For the better part of a week getting living arrangements sorted out at Hiflight as Dionysus and Gemma did not want to impose on Hermes, Regina and Brent but didn't want to suffer a morning commute, either. Temporarily the middle level of Hiflight was put into service for them and they had some of their household furniture shipped down from Washington by Nicholas and Sharon. They had skirted a lot of legalities by living on the commercial lot of their business and by removing some of the obvious pieces, like beds and dressers, removed along with other evidence of their habitation. Operations at Hiflight didn't stop, but the days started to get long for all involved, even with the help of Diana and Ares. With cold weather the grill had been packed away as well as the lounge chairs, leaving only the main table with heavy cast aluminum legs and the chairs that went with it. Diana wore long pants, boots, a plaid shirt with a light jacket as she stood by the edge of the building looking south. She had her arm around Regina's waist and Regina had her left arm around Diana's, dressed a bit more warmly with a double layer of clothes, insulated boots and a thicker winter jacket.
"Brrrr... this is far colder than anything we get than what we got in Frisco! Even at this time of year we rarely get frost and this light layer of snow belongs up in the mountains, not on the ground."
Diana looked over the far horizon to the south as high level clouds obscured the stars and only the glowing lights from distant towns hinted at the presence of man. Those were few and far between, and the glow of Phoenix, itself was a living presence behind them although the sound from the extended city was muted. Turning slightly, Diana looked at her and pulled Regina a bit closer hip to hip.
"Forgive me for what I did, Regina? I do not have the skill of my brothers as I don't..." Diana closed her eyes and shook her head, "...not since my father... I don't have lovers in my life, beloved. The very few girls and women I let know that I will not be with them for long. I can't have a family... and with my old family gone until I became aware of survivors... the way Athena is... I didn't want..."
Regina shifted and they shifted their other arms to hold each other, and yet still just barely touch above their hips.
"She survived? Then how come you..." she trailed off as she saw tears sliding from the corners of Diana's eyes.
"She has life, yes, her body does as ours do, we survivors of the Olympian family. After my father had dispatched Haphaestus, then his brothers, he next came for Athena. By then he had the tools and power to begin to deal with her. She was... she had come directly from him, you know?" Diana said opening her eyes to look at Regina.
"I think... she... uh... came from his forehead, right?"
Diana pressed her lips together and shook with a sob and Regina pulled her closer.
"His conscience and cultivated mind, the protector of Athens and its living spirit. Of all of us she was the one that was a true part of our father... right up to the moment that my twin...", Diana shook for a moment, "Athena was thrown far into desert mountains, obviously wounded from what Hermes has told me given the state of her body and armor. After dispatching those that dared to stand against him, he... withdrew much of himself from Athena. He would not do as his father did, swallow her whole, but sought to withdraw her life from her since it was, after all, part of him. Yet she was also a part of a city, something separate from her and not under her father's control, she had spirit and power that were not of him that sustained her to fight. I could only understand what had become of her since meeting my brother, who had found her after that and the terrible fight she had with her sole parent. She fought well while recovering there in the highlands, not putting her beloved city in danger. She was... I never knew... how she had gotten into her current state... I'm sorry, I had thought I had cried enough..."
Regina slid one hand up Diana's back and stroked her hair, pulling Diana close, the sobs shaking her body as Diana hugged her tightly.
"Its OK... really it is..."
"She's alive, Regina, but each morning... is new to her... our father had opened up, split open a mountain with a quake and the final victory of his... stripping her... ravaging her... dashing her brains out when he had what he wanted and left her head... her brains... in the Lethe... now she has its nature in her as part of her... reintegration. She wanders Athens, a young woman but one who cannot remember who she is or even what she had done the day before."
"Dear god..." Regina whispered as she hugged Diana tightly to her, "... that's horrible."
Holding on tightly Diana tried to stop crying as Regina stroked her hair and pressed her own arms more tightly.
"I know what father wanted, now..." Diana said her voice muffled by Regina's jacket.
"Defile you..." Regina started and Diana shook her head negatively and leaned slightly away to look at her, tears damp over both cheeks and warm wetness where her face had been on the jacket.
"Not just... he forgot my nature, given to me and not to be taken by mere lightning nor other powers... but he forgot that in his lust. Virginity once lost is not to be retrieved and mine is one that holds beyond even all-power, beyond even its granter as it cannot be recalled. He knew what was coming... and my telling him... confirmed..." Diana closed her eyes and looked down, pulling her lips in and holding her emotions back with all her will.
"Oh... OH! That story I saw, that was you!"
"I had thought I knew, that it was just lust for me, Artemis, the girl goddess, that he wanted..." Diana whispered, "...he ripped deep enough into me I thought... he thought... nothing could... hold past that. But I was not..." Diana opened her eyes and looked into Regina's.
"You weren't... I'm confused," Regina said.
"Imagine a story of a young virgin conceiving a child, her virginity still whole... giving birth to a son... who is three-fourths that of a god... more than Heracles as only half... that virgin mother would be known and, perhaps, by being so young would die in child birth her son to be raised by priests... as the girl dies she is no god but was holy, no?"
Regina's eyes widened.
"Yes..." she whispered, "Oh, Diana!"
"I had warned of changes and upheaval to our family... Zeus made as not to listen but he had already... prepared... I was... he made sure others dismissed me by his dismissal... all would hear me out but only he..." Diana shivered, "... listened."
Diana's stance shifted, looked deeply into Regina's eyes and while still pressing to her there was a change within that allowed the tears to finally stop.
