Fandom: Hunger Games Trilogy - Suzanne Collins, Hunger Games Series - All Media Types
Rating: Teen And Up Audiences
Warnings: Creator Chose Not To Use Archive Warnings
Characters: Original Female Character(s), Original Male Character(s)
Additional Tags: Alternate Universe - Canon Divergence, District 9 (Hunger Games), District 6, Normal people make the rebellion happen, Minor Character Death, Canon-Typical Violence
Series: Part 3 of These are truly the last days: Panem's rebellion from below
"If the step were not being taken, if the stumbling-forward ache were not alive, the bombs would not fall, the throats would not be cut. For every bomb is proof that the spirit has not died."
--The Grapes of Wrath
The die is cast, the spark set, the flame growing. Zea finds herself swept up in a world she never dreamed of; Sara has been dreaming of setting this fire for years. What can a few people do against the Capitol? Much more than they ever expected.
The first half of this is called "Sara's terrible plan" in my Scrivener file. So, y'know, Alister is enjoying himself
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.