Harry Nordhause stepped into the design room followed by Diana and Ares. He was talking as he walked with them.
"This is our systems design room, where we are currently working on our phase two design, which will be our first system with test payload. It is, of course, a prototype but we hope to use it for microsatellite delivery so we can get an active cashflow."
The man and woman in relaxed work attire looked up from their computer systems which had design schematics for the vehicle they were working on. On the walls were larger design views that were put up on corkboard. On flip charts were pictorial representations of the lift vehicles which didn't bear much resemblance to rockets and looked more like a strange cross between dirigibles and some form of wing design. Harry stepped next to the workstation where the woman was working and she had stood up to stand next to him, the light blue of her shirt had an 'Ascentech Inc.' logo patch above the upper right pocket which was offset by the black slacks that looked more suited to a car garage than an aviation company. Her blonde hair reached just to the collar of the shirt and her somewhat thin face was adorned only by a pair of glasses.
"This is Alice Chalmers, our lead designer who is working on the second prototype and hopefully our initial true commercial lift vehicle. Alice this is Diana Sherwood, one of our backers and her friend Aaron Culpepper."
"Pleased to meet you," she said.
"And me to meet you, Alice," Diana said, "I've been looking forward to a visit here since I started investing in the company."
The two women shook hands and while Alice had a good inch on Diana, she seemed somewhat frail compared to her. Ares hadn't had a chance to realize just how far modern women had changed and this, more than any of the shopping they had done on the road from Wyoming to the Mojave Desert did that. Both were attractive but in wholly different ways and he could see that Alice was not used to a woman who lived in a completely different mode from her.
"And this is my close cousin, Aaron," Diana said smiling as she turned towards him, "we grew up as close as brother and sister in many ways."
"Pleased to meet you," Ares said shaking Alice's hand.
"Thank you, and the pleasure is mine," she said and then looked between the two and saw that they were very much alike.
"Alice, would you please show our guests where we are at in the design stages?"
"Sure, Harry," she said, "I have a small table by the design stations with flip charts ready. Come on over and take a seat while I work with Bill to get the projection going."
"That's fine," Harry said, "would either of you like something to drink? We have coffee, iced tea, bottled water and lemonade available."
"Lemonade for me, thanks," Diana said looking at him.
"Coffee, plain," Ares said.
Harry nodded and smiled, "I'll be right back," he looked at Alice, "start without me, Alice."
"Sure thing. Over this way," she said walking between a set of long tables with blueprints spread out on them along with open folders that had many pages of data annotated with handwritten post-it notes.
As Ares followed the two women he noticed that one of the blueprints had 'Pegasus Lift Vehicle' across the top of it, save that the vehicle was partially covered over by some sheets of paper packed with the output of a spreadsheet on it. When he got to a round table he took the far seat and saw a number of promotional pamphlets on it as well as two loose-leaf notebooks with the company logo on them and the title of 'Design Overview and Cost Schedule'. As he sat down Alice returned with a younger man, most likely in his mid-20s, who had an open laptop with him that he set down on the table and then looked up into the rafters of the old converted warehouse.
"Doesn't look like a loose cable up there," he said as Alice came up next to him.
"Is it getting power?" she asked and he moved his lips together and squinted.
"Hmmm... no lights... give me a sec, I'll go check the breaker. Ever since that last storm we have had problems with the auxiliary circuit box."
"Just a moment, Bill, let me introduce you."
He looked at the two people in business attire at the table and smiled, "Sure."
"Bill Mankin, this is Diana..." Alice thought for a moment and Diana stood up to shake Bill's hand.
"Diana Sherwood," she said smiling, "I'm one of the investors on this project."
"Its good to meet you, Ms. Sherwood," he said.
"And me to meet the main prototype designer for the ALV I and II."
She nodded, not bothering to correct him on her actual marital status and sat down.
"And this is her cousin, Aaron Culpepper," she said not having to think for a moment about his name.
Ares reached across the table to shake his hand.
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Culpepper."
"Thank you, Mr. Mankin, its good to be here. Diana has told me a lot about the work here the past two days and I hope to understand it a bit better."
"Really? What's your line of work?" Bill asked smiling as Ares settled back into his seat.
"Supply and logistics."
"Oh," Bill said softly looking at Alice who inhaled and raised her eyebrows.
"Go check on the breaker, OK Bill?"
Bill nodded and hurried between the tables and computer desks that had not been either arranged nor organized and had the look of being second-hand and just pulled to wherever they were needed. Harry had returned with a glass and pitcher of lemonade, a mug of coffee and set those down on the table.
"Thank you, Harry," Diana said.
"Much obliged, Mr. Nordhaus," Ares said.
"Let me know if you need anything else. I need to be in the front office as we are expecting a components delivery and someone has to sign for it."
"Where is everyone else?" Diana asked.
"At our assembly building, getting the ALV I ready for its first full inflation test. We have been working long hours to get the vehicle put together and this is our first chance to do a full static systems test," he said as he smiled and walked away.
"Not for us, I hope?" Diana asked.
Alice shook her head.
