FernWithy (fernwithy) wrote,

The Big Empty, Chapter 11

Well, we're drifting. I'm good with drifting, and it won't feel quite so drifty when the whole story is together -- just a couple of drifty chapters. But that happens in travel stories.

Anyway, the proper rebellion has just given the kids to the rebel rebels, in the form of a woman named Rebecca Blunt, who has an inflatable boat, which she and the kids use to get moving down the Ohio River.

Chapter Eleven
We drift down river almost aimlessly for hours. The river bends and twists, but I can't think what it's going around. The land here isn't entirely flat, but it's pretty close. While I feel exposed from the air, I don't feel visible from the land. The further we get from the rebel camp, the taller the grass gets. It has to be as tall as I am in a lot of places.

"It'll get shorter when we cross the Mississippi," Rebecca says when she sees me looking at it. "It won't be meadow-short, but we'll be crossing territory that's technically in District Nine. There were farms there until about the middle of the war, when the bulk of the farmers left to fight. Most of the population went further into the districts, so we won't see anyone this far out. But it's not completely re-wilded yet."

Re-wilded, I think. It's the right word. Not restored. Not ruined. Just… re-wilded. If there was ever human habitation here, it's been completely erased, unless it's hiding in the deep grass. I don't think it is.

We continue to drift all day, finally pulling to shore as sunset begins, in a stand of rocks where there's no grass. Rebecca says that we're close to the big river now, and we have to put to land before we get there, or we'll be swept straight down the bridge. She'll need daylight to see where we are.

I offer to go hunting, and Rebecca agrees, as long as someone comes along. Misty offers. I wonder if she means to kiss me again, but she doesn’t even bring the subject up. We spot some pheasants. She flushes them, and I take three with the gun. It's the first time I've used it in ages, but Rebecca has extra ammo, and we need food. No one will hear us out here, anyway. Misty and I make our way back to camp, and we all eat together, trading stories.

Rebecca, it turns out, is from District Seven, but she was stationed in District Four when there'd been a local riot. It happened a lot there. Four, she says, has always been relatively well-to-do, for a district, mostly because they cheerfully ignored the Capitol's laws when they were out on their boats. They almost never reported their full catches. More than that, the border guard was a series of mines in the Ghost Gulf, and more than one fisherman simply slipped through, scavenged the land outside the district, and brought in whatever he wanted. Some slipped through and came back on the other side of the city wall. The standing joke was that the Capitol only created District Ten because half of District Four had started farming out there, anyway.

Thirteen was having none of it. They stationed Teachers on every fishing boat, and for the first time, District Four's food supply was severely curtailed. They didn't take well to the micromanagement, and every few months, a gang of half-drunken fishermen (the Teachers had still not discovered their stills) would rise up and throw rocks at the government building. Not long after Rebecca arrived, there was an incident, and she saw a little boy -- well, not little, she amends; our age -- who was probably just blowing off steam. He was put into the pillory, which most people deal with just fine, but this boy had some kind fit there, and the heavy bar broke his neck as he thrashed.

"They rose up in earnest, then. They didn't have a lot to fight with, but they did have their fishing spears, and they used them to take down soldiers, and then they stole their guns. I fought. We all did. And of course, the military was better armed. But then they sent me to hunt down the ones who'd slipped off into the out-districts. I was supposed to bring them back for hanging. I didn't. I just left. I took my supplies, broke off from my group, and left."

"How'd you meet my dad?" I ask.

"He'd come down when heard about the riots. He knew people would be running, and he was gathering them up. They found me in uniform. I thought I was dead, but that's not what they do. Dale just offered to help me carry my gear. He's a good man. He told me a lot about you. He misses you."

"I miss him, too," I say. I have a feeling that she's holding out on a good bit of the story. She wouldn't be carrying a photo of him and me at the lake if she was just someone he met on the road. But I don't press.

We take turns at watch during the night, not because there's any danger of the armies spotting us, or the raiders -- they don't have routes out here -- but because none of us knows for sure what lives in the grasses.

