The Tree of Liberty

By

James Doyle

Prelude

Katniss Everdeen lay awake in her bed, too numb to cry, and to stunned to sleep. Earlier that day, she'd witnessed the execution of a man who'd done nothing more than show her respect for the way she'd treated Rue, the fallen tribute of District 11. She knew, of course, that whether or not he had intended it that way, to the Capitol, it had been more than a simple gesture of recognition. It had been an act of defiance.

Perhaps, though she thought it unlikely, she'd have been able to sleep that night if she'd had the evening to try and shake it off. But instead, she was expected to be polite, proper, gracious, and above all, madly in love with Peeta Mellark. The thought that she would have to continue that sham for the rest of her life proved too much to bear.

Katniss wanted to run to the back of the train, open a window, and scream out loud. Perhaps the Mockingjays would carry her cries throughout all of Panem, conveying the message to which she dared not give words. Perhaps she would have, had she not been interrupted in her thoughts by an unannounced entry into her cabin.

"Peeta?" she called out. "Haymitch?"

No answer came, only an electronic sound reminiscent of a bird whistle, followed closely by excruciating aching pain, and then unconsciousness.

Some time later, in the darkness of the early morning hours, in the midst of the wilderness between districts, the train passed through a tunnel, followed immediately by a bridge. As if timed perfectly to use the steel arch against itself, the train reached the center of the span before exploding in a brilliant light show, sending a plume hundreds of feet into the air, and sending countless pieces of itself and the bridge plummeting into the river below.

When Katniss awakened, she found herself seated in an uncomfortable chair in some sort of concrete bunker. She found herself unrestrained, but before she could get up and run, her eyes began to focus, and discovered the two Peacekeepers guarding her. Before she could further assess the situation, an older, slightly chubby Peacekeeper with a bad comb-over and a familiar face entered the room.

"Colonel Cray," said Katniss.

"Miss Everdeen," greeted Cray. "Nice to see you."

Katniss rolled her eyes. Feeling certain that President Snow had decided to skip the pretense and do away with her here and now, she deemed these pleasantries entirely pointless.

"So I suppose you're my executioner," surmised Katniss, sensing that she couldn't possibly get in any more trouble.

"I can see how you might think that," replied Cray, "But I can assure you, my business with you today has nothing to do with the Capitol. As a matter of fact, I don't imagine I'll be in command of District 12 much longer."

"I see," said Katniss. "So now that I've made a fool out of you, you want to do the job yourself."

Cray sighed. "I understand that you have no reason to trust me, but I have no intention of harming you."

"Really?" Katniss said incredulously. "So you kidnapped me in the middle of the night to have tea and biscuits?"

"No, my dear," responded Cray. "I'm afraid I need your assistance with a much more serious problem."

"And what problem would that be?"

"You've seen the unrest in District 11, I gather," said Cray.

Katniss nodded in the affirmative.

"Well, what you don't know," informed Cray, "is that unrest is brewing in the other districts, as well. Rebellion could break out at any moment. All of Panem is a powder keg just waiting for someone to light the fuse."

"I'm not seeing this as a bad thing," said Katniss.

"Perhaps not," granted Cray. "But I can guarantee you that President Snow will strike back, and strike back hard. No matter what happens, this could all end very badly for everyone."

"And you think I can do something about that?" asked Katniss.

Cray nodded.

"Sorry," declared Katniss, as if she had a choice. "But I think I'll take my chances with Snow, if it's all the same to you."

"That would be a shame," argued Cray, "considering that we went to a good deal of trouble to make him think you were dead."

"What?" reacted Katniss. "What did you do?"

"We destroyed your train," revealed Cray. "The initial investigation will find a defect in the train's hydrogen fuel cells. When it's determined that that alone wouldn't produce that big of a bang, further investigation will turn up bomb parts in Haymitch's mansion, and call the incident a suicide bombing."

Haymitch, Katniss thought to herself, Cinna, Effie. Peeta!

"What did you do, you son of a bitch?" snapped Katniss, forcing the two Peacekeepers to restrain her. "Did you murder them all just to get at me?"

"Calm down, Miss Everdeen!" pleaded Cray. "They're all perfectly safe and sound. We're still not sure what we're going to do with the folks from the Capitol, but you have my word – whatever it's worth – that they won't be harmed."

Katniss growled. She could only guess at what Cray had up his sleeve, but for the time being, she had little choice but to trust him.

"All right," agreed Katniss. "What is it you need my help with?"

"Follow me, please," requested Cray, who led her out of the room and down the corridor.

"What is this place?" asked Katniss as she took in the scene of the mostly-deserted bunker.

"Outpost 22," answered Cray. "Built during the Dark Times; used for some time after as a barracks. It's quicker to move troops by rail or hovercraft these days, so it doesn't see very much use. We're deep enough so that the thermal imaging scanners won't pick us up."

"Right," said Katniss, not feeling particularly secure in Cray's assurance.

"We're here," announced Cray, showing Katniss into a surprisingly comfortably-furnished room, with a table in the center bearing a metal briefcase. She suddenly felt relieved to see that this wasn't the only thing awaiting her.

"Peeta!" she cried, throwing her arms around her friend and sometime lover.

"Good to see you in one piece," declared Peeta.

"Likewise," reciprocated Katniss.

"As you might guess," interjected Cray, "Mr. Mellark has already agreed to help us."

"You still haven't told me what it is you do down here," noted Katniss.

