FernWithy (fernwithy) wrote,

The Big Empty, Chapter 10

Okay. Back to business! The kids have just been told by an officer named Rose that there are warrants out for them from Twelve.

Part Two: The Four Winds

Chapter Ten
"Warrants?" Misty repeats. "What are we supposed to be wanted for?"

"You and Mr. Everdeen are wanted for questioning, which I imagine you knew, since you disappeared on the day the order came out. Miss Carson is also wanted for questioning, but the warrant specifies theft of military supplies as well." He glances at the beat-up backpack leaning against her cot.

Duronda smiles coolly. "I thought everything belonged to everyone. I had a lot of lessons about that. How could I steal something that belongs to everyone? Aren't I part of everyone?"

To my surprise, Rose laughs. "I met your mom in District Three, Duronda. I think she'd like that answer."

Duronda's brittle attitude breaks, and her eyes widen. "You saw my mother? How is she? I never got letters, and she said she'd write from the front -- "

Rose holds up his hands. "She's fine. Protecting the personal mail hasn't been a priority. She's been promoted. She's in charge of holding the gate at the armory." He looks at all three of us. "Please tell me that we're not going to have a problem here."

"I need to find my father," I say.

"I thought as much." He stands up. "What's your plan? To wander up and down the Mississippi hoping you accidentally run into him? Come with me. We can at least talk."

I look at the girls. Neither one of them seems to have an idea. I nod. Misty shrugs. Duronda looks unhappy, but doesn't do anything.

We follow Rose out to a hoversled marked with District Eight insignia. He settles us into the passenger area and starts to drive north. "Don't mind the bumps," he says. "I hate hovertech vehicles. Out on the plains, we use wheels. All-terrain buggies, of course; no one keeps roads up out there. The buggies can't do jack up here in the trees, though, unless we send in road cutters ahead of them, which kind of defeats the purpose."

He goes on in this vein as we drive, for all the world as if we've got some choice about being here. We get a little soaked when we cross a river that Rose calls the Ohio, because hovertech isn't great with flowing water, but it's safer, he says, than trying to hold a pontoon bridge.

"What about the Capitol bombers?" Misty asks. "They cross bigger things than rivers. So, why aren't they bombing all our positions? I mean -- why hold the bridge at all?"

Rose looks over his shoulder as he steers the sled up the north bank of the river, toward another army camp. "President Clemm frequently suggests that he means to do just that, but if they had the firepower, or the energy to fly more than a few full sized hovercrafts at once, they'd be using it. Remember, the Capitol may have some resources of its own, but we have control of Five and Twelve, and with them, most of the energy supply. The Capitol is stingy, by its standards, with what it keeps running. At least that's what we hope." He turns into the camp and shows a badge to the security guard, then lowers his voice. "We also took out a lot of the fleet in District Two. We don't know how many they have left, but we guess it's pretty slim pickings. Two more went down in District Nine last week."

A soldier from Thirteen stops us outside a huge Quonset hut. "Commander Rose -- identify your passengers. Are they the missing children from Twelve?"

"No idea," Rose says. "They were with the bunch that the raiders had. Shayna and I were going to run a couple of tests on them, ask a few questions. They could be out-district."

The soldier frowns impressively. "Our intelligence suggested --"

"Suggestions aren't facts, Soldier. Now stand aside."

She complies.

I look at the girls, who seem as confused as I am.

Rose steers us into a vehicle depot of some kind and lets us out.

"Why'd you tell that woman that you didn't know who we are?" I ask.

He looks around. "We're going to have a chat first. A nice, long one."

"Are you a Teacher?" Duronda snaps.

"I am. Though not of the sort that have infested the districts. I'm a schoolteacher outside the war. In District Eight, it's considered a very respectable position." He gets up and opens the back hatch on the sled to let us out. There's a small shed at the edge of the parking area, and he leads us toward it without looking back to make sure we're following. It's most likely a strategy to test us somehow.

We look at one another.

"He knows my mom," Duronda says defensively.

It's as good a reason as any to go, and I can't think of anything better. Misty is quiet, and doesn't object. We follow.

