Chapter no 20

Mockingjay (The Hunger Games, #3)

It’s as if in an instant, a painted window shatters, revealing the ugly world behind it. Laughter changes to screams, blood stains pastel stones, real smoke darkens the special effect stuff made for television.

A second explosion seems to split the air and leaves my ears ringing.

But I can’t make out where it came from.

I reach Boggs first, try to make sense of the torn flesh, missing limbs, to find something to stem the red flow from his body. Homes pushes me aside, wrenching open a first-aid kit. Boggs clutches my wrist. His face, gray with dying and ash, seems to be receding. But his next words are an order. “The Holo.”

The Holo. I scramble around, digging through chunks of tile slick with blood, shuddering when I encounter bits of warm flesh. Find it rammed into a stairwell with one of Boggs’s boots. Retrieve it, wiping it clean with bare hands as I return it to my commander.

Homes has the stump of Boggs’s left thigh cupped by some sort of compression bandage, but it’s already soaked through. He’s trying to tourniquet the other above the existing knee. The rest of the squad has gathered in a protective formation around the crew and us. Finnick’s attempting to revive Messalla, who was thrown into a wall by the explosion. Jackson’s barking into a field communicator, trying unsuccessfully to alert the camp to send medics, but I know it’s too late. As a child, watching my mother work, I learned that once a pool of blood has reached a certain size, there’s no going back.

I kneel beside Boggs, prepared to repeat the role I played with Rue, with the morphling from 6, giving him someone to hold on to as he’s released from life. But Boggs has both hands working the Holo. He’s typing in a command, pressing his thumb to the screen for print recognition, speaking a string of letters and numbers in response to a prompt. A green shaft of light bursts out of the Holo and illuminates his face. He says, “Unfit for command. Transfer of prime security clearance to Squad Four-Five-One Soldier Katniss Everdeen.” It’s all he can do to turn the Holo toward my face. “Say your name.”

“Katniss Everdeen,” I say into the green shaft. Suddenly, it has me trapped in its light. I can’t move or even blink as images flicker rapidly

before me. Scanning me? Recording me? Blinding me? It vanishes, and I shake my head to clear it. “What did you do?”

“Prepare to retreat!” Jackson hollers.

Finnick’s yelling something back, gesturing to the end of the block where we entered. Black, oily matter spouts like a geyser from the street, billowing between the buildings, creating an impenetrable wall of darkness. It seems to be neither liquid nor gas, mechanical nor natural.

Surely it’s lethal. There’s no heading back the way we came.

Deafening gunfire as Gale and Leeg 1 begin to blast a path across the stones toward the far end of the block. I don’t know what they’re doing until another bomb, ten yards away, detonates, opening a hole in the street. Then I realize this is a rudimentary attempt at minesweeping.

Homes and I latch on to Boggs and begin to drag him after Gale. Agony takes over and he’s crying out in pain and I want to stop, to find a better way, but the blackness is rising above the buildings, swelling, rolling at us like a wave.

I’m yanked backward, lose my grip on Boggs, slam into the stones. Peeta looks down at me, gone, mad, flashing back into the land of the hijacked, his gun raised over me, descending to crush my skull. I roll, hear the butt slam into the street, catch the tumble of bodies out of the corner of my eye as Mitchell tackles Peeta and pins him to the ground. But Peeta, always so powerful and now fueled by tracker jacker insanity, gets his feet under Mitchell’s belly and launches him farther down the block.

There’s a loud snap of a trap as the pod triggers. Four cables, attached to tracks on the buildings, break through the stones, dragging up the net that encases Mitchell. It makes no sense—how instantly bloodied he is—until we see the barbs sticking from the wire that encases him. I know it immediately. It decorated the top of the fence around 12. As I call to him not to move, I gag on the smell of the blackness, thick, tarlike. The wave has crested and begun to fall.

Gale and Leeg 1 shoot through the front door lock of the corner building, then begin to fire at the cables holding Mitchell’s net. Others are restraining Peeta now. I lunge back to Boggs, and Homes and I drag him inside the apartment, through someone’s pink and white velvet living room, down a hallway hung with family photos, onto the marble floor of a kitchen, where we collapse. Castor and Pollux carry in a writhing Peeta between them. Somehow Jackson gets cuffs on him, but it only makes him wilder and they’re forced to lock him in a closet.

