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The Big Empty, Chapter 14 - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
The Big Empty, Chapter 14
Phew. Last night I couldn't seem to get writing, so I had to punish myself by scrubbing my floors on my hands and knees. If I hadn't been able to get going tonight, I might have had to resort to vacuuming.

Luckily, Avi decided to start philosophizing for me.

They are making their way across the Great Plains in North Dakota, headed for a windfarm outside District Five.

Chapter Fourteen
It starts to rain at around ten in the morning, and it goes on for most of an hour, leaving too much boggy ground to really get much speed. We're also not getting a lot of solar juice. Misty, who's driving, gives it up as a bad job by three o'clock. There's no especially logical place to stop out here in the big empty, so we just cut the power and camp where we are.

I go hunting once everyone's settled, and I catch a large burrowing animal. I'm not sure what it is. Duronda frowns at it.

"Describe it," Avi says.

"It's about three feet long. Brown fur. Kind of a weird snout -- thin, teeth all along the inside. One really sharp one coming down; the other maybe broke off. It's -- "

"I think it's a mutt," Leah says. "It's got that pieced-together look about it."

Avi grinds his teeth. "We better be on the lookout. We're probably getting close to some of the power stations."

"We're not near Five yet," Leah says.

"They have things flung out for a ways. Wind farms, like Rebecca said. Solar farms. I think they do some geothermal pretty far from home, too. I talked to some of their soldiers. Some people have to stay out at camps for weeks at a time. Their families have to stay back in the town to make sure they don't try running."

"Great," Duronda says. "So now we're in mutt country."

Leah shakes her head. "No. Even the furthest out of the outposts aren't before the river. It looks like a mutt, but…"

"They're animals," Misty says. "However they started, they're animals. They probably roam a little, same as the jabberjays did."

Avi sighs. "At any rate, if it's a mutt, we're starting to get close to their territory. Be careful. We don't know what the Capitol has protecting its power plants."

Duronda frowns. "You know, other than the jabberjays the raiders had, we haven't run into many mutts."

"The big ones stay near the battles," Leah says. "My friend Satin's brother came back on furlough, and he said the Capitol let loose something like a lion."

"You don't mean Burl, do you?" Avi asks. "He can't tell a straight story for sour apples."

"Why would he make that up?"

"Probably to impress a girl."

"He's not the only one I heard it from. There's a reason they don't use River Bay to come up from Four, you know. Shark mutts. And you know that's not a lie." She looks at the rest of us and explains, "We've got electric eels in the river by Eight. And I hear they have those superwasps in Eleven."

"Tracker jackers? We've got some up by Twelve," Duronda says.

"They seeded them around the fences in Eleven. One of the soldiers said they make ground nests, and they're hard to see in the grass. So people making a run for it can trip over them really easily."

"Charming," Misty says. "I guess we should be glad that the Capitol mostly ignored us."

"Avoiding bad attention is good," Avi says. "Getting good attention would be better. Schools. Hospitals. Infrastructure."

"I'd rather stay out of their sights." Duronda shrugs and pokes at the mutt. "So, can we eat a mutt?"

"Does it look diseased?" Avi asks.


"Then it should just be meat."

It is. In fact, it's pretty good meat, better than rabbit. Rebecca comes to for a little while, and we give her some broth. She asks where we are. No one knows, exactly. Rebecca curses herself for not carrying the holomap. Dolly had it, and no one thought to take it.

The next day, we reach a river. It doesn't seem like a big river, which annoys Leah. She'd seen it on a map, and said it looked like it should be big.

"Are you sure it's the right one?" I ask.

"No. There might have been another little one." She grinds her teeth. "I'm sorry! I should be able to remember."

"Hey, you know more than I do," I say.

"The terrain should start to change soon," she says.

"It has changed a little," I point out. "There are rocks now. Big ones."

"I thought we'd be headed into mountains."

"It's okay," I say. "The longer there are no mountains, the better it will go."

