Last time we saw BEN… (click for recap)
After finding their way into the factory they thought was abandoned, Ben and Peter plan their next move. While they are debating, they are surprised by workers. Peter and Ben jump the workers, hoping to overwhelm them and take their jumpsuits, but Ben is quickly overpowered. While struggling with the worker, Ben experiences something surprising: he knocks the man out with his mind. Peter sees his eyes glow teal and again tells Ben that he is Perseus. But that is too terrifying a thought, and Ben rejects it. However, his new powers are tempting, and Ben decides to use them to do whatever it takes to find Anda and Cassandra. But that means keeping his abilities a secret from the Unseen. He makes Peter swear not to tell the Unseen about his powers, and the two of them prepare to escape the factory and make a run for the Unseen…
Ben and Peter exchanged their damp and filthy clothes for the workers’ dark blue jumpsuits and swapped their muddy boots out for sleek, black, work boots. Ben made sure to tuck Mica’s lighter into his pocket. It was the one thing he had left from home. The jumpsuits were for leaner men. But thin as they were, the clothes were still a bit tight. Ben and Peter did not have the skinny, half staved frame of the Burn workers, and Ben hoped they wouldn’t stick out too much.
“So, what’s the plan?” Ben asked.
“We find a terminal and get the lay of the land. They will have cleared out all the old Unseen transports, so we’ll have to steal one of the Novan’s. They’ll have a transport bay somewhere. We’ll jack a truck get out of here. Sound good?”
“Not really. How am I supposed to go walking around a factory?” Ben asked, gesturing to his leg.
Peter frowned. “Yeah, I’m working on that.”
“Maybe they have an infirmary or something. We could say I broke something and head that way. Maybe we can find crutches or a wheelchair or something.”
“Nah. First, we don’t even know which way the infirmary is. So we’d probably get stopped going the wrong direction. Even if we did make it there, we’d have to steal crutches without someone taking a look at you. And if they examine you, they’ll see your leg isn’t broken. And there’s no guarantee they’d let me stay with you—they’d send me back to work, or I’d get in trouble for leaving the job. Then, we’d have to get onto a truck with you on crutches—”
“Okay, I get it. It won’t work.” Ben hobbled over to a crate and leaned against it to think.
“The crates,” Peter said and snapped his fingers. “What were the workers saying? They were looking for a crate. Crate 7854.”
“So, you won’t have to walk at all,” Peter said with a smile. “Help me look.”
Together they searched until they found crate 7854 and pried off the lid. The crate held some old computer terminals and printers. Peter dumped the tech onto the ground and surveyed the crate.
“Looks like you’ll fit.”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Then let’s get this over with.” Ben adjusted his jumpsuit, tugging at the material, and felt something in his other pocket. He pulled out a small bottle that rattled when he shook it.
Peter had been digging through another crate but turned to look. “Those are what keep everyone around here nice and relaxed,” he said. He looked at a bottle from his own pocket and squinted. “Oh, good. Not too high a dose. The workers on the factory floor, they’re on a much higher dose.”
Peter turned his attention back to the crate. “So they’ll be kinda zoned out. The repetitive nature of factory work means they don’t have to think much. Don’t take any of those, and don’t lose them. It’ll look suspicious if you don’t have your pills with you. And I’m afraid that head of hair has got to go,” Peter said. He stood up, holding a razor. “We’ll stand out if we go walking around like this. Come here.”
“I’m going to be stuck in a box. No one’s going to see me,” Ben said, hoping to avoid a haircut.
“Unless this thing goes south, then they’ll open the box, and they won’t find computer parts.”
“If they’re looking in the box, it won’t matter what my hair looks like. They’ll just Burn me.”
“Sure. But I don’t want them to think we broke in. Best to look like Burners from here trying to get out. And what if you have to get out of the box or something?”
Ben begrudgingly agreed, sat down on the ground, and let Peter slice off his braid and shave his head. He nicked him a few times, but Ben rubbed the blood away. Piles of dark hair fell around him into the dirt. Ben somehow regretted the long hair falling to the ground. It was his outward sign that he was not Burned, not forgotten, and forgetful. But to move on and find his family, he had to be forgotten. Then it was Peter’s turn, and he sat while Ben shaved his head bare. He nicked Peter’s head more than once.
“Watch what you’re doing.”
“Your head’s shaped weird. Not my fault.”
