Welcome readers old and new.
Let us shed some light over the Dark Days. What could have possibly happened during those times, to make the Hunger Games the key to peace in Panem?
"Atilius, I want Sergeant Ney in my office at five," Captain Evadne Achlys said. "Colonel Grandeye has ordered for ten hovercrafts to repatriate our civilians from Twelve, Four and Seven. Check in with logistics for the schedules, and begin anticipating other repatriations."
The Captain let none of her emotions show.
The repatriation order had come as a shock.
Curiosity could have her stripped of her uniform.
For long minutes, Achlys stared at the door Atilius had closed behind him. The small ordered office suddenly felt cold. Not once in sixty years had Capitol-born civilians been repatriated. Not once had Achlys read a report, or heard so much as a blasted rumor, suggesting the situation was so dire.
She couldn't pretend this was just routine.
Achlys slid her service hat on her short graying hair and left the Homeguard's Headquarters. Her rhythmic military strides opened a path through the early-morning bustle as people instinctively let her through.
Eight Homeguard stood to attention as she marched into the large transit station.
"I am looking for recent transfers from Districts Twelve, Four or Seven."
"There's a squad from District Four by Track 9, Captain."
It was not their place to ask questions. They snapped back to work the moment Achlys looked away from their Sergeant.
Her stern gray eyes fell on the eleven men and women performing a routine check on a seafood cargo before the workers would begin unloading.
"Captain," the young peacekeeper Sergeant said, his gaze dropping to his feet as soon as he caught his unprofessional staring.
"We have found inconsistencies in peacekeeper reports," Captain Achlys said, amused by the fear the words sparked in the District Two boy. "I require first-hand information. Start by what you reported, I will ask from there."
She'd promised to lunch with her husband and her brother, and only because of that did she let the sweating boy after an hour of questioning.
Had she been less seasoned, she would have gaped at the peacekeepers' tales, or accused them of lying. 'Unrest'. Ha! Sabotage and crime against peacekeepers had soared. The criminals had firearms. Those weapons came from District Thirteen. Why were there no repatriation orders relating to Thirteen? Achlys' throat was dry and her mind spinning with all the questions that would have to be asked. Thirteen had special status, of partnership with the Capitol rather than subservience. They had their own police. Had they grown hostile?
The sense of urgency and creeping danger would not leave as she stepped into the white-and-gold elevator lifting her up on the Capitol's highest glass tower. Around her men and women in smart clothes gathered, cheerfully oblivious, soon joined by the mouthwatering but delicate smells of the city's greatest restaurants.
Evadne Achlys took a deep breath, willing her attention on the present, and the two handsome men who smiled upon seeing her come out of the elevator.
Her twin, Gabriel, pressed a loud kiss on her cheek and slid his arm around her shoulders. He always overdid the familiarity when she was in uniform. It humanized her, supposedly.
"Another day without wares and everyone swearing I'll get the fabrics tomorrow." Even when his patience wore thin, Gabriel's smile was more lighthearted than hers had never been. "What's up with Eight, Eva?"
Evadne's jaw tensed. District Eight too? "I'm not privy to that information," she said in clipped tones.
"No work, not now," Lucius chided. Her husband's expression melted into pure happiness as he sat down. "We live in the most beautiful city in the world. Let us allow ourselves to enjoy it."
The Districts' Delights was an ingenious construct of wood and stone nestled on the twentieth and topmost floor of the tower. It held thirteen rooms boasting the District's trades in a sprawl of romanticized luxury, and each room had a wall of glass which offered a breathtaking view of the city below. The Capitol was a work of art: sixty-seven towers, Crystal Park's stunning suspended garden, the avant-garde Red Fortress where mutts were invented and bred... Forty-thousand houses, from the lavish new constructs to salvaged districts of old Denver, and dozens of cranes, all singing civilisation's triumph over the Cataclysm that had almost ended humanity a century before.
Evadne removed her jacket and tried to forget about President Santiago and his secrets. About the threat of war looming over her city.
"I must go," she said an hour later, relishing in the relaxed atmosphere as she slipped back into full uniform. "Don't forego coffee on my account."
"Let me escort you to the door," Lucius said.
Evadne gave her husband an amused smile.
"I like to make sure people know you're my wife," he whispered with a wink, slipping his arm in hers.
The first scream and a shadow at the corner of their eyes, were their only warnings.
Evadne spun back towards the bay window and blanched.
Gray and heavy and fast. A hovercraft. Heading for them at full speed.
"Go by the elevator!" She ordered, shoving her husband out of the restaurant.
Someone painfully collided her as she rushed back to their table, battling against her screaming instincts as the black mass of deadly metal grew bigger, and bigger, and bigger. "Gabriel!" He wasn't moving! "Gabriel, get back!"
Years of ingrained training took control at the last moment. Instead of forward, Captain Achlys rolled to the side, taking shelter, when the glass exploded in front of her petrified twin.
Wind blasted inside, stealing away the screams.
She couldn't breathe.
On the floor, her face in her arms, she barely felt the piece of wall crashing into her leg. She pushed herself up in the debris. Her throat tasted of blood.
A burning, shattered table at the edge of the bay window-that-now-wasn't tumbled over, diving into the street far below. Evadne's eyes glazed over the remains of the family that had been lunching on the table next to theirs.
Something grabbed her. Her arm snaked around the grasp and she shoved her assailant against the broken wall before belatedly recognizing those panic-filled blue eyes.
Lucius. They had to go.
So many running people. She finally registered the blaring alarms.
She pushed her husband away. She couldn't be the soldier while he was touching her. She straightened her uniform, her hands slick with blood, and grabbed a grandmother who was hysterically banging on the elevator doors, a shocked young boy at her side.
"Stairs, everyone, OUT!" Her voice carried, it always had.
She rushed down the stairs, careful not to trample, but not hesitating to shove. Suddenly, the soaring tower felt like a death trap, its solidity a joke.
Seconds later, the two top floors of the building collapsed under their own weight.
Gabriel. What was the last thing she'd told him?
Fury choked her, and clawed at her insides. Unrest. She was Captain of the Homeguard and they'd decided she needn't know. She took a slow breath. She had to keep it together. If she didn't, who would? Her knuckles were white on the jacket of her uniform, clenching it like a lifeboat. Like a mask.
"I must go," she hoarsely said. "They'll want us all there. Go home, Lucius." The Capitol was not safe anymore. "I love you," she whispered, and a rare thing it was to hear her say it.
Where her husband found the strength for that smile, she couldn't fathom.
Captain Achlys was clean and stony-faced for her 5pm meeting. She didn't wait for Sergeant Ney. She went straight to his office, the deep cut in her bruised leg sharpening her resolve with every painful step.
That pain was good. That pain she could deal with.
The broad man blanched when he saw her. He was reporting to her for lax supervision and whispers of corruption. He was Major Graysmoke's protégé and Captain Achlys knew she'd been expected to give him a stern talking to, and a second chance.
Was he one of those responsible for the gaping hole in the city's security? One of many rotten cogs, too self-absorbed to understand how it could matter, to not do one's job perfectly.
