Chapter 1: all the rifles in the world won't stop them
Zea curls tighter. It can't be time to start cutting, she only just fell asleep.
“Zea, come on.” She doesn't recognize the voice. There's a hand on her shoulder, shaking her gently but firmly. “We have to go.”
Still confused, Zea sits up. Peacekeeper uniform, what the…
And then her brain comes back online. It's Sara sleeping next to her, they're in a cave not a tent, it's the middle of the day, and Alister needs her to do… something.
She rubs her eyes, shakes her head to clear it. “What're we doing?” She asks, untangling herself and standing up. Sara curls tighter and sighs but doesn't wake up.
Alister’s mouth is pinched tight. “We need to drop off some material, and we need more vehicles.”
He turns to walk out and Zea follows. When they get outside, Milo is filling sacks of fertilizer from the truck. He smirks when she comes up to help.
“Sorry to pull you away from your fun,” he says, and Zea punches his shoulder, grabs thread and starts sewing up the sacks he’s filled.
Alister helps carry them to the back of the PK transport, still quiet and tense. “Okay,” he says, when they've loaded 10 sacks. “Let’s go.”
Zea looks at Milo, raises an eyebrow. He shakes his head, shrugs. They climb into the high cab, three across, Zea in the middle.
Alister drives fast, just this side of reckless, and instead of the four hours it took them last night, this time they’re in sight of the city in less than two. Alister stops, reaches back for a duffel bag and hands it to Zea.
“Put these on,” he says. Zea opens the bag and sees a Peacekeeper helmet staring back at her. She and Milo climb into the back and suit up.
The gear is a little big on Zea, a little small on Milo, but good enough. When Milo flips the visor over his face Zea bites down on a shudder. He could be anyone behind that mask, which is of course the point.
“Keep your mouths shut,” Alister says. “And do what I tell you.”
Milo sighs. “Look,” he says, tight. “I get it, but you tell us what we're doing here. We’re not your kids to just boss around.”
Alister is pulling on his own helmet, pauses. Stares out the windshield for a minute and then sighs. “The drop is just inside the wall. A guy named Bley.” Zea trades a glance with Milo. “Then we are going down to the loading docks and commandeering a couple of pickups.”
“We know Bley,” Milo says. “And Zea knows some of the cargo loaders.”
Alister shakes his head. “No loaders working. Not since last night.”
Zea tenses. “So what, they have Peacekeepers there?” Alister nods. “We're going to walk up and ask for a couple trucks from a bunch of nervous PKs?”
Alister smiles, but there's no amusement in it. “Yep,” he says. “So keep the visors down and your mouths shut, and follow my lead.”
He turns the key and starts toward the checkpoint.
It's usually easy going passing through toward the city, a couple bored Peacekeepers rifling through things and checking paperwork. Not today. Today there's ten of them, guns at the ready. Alister rolls down his window and flips up his visor as they come to a stop at the gate.
“This is PK 40209, I have orders to report to the cargo docks with my men.” Alister sounds perfectly confident.
One of the checkpoint guards looks at a clipboard. “Not on my list,” he says.
“You think we have time for that?” Alister snaps. “Half the comms are down, the district is in open revolt, and you're worried about paperwork?”
The two men stare at each other for a long moment. Finally the guard looks away. “Proceed,” he says, and the gate swings open.
They turn to follow the wall toward Bley’s house. It's dark inside, but as soon as Alister pulls up, the doors open and Bley comes out, followed by six others. They get the sacks unloaded and into the house, fast, and Alister drives away as soon as the door swings closed.
They head directly for the rail yard. Alister drives up to the Peacekeepers’ office, parks in the middle of the yard and hops down. Milo slides out, and Zea follows, her heart pounding hard and fast.
Alister motions for them to stop in front of the transport as he strides toward the line of Peacekeepers blocking the rail yard. One PK steps forward. Alister talks to him a lot longer than he had at the checkpoint, but finally he turns back to Zea and Milo and nods. Milo steps forward, and Zea follows him. Alister meets them, leads them toward the garage. Once they're away from the others he says, “Change of plans. All non-essential personnel are to be in the square.”
Zea opens her mouth to ask why, but Alister’s glare shuts her up before she even starts. The garage door opens as they approach. Two Peacekeepers stand on either side of the door, weapons ready, but Alister doesn't even notice. He motions Milo to one pickup and Zea to the one behind it. “Follow me,” he says, turns on his heel and goes back to the transport.
Zea climbs into the cab. It's smaller than anything she's driven before, lower to the ground, controls clustered close to the steering wheel. She takes a deep breath, turns the key. The engine purrs as it comes to life. When she takes her foot off the brake it edges forward, like it's impatient to get going. In front of her Milo moves out, and Zea follows. Just a tap on the accelerator and the thing jumps forward. “Easy, now,” she says, half to the truck and half to herself.
They move slowly though the streets to the back of the square. There’s Peacekeeper vehicles lining the area, boxing in a crowd bigger than Zea’s seen even at the Reaping. Alister pulls in at the far side of the square, Milo behind him, and Zea lines herself up with them. The others leave the vehicles running, so Zea does too, sits idling with her foot on the brake just in case.
The Justice Building is streaked with soot, the windows broken out, surrounded by water and ash. Not a bomb, but a fire. Zea wonders whose job that was. She's so busy looking at the damaged building it takes a minute to notice the stage in front of it. Like for the Reaping. Zea feels cold, despite the summer heat.
As the square fills, a row of Peacekeepers lines up at the back of the stage. A transport, just like the one Alister has idling in front of her, pulls up beside the stage. The back doors open, and Peacekeepers start hauling people out. Zea doesn't recognize the first two, but then—Ester. Ester with her hands tied behind her back, one eye swollen almost shut. Dale, behind her. Bran. And Emmer.
Zea can't breathe.
They're led up to the stage, forced to kneel. Rough sacks placed over their heads. The Peacekeepers step back.
Snow’s face appears on the screen, but Zea can't hear what he's saying. All she sees is Emmer. Her overalls have a hole in the knee. She's been meaning to fix that for weeks.
The line of Peacekeepers raises their weapons. The crack is deafening. The bodies fall. The screen goes blank.
The sound of a revving engine cuts thorough the ringing in Zea’s ears. Milo is driving away. She has to follow.
She feels drunk. Dizzy and sick and stupid, but she puts the truck in gear and follows Milo, follows Alister, drives out of the City and away from the silent, slowly dispersing crowd.
Alister stops at the checkpoint. Talks to the guards, waves them through. Pulls ahead again, speeds up, and Zea’s world shrinks down to Milo’s tail lights in front of her, the whine of the engine, the sinking sun.
They make it back to the campsite before full dark.
Zea lifts her hands from the steering wheel. They're cramping, stiff from gripping so hard for so long. She feels frozen. Then Lucerne steps out from behind the semi, arms crossed and mouth set, stares down Alister until he takes off his helmet. He nods, walks past toward the cave.
Her door opens. It's Milo.
“Zea,” he says, gentler than she's ever heard him. “Come on, we're here.”
Zea finally unfreezes. She rips the helmet off, slides down from the cab, takes a deep shuddering breath and now, finally, the tears come. She reaches for Milo, unthinking, and he pulls her close, one hand on the back of her head. Doesn't say anything, just lets her cry.
She pulls away eventually, scrubs an arm across her eyes, her runny nose. White, rough, Peacekeeper uniform fabric. She shudders, tears at it until she finds the right zippers, buttons, leaves the thing in a heap and runs up the path to the top of the hill.
The light fades, the stars come out, it's wide-open beautiful and it doesn't matter. Zea sits with her back to a tree, her knees drawn up, looking out toward the city and seeing nothing.
Alister comes up after a while. “Zea,” he says, and she looks up. He looks…tired, mostly. Drops down to sit next to her. “You should eat something,” he says. “Get some sleep.”
Zea snorts. “Right,” she says.
They sit in silence. Finally, Zea bursts out, “Why didn't you tell me?”
“Tell you what?”
“That I was going to get them all killed. They didn't deserve that, I didn't—”
“Zea,” Alister says, warning, “we blew up the damn Peacekeeper barracks. Every one of those guys we talked to today? Good chance they’ll be examples to the rest of the Peacekeepers, and it sure won't be any prettier than what happened today.”
“But they’re…” the enemy, Zea wants to say. “Working for the Capitol,” is what she settles for.
“They're still people,” Alister snaps. “Good people, most of them, doing their jobs.” He waits for Zea to look over at him. He holds her gaze, steady. “This is a war. People die.”
She looks away. It's not the same. It isn't.
But maybe it's not as big a difference as she thought.
“Come on,” he says. “Eat something, get some sleep. Always helps.”
Zea sighs, lets him help her up, follows him back to camp.
Durum’s sitting a little apart from the others, back to the cave wall in the dark away from the fire. Zea grabs a ration bar and a bottle of water and sits next to him.
“Zea?” he asks, squinting.
“Yeah,” she says. Sighs. “You heard?”
Durum nods, reaches an arm around her shoulders. “Radio,” he says. “Happened all over, sounds like.”
Zea shivers. Stares toward the fire. “It’s my fault,” she says. “I should’ve known…”
“Should don’t get the wheat cut,” Durum says. “Make the best of it, that’s all you can do.”
Zea rips open the ration bar, scowls at it and takes a bite. “You should’ve warned me,” she mutters.
“What would you have done?” Durum asks.
Zea opens her mouth, shuts it again. Would she have backed out? Maybe. Should she have?
Is what they’re fighting for worth getting people killed?
Why does Emmer’s—why does Emmer matter more than the Peacekeepers they attacked?
Did she really think nobody would get hurt?
She knew there’d be consequences, knew Ester would get in some kind of trouble, but no, she’d never expected this.
Durum just waits. Zea stares down at her hands. “I didn’t think they’d…” she swallows, forces the words out. “Kill them.”
Durum sighs. “I know you didn’t,” he says. Pauses. “Do you remember the riots, in Eleven, during the last Games?”
Zea shrugs. “I heard there were riots, that’s all.”
“Zea, those riots got put down with bullets. Who knows how many people were killed. We’ve had it easy here. Don’t let it fool you.”
Zea looks up. Durum’s watching her, eyes narrowed and searching, trying to see. She sighs. “I just… they didn’t ask for this. They weren’t even involved.”
“You think the kids in the Arena asked to be there?”
Zea shakes her head. There’s a lump in her throat again, tears in her eyes. “They were my friends, Durum,” she says. “Emmer was my girl. What kind of a person does that to their friends?”
Durum leans back against the wall. “It’s not your fault, Zea.”
“Without me they’d still be alive.” Zea snaps. “So how is it not my fault?”
“Without you Milo’d still be here,” Durum says, infuriatingly calm and reasonable.
“Maybe,” Zea says. “Maybe you wouldn’t have got the fertilizer and none of this would’ve happened.”
Durum waits, lets her think about that for a minute. “Yeah,” he says finally. “We needed your help, and yeah maybe we would’ve found another way, but maybe not. We can’t live it over again, so there’s no way to know.”
Zea scowls. She knows she’s acting petulant and childish, but she can’t seem to help it.
“What we’re doing matters,” Durum says. “Means no more kids in the Arena, no more Capitol quotas pushing people too hard, too fast for safety. Means nobody gets hauled up and shot like that just to send a message. And it costs, and it’ll keep costing, and it’s up to us to make sure it’s worth it.”
Zea closes her eyes. Takes a deep breath. Looks down at the ration bar she’s been holding, the bottle of water beside her hip. Takes a bite. Takes a drink.
“You know what my grandpa used to say?” Durum says, a little less serious. “He said back in the war—the Dark Days—they’d say ‘Don’t mourn—Organize.’ Comes from way back.”
Zea raises an eyebrow. “You feel guilty, fine,” Durum goes on. “But we need you, Zea, we need you to take that off your shoulders and put it where it belongs.”
“The Capitol,” Zea says, and Durum nods.
“You put all that guilt on them so instead of beating yourself up you can fight the people who’re really responsible.”
Zea takes another bite. The ration bars never taste good, but today it might as well be dust. She drinks some water, thinking. She’s not sure she can do what Durum wants, not yet. But she can try.
She takes a deep breath, lets it out through pursed lips. Durum smiles at her, like she was still his apprentice and she’d made a clean turn in an uneven field.
She finishes the food and water and stands up. “Thanks,” she says.
“Get some sleep,” Durum says. Zea nods, and heads back to her bedroll.
The radio comes to life mid-afternoon. Wide broadcast, full power from District 13 to cover the whole country.
“Capitol TV is broadcasting live executions in all rebellious districts,” it says, and everyone freezes. Sara goes over to the radio and turns up the volume.
The President’s voice comes on, and Sara tunes it out like always. Then the Thirteen broadcaster comes back, starts reading off the names of the people executed. District 3, District 4, District 5, District 6—
“Fatoumata Diarra, Salif Diarra, Sidi Toure, Jack Dembele…”
There’s some commotion when they get to the District Nine names, but Sara can barely hear it.
Rokia’s mom, everyone from Sal’s shop—except one. Except Matt, and Sara doesn’t even know if she should take that as a good sign.
It’s not just public. It’s personal.
Sara has hated Rokia’s mom ever since she met Rokia, because Mata’s always been an unrepentant addict who couldn’t even manage to give a shit about her kids. But Sal—Sal was an uptight pain in the ass and as loyal to the Capitol as anyone in Panem, and he gave Sara her first job and probably kept Rokia and her girls alive, and the rest of the guys—the Peacekeepers must’ve just rounded up everyone who was at Sal’s and taken them in. And now they’re gone.
Snow and the Capitol don’t know who Sara is—probably, hopefully—but they know Rokia. They know she was involved, and they can’t get to her (thank all that’s good) so they’re going after her friends. Four years of secret meetings in alleys suddenly make perfect sense.
But Sal’s—gone. Matt should have been at the shop, but he wasn’t on the list…could the list be wrong? Was he not there? Are the Peacekeepers keeping him around for some reason?
Can she find out? Should she even try?
Maybe, and probably not, Sara figures pretty quickly. It’ll be hard to track down one person, and the last thing she should be doing is bringing more attention on him. She’ll have to live with not knowing.
Which is hard, when she and Matt and Rokia were Sal’s best workers and his worst pranksters, not to mention best friends for too many years to just forget.
But no, there’s nothing she can do for anyone in Six, so best to focus on what she can do here.
Unfortunately, that’s nothing until Zea and Milo and the PK come back.
Alister. He’s not just some Peacekeeper.
Sara looks around. The three remaining Nines are sitting near the cave opening, close together, heads bent. Sara gets to her feet and goes over.
Lucerne looks up. There are tears on her cheeks, and she’s holding tight to Durum’s hand. She nods at Sara. “Come sit,” she says, patting the ground beside her. Sara does, looks over. Durum looks somber. Virgil looks furious.
Lucerne pats Sara’s leg. “Any of your people on that list?” she asks.
Sara nods. Her voice sounds rough when she answers. “Yeah. Guy I used to work for, couple other guys from his shop. My best friend’s mom.”
“Oh, honey,” Lucerne says. “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
Sara swallows a lump in her throat, shakes her head. “Wasn’t for me,” she says, “My friend’s a Victor from Six. She’s in Eight, but… her mom, Sal’s her uncle, it’s her they want.”
Lucerne nods. “I’m sorry,” she says again.
Sara shrugs, not trusting her voice. She takes a few deep breaths, then asks, “People you know here?”
Virgil stands up, walks out toward the truck. Lucerne sighs. “The others on Zea and Milo’s crew,” she says.
Sara tries to feel sorry, but there’s no room. “Oh,” she says, and it comes out flat and heavy. “I’m sorry.”
Lucerne lets go of Durum’s hand to rub his shoulders. Looks out toward the stream, toward Virgil stalking up the path to the lookout.
“It’s real now,” Lucerne says. “For better or worse, it’s real for all of us.”
They all tense when they hear the engines that evening, but it’s Alister’s transport in the lead, with two pickups behind. Sara’s not sure what to expect, but it’s not Milo holding Zea while she sobs. When Zea runs up the hill, Sara heads over to follow her, until Alister blocks her path.
“Let her go,” he snaps. “I’ll go get her, but she needs a minute.”
Milo walks up to them. “He’s right,” he says, and Sara doesn’t know any of these people but Milo at least knows Zea, so she backs off.
And then Milo walks past them, goes to hug Lucerne and Durum and Virgil in turns, and Sara chose to come out here, knows they needed someone who knew explosives and knew the radios and knew the railroad, but she feels awfully alone.
Sara turns away from the reunion and sees Alister. Who apparently hasn’t noticed she’s looking because instead of the blank face he seems to wear on instinct, he looks exhausted, and sad, and even more out of place than she is.
“Don’t suppose you’ve got any booze in that truck of yours,” Sara asks, joking but not really.
Alister looks at her, sharp until he sees she’s joking. “Don’t we all wish,” he says, turning to lean against the hood.
“I guess you heard?” Sara says, because talking about anything else just seems inane.
Allister sighs. “We saw,” he says.
“Oh, fuck,” Sara says. “Those were—“
“I know,” Alister cuts her off. “I’m just glad she kept it together long enough to get out of there.”
Sara swallows hard. No wonder Zea’s so upset.
She shoves the heels of her hands into her eyes until she sees sparks. It’s too much for one day, way too much.
There’s nothing to say really, so they’re quiet, until Alister pushes himself up to stand and takes a deep breath. “I should go get her,” he says.
Sara nods, and he’s gone.
The others are sitting together, talking in low voices, and Sara should probably join them but, well, she doesn’t. Just goes back to her bedroll and lies down, looking up at the uneven rock above her and wondering where Matt is, where Rokia is and who she’s with, what’s going to happen next and what new horrors are coming.
She’s still there when Zea comes over and lies down. Ceiling inspection seems to be a popular pastime.
Sara looks over. Zea’s face is blotchy and tear-streaked and her eyes are red, her whole face pinched and miserable. “Hey,” Sara says, quiet. Zea looks over at Sara, then away. “I’m sorry about your friends,” she says. It’s inadequate, she knows, but what else is there?
Zea squeezes her eyes closed, her breath hitching. “Emmer and me, we were — I dunno. She was my girl.” Zea’s voice cracks and she pauses, getting herself under control. “And I was out here with you and she—“ Zea stops again, curls up with her back to Sara.
Sara sighs. She doesn’t feel guilty. A few supposed-to-be-fake kisses and adrenaline-fueled affection isn’t worth the trouble. She gets why Zea feels like shit about it, Sara just doesn’t have anything to say.
“It’s not your fault,” she says finally, because she should say something.
Zea laughs, choked and tear-filled. “You and Durum,” she says. “I mean fine, it’s the Capitol’s fault mostly, but if it hadn’t been for me—okay, me and Milo—they’d be fine, so…it’s kinda on me.”
“You didn’t know he’d do this,” Sara says.
“No!” Zea says, “I mean, I guess I knew there’d be trouble, but—not this.”
She turns back toward Sara. “I didn’t know,” she says, trails off.
“Zea,” Sara says, “This is why we’re here.”
“Durum said they shot rioters in Eleven,” Zea says, “Did that happen in Six?”
Sara shrugs. “Not much rioting in Six. But sure, every once in a while they pick up some drug dealer or someone who threw rocks at the Peacekeepers. Not usually so much of a production.”
Zea looks thoughtful. “I’ve always been out,” she says, “Depots don’t get much news and crews get less, I didn’t—“ she stops, sighs. “Sorry,” she adds. “I guess I sound like a dumb hick, but it’s all new to me.”
Sara shrugs one shoulder, difficult to do sideways but whatever. “It’s good,” she says. “You were lucky.”
Zea yawns hugely. She was up and away well before Sara got up, girl must be worn out. “Get some sleep,” Sara says. “You’ll feel better in the morning.”
Zea chuckles at that, but she stretches, gets comfortable. “G’night Sara,” she says.
“G’night,” Sara echoes.
Zea falls asleep before Sara does, but not by much.
Virgil wakes Sara up the next morning. “Radio’s sending something coded. Said D9.”
That wakes her up all the way. She scrambles up toward the radio.
Voice messages, repeating. D3, D8, D6, and then, “D9: The arrow will not pass.”
It repeats twice. Sara looks up at Virgil. “Get everyone up, we’ve got work to do.”
Sara closes her eyes and tries to picture the railroad map.
When she opens them everyone’s looking at her, standing in a rough half-circle.
“We need to disable three lines,” she says. “Ten to Eight and Five to Eight, up north. They’re moving Peacekeepers out of Two towards Eight and Six and those are the quickest lines.”
“They could come through Ten from the South,” Allister says.
“Yeah. That’s the third line.”
Alister looks around. It’s quiet, everyone tense and waiting because somehow he’s become the one in charge. “Okay,” he says, taking a deep breath. “Three teams, one for each line. Zea and Milo and I will drive. Sara, with me, Lucerne with Zea, Virgil with Milo.”
Virgil’s eyebrows shoot up. “You sure you don’t want me or Milo to go with Zea? There’s a lot of weight to haul around.”
Zea laughs. It breaks the tension, especially when Milo and Durum start chuckling too. “Virg, you townie,” Milo says.
“You think I don’t throw around hundred pound sacks same as Milo?” Zea asks. “We’ll be fine.”
Virgil looks a little put out, but he subsides.
“You guys get the south line,” Alister says. “Blow it close to the city—outside the checkpoints but well before the first of the Depots. We’ll need to come back past that line and the further west we have to go the longer we’re out in the open.”
Milo nods. “A nice little explosion close in’ll keep everybody busy,” he says, sarcastic.
“Yep,” Alister goes on. “But wait until we’re well past. They called all the Peacekeepers in to deal with the city, so they’ll just have a few patrols out along the rails and the fence. But as soon as we blow one line they’ll send more patrols up to the northern lines, and we need to get there first.”
“We only have the two long distance radios,” Milo points out. “And one of ‘em should stay here with Durum in case there’s more news.”
Sara bites her lip. The other one’s coming with her because they made her promise, when they gave it to her. They trust these guys, so much as that’s possible, that’s why Durum and Lucerne know the codes and the frequencies but Joe gave both of them to her, because he’s known her since she was eighteen doing ridealongs and he knows what she can do and what she’s willing to do and she promised if he called her, she would be the one answering.
Alister glances at her. “We’ll take the other,” he says, and nobody questions it coming from him. “And we need to agree on a time before we go out.”
“It’ll take a while to get up to those northern lines,” Zea says, quiet. “That’s all the way up in spring wheat country, that’s at least a day from the city.”
Alister nods. “It’ll be faster in these vehicles than hauling machinery,” he says. “I’d guess 10 hours or so.”
Zea tilts her head to one side, considering. Then she glances at Milo, who shrugs. “Yeah, maybe,” Zea says.
“Zea and Lucerne, we will travel together as far as the first line, then Sara and I will go on to the second.”
Zea glances at Sara, takes a deep breath. “Okay.”
Alister doesn’t say anything to Sara, just looks at her and nods. “Let’s get moving,” he says.
Sara had been assembling detonators with Virgil yesterday, before the radio put everything on hold, and he starts loading them into the trucks. Alister and Milo are loading up diesel and fertilizer. Zea looks over, eyes wide.
“Ready?” Sara asks.
Zea laughs weakly. “Scared shitless,” she says, “but what the hell, let’s go make some trouble.”
Sara grins. “That’s the spirit,” she says. She steps up to hug Zea, hoping that’s okay. Zea steps into it, holds Sara tight for a second before letting go.
“Be careful,” Zea says, quiet.
Sara nods. “You too,” she says. Zea takes a deep breath, nods once, and heads for her truck.
Sara should probably be more scared than she is. It’s probably stupid to be practically giddy about this crazy-ass plan. But she’s been waiting for years to hit back at these bastards, and it’s finally time.
She finds Alister checking the fuel tank. “We’re gonna have to stop,” he says. “Let’s just hope the Depot Peacekeepers really were recalled.” Sara shrugs. They were or they weren’t, there’s nothing to do but hope and see what happens.
“Cross that bridge when we get to it,” she says.
One corner of Alister’s mouth lifts slightly. “You’re pretty chipper,” he says, climbing in. Sara goes around, climbs into the passenger seat.
“Ready to do something finally,” she says. It’s surprisingly hard to sit still.
“Relax, we’ve got a lot of driving to do,” Alister says, pulling out. Zea falls in behind, Milo, Virgil and Durum watching solemnly from the cave.
As soon as they’re out of the ravine, Alister tunes the radio to Peacekeeper frequencies. It’s mostly nonsense to Sara, squad numbers and quadrants and whatever else.
“Anything important?” she asks after a few minutes.
Alister shakes his head. “Not for us,” he says. “Our friend Bley and his people seem to be keeping them pretty busy in town.”
“Good,” Sara says.
“They’re mostly worried about the storage,” Alister adds. “Grain and fuel.”
“Useful things to have,” Sara says.
This time Alister looks straight at her, one eyebrow raised. Sara smiles back and tries to look innocent. Finally he shakes his head and looks back at the road ahead.
They swing west, wide of the city. Alister picks up the pace as soon as they’re on pavement, faster than Zea’s ever driven, and the whine of the engine and the rush of the scenery flying past keeps her full attention until she gets used to it.
Lucerne’s sitting ramrod-straight in the passenger seat, watching out the windshield as the scenery goes by. She notices Zea glancing at her and looks over. Smiles, shifts a little.
“It’s good to get out of the city,”Lucerne says, just audible over the engine.
Zea nods. “You were out in the country?” she asks, curious suddenly.