“All right, you’re done—give it.” Peter took the razor and slowly shaved off his red and wild beard. Ben remembered when Peter had first arrived bareheaded and clean-shaven. Peter had seemed so strange and dangerous then. But as his hair grew out and his beard covered his face, and they got to know him, he grew to be a friend. Now Ben felt like he was staring at a stranger once again. Despite all that, he was still jealous that Peter could grow such a majestic beard, and he rubbed at his own bare chin.
They did one more check for patches, rubbed blood away from little cuts across their scalps, and finally decided that they could pass for recently Burned. Barely.
“You ready?” Peter asked.
“Yeah. Let’s get out of here,” Ben said. He stared at the crate, sure he didn’t want to get inside, and yet sure he had no other option. Peter wheeled the hand truck over and then waited, watching Ben hesitate.
“We don’t have much time,” Peter said gently.
Be nodded, took a deep breath, and let Peter help him into the crate. Inside it smelled like pine. He hadn’t expected that. It was a comforting smell, one he could almost taste and see. It tasted like winter and looked like green and white. He was surprised to find that he had some room in the crate. He could sit up with his knees pulled in to his chest.
“Comfy in there?” Peter asked, splintering the happy thought of home.
“Then let’s get the hell out of here,” Peter said and placed the lid onto the crate.
If Ben closed his eyes and breathed deeply, he was back at the farmhouse, sitting against the wall, a book next to him, waiting for dinner. But while he was alone in the crate, he did not feel alone. Fear sat with him, close and cold and stinking of bodies and molding clothes. The box shuddered as Peter loaded it onto the hand truck. Ben braced himself in the dark, trying to keep his balance.
“Quit moving around in there,” Peter said.
“It’s not my fault you’re not very good at this.”
“Yeah, yeah. No more talking. I don’t want anyone asking about my talking crate.”
Ben shut his eyes. Hopefully, this would all be over soon, and they’d be racing across the open plains in a transport, heading to the mountains. The crate jerked to a stop, and Ben listened. Peter must have stopped at the door. He heard only the humming from the distant generator. The door opened slowly, and Ben held his breath.
Nothing. No sound of distant movement, no flicker in the lights, not even a breeze from the vents. The door shut.
“There are cameras everywhere,” Peter said. “Two in this hallway, probably more.”
“Then, let’s hope no one’s watching.”
“Let’s hope. See you on the other side.”
With that, the door opened as Peter pushed Ben out into the hallway. A bright shock of light appeared in the corner of the crate. A crack glowed with florescent and brilliant light, and Ben stared at it like it was the North Star. He couldn’t see much, but he didn’t want to blink in case he missed something flashing by in the thin wedge of light. The hallway was white and sparse. Light fixtures and ceiling tiles flashed by. At the end of the hallway, Peter halted.
“Elevator,” he whispered so softly, Ben almost didn’t hear him, but his heart jumped when he heard the word. He had never been in an elevator before. He wished he wasn’t in a box for his first elevator ride.
A soft ding, and then Ben was moving again. The light from the crack changed, turning dimmer and more golden than the harsh blue-tinged florescent light behind them. All he could see were silver doors. A click, and then his stomach lurched. Ben braced himself, unsure if he liked the lurching, soaring feeling or not.
Another ding, and the silver doors opened to another hallway.
“This looks like an admin level. There should be a terminal here somewhere,” Peter whispered as he bent to move the crate.
They emerged from the elevator into a sterile, white hall filled with windows and doors. Despite the emptiness of the hallway, Ben could hear people all around him. He heard murmuring voices and shuffling movements on either side of them. Through the crack, Ben saw flashes of a crowded room. Workers sat at desks with terminals, busy with paperwork. Blue, glowing CRT displays. Jumpsuits like his. White coats.
No one paid any attention to Peter pushing a hand truck and a crate.
They passed by a long window, and Ben got a view of a huge room, and his heart almost stopped. The room was filled with maybe a few hundred people. All sitting at terminals. All staring at blue, glowing displays. The sheer number of workers astonished Ben. He wanted to pull back from the crack, to hide away in the scent of pine and earth and forest, but fear kept him staring, pushing him closer and closer to the fracture of light.
Peter pushed him down the hall, turned a corner, and kept going. They came to another elevator, waited, and entered.
After the doors closed, Ben whispered, “what’s wrong? We can’t walk around all day. Someone’s going to notice us,” he said. His heart had never beat so fast, and he hoped they would make it out soon.
