CHAPTER ONE. The Underground Inventor

Colonel Boggs poked his head in my office door.

"Mike, what do you make of this?", as he pointed to the holographic projector strapped to his wrist, which we call a Holo, and played a three-dimensional animated display of two luminous blobs shrinking and jiggling as if dancing to the music of an invisible drummer, then collapsing into a lightning bolt, and extinguishing their lights in one flash.

"Himmler's two hundredth birthday or something?"

"Nope."

"LeMay's 200th? They both liked lightning in their heraldry."

"Nope. I'm dead serious."

"Somebody's physics experiment?"

"You're getting warmer." He played it again.

"Quantum entanglement at great distance?"

"Yup. Discovered in Three last week."

"By anyone we know?"

"Dr Beetee Latier."

"Boggsy, are you saying that Beetee cracked the lightning paradox as a quantum phenomenon?"

"One better. He cracked it and he's keeping it to himself. He's sharing the details with us, on the quiet."

The Lightning Paradox is an ancient problem in electrodynamics that has stubbornly resisted an answer, basically, since Benjamin Franklin flew a kite into a thunderstorm and collected a wee bit of atmospheric electricity in a crude capacitor, made of two pieces of lead foil and a glass jar.

The problem is this. For lightning to strike, a strong concentration of negative charge must build up at one point in a cloud, and an equally strong concentration of positive charge must build up at a different point. When the charge is sufficiently concentrated, air molecules break apart into an ionized plasma and the charges conduct through the plasma until neutralized. But there's a catch.

The positive charges repel each other. So do the negative charges. The electrostatic force decreases as the square of the distance between charges. Any force of electrostatic attraction, acting over a mile's distance, is completely swamped out, by the repulsion between like charges a few microinches apart. Lightning ought to be impossible because of this.

Yet thousands of lightning strokes happen every day. Most are several miles long.

The only way to reconcile these facts, is to acknowledge a mystery mechanism of some sort, that enables like charges to cease repelling and begin attracting opposite charges, miles away from their location, then suddenly to move in waves. And Beetee Latier cracked the secret of the mechanism?

"Is Beetee guessing or did he actually build something to test it out?"

"The President wants you to go look at his test. She's got your cover story and transport organized. You HAHO jump into Three this evening, camp in Beetee's basement with Portia's hubby, and meet the new Head Game maker, Seneca Crane, who thinks you're an Avox from District Nine who tidies up the lab for Beetee. Go home and pack. You both exfil on an empty coal train to Twelve and hover off at night."

"What the hell do Avoxes in Three wear?"

"My kiddo will bring something to your quarters."

"And what's Commander Talbot's cover story?"

"He's a dead scientist twice his age, who defected to the Capitol the week after we had his funeral. Levias Talbot does quite an impression. You'll recognize the guy. When you do, don't blow your damn cover, Mike. It would be quite boring around here if the Peacekeepers cut your tongue out."

Two hours later I was on the hoverplane, rolling along the elevator to the landing pad. My grey work uniform was in our laundry, and I had on a maroon coverall with a white shirt and construction boots. My Avox District Three I.D. card, freshly counterfeited by the Intelligence Office, hung from a lanyard around my neck. It matched the turkey-like stylized Panem eagle on the right breast pocket, bore the same Avox Registry Number inked and barcoded on my left wrist, and resembled the targets we train troops on, in the simulations. Over it all was a zippered coverall with thick insulation, and strapped to my back and tummy were main and reserve parachutes. On my right hip was an oxygen tank that gave me ten minutes of useful breathing, attached to an oxygen mask that hung from my helmet.

The blast doors opened, flooding the hoverplane with brilliant outdoor light. The pilot powered up the engines, brought our Invisibility Cloak online, and lifted off, heading westward into the afternoon sun.

I practiced my silence.

If I was going undercover as a person whose ability to speak had been surgically taken, the fast way to become a Capitol prisoner and torture victim, was to say anything. So my mouth was going to stay zipped, as much as possible.

I did borrow a book from the Army library to read on the trip. It was a biography of James Clerk Maxwell, the Nineteenth century English physicist, whose system of 13 equations laid the foundation of most known physics. I opened it to the middle, and re-read the treatment of Luminiferous Aether, the invisible rubbery stuff that Maxwell guessed to permeate the entire universe, and to vibrate at a single harmonic speed, enabling waves of alternating electricity and magnetism to travel at exactly one velocity, symbolized by the letter 'c'. Light waves moved at c, nominally a billion feet per second.

Maxwell's aether guess, led to a lot of subsequent guesses by other researchers. A Swiss patent clerk named Einstein, guessed that adding energy to a piece of matter would speed it up until it gradually approached c. When the mass of the added energy exactly equalled the rest mass, the lump of matter ought to become pure energy and disappear in an expanding flash of light. The Einstein guess assumed that the light would radiate away from the point at which the matter stopped existing, but that the portion of the light that went sideways or backward, would have a shift of its momentum that colored the light more red and less violet.

