18.

I throw myself into training with a vengeance. Eat, live, and breathe the workouts, drills, weapons practice, lectures on tactics. A handful of us are moved into an additional class that gives me hope I may be a contender for the actual war. The soldiers simply call it the Block, but the tattoo on my arm lists it as S.S.C., short for Simulated Street Combat. Deep in 13, they’ve built an artificial Capitol city block. The instructor breaks us into squads of eight and we attempt to carry out missions—gaining a position, destroying a target, searching a home—as if we were really fighting our way through the Capitol. The thing’s rigged so that everything that can go wrong for you does. A false step triggers a land mine, a sniper appears on a rooftop, your gun jams, a crying child leads you into an ambush, your squadron leader—who’s just a voice on the program—gets hit by a mortar and you have to figure out what to do without orders. Part of you knows it’s fake and that they’re not going to kill you. If you set off a land mine, you hear the explosion and have to pretend to fall over dead. But in other ways, it feels pretty real in there—the enemy soldiers dressed in Peacekeepers’ uniforms, the confusion of a smoke bomb. They even gas us. Johanna and I are the only ones who get our masks on in time. The rest of our squad gets knocked out for ten minutes. And the supposedly harmless gas I took a few lungfuls of gives me a wicked headache for the rest of the day.

Cressida and her crew tape Johanna and me on the firing range. I know Gale and Finnick are being filmed as well. It’s part of a new propos series to show the rebels preparing for the Capitol invasion. On the whole, things are going pretty well.

Then Peeta starts showing up for our morning workouts. The manacles are off, but he’s still constantly accompanied by a pair of guards. After lunch, I see him across the field, drilling with a group of beginners. I don’t know what they’re thinking. If a spat with Delly can reduce him to arguing with himself, he’s got no business learning how to assemble a gun.

When I confront Plutarch, he assures me that it’s all for the camera. They’ve got footage of Annie getting married and Johanna hitting targets, but all of Panem is wondering about Peeta. They need to see he’s fighting for the rebels, not for Snow. And maybe if they could just get a couple of shots of the two of us, not kissing necessarily, just looking happy to be back together—

I walk away from the conversation right then. That is not going to happen.

In my rare moments of downtime, I anxiously watch the preparations for the invasions. See equipment and provisions readied, divisions assembled. You can tell when someone’s received orders because they’re given a very short haircut, the mark of a person going into battle. There is much talk of the opening offensive, which will be to secure the train tunnels that feed up into the Capitol.

Just a few days before the first troops are to move out, York unexpectedly tells Johanna and me she’s recommended us for the exam, and we’re to report immediately. There are four parts: an obstacle course that assesses your physical condition, a written tactics exam, a test of weapons proficiency, and a simulated combat situation in the Block. I don’t even have time to get nervous for the first three and do well, but there’s a backlog at the Block. Some kind of technical bug they’re working out. A group of us exchanges information. This much seems true. You go through alone. There’s no predicting what situation you’ll be thrown into. One boy says, under his breath, that he’s heard it’s designed to target each individual’s weaknesses.

My weaknesses? That’s a door I don’t even want to open. But I find a quiet spot and try to assess what they might be. The length of the list depresses me. Lack of physical brute force. A bare minimum of training. And somehow my stand-out status as the Mockingjay doesn’t seem to be an advantage in a situation where they’re trying to get us to blend into a pack. They could nail me to the wall on any number of things.

Johanna’s called three ahead of me, and I give her a nod of encouragement. I wish I had been at the top of the list because now I’m really overthinking the whole thing. By the time my name’s called, I don’t know what my strategy should be. Fortunately, once I’m in the Block, a certain amount of training does kick in. It’s an ambush situation. Peacekeepers appear almost instantly and I have to make my way to a rendezvous point to meet up with my scattered squad. I slowly navigate the street, taking out Peacekeepers as I go. Two on the rooftop to my left, another in the doorway up ahead. It’s challenging, but not as hard as I was expecting. There’s a nagging feeling that if it’s too simple, I must be missing the point. I’m within a couple of buildings from my goal when things begin to heat up. A half dozen Peacekeepers come charging around the corner. They will outgun me, but I notice something. A drum of gasoline lying carelessly in the gutter. This is it. My test. To perceive that blowing up the drum will be the only way to achieve my mission. Just as I step out to do it, my squadron leader, who’s been fairly useless up to this point, quietly orders me to hit the ground. Every instinct I have screams for me to ignore the voice, to pull the trigger, to blow the Peacekeepers sky-high. And suddenly, I realize what the military will think my biggest weakness is. From my first moment in the Games, when I ran for that orange backpack, to the firefight in 8, to my impulsive race across the square in 2. I cannot take orders.