"Sergeant, we should have a quick chat before we head together to the emergency session."
If she'd waited just one minute before leaving, if she'd been close enough to drag Gabriel out -
Achlys would fix every breach in security down.
She would not, ever again, be left in the dark.
Sun Village, District Eleven
Virgil frowned when the light bulb didn't turn on. People used to make those more durable back in his day. No matter, he had enough light to garden.
Ceba's merry tweet greeted him as he walked into the garden. Like every morning, the red panda-mutt crawled over him and gently searched his pockets, finally finding her morning meal. Virgil ran his calloused hands through his girl's thick fur. Nothing put a smile on his face quicker.
The pruning shears fell out of Virgil's gnarled fingers and clattered to the ground. Gunshot?
The old man crouched, his hands flying protectively to his head.
He whistled softly. Ceba came running. "Silent, girl. Very silent now." It must be some stupid peacekeeper kid.
CRACK! Ears screaming, Virgil half-crawled, half-rushed inside, Ceba tucked under his arm.
His fist flew to his mouth when he saw the impact on Mrs. White's house. He let Ceba scamper off to the bedroom and hastily went to grab Big Hickey. It was time to dust his old friend off.
"Listen up, Cappies!"
Not peacekeeper, not with that pitch.
A long whistle sliced his ears. "Cozy houses." It was the same threatening man's voice. "Much prettier than ours. Cappies don't belong on Eleven soil."
There was a man, men, with firearms marching on their homes. Where were the peacekeepers?
Virgil's hands tightened over his hunting rifle. His and Big Hickey's forays in the wilderness beyond the wall were decades past, but he'd won the Capitol's best marksman award time and again. His fingers and eyes hadn't forgotten.
He raised Big Hickey just above the open window, and waited for broad shoulders to appear just beyond the garden he'd hoped to care for until his dying day. He'd never had a greater ambition: an orchard of his own in Eleven. Retiring, gardening, far away from the Capitol's hustle and its self-important people. His little paradise.
One of the beasts was facing Mrs. White's house. Virgil could see her son, a good lad, not yet twenty, staring in horror at the barrel pointed straight at him.
Not on his watch.
The fat bullet ripped through the air, and through the man's jaw, taking his down surer than a kick in the head. Yup, Virgil still had it.
The new silence didn't belong in Sun Village. Slowly, the dead man's blood was absorbed by the sandy soil, leaving ugly, obscene stains. Virgil's heart punched his ribs with every frantic beat. They'd had no trouble with the locals before.
CRACK! CRACK! CRACK!
He froze when he counted five men, burly, fearsome types. They grabbed their fallen, their eyes wide and searching, their weapons high. Big Hickey slipped to the floor. Virgil couldn't kill five men. What was this? Where were the peacekeepers!
"If you want to leave the Village and go back to your Capitol, we'll let you through," one bellowed. "Two people get to leave for every head we're brought. You've got it easy killing us, time we stopping being the ones who paid."
Virgil couldn't believe his ears. He scrambled for the phone when he was sure the men had left. No signal. They had gotten to the transmitter. How-
"Everybody said it was safe," he muttered mechanically. He'd killed a man. Big Hickey had never been meant for people.
He sunk into a seated position on the floor, his breathing ragged. He was a murderer.
"This isn't just crime, this is… organized. The peacekeepers should... They'll send a hovercraft to get us out, Virgil." Mrs. White managed a small brave smile. She'd dragged Virgil out his house and into hers. She'd given him a slice of cake he was still staring at. As if he'd fixed her pipes instead of killed a man. A father maybe.
"They'll take us home," she promised.
Home. This was supposed to home. Sun Hill and its palm trees. The beautiful white houses untouched by the Cataclysm. The old asphalt roads they'd broken apart to make their gardens wider. The warm beaten-earth paths linking every neighbor together. The place where nobody locked their homes and everyone knew everyone. Mrs. White had worked here all her life, at exports, for Eleven. What other home was there?
Mrs. White's boy was whispering in a camera in another room. Kids these days had to record everything.
"How's the lad?" he said. The room was dark. There was no electricity left in the whole Village. They'd taken that from them too.
"Stunned, but fine. Thank you, Virgil, thank you so much," she whispered, tears in her eyes as she embraced him.
He'd never thought a hug from a pretty lady could feel so very wrong.
The next day, he filled a bucket at the well. They'd sabotaged the pipes or something. The running water was gone. Soon, the emergency power generators would be empty.
"I'll help you carry that home," Mrs. White said.
He glowered. He was seventy, not invalid, but it was the company that mattered. He crossed thirty pairs of confused eyes, people lining up with buckets, struggling to believe this nightmare was real. Many had had friends among the locals. He had thought Miss Daisy and him were on good terms. He payed well and gave her time off whenever she asked. He let her take fabrics home to make clothes for her little girls, aware the shops for Eleven folk had less choice than what he could get from the Capitol. He'd been respectful, he'd tried to never make her feel taken for granted.
Had she been threatened away from Sun Village by those beasts? Or had hate been hidden deep in those laughing dark eyes?
Despite Mrs. White's optimism, help didn't come.
Four days had passed, bringing a dark shadow over the Village. People were counting their supplies, and looking in neighbors' houses, wondering if someone wasn't hiding a surplus, or eating more than their share.
"Maybe they don't know we need help?" Mrs. White said shakily.
Could things be so bad that they weren't important enough? There'd have been warning, surely.
The sixth day, Alba, Primus and Zeno were nowhere to be found. Until Zeno was found. Ten armed men, the same armed men who'd shot, the men who shouldn't exist, dropped his corpse right next to the well.
"We're no liars, Cappies. The old man and his lady left and are on their way to the train station. Peacekeepers still control that." A somber laugh escaped their leader's lips, soon echoed by every one of his men. "Not for long, that."
Alba and Primus, a kindly elderly couple. Zeno, a colleague of Mrs. White, an entitled ass to be honest, but he'd not deserved to– Not Alba and Primus. Not like this.
"There's nothing else," Virgil muttered that night as Ceba gingerly circled the cold plate of canned soup. He'd tried rice soaked in cold water. His body still hated him for it.
For the first time ever Virgil went to bed hungry, his grass uncut, dead leaves in the bushes that he cherished like his own children.
In the dead of night, his eyes bloodshot, he uncorked the bottle of bourbon. A gift from cousin Evadne. We need you Captain Achlys. We need you all. Where are you?
He thought of Mrs. White, of her brilliant smile that he hadn't seen in days. He thought of the lad, just out of school, who'd come to stay through spring and summer to get a broader view of the world.
They deserved better than this! He stared at his garden, his beautiful garden. This was all he had ever wanted. Virgil's fingers stopped inches from Ceba's fur. She looked so peaceful as she slept.
Zeno's corpse wouldn't leave his mind alone. And that man he'd killed -
Later, but still much too early for decent people, he knocked hard on Mrs. White's door. "It's Virgil," he rasped, leaning on Big Hickey as he stumbled.
"You're drunk, Virgil," Her voice was thick with compassion. These were good people, good! "Get on the couch."
