Last time we saw MICA… (click for recap)
Mica and Ben flee the strange and terrifying things on the Wall and make their way into Windrose City. They dodge soldiers. The city seems unusually quiet. Mica is stopped by soldiers demanding her papers–she is not supposed to be out after curfew. As the soldiers slap cuffs on her and prepare to take her away, Ben appears and saves her. They run. They just make it to the antique store when the sirens start to wail. They don’t have to guess to know who the sirens are screaming for. Inside, the antique shop is crowded with strange things Mica has no name for. They surprise the owner and claim the Overseer sent them, as Hannah instructed Ben. The owner takes them to a hidden room but pulls a gun on them when the door closes behind them. He does not believe their story. Mica and Ben try to convince him, but he won’t believe them. Finally, Mica mentions Cassandra, and the man changes. Mica tells him all she knows and begs him for help. Only she discovers that Aaron is already in Windrose City and has told the man about her. Eventually, Ben and the owner strike a deal: he will take them to Hermes (the man Hannah said could find their sister) if Ben gets them out of the city. With the deal struck, the owner introduces himself: Paul…
Luca, Paul, whatever his name was, disappeared, leaving Mica and Ben alone in the underground bunker below the antique shop. They dropped their packs to the dirt floor and collapsed. They sat silently, resting and enjoying a moment of safety until Paul returned dressed in street clothes with boots on his feet. His glossy hair had been brushed and braided. He looked different: urban. Cold. Mica didn’t like the look on him even though the tight braid snaked down almost every back in Nova.
Paul handed Mica a new jacket in blue. The material felt strange under her fingers: too smooth like plastic. Mica disliked it but shrugged it on anyway over her Unseen jumpsuit. Paul also handed her a little yellow pill.
“What’s for?” Mica asked.
“It’s Calm. Lowers your heart rate. If a Watcher pays you a visit, you will feel just like every other Windroser in the city. You seem a little jittery, and we don’t want any questions.”
Mica examined the little pill. A rose was stamped on the top of it.
“Let’s go. I want to get you to Hermes before Aaron gets back.”
“Where’s mine?” Ben asked.
Paul gave him a surprised look. “Oh. You’re definitely not coming.”
“Of course, I am.”
“They’re looking for a guy with a limp who attacked a soldier in West One yesterday.” Mica and Ben looked at each other. “And I’m assuming those sirens earlier were for you too. I take just her to meet Hermes, or you don’t meet him at all, got it? No unnecessary risks,” Paul said.
At his words, Ben seemed to relax some, and Mica suddenly saw how tired he was. They’d been running for days, driving stolen transports, hiking over fields and forests, and facing down unknown demons on the Wall. She was tired too, but she didn’t have time to rest. She envied Ben again: he got to rest.
“Besides,” Paul said. “You can explain everything for Aaron if he gets back early,” he added with an eyebrow waggle before turning to Mica. “Swallow. I don’t have all day,” he said, pointing to the pill.
Mica downed the little pill without water. The grainy circle stuck in her throat, but she choked it down. Paul stood watching her, waiting for something. Mica felt her head go foggy and slow, and she blinked. She shook her head like she was trying to shake water from her ears. Paul nodded. Time to go.
“Wait, Mica,” Ben said as Paul ascended the stairs. “Ask him to find out what happened in the West Nine factory that was attacked.”
The hair on her arms stood up. That was the factory where Peter died. “Why?”
“Just ask him. Please?”
She nodded, wondering what else Ben was hiding. Moments later, she was outside, following Paul down deserted streets, behind abandoned buildings, and over the river. This time people and crowds filled the city. They crowded the sidewalks and jammed transports and clumped together at the edge of the street, waiting to cross busy intersections.
Then they were at the East Sixty-Four bridge. Mica stared at the water flowing past, the lovely, silver, silk water.
“Don’t stare at it,” Paul said without looking at her.
“Why not?” Mica turned her eyes to the gray of the bridge under her feet.
Mica stole another look at the water, rippling like a flag in the wind.
“I said, don’t stare at it. No one likes the river. No one goes in the river. No one boats. No one swims. No one looks at it.”
“Because that’s where the Health Center dumps the bodies at night. So, don’t look at the water.”
Mica kept her eyes down and struggled to keep up with Paul’s long stride, which was practically twice her own. Her breath clouded as she breathed a sigh of relief when the river disappeared behind them, and she didn’t have to fight to keep herself from staring at it.
The Old District was all brick buildings and narrow streets. Mica wondered how old it was and if these stones had been laid before Nova. Maybe. Eventually, the buildings grew taller, and the streets widened. The stones gradually became clean and white. Steel and glass soon replaced the crumbling brick of the Old District. And still, they walked. They walked for what felt like miles and miles….
They turned a corner, and Mica gasped, overwhelmed by the sight before her. Trees. Mica, startled by the sudden wild and greenery, stopped. Green and bright and waving in the breeze, it was as if someone had dropped a forest in the center of the city. It was home.
“What is this place?” she asked. The sudden scent of growing things and dirt and water brought a lump to her throat.
