- - - - The Reaping
Garrett scratches a mosquito bite on his arm and looks up at the grey fabric of the tent, several hundred meters up. He is glad to be out of the sun, but the tent is only so large. All the adults and the younger children stand in a vast crowd stretching throughout the dry plains, bordered only by armed uniformed men. Straw hats and kerchiefs flap rhythmically, doing little to disturb the simmering air. Around the perimeter and above the stage, white screens loom over the area, their faces depicting the camera's vision. But it is near noon and the screens' immense heights provide no shade. Garrett yearns for the chilly Svannish winters, a tangible contrast to District Six's unending summer.
Speakers around the bedecked stage in front blare a marching anthem as four people ascend the stage, two of them dressed as if dipped in rainbow paints, two of them in black. The blue-haired man and violet-haired woman approach the microphone, standing tensely apart as if repulsed by the very idea of being in the same location.
The blue-haired man flings an arm out. "Greetings, District Six! I'm so excited to welcome you all to the first annual Hunger Games!" He ignores the ensuing silence and plows on. "It's Reaping Day, and your masters of ceremonies and escorts for the tributes are myself, Jupiter Glee, and Miss"
Garrett's thoughts wander, tuning out the incomprehensible speech. He knows today is for that special event everyone is calling the "Hunger Games." He knows the word "games," and it is enough to excite him, but no one has been able to explain what it consists ofat least, in a language he can understand. He stands on tiptoes, peering over at his father near the edge of the tent. They make eye contact and the corner of his father's mouth upturns. His father lifts a hand, his ring winking in the sun. Garrett sneaks a wave back.
"And we have a very special guest with us: President Dativo Kane!" One of the black-dressed men inclines his head, his hawkish eyes gazing severely at the multitudes until a smattering of applause arises. "Let's proceed with the Reaping, shall we? Ladies first!"
The violet-haired woman draws a slip from one of the glass spheres and reads it aloud. A girl climbs the stageGarrett supposes a name was read aloudand remains standing there, smiling like she has won free ice cream for the rest of her life. So it must be a wonderful thing, being picked like that! Garrett bounces on his toes and wonders if all the children will pass on up there or what if his name is not in that glass ball or it is but he might not get called because surely not all the children will fit on that tiny stage and before he knows what he is doing, Garrett is walking, then striding, then half-running up onto the stage, nearly bowling over the blue-haired man.
"Me," he says.
The colorful man and woman stare at him, shock and bewilderment written on their painted faces. The man recovers first.
"E-excuse me?" The man chances a glance at the black-dressed pair behind him. "Are you-is he-volunteering?"
Garrett blinks. "Me," he insists desperately.
The hawk-faced man behind Jupiter nods. Jupiter flashes a pearly smile at the masses.
"Apologies for the delay, everyone, but it looks like we have a volunteer! For the boy tributeerr, what's your name?"
As Garrett is about to answer, a hand clamps on his arm. His father drags him down the stairs and off the stage. Garrett can barely keep up with his father's long-legged strides.
Garrett wrenches away from his father.
"What are you doing? We're going home."
Elan raises a brow. "I said, we're going home."
"I don't want to. I want to be on that stage. I'm going to be in the Hunger Games."
"The one time that I really want to do something fun"
"It's for your protec"
"You said we'd be safe here! That's why we moved to Panem, right? You said we could be a family and do things together and stop hiding! But everyday it's been work sleep work sleep work sleep. For once, there's something cool happening and I want to be part of it!"
Concern and guilt flicker in his father's expression. Garrett is suddenly aware that everyone is watching, and all the cameras are trained on him. He can even see himself on the big screens. Do they understand? he wonders.
Elan opens his mouth, but then kneels down to his son's eye level. "You're right, Garrett. I haven't been keeping my promises. I'll tell you what. Tomorrow. After work. We'll go to the lake, go swimming, get ice cream, whatever you want, okay? We'll do fun thingswe can even start this afternoon!