"Watched. Regina, I was coddled and left unprepared, the lamb to the slaughter. And yet this lamb could not be taken unwillingly nor even willingly, nor not at all. I did not kill Zeus, I would have if I could get a clear shot, get out from his power, do the few things I knew stood a chance of killing him. But he avoided those, he knew who I was but not as deeply as he thought. He killed himself to fulfill his plans, my telling him just let him know that I was skittish and could feel something coming. Everything he did, perhaps for years or even decades, was in preparation of having me to be his chosen vessel for a new order. The order of one. Zeus alone."
Regina pressed Diana close, now not just support but an embrace with hips to hips and lips to lips, with the whisper of wind.
This night was theirs alone.
Karl looked through the strut tube that ran from forward wheel well to the rear of the craft then reached down to the tool hanger and took up the flexible rod to fish cabling through the craft. Regina handed the end up to him and he nodded as he put it through the loop end of the rod and tightened the clamp down.
"Mel, could you give me some light from your end?" he shouted with his voice echoing inside the large assembly area.
"Sure, let me check its connection..." Mel said as she jumped down to the ground and jogged along the cabling past Nuada who was building the cradle insert for the Athena prototype, and Mel paid no heed to the racket of the angle grinder or the smell of resin epoxy. Soon she was past the cradle assembly and at the junction box and saw that its breaker had tripped and she pushed the small switch back in to reset it.
"That's got it, thanks Mel!" she heard Karl's voice come echoing in the distance.
"Be right there!" she said as she turned and ran back towards the Athena and saw that Herman's brother, Dennis, and his wife Gemma were walking from the forward entry area over to the Athena. She waved to them and they waved back.
"Watch out where you are going," Gemma called over and Mel turned to see that she was on a colission course with a can of partially sealed epoxy resin and Nuada, in that order and tried to shift her course just as Nuada was turning off the grinder and stepping over to turn on the suction system for her equipment set-up. In less than a blink of an eye the equipment rack flew forward, the grinder whipped around the the sawhorses with plywood sheet that held up the epoxy and other liquids and tools, while she and Nuada fell into the cascading mess. The exhaust blower cut out.
"The light just went out again," Karl called out.
Nuada looked at Mel and shook her head as she saw the epoxy resin's lid had flipped off as the can had hit Mel on the head, leaving a trail of it that snaked down her work shirt, her work pants and then over Nuada's pants and the can had come to rest in her crotch leaving a white, viscous mass slowly seeping into her clothing and onto the floor.
In mere seconds Dionysus and Gemma were there to help the two women up who were laughing and pointing at each other and exclaiming that it was the other's fault while pointing out just how awful the other looked. Gemma was about to step forward when Dionysus put his hand on her shoulder and pointed to the box of disposable gloves in a wall mount just beyond the work bench.
"Best get two pairs, my love. I will see what... is necessary for this clean-up."
She smiled realizing that she had been about to compound the mess and nodded, avoiding Karl who had come over at the sound of the equipment falling to right the machine cart that held the vacuum system and ran the grinder.
"Well at least you didn't have any activator open nearby," Regina said arriving to get a pair of gloves from Gemma.
Nuada pressed the back of her hand against her breathing mask and realized that its safety system prevented it from being lifted without undoing the simple quick release snaps that were at the back of her head.
"Here, let me get that off you," Gemma said as Dionysus was helping Mel get up off the floor.
"I do believe your hair has had better appointments, Mel," he said glancing at the can that had now rolled off of Nuada and onto the floor, catching a brief glimpse of its caution panel. He had never been as keen eyed as many of his brothers and sisters, nor the swiftest on the uptake as many others, but that had not stopped him from learning to discern the difference between a merely detached grape that had withered and one that was infested with something worse from thirty or forty feet away. Luckily here he was not fighting Zeus, not coming to terms with the very swift nature of lightning or the blast of ill frozen wind from on high. Many other gifts had been taken before he had the lightning pierce his body and while his greatest gifts had long since passed into nothingness, one or two others not unworthy of mankind, had remained.
"Ewwwww...." Mel shook her head realizing for the first time just how bad the mess was and splattered Dionysus as she did so. He chuckled and bent to pick up the can while stepping next to her.
"Now if you could refrain from making sudden motions with your head..." he said softly, "...I do believe I can get some of the worst of it off of you before we have to apply a solvent... or remover as the case may be..."
The sudden flash of the smell of the solvent for the compenents they used suddenly flashed through Mel's head and she stood stock still.
"Oh, god, not that... just... get it off... please?"
Dionysus worked his fingers under her hair to start using his thumb to pull the viscous fluid from her hair and slide it into the can. He looked over at Karl who was trying to shift the equipment out of the way and had given a cursory check to make sure nothing had gotten onto the controls or air intakes.
"Karl! Do you have a moment?"
Karl turned and looked first at Nuada and then at Mel.
"Sure, Dennis. Need some help?"
"Not me, just Mel and Nuada here. You have some of that gel hand cleaner in back, yes? In the half-gallon tub?"
"Green goo or whatever it is? Sure. A case of it somewhere, I think."
"Good! Excellent! Its active ingredient is a safe equivalent of the solvent for this... mess... if you could get the tub out and meet us over at the emergency shower over by the northeast corner?"
Karl nodded, looked to make sure nothing else was going on between him and the back area and started trotting over the concrete floor towards the distant break area in the other side of the building.
"Not that stuff!" Mel said, "It stinks almost as bad as the solvent."
"Safer, though. And has a refreshing smell of ground soy nut and detergent to help you get through the day. It might even bring back a natural luster to your hair!"
As he removed the worst of the sticky mess from her hair he heard Nuada say, "That's impossible, nothing can get her hair to look good."
Looking over from his position at Nuada he said, "Stranger things have happened. Now since that appears to be the worst of it..." he saw that Gemma and Regina had been using plastic scrapers on Nuada's work pants as she looked at Mel and Mel had a wicked smile on her face, "... perhaps it is to the emergency shower to get this stuff off. I'm not worried about toxicity but... ahh... so many natural substances can start things that, really, you don't want to experience. It is either the shower and goo, or the shaving equipment."
