kawuli (kawuli) wrote,
kawuli
kawuli

Unstable equilibria

Rokia settles into life as a victor.
This one is actually....not terrible? There is one bit in the Capitol that is bad but the rest is okay. It is, however, kind of nerdy.



The first time she goes back to the shop it starts off awkward. Uncle Sal just waves from the office, where he's on the phone, but Matt whistles at her, grins, and says "Well, thought you might've got too glamorous for us, pretty girl." It's just like him to say it. They've known each other since she was 9 and he was 12 and he started working for Salif after school. He's teased her, helped her prank Sal's truck, had her back in street fights and crazy schemes and this should roll off her back just like the times he told her he'd almost forgotten she was a girl when she pulled on a skirt to sneak into bars.

It's not quite the same though now, and she flushes and looks away because she can't come up with something to shoot back with. "Hey," Matt says, serious for a minute, "Don't worry about it, kid, we know you better than that." She looks up at him and his grin turns sharp again. "I damn sure know you don't clean up like that on your own, else there'd still've been motor oil in your hair." He tousles hers so it stands straight out from her head, uneven where she took scissors to it after coming home. Her stylist will yell when he finds out, but fuck if she's spending the time to deal with it long.

"Yeah," she says finally, finding the knot in her chest's loosened just enough, "I never once went out in coveralls, either, so you know somebody else was looking out for me." They laugh, not so much because it's funny as because the tension's broken a little. Rokia shrugs into her coveralls, inhaling the smells of the shop and relishing in disappearing into shapeless canvas. Here she can relax, she knows what to do and how to do it, and while she and Matt strip off worn plating all she has to do is concentrate on where to put her feet so she won't slip, where to cut so the new panels will go on smooth, how to get the welder set up so it'll reach. The familiar banter's got a new edge though--someone says "why don't those damn Threes just do it like this?" and instead of laughing, Rokia files it away to think about later. She knows Threes, now. Maybe she can tell Wiress, maybe she can do something about it.

A few weeks later they get a call from the assembly plant, upgraded machinery to install, and Sal practically begs her to help out. "Kid, these guys are great and all but they like their feet on the ground," he says. "I put Matt up in the lifts last time and he about got himself killed." It'll be a long job, they're shutting down for second shift and giving them till morning to get it set up, and Rokia's begged off all the late jobs since she won because she doesn't want to leave the girls. "Magda can keep the girls," Sal says, "She don't mind."

Of course she doesn't, not now. Magda never did much more than put up with Rokia, family's family and she'd let the girls play with their cousin while Rokia worked, but she never let her forget the favor. Now that Rokia's famous in the Capitol she's changed her story, thrilled to keep the girls, happy to give interviews about how excited and proud they are to have a Victor in the family, so grateful to the Capitol for their generosity. Linsea thinks she's just wonderful. Rokia mostly keeps her mouth shut. But Allie parrots back "Aunt Magda says" every once in a while and Rokia doesn't like it. "Aunt Magda says we're special now because the Capitol loves you" made Rokia see red.

But there might be another option. Rokia tells Sal she'll think about it and that evening, she invites Phillips to come over for dinner. She's clattering around in the kitchen, wondering if she should learn how to make fancier meals now she's got the money, when Phillips knocks and lets himself in. She gave him a key weeks ago but it's taken quite a lot of heckling to make him use it.

After dinner the girls settle into their latest game, which they've started calling "Tour." Rokia tries not to let it bother her--they're just little, making stories about the stuff they saw on TV, but it feels strange to watch Allie's doll change clothes and wave and go to parties at the corners of the living room designated as the districts.

Phillips is watching Rokia in that careful way that means he doesn't want her to notice, sneaking glances while he pretends he's just watching the kids, and she keeps her head down, focused on her notebook, until she's ready. "Can I ask you a favor?" she asks, and he told her to ask if she needed anything, but this is more than just asking him where to buy bread or cold medicine or whatever.

"Sure, Rokia," he says, looking concerned, "What is it?"

Rokia takes a breath and asks, "My uncle asked if I could help with a job, it'll go late, so I was wondering if you would mind watching the girls?"

She's surprised by the smile she gets at that, pleased like she's given him a gift instead of asking for a favor. "I'd love to," he says, looking over at them. "Really, no trouble at all."

Rokia laughs a little. "Better not say that too soon," she says, "they might cause trouble just to prove you wrong."

The job's fun, actually, she remembers how much she's always liked scrambling around in the rafters, up above everyone, laughing and taking breaks now and then for the coffee and donuts Sal always brings for these jobs. The only one missing is Sara, and it's been a year and a half since she quit to go work on the trains but it still feels weird that Rokia's the one buying cigarettes, splitting them with Matt or Daouda or Salia. She's stuck Sara's note in one of her old notebooks, avoided the old neighborhood at night, is not ready to deal with whatever Sara expects to happen.

But apparently she's not the only one thinking about Sara, because Matt brings her up as he's walking her home. Rokia protested, it's 5AM and dark and cold and she's perfectly capable of handling herself. But Matt and Sal gave her identical unimpressed glares as though she was 12 and not 17 and a proven killer, and she decided letting Matt walk with her was probably better than pointing out they'd all seen her murder people on television. "Sara came over," Matt says, all fake-casual, eyes resting on Rokia for a second before continuing to scan the alleyways for danger. "She said to tell you you should quit avoiding her, she's not gonna make trouble."

Rokia snorts. "When does Sara not make trouble?" she asks.

Matt smiles and goes along with the deflection. "When you beat her to it," he says, and maybe he's not on Rokia's side after all. Rokia elbows him in the ribs and he gasps, fake-offended and pulling away. "What? I'm just telling the truth, you guys are each as impossible as the other and I'm just surprised between the two of you haven't got me fired yet." Then he gets serious. "She says, usual place, next Thursday, and if you're not there she's going to come to your stupid house and yell at you in front of that Phillips guy and it'll be way more embarrassing."

Rokia groans and rolls her eyes. Really, she should have expected this. "Fine," she says, and her heart's racing but she keeps her voice joking and light. "If you see her, tell her I'll be there, and if she shows up at my house I will smack her upside the head and pretend I've never met her."

