Last time we saw MICA… (click for recap)
Having been turned away by the Unseen’s contact, Mica and Ben leave West One. But Mica is determined to find Anda whatever the cost, so they head for the Wall. Their journey has been hard on Ben and his bad leg, and he is ready to turn back, but Mica challenges him: she’ll believe he’s Perseus if he is able to use his abilities on whatever is guarding the Wall. He agrees. After many failed attempts, Ben makes contact with the invisible guards on the Wall, and he and Mica make a break for it. Once on the Wall, Mica is terrified at what she sees: a kiln holding a woman stands sentinel, and her eyes are glowing. But they don’t glow the usual colors: they glow Ben’s blue as he mind controls her, and a deep magenta color that Mica has never seen before. Ben struggles to keep control of the strange woman as another kiln rises from the stone Wall. It holds a man, and his eyes glow magenta too. Mica and Ben lift from the Wall as if by magic, but Mica fights back. Ben shoots the terrifying beings, throws Mica over the Wall, and together they run for the lights of Windrose City. But what did they witness on the Wall…
Mica ran blindly, envisioning the magenta glowing eyes, bright like a flame, like a burning flower, of the strange creature on the Wall behind her, following her, hunting her.
But only the shrieking siren from the Wall pursued them.
They fled towards the lights and the city. Mica kept pulling at Ben’s arm, willing him to go faster, even with his damaged and surely aching leg, but he shoved her away. The wailing siren rose and fell in eerie pulses in the distance, growing ever softer and softer as they ran farther and farther, but still, the siren wailed. They came to a rusted chainlink fence and hoisted themselves over the top, not even caring what was on the other side. They fell to the ground, their legs too weak to catch them. Ben stayed down longer than he should have.
Mica’s limbs ached and screamed, but she pushed herself to her feet and surveyed their new surroundings: little brick buildings and warehouses, all with dark windows.
“Well. We’re in. Welcome to Windrose,” Mica said. Ben just sat on the ground. “Ben, get up—now.”
“Yeah, Mics, I’m coming,” he said, his voice wheezing and shredded, and got himself up.
Together they hurried down the dark alley in front of them, moving through deserted streets and past boarded-up windows. Only one building in the dark had lights: a large factory with smokestacks. Mica wondered what was so important that they had to work all through the night. She wondered how many Burners in that factory never got to see the sun. Ben nudged her on, and they slipped out of sight of the smoking, burning factory.
Finally, Ben collapsed behind a dumpster to catch his breath, and Mica didn’t argue. They needed a rest. She leaned against a wall and panted, her spine scraped against bricks and mortar.
“What were those?” Mica asked, thinking of the writhing woman, the kiln rising out of the stone wall, and the man with the glowing purple-pink eyes. “Were they Watchers? Real ones?”
She had never seen a Watcher in the flesh before. She had seen their gaze shining golden out of another person’s face, and one Watcher had even peered out of her own eyes, but she had never seen a physical Watcher. Even as she asked, she knew those people couldn’t have been Watchers. Their eyes were wrong. They were wrong. Still, she hoped they were Watchers. Because if they weren’t… they were something even more terrible, whatever they were.
“I don’t know,” Ben said. “I don’t think they were Watchers, but….” He fumbled with his pack and found a water bottle.
“They weren’t Watchers?” she demanded.
Ben shook his head as he downed the bottle, water spilling out the sides and down his jaw.
Mica felt her belly drop. “Their eyes,” she said, her voice beginning to shake. “Their eyes were different, like—” she stopped and looked at Ben. Those people on the Wall, their eyes had glowed a different color, not gold. Like Ben’s eyes glowed a different color. A sudden rush of fear flared through her. Ben held the water out to her. “Are they like you?” Mica asked. “Your eyes do that thing. They glow. When you’re in other people’s heads, their eyes go blue….”
“I don’t know. Peter and Cassandra said there were others. Not just Watchers,” he said and waved the water at her. “Drink.”
She took the bottle but didn’t drink. “There’s something else besides Watchers?” Mica asked.
“Maybe,” Ben said. “Why not? I’m no Watcher.”
