Last time we saw MICA… (click for recap)
Hermes returns after searching for information on Anda and Cassandra, as promised, but something is wrong: he is scared. He asks what really happened in West Six. It seems that West Six has been wiped from all records. While all hope of finding Anda is now lost, Hermes was able to at least find something about the factory fire that killed Peter and gives them a data stick with surveillance footage. He then asks for his payment: information about Perseus. Mica points to Ben. After Ben convinces Hermes that he is Perseus, Hermes asks one question: will Ben restore everyone’s memories? Or can some people remain Burned. They discuss the ethical issues, but Mica is distraught. All hope of finding her sister is gone, and Mica’s reality has suddenly changed forever…
Some mistakes can’t be fixed, can they? Some mistakes just feel like falling forever.
Hours had gone by since Hermes left, and Mica had squeezed her eyes shut in hopes of sleep and rest but had found none. The realization that Anda was gone for good had taken too much out of her. She lay going over each and every decision she had made that had brought her here. She had made so many bad decisions. How do you fix such devastating mistakes?
Paul had left hours ago to find the doctor, and when he returned, they could finally leave Windrose. Mica didn’t know what she would do when they escaped. Her future stretched empty and dark, but she knew she had no choice but to escape and face the sharp-toothed darkness she had created for herself.
When she finally rolled over, ready to leave Windrose and this nightmare behind her, Ben looked completely different. His head and beard had been shaved, again, making him look like another Windrose Burner. A stranger. Aaron had insisted that Ben shave and put on a different jumpsuit, trying to disguise him, but it didn’t really work. His bad leg was too much of a giveaway.
If it weren’t for his limp, Mica thought she wouldn’t recognize him in a crowd. Neither would Anda.
The protein bar still beside Mica, uneaten. She sat weaving small braids through her greasy hair.
Ben stared at the Blind and ran his hand over his freshly shaven head.
“Something’s gone wrong,” Aaron said. “Paul should have been back by now.”
Mica tied her tangle of braids together and out of her face. “Can we go find him?” Since she had failed to find Anda, now all she wanted to do was escape Nova and forget everything—if the Unseen’s offer to escape South was still good, but she suspected that option was no longer on the table.
Aaron shook his head. “He’ll make contact with us if he can. But he should have gotten to the doctor by now. But maybe they got to her first….”
“How will we know?” Ben asked.
“If he doesn’t make contact in the next twenty minutes, we have to assume he’s been compromised. Then we leave without them.”
“But what about the doctor?” Ben asked. “You’d leave her behind?”
“If Paul has been caught, we won’t have a choice.”
The moments ticked by slowly. Mica pulled on her jacket and boots and ate the protein bar.
“Aaron… you there?….” Paul’s crackling voice said from out of nowhere.
Aaron pulled out a communicator from his pocket and held it up. “We should have left hours ago.”
“…Ran into some trouble, but it’s all right… I got her…”
“Did you take out both your transmitters?”
Mica touched her wrist, thankful that the little chip was not under her skin. In big cities, everyone had a transmitter. But it wasn’t necessary or practical in small, rural areas, so Mica had never had one. The threat of occasional Watchers was bad enough, and she couldn’t imagine every heartbeat and flicker of pulse and flush being observed and analyzed day and night.
“…Yes, we’re clean…. We’ll meet you at the Wall…”
“Leaving now. See you soon,” Aaron said. He switched off the communicator and set it on the table. “Here,” he said to Ben and handed him a paper from his jacket pocket.
“It’s a permit for your crutch. Confirmation from a local doctor that you only have a broken leg, and it will be healed within the month.”
“I’m surprised you weren’t taken in before this before: they’re looking for a man with a crutch.” Mica and Ben exchanged a worried look. Aaron continued. “I assume that was you who attacked the soldier in West One. That was unwise, but we’ll have to be more careful now. I didn’t have time to get you ID cards, so this will have to do instead.” From his other pocket, he pulled out a bottle of Calm. “Here, take one,” he said to them both.
