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The platform rises slowly under her feet, and Rokia takes slow, deep breaths, watches the circle of light above her grow until she's through it, out into a grey square that looks--well, familiar, almost. They're in an open square and it reminds Rokia of standing in front of the Justice building, staring out at rundown buildings, except that these are abandoned half-collapsed husks with jutting rebar. The sun is struggling to burn through a thick haze and it's drizzling, water dripping into her eyes.
The countdown clock ticks down, silent, while on the platforms surrounding the dark grey metal of the cornucopia 24 kids stand, the Careers settling in, ready to run, outliers with wide eyes standing stunned. She sees Jerome across the circle, fists clenched, trying to look tough, looks away. To her right there's a wall, head high, and if she can get past that she'll be out of anyone's line of sight. She's hoping nobody will look too hard for her, even if her high score does make her a target. They'll be busy enough right at first.
Two girl is on her left, she scanned the field once, saving a mean grin for Rokia, and is now focused on the countdown and the cornucopia. On her right is the boy from Seven, big and angry, and he's glancing around, eyes narrowed. Rokia will have to get past him, but he's twitchy, nervous, she should be able to slip by before he reacts.
The counter continues, ticking down, and it's like the seconds slow down, her breath harsh in her own ears, the light gleaming dully on an oil slick, the scattering of packs around the cornucopia. She doesn't care about any of it--Phillips told her to get out fast, and he's right, this whole place is a death trap, she wants nothing more than to be far away as fast as possible.
The counter hits zero and the silence shatters.
Rokia jumps down from her platform and turns right, and yep, Seven boy is frozen just half a second longer and that's enough. Ten paces and she's at the wall, fingers and toes finding chinks in the broken concrete until she's up and over. A second to look around, find a path through the rubble strewn wreck of a street to another block of buildings, through empty rooms, around another corner, and she doesn't stop until she can no longer hear the noise of the bloodbath. When the cannons fire she counts six, swallows hard, and keeps running.
Eventually, she has to stop, as the first adrenaline rush washes out, leaving her tired and breathless. She crouches down, back against a wall, and looks around. She needs a hiding place, somewhere to wait, because eventually she'll need food and water but she'll have to steal it and best to wait on that.
It's still drizzling, the kind that's like thick fog more than anything, drops condensing on her jacket, on the metal drainpipe around the corner from her.
Drainpipe. That'll collect whatever moisture there is, so Rokia looks around, slips over and kicks the end, where the pipe leads under the street. Three kicks and it breaks, and Rokia takes a second to be glad for the sturdy boots she's wearing before kneeling down, putting her fingers to the gap.
There's a trickle, nothing more, but it's better than nothing. The metal's soft, but the edges are sharp enough to cut into her Remake-softened hands as she bends one side to trap what she can. She ducks into the building through the broken window to look for anything like a cup, but there's nothing. Just shards of concrete and broken glass, and Rokia swears softly and goes back to the pipe. She kneels again, puts her face to the edge, sucks up a couple metallic mouthfuls, and gets up. Too long out in the open already, she takes off at a quick walking pace, across the street and into an alleyway, zig-zagging through the rubble until the light is starting to fade.
The buildings here are all rough cinder block, worn so the mortar stands out, holes where the blocks have worn away, ledges on half boarded up windows. She steps up to the wall, feels with her fingers for places to hold, and scrambles up two floors to a flat roof, the edging around it enough to hide her from any eyes at ground level. There's no stairs to here, either, just a nailed-down trapdoor, and it's about the best she could hope for as a place to spend the night. So she curls into a corner and waits.
Now that she isn't moving it's cold, sweat from her day of movement combining with drips that fall down her back to leave her shivering. It's not dangerous cold, not like the winter they couldn't afford the gas bill, but cold enough to be miserable anyway. To get out of it she'd have to go back toward ground level and it feels safer up here, so she stays put. Stays huddled into her jacket until the anthem blares out, and her heart stops, then pounds hard in her ears.
Faces flash up in the sky, the boy from Three, the girl from Five, and then Jerome, staring down, solemn, in his tribute uniform.
It's not surprising, and she didn't know him, and it doesn't matter when likely as not she'll be just as dead soon anyway, but still. He was from home, he was a dumb kid who should've grown into those gangly limbs and now he never will.
