Thanks for all the feedback on the last chapter. Each review brightens my day.
Sleep wouldn't come.
Mags' ears were still ringing from the gunshot as the three huddled together on the bed, their eyes fixed on a door that wouldn't open. It was too thick to even hear passing steps. They were buried underground, at the mercy of now hostile rebels who considered them symbols of the Capitol's rule. Keane was dead, dead. The first of the last surviving tributes to die. Lila, Styx, Delphin, maybe Robin, and them. The others were mere memories, lives snuffed out before they had had the opportunity to leave a true mark. Mags caught her sleep-deprived brain fantasizing about single-handedly putting an end to the Hunger Games and blinked back tears.
The three tributes exchanged furtive glances, their mouths opening for an instant and then closing once more as words died before they left their throats. Even Mags couldn't bring herself to talk about it. Who would be next? Killed by rebels. The Capitol had to delight in the irony.
Fife's voice finally broke the silence. "They wouldn't be counting on the Capitol digging us out, right?"
Mags folded her arms over her stomach, trying to get warmer. "Sylvan wouldn't let us rot here," she finally said, more confident than she actually felt. Her thoughts were both sluggish and frantic. Stress combined with lack of sleep was make her unreliable, yet her body stubbornly refused to use this opportunity to recuperate.
"That's if he knows," Fife said, snuggling closer against Constantine. "What do you think the Capitol is doing against the explosion?" She said.
Constantine's gaze didn't stray from the door. Mags didn't have to ask what, or who, he was thinking about. She'd never thought it would end like this, them in the middle of the last great fight between the Capitol and the surviving rebels. An artificial arena, gratuitous cruelty and pointless deaths, these she had steeled herself for, but this was so distressingly real. Mags' eyes fell to the bump in Fife's coat, the gun. She could overpower Fife easily right now. Fife was dangerous. Fife wanted to survive and would pull that trigger. Mags could shoot them both.
"Evacuating the population, cutting off the critical zone from the rest with force fields," Constantine said after a pause, his smooth voice ripping at her tenuous strands of hope.
Force fields. They were so ridiculously outmatched on every front.
"It can't be just that… I mean, that won't make the rebels look bad," Fife muttered, "it'll show they still could succeed."
"Ten years of planning and less of a quarter of the Capitol destroyed and with little to no casualties; isn't it enough, Fife?" Mags said, crushing disappointment choking her voice as she tore her eyes away from Fife's gun. "They'll just heighten taxes and blame it on those incompetent and morally vile rebels."
And they'd repeat it loudly enough and often enough that people would start believing it. Minutes felt like hours in the chill as Mags searched for solutions that didn't exist.
It could not have been more than a quarter hour when a rumble alerted her senses. She stiffened.
A rolling wave of incredible force slammed against the walls, throwing the teenagers against each other. The single bed groaned as wood splintered and springs twisted. Chips fell off the reinforced ceilings and onto their exposed skins as a death flare born in the Capitol's depths roared and struggled against the bonds containing it miles from where they lay. The very foundations of the bunker groaned, tested by an explosion of unmatched ferocity.
The rebels' bomb had gone off. Tons of dynamite, right under the Capitol.
Desperate the rebel engineering which Cresyl had mentioned would not prove defective, Mags could do no more than shield her pounding ears. The noise of every collapse was amplified tenfold in the old train tunnel, ramming into the bunker walls with a force that seemed to rival that of the ignited dynamite hungrily digging its way up to the fortress-city.
Teeth clenched and muscles tense, Mags hoped that despite Cresyl's revelations, the Capitol had been caught unprepared.
She almost fell on the floor when Constantine stood up. Unheard in the chaos, the door had been slammed open, revealing a known figure. Mags brightened in relief, her exhaustion temporarily forgotten. Fix gestured to follow him. Tense focus had replaced the easy smile he'd worn when Sylvan had introduced him. A broad man with a large tattooed head and a badly scarred nose stood right behind him. He had a nasty-looking large drill in his right hand, and his expression was all but reassuring. Mags nervousness decreased when Fix pecked the man's cheek before leading them away in the empty corridor. Fix had an electronic detector in his right hand. Mags hoped it would be enough against the robots.
