BEN

Last time we saw BEN… (click for recap)

Ben and Peter make their way through the factory, searching for a way out. Because of Ben’s crippled leg, Peter wheels him around hidden in a crate, and they hope no one will want to look inside. While they search for the transport bay, Peter realizes that the factory is making the Burn serum. As they discuss what to do, a siren goes off. Have they been found…

The siren filled the factory, shrill, and wailing. Then the siren stopped, leaving an echo in the sudden silence.

“Shift change,” Peter said. “We got to go. Now.”

But Ben’s heart still thundered.

Peter helped Ben climb into the crate and closed the lid. In the darkness, his heart pounded, and his palms grew sweaty. The door opened, and Peter pushed the crate out into the hallway. 

Through the crack in the wood, Ben could see a stream of workers. All Ben could see where colors: white lab coats. Blue jumpsuits. Pale faces. Peter wheeled him into the flow of workers like stepping into a stream. 

They entered an elevator now crowded with people, and Ben felt his stomach lurch and drop.

He kept as still as possible so as not to shake the crate, but that meant all he could think about was not moving and how badly his leg ached. The back of his neck prickled like eyes were on him. Fear and her milky eyes watched him, but there was something else too. Through the crack, he could see a face looking back at him, and his heart dropped.

The worker was young, no more than a teenager, he guessed, with prickles of dark hair just beginning to grow. The face staring at him was gaunt, hollow, sunken. Ben didn’t even know if the worker was male or female. He knew the worker couldn’t see him through the crack and the darkness inside. But the worker stared at the crack in the wood with vacant and empty eyes, and Ben stared back.

He wondered if this is what will happen to Anda: processed, and sent to some assignment in the middle of nowhere—turned into a blank-eyed ghost.

The elevator stopped, and Peter wheeled the crate out with the flow of workers, and they entered the cavernous main floor of the factory. Their footsteps of a hundred feet tapped the concrete like rain against rock, pattering and pattering and pattering.

Even inside the crate, the temperature dropped suddenly, biting at his face. Peter kept pace with the flow of workers as they walked through the factory. All Ben could see were blue jumpsuits. As they moved forward, Ben dared to hope that they would make it out. If they could make it to the transport bay during the bustle of a shift change, maybe, just maybe, no one would notice one worker and a crate.

A siren erupted. A louder, harsher, blaring siren. Lights swirled and flashed and pulsed with shocking red and white flashes, leaving electric blue after-images that floated and wavered behind. This siren did not stop as the shift change siren had. This siren continued to scream. Peter pushed the crate faster and faster and faster, and fear laughed at him from the dark corner. 

They had been found. 

Ben kept his hands on the pine to steady himself, but he had the sensation of speeding towards a cliff about to soar into nothing and unable to stop. 

The workers’ pattering footsteps around them stopped, like water sinking into the earth, settling and vanishing. The crate jolted suddenly, throwing Ben against the wood, and Peter yelped. The crate lurched, tipped, and Ben fell forward against the wood. His leg bent and crushed against the pine as the crate slammed into the ground, cracked, and shattered around him in an explosion of splintered lumber. Ben careened to the ground, the world spinning and flashing around him.

He lay on the floor, clutching at his leg, surrounded by blue jumpsuits and gaunt faces.

Peter’s face appeared silhouetted against the flashes of white, leaving dark shapes behind him like stills made of shadow. “Up. Now.”

He clamored up, leaning on Peter’s arm for support, and together they pushed through the flock of dazed Burners who did not stop them.

“Sorry about that,” Peter said.

“Hope you can drive a transport better than that.”

“We’ll see.”

Around them, rows and rows of machines filled the cavernous room like reflections in opposite mirrors, and they glimmered red in the lights. It seemed they would never end. Mixers, compressors, massive ovens, endless conveyor belts, and many other machines that Ben could not name filled the vast emptiness.

There were warning signs everywhere. Warning. Flammable Contents. No Open flames. The ceiling high above them crisscrossed with walkways and ladders and stairs to reach the tops of the larger machines and vats like highways into the sky.

But it was the blue-clad workers that terrified him. They just stood there. Hundreds of them, just standing still. The higher dose of the Calm was evident in their eyes, glassy and empty, and Ben shivered at their blank expressions. He tried not to notice their sunken faces and the dark rings under their eyes.

“There it is.” Ben looked towards the transport bay. It was so close. If they ran for it, with Peter’s help, Ben could make it. He was sure he could. But fear’s white form stood out among the blue Burners, and she followed him. Stalked him.