"No, this has been the main job for the last two weeks and it is only really coming together this week. We have had component delivery delays and in-house fabrication problems. In three to four days we should be able to do a tethered ascension and then, if that goes well, we'll take the information from that and do any last design tweaks and do an untethered one which will be our first test flight of the vehicle."
"Really?" Ares asked, "It seems like a relatively simple system that is being proposed."
The overhead projector flashed on one of the corkboards that had white paper pinned up over it and the Ascentech logo was on it.
"Is that working?" came Bill's voice echoing from some other part of the warehouse.
"Yes it is! Thank you, Bill!" Alice said as she took up the remote control and moved to the first slide which had on it the fundamentals of lighter than air delivery systems.
"You are right, Mr. Culpepper, the idea is pretty easy," she flashed a slide to the Hindenburg burning in mid-air, "and when people think of dirigibles, this is what they think of. The dirigible concept has been around since ballooning became reliable and the idea of getting propulsion in place to guide the balloon to a destination was a first step in air transportation. We have some information notebooks for each of you on the table to help along with the descriptions."
Diana sat back and nodded with her notebook, which she was already familiar with, while Ares took out a pen and opened his notebook to skim the opening talking points.
"Back in those days the best that could be done was an aluminum frame grid structure containing large bags that could be filled or emptied of lighter than air gas. Hydrogen was used until decent supplies of helium became available from mining sources. The Hindenburg was filled with hydrogen due to a helium embargo by the US on Germany at that time. Hydrogen is generally more buoyant due to the size of its atom, but it is combustible in the air. Helium being inert has far fewer problems than hydrogen and is non-combustible."
Bill had come back and nodded to each of them, and then sat at his open laptop to the left of Diana.
As Ares flipped through the opening pages he raised an eyebrow.
"You are going with a semi-dirigible? What is that, exactly?"
Alice looked at Bill who nodded and replaced the static projection with one showing aerodynamic forces on a gas pocket with coverings and supported by relatively thin structures.
"Mr. Culpepper one of the main advances in material sciences since the 1930's has been in carbon fiber composites that offer greater resiliency per unit volume than aluminum and yet more tensile strength, as well. Carbon fiber can often replace aluminum where the rest of the structural dynamics are also compensated for in the replacement, so it is never a 1:1 replacement. In the case of dirigibles this means that a whole new frame structure needed to be developed as the carbon fiber of the frame flexes with dynamic air current. There are many low mass, high altitude vehicles," the screen changed from the aerofoil dynamics of a gas filled structure to a rigid high altitude, long wingspan vehicle that was propeller driven, "such as this solar powered reconnaisance and communications hub developed back around 2003. The predecessors to this are the human powered Gossamer vehicles that have set so many human powered records using lightweight composite materials and relatively low mass surfaces."
"And you're adapting this to your dirigible concept?" Diana asked.
Alice nodded and the image changed to a temperature, pressure and lift capability chart.
"All lighter than air vehicles have a limit as to how high they can go as the atmoshpere becomes less dense with altitude. Dirigibles face this problem as they also have added structure to lift while balloons do not, so every ounce of mass that can be shaved for the vehicle can add feet of lift potential. Our target is the 10 to 12 mile altitude for initial prototypes. We know the maximum altitude anyone can hope to reach in a balloon is approximately 26 miles and our need to deliver payload and have a semi-rigid structure will limit our altitude to half of that if not less. Still we hope to use other factors to help with that final altitude."
Looking at the chart Ares looked puzzled.
"You have the speed of sound at altitude shown on the chart. Why is that?"
Bill answered, "As you go up in altitude the speed of sound decreases and as temperature drops it also decreases, and whenever we look at design envelopes at high altitude the compressability of rarified atmosphere needs to be taken into account. There is a thermal inversion layer in the stratosphere that we also have to account for as much of lift depends on temperature. We don't want the vehicle over-stressed by that inversion due to speed or over-inflation."
"And that is a great segue into our design concept," Alice said as the Ascentech logo flashed on the screen, "as we are bringing lift and some speed to the equation for launching into sub-orbital space, at least with prototypes. Our design philosophy is to implement hybrid design between a flying wing and conventional dirigible so that our system can take advantage of the jet stream to gain lift, as well as velocity."
Ares raised an eyebrow as he was familiar with these concepts, just never utilized like this.
"You said there were other factors you were utilizing to gain altitude, this is one of them, I take it?"
The design outlay of the first prototype vehicle came on screen showing cut-away views of the interior on the left of the vehicle while leaving the right side solid.
"One of many," Alice said, "we are trying every trick we can think of to get additional altitude and yet safely return at low enough speed so that the vehicle doesn't fail."
Diana had a page of the notebook open to a similar schematic with pages of detailed description after them.
"Are you testing the vectored thrust rocket system on the prototype, now?" she asked looking between what was on-screen and what was in the book.
"Yes, Ms. Sherwood," Bill answered, "although only in miniature to make sure the system works as we think it will. On the left and right side we have a small central combustion chamber that can be vented out forward or aft thrust units that can have their exhaust ports shifted to help on additional velocity and attitude control. We aren't expecting much from such small units, but they are the small scale systems we could get fabricated in time for this prototype."
