Working at the front desk of Ascentech was a unique experience for Beth as her only prior experience in clerical work was with a small firm that Ray Kaplan had invested in that went under. In the era of high tech the flood of devices from overseas swamped local start-ups that tried to make a niche for themselves in such things as medical inventory control systems. What looked good on paper in 1999 made for a bankrupt company in 2007, which left Beth working at a local grocery store owned by a local Indian couple who had moved from overseas in the 1980's. In less than a year of doing that, and seeing her eldest son off to college and her eldest daughter now graduating high school, the income from her work at the grocery store and Oliver's job at an auto parts store meant lean times for their youngest son and daughter. When Ray's office phoned that the Ascentech company needed someone as a good front office secretary she was more than glad to accept the position. Now, even in the bad economic times they were in, Beth and Oliver at least had their oldest son graduated from college, their oldest daughter in her last year and the youngest daughter looking for training in machining to create her own small parts custom shop to supply local manufacturing firms with hard to come by supplies. That world of low-end accurate machining also required math and computer skills which their youngest son obviously had as he helped to get some of the basics for that shop stood up.
Ascentech was a very different place to work and she had settled down into the routine for the front office as the company stood up and got investors. The relatively quiet routine with modest deliveries of the first few years were something that led to the expectation of more of that in the out years and a steady job. As a firm Ascentech was in need of new money or it would close its doors and the infusion, early on, that came with Diana Sherwood had meant those years of relatively slow and stable expansion. That silent investor stayed silent until 6 months ago and she brought with her first one family member and then another, and with it a new direction for the company. Gone were quiet afternoons of answering a phone call or making sure that the bills got to Harry on time for payment authorization. Those were bucolic days in one way, and an indication of a failing company in another, as Ray had explained to her when she asked when would things get back to normal.
"This is normal," he said with a smile and that set her back.
A pleasant surprise, at least, was the that the first flights of the ALV I for funerary loads was actually making a dent into their debt. While a $1,500 above overhead per set of remains was not earthshattering, dropping 40 and now 60 in a single flight meant actual income per flight.
And lots of phone calls, tracking packages, especially the funerary remains, labeling, barcoding, making sure that people had paid for the service... the list was nearly endless. That was on top of the new material, fuel deliveries, and her greatest shock of dealing with the Desert Rats, as Mr. Culpepper called them. They weren't an organization, as such, but a community that worked not just alone but in contact with other scavengers not just in the US but globally. Most of their deliveries, thankfully, was by the standard services, but a few of them lived close enough to drive to Ascentech and they arrived without any prior scheduling. It wasn't unusual for a van or pick-up truck to arrive with some character wanting to deliver items and get their payment, and she always had to have someone else who knew what it was they were delivering get on it. She had asked, a number of times, to at least get her messages on what people wanted and when they expected delivery, but that was still lax. Mr. Culpepper had taken that seriously, however, and she now got copies of his emails with various individuals with expected payment amounts. Others were not so mindful of the needs of keeping track of inflow and outgo, however.
Mack Trucks had been around for decades and the one hauling a wind eroded white van trailer was at least 40 years old and looked it. The long-nosed truck pulled up in front of Ascentech and a man hopped out the far side door and he looked as weatherbeaten as his truck. He strode around the vehicle as Beth checked the computer system and saw nothing beyond the expected deliveries. She looked up as the man in red plaid sleeveless shirt, faded jeans, white straw hat and dirty brown boots came into the front office. She looked up at him as he came to the desk and saw that the shirt had a patch on it that simply said 'Ace'.
"How can I help you, sir?" she asked as he stepped up to the desk and took his hat off to reveal a red bandana around dusty brown hair that could have been just about any color, possibly even brown.
"Yes, Ma'am, I'm looking for Mr. Lassiter. I got a load of Inconel junk for him out by the old base he said he wanted to look at."
Which base could have been anyone's guess as the federal government tended to create and then leave infrastructure wherever land was cheap.
"And who should I say is delivering it?" she asked as she tapped at her keyboard to find out just where Herman Lassiter had gotten to.
"Kincaid, Ma'am. Martin Kincaid."
She couldn't find out where Mr. Lassiter was and took the simple expedient of picking up the phone and hitting the button for the phone in the back office where Regina was carving out a space for herself to handle some of the back-end matters of the company.
She looked up at Kincaid as she heard Regina pick up.
"Hello, Regina? Beth here. We have a Mr. Martin Kincaid here with parts that your husband asked to look at."
She smiled up at Kincaid who was looking at a few of the live video feeds showing other parts of the company and one with the latest of the ALV I flights.
"OK, I'll let him know he'll be here in just a minute."
She hung up the phone and looked at Mr. Kincaid.
"Mr. Lassiter will be here in a minute. He's in the rear design area and his wife is getting him for you. Would you like something to drink while you're waiting?"
"Thank you, Ma'am, iced water would be fine."
"I'll get it for you," she said getting up and putting her systems into their secure mode, "it won't take but a moment."