She should probably keep track somehow, but she spends a minute wondering what Jerome's family is doing, which veers toward wondering what her girls are doing, which she shuts off immediately because no use worrying when there's nothing she can do about it.
But she can't sit still anymore so she walks to the opposite side of the roof and stares toward the central square in the distance. Too far, too dark to tell if anyone's there, if the Career Pack (none dead from One, or Two, or Four, so there's at least six of them) is keeping watch or out hunting. It's too dark for her to trust herself climbing down, moving around on the streets, she'd make noise and that's no good, so she forces herself to settle into the corner and wait.
Every noise makes her jump, and once she's almost sure she hears someone pass by in the street below, and she tries to sleep, chin on her knees, but she's never more than just drifting off before she's jerked awake again by something.
Until finally, finally, the horizon shifts shades to a lighter grey and the sun comes up. Or at least the Gamemakers version does, not like time really matters here, but she doesn't let herself think too hard about it because what good would it do if she knew they'd lengthened or shortened the nights? That way lies crazy, and she's got a job to do. Stay alive.
Unfortunately, staying alive requires food, and eventually that becomes a problem. By the morning of the fourth day Rokia knows if she waits any longer she's going to be too weak to do anything about it, so she starts heading back to the only place she knows she can find something to eat.
The Career Pack has set up camp with their backs to the wall she scrambled over on the first day, out of the wind and keeping out of the drizzle with a wide grey tarp. Rokia skirts far around the square to come at it from the side, hangs back far enough to watch while her pulse races shallow in her throat and her breath comes far too quickly for how much she's moved. No turning back now, she has to get something, but she can't afford to be in a hurry either. She climbs through a broken window, crawls across the floor until she can see the square, the Careers, the stash of food and weapons at the mouth of the Cornucopia.
There's three of them there now, and Rokia watches until she can figure out who's who. It's the Four boy mostly watching out, he's standing just within the rain shadow of the tarp, looking bored. The One girl is talking to the Two boy, who's watching her just exactly as carefully as you'd expect a teenage boy to watch a girl who's only talking as a preamble for something more. Rokia's not too exhausted to be amused by the look on his face, struggling to stay alert while his eyes drag toward her fingers, combing through her long, blond hair. Rokia can't hear what she's saying, but it can't possibly be what's keeping him interested.
She looks back at the square, and then she sees it--a small, square grate, not far from the pile, barred over. Pretty sketchy, as escape routes go, but if it's like the sewers in Six, the grate will lift with a sharp pull and she should be able to slide in. That girl might be able to follow, but the boys are both to broad at the shoulders to fit anything like comfortably.
Still. She has to get that far.
She looks back at the Careers, as the girl from One shifts to straddle the boy from Two, twisting her fingers in his hair and her mouth hard on his, his hands working up under her shirt. The Four boy stops in his pacing for a second to watch, and that's all the chance Rokia needs. She's out the window and across the open space in seconds, and the pile and the Cornucopia are between her and them without anyone noticing. She breathes deep, feels her heart stutter and pound, and creeps on hands and knees toward the mouth of the Cornucopia.
It's all there, and Rokia feels a sharp stab of jealousy that these stupid rich kids, who grew up never having to worry about where their next meal would come from, don't even have to worry about it here where they're all supposed to be equal. Fucking joke, that--and that feels good, anger flooding through her and lighting her up like she's really alive again. She snags pouches of nuts and dried fruit and meat, stuffing them into her jacket, until she takes one too many and the pile shifts.
"Hey!" someone calls, "you wanna do your Games-damned job and see what's making that noise instead of staring?"
There's muttering and footsteps behind her but Rokia's already racing for the grate. It comes up with a jolt that knocks her on her ass, but that just means it's easy to slide through and pull it down behind her. Her feet hit water and she swears to herself, more for the noise than anything, her feet have been soaked for days now.
But she freezes, and there's footsteps, a voice above. "Someone took some shit," and that's a Four accent.
"Dammit, Four," and that must be the Two boy, the one who somehow heard her despite having his tongue down that girl's throat.
"Hey!" The Four boy calls back, affronted. "You were the one making out."
"Boys," the girl calls, and Rokia doesn't hear anything else because that's enough noise to cover her splashing footsteps as she runs down the tunnel, bent double with a hand holding her jacket with its precious cargo.
