The Conspiracy

Chapter XI: Launch

I can't move as the woman jabs me in the arm with a needle. I feel the little metal piece slide into place. When the ladder releases me, I wait for Alaia who joins me a minute later. An Avox guides us into a room where we find more food laid out. I can only hope food will be this abundant in the arena. "You don't look well. Can I get you something?" Alaia asks me.

"I don't want to go," I admit. I shouldn't. I shouldn't be feeling nervous at all for this. None of the other tributes will pose a threat to me and I'm not afraid to kill them. Maybe it's only natural to be nervous before everything in your life goes completely public. I tell myself that's the problem and continue talking. "But since there's no way I can avoid this, I just want to get into the arena. Waiting is miserable." She nods. "Oh. Just water would be fine. Thanks."

"Ok. I'll be right back." She stands, walks around the table to a pitcher of water and before she's back beside me, we take off. She fills my glass and hands it to me. I distract myself with thoughts that relate to the Games, but not directly to the fact that I am now a part of them. Do they really have twenty-four hovercraft flying from the Training Center to the arena? Isn't that expensive? If it is they don't care. Doesn't that use up fuel? They should care about that because fuel wars were part of what caused the fall of North America and the Old World. I wonder if Caleb could fly this thing. Probably. I miss him, then tell myself to stop it. Missing home won't get you there any faster. Drink water.

The windows go black and I can no longer distract myself because I know we're approaching the arena now. I breathe and tell myself to be calm. Alaia descends the ladder first and is waiting for me in the catacombs below the arena when I get out of the hovercraft. We have to walk quite a distance before we get to my launch room. I look around as we walk, trying to begin mapping the arena, looking at the ceiling to see if maybe it's different in certain parts but it's no good. We're much too deep for that to be effective.

There's more waiting in the launch room. Alaia helps me dress, well, holds clothes for me while I dress myself. "Is the Capitol really as good to its citizens as it pretends to be to us?" I ask as we sit beside each other on one of the couches. "Is that why they don't see how wrong this is?"

She takes her time in answering and is quiet when she finally does. "I never knew until I met you how perfect life is there, how disgustingly perfect. Citizens are happy. . . and if they're not, their problems are trivial compared with the problems you face. I don't think it really crosses their minds that Tributes actually die, that this is real, that they leave behind family and friends. They never get to go home. In the Capitol, it's all just a game and I think some people may even have convinced themselves that it really is a game for the Tributes, too. If parents in the Capitol could think from the point of view of parents of Tributes, things might be different."

"They don't view us as people." She doesn't answer, but it wasn't a question. "Well, they should. Will it help me and Cato if they view us as people?"

"Some citizens might sympathize with you if you play your cards right. Others will be worried you're weak. If you want to win them both over, you have to show them that you're people doing whatever it takes to survive, even if you feel guilty about it later. But if you try that, the Gamemakers might not be happy about it."

"And they control everything in there."

Now comes the announcement for the Tributes to make their final preparations. One minute to launch. "It's ok," she tells me and herself. "I'll keep helping you from this end, alright? I can't place money but I'll get friends to. You'll be fine." She flings her arms around me in a tight hug. "I'll help you."

"Thank you." I hug her back. One of my hands is on her shoulder blade, her blue hair falling across the back of my hand. It's soft and feels just like mine. Real. "Maybe we don't think of you guys as real people either." I voice my thoughts in a hushed voice without making the decision to.

"No!" she says, letting go and holding me at arm's length. "Don't think like that. Not right now. You focus on you. Stay safe. Get yourself home."

15 seconds.

"Thank you." My voice is practically a whisper as I back into the tube. It immediately closes and all sound stops. Alaia's teeth are gritted, like she's holding back tears. "I'm a Career," I say to her, hoping she can read my lips. "See you soon."

Instinctively when I feel the plate begin to rise I put my hands on the glass. Maybe to steady myself, maybe in a last ditch effort to stop what's about to happen.

The Bloodbath.

It's completely dark for about fifteen seconds, and then I'm blinking in sunlight. Even as Claudius Templesmith's voice booms around me, announcing the start of the one minute before the gong, I'm scanning the Cornucopia. I can't see very well, but I blink several times scanning the mouth for something useful. Knives. I see them, closer to me than anyone else. They're meant for me. The Gamemakers know I'll stay and fight; they don't need to provoke me by putting my weapon of choice far away. With that in mind, they put them close, knowing I'll do damage with them.

Where's Cato? I look at the Tributes, searching for him. We make eye contact and nod at each other.

Careful not to step off the circle, I position my feet to run. They taught us how to take a firm footing in only two feet of space. It prepared us for this moment.

Ten,

Nine,

Eight...

. . . my heart is pounding in my ears but I can still hear Claudius. I wonder what they must be thinking in the Capitol. No. You focus on you. Stay safe. Get yourself home. Alaia's words ring in my ears again.

Three,

Two,

One...

...

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