Brent put the indicator on to signal a right hand turn into what had been, at one time, a World War II stop-over airfield for those planes that couldn't easily make it to the western ports. Situated in southern Idaho the airfield had been returned to the State after the war, or abandoned if you asked the locals, and then picked up by a small airfreight firm in the 1950's. After that it changed private hands a few times and became a home to aircraft collectors who were willing to pay for absentee maintenance and inspection work. A signpost indicated which building was where in the small complex, which had a branching set of single lane paved roads coming off of the main road that went to the control tower area. As Brent looked up in the chilly mid-afternoon sky, he could see a couple of small blinking lights at the top of the old tower with some very new antennae and satellite dishes festooning the roof. Two buildings sat just below the tower at its base, and a relatively large parkinglot had become very overgrown outside of the first two rows used for the people running the facility. Taking the old pavement at a slow speed to avoid a few potholes and other stay on a relatively driveable surface, Brent navigated his rental car to the first north branch on his right, and went along a lane that had brown weeds overhanging the edges of the road. There were signs that the weeds had been cut back recently, with trimmings on the pavement on both sides, but chilly and damper weather were causing those further back to droop over where their fallen brothers had been.
"This place has got to be the ass-end of nowhere," Brent said to himself, checking his GPS coordinates on the cellphone he had secured to the outside of his overnight suitcase. A small sign at what had been a parking area for the hanger indicated 'Lassiter Aviation Works', with just a hint of rust around the edge of the sign which was on a post now just slightly north of true. As he pulled in he saw a large flatbed tractor-trailer rig had been parked before the large doors of the hanger building and that there were a number of cars towards the maintenance crew entrance that included one very fast looking sports car amidst older pick-up trucks, a couple of four dour sedans and a cutaway cube van that had the picture of an old, bearded man wearing a set of overalls, holding a wrench and three aircraft swooping upwards just behind him. 'General Jack's Restoration and Parts' was the arc of words over the top, and underneath was 'New, Used, and Reproduced To Spec' was in much smaller type arcing under it.
Brent had to smile at that since the image of a backyard tinkerer with his own machine shop and parts storage area was hard to put together, thematically, and only the old leather helmet hanging from the man's belt made it clear that whoever or whatever General Jack was, he ran something large enough to afford a professionally done van. Brent parked the car, picked up his cellphone and pocketed it, then picked up his laptop carryall before he exited the car. When Herman Lassiter had phoned after sending over a large-scale scan of a detailed drop ship for the ALV II and wanted to know if Brent was interested in talking about it, Brent had made a provisional OK on that before confirming the general vacation time with Mason, who was already back in Huntsville after seeing that there would be a reduced need in overhead staff until the ALV II was its major assembly stage.
"Sure, take the time, everyone else is and we do need a break, Brent. Have fun!" and that was it via cellphone. After that had been some hastily arranged commuter flights and then deciding if he wanted to drive from Boise or wait for a local pilot to drop him off at the indicated airfield. Driving an econobox was cheaper and probably faster, and that decided it, making the last part of his trip on the ground the longest. After exiting and locking the vehicle, Brent inhaled the air that wasn't that of the Arizona desert but of the Idahoan uplands, where the mouth of a mountain valley held an old airfield and the cool, damp air had permeated the afternoon sky. Soon it would no longer be summer here, and it felt like it. He walked up to the door which had an old sign next to the door, hanging crookedly by a chain over a nail that said 'Lighted Inside? Come On In!' The doorbell button had been crossed over with duct tape which itself looked pretty weatherbeaten. It was, indeed, lighted inside and as he opened the door Brent had to take a moment to re-adjust to the sodium vapor flood lamps that were shining down on the hanger floor from the rafters of the building. A soft *bong* could be heard that echoed throughout the building and as his eyes adjusted to the lighting he saw a group of figures around an aircraft with crates open and their contents scattered all around an aircraft.
A figure in white t-shirt, denim capri pants, and black leather boots turned and came jogging towards him. Her ponytail was moving from side to side as she ran, her figure easily moving at what he saw was a full run. This stopped Brent in his tracks as he knew that figure, but not like this. He gulped as she came closer, her firm small breasts pressing the t-shirt forward with sweat accentuating her figure as the material stuck to her sides and back.
"Brent!" she said in a breathy tone that slid from a countertenor to contralto, with few hints of the deeper voice of the former, "I'm so glad you could make it! We have a lot to talk about."
Herman's breathing was measured, yet the excitement in her voice could be heard and the end of sentences punctuated by a final breath out before inhaling quickly.
The strange attractiveness of Herman Lassiter was one that Brent had to try and puzzle out as Herman didn't seem to be part of any 'gay' or 'lifestyle' sort of ways but was quite matter-of-fact that her physiology just wasn't in the standard yes/no, man/woman field but varied heavily from it. His or her sexuality wasn't something that was flaunted, wasn't used to offend, wasn't pressed forward like a load of bricks and was understated for the most part which meant that how a person responded to it was left up to the one doing the responding. Herman didn't seem to care that much about what anyone thought of his different nature and he always passed well for a man even when his emotional swings and sensual walk tended to indicate feminine traits that were not affectation nor for effect but just were what they were.
Now the other part of Herman Lassiter, the one with hair slightly grown out, without somewhat loose fitting shirts or blouses to mask just what he or she was, came through.
"You're not..." Brent stammered out, finally, realizing that he had frozen in place at the point he could finally see Herman's full figure.
"What?" Herman asked, "Brent? Are you OK?"
