Watching out the window the tuxedo cat saw motion and watched it intently, staring out into the parking lot. Motion stopped and still it watched where it stopped, even as the motor turned off. The late afternoon sunlight cast shadows from the parked vehicles in the lot as the silence settled. Ears perked up as the door opened and the cat stood up and stretched, watching out the window. Turning its head slightly it came to a decision, turned, and jumped from the window ledge and went down the aisle between rows of bottled chemicals on one side and spades, shovels and other garden implements on the other. From there it went right at an intersection and walked briskly with its tail up in the air letting its ears guide it through the well lit shop turning left and then right and then left again as it went at different intersections heading, finally, towards the back counter area. With a jump it was on top of a glass display cabinet and then leapt down to the floor beyond and then on to a hallway leading to a room with at least one familiar voice.
"And this is last year's vintage, right?" came the soft spoken voice that the cat knew as it went to the room and walked in, heading towards the seat behind the desk.
"Most certainly, Dennis," said the other man standing next to a small bar across the room from the desk. The cat jumped up to the chair and watched the two men for a moment and then settled down on the still warm seat as they talked.
The younger man behind the bar would be called handsome by most, beautiful by some and striking by nearly everyone, with a smooth if somewhat pale complexion, light brown eyes and hair between an earthy brown and an earthy black that was wavy if not curly in some places all framing a round face with high cheekbones. Across from him was an older man with two ice buckets each with a bottle in them that sat in their small stands to his right on the bar. He was taller, perhaps as much as six feet, with sandy brown hair and sunburnt cheeks, but well attired with a white shirt, green blazer and pants, with black wingtip shoes.
"Are you sure this isn't from Lewellyn's?" the young man asked with a sly smile as he sipped from the glass in his hand.
"I should be so lucky, eh? No this is from that patch on my southwest corner that had the straggling vines five years ago."
"No!" Dennis said, "Not bitteroot patch? Oswald, you finally took my advice?"
The cat on the chair's ear moved when the front door's bell jingled as someone came in. Through slitted eyes the cat showed it was still paying attention, although ready for a cat nap that it had missed an hour ago due to a squirrel fight near one of the trees edging the parking lot. Ears still followed sounds in the distant shop even when it made an appearance of slit-eyed slumber.
Nodding the older man moved two glasses from his left and reached to the far bucket to take out another slender bottle and poured out liquid that gurgled slightly as it left, and had a faint yellow cast to it as it filled the glass.
"Finally, I did, Dennis. I got the rainwater samples analyzed and, sure enough, the pH was just low enough to be weathering some of the metals out of the rock. The rest of my vineyard, higher up and with better topsoil, was fine, but the water that came down was loaded with minerals that was getting concentrated in the riesling. When I phoned the guys at the lab they said it was acid rain from China... China!!"
Oswald shook his head, "And not a damn thing I can do about that. Then I remembered you telling me to get powdered limestone and dolostone and put that thinly just about everywhere, dig a trench downslope and put in a few tons of the stuff and then let it filter through for a few years. You may remember that first year's pinot I had upslope, very... smooth... slick almost?"
Dennis nodded watching as each glass was poured out.
"Very different than your usual, had lost some of its bite that really made it worthwhile. That came back...three or four years ago, wasn't it? Not with such a bite to it, but still...mmmmm... perfect with steak."
After pouring the glasses, Oswald put the cork back in the bottle and put it back in its bucket.
"Now this is from the last year just before I did the limestone bit. You may want to keep the spit pot handy, though, I warn you."
Each man took up a glass and then looked at its contents after swirling it around, and then sniffing it.
"Such promise! Perfect with just a few legs and some sheeting on the glass..." Dennis said.
Bringing its head up, the cat watched as Dennis took a sip, closed his eyes and shook his head from side to side. Seeing that mortal danger was not to be had from the wine, the cat went back to settling down, once more.
"That's..." Dennis said gasping for breath after swallowing.
Oswald took a taste from his glass and spat out the wine into the small receptacle on the counter, then poured out a glass of water for each of them from the pitcher sitting next to the glasses.
"No worry about that becoming vinegar, eh? Only improve its character, if you come right down to it. I just mashed out the next three years until the pinot vines started to get some of their character back. Now its only a small amount of surface limestone and dolostone mix up there and mixed into the soil between rows. Then I did a few small batches of riesling, went to mostly dolostone with a few other additives in the trench and now, and only now, can I say the acid rain problem is countered. Just in time to start seeing the Chinese tank their heavy industry."
Dennis took up the glass of water, swished it around in his mouth and spat that out into the receptacle.
"The results are clear, Dennis. I'll make sure you get a case of the stuff to hold in stock for the next few years, just so you can keep track of your advice.
The younger man nodded, and extended his hand, the white shirt cuff having slid down from being rolled up fell further down as the two men shook hands.
"Oswald, there is no need of that! Just a bottle each year to keep track of it would be more than enough...."
"I'm not in it for the money, Dennis, you know that. It's good for income, but that isn't the point of it, you know?"
Soft footfalls caused the cat to shift one ear, but these were known footsteps and didn't bother it very much at all. A younger blond woman, dressed in a blue shirt and black pants with a logo above the pocket inscribed with 'Northwest Garden and Vineyard Supply' tapped on the open door.
"Mr. Pennerton?" she asked.
"Yes, Gemmy?" Dennis asked looking at her.
"Mr. Pennerton, there is a customer here that wants to consult you about a soil sample and some recommendations for agricultural systems for a remote area."
"Ah, business. I will be right there, Gemmy," the young woman nodded and made the signal of five fingers up for room 5, further to the back of the store, and then went down the hallway.
"Oswald, business calls, I'm afraid," Dennis said rolling down his sleeves and buttoning them up.
"Understandable and I won't be a bother. I'll need to talk with Gemmy about my winter supply order, anyway. The rest of the case, is yours," Oswald said, gesturing to the box of wine on the floor.
Reaching back for his green suitcoat to go with his dark green pants and brown shoes, Dennis turned and nodded. Shrugging the coat on he stepped around the bar and shook Oswald's hand again.