They're getting close to the Village now, so Rokia shifts the conversation back to work, asking Matt what he thinks about the new turbofans on the transports, whether he's heard anything about the fuel consumption, and he gives her a funny look but he goes along with the change of subject until they get to her door. "Thanks, Matt," she says, and he just shrugs.

"No problem," he says. He gives her a tired smile and turns to head home.

Phillips is asleep on the couch, but he stirs and sits up when she walks in. He scrubs a hand over his eyes and looks at the clock. "Everything okay?" he asks, and Rokia smiles. Good, hard work and heavy tired limbs and scraped knuckles and the sun peeking out over the skyline--yeah, everything's pretty much fine. She smiles and tells him so and ducks into the kitchen, because the girls will be up before long, so she might as well make pancakes.

---

Sara's waiting for her when she gets to the old place, standing on the edge of the roof, leaning against the wall. She turns when Rokia climbs up, and it's hard to read her expressions in the dim glow of the streetlights but her posture is tense, wound tight.

Rokia stops a few steps away, crosses her arms and says, "Hi."

Sara looks uncomfortable. "Hi, Rokia."

Rokia sighs. "You're the one who told me to come," she says, moving to sit on the wall. Sara just watches, and it's the distance she's keeping more than anything else that convinces Rokia she knows something. Rokia's just not sure what.

"Yeah," Sara says, "Look, I talked to Joe," she says, her eyes flicking up to meet Rokia's. "He says he's heard some things, what happens to popular new Victors."

"That so?" This is a stupid, dangerous, idiot conversation and there is no fucking point to it and of course Sara can't leave well enough alone.

"Shit, Rokia, I didn't…it's awful."

"I guess." Rokia shrugs.

Sara looks at her, turns to rest her hands on the wall again and look out over the city. "I hate them," she says, her voice low and rough. "We should burn the whole fucking place to the ground."

Rokia leans back and looks at the stars. "You shouldn't say shit like that," she says. "They watch."

"Come on, then," Sara says, turns to climb down.

"Where are we going?" Rokia asks. It doesn't really matter that much, but she's curious.

"You'll see."

They fall into step once they get down, and Rokia recognizes the destination before long. The heat rises from the foundry and the noise of machinery is deafening and she's remembering Sara isn't stupid, not by a long shot. Too noisy for bugs, here, and there's a spot where the track for the El meets the wall surrounding the factory where nobody will see them. It smells like piss and cigarettes and when the trains pass they drown out even the factory noise but it's about as safe as it gets from surveillance.

Sara faces her, and they're huddled close to hear each other but it's so far from romantic Rokia has to smile. "I'm going to do it, you know," Sara says. "They can't expect us to put up with this forever."

Rokia flinches at that. "He'll kill you. He'll kill you, and your brothers, and your parents, and he'll kill me, if he finds out I know you."

"Him." Sara's looking her in the eye now, as though the anger's burned off the awkwardness. "Snow?"

Rokia nods. "You don't know what he's like."

"And you do." It's a flat statement, not a question.

"Yeah."

"It's not just me," Sara says, quick and furtive. "We could take down the whole rail grid, if we thought it'd do any good." She's watching Rokia's reaction, so Rokia keeps her face blank while she thinks about it. Sure, there would have to be weak points in a system as complex as the railroads, and sure, the people who know them best are the crews that ride them week after week. And Sara's been angry since she started on the trains, since before, probably, and it makes sense she wouldn't be the only one.

"It wouldn't matter," is what she says, finally. "You'd just get yourselves killed."

"Someday, though," Sara says, and it's fierce, not wistful, not a dream but a promise. It sends shivers down Rokia's spine to think about, anticipation or dread or something.

"Yeah," she says, and wonders if she can really believe it. "Someday."

Sara takes her hand, squeezes once, then steps away. "You're right though," she says, glancing around, "about being more careful."

Rokia nods. "I'm going home," she says. "Don't follow me."

Sara sighs, reaches toward Rokia and then drops her hand to her side. "I'm back again in six weeks," she says, and it's stupid and reckless but Matt's been saying that about both of them for too many years to count.

So Rokia gives in. "The old pharmacy," she says. "That place down the alley."

Sara nods. "I'll be there."



There's a knock on the door a few days later and when she opens it there's a Peacekeeper standing on the porch holding a box. "This was sent to you by courier from District Three," he says, handing it over. Rokia takes it, surprised at the weight, and thanks the man, puzzled.

She takes it to the kitchen table and slices through the tape--the first layer slit through already, covered by the seal of the Panem Customs Service. Inside is a note in neat handwriting:

Thought you might enjoy these.
Call if you have questions.

-Wiress


And a phone number.

Under the note are three thick, hardbound textbooks, glossy covers and thick pages, and even when Rokia was going to school she never had books like this. She sets them out on the table one at a time, letting her fingers gloss over the covers. Introduction to Structural Analysis and Design, Mechanics of Materials, Control and Dynamical Systems, and finally Beginning Electronics, with a note stuck to it that reads "This one's from Beetee. He says your life isn't complete until you know how to build a timing circuit."

Allie comes in from where she left the girls in the living room. "What's wrong?" she asks, eyes wide, and oh, right, Rokia was helping them rearrange their train set and never quite made it back.

"Nothing, Allie," Rokia says, turning around, "I got a present from a friend."

Allie looks past her to the books on the table. "Just books?" she asks, wrinkling her nose. "That's a pretty boring present."

Rokia laughs. "For you, maybe." She reaches over to tug Allie's hair, "I think it's great."

Phillips comes over with dinner and smiles when he sees the books. "Wiress asked me if she could send you some things," he says, "Didn't realize she meant homework."

Rokia grins. "Best kind of homework," she says. "Can you show me how to call out-of-district?" Phillips' face does something strange at that, and then smooths out. "I want to say thanks."

"Sure thing," he says.

When the girls are in bed he picks up the phone and looks at her, serious, holding her gaze. "Keep it to work questions," he says, in the tone he uses when there's more he wants to say but he can't. Rokia nods. Makes sense they'd notice a call between Victors.

Wiress picks up on the third ring, sounding distracted. "Hello?"

Rokia feels shy all of a sudden, not used to using the phone. "Hi," she says, "It's Rokia, I got your package."

"Oh, that's excellent," Wiress says, "I'm glad it was quick."

