A Dream Within a Dream


~ Prologue ~


"I love those eyes of yours, my friend.

Their sparkling, flashing, fiery wonder;

When suddenly those lids ascend,

Then lightning rips the sky asunder;

You swiftly glance, and there's an end;

There's greater charm, though, to admire

When lowered are those eyes divine

In moments kissed by passion's fire;

When through the downcast lashes shine

The smoldering embers of desire..."

— Fyodor Tyutchev


5:32 A.M.

Cerulea (Sector One)

Panem

There was a feeling people got before they drowned. This sort of flutter in the pit of their stomach — their insides swirl like a cyclone in fear of losing breath. They know they're about to rise for air and yet their lungs yearn to desperately breathe anyway. Mentally, they have already accepted they will reach the surface and they are fully prepared to hold onto that little pocket of air until they do so, but there is a little nagging sensation — a sort of primal instinct people possess that makes them want to surrender to the deep. As if in some way, a part of them wants to drown. A part of them longs to float endlessly in the deep blue instead of surfacing for that sweet air. To die.

When he woke up this morning, that was the sensation Lorne felt.

The water in the mattress began to pulse and ripple against his spine, like a soft tide washing up against a beach at noon. His alarm.

The early light of dawn peeked through the dark curtains, filling the bedroom in a dark blue glow. He scraped his groggy eyes with numb fingers, resisting the urge to sink back down in the seductive warmth of the sheets.

But today is the day, he remembered. He had no choice. With a groan, he swept the covers off his bare chest. The air was quite cool in the bedroom, but comfortable. Even so, a chill ran through his body.

He reached over for the watch on the bedside table, and stared at it groggily. The forecasts said it was supposed to be cloudy all day, with a seventy-five percent chance of rainfall. Pity. If it rained, that was only one more thing he had to worry about.

With a click, a small holographic screen shot up from the watch, and various messages began to hover in the air in the shape of cumulus clouds. Three messages from his brother, asking him how the party went. Seven drunkenly slurred messages from Eros, scattered all throughout the night, clearly too wasted to be awake now. And then one from his father.

A text cloud appeared, hovering in the air – filling up his eyes. 'Wake up sunshine! :)'

An aroma of black coffee and after-shave suddenly filled his nostrils, as if he could smell his father in the room with him. He rolled his eyes and couldn't help but chuckle silently to himself. Definitely not what he needed to wake up to. It reminded him that he still had yet to ask Charlie to deactivate the 4-D relay on his personal Armada device.

He replied, using his fingers to transmit the message through holographic keys scattered throughout the air.

'I'm up now, dad. Didn't need the smell. :/'

'Sorry. Thought u needed a little pick-me-up. Big day for you!'

'i know', Lorne replied.

'Are you excited?'

Lorne paused a moment, not entirely sure how to respond. He should have been excited for today. Thrilled, even. But the reality was that he was none of these things. Fucking terrified would be a more apt descriptor.

'Just know that me and your mother are so so proud of you, and love you very much. We'll be watching.'

He'd known this, his father had made it clear to him many mornings before, but he appreciated hearing it again anyway. His father's simple words always found a way to comfort him.

Lorne typed into the air with quick fingers. 'Thanks dad :) I better get ready, train to catch!'

With a yawn, he deactivated and tossed the Armada on the dresser. It clinked against the half-drunken bottle of Cerulean champagne from last night. He smiled, remembering the little surprise 'going-away' party his friends had thrown for him. His head still buzzed at the thought – in hindsight, probably not the best idea to get blackout drunk on the biggest morning of his journalist career.

There was a muffled groan from the bedsheets. "Is it time, already?"

Dyna.

He closed his eyes and smiled when he heard her voice. Every inclination in his head was telling him to lay back down, snuggle with her, and forget all about today. The two of them, wrapped up in their cocoon of silk sheets.

He reached over and brushed her dark hair away, "I'm afraid so," he murmured, his lips pecking her forehead.

She turned on her side, the dark curls falling past her smooth dark skin in ringlets. "Is there any chance you wanna just forget about it? You know you wanna hop back in bed and finish the rest of this wine." She smiled lazily, tracing her fingers along the flat of his palm. "How about that?"

He wanted to. Every part of him wanted to. But he couldn't. He sighed, and pecked her on the lips. "You know the answer to that, babe."

He covered her with a blanket, and as he looked at her, for just a second, all the worries Lorne had had about the interview magically disappeared. She was his light, the burning sun of his life. Without her here, he honestly didn't know how he'd have mustered the courage to take the job in the first place.

"Lorne?" she asked, amused, snapping him out of his daze. "You're giving me one of those looks again."

They laughed for a bit. Actually laughed, which is all the motivation he really needed to stand up on two legs. Eventually, even Dyna changed her mind and practically shoved him into the shower, complaining about his smell.