“Oh yes,” Lucerne says. “We were out at the depots, until my husband died—my first husband.”
“Oh,” Zea says, “Oh, I’m sorry.”
Lucerne sighs. “It was a long time ago. Accident with the sprayers, lost a tire and it flipped.”
Zea shudders. The sprayers are tall, bug-like things with wide arms, seats high up and precarious. Lucerne shakes her head. “I wanted to be reassigned to a crew, I drove truck more than he did, but they sent me to the city instead. Inventory for crews in and out. Inside, at a desk, no windows.”
Zea makes a face. Lucerne laughs. “I got used to it I guess, but I never much liked it.”
They drive in silence for a while after that.
“We’ll be pretty well cut off if all this goes right,” Lucerne says, as they cross the southern track.
“Oh?” Zea tries to think where the rail lines go but she’s never seen a full map.
“Well, we’re cutting the lines to anything west of here, and the line to 11 comes off this one, out west a ways. So we’re just linked to 6, and wherever else from there.”
Zea shrugs. “Guess we’ll have to survive without meat,” she says.
Lucerne shakes her head. “I just hope someone’s thought this through,” she says, a little sharp. “Them railroaders know where the lines go but I don’t know that they have a handle on what’ll happen this winter when nobody’s got tesserae because there’s no way to ship ‘em.”
Zea scowls out at the landscape. Corn country, empty now the corn’s tall enough the folks from the depots aren’t out spraying. And Zea’s never really thought about all of this as food, except in the abstract. Sure, District Nine feeds Panem, they all learned that before they were even old enough to go to school. But it’s this corn, and the wheat that needs cutting, and everything else that’ll have to be brought in because it can’t stay in the fields. And if the Capitol’s not making the calls, who is? Is someone going into the management office and making sure the crews are on schedule? Getting someone to fill in where—Zea swallows hard—where Ester’s crew was supposed to be?
Beside her, Lucerne sighs. “Not my job to worry about that, I suppose,” she says, “But I’m doing it anyway.”
They stop at a depot, nine hours after they left. Zea’s not sure why Alister picked this place, but maybe one’s as good as another.
When they drive up to the house, a man comes out holding a pitchfork and waving it toward the cars, as if it’d be any use against Peacekeepers with guns.
Alister usually takes the lead, but Zea makes the executive decision that right now that might not be a good idea. She opens her door as soon as she’s stopped and jumps down.
The man stops. “You’re not Capitol,” he says, frowning.
“No,” Zea says. “None of us are.”
Alister comes up behind her. The man’s eyes narrow—Alister’s not in a Peacekeeper uniform but some things are obvious even without it. But then Lucerne and Sara show up, and he goes back to just looking confused.
“We need fuel,” Zea says. “We’re—“
“Don’t tell me,” the man says, just as Alister says “Zea—“
“Fill up and get out of here,” the man says, and turns and walks inside.
It’s near dark when they reach the first track. Alister pulls straight into a cornfield, so despite being appalled at the destruction, Zea pulls in beside him. The corn’s high enough it reaches to the top of the pickup. Best cover they’re gonna get out here.
They get down, collect between the two vehicles. Zea thinks she can hear water, over the sound of the wind.
“There’s a bridge,” Alister says. “Just down the track.”
“Don’t put it all in one place,” Sara says. “You want to take down the supports, twist up the track as much as you can on either side.”
Zea swallows hard. Lucerne nods, thoughtfully.
“Detonate it and get out,” Alister says. “Don’t wait for us. Go west at least 30 miles before you head south, they’ll be coming up from the city fast and you don’t want to run into anybody.”
Lucerne climbs onto the truck, starts pulling out detonators. Zea hesitates, steps toward Sara. “Good luck,” she says, hugging her and trying not to think of it as the last time.
“Thanks,” Sara says, and she’s smiling, eyes sparkling with excitement. “See you back at camp.”
Zea nods, heads back to see how she can help.
Once they leave the others, Alister speeds up. Sara’d thought they’d been going fast before—sure, not compared to the passenger trains but a lot faster than she’s ever gone in a car. But now Alister’s damn near flying, brows furrowed in concentration. He only slows down just before the tracks.
“How’d you know it was here?” Sara asks, because she couldn’t see anything until they were nearly on top of it.
“Odometer,” Alister says, pointing to something in the controls. “It’s 127 miles between the tracks.”
Sara looks at the clock. “So we’ve been going a hundred miles an hour?”
Alister looks pleased with himself. If you know what to look for, and Sara’s starting to learn the signs. “Yeah,” he says. Sara turns on the radio, scans through the frequencies. They pick up something faint on one of the Peacekeeper channels. Alister leans forward and listens for a minute, then shakes his head.
“They’re sending people. We’ll have time, but let’s get moving.”
There’s a bridge here too, not big but it’s as good a target as they’re gonna get. Sara’s been tracking this kind of thing for years now, but this wasn’t her route. Alister must’ve been keeping track himself.
Detonators, explosives, wiring—Sara’s always been good with wiring, when she worked at Sal’s Rokia would make her do the fiddly soldering jobs. Her fingers don’t falter, but Sara does bite her lip. Sal would hate that she’s doing this. Always said the seedier parts of District Six were all the evidence anyone could want that Capitol control was necessary. And he’d worked his way up from nothing and now he has good Capitol contracts, so what was holding anyone else back?
Nobody ever argued, not really. No point looking for trouble. But Sara’d always rolled her eyes in private. And after Rokia, well, it’d taken a hell of a lot of willpower not to go set something on fire just for the satisfaction it’d bring.
Good things come to those who wait, Mom always said. Sara smiles to herself, and packs the fuel in under the rails.
Alister’s as fast as she is, they meet back at the truck less than an hour later with six charges ready to go. Alister backs the truck away, while Sara unrolls the wire to what he decides is a safe distance. She hands him the wires and he opens the hood. Clips one wire to the battery, looks over at her.
She’s watching when everything blows, 1-2-3-4-5-6 fast as you can say it. Sal would hate it but it’s for him anyway, for him and for Sidi and for Rokia and for all of Panem and for Sara herself, and it’s fucking gorgeous.
Her ears are ringing, but she can hear Alister yell, “Come on, let’s go,” and she doesn’t even have her door closed when he starts moving.
They race west, along the access road. Sara keeps checking the radio but the only signal’s the one they found before, getting fainter as they go. So they’re in the clear for now.
They pass a Depot, and Alister turns south. Slows down again and says “Check for signals, we’re close to the tracks.”
She’s been checking, she’s not stupid, but she doesn’t say anything, just turns the dial. “There,” Alister says, and Sara stops. Not one of the standard bands, and it sounds like static, but then she hears it. Faint clicks she wouldn’t notice—hadn’t noticed, and Alister leans forward to hear, closes his eyes.
Sara tries to breathe quietly.
Alister sits up. “Increased patrols on the lines. Shoot intruders on sight. They’re sending Peacekeepers and track maintenance from Ten. Get that line open and keep it that way.”
He puts the truck in gear, flies over the tracks and keeps going south.
Sara keeps scanning the radio, until after a few hours something comes clear. Alister slows down, flips off his headlights, but doesn’t stop.
“Patrols?” Sara asks, because that’s what it sounds like but she can’t be sure.
Alister nods. She hears a locomotive code. And a time. 0338 at the 10-11 junction.
“They’re getting here that fast?” she whispers. Alister nods, still concentrating but not on the radio. Looking outside.
Then he looks over at her. “Do you know how to make a pressure detonator?” he asks.
Sara tries to remember. Track deflects, closes a circuit… “Yeah, I think so,” she says.
“Good. Better to have two, and we haven’t got much time.”
Sara grins. Alister shakes his head, but he looks amused.
It’s not till she’s finished the detonator and Alister’s checking it that she thinks about the guys on the engine. This thing she just made will trigger an explosion as soon as the weight of the train gets to it. That means it’s those guys who’ll take the brunt of it. They don’t have nearly enough explosives to blow up the whole engine, but it’s not going to be pretty. But they need to stop this train, slow down repairs, and a derailment’s harder to fix than just replacing a section of track. They’re here. It’s the right thing to do.
Alister looks up from the wires. “Looks good,” he says. “Now let’s see if we can sneak through between patrols.”
They do. Alister pulls the truck into a cornfield on the other side, and they wait. A truck goes past, Peacekeepers lining both sides, rifles pointing outwards, ready to fire. Alister hugs the edge of the field, looks up and down, and they run. Alister places the detonators under the tracks, while Sara digs in two sacks of fuel further down. Alister comes over as she’s finishing, helps shovel gravel back over. It wouldn’t stand up in daylight, but the moon’s only half full, and the track’s too high from the road for the headlights to really hit it.
And anyway, it’s the best they can do, because there’s headlights out near the horizon, coming toward them fast.
They duck into the cornfield, running up the rows until Alister grabs her hand and pulls her down, hard. He rolls over so he’s flat on his stomach, head down, and Sara follows. She hears, more than sees, the truck roll past, but when the sound’s faded and the headlights disappeared, she sits up.
“What was that for?” she asks, annoyed, trying to brush dirt off and really only spreading it around. “We were way far in.”
Alister sighs. Goes around to stand behind her, grabs her shoulders and points them toward the tracks. “Straight rows,” he says, as though she’s a particularly dull 12 year old. “Easy to see down when they’re lined up.”
He turns and walks toward the truck without looking to see if Sara’s coming.
She glares at his back for a minute, then sighs and follows.
Alister keeps his lights off for the first few miles after that, before apparently deciding that speed is better than stealth and taking off at his usual breakneck pace, headlights bouncing when they hit a pothole. Sara watches the clock as she scans with the radio, makes sure that when the train hits those detonators they’re ready.
“What the fuck!” is the first thing they hear clearly, right around 4:00. Followed by requests for medics and overlapping orders for sending out patrols, and Alister speeds up. They’re too far away to hear the explosion, but the confusion on the radio is almost as good.
Sara keeps listening. Once the initial chaos has subsided, it gets a lot quieter, patrols checking in and requests to send to headquarters and most of it too much jargon for Sara to really understand.
It’s getting light by the time they reach the track toward camp. Light enough Sara can see Zea, pacing by the stream, and Milo running down the path from the hilltop lookout. Sara grins, and she thinks Alister’s shoulders relax a little. They pull in, hop down, and Alister looks totally shocked when Milo careens into him, wraps him in a bear hug.
“Hell yeah,” Milo says, stepping back. “You too,” he says, hugs Sara. “You guys have some kinda balls—I assume that was you just now?”
“Yep,” Sara says, still grinning. “That was us.”
Milo’s shaking his head. Alister, having recovered his usual dignity, asks, “Everything else according to plan?”
Zea comes up behind them, laughing a little. “No problem,” she says. She steps up next to Sara, and Sara turns to hug her. Zea holds tight for a second, then lets out a long breath. “You guys had us worried, we thought you’d be here by now, and then with all the commotion…” Zea shrugs. “Anyway welcome back, Lucerne says come eat something and get some sleep.”
They all follow Zea back. Lucerne’s made actual food somehow, and it smells amazing. “Durum caught us a rabbit,” Lucerne says, dishing out some kind of soup. “I’m sick of those ration bars and I’m sure you are too.”
Alister takes his bowl and starts to head outside. “Son, come in here and sit down,” Lucerne says, and Alister’s usually the one with the voice that makes you do what he’s telling you before you’ve even heard it, but Lucerne’s got a pretty good version of her own. Alister turns around, one eyebrow raised. Lucerne just stares him down until he shakes his head and sits, back to the stone wall.
Chapter 2: Every night a world created
Zea wakes up, slowly for once, nobody shaking her awake to give her something else to do. It’s dim here in the back of the cave, hard to tell time, but she’s pretty sure she slept a while.
She sits up and looks around. Milo’s asleep, and Lucerne, and other than them the place is empty. Zea stands up, stretches, her fingers brushing the low ceiling, and heads out.
Virgil’s sitting at the mouth of the cave, his injured leg stretched out in front of him, newly bandaged.
“You okay?” Zea asks.
Virgil shrugs. “Guess I ran around on it too much last night, started bleeding again. The Peacekeeper fixed it up.”
Zea nods, looks around absently. “Guess there’s probably no chance of coffee?”
Virgil chuckles. “Nah, there’s ration bars and water and that’s about it.”
Zea sighs, goes over to the box of bars and pulls one out. “This is gonna get old fast,” she says. Then bites her lip because she shouldn’t be complaining about boring food, that’s not even so different from long days cutting. She’s alive, more or less safe, and that ought to be enough.
Still. Ration bars taste like they’re made from wheat chaff and mud. Hell, maybe they are.
“Where’s the others?” she asks, chewing resignedly.
“Alister and Sara are on watch. Durum’s setting snares, maybe he’ll get lucky and we’ll have real food again.”
“Here’s hoping,” Zea says. “I didn’t know he could do that.”
Virgil shrugs. “Says he used to do it when he was a kid, out in the Depots. Nobody much cared since the rabbits got into the grain otherwise.”
“Sit, Zea,” Virgil says. “There’s nothing to do just now, and you’re making me antsy.”
Zea stops pacing. Hadn’t realized she’d started. She sits down next to Virgil and starts pulling her hair out of the braid it’s been in since—
“What day is it?” she asks.
Virgil chuckles. “Saturday,” he says.
“We got here…Thursday?”
“Yeah, Thursday morning.”
“Damn.” Zea stares out past the trucks, down the road toward the rest of the world. It feels like no time at all and yet the world’s completely changed.
“I can’t believe they’re dead,” Zea says, suddenly.
Virgil sighs, feels around for a stone, flings it at the opposite wall. It ricochets off, and Zea follows it till it lands in the grass.
“Takes a while,” he says. “Find yourself thinking you’ll see them, thinking you wanna tell ‘em something.” He shrugs. “Takes time.”
Zea doesn’t ask how he knows, and he doesn’t say.
They’d be…north a ways by now. Past Platte, out west towards Ten maybe, the way they were last year. High Plains country, big skies and wide open and nothing breaking the horizon but the elevators at the Depots, few and far between. This little ravine suddenly feels too narrow, too closed in. She’s in the wrong place, with the wrong people, doing all the wrong things, and Zea’s used to change, used to moving on just about every day, but there was always a pattern, and a crew, and a plan. If there’s a plan now Zea sure doesn’t know it.
Doesn’t know if anybody does. If anyone’s noticed that war or no war, the sun still comes up in the east and people’ve still gotta eat.
Zea’s never much worried about the rest of Panem. Never much thought about how it all ran and what kept it going. Depot schooling was haphazard, so long as kids could read equipment manuals, calculate some spreading rates maybe, nobody much bothered about the rest. Zea reads better than most people, legacy of Mom’s collection of whatever books she could get off crews passing through, trade for something she’d already read or a loaf of homemade bread or a few cabbages from the garden.
Zea never felt the lack, really, wasn’t like she was going to get anywhere besides up and down the district, spring to fall, planting and harvesting. Now she wonders. The world seems a lot bigger just now, even if she can only see to the other side of the stream.
Where Durum’s picking his way across, squinting in the light.
He waves, waits till he’s close enough not to have to yell to say “G’morning, sleepyhead.” He laughs, looking up at the sky. Sun’s well past noon.
“Had a pretty busy night,” Zea says. “Don’t know if you heard.”
“Oh sure,” Durum says. “Folks from Eight called down to say thanks. Say they’ll have the district, soon enough. Sixes sent ‘em some of that fertilizer you stole, they’ll keep the track down a while with that.”
That makes Zea smile. They did something out here that mattered to folks in Eight. That’s worth something, anyway.
Worth getting her crew killed over?
How can anyone ever know that?
“Sounds like we’ve got off easy so far though,” Durum says, turning solemn. “Lot of fighting in Six and Eight, and they firebombed Twelve.”
Zea blinks. “What do you mean, firebombed Twelve?”
“It’s gone,” Durum says. Shakes his head. “Couple hundred people got taken to Thirteen.”
“Thirteen?” Zea asks, confused.
“You didn’t tell her?” Virgil asks.
“Guess not,” Durum says. “Zea, Thirteen’s got people and weapons and hovercraft and everything. They’re helping us take out the Capitol.”
As if she wasn’t confused enough already. “You didn’t tell me,” she says.
Durum shrugs, comes to sit next to her. “Guess it never came up,” he says.
“Never came up!” Zea’s annoyed now. “What else haven’t you told me? Why don’t you tell me anything?”
“Hey now, girlen,” Durum says, soothing, but Zea doesn’t want to be babied. Not anymore.
“I’m not your kid,” Zea snaps. “You gotta quit keeping secrets. I want the whole story.”
“No,” Virgil says, “You don’t.”
Zea scrambles to her feet and strides to the other side of the cave. Turns around to glare down at the two men. Smug assholes. “I do,” she says. “What’s so bad you don’t want me to know?”
“Zea, it’s a war,” Durum says, quiet. “There’s body counts. There’s strategy. None of us know more than we have to, it’s too dangerous.”
“Dangerous? How’s knowing what people are planning dangerous?”
“What’d’ve happened if you’d got picked up in town the other day?” Durum asks, still quiet and reasonable.
“I’d’ve got shot like Emmer and them.”
“Maybe. They’d’ve made you tell them everything you knew about us first, though.”
“And before you say you wouldn’t tell them,” Virgil adds, his voice icy and clipped, “You oughta know the guy we had talking to railroaders before you came on got found in an alley without an intact bone in his hands.” His eyes bore into hers. “He didn’t tell them anything, because I’m here talking to you. But nobody’d blame him if he had.”
Zea shivers. Knots her hands behind her back without really thinking about it. “You don’t trust me?” she says, but most of the anger’s drained away.
“Course we trust you,” Durum says. “That’s why you’re here. We just don’t take risks we don’t have to.”
“So why’re you telling me now?”
“Because it’s not secret anymore, they’re out helping in Six and Eight. Hovercraft are, anyway.”
“Why there and not here?” Zea asks. “Be a lot easier to bomb rail lines from hovercraft rather than driving all damn day.”
Durum smiles a little. “They’re closer to Eight and Six, easy enough to get out and back, outrun the Capitol. They get caught out in the middle of the plains, well, harder to get home. Hovercraft are harder to replace than trucks.”
“And we’re easier to replace than pilots,” Virgil says. “Though they won’t say that, doesn’t sound so nice.”
Zea stares between them. Looks down at the ground, up at the roof of the cave, across the stream, and it’s trees and walls and rock and she can’t see.
“I’m going up the hill,” she says, turns and walks out.
As soon as she crests the hill, catches sight of the long horizon—even if it is uneven, too many hills, too many trees—she feels herself relax a little. It might be unfamiliar, all of it, but at least here she can see. She stops, takes deep breaths one after another, then walks forward.
A few paces further she heads a whistle from over her head and looks up. Sara’s grinning down at her from a perch high up in a tree, and Zea can’t help smiling back.
“Hey there,” she says.
“Come on up,” Sara calls, “Weather’s great.”
Zea stares at the tree. They had an old shade tree at one of the Depots growing up, but it’s been years since Zea climbed anything more than a ladder.
She finally manages to haul herself onto a low branch, start making her way up. Sara’s laughing when Zea gets up, breathing fast. Zea scowls, halfheartedly, and finds a more or less comfortable perch.
“You just get up?” Sara asks, glancing at Zea and then back out over the landscape.
“Yeah,” Zea says. “You?”
“Couple hours ago,” Sara says. “Lucerne and Milo needed a break.”
Zea nods absently. Then, curious, asks, “Did you know about District Thirteen?”
“Sure,” Sara says. “It’s their radio codes we’re using.”
“Nobody told me,” Zea says, and she hates how whiny it sounds when she says it out loud but there it is.
Sara looks over again, shrugs one shoulder. “You didn’t have to know,” she says. “I didn’t know till Joe taught me the radio.”
“It didn’t bug you?” Zea asks, “Not knowing before?”
“I’m used to people having secrets,” Sara says, and there’s a bitter edge there Zea doesn’t understand and doesn’t want to push.
Zea sighs. “Just seems like I’m the last one to know anything,” she grumbles.
Sara reaches over and squeezes her shoulder. “It’s okay,” she says. “I get it, it’s nice to finally not be the rookie.”
Zea raises an eyebrow. “I’m the youngest one on my rail crew,” Sara says. “The jokes can get a little old.”
Zea shifts a little. “Emmer was newest on our crew,” she says quietly.
Sara takes a deep breath, blows out through pursed lips. “Yeah,” she says. It’s quiet for a minute before she starts again, hesitant. “They picked up some folks I knew in Six. People I used to work with.”
Zea looks over, surprised, then embarrassed for being surprised, for being so caught up in herself she hadn’t asked. “I’m sorry,” she says, not knowing what else to say.
Sara looks over, mouth lifting at one corner. “A whole district got firebombed, it’s hard to feel too sorry for myself,” she says. Tilts her head a little. “Still. It’s different when it’s personal.”
Zea nods. Squints out toward the horizon, north to where things flatten out. Searching, she’s just not sure for what. Waiting for the world to make sense again. She has a feeling that might take a while.
Alister calls Sara down late in the afternoon. Zea stays put, looking out over the surroundings, keeping herself alert trying to find every road in and out. Virgil makes his way up, finds a lookout spot somewhere, presumably.
It’s quiet. Quiet and still, breeze just tickling Zea’s cheeks. Clear skies here, a few clouds south and east but nothing that’ll come their way—and then she sees it. Far out to the northwest, moving fast, three hovercraft streaking across the sky.
“Virgil!” she calls.
“Yeah, I see ‘em,” Virgil calls back. “C’mon, let’s make sure things’re hidden as best we can.”
Zea scrambles down, drops from high enough her ankles sting, follows Virgil down the narrow path.
“Hovercraft!” Virgil calls once the camp’s in sight. Alister and Sara duck out of the cave, followed by Milo and Lucerne. They’ve covered the trucks with burlap, but apparently since Zea left they’ve been out cutting branches too, because Sara and Milo are scrambling up onto the cars and pulling leafy limbs up for an extra level of cover.
Zea and Virgil reach the camp, and Zea heads over to help. Virgil’s limping again, cursing and slowing.
“We got this,” Milo says, looking at Virgil. “Go sit.”
Virgil scowls, but heads for the cave. Zea helps Lucerne pass branches up to the top of the semi, where Sara’s spreading stuff out. It isn’t long before they run out, and Sara scrambles down.
They head for the cave, breathless, and wait to hear or see anything to tell them the hovercraft are getting closer. It doesn’t come. “Guess they’re not coming this way,” Zea says, after a bit.
“Or they’re cloaked,” Alister says. “Don’t know why they weren’t.”
Lucerne laughs, “They got nothing to worry about out here,” she says. “Better to remind us district folks they’ve got all the power. They’re showing off.”
Alister shakes his head slowly. “I guess,” he says, dubious. He turns toward Zea. “Where did you see them?”
“Northwest,” she says. “Could’ve been over by the rail lines.”
He nods. “They’re probably patrolling by air now,” he says. “Plus it’s faster to bring things in to fix the lines that way.” He pauses. “You don’t know what kind of hovercraft they were, do you?”
Zea shakes her head. “They don’t teach us that out here.”
Alister shakes his head. “Well, I don’t know, but we better stay quiet anyway. Zea, Virgil, you head back up.”
Zea nods, looks over at Virgil, who’s bleeding again. Alister looks over at the same time, sighs. “Okay, Zea, you head up, Virgil needs to quit running around and messing up my stitches.” There’s a hint of amused aggravation there, instead of the usual calm authority. Maybe he has a personality after all.
Zea’s coming back to camp the next evening after another watch shift with Virgil, when she hears the argument. Virgil glances over at her and raises an eyebrow. They walk a little quicker until they get to the mouth of the cave.
“I’m telling you, it’s too risky,” Milo’s saying, hands on hips.
Lucerne’s right up in his face, one finger jabbing him in the chest. “You think we’re going to be able to just sneak in and out of the City every time we need food and fuel? You think they aren’t gonna notice?”
Alister’s standing to one side, watching. Sara’s sitting a little ways away, looking amused.
Milo glares. “You think you can just walk up to somebody and get them to join the rebellion? What kinda fantasy world are you living in?”
“Worked for you, didn’t it?” Lucerne snaps. “Worked for Zea.”
“You knew us!” Milo yells. “This is some Depot family you never met!”
Lucerne shakes her head. “Have a little faith,” she says. “People are joining all over. Eleven’s ours, so’s Eight, half of Six is on fire, the city here’s giving the Peacekeepers all they can handle and weren’t half those guys with us to start.”
Milo glares. “And if they run to the PKs?”
Lucerne shrugs. “Then they’ll be looking for us. Which they are already. But if they don’t, we have a sure supply for as long as those diesel tanks last, and we’re not running equipment so it’ll take a while.”
Milo steps back, runs a hand through his hair. Alister takes advantage of the silence. “It seems to me it’s worth the risk,” he says. He looks over to Zea and Virgil. “Zea, why don’t you go along? It’s about the least intimidating we can be.”
Zea feels a little insulted at that, and it apparently shows enough to make Milo grin at her. “Don’t worry,” he says, slapping her on the back, “We know better.”
Zea gives him a flat look. It’s hard to tell whether Milo’s being sarcastic or patronizing or both. He shakes his head, chuckles. “Okay, okay,” he says, “Have it your way.”
Lucerne nods. “Then it’s settled. C’mon Zea, let’s go.”
It’s one thing to agree with Lucerne that this is what they should do—and Zea does agree—but it’s quite another to drive up to a Depot in a stolen Peacekeeper pickup and hop down to stand in a deserted yard, hoping there’s not a gun pointed at her head.