She was dressed, but her hair betrayed she'd been sleeping. So he wasn't the only one who slept dressed these days... The lad jumped down the stairs, his eyes widening at the gun, but he just grabbed water.
"You should drink that, Sir."
A good lad.
"Ha, sober I won't be brave enough. Go now, while they still enjoy their sick game. Go now before they kill us all." He held Bick Hickey tight, the barrel just under his neck. "I'm old. You go home, you live." His throat clenched. "You take Ceba. She's a good girl."
Mrs. White's eyes widened when she understood his intent. Her hand went to his arm, the other to his gun, but he was holding on too tightly.
"Virgil, we can't give up. I won't -"
Virgil leaned into her, happy for the warmth. A good woman. A mother. "There are too many of them. If they see a hovercraft flying for us, they'll…" words, much too horrible words to say for real, but he had to "they'll shoot us before they run. Save yourselves. I know I'm dead, make it mean something. Lad, get your mom out of the room. It'll be messy enough to drag me out."
"We'll get home." The lad's voice was breaking, and damn he was young. "We'll get help back and put an end to this, Sir, I swear."
A good lad. "Just take Ceba, please."
Virgil's hands shook as he put the barrel in his mouth. Damn fine bourbon, Evadne.
Major Achlys' fist slammed against her desk. "Monsters. Deranged monsters."
'I'll bring them straight to Colonel Grandeye,' she'd lied. The peacekeeper hadn't dared hesitate. He'd given her his report, and the records.
Herminia White and her son, shot less than a hundred yards before reaching the peacekeeper base. Sun City, District Eleven. There had been no contact in two weeks, and the Capitol division had been told not to be alarmed.
Just like Gabriel. Swept under the rug.
Herminia's son had been carrying a camera. His diary of sorts, and even Achlys had to smile at the boy's serious enthusiasm at being in Eleven. Her smile fell quickly. Starvation, until neighbor turned upon neighbor. The end of the video was much too personal, and the dispassionate report lines were a punch to the gut.
'The second victim was an old man.' 'A red panda mutt, carried by the woman, escaped.'
An old man. Cousin Virgil.
Not a woman for great passions, Achlys was day after day discovering hate. Two sleepless months of trying to fix others' mistakes had earned her a rank of Major that she'd refused ten years before, and yet she was still kept in the dark. How many more civilians had they failed to save?
'Without unity, without loyalty, humanity will go extinct. The disloyal are enemies of humanity.'
Panem's founding fathers' lessons were etched into her mind, her and every citizen, but today she added a third clause. 'Loyalty to the wrong cause is no better than organized rebellion'. It would destroy them all.
But to think such a thing was treason. The chain of command was not to be broken.
Unless it was.
For something so dire, she needed a second opinion, an opinion backed by power. Her lips curled at the irony as a bald man materialized at the edge of her vision. Major Fornax and she had an odd work relationship forged in respect and mutual dislike, but she did trust him.
She had once found great satisfaction and safety in obeying orders, but when Fornax agreed that a war lead in secret could mean the end of the Capitol, she stood up, breathless from the magnitude of what they'd just committed themselves to.
"Dissent could cause more damage than a District army, Fornax. We rank fifth in the chain of command. We must make the Colonels, General Columba, and the President see."
"And if they do not?" Drusa Fornax said. Was that fear in his eyes as he looked at her?
"Are you with me, Major?"
The silence stretched, but neither faltered, and finally Fornax bowed his head. "I must be."
Before they could act, District Thirteen broadcasted a declaration of war on every channel, in every District. President Santiago ordered a thousand Homeguard rankers deployed to protect the District Industry alongside the peacekeeping forces. 'Do not shoot unless shot at.'
How could war come as a surprise? When had they become so blind?
Achlys would be made an example of if she put a toe out of line. So she watched, and kept silent, her ever increasing fury forging itself into steel. How many Gabriels? How many Virgils?
Six months passed, half-a-generation of District Two youths was shoved onto the field of battle (no, not battle, guerrila, so much more treacherous, more vile), and the Capitol mourned a son, daughter or father for every two District casualties. The expatriate hamlets, from Sky Point to Sun Village, had been pillaged and burned. The few survivors, smuggled out by humane district dwellers, told horror stories that went beyond understanding. Peacekeepers had had to extract and evacuate whole District families now in mortal danger for having helped a Capitol-born.
How can you fight when you value the other side's lives and they do not?
Achlys could not stand silent anymore. "Can you believe we're sending kids to die in Districts we've not set foot on, to fight a war we're trying to understand from hundreds of miles away? Nobody in High Command, not one person, has been able to tell my why the Districts hate us so."
Lucius, a much better husband than she deserved, and a seasoned editor-in-chief with more influence than she could hope for, made sure the shouts for Homeguard high-ranking officers in the Districts reached the President's office. They reached it thick with menace.
Lucius simply hugged her tight when she was the first to volunteer. Behind the lines in his face, she wondered if she glimpsed the first cracks in her marriage of fifteen years. When was the last time they'd had time for them?
Three Majors, six Captains, seventeen Senior Lieutenants. Almost a third of their command left for Districts One through Twelve. Only eleven returned, and Achlys alone among the Majors.
She had gone to District Eight and seen chaos. She had seen people drunk with violent anger, with an absurd sense of entitlement, destroying methodically their children's, everyone's children, chance at a future. She had seen overwhelmed peacekeepers, many much too young to be there, terrorize the population in ways that could only fan the hate. The Homeguard had barely been more civilized.
She had seen what the Capitol had refused to see: the gray soot covering the tall building's walls because of factories too focused on productivity and not at all on health or the environment. The tiny flats the people lived in, because while the space existed, too much of the infrastructure had been left to disrepair. There were no place for the children to play in except for barren streets and collapsed ruins of old buildings. How could you tell the Districts you respected them, and let them live like this?
"Your report is disturbing, Major." 'I refuse to believe you,' Achlys heard.
"The situation is what it is, General. We must remove all peacekeeping forces and Homeguard from the Districts and freeze the railway network. The Districts must be left isolated, with no enemy. They are too angry to reason with, Sir."
General Columba stared at her as if she were insane, all pretense of civility gone. "They cannot be allowed to burn the fields and sabotage the industry. Panem would collapse!"
"They are already burning and sabotaging, Sir," Achlys said with forced patience. Had he read the damn report? "They are using children as young as six. Our holding cells are full. Our people are picked out one by one. We cannot remove the rebels: they are over half the population. They intercept our supplies, steal our weapons… We are helping them, Sir. We must remove all military forces because they'll start thinking only when their enemy is gone."
"Major, crops and industry –"
"Then we shall gather crops and data backups." He flinched at the interruption. "Rebuilding will take ten years at best, General. It is too late to regain control in a traditional manner."
District people were convinced everything would be fixed later. They were beyond reasoning with. They were too uneducated. They had lost too much already. They thought the Capitol hid the solution to all their problems and was keeping it from them out of spite.
"This is ridiculous. Retreating will be giving these people what they want. They will destroy everything, they will starve. We will starve. We will be thrown back to the Dark Ages."
"General, it is not bad luck that killed Majors Gladstone and Rio. It is luck that saved me."
