“Except that you won’t find her,” says Finnick to the empty screen, voicing what we’re all probably thinking. The grace period will be brief. Once they dig through those ashes and come up missing eleven bodies, they’ll know we escaped.
“We can get a head start on them at least,” I say. Suddenly, I’m so tired. All I want is to lie down on a nearby green plush sofa and go to sleep. To cocoon myself in a comforter made of rabbit fur and goose down. Instead, I pull out the Holo and insist that Jackson talk me through the most basic commands–which are really about entering the coordinates of the nearest map grid intersection–so that I can at least begin to operate the thing myself. As the Holo projects our surroundings, I feel my heart sink even further. We must be moving closer to crucial targets, because the number of pods has noticeably increased. How can we possibly move forward into this bouquet of blinking lights without detection? We can’t. And if we can’t, we are trapped like birds in a net. I decide it’s best not to adopt some sort of superior attitude when I’m with these people. Especially when my eyes keep drifting to that green sofa. So I say, “Any ideas?”
“Why don’t we start by ruling out possibilities,” says Finnick. “The street is not a possibility.”
“The rooftops are just as bad as the street,” says Leeg 1.
“We still might have a chance to withdraw, go back the way we came,” says Homes. “But that would mean a failed mission.”
A pang of guilt hits me since I’ve fabricated said mission. “It was never intended for all of us to go forward. You just had the misfortune to be with me.”
“Well, that’s a moot point. We’re with you now,” says Jackson. “So, we can’t stay put. We can’t move up. We can’t move laterally. I think that just leaves one option.”
“Underground,” says Gale.
Underground. Which I hate. Like mines and tunnels and 13. Underground, where I dread dying, which is stupid because even if I die aboveground, the next thing they’ll do is bury me underground anyway.
The Holo can show subterranean as well as street-level pods. I see that when we go underground the clean, dependable lines of the street plan are interlaced with a twisting, turning mess of tunnels. The pods look less numerous, though.
Two doors down, a vertical tube connects our row of apartments to the tunnels. To reach the tube apartment, we will need to squeeze through a maintenance shaft that runs the length of the building. We can enter the shaft through the back of a closet space on the upper floor.
“Okay, then. Let’s make it look like we’ve never been here,” I say. We erase all signs of our stay. Send the empty cans down a trash chute, pocket the full ones for later, flip sofa cushions smeared with blood, wipe traces of gel from the tiles. There’s no fixing the latch on the front door, but we lock a second bolt, which will at least keep the door from swinging open on contact.
Finally, there’s only Peeta to contend with. He plants himself on the blue sofa, refusing to budge. “I’m not going. I’ll either disclose your position or hurt someone else.”
“Snow’s people will find you,” says Finnick.
“Then leave me a pill. I’ll only take it if I have to,” says Peeta.
“That’s not an option. Come along,” says Jackson.
“Or you’ll what? Shoot me?” asks Peeta.
“We’ll knock you out and drag you with us,” says Homes. “Which will both slow us down and endanger us.”
“Stop being noble! I don’t care if I die!” He turns to me, pleading now. “Katniss, please. Don’t you see, I want to be out of this?”
The trouble is, I do see. Why can’t I just let him go? Slip him a pill, pull the trigger? Is it because I care too much about Peeta or too much about letting Snow win? Have I turned him into a piece in my private Games? That’s despicable, but I’m not sure it’s beneath me. If it’s true, it would be kindest to kill Peeta here and now. But for better or worse, I am not motivated by kindness. “We’re wasting time. Are you coming voluntarily or do we knock you out?”
Peeta buries his face in his hands for a few moments, then rises to join us.
“Should we free his hands?” asks Leeg 1.
“No!” Peeta growls at her, drawing his cuffs in close to his body.
“No,” I echo. “But I want the key.” Jackson passes it over without a word. I slip it into my pants pocket, where it clicks against the pearl.
When Homes pries open the small metal door to the maintenance shaft, we encounter another problem. There’s no way the insect shells will be able to fit through the narrow passage. Castor and Pollux remove them and detach emergency backup cameras. Each is the size of a shoe box and probably works about as well. Messalla can’t think of anywhere better to hide the bulky shells, so we end up dumping them in the closet. Leaving such an easy trail to follow frustrates me, but what else can we do?
