"Nicholas, I'm glad you could get Sharon here with you on such short notice! And Jasmine, I know this is cutting into your study time, but I hope you can make it up," Dionysus said as the young man and woman followed by a somewhat younger woman stepped into the office area in his shop.
"Glad to make it, dad. We dropped Lucy off at daycare so Sharon could be with me," the young man said.
Gemma stepped over to hug each of them with a smile.
"More than glad," Sharon said, "I know that Nick said that this is important and it involved the business, so we both do have to be here."
"Good to see you, mom, dad," the younger woman named Jasmine said hugging her mother and father, "And its no big deal, still a few weeks until finals and my labs are all finished now."
Dionysus hugged each of them and then stepped to one side gesturing towards Diana.
"This is cousin Diana, Diana Sherwood, and while a distant cousin she knows of my skills with farms and asked me for some help. Diana, our son Nicholas and his wife Sharon,"
Diana stepped forward to shake each of their hands.
"Glad to meet you, both of you," she said smiling.
Nicholas smiled and shook her hand as did his wife.
"I haven't heard of you from Nick," Sharon said, "what is your relationship to his dad?"
"Estranged mother with our father, so I am really a distant cousin," she said, "but I have heard of cousin Dennis' capabilities and respect them, greatly."
"And so she does," Dionysus said, " and this is our daughter Jasmine. Jasmine, my cousin Diana."
"I'm glad to meet you and I'm sorry we had to drag you away from college for this," Diana said.
"No worries, Diana, I did the required courses early on and crammed them in. Now its just two required and two optionals. My profs are OK with it, so no problems."
"Good! I'm not here to cause trouble, but some disruption is necessary."
"I think Diana can explain that better to all of us, but it will take awhile," Gemma said, "you all know where we keep the goodies around here and help yourself."
"Be seated! I paid good money for the sofa, tables and chairs and they must be made use of so that I can get my money's worth from them."
As Nicholas and Sharon moved to the sofa, Gemma joined them and Jasmine took up a chair to her right. Dionysus went to his chair behind the desk and Diana went to a chair to his left to look at the others. She had a flip chart behind her which had the Ascentech and HighFlight logos.
"So what's this all about?" Nicholas asked, "A business venture of some sort?"
Sharon looked at Diana and then the flip chart while Jasmine looked from her father to Diana.
"Wow! If it weren't for the age difference you could almost be brother and sister," Jasmine said softly.
"I think Diana is best suited to tell us about it, and it is more contract work for advice and recommendations that might turn into something a bit firmer if things work out. I will say it isn't in our normal line of work, here at the shop, Nicholas," Dionysus said.
Diana leaned forward in her chair, not looking comfortable in a woodlands brown business suit with forest green shirt and brown ankle high boots, but not ill at ease for the lack of comfort in her clothing.
"Yes it is a bit off the beaten track for normal agricultural work," Diana started, "and while there are many experts, groups and other associations that might be better suited to what I'm looking for, the first person to come to mind was my cousin and I do go with first intuition."
"Does it have to do with that group? Ascentech? HighFlight?" Jasmine asked.
"Are those the people dropping funeral ashes from orbit?" Sharon asked.
"Ascentech is, yes," Diana nodded, "and it is about those companies for what they are looking to do, not what they currently offer."
"What is that? How are you associated with them?" Nicholas asked.
Diana stood up and took two steps and turned slowly next to the flip chart.
"I'll try to do this formally and answer questions as best I can," she said, "I'm Diana Sherwood and I'm an investor in Ascentech along with two other distant cousins that I asked to help out, Aaron Culpepper and Herman Lassiter,"
"The race car driver?" Nicholas asked.
"Yes, he retired from all racing a few years ago and went into private business. I asked for his help and acumen not just for auto racing but for his knowledge of aircraft and watercraft. He started up the complementary business of HighFlight a few months ago."
Diana flipped the chart to show the Ascentech ALV-I and captured stills of the first test drop from high altitude.
"You may remember Ascentech as the company that dropped a DeSoto from nearly 15 miles up into the Pacific Ocean," she said smiling, "and maybe the commercial of the supplier of the drop vehicle."
"Oh, yeah! Those people!" Jasmine said chuckling, "That vid went viral for a few weeks earlier this year. I thought that was just plain nuts."
"As did I," Gemma said, "but it got them good publicity for all that it was a stunt."
Diana shrugged and flipped to the financial cost of getting to that altitude and dropping a payload from it, which had been pared down from its initial $1 million plus mark for that first drop to less than $100,000 for long term operations.
"This is not an inexpensive operation, but for the delivery service there is no equivalent anywhere on the planet. HighFlight stood up to meet the drop container market and can supply and customize a drop container, pick up insurance costs and do other overhead operations and deliver nearly 3/4 of a ton anywhere on the planet for $250,000 base price, with additional costs for extra services. With each individual set of remains in an Ascentech funerary deposition, the company clears nearly $140,000 per flight above O&M."
"O&M?" Jasmine asked.
"Operations and Maintenance," Dionysus said, "and that is net profit although the vehicle cost is spread out over a 10 year duration."
Diana flipped the chart to the next diagram which showed Ascentech ALV-II system and drop systems destined for manned use and orbital cargo delivery from HighFlight.
