Diana entered the office done in a white floral pattern with gold tracings on the leaves, a short dense pile red carpet, a short sofa to her left that was beyond a small round table and chairs. A desk with two executive leather style chairs was on her right. Hermes nodded to the table where he set down the bottle and glasses, while she pulled out one of the wood frame, black leather upholstered chairs that sat around it, sliding her snifter of grappa to her left as she watched Hermes give a full pour of mead to each glass.
"You always did have a good taste for settings, brother," she said as he slid over her glass to her and then sat himself across the table from her.
"And you are always out of place in a place like this, sister. With benches a bow and quiver aren't that out of place, but on a high backed chair you always look like something the choir would sing about in near dirge tones. When you were far younger, well..."
He shrugged as she looked around and saw no hearth of Demeter half-shaking of her head and a sour pressing of the lips.
"She is gone, my sister, coming to the aid of your twin and lives, now, only in our memories as none other remember her as she was. Most don't even know who she was in these times."
Diana sighed and took up the glass to sip from it.
"Sun and lightning, both, the awful glory of power used on the meekest of us wantonly. That was terror beyond terror, and I knew, then, that our fight to survive would be difficult. There were no sure targets in that melee and if it was I who brought my brother low..."
She trailed off grimacing and staring into the mead.
"It would have been just the same, Artemis... Diana... you loved your twin and all of us were overjoyed at the dance of the sun and moon between you. He could illuminate you, no end but you... ahhh..." he smiled as he looked at her, "...my sister, you could and did eclipse him. Those of us who survived we knew that if any could trap out my traveling companion it would be you of the primal fight of life. Your fallen, stripped body at his feet, barely stirring, tears flowing as you looked up to us who had also known that awful lightning... he was going to be cruel to you beyond all imagining."
Her soft eyes glanced over the rim of the glass as she picked it up and took a bare taste of the mead.
"He could not have what I was, Hermes. I was inviolate by who I am and none may strip that from me. I could suffer the great death of other powers, who would trample me in that place I now had no power, no dominion and only my skills to save me. He would not have the death of me on his hands, and let others do his dirty work, those who would see me as mere prey when fallen."
Hermes looked to the side, his jaw clenched and eyes pressed together.
"Then you would be in Hades, true Hell, sent by those who wouldn't take what you are but only your life amongst the living. There you would have nothing in your favor. Dux couldn't defile you, yes," Hermes said shaking his head and turning to look at Diana, "but he would enjoy your final disposition taken by outside horrors and sent to death still inviolate. I knew of his adventures in that sort of realm, beloved sister, and as you grew his lust and frustration also grew and he would make sure that those who didn't care about that rendered you gone from the living."
She raised her eyebrows and nodded, looking at the half-man that was Hermes.
"He wasn't alone in that, as you well know," she said with a smirk.
His countenance changed and he pressed his lips together not to smile and failed.
"What is it you said to me...? I told you that if half a man couldn't please you, then perhaps half a woman could?"
She chuckled and sipped again from her glass, leaning forward, her forearms on the table. Her right hand slipped down to a sheath and a knife appeared in her hand, one of black steel and much use as it now had a glisten of being honed over years from its owner.
"Easy enough to remove half of that, now isn't it?" she said using words she remembered well.
"You little horror, you!" he laughed as he nodded, "A wilderness scamp, wild and free, untamed, untamable and forever moving from a mother's side to nature's nest. I don't think I would have been able to do any pleasing for you then..." he looked at the knife and then the keener eyes just beyond it, "... or now. You have sought me out, beloved sister of forest night, and I doubt that you, of all people, are ready to talk half and half again."
The knife flashed from sight into the sheath once more and she nodded looking at him.
"No, brother of the swift and quick fortune of the counter and between the sheets, I am not here for that, not at all. I come, instead, seeking your help in a venture that I and our fierce brother have started to take on."
The office air grew still.
"You and... Ares?" he whispered in a voice that became sensuously soft and that slid up a full register from tenor.
She lowered her voice to that of a wind's whisper from the lake through the trees.
"You do know he doesn't like the way that you got them out of the river, the boat and evaded fate. Yet if any could reach beyond death to woo bones, find the memory of living and loving flesh imprinted on them, it was you."
Hermes faced away from her, towards his desk, the light now falling on a face gone softer so that no shadows were cast by cheekbones. Skin reddened as Hermes pressed eyelids shut and a shudder went through from shoulders to waist.
"It was..." pulling arms around chest Hermes' head shook and tousled hair slipped down over neck in a way that was most inviting to any with a heart to love.
"I don't want to know, sister," Diana whispered, "Ares described much of it, the defiling of luck and dawn's sweet light... you could only be ruthless like that. I know, sister. And you could make all minds swim when you sought desires. No Aphrodite, you, nor purest male vigor, but seduction sweetly and forcefully, in turn, was ever your way when you sought to find sweet pleasure. Only you could seduce bones, Hermes, but needed both of each man and woman to do it. I do not blame you, sister and brother, for to not wind up in Hades you had to do as you did."
Tears streamed down the cheeks of Hermes who turned to look softly at Diana.
"There was no other way, sister."