"Where's Lila?" Mags said, almost screaming in Fix's ear to be heard over the noise.
"Gone," Fix gasped, forcing himself not to slow, "with that memory of hers she'll find her way."
Mags soon discovered there were multiple entries into the bunker. In minutes, red-faced and panting, their muscles burning from strain, they were back in the seventh underground. Mags had kept very fit ever since she'd been a child, but she now feared that she had been too easy on herself. Her lungs seemed unable to inhale enough air, she could barely think.
She checked that her scarf was well in place. "They monitor lip movement thanks to cameras in our eyes," she shouted between gasps as Fix helped her up the ladder.
The young man's grip tightened abruptly on her arm. He gave a brusque nod. "Skylar, go make sure they have their masks on and put yours on."
His boyfriend acquiesced and ran to a nearby room as they waited for Fife and Constantine to finish climbing the ladder. The noise was slowly decreasing. Mags put a hand to her head, hoping it would stop spinning.
"Who's they?" Fife eagerly asked. "And you're awesome, Fix."
Fix flashed her a toothy smile and ran a hand through his short hair in exaggerated slow motion "I know, darling." He then shot Constantine an envious look. "I so wish I'd have been allowed to have hair at least your length, who ever found crew cuts sexy?"
Constantine took a step back, looking ill at ease. "Please don't call me sexy, even indirectly."
Fix's grin broadened. "Relax, it's not contagious and I'm faithful to my man." He winked. "But you're still blinking hot."
Mags fought to keep a straight face as Constantine colored. Her small smile froze, remembering that Fix was from the bunker, not the Citadel. No wonder he was less affected and could still muster enough strength to be humorous. Her chest constricted painfully. She couldn't imagine what state Chickaree had to be in. Mags still couldn't believe it. A whole population….
"Fix, move it!"
Fix winced and dropped his voice to a theatrical -for still quite loud- whisper. "Boyfriend calls, he's much more serious than I am. We should follow."
Boyfriend could probably lift Constantine off the ground without breaking a sweat. Masked with his arms crossed at a corridor junction, Skylar glared at Fix. "Stop fooling around." His expression wasn't half as hostile as his tone.
Mags eyed the huge drill warily. What was it for? Surely Skylar did not intend to use it as a crowbar.
Fix rolled his eyes, a smile still dancing on his lips as he pulled his own mask on. "We're always in deep shit, one way of another. Gotta find fun where I can…"
Skylar moved aside. Mags' face split into a smile as she recognized Teal and Chickaree. She could barely make out their expressions, but she longed to reach out, to somehow make things better. She was so glad there were people who didn't believe the world was better off with her dead.
Chickaree had walked up to Fife almost as swiftly as Constantine had reached Teal's side. "Who was it?" The woman asked, her grip white on Fife's arm; even through the mask, the raw pain in her voice make Mags want to sob.
"Cresyl. The Capitol saved his family's life ten years ago in exchange for his loyalty." Fife steadied Chickaree, cradling the shaken woman in her arms as she stumbled. "I'm so sorry. He's probably dead from the carbon monoxide, we were right above the Citadel. I'm so sorry, Chickaree" Fife repeated, her eyes shining with tears.
"I should've seen. There were so many clues… I… How could we not see it! He spent so long with the peacekeeper, he insisted to be in charge of airflow maintenance, he was always such a pessimist, but never too much…Now…" Chickaree's voice was a pitiful croak. "We all failed… they're all…it's over."
Mags couldn't hear what Fife said next. The words were like a knife in her gut. It's over. Mags silently watched as the once proud rebel sobbed into Fife's arms. Fix met Mags' eyes, mirroring her own helplessness. Except he has someone to hold on to. Mags shivered from the cold, feeling terribly alone. Who would ever understand back home?
