It was quite simple. It wasn’t as if a Reaping hadn’t been rigged in the past. Of course, not on this scale… but still. It could be done. Had to be done.
“Rachel?” Aldous Leekie turned to the woman who had been pointedly ignoring him all morning. “Are you with the Capitol, or aren’t you?”
“Aldous, you insisted I would never partake in the Games.” She remained facing the window, stony as ever.
“Your District needs you.”
“District 1 has over twenty Career Tributes, I do not see why they need me specifically. I am more use to you here, am I not?”
Leekie closed his eyes. Rachel had a habit of asking questions. Which was especially uncomfortable now, because he was almost certain she knew more than she was letting on.
“Tell me the truth, President Leekie,” she spat, turning to face him. “What is the genuine reason you want me in that Arena?”
“It’s not just you, Rachel.” He took a steadying breath. “This project has gone far enough, and it’s time to start over. Your siblings will join you in the Arena.”
“And I will be the Victor?”
“How could you not?”
Cosima Niehaus was, like, so cool. Seriously even her typing was cool. All fast and stuff. She looked especially cool right now; she’d obviously had a major breakthrough.
“Scott!” Cosima spun around in her chair to face him, eyes shining. “There are eleven of us, I think.”
“Well, I can’t find a Clone in District 11 or 4. But they’re in every other.”
She slid her chair over, showing Scott the computer screen.
District 1: Rachel Duncan
District 2: Helena Johanssen
District 3: Cosima Niehaus
District 4: ???
District 5: Elizabeth Childs and Tony Sawicki
District 6: Alison Hendrix
District 7: Katja Obinger
District 8: Janika Zingler
District 9: Danielle Fournier
District 10: Jennifer Fitzsimmons
District 11: ???
District 12: Charlotte Bowles
“District 4 makes sense,” Scott ran his finger down the list, “they’re the Capitol’s butt munchers, like 1 and 2. But what about 11?”
“I really don’t know.”
The cries in the night were getting more frequent, not that anyone in District 12 cared. Kids crying were normal. They were hungry, or in pain. Maybe their parents hadn’t come home from the mines. That happened, too. But these were new ones, cries from a girl that had never cried before.
“Charlotte,” Sarah Manning crouched down beside her sister’s bed. “Char, wake up, it’s just a dream.”
Charlotte was quivering. She was all pale and skinny. God, Sarah hadn’t been getting her enough food, had she? She finally opened her eyes, quickly nuzzling into Sarah’s side.
“See, you’re all safe. All safe, baby.”
Sarah would probably have been like this on the eve of her first Reaping, too. If she’d ever been entered. Useful thing, not existing (at least on paper).
“Tell me a story,” Charlotte whispered.
Sarah crawled up onto the bed beside her sister, holding her close.
“Once upon a time, there was a girl, only three years older than you are now. She lived in District 11, and spent all her time up the fruit trees. While she was there, she met a lumberjack. It was a secret though, because he worked in District 12. She loved the man very much. Soon, she had a beautiful baby girl, and she loved her more than anything. But people were mean to the girl. Men hurt her, and her own mum wouldn’t help her out. The lumberjack wasn’t able to help her. When her baby was two, she had to run away.”
“Where did she run to?” Charlotte knew Sarah’s story by heart. But she listened.
“To a place just a few miles away, the lumberjack lived there, and she was found by a kind lady. The kind lady took care of her, and even introduced her to her cute, adorable,” tickling fingers found Charlotte’s sides, “baby sister!” Charlotte squealed. The laughter was much better than the tears.
“I see plenty of sleeping is occurring,” Marion stood in the doorway, an eyebrow raised.
“Sorry mama,” Charlotte giggled. “Sarah was telling me a story.”
“Too right,” Sarah kissed the little girl’s forehead. “But sleepy time now, a‘right?”
“Okay.” She bit her lip.
“It’ll be fine. Remember, your first year, only one entry. They won’t draw your name.” Sarah bit her tongue as she pulled away from Charlotte. They wouldn’t draw Charlotte. They wouldn’t. But Charlotte wasn’t the only person in the Reaping pool this year.
“It’ll be okay, Kira,” Arthur pulled a brush through her tangled curls.
“But you should have taken out the Tesserae. I’m fine.”
“No,” he said more fiercely. “We don’t need the Tesserae. What we need, is for you to be safe. Your name only has to be in there once, it’ll only be in there once.”
“Art, please, we need food.”
“I need you alive, Kira,” he walked around, crouching in front of her. “I told your mother I’d take care of you, putting you up for slaughter just for an extra pound of grain and oil isn’t taking care.”
“Mum would understand.” Brave monkeys didn’t sacrifice things they needed ‘just in case’.
