"You're too attached, Verena," your lab director tells you for the first time when he asks for updates and you guide him through each embryo and fetus by name instead of designation: Taxi and Ptitsa, brown-furred and destined for culling and autopsy in the next few days; Frisk, the first of the Dendrobates auratus trials, barely settled in the chamber; Champagne, Elias, Gerti, Tabasco, eleven weeks in and growing their first promising tufts of jewel-colored fur. "You'll never get anywhere if you keep thinking of them like pets. Or people."
You picture the first thing you ever dissected, a pungent squid with alien innards, and the mangled second ventricle of the first kitten you worked on, which died gasping in minutes when its amphibious cardiovascular system failed to hold its own. You think of the familiar lines you'll cut through little Taxi's abdomen, motions learned by rote but made interesting again by the uncertainty of what you'll find inside every new specimen here. You look at your director, the smartest person you've ever met, who stuck out his own neck last year to get your name on your first publication and would strip himself of his own license in disgrace before he ever so much as thought to claim an assistant's work, a man you admire and genuinely like; and you wonder what you would find if you cut him open and unwound his cells beneath a microscope. You wonder what you could build anew from the pieces.
Nothing more valuable than what he can offer the world alive. You would never do it, never even want to. But still—you wonder.
"Don't worry," you say, voice firm despite how you duck your head at the light reprimand. "I won't let it get in my way."
"Come on in," you call. "Just give me a second." Otho picks carefully through your ring of controlled chaos: spreadsheets, flowcharts, screens tracking locations and vitals, fresh reports from half a dozen departments, an extra screen dedicated to polls and betting. By the time you finish dashing off your message and look up, he's hovering in front of you; you meet his nervous smile with a broad one and rest the screen of the tablet against your chest, not shutting it down but signaling that he has as close to your full attention as you can afford to give right now. "What's the story?"
Half the junior Gamemaker team looked visibly nervous the moment Petros survived the Bloodbath, so you're not surprised to have someone finally offering what he clearly thinks is a skillfully veiled hint that you could do something about the kid. You give him the same reason that you plan to give the president if he complains, because it's good reasoning, thank you: after the last two years, people are tired of underdogs, and the Career girls—all three, but Ross and Harvey's stumbling but heartfelt romance in particular—have given everyone a more interesting story to spin. The kid's death will mean nothing until he's survived long enough for the media and the polls to remember he exists. (Long enough, coincidentally, to give his sister hope before ripping it away—but truth be told, you're not concerned. Petros the younger is an inconvenient Victor, but she's small and prone to sobbing fits; she is not a dangerous Victor.)
"I understand. It's just," Otho says, and you consider irritation before deciding you're glad that you still seem personable enough for your staff to feel safe complaining to you, "the president..."
He makes a face just far enough from rolling his eyes that no one could fairly call him on it, and you crack an involuntary smile. If there's one thing you've learned in the last eight years, it's that no matter how much or how little regard people hold for Coriolanus Snow, anyone who gets in an overworked Gamemaker's way is a nuisance. Perhaps one they can only complain about in a different room, but a nuisance nevertheless.
"The president," you say with all the reassuring cheer you can project, "trusted me to do this job. Don't worry, Otho. We're all in this together."
The thing is, everyone has their reasons for chasing a degree: a parent to please, a hunger for knowledge, an aimless terror of facing the new expectations of a world outside of academia. Yours is the feeling of watching a blastula fold inward and take its first teetering steps toward differentiation, already something the world has never seen, and thinking, I made you, and I could end you. The world will learn something from you that would never have come to light if not for me. You are not proud of your creations, exactly—you do not need the world to see them and praise them, or you—but you cherish them, even the supposed failures. There is nothing else in the world, after all, that anyone could own so beautifully completely. Not a lover, not a child, not art, not even in some ways a self.
Which is not to say that you had no hand in your own creation. You remember fondly the year after you signed for your new name and gender marker, when you less broke out of a shell and more unfurled like sand dropped into a spinning kaleidoscope—the same self you always were, but finally willing to be in a way that had always felt a little out of reach. No one else pushed you into that; no one else guided the way shy regard unfolded into bubbly friendliness, or chased opportunities for you as you found your way among your peers and in your field. But you're not foolish enough to think that you somehow did all of that untouched by the world around you. Your family and the society around them created the frame you laid your understanding of yourself over, and every day your advisor and professors and even fellow students shape the very way you think. Verena Halitrephes was, is, and always will be a team effort.
That doesn't keep you up at night. Owing and being owed a million little unrepayable debts of creation is part of being human. All it means is that the names you submit to journals—Heloderma-Euchoreutes familiaris, Lobactis acri, a list that expands with your career, creatures you build from scratch with your own hands—are in their way more precious to you than Verena.