With the automation protocols, It only took him about fifteen minutes to shave, wash-up, and gather all his things. But Dyna wasn't satisfied with the hairdo the Glamour Machine had given him, as she never is, and obliged to re-do it herself. It was long, disheveled, a bird's nest on his cranium that he was tempted to shave off completely one of these days.

"You know, you're really starting to look like a member of one of those...new-age electro-pop bands or something," she snorted, while adjusting my tie.

"Hey, don't forget we met at one of those electro-pop concerts," Lorne said with a grin.

Three years ago to be exact, and it was right after he graduated. It was honestly the worst place someone could have gone on a first date, but no one could have told him that back then. Hot, dark, stuffy, the music was white noise, a secondary element to the light show and everyone knew it too. But, then again, they hadn't gone for the music.

Even calling it a date was a lie. He'd met Dyna after puking his lunch all over the side-walk, laying on the cement and singing into the night sky. She was sitting there on the curb, smoking her lungs out, and then she laughed at him. And for some odd reason, in shame, he started laughing too. It was the most humiliating experience in his life.

But there she was, with her cigarette and bright cherry-red lipstick, laughing at the skinny dork who couldn't handle two shots of Panemian ale. In their shame, they ditched their friends, and walked home ranting about the fall of the music industry.

"Wow, thanks for reminding me," she joked. She turned Lorne forward and adjusted his cheap off-white shirt, smoothing the wrinkles and creases with soft pats. "Hey, do you remember what band was playing — the night we met?"

"Of course, Electric Sheep," he replied without a beat. How could he forget?

"Electric sheep," she echoed, smirking at the thought. "What the hell happened to them?"

"Got replaced by another shitty, generic electro-pop band, I figure." Lorne could only guess. Nobody really cared about the music – only the lights, and the pretty animations. Their music was equally as forgettable as the cyber-trash he heard playing through the speakers on every shuttle system these days. He didn't even know why radios still existed when the entire world only went to see the giant holograms. His piece on the "Death of Music" was actually one of his first stories to receive public acclaim.

Dyna tucked in his cheap white shirt and turned him to face the black curtains.

That won't do, he thought.

"Curtains," Lorne said aloud, and the silk drapes began to slide away, revealing the bustling gargantuan city of Cerulean — the beating heart of Panem which never stopped moving. A sea of white metallic spires jutted out of the ground like stalks of grass that seemed to touch the sky, swathed in orange from the morning star.

"There ya' go! Now you look at least somewhat presentable." Dyna weaved her arms under Lorne's and snuggled into him, pressing her forehead against his shoulders and smiling.

Lorne heaved a deep sigh and paused to appreciate this moment they had together, but his heart thundered in his chest at the thought of today. "This should be the best day of my life, Dyna," he sighed again, "But honestly I'm fucking terrified."

"You've been wanting this job for so long. You wouldn't shut up about it," she murmured. "Quit being so pessimistic."

"I really did," he admitted.

Truth is, Lorne had been working steadily for years to get his degree in journalism. He wanted an excuse to travel, despite the tremendous dangers and difficulties it presented these days. He never had much luck as a writer for the paper — he used to maintain a column in The Gemstone Times for a year and a half, but Lorne finally realized that writing about celebrity gossip and bogus astrological predictions was never going to get him anywhere he wanted to be.

So he went out on a limb. Lorne quit watching reality television and started hitting the streets – using his connections. He asked around and within a few months he got a few interesting tips. When Lorne saw the protests on television, in a dark way, his eyes lit up. He'd spent so long trying to avoid the political drama and the protests, trying to pretend they weren't there. When Lorne finally stopped and looked, it gave him the inspiration to write his own article about the corruption of authority that was pervading the city – despite how life threatening such an act would be, Lorne felt that, as a journalist, standing idly by and watching the world burn was the ultimate act of cowardice. Lorne did a lot of stupid things, but he was no coward. He desperately wanted to make a difference.

The piece exploded when it released – in spite of all the attempts to silence and block the story, people downloaded it and spread it. Soon, One of the people exposed happened to be a naval commander, whom he'd gotten in touch with and 'befriended'. Lorne later learned about the rumors concerning the commander's promiscuous behavior and his history of sexual assault. He had Eros leak some long buried records which ultimately helped incriminate the deviant commander.

Ever since the expose, Lorne had been getting job offers left and right. It seemed everyone with a name in Panem wanted him to expose people. Files and records of war generals, models, actors – the Mayor even. Lorne used pseudonyms on his pieces, but the smart ones knew.

After six months and dozens of hit pieces, Lorne never wanted to write another expose again. Really, he wanted more. He wanted to go farther. Farther than ever before.

And then one rainy afternoon, Lorne received an offer he couldn't refuse. It was an interview opportunity – Lorne hadn't done an interview since his days working for the The Gemstone Times.

