The world continues to move in flashes. I see the smooth walls of the tube. I look up and see blue sky as the top opens. I keep my head tipped up so my eyes will adjust more quickly to the light, and when we finally make it into the arena, I'm the only one around me not blinking.
The tube lowers.
I am in the fantasy world my mother imagined for us at the Justice Building. An almost endless field of flowers, fragrant woods, beautiful sunshine. Butterflies flutter over the grass, and I can hear birds singing in the trees to my right. It smells like lilacs and fresh-turned earth. For a split second, I think that I have accidentally stepped off the platform and died, and it's turned out that there's an afterlife after all.
But I haven't died.
I see the clock counting down the final sixty seconds before the Games begin. Forty-nine.
The other tributes I can see are all stunned by the beauty of the place, smelling the fresh air. I have a piece of luck for once -- I'm right across from the mouth of the Cornucopia. I can see a large backpack with two hunting knives leaning against it.
I spot Beech, crouching on his platform about a third of the way around from me. Gilla is a little further away on the other side. Maysilee must be on the far side of the Cornucopia. I see Huller, but not Cotton. Huller is smiling, enjoying the sun on his face. I want to scream at him to wake up.
There is a cone-shaped mountain in the distance, and I mentally thank my father for arguing to get me into my fancy classes. I know a volcano when I see one, and I can pretty much guarantee that it's not here for decoration. I decide to get as much distance as I can between me and it, before they use it to wipe out a lot of the field. This will be useful for staying away from the kids from Two as well, since they said they wanted to get to the high ground.
I can run for the pack, grab the knives, and head for the woods quickly -- several of the younger kids are over there, and I can break between them. I hope none of them try to stop me. I don't think I could kill some poor little kid, unless he was actually about to kill me.
Other than me, I can see now that Huller is poised to go. Beech is still crouched, but he's not very fast, and he seems to be distracted by a little hovering bird. The District One girl must be on the far side where I can't see her, but I decide to assume she's ready to go.
I coil myself to run, aiming myself at the bag, but keeping my eyes up to watch for anyone else nearby.
I block out the scenery, ignore the butterfly that lights on my ankle, and the sharp stab of pain that follows it.
The gong sounds.
I leap from my platform and run for the bag. I've grabbed it and the knives before anyone else even starts moving. I don't take my luck for granted. I break to my right and run for the trees, darting between little Marconi Beckwith from Five and Emmeline Shiff from Eight. I see Gilla and try to yell to her to come with me -- the bag is heavy and should have a lot in it -- but she either doesn't hear me or ignores me. She runs for the Cornucopia. I can't wait for her.
I dive for the shadows just as the first scream rings out. The Cornucopia bloodbath has started.
There will be enough people running for the woods that I know I can't stop, even though the Career kids and their big alliances will be preoccupied with getting equipment and starting the killing. I wish now that I'd spent more time in the woods with Digger. I feel like she'd know where to go. But for now, I stick with my plan -- deeper into the woods, further from that mountain. It's big enough that I can see it above the treetops, and I keep it at my back as I run. I don't care if I never find my way back to the Cornucopia, so I don't keep any special track of my path.
I keep going until I can no longer hear any screams, or any footsteps in the woods around me. I lean against a tree and try to catch my breath. If I keep breathing this loudly, I'll bring other tributes. Adrenaline has given my running speed a boost, but it hasn't made my lungs work much better.
I force my breath into an even rhythm, then look around. I'm safe, or as safe as I can be in an arena. I find a rock and sit on it (sitting cross-legged on the ground would be more convenient, but too hard to get up if someone appears), then put down one of the knives and open my backpack.
I was right to grab it. It's full of dried beef and dried fruit. I'm not very good at plant identification, so I decide to stick with this as long as I can. If I'm careful, I can make it last a week, maybe more.
Aside from the food, there's a heat-holding blanket, some wire, a rope, a first aid kit, and two full water bottles. No wonder it was heavy. I put the back-up knife in my pack, but keep hold of the other one.