The General's jaw clenched. He dared be outraged by insolence when hundreds died because of his blindness. Achlys wished she could have dragged the man with her on the field.
District Eight was tall buildings from a lost era, with only the first floors still inhabitable, but every floor above could hide a man with a gun. It was a grandmother who had given Achlys the twin bullet scars between her ribs. The peacekeepers had collapsed the building with dynamite in response, with a minute's warning for those living inside. 'Do not shoot unless shot at.' They hadn't shot, but each rebel family had to supply an avox, a person of their choosing. The collaborators' price. The rebels gave the sick, the infirm, the wounded, and the Capitol cured them and struggled to make something out of them. It was a murderous, inefficient, joke.
"Major, am I to understand that you are volunteering for a new mission in the Districts?"
Achlys met the man's hard gaze unflinchingly despite the barely veiled death threat. "I am, General." And it would be on every newspaper the second she left.
"So be it. You may leave, Major."
She saluted, a thin smile quirking her lips once she had her back to the man. She and Fornax had finally made the records from District Eleven public, and every Captain and Sergeant Major with a brain stood behind them.
And they all wondered why, day after day, their leaders focused on the puppets instead of the weapons suppliers, the heinous voices filling peasants and workers with hate and impossible ambition: District Thirteen.
Columba and the President thought it would end soon, week after week, month after month. Three thousand more Homeguard died, and the ground soaked up the blood of three times that number of Peacekeepers of District Two.
It was the smell that got to you. The pungent smell of goats and warm milk, of wet wool and tanners, of manure and hooves crushed into glue. It never, never, let you forget.
Clad in uniforms and darkness, the first line of soldiers wearing breathing masks surrounded the artisans' square, long square houses of wood and painted bricks decorated with pride with the artisans' craftwork.
Major Achlys stood right behind her men.
The large river covered the sound of the rat-mutts' scurrying. Loaded with sleeping gas bottles, the mutts invaded the houses. The few civilians who managed to rush out were stopped and gagged, efficiently.
Achlys frowned when she noticed shuffling among the ranks. She made her way through and stopped at the sight of three peacekeeper beating a gagged man on the ground.
"Move back," she ordered, removing her mask to be heard.
"He shot us, Ma'am. Grazed Sergeant Pike's arm."
The speaker and the woman to his right had moved back. The last man hadn't. Achlys took out her weapon and shot. He screamed. She shot again. By the fourth shot, he was dead. She had to work her aim.
"I order, you obey," she warned frostily. "You are held to higher standards than civilians. One shoots you: that is a capital offence. You shoot them, quickly, and move on." She grabbed the beaten man by his collar. He was bleeding all over himself, but he could walk. She turned to the small group of amassed artisans. "Lucky him, the law punishes only once. Family has ten seconds to claim him."
A tear-streaked boy wobbling from the gas he'd inhaled rushed forward, and that was the end of that. Achlys was getting these soldiers out of a death trap and giving deserters a second chance despite High Command's orders. And she was Capitol. Untouchable. The peacekeepers' brains weren't so war-torn that she feared for herself.
Somewhere deeper in the plains, four thousand soldiers, over a third of their forces stationed in District Ten, stormed the richest settlements and herded cattle and poultry onto the six waiting trains.
It had been officially over a year of war, and almost two since peacekeeper General Alloy had reported Thirteen's treason to the President. And even now, the Capitol gave the peacekeeper officers in the Districts only vague orders disconnected from the reality of the battlefield.
Major Achlys had had no trouble at all convincing Ten's resident peacekeeper Colonel to go with her plan. They were all ready to leave Ten's lush green pastures and its stinky herds before dawn.
District Ten woke with no men in uniform in their streets and how the fools must have cheered.
The majority of the artisans had recovered from their chemically induced sleep by the time the cargo had been loaded. The seventh train was all for them. They'd even found benches to sit on and installed a toilet to keep a bit of humanity in the soon to be very cramped space.
Winter had begun to sink its fangs in Panem. They were all shivering inside the wagon.
Many gasped when they saw the white-haired woman with the golden eyes and the Capitol uniform step among them. Achlys had decided to don golden contacts after District Eight, when she'd realized the Homeguard Uniform would not be enough. They thought Capitolites monsters. She couldn't count on intelligence or empathy, so she capitalized on the fear. She wasn't like those people. Those peasant rebels who smelled of cows and sheep. She was above them and they would listen.
"Select a spokesperson," she ordered. "Many of you have knowledge Panem cannot afford to lose. This madness must end, and I will hear your side. You have two hours."
"You Cappie trash –" Achlys shot the speaker, an emaciated blonde girl in a ripped coat three times too large, before the teenager finished her insult.
One bullet was this time enough to have her die in her mother's arms. The hysterical woman was left sedated on the ground, and Achlys slung her bloodied victim over her shoulder as if it was just another day on the job. Her gaze swept over every man and child huddled in the wagon. Betraying any weakness, as she stood alone among enemies, her two closest soldiers by the wagon's door, would mark her death sentence.
"I buried my brother, my cousin. Both were civilians, good people. I buried too many good people. Spare me threats you cannot keep. You wanted a voice in the Capitol, you have it. Don't ruin your chance. Convince me that what you want is not just more blood." She smiled thinly, her golden eyes cold. "Blood is easy, as you can see."
Two hours later five spokespeople came forward, and they chose Aries Kaulkin, a middle-aged veterinarian with leathery skin and a wrestler's built, to speak for them all.
Aries Kaulkin spoke of starving refugees from Districts Eight and Nine, of radio-orders and encouraging news from Thirteen, of weapons that 'turned up', and fights for food and clean water. He spoke of people, of day after day fights of little people who burned too hot with hope, fury and grief.
But he gave her the information she wanted. In the face of hunger Achlys realized that the Districts' unity was tenuous. Already, many were back to work, and wracked with guilt over it, because District Thirteen's messages told them everyone else was fighting and that victory was in their grasps. District Ten still had no hierarchy, only a cluster of charismatic improvised chiefs and thousands of cheap radios blaring orders.
There could not be any surrender. There was no one in District Ten with enough authority to guarantee peace.
"When President Santiago was elected, he promised us District advisers in the Capitol, like the ten presidents before him," Aries Kaulkin was saying. "But the best we're given are Mayors, and you never get a candidate that's not chums –I mean friends, Ma'am- with the peacekeepers. For a hundred years they promised us a voice, they promised us travel. Some do travel, that's true, but most never get a chance. Life seems very comfortable in the Capitol and… we're pretty much all convinced we'd do a better job at making things fair."
"You'd do a better job than a few people I know," Achlys granted. The man was almost shitting himself in fear, his eyes going from her gun to her uniform –never her face- so fast she feared he'd have a stroke, but his speech was clear and honest, and he was remarkably coherent. "I won't shoot you. You'll have to learn to look at me. You're now District's Ten adviser, and by default, the thirteen districts' one."
He stared into her eyes and stumbled his way through a disbelieving salute. A fast learner too.
She left the other spokespeople and half their families –she kept the young between 12 and 20 for insurance- go back to the city. Somebody had to encourage the population to behave.
