FernWithy (fernwithy) wrote,
FernWithy
fernwithy

The Big Empty: Chapter Three

They are traveling south along the river (the Monongahela, though they don't know the name), and after five days, they come across ruins.


Chapter Three
The railroad track bed has stayed by the river, and now and then, we go up the hills to the west to try and get a better view, climbing a tree every few hours to check out the river's path. Until now, this has mostly taken us into more forest, with nothing else to be seen for miles around, but on the morning of the fifth day, Misty gives a shout.

"Are you nuts?" Duronda asks when she comes down. "On the off-chance that anyone's around here, you just gave them a great big sign of where we are."

"I didn't see anybody," Misty says dismissively, grinning. "But you're right -- yesterday, when you said you thought the river might be forking. It is. And right where the fork starts, there are buildings."

"Buildings or ruins?" I ask.

"I'm not sure. I mean, there are some ruins, but I think there are some actual standing buildings."

Duronda frowns. "If there are buildings, someone's been doing maintenance. The forest eats everything we don't take care of. We better be careful. There could be raiders."

We stop talking the first time we see a sign of a town, though as far as I can tell there isn't anyone to hear us.

What we see is, itself, a ruin -- great rusted hulks, many crashed down, that used to be a bridge over the river. Vines have twined through the metal latticework, and moss has left parts of it as nothing but indistinct lumps in the landscape, but it's easy to tell what it was, just from the regularity of them, marching in a line across the river, allowing our path to come under one of the arches. Misty points up at something. It takes me a minute to understand her, but I finally see it -- a cutaway in the earth just above us, a flat surface cut into (or built out of) the hillside. There was a road running parallel to the track here. An uneven path leads down to us. The road that led to the train.

From town.

I grab Duronda's shoulder and point at the path.

She frowns, thinks about it for a long time, then nods.

The three of us go up the path to what was once a road. It's a flat surface in the forest now, overgrown with weeds and grasses. A bit of a rusted rail sticks up here and there. I wonder how fast things needed to be moving if they needed a rail to keep them from falling off a road this wide. You could fit the Justice Building in Twelve in the middle of this path.

There's still forest cover here, but there's not as much of a place to run. One side of the path drops down sharply toward the track, the other was cut into the living hill. Without needing to talk about it, we all drift toward the side that goes down -- better facing a steep, out of control run to the river than being trapped against an earthen wall.

After the bridge the road splits in two. The buildings Misty saw were inland a little bit, so we follow the branch that goes west, up the hill. Here, we can start to see signs of work, maybe not recent, but certainly not dating back hundreds of years. There are metal spikes pushed into the ground at regular intervals, just the right height to hold onto, and Misty realizes that they make it easier to climb up the steep hill, though I'm a little leery of how rusty they look. I don't need tetanus in the middle of this.

Another road crosses ours at a strange angle. The sharper angle takes us north, where we can now see the "buildings." Most are ruins -- a few skeletal beams poking up in the forest, sometimes with mounds of overgrown debris around them -- but three have been kept up, at least a little bit. One was obviously much bigger once. Its base is huge, and the top is broken off unevenly. Bits of stonework litter the path. An arch, fallen to the ground long enough ago to be buried partly in the mud, has faded carving around it, delicate curlicues and latticework. There are numbers on it -- a nineteen, and an oh-three -- which mean nothing to me. There's very eroded lettering as well. All I can make out is "Geo" at the beginning and "-obs" at the end, and some of that requires guesswork.

But one corner of the building has been reinforced with old, fallen stones, and a tin roof has been secured to it. A squatter's claim, though it looks like it's been abandoned for a while. The wall is cracked and I can see inside.

Across from it is something that looks more recent -- a kind of domed affair that looks like a gun turret. Pappy Angus once told me about these. During the Catastrophes, as the governments fell apart, a lot of towns built their own anti-aircraft defenses, most of them big guns enclosed in these mound-like buildings. The dirt is about halfway up this one, covering all but a few inches of a door, and my guess is that any gun is long-gone, but like the squatter's claim, I can see that it's been shored up along the way, and piles of wood show long-lost battles against the forest.

