Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Landfall Chapter 14

Chapter 14

The large hangar saw the first of the ALV-II systems nearly half-way to the ceiling of the hastily refurbished dirigible facility. A remnant of a bygone era in Naval Aviation, the short foray into the dirigible meant that there were a few such facilities in areas of virtual wilderness, which described the plains and windswept landscape of the valley the one that Ascentech had purchased for a pittance. Zoned as commercial aviation or light industrial, the land needed little further change and the only necessity was in getting power lines put in from the far off sub-station. Temporary generators and a small solar complex powered the lights and comms, and the tiny satellite dish put the complex in contact with the outside world.

A crew was resurfacing the road which had fallen into eroded disuse and while the roadbed needed only minor attention, the surface needed to be wholly redone. Steel runway grating had been found at site in Wyoming and trucked in to provide a temporary road surface for the trucks that had brought in the pieces of the ALV-II. The rail line was only 10 miles away, but was only safe for the slowest of travel, and the train that brought in the pieces and delivered them had taken most of a day to cover the 100 miles from the main spur to the new facility as the old spur nearby was deemed to be unfit for bearing the weight of anything but a handcar. That spur had been checked weeks previously for that and somewhere, in someone's schedule, was the longer task of removing the old ties that were no longer capable of bearing weight, replacing them with modern concrete ties and then checking the rail alignment thoroughly so it was safer for something a bit swifter and able to carry more freight. Possibly replacing the rails might be in the cards and if so there were sources of old rail stock that could be had, but that would add time to the move of the entire set of operations from Arizona to New Mexico.

Under the ALV-II sat the first Athena prototype in a cradle, also shipped in and had arrived the previous day. The ALV-II had taken nearly two weeks to assemble, setting back schedules, but giving time for Hermes to get the first orbital refueling module in place and its solar panels deployed. This Athena would only get that far if all worked out well with the flight and had proven its air and space worthiness from drop to landing. It was a prototype in true, the first of its kind and Hermes wanted many changes to it that would be seen in the second craft. He referred to it as a technology testbed and it would only do that final drop to orbit and return flight after sequential testing.

"This is a logistics nightmare," Ares said walking with Tamara, Brent, Diana and Dionysus under the cradle holding the Athena in place. Its sleek shape reminded Diana of a spear head or even a paper airplane, and yet it was an aerospace vehicle, one not meant to pierce from air to space, but actually utilize that boundary layer to its fullest.

"For all of us," Brent said, "we had hoped to at least get the initial loading done in Arizona and then have the ALV-II ferry us to the Spaceport complex. Instead the FAA nixed that, even though most of what is used would pose little safety risk because the delivery path rarely went over populated areas."

"You can't upset the little gopher lizard or whatever the hell it is," Tamara whipsered as they stopped at a rollaround data terminal where Hermes, Alice, Bill and Regina were sitting.

"I'll see if I can talk to a couple I know about some feral cats," Dionysus said, "they prefer other wildlife, but if they can find some suitable small lizards to train them with, well, that problem could just disappear in a few years."

Diana gave him a sidelong glance and pressed down a smile.

"I'll see what the locals know about them. If enough can be transplanted to another area to spread the population, then a good argument can be made that they aren't in a limited habitat."

Regina turned in her chair and smiled looking at the group as they fiiltered into the office area. She had gotten the use of an old desk to set up temporary operations for Hiflight to coordinate the delivery schedule of the Athena prototype and its necessary supplies. She had to keep in touch with Nuada who had the headache of making sure that ALV-I drop containers got to the space port on time. Together with Hermes and Brent, they tended to share duties as Mason had agreed to a liaison based working partnership with Hiflight to lend out Brent to them for coordinating between his group and the two new space companies. Even in a very bad economy, everyone was busy trying to meet schedules which slipped time and again due to the smallest of things.

"Screw 'em all, anyway," she said, "we forced the siding issue and we will get that done post-haste. We threaten to pull up stakes and move to wilderness elsewhere and suddenly bureaucratic nightmares start to ease up. We could never have done that in San Francisco."

"Amazing what a few idle threats in at the State Capitol will do for you, isn't it?" Alice said catching the drift of the conversation.

Hermes turned to look at them and he nodded.

"Ray is such a nice man!" he said, "I didn't think he had a bad side to him."

"How do you think we actually got that space for setting up Ascentech?" Bill said taking his tablet up and checking figures as he turned to look over that at the group, "Buying out the furniture company at auction, that was the easy part. Ray just handed them a de facto of 'this is what we are going to do here, if you want the jobs to go elsewhere, just tell me', and in less than a month the provisional approval was in his hands."

"He made a good decision for this," Ares said, "I'm glad that the Rats were able to find this place. You can't find it on any map and even overhead imagery shows it to be just some overgrown place long forgotten."

"Hiflight needs a more permanent arrangement," Hermes said sitting on the desk Regina was using and extending his hand to her which she held looking up at him. "It is an embarrassment to have to rent space here and lease at the space port. In two years all the construction and fabrication facilities in our Phoenix site will be a high overhead. We don't need anything like this place, just something closer to the space port where all our operations can be consolidated."

"Have you looked at getting some land near the port?" Bill asked, "Still pretty cheap and even with some of the land already being zoned, if you get in early you can pretty much call the shots on what gets zoned, where."

"Commercial?" Regina asked, "What sort of commercial properties?"

Alice pulled up a chair from the side wall and sat down in it, and others followed her lead, slowly forming a semi-circle around the desk Regina was using.

"Mostly front offices for a few companies, a motel, a restaurant, a couple of small stores for groceries and the basics. That sort of thing."

Ares pursed his lips together and looked at Hermes.

"It needs a good bar," he said softly, "not that the one by the motel doesn't serve but it has no... life in it."

"A bar?" Regina whispered.

Hermes looked at her and squeezed her hand.

"My love, what, exactly, are you thinking?"

She looked up to him with a wide smile on her face.

"A place to make money," she said, "a club... not like The Viceroy but..."

"If only we had such spare money," Hermes said softly.