Lucerne whistles, piercing in the silence, and pretty soon the door of the house opens and a man walks out, sun-lined skin, grey hair under a cap. He comes down the steps toward them and stops several paces away.
“Who’re you and what’re you doing here?” he asks, wary.
Lucerne steps forward. The man crosses his arms, looks at her. “I’m Lucerne,” she says, “And this here’s Zea. We’re looking for some fuel, something to eat.”
“Where’d you come from?” he asks, impassive.
“Well,” Lucerne says, takes a deep breath. Zea bites her lip and hopes. “We’ve been staying out in the hills, making trouble for the Capitol. Us and some friends.”
The man’s eyebrows go up, the only part of him that moves. “That right?”
“Yep,” Lucerne says.
He glances back at the house. “It’s just me’n my brother out here now,” he says. “Peacekeepers got called up to the city. Doesn’t seem like anyone’ll notice if we let you use that diesel instead of waiting for the harvest crews.”
“We’d be thankful,” Lucerne says.
“And there’s not much in them grain bins, but there’s a little. Corn and beans.”
“Doesn’t have to feed a whole district,” Lucerne says. “We’ll make do.”
“My daddy used to run a Depot, back when that meant something,” the man says, thoughtful. “He’d be glad to see all this.”
“My folks too,” Lucerne says, “Dad got killed in the war but my mama, she taught me a thing or two.”
The man nods, as if that’s what he was waiting for. “Lemme get my brother,” he says. “Tanks’re behind the barn.”
Zea takes a deep breath, lets it out. Lucerne turns toward her and smiles. “See now,” she says, “that wasn’t so hard.”
By the time Zea’s pulled the truck around, the brothers are filling sacks. Corn and beans, it won’t be exciting but it’ll be better than the dwindling supply of ration bars. Zea fills the truck’s tank, the two barrels loaded in back, then helps load sacks.
Lucerne steps forward to shake hands when they’ve finished. “I’m Eldon,” their host says. “And my brother’s Clarence.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Lucerne says.
Zea steps forward, shakes hands. “Thanks so much,” she says.
“You’re welcome,” Eldon says. “Come on back if you need more.”
“You take care now,” Lucerne says, going around the truck to climb in.
Zea hops up into the driver’s seat, starts the engine. Full tank, feels good.
Lucerne waves as they drive away, then looks out toward the horizon. “See,” she says, “Way I figure, nobody much loves the Capitol, they just gotta get over being scared.”
Zea smiles. “Easier said than done,” she says.
“Most things are,” Lucerne shoots back. “Anything worth doing sure is.”
“Guess so,” Zea says, and concentrates on finding the overgrown road back toward camp.
Sara stretches, rolls her shoulders, sits back against the base of a tree, looking east. The sun’s hot on her back and it’s a struggle not to get drowsy. She’s got the radio next to her, long antenna stretched into the trees, on low. It’s a lot of nonsense, mostly, coded messages disguised as gibberish. A few clear sentences: more bombings in Eight, something about the Mockingjay and making propos they’re managing to broadcast into the districts. Sara sighs. If people aren’t pissed off already, how’s a kid in a costume gonna change their minds? They play the audio, a little later, the girl snarling and furious, and sure, it’s nice to hear someone else as mad as she is, but Sara’s been wanting to set shit on fire for years now. Welcome to the club, kid.
And then there’s a blinking light on the box, which means someone’s calling her on the coded channel. She flips over, and it’s D-9 repeating, calling. So she signals back D-9 and Sara, and waits.
Intercepted signal. Train leaving D-2 00h destination D-6.
Copy Sara signals back, half-smiling. Will intercept.
Much obliged comes back, clear, they don’t have codes for pleasantries.
Joe? Sara asks, because that sounds like him.
Yep. Take care. Sara smiles.
Will do. D-9 out.
So Joe’s still out there, tracking train movements and everything else. Good to know.
She heads over to find Alister, who’s pacing, watching toward the northwest. Toward the tracks.
“We got an assignment,” Sara says, trying to sound serious.
Alister raises one eyebrow. “Do we now?” he asks.
“Train coming through leaving Two at midnight. We’re supposed to keep it from getting to Six.”
Alister nods, checks his watch. “Head down, send Lucerne and Zea up, we’ll take Milo with us.”
Sara can’t help grinning. Alister shakes his head. She heads down the hill.
Milo and Lucerne are waiting, ready to head up for their shift. “Milo, you stay for a minute. Zea, can you go up with Lucerne?”
“Sure,” Zea says, “What’s up?”
Sara looks at Milo when she answers. “We got a train to stop tonight. Me and Alister and Milo’re gonna head out later.”
She glances over at Zea, who’s trying not to look nervous. “He’ll come up in a bit, but Alister wants to talk first.”
Zea nods. Lucerne goes over, puts a hand on her shoulder and they head up the hill.
Alister comes down a minute later. He goes to the transport, opens a compartment and takes out a map. “Come on,” he says, “Let’s see where we’re going.”
Sara’s seen railroad maps before, but never anything this detailed. She’d started making her own, marking bridges and tunnels, until Keita’d found it and set it on fire. Since then she’s built the map in her head, drawing it out in sections and then burning them when she was done. This map, when Alister unfolds it, is as wide as her outstretched arms, and only covers 9 and 10. Everything’s marked, including any number of things Sara can’t recognize.
She can find the tracks though, and the river, the stretch from the 10-11 junction to the City that runs nearest them. Alister points to a spot south of the tracks. “This is us,” he says. “We can get across the river here or here,” he points to places marked with bridges, “Or we can try to just drive through, there’s a few shallow spots, but I think for now we can use the bridges.”
Sara looks. “Isn’t this where we came the other night?” she asks.
Alister looks at the map, then at her. “It is,” he says.
“So probably we should go somewhere else,” Milo adds. “They’ll be watching right there.”
“Yes,” Alister says. He looks pleased. “Probably out here is our best bet.”
“That even a road?” Milo asks. “Who’d need to come out here?”
“It’s old,” Alister says. “I don’t know.”
Durum laughs, and Sara jumps. She hadn’t heard him coming. “Used to be folks living out here. Some logging, some tobacco, little corn in the river bottoms.” He squints down at the map. “Kicked all the people out, didn’t bother destroying the roads. Some of the last holdouts, up in here, I heard there was folks sneaking in and out till the first Quarter Quell.”
Alister looks thoughtful. “I guess they kept the roads for patrols, until they got everybody out.”
“Sure,” Durum says. “And in case they wanna get in here again, them bottomlands are good soil.”
Milo nods, serious, and Sara starts to wonder what makes dirt good before deciding she’s not actually that interested.
“Alright,” Alister says. “We’ll go late tonight. Sara and I will prepare some pressure detonators and the explosives. Milo, you’re on watch, send Zea back.”
When Milo comes back at midnight they’re ready. Zea hugs Milo, turns to Sara with a lopsided smile. “Be careful,” she says, pulling Sara close, warm in the cool night air.
Sara smiles as she steps back, brushes stray hair away from Zea’s face. “I will,” she says. “Don’t worry.”
Zea gives her a flat look, shakes her head a little.
Virgil waves, heads up the hill, and Zea follows.
“You take care now,” Lucerne says, stern, looking at each of them in turn. “I’ll see you soon.” It’s a command, more than anything. She holds Alister’s eyes, and he nods.
“Come on,” Sara says, impatient, “Let’s get going.”
Alister leaves the headlights off as he drives, on narrow overgrown roads Sara’s never seen. It’s silent except for the quiet hiss of static on the radio, waiting for any signal. Alister’s bent forward over the steering wheel, watching carefully in the dark. When they get near the river he stops. “I just want to take a look,” he says, “Stay here.”
He reaches across Sara to open a compartment in the dash, pulls out a pair of binoculars. Then he climbs out, walks forward a little ways to look, waits a few minutes, then turns around, climbs back behind the wheel. “Looks clear,” he says.
“You weren’t this worried last time,” Sara says, curious.
“They’ve had time to plan by now,” Alister replies, short. “They don’t know where we’re coming from, but the river’s the bottleneck from the south.” He pauses as they rumble over the bridge. It’s a low, unimpressive thing over a muddy little river, and Sara doesn’t really see how it’s so dangerous. “If it were me I’d have people watching in through here,” Alister continues, as they snake back under the trees. “They’re slow.”
“We did blow a bunch of ‘em up,” Milo says, sarcastic. “Maybe we got lucky and got rid of whoever’s the brains of the operation.”
It’s dark, but Sara’s sitting right next to him so she can see Alister’s jaw clench. Still, his voice stays level when he speaks. “Maybe so.”
The trees come right up to the tracks here. Alister stops well back, and they get out. Alister puts a finger to his lips for quiet, mouths “stay here,” and slips forward. Sara tries to stand still, but it’s hard—they’re here, she wants to get going. Milo drops a hand to her shoulder, heavy, and shakes his head.
Alister comes back, nods, and they unload detonators, shovels, a couple sacks of explosives. When they get to the edge of the woods they stop again. Just up a rise are the tracks, the access road on the other side. They wait until a truck goes past, bright lights glaring above their heads, but they’re hidden by the track embankment and the slope.
“Go,” Alister says, once the truck’s gone. They dig in, set explosives, and Sara starts wiring the detonators while Alister and Milo shift the gravel back over for some kind of concealment. She steps back once she’s done, and Alister ducks forward to check.
“They’re fine,” Sara says. “Let’s go!”
Alister takes his time checking anyway, then steps back and nods, and they duck back into the woods and back to the truck. She knows they have to leave, but Sara still wishes she could stay to watch. See the thing blow, see the train jump the track, slide down the hill. She can imagine it. But she’d still like to see it.
Alister is just as careful coming back, stops again to check the bridge, keeps his lights off, driving by moonlight. Sara keeps checking the clock. They left a little after the train did, and it might be going 200 miles an hour where they’re going thirty, but it’s got a thousand miles to travel and they’ve got seventy. By the time they’ve planted the explosives the train will be halfway through District Ten. When they’ve crossed the bridge, it’ll be crossing into District Nine. They’ll be back at camp before it hits their trap.
Except apparently the train’s in a hurry because it’s not quite five and they’re still fifteen miles from camp when the emergency frequency bursts into life. Milo looks over at Sara and they grin, pleased. Alister speeds up as it gets lighter, doesn’t take his eyes off the road until they’re pulling into camp. “Come on, let’s get this thing covered,” he says, still solemn, and it’s not until they’ve tossed burlap and cut branches over that he seems to relax a bit.
Durum’s sitting next to the radio, and he smiles as they come up. “Well done,” he says. “C’mon and eat something, tell me all about it.”
Alister stretches his arms to the ceiling, rolls his neck, but doesn’t say anything, so Milo starts. “Took us a couple hours to get there,” he says, “Alister here’s a good driver for not using his lights.”
“Lucky for you it’s near full moon,” Durum says, looking over. Alister grants the point with a tilt of his head.
“It’s a good spot, too,” Sara chimes in. “On a hill like that it’ll be even harder to move the cars that jumped the track.”
Durum nods, considering. “Well, good work,” he says, turning to dish food into bowls. “This isn’t exciting, but it’ll have to do,” he says, passing them around.
It’s something like soup, corn and beans and water, a little of whatever creature Durum’s managed to catch for some kind of flavor. Not exciting, but Sara’s hungry, so it’ll do.
As they’re finishing, Lucerne gets up. “Sorry, Lucy, did we wake you up?” Durum asks.
She shakes her head, yawns. “Nah, don’t worry about it,” she says, coming over. “I see you all made it back okay,” she adds.
“Yep,” Sara says. “Worked great, so far as the radio can tell us.”
“Good,” she says, walks past them to look around.
“C’mon, Sara,” Alister says, getting up slowly. “We’re on watch.”
Lucerne glares at him. “You been driving all night, boy, you need your sleep.”
“I’m fine,” Alister says. “We’ve all been up, no point messing up everybody’s schedule.”
Lucerne looks at Sara, who shrugs. “I won’t sleep anyway,” she says. “I wanna keep an ear out for damage reports.”
“See?” Alister says.
“Nope,” Lucerne doesn’t raise her voice. She doesn’t have to. “They just rode along, you were driving. Don’t you try telling me it’s the same thing.”
Alister stares at her, like she’s stumped him.
“You look beat,” Lucerne continues, “You were up early yesterday and you ain’t slept since. I’ll go with Sara, you get some sleep.”
Alister opens his mouth, closes it. “Fine,” he snaps. “Wake me up in a few hours, I’ll take over.”
Lucerne nods. “Good. Come on Sara.”
Sara follows her out, trying to keep a straight face. By the absolutely acid glare she gets from Alister, she doesn’t quite manage.
Chapter 3: Every little beaten strike
That "canon-typical violence" tag definitely applies to this chapter.
It's strange what can start to seem normal. Camping out in a cave. Sneaking out for supplies. Waiting for Alister and Sara and this time Virgil to set explosives under the railroad tracks. Zea has watch at six so she should be sleeping, but all the little noises that she usually ignores seem loud and threatening, and she keeps jerking awake in a panic without knowing which totally normal thing woke her up.
So of course the second she hears the truck’s engine she's wide awake, and may as well go see what's going on.
Lucerne’s come down from lookout duty, too, meets the others at the truck as they walk back toward the cave. Virgil looks tired, Alister she can't ever tell, and Sara… Sara looks happy. It's four o'clock in the damn morning and they've been out setting explosives where they'll get shot if they're seen, and Sara looks like she's having the time of her life.
Lucerne’s taking with Alister in low voices, until they reach the mouth of the cave and he ducks in. No fight this time, apparently, he just heads for his bedroll. Virgil follows, but Sara sees Zea off to one side and smiles, heads over and knocks their shoulders.
“What're you doing up?” Sara asks.
“Couldn't sleep. Worried about you, I guess.”
Sara laughs. “Aw, we’re fine,” she says. “No need to worry, it was all very boring.”
Zea gives her an incredulous look. “You and I have very different definitions of the word ‘boring,’ apparently.”
Sara shrugs. “Seriously, we're fine, stuff’s all set, nothing to worry about.”
“Well, now I gotta be up soon anyway, I'm on watch at six.” Zea looks around. “May as well find something to occupy myself.
Sara gives her a look that's all trouble. “That so?” Sara asks, and it's such a Nine way to say it Zea has to smile.
“I can't believe you,” Zea says. “You're not even tired?”
“I'll sleep later,” Sara shrugs that off. “C’mon, lets walk up the stream a ways, see what we see.”
Zea shakes her head and follows. It's not easy going, she doesn't know what Sara was expecting but right near the stream it's full of brush and there's not enough space between there and the hill to get clear. Sara shoves her way through for a few minutes, until she finds a gap, a rockfall half blocking the water and not enough soil for much to grow. She perches on one of the big boulders and watches Zea as she follows.
“This your idea of a romantic getaway?” Zea asks, half amused and half annoyed.
Sara looks away, across to the trees on the other side. “Nah,” she says, “I don't much go in for romance.” It's meant to be joking, but there’s something behind it that's shading the words darker than Zea’d expect.
Sara looks over at her, shrugs. “Just wanted a change of scenery.”
Zea sits next to her, and Sara leans into her shoulder. “It feels like we're dreaming,” Zea says suddenly. “This can't be real life.”
Sara hums, reaches an arm around Zea’s shoulders. “It's strange for sure,” she says, but she's hedging.
“What?” Zea asks.
Sara shakes her head. “I won't say I didn't dream about this,” Sara says. “But it's real. All of it.”
“You dreamed about this?” Zea asks.
Sara chuckles. “Well, not exactly this,” she allows. “I didn't know this place existed, didn't dream I'd be living in Nine, but the blowing shit up part, oh yeah.” The last part has bite.
“I just… I wanted things to be different,” Zea says. “I didn't realize it'd be a war, not like this.”
Sara squeezes her shoulder. “I know,” she says. “But it's the only way.”
She sounds so certain, but how would she know? They're close to the same age, Zea thinks. What's so different between the two of them?
But she doesn't know how to say any of that, and definitely not how to say it without offending Sara, and it's comfortable like this. So she stays quiet.
“I'd never seen stars like this before,” Sara says, a little later.
“Really?” Zea asks.
“No way, too many lights in Six, and anyway it's usually cloudy.”
Even in the City in Nine it's dark enough at night to see the stars, spilled out across the sky. “You don't know the constellations or anything?”
“The what?” Sara looks over.
Zea leans back on her hands and points. “See those four? And then there's four more that make an arc?”
Sara frowns in concentration. “Yeah,” she says finally. “Yeah I think so.”
“Okay, that's the Big Dipper.” Zea says.
Sara looks unimpressed. Zea continues. “If you follow those two on the end of the dipper, there's another star just up a little ways, see it?”
“Yeah,” Sara sounds skeptical.
“That's the North Star,” Zea says. “If you find that, you know which way’s north.”
Sara looks up at the sky, looks around like she's orienting herself. “Huh,” she says. “Well that's gotta come in handy out here.”
“Works everywhere,” Zea says.
Sara chuckles, low and warm. “Yeah, but in Six there's landmarks.”
“There's landmarks here, too, if you know what you're looking for,” Zea says, a little defensive.
“Oh yeah?” Sara sounds interested, rather than skeptical.
“Sure, Depots and hedgerows along the road, rivers, all that stuff. Any crew’s got a pretty good map in their head, all the driving we do.”
“Huh,” Sara says. “Didn't really think about it.”
“Nobody comes up here so none of us are much use till you get out of the hills,” Zea goes on, “but ask Durum sometime how to get from the City out to… well, anything, really. Doubt he needs a map anywhere in the district, it'll be all ‘turn left at the Enid elevator’ or ‘turn right where the old meetinghouse was, till they tore it down’ or ‘if you get to the Inman road you've gone too far.’” Zea smiles, remembering. “Used to make me crazy. ‘Durum, I wasn't alive when that meetinghouse got torn down, what's the name of the road’”
Sara laughs. “Oh sure, my buddy Matt’s the same way. Landmarks are a little different, though.”
Zea looks over, raises an eyebrow, and Sara sighs. “This is down in the shit parts of town, it's a lot of ‘left at the pawnshop, right where the meth lab burned down last month.’”
It's starting to get light, and Sara’s starting to sound tired. “You should get some sleep,” Zea says.
Sara sighs, sits up and stretches. “Guess so,” she says, climbing to her feet. “And you've got watch.”
“Yep,” Zea says, following her back through the weeds. “Send Virgil out if he wakes up.”
“I can come, if you want company,” Sara offers. “No fun to be up there by yourself.”
Zea shrugs. “It's fine,” she says. “Milo’ll hang out for a bit, probably. Get some sleep.”
Sara takes her hand, squeezes once, then ducks in to find her bed.
Zea heads up the hill.
When she comes down at the end of her shift, Alister has the hood of the transport open and is glaring at the engine block. She walks over, and he looks up.
“What's going on?” Zea asks, peering in.
Alister looks like someone just fed him a lemon. “Not sure,” he says. “Engine’s noisy, and its smoking a bit. We’ll have to take one of the pickups next time if this keeps up.”
Zea shrugs. “Could be the fuel injectors are messed up,” she says. “ Or the air filter’s clogged. We could pull ‘em and check, there's a toolbox in the truck.”
Alister looks at her. “You're a mechanic?”
Zea swallows. “My… girlfriend was,” she says. “Picked up a few things.” She squares her shoulders and lifts her chin. Everyone else is running around risking their lives, she’s not going to cry about using the stuff Emmer showed her to help them out.
Alister just keeps watching her, until he nods. “Alright,” he says, “let me know how I can help.”
“I got it, for now,” Zea says, “but I'll holler if I need you.”
Alister actually smiles a little at that, as he walks back toward the cave, and Zea goes to the big truck for the toolbox.
It's under the seat, as usual, a sturdy metal box Zea hauls over to where the transport’s parked in the sun. Sets it on a patch of grass and opens it up.
Emmer always checked these toolboxes before they headed out, made sure if they needed something it'd be there. Sockets, lined up snug, wrenches and screwdrivers and everything in its place. Zea helped Emmer pull the fuel injectors on one of the trucks, last year, she just hopes the transport works the same way.
She's got all eight of them laid out on the engine block when Sara wanders over. “What’s up?” she asks, stretching.
“G’morning,” Zea can't help but smile. Sara’s face is still sleep-soft, her body relaxed, none of the wild excited tension she had last night. “Alister said the transport was running rough, so I told him I'd check it out.
Sara raises an eyebrow, bends down to look. “These are pretty gunked up,” she says.
“Yeah,” Zea says. “We can’t very well order new ones, though.”
“They’re not the same as on the trucks?”
Sara looks at the thing. “Well, I don’t know what the hell we’re gonna use for solvent, can’t just drive to the store for that, either.”
“Hmmm.” Zea looks around. Lucerne’s sitting with Durum at the cave entrance, so she heads over.
“Mornin’ Zea,” Durum says. “What’s up?”
“Lucerne, how likely d’you think it is our friends up at the Depot are cooking booze?” Zea asks.
Lucerne laughs. “You planning a party?” she asks.
“Trying to clean up some gunked up fuel injectors,” Zea responds.
Lucerne looks thoughtful. “Well, I don’t know,” she says, “But a couple’a guys out here on their own, I’d be surprised if they didn’t know how to get their hands on something.”
“You mind going up to check?” Zea asks. “I wanna check the air filter and a couple other things first, but then we can take one of the pickups.”
“Sure thing,” Lucerne says. “Alister oughta be back by then, we should let him know before we go.”
“Where’s he at?” Zea asks, looking around.
“Said he’s gonna try his luck with some snares,” Lucerne says.
“See who’s got the best luck,” Durum says, “I’d bet him I’ll catch more, but there’s nothing to bet with.”
Zea smiles, shakes her head and heads back.
Sara’s scratching at one of the injector heads with a fingernail. “Well, we’re gonna try and get something from the Depot up where we got fuel,” Zea says, hedging a little.
“They gonna have solvents?” Sara asks, a little skeptical. “That stuff’s pretty regulated.”
“Well,” Zea says, dragging out the word a little. “They’ll probably have alcohol.”
Sara laughs. “Sure,” she says, “Why didn’t I think of that.”
“We’ll go up in a bit, let’s see if we can’t clear out the air filter and the fuel filter first, while we’re checking stuff.”
Alister gets back as they’re finishing, talks to Lucerne and comes over, shaking his head. “I don’t like you going out there if it’s not necessary,” he says. “You sure that’ll work?”
Zea shrugs. “Best idea I’ve got. And we need more diesel anyway, we can pick that up while we’re at it.”
Alister’s mouth thins tight. “Fine,” he says, “but be careful, they’ll be watching out by now.”
It feels good to get out of their little hollow. Been too long in one place, hemmed in by the hills and no place to go. They take a different route this time, circling down south and west on a faint track of a road to come out on the highway well away from the camp. Means more time in the open, and Zea drives fast on the road and hopes if anyone’s watching they assume she’s supposed to be there.
One of the guys is out in the yard as soon as they pull in. Lucerne gets down as soon as Zea stops, before she even has time to kill the engine.
The guy waves Zea into the barn, and she pulls in, blinking till her eyes adjust to the dimness.
“There’ve been Peacekeepers coming around,” the guy’s saying, following Lucerne into the barn. “They been asking if folks’ve seen anything.” Lucerne’s watching him, carefully. “We didn’t say nothing,” he said. “But you can’t keep coming around.”
Lucerne nods. “We’ll be out of your way quick as we can,” she says. “We need one more thing though,” she adds. “You boys got any alcohol around?”
He looks startled, so Zea adds, “We got some injectors we’re trying to clean up.”
That gets a smile. “Well, I guess we have got something,” he says, walks past the hulking sprayers to a storage closet. There’s a mess of piping and glass bottles, and down at the bottom a 5-gallon bucket with the label worn off.
He pulls it out. “Prob’ly best to get rid of it anyway, with all them Peacekeepers coming around,” he says, hands it to Zea. “I been told it’s only good for stripping paint,” he adds, with a crooked smile. “First time I heard someone actually using it for something like that.”
“Thanks,” Zea says, hauling it towards the truck.
“Clarence,” Lucerne’s saying. “We could really use a little more diesel.”
He takes his cap off, runs a hand through his hair. “Alright,” he says. “C’mon.”
The barrels in the truck bed hold fifty gallons each, the truck’s tank about that much, and the other truck’s got a full tank back at camp. It’ll last them a little while, but Alister’s transport takes a lot, especially how he drives it, and they need more to mix with the fertilizer every time they blow the tracks. They’re not going to be able to keep coming here, they have to leave something for these guys. Zea wonders what’ll happen if a crew comes through to harvest their corn and can’t fill up.
Sara would say that’s not their problem, they’ve got a job to do. Zea wonders, though.
“You take care now,” Lucerne says, as they’re finishing.
“Likewise,” Clarence says, “you’re worrying them, they’re gonna start looking harder.”
Lucerne nods. “Thank you, Clarence,” she says.
“Give ‘em hell,” he replies.
Zea pulls out of the yard and heads for camp.
It was bound to happen eventually. Alister pulls the truck over heading up the rise before the road drops down toward the bridge, and Sara’s taking her turn sneaking up to the crest and checking. She’s scanning up and down the road with the binoculars when she stops at the first support column for the bridge.
It’s not shaped right.
