Even the night before the ceasefire expired, the Commandant put the community on high alert. The Guardians were ordered to prep their stations, and civilians were sent down to the lower levels for their safety. The alert went into full defense mode once the expiration passed.
And here in the command center, I feel awfully exposed as we're at the top of a massive tower instead of a bunker. Besides the Commandant and various Central officials, my rebel delegation is also present. Projected on the screens are Paylor and, to my surprise, a victor from Two by the name of Lyme. It must mean that there is some discontent in that district.
As we take our places around the table, Beetee's greeted with slap on the back that makes him stumble and sends his glasses flying. The middle aged man who initiated the slap is imposing enough to make Brutus look like a starving kid from the Seam; he's also not in a formal attire like the rest of the individuals from Central.
Putting his glasses back on, the old victor introduces us. "Peeta, this is Leonidas MacLeod. Was Peacekeeper in the very beginning of Central's revival and helped Porus form the Guardian Corps. Now, he makes the best drinks in town. Leon, here's Peeta—"
"—Mellark." Leonidas gives a crushing handshake as he appraises me. "A pleasure, my boy. What do you think of our humble abode?"
Besides the mutts and psychos? "Well… no place like it; I can tell you that for sure."
My answer earns a booming laugh. "Benny, you weren't kidding when you said he's a diplomatic one! Keep that up, kid. I mean it."
"Thanks." I give him a grin that's probably on the sheepish side. "So brings a retired guy like you up here?"
"Perceptive as well. Well I have a son around your age; probably a couple years older. He's on his first field-op and I'm hoping to see him perform."
Talk about standards… "Well, I wish him the best of luck and safety."
"Appreciated," he states with a nod. "Now let's find our seats before Commander Small-n-Scrappy throws a fit." I almost choke on the water I'm drinking. Something tells me that, if one doesn't know the Commandant well, referring to her in that manner would be a very bad idea.
Once everybody has gathered around, the room darkens and a map is projected on the table. Several enemy hoverplanes can be coming their way from the north; ETA is around five minutes. Projectors soon turn on the walls and give us a 360-degree view to the outside while additional projectors keep the commanders online and show detailed footage. Porus orders everyone to hold their fire as we are likely just in the negotiation phase right now. Sure enough, once they arrive, the bombers just hover in sight of us.
Accompanying them is an incoming transmission from the District Three Peacekeeper headquarters.
The image that greets us is of a Head Peacekeeper sitting behind a desk in a richly-furnished room. Despite the situation at hand, my initial focus lands not on the man who called us, but rather the elaborate mural behind him. It doesn't take me long to figure out that the scenes displayed must be a history of Three; hell they might be a history of the land that came before Three. Between families settling along a riverbank, trappers trading wares, merchants plying goods, and people gathering as towns are built, everything seems quite optimistic. There's even a cheerful scene of a boy and man fishing as a riverboat billows smoke in the background. However, the optimism diminishes significantly when I see one individual displayed on a stage like some product. And then I take in the images at the bottom: on one side, a man being tortured as a house burns in the background, and on the other, a worker being whipped in a setting disturbingly similar to Eleven.
That last scene reminds me of the world we live in and the type of person we're talking to. While this Head Peacekeeper may have been high-performing at one point, the sight before me gives no indication of that. Sure he keeps that uniform clean and well-kept — enough that its owner likely doesn't leave the indoors unless he really has to — but that doesn't hide how he practically flows out of his collar… or how twitchy he is despite attempts at hiding it with an arrogant demeanor. I also have a strong suspicion that a good chunk of those medals weighing down his uniform are ones that he awarded to himself; hell, most of them are probably not even standard Peacekeeper-issue.
"Head Peacekeeper Slate. What can I do for you this morning?" The Commandant speaks in the same tone as one would when asking whether you want cream or sugar in your tea.
"You know very well what I and the Capitol wish for: for you to stop this silly nonsense about joining those traitors. Do so, and we can forget all of this ever happened. If you hand over Peeta Mellark and the rest of those rebels in your care, we'll even throw in some added bonuses."