Even going single file, holding our packs and gear out to the side, it’s a tight fit. We sidestep our way past the first apartment, and break into the second. In this apartment, one of the bedrooms has a door marked utility instead of a bathroom. Behind the door is the room with the entrance to the tube.
Messalla frowns at the wide circular cover, for a moment returning to his own fussy world. “It’s why no one ever wants the center unit. Workmen coming and going whenever and no second bath. But the rent’s considerably cheaper.” Then he notices Finnick’s amused expression and adds, “Never mind.”
The tube cover’s simple to unlatch. A wide ladder with rubber treads on the steps allows for a swift, easy descent into the bowels of the city. We gather at the foot of the ladder, waiting for our eyes to adjust to the dim strips of lights, breathing in the mixture of chemicals, mildew, and sewage.
Pollux, pale and sweaty, reaches out and latches on to Castor’s wrist. Like he might fall over if there isn’t someone to steady him.
“My brother worked down here after he became an Avox,” says Castor. Of course. Who else would they get to maintain these dank, evil-smelling passages mined with pods? “Took five years before we were able to buy his way up to ground level. Didn’t see the sun once.”
Under better conditions, on a day with fewer horrors and more rest, someone would surely know what to say. Instead we all stand there for a long time trying to formulate a response.
Finally, Peeta turns to Pollux. “Well, then you just became our most valuable asset.” Castor laughs and Pollux manages a smile.
We’re halfway down the first tunnel when I realize what was so remarkable about the exchange. Peeta sounded like his old self, the one who could always think of the right thing to say when nobody else could. Ironic, encouraging, a little funny, but not at anyone’s expense. I glance back at him as he trudges along under his guards, Gale and Jackson, his eyes fixed on the ground, his shoulders hunched forward. So dispirited. But for a moment, he was really here.
Peeta called it right. Pollux turns out to be worth ten Holos. There is a simple network of wide tunnels that directly corresponds to the main street plan above, underlying the major avenues and cross streets. It’s called the Transfer, since small trucks use it to deliver goods around the city. During the day, its many pods are deactivated, but at night it’s a minefield. However, hundreds of additional passages, utility shafts, train tracks, and drainage tubes form a multilevel maze. Pollux knows details that would lead to disaster for a newcomer, like which offshoots might require gas masks or have live wires or rats the size of beavers. He alerts us to the gush of water that sweeps through the sewers periodically, anticipates the time the Avoxes will be changing shifts, leads us into damp, obscure pipes to dodge the nearly silent passage of cargo trains. Most important, he has knowledge of the cameras. There aren’t many down in this gloomy, misty place, except in the Transfer. But we keep well out of their way.
Under Pollux’s guidance we make good time–remarkable time, if you compare it to our aboveground travel. After about six hours, fatigue takes over. It’s three in the morning, so I figure we still have a few hours before our bodies are discovered missing, they search through the rubble of the whole block of apartments in case we tried to escape through the shafts, and the hunt begins.
When I suggest we rest, no one objects. Pollux finds a small, warm room humming with machines loaded with levers and dials. He holds up his fingers to indicate we must be gone in four hours. Jackson works out a guard schedule, and, since I’m not on the first shift, I wedge myself in the tight space between Gale and Leeg 1 and go right to sleep.
It seems like only minutes later when Jackson shakes me awake, tells me I’m on watch. It’s six o’clock, and in one hour we must be on our way. Jackson tells me to eat a can of food and keep an eye on Pollux, who’s insisted on being on guard the entire night. “He can’t sleep down here.” I drag myself into a state of relative alertness, eat a can of potato and bean stew, and sit against the wall facing the door. Pollux seems wide awake. He’s probably been reliving those five years of imprisonment all night. I get out the Holo and manage to input our grid coordinates and scan the tunnels. As expected, more pods are registering the closer we move toward the center of the Capitol. For a while, Pollux and I click around on the Holo, seeing what traps lie where. When my head begins to spin, I hand it over to him and lean back against the wall. I look down at the sleeping soldiers, crew, and friends, and I wonder how many of us will ever see the sun again.