"Oh, no, there wasn't. And of all people only you would think to prostitute the living to the dead to the detriment of the dead. I don't really want to know the details of debauchery and the orgiastic joy necessary to bring sentiment and lust to bones, Hermes. What I can offer is to put your skills to use to do something that may finally give each of us a path from our troubles and invite the highest of risks for a reward of a job well done and finally accomplished. I do not need your lusty ways nor your swiftness, but that which saved you in that most dire moment on the Styx. You can do this better than I or our fierce brother, and if you can talk deaths deliverer out of survival and coins, surely you can show the living how to spend well to grace the dead, as well?"
Hermes had taken a kerchief out to dab at eye corners. Two sips of mead to give steadiness and then looking to Diana with a face neither of gauntness nor softness, neither of power or seduction, but something in-between a half-man and half-woman was what came with such words.
"How do... what is the proposition? What do you mean by it?"
Leaning far forward over the table between them, Diana gave the whisper of night and moonlight to her thoughts.
"I am to be midwife not to man, but mankind. I need some help in closing the deal and who better to give birth to eternal culture than the one who makes such culture thrive? If you wish to open the door to escape the curse of dead Gaia upon us, to make all transactions go on forever, then I offer you that pathway for now the time is ripe and so is humanity. Then our fate will belong to us, not to our dead family but to the living humanity. Would you like to dare the greatest of all temptations, Hermes so you can stride into the land of death with head held high by giving grace to all around us? I need you, beloved one, for that."
Hermes looked puzzled and then stared deeply into blue eyes that promised the eclipse of forever.
"And if I don't?" was the barest whisper of a paper note falling on carpeted floor.
"Then, if thwarted at every turn, I will empty Hades, Hell, and all other dominions to deliver the gift and be cursed throughout all eternity. The gift is worth giving one way or another, and I would prefer the gentle delivery and survival of mother and child, rather than require the Caesar and possibly lose the mother. My will be felt, the gift given, and its boon bestowed. It must be done, now, before we see darkness close on us for centuries of added misery to no good end."
That shook Hermes as this was a promise, not a threat, and it put a mighty decision for the future of mankind on the shoulders of one who was not just commercial but part of commerce itself.
"You have the means?"
Diana smiled and leaned back, letting the quiver comfort her back against the chair.
"Oh, yes. And the stars, they will be our freedom and the guarantee of eternal civilization for those who dare to keep it. Out of Gaia's grasp our lives can be our own, once more, and we can stop being what we are and become what we were meant to be. Even unto death, most sweet, at the end of a good life."
"Sister Artemis... this is... for what I've done... redemption."
Diana shook her head.
"You will reconcile what was necessary with a final, good out come, and be at one as it was meant to be. At one ment. Through that is redemption."
"Atonement, to the dead," Hermes said with the depth of voice of the Wine Dark Sea splashing into a cove.
"For the living, Hermes. Each of us has much to atone for, and the gift we can give will finally be freedom for all who want it, not just for us. With the memories of Grace and Mercy we can do this."
Hermes looked at Diana with softened face once more, yet shadows appearing over cheeks.
"And at the end ask for forgiveness to Aurora and Nike by coming to them with the bounty of success. For that, sister, I would move the cosmos."
"Just move enough of people off of Gaia's body to create the new beginning and let new fate be found is all I am asking. With some work the rest of the cosmos will be moved by our simple acts."
"Tell me what the lever is and I can find where to place it, beloved sister. I will join you in this."
Diana lifted the glass of mead and sipped once more.
"It will be placed in Arizona, the point of contact will be New Mexico. The world will follow."
"What is she still doing here?" Regina asked in a less than temperate tone. She was stalking around the office space while Hermes sat at the desk. For the night she had chosen a red velour and black satin outfit with her hair pulled back into a ponytail. He was once more in pastels, a green shirt, white jacket and red pants, with black wingtip shoes polished so as to glisten off the light on their favorite spot on his desk. As she paced she looked at him leaning back in his chair with a couple of video monitors on off to the side.
"Diana, you mean?"
"YES!!" she nearly screamed, but didn't, "What the hell is she doing here, Herman? She is bad for business!"
He arched an eyebrow and used the trackpad on the pullout writing surface of the old desk to re-awaken the screen just inches beyond his shoes.
"How can you tell, dear? The Friday night pull was actuall pretty good, considering the problems the night before. Slightly older clientele, too, and some harder core members of various organizations showing up. Really, they wanted to see the new girl in town and she made sure that any blood spilled was done in alleyways or under bridges. Or off of them, although I didn't ask. No one should have taken her up for a confrontation in a park, really. She loves the outdoors and while our parks aren't real outdoors, they are good enough for her. So far the take tonight is very good, a strong mix for so early, and while she obviously isn't taking up anyone on propositions," he eyed the monitor that was getting the feed from over the bar, "she hasn't put any problems into the front of the house. In fact there is a higher cost per drink of those standing near her than is normal for any other group that frequents here, save those high rollers from overseas. It's a wash, Regina. The band isn't the best but other attractions are keeping things moving."
Regina picked up her drink, of a violet color in a snifter, and took a tight sip of it and then put it down on the table near the middle of the room.
"She's scared regulars away!"
Hermes raised his eyebrows as his gaze moved from the monitor to Regina.
"Gang members, you mean?"
"Yes," she hissed, "they know that this is no one's turf. In two nights she has made it clear that it is someone's and not a gang's, either."
Pressing back a smile Hermes nodded his head forward, slightly and in a soft tone said, "She doesn't claim it, Regina, just the right to pass through here unmolested. They tried to test her, and she found them wanting. That poor slip of a girl down there has buried their pretensions and, possibly, a few body parts with them. Who can they go to? When you offer violence, and are given the choice of how many to use, and all she asked for was place... well... her will was done. They lost their tests, perhaps a few of them lost more, yet they can't complain about what they asked for."