"Just not this, Garrett. You have to trust meI don't think this is what you think it is. Look around you. There's no one else smiling or cheering. Something's wrong with this 'Hunger Games,' and I'm afraid for you."
Garrett doesn't need to look at the gloomy faces that have been surrounding them since the start of the reaping to know his father is right. He looks back at the stiff-necked girl smiling onstage and realizes her eyes are glassy and joyless.
He takes his father's hand. "Okay. Can we try to catch fish in the creek near the post office?"
"That's a great idea." Elan rises, and comes face-to-face with four uniformed men wielding guns.
A voice resounds in the microphone. "An offer to volunteer cannot be retracted." Garrett glances back and sees it is the hawk-faced man looking directly at them. "Let no man believe he can take action and avoid the consequences of such an action."
Jupiter skips down from the stage, a grin plastered on his face. "I will take it from here, Daddy-O," he declares as the Peacekeepers step aside for him.
Elan draws his son behind. "You stay away from my son, bøsserøv."
"Touchy touchy! Do stop being a party pooperyou heard our lovely president. He's my ward now." Jupiter delicately sidesteps around and snatches at Garrett.
A hand slams into Jupiter's chest, and Jupiter is blown backward. He splats on the ground with a cry of utter indignation. Elan spares no glance and hustles his son in the other direction.
They run. Pushing through the crowd, threading between a labyrinth of sweaty bodies and billowy fabrictheir pace is painfully slow and there's a weird desperation to the way his father is shoving people aside left and right.
An arm wraps around Garrett's waist and he's swept off his feet and over a Peacekeeper's back. At his cries, his father turns and tackles the thickset Peacekeeper. The Peacekeeper brushes him off with an easy backhand. Elan doggedly tries again, but the other three Peacekeepers catch up and pinion this persistent flea. The former politician is no match for three soldiers, and a blow to the back of the head knocks him unconscious.
As the Peacekeeper jogs towards the waiting automobile, Garrett claws the Peacekeeper's synthetic uniform, his helmet, whatever he can get his hands on, helpless to do anything except scream at the men kicking his father's limp form.
* * *
Dativo Kane descends the stage and turns to his companion. "Your translations were very useful, by the byI'll be dropping a good word in at the department."
"Thank you, sir."
"Quite the show from District Six, wouldn't you say? A convenient example that resistance will not be tolerated."
"Sir, I had the records checked. The boy tribute's not even a citizen, just a temporary resident."
The president chuckles. "Does it matter?"
"Not that I'm aware of, sir."
"I didn't think so. If we returned the boy, no one will remember it was because of a technicality in the rulebook. All they will remember is that the Capitol showed mercy, and that is not the public image we want, now is it?"
The other man is silent.
"So tell me, Duval, wherever did you learn Svannish?"
"It's a long story," his companion replies, opening the door of the limousine.
Kane takes a seat and checks his watch. "It's a long ride to District Seven. Entertain me."
Aras Duvalnewly assigned primary security detail to President Kanecloses the door and heaves a sigh.
- - - - The Token
"You would think they'd bring a cameraman along! My time is money, their time is money, screentime is money! I can't believe I'm not being filmed right now! You understand me, don't you?"
Jupiter peers at the boy curled up on the seat.
"You can stop being upset now. You're going to the Capitol! Isn't that simply fantastic?"
His question remains unanswered. The TV star frowns and twirls a lock of blue hair, unsure of how to talk to a person who is not currently fawning over him, much less ignoring him.
"Maybe you're hungry? Oh there will be so much to eat! My favorite is seared rabbit loin in a thick creamy wine and juju sauce! Or parrot wings on a bed of basmati! How about"
As his escort descends into an imaginary feast, Garrett stares straight ahead. He can't hear his escort's voice, can't smell the leather of the car seats, can't see the gray carpeting of the automobile. Every feeling and thought is slowly draining out of him, leaving only a cold numbness constricting his heart, his throat. His mind refuses to stop replaying the moments of the reapingthe excitement, the girl, the stage, the screens, the guards, theGarrett buries his face ever deeper in his cloak.