I have what I need to survive, and that gives me the luxury to sit down and think out the situation. It also gives me time to notice that my ankle is some fairly serious pain. I look down. There's a swollen area just beneath my ankle bone, where the butterfly landed before the gong sounded.
It stung me.
I'll grant that I haven't seen a lot of butterflies. They come through now and then, but they mostly don't stay in town in District Twelve. But, to the best of my knowledge, they don't sting. This one did, which means they have mutts here that look like safe animals. That means that everything will need to be approached with caution. On the other hand, there should be plenty to do to convince the Gamemakers that I'm playing.
I pull out the first aid kit and find some ointment that looks promising for the sting, which is growing more painful by the moment. I don't use much of it. There are probably more stinging things out there. There's a small explosion of pus, and the swelling starts to go down even before I re-pack the kit.
Now that I'm here, and I know what I'm dealing with, I will have to come up with a strategy. I know I'm not going hunting, but I can be reasonably sure some of the others, at least, will hunt me. The ten the Gamemakers gave me makes me a fairly big target.
I have to look like I'm doing something. I can let the audience guess what it is. Hell, they'll probably have fun trying to figure out. Maybe there will be betting pools, if I have anyone following me. So my movement away from the mountain has to seem deliberate. I stare off in the direction I'm headed, like I might actually see something there, then get up, put the backpack on, and start walking purposefully again.
I do not let go of my knife. I decide that everything I need to do, I will learn to do with a knife in my hand.
I continue to walk for an hour. I'm sure the cameras aren't following me the whole time, but I make sure not to let my face waver much. If Digger is watching -- and if she's relieved enough by me making it past the Cornucopia to have a sense of humor about this -- she's probably laughing at what she calls my "idea constipation" face, the face I supposedly get when I'm determined to solve a problem. She always tells me I should relax, because I know that sooner or later, something's going to pass out of my brain.
Other people seem to think it's my "Stay out of my way" face. I'm hoping that's how the Capitol audience will see it.
I think about my dream of Digger as Athena, standing on the deck of Odysseus's ship. As long as I don't have anyone to talk to and no one can see my imagination, I amuse myself by imagining her as the goddess of wisdom. I absently twist my bracelet, and ask her where I ought to head.
"Seems to me you know where you're headed," she says. "Your problem is that you don't know where you'll fetch up."
Ithaca, I think to her. Home.
"To Penelope?" she smiles. "Then it seems to me you need to find your way out of this arena."
They'll only let me out if everyone dies.
"And here I thought I was talking to Haymitch Abernathy. Since when do you wait for people to let you do anything?"
The idea starts to come, but I don't let my expression change. This isn't an idea I want anyone guessing at.
If I can make it to the end of the arena...
I don't really know what I'll do.
For one thing, it's got to be guarded somehow. For another, if I really did what Digger joked about doing -- if I really broke out of the arena and made a run for it, not only would they catch me, but they'd take it out on Mom and Lacklen and probably Digger herself, long before any of them could find a way to get out of District Twelve. And if they did get out, Snow would probably punish the whole district out of spite.
I'm not really all that attached to District Twelve, but I don't want to think about Peacekeepers cracking down on the whole town because of me.
And that's how the Games work, I realize. It's not really the threat of what they'll do to me. I have a pretty high likelihood of dying one way or the other. So does everyone else. It's the threat of what will happen to the people at home if we don't play.
Still, finding the edge of the arena is something to aim for. During the interviews, I thought about a power source. Maybe there's something around the boundaries that generates energy. I have a wire. Maybe there's something useful.
A cannon booms. It's as loud here as it would be on television, so I guess it's really just a sound the Gamemakers project from whatever little gadgets they have around.
I stop for the first time. The fighting at the Cornucopia is over. They're counting the dead and taking them up to the hover crafts that invisibly patrol the skies above the arena. I wonder if that's why they bring the tributes in separate hover crafts. Maybe they just circle around the arena, waiting for their tributes to die, so they can scoop up the bodies and take them back in the same vehicle that brought them. This year, we went two to a hover craft. I wonder if that means the victor will have to fly back to the Capitol with the body of a district partner.
I count eighteen booms.
