BEN

Last time we saw BEN… (click for recap)

Ben and Peter make their way through the tunnel under West Nine to the river. On the other side should be an abandoned factory with hidden transports to speed their journey to the White Mountain and the Unseen City. But while trekking through the tunnel under the river, and accident collapses the tunnel, flooding it and threatening to drown them. As he loses his crutch in the flood and struggles to escape, Ben sees stars, Perseus. Peter finds Ben in the pitch blackness underwater and gets them both to safety. With the tunnel behind them destroyed, they only have one option: forward. At the end of the tunnel, they find the hatch to the factory. But the factory is no longer abandoned and likely crawling with soldiers. Now they only have one choice: through the government-run factory…

Ben eased the hatch shut. Above them was a factory filled with Novan soldiers, Burned workers, and who knew what else. If the tunnel hadn’t caved in behind them, then they could have gone back and around the entire city. It would have taken them longer, days longer, but they wouldn’t have to sneak through a factory crawling with soldiers and workers.

He felt like someone had stirred up a hornets’ nest inside his chest, and they refused to quiet. How would they ever get out alive and unnoticed? And worst of all, Ben’s bad leg meant he would be even more noticeable. A limp would stand out for sure in a crowd here. Burning him wasn’t an option. 

His leg was far too damaged for him to be of use in fields or even on a factory floor, and he had no training or special skills to offer. They wouldn’t bother trying to fix his leg—there were a million other men who could take Ben’s place, why waste time on a cripple? He’d be killed for sure. That was just policy.

“It’s over,” Ben said.

Peter scratched his beard. “Not yet,” he said. “I used to do this kind of thing all the time, remember? Just give me a minute to think.”

“You were trained in the Unseen City,” Ben said, but he wasn’t sure if that was a question or a statement. He wanted to believe that there was still a chance and that Peter could get them out, but it was a small and flickering hope, like a match in the rain.

“I may have done some sneaking around back then. It’s been a while, but I’m sure it will come back to me,” Peter said.

“So, any way to sneak a cripple out of a factory filled with Burners and soldiers?” Ben asked, trying to keep calm. “Did you train for that?”

“We’ll figure something out.” Peter pried open a crate and examined the contents.

“What are you doing?”

“Again with the questions. I’m trying to figure out what we’re dealing with here. I want to know what they’re manufacturing before we go snooping around up there,” he said.

Ben opened the crate he was leaning against and looked inside. He recognized the contents from the mysterious lab under his house. 

Peter straightened up and surveyed the room. “Looks like old lab equipment, and that makes sense. This used to be a medical manufacturing plant, so who knows what they’re mixing up now.” He put the lid back on the crate, careful to fit it tightly back into place. “We need to find some jumpsuits. We can’t go walking around here like this,” he gestured to their dirty and soggy clothes. “Let’s see what we can find.” Peter nodded to the door at the far end of the room and sauntered over.

Ben followed, slowly limping, keeping one hand on the crates for balance. Without his crutch, he felt like he was missing a limb. His feet chaffed inside his still wet boots, and his clothes were stiff and damp, which wasn’t the end of the world, but his leg hurt now more than ever. He grit his teeth as each step sent pain through his ankles, knees, and hips. There was no way he could make it up stairs and down crowded hallways unnoticed. Even if he still had his crutch, he’d draw too much attention. 

His heart sank.

Peter hummed softly to himself.

“You sure seem cheery,” Ben said, trying to keep his voice even.

“It’s just like old times. I guess I missed all the sneaking around,” Peter said with a grin.

“Like you didn’t do any sneaking around in West Six—Viola, the guns, the shelter, your mother….”

Ben still couldn’t quite believe that Peter’s mother was from West Six, used to live in his old house, and that his grandmother was crazy ol’ Viola. Not that long ago, Ben had thought that he knew everything, back before hungry thieves had slipped through broken windows. But now he realized how little he really knew, and how big and complex the world was. 

Before Peter, before Cassandra, and Watchers, and secret labs under the house, his life had been simple: keep Anda and Mica safe. Back then, he only had to contend with a few soldiers and a greedy commanding officer. Now he had prophets and stars and hidden eyes to worry about.

Peter shrugged. “Yeah, but this is a bit more fun than wandering around West Six.” He sidled up to a pair of wide double doors at the end of the room and listened for a moment. He tried the handle. It opened. Carefully, he opened the door just an inch and peeped out. 

