Sorry for the delay in posting. I hope you enjoy this. It's long, it's full of action, so I hope it isn't confusing.
Constantine's point of view.
Constantine stole a backwards glance at his allies and repressed an indulgent smile at Mags' skeptical expression. Did she really believe he was entrusting their lives to chance?
Fife had asked him if his mother had the power to influence which peacekeepers would await the surfacing rebels and whether he knew the officers well enough to make a difference. The answer was not 'maybe' but 'undoubtedly so'. Her mother didn't influence. Colonel Selene Aquila ordered. Even the Capitol did not pretend to know better than the colonels which men were better suited to a mission. The army, and by extension the three colonels, owned District One in all but name, and whereas District Two held the official peacekeeper training centers, their forces had been in the front line during the Dark Days and had suffered such crippling losses that District One would provide a significant number of the Capitol's law enforcement for at least another five years.
Once, such knowledge would have filled Constantine with pride. Now, as the peacekeeper's footsteps grew closer, he felt only confusion and bubbling shame. It was a degrading feeling, one he hated, but he would be cowardly to dismiss it. Truth had more value than false comfort and the truth was that the rebels they had met were being at this very moment demonized and tracked down by the very men and women his mother had trained. Not exclusively of course, and the people of District One had been lied to by the Capitol just as much as anyone else, but peacekeepers had eyes and had been born with the ability to reason and yet they sided with their overlords.
As did you.
Constantine glowered at the insolent imaginary voice. He had never reported anyone for rebellious words.
But you believed that a man's condition was a measure of his character. You saw a world in which those of limited ability worked for the deserving. You found it acceptable and saw what you wanted to see. You were just as blind as Cereus said and more.
And if he came out of the Games victorious, he would have to return to his oblivious opulent life or condemn himself and his family to swift repercussions. Unlike for the common folk, there was no tolerance for dissent among those as powerful as he. He was disgusted by the mere thought. It would be no life.
Constantine stared at the tunnels ahead. One single echo for each step, an echo that concealed at the very least five footfalls in perfect synchronicity, and not a single whisper. Elite squads. A ghost of a smile quirked Constantine's lips as he would be sure to know the officer in charge, but ice seeped in his veins at the thought of One's most skilled and dependable men on Teal's tracks. The night would not shield the rebels as well as they had hoped. Constantine swallowed, squaring his shoulders and donning his customary mark of superior indifference. Whatever his life choice would be, he would be a tool and separated forever from the woman he loved. And if he lived, she would despise him for the role he'd have consented to play.
He turned to Mags, stopping her and Fife with a look.
Death before dishonor; he would not be a coward. There was only one course of action left, but he had to give Fife the noble death she deserved.
Light flooded in the sewers as the squad appeared. Constantine eyebrows shot to his hairline as he recognized the man in officer black and gold. He didn't know whether to laugh or weep. In his late twenties and fit enough to put Constantine to shame, the man's set expression and piercing eyes had the unfailing ability to make one question their worth, but today it strengthened Constantine's resolve. Mags would win.
Sergeant Valerian Fletcher was one of the few people who Constantine would never consider killing, not even for Teal. Valerian had been the first adult, aside from his parents, to treat him like he deserved instead of flattering him, either out of fear of his name or to garner favor. Constantine had hated the man with a passion until he had become old enough to see that Valerian had done him a great favor.
Constantine's eyes narrowed and his relief evaporated as he took in the squad's equipment. The five men and single woman wore thick leather footwear and steel-silk gloves, customary for high risk missions, but neither helmets, shields, nor assault weapons. They had steel batons, Tasers, tranquilizer guns and obvious soporific gas grenades in their belt-pockets, but no lethal weapons. This alone told Constantine that the Capitol had orchestrated a new show, one where the law enforcement would be portrayed as the 'good guys,' shot by rebel terrorists armed with guns who were too evil to accept the Capitol's fair peace offers. The peacekeepers would suffer more casualties but ultimately prevail and the Capitol would further destroy the people's respect and faith in the rebels.
Theatrics and heinous lies. Constantine felt like he was trudging through thick sewage, filth tainting everything around him, and was expected to pretend that nothing was wrong.
From Valerian's stony expression, the man was not oblivious to the political undercurrents of his mission. His people stopped as one as he raised his hand.
"Good morning, Aquila. It seems the babysitting role befalls us, guys. Follow me to the surface."