"Thank you, Oswald. I'm happy you finally got something out of the patch! That has been a bother to you for a long time."
Oswald nodded, smiling in return.
"Once I started getting results there, I started the same for my garden, too. You are a real life saver!"
"Glad to help," Dennis said releasing the older man's hand and then shrugging on the green suitcoat, "And you can stay to finish your glass, if you want. Help yourself to the back bar supplies, too. I've got a bottle of gewurtz from BC you might want to try, while you're at it, bottom of the fridge back there."
"Dennnis, you spoil me no end!" Oswald said chuckling.
"You are one hell of a great customer, Oswald," Dennis said checking to make sure his hair was combed back with small mirror on the opposite side of the room, "Now I'm off to business once more. Good-bye and take care, Oswald."
"Same and thanks once more, Dennis!"
Dennis walked down the hallway and saw Gemmy talking to a couple of customers who waved to him from the other side of the store where Gemmy was checking their supply order. Dennis waved back before he disappeared down the hallway and went into the back office room area. He took the business card that was under a magnet on the door and looked at the back of the black haired figure of a slim young woman sitting with her back to him in a chair across from his desk. Gently he unlatched the door so it could close behind using its pneumatic hinge to do so quietly.
"Ah, Miss Sherwood how can I help you today?" he ventured as he went past her chair and then looked at her.
"Why, dear brother, I've come to you about an agricultural venture of mine that needs to get off the ground," Diana said smiling as Dionysus stopped cold in the act of turning around his desk towards his chair. His eyes widened slowly.
"Artemis?" he barely breathed out.
"Diana, now. Says so right on the business card, doesn't it?"
He couldn't help it and looked back at the card and then at the smiling face of Artemis.
"But... you're dead..." he said shivering.
"You actually got closer than I ever did, brother. Believe me, I thought I was going to be there to greet you, and not the last one standing."
Dionysus shivered a bit more, as she said those words.
"And I do believe you were sober for once when that happened," she said slowly standing up and then walking around the desk.
Blinking once, twice, Dionysus felt a tear slide out of the corner of his eye and then looked down squeezing his eyes shut, his hands on the desk. Diana reached around his back and slowly took him in her arms. Hesitantly he embraced her and then fully as he started to cry.
"He had... oh, Artemis... I couldn't..."
She stroked his hair slowly as he sobbed.
"I was there, too, beloved brother. Barely able to move my broken limbs to keep my body from spilling out, but I saw what happened in that battle. You were the last that could threatened him, could subdue him with the vines... if only Apollo had not fallen first..."
He clutched her to him as he barely was able to whisper, "Apollo".
"And I remember how you were on the fateful day of his death, Dionysus," she said softly.
He drew away with wide eyes and staring at her, holding her shoulders as his knees buckled under him.
"Forgive me, Artemis... please forgive me..."
Reaching down she cupped his face, red now with tears freely flowing as his lower lip trembled.
"That was the day for your staff, my brother, not your beloved cup. Too bad it was your cup you held that day. Our father was beyond reason, but you were beyond sense all together."
Grabbing her arm he tried to stay upright but slid forward and down, his face against her boots and his arms clutching her legs.
"I do not blame you for what happened, Dionysus. You couldn't even sober up enough for most of a decade long war, but you did, finally, come to your senses at the end. For a few days. You kept telling others that I was a flighty girl, given to her moods with the swings of the Moon even if I didn't flow with it. More child than girl, yes?"
"I... no, I never said..."
"I was there, Dionysus. Don't lie to yourself. Because I do remember. He would see reason, you said. He would want to talk, you said. What better than wine to get things going, you said."
"No... Artemis I only..."
"Forget the excuses, Dionysus. They demean you and still show you don't think much of me."
He held on to her ankles hard as he cried, pressing his face to the soft leather of her boots.
"I still love you, my brother. There are times when I don't like you very much, however. And this time I want you to be sober and to actually think before reaching for the cup of celebration before there is anything to celebrate. By the time you got your staff and sober, last time, it was only in desperation. Lets put away the need to despair at the start, so we don't have the tears millenia later about what we should have done, shall we?"
"Yes.... please... just... make the pain stop..."
"Only you can do that, beloved brother," she said bending down at her knees and stroking the back of his head, "but I do forgive you. I've had my own torment to live with and I will not add to yours any longer. I have said my peace, sweet brother. And when you can forgive yourself, then we will both have cause to celebrate."
She dabbed the washcloth into the bowl that sat on the table next to the sofa, and then slowly pressed it against her brother's forehead. His eyes fluttered and opened to look at her.
"Artemis!" he croaked as he tried to shift on the sofa in his office.
"Yes, my brother. Diana, now, if you please."
He closed his eyes, nodded and opened them to look at her. She spread the washcloth over his forehead.
"I didn't mean for this to be such a shock to you, my brother. When last we parted there wasn't any opportunity to actually say much of anything. You were still recovering and I... in resisting was struck down again. Our father had determined that we were to suffer, eternally, for confronting him. No real time for good-byes, then."
"You had disappeared," he said softly reaching his hand out to her, which she took in hers, "we were able to escape but it wasn't glorious or even good, my sister. Each of us had tried to track down any survivors and of us all only Athena," he shook his head, "she has suffered worse than any of us."
"The river did that to her. She was part of our father and when he stole back what he had given her he couldn't... wouldn't... be as Kronus. She should have died and yet, even as it steals the river did something to her."
Dionysus pressed his lips together as he listened.
"You have seen her, then? Wandering from dawn to dusk in the streets, to fall some place to sleep and then... a new day with no memory of the last... day after day after day..."
Diana swallowed and nodded.
"I had tried, my brother, years later I had to know what had become of her. I couldn't drag her from her name city, nor entice her out of it, nor go on sea voyage, or even swim with me. I was no one she knew, no one she remembered each new dawn was a fresh novelty to her. And I was, foreign once more."
"That is the same as I found her and no love nor libation could allow her to refresh and recall who she had been or even who she is. Each day is an eternity to her until... when my sister? Until all life is gone from this place forever?"