She walked back to the side room and pulled down a glass and went to the front dispenser on the refrigerator first for cubes and then chilled water. As she walked back she could hear voices filtering through from the rear of the building and knew it wouldn't be much longer. Mr. Kincaid was watching the upper atmospheric flight of the ALV I which was depositing a funerary load. There was no sound from any of the feeds and he just shook his head as she approached.
"Here you go, Mr. Kincaid," she said holding the glass out to him, which he took and turned to watch the ALV I feed again.
"Much obliged, Ma'am. I've heard of skydivers having their ashes spread by their fellow divers, but this takes the cake."
Standing next to him she watched as the capsule descended trailing a stream of ashes, the line slowly fading out into the blue of ocean below the craft.
"I didn't think that anyone would want to... go like this..." she said turning to look at him and then head back to her seat at the desk, "... and was surprised at just how many people are willing to do it this way."
Shaking his head from side to side, he smiled.
"Ma'am, if someone seriously wants to give back their ashes to be recycled, this beats everything else. By the time they filter down they will have gathered mites, spider eggs, spores from fungus and all sorts of other things in the air. Add a bit of water and you have pretty much ready made soil additive, but spread out wherever the winds blow. Far better than a stream or lake, where you'll most likely have it end up in a layer of mud not doing much. From miles up you get lots of time to scatter, far better than any skydiving jump. If you want wide dispersal, this is it and nothing will ever beat it."
The rear door swung open as Hermes and Regina walked into the room.
"Ah, you must be Ace!" Hermes said stepping forward to shake Mr. Kincaid's hand.
"In the flesh, Mr. Lassiter. Glad to see you and help out," Mr. Kincaid had set his glass down on Beth's desk and shook Herme's hand.
"And this is my wife Regina," he said, "who has been talking with you about costs."
Martin shook his head, "That's right. I've known about some stuff squirreled away in odd places out there and never got a chance to haul them out. The last load of jet spares I sold you folks helped me to get a heftier winch for my runabout lift and better pneumatics. I didn't want to unpack the stuff to lighten the load and only cracked the crates to make sure I knew what was in them."
Beth watched having a sinking feeling that Ascentech was about to experience another unexpected delivery cost problem.
"And what is it that you found?" she asked.
Martin raised an eyebrow and looked at her.
"Inconel parts. I could get a pretty penny for them from any number of air and space museums, let me tell you."
Beth blinked as she hadn't heard the term before.
She looked at Hermes who looked back at her.
"Just how much are we talking about, Mr. Lassiter?"
Hermes raised his eyebrows.
"Cost, Mrs. Willis? To Ascentech, you mean?"
She nodded, "Yes, Mr. Lassiter. Having some liquidity doesn't mean we are fully solvent yet, you know."
Hermes pressed his lips together and looked at Regina who was beaming at him.
"Aren't you even curious as to what the parts are from?" he asked sweetly.
"Maybe we should show her?" Regina asked and then turned to look at Beth.
Beth inhaled as those two had a language between them that was very non-verbal and yet said volumes. This one was saying, to her at least, 'surprise!' and an unpleasant one at that. This hadn't been the first time she had heard something similar and she steeled herself as she put her systems back to secure mode and stood up.
"It is best to look at what one is going to purchase before you do it, of course," Beth said.
"Good idea," Regina said smiling, "would you care to show us what you have, Mr. Kincaid?"
"I know you can make quite a lot from what you will have left," Hermes said, "I doubt we can purchase all of it."
Ace Kincaid smiled, took up the glass of water and drained it, and set it down on the desk again.
"Don't mind if I do," he said, "follow me."
Beth followed him, trailed by Regina and Hermes, back out to the parkinglot and the rear of the 40' panel van trailer. Ace Kincaid took ahold of one handle to pull himself up to the center latch and used a key to unlock the lock, which he took off and placed in his pocket. A quick jerk on the handle and a lift had the rear door rolling up and out of the way to reveal large wooden crates that were cracked from drying out, all of them with stencil painted markings on them. To the forward part of a van was a vehicle that looked to be part forklift and part ATV, with folding down outrigger legs on each side and the rear of it. Kincaid reached under the lip and extended a long loading ramp behind the truck and down to the pavement.
"Wait a moment, let me get the runabout going so I can pull the pieces I was asked for out first."
Walking into the interior of the truck he got into the vehicle in the rear and started backing it out to the ramp and then went forward to get the forks under a long crate that he then slowly backed down the ramp. The wood was dirty, grimy and had a smell of dust to it, and a small cloud of dust that went with it into the air as it slid down the ramp. Soon it was on the ground, about 10' long and 2' high. Kincaid stopped the vehicle and took a wrecking bar from a side tool mount and went forward to the edge of the crate.
"I've opened it once just to confirm it. Still its old wood and bound to have warped some."
He worked his way around the box and pried at major points at the corners and along the longest part of the crate. Work gloves magically appeared from his pockets and he lifted up the top of the crate in a cloud of grey and red dust. As Beth walked away from that cloud she had a difficult time discerning what it was she was seeing, save that it was long, curved and black.
"There you go! Fresh from the field. They sprayed something on it to preserve it in there. Comes off easy with mineral spirits and the like. You can even burn it off."
