Disclaimer: I still don't own X-Men or The Hunger Games.
Land of Tolerance
Nicholas Wright, 63
March 22nd, 22:19 AKST
It was almost too perfect.
Nicholas shook his head as the last section of tape played again. "No, let me go!" Penelope insisted. "It's not over! She's still alive!" Mere feet away, Piper was echoing her words, insisting that the Games weren't over as long as someone else was still alive. To the audience, it would sound as if they wanted to fight. As if they were practically begging for the chance to kill each other, despite having badly wounded each other already.
Across the table, Mack clapped Alvin on the back. "Not a bad job with the cameras. A whole island collapsing, and you managed to keep them running and focused on the contestants. Good work."
"The tape cuts out soon after that," Alvin admitted. "The island's been completely destroyed. Nothing but some floating chunks in the ocean. We did manage to retrieve a mother fox and her kits stranded on one of the larger sections before it sank. There's no way to know for certain whether it's the fox that Jayden befriended, but—"
"But as far as the audience is concerned, it is," Mack agreed. "Someone deserves to get a happy ending out of all this. What did you do with them?"
"They've been relocated to this island," Lillian answered. "We'll be leaving soon enough, I suspect."
"That was always the plan," Nicholas confirmed. "Even without a possible rescue attempt, it wouldn't be wise to use the same location for the Games every year. We'll head back to the mainland facility once our survivors are cleared to travel."
"That should be soon," Anita confirmed. "They're recovering as nicely as you'd expect. They both lost some blood, and Piper had a nasty stomach wound, but I patched them both up. Nothing I could do about Piper's eyes, though. Even if I wanted to try a transplant, the nerves are too badly damaged."
Nicholas nodded. He'd suspected as much. "Could be worse, though," Mack pointed out. "We held up our end of the bargain. Two survivors. Nobody said anything about what condition they would be in."
"And Diana's held up her end," Judah pointed out. "There's been no attack. Still, we probably won't want to stick around here any longer than necessary."
"All right. I can take a hint," Anita agreed. "I can have them ready to leave soon. I'd like to keep them overnight, but they should be ready to go by morning."
"Morning is fine," Nicholas assured her. "Any other business for tonight?"
"Just a lot of editing to do," Mack shrugged. "But that'll take time."
"We'll have time," Nicholas agreed. "Anything else that needs to be taken care of tonight?" The room fell silent. "Then get some sleep. We've all earned it. And Anita?"
"Keep their collars on. We don't want any incidents on this island, particularly not while we're on it."
"Then you're dismissed. I'll see you in the morning." He turned to Alvin and Judah as everyone else started to leave. "What do you think?"
Judah shrugged. "I think it's fairly obvious who's the better candidate and who's … more expendable. We need Penelope; I've said it all along. If we want these Games to eventually move beyond teenagers blindly running about and stumbling across each other, fumbling to come up with a coherent plan, hesitant to attack even when they have the opportunity … if we want something more than that, we need a coach who knows what she's doing. A coach who will push them rather than coddle them. Penelope is the obvious choice; she always has been."
Nicholas turned to Alvin. "Your opinion?"
"I agree with Judah."
Judah raised an eyebrow. "You're kidding."
"Not at all. If that's the direction you'd like these Games to go, then you're absolutely right. Piper survived, and she deserves credit for that, but she's not the cold-blooded soldier the audience needs to see if they're going to be convinced these Games are necessary. Penelope is the embodiment of every reason you want to give the public to fear mutants. We can't afford to lose her."
Nicholas nodded. "And Piper—"
"Is tougher than we thought," Alvin finished. "She can handle this. As long as we give her time to recover before we expect her to—"
"We can't give her too much time," Judah pointed out. "We need to move quickly, or we'll lose our window. Right now, we're fairly certain that whoever the coaches managed to contact through Diana will be looking for us in Alaska. We have a good chance now, but the longer we wait, the lower those chances. You're supposed to be a mathematician."
Alvin's face grew red. "You do realize our plan only succeeds if she survives."
"Not necessarily," Nicholas answered reluctantly. "Judah's right; we'll have to take the risk. I'm flying out to Massachusetts tonight."
Alvin shifted uncomfortably. "Mind if I tag along?"
"I need you here."
"Then can I ask a favor?"
"What do you need?"
"Make a short stop in Utah on the way. I promised … I told Jayden I'd get her dog back to her aunt. I don't want the mutt to get lost in the shuffle."
"It's a little thing, but—"
"I'll deliver him myself," Nicholas assured him. "Anything else?"
"Nothing I haven't said before. And I'm afraid we're too far down this rabbit hole for anything I say now to make a bit of difference."
Nicholas sighed, leaning back in his chair. It was too late at night for Alvin's predictions. "Good night, then."
"Good night." Alvin was still shaking his head as he left.
Judah shrugged. "He'll come around. Negotiating with Diana was his idea in the first place. He had to realize something like this was a possibility."
"I'm sure he did," Nicholas agreed. "Doesn't mean he has to like it."
"He doesn't like any of this," Judah pointed out. "He still does his job. That's good enough for me."
Nicholas nodded. Maybe it was.
Penelope – 098, 12
March 23rd, 10:03 AKST
Maybe it made sense after all.
Penelope opened her eyes, blinking a little in the bright light. But not sunlight. They weren't on the island anymore. Probably the island didn't even exist anymore.
"Good morning." Penelope immediately glanced towards the voice. It belonged to a woman – a woman she hadn't seen before. She wasn't one of the MAAB, but she was clearly working for them. A doctor, perhaps. That would make sense. The woman smiled a little, her warm brown eyes almost … almost familiar. "You probably have questions."
Too many. "Where are we?"
"Back at the base where you stayed before the Games," the doctor answered. "We moved you here this morning."
"How long has it been?"
"Since the end of the Games? Less than twenty-four hours. It's March 23rd. About ten o' clock in the morning."
March 23rd. Penelope closed her eyes. They had only spent a few days on the island. It had barely been more than a week since the Sentinels had brought her here. And in that time, twenty-eight of the contestants – twenty-eight of her fellow mutants – had died.
But not twenty-nine. They had lied. "How's the other girl?"
"She'll make it," the doctor answered vaguely. No thanks to you. She didn't say the words, but they lingered in the air, unspoken. Twenty-eight contestants were dead – four by her hand. It would have been five if the MAAB hadn't stepped in and turned her collar on. There was no doubt in her mind that she could have killed the other girl. Even without her powers, she hadn't been doing too badly, and had probably given worse than she'd gotten. But they'd broken up the fight before she could finish the other girl off. Why?
"Why two of us?" Penelope asked, opening her eyes again. "They said at the start of the Games that there would only be one survivor."