Diana furrowed her brow and moved her other hand to turn over the washcloth.
"My brother... this is her prison. She is locked in eternal new day as long as she is locked here."
Dionysus looked puzzled as he looked at Diana.
"What do you mean, my sister? Will she not be forever locked here?"
A trace of a smile came to Diana's lips, a glitter of light came from her eyes.
"You know this age, my brother. It is not about marvels nor wonders, nor deeds heroic with power from divinity, but a simpler and truer power that will make us all gasp at its scope and size. Have you not felt this, these years and decades recently?"
He sat back, resting, looking at the ceiling.
"I went many places, traveled wherever man had need of saving drink. With Demeter dead I was the only one left who... was to safeguard agriculture and spread it as she would have done. In those places that had no grain, they could truly have no grapes nor even beer. Where animals were raised it was better to raise them on crops put in rather than to trust to wild grasslands. From simple stick to make holes to ploughs drawn by men and then animals, so much needed to be done. How can the gift of temporary rest be given if there is always a scrabbling for mere sustenance?"
She laid his hand back on his stomach and then rested her hand on it.
"That was her secret, you know? She made it possible for so many of our brothers and sisters to survive because of that gift that allowed high days and a giving of thanks. So many followed your path, dear brother, to decadence and then would lose the gift of Demeter."
Closing his eyes he pressed his head into the pillow on the arm of the leather sofa.
"I couldn't know that, then," he said softly, "the path of ruin..."
"That path was always there to find with or without you. Trust me in that. I am not to blame for all those shrines in all those places, places I had never been asked about or even thought about. How easily Emperors could turn a sacred ceremony to a mere party centering on their bodily desires. Even in your overindulgence, even in that, your lessons in what that overindulgence brought were important."
He grunted and looked from the ceiling to her.
"It was power. Raw, unadulterated, flowing with each cup. After those few days of Zeus ascendent, murder amongst us, I couldn't continue as before. It took me years, decades, to realize that it was possible to lose all the gifts we had been showing to man. At first the seasons still held me in thrall and my mood waxed and waned with them. I sought refuge in the tropics and found places where my old knowledge could only be applied here and there. Only once rain forests were left behind for plains and mountains did that old knowledge apply. Mankind has a gift of its own, you know? For those things that create society all rest upon agriculture."
"And so easily lost," Diana said gazing at her brother, "of that I know. Man reaches for the stars and is transformed in doing so. And, when all is said and done, we Olympians are men just cursed with certain gifts and problems. It is rebirth to escape the realm of Gaia, to be out of her orbit of influence means change to get there and then, once past that point, change to stay. I had warned you, all of our family, about coming change and transformation and none would listen. Confronting our father was that transformation..."
"Yes," Dionysus whispered, "I hadn't listened, either."
"...and we were transformed, transfigured when not just killed for our power. None of us would be spared for our father to ascend to all power. In his failure we are left with the few things that he could not take. We have those because of what we were and where we are, and one of those we can change and it will change us."
"Artem... Diana what does that mean?"
She smiled looking into his eyes as she spoke softly.
"As Olympians we are also human, my brother, just with a gift that is no blessing. Man is on the verge of leaving our ancient home, escaping the ties that bind us to Earth and the Moon and it will transform them into people we never could be and something greater than we ever were. If we join them, we can then reclaim our own birth right, to live a natural life and die a natural death. When we do their blessing will be ours, as well. It is then and only then that we can be healed of our curses to lead lives as people. For me that means actually growing up, becoming a full woman."
Dionysus shivered, his eyes widening.
"And for our sister?"
"Healing, my brother. The power of the river will fade from her and the arts of man can help her to finally lead a life able to remember each past day. I can't save her alone and mankind is, once more, moving to squander the gift of being civilized for an age of barbarism. I would do anything to stop that, drain the Styx if I had to and Lethe as well as only the strong can lead when times go wild. I am wild, too, and this I swear, that man will not lose being civilized to becoming enslaved to barbarism again as it will only take the gentlest of seeding, watering and sunlight to put them on the path of forever. That is what I am born to do. I ask for your ready hand, and your wisdom in all things growing, to help plant this seedling so that it may grow and blossom. If not for you, then for Athena, our fallen sister caught in a horror she cannot remember in each day, and never recover. Only you can help me to do that."
He looked puzzled as he gazed at her.
"Me? But... how?"
Smiling she took his hand and placed it on the small bottle on a chain around her neck.
"Take that, and know I do not ask for something easy nor simple."
His fingers closed on the tiny glass container and worked its hasp free of the fine chain. Between his fingers he gazed at the material inside below the black cap that was sealed in place. What was inside was gray dust with a few flakes.
"What... is this?" he asked slowly tilting the container first right and then left.
"From my old home, brought by man's mission named for my twin. It is regolith. From the Moon. Sealed in vacuum, it holds all that is necessary to make the future. I only ask that you find a way to allow us to grow those things necessary to stay alive in the vast emptiness of space, because it takes more than just equipment to survive such journies if we are to make a living home. You know how to grow things in barren land, and nothing is as barren as my old gazing platform. Only you can know how to shelter it and make it come alive in such protection. Mankind will do the rest."
"I somehow feel strange giving a report that is actually looking good. The way everything else is going in the world, we are actually nearing the break-even point on daily expenses..." Ray Kaplan said standing next to the screen that had a graph of daily expenses broken out by week, with a small green line going over the outlined boxes that started from nothing almost nine months previously and climbed upwards towards the top of the boxes. "...and Miss Sherwood isn't here to see them. Let me take a moment to thank you, Mr. Culpepper, and your work to get the DOGIS team in."
Ares smiled as he looked from the numbers on the screen to Mr. Kaplan. "You are most welcome, Mr. Kaplan. When my sister asked me to help I knew who to call. I could only do a limited amount, while a few skilled people would fill that shortfall. DOGIS seeks out such people, and they are the ones to thank."
Mason Newcomb turned to look at him just beyond Tamara on Ares' right.