Suddenly, all the workers turned and faced the exit, leaving Ben and Peter the only ones in a crowd of hundreds who did not turn. A thousand eyes stared past them to the doors behind, and the workers began filing past them towards the exit.

“What are they doing?” Ben asked. He struggled to keep himself still as the workers pressed against him in their march towards the door.

“I’m not sure, but I don’t think we want to find out. Move,” he said and pulled Ben against the flow of workers. They pushed past people who did not object but offered blank glances as Ben and Peter elbowed them aside. He tried not to notice the workers’ gaunt faces and the dark rings under their eyes, but they kept coming at him like rain beating on a window. When he tried to look past one tired face, another face appeared. Behind that one came another and another and another…

Ben winced as his leg spasmed and ached, and forced himself to keep going towards the transport bay. They moved as quickly as they could, with Ben leaning on Peter’s arm and limping. They kept their heads down, but far behind them, a voice rang out.

“You! Stop!” the voice shouted.

“Run,” Peter said through gritted teeth and shoved him forward.

Ben knocked several workers down as he stumbled forward and plunged through the gap before more filled their place. Peter followed. Ben could hear the soldiers shouting at them– the only ones running against the flow of tired workers.

Out of nowhere, a soldier’s dark green uniform appeared. Ben stumbled and fell, clumsy on his bad and aching leg, and avoided the blunt end of a weapon aimed at his face. Peter slammed into the soldier and wrestled the gun from his hands. Ben struggled to his feet and limped off into the crush of workers. Blue jumpsuits flowed around him like water around a boulder. He glanced back through the crowd to see Peter scuffling with a thin, wiry soldier. More soldiers filed in at the far doors and plunged into the crowd, but they were far away.

“Run!” Peter yelled to Ben and nodded to the transport bay.

Ben rushed forward with a limping, lumbering stride. His heart raced and pounded, sweat slicked his hands and brow, his breath came short and fiery. Suddenly he limped out of the crowd of workers and into the clear. 

The transport bay grew slowly closer. The soldiers were so far behind them, and the factory floor so large, that he just might make it. Ben could make out a row of transports in the bay as he hobbled closer and closer. The bay doors stood open to the outside, the world a bright smear beyond the dark metal building, but that wouldn’t last. They probably only had a few more minutes at most before the doors swung shut. 

His leg burned, and his hip screamed with pain, but he grimaced and kept going. He looked back for Peter, but Peter was not behind him.

“Peter!” he screamed and stumbled to a stop. He looked around, desperately trying to find Peter. He couldn’t leave without Peter. The crowd of workers had lessened, and the soldier Peter had fought lay on the ground. He was still moving, but he wouldn’t be getting up soon. 

Ben finally spotted Peter running across the factory floor away from the transport bay. He sprinted through a row of machines and disappeared behind a large metal vat flashing red in the warning lights. Ben called out to him, but the siren was still blaring, and his voice didn’t carry over the wail.

He hurried after Peter, but a green uniform appeared in the corner of his eye. He stopped, stepping too hard on his bad leg, and crumpled to his knees. Two more soldiers appeared and stared him down with glazed eyes, weapons raised.

“Hands up,” the closest soldier ordered, gesturing with his gun.

Ben inclined his head to show he had heard the man but didn’t raise his arms.

Three on one: he didn’t like those odds. 

The soldier took a step closer and shoved Ben all the way to the ground.

Ben closed his eyes.

The soldiers put a foot on his back.

He couldn’t fight three armed soldiers. But maybe…

He took a deep breath and focused.

Someone grabbed his wrists and pulled them behind his back.

He concentrated on that flowing watery feeling.

The watery feeling pulsed and surged. Then it exploded.

And he opened his eyes.

His thoughts spun and swirled with energy that rushed like water from his mind. He locked eyes with the soldier standing in front of him and found his mind. 

The soldier’s eyes glowed bright blue-green. Blue-green like bright water. like a bird’s egg. Like turquoise. In an instant, Ben understood what was happening deep in his bones: he had the soldier’s mind under his control.

He quickly locked eyes with the other soldier staring down at him and twisted around to make eye contact with the soldier cuffing him, a young man with purple circles under his dark eyes. The man locked eyes with him, and his eyes went bright blue like flashing lightning. 

The soldier undid the cuffs and backed away. He grimaced with the effort to keep his mind free, but he was losing. They were all losing.