Lorne never got a name, and he never knew how they'd known his number; he'd stopped giving it out several months ago. But the offer was intriguing enough to give him pause. Normally, when someone called him with an offer, Lorne shut it down after he heard the words "expose" or "hit piece".

But this wasn't an expose or a hit piece. And it wasn't just an ordinary interview.

Lorne remembered the phone call vividly.

"Is this Lorne Brooks?" The voice asked, deep but quick.

Lorne squinted at the name on the receiver, but saw only a series of ones and zeroes. Odd. "Uh, maybe. Who is this?"

"Someone with an opportunity available for you."

Lorne sat down, listening intently. "Look, if this is another offer for a hit piece, I'm gonna hang up. I'm done with that stuff."

The voice sounded amused. "No, no, Mr. Brooks. The scope of this job is far bigger – bigger I imagine, than anything you've ever written about. Dare I say, world changing."

World changing? Lorne chewed on the inside of his cheek, a nervous tic. "Alright...Well I'm willing to hear what this is about."

"Mr. Brooks, how familiar are you with the incident regarding the breach? The one that happened one year ago, in Empyrea?" The voice paused for a moment, expecting Lorne to respond.

"You're speaking of the incident with Dr. Tanaka?" Lorne asked, unsure of where this conversation was heading.

"Indeed, that is who we speak of. How aware are you of the situation?" The deep, rumbling voice asked, not unkindly.

Lorne hesitated. He had to choose his next words carefully, considering he had no idea who he was speaking to. For all he knew, this may be some litmus test by the Empyrean government, to run him out of his hole and arrest him for his stories. No, Lorne didn't like this conversation one bit.

"I...I don't understand. If you're asking me if I know what happened, from my understanding, Dr. Tanaka stole some sort of...code from the government and fled the city."

And after that, Empyrea's shadows found him and shut him up with a bullet to the skull, is what Lorne had wanted to say.

But Lorne wasn't stupid enough to make such a statement out loud. "And then he was found dead on a beach."

Lorne could almost feel the hint of a smirk in the shadowy voice. "Yes, that is mostly correct. It would appear you know as much as the public does about the situation. But for now I can confidently tell you that there have been some interesting developments recently regarding this case. And my agency would like to extend an invitation to you, Mr. Brooks, for an interview."

Interesting developments?

Lorne couldn't help but scratch his head at what he was hearing. Why would they interview him? What would Lorne know about some whistleblower from the Empyrean government going AWOL?

Then Lorne felt stupid when he suddenly remembered how he'd obtained all of those confidential criminal records, the ones he used to write his articles about the rampant corruption in Sector One.

Why wouldn't they want to talk to the guy who used leaked records that helped incriminate a bunch of very important people?

Still, what would Lorne know about this?

The truth is, nobody ever knew what went on in Empyrea and that's why nobody bothered to write about it, not even Lorne. Why touch something that could never be seen or understood? It wasn't worth the risk. Not even the best hackers on the planet could infiltrate that shining enigma of a city, and if anyone did, nobody would know about it.

"Look, as you said, if this is about the the breach then I don't know any more than anyone else does. I mean," he sighed, "An interview with you? Or—"

The deep bass of the voice rumbled over his words like a train, "No, Mr. Brooks. An interview with Dr. Hepius Tanaka."

Lorne froze, the only sound had been the humming of the neon wall clock, and the waves swishing beneath him.

And then Lorne remembered where he was, and whose arms were draped around him. He sighed and took hold of Dyna's hands, massaging them for comfort as he watched a hint of the sun rise over the smoky gray of the sky, the skyscrapers shone like crystal beams of angelic light in the sun's splintered rays.

"No-one's making you go, Lorne," she told him, "But...I can't forget how happy you were after you got that call."

Dyna gently removed her hands and began caressing his tired shoulders, "So tell me you want this, so I don't have to sit here and worry myself sick for the next two weeks."

Lorne nuzzled his head against her hand and kissed it, and then glanced back out again at the city which stretched for what seemed like 10 miles below them, deep down into the darkness where only the poorest scurried like rodents. People always said Sector One was the city of dreams — the city of opportunities. One just had to reach into the sky and grab hold of the clouds and hang on.

Let the clouds take you where they may. Never let go, never look down!

That was Sector One's slogan for as long as he's lived here.

Never look down, or you'll see the truth about Sector One — the dirty little secret it was hiding from the rest of the world.

The buildings seemed to get higher and higher every year, to the point now where even at the middle, where Lorne lived, trying to see the ground was a fool's errand. Lorne had never seen the ground, and his father, who was born and raised in Sector One, never did either, but Lorne always wondered.

One evening his father had told him, "You made enough money to live in the middle, which is as respectable and comfortable as one could ever hope to be in this Glitterball. Be happy with that, son. Live too high and all the air will fill your head and make you vain."

His father leaned in closely with serious eyes and a low voice, like he was telling a secret, "Go down there and you'll never see the sun again."