"Thank you, Mr. Culpepper, not just from my team but from DOGIS as well. This project has opened up a number of eyes in the organization and is shaking it up. I don't think we paid much attention to the New Space startups prior to this and now I'm finding that I'm having to knock on doors with them which means that I'm going to be taking a number of trips to other locales."
"You are more than just contractors, Mr. Newcomb. The work of Brent and Tamara have been exemplary, not only for technical work but on costs and helping to stand up an organization that I didn't know we needed. Mr. Lassiter, I really didn't know what to make of you and Regina when you came here, but your technical acumen and business skills saw the much needed part of Ascentech that we never realized we needed. We had planned on some relatively primative drop systems or just serving as a small rocketry platform not delivering the equivalent of a mobile clinic in the highlands of Afghanistan or a power plant delivered in sections in the extreme north of Alaska. Or a Rolls Royce roadster to, well, I can speculate where it wound up, but that is none of our affair."
Hermes chuckled as he looked at Regina on his right and Brent on his left.
"Mr. Kaplan, you have all made me feel at home since the day I arrived. Even Alice and Bill, although I'm sure they didn't like having to let part of their dream go to have the rest of it get off the ground in a very real way. It is hard to give up on one's designs that you know are good and workable, but just not working out. I, too, couldn't do much of what I've had to do without DOGIS as well, and I'm glad we could work out an arrangement to allow me access to that contract. I'm afraid I'm working the DOGIS modeling and simulations group to the point they worry about anything I'm sending their way. When I had my own team, some years back, I got used to a certain way of doing things that isn't standard. For the business side," he turned to look at Regina, "I lost one dream and gained another." Turning to look at Ray he continued, "Your dream just needed a bit of refining, some bolstering and in that last part there is opportunity. When you finally are able to give up the terrestrial part of the business, I will be glad to buy it from you or amalgate with Ascentech."
Regina looked at him with a puzzled expression.
"When he decides...? Herman, why would he decide that?"
Hermes turned his chair to look at her and held out his hand to her, which she grasped.
"Because, Regina, when Ascentech starts truly important deliveries, what they will generate will gain more income than anything mere Earthbound transportation will ever yield. Of course, I hope that Hiflight won't have to actually run that part of the business directly, as I'm not interested in running a delivery service. This is the beginning of moving off-planet, Regina, and that future is now coming very quickly."
She squeezed his hand as she looked at him.
"It is? But... how do you know?"
He smiled, turning from her to look at Ray and then down the table to Mason and Ares.
"Diana left me a message on email. She is with our brother Dennis, and told me she will be bringing him back to get him up to speed on thiings."
"Really?" Mason asked, "Is he skilled in aeronautics?"
"Ah, no," Hermes said, "he is very good at agricultural systems."
Ray looked puzzled as he looked at Ares and then Hermes.
"Agriculture?" he asked softly.
"Yes, Mr. Kaplan," Ares said, "a true green thumb. Perhaps not the most astute person in some other areas of life, but if it can be grown and tended, then there is no one better for it."
"But why would she...?" Tamara asked.
"If we are to live off of Earth, to have a self-sufficient space habitat, no matter how primitive, then an agricultural cycle is necessary, Tamara," he said then looked beyond her, Mason and Brent to look at Hermes. "He will be working mostly with you, I take it?"
Hermes nodded his head.
"At some point in the next year to year and half, I'm sure that Ascentech will be helping to put modules into space that can fit together into a preliminary station. After that I can't say exactly what Diana's plans are, but she has proven that she has thought this out."
Ares whispered, "She doesn't want to be Queen of the World... just get off it."
Tamara smiled and Ray chuckled.
"I don't think I've ever heard it put together quite like that, Mr. Culpepper," Ray said, "but when she told me she wanted a way off of Earth forever, I remember saying 'who doesn't?' or something to that effect. I take it she had been to other groups before coming to Ascentech, but for that answer she came here. When she asked me if I would mind if she brought in some specialists to help here... I really couldn't refuse because we were behind on our timelines, over budget and couldn't get our dreams made. That was late last year and almost a year ago, exactly. In one year we have made giant strides with your help. I didn't know exactly what was going to happen, but as she was a backer I knew she was here for a reason and she meant what she said when she told me that this dream was worth having. Mr. Culpepper, when you said that in less than 3 years we would be making a profit I was, frankly, sceptical. Now we are close to breaking even and we aren't even up to full operations."
"The real capital investment hasn't even started yet," Ares said, "we may still go broke but I doubt that, now. A new facility must be found and for that we either will look at relics of the old dirigible era, or find something modern but outcast. Time for a new building to be built would distract us."
"You've put the Rats on the problem, I take it?" Mason asked.
Ares chuckled, "Of course. Anything from an ancient hangar, disused large scale production facility or even just a huge cavern suitable to our needs, they will find it as I can think of a few that might be suitable, but need a real examination. They know our requirements. We shall not fail for lack of space to build the ALV-III."
"And the red ink will flow," Hermes said, "but do rest assured, I can fill your schedule for deliveries. I already have feelers out into the pure profit community of pilots that want the astronaut insignia and to have been in space in a real vehicle that can be piloted by them. The ALV-II will barely do that, but the ALV-III, that will be the busy project and cash flow system."
Ray nodded once towards Hermes and grinned.
"I can get cash, now, too. Delivering funeral remains has been one of the strangest endeavors I have ever been in, but it has demonstrated trustworthiness. I had doubts about this project when I joined it, greater ones as it showed so little progress for so long, and yet I stayed on it."
"Mr. Kaplan," Mason said, "you already had the trustworthiness to start with. Even if this venture failed, it would not be due to lack of diligence, just simple skill and knowledge of how to build this process."
"Thank you, Mr. Newcomb. I have been in your position for small businesses, as well, but those were businesses that looked towards other concerns, nothing like this in scale. It was attempting something this large that, I think, frightened me and was intimidating. All of you have helped me to see that this really is just larger scale, somewhat larger numbers and with higher goals. Yet, like any small business, it is built on a dream."
"And dreams must start with the small things, Mr. Kaplan," Ares said, "and the confidence from them allows you to do more. It might take months, years or decades, but once that confidence is gained, the growth can happen."