Diana looked at the two and then to Bill, Alice and Ares who were watching the two, and then to Brent who was smiling.

"Ever run a club, Brent?" she asked.

He started as she spoke up and looked at her.

"Ah, no... I mean I've been to lots of bars and restaurants in lots of places all over the world, but I'm an engineer... program manager.... not a... um..."

"Bartender?" Diana said with a smirk. She was aware that attention had shifted from Hermes and Regina to her and Brent.

"No, never even thought..."

"Want to try?" she said looking back to Hermes and Regina, "There is experience in that sort of thing and I did get a peek at The Viceroy's books. You would have more than competent advice," she said looking back to Brent.

"But, my sister," Hermes said softly, "My cash is all tied up. I don't have..."

Diana looked at him, raising her eyebrows.

"You aren't the only one interested in seeing this entire venture between us succeed. Remember who asked you to see if it was possible?"

"How can I forget?" he said looking at Regina who looked from him to Diana.

"You!" she said, "But how are you...?"

"I'm not fully tied up financially, Regina," Diana said, "and have a few assets I can liquidate and ask the Trust for a minor loan, although that will be necessary only as last resort." She turned to look at Ares. "Do you think the Rats can scrounge up enough fittings and pieces to make the place look authentic, even if it is newly built?"

"Ah...Diana... you a club owner?"

"Me? Of course not!" she said with a smile, "It will be wedding present. A gift. If daily cash flow is such a problem for those I love, then I can, at least, give them something they know how to run in the black. And with desert and port pricing, I have no doubt they will make good on it. Port taverns are notorious for their mark-up, aren't they?"

"You're serious," Alice said looking at her, "A real bar for the space port. But that's not... I mean Miss Sherwood..."

"Diana, please."

Alice stopped a moment and nodded. She knew that this was not a strictly business conversation any more, at least not one taking place in her field or about the company she had invested in and worked for.

"Diana, that's just not like you."

Diana shrugged.

"Before I invested in Ascentech, doing that woujld be unlike anything I would do. If we are to reach for the stars we need more than just single talents, Alice. The time to get your feet wet in the different while still doing the ordinary is now, while we still have time. For once we are in space for good, the slightest problem can kill not just one of us but all of us. Now is a perfect time to understand plumbing, customer relations, cost overhead of an unusual operation and, most importantly, getting in good with the locals to get land rezoned. In 6 months Hiflight won't have a problem finding industrial land. Neither will Ascentech or Mason's spin-off from DOGIS, once that is finalized. Our competition already has a head start, but their skills just aren't up to what is here, in this room. They have money to burn and burn it hoping for a return. We are investing in the future and we must also invest in ourselves."

"You ARE serious," Ares said.

She nodded with a smile and stood up from her seat, looking across the room to where a pile of luggage waited.

"Of course I am. Now, can we get back to the Athena test schedule? It has stretched out to late January and all of the necessary companies need a firm deadline so they can get a lift transport for the final test to us. The holidays stretched out all our deliveries, and now we do have to catch up. By then the ALV-II will be in its second set of tests and the Athena drop will be just after its final test. I think we all need to know this schedule if we are to keep the confidence of others in what we are doing."

"Its a horror," Hermes whispered to Regina, as he watched Diana.

"What is?" she asked softly.

"My sister... a competent businesswoman... "

Diana slowly turned around to look at him.

"A necessary thing to learn," she said as she walked across the room to get the tablet computer from a stowage case, "and if I thought it wasn't I would still be up in Alaska..." she bent over to pick up the case and then unzipped it to get the thin computer from it, "...but that isn't to be. And at some point I will need to get some piloting lessons, too."

Ares watched her steadily as the surface she held came to life and she pulled up the necessary schedules on it, the white glow reflecting on her face.

"Because it is necessary?" he asked.

Her eyes shifted to look at him over the surface of the screen.

"Well, yes. But I also expect it will be a lot of fun. Once the bugs are worked out of the systems. Speaking of which... Alice, has the auxiliary power linkage for the ALV-II retention system been check out yet?"

Tamara leaned over to Ares and whispered very softly.

"I can see why you love her."

Turning to look at her his lips moved but he didn't speak.

'Yes. And fear.'


"Have you ever... looked for others like yourself?" Tamara asked sitting at the kitchen table after having had lunch with Ares.

"You mean, other gods or what remains after one falls?"

"Yes. I mean you and the others... you have worked hard to bury who you are, but would others work as hard as part of what they are?"

He smiled as leaned over to kiss her and then cupped her face.

"Of course I have. It is part of what I do with the multiple trust operations I have oversight on. In trying to find reputable and good individuals to take a temporary place on the board, I do have other groups that do background investigation. Not private investigators, just executive documentation groups that normally serve as head-hunters."

He sat back, taking up his mug of hot tea and sipped it.

Tamara stood up and took their plates from the table and walked into the kitchen to put them into the sink and turned the water on to rinse them off.

"So... have you?"

Ares shrugged as he took another sip of tea and then got up to take the empty glasses and utensils from the table into the kitchen.

"Some possibles over the years, but they do fall by the wayside due to problems. Like Medea Trainor, one of the early women technology millionaires coming out of the DEC-Motorola deal and starting up a computer consulting business before starting up one of the early social media sites, Daffodil."

She turned to help him with the glasses and carefully rinsed them before he placed the utensils in them in the sink.

"I don't remember that one..." Tamara said looking at him.

"Very few do. She made more of a name for herself in being a successful woman who was someone who was obviously capable and able to make some money in the business. Her unofficial tag was that she was the Kissing Interview, and that for a famous woman to be seen with her she basically demanded some face time in an intimate way. She sold off Daffodil just as it got competition, tried to form a competitor to Ebay called BuyMe, had that fail and went into mental depression. That was due to an organic problem as she was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer in 2003 and succumbed to it in 2008."

"Oh! I had heard of that last one! Weren't they the ones with the dancing cat and going 'Me! Me! Me! Meow!' as it found things it liked on the screen and used a mouse with a live mouse in it to purchase stuff?"

