(And I finally write something that's not totally angsty and painful. I'm still trying to get Wiress and Beetee's characters sorted out in my head so consider this a trial run.)
Rokia jumps when the phone rings. She’s trying to work through the electronics textbook Wiress sent with her after the Games. Some of it is sensible but she still has to draw out examples for everything because while apparently in Three they’re perfectly okay to keep their theory free of practical application Rokia can’t get her head around a concept until she has at least some idea how it would look in her hands. So she’s deep into trying to understand timing circuits when the jangling of the telephone startles her out of her concentration.
She glares at the handset, Capitol-provided in her Victors’ Village house, and wonders what fresh nonsense they’re going to have in store for her. But instead of the cheerful voice of Linsea or one of the idiots from Victors Affairs it’s Wiress’ clipped tones and typical directness.
“Hello Rokia. Beetee and I have been invited to the Capitol to meet with someone from the Transportation Ministry to talk about new designs for transport hovercraft and since you keep telling me Three’s hovercraft designs are suboptimal I thought you might want to join us.”
“Wait, what?” Rokia picks apart the sentence and starts with “I didn’t know you worked on hovercraft design”
“Well, not the mechanical design, no, but they have very intricate control and guidance systems and I’ve consulted on that before. They’re bringing along an aeronautics specialist and a designer and I suggested that perhaps someone with your practical skills would be beneficial.”
Rokia pulls the phone away from her ear so she can stare at it in astonishment for a minute.
“OK, see, I don’t have any engineering training though, this is crazy.”
“Yes but you do have considerable experience with the practical side and your intuition is really quite good. But if you aren’t interested I suppose we could find someone else.”
Wiress actually sounds disappointed at the idea and somehow things have advanced from Rokia being slightly in awe of Wiress to making inappropriate comments about Threes having their heads in the clouds to meeting with hovercraft designers and what in frozen hell is even happening right now?
“No, it sounds great” Rokia manages, “I just—I don’t know if I know how to deal with these people.”
“Well,” Wiress says, “I think you will do fine. I will have them send you the schedule and the security clearance…“ Rokia is glad no one is here right now because she’s pretty sure when she gets off the phone she’s going to explode with terror or excitement or both and it’s all she can do not to say anything until Wiress finishes with “So I’ll see you in a week, yes?”
At which point Rokia swallows, hard, and says “I’ll see you then” and manages to hang up the phone before she screams.
The next morning, as soon as the girls are off to school Rokia heads for the shop. She’s too keyed up to study, she needs tools in her hands
and a problem she knows how to solve, not circuit diagrams and a finicky soldering iron she’d prefer was a welding torch.
Uncle Sal looks at her and raises an eyebrow. “You look like you had a high-octane breakfast.”
Rokia smirks at him and it’s so much better working with him because she wants to than working for him because she has to because she can give him shit right back instead of worrying that she’ll cross some line and he’ll kick her out. “I got an invitation to go tell some crazy-ass Threes how to build a hovercraft properly.”
And yeah, they have spent Snow knows how many hours up inside the power compartments of the standard transport ‘craft fixing the same damn u-joint and they might still be trying to figure out what kind of idiot designed the frame assembly system so that they inevitably have to fix the cranes at the factory once a month because the lift mechanism has too much play and jams if the weight isn’t balanced just right, but neither of them ever thought they’d get to say anything about it to anyone who’d listen.
“What the fuck?” He’s looking at her like she said she was going to personally fly President Snow around the country and it’s not far off, really.
“Yeah, apparently they’re bringing some consultants to look at new transport hovercrafts for the Tourism Board and one of them is Wiress from Three and she asked me if I’d come along.”
“Damn, Sal, you look like you got hit by a train,” Matt’s just coming in the door and he looks between the two of them. “What’s going on?”
Rokia grins. “I’m going to go talk to hovercraft designers in the Capitol in a week. Got anything you wanna pass on?”
She happily takes all the hardest fixes on the hovercraft all week, and at lunch she quizzes everyone about failure points until Sal throws a wrench at her head and tells her to get back to work. That whole week she sits up late with her textbooks. She’s left off the electronics for the moment, pulling out Principles of Control and Dynamical Systems one night, Introduction to Hovercraft Design the next (Wiress sent that one along with the schedule and a note reading “In case you’re curious”). It’s good: if she downs coffee and stays up until she can’t keep her eyes open, fills her head with propulsion mechanisms and arcane industrial trivia about flyball governors she falls into bed too tired to do anything but sleep, and the nightmares don’t wake her up until early morning so she doesn’t have to worry so much about getting knifed by some junkie when she goes out to run off the excess adrenaline.
The day she’s leaving she’s making pancakes for the girls’ breakfast when Allie comes into the kitchen, blanket wrapped around her, and perches on one of the kitchen chairs, chin resting on her knees. Allie looks worried, and Rokia feels a pang of guilt.
“Morning, Allie” Rokia says, “Do you want some juice while I finish making breakfast?”
Allie scowls but even after a year she’s not going to turn down fresh juice, so she nods, “G’morning.”
When Rokia sets it in front of her Allie looks up and says “Do you have to go?”
Well, shit. Usually the answer to that is “Yes, of course” but this time Rokia was actually invited, not requisitioned like spare parts for the Games machine. But she hasn’t been this excited for anything since…well, since before her Games, definitely, maybe longer. OK, also terrified, a little bit, but she’s wanted to design hovercraft since she was 12, when most kids wanted to fly them. Rokia’s taken them on short, illegal test flights (because whatever the Peacekeepers say the only way to know the damn thing is fixed is to try it) and it’s fun, but putting together the pieces of a frame or a levitation ring or a propulsion jet is better and figuring out how to do it better is the best. But try explaining that to an 8-year-old. Rokia sighs. She doesn’t like lying to the girls but sometimes it’s just the only way.