Sara almost turns and runs right then, but if she says there’s people, Alister will want to know how many and what they’re doing and likely as not he’ll come up here himself if he doesn’t like her answers. So she stays very still, pressed against a tree trunk to steady herself. It’s one transport, like the one they’re using, behind the column. One man—she catches a glint of moonlight off his visor—standing with the transport. She scans back along the road, more carefully this time.
There. Just where the bridge starts, two Peacekeepers facing her. She can’t get a clear look at the near side of the road, but odds are if there’s two on the other side there’ll be two on this side, too.
The transports can take eight. That’s five, six if there’s a driver still at the wheel. Leaving two. Sara scans along the road, across the river and up into the hills and sees no one. But now she really has been here too long, it’s time to go.
She moves carefully, crouching behind the tree and hurrying bent over from one trunk to the next, until she’s far enough down there’s no way they could see her.
Then she runs.
“They’re there,” she says, scrambling in next to Alister. “A transport, one guy waiting outside, maybe a driver. Two on the far side of the road just before the bridge so I’m guessing two on the near side too. Oughta be two more for a full transport but I didn’t find ‘em.”
Alister’s expression doesn’t change, but he’s watching her carefully. “Snipers, probably, on the other side of the river,” he says. He sighs. “Alright, we have to go back. We’re not finding a new route on the fly, and it’d probably take too long anyway.”
He doesn’t start the car. Just shifts it into neutral and rolls, until the hill flattens out. Then he starts the engine, and Sara takes a minute to bless Zea and Lucerne and the guys who gave them the worst booze she’s ever tasted to clean the fuel injectors, because it starts quiet and smooth and invisible, and Alister drives off.
“Shit,” Milo says, leaning forward. “What’re we gonna do now?”
“Ford the river,” Alister says. “Just gotta figure out where.”
They get back early. Zea and Virgil are on watch, but Lucerne stands up to meet them, looking concerned.
Sara gets down first. “Peacekeepers on the bridge,” she says, by way of explanation. Excitement and fear have settled into anger and frustration by now.
“Fuckers,” Milo adds, getting down. He looks about as mad as Sara.
Alister is, as usual, unperturbed. “We’ll have to try something different next time,” he says. “Get some sleep, we’ll sort it out in the morning.”
He walks into the cave, heading for his bedroll. Milo sighs, then shakes his head and follows. Sara glowers toward them, then looks up when she hears Lucerne’s low chuckle. “Go say hi to Zea, she’ll be wondering what’s up,” she says. “You look fit to burst.”
Sara’s not sure what that means. But sure, why not.
Zea’s head whips around when Sara gets to the top of the hill. She’s sitting with her back to a tree, watching east, but gets to her feet and comes over.
“What happened? Why’re you back so early?” she asks, eyes checking Sara over.
Sara shrugs, walks over toward where Zea was sitting. “Fucking Peacekeepers on the bridge,” she says. “Couldn’t get past.”
She has to work to keep her jaw from clenching, teeth from grinding.
Zea sighs. “Guess they were bound to figure it out sooner or later,” she says.
Sara nods absently. Sure, it was bound to get trickier, but it doesn’t mean she likes it.
“You should get some sleep,” Zea says. “You’ve been running around an awful lot lately.”
Sara sighs, shrugs. “Guess so,” she says. “I just want to be doing something, y’know?”
Zea smiles. “You always wanna be doing something,” she says.
The tone’s warm, almost affectionate. Almost, and if this were an overnight stop someplace and a girl from another crew was giving her that look Sara’d come up with some things to do. Zea, though—it’d get complicated. Zea thinks about things. So Sara just smiles back. “Guess I do,” she says.
Zea catches a little of the innuendo Sara wasn’t sure she entirely meant, and in the half-moon light Sara can’t see if she’s blushing, but she can guess. Zea ducks her head a little, anyway, glances back out at the hills. “Go on then,” she says, and it’s teasing, if a little hesitant. “I got watch, and you’re distracting.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Sara shoots back, but she starts heading down and Zea shakes her head, goes back to her spot.
When Sara gets up the next morning, Alister hands her a bowl of tesserae mush and the map, starts walking toward the truck. “C’mon,” he says, waving Milo over. Virgil and Zea are still sleeping, but Lucerne and Durum come over to look as well. Alister spreads the map on the hood of the truck, pulls a pencil out of a pocket, and starts circling bridges.
“They’re gonna put people on all of them,” he says. “We need to find a place to cross that’s far enough from any one that they can’t see us.”
Durum gives a low whistle. “Well, good thing the river’s windy through here. Get around a bend and you’re out of sight.”
Alister nods, tracing the river with a finger. “There,” Milo says, pointing. “We crossed on the bridge just upstream from there and it was real shallow. Bet you could cross further down.” Alister marks it.
By the end of the morning, they’ve got a few spots. By afternoon, they get a call with the next night train. Two have got through in daylight, through Nine and to Six by what Joe’s guys pass over the radio. Peacekeepers and vehicles and supplies and fuel, and they need to get that line stopped now, or Six is going to be overrun and they’ll be in real trouble.
Milo’s coming again, since he knows the landscape better. Or at least that’s what he claims. Virgil argues briefly and then shrugs. “I’ll take the next one, then,” he says. “Don’t much matter to me.”
They get to the river without any trouble, and Alister stops, leaning forward to watch the river. Milo hops out, barefoot and with his pant legs rolled up. “Lemme make sure it’s not too deep,” he says. “Hard to tell, at night.”
Alister nods. Milo wades out into the water. It’s a stretch to call it a river, really, nowhere is it wider than a couple lengths of the transport. Here it’s running over stones, and as Milo wades further out, it comes to his knees but not much further. He stops on the far bank and waits while Alister edges forward.
It feels strange, driving straight into the water, but Alister just keeps moving, slow and steady, until he’s got all four wheels back on dry land and stops to let Milo back in.
“See now, that wasn’t so bad,” Milo says. “Only got my pants a little wet.”
Sara smiles, and they still have to do their job, they still have to come back, but it seems like all of them are a little more relaxed now.
They know how to do the rest of it, after all.
The track stays down for four whole days, that time. “Hate to say it,” Sara says, when they’re heading out again, “but I’m impressed how fast those fuckers get the line back up.”
Virgil snorts. “Sure, but they got all the equipment,” he says. “I’m impressed a handful of us can cause this much trouble.”
One corner of Alister’s mouth twitches up just a little. “Admit it,” Sara says, looking over at him. “You’re impressed a bunch of outlier nobodies can keep this shit shut down, too.”
“We’ve been doing well,” Alister admits, but that’s as far as he’ll go.
They ford the river at a different spot this time, sandy rather than rocky, but only halfway up Sara’s shins when she wades across. “Who needs bridges?” she asks, when she hops in. “Bridges are for suckers.”
Alister takes his eyes off the road long enough to give her a look, then shakes his head. Sara waits for her feet to dry, pulls on her socks and shoes, and tries not to be impatient.
Alister stops the transport back in the woods, well away from the track. They're closer to the City than last time, on a gentler slope, less protected, but the corn’s high, green, the best hiding spot they can hope for. Sara hops down, collects the detonators, electronics, shovels, while Alister and Virgil take the sacks of fuel, and they move toward the track.
They stop halfway into the field, spread a few rows apart, and wait through two passes of the patrols. They're still passing every half hour. Sara glances over at Alister, waiting for a cue to move.
Alister just looks focused, as usual, watching the track like the hawks they sometimes see circling overhead. Once the patrol has passed a third time he signals them to move forward.
Virgil’s out to her left, a little ahead, when it happens: an explosion that knocks her to her knees, leaves her ears ringing. Something tears into her arm, her chest, hot metal slamming into her, and between the shock and the pain she doesn't realize what's happened until Alister runs up, shakes her shoulders.
“Come on,” he says, urgent, and he's probably yelling but she can barely hear. “Sara, we have to move.”
She swallows, nods, watches as he ducks through the shredded corn stalks to where Virgil was.
Sara gets up and follows Alister, stops when she sees what's there. Virgil’s legs are a mess of flesh, bone splintered and skin shredded. There’s blood everywhere.
Alister’s gone to kneel next to him, but as Sara gets close Alister stands, reaches into the waistband of his pants and pulls out a pistol. Sara sees his lips move but she can't hear what he says, and then he fires. Right between Virgil’s eyes.
Alister turns to look at her, his eyes hard, brushes past her. “Get the detonators, let’s go,” he says, and right, they can't spare those, they take forever to make and they're low on supplies. Sara feels like she's in a dream as she scoops up her things from where she dropped them, follows Alister at a run, back toward the transport.
They fling everything in the back and Alister takes off. It's dark, and like always he's not using his lights, but he’s going so fast the truck jerks and bounces over the rough road.
It jerks her around enough to remind Sara there's bleeding gashes across her left arm, her chest, and it fucking hurts. Burns and stings and she can feel the skin on her arm trying to pull apart, so she brings her right hand up to hold it.
Alister doesn't look away from the road, but he says “Put pressure on it, we'll stop in a bit and I'll take a look but we need to get farther away.”
Sara nods, realizes he might not be able to see. “Okay,” she says, and it sounds quiet in her ears, small and hesitant.
She knows better than to ask questions, not while Alister’s driving like this. Doesn't know what she'd ask, anyway, her brain feels like it's still rattling around her skull, unmoored by the blast.
They stop, eventually, somewhere Sara doesn't recognize, a little stream bed tucked into the hills like the one the camp’s in, but without the cave. Or the people, for which Sara is very, very glad.
Alister turns the car off, just sits for the length of three deep breaths—Sara can see his shoulders moving with them—and then he looks at her. She almost flinches, because he looks…well, like a Peacekeeper, cold and calculating. He looks her up and down, nods. “Find a place to sit,” he says, “I'll get the med kit.”
Sara gets down, almost falls because she wasn't expecting her legs to feel like jelly. She takes a couple deep breaths, manages to walk a few yards away from the truck, and then gives up and sits heavily on the grass. When she pulls her hand away from her left arm it's covered in blood, the gash still oozing a little even after however long they've been driving.
Alister comes over, looks at her, looks around, and sighs. When he looks back some of the cold distance is gone. “I was thinking you might want to lean against one of those trees.”
“This is kinda as far as I got,” Sara says, trying to repress the completely inappropriate giggling that's trying to escape her chest.
He looks over her, sighs again. “Probably better anyway. Can you get your shirt off or should I cut it off?”
Sara shifts, trying to pull her arm into the sleeve, hisses because the fabric’s catching and sticking on everything and it fucking hurts. “Cut it,” she grits out, “not like it's good for much now anyway.”
Alister nods, kneels in front of her and starts cutting up from the hem, pulling fabric away where it's stuck on. He's being careful, she can tell, but there's a handful of thin lines cut across her stomach and chest, and they sting.
Everything comes off, eventually, and Alister starts checking her over more carefully. “I'm going to have to stitch up your arm,” he says. “The rest of this will just need to be kept clean. Good thing those rows are planted so dense, this could’ve been much worse.”
Sara just nods, keeps taking careful breaths and trying not to flinch. Of course it could've been worse. She could've been Virgil.
She's been trying not to think about it, but the images flood her mind and she blurts out, “Why did you shoot him?”
Alister stills. She looks up, meets his eyes. He's not a murderer, Sara’s sure of that, or she thought she was. But the cold, sharp look he still hasn't dropped completely gives her pause.
He waits long enough that Sara’s not sure he's going to answer at all, and then he blinks, looks away, looks back at her. “We couldn't get him back to camp,” he says, careful, measured. “And even if we did, we couldn't save him. If I left him, he might live long enough for the Peacekeepers to get to him, and they might be able to get him coherent enough to talk. And then they'd be coming for the rest of us. I was saving all of us—including him—a lot of pain.”
He holds Sara's eyes though the whole explanation. There's no flicker of doubt there.
Sara’s the one who looks away first, down at her crossed legs. Intact. Safe. Tries to think about what Alister said. He's pulled out a needle and thread. “I'm going to sew this up now,” he says, and starts.
Saving him, Sara thinks, as the needle sparks bright points of pain in the all-over ache. Saving him pain, and saving the rest of their little crew, and all he had to do was pull out a gun and put a bullet through the head of, well, maybe not exactly a friend, but something. An ally.
Laid out that way, it's pretty clear. Sara wonders if she could do it. What if Alister had been the one to step on the thing, if he'd been the one bleeding out into the dirt and she and Virgil had to get away?
“I think you need to teach me to shoot,” Sara says. Alister’s head whips around and he stares at her. “And drive, probably, but shooting seems less complicated.”
“What?” Alister asks, startled. Those ridiculous giggles want to come out again, because she's finally managed to shock the unshockable Peacekeeper.
She swallows, though, manages to look serious. “What if it'd been you?”
He sits back on his heels and shakes his head, the corners of his mouth twitching up. “Girl,” he says. “You are crazy.”
Sara tries to shrug, but even with only one shoulder it pulls at things and she grimaces. “I'm not wrong, though.”
He shakes his head again, goes back to her arm. It's silent until he finishes the stitches and wraps clean cloth around the whole thing. Then he looks back at her. “You don't tell the rest of them what happened, and I'll teach you to shoot,” he says.
Sara’s about to protest, but then she stops to think. Imagines Zea’s reaction, if she heard. “Yeah, okay,” Sara says. “Deal.”
He nods. She thinks he looks relieved. And then he’s wrapping clean bandages around her torso, stands up and pulls off his jacket. It's heavy, when he hands it to her. “Huh,” Sara says, as she pulls it on. “Guess this is why I'm not patching you up.”
Alister nods. “Sorry I've only got the one,” he says. Then he reaches down a hand and pulls her up.
She still feels a little shaky, but the world doesn't feel quite as faraway. She walks to the truck on her own power, climbs in. Alister slides behind the wheel, looks over at her, then nods, starts the truck, and they drive away.
The sun’s fully up by the time they get to camp. Sara’s exhausted, her head pounding and stomach churning, thoughts muddy and slow. Everyone’s there when they pull in, Zea coming down the path from the hilltop lookout at a run.
Alister stops the truck, turns it off and takes a deep breath. Looks over at Sara. He looks as tired as she feels for just a second, before he looks away, squares his shoulders, and opens his door. Sara swallows, opens the passenger door and slides down. When she closes the door Alister is walking over towards the group. Lucerne steps forward, worried. Alister stops just in front of her and she puts a hand to his arm.
“What happened?” Lucerne asks, soft, concerned.
“They’ve mined the fields near the tracks,” Alister says, calm and precise. “Virgil tripped one. He was killed. Sara got cut up a bit, but she’ll be okay.”
Lucerne glances over at Sara, then back to Alister. “And you?”
“I’m fine. No injuries.”
Lucerne’s mouth pinches. “That’s not entirely what I was asking,” she says. She studies him for a minute. “You better go lie down. Unless you want something to eat first?”
Sara can’t see Alister’s face from here, but he shakes his head. “I should check for reports,” he says. “We need to know what they’re saying.”
“Nothing,” Lucerne says, gentle but firm. “There’s been nothing on any of the Peacekeeper channels.”
“Then I’ll have to check the encrypted ones,” he says. “Lucerne, we need to know.”
She gives him a long, steady look. “Go sit,” she says, shifting. “I’ll bring you something to eat, at least.”
Alister nods, silent, moves past her, past Milo and Durum behind her, and sits in the mouth of the cave, leaning back against the wall. Lucerne goes to presumably find food, and it’s as though that breaks some spell and suddenly everyone else can move, too.
Zea rushes over to Sara, eyes wide and shocked. Sara pushes herself away from the truck and Zea hugs her. It hurts, but Sara doesn’t mind for now. Doesn’t pull away because she’s not entirely sure she can stay standing without something to ground her. Finally Zea pulls back a little. “Are you okay?” she asks, her eyes shining. “We didn’t hear anything, we thought you’d be back hours ago, we didn’t know…” she stops, shakes her head like she’s trying to clear it. “I can’t believe Virgil’s just—“ she stops again. “He just… just died?”
Sara swallows. “Yeah,” she says, “he was right on top of it so…” she lets that trail off.
Zea winces. “Shit, I’m sorry, c’mon,” she says, starting to walk toward the cave. She moves slowly, keeps an arm around Sara’s shoulders, and Sara’s grateful. “You should rest, you look terrible.”
Sara should protest, joke about it, something, but she can’t come up with the words. So she follows Zea back to her bedroll, sits down. She should change out of Alister’s jacket, her filthy pants, but by the time she’s managed to get her shoes off, she’s too tired to care about the rest. Too tired even to care that Zea’s worried about her, too tired to tell Zea she’s fine. She’ll be fine, sure, but now she just needs to sleep.
She curls up on the blankets, on her unhurt right side which means she’s facing away from Zea, toward the rough rock wall. Zea’s fingers pull at the elastic at the end of Sara’s braid, tease her hair out loose, scratching at Sara’s scalp and combing through the messy tangles, soft and soothing, and Sara sleeps.
When she wakes up, there’s warm late afternoon light filtering into the cave. Sara doesn't move. She stares at the wall and listens, and she can pick out Zea’s voice, and Durum’s, but she can't tell what they're saying.
She rolls onto her back and gasps, as her entire left side lights up, stinging and aching and burning. Dammit. She sits up, looks down. Alister’s jacket, clean white bandages and muddy, blood-spattered jeans. Not all her blood, probably. Not that she can tell.
She needs to wash up, change clothes, figure out what they're supposed to do next.
Which means she needs to stand up.
She does, or at least as much as she can without hitting her head on the low ceiling. That catches Zea’s attention, and she turns back to look. She's silhouetted against the light, so Sara can't really see her face, but when she speaks her voice is tight and worried.
“Sara? How're you feeling?”
Sara steps past her and out so she can stand straight without worrying about hitting her head. Then she shrugs her good shoulder. “Okay,” she says. “A little sore.” She looks back into the gloom. “Alister still sleeping?”
Zea nods. “He was up checking for transmissions for a couple hours after you went to bed,” she says, glancing over. “Lucerne said to let him sleep.”
Sara nods. “I need to get cleaned up,” she says. She heads for the transport, pulls open the back. Her duffel’s there with the others, ready to go if they have to leave in a hurry, and while there isn't much in there, there is at least a change of clothes. She pulls stuff out, finds soap and a towel and heads downstream.
Zea’s watching her pretty carefully. Waiting for something, looks like, but if she thinks Sara’s gonna come cry on her shoulder she's gonna be waiting for a while.
There's a spot just around a bend from the camp where the stream runs up against the rock and spreads a little, gets just more than knee deep. It's turned into the shower spot, out of sight of the others and easier to wash where it's deeper.
Sara’s never minded but today she feels exposed, glancing around as though someone’s going to burst out of the trees while she's stripping out of her jeans.
She pulls the cloth away from her chest, winds up the bandages to wash later because they’ll probably have to use them again. She looks at the one on her arm, decides to leave it. She can wash around it.
The water stings, and the soap is worse, but it's fine. She even manages to wash her hair, before the cold and everything else get to her enough she has to quit. When she dries off she leaves blood on the towel. Stupid to get it on the shirt, too. She sighs. Fine. She pulls on her pants, wraps the towel tight around her chest, picks up the rest and heads back to camp.
Zea frowns, confused, when she sees Sara.
“What?” Sara asks. “I don't want to ruin another shirt.”
Zea shakes her head. “Come sit, I'll find some bandages or something. That towel’s gonna stick, and that won't be any fun.”
She stands up, motions for Sara to take her place next to Durum.
“How’re you doing, kiddo?” Durum asks.
Sara sighs. “I'm fine,” she says. “Zea worries too much.”
Durum chuckles, low and grumbling. “She takes care of folks she likes,” he says. “You all don't let her real often.”
Sara shifts. The movement pulls at the towel, which is, yes fine, sticking to something as it dries. Zea comes over and crouches next to Sara.
“I can go, if you'd rather,” Durum says, shifting.
Sara snorts. “I been on train crews the last five years, I'm not touchy about privacy.”
Zea pulls the towel away, hisses. Sara looks down. It's been long enough the bruises are showing up, ugly splotches to go with the scrapes. It looks like someone dragged her down a gravel embankment.
Zea’s got the medkit from the truck. She digs through for some kind of ointment she slathers on, then wraps new clean cloth around. When she sits back, Sara looks down. “Thanks,” she says, reaching for her shirt.
Now what? “Where's Milo and Lucerne?” Sara asks.
“Up on watch,” Zea says. “I'll go take over in a couple hours.”
“Me and Alister can do it,” Sara says.
Durum snorts. “Lucy said you'd say that. She says you're not allowed to go anywhere till she's convinced you're actually okay and not just playing.” He pauses. “And till you've eaten something.”
Sara can't not smile at that. “But Zea shouldn't be on her own,” she says, for the principle of the thing.
“Durum’ll keep me company,” Zea says. “And we'll figure out a new schedule later.”
There doesn't seem to be much point in arguing, so Sara gives up. “Okay,” she says, “then is there something to eat?”
Durum’s just back with a bowlful of cold tesserae porridge when Sara hears Alister moving around. The sun’s getting low, it's too dim to see much inside, but pretty soon Alister comes out, scrubbing at his face and stretching.
“Hi,” Sara says. She's oddly relieved to see him.
He gives her a crooked half smile, then looks more carefully. “You washed up,” he says accusingly.
“I left my arm alone and Zea fixed up the rest of it,” Sara says. “I'm fine.”
“Okay,” he says, shaking his head. Durum comes back with another bowl of cold mush and hands it to Alister. Sara looks down at hers and sighs.
Alister takes his and heads toward the trucks, eats leaning against the hood of the transport. Which is where he is when Lucerne comes down from watch.
“Good, you're eating,” she says briskly, voice carrying in the quiet. “Come on.”
Alister follows her over to meet them, wearing the resigned expression Lucerne seems to always get from him.
“How're you doing, Sara?” Lucerne asks, when she gets close. She's watching carefully, an expression that says lying is not wise.
“I'll be fine,” Sara settles for. “A little sore.”
“Hmm.” Lucerne looks away, not so much satisfied as deciding not to push. “You two should rest,” she says, looking around. “We can cover watches tonight.”
Alister sighs. “Lucerne, I just woke up, there's no reason I should spend the night here staring at walls.”
She glares at him, but he doesn't budge. “Fine,” she says. “Milo should be fine for a bit yet though, no need to rush.”
Alister nods, solemn, and looks over at Sara, then pulls a flashlight out of his back pocket. “Zea, hold this, I want to check on Sara.”
She takes the flashlight, pushes the medkit over toward him. “Hadn't put it away yet,” she says, “sorry.”
Alister doesn't say anything, just sits on his heels and starts peeling away the cloth wrapped around Sara’s arm. Sara hisses as it comes away, looks down. She hadn't really looked last night, but it's an ugly gash, held together with four of Alister’s neat stitches. He washes away the dried blood, puts some ointment on it, and wraps her arm again. “You'll be fine,” he says, glancing up at her.
Sara nods. “Okay.”
She shifts a little, tired of being the center of attention and wanting to move. Alister notices, looks over at Lucerne. “Sara and I'll head up, and send Milo down. We'll wake somebody up in the morning.”
Lucerne’s mouth presses flat. “Early morning,” she says. “Zea and I can go.”
Alister nods. Sara gets up and follows him up the path.
Milo’s sitting against a tree, looking away north toward the tracks.
“Hey Milo,” Sara says, as they get close.
Milo jumps a little, and good thing they're relieving him if he's not paying enough attention to notice them coming. He’s on his feet when they get to him, and Sara notices tear tracks on his face and feels like an asshole. “Sorry,” she says, and he looks away. “You can head down if you want, we're taking our turn.”
Milo nods, clears his throat. “You're doing alright?” he asks, “You were kinda a mess when you came in.”
“All patched up,” Sara says, hoping that's reassuring.
He just nods. “Alright,” he says. “See you in the morning.”
Once he's away, Alister looks over at Sara. “You're really okay?” he asks. “No bullshit.”
Sara shrugs her good shoulder. “Good enough,” she says.
“Not just talking about—” he gestures toward her.
“I know,” she says, looks out over the hills. She takes a deep breath before she answers. “I'll be fine,” she says. “We've got a job to do.”
He watches her for a bit before nodding. “Okay,” he says. He looks around. “You better stay on the ground this time, I'll head up that old pine tree.”
Sara nods. “Holler if you need me,” she says.
He huffs a breath that might be a laugh. “You too,” he says, and walks away.
Zea walks down the hill and into an argument. “We can't just head back out and hope we get lucky,” Milo’s saying. “What’re they thinking?”
“They're thinking that every hour that fucking track is open they're flooding people out to hold Six, and Joe’s guys are getting shot at while we’re sitting here arguing,” Sara snaps. “We weren't looking out before, I bet we'd see the damn things if we were paying attention.”
Alister’s standing with them, just watching for now. Zea stays back.
“Sure,” Milo says, “and when you get blown up I won't even be able to say I told you so.”
Great. Milo’s always had a temper, it's what mostly got him into trouble, as long as Zea’s known him. And Sara’s her own kind of stubborn, not to mention Zea only sent them to bed six hours ago and Sara’d been irritable already last night.
“We can't just sit here, or what's the point?” Sara snaps. She turns. “Alister, come on.”
Alister looks between the two of them. “He’s not wrong, Sara,” he says mildly. Then when Sara opens her mouth to shoot back, he cuts her off. “But neither are you.”
“So what’re you suggesting,” Milo says, the words level because they're taut, tension stretching across Milo's shoulders, his crossed arms.
Alister sighs. “We need to contact District 13,” he says. “We've done the best we can, but they're going to need to help out. We need metal detectors, and they need to take out the line themselves to give us all some time. Us and Six,” he adds, looking at Sara.