"Cousin Herman is taking on this next part, and it is vital to the overall set of plans, and that is moving manned high altitude to orbit with full vehicle return into a regular experience. He has designed the Athena aerospace craft to go from high altitude to Low Earth Orbit, refuel at a system container designed around a Centaur rocket, and then return to Earth. This will be backed by the larger dropped payload of 10 tons from the ALV-II system which is closer to 8 tons deliverable anywhere on the planet."
"Holy shit," Nicholas said, "thats amazing."
"Wow!" Sharon said looking at her father who was smiling as he looked at them all, "You never told us you had an extended family of businessmen behind you," she said.
Dionysus shrugged, "One does not brag about such things. Because there have been problems in our shared past, it is best to let other family go their own way unless they ask for help, of course."
Jasmine was blinking as she looked at the flip chart sheet.
"I got into the wrong field," she said softly.
"And which one is that?" Diana asked.
"Organic biochemistry. I can take the names, the reactions and the rest of it but never got the hang of the larger size of physics. I made the wrong career path."
"Nonsense," Diana said, "And I'm sure that if you have anything to contribute to space based agriculture, high energy fuel systems, or closed system recycling and biota maintenance, you just might find a number of careers open to you in the near future."
"What?" Jasmine asked softly.
"Wait a second, how do you go from this to..." Sharon started but Diana held up her hand.
"Sharon, if I may?"
Sharon nodded, "Of course."
"The path I'm looking to go down starts with this humble Centaur stage in orbit. Or, more correctly, an agglomeration of them over the next two years," she flipped the chart, "and this is family only, by the way. If you want to invest your own funds, that's fine, but this is something we do not want coming out until its been accomplished. Our future is at stake, here."
"Our future?" Nicholas asked but trailed off as he looked at the next flip chart showing pieces of a space station put together out of delivered components and then a larger core piece from an ALV-II drop container.
"These containers are very worthwhile in orbit, once their fuel is exhausted. While thin-skinned they can be re-inforced and augmented with insulation, a magnetically active mesh and lower cost, lower density and lower output thin-film solar arrays. Converting these to an actively liveable habitat going beyond the consumables/expendables of the ISS concept and putting in a fully active and sustained atmospheric replenishment system is necessary for longer-term habitation. It will also serve as a remote operations control center for future work."
"Wait a second," Sharon said, "what is the timeframe to get this going?"
"Two to three years to this stage," Diana said, "at that point the Pegasus from Ascentech will be operational and it will have a drop container version for up to 100 ton drop mass, or converted it will be a multi-passenger slow ascent to orbit delivery vehicle. And by slow ascent I mean that instead of minutes to orbit it will take up to a week or as little as one full day, depending on load. To orbit requires much of that mass be in fuel, of course, dropping delivery mass to just over 30 tons."
She flipped the next chart to show the Pegasus systems delivering structural pieces to the station, while ALV-II containers were sent to Lunar orbit, with ALV-I containers being used for fast deliverables, spare parts and even the capacity to be converted to a two person manned vehicle.
"One of the first concerns for Ascentech and HighFlight is getting more than just delivery business going, but to also spur on the removal of space junk from orbit. For abandoned or derelict satellites, this will be a salvage business and a small mass smelter will be used to re-utilize what has already been delivered to orbit. We can schedule active repair services or delivery of repairmen to orbit to service satellites for countries or companies that cannot field such services on their own. This is hoped to be done as a proof-of-concept only within the next year. After that, once we have established a permanent orbital presence, this will become a customary part of our work. Ascentech and HighFlight are both working towards this end-goal, and that was presented to me as an investor some years ago. Getting this into a realistic expense stream has been important, and that is why I brought my other two cousins on-board."
"That is a lot to take in," Jasmine said.
"Yes it is," Nicholas said, "but its interesting! Why do you need dad for help, though."
Sharon nudged him and pointed to the containers with an arrow pointing off the sheet.
"The Moon, of course! You people are going back to the Moon!" she said in a hushed but excited tone.
"Not at first, no. Not manned systems, at any rate. The prospecting materials have already been done and we can drop just about anywhere that is flat on the Moon for our purposes. What will go first, however, is a small base system with a solar array and shielded set of storage batteries. Next comes a small rover with scoop to bury that system for added insulation and protection from cosmic rays. Then comes the mass driver with its solar array to connect to the first system. That should come with a few hundred thin film capsules to be filled and put into the mass driver to be delivered to orbit where they can be captured and smelted. I'm hoping to get a small nuclear power system on the moon along with a smelter to use gravity separation there and utilize slag to protect the systems. Why I need my cousin," she said turning to look at Dennis, "is to find out how to turn Lunar regolith or just plain silica slag into a matrix for creating biologically closed systems. That actually starts in orbit, of course, but in time that will be going to the moon."
There was quiet for a moment.
"How does that equipment operate?" Jasmine asked.
"Semi-autonomously, with some remote operation available, although the time lag prevents real-time work to a large degree."
After flipping up the the prior chart, the next showed a system of mass-drivers, an orbital smelter and factory, and the production of new factory components, amorphous thin film solar collection material, manned and unmanned vehicles moving between Earth and the orbital facilities and the Moon. One part of the diagram had a solar collection system beaming power down to Earth as low intensity microwaves with a cost per kilowatt hour that undercut even hydro-electric power.