In the living room, the front door slams, people shout. Then footsteps pound down the hall as the black wave roars past the building. From the kitchen, we can hear the windows groan, shatter. The noxious tar smell permeates the air. Finnick carries in Messalla. Leeg 1 and Cressida stumble into the room after them, coughing.

“Gale!” I shriek.

He’s there, slamming the kitchen door shut behind him, choking out one word. “Fumes!” Castor and Pollux grab towels, aprons to stuff in the cracks as Gale retches into a bright yellow sink.

“Mitchell?” asks Homes. Leeg 1 just shakes her head.

Boggs forces the Holo into my hand. His lips are moving, but I can’t make out what he’s saying. I lean my ear down to his mouth to catch his harsh whisper. “Don’t trust them. Don’t go back. Kill Peeta. Do what you came to do.”

I draw back so I can see his face. “What? Boggs? Boggs?” His eyes are still open, but dead. Pressed in my hand, glued to it by his blood, is the Holo.

Peeta’s feet slamming into the closet door break up the ragged breathing of the others. But even as we listen, his energy seems to ebb. The kicks diminish to an irregular drumming. Then nothing. I wonder if he, too, is dead.

“He’s gone?” Finnick asks, looking down at Boggs. I nod. “We need to get out of here. Now. We just set off a streetful of pods. You can bet they’ve got us on surveillance tapes.”

“Count on it,” says Castor. “All the streets are covered by surveillance cameras. I bet they set off the black wave manually when they saw us taping the propo.”

“Our radio communicators went dead almost immediately. Probably an electromagnetic pulse device. But I’ll get us back to camp. Give me the Holo.” Jackson reaches for the unit, but I clutch it to my chest.

“No. Boggs gave it to me,” I say.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she snaps. Of course, she thinks it’s hers.

She’s second in command.

“It’s true,” says Homes. “He transferred the prime security clearance to her while he was dying. I saw it.”

“Why would he do that?” demands Jackson.

Why indeed? My head’s reeling from the ghastly events of the last five minutes—Boggs mutilated, dying, dead, Peeta’s homicidal rage, Mitchell bloody and netted and swallowed by that foul black wave. I turn

to Boggs, very badly needing him alive. Suddenly sure that he, and maybe he alone, is completely on my side. I think of his last orders….

“Don’t trust them. Don’t go back. Kill Peeta. Do what you came to do.”

What did he mean? Don’t trust who? The rebels? Coin? The people looking at me right now? I won’t go back, but he must know I can’t just fire a bullet through Peeta’s head. Can I? Should I? Did Boggs guess that what I really came to do is desert and kill Snow on my own?

I can’t work all of this out now, so I just decide to carry out the first two orders: to not trust anyone and to move deeper into the Capitol. But how can I justify this? Make them let me keep the Holo?

“Because I’m on a special mission for President Coin. I think Boggs was the only one who knew about it.”

This in no way convinces Jackson. “To do what?”

Why not tell them the truth? It’s as plausible as anything I’ll come up with. But it must seem like a real mission, not revenge. “To assassinate President Snow before the loss of life from this war makes our population unsustainable.”

“I don’t believe you,” says Jackson. “As your current commander, I order you to transfer the prime security clearance over to me.”

“No,” I say. “That would be in direct violation of President Coin’s orders.”

Guns are pointed. Half the squad at Jackson, half at me. Someone’s about to die, when Cressida speaks up. “It’s true. That’s why we’re here. Plutarch wants it televised. He thinks if we can film the Mockingjay assassinating Snow, it will end the war.”

This gives even Jackson pause. Then she gestures with her gun toward the closet. “And why is he here?”

There she has me. I can think of no sane reason that Coin would send an unstable boy, programmed to kill me, along on such a key assignment. It really weakens my story. Cressida comes to my aid again. “Because the two post-Games interviews with Caesar Flickerman were shot in President Snow’s personal quarters. Plutarch thinks Peeta may be of some use as a guide in a location we have little knowledge of.”

