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The Big Empty, Chapter 12 - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
The Big Empty, Chapter 12
Okay, already this is taking odd turns on me again. ;p They were going to walk into the battle, but no one would behave, and I decided to just go ahead and spend a little time with Eight.

Chapter Twelve
The first I see of District Eight is the dead grass.

It starts slowly, with the grass just getting a little ragged, but as we move north, there are more and more patches of dead land, forcing us to stray further from the water to keep our cover. There's a churning, hissing sound -- not loud, but constant -- from the direction of the river.

There's also a smell in the air, not like anything I've ever smelled before. Maybe if you took rotten eggs, burned them in coal oil, and left them to rot in a piece of moldy cloth, you'd get something close. It's not a strong smell, but, like the hissing sound, it's everywhere, and it doesn't end.

But the biggest surprise comes when Toole swings abruptly to the right, back toward the river. I can see the walls of Eight now, but they're just walls. The problem is the river itself. As it churns down toward a series of machines that I now see are the source of the noise, it's not even water at all. It's a muddy mix of bright, toxic looking colors. Pools of red splash up onto the ground. Purple threads through them like melted wax. Blues swirl in lazy eddies, and yellow… there's so much yellow that the whole world seems like it's been having digestive troubles.

"It's not as bad as it was under the Capitol," Dolly says. "I used to be an engineer, and you could see the mud for miles when the river flooded. Purple. Green. Everything you can think of. Thirteen uses more yellow in some of the uniform components. I guess someone's ordering something else, but…"

"That's dye?" Misty asks. "Right in the river?"

"Yeah." Toole wrinkles his nose at it. " They call it the rainbow water. The filters kick in a little bit downstream, so it's not polluting District Nine, and Eight can get water from upstream, but down here? This whole part of the river is poisoned. Some rebel soldiers were thrown in during the battle for Eight. I was working the infirmary. We couldn't save them."

The smell gets stronger as we get closer to the walls, and none of us feels much like eating when we stop for lunch. Dolly tells us that the smell has gotten worse during the war, because there aren't enough people to man the small pumps further in, and the water has gotten worse. Misty wonders aloud if there's enough of the stuff for the river itself to burn. Judging by her tone, she meant it as a light comment, maybe even an uneasy joke, but Rebecca tells her that it's been on fire several times during the war.

When we finally hit the high fence around the city, there is no gate. The railroad tracks are closing in from the southwest, and look like they skim the northern part of the city, almost directly across from us. This fence is nothing like the wire fence that surrounds Twelve. It's high and solid, with heavy steel arms criss-crossing through wires at the top. Duronda makes a disgusted noise

No one else seems fazed by this. Toole just reaches into his backpack and pulls out a pair of pliers and something that looks like a battery. Misty crouches beside him, fascinated. He makes a few adjustments, then something sparks, then a panel opens at the base of the fence.

"Control panel?" Misty asks.

"Nothing so grand." He shrugs. "It's the same set up we've got in Six, to keep people from hopping trains. But if you short out a section, then…" He grasps a large bolt on the front of a piece of metal plating. To my surprise, it's not screwed into anything. It's just magnetic, and he pulls it away with a clean jerk. About four feet in, I can see another sheet of metal, but this one is clearly a door. "Maintenance hatch," Toole says. "It's locked on the other side, but it's a crash bar on this side. Wouldn't want some poor Peacekeeper getting stuck inside the fence That's why there's always a mag-bolt across from it, too. Escape hatch if there's a riot. But it looks like the rest, in case there's a raider attack."

Misty frowns. "Eight riots a lot?"

"Not a lot," Rebecca says. "But when they do, they're serious about it."

We go in.

As Toole promised, the door has a crash bar -- a simple lever mechanism from this side. It will lock behind us, but Dolly says that we have another way out.

When we come out on the other side, I have to blink to convince myself that I'm not still inside the wall. We're in a narrow alley, surrounded by tall gray buildings. Garbage rots in rusting boxes, and a giant rat is glaring at us without any fear in its eyes.

