“They’re growing on me,” says Gale.
I scramble down a ladder. When my feet hit the ground, I find a bodyguard, Cressida, and the other insect waiting. I expect resistance, but Cressida just waves me toward the hospital. She’s yelling, “I don’t care, Plutarch! Just give me five more minutes!” Not one to question a free pass, I take off into the street.
“Oh, no,” I whisper as I catch sight of the hospital. What used to be the hospital. I move past the wounded, past the burning plane wrecks, fixated on the disaster ahead of me. People screaming, running about frantically, but unable to help. The bombs have collapsed the hospital roof and set the building on fire, effectively trapping the patients within. A group of rescuers has assembled, trying to clear a path to the inside. But I already know what they will find. If the crushing debris and the flames didn’t get them, the smoke did.
Gale’s at my shoulder. The fact that he does nothing only confirms my suspicions. Miners don’t abandon an accident until it’s hopeless.
“Come on, Katniss. Haymitch says they can get a hovercraft in for us now,” he tells me. But I can’t seem to move.
“Why would they do that? Why would they target people who were already dying?” I ask him.
“Scare others off. Prevent the wounded from seeking help,” says Gale. “Those people you met, they were expendable. To Snow, anyway. If the Capitol wins, what will it do with a bunch of damaged slaves?”
I remember all those years in the woods, listening to Gale rant against the Capitol. Me, not paying close attention. Wondering why he even bothered to dissect its motives. Why thinking like our enemy would ever matter. Clearly, it could have mattered today. When Gale questioned the existence of the hospital, he was not thinking of disease, but this. Because he never underestimates the cruelty of those we face.
I slowly turn my back to the hospital and find Cressida, flanked by the insects, standing a couple of yards in front of me. Her manner’s unrattled. Cool even. “Katniss,” she says, “President Snow just had them air the bombing live. Then he made an appearance to say that this was his way of sending a message to the rebels. What about you? Would you like to tell the rebels anything?”
“Yes,” I whisper. The red blinking light on one of the cameras catches my eye. I know I’m being recorded. “Yes,” I say more forcefully. Everyone is drawing away from me–Gale, Cressida, the insects–giving me the stage. But I stay focused on the red light. “I want to tell the rebels that I am alive. That I’m right here in District Eight, where the Capitol has just bombed a hospital full of unarmed men, women, and children. There will be no survivors.” The shock I’ve been feeling begins to give way to fury. “I want to tell people that if you think for one second the Capitol will treat us fairly if there’s a cease-fire, you’re deluding yourself. Because you know who they are and what they do.” My hands go out automatically, as if to indicate the whole horror around me. “This is what they do! And we must fight back!”
I’m moving in toward the camera now, carried forward by my rage. “President Snow says he’s sending us a message? Well, I have one for him. You can torture us and bomb us and burn our districts to the ground, but do you see that?” One of the cameras follows as I point to the planes burning on the roof of the warehouse across from us. The Capitol seal on a wing glows clearly through the flames. “Fire is catching!” I am shouting now, determined that he will not miss a word. “And if we burn, you burn with us!”
My last words hang in the air. I feel suspended in time. Held aloft in a cloud of heat that generates not from my surroundings, but from my own being.
“Cut!” Cressida’s voice snaps me back to reality, extinguishes me. She gives me a nod of approval. “That’s a wrap.”
Boggs appears and gets a firm lock on my arm, but I’m not planning on running now. I look over at the hospital–just in time to see the rest of the structure give way–and the fight goes out of me. All those people, the hundreds of wounded, the relatives, the medics from 13, are no more. I turn back to Boggs, see the swelling on his face left by Gale’s boot. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure his nose is broken. His voice is more resigned than angry, though. “Back to the landing strip.” I obediently take a step forward and wince as I become aware of the pain behind my right knee. The adrenaline rush that overrode the sensation has passed and my body parts join in a chorus of complaints. I’m banged up and bloody and someone seems to be hammering on my left temple from inside my skull. Boggs quickly examines my face, then scoops me up and jogs for the runway. Halfway there, I puke on his bulletproof vest. It’s hard to tell because he’s short of breath, but I think he sighs.