The river is actually hard to cross, because it's both shallow and narrow. Not shallow enough to drive through and not narrow enough to jump, but enough to make it difficult to use the vehicle as a boat. We finally drive south along it until we come to a place where we can see sandbars poking up. Misty, who is driving, says, "Well, it's not getting any better than this," and takes a decisive turn. We end up turning the wheels for a while, and Avi and I get out to push, making bitter jokes about what mutts might be in the shallows here. Finally, we make it up the other side.

The terrain changes quickly over the next two days. It's not quite mountainous, but we've gone from the easy, grassy plain to a broken rocky plateau, with jagged valleys and flat-topped tables of stone. The place is crawling with snakes. I have no idea whether or not they're mutts, but they're definitely dangerous, and I'm glad that Rebecca has spare ammo in her bags, because I don't want to let any of them near us. They're pretty good for eating, though, and after Duronda kills one, she puts its fangs on a ribbon from the back of the truck and wears them like a choker necklace.

The going is, as Leah warned us, much slower. It feels like walking, though I know in my head that we're at least doing better than that. We get testy with each other. Rebecca has more lucid moments, though she's in a lot of pain. She's embarrassed that her legs have rendered her unable to leave the cot, which means we have to change the fabric under her a few times a day. We can't leave the used stuff behind as a trail, so, on the occasions that we can risk a fire, we burn it. I sit with her a lot, because she tells me about Dad. It's nothing I don't know, but it's obvious that she loves him, at least in a kind of hero-worship way. I hope there's more to it than that. I'd love it if Dad could be happy, but I don't think he wants someone who thinks he's some kind of prophet. Well, maybe he does. I haven't seen him in a long time. And I don't know much about love. I just think I wouldn't like to have someone acting like everything I say is amazing and wonderful. I think I like it better when Misty tells me that she won't teach me to drive because I'd get distracted by game and put us into a cliff.

Misty and I find a few more minutes to ourselves, and try kissing again, but it's weird to have to make plans for it and try to avoid everyone else, so we agree to table it until we get home. She tells me not to eat wild onions next time. I give her extravagant promises involving chewing an entire mint plant.

We don't reach the next big river for nearly a week. It's the widest we've seen up here since the Mississippi. Leah says that it eventually runs straight into District Five. "There are waterfalls there for hydro, plus a lot of geothermal -- I hear that hot water just shoots out of the ground sometimes -- and some open areas for wind, and lots of sunshine. And uranium mines. They've pretty much got everything but coal."

"Makes you wonder what they need us for," I say. "They could run the place from Five without coal."

"Well, we have to serve some purpose," Misty says. "We were already mining coal, so…" She shrugs.

"Let's camp on this side," Duronda suggests. "If there are mutts in the river, I don't want to deal with them at night."

We all agree to this, and since there's a good amount of time, we clear a circle, find some stones, and build a campfire. I take the first watch. To my surprise, about ten minutes after the girls are snoring, I hear footsteps coming from the direction of the truck. Avi comes out, draped in a piece of heavy quilted fabric. His hand is out, and he stops when he feels the heat.

"Big rock to sit on," I offer. "About three steps to your left."

He nods and feels his way to it. "What?" he asks when I don't say anything else. "Can't I keep a lousy watch?"


He grins. "Don't bother being awkward. I'm joking. I can hear all right, but I don't know what anything is out here."


"Truth is I can't sleep. Do you mind if I stay out? I won't be any more useful than I have been since Leah made Toole knock me out, but I won't be any less useful, either. I couldn't be." He faces the fire morosely. I guess he can't stare into it, but it looks like a stare to me.

"Nobody's any use out here, except Leah," I tell him. "None of us knows what to look for."

"She doesn't either." He sighs. "She knows her maps, but I don't think maps mean much."