The doctor shrugged. "They said a lot of things, I'm sure. Plans change. I hope you're not too disappointed."
Disappointed. Penelope looked away. No, disappointed wasn't the right word. She wasn't disappointed that someone else had survived, that something had happened to convince the MAAB to allow two of them to escape the island alive. She was just sorry that she hadn't known sooner. If she had…
Then what? Maybe she wouldn't have killed Monet, but that wasn't to say that no one else would have. Things might have turned out exactly the way they had. And even if they wouldn't have, there was no point in dwelling on that now. No point in wondering what might have happened, if only she had known. She hadn't known. What had happened was done, and there was nothing she could do to change that now.
All she could do now was move on, just like she had always done. "So what happens now?" she asked.
"I'm not entirely sure what the others have planned," the doctor admitted. "I heard that Nicholas was headed to Massachusetts to fetch the other girl's family, but you…"
"Don't have any," Penelope finished. There was no point in pretending otherwise. There would be no happy reunions, no one who would be overjoyed to see her come home alive. Home. As if she would be allowed to go home, even if she had one. If they were bringing the other girl's family here…
Penelope leaned back and closed her eyes. Maybe it didn't matter right now. Right now, she was tired. She needed rest. She wasn't used to that. Her collar was still on, which made sense. They probably didn't want to take the risk that she would try anything stupid. But she was too tired now to try anything, even if she'd wanted to. Too tired to do anything but wait.
She would just have to be patient.
Piper Galligan, 17
March 23rd, 11:42 AKST
Everything was still pitch black.
Piper took a deep breath, trying to calm her nerves. She was alive. That was all that mattered. But there was a part of her that had been hoping…
What? That she would be able to see again? Piper swallowed hard against the lump that was forming in her throat. You're alive. She ran her hand along the edge of the bed, searching for the source of the faint humming off to her right. Probably a monitor of some sort. Piper tried to sit up a little, but even that effort sent her head spinning again. Throbbing. But not as bad as the pain in her stomach. Probably where the other girl had stabbed her.
The other girl. What had happened to her? Was she still alive? Why had the MAAB stopped the fight?
Piper leaned back against the pillow behind her. She was too tired to care right now. Every muscle in her body seemed to ache. She could barely move.
But she was alive.
She was really alive. She had survived. Piper tried to smile. She hadn't really expected that. From the beginning, she had wanted to make it out alive. She had wanted to live. But she hadn't really expected to last long in a fight against so many other mutants whose powers were … well, more powerful. Mutants who could summon storms and destroy islands and kill people by sending a current of energy through the ground. Thirty mutants on the island, and she was still alive.
But the others… Akil. Victoria. Diana. Her friends were dead, and she was still alive. She'd known from the start that it would have to happen. That they would have to die if she wanted to live. But that didn't make it any easier. That didn't change what she had done.
She had let them die. And she had killed. She had killed two contestants. Two people. Two kids. And she had gone along with the deaths of others. Piper closed her eyes, breathing as deeply as she could. She was alive. But at what cost?
Suddenly, a door creaked. Piper tried to sit up, but a wave of dizziness forced her back down on the bed. "Hello?" Her voice was weak and shaky. "Who's there?"
"Try not to talk too much," came a voice. "Save your strength. You're going to need it."
"For what?" She'd survived their game. What more did they want from her?
"I'm sorry." The voice was soft. Almost apologetic. "I really am. But there's a reason we let two of you survive. We needed one survivor to stay and help coach next year's contestants, and a second one for … something unofficial."
"Unofficial." She let the word sink in. "I'm not going home, am I."
"Are on their way here by now. They know you're alive. But Piper … they're the only ones. The only ones who will know. Officially, Penelope survived the Games, and despite our most heroic efforts, your injuries were too severe. The rest of the world will think that you died on the helicopter."
"That's enough questions for now. Get some rest."
Piper sat up a little, fighting the dizziness that struck her almost immediately. "What are you planning to do to me?"
"I'm sorry." The voice was farther away now. Was he leaving her? Piper clenched her fists tightly, climbing out of bed. But the bed was higher than she'd thought, and she tumbled to the floor. Something tumbled down on top of her. "Damn it," the voice muttered. Footsteps came closer to her, and lifted something off her.
Piper gasped for breath as a pair of hands helped her to her feet. "What was that?"
"Just your IV bag. Try to be a bit more careful."
"Not my fault I can't see," Piper mumbled.
"I suppose not." He helped her back into her bed. "Look, if I turn your collar off so you can get a good look around, do you promise not to try anything stupid?"
"Like what?" What did he think she was going to do?
"Fair point." Silence for a moment. "A little experiment, if I may? Once I turn your collar off, look into the future as far as you can."
"Just curious. I want to see if your time's improved since the start of the Games."
No. No, that wasn't it. Something else was going on. There was a soft click as her collar turned off, and Piper concentrated.
She could see him. Alvin. Almost immediately, he placed a hand over her mouth. "Okay. Now shut up and listen. I tried to buy you more time, but no one listened to me. As usual. Once your parents arrive, the three of you are going to be released. Which probably sounds great. Trouble is, they're planning to release you into the Alaskan wilderness. They're hoping that you'll last long enough to be picked up by the mutants that Diana is in contact with, and that they'll be able to use you to track them back to wherever they're hiding. Not a bad plan. In fact, I'm the one who suggested it. But they're counting on you staying in roughly the same spot. So here's what you need to do. Once you're free, you take your parents, and you head east. As far as you can, as quickly as you can. Got that?"
He removed his hand. Piper opened her mouth to object, but he shook his head. "East."
"East," she agreed. "Then what?"
"You'll know what to do." He shook his head. "Now, break the vision, and tell me that you're not interested in being my guinea pig. If I've timed this right, this is about as long as you can hold on any—"
Before he could finish the sentence, the vision snapped. Piper's hand flew forward, connecting with his cheek. "I don't want to be your guinea pig!"
"Fine," Alvin muttered, and her collar clicked back on. Great. The door closed behind him, and Piper collapsed back onto her pillow.
What was she supposed to do now?
Ian Viera, 22
March 23rd, 12:37 AKST
What were they supposed to do now?
Ian paced back and forth as Maria and Vincent sat silently, watching. It had been hours since they'd flown back to the mainland, and still no one had told them anything. The Games were over, but no one had bothered to tell them what they were supposed to do next. The whole reason they had been taken, after all, was to serve as coaches for the Games. Now that the Games were over…
Finally, the door creaked open, revealing Alvin with a plateful of sandwiches. "Thought you might want some lunch."
Ian shook his head, taking one of the sandwiches. "Lunch is good. Answers are better."
Alvin shrugged. "Answers require questions."
"Why are we back here?"