Beyond it is a mix-and-match kind of building. I can see an old, reddish building that seems to be the base of it, but it's had dozens of additions. Some look the same vintage as the anti-aircraft building, others are clearly squats from the times after the wars. Some may have even been built out before the Catastrophes struck -- they look ancient, but they don't quite fit on the old frame. There's an old solar panel on the roof, or at least I assume that's what it is. I've seen pictures of solar panels in District Five, and it looks sort of like them.

For all I know, it's a big skylight. It must be made of something tough, because it's not cracked after all this time.

Everything is silent. There's no recent trampling of the grasses, no tell-tale signs that anyone's been here for years.

"Well," Duronda says, breaking the silence for the first time in several hours, "looks like this is the hot spot around here. And I don't think anyone's been here for a long time."

Misty sighs, resigned. "I guess. But I was right. The tracks did lead somewhere."

"Yeah, you were right," I say. "Let's go in."

"Why?" Duronda asks.

"I don't know. See what's there." I shrug. "We may as well. It'll be dryer than the tent for tonight."

We don't move.

Duronda laughs nervously. "Looks like there could be haunts around here."

"Oh, I'm glad you said that," Misty tells her.

They look at each other and start laughing. It doesn’t echo, not here in the woods, but it does seem strange. I hadn't thought of haunts before, but now, I can almost feel them in the shadows.

The girls start toward the big building. I do one more spot check on the other buildings, then draw my rifle -- just in case -- and follow them.

There are two sets of doors in the building. The first one, on the outside, has long since been torn down, and is overgrown with moss and ferns. It seems to have led into a lobby, now a kind of meadow, after which there's another set of doors. They were probably glass, because they've long since been shattered out, but the metal frames are still standing, set into a mostly solid wall.

Duronda bends to go through the bottom part of one, and Misty and I follow suit. Misty has the flashlight from the survival pack, and she turns it on.

Beyond the doors, the forest has only invaded a little bit. I can see that, over the years, people have patched holes and covered up the high, arched windows. The light from the flashlight plays over a great, open hall, with shiny stone floors under a thick layer of dust. There's a mulchy spot in the middle that I guess was once some kind of furniture. I can hear things scurrying around here -- I'm guessing rats or mice -- but we're definitely alone. The dust is undisturbed by anything large enough to leave real prints. In alcoves to the sides, I see rows of rusted metal shelves falling against each other.

Misty plays the light over debris on the floor, then frowns. "Are those… books? On the floor?"

I look. The debris is barely discernable from piles of dirt in the forest, but I think there may be vaguely book-like shapes in it, and they would be a perfectly sensible thing to have been on the shelves, but the idea that people just left piles and piles of them to rot in the forest is so alien to me that I can't quite believe it. That much paper alone would be worth a fortune.

"Well, if they are, they're beyond reading," Duronda says without much interest. She looks around. "What do you think it is? A library?"

"Maybe," I say. "But I think there's more. Everything's shoved aside."

"The squatters could have done that," Misty says.

"Yeah… only, it's shelves, too. They're all off in a corner. I think they used it for something else before the town was abandoned. I think we should look around."

"What are we looking for?"

I shrug. I'm not sure.

We don't split up. We've all seen enough movies to know better, though none of us exactly mentions that. Misty just gathers us around the flashlight and leads the way. Most of the floor is unremarkable, other than the fact of its continued existence. Dust, stone floors, an old squat with a tin can kicked into a corner. There's another old squat that looks like someone made a campfire with a few books (if that's what they are) -- there's a hole high in the wall nearby that must act like a chimney. Bats up in the ceiling. Mouse droppings, but no rat droppings that we can see.

Misty spots the staircase first, going down into the darkness in the far corner of the room.

"Should we go?" I ask.

"Of course we should!" Misty shines the light curiously at bits of debris that have fallen over the years.

I look at Duronda.

She frowns at it. "I suppose we should make sure we're alone here." She nods. "You get up beside the light with the gun. You've got better eyes than I do."

I take a step ahead of Misty and cock the rifle, though I doubt there's anyone here but the vermin. The stairs are tilted and treacherous, so I take them very slowly. Misty comes one step behind me, and Duronda keeps the rear guard.

I almost fire the rifle in surprise when the lights come on.

Duronda yelps and loses her balance on the lowest stair, barreling into Misty, who has mostly kept her head. "The solar panel," she says. "Did you see it outside?"

"Yeah," I say. "You think it's got the power on?"