"Is this where they process trash?" Duronda asks tentatively.

"Not much processing gets done," Rebecca says. "This city -- it's about the same size as Twelve, physically. You have about eight thousand souls in the fence. They have almost a hundred thousand. It produces a lot of waste, and there's not much space to store it. The equipment's always breaking down."

We pick our way through the alley and come out into a slightly larger square, about fifty feet to a side. It's surrounded by more of the high rise buildings, with rickety fire escapes going up and down them. Clotheslines run across the square, blocking the sun like strange branches. Many of the windows are broken. I hear something thud and look up a few floors. A girl with a long, pale face and limp brown hair looks down at us.

Rebecca fishes into her bag, pulls out a card, and reads something in what I think is another language. The girl disappears into the shadows.

"They don't speak English here?" I ask.

"They speak it. Everyone does. But it's handy to have a way to… identify yourself as a friend. I got this from a woman who lives here."

A minute later, the splintered door of the building opens, and a man with curly brown hair comes out. Like the girl's, his face seems very long, and his bones are sharp under his skin. He has high cheekbones and large, very dark eyes. He's skinny, but he doesn’t have a look of starvation about him. Instead, he seems somber. He doesn't meet anyone's eyes.

"Rebecca," he says, "come inside. Quickly."

Rebecca frowns, but shoos all of us inside the building. The lobby is a cramped room lined with open mailboxes. I can see one curled factory work schedule in one of them. The rest of the room is taken up by the rickety looking stairs. It's as clean as they can make it. I can see where the paint has been worn off with scrubbing. But it's dingy and old, and the smell of rotting plaster and mold overpowers even the smell of the factories outside.

"What's wrong, Avi?" Rebecca asks. "What's going on?"

"There was fighting yesterday."

"We've been in view a while…"

"Not here." Avi reaches a landing three floors up and opens a creaky door. I notice that he touches the door frame first, and doesn't glance down at the doorknob when he turns it. The girl from before is sitting by the window. Avi nods to her. "Leah, send out word that they're inside."

The girl, who is a little younger than I am, scurries out. I hear her climbing the stairs.

Avi puts an finger to his mouth and cocks an ear toward the street.

"Hey!" Duronda shouts. "What's going on around here?"

He turns around. "I'm sorry," he says. "Who do you have with you, Rebecca?"

"Oh," Rebecca says. "I'm sorry. Do you know Toole and Sosi?"

"We've met," Avi says.

"The three children are from District Twelve. Effrim Everdeen is Dale's boy. The girls are Misty Magill and Duronda Carson. Duronda's the one determined to attract attention by shouting.

Avi smiles faintly.

"Do we need the social niceties?" Duronda says. "What's with the rushing around? Why are you sending out word that we're here?"

"Three troop transports from the Capitol showed up last night. It was during lights out and they were running dark. You wouldn't have seen them. We didn't even see them until we woke up and they were marching in the square. But right now, we're officially occupied. Consider yourselves lucky that they haven't got the power up for the fence."

Rebecca mutters a string of curses. "What have they done so far?"

"Not as much as they could. Yet. They executed one of the Teachers, but most of the rebel leadership got out of the city."

"And left you alone here?" Misty asks, disbelieving.

"So that maybe there'd be a chance of taking the city back," Avi says. "Most people left here are too old or too young to fight."

"You don't seem too old or too young," Duronda says.

He smiles. "I'm only seventeen. And the army doesn't have a lot of use for blind soldiers."

I realize that he still hasn't looked anyone in the eye. Because he can't see to look. "Did that happen in the war?"

"No. Born blind. I can get around just fine. I have a factory job I can do by touch. I told them I could fire a gun if they told me where to aim it, but they decided there could be unforeseen accidents." He sketches a bitter little smile on his face. "So, I'm here with the babies and old people."

The door opens and the girl Leah slips back in. "Gazar has extra clothes for them, but with the Capitol soldiers here, we're not sure how to get the truck out."