That finally shook Brent out of his shock, although he was having a great amount of trouble trying to reconcile his feelings about the man who wasn't just a man and no less a woman. Visual impact started parts of his mind racing in different directions which were controlled more by glands, pheremones and the limbic system than by rational thought.
"I... Herman, I've never seen you..." he said gazing down and then up the figure.
Herman looked down at herself and then up at Brent.
"Why Brent, I thought you had a handle on my being... ahhh... somewhat different," she said in a smooth voice with a hint of chuckle to it.
A slight feeling of heat around his face was enough to get Brent to realize that he really did need to get control of himself as Herman Lassiter was someone he respected not just in design but hands-on engineering and application of same. For all the pleasant... more than pleasant, really... looks of Herman Lassiter, she was still the same person he knew in Arizona.
"But you look... is it hormones?" he finally blurted out.
Herman did laugh, then, a gentle smiling laugh as he stepped forward to stand beside Brent, and put his hand on Brent's upper right arm to lead him into the hanger area.
"Of course it's hormones, Brent. All natural, Original equipment. Two sets, shared. Fully tested and functional. I normally wear a compression sports bra to keep things under control up top, so as not to overly confuse the populace," Herman said as Brent started walking with her. She slid his arm around his and they walked that way towards the old jet that had a protective tarp covering the far half of it.
For Brent the words themselves, what they implied, and how he responded to them was something that was starting to seep in not just at the edges of his mind but into other parts of it as well. Brent didn't consider himself attracted to men, no interest or feeling that way, no proclivities and very much in the 'live and let live' category. Herman Lassiter wasn't just male, and she wasn't just female, either, nor an amalgam of personality traits or a person who was trying to live in both of the worlds that men and women tended to separate into for spheres of influence and thought. The warmth of Herman's arm, its slim but muscled thinness, the warmth of her body close to his and the smell of a person who had been hard at work with grease stains spotting parts of the t-shirt and a pair of workmans gloves hanging out a back pocket over a small, high and firm butt that shifted with each step told of someone who was at home with who they were. If her sister, Diana, was closer to what Herman was as a woman, and Aaron as a man, then he did fit in that category of older than Diana, perhaps younger than Aaron and yet unlike either of them in personality.
"You... I mean you never hid it, really..." Brent got out trying to get some confidence and understanding of his feelings sorted out.
"No, I don't, Brent. These people who want everything in their bodies, both man and woman, who want a lifestyle have forgotten that being themselves means compromises. My parents made that clear to me. Better to be living than just have a style, because a style isn't a life," Herman said in a softer tone, the roundness of her cheeks casting softer shadows on her face. "And if some people can't understand that, then I do pity them, because that is all I have time in life for since I can't teach you to unscrew your problems and sort them out. Accepting who and what you are is the start of a good life, Brent," she said pulling him just a bit closer to her with a warmth of affection that made Brent's mind flounder.
"Yes..." he began, "I've just never had to deal with... someone like you, Herman."
"Fair is fair, Brent. I didn't mean to bowl you over with it. There is work to be done and I prefer to be comfortable doing it. Now I'll introduce you to the crew I got over to do a final inspection and run-through of one of the few, fully operational, Me-262's in the world. Not to even speak of the even fewer of them in private hands. I got it from a cousin's estate back in the '90s, and it was all crated up. The boys up here have done a splendid job getting it back in flying order... at least it had better be in flying order..." she said with a hint of mock menace in her voice.
This, finally, gave Brent something to concentrate on.
"A fully functional... oh, wow! It's beautiful!" he said now shifting his gait to match that of Herman's and he gazed at the old jet figher/bomber that last flew in the closing days of WWII.
"It is! And after that I want to go over you design changes for the drop-ship. I've finally got someone to move all my drawings into a 3D CAD system, and I think with a hard couple of days, we can get it finalized."
Brent was smiling now as the familiarity of work, his love of aircraft and spacecraft and someone he knew was an excellent designer was all falling into place.
"Really, you are very talented. I may have to offer you a consultant's position with my company, just to make sure DOGIS knows I'm not poaching."
"Of course! I don't want to take your work product for free, because it isn't. I'm sure DOGIS has all sorts of provisos to keep your works as part of their own. Just need to get a contract together, formalize a relationship, and then everyone will be satisfied. I hope you will want to do that since we do work well together."
All of which, again, left Brent feeling at sea once more.
Herman Lassiter seemed to enjoy a life of constant change and motion, and Brent always felt as if he was rooted to a set of routines that had change as part of them, but were not likely to be altered because of that change. Now he was being made an offer and his mind, his body, his hormones, were starting to tell him it was more than one offer but a suite of them. A package deal. One that he couldn't refuse and, in the end, wouldn't want to. Quickly he wet his lips as they approached the men consulting with open books an diagrams spread out on the hanger floor, with one of them rummaging through an opened crate, obviously looking for something. If these men could handle how Herman presented herself, then he could, too. Although he doubted that they got the same sorts of offer he just got.
Alice used her fork to play with the remains of the spaghettini con carne she had gotten for late lunch. Glancing at her cellphone on the table she realized it was now early dinner for the people there. Ray had brought his wife Darlene over as she had gotten some time off from her work at a small medical firm which had tried to upgrade their software to the latest version necessary to handshake with the myriad of other systems from different companies and something had gone wrong. That was two days ago, and the weekend was coming up sooner than she wanted, so Ray had Darlene bring their youngest boy, Edward and their daughter Raina along to work. At the 12 and 15 year age bracket there wasn't much they could do, in the front office so Ray had Edward being Kevin's gopher and general assistant while Raina was exposed to some of the light manufacturing of frame parts in Building #3. They had switched off once, already, much to their mother's amusement and their father just shaking his head. They were also at the table with Raina next to her father and Edward next to her mother.