Beth knelt down to look at the black metal with some markings on it and still couldn't figure out what it was.
"There are four sections to the replacement fuselage," Hermes said smiling down at the long piece in the crate.
"That's right, Mr. Lassiter, sectional replacement for damage or wear. I have a total of six of them, two underbelly dupes."
Regina had her tablet out and was tapping at its surface.
"Six? I thought you said there were only two there," she said.
"That is what I thought, Mrs. Lassiter. Those two were the dupes, I couldn't see along the back wall where an entire set was resting.
Hermes knelt down next to Beth and ran his hand over the surface of the coated metal.
"Lovely, isn't it?" he asked softly.
"It is... stark, at least, Mr. Lassiter," she said standing up, "but what is it?"
"Ma'am, these are X-15 spares from the original design before they lengthened it," Ace said looking at her, "and I can name five aircraft museums that would pay at least 5 figures for it."
Looking at the piece in the crate and then back into the truck, Beth started to think what all of those crates meant. And the cost implied in them.
"Couldn't find a nosepiece for love nor money," Ace said, "a few stabilizers for wings, and the real prize is a detachable tail. Its beat up as it actually went up and its beat half to hell and gone, but that will only raise the cost for it. History and all that shit."
"We don't..." Beth started, "... have the kind of money for this..."
"Of course you don't," Regina said walking over to Hermes.
"But we do," he said standing up and putting his arm around Regina's shoulders.
Beth turned to look at them.
"Yes, us," Regina said.
"Or, more properly, Highflight Spaceways and Transport does. We picked up a set of buildings just a few miles down the road. Really, Ascentech can't do it all, you know. Someone has to get into the real delivery end of things and these Inconel parts will go wonderfully with a new frame to protect the first manned delivery vehicle coming back from space. There are records to break and there should be a line of people willing to pay good money to hold a record for a few weeks or maybe even months, until they stop keeping records for this sort of thing. Between now and then there is money to be made, and Ascentech has its hands full."
Beth was at a loss as this surprise, while pleasant, pointed to something going on which was outside the scope of just Ascentech. She would soon learn about how complementary businesses can fill each others gaps and do things as two organizations that you can't do as one.
"You're going to... what?" Tamara asked.
Across the table from her at Clive's Restaurant was Ares who was holding up a glass of wine to the light, letting the dim overhead light shine through it, reflecting waves over his face. He swirled the glass a moment and then brought it to his lips and took a sip from it, before setting it on the table next to his plate which had the remains of a slice of pecan pie.
"Leaving," he said quietly, looking at her. "My sister asked me here for help, to get a supply system in place for a workable system for Ascentech. That is done and the objective has been achieved."
Tamara blinked and looked puzzled.
"I see..." she said softly, taking her glass up and sipping from it, obviously in thought.
Ares cut at his slice of pie and took up the piece he had cut and chewed it slowly, savoring its taste.
"So you don't... you aren't interested in what we're doing?" she asked after setting her glass down.
He closed his eyes and sat back in his chair as he swallowed and brought the cup of coffee up with his left hand to sip at it.
"I am interested, Tamara, I can't help that because of my sister. We had been out of contact with each other..." he inhaled as he set the cup down and opened his eyes, "...since our family broke apart. I am glad that she got through that, and was glad to see her..."
She nodded as he spoke, taking up a spoonful of berries and ice cream from her dish and then sipping from her glass of wine to wash it down.
"You didn't want to see her again, did you?"
Leaning forward he reached for his glass of wine and took it up again for another sip. A sour expression crossed his face as she said that, and he set the glass down again, his hand trembling slightly as he looked at Tamara.
"No. Thinking her gone, I had adjusted my life to her absence. Her request for me to help her was..." he inhaled and pressed his lips together, still leaning forward as he lowered his voice, "... is one that I couldn't deny her."
She could see that Ares was saying something that meant a lot to him and his relationship with his cousin who was so close as to be a sister. Leaning forward she looked at him trying to understand just what was going on.
"You had before, didn't you?"
Closing his eyes his mouth pressed tight and his right hand formed a fist next to his glass.
"Yes," he barely whispered, "she had warned about... our father... and only when his wife confronted him with all of us to stand with her... Diana had warned us, each of us, all of us long before..."
"It ended badly," she said very softly as she moved her hand across the table to cover his fist.
"Very. Horrifically. She had warned us. His rage consumed his wife, his brothers and sisters, his children, and any who tried to stop him... before it consumed him. If we had listened..."
She could feel the trembling she was seeing, he was seeing some horror that she could never see.
"If she knew what would happen... Aaron... if this is as bad as you say..."
"Worse in ways I can never say..."
"Then she chose to stand with you, knowing what the consequences would be. Is there any greater love?"
His head tilted down, his eyelids pressed hard together.
She could feel the tension in him and the warmth washing through his body as he worked through something. Tamara had been surprised that he had asked her out to dinner. While not standing off from her and the rest of the people around him, he had held somewhat apart from them throughout the weeks she had been working there. He lived out of a solitary motel room, a few miles from Ascentech and she had driven past it a few times and saw that it was not anything like the hotel that DOGIS had put the team in. It was a spartan and somewhat rundown place that he stayed at, with only a few nearby storefronts to supply him with any social life and the basics of living. At the minor parties and celebrations at Ascentech he was always punctual, courteous and then would leave just before they would get into full swing.