Hermes looked down the table at his brother and then back to Ray.
"You are in a fortunate position, Mr. Kaplan."
"In what way, Mr. Lassiter? I know I'm fortunate to have the good people around me here to make this dream come about, but..."
"It's a bit more than that," Hermes said, "as you know most small businesses that start to truly grow come to the point they exhaust the start-up mindset and require a production mindset. You, however, can continue the start-up mindset and cast off lucrative businesses for mere production work as you proceed. I think that is your talent, knowing when it is time to cash out and do something new. With Ascentech, it is not cashing out but cashing in to create the next part. If you do it right you will always be starting up, never be cashing out and will have an industry you built behind you. That isn't the work of a few years, but a lifetime. Really, in many ways I am envious of you and yet wouldn't trade places with you because of your talent."
"Damn," Ray said, "these contractor meetings and financial briefings get far off track, don't they?"
Everyone chuckled at that.
"Those are the best kinds of meetings, Mr. Kaplan," Mason said, "since they mean you aren't fighting over line items, but reaching together to grasp at something you all agree upon. The financials, for our team, are secondary. Working to help you is the purporse and we are happy to have this sort of meeting as it usually means an upcoming party for everyone in the near future."
Sitting on the roof of the Hiflight construction building Regina had her legs propped up on one of the low roof vents, a blanket under her as she gazed up at the stars. Karl had stayed late, along with Nuada and Melissa to have a dinner made up by Hermes, helped by Brent, Tamara and Ares. The grill they had brought up was down to embers and the last of the dishes had been taken down the accessway stairs to the roof to the top floor mini-kitchen. Nuada sat cross-legged a few feet away from her, with Karl and Mel sitting closer to the grill in chairs, while Hermes laid down next to her, with Brent sitting at the table with Tamara and Ares. They each had a glass of port wine and hot coffee was available on the grill having percolated out and now sitting just where the container could stay hot, but not boiling.
"That was a damn good meal," Karl said, his voice rumbling slightly as he shifted in his chair, "the shrimp were up to what you did at the club, Herman, and those ribs were excellent as well, Aaron. Thanks, muchly!"
"And the grilled zuccs and potatos, too," Mel said, smiling as she gazed up at the waxing moon, "those are as good as Jerry could make at the club, Regina."
Regina nodded, leaning to sip from her glass before leaning back again.
"I had help from Brent and Tamara. They were the ones who did the kebabs out of the left-over veggies, never had anything like them."
"Picked that up at a place in the Czech Republic," Brent said, "we got tired of hauling over to it every night and Tamara finally wheedled out how to do it from the owner."
"Only after a case of Aasbach, Brent. And then having to line cook there for two nights..." Tamara sighed, "that was a pure mess, but we learned a lot. We had Ron and Cassie with us, too! By sunday night we had polished off a case of Dortmunder with the owner and his family..." Tamara chuckled, "...and that was a really good time. I miss that project."
"Same here, Tamara. We had drive on that team. Work hard, play hard, drive all over hell-and-gone... even with GPS we got incredibly lost more than once."
Smiling, Regina looked up into the sky remembering back to the Green Valley and seeing a slim figure pass in front of the stars... and then fall. The shock of Diana being alive, well and whole was shocking to her. She hadn't told anyone about the end of that final night, glossed over it no matter how sad she felt. Now there was continuity between what she had been promised, which was now being fulfilled, not at a funeral but in text messages and phone calls, the promise to finally understand what was happening. Coming into her life in a blur, leaving her in a blur and the promise of proof...
"Aren't the stars beautiful?" Nuada asked softly in the still night air.
"Yes, they are," Regina said leaning all the way back to look straight up into the sky, "so far away."
"Not all that far," Ares said, "they are here, all the time, because we are of them. Someday we will go to see them, visit them, not just admire them from afar."
"That is a dream," Karl said sipping from his glass, "yet I help build it, now. Me, a cutter of steel and aluminum, who built motorcycles, cars... now its carbon. Tubing not for gas or exhaust through a muffler, but for cabling or rocket fuel. All I know is that this isn't the future everyone told me about."
"Me neither," Brent said sitting down on another blanket next to Regina, "and I've been closer to it for longer. Its different now, in just a year I've had to change all my outlooks, my expectations and raise them and help in building it. I'm not just a spectator any more."
Hermes pulled his chair up behind Regina, sitting between Nuada and Brent, then sat down and leaned forward.
"Karl, you're right. We've been through a few things together, but this isn't anything like making parts for one of my cars or even for one of my planes, back a decade ago. I hadn't even thought about space as a place to go, just as a place out there where the atmosphere ends and planes can't go."
"And for that you need a space suit," Ares said leaning back in his chair, "you aren't using an ACES, are you my brother?"
Hermes raised an eyebrow and turned to look at Ares.
"Ah, no, a hybrid skin compression suit with limited pressure top and associated gear in back. I specified for an ACES type for the cabin, but that is a very adaptable footprint to other types of suits. From a more or less standard Air Force suit I'm having it adapted by a group in Maryland, not a first of its kind but one of the first to go into a commercial craft."
Regina tilted her head back to look at Hermes.
"I thought the cabin was going to be pressurized?"
"It is, just not to full atmospheric pressure," Hermes said looking back at her, "and while it does have an air recirculation system it has relatively minimal carbon dioxide scrubbing built into it. I'm hoping to change out the rocket system for a somewhat more energetic fuel and save some mass after the first three of the Athena systems are built to allow for a fully pressurized cabin, but that is for middle of next year. The first prototype will get its drop test with the ALV-II, and then the next Athena will get a manned test, say in late January."
"At least we can get away from all the tube hauling for those ALV-I drop containers," Melissa said sipping at her cup of coffee as the temperature began to drop. "That has been a grade A pain in the ass."
"You finally got a sub-contractor for that?" Tamara asked.
Brent looked over at her as he settled himself down.