Technically, going back to the muttation labs is a downgrade. Personally, you have never felt so at home as when you walk back past the enclosures, breathing in the earthy smells never quite hidden by sharp cleaners, and into the familiar adjoining web of labs and offices.
The Fifty-Sixth Hunger Games dragged a little toward the middle, perhaps, but in your estimation the drama of the last few days—the remnants of an unstable alliance imploding at long last, plucky underdogs meeting the inevitable, young lovers making hard choices, two fan favorites from respectable Districts pitted against one another on the final morning—more than made up for that. You rest comfortably on your laurels, rarely bothering to submit new proposals for Head Gamemaker positions and making no fuss when you're passed over. Invidia Nox remains head of the Muttation Team, a title you're just as happy not to fight for; you tinker with alleles and track vitals gladly, and in the off season when your lab space is yours to do with as you please, you chase your real ambitions with undimmed fervor. If not every patent you spin from theory and sketch into breathing flesh sees its day in the Games, at least you get to hold them and know.
You always keep one eye toward the Games, though, for job security if nothing else. An old mutt catches your eye, a beautiful, nasty little colony creature deemed too dangerous even for military use; you tuck it away as a side project, determined to make it useful again. There's a delicate balance in there somewhere, where the Nakom are tamped down enough to not destroy the Arena in a day but not so far as to not pose a reasonable threat, and you're the right person to find it.
They're nearly ready when you receive your second summons.
After years in the lab working on your dissertation, your first few jobs bore you to tears. Never mind the fancy letters beside your name or glowing recommendations behind you; for three years you test blood samples for disease, tweak pets for longevity, work you could have done as a sleep-deprived undergrad. This was not what you had in mind when you turned down professorship.
"You're a society woman," your mother points out with a jokingly grandiose gesture at odds with the delicate way she holds a spoon in that same hand. It's a quiet dinner, just her visiting your downtown apartment, but she holds some habits closer than others. "Stop working, if it's so much trouble."
"Mom," you protest, rolling your eyes despite a tug at the corners of your lips. She's right that you could, of course—the family investments alone could keep you not only afloat but thoroughly comfortable—but you both know that if you wanted that life you never would have bothered with school. "Do you expect throwing parties to bore me less?" Attending is one thing; you never minded, often even enjoyed, tagging along to your mother's events as a teenager. Organizing sounds like an awful lot of work for only an ephemeral impact.
"Well, you know. You could meet someone, settle down—" High-pitched giggles overtake her as you raise an eyebrow. "I'm done, I'm done, stop looking at me like that."
"You're ridiculous." It's not that you're a recluse—far from it. You like people; you have loved several and, you would venture to say, been loved in turn. But in your experience, people don't like to feel upstaged by embryos, and it has never particularly broken your heart to be broken up with. "Anyway, I'm taking another shot at the Games."
"Oh," she says, leaning forward over her suddenly forgotten soup. Despite your myriad choices that she will never understand, she always lights up for the things she knows excite you; despite knowing this is a given, you always appreciate it. "A different position?"
You nod. "Some of the old military mutts need..." You cut yourself off before you can spiral into jargon. "Well, they weren't really designed with an Arena environment in mind, right? They need some adjustment." At this stage the details are still classified even to applicants, but you have a general idea: energy efficiency, a little tugging on the temperaments, climate adaptations. "It's not making anything from scratch, but still."
"Closer to your qualifications," she suggests.
"Exactly." The last Games position you tried for—a botany assistant, something to do with ecosystem maintenance, the details already slip your mind five months later—was a long shot, and you had been disappointed but not surprised at the recruiter vanishing after your second interview. You have a little more hope for this one.
"You're perfect," she says, pointing the spoon at you with utmost gravity. "They'd be fools not to take you."
"You're my mother, you have to say that," you say with another laugh. But you know she can tell, in the way you smile down into your soup, that it still warms you to hear.
At twenty-five you were knee-deep in your dissertation and two years out from graduation—five from working in the Games, more than a decade from the Head Gamemaker title you only stepped into at thirty-eight. If Warren Whip was any less competent, you would wonder who was trying to launch—or ruin—his career. Instead, you find yourself quietly impressed by the way he cuts through the glitz to the heart of the Games, efficient and quick but too observant to be superficial. With him on the other side of the wheel you have less control over your Games, but more time to breathe; all told, it's easier than you expected to work as a team.
He's also surly as hell, but you spent nine years in academia and fifteen working with muttation crews, where liking people as much as polymerases is not always a given; you know better by now than to take a bit of attitude personally. You keep beaming and offering to bring breakfast as the Bloodbath draws nearer and your mornings get earlier, and you manage to get to know each other, a little.
