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We glide through a maze of tunnels that opens out onto a platform. Some sort of elevator device lifts the craft slowly up through the levels. All at once we’re outside in a large field surrounded by woods, then we rise off the platform and become wrapped in clouds.

Now that the flurry of activity leading up to this mission is over, I realize I have no idea what I’m facing on this trip to District 8. In fact, I know very little about the actual state of the war. Or what it would take to win it. Or what would happen if we did.

Plutarch tries to lay it out in simple terms for me. First of all, every district is currently at war with the Capitol except 2, which has always had a favored relationship with our enemies despite its participation in the Hunger Games. They get more food and better living conditions. After the Dark Days and the supposed destruction of 13, District 2 became the Capitol’s new center of defense, although it’s publicly presented as the home of the nation’s stone quarries, in the same way that 13 was known for graphite mining. District 2 not only manufactures weaponry, it trains and even supplies Peacekeepers.

“You mean…some of the Peacekeepers are born in Two?” I ask. “I thought they all came from the Capitol.”

Plutarch nods. “That’s what you’re supposed to think. And some do come from the Capitol. But its population could never sustain a force that size. Then there’s the problem of recruiting Capitol-raised citizens for a dull life of deprivation in the districts. A twenty-year commitment to the Peacekeepers, no marriage, no children allowed. Some buy into it for the honor of the thing, others take it on as an alternative to punishment. For instance, join the Peacekeepers and your debts are forgiven. Many people are swamped in debt in the Capitol, but not all of them are fit for military duty. So District Two is where we turn for additional troops. It’s a way for their people to escape poverty and a life in the quarries. They’re raised with a warrior mind-set. You’ve seen how eager their children are to volunteer to be tributes.”

Cato and Clove. Brutus and Enobaria. I’ve seen their eagerness and their bloodlust, too. “But all the other districts are on our side?” I ask.

“Yes. Our goal is to take over the districts one by one, ending with District Two, thus cutting off the Capitol’s supply chain. Then, once it’s weakened, we invade the Capitol itself,” says Plutarch. “That will be a whole other type of challenge. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“If we win, who would be in charge of the government?” Gale asks.

“Everyone,” Plutarch tells him. “We’re going to form a republic where the people of each district and the Capitol can elect their own representatives to be their voice in a centralized government. Don’t look so suspicious; it’s worked before.”

“In books,” Haymitch mutters.

“In history books,” says Plutarch. “And if our ancestors could do it, then we can, too.”

Frankly, our ancestors don’t seem much to brag about. I mean, look at the state they left us in, with the wars and the broken planet. Clearly, they didn’t care about what would happen to the people who came after them. But this republic idea sounds like an improvement over our current government.

“And if we lose?” I ask.

“If we lose?” Plutarch looks out at the clouds, and an ironic smile twists his lips. “Then I would expect next year’s Hunger Games to be quite unforgettable. That reminds me.” He takes a vial from his vest, shakes a few deep violet pills into his hand, and holds them out to us. “We named them nightlock in your honor, Katniss. The rebels can’t afford for any of us to be captured now. But I promise, it will be completely painless.”

I take hold of a capsule, unsure of where to put it. Plutarch taps a spot on my shoulder at the front of my left sleeve. I examine it and find a tiny pocket that both secures and conceals the pill. Even if my hands were tied, I could lean my head forward and bite it free.

Cinna, it seems, has thought of everything.

7

The hovercraft makes a quick, spiral descent onto a wide road on the outskirts of 8. Almost immediately, the door opens, the stairs slide into place, and we’re spit out onto the asphalt. The moment the last person disembarks, the equipment retracts. Then the craft lifts off and vanishes. I’m left with a bodyguard made up of Gale, Boggs, and two other soldiers. The TV crew consists of a pair of burly Capitol cameramen with heavy mobile cameras encasing their bodies like insect shells, a woman director named Cressida who has a shaved head tattooed with green vines, and her assistant, Messalla, a slim young man with several sets of earrings. On careful observation, I see his tongue has been pierced, too, and he wears a stud with a silver ball the size of a marble.