"So you wish for me to turn over these guests of mine?"
"I don't care what you call them; they are valuable enemies of the state. Giving them up will be more than enough to earn our gratitude." Idiot should have stopped while he was behind. "So what answer do you give?"
While the other commanders look concerned, Beetee and the other Central officials all have knowing smirks on their faces.
"Jon," Porus asks, "are we ready to broadcast?"
"Whenever you are," the mayor responds.
The Commandant looks straight into the camera at her desk. "People of Panem; Citizens of the Capitol: I am Commander Porus, Commandant of the Guardian Corps and head of security for the Central Triumvirate. Many of you may know Central by its moniker: the Capitol Laboratories. Well, I am here to inform you that we are not in the Capitol, and as of now, we have no affiliation whatsoever to it. So now, we are going to demonstrate as to what happens when Capitol lackeys go against us. You in the Capitol, since you all love to see a good show, I hope I don't disappoint."
Upon finishing that speech on a sardonic note, she simply looks at Slate to asks, "How is that for an answer? Oh, and I am giving your forces one chance to leave and never come back."
The Head Peacekeeper looks furious. "I was the one giving you the chance, and you blew it completely! Just as well; I don't know why the Capitol has tolerated your constant insubordination." Without wasting time, he orders for the attack to commence.
Aaand… nothing happens.
The planes just hover in place, no matter how much they are yelled at to get a move on. Some of the officials chuckle at the bemused expression on Slate's face while I try to figure out what's going on. Then I remember how our hovercraft was remotely overridden when we first arrived. The Commandant was just biding her time.
"You forget one thing, Slate. Central doesn't just refer to this citadel; all of the Ozark Plateau is Central and thus, under our domain." Porus lets the bombers hang there a bit before coldly ordering, "Drop them."
With that order, the repulsors on the planes shut off, causing them to drop like rocks.
"Well… that was anti-climactic."
The Commandant ignores Haymitch's quip to look at the mortified Head Peacekeeper before stating, "Thank you for the raw material. We always appreciate such donations."
As the officials continue their chortling, Slate seems to be at a loss for words before he yells out, "Where's the attack force? They are supposed to be there any moment now!"
Barely has he spoken when an alarm sounds.
"Multiple hostiles inbound. ETA in thirty minutes. There's… there's… H-holy shit…" stutters a surveillance technician in what seems to be a state of fear, and when I look at the map, the fear is transferred to me for a simple reason: the entire periphery is practically solid red as an uncountable number of units stream in from all directions. They are not only arriving from the bases in Three, but the neighboring districts of Two, Eleven, and Ten. It's clear that we're outnumbered at least twenty-to-one.
"Something the matter?" Porus asks.
"It's just… There are so many targets!"
Nevermind… That's not fear I'm hearing from the Guardian; it's glee.
As orders are made and defenses readied, a sound streams in through the comm system; a sound of diverse percussive instruments playing live under the direction of a Guardian NCO. While the bronze instruments originate in Three, the dominant hide-and-wood drums drums are of several customs brought in from Two by Guardians. Ironically, the drums are a dying art in their home district — though I do recall them played when we were there for the Victory Tour — with even ceremonial function being diminished in the face of subtle Capitol pressure; after all, the government can't have its soldiers retain any cultural quirks. Here though, the sounds of war still beat to fill the troops with a fervor; despite our defensive status, the deep rhythm crafted by the ensemble actually makes it feel as the entire citadel's marching to meet the enemy instead of the other way around. Even I admit that the enthusiasm is infectious.
Still, I have this feeling that I really don't want to watch what happens next, but I'm going to do so anyways.
Besides, it's not like Porus makes it easier to ignore things as she speaks into a comm system that broadcasts directly to her mustering forces.