When my eyes fall on Peeta, whose head rests right by my feet, I see he’s awake. I wish I could read what’s going on in his mind, that I could go in and untangle the mess of lies. Then I settle for something I can accomplish.
“Have you eaten?” I ask. A slight shake of his head indicates he hasn’t. I open a can of chicken and rice soup and hand it to him, keeping the lid in case he tries to slit his wrists with it or something. He sits up and tilts the can, chugging back the soup without really bothering to chew it. The bottom of the can reflects the lights from the machines, and I remember something that’s been itching at the back of my mind since yesterday. “Peeta, when you asked about what happened to Darius and Lavinia, and Boggs told you it was real, you said you thought so. Because there was nothing shiny about it. What did you mean?”
“Oh. I don’t know exactly how to explain it,” he tells me. “In the beginning, everything was just complete confusion. Now I can sort certain things out. I think there’s a pattern emerging. The memories they altered with the tracker jacker venom have this strange quality about them. Like they’re too intense or the images aren’t stable. You remember what it was like when we were stung?”
“Trees shattered. There were giant colored butterflies. I fell in a pit of orange bubbles.” I think about it. “Shiny orange bubbles.”
“Right. But nothing about Darius or Lavinia was like that. I don’t think they’d given me any venom yet,” he says.
“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?” I ask. “If you can separate the two, then you can figure out what’s true.”
“Yes. And if I could grow wings, I could fly. Only people can’t grow wings,” he says. “Real or not real?”
“Real,” I say. “But people don’t need wings to survive.”
“Mockingjays do.” He finishes the soup and returns the can to me.
In the fluorescent light, the circles under his eyes look like bruises. “There’s still time. You should sleep.” Unresisting, he lies back down, but just stares at the needle on one of the dials as it twitches from side to side. Slowly, as I would with a wounded animal, my hand stretches out and brushes a wave of hair from his forehead. He freezes at my touch, but doesn’t recoil. So I continue to gently smooth back his hair. It’s the first time I have voluntarily touched him since the last arena.
“You’re still trying to protect me. Real or not real,” he whispers.
“Real,” I answer. It seems to require more explanation. “Because that’s what you and I do. Protect each other.” After a minute or so, he drifts off to sleep.
Shortly before seven, Pollux and I move among the others, rousing them. There are the usual yawns and sighs that accompany waking. But my ears are picking up something else, too. Almost like a hissing. Perhaps it’s only steam escaping a pipe or the far-off whoosh of one of the trains….
I hush the group to get a better read on it. There’s a hissing, yes, but it’s not one extended sound. More like multiple exhalations that form words. A single word. Echoing throughout the tunnels. One word. One name. Repeated over and over again.
The grace period has ended. Perhaps Snow had them digging through the night. As soon as the fire died down, anyway. They found Boggs’s remains, briefly felt reassured, and then, as the hours went by without further trophies, began to suspect. At some point, they realized that they had been tricked. And President Snow can’t tolerate being made to look like a fool. It doesn’t matter whether they tracked us to the second apartment or assumed we went directly underground. They know we are down here now and they’ve unleashed something, a pack of mutts probably, bent on finding me.
“Katniss.” I jump at the proximity of the sound. Look frantically for its source, bow loaded, seeking a target to hit. “Katniss.” Peeta’s lips are barely moving, but there’s no doubt, the name came out of him. Just when I thought he seemed a little better, when I thought he might be inching his way back to me, here is proof of how deep Snow’s poison went. “Katniss.” Peeta’s programmed to respond to the hissing chorus, to join in the hunt. He’s beginning to stir. There’s no choice. I position my arrow to penetrate his brain. He’ll barely feel a thing. Suddenly, he’s sitting up, eyes wide in alarm, short of breath. “Katniss!” He whips his head toward me but doesn’t seem to notice my bow, the waiting arrow. “Katniss! Get out of here!”
I hesitate. His voice is alarmed, but not insane. “Why? What’s making that sound?”
“I don’t know. Only that it has to kill you,” says Peeta. “Run! Get out! Go!”
After my own moment of confusion, I conclude I do not have to shoot him. Relax my bowstring. Take in the anxious faces around me. “Whatever it is, it’s after me. It might be a good time to split up.”
“But we’re your guard,” says Jackson.
“And your crew,” adds Cressida.