In the morning, we get back on the raft. We drift until just afternoon, then Rebecca hands all of us paddles and tells us to start paddling toward the shore of what looks like an island, though she says it's really a peninsula. At the southern tip, about a half a mile from us, I see the water churning as two rivers meet. Far in the distance -- it's hard to tell how far, with everything so flat -- I can see the humpbacked shape of a railroad bridge. I've seen it on newsreels, but I never imagined I would see it up close. I guess this is the closest I'll be, because Rebecca is directing us toward a point a bit north of the end of the peninsula, and says that we'll be walking away from the bridge.

As we get closer, I see something glinting. It's a clean bronze statue standing at the end of land, looking out over the two rivers. It has one bright wing.

"What's that for?" Duronda asks.

"No one knows, not really." Rebecca looks at it. "Sometime after the Catastrophes but before Panem, when everyone was still fighting, someone took that land. The best theory is that it was a bunch of utopianists who were going to make it the center of the world. That's an angel statue. No one really knows what their goal was, though, or who they were, or anything about them. The transportation workers in Six found the statue while they were building the bridge -- "

"How long ago was that?" Duronda asks.

"The first bridge was a few centuries ago. Before that, the river was a major barrier for Panem. Thirteen controlled the northern headwaters, near District Eight. Downriver, it's very hard to cross. But they've rebuilt the bridge several times, upgrading it. They had to build a new one for the new trains."


"Anyway, I got this from someone in Six. The first bridge was closer to the point, and someone found the old statue. They liked to slip away on maintenance duty and clean it up. The Capitol never noticed. Or didn't care." The raft rocks, and she drops the subject. "It's time to get ashore."

We go ashore. The land is muddy and infested with mosquitos. Rebecca sprays all of us with bug repellent, since it would be inconvenient for any of us to die from about a million diseases the things carry. She also makes sure all of us are armed, and has me keep the rearguard as we walk north through the swampy land (since she and I are the best shots), because, while the Capitol doesn't waste soldiers here, she's not ruling out one of their mutt brigades. The last thing we need is to meet some kind of mutated river monster controlled by the Capitol, and have no plan for fighting it.

"River monster?" Misty repeats.

"The mutts they've been using for patrol and combat are meant to be mind games as much as anything else. I expect we'll meet a few on the way."

Duronda stops. "On the way to where?" She puts her hands on her hips. "We're not anywhere anyone can hear us. Can you tell us where we're going?"

"District Three," Rebecca says immediately.

"Three?" Misty's jaw drops. "Are you kidding? That's the other side of the Capitol, isn't it?"

"The far side of the lake," Rebecca agrees. "We're not walking the whole way." She grins and prepares to move on.

Misty doesn't let go of it. "Why are we going north? That's all to the south. We could just cross anywhere and start heading west and then south. Or south and then west. Really, either way. North doesn't make any sense at all!"

Rebecca sighs, then looks around for some handy rocks. We are now passing through what I've come to recognize as very old ruins: some slight hillocks where buildings may have been, overgrown earthworks up against the water, and just the slightest hint of organization in the flat places as we walk. Even if I didn't, some wandering soldier of recent vintage jammed a wooden sign into the ground a mile or so ago with the enigmatic phrase, "Hey Huck, it's Cairo!"

I don't know if it's someplace called Cairo or not, but it is some kind of dock town that was protected by earthworks. Rebecca finally finds a few rocks and sits us down.

"All right," she says. "Yes, we're going across the country, and yes, to somewhere southwest of here. But the territory between here and the Capitol is made up of flatlands and farms, and there's a lot of fighting over the resources. Any southwest route will take us too far into District Nine. They've been burned twice already. There's some open country to the south of Nine -- between Nine and Four and Ten -- but it's raider-controlled, and I have the distinct impression that you don't want to be back in their company."

"Okay," Misty says.

"There are constant flyovers in Nine, and nowhere to hide from them. Our best bet is to go north to District Eight -- we'll pick up transportation on the way -- and then skirt west above District Nine. We'll start to loop back down at District Five, but we'll have to avoid Six -- constant fighting there, too. We'll end up coming into Three from the west. Does that answer your question?"

Misty looks a little overwhelmed, but just says, "I'd feel better with a map."

Rebecca smiles and reaches into her backpack. She draws out a square of plastic and touches a button. A holographic map of Panem appears. She waves her finger into it and a red line shows up, with a gold dot blinking along the Mississippi. "There we are," she says. "Do you want to keep the map?"