"We found out the Capitol knew mere minutes after you did," Teal said after a heavy pause, "they sent a message through one of the birds, saying they'd evacuated the streets and put one thousand avoxes in Elysium Avenue. That we'd kill them, and almost only them, if we went through with the plan."
"You people still did it?" Fife said, horror etched in her face. Mags' shock grew as she noticed that the other rebels looked just as stunned.
Teal dropped her stare to the floor and clutched her hands together, almost bodily turning away from them. "They weren't told. Lila broke the screen before the message was even over. It was past three am, the two of us were alone on watch. I told the Captain and he agreed to take sole responsibility." Her voice fell to a whisper. "I thought it would be better…"
Fife seemed to tighten her hold on the aghast Chickaree. "Well, anyone smart will know the Capitol forced the avoxes there, it's their fault," Fife said after a pause.
"You had to do it," Constantine said, gently lifting Teal's chin, "it was the right decision. The Capitol would have killed tens of thousands had you left the dynamite to them. You have nothing to be ashamed of."
One thousand avoxes, some were real criminals, many were rebels and many more even simply desperate people who had gotten on the wrong side of peacekeepers. Mags shook her head, unable to be as categorical as Constantine. The Capitol would just start avoxing petty misdoers if they lacked slaves. Only the argument about dynamite had made her pause, because he was right.
What could they do that would truly undermine the Capitol's power? When Mags had seen the Citadel, her hopes of a swift rebellion had been rekindled. Now, she knew with cold certainty it would be decades before they would have a chance. They needed the Capitol to make a mistake, to grow complacent. She doubted that would happen under Evadne Achlys' rule.
"We were sent down here to provide the Capitol with images of rebels, so they could interpret them in a convenient way," Mags began, forcing herself to speak of the hijacked citizens dressed as Scavengers and of the terrible words the hovercraft had broadcasted. As she talked, she could see the rebels' expressions harden with each sentence, horror and fury slowly deforming their traits.
"Propaganda and mind alteration, why change things that work?" Chickaree spat, "they'll have their hounds flushing the sewers within the hour. We must escape through the mountains, where we are safe from hovercrafts."
"We'll cover you," Constantine said, his eyes never straying for Teal's face. "What weapons do you have, aside blades?"
Chickaree laughed; a fragmented laugh thick with desperation. "Less than a dozen handguns from the Citadel. Sylvan has a supply of grenades and a few automatics, including rifles; enough to equip thirty, maybe fifty men."
Teal shook her head. "Hit and run, ambush and sabotage, assassination attempts, these we could do; but a pitched battle? It's insane." She put a hand to her belt. "Skylar and I have firearms. Come on, Auntie, we must go."
"Did you separate from the main group just for our sake?" Fife asked, her arm still linked in Chickaree's.
"Do you ever stop asking questions?" The woman replied, her eyes softening slightly as she eyed the short tribute.
"They lost it," Fix answered, "Garnet reasoned that the traitor had to be among the Citadel group that had spent the night talking strategy with Sylvan, safe in the bunker, so everyone got all paranoid and then someone shouted it had to be a leader. Chickaree's name was thrown in and everyone started screaming and pulling weapons because a spooked guy tried to leave and got shot by one of the twitchier Citadel people."
Mags paled as she imagined the bloody chaos that had to have ensued Chickaree's escape. Some would take that as a proof of her treachery.
"So we kidnapped Auntie and figured we'd check the cells just in case," Teal said. She flashed Constantine a tight smile. "I owe you one and we got wind of your message. I left my brother in law to inform the Lieutenant."
The aristocratic boy bowed. "I will forever be in your debt."
A half smile broke Mags' lips. She ached to ask if Chickaree and Teal had plans to meet with Sylvan or if it was everyone for themselves until they regrouped in the mountains, but it was too dangerous for her to know.