Zea’d practically forgotten about District 13. When she thinks about it though, it's infuriating, that there's a whole district out there with hovercraft and who knows what and they're out here on their own to get killed.
“Great, so you got a friend there you can call up?” Milo asks, sardonic.
Alister’s mouth pinches a little tighter. From him it's practically a scowl.
Sara’s eyes go wide, though. “I…might,” she says.
They both turn to stare at her. “My friend Rokia, I heard she went there from Eight.”
“What?” Alister asks. Zea almost giggles, it's so funny to see him caught out like that. “Wait. The Victor from Six?”
Sara nods. Alister keeps watching her, then shakes his head. “Well, it's worth a try,” he says. “Beetee’s been doing all those propos, maybe your friend can put in a word someplace.”
Sara's mouth tightens at the emphasis, but she doesn't say anything.
Milo just shakes his head. “You guys with your fancy connections,” he says, but he doesn't sound nearly as angry. “I don't mind going back out there,” he adds. “We just gotta be smart about it.”
Sara looks at him, then sighs. “Yeah,” she says. “I just fucking hate this,” she adds, looking away. “I’ll get on the radio, see what we can do.”
She walks away without saying anything, grabs the radio from the transport and starts climbing the hill. She passes a couple feet from Zea but doesn't say a word, just nods a little in recognition and keeps going.
Zea makes her way over to the others. Milo gives her a crooked grin and walks off toward the stream. Alister’s still standing there, looking at the map. Zea hesitates. She doesn't want to admit it but he intimidates her, even still. But he knows the most about what's happening, and once again Zea’s world feels like it's too small.
“What's going on?” Zea asks, a little carefully.
Alister looks up at her. Sizing her up, looks like. “Here? Just figuring out what to do next.”
“But… District 13? If they can help, why haven't they done anything till now?”
Alister sighs, reaches up to scratch behind his ear. “I’ve heard they did some bombing up in Eight,” he says, cautiously. “Their materials are limited, so they're careful about where they use them.”
There's quite a lot missing from that explanation. Zea watches him, but he's not giving anything away. “But they could help,” she presses.
“They could,” Alister admits. “And hopefully they'll see we need them now.”
Zea stares at the map again. The railroad track is traced in red, a thin line cutting across the road grid and the rivers and the hills. All clean on paper. Neat and tidy. Not so much in real life.
“They don't really care about us though,” she says, halfway surprising even herself. Alister looks over, raises one eyebrow. Zea keeps her eyes on the map. “They only care because they need us,” she goes on, figuring it out as she goes. “So they'll only help if they decide it's worth it. That we’re useful.”
She glances up then, and Alister’s giving her a very calculating look.
“I’m not stupid,” Zea says, because he looks surprised that she's figured something out. “I just never knew—” she stops, because she's not sure how to end that.
“No,” Alister says. “You're not.” He takes a deep breath. “And you're right. They'll do what's best for the rebellion, not necessarily what's best for us.”
“Why do they get to decide?” Zea asks. “What's best for the rebellion, what does that even mean?”
Now Alister almost smiles. “Now you're talking politics,” he says. “I'm just a Peacekeeper, I wouldn't know anything about that.”
Zea narrows her eyes. “Sure you don't,” she says. But he doesn't give her anything else, so she sighs, steps back to wait.
Alister just goes back to staring at the map.
Sara comes down a little later, frowning, her shoulders tense. She puts the radio back in the transport and leans against it, looking away from them. Zea waits for her to say something, but she just stays quiet, tapping two fingers against her lips absentmindedly.
“You get ahold of your friend?” Zea asks finally.
Sara nods, then straightens up and runs a hand through her hair. “Yeah, I told her we needed help, she's gonna see what she can do.”
“You think it'll work?” Zea asks, trying not to sound skeptical.
Sara sighs. “Apparently she’s been go-between for Joe the last couple weeks, so I guess she's got some access.”
Sara glances at Alister, shrugs her good shoulder. “It’s probably our best shot.”
Alister nods. “Good,” he says, and looks back at the map.
Sara walks off down the stream.
Zea keeps herself busy checking over all of the vehicles, trying not to imagine doing it with Emmer. She bags up the last of the fertilizer, wonders what they’ll do when it’s gone, wonders if the big truck’ll start since nobody’s driven it since they got here. Too noisy, too obvious, too fuel-hungry.
Sara helps off and on, she knows her way around an engine. But she’s on the radio a lot, to Joe and to her Victor friend in Thirteen, and sometimes Alister goes up with her, up the hill to where the signal’s better. Sara’s tense, wound up taut and always in motion, listening for the chime that signals another call.
It’s two days until District 13 decides to get off their asses and help.
Two days of Sara swearing every time they hear a train whistle in the distance, telling them about the Peacekeepers flooding into Six with her jaw clenched and her eyes hard. Zea keeps her mouth shut after she suggests Sara rest and about gets her head taken off, restricts herself to the job at hand instead.
Finally, Sara and Alister come down and tell them they’re about to get a supply drop and a bridge taken out.
“That’s not gonna keep ‘em down very long,” Durum says. “They been getting bridges up in four, five days.”
Sara smiles. It’s the first time she’s smiled since it happened, Zea realizes with a start, and it’s not the same smile—this one’s got sharper edges. “They’re taking out the bridge over the Miss.”
Zea’s eyes widen. She’s seen the bridge, coming into the City from the north. It’s gotta be half a mile long.
“That ought to give us at least a week,” Alister says, “And it’ll give those Peacekeepers something to do in Six, getting materials made and shipped out.”
“You said they were dropping supplies?” Lucerne asks.
Alister nods. “Metal detectors. I asked for more explosives,” he adds, glancing toward the truck, “but they say theirs are all assigned.”
“Rokia said they want us to get creative,” Sara says, darkly amused.
Milo rolls his eyes. “We’ll just make some fuckin’ TNT out of tree bark, will we?”
Sara has a look in her eye like she has an idea, but she doesn’t say anything, just laughs a little. “Sure, let’s get right on that,” she says, then glances at Alister.
He’s quiet and unreadable as usual. “Zea and Lucerne, why don’t you take watch,” he says. “They’ll drop the stuff tonight, apparently they’re not completely certain of their stealth capability.”
Zea’s got the radio on low while she watches, waiting for news. Thirteen’s broadcasting some things unencrypted, showing off, bragging about military victories and reporting the Capitol’s latest atrocities. This is secret though, so since Zea doesn’t have the codes for the encrypted channels, doesn’t know the code phrases that go out with the unencrypted stuff, she listens to the Peacekeeper channels instead.
She’s still waiting for news when she hears a low rumble and a hovercraft appears above her as though from thin air.
It’s smaller than the Capitol craft she’s seen, dark and snub-nosed and noisy since it’s just above her. As she’s watching, two small shapes detach from the craft and sprout parachutes, gliding toward the ground like gifts in the Games, while the hovercraft vanishes—first to her eyes, then to her ears as the sound fades into the distance.
The stuff isn’t landing at camp. It’s landing on the other side of the ridge, a few miles on foot and probably no road. She’s just wondering how they’ll get to it when the radio crackles, comes alive with shouts and far-off explosions.
Lucerne comes over from her post to listen—surely this is enough to distract anyone looking for them—and squeezes Zea’s hand, looks up with raised eyebrows. “Looks like they did what they came for, then,” she says.
And then everything’s drowned out by the crack of gunfire and the shouts turn triumphant.
“Enemy craft eliminated,” a voice says, through the chaos. “Move in for retrieval—“
“Negative,” another voice calls back. “It’s at the bottom of the river.”
There’s a pause. Zea feels her heart pounding. Eliminated. They shot down the hovercraft. The people in it, the people who just gave them what they need to stay safe, they’re dead. They’re at the bottom of the river. They’re—
“All right, postpone retrieval, we’ll get a dive team to check for intelligence.” The man sounds annoyed. “Let’s get a damage assessment and call it in.”
Lucerne clicks the radio off and looks over. “We need to check in,” she says, and starts down the path.
Everyone’s up, even though it’s nearly midnight. They’re all huddled around the other radio, and only Alister looks up as Lucerne and Zea approach.
Zea walks up and stands beside him. “What happens now?” she asks.
Alister nods, takes a deep breath. “Sara,” he says, and she looks up at him. “We need to go collect our gifts.”
“Now?” Zea asks. “How will you find them in the dark?”
“Transponder,” Alister says, “Small, low-range, but we’ll pick it up once we get close to the coordinates.”
Sara’s gone back to her bedroll, comes out with a bag slung over her good shoulder. “Come on,” she says, “Let’s go.”
Sara follows Alister up the ridge, weaving between the trees and trying not to trip over roots and branches. Twigs snap against her torn up skin, she’s still sore all over and she’s struggling to keep the pace Alister sets, but she’s so happy to get out of the fucking camp she doesn’t care. So happy to be doing something finally, that it doesn’t matter if she’s hurt and tired, she’s moving, finally, and that’s all that matters.
Alister stops at the top of the ridge and looks back at her. Sara straightens her shoulders and looks right back. She’d make some smartass comment if that wouldn’t give away how hard she’s breathing. But Alister notices anyway, of course he does, leans back against a tree while Sara catches her breath.
“You haven’t been sleeping much,” he says mildly. “Tired?”
“Fuck you,” Sara snaps.
He smiles a little. “Okay then, let’s go.”
He pulls something out of his pocket when they get most of the way down into the next valley, looks at the small screen that lights up, and changes direction. They stumble through underbrush for a while before Sara sees the parachute, caught in a tree branch.
“Alister,” she says, and he looks up from his gadget and sees it too. “I’d get it for you,” Sara adds, “but I’m pretty sure the medic would bust my ass.”
Since he’s the medic, and he’s already been at her about—well, everything—he just shakes his head and heads for the base of the tree.
They collect both boxes, fold the parachutes and tie them into a manageable package, and Alister finds both transponders, turns them off. Then he turns to look at her.
“You wanted to learn to shoot?” Alister asks.
“Yes.” It comes out almost before he finishes.
“Well, better to make noise here, so they can’t trace it back to camp,” Alister says, pulling his pistol out of its holster.
“And I’m guessing they’ve got bigger things to worry about at the moment,” Sara adds, smirking a little. It stings to have lost the hovercraft, but the biggest bridge anywhere Sara’s seen is destroyed—pretty damn thoroughly, if the PKs aren’t lying. For tonight, Sara’s calling it a win.
“That too.” Alister grants the point.
Sara steps up beside him, watching carefully.
“First rule,” Alister says, looking her in the eye. “Never point it at anyone you’re not planning on shooting. Ever.”
“Not even if you’re sure it’s unloaded. Never. Got it?”
“Yeah,” Sara says, her enthusiasm turning more serious given the tone of voice he’s using. “I got it.”
“Okay,” he says. “Second rule: don’t put your finger on the trigger until you’re ready to shoot.” He turns so Sara can see how he’s holding it, finger along one side.
She nods again. “Okay.”
He goes through quite a few more rules, but none of them have the same deadly seriousness. Then he hands her the thing, and she tries to hold it like he showed her. It’s heavy, dark steel, and the handle settles into her palms like it belongs there.
Alister steps behind her, puts his hands over hers. Sara can smell sweat, and metal, and something sharper. The trees all seem to stand out a little more in the dark.
“Okay,” Alister says, “That pine tree, see if you can hit it.”
Sara moves her finger over the trigger, carefully, adjusts her aim. Alister’s hands are still over hers, but he’s letting her do the work.
“Okay,” Sara whispers, takes a deep breath, and fires.
The shock runs up her arms and she might have stumbled back if Alister wasn’t there. The sound echoes in the hills and then dies away.
There’s a broad groove in the side of the tree, bark splintering where the bullet passed.
Alister steps back. Sara lowers the gun, mindful of Rule One, and turns to look at him. She just fired a Peacekeeper’s gun. For the moment she feels invincible.
“One more, on your own,” Alister says, “then we’ve gotta go, that’s enough noise for one night.”
Sara nods, turns back to the tree. This time she braces herself, so the recoil jolts her shoulders, hurts enough where she’s beat up that she can’t hide the wince, but the bullet hits the tree.
It’s not dead center, and the tree’s not even that far away, but she did it.
She’s grinning when she hands back the weapon, feels her eyes gone wide. Alister smiles a little bit. “Well done,” he says. “Now let’s get this stuff back before someone comes out here to find us.”
Sara takes the parachutes, Alister takes the crates, long and thin, one under each arm. It’s a long slog up to the ridge, a short scramble down to the camp. Zea’s back up on watch with Lucerne, Milo and Durum are asleep, and everything’s quiet except for the bugs and the wind in the trees.
“Tired?” Alister asks again. “You should sleep a bit.”
“What’ll you do?” Sara asks, because Alister sounds like he wanted his choice of pronouns to go unnoticed.
“I’m going to open these up, see what we’ve got.”
“Something in here you don’t want me to see?”
“No, just thought you could use the sleep.”
Sara looks at him. “Let’s get the damn things open,” she says, refusing to dignify that with a response.
Alister looks down, that funny little smile almost hidden in the dark, heads for the transport and the toolbox inside. Sara sits down to wait, because she’s not too tired for this but she is tired.
Alister comes back with a hammer and a flashlight, pries out the nails on the tops of the first crate, and Sara pulls the lid back.
Encased in some kind of solid foam is…a stick with a box on the end, basically. She lifts it out—it’s heavier than it looks—and a sheaf of papers falls to the ground.
Alister picks them up, thumbs through and then stops. “This is for you,” he says. “From Rokia, it says.”
Sara practically shoves the thing at him and reaches for the papers.
On top is some kind of manual for the gadget itself, but clipped to it is a batch of printouts, the top sheet in Rokia’s handwriting, her name at the bottom. Sara can hardly read it in the dim light from a sliver of moon, but when she looks up Alister is handing her the light. She pulls off the manual pages, hands them to him, then snatches the light and walks away a few steps, as though she was having a private conversation instead of reading a scribbled note.
I pulled files on a couple types of mines that look like what you described. Should help you disarm them, if need be. You always were good with the fiddly wiring stuff.
Sorry we couldn’t send more supplies, we’ll keep trying. Meanwhile please try not to get killed, hopefully the detectors will help.
No news from up North.
Sara’s eyes prickle, stupidly. It’s not a sentimental thing, it’s business, except that cryptic note that must mean Rokia hasn’t had word about her sisters.
But it’s Rokia, her handwriting, her words, smudged a little like she’s writing quickly, it’s the first thing Sara’s been able to hold in her hands that says Rokia is alive and okay.
And now Alister has the other crate open and is watching her, so Sara swallows, pulls the page away from the rest and folds it to fit in her back pocket. Then she walks over to Alister and shows him the diagrams.
“I think I know how to solve our explosives problem,” she says.
He looks at the papers, at Sara, back at the papers, down at the detectors. “You have got to be fucking with me,” he says, flat.
The tone of voice, the epithet, the fact that Rokia didn’t-exactly-suggest this, it all makes Sara a little giddy. She grins. “Oh no,” she says. “Come on, it’s perfect. Blow them up with their own damn mines.”
“You have no idea what you’re doing,” Alister hisses, trying to keep his voice down. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
“Nope,” Sara says, “And I do know what I’m doing. I’ve got fucking labeled diagrams to show me.”
“Just because your girlfriend sent you plans, that doesn’t make this a good idea.”
“I can do it, I know I can,” Sara shoots back, refusing to take his bait. “And we’re gonna have to do something, there’s hardly any fertilizer left.”
Alister snaps his mouth closed, hands the sheaf of papers back to Sara.
“Go sleep,” he says. When Sara opens her mouth to protest he sighs. “I’m coming too, I’m just going to collect this stuff and put it in the transport.”
“I can help,” Sara says, but Alister shakes his head.
“I’ve got it. Go sleep.” It sounds like an order, and Sara’s never been much good at following those, but she does have to admit that it’s a good idea.
“We’ll talk about it in the morning?” Sara can’t help suggesting.
Alister takes a deep breath. “Yes,” he says, and picks up one of the crates, starts walking toward the trucks.
Sara looks at the pages one more time, tucks them under her bedroll and goes to sleep.
She wakes up feeling better than she has since it happened. She has something to do now other than sit around listening to the radio tell her how many trains are flooding into District Six.
Alister is studying the detectors when she walks out into the sunlight. He looks over while she’s blinking and waiting for her eyes to adjust, looks at the papers in her hand and sighs.
“I guess there’s no chance you came to your senses after a night’s sleep,” he says, resigned.
Sara shakes her head. “It’s gonna take a lot more than that,” she says, only half joking.
She sits down next to him and unfolds the plans. It’s been a while since she’s looked at something like this— and even back when she worked for Sal she had Rokia to help her make sense of anything weird. Here she’s on her own.
Well, not entirely. Alister peers over her shoulder intently, but he doesn’t say anything while Sara traces a finger over the thin lines. It’s not actually that different from the detonators they make, in the end. A firing pin, a spark, an explosive detonator, fuel, explosion. Just more compact. And the ones Sara makes don’t have extra shrapnel built in. No wonder she’s torn up. She’s lucky it isn’t worse.
The next page is an instruction manual for arming the thing, how to place it, how to disguise it, and Sara hears Alister suck in a sharp breath. “How did she get these?” he asks, sharp. “This is current.”
Sara grins. “Well, looks like Beetee can do more than jam propos,” she says.
“We don’t even have to disarm them completely,” Sara says, a little later. “It’s not very much explosive, we’ll probably want four of them, and really if we just take out the detonator charge it probably won’t go off.”
Alister looks at her. “Probably.”
Sara shrugs. “I mean, there’s a slight chance that if you bumped the firing pin it could light the main charge directly, but I don’t think that’s likely.”
He’s still giving her that flat look.
“And if we totally remove the pressure plate, we’ll probably fuck it up somehow, and then we can’t reuse it.”
Alister sighs, but looks down at the pages Sara’s studying. “You really think you can do it?” he asks.
She looks him in the eye. “I really do,” she says.
Alister looks over at the truck. It’s almost empty. They’re almost out of material for detonators. Sara knows she’s right, knows this is the best plan they have unless District 13 decides to airdrop them something more—and if they didn’t do it before, they’re not likely to now.
The Capitol wants to hurt them? Fuck that. Sara’s going to blow them up with their own damn weapons.
Finally Alister closes his eyes for a long minute, reopens them. “Okay,” he says. “We’ll try it with one, do you think it would work as a detonator for the fertilizer-based fuel?”
Sara nods. “It’s a similar explosive as our detonators.”
“Then we’ll try it like that first.”
Zea’s enjoying the idea of a few quiet days, even if Sara does seem impatient to get back to blowing things up. But then Alister decides that since they have the days off, it’s time to move camp.
“We’re lucky we haven’t been spotted yet,” he says, once Zea comes back with Milo. “And we don’t need all these vehicles now.”
Lucerne looks thoughtful, then nods. “You got us a spot to move to?” she asks.
He gives her a curt nod. “It’s not far, if we could do it in a straight line. Driving, it’ll take a couple hours.”
He’s not telling them, Zea notices. Not even the direction.
“We can probably get what’s left of the fertilizer into one of the pickups,” she volunteers. “The barrels of diesel and the rest of it can go in the other.”
Alister hesitates, glancing over at the transport, but then he sighs. “You’re right. We’ll leave the transport here, and the truck.”
They leave that night. There’s only half a moon, and Alister has forbidden Zea from using her headlights, but at least he’s going first so she just has to follow him.
Milo’s sitting next to her, Lucerne next to the window. And they’re not driving out to a site to cut or to plant, they’re following a District Two Peacekeeper through the woods and the hills. And hoping—
“You trust him?” Zea blurts out into the silence. “Alister,” she adds, because she can’t risk looking over and she wants to make sure they understood.
Lucerne takes a deep breath, lets it out. Milo’s the one who speaks first. “If he was gonna sell us out he’d’ve done it already,” he says. “Had plenty of chances.”
“I know,” Zea says, “I guess I don’t think he’d sell us out to the…other Peacekeepers, but…” Saying it out loud it sounds silly, but Zea does it anyway. “Well, what about Virgil?”
“You think it wasn’t like he said?” Lucerne asks, and she sounds skeptical but not offended, so maybe it’s okay.
“Him and Sara both said Virgil stepped on a mine, weren’t nothin’ they could do,” Milo says, gruff.
“You can’t blame him for what the Capitol did, Zea,” Lucerne says softly, “And he’s not somehow infallible, but yes, I trust him.”
Zea closes her mouth and focuses on driving.
If he’d been trying to disorient them all Alister couldn’t have picked a better route. It’s barely a track, overgrown and grassy and snaking alongside the stream—and through it in places. The water splashes against the tires but doesn’t get high enough to flood the engine, and if Alister can make it through, so can Zea.
And then finally they stop. They couldn’t have made it up here with the big truck, the trees are so close together even the pickups just barely fit.
And there’s no natural overhang like before, instead there’s a falling-down wood house, holes in the roof, a tree growing out of one corner.
Alister’s climbing down, so Zea turns off the engine and follows.
“I know it’s not much,” he says, “But we’ll use the parachute fabric for groundcloth and then the plastic tarps can patch the roof a bit.”
Durum’s coming over, one hand tracing along the back of the other truck, squinting in the dark. “Ha,” he says. “Just like old times.”
Zea glances over. Milo’s come around next to Durum, and he’s grinning. “Not everyone wants to pay through the nose for barracks space, Zea,” he says, teasing. “Used to be you could find old houses out by Bley’s place, before they tore everything down.”
Zea doesn’t mind paying for barracks space—and more importantly, barracks heat and running water. But she’s not about to complain in front of everyone. They’ll make do.
They’re getting everything unloaded when Zea hears it. Faint whirring, just on the edge of hearing. She freezes, looks around. Alister’s staring up at the sky, and Zea looks up just as the hovercraft uncloaks and drops its bombs. It’s wheeling away, disappearing again, when she sees the glow to the East. Too early for sunrise, too red, and then she realizes: fire.
Alister drops the tarp in his hands and heads up the hill. Zea hesitates for a second, then follows him up to the crest of the ridge.
The view from here isn’t as clear as from the old place, still too many trees in the way, but what she can see is a shock. A huge swath of the forest is burning, and up here Zea can feel the heat on her face. Alister glances over at her as she comes up beside him.
“Do we need to move?” Zea asks, because the fire isn’t very far away.
Alister shakes his head. “We’re upwind,” he says. “This is why.”
“They knew?” Zea asks, “They knew where we were?”
“The drops,” Alister says. “Last night.”
“But that was a ways away from camp, wasn’t it?”
Alister shrugs one shoulder. “That’s why they’re burning such a large area,” he says. Zea nods, watching as the fire spreads, trees lighting like torches in the night. “Come on,” Alister says, “Let’s get set up.”
Sara’s up in the rafters when they get back, stringing a tarp across some of the gaping holes, reaching to tie off one corner. Milo’s on the ground giving directions, Lucerne and Durum spreading out parachute fabric over the crumbling concrete floor. Zea looks around. It’s claustrophobic here, even more than the old camp. The hills rise on either side, the trees crowd close, leaning over the house, branches meeting over the small stream. Zea can’t see twenty yards before the tree trunks block her view. There’s a faint smell of fire, floating over the smells of rotting leaves, of damp earth and pine. Zea heads to the trucks, starts pulling out bedrolls and supplies, and before long the little house is cozy enough Zea can almost understand why Milo and Durum might’ve liked it.
Alister looks around, nods. “I don’t think we need to set watch on the ridge, at least not tonight.”
Sara shrugs. “I can go if you want.”
He gives Sara a long look, until she looks down. “They won’t be back until the fire’s out,” Alister says. “I’ll sit up outside, you all get some rest.”
Zea’s glad enough for the sleep, given the last couple days haven’t exactly been restful. Sara, of course, is the one who protests. “I can watch with you,” she says, “Or you should sleep, you drove.”
Alister shakes his head. “Go to bed, Sara,” he says.
“Come on,” Lucerne adds, reaching out as Sara turns, then dropping her hand to Sara’s shoulder, squeezing gently. “Come get some rest.”
Sara sighs, but she lets Lucerne herd her towards her bedroll. Zea looks after her, turns to see Alister watching too, before he shakes his head and goes out.
Zea’s bedroll is next to Sara’s, just like the old place. When she crawls in, Sara turns to look at her, smiles a little. “You should teach me how to drive,” Sara says.
Zea’s so surprised she almost laughs. “Oh yeah?” she asks “Why’s that?”
Sara rolls on to her back. “Oh, just in case,” she says. “I’ve driven before,” she adds, a little sharp. “Just that was… a little electric truck, just for around town. Not sure how much different these’ll be, but they go a hell of a lot faster.”
Zea shrugs. “Okay,” she says. “Not sure where we’ll go, but I can try.”
Sara glances over and smiles, pleased. Zea feels her face warm. She hasn’t seen that smile in a while—just the sharp brittle kind. She reaches a hand over, finds Sara’s, and interlaces their fingers. “I’m glad you’re okay,” Zea says, soft.
It’s a stupid thing to say, and why now? But Sara just squeezes her hand, then lets go and curls up facing Zea. “Goodnight, Zea,” she says.
“Goodnight,” Zea echoes. Nothing’s changed, but somehow she feels better.
(Does Sara spend the rest of the war with a much-folded note in her pocket? Does Rokia, years later, find it on the dresser, tearing at the folds and barely legible? What do you think?)
