Captain Peeta Mellark was no stranger to different lands. Aboard the PS-Mockingjay he had been able to see beyond the borders of their known universe, even further than most air travelers. Most of Panem's citizens had only traveled by train among the conglomerate of cities close to the center of it all, the Capitol. Life in there wasn't for him. He knew at an early age that staying with his feet on the ground wasn't for him. The life of a simple merchant, like his father, would be too stifling for him.
Peeta had been four years old. He'd only been a child the first time he met a space captain, with his special suit and badge. His father had allowed him to listen to Cinna as he the captain described the colors of the flowers in some distant district he'd discovered. That very same night, Peeta had taken it upon himself to draw and paint the images in his head so he could never forget them.
When Peeta was twelve, he saw Cinna again, and this time he had more concrete questions.
"How can I become a captain like you, Cinna?"
Cinna swallowed his drink and took a bite out the sandwich Peeta had brought him. His golden stare was faraway, lost in his thoughts. Cleaning his mouth with a napkin, he turned back and locked his eyes with Peeta's steel blue ones.
"Kid, you need to get the hell away from your mom. Say goodbye to your father and dream… Get yourself enrolled in the Capitol Academy of Space and Combat. Keep your eye on the target and never look back. That's all I have to say. I believe in you, believe in yourself."
Cinna gave him an official salute, dropped some scripts, and left. Peeta immediately wrote down every word Cinna told him and followed it to the letter.
It was the last time he ever saw Captain Cinna Farren.
He wanted more than the humble living of a simple baker in Mellark's Bakery on the 5th avenue, at the corner of 23rd street. Peeta wasn't interested to fight with his brothers, once his father retired and left it to them. On Peeta's sixteen birthday, his mother had told him nothing would be his, and that's how he knew it was time. This wasn't the life he wanted. Taking a rucksack with some clothes and his journal, Peeta took his saved allowance and boarded the train that would take him towards his destiny. The only thing he left behind was a letter addressed to his father.
A loud beeping noise stopped his reminiscing, alerting him that he was actually expected to land his assigned spacecraft on a recently discovered land, in what was known as District 12. Nothing came up from thermal radar or maps. It was like the whole district had vanished. It didn't make sense to Peeta, not when there had been scans done via satellites. There had been living creatures and plant life thriving. A possibility of a native settlement had brought him here… and now there was nothing.
Using his ear-com, Peeta contacted his second-in-command, "Gale, what the fuck is going? Are you seeing this? There's no trace of life. Beetee was responsible for the remote scans and I'm sure he used the correct coordinates."
Gale was staring at multiple feeds coming from the outer cameras outside the ship; one in particular proved an explosion blast was the culprit of the destruction of life on District 12. He knew what this meant.
"Sir… you need to see this. I'm sending it now to your screen."
The images spoke of violence and destruction, one that had fallen on innocent, defenseless life forms. Peeta cursed.
"Who or what did this? No one has the capabilities of coming so far into the outer quadrant, unless this was—"
"Don't say another word, Peeta. Remember our missions are recorded and briefed. We need to find a landing space and record what has happened, not to pass judgment. I'll get Lieutenant Undersee to report directly to the Capitol on these findings. We need to wait for new orders."
Peeta kept his eyes on the feed; something had moved so fast within the fog that covered the district's surface. Without waiting for new orders, he pushed the lever, setting the ship closer to the ground. It wasn't fog that was obstructing the visibility. It was remnant smoke, ashes covered the ground… and footprints. He used the zoom and captured the image. Someone was alive. It was enough for him to find a spot to land and explore, maybe rescue the survivor.
On a direct, secure line, he proceeded to contact his superior officer, Commander General Abernathy.
"This is Cap. Mellark for Commander General Haymitch Abernathy. Over."
"This is Abernathy. What the hell, kid? You in trouble? Don't tell you finally married some weird new species we haven't even named yet-"
"Mitch… I'm on District 12."
Keeping his eyes on the monitor where he had previously seen the movement, Peeta continued to navigate his ship.
"This wasn't an exploring mission. They sent us here to confirm. Isn't it?"
Abernathy took another shot of his glass, leaving empty of the white liquor. Its aftertaste was bitter, coating every crevice of his mouth, warming his insides and dulling the senses. He wanted to forget…
"It never gets easier, son. I know how much you wanted this job. We all wanted adventure and to leave the simple and mindless behind. But this life has a cost. Your friend Cinna forgot to give you that in his list. So, as no surprise, it is my job to teach you this one last lesson. In Panem, what is not under the rigorous control of the government is an enemy. That enemy has to be subdued and brought under its control, by any means possible. If said enemy resists… nothing is left behind. Those of us that do not abide to it, perish along with it. Captain Cinna Farren saw too much and paid with his life. He was my charge just like you."
Haymitch threw the bottle against the wall. Peeta cringed and almost lost control, causing a bit of turbulence. Immediately, Gale was asking through the ear-com what was wrong. Peeta ignored him.
"Fuck, Peeta I don't want you to lose you the same way. Take the images, record the findings, and leave. You have a crew to think about. You are a handsome son of a bitch and I want to see my grandchildren before I die. For some reason Effie still comes by and takes care of me. Even if she throws away the liquor, I have to admit she's growing on me."
"Mitch, I want to find her. I will try and keep my head on my shoulders and return. Say hi from me to Effie and thank her for me. Stop drinking, go out and take her dancing. I know it still hurts, but you're still breathing. I'll do as commanded."
Haymitch chuckled, staring at the picture of Peeta in his captain's suit for the very first time.
"Stop bullshitting me, Mellark. I know you. You'll do what is right. You know the difference between black and white? You kid are all gray. Over."