Mica had disliked the grainy feeling it left on her tongue and the fuzziness it left on her mind, but she took the little pill and held it in her hand. Ben did the same, but when Aaron turned his back to head for the stairs, Ben put the pill in his pocket. He looked at Mica and raised a finger to his lips. Mica nodded. She looked down at the little yellow pill and then put it in her pocket.
“Remember our cover story?” Aaron asked.
“Daughter, father, our broken Burner,” Mica said, pointing to herself, Aaron, and Ben. She held up a bag filled with knick-knacks from Paul’s store. “Shopping for a birthday present on our way to the doctor’s.” She and Ben would have to leave their packs behind. Traipsing through Windrose City crowds with dirty packs stuffed with food and water and blankets would look suspicious, and the likelihood that they would be stopped was already high.
“Good. Let’s move,” Aaron said and opened the hatch.
He led them up out of the Blind room and into the empty shop. Paul had left the closed sign up for the last and final time. He wouldn’t be opening the shop ever again. After Aaron eased the hatch closed, he slid a carpet over it, followed by a small end table piled high with knick-knacks. Then they went out the back and into the sunlight.
Mica blinked in the morning bright—after being underground for so long, the sun strained her eyes. The bright rays felt good on her skin, and she lifted her face to the sun.
Aaron led them through crowded streets away from the river. This part of the city was mostly shops and market squares. The streets were crowded as people bustled to get to their Work and Volunteer Obligations. Mica kept her eyes down. She didn’t want to catch a glimpse of a Watcher accidentally. While she managed to keep her gaze on the sidewalk, out of the corner of her eye, she saw several people pass by with golden glowing eyes. She slowed her breathing and tried to calm her heartbeat.
“Mics,” Ben said softly and slowed his pace.
“What?” She turned to Ben—his eyes glowed gold. She caught her breath.
“You too,” Ben said. And sparks snapped through her nerves. A Watcher, in her. Just like last time. She tried to slow her heartbeat, but it beat faster and faster and her lungs couldn’t get enough air and her fingers tingled and started to numb.
“Aaron,” she said, grabbing his arm and slowing him without looking at him. “Watchers.”
Aaron slowed but didn’t stop. “I’ll take care of it, but not out in the open. Too many people. Follow me and keep your heads down.”
He cut down another street but turned around suddenly, nearly slamming into Ben. “Back. Go,” he said and ushered them back the way they’d come. As Mica turned back for the busy main sidewalk, she saw them at the end of the side street. Soldiers. Four of them, all of them searching the crowd and stopping each citizen.
“Heads down,” Aaron said. “They see what you see. Don’t look at street signs or—”
“There!” someone behind them yelled.
“Run,” Aaron said and shoved forward through the crowd. Mica did her best to keep her eyes down but kept slamming into strangers. Somewhere in the crowd, she dropped the shopping bag. She stumbled into someone, looked up as she grabbed an arm to regain her balance, and found herself staring into golden glowing eyes. Her heart skipped.
Aaron grabbed her wrist and pulled her away from the Watcher and down an empty alleyway between two large buildings. Ben was already ahead of her, limping for the empty at the end of the block.
The world turned gold. Everything, the bricks, the dumpster, the barred windows, the rat scurrying under a pile of broken crates, it all gilded and glowed before her eyes. Mica blinked to clear her head, and the world turned pale and cold and gray. The golden light was just her imagination, fear painting her vision with honey and light. And fear laughed.
Aaron sprinted ahead of her towards a busy and crowded street far at the end of the alley. Mica ran close on his heels. If they could get lost in the crowd, maybe they had a chance.
More footsteps behind them. Soldiers. Mica ran faster.
“Aaron!” Ben screamed. Mica turned and slowed. She and Aaron had passed Ben, and he was far behind them, limping as fast as he could. But the soldiers were gaining.
“Ben!” Mica slipped and skidded in a puddle and ran back for him, but he was too far away.
Aaron passed her, running to help Ben, a gun raised in his hand. Mica flinched as he fired.