A sharp nail pokes his shoulder. Garrett ignores it. The nail prods a little more insistently. Garrett lifts his head, summoning up all his anger and his bank of Svannish swear words when
"As I was saying, ehem, I should give you this before I forget." A familiar silver ring rests in his escort's palm. Garrett seizes the ring, startling the escort with his rapacity. The ring has never left his father's hand before, not in bed, not in the kitchen, not even when swimming. How did the blue-haired man get his hands on it?
"I don't appreciate the way your father passed it on to me, didn't have to push so hard, you know. And just look at what happened! My pants are ruined! Oh, I've got to change as soon as we get on the train."
Garrett can't imagine Jupiter forcibly removing the ring from his father's hand, so his father must have given it to Jupiter! But why? Did he know Jupiter would give it to Garrett? Would his father be coming to retrieve the ring? To rescue him?
He isn't sure of any of the answers, but he feels a glowing in his little chest, and he holds onto the glow as tightly as he clutches the ring.
- - - - The Mentor
Nichol Bellasseau never objected to being a government dog. He never objected to infiltrating the rebellion headquarters and making off with the list of members (the persons listed being all presently dead). He certainly never objected to his promotion to director of the I.I.B. for his role in quashing the rebellion.
But at this moment in time, Bellasseau objects to everything the Panem government stands for.
They are training childrenchildrento kill each other. The very idea tears at every fiber of Bellasseau's being. And he hates himself for quietly accepting the assignment like the government dog he is. But does he have a choice?
The traincar rattles, bringing Bellasseau out of his contemplation. He concentrates on the tribute sitting quietly in front of him, knees together, feet dangling several inches above the carpet. Bellasseau looks at the profile on his desk.
"I see someone forgot to write down your name here."
The boy tilts his head. "Name?" he repeats.
"What's your name, son?"
"Oh, euhhh, mit name er
is! Name is Garrett."
Bellasseau knits his brows. Is the boy that terrified that he's forgotten how to speak?
"Well, Garrett, it says here you volunteered. Would you like to tell me why?"
It is the boy's turn to scrunch up his face. "Sorry. I. Err. Jeg taler ikke engelsk. No English."
Confusion and fury sweep through the old agent, and Bellasseau nearly picks up the phone to browbeat his secretary until she tells him which probie is responsible for this awful prank. But there is something sincere in the boy's open expression. Bellasseau inhales deeply.
"That's going to be a problem. I don't understand what language you are speaking, so I hope you have another one. Sprichst du Deutsch? Parle tu français?"
The boy's eyes light up. "Oui. Je parle."
Bellasseau finds that discovering a common language does not eliminate a growing anxiety that the situation might be even worse than expected.
"Okay, now that we've got that straightened out, you can answer my question: why did you volunteer?"
"Volunteer? You mean, for the Hunger Games?"
The boy seems to struggle with himself. "I thought. I thought it was, maybe. Um. Well, I thought it was like a sports competition or something fun like that. Games, right?" he finishes hopefully.
"A game of death. All the tributes will fight. To the death. The last one alive wins. How's that for a game?"
There is understanding in Garrett's expression and, remarkably, no surprise.
Bellasseau pounds a fist on his desk. "Damn it, how could this happen?" He stands up, knocking his chair aside, and paces the length of the traincar. He mentally runs through the stated rules of the Hunger Games, a list of people with enough power to do anything about it, and possible arguments to bring to said people. But in his heart, he knows there is no way out. Even winning seems a distant prospect.
The boy is staring at the ground, legs pulled up on the chair, arms in a huddle. Too young, Bellasseau thinks and shakes his head.
"I'll take care of you, kid. You can count on that. We've got three days.
"You'll be ready."