"Since its words and promises no longer bear fruit, the Capitol now resorts to threats. Since we are no longer content to live in a gilded aviary, they now come to build a cage of barbed steel. Since we are no longer content to sit by as the children of others get stolen, they now plan to steal ours." She pauses to allow that last bit to sink in a bit. "Yet even with all that, when Coriolanus Snow and his lackeys bring the weight of their might to our doorstep, they expect us to roll on our back to expose our belly. They expect hesitation on your part to fire upon those who share your district of origin. They expect an easy conquest."
"Well… will we prove their expectations right?"
"NO!" The immediate response of every Guardian roaring into their own comm is deafening and almost reverberates in my chest.
"Will we surrender with a smile in an attempt to let bygones be bygones?"
"Will we submit to a pampered city that thrives on the blood of children?"
"If that's the case…" This time, even though she still addresses her Guardians, the way Porus looks into the lens of the camera makes it clear that the next message is for a wider audience. "Sons and daughters of Central, what will we do?"
I'm not going to like the answer, am I.
"KILL! KILL! KILL!"
Definitely don't like.
The Guardians' last response raises every hair on my body. It's not just the words themselves; it's the way they are laced with the kind of wrath fit for a rebel and bloodlust that rivals any Career. And I see that content reflected in the eyes of the Central officials around me; eyes that previously viewed me with a sincere warmth now shine like stained knives at the prospect of what's to come.
What have I done?
The Commandant stares back with an expression that not only tells me she knows what I'm thinking but also gives an answer in return. It reminds me that I wanted their help, so help is what they are going to give whether I like it or not.
And she's still not finished with her speech:
"You in the Capitol, you think yourselves the pinnacle of civilization. You think we quake in fear at the force you send: your shining Peacekeepers in white. Well, let me tell you something. While your Peacekeepers primped their uniforms for maximum whiteness and waxed poetic about honor and glory, our Guardians learned from our ancestors and neighbors how to wage war." Porus isn't even exaggerating about there being a war. I recently looked up just what kind of threat the Ouachita Waste is and… yeah, I'm no longer surprised she was allowed to develop her Guardians and retain Central's autonomy. "A war that they constantly fought and bled in, just so your precious Soldiers in White don't have to be distracted from lording over half-starved slaves.
"And now that those same slaves are no longer afraid, do you expect us to feel fear? Do you think your lackeys will gain anything?
"Well, the last is correct. But they will gain no honor, nor glory, and certainly not victory," she notes, contempt lacing each syllable, before concluding: "No, what they will gain is the role of fertilizing our forest."
"Ma'am," the technician cuts in to note, "ETA in under five minutes."
In the time that passes, I'm so consumed by the tension that I barely notice when Porus addresses me:
"Just over five hundred years ago, there was a great commander who hailed from the United States of America. His contingent of troops was outnumbered significantly by the enemy in winter conditions. Do you know what he said when faced with adversity?"
I shrug a shoulder with a shake of my head. "I really don't know. What did he say?"
"'We've been looking for the enemy for some time now. We've finally found him. We're surrounded…'" A rare and rather frightening smile appears on the her face. "'That simplifies things.'
"Guardians…" As Porus hails her defenders, silence falls. The drumbeats cease. No words are uttered; be it through the comms or in this room. It's as if all of Central holds its breath in wait for the rest of the order. One which the Commandant completes with a quiet one-syllable utterance:
And just like that, Central exhales. It exhales in the form of the drumbeat resuming in a crescendo and a deafening affirmation shouted from the Guardians: "YES MA'AM!"
Then the sky is lit ablaze.
Many times the vehicles would literally be sheared in half by the barrage they absorb. Hovercrafts lucky enough to avoid the artillery pieces are either slammed into the ground by remote overrides or intercepted via attacks from above. A Piasa uncloaks in front of a troop transport hovercraft to fire its cannons into the cockpit; the projectiles go all the way through the aircraft, leaving behind a cloud of red mist in their wake.
Despite the chaos that Central sows, computer-guided targeting ensures none of the Guardian's aircraft get hit in the crossfire nor does ammo get wasted on a single target. Just for kicks, they allow one Peacekeeper bomber to "slip" past the defenses just to see if it would hit the force field; some of the fragments that fly out actually hit other Peacekeeper aircraft.