That was true. He wasn’t. He was something more. Mica was more than a bit jealous that Ben had strange abilities. She had felt so helpless on the wall. She couldn’t even fire the gun. Even though she had threatened to, she couldn’t have pulled the trigger, not with the woman staring at her. She couldn’t have shot the man either. Ben had saved them with confidence without flinching. How did Mica expect to save Anda if she couldn’t do what was necessary? Ben had saved them. She had just messed everything up.
She took a swig of water. It tasted old and dirty. She watched Ben, his head lifted to the stars above them, hidden behind clouds and the glow of city lights. A part of her wanted to ask him about his strange abilities, and she wanted to believe that he really was Perseus, but the thought was bitter to her. She wondered what made Ben so special, why he had powers, and she didn’t.
“Where now?” she asked, hoping to stop her own thoughts.
Ben held his hand out for the water, and she gave him the bottle. “There’s an antique shop in the Old District,” Ben said. “On the other side of the river. That’s where the contact’s supposed to be. He’ll help us find the man who can find Anda.”
“And you know how to get there?”
Ben returned the empty bottle to his pack and got to his feet with a grimace. “We’ll get there.”
“What, you don’t know how?”
He limped forward into a patch of moonlight. “I know the directions, but I got turned around when we came in over the Wall. As soon as I find a landmark, I can get us going the right way. Promise.”
The antique shop was located on the other side of the river, on the other side of the city. Hannah had told Ben how to get there, and he had seen it on a map, but he knew the directions from the Windrose Processing Center—where they would have entered the city if Styx had helped them.
The Windrose Processing Center wasn’t just a Processing Center. It also served as the main entrance to the city. However, since they had snuck in over the Wall, Ben wasn’t sure of his directions. He said the best thing to do was find the bridge they would have crossed if they had come through the Processing Center as planned: the East Sixty-Four bridge. The East Sixty-Four led directly to the center of the Old District, and the shop was only a few blocks east of that. So Mica and Ben walked.
They walked as far as they could in the dark before the city woke up, and the citizens of Windrose began their days. Mica pulled Ben back into the shadows as a pair of soldiers emerged from behind a building. The soldiers moved quickly with weapons ready, heads swiveling right to left to right. When they had disappeared down an alley, Mica let out a breath.
Ben only nodded his thanks, and they continued through the dark.
They walked fast, as fast as they could with Ben’s limp. He was getting slower. Mica tried not to think about what would happen when his leg got so stiff he couldn’t walk. While she was confident that they could slip past or outrun any Windrose city guard in the dark, provided there were no Watchers in their heads, the sun would soon rise.
The city was empty. The streets deserted. Mica wondered why the city was so empty. Even in the early hours before dawn, there should be people out. Even in little West Six, Mica had run into people in the too-early hours of the day.
“Where is everyone?” Mica whispered.
Ben just shook his head.
“There should be people out, right? I mean, even this late—early—there are always people around.”
“So, where are all the people?”
He only held a finger to his lips and kept limping.
While no citizens were wandering the streets, there were soldiers. They managed to avoid the patrols, but far more soldiers walked the streets than Mica had anticipated, and their progress slowed even more. They hid behind dumpsters and mailboxes and slipped quietly down dark alleyways into the misty night. The city’s outskirts, factories, and warehouses shifted to low brick buildings covered in graffiti-like scars and faded tattoos. Soon those shifted to taller and taller buildings made of glass and metal and light. The tallest buildings, the city center, stood off in the distance like pillars of crystal.
Finally, after more hours than Mica would have liked of slipping down alleys and ducking under windows, they came to the river. It shimmered like a gray silk rope in the waning moonlight.
Mica and Ben crouched in the shadow of a garage and studied the East Sixty-Four bridge. The bridge was small and low compared to the others stretching tall and wide across the river. A songbird surrounded by hawks. It was a footbridge, no transports allowed, and it was wide enough for only four people to walk shoulder to shoulder. The bridge stood out against the darkness. Its streetlamps cast pools of light every twenty feet or so like giant candles. Other than the lovely, lonely streetlamps, surrounded by their own light, the bridge was empty. Mica rubbed her thumb over the scrolled surface of her lighter.
“I don’t like this,” Ben said.
Mica made a face at him. “What? Let’s go before a patrol shows up.”