Regina stalked towards the sofa and turned to look at Hermes.
"What did she do? They can't be afraid of her!"
"Why not? You are."
Regina's eyes widened and she stalked back over to the desk.
"I am NOT afraid of HER."
Opening a desk drawer Hermes took out a folder and put it on the desk next to his shoes on the blotter paper that covered the work area of his desk.
"There you go, Regina. You'll have a chance to prove that. The place will be yours next week. You and Frederico, both," he said nodding to the monitor that showed the bar and its amiable bartender.
"What?" Regina asked softly picking up the folder. As she opened it the first two pages confirmed the transaction, giving ownership of Club Viceroy to her and Frederico, their third partner. It wasn't even a buy-out but a quitting of the investment which had actually appreciated in the five years the Club had been around.
Raising eyebrows, Hermes said, "Keep going."
A glossy page showed white and blue with black and red on the cover, there was a sweeping logo on it and a picture of the curvature of the Earth taken from high altitude. Then came pages of figures, charts, costs, all linked to altitude, speed, payload, overhead and maintenance costs, and deltas on income necessary to fund the venture.
"Herman... what... I don't understand."
Shifting feet from the desk Hermes slid forward and shifted the monitor of his computer so that Regina could see it.
"I got busy after the meeting Thursday night with Diana. Had a lot of phone calls to make, often to places where I hadn't been in contact for a decade. You do remember that I did other things before coming here, right?"
She turned and sat in the chair trying to puzzle out just what all these graphs and figures actually meant.
"Of course, yes," she said politely not saying that she had forgotten that he had done more than just be an investor in clubs, "race cars, right?"
"For awhile, yes. Race planes, as well. I did some time with competition jet flying when that was a minor rage. Then just sought speed in the air, the ground, on water, under it... I have trophies packed up somewhere, ribbons, medals and the such, plus leftover money that I then used after liquidating my vehicles. Then it was time for something different and this sort of club has always appealed to me."
Getting to spreadsheet pages of figures she started placing those on the desk, partially on the blotter paper and mostly over the edge of the desk near her seat. She had hated this part of management of the club, the financials of how to figure out cost per drink with overhead included, what the cost was of the actual square footage of the establishment, per floor. She had been tutored to examine what the actual cost of running something like a service station was as compared to a bar, restaurant, night club, and then compared that to warehouse space. Each of these were within blocks of their current position and she came to understand that it wasn't just location, location, location, but what it was you wanted to do at that location, as well.
Club Viceroy was not near other establishments, not on a 'strip' of clubs, but just in a more rundown area of old warehouse space and some family eateries. In five years there were now connecting clubs to the local 'strip' and a few of the westerly clubs had decided to reopen on the east side of the strip due to cost and renovation being lower than overhead and maintenance of their prior places. Move four blocks and you get a different income and outgo profile. The numbers showed that. She had hated seeing the community she lived in reduced to numbers.
"I know, Herman. When we had met at Caveccio's I was... god that feels like a lifetime ago! I was a pretty nasty bitch, then, wasn't I?" she asked looking up at Hermes who smiled.
"You were and are beautiful, Regina, and you knew these people, these buildings and if I had problems with how you lived your life, I would have said so. You are brash, young, enthusiastic, sexy and can actually add 2 + 2 and not come out with something other than 4. And, I would say that you were as adaptable as I had hoped in the bedroom, as well."
Regina blushed as she had been floored by the nature of Herman. He was truly of both man and woman and this had shocked her sensibilities and, at the same time, brought her to love who he was even when he was as soft and tender as any woman she had known. She shook her head as the upwelling of her emotions were powerful towards this person who was neither, and both, and all together someone totally different than any other person around. She took a tissue from the pastel blue box on the desk and dabbed at her eyes.
"Then... why leave? I'm just a rich kid slumming it, and making out like I'm not. I hated that life I had, Herman. I didn't care what mom and dad left me, I just wanted to leave them and make my own life."
Hermes smiled and leaned forward, shifting his voice upregister if down in volume.
"So you did, Regina. You didn't care about the money, but you were willing to learn how to manage it, weren't you? Now you have something to show for it, a life's dream fulfilled. Do you know how rare that is for anyone?"
Pressing her lips together she shook her head from side to side, trying to deny the words and the truth of them.
"But it was... I couldn't know what I wanted. Not without you. I know I would have ended up an addict, broke, and maybe dead if I hadn't met you, Herman. I owe my life to you."
"No, Regina, that is owed to yourself to lead a good one," he moved a hand to cover one of hers that was clenched on the sheets of numbers, "and if there is a chance for a dream to be fulfilled, I will follow it. I cannot deny her a dream of hers and, now that I've seen it, of mine as well. She is family to me, a sister in many ways, and she came with no threats but a plea for help. Do you think I will turn my back on her?" a simple nod of the forehead to the monitor showed Diana laughing with the bartender and a small circle of onlookers in varied garb still gave her space but drew closer over time, attracted to who she was more than they feared what she could do. These had heard the first stories, and then the second, and knew simple justice meted out simply, and that was a greater light than any flame was to any moth.
Regina bit her lower lip and looked at the monitor and then to Hermes, he was gazing softly at her. She felt a knot inside her stomach relax and now had to fight back just bawling and pure tears.