Ares chuckled and nodded as they pulled close to each other and hugged.

"The very same. It is easy to scratch candidates off the list, of course. Diseases and disorders that are organic in nature do a good job of that. Birth defects that aren't part of any god in any pantheon also do that. Mental problems beyond what is described for the same reasons. There are always possible individuals, of course, but the simple things take them out fairly quickly. Brian Everhart of Morgan Music Software with diabetes or Lewis Gartner, physicist and one of the first generation on information theory and its limits, he has a bi-polar disorder and deafness due to being at one too many Black Sabbath concerts as a teen. Such things can be faked, yes, but tend to be the first evidence of an individual being purely human. To date, I've found no other beings out of any realm that I'm aware of. My brothers and sister slip out of sight by not heading large companies, not working to gain anything more than temporal and passing fame if even that, and move around far too much to ever be caught out by chance encounters."

Her arms around his waist she looked at him.

"Just like you! The mysterious agent of the Mars Technology Trust..." she caught herself for a moment. "Mars!"

He nodded, eyes twinkling as light streamed into the kitchen window from the other side of the room.

"Purely vanity, of course. It won't be around another 5 years at this rate, and I will shift it over to one of my paper trusts that I keep scattered in legal offices, banks, and with other smaller organizations that serve as financial holding entities. Really, of all the things that my brother did, getting the concept of the legal entity known as a 'company' that could last beyond the life of an individual is one that has been the most useful to me in my life. Pure genius in letting that idea loose amongst mankind, and removes much of the tedious overhead of doing these things by simply setting up an organization and paying others to do the bookkeeping. That was pure and simple genius on his part, far beyond anything I could ever think up."

She gazed into his eyes as he spoke and he into hers.

"But you learned how to use them..." she whispered.

He smiled, softly.

"Of course, beloved, as he has learned some parts of what I brought, although I would wager that he prefers to stay away from direct conflict. Of course I also learned of other things he did..."

His hands slid around her and they kissed slowly, passionately.

As they broke she said, "mmmmm.... do tell..."

"I think I can show you better directly..."

Together the night slid around them as they walked from the kitchen and shut off the lights, with only their bedroom lit ahead of them.


"Airspeed 530 knots, steady, over" the voice through the intercom sounded through the small room in the Hiflight offices at the Space Launch Center at the Spaceport. The room was in a hangar at the far outskirts of the facility, and was currently leased with option to buy. Hermes' eyes glistened as he looked at the multiple screen readouts and direct camera tracking the old 747 that was one of the few private transporters of NASA test vehicles. It had been used to ferry vehicles too large to fit inside other vehicles by having it mounted to a structure on its surface. A much smaller sub-frame was put in place of the old frame used for the STS systems so that the Athena Prototype could be taken high into the atmosphere for its first powered test run.

"Roger that, Strat 5, we are two minutes from initial pulse tests, over," Ares said to his right, and he toggled a switch moving the on-board software into its active synchronization for test sequence.

Regina turned in her chair to his left and examined the fuel situation for the Athena and smiled.

"Not just a static drop this time," she said her hand covering the mouthpiece on her headset, "very different look to it, now."

He nodded and rolled his chair forward to main part of the readouts on a desk and turned his whisper headset on. Ares had been pursuasive on getting him to do static and thrust tests of the Athena prototype and data was flowing in not just into the local systems but the remote ones at Hiflight and Orlando Aerospace Ventures. With the first static drop had come much useful information and this powered drop would gain more information into refining the Athena line of vehicles.

"Strat 5, pre-launch test commencing on manual. You will get a three second warning to tests on control surfaces. You probably won't feel much given your size, but that will be starting, over."

"Roger that, HF Launch Control, we see the profile coming up on-screen and will warn of any tolerance problems, over."

"Let me know how that feels, Strat 5," Ares said into his headset, "flight recorders can't capture everything, over."

"You got that, Launch Control," the voice said, "my predecessors did this with the bigger systems and told stories, but so far this is like sharp but minor turbulence, over."

"Strat 5 we are 1 minute from test pulses, be advised, over," Regina said into her headset.

"Roger that, Launch Control, over."

Behind him, Hermes felt his seat tilt just slightly back as Diana leaned on it. He gave a glance up and saw how her eyes darted from display to display, a soft smile on her lips.

"Just a bit rattled from that, Control, but all in the safe zone for the platform, over."

Hermes started speaking as his eyes went to the displays again.

"Roger that, Strat 5, we are 30 seconds from release, automated countdown begins, over," he said toggling a switch synching up the release countdown with the flight profile system.

"Switching over bolt release to automated, Control. She will be on her own soon, over."

"Yes she will," Hermes said with a grin, "we are green here, over."

"Green on Strat 5, release in 10... 5... release. There goes the Athena, taking on slow drift to port, over."

"Roger that, and good job Strat 5! Orientation pulses now commencing, over," Regina said as her hands started moving over the fuel control systems as they registered on-line.

"We are out of Dodge, Control. Have a good flight. Strat 5 over and out."

"Hiflight Control to Strat 5, you did an excellent job! Just keep out of the way of the Athena exhaust. Over and out."

Hermes nodded and Regina started the tests for the rocket and fuel systems.

"Minor course correction," Ares said, "turbulence on the on-board radar. Jet wake."

On the central screen a 3D profile of the flight was on-screen with the position behind a blue spot turning green and the course ahead in orange. The red dot of Strat 5 was now leaving the course plan to the north to be out of the way of the test. A set of smaller screens below that came to life to show the on-board camera returns looking out over the wing body from the center line top and bottom.

"Nosing up, 40 degrees... 50...." Hermes whispered.

"Athena at 20% pulse."

"Time to use up some fuel," Hermes said, "keep a reserve above nominal return, at 3%."

"Right," Regina said her eyes glued to the flight profile and fuel use profiles.

As Hermes watched the system and used a small joystick to do some nominal powered manuevers he felt the gaze of his sister shifting.

"What do you think of the hunt, sister?" he whispered as he watched the main display switch over to the cabin forward view from the Athena. Blue faded to black, and the faint twinkle of a bright star could be seen.