Eighteen tributes dead. In a normal year, that would take the field down to six, but now it's down to thirty.
The image of the forty-eight of us in a semi-circle on Caesar's stage comes to me. I wonder who's missing. I try not to think of Gilla, rushing in toward the Cornucopia.
I should have grabbed her and dragged her away. If I do win, what will they think at home? What would Mom say?
She said it. She said, Live, Haymitch.
I force myself not to look worried. Not to look concerned, even. Eighteen down. Twenty-nine to go.
I start moving again. Another butterfly stings me. This time, it hurts more, and I have to stop and dig the stinger out. While I'm crouched, trying to fumble my way to the first aid kit again -- the sting is on my wrist and it's done something to the nerves in my hand; I'm forced to use my teeth to open the backpack -- I hear the sound of running water to my left.
I will eventually need to find water, I figure. My two bottles won't last forever. Water sources will be dangerous to stay near, but it would be good to know where they are. If the water is moving, it's a stream or river, and I can follow its course on a hidden parallel, at least if it's going my way. It will probably be coming down from the mountain, so I could follow it downstream to wherever it drains. Maybe it even drains at the arena's edge.
Of course, wherever it drains, it will be leaving the arena. The whole area beneath me has to be catacombed with Gamemakers' caves. They have the launch rooms we came up from, and they have to let the big mutts out from somewhere, and control the weather and the water supply, and there's probably a lot of machinery under the volcano, waiting for the right time to start up. One tool they never have at the Cornucopia is a shovel. Not that the caves wouldn't be impossible to dig into. They're probably surrounded with steel or something. But they like to preserve the idea that we're all alone out here. That's why the hover crafts are invisible, too.
Still, I imagine the world under my feet. The Gamemakers themselves are back at the Capitol, but maybe there are maintenance people there, or mutt-keepers. Dangerous animals in cages prowling around a hundred yards beneath my feet. Big computers and booming machinery, muffled by the soundproofing and the thick earthen cover. Maybe some low level tech is having a coffee break in a windowless cafeteria while children are dying above his head.
I finally dig out the sting medicine and manage to smear some on my wrist. The swelling breaks open painfully, spewing out blood with the pus this time. I will have to watch out for the butterflies. The venom apparently multiplies with each sting.
I wait for the pain to recede, put the first aid kit away, and start moving again, this time toward the sound of the water. I come through a break in the trees and spot a clean, shiny stream that's rushing down from the mountain in the distance. Perfect.
I am cautious leaving the cover of my trees. Other tributes might well be in this part of the woods, if they kept running after the Cornucopia. I don't hear anyone moving.
I make my way down the slope, careful not to slip. There are plenty of plants with thorns, and, given the stinging butterflies, I don't want to find out what will happen if I scratch myself.
I'm about halfway down when the nineteenth and twentieth cannons go off. I don't think too much of it this time. It's probably something still going on from the Cornucopia fights. But about twenty yards downstream, I see the leaves a bush jitter as someone hiding there is startled by the sound.
I fall back into the shadows.
Whoever is there is smart enough to wait for a long time, but eventually, I see a brown hand emerge, pushing aside the leaves. A second later, a small form races for the stream, looking over his shoulder as he goes.
It's Sigh Tomby, the boy from Three who talked up his mentor at the interviews. It occurs to me that, if I do find a power supply, he might actually be a good ally to have.
If he doesn't use it to kill me, of course.
I bite my lip and consider it as he kneels beside the stream to drink. Allies are both helpful and costly. I could share my food. He could share his knowledge about power. He could slow me down. I could get to like him and end up entangled in fighting I don't want to see. He could --
He throws himself backward suddenly tearing at his throat, making a terrible sound, somewhere between a gag and a scream. Something flies out of his hand and into the stream.
I look around quickly for any other tributes who might be headed for the sound. It would be crazy for me to go out there. I don't even know Sigh Tomby.
He coughs wretchedly and blood spatters out onto his hands.
This decides me. I have seen too much blood coughed up over the last year to stand here and watch. I tighten my grip on my knife and go to him. We're certainly on television now. Claudius Templesmith is most likely speculating that I'm about to "finish him."
