Everything seems to erupt at once. The earth explodes into showers of dirt and plant matter. Trees burst into flames. Even the sky fills with brightly colored blossoms of light. I can't think why the sky's being bombed until I realize the Gamemakers are shooting off fireworks up there, while the real destruction occurs on the ground. Just in case it's not enough fun watching the obliteration of the arena and the remaining tributes. Or perhaps to illuminate our gory ends.
Will they let anyone survive? Will there be a victor of the Seventy-fifth Hunger Games? Maybe not. After all, what is this Quarter Quell but ... what was it President Snow read from the card?
"... a reminder to the rebels that even the strongest among them cannot overcome the power of the Capitol..."
Not even the strongest of the strong will triumph. Perhaps they never intended to have a victor in these Games at all. Or perhaps my final act of rebellion forced their hand.
I'm sorry, Peeta, I think. I'm sorry I couldn't save you. Save him? More likely I stole his last chance at life, condemned him, by destroying the force field. Maybe, if we had all played by the rules, they might have let him live.
The hovercraft materializes above me without warning. If it was quiet, and a mockingjay perched close at hand, I would have heard the jungle go silent and then the bird's call that precedes the appearance of the Capitol's aircraft. But my ears could never make out anything so delicate in this bombardment.
The claw drops from the underside until it's directly overhead. The metal talons slide under me. I want to scream, run, smash my way out of it but I'm frozen, helpless to do anything but fervently hope I'll die before I reach the shadowy figures awaiting me above. They have not spared my life to crown me victor but to make my death as slow and public as possible.
My worst fears are confirmed when the face that greets me inside the hovercraft belongs to Plutarch Heavensbee, Head Gamemaker. What a mess I have made of his beautiful Games with the clever ticking clock and the field of victors. He will suffer for his failure, probably lose his life, but not before he sees me punished. His hand reaches for me, I think to strike me, but he does something worse. With his thumb and his forefinger, he slides my eyelids shut, sentencing me to the vulnerability of darkness. They can do anything to me now and I will not even see it coming.
My heart pounds so hard the blood begins to stream from beneath my soaked moss bandage. My thoughts grow foggy. Possibly I can bleed to death before they can revive me after all. In my mind, I whisper a thank-you to Johanna Mason for the excellent wound she inflicted as I black out.
When I swim back into semi consciousness, I can feel I'm lying on a padded table. There's the pinching sensation of tubes in my left arm. They are trying to keep me alive because, if I slide quietly, privately into death, it will be a victory. I'm still largely unable to move, open my eyelids, raise my head. But my right arm has regained a little motion. It flops across my body, feeling like a flipper, no, something less animated, like a club. I have no real motor coordination, no proof that I even still have fingers. Yet I manage to swing my arm around until I rip the tubes out. A beeping goes off but I can't stay awake to find out who it will summon.
The next time I surface, my hands are tied down to the table, the tubes back in my arm. I can open my eyes and lift my head slightly, though. I'm in a large room with low ceilings and a silvery light. There are two rows of beds facing each other. I can hear the breathing of what I assume are my fellow victors. Directly across from me I see Beetee with about ten different machines hooked up to him. Just let us die! I scream in my mind. I slam my head back hard on the table and go out again.
When I finally, truly, wake up, the restraints are gone. I raise my hand and find I have fingers that can move at my command again. I push myself to a sitting position and hold on to the padded table until the room settles into focus. My left arm is bandaged but the tubes dangle off stands by the bed.
I'm alone except for Beetee, who still lies in front of me, being sustained by his army of machines. Where are the others, then? Peeta, Finnick, Enobaria, and...and...one more, right? Either Johanna or Chaff or Brutus was still alive when the bombs began. I'm sure they'll want to make an example of us all. But where have they taken them? Moved them from hospital to prison?
"Peeta..." I whisper. I so wanted to protect him. Am still resolved to. Since I have failed to keep him safe in life, I must find him, kill him now before the Capitol gets to choose the agonizing means of his death. I slide my legs off the table and look around for a weapon. There are a few syringes sealed in sterile plastic on a table near Beetee's bed. Perfect. All I'll need is air and a clear shot at one of his veins.
I pause for a moment, consider killing Beetee. But if I do, the monitors will start beeping and I'll be caught before I get to Peeta. I make a silent promise to return and finish him off if I can.
I'm naked except for a thin nightgown, so I slip the syringe under the bandage that covers the wound on my arm. There are no guards at the door. No doubt I'm miles beneath the Training Center or in some Capitol stronghold, and the possibility of my escape is nonexistent. It doesn't matter. I'm not escaping, just finishing a job.
I creep down a narrow hallway to a metal door that stands slightly ajar. Someone is behind it. I take out the syringe and grip it in my hand. Flattening myself against the wall, I listen to the voices inside.
"Communications are down in Seven, Ten, and Twelve. But Eleven has control of transportation now, so there's at least a hope of them getting some food out."