The shed is full of wooden crates, and one bare light bulb hangs down from the ceiling over the biggest one. Smaller crates are pulled around it, and, to my surprise, there are two decks of cards in the middle of it. Thirteen is death on gambling.

Rose grins. "I trust you'll keep our little secret, too?" He looks over his shoulder. "Shayna, you got the files?"

A young woman (she might even be a girl; she doesn't look much older than we are) appears from behind a wall of crates, carrying file folders. She's dressed in gray, again with the colorful patch of fabric that signifies District Eight. She sits down on one of the little crates and pulls it up to the table.

We do the same.

"All right," Rose says. "Rathfon briefed me on what she knew. Let's have the rest."

"Why?" Misty asks. "Just because you put out a couple decks of cards and mentioned Mrs. Carson?"

"Brains," Rose says, tapping his head in an admiring sort of way. "I see how you got so far. Let us, metaphorically of course, put our cards on the table. I know you're looking for Dale Everdeen, because Effrim told me so. I know that he's wanted for desertion at the very least. I know that you left District Twelve quite suddenly when the Teachers were looking for you, and I suspect that you had help. I'm not going to ask who, and I wouldn't expect you to answer. What I want to know is -- why are you looking for your father?" He raises his eyebrows at me.

"Well, because…" I frown. "He's my father."

"And what do you know about what he's been doing?"

"Nothing! I know my father wouldn't betray the districts. That's all."

"So, you set out on foot to… ask him what's going on?"

"More or less," I say. "Also, they were going to start questioning me."

"We went to bring him home," Misty says. "Along with anyone else who'll come."

"Personally, I was just trying to avoid a lesson," Duronda says. "And make sure these two didn't die. They were carrying a rucksack and a banjo when I found them."

"We had other stuff," Misty gripes.

Rose raises his hand. "Let's stick to the subject. Your goal was to get soldiers back from the front lines?"

"There's nobody at home," Misty says. "It's just kids and old people."

"And merchants," Duronda says. "Thirteen was kind enough to send back the merchants, but they don't like us much."

"Maybe because we spent five years smashing shop windows," I say, thinking -- for the first time since I started this little trek -- of my Uncle Colum, the tailor, sweeping up the glass after one of the riots when I was ten. I went to help him clean up, and before he recognized me, all he saw was a little Ridgie kid with black hair, and for a minute, he hated me. He was disgusted with himself for it, but it was there.

"Well, maybe if they hadn't been gouging prices -- " Duronda starts.

Again, Rose holds up his hand and she falls silent. It's been so long since I've seen Duronda obey anything that it actually surprises me.

Misty speaks first into the silence. "Do you know what's been happening?" she asks Rose. "At home, I mean. You had warrants for us. Was there any other news?"

"Nothing you'll like to hear," the girl, Shayna answers. Rose starts to shush her, but she shakes her head. "They can know it. Doesn't sound like it would be a surprise."

Rose grinds his teeth a little, but finally nods and gestures for her to go on.

"We've had reports from Twelve," she says. "From the merchants, as you call them, who are… shall we say, still in contact with the military, even if official channels have closed down."

"Rebelling against the rebellion?" Duronda asks dryly.

"There are people who question aspects of the leadership."

I am instantly cautious. It would be easy to convince us to say something stupid like this. Not that we have anything damaging to say, but I'd think that it would be the first thing they'd try: Pretend to be subversive to try and get someone else to admit to actually being subversive.

But Shayna is setting up a screen and typing commands into a little wristband. I see a shaky video come up.

"That's Twelve," Duronda says, and of course, it is. It's the square. Someone is being whipped. There's a line behind the whipping post of people waiting for punishment.

"What happened?"

"We don't know everything, and what we do know comes through unreliable channels -- the official ones from Thirteen. What they said was that there had been a minor riot in Twelve. The merchants stirred up a few of the other malcontents over the government's use of farmland."

"Why would the merchants care about farmland?" Duronda asks.

But I have an idea in my head. I know whose house on the farmland -- or, more precisely, whose land the farms are on -- and that means it has nothing to do with merchants, unless it's Peet Mellark, since the two of them are thicker than thieves. "Did something happen to Pappy Angus?" I ask.