Some of the Peacekeeper transports decide to land a good distance from the citadel to avoid the AA emplacements, and some are smart enough to land near elevated rail to use it as shelter. There they unload Peacekeepers, armored vehicles, and artillery pieces of their own; it doesn't do them any good. Even without being attacked, the rocky and hilly terrain compounded with the thick forests prevents the vehicles from going anywhere; one armored personnel carrier actually tips over and rolls down a hill, crushing an entire squad at the base. Also, the fact that we are watching footage of the ground units means a very simple fact that Central knows their coordinates; mortar fire takes out much of the heavy vehicles and artillery pieces. Then there are the mutts…
The presence of infantry units in the forest might as well be a banquet table in the eyes of those creatures. Sure, several here and there may be taken down by defensive fire from the Peacekeepers, but in the end, that just riles them up. Not even being in a vehicle guarantees safety; exemplified by a panther mutt clambering into a tank via the machine gunner's hatch, turning protective armor into a death trap.
All the while, command footage allows me to see the Guardians manning the defenses. For them, there is no horror or regret; there is just the desire to end those who threaten their home. A desire that manifests in cold directives and loud slur-laden taunts; I would try to discern expressions, but their faces are hidden behind protective glasses and rigid form-fitting masks adorned with monstrous visages.
"Commander, troop trains inbound."
With the announcement, several armed trains filled with Peacekeepers are seen rapidly approaching the citadel with engines that keep them running even on the dead track.
Porus is unperturbed. "So they are planning to go through the front door. Gutsy. Well there's only one problem, independent power source or not, these trains are still hooked to the grid."
Sure enough, all trains screech to a halt before the doors are flung open. The Peacekeepers have barely enough time to look around in confusion when the slaughter begins. Several trains immediately have an onset of mutts upon them, turning the transports into oversized feeding troughs. One train is on a section of rail lined with heavy gun turrets, which make quick work of the exposed occupants and perforate the carriages while creating a sound similar to a mixture of ripping cloth and shearing of metal. Another train has only several doors on one side open as flamethrower turrets expel liquid fire into the improvised blast furnaces.
Worse of all, Central hacks into the security cameras and microphones inside the trains and hovercrafts to incorporate the footage into their broadcasts. So we get to see and hear, in detail, what happens to the occupants of those vehicles: when at least sixty Peacekeepers are trapped in a train car with four large armored mutts approaching from both sides; when a crowded windowless compartment gets riddled with 25mm-caliber projectiles until the interior is fully illuminated with sunlight; when an incendiary round hits an armored personnel carrier and cooks its occupants alive; when an overridden hovercraft is sent into a rapid spin while the passengers are unsecured…
I really hope the kids aren't watching this.
After the last mutt departs and turrets fall silent, all trains begin moving back
"What are you doing?" Lyme asks in a slightly perturbed tone.
"Packaged deliveries for the officials in your district," Porus replies.
The entire time, Slate looks like he is about to have a complete horror-and-frustration-induced breakdown. All he does is alternate between staring at shock at the television footage and screaming orders all over the place towards the Peacekeepers around him; most of the abuse seems to hurled towards an especially-skittish yet sycophantic youth — probably his assistant — who looks like he's ready to burst into tears.
Within two hours, the attack has reaches its end. Smoke darkens the sky as metallic pyres dot the landscape. A casualty and damage assessment is made: the number of projected fatalities or critical injuries are in the lower-double-digits, and damage is relegated to easily-fixed scuffing on the wall with no loss of structural integrity. The other side isn't so lucky; let's just say that the Central's defensive counterattack has been very thorough. With the crash of a bomber, there is only one unit left: a troop transport hovercraft. For some reason, Porus is ordering everybody to hold their fire, yet definitely has the aircraft locked in place via an override.
"Now what are you doing?" I nervously ask the Commandant. Something bad is about to happen.
She turns to stare at me with an unreadable expression. "Sending a message." That where I notice a set of draconic creatures flying towards the hovercraft along with several small video cameras getting close-up footage.