"Our main system will need to wait for the second prototype, I'm afraid," Alice said, "the machining and manufacturing we need is expensive and backlogged."
Ares looked at the cut-away on screen.
"That is overly complex for the task, isn't it?"
"How do you mean?" Alice asked.
"I'm a bit familiar with modern vectored thrust systems used VTOL aircraft and it would seem a similar concept could be useful for two systems that are centerlined, unless the carbon fiber frame can't take that sort of compressive force."
"We had looked at that for our system..." Bill started and looked back at the screen.
Diana leaned forward looking at Alice.
"Do you know why it was changed? If my cousin is right..." she then glanced at Ares who was sketching in something on a blank back piece of paper and annotating it, "then these systems might be a distraction, perhaps to be used on a later vehicle?"
Alice furrowed her brow and looked at Bill who looked at her and shrugged. She finally turned to Diana and said, "It is what we could get delivered in time from a current manufacturer."
Ares turned his notebook around and slid it across the table to Bill who picked it up.
"I would think that this sort of arrangement would be suitable with adaptations. The parts are spec'd to slightly older air and spacecraft taken out of service within the past 5 to 15 years, with spares now available to US purchasers with no foreign destination. The thrusting systems are much older and I'm sure someone in the industry can find their modern equivalents. Both have spare parts depots or surplus dealers handling them, when they aren't just scrapped."
After centuries of observing rocketry in action and having to learn about it, Ares knew the basics of design and modern adaptations perhaps better than anyone on the planet. This was a necessary part of warfare and he did keep up with the times and his knowledge of military affairs stretched into the depths of places like the Ghost airfield and shipyards, where older equipment was still kept before they were fully replaced by newer craft. Even then, some very old vehicles and their parts were kept for decades after obsolesence in whole parts and systems put into storage. He knew that the early space industry had done much the same, although their old surplus may be harder to find just due to age and may have wound up at one of the larger facilities by now for final scrapping.
"You mean using parts from... what? The shuttle system? Or earlier?"
Ares looked at Bill.
"Yes, plus some mil-projects that had relatively long lives and were shelved in the past two decades. Designing new components when there are useful older ones that would fit for a prototype will save on start-up costs and ensure a known set of supplies. Finding suppliers willing to make new parts to older specs can be difficult, but since there is no R&D involved, it can be passed to lower-end shops able to do the work."
Diana smiled looking at the faces of Alice and Bill.
"My cousin really does know the business quite well. Just don't ask him where he learned so much, OK?"
Diana looked across the table in the small conference room in the warehouse to see Harold Nordhaus sitting next to Ray Kaplan who was one of the prime investors and movers of Ascentech, and then Alice Chalmers, who was wearing a pantsuit today. Ares sat between her and Alice and he was the one with the majority of documents and open folders in front of him.
"Thank you for meeting with us today," Ares said looking at each of their faces, each of which looked a bit puzzled and Alice looking a bit uncomfortable as she had the current smallest stake in the company. Ares raised an eyebrow at Diana who smiled placidly, her blue eyes glinting from the reflected light of the nearby overhead spot lamps.
"I'm pleased to do so, Mr. Culpepper," Kaplan said returning his gaze. Ray Kaplan was known in the local business world as one of the foremost investors in small start-ups and had been a leading figure in the African-American community for businesses ranging from glass making to computer storage technology. "I'm not familiar with your background, although I was briefed by Harry and Alice two days ago, and I'm interested to hear your proposal. It isn't every day that a representative of a land trust seeks an investment opportunity in the aerospace field."
Aaron nodded and turned on the miniprojector he had purchased in the interim between their first set of meetings and tours to prepare for this meeting.
"There are a couple of trusts that I represent , Mr. Kaplan, and while the Diversified Consolidated Properties is a major one, I also represent the somewhat older Mars Technology Trust, which was bundled into DCP for oversight by the prior administrative personnel," meaning himself, although he didn't say that, "and while it is separate, I can cross some administrative boundaries when there is common work between them."
"Common work?" Harry asked, looking puzzled. "How can that be for here?"
Ares smiled and flashed up a mercator projected global map with red dots on it.
"As you will notice the DCP holds a few overseas properties that would be suited as staging and ascent zones, like the Richmont property in Western Australia which is situated far from populated places and offers relatively still climate conditions during the morning and even afternoon hours much of the year. Such properties can be leased for use or swapped for other appropriate properties of equivalent value. A distributed set of launch and recovery stations in the Third Generation window Ascentech would greatly aid in full expansion of delivery to sub-orbit for final customer orbital delivery systems. Additionally with Fourth Generation Ascentech full delivery vehicles, the ability to stage materials at multiple sites around the globe means a continuous flow for the staging vehicles involved."
Alice looked at Ray who was sitting back in his chair and looking at the map.
"A number of these," Ray said, "are prime locations, although I will have to check high altitude jet stream maps to see if they have added value to them."
Diana smiled and looked at Ares who looked sideways at her.
"Really that is long-term expansion, and getting up to capacity requires a lot of work to be done before then," she said, "and that is what my cousin also brings to the table. Mars Technology Trust deals with many organizations in the defense field, including original design work, simulations and the ever important logistics supply-chain. None are what any of us would call major players in the industry, of course, but each brings a separate talent pool and ability to be used as secure sub-contractors for work."
