There were two Preparation chambers, one for each gender. I arrived late, and quickly snagged a sink beside one of my school friends, Carrie Miller. She turned to me as she combed her shock of purple hair back into a ponytail.
“Where were you?” She asked, silver septum ring glinting. “You missed Cobalt’s speech.”
I hurriedly brushed water over my grubby skin. Being in the ruined sector of the city always left me feeling dirty, sticky. “I was with Gale, up at the ruins,” I replied.
A rumble of laughter rolled through the girl. “Oh, I see.”
I scowled. It was common knowledge that Gale and I had been friends practically in the womb—my mother had been close with Gale’s father, who he, too, had been named after. It seemed almost commonplace to be named after your predecessors. I supposed it was about honour, carrying on the family name and all that.
But recently, people had begun to whisper behind our backs. I had a feeling they were beginning to assume that Gale and I were more than friends—god knows we spent enough time together to be more than that. As I slicked my hair into a high ponytail, I felt a groan of unease roll through me. Did I feel that way about him? Sure, he was nice, caring, but could I see him as a partner?
Before I could think any more about it, Carrie pulled me from my thoughts by tugging me toward the piles of silver jumpsuits. I grimaced as I picked one of my size up.
“These things should be burned at the stake.”
Carrie laughed. “Agreed. The Riders really need to get better fashion designers.” She tossed one back onto the table and stabbed at it with a claw-like fingernail. “I mean, I don’t even know what material they used to make these. And I know all materials.”
Girls surrounded us, plucking jumpsuits from the table. The chambers used to be some sort of school changing rooms—the rows of showers and sickeningly green walls told me that much. They’d hardly been touched since Cobalt came to power and were never cleaned. My stomach seized into a tight ball every time I saw the large smears of blood across the shower walls.
Outside, we lined up in rows of ten, a mixture of boys and girls. Weapons were passed out quickly—guns, knives, flails, anything you wanted was there. I swallowed at the Riders as they came past me with a tray. The weapons glared at me from the platter, as if taunting me.
You don’t really want this, do you Katniss?
You want to be good, to be better.
You want to be everything your parents fought for. Everything your mother became the Mockingjay for.
No. This was who I was. I needed to blend in, to fight alongside my brothers and sisters. Tensely, I grabbed a knife, one with a long, jagged blade.
The night sky above us twisted with a thousand stars, silent lightning illuminating the purple underbellies of dark clouds. A few seconds later, a growl of thunder echoed throughout the city. My heartbeat was in my ears.
What made us any better than those before us? What made us any different than those we were hunting down? Nausea furled in my stomach, tightening my gut. We were the newest embodiments of the Gamemakers—we were murdering the murderers. My fist tightened around the knife so hard my knuckles went white.
We were no better than they ever were.
We marched through the streets, hands clutching at our weapons. There was a fizz of eagerness in the air, underlined with a faint hint of anxiety. I desperately tried to swallow past the dry feeling in my throat, but only succeeded in making it worse.
We were simply repeating history.
Gale emerged from a dark side street, a gun slung over each shoulder. His tanned face was hidden by a silver mask. He swiftly fell into step beside me as we marched as one. I must’ve been looking more panicked than I thought, because he quickly tugged the mask off to peer at me curiously.
I nodded tensely. “I’m fine.”
From his expression, I knew he didn’t believe me, but simply handed me a mask. The mass of teenagers came to a halt and I took the opportunity to place the mask onto my face. Apparently, I was the last to do so—everyone surrounding me was looking up through holes in the same face.
Gale nudged me and pointed forwards. I glanced up, my eyes squinting as droplets fell through the eye holes of the mask—when had it started raining?—and saw the figure standing on the top of Rider Tower.
He, too, bore a mask, but was in one that looked as though it had been steeped in blood. He raised one of his arms in a salute, and every teenager surrounding me erupted into catcalls, whooping and cheering loudly. The Riders around us shot bullets into the air, silencing the rowdiness.
Cobalt stepped up to the very edge of the tower and shouted, “Citizens! The Insurrection Games are once again upon us. The time in which we punish those who are responsible for the falling of our honourable forefathers.”
There was another explosion of cheering, which was quickly quietened down again. I helplessly glanced at Gale, but his face remained stonily impassive.
“Above all, enjoy yourselves,” Cobalt continued, lightning vibrating through the sky behind him. “This is what the districts would’ve wanted. So, without further ado—“ A Rider handed him a casket, from which he plucked out a severed head, encased in bushy white hair. He held it by the crown and thrust it toward the enormous crowd. “Happy Insurrection Games!”
A gun sounded and suddenly, everyone was moving. I caught one last glimpse of President Snow’s head before I was being thrust forward, my hand encased in Gale’s.
Screams and guns sounded. People crying. People laughing.
We were no better.
We were the modern day murders, simply replacing the last.
I gripped my blade. Digging my heels in, I stopped, allowing the flow of teenagers around me to pass. The Riders glanced back, seeing me standing there, getting soaked.
It was now or never.
Without making a sound, I lifted my hand, pressed three fingers to the lips of my mask and held them up.
This was freedom.