"No, you won't," she said dabbing at her eyes again.
"Thank you, Regina. We will be gone by Tuesday as there are some legal documents to sign yet."
She looked back to the screen, then the computer screen and then the papers which had tear drops on them. Squinting through her tears she felt something, a warmth, building. These, too, were just numbers. And now she knew that like those of any business, they had lives attached to them. It was only when she looked at the columns and saw that the numbers were three decimal places higher than the club did she begin to realize the scope and magnitude of what they meant.
"Oh, my...." inhaling her eyes widened and she shifted to clutch the hand that was over hers.
"Yes, you do understand, now. I owe fealty to her in many ways, and to two other members of my family, as well, Regina. Tragedy saved us, tragedy took us apart and now it is time to end the cycle of tragedy and come together again. I will do that as she," with a slight incline to the camera featuring Diana obviously telling a story not just to the bartender but to a press of people nearby, "is not telling but asking."
Regina looked at the monitor screen that covered the bar and saw people enthralled with that young woman, old girl, whatever she was she was beautiful in a very dark way that was not evil but sensuous as mist at night.
"I... Herman... I want to be part of your family."
Hermes blinked and inhaled.
"Lets give this to Frederico, we both trust him. You know he will try to pay us back? I want him to know its OK if he doesn't."
"But, Regina, this is your life's work here..." Hermes said the softness in the voice sliding down register as he spoke.
"I... these numbers... Herman... someone is building something and it is getting you to come to it. I... want to be there with you. I love you."
Hermes nodded slowly.
"I love you. From the day we met. You don't even know what it is we are going to do."
Regina smiled and leaned forward over the desk to kiss him. To kiss her.
"I do. It's the future. This is the past. I need to let go of this past, Herman. And build a new life with you, as your wife."
Pressing lips together, Hermes smiled.
"Apparently we will need to stop in Las Vegas on the way to Arizona."
"Arizona?" she asked in the barest of fearful whispers.
"That is where the future starts, beloved Regina. And perhaps we will have a first family togther. And, maybe, a second as well."
The firelight danced in the pit as the two faces looked at it from just beyond the stones that contained it. High clouds scudded across the sky giving a moonlit glow to the landscape below them. A shift inside one of the two tents could be heard and the one face turned to look in that direction.
"He really is tired," she whispered.
Glowing in reflected moonlight for a moment the other face nodded, pale forearm reaching out to grab the mug set next to the pit to sip from it.
"Well he did want to do the driving today. I was more than happy to do that, but he swore he could shave a day off our arrival... after the two of you spent three days in Vegas."
Regina grinned and turned to Diana, face smiling as she also picked up a mug from out of the darkness next to the stones of the pit.
"I was surprised you didn't want to come with us, Diana. You could have certainly found something to do..."
Red and golden flames lept with a crackle and pop from one of the logs in the fire, which then shifted slightly with a soft blue jet that went crimson once more.
Sighing Diana looked at Regina and pressed her lips together.
"I really can't take much of cities, Regina. I can tolerate them for a time, even find a bit of solace in company, but after a few days I must get out."
Puzzled Regina shifted her daypack a bit closer to Diana and they sat nearly side by side. In the gathering cold of mountain night, Regina needed the mug of hot chocolate to help keep her warm under layers of clothing. She looked at Diana who had on only her boots, jeans and her buckskin vest and marveled at how anyone could tolerate such cold temperatures so easily.
"I...Diana... I've heard a bit about your growing up close to each other, from both of you, but its... references and hints. Could you tell me a bit more...?"
Diana stared into the fire for a moment, reflections of it playing on her face with moonlight. Slowly she nodded, and continued to gaze into the fire.
"Our family did not start well, Regina. Our father, who we came to see as a fellow brother, and his siblings had been terrorized by their father and held in prison. Only the youngest of them, our father, had escaped and he had to return to free the rest of his family. He did so and with the children he would have he treated them kindly and as equals. Although we did not go through his travails, they cast a shadow on us through our time together."
Regina adjusted herself and looked at the face of Diana, cold and warm light both playing over it and her black hair slowly joining into the blackness of night around them.
"That sounds awful! Why didn't anyone do anything about that?"
Diana grimaced for a second and then closed her eyes.
"They were in solitude and ruled by their elders. No one could step in directly, and only my grandmother sought to protect the youngest child. He would save his two brothers and sisters, and they would be welcoming to their children as well. Together we made contact with civilization, and helped each other through much trouble. To us it became second nature to consider even our parents as brothers and sisters, although older ones, even when they were merely cousins."
Nodding Regina sipped her hot chocolate, looking into the fire as well.
"That was a good time for you, growing up, wasn't it?"
"Oh, my, yes!" Diana said smiling, "It was a good time. Yet our father could not keep to being with his wife... he sought other companionship and didn't even bother to tell her or any of us on some of those escapades. His wife would finally not put up with this, and his secretive ways were becoming apparent to us all. We gathered with his wife to have him seek to mend his ways..."
She trailed off and hugged her knees up so that her face could look over them, her arms wrapped around her legs.
"He didn't like it, did he?" Regina asked.
"No. His rage was... epic. This greatest of benefactors to us would not, in the end, keep to his word. He saw us as betraying him, and there is cause to that grievance, as well. He who had saved his brothers and sisters, welcomed in their children, now saw us as ungrateful to him. His raged consumed him and many of us, as well. Those few of us who could escape, to warn or to seek to get back to save any others... were chased down. That is a source of deep unpleasantness for each of us, Regina. We were each left to die, often in most horrible of circumstances."