"I just wanted to say thank you," Rokia says, "I'm not sure I'll understand everything but…" she shrugs before she remembers that won't carry over the line, but Wiress doesn't seem to mind.

"Oh, well, I wouldn't worry too much, it's fairly intuitive," Wiress says. "Except possibly the electronics." Rokia can imagine Wiress smiling even without being able to see her. "Beetee insisted, though. You can get a soldering iron in Six, right?"

"Yeah, there's one at the shop."

"Oh excellent." She pauses. "Beetee says the book is very practical and he will send the rest of the necessary supplies." Another pause. "And that electronics are perfectly intuitive, once you develop the appropriate intuition."

Rokia laughs. "Tell him I'll work on it, but I've never been the best with fiddly stuff like that."

Another pause, while Wiress passes the message. "He says anyone who operates a TiG welder can learn to manage a soldering iron, and avoiding electrical engineering in this day and age is neither feasible nor appropriate."

"Well," Rokia says, and despite the fancy words she gets the picture. "You should tell him that specialization is the bedrock of Panem, after all." She got far enough in school to get that civics lecture, anyway. "And that he can lecture me on avoiding things after he learns how to tear down a transmission."

Wiress is laughing too, by now. "I will be sure to let him know," she says. "Call if you run into a problem."

"I will," Rokia says, "Thanks."

When she hangs up Phillips is watching, a smile playing around the corners of his mouth. "What?" she asks, suddenly a little self-conscious.

He shakes his head. "You sounded like you were having fun," he says. "It's nice."

Rokia smiles back. "Yeah," she says, "It is."


She opens the first book when Phillips goes home, and starts reading. It's not long before she's stuck, staring at equations that are way beyond anything she's ever seen. She used to do Sara's math homework in exchange for Sara making dinner or watching the kids, but even Sara only got up to algebra, and this is way more complicated than that. But she's bound and determined to learn this: Wiress thinks she can, the President said he wants her to be useful, and Rokia is nothing if not persistent.

The diagrams help, and Rokia finds that if she can translate them to real situations it makes more sense. She copies out the examples, drawing the arrows that are supposed to represent forces, squeezing her eyes closed and trying to picture it all. It's hard work, exhausting in a way that's different from long days at the shop, and by the end of a week Rokia is seeing stress vectors in her dreams. Not that she's complaining, it's a vast improvement over what she usually dreams about.

The call from Victor Affairs comes a couple weeks after that. The noise startles her and her heart's still beating fast when she picks up. "Hello?"

"Miss Rokia Diarra?" A woman's voice, curt and businesslike.

"Yes?" Who else would it be?

"You are requested to come to the Capitol for a meeting of the Air Defense Technology Task Force. Please prepare to come on the Sunday overnight train. A representative will escort you."

"Yes, ma'am," Rokia says, responding to the commanding tone as much as to the content. "Am I--Do I need to bring anything?" She wants Phillips here, doesn't know how to manage this on her own.

"Oh no," the woman says, dismissive, "Your stylist will meet your train when it arrives, don't worry about that."

"Oh," she says, because that wasn't exactly what she meant but it's good to know. "Okay then, I'll be ready."

"Good. We will see you on Monday."

"Yes, ma'am." There's a click from the other end of the line and Rokia stares at the phone in her hand. The girls are spending the afternoon with their cousin Jack and she'd been buried in her textbooks but now she's nervous. She pulls on her shoes and heads over to find Phillips.

He's got plans for a new community center strewn across his desk and for a minute Rokia starts trying to turn it into another force-balance problem. She might be a little tired. "I got a call from some lady at Victor Affairs," she says, and Phillips frowns. "They want me to go for some Air Defense meeting."

That turns some fraction of the concern into puzzlement. Phillips sighs. "When do you leave?"

"Sunday night." She pauses, considering. "Would you mind staying with the girls? They can probably stay with our Aunt Magda but," she shrugs, "I'm sure they'd like being able to sleep in their own beds."

"It's no problem," Phillips says, "I'm happy to do it."

Wiress calls the next evening.

"They've invited you to the meetings next week, is that right?" Wiress never bothers with small talk, just jumps right in.

"Yeah, someone from Victor Affairs just told me to be on a train Sunday night."

"Oh, excellent," Wiress says, "We were hoping they would ask you. Beetee and I were asked to come as well."

Rokia grins. She was hoping they'd be there. "Great," she says, "you can help me with my homework."

Wiress chuckles. "I'd be glad to, what's got you stuck?"

Rokia sighs. Everything, at the moment, feels like she's trying to press her way through a forcefield. "It's all the math," she admits. "I don't have the background for it."

"Oh!" Wiress sounds surprised. "Well, oh, of course you wouldn't, I didn't think. We'll see what we can do on that front when we see you."

At least she doesn't sound angry. Rokia didn't think she would be, but it's a relief anyway. "That'd be great," she says.

There's some noise at the other end of the line, and Wiress laughs again. "Uh-oh," she says, "I have to go, I think Beetee found the sweeper bot. See you next week!"

The line goes dead before Rokia has a chance to ask what in the twelve districts is a sweeper bot.


Even after that Rokia's not quite sure what to expect, so she packs up her books, her notebooks, a few changes of clothes, and Phillips is already there when a Peacekeeper knocks on her door.

"I'm here to escort you to the train," he says, not quite hostile but not friendly, either. Rokia takes a deep breath.

"I'll be right there," she says, and turns to say goodbye. Both girls cling a bit, and she kisses their hair and tells them she loves them and she'll be back soon. When she gets to her feet Phillips is watching her, steady and strong, and Rokia's never left the district without him before now.

"You take care," he says, taking her hands in his. "And don't worry about us, we'll be fine." He looks at the girls, who are holding hands and watching with big brown eyes. "Right girls?" he asks, and Allie nods.

"Thank you," she says, "Bye Allie, bye Kadi, I'll see you in a few days." They press up against Phillips and say goodbye.

The train's mostly empty, a few Peacekeepers, Capitol administrators looking tired and put-upon, and her Peacekeeper escort shows his badge and some other paperwork at the door before heading for their places. It's not nearly as luxurious as the trains for the Games or the Tour, but she has a tiny compartment to herself, with a narrow bunk like the ones in the crew cabins, a table underneath. The Peacekeeper tells her he's across the corridor and if she needs anything, she should ask.