"The end result is a manned presence with remotiely operated and autonomous systems supplying material not only to Earth orbit but for use with a proposed Lunar base. Within 20 years mankind will have a low cost alternative to spaceflight for the rest of the Solar System and cost per pound to orbit can be lowered through future systems utilizing mass drivers powered by orbiting solar arrays. This will work in tandem with other organizations that seek to guide asteroids or comets into orbit, and this system will serve as a first line refining and production system to utilize that material brought in at low cost to Earth orbit. There are no real designs beyond the already planned systems at this point, but the path for them is clear. Any advances in automation and remotely operated technology as well as better propulsion sources will augment this system by replacing parts of it. To get to this point, however, requires a long-term and reliable bio-system that can sustain life in orbit and be robust enough to counter changes in biota due to mutations and other effects of low gravity or zero gravity environments. Your father is key to this and how he works with others to adapt cultivation and farming techniques will be a vital part of going beyond the 'lab of plants to supply oxygen from carbon dioxide' perspective. For humans to have a comfortable environment takes a living system that is more than just oxygen and water, but the feel of plants and grass under foot. Mental health is as important if not more important than the merely physical kind, and nature that we have grown up with is a vital part of us no matter where we go."
"Dad," Nicholas started, "I know that you've been spending some time in the office with a client the past day or two and seen Diana around the neighborhood. Why did you wait so long before introducing us?"
"Nicholas," he said and then looked at Sharon and Jasmine, "all of you, this isn't just family as you can see. Before I take on any major work I have to make sure it was sound with your mother, and we have taken time and turns with cousin Diana to make sure we understood just what it was that I was being asked to do. My part in this, for all of its importance, is not a large one but it will require me and your mother to be away, perhaps for months at a time, to become fully acquainted with the material and topics involved. This is not a new problem, you see, but no one has actually approached it with the fine level of detail necessary to stand up a self-contained ecosystem that will be exposed to these conditions. Our cousin, indeed everyone invested in this project save the DOGIS group brought in by cousin Aaron, are putting much of their life savings at risk. Some of it more than just their own, but that passed down to them, as well. Because I think this is good work, I want our business, here, to go into your hands with a working reserve fund to help on rainy days. To get to this last place, to know that I've worked to help get all of these pieces in place, will take much time from me and your mother."
"Your giving us... your business?" Sharon whispered.
"But, dad, you spent years building this up!" Jasmine said, "We aren't ready to..."
Gemma looked at her and smiled.
"Aren't you, Jasmine? And you, Nicholas, you've spent more than some part time and spare time work here as well as Sharon. While we don't do custom juices for the Washington and Oregon markets, it is in a related business and we have helped many of your growers out over the years. Do you think they wouldn't understand if you took on this aspect of the work from your father? I've kept good files for him..."
Dionysus sighed as he smiled, shaking his head from side to side.
"... just to help those customers out. It is easy enough to find them, look up past concerns, soil and water tests, and other things that they've brought to us so that they can be helped in the future," she then looked at Jasmine, "which offers you a somewhat more lower-level but steady place to get a good feel for agricultural systems and then, if you want to help the rest of the endeavor, your background will be immensely helpful."
"Plus help to pay off your school debts," Dionysus said, "even those that I backed still need to be paid off. Although I do take sweat equity into account as good faith payment and pay down accordingly for demonstrated skill and flexibility."
"Pure exploitation," Jasmine whispered, smiling, "and I hated those Econ and Business courses, too!"
"You did OK with them, Jaz," Nicholas said, "and if we do have to run this place..." he said looking around the office, "... then I really can't do it alone. Sharon and I will be stretched thin to cover here and our juice operation."
"You'll still have Andrea and Caroline here," Dionysus said referring to two of their part-time people, "who are very good at the stocking and re-order side of things. They should really be pumped up to full-time employees and given more responsibility. Something I've been loathe to do..."
"Yes, you have, dear," Gemma said.
"And now is as good a time as any. The fall crops are in, growers are getting to feel out what the next year's schedules will be like and what the costing is, and it is one of the best times of year to get your feet wet before the real deluge of spring orders arrives in January or February of next year. It isn't as if you can't phone, text or e-mail us, or even teleconference, you know," Dionysus said, "and I am sure one or two customers will need me to come back to give them reassurances that they will get just as good service from the new owners as they did from me and your mother."
Sharon looked from her father-in-law to Diana as the latter was taking down the flip chart that she had done up at the local office store.
Diana turned to look at her with the Ascentech and HighFlight front leaf now back in place.
"Is it true... what you've shown us?"
"Cross-my-heart true, Sharon. This is the slow, sure path to human habitation in space. When a step is taken forward we will not step back, this time. It is a step that can be supported, reinforced and built-upon. Even though it is slow on the outside, building up the necessary means to sustain this on the ground is going to be a mad scramble. Yet this approach is already close to breaking even, enough so to lay into putting in the next step which builds for the step after that. At any point a delay is acceptable because the rest of it is on its way to profitability, although very little of that will actually be seen as profits as it will go right back into the business. And there are guarantees for the original investors that they will, at least, not lose money on this, and that is bonded."
"And what do you get out of it?" Nicholas asked, "You've invested, everything?"
"Not everything, no. And if it goes to ruin, I still have a little cabin in Alaska to go to and I will live off the land. Aaron has other lines of work, including ranching, that I've taken him from and Herman, well, he can get backing in many racing venues. We won't go penniless, just be poor. I don't mind that since this is worth doing. Perhaps, just perhaps, we can shame these much larger trusts, these much larger companies, these much larger concerns into deciding that blazing glory of high speed rockets going from launch pads may not be the entire way for the future. If those who are merely somewhat rich, somewhat well off but in no way a big player anywhere can do this, then why can't they? Even if it was a losing proposition, so many of these places have 'for the welfare of mankind' in their charters in various words. And yet they play politics. They play money. They no longer play at true welfare for all mankind. To do that there needs to be a leader, an example. Someone who will get there first, and say 'you can stop playing now and join us for the true welfare of all'. Better that then that other path they go down, isn't it?"