"Ahhh..." Alice said looking at Diana and then Ares, who had shifted to a slide held in storage on his ultra-miniature PC that controlled the projector.
"You're right, nothing high profile in that portfolio," Ray said, "and I don't even know most of these or where they are located."
"Mr. Kaplan, as you know, much of the high tech industry depends on relatively unknown small firms able to be good, specialized players. It is that way in the defense industry, as well, as no single company can bring a full automated system in on its own," Ares said, "while such things as small arms can still be thought up, designed, created, and then put through rigorous testing for DoD acceptance, that is for small firms dedicated to that specialized task. To keep that weapon operational in the field requires a large array of contractors and sub-contractors stretching globally."
Ray Kaplan turned to look at Ares, directly, nodding.
"Yet that has a cost to it, too."
Diana leaned forward, opening her slim, single folder that held only a few sheets of paper.
"Yes, it does, Mr. Kaplan. As you know when I first approached Ascentech, I sought to be a low-profile... ahhh... 'silent investor' in the project."
"Yes, you did," Kaplan said.
"I was surprised at that since it was a substantial amount," Harry said, looking at Ray.
Alice whispered, "I'm surprised you didn't just buy us outright."
"That was four years ago and almost five, now. I had seen the timelines, knew the expected delays, plus that there would be unexpected ones, as well. Still, for that investment I expected that the first phase would have been completed nearly two years ago."
Alice closed her eyes remembering the delays, set-backs, economic troubles that had hit each of them differntly, foul-ups in material and then design changes. Over and over again. Every week added up, every missed deadline was harder to recover from, and every set-back of a critical component set the entire downstream milestones back.
"We have had problems," Harry said looking at Alice.
"Mr. Kaplan, this is one of the most complex endeavors you've invested in, isn't it?" Ares asked.
"Yes it is, Mr. Culpepper. Fully 20% of my working venture capital is right here, in Ascentech. I'm taking a gamble with it."
Ares looked at each of the members of Ascentech, slowly, making sure he had full eye contact with each before settling on Alice.
"I am no 'turnaround artist' as is phrased in the industry. I oversee companies that can turn around a failing enterprise, however, if they get to wield their talents properly. From project management to design to logistics, each company in the trust has its own specialty and they have flourished and often spun-off more successful companies in their wake."
He turned slowly to Ray Kaplan, his face placid and still as a lake is glass smooth in the calmness of morning.
"Mr. Kaplan I am not looking to buy you out. I am looking to make Ascentech part of the Mars Technology Trust, in full, and bring on proper management, design and logistics streaming to it. Your ownership stake entitles you to much say in this company, but your investment firm does not have the skill or depth of knowledge to properly do oversight of it. MTT has done similar in the past, under other administrators, leaving investors in place to reap their rewards and have much say in the overall direction of the firm. I cannot guarantee you will get your money back, but I will put up bond for that amount if you do not see a profit in three years."
"Three years?" Ray whispered.
"That's impossible," Harry said.
"Can't be done," Alice said shivering.
"Oh, but it can be," Diana said turning her folder around and giving it to Ray Kaplan who saw duplicate sheets that he handed out to Harry and Alice.
"And that is true for each of you. Your job roles and functions will change, but your investment gets bonded so that if this company does not see a profit in three years, you get your investment back. I am sorry but I cannot promise interest on that, but that portion of DCP does need to cover its overhead, as well."
As he looked down the lines Ray saw something that puzzled him.
"Second vehicle, this year? And getting income? How are you going to do that?"
Ares looked at Diana who looked back at Ares.
"We know someone in the commercial world that is very skilled at what he does. One of the few people we can trust with commerce, and we all grew up together."
Harry shook his head and looked at the two.
"Nothing can do this sort of magic."
"Your own financials should point out that the cost per pound to where you do get is excellent if what you have doesn't have to go any further. And we have just the commodity that fits that bill, and our friend, well, he knows a bit about aerial delivery, as well."
"And he's agreed to this?" Alice asked.
"Not yet, no," Ares said, "but I do have favors to call in."
"But what is it that will get this kind of cash flow? What are you looking to sell?"
Leaning back in her chair Diana smiled the smile of a Huntress.
"We are going to cash in on one of the most over-priced industries on the planet and offer a service that no one else can offer. Even the modest price Aaron and I came up with is very conservative and a floor to that market, really. You will be first to it and have places all over the Earth to safely deliver it."
"Deliver? What?" Ray asked.
"Honor, Mr. Kaplan. Honor for the dead. They will make the way for the living to follow."
Ares said that in the flat tone of a leader of armies who had just pronounced how he was going to destroy the enemy.
Now all they had to do was convince one errant cousin of his role in this future.
Between I-80 and the Moscone Complex were a number of streets and alleyways that had been turned into shops and clubs, from expansive to hole-in-the wall the entertainment available in the South Financial District was varied. The daytime shops catered to the visitors of the area drawn not just by the various on-goings at the Complex but to the museums and displays both indoors and out which made this part of San Francisco a more leisurely and refined place compared to some of the waterfront venues and other parks and squares less than a mile from the Complex. As night falls the people at the Complex there for events slowly filter back to their hotels and much of the liveliness of the day is transformed by night dwellers of the area into something far more relaxed.