She sits at the table with her books for a long time. She's nervous, she's only been in the Capitol for the Games and the Tour, neither of which she wants to either remember or repeat. This, though, this will be different, this is about work and talking to Wiress and Beetee and learning something. If only she could convince her stomach of that.

She sleeps, eventually, wakes when someone knocks at the door. Instead of her taciturn Peacekeeper escort it's a woman bringing a breakfast tray. "Good morning," Rokia says, still a little sleepy, and she gets a smile and a "Good morning" in return while the woman sets the tray on her table. "How long until we're in the Capitol," Rokia asks.

The woman glances out the window, where mountains are flashing past at a speed that makes Rokia a little dizzy when she looks too hard. "Hour and a half, probably," she says, "We've just passed Two."

It's enough time for Rokia to eat and get dressed before the Peacekeeper knocks. He raises an eyebrow, just a little, at her jeans, her rough jacket. "They told me my stylist would meet me here," she says, and he nods.

"We'll take you through the crew exit," he says, "There might be photographers."

Rokia sighs. Apparently not everything will be different.

She's whisked out of the station, into a car, and over to the Training Center where her stylist, predictably, howls at her cropped hair, short nails, rough hands. "Licina, I'm not here for a fashion show, I'm here for meetings," Rokia says, and she knows she's not supposed to talk back to people but seriously. Licina shakes his head and tells her that's no excuse for not looking her best, and makes her soak her hands in a vat of something awful-smelling while he braids extensions into her hair. Linsea shows up as he's finishing, all giggles and excitement, and tells her she has her first meeting scheduled after lunch. They go together in a car, and Rokia feels ridiculous going into a work meeting wearing a tight skirt and high heels, but at least she could bring her notebook, in a bag that holds more than just spare lipstick and has no sequins whatsoever.

And all the fuss over clothes distracted her from any nervousness about the meeting until she walks in the door and every head in the room turns towards her. They're most of them men, several in uniform, all of them at least fifteen years older than she is, and Rokia takes a breath and steps forward and wills herself to stand straight until Wiress, standing in a corner next to Beetee, smiles and waves her over. She looks almost as nervous as Rokia feels, and Beetee has a hand resting between her shoulder blades. But as uncomfortable as both of them looks, they do seem genuinely glad to see her. They don't get past hello before a solemn grey-haired man in a Peacekeeper uniform calls them to the table.

And now, finally Rokia discovers why they're here. The Peacekeepers' hovercraft are apparently due for upgrades, and this group will be responsible for developing the recommendations. As the presentations go on, the others around the table pull out datapads to follow along. Rokia is the only one taking notes on paper, and it's just one more thing that leads to sideways glances from around the table. They review the craft schematics, noting pilot comments about handling, acceleration, guidance, and Rokia bites her lip and starts a list to one side of the pilot comments of everything about the Peacekeeper craft that made Sal swear under his breath. One of the men introduces himself as an engineer from Three, stands and describes the design breakthroughs that made the current models possible, defensive and arrogant and exactly the kind of clueless egghead Sal always thought the Threes were. Rokia wishes she could record him talking just to replay in the shop on a rainy day. Daouda would be able to imitate him, crossing his arms and talking through his nose and hunching his neck forward like a TV show nerd.

She pays attention again when the first man divides them into groups. Beetee is communications, Wiress is control and guidance, and Rokia on structural mechanics. They're told to review their areas before meeting again tomorrow, and then, thankfully, it's over.

Everyone's getting up to leave except Beetee and Wiress, so Rokia waits with them. "It's easier this way," Beetee says, "Otherwise they try to make small talk, and that can be tedious." Wiress, who's been quietly tapping away at something on her datapad, looks up.

"Oh, yes, that's never good," she says, sounding distracted, "they always want to talk about the weather, for some reason."

"Do you have a way back to the Center?" Beetee asks, looking concerned. "I hadn't thought about it, you being on your own."

Rokia smiles. "Linsea--our escort--she's meeting me with the car."

Beetee nods. "You should have dinner with us," he says, "no point in being up on the Six floor by yourself."

A knot of tension Rokia hadn't realized was there releases a little. A whole evening by herself, rattling around on the empty floor, wasn't something she was looking forward to. "That'd be great," she says, "I'll change and come down."

By now the stream of people is gone, so they head out the door. Linsea is waiting in the lobby, jumps to her feet when they come in and starts fussing. "Oh, dear, how was it? It's just amazing, my Victor with all these important men!"

Rokia glances over at Beetee and Wiress, who are heading out to get into the car that's waiting for them. Beetee winks at her before the door closes. "Let's go, Linsea," she says, and they head back.

Linsea is disappointed when Rokia says she's eating with the Threes, but her smile comes back quickly. "Oh, well, I suppose it's good for you to make friends with the other Victors. I'll see you bright and early tomorrow!"

Rokia tries not to be nervous when she knocks on the door of the Three apartment. Beetee lets her in with a smile and that helps. The Three floor doesn't look much different from the Six one, except for two tables in the common area that are clearly workspaces and not just decoration. They head toward the kitchen and Beetee stops at the long dining table, where Wiress is asembling something. It's clearly home-built, machined aluminum settings holding some sort of mechanism involving a spinning rod and a pendulum, connected to Wiress's datapad.

Beetee shoves his glasses up onto his forehead and looks under them at Wiress. "You didn't mention this before," he says, sounding fond yet put-upon.

Wiress looks up with a bright grin. "Hi Rokia," she says, "You said you were struggling with the math so I thought a practical demonstration would be helpful."

Beetee shakes his head and heads for the kitchen. "Rokia, would you like anything? We are apparently postponing dinner in favor of experimentation."

Rokia doesn't mind this development at all. "No, I'm fine," she says, going over to where Wiress is tightening down a few final attachments. "What is this?" she asks.

"It's an inverted pendulum," Wiress says. "Or, at least, it will be. Did you bring your controls book?"

Rokia nods. "It's upstairs," she says, "I can go get it."

She comes back with her notebooks and the whole pile of textbooks, just in case. Wiress has the thing set up by now, and Rokia understands why she's called it an inverted pendulum. The brass weight is balanced over the rod, which is moving slightly as the weight shifts, just enough to keep everything balanced.

