It had seemed like a good idea before, but now, stranded on the fifth level, tons of rubble covering the ladder they had taken mere minutes before and whirls of dust reducing vision to almost nil, Mags wondered why they hadn't stayed in the bunker. Her ears were still ringing from the noise the corridor had made upon collapsing. Every time she lifted her eyes, the threatening cracks in the ceiling seemed wider. She feared they had crossed the line between brave and foolish. A poisonous river of suspicious-looking substances bubbled down the now too small canals, spraying sizzling liquid dangerously close to their legs.
"The higher levels have overflowed. The crash caused the chemicals to mix," Fife said, eyeing them hopefully for a solution. Her voice came out as a wheeze. She looked like a giant insect with her black eyes made huge by mask's transparent lenses.
"The sewers were built after the bunker. So the bunker must have an exit of its own. We must find a way back down. We can report the way is shut. We have only two other downwards ladders to check anyway," Mags said, afraid they would only find more shut ways. Their three hours were almost up.
They weren't very far from where the hovercraft had crashed, but they weren't right underneath either and this was one of the sturdiest sectors of the sewers. Yet it looked like a war zone. The hovercraft shouldn't have caused that much destruction. What had they stored in it, dynamite? She eyed the heap of rocks critically. She doubted that the Capitol could fool two pilots into sacrificing themselves like that.
"There have to be reinforced emergency pipes to get cameras down, at the very least for inspection in case of a collapse. We might get a message through," she said.
Fife and Constantine looked at a loss. "Wait…pipes?" Fife said after a pause. She turned their back on them before turning back just as suddenly and bursting into gales of laughter.
Incredulous, Mags watched her stumble and fall to the ground, clutching her sides. What was there to laugh about?
"I wanted to say 'turn around so none of us can see the others' faces' but," Fife gestured at the masks, "the Capitol just got screwed over." She took a deep sobering breath. "You told us that they have no sound, but they have video and the angle depends on the number of tributes, Mags." Hostile undertones gave a freezing edge to Fife's voice. "We all had horrible headaches at Atli's and my eyes hurt again a few minutes after the hovercraft had crashed, did yours?"
Mags felt the sudden urge to pound her head on the wall. Facts she had dismissed clicked into place. The Capitol had tampered with their brains, but not just their memories. They were the cameras. "Yes, just like our trackers also ached when we were so close to the scrambler and -"
She broke off and chuckled at Fife's puppy-eyed look. That girl could be such a diva. "Fine, show off, Fife."
Fife's eyes crinkled. She theatrically cleared her throat. "We have cameras behind our eyes or something like it. As soon as the scrambler got crushed, every last image recorded by whatever device they put in our brain was sent to the Capitol. The city's not so far, they just need to have something to boost the signals in those emergency pipes to get it to the surface. The tracker somehow wasn't scrambled since they sent sponsors and -"
"The heat detectors cannot be scrambled or Sylvan would not care about their existence," Constantine cut in.
Mags covered her face with her gloved hands. How could she have missed that! No wonder the Capitol had managed to send supplies. They had a map of trackers to guide any robot. And Chickaree had given the three of them a map. Mags felt even more stupid. If the maps had been a great secret, they would not have gotten any. The rebels were in an even more precarious situation than Mags had thought.
"So maybe the tracker can communicate with the heat detectors and that's how they knew where we were," she guessed. After all the Capitol had had a long time to prepare.
She ground her teeth in frustration, twisting her coat with her gloved fingers. Only those who researched weather forecasting had advanced physics and mathematical training in Four. The three of them had only the vaguest clue of what they were dealing with. Tension and stress sucked energy out of her muscles even as they did nothing. It was like walking over a precipice on a narrow rail-less bridge. She was constantly on edge, never having a moment to truly relax.
"I'm not so sure how they knew when we figured out that we had lost our memories," Fife said, "but I am sure they have some software that can read lips. They just need two tributes facing each other to 'listen in' to any conversation. But the records will have no sound, meaning that it's much easier for the commentators to give the images whatever meaning they want. I'm sure the recaps will be carefully engineered."
Of course. The Capitol will have them say whatever they want.
"So they now do have a live feed and we have cameras in our eyes. So does Lila," Constantine said. The mask failed to alter the scorching fury in his voice. "They may be littering the sewers with listening devices as we speak. How are we even certain there are no devices in our ears? I know of a deaf Capitol citizen, so they cannot cure all ailments, but do they truly have no such technology?"
"The Gamemakers said no sound. We have to believe that," Mags said, hoping her memory hadn't tricked her.
She cracked her knuckles. The Capitol's motives made much more sense now. A false live broadcast of the death of the agonizing rebellion to quell any stubborn whispers of defiance. The final proof that any attempt to rebel was futile, that the districts were hopelessly over-matched. These Games had been designed as a weapon against dissenters.