Tamara knew she was attracted to him, but he had given no real sign to her of interest. Until today.
"That is something... that is not deserved..." he said in a soft and yet tight tone.
Squeezing his hand she said in a bare whisper, "She thinks you do, Aaron."
He nodded slowly, once, and opened his eyes, some of the tension started to flow away and his hand was no longer clenched into a fist.
"I was the least liked in our family, merely tolerated, at best. Even by my father," he looked at her nodding again more to himself than her, "and Diana I... was not kind in my treatment of her."
Tamara smiled and said softly, "Boys are the same all over. That sounds like my older brother and his treatment of me, Aaron. We grew up and out of it."
Ares smiled and his hand opened to hold hers for a moment and then withdrew before sitting back in his chair.
"True," he said as he looked at her, "and you could reconcile yourselves. We couldn't the way things worked out. Now..."
Slowly she sat back and picked up her glass of wine.
"Now you can, Aaron. If you stay."
The smile slowly faded from Ares' face and he furrowed his brow.
"I'm... afraid of her, Tamara."
That caught her by surprise as nothing seemed to phase him from minor problems with billing that could take hours to figure out to a jet spinning itself apart on a test stand, she had seen him handle those and everything in-between.
"But why? She is one of the nicest people I've ever met. Even with your problems... your history..."
He shook his head from side to side, slowly.
"She is wild and strong in ways I can't even begin to describe, Tamara. I love her for her respect of me... I fear her for her love."
"That's..." she was about to say 'nonsense' but caught herself, "... why would you..." she was having trouble forming a thought as he looked at her impassively, his left hand reaching for his coffee cup again.
"Fear her love?"
She nodded as she was truly confused.
"When ignored, her love is deadly. No one knows what will happen when it is accepted. Not even her."
'Could love truly kill, all by itself?', she thought to herself.
"I do not lack courage, Tamara. But my sister's love is a gift best not accepted lightly for it is a wild gift of untold menace."
"And... no promise to it?" she whispered.
He smiled as he set his cup back down and leaned forward once more.
"Oh, yes. And that is the worst of all."
She heard the certainty in his voice and those words by this man sent a shiver of fear and excitement through her. A growing warmth crept into her body, from deep inside and it spread slowly as she reached out to him and he to her.
"That's why you're...?"
Blinking once he gripped her hand and slowly shook his head from side to side.
"No. That is a disservice to all of you. Who will protect you from the wild love of my sister if I leave? I fear it, yes, but none of you even suspect what it can do. I will contact the trust and have the ranch closed down, and close that part of my life. Thank you for coming with me tonight, Tamara, to help me see my duty. There are no others I can turn to for this."
She held on to his hand and said, "You're welcome... always welcome, Aaron."
"Yes," he whispered, "always better to step into the maelstrom with one's eyes open and a trusted comrade by your side."
Bill looked at the screen with Hermes sitting next to him in the conference room with Regina and Brent to his right, Alice, Ares, Ray and Diana to his left. He watched the altimiter as it slowly rose past the 9 mile mark and shook his head.
"This is not like the ALV I Mark I, that jet is still idling over not even operating at full thrust."
Hermes checked his tablet computer and moved it so that Regina and Brent could see it.
"That is the idea, Bill," he said, "as the fuel bladders collapse as fuel is removed from them, the inflation bladders expand incrementally. Buoyancy has increased slowly from initial ascent and is now going at a much higher rate than it was a day ago. The Mark II is now going faster than the Mark I at this altitude before its rocket burn. Wing loading is also far more stable due to the fuel which means that there is little likelihood of stress fractures showing up as the next phase begins."
Kevin Penk's voice came over the screen feed system.
"We are 10 seconds from speed increase, all systems are nominal. 5 seconds... 3 seconds...2...1... moving up from idle speed increasing... stress is nominal across wings..."
"Now to see if that system of baffles and diversions at the nose works like it should," Brent said watching the status indicators on Hermes' tablet.
"Its a well enough explored part of design," Ares said his face impassively set as he watched the screen.
"True enough and all of the Mark II models well for this, still..." Ray said as he looked at Alice who was getting a set of feeds on her laptop system.
"Mach 0.9... 0.95.... 0.99..." Kevin's voice said as the altitude of the craft was increasing and the atmosphere slowly becoming rarified, "... ascent is stable..." a shudder rippled through the Mark II and the feed took a second to stabilize, "... and that is the first Mach I speed by a non-rigid body craft in the atmosphere. Baffle system is nominal, air compression within 20% of expected range...."
"There's a stuck intake louver shunting some of that through the diversion area," Alice said, "Looks like there might be some icing going on there in the mechanism."
"Rear fuel intermix to start in 5... 4... 3... 2... 1... all signs are positive... flow at 10% and increasing..."
The speed of the vehicle continued to increase as did its altitude, with the speed increase slowing as was the altitude increase.