Bill sat next to Edward and they had been talking a bit about some of the way the electronics got installed through interior tubing, which meant using long, flexible shafts to slide wiring through the tubing. It was all back-filled with foam that was pushed into sleeving around the wires after they were inserted in the tubing.
Harry Nordhaus and his wife, Maria, sat next to Raina with Maria talking about her job at the local community college teaching geography and some general topics on natural resources. After Harry sat Bill, who had been getting the major framing components of the ALV II lined up for check-out after section joining. That was a time consuming, tedious task which involved checking out fifty foot sections of the tubing to make sure it was structurally sound using a portable ultrasound, and then doing a thermal and ultrasound check at each join. High carbon graphite tubing could be joined mechanically either by interior or exterior fittings or via adhesive that, once set, would actually take more heat than the tubing but which had to be free of any bubbles. Ultrasound was applied during application and the first half hour of setting, and then was given a final check after a portable heating element had been applied to the join area. As the solvent for the adhesive was extremely caustic and required extreme venting, everyone wanted to get the job done right the first time, and to date only three of over ninety joints had to be redone.
She sat on Bill's right and next to her sat Tamara and Aaron, who was next to Bill. Both Tamara and Aaron had taken some time off to go trekking in the desert and they looked it, with grey to yellow dust adhering over their pants and smeared on their shirts, with a light dusting still in their hair.
"How did you find this place, Tamara?" Darlene asked.
"Oh, it was a place I found on the spur of the moment a couple of nights ago. Aaron owed me a good meal after we finished up with a CQB run at a private range."
Aaron raised an eyebrow and smirked, "She did better than I expected with the 12 gauge. It was a pretty hard course to go through and she covered the point spread. By the time she had finished showering and changing clothes, this was the only open restaurant we could find that wasn't in a hotel."
"You insisted on that because I had gotten a no-hit target," Tamara said smiling at him, "otherwise we would have done some dancing after the meal."
"Really?" Ray asked, "Why didn't you want to go out dancing, Aaron?"
"She was falling asleep at the meal. It was a long, hard and very entertaining day as it was."
Alice looked at Ares and Tamara, seeing that Tamara was pressing her lips together to keep from smiling.
"Say, Alice, did you get to a chance to see Mr. Lassiter's drop ship layout? Brent got it and left copies for us in the design shop." Bill asked her.
She nodded after taking a sip from a glass of lager that she had ordered earlier and barely touched throughout the meal.
"Yes, I did. The thing looks like a deathtrap, until I remembered the Inconel plates."
Bill smiled, taking a bite from his carnada salad.
"I did a double take on that, too," he said, "but the main thing was the propulsion unit. He's redoing one of the pieces we got from the Rats and sold to him. He sent it out for rework in that shop in Missouri. You know, the pulse rocket specialist group that helped the Nebraska kids?"
"Can that really work like that? Engine design isn't my specialty, at least not outside the tried and true stuff. Mostly its just an esoteric two days in a flow dynamics class looking at combustion chamber thermal shock and stress. A pulse jet is one thing, a pulse rocket another."
"I've had even less on that then you," Harry said, "and did some looking up for our press release for that drop since I had to explain it if any questions came up. I spent an hour on the phone to Ted Crosswel who does the work and he really had to baby-step me through it. I take it he has some work that he is about to patent on a dual use pulse system and had to keep himself on topic to the enclosed combustion chamber type."
Ares had finished off his steak, with only a central round portion of bone and some gristle left on one side of the plate next to a partially full cup of tomatilla sauce.
"Dual use? Not civilian military, I take it?" he said looking at Tamara who shook her head negatively.
"No," Bill said, "Crosswel started out with standard pulse jet designs and took up pulse rocket on a lark, the way I heard it. I think he is trying to find a solution to the jet/rocket system that uses one fuel for both, but adds an oxidizer to the fuel at the final intermix for exo-atmospheric and low air pressure conditions. His goal is to have a single system for both that adapts to either and provides standard forward and back propulsion from the central chamber. If he can do that using relatively low impetus pulses it would be an answer to a lot of engineering headaches for switching between regimes. His idea is to use the least amount of fuel for the maximum amount of impetus per burst, which means a fine regulation on fuel and oxidizer."
"And that's the thing with Mr. Lassiter's sketch, or drawing, I don't think he did that with a computer," Alice said, "like the old V-1's he is putting the pulse system above the cabin and running it far forward sort of like the old F-107. He left out a lot of detail there, most of the system, in fact, beyond fuel and oxidizer feeds from the main body of the ship. You wouldn't put an air intake in unless you had a system that needed air, but it looked to be closed off." She shook her head taking another sip of beer.
"Which ship will it be dropped from?" Ray asked.
"ALV- II," Bill said, "It has a nominal set of swing-wings, but it will come down hot, which is why he wanted the Inconel, I think. There are better composites and alloys these days, but these are proven parts with a metallic structure that doesn't change much over time. If he goes to one of the new composites after this, he can drop nearly 100lbs and slip in larger fuel and oxidizer tanks, though not by much, but every gallon counts."
"Why did you bring it up, Bill?" Alice asked.
Bill smiled and shook his head.
"Well, if the pulsing doesn't rattle it apart or shake your fillings loose, it just might be able to get to a true Low Earth Orbit. Pulsing might be able to reduce the fuel consumption by, say, 10% and since drag is very low there is little loss of momentum between pulses. Still, you wouldn't have nough to back, though. Unless you had a filling station up there."