Nicholas nodded, whispering 'yes'.
Sharon looked at Diana wide-eyed as she had never heard someone say such a thing to her as a personal dedication, as this obviously was.
Jasmine just inhaled and nodded.
"I have to finish school, first. Then I'm all in. Here at the shop, then the future. I want it so bad I can taste it."
Dionysus shook his head as he looked at Diana.
"All you promise is hard work. Yet in a good cause. Your followers will be limitless."
"I want no followers, cousin. Just helpmates willing to do the right thing at great sacrifice to themselves. Really, is that so extraordinary a thing to ask these days?"
Ares watched the instruments as the orbital path shifted to go over the re-entry area. As he shifted the trim of the vehicle and adjusted the attitude of the engines, the cockpit hummed.
"That is looking good my brother," Hermes said from the control room watching the displays as they shifted, "you should have a burn in a minute."
Ares looked at the readouts through his helmet, raising an eyebrow.
"I'll be doing an alternative re-entry this session," he said low tones.
"Really? Another one of your hot crater events?" Hermes asked with a wry smile.
"No. This is a test of physics."
"Ah, I see..." Hermes said watching as the timer clicked over into red numerals indicating the missed re-entry burn, "and just what sort of test is this?"
"Orbital change from velocity delta, just like every other orbital change. Save this will be a rapid change."
Hermes leaned back in his chair and looked at the one rather bored technician that was running the simulation listening to his mp3 player while entering statistics into the tracking program.
"Watch. Burn in one minute, high delta-v."
Hermes reached over to another computer and turned the monitor showing the inside of the cockpit. He watched as Ares reached out to adjust the direction of the rockets, changed the output direction of the combustion chamber and then pulled back on the control systems. They had worked with high delta-v burns on ascent, going just over 7g which was within the safety limits of the design, but the re-entry burns had tended to be slow and steady burns. Even those attempts by Ares to pull to a stop and do a VTOL landing had started with the long re-entry for those. Doing a high delta-v above the atmosphere promised to be something different.
Ares watched the time indicator, the orbital positioning display and then shifted the engines to start the burn. As he pulled back the negative g's began to build and the displays started to go grey and then dark around the sides of the cockpit, and that slowly darkened. Since the helmet tracked his head movements he could see that the displays would darken at the periphery of his vision as the g forces climbed up passed 5g and then 6g. The orbital indicator's speed decreased over the next minutes as he pushed up to a 7g burn.
"Just what is he doing?" Hermes whispered to himself, not transmitting that to Ares.
The altitude of the vehicle was dropping, but not as fast as the speed was decreasing. Over Los Angeles the vehicle held a constant position except that its altitude was slowly decreasing. Ares saw this and changed the attitude of the vehicle to point almost straight down.
"You are low on fuel," Hermes said looking at the minute or so of fuel remaining in the simulated rocket system.
"Not needed, I have over 100 miles to drop."
Hermes mentally did calculations, shifting the 3d display to look at that attitude of the Athena as it began to gain speed as it dropped towards the Earth. Hastily he put up a tracking beacon for the spaceport and the Athena, then started to try and fit what Ares was doing with what he knew of flight and aerodynamics. As he worked he saw the speed indicator slowly climb on the Athena as its flight path started to descend and slowly change in attitude of the craft as Ares used the minimal atmosphere to begin a course deflection.
"Now we shall see how good this simulator is," Ares said, "another minute until the first hypersonic chute deployment. I do not know what it will do at lower than hypersonic speeds."
"Drag, of course," Hermes said as the indicator was now at Mach 2 and the flight path was beginning to curve out over California and inland. "This path will actually be slower..."
"Yes," Ares said watching the virtual Earth fill the external monitors, "the speed is necessary due to the Athena's limited wing surface."
Hermes licked his lips as the Athena was getting below the 30 mile mark.
Just as the Athena moved over Mach 4 the first chute deployed which slowed the vehicle and started to pull it back closer to the horizontal, helping to correct its course.
"Only a few seconds of that," Ares said as he reached for the manual disconnect on the chute, watching the air speed.
"Ah, that's tricky," Hermes said.
Shifting the attitude of the forward rocket nozzles, Ares cut the chute and gave a quick burst to raise the nose of the Athena.
"Mach 2," Ares said, smiling as his flight path now extended out over Arizona to New Mexico.
"You are going to dead stick it?" Hermes asked.
"I still have plenty of fuel left for a mere approach," Ares replied, "and now more than enough speed for a conventional landing. Safe enough if you have enough delta-v and a relatively low mass vehicle. I would not have tried this with anything much larger than the Athena."
"I'm impressed," Hermes said, "and you aren't even putting much of a thermal stress on the system, unlike our prior simulations."
"Affirmative," Ares said watching the virtual landscape now become visible as he went above the clouds, "it is a re-entry that has little for the pilot to do on the way down. That is the hardest thing to do in any vehicle."
"Yes it is," Hermes said, "and none of the people who will want to fly the Athena will want to do that, preferring the hands-on hot entry with a lot of fuel to play with, rockets blazing forward during re-entry. This is dull in comparison. No trade-offs between speed, drag, exhaust, and fuel levels as you fly."