"What the hell kind of message are you trying to send?" I admit that my query comes out angry yet a bit more panicky than I expected. By now the mutts have reached the hovercraft and are crawling around to find a way inside.
"What kind of message do you think I'm sending? If they go against us, they pay the consequences. Killing is not enough; you have to sear their collective memory. Open the loading doors." The attention of the mutts is obtained as main ramp-door to the hovercraft begins to lower. It opens just a bit before it stalls. One of the cameras slips inside to show the Peacekeepers desperately trying to keep the thing shut manually, though it's inevitable as to what's going to happen since the mutts are already clawing at the narrow opening.
Shitshitshit… "You did that with the trains already. But now the battle's over. This isn't eliminating enemies in the battlefield or even an execution; it's a sadistic act of murder." The door finally gives out and begins to lower gradually, which causes the occupants to rush as far as they can towards the front as the mutts begin to squeeze their way inside.
"What do you care what happens to a few Peacekeepers? It's clear that the districts won't miss them. And this is on par in terms of things they would normally cheer for during the Games or enact in the name of justice." Now that the door is all the way open, the mutts are free to have a good look towards the huddled group cowering and not even trying to raise weapons.
"I know that. Right now though, I don't see Peacekeepers; I see a bunch of scared human beings. And this may be a Central affair, but I got you into the fight in the first place. So it's just as much my responsibility as yours, and I'm saying this for me: please don't do this." Those mutts take their sweet time in approaching their intended victims, revealing rows upon rows of long wicked fangs with ropes of saliva dangling from them.
I don't know how much longer things drag out as Porus' eyes never leave mine, but it's longer than I would like considering the circumstances. Finally though, she breaks that eye-contact to state, "Very well. Halt the attack."
The order comes right on time as the mutts crouch in preparation to pounce. Suddenly their ears perk up and they relax their stance. Though before they leave, they still snap their jaws just inches away from the nearest individuals. As the Peacekeepers get their bearing back, one of the cameras still stays behind as Porus speaks over their comm system.
"Congratulations. All of you get to live to fight another day. Though I would suggest that it be in your best interest to forgo the 'fighting' part. Because if I see this hovercraft back in Central, I will offer no leniency. Thus, I will also suggest landing somewhere that is not Peacekeeper-affiliated and shedding away your current occupation. This isn't just to avoid repercussions from either me or the rebels. It's simply that the way you conducted yourselves appeared cowardly, and we all know your superiors' views on such things.
"Lastly, know that it was not me who decided to spare you. Mellark here is convinced that you all deserve a second chance. It goes without saying that you owe the boy your life. I now suggest not only thanking him, but taking his role into account when you consider what your next course of action will be." The people are practically groveling towards the camera as they thank me, which frankly is a bit disconcerting. "Now go."
Once the override is released and the camera flies out, the hovercraft hightails as fast as possible. Paylor and Lyme look at me with approval, while the Central officials have expressions of neutrality about what I did. As long as nobody hates my guts here, that doesn't bother me.
Now that I think of it, the expression Porus was giving me actually seems to be one of scrutiny. For what reason, I have no idea.
Slate looks like he's just recovering from his crippling loss. At the very least, he has enough confidence to state, "You do know that you can't keep this up. Even if we have to sacrifice tens of thousands of troops at a time, your defenses will gradually be worn down to rubble."
"I'm aware of that. And in the end, that's what sets me apart from you: I actually value my people, and I'll do anything in my power to ensure their safety." Looking at Santos, she asks, "Are we clear?"
"We are indeed. No enemies inbound."
"Then bring out the Remingtons and set Peacekeeper base camps 03-01 and 03-02 as targets. Initiate double-tap protocol and set the order to fire whenever ready."
On the map, the bases right outside of West City and East City are highlighted. Then I notice some movement; two items at the structure by the Glade are being uncovered. When I get a clearer look, my jaw drops, and everybody who's not from Central is in as much shock. The items are a twin set of artillery guns, which in itself wouldn't be that remarkable if it weren't for the fact that their barrels have to each be around a hundred feet long. Once revealed, they begin a slow pivot until facing away from each other at a ninety-degree angle.