"He will," Ray said, "that is on one of our ALV I, Mark 2 flights in about 3 months. He has a total of six drops for the rest of the year, but one of them is labelled a booster system for private LEO payload. Initial design sketch shows about one-third of the system being a tank unit of some sort with a single stage booster."
"Damn!" Alice said, "He is thinking ahead."
"And three months after that comes the ALV II. He has the first drop, private payload," Harry said, "purchased the drop directly once we had the design test schedule up."
Alice turned to look at Ares.
"Did you know about this?"
He snorted and reached for his glass of red wine.
"My brother keeps to his own ways. Tamara and I helped him get in contact with some people for his drop payloads, but beyond that he runs his own business."
"Do you know who is getting the payloads?" Ray asked.
Ares looked at Tamara who looked at him as he raised an eyebrow. A brief smile graced her lips before she turned to look at Ray.
"One to Pakistan, disaster relief. One to China, electronics and disaster relief equipment. A Rolls-Royce to someplace in Uzbekistan, I think,"
Maria whistled softly.
"That has got to be a crime syndicate," she whispered, "only they have that sort of money."
"A large generator that can be made mobile to a fishing village in Alaska north of the Arctic Circle where the trucks don't go, ever. Two are for a Brazilian biology expedition, which is electronics, generator, equipment, bunks... basically a portable camp. And the last... about 20 car frames and parts, headed for Cuba... don't tell anyone that... but the home built spares often aren't that good. Those are worth more than their weight in gold, there. Especially the frames."
Ray blinked as he looked at his wife.
"We aren't charging enough, are we?"
"Yes, you are," Ares said, "and in a decade you will have no competition that can match your price or timeliness. In less than a year you will no longer be running at a loss. In three you will have a surplus. I can't foresee what five will look like, save that it is the Exit door to the planet you are opening and the flood through it will begin. And they will not care if they are going by freight, either."
Alice was doing some inputting on her tablet system with a stylus, plugging in numbers to her specialized routines checking on orbital velocities and standard fuel use for the systems that they were using. She frowned as she did some adjustments, looking at orbital dynamics with given fuel types and mass typical for the space industry.
"Just how many G's can a pulse rocket get?" she asked softly, looking at Bill.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"Depends on the design. Those kids were getting 10G once their system got oriented, but I would assume a man-rated system would only go to about 5G for a short period. Maybe 1 to 2 Gs for a more moderate system if you don't mind the longer period of time."
Brent awoke to see Hermes leaning over the table in the hotel room, with the lamp beyond her giving a stark outline to the profile that wasn't just female but male as well. With a soft touch the mechanical pencil was soundless as notes were added to the drop-ship diagram. Scattered around the room were the remains of last nights meal that they had ordered up from the restaurant in the hotel. Two bottles of wine were inverted in the ice bucket stand next to the mirrored closet which reflected the king size bed and the single light from beyond it and the back of the form of Hermes. Reaching to the bedside table, Brent lifted up a glass that once had ice water in it and now only held cool water. Sipping at that he pieced together the previous day and evening's activity and inhaled. The clock was reading 7:25 and that must be AM by now, with the last clear memories of falling to sleep being 2:03.
"Good morning, Brent," Hermes said hearing the covers shift on the bed. She turned slowly to walk around the bed to sit down on it and smile at Brent. She reached slim fingers to brush away his hair that had stuck to his temple that was curling just to the corner of the left eye. Brent shifted slowly and moved his left hand along Hermes' right arm and felt the smooth, soft skin of her and shivering.
"I... good morning, Herman," Brent said smiling up at Hermes, "it was a long night, wasn't it?"
Hermes shifted her head to press her cheek to the top of Brent's hand and sighed.
"Yes, it was, Brent. Thank you for coming to me... with me..." Herman said sliding her hand to cup Brent's cheek that now held stubble and roughness. Bending down she kissed him deeply,earnestly and he pulled her to him. The kiss languished and then Hermes slowly pulled herself up, running both hands over Brent's chest.
"My pleasure... are you sure Regina...?" he began to ask.
Hermes smiled as she looked at Brent and nodded.
"Yes, she understands and likes you as well, Brent. She agreed to spend time with my sister as they are... compatible, in some strange way. City girl and wilderness girl seem to walk hand-in-hand very well," Hermes shook his head, "I never would have expected that."
"They are beautiful, Herman. You said Diana... she wouldn't want to...wouldn't be part of...?"
Rubbing her palms softly over Brent's chest had him shift to free his other hand and slide his hands over her chest, cupping her small breasts before running his hands down and then up to them again.
"No, Diana isn't, ummm, available. Trust me on that, Brent. She does love men, just not intimately, closely. She cares about each of us, even if she can't show it to us... I know that now. Regina was never shocked at my nature, Brent, but Diana, most perversely, knew mine and told Regina. We talked about this for some weeks, Brent, worked close to you as much as we could. Regina is attracted to you, at least physically but some otherwise, too, and I couldn't deny my reactions either. We just couldn't know if you would accept the situation or if it would appeal to you. I talked this over with Regina, over days and weeks, not knowing how to actually approach someone not of a lifestyle but having an actual life. If Regina did it, to be truthful, she doubted you would understand what she was saying. If we attempted together it might overwhelm you, shock you with too much, too quickly. So as the summer of planning and late summer of layout started, it was decided that the time was good for me to approach you, but away from our normal environs. I'm glad we were right in that, Brent."