Sara really should feel more guilty about this. And she does feel a little bit guilty but…well, she doesn’t really care. Zea takes them down the road a ways, hops out and Sara gets behind the wheel. It really isn’t that much different from driving Sal’s electric truck back in Six, just bigger, louder, faster except for how it’s slower to respond, she presses the accelerator and it takes a half-second before the truck speeds up, engine—yeah, a real engine, not just electric motors—grumbling and then whining and then shifting back to grumbling with a slight jolt—almost, but not quite unnoticeable.
Zea’s not really paying attention to where they’re going, just watching Sara maneuver, giving her tips, although half of them don’t apply in the current situation. Sara’s never going to be using a turn signal out here.
“Shouldn’t we head back?” Zea asks after a bit, and Sara glances over, sighs.
“Yeah, sorry, I need to go pick something up.”
Zea looks confused, of course. “What?”
Sara stops, because she needs to be careful and she wants to be able to look at Zea while she’s talking. “I need to get one of those land mines, so I can make sure I can disarm and re-arm it properly, and Alister’s never gonna let me go off and do it myself, and someone needs to stay with the truck while I’m working in case something happens.”
“In case something happens?” Zea hisses. They’re all used to even arguments taking place at low volume, but Sara’s pretty sure Zea’d rather be yelling. Zea isn’t really a yelling kind of person. “You mean in case you blow yourself up?”
Sara nods. “Or get caught,” she says, a little more matter-of-fact even than she feels. “The truck’s important, you’re gonna need it to move everybody.”
“Oh for the love of all that’s good,” Zea says, sitting back against the seat and staring out the windshield. “You know, my life used to make sense,” she says accusingly.
Sara shrugs. She’s not sure her life was ever really normal, and if it was, that was a long time ago.
“Do you even know how to get there?” Zea asks.
Sara starts moving again, because they need to get there and back before Alister goes completely nuts and… well, she’s not sure what he’d do. Other than that he wouldn’t hare off looking for them, because he is smarter than that. “I’ve been memorizing rail lines for three years,” Sara says. “I’ve driven around here enough times to know where I’m going. And I looked at Alister’s map.”
Zea sighs. “Okay,” she says.
“Yeah?” Sara asks, watching the road.
“Tell me if you want me to drive,” she says, and looks out the window. The silence is a little tense, but it could be worse.
Sara isn’t ready for the fire—well, what the fire left. This road went through thick woods last time they took it, protected and secure. Now there’s nothing but ash, blackened tree trunks sticking up like pillars, bleak wasteland as far as they can see in the gathering dusk. Sara doesn’t stop. They can’t stop here in the open, they shouldn’t be here in the open, but she doesn’t know another route so this is how they’re gonna have to go. With any luck the Peacekeepers think they’re all dead and let down their guard.
Maybe they did, but Sara’s not getting anywhere near a bridge, not today. And that’s where the burn helps, because instead of picking her way down half-overgrown track she can actually see where they’re going, ducking behind a hill and down toward the river.
She stops before the water. “Are there any tricks for this part?” she asks.
Zea closes her eyes. “Let me do it,” she says, and Sara agrees. She lets Zea keep driving, better not to stop again even though the woods on the other side are intact, singed near the water but otherwise undamaged. Sara flips on the radio and scans the Peacekeeper channels while Zea maneuvers carefully around half-grown trees and grass, lip between her teeth and eyes fixed on the track ahead of them. It grows into what could almost be called a road after a bit, and Zea speeds up until Sara puts a hand on her arm and says “Here.”
They pull off into the woods. It’s farther back than Alister usually leaves the truck, but Sara wants Zea to have as much of a head start as possible if this goes bad.
“Stay here, and if you hear anything, you get out as fast as you fucking can, okay?” Sara says.
“But—“ Zea starts.
“No. If you hear Peacekeepers coming over the radio, if you hear gunshots, if you hear an explosion, you get out, and you get back to camp as fast as you can.”
“But I can’t just leave you!”
“You damn well can,” Sara says. She locks eyes with Zea and stares her down.
Zea looks away, down at the steering wheel in front of her. She swallows, takes a deep breath, nods. “Okay,” she says. “Be careful.”
“Always am,” Sara says, and opens her door.
She pulls the metal detector out from its hiding place under the tarp in the back. She debated about taking it—it’s too valuable to lose one when they only have two—but she’d really rather not blow herself up, so it’s coming along. It’s full dark now, but it’s also full moon tonight, and Alister is going to absolutely kill her for going out when it’s this bright but she has to see what she’s doing and this is better than a flashlight beam in pitch blackness.
Anyway, they’re in a section of track that runs through flat country, not a good target, the Peacekeepers are going to rely on mines and vehicle patrols here, save the extra security for the hillsides that’re better for sabotage, cause more damage, harder to repair.
It’s half a mile to the tracks, but the walk goes fast. Sara’s seen headlights once, out on the access road, but she hears nothing, sees nothing. She lowers the metal detector to the ground once she gets close, checks to make sure the beeping is turned off, and moves forward slowly, sweeping the thing in front of her as she goes. She almost jumps back when the screen flashes white, but forces herself to hold still, to sweep the detector around, find the outside edges.
If she looks carefully, she can tell the dirt’s been moved around, but she wouldn’t want to rely on seeing that while she’s walking along. Thanks, Rokia.
And thanks again for the plans she visualizes as she digs carefully with her hands, brushing dirt away bit by bit until she sees the top of the pressure plate. Forcing herself to breathe normally, she works her hands underneath the body of the mine, trying not to think about the fact that the thing she’s pulling up, the size of the soup bowl she used at noon, could leave her looking like Virgil did. Except worse, because she’s kneeling over it. Except actually that’s better, because if it goes off in her face, if it sends shrapnel into her skull, she won’t be left wishing Alister had come along with his gun.
The detonator is on the bottom, a plug wedged into the case. Sara unscrews it, carefully, carefully, pulls it out. She breathes a little easier. There’s a slot for a pin on the side, to hold the pressure plate in place. The pin is gone, of course, but Sara pulls a thin stick out of her pocket, shaved down to the right dimensions, and slides it into place. She sets the mine down next to her, sits back on her heels, and lets out a huge breath in relief.
She hears a car coming, in the distance. And she’s almost done, but not quite. Sara’s not sure how often they’ll check these things, but just in case, she pushes the dirt back into the hole she left, kicks leaves and twigs over everything. Then she picks up her prize—mine in her right hand, detonator in her left—and takes off for the truck.
When Sara climbs into the truck with the disarmed mine, Zea looks at her like she’s crazy. Well, fair enough.
“It’s safe,” Sara says, because she’s 99% sure that’s true. Zea just looks over again. And then looks up, out towards the west where storm clouds are building.
“Let’s go before that dumps on us,” Zea says, and starts the truck.
The river’s already running quicker. “Must be raining already up there,” Zea says, gripping the wheel tight as she maneuvers her way through the water. It’s not long after that when the rain starts. Light at first, then building, until the drumming on the cab makes it too loud to hear anything but a shout. It’s the worst in the fire area, where everything’s the same color and the dirt’s washing down from the hills along with the ash.
“We can switch,” Sara yells, after a bit. Zea just shakes her head.
It’s let up a little by the time they get to camp—ordinary rain instead of torrential downpour. Zea pulls in behind the other truck, and Sara picks up her prizes and runs for the house.
And stops short when she sees Alister, sitting across from the door and watching.
He doesn’t even look angry. Angry would be better, Sara knows how to deal with anger. This is cold, the Peacekeeper look from after Virgil.
Zea almost runs into Sara coming in, because she’s moving fast to get out of the rain and Sara’s frozen in the doorway. Alister holds Sara’s eye for another second before climbing to his feet. “Come on,” he says. “Get dry.”
Durum and Lucerne are sleeping, but Milo jumps up as they come in, crosses the room in a few long strides and hugs Zea, hard.
“You scared the everloving shit out of me,” he says.
“It’s my fault,” Sara says, and Milo’s the one talking but Sara looks at Alister. “I wanted to try disarming one of the mines before we were on the clock.”
She holds up the body of the thing as a peace offering.
Milo shakes his head, laughing incredulously. Alister just closes his eyes.
When he opens them again he’s not scaring her quite as much. “You know how fucking stupid that was,” he says, and it’s still the cold that’s beyond anger.
Sara shrugged. “I knew you wouldn’t want me to go, but I had to try it, you know I did. We have to know it works.”
Now Alister’s shaking his head, and Milo’s just laughing silently, an arm around Zea’s shoulders. The relief on Zea’s face is the first thing that makes Sara actually feel guilty.
“You’re lucky it’s raining,” Alister says, and that has an edge to it. “Or we’d be moving camp right now.”
Sara gives him a puzzled look.
“You drove through the burn area, right?” he asks. Sara nods. “Well, then you left clear tracks the whole way.”
Sara looks down. “I didn’t realize we’d have to go through there.”
“I know,” Alister says. “This is why you don’t go haring off on your own without any preparation.”
Sara sighs, nods. “You’d have told me not to go,” she says.
“Then you’d have to convince me,” Alister counters. “I’m not your… commanding officer, your crew chief, whatever.” He waves a hand vaguely. “I can’t order you to do or not do anything. I’m just trying to keep you alive.”
It’s worse than being yelled at. And he’s right, and Sara knows it, and she knew it was stupid before she did it, she just… didn’t care. Got impatient.
Alister sighs. “Did you learn to drive, at least?” he asks, dryly.
Sara looks up. He’s not smiling, but he looks at least a little amused. “Yeah,” she says. “Zea’s a good teacher.”
“Okay,” Alister says. “Go get some sleep, we’ll deal with the rest in the morning.”
Sara isn’t sure she’ll be able to sleep, after all that. But she lies down next to Zea and listens to the rain drumming on the ruined roof, the plastic tarps. And then she hears Zea sigh, and turns to look.
Zea’s awake too, looks over after a minute and gives Sara a tentative smile.
“I’m sorry,” Sara whispers.
Zea takes a deep breath, props herself on one elbow. “It’s okay,” she says, “Worked out in the end.” She pauses. “I’d rather not do it again though.”
It’s deadpan, but Sara watches until the corners of her mouth give Zea away. Sara reaches out a hand, squeezes Zea’s once, and rolls over to go to sleep.
When Sara wakes up, the only others awake are Lucerne and Durum. They’re sitting in the doorway, quiet and still. Lucerne looks over when Sara gets up, chuckles and shakes her head before getting up and ducking around a corner. Sara walks out into the watery sunlight, leans against the warm wall, wood crumbling a little under her fingers. Durum nods a hello, but keeps quiet until Lucerne comes back with a bowl of something.
The same uninteresting “something” they’ve been eating for weeks, but suddenly Sara’s hungry, so she takes the food with at least a little enthusiasm.
“So,” Lucerne says, once she’s handed it over. “I hear you got yourself into some trouble last night.”
Sara sighs. “Into and then out of,” she says, a little testy.
“Well, that’s lucky,” Lucerne says. And then glances back over her shoulder. “Looks like the roof held up okay, I was a little worried, what with how hard it rained.”
Sara blinks. That’s it? “Uh, yeah, I stayed dry,” she says.
“Helps we’ve got all them trees,” Durum adds. “Breaks things up a bit so it doesn’t hit so hard.”
Lucerne nods. “All the same, we oughta get up there and look things over.”
“I can do that,” Sara offers, because she knows the two of them are stronger than they look, but she doesn’t want to explain why Lucerne fell off and broke something.
Durum looks up at her, and he’s solemn but the laugh lines around his eyes mean if they weren’t milky from cataracts they’d be sparkling and amused. “That’ll keep you busy for a bit, seems like it don’t do to let you get bored.”
Sara can’t not laugh at that, and now both of the others smile too, as though they’re the indulgent grandparents Sara never had. She finds a handy tree and climbs up onto the roof.
It’s slow going, since too many of the boards are rotten and Sara really doesn’t want to wake the others up by falling through the roof onto them. She tightens a few of the lines, checks for any new holes big enough to worry about, and she’s getting ready to come down when she sees Alister standing by the trucks, squinting up at her.
She’s not going to cringe, so she waves, makes her way carefully back to the tree, and scrambles down. Alister looks her up and down, nods. “So,” he says, “Why don’t you show me the landmine you brought back.”
It’s more impersonal than he’s been since back at the beginning, and Sara deserves it but that doesn’t mean she likes it. She nods, ducks inside and gets her things.
Alister’s pulled a toolbox out of one of the trucks and is sitting on the ground in a patch of sun, looking over the plans Rokia sent. Sara tries not to feel jealous—they’re sheets of paper, printouts, they’re not hers, they’re not personal— but it’s hard. She sits down next to him and sets down the mine, the detonator next to it. Alister picks up the body of the thing, turns it around in his hands, sets it down.
“Okay,” he says, “Now how are you going to use it?”
Sara’s a little surprised he’s just asking, rather than telling her what to do. But okay. “Well, two options,” she says. “We could collect, oh, maybe four of them, and slide them all under the track for the train’s weight to detonate.”
“Or?” Alister asks, and Sara feels like she’s back in school.
“Or we wire them together so we only have one pressure trigger and the others go off when it does.”
“Or we use one to detonate some of the remaining fertilizer fuel,” Alister adds.
Sara nods. “But that’s almost used up. Might be worth keeping some back in case.”
Alister glances toward the truck where their last few sacks of fertilizer are stored under a tarp, the barrels of diesel standing nearby. “Can we do both?” he asks. He sees Sara’s confusion and adds, “Wire them together and use the pressure detonators, I mean. It would be more reliable. Add some redundancy.”
Sara reaches for the plans, and he hands them over. She looks carefully, then nods. “I think so,” she says.
“Good,” Alister says. “Be sure, and then we’ll see when we get a chance to try it out.”
It’s still clipped and short, but then he gets up, dusts off his pants, and smiles a little before walking away.
It’s three days later when they get the call. Enough time that Alister’s as good as Sara at arming and disarming the mine, and surprisingly—although maybe it shouldn’t be—Zea’s better than any of the other Nines. Durum can’t see well enough, Lucerne’s arthritis doesn’t stop her doing most things, but makes her fingers too stiff and clumsy for this. Milo does alright, but he’s impatient, and curses about tiny parts and his fat fingers.
It’s a test, and if it works they’re set, but if it doesn’t… there’s not much fertilizer left and no way to get more. The diesel they’re doing a little better with, but it’s still better to use for the trucks than for bomb fuel. They’re still using fertilizer today though, Alister vetoed Sara wiring up a series of mines on the fly, and vetoed her going out to get more, even when she said he could come along. Sara’s annoyed about it, but she has to grudgingly admit that it’s a lot of risk either way.
So tonight Sara, and Alister, and Zea are going out to collect as many mines as they can, and to leave one to detonate fertilizer-based fuel when the train trips it.
They cut across the burn area, away from any roads, splash through the river and follow a faint track until it too disappears. Alister is playing it safe. Probably.
“The track is a mile that way,” he says, gesturing. “Zea, stick behind me, step where I step.”
Zea nods, wide-eyed and solemn, and Sara reaches over to squeeze her hand once. Then Alister opens his door, Zea opens hers, and Sara slides out after her, dropping to the ground and looking around. They’re in woods, sort of, spindly little trees all close together block the path ahead. Alister goes first, then Zea, then Sara in back. Alister starts sweeping the metal detector in front of him while they’re still far from the tracks, and as they get closer, he gestures for Sara to move out and search on her own.
They start finding mines on the edge of the woods. There’s a cornfield here, dark green and high above Sara’s head, and the leaves tear at her bare arms. Between the rows, perfectly hidden in the rough dirt, the metal detectors find what Virgil never had a chance to. Sara drops to her knees and starts digging. It’s quiet enough she can hear Zea and Alister moving through the dense rows, quiet enough she hears the Peacekeeper patrols long before they get close, plenty of time to flatten herself against the dirt. She’s finished disarming two and started on a third when she hears Alister coming towards her. She keeps working. He stops, a few rows away, and it could be the wind but Sara’s pretty sure she hears him sigh. She ignores it, in any case, finishes the job and stands up, holding an old feed sack full of enough firepower to make someone really, really sorry they seeded the whole area with all the explosives she needs.
Alister’s got a funny half-smile on his face, shakes his head as he turns to retrieve his own things. They pick their way carefully toward the tracks, and every time the detectors flash their warnings Sara grins. Gifts. They’re meant to hurt her, hurt her people, but she’s going to take them as gifts and send them right back where they belong.
Zea digs the fertilizer in under the tracks while Sara sets the mine detonator, Alister checks everything and they slip back down the safe row they finally found on the way in, moving quickly out to the tree line. They slow down after that, checking every step until they’re well into the woods. Finally Zea shifts sideways and back until she’s walking beside Sara, so close they’re nearly touching at shoulders and hips. Zea’s breath is coming faster than the easy walk would really account for, and she’s chewing on her bottom lip. Sara reaches over to rest a hand on the small of Zea’s back, and Zea blows out a shaky breath and glances over. They walk like that all the way back to the truck. Alister secures their cargo in the back, and Zea scrambles up first, surrendering the window seat to Sara. They sit, quiet, until Sara can’t help breaking the silence.
“That was amazing,” she says, looking over at the others.
Alister just shakes his head and starts the truck. Zea looks at her with such complete astonishment Sara almost laughs out loud. She pulls it back though, because she’s not a total asshole and Zea’s still shaky and nervous even though they’re done with the hard part.
“You’re crazy,” Zea says, a few seconds later, and this time Alister’s shoulders shake briefly even though his eyes never leave the road. “How are you not scared?”
Sara shrugs. She’s still smiling. She can’t really help it. “I mean, if I get killed I get killed, meanwhile we might as well have fun, right?”
That gets an even more incredulous look. “Sky and soil, Sara,” Zea says, “You’re unbelievable.”
“Believe it, girl, I’m sitting right here,” Sara shoots back, and okay she is being an obnoxious little shit, but come on, they’ve had a good night, she’s entitled to some degree of ridiculous.
Zea laughs, finally, and the tension ebbs a little.
Alister takes a different path across the burn area. After the rain it’s sprouting tufts of grass, but the ash still crunches under the tires, and when Sara looks back in the rearview mirror she can see why Alister was so worried about tracks. It’s a clear night tonight though, so she’s not sure what his plan is. “Thought you were worried about leaving tracks,” she says.
Alister sighs. “I am. But going around would take too long, so I’m just trying to make sure the tracks don’t lead straight to us.”
“We’re gonna have to move around a lot more now,” he says. “No more fixed camps, it’s getting too dangerous.”
He doesn’t elaborate. Sara’s not exactly thrilled at the idea of moving camp, it’s nice to have a dry place to sleep, but she’ll manage.
“We should’ve taken some gear,” Zea says, absently. “It’d be easier with the crew tents than the tarps.” She looks down then, pulls in, shuts up.
Sara shrugs. “We’ll make do.”
Alister nods, and they lapse back into silence until they reach the camp.
When Zea wakes up, the house is empty. She gets to her feet, scrubbing at her eyes, and follows the sound of low voices to the little clearing out front.
Alister’s map is spread out on the ground, with everyone crouching around. Alister has a pencil in one hand, marking spots. Sara looks up and smiles. “G’morning, sleepyhead,” she says, teasing.
Zea’s not really in the mood. She’s tired, feels almost hungover from the adrenaline of last night, and she still doesn’t understand how the rest of them can be so calm about everything. When there’s so many ways things could go wrong every time they go out, it’s only a wonder they haven’t all gotten themselves killed by now.
“What’s up?” Zea asks, trying to keep the irritation out of her voice. From the sharp look Lucerne gives her, she doesn’t quite manage.
“No more permanent camps,” Milo says. “Gonna have to play it like we’re a crew from now on.”
Zea sighs. It’s not unexpected, after what Alister said last night, but that doesn’t mean she likes it. “So you’re all finding campsites?” she asks.
Alister nods, still concentrating on the map.
“It’s the river that’s the problem,” Sara says. “If they catch us, it’ll be crossing the damn thing.”
Milo shrugs. “Yeah, but north of there it’s all open.”
Alister’s still scowling at the map as though it’s got a solution buried in there somewhere.
Sara’s the one who finally breaks the silence. “You know,” she says, and oh dear. “We’re not hauling as much, we could walk a lot farther than with enormous damn sacks of fertilizer.”
Alister raises an eyebrow at her, looking as skeptical as Zea is.
“C’mon, it makes sense. We park the truck out here,” she says, pointing, “head down the hill, wade across, and then it’s only a mile or two to the tracks.”
Everyone leans closer. Alister nods slowly. “Here,” he says, “and here, where the river comes close, and it’s too deep to take the truck across.”
Sara nods. “I mean we wouldn’t technically have to take anything, we could just—“
“No,” Alister says. “You’re not rewiring this shit right there, in the dark.” He pauses. “Not at first, anyway.”
Sara flashes him one of her sharp grins. “It’s not gonna be hard,” she says. “You’ll see.”
“All right,” Lucerne says, looking amused. “But for now let’s move on out, get ready for the next time.”
They pack things a little differently this time. Food and extra fuel can stay in the truck—the one that won’t be going out to the tracks—and the other can take tarps and blankets. Everyone’s got their own bag of essentials with them, in case they have to ditch everything. It is like a crew, Zea thinks, and notices that even Alister is deferring to her and Milo about what goes where. It’s kind of nice, familiar almost, something she knows how to do for once.
“Wait here,” Alister says when they’re finished. “Sara?”
Sara’s eyes light up, and she follows Alister into the woods. Zea looks over at Lucerne, raises an eyebrow, but Lucerne just shrugs. They lean against the trucks, enjoying the sun, until they hear the shots.
Milo jumps, glares towards the woods where Alister and Sara disappeared.
Durum chuckles, then seems to sense Zea’s glare. “He’s teaching her to shoot, I’ll bet,” Durum says.
“Why?” Zea can’t help bursting out.
“In case,” Durum says, as though that’s an answer.
Durum comes over, puts a hand on Zea’s shoulder. “In case they get caught.”
Zea shudders. She can’t imagine fighting her way out of some kind of Peacekeeper ambush. But it makes sense, once she thinks about it. Sara would go down fighting, no matter what.
The two of them come back a few minutes later. Alister looks serious, Sara looks like she just—well, honestly, like she just got laid. Loose and grinning and bright-eyed and when she sees everyone staring at the two of them she laughs.
Then she comes over to Zea, slings an arm around her waist and says “Come on, I’ll ride with you today.”
That probably shouldn’t make Zea as pleased as it does.
Lucerne comes with them, declaring she’s quite ready to be away from men for a bit. Sara laughs, and between the two of them the amusement is so contagious Zea can’t help smiling. They climb into the cab and wait for Alister to pull out, then follow behind.
Lucerne has her window down, her head turned into the breeze. “That’s trillium,” she says once, pointing. “And over there’s yarrow, it’s good for colds.”
Sara looks interested. “How’d you learn that?” she asks.
Lucerne smiles, her whole face creasing with it. “I learned from my ma, she learned from hers,” she says. “Back before, folks in the depots’d have gardens full of this stuff, ‘cause you couldn’t count on a doctor getting out there, specially in winter.”
“And now?” Zea asks, because she’s never seen anything more than a few vegetables in Depot gardens, even her mom’s.
Lucerne shakes her head. “Forbidden,” she says. “Capitol tore ‘em all out, when they redistricted. Can’t have people being self-reliant, y’see.”
“But you remembered,” Zea says.
Lucerne nods. “Most things’ll grow wild, or look like wild at least. Peacekeepers can’t hardly expect you to keep all the weeds out of the yard when the spray’s all for the corn.” She winks at Sara.
“Haven’t heard of any of that in Six,” Sara says. “There it’s doctors if you can afford ‘em, booze or morphling if you can’t.” She pauses. “Maybe up in the mining towns, I guess.”
Lucerne sighs. “Can’t imagine how you live your whole life in a city like that,” she says.
Zea looks over and almost laughs at Sara’s startled expression. “Never really thought about it,” Sara says. “Anyway I’m hardly there anymore since I started on the trains.”
Lucerne grants that with a tilt of her head, and they lapse back into quiet.
They’re moving north, and west, by Zea’s reckoning. Closer to the river, to the tracks, farther from the burn scar. Makes sense, that’ll keep them from having to drive through it, but they’re getting close to the depot where she and Lucerne got fuel and supplies, closer to where the trees open out and the fields start.
Zea couldn’t have imagined a couple months ago that open fields would feel dangerous and exposed. She’s spent half her time out here trying to find a horizon to ground her, a way to see over the trees hemming them in, but now the thought of all that open sky makes her nervous.
They don’t get as far as that, though, before Alister pulls off the barely-a-track they’ve been following and heads straight through the low brush into the woods.
Sara snorts. “Well, at least the Peacekeepers won’t be able to get here any faster than we can,” she says.
Zea nods, because she can’t break concentration or they’ll plow into something. Alister’s ducking around trees and through gaps just wide enough for the trucks to fit through, and doing it a lot faster than Zea’d have thought possible. She’s glad to have him to follow, but even so it’s tricky work. When he finally stops, Zea lets out a deep breath and feels her shoulders relax.
They get called out again only a couple days later. Sara gets the message and immediately sets about wiring up the mines in some complicated system she swears will work. Alister looks over it briefly and then shrugs and leaves her to it, and Zea doesn’t bother. If Sara wants help, she’ll probably ask.
Then Alister comes and sits down next to her. Zea looks over.