Hermes smiled as he looked at Regina and Bill checked his own systems overview to see that the rear tank was now fully in the fuel mix.
"ALV-I Mark II is now at a nominal Mach 1.2 and altitude of 70,000 feet. Wing stress is within safety margin, wing load is nominal."
Diana leaned over to look at Ray's laptop system.
"That is pretty close to the maximum heat that the wing material is rated for, isn't it?" she asked.
Bill nodded as he brought those figures up on his screen and the heat pattern from sensors showed from a dark red on the leading wing edges to greens and blues across it.
"That is about the best the graphite core, ceramic coated matrix can do and it is triple layered there. It is well within specs for the rest of the wing and body, though. Add that to the high purity graphite coating on the carbon fiber spars and it should be able to operate like this for a week."
"If there was fuel for that," Ares said, gazing at the screen, "and we still have the final altitude and speed correction ahead once the payload is deployed."
"At least it isn't a car, this time," Regina said, "so no headaches there."
"It is a single load, though, not a sequential set of drops like the funerary loads," Ray said, "it's the time with the most stress for the vehicle."
Kevin Penk's voice came through the system again.
"We have necessary uplinks and TDRIS coverage. All package stations are on-line and recording. We are 10 minutes to package deployment."
"I hope those rocketeers know what they are doing," Diana whispered.
Hermes glanced over to her with an incline of his head.
"It is hard to test all components on such a thing, sister, but its not that complex. It is just rocket science, after all."
"Our first scientific package," Brent said glancing at his display, "each group gets to volunteer their system, be told how it will be deployed and then get the electronic function test on the ground. I would have thought that it was impossible to design a 200 pound rocket with a required minimum 1 pound load to reach as close to orbit as possible in under 6 months. A simple repeater or even corner cube reflector would do."
The 6 month challenge started when everyone realized that there was a need for a drop test of the Mark 2 and Ares had proposed asking if NASA or DOD wanted a chance at a 2,000 pound rocket no longer than 10 feet and no more than 3 feet in diameter. He knew that bureaucracy and sudden proposal for a free trip to high altitude wouldn't be enough to get either of those organizations off the mark and DOGIS was able to confirm this in mere days.
It was Kevin Penk who suggested approaching the amateur rocketry community with a contest to get a working set of payloads to as close to continuous orbit as possible given the mass and size restrictions of 1/10th loads that would be housed in a cylinder that would send a mechanical activation signal to each rocket of no more than 8 inches across and no more than 10 feet long. That and expected start speed and altitude, plus the need to correct for any deviation from the drop carrier was something that was expected to stymie the community.
A solid rocket system from a couple of teenagers from Nebraska was the first proposal to come back two weeks later. Although crude it was on a 'first come, first place' award and they got first choice of position on the aluminum drop rack system. When dropped the frame would start to disengage which would trigger the rockets on it, with friction doing the work to remove any that didn't trigger it as that rack was disengaged from the one below it.
"Again, a stepping stone," Diana said smiling as she turned to gaze at the curvature of the Earth under the black background of space.
Bill glanced over at her and felt a soft sigh escape as he breathed out, seeing her eyes dance as she looked from place to place on the large screen. He found that he had to tear his gaze away and concentrate on his sensor feeds.
"We will learn something, at least," Alice said watching her systems readouts and glancing up to the main screen, "the mass is about what we expect for a small satellite delivery rocket."
Ray leaned forward seeing the downward camera view with the Ascentech Logo on the side of the fuselage as it curved away under the vehicle.
"How many of those rockets have a telemetry package on-board?"
"You mean beyond our readouts?" Bill asked.
"Yes. I wasn't keeping careful track since we've gotten a couple of back-channels calls from inside the industry the past week. We aren't the only ones watching this, now."
"Five have long term telemetry going beyond 10 minutes," Brent said, "and it looks like our data feeds are synching up now."
Kevin's voice came over the video feed's speaker system.
"Mark 2 is at 5 minutes to drop and all telemetry links are positive. All teams are now linked up with feeds. Fuel mix is now from rear tank. Wing tanks are shifting for trim. All cells are at 0.8 indicated for inflation. Speed steady at Mach 1.21, altitude 71,500 feet. All systems green for drop. Starting pre-cycle check."
Regina leaned over to Brent and whispered to him and he nodded, then she shifted her screen a bit and Bill caught a glimpse of web feed stats.
"Not much more than 10,000 taking a live feed," Regina said softly.
Ares pursed his lips together and looked over at Ray.
"That isn't bad for a company this size," he said and Ray nodded, "I assume other companies are looking for deliveries?"
Ray pressed his lips together and his eyes darted around the table.
"A few are, yes, for heavy industrial loads that we can't handle right now. Bridge spans and larger pieces. Those we have to put off until we see about a heavy lift semi-dirigible just for atmospheric work. That is years away."
Ares inhaled and looked at Diana who was looking at Alice. When Alice glanced over from her screen she shivered, and then looked at Ray.
"Who else has been fishing here?" she asked.
Ray looked at the screen again and pressed his fingertips together in front of his face.
"We are having offers from one of the commercial jet manufacturers from overseas."