"Yes, that just came through yesterday, I think it was," he said, "there is a firm in the Cleveland area that is desperately looking for work and was able to shave about 10k from the overall price. It is just frame and fittings for placement of final skin and parts, plus interior decking, those will get shipped here for final skinning, cabling and drop chute system."
Nuada shook her head as she looked at Regina who smiled at her as she settled down to look back up at the sky.
"I can't believe Herman is giving me that part to handle," she said softly, "I am so not ready for trying to run even a small part of anything, let alone this."
"It isn't as if you're alone, you know," Karl said, "and we can get some hired help in, now that we have some money flowing."
"You do know that any company making those drop frames will be able to sell them to other companies, right?" Tamara asked.
Hermes smiled as he looked forward over the form of Regina.
"Of course he does," she said, "I still think he's insane for farming that out."
"It's labor intensive and we can't get a full production line for it set up," Hermes said softly, "and I welcome the competition as it means Ascentech will get other customers beyond what I can flow through here. They need the customers for ALV-I drops, and we will be at maximum capacity by February here. By late next year the entire drop portion of the business will have to move to New Mexico to be closer to the spaceport and the Ascentech field office there. They are doing the same thing, after all, especially once they get the Pegasus construction going. That will be a truly huge vehicle and it can't be made here and shipped piecemeal out to New Mexico for construction. They won't even be able to keep finished vehicles at the spaceport due to size, but have to fly in to get payloads. It is the official port of departure and entry for commercial business."
"It is a headache," Ares said, "but the Rats are providing. Kincaid has teamed up with Cassia Bellamy and they have at least two old dirigible fields that they've identified, one in West Texas and the other in Oklahoma."
"Aren't they working on putting an agreement together? Something to help centralize the Desert Rats a bit? It is pretty haphazard right now," Karl asked, "I've seen the amount of haulage they've pulled in for us and Ascentech and its amazing."
"Yes, they are," Brent said, "and the older rocket components have allowed both firms to get a supply chain for new construction and adapted refits going. The Pegasus will be all rocket powered, even if low thrust that will build up once you get past the 10 mile mark. Alice and Bill are thinking that the ALV-II's will move into that stream of components so as to have a Mark II phase that will get a marginally higher payload capacity and altitude for drops."
"March of next year, possibly April," Tamara said, "they will keep the first two or three ALV-II's going with jets and then retrofit them, I think, at their hangar in New Mexico."
"Kevin is a busy man," Ares said, "he's already moved out there and is hiring a ground crew for their spaceport hangars. He is a good man and keeping the ALV-I's operational is becoming his prime responsibility with at least two flights a month on tap. He will be outfitting the original prototype with a jet system so they can segregate the ALV I and II systems. I believe he has gotten the go-ahead to make it into a purely manned platform seating 3 people for tourist rides."
"That is one expensive joyride," Regina said, "who can afford such stuff?"
Hermes chuckled as he looked at her.
"Well, we can, of course. That is the next phase of our business, after all. Kevin is just giving us a bit of competition and competition is always good."
"I guess we are..." Regina said softly looking back at Hermes, moonlight playing over his face as he looked at her. She shifted to look at the moon and smiled and remembering the look on the face of Diana as she had turned to shoot with a bow, again and again, and then the last glimpse of her as she arced in front of the moon to plunge into the canyon. She had said that the future would be pushed forward here and it was coming true. As true as the flight of the arrow. As true as the falling of her body. She was coming back from beyond that.
"I have all the proof I need," she said so softly that not even the keen ears of Ares could hear her with the barest movement of lips and air to say them.
Gemma sat down in the small kitchen at the back of the store as Diana checked the stuffed grape leaves that were cooking in the oven. On the burners were a squash mixture that simmered on the left back and a pan of braised porkchops with mushrooms on the front right. The overhead fan raised the noise level as Dionysus sidled behind Diana to check the ribs by uncovering them in a cloud of steam.
"And to think it was just going to be cold roast chicken and beans tonight," Gemma said smiling as she watched the other two work at the stove.
"Ah, the riotous life of a shopkeeper!" Dionysus said smiling as he waved his spatula in the air, "Tis always the question of feeding the till so that it is stuffed to allow us to fill our stomachs."
Diana took two steps to her right and opened the microwave, then lifted the cover of the butter dish and put in a pat that she had cut from the slab of butter in the dish. She followed that with some ground pepper and put a cover over the sliced potatoes and closed the microwave door.
"The chops were cheap from the deli across the street," Diana said picking up a glass of water at the end of the counter, "and as I am uninvited family, it is the least I could do."
"But not unwanted," Dionysus said, "never that."
"No, not unwanted," Gemma said, "you were an important part of his life."
Diana raised an eyebrow and glanced back at her brother, and he lifted a glass of white wine and held it up to look through it, and then at her.
"Wine, of course, Artemis. We had met in Chile back in the '80s and I was there looking over some of the old fields and, well... Gemmy was there on an agricultural exchange... you know how these things go, dear."
"Diana, please, brother."
"Now Dennis, your sister has come all this way to ask for your help and just how are you acting?" Gemma asked, looking at him pointedly as she did so.
"Now, Gemmy, I didn't mean..."
"Of course you did, and don't try to say otherwise," Gemma said as Diana looked between the two of them.
"Perhaps I should go and fetch Watcher of Shelves to moderate this..." Diana said softly as she looked between them.
Gemma looked at her looking puzzled, as did Dionysus.
"Watcher of Shelves, you know, the cute cat you call Lenny? He, at least, seems to be able to keep a mind on business. I'll go and find his favorite comfy spot and sleep with him tonight, I think."
Dionysus had let his hand with the spatula wander just a bit too far towards the stove and he yelped as it momentarily touched the edge of the pan of ribs.
Gemma looked at Diana while she looked at Dionysus tilting her head down and to the left as she did.
"He, at least, is civil and knows how to mind his part of the store."
Covering the pan, Dionysus stepped over to the sink and ran cold water and put his hand under it.
"You're not making that up, are you?" Gemma asked as she looked between brother and sister, so similar and yet so different in how they looked at each other.
Diana smiled as she turned from watching Dionysus, set the time on the microwave and started it up.