"We didn't think it was a good idea to stay on the island too long. No one was sure what the other island collapsing might do for the stability of the smaller island. This seemed like a better place to wait."
"Wait for what?"
"For everything to be ready. Once we're ready to leave, we'll head back to … you know, I'm not actually sure where Nicholas is planning on setting up camp next. And it would probably be better not to tell you even if I did know."
"Touche." Maybe he was worried that they would tell Diana, and that Diana would tell Erik. But the benefit of a rescue mission had plummeted once the Games were already over. Now there were only the three of them, and…
"How are Penelope and Piper?" Maria asked.
"Alive," Alvin answered vaguely. "You'll have plenty of time to see Penelope soon enough. She'll be joining you to coach next year's Games, so I imagine the four of you will have a lot to talk about."
"The four of us," Ian repeated. "What about Piper?"
"She's fine," Alvin assured them. "But we have something else planned for her. There was a general consensus that Penelope would make a better public survivor. She's the sort of mutant we want the world to see."
"The sort you want the world to fear," Vincent corrected.
"That's fair," Alvin agreed. "We were honest from the start about the purpose of the Games, and Penelope serves that purpose perfectly. Piper will be of use, too, of course – just in a different context."
Maria shook her head. "She'll be of use? Haven't you gotten enough use out of them already? Haven't you taken enough from them? Just let them be."
Alvin sighed. "And do what? Let her go back home and tell her story? Let her put the word out there that they only fought to the death because we told them to? And what would you have us do with Penelope? She has no family. Nowhere to go back to. You think the public would stand for it if we simply let her loose in the world?"
No. Of course not. Ian clenched his fists, but he held his tongue. They'd known from the start, even if they hadn't want to admit it to themselves. There had never been any chance that the survivors would be going home again.
And neither would they.
Dr. Alvin Mendelson, 60
March 23rd, 23:47 AKST
He still didn't like it.
Alvin shook his head as the plane landed. Nicholas quickly stepped off the plane, followed by a man and woman who could only be Piper's parents. Alvin braced himself. He wasn't sure how much Nicholas had told them, but apparently it was enough for them to be worried. That didn't say much, of course. They'd probably been worried sick ever since the Sentinels had taken Piper. And now things were about to get even worse.
Stop it. Their daughter was alive. That was better news than twenty-eight families were going to be getting. There would be a few bumps, a few rough patches, but at least she was alive. And they would be together.
Keep telling yourself that.
The couple followed Nicholas towards the building, and Alvin let them come. No need to go out in the cold to meet them. Nicholas nodded crisply as the three of them arrived. "Alvin. Is everything ready?"
"Ready as we'll ever be." He turned to Piper's parents. "You must be Frank and—" What was the woman's name? He'd looked at the file a few hours ago. Maybe it started with a c? "Charlotte?"
"Chantelle," the woman corrected. Close enough. "Where's Piper?"
"Follow me," Alvin instructed. "But I should warn you, she's … not in the best condition."
"That's what he said." Frank gestured to Nicholas. "But he wouldn't tell us what happened. What did you do to her? Was there some sort of accident?"
"That's … one way of putting it." No. No, it wasn't. It hadn't been an accident at all. But that was how they were supposed to paint the Games. As an accident. A mistake. The unintended consequence of setting mutants free on an island together. Alvin hesitated as he stopped by the door to Piper's room. "She's inside."
Immediately, the two of them rushed in. Alvin lingered outside with Nicholas, watching. It was almost predictable. The confusion, the horror, the anger, the relief that their daughter was alive, the rage at the people who would dare do this sort of thing to her. He didn't need to hear the conversation to know that the two of them would spend the rest of their lives despising him and Nicholas and the rest of the MAAB.
And they probably deserved it.
Alvin glanced at Nicholas, who nodded and closed the door to the room. Locked it. Nodded to Anita, who was waiting for his signal down the hall. Slowly, gas began to trickle into the room. Not enough to harm them. Just enough for them to pass out. They probably wouldn't even remember smelling it. They would just fall asleep.
It would be hours before they woke up.
Piper Galligan, 17
March 24th, 05:43 AKST
She didn't even remember falling asleep.
Piper gasped for breath in the chilly air as she came to. What had happened? The last thing she remembered was trying to explain to her parents what had happened. What she had done. What she had been forced to do. She didn't remember falling asleep, but she must have. Where was she now? It was colder, and she could feel something beneath her. Snow? Piper ran her hand along the ground. It was snow. She was outside.
Shit. When Alvin had said the others were planning to release them in the wilderness, she hadn't realized he'd meant immediately. She had assumed – incorrectly, it was obvious now – that they would give her time. Time to recover. Time to heal. Her stomach was still throbbing with pain, although it seemed a little duller now. Maybe they had given her something to numb the pain. Maybe she was simply too cold to notice.
Just think. Alvin had said that they were planning to release her parents along with her. They were obviously here somewhere. The MAAB wouldn't have gone through the trouble of bringing them all the way to Alaska to reunite them if they were just planning to separate them now. "Mom? Dad?" Piper asked, her voice thin and a little hoarse. There was no response. "Mom?" she called a little louder. "Dad?"
"Piper!" Her father's voice, coming from a little ways away. "Piper, are you all right?"
"I … I think so." She was still alive, at least. That was something. And, from what Alvin had said, the MAAB wasn't trying to kill her. They just didn't particularly care whether or not she died, as long as they accomplished their goal. "Where are you? I…"
"We're right here." Her mother's voice, right beside her now. She could feel their arms around her, holding her tight. "It's all right. It'll be all right."
"Where are we?"
"Your guess is as good as ours," her father admitted. "Better, maybe. It's cold, and there's snow, but there's really not much else."
"Except a couple backpacks," her mother offered. "I was going to open them, but what if they're … I don't know … booby-trapped or something?"
Piper shook her head. "If they wanted us dead, they would have killed us by now."
"You said they did kill the others," her father pointed out. "Or made them kill each other. Made you kill each other."
He had a point. But maybe there was something in the backpacks that could help them. "I can open them if you like," Piper offered. That would do the trick.
"No, I'll do it," her father insisted immediately. There was a moment of silence, and then a relieved sigh. "It's food. Enough for a few days, at least. And three blankets. What the hell is going on?"
"Maybe it's another test," Piper suggested. "Maybe we have to find our own way back to … somewhere. Civilization." East. Alvin had said to head east. But could she really trust him? Was he really trying to lead her where he said, or was he hoping that if he could steer her off track, no one would find her?
Piper ran her hand along her collar. A quick attempt to glance into the future was enough to tell her it was still active. Her power wasn't going to be any use. But she hadn't made it through the Games simply because of her power. She'd survived because of Akil, because of Victoria, because of Diana. She hadn't survived the Games alone, and she wouldn't have to make it through this alone. Piper shook her head. "I think we should head east."