"We still have a hoversled outside the fence," Toole says. "The battery is almost dead; it's been cloudy and we've been running it hard. But if it can charge in the sun for a while…"

Leah shakes her head. "Actually, it's coming inside now. I think they're hiding it in the cubbyhole you came through. It's pretty easy to spot if the Capitol takes to air patrols. That's the same problem with the truck. Same thing that makes it possible to drive out there means it's easy to see people. You're going to have to loop much further north than Avi said you were going to." She flicks him on the shoulder, an affectionate gesture that seems like a tactile version of eyerolling. "At least if you're who Avi says."

"Oh. Sorry. Leah, this is Rebecca Blunt, Dolly Sosi, and Gallus Toole. The… kids?"

"We're older than she is," Duronda snorts.

"Sorry, I thought you were a toddler by the tantrums."

Misty grabs Duronda before she can do anything she'll regret.

"I'm Effrim," I tell Leah. "These are Misty and Duronda." I point to them.

"Leah Freed. You met my annoying brother. We did everything we could to get around his problem, but we've never been able to make any headway. He's been rude since he could talk." She examines us closely. "You soldiers really need to change. Fast."

The door opens again, and an old man comes in with a duffel bag. Rebecca, Toole, and Dolly all start fishing through the pile of bland, heavy clothes in it.

Leah looks at me. "You'll pass. The boys are all in jeans. But yours are getting a little ripe, so take some fresh. You two…" She looks at the girls. "Mixed bag for us. We can get away with jeans, too, but I think more of us wear skirts. And longer sleeves. You might grab headscarves, too. We usually wear them around the machinery."

Since, aside from dances and celebrations, girls and boys dress exactly the same in Twelve, this is a bit of exotica, so of course they go for it. Misty finds a long-ish brown skirt and a long-sleeved top, then wraps her pretty black curls up under a polka-dot headscarf. Duronda digs up a blue dress. She forgoes the headscarf, but braids her hair back. I feel a little underdressed. All the men are wearing some kind of cap, so I grab at one unobtrusively. It's a kind of wedge-shape, made of felt, with a brim that protrudes out over my face. I feel disguised.

The old man -- Gazar, I assume; no one here seems up on the introductions -- gives my cap a little twist and grins. "All right," he says. "We don't have papers for you, but you'll pass. We have a good mix of looks here, so nothing really stands out."

Rebecca comes out of the kitchen, almost unrecognizable in a long black skirt and a pink top. Her hair is almost entirely hidden by a kerchief. "Avi, what's the plan, if we can't get out the gate? Have you come up with anything?"

"I thought about the trains," he says. "If you could get to six, Sosi's got lots of vehicles. But it's too risky. The Capitol's been boarding trains from the eastern districts, especially from here. We've lost a lot on trains coming over the bridge. It's an easy trap point. So they think -- and they're right -- that Thirteen is coming at us from the north, above the headwaters. The convoys skirt around the big lake and come down here, and they were sending weapons to the inner districts on the trains. When Two fell, I guess the Capitol found the route."

"Great," Rebecca says.

"Anyway, it's a hard run, because it's a lot of forest, but that will give you cover. We just have to wait until the Capitol's guard is down and get you out on the north side of the city. Maybe we could sneak you out with a cloth shipment. You won't able to get a truck through the woods, but we can get word to Five to meet you at the Lakes Depot."

"They still haven't found that one?"

"Oh, they found it. You'll see. But they don't have the people to constantly guard up there."

I don't pretend to know what they're talking about. All I know is that it sounds like we're going to be going a lot further out of the way than we'd planned. It's no one's fault, but I'm angry all of it. I take off my cap and sit down heavily. "When's the shipment going?"

Avi turns his face in my direction, and now I can see the way his eyes are almost, but not quite, pointing the right way. "Four days. There's a place in the factory to hide you. It's blacked out and hard to see, so no one goes down there, but luckily, hey, you've got someone it's not a problem for."

"Couldn't we work the factories or something?" Misty asks. "At least we could earn our keep and -- "

"And not be bored stiff?" Leah guesses.