"Thirteen say you lie," Kaulkin whispered. "They say the only thing stopping us is our fear. They say that if we haven't all won yet it's because of cowards among us. They say you'll make us all avoxes or worse if we surrender. There's talk, of what you did to the places that surrendered, to the girls, and children…" What the blazes was the man talking about? "They say you're monsters, that… I'm a monster for just allowing myself to trust you, at least a little bit."
Achlys had known about propaganda, but she hadn't known. Kaulkin's word were a slap in the face. She had dismissed Thirteen's greatest weapon. She had still been thinking like a Homeguard Captain.
She would not make the same mistake again.
Major Evadne Achlys became the voice of the discontent. She was inconvenient but she was too successful, too –and how absurd for a soldier- famous now to remove.
Clearly mad from panic, President Santiago sent armies of mutts in Four, Seven, Nine, Ten and Eleven. He ordered the bombing of Three's second city and scorched a third of Four's shores with chemicals that burned high in the ocean itself. He broadcasted it to every District, convinced he'd need no more to prove the Capitol's superiority, but only fury and more destruction answered.
'They're beyond caring about population sustainability!' Achlys wanted to scream. 'Thirteen keeps telling them they're winning!'
Thirteen organized a peacemaking meeting in District Six within a week. It promised to send its Generals, and wanted Columba to be there in person.
"General, this peacemaking is a travesty," Achlys warned. "Thirteen has stayed behind the scenes all this time. They are as fanatic as the first day. They are taking advantage of what they perceive as weakness from us."
"That is for me and President Santiago to decide, Major. Would you like to be part of the peacemaking delegation?"
"No, General. I do hope I'm wrong, Sir," she said. She meant it.
Neither General Columba nor a single member of the whole Capitol delegation survived. In every District, the fighting began anew, more violent than ever.
At long last, they turned to her. "Bring our soldiers home before they all desert." And re-read my damned reports. It was obscene how much larger a Colonel's office was compared to a Major's.
The Capitol's gardens were full of ripe fruit when the fleet of hovercraft brought the last of the Homeguard home.
Colonel Grandeye smiled warily as she entered Achlys' office, but she hadn't dared say anything at being summoned like a subordinate.
It was much too late for Achlys to consider the woman as anything other than an enemy. "I haven't heard back from the President."
"Thirteen has nuclear weapons. Starving them, laying siege as you suggest, will convince them to use those weapons. We will destroy each other."
It was simple then: they would give Thirteen crops they could use to be self-sustaining. "Send the warheads, and me to Thirteen. If I don't come back, blow them up."
"You would risk-"
"They won't risk it," Achlys said humorlessly. "We must stop reacting." They had to stop all transmissions going out of Thirteen. The morale of the Districts hung to those propaganda speeches. Those lies.
"I will not allow it," the Colonel said. "You are not a Captain anymore, you must remain here. The President will not allow it. He has his reasons, for not attacking Thirteen directly."
Achlys stared hard at the broad-shouldered woman. Loyalty was to Panem, not to an office, not to a man or woman.
A week later, Colonel Grandeye's suicide at the officers' shooting range made the headlines. Nobody dared write 'suicide', but Achlys saw it in others' soldiers eyes. Few of those eyes were disapproving.
The Capitol held its breath as Colonel Achlys left for Thirteen.
Achlys triumphantly returned from Thirteen. Every place seemed so united from afar, but even in the sky-reaching buildings of District Thirteen -so modern and unlike the ruins of Eight- there was dissent and those aghast at this insane war. It had just been the matter of finding them. She had weathered through useless meetings and had left her quarters in the middle of the night like a teenager, with roped sheets and through the window, searching for the first place with loud people.
She flexed her bruised fingers, an echo of the men's pulses still clinging to her skin.
'You get one minute to talk for each of ours you knock out, lady.' Those bar boys hadn't suspected she'd stayed Captain so long because she liked getting her hands dirty. She told them with her fists and feet, and suspected at least one would not wake up.
She had come with records from what was happening in the Districts, and made sure every man and woman she'd met went home to make copies and distribute them. Thirteen's people had had no idea of how much blood was being spilled in their names. They had only been shown the victories. Achlys showed them they were all losing, and the Districts faster than the Capitol.
"You are right, Mr. President: Thirteen will not bow to the Capitol," Achlys said. "I advised once to isolate them without starving them, until the other Districts surrendered. Now I think we should isolate them, permanently."
Despite his makeup, the President was sickly pale. How could this half-dead man be their leader?
"Thirteen is home to many of our brightest minds!" he snapped. "District Three alone cannot bring Panem back to greatness! Thirteen will not accept anything other than a partnership, and maybe it's not such a bad idea. The Districts were never meant to be forever. We must adapt, and use the lessons from this war to build a better Panem."
People, people smarter than her, kept repeating that Santiago was intelligent, and an expert strategist. So why, why! was he so full of speeches but so squeamish and misguided in action?
The noise was deafening. A hundred thousand people stood shoulder to shoulder in the Capitol's main square and stretched far into the wide streets beyond. All over the fortress city, small groups sat in circles under the tall speakers that had become a symbol of the war.
"Negotiations are slow and I understand you anger," President Santiago announced. "We were almost too late, and we paid a high price, but soon Panem will stand up."
The years of civil war had shrunk the man and dug shadows too deep to be erased by makeup. Domitius Santiago had been sharp and soft spoken, but now he shouted in vain attempts to fill himself with the strength that had left him.
He was fooling no one.
"Humanity was crushed by the Cataclysm, and our ancestors created the Districts to avoid extinction. We cannot afford rash action." Once people had listened enraptured, now the whispers were angry and impatient. "This is the last hurdle! We cannot give up!"
Colonel Evadne Achlys walked past the guards until she stood behind the President's back and faced the crowds below. Bleeding and starved, they had all had enough.
"Forty thousand District citizen stand outside the walls," she said. "They have walked through a thousand miles of wilderness, through winter and spring, to storm our gates. They are alive because we have been feeding them and protecting them from wild beasts, in the name of humanity."
"We are two-hundred-thousand, better armed, better equipped to survive. We have nothing to fear," President Santiago exclaimed. "Letting them die would lead us to extinction! The Capitol cannot survive on its own!"
"Of course not," Achlys said, stepping up to the man who tensed in fear, his hand not quite on his firearm. "And feeding them instead of using the Hovercrafts to save the lives of Capitol-born District residents who were forced into the wilderness, left to die, was a rational decision. You ordered deserters shot, but the very people who traumatized our loyal soldiers are given endless chances. Explain, please, Mr. President."
Kaulkin had opened her eyes to the power of crafted words. She'd obsessively begun listening to Thirteen's propaganda. She'd dug up records of every successful politician the Capitol had. Now, she would fight with their weapons.
The grumbling crowd was staring at her now. Never had she expected to be in such a position. But she would still wake up feeling Lucius' hands on her, from that day he had dragged her away from the blown apart terrace. Gabriel. She had naively thought she could be loyal with no ambition.
She had been so very wrong.