“No. Let’s think for a minute. We’ll be out in the open on that bridge with nowhere to hide.” He rubbed at his leg. “Maybe we should wait until there are more people. Shouldn’t be long now. Sun’s almost up.”
Mica considered this. They could wait, but she was growing anxious and tired and hungry, and she knew Ben was in pain. It was best for everyone that they kept moving. Mica shook her head. “No, let’s go now,” she said and stepped out into the street.
“Mica, wait!” Ben called after her, but she was already halfway across the street, heading towards the bridge.
If she just kept walking, he would have to follow her. So she kept her chin up, her shoulders back, and her pace quick. Anyone who saw her would have thought she had somewhere important to go. After a silent prayer, she stepped onto the bridge.
She was halfway across the little bridge, passing in and out of the pools of light, when two figures appeared at the other end walking towards her. Fear settled into Mica’s belly. The two figures popped in and out of view as they stepped from underneath one streetlamp, vanished in the grayness, only to reappear under the next lamp.
Two soldiers. Heading right for her.
She slowed, wondering if she should turn around and run, but kept going. Maybe the soldiers wouldn’t stop her.
“Papers,” one of the soldiers said as soon as they were close enough to speak without yelling. Mica froze under a light.
“Sorry?” she said with a tilt of her head.
“Papers. Curfew is in effect,” the other soldier said. They stopped in front of Mica and stared at her with blurred and hazy eyes.
Mica blinked. No wonder they hadn’t seen anyone—there was a curfew. “Curfew,” she said. “Oh, no, I’m so sorry, but I forgot my papers!” she said with exaggerated concern. “How about a warning this time? Less paperwork for you, right?” The soldiers in West Six had liked being mean, but they had liked not doing work even more. Mica hoped these soldiers were the same.
The soldiers only looked at her. “Turn around. Let’s go.”
Mica began to panic as the soldier shoved her around and slipped plastic cuffs onto her wrists.
“Ben!” she screamed, and he limped out of the dark and into the circle of light, the gun raised in one hand, the other gripping his crutch, his eyes glowing blue-green.
“Hey, it’s him! It’s—” the soldier said to the other, but then they both froze, their eyes shining blue-green. Mica watched in envious fascination as Ben’s eyes glowed and pulsed. Anger and jealously surged through Mica like a fire.
Slowly, like they were underwater, the soldiers tossed their weapons over the side of the bridge. One cuffed the other to the railing, then himself, and they both sat down on the bridge.
“Let’s go, Mica, run,” Ben said. He started backing away from the soldiers, then turned and ran as best he could for the end of the bridge, his crutch thumping against the concrete. Mica followed without a word.
Jealousy sizzled through Mica, but she ran. They kept running.
They didn’t stop running until Ben shoved her towards a brick building with scrawls of colored paint across the one side. They ducked behind the building and under a window just as a wailing siren started—the soldiers were after someone, and Mica didn’t wonder who. Ben crouched beside her in the growing sunlight and tried to catch his breath.
“Thanks,” Mica said through gritted teeth.
“Next time, how’s about you save me, huh?” Ben said.
Mica cringed. Ben peered into the window above their heads, and Mica realized where they were—they’d made it to the antique shop. She peeked inside. The shop looked empty. No lights glowed warm, no movement flickered.
“Now, this is important,” Ben said, crouching down beneath the window. “We’re looking for the owner, and we want him to take us to Hermes. And don’t say anything about Hannah, Perseus, or Haven, got it?”
“Sure, but why not?”
“This guy doesn’t know Hannah, so her name won’t help, and we have to keep Haven a secret for now. All this guy needs to know is that we’re from the Unseen, the Overseer sent us, and we’re here to meet with Hermes. One last job before he gets pulled out.”
Mica nodded and stored the name away. Ben broke the lock on the window and eased it open. They both froze, waiting for any sign of life, for someone to scream, for shots to be fired, anything.
Ben waved the limp curtains aside and slowly, and very carefully, got himself over the low windowsill into the shop. It took longer than it should have, but at least he didn’t knock anything over or fall. Mica handed him his crutch through the window and then followed.