"But you said -- "

"I wanted her out of Eight. I'd have said she could fly if I thought it would make your people think you needed her." He pokes at the ground with a stick. "She can at least fight out here. I could have fought in Eight. Maybe I couldn't shoot a gun -- or use anything ranged, really -- but I could plant a bomb. I have done that. My friends and I took out a Capitol transport when we were thirteen. I was the last one to turn thirteen. We did it to celebrate… being thirteen." He shrugs. "They kept guard, but I had the steadiest hands. I planted the bomb. But when Thirteen was recruiting, they wouldn't take me as a regular soldier."

"You're still pretty young."

"Most people started lying about being eighteen by the time they were fifteen. The recruiters played along most of the time. But not with me."

I don't say anything. Avi knows why he's not on the front lines. As a saboteur, he might have been great, but in street to street fighting, he'd just get himself killed. "So, your friends are all at the front?"

"Most of them. My friend Jake got executed, though. In Nine. They said he collaborated with the enemy."


"They drove off an attack. But there was a wounded Capitol soldier. He and his buddy camped out in one of the barns. Jake found them and brought them food and medicine without telling the army they were there to capture. Turns out that's considered aid and comfort to the enemy. Which I guess it is. In Eight, we'd blow that off -- you don't leave people to die somewhere -- but in Nine… the Capitol's wrecked them over and over. They're very strict and very… zealous.."

"I've heard that."

"Jake had heard it, too, but he didn't listen. Or didn't understand. I didn't get to say goodbye." He blinks a few times, quickly, but doesn't cry.

"I hate this war," I say.

He smiles. "So you're not off faking up documents to make yourself older?"

"I'm thirteen. I'd never pass for eighteen, anyway."

"That's not an answer."

"I'd fight if I had to," I say. "But yeah… I guess I'm not in a hurry to slap on a uniform and fight for the glory of District Thirteen."

"Is that what you think this is?"

"It's what Thirteen thinks it is. Well, not them exactly. It's like… if they win, then everyone is supposed to become just like them. At least the way they think. And I don't want to become just like them."

"Nobody does. That's why we'll lose, too."

"It's not like I want to be like the Capitol, either!"

He raises his eyebrows. "Who do you want to be?"

"Twelve," I say without thinking about it. "I want to be friends with other districts, but I want to be… you know. Us. And I don't want other people to think they have to be us."

"Which is another reason why we'll lose."

"You're a real optimist."

"It's not about being an optimist or a pessimist. It's just something people know. They've studied it. People who have a strong central story -- an identity -- can stand up indefinitely. We don't have one, as the districts of Panem. Thirteen wants to have one. But the Capitol… they have a story that we're already all a part of. And, whatever else their faults are, they're great at storytelling."

"Storytelling," I repeat doubtfully.

"Think about it. This is the Capitol's story: Humanity almost destroyed the world and itself. After they wandered in the wilderness, a group of strong people settled the ruins of a great city, and they recreated civilization. Once they got strong enough, they went out and gathered survivors from all the corners of the earth, and brought together a squabbling, fractious population to create a new nation, which then began to spread out again, to reclaim the world."

"Yeah. Never mind the hangings."

"This is the problem that we have. We know that their story ended up in a twisted parody. But that doesn't make it untrue, or less powerful. Up against it, we have Thirteen, with their story about how a virtuous band of survivors overthrew and killed wicked overlords, and now they want to turn the world into a paradise which everyone can see isn't a paradise. All set up against the story of the Capitol and all of the inner districts, who mostly remember the ingathering."

"Twelve didn't have anything to do with any of that."

He shrugs. "What is your story?"

"No one knows for sure anymore, but what Pappy Angus said -- Pappy's an old man who tells a lot of stories -- is that we were country people. We survived because we weren't in a strategic bombing area. A lot of people died, anyway, of course, but some of us made it through. A pretty small group. He says that's why we all have the same look. Finding effect? Something like that."

"Founder effect. What did he say was showing it?"

"Gray eyes. Almost all the Ridgies have gray eyes, unless they married one of the Irish merchants. Then there are blue eyes."