One soldier dropped, but the other three raised Burn guns and fired. Mica slipped and hit the cement, and her head and the world sparked in shadow.
“Shock Stick!” Ben screamed.
The dark spots and blooms of white and orange faded from Mica’s eyes. She realized that she was lying in a puddle in the middle of the street, the perfect target for the oncoming soldiers.
“Mica! Get to cover!” Aaron shouted from behind a pile of trash bags and nodded towards a stack of broken crates and pallets. Ben was crouched behind a dumpster on the other side of the street farther up.
The soldiers were too close. Their weapons raised. She froze with fear, and braced for the Burn.
But their eyes turned blue-green and glowed. Ben stood beside the dumpster, leaning on his and crutch staring at the soldiers. He limped towards them, his limp worse than usual, something clenched at his side. The Shock Stick. He tossed the device to Aaron, and Aaron ran for her. He jabbed the Shock Stick into her side even as she shrieked for him not to and scrambled backward, but he was too quick.
Just like last time, she spasmed and twitched as electricity flooded her body, frying her nerves and every single cell. And then the worst was over.
“Look at me,” Aaron said calmly.
A string of the worst words she could think of came out of her mouth but faded on her tongue as pain wrapped his ropey arms around her and squeezed.
“Move. Up,” Aaron said, hauling her to her feet. She yelped. “More are coming. We have to run. Go.”
And they ran. Mica didn’t see what Ben had done with the soldiers, but it didn’t matter.
Aaron got them out of the alley and lost in the crowd. He led them down quiet, deserted, and dirty streets, and the crowds thinned and then finally vanished. Her every step seemed to spark with pain, but she kept moving. They all did. Soon they came to a fence. After a glance behind him, Aaron darted through a gap in the chains and slipped down the street. Mica and Ben did the same.
Aaron slowed but never stopped moving. The streets stood eerily empty. Rats scurried over piles of old trash, and crows sounded rasping cries overhead. Mica shivered in the place’s sudden emptiness more than the cold weather.
At the end of an empty block, Aaron turned a corner, still looking over his shoulder and into their eyes for more Watchers. Mica rounded the corner behind him, slowed, and caught her breath. Another chain link fence stood at the end of the street, but something wasn’t right. She stopped walking all together when she realized what was on the other side of the fence.
On the other side of that fence, like a scar, charred and black, the city lay in ruins. The fence separated the two sections of the city like the edge of a scab, where the whole meets the broken. Mica stared out over the dry and cracked and dead landscape.
“Where are we?” Ben asked. He had stopped cold at the sight of the destroyed city.
Mica wondered if it reminded him of West Six. She hadn’t seen the destruction herself, but she had smelled the smoke. She knew that everything was gone.
Aaron beckoned them forward. “Those are the Ruins of When. Many years ago, there was a rebellion here, and Loraine decided to burn this part of the city to end it. Like burning the land ahead of a fire. Thousands died. No one bothered to rebuild, so it just sits,” Aaron said. “That was the Burning of Windrose City, and it created the Ruins of When. These are the ruins of when times where better, when there was hope.”
The morning sun cut through broken windows and made shadows like dark flames. Aaron walked along the fence until he found a hole in the chain-link. One by one, they slipped through and crossed over into the Ruins.
Mica kept close to Ben and Aaron as they went. The buildings and homes stood with gaping doors and windows like astonished faces as if they couldn’t believe that anyone would dare wander their street and desecrate this dead place with breath. Transports sat where they had been overturned and smashed. Broken glass still littered the streets like dried tears, dusted and opaque. Potholes covered the cracked and uneven streets like pockmarks. And yet, every so often, a bush of wild roses, or bright red berries, or a tumble of phlox grew despite the broken bricks and concrete.
Aaron led them on. Through the streets, down dusty alleyways, over blackened walls. It went on and on and on. Half the city must have been Burned. Mica imagined half a city engulfed in flames, but the thought was too terrible and screaming to focus on.