Plutarch Heavensbee. I think. Although I've only really spoken with him once. A hoarse voice asks a question.
"No, I'm sorry. There's no way I can get you to Four. But I've given special orders for her retrieval if possible. It's the best I can do, Finnick."
Finnick. My mind struggles to make sense of the conversation, of the fact that it's taking place between Plutarch Heavensbee and Finnick. Is he so near and dear to the Capitol that he'll be excused his crimes? Or did he really have no idea what Beetee intended? He croaks out something else. Something heavy with despair.
"Don't be stupid. That's the worst thing you could do. Get her killed for sure. As long as you're alive, they'll keep her alive for bait," says Haymitch.
Says Haymitch! I bang through the door and stumble into the room. Haymitch, Plutarch, and a very beat-up Finnick sit around a table laid with a meal no one is eating. Daylight streams in the curved windows, and in the distance I see the top of a forest of trees. We are flying.
"Done knocking yourself out, sweetheart?" says Haymitch, the annoyance clear in his voice. But as I careen forward he steps up and catches my wrists, steadying me. He looks at my hand. "So it's you and a syringe against the Capitol? See, this is why no one lets you make the plans." I stare at him uncomprehendingly. "Drop it." I feel the pressure increase on my right wrist until my hand is forced to open and I release the syringe. He settles me in a chair next to Finnick.
Plutarch puts a bowl of broth in front of me. A roll. Slips a spoon into my hand. "Eat," he says in a much kinder voice than Haymitch used.
Haymitch sits directly in front of me. "Katniss, I'm going to explain what happened. I don't want you to ask any questions until I'm through. Do you understand?"
I nod numbly. And this is what he tells me.
There was a plan to break us out of the arena from the moment the Quell was announced. The victor tributes from 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, and 11 had varying degrees of knowledge about it. Plutarch Heavensbee has been, for several years, part of an undercover group aiming to overthrow the Capitol. He made sure the wire was among the weapons. Beetee was in charge of blowing a hole in the force field. The bread we received in the arena was code for the time of the rescue. The district where the bread originated indicated the day. Three. The number of rolls the hour. Twenty-four. The hovercraft belongs to District 13. Bonnie and Twill, the women I met in the woods from 8, were right about its existence and its defense capabilities. We are currently on a very roundabout journey to District 13. Meanwhile, most of the districts in Panem are in full-scale rebellion.
Haymitch stops to see if I am following. Or maybe he is done for the moment.
It's an awful lot to take in, this elaborate plan in which I was a piece, just as I was meant to be a piece in the Hunger Games. Used without consent, without knowledge. At least in the Hunger Games, I knew I was being played with.
My supposed friends have been a lot more secretive.
"You didn't tell me." My voice is as ragged as Finnick's.
"Neither you nor Peeta were told. We couldn't risk it," says Plutarch. "I was even worried you might mention my indiscretion with the watch during the Games." He pulls out his pocket watch and runs his thumb across the crystal, lighting up the mockingjay. "Of course, when I showed you this, I was merely tipping you off about the arena. As a mentor. I thought it might be a first step toward gaining your trust. I never dreamed you'd be a tribute again."
"I still don't understand why Peeta and I weren't let in on the plan," I say.
"Because once the force field blew, you'd be the first ones they'd try to capture, and the less you knew, the better," says Haymitch.
"The first ones? Why?" I say, trying to hang on to the train of thought.
"For the same reason the rest of us agreed to die to keep you alive," says Finnick.
"No, Johanna tried to kill me," I say.
"Johanna knocked you out to cut the tracker from your arm and lead Brutus and Enobaria away from you," says Haymitch.
"What?" My head aches so and I want them to stop talking in circles. "I don't know what you're - "
"We had to save you because you're the mockingjay, Katniss," says Plutarch. "While you live, the revolution lives."
The bird, the pin, the song, the berries, the watch, the cracker, the dress that burst into flames. I am the mockingjay.
The one that survived despite the Capitol's plans. The symbol of the rebellion.
It's what I suspected in the woods when I found Bonnie and Twill escaping. Though I never really understood the magnitude. But then, I wasn't meant to understand. I think of Haymitch's sneering at my plans to flee District 12, start my own uprising, even the very notion that District 13 could exist. Subterfuges and deceptions. And if he could do that, behind his mask of sarcasm and drunkenness, so convincingly and for so long, what else has he lied about? I know what else.
"Peeta," I whisper, my heart sinking.
"The others kept Peeta alive because if he died, we knew there'd be no keeping you in an alliance," says Haymitch. "And we couldn't risk leaving you unprotected." His words are matter-of-fact, his expression unchanged, but he can't hide the tinge of gray that colors his face.
"Where is Peeta?" I hiss at him.
"He was picked up by the Capitol along with Johanna and Enobaria," says Haymitch. And finally he has the decency to drop his gaze.