She lets the next few grates go past, grateful for the dim light they provide but sure the Careers will be looking for her nearby. It's a lucky find, this sewer, and she's just hoping she doesn't run into anyone else who thinks so. Her luck holds, and when she's counted 10 grates, she pushes the 11th one up and crawls out.
At some point, she thinks dully, as the excitement of escape drains away, she's going to get as filthy and soaked as it's possible to be, but for now, she's added yet another layer of grime. She looks around, but she's in some part of the Arena she hasn't seen before, nothing looks familiar. She picks a building at random, peels back the plywood covering a window, and climbs inside.
She pulls out her food one precious packet at a time, lays it out in front of her. For as hard as it was to get, it seems like pathetically little. She reaches for a bag, pulls out a handful of raisins, and puts it in her mouth.
The burst of flavor is like fireworks in her mouth. Rokia chews slowly, rolling the fruit around, savoring it. Then she opens another bag, does the same with a handful of peanuts. Her stomach wakes up, cramps and grumbles and suddenly demands more with an insistence that leaves her shaking and breathless.
She downs two more handfuls of nuts, fast, and one more of raisins, before she can force herself to stop. Rolls down the top of the plastic bags, shoves everything into the pockets of her pants, her jacket, and looks around.
Now that she isn't starving, she needs a place to try to sleep for a few hours. Out of habit she goes up, up three rickety staircases and out a door to the roof.
And someone in the Gamemakers' room likes her, because there's a loose sheet of corrugated tin leaned up against the wall around the roof, making a space just big enough that she can mostly fit into it, out of the wet and the wind, and as safe as she'll get in this hellhole. She takes it as a sign, curls up, and sleeps.
Three days later, Rokia's down to one packet of dried meat, and she needs to collect water before she can eat it, and she needs to eat, soon. There's a few places she's been able to collect more than a mouthful of gritty, oily tasting water, places where there's enough scrap around that she can make a bowl to collect the slow drips as the fine drizzle and fog condense. She's on her hands and knees, bent to drink, when she hears the crunch of breaking glass behind her.
Strangely enough, the voice that rings in her mind is her uncle's, gruff. "Just 'cause you heard them doesn't mean they gotta know you did," and she swallows and shifts, as though she just happened to be finished, and turns. And there the illusion of a Six back-alley cracks, because it's the girl from Nine, no bigger than Rokia, blond hair hanging in greasy strings, coming loose from the braid down her back. Her eyes are wide, deep-sunk in her hungry face, and she's holding a knife a little longer then her hand, pointed towards Rokia.
She clearly hasn't ever used a knife for fighting, but Rokia has nothing to fight back with, her eyes scanning for anything that might be able to help but coming up empty. Nine sneers, makes a noise like a growl in the back of her throat, and lunges at Rokia. It's instinct that she blocks the girl's forearm with her own, twists away to run, and maybe she could outrun this kid, but maybe not, not after a week in here, so Rokia moves back in as the girl lunges again, and this time she's not quick enough to do more than shove the girls arm so that the knife scrapes across her shoulder rather than into her chest. It's bleeding, but that doesn't matter, because the girl's off balance and Rokia shoves her, hard, so she falls and the knife skitters out of her hand.
From there it's just one long pace to snatch up the blade, spin, still crouched down, and bring the knife up into the inside of the girl's thigh. The blood comes as a shock, shooting in a wide arc and coating Rokia and the wall behind her in red.
And now she can run, no way that girl's going to follow her, so she does, bloody knife shoved into her belt.
She races for one of her hideouts, on the roof not far from the central square, and she's crawling up the downspout when she hears the dull thud of a cannon. It brings her back from wherever her mind's gone, and she nearly falls. Takes a shaky breath and hauls herself onto the roof before collapsing in a heap, in the corner. Her hands are shaking too hard to do anything about the knife that's still covered in dried blood, the blood that's on her jacket and her pants and in her hair and in her nose.
Because she just killed someone, that cannon had to be for the Nine girl, right? With as much blood as she has on her, that kid can't still be alive. And Rokia has been trying not to think about this ever since her name was called in the square a lifetime ago. Don't get killed? That's been her job for a long time. Killing other people? Never.