They hurried down a long street, and something caught Mica’s eye. She turned out of fear, her eyes darting to the brightness like a flash of white at the edge of her vision, and stopped. In the front of a tall and skeletal building, a stone fountain overflowed with little white flowers. Mica paused to take in such a strange sight, a fountain flowering with buds and leaves and bright blooming blossoms. The petals swirled in the wind.
Ben limped back for her.
“Look,” Mica said, staring at the fountain. She wasn’t sure why she was crying, and she wiped her nose with the back of her sleeve.
“We’ve got to keep moving,” Ben said gently and pulled at her elbow. She nodded, and they turned down the long-dead street, leaving the flowering fountain behind.
The sun rose high as they ran through the ruined city, twisting and turning down streets that grew smaller and smaller. Finally, they reached broken houses no bigger than shacks. Aaron waved them inside a house no more than a hovel. Inside, amid moldy walls and sagging floors, they crouched beside charred boards and ancient trash. Aaron peered carefully out the back window, and Mica leaned forward to see. There in the distance, across a wide and wild field, just like the one she and Ben had crossed to get here days before, stood the Wall.
“Are you ready?” Aaron asked. They stood looking at the Wall through a broken window.
Ben nodded. “We might have to walk a little to find the best spot, but we’ll get over.”
“Are you not sure you can do it? Because now’s the time to tell me, I can’t risk us getting caught.”
“I’ll get us over,” Ben said.
“What did you do to them?” Aaron asked and turned his steady glare to Ben. “The soldiers in the alley?”
Ben hesitated but kept his eyes on the Wall. “Restoring memories isn’t my only gift.”
Aaron went quiet, and Mica wondered what was going on inside his head.
They had waited less than five minutes when footsteps echoed down the street outside. Mica, Ben, and Aaron went softly to the front room and peered out a window. Paul and an older woman ran up to the house. They darted inside and paused to catch their breath, hands on their knees and huffing. They both had bandages around their right wrists. The woman’s bandage had a red spot in the center.
“Hey, Paul,” Mica said.
He waved hello, then leaned back against the rotting wall.
“Who’s your friend?” she asked, looking at the woman. She was small, average, with limp brownish hair that hung down her back like wet grass. Her face had a sagging look to it, like drooping, wilting leaves, but her eyes were bright and intelligent beneath hooded lids.
“Dr. Emma Henderson,” Paul managed to get out. The woman wheezed but nodded hello. Her slight frame was obviously not used to sprinting long distances, and her shoulders shuddered with each breath. Mica wondered how old she was, probably old enough to be her grandmother.
“Were you followed?” Aaron said, peering into their eyes, checking for Watchers, then scanning the empty street.
Paul shook his head.
“Good. I’m sorry, but we can’t let you rest,” Aaron said. “We have to go, now. They Watched us, and they’ll be tracing our steps.”
Paul nodded and led the way back out into the street. They flitted from house to house, pausing while Ben limped forward and stared at the guard towers on the Wall. He would shake his head and lead them to another spot to stare at the Wall again. Mica remembered their last trip over that stone Wall with a queasy stomach. The woman’s eyes. The man’s dead slump.
“It’s not working,” Ben said quietly to Mica. Aaron, Paul, and Emma walked a few paces back, just out of earshot.
“Maybe it just takes a while, like it did the first time?” Mica offered in a low tone.
“No. Something’s wrong. They’re more… aware or something. They’re ready for us. I don’t know if I can get us out.”
Mica’s stomach turned with the thought. They had to get out. They had no papers, no ID cards, and, if what Hermes said was true, their W6 ID numbers would trigger something very bad. They had no choice: they had to get out.
“Keep trying,” Mica whispered. “We need to get out of here.” Ben nodded.
They walked on, stopping at each burned and broken house and staring at the Wall. Mica felt a sudden chill on the back of her neck. She turned and caught Emma staring intensely at Ben, the creases on her face like wilting petals caught with dew. Mica guessed she was much, much older than she appeared.