"The reports were that a citizen refused to allow the people to make efficient use of the house he was living in. His name was Angus."

"The house he was living in?" I stand up and lean over the table. After weeks with Trajan and Verus, Rose and Shayna are just not frightening. "That's been his family's house for generations! What did they do to him? He's almost ninety!"

Rose stands up and leans over until we're eye to eye. "Mr. Everdeen, if you would please try to retain your composure. I am not your enemy, and neither is Shayna. And in case you haven't noticed, we are trying to get to the truth." We stare at each other for a long time, then I nod and sit down. He sighs. "As far as the news is concerned, the people spontaneously put down any rebellion in their ranks, and the merchant ringleaders have been arrested."

Given that I only see about seven merchants in the line, it's obviously gone further.

"What were their names?" Misty asks quietly. "The ones that got arrested."

Shayna reaches for her files. "They're mostly calling them the Gang of Five. Mellark, Halligan -- two Halligans, a man and his wife -- O'Neill, and Undersee."

"The Halligans are my family," I say. "My mother's brother, Uncle Colum, and my Aunt Marnie. But they barely know Pappy. Except maybe with Peet. He's married to… well until she died. He was married to my mother's cousin."

Of course, this doesn't matter. Uncle Colum's been in trouble with the Teachers for ages, since they sent him back from the war over suspicion about being a Capitol spy. Once they decided Peet was involved, they'd have used it as an excuse to round up anyone who hasn't been keen to conform. I don't know the O'Neills or the Undersees, except on sight. I think Dad knew the Undersees, though. They used to do grounds keeping, and I think he had them out by the lake sometimes.

"Your warrant doesn't mention that," Shayna says.

"They were going to haul him off for questioning because of his father," Misty points out. "And he hasn't even seen his father for years. You think they won't question him about Colum Halligan?"

Duronda loses patience with this. "We're not going back one way or the other -- you can both forget about that; I'd rather go back to the raiders -- so that doesn't matter. What happened to Pappy Angus?"

"He was removed from his house. The land was needed for the Community Farm. They cleared it and built storage sheds."

Shayna punches a button and the video changes. I see a truck next to Pappy's house. His trunk is on it, and a few pieces of furniture I recognize, including the chair from his front porch, which he is sitting in listlessly. His granddaughter, Violet McCullough, is standing up there beside him, waving a broom. She didn't go to war because she was pregnant at the last ship-out time, and she's likely still not gotten around to weaning, and if I were a Capitol soldier taking one look at the look on her face right now, I'd be very happy about that. There's no sound, but I can tell she's giving someone the sharp side of her tongue, and by the looks of the cringing crowd, she's been drawing blood.

It doesn't do any good. The truck driver doesn't wait for her to finish. The vehicle starts moving, and Violet is thrown rudely down. She lands across Pappy's lap, and he raises his hand slowly, in a daze, to pat her hair in a comforting way.

The video ends.

"This was smuggled to us from a soldier stationed out there," Shayna says. "A soldier from Thirteen, I should point out. He's trying to get as much of a lid as he can on the flare-up before anyone else gets hurt."

I can't really process this. I feel like I've been punched in the gut. If I hadn't run there, if everyone hadn't known that Pappy's place was safe to run to, he'd be sitting out on his front porch, complaining about the Teachers and his aching joints. They must have known that he got me going. And now Uncle Colum and Aunt Marnie and Peet and all of the others are in trouble, and Pappy's house is gone. I can't even imagine the old fields without him looking out over them.

Duronda claps sharply beside my ear. "Not one lick of this is your fault, so drop the guilts, Everdeen. I don't know what they call it when you decide you're actually guilty of things other people decide to do, but whatever it is, you've got it. It's annoying. Get mad instead."

"Stop yelling, Duronda," Misty says. "It's not helpful."

"Well, nothing else is helping." She stands up and paces up and down the room, her shadow circling us as she passes the hanging lightbulb. Finally she just stops and says, "We're supposed to be the good guys."

"Sometimes, good is comparative," Rose says. "And sometimes… sometimes it ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"Are you saying that we shouldn't have gone to war?" Misty asks. "That it's all been for nothing?"