Lorne's curiosity threatened to get the better of him many times, but Lorne always thought about his father's words. And everytime he did, Lorne listened and changed his mind, staying put where it was safe and normal.

You either stayed put and lived satisfied with where you were on the totem pole, or died trying to scale it.

Lorne turned away from the window and embraced Dyna so hard they almost fell over on the floor.

"I want this," he said, as they held each other tight.

He really did, more than anything in the world. But then, why did he have such a bad feeling?


His luggage was set – everything was in order.

Lorne had one bag, filled with just the essentials, as he'd been firmly instructed.

Where they were going, apparently he didn't need very much. They had made that part very clear to Lorne. He'd probably get more after they arrived, they had said in later phone calls. Probably.

Still, Lorne placed his trust in them – perhaps a bit too much. What other choice did he have? This was a story he needed to write. A story Panem especially needed to hear on the dawn of another rebellion. It really felt like his entire career had led up to this moment in time.

With this interview, Lorne was somehow, some way going to open the eyes of the entire world. If this interview was going to be broadcasted on national television, this may be his only chance to make a statement with this talk.

Lorne was going to show the world that peace was not out of reach. Once, there had been a time where there was prosperity in the world. Was such a period even attainable again? Times have certainly changed. Panem was a shadow of what it used to be.

Dyna and Lorne embraced. They kissed like it was the first time, and when they were finished, it felt like the last.

"Call me—you know, if anything happens," she said, clear worry in her eyes. It was foreign, to see Dyna this way. So...motherly. For a girl who used to be into thrash-metal and hair-dye, this was a side of her he'd scarcely seen before.

"Nothing's gonna happen to me. And hey...if anything does happen, you can have my Armada," he joked.

Before he left the apartment, Dyna grabbed his arm, and placed something small and cold in his palm. "I think you forgot something."

When Lorne un-clenched his fist, he couldn't help but grin.

They'd gotten engaged two months ago, right after he got the call. Lorne slipped the ring on his finger, the silver reflecting in her warm, dark eyes.

"I'll come back," he promised, their fingers intertwining.

"You better," Dyna smiled sadly, wiping the tears from her beautiful eyes.

When their hands fell apart and he descended the stairway, Lorne already felt like she was gone.


The Sectors hadn't always been so dangerous. There was a time where everyone purportedly lived in harmony. Back when Sectors were called Districts, back when death games were still banned, before The Veil rose up, and before Empyrea. Back then, Districts weren't rioting, the capital city wasn't ruled by a shadow, and 'rebellion' was just a word in the dictionary – a term thrown around in the history books to explain the origins of the Hunger Games and the Girl on Fire who sparked a revolution.

People had forgotten what the word rebellion really meant until nearly four centuries ago. It was 416 years ago exactly, when something large crashed into the Earth somewhere in the wilds of Panem.

The impact had been so large that anything within a 50 mile radius would have been instantly vaporized into fine dust. The crater was so large and caused so much fire and devastation that government officials had to intervene and close the area off for safety concerns. The Districts were lucky to be untouched, but the villages in the wild had not been so.

But what initially was supposed to be a search and rescue operation became something much different. Within days, the entire radius of the crater was sealed off to the public. No media, no reporters, no locals. Fences were erected, armed outposts, even the military was ordered to surround the crater.

Nobody actually knew what became of the object after all that.

What was it? A space rock? Some long abandoned satellite? A destructive gift from an opposing nation? No one knew for sure, and perhaps no one ever will. The origins of the crash and anything that may have been recovered were kept a closely-guarded secret by the Capitol for many years.

And of course, because everyone liked a good mystery, rumors swirled. The Districts, who had been living in relative harmony for a great many years, didn't take too kindly to being left in the dark. The painful reminders of what the Capitol had done to them still lingered in the air like a stench that refused to go away. The people of Panem began to talk and grow restless.

There were murmurings that the "crash" was a cover-up for a military operation to quell a festering insurgency, comprised of a bunch of bitter militia men who'd been laid off. Some said that it wasn't militia men, but actually a satanic cult, who were planning to kill the Mayor and perform a dark ritual. There were even talks of an alien attack — that the object was a U.F.O. come to ravage the world and enslave humanity. The rumors never stopped.

It was a year later, on a quiet evening in November, that the first of the stars fell to the ground. This time, the impacts were much smaller, but the light from the falling objects lit up the entire sky like a beacon. Many people were convinced it was a sign from the Gods. It had to be.

Droves of men were compelled to follow these beacons of light, to see for themselves what gift they had brought from the heavens.

Lorne didn't believe the Capitol ever anticipated just how many people would actually try to journey to find these fallen stars, and because of that were unable to contain them all. At this point in time, these "stars" began to fall at an alarming rate. They became as regular as a snowfall. It was inevitable that someone would happen upon one of the craters.