"Do you think that's the direction they brought us from?" her mother asked.
"No. No, I don't think we want to go back there," Piper reasoned. "But before they took us to the island, we were at a … a facility somewhere on the mainland of Alaska. I'm guessing we're still pretty close by. I remember one of them saying that the nearest town was east when they sent someone to get supplies."
For a moment, there was silence. Piper held her breath. She hated lying to her parents, but she didn't dare tell them why she really wanted to go east. For all she knew, the MAAB was still watching. Maybe they could listen in through her collar. If Alvin was telling the truth, after all, they were tracking her. Hoping that she would lead them to … who? Alvin had said something about Diana being in contact with some other mutants. But who were they?
Maybe she should ask Diana. But if she fell asleep now … no. No, it was better to keep moving. "East it is, then," her father agreed, helping her to her feet. Piper couldn't hide a gasp of pain, and, almost immediately, her father's arms were around her. "Are you all right?"
"It's my stomach. Still healing. If I'd had a little more time…"
But she hadn't had time to recover. They'd made sure of that. Maybe it was their way of ensuring that the other mutants had to come to her, rather than the other way around. Maybe they just wanted to get on with the plan as quickly as possible.
But they'd made a mistake. They hadn't been counting on her family. Piper felt her father's arms lifting her, carrying her in a direction she could only assume was east.
She could only hope it was east.
Nicholas Wright, 63
March 24th, 14:52 AKST
They were still heading east.
Nicholas shook his head as he watched the blip on the screen. "Diana must have told her something," Judah mumbled. "How else would she know which way to go?"
Alvin shrugged. "She may just be guessing. She knows she's in Alaska, after all. If you head north, south, or west long enough, you hit the ocean. Head east, and you hit Canada. I know which direction I'd pick."
"How long before they reach the border?" Nicholas asked.
Judah shook his head. "At this pace? At least a few more days. They're making good time, considering how injured Piper is. But there's still plenty of time. Chances are, whoever Diana is talking to won't want to take the risk of them dying in the wilderness before reaching the border."
"If they figure out where she is," Nicholas pointed out. "If they couldn't find us, why do you think they're going to be able to find her?"
Judah shrugged. "Because Alvin told Ian where we were dumping Piper."
Nicholas raised an eyebrow. "Intentionally?"
Alvin nodded. "Mind you, I tried to make it sound like it wasn't intentional. I'm pretty sure they believed me. The fact that I voted against the Games earns me a bit of trust, at least. Not that they'll ever trust me again if this goes our way."
"If this goes anyone's way," Judah pointed out. "If they can't find her – or if they figure out that we're trying to lure them into a trap – then there's a chance that they'll just leave her to die out there. We have no idea who we're dealing with. Assuming that we're dealing with anyone and Diana hasn't been making this whole thing up in order to exert some leverage."
Nicholas nodded. It was a good point. But there was nothing they could really do about it – not until something had happened, one way or another.
For now, all they could do was wait.
Penelope – 098, 12
March 25th, 12:39 AKST
She was tired of waiting.
Penelope sat up a little as the door opened, and the doctor entered again. She'd been the only person Penelope had seen since waking up, and she was starting to become anxious for any other company. Anita was pleasant enough, but she seemed more interested in how Penelope was doing physically than in whatever was going to happen next. And she wanted to know what was going to happen next. What the others were planning to do with her.
But she knew better than to ask. Better than to press her luck. Not yet. For now, the best course of action was to take as much time as the doctor thought she needed in order to recover. Her collar was still on, after all, which didn't leave her in much of a position to demand to be told anything. Soon enough, someone would tell her something.
"Getting a bit restless?" Anita asked with a smile.
"Not much to do in here," Penelope admitted.
"Thought that might be a nice change of pace," Anita suggested. "After three days of … well, what happened."
Maybe that was true. Maybe she was just trying to be kind. But there was no point in sugar-coating what she would eventually have to learn – what the MAAB planned to do with her now that the Games were over. "Waiting isn't really much better," Penelope pointed out. "Would you want to just sit around and wait if you were in my position?"
"No," Anita answered, more quickly than Penelope had been expecting. "Which is why I suggested to the others that you might be ready to be up and about."
Up and about. She made it sound like she would be free to go wherever she pleased, do whatever she liked. "And where do you suggest I go while up and about?"
"I figured visiting the other coaches might be a good place to start," Anita offered.
The other coaches. "Is that what's going to happen now? You're planning to make me one of the coaches for next time?"
"I believe that's part of what they have planned," Anita agreed. "To be frank, I'd say you're probably a bit more qualified than the three they've got now. Any of next year's contestants would be lucky to have you."
Next year's contestants. So they were already planning for the next Games. They were that confident that this year's Games had been successful.
And why not? If the purpose of their Games had been to give the public a reason to fear mutants, they certainly had plenty of ammunition now. Footage of her destroying the island would probably be enough to garner whatever support they still needed, to say nothing of the people she'd killed. Penelope shook her head. "Can I see them?"
Anita nodded. "Follow me."
She led Penelope down the hall and into a small room. Ian, Maria, and Vincent stood up immediately as the door creaked open, but all three visibly relaxed when they saw who it was. Maria took few steps closer. "Penelope. It's good to see you."
"You, too." It was good to see another mutant. Well, another mutant who wasn't trying to kill her. "I'm glad you're still okay."
"And you. They told us you and Piper were still alive, but it's good to actually see you."
"And Piper? Where's she?"
Ian shook his head. "Not here. They took her somewhere else, along with her family. I don't think … I don't think they'll be coming back."
What? That didn't make any sense. Why would they let two contestants survive if they were going to send one of them off somewhere else? "Do you know where they took her?"
"Somewhere else in Alaska," Vincent offered. "But I don't think the plan is for any of us to stay here for long. They haven't really said where we're going, though."
"Somewhere safe," Anita assured them. "Somewhere where they'll be able to keep an eye on you, and where you can help them plan for next time."
Maria raised an eyebrow. "Help them?"
"Yeah. Sounds like they wanted your input on how to make things … a bit smoother, and maybe a bit safer next time."
Vincent smirked. "Well, they could start by not picking an island."
"And not picking anyone with the ability to completely destroy an island," Ian added.
Anita smiled a little. "I'll pass that along."
Piper Galligan, 17
March 27th, 07:42 AKST
She wasn't even sure how much time had passed.
Piper huddled a little closer to her parents as they stopped to rest for a little while. But only for a little while. It was better to keep moving. If they stopped for too long, they might not want to start again. It had been hard enough to start walking again last time…
But they had to. If they stayed in one place … then what? Wasn't that what people were supposed to do when they were lost in the wilderness? Wasn't there a better chance of being spotted if they stayed put? Maybe. Maybe, under normal circumstances. But these weren't normal circumstances. After all, there were already people who knew exactly where they were, and were simply choosing not to help. The MAAB could swoop in and save them at any time if they came too close to being killed.