Inside items that Mica had no name for filled and cluttered the shop. A long wooden counter, clean and gleaming in the early morning pale, ran almost the shop’s entire length. Large display windows covered the whole front of the store, and pale yellow blinds covered the windows. The blinds turned buttery yellow in the sunrise, and Mica thought this is what it must look like inside a buttercup. In the back of the shop, at the far end of the massive counter, a staircase led to the second floor.
Mica and Ben stepped over strange artifacts, dusty furniture, rusted bicycles and piles and piles of old faded blankets, dresses dripping in glitter and shimmering sequins, and wool sweaters that smelled like snow. The whole place had a scent that Mica could almost recognize, but it was too deep in her memory to find. The shop smelled ancient and sleepy and cold.
“You sure this is the place?” Mica asked.
“Yeah. This is it. But maybe he’s not here yet? It is still early.”
As if in answer to his question, a board above them creaked. Upstairs, footsteps shuffled across the floor, and a door squealed open. Mica crouched lower behind a large, wooden desk. The wood was soft and light and smelled of summer afternoons. Ben lowered himself behind a large, leather trunk.
A light clicked on at the top of a staircase. Cold and harsh shadows suddenly appeared around them, like ghosts frozen in a silent dance. Someone descended the creaking stairs.
Ben and Mica looked at each other. This might be their contact. Or it could be someone who would turn them in to the nearest patrol to stop the wailing sirens. Ben held a finger to his lips. Mica nodded.
The stranger paused at the foot of the stairs, then weaved silently through the densely packed store towards the front window. He moved the blinds aside, looking out the window. Then he turned around and ambled back towards the stairs. Mica and Ben crept closer through the jungle of objects. She tried to get a good look at him, but she couldn’t see his face. The stranger abruptly stopped before the stairs and turned to the back of the shop. He looked at the back window. The curtains fluttered in the early morning breeze.
Mica grit her teeth. She had not closed the window. Ben stood up and aimed the gun. “Don’t move,” Ben whispered, his crutch tapping as he limped closer. “We’re not here to hurt you.”
Mica stood up and peered around Ben at the stranger. A man in pajamas holding a cup of coffee stood blinking at them. His long dark hair was sleep-tousled and hung around his face.
“Oh, well, that’s a relief,” the man said and took a sip of coffee. He slurped. “But I’m afraid I’m fresh out.”
“What?” Ben asked.
“That’s why you’re here. For either my meds or a Burn. It’s that, or you are so enthusiastic about end tables, that you broke into my shop because you just couldn’t wait. I have some lovely ones in the next room. You more of a glass tabletop kind of guy, or would you prefer hardwood? Perhaps you like the plastic look? Very classy. Breathes money.”
“We’re not here for drugs… or tables,” Ben said. “You own this place?”
“Would I be here in my jammies if I didn’t?”
“The Overseer sent us,” Mica spoke up, stepping out of her brother’s shadow.
The man didn’t react, just sipped his coffee. But even in the early morning light, Mica could see him stiffen just a little. “Ah. Wonderful. Come on, then,” he said. He shuffled to the far corner of the main room out of sight of the front window and pushed an area rug out of the way. He pulled up an entire section of the floor with a sudden and easy motion, like opening a door. Under the door in the floor lay a set of stairs descending into darkness and nothing. “Down you go,” he said, taking another slurp of coffee.
“You’re kidding?” Mica said. “No way I’m going down there.”
“This is how we do things here, remember?” he said. Mica looked down into the emptiness below her. “Besides, I can hide you down there when the soldiers go door-to-door looking for whoever it is they want. But you wouldn’t know anything about that siren, now would you?” He sipped his coffee again and motioned to the stairs. “No trick. Hurry up. I have work to do. Antiques don’t just sit around waiting for me to find them.”
“Fine,” Mica grumbled and climbed down the stairs. Ben went last, keeping the gun aimed at the man and his coffee. At the bottom of the stairs, the scent of cool dirt and old paper filled her nose. There was also a musty, mossy scent, and something sharp, like water.
“Hit the light, will you?” the man asked as he pulled the overhead door shut.
Mica found a string hanging from the ceiling, and a single bulb came to life. The room was large and dirty, and a strange device like a large lantern sat on a table in the center of the room. Boxes and boxes and boxes marked like graves lined the walls. Mica craned her neck to see inside one of the boxes, and her heart leaped. Ancient books. Tons of them.