“I’m not leaving you,” Gale says.
I look at the crew, armed with nothing but cameras and clipboards. And there’s Finnick with two guns and a trident. I suggest that he give one of his guns to Castor. Eject the blank cartridge from Peeta’s, load it with a real one, and arm Pollux. Since Gale and I have our bows, we hand our guns over to Messalla and Cressida. There’s no time to show them anything but how to point and pull the trigger, but in close quarters, that might be enough. It’s better than being defenseless. Now the only one without a weapon is Peeta, but anyone whispering my name with a bunch of mutts doesn’t need one anyway.
We leave the room free of everything but our scent. There’s no way to erase that at the moment. I’m guessing that’s how the hissing things are tracking us, because we haven’t left much of a physical trail. The mutts’ noses will be abnormally keen, but possibly the time we spent slogging through water in drainpipes will help throw them.
Outside the hum of the room, the hissing becomes more distinct. But it’s also possible to get a better sense of the mutts’ location. They’re behind us, still a fair distance. Snow probably had them released underground near the place where he found Boggs’s body. Theoretically, we should have a good lead on them, although they’re certain to be much faster than we are. My mind wanders to the wolflike creatures in the first arena, the monkeys in the Quarter Quell, the monstrosities I’ve witnessed on television over the years, and I wonder what form these mutts will take. Whatever Snow thinks will scare me the most.
Pollux and I have worked out a plan for the next leg of our journey, and since it heads away from the hissing, I see no reason to alter it. If we move swiftly, maybe we can reach Snow’s mansion before the mutts reach us. But there’s a sloppiness that comes with speed: the poorly placed boot that results in a splash, the accidental clang of a gun against a pipe, even my own commands, issued too loudly for discretion.
We’ve covered about three more blocks via an overflow pipe and a section of neglected train track when the screams begin. Thick, guttural. Bouncing off the tunnel walls.
“Avoxes,” says Peeta immediately. “That’s what Darius sounded like when they tortured him.”
“The mutts must have found them,” says Cressida.
“So they’re not just after Katniss,” says Leeg 1.
“They’ll probably kill anyone. It’s just that they won’t stop until they get to her,” says Gale. After his hours studying with Beetee, he is most likely right.
And here I am again. With people dying because of me. Friends, allies, complete strangers, losing their lives for the Mockingjay. “Let me go on alone. Lead them off. I’ll transfer the Holo to Jackson. The rest of you can finish the mission.”
“No one’s going to agree to that!” says Jackson in exasperation.
“We’re wasting time!” says Finnick.
“Listen,” Peeta whispers.
The screams have stopped, and in their absence my name has rebounded, startling in its proximity. It’s below as well as behind us now. “Katniss.”
I nudge Pollux on the shoulder and we start to run. Trouble is, we had planned to descend to a lower level, but that’s out now. When we come to the steps leading down, Pollux and I are scanning for a possible alternative on the Holo when I start gagging.
“Masks on!” orders Jackson.
There’s no need for masks. Everyone is breathing the same air. I’m the only one losing my stew because I’m the only one reacting to the odor. Drifting up from the stairwell. Cutting through the sewage. Roses. I begin to tremble.
I swerve away from the smell and stumble right out onto the Transfer. Smooth, pastel-colored tiled streets, just like the ones above, but bordered by white brick walls instead of homes. A roadway where delivery vehicles can drive with ease, without the congestion of the Capitol. Empty now, of everything but us. I swing up my bow and blow up the first pod with an explosive arrow, which kills the nest of flesh-eating rats inside. Then I sprint for the next intersection, where I know one false step will cause the ground beneath our feet to disintegrate, feeding us into something labeled Meat Grinder. I shout a warning to the others to stay with me. I plan for us to skirt around the corner and then detonate the Meat Grinder, but another unmarked pod lies in wait.
It happens silently. I would miss it entirely if Finnick didn’t pull me to a stop. “Katniss!”
I whip back around, arrow poised for flight, but what can be done? Two of Gale’s arrows already lie useless beside the wide shaft of golden light that radiates from ceiling to floor. Inside, Messalla is as still as a statue, poised up on the ball of one foot, head tilted back, held captive by the beam. I can’t tell if he’s yelling, although his mouth is stretched wide. We watch, utterly helpless, as the flesh melts off his body like candle wax.