So what were these "stars"? Lorne could only speculate. They varied in size, from a mere pebble to several stories in height. They shined so brightly that anybody who stared at their brilliance for too long went blind. The people learned their lesson and began to wear goggles when handling these fallen stars.

Photos of these supposed glowing crystallized formations have been circulating on the dark-net for many years. Lorne could not verify their integrity, but it was curious to Lorne that none of these photos seemed to exist on the surface web. In truth, they looked less like rocks and more like chunks of amorphous crystal – composed of a mysterious element that has now conclusively been determined to be of extraterrestrial in origin.

Within weeks of this cosmological phenomena, men from Districts far and wide became attracted to these "falling stars". Hungry merchants, poor families, collectors and even priests began to hunt for these celestial objects — to see the miracle for themselves.

Stories of these first encounters with the stars differed, however. Some said the rocks were hot to the touch, while others spoke of the rocks being ice cold. Anyone who'd grabbed the crystals were said to have immediately cried out in pain before writhing on the ground, as if invisible flames consumed them. But others who touched them felt nothing at all.

Whatever the case may be, nobody initially knew for certain what these rocks were, but everyone could agree that these crystals were A: not of this world, B: shiny and mysterious, and C: potentially very lucrative.

At the time, nobody had ever once considered how radioactive and dangerous these crystals were – too self-absorbed in their newfound treasures. It would after all, be some time before The Void manifested.

The crystals were taken back to the Districts as if they were candy. Some used them for religious worship, while vendors hammered them to bits and sold them on the street for outrageous amounts of money. Thousands of crystals began circulating through the markets – some fake, most genuine.

As more stars fell to the ground, more in the Districts ventured into the wilderness to find them. District Twelve's lust for the rocks was insatiable. What better way to restore their District to glory than by mining fallen stars?

But nothing came without a cost.

The side-effects were, oddly enough, first seen in a young boy who had consumed a handful of these small crystals, thinking them candy. Several days later, the toddler had flung the kitchen fridge out of a window with a wave of his hand. Two weeks later, he had shattered all the windows in his house with a cry, and crushed his mother's windpipe while she was changing his diaper.

When the doctors first checked him, the boy was bleeding out of his eyes and then died of a heart attack.

This was only the first of many such strange reports. Men were seen floating above the ground, or shattering car windows with a clench of their fists. There was no question that these fallen stars had something to do with this. No such disease originating from this planet could suddenly grant people the gift of psychokinesis.

It was shown that prolonged physical exposure to the crystals was either fatal or caused severe mutations to manifest. But in small doses, it seemed to enhance or perhaps empower a human's mental and physical attributes. When word of this reached the media, naturally, Panem erupted into chaos.

Suddenly, everyone and their mother wanted a taste of these powers.

The Capitol, alarmed by this whirlwind of events, immediately began their hunt for these crystals – hoping to wrench them free from the hands of the Districts in coordinated raids before a group of mutants with psionic powers could take over the world.

And then it was almost as if some violent spell had been cast on the Districts. Paranoia was rampant in the air as people began thinking they were going to lose all of their money if the Capitol took their precious rocks. People began hiding the crystals underground in a panic, or stashing them in lock-boxes. It was like an epidemic had spread through Panem. Nobody wanted to hand over their crystals – they were theirs to keep. They were their best weapons against people who would try to harm their families. People like the Capitol.

The Capitol at first attempted to peacefully resolve this dilemma one District at a time, so as to not give off the impression that this was some sort of nation-wide raid – despite the fact that it actually was.

Some Districts cried foul – claiming the Capitol had certain biases towards particular Districts and were taking less from others than the rest. Propagandists spread their words of fear and paranoia and urged widespread violence across the nation, to defend their rights to own these crystals — these fallen stars that had bewitched the nation.

Nobody wanted war again, but before long, the nation was practically frothing at the mouth. No one would ever take what was rightfully theirs.

The nightmare began when the Capitol were forced to invade the Districts to combat the widespread riots. The Capitol wanted to put out the flame before it got too hot — they had learned their lesson from the past. The raids were supposed to be damage control. No guns were ever fired on the first day of the raids. They merely wanted to take these crystals for the safety of Panem.

Many in the Districts didn't see it that way. They would not go gently. They'd waited years for a sign from the heaven, for a weapon they could use to protect themselves. Secretly, some of them wished to fight again – to satiate their bloodlust once more in a poetic sort of revenge.

The first shots were merely warnings. The guns from the Capitol's arsenal had hardly been used for anything more than training simulations. There had never been any need for them.

It was said that the first responders were only told to reach for their shock batons and proton shields in case things got out of hand. By the time they left, they'd used more than half of the ammunition reserves the Capitol had ever produced on these rioters and mutant-men.

The first executive order made in the wake of the rebellion was an appeal for an increased production of copper and aluminum – alloys used in the construction of Panem's bullets. The bill was passed.