In the safety of the hidden room, Ben lowered the gun a bit.
“We’ll be safe down here, even if they search the shop,” the man said, flicking a switch on the lantern-like device. Mica felt something go furry in her head like peach fuzz suddenly covered her brain. But the feeling was so slight that she wasn’t sure if it was a headache or something more or nothing at all.
“What’s your name?” Ben asked the man.
“Louis. And you two are from the Unseen.”
Louis chuckled to himself. “No. You’re not,” he said and blew on his coffee. Something in his voice triggered warnings screaming in Mica’s mind. “The Unseen don’t send people like you to sneak through windows. You’re not supposed to be here,” Louis said with narrowed eyes. From the pocket of his pajamas, he produced a gun and pointed it at Mica.
She took a step back in surprise.
“Gun. On the ground. Now,” Louis said and put his coffee cup on the table.
Mica waited for Ben to control Louis, but nothing happened. Ben stared hard, concentration making his face go red. And nothing happened.
“I said, gun on the ground. Now,” Louis said with an irritated gesture. “Or I shoot the girl. Oh, and hands up.”
A small drop of blood dripped from Ben’s nose. “All right, fine.” Ben tossed the gun to the dirt floor and dabbed at his nose. He looked at the lantern-like device and frowned. Fear grinned at Mica, her face white and gaunt in the light of the single bulb. Mica wondered why Ben couldn’t use his abilities, but she and Ben slowly raised their arms.
Louis picked up the gun and set it on the table with the glowing device. “Now. Who are you, really, and why are you here? Are you from the Health Center?”
“No,” Ben said. “Like I said, we’re from the Unseen City.”
“It’s the truth, don’t believe me?”
“We’re with the Office of Military Strategy and Intelligence,” Mica said.
“Nope. Who are you?”
“The Overseer sent us.”
“Really,” Mica said, matching Louis’ mock surprise.
“I doubt that very much. Who is the Overseer?”
Mica swallowed. “Alayla Mason.” She hoped she was right.
Louis smiled. “Sure. But they’ve been pulling everyone out. They wouldn’t send someone new, untrained, and stupid. Not now.”
“Hey!” Mica said, offended. “Who you calling stupid?”
“Why? What’s happening now?” Ben asked, ignoring Mica.
“If you’re from the Unseen, then you should know, shouldn’t you?”
“Look, we were refugees from Nova, and we escaped. We’re here for your help,” Mica said, her hands shaking in frustration. “We need to find someone.”
“And so you decided to come back to Windrose after escaping? I don’t think so. No more lies. How did you two even get into the city anyway?” Louis asked, almost as an afterthought, but the light in his eyes changed.
“Styx,” Ben said quickly. Mica kept her mouth shut.
Louis narrowed his eyes at Ben. “I’m only going to ask one more time: who are you, and what do you want?”
“The Overseer has one last job for Hermes,” Ben said.
Louis frowned and raised the gun, pointing it directly into Mica’s face. “Nope. Definitely the wrong answer,” he said.
Ben stepped in front of Mica with his hands up. “Come on, now, let’s just talk about this.”
“Okay. You tell me who you are and what you’re doing here, and maybe I won’t kill you both. Maybe. You never know. It’s worth a shot. Pun intended.”
“Aaron sent us!” Mica yelped. She didn’t want to bring him into this, but she didn’t have a choice.
“I don’t know anyone named Aaron.”
“He’s on his way—Styx is getting him in on the last transport this morning. But you have to find your own way out. Styx won’t help you. Aaron’s coming to find you and some doctor and bring you both home. Hermes too.”
Louis studied her face. “And what do you know about this doctor?”
“I know that you’re supposed to be watching a Windrose doctor. It’s someone Cassandra knew. Aaron’s coming to get you all out.”
Louis glanced from Mica to Ben. “You know Cassandra?”
“Cassie was our friend,” Ben said.
“She and Aaron came to our farm to looking for a friend of theirs.”
Louis’ eyes shifted somehow. “Did they find him?”
Ben nodded. Mica clenched her jaw and breathed deeply to fight back the burning feeling behind her eyes. It had been a very long day, and the tears were threatening to fall.
“What is it?” Louis asked.