“This is Forest Park. Ancient cities used to have these in the center of them,” Paul said.
“Whole forests?” Mica looked up at the towering trees. Evergreens shimmered in the wind.
“Weird, huh?” Paul asked as he disappeared under a canopy of wiry pines.
Mica disagreed. It was the most beautiful thing she had seen in this city so far. The stone towers and buildings of glass and chrome had startled her with their magnificence, but to Mica, they were nothing compared to a forest. Those massive buildings were only shells, dead, bone bodies to house the living. But a forest was a living thing that invited you into itself with small whispers and flickers of light and the music of falling leaves.
“Why does Loraine keep this around?” she asked when the noise of the city was drowned by the sounds of trees and wind and growing things.
Paul lowered his eyes. “Don’t know. I think it’s something sentimental. I can’t think of another reason to keep it. But we’ll never know, will we?”
He led her over soft and rolling terrain, down a dirt path, and over open dells like hidden caves of sky and forest. The wood, overgrown with wild twisting vines and creeping brambles, grew tall and dark above them. Into the dimness, Paul led her. Finally, he stopped at a tall evergreen.
“We wait. I sent Hermes a message earlier to meet us. We’ll see if he shows. There’s a good chance he won’t.”
Paul pulled out a device like a smaller version of the lantern-like one in the hidden room. He turned it on. That peach fuzzy feeling returned to Mica’s head, making the already foggy feeling just a bit denser.
Mica shook her head. “What is that?”
“This? A Blind.”
“What’s it do?”
“Keeps Watchers away.”
She wondered if that was the reason Ben hadn’t been able to use his abilities on Paul earlier. Paul leaned against a tree and ignored her, so Mica pulled her jacket tight around her and sat under the evergreen. She sat, watching the wind.
That pill he made her swallow made everything sound funny like there was water in her ears. And everything looked like it had a sheen to it like the world had grown brighter. She disliked the way it made her mind feel. Mica breathed deeply the scent of greenery and pine and wind and tried to calm herself—surely these strange feelings couldn’t last forever….
Sitting under an evergreen reminded her of the day they took her mother, the day Ben had dragged her and Anda into the woods to hide from the watchers. Mica squeezed her eyes shut. The wind whipped the piney air around her, transporting her back to that night. Anda’s eyes had glowed….
A twig snapped.
Mica opened her eyes with a start: someone was coming.
She stood up and turned to face the sound. Someone crunched their way through the cold underbrush and stepped out from behind a tree. A boy.
He stopped and looked at them.
He looked about twelve, dressed in a gray school uniform, and he clutched the straps of what appeared to be a heavy backpack. Most of his dark hair was pulled back in the common Novan braid, but bits fell around his face and hung heavily over his left eye. He shook it out of his face, only to have it fall back again. His face was red and marked with scars and divots.
“Blind on?” the boy asked.
Paul nodded held the Blind on his open palm.
“Who’s that?” the boy asked, his right eye scanning her suspiciously and lingering too long.
“A friend,” Paul said.
The boy nodded and stepped closer. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Is this about the escape? Because my answer is still no.”
Escape? Was this Hermes? This school-aged boy with bad skin? “Wait, is this Hermes?” Mica asked. Paul nodded. Hermes scowled at her. “You’re kidding,” she said. “He’s what, eight?”
“Who’d you expect?” Hermes asked, and his red face twisted in disgust as he made a very rude gesture.
Mica wondered if this was actually all a horrible idea. How could she trust a child with something so important? And a grumpy child at that. But what choice did she have?
“It’s not that about the escape,” Paul said to Hermes. “But I wish you’d change your mind. You can be out of here and in another country by next week. Promise.”
“Still no,” Hermes said. No? Why wouldn’t he accept their offer and escape? What could be keeping him in this place filled with soldiers and Watchers? “Is it the Overseer?” Hermes asked. “What’s she want now?”
“This isn’t a job. The Overseer isn’t involved.” Paul looked to Mica and waved her on.
“I need your help,” Mica said.
The boy smirked. “I don’t do help,” he said without looking at Mica.
“I’m looking for my sister. She was Burned a few months ago, and I want to find her,” Mica said.
“You want to find a Burner?”
Mica flared with anger. The way he said Burner was an insult. “Don’t call her that!” Her voice sent birds scattering and shrieking from the trees. Paul tensed and scanned the forest, but Hermes did not move. Mica steadied herself. “Please, I need to know what happened to her.”
“Your sister got Burned. That’s what happened to her.”
“She’s not dead—stop saying Burned like she’s dead. She’s not.”
“Sure she is, and face it, maybe it’s better she got Burned.”
“How can that be better?”
“Look, this is a waste of my time. Why should I try and find your Bur—sister?” Hermes asked, barely stopping himself from saying, Burner. “What’s it worth to you? I’m not cheap. Even the Overseer knows that.”
Mica’s mouth went dry. She had nothing to offer. “Please. I’ve come a really, really long way,” Mica said.