As the bloodshed increased, some Districts must have realized they were on the losing side – that if they kept sending their people to die, they'd have nobody left. Districts Six, Eight, Ten, and Eleven were the first to completely cease and surrender their crystals to the will of the Capitol.

Districts Three, Five, and Twelve attempted to join forces and together managed to steal two truckloads worth of Capitol firearms and bombs in a night raid – but this did little to turn the tides. Because for however much firepower the Districts could hope to use against their enemy, the Capitol would always return fire with five times more.

'Go ahead, steal our weapons, and our transports too! We can just make more, and surround your borders until the lot of you starve to death.'

After a month of hard fighting, Districts Three, Five, and Twelve were simply outgunned, outmanned, battered to a pulp, and were left with little choice but to surrender.

District Two endured the brunt of the war by hiding inside their underground labyrinths, using spies to monitor the war from the cliff peaks. Like a pack of gophers, they'd wait for an opportune moment to strike at the Capitol using hit-and-run tactics. When they raised too much heat, they'd scurry back underneath the earth using hidden doors made of stone.

This strategy might have worked, if not for a betrayal from the people of District One — who had thus far managed to avoid any conflict with the Capitol by claiming neutrality and handing all of their crystals over – despite most of them being fakes. The reasons for why District One had leaked District Two's coordinates to the Capitol still remain unknown.

When the Capitol came knocking on their doorstep, Two refused any peace talks until the Capitol threatened to carpet-bomb the entire District and risk trapping everyone underground if they didn't come out and surrender. The several hundred who chose to surface and flee were the only survivors.

Some particularly ambitious people from Four attempted to use their sailboats to go off in search of islands to settle on to wade out the war. It is presumed that most didn't survive the sea; the wreckages can be seen today on the shores of Four, poking above the sand as small reminders of their failure.

Four soon surrendered, followed by a persistent Seven, who attempted to employ guerilla tactics against the Capitol from within their forests. The Capitol answered that challenge by simply razing the woods.

And then there was Nine, who refused to surrender even as the bombs fell from the sky.

'Till our dying breath, they often shouted or sometimes, Remember our wrath!

Nine seemed almost suicidal in their cold obstinance. Be it rain, snow, or bullet fire, Nine refused to go down. It boggled the minds of everyone across the world.

It finally made sense when the Capitol's troops had descended onto the streets one cool morning, when their footfalls were met with a series of explosions so massive that the ground ruptured and the cobblestones were sent soaring in the sky like little rocket ships.

Seemingly every building that lined the streets of District Nine began detonating. Survivors from the Capitol say they thought the world had ended and hell was opening up beneath them.

It was evening fall by the time the explosions stopped. The Capitol was forced to retreat and they never set foot in District Nine again. Not like there had been any reason to — the entire District was a smoldering black ruin. There was nothing left to take.

District Nine had virtually killed itself so they would never surrender.

Remember our wrath, indeed.

No monuments stood to honor all the lives that were lost in the War of the Districts, only ruins.

After the fall of District Nine, it was expected that the Capitol would impose their will on Panem, as they had done before many years ago. But instead, the Capitol simply...left, though to some it felt more like a retreat, despite ultimately quelling the rebellion.

But it came with such a cost.

It would seem they fought the war, but couldn't finish it, and evidently, for reasons no one can understand, left Panem's future into the hands of the Districts themselves. The Capitol's military returned to the city with all of the crystals they could carry, and refused to intervene any more.

The Districts quickly scrambled together and elected their own heads to represent them, and gathered in the aftermath of the war to hold a peace meeting.

Some meeting it was.

It was a solemn, cold assembly. District Nine no longer existed, and the Districts had suffered, burned, and conspired against one another for the sake of some rocks.

Never again would there be a war – they would make certain of that. In light of the Capitol's apparent indifference, the Districts would moderate themselves for the time being.

They had tried to cooperate and it failed each time. Henceforth, to wipe the slate clean, the Districts would be known as Sectors. Each Sector would operate and decide independently to establish their own government structure, laws, and leaders.

The Sectors would do everything they could to rebuild and defend themselves against each other, and whatever else threatened them. It was not easy – but significant progress had been made since The War of the Districts. Great minds collaborated to ensure that humanity would evolve as a society – to eclipse their primitive natures and evolve.

When the Capitol re-emerged 100 years later, clearly something dramatic had changed.

The ruling body had vanished – nowhere to be seen. Who ruled them now? No one could even say because nobody was allowed to step foot in the Capitol anymore.

The disembodied voice that spoke to the world on national television claimed to be The Speaker for their new leader – whom they only called "Aion", or "The All Knowing One" — an artificial entity constructed to oversee the world in the wake of humanity's aberrations.

The Capitol was now Empyrea — a paradise of divinity where man was free to walk in peace, a place where all of someone's dreams and desires could be fulfilled.

But every desire came with a cost.

In a statement that seemed eerily familiar, the voice declared to the world that to properly honor the senseless loss of lives that occurred in The War of the Districts, every 12 years, there would need to be reparations.