It helps, perhaps, that you don't mind being the one the shyer junior Gamemakers come to with complaints and bad news—but to be fair there is, once the Games start rolling, very little bad news. The architects outdid themselves with a gleaming tribute to decay. The Bloodbath is appropriately dramatic and disgusting, and at the end of it the final alliance standing cracks open the little box waiting for them. Cricket Antoinette, dripping flair, a fan favorite from the beginning, never once disappoints; her fight with your creatures single-handedly makes up for every screeching camera tech. A Twelve makes it to the final few days on your watch again, but after a string of Upper District victors, this excites Capitol crowds again; you refuse to see it as a failure, especially when his inelegant death folds him into a footnote to the twins' sob story.
It is, on everyone's parts, a job well done.
To a child watching the Games, you remember, every little thing looks like magic. They still must seem that way to many of the tributes, and even those watching from the Districts: children whisked away by chance and vengeance, dropped into an Arena where animals defy nature and the land itself roils and wrecks at the whim of unseen Gamemakers. Most of the audience will never see, let along understand, the technology running behind the scenes—and what is it they say, after all, about sufficiently advanced technology?
Even now, with two years of close to a front-row view, the enormity of the whole undertaking dizzies you sometimes. The hours of design and conditioning behind every mutt, you understand well, and you've long had your guesses about ecosystem design and the subtle force fields rising and falling to keep animals on or off the right track once tributes arrive, but climate control and engineering and the web of algorithms are new to you. Nothing in the Arena, save what tributes and mutts do once unbridled, happens without a thousand signals branching out from a control room and what feels like a thousand signatures circulating in the offices beyond.
It's a lot to take in--but then, once upon a time you barely knew what a zygote was. Besides, you have no shortage of teachers; people like explaining work they're proud of to an admiring audience, and it's easy to make friends when you're not even feigning the admiration. You'll never be an architect or a programmer, but your work runs more smoothly when you know what your creatutes are expected to interact with and handle, so you learn and learn well. Over the months you slot countless and ever more complex pieces of the organism that is the Hunger Games into your mental model, and watch your steadily improving designs take the stage with no small satisfaction.
Seeing them kill and be killed by children brings you no particular joy, to be sure, but at the end of the day you were given a job and you intend to do it well. People die in Panem. Many more would die in revolution. There is more to the nation's delicate equilibrium than child murder scares people into not rebelling, but the Games are certainly part of that balance; weigh a guaranteed, steady stream of death against pure chaos, and the choice is easy, no matter how likeable some of those children are.
Blood must flow to and from the right places for a heart to beat, and some people are simply more useful dead than alive.
Retiring into relative obscurity turns out to be the easiest part of your career. As soon as you pass the mantel, the Capitol moves on; Dom and Invidia pass in and out of the spotlight again, as does Warren, and between them move strangers with fresh ideas and fresher faces. You make a splash at the university in your first few years back, with students finding thinly veiled excuses to meander into your office looking for gossip that never made to camera, but as the years go by fewer and fewer of your students know—let alone care—what you did in a previous life. It's history to them, eclipsed by newer Games; next week's exam is not.
Grey creeps into your hair little by little, until your mother teases you for having more than her. In her early eighties she's pretty as ever, in the way Capitol socialites learn how to be: her face all but ageless, her wardrobe vivid, her jewelry never the same twice, her hair forever in the newest styles. You embraced the same approach casually as a teenager and returned to it with professional precision for your handful of months on the national stage, but these days you find you prefer the gentle sort of authority age gives you; you look into the mirror and see the professor you've come to think of yourself as, her silver hair wound into a bun and her eyes keen and bright amid the wrinkles of laughter and long nights staring at pages and screens. (Staring, not squinting—you may leave the wrinkles be, but you're hardly above surgery to keep your eyesight sharp.) You still dress nicely enough—often with a page from your mother's book, pastel gowns and suits—but you've long since stopped giving fashion most of your energy.
In the summer, between grant writing and well-earned breaks from looking at papers, you work on your own projects, much the way you did during the Games offseason years ago. The school only funds the projects the upper echelons want to fund, which everyone knows largely means projects the government wants them to fund, but between family funds and your careful managing of your considerable Gamemaker salary, having your own space built is little more than a minor inconvenience. It turns out useful in the long run, anyway; under no supervision but your own you have full freedom to stretch the limits of what you have always been told is both possible and allowable.
Your first attempt at merpeople falls flat; you were too conservative and they're too close to fish, round-mouthed and gaping and empty behind the eyes. Honestly, you expect as much from any initial trial, and give them the usual treatment: autopsy a few, raise a contingent to adulthood to see what you can learn from them, and try again. Resources are hardly scarce, after all. Your position at the university and your Games history give you access to nearly any genetic toolbox you might want, and a handful of favors traded for access to one year's records of Reaping directory blood samples bridges the solitary gap. Live tissue samples, should you need them, are even easier; avoxes are expensive, and you are wealthy.
You kill such occasional donors painlessly and sparingly, of course, with no satisfaction; you're not a monster. Some people are simply more useful dead than alive.