A small hovercraft, different from the one that transported us here, waits on the runway. The second my team’s on board, we take off. No comfy seats and windows this time. We seem to be in some sort of cargo craft. Boggs does emergency first aid on people to hold them until we get back to 13. I want to take off my vest, since I got a fair amount of vomit on it as well, but it’s too cold to think about it. I lie on the floor with my head in Gale’s lap. The last thing I remember is Boggs spreading a couple of burlap sacks over me.
When I wake up, I’m warm and patched up in my old bed in the hospital. My mother’s there, checking my vital signs. “How do you feel?”
“A little beat-up, but all right,” I say.
“No one even told us you were going until you were gone,” she says.
I feel a pang of guilt. When your family’s had to send you off twice to the Hunger Games, this isn’t the kind of detail you should overlook. “I’m sorry. They weren’t expecting the attack. I was just supposed to be visiting the patients,” I explain. “Next time, I’ll have them clear it with you.”
“Katniss, no one clears anything with me,” she says.
It’s true. Even I don’t. Not since my father died. Why pretend? “Well, I’ll have them…notify you anyway.”
On the bedside table is a piece of shrapnel they removed from my leg. The doctors are more concerned with the damage my brain might have suffered from the explosions, since my concussion hadn’t fully healed to begin with. But I don’t have double vision or anything and I can think clearly enough. I’ve slept right through the late afternoon and night, and I’m starving. My breakfast is disappointingly small. Just a few cubes of bread soaking in warm milk. I’ve been called down to an early morning meeting at Command. I start to get up and then realize they plan to roll my hospital bed directly there. I want to walk, but that’s out, so I negotiate my way into a wheelchair. I feel fine, really. Except for my head, and my leg, and the soreness from the bruises, and the nausea that hit a couple minutes after I ate. Maybe the wheelchair’s a good idea.
As they wheel me down, I begin to get uneasy about what I will face. Gale and I directly disobeyed orders yesterday, and Boggs has the injury to prove it. Surely, there will be repercussions, but will they go so far as Coin annulling our agreement for the victors’ immunity? Have I stripped Peeta of what little protection I could give him?
When I get to Command, the only ones who’ve arrived are Cressida, Messalla, and the insects. Messalla beams and says, “There’s our little star!” and the others are smiling so genuinely that I can’t help but smile in return. They impressed me in 8, following me onto the roof during the bombing, making Plutarch back off so they could get the footage they wanted. They more than do their work, they take pride in it. Like Cinna.
I have a strange thought that if we were in the arena together, I would pick them as allies. Cressida, Messalla, and–and–“I have to stop calling you ‘the insects,'” I blurt out to the cameramen. I explain how I didn’t know their names, but their suits suggested the shelled creatures. The comparison doesn’t seem to bother them. Even without the camera shells, they strongly resemble each other. Same sandy hair, red beards, and blue eyes. The one with close-bitten nails introduces himself as Castor and the other, who’s his brother, as Pollux. I wait for Pollux to say hello, but he just nods. At first I think he’s shy or a man of few words. But something tugs on me–the position of his lips, the extra effort he takes to swallow–and I know before Castor tells me. Pollux is an Avox. They have cut out his tongue and he will never speak again. And I no longer have to wonder what made him risk everything to help bring down the Capitol.
As the room fills, I brace myself for a less congenial reception. But the only people who register any kind of negativity are Haymitch, who’s always out of sorts, and a sour-faced Fulvia Cardew. Boggs wears a flesh-colored plastic mask from his upper lip to his brow–I was right about the broken nose–so his expression’s hard to read. Coin and Gale are in the midst of some exchange that seems positively chummy.
When Gale slides into the seat next to my wheelchair, I say, “Making new friends?”
His eyes flicker to the president and back. “Well, one of us has to be accessible.” He touches my temple gently. “How do you feel?”
They must have served stewed garlic and squash for the breakfast vegetable. The more people who gather, the stronger the fumes are. My stomach turns and the lights suddenly seem too bright. “Kind of rocky,” I say. “How are you?”
“Fine. They dug out a couple of pieces of shrapnel. No big deal,” he says.