But Uncle Salif showed her the artery in the leg, so she'd know how to end it fast if someone came for her for real, and she didn't even think before she used every bit of her strength to slice into that girl as far as she could. Didn't even think about the fact that she'd killed a living breathing person, a girl who had a family hoping she'd come back, people who needed her, until the damn cannon reminded her.
Rokia takes a deep, shuddering breath. Her stomach is roiling, and she can't afford to throw up, she won't do it, she breathes deep until her heartbeat slows. She's a murderer now. She's got blood all over her because she killed the girl from Nine, and she did it because this is the Arena. That's what happens in here. No point crying over it. She looks down at the blood on her hands, rubs at it, and heads for another of her water stashes to try to clean up.
Phillips watches his girl pull herself together, move out of her shocked huddle and head towards one of the water collections she's set up. His heart is racing as fast as hers is on his screen. It's good, he tells himself. She's made her first kill, and she was shaken up, of course she was, up close like that, blood spraying all over her. But she's up, and moving, and the cut in her shoulder doesn't look serious, and she still has food, though she'll have to steal more soon.
And then his phone rings. Philomena practically coos at him when he answers.
"Phillips, my dear, your girl is positively stunning," she says, while his screen shows Rokia using handfuls of water to scrub the blood from her face. "I think she may make a good showing after all, and I'm ready to make a contribution to your fund."
Phillips grits his teeth. "Why thank you so much, ma'am," he says, "I will see she gets the most from it."
"I'm sure you will," she says, and the line cuts out. He stares at the phone in his hand until the chirp from the monitor reminds him he has money to spend.
He looks through his options, all of them expensive, already, agonizing over the choice. She needs food, first. She's dehydrated, but not badly, according to his monitor, but she is malnourished, and it won't kill her but it'll weaken her so someone else can. It's quantity and price he's looking at, so his collection is mostly more dried meat, fruit, nuts, when he comes across something he's never noticed before. "District Six Porridge" they're calling it, the tesserae grain cooked to the consistency of paste he remembers dimly from childhood, a thin green sauce to make it taste like something.
It's cheap. It's got some water to it, that'll be good. She can't take it with her easily, but she needs a meal, and it's delivered hot.
It's been a week since Rokia ate a hot meal, and it's maybe not the best value for money, but he adds it to the collection and calls the parachutists.
Rokia's on the roof, sipping at water she's brought up in an emptied food bag, when they deliver it. The cameras follow the parachute down, catch her face lighting up when she opens the canister, tucks each packet of portable food carefully into a pocket. At the bottom is a small metal bowl, and when she feels the heat she wraps her fingers around it and just stays like that for a minute, absorbing the warmth through her skin. Then she twists open the top and she actually smiles, and right then Phillips would pay his whole stipend to see that smile again.
The Career Pack breaks ten days in. Phillips doesn't see what happens to set it off, just the bloody aftermath, all three girls lying on the ground, bleeding out. The Four boy has already taken off, leaving One and Two to glare at each other across the square, posturing, before heading in different directions.
With that they're down to the Final Eight. They asked him, yesterday, who they could interview in Six, and he'd boggled at them, his sleep-deprived brain unable to come up with any response. "I'd never met her before the Reaping," he'd said finally. "I have no idea." They'd come back later to interview him, and he'd talked about how resourceful she was, stealing that food, how she's strong and quick and how amazing it would be for Six to win.
He looks up from where Rokia is curled into her latest hiding spot to see the interviews. They've got her mom on the screen with someone they're calling a stepfather, two little girls crowded close, hands clasped tight together. "She's a huge help," the mother's saying, and they've let a Capitol prep team cover up the track marks on her arms, but Phillips knows a junkie when he sees one. The man is if anything worse, distracted and jittery, and his voice comes out harsh and drawling when he repeats what he's clearly learned by rote.
Then the interviewer bends down to the level of the little girls, and the older one pulls her sister close, protective. "We want her to do real well so she can come home soon," she says, careful. "We miss her a whole lot."
The announcers coo over how sweet the girls are, while the interviews shift to the inside of a hovercraft repair shop, a huge hangar with machines ranged around the hulking shape of a cargo craft wedged into the middle of the room. "She's a real good mechanic," a man's saying, and he's Phillips' size at least, dark skin shining with a sheen of sweat, dressed in a clean work shirt and jeans for the occasion. His hands open and close at his sides, like they're not used to holding still, and he's just about glaring at the camera. "I figured she'd do okay, always took care of herself." He smiles, crooked, and continues. "Taught her to throw a punch when she was eleven," he says, looking pleased. "Right out back here. Some guys were givin' her trouble. Didn't bother her any more after that." The interviewer titters behind her hand, and they come back to Claudius and Caesar in the broadcast room.