I want to ask Cressida why she’s lying for me, why she’s fighting for us to go on with my self-appointed mission. Now’s not the time.

“We have to go!” says Gale. “I’m following Katniss. If you don’t want to, head back to camp. But let’s move!”

Homes unlocks the closet and heaves an unconscious Peeta over his shoulder. “Ready.”

“Boggs?” says Leeg 1.

“We can’t take him. He’d understand,” says Finnick. He frees Boggs’s gun from his shoulder and slings the strap over his own. “Lead on, Soldier Everdeen.”

I don’t know how to lead on. I look at the Holo for direction. It’s still activated, but it might as well be dead for all the good that does me.

There’s no time for fiddling around with the buttons, trying to figure out how to work it. “I don’t know how to use this. Boggs said you would help me,” I tell Jackson. “He said I could count on you.”

Jackson scowls, snatches the Holo from me, and taps in a command. An intersection comes up. “If we go out the kitchen door, there’s a small courtyard, then the back side of another corner apartment unit. We’re looking at an overview of the four streets that meet at the intersection.”

I try to get my bearings as I stare at the cross section of the map blinking with pods in every direction. And those are only the pods Plutarch knows about. The Holo didn’t indicate that the block we just left was mined, had the black geyser, or that the net was made from barbed wire. Besides that, there may be Peacekeepers to deal with, now that they know our position. I bite the inside of my lip, feeling everyone’s eyes on me. “Put on your masks. We’re going out the way we came in.”

Instant objections. I raise my voice over them. “If the wave was that powerful, then it may have triggered and absorbed other pods in our path.”

People stop to consider this. Pollux makes a few quick signs to his brother. “It may have disabled the cameras as well,” Castor translates. “Coated the lenses.”

Gale props one of his boots on the counter and examines the splatter of black on the toe. Scrapes it with a kitchen knife from a block on the counter. “It’s not corrosive. I think it was meant to either suffocate or poison us.”

“Probably our best shot,” says Leeg 1.

Masks go on. Finnick adjusts Peeta’s mask over his lifeless face.

Cressida and Leeg 1 prop up a woozy Messalla between them.

I’m waiting for someone to take the point position when I remember that’s my job now. I push on the kitchen door and meet with no resistance. A half-inch layer of the black goo has spread from the living room about three-quarters of the way down the hall. When I gingerly test it with the toe of my boot, I find it has the consistency of a gel. I lift my foot and after stretching slightly, it springs back into place. I take three

steps into the gel and look back. No footprints. It’s the first good thing that’s happened today. The gel becomes slightly thicker as I cross the living room. I ease open the front door, expecting gallons of the stuff to pour in, but it holds its form.

The pink and orange block seems to have been dipped in glossy black paint and set out to dry. Paving stones, buildings, even the rooftops are coated in the gel. A large teardrop hangs above the street. Two shapes project from it. A gun barrel and a human hand. Mitchell. I wait on the sidewalk, staring up at him until the entire group has joined me.

“If anyone needs to go back, for whatever reason, now is the time,” I say. “No questions asked, no hard feelings.” No one seems inclined to retreat. So I start moving into the Capitol, knowing we don’t have much time. The gel’s deeper here, four to six inches, and makes a sucking sound each time you pick up your foot, but it still covers our tracks.

The wave must have been enormous, with tremendous power behind it, as it’s affected several blocks that lie ahead. And though I tread with care, I think my instinct was right about its triggering other pods. One block is sprinkled with the golden bodies of tracker jackers. They must have been set free only to succumb to the fumes. A little farther along, an entire apartment building has collapsed and lies in a mound under the gel. I sprint across the intersections, holding up a hand for the others to wait while I look for trouble, but the wave seems to have dismantled the pods far better than any squad of rebels could.

On the fifth block, I can tell that we’ve reached the point where the wave began to peter out. The gel’s only an inch deep, and I can see baby blue rooftops peeking out across the next intersection. The afternoon light has faded, and we badly need to get under cover and form a plan. I choose an apartment two-thirds of the way down the block. Homes jimmies the lock, and I order the others inside. I stay on the street for just a minute, watching the last of our footprints fade away, then close the door behind me.