Ben lowered his arms. “Peter got shot, and Cassie got Burned. She was trying to save our sister. And Peter died saving me. I’m sorry.”
Louis shrugged, but Mica could tell it was a half-hearted attempt at detachment. “That’s why we’re here,” she said and lowered her arms. “We need to find Hermes so he can help us find our sister, the one Cassandra got Burned trying to save. Please, will you help us?”
Still, Louis watched them.
“Aaron will be here soon,” Mica said. “And we need your help before he gets here. He won’t be happy to see me. I need to find my sister, and if Aaron finds out I’m here, he won’t let me. He’ll send me back to the Unseen.”
“What’s your name? Your real name. No lies.”
“Mica Alderman. This is my brother, Ben.”
“How did you find out about all this? About the doctor? Alayla sure as hell didn’t tell you,” Louis said, ignoring her plea for help. “That’s some pretty top secret shit.”
“I overheard Aaron talking.”
“You overheard. That’s it? You overheard? Sounds like Aaron’s slipping. And me. How did you find out about me?”
Ben and Mica looked at each other.
“A Seer,” Ben said. “She told me where to find you.”
“A Seer? Wow, I must be some pretty hot shit if Seers in the Unseen City know about me.”
“All we want is to find our sister and go home,” Mica said. “Well, not home, home. We’re from West Six, originally. But, Loraine Burned it.”
Louis lowered his gun, and Mica relaxed a bit. “That whole town got Burned,” he said.
“Thanks,” Mica said. “It’s shit.”
They stood silently. Mica thought about the ghosts at her shoulders, ever just out of sight, always just out of reach, but always there. They flickered like iridescent spots in her eyes that fall and move and jump whenever she tried to look directly at them. Always there, always out of sight.
Louis relaxed a bit. His shoulders seemed to ease down into a more neutral position, and he breathed more deeply. “I’m sorry. Really, I am. But everyone’s got Burners. You know that. You can’t just leave everything to find one.”
“She’s my sister.”
“No. Not anymore. She’s gone,” Louis said.
“Well, fortunately for me, I don’t care what you think. I’m going to find her.”
He studied her, like appraising an antique to see if it is real. “And what do you need me for?”
“We need to see Hermes,” Mica said. “We can’t find her on our own, but Hermes can.”
Louis scratched his head. “I guess Hermes could help. But I doubt that he will. Security’s been extra tight. Not sure he would risk it for a Burner.”
Mica shifted uncomfortably. She did not like the way he said, Burner.
“But you can arrange a meeting, right? That’s all we’re asking for,” Ben said.
Louis rubbed the back of his neck. “I’d like to help, really, I would. But as you know, they’ve recalled me to the Unseen City. I’m leaving in two days, with or without Aaron.”
“But you have time. You just said you’re not leaving for another two days.”
“And you said you got here through Styx. You’re still lying to me,” Louis said, shaking a finger at them.
Mica tried not to look at Ben. Louis put his gun back in his pocket and picked up his coffee. He slurped and stared at them over his cup. “Oh, come on now. You definitely didn’t go through Styx,” he said softly. “You know how I know? I know because Aaron isn’t coming in this morning: he’s already here. I saw him just before sunrise. And he told me himself that Styx was done.”
“You already met with Aaron?” Mica asked, her stomach dropping.
“Oh, I did. He had a lovely trip. And you’re right: he’s gonna be pissed to see you. He’s not a chatty guy, but he did fill me in on a few important things. And the irritating task of finding our own way out of the most Watched city in the world with two fugitives seemed relevant. So how did you get over the Wall?” Louis asked.
“Take us to Hermes, and we’ll tell you,” Ben said.
Louis grinned. “Ah. Very good. I’ll tell you what, I’ll take you to Hermes, and you get us out of the city. However you got in, I’m sure you can get back out again. Sound good?”
Ben frowned but kept silent.
Mica wasn’t looking forward to seeing Aaron, but at least they would get to Hermes. “Deal,” she said.
“Excellent. Oh, and the name is, Paul.”
“Nah. Louis used to own the place years ago, and when he needed an Adjustment, I took over. But that was a long time ago. Back before When.”
“Before When… you really don’t know anything about Windrose, do you?” He slurped his coffee, and Mica wondered what was before When…