A soft whisper of wind sighed over the rocks on the ridge and the flames danced lightly with it.
"What did you do when you...?"
"Survived?" Diana finished for her.
"For me survival meant being left to the fate of horrible strangers, alone, unarmed. The bindings he used could not hold me, and even naked in the wilderness, all that I had learned allowed me to no longer be naked, but merely nude and armed. By the time I dealt with those seeking me out, and checked on the whereabouts of my most distant cousins, all gone, I then returned to that place where we had lived and found it to be ashes. My father's clothes were likewise burnt. His rage, finally, devoured him. And the fate of any survivors was unknown to me. That is what we faced, with my brother," she said looking to the tent and smiling, "having tried to save my twin brother after I had been toppled down a mountainside. It was not to be, the wounds were fatal. I didn't know that until just recently, and have no end of thanks for what he did."
"I... Diana... that's horrible. How many did he kill? Why haven't I heard about this?"
Diana turned and slowly unclasped her legs, her knees moving downwards so as to sit cross-legged, her knee now touching Regina's leg. Regina looked into Diana's face, aglow on one side with fire and the other with moonlight and found herself looking into blue eyes that somehow belonged to the night.
"It didn't happen in a very civilized place, Regina, and no one would credulously believe the reports as our family didn't exactly live with normal records. And, truly, no justice could be served with the one who caused it dead."
"But... but... so horrible..." Regina said shifting her mug to her left hand to reach out with her right to Diana's shoulder. Diana shifted her head and rubbed her cheek over the back of her hand, softness and warmth, both felt amidst the chill air.
"Yes, it was," Diana said softly, putting down her mug and putting her right hand over Regina's, "which is why he won't speak of it to you."
Regina shifted her hand to clasp Diana's and felt how assuring such slim, strong fingers could be.
"I don't... didn't... like you very much, Diana. You've changed my life. I didn't want it changed."
Nodding, Diana put her mug aside on the rocks near the fire pit and stood up.
"Walk with me?" she asked with the moon beaming down just over her left shoulder, clouds sliding over its face.
Regina put her mug down and slid her legs from the blanket to stand with Diana. Together, hand in hand, Diana stepped past her bedroll and out onto a trail on the ridge.
"This is sacred land, you know?" Diana asked.
Regina had to step carefully, picking her way slowly with Diana amongst the small rocks and few bushes along the trail.
"Yes, I know, that's why we had to leave the Suburban down there, a couple of miles back," she said unable to really gesture to the north and west.
Smiling Diana walked slowly to make sure her companion could find the main path while she walked next to it.
"This is a final gathering place before ceremonies take place. Here we turn a bit to the right."
Together they stepped out to a small platform looking to the south and west.
"That mountain, there, on the west against the stars, is a special place to the natives. Not a place of spirits, but a living land. You can feel it here, over the land below us, and bask in its warmth."
Regina looked to the west and could see a mountain highlighted against stars and a soft glow further to the south beyond it. She inhaled the night air and felt that it was not cold where they were. Her right hand squeezed Diana's left and they both stood looking out to that mountain.
"There is more change coming, Regina, you know that now."
Regina inhaled and got a faint smell of spices and dust, of a far off land now very close.
"Yes," she whispered shivering not at cold but at some unseen beauty.
"I am no enemy of yours, Regina."
Biting her lower lip Regina nodded.
"I know," she barely whispered.
Slowly Diana turned to look at Regina who stared out over the landscape.
"He is fertile, you know?"
Regina sucked in her lips and nodded.
"Yes, he told me."
Diana took a half step towards Regina and whispered softly to her.
"You know his ways, a third is needed."
Regina turned to look at Diana, just a bit shorter than she was and yet not really a girl.
Tears welled up in Regina's eyes, and she closed them, shivering now at a future arriving faster than she had ever wanted. Slowly hands released and she was leaning into the embrace of her companion, that pressed them close.
"It isn't a division between you, it is never that. Find another man who can love you both and you will be fulfilled. That must be someone special, Regina, as you both must love him, as well."
Regina could not stop the tears and felt as she finally relaxed inside at the fear of this. Sex was one thing and love with commitment another. She didn't know if she was strong enough for that and felt something give within her that had been there for years, perhaps her whole life. To stop from collapsing she embraced Diana who stepped to her and embraced her as well. She felt the soft warm cheek against hers, a hand cradling her head and embrace shift so that all of her weight was supported by this not girl and not woman.
"Shhhh.... " Diana let out softly as she held Regina standing, "To love him, fully, you must also love yourself in that understanding way accepting who you are. Once you do..."
Shaking and gasping Regina felt as if she held on for life itself, and felt life tenaciously holding on to her in return.
"...you will know that you are loved and beloved and worthy of such love. It is a fearful step to take."
Regina pressed her eyes together and inhaled of dust and spice with wine dark sea by moonlight.
"Please...." she whispered as she became intoxicated as she felt Diana's arms slowly move to shift so they could look face to face, eye to eye.
"This is a sacred place, Regina. Now you know why."
Blinking back tears Regina stared into Diana's eyes under moonlight and felt the warmth of the land flow into her own body, through her, and felt how warm Diana was as well.
"Shhhhh.... no need to speak of it..." Diana whispered, her warm breath teasing over Regina's lips.