Constantine felt Mags grasp his upper arm and almost raised his eyebrows at the blatant manipulation attempt. It worked, for Valerian's jaw clenched. Doubtless the man felt it was his duty to bring Constantine home but Constantine could not allow that. He briefly met Mags' determined, almost frantic, gaze. He had seen how she had looked at Fife in the last hours and was proud that she trusted him to do the right thing. He squeezed her hand briefly, making a point to meet Valerian's tight eyes.
One of the peacekeepers muttered a few words –something about regrouping- in his communicator. The three tributes were soon surrounded by the squad.
"These masks are for you, Sergeant," Constantine said, "We will not need them but you might stay here a while."
Valerian barely blinked as he took the equipment. He gestured to the scarred woman and two of the men and wordlessly handed them the masks.
"Thoughtful of you," he then said.
"It was Mags' idea," Constantine acknowledged.
He was watching Fife this time, and knew he had not imagined the darkness crossing her face. She was painfully aware that the odds were not in her favor. He hoped she would not be reckless with her gun. As long as there were other surviving tributes to become the Capitol's victor, Valerian would kill her for shooting him and brave the consequences. Constantine suddenly found he could not meet the short girl's gaze. The thought of orchestrating her death brought bile to his throat. What a waste of life. Yet waiting for a humane solution would condemn not only them but also Mags and ultimately Panem itself.
"And then what, Sir?" Fife said as they headed towards the surface, her tone very deferential.
"If you lack inspiration, the gamemakers will give you directives," Valerian tersely replied, "don't lack inspiration. For now, we are not to interfere with the Games."
Constantine noticed the slight ironic inflection on the last word. He was familiar with the bland tone Valerian used. The Capitol had made one mistake: no one in the elite squads had less than eight years of service, so the squad leaders were people who preferred demanding field operations to more comfortable, and lucrative, administrative positions. They were very close to their men and loathed being sacrificed to strengthen the illusions of high-powered civilians who had never set foot on a battlefield.
"The gamemakers are here?" Mags blurted, tightening her hold on Constantine's arm.
"No, but they will be easily heard," Valerian answered, his voice crisp as dry wood, "You'll soon see."
They reached the surface without another spoken word. Constantine shivered as the early morning cold clung to his very bones. Any hint of dawn was masked by the surrounding mountains. Constantine searched the ruins for a sign of rebel movement. He found none, but the surface was far from quiet: men and machines scurried about like ants, blocking every access and investigating each suspicious shadow. Overhead, the noxious fumes diffused the light beams of the low-flying hovercrafts into bright glowing spheres as they slithered around like buzzing metal detectors hungry for scraps. The Capitol was out in force. There were maybe two hundred peacekeepers and thrice as many robots, and Constantine didn't doubt more were on their way.
He hoped Teal and the others would have the intelligence not to linger. He locked the searing feeling of loss in a dark corner of his psyche and focused back on the present. He was all too aware of the ensnaring lull of wishful thinking.
"What is that?" Fife said, her head snapping towards the sky.
Before Constantine could follow her gaze, a light as blinding as it was sudden assaulted his senses. His eyes painfully adapted. A large hovercraft bearing the Capitol's flags had come to a stop thirty feet above them, casting large cones of light on the ground.
"They're here," Mags whispered, "we're all here."
Constantine squinted as he willed his eyes to adapt. Indeed, spotlights revealed Styx twenty yards away, stoic as always, standing beside Delphin, who looked as if he was itching to flee and hide in a hole, a knife clumsily clutched in his hand. Less than fifteen yards away, Lila glared at the hovercraft. The all-consuming hate on the dark-skinned girl's face was so palpable that the peacekeepers guarding her had taken a step back. Constantine met her eyes and lifted a hand in brief salute. He made sure his expression could not be misinterpreted as hostile or mocking. Lila's loathing and staunch refusal to help the Capitol would prove useful.
The sewers below their feet were not silent for long. With no warning, shots tore through the night. Constantine instinctively ducked, his eardrums begging for some respite. The dozen peacekeepers watching the crevice left by the crashed hovercraft of the day before had all fallen by the time Constantine forced his head back up. It had been less than two seconds. Too many weapons, this wasn't Teal's group.
Two pyramid-shaped grenades sailed for the nearest hovercraft, revealing claw like appendages which fastened to the hull.
"Patrol Three, scatter and regroup on me," a woman bellowed as the peacekeepers within a twenty yard radius of the hovercraft scrambled for cover.
The grenades exploded. A storm of fire rose like a vengeful pagan god of old, roaring in the night like a beast left unfed for too long. Valerian and his men remained unmoving, stiff and solid as reefs who had survived greater tempests. Constantine's eyes narrowed in compassion as he saw Fife's trembling form. Why couldn't the reaped tributes all have been mediocre? All would have been so much simpler.