"You'll be in a basement, so you'll be able to use screens without attracting attention. I'll send some down. Just don't try to connect to anything. And you can come up one or two at a time and stretch your legs. No one will notice if you're dressed like us. But if you're at a factory station, they'll notice, and they'll want to see your credentials." Avi smiles almost in Misty's direction. "Thanks for the offer, though. It's good to want to help."

"Maybe I can make more arrows," I suggest. "Are there sticks I could use? Just ones that fall off trees. I don't really need arrowheads. I'll just whittle the point."

Avi laughs. "I would help, but, alas, there are no trees inside the fence, and hence, no sticks."

"What do you do for fun around here?" Duronda asks.

"We dance. We sing. We play games. We read books. We talk to one another. What anyone does. Just without the benefit of trees."

I think about the kitchens in Twelve, and how much we depend on the woods. "Where do you get food?"

Gazar answers that one. "We're dependent on food shipments when the Capitol is here. Thirteen was not here long enough for us to learn new habits. We need to go. The afternoon shift begins in half an hour. The crowd will cover us getting you inside."

As if in answer, a high whistle sounds. We have that at the beginning of the mining day -- or did under the Capitol, anyway; Thirteen just threaten to punish anyone who disrupts the labor of the district by being late -- but it sends chills down my spine at midday. In Twelve, there's no lunch break or shift break, or whatever it is they're doing here. A midday whistle means disaster.

But since no one else seems concerned, I guess it's just the way things are here.

We all go downstairs together, and weave our way into a crowd that's flowing out of the buildings and into the street. Avi has a cane that he taps in front of himself to keep from hitting anything, but it seems like a formality. He never pauses. Occasionally, Leah will say something like, "Low flying object" when a small child runs by, but I'm not sure he even needs that much. I don't understand how he does it.

We pass more dingy squares, and finally come out into the wide open area of the city's public space, ringed by the Justice Building and the Peacekeeper headquarters. I see the shocking white of Capitol uniforms, but the Peacekeepers aren't doing anything except randomly throwing garbage at citizens and saying that now they know why District Eight stinks. The people from Eight ignore them, so I do, too, though I can see Toole tensing up. Rebecca puts a hand on his wrist to keep him quiet.

My group veers up a narrow street, past huge industrial buildings, finally coming to the smallest of the factories. Maybe thirty people are going in. No one is checking at the door, though Avi was right… there are definitely Peacekeepers walking the floor inside, giving close looks to people as they take their stations. We go into a small cloakroom, then Leah looks around quickly and opens a small door. "Go down the stairs," she says. "Stay to the shadows. We can lead you right away, or it will be suspicious. Someone will come."

I hope the "someone" is one of the rebels, and not a Peacekeeper, but I don't say it.

We descend down into the darkness. Once the door is shut, there's no natural light. Dolly has a little holoprojector on her wristband, and she lights up a picture of a silver-haired man to give us at least a little direction. We find an alcove off to the side, filled with cleaning supplies, and slip behind the shelves.

The next hour is one of the dullest I've ever spent, even if I am pressed up against Misty, her breasts soft against my chest. We can't do anything about it, and the novelty wears off pretty fast.

It seems like it's been roughly five years before the door opens, and we hear footsteps coming. A soft voice sings something in whatever language Rebecca spoke earlier (at least I assume it is). Rebecca steps out.

Leah gestures us forward. "I'm on a break. I'll light the way down this time, but from now on, no lights in the halls."

She takes us through a crowded storage room, behind a furnace, and through a metal door that looks like it belongs on a safe, though it doesn't appear to be locked. We enter a fairly large room, with wooden benches lined up. At the far end, there's a wooden cabinet with improbably fancy carving on it. There are several books here, stacked along the benches. Nailed to the wall above the cabinet, someone has used is a quilt that shows a six-pointed star, probably made from scraps of fabric rescued from the floor upstairs.

"What is this place?" Toole asks.