With a softest touching of lips, she knew that she could stand herself, even love herself because she knew she was not alone anymore as she allowed herself to feel good about who she was. For the first time in her life.
Mason Newcomb stepped out of the rental car that the Diamond Oversight, Guidance, Integration and Support Company had rented for them. It was a four door dark blue sedan from one of the low cost South Korean manufacturers that was making headway in the US market and readily available from rental companies. He was joined by Brent Kelly, one of the main design outreach and support teams in the DOGIS project stand-up group, and Tamara Sinclair from the integration branch for project oversight. Mason was from the purely administration branch which supplied leaders to projects and allowed for the ability to draw on other functional members within DOGIS and throughout the contractors and sub-contractors they worked with. DOGIS was neither fish nor fowl in the regards of projects as it served as prime contractor with many sub-contractors through their home-bred missions and as sub-contract lead or integration specialist for larger prime contractors in both the defense and civilian realms.
The origins of DOGIS started in the late 1970's with the plethora of complex systems requirements coming out of DoD which was overwhelming the Mars Technology Trust as the Trust Board could not keep up with the ever increasing numbers of layers of contracts, contractors and sub-contractors that these systems required. By 1985 Diversified Consolidated Properties stepped in via its Board and incorporated MTT into the larger DCP system, which streamlined cost and decision-making within the larger trust system, and fully backed DOGIS as the organization that would be the key cross-operational company for troubleshooting, administration and new venture spin-up. In an era of government streamlining starting in the late 1990's and larger utilization of contracts for logistics and supply support, DOGIS had become a key go-to not just for DCP/MTT but for other companies that had ideas that required the type and depth of support across various industries that DOGIS could supply. Amongst the many areas that they did support, aerospace was a key one not just for DoD and the federal NASA system, but Europe and marketing of up and coming systems from Russia, India, China and Japan. This was a part of the DOGIS portfolio of contacts and contracts, and while it was rarely the prime contractor in any of these contract vehicles, it did often serve in administration or logistics supply-chain support roles which enhanced its reputation within that small community of players that did such work.
In less than three days the DOGIS leadership team had spun up cost analysis, design oversight and potential milestone problems within the Ascentech plan, which then had the first spear-point team ready to send out to the organization to scope out its actual personalities and infrastructure. Putting names, faces and places into perspective was often far more beneficial to running a contract or part of it than knowing the technical details and exchanging e-mails, conference calls or Skype conferences. DOGIS utilized all of those, as did DCP/MTT, but the requirement for physical, face-to-face contacts and assesment meant that DOGIS personnel were ready within hours to go to any place on the planet from the Congo Delta or Amazonian rainforest all the way to Nepal or the Empty Quarter. DOGIS had less than 100 people in it and at any one time at least 20% of them were on the road, which was a draw-down from 35% in 1999. The hope was to make road-trips become less than 10% of overall time management overhead within another decade if the advanced projects organizations couldn't come up with some form of mass teleportation system that worked and was cheap and reliable. Of all things DOGIS wanted it was efficiency and it often was willing to back small projects that promised world changing rewards because the increased cost efficiency in the future would outweigh the relatively modest cost investment in the present.
"It doesn't look like a hare-brained scheme, at least," Brent said, straightening out his pinstriped suitcoat which was lightweight and chosen specificially for Arizona late spring conditions.
Tamara nodded coming out the passenger-side door and stood next to the two men surveying the painted cinderblock and sheet steel building that had a simple Ascentech logo over the entrance door which was next to a much larger loading dock door.
"They bought the entire thing, right?" she asked.
Mason took out his cellphone and smiled.
"Yes, they did, two years ago after a furniture distributor went belly-up. They did a key-cash exchange, got the residual furniture, all the space and used the remains of inventory they couldn't use to help fund day-to-day expenses. Thrifty."
"Shoe-string," Brent said looking at Mason who had on a dark green blazer with grey pants suit arrangement.
The three looked at each other and Mason nodded, putting the cellphone away. "We are early, but by the looks of it Mr. Culpepper is here, already. So no reason not to get down to business. As we agreed I want you, Brent," he said looking at Brent, "to dig into the design plans for the ALV II and III systems as our HA group has some better modeling systems and want a major redesign starting at least with the III system and can be tested on the II system. You're also the Desert Rats coordinator here."
"Right," Brent said patting the small briefcase that held his nettop and notes, "we need a conference call ASAP to get Alice's team ready for changes and to get their operational insight into the vagaries of this style of system. It isn't unknown, but their approach is novel."
Mason turned to Tamara, "And Tamara you are the one to smooth over the ruffled feathers, rough edges and help to make sure that we don't become the Ascentech team, just its major support arm. This is their baby, we are just here to make sure it gets on-track and on-schedule. You will also be the lead to help assure the major investors, Mr. Kaplan and Miss Sherwood, that their investments will be secured."
She smiled with her dark brown hair losing some of its natural curl in the dry and building heat of the Arizona sun. Of the three she had the most practical clothing of a white dress that went below her knees, which served as a beacon in the sunlight and yet afforded some heat retention in over air conditioned offices.
"I'm the pretty face of DOGIS," she said with a smile, "making sure everyone gets along and that everyone gets mollified."
Brent looked at her and nodded.
"And you do it well, Tamara, I was with you on that initial interceptor site placement in Poland two years ago, and remember the parties you held there. Just where did you get all the vodka, though?"