"Glorious, my brother. Truly you will take us to the stars."


"...but I thought it was your son who, ummm...."

Regina said as she laced her fingers through Hermes laying in bed next to him.

"Was of both sexes, you mean?" he asked softly.

"Yeah! I mean thats the story, at least I think it is..."

He shifted on his side to look at Regina and smiled at her.

"Do you know about my older sister, Athena?"

Regina turned on her side and let go of his hand and they shifted closer together, Hermes sliding an arm under her neck and his left hand on her hip. She used her hand to stroke his hair while her right hand went over his hip and gently slid up and down his side.

"She came from... his forehead? Seems kind of strange, but like that?"

Hermes nodded and chuckled.

"We were categorically different then, my love. He needed Haephestus to crack his skull open for that. Truly Haephestus could have been the death of Zeus, the death of us all if he ever had set his mind to it. And he was sweetest soul you could ever find..." he sighed and they shared a kiss as they shifted closer together. "He had to do that as the essence of Athena had come from Wisdom, the woman fated to give birth to a child greater than her husband. There were, of course, a few with that fate and you could never know which of them was which. It kept everyone questioning what they did. To stop that series of events he consumed her, like Cronus had done with his siblings, save that Zeus digested her a bit better. Wisdom so gained cannot be kept for long."

She blinked as she listened to that.

"But that's sick," she finally whispered.

Nodding Hermes slid his hand down her leg and then back up to her hip.

"Yes, it was. Athena was already there in form and spirit, so she had to come out and took a good part of Zeus' sense with her along with the gift of Wisdom. The better part of it, really. And without that he forgot that he was, for a period of time, both man and woman...."

Regina's eyes widened as he said that and softly said "Oh!"

In the darkened room she could barely see the twinkle of light coming through the hotel room window as the Moon ascended the sky.

"So while I was his son I was also... ahhh... let us say more and less than male and more and less than female. My son with Aphrodite actually needed no nymph to make him what he was, although it no doubt helped in the physical expression of it in his body. But, as with me, like father, like son, thus it was with him, although he had far more of a woman's vanity than I ever had. Such is the line created by those circumstances, and they have not been repeated since and now children without such complications are my true gift. Both from myself and given to others."

She smiled and they hugged together in bed, legs intertwined, giving a closeness beyond mere passion its expression. Slowly they relaxed, kissed and gazed into each other's eyes.

"What happened.... do you know?"

"To Hermaphrodite?"

"Yes," she whispered.

"Killed in an avalanche while bathing in a mountain pool, the work of the wrath of Zeus in passing, with the glory of his dead brother now his. Zeus left hundreds dead, thousands at his hands once his purpose was set and killing was necessary to it. By the time I joined up with my brother Ares I knew that Zeus had planned this rage, because he had the tools necessary to go after the best part of himself to retake it. Athena... he couldn't kill her... he would have been killing himself...."

He shook remembering the new found path to the Underworld as he searched to find out the fate of his siblings, his cousins, or just of powerful friends.

"By then he had the tools of Haephestus, Ariadne's skeins, the power of his brothers, and so much more that even he could not easily utilize all of it. The death of Apollo had flung her far from Olympus and far from Athens, and she knew that if Zeus was willing to wantonly kill his wife, his children, then he would come to claim her. In a rocky valley in the mountains she could find shelter from sun and cold, with enough water to survive, game to hunt, and sword to sharpen. Even she could not encompass what Zeus was becoming and the wounds of that battle between them were still there when I arrived, written in the very rock of the mountain."

Closing his eyes his body shook, the memories even after all this time and being replayed so often still with a power to take his spirit and twist it.

"You told me... no, Diana told me that you had told her... she was still alive but couldn't remember who she was or even what she had done the day before."

Opening his eyes, tears streamed from them freely.

"He had opened a cavern to a stream of the Underworld, the Lethe as part of his newfound powers and made it so that even I could no longer find true entrances to the Underworld. With an earthquake and the power of Helios, Apollo and Hyperion which is that of the sun, and with the tools and battle implements of Haephestus' shop, he broke her spear, shattered her sword, dented Aegis time and again, and then sliced into her armor.... forcing her back and back... I could see the marks where they fought on the rock itself with shards of weapons scattered on the broken rocks, and great slices into the rock that could not be made by any other force. With two blows he..."

She pulled him closer as he started crying and he clung to her, seeing his older sister in his memories.

"Shhhhh..." she said, " don't have to tell me."

"I do," he whispered tearfully, his cheek pressed to hers, "she deserves it. You deserve it as she is your sister, now. Athena was stronger than most of us, certainly stronger than me."

He clung to her now, holding on to their love and their life.

"He had bashed her helmet off... with...part of her skull inside still..."

Regina's eyes widened as her mind tried to give her what that must have looked like and felt the sheer horror from Hermes and knew as bad as she could imagine it, that it would not be even a fraction of what he remembered.

"...her battered body collapsed and her head... in the Lethe... making her forget and mingling with her blood. Yet she was still alive. Shallow breaths... I gathered her up on the back of Aegis, fitting her together again as I knew that it was possible that she might not expire from even such as this. Zeus had not killed her outright because it would be suicide. He took his wisdom back in full but did not have her experience in how to use it well."

She could feel him relax slightly and pull back. Amidst the tears there was a smile to be seen by moonlight.

"And then he must have learned that Athena's skill at war was that of practice, practice, practice and not to be transferred. He had sought the way to bring down Ares by conflict and had come up empty. It didn't matter, of course, and we didn't know why he left for so long until he had Diana's limp form to dump on us after he had beaten her and taken her powers. Only now is it becoming clear to me just how it could be that she would be his undoing. He must have felt some guilt at what he had done to Athena, surely, but he could never defile her as that would be defiling himself. Artemis... Diana... she can't be...defiled... not by anything... and that is a power no one can take from her. The weakest of all gifts is secured by a power greater than that of all other powers. Only now can I see that, my love, and that only because of our love for you that makes it clear."