Constantine's heart almost stopped when he realized that they would now be corpses had the most volatile toxic components of the ruins not been consumed the day before. Had that also been part of the Capitol's plan?
"We've got Wickers on line of sight! Sector Five-three-five!"
The communicator announcement had the effect of an electroshock. Except for the squads guarding the tributes, all the peacekeepers marched as one, converging on the location, not far away from where the grenades had been thrown, as soon as the flames had dissipated. Constantine gently untangled himself from Mags' grasp and stepped close enough to Valerian to see the small razor-cuts on his cheeks. He slipped his family ring in Valerian's hand, running his thumb over the familiar eagle crest one last time.
"I need Mags Abalone to win. Panem is ill and the Capitol is the virus. This isn't a government attempting to be just but who understandably has flaws. They will warp our minds with their lies and discard us like old tools once they have bled us dry. I will not be their puppet. These rebels are soldiers who deserve our respect." Constantine inhaled sharply, now worried for all of the people he would leave behind in One. "Stay away from the Capitol's gaze or you will become a slave."
Valerian's head almost jerked to the side. His voice was smooth when he answered, but the three seconds pause was worth a thousand shouts.
"Where is the boy who tried to have me disgraced for having defeated him fairly?"
Fairly? Constantine almost spluttered at Valerian's offensive euphemism.
There had been nothing fair about that sparring match. Constantine had been armed, Valerian had not, and after the first swift and merciless defeat at the older man's hands, Constantine had not held back with his sword, regardless of how lethally proficient he already was. It had been his mother's idea of a lesson in humility. Valerian had held Constantine's head against the dusty floor after the boy's third pathetic defeat and whispered that a child became a man when he could accept defeat and learn from it. Constantine had remained a child for quite a while.
A new explosion ripped through the landscape. Constantine forced his muscles under lock-down, refusing to bow to the instincts urging him to flee and turned his eyes on the battlefield. A score of rebels, entrenched behind collapsed walls and houses, masked and armed to the teeth, fought one against five, pressing their advantage until their ammunition ran out with the ferocity of caged beasts. Some rebels were stumbling, their hands raised to their throats as the soporific agents somehow found a way through the masks. Filth. The rebels killed or wounded ten for each of their fallen, but it was a race against a terrible clock.
"I was blind," Constantine said, his voice trembling with anger. "A lucid person who can bear living in Panem and follow Capitol law is a monster. I was blind, Valerian," he repeated, "please shield Mags."
Constantine hated the desperation that had crept into his voice. He hoped Valerian's loyalty to his country surpassed his loyalty to his colonel, to Constantine's mother, and yet Constantine knew that the man saw beyond the rules. It was his sister who had adopted little Leo.
Valerian's blue eyes cut deeper than steel as they searched the aristocratic boy's soul. Constantine held his gaze. He was not being impulsive, he knew exactly what he was saying. There were things more important than his life.
Constantine had seen objectively little, but he had seen enough. This was not a world he wanted to live in. There was no pride to be had and he would never see Teal again. He had a duty to Panem, and that was giving his country a rebel victor. He could already see that the victors would be critical. They would be the only contact rebel Capitolites would have with the districts and the only way the districts had of communicating with each other. Aside from peacekeepers, but unless things changed drastically, a rebellion would not come from them.
Mags' voice caused him to turn. "It's a diversion, you shouldn't concentrate your forces here," she said, he hard gaze riveted on the fighting rebels.
Constantine had to stop his jaw from dropping. Mags assisting the Capitol? And why didn't she put her scarf back over her mouth? Was this part of an elaborate ploy? This was not the time for him to wonder, he had to trust his instincts about his ally. Mere seconds later, tense voices come out of the communicator clipped on Valerian's vest.
"The bunker had its own exits." A frantic male voice spoke up. "They're out at sector nine-oh-two. Five score at least, roughly a score armed with lethal weaponry, more incoming. Squads Five and Seven can't contain them. We need people ASAP!"
A calmer voice replied through the device. "Roger that, Lieutenant. Crafts one through six on their way, they'll block the mountain access. Crafts Eleven and Twelve will drop the bombs. Wait my mark to engage."
Shots covered in static reached Constantine's ears. "We're under fire, Sir! We have already engaged! Tell the crafts to throw the sleepers on the fleeing cowards."
Constantine found himself staring again at Valerian. If the use of soporifics was to be so liberal, why weren't the peacekeepers wearing masks? With a cocked eyebrow, he mouthed the word sleepers.