"Never mind," Leah says. "If you need air, wait for one of the shift whistles. The factories don't really shut down, and they call us every six hours or so. Everyone does two shifts a day. Supposedly, it keeps us from making mistakes if we only work six hour shifts. The point is, when the whistle blows, there are people in the street. As far as the government is concerned, this part of the plant is down, so be careful, but if you go through that door" -- she points at a wooden door near the front of the room -- "it will take you through a hallway, and up the stairs. There's a door with a little window at the top. Make sure there are no Peacekeepers if you decide you need to get out, and prop it with a stone. Don't get out of sight of it, or someone might kick the stone away to make sure it's not noticed. Avi will be down with food as much as he can." She sighs. "Sorry. We were supposed to help you, not stick you in a cave."

"I think keeping us away from the Capitol qualifies as helping," Dolly says. "Thank you."

Leah gives us a distracted nod, then runs to get back to her work as fast as she can.

This room is much more comfortable than the cleaning supply room, and with so much noise coming from the power looms upstairs, we're not afraid to talk a little bit. Rebecca tells us that Avi helped her when she got hurt running errands six months ago. Toole knew his and Leah's brother on the front. No one knows the story of the room, and it turns out that the cabinet is locked. Big parts of the books are written in code (or maybe another language), but I do find some English, and Misty and I settle into a pretty good story about old men having an argument about an oven.

Avi comes down several hours later with a basket. People have given us small scraps of their meals, but all together, it makes a pretty good sized dinner for six of us. Avi, who's on his own dinner break, tosses half of a sheet of flatbread into the pile, then starts working on his sandwich.

"How are things?" Duronda asks. "What's the Capitol making you do? I mean… how much cloth can they need?"

He shrugs. "With the Capitol, it's never about what they need. It's about what they can get." He nibbles at a bit of apple (someone has given him a quarter of an apple to go on with). "As far as work goes," he says, "I don't really mind the Capitol being here. Thirteen didn't care about good cloth."

"And you do?" Duronda asks.

He nods. "Good cloth is all about how it feels. I'm pretty good at that." He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a piece of lace. "I worked on this while Thirteen was here. I tried to sell it. They said it was useless."

Duronda takes it and holds it up. It has little beads worked into it so it shimmers, but it doesn't look stiff or hard like the lace I've seen on some girls' dresses. She lets it drape over her hand. "It's so light. And not scratchy at all, even with the little chip things."

"Do you want it? Take it. I can make another." He smiles. "Though I should warn you, if you wear it wrong side out, those little chip things will be quite scratchy."

She smiles. "Okay. Thanks."

"Anyway, the Capitol likes its nice things, so the work is more interesting. I feel guilty about liking that, but I do. Thirteen's clothes are boring. Of course, they just like to whip people and deny food. We're up to seven execution from the Capitol today. They'll slow down when they get bored, but I have to remind myself -- good taste doesn't excuse them for that."

He fills us in on the day's events. More hidden Teachers have been rooted out and executed. The occupying soldiers are harassing the civilians. The plants have been put into high gear producing mostly luxuries, though the uniform factory also has a raised quota. He goes back after half an hour, and we go back to our idle conversations.

It's like that for the next three days, as we wait for a truck to load up with all of the demanded fabrics.

We take turns going to the second door when the whistle blows, taking in the nasty smelling urban air, stretching our legs. We don't talk to anyone, and people from District Eight take no notice of us. I get used to the little apron of asphalt around the door, and befriend a skinny stray cat one day. It's gone the next, and I don't think about where it might be. I'm getting used to the smell here, I guess, because, while I notice it, I also forget about it pretty quickly. Rebecca tells me, in a tone that suggests she thinks I'll be mad, that she and my father have been "seeing" each other. I tell her I already figured that out, and I like her fine. She seems relieved.

Misty works on fine-tuning my bow, and, when she can't come up with anything else to do with it, settles into reading whatever she can find around the room. I ask if I can kiss her again, and she says as soon as we're not in a crowded room. We try to figure out the language in the books.