- - - - The Stylist
Garrett emerges from the bathhouse cleaner than he has ever thought possible. He spots a dark-skinned woman sitting on the balcony sipping tea, and is silently grateful to be wearing at least a bathrobe. Her black hair reflects bluish in the setting sun, accentuating the golden beads woven into her hair.
Upon spotting him, the woman leaps up and crosses the distance in a flash.
"Finally! You are here, small boy. And exactly how I wished to find you!" She circles around him, inspecting, patting his head, pinching his arms. "How wonderful! You are precisely the size I need! What is your name?"
"Smart boy! Short and sweet. You may call me Ergo. I will be your stylist. Oh, how delightful to finally be able to show someone my ideas! Come see, come see."
Garrett allows himself to be dragged around by the chatty woman. He is growing used to pretending to understand English.
"I have plans for the girl as well. You see? Hoverblades. The girl is fast. She will be faster. Impossibly fast. Flying! Like you! But close to ground, yes?
"She has a stylistTertius, lovely man, terribly challenged, no stylebut I think Tertius will let me take care of her. He was bitten, you see. You won't bite me, will you? I think not.
"Come, we have little time to spare. Preparations begin right away!"
- - - - The Chariot Ride
Garrett stands still, letting Ergo and her assistants fiddle with the harness and all its buttons, buckles, and straps. He isn't sure why they are outfitting the strange kite onto his white jumpsuit, but he has a good guess. The kite consists of several metal crossbars stretching squares of silver fabric, overlapping like dragon scales. Tiny motors crouch at the joints, and when Ergo tests the functionality of her remote control, the motors move the fabric plates up and down.
"You will be completely safe, little boy. I have already tested my kite on many people. Hah! The Capitol may have jets and planes, but they are narrow-minded. Never underestimate the simple!"
The helicopter maintains a steady hover as the copilot swings open the door. A rush of cold air smacks Garrett in the face. The dark void below expands in his mind, and the boy takes a step back, his palms clammy. He looks back at the Arabian woman, searching for something, anything in her expression to let him know he isn't actually going to be jumping out into nothingness.
"Stop looking so scared, cheeky boy. I will take very good care of you." She waves the remote in her hand. The loud whirring of the copter blades drown out her voice, and all Garrett can see is her smile, devilish in the near darkness. Garrett turns back to the open airhis mistake.
Ergo delivers a sharp kick and sends the boy tumbling into the void.
Garrett knows he is screaming, but he barely hears himself over the roar of the atmosphere rushing by his ears. His fingers strangle the harness straps as he flips head over heels over and over again.
His fall pulls short as the kite wings finally catch the currents, and his flight stabilizes to a constant descent. The chilly winds and the sight of the city below steady his racing mind. Garrett focuses on a ribbon of golden lightspecial streetlights illuminating the path the chariots take, trying to ignore the growing protests of his stomach. Great crowds of people line the street perched on high-rises. From his height, their cheers sound like waves crashing in the distance. The chariots have already begun their progression, each bearing a pair of adorned tributes. But chariot six is empty.
Then he spots the girl tribute.
From far behind the last chariot, a silvery figure darts forward, gliding along the road, sideways along the barrier, weaving between and under the chariots. The people have spotted her, pointing and gasping and wowing. She streaks all the way to the front of the chariot line, rounding around the district one tributes, before returning to the empty district six chariot. She looks up.
The people below follow the girl's gaze and shriek in delight when a shaft of searchlight captures him. The silver glitter on the kite wings gleam and dazzle, and Garrett himself is momentarily blinded on all sides.
The kite dives.
Garrett grips the harness, biting his lips, his eyes drying as he shoots straight down. A sidewind catches the tail and sends him spinning, the darkness and lights whirling in a nauseating kaleidoscope. The kite flips forward, his stomach following suit, and somehow he is right over the chariot. A quick drop and a short stop and he finds himself standing on the floor of the chariot, next to the girl. It takes all his concentration not to fall over. The girl does not look at him, instead smiling at the crowd as if this had all been rehearsed. Garrett looks out at the sea of rainbow and sequins and finds himself laughing in relief and rush of adrenaline.