I smack into the ground so hard and fast, I’ll be picking gravel out of my chin for a week. Someone else blows the gas tank. The Peacekeepers die. I make my rendezvous point. When I exit the Block on the far side, a soldier congratulates me, stamps my hand with squad number 451, and tells me to report to Command. Almost giddy with success, I run through the halls, skidding around corners, bounding down the steps because the elevator’s too slow. I bang into the room before the oddity of the situation dawns on me. I shouldn’t be in Command; I should be getting my hair buzzed. The people around the table aren’t freshly minted soldiers but the ones calling the shots.

Boggs smiles and shakes his head when he sees me. «Let’s see it.» Unsure now, I hold out my stamped hand. «You’re with me. It’s a special unit of sharpshooters. Join your squad.» He nods over at a group lining the wall. Gale. Finnick. Five others I don’t know. My squad. I’m not only in, I get to work under Boggs. With my friends. I force myself to take calm, soldierly steps to join them, instead of jumping up and down.

We must be important, too, because we’re in Command, and it has nothing to do with a certain Mockingjay. Plutarch stands over a wide, flat panel in the center of the table. He’s explaining something about the nature of what we will encounter in the Capitol. I’m thinking this is a terrible presentation—because even on tiptoe I can’t see what’s on the panel—until he hits a button. A holographic image of a block of the Capitol projects into the air.

«This, for example, is the area surrounding one of the Peacekeepers’ barracks. Not unimportant, but not the most crucial of targets, and yet look.» Plutarch enters some sort of code on a keyboard, and lights begin to flash. They’re in an assortment of colors and blink at different speeds. «Each light is called a pod. It represents a different obstacle, the nature of which could be anything from a bomb to a band of mutts. Make no mistake, whatever it contains is designed to either trap or kill you. Some have been in place since the Dark Days, others developed over the years. To be honest, I created a fair number myself. This program, which one of our people absconded with when we left the Capitol, is our most recent information. They don’t know we have it. But even so, it’s likely that new pods have been activated in the last few months. This is what you will face.»

I’m unaware that my feet are moving to the table until I’m inches from the holograph. My hand reaches in and cups a rapidly blinking green light.

Someone joins me, his body tense. Finnick, of course. Because only a victor would see what I see so immediately. The arena. Laced with pods controlled by Gamemakers. Finnick’s fingers caress a steady red glow over a doorway. «Ladies and gentlemen…»

His voice is quiet, but mine rings through the room. «Let the Seventy-sixth Hunger Games begin!»

I laugh. Quickly. Before anyone has time to register what lies beneath the words I have just uttered. Before eyebrows are raised, objections are uttered, two and two are put together, and the solution is that I should be kept as far away from the Capitol as possible. Because an angry, independently thinking victor with a layer of psychological scar tissue too thick to penetrate is maybe the last person you want on your squad.

«I don’t even know why you bothered to put Finnick and me through training, Plutarch,» I say.

«Yeah, we’re already the two best-equipped soldiers you have,» Finnick adds cockily.

«Do not think that fact escapes me,» he says with an impatient wave. «Now back in line, Soldiers Odair and Everdeen. I have a presentation to finish.»

We retreat to our places, ignoring the questioning looks thrown our way. I adopt an attitude of extreme concentration as Plutarch continues, nodding my head here and there, shifting my position to get a better view, all the while telling myself to hang on until I can get to the woods and scream. Or curse. Or cry. Or maybe all three at once.

If this was a test, Finnick and I both pass it. When Plutarch finishes and the meeting’s adjourned, I have a bad moment when I learn there’s a special order for me. But it’s merely that I skip the military haircut because they would like the Mockingjay to look as much like the girl in the arena as possible at the anticipated surrender. For the cameras, you know. I shrug to communicate that my hair length’s a matter of complete indifference to me. They dismiss me without further comment.