"Control systems," Wiress says, waving at it. "Maintaining a series of unstable equilibria, each just long enough to arrive at the next one."

Rokia laughs. "It's like trying to balance a pencil on your finger."

"Exactly! But with much greater precision."

It's two hours later when Beetee comes back. Neither of them noticed him leaving until he drops a box on the table. It startles them enough that Rokia drops the weight, which drops down to whack the edge of the table, leaving a dent and making Wiress and Rokia laugh. Beetee just shakes his head, but he's smiling.

"What's this?" Rokia asks, pulling the box toward her.

Beetee smiles. "You'll need your own datapad," he says, "You both seemed to be occupied so I thought I would just take care of that for you."

Rokia starts opening it, grinning. "And it's not even my birthday!" she says. "Thanks, Beetee!"

He looks away. "Yes, well, you'll need it," he repeats, heading toward the kitchen, "And we should eat dinner before you get started on something new." He looks back. "Assuming there's space on the table."

Rokia and Wiress trade a glance. Wiress does not roll her eyes, but it's a close thing. "Beetee," she says, "it's a large table. Were you planning to invite additional guests?" Beetee looks back, unimpressed, and Rokia gets the feeling this argument is comfortably well-worn.

In the end they just just pile up the books and papers and eat at the other end of the table, and afterwards Beetee pulls out the new datapad and shows Rokia how it works. Wiress pulls up the chair on the other side, and they load up the hovercraft schematics and look them over. Rokia is supposed to be on structural mechanics, so she pulls up the schematics for the heavy-lift transports and points out the welds that often crack at the wing attachment. Wiress looks at those, intent. "They crack?" she asks, "they don't deform?"

Rokia thinks about it. "Sometimes they deform, but more often they crack, right near the weld." Wiress looks back on her own datapad, flipping through plans and manufacturing instructions.

Beetee and Rokia have moved on to discussing electrical access and the difficulty thereof when Wiress lets out a long breath. "Rokia," she says, intent, "tell me about the assembly for this section."

Rokia frowns. "It's nothing fancy, by that point they have the whole frame going through on a hoist, so somebody clamps the joint and then a guy welds it."

"It's not heated?"

"Heated? No, why?"

A slow smile spreads across Wiress's face and her eyes light up. "That's it!" she says, looking back at the schematics. "It's brittle, not plastic, that's why it cracks, they didn't think about the manufacture when they designed it!"

Beetee sits back in his chair and looks at her. "Would you care to enlighten us?" he asks.

"It's a long cantilever, there's a lot of force on this joint," Wiress says, talking fast, "and they figured at worst it'd deform a little, but they forgot about the heat!"

"Yes," Beetee says, "And for those of us who did not study advanced thermodynamics?"

"The steel heats up when it's welded, and it cools too fast, and that makes it brittle. It's why they have heated collars for steel frame buildings but they didn't think about it for hovercraft, it doesn't usually matter but this is a large weld on a high-tension load-bearing joint and it needs to be treated as such."

"Ah," Beetee says, looking back at the wiring diagrams. "Clearly." He looks up at Rokia. "You should tell them that tomorrow."

Rokia flushes. "You think they'll listen?"

Beetee gives her a small smile. "Tell them what Wiress just said, about high-tension weight-bearing joints in building construction, and they will."

"Okay," Rokia says, turning to Wiress, "Explain again, from the beginning."

The next morning she finds herself in a group with a Peacekeeper pilot and a couple of engineers from Three, going over structural diagrams.

They're ignoring her completely, talking about minor weight-saving measures and congratulating themselves for the improvements from the previous model, and Rokia's not sure how to get a word in edgewise. Finally the pilot looks over at her and smiles. "You got anything you want to add, kid?"

Rokia sits up a little straighter. "Yeah, actually." Everyone looks at her and she takes a breath, clenches her hands into fists under the table to stop them from shaking. She's got the schematic loaded on her datapad and slides it toward the middle of the table, working carefully to show the weak points. "Here," she says, and points. "The welds are brittle, we find cracks along the wing supports all the time."

Some of them are trading glances, questioning looks and raised eyebrows, but the pilot holds her eye for a moment before looking at the schematic. "Hmmm," he says, pulling out his own datapad. He flips through something and pulls up a photo. "Like this?" It's a maintenance report, filed on one of the craft that actually went to Sal's shop. "We can't fix this kind of thing at Eagle Mountain, so we sent this one off to Six."

Rokia only has to glance to notice the hairline fractures. They'd had to replace major wing sections, Sal had thrown up his hands and told her to deal with it, and it'd taken two weeks to figure it all out. "Yeah, see?" she points to the cracks, ignores the others and talks to the pilot. "We had to replace this whole section."

She barely notices when the others start paying attention, tells them what Wiress said about heating weld areas, but one of the engineers from Three jumps in with an idea and before long they've redesigned the wing structure, Rokia sketching with a pen while the guy from Three does the same on his datapad. The pilot sits back and smiles at her as her fingers fly.

---

"They actually listened," she tells Beetee and Wiress around the dinner table. "Well, that pilot and a couple of the Threes did. I figured they'd think I was just some little girl."

Beetee smiles. "Well, age isn't so much of a barrier in Three. And we haven't found evidence of significant intellectual differences between the sexes, so that's not relevent information for judging competence."

Rokia shakes her head. "Maybe in Three. One of the Peacekeepers came to my uncle Salif's shop and about had a heart attack when he found out I was the one fixing his wing plating."

Wiress laughs. "Well, not everyone is as scientifically-minded as Beetee."

Once they clear the plates away it's another school session for Rokia. Beetee has procured breadboards and a seemingly infinite supply of different fiddly bits of wire, and while Rokia's used to re-soldering loose connections, arranging resistors and capacitors in the right spots to make what the book calls a "simple" timing circuit is a whole different ball game. Rokia apparently has a different definition of the word simple than the people who write electronics textbooks.

Beetee sits back, pleased, when the red LED blinks on after exactly 3 minutes. "Now, you see? There's nothing counter-intuitive about circuitry."

Rokia glances over at Wiress, who's sitting behind Beetee and not bothering to hide her grin. "Sure, Beetee," Rokia says. "Once you develop the appropriate intuition."