"Really?" Diana asked in a whisper as her eyes shifted from Alice to Ray.
He nodded and Bill was having trouble concentrating on his screen.
"What kind of offer was it, Ray?" Bill asked.
"Mark 2 is 2 minutes to drop."
"Hmmm? Oh. To buy the company," Ray said.
"Buy..." Regina whispered, "... but who?"
Ray glanced at her, then Alice who had gone pale and was watching him and not paying any attention to her readouts.
"Honda. Commercial jet engine sales. Don't worry, I declined."
As Bill looked between his data screen, the main screen, and Ray he saw a smile pass on Diana's lips as she whispered, "There isn't enough money in the world to do that."
"No, there isn't," Ares said nodding, "and this will be stopped by no one."
"One minute to drop," Kevin's voice came over the system, "all indications are positive. ALV-I Mark 2 is prepared for drop of multi-launch payload."
"Others are ahead of us," Alice softly said, "higher visibility."
Ares nodded and turned to look at her.
"They are the scouts, taking great risks. We aren't scouts. We are the supply train. Low cost logistics wins over everything, they are just making this acceptable."
"Payload deploy in 3...2...1...doors open, payload deployed. Doors closed."
On screen the bottom part of the craft slid open so fast that if you blinked you had missed them moving. The cylinder of rockets slid down and then out of the craft, and the doors snapped shut once again. The payload diminished in size and the altimiter readout on the lower right of the screen jumped with the deployment, even as the speed dropped to just over Mach 1.1. The craft turned to port as it ascended, using the shift in fuel between the external bladder/tanks to shift it slowly and naturally away from its original flight path and to give a wide berth to the deployed payload.
"That's nearly a thousand feet of ascent," Bill said.
Even as he spoke the upper portion of the pod came apart revealing the top tier of rockets that then ignited. First one and then three powered on with their tail assembly just clearing the part of the pod under them which, itself, was rising up due to atmospheric friction. Even as the pod got smaller the trails of intense light from each of the rockets could be seen as they ignited and then ascended.
"Thats five, no... six... seven..." Alice whispered as her gaze turned to take in the screen and her readouts.
"One of them is stuttering," Ray said watching the screen.
"Pulse rocket by a club in Portland, Maine," Brent said as he took in the telemetry data, "they are trying to skimp on fuel use by pulsed thrust. The first pulses help to orient the craft and then..."
Far to the bottom of the screen the individual pulses turned into a near continuous stream as the rocket went on a path almost straight up instead or arcing up like the others were doing.
"Ingenious, that," Diana said, the glittering of rockets flaring to life twinkling from her eyes.
"Number nine is a no-go. No ignition and telemetry is flat from it."
Regina nodded, "I'm messaging with the Ohio club now... they are getting nothing from it, either."
Suddenly a very bright flare from the remaining dot that was the ballast part of the payload section sprang to life.
"Solid boosters are go," Brent said, "tracking is firm from ALV radar. It is crossing Mach 2 and ascending..."
A tiny white flare took over from the initial glare of the ignition and that grew in size as it headed from the lower left of the screen and off the top right of it, only taking on a rocket form for a second before disappearing from view.
"Tenth in line, first in design, and power to hold,"Alice said as she watched it, "the simple corner cube reflector with mylar sail is getting its boost and more."
"Those guys took us seriously," Ray said, "first amateur group to get to full orbit. I hope the three stages work out like they want them to. It is the simplest design of anything that came through and just might win our $10,000 prize of delivering the first Ascentech pound to orbit."
"Pure physics," Alice said as she watched her readouts, "sail mirrored on one side to reflect sunlight, black on the other to absorb it. As it goes in orbit, the sail gets thrust from one side and none from the other, so half of its time it is getting a boost and the other half it is coasting. Self-corrects for attitude adjustment, as well."
"I wonder where they will go with it?" Regina said.
"To the stars," Diana whispered.
Hermes stepped around the central construction platform that held the beginnings of the outline of a craft of some sort, with one central section of the lower part of it in place. The part was one of the lower hull sections made of Inconel and it was riveted into plates that had been set into graphite rods. Along the side of the large warehouse were racks holding more high carbon graphite fiber rods as well as gleaming sheeting that one blonde, burly man in a black t-shirt, jeans, engineers' boots and wearing a composite apron and thick gloves was slowly heat forming with an oxy-acetelyne torch. His helmet was flipped down and a piece of steel sheeting stood to block the worst of the intense light from anyone looking in his direction. On the other side of the warehouse two women in blue and red t-shirts, black jeans and leather construction boots were shifting a new part of the frame they had been working on and sliding another composite rod onto the assembly. Hermes was showing off this new facility to Brent, Ares, Tamara, Diana, Ray and Alice so that they could get a feel for what it was that Highflight was doing.
"What's on the other assembly platform?" Ray asked.