“Are you okay to come out again?” he asks, and just for a minute he sounds like Durum, or, back further, her dad. Concern, but not the kind that makes Zea want to snap that everything’s fine so people will stop treating her like a child. Like she could say no and it would be okay.
So she thinks about it. Thinks about her heart in her throat and forcing her hands steady, wiping the sweat on her jeans and digging her fingers—carefully, carefully—into the moist plowed soil. The long, bumpy ride and the exhaustion afterwards. She’d rather not do it again. But then: with three of them they got seven mines for Sara to wind together in a deadly daisy-chain. With only two, they’d have to stay out longer or settle for less explosives, and that’s no good. Or Milo could go, but—he’d be slower, at best, and more dangerous at worst. She’s the right one to do it. And she can do it. Because she’s done it. And probably the first time’s the scariest. Sara and Alister don’t even seem fazed anymore, and even Milo’s been pretty calm about the whole thing. Or was, up till Virgil.
Alister doesn’t seem impatient, even though she’s quiet for a good while. But finally Zea looks up at him and nods. “I can do it,” she says. “I’ll be okay.”
Alister studies her carefully. “If you’re sure,” he says. “Nobody’s going to force you.”
Zea nods again. “I want to help,” she says. “I’ll come.”
She’s right that the second time isn’t as scary. When they climb into the truck that night she’s still nervous, but she doesn’t feel as shaky.
That lasts until Alister pulls through the woods to the bottom of a hill and the river stretches ahead of them, black and mysterious in the moonlight.
Zea takes a deep breath. “How deep is it?” she asks. She’s never been at a depot with a river nearby, so there’s been no reason to learn to swim.
Sara shrugs, as she’s getting out. “Not that deep,” she says. When Zea doesn’t respond, Sara looks over her shoulder. “Don’t worry,” she says, “we’ll send Alister first.”
Alister’s shaking his head when Zea looks over the truck bed at him. “Come on,” he says. “Won’t know until we try.”
It turns out to be hip-deep on Zea, a little less for Alister, almost to Sara’s waist. Alister holds the bag with Sara’s homemade bomb over his head as he crosses, then Zea and Sara go together. It’s summer, but the water’s cold enough to raise goosebumps on Zea’s skin, and afterwards, walking in wet jeans is the opposite of comfortable. But just as Zea starts to wonder if they’ll ever get there, Alister stops, holds out his hand for Sara to pass him one of the metal detectors.
Sara takes the other, moves a little to the right, and they start inching forward. The first one they find, Alister nods to Zea, who drops down to dig it out while Alister moves a little way ahead. Zea watches where he puts his feet.
The moon’s dimmer tonight. The first part, digging the thing out, Zea can do by touch, but once she has it setting on the surface, she pulls out a little flashlight, keeping it close to the ground while she removes the detonator and inserts one of Sara’s homemade wood pins.
And then she exhales, turns the light off, and stands up. One down.
They all freeze when the headlights of the Peacekeeper patrol sweep by. But this field’s plowed parallel to the road, because of the slope, so there’s not much chance they’ll be seen through the late-summer high corn.
What’ll they do after harvest? Zea wonders, as she moves with Alister to the next spot, and a third. No way to hide in a clean field. Maybe by then District 13 will be able to send bombers. Or maybe the Peacekeepers will give up on District 9. Or, she can’t help thinking, they might all get killed before then.
But there’s enough to worry about right in front of her, so Zea leaves that for another day.
When they head towards the tracks finally, Sara’s grinning so widely Zea can see her teeth in the dim light. She drops to her knees next to the track, pulls things out of the sack and hands a string of mines to Alister. Zea knows they aren’t armed, but she still can’t help being surprised at how casually Sara handles the things. Zea drops down by Sara and helps her dig out space enough for the mines to set under the rail ties. Much easier than trying to fit bulky sacks of fertilizer, but also more precise—Sara fiddles with depth long enough Zea’s worried they’ll get caught. But finally she nods, pulls the pins all down the line, and steps back. Alister crosses from the other side, he and Sara exchange a nod, and they hurry back to the cover of the cornfield.
They’re back in the truck, but haven’t gone far toward camp when the train comes. They’re close enough to hear it, an explosion followed by the screech and crash of metal going where it really shouldn’t. The radio bursts with Peacekeeper voices, orders and calls for help, unencrypted because it’s an emergency. Sara’s whole body radiates her excitement, wriggling in her seat, leaning over Zea to look out the window, craning her head to see even though there’s a hill and a million trees in the way.
Alister glances over, and again Zea thinks of Durum, the way he looked at Zea when she figured out how to make a clean turn in the combine, got the planter settings just right on the first try. She’s still a little uncertain about the Peacekeeper, but if he is like Durum then he’s probably okay. He catches Zea’s eye then, over Sara’s head, still with that indulgent look, and actually winks. Zea smiles back, then looks away as Sara sits up and looks between them suspiciously.
“Come on,” Sara says. “That was awesome, you two need to lighten up.”
She elbows Zea’s side, then leans against her shoulder. Zea gives in, reaches an arm around Sara and hugs her. “You did great,” she says. Sara looks up at her, pleased.
“This isn’t the way we came,” Zea says, a little later.
“Nope, new camp,” Alister says, voice tight as he navigates the overgrown track. “Milo and Lucerne and Durum got it set up while we were out.”
Sara raises an eyebrow.
“You didn’t tell us,” Zea says, a little annoyed.
“It’s better that way,” Alister says.
Sara looks up at Zea. “In case,” she says, softly.
Zea thinks back to the beginning, talking with Durum and Virgil about what the Peackeepers would do if they caught her.
Virgil. If he’d been captured, instead of killed… what would have happened? Zea shudders, her hand tightening unconsciously around Sara’s shoulder. She doesn’t say anything.
The camp is small, just a couple tarps spread between trees, parachute cloth and bedrolls underneath. Zea’s exhausted, more than the walking should account for, and changing out of her wet jeans is like heaven. She pulls on a pair that’s dry, if not really clean, and tosses her old ones over a tree branch. Sara and Alister follow suit, but when Zea heads for her bedroll, they sit down next to Milo, start talking in low voices.
Zea wonders whether she should join them. But she’s tired, and she can’t imagine there’s anything she could say that Sara and Alister wouldn’t know better, so she goes to bed. Save the talking for tomorrow.
I think there's only one chapter left.
In this installment.
Then there'll be part 4.
They keep moving, keep walking farther from the truck to the tracks, and it’s a good thing they do, even if it does take longer. The Peacekeeper patrols come closer together, there’s guards along the roads almost all the way to the river. The mines are set thick, which just makes Sara laugh because it makes for less work to dig a few before setting theirs off. They move often enough that Sara has plenty of chances to practice shooting, until Alister’s gun feels almost familiar.
The Capitol is sending more trains, bringing in more material from Six, repairing faster, pushing hard to get the track back under their control. In Nine City, there's reports of executions, but also homemade grenades thrown into the rebuilt Peacekeeper barracks, fires of suspicious origin, power being cut—anything they can do, the folks in the city are doing.
It's a stalemate, basically, and given that the other side has all the power and money, Sara figures that means they're winning.
Alister doesn't disagree, when she tells him, sitting in the truck between him and Zea, going out for the third time in a week.
“It's costing them,” he says. “That's good.”
“Yeah, and if they're spending everything trying to fix track and get us, they're not spending it out in Six,” Sara adds. She rarely hears from Joe these days, but Six is fighting harder than most anywhere else. The Capitol won't give up on their source of steel.
Zea looks away, sighs.
“What?” Sara asks.
“Well,” Zea hesitates. “It's costing us, too.”
Sara shrugs. “Worth it,” she says. Zea gives her a half-incredulous look. “What?”
“How can you be so casual about it?” Zea asks. “People are dying, Sara.”
Sara glances at Alister, but he’s focused on driving, as though that suddenly got much harder in the last 30 seconds. “It's not casual,” she says. “It's being realistic. Winning costs, sure, but when we win, it'll…” Not get paid back, no, the people who've been killed are dead, there's no paying that back. But. “It'll be worth it.”
“If,” Zea says. “If we win.”
“We will,” Sara says. “And if we lose we’ll be dead, so I don't lose sleep worrying about it.”
Zea shakes her head, turns back to watch the trees slide by in the dark.
They're halfway to the tracks, walking carefully, about to pull out the metal detectors, when Alister freezes. He holds out an arm to stop Sara, points to her and to the ground. Stay here, Sara assumes. And he looks deadly serious, so she freezes, tries not to even breathe loudly. Alister nods, starts moving through the trees so quietly Sara wouldn't think he was there if she wasn't watching him.
Then she hears something, a branch snapping, leaves rustling. Not where Alister should be. So, a guard. On foot. That just seems unfair.
There's not much more than a louder rustle and then silence, even quieter than before. And then Alister’s back.
Sara doesn't ask what happened, because she doesn't have to. Zea doesn't ask, more likely because she doesn't actually want to know. But Alister motions for quiet anyway, and they slink forward to get their night’s harvest of explosives, rig the track, and walk back to the truck, all without saying a word.
“Sentry?” Sara asks, once they're on their way to tonight's campsite.
Zea’s head snaps around to look, eyes wide. Alister nods.
“You took care of him?” Sara asks.
Alister gives her a look. Okay, that did sound a little like a bad movie line. But then he nods again, once. “Yes.”
“You…. oh.” Zea starts, then looks back out at the road in front of them.
They're camped in the open today, under the trees but without much else. The others have spread a tarp and one of the burlap covers between four trees, with the bedrolls underneath. Lucerne is sitting up, waiting for them.
“How did it go?” she asks, softly, as they come toward her. She looks between the three of them, gaze piercing.
“No problem,” Sara says, when the silence stretches a little long.
Lucerne’s mouth goes tight. “Uh-huh,” she says, looking at Alister. “What happened?”
“Foot sentry,” Alister says, clipped and terse. “I took care of it.”
Lucerne nods. “You okay?” she asks. Alister nods. She looks around again. “Do you want to take watch, or do you want to sleep?”
“I'll take watch,” Alister says. “You get some sleep.”
Lucerne nods, still watching him, then goes toward her bedroll.
“You too,” Alister says, looking at Sara. “You should sleep.”
Sara hesitates, but Zea looks worried as she glances between them, so Sara follows her.
“He killed the sentry?” Zea asks, quietly, once they're settled in their bedrolls.
“Yeah,” Sara says.
“That quietly? How?”
Like Sara knows what Peacekeepers learn about killing people, but rumor has it they're mostly the Career kids who didn't Volunteer for the Games, and everybody's seen how good the Two kids are at killing. Even if the Peacekeepers are second best, they must be good.
But you don't need training to make some educated guesses. “Knife, probably,” Sara says. Hell, she could probably kill someone with a knife if she had to, even if she couldn't do it that quietly. Rokia did it.
Zea shudders. “Just like that?”
Sara looks over at her, confused.
“He didn't even seem like it bothered him,” Zea explains.
Sara sighs. “He had to do it,” she says. “No point getting upset over it.”
Zea’s silent long enough Sara thinks she's fallen asleep, until Zea sighs, rolls onto her side and whispers goodnight.
Everyone’s awake when they come into camp after the next run. The camp’s disassembled, and Milo’s sitting in the cab of the other truck. Lucerne and Durum are perched on the open rear gate, and climb down as Alister pulls up behind them.
“What is it?” he asks, not turning off the engine. A half-dozen possibilities flash through Sara’s head, but the answer is one of the good ones.
“We’re taking the City,” Lucerne says. “They want us to come help out closer in.”
“Where?” Alister asks.
“Along the river. Just southwest of town.”
“Milo knows the way?”
“Yes. We looked over the maps together.”
Alister nods. “Okay,” he says. “I’ll follow you.”
Sara’s a little surprised at how quickly Alister agrees, but it’ll be light before long, so maybe he just doesn’t think they’ve got time for more questions. He flips the radio to one of the Peacekeeper channels, the coded ones that’re just beeps and squeaks to Sara because Thirteen uses a totally different code.
They’re going north. Toward the tracks, toward the river, toward the Peacekeepers, and Sara can’t understand why until she starts seeing singed trees and ash on the ground. They’re going around the burned area.
They’re moving fast, but once they turn east, Sara can tell it’s getting lighter ahead. The road gets better—which is good for speed, bad for being seen—and skirts around forested hills that flatten out into open fields over Sara’s left shoulder somewhere. It’s a good route.
And then they come out into the open. There’s a line of fields along the river, a bridge ahead. A cluster of buildings on the other side of the bridge.
Zea sucks in a breath, and Sara looks over. “Rice depot,” Zea says. “They’re smaller, scattered around.”
Milo keeps going, right over the bridge, so Alister follows. “What’s he doing?” Zea mutters, as the truck ahead of them pulls in next to one of the buildings.
A man comes out of the house, and Milo hops down to greet him. Sara exhales.
Alister lets out a long breath too, shakes his head and gets out. Sara looks over at Zea, raises an eyebrow.
“I don’t know,” Zea says. “Guess Milo knew the guy?”
Alister waves to them, and Zea slides over into the driver’s seat, pulls the truck up to where the guy’s opening a wide door.
They both get down, look inside.
The guy’s showing Alister and Milo a stack of boxes. “Told ‘em they could store this with me,” he says, with a grin that shows off missing teeth. “Till they needed ‘em.”
Sara looks closer, sees the labels on the boxes, and bursts out laughing. Fresh, unarmed mines, all ready for her to use. The guy looks at her and grins wider.
“They didn’t think an old guy like me’d be able to read, I expect,” he says. “Told me it was rat poison for harvest time.”
Alister shakes his head. “Distributed storage,” he says. “But that’s…”
“C’mon,” Milo says. “Let’s load ‘em up.”
They get diesel, too, fill up both trucks. “Now you gotta get those fuckers outa here,” the old man says, as they’re leaving. “Fore they come back and shoot me.”
It’s got the cadence of a joke, but when Sara looks back, he isn’t smiling.
It’s not far from there that Milo winds his way up into the kind of little valley Sara’s getting to know way too well, finds a place to wedge the trucks under the trees, and shuts off the engine. Good. It’s almost full daylight by now, and just because they haven’t seen hovercraft doesn’t mean there aren’t patrols out looking. Milo starts pulling out the camp gear, and Zea goes over to help him string up the tarps.
“So,” Sara says, “You’ve been quiet.”
Alister looks back at her and shakes his head. “Endgame,” he says, brusquely. “Always gets more dangerous.” He walks over to where Milo and Zea are working, so Sara follows.
There doesn’t seem to be much to do, though, so she heads a little ways uphill and scrambles up a tree to see where they are.
For once, the answer to that is something beyond “the middle of fucking nowhere.” The sun’s flashing off the river, just to their east, and if she squints, Sara can pick out the wall around Nine city, the scattered buildings of the outskirts, maybe even the elevators at the loading docks. They’re close. Sara’s surprised at what a relief it is to see signs of—well, human existence beyond their little crew and the Peacekeepers trying to kill them. Civilization. Permanence.
It’s a relief, and yet it’s terrifying, because the city’s probably swarming with Peacekeepers, vehicle and foot patrols, weapons and armor and everything the Capitol can throw at keeping District Nine in line.
Especially if they realize nobody’s fucking with their tracks anymore. Whatever’s about to happen, Sara hopes it happens fast.
Milo comes up a little later. “Hey there,” he says, quiet. Sara turns. “You oughta go get something to eat, rest a bit.”
Sara rolls her eyes.
Milo chuckles. “We’re going into town tonight, if Bley’s guy can get to us. You’ll want to rest first.”
“Bley’s guy?” Sara asks. “Is that code?”
“Nope,” Milo snorts. “Bley’s a friend of mine—ours. He’s the one we dropped that fertilizer with, back at the beginning.”
It feels like a lifetime ago. “Guess he’s been putting it to good use,” Sara says. “Seems like they’ve been making trouble here too.”
“Oh sure,” Milo says. “Bley’s trouble all over. Just like me.” He pauses. “Go on, now. Lucerne’ll come looking if you wait too much longer, and then you’ll really get an earful.”
Sara smiles. It’s true. “Alright,” she says, “I’m going.”
It’s quiet in camp. Everyone’s resting, except for Lucerne who’s sitting leaned against a tree with a couple of ration bars. She hands one to Sara, passes up a canteen of water.
“It’s not good, but it’s food,” Lucerne says, as Sara sighs and peels open the packaging. “You eat that and then you can go rest, we’ll be pretty busy tonight, sounds like.”
Sara looks around. It’s not well-hidden, just a few trees overhead. The tarps are stretched between, Zea, Alister and Durum stretched out asleep beneath them.
Huh. Even Alister’s asleep, seems like. Well, they had a busy night. Sara finishes the so-called food, nods toward Lucerne. “Alright, I’m going to bed,” she says, a little sarcastic.
“Good,” Lucerne says, smiling. “I’ll watch for now.”
When Sara wakes up, the sun’s getting low. Lucerne is sleeping, but everyone else is awake and clustered around the trucks. Moving stuff.
“G’morning, sleepyhead,” Zea says, as Sara comes over.
“What’s up?” Sara asks, stretching.
“We’re gonna try and take a truck in,” Zea says, sounding skeptical. “But just the one, so we’re re-packing stuff.”
Sara looks. The boxes of explosives are covered by a couple of blankets, one barrel of diesel wedged in behind, everyone’s duffels packed around. There’s space at the back of the bed—enough for people to sit.
“There’s apparently a way through the wall, down near the river,” Alister says, coming around. “And a safe house where we can go on the other side.” He sounds tense. That wouldn’t be surprising, except that Alister never actually sounds tense. Precise, direct, but always calm.
“Okay,” Sara says, shrugs. “Someone’s coming to show us the way?”
Alister looks sharply at her.
“Milo told me,” Sara answers. “One of Bley’s guys, right Milo?”
Milo nods. Alister takes a deep breath. “Yeah. Come on,” he adds, heading toward the ridge. “Sara, I want to talk to you.”
Zea raises an eyebrow, but Sara just shrugs and follows.
They go a little ways out of camp before Alister pulls his gun out and hands it to Sara. Then he unbuckles the holster from around his waist, pulls it off, and hands her that.
Sara just blinks at him. “Why are you giving me your gun?” she asks. “Don’t you want it?”
Alister raises one eyebrow. “My rifle is in my duffel,” he says. “I’d rather not be the only one armed.”
He reaches out a hand for the gun, so Sara can buckle on the holster, settle it against her hip. Alister’s jacket covers his gun most of the time, but Sara’s just in a T-shirt and jeans, and the black webbing stands out stark against the faded colors. He hands the gun back, and Sara holsters it. Then he hands her a spare magazine, and looks her straight in the eye as she takes it.
“I need you to do exactly what I tell you to do,” he says, clipped and precise. “I might not have time to explain why, not now, so I need you to trust me.” He stops, watches Sara.
“Of course,” she says. “I trust you.”
“Good,” he says, solemn. “I mean it, Sara,” he adds. “Exactly what I say, when I say it, even if it doesn’t make sense.”
Sara nods. Alister waits until she says it. “Okay…yes. I will.”
Then he nods, turns back toward the truck.
Everyone’s eyes follow them back, going instantly to the gun on Sara’s hip. Nobody says anything, not even when Alister opens his duffel and starts assembling his rifle.
Sara’s hand drops to feel the cold metal, and when she looks up she catches Zea staring. “It’s okay,” she says, and she’s smiling a little because she really can’t help it. Not when they’re this close to— well, something, anyway. “I know how to use it. More or less.”
Milo chuckles at that, and it breaks the tension a little. Once everything’s ready, Durum goes over to wake Lucerne, and they start collecting the tarps.
Zea comes to stand next to Sara, leaning against the bed of the truck. “Be…careful, okay?” she asks, looking out into the trees.
Sara pushes back the instinct to be flippant, laugh it off. “I will,” she says.
Zea glances over. “You won’t, not really,” she says, shaking her head. “But thanks for saying it at least.”
Zea’s the first to hear the Mockingjay whistle, coming from the brush on the edge of their campsite as the darkness rises. She looks at Alister, who notices and catches her eye. Zea touches her ear, and the sound comes again. Alister smiles wryly and returns it, then walks in the direction the sound came from, meeting their guide just as he emerges from the bushes.
Zea doesn’t recognize her. She’s Milo’s age, or near enough, barely taller than Lucerne, and dirty, her face smeared and her clothes the color of dust.
“Lucerne?” she asks, looking around.
Lucerne steps forward. “I’m Lucerne,” she says. “You’re going to show us into the city?”
She nods, grins, teeth flashing white in the dimness. “Yep. It’ll be nice to have a ride. I’m Zizania, I’m a friend of Bley’s.”
Alister nods at the confirmation. “We should wait till it’s a little darker.”
Zizania shakes her head. “At ten they turn on floodlights. We gotta go now.”
Alister raises one eyebrow, then nods again. “Okay.” He looks around, takes a deep breath. “Milo, you drive. Zizania’ll go up there with you to show the way, and Sara,” he pauses until Sara’s focused on him. “You ride shotgun. Keep your eyes open.”
Zea shivers, even though the night is warm still. She’s used the phrase any number of times, but it’s the first time she’s thought of “riding shotgun” as anything like literal.
“Got it,” Sara says, her hand dropping to the gun strapped at her hip.
Alister walks toward the truck, and Zea turns to follow. She meets Milo by the driver’s door, hesitates for a second, then hugs him tight. He’s startled, but then his hands come around her back and he sighs, one long breath before letting go. “Be careful,” Zea whispers, struggling to keep her voice even.
Milo nods. “You too, girl,” he says, and then he’s climbing into the cab.
Everyone else is loading up into the back of the truck, and once Zea climbs up Alister looks around, nods, and goes to stand looking over the cab, his rifle over one shoulder. Then he gives the roof two sharp taps, and the engine starts.
Milo drives fast, but not as fast as Alister did to get here. He’s more careful. Still, there’s enough wind to make conversation impractical. Zea sits with her back to the side of the truck bed, knees wedged up against a tank of diesel, and looks at the others. Lucerne and Durum look calm, as usual, their hands tangled loosely together. Alister has one hand on the top of the cab, steadying himself, keeps the other on his rifle.
They weave through the mountains on half-overgrown roads, down past the road they took out from the City, to the edge of the river. There are no trees here. Just overgrown shrubs and weeds, flourishing in the good floodplain soil. There should be rice through here, Zea saw that on a map once, color-coded yellow for corn, brown for wheat, blue river with white riceland alongside. Not here.
It’s good that it’s weeds and not rice, because at least with the land sloping down to the river and the brush growing up nearly as tall as the truck, they’ll be at least a little harder to see. They’re still awfully exposed, but down here, well, this is probably the best they can do.
They approach the city wall just on the edge of the river, mud splashing up from the tires. There’s a break in the bricks, patched-over with wood, and as they get close, Milo slows to a crawl and Sara jumps out and runs ahead. When she gets to the wall she pulls at some of the boards and the whole thing slides away, leaving a gap the truck will fit through, but only just.
Milo eases his way in, and Sara pulls the boards back across, sprints back to the truck and hops onto the back bumper, holding onto the tailgate and grinning at Zea. Alister glances back, sighs, and turns back to watch forward. Sara climbs up to sit on the tailgate, braces herself, and the grin fades as she turns to watch behind them.
They’re moving away from the river now, zig-zagging through half-empty blocks of houses, until they reach the edge of the city proper and exchange haphazard wooden houses for worn brick. They stop in front of one that looks no different from any of the other dark warehouses that surround it, and this time Zizania gets out to knock on the cargo door.
It’s opened quickly, and Milo pulls all the way in, gets the truck wedged between boxes and sacks and crates of who knows what, piled high all around. Then the door slides shut behind them.
The only light in the place is around a table in the back corner, where a few people are standing up like they’ve been interrupted from something important.
Zea takes a deep breath, finally exhales something she’s been holding the whole ride in, and stands up. Sara’s already moving, flashing another grin at Zea and jumping down to head straight for the table. Lucerne and Durum move more slowly, so Zea has time to open the gate for them, offer and be refused help climbing down. Alister just steps up onto the bed and jumps, leaving Zea to bring up the rear of their little crew, falling into step with Milo.
Milo speeds up when they get closer, and it’s only as he’s moving past her that Zea recognizes Bley. Milo hugs him, they slap each other on the back, and Zea looks away.
She doesn’t recognize anyone else, but Sara is talking animatedly with another woman, who Zea thinks she recognizes from the loading docks. Lucerne’s shaking hands with a man half her age, and Durum has one hand on the back of a chair, squinting around and trying to make out faces.
And Zea’s…standing here, on the outside, watching.
She’s not the only one. Alister’s a half-step away, poised like her on the edge of the circle of light. He sees her looking at him and he—winks? really?—and steps toward the table.
Most people stop what they’re doing and look at him. Zea isn’t sure how he does it, but something about the way he carries himself says pay attention. It’s a good trick.
He looks around. “So. What’s next?”
People shuffle around, find chairs, someone drags a crate over and motions for Zea to sit on it. There’s probably fifteen people around the table, now that the six of them have arrived. There’s a few loose pages scattered across the table, and a big map of the city, hand-drawn into the wood itself.
Once everyone’s settled, there’s a beat of silence and then Lucerne speaks up. “We been out running around all over, so Bley, you’d best catch us up.”
Bley glances at Alister before he starts, but Alister doesn’t contradict Lucerne, so he leans forward on his elbows and takes a deep breath. “Stalemate, really,” he says. “We go shoot some of them, blow something up, they raid a few houses, shoot some people, threaten to shoot more, just cycling through till someone gets fed up, I guess.”