Another fellow named Planck, who was writing to the same audience as Einstein, had found a quirky number he called 'h'. The Planck number, h, seemed to relate the mass of a lump of matter, to the color of the light that would be formed, if, as Einstein predicted, the matter reached the speed c and flashed off in an expanding sphere of observable light.

Neither of these theorists ever observed what they predicted, but their numbers, c and h, kept turning up in so many different experiments and observations, that they were widely taken to be fact. Complicating matters, Maxwell's aether was never proven to exist, nor was it disproven. For a century and a half, it was simply forgotten, and replaced with geometries that replaced lines with curves. Toss in the fact that any equation with a fifth-or-higher power, has not one solution set, but an arbitrary choice of solution sets, and the Twenty-first century commenced, with damnably little in physics, that made complete sense, in light of everything else.

What had me enthralled was the memory of Beetee Latier, as a young Victor in his Hunger Games, hurling two whirling stones, linked by a leather strap, that he built himself in the woods, using a dead snake to provide the leather. As the Career tribute from District Two strangled in Beetee's weapon, Beetee cried out to the hidden microphones, "Clerk Maxwell, I avenge thee!".

At the time, nobody in the entire nation of Panem knew what that meant. A week later, in his post-game interview, having used the weapons he took from the dead tribute, to fashion a generator that killed most of the other competitors by electrocution, he lapsed into a lengthy talk about the Aether Drag and an ancient scholar named The Sedge, who had falsely accused Maxwell, that got most everyone in the country bored to tears. The few who actually learned about Conrad Lorentz' notion, that matter must cause the Aether to shrink away from it, otherwise the Aether would create a dragging force that caused all moving objects to slow down, at least knew for certain that Beetee was babbling about Maxwell the physicist.

Aether drag, if it happened, would cause orbiting planets to slow down and collapse into their suns, spinning galaxies to crush themselves into single giant masses, and the matter in the universe to shrink together. So Lorentz proposed Aether drag, then countered it with the shrinkage of matter as it's speed increased. Einstein copied Lorentz, proposing also that light would be bent by gravity. Subsequent theorists devised all manner of variations, that proved useful within certain narrow circumstances but often led to paradox. And the secret side of Beetee Latier, seemed to have reconceived that issue somehow.

One amazing property of those mouldy old books full of formulae, is that they induce sleep.

Despite my usual case of jangled nerves, that strikes anytime I am to egress a functioning aircraft and fly a parachute to the ground, fooling around in my head with Beetee - think, got me to doze off. So I was quite startled to hear the buzz of a klaxon and see a red light blinking by the rear door of the hoverplane. The cabin lighting was out. The windows revealed a dark, starry night with a pink smudge of Aurora borealis to our distant north, and an undercast of gently-rolling clouds.

"Five minutes to target, all personnel mask up!", called the pilot. Odd. The pilot doesn't know how many people are jumping.

I donned my oxygen mask, checked for flow, and signaled thumbs up to the night camera. Wide awake now, my jangled nerves went back on full alert.

The pilot started lowering the cargo hatch.

I secured the moldy old book to the troop seat with the seatbelt, rechecked my kit, and ensured all the straps were snug.

I felt damnably cold as the six-mile-high atmosphere sucked the last of the warmth out of the cabin. Some ice needles formed in my exhaled breath and glued themselves to the window. A gob of snot ran down the back of my throat, pushed by the trapped air in my sinuses and inner ears, and I swallowed hard to clear it. My hands felt chilly and I flexed my gloves and stamped my feet, to chase the chill.

The light changed to a steady red.

The pilot's voice was muffled by the thin air and the whistling of wind at the rear of the hoverplane, but still plain. "Thirty Seconds to target."

I tried counting to ten, slowly.

On fourteen, the light turned green and the pilot called out, "Jump! Jump! Jump!".

I ran three steps and kicked away from the edge of the cargo ramp, spreading my arms and legs to get the feel of the air, and waited until I counted down from fifteen, to bring my hands together and tap sharply on my Holo.

The moving map display opened, showing the drop zone off to my right, and the entry point, four miles up, where I ought open my parachute. I steered with spread arms and legs, turning to the right and the aurora, then weaving side to side a bit, to avoid overshooting the entry point, while the ground grew closer and the air thicker. A few hundred feet higher than minimum, I crossed the entry point, grabbed the 'D'-ring handle, and pulled my chute open.