Ares shifted the flaps to begin bleeding off speed as the spaceport approached.
"I could let the UAV package take it from here," he said, "still I'll pilot it to touchdown."
"I've got the flight profile recorded," Hermes said, "If the Athena suffered any damage, it is this profile that will be used to attempt a safe return."
Speed and altitude continued to drop and the clouds were now above the vehicle, far above it, and the glide path to the runway at the spaceport showed up.
"Two minutes to main chute deployment," Ares said, "although you've demonstrated that isn't truly necessary."
"I had thought that the hypersonic chute was the one I would want to remove," Hermes said, "but no longer. I think you could actually parachute the vehicle down to subsonic speed for an ejection in a worst case scenario."
The simulator gave a rumble as the wheels came down and locked in place. As the rear wheels gave a slight jarring sensation, the main chute deployed and the speed began to quickly drop. When the airspeed reached zero, Ares went through the shutdown procedure and the simulation ended.
"And that is basic physics and how to get down from orbit in the Athena in the safest way possible."
"Ah, maid service! There are reasons I love hotels!" Tamara said dragging the pushcart of food that had been left outside her room into her hotel room. Inside the anteroom Regina was sitting at the small table that they had cleared of promotional material, and had an ice bucket on it with an opened magnum of white wine they had gotten on the way to the hotel at the Total Wine store. They had gotten glasses from the bar after deciding that neither of them was really up to restaurant meal. Ordering off the hotel restaurant's menu and going up to Tamara's room sounded much better than talking in public.
Regina had gotten an opener from her notebook computer's satchel, which also served as her purse as she tended to carry it with her everywhere.
"Isn't that the truth?" Regina said putting her wine glass down and padding over to the door to help Tamara get the cart in so she could tip the staff member from the restaurant who delivered the cart. When she was done they started lifting covers and placing their meals on the table.
"This is pure decadence," Regina said with a smile, getting her napkin over her lap while sliding her chair closer to the table.
"Pure indulgence to stay here, but my per diem covers it, barely, and I'm willing to eat the cost of a decent meal every few days. Mostly I just get here and crash with maybe wrapped sandwich from the corner store. I let the staff know that I wouldn't be buying any of the in-room stuff, but that I really needed the refrigerator space. That and a bar tab got them satisfied in no time."
After cutting into her chicken risoto with sauteed vegetables, Regina took a bite and closed her eyes. She took a sip of wine and smiled.
"Oh, yes! I can totally see living like this!"
Tamara sliced into the lobster tail on her plate and dipped the meat into the melted clarified butter and hummed to herself as she savored the flavor.
"Actually, after the first week you find yourself wanting someplace more... personalized. I see so little of my place in Huntsville, its not funny. And now that DOGIS is breaking out business units into autonomous businesses..."
Regina took a forkful of the side salad she had ordered and stopped, looking at Regina.
"Huh? Breaking up? When did that start?"
Tamara looked across at Regina and smiled.
"That's between us, ok?"
"Mason told us last week that his meetings with the higher-ups with the DCT and MTT boards board led to the decision that now was the time to break out small business units from DOGIS. DOGIS was getting too big for its coordinating mission, taken on too many different tasks, and they want the organization slimmed down by the end of the year."
"Oh, wow! So what's that mean to you? Still have a job next year?"
Tamara nodded as she ate.
"Yes, I do. One of the chunks is a space support group, which I'm part of, though it was on DoD side. Mason is getting to run that and it will include the Mods and Sims group, the West Coast infrastructure organization and the New Space organization, which I'm in. That will get us 30 to 35 people once all the personnel shifts take place, and Mason will headquarter it in Flagstaff, but have a major set of offices in Buena Vista, Phoenix and another at the spaceport. I think the M&S group will be in Flagstaff, and because of tax concerns Buena Vista will get closed down and moved out either into Nevada or in Phoenix, I think. For me its just a title change, a bit of a bank change, and knowing that we are a sink or swim on our own operation with ties back to DOGIS and MTT."
For awhile both were quiet as they ate until Regina sat back to pour out more wine for the two of them.
"So, what's going to happen to your place in Huntsville? Your mom going to get it?"
Tamara shrugged looking at her plate and the second lobster tail.
"I've talked with her about it, and its hard. It isn't as if Huntsville really suits her that well, but its close to a lot of places without actually being any place on its own. She is willing to take over my place, and give me a lump sum up front and probably sell it. If you can in today's market. I'm looking to move out here, probably outside suburban Phoenix, if I can find a suitable place. Right now I don't mind the half-hour drive to Ascentech and Hiflight, more or less, but want some room to stretch out."
"Yeah, I hear you on that! Herman looked around and neither of us saw anything we really liked and we decided that living space at the shop was better than a separate home. Zoning Nazis allowing, you know?"
Tamara laughed and then started in on finishing her dinner.
"No such luck for me! I can't really live with Aaron... not that he has put down roots around here. He just camps out at that cut-rate place out near Ascentech by the strip mall," she shook her head negatively as she ate. "To him its just a place to stay. Spartan. Clean but antiseptic."
"Uh-huh, I know the place. Been there once with Herman as they talked about design schedules a month ago, maybe. Formicaland. I would go nuts in just a couple of days in a place like that."
"Yes," Tamara said savoring a piece of lobster and then sipping her wine, "its not... there is no comfort there. He is a hard man to understand in many ways."