Valerian lifted his eyes skywards briefly, as if to say politics. He didn't look amused at all.
Constantine whipped his head back to Lila. He was letting himself get distracted. The girl's eyes were on him. The squad guarding her was focusing on the chaotic action. Perfect. He pointed to the man on her left. The foolish guard had his back to her.
Lila didn't hesitate. Swift as an adder, her arm snaked inside his belt before she jumped away from the six men, tranquilizer gun in hand. Styx had no time to react as Lila repeatedly shot her with the silent weapon. Constantine counted five successive shots until the redhead from District Two fell to the ground. The chemicals were intended to subdue animals, not humans, even if they had been adapted, they would be incredibly dangerous. Five doses meant a certain death.
A canon blast coming from overhead made both tributes, peacekeepers and rebels freeze. For an instant, the battleground was silent. Constantine brought his hand to his beating heart, now convinced surprise could kill.
"Surviving tributes, five," a monotone female electronic voice said. It was coming from the decorated flagship.
Constantine feared he was going to be ill. This was no game!
"No!" Delphin's shout, heavy with fear rather than loss, cut the air at the same time as his knife.
The boy's hands shook so badly the weapon missed by yards, embedding itself the leg of one of Lila's guards. The man cried out in surprise and pain, tasing Delphin in instinctive self-defense. His colleagues restrained him and Lila in seconds but the damage was done. Delphin convulsed and dropped to his knees.
"Damn you," Lila loudly cursed, "I'm supposed to kill him! Let me go!"
Constantine could see one of the men protest.
"Because a standing twelve year old has more of a fucking chance than a tased trained eighteen year old?" Lila shouted. "Get your head out of your ass! There's no glory here!"
Constantine arched his eyebrows as a crazed-looking Lila weaseled her way out of the peacekeepers' grasp. She was so reactive that Constantine then knew that this was not the first time she'd escaped grown adults' clutches. It had been less than two minutes since the first shots had filled the air. Most untrained people would still be under shock.
If you think you've had it hard, come to Eleven and see.
Constantine almost regretted having been harsh with the girl before, but it's not like she had cared. He doubted any words of his could have hurt her.
"Officers, do not interfere." This time, the voice from the hovercraft was President Achlys', and less forgiving than a barbed whip. The effect on the peacekeepers was instantaneous.
Lila had not even paused. She slashed the closest peacekeepers' throat with a knife and launched herself on Delphin, diving between two horror-struck and conflicted-looking men.
Constantine didn't wait to see how she would kill the boy, preferring to take the tranquilizer of the man standing next to Valerian and be spared the distasteful sight. Constantine was hardly stealthy and peacekeeper stared at him in shock but did not protest. After all, Constantine was the son of Colonel Aquila. The man's dark eyes darting to Mags and Fife with a grim expression.
Constantine's jaw tightened. As if he'd murder anyone, not to mention women, women he liked, in such a cowardly way.
A second canon blast echoed against the mountain slopes, covering for an instant every other noise.
Slick with Delphin's blood, Lila threw her knife on the nearest peacekeepers' face. The man cradling the first fallen law enforcer shot her with enough tranquilizers to kill a bear, apparently not caring for the Capitol's instructions anymore.
Lila's dying grin made nightmares looked whitewashed. Constantine was glad he would never dream again. At least the girl had looked proud of herself.
He squeezed Mags' arm to get her attention. "Trust me and do your part," he said, slipping her the tranquilizer gun.
The young woman nodded. "I won't forget," she mouthed, her eyes going back Captain Wickers. Constantine regretted never having spoken to the tall rebel. The remaining 'distraction' rebels were surrounded and almost swimming in soporifics, it would be a matter of seconds, maybe a minute, before their leader fell.
"Three tributes remaining," the electronic voice lazily said.
Somebody blow that accursed thing up.
"Fife, come, I know how to pilot a hovercraft," he whispered, his eyes darting to the nearest cluster of grounded transports. He hadn't even had to move. Gun in hand, a deathly pale Fife was already by his side. Her hopeful expression made his heart clench. She didn't deserve this. It was necessary.
It was a half-lie. He'd been allowed to use the controls and direct a flying craft under close supervision twice, on his sixteenth birthday and then a little later. He hoped his memory wouldn't betray him. And that he'd take off smoothly.
"Do not interfere," Valerian all but growled as the other peacekeepers hesitated to let them pass.
"But, Sir, -"
Valerian silenced the speaker with a glare.