"I don't look half-bad, bald," Mel said.
"There's a sheep ranch just down the road," Regina said helpfully as she stood up realizing that nothing more could be gained from scraping at the mess.
"Very good! It is off to the showers for you two, and I think Regina and Gemma are more suited to the fuller shower you two will need as soon as we can get your clothes off. If we can get them off at this point, that is."
"Ack!" Mel said looking down and realizing that what had soaked through the material was now causing it to adhere to her skin.
"Exactly! Now just step carefully this way..." Dionysus said helping Mel turn and keeping soaked hair from falling onto her face.
Behind them the rear of the Athena prototype sat, its skin now fully on and awaited the last of its dual control systems for electrical and mechanical systems. They were on schedule, but barely, to be the first real lift of the ALV-II with the Athena. Already there were design changes to the skeleton of the next Athena, with a slightly different aerobody and more agile thrust and guidance systems. The prototype was the first of its kind, looking like parts put together out of older systems and designs, which is exactly what it was as the necessary customized and fabricated parts for a full build could not be made in time for the prototype model for the ALV-II schedule. Neither the ALV-II nor the Athena was a giant rocket of old, not the brute force creatures of a by-gone age now nearly fifty years in the past. These new breed of rockets were not designed with the grand and grandiose visions of that first age of spaceflight which had meant to show that mankind could, indeed, get to space. And come back. These new craft hinted at something different, at a future where coming back to Earth was no longer the goal, just another step to build a future.
Diana pulled the Suburban to a stop in front of the hotel in the entry drive and put the flashers on and engaged the parking brake. As she opened the door she saw Tamara and Ares coming out of the entrance to the hotel using a hotel cart to move the luggage and boxes of material that they had spent the morning getting together. After opening the rear of the vehicle, Diana stepped aside as the others moved the cart to the dropped down gate and helped them move the boxes into the cargo area.
"You've rearranged things," Ares said pushing a box up against the rear seats, "moved the safe locker and added stanchions for cargo straps."
Diana helped Tamara move an oblong box full of computer equipment onto the gate and Ares then pushed it to the left of the compartment.
"I did that a few weeks ago, my brother," she said bending down to get up a somewhat lighter box of loose leaf notebooks and folders marked as 'Ascentech Presentation Materials' in Tamara's neat handwriting. "I had let too much cruft accumulate and hadn't done much of anything about it up until getting to Washington. While I was there I sorted through various boxes that had been slowly gathering in back and had a shop remount the locker to where it could do some good. Now it is a handy surface down the center right behind the central console, and is easily opened for whatever is needed from emergency supplies and pistols in front to rifles and shotguns in the main compartment. Gemma was a large help along with Nicholas and Sharon."
Tamara moved around the cart and took one of her suitcases to the rear door, opened it and pushed and hauled the case in and stowed it between the boxes.
"Its great what you've done with it! Swivel bucket seats and all. Can't fit more than four in here without getting cozy, though."
Ares chuckled as a long box containing rolled up sheets and displays went on top of the computer equipment box.
"Or trying to find out which gun is in which case, since half of them were out of the locker at any given time."
Tossing one box and then another up from the cart into the vehicle, Diana looked at her brother and shook her head.
"I'm glad you're back my brother," she said stepping forward to hug him.
Tamara looked at the two of them and then got out and walked around behind Diana who was just releasing her brother as she turned.
"And you, my new sister," Diana hugged her and Tamara hugged the slim figure of Diana to her and felt her warmth though the air was quite chilled with light winds coming from the north. This hug lasted a bit longer than others they had in the months prior as Tamara knew that there was no longer a distance between them. That had melted away with their return and talking to their brothers and sisters and now Tamara knew she was part of and accepted as family, a feeling she had not felt in years stretching nearly into a decade. She relaxed and they held each other for the joy of being close and now being more than friends.
Behind them Ares took two of the larger suitcases and tossed them so they landed upright in between the boxes already in the rear. As he moved the cart he saw his sister and new love slowly release each other and raised an eyebrow as they gazed into each other's eyes.
"We aren't the family we were, my sister," he said softly as he passed next to them.
As the two stepped from each other they held gloved hands for a moment and then Tamara turned to get the hanging clothing to begin hanging it on the rear hooks of the Suburban.
"No, my brother, this one is different. It isn't by blood and bond of kinship, this family, and we have no father to worry about. We want to be here in this way, at this time, and it is that which makes all the difference in the world."
When Tamara picked up her sling bag with her netbook, Ares shifted the hotel cart around, and gave Tamara a hug.
Ares turned to look at Diana and the smile on his face faded slightly.
"And this time, I shall not fail you, my beloved sister."
Tamara looked at Ares and saw the set and determination in his face under the smile of love that it held. She was coming to truly know this man who was something other than any other man she had known. It wasn't his being a fallen Olympian that attracted her, and she knew that deeply as she saw his stance and knew it was one he had trained for, to accept combat with whatever weapons and armor he had. Today she was with him and knew that of all men she had met, this one she would trust with her very life.
"You stood when you must have. For that, you have my undying thanks. It was more than could be asked of you and all that was required. You did not fail me, my brother, do not ever think that."
He lifted his eyebrows and nodded.
"I'll take the cart and be back in a minute or two. I'll drive."
"What, don't you trust her driving?" Tamara asked as he shifted the cart towards the hotel.
"Yes I do. I prefer to stay on the roads to get where I am going."
Brent was in the parking lot walking behind a trailer being backed in by a semi rig.