Gatherings of friends to talk, play instruments or just hang out and take in the sounds made the area somewhat more congenial if less welcoming to those from out of town. On some nights the roar of motorcycles could be heard filtering in and the sounds from inside establishments filtered further out a mixture of music and machines that serenaded none and enthralled all. Darkness deepens and the few streetlights are pools of semi-light as the glow from taller buildings scatter to coming mist. Now those residents of the city who lead a lifestyle more than a life appear, as if by magic, each with their own personal style that looks very much like so many others that it becomes a uniform of conformist non-conformity. Intended to be shocking, this becomes mundane and what was meant to be intimidating transforms into static discontent with an era now long gone. These residents of the city, forever pushing the bounds of good taste and civilization had long ago forgotten what it means to have taste or be civilized. Any raging against the man or the machine has long ago passed into meaningless desultory hysteria that, itself, is now just an act not the thing itself.
Club Viceroy, a name from some ancient high class establishment, had become less a social club and now just another club done in hardwood floors, murals on bricks, a stainless steel and wood topped bar. With the ever present tiny tables and stylish chrome and black seats that one could barely sit on that greeted the entrance area the jarring nature of the establishment reflected its city. Beyond the delicate tables and chairs were the booths that ranged for two ranks and came from some older establishment that entertained formica and wooden bench seats, which were sturdy enough for the most heavyset of customers or just those with more gear than they wanted to stand with. Along the far wall were black appointed booths more in keeping with the delicate chairs, and they were not just comfortable but enduring, as well.
In the rear of that establishment, past the swinging doors that led to the kitchen and preparation areas, was an expansive dance floor with an intermediate bar and set of tables to separate it from the rest of the room. It had been carved out of the first floor of the building years ago, sacrificing what had been two smaller establishments to the Club Viceroy. The bandstand and lighting controls were most modern and utilitarian and the murals faded to the necessity of black paint. Across the expansive dance floor, at least for this part of town, were the spiral stairs that led up to the Manager's Booth and the upper stories of the building. There the club was managed not from the Booth but a set of offices and other rooms turned a profit through private functions often of a most private sort.
It is into that den of late night partiers ranging from retro-hip to modern leathers, from artists to secretaries, these the nomads of a cultural wonderland. It had once been a haven and now became a desultory prison of enforced iconoclism and deviation was this city and that establishment was a place run by a half-man who enjoyed the customers and customs of which he was familiar. His face never needed to be shaved and while high cheekbones told of him one way, the lines of his jaw and set of his eyes spoke of femininity. He had known many sports in his life almost all of them racing as he had ever enjoyed the feel for speed. This night some half-forgotten, but not forgotten enough band that had once been a lead-in for a headliner of barely greater note. This lesser or lesser bands now been forced by circumstances to come to the only place their old music still had a home. The part man leaned back in his business suit which was of cream colors lime and orange, with shirt of white and pants of almond to watch from the Booth what this band could do.
Or not do.
It didn't matter to him, all that much, just so long as pleasure and money flowed, that was all he cared about. The pay-offs to the police, here and there, meant that it was uninterrupted day to day if not month to month.
A woman in black leather pantsuit was sitting next to him looking out over the dancers and at the band as they played their rhythmic music that, at least, kept a beat and was suitable to covering over the somewhat tinny voice of the lead vocalist.
"They suck," the woman in her 30's said, picking up a stylish cigarette holder and leaning forward to look out over the floor.
The half-man nodded in half-agreement.
"They pay their way, that's all I care about," he said in low tones that had no bite and yet no real softness to them, "and, really Regina, you were the one that suggested them."
She made a sour face and sat back in her high backed chair and turned to the bank of video monitors that was on the console in front of them.
"I know, Herman, sorry. I thought we would get a few more of the aging banker's crowd here for them. You know, some real hash money flowing?"
He picked up his iced drink from its circular platform on his chair and sipped at it.
"They were here for the first set, dear. Filtered out because of their schedules but will be back tomorrow. Still, not a bad crowd for a Thursday night and gives a chance to get a real warm-up session. Hopefully Danito, there," he said gesturing with his drink at the band's vocalist, "will gargle with something and sound only half as bad as he does now."
"He's doing a jock party later," she said, "plenty of stuff for his throat in that."
He snorted and shook his head.
"That is why they are here and not at a better venue, Regina. They used to sound good, now they are just another band two steps up from a garage."
Regina flicked between cameras and stopped to look at one of them.
"Looks like one of the Rockhawk's Ladies is trying to put a move on someone there," she said looking at the view near the front of the bar area where a woman dressed in a black leather coat and pants, with engineers boots was standing in front of someone.
Herman shook his head.
"That's Candice and she's with the Ladybirds... although that used to be a Rockhawk jacket... poor Jeffy..." he said glancing at the monitor.
The old black and white camera didn't really give a good view and the feed from it had some static, but what happened was obvious as the figure in black was on the floor and being stepped over by a smaller woman who was wearing a very utilitarian set of leathers, apparently buckskin. She wasn't an Amerind, though, that was obvious and she carried a bow, quiver and rather long knife on her left and a holstered something on her right.