The beating hearts of 10 million people went silent for a moment.

Reparations, but for who?

They didn't really have a name.

Some called it "The Harvest", others dubbed it the fanciful title of "Grand Rhapsody".

But some still remembered it for what it used to be called.

The Hunger Games.

And in the last 296 years, there had already been 24 Harvests.

It was easier to have apathy for them – they didn't take place annually so it had been easier to forget they existed.

Until 12 more years had passed, where it dominated everyone's lives once more.

Lorne had been 11 years old the last time a Harvest had been live on national television. It wasn't mandatory viewing, but it was such an extraordinary, grandiose event that anyone who had a functioning television or projection screen had to watch them. So much depended on them.

He had never written about them – the reason Lorne always gave was because it felt lazy, cheap, and oversaturated but in truth he was always afraid he'd start writing about them and never want to stop.

The Harvest, The Games, The Grand Rhapsody, whatever anybody wanted to call them, they dominated every aspect of Panem's way of life. Perhaps more than ever before.

The stakes had risen to the point where Sectors relied on producing Victors so they could bring glory and power to their home Sectors. It wasn't just about victory or legacy – winning the Hunger Games now meant that your Sector could be given food, riches, reduction of tariffs. A Victor essentially represented their entire Sector now.

It now meant anyone on the Mayoral ballot, anyone campaigning to become king, anyone from a family who's produced a Victor would be regarded as literal royalty — in the highest of esteems. Legends of the world.

People quickly adapted to this change — whole Sectors had dedicated themselves to breeding, training, cloning, and enhancing a potential Victor. It was no longer a game, it was a necessary aspect of life. A means to survive and prosper in this new dark, cold world.

But the most important thing about winning the Games?

The Victor was allowed to enter the Chasm of Dreams — a place where one's desires became real. Supposedly, that is.

From what Lorne had been told, no one had ever actually been to Empyrea — the most beautiful place in the world. But how was that possible?

None of it made any sense to Lorne. It felt like a waking nightmare. Just remembering all of this gave Lorne a headache.

Not today, he thought. Not before the biggest day of my career.

Before Lorne reached the dockyards, two shriveled men carrying signs and pamphlets beckoned to Lorne, warning him of a terrible fire that was spreading through the 'system'. If it were any other day, maybe Lorne would have stopped to listen for a moment, but today was different, and Lorne ignored them.

Was that truly Panem's eternal destiny? Fire and terror?


The dockyards weren't really as empty as he'd anticipated. What was supposed to be a hush-hush operation looked more like a media rally.

Photographers were roped off to the side, flashing at him as soon as they saw him. Being on the receiving end of a camera lens for once was quite disconcerting. Lorne smiled quickly at the reporters, but gave no comments.

Men garbed in armor of pure silver with polished rifles, patchworks bearing the Diamond etched symbol of Sector One as well as Empyrea, stood at the ready near the long-ship's plank. They saluted him, and one approached, barking at him about an official decree.

Lorne fumbled through his backpack, apologizing under his breath as he rummaged through it and slipped the man several documents that were bent in half, half-expecting the guard to just let him through out of pity.

"This man's with us," a large, heavyset man in navy blue said as he stepped off the boat, a wide grin beset on his face underneath bushy white whiskers.

"I'm Captain Reynell, but I don't mind if you call me Apollo," he practically lifted Lorne off the ground when he shook his hand. His long, scruffy hair framed his wrinkled face like a white lion's mane.

"We've heard a lot about you in the papers. You wrote that article about that sick pedophile, right?" He asked.

How did everyone seem to know his identity?

Lorne pushed his glasses back and nodded. "Yes, the one about the commander! Yes sir, that was me."

"Well, I'll tell you what," he started, grabbing Lorne's bag over his shoulder with a heave, "You opened a lot of eyes around here. I got two daughters at home, you know, and when I read that story..." Apollo paused, clenched his fist and spit on the ground.

Lorne flinched when the captain brought his massive hand down on his shoulder, "Let me just say this: I'd tear a man to shreds if they ever got within a mile of my daughters."

Lorne stared at the man and nodded quickly. "Well, I don't blame you at all," he offered.

Apollo smiled again, "It appears we're on schedule to depart soon! Follow me!"

Lorne trudged behind him into the white sailboat, down into the cabins below.

Lorne had been notified a week ago that they'd selected a team of very important people to make the long journey across the sea alongside him. A team of scientists, two doctors, and most peculiarly — a camera crew. There were more on the boat — apart from the soldiers and the standard crew, there was apparently an actor on board as well. Lorne had no idea who or why.

After Lorne settled into his cabin, he ascended up the stairs and plopped down in an interior cabin surrounded by large glass windows.