I have no intention of it. And I won't need to. As I get close, I can see that his mouth isn't just bloody. It's burned and blistering, and his throat is swollen. His lips are sizzling and misshapen.
He looks up at me, his eyes wide enough to show the whole iris. "Water…" he chokes.
"You need water?"
"No. Water. Not…Don't… "
"I have clean water," I say, and open my backpack. I can't give him much of my water, but maybe --
His eyes close.
The cannon booms.
I stand there for a long time, staring at him. I didn't see any of the deaths at the Cornucopia, or the two afterward. But this… this is like the girl from Six who died at our train depot. It's close. I can feel the heat coming off of the body. The hover craft will come soon. I look at the stream. In it, I can see what flew from his hand -- a metal water bottle. A hole has already been eaten at the side, and I can hear the stream working on the rest of it.
Whatever is flowing in that streambed, it isn't water.
And if the streams are coming from the same liquid source that goes into the plants, then the plants can't be natural, either.
Nothing is safe here.
I pull out my water bottle and put a drop of water on Sigh's lips. I'm not sure why, though I tell myself it's to test it on my finger before I try drinking it.
"I'm sorry," I tell him.
I back away, until I'm a good distance from the stream, then I turn and run. Somewhere behind me, the claw lowers to take Sigh Tomby home.
I wait until the forest is quiet again, then I start looking for a place to shelter for the night. The afternoon sun is getting very low, and soon it will set.
Despite the fact that I know all of Panem is watching me, and there are twenty-six other tributes in the arena, and uncountable Capitol technicians and pilots above and below, I feel acutely alone. I can't even conjure anyone in my imagination. I'm not even sure who I want to conjure. All I can imagine them doing is looking at me like I'm filthy for standing there watching for so long while a fourteen year old boy died in front of me.
I have to stop this. I know none of them are really saying that. I watch the Games with them every year. They don't even say it about strangers.
I find deep section of the woods, and a bush with greenwood branches. Careful not to cut myself on any part of it, I bend the greenwood out into a series of arches, thread it through with more branches, and slip inside. By the time I'm done, the sun has set, and the nighttime cold is settling in. I pull out the thermal blanket and wrap it around my shoulders, and try not to think about anything but the fact that I have survived the first day. There's no guarantee about the night, and I don't think I'll be able to sleep.
About half an hour after I settle down -- at least what I guess is half an hour; there's no watch in my backpack -- I hear the strains of the national anthem. They'll be showing the dead.
I crawl out of my shelter and look up. It will be a long display.
It starts with District One. Usually, all of the Career tributes make it through the Cornucopia, so I'm guessing it was the water or the food. Either way, Jasper Fields is the first listed.
I have to wait through the whole field. Sigh, of course, comes up next. Then another Career, Bridie McMann from District Four. Two from District Five, and all of the District Six tributes. I think about the District Six kids riding the rails, and I'm willing to bet that all four of them were put next to vicious tributes who didn't give them a chance. Districts Seven, Eight, Nine and Ten lose two each. Wakerobin Moore from District Eleven, and -- my first real stab of loss -- Cotton Lawrence.
The anthem isn't over. District Twelve has lost someone today.
Gilla's face floats in the sky, smiling the sweet smile Gia coached her on for so long. I close my eyes, but not long enough that I miss the picture of Beech that comes next.
I think about her buried in fancy clothes, talking about Digger painting her lips with berry juice. I think about him shamefacedly asking how to work the shower, and not remembering fifteen minutes later which buttons he pushed. I don't know how they died. We're not shown that in the arena, though it would have played at home.
The anthem ends. Maysilee is still out here somewhere.
I go back into my shelter. I don't sleep for a long time, and when I do, it's thin and haunted by strange, senseless dreams. Beech comes to me and asks if I know how he's supposed to look in a coffin, because he's not sure. Gilla cries around a piece of crumbling toast, and Digger comforts her, looking at me reproachfully.
I'm brought completely out of sleep before dawn, when the first cannon of the second day goes off.