“Yeah, Allie, I do. It won’t be for very long this time, and you’ll have fun with your cousins, right?”
Allie scowls. “I guess. But why can’t we just stay here with Mom? I like my room here better, at Aunt Magda and Uncle Sal’s we have to share with Liana.”
Rokia bites her lip. Before she leaves she’ll have to lock all the rooms except Mom’s, hide anything worth selling, and tell Terence to make sure no strangers are coming in—which she knows he’ll try to do because he feels guilty but he won’t do it that well because he’s an addict and he’ll lose track. Mom’s figured out that it’s not a good idea to surprise anyone who sleeps with a piece of rebar and her date or her boyfriend or whoever it was is lucky he has both eyes still and while Rokia’s not exactly happy the story has spread around at least it’s kept Mom from bringing any more of her junkie friends home. Two more years and Rokia’ll be 19 and she’ll figure out some way to kick Mom out while keeping the girls but for now the house is a war zone under a fragile truce and there is no way she’s leaving the girls here alone.
“I’m sorry, Allie, I don’t think that’s gonna work..” Allie scowls into her juice and while a half hour ago Rokia felt good, now she’s just tired. “I’m going to go wake up Kadi and then we’ll have breakfast.”
Kadi’s just stirring when she walks into the room and she snuggles up close when Rokia sits down on the bed and brushes her dark curls back from her face. “Hey, Kadi, it’s time for breakfast, time to get up.” She says it softly, in the singsong voice she remembers her grandmother using to wake her up when she was this age, and Kadi looks up at her and smiles.
Wiress and Beetee meet her at the train station. She’s glad, the Capitol sounds and smells and the sense of dread that started when she got off the train have left her jittery and uncertain. They take her to a hotel, not one she recognizes, thankfully. Beetee says it’s where they usually stay if they’re in the Capitol on business, and it’s comfortable, something Rokia never imagined it was possible for the Capitol to be. The Victors from Three are almost relaxed at dinner, telling stories Rokia half-understands about people they know at the engineering schools and the latest crazy pranks the students have come up with.
After dinner they sit together in Beetee’s room and talk work. Wiress pulls up a model of the current transport craft and Rokia points out the places they most often have to repair: servos that burn out under load and joints that aren’t properly constrained, metal fatigue in the power rings.
“Really, though,” Rokia says, “there’s not much that’s mechanical about these things. The whole steering and guidance system is fly-by-wire.”
“Sure,” Wiress says, “It’s much more precise than hydraulics, requires fewer materials.”
Rokia shrugs. “OK, but it’s less robust. We saw one craft a couple years ago that’d been hit by lightning. There was an unshielded wire somewhere, the internal computer was fried and the crew couldn’t do anything but shut down the power and hope they landed soft.”
Beetee looks at her, eyes narrowed, the same look he gave the hovercraft model earlier, searching for weak points. Then he fiddles with his watch, looks around the room, and nods.
“Don’t say that tomorrow,” he says, looking her straight in the eye long enough to be uncomfortable. Rokia nods and Beetee continues. “You think a strong electrical current can fry the steering and guidance on all the hovercraft?”
Rokia thinks for a second. “All but the heavy-duty cargo craft. The really big ones still have hydraulics. The guidance would be shot but at least you wouldn’t fly into a mountain.”
Beetee and Wiress exchange glances. “What is it?” Rokia asks. “Why don’t you want me to tell the guys tomorrow their fancy machinery can get taken out by a bolt of lightning? I mean, they probably already know anyway, right?”
The look Beetee gives her then is definitely full of calculation. She can almost see the gears turning.
“They might know, they might not. In any case we don’t want to bring their attention to it. Because if we know their vulnerabilities better than they do— let’s just say it may become useful at some point.”
Rokia looks around the room—she may not know the Capitol that well yet but she knows most rooms are bugged and while she’s not sure exactly what Beetee is talking about she knows it’s not a good idea to say it where someone could hear. Beetee smiles as he recognizes what she’s doing.
“They’re there—in the upper corner under the molding, see the hairline crack? And down there in the baseboard, additional audio. But they’re transmitting gibberish at the moment.”
“Your watch.” Rokia says. “You did something to disable them”
Wiress grins, looks at Beetee. “See?”
Rokia doesn’t, but Beetee just nods. “You’re observant,” he says, “and intuitive. That’s dangerous. You have to be careful who you talk to and what you say. But we are quite interested in your insights and observations. What do you know about the trains?”
There’s something going on here that Rokia doesn’t quite understand. She looks from Wiress to Beetee, they’re calm and serious and she is out of the habit of trusting people but she wants them to trust her.
“I don’t know much, but I’ve been hanging out with the crews when I come to the Capitol. I could find out more.”
Beetee nods. “I believe that the Capitol controls the power to the tracks. And that they could therefore shut down all train transport simply by shutting off the power.”
Rokia bites her lip. “Yeah, I think that’s right. If the tracks lose power the trains can’t move. But I don’t know how they’re wired.”
“Don’t ask,” Beetee says, “but try to find out, if you can. We are interested in developing, shall we say, a more robust system there as well.”
“You want to know how to disrupt the transportation system.”
Beetee looks over at Wiress, who nods. “We want to disrupt quite a few systems.” Beetee says. “Would you like to help?”
Rokia feels something loosen in her chest, a knot she didn’t realize was there until it releases, just a fraction. “Absolutely.”