Regina took up a roll and used that to corral the chicken risoto on to her fork as she neared the end of it.
"Yet ya got the hots for him, right?" Regina said letting the first hint of Valley Girl slip out, something she did her best to tamp down at all times.
Snorting and putting the glass down, Tamara lifted her napkin and dabbed at her nose, trying not to laugh as tears streamed from her eyes.
Regina sat smiling at Tamara, taking a drink from her glass of water.
"You! That's not the sort of thing I was expecting..."
"But right, isn't it? I can't imagine Mr. Culpepper shacking up with you here..." Regina said looking around the anteroom of the suite, "... nope. Visit though, yeah, I can see that."
Smiling Tamara dabbed at the corners of her eyes and then took a glass of ice water sitting next to the wine glass and took a long set of swallows.
"Well he is family to you, now. Or relative, at least," Tamara said, "We date... if you can call them dates instead of just going out together... its never been, you know, formal? Dress up, limo, long gloves, night at the opera, dancing, candle lit dinner."
"I can totally see you doing that," Regina said, "probably in something like red satin... or one of those bright yellow deals that only two or three women on the planet can wear and not look like a frozen banana... high heels, opera gloves, necklace... uh-huh. Aaron Culpepper I cannot see in a tux, though. Dress blues? Killer. Never a tux for him, though."
Tamara finished her plate and small side of vegetables smiling as Regina talked.
"I actually have one of those red outfits. In Huntsville. I can do golden yellow, but more towards the golden than the yellow. Here its just dress-up business outfits, ditch the coat and go for a silk blouse. Good enough to fake it."
"That's good enough for anyone! You could always tell the businesswomen letting it go for a night on the town after work. Dressed just like that, but let the hair down for the night. They never had problems or got hassles, you know? On the street, a different story, but in the club? Nuh-uh, look and only touch if invited. See a couple of 'em snag one of the bar tables and join the looker area or the meat line..."
"The what?" Tamara said putting her plate and bowl back on the cart.
"Looker area. A bunch of tables along the half-wall, separating from the booths and tables. Still at the bar area though. The window tables are the meat line, the 'hey if you want a fun time, I'm available' spots. Easy dance pick-ups there. Instadates."
Munching down on the roll, Regina put her plate on the cart and helped Tamara get the other covered dishes out. While Tamara uncovered their pieces of cake, Regina looked under the cloth at the second tier of the cart.
"Ah-ha! That's where that got to!"
She reached in and pulled out a long-necked bottle and two small glasses.
"What the hell? How did you get...?"
"I asked the bartender if they had anything good for the cake, talked liquers while you were handing the order over. Really, for a hotel bar its not bad. No grappa, but some really off-the-wall stuff for the sticks. Gots chocolate liquer from Israel. Yummy stuff. Trust me. Goes good with coffee, too."
Tamara had put the covers on the cart and was putting coffee cups out and pouring into them while Regina poured out the liquer.
"So you were deflecting me, you know?" Regina said as she sampled the liquer and smiled, "And nice deflection, too! I would never have found this stuff if it wasn't for Herman."
Sniffing at the liquer, Tamara found that it did have the smell of chocolate with a headiness that only alcohol can offer. She sipped and nodded.
"Definitely with chocolate cake," she said, sampling the cake and slowly letting the flavor of it melt in her mouth.
Regina sampled the cake and savored its flavor before taking a sip of coffee and then the liquer from the glass. "That is good, " she said softly.
Taking a sip of coffee Tamara looked at the chocolate cake for a moment.
"Its a natural habit, deflecting questions like that. Bad habit when I grew up to keep mom and dad in the dark about my interests. I still do it, and I'm sorry, Regina."
"Totally fine, Tamara. I just told mom and dad to stop bugging me and I would tell them the moment I had an idea of what I was looking for. Did too. Then they asked me to stop, but not because of details, just volume of info. I don't do that, normally, but if you ask for it, you get it. I did that with Herman when we got together and he... she... outwaited me and I started to run down on topics. A year, no two, I realized that I didn't have much left to say. Now its pretty easy to talk with him and we discussed Brent, between us, a couple of months after things quieted down. I told him about my, ah... say, you never asked to know this stuff, did you?"
Tamara stretched her legs out beside the table and put one arm over the back of the chair, sitting side-ways in it.
"Well I did ask you... about what happened. I'm not your parents, though. Not an intimate of yours," Tamara glanced over at Regina who was staring at her with an unreadable expression on her face, "and I'm willing to listen, help if I can if there is anything wrong."
"Look, can we go over to the sofa? Just not comfortable like this and... I don't know if I need help."
Nodding Tamara agreed and pushed the cart away from table, and they spent a few minutes getting their cake, coffee, liquer, napkins, liquer bottle and coffee pot put on the table in front of the small sofa. As they settled Regina poured out a bit of the light brown liquer to keep their glasses half-full while Tamara filled their coffee cups.
"I was afraid of Diana. She is a load of bricks that comes out of nowhere, at least to me. Going from afraid, physically afraid of her to... she understood what I was feeling and she..." Regina shook her head looking to her right at Tamara while holding the cup of coffee.
"She wanted to set you at ease?" Tamara asked nibbling at her piece of cake.
Pressing her lips together Regina nodded.