"Mr. Mellark," delegated Cray. "Why don't you explain it?"

"Sure," agreed Peeta. "Katniss, there's a very good reason Cray and his men have been so easy on us. Cray and a few of his most trusted men are members of an order known as the Knights of Destiny."

Katniss laughed with a snort at the title.

"It's not as pretentious as you might think," continued Peeta. "Destiny is the name of a ship. Hundreds of years ago, the crew of Destiny left for someplace far away. But before they did that, they left us these to communicate with them."

Peeta opened the case, to reveal what looked like five polished green stones, and a rectangular silver device with a white surface.

"And you think they're still out there? After all this time?" asked Katniss, directing her question at Cray.

"They may very well be," answered Cray. "Or maybe their descendants. Or even someone else. In any case, these stones have been handed down from generation to generation of military units. Amidst war, peace, and regime changes, the Knights of Destiny have persisted, with a singular purpose: To make contact with Destiny."

"And you really believe all this?"

Cray nodded. "I have to. It's the only thing that gives me hope."

"So you want me...us...to try and make contact?"

"That's the idea, yes," said Cray.

"And what makes you think we can?"

Cray hesitated for a moment, and then answered. "Because you have the true warrior spirit."

"Me?" reacted Katniss. "All I ever did was try not to get killed."

"Not so," argued Cray. "You stood up for the innocent, like a soldier ought. It is to our shame that no one among the Peacekeepers can say that. It's my belief that they won't talk to us because they consider us unworthy."

Can't say as how I blame them, thought Katniss to herself, disbelieving that she was actually giving credence to these insane rantings. It mattered not whether she believed. The fact remained that Cray held her life in his hands, not to mention those of her friends, and quite possibly her family. The only prudent course of action at this point was to humor him.

"All right," conceded Katniss with a sigh. "What do I do?"

"Take a stone in your hand," instructed Cray, flipping a switch which illuminated the white pad. "Place it on the actuator."

Peeta and Katniss both did as instructed, placing their stones on the device.

"Now what?" asked Katniss.

"Now we wait," said Cray.

Hours passed, and the fear and anxiety she'd felt earlier had long-since given way to sheer, morbid boredom. Though nothing like what one might find in the Capitol, she found the chair surprisingly comfortable. Peeta had already dozed off, and she began to feel her own eyelids growing heavy. She resisted, not wanting the nightmares to return. Finally, supreme exhaustion won out, and she allowed herself to drift off to sleep.

Katniss awoke with a start. At least, she thought she'd awoken. She surveyed her surroundings, and found herself in a room very different from any she'd seen in the bunker...or anywhere else, for that matter. As she examined the table, she found an actuator with two stones, identical to the ones Peeta had shown her. Directly in front of her was a mirror; rusted, but still usable.

As she lifted the mirror to her face, she examined the woman staring back at her: Long, flowing black hair, almond-shaped brown eyes, and amber-colored skin. Like no one she'd ever seen before. Now she was sure she was dreaming. She set the mirror down and looked across the table to see a lean, broad-shouldered man, with shoulder-length mostly-gray hair, and a scruffy beard.

"Katniss?" called the man.

"Peeta?" she replied, still not believing this could actually be them.

Before they could make any further assessments, the heavy door slid open with a good deal of mechanical fanfare, and muscular fellow with dark brown skin and short-cropped black hair appeared. The weapon he carried suggested his green coveralls to be a military uniform of some sort.

"Colonel, this is Greer," said the man into the microphone adorning his shoulder, speaking in an archaic dialect that Katniss strained to understand.

"This is Young," responded the man's radio after some delay.

"You might want to get up to the communication room," advised Greer. "It looks like we've got some visitors."

"On my way," acknowledged Young.

With that, the door whirred shut once again.

"What's going on here?" asked Katniss.

"How should I know?" responded Peeta.

Katniss slapped herself hard across the face, just softly enough not to leave a welt. No change. Whatever was happening, bizarre thought it might be, clearly wasn't a dream.

"You think maybe the Capitol found us?" theorized Peeta. "Kept us out long enough to alter our appearances?"

The notion had some merit, thought Katniss. She wouldn't have put it past Snow to give them new identities so he could continue to torment them in whatever twisted, subtle ways he might dream up. It seemed like an awful lot of trouble, but then again, the Capitol could be quite elaborate in their machinations. Case in point: The Hunger Games.

"I dunno," said Katniss, not able to sell herself on the idea. "That guy didn't look like any Peacekeeper I've ever seen."

Before they could discuss it further, the door opened once again, through which the man who'd seen them initially escorted a middle-aged gentleman with light olive skin, and short, curly black hair. He could have come from the Seam, were it not for his clothes, which, though different from the other fellow's, were clearly a military uniform.

"Hello," greeted the man, extending his hand. Both Katniss and Peeta hesitated.

"Don't be afraid," encouraged their host. His voice and his eyes seemed disarmingly kind, but then Katniss had met many such people in the Capitol. She examined the man's escort, who, while armed, didn't seem particularly eager to shoot anyone. Katniss decided there was no harm in a handshake, and took the man's hand, prompting Peeta to do likewise.

"And who might you be?" he asked.

"Katniss," she answered tentatively. "Katniss Everdeen. This is my friend Peeta Mellark."

"Pleasure to meet you both. I'm Colonel Everett Young. Welcome aboard the Destiny."

End of Chapter One