“Can’t help him!” Peeta starts shoving people forward. “Can’t!” Amazingly, he’s the only one still functional enough to get us moving. I don’t know why he’s in control, when he should be flipping out and bashing my brains in, but that could happen any second. At the pressure of his hand against my shoulder, I turn away from the grisly thing that was Messalla; I make my feet go forward, fast, so fast that I can barely skid to a stop before the next intersection.
A spray of gunfire brings down a shower of plaster. I jerk my head from side to side, looking for the pod, before I turn and see the squad of Peacekeepers pounding down the Transfer toward us. With the Meat Grinder pod blocking our way, there’s nothing to do but fire back. They outnumber us two to one, but we’ve still got six original members of the Star Squad, who aren’t trying to run and shoot at the same time.
Fish in a barrel, I think, as blossoms of red stain their white uniforms. Three-quarters of them are down and dead when more begin to pour in from the side of the tunnel, the same one I flung myself through to get away from the smell, from the–
Those aren’t Peacekeepers.
They are white, four-limbed, about the size of a full-grown human, but that’s where the comparisons stop. Naked, with long reptilian tails, arched backs, and heads that jut forward. They swarm over the Peacekeepers, living and dead, clamp on to their necks with their mouths and rip off the helmeted heads. Apparently, having a Capitol pedigree is as useless here as it was in 13. It seems to take only seconds before the Peacekeepers are decapitated. The mutts fall to their bellies and skitter toward us on all fours.
“This way!” I shout, hugging the wall and making a sharp right turn to avoid the pod. When everyone’s joined me, I fire into the intersection, and the Meat Grinder activates. Huge mechanical teeth burst through the street and chew the tile to dust. That should make it impossible for the mutts to follow us, but I don’t know. The wolf and monkey mutts I’ve encountered could leap unbelievably far.
The hissing burns my ears, and the reek of roses makes the walls spin.
I grab Pollux’s arm. “Forget the mission. What’s the quickest way aboveground?”
There’s no time for checking the Holo. We follow Pollux for about ten yards along the Transfer and go through a doorway. I’m aware of tile changing to concrete, of crawling through a tight, stinking pipe onto a ledge about a foot wide. We’re in the main sewer. A yard below, a poisonous brew of human waste, garbage, and chemical runoff bubbles by us. Parts of the surface are on fire, others emit evil-looking clouds of vapor. One look tells you that if you fall in, you’re never coming out. Moving as quickly as we dare on the slippery ledge, we make our way to a narrow bridge and cross it. In an alcove at the far side, Pollux smacks a ladder with his hand and points up the shaft. This is it. Our way out.
A quick glance at our party tells me something’s off. “Wait! Where are Jackson and Leeg One?”
“They stayed at the Grinder to hold the mutts back,” says Homes.
“What?” I’m lunging back for the bridge, willing to leave no one to those monsters, when he yanks me back.
“Don’t waste their lives, Katniss. It’s too late for them. Look!” Homes nods to the pipe, where the mutts are slithering onto the ledge.
“Stand back!” Gale shouts. With his explosive-tipped arrows, he rips the far side of the bridge from its foundation. The rest sinks into the bubbles, just as the mutts reach it.
For the first time, I get a good look at them. A mix of human and lizard and who knows what else. White, tight reptilian skin smeared with gore, clawed hands and feet, their faces a mess of conflicting features. Hissing, shrieking my name now, as their bodies contort in rage. Lashing out with tails and claws, taking huge chunks of one another or their own bodies with wide, lathered mouths, driven mad by their need to destroy me. My scent must be as evocative to them as theirs is to me. More so, because despite its toxicity, the mutts begin to throw themselves into the foul sewer.
Along our bank, everyone opens fire. I choose my arrows without discretion, sending arrowheads, fire, explosives into the mutts’ bodies. They’re mortal, but only just. No natural thing could keep coming with two dozen bullets in it. Yes, we can eventually kill them, only there are so many, an endless supply pouring from the pipe, not even hesitating to take to the sewage.
But it’s not their numbers that make my hands shake so.
No mutt is good. All are meant to damage you. Some take your life, like the monkeys.