to burn, and panic rose in his throat.
This couldn’t be it. Not after everything.
As Ben struggled in the water, all he could think of was how he had failed his family and how he would never find Anda. Mica was dead. They were gone forever. Then, for an instant, he saw stars.
He had never seen them so clearly. Like they were alive and breathing and calling to him, like they knew him and could speak to him. For a brief moment, he felt like he was one of them.
Something snagged his collar. A hand suddenly grabbed Ben’s shirt and yanked him through the water. The stars faded, but they left a burning image in his mind.
Ben struggled, but Peter gripped his shirt and pulled him deeper into the water. They swam down into the cold. Ben’s lungs burned and strained, and he thrashed, unable to help himself, as Peter pulled him down, down, down.
He choked, convulsed, and tried not to take in water, but his lungs burned as the icy river found a way inside. He felt himself start to pass out.
Purple and orange spots swam in front of him like brightly colored fish.
Something shifted deep inside of him. Not like this, he would not die like this. Not until he saved them.
He felt something in the back of his mind. As if a door had opened, and light and wind and water burst in.
Then Ben’s feet hit the floor below him, and they were going up. The edge of a step brushed his fingertips, and he pushed off the rock, vaulting himself up out of the water. Ben floundered, struggling to breathe, scraping his knees and hands against the stone stairs. In total darkness, Peter grabbed him again and hauled him up out of the water, dragged him up the last few steps, and dropped him on the tunnel’s dirt floor.
Ben gasped and choked, spitting up water from his lungs. Everything burned. He heard Peter collapse next to him, panting. They sat in the dark. Breathing had never felt so good.
“What the hell was that?” Peter asked in the dark.
“I… I’m sorry. I tripped.”
“No, not that. I saw that. What was… I mean you… your eyes.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I… I don’t know. I thought I saw… I thought your eyes… nothing. Must have imagined it.” Peter sighed and then coughed. “Forget it,” he said.
Then they sat in silence, breathing in the dark.
After a while, when his heart had slowed, and his lungs ached a little less, Ben heard Peter shifting off his soaking jacket and wringing out his shirt. Ben just sat.
“Why are you helping me get to the Unseen?” Ben asked. If he had listened to Peter, they would never have come into this tunnel. Peter didn’t have to lead him here, but he did. “Why not, I don’t know, take my crutch, or give me bad directions, or… stop me? Why are you helping me get to the Unseen?”
“Did you lose the lighter?” Peter asked between deep and rasping breaths.
Ben reached into his pocket. Somehow, he still had the lighter. He had lost his gun and his crutch, but Ben still had that little silver lighter.
“No, I still have it. It won’t work though. It’s soaked through,” Ben said.
“Give it here.”
Ben held the lighter out into the darkness. Peter found his hand and took it. They sat quietly as Peter worked with the lighter in the dark. Ben just sat, staring at the darkness before him.
“I’m helping you because I keep Perseus safe,” Peter whispered in the dark. “No matter what, that’s what I was born to do.”
After a while, Ben could have sworn he could see the blackness like it had shape and movement all it’s own. Maybe he slept. Maybe not. Maybe the weight of their travels finally smothered him in deep and dreamless sleep as his body tried to recover. He wasn’t sure. But suddenly a sound in the darkness. The lighter finally decided to work, and a tiny flame appeared in the blackness, bright and warm and flickering.
“How did you get it to light?” Ben asked. His eyes felt sandy and gritty. Maybe he did sleep after all.
Peter smiled at him through his tangled and dripping, red beard. His looked drier, and his hair lay matted and red down his shoulders. “School in the Unseen City is a little different from yours. Let’s go.”
Ben got up, leaning on his good leg. Parts of his clothes were dry, but parts still clung wet to his elbows, knees, and back. Both their packs were gone. “Hey. Thank you.”
“You’ll pay me back. Don’t worry,” Peter said and started down the tunnel.
Ben looked at the stairwell they had emerged from, water lapped at the top of the stair and spread before him in a pool of shining darkness like oil. The tunnel under the river was underwater at best but was more likely destroyed. If they wanted to get out, then they had to keep going forward. Ben turned and limped after Peter with one hand on the wall.