"No." Rose steeples his fingers and leans back in his chair. "It's… unfortunate… that Thirteen has proven unreliable. But they're the ones with the fire power. And when the Capitol starting hanging people -- not whipping, not dispossessing, but hanging -- for legitimate protest, it was time to act. Don't assume that finding fault with our allies means that our enemy is any less of an enemy. Don't overestimate the virtues of the Capitol."

"What if there are people on their side who… who are like us?" Misty says. "What if…?"

Rose smiles fondly. "And here I thought he was Dale Everdeen's child," he says, jerking his chin at me. "That's what Everdeen's been going around suggesting," he clarifies. "He wants to find the decent people on both sides and get rid of the indecent ones who are in charge."

"I notice you're still in an army camp," Duronda says.

"The war still needs to be fought." Rose shakes his head. "Think about it, Miss Carson. What do you think the Capitol would do if we stopped fighting right now? What do you think they'd leave of us?"

Duronda narrows her eyes. "I didn't say to stop fighting."

"If we split the rebellion right now, it's the same thing. Once we committed to a war against the Capitol, there was never a chance of going back on it. The Capitol won't forgive or forget."

Shayna, who has being putting her little video display away, looks up. "It's true," she says, and looks at me. "Your father isn't encouraging anyone to desert. He hasn't been up this way, so we haven't met him, but the word he's getting around is to be ready for after the war. To get in as fast as we can, before Thirteen can solidify its grip. That's why they want him. Apparently, he's a very effective speaker."

"What are we supposed to do in the meantime?" I ask.

"Endure." Rose must realize how cold that sounds, because his face suddenly changes, becomes concerned. "I know it's hard. I know that, for you kids, this has been your whole life. But it won't be forever. And for now, get some rest. We'll figure things out in the morning."

"We're not going back to Twelve until we find Effrim's dad," Misty says.

Rose smiles. "I know."

With that, he heads off, checking his watch and muttering something about reports.

Shayna takes us to a small tent that must be used by visiting officials. It's quite nice, but obviously only meant for one person. Three cots have been set up. She tells us to go to the mess hall when the bugle sounds, and then she leaves.

Misty is quiet. She sits down on the cot at the far end of the tent.

Duronda paces and fumes in a vague way, then finally says, "I'm going to find wherever they have the latrines around here. I bet they have actual toilet seats on them. That'll be a novelty, anyway."

She disappears.

I look over at Misty, thinking about making some joke about our substandard toilet conditions over the last few weeks, but as soon as the tent flap falls behind Duronda, she puts her hands over her face and starts crying.

I go to sit beside her. It's strange. We've slept practically on top of each other in the pup tent, but I feel pretty weird about sitting on something like a bed with her. But she doesn't seem to mind. She turns to me, and I put an arm across her shoulders.

"What is it?" I ask.

"Nothing," she says. "Nothing. My parents are dead for this and it's all nothing. There's no point to it. Even if we win…" She bites her lip. "How is it better?"

I curse myself for a hundred kinds of fool. I didn't even think about her parents. Duronda and I heard about ours. But whatever happens, Misty's folks are still dead, and what we saw, what's going on with Thirteen… it can't feel very good. "We learned we can fight," I say. "If we have to. We learned we can all work together. So maybe the next fight's ours. We make it mean something. That's all there is."

She takes a hitchy breath, out of blue, leans over and presses her lips against mine.

It's not that I haven't considered the concept of kissing Misty, or that I'm averse to it. I'm just surprised.

She pulls away and blinks a little bit. I feel like I'm supposed to say something, but I can't think what. I stare at her stupidly.

She starts to look down. "I'm sorry. I --"

I give her a quick kiss, so she knows it's all right that she did it, and she seems to accept it. Then she looks up and her face goes red.

Duronda is standing at the tent flap. She rolls her eyes and says, "What? Do you think it's a secret?" She flops down on her cot and ignores us.

After a while, I move off of Misty's cot and onto my own. She reaches over and takes my hand, and I'm glad of it.