"They killed our children, our loved ones, to sabotage the very industries they need to survive, and as they starve as a result, they scream for our blood, blaming us."
For the first time in years, the crowd had a voice, and they roared their fury, their grief, loud enough to be heard by every District invader behind their walls.
"Killing ten more thousand will not solve anything," President Santiago shouted over the crowd's roars. "Tell me what you will do, Colonel. Tell us all, your solution."
"General Columba was shot like dog during the last negotiations. The whole delegation of twenty-nine men and women, soldiers and civilians, were put down without a warning. Our best officers went deep in the Districts and never returned. Every time we extended a hand, they bit off our arms, and worse."
"I said solutions. Remove the Colonel."
Evadne Achlys stared into the eyes of the guards. Her people. Nevio, who'd lost his brother in District Four. Septima, forced to serve past her fiftieth year and miss her grandson's first steps. Rufinus, who stared at the city's walls beyond instead of the President, because he too had stopped believing.
The Homeguard did not remove her. She stood tall in the uniform she had worn for over twenty years, emboldened by the weight of half the Capitol's gazes on her.
She turned to the crowds. "I went to the Districts, to Eight, and Five, and Ten, and I saw. I have the solutions. You are a liar, Santiago. You announced that your son was dead. But he and your sister's family are hostages in Thirteen."
President Santiago's shoulders slumped and Achlys knew that she was now talking to a ghost, to the former President of Panem. "You are not qualified to lead. Tell your people, tell them, that their dead loved ones are worth less, four thousand times less, than your family. Look at the people you sent to fight and die in the eyes, and tell them that you are protecting our enemies, in the hope they will free the hostages, no matter the cost."
Had their positions been reversed, Gabriel would never have tolerated such atrocities in his name. She would have preferred to die.
"You killed Colonel Grandeye!" Santiago spluttered. "You are a bloodthirsty, ambitious beast, you -"
CRACK! Achlys had kicked the gun out of his hand the moment he raised it. A deep bullet impact in dug a hole in the platform, inches from her feet.
Achlys grabbed Santiago's ear, then his arm, and forced him to the ground. "You soaked Panem with the blood of tens of thousands," she said frostily. "Have the decency to let us save our country before it is too late. There have been enough lies."
She forced him to face the microphone, to face his people. "Look at them. Look at those you betrayed without a second thought!"
Her strangling grasp prevented Santiago from saying a word and filled his eyes with tears. Colonel Achlys silently watched the crowd digest that they'd almost witnessed an assassination. She watched the last shreds of respect for the pathetic kneeling man disappear as insults shot through the air, until the streets were one single voice roaring its fury.
"Escort him out," she told the guard.
"I have a solution," Evadne Achlys announced with a small smile. "These dark days will be over within two months. We won't kill the fools behind our walls. We will escort them back to work."
"Do you trust me to be your General?"
Their voices rose as one. "ACHLYS! ACHLYS! ACHLYS!"
An explosion shook the walls in the dead of night.
Evadne Achlys shot upright, the firearm beneath her pillow already in her grip.
Growls pierced through the doors, the sick sounds of mutts tearing each other, or human flesh apart.
Lucius rolled out of bed, shooting her a questioning glance as gunshots ripped through the air.
For all he clutched a painted statue of Ramses II, he had terrific poise for a civilian hearing what had been meant to be his own assassination.
Evadne looked away, her heart constricting. Her assassination. Her husband… insisted to sleep with her. And the fool she was let him, singing herself songs and pretending she was just being paranoid.
Ever since she'd become Colonel, she would spent her short nights at the Experimental Hotel. It had three entrances, and the owner was a trusted friend. Every night a different room would be made for them. And every night, Evadne would select the key to a random free room and made it herself, because even the most loyal could be made to talk under pressure. In her original room, she would leave poisonous reptile mutts with armors too thick for most weapons.
Tonight she slept in ancient Egypt. Experimental was a live-in museum for those who wanted relive History close from home. Two corridors away, XVIIIth century China had being torn apart.
She picked up the screen linked to the cameras she had installed in the rooms and corridors. Those were Homeguard. They'd thrown a grenade, and any human would be dead, but the four mutts had rushed out. Dismembered bodies surrounded the two bleeding survivors, soon escorted to the hospital by security.
She didn't need to be told who wanted her dead.
"I'm going to kill Santiago," Evadne said hollowly. She had sworn to serve and she was about to kill the fucking President of Panem. The world had gone mad. "And his wife. She had ample time to speak out."
"Now?" Lucius' voice shook. There had not been those lines around his handsome blue eyes three years ago.
"Now." She tried to look confident, untouchable, but with Lucius so close she failed. Her husbands' arm around her shoulders only knifed her with the truth.
"You married a Captain," she said hoarsely. If they'd been cleverer, or just ruthless enough to blow up the whole building –
"And I'll stay married to whoever you become," Lucius said. She could feel the softness of his gaze in his voice. "How many men can boast such an exciting turn-around at forty-seven?"
"The threat of death will follow us everywhere. You'll never be able to simply leave the house for a walk, to trust people like before."
"You think I might leave you?" For all his affected confidence, he did not sound surprised.
"I would understand." Colonel Achlys' voice didn't shake, and finally, Evadne had found it once more. "I would let you go." She stood up, not bearing to look at him, wanting his choice to be his own.
"Eva, you are saving Panem. You not less than you were. "
"There will be little time for us."
"Then we'll have to make the most of the time we have. I am not a little boy in need of constant attention." She caved and turned back to him, a treacherous hopeful smile tugging at her lips. His blue eyes glinted with mischief. "I can busy myself with interesting important work too, you know. And assassins…" He huffed and traced his fingers over Ramses II's nose. "Forty-seven years, and I never had come here. I'm living, Eva. You're giving me more lucidity, power and…" His smile broadened into a rogue grin as his eyes undressed her. "you, than I could ever have dreamed of. The risk is part of the thrill, my love."
Evadne's mouth crashed into her husband's, and as she melted in his arms she let herself believe that she could have it all.
Colonel Achlys marched into President Santiago's mansion before dawn with seven crates of explosives. Her unnerving golden eyes glittered like unyielding steel. "Sedate and remove the avoxes and employees. We'll question them later."
Santiago and his wife were seated in their couch, eyes red, as if they had been waiting for them. Five soldiers grabbed the couple and threw them to the floor before they could reach for weapons.
"I am not a dog. I want a lawyer –"
Achlys shot them both, blood splattering over her uniform. She'd become good. Mrs. Santiago didn't even scream.
"Did you kill Grandeye?" Santiago choked, blood pooling out of his mouth as he tried to crawl upright.
He deserved no sliver of compassion. "She killed herself, because of your selfishness," she lied.
CRACK! Santiago was knocked backwards, sprawled on the floor, his face frozen in guilt and horror.
The empty house blew up with the bodies inside, sending a shock wave through the Presidential gardens, upturning century old trees and trimmed rosebushes.
She'd murdered the President of Panem.
She turned to the stiff-faced soldiers, and the panic behind their disciplined expressions. Worse, the brave resignation in the face of horror. "Make appointments with a therapist, all of you. That's an order."