Coin calls the meeting to order. “Our Airtime Assault has officially launched. For any of you who missed yesterday’s twenty-hundred broadcast of our first propo–or the seventeen reruns Beetee has managed to air since–we will begin by replaying it.” Replaying it? So they not only got usable footage, they’ve already slapped together a propo and aired it repeatedly. My palms grow moist in anticipation of seeing myself on television. What if I’m still awful? What if I’m as stiff and pointless as I was in the studio and they’ve just given up on getting anything better? Individual screens slide up from the table, the lights dim slightly, and a hush falls over the room.
At first, my screen is black. Then a tiny spark flickers in the center. It blossoms, spreads, silently eating up the blackness until the entire frame is ablaze with a fire so real and intense, I imagine I feel the heat emanating from it. The image of my mockingjay pin emerges, glowing red-gold. The deep, resonant voice that haunts my dreams begins to speak. Claudius Templesmith, the official announcer of the Hunger Games, says, “Katniss Everdeen, the girl who was on fire, burns on.”
Suddenly, there I am, replacing the mockingjay, standing before the real flames and smoke of District 8. “I want to tell the rebels that I am alive. That I’m right here in District Eight, where the Capitol has just bombed a hospital full of unarmed men, women, and children. There will be no survivors.” Cut to the hospital collapsing in on itself, the desperation of the onlookers as I continue in voice-over. “I want to tell people that if you think for one second the Capitol will treat us fairly if there’s a cease-fire, you’re deluding yourself. Because you know who they are and what they do.” Back to me now, my hands lifting up to indicate the outrage around me. “This is what they do! And we must fight back!” Now comes a truly fantastic montage of the battle. The initial bombs falling, us running, being blown to the ground–a close-up of my wound, which looks good and bloody–scaling the roof, diving into the nests, and then some amazing shots of the rebels, Gale, and mostly me, me, me knocking those planes out of the sky. Smash-cut back to me moving in on the camera. “President Snow says he’s sending us a message? Well, I have one for him. You can torture us and bomb us and burn our districts to the ground, but do you see that?” We’re with the camera, tracking to the planes burning on the roof of the warehouse. Tight on the Capitol seal on a wing, which melts back into the image of my face, shouting at the president. “Fire is catching! And if we burn, you burn with us!” Flames engulf the screen again. Superimposed on them in black, solid letters are the words:
IF WE BURN YOU
BURN WITH US
The words catch fire and the whole screen burns to blackness.
There’s a moment of silent relish, then applause followed by demands to see it again. Coin indulgently hits the replay button, and this time, since I know what will happen, I try to pretend that I’m watching this on my television at home in the Seam. An anti-Capitol statement. There’s never been anything like it on television. Not in my lifetime, anyway.
By the time the screen burns to black a second time, I need to know more. “Did it play all over Panem? Did they see it in the Capitol?”
“Not in the Capitol,” says Plutarch. “We couldn’t override their system, although Beetee’s working on it. But in all the districts. We even got it on in Two, which may be more valuable than the Capitol at this point in the game.”
“Is Claudius Templesmith with us?” I ask.
This gives Plutarch a good laugh. “Only his voice. But that’s ours for the taking. We didn’t even have to do any special editing. He said that actual line in your first Games.” He slaps his hand on the table. “What say we give another round of applause to Cressida, her amazing team, and, of course, our on-camera talent!”
I clap, too, until I realize I’m the on-camera talent and maybe it’s obnoxious that I’m applauding for myself, but no one’s paying attention. I can’t help noticing the strain on Fulvia’s face, though. I think how hard this must be for her, watching Haymitch’s idea succeed under Cressida’s direction, when Fulvia’s studio approach was such a flop.
Coin seems to have reached the end of her tolerance for self-congratulation. “Yes, well deserved. The result is more than we had hoped for. But I do have to question the wide margin of risk that you were willing to operate within. I know the raid was unforeseen. However, given the circumstances, I think we should discuss the decision to send Katniss into actual combat.”
The decision? To send me into combat? Then she doesn’t know that I flagrantly disregarded orders, ripped out my earpiece, and gave my bodyguards the slip? What else have they kept from her?
“It was a tough call,” says Plutarch, furrowing his brow. “But the general consensus was that we weren’t going to get anything worth using if we locked her in a bunker somewhere every time a gun went off.”
“And you’re all right with that?” asks the president.