"More to the right," he said gesturing to the right. The tractor shifted and slowly moved the trailer back as Brent walked back glancing to see how close he was getting to the rear bay dock for their building. Gesturing to come straight back the rig straightened out. Behind him he heard the bay door come to life and start rattling up to expose the interior of the facility. Another step, then two... and he heard footsteps.
"Brent!" Hermes yelled from the interior.
Stepping slightly back he turned and ran into the rubber bumper of the dock then stumbled, reaching out to catch the bumper.
"Stop! Stop!" Hermes yelled trying to be heard above the loud reverse signal that beeped loudly and then started running forward. As he ran he felt the the cold breeze from outside slow, then stop and heat moving behind him. As he passed over the hashed yellow markings at the bay door he leaped forward towards the shrinking space between the dock and the rear of the truck, with Brent scrambling to get a leg up to leverage himself out of the way. Landing on his chest he reached forward just as Brent's leg came up but the rest of his body slid down as his hands gave way on the rubber.
"No..." he exhaled as the space narrowed.
A footfall next to his body then a hand wrapping itself around his belt just as he was able to grab Brent's arm before it disappeared from sight. As his legs and the rear of his body lifted up another hand grabbed his shoulder and he felt Karl's hands bodily lift him and Brent up and away from the edge of the loading dock with Brent being dragged over the concrete, still held by Hermes. As he saw Brent's boots press against the rear of the trailer, he looked up at his friend the motorcycle builder who was also looking at Brent and smiling as he gently lowered Hermes to the concrete.
"Never lose track of where you are," he said in a slightly raspy voice, "it could cost you more than just a few crushed bones."
Karl let go his belt and held his hand out to help Hermes up, and then they both stepped over to help Brent back to his feet.
"Thank you..." Brent said wide-eyed looking back at the truck which had hit the bumpers and then stopped as the driver applied the brakes, "...any broken bones from that and..." he looked at Hermes and then Karl "and you wouldn't be picking me up in one piece."
"I wouldn't want to lose you," Hermes said softly.
Karl nodded, clapped Brent on his shoulder and stepped past him as the driver came out of the truck with an envelope.
"Is Mr. Lassiter here?" he asked as he came up the stairs to the loading dock.
Hermes looked at Brent again and nodded, sliding his hand up Brent's arm to his shoulder as Brent turned with him.
"That's me," Hermes said, walking to the man.
"Great! You gotta sign off once you check the seals."
Hermes took the envelope and opened it, then fished out the sheet that listed the seals on the rear of the truck and went to inspect them. The seals that the receiving company had put on in Seattle were still in place and Hermes checked them off one by one. Once he was done he signed off on the page and handed that over to the driver.
"Thank you, Mr. Lassiter," he said counter-signing the sheet and then put that in the envelope. He stuck the envelope under his arm then used a knife to break the seals and then took a set of keys from his pocket to undo the locks. Karl helped the man swing the doors open while Brent went into the facility to get the forklift. Inside the truck the first of a series of oversized pallets with a roughly circular object on it that nearly touched the sides of the trailer could be seen. Brent came up and with some guidance from the truck driver guiding him in and Karl undoing the restraining straps the first pallet was removed. Hermes walked next to it as Brent went in reverse into the building and then lowered it down. Hermes took the restraining cord off of a set of blankets wrapping the object and as they fell to the floor a large metallic frame with a circular portion in the center could be seen. While the frame was made of steel, the circular part glistened like copper but not as red as copper.
"So that's what it looks like..." Brent whispered gazing at the object.
Hermes smiled and looked up at him.
"It isn't filled, of course."
Karl had undone the straps to the next pallet and walked out of the trailer to look at the object.
"Ahhh... we do have a home for that almost immediately..." he said clasping his hands together.
The truck driver walked over and looked at the circle of collapsed metal and shook his head.
"But what is it? Haven't ever seen anything like that before."
Karl looked at the man.
"That is a fuel bladder for a prototype ship that will be testing sub-orbital capability. Perhaps even to orbit after the testing."
Brent started to back up the forklift, and wheeled it around and drove next to Hermes who had stepped right next to the suspended bladder of metal and ran his finger over its cool, slick surface.
"Where should I put the other four?" Brent asked.
"Far side of the assembly building," Hermes said, "there's a bay there where they all should fit."
"Fuel for a spaceship?" the driver said, "but it doesn't look anything like the, you know, spheres and stuff you see on rockets."
"Oh, it'll be a sphere once its full," Hermes said watching his own broken reflection on the metal, "stretched enouth within a sheath we have ready for it."
"I'll go to the bay," Karl said, "and hope you can help with the straps on the others," he said looking at the driver.
"Yeah, sure," the driver said looking at him then at Hermes, "no problem. Just never seen anything like it before, is all. What's it made out of, anyway? It doesn't look like, well, anything normal."
As Hermes came around the other side of the pallet his wide eyes and smile gave him a faintly angelic look.
"Titanium," Hermes whispered, "these cost a fortune to buy. What they will get is priceless."
"And we have the fuel tanks installed and pressure tested," Lewis said, "as well as the helium storage system. All pumps are working, and the basic electrical system is in place. There is still a lot to do, Mr. Kaplan, as the avionics packages haven't been put through their paces yet. They have to be installed, the fly-by-wire system fully installed and tested, and then marrying those two up before we put the final skin on the vehicle."
"It's been a long December, hasn't it?" Ray asked.
Behind Lewis Green two of the Ascentech assembly crew were fitting the bay door motors using a platform to lift up the pair and then begin mounting them.
"Yes it has, since Mr. Penk has to go back and forth between here and the spaceport. I just hope we can get at least the low level flight permission so we don't have to disassemble it to components and then reassemble it at the new facility."
Alice stood next to Ray and shook her head.