"No, I'm not. He came over when my brother was overwhelmed by our reunion, just before I had to call you over. While you got the washcloth and water bowl, I assured Watcher that all would be fine. He made sure everything was fine from the top of the desk and went over to the chair behind it once he could see my brother would recover. He has always had an affinity for cats, although I doubt it is with leopards or lions these days."
Shutting off the water, Dionysus used a dish towel to blot at his hand and then took a sip of his wine, the glass having been held level as he moved around throughout the affair.
"You did?" Gemma asked looking at Dionysus as Diana slipped over to the refrigerator and started putting the makings for a salad out. He looked at her, nodding.
"Life, past, Gemmy," he said moving back to the stove and bending down to check the progress of the stuffed grape leaves, "All marches, celebrations, spectacle and, of course, drunken revelry. All gone for me, even the drunken revelry, I'm afraid."
Smiling wryly Gemma nodded.
"Except for the parties every few months, Dennis. If there is a party happening you can usually find it, if it is sliding over past the drunken revelry stage."
Dionysus checked the clock on the stove and stood up, turning the heat off for it.
"Purely seasonal, now, and it is no longer the great call that it once was back when I was... well... attuned to such things. Rome really ruined that, you know?"
Diana nodded as she closed the refrigerator and looked at Gemma.
"Spice rack?" she asked.
"Last cabinet, next to the stove," Gemma said watching as Diana slid past her brother.
"Nothing is as it was, my brother," Diana said softly, "I was there myself."
Dionysus shuddered as he carefully checked the vegetables and turned the heat off on them, and added a few shakes of salt to them before recovering them.
"Yes you were, my sister. The bravest of all hearts. Even shackled you still tried to bring our father down."
Gemma looked at them as Diana opened the cupboard and started lifting and putting down small jars from inside it.
"He's told me... some about that. Enough to know its... not a fantasy. No delusion. Still Dennis shies away from it."
"I wish Zeus had killed me," Dionysus said, "splendor and haughtiness were shown up that final day. He had killed so many, I had thought that he would give us release."
Pursing her lips, Diana took first one container and then another out of the cupboard and then stood on tip-toe to look past the middle shelf.
"What are you looking for?" Gemma asked.
"Garlic. Powder, salt..."
"Ah, no, fresh for that!" Dionysus said stepping to the cupboard on the other side of the stove and pulling out a plastic string bag of garlic heads, then a mortar and pestle, as well. He handed those to Diana who smiled and closed the cupboard she had been looking in, took up the jars and then the fresh cloves and crusher from her brother.
"Just a few more minutes", Diana whispered as she went back to the other counter by the refrigerator.
"I had no idea that he would harbor such cruelty," Dionysus said.
Gemma pressed her lips together looking from Dionysus to Diana and back again.
"What I don't understand," she started, "no, there is a lot I don't understand, really. But why go from murder to sadism like that?"
"We were the last," Dionysus said, "I think he meant to be satisfied in his revenge for our treachery."
"For us holding up his lack of fealty for all to see," Diana said, carefully picking lettuce leaves out and placing large ones in bowls that she had taken out over the overhead cupboard. "He had time to mend his ways, and yet we put up with so much from him, until he realized that his seed had spread so widely that he might no longer be first by agreement."
"That day was coming," Dionysus said, "Zeus had started to grow distant, even, I think, resentful of us all. Your twin was showing us... what we could be... on his good days, at least. The cloudless ones. Apollo you could reason with, work things out and do things better."
Diana closed her eyes and stopped, bowing her head for a moment, then lifting up her right arm to use the shirt cuff to dab at the corner of her eye.
Gemma started to get up, looking for a box of kleenex, but then saw Dionysus looking at her, holding up his hand and shaking his head from side to side.
"The Earth shook with his passion to save us," Diana softly said, "and I fell. Lightning and purest sunlight. It had been too late for Hera, even then. If he could not live with us..."
Dionysus nodded and Gemma stepped around the table and came up behind Diana, gently sliding her arm around the slim shoulders.
"Yes, my sister," Dionysus said stepping to Diana's left, moving his hand to interlace with Gemma's, "only later did I know that he wanted a living memorial to his wrath in the Underworld, to remind all of just who it was that put them there."
"... without us."
Opening her eyes, Diana looked at Dionysus and then Gemma.
"He just forgot who we were. Not just his children. Even without the power to have and use, we are something else. I just never expected that if we would not be his memorial amongst the dead then, in death, he meant for us to be his curse to the living."
Looking back to Dionysus he nodded, "Our father truly did forget who were are, my sister. Living after his wrath, would any of us ever want to be a curse to those who had loved us and who we had loved, in turn? Of all things, sister Diana, I am glad to be alive even when I wish I was dead, for how else can I ever thwart our father's anger but to show gentle love where once we had mighty power? That has made life worth living."
"That is the way of it," Diana said nodding placing her hands over theirs, then turned, "that has driven each of us, including our two brothers. And I am remiss in not thanking you for caring for Aurora, my brother. She was special to both me and my twin and without power she had nothing left, save life." She looked at Gemma, "Human life. She was one of the Olympians in spirit if not sitting on high with others. Without what we have left, the last of the Olympians, we are just as you, Gemma."
Diana turned and held their hands, looking at them.
"Thank you, both. Forgive me, please, for intruding on your lives and my impertinence. I would not be here if I trusted another with the tasks ahead, but it is only my brother who I will trust with my future. Your future. The future of all of us."
"My sister, after what happened to you under the cliffs of Thisbe, I am honored to have you ask this of me."
Looking from Dionysus to Diana, Gemma saw the earnestness in his face and the wan smile from her.
"It is still a bit of a mystery to me, though, why you are here, that is."
Turning to look at her Diana's expression scarcely changed.
"It is to get off of this planet in a way that will be continuous, without break, from the start. It had been foretold at my birth that I would be the mid-wife of importance, and I had thought..."
"Everyone, Diana, everyone," Dionysus said.
Diana shook her head looking down and then raised it again to look at Gemma.