Flashlights built into our guns illuminate a large living room with mirrored walls that throw our faces back at us at every turn. Gale checks the windows, which show no damage, and removes his mask. “It’s all right. You can smell it, but it’s not too strong.”

The apartment seems to be laid out exactly like the first one we took refuge in. The gel blacks out any natural daylight in the front, but some light still slips through the shutters in the kitchen. Along the hallway are two bedrooms with baths. A spiral staircase in the living room leads up to an open space that composes much of the second floor. There are no

windows upstairs, but the lights have been left on, probably by someone hastily evacuating. A huge television screen, blank but glowing softly, occupies one wall. Plush chairs and sofas are strewn around the room.

This is where we congregate, slump into upholstery, try to catch our breath.

Jackson has her gun trained on Peeta even though he’s still cuffed and unconscious, draped across a deep-blue sofa where Homes deposited him. What on earth am I going to do with him? With the crew? With everybody, frankly, besides Gale and Finnick? Because I’d rather track down Snow with those two than without them. But I can’t lead ten people through the Capitol on a pretend mission, even if I could read the Holo. Should I, could I have sent them back when I had a chance? Or was it too dangerous? Both to them personally and to my mission?

Maybe I shouldn’t have listened to Boggs, because he might have been in some delusional death state. Maybe I should just come clean, but then Jackson would take over and we’d end up back at camp. Where I’d have Coin to answer to.

Just as the complexity of the mess I’ve dragged everybody into begins to overload my brain, a distant chain of explosions sends a tremor through the room.

“It wasn’t close,” Jackson assures us. “A good four or five blocks away.”

“Where we left Boggs,” says Leeg 1.

Although no one has made a move toward it, the television flares to life, emitting a high-pitched beeping sound, bringing half our party to its feet.

“It’s all right!” calls Cressida. “It’s just an emergency broadcast.

Every Capitol television is automatically activated for it.”

There we are on-screen, just after the bomb took out Boggs. A voice- over tells the audience what they are viewing as we try to regroup, react to the black gel shooting from the street, lose control of the situation. We watch the chaos that follows until the wave blots out the cameras. The last thing we see is Gale, alone on the street, trying to shoot through the cables that hold Mitchell aloft.

The reporter identifies Gale, Finnick, Boggs, Peeta, Cressida, and me by name.

“There’s no aerial footage. Boggs must have been right about their hovercraft capacity,” says Castor. I didn’t notice this, but I guess it’s the kind of thing a cameraman picks up on.

Coverage continues from the courtyard behind the apartment where we took shelter. Peacekeepers line the roof across from our former hideout. Shells are launched into the row of apartments, setting off the chain of explosions we heard, and the building collapses into rubble and dust.

Now we cut to a live feed. A reporter stands on the roof with the Peacekeepers. Behind her, the apartment block burns. Firefighters try to control the blaze with water hoses. We are pronounced dead.

“Finally, a bit of luck,” says Homes.

I guess he’s right. Certainly it’s better than having the Capitol in pursuit of us. But I just keep imagining how this will be playing back in

13. Where my mother and Prim, Hazelle and the kids, Annie, Haymitch, and a whole lot of people from 13 think that they have just seen us die.

“My father. He just lost my sister and now…” says Leeg 1.

We watch as they play the footage over and over. Revel in their victory, especially over me. Break away to do a montage of the Mockingjay’s rise to rebel power—I think they’ve had this part prepared for a while, because it seems pretty polished—and then go live so a couple of reporters can discuss my well-deserved violent end. Later, they promise, Snow will make an official statement. The screen fades back to a glow.

The rebels made no attempt to break in during the broadcast, which leads me to believe they think it’s true. If that’s so, we really are on our own.

“So, now that we’re dead, what’s our next move?” asks Gale. “Isn’t it obvious?” No one even knew Peeta had regained

consciousness. I don’t know how long he’s been watching, but by the look of misery on his face, long enough to see what happened on the street. How he went mad, tried to bash my head in, and hurled Mitchell into the pod. He painfully pushes himself up to a sitting position and directs his words to Gale.

“Our next move…is to kill me.”

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