“Is that it? I should do this because you came a really, really long way?”
Mica shrugged. “I don’t have anything, or I’d give you everything I had.”
Hermes let out a sound like a growl. “I don’t do this for fun, you know. To find your sister, I’d have to get into the government Burner database. I can’t risk getting caught in there. Even the Overseer doesn’t ask me to do that. Sorry,” Hermes said and began to walk away. “Not worth it.”
“Does that mean you can’t do it?” Mica asked.
Hermes paused. “Don’t even try that shit with me,” he said with a smirk. “I can do it. I just don’t know you, so I don’t care. Not worth it.”
“How much would it be worth it?” Mica asked. “We’ll get you the money somehow.”
“I don’t deal in money. Too easy to track and too easy to lose. Come on, Paul, you bring me all the way out here for this? A country hick asking for charity?” Paul opened his hands in a supplicating gesture. “What’s your angle?” Hermes asked.
“Angle? I gotta have an angle? Come on, you know me.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Hermes said and turned to leave.
“Wait! What do you want?” Mica asked, desperate to make him stay. “What would make it worth your while?”
“Nothing you’ve got.”
“Try me,” she said. Hermes’s face scrunched up, and he frowned at her. “If the Overseer doesn’t pay you with money, what does she give you?”
“Nothing. You wouldn’t understand, so we’re done here. Don’t ever do this again, Paul. I’m not kidding.”
Mica blinked in surprise—Hermes was blushing.
“He gets books,” Paul said suddenly. “The Overseer gets him history books, real history. From Mexico, from France, from Canada—he’s searching for clues to Perseus.”
“Paul!” Hermes’s face scrunched up even more and turned an even brighter red. Paul just waved him off.
“You want to know about Perseus?”
Hermes glowered at her. “Yeah, what of it?”
“Why? He’s a myth. Stars,” she said and pointed up.
“Look, maybe we can come to some kind of arrangement,” Paul said. “If history books are what you’re after, we’ll find one.”
A sly expression slid over Hermes’ face. “That’s what they want us to think,” he said to Mica, ignoring Paul. “They want us to think it’s all myth and lies. You know these Novan history books are trash, right? That’s not the real story.”
Mica was intrigued but irritated. “Oh, no?”
“History is written by the conquerors. But some of these foreign books, they’re true.”
“And you think Perseus is real enough for a history book?”
“Juliette saw him,” he said, shaking the dark hair out of his eyes. “She saw the future and the fall of Loraine.”
Mica pulled at her braid and thought Ben and his delusion. “Juliette was a character in a story. A story about prophets and seeing the future. It wasn’t real.”
“You didn’t tell me this kid was crazy,” she said to Paul.
“I’m not crazy, and I’m not helping you.”
“Hermes—” Paul started, but Mica cut him off, unwilling to waste any more time on this.
“All right, all right,” she said. “You want Perseus? I can get you information on him.” Hermes eyed her. Paul went still. “Promise. Look, I have something you want, and you have something I want. Let’s make a deal.”
Hermes was silent.
“Hey, you gonna help her or not? Because we can’t hang out here all day,” Paul said and snapped his fingers at Hermes. “Let’s go, make a decision.”
“What kind of information?”
“The best kind. The kind no one else knows.” She hated herself for playing along with Ben’s delusion, but this was the only way to find Anda. “I know someone who can give you some real answers.”
Paul did not move, and Mica sensed the suspicion radiating from him. She ignored it and stared hard at Hermes.
“She full of shit?” Hermes asked Paul, but Mica could feel Paul staring at her.
“I don’t know,” Paul whispered. “But I would be very interested to see what she knows. She’s full of surprises, this one.”
Mica flushed and kept her eyes on Hermes.
Hermes shifted his pack. “Fine, you have a deal.”
She would have said thank you, but her voice was stuck somewhere deep inside her belly and refused to come out. She nodded her thanks instead.
Hermes waved her aside. He looked down at his feet and nudged a tree root. “What’s your sister’s name and ID number?”
Mica cleared her throat to get her voice going again. “Miranda Alderman. W6-708-F404-98Y9,” she said, struggling to remember the last four.
“Need me to write it down?”
“Nah, I got it.”
“And Cassandra. Find Cassandra. She worked with Aaron. She was Burned at West Six too. West 10,996. I don’t know her last name or ID number.”
“I know her,” he said, and his voice was gentle. “I didn’t know she got Burned.”
Mica nodded. “Trying to save my sister.”
“I’ll be by the shop tomorrow morning,” he said to Mica without looking at her. Hermes turned to leave, but Mica stepped forward.
“One more thing, while you’re poking around the government files,” she said. Hermes eyed her with his one visible eye. “Can you get me any information you can on the West Nine factory? I mean, West 10,999 factory?” Mica asked quietly, unsure what she was really asking, what it meant, and where it might lead. But Ben asked her to ask, so she did.
His eyes studied her face in thought, but then his gaze turned towards the stars. “Sure. I’ll see what I can do,” Hermes said.
Then he turned and disappeared through the trees.