Still unsteady, Ben pushed himself to his feet. He felt the soldiers’ minds and concentrated. It was like trying to hold three boxes, all just a little bit too big. With effort, he could keep them all under control. He stretched out his fist. The soldiers stretched out their weapons, slowly, like they were underwater. Ben opened his fist. The soldiers opened their hands, and their weapons clattered to the ground. Ben thought, and the soldiers kicked their weapons out of reach.

Now, if he could just hold on long enough and get a head start, then he could find Peter, and they could escape. He started to back away from the soldiers, trying to keep a grip on all three of them for as long as possible. They stared at him with blank faces. All but one, the one with purples circles ringing his eyes, his eyes weren’t as hazy as the others. 

Ben could feel him slipping away.

Ben moved faster, but it wasn’t enough. He couldn’t turn, run, and keep control at the same time, and he would never move fast enough anyway, not with his limp. Like water slipping away through his fingers, Ben lost his grip, and his access to the soldiers’ minds faltered. But Ben felt the pressure surging again. 

With everything he had, Ben let out a battle cry over the wailing siren. He forced one great and desperate explosion from his mind like a hurricane spinning out of control and conquering everything in its path. The soldiers fell to the ground, unconscious. He could still feel them breathing, still feel their minds asleep, but he knew that they would be out for a while.

For a moment, the rush of blood and his ringing ears eclipsed everything else, and he blacked out.

*

Ben opened his eyes to the world slanted. Cold concrete under his cheek. Blood in his mouth and a splitting pain in his jaw. The siren still wailed, and the lights still flashed. He pushed himself up and rubbed at his jaw, where it had slammed into the ground. Nothing seemed broken, but his lip was bleeding. He stared at the three soldiers on the ground around him, still unconscious. He knew what he had done, but he didn’t know how.

He wondered what he was, what he had become.

The question seemed too big and too important, too vast and complex to concentrate on now. The siren still wailed, and more soldiers were on the way. He pushed himself to his feet and hurried to find Peter, leaving the soldiers on the ground and his questions behind him. The rows of machines seemed to pass slowly, even though he was moving as fast as possible, limping and reaching out to the cold metal for support. It was like running through a dream. He finally reached the spot where Peter had disappeared and looked around, but he didn’t see Peter.

He heard a soft sound against the blaring siren, and his hair stood on end. A muffled gunshot. It came from his right somewhere, and he took off in that direction, hobbling down an aisle between large metal vats and drums.

“Peter!” he shouted. His throat rasped from screaming so hard. “Peter!”

Down one of the rows, he saw Peter and hurried towards him, both relieved and terrified.

Peter knelt to the ground.

Something was wrong. 

Ben limped faster. Peter just knelt there, a hand over his heart. He swayed.

With a few long and very painful strides, Ben was next to him, reaching out for him as Peter fell backward. In the back of Ben’s mind, fleeing footsteps registered.

“Hey! Peter, are you—” Ben gasped when he saw the blood leaking in between Peter’s fingers, turning the dark blue jumpsuit black. “No…” he said in disbelief. “No—hey, you’ll be all right.”

“Ben…” Peter said, looking past him. He began slipping to the ground through Ben’s arms. Blood filled his mouth and painted his lips and teeth. Ben found his grip on Peter’s shoulders and eased him down to the ground, his bad leg crumpling beneath him. Peter lay across Ben’s damaged leg, making the pain worse, but Ben didn’t move.

“We’ll get you out. Let’s just put some pressure on that….” He pressed his hands over Peter’s, but Peter shook his head and pushed something into Ben’s hand. Then he grabbed Ben’s collar and pulled him close.

“You have to listen,” he said. His teeth were pink.

“Don’t talk. You’ll be okay. You’ll be fine. Just let me help you.”

Peter shook his head again. “Don’t go to the Unseen. They can’t be trusted. They are a city of spies and liars. No, listen to me: they don’t matter. You don’t need them. You can do this on your own. You’re Perseus. I know it. Ben… I…” he gasped. He looked at Ben and smiled. “Perseus is here.” He reached his free hand up to Ben’s face and touched his cheek.

The light faded from Peter’s eyes like a shooting star burning out across the sky. And he was gone.

Ben sunk to the ground, his hands wet and hot with blood. He swallowed back a sob.

Peter was gone.

Ben tried to wrap his mind around the thought, but he couldn’t. 

He turned to Peter again and grabbed his head. He reached out his mind with watery fingers to find Peter’s, to keep him from slipping away. But Peter wasn’t there anymore.