Gale has to kick me under the table before I realize that she’s talking to me. “Oh! Yeah, I’m completely all right with that. It felt good. Doing something for a change.”
“Well, let’s be just a little more judicious with her exposure. Especially now that the Capitol knows what she can do,” says Coin. There’s a rumble of assent from around the table.
No one has ratted out Gale and me. Not Plutarch, whose authority we ignored. Not Boggs with his broken nose. Not the insects we led into fire. Not Haymitch–no, wait a minute. Haymitch is giving me a deadly smile and saying sweetly, “Yeah, we wouldn’t want to lose our little Mockingjay when she’s finally begun to sing.” I make a note to myself not to end up alone in a room with him, because he’s clearly having vengeful thoughts over that stupid earpiece.
“So, what else do you have planned?” asks the president.
Plutarch nods to Cressida, who consults a clipboard. “We have some terrific footage of Katniss at the hospital in Eight. There should be another propo in that with the theme ‘Because you know who they are and what they do.’ We’ll focus on Katniss interacting with the patients, particularly the children, the bombing of the hospital, and the wreckage. Messalla’s cutting that together. We’re also thinking about a Mockingjay piece. Highlight some of Katniss’s best moments intercut with scenes of rebel uprisings and war footage. We call that one ‘Fire is catching.’ And then Fulvia came up with a really brilliant idea.”
Fulvia’s mouthful-of-sour-grapes expression is startled right off her face, but she recovers. “Well, I don’t know how brilliant it is, but I was thinking we could do a series of propos called We Remember. In each one, we would feature one of the dead tributes. Little Rue from Eleven or old Mags from Four. The idea being that we could target each district with a very personal piece.”
“A tribute to your tributes, as it were,” says Plutarch.
“That is brilliant, Fulvia,” I say sincerely. “It’s the perfect way to remind people why they’re fighting.”
“I think it could work,” she says. “I thought we might use Finnick to intro and narrate the spots. If there was interest in them.”
“Frankly, I don’t see how we could have too many We Remember propos,” says Coin. “Can you start producing them today?”
“Of course,” says Fulvia, obviously mollified by the response to her idea.
Cressida has smoothed everything over in the creative department with her gesture. Praised Fulvia for what is, in fact, a really good idea, and cleared the way to continue her own on-air depiction of the Mockingjay. What’s interesting is that Plutarch seems to have no need to share in the credit. All he wants is for the Airtime Assault to work. I remember that Plutarch is a Head Gamemaker, not a member of the crew. Not a piece in the Games. Therefore, his worth is not defined by a single element, but by the overall success of the production. If we win the war, that’s when Plutarch will take his bow. And expect his reward.
The president sends everyone off to get to work, so Gale wheels me back to the hospital. We laugh a little about the cover-up. Gale says no one wanted to look bad by admitting they couldn’t control us. I’m kinder, saying they probably didn’t want to jeopardize the chance of taking us out again now that they’ve gotten some decent footage. Both things are probably true. Gale has to go meet Beetee down in Special Weaponry, so I doze off.
It seems like I’ve only shut my eyes for a few minutes, but when I open them, I flinch at the sight of Haymitch sitting a couple of feet from my bed. Waiting. Possibly for several hours if the clock is right. I think about hollering for a witness, but I’m going to have to face him sooner or later.
Haymitch leans forward and dangles something on a thin white wire in front of my nose. It’s hard to focus on, but I’m pretty sure what it is. He drops it to the sheets. “That is your earpiece. I will give you exactly one more chance to wear it. If you remove it from your ear again, I’ll have you fitted with this.” He holds up some sort of metal headgear that I instantly name the head shackle. “It’s an alternative audio unit that locks around your skull and under your chin until it’s opened with a key. And I’ll have the only key. If for some reason you’re clever enough to disable it”–Haymitch dumps the head shackle on the bed and whips out a tiny silver chip–“I’ll authorize them to surgically implant this transmitter into your ear so that I may speak to you twenty-four hours a day.”
Haymitch in my head full-time. Horrifying. “I’ll keep the earpiece in,” I mutter.
“Excuse me?” he says.
“I’ll keep the earpiece in!” I say, loud enough to wake up half the hospital.
“You sure? Because I’m equally happy with any of the three options,” he tells me.