"Original settlers. The ones who were there all along, before the Capitol sent the merchants in."

"Are your eyes gray?"

"Mine are blue; Misty's and Duronda's are gray, though. My mother was Irish. They're pretty much all blond and blue eyed."

He grins. "Well, you're destroying a good stereotype with that. The books my friends read me all have Irish people being red-haired and green-eyed."

"Another founder effect, I guess," I say. "Anyway, we mostly wanted to be left alone. We traded with Thirteen and Eleven. Eleven wanted to be left alone, too. I don't know their story. Then the Capitol took us over. We were never in-gathered."

"And that's one of the reasons that the Capitol never had as good a grip on your side of the river. You weren't part of their story. The rest of us are. All of the inner districts were settled by groups that went out from the Capitol."

"I still don't see why any of this means we're going to lose. Even if the Capitol story is true, it was a long time ago, and everyone knows it's bad now."

"But it's still a story that ties us together. No one wants the story Thirteen is trying to tell. Eleven and Twelve don't have anything to share with each other or with us. The districts… all we have in common is the Capitol. And instead of taking that story and running with it -- instead of saying, this is our story, and they're the ones who aren't living up to it -- we decided to run off half-cocked. And the sad truth is, you can't fight something with nothing. Nothing is what we've got, in terms of a shared purpose beyond going off and fighting against Peacekeepers. And who wants to fight forever? That's a terrible story. No good for anyone. Sooner or later, you have to kick the enemy habit."


"Oh, come on, you know what I mean. Every good story needs an enemy. Except romances. They just need obstacles. But most other kinds need a monster. So, we make monsters, and some people get pretty addicted to them. Make them more and more powerful. It's easier than admitting that sometimes, you make stupid choices and lose battles. Because, to think of that might mean that it's not enough to be on the side of the angels. Whatever that means."

"So, what are we supposed to do?"

"Too late to do anything. We're all pretty useless." He pokes at the ground with a stick he's found somewhere. "Me, I like the Capitol's story, and I want to be in it. Really in it. I want those doctors who could maybe fix my optic nerves. And I want to be free to make enough money to see one of them. But neither side wants that anymore."

"I think my dad does."

Avi nods. "Maybe. That's the impression I got from Rebecca. She crashed into town six months ago, and I helped her. She said there were people out there that wanted to end the war in some way that's good for everyone."

"Well, that's not possible. I mean, if we get a nice, peaceful resolution, then the ones who want scorched earth won't be very happy." I grin. He can't see it, but I try to make my voice convey the joke.

It does, but he only smiles very faintly. "Something that's good for everyone isn't necessarily the same thing as everyone getting exactly what he wants. I think the whole thing about people living together is that everyone is a little bit unhappy about something, but you learn to put up with it and leave each other alone."

"And again… very optimistic."

"You didn't think that was optimistic? I thought it was practically utopian. Except that there's no such thing as utopia, but people have been known to live in large groups without killing each other. Sometimes."

I shake my head. Avi is smart, maybe as smart as Misty or Pappy, but he has a weird way of thinking about things. I'll be happy if we can get the Capitol to stop hanging people and Thirteen to stop telling us all what to do. Neither the Capitol nor Thirteen will be remotely happy if I get that.

We're quiet after that. I spot a rabbit in the moonlight and shoot it, and we roast it over the fire. By the time Duronda comes out for her shift, the conversation has shifted to the deep topic of whether rabbit meat makes farts worse than mutt-meat. She mutters something about "boys," and takes my seat. Avi stays out with her. I notice before going back to the truck that she actually sits down on the rock beside him.

The next morning, Rebecca comes to for a while. She's running a fever now, and she's delirious again. We have to get her to someone who can get medicine for her. It occurs to me that she might have at least gotten medical care if we'd left her in Eight, even if she was a prisoner there. I might still have to tell Dad that I killed his girlfriend. She seems to think she's back in Seven, and all of us take turns telling her that she's doing fine with her logging quota. She keeps trying to get up, which makes it difficult to get going. It's almost noon before Leah drives us into the river. We're only afloat for a few minutes, but when I look down into the water, I see white-skinned reptiles with large teeth, snapping at the metal of the truck's bottom side. Luckily, they don't get the tires.