Boggs hustles us off the road toward a row of warehouses as a second hovercraft comes in for a landing. This one brings crates of medical supplies and a crew of six medics–I can tell by their distinctive white outfits. We all follow Boggs down an alley that runs between two dull gray warehouses. Only the occasional access ladder to the roof interrupts the scarred metal walls. When we emerge onto the street, it’s like we’ve entered another world.

The wounded from this morning’s bombing are being brought in. On homemade stretchers, in wheelbarrows, on carts, slung across shoulders, and clenched tight in arms. Bleeding, limbless, unconscious. Propelled by desperate people to a warehouse with a sloppily painted H above the doorway. It’s a scene from my old kitchen, where my mother treated the dying, multiplied by ten, by fifty, by a hundred. I had expected bombed-out buildings and instead find myself confronted with broken human bodies.

This is where they plan on filming me? I turn to Boggs. “This won’t work,” I say. “I won’t be good here.”

He must see the panic in my eyes, because he stops a moment and places his hands on my shoulders. “You will. Just let them see you. That will do more for them than any doctor in the world could.”

A woman directing the incoming patients catches sight of us, does a sort of double take, and then strides over. Her dark brown eyes are puffy with fatigue and she smells of metal and sweat. A bandage around her throat needed changing about three days ago. The strap of the automatic weapon slung across her back digs into her neck and she shifts her shoulder to reposition it. With a jerk of her thumb, she orders the medics into the warehouse. They comply without question.

“This is Commander Paylor of Eight,” says Boggs. “Commander, Soldier Katniss Everdeen.”

She looks young to be a commander. Early thirties. But there’s an authoritative tone to her voice that makes you feel her appointment wasn’t arbitrary. Beside her, in my spanking-new outfit, scrubbed and shiny, I feel like a recently hatched chick, untested and only just learning how to navigate the world.

“Yeah, I know who she is,” says Paylor. “You’re alive, then. We weren’t sure.” Am I wrong or is there a note of accusation in her voice?

“I’m still not sure myself,” I answer.

“Been in recovery.” Boggs taps his head. “Bad concussion.” He lowers his voice a moment. “Miscarriage. But she insisted on coming by to see your wounded.”

“Well, we’ve got plenty of those,” says Paylor.

“You think this is a good idea?” says Gale, frowning at the hospital. “Assembling your wounded like this?”

I don’t. Any sort of contagious disease would spread through this place like wildfire.

“I think it’s slightly better than leaving them to die,” says Paylor.

“That’s not what I meant,” Gale tells her.

“Well, currently that’s my other option. But if you come up with a third and get Coin to back it, I’m all ears.” Paylor waves me toward the door. “Come on in, Mockingjay. And by all means, bring your friends.”

I glance back at the freak show that is my crew, steel myself, and follow her into the hospital. Some sort of heavy, industrial curtain hangs the length of the building, forming a sizable corridor. Corpses lie side by side, curtain brushing their heads, white cloths concealing their faces. “We’ve got a mass grave started a few blocks west of here, but I can’t spare the manpower to move them yet,” says Paylor. She finds a slit in the curtain and opens it wide.

My fingers wrap around Gale’s wrist. “Do not leave my side,” I say under my breath.

“I’m right here,” he answers quietly.

I step through the curtain and my senses are assaulted. My first impulse is to cover my nose to block out the stench of soiled linen, putrefying flesh, and vomit, all ripening in the heat of the warehouse. They’ve propped open skylights that crisscross the high metal roof, but any air that’s managing to get in can’t make a dent in the fog below. The thin shafts of sunlight provide the only illumination, and as my eyes adjust, I can make out row upon row of wounded, in cots, on pallets, on the floor because there are so many to claim the space. The drone of black flies, the moaning of people in pain, and the sobs of their attending loved ones have combined into a wrenching chorus.

We have no real hospitals in the districts. We die at home, which at the moment seems a far desirable alternative to what lies in front of me. Then I remember that many of these people probably lost their homes in the bombings.