"Well, that's not good," Regina whispered, "should I let Franco handle it?" she asked turning to Herman.
He was staring wide-eyed at the monitor as the woman picked her way amongst other customers who were giving way to her.
"But... she's dead."
Three women in black leather jackets started to come at the lone woman going through the bar area.
"Well, she's about to be," Regina said and turned, "are you sure...?"
The other chair was empty and when she turned to look at the monitor again the half-man who had been there was now to be seen, as could arrows protruding through the boots of the three other women who were now hunched down and screaming in pain.
And the band played on.
Candice watched the entrance between Mel and Liza and raised an eyebrow as a figure stepped into the doorway.
"Now isn't that something sweet coming in?" she asked and the other three turned to look where she was looking.
"Not that tall," Nuada said, "hard to figure out how old she is with that sort of figure."
"Mmmm... sweet..." Mel said, and glanced back to Candice with a smile on her face.
"Want me to get us a treat tonigt?" Liza asked watching the figure walk into the room.
"Finders, keepers," Candice said getting off the chair and walking around Liza, "but don't worry, I'll share..."
"You go, girl!" Nuada said over the din of the music as Candice stepped between tables to get in front of the woman walking into the club that was dressed in the somewhat softer tones and leather of buckskin that had been well worn by time outdoors. The three watched as they saw Candice lean forward, her left hand reaching forward at waist level and her right on the stiletto on her right hip. She moved just a bit closer, and the others knew the routine and smiled.
A sharp crack and thump of Candice hitting the floor, sprawled out with her unconscious eyes gazing in their direction stunned the women at the table. The slim, athletic figure stepped over Candice, her high laced soft brown boots making no sound that could be heard amongst the din of the music. It took them a moment to realize what had happened, as it did the other patrons at the tables near the incident. As the young woman, girl really, walked people turned as she was pointed out and they moved out of her way taking drinks and decamping from tables.
"She decked Candice," Liza said growling her words out.
"Nobody does that..." Mel said.
Nuada had gotten her knife out and was moving off her chair and away from the table towards the figure making her way forward heading towards the bar area. People at the tables in-between vacated them when they saw Nuada and the other two women approaching with knives drawn.
"Hey, you! What did you do to Candice?" Mel yelled as they worked their way to the clear area beyond the tables. The crowd had moved to open up the area between the lone figure and the three women.
That lithe young figure turned to look at the three now stepping forward with knives drawn towards her.
"I told her to stop with her pawing. She didn't. She will live."
"No one does that to Candice or a Ladyhawk," Liza said moving around one of the vacant tables.
"No one survives doing that to any of us," Mel said.
"Or wishes they hadn't," Nuada growled out loudly as the bodies of the other patrons had pressed back as far as they could and the local talking had stopped and only the music was left to be yelled over. As the drumming hit a crescendo, there was an abrupt stillness in the air.
"Very well," the slim woman with the black hair and moonlight skin said, "tonight the wolves roam free."
The music started and Liza sniggered as the woman took the recurved shortbow from her back.
"What are you gonna do with that? Stick us?" she laughed coming in from the stretch of open floor between the bar and the entrance.
"Yes," came the very low canine growl that rumbled from the slim figure.
Her arm was a blur of motion, her fingers so used to doing this that skin was no longer callused, just toughened and backed by muscle grown hardy by centuries of use. The first steel tipped shaft had barely left her bow when she was already shifting it and nocking a second that also flew low and straight to its mark. By the third shaft the first had already done its work, the tip ripping through toughened leather, steel toe, sole and the hard rubber of the boot and into the floorboards to finally stop hard against steel reinforced concrete below. Without the steel toe the arrow would have gone true, as it was it had been deflected just an inch from between toes and into to the foot itself, which had proven no obstacle to this arrow.
A scream and hint of redness had informed the slim woman of darkness and moonlight of this situation and the last arrow flew with that deflection in mind and it would wedge the shaft painfully between toes, leaving bleeding from the edges sliding past skin on three of four sides. With that the bow was already across her back and the woman had jumped back to the bar and gotten a bottle of vodka from its tray behind the bar and had taken napkins.
She smiled at the other figure who had, somehow, worked his way through the back press of customers his eyes wide.
"You take care of the middle one, I'll tend to this one. Foot, bandages, alcohol. They'll live."
She barked and spoke in tones that easily went under the rumblings of music and the screeching of the singer in the band. He had stopped and spoke to a customer and then a member of the staff and started pointing and telling people what to do.
Diana noted that the first woman on the floor, the one she had hit with the ball of her hand on the temple, had a younger man and woman standing next to her with the cellphones out taking pictures.
"Elevate her head with your damned purse. Keep her from moving, you worthless scum. I am the wolf here, do as I say or join these others."
It was obvious that neither of the two in their garish outfits were used to being talked to like this, in this manner, in those tones, from much of anyone. Then they became aware of the howls of pain, the blood pooling on the floor and what the woman was doing. She gave them one last look as she took Liza's shoulders and held her forward and the grim face of intensity and threat was primal and that, above all else, stirred them to action.