"I think it's a generator," Misty says. "I wondered what it would do. It's probably got some kind of charge in here -- a battery -- and a motion sensor."

"Hell of a thing to last this long!" Duronda says. "Were either of you planning to mention it to me?"

"I didn't think it would be doing anything," I tell her.

"Well, it does something."

"People must have kept it up," Misty says. "Like the building. Maybe people have even been here more recently than we thought. They'd have to have done some maintenance… well, the longest I've heard of these things lasting is ten years. Those are the good ones out of District Five."

"Maybe they made things better before the Catastrophes," I suggest, though a flickering in the lights tells me that our luck isn't going to last forever.

She shrugs. "Maybe. But if there are emergency lights in here, it must have been someplace important."

We spread out a little bit and look around. The stairs may have been precarious, but this room isn't. It's built of something that's resisted the elements very well. There are banks of machines I don't understand. I don't think even Misty does, because she gives them only a brief glance before moving on. Duronda finds a door and starts trying to jimmy the lock.

I move further into the room, toward an alcove beyond the machines. A large piece of plastic is standing free at the front of the room, fastened to a black plastic pedestal that has a wire running to it. Another bit of black plastic goes up one side. I can pick out markings on it, so I go to it.

There are a few words that mean absolutely nothing to me, and a symbol I've never seen before, but under them, there's a little gray screen with a grid on it. As I look at it, it starts to glow brighter, maybe getting more power as the place charges up.

I hold my hand over it.

The huge piece of plastic lights up, and I stare at it blankly for a minute, not quite believing what I see.

"Misty!" I call. "Duronda! In here!"

They come running, Duronda with her slingshot raised, then stare at the same thing I am.

"Is it a map?" Duronda asks. "Did we actually find a map?"

I nod. Projected onto the screen in red lines is the east part of North America, but not as I've ever seen it. The old coastline is there in dotted lines, beyond the new one, sometimes hundreds of miles. There's a whole piece of land to the south that used to stick out like a crooked finger, and it's completely outside the bright line of the new coast.

But more importantly, it shows where we are. There's a bright dot at the point of a river that forks to the south, and a thick lines that show the road system.

"So that's why they kept the place up," Misty says. "They must have found it years ago. They keep it so they know how to around quickly."

I nod. It shows that just a little south of town -- we'll have to cross the western fork of the river, so I'm glad Duronda's bag and the banjo case are waterproof -- we can catch a huge road, which will take us south-southwest. It should be easy to spot -- the bigger branch of the river curves out, and the road picks up just as it starts another curve. In what looks like a week's walk, we'll run into another big road that runs west through the mountains, all the way to the big river.

The roads are most likely a mess, but so far, it's been pretty easy to see where they were

"No," Duronda says.

"No… what?" Misty asks.

"I can see him thinking. He's got a mind to follow bright red lines."

"Of course I do. I wasn't looking forward to getting lost in the mountains."

"Yeah, and you know who else doesn't want to get lost in the mountains? Out-district raiders. The Capitol army. Our army, and in case you've forgotten, we don't exactly have permission to be out here."

"The armies are further west," I say. "And they're using newer roads."

"And the raiders?"

This is a better point. No one really knows much about them, except that one of the reasons people were willing to gather in the towns that became the districts was that it was pretty violent and lawless out here.

Still, we've been on the road for days and haven't seen any signs of… well, anyone, friendly or not.

"It's not like it's really going to be a wide open road," Misty says. "There'll still be forest cover if we see anyone. We'll just keep our eyes open."

"And if they're keeping their eyes open?"

I hold up the rifle. "I have good aim."

"You have eight bullets left."

I shrug. "Duronda, come on. It's one thing to say 'Just keep moving toward the sunset.' It's something else to be lost in the mountains. The road's the best bet. We'll just have to be careful."

She grumbles a little bit, but acknowledges that I'm at least right about it. ("Not that it'll matter if they catch us and gut us," she adds.)

We all stare at the map for a while, memorizing it as well as we can. Apparently, District Thirteen didn't deem a pencil and paper to be survival supplies, since there's absolutely nothing to copy it onto.