"Well!" Caesar says. "I guess we know where she gets her spunk!"
Phillips flips he switch on his headphones, looks back at his girl, sleeping restlessly. "Oh, kid," he mutters, trails off, reaches out to touch the screen as though she could feel him, trying to tuck her in for the night.
She's still sleeping, half-curled into the corner of the room, when Phillips realizes the main screen is showing the same building that's on his monitor. The Four boy is climbing the broken stairway inside, moving toward the room she's in, and Phillips can't breathe. He's not sure if the boy saw her from the outside or if he's looking for a hiding place himself, but it doesn't matter. There's a spear in his hand and a long knife in his belt, and all Phillips can think of is death and blood.
But the screen splits above him, and on his monitor her heart rate kicks up from sleep-slow to alert, before the Four boy's off the stairs. By the time he shoves the door open she's moving, and when he lifts his arm to throw the spear she ducks under it, snake-quick, and shoves her knife up under his sternum. She steps back as he falls, jerks the knife out and is up on the roof before the cannon sounds.
The whole thing took thirty seconds, it was fast and decisive and brutal and she's breathing fast but she looks exhilarated, tipping her face up into what's deigned to become actual rain as though for the express purpose of washing blood and filth off her face. She grins, sharp and vicious as any Career he's ever seen, and the cameras love it, staying on her with her mouth open, letting the rain fall in while Caesar crows about the upset.
He's not even surprised when the phone starts ringing.
Everyone knows the Hunger Games are supposed to be about death and glory, so Rokia isn't really surprised when the parachute comes before she's left the roof after killing the boy from Four. It should probably bother her, that she killed a boy and gets rewarded for it--but there's another bowl of porridge like her grandma used to make, and this time the sauce has chunks of meat. She has to work hard to keep from scarfing it down like an alley cat, knows it'll make her puke if she isn't careful but damn if it still hasn't vanished way before she's ready for it to be done. Phillips' note says there'll be more, and there's the usual portable stuff to stick in her pockets, but her whole body wants more. Her stomach feels stretched tight and uncomfortable though, and she curls in on herself when it cramps painfully, sits in a corner out of the rain until it passes.
And as soon as it does she has to move, because someone might come looking and she should've realized that before now except she's piecing thoughts together out of threads that slip away from her if she isn't careful. She can feel her brain tunneling in, slow and dull except for the things too far down to really be thoughts, the things that say "run" and "eat" and meant she was awake, knife in hand, before she even knew she'd heard the Four boy's feet on the stairs.
And now those not-quite-thoughts are telling her to move, and she listens.
That night there are four faces in the sky, most since the first day. District One, female. District Two, female, District Four, female. District Four, male. The next day it's District Eight, male, and District Eight female, and maybe Rokia's imagining things but their tribute photos look surprised to be there, this long into the Games. The next night there's nothing, and Rokia slips out to get water and wonders how many are left. Didn't think of keeping track, too late now, but it must, it just has to be almost done. As soon as it's light enough that she can almost see where she's going, Rokia's internal timer tells her it's time to move, she's been in one spot too long.
She's wary of all her old spots, wonders what tracks she's left that she can't see, so she wanders, aimless, until she finds a mess of old sewage pipes where she figures there might be a spot she could sqeeze into past where anyone could see from outside. She tightens her grip on her knife--not hers, not the one she's carried in her pocket till it slides into her hand like it's part of her, but it's done its job. Steps behind a falling-down wall, scanning the area around her so she doesn't even see the boy until she trips over his legs.
At first she thinks he's dead, there's too much blood on the concrete for it to be anything else, she's seen enough junkies stabbed in alleyways to know nobody gets up from a pool like that. She's about to take off, in case whoever did it is waiting for her, too, when her brain kicks in and reminds her she's not in Six, she's in the Arena, and in the Arena bodies don't lie around until someone finds the time to clear them out. In the Arena there's cannons for deaths and hovercraft to take the bodies, and right about then she notices that while the boy's eyes are glazed and unfocused, he's taking shallow, wheezing breaths somehow--and she swallows hard and braces herself against the desire to run.