Now, Panem's mighty would remember to keep their promises.
Panem did not truly need a thirteenth District.
It was the most difficult decision Evadne Achlys had ever taken. District Thirteen, a place of cutting-edge research, and yes, nuclear weapons. The counter power to the Capitol for over a century. The first District to rebel and the backbone of the rebellion.
It was part of their history, of their dreams of surpassing one day their ancestors. It was part of Panem. A Panem she had to mutilate in order to save. She had not wept for Grandeye, not for Santiago, but when she steeled herself to give this order, tears bled from her eyes.
September covered Panem in red and gold as every Television broadcasted the chemical wasteland Thirteen had become. District Thirteen's radios, the rebels' lifelines, went silent. Hovercrafts filmed from above the almost empty towns and cities of the twelve remaining districts. They filmed the hundred thousand citizens in the Capitol streets.
The wind stank with lost hope. It chimed with the promise of order. The end of war.
The forty-thousand district rebels were still behind the Capitol's walls. The Homeguard asked for their surrender in groups of fifty, and little by little, they were taken away. Boys and girls between ten and fifteen were flown to District Two, and would replenish the peacekeeper ranks in the years to come. Another thousand, those fit enough to work but not valuable enough to be too missed in their Districts, would fix the railways and rebuild until their bodies gave out.
Of the 'kidnapped' of the Districts, Aries Kaulkin, his sons, and three-dozen others stayed, and Achlys would make sure to make the best of their abilities.
None, Capitol or District, were to know that Thirteen's population was still alive in an austere underground bunker city, that Achlys had forced their withdrawal against crops that would make them self-sufficient for generations. She left none alive, aside from Major Fornax, to know the secret.
Faced by their own civil war, faced with the reality of their chances, Thirteen's leaders had accepted. They had what they wanted: they were their own leaders now. As long as they stayed underground.
Achlys had promised the Capitol two months and held her word in one. She managed to be surprised when they asked to become President. General, yes, but President? She was no politician. But at Lucius' insistence she accepted to organized a vote and let her two opponents a month to convince the Capitol they were more worthy.
"So?" Achlys whispered, packing the last of her effects. The Colonel's office would not be hers, whatever the outcome. She would not be under anyone's orders ever again.
"Seventy-one percent," Lucius replied with a smile. "They're waiting for you outside, Madam President."
A disbelieving laugh left her lips as her husband placed a kiss on her hand.
To think she'd be President, and more unbelievable still, that she looked forward to it.
There was so much to do and not a minute to waste.
"Please tell Vernes Elysium to join me after the speech." Of her opponents, he was the most solid. She could not hope to build a government without politicians. "And tell Fornax he's promoted to General."
"He's much too pretty to be your work husband."
Evadne grinned at Lucius, and at the promise of normalcy his warm voice held. "It'll be at least a decade before I have a quarter hour to spare for any such shenanigans."
Achlys watched the crowd chanting in the streets from her office. The protests were non-violent, but they would not remain so.
The shops were empty, cloth and food rationed. There was nothing money could buy. People were still grieving, still angry, and bored.
She had sent all the petty criminals, the troublemakers, the corrupt, and the three thousand volunteers, to work in the tesserae fields and salvage what crops they could. She couldn't trust District workers, not until starvation stopped being a threat.
But even with that, there just weren't enough jobs to keep people occupied.
On paper, the Capitol was still rich, and the shops would fill up within two years, so as per her advisers' counsel, Achlys funded education, healthcare, therapy, but especially entertainment. Thousands of aspiring stylists, singers, models and artists flooded the new centers. The TV channels became five, then twenty. All those with cameras became reporters, everything turned live, and Achlys encouraged it. With a camera pointed at their faces, with every neighbor listening in, no-one would think to cause unrest.
Already, colored contacts sold at a premium, and many men and women boasted golden eyes. The mutt-vats ran at full capacity to grow organic limbs for the war-disabled, and the word enhancement was whispered in the wind.
Television had become Achlys' greatest weapon. Never before had she realized how efficiently it molded minds.
But the dead were not forgotten, the people demanded District blood.
Instead, Achlys sent Capitol teachers to the Districts. There too, she had minds to mold. There would be no new generations of rebels.
The teachers, bright-eyed young volunteers or hopeful veterans, came with guards and books.
She was caught by surprise when a band of madmen with automatics shot the new school in District Seven. Five teachers, ten Capitol soldiers, twice as many peacekeepers, and thirty-one district children caught in the crossfire.
Very well, she would be more thorough.
She left the districts with skeleton peacekeeper crews and sent a force of thirty-thousand strong, armed with the best weapons, to scour District Seven for any firearms and bombs left over from the war. She had the images broadcasted over Panem and left the other Districts a week to turn in their weapons. For every illegal weapon found past the deadline, ten random citizens would be avoxed.
Collective responsibility was a virtue Achlys was determined to teach. She didn't have enough peacekeepers. She never would. She needed every man and woman to know their happiness depended on everyone else's good behavior. Nosy neighbors were to be her new army.
Sixteen hundred ton of ammunition, thirty-two thousand guns, and countless homemade bombs, were shipped back to the Capitol within the month.
She personally went to Seven, to a wooden village deep in the evergreen Northern forests, where people had gone back to work. President Achlys still wore a uniform, but now she was more woman, more polished, more leader. Everything was calculated, to inspire obedience in civilians and soldiers alike.
She filmed the workers and showed every District, except Seven, how all of Seven had gone back to work. In every District, she did the same, landing unannounced, standing unafraid with only ten bodyguards and a filming crew among hundreds of potential enemies.
She'd learned the lesson: the story was the greatest power. She would feed them stories, and they would give her order.
Slowly, District after District, she re-conquered them all.
They had stopped to take a look at the works at the new Presidential Palace before going home for the night. They had been out of their cars for less than five minutes.
The bullet crashed into Achlys' protective vest, knocking her breath out. Her bodyguards' warm bodies were her only cover, and she had to push herself from under one before a grenade exploded, tearing the man apart.
The two rebels, District-born who'd somehow managed to reach the heart of the Capitol, killed themselves before they could be captured, leaving Vernes Elysium dead without a recognizable face.
Evadne Achlys stared in horror at the corpse of the man she had made her right hand. At the corpses of four loyal soldiers she had entrusted her personal safety to.
This had to stop.
In the Districts, no one would ever know that there were still successful attacks against the Capitol. The President soon learned where her enemies had come from: the Citadel of District Three. One of the few remaining rebel nests.
Soon they too would merely be a myth.
"We need a strong statement to end the war, Madam President," said Marcus Flickerman. "A tribute to the winning side."
Flickerman oversaw propaganda, which tragically included her wardrobe, and couldn't talk to her without fidgeting, but he understood people better than she ever would.
"The Districts have nothing to offer, except their lives," said Mirelle White, Head of Imports.
General Fornax's hard stare burned into his stack of reports. "An execution of select people –"
Achlys shook her head despite the temptation. "Executions make martyrs, General. I don't want united condemned shot by Capitol Homeguard. I want the Districts to see the absurdity, the evil, of these dark days. They only accomplished destruction, and starving their children."