When they reached the sixth level, the electronic detectors went haywire. Mags started, catching her balance on the wall.
She screamed in fright as a small robot wriggled from under her hand. The torchlights revealed dozens of the thumbnail-sized machines, never more than three feet apart littering the sewer walls.
"Scramblers, someone?" Fife said in a small voice.
"Ears," Skylar warned, lowering the huge drill from his shoulder.
Mags covered her head, wondering once more what he could possibly expect to achieve with a drill.
Mags instinctively jumped as the machine roared to life. The muscular rebel drove the spinning drill-head into the wall. His shoulder muscles bulged as he put all his weight on the tool. He groaned, his whole body shaking as if he was subduing a buckling horse. A crack appeared as the whole surface rippled, like a pinched elastic band.
Tiny legs twitching, the robots lost their grip, falling one by one on the floor.
Skylar squashed the nearest one with his shoe and tutted. "Poor adherence on vertical humid surface. Making the wall resonate shakes them off."
Resonate? Like the sea wind turbines that vibrated to the point of shattering when the waves got too high? Mags had never thought she would ever see a wall ripple. Her lips twitched in awe. It was insane, but the fun kind for once.
"I'd kiss you," Fix said, gesturing at his mask in dismay.
"How did you meet, Fix?" Constantine politely inquired as they set off again, doubtless to make up for his previous stiffness.
"Skylar was one of the pilots that patrolled around Thirteen, sneaking around the Capitol's perimeter. I was one of the lucky fugitives. Sky was sixteen, didn't look twice me." Fix tightened his grip on his boyfriend, his voice warm. "Puberty did its job properly."
So the man was an able pilot. Mags smiled, liking what that meant for the groups' chances. Besides, they were adorable.
"Less talk, more speed," Chickaree ordered. Her gray eyes were blazing with a hate that promised eternal torment to any who would seek to challenge her. "You went to the surface yesterday, can you lead?"
"Sure," Fife said, "follow me."
Mags breathed in deeply as they started running. She hoped nothing else had collapsed since the day before and that her screaming legs would not give up on her before she was safe. The small robots were fewer and Constantine theorized they had been massively on the sixth level to monitor escapees. Despite Fife's protests about the amount of noise Skylar was making, the man continued making every wall they encountered resonate, both on the paths they were taking and on the nearby ones, assuring them that running past the camera-equipped robots would give the Capitol 'hounds' their exact location, whereas the noise would just give the peacekeepers a very approximate location.
"But what if there are GPS on the cameras in our eyes?" Mags said when they paused at yet another crossroads. She was now desperate to leave the stifling underground.
Fix almost whacked her with the electronics detector. "Your cameras send signals, a GPS would receive them. We can tell the difference."
Mags nodded, more upset with each passing day at being so uneducated. How could she expect to beat the Capitol if she didn't understand their technology?
They were still in the sewer depths when they heard echoes. Faraway steps. Mags' eyes dropped on Fife's gun once more. Tired or not, she had to make a decision and make it fast. She had thrown grenades that had murdered over two dozens of hijacked citizen and Scavengers. She knew how to kill, she had promised her family. She had no excuse. She had to do this.
"Can we outrun them for three levels?" Teal asked, her gun already out. "We must find another ladder."
Mags looked away from the gun. How could she kill Constantine in front of Teal? Fife was holding onto Chickaree again. Or maybe it was the other way around...
"We must stay quiet. Those filthy crawlers must have mapped everything during the night and they'll get us caught," Fix said, his voice so cold that Mags started. She almost hadn't recognize him, "we can ambush the hounds here. It's narrow and they depend on the maps. They'll be slow and get lost if they panic."
"They don't have real time guidance through headphones or something?" Mags said in a small voice. Ambushing an unknown number of peacekeepers sounded like a terrible idea to her.
Fix shook his head, his expression more chilling than Cresyl's dark laughter had been.