"It wasn't the, you know, lets talk about it, deal. On the way back from that first long day's trip, even Herman was exhausted, and I was just wired. We had left Diana out in the sticks with her pack and stuff, until we got back. When we did it was, well Herman obviously needed rest, he had done the driving duties, speeding almost constantly and that Suburban isn't made for that. It was a long bypass to drop Diana off, hit Vegas for a quickie marraige and then get back to her out there in the middle of nowhere."
"Why did she... no wait, you said she hates cities and heard as much from Aaron. But that much?"
Regina shrugged and shifted to reach to the table and exchange to get her piece of cake.
"I think after a week... or was it 10 days?... in San Fran she really did have enough of being in a city. She knew someone from one of the tribes and we stayed on the outskirts of a valley that has a mountain that they revere. We sat, close together in the cold, and then she wanted me to see how the valley and mountain looked from a place the natives used to stop at in their ceremonies. It was important to her and wasn't much to ask and she made sure I was OK on the path at night. When we got to a small clearing you could see the mountain against the stars and she..." Regina trailed off for a moment and took another bite of the cake and set the plate down.
"...I could feel warmth coming from her. She asked me to hold her and when I did... warmth coming up through the ground and through her. Not the hots kind, you know? Not at first at least... but coming up through my feet and then as I held her... kissed her..." Regina became quiet and Tamara set her plate down and slid to be next to Regina.
"Yes... Regina... I told you about getting hot... on the range... with Aaron?"
"Just like that, but from where he touched and looking down range I...coming up from the ground in the direction of the target.. each touch to shift my positiong just felt..."
"It feels so right..." Regina said, "you know you are just in the right place, the right way. I had that feeling working through the business model for the club with Herman, but nothing... I already had, you know? Good lovers. With Diana I just felt... the fear disappeared... no changed... it wasn't fear any more but..."
"Craving intimacy. You can't close yourself off from it, even if you tried... but accepting how you feel that makes you want.. a full experience of it."
"Yes! Oh, yes! And more!" Regina whispered with a soft undertone, "I'm not... I can do the physical part with women, you know? Just no involvement, no attraction. Fun but, not love. With Diana its... she loves me.. loves her brothers... I think she loves all of us here. She just can't, do it with men like she can with women. How could I not want her? Initimately. Fully."
"You can't. I wanted, craved that with Aaron. Not just the sex but to feel the attachment and know it goes between us."
"Does, too!" Regina said nodding, "And not the puppy sort of love or crush but something that just... wears in... even when it goes.. differently."
Tamara shifted her body so she could reach her left and over to Regina's shoulder and felt her right hand move to hers.
"I don't want to pry," Tamara said, "but what...?"
"She asked me to give her time, she said she had to give me..." Regina squeezed Tamara's sholder gently, "I haven't told Herman or Brent. She asked me not to worry unless I hadn't heard back from her in about a month..."
"And you have heard from her, of course," Tamara said.
"I never expected to see her again... the way she left..." she closed her eyes and shivered, "... no one could..." she shook her head from side-to-side.
"What... what happened?"
"We had a fun, intense week. Had seen a native story played out, explored along a ridgeline and spent time in a spring fed pool. Danced, played, loved... I hadn't done a cartwheel in years!" Regina smiled and opened her eyes. "Its such fun, I had forgotten. Then we went down so she could show me the Green River in its canyon."
"Oh, I hear that's lovely!"
"It is! I think I asked... too much... she said she would explain to me but that she needed to give me proof that I couldn't deny."
Tamara looked puzzled and slid closer as she saw the expression on Regina's face change, again.
"What... did you ask?"
"The sun was setting over the area and we were out on a promontory over a bend in the river and she was describing how the water flowed from mountains to sea, never ending. I asked her if she was... like that."
Tamara opened her mouth and her lips moved to form an 'oh' but no breath gave it voice.
"She said that she was... in some way... like that. In the night, the sudden night, she took her bow, quiver, small bedroll and then told me to go back, leave her Suburban with the natives, and that she would tell me more when she got back."
"Where did she go?" Tamara asked.
Regina looked at her with saddening eyes and then looked through her.
"I can still see her sprinting out on to the promontory, disappearing into darkness and then... there against the stars and moon her body up in the air... and then... down... into the river of green."
Tamara shivered seeing the tears in Regina's eyes and then slid forward to hold her.
"How did she get across?" Tamara asked.
"She couldn't... didn't," Regina said holding her, "No one could do that. It is not a gentle river. No one could survive that. I loved her. Do love her. And never wanted to see anything like that. Ever."
Tamara held on to her as she cried softly. Gently pulling away to get a tissue from the box by the side of the sofa, she let Regina clear her nose and eyes.
"I... when I started with Aaron I knew he had been in the Marines. No tattoos or anything. A strong man, a good man. There is some... mystery about him. It's something we've talked about, Mason, Brent and me. I learned that Aaron had been in Afghanistan and cycled out because of a large chest wound."
Regina shuddered as she put the kleenex on the table, and looked at Tamara.
"What? Like, you know, chest blown open?"
"Its been... we had already been... very intimate for weeks when I learned that. He doesn't talk about what he did, just that better men hadn't survived and that they sacrificed so much with so few to remember them. That is the brotherhood of men at arms, never to talk about yourself, and always to talk about the sacrifice of others. That part of being a soldier is something I adore, really."
Regina nodded but looked puzzled.
"But.. so he cycled out and recovered, right?"
Tamara looked into Regina's eyes and held her sholders.
"There isn't a scar on his body, anywhere, Regina."
Regina caught her breath up and looked wide-eyed at Tamara.
"That's... impossible?" she finally whispered.