Hunger and Thirteen's stories, the two greatest soldiers in this mad war.
"Should we put children in a room and starve them?" Marcus Flickerman said with a nervous smile. "Would we gain from it? It sounds horrid. We need games, something distracting and uplifting, not horror."
He knew nothing of horror. Achlys couldn't forget cousin Virgil and the vile game those rebels had made him play.
"You're right," Achlys agreed nonetheless. Flickerman straightened and flushed. If that could get him to stop the damn fidgeting. Civilians were exhausting. "Games." Hunger and stories. "Hunger Games. With a victor, and the twelve districts pitted against each other. No Capitolites involved. We'd… reap the participants. It'd be chance. The last survivor would win."
"We have already so many expenses, Ma'am," said Mirelle. "All these extra… To kill children. We can barely supply food to every citizen. We've already been turning our mutt army into steaks!"
Achlys smiled. Mirelle, Herminia White's sister-in-law, didn't stammer. She was pointing a moralizing finger straight under Achlys' nose.
"The Districts took arms because they believed they would be better rulers than us," Achlys explained. "We will give a grand house and a generous stipend to the victor, more than what the four of us earn combined. We will give them more freedom than any citizen has. Then we'll see what they do with all these privileges."
"Children, Ma'am, not adults? Isn't it too much of a travesty?" Fornax didn't look convinced.
"Teenagers," Achlys specified, "twelve to eighteen. They represented over a third of those who marched on the Capitol. They were the majority of the saboteurs when we guarded the plantations and factories."
Twelve year olds had been part of the screaming horde which had torn the school apart in District Seven. If they weren't too young for their parents, Achlys wouldn't stay her hand.
"But we're supposed to be the good guys," Mirelle said firmly. "Will it really stabilize Panem? Won't it just make the Districts angrier? The war-"
"Dark Days," Achlys stressed. "I don't want it called a war, on any media, from now on. We had to bring supplies to our enemies to avoid extinction." And not just the forty-thousand who'd attempted a siege, but the hundreds of thousands in One, Two, Three, Five, Six and Eight, who depended exclusively on imports. That had been the true travesty.
"How can we make sure they play?" Flickerman said. "How do we make sure the Districts trust the pictures we show them?"
"You should choose them, Ma'am," Mirelle said. "Instead of chance, find those who deserve it." She smiled weakly. "I know the death count will be few compared to all there has been, but we should make sure it's really useful."
Achlys gave her a small smile back. She had dreams at night of unafraid advisers. She didn't destroy or even humiliate people over honest mistakes, and yet even Fornax flinched when she frowned too hard.
"I like the idea that it could be anyone," she admitted. "The fear it will create. But you are both right, we should choose the right people. The right tributes. At least at first…" She focused on Mirelle. "I read your report about tesserae fields."
"For now, it's the only supplies we can count on. We'll need a full year at least to get the rest of production up to half of what it was before the sabotage began. The number of volunteers signing up has gone down by a quarter. We'll soon need district workers there."
Achlys nodded slowly. "District citizen who will want tesserae rations will need to sign their children up for reaping slips. Give minimal rations for children under twelve and adults over fifty, and then only rations for worker. Anyone younger than fifty who isn't contributing to the economy in six months is to be avoxed. A thorough definition of allowed occupations, and regulations about who can remain home to watch over children, will be clear in the documents General Fornax will send you."
"The whole population will sign up," Mirelle predicted. "I'll have the rations recalculated."
"Yes," Achlys agreed, her mind whirring. "But for these Hunger Games to be efficient, I'll need feasts in every district: on the day we reap the tributes and on the day of victory. It will be a holiday."
Mirelle winced at feast. "We'll scrap something together."
"Is it to be punishment or a joyful occasion?"
But unlike General Fornax, Marcus Flickerman looked excited.
"Yes, that will remind them where their food comes from. Is that the message we are to give? The Districts rebelled. They almost destroyed each other by crippling production, and we kept them alive at the cost of our own lives. For this treason, and to remind them they are nothing without us, we organize the Hunger Games. And the victors get a chance to help their districts."
Fornax snorted. "Traumatized teenagers. We'll make what we want of them."
Very true. "We'll have to discuss details." Hunger Games. Achlys was beginning to warm to the idea. "Marcus, spread rumors, I want to know what the population thinks."
"What about the more loyal Districts, Ma'am?" General Fornax said after a pause. "District One has given us no trouble since Thirteen's bombing. District Two was mostly on our side all throughout the Dark Days."
"We will rig the first Games, and then we'll see if we ought to give preferential treatment."
Flickerman was taking furious notes. "We'll need to find a location - the nearby wilderness, perhaps?- and equip it with cameras. We'll need an organizing team, camera crews, microchips so we can hear the tributes' words…" He turned to Mirelle. "Can you get us microchips from Three?"
"I want a Capitol presence: one of ours to call out the reaped from an assembled crowd," Achlys said. "Everyone will feel involved, every child. They should be given a set of clean new clothes, something prettier than usual school uniforms."
"The Dark Days left them in rags, we clothe them!" Flickerman said with a giggle. He blushed and dropped his eyes. "It's a great idea, Madam President."
"Security will be a concern if we must gather the whole district in one place to watch those reapings." Fornax crossed his arms. "On the other hand, that will draw out the remaining rebels."
"We'll need a lot more television sets." Poor Mirelle was sweating now. "District Three might be able to squeeze out some thousands more in the next quarter. Is it to be a priority?" She sighed softly, the bags under her eyes all too visible. "I need more people -or mutts, anything,- to fix the forcefields around the train tracks, Ma'am. And more trains. Many more trains..."
Flickerman stopped staring when he realized Achlys wasn't taking offence at Mirelle's ramblings. He cleared his throat."We do need to make sure people watch and hear what we want them to hear, Madam President. Enforced mandatory viewing... That's more the General's area of expertise..."
Fornax slowly nodded, deep in thought. Achlys understood his grimace, but conventional order had failed. They had to adapt. Entertainment would become the sole biggest industry in the Capitol, and their greatest weapon. Achlys just had to make sure it did not spin out of control.
She was curious to have Kaulkin's opinion on the matter. 'You'll be killing children,' an accusing voice whispered, sounding all too much like her twin.
Achlys' fists clenched. Gabriel was dead. His cheer, his innocent caring personality, hadn't saved him. Hundreds upon hundreds of children were dead, and were dying still as she struggled to glue the pieces back together. Nobody would forget the children of her Games.
She would make every aspiring rebel hate blood and death, and fear it like nothing else.
It was Aries Kaulkin who convinced her to allow volunteers. But in the first game, she would make sure there was no one willing to volunteer for those she chose. She didn't want any of it glorified. There had been nothing glorious about the Dark Days.
She had never meant for the Hunger Games to be forever. Never expected such craze. But had she been alive to see it, she would not have been surprised that those very Hunger Games eventually led to the Capitol's fall.
Without Dame Selena, this story would not exist. To thank her, you should leave a review: she really likes reading them^^.
So... How evil would you say Evadne Achlys is?