"Hold yourself upright, this will be painful but your foot must not move," Diana said to the woman and saw out of the corner of her eye that the two she had spoken to had fled, but that another young man had taken a tablecloth from a cart by the window and had arrived to gently straighten out Candice's head and put the folded up tablecloth under her head.
Liza pressed her lips together, gasping and crying out at the pain coming from her foot. An older man in a black shirt and jeans vest knelt behind Liza and looked at Diana.
"Hold her up, brace her so she doesn't flinch back. I wanted her startled, not maimed and will be that if she moves now."
The man nodded and knelt behind Liza, then leaned up to press his legs to her back and wrapped his arms around her.
Deftly Diana broke the shaft off just above the boot and then took out a wicked looking knife with slight curve at the tip and worked that next to the shaft to get to the leather, letting the tip slice into it as it went.
Liza screamed again, shaking.
Diana looked up for a moment used her left hand to brush the blonde hair of Liza back.
"This will be extremely painful. Let me do what must be done so you can walk again."
Liza closed her eyes and nodded as Diana's knife made short work of the leather boot upwards and then to both sides, putting the knife between her teeth once that was done. She quickly lifted the foot and boot up and let the boot fall off as she reached for the vodka to pour it over the foot and bloody wound. To Liza this was pain beyond what she ever imagined, and she could see blackness and stars as she opened her eyes. And the face of her tormentor, the one who had stopped her and was now working to save her from more harm.
Napkins became bloody, but soon someone was there handing cloth ones to Diana and then thin leather strips came off her clothes to bind the layers of napkins in place. She had used deft touches to convince broken bones that they would be much better in certain places they knew as she had worked which had been enough to make Liza insensate to pain and the rest of the world. Bandages were appearing from a first aid kit that had been deployed and Diana asked for splints or anything to to immobilize the foot. As the woman with the kit searched through it Diana shrugged, reached for the boot and stripped off more leather, cut off the steel toe, and wrapped the sole under and around the ankle securing it in place.
Only as she stood up to see two men in blue carrying white cases with them did she realize that the band had not stopped playing.
Apparently something like this was well within their capability to cope with.
She stepped over to the last woman who had people holding her up from behind her back and she was still in tears as a dribble of blood came from her boot. Whispering around her stopped as Diana approached Nuada looked at her with stark fear, seeing the spatters of blood on the buckskin, the smears of blood on her hands and arms, and the purposeful way she held a nearly empty bottle of vodka. Nuada was in pain, but only that of cuts bleeding into a boot leaving it sticky and warm.
Diana knelt in front of her and handed her the bottle of vodka.
"Drink. You'll need it."
Nuada took the bottle up and put it to her lips, tasting some of Liza's blood on it as she did so.
Diana broke the shaft, lifted the boot off and then deftly shifted the heel forward and pulled.
Nuada screamed as she dropped the bottle and felt the sudden pain of swelling which had been masked by the warmth of the blood. The boot had not come off and she placed it on the floor so the sole was flat.
"Nothing for it then," Diana said as she moved the knife tip just above the stitching and sliced around the sole switching hands as the knife passed up the back of the boot allowing it to be slid away. By then another man in blue with a white kit was kneeling beside her, watching her as he had put the scissors he normally used for such situations away.
"I can take it from here, Miss..."
Diana cleaned her knife off on Nuada's jeans leg and sheathed it.
"Sherwood. Diana Sherwood. How is the first one?"
The man looked at her as he took out a bottle of astringent and woven swabbing.
"Unconscious, possible concussion. You did that?"
"It was either that or she lose the hand as it was where I did not want it to be. She thought I was joking."
Nuada gasped as the medic started to clean away caked blood, and Diana shifted around him to be next to Nuada who looked at her. Diana dabbed her fingertip into the small pool of blood on the floor next to the shaft protruding from boards and then slid it to Nuada's forehead, tracing out a red oval and then tracing the blood down between her eyes until it ran out at the bridge of her nose. Nuada flinched but couldn't move back because of a man and woman holding her up and the medic cautioning her not to move.
"Never again, like this for you. Understand?"
Intense blue eyes pierced Nuada's soul as the face of Diana forced her to look into those eyes.
"Yes..." she whispered.
"That is not a promise. I will know. Become an animal, and you will not live. Understand?"
Nuada shivered and gasped, not from the pain of skin being pressed together and stitched, either.
"Yes..." she whispered again feeling the icy cold of northern winter sering into her being.
"Good. Now I will leave you to these skilled ones, while I get a drink with my brother."
Diana stood up to see the half-man giving a statement to a police officer and he had been joined by a figure dressed in a black outfit and two burly men with suits that barely fit standing behind him.
She shook her head at this keeper of the peace who were never around when you needed them.
She stepped over to the bar as the man behind it looked at her as drew a glass of water for her.
"Nice work, there," he said.
She shrugged looking back at the women still on the floor and saw the flashing lights of three squad cars outside and an ambulance that was now pulling up. Only the flashing lights from the outside had gotten the band to stop playing.
"Someone needs to teach them some manners."
He nodded and took up another glass and put it on the counter.