Finnick and I gravitate toward each other in the hallway. «What will I tell Annie?» he says under his breath.

«Nothing,» I answer. «That’s what my mother and sister will be hearing from me.» Bad enough that we know we’re heading back into a fully equipped arena. No use dropping it on our loved ones.

«If she sees that holograph—» he begins.

«She won’t. It’s classified information. It must be,» I say. «Anyway, it’s not like an actual Games. Any number of people will survive. We’re just overreacting because—well, you know why. You still want to go, don’t you?»

«Of course. I want to destroy Snow as much as you do,» he says.

«It won’t be like the others,» I say firmly, trying to convince myself as well. Then the real beauty of the situation dawns on me. «This time Snow will be a player, too.»

Before we can continue, Haymitch appears. He wasn’t at the meeting, isn’t thinking of arenas but something else. «Johanna’s back in the hospital.»

I assumed Johanna was fine, had passed her exam, but simply wasn’t assigned to a sharpshooters’ unit. She’s wicked throwing an ax but about average with a gun. «Is she hurt? What happened?»

«It was while she was on the Block. They try to ferret out a soldier’s potential weaknesses. So they flooded the street,» says Haymitch.

This doesn’t help. Johanna can swim. At least, I seem to remember her swimming around some in the Quarter Quell. Not like Finnick, of course, but none of us are like Finnick. «So?»

«That’s how they tortured her in the Capitol. Soaked her and then used electric shocks,» says Haymitch. «In the Block she had some kind of flashback. Panicked, didn’t know where she was. She’s back under sedation.» Finnick and I just stand there, as if we’ve lost the ability to respond. I think of the way Johanna never showers. How she forced herself into the rain like it was acid that day. I had attributed her misery to the morphling withdrawal.

«You two should go see her. You’re as close to friends as she’s got,» says Haymitch.

That makes the whole thing worse. I don’t really know what’s between Johanna and Finnick. But I hardly know her. No family. No friends. Not so much as a token from 7 to set beside her regulation clothes in her anonymous drawer. Nothing.

«I better go tell Plutarch. He won’t be happy,» Haymitch continues. «He wants as many victors as possible for the cameras to follow in the Capitol. Thinks it makes for better television.»

«Are you and Beetee going?» I ask.

«As many young and attractive victors as possible,» Haymitch corrects himself. «So, no. We’ll be here.»

Finnick goes directly down to see Johanna, but I linger outside a few minutes until Boggs comes out. He’s my commander now, so I guess he’s the one to ask for any special favors. When I tell him what I want to do, he writes me a pass so that I can go to the woods during Reflection, provided I stay within sight of the guards. I run to my compartment, thinking to use the parachute, but it’s so full of ugly memories. Instead, I go across the hall and take one of the white cotton bandages I brought from 12. Square. Sturdy. Just the thing.

In the woods, I find a pine tree and strip handfuls of fragrant needles from the boughs. After making a neat pile in the middle of the bandage, I gather up the sides, give them a twist, and tie them tightly with a length of vine, making an apple-sized bundle.

At the hospital room door, I watch Johanna for a moment, realize that most of her ferocity is in her abrasive attitude. Stripped of that, as she is now, there’s only a slight young woman, her wide-set eyes fighting to stay awake against the power of the drugs. Terrified of what sleep will bring. I cross to her and hold out the bundle.

«What’s that?» she says hoarsely. Damp edges of her hair form little spikes over her forehead.

«I made it for you. Something to put in your drawer.» I place it in her hands. «Smell it.»

She lifts the bundle to her nose and takes a tentative sniff. «Smells like home.» Tears flood her eyes.

«That’s what I was hoping. You being from Seven and all,» I say. «Remember when we met? You were a tree. Well, briefly.»

Suddenly, she has my wrist in an iron grip. «You have to kill him, Katniss.»

«Don’t worry.» I resist the temptation to wrench my arm free.

«Swear it. On something you care about,» she hisses.

«I swear it. On my life.» But she doesn’t let go of my arm.

«On your family’s life,» she insists.