"The FAA still hasn't made a decision. No one really planned for an aerospace vehicle like this being able to fly so close to the ground. It'll be noisy even with the high efficiency dispersed rocket system, and that means fuel on board that is far more energetic than aviation gasoline."
Diana had come with Ray and Alice as she wanted to get a first-hand look at the next generation of ALV systems. Unlike the ALV-I, the ALV-II would reach up to the boundry where atmosphere truly ended, below even one tenth of a percent of sea level normal, and space began. The Exosphere was that margin that wasn't hard vacuum but wasn't really an atmosphere, either, and it is in that region that the ALV-II's blended wingbody design would have to perform. The rear section that was currently being worked on was large by anyone's standards, and when it was joined with the other partially completed segments that were suspended near the ceiling to keep them out of the way, the entire vehicle would be able to carry and drop over ten tons of payload. The single ton of the ALV-I system hadn't been expected to earn its keep, and yet it was now in demand for dropping equipment into those places on Earth where making a road was out of the question and where even the great rivers proved too treacherous to navigate. Still, a single ton wasn't much when put on the scale of a large construction project. At ten tons the lower end of heavy equipment became possible, and there were already customers who were now putting in for drops as early as May of the next year.
Looking at the pieces Diana's mind started to piece them together to understand just what it was that was being made. Seeing CAD assemblies with computer generated lighting and colors was one thing, seeing it as a physical construction was a different and more tangible realm.
"We will leave Earth," she whispered so softly it was lost under the grinding of the overhead lift gantry moving the door motor into place, "this I do promise and swear."
She could almost taste space for it was her place as Mistress of the Moon. The ALV-II was just a stepping stone, but it would be one of the last of them, with the first going back to that funny man, Newton, drawing circles with letters and numbers next to them. Only with time did she come to understand just how important those circles were as they spoke to her in a language that wasn't just of math and the mind, but of movement and the heart. Now, centuries later, math and movement, heart and mind, were linked together inside of her. What it all would mean in the long run was something she couldn't see. But what it meant to her, in the here and now, was a tangible thing. Suspended in parts, worked on in pieces, coming together to form the way out of the desolate life bequeathed to her by her power mad father. He had died for his transgressions, but his ultimate victory over her and her surviving family, had been a doom that hung over her. Now her father would be denied even that long after his demise.
Barely her lips moved.
"Careful with it, just another few inches," Hermes said standing on the scaffolding next to the rear of the Athena prototype.
Brent waved from behind the frame of the tank bladder which had been extended and re-braced to allow the bladder to go into the sheathing material which was held taught inside the Athena. Hermes ducked his head as he stepped into the framework and looked through the gasketed hole in the sheating that the fuel entry port of the bladder would be connected to. That port had a thin piece of tubing running from the gasket to the bladder which had taken a few days to install. Carbon dioxide had been slowly pumped into the bladder and its outflow ports had been sealed to allow it to partially inflate so that the entire surface could be inspected. As it expanded the loose plastic that had started as a hollow roll around the bladder was put on and heat treated in a very few spots to allow it to adhere to the plastic. The sheathing had a flexible insulation applied to it when it was pulled taut, which had required the use of a spray system and someone to ride at the end of a plank into the interior of the sheathing. Mel and Nuada had been tapped for that as Hermes had said they were the best able and most accurate with the sprayer while twisting around on the plank.
Hermes looked to Regina who had the inflation controls for the bladder in her hand, and Gemma was standing next to her and checking the regulator on the set of tanks that had come in for the job. Dionysus, Karl, and Brent had worked to make sure that there would be a good, even layer between the expansive sheath and the bladder, and now that work was finally coming to an end.
"Another 5 psi, love," Hermes said.
Regina nodded and watched as the bladder shimmied and light reflected from the overheads against the bladder and on to the floor. She could see her reflection that was obscured by the thin film on it. Gently Hermes tugged on the tubing and the bladder shifted.
"Forward," Karl said once he got a hand signal from Hermes. Brent eased forward and the bladder started to dissapear into the sheath.
"Slowly," Hermes said.
Brent eased up and now it inched forward.
Karl held up his hand and Brent stopped.
"Up, about two inches," Karl said kneeling and then holding his fingers apart.
The bladder went up and Karl put his hand flat and waved it from side to side. stepping up and back as he did so, then gesturing for Brent to come forward. Hermes leaned out from the scaffolding holding is hand up and flat, Brent stopped the forklift.
"That's it! We need to get a final bit of spray in, pull the gaskets together and then retract the holding braces. Another 6 hours and we should have it fully sealed. We all know the jobs so lets get to it!"
Regina shook her head.
"How about lunch, first?" she shouted.
Hermes looked at her and started chuckling.
"Great idea! One quick spray first, and then we can finish up before night."
"I'll go check on Dennis," Gemma said, "and see if lunch is ready."
"No beer," Regina whispered.
"I'll make sure of that, don't worry. That bladder," she said looking back at Hermes who was taking up the thing spray nozzle from Nuada who wheeled the sprayer out to the scaffold, "costs more than our entire store. It'll be a good lunch, but celebration only comes after that is all sealed up and not one moment before. We can't afford mistakes now."