Misty does. I hunt us some lunch in Cairo, and we cook it over a little fire. Later, we move on. It's a slog, getting through the mud, and no one is very happy, but we make it to dryer ground for camping by night. The Mississippi is moving away to the west, and the next morning, we turn to follow it. A little after noon on our third day of traveling with Rebecca, we open up the tall grass and find ourselves on the river bank, across from a humpbacked little island.

We won't be able to take the inflatable boat, because the current will sweep us back downriver, but Rebecca tells us not to worry. She reaches into one of her never-ending pockets and pulls out a small silver whistle. Several high, natural-sounding birdcalls come from it. Another whistle answers from the island, and a few minutes later, a powercraft appears with to soldiers on it, their uniforms in various stages of disrepair.

Rebecca introduces the three of us quickly, but no one seems to care.

"There's news," a young man says. His voice has the reedy, unpredictable tone of someone who hasn't settled into his man's voice yet. "You better come."

The other soldier is older. He doesn't talk. He just looks grave, and gestures us toward the woods.

We make our way among the scrubby trees. In several places, we have to wade through ankle-deep water. Finally, the older man lifts a sheet of camouflage netting, and we find ourselves in a clearing. The netting has been draped cleverly across it; I can see even from underneath that it looks natural from above. It means the ceiling is uneven and uncomfortably low. Some of the taller men even have to bend to move around in places.

There are maybe twenty people here. I see at least five different district patches. There's a table at the center of the room, but it's not big enough for everyone to sit around, so it's just being used to project a map. Everyone else is gathered in a circle.

The woman in charge, who has a patch on her elbow with a picture of a cow, looks up briefly when we get in. "Blunt," she says.


Gorram nods. "Have a seat. We expected you, but we could wait to get started. The quick and dirty summary is, we lost District Two this morning, and District One may not be far behind."

Rebecca puts a hand to her throat and sits down heavily.

I look at Misty and Duronda. Misty has her lips pressed tightly together. Duronda's hands are balled on her hips again. "What do you mean 'lost' them?" she asks. "Did they lose a battle? Did the Capitol firebomb them?"

Among the regular rebellion, talking out of turn would probably get her some kind of punishment, but Gorram doesn’t seem to think anything of it, even though she can't possibly know who Duronda is. She just shakes her head. "There was a battle," she says, "but it was the other way around. We lost the district before the battle started."

There's a good deal of silence at this.

"That's about where we left off," Gorram goes on. "We all know that District Two was never an easy case. They were always close to the Capitol. It was never more than a thin majority there in favor of rebellion at all. And there were… incidents."

I think about Juliana's parents, stoned in a pit at the quarry, and close my eyes.

"The rebellion was losing sympathy there. And the Capitol jumped right in. There's been steady stream of Capitol propaganda, about how the Capitol holds Panem together, how the rebellion is destroying the lives everyone rebuilt after the Catastrophes… you can imagine, I'm sure."

"And they listened?" an incredulous man on the other side of the table says. "They know propaganda when they see it!"

"Maybe. But it was relentless. And they were tired. And to be honest, they did have a more stable life. Not exactly a free one, but a stable one. People weren't dying all the time." Gorram sighs. "And then there was the matter of attacking the Capitol. The propaganda in the Capitol has been going full blast, too. As far as Capitol citizens are concerned, the rebellion might as well be out-district raiders. They've been told that rebels hate everything about them, that they'll be ripped apart and violated. They've been told that the rebellion will strip them of everything they own."

I hear Misty snort, and guess that I'm not the only one thinking of Pappy Angus on the back of a truck, being driven away from his land.

"What does that have to do with District Two?" someone asks.

"The Capitol has let them see how they're seen. It's almost convinced them that it's true. More than that, it's convinced them -- probably rightly -- that any attack on the Capitol will mean street-to-street combat with civilians who will never give an inch. Believe me, they're very careful to show that the civilians in question are children, artists, doctors… the works. And since there's no victory without taking the Capitol and its infrastructure technology, the only way to avoid that battle is to surrender and accept the inevitable."