«On my family’s life,» I repeat. I guess my concern for my own survival isn’t compelling enough. She lets go and I rub my wrist. «Why do you think I’m going, anyway, brainless?»

That makes her smile a little. «I just needed to hear it.» She presses the bundle of pine needles to her nose and closes her eyes.

The remaining days go by in a whirl. After a brief workout each morning, my squad’s on the shooting range full-time in training. I practice mostly with a gun, but they reserve an hour a day for specialty weapons, which means I get to use my Mockingjay bow, Gale his heavy militarized one. The trident Beetee designed for Finnick has a lot of special features, but the most remarkable is that he can throw it, press a button on a metal cuff on his wrist, and return it to his hand without chasing it down.

Sometimes we shoot at Peacekeeper dummies to become familiar with the weaknesses in their protective gear. The chinks in the armor, so to speak. If you hit flesh, you’re rewarded with a burst of fake blood. Our dummies are soaked in red.

It’s reassuring to see just how high the overall level of accuracy is in our group. Along with Finnick and Gale, the squad includes five soldiers from 13. Jackson, a middle-aged woman who’s Boggs’s second in command, looks kind of sluggish but can hit things the rest of us can’t even see without a scope. Farsighted, she says. There’s a pair of sisters in their twenties named Leeg—we call them Leeg 1 and Leeg 2 for clarity—who are so similar in uniform, I can’t tell them apart until I notice Leeg 1 has weird yellow flecks in her eyes. Two older guys, Mitchell and Homes, never say much but can shoot the dust off your boots at fifty yards. I see other squads that are also quite good, but I don’t fully understand our status until the morning Plutarch joins us.

«Squad Four-Five-One, you have been selected for a special mission,» he begins. I bite the inside of my lip, hoping against hope that it’s to assassinate Snow. «We have numerous sharpshooters, but rather a dearth of camera crews. Therefore, we’ve handpicked the eight of you to be what we call our ‘Star Squad.’ You will be the on-screen faces of the invasion.»

Disappointment, shock, then anger run through the group. «What you’re saying is, we won’t be in actual combat,» snaps Gale.

«You will be in combat, but perhaps not always on the front line. If one can even isolate a front line in this type of war,» says Plutarch.

«None of us wants that.» Finnick’s remark is followed by a general rumble of assent, but I stay silent. «We’re going to fight.»

«You’re going to be as useful to the war effort as possible,» Plutarch says. «And it’s been decided that you are of most value on television. Just look at the effect Katniss had running around in that Mockingjay suit. Turned the whole rebellion around. Do you notice how she’s the only one not complaining? It’s because she understands the power of that screen.»

Actually, Katniss isn’t complaining because she has no intention of staying with the «Star Squad,» but she recognizes the necessity of getting to the Capitol before carrying out any plan. Still, to be too compliant may arouse suspicion as well.

«But it’s not all pretend, is it?» I ask. «That’d be a waste of talent.»

«Don’t worry,» Plutarch tells me. «You’ll have plenty of real targets to hit. But don’t get blown up. I’ve got enough on my plate without having to replace you. Now get to the Capitol and put on a good show.»

The morning we ship out, I say good-bye to my family. I haven’t told them how much the Capitol’s defenses mirror the weapons in the arena, but my going off to war is awful enough on its own. My mother holds me tightly for a long time. I feel tears on her cheek, something she suppressed when I was slated for the Games. «Don’t worry. I’ll be perfectly safe. I’m not even a real soldier. Just one of Plutarch’s televised puppets,» I reassure her.

Prim walks me as far as the hospital doors. «How do you feel?»

«Better, knowing you’re somewhere Snow can’t reach you,» I say.

«Next time we see each other, we’ll be free of him,» says Prim firmly. Then she throws her arms around my neck. «Be careful.»

I consider saying a final good-bye to Peeta, decide it would only be bad for both of us. But I do slip the pearl into the pocket of my uniform. A token of the boy with the bread.

A hovercraft takes us to, of all places, 12, where a makeshift transportation area has been set up outside the fire zone. No luxury trains this time, but a cargo car packed to the limit with soldiers in their dark gray uniforms, sleeping with their heads on their packs. After a couple of days’ travel, we disembark inside one of the mountain tunnels leading to the Capitol, and make the rest of the six-hour trek on foot, taking care to step only on a glowing green paint line that marks safe passage to the air above.