"Shield to offensive state in 3… 2… 1… Power is redirected," comes an announcement as the slight shimmering fades.
"Why did you weaken the force field?" I ask the Commandant.
"These railguns are extremely energy-intensive. This is why I waited until we were clear before deploying them. And I still wish to keep their presence secret except for these observers." I do notice that the guns themselves are not broadcasted. She proceeds to tell the other commanders, "Also, I hope for your sakes that none of your soldiers are near the targets."
After the guns tilt up and point into the sky at an appropriate angle, they each fire twice. They don't make the similar explosive noise that a gunpowder-based artillery piece makes; instead, the sound is similar to two thin and wobbly sheets of metal make when they strike each other after enough tension has been built. Except that the sound is magnified enough that I actually see shockwaves appear around the guns.
"Let's see how they do, shall we?"
Porus brings up the live security footage of both bases. The footage must be broadcasted as the Peacekeepers that are watching TV in the West City base begin waving their arms then looking towards the camera with expressions of trepidation. It would be comical if not for the coming event; because even as the alarms sound, the projectiles reach their destination. Instead of one shell landing, a hail of shrapnel rains down on the entire area. It reduces sturdy buildings to shreds and, even as they attempt to run to shelter, any individual caught in the open to a pink mist. The footage has to keep changing as the cameras are getting obliterated with the structures they're installed in. Then comes the second round…
To say that we observers are aghast would be a very strong understatement. I'm not even on the receiving end, and yet I feel like curling up in a ball to hide.
Slate practically gapes like a fish on dry land as his Peacekeepers watch the footage in horror; I think he's trying to speak but no sound's coming out.
"You probably are wondering why I haven't leveled your base," Porus casually states. "Well, for one thing, I really like the building you're in; it would be a shame to lose such a valuable piece of pre-Cataclysm architecture. Secondly, I already have a plan for you, and it's time we ended this."
At the end of the Commandant's statement, Slate's assistant suddenly doesn't look so nervous anymore. Actually, he's positively placid as he fiddles with his wristwatch. That's when muffled explosions intermixed with gunfire can be heard from the Peacekeeper end.
"What the hell is happening?" the Head Peacekeeper all but shouts into a communicator. Even from here, I can hear the panicky responses get cut off and replaced by shrill screams.
Then for some reason, music begins blaring out over the loudspeakers; it's a slow dirge played on fiddles and horns.
"And what the hell is this music and why is it playing?"
"It's a common District Three funeral song," the assistant calmly states with that unmistakable twang in place of his tremulous Two-accented voice, which causes everybody to freeze as he looks the Head Peacekeeper right in the eye and continues, "and it's for you."
Horrified comprehension dawns on Slate's face, and he is just in the process of demanding that the "infiltrator" be apprehended when the sound of a door being busted down can be heard. The youth takes advantage of the commotion to launch himself at the nearest Peacekeeper, who is just in the process of aiming her handgun at him. He closes the distance and grabs the Peacekeeper's gun arm, aims it away from him which causes the gun to fire into another Peacekeeper, keeps on moving so that the arm snaps backwards at the elbow and the gun falls from the hand, catches said gun and fires off at several unseen targets while holding the now-screaming human shield, and uses the last round to finish off his "gun donor" before he dives for cover.
Around the same time, the noise of heavy footfalls and machinegun fire intermingles with the panicked screams of Peacekeepers trying to fight back at some enemy that I can't see; occasionally I can hear a continuous whir of machinery and the now unmistakably wet sound of rending flesh. Slate is about to pull a gun of his own on the young infiltrator when something wraps what looks like a metallic tentacle around him and yanks him back, taking out the camera in the process; however the broadcast feed immediately switches views to show the Head Peacekeeper being restrained.
All of this occurs in less than a minute. The result is a charnel house with only Slate and the youth left alive. An irrational part of me simply hopes that someone can clean and repair the mural which, it turns out, continues on to the other walls.