Ben reached out to close Peter’s eyes but saw his own hand was a mess with blood. Murmuring to himself, he wiped his hand off on his jumpsuit and closed Peter’s eyes. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw soldiers running towards him, getting closer and closer, but he lay Peter gently to the ground. A dark pool spread under Peter’s shoulders and head like a black halo. Ben sat back and looked up to blink away tears. As he looked up, he saw what Peter’s last sight had been.

Skylights dotted the vaulted ceiling, letting in natural light, and directly above them, a skylight shown white with the winter sun. Dust motes shown and spun like falling snow, bright and clean and cold.

Anger and sadness boiled inside him and filled every part. He got to his feet and looked down at Peter. Someone would pay for this.

It was probably too late to find whoever had fired the shot, but someone would pay for this. Justice would be done. Soldiers approached.

The soldiers did this. First his parents. Then Mica. Anda and Cassandra. Now Peter. Loraine did this. And fear shifted herself into something else, something more feral and dangerous. Her pale milkiness gave way to something old and red and bitter—a strange beast: wrath. Wrath, the mother of bitterness, presented herself. Her fur was matted and crusted, and her black claws clicked on the concrete. That rabid dog watched Ben with red and wet eyes.

Ben stood, shifting his weight to his good leg, waiting for the soldiers to get close enough. They might not have pulled the trigger, but they were Loraine’s soldiers, so that would be enough. Wrath trembled in agreement and licked her jaws.

“Hands up. Don’t move!” a soldier screamed. Ten soldiers, at least, converged on him and surrounded him with their guns raised. Ben stood still, waiting.

“Hands up, hands up!” a man screamed at him. The soldiers hesitated, as if unsure if Ben was armed or not. A soldier approached, his weapon raised, and his eyes wide.

Ben put his hands up. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Wrath wrinkled her mangled nose, her jaw clicked open and closed with a snap.

The watery feeling roiled up in Ben’s mind and exploded.

Then he opened his eyes.

It was like stepping from one reality to another with a single thought. Ben turned in a circle, making eye contact with each and every soldier. As he stared, their eyes glowed bright blue-green. And all of the soldiers’ minds were open to him. Ben held their minds in his hands and completely engulfed them. The soldiers froze. He twisted and squeezed them, and Ben could see the pain on their faces. They were powerless to stop him.

“For Peter,” wrath whispered through yellowed teeth, her voice like blood.

Ben would destroy this place and these people for Peter. For Anda and Mica and Cassandra. All it would take was one thought. Ben trembled from the concentration it took to hold all the soldiers’ minds, and he breathed deeply. 

He sent one of the soldiers towards a caution sign. Flammable. This soldier was nothing, and Ben could destroy him like it was nothing. He directed the soldier to smash a pipe, sending a river of sharp smelling liquid spilling onto the concrete in an ever-growing puddle. And Ben dug into his pocket for Mica’s lighter.

But something pricked at his other hand, something small and cold and hard. He opened his hand and looked down at his palm. The little metal object Peter had pushed into his hand: a compass. The silver was red with Peter’s blood. Ben stared at it, almost forgetting the soldiers and the wailing siren. All he could see was the compass.

“He’s not nothing: he’s innocent,” Peter’s voice rang in his mind as clearly as if Peter were standing next to him.

Wrath flinched.

Ben looked up from the compass in his hand and found himself staring at a shining silver vat, his own face reflected. Ben caught his breath as he saw the little dots of blood Peter had painted on his face—they were a constellation. Perseus.

He could almost hear his mother’s song, a sad and mournful tune full of sorrows and sea billows and rolling waves. She had taught Ben about Perseus and the prophecy that one day Perseus would come down from the stars and save them. Perseus would destroy Loraine and wake the ghosts walking through the gray. When the Fox returned, then Perseus would free the ghosts and end the darkness.

And why couldn’t he be Perseus? Why couldn’t he choose to end the Burned and the Watchers and the hunger? Peter believed he could. 

Maybe he should.

With a surge of his mind and a scream, Ben sent the soldiers running for the exit and safety.

Wrath shuddered, turned the other way, and fled, her black claws skittering against the concrete.

Alone, Ben looked up at the cameras dotting the factory and put the compass into his pocket. But he wasn’t alone. Hope has a crooked smile and strong arms. 

He stared at the closest camera for a long moment. Then he spoke.

“Algol is falling. Perseus has come. Cetus will die.”

He held up the lighter, and a tiny flame burst to life.