We come out in the rebel encampment, a ten-block stretch outside the train station where Peeta and I made our previous arrivals. It’s already crawling with soldiers. Squad 451 is assigned a spot to pitch its tents. This area has been secured for over a week. Rebels pushed out the Peacekeepers, losing hundreds of lives in the process. The Capitol forces fell back and have regrouped farther into the city. Between us lie the booby-trapped streets, empty and inviting. Each one will need to be swept of pods before we can advance.

Mitchell asks about hoverplane bombings—we do feel very naked pitched out in the open—but Boggs says it’s not an issue. Most of the Capitol’s air fleet was destroyed in 2 or during the invasion. If it has any craft left, it’s holding on to them. Probably so Snow and his inner circle can make a last-minute escape to some presidential bunker somewhere if needed. Our own hoverplanes were grounded after the Capitol’s antiaircraft missiles decimated the first few waves. This war will be battled out on the streets with, hopefully, only superficial damage to the infrastructure and a minimum of human casualties. The rebels want the Capitol, just as the Capitol wanted 13.

After three days, much of Squad 451 risks deserting out of boredom. Cressida and her team take shots of us firing. They tell us we’re part of the disinformation team. If the rebels only shoot Plutarch’s pods, it will take the Capitol about two minutes to realize we have the holograph. So there’s a lot of time spent shattering things that don’t matter, to throw them off the scent. Mostly we just add to the piles of rainbow glass that’s been blown off the exteriors of the candy-colored buildings. I suspect they are intercutting this footage with the destruction of significant Capitol targets. Once in a while it seems a real sharpshooter’s services are needed. Eight hands go up, but Gale, Finnick, and I are never chosen.

«It’s your own fault for being so camera-ready,» I tell Gale. If looks could kill.

I don’t think they quite know what to do with the three of us, particularly me. I have my Mockingjay outfit with me, but I’ve only been taped in my uniform. Sometimes I use a gun, sometimes they ask me to shoot with my bow and arrows. It’s as if they don’t want to entirely lose the Mockingjay, but they want to downgrade my role to foot soldier. Since I don’t care, it’s amusing rather than upsetting to imagine the arguments going on back in 13.

While I outwardly express discontent about our lack of any real participation, I’m busy with my own agenda. Each of us has a paper map of the Capitol. The city forms an almost perfect square. Lines divide the map into smaller squares, with letters along the top and numbers down the side to form a grid. I consume this, noting every intersection and side street, but it’s remedial stuff. The commanders here are working off Plutarch’s holograph. Each has a handheld contraption called a Holo that produces images like I saw in Command. They can zoom into any area of the grid and see what pods await them. The Holo’s an independent unit, a glorified map really, since it can neither send nor receive signals. But it’s far superior to my paper version.

A Holo is activated by a specific commander’s voice giving his or her name. Once it’s working, it responds to the other voices in the squadron so if, say, Boggs were killed or severely disabled, someone could take over. If anyone in the squad repeats «nightlock» three times in a row, the Holo will explode, blowing everything in a five-yard radius sky-high. This is for security reasons in the event of capture. It’s understood that we would all do this without hesitation.

So what I need to do is steal Boggs’s activated Holo and clear out before he notices. I think it would be easier to steal his teeth.

On the fourth morning, Soldier Leeg 2 hits a mislabeled pod. It doesn’t unleash a swarm of muttation gnats, which the rebels are prepared for, but shoots out a sunburst of metal darts. One finds her brain. She’s gone before the medics can reach her. Plutarch promises a speedy replacement.

The following evening, the newest member of our squad arrives. With no manacles. No guards. Strolling out of the train station with his gun swinging from the strap over his shoulder. There’s shock, confusion, resistance, but451 is stamped on the back of Peeta’s hand in fresh ink. Boggs relieves him of his weapon and goes to make a call.

«It won’t matter,» Peeta tells the rest of us. «The president assigned me herself. She decided the propos needed some heating up.»

Maybe they do. But if Coin sent Peeta here, she’s decided something else as well. That I’m of more use to her dead than alive.

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