"Remember, Slate," Porus comments: "I did tell you last reaping that there would be a reckoning for your actions."
Slate, to his credit, seems to have some defiance left as he shakily screams out, "You… you people have no honor!"
That causes an uproarious amount of laughter to abound in the command center. Even the Commandant smirks a bit when she coolly remarks, "Honor, hmm? Why don't I let my operative enlighten you with our slogan?"
"Gladly, Commander," the not-Peacekeeper replies as he strides towards his captive. When he gets there, everything above his upper chest is cut off by the frame of the camera, though there is no move from him to correct the angle. He reaches past the camera to pull out a very unpleasant-looking hook-like knife before stating proudly:
"'Not for honor or glory: only the mission.'
"Though for the sake of dignity, I will grant you the chance to look your executioner in the eye and give a final statement."
For some reason, when the Peacekeeper looks up, he visibly pales. "Y-you're a monster…"
"And your point is?" As he grabs a fistful of Slate's to pull his head back, the youth adds with a growl, "Oh, by the way: Wiress and the people of West City send their regards."
And in one swift motion, he plunges the blade into the side of the neck and slashes outward to create a wide and grotesque second-smile that issues a wet gurgling noise as the older man crumples to the ground.
With that impromptu execution, the Commandant addresses the Capitol with a cold glare and concludes the broadcast with a final statement: "I hope you all were sufficiently entertained."
The whole room is silent for what feels like an agonizingly long period of time. While the expressions on the Central officials are either impassive or satisfied, most of us "outsiders" are looking on with varying levels of bemusement, if not abject horror, mixed with resignation.
Porus ignores this and quickly turns back to the operative, who stands by as if waiting for further instruction and still has his face blocked. "Is the area secure?"
"Affirmative, Commander. Arezzo assures me that all hostiles have been eliminated and assets seized. Rebel forces are predicted to arrive within the next four hours." Even in the formal tone, his voice sounds even younger now, with a softer yet still pronounced accent.
"Well good work, MacLeod, though you laid on the theatrics a bit thickly." Ah, so this is Leonidas' son. From the look on his face, the elder gentleman definitely seems to be proud of his boy's accomplishment. My version of making my dad proud was frosting a cake properly; different strokes I guess.
The younger MacLeod noticeably relaxes and chuckles. "Sorry, Ma'am; just thought it'd be something that Three would appreciate. And thank you."
"Understood. Just be aware that I allowed this not just for the broadcast value but because of the controlled nature of this operation. You usually won't have a luxury for such risky behavior.
"Now that we get that out of the way, how about you allow me to introduce you?"
"Oh, of course!" MacLeod proceeds to cheerfully coo to whatever is behind the camera: "Arezzo, look up a bit so everybody can see Daddy's face."
When the camera shifts up, several of the non-Central observers make noises of surprise, and I can now see what freaked out the Head Peacekeeper. In the place of the squirrely brown-eyed and tawny-haired Peacekeeper we saw at the beginning of the transmission, stands a smirking youth with dark chestnut hair and denim-blue eyes; even his complexion is slightly different than it was from before. If I didn't watch the whole event, I'd think that the two likenesses belong to two separate individuals.
As MacLeod salutes the military officials and gives a friendly wave to the rest of us — especially Beetee and his father — the Commandant states, "Fellow Commanders… Mellark: allow me to introduce Brutus MacLeod, a member of our recon division."
The familiar first name elicits an amused response from Haymitch and Lyme, which causes Brutus to send an exasperated scowl — something tells me he gets this a lot — towards the elder MacLeod.
Leonidas sighs, "Hey, we didn't name him. Besides, there's more to the name than that arrogant tool of a victor."
The off-tangent conversation is broken up by the Commandant before it goes completely off the rails when she addresses the youth, "In any case, and with that out of the way, I suggest you get back as soon as possible. There will likely be a welcoming committee awaiting your arrival."
Brutus barks out a laugh. "I don't doubt it. Alright, I just need to take care of a few things here and I'll be on my way."