Ben listened for sounds beyond the door, but he only heard his own heartbeat and breathing. He knew he couldn’t go with Peter. If he did, they would be stopped for sure. Peter’s only chance was to go on without him. Ben suddenly felt so very tired. Everything was gone. His home, his family, friends, even his crutch was gone, and his memories brought only sadness and pain. 

“Looks like there’s a stairwell at the end of the hall. And an elevator. But there are a ton of cameras….”

“You know I can’t go with you, right?” Ben said. His head felt thick and heavy, but maybe it was the emotion from such a sudden and final decision. All at once, hope disappeared, like a shadow vanishing in darkness. He had lost everything, but he could give Peter the chance to get away. He had to stay here to let Peter escape.

“Not happening,” Peter said and eased the door shut.

“This Perseus thing is… it’s crazy. I’m not Perseus. I have to stay here. I’ll slow you down up there, and there’s nowhere to hide. When they find me… with my leg….”

“Well, we’ll just have to figure something out then, won’t we?”

“But my limp. As soon as they see me limp, it’s over. They won’t—”

Footsteps sounded from the other side of the door. Peter and Ben looked at each other in surprise and then scurried behind some nearby crates as the footsteps came closer. Ben elbowed Peter at the sound of the door opening. A shard of white light shot into the room from the wide-open door, and three figures stood illuminated in fluorescent light. Their limbs cast stretched out and angular shadows on the ground like stick bugs. Their heads had been shaved, but prickles of growing hair caught the light.

“What they wanted?” one of them asked. His voice was deep and gruff.

Two of the figures entered the room. Dirt crunched under their feet. They didn’t have weapons that Ben could see, and they wore blue jumpsuits, not the usual military uniform. Ben reached for his gun, then remembered it was at the bottom of a flooded tunnel. 

The third worker stood in the doorway, holding a hand truck. He was taller and lankier than the first two. “Crate 7854. Keep a lookout for rats,” he added grimly and coughed.

“Quit whining,” the second worker said and waved him in. The third entered slowly, wheeling in the hand truck and leaving it by the door, which he left ajar behind him. Together the three workers walked down the row of crates shining flashlights in between the wooden boxes as they passed.

Peter hunched to avoid the pale beam as it skimmed over a crate. Ben held his breath. He glanced over at Peter, who motioned for him to wait. The door to the hallway stood open, and the workers ambled to the back of the room, checking crates as they went.

“Get out of here,” Ben whispered.

Peter looked at him sharply in the half-light. “What?”

“Get out of here. Now. While they’re in the back. I’ll distract them, and you run for it.”

“I’m not leaving you here.”

“You have to. Peter, I will slow you down. Then they will catch us. Then they will kill me and Burn you. Go now. Find Anda and Cassie. Please. For me.”

“What the hell is this?” the worker with the rocky voice asked from the back of the room.

Ben and Peter crouched even further into the shadows.

The others ran over to him. “What? Oh… what is that?”

“Are those…”

“Footprints.”

“And a… a hatch. Did you know this was here?” the worker asked and coughed.

“Sure. Didn’t know it was used, though. Isn’t supposed to be.”

Peter peeked around the edge of the crate at the workers and then ran low to the ground to the open door. A wave of sadness and relief washed over Ben. Peter would escape, and that was enough. He would face these men, and then he would die here, his life being the last thing he had to give.

But Peter paused in the safety of the shadows, reached out, and then eased the door closed. The sliver of bluish light disappeared with the soft click of the latch.

“What was that?” the worker asked, stifling a cough. Three flashlight beams jumped to the now-closed door.

Ben gestured angrily at Peter, but Peter only waved him away and disappeared into shadow. For a moment, everything was quiet. Then Peter was at his side, crouched in the dim light.

“What the hell are you doing?” Ben whispered. “You’ve got to get out of here.”

“Just stay down,” Peter said. “I mean it. I’ll take care of these three, and then we’ll take their jumpsuits and get the hell out of here, got it?”

“You can’t take them all on your own.”

“Well, you’re in no shape to help. No offense.”

“Peter, just go.”

“I guess you could un-Burn one of them. That might be helpful.”

“I don’t think I can do that on command.”

“Then, yeah, just stay down and try not to get in the way.”

Ben finally nodded, as the wave of anxiety rolled away. They might both die, but they’d die together. It was strange, he had been resigned to dying so that Peter could escape, but now he was just thankful not to die alone.