She smiled and winked.
"Trade secret with our rocketry group."
"And that leaves me, I'm the guy everyone points to as the PITA. My main worry is Mr. Culpepper, though."
"Really? Why's that?" Tamara asked.
"You know John Dannaher?"
"President of the MTT Oversight Board."
"Chief Appointed Executive by the trust holders is his full title," Mason said, "he was appointed by Mr. Culpepper. And the rumor has it that Mr. Culpepper, through intermediaries, runs DCP as well."
Tamara's lips formed an 'O' and her eyes widened.
"You mean..." Brent started.
"Yes. He is our boss. Our paymaster too, if it comes to that. The darker rumors is that he is also appointed by someone else, as these trusts have moved around and changed names and structure a few times. No one knows who Mr. Culpepper is or who he answers to, and he is strictly 'hands-off' on day-to-day operations. I don't know who his 'cousin', Diana Sherwood is, but she holds a position with another trust vehicle, as well."
"Ahhh...." Tamara said, "someone is behind all this, then?"
"It is speculation, only. No one can pin down anything, exactly, just that neither of them have a deep background, both have spotless records, and they may not be representing themselves but someone else."
"Strange sort of conspiracy to want to get cheap spaceflight, isn't it?"
Mason inhaled and chuckled.
"Think about it, Brent. If getting to orbit costs the same as a new car, just how would that change not just the US economy but the global economy?"
"Not just for tourism..." Tamara said glancing up into the sky, "... but for everything."
Mason nodded looking at each of them.
"This is important, I can feel that. I've run the numbers and they have been available publicly for decades from Princeton. Get the price per pound in orbit under $1,000 and the rest of the solar system becomes available. Get it to $100 per pound and things alter radically. Where we are at with $10,000 per pound it is only a big player's game... the lower the cost the more players you get and the market then starts to work its magic."
"So, this is the ground floor for that? The starting point?" Brent asked.
Mason shook his head.
"No. This is the place where the ceiling collapses and how we think about things then will have to adapt to a new reality."
"Mmmmm..." Tamara said looking at Mason, "... I like that kind of shadowy figure. A lot."
Mason turned from them to look at the building.
"Come on, we have jobs to do and that may be done under the scrutiny of the man who pays us. I will not let him down, here, since he may be changing the world."
Ray Kaplan sat next to Ares watching the vehicle report screens in the main confernce room of Ascentech. With them were Alice, Harry, Diana, and the cousin Herman Lassiter who was with Regina. The rest of the company was at work in getting the telemetry data and tracking data and ensuring that a live feed transitioned from ground stations to satellites. As this was a test vehicle various commercial and governmental organizations made a limited amount of bandwidth available to Ascentech for their test flights. Everyone knew that limited bandwidth wouldn't last, save for some spare bandwidth just for tracking on the TDRIS systems put up by NASA decades ago, which served as a continuous communications system for live vehicle tracking.
The monitor had shown the tops of clouds and light blue for hours, nearly a day, but now the curvature of the Earth was clearly visible and the blue had darkened to black, above.
"ALV-I is now at primary transition at 8 miles, speed is nominal at 605 knots, drag diminishing. First sustained burn begins in 3 minutes."
"That is the moment we have been waiting for," Alice said looking at the others seated at the table.
Hermes arched an eyebrow at her and nodded.
"Still it is a prototype," he said, "and the DOGIS people are indicating that the ALV II will be substantially different from this vehicle."
In the last two weeks the DOGIS people had both shaken up and reinforced Ascentech with not just criticism but expansion of mission design capability with targeted technology insertion to bolster the mission. Mason Newcomb had led a group of three people to gather data about the overall projects for Ascentech and started farming out systems specifications and design work to other groups both within the Trust and to local firms to support consumables and design components that could be done at a lower cost and higher standard.
DOGIS could farm out pieces to large avionics firms, professional aerospace manufacturers and yet still find good, solid small companies and indivduals that would have a high long-term impact that were local in nature. As the organization had supported the stand-up of everything from small arms components deliveries to large scale industrial support for military operations, they had a wealth of contacts that allowed them to leverage competence at all levels of design, manufacturing, integration and delivery. Some of their first contacts were local machinists who normally specialized in such things as motorcycle fabrication, high temperature pneumatics machining and a few of the local 'Desert Rats' that knew the old aircraft and other vehicle graveyards that dotted the desert southwest and had contacts far beyond that.
"They are an overwhelming group for so few people," Alice said as she was both impressed at the competence they brought and distraught that so many of the things she had thought were good ideas were being shelved and replaced for expedient spiral design test R&D. She had not been overlooked, and she knew that by the long hours of design discussions and systems work that were required to get the ALV II out of piecemeal fabrication and into component delivery, layout and stand-up. Even after the ALV I was fully tested out and given the go-ahead, the ALV II frame and structural components were showing up along with the massive semi-dirigible cells that were coming from companies that normally supported blimps and aerostats. Without DOGIS the ALV II was a year down the timeline for milestones, now it was weeks away.
Meanwhile Desert Rats were sending in gimbal thruster housings, often with thrust nozzles still in them, which had come from a variety of sources from as close as a few miles down the street at an Army/Navy surplus store to as far away a little outpost in a place called Moosejaw. Most of it was from the US but some parts were just appearing out of Mexico and Canada and even further afield. Alice would never have thought of using such people, but Mr. Culpepper did and DOGIS just added them in as another source with a finder's fee instead of paid consultancy, plus rewards for timeliness. What others would consider the junk of the aerospace industry was now becoming the lost treasure of a small start-up company.