The train had pulled into the siding and Nuada was waiting by the off-loading dock. This had once been a freight loading dock next to the siding, with just the bare essentials to have delivery trucks park on the parking lot side and the train pull into the other side. She and Mel had worked to get the various standposts and their lighting fixtures removed either with a metal saw or with Karl using the torch to cut them. At the center point of the loading dock there was an extension where an old sheet metal cabin had been, the receiving shack and general oversight position for the dock. It went down quickly and what replaced it was a crane that the delivery crew settled on anchors that they had taken two days to drill into the platform. That 50' crane had been of great use getting drop components off of previous deliveries, as well as raw carbon composite tubing and even a light overhead gantry crane for the warehouse. Today it wasn't tubing, supplies or any of the past components that were being delivered under the black tarpaulin that was secured over a cylindrical object on the flatbed rail car. There was a second such car with a somewhat squatter piece that was secured by straps and chains to steady it. To save on delivery time Herman had rerouted the first rail car down to Texas where the second was waiting for it. A dark green pick-up truck pulled into the parking area as the train settled to a stop. At the far northern end of the lot Nuada could see most of the work crew coming out to look at today's delivery being done bright and early at 6 AM and only a little late coming in at 6:30.
Stepping out of the truck was a man in a non-descript blue outfit, suitable for work crew or line construction bosses. He walked up the steps to where Nuada was sitting on the back of the crane which she had uncovered and gotten warmed up so that she wouldn't freeze in the outdoors.
"Ma'am, I'm Eddie Cutter with Allen Consolidated Freight, here to make sure the delivery comes in safe and gets signed off."
She shook her head, smiled and slid off the back of the crane, hugging her coat to her as she shook his hand.
"I'm Nuada Lipton, Hiflight. I've been put in charge of this mess and my work crew will be here in just a moment," she said looking back and heard not just the door opening but their lift van starting up on the other side of the building. She could see figures, probably Mel, Dennis and Gemma, putting down the lift skid that would be used once the pieces had rolled off their van. This was an ingenious system to have rollers on the rear van bed that had uprights on the side to steady wide loads. Anything that needed transport could be put on a sturdy flat and then moved to the loading dock where it could be rolled off over another set of rollers to a platform the overhead crane could then lift up and shift inside the warehouse. As the internal platform's rollers were at a slight angle, anything coming from the truck would glide down to a stop depending on the incline which could be set by small screw jacks. To get a piece out the platform had one set of rollers lowered, the other raised and the lift truck came in just at or a bit below the level of the loading dock. This meant that four people could do the work of twice that number and eliminated the need for a crane on the loading dock. Where Herman had picked up the overage gantry crane was anyone's guess, but it still worked and was structurally sound even with most of its yellow paint gone. A few days of sandblasting the surface rust and old paint off and putting on a new coat of primer and fresh hazard yellow now meant something that looked just a couple of decades old, although everyone was sure it was older than that.
She looked back to the warehouse to see Herman arriving with the lift truck and gathering up the temps he had hired for the next few days and see if any of them could work out. Hiflight was now desperately short-handed and needed to expand, and although she had been helped in having the ALV-I drop frames pre-made, like the one on the flatbed, along with the exterior skin and interior fittings, all of that still had to be fit, placed and tested. Between the Athena and the drop containers, Herman could no longer ignore the necessities of going beyond a one or two, piecemeal system and a necessary production facility. What they had was an upscaled hobbyists shop. What they needed was a lot of floor space, overhead material handling systems and people. Not a lot of people, true, but still people who could learn the ins and outs of the business-end of building the containers and be trusted with all the work necessary to prep and customize them. They could meet a one or two drop a month schedule, but there were now enough of the ALV-I systems to demand more containers per month than that.
The discussion over dinner a few nights before had been about this subject and Herman admitted that he had been too caught up in hardware and discussions to address production oversight. Nuada had just been nodding her head and every once in awhile glancing over at the rest of Herman's family that was there for the dinner, whipped up by his brother Dennis. She didn't know what to make of him in the first few days, and he always seemed to have a glass of something in hand, even if it was just water. At least she hoped it was just water. He was handsome in that asiatic far east way, yet had rounded cheeks that weren't chubby and yet still betrayed something of a smile even when he was frowning. He was better built than Herman, who had that thin and lithe David Bowie-ish look to him, but not the near linebacker like his brother Aaron who demonstrated he was able to dance well during an impromptu bar party that he and Tamara had been dragged to. Gemma she could understand as the adventurous kind of woman who also loved raising a family, and now it was back to a different kind of adventure. She got along well with everyone and yet made her viewpoints known and then patiently would explain why she took them. She had obviously been more the business manager than her husband, and the talks between her and Herman could be insomnia cures. Gemma was the one who stepped in when Herman couldn't make a decision about who should work the expansion and nominated herself to do that while Dennis worked on getting the right people to the right job along with Nuada. His eyes twinkled and he winked at her, the young woman who would not have been out of place in a Goth biker gang, and she couldn't exactly feel which way she felt about anything. She was being co-opted to management!
She was about to protest that, but Diana, sitting between Regina and Karl asked, very plainly, "Have you asked her about this?"
Diana leaned forward to look at Nuada who was trying to come up with a response and was only getting anger, but as she looked at Diana she remembered how she looked stepping over Liza and later her thin, strong fingers which were taking an arrow shaft from her foot. Nuada felt sure that Diana was the most dangerous woman on the planet of any species. And yet when she sat on her hospital bed to make sure of her recovery, cupped her face and smiled at her, Nuada felt...
Shivering in the cold she stepped up to take the freight lading and heard footsteps coming down from the engineer's cabin from the train. Diana walked into the cold air with steel toe boots, jeans and a green shirt that must be olive drab and looked like military surplus. That and rough brown leather rigger's gloves made Diana look both in and out of place this morning. It wasn't what she was wearing that was unusual, but what was missing. No jacket. No coat. No undershirt. The jeans left no doubt that they were not lined nor concealed anything else under them.
It had been much colder when they went out to parking lot that other night as it was apparent that Nuada hadn't been asked. They had walked over to the platform next to the rail spur and sat down with their legs over the edge looking to the west.
"No one had asked me!" Nuada nearly screamed. "I don't want to be some management..." she lacked words to even express what sort of low-life she generally considered mid-level managers. The few that she had experienced, at any rate.