But would they? Would they really step in to save her, if something happened? They certainly hadn't hesitated to let twenty-eight other mutants die. What made her any different? Sure, she had survived their little Game, but that didn't mean she was worth anything to them. She was just bait. Bait for … someone. A group of people, from what Alvin had said. But how would they be able to find her? And what made Alvin think they would risk getting caught by the MAAB in order to save her?
"I think … I think I see something." Her mother's voice was quiet.
"What sort of something?" Piper asked. So far, they hadn't run into much of anything – good or bad. No people, no sign of any life … but also nothing that seemed interested in attacking them. No wolves or foxes or bears or … whatever else lived in Alaska. If they were even in Alaska. That had just been her best guess. They could be anywhere.
"Some sort of … post? A marker of sorts, maybe? It's not light enough to see much at this distance. I can take a look if—"
"We can all go look," Piper suggested. If it was something dangerous, she didn't want her mother to risk her life alone. And since she couldn't exactly look into the future to see what it was, they were stuck investigating the old-fashioned way.
Her father helped her to her feet, and the three of them stumbled forward. Slowly. So slowly. It seemed to be getting colder. Or maybe it was just the wind. Piper gripped her father's hand, wishing for one of Akil's fires. Even an imaginary one would be better than the freezing cold right now.
"It is a marker," her father confirmed. "A mile marker, maybe? I think … I think this is the border."
Suddenly, another voice broke through the darkness. "Step across! Now! They're coming!"
Across? Across what? But before she could ask, a pair of hands reached out and dragged her forward. Something pushed her to the ground. "Stay down," a voice hissed, as if there was really any way they would be able to hide. From what her parents had said, the only thing in the area was a post. Some sort of marker. Marking a border.
Oh. She put it together as one of the new arrivals chuckled a little.
"Welcome to Canada."
Frank Galligan, 45
"Welcome to Canada."
Frank almost burst out laughing. The three men in front of them were dressed like Mounties. The red uniforms. The hats. But what were they doing out here, on some random strip of the border? It was too much of a coincidence. Maybe it was the cold or the lack of sleep or the craziness of the last few days, but it was almost funny. Almost.
It probably would have been funny if it weren't for the Sentinels in the distance. At least three of them, approaching from the opposite direction. "Get behind me," one of the men instructed, stepping in front of Piper. Between Piper and the Sentinels. Frank and Chantelle quickly did as they were told. Whatever made this man think he could take on three Sentinels, he certainly didn't want to be standing between them.
The man in front pulled his hat down a little, hiding his face. As the Sentinels approached, he held out his hand. "Stop! I order you to stand down in the name of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. You will not cross onto Canadian soil."
The Sentinels landed a few feet away. "Orders not accepted."
"Override Mendelson dash J seven nine four." His voice was a little different now. A different accent, maybe. Or maybe he was hearing things. "You will not cross the border. These three are under Canadian authority now. You will comply."
Silence for a moment. Then, to Frank's surprise, the Sentinels took a step back. "Override accepted. Awaiting orders."
"Holy shit, that actually worked." The man in front was practically giggling now, his voice back to normal.
"Don't push your luck," one of the others advised in a thick German accent. "Tell them to get out of here."
"Right." The man in front turned back to the Sentinels. "Return to base immediately."
Another pause. "Command not accepted."
"Shit," the man hissed. "They must be able to override it. They can probably hear us right now."
"Why haven't they attacked?" the other one asked.
The third man finally spoke, his voice low. "They're waiting for us to tip our hand. So tip it."
"If you say so." The man in front tipped his hat back a little, revealing his face. "You're speaking to Miles Nolan, Vice President of the United States of America. Well … former Vice President, anyway. I'm a political refugee now at the consent of the Canadian government. These people are under my protection. I'm recording this and live-streaming it now to my associates. If you take any action against us, this goes … bacterial?"
"Viral," the man with the German accent hissed.
"Viral. Think about that. Whoever you're working for, however high up in the government you think you are … can you really afford that sort of publicity? Attacking the Vice President, two Canadian Mounties, and three unarmed civilians who are seeking asylum? Think about it." He took a step forward. "Think really hard."
The Sentinels froze. Waiting for orders. Finally, they turned. Without a word, they flew off. Former Vice President Nolan breathed a sigh of relief. "Let's get out of here before they change their minds. Kurt?"
The third man shook his head. "Wait. They tracked you here. How?"
Slowly, Piper struggled to her feet. "I think that's my fault."
Piper Galligan, 17
"I think that's my fault."
Piper gripped her father's hand tightly, swaying a little as she stood. "The people who are behind the Sentinels … the Mutant Affairs Advisory Board … they put something in my collar. They're using it to track me. You'll be safer if you leave me— What's so funny?" One of them was laughing. Chuckling, really.
"Hold still," the voice answered. "If they programmed the collar with some sort of shock, this might hurt a little, but only for a moment. Ready?"
"For what?" But before he could answer, a sudden jolt of pain shot through her neck, bringing her to her knees. But it was worth it. Immediately, she could see. The light was so sudden, it took her a moment to realize she was using her power. She could see three … Mounties? One of them had said he was the Vice President, and he certainly looked familiar. But it was another one who had her attention, her collar floating above his hand, twisting about as if it were putty in his hands. Quickly, it melted away, leaving nothing but a pile of metal goo in the snow by his feet.
Suddenly, the vision snapped. She was on her knees in the snow. "What was that?" one of the others asked.
"I'm sorry," Piper apologized. "I can usually control it. I think the collar … bottled it up somehow, so when it all came out … I'm sorry."
"Don't be." She felt a hand close around hers, drawing her to her feet again. "Never be sorry for using your gifts. Never apologize for that."
"I—" I'm sorry was what she'd almost said, but she stopped herself. "Who are you?"
A dripping noise told her the collar was melting. "You can call me Magneto. Clearly, whoever left you here had no idea who they were dealing with, or they would never have put their tracking device inside a metal collar. It's a mistake we can't count on them repeating. They'll be more careful next time."
"They'll be looking for us."
"But we're safe here, right? On Canadian soil? That's what you said."
"That was a bluff," the first man answered. "The Canadian government has no idea we're here. Though I suspect that won't last long now. We may have overplayed our hand."
"But you're the Vice President."
"Former Vice President," he corrected. "Which amounts to exactly nothing in terms of actual authority or influence. Less than nothing once they accuse me of aiding a mutant terrorist cell. That was a trick that'll only work once."