The country here is wild, and more than once, I see huge animals. There is a brown bear much larger than anything we have outside Twelve. There are wolves to guard against at night, and more herds of the big animals we saw earlier. We start turning slightly to the south, going in a rough parallel to the river. Twice, we have to hide from Capitol hovercrafts. Rebecca, in one of her lucid moments, says, "They shouldn't have that much to spare. What's happening?"

But there's no one to ask.

A week after we cross the river, we spot the windmills.

They're on a flat-topped rise, and the arms aren't moving, but Duronda recognizes them right away from the picture she saw.

"They're different," she says. "But the same idea. They can't be anything else."

It looks deserted here, and I don't know what kind of help we're supposed to find, or if anyone's been able to get through. But it does look like there's shelter to be had.

I go to Misty and Leah when we stop to camp the night before we get there. "Look," I say, "we can get Rebecca into one of the windmills, if they have a way inside the bottom. If not, I bet there's an office building or something. You guys stay here. I can follow the river down on my own and find help in Five. Someone will help."

"You can't go alone," Leah says.

"Fine, draw straws for who comes with me, but the land… we can't use the truck much further."

There's no argument with this. The easy way across the plains is gone. The slow moving truck is bad, but I can see the beginnings of mountains ahead, and there's no way the truck will take that. We'll need to figure out how the people from Five get out here. If it's a lift from a Capitol hovercraft, we're in trouble, but I'm sure there has to be some other way. I'll find it.

Misty spots a track up the side of the rise, not really big enough for our cargo truck, but easier than any other way. She surmises that they must use carts around the site, and if she's very careful, she can keep the truck balanced on it.

It's a close thing.

We take the track slowly, with an almost painful caution. There are a few uneven spots, and twice, I have to hold Rebecca down when we thump over a spot where the ground has fallen away on one side for a few inches. Once, Misty steers too far to the left and a spill of dry dirt falls over us.

But we finally make it to the top.

The windmills, which looked like small houses from a distance, are every bit as tall as the tenements in Eight, going up in trapezoidal towers that lead to fans whose blades are probably three times the length of the truck.

"Now what?" Duronda asks, climbing down.

"We need to find shelter," Misty begins. "And see if anyone is…"

Something clicks behind us.

We turn.

"… here," Misty finishes.

Five people have risen up from the tall grass, all of them armed, all of them with their weapons trained on us. They're all around our age, and they look like they've been living hard for a while. Their clothes are tattered and they're wiry and thin.

"Who are you?" a boy asks. He's standing at the front of the group.

"Who the hell are you?" Duronda snaps back.

"We belong here. You don't."

"We were supposed to meet someone here," I tell him. "My name is Everdeen. Effrim Everdeen."

"Supposed to meet someone?" he asks, and my heart sinks. He's not one of Dad's people. He doesn't even look up at my name. "Who were you supposed to meet? Are you with Thirteen?"


"The Capitol?"

"No. Neither. We're just trying to get through." I point at the truck. "We have someone wounded. She needs medicine. And help."

The boy frowns. He doesn't lower his gun, but he does loosen his grip a little bit. "How's she wounded?"

"Broken legs. And she's got an infection."

He looks over his shoulder. "Check the truck, Ami," he says to a girl. See if they're carrying weapons for Five."

The girl breaks away without questioning it and opens the cab of the truck. "Personal weapons in here," she says. "And the sick woman, that's true." She runs to the back and opens the doors of the cargo area. After a minute of poking around, she jumps down and comes back. "Nothing back there, Flynn," she says. "Unless they're planning on carpet bombing us with actual carpets."