Art just continued to brush Kira’s hair. The flicker of doubt… Sarah Manning probably wasn’t even alive. He hadn’t heard hide nor hair from her in ten years.
Delphine Cormier took a shuddering breath. Why did she take this job, again? At this point, she wasn’t even sure if being in the Capitol was better than being stuck in District 5.
“It is done, Aldous.”
“Thank you, Dr Cormier.” He looked over her shoulder at the screen. “The Reaping will go to plan?”
“Of course.” She turned to face him, “every Clone will be in the Arena. I must ask, though,” she frowned, “there is only one that is of Reaping age. The rest are over twenty-six. How do you plan to-?”
Leekie chuckled. “Come to the telecast room, Dr Cormier.”
“Citizens of Panem!”
Oh shite. It was one of those. Those messages that came over the speakers and filled literally the entire country. Leekie was a self-absorbed idiot.
“I am broadcasting to tell you of a truly exciting change to the rules of The Hunger Games this year, for our Quarter Quell. Collectively, the Gamemakers and the Capitol have come to the conclusion that we need to widen the age bracket for our Tributes.”
Sarah was pretty sure the entire country gasped. If it wasn’t so awful, it’d be funny.
“In lieu of the disease outbreak in our outlying districts, the pool of twelve to eighteen year olds is small. So, we will be offering this thrilling opportunity to far more of our citizens. Anyone thirty-five years or younger can now participate in the 75th Annual Hunger Games, remember, the Capitol knows what is best for you all. Thank you for your attention, Panem. And may the odds be ever in your favour.”
It was strange, to watch an entire country grieve. It was even stranger to be the only one who wasn’t upset. Beth Childs took out 25 Tesserae that morning. Her family needed food. At 27, she hadn’t been able to offer this kind of sacrificial help for almost ten years. Now, they wouldn’t starve. They wouldn’t starve this year.
“You dipshit!” Tony whacked his sister around the back of the head. “25? Why the fuck would you take 25?”
“If you would stop being a selfish dickhead, you could take some out and feed our family too. You’re in the Reaping now, just like me.”
“Beth,” he said softly, grabbing his twin by the arm. “I love you so much. What if they choose you? What if you die?”
“What if?” She gave a shrug.
“I can fight?”
“And win, Angel.”
“I am not of too old?”
“No longer,” Tomas pulled Helena’s jacket from her shoulders, handing her a blade. “Isn’t it wonderful? You can continue your work.”
“I volunteer for the tribute,” she hissed, and a stream of blood trickled between her shoulder blades.
It didn’t even burn anymore… the alcohol had no stronger taste than water.
“Jabberjay,” she cursed softly, shaking the flask. Empty again. At least she could take out Tesserae this year. Take some of the money pressure off. “Get it together, Alison.” Not that she ever listened to herself. Time to go visit Ramon again.
Leekie and Delphine sat together, watching the monitors. One by one, they would watch the LEDA failures be plucked from the onlooking crowds. He’d never admit it, but he knew there would be some sadness as these creations of his died. It had been so much effort, after all. Especially Rachel.
District 1 was waiting with bated breath. “Rachel Duncan.” An impassive face. “Daniel Rosen.”
District 2, always the most excited. It was a training ground for Peacekeepers. People wanted to participate. “Any volunteers?”
“I volunteer for Tribute,” Helena scampered forward. The unpredictable one, Leekie noted. The biggest risk.
“I too,” Tomas followed her to the stage.
District 3, the tech geeks. “Cosima Niehaus, Scott Smith.”
Ah, Cosima. Her expression was calm, but her eyes filled with tears as Scott walked up to the stage. Delphine’s face, though, was far more interesting… But then District 4 went silent. No Clones to be had, but Maggie Chen and Jesse Adams would be quick kills.
District 5, the twins, Beth and Tony. Beth, indifferent as always. Tony only had eyes for his sister.
6, the insufferable Hendrix woman and the Morphling Ramon.
With 7 came Katja Obinger. Leekie would miss her. She was spunky, though accompanied by the rather pathetic Benjamin Kertland.
District 8 and 9, Janika Zigler, some teenager, Danielle Fournier and a twelve year old. Pity, the young ones were never good killers.
10 offered up Jennifer Fitzsimmons and the doctor, Colin.
Everyone in District 11 was silent. Waiting, waiting, who was going to lose a child this year? Art put a protective hand on top of Kira’s freshly brushed curls. She usually shook him off, claiming she was far too old for him to baby her, but this time she pressed her head into Art’s side, squeezing her eyes shut. Monkey, monkey. Kira the monkey. It’s all she remembered of mum, that she called her monkey. Kira had tried her best to live up to that. She could swing up to the top of fruit trees in seconds, the thinnest branches could – impossibly – hold her weight. She could curl herself tight and small, and disappear altogether. She liked being a monkey. Monkeys were carefree and happy. But this monkey was scared.