There were times when Regina felt she was special, but those were things done on the job and beyond that she still felt much of the pre-teen and teenage angst and shame of being a child of suburbia. A child of nowhere who would have no real change in the course of anyone's life, save to be a wife and mother. Her rebellion at that fate drove her to limits that she hadn't known she had. And to love that challenged her, changed her, in ways she couldn't know and she was coming to suspect that her fate would actually have some meaning far beyond her life. That was coming to give her an understanding of just what it was that Hermes felt as not all change was for the good. Her life in the suburbs began to look like a quiet and secure time in her life, even with all of her teenage outbursts and rebellions, and she had turned from that for a life of her own. On her own.

"That is why Diana is doing all of this, beloved. We have a responsibility for our battered and abused sister, what remains of the best part of Zeus, our father. If it costs us our lives to get her a normal one, then so be it. She deserves at least that and it would be a poor brother... poor sister... who could not find a suitable family to welcome her from the land of the forgotten of the Lethe."


"This is a hell of a way to do things," Kevin Penk said as he looked at Karl, Nuada, Dennis and Alice. Together they were in the huge hangar near the Spaceport that was becoming the central contstruction facility of Ascentech. While the old Arizona facility would still make major components, parts, and even new vehicles, the place to take a vehicle apart for a major refit was the hangar. Now in its vast spaces the sounds of construction got lost in the vast distance from the ground to the ceiling and nothing could make the building reverberate with sound.

"It was a pretty strange order," Nuada said, "we have to hand make the ALV-II drop containers and the frame is the largest part of that work. I hope to hell we can farm that work out, too, as it is just exhausting."

Dennis smiled as he walked over to the old ALV-I prototype which had been stripped of its old laminated carbon and ceramic surface and was getting a new one which introduced somewhat thicker layers of structural foam. That foam would allow for rigidity against fluid pressure and yet have some small amount of flexibility when the vehicle was in its pre-boost phase. Dennis just had to take a look at the entire process to try and make sense of it, and somewhere in the vast spaces of the hangar Gemmy was obviously talking with someone or found something of interest. Watcher of Shelves would not have understood the place, he knew, and he missed having a feline companion since he could have a decent enough working relationship with them even though he had longlearned that their larger cousins who were no longer that interested in him.

"You don't have much space in the forward section for an oxygen scrubber system," he said walking underneath the part of the vehicle that had muscled out electronics, compact batteries, navigation and other equipment, "although the volume just beneath the cabin might do for that." He turned and looked back at Alice who had followed him.

"What about waste facilities?" she asked looking up.

"Ah... " he said softly, "sanitary napkins and undergarments, along with sealed bags will be the order of the day, I think. Water has far too much mass to try and make a proper sanitary system. I'm seeing what can be done to reduce the volume of water that is needed," he said turning to look at Alice, "what with getting that back from the air and such, but that gets to be a complex system. I know you have specialists you are hitting up for the ALV-III designs, Mrs. Chalmers, but they tend to concentrate on... mechanisms and chemicals. I prefer natural decomposition in stages rendering fertilizer at its end. Truly any long-term occupation in space will need fertilizer and our bodies will provide the feedstock for that and the gifts of Nature will provide the processing."

She pressed her lips together, nodding.

"I was hoping for a miracle," she said looking at Dennis as he took up a drinking bottle that was on a cross strap across his upper body.

He sipped as he looked at her, nodding, and then put a cap back on the straw to the bottle.

"Even such a minor thing as this," he said indicating the bottle, "must be accounted for. Herman has schooled me well in that and the cost of each ounce is vital. This vehicle could do with a closed system recycler for water," he said looking back up to the cabin, "and if you have continuous low level solar power and a way to deal with the heat of such a system, then clean and antiseptic water can be had so long as there is both power and humidity in the cabin air. Even refresh your pressure suits! A specialized feed can go to a dessicator for, ah, waste, to gather in water, of course. That entire system is in the range of 125 lbs., the cost minimal to the entire system cost and relatively compact if somewhat basic. Add in a small suction system for the ashes, tiny centrifuge...hmmm... no more than 300 lbs. total, outside of water storage which you already have in your plans. You just need to put in another pressure feed line. You are going to use a silver lined storage tank, yes?"

Alice pressed her lips together and nodded.

"That's something I picked up looking at some of Mr. Lassiter's sketches..." she remembered the large sketch diagrams and then the discs with the digital material to outline the proposed ALV-III, "...and wanted to try it here. There is a lot that is novel about his designs."

"A bit risky," Kevin said looking at Alice and then Nuada, "you are keeping to very tight specs on your prototype and leaving little for pushing the design. We haven't invested as heavily in specialty suppliers, so everything on the ALV systems include at least a 10% margin for stress. Since we can't be as stringent on orders, its necessary to overbuild."

"Common problem," Karl said, "Herman wants everything as efficient as he can get it. Multiple checks and cross-checks help, and must be done with brand new systems that have never flown in anything. I told him about some of the problems I saw with the prototype, and we've looked at the models and are changing the follow-on. We're recessing the zero facing exhausts, as an example, and using a turbulence pocket to get laminar airflow over it. The single shifting combustion system has been replaced so that forward and rear rockets are independent systems. Each with an independent fuel and oxidizer flow, which adds weight. The prototype should show us what can be done with the design based on the current frame."

"Do you think it will reach astronaut certification distance?" Alice asked.

"It should," Karl said, shrugging, "but I'm no pilot."

"It will for at least one flight, just to prove the design," Nuada said, "and then it gets taken apart completely to be examined. That will not be fun, I can tell you, after having helped to assemble it."

"Oh it won't be as bad as all that," Dionysus said, "I've found a wonderful set of solvents that should do most of the job for the hard point lamination attachments." He sighed for a moment, "Sadly the major parts of the frame will need to be cut. Herman wants a 'hot' return so that all the thermal systems get a thorough test. You know how those can be from what I understand."

Alice looked at Kevin and they both nodded to each other.

"The only good thing," Kevin said, "is taking it apart goes much faster than putting it together. I hope you have the environmental suits and separate breathing system necessary for that."