Sweat begins to run down my back, fill my palms. I breathe through my mouth in an attempt to diminish the smell. Black spots swim across my field of vision, and I think there’s a really good chance I could faint. But then I catch sight of Paylor, who’s watching me so closely, waiting to see what I am made of, and if any of them have been right to think they can count on me. So I let go of Gale and force myself to move deeper into the warehouse, to walk into the narrow strip between two rows of beds.

“Katniss?” a voice croaks out from my left, breaking apart from the general din. “Katniss?” A hand reaches for me out of the haze. I cling to it for support. Attached to the hand is a young woman with an injured leg. Blood has seeped through the heavy bandages, which are crawling with flies. Her face reflects her pain, but something else, too, something that seems completely incongruous with her situation. “Is it really you?”

“Yeah, it’s me,” I get out.

Joy. That’s the expression on her face. At the sound of my voice, it brightens, erases the suffering momentarily.

“You’re alive! We didn’t know. People said you were, but we didn’t know!” she says excitedly.

“I got pretty banged up. But I got better,” I say. “Just like you will.”

“I’ve got to tell my brother!” The woman struggles to sit up and calls to someone a few beds down. “Eddy! Eddy! She’s here! It’s Katniss Everdeen!”

A boy, probably about twelve years old, turns to us. Bandages obscure half of his face. The side of his mouth I can see opens as if to utter an exclamation. I go to him, push his damp brown curls back from his forehead. Murmur a greeting. He can’t speak, but his one good eye fixes on me with such intensity, as if he’s trying to memorize every detail of my face.

I hear my name rippling through the hot air, spreading out into the hospital. “Katniss! Katniss Everdeen!” The sounds of pain and grief begin to recede, to be replaced by words of anticipation. From all sides, voices beckon me. I begin to move, clasping the hands extended to me, touching the sound parts of those unable to move their limbs, saying hello, how are you, good to meet you. Nothing of importance, no amazing words of inspiration. But it doesn’t matter. Boggs is right. It’s the sight of me, alive, that is the inspiration.

Hungry fingers devour me, wanting to feel my flesh. As a stricken man clutches my face between his hands, I send a silent thank-you to Dalton for suggesting I wash off the makeup. How ridiculous, how perverse I would feel presenting that painted Capitol mask to these people. The damage, the fatigue, the imperfections. That’s how they recognize me, why I belong to them.

Despite his controversial interview with Caesar, many ask about Peeta, assure me that they know he was speaking under duress. I do my best to sound positive about our future, but people are truly devastated when they learn I’ve lost the baby. I want to come clean and tell one weeping woman that it was all a hoax, a move in the game, but to present Peeta as a liar now would not help his image. Or mine. Or the cause.

I begin to fully understand the lengths to which people have gone to protect me. What I mean to the rebels. My ongoing struggle against the Capitol, which has so often felt like a solitary journey, has not been undertaken alone. I have had thousands upon thousands of people from the districts at my side. I was their Mockingjay long before I accepted the role.

A new sensation begins to germinate inside me. But it takes until I am standing on a table, waving my final goodbyes to the hoarse chanting of my name, to define it. Power. I have a kind of power I never knew I possessed. Snow knew it, as soon as I held out those berries. Plutarch knew when he rescued me from the arena. And Coin knows now. So much so that she must publicly remind her people that I am not in control.

When we’re outside again, I lean against the warehouse, catching my breath, accepting the canteen of water from Boggs. “You did great,” he says.

Well, I didn’t faint or throw up or run out screaming. Mostly, I just rode the wave of emotion rolling through the place.

“We got some nice stuff in there,” says Cressida. I look at the insect cameramen, perspiration pouring from under their equipment. Messalla scribbling notes. I had forgotten they were even filming me.

“I didn’t do much, really,” I say.

“You have to give yourself some credit for what you’ve done in the past,” says Boggs.

What I’ve done in the past? I think of the trail of destruction in my wake–my knees weaken and I slide down to a sitting position. “That’s a mixed bag.”