Peter turned his attention to the workers and disappeared behind a row of crates. Ben crawled down the aisle away from the workers, slinking from darkness to darkness. His bad foot slipped in the dirt as he crept past, making a scuffling, sliding sound. Panic sparked through him like static, and he scrambled behind a crate and froze.

“Did you hear that?” the gruff worker asked. One of the flashlight beams jerked its way around the room, pausing here and there, skimming the walls and lighting the corners.

“What?”

“Thought I heard something,” the heavy voice said.

Footsteps, soft and quick, headed towards the doors. Ben kept his attention on the two workers in the back, swinging their flashlights and slicing shadows. The quiet worker edged closer, and Ben tried to stay hidden in the shadows. If he got much closer, he’d have to crawl to the other side of the crate to avoid being seen.

A yelp in the dark. 

The flashlight beams shot in the direction of the cry, which muffled and went silent a split second later. Scuffling sounded from the dark corner.

“At the door—get him!”

Two pairs of footsteps ran for the door, flashlights bobbing in the dimness. Peter couldn’t fight off all three at once. Peter was strong, but Ben knew he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he didn’t at least try and help. Before he knew what he was doing, he leaped from his hiding place yowling with pain and hobbled for the closest of the two workers running past.

He barreled into the tall man with his shoulder. The worker yelled in surprise, and they both smashed into a crate. Ben hit his head on the wooden corner, and stars exploded in front of his eyes. His vision still clouded with shooting stars, and his leg too worn out to do much more than thrash, he struggled to push himself up, but the tall worker was quick.

Before he could shake the pulsing lights away from his vision, the worker kicked him in the back. Ben collapsed again to the ground. He groped the floor for something to fight with, instinctively reaching for his lost crutch, but suddenly the worker wrapped a thin arm around Ben’s neck and pulled him close. 

Ben struggled to breathe as the arm tightened around his throat like a noose and shook with effort. He grabbed the forearm and tried to claw himself free, but the thin arms were strong and tightening fast. The worker tried to call to his friend, but he only coughed.

They rolled on the dirty floor, and Ben grasped for something, anything. His hand connected with something hard—a chunk of concrete. He closed his fist around the debris and smashed it into the worker’s face. 

The worker cried out, and his grip weakened just enough for Ben to slip out and scramble forward, but the worker grabbed the back of his shirt and pulled him up. Ben struggled to keep his weight off his bad leg, but the worker slammed him into the wall, coughing and wheezing. 

Ben shook more falling stars from his eyes, but it was too late. The worker had his hands around Ben’s neck and was screaming at him and to the other workers in a raspy and choking voice.

“Who the hell are… what are you… hey… I got… one!” the worker managed between dry coughs and wheezing.

A small pulse pushed in Ben’s mind like a ripple in the darkness, a brief burst of pressure. As his lungs burned, he locked eyes with the worker and focused.

He didn’t die in that river, and he wouldn’t die here.

All at once, the pressure exploded like a crashing wave in his brain. With everything he had, he focused the flow of pressure inside his mind to a point, if only just to keep his own mind from imploding. Just like channeling a flood through a crack, he focused that flood outward and into the worker whose hands crushed his windpipe. Ben focused harder and forced the flood faster and faster and faster…

It was sudden and ripping. Like a river exploding over a dam, energy pulsed through his mind. The world tinged bright blue-green. Shaking and trembling, the worker stared at Ben with wide eyes glowing teal. Ben felt like he was slowly filling the worker’s mind up with water until the worker’s eyes rolled back and shut, and he crumpled to the ground.

Ben collapsed to the ground and tried to catch his breath. He jumped when he noticed Peter staring at the worker on the ground.

“What did you do?” Peter asked and dropped to his knees next to the limp man. “He’s still breathing. But, shit, what was that?”

Ben rubbed his head. The watery feeling inside his head was gone, but a misty, muggy feeling remained like the air, heavy with water, after a sudden thunderstorm.

“I don’t know. Did I… was that me?” Ben asked.

“He was choking you when I got here, but then you started doing something weird. I would have stepped in, but I didn’t know what the hell you were doing. And your eyes….”

“What?”

“Your eyes. Your eyes went all… watcher. But not. Your eyes started… glowing… bright kind of blue-green. Just like….”

“No… I’m not a watcher,” he said, but even as he said it, he knew that wasn’t right. This was something else. Fear wrapped her bony arm around his neck and pulled him close.

“I didn’t say you were a Watcher,” Peter said. “I don’t know of any watchers who can knock people out with their minds. Watchers observe, but you were doing some other kind of crazy. And your eyes were a different color. Bright blue.”