The boy Flynn grins, and his entire demeanor changes with it. I don’t know if he's putting on a show, or if the military-style leadership of a minute ago was a fake, but now he sits down casually, waves to the others to lower their weapons, and says, "Well, in that case, let's see what we can do to help them."
13 comments or Leave a comment
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 22nd, 2016 06:19 am (UTC) (Link)
Yay! Update!
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 22nd, 2016 06:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah. A day late. Sorry!
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 22nd, 2016 08:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
Still reading and enjoying your stories
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 22nd, 2016 10:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 22nd, 2016 08:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
Still enjoying the story too! Although now feeling a bit guilty for not having done more housework this weekend ;-)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 22nd, 2016 10:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
I use it as self-flagellation. If I'm doing housework, it means I'm being lazy and recalcitrant about writing. ;p
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 22nd, 2016 11:28 pm (UTC) (Link)


What is the animal supposed to be?

Great conversation between Avi and Effrim.

Flynn! Awesome! Hi Charlie's dad!

Sara Libby
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 22nd, 2016 11:41 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: So...

The mutt is quasi-sort-of an anteater base, originally meant to control pests that ate at wires, I think. Only it was before they made them sterile, and were at least a little bit fertile.
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 23rd, 2016 02:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
Good thing they didn't try to ford the Missouri. That wouldn't have gone well.
Hopefully nobody dies of dysentery.

That's a nice bit of foreshadowing by Avi as to not just why this Rebellion is doomed to failure, but why the one three-quarters of a century from now will succeed: the need for a unifying narrative.
... It's probably good we haven't got a good look at Nine. Yeesh. I wonder what their POW camps look like... or if they even exist.

Were you saving up that carpet bomb comment for the right time? :P

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 23rd, 2016 04:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hopefully nobody dies of dysentery.
I've wondered about this in Panem. People get sick with things like the flu (which shifts every year or so) and they starve and get some environmental diseases, but we don't hear about dysentery or cholera or cancer. I wonder if, at some point between contemporary times and Panem, the genetic engineering got to a point where they were able to eradicate certain sicknesses from the human genome, and clean them out of the water, and the ones who survived to that point are the ones with a whole lot of natural immunities.

I think the thing about the unifying narrative that they go with in canon is that it's a positive one. It's not about some kind of wild vengeance. When they move to that, it's unsuccessful. But the Peeta/Katniss narrative is fundamentally about what people want in peacetime, countered against the Capitol narrative, which is about a constant hatred and mistrust. In this era, I wanted something kind of opposite of that, where the Capitol is talking about stability and unification, while the rebels' only unifying story is about vengeance.

We don't hear about POW camps in either war, do we? Unless the prison Peeta and Johanna were in is all they have.

The carpet bombing just came out of Ami's mouth. It amused me.
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 24th, 2016 03:21 am (UTC) (Link)
I think it's more a case that water is one of the few things that's consistently in consumable quality. It's one thing to control through starvation and allow a small bumping-off through flu (maybe even malaria in D11); it's a whole other thing to have a cholera epidemic that destroys productivity.
The Capitol does likely have ways to fix cancer with minimal side-effects. However in the districts, it'd simply be that most people die before they get old enough to collect genetic damage.
I also have a feeling that HIV went extinct or mutated into something harmless during the catastrophes.

From: Preya Jagat Date: May 26th, 2016 06:45 pm (UTC) (Link)

HP Theory

Hey Fernwithy! So there's a HP theory that's trending about why Harry's year was so small and that made me think about how you made Teddy's year so small because of pretty much the same reason.

Glad to see that you're still writing!

Amethyst Beloved
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 27th, 2016 01:46 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: HP Theory

Interesting... though I never thought Harry's year was abnormally small. With around ten in a house per year, forty per year, 280 kids at Hogwarts, that would make sense as a percentage of the 2000 or so wizards that JKR said were in Britain. (How that number can maintain a Ministry of that size is... different.)
13 comments or Leave a comment