"What'll it be?"
"Retsina if you have it. Mead. Slivovitz. After that, your choice."
He looked at her and gave her a lopsided smile.
"How about some grappa? You look like you could use one."
She snorted and nodded.
"Anything to get me through the torture of a police statement, really."
He waited until the three officers had left her at the bar and shook his head having heard only snippets of what was being said after his own interview and getting Franco and Regina to get the club video tapes so the SFPD could review the matter. And then quietly drop it because none of the Ladyhawks would want to press charges and, for this neighborhood at this hour, this wasn't much of a disturbance compared to what happened in other places around town. Plus the sigil on Nuada's forehead, although he was sure it was devoid of power since it was only done in a non-ceremonial way, would give the Ladyhawks something else to think about. When he worked on Mel, he had let her know that it was due to the steel toe that she had gotten the shaft through the foot instead of between the toes. His work, the shock of that information and the absinthe laced wine he gave her had allowed her to stay lucid throughout the procedure. Nuada would have her own warning, too. Candice had been told 'no' in a very firm way and no matter what her fury she would also see the condition of her compatriots.
Things could have gone much, much worse, he knew and if there was chaotic violence it would have. That was not the way of his cousin since she was of an order much older than civilization and even more relentless. As in all hunts she had done the minimum that needed to get done and inflict the least pain for the greatest reward, and he had always admired her in the swiftness of the messages and their delivery and was glad to only be on the receiving end twice in his life. Once was the proposition hinting that a half-woman should be just as good as a full one, and the other was setting Troy in motion which she liked not at all.
After having gotten his staff re-organized and the clean-up well under way, he now had time to go to her as she stood facing outwards, quite alone, at the bar.
"Long time, no see," he said as he got closer, "I thought you were dead."
She smiled the only way she could with the unearthly glow of night still evident even if no longer manifesting.
"Well met, brother. I was to be more than stripped and beaten, but left to be defiled by foreign powers. You, at least, had help," she said with a shrug and sipping the snifter of grappa that had been poured for her.
"Dux wanted us to know our resistance to him had an eternal price. He was furious with us all, of course, sister. I fled with your twin, but even as I ascended to the air I knew he was gone beyond saving. I could only dodge the lightning so long, but I had been able to leave him with our fearsome brother. I had become his messenger and for that added betrayal my boon and steadfast traveling companion brought forth the great lightning which even my evasion could not foil."
He watched her press her lips together as he held up two fingers to the barkeep who nodded and went to the back storage room as they talked.
She looked at him while shaking her head.
"That was a blinding rage, brother, and it blinded him to many things. If had his wits about him instead of his fury, we would not be here today. The first things I made were bow and arrow, spear and net with stones as my means to make them and nature providing game so that I could survive. I was still inviolate, it is my nature, brother. Just as yours is... well..." she chuckled, "...lets just say it isn't just commerce nor mere physical sex but an essence that is fast with them both."
Hermes took up the bottle of mead and two glasses as the barkeep put them on the bar and his sister turned to look at them.
"Hmmmm... what is it you traffic in now?"
"It's from Nova Scotia, a honey mead that is fortified. Not a lot produced and it is an acquired taste. Shall we move upstairs now that the band appears to realize it still has time to play?"
"Anything but more of that din, please brother. Lead the way."
Turning with the glasses and bottle he made his way to the stairs just as the band started playing and as he went up he saw Regina at the top of the flight.
"Dear God, Herman, what the hell is going on? She is the cause of all this mess tonight."
He kissed her on the cheek as he passed her and whispered, "Her name is Diana and don't try to fuck with her, OK Regina?"
She nodded and stepped back as the woman with black hair, moonlight skin and brown buckskins came up, her starkly blue eyes taking Regina's breath away as she felt the woman look not past her nor through her, but into her very being. The woman smiled as she stood next to Regina.
"Diana," he said having caught her name from at least two of the police officers, "this is Regina, my erstwhile club manager. Regina, this is Diana, my cousin but we grew up as close as brother and sister and we still feel like that towards each other."
"It's good to meet you," Regina said.
Diana put her right hand on Regina's right shoulder.
"You have two sets of children due to you," she said in a bare whisper, "protect yourself well, Regina."
Regina's eyes widened as she snapped her head to look at Hermes and then back to Diana as her hand fell away from her shoulder.
"I... what? But I haven't.... I don't... I'm... I..."
Hermes smiled as he stood next to Regina and whispered in her ear, "And not even with me, lovely one."
"No...." she whispered with a tear in her eye.
"Come with me sister, lets go to my office to talk of old times," he said after pulling his mouth from Regina's ear.
"You are a lucky woman, Regina," Diana said, "to be so fertile in such barren surroundings."
Regina didn't know how to respond because the simple, clear voice of that woman who was at once very young and very old, had spoken to her deeply and awoken fears. Fear of joy. Fear of fulfillment. Fear of life itself.
"This is insane," she said as the two figures disappeared into Herman's office, "no one can know the future... or..." her voice went to a whisper "... my future."
And yet there was no doubt in her about the words which were, even now, beginning to thaw out her soul and drag her mind with it. Soon her body would follow.