Brent shifted up to embrace Hermes and they kissed once more. As they let go Brent looked into her eyes and said quietly, "It will take some getting used to, really. I've never even thought about something like this."
Hermes smiled and slid from the bed to stand up, holding his right hand.
"I understand, and we both do as well, Brent. In Frisco its different, insular, a hot house of attitudes. There is no permanence there, and finding someone who would want something longer term there would be difficult. Was difficult. We did discuss approaching others, but we are not into wrecking families, or offending the staid."
Nodding Brent slipped out from the covers and stood up next to Hermes and they embraced fully, enjoying the feeling of warmth from it.
"I've done a bit, but nothing like this. It will be difficult to adjust because I'm not attracted... you know?"
Hermes looked him in the eye and nodded, closing her eyes as she did so.
"Don't worry, Brent, not all men want it all, I know. If you do want more, I am open to it and if not, that is also agreeable. Simple love in a complex life is hard to find, Brent, very hard to find."
Brent inhaled and kissed her on the cheek which slowly changed to an impassioned kiss between them. A minute, then two, and Hermes led Brent to the bathroom for a shower together. Later they would talk of pulse rockets, reconfigureable combustion chambers, high efficiency intermix systems, static and dynamic fuel burns with oxidizer ratios... all the necessary things to get the most efficient fuel use from a rocket so that the maximum thrust from the minimum amount of fuel could be obtained. A new era of personal discovery went hand in hand with a new era of engineering for other forms of discovery much less personal and broadening the horizons of all mankind.
Which took place in the shower, however, would be left to future generations to decide.
Mason walked with Alice and Ray through Building #3 and saw the large pieces that were in the midst of fabrication. Large pieces of the wing body were being made in sections with other pieces that were now hung overhead via cables, and they were beginning to show the outline of a much larger structure.
"Are you sure you can get it out of here?" he asked as they passed a long set of scaffolding and walkways holding the main body of what would be the ALV-II.
"Just barely," Alice said, "and it took us a month to remove the old warehouse stands, loading decks and other emplacments to get the building back to its original hangar size. That was no easy feat."
"Construction work is relatively cheap now," Ray said as they stepped over an area that had been a raised concrete floor but was now just a new concrete outline that had already set. The massive outlines traced over the entire floor space showing the network of individual small warehouses that had been put into the much larger structure. "Getting the doors removed also was a task a bit larger than we expected. All of the original overhead bracing had to be gone over by hand to make sure it was still structurally sound."
"Were there a lot of other things up there?" Mason asked.
"Yes," Alice said, "one part of the warehouse to the front had offices set three stories up and they had cut out holes for electrical conduit through the frames and girders up there. Then they put in bracing down to the floor level of the hangar. Each of those structural ribs had to be removed and refit one-by-one and then that bracing removed temporarily to make sure that it would all hold up with the new cross-beams."
"The roof had to go, too. What a cost that was! Still its back to its original metal specs and we've put in some of those cheap thin film solar arrays up there on the south side, mostly to run the cooling system for the entire building."
"It took a week to cool down to a shirt-sleeves environment," Alice said as they got to a mobile platform where three people were moving large carbon graphite tubes into place to go into the cross-brace receivers.
"Are we changing the spec on this?" Mason asked looking up at the tube piece hung between work supports towards the door side of the building.
"To a degree, yes," Ray said, "we found a place able to do custom carbon work in Denver."
The black intersection with ceramic coating was being shifted with large strap wrenches to twist it in place while epoxy was being applied at each turn by the people working on it.
"That is actually an improvement over the thermal limits of the original carbon and steel composite piece," Alice said going to a box and taking the large four opening piece out of it and walking to Mason who picked up the cantaloupe sized joint.
"That's light! It can't be over 5 pounds."
Ray took it when Mason was finished with it and he just shook his head.
"You know, just a few years ago I would have said that something like this was out of the realm of possibility. And yet with modern composites it can be made and mass produced on spec."
Alice took the piece back and rotated it slowly.
"All sockets here for the curved body pieces to slide into with heat resistant epoxy. You've seen the ultrasound rig we use to test the joins, and everyone knows to keep airbubbles down and out. That can only be done by hand, and one person works each part of the epoxy resin. Nitrile gloves are something we go through about a box every two days, and more if we have to have an all-hands on deck for the joining of sections. I never thought that getting to the edge of space would require 50 gallon drums of resins back when I was in college."
"The space age isn't what it used to be," Ray said chuckling.
"No it isn't," Mason said as he walked by Alice who was putting the piece back into its box on the work platform. "And more change is coming."
"Yes, you said something about that earlier," Ray said, "I take it that is more than just here at Ascentech?"
Mason stopped to look up into the framework where cabling had been pulled through with the ends hanging down from a specially fabricated intersection.
"You know, its hard to say exactly what our future holds from here," he said looking upwards, "and DOGIS has limitations on how large an organization it can be. I came into DOGIS after a decade of project experience at Boeing and then time at PNL. I was put into a project dealing with analyzing the combat effectiveness of proposed next gen Aegis systems. Then came 9/11 and I moved to MASINT systems with overhead capability. That got passed off to a small organization we spun off to concentrate on just that topic. I met Brent at the tail end of that, and I pulled him into our next project, which was pre-deployment of ABMs in Poland and Czech Republic. Tamara had come onto that team and she proved very capable at interacting with local bureaucracies and smoothing over problems."
Alice stepped up next to Mason, looking up into the framework.
"What happened then?" she asked.
"Our government screwed it up," Mason said looking at her and then at Ray just beyond her. "We left with the job less than half-done. The DOGIS team felt... no, not just us alone, but everyone working on it felt betrayed."