“I’m sure,” I say. I scrunch up the earpiece wire protectively in my fist and fling the head shackle back in his face with my free hand, but he catches it easily. Probably was expecting me to throw it. “Anything else?”
Haymitch rises to go. “While I was waiting…I ate your lunch.”
My eyes take in the empty stew bowl and tray on my bed table. “I’m going to report you,” I mumble into my pillow.
“You do that, sweetheart.” He goes out, safe in the knowledge that I’m not the reporting kind.
I want to go back to sleep, but I’m restless. Images from yesterday begin to flood into the present. The bombing, the fiery plane crashes, the faces of the wounded who no longer exist. I imagine death from all sides. The last moment before seeing a shell hit the ground, feeling the wing blown from my plane and the dizzying nosedive into oblivion, the warehouse roof falling down at me while I’m pinned helplessly to my cot. Things I saw, in person or on the tape. Things I caused with a pull of my bowstring. Things I will never be able to erase from my memory.
At dinner, Finnick brings his tray to my bed so we can watch the newest propo together on television. He was assigned quarters on my old floor, but he has so many mental relapses, he still basically lives in the hospital. The rebels air the “Because you know who they are and what they do” propo that Messalla edited. The footage is intercut with short studio clips of Gale, Boggs, and Cressida describing the incident. It’s hard to watch my reception in the hospital in 8 since I know what’s coming. When the bombs rain down on the roof, I bury my face in my pillow, looking up again at a brief clip of me at the end, after all the victims are dead.
At least Finnick doesn’t applaud or act all happy when it’s done. He just says, “People should know that happened. And now they do.”
“Let’s turn it off, Finnick, before they run it again,” I urge him. But as Finnick’s hand moves toward the remote control, I cry, “Wait!” The Capitol is introducing a special segment and something about it looks familiar. Yes, it’s Caesar Flickerman. And I can guess who his guest will be.
Peeta’s physical transformation shocks me. The healthy, clear-eyed boy I saw a few days ago has lost at least fifteen pounds and developed a nervous tremor in his hands. They’ve still got him groomed. But underneath the paint that cannot cover the bags under his eyes, and the fine clothes that cannot conceal the pain he feels when he moves, is a person badly damaged.
My mind reels, trying to make sense of it. I just saw him! Four–no, five–I think it was five days ago. How has he deteriorated so rapidly? What could they possibly have done to him in such a short time? Then it hits me. I replay in my mind as much as I can of his first interview with Caesar, searching for anything that would place it in time. There is nothing. They could have taped that interview a day or two after I blew up the arena, then done whatever they wanted to do to him ever since. “Oh, Peeta…” I whisper.
Caesar and Peeta have a few empty exchanges before Caesar asks him about rumors that I’m taping propos for the districts. “They’re using her, obviously,” says Peeta. “To whip up the rebels. I doubt she even really knows what’s going on in the war. What’s at stake.”
“Is there anything you’d like to tell her?” asks Caesar.
“There is,” says Peeta. He looks directly into the camera, right into my eyes. “Don’t be a fool, Katniss. Think for yourself. They’ve turned you into a weapon that could be instrumental in the destruction of humanity. If you’ve got any real influence, use it to put the brakes on this thing. Use it to stop the war before it’s too late. Ask yourself, do you really trust the people you’re working with? Do you really know what’s going on? And if you don’t…find out.”
Black screen. Seal of Panem. Show over.
Finnick presses the button on the remote that kills the power. In a minute, people will be here to do damage control on Peeta’s condition and the words that came out of his mouth. I will need to repudiate them. But the truth is, I don’t trust the rebels or Plutarch or Coin. I’m not confident that they tell me the truth. I won’t be able to conceal this. Footsteps are approaching.
Finnick grips me hard by the arms. “We didn’t see it.”
“What?” I ask.
“We didn’t see Peeta. Only the propo on Eight. Then we turned the set off because the images upset you. Got it?” he asks. I nod. “Finish your dinner.” I pull myself together enough so that when Plutarch and Fulvia enter, I have a mouthful of bread and cabbage. Finnick is talking about how well Gale came across on camera. We congratulate them on the propo. Make it clear it was so powerful, we tuned out right afterward. They look relieved. They believe us.
No one mentions Peeta.