"Then let's take advantage of it," Magneto agreed. "Nightcrawler, get us out of here."
Piper could feel a hand squeeze hers. There was some sort of whoosh, and suddenly her stomach was churning. "What was—" But before she could finish her question, it happened again. And again.
After the fourth time, she passed out.
Dr. Alvin Mendelson, 60
"How the hell did they know your override code?"
Alvin shrugged as Judah continued fuming. "Beats me. I used it when I picked up Verona. Maybe—"
"Really?" Judah growled. "You expect us to believe that?"
Alvin sighed. "You think I gave it to them?"
"You expect us to believe you didn't?"
"I expect you to use some common sense, though that might be a bit too much to expect," Alvin countered. "What would be the point of giving it to them? All it did was buy them a few seconds. We overrode the Sentinels from here almost immediately."
"Almost immediately," Nicholas pointed out. "If it had been another situation…"
"But it wasn't," Alvin reminded him. "We weren't pressed for time. They weren't going anywhere – not until they were certain the Sentinels wouldn't follow. They didn't want to risk leading us back to … wherever their base is."
"Which could be anywhere," Judah reasoned. "The one that Nolan called Kurt – he's the one who attacked the president. He's a teleporter. They could be anywhere. If they haven't already decided to relocate somewhere safer. But we have bigger problems than that."
"You mean the fact that our former Vice President is helping the mutants?" Nicholas offered.
Judah shook his head. "We already knew that was a possibility from the moment he revealed himself as a mutant. No, our bigger problem is the third one."
Nicholas raised an eyebrow. "The third one?"
"The third Mountie," Alvin agreed.
"They're not Mounties," Judah grumbled.
"Whatever. Whatever he did, we've completely lost the signal from Piper's collar."
Nicholas shook his head. "So he's … what? Telekinetic? He can interfere with mechanical signals? Or the metal the collars are made of might be — oh."
Judah nodded. "Exactly."
"The reports said he was dead."
"The reports based on the information we collected at the school," Judah pointed out. "One of the few bits of information we managed to glean from their computers. Almost everything else was trashed, but information about the Alkali Lake incident survived. We assumed it was because the data was some of the most recent, but what if it was deliberate?"
"They wanted us to think he was dead," Nicholas agreed. "It makes sense. Now we know better. The question is, what do we do about it?"
"Not much we can do until we figure out where they're hiding," Judah admitted. "Like I said, they could be anywhere. They managed to give us the slip … this time."
Alvin had to fight hard not to smile. "So we move out?"
Nicholas nodded. "We move out."
Penelope – 098, 12
March 27th, 13:55 AKST
"Where do you think they're taking us?"
Penelope didn't expect an answer. Not a real one, at least. Chances were, none of the other coaches knew where they were going, either. Why would the MAAB tell them and risk the chance of … what? If someone was going to try to rescue them, wouldn't they have done it during the Games? When there were more people to rescue?
Still, they probably figured it was better not to take their chances. Ian shrugged as the three of them settled into seats on the plane – seats that were nowhere near the windows, which were shaded and locked. The MAAB wasn't taking any chances that they might be able to figure out where they were headed. All they knew for certain was that they were leaving Alaska.
"Who knows?" Maria agreed. "Could be anywhere. Even if they haven't figured out where they want to hold next year's Games yet—"
"They haven't," Penelope confirmed. For the past few days, most of their attention had been on manipulating this year's videos. From the look of things, they hadn't even had to do much editing. They could simply cut out the parts where the contestants mentioned that they had been instructed to kill, and leave the parts where they talked about killing. Cut out any mention of being taken from their families, and leave any mention of being willing to kill to get back to them. Simple. Straightforward. Anyone could do it.
It was almost frightening.
Almost. They'd known from the start, after all, what the MAAB meant to do with the results of the Games. And they'd gone along with it anyway. She'd gone along with it anyway. She'd done exactly what they'd wanted her to do, exactly what they'd expected, because that was what had been necessary in order to survive.
"Even if they had decided, they wouldn't risk taking us there immediately," Vincent pointed out. "No point in keeping us there for a whole year, taking the chance that we might figure out where we are and organize some sort of breakout."
Penelope couldn't help a smile. He was still thinking about escape. As if they would ever truly be able to escape. She'd tried that. It hadn't worked. And she wasn't about to waste the rest of her life in one futile escape attempt after another. They had always found her. And they always would. So she might as well make the most of the life she had, rather than pining for the one she wanted.
Before they could say anything else, Alvin climbed into the plane along with them. "Looks like we're about ready to take off. Doc says Penelope's in the clear, and there's not much of a reason to stick around here anymore."
Penelope raised an eyebrow. What did that mean? Why the sudden hurry to leave? She'd been fit to travel for at least a day or two now. What had they been stalling for?
But she knew better than to ask. She wouldn't get an answer out of Alvin. "Tell Anita thank you for the work she did," Penelope offered. "I mean, Doctor…" She hesitated. Anita had never actually said what her last name was.
"Donahue," Alvin finished. "Anita Donahue."
Penelope froze. "Donahue."
"Is there a problem?" Alvin asked.
Penelope shook her head. It wasn't a problem. Just a surprise. She wondered whether they knew. Whether she was right. But asking … asking might jeopardize whatever Anita was trying to do – assuming she was trying to do anything. "No problem," Penelope assured him. "I just thought the name sounded familiar from somewhere. I must have been mistaken."
But she wasn't.
Linda Donahue, 67
Co-Founder of New Sanctuary
March 28th, 09:16 MST
"How is she?"
Linda looked up from the laundry she was folding. "Well, and a fine good morning to you, too."
Erik shook his head. "Good morning."
Linda smiled a little. "Good morning. Now that wasn't so hard, was it?"
"Not at all," Erik answered coolly. "Now how is she?"
Linda put aside her laundry. "I know we talked about the risks of bringing her here, but—"
"We can't force her to leave now," Erik insisted.
Linda shook her head. "You misunderstood me. I'm trying to apologize. When you suggested taking her in, I had reservations because … well, because of what happened the last time we gave refuge to a few young mutants who were fleeing the government. It didn't end well."
That was an understatement, of course. She had loved Penelope and Harper dearly, but if it hadn't been for them … well, she might still be living peacefully in their old sanctuary in Washington, rather than hiding out in some abandoned cabins in the middle of the Canadian wilderness. But try as she might, she couldn't bring herself to regret it. Penelope and Harper had needed her then. And now…
"I can't guarantee that this will end well," Erik admitted. "We know they tracked her to the Canadian border, at the very least. I melted the tracker that was in her collar, but we've shown some of our cards now. They know Miles is with us, and they know we're in Canada."
"Canada is pretty big."
"It is. But if the Canadian government is persuaded to help them, it could shrink very quickly. You were right about the risk we're taking to help her."