Wiress laughs. Beetee just shakes his head.

On Friday they present everything they've done up until that point to a group of Air Defense commanders and more Three engineers. Rokia sits and listens to half-understood speeches about electronics and guidance and propulsion systems and wonders if someone mentioned the degrading bearings in the liftoff turbofans, but it's been a long week and she's tired so she doesn't say anything.

As they're getting ready to leave, the pilot from their group comes over to Rokia, smiling. "I got permission to take you out tomorrow, give you some flying lessons." Rokia's eyes go wide. Nobody but Peacekeepers gets to fly hovercraft. Even at the shop they have to call someone over to run tests, because even though they've all sat in the cockpit and messed around, they can't exactly sneak a hovercraft out.

"That's…that's awesome," Rokia says.

He grins at her. "They'll send a car around in the morning," he says. He looks her up and down. "Wear something comfortable."

Rokia crosses her arms over her chest. "I might have to beat my stylist into submission," she says, and he laughs.

"You do what you have to do," he says. "Pants, at least, and good shoes, you tell him you've got orders."

Rokia nods. "Yes, sir," she says.

"No need for that, Rokia, call me Verres."

When she meets up with Wiress and Beetee she tells them about her plans. They trade a glance that's almost worried, and Rokia's not quite sure why. "It'll be great, I've always wondered what it's like to fly one of those things," she says, and Wiress smiles a litle, but won't quite look her in the eye. It's not till they're back at the training center and pulling out the books that things go back to normal. Finally, finally, Rokia's gotten the code right for Wiress's crazy inverted pendulum, and the servos whine as they adjust, the weight balanced impossibly over the pivot, always on the edge but never quite collapsing. It's incredible, and it's ridiculous, and it has no practical applications, but it should be impossible and it's not, because she made it work. She's grinning like she hasn't since she bullied Salif into teaching her to weld because if Matt could learn so could she. Wiress grins right back at her, then laughs out loud when Beetee pokes the weight and the arm whirs around to compensate. Beetee nods, once.

"Not bad," he says, "You're a quick learner, if perhaps more narrowly focused than would be truly optimal."

Rokia's spent a week with them, and finally now she knows enough to push back. "Beetee, you come spend a week in Six and then we'll talk about narrow focus. There's more to life than bits of wire."

Wiress laughs out loud and Beetee's face does something extremely complicated for a minute before he pushes his glasses up his nose and his eyes narrow. "You would be amazed at how many things you can do with…" he pauses, sour twist to his lips, "bits of wire."

They're leaving early in the morning, so Rokia collects her things and heads out. "You be careful," Beetee tells her, serious now, and Rokia smiles.

"Don't worry," she tells him, "I promise I won't crash."

There's that sour look again, and Rokia's not sure what obscure branch of electrical engineering she's managed to insult with that offhand comment but she decides it's probably best just to shrug it off.

Wiress hands her her datapad with a smile. "I'd send you the device," she says, waving toward the table, "but I think you'll have more fun building your own."

Rokia takes it, looks at them both, and it's been so much fun to work together it hasn't even mattered that it's the Capitol, the Games complex, it's just been Beetee and Wiress and interesting work. "Thank you," Rokia says, and it doesn't seem like enough but she doesn't know what else to say. "It's been fun."

"Keep in touch, Rokia," Wiress says, and Rokia nods.

"I will," she says, and slips out the door.

Her stylist shows up at seven the next morning, grumpier than usual because it's the weekend and why on earth would anyone need him at this ungodly hour and they just have no consideration. He seems to have gotten the message, though, because the clothes he gives her, while quite a lot tighter than anything she'd wear normally, at least let her move properly, and she's wearing sturdy leather boots that could probably stand up to some acutal use. When he finishes, he says, "I'll see you this evening," and Rokia pauses.

"What's this evening?"

"You can't think you're going to go to dinner dressed like that?" Licina looks scandalized, shakes his head.

"I didn't know I was going to dinner," she says, confused and a little worried.

Licina smirks. "Apparently your pilot is something of a gentleman," he says. "He insisted."

"Oh," Rokia sighs. "Okay then. I'll see you tonight."

Linsea's waiting out in the common room when Rokia leaves, bubbling with excitement. "Oh, this is so exciting," she says, "I just hope you realize how fortunate you are."

Rokia sighs. "Yeah," she pauses. "So what's the plan?"

Linsea visibly pulls herself together, pulls out a crisp sheet of paper. It smells, sweet and cloying, of roses, and she glimpses the typeset lines, the seal of the President stamped into the paper. "You'll meet with the President first," she says, "and then you have the day with Captain Verres, and Victor Affairs is sending a photographer, and tomorrow Capitol Motors has invited you to visit their showroom, and you're booked on the late train back to District Six tomorrow night."

Everything after "meet with the President" is so much noise. But whatever it is, it's only until tomorrow night, it's less than 48 hours and she'll be fine, so Rokia takes a breath and lets Linsea walk her down to the car.

The President is sitting behind his desk, watching her as she walks in, and Rokia forces herself to keep her arms at her sides, loose, to smile. It's a lesson she learned from Sal, a long time ago, for talking to Peacekeepers and floor bosses at the factory: never let them see you sweat. Snow can make her do anything, there's no point trying to hide from that, but she's not going to cower. He smiles, a quick, scuttling thing, then gestures for her to sit.

"Welcome back to the Capitol, Rokia," he says.

"Thank you, sir." She sits, back straight, hands on her knees. Steels herself to meet his eyes.

"The Commander tells me you've been quite helpful."

"I'm glad to hear that, sir."

"Of course you understand that those meetings are top secret."

"Yes, sir, of course."

"As far as anyone outside this room is concerned, they did not happen, and you most certainly did not participate."

"Yes, sir."

"You have admirers here in the Capitol who will be wanting to see you. Who will want to know why you are here." Rokia nods, and he continues. "You have a public schedule the next two days. If anyone asks, that is why you are here. Nothing more."

"Yes, sir."

He looks at her, a smile playing around the edges of his mouth. "Good," he says, then glances down at the papers on his desk. "I believe Captain Verres is waiting."

"Thank you, sir," Rokia says, getting to her feet.

