The girl was twelve, fair and graceful, though she was dressed in a rough and ragged skirt and blouse. Her eyes opened, and she sat up on the metal table, rubbing her palm with her thumb. "Where am I?" she said aloud. She knitted her eyebrows. "What happened to me?" Above her, a screen came to life. It showed her by bright moonlight, walking up to a tree with brilliantly white bark and golden leaves. She jabbed herself with a knife, rubbed her palm with a scrap of cloth, and placed the rag between the largest roots.
"I wish," the girl said, "that my sister Katniss would... come home from the Games."
The girl clasped her hands together, still rubbing her palm for the remembered stigmata. "Why are you showing me something I just did?" She lowered her hands. "But it's been longer. Hasn't it?"
The screens went dark, and an unfamiliar face appeared. She tensed when she saw his Capitol uniform. "Your name is Primrose Everdeen," the man said. "Except, you are not her. Your wish came true, whether or not it was by any power you invoked. Your sister did survive the Games. She still lives, and there are no more Games, because her victory inspired others to bring them to an end. But many have died, including the original Primrose Everdeen. You are a copy, made from genetic material and a full neural scan taken when the first Prim made her wish, five years ago. Now come forth, and meet your new companions."
A door opened, and Prim stepped into a larger, twelve-sided chamber. From similar doors on every side came others, ranging from little children barely out of toddlerhood to one young man of at least sixteen, but mainly between ten and fourteen years old- exactly the ages when young people had the right combination of independence and whimsy to carry out a silly ritual in the woods. Around them and overhead, a panorama of screens flared to life, all showing the man in the Capitol uniform.
"My name is Romulus Thread," the man said. "I will begin by telling you a story. Long ago, the world was ruled by one great people, the greatest of all peoples who ever lived- the Ancients. To preserve their greatness, the Ancients forbade marrying common humans. But isolation from fellow humanity also multiplied imperfections among them. To renew their line, they took a drastic step, by taking wives and husbands from among the common folk.
"But, it was too little, too late: The Ancients' numbers had already dwindled too much, and then the great Cataclysm rent the earth. The Ancients retreated into their great cities beneath the Earth, where they either went to their final extinction or entered a sleep as long as an age of the Earth They left behind one great hope, that their children would multiply on the Earth and restore it, and perhaps prepare it for the Ancients' return. These were your ancestors- the peoples of what became Districts 12 and 13 of Panem.
"Over the gulf of centuries and millennia, the memories of the Ancients became dim legend, even in the minds of their children. The children of the Ancients took their places in Panem, and most believed they were only what they appeared to be: minor, somewhat odd peoples on the outliers of the new nation. But the evidence was there, and those who knew feared. They saw the gifts of the Ancients at work in even the smallest strivings of their children. They feared the consequences if you found a Storehouse of the Ancients, still more if the Ancients themselves came forth to lead you. Yet, they were checked by still greater fear at the consequences if even beings as merciful as the Ancients awoke from a sleep of ages and found only the graves of their children, murdered by mediocrity. Then one evil man, but also a very, very frightened man, came to great power, and he believed there could be but one solution..."
He showed brief flashes of hovercraft, balls of fire, and finally a great pit dug up to receive the bones of the dead. Tears sprang up in Prim's eyes, and when Romulus's face returned, he himself was shaking with stifled sobs. "What he did not know was that the Ancients left an outpost to watch over their children, wholly automated, except for a caretaker. Whether the Ancients slept or perished, the outpost did its duty, collecting genetic samples from their children. Unfortunately, the caretaker grew quite mad. He let certain experiments go too far for too long. Finally, he had to be removed, by myself and two of your friends." He showed Gale and Peeta. "When the caretaker was dead, I took his place. I gave an order to terminate the experiments, and set off a great bomb to cut off all access to the outpost... from the south."
"Then what have you brought us here for?" Prim said.
The screens showed sweeping panoramas of a great valley. "I am offering you the chance to go forth on a great adventure," Thread said. "If you do not know this place by sight, then you will know it by name, as the Vale of the Hob. I wish for you, and others I will remake, to explore this valley. I want you to scour for any and every trace of the Ancients, and any clue to their fate. More than that, I want you to settle in the valley. You are fully human in every way. You will grow up and grow old. The one thing you cannot do is multiply yourselves, because you did not undergo a full and natural life cycle. But I shall remake more tribes of children to follow you as you advance into the Vale. Then when you are old enough to marry and wish to have children, the machines that created you will recombine your genes into children that you can bear to birth and will be able to bear by themselves."
The picture of the Vale returned. "It must be slow, and secret at first, because the world behind is not ready to know the secrets that brought you forth and the secrets that you may yet find. But the time will come soon enough when your children's children fill this vale, and then their children shall go forth to find their place in Panem, be it as free citizens, or conquerors of a new tyranny, or inheritors of its ruins."
The pictures of the Vale came up again, and Prim took a good, long look. "What will you do?" she said. "Will you rule us?"
Suddenly, the ceiling split, shining down daylight, and the floor rose like an elevator in the mines. Many of the children began to cry, and Prim herself crouched in fear. The floor came to a stop in the midst of a beautiful meadow, with a lodge a short distance away. Romulus Thread approached from the Lodge- three of him. Two were young, and one was old and scarred.
"I will direct the machines that gave you life and will give you your children,"said the elder Thread. "I have the Stores of the Ancients at my fingertips, to produce agents in my likeness, to prolong my life for an age if need be, and to rain down death on any who would come to threaten your lives or your freedom, be it from Panem, or a city of the Ancients, or out of your own number. I will guide you and teach you. I will serve you and protect you, and I will never leave you nor forsake you."
The young man spoke up: "What if we want to take care of ourselves?"
"Then if that time comes when one of you is willing and worthy, he- or she- will take my place, and I will welcome it. Now, go forth, and make your ancestors proud." He stepped onto the floor while the children scrambled off, and when the last were off, the platform sank down with Thread upon it and the ground closed over it, leaving only what looked like a shallow depression visible upon the surface
Prim turned to another girl, a little older than herself. "I'm Prim," she said. "What's your name?"
"I'm Maysilee Donner," the girl answered, then added, "I wished that someone from Twelve would win the 50th Hunger Games."
The young man who had questioned Thread was approaching, with more than a hint of a swagger. "Who are you?" Prim said.
"I'm Ligeus Hawthorne," he answered. A frown crossed his face. "I wished for my girl back. I guess I got her." He looked over his shoulder, at the watching visage of Romulus Thread, and turned back with a smile. "All in all, I think I could like it here."