"Safe travels, MacLeod."
"Will do, Commander," Brutus affirms as he shuts off his transmission.
Porus proceeds to tell the other commanders, "The fact that I allowed you three to see both the Remingtons and MacLeod means that I am placing some level of trust in you. I sincerely hope I am not mistaken. And I especially trust you all not to relay this information towards President Coin."
The speed at which all three commanders concur would be amusing if it didn't have a troubling connotation about the leadership situation in the Rebellion.
After that business has concluded, Santos asks, "Commander, what's our next move?"
The Commandant doesn't even hesitate when she orders, "Show all Capitol-affiliated facilities within a 400-klick radius."
The map expands out until it includes not only all of Three, but portions of Districts Nine, Six, Eleven, Ten, and Two. Symbols light up in red — most are in Two and the disputed districts, but a couple actually appear in Six and Nine; rebels must have missed a spot — pinpointing various Peacekeeper assets: forward operating bases, airstrips, communications stations, supply depots, AA emplacements, housing units…
"Begin preparations for 'May Flowers' protocol, and wait for my signal."
Immediately, every red symbol is highlighted in yellow, and circles appear around the Peacekeeper bases at the eastern edge of Two and the northwestern boundary of Eleven, respectively. That's when I notice the Remingtons beginning their ponderous pivot, and a chill runs down my spine as it all clicks into place: Central's going to level every single enemy asset within reach and kill as many Peacekeepers as possible in the process. No battles; no objectives to be seized; no negotiations or grand proclamations; no prisoners; just simply wiping the enemy off the map.
Porus must note my unease at this new course of action as gives a sidelong glance towards me and remarks, "As I've said before, Mellark, my purpose is to ensure the security of Central and its inhabitants; not to fight for any lofty cause. Therefore, all adversaries, and those who back them, are to be treated as threats to be eliminated by any means necessary with any survivor left too beaten and demoralized to retaliate. It is especially important to act now while our adversaries are unable to communicate with each other." She then looks away to address the other commanders: "Is there anybody here who objects with this course of action? I am open to all thoughts and possible alternatives."
Boggs, Paylor, and Lyme all look just as uneasy as I feel, but none of them object. The closest to an objection is Paylor suggesting that the Rebellion could use the supplies in the Peacekeeper depots.
"Are you prepared to potentially incur casualties in taking the depots, as well as assuming the responsibility of interning prisoners?"
Paylor nods and the other commanders follow suit. "We are, and the elimination of the other targets would allow us to concentrate our efforts there more effectively."
"Fair enough." All of the supply depots become un-highlighted. The only other facilities left untouched are the field hospitals and aid stations. "Is there anything else? What about you Mellark? Do you have anything to say?"
To my surprise, Porus seems to be sincere. Don't get me wrong; there is no sympathy to be had in her expression. However, it's also clear that she isn't mocking me for my opinion, which is more than I can say for a others whom I've had… disagreements with.
It doesn't make this woman any less scary; reasonable, but still utterly coldblooded.
An eternity seems to pass before I finally heave a long resigned sigh. "You already have a good idea of what my opinion is on the subject. But as for any practical reasons to object… I got nothing. Do what you have to do."
As I plop back down on my chair and clutch Julian's picture tightly in my hands — even in casual wear, I still carry the picture with me as a reminder; Haymitch, for whatever reason, tells me that it's starting to be an unhealthy habit — I can feel the eyes trained on me from the other commanders and victors, all of whom are giving me varying looks of pity. For some irrational reason, it causes me to just to lean back and mutter, "No regrets…"
The Commandant gives me an understanding nod before issuing her order:
"Bring it all down."
A/N: Anybody familiar with the works of "sohypothetically"s Girls Night Out would recognize the MacLeods in a manner of speaking. I thank her for letting me adapt them.
Note that the mural exists in real life. Cookie to anyone who figures out what building it's in.
The District Two-based percussion ensemble is actually derived from kumi-daiko and gamelan beleganjur, not western military bands.