"They are competent, Alice," Ray said looking over to her, "and they are leaving a lot in place. As a start-up we can't have the type and breadth of knowledge that is necessary to appreciate the scope of what we need. And if you've looked at the proposed org charts from DOGIS each of the original team members will be asked to do more and coordinate more, not be edged out. I take Mr. Culpepper at his word that they don't want to own Ascentech, just lay out the basis for its success."
Hermes leaned forward as the seconds counted down.
"Just a few more..." he whispered.
"Primary altitude for boost test is reached. There is four port thrust now online. Speed moving to 620 knots, increasing."
"Herman, its been such a rush," Regina said, "just for this?"
He looked to her as she gazed at him. It was unusual to see her in regular business attire, and he thought the light grey and blue pantsuit were well suited to her.
"This is the critical test for altitude and speed. If this proves out the next test vehicle will be the one to start a real cash flow. Just like at Viceroy, remember? The three of us invested much time and money into it, renovating it, and it still wasn't finished when we opened that first night with plastic sheeting still across the back area and main booth area. We needed something to start showing for our labor and it made all the difference. People paid good money to sit at rented tables, drink and listen to an acoustic band."
She smiled and looked at the others watching the screen with people talking about telemetry readings and ballast allocation. It was all foreign to her, save for the high tech parts involving the outer cameras, which showed an Earth of mostly white and blue with brown and green peaking out between them.
"I remember that, it was a total mess!"
"And you loved every moment of it, too. This is much the same, but we need to convince customers that there is something here even with a lot of sheeting and dust settling between workdays."
"It's insane, Herman. You aren't this type of... well..." she stole a glance at Ares who was just beyond Herman and then at Diana on the other side of the table from him, "... you know, you have got a weird family?"
He chuckled and Ares turned his head slightly to glance at Regina and suppressed a smile.
"Of course I do, Regina. And I told you I did some race flying and other things before deciding on a club, and this sort of thing is just a merging of the two. Plus Aaron has a way of looking at things that is, quiet truthfully, different until you think about it. Providing a burial service for the cremated who wish to have their ashes scattered over an ocean or to the four winds... and doing it from sub-orbit is pure genius. If there is one industry I can name that has the type of handy money floating around in it to pay for the service, it is the funeral industry. For a couple of thousand dollars one can have their remains spread far and wide. That takes out problems of pollution cited in some faiths, and individuals can plan final rights for a time window that is certain and know that their beloved have gotten their final disposal wishes done."
"It's just... gruesome."
Ray spoke up from behind her.
"It is sanitary, Miss Sackett, and will only involve those wishing for such disposal. At even a 1% cremation disposal market capture, that will be a significant number of disposals and require a fast ramping up of our sub-orbital delivery capability."
Ares was back to looking at the screen and spoke up.
"Plus that makes Ascentech a reliable service name and brand. Others will try to catch up or catch on, but regular, timed and assured delivery will build confidence to move to the secondary vehicle delivery systems, which will be a huge undertaking."
"Just like the club," Hermes said as he sat back to watch the screen, "first two weeks to get a name, then add in more service, more reason to come and then turn on the switch after the dining area is fully known. Add in the dance hall and then we started to see real cash flow. But we couldn't do that just waiting."
"ALV-I is completed with thruster test. All systems are nominal. Altitude is at 9.2 miles. Speed is 815 knots relative, 1635 knots nominal absolute. Drop of test load will be in two minutes. Recording systems start on my mark. Mark. Automated routine for drop is initiated and sequencing."
Ares watched as the cameras on the wings pointing inwards flashed on. The underside of the vehicle was opening and the film composite material showed ripples at the fast moving, thin air going over it.
"Doors are open, speed dropping to 805 knots. Sequence proceeding. Load descending."
Below the doors a large cylinder that had been painted white was festooned with stickers from local shops, of which one of the scrap yards had the largest of those stickers.
"That will be the first DeSoto dropped from that altitude," Ray said.
"We have all clear for this region of the Pacific. Load drop in 3... 2... 1... Drop."
The large piece of piping dropped away and the altimiter registered a leap upwards as it did so.
"That was nearly an 800 foot rise. Impressive."
The doors closed on the screen and the video flashed to a camera mounted on the closed pipe cylinder. At first the image was relatively steady but then the horizon started to climb over the camera and it was upside-down. The rotation continued one more time and then the outer tubing flew away into four parts leaving the DeSoto hurtling down towards the Pacific Ocean with its lights flashing and music blaring out of the stereo system, if there was anyone to hear it. The last images the camera showed as it tumbled away was that of the hood coming off the vehicle.
"All sequencing is now finished, all delivery systems are retracted and doors closed. ALV-I is aligning itself for forward thruster use in 15 minutes."
Ray stood up and walked over to one of the wine bottles sitting in a silver bowl and opened it, with a soft pop to the cork. The others joined him, taking up glasses of sparkling wine as the tracking telemetry cut off.
"Congratulations," he said, "we are now on the first step of a long trip."
"More than just one trip, at that," Diana said lifting her glass to clink it against those of the others near her, "and the start of a new era for all of us."
"To space," Ares said.
"For us all," Hermes said lifting his glass.
The celebration was muted as there was a lot of hard work to do and tomorrow would see no end in that with the recovery of ALV I.