"If we decide we don't need the tech, we can just bomb the whole city," a girl mutters.

"Thirteen wants to do that!" someone else shouts, standing up. "That's why we left, remember? Because we don't want to nuke a million people. Dale's the one who said it: We can't make things right by hating anyone who ever breathed Capitol air."

"It is something we'd like to avoid," Gorram agrees. "And that's part of what's happening in Two. Unfortunately, we didn't get to their leadership in time to give them any other option."

"They can't surrender by themselves," someone says.

"No. But they can stop fighting. They did. They let the Capitol back into strategic operations." She gives this a minute to sink in, then zooms the map in on District Two, then further in to a great door set in a mountain. "It could be worse. A lot of the armory has already been destroyed, and we commandeered the hovercrafts years ago, so the Capitol hasn't drastically increased its arsenal. But it was a storehouse of our intelligence."

Rebecca speaks quietly. "You said that One isn't far behind?"

"They're starving in One. The land isn't terribly lush and the Capitol has successfully barricaded the rail line serving them, so nothing can get in. Their district industry -- like Two's -- is not something they can put to use for survival. The Capitol always bought from their jewelers and furriers. Thirteen considers it a waste and leaves them to languish with no source of income at all."

I think about what Rebecca told us about District Four, and I wonder if that will be the next domino to fall. Twelve won't leave the rebellion, I think. Our oldest ties are to Thirteen, no matter how much we dislike their occupation. But we're a town of eight thousand people. District Eleven might be able to make a stand -- they can feed themselves, and there are a lot of people down there -- and Thirteen has nukes. But what if the inner districts start peeling away?

"So, time has suddenly become something of a factor," Gorram says. "Blunt, you keep going. Rendezvous with Everdeen and his group in Three. I'm sending Toole and Sosi with you. Talk to people on the way, but don't pick them up, and don't waste time looking for recruits. We'll be doing that on the southern routes. Right now, you need to get this across to Three." She hands Rebecca a silver tube. "We can send someone back east with the children."

"Hell, no," Duronda says before it even registers with me.

"They're coming with me," Rebecca says.

I expect an argument, but there isn't one, though Gorram looks at Rebecca with great misgivings.

There's a bit more talk, and it's decided that we'll leave in the morning. Everyone sleeps here under the camo netting, with no particular order to it. Misty picks a place near the edge, where we can look through the bottom (which is mosquito netting) and out into the swamp, where fireflies play among the trees.

I watch them for a while, then get out my banjo and sing a little bit. Everyone seems to like it.

When I finish up, I see that the girls have stopped paying attention to me at all. They're having a whispered argument.

"…course we should be talking to people!" Misty is hissing. "We have to get them to stop thinking about bombing half the world as an answer."

"Right, because reasoned debate club has been so effective."

"When have we ever tried to be reasonable?"

"The original tax protests," Duronda says. "They were reasonable. We said, 'Those taxes are unfair,' and the Capitol hanged thirteen people."


"And when the Teachers came from Thirteen, everyone tried to carefully explain things to them, and they didn't care a whit. We had to change because they were so very right."

Misty frowns. "Okay, so we can't have a reasonable conversation with Clemm in the Capitol or with the Teachers, but… can't we just go straight to the people?"

"With logic?" Duronda sneers. "Good luck with that. People just love bloodless intellectuals. Why, you can see it all through history, the way they flock to people saying, 'Hey, calm down, okay?'!"

Misty looks at me pleadingly, and I know what she's saying: This is your father's way. Can't you do things your father's way?

The problem is, she's right. My father's right. I agree with every word they say about the way things should be.

But I have an awful, gnawing fear -- a certainty, almost -- that Duronda is right about the way things are. Thirteen and the Capitol have whipped people up emotionally. Everyone has a million wrongs done to them that need to be avenged. And then the acts of vengeance need to be avenged by the other side. And then it just spirals, with everyone feeling completely justified in their rage.

And, of course, it feels good to be on the side of the righteous. Nothing like a little moral preening to put a spring in your step, as Pappy grumbled at me once after a visit from the Teachers.

I don't think theoretical arguments about the value of compromise and mutual humanity are going to be especially welcome when the blood's up.