"Already installed at the facility," Dennis said, "Now lets take a look at your current filter system. I know you have items from two different companies and, if I may say so, their lack of standardized fittings means that you just can't easily take a filter from one system, say the main cabin suit supply system, and adapt it over to a low return atmospheric system. Really, you don't want to repeat the mistakes of the Apollo program..."

The examination of the old ALV-I prototype, now nearly two years old, would take hours and a long to-do list of items to address environmental concerns would be added into a mix of other engineering and design changes to make the ALV-I prototype a new Mark 3 hybrid as a manned system to go from the 20 mile parameter and begin the journey out of the atmosphere proper. While others had already done this in the field, the lessons learned with it would guide the further development of the ALV-III, which would offere payload deliveries that would be built upon the systems that had proven capable of delivering smaller loads anywhere on Earth. Exotic freight hauling was becoming a new niche in delivery services and it would extend from the Earth to orbit and beyond.


"And the second Athena frame is now ready to go," Herman said to the small group in the front office at HighFlight after the return from the vicinity of the Spaceport the prior day, which included Regina, Brent, Dionysus, Gemma, Diana, Ares and Tamara. "In two days we can have a rail car here, load it up and send it off to New Mexico to marry it up with the first ALV-II, which will have been thoroughly checked and scrubbed by then to put any lessons learned into the upgraded rocket version. We can deal with the somewhat lower speeds because of the delta vee of the Athena, proper."

"How is the conversion of the prototype going?" Dionysus asked as he got up and went over to the wine bottle in its stand next to the desk, taking it up and going from person to person to top up any glasses that were less than half-full.

"A bit harder than we expected, actually," Regina said, "Karl and Nuada are griping about it and the work needing to be done with it," she looked up at Dionysus and smiled, "Thanks, I'm fine," she said taking a sip from her glass.

"Do they ever stop?" Brent asked.

"Sure they do, when they are out riding together," Diana said, "throw in Mel and they have a great time on the road. Karl wants to get a custom chopper for me, so I don't have to rent one," she shook her head as Dionysus came by and he moved on to Ares who held out his glass to be refilled.

"There is respect there, amongst them," Ares said, "the bickering is to hide it. They are extremely competent at this point, and their work is first rate."

"That it is, my brother," Hermes said, getting up from one of the three leather sofas that were in the main office area, "and adaptable. By mid-March we should have the prototype into a full version, stripped of the Inconel and other parts and a proper cockpit installed. The entire vehicle took a bit more than I expected coming in hot like that. The main problem was at the carbon-carbon to Inconel joins and the Inconel turned into a deeper black than I've ever seen on any of the X-15 flight pieces. That and the low tail requires a flat landing approach, much flatter than I expected. Either there needs to be an extendable section to the landing gear or the rear needs to be shortened. It will make for a tricky approach for landing in 3 weeks."

"I'm sure you can handle it," Gemmy said sitting next to Tamara,"I never thought I would be this close to spaceflight operations in my entire life, and you are all so good at what you do!"

"We're faking it," Tamara said holding her glass out for the last of the white wine that Dionysus poured out for her.

"Ah, another soldier down in a good cause," he said taking the bottle over to the glass bin and putting it gently down, "luckily there are more to reinforce it!"

"That we are, Gemma," Hermes said, "but now that I've had a decent trainer simulator to work with," he said nodding to Ares, "I'm ready enough to fly it with what we garnered from the actual flight of the prototype. The rear section damage was due to a bit too much rear thrust to brake and that can be done with a better drag chute system. Still it is a hot approach."

"The prototype still hasn't done a manned ascent," Ares said looking at Hermes.

Hermes shrugged.

"True enough. We've been through all the vibratory tests, had a full body dummy system there to record all the activities and it is well within the tolerances for human use."

"It has been tweaked a lot," Gemmy said, "in just the months we have been here it has been partially dismantled twice and then re-assembled for more testing. There are still a lot of problematic systems and design features that have been removed for the final design. I wouldn't call it a friendly vehicle for flying."

"But it must be flown," Ares said reaching over to pick up his glass of wine and sipping it.

Hermes nodded.

"A formality, my brother. A quick jaunt up past 62 miles, a good 100 miles ought to satisfy everyone, and then a friction descent and landing. The long part is the ALV-II ride to get there, which might take the better part of a day to be at the right speed at 15 to 20 miles high."

"It is a confidence builder," Dionysus said, "that is all. The design itself is tested well enough to have shown the eccentricities of the prototype."

"That is true," Ares said looking at him and then back to Hermes, "it isn't about the design any more, which needs some tweaking here and there. It is for the confidence that we know what we are doing."

Hermes inhaled and was lost in thought for a moment. Regina looked from him to Ares.

"You are making the marketing case?"

Ares looked at her and then pressed his lips together trying to suppress a smile.

"How can it be overlooked so easily?" he asked, "It is a necessary part of the campaign."

Hermes looked at Ares, his eyes widening and started to chuckle. Then laugh.

"We've trained you too well, my brother! At this rate you will start in on aerospace craft designs and start a rival company."

"No need. I have DCP/MTT and what was once DOGIS. Logistics will make money very quickly for the next decade. Failures will be purchased, technology revamped, designs redone or scrapped in favor of better models and some ex-DOGIS companies will fall from MTT and go on their own. Within a decade DCP/MTT will be dissolved and I'll consolidate multiple holdings under a new group. I don't want to or need to do the engineering, Hermes. Or run the companies. That doesn't mean I don't know what it takes to run companies and do the engineering."

Hermes shuddered.

"You? I mean," he looked at Diana who smiled at him.

"Of course he is," she said sweetly, "that is what you would do if you weren't so intent on day to day operations which you adore no end. Not that his organization will have sole say, either. I'm frugal and only invest a bit here, a bit there and when I put in anything that is substantial I expect payback from it. Even if this organization fails, I have other investments in much smaller amounts in many others. It is the long hunt, Hermes. And when the time comes I will cull my holdings and invest in new ones, be they solar arrays in orbit or asteroid mining, or other space ventures. Wildlands don't generate much revenue, its true, but they are kept wild and I know the riches of them that are neither goods nor coin, although they have those as well."