- - - - The Training
Garrett sits in a patch of dirt picking leaves and chanting to himself the names and useful properties of each plant. The situation is very mundane to him; once upon a time, he had sat in his father's garden in Svanemark, pushing anthills and defacing the rosebushes in his spare time between tutoring sessions and fencing practice. There had been precious little else to do, confined as he had been to the grounds of the estate.
But this time, there is no room for leisure.
The other half of his time is spent climbing up cargo nets, up ladders, up anything remotely climbable. Blisters dot his palm, and his arms and shoulders have not stopped aching, but Garrett persists. Bellasseau tells him his best chance is to keep running, staying out of reach of the bigger and stronger opponents.
He itches to walk over to the weapons and find an épée, to hold a familiar weight in his hand, but his mentor has told him to save it for the final judgment. So he stays in his patch of dirt and recites the list once more.
- - - - The Score
The Arabian stylist lounges on the plush sofa, scrutinizing the boy as he walks in.
"Well, little boy. Did you impress the judges?"
"You should probably use smaller words, Shahri," a nasal voice interrupts. "I highly doubt Garrett understood a word you said."
Ergo scowls at Jupiter, who is inspecting his nails under a rose-shaped ceiling light. "On the contrary! Bellasseau has been giving the boy English lessons, hasn't he? Therefore, I can use words as large as I like. Speak, boy. Show this blue puff-puff that you understand me!"
"Okay," Garrett proffers, hoping it answers whatever question was asked.
"See! He is a smart boy, Jupiter. Do not underestimate the small!" This last remark is punctuated with a click of her tongue as Ergo turns away from Jupiter and smiles at Garrett. "You did good, yes?"
Garrett is saved from answering by the voice of Freema Oiren on the television screen.
"What an extraordinary and exciting set of individuals we have! But don't let me just tell you about itdecide for yourselves, because the scores are in! Starting with District One" Faces and numbers flash on the screen. Ergo and Jupiter have something to say about each tribute, but Garrett is only able to glean some sort of meaning from their tones.
His face appears, followed by the number three.
Garrett feels Ergo and Jupiter looking at him, their chattiness vanished. He sits there swimming in confusion. What happened? He'd felt so confident when he picked up the épéelike speaking to a friend. He'd even made record time scaling the towers. Where did he go wrong?
"We can work with that," his mentor interrupts, entering from the antechamber, coffee in hand. There is a strong firmness in his voice, and it bolsters what bit of self-pride is left in the boy. "Remember, son. I won't be sending help unless I think you need it. You are capable of more than you think.
"Now get some sleep."
- - - - The Games
"You must find a partner. Learn from them and stay sharp. Good luck." His mentor's last words echo as the disc rises through the glass tube, bringing Garrett towards open air.
The disc clicks into place; immediately, a gale buffets him from the left and he wobbles dangerously near the edge of the plate. The scent of muggy earth fills his nostrils, and rain begins to fall from the ash-colored sky, the wind driving the droplets in blinding sheets.
The tributes all stand on the rim of a gorge. Garrett crouches down on the disc, peering over his ledge. The cliffs, broken by ridges and spindly shrubs, fall sharply towards a section of whitewater rapids, thundering as loud as the torrential rain around him. An island in the middle of the rapids bears a great pile of boxes and bags, spears and bows. Half the tributes are tensed to spring away from the ledge and out into the open plains. The other half face into the gorge, calculating, strategizing.
Garrett grasps the ring, now hanging around his neck, and tries not to think about all the possible ways to die in the first five minutes. He wonders if his father is watching, as Bellasseau says everyone else will be. I have to survive, he thinks, at least, to see my father again, and tell him I'm sorry. He stands up and takes a deep breath, a skeleton of a plan beginning to form in his mind.
The countdown begins.