The three of us try to talk the way things are, with the cots in a line, but we give it up as a bad job and move them into a triangle. We don't know who might be listening, so we don't try to make any plans. I try to bring up the news from Twelve, but Misty shakes her head vehemently and taps her ears.

Of course. Anyone could be listening. They know already that we're upset, but they don't know that Rose and Shayna showed us anything. We haven't even confirmed our names.

Instead, until the dinner bugle, we talk about life in the raiders' camp, and after we get our meals, we talk for a longer time about what's happened to the others. When the bugle sounds the call to quarters, the lights are cut. We fall asleep quickly, or at least I do. The cot isn't comfortable by bed standards, but it's the first time any of us has slept off the ground in weeks.

When they sound Reveille in the morning, I wake up feeling every ache and pain of the weeks on the road. I'm pretty sure I dreamed about the battle and clearing things off the corpses, but it's fading even before I open my eyes.

From the looks of things, the girls are pretty stiffened up, too. Misty is rubbing her knees and Duronda is pressing at a crick in her neck. On the other hand, they both look well-rested.

Rose comes to get us for breakfast, and we don't talk much beyond "Pass the eggs." Finally, when we finish, he says, "You three look like raiders. Let's see if we can get you into some clean clothes that won't get you shot on sight."

He takes us to the commissary and gets us army olive tee shirts and new blue jeans. "Can't put you in uniform," he says when we're dressed and piled onto the hoversled again. "You're not soldiers, and if you were in uniform, you'd be a fair target for Capitol troops. Not that not having them is necessarily protection, but it's a little. You at least won't be first in line when they shoot."

"You're not planning on putting a guard around us?" Duronda asks.

Rose looks at her shiftily, then suddenly veers off the well-worn path, through a stand of trees and over a swamp. "Actually," he says, "the three of you overpowered me. I'm lucky you left me the sled."

I raise an eyebrow. "You're going to let us go on our own?"

"Not a chance," he says, then slows down as we approach the banks of the Ohio again, this time downstream from camp. "Shayna's been very busy working contacts."

We pull to a stop in the middle of nowhere. The ground is swampy and the place is overgrown with everything I can imagine.

Suddenly, the tall grass by the river shakes, and a woman emerges from it, or at least I think she's a woman. She's vaguely female-shaped under her combat gear and camouflage.

"Blunt?" Rose asks.

She nods. "These them?" She looks at us, then smiles just a little bit, and for a minute, I think -- completely out of nowhere -- She looks like Mom. It's ridiculous. The fact that the little bit of her hair that I can see is blond is hardly a definitive connection. "Never mind," she says. "I've seen a picture of Effrim, at least. I'm Rebecca Blunt," she says. "I know your dad."

"Do you know where he is?" I ask.

"Not exactly, but I know where he will be. Will you come with me?"

Duronda steps in front of me. "That's not fair. Effrim would follow anyone who says that. For all we know, you're really with Trajan and Verus. Do you have any proof?"

Rebecca Blunt fishes in the pockets of her heavy combat jacket, then come up with a scrap of paper.

It's a picture, from the resort at the lake. I don't know who took it. Maybe Aunt Daisy, though if she ever had a camera, the family sure doesn’t have it now. But I've seen it. In it, I'm six years old, and Dad's got me up on his hip on the front porch of the office cabin. It used to be on the mantel, but Dad took it out of its frame so he could take it with him.

She hands it to me. I look on the back. Dad's handwriting, in pencil, gives the date and the location.

I nod. "It's good," I tell the girls. "This is Dad's."

"It was smart to ask for, though," Rebecca says. She turns to Rose. "Now, if you don't mind, I want to get some miles from camp before they bring me in for desertion. Tell Shayna I've got it. Also, tell her to dump that idiot she's dating. Just for good measure. But can you give me an hour to get us out?"

"I think I could lose my way that long," Rose says.

"Good. The cover's all right and I have camo netting. The river will get us a good distance."

"Raft?" I ask.

She drags out a large, brownish thing and pulls a cord. It inflates immediately. It looks more like a boat than a raft to me, but what do I know?

We board quietly, stowing our things near the center, and a few minutes later, we're on our way.

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