District Two, she comes up with, finally, though it's hard to connect the ashen-white face and the still body and the pool of blood with the strong, confident kid who managed to charm just about everyone in training without ever letting them forget he would have no trouble killing them when the time came. District Two, Male, who nearly caught her stealing from the Career stash, who she last saw caught up with the girl from One like any other teenagers necking in a vacant lot.
She's going to have to kill him.
Well. She doesn't have to. She could walk away, and he'll die eventually, and the canon will fire and that's one less person between her and going home. Except. He's well past the point he could plead, but his eyes swim up toward hers and he blinks slowly and for all that he's bigger and older and better than her, he's helpless now and Rokia--Rokia can't just leave him.
She knows what she's supposed to do, forces her mind to reach back to the trainer pointing to a model of a person with the key blood vessels traced in red. This boy's lost so much blood the veins don't stand out on his neck anymore, but the tendons do, and she can figure it out from that. She kneels down for a closer look, fighting the screaming in her head that says it could all be a trick, that she's supposed to be moving, that this can't be her problem, isn't her problem--because he's a kid, like her, except they can't be kids, not here, and if she leaves he'll keep dying by inches and nobody deserves that.
She traces the line above his skin once, twice. Tries to force her shaking hands steady. Then she slices a long line across his neck, pressing hard, swallows against the scream that wants to come out of her throat as his opens, gaping, an eerie whistling from his severed windpipe, the blood pulsing faintly as his heart stutters to a stop. She's frozen until the canon fires, jolting her to her feet--too fast, her vision tunnels and she blinks hard, waits for it to clear, then turns and runs.
She doesn't run far, not much point when she doesn't know what direction to go. But soon she finds herself in the same busted up building where the Four boy found her, and huddled in the same old hiding spot she forces herself to think. To remember old Games where outliers managed to win, to think about how she could make this end.
And then she looks down, and there's a broken electrical outlet lying on the floor, trailing wire behind it like a tail. Tricks and traps, she thinks. That's how outliers win. She pulls on the wire and it gives, more and more of it coming out of the wall in her hands. And for a second she lets herself imagine Sara watching, shaking her head and laughing and calling her a dirty punk, before she's racing up the stairs to pry off more sockets to get the wires behind them.
When she has a good pile she goes back to a room with a mostly-intact door, and settles in. She can do this. She just needs something to slow them down, to hold them so she can get there.
And some redundancy. She's got plenty of wire after all.
Finally she has three or four snares lined up on the floor, ready to pull taut and trip up anyone who steps in them. She spreads the floor with the broken glass, peeling plywood and just plain dirt, enough to hopefully cover up her work, and goes to sit against the back wall.
And she waits. That night the Two boy's face is followed by the face of the boy from Seven and the light doesn't fade completely but stays grey and dim. She can't be sure, but Rokia thinks that means it's down to her and one other person. And whoever it is, she's hoping they come find her soon. She sips a little water, nibbles a little at the last of her food, slides into the numb daze she's spent most of her time in here, not quite awake but not really asleep either, just...waiting.
Eventually, there's footsteps on the stairs, and Rokia gets to her feet, back to the wall and knife in hand.
It works better than she dared imagine. She barely has time to recognize the One boy before he's on the floor, face down with both feet trapped in her snares, pulled in two directions at once and struggling to get out as the wire tightens and cuts into his ankles. Rokia can't afford to hesitate, can't let him catch his breath, and there's ringing in her ears as she steps up, stomps on his hand till he drops his sword, kicks it across the room. His left hand's searching for something, a knife at his belt, but she doesn't let him get there, brings her boot down on his wrist, steps so she's straddling his back and yanks his head up by the hair. Refuses to think about it when she reaches down, awkward from this angle, and pulls the blade across his throat. Keeps herself upright, her stomach rebelling and her breath coming in desperate fast gasps when she lets go and his head falls with a sick thud, the blood pooling under him while he wheezes a last breath.
She staggers away, leans against the wall, hears trumpets and the sound of a hovercraft outside. And her feet lead her to the window, automatic, and she steps out, onto the ladder that freezes her so she can't fall, pulls her up into the belly of the hovercraft and out of the Arena.