Ray stepped up behind Alice, looking puzzled.
"With that background, why was your team given this assignment?"
Mason pressed his lips together with a hard frowning look and then shook his head from side to side.
"I wanted out from the Defense Support side of the house at DOGIS. It took us six months to clear up the last of the loose ends left hanging from that ABM pull-out, and I had gotten to know people from the Ministries in a few countries trying to explain that our contract had been pulled by DoD. Allies that we had said we would back were more than stunned at what happened, but my job was not that of making excuses to try and smooth over things. DOGIS got complaints, but backed me. If they hadn't DOGIS would have seen me walk, and at least 3 or 4 others on my team and a like number from other groups who know me. Call it a 5% personnel hit if they didn't back me for just speaking my mind and being honest with people who had been our partners."
Alice exhaled, "That's..."
"You needed a cooling off period," Ray said softly.
Mason looked at him, his face softening and then started smiling.
"Yes. So they threw me, someone used to the old missile, rockets and sensor world into a commerical analysis and support situation that the MTT handed to DOGIS. Their agent, Aaron Culpepper, had asked for a next gen space support group and he has some pull after having been on the DCP board."
"That's the owning group for the Mars Technology Trust, isn't it?"
"It is, Ray, and it meets a few times a year and gives its individual members some leeway in finding projects. They pass those for analysis to MTT, at least mostly MTT, and then MTT distributes what it considers viable to sub-organizations like DOGIS."
"And that's how Mr. Culpepper got your group here?" Alice asked.
Mason nodded and looked down the constructed framework portions of the main fuselage.
"I thought I was a poor fit for this project, Alice. Where are the metal struts, the rolled aluminum skin, the massive rocket motors, the high speeds... where are all the things I know so well? This was a slap on the face, or so I thought a couple of months ago, to be handed this. A joke. An impossibility. You don't even get that much over one-tenth of orbital speed..."
"Not at first, no..." Alice said, "it is unknown territory."
Ray stepped up and then walked beyond Mason looking at the structure of the ALV-II in outline, slowly coming into being.
"This isn't a brass ring we are grabbing at, here at Ascentech," he said after Mason started walking with him. "We aren't in a race, here, looking to grab headlines. There are many ways to get to orbit, and only a few feature rocketing behemoths or sleek booster vehicles of metal and fire. Nor is this a strictly piggyback plane and rocket arrangement, which requires a pretty powerful aircraft to get to high altitude. And they all have one thing in common, Mason."
"Yes. They are damned expensive. You can't do it if you don't have tens of millions or more backing you. To get to something mere mortals can buy into you can't go in that direction, you must find another way. We are trading slow ascent and longer lead time for lower cost materials and greater end deliverable performance for a lower overall operating cost."
"Carbon fiber, graphite, ceramics, and dirigible technology. It sounds weirdly, perversely insane, you know? Until Brent started working the numbers with the rest of our team in Huntsville. That and doing the flow dynamics and physics don't lie."
Alice looked at Mason as she came up next to him.
"That is what put me here, Mr. Newcomb, the numbers. Just on the back of an envelope I started working out the basics and figuring cost. One or possibly two other start-ups are trying this, but we have a leg up by motivation. At least we do, now."
"Yes we, do," Ray said, "a real cash flow, even if it isn't retiring much debt is, at least, covering operating expenses. We have something to show for our work beyond a few visuals from high altitude, and that cash means we are now in a business, not an extended, costly hobby. And that is putting the rest of the aerospace field on notice, even if they don't want to notice us."
"DOGIS can help get you past this early period, Ray. Once you become another full player in the business, we hope to be one of you logistics suppliers, nothing more as there is good money in that, too. This is no longer feeling like a slap in the face but a reward, and I intend to make the most of it."
Ray smiled and shook his head.
"So do we, Mason. So do we."
Late evening sunlight filtered through the trees and down to the forest floor, giving broken light to the two women walking down a well worn trail with the sound of gurgling water ahead.
"We're nearly there," Diana said shifting her daypack and quiver to a slightly more comfortable position.
"I hope so," Regina said stepping away from a small stand of ferns that had gathered beside the path where sunlight broke through from above.
Diana waited for a moment where a branch of the trail led down to a flatter area where water could be seen coming from a small spring that came from the mountainside and splashed over small rocks set there to direct the flow to a hollow in the native rock. There a pool formed with water going through a channel that went back to where the original water flow had been, so that only a few feet of the old flowing channel had been left dry. As Regina approached Diana held out her hand and led her companion down to that pool.
"Oh, Diana," Regina said softly, "its beautiful!"
Stopping on bare rock just a few feet from the pool Diana smiled as she let her pack and quiver settle to the ground.
"The spring near the cabin has a larger flow, but this one just feels... better."
Inhaling Regina nodded, "The air isn't as dry here, its a lot cooler, too."
Sliding her arms back Regina let her pack slip to her hands and then let it down next to Diana's. Next she took the canteen that was on a strap and shook it, hearing very little sloshing as she did so.
"Safe to refill, here?"
"Yes," Diana said kneeling next to the packs, sliding out a waterskin she had been using and draining the warm water from it onto the rocks just beyond their packs. After standing the two went to the pool and knelt down next to it, Regina in her jeans and light shirt, while Diana's bare knees above her boots and below her buckskin skirt rested on the cool rock.
As Regina opened her canteen and placed it into the pool she gasped.
"That is cold water!"
Leaning over Diana took off a dark green headband and soaked it in the water, then brought up a handful to her face.