Diana held out her hand as she settled down next to Nuada and she took it.
"I'm sorry that no one thought to ask you," Diana said softly, whispering and yet, even with the light wind, Nuada could hear her as if she was right next to her ear. "My brother can be..." she narrowed her eyes and looked out at the place where black, starry sky disappeared into mountains, outlining them. "Lets just say he can become narrowly focused. He didn't look to... shock you, Nuada. From him it is a deep sign of respect that he would consider anyone else for that job."
"But I'm happy where I am! It's too much..."
Nuada paused and shook her head.
"Responsibility?" Diana asked.
Pressing her lips in Nuada nodded, trying to see what Diana saw in the distance of space above the mountains.
"Yes..." Nuada whispered, "I don't deserve that sort of...."
Diana turned slowly to look at her.
Nuada closed her eyes and nodded and Diana squeezed her hand.
"But you do, Nuada. You stepped up with your friends to harm me, perhaps in most vile ways. You had earned their trust by being with them, supporting them in good and bad times. I'm sorry that path led us to cross, Nuada. You sought ill to me and I returned something else, that would remind you of what it was you were becoming. I would not leave you in agony, bleeding freely on the floor of a bar, and for that saving I had but simply given you the change that had already happened the moment you found that such trust and power does not overcome all. Am I a weak and pretty girl, Nuada?"
She had been about to slip over to crying but that brought her up short. She started to chuckle and shook her head, lifting it up and opening her eyes to look at Diana.
"Nope, not weak, not one bit of it. Top to bottom the most delectable piece to ever walk into any bar, anywhere, and yet doing anything that you don't want to you is..." Nuada shivered, "...I heard stories in hospital the next few nights... bikers... gang-bangers... being brought in all broken up... some drowned or missing... others just street pizza... no one could pin them on you..."
Diana pressed her lips together and nodded.
"Nor will they, I know better than to do such things in a way that they can catch no matter how advanced they become. I had come to talk with my brother and only that, and you girls were the ones where I made clear that I had no real wish to harm anyone, and sought no attention. That is the natural order I sought and I was there to make sure it was enforced and respected. You attacked me while I was armed, you brought that to yourself. I spared your lives and showed that there was something else you could do in life, and sat with each of you to make sure each of you would heal as well as nature allowed. Does someone who hates you do such things?"
Morning sunlight washed over the platform and Nuada watched as Diana smiled and greeted the freightman and then hugged her.
"We have plenty of time to get this stuff off. The engine and rail cars aren't expected back before noon. Want me to start checking the cargo?"
"Yeah," Nuada said seeing how although Diana was not cold that the chill air had an effect on Diana's skin and her... Nuada shook her head as warmth flowed down and up into her.
This wasn't the first time she felt that reaction.
"No, it isn't," she whispered as Diana slid her hand up her arm and she slid hers up Diana's. Each shifted to be closer to the other.
"I can't save everyone, Nuada. Not even my family. But for those that cross me... they need something even if it isn't what they think they wanted. You needed something that could never even be thought about, but that you needed something was all too apparent. Each of you wanted me, but each of you also needed me and by coming to me I had to see what it was you needed far more than you wanted."
Nuada could only nod because she knew what she had wanted and paid a price for it. She had feared what she needed and yet, now, she had followed the one she had wanted to what she had needed. In the cycle of events she no longer wanted Diana like she had, and now needed what Diana could give far beyond the merely physical.
A rush of warmth in embrace, a kiss and the cold night was held at bay. Of all things Nuada wanted... needed... was to live and she had been afraid of life for as long as she could remember. Now warmth of living and a life was with her and if she did not grasp ahold of it she knew she would fear everything all the rest of her life as she had up to that moment in the bar. This moment reached out and stopped her fear, stopped time for her, and let her breathe freely. A kiss, a breath, warmth and then parting, inhaling, and time started again.
Dawning sunlight now, as then, brought a smile to her face.
A fear made physical had stopped her. Saved her. Then offered her many paths to a new life. Following a path was a first step, but she knew she could always step back to that dark, warming, lethal life of fear. A step forward meant committing herself to a path she didn't exactly know all that well and into things she could never of dreamt of even in the few years she had as a carefree child. An arrow had pierced her, wounded her, and saved her all at once. Now she had come to know what she needed in following the one who had hurt her to save her and what she had wanted had come full circle.
To embrace her she must embrace herself, that hardest of all possible things.
A day later she was smiling, satiated, and knew she had much to fear and almost all of it was self-made. A step forward still found her smiling. She had never smiled at the dawning sun, at least not in her adult life, and now she couldn't help but do so and, in turn, look into night with a smile as well as darkness outside was a fear she could handle. It had, after all, handled her most gently one sweet, cold night where the future was opened to her if she had the courage to step to it. Now she was free and with a head back and looking up, the lighted heavens were now hers to follow.
"Damn! That is one of the hottest broads I've ever seen," the driver said.
Nuada chuckled, shaken back to the present once more.
"Yup," she said glancing at the lithe figure that lept from platform to rail car, lifting up the sheeting and disappearing under it. "And I'll tell you that if you chase her you will be damned surprised at what happens."
She shifted to reach over and put the hard hat on that was sitting on the crane.
"Really? Like what?"
"Oh, like finding an arrow through your foot or seeing pavement coming at you from five stories up. That can be a real shocker if you aren't expecting it. And I'm sure she's done worse..." Nuada stepped by the man, "...to those who think they are just getting a pretty girl. She can take life, but only the lucky few she grants a new one to."
Speaking up with a slight rasp to her voice, she yelled out, "Let's get the show on the road, shall we? Morning has broken and so has my patience! What the hell is taking all of you so long today?"