“What’s he doing?” Emma asked Paul.
“Don’t know. But he made it over the Wall a couple nights ago. Hopefully he can do it again.”
“You made it over the wall?” Emma asked, her voice growing louder. Ben turned to her and nodded. Her face went white. “How? You have some kind of device? A blocker of some kind? A powerful Blind?”
“No, no device. Just lucky, I guess.”
Emma suddenly hissed and recoiled from him, taking them all by surprise. “You brought one of them here,” she said to Paul in a low and harsh tone.
Mica shivered at her words. This small and fragile woman suddenly seemed unpredictable and dangerous, like a deadly insect that had been disguised as a harmless plant.
“You brought one of… of them. How did you even find one? How is he consciously using his abilities? Do you know what they would do for a subject like that?”
“It’s fine, Emma,” Paul said. “He’s all right. You can trust—”
“No, I won’t go with him—not with him!” she said, stepping back and pointing at Ben.
“He’s going to get you out of here,” Aaron said, grabbing hold of her arm. “And we need him. I think you know that. A subject like this will—”
But Emma wrenched her arm away from him. “No, don’t touch me! He’s not natural. He’s a monster, that’s what he is—evil!” she said and pointed at Ben. “I should know, shouldn’t I? I’ve seen what they can do. Seen it with my own eyes. I won’t go anywhere with him, he’s evil!”
“Calm down! I promised they’d get you out of here, and they will—just stop yelling,” Paul said. But Emma backed away and stumbled over a scrabble of brush, falling back. Mica reached out to help her.
“No!” Emma kicked at Mica’s hand and scuttled away from her, backward like a crab. “No! I can’t… not with him.”
“He’s not evil,” Mica pleaded. “He’s not—what are you even talking about?” But Mica knew what Emma meant—she had seen Ben take control of another person’s mind, and she wondered just what Ben was capable of. Ben was kind and would never use his abilities to harm, but maybe others were not so kind. She wondered what Emma had seen.
Emma shook her head. “I’ve been trying to get away from them for years. I see them every night when I close my eyes—I can’t go with him, get him away from me!”
Ben retreated from Emma, his free hand up and his head down. “Please, listen to me. I’m not like them. Those people on the Wall, you’ve seen them. I’ve seen them too—but I want to help them,” Ben said. He looked at Emma, his eyes locking onto hers. “They’re trying to get you out of Windrose so that you can help us—but I can help us too. Please, let me get you out of here.”
Emma stared at him, her eyes filling with tears. Mica hoped that Emma would calm down and not start yelling again—whatever was guarding the Wall would surely hear her.
A low sound like a waterfall started and grew.
“What is that?” Mica asked, but they all just looked at each other.
An airship, small and old and red, trailing smoke and flames, flew through the sky towards them with a deafening roar. Two yellow and orange military ships, sleek and shining, chased after it firing on it with a steady stream of sparks and streaks and smoke. But a smaller ship, bright and silver and light, sliced through the air after them and disappeared into the blue.
Emma breathed deeper, calmer. Then she screamed.
Mica’s skin prickled and chilled, and she followed Emma’s eyes. The doctor looked right at Ben. His eyes had gone bright blue-green, so bright they were almost neon. His pupils, ringed with the vivid glow, filled almost his entire eye like an eclipse.
“Go. Now!” Ben yelled. Then he turned and led the charge at the Wall, limping straight for the tower in front of them. Aaron and Paul grabbed Emma’s arms and hauled her forward. She screamed and fought their help, but they wrapped their hands around her thin arms and dragged her towards the Wall. Mica ran through the field. Her feet ached as she pounded across the cold and hard-packed dirt. The tall and dry grass hissed and shuddered at them as they sprinted through it.
Mica reached the Wall first, took a flying leap, caught the edge with her fingers, and hauled herself up. She got herself up and over and dropped down to the stone walkway on the other side. Ben made it next, throwing his crutch up and then reaching for Mica. She pulled him up, and they collapsed to the cold stone.