"But wrong to doubt that it was a risk worth taking," Linda assured him. "Have you talked to her? The poor thing was half-frozen when you found her. She owes you her life."
"So she's going to live?"
"She is if I have anything to say about it," Linda smirked. "With enough time to rest and recover, she should be right as rain. Well, almost. There's nothing I can do about her eyes, and it'll be a while before she feels up to running circles around us, but…"
"But she's well enough to talk."
"For a little while, at least. Her parents are with her now, but they must be exhausted. Poor things haven't left her side since you arrived. But that's how parents are, I suppose. That's certainly how I was with my daughter, every time she came down with the slightest sniffle. But what else can you do but love them?"
For a moment, she thought Erik might say something in response. She kept trying to give him openings, a chance to talk about whatever might be bothering him. So far, though, she'd had no luck. "Not a thing," he agreed, heading for Piper's cabin.
Linda followed, and, sure enough, Piper's parents were still there, sitting beside her bed. "Who's there?" Piper asked, but, after a second, she relaxed. "It's you."
"Hello, dear," Linda smiled, taking a seat beside Piper's father. It hadn't taken her long to figure out that Piper's power had something to do with seeing the future. Maybe that was enough to make up for the loss of her eyes. She hoped it would be. "How are you feeling?"
"Better than I was," Piper answered vaguely. "A bit … disoriented. And very tired. But … alive. That's something."
Erik took a seat on the other side of the room. "Do you think you could answer a few questions?"
Piper Galligan, 17
That was the last thing she wanted to do.
Piper hesitated as the room fell silent. No one wanted to speak for her. Even her parents, who had done their best to protect her, to shield her, didn't want to step in and say that she wasn't ready to talk about what had happened. Maybe they thought talking about it would help. Maybe they had questions of their own that they still wanted answered. She had told them a little, but had kept most of the details to herself. Even during their days in the wilderness, she'd avoided the topic. She didn't want them to think…
What? That she was a murderer? A monster? They would find out soon enough exactly what she had done in order to survive. The MAAB was planning to air the footage of the Games. Even here, in what she had gathered was essentially the middle of nowhere, it was only a matter of time before they saw it. Maybe it was better if they heard it from her.
But that didn't mean she was ready.
Finally, Linda spoke. "I have a few things to get ready for lunch. Frank, Chantelle, if you would be so kind…"
"But—" her father started.
"No buts, dear. There are a lot of mouths to feed, and many hands makes light work."
A lot of mouths to feed? How many of them were there? Maybe that didn't matter at the moment. Footsteps by the door revealed that her parents were leaving, along with Linda. Piper quickly glanced into the future – enough to see that they were really gone, and that the other man – Magneto – was still seated in a chair on the other side of the room. "Is that better?" he asked.
"Why would that be better?" But as much as she didn't want to admit it, it was. It was better to think that her parents wouldn't have to hear what she'd done. Not yet, at least. Magneto's interest, after all, was probably strategic. He wanted to know what he was up against. He didn't care what she'd done, what she'd been forced to do in order to survive.
"If you want me to ask them to come back, I can," Magneto offered.
"No," Piper answered, a little more forcefully than she had intended. "No, I'm … I'm okay. What do you want to know?"
"Let's start from the beginning. Diana said there were thirty of you. Do you have any idea how they decided who to recruit?"
"I wasn't recruited," Piper spat. He made it sound like she'd chosen to go with them. Like they'd convinced her to participate. But they hadn't. Not really. She'd gone with the Sentinels willingly, but only because she'd seen the alternative – what they would have done to her family if she hadn't gone. And she'd had no idea – not then – what they'd wanted her for. If she had…
Maybe she still would have gone. Maybe she wouldn't have. Maybe it didn't matter. She had gone. The Games had happened. There was nothing she could do to change that now. But to suggest that she'd had any choice in the matter at all…
"So why don't you tell me what did happen."
"The Sentinels took me. Well, there was a man with them, too. Doctor something. Brenner, maybe? I'm not sure. I never really saw him after that. He wasn't around as much as some of the others."
"The rest of the MAAB. They're the ones who arranged the Games. They wanted to use us to convince the rest of the country that they should be afraid of mutants, and … I think … I think they got what they wanted. We did exactly what they wanted us to."
"You did what you had to in order to survive."
Piper swallowed hard. She'd been trying to tell herself the same thing for days. But that didn't make it any better. That didn't change what she'd done. Now that she was certain she was going to live, it was all beginning to sink in. The two boys she'd killed. The others she'd been prepared to kill. That hadn't been the MAAB. It had been her. She'd chosen to kill them in order to survive.
But the worst part was, she didn't regret it. Couldn't regret it. Because as hard as this was – as much pain as she was in, as hard as it was to sleep, as much as she wished none of this had ever happened – she was alive. She was alive, when the only other option would have been death. That had to count for something.
It had to count for everything.
"I did," she agreed. "I did what I had to. They told us the day after we got there that's what we would have to do. That's when I met Diana. I was sitting right next to her when they told us. It didn't even sink in then – not really – that she was going to die if I was going to live. I just wanted … I wanted someone to talk to. I wanted a friend."
Footsteps. Piper felt a hand close around hers. "Tell me about her."
Piper hesitated a moment. But only a moment. When she opened her mouth again, it all came pouring out. How she and Diana had decided to train together. How Ian had invited Akil to join them because Diana had trouble falling asleep. How the three of them had found out that some of the MAAB had voted against the Games and were trying to help them. How it hadn't done any good, and they'd been taken to the island anyway.
The island. The parachutes. The boy who had shot Diana down. How she and Akil had taken care of Diana until it was clear she wasn't going to make it, how she had fallen asleep to find out what Diana wanted them to do, and Akil had killed Diana, inadvertently trapping her in the dreamland, which had led to everything else. Diana had led them to the boy … the boy she had killed. But not the one who had shot down Diana's parachute. That had brought them closer to the storm they'd gone to investigate, which had robbed her of her sight but had also brought them to Victoria.
Victoria, who had saved their lives. Who had sacrificed herself so that she and Akil could get away. Akil, who had saved her any number of times while they'd been fleeing the collapsing edges of the island, until they'd come face to face with the only other mutant still alive on the island. She'd tried to save Akil, but…
"But it was too late," Piper finished, choking back tears. "I was too late. The current reached him, and … and that was it. He was dead. I would have died, too, but the MAAB turned our collars on. I didn't realize then what that meant … that they wanted two survivors. I thought … I don't know what I thought. Maybe that they were trying to give me a chance. A chance to kill the other girl. I certainly wouldn't have stood a chance in a fair fight. I was losing as it was when they … they had to tear us apart. I kept trying to fight. Trying to kill her, even though I didn't have to."