“And we can’t just sit down at a terminal on a busy floor like that,” Peter responded, his voice low and muffled. “Someone will notice me and my box. We need to find an office or terminal that’s deserted.”
The elevator dinged, and they emerged into another hallway. This hall was white and sterile like the other, but it smelled differently. Ben dug into his memories to figure out what the scent was: sharp and a little nauseating. He remembered when he was young, and a nasty sickness had been going around the village. His mother had gotten her hands on a bottle of orange liquid. She had made them all drink teaspoons of it. It had smelled, and tasted, terrible, but they all had gotten better.
That was the smell—the yellow, sick, smell of medicine.
Ben peeked through the crack as they passed windows and doors. Men in white coats stood at long tables with strange equipment on them. They worked quietly and slowly, staring and writing. Little, glass jars held yellow liquid. It looked just like the lab under Ben’s house, except white and clean, not shrouded in dust.
They paused. Ben listened as Peter pushed open a door and wheeled him through. Ben waited, holding his breath as the door closed. Then everything was quiet. Suddenly Peter opened the crate and helped him stand.
“Come on. We’ll be safe in here. Guard the door while I check this terminal,” Peter said, pointing to the door.
Ben climbed clumsily out of the crate and limped towards the door, grabbing the wall for support. They were in a small office with a computer terminal, two chairs, and a large window shielded with gray blinds on the far wall.
“What were those workers doing back there?” Ben asked, looking back at Peter.
“Research.” Peter said, already seated at the terminal and staring at the CRT display. His hands moved quickly over the keyboard. This terminal, unlike the terminals they had found in Ben’s basement, wasn’t an antique. Pages and pages of information scrolled over the display in front of him at the tap of a button.
Peter stared at the information flashing before him. “Eyes on the door,” he said without even looking at Ben.
Ben looked back out the little window. The hall was empty, but his abdomen ached and burned like he was nauseous, and he knew he was scared.
“Gotcha,” Peter said.
Ben turned to look. A schematic of the factory appeared on the display and flickered. Peter leaned forward to study it. “Transport bay is on the other side of the factory,” he said. He tapped on the image. He tapped at the keyboard again, and the factory floor expanded, showing more detail.
“Shit. We’ll have to get through the main floor to get to it. I was hoping we wouldn’t have to do that.”
“We can’t go around? Maybe from the outside?” Ben asked.
Peter shook his head. “Too many patrols. Let’s go.”
“Wait, wait, can you figure out if Anda and Cassandra are here? At the Processing Center?”
Peter winced. “I can’t access the Processing Center from here, and we’d have to go back through West Nine to even find the place. But you and me running around West Nine is a bad idea. You know that.”
Ben nodded, but his heart dropped. “Yeah. All right, fine. Let’s go.” He was eager to get out of this factory as soon as possible, even if it meant getting back in the crate. The sharp smell of disinfectant made him anxious.
“Just a second,” Peter said and tapped on the keyboard once more. Pages and pages of information flashed before him. He stopped on one page and stared at it.
“What is it?” Ben asked. He glanced out of the window again, on edge that guards were after them. The hall was still empty, but he wondered how much time they had before someone noticed that the workers they had knocked unconscious were missing.
“I know what they’re making here,” Peter said.
“They’re making the Burn serum.”
Ben’s throat tightened. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah. I guess their old factories weren’t enough.” Peter stood up and went over to the window, made a gap in the blinds, and peered through. “There’s the factory floor.”
Ben limped over and cracked the blinds to see. Below him, the factory sprawled with machinery and workers like blue and white ants, hundreds, thousands of workers in this factory alone. The whole place seemed to hum and vibrate with machinery and the rhythm of work. It was like a strange and wild heartbeat, a pulse made by a thousand hearts and a thousand hands. Two of those heartbeats were Anda and Cassandra’s.
Ben stepped back from the window and pulled out the little bottle of pills. He flipped the plastic lid off and let the dull yellow pills roll into his hand. He dropped the pills to the ground, and they made a smattering of stars on the dark carpet.
“Is there anything we can do?” Ben asked, staring down at the constellation of pills on the ground.
Ben shrugged. “I don’t know. Sabotage. Isn’t this what you used to do?”
“Anything we do would end up hurting the Burners. Do you really want to risk hurting them?”
Ben stared at the little pills. He saw a shape in the chaos.
“No. I don’t want to hurt them,” Ben said.
Peter nodded and went to the door. “All right. Back in the—”
But a shrill siren sounded and shattered the quiet around them.