“Well, you’re not perfect by a long shot. But times being what they are, you’ll have to do,” says Boggs.

Gale squats down beside me, shaking his head. “I can’t believe you let all those people touch you. I kept expecting you to make a break for the door.”

“Shut up,” I say with a laugh.

“Your mother’s going to be very proud when she sees the footage,” he says.

“My mother won’t even notice me. She’ll be too appalled by the conditions in there.” I turn to Boggs and ask, “Is it like this in every district?”

“Yes. Most are under attack. We’re trying to get in aid wherever we can, but it’s not enough.” He stops a minute, distracted by something in his earpiece. I realize I haven’t heard Haymitch’s voice once, and fiddle with mine, wondering if it’s broken. “We’re to get to the airstrip. Immediately,” Boggs says, lifting me to my feet with one hand. “There’s a problem.”

“What kind of problem?” asks Gale.

“Incoming bombers,” says Boggs. He reaches behind my neck and yanks Cinna’s helmet up onto my head. “Let’s move!”

Unsure of what’s going on, I take off running along the front of the warehouse, heading for the alley that leads to the airstrip. But I don’t sense any immediate threat. The sky’s an empty, cloudless blue. The street’s clear except for the people hauling the wounded to the hospital. There’s no enemy, no alarm. Then the sirens begin to wail. Within seconds, a low-flying V-shaped formation of Capitol hoverplanes appears above us, and the bombs begin to fall. I’m blown off my feet, into the front wall of the warehouse. There’s a searing pain just above the back of my right knee. Something has struck my back as well, but doesn’t seem to have penetrated my vest. I try to get up, but Boggs pushes me back down, shielding my body with his own. The ground ripples under me as bomb after bomb drops from the planes and detonates.

It’s a horrifying sensation being pinned against the wall as the bombs rain down. What was that expression my father used for easy kills? Like shooting fish in a barrel. We are the fish, the street the barrel.

“Katniss!” I’m startled by Haymitch’s voice in my ear.

“What? Yes, what? I’m here!” I answer.

“Listen to me. We can’t land during the bombing, but it’s imperative you’re not spotted,” he says.

“So they don’t know I’m here?” I assumed, as usual, it was my presence that brought on punishment.

“Intelligence thinks no. That this raid was already scheduled,” says Haymitch.

Now Plutarch’s voice comes up, calm but forceful. The voice of a Head Gamemaker used to calling the shots under pressure. “There’s a light blue warehouse three down from you. It has a bunker in the far north corner. Can you get there?”

“We’ll do our best,” says Boggs. Plutarch must be in everyone’s ear, because my bodyguards and crew are getting up. My eye instinctively searches for Gale and sees he’s on his feet, apparently unharmed.

“You’ve got maybe forty-five seconds to the next wave,” says Plutarch.

I give a grunt of pain as my right leg takes the weight of my body, but I keep moving. No time to examine the injury. Better not to look now, anyway. Fortunately, I have on shoes that Cinna designed. They grip the asphalt on contact and spring free of it on release. I’d be hopeless in that ill-fitting pair that 13 assigned to me. Boggs has the lead, but no one else passes me. Instead they match my pace, protecting my sides, my back. I force myself into a sprint as the seconds tick away. We pass the second gray warehouse and run along a dirt brown building. Up ahead, I see a faded blue facade. Home of the bunker. We have just reached another alley, need only to cross it to arrive at the door, when the next wave of bombs begins. I instinctively dive into the alley and roll toward the blue wall. This time it’s Gale who throws himself over me to provide one more layer of protection from the bombing. It seems to go on longer this time, but we are farther away.

I shift onto my side and find myself looking directly into Gale’s eyes. For an instant the world recedes and there is just his flushed face, his pulse visible at his temple, his lips slightly parted as he tries to catch his breath.

“You all right?” he asks, his words nearly drowned out by an explosion.

“Yeah. I don’t think they’ve seen me,” I answer. “I mean, they’re not following us.”

“No, they’ve targeted something else,” says Gale.

