The squad positions itself under Boggs's direction, and then we have to wait for Cressida to get the cameramen in place as well. They're both to our left, with Castor toward the front and Pollux bringing up the rear so they'll be sure not to record each other. Messalla sets off a couple of smoke charges for atmosphere. Since this is both a mission and a shoot, I'm about to ask who's in charge, my commander or my director, when Cressida calls, "Action!"
We slowly proceed down the hazy street, just like one of our exercises in the Block. Everyone has at least one section of windows to blow out, but Gale's assigned the real target. When he hits the pod, we take cover - ducking into doorways or flattening onto the pretty, light orange and pink paving stones - as a hail of bullets sweeps back and forth over our heads. After a while, Boggs orders us forward.
Cressida stops us before we can rise, since she needs some close-up shots. We take turns reenacting our responses. Falling to the ground, grimacing, diving into alcoves. We know it's supposed to be serious business, but the whole thing feels a little ridiculous. Especially when it turns out that I'm not the worst actor in the squad. Not by a long shot. We're all laughing so hard at Mitchell's attempt to project his idea of desperation, which involves teeth grinding and nostrils flaring, that Boggs has to reprimand us.
"Pull it together, Four-Five-One," he says firmly. But you can see him suppressing a smile as he's double-checking the next pod. Positioning the Holo to find the best light in the smoky air. Still facing us as his left foot steps back onto the orange paving stone. Triggering the bomb that blows off his legs.
It's as if in an instant, a painted window shatters, revealing the ugly world behind it. Laughter changes to screams, blood stains pastel stones, real smoke darkens the special effect stuff made for television.
A second explosion seems to split the air and leaves my ears ringing. But I can't make out where it came from.
I reach Boggs first, try to make sense of the torn flesh, missing limbs, to find something to stem the red flow from his body. Homes pushes me aside, wrenching open a first-aid kit. Boggs clutches my wrist. His face, gray with dying and ash, seems to be receding. But his next words are an order. "The Holo."
The Holo. I scramble around, digging through chunks of tile slick with blood, shuddering when I encounter bits of warm flesh. Find it rammed into a stairwell with one of Boggs's boots. Retrieve it, wiping it clean with bare hands as I return it to my commander.
Homes has the stump of Boggs's left thigh cupped by some sort of compression bandage, but it's already soaked through. He's trying to tourniquet the other above the existing knee. The rest of the squad has gathered in a protective formation around the crew and us. Finnick's attempting to revive Messalla, who was thrown into a wall by the explosion. Jackson's barking into a field communicator, trying unsuccessfully to alert the camp to send medics, but I know it's too late. As a child, watching my mother work, I learned that once a pool of blood has reached a certain size, there's no going back.
I kneel beside Boggs, prepared to repeat the role I played with Rue, with the morphling from 6, giving him someone to hold on to as he's released from life. But Boggs has both hands working the Holo. He's typing in a command, pressing his thumb to the screen for print recognition, speaking a string of letters and numbers in response to a prompt. A green shaft of light bursts out of the Holo and illuminates his face. He says, "Unfit for command. Transfer of prime security clearance to Squad Four-Five-One Soldier Katniss Everdeen." It's all he can do to turn the Holo toward my face. "Say your name."
"Katniss Everdeen," I say into the green shaft. Suddenly, it has me trapped in its light. I can't move or even blink as images flicker rapidly before me. Scanning me? Recording me? Blinding me? It vanishes, and I shake my head to clear it. "What did you do?"
"Prepare to retreat!" Jackson hollers.
Finnick's yelling something back, gesturing to the end of the block where we entered. Black, oily matter spouts like a geyser from the street, billowing between the buildings, creating an impenetrable wall of darkness. It seems to be neither liquid nor gas, mechanical nor natural. Surely it's lethal. There's no heading back the way we came.
Deafening gunfire as Gale and Leeg 1 begin to blast a path across the stones toward the far end of the block. I don't know what they're doing until another bomb, ten yards away, detonates, opening a hole in the street. Then I realize this is a rudimentary attempt at minesweeping. Homes and I latch on to Boggs and begin to drag him after Gale. Agony takes over and he's crying out in pain and I want to stop, to find a better way, but the blackness is rising above the buildings, swelling, rolling at us like a wave.
I'm yanked backward, lose my grip on Boggs, slam into the stones. Peeta looks down at me, gone, mad, flashing back into the land of the hijacked, his gun raised over me, descending to crush my skull. I roll, hear the butt slam into the street, catch the tumble of bodies out of the corner of my eye as Mitchell tackles Peeta and pins him to the ground. But Peeta, always so powerful and now fueled by tracker jacker insanity, gets his feet under Mitchell's belly and launches him farther down the block.
There's a loud snap of a trap as the pod triggers. Four cables, attached to tracks on the buildings, break through the stones, dragging up the net that encases Mitchell. It makes no sense - how instantly bloodied he is - until we see the barbs sticking from the wire that encases him. I know it immediately. It decorated the top of the fence around 12. As I call to him not to move, I gag on the smell of the blackness, thick, tarlike. The wave has crested and begun to fall.
Gale and Leeg 1 shoot through the front door lock of the corner building, then begin to fire at the cables holding Mitchell's net. Others are restraining Peeta now. I lunge back to Boggs, and Homes and I drag him inside the apartment, through someone's pink and white velvet living room, down a hallway hung with family photos, onto the marble floor of a kitchen, where we collapse. Castor and Pollux carry in a writhing Peeta between them. Somehow Jackson gets cuffs on him, but it only makes him wilder and they're forced to lock him in a closet.
In the living room, the front door slams, people shout. Then footsteps pound down the hall as the black wave roars past the building. From the kitchen, we can hear the windows groan, shatter. The noxious tar smell permeates the air. Finnick carries in Messalla. Leeg 1 and Cressida stumble into the room after them, coughing.
"Gale!" I shriek.
He's there, slamming the kitchen door shut behind him, choking out one word. "Fumes!" Castor and Pollux grab towels, aprons to stuff in the cracks as Gale retches into a bright yellow sink. "Mitchell?" asks Homes. Leeg 1 just shakes her head.