The President smiles again, and Rokia feels his eyes following her all the way to the door.

Verres is waiting, leaning up against the car outside. He smiles when she comes out. "That looks more like flying gear," he says, shaking her hand. There's a second car behind his, a cameraman standing next to the door, filming the whole thing. He sees her watching him and waves, glancing up from the camera. Verres glances over his shoulder, then back at Rokia. "Don't mind him," he says, laughing, guiding Rokia around to the passenger seat with a hand on her back. "Victor Affairs sent him, he promised not to get in the way."

He climbs in the driver's seat. "Do you drive?" he asks.

"Some," Rokia says, "My uncle has an old work truck he lets me drive sometimes."

Verres laughs. "I bet it isn't anything like this." He starts up the car and it hums, low and satisfying. He eases out into the traffic, but once they're outside the center he accelerates hard on the wide streets. He's glancing over at her, watching her reactions, and when she catches his eye he grins before looking back to the road. Rokia's just starting to feel claustrophobic when they get to a hangar.

He stops her when she goes to get out, while the cameraman pulls up and climbs out to film them. Then he gets out, comes around to open her door, throws an arm around her shoulders and leads her toward a craft parked in the corner. It's small and sleek, just like the car they came in on, and Rokia doesn't recognize it. Not a Peacekeeper craft, that's for sure. It's even more different when they get inside, only big enough for a handful of people, leather seats along the walls. The cameraman stows his extra gear there and follows them into the cockpit, where Verres settles her into the copilot seat and takes the controls.

Once they're in the air he flips the autopilot on and comes to stand behind her, leaning over her shoulder to point out levers and knobs and buttons and everything that she needs to know to take over. He's smiling every time she catches his eye, indulgent and amused and Rokia bites the inside of her lip and tries not to sigh, because she doesn't want this to just be another game.

Despite everything, it's fun, taking the controls and guiding the craft through the air. It stops being so hard to ignore the camera over her shoulder or the not-quite-casual touches when Verres lets her circle the center of the Capitol, feeling the acceleration as they bank into the turns.

They spend the whole afternoon flying. But too soon, he guides her back to the hangar, sets the craft down gently onto the tarmac. He must see her disappointment, because he chuckles. "We'll do it again sometime," he says, on the way back to the Training Center.

Licina's waiting for her, and it's as though he's making up for having to dress her normally this morning, she's thoroughly fed up well before he pronounces her ready to go. Verres is waiting again, downstairs, with his fast car, and he looks her up and down, appreciative, when she comes out. After that it's just another Capitol appointment, and Rokia would be disappointed if she hadn't been half-expecting it, dinner and drinks and a party and he whispers in her ear how much he likes smart women and just how truly impressive she is and Rokia closes her eyes and thinks of flying.

When it's finally over Rokia goes back to the training center and showers and changes and goes downstairs. This time the Peacekeepers at the door let her out into the predawn grey and she gets herself lost in the rhythm of the streetlights, running until she settles back into herself with her lungs burning and her legs heavy. The lights of the training center dominate this part of town so she can't get truly lost, once she decides she wants to she finds her way back. She's just out of the shower when Licina shows up, grumbling over his coffee. Licina smirks as he smooths makeup under her eyes and asks if she had a fun night, and Rokia doesn't answer, closes her eyes and lets him do his job.

Today it's just a driver, taking her out to a hangar-sized building on the edge of town. There's a whole team of photographers waiting, video and stills and a reporter who comes up to introduce himself as soon as Rokia steps out of the car. "Corvus," he says, shaking her hand. "It's just great to meet you. We'll ask you some questions aferwards," he says, "It's for Capitol Motors. We've done it with a few other Victors, celebrities, it's all in good fun."

There's a lineup of cars in the lot, all the way from trucks that wouldn't look out of place in a shop in Six to ridiculous, fast sports cars like the one Verres drove yesterday. Corvus explains them all, walks her through the showroom, shows her concept sketches for next year's designs. It's all silly fluff, even the sketches are more about what colors will be popular next year, the shapes designed to stand out on Capitol streets more than for aerodynamic purposes, but Rokia makes appreciative noises and smiles and everyone seems pleased.

Finally they go back outside and show her one of the fast cars, ask her if she wants to take it for a test drive. And just like flying yesterday, it's all tied up with ridiculous Capitol nonsense but it truly is fun. They've mounted a camera to watch her reactions but even knowing that she can't help grinning like a kid when she gets to their track and hits the gas. When she drives Sal's truck it's purely a way of getting from point A to point B, a little faster than walking. This car, when she presses the accelerator it practically jumps ahead, and she laughs as she accelerates out of a turn.

When she gets back to the start the team is waiting, watching the footage on a datapad and grinning. Corvus comes over, shaking his head. "You looked like you were having fun out there," he says, smiling. Rokia grins back.

"I was," she says, "I've never driven anything like that."

He nods, "Of course, these aren't district-approved designs," he says, looking over at the cameras, "sometimes in the Capitol we forget that our Victors haven't had the same technology we're used to."

They let her test a few of the cars before sitting her in a studio, and the questions are about acceleration and handling and what she'd tell a Capitol citizen who was looking for a new car, and it's silly but it's better than most of the interviews she's done. They all shake her hand when they finish, thank her for her time, hope she's back in the Capitol soon. Rokia smiles back and says something polite and before long she's back in the training center and she's done. Nothing left to do but collect the few things she brought with her and head out to meet the train. Linsea gives her a quick hug and a bag of snacks for the train and she's gone.

The train is half-empty and she's left alone, sitting in her compartment and watching the Capitol fade into the distance. She's tired, but the last few days have left her head spinning and she stares at the scenery flying past in the night and lets her thoughts wash back and forth like water in a tub, the good and the bad sliding behind her eyes. She doesn't notice when she falls asleep.

The intercom in her room chimes as they approach District Six, startling her awake. She's stiff from sleeping curled into her chair and takes a minute to stretch, waiting for her head to clear a little. When the train slides to a stop she's ready, shouldering her bag and walking out. Phillips is waiting, standing on the platform with his arms crossed over his chest and his typical stony expression that cracks into a smile when he sees her. It's early still, not yet light, and she wonders who's watching the girls until she sees them curled together half-asleep on the bench outside the station. Phillips follows her gaze. "They insisted," he said. "I couldn't say no."