"...that it would be... someone important. Yet as ages crawled by, day upon day, I saw the fleetingness of life. Then looking up to the stars, the rest of all that is beyond here, its distance had always seem so untouchable even when I had touched it just barely before. Now the changes come to those who live, today. This is the time of importance that needs its mid-wife, the one beside the mother to assure the birth but who is to be forgetten by families. It is an honor to be alive, today, to do this."
Letting go of their hands with a final squeeze, Diana moved to peer at the microwave then moved back to making the salad. Dionysus moved to the stove to stop the heat flowing to the burners and Gemma pulled a chilled bottle of white wine from the refrigerator.
"But what is to happen, Diana?" Gemma asked as she poured a taste of wine and stepped over to Dionysus to have him taste it. Picking up the glass he swirled the scant contents and examined it through the overhead lighting before sniffing and tasting it.
"Ah, delicious. A lot of oak on that, good enough to stand up to the ribs," he said handing the glass back to her.
"First," Diana said taking up black olives from a dish and skillfully slicing them into the salad, "the toe-hold above. Our brothers, Ares and Hermes are for that and they are well accomplished in their realms. They join with Ascentech, the company that is finding the softer and somewhat cheaper means to space. From Dionysus I need his mastery of soils, to find out just what can be grown from Lunar regolith before smelting and after, and what plants and animals are necessary to get a sustainable life supporting system. Others amongst men do that, yes, and I expect that he might work with them, as well. With those and lower cost assembly in orbit, comes the moon and then, finally, reclaiming life amongst men. For you will then be so very like us as we are that there will be no difference amongst us. Mankind will be no different from Olympian, save that we now have our bad example to avoid and avoid it you shall as you outstrip our prior capacities."
Gemma stopped as she was walking back to the table to turn and look at Diana.
"What....?" she asked turning her head to the side looking quizzically as she did so.
Diana turned to look at her with her head still down, and her eyes just showing up past her eyebrows, a smile on her face.
"Gemma it is your generation, or the very next already born, that will now remake itself by means technical and outreach us. In going with you once we Olympians are out of the grasp of Gaia's gravity then we, too, shall be merely human. But that instance will have changed, your birth from Gaia will be sealed and you will not be the race that you were although you will still have all its foibles. Just as Olympians did. I am here to make sure that happpens as a good mid-wife should, not to take credit but to take joy in helping this new birth happen. I expect that you may remember us, those you know as Olympians, but, like all good mid-wives, you will also forget us as we become brothers and sisters with no separation between us. We will be able to die, finally, but only like you can by then, taken only by accident, hazard or forgetfulness in the vast depths of space."
Turning back to the salad, Diana sought out plates and sliced mushroom caps on them as the microwave stopped with a *ding*.
Gemma watched her, the girl form that might almost be a full woman and yet lacked the fullness of such a body. Pouring out the wine she thought about what Diana had said as Dionysus placed the ribs on a platter and then started to take out serving bowls for the rest.
"Your saying," Gemma finally said sliding the wine bottle into a chilled terra cotta container, "that I might... live... like you?"
Smiling Dionysus slid past his sister with the platter of ribs while she shifted to remove the rice and spoon it out to the dishes she was preparing.
"Oh, no!" Dionysus said, "Never that curse upon you, Gemmy. No you will have much more than we ever had when we sat Upon the Mount. Perhaps not in direct power as we had, true, but more sweeping and vast than any we poor Olympians could have imagined back in our time. Life long-lasting to well neigh eternity if you want, of course! But in that life and its length comes great responsibility and that means planning. My sister comes to ask me to help build the first scaffolding from which all will transition. Until recently I had thought humanity would trap itself here with limited horizons but... ahh, the Fates are fickle! Dealt severe blows by human nature you now must overcome such limits against those who would chain you to misery eternal."
"That isn't going to happen," Diana said, "not another Dark Age, not with what man has made so far, no. It might be final extinguishment in pointless, fruitless attempts to control each other until only death is what can be offered. We Olympians would survive, of course, a testament to man's failure on a world shorn of intelligent life. We would be to blame. No... I would be to blame... if that happened."
The platter dropped only scant inches as Dionysus wheeled around to look at his sister in horror whispering, "Zeus' revenge upon us."
Gemma gasped as she watched the lithe old girl bringing plates over to the table. Diana looked at them in puzzlement as she came over.
"Those are the stakes, you know? And only one attempt at this for failure, now, means failure, eternal and living damnation for those of us who failed you. We will go ahead without the skills of my brother if he cannot work life into lifeless regolith, but if we can than the push, once started, will be continuous and unending. A good mid-wife knows her place, you see, and that place is to help quietly, with assurance, to save both mother and child. It may well be a messy birth, and I'm prepared for that as well. If I do my job right I will be forgotten in our new future together and if I don't the accusatory landscape of mankind's blasted remains will be a tombstone that I will never escape. I wouldn't be here if the time wasn't right, and it is. I am lucky to have a few people willing to accept my support and I only ask of my brothers the same thing I asked before our fall, which is their listening to me and deciding for themselves."
Stepping next to Dionysus, Gemma slid an arm around his back and he slid one behind hers.
"You mean that," Gemma said softly, "either the last days or..."
"Days unending," Dionysus said looking to her as she looked at him, "yes my Gem. I didn't listen to her last time, decided revelry would be salvation and here I am. This time, I think, is the time to listen and act, but not with great powers but small help that requires commitment from each of us. I'll not let Fates run without my intervention this time. Not again."
"And... me?" Gemma asked.
Slipping the plates onto the table Diana looked at her and smiled.
"I would love to call you sister, Gemma. But that will be for you to decide, not me."
Dionysus looked from Diana to Gemma and gazed into Gemma's eyes.
"I would recommend listening to my young sister, beloved Gemma. When you don't heed her advice things can turn out rather unwell. She has that way about her and always has, even if I was too blind drunk to recognize it and that on a good day."
"Shall we have dinner now?" Diana asked, "My body is still in need of some rebuilding and this meal ought to do nicely. Fast food quickly loses its appeal on the road and a home cooked meal nourishes not just the body but sustains the soul, as well."