Those who came here too young are always a little crazy, Sylvan had said. How thin was the line between hardened and broken? She wondered what the mirror would reveal when she came back home. If she came back. She swallowed, trying to calm herself.
"We got the reserve scrambler working again," Chickaree explained, clutching a small grenade. "They'll counter it within a day and it's less powerful than the old one, but we have their radio frequencies blocked."
That explained why no dog robots had come to trail them. The Capitol was stuck again with no sound. Still, Mags felt like an archer defending a castle from cannons and riflemen.
"Just give us a chance," Fife said. She ran up to Constantine and removed his mask, soon whispering rapidly in his ear.
Constantine's eyes widened. Mags wished she could see more of his face. She could never tell with Fife's plans whether they were truly brilliant solutions or born of the girl's hate of physical conflict and terror of death. The aristocratic boy finally nodded in assent.
"Take parallels," he told Teal, "we'll distract them and meet with you on the first level. In any case, you won't be able to exit through any of the regular exit routes, so walk east, where there are many collapsed walls to climb."
"We won't wait for you more than a half hour," Skylar said after a pause.
"We understand," Mags immediately replied. She hoped her tone conveyed how little she wanted them to risk their lives for her. Cowardice was the only thing that stopped from asking them not to wait at all. A childish part of her still dreamed to leave everything behind and escape with them, far from the Capitol and its inhuman games.
"Go, Teal," Constantine whispered as the two rebel women hesitated. Mags doubted any woman could be oblivious to the brazier lighting his deep eyes. She wondered why Fate had such a twisted sense of humor. Chickaree gave them a half bow before turning her torch off and disappearing into a narrower parallel conduct.
Fife squeezed Mags' hand as soon as they were alone. "Just do like with Atli. Keep quiet and let us do the talking. If the peacekeepers are from District One, it will be easy."
That was one big if. And evenso, Constantine couldn't know all of District One's law enforcement.
"District Two has quarries, their peacekeepers are doubtless better suited for underground mazes and Constantine doesn't know them," Mags objected.
Fife's hand was on her gun. The moment to overpower her had passed. Again.
"District One has many burglaries, especially in South Sector, the Artisans' Sector," Constantine said. "Our people are trained to track down armed professional bandits. Those often take the sewers. My mother has trained every one of her officers and elite rankers, they are the best people for this job."
"What rank is she?" Fife said.
"Colonel. There are three, one for Southern Sector, one for the Northern and one who oversees all peacekeeper training. They report to General Makhai in the Capitol, as do the five colonels of District Two."
The aristocratic boy looked so certain... With no arguments left, Mags squeezed Fife's hand back, stress almost paralyzing her body. She hoped the peacekeepers had orders to capture tributes alive. "Throw the masks away then, they'll take them otherwise," she said tightly, regretting they had not thought to give them to the others.
Fife paled. Constantine complied after a moment's hesitation. He gently removed Fife's. The girl brought her trembling hands to her scarf, as if she physically couldn't bring herself to breathe.
Mags was suddenly acutely aware of each breath entering her lungs, of the off-taste of the ambient air. She wanted to hug Fife, to tell her it was alright. She didn't. She needed Fife dead. Mags clenched her fists painfully, aware these were maybe the last blood-free memories she would have of her companions.
After a few seconds, Fife crossed her arms and gave them a tense smile. "I'm good."
Mags forced herself to smile back. Her eyes lingered on the discarded masks. Her throat constricted as a sense that she was being criminally petty entered her mind. Mags let her own scarf slip slightly so that her lips could be seen by the others' eye-cameras.
"Bring the masks. The peacekeepers could use them. There's no point in poisoning them," she said.
The other two threw her mystified looks. Constantine picked up the three masks, a frown creasing his brow.
The rhythmic steps were more distinct with every passing second, definitely peacekeepers. Constantine lead the way, not quite stomping his feet.
The next chapter will be in Constantine's POV. There will be a last chapter in Fife's POV before the end of the Games.