I roll my eyes at myself. And what am I doing now, deciding that we're so far above it all that we've got the only answer?

Unless the answer's in a banjo and a ballad, I don't have it, and I remind myself to remember that any time I start to feel too good about my advanced opinions.

I don't sleep very well that night. I keep drifting into dreams where I'm standing up on a pedestal, pressing a button and watching things explode far off. There's a slope below me, and when I look down, I see dusty, almost-human shapes crawling up at me, their faces a horror of teeth, reaching up to pull me down into the lands I've blasted.

I'm glad when Rebecca wakes me at dawn.

We meet Toole and Sosi at the riverbank, beside an all-terrain vehicle with a strange, rounded shape to it. Gallus Toole is a youngish man with dark skin and straight black hair. I can tell that it used to be cut very short, but he's apparently been out of the army for a while, because it's grown down into a thick, shaggy mop around his head. He laughs a lot, and tells stories of the mutts he's fought. Dolabella ("Call me Dolly") Sosi is a tall woman whose short-cropped hair is partly gray. She's a sharpshooter, and I challenge her to catch more food than I do on the trip. We're getting into this pretty well when she suddenly shakes her head and says, "We shouldn't waste time or the lives of prey for contest. We'll both catch what we need."

The vehicle turns out to be amphibious. We pile our things in, then drive straight into the river.

It's not very powerful, so we can't stay in the water long. Toole just pilots us straight across, then we come up on the other side and start going upriver.

It's a lot faster than walking, but for a vehicle, it's very slow, topping out at around twenty miles an hour. Since we frequently come across deadfalls and tangled grasses, and, once, an abandoned District Nine farm, it's usually less than that. Most of the day is gone before I see the ruins glinting in the sun ahead of us.

"We'll camp at the arch," Rebecca says.

"Isn't that kind of putting up a sign?" Dolly asks.

"Yes. But it's a sign for friendlies, too. If anyone comes, we can talk to them."

I have no idea what they mean. All I can see is a pair of uneven spikes glinting up into the sky. As we get closer, I think I see something else gleaming on the ground. It's not until we're almost on top of the place that I see what they mean. The two jutting spires were once connected up by a huge arch. The top came off in some cataclysmic falling, and is mostly buried in river silt. I can see the shape under the mud, and the broken ends stick out like oversized cannons pointed at the river. All of it is covered in some kind of metal that still looks shiny under the dirt.

Toole pulls the vehicle over and we all pile out. There's a hill leading up to the ruin, and I can see that the dirt has settled over what might once have been carefully placed steps up from the river. There are tiny little terraces in the grass now.

"They called it the Gateway Arch," Dolly says. "The Gateway to the West. It lasted a long time after the city was abandoned. Longer than it looks like it should have. There are stories about it being whole even when Panem was moving on the outer districts. But it finally fell. Some of the people from Nine -- "

"We're in the northeast corner of Nine," Misty says, checking her map.

" -- said that it was a tornado. They don't often come through here, and the chances of hitting a single landmark dead on were pretty slim, but it happened. They say you could hear the crack for miles."

"I can still hear it," Toole says.

We set up camp, and I hunt with Dolly. We catch what we need, then I climb the tiny terraces of the hill and look up at the arms of the arch, jutting out from the mud.

Who built this? And why? Who would want to just make a giant arch, standing in the middle of nothing? Or in the middle of a city? What did it mean to them?

But the pieces have nothing to say to me. They are just the skeletal remains of a dead world, reaching out from their muddy grave.

What's wrong with us? I wonder as I watch the metal gleam in the cool moonlight. What's wrong with us, and can we ever fix it?

I don't know.

Here I stand in the middle of a ruin which had no purpose that I can see, just a strange, alien exuberance that once clung to this riverbank for reasons of its own.

Had there been a city? Dolly mentioned a city, and looking around, I can see some of the telltale hillocks, and some of those strange, canted greenways that I learned were once elevated roads, long-since toppled. But it goes on for so long. How many people lived here, in the shadow of this arch?

And what happened to them?

What happened to all of us?

I stay there on top of the hill until Misty comes for me. She doesn't ask what I'm thinking about. She just takes my hand and leads me back to camp.

Nothing else happens until we reach District Eight.

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