"Isn't it, though?" she sighed, working the headband until it was soaked and then turning to Regina, "Trade you."
Regina looked at her, nodding and lowered her head so Diana could undo the light red bandanna and replace it with the wet green headband.
"Oooo! Chilly!" Regina said after Diana tied a knot to keep the headband in place.
Sliding her waterskin into the pool, Diana let her knee lift up to keep the strap for it pinned to the ground while she worked the bandanna into the water. This time she brought up the wet cloth and wrung it out over her head, repeating the process twice more before finally affixing it on her head. After that she slid the strap of the waterskin up and sunk it down to let it fill completely.
Regina turned over the canteen to wet the fibers on both sides, and then capped it off.
"That pool looks so inviting... "
"That is what its here for, Regina. Go ahead, take your boots and socks and let your feet cool off in it."
"It doesn't look more than a couple of feet deep," Regina said as she stood up, letting the canteen sit beside the pool.
"Not even that. And the cold, running water doesn't let much live in it. Even algae can only be found further downhill, up here nothing can really take hold. Early each summer a few of the children come here to clean out any silt that is in the bottom and to place ashes on the rocks above and below the pool."
Sitting down next to her pack, Regina opened it and took out a towel and then unlaced her boots, taking them and her double layer of socks off. She rubbed her feet and made sure that the socks had been placed out on the pack to air out. Standing carefully, she picked up the towel and walked the few steps back to Diana who was capping off her waterskin, placing it down on the rock and then removing her mocassins. Regina sat down next to her as she placed her feet in the pool.
"Mmmmm... it was a nice hike..." Diana whispered.
Once seated Regina swung her feet around and dipped them in the water, gasping. Diana reached out and placed her left hand on Regina's shoulder.
"Don't think of it as cold... but as a blessing given to the weary by the mountain," she whispered.
Regina turned to look at Diana, into the blue eyes that showed caring and compassion, along with a smile that held much mystery and comfort. Lowering her feet into the water, Regina felt how cold it was and yet how soothing as well. Taking a deep breath she sighed and placed her left hand on Diana's.
"Yes," she whispered, "that feels so good."
Turning her head to let the light play over her face, Diana inhaled deeply, slowly.
"I love this land... this so sweet land..."
Regina opened her eyes to look up into the sky blocked off by tree limbs overhead and then back down to Diana, who was still basking in the sun and shadow.
"That's... I remember there was singing..."
Diana turned from the sky to look at Regina.
"Yes, there was. Even if I wasn't... awake... I knew they would sing..." lowering her voice to just above a whipser Diana sang, softly.
"I love this land, this so sweet land;
to shelter me, from memories.
On this land, I welcome all,
a place to rest and be set free.
For I love all, of mankind;
and from this land, this so sweet land,
We will grow, new destiny."
Diana trailed off, closing her eyes and turning her head towards the pool. A smile grew on her face and she slid her feet out of the pool and stood up, turned from it, took two running steps and put her hands down and cartwheeled back in the direction of the trail, laughing as she went.
"What are you doing?" Regina asked sliding herself to her feet as she watched Diana repeat the performance, returning and then looking up towards the sky the shadows of the upper branches playing over her face.
"Doing? Laughing with my mother's mountains, playing in my brother's sun," Diana said lowering her eyes to look into Regina's, "and I bet you love cartwheeling and playing with them as much as I do."
Regina stared at Diana, the near girl, the near woman and saw the pure smile of happiness.
"Not since I was..." she said, "... I can't remember the last time I did anything like that. Maybe when I was 8 or 9."
Diana held out her hand to Regina.
"There is always time to be a girl, Regina. Especially when your playmates invite you so readily, come on, it won't harm you... and even if it did, the cold waters will help."
Reaching out slowly Regina also remembered that this was the same person that had taken down three gang members who had approached her with ill intent. And stopped them. And befriended those who would forgive her. As her fingers slid into Diana's hand, Diana whispered, "And if we are out late, then your sister moon will care for you. I promise that, Regina."
Soon there were two girls playing by the pool, doing cartwheels and handstands, running and laughing as the late afternoon sped into twilight. They would find that the pool for all its chill did offer refuge for the playful weary and the waters would renew it even after it had cleaned their bodies of the dirt of the forest and the sweat of old girls.
"Two rotors, check. Sixteen valve housings, check. And last on the list, Manual, Maintenance in original German, one of, check," Brent said leaning over the small crate that sat on a workbench in the hangar. "Those are the last pieces, double checked and inventoried for delivery." He looked up at the one workman who was across from him and then at Hermes who had walked over from the tractor trailer rig's rear doors.
"Is that everything, then?" Hermes asked.
Brent nodded and looked at the workman.
"Johnny, you can nail the top on, now."
"OK, Brent," the man said with a smile on his face as he reached down to get the wooden top piece to the crate.
"Good!" Hermes said in a somewhat raspy voice, "The deal is done, the money is in escrow, and once it is delivered and inventoried we will get things moving."
Brent handed her the clipboard after signing off on it, and Hermes leafed through the pages and shook her head.
"I will be glad to get back to New Mexico. Your Huntsville people are worth their weight in gold," she said putting a plastic sheet over the top page and wrapping a rubberband around the thick sheaf of papers. Together they walked to the front office area, having to walk around the tractor-trailer rig that had its cab doors open but the engine off.
"Where did you ever get an intact Me-262, anyway?" Brent asked.
Hermes shrugged and turned to smile at him.