Mags knew what they had to do. She would concern herself with the Capitol having heard her rebellious opinions later.
"We keep the masks on and we go to the surface, now, before they finish seeing what we've been doing in the last days. They know that there won't be any rebels on the surface and the Capitol is less than an hour away by hovercraft."
"But they'll see us coming, Mags," Fife said, looking at her quizzically, "do we pretend to flee or something?"
"You really think the Capitol will miss the occasion to send their men in disguised as Scavengers? They want the Districts to believe that no rebellion could ever succeed. What better than to show that their last hopes amongst the rebels are insane?"
Mags' vibrant voice filled the corridors, like a bitter herald of dark times. It was there, caressing the tips of her fingers, the power the men and women of the Capitol had abandoned all virtue for. One insidious word, one deceiving broadcast, and a million minds would be shaped by their lies. They could play people like chess pieces, push them to suit their stone-hearted fancies and watch the drama they were so starved for unfold.
"They will twist the images they recorded through our eyes, using them as proof that for every man like Sylvan a thousand Scavengers prowled in the depths, that people like Chickaree trained them as dogs to eat innocent tributes. They will prove that rebels are naught but vile beasts or tragically naive fools. They will not stop until even the thought of rebellion is erased from every single citizen's mind."
"That would have sounded even more ominous without that horrid mask," Fife said. Her hushed voice went from intimidated to teasing. "And Constantine won't be able to charmingly flip his hair as his grenades sail through the air, such a pity!"
Mags gaped, physically stunned by Fife's attempt to break the oppressive silence. It was as if her brain warred with itself. One part was desperate to latch on anything futile, anything lighthearted, the other wanted to scream at Fife not to waste her time, to focus on the very real threats. A ghost of a smile flitted over her lips upon seeing the look of supreme contempt Constantine was giving the unabashed and grinning girl from Nine.
"Grow up, Fife," Constantine said.
Mags grabbed Fife's shoulder as the girl's words suddenly registered. "What grenades?"
"Why, Mags, the ones I put in my bag before we left," Fife said innocently, "telling you must have slipped my mind. I'd be happy to share the load now that you mention it. They're pretty heavy."
"Perfect, you will carry the ammunition while we accomplish the serious tasks," Constantine said, his lips twitching.
Mags rolled her eyes at the two of them, inwardly warmed by their bickering. It gave her hope that, somehow, things could get back to normal after this. She couldn't believe Fife had stolen the grenades back. Her whole life Mags had been rather flippant about talks of bombing the Capitol. It had seemed self-evident, the right thing to do. But now... would she still kill Capitol citizens who had come here on orders? People who would be replaced instantly, leaving Panem the same except for the mourning families of the dead? She told herself that she had to. Even if it wasn't ideal justice, it had to be done. Except she doubted Capitolites would come themselves. They always had someone to do their dirty work for them. Fife caught her shaking her head.
"Come on, Mags, tell me how brilliant I am. I know you're thinking it."
"Grow up, Fife," Mags shot back, glad the mask concealed her small smile. The fact the grenades could come useful should be enough to overpower any hint of amusement, yet Mags felt like tickling Fife just to see her lose some of that damned self-control and squirm a bit. Prolonged stress was turning Mags into the ten year old she had never had a chance to be. She didn't know whether to giggle or despair. The fact that she even considered giggling wasn't a good sign.
"We're not here to hang around, let's move," she said.
They walked in companionable silence in the gloom, reaching the fourth level without much difficulty. The three froze as an odd whirling sound reached their ears. A shadow the size of a large lizard scurried across the floor. Something mechanical. Constantine was faster.
He cursed in pain as his foot collided violently with the shape. Sound of breaking metal resonated in the wide corridor as what had been a robot crashed against the hard wall. The four-legged machine gave a few feeble twitches before growing still.
Mags grabbed a rock to crush it completely in case it was equipped with listening devices. From up close, it looked like a small lithe dog with hand-like paws. It could probably go up and down the ladders.
"Kicking puppies is bad, Constantine," Fife quipped as the boy awkwardly massaged his aching limb.
Without a word, Constantine grabbed Fife's shoulder to balance himself. She stumbled under the weight and hastily caught herself against the wall. "We must find a more efficient way to destroy them," Constantine said, "the Capitol would be foolish to send a single robot."
"I'm afraid robot-puppies can't be our priority. Some will get past us anyway. What I can do is make use of the ropes lying around," Mags said, realizing keeping a second snare in case they had to detain someone would also be a wise idea. She decided they could afford the time. "I'll need a quarter hour or so."
Fife shook Constantine off her before he made her lose her balance and stuck her tongue out at him. "Could we avoid the Scavengers this time, unless your plan involves them?" She said, her voice serious once more.