The others fill in details: what they’ve targeted and who the Peacekeepers have blamed, where the roadblocks keep the rebels out and where they mainly keep the PKs in. Zea doesn’t have anything else to suggest—there might be more of them than there are Peacekeepers, but that doesn’t mean storming into the re-fortified barracks would be any better than walking in front of a combine. And short of that, what can they do, beyond what they’ve been doing?
Durum clears his throat, and everyone turns to look at him. “What about the refineries?” he asks, gesturing toward them on the map.
“What about them?” Bley asks.
“Could hit those.”
“Durum,” Lucerne says, tight. “We’ll need those, after.”
“So we’ll rebuild ‘em,” Durum says. “You said things’d just go on like this till someone gets fed up, and what’s the point of sticking around if there’s no fuel to ship out, no way to make more quick.”
Glances, around the table. “There’s still grain to ship,” someone says.
Durum snorts. “Yeah, but that’s harder to blow up and it’s not worth as much.”
“No, I mean—wouldn’t they stay for that?”
“Doubtful.” It’s the first thing Alister’s said, since they sat down.
“Those kinda people don’t think about where their meals come from. Probably figure those machines make it out of thin air,” Durum adds
The argument goes on, but Zea mostly stops paying attention. Shudders, imagining the explosion, the chaos, the fire. They used the fear of a refinery fire, only months ago, to sneak Sara to another house with another knot of people learning to make the explosives they used up until the Capitol gave them something better.
They’ve been blowing up railways. Derailing trains. That’s bad enough, but it’s not— this. What they’re talking about now feels like setting fire to their own house to get rid of mice in the walls. She watches the others. Sara doesn’t say anything, but Zea’s pretty sure she’s for explosions, regardless where they come. Milo looks thoughtful, but not exactly skeptical. Durum suggested the whole thing, and Lucerne—Lucerne is sitting next to Durum as usual, but her back is ramrod straight, her hands tight in her lap, eyes on the table.
Finally Durum turns to her. “Lucy,” he says, in a soft voice. “We gotta do it.”
Lucerne’s mouth goes tight, and Zea sees her shoulders rise and fall, one breath and then another. “You’re right,” she says finally. “It will probably work, so you’re right. We have to.” She sighs, shakes her head. “Skies and soil forgive us.”
And that, apparently, decides it.
It’s taken them a while to get here, but once the Nines have decided what to do, they move surprisingly fast. Sara isn’t involved in any of the preparations outside this rundown warehouse—the Nines know the area and blend in with everyone else, and she’s never been outside the cargo loading area and, Zea assures her, Sara doesn’t look local.
The planning in here though, that Sara participates in fully, and vocally. Possibly too vocally, if the glare Alister shoots her means what she thinks it does.
“We’re not going to have time for something elaborate,” she tries not to snap.
Lucerne frowns, looking at the rough schematics of the refinery laid out across the table. They’ve been adjusted and filled in as more and more people come with information, until by now they’re pretty detailed. Sara just hopes they’re accurate. There’s no way to check until they’re there, and by then it’ll be too late. “It’s too dangerous to place charges ahead of time,” Lucerne says, shaking her head. “This isn’t a granary.”
“Even then…” someone starts, then shrugs.
“We’ve got all those boxes,” Milo points out. “It’s not like the mines are hard to set.”
Alister raises one eyebrow, then nods and turns to Bley. “How many people do you have in there?”
Bley shrugs. “Five or six, depending on the shift.”
“So they could move some of them things in ahead, and they’re disarmed till we need ‘em,” Milo says. “Set a time, all they gotta do is pull the pins and get the hell out.”
Lucerne straightens, blows out a breath, shaking her head.
“How’ll you detonate them?” Sara asks. “Wiring them together’s not hard but it’s delicate, you don’t really want to rush.”
Milo shrugs one shoulder. “Well, I’d assume an unstable building might shift enough to set ‘em off. Set them on the pipes or something, they’ll drop pretty easy.”
“So we start it somewhere, and once it’s going, we hope those mines go off and finish the job,” Sara says. She smiles. “Nice.”
“Anyway the place is practically a bomb all on its own,” Bley points out, “It won’t take much.”
Alister looks at Lucerne. Her mouth is pinched, eyebrows drawn in, scowling down at the schematics. Then she looks up, and nods. “I suppose that’s the best way,” she says, still sounding a little doubtful.
“It might not be necessary,” Alister says. “If the ethanol ignites fast enough, the place will go up without any additional help.” He gestures toward the schematics. “But there’s a lot of uncertainty. I’d rather not rely on it.”
Sara glances around the table. No one looks angry or upset—some are surprised, others thoughtful, but nobody dissents.
“Okay,” Alister says. “Let’s see how fast we can get this done.”
Once again, Sara’s left here while the rest of them deliver explosives to the people who can get in the door. This time though, she’s busy. She’s never built a bomb on a timer before, none of them have. But they can’t run a fuse far enough to direct detonate without getting blown up themselves and Sara knows how—probably.
There’s a timing circuit in the truck to make the turn signals blink on and off, and if she changes the resistors around she should be able to stretch that time from a second or so up to nearly a minute. By the time she’s done it’s a ridiculous tangle of scavenged pieces from anything electronic she can find, but when she tests it, the tiny spark shocks her exactly 57 seconds after she started the timer.
It’s not all that long to get away from the explosion they’re hoping to create, but it’s what they’ve got.
Zea’s never liked the City. It’s grey and dingy and closed in and you can’t see, and right now she wants to be able to see what’s coming. She doesn’t have a travel pass, she isn’t carrying ID because knowing who she is would just make them shoot her faster, and there’s Peacekeeper patrols marching through the streets like chains of ants.
Milo was with her until he turned off, a block back, after giving her directions to the house where she’s supposed to leave three of the round, bulky mines.
Zea taps lightly on the door, three quick, four slow. A woman opens the door, motions her into the house.
Zea looks around. The house is empty. Not just sparse, empty. There’s no stove in the corner, no furniture, just a pile of blankets in one corner. The woman looks at Zea with wide eyes.
“What is it?” she asks.
Zea blinks. “I’ve brought your packages,” she says, hoping the woman understands, although she can’t imagine anyone would be listening in on a place like this.
The smile she gets back reminds Zea of Sara—narrowed, flashing eyes that make the curve of the mouth seem more like a grimace than a grin. “Good,” the woman says. Just that, quiet, barely above a whisper.
Zea lowers her voice even further to match as she pulls the mines out of the pocket sewn into the lining of her jacket. The woman watches hungrily. “Insert the detonator,” Zea says, demonstrating, “and pull this pin.” She tugs it just enough for it to shift slightly, then slides it back in. “And set it on the edge of something, where it’ll fall if it shakes too hard.”
The woman nods, then glances around the room. “I—” she swallows. “I got nothing to hide ‘em in,” she says. “It’s been hard to keep us fed,” she adds, seeing Zea’s surprise. “Shortages, they say. Everything’s expensive.”
Zea shrugs out of her jacket, wishing she’d shoved some ration bars into the pockets. “Here,” she says. “It’ll be big, but that’s okay.”
The woman nods. “Thanks,” she says.
“Tomorrow,” Zea says. “Midnight plus 10 minutes you’ll hear the signal. Pull the pins and walk out, fast as you can.”
The woman just nods again.
“Thank you,” Zea says. “Please…just be careful?”
This smile is wry and amused. “Sure,” the woman says, and walks Zea out.
Sara absolutely refuses to be left behind when they actually set the explosives. So she’s paired with Alister and the main detonator, at the end of the building near the fuel storage tanks for maximum effect—and maximum time for the people working one the other end of the building to get out. Bley and Milo are further down, mines lined along the walls and two slingshots and a pile of rocks as last resort if they can’t get the fire moving that direction some other way. There’s bright floodlights illuminating the ground just past the roadside ditch where they’re hiding for final checks, so it won’t be long before they’re seen, but with a little luck the guards will be confused enough by their Peacekeeper uniforms that they won’t shoot on sight.
The fire alarm shrieks, shrill in the quiet night. People start streaming out of the exits, moving away, and they’re still coming out when Alister nudges Sara. They dash out, over to the wall, and Sara’s getting the timer set while Alister lays out the mines, strung together like beads on a string, pulling pins as he goes.
He’s almost done when Sara sees the guard.
He’s coming around the corner, behind Alister, and it only takes half a heartbeat for Sara to jerk Alister’s gun out of its holster and aim. She takes a breath, and he’s raising his gun, and no time to hesitate, to wait for the exhale like Alister taught her, she just squeezes the trigger and braces for the recoil, and the guard stumbles back, falls to his knees.
Alister’s up by now, running towards her after just a quick glance at the guard, and as Alister gets close Sara sees the guard shift, start to lift his gun again.
Sara doesn’t let him. She’s not good enough to aim at his arm, but another shot somewhere on his torso knocks him back.
And then Alister’s standing next to her. “Set it!” he says, shouldering his rifle and turning to look. Sara drops to her knees, flips the switch, and as she stands up she hears Alister fire in the same direction the first guard came from.
Then there’s no time for anything but running. Sara hears more shots, fights the urge to turn and look because that will only slow her down, keeps going until they’re back at the ditch and she can jump down into the mud, crouched with her back against the bank.
Alister’s only half a step behind her, and Sara has time for one full breath—inhale, exhale—before the explosion slams into her like she’s fallen off the scaffolding at Sal’s place.
It keeps going. The first wave is the explosives they set. Then a whoosh as the fuel catches, then smaller explosions as the fuel and the mines scattered throughout the building catch and detonate.
Her ears are ringing when Sara finally turns to look.
Well, they sure won’t be fixing that in a hurry.
She turns back to see Alister pressing a hand to his side, red blood soaking the white uniform.
“Shit,” Sara hisses, pulling off her jacket and reaching for the T-shirt underneath.
“It’s fine,” Alister says, through gritted teeth.
“Sure,” Sara says, rolling her eyes and tearing the shirt in half. She reaches down, slides the fabric behind his back and pulls it tight around him, bunching the rest of the shirt where he’s had his hands.
Alister pinches his lips and he glares but he doesn’t actually stop her.
Sara hears the engine approaching just as she’s finishing and pulling her jacket back on. She stands halfway up to look, but all she can tell from this distance is it’s a PK truck, the driver’s helmet shadowing their face.
But when it slams to a stop, it’s Zea who yells out the window, over the roar of the fire. “Come on,” she says. “Let’s go!”
Alister actually rolls his eyes when Sara offers him a hand up. He pointedly ignores her, standing up with his back against the embankment. So Sara shrugs, scrambles up and into the bed of the truck. Alister follows, sliding himself carefully to lean against the back of the cab. Sara smacks the roof, and Zea takes off.
In the chaos, Zea doesn't even try to be stealthy. Sara watches as Peacekeepers and factory workers and seems like anyone with a vehicle that’ll more-or-less hold water converge on the area, trying to keep the fire from spreading. They might look a little suspicious, racing the opposite direction, but hey: they’re evacuating a wounded Peacekeeper. It’s not even a lie.
Said wounded Peacekeeper is still sitting, hands pressed against his side and wincing every time the truck hits a bump. Sara’s not sure how worried she should be. Alister said he’s fine, but Alister would probably say that about anything short of a shot in the head, so she doesn’t put a lot of stock in his opinion. And there’s a lot of blood. But he’s also sitting up and glaring at her, so he’s probably not in imminent danger of dying. She hopes.
As soon as they pull into the warehouse, Zea jumps down from the cab and comes around to the back. “Stay put,” she snaps, as Alister starts to shift to get out. “I’m getting Lucerne.”
Alister sighs. “I’m fine,” he says, but Zea glares right back at him.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Sara snaps. Alister turns to look at her and Zea heads off to find Lucerne. “You are not fine, you got shot, we made it back here, there’s nothing else you need to do, just sit the fuck down.”
By the time she’s finished, Alister’s face has frozen in an expression somewhere between astonishment and anger, and before he manages to un-freeze enough to say anything else, Lucerne’s climbing up into the back of the truck with a pair of scissors and a medkit.
“Lucerne,” Alister starts.
“Shut up,” she says. “Let me see.”
He sighs, moves his hands, lets her unwrap the makeshift bandage. She grabs the scissors and he protests. “I can take my damn jacket off,” he grouses, and does it. Wincing the whole time.
And Sara doesn’t actually need to stay, if anyone can handle Alister it’s the old lady half his size. Which is still hilarious and will never not be hilarious, and Sara actually starts laughing as she finds a place to sit on a pile of old pallets.
Zea comes to sit next to her, looking startled. She finally smiles a little, shaking her head, while Sara tries to get a grip.
Sara slings an arm around to grip Zea’s shoulder and squeeze. “We did it!” she says. “Fucker’s gone, obliterated, up in flames, blown to smithereens, it’s gone.”
Zea looks over, one eyebrow raised. “Sure is,” she says. Then she looks back toward the table, the map, the knot of people over talking in the corner. “Just hope…” she trails off, shrugs.
“It’s worth it,” Sara says, not sure what Zea’s talking about but pretty sure about that much anyway. “They’ll have to leave now.”
Zea shrugs. “You think the workers got out?”
Sara sighs. “Most of them, yeah. I don’t know.”
Sara leans closer, hugs Zea sideways. “We did it, Zea,” she whispers. “We beat them.”
Zea’s smile looks a little forced. “Sure did,” she says. “Come on, come get something to eat.”
They were right: Durum and Sara and Alister and them, they thought the Peacekeepers would leave once the refinery was well and truly out of commission, and less than twenty-four hours after Sara’s bombs went off, Zea hears hovercraft.
She heads for the door to look for them, but Alister stops her, his hand locking around her arm. “Don’t,” he says. “They’ll be pissed off, looking for an excuse. This building’s deserted, remember?”
Zea swallows, nods. Then she looks Alister up and down. “How’re you doing?” she asks. He’s wearing clean clothes at least, and he’s washed up most of the blood, but Zea doesn’t think she’s imagining the part where he looks pale and tired.
He gives her a flat look that is definitely not an answer and she shuts up. “Sorry,” she says, and he shakes his head.
“Just keep your head down,” he says, and heads over toward the map table.
There’s some gunfire after that, and a few explosions, so Alister evidently wasn’t wrong about the danger. But after a couple of hours it’s done, the city outside gone silent, quieter than it’s been in days, quiet enough to hear the fires crackling when they step outside.
“Shit,” Milo hisses, under his breath.
Zea looks over, raises an eyebrow in question.
“Looks like they hit the elevators,” he says. “Most of the wheat’s gotta be in there by now…”
Zea inhales sharply. The glow is in the right direction. It could be the elevators—and what else would the Capitol bother to destroy? They can’t kill the land, the people here have never been more than a minor annoyance the Capitol puts up with because they haven’t yet invented machines that can drive themselves.
Lucerne shakes her head, turns, goes back inside.
They’re passing around a bottle of homemade booze someone scrounged up, and Sara’s laughing and joking with Milo and Bley when Alister comes over.
“Sara,” he says, just her name, sharp, and when she turns to see him he’s got his unreadable Peacekeeper face on. He jerks his head for her to follow him, so she looks back at the guys and shrugs.
“Hope I’m not in trouble,” she tells them, half-joking, before following Alister outside into the quiet.
It’s late—Sara’s lost track of the time, but it’s late-night cool, the stars brilliant in the sky, still a faint glow from burning buildings but no other light. Of course, the Peacekeepers would cut the power when they left. Assholes.
“How’re you doing?” Alister asks.
Sara’s confused. “I’m fine, you’re the one that got shot.”
“You shot someone.”
Sara shrugs. “So?”
Alister closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. “Usually we debrief after something like that, but it’s been a little…hectic. Can you tell me what happened?”
“It’s not complicated,” Sara says. “You were setting mines, someone was coming up behind you, he was going to shoot you, so I shot him.”
“And the second time?”
“He was moving like he was gonna shoot you again.”
Alister watches her closely. “Are you drunk?”
Sara tilts her head, evaluates. “Maybe a little,” she admits. “But come on, we’re celebrating!”
Alister sighs. “Okay,” he says. “Get some sleep, Sara.”
“You first,” she shoots back.
He just looks at her. “I’m going now,” he says. “And I mean it, you need to get some sleep.”
“Okay fine, mom, I’ll go in a minute.”
Alister shakes his head and heads over to the area they’ve designated for sleeping.
Sara goes back to find Milo and the others. She’s not tired. They won. For once in her fucking life they’ve taken something the Capitol wanted, and for one night she’s going to damn well celebrate that.
Nothing’s changed, but everything’s different. Zea wakes up slowly—and that in itself is strange—looks around the warehouse, and it looks the same as yesterday, same as it has since they got here.
Sara’s still sleeping, sprawled on her stomach. Zea didn’t hear her come back, somehow wasn’t in the mood for celebration last night. It’s strange: the Capitol is gone, just like they wanted, and now Zea’s not sure how the District is supposed to keep going without them. She hadn’t much thought about it, before—all the things the Capitol did, keeping crews on schedule and machines maintained and grain moving in and out and around the country. Invisible, until it breaks down.
She crawls out of her bedroll and goes to find something to eat. Because Capitol or no, she’s hungry.
Lucerne is sitting at the table, sipping at a mug of something hot. For a minute Zea hopes it’s coffee, but then she smells mint and tries not to be disappointed.
“Good morning,” Lucerne says. “Come sit with me, Zea.”
Zea does. Lucerne stands up slowly, shoots Zea a look that warns her not to offer help, pours another mug of tea from the pot on the counter, fills a bowl with something, and brings it back.
“Thanks,” Zea says, burying her nose in the steam. The heat is comforting, even though it’s warm outside still. She thinks about it—they’d be at the tail end of wheat harvest, in any other year, cutting up north now and getting ready to come down for a quick swap from combines to planters before heading down south to start all over again.
The Capitol’s gone, the elevators are still smoldering, but there’s wheat and corn and beans in the fields and fallow ground waiting for seed, and the seasons won’t wait for them to be ready.
“What happens now?” Zea asks, finally.
Lucerne gives her a tired smile, shakes her head. “I don’t rightly know,” she says.
Zea looks down, trying not to let herself be afraid. When she looks back up, Lucerne is watching.
“I’m heading over to the maintenance buildings, do you want to come?” she asks. “They’ll know which crews are where, and that’s a start.”
Zea nods. “I’ll drive, it’s a long way to walk.”
The stockyard is strangely quiet. Maybe there wouldn’t be much activity anyway, this time of year, but surely there’s something out there that needs cutting, some machinery needs fixing.
But the yard is empty when they pull in, and as they walk towards the building Zea starts to see why. Scorch marks, bullet holes in the thin metal walls of the storage buildings, roof half blown off one of them. She sucks in a breath.
Lucerne shakes her head, tugs at the side door and walks in. Zea blinks, adjusting to the dim light, then sees a huddle of people around a table in one corner.
“Hi there,” Lucerne calls, and they turn to look at her.
Zea recognizes one of the foremen, scowling down at them like they brought in a banged-up header he’s gonna have to fix.
Lucerne walks over like she owns the whole place, steps up to look at the papers spread across the scarred wood tabletop. “So, looks like we’ve got ourselves quite a mess around here,” she says, pulling the sheets toward her. “Catch me up—what crews are out, what’re we missing, who’s around to help out?”
Zea just listens, amazed, as Lucerne takes over and starts to bring some semblance of order to the chaos. Most of the combines are out working, so they’re safe. A few planters were out starting on cover crops after wheat, but a lot of them were destroyed, too. The depots have all called in, apparently they’re not worth the trouble of bombing. Most of the crews are accounted for, including one or two in the barracks. The wheat harvest is behind schedule, which is actually good—means less of it in the burning elevators. Beans and corn are still at the Depots or in the field, not yet ready to cut. So: there’s food out there.
It’s surprising. To Zea it feels like years since she and Milo drove out of their camp and started all this, but really, it’s only been a couple of months.
“The problem’ll be fuel,” the foreman says. “There’s a little at the Depots, but it’s not enough to get everybody through harvest, not even close. And it’s not like we can make any more.”
Lucerne nearly flinches at that. “No,” she says, “that’s right.” She nods, thinking. “All right,” she says. “For now I think we keep going as normal—just tell folks to be as careful as they can about fuel. I’ll see about getting more. If anyone out at the Depots has ideas about how to get this done better, you get them to tell you. I don’t care if it sounds crazy.”
The foreman nods. Lucerne looks around the room, and she’s a full head shorter than anyone else here, hair going white, dark skin wrinkling around her eyes and stretching over arthritic fingers, but nobody, not even the strong blonde foreman has asked why she thinks she’s in charge. She just walked over and put herself there, and they didn’t think to question it.
Lucerne turns to Zea. “Come on,” she says. “We should check the Justice Building for records.” She looks back at the little group. “I’ll be back around when I can,” she says. “You just keep working on getting ahold of folks.”
She walks toward the door, and Zea follows. When she looks back, someone’s pulling out an old emergency radio, paying out wire to a solar panel and attaching a hand-crank in the meantime. Not just good for tornadoes, then.
Lucerne is quiet when they get into the truck. Zea doesn’t ask questions, just drives toward the square and the Justice building.
She almost slams on the brakes when she sees it—starts to, actually, then pulls her foot back enough to keep from giving them both whiplash. The stage is still up, in front of the burned-out shell of the Justice building.
The same stage where…
She’s in the same Peacekeeper truck as before.
“Zea?” Lucerne asks, quietly.
Zea sucks in a deep breath, shudders, then swallows and looks over at Lucerne.
“That first day,” she grits out. “They shot—“ she can’t bring herself to say it, but it doesn’t matter. Lucerne understands. She reaches out a hand, places it over Zea’s.
“I’m sorry, sweet pea,” she says quietly.
Zea shakes her head quickly and puts the truck back in gear. “You think there’s anything still in there?” she asks, trying to keep her voice level, trying to think about anything else.
Lucerne nods. “Records are in the basement, in lockboxes. Could be there still.”
Zea pulls the truck around to the side and stops. Peels her hands off the steering wheel, opens the door, slides down.
Lucerne comes around to join her, takes Zea’s hand again. “Come on,” she says quietly, and leads the way.
There is still something left of the basement, but when Lucerne starts trying to move half-burned timbers to get to the rickety stairs down, Zea snaps out of it. “Lucerne, wait,” she says, hurrying over. “Let someone else do this. It’s dangerous.”
Lucerne looks frustrated, then chuckles a little and comes back, shaking her head. “I suppose you’re right,” she says. “But that’s usually my line.” She looks at Zea more carefully, then starts back to the truck. “Come on, let’s go find our reckless friends, they must be getting bored by now.”
Zea smiles despite herself. “They haven’t blown anything up in two whole days,” she says. Stops. “Well—almost two whole days.”
Lucerne shakes her head. “Those kids will be the death of me yet,” she says. She climbs in, puts her hand on Zea’s as Zea reaches for the gear shift. “I’m sorry, Zea,” she says quietly. “I’m sorry about your friends.”
Zea swallows the lump in her throat and nods, not sure of her voice. Then she puts the truck in gear and drives back.
Sara is seriously uninterested in being awake, let alone moving. But Alister is just standing there, waiting for her to haul her ass up, and he’s not going anywhere.
Fine. If she throws up on him, it’s his fault.
Once she’s on her feet he nods. “Come on,” he says, walking away.
She sighs, follows. “Sit,” he says, pointing to the table, then goes away and comes back with some kind of tea and some kind of breakfast mush.
Sara glares at him.
“I told you to go to bed,” he says mildly. “Not my fault you don’t listen.”
Sara sips at the tea. Peppermint, and something else, and it actually does make her feel a little less like shit. Probably it’s Lucerne’s brew. Nobody else around here knows what weeds taste good in hot water.
“What do you want?” Sara asks.
Alister still looks way too amused. “We need to talk about what’s next,” he says.
Right. What’s next.
“I got a call from a contact who wants us in District Ten,” he goes on, when she doesn’t respond.
“What do you think? So we can help them hit the train lines there. Apparently they’re still sending people through to Four, trying to get around to Eleven that way.”
Sara blinks, trying to pull up the map in her head. “Why?” she asks again.
Alister actually rolls his eyes. “Think about it,” he says. “They just lost Nine, they only have so much stockpiled food in the Capitol, and southern Eleven’s a good place to get more.”
That makes sense.
“How are we supposed to get there?” Sara asks. “Walk?”
Alister sighs. “Still working on that,” he says. “Might be able to get a ride.”
Sara raises one eyebrow.
“My contact is going to be in touch with Thirteen, he’ll try to get us a hovercraft.”
“Well, that’d work,” Sara says. Then she frowns. “A hovercraft from Thirteen?”
“Where else, you want to ask the Capitol if we can borrow one?”
Sara glares at him. “No, I mean…never mind.” A hovercraft from Thirteen is a hovercraft from Rokia. But that won’t actually make sense to anyone else, since it’s doubtful Rokia’d be flying the thing herself, but…it’s a connection. Sara’s fingers go automatically to the note in her back pocket in Rokia’s quick scrawl. She swallows.
“Okay,” she says. “Let’s go blow shit up in Ten. Why not.”
Alister shakes his head, but he’s smiling. He stands up, looks back over his shoulder as he’s walking away. “Shooting practice when I’m done,” he says.
Now that’s worth being awake for. Sara finishes her food and goes to meet him.
And that's it for this installment!
I would like to say the next one will take less than a year, but I said that about this one and well...2017 happened.
And just like in 2016, what this year needs more of is ordinary women and men overthrowing the government. Here's hoping 2018 ends better.