Rokia smiles and goes over to them, and Allie wakes up when she gets close. She sits up, dislodging Kadi, who whines before she manages to sit up and see Rokia. Then they both reach for her until they tangle their arms around her neck, sleepy and sweet and warm in the cool morning air. Phillips stands back, smiling, until she untangles herself and climbs to her feet. "Come on," she says, taking their hands. "Let's go home."

---

The next week Sara's waiting for her, just where she said she'd be, leaning back, casual, against the rough brick. She smiles when Rokia comes around the corner, stands up straight. "You came," she says, smiling like they're still just kids.

Rokia nods, smiles a little. "Yeah. So'd you."

"I wasn't sure when you got back," Sara says, cautious. Rokia raises an eyebrow and and Sara bites her lip before continuing. "There were pictures and stuff. With some military guy, and on that car show."

Rokia just sighs. "Yeah. Got back last Monday. Just a week, this time." Sara looks surprised. "What?"

"What were you doing the rest of the time?" Sara's eyes are sharp in the darkness. "They only had pictures from the weekend."

And here's where Rokia should make something up, deflect, throw Sara off. But hell, Sara apparently already knows about all the other stuff, and just that's enough to get her killed if the wrong person finds out. They can only kill you once. And Sara spent enough time in the shop that she might actually understand, unlike Phillips. "They had me with a team upgrading hovercraft, with a bunch of engineers and Beetee and Wiress from Three." Sara's eyes go wide.

"That's amazing!" she says, "Rokia, that's so cool!"

Rokia flushes. "Yeah, it kinda is," she says, and regardless of everything awful in the Capitol, that at least is true. "Remember that big transport we had to overhaul--what, a year ago?"

Sara nods. "I was on the trains already, but I definitely remember you bitching about it."

"Well, they're redesigning it and changing how they do the welds because I told them about it." Rokia bites her lip and smiles, hoping it doesn't come off as arrogant.

Sara's grinning. "That's awesome. Oh my god, Sal must be so damn pleased!"

"No!" Rokia says, quick, "It's secret, you can't say anything."

Sara's eybrows furrow in confusion. "Why?" she asks, "Why is it a secret that they fixed some stupid structural problem?"

Rokia shrugs. "I don't know, they just said I'm not allowed to talk about it. I shouldn't have told you, you can't tell anywone." Her shoulders are creeping up around her ears again and she takes a deep breath. "I just thought you'd like it," she finishes.

"Rokia, come on, I'm glad you told me, I can keep secrets just fine. I just don't understand--why?"

"I didn't ask."

"You said it was a group. What was everyone else working on?"

"Oh everything, electronics, communication, guidance, I think Wiress said something about weapons--"

"Wait, weapons?"

"Yeah, they take them off when they send them out for maintenance, but most of the PK craft have guns or missile launchers or something. Wiress works on guidance systems, she said something about aerial targets being more challenging, but I wasn't really paying attention."

Sara looks at her wide-eyed for a second. "Aerial targets," she says, and Rokia can almost see the gears turning. "What the hell aerial targets are they planning to shoot at?"

Rokia looks back at her. "I…don't know," she says. It'd been late in a whirlwind week, a throwaway line in another late-night study session and Rokia hadn't really thought about it.

When Sara smiles again it's fierce and exhilarated and brilliant. "They're scared," she says, a whisper of breath. "They're scared of someone, and I don't know who but they've apparently got hovercraft."

Rokia just stares at her. This isn't disassembling a mechanism to figure out how it works, this is taking one snapped bolt and concluding that the house is going to fall down. This is insane.

"Who in the twelve districts would have hovercraft to challenge the Capitol with?" she asks, glancing around because if they weren't already breaking the laws they damn sure are now. Still nobody.

"Thirteen districts, Rokia," Sara meets her eyes. "I've heard rumors. Maybe it's true."

Rokia shakes her head. "No way. District Thirteen got bombed to rubble. It's gone, Sara. They're just--he's paranoid, okay, that's why he's survived this long." It's the only logical solution, fits the available real information better than positing the existence of a dead district.

"Maybe," Sara doesn't sound convinced. "But what if it's real? We could really do something, Rokia, they could help! We could actually change things!"

Change things. Sure, they could change things anytime they want. Rokia could start shooting up morphling or stop answering calls from the Capitol, that would change a lot of things. It's just that none of those changes would be good.

Sara sees her skepticism and sighs. "You don't believe me."

"I don't know!" Rokia says, miserable, "It'd be nice. If it was true." If she never had to go to the Capitol again. If someone shot a missile into the President's mansion and he burned with his roses. It'd be nice. It's not going to happen.

The look on Sara's face means trouble. It's stubborn and reckless and so completely familiar that Rokia has to smile. "I'm going to find out," Sara says. "You could help?"

And this, this is the number one reason Rokia got into trouble as a kid because she's never been able to walk away from that look and that question. "Dammit Sara," Rokia says, and there, Sara's face cracks into a grin because she knows she won. "What do you think I should do?"

Sara shrugs. "Pay attention," she says. "You hear stuff. Use your damn brain for something other than gear ratios for once."

Rokia grins. "But I like gear ratios. They're fun."

Sara punches her in the arm, and Rokia doesn't flinch but she doesn't hit back.

Sara's still smiling when she glances down at her watch. "I gotta get back," she says, "Shipping out in a few hours."

Rokia nods. "Next time?" she asks.

Sara bites her lip. "I'm not sure when, they might be switching my schedule." Rokia tries not to look too disappointed, but Sara notices. "Look, I'll leave a message."

"Not with Matt," Rokia says. "You talk to him, he talks to me, says something at the shop, eventually they'll figure it out."

Sara pauses. "You remember Minata from school?"

Rokia nods. "She makes deliveries for her dad at Sal's sometimes."

"Yeah. I'll send a note with her."

"Be careful."

"Always am." Sara reaches out, squeezes Rokia's hand, and disappears out into the pre-dawn streets. Rokia waits a few minutes, then runs the long way back home.



References for the curious:
This is a timing circuit.
This is the inverted pendulum Wiress build, as inspired by my old college lab reports.
I DID WARN FOR NERDINESS.
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