"DO NOT LAND IN DISTRICT 12. REPEAT: YOU ARE NOT TO LAND IN DISTRICT 12. RECORD ALL YOUR FINDINGS IN THE PS-MOCKINGJAY LOG, NO EXCEPTIONS. VIDEO FEED WILL BE REVIEWED BY CAPITOL ANALYSTS - SEND ASAP. AT 20:00HRS CAPTAIN AND CREW MUST SET COURSE BACK TO BASE SNOW, HANGAR 03242912. END OF TRANSMISSION."
That transmission was sent over two hours ago. And Peeta had ignored its commands. PS-Mockingjay had landed on a bare site, on the east side of the District. About two hundred yards of that location, a crater was visible. It was probably the place where the explosion had occurred.
Lt. Undersee kept looking at Gale, trying to communicate with him, while Lt. Commander Gale Hawthrone, second-in-command, analyzed the air condition and ground.
"This is wrong, Gale. If the signal blocking fails, we are guilty of sedition. This could mean our lives. Why aren't you stopping him and taking over? It is under your purview; it is what you should have done two hours ago. Contact Commander General Abernathy and the PS-Control Room at the Capitol. There's still time. We haven't set foot—"
Right at that moment, Captain Mellark had touched the ground. Instantly his boots were covered with ash. The readings indicated the air was full of particles and wasn't safe to breathe. His suit protected him, providing him with oxygen and monitoring his vital signs. Using the ear-com, he said, "Get down here, Hawthorne. I have the coordinates of where I saw the footprints. We need to find it. Lt. Undersee, you'll stay here. Contact of us if anything changes. And before I forget, I've already spoken with Mitch. There's no need to irritate your ulcers with worrying. I'll bring Gale back, right as rain, back to you."
Gale rolled his eyes and dropped down, causing a cloud of ash to cover them. From afar, it had appeared to be like snow, but now it was all gray, dusted with the ash. There was no other color, no green, no red, no blue, not even sky blue, since the sky was more of a watered grayish color.
"Where did the colors go?"
Undersee stayed, until she couldn't see them anymore, their footprints letting her know they had actually been right there. She sighed, resigned to wait for their return. Please, please let them return. We need to be back by the exact time, she prayed.
Forty-five minutes later and there was no evidence of life on District 12. Gale was in a surly mood, complaining about the lack of findings and requesting they'd return back to the ship.
"Stop your whining, Gale. I know you like-like Undersee, and she likes you back. She's not contacted us, meaning she's fine. Well, not fine, surely she must be biting her nails to stubs and needing to drink her anti-acid medicine. We are getting closer—"
A scratching noise and then a scuffle.
The same movement on their right, causing the particles in the air to shimmer in the light. It was too fast.
"What was that?"
Peeta turned and smirked at Gale, "I told you there was something here. That was what I saw in the video feed. There must be footprints. Move it!"
Peeta ran; right behind him Gale tried to keep up with him. Only, the movement was now behind them and somehow pushed Gale down. Peeta came face to face… with a female. His weapon raised just in case.
"I don't want to hurt you. Are you okay, Gale?"
Gale groaned and crawled away from the native. He checked that his suit was not leaking or damaged. Checking the stats, everything was in working condition. He stood on shaky legs and glared at the female.
"Yes, sir. Now what? Are you taking her into custody? Proving we've ignored orders and probably will be detained and tried for said crime. Fuck. She's strong."
Peeta kept his eyes on the female native, noticing that her hair was covered in ash, as was her tattered clothing. Her hair had been arranged like a crown on top of her head, with white jewels. And her eyes… steel was staring right back.
Her name was Katniss… and she changed Peeta's life.
Nothing was ever the same. Her steel-colored eyes told a different story, one that Panem had kept hidden behind mists of ashes all over the galaxy. She lead Peeta and his crew, to the truth. Their missions weren't simple search-and-report expeditions. Their sole purpose was to find life in other lands, designated districts set to be controlled and used for the one and only Panem.
Some would say they'd been at the wrong place, at the wrong time. Peeta would tell it differently. Destiny had set the course and he had taken the challenge. Cinna was meant to tell Peeta stories of his missions, get him to dream of becoming a captain, just like him. All was worth it.
Katniss was worth it.
Her story wasn't magical or full of wondrous adventures. It was a testimony of corruption and greed, of genocide and despotism, of grief and resiliency. Her home had been destroyed by bombs deployed from the Capitol. Her friends and neighbors incinerated in their beds. She was one of the unfortunate, left to witness the discoloration of her beloved Seam. The only choice left was leaving it all behind, the ashes of her people, and to join the living in another district… the infamous D-13, where the Rebellion rested and grew.
Peeta was by her side, holding to her hand, staring at her eyes with compassion and wonder. Somehow they found each other, and she knew would save each other as well. He didn't hesitate to leave his past behind. He'd done it before and he could do it again. His ship, his position in the Capitol were meaningless. The truth was more important than personal glory or physical possessions. Peeta had known the difference between white and black, the right and the wrong. Now, he walked in the gray, always aspiring for the purity in Katniss' heart.
Peeta did say goodbye to his friend Mitch and received, in turn, his blessing. His former commander wished he could be with him, but knew his time had passed.
D-13 wasn't above ground, like any other town with dwellings full of families. Survivors had built a haven underground, capable of hiding from Capitol scanners. A city brewed underneath the surface; in it the spirit of freedom and insurrection lived. Among them, Katniss found camaraderie and a place to call her new home. And Peeta…
"Welcome, Captain Peeta Mellark! To the real Mockingjay!"
The former captain, who'd inspired Peeta's path, had not died after all.