"That is a static load drop system, or car dropper. That will be a relatively simple system of top mounted parachutes on the capsule, with back-ups and a computer guided GPS pull system to help spill air out of the side chutes. When the entire arrangement is within 100 feet of altitude from the ground the covered bottom comes apart with inflation bags to act as cushions for when the capsule grounds out. Those are easy to deflate and come in a variety of types, but I expect most people will want to do a manual multi-point deflation. If a ramp is included then the container becomes a simple roll-off delivery platform. The decking underneath is perforated so it wouldn't make for a good habitat without putting something over the decking. In all it is rated for a nominal 3/4 ton delivery weight with the rest being taken up by the capsule, itself," Hermes said guiding the group over to the cylinder with vehicle width perforated sheeting about 1/4 of the way up nearly enclosed space. The top also had a thin piece of solid sheeting which had yet to be covered over, although the ribs did complete their circuit around it, the framework for putting in chutes and equipment was still exposed.
"So what you're saying," Alice started saying as she walked around the capsule on a set of four supports that were flat on the bottom and had semi-circle tops, "is that this thing will put a target load down softly just about anywhere?"
Ares had walked up the ramp to stand with his feet on the bottom decking and used his hands to steady himself as he looked over the top area which already had a control system situated on the far end with wires running to places on the sheet that had cross supports from the sides going over the sheet. Diana stooped to go inside the container and was soon highlighted only from reflected light from the outside.
"That's right, Alice. This has to be as light weight and cheaply made as possible and yet still have enough structural rigidity so as to stay intact during the initial drop and drogue chute deployments. This is designed to put center of mass just a foot below the true center of the structure, so it is biased when dropped and the drogue chutes will give it initial stability through the atmosphere."
Ray stood at the platform watching Ares and Diana examine the capsule, while Tamara walked just far enough in to take a flashlight from her purse and and look through the perforated decking. Brent walked around counter-clockwise to meet up with Alice walking in the other direction.
"This has got to cost a pretty penny to get, doesn't it?" Ray asked, "This stuff and the time to make it doesn't come cheap."
"True," Hermes said walking over to Ray, "Each of these is between $10 and $15,000. If you can pay the nominal $100,000 to rent an ALV I Mark I or a bit less for a Mark II, then this sort of container won't be the cost point decision maker. As a go-between company we are putting a $15,000 premium to take all the headaches out of scheduling an ALV drop, making sure that whatever it is you want deployed gets properly deployed and taking the insurance risk, as well. If you've just spent $400,000 on a luxury vehicle and want it at your estate on an island or in the middle of nowhere, then a total delivered cost in the range of $600,000 isn't unreasonable."
Tamara was kneeling down as she peered under the perforated decking and then looked up at the top sheeting that defined the interior space.
"You know what you could make of one of these once its delivered?" Brent spoke up a bit to get over some of the clanging of metal by the man who had finished up with the cutting torch who was now working to get the piece into a shape laid out on the table in front of him.
"What would that be?" Ares asked as he stooped down to look in at Diana who was looking back at Tamara. Diana raised an eyebrow and pursed her lips together as she looked at Ares.
"A GEV. Just add in a few rolls of duct tape, some hard plastic sheets or even local planking at the delivery site, a four cylinder blower and some sort of vane arrangement and a back propeller working off the blower's impeller shaft. Even with just the blower you could turn any decent inflatable impact bags into a ground effects skirt and make the load very easy to tow, although guiding it might be a problem..."
Hermes stood there silently for a moment.
"I never thought of that," he said in the air that was no longer filled with the sound of metal on metal work.
"It doesn't have to be fancy, either," Alice said passing Brent and coming along the right hand side of the container, "duct tape would do it. Something to cut the bags with to allow them to inflate outwards, only, and a 10 lb engine with fuel system would do for both a blower and propeller with just a bit of rigging. You can do that with or without the sidewalls, too."
Ray smiled as he walked up to the capsule on its stand to examine the portions that would break away to allow the inflated bags to expand. "You know, this could have a few other applications, as well. It would be a vital way to get relief supplies to a disaster area and have just one or two people with a bit of know how set it up. If you could get local fuels for the engine you would then have a tranpsort system for going over uneven terrain and even small bodies of water."
"I can think of about a half-dozen disaster areas in the past decade that could have used something like this," Brent said as he came around the left side of the container, "and it would have been worth its weight in gold to have it."
"Have any of you considered careers in marketing?" Hermes asked smiling watching as Tamara stood up next to Ares and the two of them came down the ramp leading into the capsule. "Because you are turning my simple delivery system into a money-maker before it is even tested. And that just for the ALV-I system. Come on over and I'll introduce you to the crew that will be getting an organized system together for this and the ALV-II drop system."
"You know," Diana said softly, but the acoustics of the capsule and the warehouse served to send her voice throughout the entire open space, "you could make a nice emergency home out of one of these, too."
Hermes smiled even as he shivered as he had forgotten that his sister had a command of sound and space, a knowledge of wilderness, caves and canyons that was uncanny even in her current state of being. That softest of whispers was a voice all its own and it commanded silence to be heard. As her booted footsteps echoed on the perforated flooring he realized that everyone else had gone silent and was turning towards her.
"I... I know that voice!" one of the women to the side of the space said.
Hermes watched as Diana smiled and worked her way beside Ares and skipped down the ramp and jumped to the floor.