“I know, but there’s nothing back there but–” The realization hits us at the same time.

“The hospital.” Instantly, Gale’s up and shouting to the others. “They’re targeting the hospital!”

“Not your problem,” says Plutarch firmly. “Get to the bunker.”

“But there’s nothing there but the wounded!” I say.

“Katniss.” I hear the warning note in Haymitch’s voice and know what’s coming. “Don’t you even think about–!” I yank the earpiece free and let it hang from its wire. With that distraction gone, I hear another sound. Machine gun fire coming from the roof of the dirt brown warehouse across the alley. Someone is returning fire. Before anyone can stop me, I make a dash for an access ladder and begin to scale it. Climbing. One of the things I do best.

“Don’t stop!” I hear Gale say behind me. Then there’s the sound of his boot on someone’s face. If it belongs to Boggs, Gale’s going to pay for it dearly later on. I make the roof and drag myself onto the tar. I stop long enough to pull Gale up beside me, and then we take off for the row of machine gun nests on the street side of the warehouse. Each looks to be manned by a few rebels. We skid into a nest with a pair of soldiers, hunching down behind the barrier.

“Boggs know you’re up here?” To my left I see Paylor behind one of the guns, looking at us quizzically.

I try to be evasive without flat-out lying. “He knows where we are, all right.”

Paylor laughs. “I bet he does. You been trained in these?” She slaps the stock of her gun.

“I have. In Thirteen,” says Gale. “But I’d rather use my own weapons.”

“Yes, we’ve got our bows.” I hold mine up, then realize how decorative it must seem. “It’s more deadly than it looks.”

“It would have to be,” says Paylor. “All right. We expect at least three more waves. They have to drop their sight shields before they release the bombs. That’s our chance. Stay low!” I position myself to shoot from one knee.

“Better start with fire,” says Gale.

I nod and pull an arrow from my right sheath. If we miss our targets, these arrows will land somewhere–probably the warehouses across the street. A fire can be put out, but the damage an explosive can do may be irreparable.

Suddenly, they appear in the sky, two blocks down, maybe a hundred yards above us. Seven small bombers in a V formation. “Geese!” I yell at Gale. He’ll know exactly what I mean. During migration season, when we hunt fowl, we’ve developed a system of dividing the birds so we don’t both target the same ones. I get the far side of the V, Gale takes the near, and we alternate shots at the front bird. There’s no time for further discussion. I estimate the lead time on the hoverplanes and let my arrow fly. I catch the inside wing of one, causing it to burst into flames. Gale just misses the point plane. A fire blooms on an empty warehouse roof across from us. He swears under his breath.

The hoverplane I hit swerves out of formation, but still releases its bombs. It doesn’t disappear, though. Neither does one other I assume was hit by gunfire. The damage must prevent the sight shield from reactivating.

“Good shot,” says Gale.

“I wasn’t even aiming for that one,” I mutter. I’d set my sights on the plane in front of it. “They’re faster than we think.”

“Positions!” Paylor shouts. The next wave of hoverplanes is appearing already.

“Fire’s no good,” Gale says. I nod and we both load explosive-tipped arrows. Those warehouses across the way look deserted anyway.

As the planes sweep silently in, I make another decision. “I’m standing!” I shout to Gale, and rise to my feet. This is the position I get the best accuracy from. I lead earlier and score a direct hit on the point plane, blasting a hole in its belly. Gale blows the tail off a second. It flips and crashes into the street, setting off a series of explosions as its cargo goes off.

Without warning, a third V formation unveils. This time, Gale squarely hits the point plane. I take the wing off the second bomber, causing it to spin into the one behind it. Together they collide into the roof of the warehouse across from the hospital. A fourth goes down from gunfire.

“All right, that’s it,” Paylor says.

Flames and heavy black smoke from the wreckage obscure our view. “Did they hit the hospital?”

“Must have,” she says grimly.

As I hurry toward the ladders at the far end of the warehouse, the sight of Messalla and one of the insects emerging from behind an air duct surprises me. I thought they’d still be hunkered down in the alley.

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