Lorne was quite comfortable in his seat. He could feel the ocean wind breezing through his hair — he had the whole compartment to himself, save for the soldiers who began to pile in. Apollo had informed him it was going to be a very long trip, but advised Lorne as well not to get too comfortable.

"This man might be living in an armed fortress for all we know. This island is uncharted. Be ready for anything."

Apollo flashed him a toothy smirk when he mentioned the island. He could hardly contain his excitement. "Oh, to sail in open waters once more! It makes an old man feel like a child again."

His mane of white hair then whirled in a great flourish as he turned to address a new group of men shuffling past them down below. They spoke in hushed voices, as if they didn't want anyone else to know they were boarding.

As a journalist, Lorne paid attention to details. It was instinctual for him to take note of his surroundings, of the people around him.

There were more people on this boat now than he remembered seeing when he'd boarded.

Weird.

He peered out from his seat, out onto the deck, watching as the officers and cameramen whispered to each other — probably going over the details of the procedure. Nothing completely out of the ordinary.

Perhaps this trip would be fine after all.

And yet Lorne couldn't escape this sickening feeling in his gut.

When the ship set sail, the only thing Lorne thought about was Dyna and the calming brown of her eyes, her carefree smirk. The silver of his engagement ring shimmered like the blue of the ocean waves around him.

I'm coming home Dyna.

Lorne slipped in and out of consciousness as they sailed. It was relatively smooth – a cloudless sky above them. The journey couldn't have been more perfect.

In one of his half-conscious moments, something struck him as odd as the aisle cleared.

A woman — with brown hair, wearing a maroon dress and sapphire earrings — was carefully applying red lipstick, using her window as a mirror.

Strange.

He never recalled this woman boarding.

But before he could beckon Apollo, his lids became heavy and closed again.

"Sir," a large hand nudged him awake. A man in silver, "We've spotted the island."

Lorne rubbed his eyes and re-adjusted himself, "Thanks."

He peered out the windows of the deck, but saw only the empty sea. Such a large blue expanse made him nervous.

Lorne stepped out on the deck for a closer look, taking the binoculars from his bag. Then he saw it, the dark outline of a small landmass on the horizon.

Lorne looked up, the sun was retreating behind a veil of gray clouds. Hopefully they arrived on this island before it rained on them.

What would they do if it stormed? Spend the night there? Lorne made a sour face and retreated inside the interior cabin. He adjusted all his papers, trying to get everything in order but failing, his brain not fully awake. It was mostly nerves.

You better snap out of this, Lorne. Don't mess this up.

Lorne used the washroom to splash his face with cool water, hoping the shock would slap him out of whatever anxious pit had formed in his gut.

I'm coming home Dyna. He repeated to himself.

When Lorne ascended to the deck, the military had begun assembling on the deck, and all the courage he thought he'd mustered in the washroom left him again.

I'm coming home Dyna.

Lorne slipped onto the deck, fondling the straps of his bag nervously, trying to distract his brain by reciting questions in his head.

The whole thing was still odd to him. How could they be so sure Dr. Tanaka was alive? On this island? Who told them?

As the island loomed closer and closer, it began to take form into an odd shape.

Apollo snapped his head toward Lorne. "Best get down there, lad. I don't like the look of this island."

Lorne nodded, but something stopped him. As he peered at the island, the shape began to take more form, and he gasped when he realized that that it wasn't an armed fortress at all, but the largest lighthouse he'd ever seen.

"I can't believe it," Lorne said in awe.

Lorne paled when he glanced into the cabin and saw the woman with the red lipstick staring at him. His stomach sank, the pit could open up no more. It was deep as it could go.

Lorne could barely make a sound as the lipstick twisted to reveal a hidden blade, glinting silver. Before the guards could even react, the woman began stabbing them in the neck, so fast she was a blur.

Lorne stood frozen as the guards began shooting at each other within the cabin. Apollo roared and the wheel spun out of control. Lorne crawled along the deck, gunshots and screams echoing behind him as the boat began to shift and turn wildly.

The last thing Lorne saw was the silver engagement ring flying off his finger into the waves, glinting the brightest silver as a bolt of lightning shattered against the bow of the ship.


A/N — This is not your typical HG story. Think of this like a re-imagining of a sort. I'm not even sure what to call this, quite frankly. A strange, freakish amalgamation of multiple loves, inspired by Battle Royale, A Song of Ice and Fire, Fire Emblem, and comic books.

Is it an AU-fic? An SYOT? I don't know. I'd always known I wanted to write this though. Envisioned it for two years. What propelled me was my love for this fandom and many others, and my regret that I was never able to contribute something of my own in all the years I've been here.

This prologue was written quickly with a deadline. I will continue to edit it until it's as near to perfect as I can make it. Sorry for all the infodump, but I couldn't figure out an easy way to explain the lore. The important thing was getting this out there into the world. I have so many ideas for characters — if I didn't write this now I'd probably regret it forever. Who knows what will become of this? I appreciate those who read and follow this madness.