Mags looked around. Four of the five paths they could have taken were collapsed or looked too dangerous to travel. "Let's try, but I doubt we'll have much choice. It goes without saying that using a grenade here is suicide," she added as a precaution. They hadn't thought about that enough when heading for Atli's.
Mags slapped Fife lightly on the back of the head. No one had the right to be that sarcastic in places like this.
Two snares later, Mags stood up. Constantine had tested the remaining ropes and packed the sturdiest. He now was looking at a set of components that Fife had removed from the robot.
"Infiltrators," he said, "some luxury convoys use them as mobile security."
Mags crouched next to him. From up close, the things looked like spider-like machines the size of her palm. A robot carrying robots? It made sense if the smaller ones were more advanced but unable to cover a lot of ground. She swallowed, fear tightening her chest. They would never spot the smaller robots in the gloom, even with their powerful torchlights.
"That's good to know. From now on, we speak as if every word will be heard," she said.
"How do you do it?" Fife said after a few minutes of silence.
Mags turned to her. Worried by the wariness in the other's voice. "What?"
"I've been fooling around because it's the only way I know to forget that I'm under thirty feet of unstable stone, without any guarantee of getting out, and that the odds of us surviving until tomorrow aren't as high as I'd wish. We always end up looking for trouble instead of staying safe and… You two look fine."
Mags felt a pang of compassion for her companion. Fife's mild demeanor made it so very easy to forget that she was just a terrified girl who was more used to avoiding danger than facing it. Mags wasn't fine, not by a long shot. She was simply keeping up. It had always been about keeping up, about not becoming a burden. She struggled to find the right words.
"It's called bravery," Constantine said.
Mags glared at him. Ever since they had met Lila, she was finding him increasingly disagreeable. He had such a black and white vision of some things. "When in doubt, Constantine, kindness should be your first option."
"Doubt? I am unfamiliar with the concept," he said, a teasing glint in his brown eyes.
Fife affected a cough. Mags didn't trust the light in her eyes. The short girl was about to bring up Teal and Mags couldn't let her. There was teasing, and then there was antagonizing. The two had to find other outlets than each other.
"Fife, please don't. You're wiser than that."
Arms stubbornly crossed, Fife finally granted her point. "See that, Constantine? The consequence of your holier than thou attitude means Mags counts on me to be the mature one."
Constantine looked less than thrilled.
Mags repressed a groan. They got distracted so easily. "I have enough of your alpha issues. Cut it out!"
"It's easy for you," he replied, "you're the leader."
His voice was calm, almost amused. She wondered if for him this passive-aggressive behavior was the norm. She hadn't truly appreciated before how healthy her relationships with her friends were. Marlin and Dylana would never think to act like that. And why did Fife and Constantine have to establish a hierarchy between them? Was it just to kill time? To distract themselves?
"I have never used the word or pulled rank on you," Mags said. She dared them to complain. They had been quite happy to hand her the responsibility.
Fife laughed. "Since our combined IQs top one-eighty, you won't ever have to. You never let our goal out of your sight, you're the least self-absorbed of us three and nothing makes you give up. I'd be in the Capitol by now and Constantine would have attacked Chickaree and her group when they backed us into killing the peacekeeper. He'd be either a corpse or also in the Capitol."
"And you have a remarkable aptitude for making distasteful decisions," Constantine added. "You are adaptable but your morals are not. It is a rare quality, Mags Abalone."
A smile graced Mags' lips. She wasn't going to pretend she didn't like them following her lead, especially since it was truly out of respect for her abilities. She felt her annoyance with disappear and repressed another sigh. How quickly they won her over with sweet words.
Wry laughter filled the corridor. "Oh look, stairs."
Mags paled as her eyes followed Fife's pointed finger. The corridor looked like it had been mauled by a giant beast. She could see the sky above the large hole. Smoke screened the afternoon sun, but, even fifteen feet underground, Mags squinted to readjust to natural light. Wind rustled her coat, tearing chips from the earth and rock, its glum hisses piercing her ears.
"Constantine, we'll climb ahead and secure you with the rope. It's not negotiable," she said. She really wasn't prepared to mourn him yet, especially not for something as stupid as a cracked skull after a fall.
Constantine seemed torn between pride and logic. "You are certain not to need it?" He finally said.
Fife and Mags shared a look. This wouldn't be harder than climbing wet reefs or old warehouse roofs. "Yes."
The aristocratic boy did not protest further. Mags smiled, grateful for his quick compliance.
They began their ascent towards the surface, gloved fingers digging in the friable rocks. Years of poisoning had rendered the soft ground even softer. No wonder the burning hovercraft had caused so much damage: the first collapses had spilled reagents all over the place, fueling the inferno and causing new explosions which had weakened the fragile buildings and roads spared by the crash. A deadly chain reaction. It was not wind but the freed fluids which hissed and crackled all around them.