Ben shook his head. He didn’t want to believe that he had knocked the worker out, but the watery feeling was inescapable. He suddenly remembered Agatha and the way her eyes had glowed dark blue. And that watery feeling.

“When we were drowning… under the river. I saw your eyes glow. That was how I found you in the dark.”

Ben remembered that feeling, that watery, pulsing feeling, under the river. “What the hell is happening to me?” he asked, terrified. Fear smelled like sweat and unwashed clothes and incense. The thought of restoring memories and… whatever this was, was too much. He already felt enough of a freak with his leg. This just wasn’t fair.

“You know what’s happening,” Peter said. “You know who you are.”

He looked at the unconscious worker. “Did Seth do this to me? Did he turn me into… one of them?” The tangled knot of fear in his stomach tightened. “Is that even possible?”

Peter shook his head. “Ben, you know who you are,” he said again in a quiet and almost awed voice.

He shot Peter a look. He knew what Peter was thinking, and he’d thought it himself. What if this had something to do with Perseus? But that was impossible. He wasn’t Perseus.

Not saying what they both were thinking, Peter continued. “Seth didn’t do this to you. It’s not something transferred or given. You’re born with it. You’re like Seth, but different.” Hearing Peter say it out loud sent dismay and anger and resentment through him as naturally as breathing.

“No. No way. I’m not like him.”

“You have gifts. Like Seth. Like….”

Like Seth. Like the prophets. But not like Peter.

He couldn’t deny it anymore, so he didn’t try, although the thought brought fear so close he could feel her breath on his neck, feel her damp clothes clinging to him. Desperately he grasped at any explanation other than Perseus. “I thought only Prophets had gifts. Prophets and watchers.”

Peter opened his mouth to answer, but a sound in the hallway stopped him short. He put his finger to his lips. Voices echoed down the hallway. Footsteps. Ben held his breath. But the footsteps faded, and the voices died away. A door opened and slammed shut somewhere, and then everything was quiet.

He took in a deep breath, relieved.

Peter passed his hand over his face. “I’ll tell you about the others after we get out of here. I let us linger too long. It’s not safe. Come on,” he said and moved to take the workers’ jumpsuits.

Despite his fear, he knew that Peter was right. He was different now. He knew he had restored Agatha’s memories. He had been inside that worker’s mind, sensing and controlling and manipulating, and he had knocked the tall man out. The realization came to him slowly, like ice melting under the sun.

He wouldn’t believe he was Perseus, but with abilities like his, the ability to control others and manipulate them, the ability to restore the Burn, he could stop anyone who came near him—he could find Anda and Cassandra all on his own. He could keep himself and them safe at last. They could slip away and leave this country forever, and no one could stop them. He could finally keep his promise to their lost mother, despite the books and fires and burnings that got in his way. If only he could find them first.

Like opening a window in a dark room and letting the sun burst in, all the shadows in Ben’s mind vanished. Fear bared her teeth at him in a snarl, but he smiled back.

Ben shook his head. “The Unseen can’t know about me.”

Peter stopped, a crumpled jumpsuit in his hand. “What?”

“If the Unseen find out about me, they’ll keep me locked up to study me, won’t they? No way the Unseen can know.”

Peter rolled his head, cracking his neck. “We will talk about this later, but we’ve got to get out of here before someone comes looking for these workers.”

“And we will. But when we get to the Unseen, swear to me that you won’t tell them about me,” Ben said, staring hard at Peter. “You know if they find out, I’ll never be able to find Anda and Cassandra, and I have to find them. Please, for Anda and Cassandra.”

Peter rubbed his forehead. “All right, if we make it to the Unseen, I promise I won’t tell them about you.”

“If? I thought you knew where it was?”

“Of course I do. I’m just hoping I can change your mind before we get there. Ben, the Unseen aren’t to be trusted. Cassie was the only one I trusted, and I’m begging you: don’t go there. I don’t know what will happen if you do, and besides, you can do this without them. You don’t need them. You can raise your own army, lead a rebellion, and stop anyone who gets in your way. Do this yourself, and don’t trust them.”

Ben clenched his jaw. He couldn’t lead a rebellion. He wouldn’t. He had to find his family, and the Unseen was the only way he knew to do that.

“Swear you won’t tell them about me.”

Peter scratched at his beard and sighed. “Fine. I swear.”

“Thank you. Now, let’s go find the Unseen.”