Duronda waits eagerly for Avi's twice-a-day visits, then spends most of the time sniping at him, which he returns with gusto.

Everyone else waits for him eagerly because he has news. The news is rarely good, but, as Avi predicted, the Capitol bores of its executions quickly, and the Peacekeepers settle into a routine of petty provocations and pointless bullying. The Head Peacekeeper has taken to "inviting" local girls to entertain him. Those who refuse end up being beaten of trumped up rule-breaking charges.

The factories' output is going apace, and the space in the truck is filling up. The workers have made two crates for us, and we're supposed to be put into them the very last thing, so they'll be at the end of the truck, and once we're clear, it will just be a question of the driver stopping by the woods, giving us a compass, and letting us escape into the woods.

It's supposed to be simple.

Maybe it would have been.

But the day the truck is scheduled to leave is the day the rebellion decides to re-take District Eight.
9 comments or Leave a comment
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 5th, 2016 01:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
... Pleasant intro to D8. The funny thing is that, right before Misty makes comment, I mused whether the river caught on fire.

Going with the general theme of your D8 (nice touch with the makeshift synagogue btw), is the secret language Hebrew or Yiddish?
On the subject of language, something that's bugged me for a while was whether the language of Panem (which is strongly implied to be recognizable American English instead of the narrative being convenient translation convention) is actually called "English" in-universe.

Interesting idea that the women of D12 actually eschew skirts most of the time (I mean, the mines are a given...). And yeah, I can see how a treeless environment would be disconcerting to someone who grew up in someplace like D12.
Also interesting that you have it that the Capitol forces are called Peacekeepers pre-Treaty as well.

Post-MJ, I wonder how long it took for many in the districts to realize that, yes, it was possible to enjoy the pretty or even frivolous things in life without anyone getting hurt.

"... as we wait for a truck to load up with all of the demanded fabrics/" I take it the dash is supposed to be a period.

Anyways, glad your characters decided to become a bit disobedient and take us on this tangent.

-- FFR
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 6th, 2016 01:28 am (UTC) (Link)
The language is Hebrew. Poor Yiddish... it's already disappearing. I doubt it would make it that far into the future. Well, except for the parts that have become Yinglish, of course. I imagine that the English is vaguely different from what we speak, but we call it English, because that's still what's thought of as English. I think that the pervasive influence of mass media probably would provide a stabilizing influence and keep it from splitting up the way languages have in the past.

I imagine some people never get the concept that frivolity is all right.
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 5th, 2016 02:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm so glad this story is back, and I really like this chapter. The story is becoming like the Odessey or Illiad, isn't it? A Homeric journey complete with a blind guide. Also the cryptojewishness of D8 works really well with hiding people under the factory.

I was a little confused about the fence/wall with its panel/door/interior room, but maybe that's just me.

Thanks -Karen
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 6th, 2016 01:25 am (UTC) (Link)
The funny thing is, I mean it to start out as a straight Odyssey riff, but I kept getting caught up in my little Ogygias and staying there a while instead of moving on... but it actually is more Odyssey like than it used to be, at least in this part.
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 5th, 2016 07:35 pm (UTC) (Link)

Great Evocation...

Of the tenement/ghetto ambiance, especially with the added Holocaust/Resistance elements. Which bit of the Talmud were Effrim and Misty trying to puzzle out?

Sara Libby
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 6th, 2016 01:24 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Great Evocation...

The Oven of Akhnai.

Edited at 2016-05-06 02:08 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 7th, 2016 06:01 am (UTC) (Link)
Squee! <3 District 8. Thanks for giving us a tour.

Any chance we'll catch a glimpse of 7 as well? It's my favorite, and I've loved the bits of it we've seen in "The End of the World" series.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 7th, 2016 07:51 am (UTC) (Link)
We probably won't actually go to seven, but since it's Rebecca's home, she could conceivably talk about it a good bit.
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 8th, 2016 06:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
I enjoyed the detour!
9 comments or Leave a comment