"I do believe that our brother and sister decided on their plans some time ago," Dionysus said.

"Months ago," Ares said, "it was obvious to me then."

"Years ago," Diana said, "perhaps decades depending on how you look at it."

"So the Athena Prototype flies," Ares said, "right? Even if it is an absolute failure and crashes in the Indian Ocean or some place else, you will then have the final data from it to ensure that the new design is right. The true Athena then can get its final tweaks, tests and then go forward rapidly to a piloted ascent. There is no such thing as bad publicity in such ventures. There is even some romance in it."

Hermes smiled and nodded.

"Correct. I'll set aside a fuel allotment and we can get it ready to go in a week."

"So you're the pilot, then?" Diana asked.

Hermes turned to look at her, nodding.

"Do you think I would miss this chance?"

Diana tilted her head to look at him.

"Is that at all wise, dear brother?"

Hermes looked confused.

"Wise? What does wisdom have to do with it? I'm the builder of it, the designer of it with Brent and really the most skilled pilot here. How could it be unwise for anyone else to do this?"

Diana straightened her head and raised her eyebrows.

"But you are with child, my sister. Surely you do not want to risk an unborn child with such a first manned flight of a vehicle. Surely you knew?"

Hermes looked at her with wide eyes. Regina turned to look at her and shivered as the others were either watching Hermes or Diana.

"Regina? Surely you both..." Diana started and then bit her lip.

"Me?" Regina asked in a bare whisper as she looked at Hermes.

Diana nodded looking from Regina to Hermes and back again.

"Both... surely..."

Dionysus opened the refrigerator and took out another bottle of wine.

"Congratulations, my brother and new sister, on this happy event!" he said walking over to the sideboard to get the bottle opener, "This calls for a celebration!"

Ares set his face grimly.

"Always with the mistimed parties."


"I'm... pregnant?" Regina asked for the tenth time that night, this time after the dinner was finished and the dishes put away. She sat in a chair behind the main desk in the downstairs office with Diana and Gemmy there, sipping cups of coffee.

"Of course you are," Diana said, "I've been in the realm of knowing when a woman is or isn't pregnant since before the invention of the stethascope. And over the last two months the rhythms of every woman associated with Hermes has shifted slightly. I know the signs for that, too. I don't need special powers to know that, just how the cycle has worked for generation upon generation. Zeus took the power, but the experience he could never destroy as it was not his in the first place."

"But will it be... normal?"

"Well, my children are 'normal', as much as you can say that about having a man like Dennis as their father," Gemmy said, "Nicholas and Sharon are good kids and not a trace of anything Olympian about them. You will be the same, Regina."

Regina smiled as she stood up and walked to the front window to look out into the night as the other two sat on the sofa to her right.

"Its just so... suburban..." she said softly, "does this mean I'll want to have a ranch home with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a two car garage now?"

Diana smiled and Gemmy looked up at Regina and said earnestly, "Well with your family situation, you would need a bit more than that."

Regina shivered and turned to her right nodding at Gemma.

"Most likely your children will grow up at or near the Spaceport," Diana said shifting to look at Regina, "they will grow up with the Earth under their feet and then their first steps in the sky above to become true children of space when grown up. Suburbia will be distant, a relic of a former time, a quaint place reserved for historians and those wishing to keep the ancient ways alive. Your children will only know it as something odd in their lives."

"My children..." Regina wrapped her arms around herself as she walked over to the desk to pick up her cup of coffee. Sipping it she turned to look at the other two and then at Diana. Her eyes went wide.

"Dear god... back at the club.... you said I would be the mother of two families..."

Diana nodded.

"And blessed beyond belief," Diana said. "There are times when the old power needs a vessel and over that I have no control nor want of it. Anyone can have such if they are receptive to it. I am no seer, no prophet and have no direct line to anyone with more power. It is just that even after my downfall, my ravishing, I am still a vessel that the old power can sometimes find."

"I thought you were... umm... Diana? I didn't like you."

Gemma looked up at Regina.

"But why?"

"She's dangerous," Regina said softly, "she took down... well you know it by now... and she is Herman's sister, and he is, well, what he is. Or she. Both. I just wanted to be with him always..."

"And Diana was coming to disrupt that life you had wanted," Gemma said, "because her brother/sister hadn't made a final commmitment to you."

Regina shifted to look at Gemma.

"Yes," she whispered, "I know he loved me or else we wouldn't have had the club..."

"Together," Diana finished for her. "I know my appearance, Regina, and the effect I have. I meant no harm but I am a being of Nature who has had to tame herself after being so grievously wronged. I've run with wild dogs, wolves, slept with bears, and suffered the cold of snake's dens so that they would have warmth for a freezing night and their bodies would be my living blanket. Yet I come back to mankind because I am also human and because of my remaining gifts I must not love men beyond the fraternal and nurturing way. I can and do love women beyond that, and I did all that I could to show you that I mean you no harm and great love, Regina."

"You have... oh, yes..." Regina said remembering how the warmth of the ground had flown into her as she accepted such love more than once.

"Diana... uhh... what did you...?" Gemma asked.

"That is between us, Gemma. You may have had a wild party or two when younger with your husband," she started.

"Oh! Ah... yes," Gemma said blushing.

"And I am not going to ask about those. The fruit of the grape or of barley or distilled spirits, they are a wanton revelry that command their own way. That is what my brother can show you, but that is for you, not for me. What is with those I love like this... is between us."

Regina sat down on the sofa next to Diana, shifting to look at her after she put her coffee down and reached out to hug her.

"I love you, Diana," she said softly.

"I love you, Regiina. Your children should know the ways of Nature in the raw before they leave Earth, my sister. I would be proud to share your duties as your sister with you and you know that the fealty of those you love, to you, will never be jeopardized by me. When they grow old enough, we can do that together, as well."

Slowly they let go of each other, holding hands.