Finally, Piper fell silent. It was only then that she realized how hard she was gripping Magneto's hand. "That's … probably not the sort of details you wanted," she admitted. "But I don't really … I don't know anything about their plans. I don't know why they chose us. Why they chose me. There are certainly more powerful mutants out there."
"There certainly are," Magneto agreed. "But from what you said, I think that was the point."
"What do you mean?"
"If they'd only chosen the most powerful, the most destructive, those who could cause the most damage, that wouldn't prove their point. People would continue to be afraid of mutants with powers like mine. That's not what they want. They want the world to be afraid of mutants like you. Ordinary people. Children."
"I'm not a child."
"Maybe not. But enough of you were. This other girl who won – Penelope – you said she was twelve years old? And that some of the others were thirteen? Fourteen? Those are children, Piper. I'm not saying anyone deserves this, that any of you deserved it, but children…" He trailed off. "I wish I could tell you that it's over. That you're safe. But I don't think any of us will be safe for long – anywhere. Even here, we're not beyond their reach. Not forever. We can evade them for a little while, but it's only a matter of time."
Even here. Piper relaxed her grip a little. "Where are we?"
"Would you like to see?"
Piper tensed. "Is that a joke?"
"Not at all. I know your power only works in short bursts, but that should be enough to get a look around. Of course, if you don't think you're ready…"
Piper shook her head. "No. No, I'm ready." She sat up a little. Her stomach was still throbbing, but her curiosity got the better of her. A quick glance into the future was enough to get a feel for where things were in the room, and she slowly climbed out of bed. Magneto led her to the door, and she took another look.
There were cabins. At least two dozen, and more tents set up around them. Almost like a campground of sorts. All around, people were bustling this way and that. Some were hanging out laundry. Others were busy cooking around a fire that seemed to be burning without any wood. A few children ran by, one of them racing through the fire without a second thought. A boy about her age watched from the side, laughing. Then the vision snapped.
Magneto squeezed her hand. "Welcome to New Sanctuary."
"Who are these people?"
"Most are mutants, like ourselves. Runaways, refugees, fugitives from the government. We've been leading them here, to … almost safety. Nowhere is truly safe for our kind, but we do our best. These are the luckier ones. They managed to escape without much lasting damage."
"But the others?"
"Look to your left."
Another glimpse into the future showed her a different picture. Outside the cabin beside hers was an old woman, rocking back and forth in her chair. A young boy was huddled at her feet, bandages around his arms and legs. A man hobbled by, his purple skin covered in scars. Piper broke the vision on her own.
"Some are fleeing the government," Magneto continued. "Others are simply escaping humanity's cruelty. They've been beaten. Tortured. Scorned and abandoned by their friends and family – all because of who they are. Because of who we are. We offer a place of refuge for all."
"So they're all mutants?"
"Not all of us," came a voice from behind her. Linda. "Some of us just happen to believe that providing a sanctuary for those in need is the right thing to do. Human or mutant – it makes no difference here. Both you and your parents are welcome to stay as long as you like."
"She's right," Magneto confirmed. "Mutants and humans, side by side. Charles would have…" For a moment, there was silence. "An old friend of mine would have been proud. Probably amused, too, if it weren't for the circumstances. But Linda is right. You and your parents are welcome to stay."
Piper nodded a little. She would have to talk to her parents. But she already knew what their answer was going to be. They couldn't go home. They had nowhere else to turn. These people were offering them refuge. Safety. That was more than they were going to get anywhere else. Piper managed a smile.
Penelope – 098, 13
November 4th, 21:42 MST
"Thank you for joining us."
Penelope had to fight to keep from rolling her eyes. Nicholas spoke as if they'd really had a choice in the matter. The four of them – she, Ian, Maria, and Vincent – had been hard at work for months at the MAAB's instruction. The others had been reluctant at first to participate in any way in what the MAAB had planned for next year's Games, but she'd managed, at last, to convince them otherwise.
It was the only reasonable thing to do. They were the MAAB's prisoners, no matter how much they might wish otherwise. They couldn't change what was going to happen. All they could do was try to exert a little influence. And they could only do that if they appeared to be cooperating. And sometimes appearing to cooperate … well, sometimes it required a little actual cooperation, as well.
So she had gone along with it when the MAAB had asked her to help them select a site for the new Games and to iron out some of the wrinkles from the previous one. The previous Games had done their job, of course. Public opinion of mutants was at an all-time low. New regulations and restrictions had been approved across party lines without a second thought or a moment's debate. The Games had served their purpose, but they could be smoother. They could be better.
That was her job. She had been working with Lillian and Alvin to design a better arena. An island had been good for keeping the contestants contained, but had done little to drive them together, to force them to interact – until she'd started collapsing the edges, of course. Next year, they wouldn't have that problem.
There was also the issue of training. The previous year's training had been haphazard at best. Not all of that was the coaches' fault, of course. They hadn't had much to work with as far as supplies were concerned. This year, all of that would change. Training would be more structured, with better facilities. Facilities tailored to their abilities.
Which was the next step – the step she suspected Nicholas had summoned them to discuss. Their arena was prepared. Their training facility was ready. But they hadn't discussed the actual contestants…
"Pleasure's all ours," Ian grumbled. "How's the election going?"
Nicholas shrugged. "Still too close to call. But it doesn't matter."
He was right. Both candidates had pledged to uphold humanity's rights, freedoms, and dignity – by cracking down on unauthorized use of mutant powers. If anything, each candidate was trying to appear more extreme than the other, both appealing to humanity's worst fears and prejudices. Fear of mutants had united the country across party lines, across generational gaps, across religious boundaries. They were united in their fear of the unknown. It didn't matter who won. The Games would go on. It was inevitable.
Maybe it had always been inevitable. Maybe this was simply what people did when confronted with the unknown. The uncomfortable. The mysterious. Maybe it was even an understandable reaction to a few mutants who had shown humanity what they were truly capable of. Maybe it was just … human.
But that didn't make it right.
"I know there are still a few months until the Games," Nicholas continued. "But it's never too early to start preparing for what we might be dealing with." He gestured to a stack of files on the table in front of him. "I think we should start having a look through these." He smiled a little.
"We have some interesting prospects this year."
"There is no land of tolerance. There is no peace. Not here, or anywhere else."
Author's Note: And that's that ... until next time. Thanks for sticking around, everyone. I hope you've enjoyed reading this as much as I've enjoyed writing this. That's it for this particular story, but I've had far too much fun for this to be a one-story endeavor. You can expect another one of these once Hide Your Fires reaches the Games. (I should be able to pick up the pace on that one now that I'm not juggling this one, too.)
Until then, thanks for reading. I'll see you on the other side! ('Til we meet again!)