The lights begin to flicker more often the longer they're on, so we head back upstairs to make camp for the night. I thought it would be more comfortable than the tent, but it's not. There's something heavy and oppressive in the air here. We make a campfire in the old squat with some wood Duronda scavenges from the deadfalls outside. No one suggests that I get out the banjo tonight.

We talk for a while, mostly speculating about what this place was. Misty, who loves to read, thinks that whatever this town was must have been preparing for an attack, though there's no way to tell whether or not they ever had one. Back here in the middle of the mountains, I think there's a good chance the wars missed it.

"What do you think the name of it was?" Misty asks. "I didn't see any names on the map. Just dots."

"What's the name of anything?" I ask. "What's the name of District Twelve?"

"Twelve," Duronda says.

"It couldn't have always been Twelve," I say. "I mean, what's the story Thirteen harps on all the time? They had us and Eleven on this side of the Mississippi before Panem marched on all three of us. Why would we have had Panem district numbers? What did they call us before?"

We give this some thought. We know the region was called Appalachia, but no one has ever heard a town name.

"We know Thirteen used to be called Kearney," Misty says. "The Kearney Collective. They were up there in the north country after the Catastrophes, and they built a town on practically nothing. At least that's what they say. A bunch of people -- maybe they were there in the first place, or maybe they came over from somewhere else -- found their way to an abandoned graphite mining town. There was a fight with people who wanted to own the mines and make everyone else work for them, and they rose up and… made it like it is."

"On purpose?" Duronda asks. "I always wondered about that."

"Maybe. They seem to like it all right."

"Sure," I say. "If you're in charge, it's great." I toss a stick into the fire. "Daddy used to say that we were already there. So who were we? What was our name?"

"If we were all alone before Thirteen found us, maybe we didn't need a name," Duronda suggests.

"But we couldn't have always been alone. It must have been something before the Catastrophes."

Duronda is starting to look annoyed. "Why? Maybe people just went there after."

"Why there?" Misty asks. "It's not on a river, and the lake isn't very big. Nothing special about it, except that we ended up there."

"Maybe the mine was already there," I guess. "But even then… it would have to have a name." I look at them. "Now, it's bothering me. I want a real map, with names."

Duronda rolls her eyes. "I guess you'll just have to go on another quest after this one. The all-important question of what Twelve's real name is. Can't function without that."

"Doesn't it bother you?"

She shrugs. "After this long? The real name is Twelve."

I see her point. It would feel strange calling it anything else. But I don't have anything else to think about as I take the first watch and the girls sleep, and I even dream about it. I'm walking through town with my father and Pappy Angus, and they keep trying to tell me some secret name, but every time they say it, something blows up, and I can't hear.

I wake up feeling frustrated, and snap a little at Misty as we pack up. Duronda tells me to back off, so I snap at her, too. They both agree that I should keep my mouth shut until I can open it without saying something stupid.

We set off after sunrise toward where the first of the big roads should be. It starts at the southern part of whatever this town was, so we keep the morning sun on our left. Every now and then, we find a flat area that was obviously a street, or a bit of metal protruding in the forest. We get to the part of the river we'll need to cross, which clearly had a bridge at one point, and find that it's fairly narrow. We stuff everything into Duronda's pack and the banjo case and swim across, floating the pack among us. On the other side, we stop to split it all up again.

It's around noon when we come to the bigger branch of the river, and we follow it around a large loop. There's obviously an old road here, but it's a smallish one. We leave it when the river veers away.

By the time an hour has gone by, I'm beginning to doubt that I'll even see the road. Maybe all signs are gone. Maybe we've already passed it.

Duronda spots it first, and we all stop and stare.

It's a ruin, all right, but it's a huge ruin.

Towering, mossy pylons march across the river, and even now, through the trees and vines, we can see parts of the latticework of an old, steel bridge as it comes down on our side. Something broke and now juts up into the sky, long overtaken by the forest, but still recognizable as a piece of human work under the greenery.

We go forward slowly. There's a steep hill running down toward the road now, and we can see it clearly, even though the paving is long gone. This was all carefully built and engineered. The road is breathtakingly wide, and, though the forest has grown here, it's all newer and thinner. More importantly, it's mostly flat. It looks like a river itself, winding through the mountains.

We go to the middle of it without talking, and stand there for a long time, looking ahead.

Misty sighs, secures her bag on her shoulder, and starts walking.

Duronda and I follow her.
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