"Forgive me for my faults, sister. I only do what must be done."

Regina relaxed, and sighed.

"Of course. And I want to be there with you to be your sister and... love you more."

Watching Gemma sat back and thought.

"Yes, Diana, you are dangerous," she said softly, "in all the right ways. But dangerous nevertheless."


Hermes looked at Brent and then Regina as they sat finishing their breakfast together. They were alone as Diana had gone off with Dionysus and Gemma to visit the Ascentech facility and get a better idea of how the ALV-II operated and for Dionysus to give some input into the conversion of the early ALV-I prototype into a single stage vehicle to get just beyond the drag envelope of the atmosphere and provide some spartan comforts to the crew. Inside the Hiflight building Nuada and Karl had gotten an early start on getting the new pod style rockets fitted into the post-prototype Athena. They would be joining those two, along with the other work crew that Nuada had employed to begin the heavy work of vehicle sub-assembly of each of the major components necessary for the Athena to function.

"This is a surprise to me," Hermes said shaking his head with his lips pressed together, "and its my fault for working too hard and not recognizing the signs of my own body. That should have given me a clue, particularly the sensitivity of my breasts beginning to increase..." he sighed.

"I thought that was just natural to you," Brent said, "I mean its not like I've ever had to deal with anything like this before." He held his hand out to Regina who reached out and took it and they clasped hands together on the table between them.

"Or me, Brent. I think... no I know that I wasn't really ready for this sort of thing. Going from the girl who is co-owner of a club to becoming a businesswoman in a real business, plus having Hermes as more than just a lover and having my period follow his... hers..." she looked from Brent to Hermes, "... I mean even at the club I had an irregular skip or three beyond that. There's a good OBGYN nearby we can visit... together."

Chuckling Hermes leaned forward and stretched his arms out and they each took one of his hands. "We had talked about this as a possibility. I was just thinking it might be a year or two, not so immediate. We know that Hiflight must get situated closer to the spaceport and to the Ascentech facility in New Mexico. Before Regina and I get further along," he squeezed their hands, "I think we should scout out a place to move to before the Athena prototype flies. With my brother at the controls."

She inhaled, closing her eyes.

"I don't want him to risk that," she said softly opening her eyes and looking to Brent and Regina, "for all of our difficulties we stood together and I'm proud of that. The Athena is my creation and I should be the one to risk..."

"You've told us about the risk, my love," Regina said, "and he is willing to take it."

"He is a good man, Hermes," Brent said, "and he knows the risk of failure in space. For each of you that has to be a real horror not to be able to die..."

Hermes nodded and sobbed softly.

"Our father damned us to this and wanted to make things worse by placing us in the Underworld, yet alive. At least that would be amongst the souls of the dead. In orbit? Perhaps just blacked out until, in some few years, friction finally drags the craft down to crash. But the power of Gaia to sustain us is still there. I don't know what would happen up there."

Regina squeezed his hand and bit her lower lip.

"Ares... my brother..." Regina said and shook her head and looked at Brent, "...its so weird to say that and yet it makes a lot of sense. I have biological siblings but they are distant to me, like the rest of my family. This is a new family and for all that it is very strange, it is also growing closer."

Brent squeezed her hand.

"The same for me. At DOGIS my family was my work group and we were only loosely associated. Now my work brings a family with it and my new brothers and sisters, are coming to mean the world to me."

"Yes," Regina whispered staring at him, "I could never have pictured myself living with you Brent, and now how could I have lived without you here?"

"This is rare," Hermes whispered after blinking a few times, "I've never had a family like this. Lovers at different cities or even distant within a city and taking up different guises and only once before trying to make something like this work. It didn't and I thought it best not to bring two strangers together for my love and wants. I couldn't resist, though."

"I'm glad you didn't," Brent said, "I couldn't even think about trying to live with two of you and now my world, is different and richer for it. We will get through this. One way or another."

Regina inhaled and sqeezed their hands, and then looked at Hermes.

"I talked with Diana and Gemma last night, for awhile. Diana suggested that our children... would not experience the kind of life I knew and Brent knew. They will live with one foot on Earth and step into space. The spaceport..."

"Is no real place to raise children," Brent said, "but its obvious, though. Regular school won't cover this, I think. We need something new."

Nodding Hermes squeezed their hands, and smiled.

"My sister... ahhh... she is the one looking ahead down the path. I concern myself with the immediate. Ares concerns himself with the logistics and operational support. Dionysus," she chuckled, "the moral support and support of life, itself. By living in the wild lands of Earth, my sister has had to look ahead and concern herself with each. In this case she has already thought more on this sort of possibility than any of us have. I don't know what it takes to stand up a school that combines regular education with the necessities of learning how to look ahead and prepare to deal with eventualities that space will both threaten and offer."

"She is willing to help, at least on some of the basics," Regina said, "get them to know the Earth part of things. I don't know about the rest of it, I never cared much for school as it was. Hated it."

Brent squeezed their hands and both looked at him.

"So did I, but it was necessary. Necessity is our advantage, here. If we aren't so good at teaching reading... writing?"

"Hand-eye coordination," Hermes said, "plus necessary for when modern systems fail. They do fail, you know?"

"Yes," Brent said, "then the math and sciences, history. And hands-on work. That helped me a lot when preparing to do something new and our children will need to know how to work with all that is around them, won't they? Earth is not their destination but their stepping stone."

"Agreed," Hermes said, a bit of male edge returning to his voice, "and I'm sure amongst the tech staff at a spaceport we will be able to find a few denizens who know enough of history to teach it. I could do that, of course, but I am biased. Better that be for family stories, I think. Informal history as it is lived, not as it is remembered."

"Yes," Regina whispered looking at Hermes, "I never imagined what life with you would be like. Just that I wanted to know. Now its not just you but... everyone. This isn't the life I dreamed about, you know? Its better than I could have ever dreamt of and yet a lot more hard work than I thought I could ever do."

"That's life for you," Brent said, "and I'm more than happy to be here, with the two of you, because I want to be with you and our children to finallly do some real exploring, not just city hopping."

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