The Mayor drew out the first piece of paper, smiling broadly. “Everyone congratulate our first Tribute,”
Monkey, monkey, brave little monkey.
So that’s what it felt like to fall out of a tree.
Art’s hand slipped from her head, and as she briefly met his eyes, she saw the tears. No. Brave monkey.
To the credit of 11, everyone was silent as Kira took her shaky steps up to the stage. Except for Art. He was already rehearsing under his breath. Whispering the words he would use to give Kira a fighting chance in that Arena.
“How do you feel, Kira?” The Mayor looked like an eagle. Eagles eat monkeys.
“I’m fine,” she set her stony little face. In her head, she was already swinging through the branches, out of District 11, out of Panem.
“Well, you’re a brave girl. Now for our young man,” she swirled the papers, drawing out a name with a flourish. “Axel Finch!” The name was barely off the Mayor’s lips when a voice shouted from the audience.
“I volunteer as tribute.” Art was a panther. He liked monkeys though. Stupid panther.
The entire crowd reeled, looking for this insane man. No one volunteered, in 11.
“No!” Kira shrieked, “Art, no!” She ran towards the edge of the stage and took a flying leap at him. If she told him now, beat on his chest and screamed that he couldn’t, mustn’t, do this for her, maybe he’d stop. Take back those words. Not follow her into the Arena. But Peacekeepers caught her, holding her back. She was kicking and screaming, cursing her tiny lungs out and swinging wildly in the Peacekeeper’s arms, and all the while, Arthur Bell made his way onto the stage.
“Well, well, well!” The Mayor laughed, eagle eyes locking on Kira. “We have a little spitfire. Watch out, Mr Bell. Watch out.”
“Merde,” Delphine shook her head at the screen. “Two twelve year olds in one year? You know the outer districts don’t like that, Aldous.”
“I know, but they’ll never say anything.” He gestured to the screen. “She’ll be a crowd favourite, little Kira. Might even draw attention away from our Clones.”
Delphine just fixed tear-filled eyes on the monitor, as Kira screamed.
“Welcome, welcome, to the 75th Annual Hunger Games!” Siobhan Sadler was one of those Capitol women. Powerful, but totally ridiculous.
“She looks like such a twat,” Sarah whispered to Marion.
“S has her ways.”
Apparently, her ‘way’ today was obnoxious green hair and lipstick to match. Sarah seemed to be the only one laughing, though. Everyone else was scared of Siobhan. Maybe it was the voice. Or the fact that she always had her arms crossed, even when she was smiling. Or maybe it was because she was about to read off two death sentences. Probably that.
Charlotte curled her hand into Sarah’s, gripping tight.
“Make that three twelve year olds,” Leekie gestured to the monitor. “Charlotte Bowles is our youngest clone.”
Delphine just shook her head.
“We have to get rid of them somehow, Dr Cormier. And this way, we get sponsorship to do so.”
What was the word for le vommissement in English? Puke?
“Now, our brave young lady will be: Charlotte Bowles!”
Marion was one of those people who looked like she was never bothered by anything. Ever. Until her daughter’s name was called, that is. The blood drained from her face, tears sprang to her eyes, and Charlotte looked past Sarah, up at her.
Fuck this. “I volunteer as bloody tribute.”
Leekie wasn’t even looking at the monitor. They’d called the last Clone, Charlotte. He was already planning his evening meal in his head. But Delphine brought him back to reality with a sharp cry.
“Someone just volunteered for Charlotte Bowles!” She immediately bit her tongue, though of course too late.
“Oh dear,” he moved closer to the monitor, trying to make out the face of this volunteer. Two volunteers in one Games? Both from non-Career Districts? Utterly unheard of. Worst of all, that would leave a Clone out of the Arena, unless Siobhan thought very quickly on her feet. Then the face came into focus. Big, brown eyes lined with black. A mane of curly, dark hair. Small nose, full lips. Short, slim. Very pissed off.
“Mon dieu…” Delphine leaned in with Leekie. “She… she’s a Clone.”
“Not one we have on record,” Aldous said softly. “I… I have no idea…” Siobhan Sadler was looking up, directly into the camera, uncertainty etched in her features. If Aldous didn’t know Siobhan better, he’d think she wanted help.
“We weren’t-” she stopped, as Sarah approached the front of the stage. “Your name?”
“My name is Sarah Manning.”
“Well, Sarah Manning,” Siobhan looked her up and down, beckoning her with an absurdly manicured finger. “May the odds be ever in your favour.”