"Thank you, for treating me like an adult," Constantine said tightly, giving the man a quick accolade. A terrible thought then entered his mind. "And do not let Sable Lockley hold you responsible. She may seek revenge against you, she's unhinged." He couldn't bear the thought of Valerian coming to harm because of him.
Constantine tried not to think of the repercussions his death would have. Coraline would be devastated, Cereus would curse him and his parents... He put an abrupt end to that line of thought. Panem needed to be cleansed.
It was indeed less than a minute before Achlys' voice resonated again over gunshots, curses and robot screeches.
"Hello Wickers, it has been a while. Please do not sacrifice your people needlessly. We are merciful, and will treat those who recognize the error of their ways as regular citizens. They will be allowed to choose their new home and raise children unbothered, as long as they follow the law. The war is over and we have no wish to spill any more valuable blood. Surely you have noticed that we have brought no lethal weapons. Do not let unreasonable anger cloud your judgement. "
Constantine admired the conviction and leadership that infused every syllable. Why did a woman so magnificently gifted make such vile use of her talents?
"I'd rather die," Wickers snarled, "and you are the greatest fraud ever born, Evadne. I will-"
The man's furious speech was so abruptly cut off that Constantine risked a backwards glance.
"I think we have heard enough lies for a lifetime," Mags said, her voice colder than he'd ever heard. She was still pointing the tranquilizer gun at the fallen rebel leader.
Constantine was so shocked he stopped dead in his tracks. That was not what he had intended when he had given her the weapon! Fife shoved him forward.
"He did say he'd rather die," Fife whispered shakily, a hand over her scarf. "Imagine if the Capitol had hijacked him. Our favorite rebel has become a better actor than I'd have thought possible. And Chickaree got away, if the missing hovercraft over there is any indication," she added, soft laughter brightening her gaunt face.
Constantine followed her gaze and let out the breath he'd been holding. Fife had no measure of how greatly relieving her words were. Mags was still Mags, she was simply pretending to be on the Capitol's side to survive.
He hoped Teal was safe. He hated that he could not protect her.
The pilot didn't even bother to protest when Fife put a gun to his head. He lifted the hovercraft a yard off the ground and then jumped off. Constantine stared, surprised he hadn't thought of that himself. His throat clenched again as he saw the triumphant light in Fife's black eyes.
There was no other way, for either of them.
Achlys' voice filled the air once more. "Retrieve the two leaving tributes. Hovercrafts are out of bounds."
Fife raised her gun towards the speakers but seemed to reconsider. "Get us out of here faster," she snapped as Constantine slowly accelerated. He didn't dare go too fast until he was sure he remembered how to stabilize the craft.
"Nerves, woman. I need you to take them down," Constantine said, pointing at the three hovercrafts which had backed over two score rebels in a natural shelter and, since they couldn't get access, had decided to wait them out. Removing the hovercrafts for one minute would give these people the time to flee into the darkness.
"With my gun? I don't think…" Fife paused. "Oh, right"
Oh right referred to the control panel linked to the integrated missile launcher at the back of the craft. The peacekeepers weren't as ill equipped as they wanted the crowds to believe.
"How does it work?"
"You aim with the monitor, lock on and shoot," Constantine tersely replied.
But there really wasn't much more to it. Unlike piloting, which was proving far from trivial. He resisted the urge to test out random buttons in the hope of hitting the one which controlled the doors. With them open, the howling wind had free reign in the cockpit and Constantine could barely hear himself think.
They were slow enough that the other hovercrafts thought they were reconsidering and would land. A grave mistake. Seven missiles shot forth in rapid succession, hitting side, tail and front but never missing. The second hovercraft exploded while the other four pilots struggled with emergency landing.
Constantine's eyes were wide open. Computer aided aim non-withstanding, Fife would have made a great weapons engineer. She just had a knack for it. Constantine decided telling her would not be well received.
Achlys didn't sound amused at all. "Kill them."
"Now that we've pissed off Madam President can we go faster?" Fife said, a definite edge to her voice.
"Yes, Ma'am," Constantine said. His lips bloomed into a boyish grin as he thought he recognized Sylvan leading the rebels out. So this was what saving people felt like.
He steered away, heading for the most hostile part of the mountains as he hoped to divert as many hovercrafts as possible from the rebels' trail and slammed the accelerator down. He had led a good life.
Patriotism and sacrifice in the line of duty when necessary. Everything one expects of a trained soldier. And then Constantine realized that serving Panem and serving the Capitol were not the same thing, unlike what he had been taught to believe...
Thanks for reading^^.
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