They walked even more slowly than before, shivering in the cool of the tunnel. To save the lighter fluid, they walked in darkness with their hands on the wall. Every so often, Peter would flick the lighter, hoping the end of the tunnel had appeared. But they only saw red rat eyes gleaming back at them.
Ben had been using a crutch since he was five years old. No matter how much he hated it, it was a part of him. Now he felt strange without it like he wasn’t quite himself. Like something was missing.
After a while, Peter stopped and flicked the lighter. He cocked his head and listened. “You hear that?” he asked and pointed to nothing in particular.
Ben strained to listen. He did hear something. A pulse or a hum.
“Yeah, what is that?” Fear pressed her hand to Ben’s shoulder, her thick and yellowed nails digging into his flesh. “I thought you said this factory was abandoned.”
“It was. I mean, ten years ago it was abandoned. But that sounds like a generator.”
“What did they make here, before they shut it down?” Ben asked.
“Used to be a biochemical plant or something. Not sure what they made. Chemical something-something.” Peter sighed and swore. “Let’s go,” he said and started jogging forward.
Ben hurried after him as fast as he could, but his leg was numb with cold and refused to keep up. Peter’s figure bobbed up ahead in the small flicker of the lighter. The sound was soft but clear. Something was definitely up ahead.
“Think they know we’re here?” Ben called out softly to Peter. He wanted to be quiet, but a growing fear made his voice too loud.
“Don’t think so,” Peter called back. He slowed for Ben to keep up.
“What if they heard that cave in under the river?”
Peter shrugged. “Probably not.”
They kept going, and the humming grew louder.
“There it is,” Peter said. He pointed ahead.
Ben couldn’t see anything at first, but soon he saw a ladder and the end of the tunnel. They reached it, and Ben saw a white chalk mark on the rock next to it. Perseus.
“I guess that means this ladder is safe. Or, was?” Ben asked, staring up the ladder as far as he could, but he could not see the top. The humming was strongest under the ladder.
Peter nodded. “Yeah. This goes to the basement under the factory. Storage. I don’t like this sound though. I’ll go first. When we get to the top, be quiet, I want to listen before I go opening that hatch. Not like it matters,” Peter added more to himself than to Ben.
“Then let’s wait until the workers leave for the night.”
Peter shook his head. “Wouldn’t matter. Most factories run constantly. Night shifts.” He stepped onto the ladder, and with a sigh, began to climb. Ben followed as best he could, but his leg was weak, and it took time. He had to hold the ladder tightly and hop his good leg up to the next rung, leaving his weak leg to dangle. Soon sweat poured down his back, and his good leg burned.
They climbed for what felt like several stories before they reached the top. Peter stopped at the hatch and held still for several minutes, listening. He shook his head and said, “This is supposed to be basement storage, let’s hope it still is, and that humming is just… nothing.”
Peter handed the lighter down to Ben and began working the hatch open. The metal wheel creaked and squealed as it spun. Peter pushed the hatch open, and a shower of dirt and debris fell from the rim of the metal. A pale light appeared in the crack, and the humming grew louder. They waited, listening for movement. Ben heard nothing but the hum of distant machinery.
After a moment, Peter pushed the hatch all the way open and climbed out into dimness. Ben flicked off the lighter, slipped it into his pocket, and climbed out too. As he climbed out of the tunnel, he tripped and fell forward, landing on his wounded arm. He stifled a cry. Peter gave him a look but didn’t say anything.
Ben lay cradling his arm, too tired to get up just yet. He blinked in the dimness and looked around. They were in the corner of a large storage area filled with hundreds of crates stacked in neat rows. Discarded machinery sat lined up, their metal parts cast twisted shadows in the dim light. A window glowed pale on a door at the far end of the room. Despite the low light, it was still better than the blackness of the tunnel.
“Probably a generator on the other side of this wall,” Peter said. He stood with his ear to the closest wall and tapped the concrete. “That’s the humming we heard in the tunnel. We passed right under it.”
A running generator was a very bad sign, and Ben’s stomach turned sour at the thought. Peter left the wall and wandered through the crates, running a finger over their unfinished wood.
“Well?” Ben asked. He pushed himself up and limped to the nearest crate to steady himself.
Peter wiped his finger across the top of a crate and examined his finger. “These haven’t been here that long.”
“What does that mean?” Ben asked.
“It means we just walked right into a working government factory. Shit.”