The chute straps snapped at my shoulders and inner thighs as my spine felt the crunch of impact. I remembered where I'd be sore the next morning, from every jump I ever made before. I worked the left and right pitch cables, keeping the chute steered on the course the Holo displayed. On my right I could see the red glow of moonrise. The hoverplane had a cloaking system to conceal it, but my chute would be plainly visible in the moonlight. But the clouds beneath were approaching fast, and soon I was drifting in cloud so dark and silent, my Holo was hard to see.

The cloud began to thin and became grainy, as the lights of District Three came into view. Soon I recognized snowflakes, drifting down with me as I followed the course. The sinking air beneath the snow squall was pulling me down, and I was glad of the extra altitude I had at entry. Crossing twelve thousand feet of altitude, my Holo signaled time to lighten my load. I unstrapped the oxygen tank from my right hip, pulled away the facemask and hose, with a blob of my frozen saliva and exhaled moisture frozen to the drip bag, wadded it up, and waited for the Holo to signal for cutaway. I dropped the empty oxygen bottle on signal, and cut away my reserve parachute, letting both weights drop into freefall toward an expanse of open water...the District reservoir...beneath whose surface it would remain hidden. I tried not to think what else had fallen in the District drinking water supply over the years. And then resolved to drink beer if Beetee had any. It might be less toxic than the drinking water. Also we had no beer in District Thirteen.

At six thousand nine hundred feet of elevation was a mountaintop park in a volcanic caldera. Nobody would be sunbathing on the manmade sand beach that ran three hundred yards along the east shore of the crater lake. Snowy darkness is not conducive to sunbathing or swimming. I hoped the Holo was accurate about my position, because I had no desire to parachute into freezing cold water during a snow squall, either.

I saw the outline of the mountain ahead. There was some snow on the upper quarter of it, and below that, the ground looked soggy, as if it had been raining heavily. The Holo showed a green 'x', on an outline map of the mountain, where the beach was. As I drifted nearer, I pulled the pitch of the chute as far back as I could, trying to maintain altitude until I neared the X. I was running maybe fifty feet above the planned glide slope, when I finally caught a bit of an updraft.

And that's when I had an unpleasant surprise.

Ahead, just above the mountain, a dark foggy blob appeared. It had a rounded top and a flat bottom.

Lens-shaped clouds are a nasty sign during mountain flying. They form when winds crossing over the mountain, gain a lot of speed, so that the same volume of air that passes by the mountain per unit time, can likewise move over the mountain and back down.

I was about to be violently lifted and dragged forward, at exactly the place where I intended to slow to a crawl and drop gently to the ground.

This landing would not be gentle.

A green dot appeared on the Holo, a bit east of the X. That should mean that Talbot was waiting for me. His Holo would show a green parachute, about where I am, if it was working properly. I steered westward, out over the lake. This might get Levias Talbot a bit anxious, but what the hell, I thought. If the weather is bad, I would have some fun with it.

As my flight path moved out over the frigid lake, the wind accelerated me forward furiously, and the updraft was lifting me into the lens cloud. As I drew alongside the green dot, I pulled hard on my left pitch cord, dumping out air and accelerating downward, while curving to the left. With my legs hanging outward on a forty-five degree slope, my flight path overshot Levias and I swung furiously west ward. I popped out of the lens cloud with a good view of the caldera's rim. Maintaining my downward slope and rate of rotation, I was now moving backwards to the south, into a contrary but much slower wind and dropped even with the caldera's rim.

As I looped around, pointing due north, my chute caught the updraft again. I was lifting rapidly upwards, dumping air as fast as I could to slow my ascent, and finally drew just above the treetops at the south rim. I let some air build under the chute, came rapidly and roughly over the trees and over the rocky rim with about sixty feet to spare. The moment I could see into the caldera, I dumped air and got rid of some altitude. About ten feet above the rim and flying in ground effect, my feet cleared the rim and I banked hard right while pitching hard downward. Good. I didn't fly into the rocks, bust every bone in my body, and have to swallow my nightlock pill.

I was rewarded with what felt like a wall of air pushing against me. Below the caldera's rim, the wind was much lighter, and my own momentum carried me forward, while slowing. I banked, turning right, and spotted Levias Talbot, just where the Holo said he would be. Playing with my forward momentum, I made a complete circle around him before dropping into the snow-covered sand and bruising my butt as I slid through the snow. The chute billowed up a bit but I held the pitch controls hard down, dumped air, and it no longer was lifting me.

"Have a good flight, Colonel?", asked Levias.

I made a fist with my right hand and gave a tapping motion to my forehead. Then pointed my index finger at my throat. Sign-language for "stupid" and "unable to speak."

We rolled up the parachute, filled it with rocks, and tossed it into the lake. The snowfall would cover our footprints, and the wind would help. We carefully made our way over the mountain rim, slipped into Dr Erik Wasserstrom's auto, and drove to Beetee Latier's house.