The smile did not go with the words, of course, but the message, somehow, got through loud and clear.
Mason walked out with Ray into the vast spaces of the old Navy dirigible complex that had been abandoned nearly 50 years previously. For all the decades of neglect, the desert had spared it much damage, and removing bat and bird guano had proved to be a difficult task, but only time consuming. That guano now sat in beds along the facility which allowed weather to slowly work its magic and transform it into something without diseases and full of nutrients for plants. There were still people working far above them in the facility, and the sparks from a welder perched nearly 150 feet above them and heard delayed echoes of the work as the vast expanse of the hangar swallowed sounds and muted them.
"This place is amazing," Mason said as they passed a work crew unloading one of the old rail cars for the narrow gauge track that ran down the center of the old dirigible building. "I mean I've been to Moffett, but that is so large you can't really comprehend it. This one is just large enough to inspire awe, not fear."
"I can't believe that it was left out here like this," Ray said lifting his tablet computer up, "and aside from the nests and perches, its in solid shape," he held up the tablet which held before and after pictures of what it was like and how it now looked far above the floor of the hangar. "We can construct the entire ALV line in here. Harry showed me the layout and its an amazing piece of work!"
Ray stopped to look back and unzipped his parka to let out some body heat. Behind them the large doors of the cavernous facility had been slid aside and taken up. At the far end the doors were also open to allow the slightly warmer air welling up from lowlands slowly push into the building.
"I mean what we just walked through... Mason that will be the entire ALV-I area if we want to make more of them."
"Do you? I've seen the cost estimates from Kevin and what they are proposing is a real shift in the line."
"It is, yes," Ray said, "the old ALV-I models were what we could scratch together and they needed a thorough redesign as Mr. Lassiter pointed out. Well he isn't the only one working with the equations and Alice did a thorough re-draft of the old ALV-I systems. One of them will actually be a sub-sonic transport, a cheap system for simple drops. The other is a variant of the current ALV-I, but for personnel, seating only 3 going up, but as many as 10 coming back, if they can get a refuelling depot in orbit."
"Which Mr. Lassiter will have a monopoly on..." Mason said.
Ray looked at him and shook his head.
"That man is a few steps ahead of us, Mason. Those new rocket pods of his are something that Alice has looked over and when she came back to me on what they could do..."
"I don't think I've had a briefing on that," Mason said, "something about it being a long-term fuel transport point, of course, but nothing beyond that."
"Ah, Mason, fuel isn't the half of it, but is the whole of it. With 6 or 7 of those pods he can do a slow burn to a higher orbit. And if it is outfitted with air and waste systems, somewhat better internal shielding and some sort mesh over the surface that can set up a magnetic field, he has a mini-space station. Nothing spectacular and truly spartan, yes, but it can serve as living quarters or a rescue waypoint in case anything happens in orbit to the ISS or any of the commercial enterprises."
Mason turned to look at the rest of the open space contained by the hangar.
"That is a good two years out, if not more," Mason said, "and you do have a lead on him and he depends on you for delivery."
"True, true! It is a symbiotic relationship and we both gain immensely from it. Our competitors are scoffing at the low mass we can get to orbit, and yet it is what we can do in the atmosphere that is getting us cash. That is about to change, Mason, as we already have inquiries from two Japanese groups and one Indian company that would like easy entry to this business."
"What are you planning?"
"Simple, really, and I think Mr. Lassiter would approve. I'm going to gain competition, have all of us find efficiencies and lower the cost on this end. I know and you know that rockets to orbit are just a stepping stone to something better, perhaps a nanotube structure for doing an elevator, or even a maglev system in the Andes or Hawaii. Anyplace that has a nice gentle slope near the equator will do, and if one or two countries in Africa could get their act together, that might even pan out. Still the very ground floor of the direct rocket to orbit space is getting crowded, and I want to make the lighter to orbit route cheaper and crowded as well. The rest of the ALV systems here, II through IV will be made here, with ALV-IV a system worthy of this hangar, and yet still having space under it for its smaller siblings."
"That will be a tough nut to crack, Ray, and be putting the materials to their maximum use. Carbon fiber, enhanced foam, blended plastic fibers, ceramic fibers and carbon nano-tube cloth will have this as its proving ground."
"Of course, and with much risk," Ray said with a chuckle, "but the ALV-IV will be the largest of its kind and even that will be made in sections here. We are planning for six of them, total, and each of them will dwarf anything else in orbit. What we really need, Harry, and I'm looking to you to investigate, is the next great thing in propulsion."
They started walking again towards the far end of the hangar.
"Ah, yes, we do have one or two people who work that end of things, but only in an advisory capacity."
"That will never do, Mason! Once the old ALV-I systems are licensed, I will be wanting to put that cash stream into advanced propulsion not only for space based work but for surface to orbit work. No winners or losers deal, either. If Kevin, Alice and Aaron like the technology and it is feasible, then a million or two needs to be kicked its way. By the end of next year we will be in the black if all works out well, and when that happens I want to have things to move much faster than today. Because all of this, is just the start."
"But what is the goal? Ray if it doesn't have a firm goal, then there won't be a thing to hang it all on."
Ray chuckled as he shifted the images on his system and left a wallpaper background of the Moon that had been taken in high resolution.
"That, Mason. We are going to do the Princeton. We will also help the asteroid mining start-ups, of course, but our goal is the far side of the Moon. We are going to mine the hell out of it. And no one on Earth has the power to stop us. With a commercial energy base, orbital factories and orbital space habitats, we then will start the process of outdoing the one-shots, the glamor companies with so much high tech backing that they forgot the basics of the transportation business and energy business. After that the stars are the limit, and I expect that they are for the taking, as well."