“Help them,” Ben said as he found his crutch and limped to the guard tower. He stared at the figure in the alcove behind the glass. A young girl, her head smooth and dark. Mica stared as the hairless girl behind the glass shook and twisted under Ben’s gaze like something was crawling up her spine.
Behind her, Mica heard a yelp. Paul was limping. Aaron grabbed Emma by the waist and dragged her kicking and shrieking to the wall. He shoved Emma to the ground, jumped, and scaled the wall in swift and competent movements.
“Mica, help me,” he said calmly as if they weren’t fleeing for their lives in terror. “The doctor.”
He and Mica reached down for Emma. Emma was so short there was no way she’d be able to get up the wall by herself. The wailing doctor staggered to her feet and tried to run, but Paul appeared and wrapped his arms around her legs and lifted her into the air. She swayed and screamed with the sudden movement. Aaron and Mica grabbed the doctor’s waving wrists and pulled her up onto the Wall. She was so light that she sailed up easily and rolled to a stop on the walkway.
“Help her,” Aaron said, shoving Mica towards Emma.
Mica wrapped an arm around the trembling woman and pulled her to the other side of the Wall, ready to throw them both over the side. “We’re going to have to jump,” Mica said. Emma, her pupils wide, her mouth a silent shriek, nodded and reached for the stone.
“Hurry up!” Ben yelled. The girl beneath the glass continued to writhe. A sound, like rolling stones, filled Mica’s ears. She remembered that sound—something began to rise out of the Wall.
“Aaron! Come on!” she screamed and turned to him. He was leaning over the wall again with his hand extended to Paul.
He paid no attention to the rising coffin. “Paul, grab my hand,” he said.
Mica knew that tone of voice. Aaron was afraid.
She left Emma trembling against the stone wall’s edge and ran to help Aaron. He reached down for Paul as far as he could, but Paul did not reach up for Aaron’s outstretched hand. He just stood there and shook his head. “They took Emily. I’m not going with you.”
“We’ll find her. But you have to take my hand and come with us first,” Aaron said evenly.
“Mics, I can’t hold them—I can’t hold two of them!” Ben yelled at her from the little guard tower. “Get over the wall, now!”
The rolling stone continued. The rising glass coffin was almost up. Emma gave a hair-raising shriek.
“Aaron, come on!” Mica yelled.
“Paul, please. We can talk about it later, just take my hand, take my hand,” Aaron said.
“Just go, Aaron, I’ll be fine. I’m always fine,” Paul said with a grin. “Mica, I think I finally understand you. Good luck.” He nodded to them and started limping away back towards the Ruins.
Mica watched in numb terror.
“He hurt his ankle. He’s not going to make it in time,” Aaron said and started over the Wall to go back.
“No!” Mica grabbed Aaron’s arm and held him tight as he struggled to free himself and climb back down the wall. “You can’t go back—there’s no time—we have to run now!”
A shadow passed over her and Aaron. Mica heard the low roll of stone suddenly slam into place, and she turned to see a kiln sparkle in the sun. She and Aaron knelt, captivated and covered by the coffin’s shadow.
Aaron stared at the little child behind the glass. A boy, maybe eight years old, stared at them with pinky-purple glowing eyes.
A hum. Something sparking. Like electricity gathering and growing.
“Mica!” Ben screamed.
Mica felt nothing but the sensation of heat in her mind, like the thousand striking matches sizzling to life.
She turned and watched Paul sail through the air over the field, down the street, and out of sight, as if he was being pulled back by an invisible rope tied around his waist. His eyes glowed bright magenta. And then he disappeared from view.
“Ben, now!” Mica screamed. She grabbed Aaron’s hand and pulled him from the cold shadow under the glass. She shoved Emma over the other side of the Wall and pulled Aaron and herself over the edge.
Ben followed them, screaming as he limped. Then he too sailed over the side of the Wall.
A fire in her mind.
The glass around the little boy shattered. The little girl screamed.
Mica pushed Emma forward. Ben followed.