Technically, I am unarmed. But no one should ever underestimate the harm that fingernails can do, especially if the target is unprepared. I lunge across the table and rake mine down Haymitch's face, causing blood to flow and damage to one eye. Then we are both screaming terrible, terrible things at each other, and Finnick is trying to drag me out, and I know it's all Haymitch can do not to rip me apart, but I'm the mockingjay. I'm the mockingjay and it's too hard keeping me alive as it is.
Other hands help Finnick and I'm back on my table, my body restrained, my wrists tied down, so I slam my head in fury again and again against the table. A needle pokes my arm and my head hurts so badly I stop fighting and simply wail in a horrible, dying-animal way, until my voice gives out.
The drug causes sedation, not sleep, so I am trapped in fuzzy, dully aching misery for what seems like always. They reinsert their tubes and talk to me in soothing voices that never reach me. All I can think of is Peeta, lying on a similar table somewhere, while they try to break him for information he doesn't even have.
"Katniss. Katniss, I'm sorry." Finnick's voice comes from the bed next to me and slips into my consciousness. Perhaps because we're in the same kind of pain. "I wanted to go back for him and Johanna, but I couldn't move."
I don't answer. Finnick Odair's good intentions mean less than nothing.
"It's better for him than Johanna. They'll figure out he doesn't know anything pretty fast. And they won't kill him if they think they can use him against you," says Finnick.
"Like bait?" I say to the ceiling. "Like how they'll use Annie for bait, Finnick?"
I can hear him weeping but I don't care. They probably won't even bother to question her, she's so far gone. Gone right off the deep end years ago in her Games. There's a good chance I'm headed in the same direction. Maybe I'm already going crazy and no one has the heart to tell me. I feel crazy enough.
"I wish she was dead," he says. "I wish they were all dead and we were, too. It would be best."
Well, there's no good response to that. I can hardly dispute it since I was walking around with a syringe to kill Peeta when I found them. Do I really want him dead? What I want ... what I want is to have him back. But I'll never get him back now. Even if the rebel forces could somehow overthrow the Capitol, you can be sure President Snow's last act would be to cut Peeta's throat. No. I will never get him back. So then dead is best.
But will Peeta know that or will he keep fighting? He's so strong and such a good liar. Does he think he has a chance of surviving? Does he even care if he does? He wasn't planning on it, anyway. He had already signed off on life. Maybe, if he knows I was rescued, he's even happy. Feels he fulfilled his mission to keep me alive.
I think I hate him even more than I do Haymitch.
I give up. Stop speaking, responding, refuse food and water. They can pump whatever they want into my arm, but it takes more than that to keep a person going once she's lost the will to live. I even have a funny notion that if I do die, maybe Peeta will be allowed to live. Not as a free person but as an Avox or something, waiting on the future tributes of District 12. Then maybe he could find some way to escape. My death could, in fact, still save him.
If it can't, no matter. It's enough to die of spite. To punish Haymitch, who, of all the people in this rotting world, has turned Peeta and me into pieces in his Games. I trusted him. I put what was precious in Haymitch's hands. And he has betrayed me.
"See, this is why no one lets you make the plans," he said.
That's true. No one in their right mind would let me make the plans. Because I obviously can't tell a friend from an enemy.
A lot of people come by to talk to me, but I make all their words sound like the clicking of the insects in the jungle. Meaningless and distant. Dangerous, but only if approached. Whenever the words start to become distinct, I moan until they give me more painkiller and that fixes things right up.
Until one time, I open my eyes and find someone I cannot block out looking down at me. Someone who will not plead, or explain, or think he can alter my design with entreaties, because he alone really knows how I operate.
"Gale," I whisper.
"Hey, Catnip." He reaches down and pushes a strand of hair out of my eyes. One side of his face has been burned fairly recently. His arm is in a sling, and I can see bandages under his miner's shirt. What has happened to him? How is he even here? Something very bad has happened back home.
It is not so much a question of forgetting Peeta as remembering the others. All it takes is one look at Gale and they come surging into the present, demanding to be acknowledged.
"Prim?" I gasp.
"She's alive. So is your mother. I got them out in time," he says.
"They're not in District Twelve?" I ask.
"After the Games, they sent in planes. Dropped firebombs." He hesitates. "Well, you know what happened to the Hob."
I do know. I saw it go up. That old warehouse embedded with coal dust. The whole district's covered with the stuff. A new kind of horror begins to rise up inside me as I imagine firebombs hitting the Seam.
"They're not in District Twelve?" I repeat. As if saying it will somehow fend off the truth.
"Katniss," Gale says softly.
I recognize that voice. It's the same one he uses to approach wounded animals before he delivers a deathblow. I instinctively raise my hand to block his words but he catches it and holds on tightly.
"Don't," I whisper.
But Gale is not one to keep secrets from me. "Katniss, there is no District Twelve."
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