"You don't get that way in just a few years, Regina. Getting 60 stitches down the front isn't something that goes away quickly and still leaves traces even on those who heal extremely well. There is nothing like that with Aaron."
"Oh my god..." Regina whispered, "you don't... can't hide something like that."
"He got outcycled as fast as he could, dropped all service related care. He made sure no one found out... there aren't many records we can get on him, and Mason had a few contacts that gave him that, and barely that. I couldn't understand it, until now."
They were quiet, looking at each other as they embraced.
"Its good... not to be alone," Regina said softly.
"Yes it is," Tamara said, "and I think one of us will be getting an answer in a few days. I would like it to be both of us."
Regina smiled and said softly, "I never had a family like this."
"Niether did I," Tamara said, "And I think that it just might be worth joining, no matter how weird it is."
"Please, yes?" Regina whispered.
Two newfound sisters hugged in the night, sharing loss and love, hopes and fears, together.
Harry Nordhaus walked with Kevin Penk and Hermes under the ALV-I prototype which was suspended inside the maintenance hangar. The empty bay had its doors open and lift trucks were on either side and to the rear of the vehicle with five people working to remove the upper portions of the rear of the vehicle.
"So can those new aerospike pulse systems be adapted to this frame?" Harry asked.
"You mean to replace the side adaptable thrust systems you're taking out?"
"Yes," Kevin said, "Our plans are in flux, but every adaptable system is needed for the ALV-II's. Since we have a good group of ALV-I's now taking care of deliveries, that leaves the prototype ALV-I to play around with. We think that we can do without the prototype for deliveries, which means it can start to be used for other things."
Hermes nodded as they walked over to the flight control module that would be installed in the forward part of the vessel.
"A two-seater? Can you afford the mass?" Hermes asked.
"If we retro it to high altitude jets, then it becomes a fancy supersonic high altitude dirigi-jet, which has limited interest. Not really a good payback on that, but cheap to do as we now have agreements for new production jets to slowly swap in over the next three years."
"Ah! Finally got someone to bite on that?" Hermes asked.
Kevin looked at Harry who shrugged.
"Yes, we finally went with the Honda deal. They get marketing and a chance to show off some unique capabilities, plus their names featured prominantly, especially during the non-funerary drops. We get a mass savings with those and lower fuel use."
"That is why we wanted you here for a couple of days, Mr. Lassiter, to look over what we're doing and to give us some insight into the systems you are examining and what would be a good fit for us," Harry said, "we know the ALV-I platform will never have the capacity to reach where your Athena will go, but we would like to have the opportunity to learn what it takes to transition between rarified atmosphere and space, then back again. For that the ALV-I is perfect."
As they walked around the cabin module, Hermes looked at its upper section.
"You will have a problem trying to do a dual system with the cabin, and you will be limited by fuel and mass for each system if you don't use one over the other," carefully he stepped up to the deck and sat down in the forward seat, looking at where the controls would go, "and since you already have the skin reinforced against the heat of the adaptable system I would say that you would want to look at the pulse rocket system with its switching combustion chamber. One each in place of the adaptable system was should allow you an increase in thrust. This frame was not made for pulsing at all levels, however," he turned to look at them, "since the steady flow adaptable system was meant to be a low but continual thrust system."
Kevin nodded looking at Harry.
"It is a major problem, really. We just may have to default to small jets and stay in the atmosphere, and dedicate one of the last of the ALV-I's with a reinforced design to this."
Pressing his lips together Hermes looked down through the openings in the floor and slowly looked from the front to the rear of the module.
"There is another way, if you are willing to risk having to be a bit old school on things," he finally said.
"What do you mean?" Harry asked.
"Well, you are still having to control the bladders for lift by routing that under the floor. If you shift those to the side you have more fuel storage area for a conventional rocket straight out the back. Then you can use the wing ports for small attitude adjustment vent rockets which are much simpler to go with. A continuous aerospike should do well with that in a cluster of three in the rear, and swivel thrusters on the wings. You use low level thrust from one of the rear engines to slowly get up to speed then all three to go extra-atmospheric. Getting back is just turning the ship end for end, then killing your speed. As you drop you reinflate the bladders and you use friction and bouyancy to slow your descent until you are down to where your design is a semi-dirigible again. Of course you've turned around again after that, so you can utilize some momentum for aerial manuevering once you get there. I think all of that will be within the thrust and stress parameters of the ALV-I design. And I know my brother would approve of the technique. The system may have to be be aligned to deliver thrust at an angle so you are also slowing descent from gravity as you remove forward momentum. Not truly hovering, its more like extending time at high altitude to kill more speed."
Harry and Kevin looked at each other then at Hermes.
"That sounds a bit expensive," Harry said softly.
"Well, I suppose it is," Hermes said, "and if you don't want to do it, I'll buy this one from Ascentech and do it myself as it would be nice to have a back-up to the Athena."
Harry looked at Kevin and then Hermes.
"I'll have to talk to Ray about that. It'll take a few days to work up the numbers since we would have to get systems that we hadn't planned on getting."
Hermes got up and walked to the edge of the decking and jumped to the floor.
"I can help you with that. It shouldn't take that long, really. And I'll ask Karl and Nuada to look over the ideas, too. They are really getting to know how to deal with the materials and stresses that show up with components. I wouldn't want to go to space without them."
In a few minutes the three of them were heading back to the small office area to look at the future and figure out just what was and wasn't possible.