"Found it listed as being in storage after purchasing a small aircraft company for its parts after it went out of business, back in the late '90s. It was locked in a safe in their basement. No one had the combination and I had to call in a locksmith who specializes 1920's designs. From what I could tell it had been found or, ah, stolen, from the Germans, taken apart and coated in cosmoline. It had been sitting in a warehouse just a mile from here ever since, all the boxes contained in an area that was gated and locked on the top floor of the warehouse. The owners of the warehouse had a receipt for long-term storage and were to contact the owner if it needed to move the crates. From what I could read the aircraft company owned 10% of the warehouse. I sold that portion to the current owners to fund getting the entire jet taken out of storage, cleaned up and assembled for testing."
"Did you know they had it before you bought them?"
Hermes looked at Brent and smiled.
"Not exactly, no. Just that they had much in the way of equipment with all sorts of stamps and records attached to them that no one was keeping track of. For just the sales of the warehouse percentage and a few other items, I knew I could break even."
As they walked into the office the trucker who was drinking a cup of coffee and reading one of the old magazines sitting on one of the old padded chairs, put down the magazine and picked up the cup of coffee.
"Did everything check out?" he asked.
Hermes smiled and went to the desk and sat down at it, and picked up the shipping order, handing that over to Brent. He opened up the envelope, unclipped the check-list and slid that into it then took off the seal on the flap and placed it down. He handed it over to the trucker as he stood up.
"There you go, Jerry, our people are ready to fill up the truck. Let them know where you want the heavy ones."
Jerry put down the cup of coffee and took the envelope.
"Glad to! Shouldn't take more than a couple of hours and then I'm out of here."
Hermes stood up and shook his hand.
"Pleasure to do business with you, and thank you for understanding about the final check off."
"My pleasure. The bond people will be over in a few minutes, but we can start on loading the worst of it."
Jerry shook Brent's hand and walked out and picked up blank checklist hanging on a set of pegs next to the door. As he stepped out he called out to the other men in the warehouse and the sound of a forklift starting could be heard.
Brent shifted a chair closer to the desk and sat down, looking at Hermes who smiled at him.
"That was a lot of work! I haven't done anything like that in years, and never with a historical piece. That is a real nice aircraft, and I'm sorry we couldn't get more than a half-hour of time in it."
Hermes leaned forward and put her hands together.
"I didn't think I would have to drag you into that part of it, Brent. Its a great favor to me and hard to repay, and if it wasn't for you I would still be at it with the locals," she chuckled shaking her head, "and they are decent mechanics after working on it for so many years. Now it will be someone else's headache, because that is what it is."
Leaning forward Brent gazed at Hermes.
"I thought it was time well spent," he said softly as Hermes unclasped her hands and extended one to him. He reached out and slid his fingers through hers. "And now a sub-contract with DOGIS, so we can get the support of my people. They are learning to adapt to how you do things because you don't design things like everyone else does."
"Oh, I could..." she said softly, "but its faster for me to do it my way. I can start finding what I need much faster my way, with only a few loose ends needing to be... sought out... later."
"We're good at that, going after the loose ends. I know they will have a few improvements for the drop-ship design, and without the contract they couldn't talk to the designer of the pulse rocket system. The design is something... Herman... it seems so primitive and yet it offers so much."
Hermes gently clasped Brent's hand.
"That's the attraction to it, using an older technology to do something unique, which is to get the maximum burn per pulse, gaining just a few percent more thrust. Continuous injection gets a very high percentage burned where it gives thrust to the craft, but whenever you are seeing big, billowing flames, you are seeing combustion outside the craft which is lost thrust. Unlike other designs its... easily adjustable. Add a 10% second out of standard hydrogen designs and it changes the whole aspect of the craft. The designer of the engine he has... well... he's adapting it to solid fuel, as well as monofuels. No craft with this design need go end for end to do a major thrust vector change, which will make every existing competitor's designs obsolete in less than 5 years."
"You know this is turning out to be a lot more than I expected. A year, eighteen months, in Poland and the Czech Republic to get basic site mapping with some layout for the installation plans for the ABM systems was a lot of fun... up to the point where it went sour. I've had a couple of small projects since then and expected that would be the rest of my career until Mason asked me in on this. Even when we first arrived on the project I thought it would be relatively dull, straightforward..." Brent gazed into Hermes' eyes, "...I've been so busy since set-down in this project that its hard to keep track of time. You... Regina... the two of you I thought... were nice but an odd coupling. Working with you both I realized that it wasn't odd at all, and you were making a new life together."
"Yes," Hermes whispered softly, faintly, "a new life. Of course we are and, truthfully Brent, Regina was the one who wanted that. I think from when we first met she has wanted that, but could never put it into words. A few years in the bar and restaurant business was a good time for us both and we had a business partner we trusted and handed the business to when we left. Regina didn't want to leave, at first, but my sister can be most persuasive when she sets her mind to it."
Brent looked at Hermes.
"I've seen that first hand," he said, "shes always very... reasonable... persuasive... and yet there is something just below the surface..."
"That, Brent, is the omni-present threat of 'if you don't do it this way, then I will do it in any way I can' and she means that. I respect that. So does my brother. She had tried to warn us that our father was... unstable... but she was so young, even flighty at times, no one took her seriously. She was a far better judge of those things than I was, and I spent, perhaps, the most time with him of my brothers and sisters. I loved him, Brent, and even after he died... I don't hate him. For doing what he did, I cannot forgive that even as I cannot forget it."
Hermes looked at the desk and shuddered. Then she looked up again.
"They were my family, Brent. I can never get it back. I am more cautious with my love, now, so I do not repeat his mistakes as such vast love and lust for life has a penalty all its own and everyone pays for it. Everyone."