Her arms burning from strain, Mags finally pulled herself above the ground, her left foot slipping on her unstable grip. With Fife's help, she helped Constantine up, her eyes on the grim apocalyptic scenery before them.
Rivulets of a thousand colors and hues snaked through the landscape, exhaling wisps of gazes with heavy sighs that blurred the mountains all around the phantom city. The wide roads had been torn apart. Yellow, blue and green fires leaped from building to building, seeking to satisfy their ravenous hunger. Three's once proud industrial city was naught but the giant lab of an insane chemist.
Mags hadn't appreciated how sheltered they had been in the sewers.
A sudden clanking sound made the three tributes start. The small assembly line next to them had cracked in half, disintegrated by a transparent substance that dribbled from a hole in the half-collapsed ceiling.
Mags urged them out of the crumbling factory, balling her fists to hide the shake to her hands. She didn't trust herself to speak, afraid her voice would come out as a pitiful croak. Her thoughts were miles away, back to another time where the Capitol had made nature go mad.
The water looked weird near the shore. Water was not supposed to be gray like that. Mags squinted, standing on tiptoes to see over the rail.
"Stay away from the shore, something's not right," her uncle said as he turned the boat over.
The pale dawn sky was empty, no hovercrafts at all. But they were lucky and would have to land soon or they'd be seen and shot down by Capitol patrols.
The shadow over the shallow waters burst into green flames. Her hand clutching her father's, the child gasped as a wall of fire as long as the coast itself soared towards the skies and cut them off from the shores. A fire that wasn't hot. Was it an illusion? Under them, schools of fish of all sizes and shapes fled towards the deep, away from a human bred madness they could not comprehend.
"Head for the reefs and drop the nets, we must get fish or we will starve," her father said. Mags felt sick at the fear in his voice. This wasn't part of the plan.
The net was so full it groaned from the weight. It was all they had, fish bred in the pools between the rocks, barely enough to survive, crab and fish and mollusks, barely enough water, and the flames; day after day, nothing but the flames, thirst and cold. Those had been the good days, before her favorite cousin Freya had died of a stupid cough they couldn't cure. Before her father went swimming to grab the net that a violent storm had stolen from them and didn't come back.
They'd been the strongest people Mags had known. She still didn't understand how they could be gone. It was just her, her uncle, Lazuli and Ebony now.
The green fire burned day and night: Capitol hovercrafts threw bags and more bags in the waves, bags of a weird material that dissolved and freed the gray powder. The gray powder which cut District Four from the sea that had sustained them through the rebellion. Whenever she could sit and rest, the eight year old stared at the shimmering barrier until her head ached and her eyes burned. Her mother was behind there somewhere. Mags tried so hard, but she couldn't remember what her baby sister had looked like. At least her mom and Esperanza were safe, or so her dad had promised. She couldn't ask him why he had been so sure of it anymore.
Next to her, she heard Ebony cough. A bad cough. The eight year old buried her face between her scraped knees. Not Ebony too.
Mags checked her mask twice as she pulled herself together. The Capitol had never hid its disregard for the environment, scouring the land with the most vicious weapons it could invent, but she had never thought to see such a thing again. Luckily, they were alone for the moment. She hoped they would have the element of surprise.
"We're here," Fife said, pointing on the map, "the hovercraft crashed around here and the Scavengers would have come out in that area. In any case, we should go East."
Constantine turned to them, childish glee infusing his voice. "Let's go hunt those Scavengers!"
His tone, more than the words, was so out of character that Mags snorted. "Let's," she said, happy her companions caught on quickly. From now on, they had to assume that everything they said was heard by the Capitol's metal spies. Her eyes darted around, seeking Sylvan's bird-like cameras rather than the dogs. They needed to find a way to contact the rebels soon, or Sylvan would think they had left, or that they were dead.
Less than a quarter hour later, they almost compromised themselves. The houses stopped abruptly, circling what had once been maybe a playground or landing zone. Now it most certainly was a landing zone. Three hovercrafts, with their engines off but the pilots still inside, were facing each other. Next to one of them, Styx and Delphin were animatedly talking to a handful of Scavengers.
Mags forced Constantine to keep hidden behind the wall. Fife was already crouched, out of sight. The girl from Four then squinted. Those were genuine Scavengers, adults, all of them, thin and pale, their shoulders hunched and their clothes worn. She looked around, her heartbeat increasing. Robin from Seven was nowhere in sight.
Not much action here, but it will pick up again. I hope you enjoyed the interaction and background.
So yes, there was a real plot point to those headaches I gave my characters earlier. You'll learn even more of the Capitol's 'master plan' in the next chapters. If you're confused about how they're under surveillance, don't hesitate to tell me, I know things may be a bit confusing and I'll try to edit to make the chapter clearer.