"Nuada!" she said as she ran towards the two women who had placed the carbon fiber rod on the cutting table and one had removed her work gloves to stare at the running figure coming towards her.
Nuada had known that Diana was nearby, of course, as going to work for Herman had meant that. But she had hoped, even prayed, that this young woman... old girl... the extremely capable Diana Sherwood was not to find her. One life upsetting trauma had been enough for her. Yet now, even as she turned and tried to instinctively reach for the switchblade she had now put away for long months, was she confronted by this great lightning force once more.
Careless of carbon dust and fibers, along with sticky adhesives on the thick cloth apron and workshirt, Nuada found herself embraced by Diana, and instinctively hugging her.
"I'm so glad you came out all right," Diana whispered to her with a fierceness of embrace that was the stuff of life, itself.
"I never..." Nuada started as she felt Diana's embrace relax.
"Melanie!" Diana nearly shrieked as she released Nuada fully and turned to hug the other woman standing next to her.
"Be careful of the foot!" Nuada said, but watched as her startled friend was uplifted by Diana's embrace.
"You came through OK, too!"
The dark blonde haired woman couldn't really respond as the fierce hug had driven air from her lungs and she found herself trying to remember the safety precautions of the materials they were working with and realized that Diana didn't care and that if she was to remain standing the only answer was to hug her back in return. Melanie's initial shock, pain, anger and hatred right after the bar incident had all swept through her in the days in the hospital and learning that Diana had not only injured her, but had set bones that had been broken into place so that they could heal properly. She, Nuada, Liza and Candice had all talked about what had happened with Candice, strangely, the hardest hit in ways that were not physical and were as crushing to her psyche as sure as being run over by a dump truck was to one's body. Candice said she never even felt the blow but had, instead, felt a fire flow through her body leaving her empty inside.
Other Ladyhawks would come by over the days to see them, and their visitations, while welcome, had come to dismay as each of the women involved in the incident had decided not to put the colors back on. In minutes, seconds, one person had changed their direction in life, and as Liza and Candice went their own ways, while Melanie and Nuada, who had the closest experience with Diana, stuck together. Herman would offer each of them a job in a new business, low paying and at the bottom rung, but a real job if they would leave the safety of San Francisco. They all knew San Francisco's safety was no longer anything but a mirage, to be blown away by night winds and full moon, a smiling face with blue eyes. They both knew they would see her, again, and while not dreading the meeting, they did nothing to hurry it on, either.
"Y....yes, I did," Melanie finally said as she felt her feet get firmly placed, once more, on the ground, "I recovered. I think, so, at least. The foot still hurts, and the bandages have only been off for a couple of weeks, but I can get around OK."
Hermes came walking up behind Diana and was smiling as he spoke up, "I'm sorry I didn't warn you two about this, in case you wanted to be absent..."
He trailed off and both Nuada and Mel looked at him and then at Diana.
"We couldn't avoid her forever, Herman," Nuada finally said, "it was something that we knew was part of the job, sooner or later."
Hermes smiled and Diana turned to him.
"It wasn't like I did it out of hatred or anything," she said as she watched him.
The others had walked up behind Herman and were looking at the two women and Diana.
"I take it Miss Sherwood has met these ladies?" Ray asked as he looked at Herman who had stepped towards Nuada and Mel and then turned.
"Yes she had. The first night she got to my bar. There was an, ah, misunderstanding..."
"Altercation," Mel said softly.
"Really stupid stuff," Nuada said.
"A friend of their's was giving me attention I didn't want," Diana said, "so I stopped it. And her friends. No hard feelings, though."
Ares had heard the story from his brother and sister and only stood bemused with a faint smile on his lips, as he knew that Hermes was always the one for a surprise and could be caught by surprise when his own situations were turned around from the inside-out.
"Well, I'm glad it wasn't anything serious," Brent said looking quizzically at Hermes who was just shaking his head.
"All right, let me get Karl over here so I can do proper introductions..."
Hermes knew that for all the trouble his sister, if not his brother, brought with them, they also brought an old understanding amongst them as peers, as siblings of different mothers. He could feel how Diana and Ares thought about him and their feelings, while not unmixed, were strong in that feeling that only a long shattered family can have. Now grown older, perhaps even a bit wiser, Hermes felt fully in his element again. His brother, the one who was always bloody-minded and straightforward, had some of that blood washed from him and his straightforward manner, while softer, was still a blunt force all its own. And Artemis... Diana... even without her abilities of old, had still an affinity that only an old girl of the wilderness could have and his loins if not his crotch ached for her because she was the one who could slip away with one ill-timed thought.
With them these people around them, those ephemeral of the Earth, representatives of mankind, he was starting to feel something towards them that he had not thought possible as he now felt that soon, very soon, they would become equals of what they had been. And much, much more even though they would differ greatly, that gathering he could now see in realms of trade and commerce. Their journey was about to begin, and he would be more than glad to sell them the tickets and then join them in the fastest race never imagined. Mankind was gathering its power for a burst from dead Gaia, upon which all lived, and fend for themselves. Perhaps he would see if he could find dead and blasted Hera's body, out there, and give her the fiery funeral she so deserved.